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For possibly the first time, ever, Warren gets to a party before Will.  Warren’s never been much of a partier, mostly because of his father, but he doesn’t mind going to parties with Will and Layla.  Will’s been his best friend ever since Homecoming last year, his initial friendship with Layla fading into the mutual respect that forms between the best friend and the girlfriend.  Greeted by his classmates with toasts as they celebrate the end of another school year, Warren just nods as he slips to the back of the house to wait for Will.

For the longest time, he’d been content to be a loner at Sky High.  With Will as his best friend, all of that had changed.  Now, people say hi to him in the halls and ask him to be their partner in class and invite him to parties and all sorts of things that never happened before.  He still gets surprised when Magenta waves him over at lunchtime, even though he’s been sitting with the same group since they first crashed his table back in October.  

Warren stops by the kitchen on his way to the deck and pours a soda into a plastic red cup.  Magenta is in there and they exchange greetings.  She invites him to stay, but Warren is content to just watch the party for a little while.  Besides, he just isn’t that great at social situations without Will.

End-of-the-year parties set the tone for the summer, the sickly-sweet smell of marijuana and loud laughter of teenagers with a little too much to drink a sure sign that the days ahead will be carefree and fun.  This party has most of the old freshman and sophomore classes gathered at Zach Braun’s house.  Zach and Warren get along pretty well now that Warren and Will are best friends, although Warren still threatens him occasionally for old times’ sake.

It’s actually a pretty good party, Warren reflects, drumming his knuckles against the railing on the deck as he drinks a soda from a plastic red cup.  Zach may be somewhat of a loser, but losers tend to overcompensate at hosting parties by making sure there’s always music, munchies, and a metric ton of alcohol.  Warren doesn’t drink, never has, but he sure prefers his classmates without a gigantic stick up their collective asses.  Intensive training about morals and saving the world and the greater good of humanity and shit tends to really make a crowd of people uptight.

Warren doesn’t hear the gossip, not right away.  He usually hears about gossip through Will and Layla anyway, or Magenta when she’s jabbering nervously away at lunch.  But neither his best friend nor his best friend’s girlfriend has shown up at the party yet, so he’s pretty much just waiting for them.  It sounds lame, but he’s never much cared what people at Sky High think of him; he’s not about to start now.

He first hears a hint of the gossip to come when Zach comes up to him about an hour into the party, a glowing hand clapping him on the back.  Some party hosts elect to remain sober in case anything goes wrong, the other half don’t see the point of hosting a party if they aren’t going to have any fun themselves.  Zach clearly falls into the second group.   “Warren, my man!”  Zach jabs his thumb at the cup Warren’s holding.  “You finally drinking with us?  Letting it all hang out?”

Warren raises his eyebrows.  “Yeah, Sprite’ll really loosen me up.”

Zach frowns, his sky-high spirits dampened. “Come on, man!  Have a good time, blow off some steam.”

Warren winces visibly as Zach wiggles his hands around in a motion possibly resembling his firey superpower.

“Don’t be like that, dude!  Look, if you don’t want anything to drink, there’re plenty of girls around here to enjoy yourself with, see?”  Zach points out a group of primped, giggly girls that Warren cannot imagine dating in a million years.  “Just don’t hit on the one with the pink skirt, all right?  She’s been lookin’ at me all night.”  Zach winks at the girl in question, who reacts with a facial expression Warren can’t interpret as anything positive.  This doesn’t deter Zach, who slaps Warren on the shoulder again before making to leave.  “Gotta go, man, gotta spread the love around to all my many, many friends.  Oh, and, hey, have you heard from Will?  Might want to make sure he’s doing ok.”

Zach walks off, presumably to spread the love all the way to Pink Skirt.  Warren racks his brain, trying to figure out why his best friend would need any kind of emotional reassurance from him.  As far as he knows, Will’s still getting along with his parents and hasn’t been attacked by any megalomaniac supervillains lately.  He passed his finals with, well, not flying,  but occasionally airborne colors.  He’s dating one of his oldest friends and they’re both pretty attractive people who seem to be physically meshing just fine (and Warren wishes he hadn’t had to walk in both of them shirtless and panting to be able to testify to that).  No, Warren is definitely missing something.

He drains the last of his soda and walks into the kitchen to go find another.  There, he sees Magenta and several of their other brightly haired classmates, including his ex-girlfriend Callie (also known as Ice Girl) talking furiously in extraordinarily loud whispers.  He nods his head, says hello politely.

Just as Warren’s debating how to ask them about Will, Magenta brings up the topic for him.  “So, Warren, have you heard from Will at all today?”  The girls’ faces light up, clearly hungry for gossip.

Warren shrugs, in what he hopes is a casual move.  “Saw him yesterday though, he came over.”  And then I beat his ass at Wii, he thinks, although he knows that the girls wouldn’t care.  “Why, something up?”

“We-ll,” Magenta starts uncertainly.  “You really haven’t heard from him?”

Warren takes his phone out.  3 New Messages flashes on the screen.  “Nope,” he lies.  “I figured I’d see him here anyway; I’m usually the one to take his tipsy ass home.”

“I can’t believe he didn’t tell you, seeing as you two are practically joined at the hip,” Callie smirks, a little meanly.

Warren hadn’t dated her very long because of Will, actually.  Callie didn’t like that he hung out with his best friend just as much as her, wanting to be the number-one priority in his life.  She had gotten on all right with Layla, but she just couldn’t stand Will and always tried to make Warren choose.  Warren hadn’t been interested in her games.

“Layla texted Magenta earlier,” Callie continues.  “Will dumped her this afternoon.”

The gathered girls all wait anxiously for Warren’s reaction.  He can’t hide his slightly widened eyes or the way his jaw goes suddenly slack.  He’s surprised, all right.  Warren had thought Will and Layla would be together forever, the high school sweethearts that date all the way through four years of high school, four years of college, and one of living together before getting married in front of all of their friends and family with Warren as best man.

“Can’t say we didn’t expect it,” Callie keeps talking and God, Warren can’t listen to this, she’s just spewing more shite about him and Will.  Will’s a good guy, he wouldn’t do anything bad to Layla, there’s just got to be a misunderstanding.  “Will never put her first either--”

“Shut up.”  Warren finally manages to say, fists tightening, heating up.  His voice comes out even rougher than usual.  “You don’t know anything about Will.”

