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Freefall

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Scott waited as patiently as he could, once Charles was installed in the plastic wheelchair and the door to the walkway had sealed behind him. The guards were staring at his visor. He smiled, briefly and not very nicely.

He couldn't read thoughts, but he thought he could have told anyone who asked what the guards were thinking: They don't pay me enough to deal with these mutants. Of course, no one got paid enough to deal with Magneto. He stared through the observation window, but all he could see were two forms, not apparently trying to kill each other. Great.

He tried to tell himself there was nothing to worry about. Of course, if there were nothing to worry about, Charles would have brought Jean. She was better at the talking parts (as opposed to the shooting parts).

And she'd probably get the professor to talk to her in the car on the way back to the school, rather than having an awkward silence while he tried to think of something to say other than You know, if Jean turned into a homicidal maniac and got locked up for trying to kill people, I don't think I'd enjoy visiting her, either.

He wasn't sure if he heard the shout, or only its echo in his head.

Scott!

He jerked his head up, and took a step toward the door. The guards moved to block him.

"What do you think you're-"

"Frankly, I have no idea," Scott said, touching his visor. The first guard fell, stunned. "But you're in my way." He dropped the other guard and hesitated for a minute. Door between me and Magneto. No door, Magneto out here. Bad.

The walkway shook, as if someone had hit the other end of it heavily. Well, hell.

He blasted the door.

He'd taken a step toward the door when he heard the running footsteps behind him, which probably saved his life. He ducked, and the woman went flying over his shoulder, hitting the wall and recovering with inhuman speed.

She was small and dark, in dark glasses. Much too heavy for her size. It should have been like throwing Kitty, and had felt more like throwing Logan. If she hit him, it was going to hurt.

She came at him again, holding her hands like weapons. He blasted her, intending to stun. She fell, rolled, came to her feet shaking it off. Struck a martial arts stance. Not good.

The professor should have been halfway down the walkway, should have been stopping her, stopping everyone. If Magneto had-the thought was interrupted by another pass. She kicked him in the stomach. He doubled over, hit the floor, tucked his shoulder, rolled, scrambled to his feet.

"Not that easy," he said. He blasted her again, full on. The force of it slammed her backwards into the wall, and her head went back in shock. Her chest was blistered and charred. Then, as he watched, the flesh crawled together again. Her head came forward, and she smiled.

She raised her hands, and each finger was tipped with a metal spike.

I'm in trouble, Scott thought, I'm really in trouble.

He caught movement in the walkway out of the corner of his eye, and turned to tell the professor to do the time-stop thing. Instead he found himself staring at Magneto.

He was bracing himself against the wall, his lips tight. He glanced at Scott, glanced at the woman, seemed to be trying to make a decision.

Scott's hand went to his visor. He hesitated, just for a moment.

Then he blasted the woman. She stumbled, and almost fell, and then her arms lifted like they had strings attached. Scott remembered this. He wasn't at all surprised when she slammed against the ceiling, arms and legs splayed, muscles straining as if she was fighting an invisible hand.

"Where is he?" Scott demanded.

Magneto jerked his head toward the walkway. Scott considered blasting him now, just to get a little more control over the situation, but then he'd have a super-healer with metal fingernails at his back who he really had no idea how to take out of action.

He cursed under his breath and ducked through the ruined door.

The professor was sprawled at the end of the walkway, unable to get up.

For a moment, Scott flashed on being sixteen; he'd found Charles after a bad attempt to manage a steep garden path in the chair that he still handled awkwardly. He was, even the pretty self-absorbed teenager Scott had been could tell, both humiliated and furious, although all he'd said was, very mildly, that he could use a bit of help.

He'd wondered afterwards why the professor had let him find him instead of, say, Jean, and had only realized years later that it was because he thought Scott cared less. He dropped to one knee, bending to offer a shoulder for support.

Charles tried to grip his arm and couldn't seem to find a purchase. Scott's stomach tightened. He felt the room start to blur a little, as if smudged by a thumbprint.

He looked back toward the guard room and found the way blocked by Magneto, who was walking slowly the walkway, with the woman dangling in front of him like a puppet.

"Get out of the way," Magneto said, to Charles. Charles nodded. Scott got him up and took a step back, straining to support Charles's nearly dead weight and trying not to breathe. Magneto waved a hand and threw the woman against one wall of the prison, sending books and a chessboard flying.

