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What Billy Saw ...

Chapter Text

Things in Westchester had been incredibly busy, and not just because Kurt and Ororo had just seen their little girl through her first birthday.

Mia was by far the most distinctive of the little ones in the mansion, with her mother's shock white hair but her father's blue fur and tail — which she loved to use to curl around whoever was closest, including K and Logan's little boy as well as both Rachel and Nate Summers. Rachel was old enough to be a good, careful big sister, though Nate and James, at two and three years old respectively, were just as likely to roughhouse as be gentle, to Logan's amusement and Scott's consternation.

It had been a little over six years since Jean and Scott had kicked off the parade of kids, so things had been busy for at least that long when it came to nurturing their growing families.

But now? Now, on top of the kind of busyness that the X-Men actually enjoyed, the Friends of Humanity had gained serious followers under their newest leader — Graydon Creed, surprising absolutely no one who knew that family name and knew it meant trouble. So the X-Men were swamped with more than skinned knees and first steps.

In the past few weeks, the rallies the X-Men had been called to had been increasingly violent and extreme. They were obviously taking cues from the genetic predisposition for the worst kinds of revenge that Graydon Creed exemplified. It wasn't terribly new, honestly. The calls for extermination, the "threat to humankind," all of it was the same old same old, at least in terms of the rhetoric used. But it wasn't just words at this point. Now, the X-Men were lucky if the only violence was counter protest clashes. More often than not, the Friends of Humanity would round up some mutants and put action to their words.

The mansion was busy, filling quickly with rescues.

This latest rally was no exception. The Friends of Humanity had gotten their hands on a pair of sisters. And really, as soon as Logan and K had seen how hurt, scared, and young those girls were, the rest of the team was practically superfluous. It didn't matter what Scott said at that point. The ferals were going to go after those girls, and they were going to destroy anything and anyone in between them and the girls.

Kurt shook his head and put a hand on Scott's shoulder even as the ferals did their work. "Really, they are only reaping what they sowed."

Scott narrowed his eyes at that. It wasn't that he didn't know exactly how Logan and K reacted to kids in danger. But he knew Creed knew it, and so did his son. And like father, like son — Scott knew either one of them wouldn't hesitate to play up that angle.

It had already happened a few times: some reporter would catch only the snarls and not the small kids in danger, and it would only add more fuel to the fire for people calling them dangerous animals and uncontrolled terrorists. But this was different. No gloating Creed. No reporters. Something was off.

Whatever it was, it wasn't immediately obvious, though that just had Scott frowning to himself. The crowd had dispersed almost too easily once Logan and K were through… though for as badly hurt as the girls were, the priority was on getting back to Westchester, not unraveling whatever Graydon Creed was up to this time. Hank was already triaging the sisters, who were hanging on tightly to Logan and K, almost buried in them, as all kids under a certain age tended to do in situations like this.

You're worried, Jean projected to Scott.

Of course I am. These rallies have been getting worse every time. There's got to be something else going on under the surface. This was too easy.

I bet we'll find out when the news picks it up when we get home.

Scott let out a long sigh. I'm sure.

Scott. Jean reached over to take his hand. We'll deal with it. After we get home and spend some time with the kids.

As the group settled in for their admittedly short flight, Logan and K were carefully cataloguing every single injury the two little girls had sustained, quietly sharing looks and assisting Hank any way they could to get the kids comfortable and more prepared for a real examination. But it was clear to the rest of their teammates that the two of them were simply simmering over all of it.

"We can't keep playing defensively," Kurt muttered, his arms crossed as he watched Logan and K.

"We still don't know where Creed has his headquarters set up," Scott said, the frustration obvious in his tone.

"There has to be a way to find it," Kurt replied quietly, though he knew he wasn't going to be able to keep the conversation from the Howletts. Not that he was trying to. For as truly evil as the Friends of Humanity had become under Graydon Creed, he wouldn't stop his best friend or his wife from doing what they did best and solving the problem. "He is escalating. With children. I know you're nowhere near as calm as you're trying to appear."

Scott let out a slow and measured breath before he rubbed a spot on his forehead. "I know the professor is looking," he said. "He's careful about telepathic shielding. And he's careful about his patterns."

"Then perhaps we ask K nicely to look down the more … hidden paths," Kurt said with a wicked little smirk. "Give her whatever weapons she wants and just …" Kurt shrugged. "Let nature take its course."

"That's not a good idea," Scott said. "They're trying to bait us into something. You know they are. This was too easy." He gestured to the two ferals. "They're escalating, like you said. But this time? They backed off."

"Then I hate to see what it is they do to the next child that crosses their path."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know," Kurt said, sounding weary and more than a little frustrated himself. "I'm just tired of seeing it happen. It's not a criticism, really. I just … think that perhaps they'd regret their life choices if Logan and K were to actually start hunting them properly."

"We have to draw lines somewhere, Kurt," Scott said.

"I know, and you and the Avengers have it all worked out on where those lines are," Kurt said almost in a breath. "Easy for them to choose the lines when they aren't fighting this fight."

Scott narrowed his eyes, but it wasn't obvious behind the visor. "You know I've already tried to talk to them. Many times." In fact, he and the Avengers were no longer on speaking terms after he told them flat out that they were turning their backs to a genocide — and he wasn't going to retract a word of what he'd said, either.

"I know," Kurt agreed. "They only want to set the rules, not help." He held up both hands. "But I'm not trying to pick a fight, Scott."

"Good. Because I've already tried to fight that fight. We can't wear ourselves out." Scott leaned back and let out a breath. "If we can't find Creed… if this keeps up…"

"We'll find him," Kurt said.

"One way or another," Scott said.

"In the meantime … these two … I'm torn on if they should have family or not," Kurt said with the first whisper of a smirk. "If not, we may need to make arrangements to expand Logan and K's suite…"

Scott gave Kurt a dry look. "Oh come on," he said. "You're just hoping for another one because got the godfather title for James. Admit it."

"Ah, but for that, I'm hoping for a newborn," Kurt countered. "This … I am hoping he continues his streak of adopting lost little girls. Even if it's not official."

"Like any of us can stop him."

"Yes, well … that was sort of my opening argument without trying to say as much. I should have been more blunt."

Jean finally leaned over Scott with a smile. "After a mission like that?" she asked. "Always be blunt. I think all of us are too tired for subtlety."

"Except, of course, for the three very quiet adults in the back," Kurt said. "The ones whispering to the little girls."

Ororo smirked and took Kurt's hand in hers. "You're always finding a way to be caught up in future happiness," she teased.

"It's a tough job …" Kurt said in a sigh, smiling crookedly.

"But you'll do it in style," she said, smiling even wider.

