shallowness: bright flowers in vase against green background (flowers that remind me of Layla)
[personal profile] shallowness posting in [community profile] skyhigh
Title: When we were strangers (or five ways Layla and Warren never met)
Author: shallowness
Fandom: Sky High
Rating: PG
Characters/Pairing: Layla/Warren mainly
Summary: Five ways Layla and Warren never met

Disclaimer: I don’t own or profit from these characters.
Author's Note: Inspired by a fic about five ways Rogue and Remy never met. AUs. Some with powers, some without. 5,055 words. Dedicated to ciaan. Huge thanks to rookanga for beta reading. All errors and idiocies are mine.

When we were strangers
(or five ways Layla and Warren never met): shallowness

1. Distinguishing Marks
(or the one with the boyfriend and the tattoo)

The guy on the other side of the counter has tattoos of tongues of flames running around both his wrists, Layla notices. You’d expect someone who works as a tattooist to have some, of course, but they look good on him.

She’s stalling. She’s here to support Magenta, who had to come here right now after Magenta’s boyfriend Zach said that she wouldn’t go through with getting a tattoo. On the way, Layla made Magenta promise not to get anything done tonight, because quite a few cocktails have been drunk in the past few hours. She still isn’t sure whether Magenta will do it in the cold light of day, but then again, maybe Magenta really did always want one like she claimed. She’s always been kind of punky, while Layla is a flower child. And yet, they’re best friends, the kind who go together arm-in-arm to a tattoo artist that’s open until late.

Magenta is peering at an album of possible tattoos in Chinese characters. However great some of the artwork on display is, Layla can’t get away from the fact that it’s not ink on paper, it’s ink on skin, permanent. These flames will always be there on this guy’s wrists. He’s cute, as she allowed herself to notice on stepping into the shop, but there’s something about his hands and wrists, the way that he moves, that suggest controlled power.

He’s been arranging albums that must have been opened for other customers, but suddenly the counter is empty and it’s his turn to watch her, and she suspects he knew she was looking at him all this time. Whereas normally she’d duck her head in embarrassment, she’s drunk enough tonight to look him in the eye.

“Do you do transfers?” she asks, because what’s the point in pretending she’s thinking about getting a tattoo for herself? If he doesn’t like it, she doesn’t care, however cute he is.

But he smiles at her, bright white teeth and a transformed expression, and ‘cute’ is an understatement. It’s not just the alcohol affecting her.

“Yes, we do, hippy. What would you prefer, flowers or the moon and the stars?”

“That’s a tough choice,“ Layla says. “I might have to choose one for now and come back for the others.”

Layla and Magenta leave the tattooist, each happy for her own reasons: one with an appointment for the next day, while the other has exchanged cell phone numbers with a guy named Warren.

2. Celebration
(or the one with the one-night stand)

Layla walks around Maxville in a daze, a buffer between her and the city. Eventually, she realizes she’s hungry and with it comes the awareness that the time she has left here is limited so she might as well indulge herself.

The bright lights of the Cantonese restaurant draw her towards it. She’s always loved Chinese food, and it’s not likely to be in plentiful supply where she’s going.

The restaurant – the Paper something – is far from full, but Layla’s stomach rumbles at the scent of good food cooking and she smiles at the waitress who promptly comes towards her and then leads her towards the other occupied tables. All the patrons are grouped together nearer the kitchen, clearly for the staff’s convenience.

Layla orders her fried rice with extra mushrooms and soy sauce and asks for water to drink. She rarely eats out alone – it’s weird that she’s essentially celebrating the biggest event of her life so far without her friends’ company. She looks around her for distraction from that mood-killing fact. Nearly everyone else is with others, either in pairs or bigger groups. The only other lone customer catches her eye. He’s talking to one of the wait staff in confident Cantonese even though he’s Caucasian. This customer is about Layla’s age and very good looking. She wonders if Portuguese will ever come that easily to her.

A yell from the kitchen draws the waiter’s attention, and he scuttles off. The customer looks directly at Layla and she realizes she’s been made. The best she can do is wave and brazen it out. For a second, there’s no expression on the guy’s face, then he lifts an eyebrow and almost smiles.