Scott had no idea how to keep him in the cell when they left, and wasn't sure if he should even try.

"Get us out of here," Charles said, and he took that to mean he didn't have to.

"Okay," he said. "Let's go."

There were the sounds of running footsteps when they got out into the guard room. Somewhere an alarm was sounding. Scott got the professor back into his own wheelchair and spun to cover the door.

Just as the first guards reached the wide double doors that led into the guard room, they slammed shut. Magneto smiled at the doors. Scott wouldn't have wanted to be on the other side of them if they'd opened again.

"Blast the walkway," Magneto said without looking at Scott.

"Why?"

"So that when she wakes up, she won't be able to get out," Magneto said.

He couldn't argue with that. He blasted it. The whole room smelled of burning plastic. Scott hoped there wasn't a sprinkler system.

"What the hell is going on?" he said.

Charles had moved to a computer terminal, his hands moving rapidly over the keys.

"We've triggered multiple alarms," he said without looking up from the screen. "I've locked out the door controls, but that's all I can do from here." He raised his head to look at Magneto. "It was a trap."

"Of course it was a trap," Magneto said.

"Stryker," Charles said to Scott, who was beginning to want to shake one of them. "He's after Cerebro."

There was the noise of someone shooting at the door.

"That won't hold up long," Charles said.

"We could get out through the ceiling," Scott said. "Metal. Or I could blast it."

Magneto looked up.

"We could get out through the ceiling," he said. "I can't lift you."

"Open the doors, Erik," Charles said, calmly. Magneto looked at him sharply, then waved a hand at the doors.

Outside them it was very quiet. Half a dozen guards, guns drawn, were frozen in various attitudes of alarm and anger. With a wave of Magneto's hand, their guns jerked toward the walls, and they toppled backwards or sideways along with them.

"Let's go," Charles said.

It occurred to Scott as he followed the professor down the hall, watching people they passed freeze to statues and doors crumple like aluminum foil, that he wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of either of them right now, which sucked because he was pretty sure they weren't on the same side.

Out in the parking lot, it was still eerily quiet, but he could hear an alarm sounding behind them.

"I can't hold them all for long," Charles said.

"Fine," Scott said. "Let's just get in the car."

There was a ramp between them and the car. Magneto leaned heavily against the low brick wall at the edge of the parking lot as Charles negotiated it. He'd been in there with the gas or whatever it was too. Scott had thought it hadn't gotten to him as much, but watching him he thought now that it had.

They got to the bottom of the ramp, and for a moment Scott wasn't sure Magneto was going to make it to the car. Then he lifted his head and saw them, and his shoulders straightened as if he'd been lifted by the same invisible strings he'd used on the girl with the claws.

"Well, come on," Magneto said, and strode toward the car. When he was within six feet of it, he gestured imperiously, and the trunk and doors slammed open.

"Erik, don't wreck my car," Charles said. "I'm very fond of it."

"Everybody just get in the car," Scott said. He helped the professor in, and turned to glare at Magneto, who was standing watching with an odd expression. "And by that I mean you."

Magneto got in the car. The door slammed. Scott was careful to keep his hands free of the trunk, which slammed shut the moment he had the wheelchair stowed.

Scott slid behind the wheel. He started the car, shoved it into reverse, and peeled out of the parking lot.

"Now what?" he said.

"We have to get back to the school," Charles said.

Scott pulled out and turned down the street. He could hear sirens rising over the traffic noise.

"Oh, shit," he said.

"Language," Charles said, apparently by reflex.

"What, for my benefit?" Magneto said.

Definitely a lot of sirens, getting nearer. Scott said some worse things, but under his breath this time.

There was a bar on the corner, a dive with a flickering neon sign out front. People were coming out the front door, looking around like they were ready to bolt if the sirens turned out to be for anyone there. Scott stopped the car at the light on the corner, because there was a steady stream of cars through the intersection.

A blond girl in an incredible vinyl miniskirt came out the door of the bar, looking around like everyone else, and then stopped dead, looking at the car like she'd never seen one before. Then she smiled, a smile that somehow drew fingernails down Scott's spine, and came over to tap on the window.

"Can a girl get a ride around here?" she said.

"Look, we're in a hurry-" Scott said, and then the back driver's side door opened. Magneto leaned out, grabbed the girl by the wrist, and pulled her into the car. He was, Scott realized, smiling like he'd just been given a present.