"Speaking of future happiness…" Jean said, smirking between the two of them.

"If you're not telling me about a future niece or nephew, I do not want to hear it," Kurt said with his chin tipped up just to irritate her.

Jean rolled her eyes and nudged him telekinetically just to do it. "Oh, do we have to do all the work?" she teased.

"Not that we'd complain," Scott muttered, though that got Jean to hit him with the back of her hand.

"Not who I was pointing at," Kurt said before he reached over to 'adjust' one of the levers just out of Scott's reach with his tail. "But please, carry on."

"I think we will," Jean said before Scott could say anything. "After a mission like that… we need something to unwind…"

"She's not wrong," Ororo teased Kurt, just because it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

The flirting definitely helped to lessen a lot of the anger the team still had over the way the rally had gone. Of course, they knew they were going to have to go after Creed when they got home, but at least some of the harsh tones had left the conversation. The girls had even managed to fall asleep with Logan and K before they came anywhere near the approach to land, not that it helped the two ferals to express what they were actually thinking of doing once they got back.

Whatever their thoughts were, though, that went out the window when they got close enough to Westchester to see evidence of a fight. There was a trail of icy destruction leading out into the forest, not to mention plenty of evidence of weaponry. But Jubilee had left the biggest imprint, with half a wing blown out, obviously from the inside, where she'd fought back.

And considering she was the one watching the kids while the rest of the team was out...

"Kurt," Logan said softly. "Get us down there now."

Kurt nodded quickly, teleporting down with Logan and K, while Jean reached out telepathically to see where the others were. I can't contact the professor, she warned.

We'll find him anyhow, Kurt projected back before he teleported away from where K and Logan were to search for Charles.

What about everyone else? Scott projected to Jean, clutching the controls a little tighter as he landed the blackbird.

Nothing so far, she replied, frowning deeply. But … you know they might just be unconscious ...

Scott only narrowed his eyes further at that, his jaw tightly locked. He didn't say it out loud or project it, but he was sure this was the escalation he'd been worried about.

On the ground, while Kurt was teleporting from one room to the next, getting more and more concerned with what he found, Logan and K were climbing through the wreckage looking for any sign of Jubilee or the kids … though that search split fast when they moved a section of wall to find Jubilee. She wasn't moving at all, and the list of injuries on her that were clearly not connected to the explosion she'd created …

Logan barely took a breath to swear to himself before he started frantically working to revive her, the rest of the search momentarily at a standstill while she so clearly needed help — so it was K that hit the comm.

"We need Hank, right now," K said, her voice constricted as she tried to help where she could. "Jubilee …" And the fact that K didn't finish what she was going to say was proof enough of how rough it was down there. "I don't see the kids anywhere …"

"We'll find them," Scott promised over the comm. "We're here. We'll look for the kids; Hank is coming your way."

Hank was, in fact, already bounding over as fast as he could, but before he got there, Jean very nearly felt all of her breath leave her when she felt the wave of shock hit Logan as he finally accepted that Jubilee was honestly beyond his help.

"Jean?" Scott stepped forward to catch her when it looked like she might falter.

Jean glanced up at Scott and opened her mind just enough for him to hear what she knew — though when he heard it, Scott's reaction was more anger than anything else, an almost blind fury that Jean hadn't heard from him before as they both rushed to catch up to the others.

When they caught up, Hank had done his best to try and reverse the situation, but Logan was clearly just lost as he watched Hank work, and K had gone the other direction entirely and was pushing harder to find a scent or something that would give her a trail to follow to find the kids. But that was hard to suss out when the air was thick with ozone from the massive plasmoid that had taken out that section of the school. Hank looked up at Scott and Jean as they arrived and minutely shook his head.

Jean had one hand over her mouth, but that didn't muffle the noise that escaped her all the same. And Scott crossed the space to where Logan was to put a hand on his shoulder. "We'll stop him," he said, "whatever it takes."

Logan didn't respond at all, and for the first time, Hank had to wonder if Logan had even heard what Scott had said.

Honestly, none of them were thinking clearly, all of them in obvious shock. So none of them were paying enough attention until a few of the intruders — several Friends of Humanity members — were practically on top of them. And Graydon Creed was at the head of the group, with Mia Wagner asleep in his arms and curled up with her tail around his wrist.

K was the first to start growling — not exactly with it but absolutely ready to fight anyhow. Partly in the kids defense but also automatically trying to cover whatever Logan wasn't quite up to yet.

Creed smirked, his expression carrying all the malice his father had. "That won't help them," he said.

"Even your dad wasn't low enough to threaten kids, you slimy, lowdown bottom feeder," K managed through the growl. "What a time to prove you're like your mother."

Creed narrowed his eyes at that before he let out a frustrated noise. "I'm better than either of them," he snapped. "Because I have defeated the X-Men." He tipped his chin. "The other three children are already gone. This one is only proof and insurance. Give yourselves up and they live. Anything less than a full surrender, any attempt to fight back, and they all die."

By that time, Kurt and Storm had arrived as well, and it was clear that they were both locked onto Mia. They hadn't found any survivors of the assault, though they hadn't found Kitty, Bobby, or Charles' bodies, either. Seeing Mia alive was heartening, but seeing her in danger had both of them on the edge of the worst kind of panic. And close by, Jean had fire in her gaze, one hand on Scott's arm as she tried to hold back what could too easily be destruction of the kind that would endanger Mia, too, considering how little control she had over her own emotions at the moment. And K and Logan shared a look in stark silence. Those that knew them best were pretty sure they'd already had a plan in place for just such an occasion — but no one knew what it was. Or if it was even feasible.

Creed tipped his head toward his men, who spread out to surround the X-Men. "Now or never."

For a long moment, there was only silence before, finally, Scott bit out a "fine" that he barely got through gritted teeth.

When the soldiers came closer, they were understandably wary of the group — though they had measures for each of them to keep them from causing too much trouble. For Kurt and Storm, they brought collars, and once they had them subdued, they were dragged over and tossed into a small, dark compartment in the transportation the Friends of Humanity had brought. At least they were together.

For Jean and Scott, there were collars as well, though they weren't placed in the same cell as Kurt and Ororo. They were both tightly bound and blindfolded before they were thrown in together in a different transport. With the collars on, they couldn't reach out like they usually did through their connection, but neither one of them had anything to say when they were both furious.

And for the ferals, as expected, even though they weren't fighting back, there was an obvious level of force in play. Several soldiers to each of them, a set of gloves on both that would keep them from using their claws — and just for extra insurance, their hands were bound behind their backs before they were pushed into separate travelling cells from the others with bags over their heads as well.

