SALEM CENTER, NEW YORK STATE, 200X AD.
It was a dark and stormy night. It shouldn't have been, since it was summer, but the bad weather had an obvious explanation: Ororo Monroe, weather controller, was out of control, too distressed to stop her emotions from showing on the sky. They were all distressed, sitting in Professor Xavier's office while he was using Cerebro to search through the entire mutant population. There were thousands of mutants out there, but only three he wanted to find.
Jean, being the only other telepath, sensed it when Xavier's mind left Cerebro, and she reached out with a question: *Have you found them?*
The answer was negative, and Jean sank back into her chair, disappointed. Scott could sense her emotions and his face turned into a deep scowl while his hand squeezed her shoulder. The others, watching him, quickly figured out the answer as well. Logan muttered a curse under his breath.
"Please, Logan, not in front of the kids," Scott said. But he was affected too. Usually he wouldn't have said "please".
"That's okay," Bobby said. "I feel like cursing too."
The young boy had tears in his eyes. Ever since Hank McCoy had returned to the mansion, the distinguished MD and the class clown had formed a friendship rare between people so different in age and personality.
Or maybe not so rare after all. Logan's arm around Rogue's shoulder was a sign of another one. Although they were always affectionate, the gesture showed how shook up they were -- Rogue was usually very cautious with touches.
Clouds were gathering outside, and soon it was pouring. Ororo paced back and forth, unable to control her emotions and the physical manifestation of them.
When Xavier returned to the office, they all turned to the open door, but there was no hope in their faces. He wheeled up to his desk, rested his palms on the shiny surface, and sighed deeply.
"He's not dead!" Bobby's voice was hard. "He can't be. I know he's not."
"I'm inclined to agree with you," the professor said slowly. "I couldn't find any of them. Magneto can shield his mind from me, and Hank, as you said, could be... dead. But I couldn't find Mystique either. That indicates that they're hiding somewhere. If I only knew where. The last place Magneto used his powers was the supermarket at Washington Street two days ago."
Ororo couldn't help but making a wry face. She remembered that supermarket more than well. It was down the block from Forge's. All those times she had run down to buy breakfast there after a night in his apartment... stop it! This was a serious situation, and all she could think about was her ex? Her X. Funny. Something suddenly struck her. She remembered the last time she had spoken to Forge, that was, actually spoken, not yelled. There had been quite a lot of yelling lately. She had avoided him lately just to give the people of Salem Center *some* sunshine. The last time they had spoken civilly he had been talking about a new device of his that could track some sort of weaknesses in time. As usual, he didn't seem quite certain himself on how it worked, but she remembered that they had joked about how this could be the first step to a time machine. He had gotten that look in his eyes that meant that he was thinking, or, more accurately, that his mind was beginning to work, with or without his consent.
Ororo was actually beginning to feel a little bit worried. Due to his fascination in technology, Forge was rather vulnerable to Magneto's metal control. If Forge had made some sort of time machine, and if Magneto knew about it or found out, and if Magneto knew where Forge lived... it was a lot of ifs, but it seemed more than likely. And that meant that they could be well alive and hiding, while Cerebro still considered them dead. It wasn't a question about *where* they were hiding but...
"...When," she said out loud.
The others turned to look at her. She shook her head, not sure if her conclusions were correct, but she had a feeling they were.
"I'm going to Forge's place."
OUTSIDE SWEETWATER, NEBRASKA TERRITORY, 1861 AD
Cody was riding through the woods, allowing his horse to slow down a little. They were both tired, and even if they took it easy, they would still make it back to Sweetwater in time for dinner. Since he wasn't carrying any mail, he was in no hurry.
This job had been hard on him, even by the riders' strange standards. They were supposed to be mail couriers, after all, not deputies of the law trying to pursue the guilty with one hand and stop the hanging of the innocent with the other. He wondered why Teaspoon had sent him. Even though he liked to claim otherwise, he knew he wasn't the strongest or smartest of the rider.
Charm. That was probably what it came down to. Charm and a quick tongue. This had required more sweet-talking and half-truths than anything else, and he did have some sort of gift for that. Jimmy would have tried to shoot his way through all problems, Buck, Ike and Noah were often faced with prejudice, Kid -- well, people listened to Kid, but he did have a tendency to put on a know-it-all attitude, and that annoyed them. So it was down to him or Lou, and Lou was on a run. It did feel good to have a talent, even if it was less useful than fast riding or a good aim.
Cody sighed and turned left. He would be home soon. Further down the road, there was something by a tree, something rather large. Cody couldn't tell for sure, since the leaves were shadowing it, but it looked blue. What on earth could it be? His curiosity got the better of him and he hurried his horse a little to get closer to it. It looked like some kind of beast, but if it was, it was certainly not any he had seen before. He recalled the strange camel thing they had seen a while ago, maybe this was another foreign animal like that?
When he got closer, he was startled to see the size of the blue beast. It turned its head and looked straight at him, with intelligent eyes.
"Could you have the kindness to help me loose?" it said.
Cody screamed like a girl and hurried his horse. Gunfighters and robbers he could handle, Indians weren't a problem, but huge talking blue things were too much for him.
The blue beast sighed and leaned back towards the tree. This would be an uncomfortable night.
Since the horse was just as frightened as Cody, they arrived to the station within minutes, both sweaty and panting. Rachel came out of the bunk house and looked disapprovingly at the young man.
"What have you done to that poor horse?" she complained. Then she saw his terrified expression. "Did something happen?"
"Rachel... You're not going to believe this..." Cody pulled his hand over his face, trying to wipe the sweat away. "There was a huge beast in the woods... Big, blue thing... And it talked to me!"
He was right. She didn't believe him.
"Forge?" Ororo was calm enough as she walked up the stairs, but when she saw the brand new door to Forge's apartment she wasn't calm anymore. The last time she went here the door had been steel. Now it wasn't, it wasn't even an ordinary wooden one. It was hardened plexiglass. Well, to look at it from the bright side, at least it wasn't the old door bent and melted down.
"Forge, are you in there?!"
No doorbell. Great. Just because Forge was a genius, he obviously thought he didn't have to use his head. She pounded on the door. "Forge?"
Nothing. She sat down on the stairs and wondered to herself what she was should do. She didn't much care to try and force down lightning on his house (although there was a time when the thought would have been very tempting), and her powers really weren't as good at knocking in doors as some of the others'.
There were steps coming up the stairs that she recognized as his. Although his biomechanical leg worked just as well as a normal one, it sounded very different, especially when he walked on a hard surface like this. She stood up. She certainly didn't want to sit around waiting for him like a lost dog.
"Oh, hi," he said when he came into view. She relaxed a little. He sounded surprised, but not hostile, and that was a lot more than she had hoped from him, considering the nature of their recent conversations. "What do you want?"
"You haven't by any chance had Magneto around here, have you?"
His eyes narrowed. "I knew you didn't think much of me, but that was *low*."
"No, that's not what I meant." She hesitated. "Has he been here? The door?"
He looked at the door. "Yeah, it must have been him, after that supermarket thing. Nothing gone or destroyed though, except the door. No big thing. Nothing I need the X-Men to save me from."
She bit her lip to not react badly to that comment. She could still restrain herself from darkening the sky, but not much more. "But did he *use* anything?"
Realization dawned on him, and he took a little remote from his pocket with which he opened the new door and stepped into his apartment without asking her to follow. She did anyway.
"I don't know, he might have. I haven't really had time to check everything. Thinking of anything in particular?"
"Did you ever make that time machine?"
His eyes turned thoughtful. "The Tesselty. Yeah... I did."
He motioned for her to come with him into the study, and she did. It looked the same mess of machinery as the last time she was there.
"So, where is it? And why did you call it... whatever it was you called it?"
"The Tesselty," he said, searching his study. Soon he found what he was looking for and showed her the device, which was only slightly bigger than a normal paperback book. "TSCLT, Time-Space-Continuum Loophole Tracker. It's not really a time machine. It only uses weaknesses that are already there." He smiled a little. "Although *how*, I'm not quite sure."
"Okay, I don't care about a lecture. Can you figure out if it has been used?"
A frown formed between his dark eyebrows, and he looked down on the little device. "Okay, hold on a minute."
His eyes got that glassy look she recognized so well, and he connected the device to his computer. While he was working, she paced back and forward. She was still feeling incredibly annoyed. "Couldn't you have told us he was here?"
"Well, he wasn't when I got back," he said absent-mindedly. "Besides, I can handle Magneto."
"Uh-huh," she said, looking meaningfully at his right leg. Unfortunately, he was too busy to notice the sarcasm. Forge was only slightly more suitable to deal with Magneto than Logan was. People with metal parts should stay away from magnetizers.
"He *did* use it," Forge said, still typing wildly. For a second, he looked up at the device, and then he shook his head, clicking his tongue a little.
"Unless you bring the Tesselty with you, you can only return to your own time, not move on. And even then you need the instant return clip, which he didn't bring. So he's pretty much stuck where he is -- in time, at least."
The room seemed to get brighter when Ororo took a relieved sigh. It took her a while to realize the sky outside had been cloudy before. She really needed to keep better control.
"Well, that's the first good thing about this. It makes it a lot easier to track him. Have you tracked him?"
"Yes. Right outside Sweetwater, Nebraska territory, a few months before the Civil War."
She leaned down next to him, oblivious to the fact that she wanted to stay as far awy from him as humanly possible. "Can you get me there?"
"I can't get you to the *exact* same place anytime soon. But if you can stand the same time a few miles away I can get you there tomorrow..." Before she had time to get happy he added: "...No, that's too small. But in four days there's a hole big enough for a person."
"Just one?" she asked, and he raised an eyebrow.
"No, you can bring in a busload if you want. How many were you thinking?"
"Well, the team. Four people with Logan. And I'm not sure we can keep Bobby out of this." For a second she wondered if Forge had to come on the mission. She didn't want him to, and it wasn't just because of their strained relationship. If something went wrong, she wanted someone in this century who knew what to do about it.
"Okay," he said, not noticing the thoughtful look in her blue eyes. "I'll arrange for it."
It was that time of day when there's not much work to be done. Kid and Buck were on rides, but the rest of the riders were in the saloon, drinking sarsaparilla and teasing Cody. After all his strange bragging tales, he had finally gone way too far even for him.
"So tell me," Jimmy said, sitting down next to Lou, but addressing Cody, "what shade of blue was this bear you saw? Was it blue like the sky, or the ocean, or..."
Lou giggled a little, and Ike's mouth twisted in a suspicious way.
"It was a deep clear blue like the twilight," Cody said. Even though he had already found nobody believed him, he couldn't help but try to tell the story. "And it wasn't no bear! It talked to me!"
"A bum," Noah said calmly.
"You do know it's not allowed for express riders to drink, don't you?" Lou said.
Cody turned to her, furious. "I hadn't been drinking!"
"I'm willing to believe that," Jimmy admitted. "You've just finally lost your mind completely. If you want my advice," he leaned forward a bit, "don't tell no doctors blue bears talk to you."
"It. Was. No. Bear."
"A bum," Noah said again. "Hairy fellow."
"Have you ever heard of a blue bum?" Lou protested.
"Maybe he's just gone colour-blind," Jimmy suggested. "Hey, Cody, what colour is the grass?"
"Oh, shut up!"
Ike took part of the conversation for the first time, tapping his bandanna and signing a question to Cody.
"Ike says..." Lou started, and Cody interupted her.
"I know what he said, and it's red. I'm not colour-blind, I'm not drunk, I'm not delusional. I know what I saw, and what I saw was a big blue beast who talked to me!"
The door had swung open right when Cody said that, and Noah found himself looking into the startled eyes of a beautiful young black woman. They were blue, her eyes. He had never seen a black woman with blue eyes, and never someone that young with white hair either. She noticed his eyes on her and smiled a little. Encouraged, he left the table and walked up to her.
"Hello miss, my name is Noah Dixon. Are you new in town?"
Those unique eyes settled on him, and even though she was still too caught up in Cody's peculiar comment to give Noah her undivided attention, her smile was warm and interested.
"Ororo Monroe," she said, shaking his hand. "Yes, I am. We just arrived with the stagecoach from Fort Laramie."
He noticed that she had an unusual accent, and wondered if she might have been stolen from Africa. He also noticed the "we". Was she married?
Before he had time to ask, a short, rough-looking white man came through the door and nodded at Ororo before he settled at the bar. Noah frowned a little. In his experience, men who looked like that were bad news to black people, especially black women.
"Is that your owner?" he asked.
Ororo turned around. "Logan?" she asked, apparently amused at the thought. "No, he's just a friend."
"Friend," Noah stated, and it wasn't really his fault that it came out a bit suspicious-sounding.
"Yes, friend," she replied, with a smile that indicated she had realized what he was thinking. "Just like I believe the people over there are your friends?"
She nodded at the rider's table with a curious smile. Noah took the hint and escorted her there.
"Miss Monroe, these are my colleagues from the Pony Express." He gave the guys a look that told them to move aside and make room for the lady. Lou was the first to take the hint, and she offered Ororo a chair from another table.
"Thank you," Ororo said, then sat down and offered Lou her hand.
"Lou McCloud", Lou said and shook Ororo's hand. A man's name. Interesting. To her it was obvious that the bespectacled young person in pants was a girl, but she wasn't sure whether or not the others were aware of that.
"Nice to meet you..." Ororo wasn't certain if "miss" or "mister" would be appropriate, so she muddled it up a bit. "...misshm McCloud."
She turned to the next person, a young man with long brown hair and a stern face. "I'm Jimmy Hickock."
She tried not to show her surprise at that name, but wasn't sure she had succeeded, and his eyes turned slightly suspicious. It was clear that he expected his name to be recognized and didn't like it much. Wild Bill Hickok. What did you know. She gave him a smile and continued her circle of introduction. The man with the red bandanna was introduced as Ike McSwain by Noah and said to be mute. She noticed the look in his eyes and blinked, because it was one she had seen before. Far too many of the young mutants at school looked like that too, hoping for acceptance but not really counting on anything but hatred and fear. She couldn't recall ever seeing that look in a non-mutant, and it caught her attention.
She soon got other things to think about, though, because the next man was the loudmouthed blonde who had, maybe, seen Hank. And his name was another that almost made her eyebrows fly up.
"William F. Cody," he said and grinned widely. It was a nice grin, charming in a boyish way. It was harder to think of this young flirt as Buffalo Bill than it was thinking of the stern young man as Wild Bill Hickock.