Layla feels like the brakes have gone, a sensation she only gets when she’s on one of her missions, and getting an honest to goodness smile out of this guy is as good a mission as saving an endangered animal’s habitat. Well, it’s not really, but before she argues herself out of it, she picks up her purse and her glass and approaches the guy’s table. She notices that he has a book - non-fiction, state-of-the-nation stuff: impressive - laying on the table.

“I see you’re dining alone, mind if I join you?” she asks.

He lifts his eyebrows again. “You think we should combine forces?”

“I think you know the staff, so you can maybe get us a little bit extra and I’m celebrating tonight, so I want it to be special.” She wonders why she spilled that piece of news to someone she doesn’t even know. “I’m Layla. I’m a vegetarian so I’m totally harmless.” She smiles again.

He nods gravely and she holds her breath. If he turns her down, she’ll have to slink back to her table and eat humble pie. Maybe she totally misread the interest in his eyes back when they were at opposite sides of the room. It’s been a crazy day.

“I’m Warren. I’m not a vegetarian, so I bite.” No, there’s that look again, and so close, she can’t help but feel herself blush. Warren gestures for her to sit down opposite hm. “I’m willing to translate, if you want, but they do speak English.”

She nods, sets down her glass on the table and her purse on the chair, and goes to fetch her mat and her chopsticks, leaving the metal cutlery behind. She’s just about proficient enough not to need them.

When she takes her seat, she sees that she’s amused him.

“You’re a good customer,” he observes.

“Am I?”

“Carrying your stuff. Not many people would do that.”

“Well, not many people would join a stranger’s table. Not that I do it often. In fact, I’ve never done it before,” she admits, chuckling awkwardly.

“I’ve seen people who obviously know each other decide to join tables, and it’s usually a pain for the staff.”

“That’s the voice of experience,” she observes.

He nods. “I used to work here, back when I was at high school.”

Layla looks around. She’d got the impression that it was a family-run restaurant.

“That would explain the Cantonese.”

He grins.

“That and the fact that I’ve just been in Hong Kong – not waiting, by the way.”

“What were you doing?”

“This and that.” A door is definitely shut between them, and Layla gets the feeling that she’d have to do a lot of pushing to open any doors this guy, Warren, didn’t want to open.

The waitress comes bearing Warren’s order and does a literal double take at the sight of Layla. Warren, presumably, explains the situation – it’s all Cantonese to Layla – and she tries to smile like it’s not bizarre, wondering what the waitress thinks. Like she said, Layla is not the type of person to do this kind of thing, not even at a bar. She’s friendly and she’s open, but she doesn’t swagger up to hot guys as if she’s sure she can take everything they have to offer her. But Layla finds she’s feeling no regret or embarrassment, just exhilaration, and there’s no point in lying to herself. Layla knows that neither of them is expecting this to end with the meal.

“I’d offer you some of my food, but there’s chicken.” Warren says. “I don’t think you’ll have to wait long for yours.”

“That’s okay. And go ahead.”

“So, you’re okay with me eating meat in front of you.” She nods. “I met a guy once who had to turn his back on us carnivores.”

“Really?” Layla queries. She knows a lot of vegetarians – her mom pretty much brought her up as one, although Layla made a definite choice when she turned twelve – and vegans too, but this is new on her.

“So it is weird? I thought it was, but—“

“Well, I can’t say watching people eat meat is my favorite thing, and if we knew each other longer and had met each other under different circumstances, you’d get to hear a lot more about it, but—” She waves at him that he should start to eat.

Warren picks up his chopsticks dexterously. Layla gulps down some water, wishing she’d ordered wine.

“So, what are you celebrating?”


“You said you were celebrating.”

She watches him consideringly. Maybe he just asked an open question like that so he could eat in peace, but the fact that he’s been listening to every word she said is as much of a turn-on as the evidence that he’s good with his hands. Layla guesses she’s blushing again.

“Right. I’ve just been accepted to work with a charity in the Amazon rainforest. It’s for six months with an option to extend the placement. We’ll be working to block illegal logging, trying to help restore the razed land and watch out for the remaining animal and plant species.”

“Wow,” he says quietly. “Not just a vegetarian, but out to save the world.”

She shrugs. “I guess.”

“This something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?”