Not one of the X-Men knew where they were headed or even where the others were. They still didn't know what had happened to Bobby, Kitty, or Charles, either — and all things considered, they didn't have much reason to be optimistic.

Chapter Text

When the X-Men were finally done travelling and dragged to their separate cells, it was clear at least to Logan and K that it was only going to get worse. The setup was familiar in that each cell was just close enough to the others that they'd be able to see what was happening while still being far enough away from them to be unable to offer any kind of reassurance. But … when it was clear that Ororo was up to something, that was when the real trouble started.

As always, she had her lockpicks hidden in different parts of her jewelry - she was rarely without something that she could use, after all. She was quiet, quick, and could manage a complicated pick without looking like she was doing anything with her hands at all, so when the guard pushing her around tried to shove her into her cell, she took the shot and hooked one of his feet with hers - yanking him off balance hard enough that when he hit the floor it was with a resonating crack.

Kurt grinned impishly at her. "Wunderbar," he said. "Now, let's find Mia."

Ororo smirked at him and got to work - to remove his collar first, though she'd handed him a spare pick so he could start on the cuffs. "The second tumbler in these is a bit sticky," she told him with a smirk just before she'd managed to un-do the first part of the latch in his collar.

Kurt was nodding and smiling her way, but anyone who watched his tail could see that it was still entirely, so it was clear he was only flirting as a means of trying to keep himself and Ororo calm. He couldn't possibly be serious about it. Not when his mind was clearly on getting to Mia.

"You're next," Ororo warned, looking over Kurt's shoulder to Jean.

"Good. The sooner I can find the kids, the sooner we can burn this place to the ground," Jean said, and even with the collar on, the fire was burning just at the centers of her eyes.

"The sooner you're freed, the sooner you can disassemble these idiotic collars," Ororo said, the wicked, troublemaking smirk in place.

"Sure, let me do all the work," Jean shot back with a little smirk.

"And let us do the dashing rescue," Kurt said, smiling a little wider when the collar came off a moment before the cuffs did as well. He grinned and stole a quick kiss from Storm before he went to teleport off in search of the kids - but instead of teleporting, Kurt found himself still standing in front of Storm… and with an alarm blaring in his ears.

"Get out of here," Scott snarled out over the sound of the alarm.

Logan and K were both almost writhing on the floor, still with their hands bound behind their backs so they couldn't stop the sound of the screaming alarms from reaching their ears. Which was when the rest of the X-Men realized that those two hadn't been collared and that there was something the rest of the X-Men couldn't hear hidden in those alarms for as much pain as the Howletts were in.

Kurt stared at Logan and K for a moment before the sound of the door at the end of the hallway bursting open reached their ears over the alarms, and both Ororo and Kurt glanced at each other before they burst forward to fight back.

It was a solid fight - even without all of their skills to aid them, but the sheer number of soldiers was more than the two of them were used to handling. Try as they might - and for as hard as they fought, they were first separated from each other … and then it was clear that punishment was going to be swift.

The guards didn't even try to search Ororo for more lockpicks before one of the guards made the call to pull out what amounted to a rather small - and very dark looking box. There were small gaps in odd places, but for the most part, the box looked solid. "Keep your lockpicks," the soldier said. "You can't reach out to the locks anyhow."

"Lass sie sein," Kurt hissed out, though that only had the guard holding him slamming a fist in his stomach to double him over.

"We'll get to you in a minute," the soldier said with an almost lazy wave. It took four of them to force Ororo into the box and get it closed, but Jean looked ready to murder every one of them with her bare hands if need be. Even without telepathy, every one of the X-Men there knew how terrified Ororo was of tight, dark spaces.

And of course, once Ororo was contained, the guards manhandled Kurt back into the collar and cuffs, though not before they left him badly battered and bruised, so even if he had been able to slip out again, he wouldn't have been able to fight his way out.

Before the guards left, they took the time to look over to the others and a pair of them made their way over to at least get the bags off of Logan and K, though as the guy in charge started out his warning to the others about 'waiting their turn' the one nearest K took a hold of her foot to start dragging her out of the cell, which she took offense to, of course.

There was a wicked kicking session that more or less ended when the soldiers got her boots pulled off and then teamed up to beat on her before they dragged her out, still trying to kick at them, still growling and spitting out curses in Swedish between her still clenched teeth. And for the first time since the nightmare had really started, Logan was growling low.

"This isn't about keeping humanity safe," Scott shouted at the retreating guards. "This is sick! Sadistic. And you know it!" But of course, none of them were listening, and the door slammed shut with a sickening finality. He let out a frustrated noise and sat back against the back of his cell, though it wasn't helping anyone's mood when the silence was only broken by Kurt very softly telling Ororo in both German and English that she was safe - not that it was doing much good when she was clearly panicked.

It took some time, but finally, Ororo seemed to begin to get herself settled out … so naturally, once she was exhausted from the sheer terror - that was when they could hear what was going on one floor up. It was very distant, but it quite obviously screaming. For a moment or two, they were all hoping it wasn't K, but a gasped out curse in Swedish wrecked that hope neatly.

The screams went on for a little while before Logan spoke up. "Don't react."

"What are you talking about?" Jean asked through her teeth.

"That's what they want. Don't react. Whatever they did, don't … acknowledge it."

"Logan, they took my - they took all of our kids, they're torturing your wife, they-"

"That's just the start," Logan growled out.

"And what the hell makes you think we're not going to react?" Scott shot back angrily. "That's our family on the line! We still don't know where the kids are - or the professor or anyone that was at the school!"

"I know," Logan said quietly, though at that, he was already clearly retreating into his own thoughts with a tentative expression.

"Logan," Kurt said softly. "What now?"

"They break everyone down," Logan replied after a long pause, gesturing toward the ceiling, wordlessly pointing out that they had up there, and from the sounds of it, might even be making headway with her. "And then they'll get what they want."

"Which is what - beyond their own sadistic pleasure?" Kurt asked.

"I don't know," Logan said. "But this is basic torture and manipulation. It's intense, but it's still simple, far as I can tell."

"If they wanted us dead, we'd be dead," Scott said, tipping his head Logan's way. "So this isn't extermination. This is about weapons."

Logan clearly wasn't focused on anything as he slowly shrugged. "Maybe."

"What else can it be?" Kurt asked. "That's always the case - it's either death or slavery for mutants in the minds of people like this."

"This isn't just used on mutants," Logan muttered.

The group of them fell silent, though it was obvious none of them were able to quite push down the honest hurt, anger, and worry running through the whole cell block. Especially after the screaming from upstairs stopped and silence rang out instead. That was somehow worse.

So when, an hour later, the guards came and went straight to Logan's cell, the "don't react" rule went right out the window. Kurt swore in an almost demonic sounding German as his growls and snarls accented the already angry words, but Scott was louder and in a language the guards actually spoke.