"What are you doing here?" Magneto asked the girl, settling back in his seat with her pulled tightly to his side.

"Scouting."

A car behind them honked, and Scott realized the light had changed. He pulled forward briskly and glanced in the rear-view mirror. The girl had eyes for no one but Magneto, who was stroking her hair. Scott looked over at the professor in what he hoped was an unspoken what the hell?

"Mystique," Charles murmured.

"Xavier," Mystique said. "William Stryker's after you. He's building a second Cerebro."

"That's what I was afraid of," Charles said.

Scott drove slowly. He didn't want to attract any attention, especially not in a car carrying an escaped terrorist and registered to the man who was certainly now the prime suspect for breaking said escaped terrorist out of a federal prison.

"He thinks he can make you use it, with some kind of drug," Mystique said.

"He can," Magneto said. That got several beats of silence.

"Erik-" Charles started, in a tone of voice that made Scott feel he wasn't entirely focusing on the problem at hand.

"We have to get back to the school," Scott said. He glanced back at Mystique, who wasn't his choice of allies but was at least the only other person in the car not under the influence of any drugs.

"Stryker has high-up government backing," she said. "I've been into his files. He has a secret base, where he's been doing-" Her eyes flicked to Magneto for a second, almost too quick for Scott to be sure he'd seen it. "Experiments."

"You really think he'll try to get into the school?"

"He has authorization to bring you all in for questioning. Including the children."

"Professor, I think you should call back Storm and Jean," Scott said.

"I think you're right," Charles said, reaching for the phone. He tapped at it for a minute, and then looked relieved. "Jean. I need you back at the school at once. There's going to be trouble." He listened. "Yes, good, bring him with you, but hurry. I have reason to believe there's going to be a government raid. Apparently William Stryker would like to get his hands on Cerebro." Listening again. "Yes, we'll be there as soon as we can." He lowered the phone. "They're on their way."

"You didn't tell her?" Scott said. Charles glanced toward the back seat.

"It's a little much to explain over the phone."

"See if you can get Logan. Warn him."

Charles nodded, signaling that he was doing just that. Then a shadow passed across his face.

"I can't get through at all. The lines have been cut."

"Can't you drive any faster?" Magneto said.

Scott drove faster.

"I hope you have security precautions I don't know about," Magneto said, to Charles.

"A few," Charles said.

"Logan," Scott said.

"Oh. Well." Magneto turned up his hands. "In that case-"

After that the car ride got fairly quiet. Mystique was draped almost in Magneto's lap, her head on his shoulder; now and then they talked in low tones. Scott thought about telling her to put a seatbelt on, and decided it was her funeral.

Charles kept trying to call Jean and Ororo. He wasn't talking. Scott couldn't think of anything to say.

Ten miles from the school they hit the first roadblock. Scott slowed down the car and stopped. A flashlight shone in the windows. Their license plate was clearly visible.

"Do something about this," Magneto said.

The flashlight beam stopped. Around the car, people froze. The roadblock slid out of the way, metal supports scraping on the pavement. Scott drove on through.

There were lights in the air, helicopters.

"This is only going to get worse," Scott said.

"We should turn around," Mystique said.

"No," Magneto said, looking out the window.

Scott waited for the professor to argue.

"We're going to the school," Charles said.

Scott drove. It was an odd feeling. The car was a bubble, and inside, time worked. Outside, people froze around them.

"Can't you just make them let us through?" Scott said.

"There are too many of them," Charles said. "And my head's still not clear."

Scott wondered, if that was true, how long Charles could keep this up. He didn't see any point in asking. If his telepathy failed them, it wasn't as if they could turn around and go back.

They reached the gates of the school, which had police tape across them and were chained and padlocked. Charles flinched at nothing Scott could see, and Scott frowned at him.

"Are you okay?"

Charles nodded, but he was looking at the gates. As Scott watched, they twisted as if bent by an invisible hand, and then tore apart, smashing into the walls with a noise that made Scott groan.

"Why not just take out an ad in the paper?" he said.

"We're too late," Charles said, barely more than a whisper.

"No," Magneto said. Scott wondered who he was trying to convince.

Scott pulled around the end of the drive. Guards were moving around in the dark, flashlights making patterns on the lawn. There were broken windows up and down the sides of the house, broken glass on the lawn. Helicopters on the roof.

