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My Favorite Archenemy

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Peace and quiet, that was all Will had wanted during his last year of Maxville Community College's real estate broker course. Between that and interning at Stronghold Reality ("If it's Stronghold Superior Realty, it's Sold!") until he'd passed his licensing exams, Will was busy. But he'd always tried to make time for Layla Williams, his girlfriend. She was busy, too, but when she was free, she'd come along with him as he cruised over the city at night, examining the local houses for sale from an aerial perspective. ("See that roof line? That's a pretty expensive repair waiting to happen.") She never seemed to mind when he'd rhapsodize over how to improve curb appeal.

Sometimes he blamed himself for what happened next. Layla hadn't even known that the plans for the Green Pastures Subdivision had been green-lighted until he'd pointed the area out himself one night. "Check it out," he'd said, pointing down at the open space along the river. It was back far enough that it couldn't be seen from the road, but it was easy to spot from the air. "They've already started clearing the trees."

Layla's arm around his neck had tightened. "I don't understand," she'd said carefully. "The city planning commission was supposed to publish the environmental impact statement for public comment. My group's been waiting for them to do that."

"Huh? They did," he said.

"I read the paper, Will. I didn't see it."

"Well, no," he admitted, "I didn't either. But they don't have to publish it on the front page, you know. They might've put it back in the classifieds under the legal notices." He was certain it must have been there at some point, if they were starting work now. That was how the system worked.

"Buried in the classifieds," Layla said lightly, but her hand tightened on his shoulder. "Except we've been watching the classifieds, Will. And calling the planning commission regularly to ask about it." She finished, flatly, "You haven't heard me talking about this for the last six months."

"Um." In his defense, he'd been busy with his classes. Layla's eco-group did discover later that the notice had been published -- in the paper of Grandburg, on the other side of the state. That was perfectly legal, as Will pointed out to her.

Shortly thereafter, Hurricane Layla made landfall, and their entire relationship foundered on the shores. They fundamentally disagreed about what constituted activism -- as opposed to outright terrorism.

"We have to defend the environment, Will!" she'd told him. "It can't defend itself."

"I think you meant you. It seems to be defending itself just fine when you're giving it a hand," he'd said, exasperated. "Layla, they're within their rights, here. They have all the legal permits they need. The Green Pastures subdivision--"

"I think you meant to say the Greensward Wildlife Preserve," she'd said frostily. "I'm fairly sure that's what you meant, isn't it?"

It hadn't been what he'd meant.

Layla had been careful during her years at Sky High to keep her powers under wraps; she'd patiently completed the Sidekick Track, then refused to "participate any further in an exploitative system" when she'd graduated. He didn't dispute her point -- none of the requests for her as a sidekick were based on knowing anything about her powers, and the costuming ideas were all ... eye opening. ("Pigs," Magenta had put it bluntly, "they're all pigs." Layla had single-handedly incited the Great Sidekick Shortage of '10.) So Layla was an unattached, free agent with unknown abilities.

So now no one had any evidence to prove that the vines that ripped apart the construction equipment each night, or the miraculous overnight trees that crumbled apart foundations, or the thick, intractable weeds that infested every open space were in any way related to her.

The stupid part was that Will hadn't liked the subdivision either. The houses in the "luxury estate" plans that he'd seen all looked excessive, dull, and identical. He'd have rather kept the woods, too. But there had been limits to what he could condone in the way of property damage. Just as there were limits to how far Layla was willing to observe the letter of the law.

All of which left him, in the end ... single.

"I'm not turning her in," he'd told Zach morosely, while he was packing his boxes. Continuing to share a house with Layla, Magenta, and Ethan was becoming too awkward when it was clear that absolutely no one else shared his perspective. "But I can't just ... ignore what she's doing. I can't."

"Rough, dude," Zach said, picking at the packing tape with a fingernail. "I still don't see how this story ends in Warren Peace's spare bedroom."

"He hadn't found a roommate yet," Will said. "The good thing is, he works closing at the Paper Lantern a few times a week. So being his roommate wins you a steady supply of leftover Chinese food."

"Worthy," Zach said admiringly. "That definitely weighs in its favor. But I'd think the fact of Warren tips the scales the other way. And, y'know, knocks them over, stomps on them, and melts them into slag."