"Keep your hands off him or not one of you is getting out the other side of this in one piece," Scott snapped at the guard leading the charge into the cell.

Logan couldn't help but frown Scott's way for that, though it was clear Scott didn't have any means to back it up, which only made the statement that much more confusing to Logan as the guards jostled him and dragged him out of the cell.

Whatever Logan had been expecting, though, it absolutely wasn't to find himself taken to a room where Bobby was tied up and suspended between two very large and obvious heat lamps on either side of him. He was dehydrated, sweaty and exhausted, though he looked surprised to see Logan there too.

"Here's the deal," one of the guards said, holding onto Logan's shoulder as he said it. "You want him to live through what we're dishing out? Then you dish it."

"What." Logan turned toward the guard with a clear glare. "No."

"Fine," the guard said. "We'll just turn up the heat, then."

"What the hell's wrong with you," Logan growled, jerking his shoulder away from the guard that still had his hand on him. "You don't need to do this to him. You got a question, he'll probably just answer it."

"That's not the point," the guard said. "But if you're volunteering for the interrogation, we'll get to that, too."

"No, that's … what the hell do you want from the kid?"

"Absolutely nothing," the guard told him with a sneer. "Which is why it doesn't matter if he lives or dies."

Logan shook his head at that. "If that was the case, you sure as hell wouldn't be askin' me to beat on him. What'd stop you from just killin' him anyhow?"

"Too cool to die," Bobby said, whisper-quiet.

The guard spared Bobby a look and then turned back to Logan. "No one on my detail wants to wipe noses and deal with screaming toddlers. That's his only use."

Logan turned his way with an honest growl. "Izzat some kinda crack on my wife?"

"You asked what's stopping us killing your teammate? We need a babysitter for the brats until the mini-muties are old enough to be useful."

"What." The word was far more growl than anything else, and Logan didn't even think before he had turned on the guard and laid into him hard. He might have brought Logan there to beat on Bobby, but that had backfired spectacularly.

Of course, the guard wound up on the ground and hurting pretty fast, but there were enough guards in the detail that it was really just a numbers game for Logan before they'd pulled him off their leader and gotten him more or less restrained - though for what it was worth, Logan could hear Bobby whispering just under the guards' hearing range, "Asked for it."

Logan almost managed a grim sort of smirk as the guards kept him pressed into the floor. Their leader needed medical intervention and the lesser guards really didn't know what to do with Logan at that point.

At least until Graydon Creed showed up and walked past where Logan was being pressed down to glare at Bobby and crank up the heat to full blast. He wasn't looking at Logan, but it was clear that's who he was addressing as he spoke. "I know it's hard to get anything through that thick skull of yours," he said. "So let me explain in small terms. I tell you to do something, you do it. I don't care how many of your little friends we go through before you follow instructions; I've got plenty to pick from."

"Is that your deal with everyone?" Logan growled out.

"The ones I can use."

"Where's my wife?" Logan asked in a lower growl.

"Not here."

"No kidding. Where is she?"

Graydon simply smirked before he lashed out and kicked Bobby in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. "Not here. You're not in control here, Weapon X," Graydon told Logan before he kicked Bobby again. "What do you think will be worse - dehydration or internal bleeding? Both will take a while."

Logan couldn't come up with anything snarky when he was honestly concerned about the kids and K and their missing members, and though he had plenty of threats, he honestly didn't want to give Graydon any ideas, so the only thing he could do was to clench his jaw and … growl.

"Typical," Graydon said in a sigh before his next blow sent Bobby reeling again.

"Logan, c'mon," Bobby ground out. "Just… get it over with."

Logan's growl stopped almost instantly on hearing it, though it still took a moment for him to get a handle on himself - eyes shut tight as he shook his head. "Popsicle …"

"S'okay," Bobby promised. "Only way you could beat me."

"Fine," Logan finally breathed out. When the men holding him down finally let him up - after Graydon was safely out of the way - Logan shook his head lightly to himself and drew in a deep breath before he started working Bobby over, even if he may have broken a few of Graydon's unspoken rules. Like by cutting him down first so Bobby wasn't a punching bag. Or by making sure that the hits he was taking would look absolutely horrible in the next quarter hour, but weren't actually bad blows that would cause deeper, lasting damage. But even at that, it was clear that when Bobby was on the floor in a lump that Logan felt like total trash.

Eventually, a few more guards arrived - reinforcements not just to move Logan but to move Bobby too, which was at least enough for Logan to see they weren't just going to finish Bobby off if they were moving him. But it wasn't doing much for his mood when he got back to where the others were - sans Hank, and with K still missing.

"Logan?" Kurt breathed out once Logan was locked back in.

But of course, Logan turned away from the group as a whole and kept quiet as he folded in on himself.

It didn't take long for the rest of the X-Men to learn the score. Not that any of them were really in a state to say anything even when they were around each other. The tight, familial connections they had all enjoyed were being strained, and they hadn't been prepared for it.

Kurt was surprised, then, when he was escorted to just outside a room where he could see, on the other side of the glass, that Nate was snuggling a very black and blue Bobby (who was being attended to by another of their missing members in Hank) while Kitty looked to be at her wits end trying to console kids that hadn't seen their parents for far too long.

He was staring at Mia in particular, who had a look of fury so much like her mother's that Kurt very nearly smiled simply because of the similarities. But that went out the window when one of the guards snapped something around his wrist.

"GPS," the guard explained. "Any unauthorized teleportation and the computer sends out a subsonic burst. Ought to fry the brains of anyone in a twenty yard radius."

Kurt narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth, unconsciously moving his hand with the GPS further from the kids. The guard didn't have to spell out the rest of it: if he tried to teleport to the kids, he would kill them.

And it didn't escape his notice that Rachel, the oldest, had a similar clunky bracelet on, but the guards didn't share the details on that one just yet.

Instead, they took Kurt to a staging area, and he was both surprised and relieved to see K there, even if she looked like she was just waiting for an opportunity to figure out how to make these guys pay for every single insult.

As usual, Graydon himself was keeping distance, so it was one of his lieutenants that explained the mission: "Magneto sent some of his group to Westchester to investigate the institute. Kill as many as you can, but leave one to tell Magneto who sent you - and tag them. We'll pick up whoever you miss and the one you tag later."

Kurt looked toward K, but when she had nothing to add, he simply nodded. He waited until the smoke had cleared from the teleport before he turned her way. "I know where the little ones are, but I can't 'port to them," he told her, his tone ringing with anger and frustration.

"I know," K said through gritted teeth.

"Then do you know what Rachel is wearing?" Kurt asked.