"We're too late," Charles said again.

Scott's first reaction was to be glad Jean hadn't gotten there yet, followed by a rush of shame at the thought. But Logan had been there. How the hell would anyone take Logan down? He wasn't letting himself think about the kids.

"None of the children are here," Charles said.

"If they were unconscious?" Magneto said.

"I don't know, Erik. There are too many of them."

"What about Cerebro?"

"I don't know."

"We have to get inside," Magneto said. "Find out if they've taken Cerebro."

"I'll go," a man's voice said. Scott looked back. Mystique was now a soldier in olive drab, still incongruously draped over Magneto's shoulder.

Magneto patted her on the arm.

"Good girl." He started to get out of the car.

"You're wearing white," Scott said. "You're awfully conspicuous."

"How unfortunate for someone," Magneto said.

"You'll get us all killed," Charles said.

"Just because you're trapped in this car-"

Scott met Mystique's eyes. She slipped away from the car and across the lawn.

"I'm not trapped, Erik," Charles said. "I'm in the safest place we've got, waiting to find out what the situation is."

"I'm tired of waiting in a safe place."

"It doesn't look like you've been in one," Charles said.

There was a beat of silence.

"Are you sure you're in one now?" Magneto said.

Okay, that was a threat. He'd somehow thought they had an unspoken truce that included no one making any threats. Well, that meant he didn't have to watch his mouth, either. Joy.

"Watch it," Scott said. "I swear to God I will blast you so hard you'll wake up next week."

"You know I could stop you," Charles said.

"But will you?" Magneto said.

"What the fuck is this?" Scott said. "We are so not doing this right now! Look, I could go in."

The other two were looking at each other. Scott was beginning to wonder if as far as those two were concerned he was even in the car.

"All right," Magneto said after a minute. "We'll wait for Mystique to get back."

Scott wasn't sure why he even tried to be part of this conversation. He rested his head on the steering wheel for a few seconds. It was cool against his forehead.

"You guys just stay in the car," he said. "I'll just go far enough that I can see what's going on. Don't go anywhere."

He got out of the car and shut the door as quietly as he could. He dropped down to the cover of a line of shrubs and watched the guards crossing the lawn. There were a hell of a lot of them.

He wished he could get closer, which possibly just meant he wished he could get farther away from the car. It seemed like whatever they had to say to each other was going to be in the realm of things you don't want witnesses for. Besides, Scott was trying very hard to look at the school and not feel anything, and that was hard when every line of the professor's body was screaming the horror he wouldn't let touch his voice or his eyes.

Scott tensed and froze, only aware after he did that he was reacting to movement too close, somewhere down the line of bushes. Close enough to have a clear shot. And his backup was-he glanced back at the car-pretty unreliable at the moment. He tried not to move or breathe, willing the moving shape away.

There was a soft popping noise, the smell of sulfur, and the confused impression of black hair, blue skin, white teeth, quick movement, arms going around his waist. There was a soft popping noise, and he wasn't in the bushes at all.

He was among the trees fifty yards away, on his face, pushed heavily down into the pine straw. He tried to free himself and got a lungful of blue smoke. He sat up, trying to keep low, out of the lights. The blue man was crouched watching him.

"Neat trick," Scott said. The blue man shrugged.

"I did not know if you would talk to me."

"I'm listening," Scott said. He moved so he could still see the car.

"Are you with them?" The blue man indicated the soldiers patrolling with a twitch of his head and his . . . tail.

Scott tapped his visor.

"Mutant. No."

The blue man shook his head.

"Show me the back of your neck."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I must see. And if you are afraid I will get the . . . drop on you-"

There was a soft popping noise. A hand tapped Scott's shoulder. Another brushed the back of his neck. He turned, hit him hard without thinking. His fist went through a cloud of blue smoke.

"Listen-"

"I know what has happened here," the soft, heavily accented voice said from ten feet away. Scott looked, but could barely make out the man's face in the shadows. "I know what has happened to Storm and Jean Grey."

"Jean?" Scott shook his head. "What happened?"

"They landed. Dr. Grey said someone must . . . answer questions. So they will not fear. So they will clear up misunderstanding." He shrugged again. "No one is asking questions. They shoot them, with-" He touched the side of his neck. "With darts." He frowned. "I am sorry now that I do not think to take one of them with me when I go. But it happens so fast, and then they are in helicopter."