"He's not that bad!" Will protested. He hoped Warren wasn't that bad, anyway. "He can't have changed that much since high school." In high school, Warren had been an ambivalent, uncommunicative presence on the periphery of their group. He'd usually had his nose buried in a book, and the rare comments he'd offer had always held an uncomfortable tinge of irony, but he hadn't seemed ... actively hostile.

"Hey, it's your funeral," Zach said, and snorted. "Maybe literally."

"C'mon. Layla wouldn't have gone out with him if he was that bad," Will pointed out.

"Uh. About that ..."

"I still don't get how that worked," Will grumbled. "And I don't think people that good-looking should date each other anyway. It's like they, y'know, cancel each other out."

"Are you serious?" Zach goggled at him. "Layla, I'll buy. But ... Peace?"

"What?" Will said defensively.

"Oookay. If you're into a homeless biker vibe, and mood swings from hell ... seek help, dude."

"I didn't say I was -- was into him. I was just pointing out that ..." Will wasn't sure what he was pointing out. So he decided to quit while he was behind, and change the subject. "Whatever. So I figured I'd tape all five of these boxes together and carry them over there. Think they'll fit through the door?"

"Depends." Zach was studying his pile. "Were you planning for the doorway to survive?"

Warren lived on the second floor of a house about a mile from Maxville State, where he was a student. Fortunately for Will, Warren had turned out to be the best kind of roommate: not inclined to chat, hardly ever home, but supplying an unending supply of takeout boxes for the fridge. Warren also, weirdly enough, was a neat freak; but Will was working hard now to curb his "natural tendency toward entropy" (as Warren put it).

Because messiness upset Warren, and there were excellent reasons not to upset Warren. The flaming wad of Will's socks sailing out the window being a case in point.

So Will was happy enough with the apartment, if not with the rest of his life.

Layla had stopped in once, early on. "Not very big, but it seems like a nice place, I guess," she said, opening a few kitchen cabinets to survey the pathetic contents.

"It'll do," Will told her. "Warren's pretty quiet, so there's that."

"Huh, I wouldn't have thought--" Layla opened the fridge. "Wow. That is a lot of carryout boxes. And none of them are labeled." She lifted one out and flipped open the top. "Cashew chicken."

As usual, Will couldn't leave well enough alone. "Layla ... listen. I've asked my mom and dad to please keep the Commander and Jetstream out of it ... just this once, for me. I used up every look-the-other-way point I had for the next decade."

"I didn't ask you to do that," she said stiffly, lifting her chin. "I didn't want you to do that."

"No, I know," Will said, pushing down on the jet of misery that was threatening to well up again. "But you grew up two doors down the street from us. They know what you can do -- and they'd already figured out what you're doing." Which meant Will had to admit that they'd broken up over it. Which resulted in Will's dad weeping over the tragedy of it all, while his mom had hugged him and promised that Will would find love again one day.

The whole thing had been mortifying. He didn't think Layla properly appreciated what he'd gone through for her.

"That's the thing," Will pointed out. "The moment my mom and dad get involved, you've leveled up to supervillian status."

"Nothing 'villainous' is happening here, Will. This is a civil protest--"

"Civil protesters hold signs, write letters, and lobby, Layla! They don't wreck buildings and cause hundreds of thousands in damage--" Will cut himself off. None of this was new territory, and he didn't want to fight about it any longer. He just needed more practice in letting well enough alone, was all. "Anyway," he finished lamely, "I just wanted to let you know."

Layla tapped the Chinese container on the cupboard. Once, twice, three times. Then she shook her head, sighed, and tucked it back into the fridge. "Thanks for thinking of me. I suppose."

"Yeah, well."

"So. Moving in with Warren," she said, filling the awkward pause. "I have to say, I didn't ... expect that."

"Well, Magenta said a few months back that he'd been having roommate issues." (What she'd actually said was, "Can't blame 'em. I heard that Mr. Crankypants sets off the ceiling detectors every time he loses his temper. Life's probably deafening over there.") "That didn't exactly come as a huge surprise to me."

"No, I don't suppose it did," she said, with a wan smile.

"So I called him up and asked if the room was still free, and it was." And Will had bought a set of earplugs that he deployed whenever Warren seemed to be having a tough time with his homework. It was a totally workable situation. "So it's been fine. He's not, like, my archenemy or something." At least, not anymore. Probably.