He crumples the empty cup still clutched in his hand, flames licking around the edges and charring the plastic, and drops it in the trash can on his way out.

--

When he gets in his car, he finally looks at the text messages.  All three are from Will, sent in the last few hours.

The first, broke up w/ L, is strangely succinct.  Will is a rambly texter, often sending clarification texts immediately after already-long texts to either further explain or totally change his point.  Will can be such a girl sometimes, seriously.  Warren just usually calls the dude after the second or third conflicting text.

The second is a little longer, a little more confusing in typical Will style.  u still going 2 party do u think i shud go dnw it 2 b awkward but idk they r my friends 2 hey u wnt 2 do sumthin else instead

Seriously, Warren needs to get Will to turn on the T9 function, or whatever thing Verizon uses to fill in words for you.

The last one is really recent.  i guess u probs went 2 party neway im not gonna go but we shud hang out 2morrow or sumthin idk

Fuck it.  Will never makes any sense.  Warren hits the “Call Back” button.  The phone rings and rings and rings and eventually goes to voicemail.  Warren leaves a short message, his voice cracked, just something along the lines of “call me.”  He’s not sure why he’s so upset; he got along well with Layla but they hadn’t exactly been the best couple ever, Callie’s right.  Will had blown off Layla for battle practice with Warren and they didn’t get along on just about any polarizing powered politics issue.

It’s just that Will and Layla had been dating since Warren became friends with them.  Their relationship has been a constant in Warren’s life for the last eight months since Homecoming.  Warren cannot imagine a world in which Will and Layla are not dating.  What does this mean for Warren?  What if Will’s new girlfriend tries to stop their friendship like Callie did?

Warren waits for one, two, six minutes for Will to call him back.  He doesn’t, so Warren drives home.

--

The next afternoon, Warren still hasn’t heard from Will, but he doesn’t want to push his friend.  He goes about his usual day, stopping by Starbucks to pick up a coffee on his way to his shift at the Paper Lantern.

As usual, the line in Starbucks is pretty long.  He scans the menu for longer than necessary to keep him occupied, which is why he doesn’t notice that Layla has gotten in line behind him for a minute until she taps him on the shoulder and he nearly jumps in surprise, flames flicking at the edge of his fingers.

“You’re pretty jumpy for a hero.”

“You should be more careful,” Warren returns, holding up his still-heated hands.  Layla only grins back.  She knows now not to take any of his jibes seriously.

“So how are you?”  She asks, friendly as always.

“Okay,” He answers, studying her face carefully.  He sees no sign of the sadness or bitterness that he expected.  For a girl that pined after Will Stronghold since kindergarten, she looks remarkably put-together only twenty-four hours after their breakup.  “How are you holding up?”

Layla’s not stupid, she knows what he’s asking about.  “I’m doing okay,” she says, considering.  “As well as can be expected under the circumstances.  I mean, it wasn’t a huge shock, but--”  The cashier motions to Warren and Layla.  “Oh, we’re not together.”

“I’ll pay, don’t worry about it,” Warren takes out his wallet.  “I’ll have a grande regular coffee, black.”

Layla hesitates until Warren rolls his eyes pointedly.  “I’ll have, um, a passion-fruit iced tea.  Lemonade.  What?”  She asks, exasperated, when he smirks.  “It’s hot outside.”

Warren hands over several crumpled bills and they go to wait for their drinks.

“Um, what was I saying?”

“You were saying that you ween’t surprised when, you know,” Warren fumbles for the words.  “Yesterday.”

“When Will broke up with me?”  She smiles wryly.  “Yeah, it’d be coming for a while.  One of us had to do it.”

Warren’s eyebrows jump for a second before he returns his face to its usual blank state.  “It’s weird, people were saying that last night but I didn’t see it, I guess.”

“Really?”  Layla asks.  “I thought it was pretty obvious.  Will never said anything to you?”

Warren sees Will all the time, talks to him even when he’s not around by phone or text.  They know all the important bits in each other’s life.  Will doesn’t talk about Layla much around Warren though, not anymore.  But to be fair, it’s hard for the subject to come up when they’re just reading comic books on his bed, trying to kill each other at Halo, or tussling in battle practice.

“We don’t really talk about girls that much,” Warren says.  “I mean, unless he needs my help getting you a present or something, cause he sucks at that.”  Will really is not much of a ladies’ man, though he’s a nice guy.  He just doesn’t know the gentlemanly tricks and proper presents.

He pauses, his gaze flicking up to the counter where they put the finished drinks.  “I guess I just kind of figured you guys were always going to be together, always.  With the dates, and the sitting together at lunch, and the--” he makes a hand motion that looks vaguely sexual and makes Layla crack up.  “I don’t know, you never really fought,” he finishes as Layla tries to collect herself.

“You’re ridiculous,” she says, still laughing a little.  “And also, we didn’t fight, exactly, but we didn’t always agree.  We were always different people, and both of us changed a lot over the last year.  Not in bad ways, necessarily.  I mean, Will’s been working out a lot more, which he should, with his power, and he looks good.”

Warren would definitely have to agree there.  He doesn’t make a practice out of checking out other guys or anything, but he does work out a lot with a shirtless Will.  Warren can objectively say that the sight has gotten a lot more toned and tan over the last year.

“But between training, and you, and all of that, he’s starting to focus a little more, you know?  Realize what he’s really interested in.  We both showed up for high school, we didn’t know what we wanted.  For the longest time, Will only ever wanted to have powers.  I just wanted him.”  Layla shrugs.  “Once we both got what we wanted, we had time to figure everything else out.”

“And now?”  Warren’s brows knit together.  Will and Layla weren’t a perfect couple or anything, but they had always been very close.  “You don’t want each other anymore?”

“Not like that, I think,” Layla says.  “We’ll still be friends.  We just need some time to move on.”

The barista calls out “Grande roast.”  Warren collects his drink, still processing what Layla’s told him.

“It’s still weird that he didn’t talk to you about it,” Layla repeats.  “I thought you guys talked about everything.”

Warren’s mouth quirks.  “I guess not.”  The barista calls out Layla’s drink, and she picks it up as well.  “You need a ride or something?”