"Stryker took them away. In a helicopter." Scott heard the crack in his own voice, wondered about it.

"Is that who has done all this?"

"We've got to tell the professor. Come on," Scott said. He turned when he realized no one was following him. The blue man had his back pressed up against a tree. He was looking out at the lights, at the soldiers moving across the lawn.

"It's all right," Scott said, with his most reassuring smile. "We're the good guys."

They got back to the line of shrubs, and Scott stopped the blue man with a hand on his shoulder, pointed to the car.

"Wait here."

He slipped across the to the car, tapping on the driver's side window. Plenty of warning, no sudden movements. He waited impatiently. It seemed to take far too long for the door to unlock.

He slid behind the wheel and shut the door. Charles was examining the dashboard as if it were interesting, and Magneto was staring pointedly out the window, but they didn't seem to have killed each other. Good.

"They have Storm and Jean," he said.

Charles and Magneto looked at each other.

"Can she use it?" Magneto said.

"Yes," Charles said, his voice distant. "But Jean would never-"

"Betray you?"

There was a pause.

"What did you find out?" Charles said to Scott.

"I met someone. He knows what happened. He's a teleporter. That's how he escaped when they were captured."

"The one who attacked the president," Charles said.

"Where is he?" Magneto said. Scott rolled down the window slightly, made a beckoning gesture. There was a soft popping noise, and the smell of smoke.

"Hello," the blue man said shyly from the back seat. "I am Kurt Wagner."

"So you're the one who caused so much trouble," Magneto said. "Interesting."

"I did not mean to," Kurt said.

"I don't sense Jean here," Charles said. Scott shook his head.

"He said Stryker took them away in a helicopter." He turned to Kurt. "Any idea where?"

Kurt shook his head.

"I saw. I did not hear."

"Were you at Stryker's base?" Magneto said.

"He doesn't remember," Charles said, looking into Kurt's eyes. "Which makes me think he was."

There was a tap on the back window. Scott nearly blasted it.

"Easy, Scott," Charles said. He unlocked the doors again. Mystique opened Magneto's door, her soldier's shape shifting back, not to the blonde, but to blue skin and scales. She climbed into Magneto's lap, who rewarded her with a smile and then shifted her into the center seat.

Something about the way Magneto's smile tightened as he did it told Scott he was injured. He hadn't said a word about it. Scott frowned and filed that.

Mystique glanced at Kurt curiously, but turned to Magneto.

"They've been in Cerebro," she said. "There are pieces missing. There are soldiers dead and wounded being evacuated. They took prisoners. They're gone now. Some of the children escaped."

"Then Logan's probably with them," Scott said. "We've got to go after Jean and Ororo."

"He'll take them to the second Cerebro," Magneto said.

"Why are you so sure?" Scott asked.

"He doesn't have me, so he'll try to use Jean," Charles said.

"To find us," Scott said. "Or . . . kill us." His hands tightened on the steering wheel.

"We'll be just the start," Magneto said.

"We have to stop Stryker," Charles said.

"I think we're all agreed on that," Scott said.

"Excuse me," Kurt said from the back seat. "You are all X-Men?"

There was a general pause.

"It's complicated," Scott said. "And we don't have a lot of time. We've got to get out of here."

"We won't catch up to them in a car," Mystique said. "We could take one of their helicopters."

"The jet is here," Scott said. "But it'll be under guard."

"I think not on the inside," Kurt said.

Scott thought about it, and grinned.

"We could just walk across the lawn," Magneto said. "If anyone got past Charles, they wouldn't get past me."

"Thanks, but I'll pass," Scott said. "Kurt, can you do it?"

"I would have to be able to see the plane," Kurt said. "It was over there."

"On the basketball court?"

Kurt shrugged, then nodded. "I think so."

"All right. If you went there, and then there, I think then you could see."

"I will try," Kurt said, playing with his tail nervously. He looked at the first spot Scott had pointed out, in the shadow of a corner of the school, and then vanished in a wreath of smoke. Flicker of blue at the first spot. Flicker of blue at the second. Nothing, for a long moment that made Scott scowl. Flicker of blue at the second spot. Flicker of blue at the first spot.

"Yes, I can do it, easy," Kurt said, appearing back in the car. "So . . . you want me to come with you?"

"Absolutely," Charles said. "You may be the key to finding Stryker and stopping all of this."