"No, I know that, it's just--"

"Yeah, I guess you would. After all, you're the one who dated him," Will muttered, sounding sullen even to his own ears.

"Uh. About that--"

"I just meant he's not a terrible person," Will said. He didn't want to hear anything more about Layla and Warren's awesome amazing ex-relationship.

"Fine," she said after a pause. "But you do realize that ..." she cut herself off. "No. Of course you don't. You never connect the dots until the last minute, and this time I don't think I'll do it for you."

"What dots? What are you talking about? Layla ..."

"Nope. Unlike you, I'm minding my own business," she said simply. "Starting now."

The rest of her visit was stilted and awkward after that, and Will kicked himself for jostling their tentative truce. Layla never came over again, and whatever she'd decided not to tell him remained a mystery. It was irritating, but lately Layla had been cultivating that as her extra superpower.

Not being on speaking terms with Layla meant everyone but Zach was giving Will the cold shoulder, too. As for Zach ... "Dude, you know I'm here for you," he said. "But I am not sacrificing my social life for another mope-out." So Will's Friday nights had transformed into homework nights.

A long, boring night of homework. Every Friday.

The problem was that Friday was a night off for Warren; as it turned out, he generally caught up on his homework then as well. That had translated into initial territorial uneasiness -- including the Flaming Socks Incident. ("If you really wanted 'em, you wouldn't have left them the couch, Stronghold.") Will had finally settled his claim for the left side of the couch. He scrupulously respected the invisible line down the center -- everything beyond was reserved for Warren.

That would be the same Warren who was prodding a calculator and swearing under his breath. He paused, glanced up at the fire detector on the ceiling, then scowled at the far wall. "What are you doing?" he said.

Will started. "Uh, nothing? I mean ... writing a paper."

"Sure." Warren gave him a sidelong look, then his hand shot out and stabbed the TV controller that was sitting on the coffee table in front of them. "News," he said. "Guaranteed to be more interesting than me."

"Uh, I wasn't--" The top story of the day blared out, interrupting him. Will blanched. "Could, could we not?" he said weakly.

Warren eyed the ongoing report for a few moments with a thoughtful expression. "That's Williams, isn't it?"

Over footage of what appeared to be Amazonian rain forest transplanted to Maxville, the anchorwoman assured them, "The League of Planetary Justice maintains that vandalism on a strictly local level is outside of their purview."

"So the fix is in," Warren said, and snorted.

Will sighed and sat back, examining the fascinating ceiling. "Layla thinks the only people who know she's behind it are people who support her. She's so wrong about that. I mean, just look at Penny Lane -- she hates Layla. If she wasn't working off her community service at Layla's mom's animal shelter, she'd have spilled her guts to the police a long time ago. Layla's just been lucky. So far, anyway."

"Yeah, Williams usually lands on her feet," Warren said, sounding amused. "This why she hasn't been over here?"

"We're done," Will said mournfully. "I think it's for good this time."

"Uh huh."

"Pretty sure I mentioned it when I moved in."


"Oh. Well, fine. Now you know." Will reached behind him to scoop up the tiny potted cactus on the windowsill. "Just you and me, buddy," he told it sadly. Layla had given him this cactus when they'd all moved into the Pleasant Street house together.

"Layla, don't give him that; he's gonna kill the poor thing from neglect," Magenta had said. "No, he won't," Layla had told her. "Will, you only have to water him a few times a year. So even you can manage it." But then she'd shook her head and said, "Right. If you leave him here in the kitchen, I'll take care of it."

But who's going to take care of you now, little guy? Will glumly prodded the soil with a finger -- did it need to be watered? How could he tell?

"Your folks investors in that subdivision?"

"Huh, what?" Will looked up. "Oh. No, no way. Layla knows that. She's mad at the zoning board, the planning commission, the developers, and everyone else." Will waved a hand to encompass the world of people on Layla's hit list. "But, thing is, they followed all the correct procedures! She just, just refuses to recognize that Maxville's expanding outward. Even if she does somehow manage to halt the building on this one subdivision, even if it stays a little nature preserve, eventually it's going to be surrounded on all sides. That's just how it is."

"You're okay with that, I take it."

"I'm not ... it's not about what I'm okay with, okay?" Will said. "Layla insists that the whole system is corrupt, but it's not. It just doesn't emphasize, uh, nature stuff. She could work to change that if she put in more effort to understand the history of the system as a whole and why it works the way it does. I think there's more than one way to advocate for, for ... trees and whatever." He finished, lamely, "I would have helped with that."