"So, you're all express riders?" Ororo asked. She didn't have to fake her interest. After all, very few 21st century people ever got the chance to talk to real Pony express riders -- two of them legends, to add to the experience. Still the fact that *Buffalo Bill* had maybe seen Hank wasn't half as interesting as the fact that Buffalo Bill had maybe *seen Hank*. "It must be a very interesting job, traveling through the country, seeing all kinds of things..."
The entire table burst into laughter. Her fishing had been a little too obvious.
"Yeah, Cody, really interesting things, too!" Lou teased.
Cody opened his mouth to speak, and then wisely shut it again. He shrugged a little, and Ororo felt a little bit sorry for him. He was just a kid, after all, maybe a few years older than Bobby and a lot like him. It wasn't easy not to be believed, particularly when you *were* telling the truth.
"Well, yes, I did hear what you said," she admitted, trying to get Cody to talk. He didn't seem all that keen on repeating the story again.
"We're thinking of having him committed, but we decided to wait until he sees pink rabbits, too," Jimmy said, and Cody shot him a dirty look.
Noah felt the need to defend his friend to this lovely woman. "He's not as nuts as he may seem. Not quite."
"Oh, thank you very much," Cody muttered.
"Where did you see the beast?" Ororo asked in a low voice, trying to keep it level.
He looked up at her, surprised at her sincere interest. "Uhm... over by the woods, some distance away from the station. It was a few days ago, we went back by the morning, but he was gone by then."
"He was probably hibernating," Lou said sensibly.
"Stuff it, Lou."
Ororo ignored the comments, eager to get more information from Cody. Of course it was Hank he had seen, it had to be, but she wanted to be sure.
"You said he talked to you. What did he say?"
Cody thought about it. "He said 'could you have the kindness to help me loose?'"
That certainly sounded like Hank. "Was he tied up then, since he asked you that?"
"Well... now that you mention it, I think he was. In a pretty bad shape, too, I would say." Cody frowned a bit, trying to remember what had been going on. It was the first time anyone had really been interested in hearing the whole truth.
The riders sat amazed, listening as Ororo carefully, and seemingly of interest only, interrogated Cody. She asked him about the beast's size, shape, colour, everything that would be able to separate it from all other furry blue beasts around. His answers sometimes took long, but he managed to get quite some detail into them. Noah, who had so far thought that Cody had just misinterpreted whatever it was he had seen, became unsure. This didn't sound like the usual kind of exaggerations, which meant that either Cody was lying on purpose, or he was telling the truth. Unless, of course, he really was mad, unless they were all mad, including that beautiful woman whose blue eyes were steadily focused on Cody's face as she listened to what he had to say.
He couldn't help feeling slightly jealous. For a while it had seemed as if Ororo had been genuinely interested in him, but there was no way his charms could match the sight of a big blue beast. He was entirely forgotten now, her attention was directed elsewhere. All he could hope for was that when Cody's storytelling had run out, she would remember him again.
Occasionally her eyes drifted away to the man by the bar, and she gave him a look that wasn't all too easy to interpret. Noah had a feeling that the man was listening in, too, although it shouldn't really have been possible, he was sitting a little too far away to be able to hear much of the conversation. Still, there was a listening appearance over the man's back, not unlike an animal that keeps check of unseen territory. Noah half expected to see his ears turned backwards.
Another man came through the door and walked up to the man at the bar. He was tall, well-dressed and quite good looking for a white guy, although his eyes were hidden behind a strange pair of red glasses. He said something to the rugged man, who snarled back, and looked more like an animal than ever before. Definitely not someone to trust easily, that one. When the younger one spoke again he nodded reluctantly and looked in Ororo's direction. Ororo gave a small nod and turned to the riders.
"It was very nice to talk, but I really must go. I hope to see you again."
"You too," Jimmy replied politely.
Noah stood up when Ororo did, and she finally looked at him again.
"I hope to see you again?" she said, and now her voice was lower and softer, her words half a question, half an invitation.
"I would be honoured, miss Monroe," he replied, and brushed her hand slightly with his own before she left.
He watched her leave in the company of the animal-like man and the youngster in the red glasses. Beautiful woman -- but peculiar.
Scott motioned for Logan and Ororo to get into his and Jean's hotel room, where the others where already waiting. Logan gave him a slanting grin.
"Now, Cyke, what do you think people will say if they see me in your bedroom?"
The younger man just scowled at him, and Logan chuckled, taking a cigar from his pocket.
"You don't have any sense of humour."
"I'm worried about Hank," Scott replied, and sat down on a chair, rubbing his forehead.
Jean, who was standing by the window behind him, caught Logan's glance and nodded towards the sun-lit window, at the same time mentally reminding him of what sunlight did to Scott's eyes. He shrugged, uncomfortable but unrepentive. It wasn't his fault the little dick had a headache.
"There's this guy who has probably seen him," Ororo said.
This got everybody's attention.
"Who?" Bobby asked, his face pale as he struggled with a hope that was getting too high too fast.
Ororo's mouth twisted a little. "Buffalo Bill."
"Say what?" Rogue asked weakly. This was her first real mission, and she hadn't quite gotten used to the strange things that tended to happen to the X-Men. The main reason she was even there was because with Bobby allowed to come, it didn't make much sense to leave her, and Bobby had been unstoppable.
Ororo quickly briefed the others of what she had heard from Cody, and, seeing their concerned faces, added: "None of the people here will find him, because they're not looking. They don't believe a word out of Bill Cody's mouth."
"Hardly surprising," Jean said. "After all, Buffalo Bill is well known as the biggest liar in the west. Even the name was stolen. But I'm really relieved. The thought of a stranger finding Hank... they still have sideshows in the 1860s."
"Magneto is hardly any better than a sideshow," Scott pointed out. "Speaking of which, we've found out a few things of our own. Erik Lensherr rented a room at this very hotel a few nights ago, paid for a whole week, but hasn't slept more than a night or two. The manager says Lensherr hasn't had any visitors. However, he recalled hearing voices from the room the day before yesterday, but it turned out to be the maid..." He looked at Rogue.
"I talked to her," the southern girl said. "She's sure the manager is right, but she doesn't remember ever talking more than two words to Magneto, nor the manager ever being there."
"Mystique," Logan snarled, and Rogue nodded.
"Well, there's one way to find out for sure."
Logan started for the door, but Scott reached out to stop him. "You can't go sniffing in other people's hotelrooms. We're not supposed to wake any suspicion."
"And you just fit right into the crowd," Logan replied, more to get a punch at his rival than anything else. "Okay, One-Eye, you're right for once. What about those woods? I could smell those."
"Wait a second," Ororo said as the others approached the door. "We need to come up with some sort of cover story. This isn't New York. People are asking questions. Our stories ought to match."
Jean nodded. "Right. Scott and I have already said we're engaged -- which is, after all, the truth -- and that Rogue is my niece. I guess Bobby could be her brother."
Bobby gave her a suspicious stare. Passing him and Rogue off as siblings wasn't a really good thought in a non-incestuous environment. "We don't even have the same accent."
Scott entered the discussion. "Then you'll be *my* brother. Been a while since I last had one, but I think I can manage." Bobby even looked a little bit like Alex. Not much, but nobody was going to find the thought of the two of them being related surprising. Ororo, of course, was another matter, and the team leader watched her thoughtfully.
"Do I have to belong to someone?" she asked reluctantly, and everyone immediately gave an appalled "no" to the idea. As horrible as slavery was to the average 21st century American, the thought of exploiting minorities was even more sensitive to mutants.
Logan shook his head. "On the other hand, a free black woman travelling with a bunch of white people these days, how likely is that?"
"She could be Rogue's," Bobby suggested. "Southern and all."
"I don't want to!" Rogue said with a grimace.
Ororo fully shared the girl's emotions. She liked Rogue a lot, but the thought of taking orders from a teenager, even if it was just for pretend, was repulsive. For a second she pondered if this was how Logan felt, an ancient man taking orders from a preppie of twentyfive.
"This sounds awfully Uncle Tom," Jean said apologetically, "but you could have belonged to Rogue's parents, and she set you free after their death. You're staying with her because you like her."
Actually, the thought didn't upset Ororo at all. It would explain her ties to the other X-Men without allowing them to treat her the way slaves were treated these days. If it sounded like she was a brainwashed Uncle Tom, so be it. It wasn't as if it really mattered what people thought anyway.
"Leaves me," Logan said, leaning against the wall. "I can't really see myself as related to any of you."
"You don't say," Scott muttered, and Jean sent them both a note of *Okay, shove it*. They both hated to admit that they really respected each other, but sometimes their strange macho posturing became too much. Her fiancé shrugged and returned to more amiable conversation. "We could be business partners. Engineering or something."
"I don't know the first thing about engineering."
To hand it to Scott, he didn't say what he was thinking, which was whether or not Logan knew the first thing about *anything* but whiskey, cigars and fighting.
"Woodwork!" Rogue exclaimed, feeling the mood tense. "Logan could cut down trees and Scott could build things. It's sorta like engineering."
The men looked at each other and nodded thoughtfully.
"Not bad, kid," Logan said.
"We could all be looking for business here," Scott continued. "Trying to settle down somewhere that doesn't bear as many memories for Rogue," he smiled at her, "who was so tragically orphaned recently."
Rogue laughed. She hadn't spoken to her parents in two years, so she wouldn't have to fake missing them, but this melodrama took away all the traces of authenticity.
"I could really need some time at a nice quiet place," she agreed, "looking through the woods."
Logan paced the woods, sniffing the air impatiently. The others stood by, waiting for him to find something. There was nothing any of them could do, their gifts were not suitable for detective work.
"Nothing," he growled. "Nothing! Are you sure it was here?"
Ororo shrugged, wishing she could help more. "He wasn't very specific about it. Too startled, I suppose."
Logan turned away, shaking his head. At moments like this, when his heightened senses were stretched to the fullest, it was hard for him to keep full humanity.
Bobby looked at the grown X-Men pleadingly. There had to be something someone could do. "Jean?" he asked, knowing that the professor, even without Cerebro, could find people through mental touch. Jean was a telepath too, wasn't she?
"You want me to find someone who was in this general area days ago?" she asked the boy. "I'm sorry Bobby. I wish I could, but nobody is that strong."
They kept walking slowly through the woods, waiting for Logan to pick something up. Suddenly his back straightened and his strides became longer, and they followed him. He stopped in front of a tree by the path and said the single word: "Here."
The others immediately gathered around him like flies on a piece of sugar, searching the area for tracks even though Logan was still the one most likely to find them. Still, it was Jean's eyes that first fell on the small piece of dirty rope lying on the ground, and she picked it up, frowning at the stains that were even darker than dirt.
"Blood?" she asked, but she really didn't need confirmation. Bobby paled with anger at the sight, truly looking like an Iceman now. Rogue took a step backwards, and something cracked under her foot. Removing it, she found, as she had rightly supposed, Hank's spectacles, now broken. Although she knew it was silly to cry for something like this when Hank could be in severe danger, she couldn't prevent her eyes from filling with tears, and she quickly blinked them away.
"Oh, come on, kid, don't start bawling," Logan said unhappily, putting an arm around her shoulders. "His smell is strong here, I can follow it no problem. We'll find him."
"It's getting dark," Storm pointed out.
"So? I can see in the dark. I'm not quitting."
"Me neither," Rogue said firmly, and Bobby walked up by their side without a word.
Scott looked at them, his face unreadable as always behind those glasses.
"Okay, we split up. Some of us go back to town to investigate there and keep up some sort of normality pattern, the rest follow the track. Logan, you can stay." He paused for a second, thinking. "Bobby too. But not Rogue."
"What?" the girl protested, and Logan said fiercely:
"I'd take care of her just as well as you would, One-Eye."
"That's not the point. Her powers need close contact, just like yours. One is bad enough."
Logan frowned, but didn't protest. He knew the metal in his body made him vulnerable to Magneto, and the Boy Scout made sense, they did need people with long distance powers, in case they would find what they were looking for. Rogue was painfully aware of how lethal she was, but without skin to skin contact she was just a teenage girl like anyone else. Bobby was much better equipped that way.
"Okay," Logan said relucantly. "Do I get a third?"
"Yeah." Scott turned to look at the women. He wouldn't go himself, but didn't bring that subject up. His visor was metal too, and his night vision was less than perfect, but admitting weakness wasn't part of the image that was Cyclops.
Ororo and Jean looked at each other, and Ororo felt a little ashamed that she wanted to go home. She tried to tell herself she'd be of much better use back in town, where she could try to get more info from the locals. She had made pretty good contact with them before. *With Noah Dixon before.* Jean's powers were as good as hers anyway, there was no reason she shouldn't be the one to stay. No reason, except that Jean had a double bed waiting for her at the hotel, and maybe shouldn't be out in the woods with a man who had made more than one attempt to get her interested. Shit. Although, it was true, Logan hardly ever flirted with Jean nowadays, only the occasional comment to tease Scott a little. So maybe it wasn't that bad. Oh God, this was selfish!
Green, cheerful eyes met hers, and she knew Jean had been reading her mind.
"I'll go," Jean said calmly. "I'm the only one who can reverse anything Magneto does."
That *was* a good argument. Ororo wondered why she hadn't thought of it herself.
"You go back to town." Jean was friendly, but there were definite signs of amusement in her voice. "Talk some more to the townspeople."
A blush didn't show as much on Ororo's face as it did on the others', and she hoped in the dusk it would be enough for them not to notice. Damn that woman! It wasn't as if she needed anyone's blessing to have a simple conversation with a young man. Then again, this wasn't the 21st century. Maybe in one way, she did.
Logan followed the track that was clearer with every step, and he hurried his steps until he realized that the other two weren't following his speed. He waited for them while they navigated through the dark woods. It might actually have been better to wait for sunrise, but it was too late to turn back now, and in any case they all wanted to find Hank and/or their foes as soon as possible.
Jean was the first to feel a presence she recognized. She would have wished for it to be Hank's sweet nature that first reached her mind, but instead it was the sharp mix of cold intellect and steaming pain that she had learned to recognize as Magneto's. Seconds later, Logan's head jerked up at the sounds coming from a shack nearby, obviously an old stable since there was also a paddock encircled by rusty wire.
"He's coming," he warned the others, and Jean nodded to show that she knew, while Bobby put both feet firmly on the ground and prepared to freeze everything they needed him too.
Logan did have time to feel afraid when Magneto left the house. He never whined about pain, but he did feel it, and God, when that man's power touched his body...
And in the next instant it did. His entire body was magnetized and flung into the air, metal straining bones and muscles so he felt as if he was being torn apart one piece at the time. But he knew he wasn't. Magneto could kill him easily if he wanted to, but in spite of his cynical attitude, he still wouldn't kill a fellow mutant unless it was absolutely necessary.
