Villainous, p.10

Villainous, page 10

 

Villainous
 


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  “People are just getting scared.”

  “They’re scared. And worse, they’re jealous. It didn’t take them long to go from ‘Wow, they are amazing!’ to ‘Why can’t I do that?’ It’s dangerous that there are so many of us.”

  “You sound like Herman.”

  “Well, even a broken clock is right twice a day,” said Johnny. “But I’m going to try and help as much as I can.”

  “With this school?” said Daniel. “Was this place your idea?”

  “No,” admitted Johnny. “But when I heard what they were up to, I knew I needed to be here. If I can … control the out-of-control ones. Teach them to use their talents in a responsible way. Not to show off. Not to frighten people. Well, then, maybe we can avoid the worst of it.”

  “The worst of what?” asked Daniel. “Just what are you afraid will happen, exactly?”

  Johnny studied Daniel quietly for a moment, as if weighing something about the boy. Finally, he slumped back into his chair.

  “I’ve been alive for a long time, Daniel,” he said. “In all those years my powers haven’t weakened. If anything, they’ve grown. Changed.”

  “You healed me,” said Daniel. “When I … broke my hand against your jaw. You used your power to heal me.”

  Johnny nodded. “I wasn’t able to do that at first. It came with time. The point is, I’ve changed over the years, but as best I can tell, mankind hasn’t. Fear is still the strongest emotion, and it can make people do terrible things if it’s unchecked. All those years in hiding, I watched wars come and go, governments fall, and catastrophes wipe out thousands, but I chose this moment in history—now—to get involved. That should give you some idea of how serious I am about this.”

  Sometimes listening to Johnny was like listening to the class know-it-all who didn’t realize someone had taped a KICK ME sign to his butt. Just when Daniel was about to be taken in by all that supposed wisdom, leave it to Johnny to remind him why he couldn’t stand the man. He had such a self-important view of himself, of a person who’d spent the last century doing nothing at all.

  “That’s supposed to impress me?” said Daniel. “A list of all the times you didn’t give a damn?”

  For a moment, just a moment, a dark cloud passed over Johnny’s face. Daniel had gotten to him, pierced that marble-hard skin with a little bit of truth telling. Good. Let him be angry. Anything to get rid of that arrogant smirk.

  “You should watch your language, son,” said Johnny. “You are in the principal’s office after all.”

  “But I’m not your student,” said Daniel.

  “Look, Daniel—I’m here to teach. To help these kids find their way so that people will have nothing to fear. But if it comes to it, I promise you this—no one will hurt these children while they are under my protection. They’d have to get through me first, and you and I both know that’s a very hard thing to do.”

  Daniel looked at Johnny’s face, trying to spot the lie there. But Johnny looked earnest enough. He probably believed it himself.

  “You may hate me for letting the Shroud steal those children’s powers,” said Johnny. “And maybe you’re right to do so, but ask yourself this—in all those years, did a single child die? And why not? You saw how unbalanced Herman had become, what he was capable of.”

  “Are you really trying to convince me that you weren’t AWOL all that time? That you were some kind of secret protector?”

  “I helped when I was needed,” said Johnny. “Ask Rose. She watched as I saved your friend Eric’s life.”

  It was true that in their first battle with the Shroud, Rose had hidden invisible while Johnny breathed strength back into Eric’s wounded body. But Daniel had wondered, if Johnny was so all-powerful, why hadn’t he simply stopped Herman himself? Last year he’d figured out the answer to that question. Johnny had been afraid the Shroud would steal his powers too. Johnny wasn’t some mysterious savior helping from the shadows; he was a coward.

  Now, thanks to Daniel, the Shroud was no more, and there was nothing to be afraid of. Johnny was truly invulnerable at last. What courage did it take to come out of hiding now?

  “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation,” said Daniel. “You keep saying you’re here to protect us. But I’m not even one of them. I’m not a Super.”

  “I think we both know that’s not true. You’ve proved it, time and again.” Johnny stood up. “You and your friends don’t think you need me,” he said. “But I can help. Mollie out there is, what, thirteen?”