"With nature stuff," Warren repeated. "Trees and whatever."

"Oh, gimme a break," Will groaned. "I was doing my best. I mean, I know she was just humoring me, when I'd talk about my classes. I don't know why she thought it was boring -- it's such an exciting field, y'know? I mean, for a lot of people buying a house is one of the major events of their lives -- definitely the biggest investment for most. And so many people find the whole process intimidating, but when we walk them through it, step by step ... and after they've found the perfect place to live, when they discover that they can afford a mortgage ... the closing is so huge. It's amazing." Will sighed happily. "It's one of the best days of people's lives, when they finally have the keys, when a property finally belongs to them. We get to be part of that best day, over and over. And the sellers -- sure, some of them might be sad, but every time, you can see the relief -- like a weight's been lifted. We helped with that, too. Honestly, who wouldn't want that?"

Warren seemed bemused. "And your parents just so happen to own an agency."

Will waved it off. "Even if they were truck drivers, I'd have wanted to do something like this. You don't need a cape to improve people's lives."

"Yeah. I'm aware," Warren said. He definitely sounded amused now.

Will realized with a start that the news had ended a while before, and some sitcom rerun was now on the screen. He'd just ranted away for over a half-hour, and Warren had let him. In fact, this had to be the longest conversation he'd had with Warren in his life. Will flushed, embarrassed. "Yeah, okay," he said quickly, "looks like I've, uh, hijacked your study session. Sorry, I'll just ... shut up now."

Warren shrugged. "That kind of thing seems to happen to me."

"'Cause you're such a great listener, y'know? Really ..." Will trailed off. Personable, he'd been about to say. The trouble was, Warren had to be the least personable person Will had ever met. He wasn't even sure where that idea had come from.

Apparently Warren didn't know either. "Really," he said dryly.

"Ha ha, yeah, okay," Will said heartily, scrabbling together his books and papers. He stuffed the tiny cactus back on the sill and announced, "Done for the night! Catch you later." Fortunately, with their mismatched schedules, he wouldn't have to see Warren again for a few days.

"Suit yourself," Warren said, settling back with his calculator.

Will fled for his room.

In high school, Warren had tolerated Will and his friends whenever they descended on him, but he'd never made any effort to seek them out. But Will remembered now how often he'd drifted into Warren's space whenever he needed a break. Anyone who wanted to bug Will about something would instantly veer off for parts anywhere-else the moment they'd spot Warren.

Warren tended to have that affect on people.

Not that Will could blame them -- when Will had first met Warren, he'd tried to charbroil him in the middle of the high school cafeteria. Will guessed that Layla had persuaded him that murdering Will was more trouble than he was worth. Because then Warren had switched to simply ignoring Will's existence. So, after that, when Layla had thrown him over to date Will instead, Warren had just shrugged it off. (Sure, Warren had claimed she was just dating him to make Will jealous, but who'd believe that? It was Layla. Anyone would jump at the chance.)

Warren had never bothered to tell Will to get lost, but he didn't seem to care whether he stuck around, either. Warren never demanded anything from Will, never expected anything from Will, unlike everyone else in Will's life. So the vicinity of Warren had been a complication-free zone. At the time, Will had found that ... pretty restful.

So now, one random conversation had left Will's week clouded with guilt. Why hadn't it ever struck him how at-odds that was, the way he'd come to view Warren versus Warren's aggressively bad-tempered reputation? He'd babbled his way through Warren's designated study time -- why hadn't Warren stopped him? Ever since high school, all the advantages here seemed to flow in Will's direction. What on earth could Warren be getting out any of this?

Try as he might, Will couldn't come up with an answer. So he'd have to create one himself.

The apartment immediately benefited from Will's new resolve to Do Right By Warren. Will started by cleaning the kitchen, floor to ceiling. Then, at one point, after he'd picked up the fridge to sweep under it, another thought occurred to him: Will could just ... ask Warren to tell him why he put up with him!

Well, no. Obviously not. Will would figure it out himself.

So when the next Friday night rolled around, and Warren had staked his claim to the couch early, Will was left waffling in indecision. Defend his end of the couch, or take the better part of valor?