"Really, you lot," Magneto said, sounding bored and tired. "Why can't you learn to stay out of my business?"
"You've got our friend, that *is* our business!" Logan grunted, fighting the pain.
Then there was a pull from another direction; Jean was trying to get him down. Her touch was more gentle, but it was also weaker.
"Never mind me!" he shouted to her. "Go for him! Both of you!"
Bobby was already making a patch of ice under Magneto's feet. It was a cheap trick, but the great man actually did slip, and Logan's body suddenly fell to the ground like a marionette without strings.
Jean could never have taken on Magneto alone, but with Bobby assisting her and Logan temporarily out of his power, the old man did have some reason to worry. He quickly took his glove off and sent it away in Jean's direction, like some medieval knight giving a challenge. A medieval knight might even have had a glove with miniature chainmail to protect the palm -- damn, where had he gotten that thing? -- but no knight could have strangled a lady with a thrown glove. Jean's face turned red as the empty glove pressed against her throat and stopped the air to come through, and as she fought it with hands and powers both, Magneto reached out towards Logan and started pulling again. He was still lying on the icy ground, but that didn't diminish his concentration. He hadn't acted against Bobby yet, obviously considering the boy a minor threat, but now their eyes met. Bobby stood his ground, frantically trying to find a way to deal with this. The sticks of the fence behind him started to break under the pressure of the loop the wire was making. He reached out his hand and started building a shell of ice around Magneto's legs, when the wire reached his wrist and pulled it back. Another part threw a loop around his body, and he was pressed back towards the poles. Jean had passed out, and Logan could do little more than sympathize while Bobby fought the wire to keep building the ice. It wasn't much of a resistance, but Magneto was obviously getting increasingly strained.
"Bobby! I'm coming!"
It was Ororo's voice calling for the boy, and seconds later the white-haired weather goddess was running in Bobby's direction. Logan could see the confused but grateful look in the boy's eyes. It was quite the contrary to what he was feeling. He didn't need the scent that reached his nose to tell the danger, he knew from the way Magneto relaxed.
"It's not her!" he yelled to warn Bobby, but Mystique in Ororo's shape had already leaned down near the boy and smacked him in the head with one of the poles.
Logan looked from his two unconscious teammates to Magneto, who was getting ready to leave with Mystique. One battle lost. His body swirled high up into the air one last time, and then fell to the ground with a speed that would have made him break several ribs and possibly the back if his bones hadn't been clad in adamantium. As it was, darkness swirled before his eyes and the air left his lungs. He heard Magneto and Mystique leave, but couldn't get up fast enough to follow. That bothered him less than the vague smells of Hank. They were far too old, at least a week, while there were plenty of lingering smells from the other two. Where were they keeping him?
"Hey, Noah," Cody said as he dropped a sack of flour on the wagon outside Tompkins' store, where the black rider was standing looking thoughtfully towards the hotel. "A bit slow on the loading today? It's gonna be dark soon, we should get this done."
"Hm," Noah said, not really paying attention.
Ike and Buck were following Cody, and when Ike had dropped his load of supplies he signed an explanation to his friend, and Buck raised an eyebrow at Noah.
"You met a girl?" he asked, voice very encouraging. Although Jimmy was known to fall in love once every second week and Cody only slightly more seldom, to the rest of them "meeting someone" was still a fairly big thing. Noah wasn't even certain that was what he had done.
"There are some new people in town," Noah said to Buck. "We talked some to one of the ladies. She was very interested in Cody's tale of the blue beast."
Cody made a wry face but didn't say anything. He had learned to avoid that subject.
"White woman?" Buck asked, worried.
"Black," Noah answered shortly. If anyone else had made that question he'd be slightly offended, but Buck knew what he was talking about, himself forced to live between two worlds without ever fitting into either.
"That's good. She's pretty?"
"Sure," Noah said, then changed his mind. Whatever Ororo was, pretty wasn't it. "No. Not exactly."
Ike entered the discussion again with signs so fast Noah completely lost track within seconds. It wasn't directed at him anyway. He was still learning to understand what Ike wanted to say, and Ike always slowed down considerably when there was something Noah needed to know. But he did understand that this was a description of Ororo's somewhat odd beauty.
"White hair?" Buck asked, surprised. "And blue... are you pulling my leg?"
Ike shook his head, laughing, and made a very expressive sign to show his appreciation. Buck grinned a little and turned back to Noah.
"She must be a mulatto then?"
"I guess. I don't know." Her skin was no darker than she easily could be, but her accent was so obviously not American that it contradicted that explanation.
Cody nodded over Noah's shoulder to the hotel. "She's coming now."
Noah turned around and saw Ororo walking up to the hotel, the man with the strange glasses going with her, as well as a young girl. She stopped when she saw him and gave a little wave in his direction. He waved back, smiling -- *come here* -- and she said something to the young man before walking up to the riders.
"Hello again!" she said, then turned to her company. "This is Noah Dixon, Billy Cody, Ike McSwain and," she looked at Buck, "...I don't believe we've met?"
"Buck Cross," he said, shaking her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Buck. Scott Summers, his niece-in-law Rogue."
More handshakes. Buck raised an eyebrow at the girl. "Rogue?"
She blushed, obviously flattered by the attention of the attractive young Indian. It was one of the two most common attitudes he got from women. "Yeah," she mumbled.
"Nice glasses!" Cody enthusiastically told Scott. "Although they're a bit dark now that the sun isn't up," he quipped. "Don't know if you've noticed."
Storm blinked, although she knew variations of that question always came, and Scott always hated the half-truths that followed. You couldn't tell from his face, though, and his voice was calm when he replied:
"They're for medical reasons. I have a rare eye condition and can't see without them."
"Oh. Sorry." Even Cody realized he had put his foot in his mouth. Unfortunately, that got him nervous, and the next thing he decided to say was the wrong one: "What sort of medical... ow!" He scowled at Buck, who removed his foot without in any way changing his facial expression.
Noah looked intensely at Ororo. He was one fine-looking guy. Storm quickly reminded herself that they would be going back to their own time as soon as they had found Hank and captured his kidnappers, but it didn't help at all.
"What are your plans for the evening?"
"Oh, nothing much," she said. "Basically just going to the hotel and to sleep."
"You wouldn't rather have dinner with me?"
A smile curved her lips, and made his thoughts less than respectable. "Don't mind if I do."
"You got a ride coming up first thing tomorrow morning," Cody quietly reminded Noah.
"You'll cover for me." That wasn't even a question, it was a simple statement, uttered in a whisper.
"Aw, come on Noah..."
"I've covered for you plenty of times before, you owe me this one."
Cody grimaced, but silently agreed, and Noah turned back to Ororo, who looked at her friends.
"I'll go to the hotel and wait for Jean," Scott said with a grin that made his serious face look about ten years younger. He couldn't be more than mid-twenties tops. "Rogue?"
"What?" said the girl, obviously not catching on.
"We'll go home and wait for the others," Scott enunciated clearly.
"Oh! Okay. Right. Have fun!"
She smiled shyly and then the two of them left.
"So where are we going?" Ororo asked Noah, ignoring everyone around her, who politely ignored her back and got ready to leave. "The hotel?"
Noah looked like he had swallowed something hot. "They won't serve us."
"Oh." The first thought that crossed her mind was *but they don't know I'm a mutant*, then she remembered what time this was and realized what he meant. "Where, then?"
"I was thinking the saloon. It's not as fancy, but..."
"It'll be fine," she assured him. It was certainly not the worst place she ever had a date. Not that she was about to tell him that. One of many things he wasn't ready to know about her.
The saloon might not have been the most classy joint to be found, but there was nothing wrong with Noah's company. All in all, this night really spoke in favour of the custom of going out with nearly complete strangers. Ororo couldn't even pretend to believe that she was doing this to get information. She knew Scott and Rogue were snooping around the hotel asking questions and making plans, but with the inofficial blessing of the battle leader she found no reason not to take some time off.
"So," Noah said, "are you in town for business or pleasure?"
"Business," she replied, trying the roast beef. It wasn't quite like the food she usually ate, but it was remarkably good for a piece of meat 150 years old. The thought made her snicker a little, and Noah smiled back, without realizing what was so funny. "Scott and Logan are thinking of starting a woodwork company here." She gave a few more details from their fake story, but as few as possible. Lying on a first date was absolutely normal, but there was a difference between lies and lies.
"Logan's the shaggy guy?" Noah asked.
Noah nodded, not too enthusiastic, and Ororo couldn't help but smile. She recognized the expression from the way Scott had originally looked at Logan, a way that wasn't so far from what she had felt herself. They had both been wrong, and, in one way or another, later admitted it.
"He's a good man, Noah."
"If you say so." Noah wasn't about to start an argument on what had been such a lovely evening. "It's just that he reminds me of other men I have met, and they weren't too kind to black women."
The bizarre thought made Ororo burst into laughter, even though it was probably rude. "Logan and me? Please."
"Any man would..." Noah stopped himself. "You're very beautiful."
"Thanks. You're not half-bad yourself." That made them both giggle. "But Logan... no. Besides, I think he still has it in for Jean, even though he respects that she's off-limits." She caught his puzzled expression. "That's right, you haven't met Jean yet. She's Scott's fiancée, and quite a lady. Very pretty, very gifted." She wasn't about to tell him details on Jean's gifts.
"So," she said, raising her glass of beer to him, "what about *your* friends? How did you come to join the Express?"
"Oh, it's a long story," he said, flashing a smile at her.
"I'm not going anywhere." She hoped that was the truth, too.
"Nice try. But you're here to have a good time, not to hear me talk about myself. I think I'll stick with the abridged version."
They both laughed heartily now, ignoring the glances thrown in their direction.
"If that's the best I can get. Although I was hoping for a full-night entertainment."
"Well, it's not all that entertaining." Noah's laughter faded, and he frowned for a second. When he continued, his voice was kept light. "I was in Sweetwater to free some slaves at an auction -- the legal way," he added when he noticed her expression.
"I didn't say anything."
"I know. Anyway, I ran into Jimmy... You've met Jimmy. Wherever he goes, trouble follows, and I'm the same way. So he got hurt, and since it was partly because of me, I covered for him until he got better. Then I just stayed." His voice softened when he added: "They're a great bunch."
"They seem it." She couldn't help being curious. "How many are you really? There seems to be more showing up all the time."
"Oh, you've met everyone I think... No wait, not the Kid. He's on a long ride and won't be back until tomorrow. He and Lou are..." Noah stopped suddenly.
"Are what?" Ororo asked.
"Great riders. Not that the others aren't. Ike's great with horses, for example."
Storm smiled. He was a much worse liar than she was. "They wouldn't happen to be sweethearts, would they?" she asked quietly.
Noah relaxed visibly. "So you noticed."
"That she's a girl? Fairly obvious, I would say. Why is she hiding?"
"The Express doesn't allow women. We at the station know, but nobody else."
Ororo nodded thoughtfully. Things were so different here. She could walk among humans without comments, because even though her appearances were still unique, they didn't yell "mutant" in this place. On the other hand, they didn't have to. Because even though she appeared normal, she was also a black woman -- short end twice. She banished those thoughts at once. They weren't relevant for the mission.
"So that's everyone? You, this Kid person, Cody, Jimmy, Lou..." she had to think for a second, "Ike and Buck?"
"Yes. Not counting Teaspoon and Rachel."
"Obviously not counting them. Who are they, anyway?"
Noah was definitely enjoying the date by now. "The station master and the house..." The man she called Logan just stepped into the room. He quickly noticed them and started walking in their direction. "...keeper."
Ororo turned around and noticed her friend as well. "Logan! Is something wrong?"
Logan nodded briefly, his face serious. "Sorry to disturb your date, Ro, but we had a bit of an accident in the woods. There was this rusty wire fence, it's a little bit hard to explain."
"Wire? I'm coming." She rose from her chair and briefly reached out her hand to Noah, smiling apologetically. "Sorry about this, but I have to go."
"Of course," he answered politely. Logan gave him a sympathizing grimace, and Noah found himself actually thinking well of the man for the first time. As wild as he seemed, there was genuine concern in his face.
The two friends quickly left the saloon, and Noah sank back into his chair, slowly finishing his drink. Their conversation had been interrupted again. It seemed like Ororo -- Ro -- could never just sit down for a while, without some emergency showing up. Very strange for a freed nanny. He started to wonder how much she was actually hiding from him.
"Ro," he said softly to himself, trying out the syllable in his mouth, enjoying the sound. There were quite a few things he would like to know about Ro.
The blackening bruises on Jean's neck spoke for themselves, and Ororo, whose steps were already hurried, rushed up to her friend.
*It's okay,* Jean sent reassuringly. *My throat's a bit sore, that's all.*
The uncommon sense of picking up thoughts from Jean, quite like the feeling of an ants crawling around your brain, only unhinged Ororo more, and she frowned deeply. Her eyes fell on Jean's bed, where Bobby was sitting leaned on the headboard, with Scott softly slapping his face.
"Don't go to sleep," he told the boy. "You hear me?"
Bobby groaned. "I just want to lie down a little," he pleaded. "Let me lie down?"
"Not a chance." Scott's voice was harsh and controlled, leader mode. "What's three times two?"
The boy grimaced. "What?"
"Three times two."
"Right. Seven times eight?" Scott kept throwing multiplication tables at Bobby, less interested in getting the right answers than getting any answers at all.
Ororo looked from the boy to the woman. At least they were only temporarily down, but there could be no more splitting up of the group. No matter how much information Rogue could get from maids and cooks -- and that doe-eyed little girl routine always seemed to do the trick -- they needed to stay focused and as one now. She listened to Logan's explanation of what had happen, which didnt surprise her much until he mentioned how Hank's scent had been almost gone.
"Are you sure?" she asked sharply, cogwheels trying desperately to think of a solution to this new problem.
"Absolutely. They don't keep him there. And they sure as hell don't keep him here."
Logan both sounded and looked tired. His healing factor stopped him from getting any long-lasting bruises, but the night had been painful and full of worries for him too. There were no signs of Hank *anywhere*, none that were less than several days old.
Ororo shook her head, thinking the same thing, and turned to Scott. "You guys found anything?"
He nodded, still busy trying to keep Bobby awake. "He's been sleeping here on and off, and Mystique even more, at least that's our guess, and Logan says her scent is strong on the pillows. If they want to keep the room, they have to return tomorrow to pay up. I don't know where they get the money, and I'm not sure I want to know. If you guys found their second hiding place, it's possible they will come. The only way Magneto would know we're here is if Mystique has seen us without any of us noticing her, but with Logan and Jean in the group, that's not very likely."