“Always,” she says, half-smiling as she remembers growing up outdoors, creating a garden for all kinds of plants, insects and bird life, insisting that all their neighbors had compost heaps and used no pesticides. The smile vanishes as she remembers all that she’s learned from her research about the Amazon jungle and all the destruction that’s taken place there and is still going on. She thinks she can help, more than she let on to the charity, but the scale of what she’ll be battling against is sobering.

“Means a lot to you.” She nods in confirmation. “You shouldn’t celebrate something like this alone.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Well, the list of people who knew I was applying had just one person on it. My mom. I didn’t tell anyone else. I guess because I didn’t think I’d get accepted and, well, other reasons. And my mom’s out of town. I called her, so she knows, but—“

“We should order champagne,” he says.

“Do they even serve that here?” she asks.

Champagne isn’t served at the restaurant, so they have to go to a bar together. They walk there and the warmth of his hand on the small of her back feels good. He orders two glasses, not a bottle. They won’t be staying here long, and Layla’s okay with that. She wants to find out if he really does bite.

3. Reputations
(or the one where they know of each other, but don’t know each other)

She sees his silhouette first. He has his back to her, lit up by the fireball floating above his hand.

“Hothead?” Layla asks, feeling a little stupid asking – how many other guys are going to be controlling fire, dressed like he is, here and now on the grounds of the mayor of Maxville’s weekend retreat?

He spins around, and she gets an impression of his masked face before the flame vanishes and he falls into darkness. His voice is rough and unfriendly for someone who’s meant to be a good guy.

“Who’s asking?”

“Greenfingers,” Layla says, feigning confidence. She’s new to Maxville, here because of a string of favors owed, otherwise there is no way she would be in a sprawling, polluted city like this. Or technically just outside its limits. She’s a country girl, was brought up in a commune where everyone used their skills for the good of them all and her skills were just a bit more special. This...dressing up and donning an alter ego is new for her. The green gloves and mask she wears and the new name she’s adopted feel wrong for someone who’s always been upfront. Will’s friend Zach forced both costumes and ‘Greenfingers’ on her, but only now, her eyes adjusting to the dark, facing someone who seems comfortable in their black and red uniform, does it start to make sense.

“The one who can swing from vines.”

“I guess I could if I needed to,” she says coolly.

“Welcome to the rag-tag band that’s going to save Maxville,” he says mockingly, and she doesn’t like his tone. From what Zach and Will’s parents said, this team they’re setting up to confront Royal Pain’s crew is going to be all that stops Maxville from becoming the phoenix-like technopath’s own personal fiefdom. Layla isn’t sure what she can do in a city of skyscrapers made up of stone, glass and metal, but she owes it to Will Stronghold’s grieving parents to join them and try. Zach had told her that they’d have a mad scientist on side and maybe the pyrokinetic standing before her now. There’s something magnetic about him in person, but his words don’t fit with what Layla’s heard about him.

“Don’t give up before we’ve started,” she says shortly. The city has just lost and buried one superhero, a young man Layla was beginning to get to know; she doesn’t want his death to have been in vain. She can’t quite believe that Hothead, who was there when the Junior Commander fell, can be talking like this.

“Oh, an optimist,” he drawls.

“I believe the world can be a better place, yes,” she replies, realizing as she speaks that her gloved hands have curled into a fist, “otherwise what are we fighting for?”

He doesn’t answer her immediately, and reprieve from the tension between them comes with the sound of wheels running over the gravel. Layla turns to see a guy of about her own age, black, wearing glasses and loose grey clothes approaching in a wheelchair.

“I’m Ethan, the welcoming party. Glad you got here safely, Greenfingers.” He smiles briefly at her before his expression becomes serious.

“War—Hothead.” Ethan nods at the superhero, whom he obviously knows. “Come in guys, the Commander’s going to start his briefing in five.”

4. Firestarter
(or the one with the high school clichés and predictable stereotypes)

Layla gets a note from Principal Powers’s office, which she pockets so that she can throw it in the recycling bin later. She’s glad enough to get out of class, where Mr Boy is in nostalgic mood. At the end of her freshman year, Layla put her name down as a buddy for new students because it was the right thing to do, and because she loves Sky High, as much for what it could be as for what it is. When school restarted, she was given a tiny freshie who could spit out fire balls. Even though most of the school knew Renee Richard as Little Richard, Layla made a point of calling her Renee.