  “Fourteen.”

  “Growing up. And her powers, are they growing up with her?”

  “How did you know?”

  Johnny smiled. “It’s not mind reading to guess that as their bodies are getting stronger, so are their abilities. I can help them control them, just like I’m already helping the rest of these kids. You tell them for me.”

  Daniel shrugged. Eric and Rohan would be there soon enough, but they would be none too happy when they learned that Johnny was a part of all this.

  “Theo and Mollie will be wondering what’s taking you so long,” said Johnny. “I’ve pleaded my case, and I hope you can come to trust me, in time. The academy can be the answer to this town’s problems. We can make it a better place. We can make the world a better place. I just wanted you to know, I really am one of the good guys, Daniel.”

  “Whatever,” said Daniel. But as they walked to the door, he stopped and said, “Oh, about your students Drake Masterson and his buddies …”

  “The ones you were talking to. Yes, what about them?”

  “You’ve got your work cut out for you, Mr. Principal.”

  Chapter Twelve

  Undercover

  “If I’d known he was the principal, there’s no way I would’ve signed up,” said Eric.

  “It doesn’t really change the mission,” said Rohan. “We’re going to be there to keep an eye on Drake and his friends. Johnny doesn’t actually matter—”

  “He matters to me,” said Eric.

  If Daniel disliked Johnny, Eric hated him. For most of his life Eric had idolized him as the first Super, the comic book hero of countless stories and Eric’s own imagination. When Daniel had learned that it was all false, that the character of Johnny Noble was nothing like the real man, he’d felt disappointed, but Eric had felt betrayed. Another father figure had let him down, and Daniel knew that Eric had a thing about deadbeat dads. After his own father had passed away, there had been a string of men in his mother’s life who’d promised to look after Eric and her, but each one turned out worse than the one before. He’d actually discovered his powers the day he threw one of them through a window.

  “It’s not too late to back out,” said Daniel. “There’s got to be another way to get intel on the Nobles.”

  For a moment Eric didn’t speak, and neither did anyone else.

  The three boys were sitting on the porch, waiting for Rohan’s parents to drive Eric and Rohan up to the academy for their first day. The bags were packed, everything was set, but if Eric said the word, Daniel knew that Rohan would back him. He too understood how Eric felt about Johnny, and if his friend wanted to call it off, then he would call it off.

  Eventually, Eric sighed and threw up his hands. “What’s a spy mission without a few twists? But Johnny had better stay away from me, that’s all I’m saying.”

  Rohan nodded and Daniel gave his friend a pat on the shoulder. He’d half been hoping that Eric would decide to call it quits, just because he didn’t like the idea of them being up there without him, but then again he still wasn’t any closer to catching Drake and his Nobles in the act. This could be their best shot at getting some evidence against them.

  Rohan and Eric were dressed in their academy uniforms—white shirt, sport coat, and tie. With their ties loosened and coats slung carelessly over the porch railing, they looked like an advertisement in one of his mom’s clothing catalogs. Young men of Oxford.

  “And,” said Eric, “h
ave you seen the books we’re expected to read?”

  Apparently, they were done talking about Johnny, and Daniel was glad of it.

  “He thought it was going to be all flying, all the time,” said Rohan, nudging Daniel. “It is a school, Eric.”

  “Books!” shouted Eric. “I thought we were getting away from books!” He swept his hand dramatically over a stack of textbooks piled up next to his already full backpack.

  “Sociology, Shakespeare. Oh, here’s calculus.… Calculus, man!”

  “That is a lot,” agreed Daniel. He wondered if his book list for next year would look anything like that. He hoped not. He was having a hard enough time keeping up with one lousy history class, and the final was looming around the corner.

  “And get this,” said Eric. “We are not even allowed to use our powers on campus unless supervised by a member of the faculty!”

  “Hey,” said Rohan, pointing. “There’s Mollie.”

  Daniel peered up at the sky but it was no use. Mollie would be traveling too fast for him to see, practically invisible to everyone except Rohan.