"How do you know all this?" Ororo asked, and Scott looked away, rather uncomfortable. It wasn't easy to read his expressions, but she had known him long enough to do so. "You searched the room, didn't you?"
"Yeah," the field leader muttered. "I know I told Logan not to, but once the opportunity came up..."
"...I stalled the staff, he blasted the lock," Rogue filled in.
"Blasted!? Scott, you didn't."
"I optically picked it," Scott said calmly. "Didn't even damage the bolt."
Although Scott's brain damage prevented him from any natural control over his powers, with his visor on, he had remarkable accuracy. The glasses were mere blockers, and by tipping them he could get a crude blast, but nothing fine enough for lock-picking. It would take quite an unresistable opportunity for him to risk wearing the visor in this time and place. Cyclops was not one for taking unnecessary risks.
There was a knock on the door, and Rogue, being closest, opened it. It was Noah, leaning on the doorframe and puzzled to see the teenage girl standing there, and even more puzzled to see the rest of the crowd.
"Hi," he said cautiously. "I was looking for Ororo, she wasn't in her room, so I thought maybe..."
Ororo moved past the others to get to he door. "Hi," she said, wishing he could have come any time but now, any time at all. Rogue shouldn't even have opened the door. "Anything you wanted?"
"Just to make sure everyone was alright."
That was sweet of him, really it was, and the smile on her face was real even though part of her wished him as far away as possible. "Sure. It was just a little accident."
"Okay." He caught on the not-the-best-time tone and backed off. "So I'll se you around?"
The door closed on him, and Noah leaned on the wall, frowning. This woman was amazing in every way humanly possible, but she was also lying to him. There had been no "accident" involving hand prints on her friend's neck. Someone was after these guys, and he wanted to know just who it was.
That girl from last night, the one with the funny name Rogue, was sitting on the step outside the hotel, and Noah stopped for a second as he saw her there. But what was he supposed to do? Just knowing that something fishy was going on wasn't enough. Not to mention that they wouldn't think highly of him if they found out he was spying on them. Fortunately, the girl didn't seem to have seen him. Instead her eyes focused on a carriage going by, widening by the look. Seconds later, she rushed into the hotel, and returned with the shaggy guy -- Logan. Noah quickly turned a corner so he wouldn't be discovered, and looked at the carriage to see what had caught the girl's interest. To him, it didn't look special. Just an elderly man with a dignified appearance, and Joe Hennessey driving him. Noah suddenly frowned. He could have sworn he had heard Hennessey say he'd be out of town for the weekend. But then again, maybe the man had changed his mind.
"What are you doing?"
Noah jumped at the sudden question, and turned around to find Buck, Ike and Teaspoon looking at him with utmost interest.
"I'm just... watching," Noah said, voice short.
They looked past him at the street, where Ororo and her friends were getting ready to mount a wagon.
Watching the girl Ike signed laconically, and Buck clicked his tongue.
Teaspoon didn't seem convinced from that argument. "There's a difference between watching a girl and what you just did. I'd say your kind of watching was more of the sleuth category. What's going on, son?"
Noah didn't have a choice. Very briefly, since Ororo and the others were getting out of town as he spoke, he told the others of his suspicions.
Teaspoon scratched his neck. "It doesn't seem to me you've got a lot to go on."
"What about the marks?"
"I'm not saying you're not right about those. But you don't know who caused them. Maybe that boyfriend of hers did. Then there's better ways to help than running off on some wild goose chase."
"He didn't seem the type," Buck said.
"There's no type for hitting a woman, son."
Noah turned back, frustrated, as he watched the wagon disappear from view. "There are too many things that don't match. I know Ororo was lying to me, I know something happened last night, and I know that something probably has to do with that old man they're following right now."
Ike made a sign Noah didn't understand, and he had to turn to Buck for interpretation.
"He says you're obsessed."
"Maybe I am. But something's wrong, and I'm going to find out what it is."
Teaspoon looked from one of his riders to the others, and finally shrugged.
"Alright, go ahead. All of you -- I don't want you out there alone, just in case you're right. You want me to deputize you?"
"Considering we don't even know if there's a crime I don't think you have to," Buck said, reaching for his horse. "You coming?"
Noah hesitated for a second, surprised at the readiness with which his friends were prepared to take his whim. "Yeah."
It was hard to tell exactly when the following turned into a wagon chase, but some distance away from town, Magento had definitely understood what was going on. While Mystique, still in Hennessey's form, kept driving the carriage Magneto turned around and faced the X-Men. Scott, who was driving at a speed where he should statistically have bumped into something quite some time ago, quickly put a hand up to his face to protect his glasses. Feeling them slipping away under his fingers anyway, he squeezed his eyes shut and hurried to stop the horses. Even while he did this, the nails and bolts in the wagon loosened and fell to the ground, causing the wagon to fall into pieces.
"Stop him!" Scott yelled, but the order was really unnecessary, the others had already gotten started. Ororo's eyes rolled back and she felt the energy building up around her. Cold winds lifted up Magneto's carriage and flipped it over, causing its passengers to roll out of it and land on the ground. It was hard for any of the X-Men to keep their ground while the wind bit, but they had trained this procedure and knew how to keep their balance. But there was something else, someone else, just outside of view, who wasn't so lucky. There was no time to think of that right now. She simply slowed the wind and hoped the horses hadn't gotten hurt.
Bobby and Jean were working together to get control of Magneto. Jean made the boards that had once been their wagon fly around in a swirling circle, closer and closer to the old man, while Bobby tied them together with ice. Magneto spotted the danger and immediately heaved Logan up in the air, forcing his claws out so violently it made him scream, and plunged him into the two of them. Jean's hands immediately flew up to protect herself, and as Logan stopped in midair, fighting himself with all his strength to keep the claws away from his team-mates' bodies, the iced boards fell to the ground now that Jean could no longer hold them up.
Unfortunately, Jean's trick had also given Magneto a tip, and the spikes and bolts from the X-Men's wagon flew up in the air. So far, Scott and Rogue had been taking down Mystique pretty flawlessy with joined efforts, but now the constant ducking slowed down the fight. Mystique's agility gave her an advantage over the others, since Rogue was still in training and Scott had to compensate for his closed eyes. To prevent Mystique from getting away, Scott gave her a football tackle that would have made his old gym teacher proud. They landed on the ground and Rogue crouched next to them, covering her face from spikes.
Then there was the unexpected sound of gunshots, and the X-Men cursed to themselves. The last thing they needed was the cavalery coming to their rescue and unwillingly arming Magneto so much more. Ororo was still working on the winds, but even with whitened eyes she had a strange sort of view over her surroundings, and she noticed three people moving closer to them, stunned by the strange scenario, but not too much to keep shooting. One of them was Noah, the other two were the Indian and the mute, both holding onto their guns.
"No guns! He controls metal!" she shouted, but too late. The weapons were snatched away from the riders' hands, and something pulled at Buck's foot, causing him to slide down on the ground. His knife worked its way through the leather boot and rushed forward to Ororo, where it stopped right by her throat, pressing a drop of blood from under her larynx. If she as much as swallowed, it would hurt her more.
But there were only two guns flying in the air, and although the number of weapons were three with Buck's knife, neither of them belonged to Noah. Ororo looked up at the rider and noticed a leather whip hanging by his side. Magneto gave little attention to the three normies, considering them a small threat. Ororo called on the electricity of the sky, and as dark clouds drew closer she mouthed *whip* to Noah, hoping he would understand.
He did. Trying to stay away from everything flying around in the air, he grabbed the whip and let it fly through the air. It caught Magneto's legs and he fell over, at a clearing big enough for Ororo to work without hitting someone else. A thin line of lightning, enough to stun but not to kill (she hoped), cracked down and straight into Magneto's body.
Things fell to the ground in a garbage symphony. Scott took the opportunity to knock Mystique out, and Logan rolled off Bobby and Jean, moaning in pain. His claws went back inside with a *snikt*. Still sore, he forced himself up and over to Rogue, whom he caught in a rough hug.
"You okay, kid?"
"Yeah," she said, then contradicted herself by wincing as his shoulder brushed against a gash caused by flying spikes. "Don't touch."
"I wasn't going to."
Scott moved up to sitting position and checked on Mystique with one hand to make sure she was still out. "Anyone seen my glasses?" he asked, and Jean looked around to see if she could find them. They were lying a few feet away from Magneto's unconscious body and didn't appear broken, so she pulled them up in the air and towards Scott.
"Hold your hand out."
He did as he was told, waiting for the glasses to land in his palm. Once they did, he checked them with his fingers to make sure there were no small but lethal cracks before putting them back in place. Everyone's movements were of the sore and cautious kind usually following a fight, taking care of the prisoners and making sure all pieces were still attached to their bodies. In the middle of this, the riders stood staring, still shell-shocked. Ororo was the first one to remember them, and turned to Noah, who swallowed at the concerned look from her eyes, now back to blue. Since this time knew not of mutants, his face showed none of the contempt she had gotten used to, just shock, disbelief and a fear she had preferred not to see.
"Thank you," she said, not knowing what else to tell him.
He licked his lips, and his voice was hoarse when he asked her: "What are you?"
His friends looked like they were about to ask the same question, and Buck mumbled something she did not understand but suspected was religious. Ike wasn't quite Catholic enough to cross himself, but it wasn't far from.
"I... I do suppose we owe you an explanation. Can it wait, though? It's a long story, and we have to think of what to do with Magneto." She saw his confusion and added: "The man we fought."
Noah's eyes drifted to the unconscious man the other X-Men were tying up, frail-looking and yet so dangerous, and then to the peculiar female creature. "Yeah... Should we take him to the prison or something? He did try to kill you."
"If he had tried to kill us, we would have been dead," Logan raised his voice to say. He spoke with a certain bitterness, knowing that this applied even to him. With all his healing abilities, if Magneto had wanted to, he could have simply squeezed in a metal-clad skull and distorted the vertebrae under it, and that would have been the end. "And no prison would hold him. We need to keep him somewhere away from metal, if that's even possible around here."
The calmness of the X-Men seemed to have a soothing effect even on the riders, who began to look at this practically. Ike signed a suggestion, and Buck shook his head. "There are spikes in the walls."
"Walls tend to have those," Noah said. Then a thought struck him. "Teaspoon's sweat lodge."
"Great," Ororo said, smiling widely. The X-Men started getting ready to go, and she could see in their faces that they were as surprised at the turn of things as she was. There was still a cautiousness in the way the riders moved around them, but the promise of an explanation later had been accepted. She walked up to Noah and had to resist the urge to put her hand in his. That would certainly unhinge him.
"Thanks," she said, her voice low.
"Yeah, you said that." He was looking straight ahead, avoiding her gaze.
"That's not what I meant."
He didn't say anything for quite some time. Not until they were almost by the station did he speak again. "I don't know what the hell you are, but I saw how careful you were -- all of you -- not to hurt anyone." He was uncomfortable talking to her now. Lying had been one thing, but this... Was she even human? That wasn't the kind of question you could throw into a discussion. Cody could have done it, perhaps, but not he. "So. I'm on your side I guess." It sounded so harsh, so condemning, and so he softened it by saying the word he had been repeating in his head since last night. "Ro... Ro, we're almost there."
She looked up at him, trying to catch his look, but he was still turned away. Still there was something in his posture that made her dare to slip those long, dark fingers into his palm. He flinched at her touch, but didn't move away. Instead after a short moment, he squeezed her hand, with a firmness that didn't mirror the hesitation in his mind.
Putting Magneto in the sweat lodge wasn't exactly something they could do unnoticed, and Mystique was even worse. Logan carried her towards the stable and was met in the doorway by a rider whose eyes looked like they were about to pop out at the sight of the beautiful naked lady covered in blue scales. Hardly surprising, but Ororo started to wonder exactly how many people would have to hear this explanation she had promised Noah. Everyone at the station? How many were they anyway? This rider was certainly a new one, but then Noah had said there was only one she hadn't met, apart from the station manager and the house keeper, and this was certainly neither of those. So this must be what's-his-name, obviously waiting to find out what on earth was going on. She hadn't quite counted on an official outing, but then again, they didn't seem to have a choice.
There was a ring of riders watching the bruised X-Men, but nobody said anything. How were you supposed to explain that you were a mutant to people who had no idea what a mutant was? Usually after a show like the one they had just given, there would be no explanations needed, just a whole bunch of "mutie freak" remarks and projectiles to duck from.
"Not finding a good place to start?" Noah finally said, sounding surprisingly sympathetic.
"We're mutants," Logan said harshly, leaning back in the chair. "The next step in evolution, genetically enhanced humans, yada yada yada."
"Logan, they have no idea what you're talking about," Jean pointed out. "I don't know if Darwin has even presented his theories yet. And 'yada yada yada' definitely doesn't exist as a term yet."
"Charles Darwin?" Teaspoon asked, suddenly interested. "'The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection'?"
Jimmy groaned. "That ape fellow?"
"That's him," Jean said with a smile, grateful that this part could be explained at last. "He spoke of the origin of the species. We're the next step."
"The next step as in..." Buck asked.
"From the future. About one hundred and fifty years from now."
Obviously there was a forceful reaction to that. Lou burst into a hysterical laughter, and those of the residents who hadn't been at the fighting scene looked very disbelieving.
"I swear I saw that in a book Cody was reading," Rachel said, biting her lower lip so she wouldn't start giggling.
The ones who had seen what the X-Men could do found no reason to laugh. Kid threw a glance at the serious face of Noah, who was sitting beside him. "You don't believe them, do you?"
Noah shrugged. If it was true as they said, that they were people from the future, that was a whole lot less scary than if they had been witches or demons, the only other options he could find. So he wanted it to be true. But he could understand why the others were disbelieving.
"You might have to show them," he said to Ororo.
"Not in here."
The X-Men looked at each other, trying to figure out whose powers were appropriate for indoors use and not too intimidating. Finally, Jean nodded. "Do you want a cup of coffee?" she asked Teaspoon.
"Yes, Miss Grey, that would be lovely," he replied automatically.
A coffeepot wasn't much of a challenge to Jean. She gave a mental command that lifted it slowly, then tilted it to pour the coffee. The riders stared at the pot like it was hypnotizing them.
"Sugar?" Jean asked softly, trying to keep up a normal tone of conversation. Teaspoon nodded silently. Without changing her calm behaviour, she lifted a lump of sugar into the cup, put in a spoon, stirred and let the cup float away to Teaspoon. He caught it and looked up at Jean, dumbfounded. She smiled reassuringly at him.