Warren looked up from his textbook. "You have to water them once in a while," he said.


"The cactus," he said, flicking his pen to point to the windowsill.

"Oh, right. I forgot to--"

"Took care of it," Warren said, returning to his book. "Kitchen looks good."

"Thanks." That seemed to decide it. Will dropped down on his end, and started to unpack his books. He could do this.

But now, like a mystical curse, Warren kept weighing on his mind. Which meant Will was noticing things that had never bothered him before. Warren's current battered tee-shirt, for instance, announced that it was the "YEAR OF THE HORSE," complete with a calligraphic drawing of a fire-breathing horse. Which made it abundantly clear that in junior high Warren had been a lot shorter and had much thinner shoulders.

So Zach's "biker homeless guy" description was too harsh. But Warren did need to invest in new clothes, stat.

While he was at it, Warren could pick up a better class of hair ties, Will thought. One of his red streaks had managed to escape his ponytail again; Warren never seemed to notice how it would trail down his cheek and curve under his chin. That sort of thing was distracting for people. Warren ought to keep it tied it back.

Warren's mirror-universe counterpart likely was more put together. Will gave this idea due thought. Evil Warren probably had a crewcut and preppy clothes. It was entirely possible; Will had met his dad's mirror-universe counterpart once. He hadn't had the usual goatee, but he'd had hair as long as Warren's and an eyepatch, plus more leather than a herd of cows. So, yeah, Will decided, Warren's was probably --



"You're staring at my ear again." Warren rubbed his ear and looked irritated.

"Uh. Sorry. Just thinking about ..." Mirror-universe doppelgängers. Will slapped his textbook: "Contract purchases."

Warren rolled his shoulders. "Find somewhere else to think about them."

"Right." The chances of meeting Warren's mirror-universe counterpart were pretty slim, Will thought sadly. He dropped his gaze from the offended ear and noticed that another stitch had just surrendered on Warren's tee-shirt. Honestly, his shoulders were way too broad for--

"Not there either."


Will sighed to himself. Even when he was actively trying his best not to annoy Warren, he was failing miserably. It probably wouldn't be long before the fire alarm went off again. Will pulled out his earplugs and vowed to do better.

That week Will declared war on entropy. He borrowed the house's communal vacuum and attacked all the rugs. He carted both his and Warren's laundry to the laundromat -- and manfully refrained from sending any of Warren's questionable tee-shirts to their heavenly reward. He scrubbed down the bathroom until it gleamed. He sorted through the carryout boxes, identified and discarded those whose contents were achieving sentience, and neatly labeled and dated the others. Most of all, he carefully avoided touching any of Warren's meticulously organized books and folders, because Will valued his life.

Whenever Warren would wander through between classes and work, he looked confused but tentatively pleased.

So when Friday night rolled in again, Will felt marginally less ashamed of himself, and more like he'd earned his spot on the couch.

Warren had his books out and his calculator poised, but he was concentrating fiercely on the TV. It was a commercial for dishwashing soap; Will didn't see the fascination.

He shrugged and opened up his own books. He had just started on the questions at the end of the chapter when Warren shut the book in his lap and tossed aside his calculator. "Stronghold," he said. "Talk me through it."

Will looked up, blinking. "Sorry? Talk you through what?"

"Let's say ..." Warren scowled. "Let's say I'm thinking about buying something. Something big."

"Woah," Will said. "Sure. You mean, like, a car?" To replace that death-machine of a motorcycle? he didn't say. But he was thinking it. Hard.

"Bigger." Warren stretched, his ancient tee-shirt straining at the seams. This one said "Maxville Junior High Fun Run!"

Will shook himself back on track. "How, uh, big? You mean ... like a condo? A house?" Will flicked a page of his textbook. "Like real estate?"

"Sure," Warren said agreeably. "Hypothetically. Let's say something had come on the market recently that I was interested in. What would I need to do?"

"Well," Will said, intrigued, "you've shopped around, right? You've looked at other places, and you're sure this one's the one you want?"

"Reasonably sure," Warren said.

"Okay, first you need enough saved to cover a downpayment and the closing costs -- that'll be title insurance, the survey, whatever else is needed. It also helps if you've been preapproved for a mortgage loan," Will told him. "That doesn't mean you have the loan yet. It just means a lender has looked over your credit and assets, and they've determined what amount they'd been willing to finance if you applied for a loan with them."