K gestured to Kurt's wrist. "Same thing you are, only they hit the button if I don't do what I'm told."

Kurt let out a growl from the back of his throat. "I'm going to kill him as soon as we get out of this," he swore.

"Okay," she said half under her breath. "You do that."

Kurt let out a breath when he heard it. "We are getting out of this," he said. "I don't know how yet, but he will make a mistake, and then we end him. That is the only way this can end for him."

K turned his way for a moment and simply watched him for a long moment. "I don't know if they have you with me now for ease of transport or to wreck your hope."

"It will take more than this to wreck that," Kurt said.

"I doubt we'll all get out of this, Kurt. But I wish you luck."

Kurt frowned at her tone. "Nein, mein Freund," he said gently as he rested his hand on her shoulder. "If we do not all make it out, then none of us will truly survive. Thus, I choose to believe we will escape."

"Right. Well, in the meantime, this is my downtime. Waiting for Magneto's guys to show their faces."

"At least you have good company," Kurt said in a soft attempt to tease.

"In who?" K asked with a frown as they started to work their way around the edge of the forest.

"The best looking X-Man, of course."

K shook her head at that though, clearly not herself at all. "I'm alone except for the creeps that keep tapping out."

Kurt let out a breath. "Back there, ja, but not now. Focus on that. None of us have seen you in some time, and it is a relief to find you alive." He gave her a tight smile. "See? Hope."

K was still for a long while - much longer than Kurt had seen her take to reply to such a simple, open statement of fact. He was starting to wonder if she was going to respond at all when she finally did - very quietly. "I've dealt with a lot of manipulation and torture rackets, fuzzy Elf. I've never found one until now that didn't bother taking breaks. This … I can't even think."

Kurt let his shoulders fall and then pulled her into a hug. "K…" He let the sentence fall. "I will kill them. I promise."

For a moment, K leaned into the hug, but only for a moment. "We have a job to do," she said in a flat tone.

Kurt frowned at her tone but decided not to press her - all threats considered - and simply followed her once she had picked up the scent for a few of the Brotherhood flunkies. And they somehow weren't surprised to find the usual suspects of Toad and the Blob, plus Pyro and Quicksilver all looking over the rubble and speculating on the X-Men's sticky end.

Kurt glanced to K. "Well then…"

"I've got the speedster," K said before she started to limp obviously. "Leave the most worthless one alive."

"So I will need to have a long chat with Toad. Lovely," Kurt said, though he didn't have any of his usual light tone, and he teleported off to catch the Bob's attention.

K's little act seemed to work wonders. She limped partway out of the forest, and when she thought she was far enough away that the others wouldn't try to follow Quicksilver, she made sure to call out for help before she stumbled a little. If that didn't draw him in fast, she wasn't sure what would. He had been an Avenger, after all; he was still a hero somewhere inside him.

Sure enough, Quicksilver caught up to her in a flash, one hand under her arm before she could slip the rest of the way to the ground. "What's going on?" He asked over her shoulder. "This doesn't look like Boom Boom got carried away."

"No," K replied, though before he knew what hit him, she sent a fist full of claws through his chest. "And I'm sorry for this."

Quicksilver looked honestly shocked, instinctively holding onto her hand as his knees buckled. But he didn't get the chance to do more than that before she pulled her hand back, the claws retracted, and he fell to the ground.

"I'm so sorry, Pietro," K said as she tried to make him more comfortable, clearly shaken up and trying to keep her composure. "But if you'd have lived, you'd be stuck working for them. And I can't let them do that to you. I can't give them a path to Genosha."

But that just had Pietro frowning hard until he couldn't anymore and let his head fall - just as K could hear Kurt further out in the trees baiting the Blob into a blow that crushed Pyro and not Kurt, which only had Fred more determined to destroy the too-quick Nightcrawler.

As Kurt worked, K took a moment to search Pietro for his phone … and then took the chance to put a note into a text, just asking that if whoever found the note could please try to take care of Jubilee … and then trusting that Kurt's message would make it with Toad. The message wasn't strictly her job anyhow.

Eventually, Kurt made his way over, slightly bent over and singed from a few good shots, and slipped down to sit next to K. "Toad is running with his tail between his legs," he said softly. "He knows to warn Magneto about Graydon Creed." He paused and looked toward Pietro. "K … this is suicide. Magneto will destroy everything when he sees this."

"I know." K had been sure to arrange Pietro so he looked almost like he'd simply laid down, and she'd taken care to close his eyes, too. "I'm counting on it."

Which was right about when Kurt realized exactly how far off Logan's wife was right then if suicide by Magneto was the best option she could think of.

Chapter Text

While Kurt and K had been out, the guards had come again and left with Scott, though as always, they weren't exactly chatty and simply dragged him wordlessly out. The others who were left shouted the usual abuse at the guards, of course — ignoring the "don't react" rule Logan had tried to get them to listen to in favor of letting off steam.

But they hadn't really been expecting it when, after a long stretch of silence, what they heard wasn't screaming. Not really.

"Wait, no — stop!" The tone was one they just weren't used to hearing from Scott, and it was desperate in a way that instantly had Jean on her feet and terrified that their kids were in trouble.

Especially when a beat later, Scott let out a sound that Jean had never heard — but Logan and Ororo had. When Jean had died, that had been Scott's reaction too.

But it was silent for far too long before the guards came back — without Scott — and went to Logan's cell, flat out ignoring Jean as she demanded to know what they had done with her husband, fire barely restrained in her eyes because she didn't know where her children were and couldn't risk the Phoenix with them.

Logan was taking up the defensive right away, even before they guards had put the key into the adamantium-encased lock on his cell. "What the hell did you do?" he snarled out, his claws pricking at the backs of his hands, just itching to tear into them.

"That's not really your concern."

"Like hell it's not," Logan countered, though as soon as he put up the least bit of actual resistance, the guards took advantage of at least one of their tricks.

"Come along quietly or one of them dies. We really don't care which one … we can make it random. One of the kids … one of your missing friends … maybe you can guess which it'll be." The guard smirked. "We've had a lot of practice figuring out how to kill one of you healers, you know. Pretty sure we got a sure-fire method now."

For a moment, Logan couldn't really react like he'd wanted to. He had it plotted out in his head - the best way to take this little group out … wouldn't take any time at all, and he knew he could be fast enough …

"One more thing," the guard said. "If we don't show up in the next five minutes, someone is going to die."

Logan was more frustrated still at that,and knowing he had no way to get out of it without costing them someone, he grudgingly went along with them.

But when Logan got there, all he could focus on was the look on Scott's face where he was tied up and just… still. Looking at absolutely nothing. For a moment, Logan didn't move, staring at Scott and not really wanting to show his cards, if he even had any at that point. He just couldn't figure out what could have made Scott lose that much that fast.