“I’m good.”  Layla says, her ponytail swinging as she shakes her head.  “I’m meeting some friends here in a little bit.”

“Well, I gotta go to work, I guess.”  Warren gives her a one-armed hug, coffee balanced in his other hand.  He uses his power carefully to keep the coffee warm without burning a hole in the cup, which he knows from experience gets pretty messy.  Also hard to explain.  “I’ll see you around.”

--

It’s only after he leaves that Warren realizes how awkward their encounter ought to have been.  He and Layla had never been friends, not like him and Will.  Sure, they had a pretty good relationship, full of banter and copious eye-rolling, but it was still the relationship of a guy’s best-friend and girlfriend.  Will had been their middle ground, the most important thing they had in common.  Layla and Warren never hung out just the two of them or had any heart-to-hearts after Warren’s advice at the Paper Lantern before Homecoming.

So theoretically, Warren thinks, seeing Layla after her breakup with Will ought to have been extremely weird, full of stutters and hesitancies and unsure footing.  But instead their encounter at Starbucks had been enjoyable.  Feeling a little guilty about spending time with his best friend’s ex, he promises himself that he’ll call Will again after his shift ends.

He does in fact call later that night.  The phone rings several times, and for a moment Warren thinks it’s going to go to voicemail again.  But then Will picks up with a tired “Hello?”

“Oh, shit, are you sleeping?”  Warren checks the time.  It’s just past midnight.  Will’s not usually an insomniac or anything, but it is the summer.  Will’s usually out having a good time, or just getting back from one.  “Sorry, man, I can call you tomorrow if you want.”

“Nah, it’s okay,” Will says, and Warren hears the rustling of sheets through the phone.  “I’m up.  So what’s up?”

“The usual.  You know, work, and all that.”

“Uh huh.”  Will’s still clearly not very awake, his voice low and sleepy.  Warren can picture him sitting up against his headboard to stay awake, phone tucked under his ear.

“I just wanted to check in, cause I was at the party last night and, um--”  Warren’s not really sure how to word this.  He hasn’t had a lot of good friends in his life; it’s not like he’s practiced at dealing with their relationships or anything.  Or even knowing if he should be helping them with stuff like this.  He changes tack.  “I saw Layla today, and she was talking about how you guys broke up.”

“You saw her?”

Warren hears the confusion and quickly explains.  “I just ran into her at Starbucks.”  He doesn’t add, And I bought her a drink.  Somehow he’s not sure Will would get that.  Will always had to be reminded on gentlemanly protocol.

“Oh.  Got it.”

A long pause.  

“So is that what you called to talk about?”

Warren shrugs before realizing that Will can’t see him.  “No.  Yes.  I didn’t know what to say when she was talking about it; I figured I should just see how you were doing.  It’s cool if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“I really don’t,” Will says, and there is an awkward silence as they both realize how harsh that sounded.  “Um, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“But you did.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it with you.  I just don’t want to talk about it, period.”

“Okay, then.”  Warren tries hard not to sound snappish, but his best friend is kind of blowing him off here.  It’s not like this is just any girl.  It’s Layla.  They were supposed to be together for ever,  their kids friends with Warren’s kids in twenty years (Will’s words, not Warren’s).  Warren’s not exactly much for the future dreams of domesticity, but it concerns him a little that he might be just as replaceable as Layla has apparently become.

“Good.”

“Fine.”  Warren pauses.  “So I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“What?”

Warren tries really, really hard not to sound offended.  Jeez, he didn’t expect the phone call to his best friend to be harder than face-to-face interaction with his best friend’s ex.  “You know.  Twice a week.  Working out at your house?  Battle practice?”

“Oh, right, I forgot.”  Will doesn’t exactly sound very happy, which gets Warren even more annoyed.  They’ve been doing this for the last six months and have missed a day maybe once.  “ I can’t make it tomorrow, I’ve got other plans.”

It’s obviously a lie, but Warren lets it slide.  There’s no point in forcing Will to hang out with him if he doesn’t want to.  “I’ll see you this weekend, then?”  It’s only Wednesday.  He’s doing his best to give Will space, but come on.  He usually hangs out with his best friend just about every day.

Will takes longer to respond than he usually would.  “Yeah, maybe.  We’ll see.  I’ll call you, okay?”

The line ends with a click.

Well then, Warren thinks to himself.  Using the nice, cliché, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  A clear brush-off, but Warren’s not going to bother thinking about it too much.  Sure, Will’s his best friend, but other people like him too.  Right?

Sure, plenty of other kids talk to him nowadays.  But do people like Magenta count as friends?  He doesn’t exactly have heart-to-hearts with the girl.  He only ever talks to Will, really.  Will, who calls him at six in the morning because because he just had the best idea for a costume ever, Warren, really.  Warren can never bring himself to be truly mad because it’s nice, being the first person to come to someone’s mind when they want to share something.  He likes being that person.  But Warren doesn’t have any other friends in the middle, between the friendly but casual acquaintances of Magenta and Zach and the close best friend relationship with Will.  It would be nice to have another friend he could hang out with some times.

Before he can think about how this is such a really fucking bad idea, he texts Layla.  He knows it’s a violation of every bro code ever invented but Will’s not exactly acting like much of a bro right now.  Want to hang out tomorrow?

Unlike Will, Warren knows how to use full words and punctuation in his text messages.  He attributes this not just to his full one year of maturity more but also to his natural inclination towards coherency.  Unlike Will, Warren has never been into mixed signals.  He’s a straightforward kind of dude.  Not passive aggressive at all.

Because texting his best friend’s ex-girlfriend is totally not passive aggressive.

Warren’s phone buzzes.  1 New Text Message.  He opens it, the words glowing on his screen.  Just tell me when and where.

Warren only feels a little guilty when he texts Layla back Meet at noon for lunch at the Beach Shak.

--

When Warren puts his clothes on the next morning, he suddenly gets worried.  Does he need to dress up?  Does Layla think this is a date?  Because Warren doesn’t want to dress up, and especially not if that’ll give Layla the wrong idea.  Layla’s an attractive girl, but Warren is only prepared to bend the bro code, not smash it into tiny pieces.  Besides, Layla has never been Warren’s type.