Kurt nodded slowly.

"All right," he said. "Who will be first, then?"

"I'll go," Mystique said.

Kurt turned toward her, and then hesitated. Scott thought he was really taking in the fact that she was naked for the first time.

"Forgive me, fraulein," he said. "I must . . ." Mystique looked amused, and posed as he put his arms around her gingerly. They disappeared.

Scott got the professor's chair for him. Magneto got out of the car and waited, apparently with minimal patience. Kurt reappeared, took in the wheelchair with a twitch of his eyebrows, turned to Magneto.

"No," Scott said. "Take the professor first."

"Such a suspicious young man you are," Magneto said.

"Can you manage the chair?" Charles asked. Kurt smiled nervously.

"Well, we will see, yes?" he said. Charles smiled back.

"We certainly will."

He and Kurt vanished. The chair went with them. Scott and Magneto looked at each other.

"Do you really think we would take off without you?" Magneto said.

"Just making sure," Scott said.

"I'm not your enemy," Magneto said.

"You tried to kill me."

"I did not try to kill you," Magneto said. "If I had, you would be dead, and I would not have had the pleasure of six months of your government's hospitality."

"Sorry to say I prefer it this way."

"Would it kill you to say 'thank you?'"

"For not killing me?"

"For helping you with the young lady with the adamantium fingernails."

"I broke you out of prison," Scott said.

"After you put me there," Magneto said. "Make up your mind."

Kurt reappeared.

"Are you ready?" he said.

Kurt took Magneto first, leaving Scott holding his breath and hoping no one noticed the flickering blue he could just see across the lawn. Kurt came back for Scott, and after a moment of dizziness and a choking lungful of smoke he found himself on the Blackbird.

He headed for the pilot's seat.

"It's going to be noisy when I start warming up the engines," he said.

"Then do it when we're safely in the air," Magneto said.

"You can do that?"

In answer, the jet lifted off the ground.

"A copilot would be nice," Scott said, running madly through the pre-flight checklist.

Mystique dropped gracefully into the copilot's chair.

"Professor?" Scott said hopefully.

"He's busy," Magneto said. "Or so I assume from the fact no one's shooting at us."

"Strap yourself in," Mystique said to Kurt. He nodded, and started trying to figure out the buckle of his the seat harness. She glanced at Scott out of the corner of her eye, her head bent over the instrument panel. "I know what I'm doing."

"She does," Magneto said.

Scott started warming up the engines.

It took longer than he liked to get the plane moving under its own power; he'd never practiced taking off from mid-air. Finally he picked up enough speed. There was a sigh from behind him, and the plane began responding normally to the controls.

"Where are we going?" Mystique said.

"Well, isn't that the question," Scott said.

"If we're fighting telepaths, I'd like some protection," Magneto said. "Where are my things?"

"In a safe place," Mystique said. She hesitated, and then said, "Nowhere you knew about. An apartment in Maryland."

"I think that's our first stop," Magneto said.

"We have to find out where Stryker's base is," Charles said.

"I have told Jean Grey, I do not remember," Kurt said. "I am sorry."

Charles smiled at Kurt. He looked tired, the smile not quite reaching his eyes.

"I may be able to help you remember. Come in the back, where it's quieter."

Magneto followed them. Scott handed the controls over to Mystique with a shrug.

"You know where you're going," he said. "I don't."

"We'll have to set down somewhere and borrow a car," she said. "Short work for Erik."

"Hey, I know how to hotwire a car," Scott said. "Not that I would. Except in an emergency."

"I think this is one," Mystique said. She kept her eyes on the controls, a neutral smile on her face. Scott wished Jean were there. Jean would know what she was thinking. "But I also think we have to stop and rest." She shrugged her head back toward the cargo bay. "Some of us aren't as young as they used to be."

"We have to find Stryker," Scott said.

"We have to be practical," Mystique said. "Erik and Xavier will drive themselves until they're in no shape to stop him."

"We should be figuring out a plan," Scott said. "Not just go charging in."

"I thought that was a specialty of yours," Mystique said, but she was smiling.

"You're thinking of Logan."

"My mistake."

The cockpit door slid open, revealing an apologetic-looking Kurt.

"May I come in?" he said.

"Of course," Mystique said, which Scott thought took some nerve since it wasn't her plane.

Kurt slipped into one of the chairs.