It’s unusual for there to be a new student in the middle of the school year, but Sky High isn’t what you’d call your usual school. Layla tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear, straightens her clothes and knocks at the door.

Seated opposite Principal Powers is a guy with dark hair that’s long enough to tie back, maybe older than Layla and dressed nearly totally in black, with some red piping on his tee. Layla expects that the others will say he looks like a supervillain in training, but she doesn’t believe in judging a book by its cover. She approaches the desk at Principal Powers’ inviting gesture.

The guy has a blank expression on his face, but he’s definitely checking her out. Layla gives him a smile to show she’s friendly. His expression doesn’t change much, and he certainly doesn’t smile back, but something relaxes in his body language. Definitely not a supervillan in training, she decides, just someone who has had cause to be wary.

This is how, even before Principal Powers officially tells her to, Layla decides to befriend this new guy. His name is Warren Peace.

“Warren attended a regular school, but, er, it was decided that Sky High would be a better environment for him.” Principal Powers says.

“I was expelled.” Warren tells Layla later, after they leave the office.

“What for?” she asks, wondering if it was a miscarriage of justice.

“Setting things on fire,” he says, but Layla’s mom recently went through a phase of training Alsatians, so it doesn’t faze her.

“Oh, is that your power?” Layla answers. “How do you generate the fire? We’ve got one girl who spits fire balls here, Renee. I’ll introduce you to her later.”

He doesn’t say anything, so she keeps on talking, “I can control plants and my friend Magenta can turn into a guinea pig, her boyfriend can glow, his best friend is super strong and he can fly, and, well, you’ll fit right in, although if you burn down stuff you shouldn’t, you’ll end up in detention. Apparently the room neutralizes your abilities.”

“You’ve never been?” he asks, then answers himself. “No, of course, you’ve never been in detention.”

“Well, no.” Layla says. “I don’t like using my powers if it’s not necessary.”

“Great, they gave me Miss Perfect as a babysitter,” he mumbles, but she knows she was meant to hear him.

“We have half an hour before second period for me to show you the lay of the land,” Layla says calmly. “You’re going to fit right in.”

He stares at her as if he can’t believe her, but she’s sure that she’ll convince him by the end of the tour, and if not by then, by the end of the day.

“Come on, we’ll start with the nurse’s room...”

5. Bouquet
(or the one where they almost marry the wrong people)

What is he doing here? Warren has no good answer to the question. Here is the Maxville Registry Office, otherwise known as the assembly line for newlyweds. Two single people walk in at the front door, a married couple walks out.

He never thought he was the kind of guy to marry his high school sweetheart. And he wouldn’t call Liz a sweetheart either. She gives as good as she gets, and they’ve broken up more times than he can count. Yet, after he joined the fire department and faced his first serious blaze, when he and his team-mates failed to save an old woman’s life, he came back to Liz, seeking familiar comfort. Better her than a bottle. So it became a pattern that somehow became his life. Still doesn’t explain why he’s here, standing in line for some forms they have to fill in before they tie the knot.

He looks around, as if an answer is to be found in the halls of this bureaucratic palace. On first glance, he is surrounded by excited couples, but when he focuses, he sees that they’re not all smiling and together.

Take the couple ahead of him, for instance. The guy is talking on the phone, and given the stressed way he peppers his sentences with ‘Dad’, it seems like they’re here without parental approval. Warren hasn’t seen his own father since he walked out on them. His mom couldn’t get the day off to come and Liz’s parents have moved to Alaska. He guesses they’ll have to get someone to take photographs for them.

The fiancée, a pretty redhead, is leaning against a wall. She’s got the most amazing bouquet in her hands, although she’s holding it loosely, carelessly. Most of the brides-to-be here are carrying flowers, but this bouquet beats them all, and yet this woman looks like she could drop it on the tiled floor at any second. She is paler than the white flowers in it.

As if she senses him watching, her eyes meet his. Warren feels a flicker of attraction and feels like a total jerk about it, because what guy notices a pretty girl with a warming smile on own his wedding day?