"We need intel," the guard said to Logan.

"He doesn't know anything that I can't tell you," Logan said.

"He ran the team."

"And was open about it, too."

The guard narrowed his eyes and then simply shoved a list at Logan, all the things they wanted, from the code to get into the room where Cerebro was housed to the names and locations of students that hadn't been there when they made their play.

All were things Logan was more than willing to lie about. And unlike Scott, Logan knew he could at least sell it. "Charlie's the only ones with the codes," Logan said in an almost conversational tone. "Auto resets every few days. His list. He shares it if he needs to, and only then."

"Then there's no point in not destroying the rest of the school," the guard said.

Logan tossed the list on the table in front of him. "Nope."

"Fine. But the rest of it—" The guard gestured to the list.

"I know he's a little Type-A, but he sure as hell hasn't memorized where all the kids are," Logan said dryly. "That's just stupid."

"Ask anyway."

Logan did his best to bite back a growl. "You know where the kids are, Slim?" Logan asked, his irritation perfectly clear in his tone of voice. "I think this guy wants to pick up that one that couldn't control the poison he emitted … constantly. Or maybe that vampire kid would be a good fit." It was Logan's only attempt to pull Scott into the here and now, and even as he said it, he knew it wasn't going to really work.

When it was clear Scott couldn't talk, Logan turned to the guard. "I don't know what you learned about interrogation, but you can't interrogate someone that's this far out of it. Even if he knew, he sure as hell couldn't put it together right now. Whatever you did — you went too far."

"Wasn't me," the guard said.

"Whoever it was was an idiot," Logan said before he closed the distance to sit down across from Scott. "I can't do anything here."

"That's not what's in the orders," the guard said. "Look, you don't want to run it, fine. But-"

"You don't get it," Logan growled out. "I've done this kind of work for half my life. If there was a way to do it, I could, but once you've taken 'em this far — you can't do a damn thing."

"And I told you: it wasn't us."


"Not our fault the guy couldn't play the game," the guard insisted. "You know the rules."

At that, Logan got up again and made his way toward the guard with a growl starting up. "What the hell did you do?"

"Ran exactly this with Xavier," the guard said, though he took an unconscious step back. "He refused, so we killed the old man. That's how this works."

Logan blinked at him a few times. "You did what?"

"Told you - it wasn't us. That was his call."

"And you can't figure out why the hell he's unresponsive?" Logan almost bellowed. "Your whole damn group is a buncha chimps with screwdrivers!"

"You gonna run this or not?" the guard shouted back.

"There's nothing to run," Logan snarled out. "He can't answer anything like this! Don't you get that? Even with those two brain cells firing on high, you should be able to figure that much out."

"Maybe you both need a better incentive," came the response crackled on the radio, obviously from Graydon Creed in the next room over.

"It's not a matter of incentive," Logan defended, whirling in place to where the one-way glass was. "He can't access anything when he's been pushed that far. No one can. That's why they call it a shut down."

"I don't care," Graydon replied. "He's worthless to me if I can't use him." There was a short pause before a different voice joined Graydon with an enthusiastic, "Hi, Daddy! Hi, Scoot!"

It was the first thing that Scott had actually responded to, and he was almost holding his breath. "Logan."

Logan looked up at Scott, but was stuck right on the verge of either snarling and snapping entirely or just … freezing.

"Logan, it's fine," Scott said.

"No, it's not," Logan whispered back.

"It's James."

It was clear how angry Logan was with all of it. If he could see where behind the glass they were, he could make a break for it, clear the room, and get James out. But Graydon never changed the light in the room he was in, so they were still stuck. "List is in front of you," Logan said, his tone entirely constricted. With the hand that was away from the one way glass, Logan was tapping out Morse code: war zones.

Scott nodded and closed his eyes. It was obvious he was trying to think, and he very slowly started to tell the guards a list of coordinates he knew would put them at least in the path of the Avengers or the Brotherhood. "That's it," he said, more to Graydon than Logan. "Let James go."

There was a beat of silence before they knew James was leaving — if only for the yelling from the little boy as he demanded his dad or his Scooter over and over.

Both Logan and Scott had the wind out of their sails. So it was deadly quiet as Graydon added, "One more thing."

Logan closed his eyes, just waiting for the shoe to drop and guessing at least that James was the leverage.

"Before you go, take his eyes," Graydon said as casually as if he had been leaving a lunch order.

"Why?" Logan asked, sounding every bit as angry as one would expect, though Scott had almost the opposite reaction, looking at the floor and bracing himself.

"Simple," Graydon said. "Make an example. Use your powers for me or you will lose them or your lives. No exceptions."

"Yeah? This your way of not givin' him a choice in it?" Logan challenged.

"This isn't a request, Weapon X. It's an order."

"And if I refuse?" Logan asked with a definite growl.

"Then little James never makes it to his nursemaid alive."

It was clear there was no decision to be made, but Logan had a hell of a time not attacking the guards that were at the edge of the room, and he still was searching for some way out of it.

"It's fine," Scott said at last, just barely at a whisper.

"Stop saying that," Logan replied just as low.

"Hey. We both know what's going to happen here. Better you than them," Scott said. He let out a breath. "It's fine. It's James. No choice in it."

Logan's hands were shaking from how tight his fists were clenched, and he curled up his lip slightly as he drew a quick breath — an instant before he lashed out. Careful, quick, and as efficiently as he knew how. It even took a moment for Scott to register what had happened.

And then, as Scott did his best impression of alright, biting nearly through his lip as he refused to give Graydon Creed the satisfaction of more screams to torture the others who would hear it, one of the guards handed Logan the supplies to clean up. "Take him back with you," the guy said. "You're done today."

Logan didn't say a word until he'd managed to get a little better control over himself, and then he quietly warned Scott of what he was doing as he started cleaning up the mess - and after a moment, whisper-quiet apologizing over and over. He knew he couldn't fix this, but he did cut through the collar on Scott to wrench it off — it wasn't necessary anyway — and to cut through the ropes holding him bound.

"Stop. It's fine," Scott said through his teeth.

"It's not," Logan replied.

"Sure as hell isn't your fault either," Scott shot back.

"Could've done something different," Logan muttered, though he had moved on from clean up to dressing the wounds. There was a pause before he had to clear his conscience. "I beat up Bobby. It was me."

"Same setup?"

"No," Logan admitted. "They had him under heat. He was gonna fry him or kick him to death."

"Then you saved him," Scott said. He paused. "I couldn't… the professor…" It was obvious he was struggling to put words to what had happened. "I couldn't."