He says as much to Layla when she gets there.  “You know I don’t want to date you, right?”

“Wow, you have just demonstrated that you have learned absolutely nothing about subtlety since being my fake Homecoming date last October,” Layla says as she takes off her denim jacket to reveal a modest but pretty sundress.

Her words combined the the clothing reveal make Warren a little nervous.  “You didn’t answer the question.”

Layla looks up from behind her chair where she’s hanging her jacket, meeting his dark eyes with a smile.  “Trust me, Warren, I know this isn’t a date.”  She gestures around the sandy Beach Shak.  “Even Will took me out better, and you and I both know he is basically clueless about that kind of stuff.  You wouldn’t dare take me here if you wanted to date me.”

Warren recalls the nice restaurants he took Callie to on their thankfully small number of dates.  “True,” he responds.  “But I already knew I didn’t want to date you.”

“Well, if you’re paying for this lunch, I think some people might get the wrong idea.”  Layla jerks her head slightly towards the girls sitting in a booth across the restaurant.  Warren recognizes them as hero support, Magenta’s friends, maybe, but he’s not sure if he ever learned their names.

“Since when have I given a fuck what ideas other people got?”  Warren cracked a smile.  “I gotta show you that gentlemen exist, at least, after Will.  Of course I’m paying.”

“In that case, I guess I’m getting the extra-large milkshake,” Layla says, setting down her menu and grinning cheekily at him. Warren grins back.  Will’s his best friend, but maybe he needs to look into expanding his friend group a little.  Other people aren’t so bad.

Half an hour and two double cheeseburgers later later, Warren is reconsidering this opinion.

“What do you mean, you don’t go swimming?”  Layla asks, the picture of just-quite-joking outrage.  “Everybody goes swimming.”

“I don’t,” Warren says.

“You don’t?  Do you shower?”  Layla looks a little revolted for a second, like that entire extra-large milkshake is going to come right back up.

“Of course I shower; I like to be clean.  It’s just that spending time, like, engulfing myself in water kind of puts a damper on my powers.  I kind of fizzle, like a candle.  I always feel so...” He searches for the right word, one that doesn’t make him sound like a pussy. He can’t find one.  “Weak, afterwards.  It sucks.”

“Swimming is fun!”  Layla has an overexcited smile on her face and it makes Warren nervous.  “Besides, who’s going to attack you at the pool?”

“I’m not saying I don’t want too lose my powers in case I get attacked; I just don’t like losing my powers, period.”

“Come on.  There’s a hot lifeguard and everything.  We can go tomorrow.”

“Aren’t you working this summer or something?  Going away to summer camp any time soon?”

Layla rolls her eyes.  “I knew you’d forget.”

Warren’s pretty sure he never made an effort to retain that information, even if he’d been listening while it had been told to him (doubtful).

“I’m working at a day camp for powered kids Monday through Thursday.  Fridays, they go on field trips to like, parks and stuff.  They don’t need as many staff members for that.  Tomorrow’s Friday, we can go then.”

Warren gives in.  Layla’s relentless.  “My shift starts around four, so we should probably go earlier in the day, at least.”

“Perfect.  Pick me up at eleven.”

Warren’s pretty sure he’s just been played.

--

He doesn’t have any plans for Friday other than Layla, which is weird.  Any day without school usually meant Will calling Warren at some obscenely early time to convince him to hang out.  They’d usually end up having a Halo marathon or getting in extra battle practice or driving around in Warren’s car and playing Weezer at top volume.  For the third day in a row, Warren sleeps in.

When Warren finally wakes up at ten-thirty, he glances at the clock, swears under his breath, and gets his ass in gear.  When he’s pulling up outside of Layla’s house at eleven-oh-five, he can already hear the ever-punctual Layla’s lecture.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Warren tells Layla as she climbs into the car with at least two beach totes full of brightly colored towels and god knows what else.  He raises his eyebrows at her bright yellow sunglasses.  “Especially from anybody wearing those sunglasses.”

Layla pouts, just a little, but quickly brightens up when she realizes she gets to direct Warren all the way to the pool.

“I know how to drive,” Warren has to remind her several times after Layla critiques his hand placement on the steering wheel and his (arguable) tendency to drift left on the road.  “I just don’t know the route to the pool.”

“It’s all or nothing, sorry,” Layla says airily.

Warren grumbles all the way to the pool, all the way past the entry desk where Layla pays the fee because Warren is “only here under protest” and all the way to the surprisingly comfortable lounge chairs.

“Ahhh,” Warren moans appreciatively, stretching out his half-naked body in the sun and arranging it on the chair for maximum comfort.  “This is nice.”

Layla strips out of her cover-up into a one-piece bathing suit that might be considered tasteful if it didn’t dip down so low in the front.  When Warren comments on it, Layla doesn’t seem concerned.  “I’ve got to find somebody now that I’m done with Will.  What better way?”

“Yeah, you’re really filtering through for the quality men,” Warren says sarcastically.

Layla gives him a look.  “At least I’m putting myself out there, Warren.  Have you even asked another girl out since Callie?”

He’d dated Callie last November but broken up with her before Christmas, so he thinks through the first half of this year.  “I’m picky,” he says defensively, but he’s really not.  He finds a lot of people attractive.  He just hasn’t been attracted to any of the girls at school because a lot of powers turn him off, to be honest.  Girls aren’t supposed to multiply into two dozen copies or morph into animals or something; it’s a little creepy.

“Wouldn’t it be weird dating somebody who isn’t powered?”  Layla asks.  “I mean, obviously, I’d like to date that lifeguard over there, but it might be a little hard to talk to him about my life when he wouldn’t get it at all.”

Warren looks over at the lifeguard in question.  The guy’s pretty buff, he has to admit, but he’s unimpressed.  Of course, it takes a lot to be impressed when your best friend has super strength and has been working on a body to match.

“I’m not saying I want to date civilians.  I guess there’re just some powers that are okay, like Gwen being really good with science stuff or somebody being able to, I don’t know, fly or something, it doesn’t change how they look.”

“Gwen?”  Layla asks indignantly.  “You’ve got a problem with Magenta morphing, but not a power-hungry supervillain trying to destroy Sky High, who turns powered students into infants in her quest to take over the world?”