Noah had to grin when he saw the looks on his fellow riders' faces. Didn't seem like such a joke when you'd seen them in action, did it? He still didn't understand much of what was going on, but seeing Jean pour the coffee was quite comforting after that hellraising fight. At least this wasn't dangerous. They were more than just warriors.
"Witchcraft," Jimmy muttered, and Noah shot him a dirty look. It was one thing to think it, but you shouldn't say things like that about people, especially not in their presence. He glanced at Ororo to see how she reacted, and was shocked to find that she didn't seem to have reacted much at all. Her eyes got a little sadder, perhaps, but showed no surprised. Looking up at the others only confirmed the strange suspicion. They had expected comments like that. They may even have heard it before. That both enraged him and comforted him. Whatever she was, she was a whole lot more like him than he would have wanted her to be.
"I never heard of witches groing knives from their hands," Buck said in a low voice, his dark eyes focusing on Logan. Noah scowled, thinking this looked far too much like a trial.
"Oh, so you noticed that," Logan muttered, looking down at his knuckles. Since everybody seemed to be expecting it from him, he let the claws pop out. The people around jumped back instinctively.
"You've got metal growing from your body?" Lou asked breathlessly.
"Not growing as such," Logan replied shortly, letting his claws slide back in. "They're artificial."
"Why would anyone want to have knives in their body?" Kid asked, disapproval evident in his voice. Logan shot him a disgusted look. Jesus, and he thought Scott was self-righteous, this one was much worse.
"It's not like they asked me first."
There was an awkward moment of silence as the riders realized they were entering dangerous territory. Finally Ike signed a question and Buck translated it for him: "What else can you guys do?" It had, after all, been hard to tell who was doing what in the fight.
"You did something to the lightning, didn't you?" Noah asked Ororo. "To make it hit that man."
"That's right," she replied. "I control the weather. They call me Storm," she added, smiling a little.
"Downside to this is we get rain every time she's moody," Bobby pointed out in a cheeky fashion.
"Well, it's better than having an ice rink in the hall," she cut back at him. "Bobby makes ice," she explained to the confused riders.
"Weather and ice," Buck repeated, shaking his head. "That is god-like."
"We're not gods," Ororo said. "I was worshipped as one, once, in Tanzania, but we're really just people. Different, but people."
Teaspoon noticed the choice of words: "So, not even in the future everyone is like you?"
"Only about one out of every ten thousand."
This made him raise an eyebrow, but he didn't say anything further.
"What about you?" Jimmy asked Logan. "Apart from the knives."
Logan looked straight ahead, uncomfortable with the situation, and replied in an almost soldier-like fashion. "I heal very fast. And I also have these enhanced senses. Scent mostly, but sight and hearing too."
"As strong as an animal's?" Buck asked, interested at this. Logan looked at him thoroughly, and came to a favourable opinion.
"Like a wolverine's. That's what they call me, anyway."
"He can track like no one else at the mansion!" Bobby said enthusiastically. "He notices things none of us even realize existed."
Logan shrugged, amused at the idolization but not about to deny something that was obviusly true. "Cut some slack to One-Eye, though, kid. His hearing isn't half bad."
Scott raised an eyebrow at the unexpected compliment. "Thanks." He noticed the anticipation in everyone's faces and realized they expected him to go next. "I have energy blasts coming from my eyes." His voice was calm, and his hand automatically flew up to touch the frame of his glasses.
The riders who had been at the fighting scene looked thoughtful, trying to remember any blasts. There had been none.
"You didn't use those blasts in the fight?" Buck said in a questioning tone.
"I need a visor or my glasses to control them," Scott said, calm although he hated admitting weakness. "Otherwise I just destroy everything in sight."
There was no way to say that without shocking the riders. While the previous examples of mutation could be passed off as primarily interesting, this was dangerous more than anything else. Ororo chose to be cynical about it. At least it was better to start with Scott than with Rogue, whose power was even more of a curse to her. Scott had ten years of experience, he could take the attitude problems better than Rogue could. In the half-dim light of the bunk house, the weak red light from his eyes behind the glasses actually created a glow around his face. Normally you didn't even notice it until he blinked and the lenses darkened.
"I don't see what that has to do with hearing," Kid finally said.
"It's not a mutant power. Just a lot of practice." Scott glanced across the room towards Rogue, who seemed to shrink in her chair. Without drawing any attention to the gesture, Logan put his hand on her arm. The metal inside made it weigh her down heavily, but she didn't mind. The weight only meant strength, protection, and a reminder that when it came to killing, she may be the most unfortunate, but they were all in the same boat. That didn't prevent her from looking down at the floor when she replied to the unspoken request:
"When people touch my skin, I take their life away. Powers too, if they're mutants."
"As in... you kill them?" Lou asked, wanting to make sure she had heard correctly.
Rogue blushed. "If I don't let go right away," she mumbled.
"Poor thing," Rachel said, handing her a cup of coffee. It was impossible to get scared of this sad girl, in spite of what she had just said. Rachel saw Logan's hand on Rogue's arm, unconsciously compared it to what she had just heard, and rendered it safe to pat the girl's hand a little.
Noah looked over at where Ororo sat, and he wished his mind could have been more benevolent. This wasn't a game. Although they had done their best to ease the effect revealing their powers had to the riders, it was still pretty clear that every single one of these people could kill you in a heartbeat if they wanted to. And it was also clear that it wasn't a possibility of which they were unaware. He had no doubt the girl's sadness was genuine, but he was pretty sure that even if she hadn't willingly used her eerie power on anyone yet, it was only a matter of time before she did. They weren't just some fortunate freaks from a future time, they were warriors. The main interest was, warriors for what side, in what war? And those adversaries out there, who were they?
"So who are the guys out there?" Jimmy asked. Noah could hear that this wasn't the only thought they had in common. It didn't surprise him. Jimmy wasn't the kind to just start trusting people, not ever. Normally, he was the same way.
Jean looked up at Jimmy. She knew what he and some of the others were thinking, and she wasn't the least bit surprised. On the contrary, she was grateful for the half chance they had been given. It was more than their usual share. "Their names are Erik Magnus Lensherr and Raven Darkholme -- Magneto and Mystique to anyone not in their immediate range of friends. And their immediate range of friends isn't big."
"And that don't include you, does it?" Teaspoon assumed with half a smile.
Jean blinked, but replied: "Not really, no." She wondered how much she was supposed to tell them, and silently asked Scott. While his exterior remained unreadable, his mind was aiding her in finding the right words. Nothing about the attempted genocide. If the riders ever found out about that, it would be incomprehensible for them why Magneto wasn't just strung up a tree, no questions asked, no need to worry about his immense powers later. This was that kind of time. "They're criminals."
"And you're what? Marshals?"
"Not as such." This was hard. Scott helped her choose information and she voiced it. Always the speaker. "Our goals just weren't the same as his were, and we have the ability to stop him. Not many others do." She tied the half-worded commands from Scott into sentences. "Also, this particular case is personal. Magneto kidnapped a friend of ours." He also came here using a device invented by another friend, but Scott strongly advised Jean not to mention that.
Realization hit Noah. No wonder Ororo had been so interested in hearing Cody's wild tales. When Cody came back from his ride, he'd be pleased to know he had been right all the time. "Cody's blue beast."
"Yes," Jean said. "That's Hank."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
"That's quite alright. Beast is his code name."
"But he's human?" Jimmy asked.
"Would you call me human, bub?" Logan snarled, and the rider watched him thoughtfully, actually considering the question. Jimmy certainly had a thing for playing with death.
The riders looked at each other, contemplating the information they had gotten. They were smart enough to realize it was far from the whole truth, but it was quite a lot to take in anyway. And the strangest of it all was that it was true. Buck was the first to look up, eyes wandering from Ororo's hair via Scott's glasses to Rogue's long gloves before they finally stopped to ask Ike a question. Although nothing seemed to pass between them, Ike's mouth soon twisted a little and he raised his eyebrows at Noah, who didn't know what to do next. He supposed, with everything that had been going on with him and Ororo, it was his decision, and he really wanted to trust her. Still, trust based on attraction had gotten them all in trouble too many times, and so he turned to Jimmy, question yet unspoken.
Jimmy looked back, shrugged, and smiled lopsidedly. "Yeah, sure. We'll help you out."
"So," Noah said, leaning his chin on his hands.
"So," Ororo agreed.
"You lied to me. But I would have lied too, that's not what I meant. I..." This wasn't fair, he thought to himself. All he had wanted was to have a nice little flirt with a young girl, maybe moving on from that to something more serious. But now she wasn't just some young girl, she was a superhuman girl from the future, and he didn't know how to deal with that. He didn't even have time to figure out how to deal with that, since they would be heading back to where they came from as soon as they had found their blue furry friend. Why had she even bothered to get this started? She knew all this from the start, he didn't.
"I'm sorry. I liked you, I guess I just... wanted to forget about the rest for a while."
He looked sharply at her, surprised by her tone of voice. "Are you ashamed of yourself or something?"
"No! Of course not. It's just that with the way we have to live, I'm not used to being around normals. Not to mention normals from another time."
A grin spread over his face. "I think I know how you feel."
Her lips twisted. "Yeah. I'd like to say 'Let's take it slow', but I don't think that's an option."
"I guess not." He wanted to say something else, but didn't have time to find the words before Scott came up to them.
"Sorry to disturb you," he said, although the apology seemed half-hearted. "I'm going to talk to Magneto, do you want to join me?"
She nodded and stood up, feeling in her pockets. Nothing metal there, and the clothes had been chosen to be metal-free to begin with.
Noah rose as well. "You're not going in there alone, are you?" he asked, suddenly feeling the desire to protect her. That was insane. She could kill him in ten seconds if she wanted to.
"No, I'm going in with Scott," she explained in a reasonable tone, as if he was a little kid.
Scott looked at Noah, at least he supposed that. It was hard to tell what was going on behind those glasses. "Get rid of anything metal, bring the whip, and let us do the talking," he said.
"You got it." Noah quickly checked his appearance, replacing his belt with a piece of string, and then followed the mutants into the sweat lodge.
"Cyclops, Storm," the old man greeted them, ignoring Noah completely. He was tied up and lay on a mattress on the ground, but still managed to remain dignified. "What is it you want from me?"
"Where's Hank?" Scott asked. His voice was very low.
"I haven't got the slightest idea, I'm afraid."
Only a dance of the eyebrows showed the surprise at that answer. "The surveillance cameras at the supermarket saw you with him. Logan scented him in the woods. And you're telling us you don't have him?"
"Not anymore. He was taken from me by some normals."
That did surprise them. Ororo actually laughed. "Do you really expect us to believe that? The master of magnetism overpowered by some normals?"
The contempting tone in her voice troubled Noah, and Magneto saw it right away, smirking a little, before returning his attention to her. "Why would that surprise you? You are the ones using them for backup, aren't you? Trying to convince them that there's no real difference, convince yourself, perhaps, even. You're a beautiful woman, Storm, I think you know that. But when you look in the mirror, what do you *really* see? Is it that beauty? Or is it what they make of you? You were never anything but a thing to any of them. They may have worshipped your powers at times, but they never worshipped *you*. They just took advantage of you, just like they took advantage of your hands to pick pockets or you body for lust..."
Storm just looked at him as if he was reciting the phone book, and Scott sighed impatiently. "This isn't really going anywhere. All we want is Hank back, then we can all go home. Including you."
"Home to what?" Magneto asked mildly. "Dear Scott, don't you realize that once the persecution comes, you'll be first in line to death row? Noboy ever cared if you lived or died even before they found out you were a lethal mutant without control. The Diamond needed you for crimes, but to the rest of them you were just a duty. If it wasn't for Charles you'd be locked in a cellar someplace -- if you were lucky."
"And if it wasn't for Hank I'd still be blind," Scott replied, keeping the conversation at Magneto's calm level. "That's what this is about, Erik. Not the normals and what they did or didn't do to us. Hank. Where is he?"
"I told you, I don't know."
"And I told you, I don't believe you."
"Well, that's unfortunate, because it is the truth. I brought Beast with me because I needed his help, but he was taken away from me."
"I guess we're at an impasse, then."
A simple shrug was the only reply.
Scott turned around and made a motion with his head towards Ororo. "Come on."
They left the sweat lodge, Noah following them without saying anything. He wasn't really expected too. And yet he had a feeling they had wanted him to hear this.
"He could be telling the truth," Ororo said quietly. "He doesn't usually lie to us."
"Can you picture Magneto being taken down by normals?"
"No. But I can picture Mystique being taken down by normals. He's the leader, Scott. If anything goes wrong, it's his fault."
A tiny smile. "You're telling me."
It was supposed to be quiet in the bunkhouse, since the ones who were to keep watch later needed their sleep. Who were they kidding? The riders had gotten so far as to lie down in their bunks, but they had never actually turned off the light.
"It was real," Cody kept repeating, finding that hard to believe himself after all that time of scorn.
"Yes, Cody," Lou said patiently. "We've heard all that 'I told you so' stuff already. Now, can you just forgive us our errors and shut up." She smacked him lightly in the back of his head.
He was completely unrepentant, staring right ahead with a childish Christmas morning smile on his face, oblivious to the fact that the others didn't share his enthusiasm. "Superhumans from the future..." Suddenly a thought occured to him. "And Ororo is one, too?"
"Unless changing the weather suddenly turned into everyday activity," Lou said.
"But she and Noah... I mean, could they..." Cody waved his hands indefinitely.
"I don't think they'll have the time to figure that out, Cody," Buck said patiently.
"She seems human enough. It's harder to think of her and the blue beast being the same kind than her and Noah. But then, even a lapdog is a kind of wolf, right?"
"I'm not sure they even should get together," Kid mumbled.
Kid reacted instantly on Buck's matter-of-fact comment. "What was that supposed to mean?"
"I'm not going to hold your upbringing against you," Buck stated calmly, "but let's face it, you're not really into the races mixing."
Kid shook his head, not believing that he actually heard this. "Have I ever turned against you or Noah? There's more to this than attitudes or bad blood. We don't even know what they think of us. They're superhuman, right? More than human. Maybe they look at us the way we look at the apes, and they're just too polite to tell."
"Yeah," Jimmy reluctantly admitted. "They haven't really said much about their own time."
Ike shook his head violently.They don't think of us like that.
"They could," Lou said. "I mean, they seem nice enough, but what if they're not?"