He doesn’t smile back - Warren doesn’t smile on the best of days - but he nods his head in acknowledgement. She takes that as an invitation, even though nobody, from Liz to his captain, would describe Warren as approachable, and pushes herself off the wall to come to talk to him.

“Hi, are you here to get married too?” she asks.

He nods, not sure what to make of the friendliness in her voice. Is it an act? She seemed so worn down a second ago.

“Um, where’s your fiancée?” she asks.

“Bathroom,” Warren replies. Liz said she wanted to touch up her make-up. She isn’t wearing white – not like this girl – but she got a new dress. He’s wearing the best suit he owns, but only because Liz put it out. He booked today off, did what he had to do, but no more.

The line moves forward slightly.

“Busy day,” the woman says. “I told Will everyone would want to get married on Valentine’s Day. I never thought I’d be getting married on Valentine’s Day. I never really celebrated it. Did you know that the historical story about St Valentine is really sad?”

“No,” he says. “Figures.”

“This should be the—I should be excited. I’ve wanted this, well, not this, but to get married to Will almost since the first day I saw him. Was it like that for you?”

“No,” he replies, remembering how tentatively he’d taken Liz’s hand, the surprise of how cool it was. That kid didn’t know what he was doing.

“Maybe it isn’t for guys,” she says, not bothered by his monosyllables. “The same, I mean. I didn’t dream of nothing but my wedding though, like girls are stereotypically meant to, I just assumed—hoped that Will and I would—”

“Live happily ever after?” Warren says, looking at this Will, who now seems to be talking to his mother.

“Don’t you believe that you and your fiancée will?”

The question shakes him. Getting married means Liz will be entitled to certain benefits if something goes wrong on the job. As far as Liz is concerned, it means they’ll look for a better apartment; it’s why she was satisfied with a wedding like this. Warren hasn’t looked too far ahead, not to kids – he thinks he might make a terrible father and hopes Liz won’t suddenly start talking about making babies. The idea that a better apartment might mean a bigger one makes him uncomfortable. He can’t say that he’s visualized Liz and himself growing old together. He has always prided himself on his realism – he was never a dreamer like this girl before him – but now he wonders why never imagined that far ahead. Was it cowardice? Was it something else?

“I don’t know,” he tells her.

“Well, nobody knows, we just hope.”

“You’re a glass-half full person,” he says, but then remembers how she looked when he first saw her.

“And you’re a glass half-empty,” she responds, smiling, and he can’t but help smiling back.

“Liz is a glass half-empty too,” he says.

“That’s why you fit,” she says as if he’s just said something romantic.

He doesn’t know about that, he knows it’s why they fight. He has memories of his parents fighting, his peaceful mother shouting words like ‘evil’ and ‘destructive’ and his father saying worse. Measured by those standards, his fights with Liz don’t seem that bad, but he’s pretty sure that this woman wouldn’t use the same standards.

“What makes you and Will fit?” he asks, as the line inches forward again.

“Well, we know each other so well. We can make allowances. I know what he’s going to like before he does—“

“And he knows all your favorite stuff.” Warren finishes, thinking that making someone like her happy can’t be a tough assignment, but a rewarding one.

“Sure,” she says, and for all that he’s only had a few minutes’ conversation with her, Warren knows that this woman is lying. He looks over at her Will, who now has his back to them, and doesn’t seem to have noticed that his fiancée is talking to some guy, so intent is he on his phone conversation.

“The flowers you’re carrying,” Warren says, not wanting to call a stranger on a lie, not on what, as she nearly said, should be the most exciting day of her life, “they’re amazing. They must have cost—“

“Very little. Staff discount. I work at a flower shop. My boss said I should hand out cards to everyone here, but it’s kind of too late for any of them to run down to Eastside to buy a bouquet.”

He laughs a little at that. “You must have put a lot of work into it.”

She lifts the bouquet.

“Yeah,” she owns. “Every flower has a meaning. Roses are popular, but—“

“Oh my,” a woman interrupts them. Dressed in a formal navy skirt and jacket combination, she obviously works here. “Those are the most beautiful flowers I’ve seen, and believe me, I’ve been seeing a few in my own time as well. My daughter’s getting married in a few weeks, and we’ve seen nothing as exquisite as these.”