“Obviously there are other factors, too.  I never wanted to date Gwen, even before she turned out to be totally crazy.  I’m just saying, that particular thing about her wasn’t a factor.”

Layla harrumphs something that sounds suspiciously like “Boys,” but Warren doesn’t push it.

He’s just grateful Layla isn’t pushing the flight issue.  Surprisingly, the power of flight isn’t as common as one might think.  Right now, there’s only one person at Sky High who can fly.  It’s not that he actually meant he would want to date Will, of course, like with Gwen there are other things that knock him out (like the whole being a boy thing) but he doesn’t want to give Layla the wrong idea, like he’s been considering it or something.  Because he hasn’t been.  Warren’s never been into guys, especially not Will.  He’s his best friend, for Christ’s sake.

“You ever going to get in the water?”  Layla asks him a little while later, after they’ve both taken naps in the sun and probably gotten a little bit sunburnt.  “That’s the point of going to a pool, you know.”
“No,” Warren counters.  “I only went to the pool with you so you would stop bugging me about it.  I said nothing about going in the water.”

“Warren, come on.  You had to know that this was part of the deal.”

“Nope.  I drove here, I bought you lunch for the second day in a row, and I’ve spent a significant amount of time at the pool.  Nothing was said about being in the pool.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!”  And now Layla has gotten up off her extremely comfortable lounger to tug at Warren’s arm.  “Come on!”

Warren rolled over, face pressed into the panels of the chair.  Layla tugged a little harder, ineffectually.  Warren turned his face to Layla.  “You know your ex-boyfriend?  The one with super strength?  Yeah, I’ve been sparring against him twice a week for the last six months.”

Layla looks at him for a moment before shoving his deck chair to the edge of the pool, lifting it up and tipping him into the water.  The edges of Warren’s skin spark and fizzle into smoke.   It wouldn’t be obvious to people who didn’t know what to look for, but it’s certainly true:  Warren really does look like a fizzled candle when he goes swimming.

--

Will finally calls him on Sunday night.  Warren hadn’t heard from him since Wednesday when Will canceled on him, hasn’t seen him since the previous Monday, the last day before Will and Layla’s breakup.

When Warren answers the phone, he’s a little unsure of what to say  When Will asks what he’s been doing, Warren is pretty sure that “hanging out with your ex-girlfriend” won’t go over so well.  Warren hasn’t quite figured out why Will broke up with Layla yet, whether he’s angry at her or just tired of the relationship but either way he thinks that he probably shouldn’t be hanging out with Layla.  He’s starting to feel like he’s hiding a romantic relationship with Layla, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  The only thing Warren’s been sure of in the last week is Layla’s value as a friend, but nothing more.

“Warren?  You still there?”

Warren cuts off the Layla train of thought.  It wasn’t going anywhere pleasant, anyway.  He doesn’t really want to spend the time confronting how much Layla really is not his type, not at all, even though he kind of wishes she could be.  It would be so, so much nicer to be obsessing over a girl, who, for all the obstacles dating her would present, doesn’t require redefining his sexuality or any other emotional transformation.

“Of course, man.”

“So I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon, then?  Bring the DVDs,” and for a moment Warren doesn’t know what Will’s saying, worried that it’s some kind of code for porn, and Jesus he does not want to go down that road with Will, not right now (and now his brain is conjuring up all sorts of filthy images about what going down that road with Will might look like).  Then he remembers Will mentioning Batman earlier.

“The new ones, sure. Heath Ledger is brilliant.”

Will sighs.  “Two words:  Jack Nicholson.”

“I’ve already seen those with you at least three times.  Time for the new generation, buddy.”  Warren thumps his hand on his bedside table for emphasis, even though Will probably can’t hear him.  “I’ll be over after lunch.”

“Better just come for the meal.  You know my parents love feeding you,” Will reminds him.  “My mom’ll just make you eat lunch again so she knows you’ve been eating properly and then you’ll be stuffed.”

“Have you tasted your mother’s cooking?  Not a hardship.  See you tomorrow, Stronghold,” Warren ends the call even though he really, really doesn’t want to.  He could talk to Will for hours, has talked to Will for hours on the phone before and foregone sleeping just to talk to Will, their voices deepening as the exhaustion sets in.  It’s a soothing ritual sometimes, but it’s a little too tempting tonight.  When he’s that tired, he loses control of his brain-mouth connection and he doesn’t want anything he’s been thinking about Will lately slip out.

Not that he’s been thinking about Will, of course.  It’s just that he’s been having these vivid dreams and he only remembers flashes, lots of tan skin, a masculine jawline.  He doesn’t like to think about them when the morning comes, but ever since Will and Layla broke up it’s been like a dam unleashed in Warren’s mind.  He can’t get the pictures out of his head.

Warren sleeps for the next ten hours, and once again rolls out of bed of his own accord.  He’s not a big fan of that, he realizes.  He misses Will calling him randomly, even at 7am, something he never thought he’d say.  Will’s absence in his life the past week hasn’t just been usual.  It’s also made Warren realize how much he’s come to depend on Will’s presence in his life, enjoy even the little quirks.

Warren showers and puts on the first clean outfit he finds, pairing it as always with a leather jacket.  He could never hang out with girls too often, not even the great ones like Layla, because he just can’t bring himself to worry too much about his fashion sense or repeating a day of clothes or whatever.

Mrs. Stronghold greets him warmly when he shows up at their door promptly at noon, ready for lunch.  She gives him second helpings of everything--“You’re a growing boy, Warren, you need your strength”--Warren appreciates it, he really does, but sometimes he thinks she forgets that he doesn’t need the same amount of carbs as, say, people with super strength (the people she usually cooks for).

“Besides, you’ve got to eat up now,” she tells him, cajoling him into just one more bowl of soup.  “Steve and I have a dinner tonight, it’s a real estate thing but we’re not going to be home to make you boys anything and I know Will can barely use the microwave.”

“Mo-om,” Will groans, but Warren sees him take the proffered take-out menus anyway.

Warren spends the afternoon on Will’s couch watching Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and eating his weight in buttery popcorn.  It’s a weakness, he knows.  Someday he’ll be in battle with a supervillain and he’ll lose because he got distracted by delicious, fluffy popcorn.  Will just laughs at him and steals a handful every so often from the large bowl perched on Warren’s lap.