"So ... cred," Warren said, stretching an arm over the back of the couch. "I can back up what I'm offering."

"Uh, yeah, essentially," Will said, frowning. "Anyway, once you have a promise of financing, even if you don't have the actual financing yet you can get serious." When Warren nodded, Will said, "Okay, so you have the asking price, and you have the offer. What they're asking isn't necessarily what you'll have to pay -- your offer can be lower. If it's contingent on, say, repairs, they have the option of making those. If you're interested in something that's, say, presented as a fixer-upper, then you're less likely to get--"

"A fixer-upper is involved here, yeah," Warren said.

"Uh, okay," Will said. "Warren--"

"What are you asking?" Warren said. "Can't set my offer til I know that."

Will's thought processes briefly went offline. "Uh."

"Here's the thing." Warren scooted closer to the invisible line. "I'm more interested buying on contract," he said. "Ditch the Man entirely. Give my down-payment to the seller, and make my future payments installments directly to the seller."

"That, that's an option," Will said in a strangled voice, "but only if the seller is interested."

"So. How does the seller feel about it?" Warren said. Now he was over the line.

"The seller is ..." Will swallowed. "A seller might be interested."

"Huh. So how about it, Stronghold?" Warren said. His hand was stroking Will's thigh. "Have I got enough credit here? Is the seller willing to entertain my offer?"

"Uh." Will shifted back, trying to give himself room to think. He didn't know where this had come from, he didn't know what he thought about it. He needed more facts. "Warren, uh, are you ... hitting on me?" His voice lifted in a squeak at the end, and he cringed.

"No, I'm not hitting on you, Stronghold," Warren said impatiently, pushing Will back into the arm of the couch. He leaned in and lightly licked Will's lower lip. "That was a while ago. I've moved on to seducing you."

"Oh, okay," Will breathed. "Then, then I'm willing to accept your offer ... with contingencies."

Warren paused and sat back. "What contingencies?"

"Those shirts," Will said desperately. "You ... you'll have to do something about those shirts."

Warren gave him a wry, lopsided grin Will had never seen before, and Will's heart melted. "Yeah, no more need for them, I guess."

"Wait," Will said. "What?"

"Part of the research phase. Don't worry about it," Warren said soothingly. "How about I just take it off?"

"That seems like a reasonable compromise," Will choked out.

When Warren added, "You can touch my hair, too, if you want," Will's thoughts briefly spun again, but then he was fingering and stroking the escaped red-streaks that had been taunting him all week, and Warren had an expression rather like a contented cat.

"If you want this shirt off," Warren was saying, "you'll have to let me--" Then he froze, listening.

That was when the background sound of the TV abruptly shoved to the front of Will's awareness.

"--following this breaking story with News Live at Five with Clive Nye, Our Eyes in the Sky!" the announcer's voice boomed. "Apparent supervillains, Maxville police, and the Green Pastures development -- more from our chopper reporter, Clive Nye!"

"Holy freaking cow," Will breathed. It was a familiar aerial view, but already too dark to see what was going on. Flashes from the chopper's spotlight illuminated a police car on the ground, its lights whirling. "Layla ..."

"The League of Planetary Justice has been contacted," the announcer said. "I repeat, the League--"

"We got it the first time," Warren grumbled, swinging off the couch -- and off Will. "Get a coat or something," he said, stomping off to his room. Will hadn't even made it to the coat closet when Warren reappeared wearing a black leather jacket -- the one with the burning, screaming eagle painted on the back that Will hadn't seen him wear since high school -- and a pair of steel-toed motorcycle boots. "C'mon, Stronghold, move it."

Warren had apparently aced his quick change class, Will thought admiringly as he pulled his windbreaker on. Warren was looking at him askance.

"What?" Will said.

"Do you buy any of your own clothes?" Warren said.

Will looked down, and ran a perplexed inventory. High-topped sneakers, rolled jeans, suspenders, windbreaker (the one Layla always called his old-man jacket, he recalled). Sure, his mother had bought them all, but everything was a tasteful red, white, and blue. Will didn't see the problem. "What's wrong with them?"

"Nothing," Warren muttered reaching by him to snag one of Will's scarves, the one that looked like an elongated flag. "Here, put these on."

Will took the horn-rimmed glasses he'd been handed. "Aren't these my dad's?"