The bouquet-maker is blushing, and Warren is suddenly trying hard not to think thoughts about making her blush all over.

“Well, I had a hand in it myself,” she says. “Um, I work for Greenfingers, we’re based down Eastside, but we have a website and everything, if you’d like to look us up.”

“Greenfingers, Eastside. Oh, I will. Rebecca is going to be so relieved. Thank you. Now I’d better get going. Mazel tov, you two.”

They both stand frozen as the woman walks away.

“She thought we—“

“Uh, yeah.” Warren says. “But, you know, honest mistake. We’re standing together talking in line.” He notices how closely they’re standing together as he says these words and wonders how and when that happened. The scent of the flowers and the way she’s blushing are doing something to his head. He steps back a little abruptly.

“But we don’t even know each other’s names,” she says.

“I’m Warren Peace,” he says. “Good to meet you.”

“Layla Williams,” she replies, smiling. “Should we shake hands now?”

He’s close to laughing, and about to give her his hand, even, when he hears footsteps. He knows they belong to Liz, and turns around to greet her, feeling more irritated than anything, with guilt coming at its tail.

“Oh, you haven’t moved forwards much,” she says, like it’s his fault.

“It’s Valentine’s Day. A lot of people want to get married today.” Warren says. “I’ve been talking to Layla,” he turns to introduce her. Liz isn’t carrying flowers. Warren told her she looked beautiful that morning, but the bouquet in Layla’s hands gives the word new meaning.

“Hi,” Layla says.

“Hi, I’m Elizabeth. Congratulations, is your fiancé about?” Warren picks up on the edge to the question, even if Layla doesn’t, as she naturally enough points to Will – still on the phone and still not seeing what’s going on around him.

“That’s Will.” Layla says.

“How long have you been together?” Liz asks, and Warren hears the edge again.

“Six years, give or take. We started dating at junior prom. That is, it was our first date. It wasn’t meant to be a date. We were going as friends because the girl he’d meant to go with, well, he realized that was a mistake and we went.” Layla’s voice loses confidence and Warren knows the freezing expression on Liz’s face that caused that all too well.

“Smart guy,” Warren says, hoping to help Layla recover. “I guess you could say we started dating in senior prom.”

“Or we danced and then made out to be more exact.” Liz corrected him.

“People don’t expect it to last, do they?” Layla asks. “My best friend said I’d outgrow Will, but I think that’s got more to do with her issues with the guy she dated in high school. I think being able to grow up together means you’ll grow old together, doesn’t it?”

Warren wants to reassure her, but looks at Liz instead. He knows she’s tuned out and he knows too that when they finish talking to Layla, maybe as soon as her Will finishes on the phone, Liz is going to trash talk her for daring to be an optimist. But it’s all too rare that Warren comes across someone with a glass-half-full attitude, and maybe it’s just that it’s refreshing, but he doesn’t want to join in the demolition job. He admires Layla, even if he thinks her optimism and hope are founded on a jerk who still hasn’t hung up on his parent to pay attention to a woman who put in so many hours of thought and care into her bouquet. And then Warren knows he’s a hypocrite, thinking more about a woman he’s just met than the woman he’s too familiar with. A woman he realizes he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life with. It’s a fact, and he’s been refusing to acknowledge it.

Liz is staring back at him.

“What is it?” she asks, sounding curious and surprised, as if she’s never seen this look on his face before.

“Would you excuse us, Layla? Liz, come with me.” He doesn’t actually say ‘we need to talk’. He doesn’t even wait to see if Liz will follow him. He knows she’ll have to. He walks away from the line with a lightness of step that’s new, and every step he’s taking confirms that he’s doing the right thing.

He walks back into the registry office alone, the line hasn’t moved forward much – he has no idea how long he’s been outside - but there is no sign of Layla and her fiancé. Warren looks about, wondering if they’ve gone on to join another line or if they’re already exchanging vows, wondering if he’s making fool of himself like Liz claimed – Liz has nearly six years of knowing exactly how to wound him.

And then he hears a wave of gasps and sighs. The line shifts, with everyone looking at an official carrying a familiar bouquet in a vase. She sets it down in front of the desk with some care. Warren Peace leaves the registry office a single, smiling man.


Feedback is very welcome.


Sky High

July 2013

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