After the movies, they order two large pizzas and eat every bite as they talk.

“We’re kind of like Batman, you know,” Will says.

“I do know,” Warren answers.  Will only mentions this every single time they read or watch anything to do with Batman.

“I mean, he has to keep his identity a secret, so he has to be successful in two lives, while most people only have to be successful in one.”

“I really do know, Will,” Warren says, as patiently as he can.  He likes listening to Will ramble on sometimes, but he prefers it to at least somewhat consist of original material.

Will lifts another cheesy slice out of the box and munches on it.

Warren can’t help baiting Will a little.  “We don’t really have that much in common with Batman, though.  I mean, yes, we have secret identities, but the world isn’t collapsing in the same way that Gotham is.  Superheroes just balance out the supervillains, good balances out evil, yin and yang.  Sometimes it seems like Batman is totally overwhelmed by the bad stuff.”

“But he still comes out on top!  Besides, it’s not like superheroes and supervillains are just all good or all bad, just like Batman.  He’s got a mean side, too, and the Joker isn’t just born bad.”

“Most supervillains pretty much suck, though,” Warren says, thinking of his father.  His mother doesn’t talk about him much, but he’s visited Baron Battle in prison a few times, met him as well as fellow cellmates.  “They aren’t all bad people, but they do a lot of bad stuff.  At some point, those actions matter more than what’s on the inside.  There’s only so much you can take back.”

Will’s face droops a little, just like it does whenever Warren mentions his parents.  Will thinks his perfect parents make Warren jealous, and he doesn’t like making Warren feel bad.  Warren came to terms with his parents a long time ago, though.  Sure, he envies Will’s life sometimes, but he covets Will’s social ease a lot more than his familial circumstances.  Even though Will can be awkward, he never seems to have trouble opening up to people.  Warren’s been bottling stuff up for so long he can barely remember how to share anything about himself that everybody doesn’t already know.

Warren decides to change the topic.  “You know what’s a good band, dude?  The Beatles.”

That breaks the mood.  Will starts laughing really hard, not mean in in the slightest, just in the way that he does when someone’s being ridiculous.  “Are you seriously trying to sell me the line that you just discovered the ‘good band’”--Will makes air quotes with his fingers--”The Beatles?  You seriously think I’d believe you just figured out who they were after people referenced them all these years?”
Warren sighs.  Will should take him more seriously.  He’s heard of The Beatles before, obviously, but he hasn’t, like, listened to them this deeply before.  Layla had put one of their greatest hits cds in his car on the way back from the pool and they’d got to talking.  That song, ‘Eleanor Rigby’?  It’s awesome.”

Will laughs at Warren again.  “You know what that song’s about, right?”

“Its about lonely people and how sometimes the world sucks,” Warren says indignantly.  “I’m not stupid.”

“Well, yeah, but the point is, it’s depressing.  You couldn’t find a more inspirational anthem somewhere in the entirety of Beatles works?  They wrote a ton of songs.  I mean, even “Hard Day’s Night” had an upbeat tune.”

“No, no,” Warren is insistent on his love of the song.  “It’s like, a warning.  It’s about two lonely people that find each other too late.  The point is to seize the day and all that.”

“What, are you trying to find the courage to ask somebody out?”  Will looks sideways at Warren and he can’t tell if it’s a come-on or if Will’s trying to figure out if Warren wants to date Layla.  Either way, Warren isn’t taking the bait.  Not right now.  

“It’s just an awesome song,” Warren repeats.  “End of discussion.”  

Will snorts but eventually gets up to put a new DVD in.  This time it’s the original Star Wars and seriously, does Will want them to be watching movies until their eyesight blurs?  He should know that you can’t just watch one of those movies, as Warren reminds him.  If you don’t finish the whole trilogy, you might as well not even bother, and Warren certainly isn’t a quitter, and Will isn’t either.  They end up staying up as late as they can to watch all the movies but they totally fall asleep on the couch as lightsabers flash onscreen.

The next morning gets kind of awkward, not just because they both fell asleep in pretty uncomfortable positions on the couch but also because they end up kind of curled around each other.  Warren gets the unlucky job of being the first to wake up, wedged between the side of the couch and a sleeping, warm Will.  He takes a moment to appreciate the experience before recognizing that if he doesn’t get out of the situation soon, he won’t be responsible for his actions at all.

Will stirs a little as Warren pushes his arm off his chest.  Warren pauses, holding his breath, but Will’s eyes flutter open even as his arm flops back down on Warren.

“Morning,” Warren says.  What else is there to say?

“Morning,” Will murmurs back, his voice still sleep-heavy and his warmth cuddled into Warren’s side, and Warren really doesn’t want to get up, but seriously.  Not responsible for his actions.

Warren pushes Will’s arm off him, this time more firmly, and tries to sit up.  “All right, get off of me.  It’s time for breakfast, Stronghold.”

Only he ends up mumbling the last part into Will’s hand as it pushes his head back down into the couch.  Will says something unintelligible in sleep talk and rolls over, nestling into Warren’s chest and.  Well.  That’s a surprise.

Warren knows it’s morning wood, he knows all teenage boys, especially ones just finishing up freshman year, react like that, but it doesn’t stop him from automatically jerking up to meet the touch with his own dick, the friction causing just as much tension as it relieves.

Will’s still mostly asleep, though, and Warren isn’t going to do this.  It’s not happening like this.  He shoves at Will, enough so that Will slides halfway off the couch before waking up fully.  He turns to glare at Warren.

“What the fuck, man?  It’s morning,”  Will stresses the last word, as if Warren should have woken him slowly with kisses and breakfast in bed.

Warren pushes that enticing image out of his mind.  “Who’s the one who’s usually doing the wakeup by phone, huh?  At least I let you sleep until”-- He checks the clock on the wall -- “ten, which is way later than you usually let me.”

Will rolls off the bed and stretches, his t-shirt rising above his jeans to show a strip of bare skin, that Warren is so not looking at.  “Whatever.  I’m going to go take a shower.”  He wanders off and Warren takes a moment to talk himself down before getting up.  He really doesn’t need to run into Will’s parents sporting a huge boner.