"They don't act like royalty or anything though," Cody said thoughtfully. "Well, apart from that old guy in the sweat lodge."
"You were in the sweat lodge!?"
Cody spread his hands to show his innocence. "I de-metaled myself first, I promise! And you got to admit, to him we're some sort of lowlives."
"Well, we did tie him up and lock him in a tent," Jimmy commented.
Ike was still shaking his head.We're not lowlives to the others.
"Well, we like to think that, but how do we really know?" Lou asked.
He gestured towards his eyes.I know when I'm seen that way.
The others silenced, incapable of denying that argument. Ike's shyness sometimes verged on paranoia, and he was more likely to emphasize any sign of arrogance than the opposite.
Before the conversation had gotten started again, Teaspoon returned from his watching duties.
"What are you all doing up?" he asked, rubbing his face to get the chill out. "Ike, you're supposed to keep Miss Grey company soon, you should get some sleep."
Ike just shrugged.
"And where's Noah? Shouldn't he have been replaced already?"
"He's staying with Ororo," Lou said smugly, and there was a weak chuckle from the others. They were still unsure about the X-Men, but they never missed a chance to make fun of a friend."
"They're probably waiting for Scott to replace Ororo," Buck said, trying to hide a yawn.
"Go to sleep," Teaspoon said, reaching for the lamp.
"Teaspoon, what do you think they live like in their own time?" Lou asked.
Instead of blowing on the lamp, Teaspoon exhaled softly. "I don't know, Louise, but I can take a guess. People are never too kind on those who are different, especially not if they seem dangerous. Now, with the power these people have, they could certainly defend themselves, but if they're really as few as they say they are, it could be ugly. Real ugly."
"Do you think they're being persecuted?" Lou's voice was weak.
"I've been sitting in the stable for the past few hours next to a girl who could have killed me with a simple touch, and yet she seemed afraid of me. She doesn't even tell people her real name, just some code name she has chosen for herself. Then there are those claws that someone put in Mr. Logan's body against his will. I don't like the look of this."
"What about Jean?" Buck suggested. "She seems confident enough."
"Yes, that's true. She and young Bobby are also the only ones that don't seem to have code names... and that have no physical differences from the rest of us. I don't know if that's a coincidence." Teaspoon thought through what he had said, frowning, and then his expression lightened and he gave Ike a look. "Speaking of Miss Grey, Ike..."
Ike nodded and left his bunk to get dressed. Grabbing his hat and coat, he heard Teaspoon's gruff goodnight to the riders: "Now, shut your mouths and go to sleep, you'll need the strength."
Inside the stable, Jean sat on a pile of hay, reading one of Cody's novels that he'd left there at some point. When Ike came, she put it down and smiled at him.
"Hello. Darkest hours for us, huh?"
He nodded and leaned restlessly against the wall. Jean patted the pile beside her.
"She hasn't been any trouble so far, there's no reason to think we won't be spending all of our hours here. Come on, sit down!"
Hesitating, he came closer and sat down on the pile, awkward to be so close to a pretty young woman. Was he to think of her as a fighter or as a girl? The others would have known. Cody or Jimmy would probably have made some stupid joke about how she tried to make a pass at them.
"I'm not trying to make a pass at you or anything," she said with a grin, and his eyes widened at the way her words mirrored his thoughts exactly. It made him more comfortable. She wouldn't have made joke like that if she had been looking down on him.
"You know," she said after a short silence, "just because we're superhuman it doesn't mean we're... superior, or anything." Now, why did she choose that exact word, she wondered to herself. The label Homo Superior was constantly used about their kind by Magneto, and she had never appreciated it. Sure, it was better than "freak", but it wasn't that much closer to the truth. She was the only one of the X-Men to have a good relationship with her parents, and although she, as all children, had often felt superior to them, it had nothing to do with her powers. As for this shy young man sitting next to her, he projected his thoughts so clearly into her head that she was finding it hard even to separate her own identity from his. The idea of feeling superior to him was laughable. His wish of acceptance was as great as hers, and he displayed no hatred, only curiosity. After all, it was highly unusual to get prisoners who couldn't be restrained by heavy bars.
"I suppose Magneto and Mystique aren't your most average type of prisoners," she said.
His surprise at this comment almost made her feel ashamed of herself for playing games with him. She couldn't afford picking up some of his thoughts, they were projected too strongly, but she did keep her mind a little bit more open than she should. He was so eager to communicate, closing up felt like fighting off a toddler's hand. But if she wasn't to leave him alone, she should at least admit what she was doing.
"I haven't been completely honest with you," she said. "You see, I'm a telepath." He didn't know the meaning of the word, so she explained it further: "I can read minds."
His reaction was unusual, but not entirely unexpeced. First the natural surprise, then an overwhelming joy. *Why didn't you say so earlier!?* he laughed inside his mind.
"People don't always react very well. I don't read minds without permission, but..." She picked up his thought. "Well, I don't normally. You were projecting."
He brushed that away as unimportant, still pleased at the discovery, and his thoughts started to swirl at her with such strength and speed that she winced. He immediately drew back, confused and wounded.
"You were a little too loud, that's all," she explained. It felt strange to be speaking out loud when Ike was chattering in her mind, and so she silenced, returning the thoughts without words. She liked the way his thoughts were constructed, almost clear enough to *see*, yet more associative than plainly logical.
He tried slowing down his thoughts, and got an appreciative smile from Jean, showing that it was working. It almost made him sad that she was engaged, and she thanked him for the compliment, amused. The thoughts proceeded more slowly, showing images from his life at the express station and indirectly asking for comparison with her own life. The bunkhouse shifted to the mansion, and Ike was both amused and annoyed at the realization that Jean did not know the names of all the horses in Xavier's stable, while she knew the positioning and use of everything in the Blackbird. Although fascinating, it was just a machine. Yes, but her boyfriend was the devoted pilot, how could she not know it? She even knew how uncomfortable it was in a tender moment -- that last thought passed through before she could stop it, and he laughed silently. Some things didn't change much.
Enjoying the game they proceeded the comparison, the fighting techniques as well as the everyday living, until Jean unwillingly sent an FoH demonstration and the screams of "mutie freak" that filled it. Stunned by her revelation, he sent back the exact same words, used in other circumstances. Revulsion and despise, sometimes out in the open, sometimes hidden behind fancy talking. Yes, like the chief of hospital who explained far too smoothly why her promised scholarship was no longer available. People speaking like they would to a very small child, assuming that his silence meant he didn't understand. Lies, all those lies, always pretending to be something you're not. The dreaded moment when mute couldn't simply be mistaken for taciturn. Scott's back growing stiff at every comment directed at his shielded eyes, every person hurrying their steps. Buck's chin held high, proudly declaring that the muttered prayers and curses didn't matter. An outcast, themselves and the ones they loved.
Some things didn't change much, indeed.
Ororo sat with her head leaning on Noah's chest. She had a feeling there was a distinct reason they had only been provided with one blanket. If that was true, she didn't really mind. All she had to do was sit still and hope to forget that she would have to leave him and that they were guarding a dangerous criminal, as well as the nagging speciesism even in her own mind that insisted of telling her all the problems of dating a normal.
"This is nice," he said quietly, stroking her hair.
"Yeah," she replied.
He shifted his position, and she shifted with him, laying his hands in her lap.
"You know," he said, "I've told you about my life..."
"And I told you a pack of lies," she filled in.
"I don't blame you."
"I know." She thought about what he had told her on their first date and the time after that. He had been born free in a liberal home, which did explain how he could work so easily with the other riders. But the world around him wasn't as liberal. His characteristic cynicism must have come from when his father was murdered. When you realize you're born to hang, suspicion is a way of survival. He was a reserved sort, and she still had heaps to find out, but then, they had only had one date. And he was right, she did owe him.
"My parents died when I was little during a war in Egypt," she started. "I was raised by a pack of thieves there. Then I traveled around for a bit, was worshipped as a goddess," she smiled a little, trying to sound flippant, "and finally ended up as an X-Woman."
"Ever been in love?" Noah's voice was low.
She turned to look at him, and then turned back. "Occasionally" Talking about Forge wasn't easy. "I used to go out with the guy who made the time machine. Forge. I had it pretty deep for him."
"A lot of things. I guess what it finally came down to was that the life of an X-Man wasn't much of a Friday night entertainment."
"Is anyone's?" Noah's muscles tensed when he asked the next question: "Ever been with a non-mutant man?"
"Quite a few, actually," she replied.
He swallowed. "Because you wanted to?"
"Usually not." She didn't know how to explain the rest, how people had seen it as a work benefit whether they were protecting her or worshipping her. "I don't know how Magneto knew. Does it bother you?"
"Yes," he answered simply, while at the same time wrapping his arms tighter around here. She smiled.
"I've never been in love with anyone like you, mutant or not."
"Same here." His voice was sarcastic, but the words were honest. "I can't accept that we may not even have a second date."
"Not to mention a third."
"What's so special about a third date?" he asked, puzzled.
He really didn't know, and she wasn't about to tell him. "Never mind. We've got this, at least. It could be our second date."
"Yeah? Are we to have dinner then?"
"We could have a movie," she suggested.
"Uhm... moving pictures. Like a theatre play, but on photographs."
He chuckled. "Okay, do you know any good ones?"
"Several." She thought for a while, and then decided on a fitting movie story. "In a period of great war, there was a bar owner called Rick..."
That morning, the riders gathered to practice their shooting and other skills. Although they didn't admit it, it might have been an attempt to prove themselves to the X-Men, who seemed more amused than anything else.
"You want to try?" Jimmy casually asked Logan after a round at some tin cans.
Logan grimaced slightly. He could take care of a handgun, it wasn't that. He just liked close combat a lot better. "Sure, why not?" The old thing was heavier than it looked, and clumsy compared to 21st century weapons, but it wasn't that hard to fire. The shots entered more or less where they should.
"Not bad," Jimmy said, but he didn't seem all that impressed.
Logan growled a little. "Not quite my sport."
"Try shooting him," Jean suggested, and Logan stared at her.
"No, but seriously!" Jean mentally lifted the gun Logan had laid to the side, and cocked it. "Ready?"
He got her meaning and let his claws slip out. "Okay."
The trigger was pulled and bullets fired in his direction. Logan put up his claws and blocked the first few bullets, then he changed position of his hand and sliced the last one. Unfortunately, although this slowed the speed of the fragments, one of them still grazed is arm.
Jean lowered the gun. "You okay?"
"Yeah, sure." It stung a little, but the wound soon healed.
This did make Jimmy impressed. He stared at the healing wound open-mouthed. Some of the other riders had gathered around as well.
"I guess... guns aren't really your thing."
Logan grinned. "Ask One-Eye. He's the marksman."
"Usually not with a gun though," Scott commented dryly.
"Those blasts you spoke of?" Buck asked, rather curious. "We never got to see them."
Scott shrugged and turned to Jean. "Did you get my visor from the hotel?"
"Sure, hang on." She went inside Rachel's house to dig through the bags she had brought, and soon came back with the visor. Scott closed his eyes and changed eyewear.
"So that's why they call you One-Eye?" Jimmy asked.
"No, that's why they call me *Cyclops*," Scott replied coldly, although his slight smile contradicted the scowl on his face. He adjusted the settings by his ear and blasted the tins one by one, varying the strength of the blasts betwen the shots. The riders tried to look blasé, but it didn't work very well.
Noah and Ororo was sitting by the side of the field, not participating in the game.
"You don't care to show your powers?" Noah asked, grinning at the show the others excelled in.
"Hitting a poor can with a bolt of lightning might be considered overkill," she replied. "You?"
"They know what I can do." He caught a lock of her hair and pulled it slightly. "Do you?"
She looked at him and for a second tried to keep her expression of serene divinity, before she had to give up and laugh helplessly.
Some of their friends gave them a glance of interest. Rogue turned her eyes back to the gun she was trying to master, and smiled slightly. "They sure enjoy each other's company."
"Hm. Won't be easy on them when we have to go." Jean turned her attention back to the cans she was spinning for the Kid. "Come on now, let's see how you are with a moving target."
Lou hurried back from town, her hand squeezing the poster and her heels eagerly kicking into Lightning's sides. She paused when she came to the sweat lodge, where Bobby was stuck keeping guard.
"Your friend," she panted, and Bobby rose in one instant move.
Lou nodded and handed Bobby the poster. At first the boy just stared blankly at it, but then he swallowed. "The circus..."
"Guess he was telling the truth," she replied, nodding at the lodge. "Come on."
She pulled him up next to herself at the horseback and they rode up to the others. Lightning squirmed when Lou kicked him this time, but she didn't have patience with that right now. The people on the field stopped their training when they saw her arrive, and she jumped down from Lightning. Bobby slid down too, without any attempt at grace.
"I found your friend," Lou said, and held up the circus poster. "They'll be coming to town tomorrow."
The poster showed several different kind of attractions, some of which where appaling to a 21st century person not used to sideshows. And in the middle of all this was an easily recognized blue beast, if more ferocious than in real life. He was surrounded by the words "The Amazon Gorilla -- more clever than a fox, more dangerous than a grizzly".
"I think I'm gonna go sick," Rogue muttered.
The other X-Men stayed silent, contemplating what they saw. Scott rubbed his forehead and finally nodded slowly. "Perfect."
The kids and the riders looked at him as if he had just grown another head, a so far unknown mutation.
"It's perfect," he repeated. "We know where he is, when we can get to him, and who has him."
"Yeah, well, those who have him own a side show, that doesn't bother you?" Jimmy asked, upset at Scott's calm.
"It could have been worse. They're bound to want him alive and in one piece."
Logan gave a snarl that could have meant almost anything, if it wasn't for the metal around his bones. Alive and in one piece *was* the point. "Yeah. Being up for display for a while won't harm him. Hank's strong enough to manage."
Bobby was about to protest, but Rogue put her gloved hand on his arm. She had seen Logan in a cage, fighting people for money. The situation wasn't all that dissimilar. "It's better than Magneto."
He glanced at her, and for the first time in months remembered that the white streaks in her hair weren't just pretty decoration. He hated the thought of Hank in a cage, but he nodded slowly. "I guess."
The riders would have wanted to protest, but they realized that they were in territory they knew very little about. They just listened as the X-Men began to plan for the coming day and the arrival of the sideshow. Suddenly Logan rose his head and sniffed the air a little, looking around before his eyes fell on Lightning.
"Your horse is bleeding," he said to Lou.
There was indeed a gash at Lightning's side. Lou frowned. "What could have done that?" She looked down at her own feet and noticed that her spur was broken, a sharp tip was all that remained. She loosened it from her boot and took it up to look at. "Weird... I don't see how it could fall off like that."