"I'm sorry for that, too," Logan said in a low rumble.

"It was me."

"Just like Bobby and this was me."

Scott shook his head. "You saved him from dying. And James." He let out a long breath. "This was me. All of it."

"I just can't buy that, Scott."

"You weren't there," Scott said. "I know what happened. It's my fault."

"So tell me what happened when we're away from the guards," Logan said quietly, entirely sure that he'd need to tell Jean and Kurt, which was all he thought he'd be able to do for Scott before Logan himself would simply draw back more from them if he could. "You don't need to say it twice."

"Same setup," Scott said in an almost dull tone. "But I wouldn't — I couldn't hurt him. I couldn't do it, and they killed him instead." By that point, Scott was almost shaking trying to hold in his pain and grief. "You're here because they know I can't do it. So I'm useless to them except to hurt the rest of — God, I'm sorry, Logan."

"I'm here because they already know all they need to do is remind me of what I'm supposed to be," Logan said dully. "Just had to get the right choke chain. That's all." He finished wrapping Scott up and handed him the rest of the bandages.

"I'm sorry," Scott said again as Logan helped him upright.

"You didn't do anything wrong, Slim," Logan said. "Outside of trusting me, that is. That … Just … keep your hand on my shoulder, and I'll get you to Jeannie."

"Alright." It was clear Scott was barely holding himself together, but neither man was able to say more than that. Not when they both felt like they were at fault.

The guards flanked them all the way there, and when they got to the cells, Logan honestly couldn't look either Jean or Ororo in the eyes — Kurt wasn't there, but their captors had apparently decided to let Ororo breathe outside of the small box or risk causing a shutdown like they'd down with Scott — as he helped Scott get to Jean's cell before the guard took a hold of Logan's arm and pulled him back.

"What happened?" Jean breathed out, staring at Scott openly as she guided him to sit down. The guards weren't stopping Jean and Scott from sharing a cell, but anyone could see it was because they wanted Jean to see what they were willing to do — and because Scott wasn't a threat anymore.

"They didn't give me a choice," Logan said quietly before the guard opened his cell and waited for him to step in. The moment he did, Logan made his way directly to the furthest corner and did his best to curl up into a ball there. "Sorry, Jeannie."

"It was me or James," Scott said in a breath, not about to let Logan take the blame.

Jean stared at him, both hands on either side of his face. "They… no." She shook her head slowly. "They can't — they won't get away with this." But it was clear she didn't have it in her to do anything more than watch over Scott at the moment, especially when both he and Logan seemed so… spent. She was too worried to risk leaving either of them.

The whole cell block was locked in a sort of stunned silence for a long time after Logan and Scott's return, with Logan doing his best to keep to the far side of his cell and Jean quietly running her hands in Scott's hair. No one knew what to say, so the spell of silence only broke when the door opened and the guards brought K and Kurt in as well.

Kurt was obviously furious, his tail in constant motion and his teeth bared, which had the guards giving him a wide berth. But K was simply unresponsive. She was awake, but she wasn't reacting to anything — and apparently, this was the norm, since the two guards that brought her there didn't seem to think that the little feral was any kind of a threat to them like that, even when they unceremoniously shoved her in the cell across from Logan by herself before they left.

"Where have you been?" Ororo asked, looking both relieved and concerned as she watched Kurt pace his cell.

"They've had her working for them," Kurt said. "And when they're done making her do unspeakable things, they've been torturing her non-stop." He ran both hands through his hair. "She can't think properly to form a plan that won't get all of us killed."

"What are you talking about?" Jean asked, finally looking over to watch Kurt as she did her level best to keep Scott's head on her shoulder.

Kurt let out a sigh of frustration. "They put a device on me for the mission they made us run. I was to ensure that K got to Westchester and back out again after killing most of the Brotherhood."

"How does that get all of us killed?" Ororo asked.

Kurt let his shoulders drop as he turned toward her. "She killed Pietro first."

"Magneto is going to crush this entire compound," Scott said, sounding almost resigned. After everything else, it was just… one more misery to pile on.

"We have to find a way to alert him — at least to get the kids out of the way of his attack," Jean said in a breath.

"K … may have done something like that," Kurt said slowly and very quietly. "I didn't see what she wrote, but she had Pietro's phone."

Jean nodded as Ororo said, "Then it's only a matter of time."

"Yeah. We know better than anyone what he's capable of on the warpath," Jean said, trying hard to find a grain of optimism when the rest of the group was obviously spent.

"Let's just see what happens when he arrives," Kurt said tiredly. He leaned back and then frowned at Scott. "What…"

"They want me to take them apart," Jean bit out, her hand on Scott's knee and the other in his hair as he leaned against her.

"Then he's using all of us," Kurt said softly, tipping his head back as he looked toward Ororo. "I can only hope he wishes you to use some lighting. A lot of it."

"If that is the case, I will oblige," Ororo said. "With pleasure."

"What … has happened while I was gone?" Kurt asked, watching Scott and Jean.

"Creed doesn't know when to stop," Scott said, though Kurt was concerned by the fact that his tone was worn and had none of the usual bite to it.

"Yes, but what happened, Scott? I'm sure you are fine, but to what degree?"

"It's fine, Kurt," Scott said. "I'm fine. I'm not—" He cut himself off and then let his voice drop. "The professor — I — he's—"

"We'll find him," Kurt promised.

"No, Kurt," Scott said softly. "No we won't."

"Scott, you can't give up hope, not now," Kurt replied almost sternly.

"There's nothing to hold onto, Kurt," Scott shot back. "He's — he's dead." It was obvious the admission cost him, and he had nothing to give when it was done, leaning against Jean almost limply while she tried to reassure him with her presence alone.

Kurt looked as if Scott had thrown water in his face. "Then … we have to focus on the little ones," he decided finally.

"That's all that matters," Scott breathed out. "He's been using them as leverage, but he knows that can't last."

"Yes, I've seen the leverage," Kurt said in a more serious tone.

"I've only heard James — are they okay?" Scott asked, a bit more openly.

"No, they most certainly are not," Kurt replied. "Bobby and Kitty are watching over them, but the devices they are using …" He let out a growl of frustration before he explained how they worked — and how little Rachel was wearing one.

"That has to go before we can get them out," Jean said. "If you can tell me where they are, if I let out a little fire…"

"I can tell you where they are, but I don't know where the men holding their fingers over the buttons are. They took my bracelet off before putting me in here again," Kurt said. "Probably to protect their assets. The one on Rachel was to keep K in line, by the way."

Ororo narrowed her eyes and looked toward K, who was the mirror image of Logan curled up in her cell. "As soon as that comes off, we destroy them," she said.