Warren hopes for his sake that Will makes up his mind soon.  The mixed signals in this situation are getting a little out of control.

--

The next day, Layla is at Warren’s house.  Warren’s given up on hoping that he might be attracted to Layla, even a little.  He’s seen her wet, in a bathing suit, giving him a view of her cleavage that had made several other guys at the pool glare in jealousy.  It still failed to arouse him, while just the thought of sleepy Will curled around his side made him hard in seconds.  So when his mother shouts to him to keep his bedroom door open, he can’t help but laugh.  Layla’s really not the one that his mother should be worried about.

“You mean we aren’t going to be making out for the next hour?”  Layla complains jokingly as she reaches for Warren’s iPod stereo, flipping on The Beatles again.  “Damn, I should have flirted harder with that lifeguard from last week.  I bet he’d make out with me.”

Warren doesn’t think Layla’s joking about the second part.  “Seriously, that guy from the pool?”

Layla points at Warren.  “You can’t judge.  You don’t even know what you want.”

Warren thinks about Will, curled into his chest Tuesday morning.  He thinks he might be figuring out what he wants.  It’s progress, at least.

He smiles at Layla and lets her change the topic to powered politics.  Apparently there’s some big environmentally friendly push that will be totally ineffective, and Layla has very strong opinions on how they should go about fixing that.

In the middle of Layla’s rant on the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid--which, no, obviously Warren doesn’t actually care, but Layla listens to him wax earnestly about personal passions too, like The Beatles, so he doesn’t mind returning the favor--Warren’s phone buzzes, the drawn-out, repeated vibrations that signify an incoming call.

He checks the screen.  It’s Will.  He makes a hushing motion to Layla and answers the call.  “Stronghold?”

“Hey, Warren.  Just making sure you know we got battle practice tomorrow again.”

Warren’s mom picks that particular moment to yell upstairs, something about dinner and making sure Layla and Warren leave the room at regular intervals to demonstrate their lack of sex hair.

“Who’s that?”

“Just my mom,” Warren tells him as Layla leans over to yell back that they’ll be down in a few, thanks Mrs. Peace!

“Really?  Cause it kind of sounds like you’ve got Layla there next to you.”

Goddammit.  If Will’s got supersonic hearing on top of flight and super strength, Warren might actually have to kill him.  It’s just not fair for one person to have that many powers, it’s really not.  Though that’s not really his biggest problem at the moment, because Will doesn’t sound particularly happy on the other end of the line.

“It’s nothing, man, we’re just hanging out.”

Warren can hear Will breathing on the other end of the line, uneven inhales and exhales before he finally says, “I’ll see you tomorrow, man,” and clicks the line off.

--

Warren goes over to Will’s place the next morning dressed in battle gear.  Battle practice is a lot like sparring in hand-to-hand combat, only with powers.  It requires a lot of safety training to do properly--the two even have safe words in case the other gets out of control--but Will and Warren are pretty good at keeping it casual, more challenging than violent.

So battle gear, for Warren, means a t-short and shorts but most importantly fireproof, fingerless gloves.  That way, he can shoot flames out of his fingers in a controlled way but he won’t char Will accidentally.  Will answers the door to Warren wearing his own battle gear, which consists of nothing more than a pair of long gym shorts.

Warren gulps.  Will has always had a nice body, but Warren’s now has to see in Technicolor detail how much Will’s toned chest resembles the flashes of skin he remembers from his fantasies.

He follows Will to the practice room.  Having two successful superhero parents means living in a house well outfitted with necessities for powered people.

They stretch today in silence, their warmups devoid of the usual chatter.  It’s awkward for Warren, especially as he’s never been the one to start their conversations before.  Will’s always done that heavy lifting for him, but now it seems like Will isn’t interested in making the effort anymore.

“So, uh, you ready?”  Warren asks, when they’re done.  The stretching had been really distracting, but he’s not sure the fighting will be any better.

Will nods, and hits the timer.  Five minutes.

Warren settles into the fighting position.  They start out easy, a few easily blocked punches and kicks.  Warren goes in for a hold, but Will grabs his leg and flips him around, pinning him easily.  Warren usually doesn’t get tricked so quickly by Will; he’s clearly more distracted than he thought.  Maybe pushing to hang out with Will wasn’t such a good idea.

Warren struggles against the hold and wiggles his trapped fingers to the pressure points on Will’s wrist, giving him the slightest jolt of fire.

Will grits his teeth but holds on, Warren slowly increasing the heat until Will finally lets go with a curse.

Warren fends off every advance with a little swish of flames, making it difficult for Will to get near him without being obstructed by fire.  He doesn’t throw fireballs unless it’s a little more serious, just like Will doesn’t kick him into the next city regularly.  Battle practice is about control, not about sheer power.

Will suddenly darts forward above the smoke, his feet about five feet off the ground thanks to his power of flight, and and tackles Warren to the ground.  He presses Warren into the floor, practically lying on him, with Warren’s hands pinned under his own body weight.

Warren can feel himself reacting to Will’s shirtless chest rubbing against him despite the painful position and closes his eyes for a moment, thinking the unsexiest thoughts possible.

“Giving up?” Will taunts.

“Never,” Warren pants, and his whole back bursts into flame, forcing Will to jump up.  It takes a lot of effort for him to start a fire without his fingertips, but he’s got some extra motivation today.

“You’ve gotten better,” Will notes.  “You’ve got a lot more control than before.  You’ve changed over the last year.”

They circle each other, feinting and dodging, waiting for the next real move.

“You’ve changed too,” Warren says, his eyes focused on Will’s body, looking for hints.

“Yeah, well, things change,” Will says as he tackles Warren again and they roll around a bit, shoving and punching and fighting for control.  Will tries to grab Warren, keep him in place, but Warren’s really got the hang of isolating fires on his body now and manages to keep Will from maintaining a grip.

“Yeah, like you and Layla.  What the fuck happened with that?”  Oh, fuck, Warren didn’t mean to say it, he really didn’t, but he can’t take it back now.

“None of your business,” Will spits back.

“Really?  None of my business?  Layla’s my friend too!”  And shit, Warren really shouldn’t have said that.

Will rolls Warren over onto his back.  “You’re supposed to be my friend, not hers.”