Logan muttered a curse. "How close did you get to the sweat lodge?"
Lou paled when she realized what she had done. "I... went there to get Bobby. Pretty close, I guess. I showed him the poster and told him what happened..."
"Which means now Erik knows, too," Jean concluded, and even before she had finished the sentence, they were all on their way to the sweat lodge. Bobby was the first one to get there. As the others tumbled in behind him, he got out of the lodge, holding a sharp piece of metal in his hand.
"He's gone. I shouldn't have left."
"If he had that thing to cut the ropes, I'm glad you did leave," Ororo said calmly.
"It's my fault," Lou said, devastated. Nobody argued with her, but they didn't blame her either. There wasn't any point in that.
"Well," Scott said, "what's done is..." He stopped suddenly. "Mystique."
"Cody!" Noah said, turning around instantly. Cody was watching Mystique, and whatever else the cocky rider was, the two of them were a team. He was barely aware of the X-Men team leader running beside him. fearing the worst he climbed up the ladder to the stable loft and didn't know whether to laugh or cry when he saw Cody manacled in there.
"Thank God you came!" Cody said. "I've been calling like crazy, didn't you guys hear me?"
"I'm afraid not. Sorry," Noah said and moved forward to loosen Cody. Scott stopped him with a hand on his arm.
Only then did Noah remember Mystique's power, and he nodded his consent, waiting for the others to arrive. After the kids came Jean, and Scott turned to her with an unspoken question. She looked at Cody for about a second, scanning his mind, and then nodded. It was really him. Noah noticed the nod and went forward to his friend.
"Isn't it like you to get into trouble," he said, but the mocking tone was only there to mask his relief, and Cody knew that.
"Hey, I couldn't do much against the two of them," he protested lightly. "What's been going on around here?"
"Well," Noah said, looking up at the others with a sigh. "We know where their friend is. Too bad we just lost the prisoners."
"Come closer!" said a caped midget and motioned for the people on the square to step into the tents. "See the wonders of the world! We have the remarkable fire-eater Roberto Zabora, the armless wonder Lorita Cook signing postcards for a nickle a piece, a ferocious gorilla from the Amazons, a baby with two heads conserved in alcohol for the benefit of science..."
"The benefit of entertainment," Ororo muttered. "Well, at least it's the one place Hank won't be noticeable."
The riders formed a circle around the tents, slightly uncomfortable. The X-Men would go inside and they were going to take care of the crowd once Hank was free.
A man gave Buck an unfriendly push. "Hey, Injun boy, what you doing out here instead of in there?" Buck looked up, as well as Ike, who had been in the middle of a question. The man chuckled. "Goes for that friend of yours, too."
They did what they always did in those situations, which was simply pretend that nothing had been said at all. Jean looked back at them for a split second, but when she realized they were dealing with it, she proceeded inside.
"The Amazon Gorilla?" Scott asked the midget.
"A good choice. Second to the left, a quarter for the trouble," the midget replied.
They moved into the tent, where two large men were guarding a cage on wheels. Inside the cage, Hank McCoy was putting on a tired act of ferocity, mostly to avoid the sharp stick the men poked him with when they found his performance less than convincing. The X-Men watched it passionlessly, and Rogue pressed Bobby's hand hard to prevent him from speaking.
Logan moved up near the cage. "Don't they have any wonders with more bosom?" he asked casually.
Hank looked up at the sound of the familiar voice, and bared his fangs in the slightest of smiles when he saw his friends in the crowd. Scott stared straight ahead, as usual without any emotions put on display, but the corners of his mouth twisted down slightly. *Ask Logan to create a distraction,* he sent to Jean, and she passed the request on. Logan nodded casually and moved outside.
"I got a letter from Hank the other day," he told Jean, still looking straight ahead. He had no peripheral vision and needed to see Hank's reaction. "He told me he's about to start a *duck* farm."
Hank slowly sank down on his knees, realizing that "duck" was the key word. This caused the men to slam the stick into his ribs, and he growled in a way that would make Logan blush in embarrassment, but the men seemed pleased with it, and he stayed on his knees.
"There are some horses loose outside," a loud voice said from the entrance. "They're running away as we speak, so if you had your horse tied up by the saloon, I suggest you go find it."
There was a massive movement of people going outside, and Logan grinned at Hank. The distraction seemed to have worked. Scott focused on the cage and quickly calculated the force needed and how to best achieve it. Moving both his hands up the the rim of his glasses, he quickly pulled them down slightly and moved his head from left to right before pushing them up again. The beam blasted the roof off the cage, and the few people still left in the tent started screaming. Once the roof was off, Hank jumped out of it with his usual agility and grimaced in pain as he hit the floor. "In one piece" was a phrase with many meanings. Bobby hurried up to him and hugged him tightly.
"Later," Scott said, pushing the youth towards the exit. "Now get out!"
Ororo called on a thunderstorm to send people inside and make them forget that they had just seen a force beam blast out the side of a tent. Maybe they would even assume it was some strange sort of lightning. Outside, the riders were waiting with getaway wagons and the X-Men's last possessions from the hotel. Hank's keepers had gotten over the shock enough to realize that their precious beast was getting away, and the first bullets began to fly over the wagons.
"Come on!" Jimmy said, firing back. "They won't miss forever!"
Then suddenly all the guns dropped at once, and slid together into a pile. As they escaped the scene, Jean caught a glimpse of a distinguished profile and some grey hair.
*Thank you,* she sent, and Magneto looked back at her, bowing his head slightly.
They didn't stop the wagons until they reached the station. Everyone hurried inside, and a few of the riders positioned themselves by the window to fire at any followers. Rachel had linens and hot water ready, but was still shocked to see the gashes of blood on Hank, and Hank's own appearance obviously added to that shock.
"You poor thing!" she said, and Hank smiled a little, sitting down on the bench by the table.
"I assure you it looks a lot worse than it is," he said in his usual refined style. "No arteries seem to have been hit, and the wounds are all superficial. I doubt any of them need suturing, if such a thing is even available in this environment. No offence, madam."
"Well, they have to be cleaned anyway," Rachel said. A bit cautiously, she dipped a linen rag in water and started cleaning the bleeding areas. When he made no attempt to act as the beast he looked like, she continued more freely.
"No broken bones?" Ororo asked.
"Judging from the pain in my side, a rib must have cracked," Hank admitted, "but since it hasn't damaged the lung it's nothing to worry about. I'm a bit sore, of course, I suspect there has been some muscle damage, but nothing that will not heal quite easily."
"Guess they took advantage of the fact that you don't bruise," Logan stated without much passion. "Glad to have you back."
The X-Men were all sitting close to Hank, and Bobby hugged him so tightly that Hank had to push him away a little bit, grimacing of pain.
"Sorry," the boy said, laughing and crying at the same time, and the MD hugged him back, somewhat more carefully.
"No need to apologize, Robert," he said softly. He then looked up at the others. "I can't begin to say how grateful I am you came for me."
"Of course we would," Jean said. "Gives me fewer hours in the med lab." Her team mates joined in with a hearty rudeness that more than anything showed just how much they had missed him.
"Otherwise what would I do next time a lens cracked?"
"You shouldn't be the only one to try out Forge's inventions. He's *my* ex after all."
"Like I'd let away the only guy I can tickle properly."
"I've missed your lectures on what smokes and drinks should be doing to my body."
Hank laughed. "Alright, I do believe your message has come through. And as for you gentlemen... and ladies," he said, adressing the riders, "I thank you too. Very much."
"It was the least we could do!" Cody said, squirming in his chair. "If I had helped you in the forest, none of this would have happened."
Hank looked surprised, only now recognizing the rider. "That was you? There's no reason to apologize. Your reaction was highly natural."
"Still unforgivable, though. I'm so sorry."
"It's quite alright. You can hardly blame yourself for what these men did -- not to mention our old friend Magneto."
"What did he want with you, really?" Ororo asked, the one question they hadn't managed to find out.
"He wanted me to create aggression reductors. I don't think going here was the plan to begin with, but once we was here, he claimed a war was the perfect situation to try such an invention."
"So there will be a war," Teaspoon commented. The X-Men payed no attention to it, though, they were too busy with the revelation. So very simple, seemingly humane, and absolutely idiotic.
"That's just like Magneto, isn't it?" Scott said, jaw tightened. "He can always claim he only did it for humanity. Never stops to think that maybe aggression is there for a reason, or what will happen if some have it and some don't."
"But surely it would be..."
Lou's protest was never finished before Jimmy waved at them. "Get down!"
Seconds later, a gunshot broke the window. Everyone crouched, and Jean and Ororo moved up to the window while Scott hurried to get his visor from the bags and put down his glasses. They positioned themselves next to the riders by the windows.
"Is it really that smart to use your powers?" Jimmy turned around to ask Jean. "We won't be able to hold Hank here forever." Jean simply shrugged, not ready to give up without a fight.
"We won't have to." It was Logan who answered. He had been playing with the Tesselty and now held it up. "If I understand this gizmo correctly, there's an opening in five hours, three miles from here. Hank can get the button and go home, while the rest of us have three weeks until the next hole to recapture Magneto."
"Three *weeks*?" Jean asked, suddenly shook out of her calm. "Who will take care of the kids if we're stuck here for the next three weeks?"
Logan smirked. "Chuck, I suppose. He could brainwash them into obeying his every command."
"Charles would never do such a thing and you know it."
"Then he's in trouble, I guess." Logan was still smirking, but they were both serious underneath.
"Okay," Teaspoon said after a moment of thinking. "We'll sneak out, two by two. There are extra guns for those of you who need it. What can you do, son?" he asked Hank.
"I have enhanced agility, strength, speed..." Hank grimaced. "That is, I do under normal circumstances."
Teaspoon handed him a gun and raised an eyebrow towards Scott. "I hope you are all right with this?" he asked, acknowledging the young man as the leader. He got a short nod as a reply -- Scott was busy firing blasts through the broken window. As soon as there was a moment's advantage, Teaspoon motioned for the first two to get out, and Hank and Bobby slipped by the intense shooting, Bobby holding on to the Tesselty.
"Here's to nothing," Logan mumbled and grabbed Rogue's hand, following only minutes later. After Noah and Ororo left as the third couple, the shots suddenly intensified.
"They've figured out what we are doing," Teaspoon said. "Well, we knew this wouldn't be easy. It's gonna be harder from now on. Any volunteers?"
Ike, who was closest to the door, looked up to see who would come with him, and Scott quickly moved up to his side. "We'll go. They're still a bit jittery around my blasts."
"Okay. Ride safe, boys, and for God's sake try not to get shot."
Teaspoon and Cody were the last ones to flee, and by then their pursuers were spread across the landscape. Unlike them, the riders and X-Men did not have horses, which made their escape slower, but also allowed more places to take cover. A mile from their planned destination, Ike dodged behind a rock and looked out for enemies. There was one riding behind that was shooting at them quite violently, but he also glimpsed something far ahead. Looking more carefully he found that it was Noah and Ororo, though, and he couldn't help grinning as the distance between their faces was reduced to nothing. Mortal danger set off pheromones.
He had no time for more elaborate voyeurism, though. While he still watched the pair disappear in the distance, a blast so forceful it made him jump was fired dangerously close to him. He turned around in shock, and saw Scott pressing a hand towards his face.
"Ike? Are you okay?"
Ike nodded, but Scott repeated his name, with a voice close to panic. His eyes were closed for protection, and Ike moved closer, squeezing the other man's hand as a sign of reassurance. Scott relaxed and took off his visor. It had cut into his skin due to the gunshot, and his temple was bleeding. With remarkably steady fingers he checked the lense. A sigh escaped his lips.
"Shattered." He thought for a second and then shrugged. "We're more than halfway there, there's no going back. Are you up for the challenge?"
For a second, Ike felt a pang of panic. How could he possibly be expected to lead Scott to the opening when he couldn't even make himself understood? But there really was no other choice, so finally, he squeezed Scott's hand again, and Scott grinned. "Okay. Let's go, then."
Ike held him down and touched his bleeding face.
"It's just a scratch."
That was true, but Ike still took off his bandanna and wrapped it around the wound to stop the bleeding. He got the slightest of smiles as a thanks, and they both proceeded forward.
One of their pursuers was riding dangerously close, and they ducked. Ike quickly discovered that although Scott was remarkably accurate in judging the number and location of enemies, taking cover was another matter altogether. He dragged the mutant leader closer to himself and fired at the enemy. The man got off his horse and walked up to their hiding place, still firing at them. Ike took a run to the left, but Scott let his hand slip away and rolled down on the ground. Before the attacker had a chance to change his target, he found his legs caught in a tight grip that caused him to fall over. A few punches later, and Scott had the man's gun in his hand, quickly knocking him out with it. Ike just stared. He had never seen anyone move like that. It wasn't quite right to say that Scott acted as if his eyes were still open; a more accurate description was that he acted as if every piece of his body was an eye. The logic part of Ike's mind told him that it was just well-trained hearing and touch, but it didn't feel that way. In any case, it made him relax considerably. Still, it took them longer to get where they were going, and not too far from their destination, Kid and Lou met up with them. Ike had been in close combat with another enemy, and was most grateful when, at a slow moment, a gunshot made sure the man didn't get close again. He looked over to where Scott was fighting, but that was a mess too tangled up to try and solve with fire arms.
"Hey," Kid said, and then, noticing Scott's bleeding face and closed eyes, "are you really letting him fight like that?"
Ike shrugged. There was no "letting" about it, Scott had made it perfectly clear that Ike's presence in a hand combat would only confuse him, and he respected that decision. Kid, however, had gotten no word of warning and rushed up to help Scott, just as the X-Man knocked out his enemy. As a thanks, he got thrown flat on his back nine feet from where he had been standing. Lou tried to hide a smile, and Scott got up, frowning.
"Who was that?"
"The Kid," Lou replied.
"Oh Christ! Ike, when I told you I was trained for this you could have passed it on! Or was it unclear somehow?" He walked up to where Kid was lying and waited for the rider to rise. "You okay?"
"Yeah. And don't blame Ike, he didn't have a chance to tell me."
Scott smiled. "Okay, I won't. Well, if you're not hurt, let's get going. There are only five hundred yards left."
"How do you know?" Kid asked, getting back on his feet with some effort.
"I just do."
At the meeting place, Hank and Bobby, Logan and Rogue were already gathered when the next two couples arrived. They had shaken off all pursuit and was now simply waiting for the last people to arrive. When Jimmy showed up, he was alone.