"Nothing," he said. "Pictures, only. A metal room like in a hospital. Many men." He frowned. "Things they did. But not where it was done."

"Damn," Scott said. "Well, he's been controlling people for hours. He's tired." He glanced at Mystique. "So we're going to go rest."

"That is good," Kurt said.

"I'm Scott," Scott said. "They call me Cyclops."

"I am Kurt Wagner," Kurt said. "But in the Munich circus, I was called the Amazing Nightcrawler." He looked proud.

"This is Mystique," Scott said. "And you've met Professor Xavier and Magneto."

"That building-it was a school?"

"Yes," Scott said, trying to force away images of his children frightened and running in bare feet over broken glass. "Yes, it was a school."

"Why then did they do this?"

"Because this is what they do," Mystique said.

"They wanted a machine," Scott said. "A very powerful machine called Cerebro. The professor uses it to find mutants. To help them. If Stryker has it, Stryker can find mutants and kill them."

"You think he will make Dr. Jean use this machine," Kurt said. "With the drug he used to make me fight."

"I hope not," Scott said.

"You care for her," Kurt said.

"How did you know?" Scott said.

Kurt shrugged. "I watch. I see."

"We'll be on the ground in half an hour," Mystique said.

"Make yourself comfortable," Scott said to Kurt. "Or you can stretch out back there, if you want."

Kurt ran his tail through one hand.

"If it is all the same to you, I will stay up here," he said.

Mystique drove the rental car they'd borrowed-Scott preferred to think of it as borrowed, anyway-from a deserted rental lot. She had shifted into a middle-aged woman with streaks of gray in her brown hair and a plain face. "I'm a clerk in Senator Kelly's office," she said, in a disinterested voice not her own. "No one looks twice at women like me."

There was practically no traffic. Scott couldn't help noticing when they passed a donut shop advertising coffee 24 hours a day. Stryker had Jean, and that wasn't something he could stand to think about, but he could think about how much he needed a cup of coffee. Scott tried to remember dinner, and couldn't. He thought they might have missed it in the rush.

Mystique pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript apartment complex, the kind that tended to be called something like Pine Woods despite having had every tree bulldozed during construction. Sad-looking shrubs drooped along the sidewalk. The apartment itself was, irritatingly, on the third floor of a building with no elevators and narrow stairs.

"It will be safer if I go up first, and see the inside," Kurt said. Apparently he and Charles had worked something out without words. "Then I come back for you, Herr Professor."

Kurt pulled his coat up over his ears-not, Scott thought, much of a disguise, even with the tail under the coat-and followed Mystique up the stairs. At least none of the neighbors seemed to be awake. The sky was slowly lightening in the east.

Magneto got out of the car when Scott did, and stood looking impatiently up at the apartment.

"I don't see you offering to help," Scott said.

"You have only to ask," Magneto said mildly. "No? Then I will get indoors." He plucked at his sleeve in distaste. "And out of these clothes."

After Kurt returned for the professor, Scott got the bedrolls they'd brought from the plane out of the trunk and jogged up the stairs. When he got inside, he locked the deadbolt and put the chain on the door for good measure. He knew it was irrational, since none of it would stop a military assault, but it made him feel better. He wondered about coffee.

The apartment was small, with a living room open to a tiny galley kitchen, and a hall that seemed to open on a bathroom and two bedrooms. It had beige carpet and bland matching furniture in navy blue and brown. A nice computer setup with a coffee cup next to it was one of the only signs that anyone ever actually spent time here.

It was badly set up for someone who used a wheelchair. Scott reminded himself that most of the world was. The hall was narrow and the bathroom door impossible. Charles accepted Scott's help with a grace Scott didn't think he'd be able to match.

"There are worse things than bruised dignity," Charles said.

"You know, I hate it when Jean reads my mind like that," Scott said. He was going to have to practice picking people up in a way that didn't make him worry that he was going to drop them.

"Don't worry," Charles said. "We'll get her back."

"Is there any point in me actually talking in this conversation?" Scott said. He put Charles down on the sofa. Charles gave him a wry smile.

"You're being very loud. And I'm very tired."

"Get some sleep," Scott said. "I'll stay up."

A door slammed shut and there was the sound of the shower running. Mystique came in from the back bedroom, naked and blue. She tossed him a quilt, soft and heavy and obviously hand-made. He looked at her curiously. She shrugged.