"Yeah. He took 'em off and forgot them that time when he was weeping with joy about ... something. I don't know."

"Oh, that. He'd convinced himself I was a suffering, starving student, but then he looked in the fridge."

"No comment," Warren said.

"So why am I wearing these?" Will said. They had heavy, plain glass. He was sure he looked like a tool.

"Your folks seem to be invested in the secret identity gig. Unless you have a better idea?"

Will didn't. Warren tied Will's scarf around his head, do-rag style, and donned a pair of sunglasses. Warren actually made sunglasses at night look cool, Will thought a bit peevishly, tugging on his beanie.

"I thought your bike was still out of commission," Will said.

"That's not my ride," Warren told him, slinging an arm around his neck. "You are. Heigh-ho, Stronghold, away."

Belladonna and two members of her woodsy assault team, Rodent Revenge and Sludge -- aka Layla, Magenta, and Ethan, aka Will's former housemates -- sat across from Will in his favorite booth at the Paper Lantern. Ethan had a towel full of ice pressed to his cheek, courtesy of the guy busing tables. The bench beside Will was empty, because the guy busing table's shift didn't end for twenty more minutes.

In the middle of the table sat a newspaper.

"League Recycles Green Terrorists!" shouted the headline. The article described in lurid detail (more than the whole farce merited) the police attempting to apprehend construction site vandals, only to find themselves battling superpowered environmental terrorists. That had resulted in a panicked plea to the League of Planetary Justice. That, in turn, had resulted in the night's hero-on-call, Bigfoot, appearing on the scene accompanied by two trainee heroes, Hipster Guy and his sidekick, Biker Guy. The terrorists -- Belladonna and Eco Revolt -- were foiled and sent fleeing, and the police were transported to Maxville General to be treated for concussions. "We'll be remaining vigilant in future to prevent any escalation," Bigfoot was quoted as saying.

The reporter hadn't been fazed by her lack of facts. "Sounds like a bad New Wave band," Will muttered. The photo featured a dazed-looking Will with a huge, hairy arm draped over his shoulder. In the background behind Will, Warren, sunglasses and all, was flashing a laconic peace-sign.

Magenta sucked soda noisily up her straw. Will sighed to himself and decided to get started on the vigilance part. He'd wanted to meet with Layla alone, but clearly that wasn't in the cards. He tapped the article, and asked, "So clear this up for me. Who exactly is Gemini? And who clobbered the cops?"

"Gemini," Magenta and Ethan chorused to the last question. "Penny," Layla said to the first.

"Penny? As in Penny Lane? Layla, she hates you," Will said incredulously.

"I know," Layla said. "But she misses being in a gang. So she threatened to go to the cops unless we let her join ours."

"That's ... ridiculous."

"She's calling herself Gemini so that people will think she's twins," Magenta added. "So they're not expecting more of her to show up."

"Is that really stupid or really clever?" Will wondered.

Magenta shrugged. "She's the one who ninja'd up and knocked out the cops. I'd say she's making it work. Hipster Guy."

"Don't call me that," Will groaned. "That wasn't my idea."

"Ninjas don't wear skirts that short," Ethan added. "I keep telling her."

"Anyway," Layla broke in, "you and Warren foiled us this time. But vengeance will be ours, yada yada."

"Layla, come on, this is serious. This time you tangled with the police. Now it's not just equipment getting trashed -- now that people are involved and getting hurt, the League of Planetary Justice can't ignore it anymore."

"Lucky for us, you two are junior members then," she pointed out brightly. "Bigfoot said so! It's right there in the article."

"That was just ... he was just ... He was trying to keep us from getting arrested!" Will snapped. "When you guys legged it, that left us holding the, the vines."

"Oh, I see," said Layla primly. "Well, we wouldn't want you mistaken for criminals, now would we?"

She, Magenta, and Ethan all looked at at Will owlishly and sucked on their straws.

"Will you guys cut it out?" Will shouted at them. "You need to take this--"

"Anyone need a refill?" Warren said. "How's the ice holding up?"

"Yes, please," Layla said. She handed him her glass and Ethan handed over his towel. To Will, Warren muttered, "Fifteen," and stalked away.

Will decided he also needed to introduce the other issue before Warren returned.

"Layla, listen," he said, leaning in and lowering his voice. "I need to tell you something." When Magenta and Ethan both leaned in as well with interested expressions, Will sighed. There was no help for it. "I wanted to let you know that I'm seeing Warren."