"Where's Jean?" Rogue asked, immediately worried, walking up to him.
"She's coming soon," Jimmy said reassuringly. "Don't you worry."
"But why were you..." Rogue caught Logan's eye and noticed that he was making a motion as to take something off his hand. She put her own hand up to her glove and looked at him to see if that was right. When he nodded, she slid it off and put her other arm across Jimmy's chest. "Make one move and I'll drain you. Care to say what this is all about?" she asked Logan.
"That ain't Jimmy, sweetheart," he replied. "And if Mystique's here, that means Magneto's around too, and that I'm damn lucky to not be flying in the air already."
"Can you smell him?" Rogue asked. At that same moment, Mystique, still in Jimmy's form, gave her a violent kick to get loose. The only result of this was that Rogue's hand happened to brush her cheek. Mystique reverted to her true form and fell uncoscious to the ground while Rogue took a horrified step backwards. Logan had already started sniffing the air, and his concerned eyes met hers.
"He's here alright," he said.
"Half a mile further south," she added, with the knowledge of Mystique's memories.
"I'll go there," Ororo said, looking towards Noah who simply nodded. He would be more than willing to use his whip in assistance. Another look made Bobby stand up and prepare to go with them. It would have been best if they could bring Jean as well, but she and Jimmy had not arrived to the meeting point, and they had no time to wait. They didn't even have to go as far as half a mile before a familiar silhouette could be seen some distance away. He didn't bother to try and hide. On the contrary, he was waiting. Ororo pulled the others to a stop and turned to him.
"We have Mystique, you know."
"No, I didn't know." His voice was calm, almost friendly, but far from harmless. Noah's hand went to the whip, only to have Ororo stop him.
"Why don't you just come home with us?"
"You're asking me to voluntarily go back to prison?"
Actually, she was. There wasn't much time to force him, and it was either that or going back in time once more just to capture him. "The way I see it, your plans have been hopelessly interfered with, your protegée is caught, and when we leave, you will be stuck in a time where they hang people for stealing a horse. I'm not sure what the punishment is for genocide -- maybe you could join the people currently committing it."
Magneto raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment on the insult. Instead, he simply sat down on the ground. "I don't wish to kill you."
"Same here." She stood silent for a while. "I know there are things you care about, Erik, and I know that woman is one of them. As is Charles, I suspect."
"True enough." He rose to his feet. "Send him my regards."
Apparently, that was his last word in the matter, because he turned to leave, taking a glistening roll of thin wire from his pocket and throwing it in the air. It swirled around like a dancing snake and dived down to tie his opponents. Ororo sighed, and gave an affirmative nod to Bobby, who froze the thing in midair. Rolling back her eyes, Ororo called on a wind and sent what was now an ice sculpture back towards Magneto. He worked the metal out of the ice, but before it was fully through a large icicle hit him in the head and he fell down. Ororo hurried up to him to check his pulse.
"How bad is he?" Bobby asked.
"He'll be awake again in a minute or two. *Damn*!" Someone called on them from behind and when she turned around, she saw Jean running up to them. Just in time.
"Sorry I'm late," Jean said. "Quite a few guys to fight off and all that."
"Actually, you're not," Ororo replied. "Think you can keep Magneto unconscious long enough to bring him through the opening?"
Jean made a grimace. "It will be tough, but I suppose so, if I keep my hands on him."
"Okay." Ororo got ready to go, but then she hesitated, throwing a glance at Noah before looking from Jean to Bobby, estimating their strength. "Think you and Bobby can handle it on your own?"
Jean frowned. "Sure. But what are you... oh."
Ororo smiled at Noah. "We still have an hour left. That's plenty of time for a third date."
"You still didn't tell me what's so special about the third date."
"Well, you're about to find out."
The thunderstorm started some time later, while the others were still waiting. Jean's mouth twisted a little, and Scott's expression became even harder to read than usual. Cody noticed their faces and connected it with the sudden change in weather. "I guess they figured out a few things, after all," he said with a grin that didn't disappear even when Lou kicked him in the shins. However, when the two finally returned, there was a total lack of suggestive remarks from him as well as the others.
"Are you ready to go?" Teaspoon asked. He had been the last one to arrive, and had made sure they were now undisturbed.
Ororo's blue eyes met Noah's brown, and they both knew they were far from ready. Maybe it would have been better if they had never had that "third date", but done was done, and neither of them regretted it. Still, there were no declarations of love, no tears in their faces. She reached out her hand in a formal goodbye. "Take care of yourself. With the war and all."
"You too," he replied. "With the persecution and all."
Jean was holding the Tesselty, and she handed it to Ororo to see. "The hole is already open." To Noah, she added, "You had better step back, we don't want you to be drawn in."
Didn't they, though, Noah thought, looking at the mutants gathering together to go home. Their world wasn't his and that was all there was to it, no matter how nice these past few weeks had been. He retreated a few steps and stood there watching as the X-Men walked through nothing and disappeared. It was remarkably undramatic.
"Well," Teaspoon said, breking the silence. "We'd better go home. It's going to take some effort to explain to people what just happened."
Ororo browsed through Kitty's history essay. The American Civil War -- as if she really needed to be reminded of that. They had all gotten back to normal after the time traveling experience, but that didn't mean there weren't times when they still thought about it. She dismissed all personal feelings and tried to look soberly at the essay. The writing itself was fine, but the appendixes were a mess, and Ororo had a strong feeling Kitty didn't always check her sources properly. She looked at a photocopy of an old article from a local magazine, mentioning the first casualties in some town called Rock Creek. Wonder were the girl got those pieces of trivia? Suddenly something caught her eye, and she sat up straight, staring at the article. Her fingers slowly traced a name, as if she had to feel it to believe it. Returning to her senses, she left her chair and grabbed her coat, heading out into the corridor. Her thoughts screamed for Jean to come, and her friend hurried out from her room to join her. *What's wrong?* Jean silently asked, walking through the corridors to catch up with Ororo. Ororo replied with her discovery, her fears, and her intentions. Jean hurried to take her jacket, and the two women drove together to Forge's place.
This time, Forge was home when they arrived, slightly puzzled to see them.
"Hey. What's the problem? Not Magneto, I hope."
"No, he's still where we left him," Ororo saved. "We need to use the Tesselty."
He raised an eyebrow. "Come on in. You know, the Tesselty isn't a toy," he added, when they were taking off their shoes.
"We're trying to save a life," Ororo replied. She showed Forge the photocopy. "One of the friends we made in the nineteenth century was killed early in the war. Noah Dixon. We need to stop it."
Forge took the photocopy and sat down on his couch, reading it. "Ro, this happened a hundred and fifty years ago. They're all dead by now, anyway."
"I know that," she snapped. It wa hard to think about, and it made her feel a bit guilty, but she knew she couldn't stop this. "But some of them got to *live* first! I'm not asking to go there for Cody, who's going to live to see seventy. I don't want Noah to die young. Not if there's anything I can do about it."
He stared at her, and she met his eyes, not yielding. Finally, he sighed. "Alright, then. I'll check for holes."
As he had done before this whole ordeal started, he sat down by his computer, connecting the Tesselty to it. There was only so much information that could be held in the device itself, and after their return he had emptied it to prepare for new journeys. He didn't look up when he finally stated, "There's a few good options. I can't send you back to where you have already been, it would involve more risks than I'm willing to take. But at eight o'clock tonight, there's an opening in New York City, leading directly into Rock Creek a few days before the printing of the paper. Of course, we don't know for sure that it will be enough -- there were no daily newspapers back then. If you come too late, I can't send you there again. Maybe one of the others, but..."
"Do it," Ororo said.
"Okay." Forge got up from his seat and went into the hall. "We'd better hurry if we're going to get there in time." He noticed the looks the others gave him. "What? Magneto was one thing, but I'm not sending two attractive young women to that time alone. One of them black, none the less."
Ah, of course. It had nothing to do with the fact that his ex-girlfriend was saving an old beau. Shame on anyone for thinking otherwise, Ororo thought cynically.
So maybe they should have checked the Tesselty for details. Showing up on a staircase in the Rock Creek hotel may not have been the most appropriate of entrances. Then again, nothing would have been, considering they were not even appropriately dressed this time. Jean glanced quickly at Ororo and raised an eyebrow at her cleavage, which was no more modest than usual.
"Ghosts!" a man yelled, rising from his chair, and his friend pulled him down.
"Did you ever see ghosts dressed like that? They're witches!"
The rest of the crowd seemed too shocked to move, as the three mutants headed down the stairs and outside. Someone grabbed Ororo's arm, and she spun around, ready for a fight. It was Cody.
"What in Heaven's name are you doing here?" he asked them. "I thought I would get a heart attack when you showed up like that!"
"Where's Noah, is he okay?" Ororo asked, ignoring Cody's questions.
At the same time, Jean admitted, "We didn't have time to plan for an imperceptible entrance, I'm afraid."
Cody didn't seem to know, which one to reply to, and was even more confused by the unfamiliar Indian man accompanying them. "Noah? Yeah, he's fine. Why shouldn't he be?" It finally dawned on him what they were doing here. "He's in some kind of trouble, isn't he?"
Seeing the answer in their faces, he led them outside and looked around for someone to ask. "Hey, Randall!" he yelled to a young man. "Have you seen Noah?"
"Yes, he went with the soldiers to the raiders' camp," Randall replied, and Cody paled.
"I think he tried to look out for that Mrs. Birch or whatever her name is."
Cody muttered a phrase Ororo hadn't even thought was invented in the 19th century, and although the mutants didn't realize quite what was going on, they did understand that what they had come to prevent was about to happen. "Can we go there?" Ororo asked.
"Yeah, sure. We'll just get some horses."
Cody's impatience in finding the horses didn't exactly calm the others down, and although Ororo tried to push herself into leadership mode and not panic, she was quite relieved when they finally headed off towards the camp. And there was Noah, still riding with the others, and more than a little surprised to hear Cody yell out for him. Turning around he saw the others, and immediately rode back to greet them.
"Ro? What on earth are you doing here? Is there any trouble?"
"Yeah, well, it seems *you* might be in some trouble," Ororo said apologetically.
Noah was distracted by what was going on around him. The soldiers were retreating, but a young woman seemed to have an argument with some of the officers, and suddenly she headed off in the opposite direction. Noah's chin fell down, and he muttered something about crazy women before turning his horse around and riding after her. Gunshots were being fired, and Ororo felt strangely cold as she realized that what they were here to stop was about to happen. She hurried after Noah, hoping and praying that the time she had delayed him would be time enough -- and then there was another gunshot, and Noah slumped in the saddle. He soon straightened up again, but she knew what she had seen, and she rode up to him, taking the reins in her hand to stop his horse. There was a bloody stain on the back of his shirt, and when she had managed to halt the horse, she saw there was one at the front as well. The bullet had gone right through him.
Forcing herself to stay calm, she dismounted and helped him off his horse. "I'm okay," he whispered, but it was a reassurance that didn't convince either of them, especially since he fainted a second later.
Both Jean and Forge came up to her, and Jean only took a quick look at the wound before turning to Forge. "Is the portal still open?"
"For another hour. Should we really move him?"
"I don't think we have a choice. Okay, Ro, bind him up and we'll get him back. Don't worry."
Cody had seen what was going on and was practically hysterical. "Noah? Can you hear me?"
Jean touched his shoulder lighly. "Listen to me, Cody. I'm not going to lie to you, this is bad. I've seen people survive worse, but never in a crude environment like this. If we let Noah stay here, he'll be dead by the end of the day. Do you understand?"
Cody nodded. "You want to bring him back with you."
"I'm a doctor. I have to give him that chance."
With the experience of hundreds of fights, Ororo and Forge were caring to Noah's wound, and Forge put him up in front of himself at his horse. It was nowhere near as useful as an ambulance, but it was all they had, and Forge rode off as quickly as he dared, to get the wounded rider to the portal. Jean and Ororo mounted as well, and Cody looked up at them. He knew full well that he might never see his friend again. "Just keep him alive, will ya?"
The soldiers were returning, and Cody muttered a curse under his breath. There was no way he could explain this. "Oh, my friend Noah was just abducted by a bunch of mutants from the future who wanted to save his life"? No. From now on, Noah Dixon was dead to the world. No matter what happened in that obscure future, there would be a tombstone with his name on it in the Rock Creek cemetary.
The X-Men landed in Forge's livingroom, and when Noah's unconscious body had been placed on the floor, Jean hurried up to check his pulse. He had none. "Call an ambulance," she said, pressing her hands down on his chest.
"Shouldn't we take him to the mansion?" Ororo asked, knowing how hard it would be to explain something like this to official authorities.
"Not enough resources. Call one." Jean kept her sentences short, still attempting to get Noah's heart to beat. She was relieved to find the pulse come back and Noah draw a shaky breath. The irregularity of the latter made her frown. "I think it must have damaged a lung." And quite a lot of other things as well, although she made sure not to say this out loud. Ororo looked nervous enough already, and anything that could make the Storm Queen nervous was *bad*.
The ambulance arrived less than five minutes later, and the only reason the X-Men got away without explaining exactly why there was a bleeding cowboy lying on the floor was that Noah's condition allowed no casual conversation.
Ororo was the only one to follow in the ambulance, and remained right outside the OR as the doctors tried to fix the mess the stray bullet had caused.
"He's going to live, you know." Jean and Forge had caught up with them, and Ororo knew that Jean's comment was true, even though the rushed activity inside told her Noah was in no way out of danger.
"They let me look at the X-Rays. I can't deny that it's an awful mess, and he's lost a lot of blood as well... but he'll live."
When Ororo still didn't answer, Jean simply squeezed her shoulder and left. Forge, however, remained where he stood, silently watching the surgery.
"It makes you wonder, doesn't it?" he said after a while. "Maybe Magneto was right, and it would have been better if Hank had created those aggression dampeners."
"And what if the South had gotten hold of them?" Ororo asked, not taking her eyes off Noah. "How can we claim to be good guys if we don't act it? But I guess you have never understood that."
Forge let the insult pass. Like many inventors, he tended not to think about what sort of trouble his inventions could cause. "I hope your boyfriend will be okay."
"He's not my boyfriend," Ororo said. "We just had a few dates."
"A few dates? You brought him one hundred and fifty years into the future to save his life. That's one hell of a responsibility. If he's not your boyfriend, you'd better start thinking of what you want with him."
Ororo watched the doctors work to stop the bleeding, mend the bones and whatever else they were doing in there. Behind them all, Noah's heart monitor was showing the beats of his pulse, steadier now than before. Up, down, up, down, up, down...