"A hobby."

Scott passed the quilt to Charles and rubbed his forehead, wondering where Kurt had gone. Mystique nodded her head toward the second bedroom, and then retreated to the back room, shutting the door behind her.

The bedroom was bare except for an open closet with hanging clothes. Kurt was asleep, wrapped in one of the bedrolls, and had obviously laid out the other one for Scott. Scott gathered up the other bedroll.

The door to the other bedroom was shut when he came out. The light was on under the door, but turned off as he watched. He went back into the living room and found Charles already asleep on the sofa. The apartment was very quiet.

He slipped his shoes off and padded into the kitchen, looking for food. The refrigerator contained non-dairy creamer and ketchup. The cupboards were bare. Scott gave up and went back to the living room, spreading out the bedroll on the floor and stretching out on it. He meant to only close his eyes for a minute.

He woke up to the smell of coffee brewing.

The sun was well up. When he glanced at his watch, it was after ten. Charles was nowhere to be seen, but Scott could hear low voices from the bedroom. He decided it sounded safe enough and went into the kitchen, where Mystique was stirring creamer into a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. She looked at him with cool yellow eyes.

"Coffee?" she said.

He almost said he wasn't in the habit of starting his mornings by having coffee with naked blue women who'd tried to kill him, but bit his tongue and poured a cup instead.

She offered him the creamer. He shook his head.

"Not unless it's real milk."

"I wasn't expecting company," she said.

"Where's Charles?"

"Reading Kurt's mind," Mystique said. "Or so they said. He told me not to interrupt." She sipped her coffee, and looked at Scott speculatively over the rim of the cup. "Are you and Xavier lovers?"

"What?" Scott said, spilling his own coffee. "No."

She shrugged.

"You've been looking after him. I wondered."

"I'm engaged. And straight."

She shrugged again. "So?"

"So, no," he said, amused despite himself. She looked skeptical. "Jean doesn't share," he added.

"Pity," Mystique said.

"Not a chance," Scott said.

"I'm not serious," she said.

"You'd better not be," Scott said. "If you really thought that while Jean-" He put his coffee cup down hard, picked it up again, paced across the kitchen. Mystique watched him quietly. "If he makes her use it," Scott said, "he could kill her. Or she could kill us."

"Not Erik," Mystique said.

"You'll forgive me if I don't find that very comforting," Scott said.

"Do you really want to fight among ourselves?" Mystique said. "It's pointless. You know that."

"Last time we met, we tried talking," Scott said. "Magneto wasn't in the mood to listen."

"I wouldn't know," Mystique said. She shifted position so he could see three neat scars on the curve of her stomach. "Logan's arguments were persuasive."

"That's Logan for you," Scott said.

"He's good," Mystique said. "I was impressed."

"Whatever," Scott said.

There was a shrill noise. Scott jumped before recognized it as his own phone. He pulled it out of his pocket.

"Hello," he said, hoping it wasn't one of Stryker's people calling from the school. They'd tried hard to make the phones untraceable, but ultimately there was no such thing.

"Scott?" the voice at the other end said cautiously.

"Logan! Where are you?"

"Never thought I'd be glad to hear you," Logan said.

"Logan-"

"I'm at Bobby Drake's house, with Bobby and Rogue and their friend John. We could use a ride."

"What about the other kids?"

"They got out through the tunnels. I don't know where they went."

"I thought you were watching them."

"You think you could have done better, you're welcome to go up to the school and try."

"Been there, done that," Scott said. "I'm here with the professor and . . . some friends. We'll swing by in the jet and pick you up on our way to find Stryker."

"Who is Stryker? What the hell is going on?"

"Just sit tight," Scott said. "Try not to get in trouble."

He hung up on Logan's creative swearing.

He looked up as the professor came around the corner in his chair, with Kurt at his shoulder. "I found Logan," Scott said. "He's in Boston."

"Stryker is at Alkali Lake," Charles said. "I thought that installation had been cleared out for good."

"So did I," Magneto said, appearing behind them. He was dressed head to foot in black, and looked ten years younger. "But appearances can be deceiving."

"We need a plan," Charles said.

"We can talk about it in the car," Scott said. "And get breakfast." He expected an argument about the latter. There was, instead, a pause that resolved itself into a sort of embarrassed wordless agreement that no one felt up to taking on Stryker on nothing but coffee.