  Sure enough, she appeared in the yard a second later, the only sign of her arrival the accompanying gust of wind.

  “What are you guys wearing?” asked Mollie.

  “What, this?” asked Rohan, and he took his sport coat off the railing and pulled it on, then began strutting up and down his porch like he was a runway model. A crest was stitched into the breast—a black mountain against a green field. Writing framed the top.

  “Hey,” said Daniel. “What’s that say?”

  “INTEGRITY, HONESTY, ACHIEVEMENT,” said Rohan. “I would have gone with something other than achievement. I mean, integrity and honesty are qualities possessed by people, aren’t they? But achievement’s not a quality at all.… ”

  As Rohan kept on talking, Mollie turned to Daniel and whispered, “I. Am. Never. Going. There.”

  “The uniforms are not so bad,” said Rohan. He’d heard her. Of course he’d heard her. “I think they look smart.”

  “Smart?” repeated Mollie, shaking her head. “You’re hopeless.”

  Mollie didn’t see it, but Rohan gave Daniel a quick wink. In all the years that they’d been friends, she hadn’t caught on that one of Rohan’s favorite hobbies was to drive her crazy.

  Rohan’s mother called from inside, “Leaving in two minutes!”

  “Oh, shoot! I’ll be right back,” said Rohan. “Forgot something.”

  Rohan hurried inside and the three friends were left with an awkward silence. Eric and Rohan were starting a new adventure today, one that Daniel and Mollie wouldn’t be a part of.

  “So, we’ll check in every night by text,” Eric was saying. “And while we try to get something on Drake, you two keep a watch on the town. We’ll get them one way or another.”

  It wasn’t much of a plan as plans go, but it was all they had. The Supers go undercover.

  The door squeaked open on rusty hinges as Rohan’s mother stepped out onto the porch. She jingled her car keys in her hand. “Time to go!” she said. “Oh, hello, Mollie. I didn’t know you were here.”

  “Hello, Mrs. Parmar.”

  “Are you here to say goodbye?”

  “Guess so,” said Mollie. “Bon voyage.”

  Rohan appeared behind her, blinking at them as he wiped away tears. It took Daniel a moment to realize just what it was he was looking at.

  After a moment of stunned silence, Daniel said, “Your glasses?”

  “What?” said Rohan. “I got contact lenses.”

  “Doesn’t he look handsome?” said Rohan’s mother.

  No one said a thing. They would have been less shocked if Clay Cudgens had just walked through the door with a box of doughnuts. Rohan without his glasses was just not Rohan.

  “Come on!” said his mother. “We don’t want to be late for your first day.… ” Now Rohan’s mother really was tearing up.

  “Mom,” said Rohan, embarrassed.

  Daniel helped Rohan with his overstuffed backpack and grabbed a suitcase to take to the car.

  “Superhero school,” Daniel muttered.

  “Hey, I just realized—why aren’t you flying to school?” Mollie asked Eric as they followed Rohan down to the car.

  “No powers allowed. The welcome letter specifically asked that all students report to school on the first day ‘by traditional methods of transportation only.’ Can you believe it?”

  “Keep your eyes open, okay?” said Daniel. “And stay out of trouble.”

  “You bet,” said Eric. “Always.”

  Daniel and Mollie waved as they watched the car pull away. They would need to hurry themselves if they didn’t want to be late for Smiley’s class. Well, Daniel had to hurry. Mollie could be there in minutes.

  “What’s going on with Rohan?” asked Mollie. “Contact lenses?”

  “Things are changing,” said Daniel. “No doubt about it.”

  “You think they’ll be okay?”

  “Sure,” lied Daniel. “It’s just a school. What’s the worst that could happen?”

  Chapter Thirteen

  The Noble School for the Criminally Gifted

  The clock on the wall refused to move any faster, no matter how much Daniel tried to will it to speed up. The sluggish minute hand barely ticked forward, and staring at it was giving Daniel a headache. If he kept looking at that preternaturally slow clock, he feared he’d burst a blood vessel in his brain, which, when he thought about it, might be a welcome relief from the boredom of Smiley’s lecture on the Second Continental Congress. Mollie had checked out long ago, and was slumped at her desk, chin resting in her palm, eyes closed, and drooling. Daniel had been forced to kick her chair twice today when she’d started snoring.