“So what, I can’t have other friends now?  When you decide you’re sick of me I’m just supposed to wait around?  You sound like a jealous boyfriend.”

“I was never sick of you!”  Will protests as Warren kicks at him.

“You sure about that?  Cause from where I’m standing, it looked like you ditched me, Stronghold.”

“You ever think I just needed a little time?  You didn’t waste any time at all, man, you went for Layla the moment she was free.”

“Layla and I aren’t dating,” Warren says as Will pushes a little too hard into his neck.  “I don’t want to date Layla.”

“Oh, right.”  Will shoves Warren a little harder into the floor, their bodies practically lining up together.  “You just spend all your time with her and go on dates, that’s all.  Well, that’s fine, fuck you both, I don't need either of you.”

“You dumped Layla, not the other way around.  You’re not the one who got hurt.  Unless--why’d you break up with her?”  Warren suddenly worries that Layla had cheated on Will and he really has been betraying his best friend, even more than he thought.  Besides, its not exactly like Will has answered this question yet, anyway.  Warren still doesn't understand why Will broke up with Layla out of nowhere.  They hadn't been a perfect

“There was somebody else,” Will’s face looks vulnerable, suddenly, which looks strange considering he’s in control at the moment.  “I didn’t like her anymore, and she knew it.”

Warren’s whole body bursts into flames and Will rolls off, his eyes wide.

Warren gets up, his skin still smoking.  He can’t handle Will telling him about the new girl he’ll date the moment he doesn’t have his old girlfriend and his time-consuming ex-best friend in the picture anymore.  He’s got to get out of here.

“What the fuck?”  Will shouts.

Warren doesn’t answer.  He grabs his car keys and storms out of the house.

--

Warren goes straight to Layla’s.  He doesn’t know what to do, or what to think right now.  He doesn’t want to talk about what happened with Will, the most intense fight they’ve ever  had.  He just wants to relax, listen to the Beatles, pretend everything is normal.

Layla tries to ask him about it, but Warren doesn’t want to talk about it, not right now, with the image of Will’s torso shiny with sweat and his face angry, yelling awful things.  He click’s Layla’s Beatles playlist on her computer.  The first song starts, and he skips it.

“Hey!  You can’t skip ‘Octopus’s Garden,’” Layla protests.  “That’s a total classic.  Go back.”

“Sorry,” Warren says without a hint of remorse.  The song freaks him out a little, to be honest.  It’s got a little creepy, old man vibe.  Layla says it reminds her of her childhood, a safe place, but Warren can’t agree.  Besides, its his turn to be upset right now.  He demands the veto privilege when its his turn.

The next song is “Eleanor Rigby.”  Warren leans back on Layla’s bed, suddenly exhausted, and lets the music wash over him

“It’s a good song,” Warren says after a minute.  “I gotta play it for Will again.  He doesn’t agree.”

“Will doesn’t agree?”  Layla asks lightly.  She knows where Warren drove here from, can guess why he’s upset.  She knows its important to listen when he starts to open up.  Even mentioning Will's name is a good sign  “What’s not to like about the song?”

“He says it’s depressing.”

“Again, I don’t think you can judge here.  ‘Octopus’s Garden,’ the most adorable children’s song ever, makes you sad.”

“That’s ‘cause it’s creepy.  But ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ man, there’s a song that has a point of view.  It’s all about finding the person who makes you happy today, not waiting.  It’s about not being lonely anymore.”

“All of The Beatles’ songs are about lonely people coming together.  Even ‘Octopus’s Garden.’”

Warren considers this.  It’s kind of true, but the other ones just come right out and try to inspire.  Father MacKenzie, Eleanor Rigby, they tell a story, and then you learn from it.  You learn to seize the day, take a chance, come together while you still can.  He says as much to Layla.

“You gotta tell Will that,” she says, and she’s not talking about the song anymore.

Warren shakes his head.  Layla’s figured out by now, he realizes, that he’s got feelings for Will, real ones, but he just wishes they would go away.  Will doesn’t even want to be his friend anymore, and he definitely never wanted to be more than friends.  Warren wants to rewind, go back to when Will was still his best friend.  At least he could have that.

“Warren,” Layla leans forward, her delicate face serious.  “Why do you think he broke up with me?  Not because I wasn’t putting out, let me just say that.”

Warren covers his eyes to try to block the mental images, an ineffective but symbolic move.   “I didn’t really need to hear that.”

“Come on, Warren, what teenage guy dumps a person getting him off regularly?  There’s always somebody else, somebody more important.”

“Will told me,” Warren finally admits bitterly.  “He told me he found somebody else.”

Layla shook her head.  “God, you’re so stupid sometimes, Warren."

When Warren only looks more hurt, she sighs.  "That somebody is you.  Will dumped me for you.”

The shadow over Warren’s heart passes and his spirits lift.  His whole body feels warm, skin crackling with energy.  He doesn’t know what to say to Layla now, though.  “I’m sorry.”  He feels bad, because he never wanted Layla to get hurt.  But at the same time, he feels elated.  The future seems open with possibilities  Not only does he know what he wants, he actually has a chance of getting it.  “I’m so sorry, Layla.”

“Just tell me the truth,” Layla requests.  “Do you actually like him?  Like really, truly, sex, dating, the whole thing.  Because this is not the time to fuck up, ok?  Because I will fuck you up if you mess with Will, seriously.”

Warren knows she can.  He saw what happened at Homecoming.  He shudders.

“Warren.  Do you want Will?”

Warren thinks now that maybe this thing with Will, it’s been coming for a while.  “Yeah, I do.”

“Then why are you still here?”

Warren gets up, goes to the door, The Beatles still playing in the background.  “I really am sorry, Layla.”

Layla waves him off.  “Get out of here,” she says affectionately.  Warren takes everything back.  He doesn’t want to rewind.  He wants to go forward, with Layla as his friend and Will as...well, maybe something a little more than just friends.

--

The next morning, Warren wakes up with Will Stronghold tracing patterns on his chest, fingers rumpling his thin t-shirt.  Will looks up guiltiliy when Warren’s eyelids flutter open.

“Sorry, I know it’s early,” Will starts, but Warren just tugs him closer, pressing their lips together lightly.  Warren likes finally waking up with Will at his side.