Ethan slurped his soda. "I'm seeing him, too," he said. "He's right over there."

"No, dummy," Magenta said. "He means he's seeing him. As in dating."

Layla frowned, but said nothing.

"But ... that doesn't make any sense," Ethan said.

"I know, right?" Magenta said. "It'd mean one of them got a clue and the other got some motivation." She waved the fortune from her cookie. "'Eat unlikely news with much salt'!"

Layla said nothing.

"Look," Will said, "Layla, I really wasn't expecting a, a peanut gallery for--"

"So he made his move," Layla said abruptly. "I wondered if that might happen."

"--for ... Uh. What?"

"If you moved in with Warren, I meant," she said, rubbing her temple tiredly. "He's been into you forever."

"Uh. What?"

Layla frowned again. "You really never noticed? You're the only one of us he never outright avoided."

"That, that doesn't mean--"

"Dude," said Magenta. "You spent so much time hanging out with him at Sky High that at least five people outright asked me when you and Layla had broken up and you'd got with him. They wanted to know if the hero-villain thing ran in Warren's family."

"That--that's offensive," Will said.

"I just figured it was dude-bro stuff," Ethan said wistfully.

"But that wasn't ... I didn't ..."

"Refill," Warren said, plonking down another soda for Layla. "Ice."

"Thanks, Warren," Ethan said, quickly pressing it back to his face. "That Bigfoot guy, I was liquid when he stomped on me. How's he do that?"

"Big feet," Warren said. "Ten," he added to Will before heading off again. Every eye at the table followed his exit.

Layla stabbed at her soda disconsolately. "I'm not going to say I'm happy for you," she said, "but I guess it was bound to happen. One or the other of us was going to be your archenemy."

"My ... what?"

"Nemesis, whatever," she said, stabbing, stabbing. "Warren got a head start on it, but then he just ... dropped out. I hoped he might pick it up again after you moved in -- you're pretty messy, Will, that was sure to drive him mad -- but I guess not."

"Am I supposed to know what you're talking about?"

"We had it in class," Ethan said. "Or maybe Mr. Boy was the only one who covered it? Every superhero has an archenemy."

"It's true. I checked," Magenta added. "The stats hold up. If you ever got around to heroing, you'd get one eventually."

"I don't remember anything about that," Will protested. But he also had a guilty feeling he might have simply slept through that lesson. With Layla still back in Sidekick Track, no one else had cared enough to nudge him awake when he dozed off. "And even if that were true, wouldn't Royal Pain be mine?"

"No, man, I'm sorry," Ethan said. "She invented that Angry Buzzards game, so she's, like, a bazillionaire now and dropped out of villainy."

"That was Gwen?" Will said, feeling betrayed. "But ... I love that game."

"Everyone does," Magenta said. "It's tragic."

"At any rate, fine," Layla said, and wiped her nose delicately on her paper napkin. "I'll be your archenemy, Will. You're less likely to get hurt if it's someone who cares about you."

"Layla, oh man," Magenta said, wrapping an arm around her in a hug. "Guys suck. You're better off without him. And next time, we'll totally kick his ass for you."

"Hey," said Ethan. "Guy over here."

"Thank you," Layla said.

"What did I miss?" Warren said, looking confused.

"Word has it, guys suck," Ethan said gloomily.

"And I'm totally gonna bite your ass, 'Biker Guy,'" Magenta snarled. "You better prepare yourself, because Rodent Revenge is hardcore."

"Uh," Warren looked weirded out. "Okay."

Will tapped into the depths of his patience. "To sum up: Layla says she's my archenemy now. Her gang just swore vengeance."

"Oh. You told her."


Warren sat down and fiddled with one of the chopsticks on the table. Then he gave Layla a sidelong look. "Too bad. You snooze, you lose, Williams."

Layla sat up straight and slapped the table. "That's it. It is so on," she snapped.

"Bring it," he said calmly.

Ethan and Magenta high-fived, and Will laid down his head on the newspaper, wishing he were anywhere but here.

In the end, Will never did get the quiet, but at least he got the Peace. And it wasn't so different from high school, really. His girlfriend became his archenemy, his best friend became his boyfriend, and his roommate became his sidekick.

But hey, that was the superhero business.