  Finally, just when he thought he couldn’t take any more, he heard a sound sweeter than the trumpets of angels—the end-of-day bell.

  As they streamed out of the classroom with the rest of the day’s escapees, Daniel switched on his phone.

  “I want to see if the guys texted yet.… Uh-oh.”

  “What?” said Mollie. “Something up?”

  Daniel had four new messages from Rohan. As he scrolled down them, he saw variations of the same thing:

  Emergency meeting @ new tree fort!

  Gotta stop Eric!

  Eric is idiot!

  Come to tree fort when U get!!!

  Mollie peered over his shoulder at the screen. “Looks serious,” she said.

  “Yeah,” said Daniel. “Lemme go get my bike.”

  “No time,” said Mollie. “From the school to the tree fort on a bike? You’ll be there by dinnertime, maybe.”

  Mollie might’ve been exaggerating, but she was right that it wasn’t a quick trip.

  “Well, how do you expect— No. No! No way, Mol.” Daniel knew that look. He knew what she was thinking and he didn’t like it.

  “Oh, don’t be a baby,” she said. “Forget your stupid male ego and let me fly you there. It’ll take five minutes.”

  “It’s not my ego,” Daniel said, and loudly before he realized there were people still nearby in the halls.

  “It’s not my ego,” he repeated, whispering this time. “It’s that you have a habit of dropping me.”

  That wasn’t strictly true. While Mollie had dropped him on a few occasions, it was usually over a large body of water and on purpose. Truth was, he did feel weird having a girl haul him around. Unlike Eric, Mollie wasn’t super-strong, and the fact that an ordinarily muscled fourteen-year-old girl could carry him reasonably well was embarrassing. Especially when the girl started referring to him as “toothpick” afterward.

  Quickly, Daniel ducked out of the school with Mollie at his heels. He dialed Rohan’s cell phone and waited. It went directly to voice mail.

  “You might not be able to get through,” said Mollie. It was true that phone reception was spotty at best around Mount Noble, yet another of its mysterious qualities. Daniel was lucky he’d gotten
Rohan’s texts.

  “Fine,” said Daniel at last. “But let’s find somewhere safe and out of sight to take off from. I don’t want some tourist snapping a shot of you carrying me. And go fast, but not Mollie fast, okay? Last time I swallowed a bug.”

  With a quick prayer, Daniel wrapped his arms around Mollie and then the two were airborne. She’d been right, and the actual flight lasted mere minutes. As they sailed through the air holding each other, Daniel took in the view he never tired of seeing. Beyond the boundaries of their town, civilization gave way to green wilderness. A few roads cut through the forest and snaked their way up the mountainside. Somewhere in those woods was their destination—the new tree fort.

  For the last minute or so of their flight together, Daniel decided to close his eyes and imagine he was flying alone. He heard the wind blowing in his ears; he felt it on his skin. He could almost pretend that Mollie wasn’t there, except for the smell of lavender shampoo and cinnamon chewing gum—Mollie’s scent.

  Even after they’d touched down and Mollie had let him go, the Mollie smell still lingered. If he breathed deeply, it was there beneath the tang of the mountain pines. It worried him what he must smell like compared to her—probably closer to an old shoe. Daniel was trying to sniff-test his armpit without looking like he was sniff-testing his armpit when he realized that a strange silence had developed between them. They were hiking along the freshly cleared path to the tree fort, and Mollie hadn’t once called him “toothpick.” She was walking next to him—right beside him, actually—with her hands in her pockets and her thoughts someplace else.

  They hadn’t gotten very far, though, before she stopped. “Hold on a sec,” she said, sniffing. “What’s that?”

  Oh no, Daniel thought. He did smell like an old shoe!

  But then he caught a whiff of it too—a rotten odor being carried on the wind from somewhere nearby. Only one creature on this earth could make such an unearthly stink.

 
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