"Does Rachel know what it is?" Jean asked, not even bothering to hide her concern.

"I don't know," Kurt said. "I wasn't allowed to speak to them."

"At least they have someone they know with them," Jean said, though her eyes were flashing the more she thought about it.

"Then for now, we wait," Ororo said in a breath.

Chapter Text

The day after the Brotherhood was slaughtered, the guards returned to the cells where the X-Men were held. Again, they picked out Kurt and K and hauled them off without a word spoken to the others on the way. The persuasion was the same as it was before, though this time, K was more than a little confused when she was told to change into something clearly less … uniformed. In fact, it looked like one of the newest off-the-line sundresses that Jean had been considering before this fiasco started up.

Kurt had no special outfit to wear - just his uniform, as always. And it was pretty clear that he had his own set of orders by the extremely unhappy expression he was wearing.

"This will be a two-part mission for you, Nightcrawler," Graydon said with a smug sort of look on his face. "You need to drop your partner off at the first location and then move on to the second, where I expect you to kill or capture our dear mother." He turned toward K. "Don't worry; I'm not leaving you out of the fun." He slid a device toward K and waited for her to pick it up. The moment her fingers touched the box, the guard directly behind her stepped forward and hit her with an autoinjector in the side of her neck. "The device is how you'll capture Sabretooth. The tracker in your neck is my insurance that you'll be returning. Just in case you think you have a clever way around the device with the children." K was rubbing the side of her neck as Graydon continued.

"Nightcrawler … you'll have one hour to deal with Mystique, and then, you'll need to go back to get K and my father," Graydon said. He turned toward K. "I expect that should be more than enough time for you to capture and sedate him using any means necessary to do so." Graydon paused at the door. "Your time starts when you teleport out of here. Do not go outside of those parameters." He made sure to give K one last, hard glare before he stepped out.

As the door closed heavily, K glanced down at the dress in front of her. "Do you know where we're headed?" she asked before she simply started to change. "I guess I have to blend in with the crowd and just … play bait."

"Yes," Kurt said, though he was obviously still upset as he considered his own mission. "I know enough to get us there. Not much more."

"Then I guess we better get it over with." K finished pulling on her shoes. then gave Kurt a tight sort of smile, though there was a slight tremor to her voice when she spoke. "You'll take care of Logan and James for me if this goes south, right?"

Kurt knew better than to argue, considering who they were going after. "Of course," he said automatically. "And you will do the same for Mia should my mother prove… as difficult as usual."

K nodded at that. "You've got some honest rage on your side," she said. "You'll get her."

"I know. That does not make me feel much better."

"You're too dashing to die from her treachery," K replied as she took Kurt's arm and frowned at the little device in her hand.

"Do you know what it is?" Kurt asked.

"It's one of Stark's designs," K told him. "I don't know how he got it. Tony shelved it because it was too hard to make work unless you were far too close." She met his gaze. "I do not like this little thing. It will knock him out, but I'll have to hold down the buttons while pressing it to the skin to make it work."

Kurt winced in sympathy. "Then I will be fast," he promised. "Lest he wake up first and you find yourself in an even worse position."

"Work smart, not hard," K agreed. "For both of us, right?"

Kurt nodded his quick agreement before he took her covered her hand with his and teleported them both to Graydon's coordinates. He made sure to kiss K's cheek before he took a step back. "Good luck," he said before he disappeared.

"Same to you," K muttered to herself before she started looking around the little plaza. This was definitely Victor's kind of place, but with no sign of him immediately visible, she'd have to do a little looking around. She started to walk through the sparse crowd. There wasn't anything that screamed out 'this is the spot,' though, and considering that she knew she had Kurt's brimstone clinging to her, she thought it might just be best to be the good little bait she was supposed to be. Which is why she headed to the nearest bar and took a seat in a booth where she could watch the door.

Kurt, meanwhile, had gone to the villa where Mystique had been staying after an assassination run, unwinding and spending all of a freshly dead duchess' money.

She saw him coming, of course, but she didn't get up from her balcony seat. "I'm busy, darling."

"You look it," Kurt said, stalking steadily toward her. He was thinking of Mia and the others in that little room as he played with the sword in his hand with a flourish that was more habit than anything else.

Raven let out a long sigh and got to her feet, setting down her drink to face him. "What's wrong? You wouldn't come here with your swords drawn just to get in a little mother-son time…"

"Unlike some, there is nothing I wouldn't do for my children," Kurt said in almost a growl. He didn't explain more than that before he burst forward, not at all surprised when his steel met her daggers.

But as K had said, Kurt had the advantage of rage and desperation. Not to mention Raven had never fought him when he was trying to do anything but stop her. Every thought of Mia or little Rachel with that thing on her arm only gave him more power behind his blows until he had disarmed her with a complicated move that used both hands and run her through with the dagger he caught with his tail.

She let out a horrible squelching gasp and stared at him in shock. "Kurt…"

"Believe me," Kurt said as he tore the dagger free and then stabbed her again, "this is more merciful than your other son would be."

Raven blinked at him as she sank to her knees. "This isn't like you," she breathed out.

"No," he agreed. "But needs must." He took a step back, watching his mother, knowing he couldn't simply leave until he knew for sure that she was dead.

And even if she had never truly been a mother to him, Kurt couldn't stop himself from sitting with her until she was gone - or from arranging her hands to rest on her stomach. Though that was also a means to check her pulse.

He stayed as long as he dared, balancing his need to be there and his worry for K, before he finally teleported off.

K had waited at the bar and gone through several martinis before she finally paid her tab and got moving. She was sure Victor would be where there was alcohol, but for the first time on one of these missions, she was wrong. It was almost a relief as she stepped out of the bar, if not for the fact that it only left the rest of the world wide open, and she wasn't sure if he'd been watching her anyhow.

With a sigh that she'd hoped would loosen her shoulders, K started down the street, her head turned and her sunglasses pushed up her nose as she did her best to look like she was window shopping. She almost swore when she caught a whiff of him when the wind shifted slightly. Of course he'd been following her. The using bait thing was much easier when you weren't the center of the bait.

She paused and turned toward the scent on the wind. If she tried to act too clueless, he'd know something was up, after all. That was the real problem with hunting someone like Victor - he wasn't simple prey. For a long moment, K looked out over the crowd, openly looking for Victor and even allowing herself to slip up onto her tip toes and tip her chin up to catch his scent better, but naturally, the wind wasn't in her favor after the tiny momentary shift. K bit her lip and gave the square one last long look before she readjusted the fabric over her stomach and started walking again.

K made it almost to the parking area before Victor spoke up. "Kinda far away to be all alone, aren'tcha?"

"What do you want, Victor?" K asked in her usual almost bored tone that came into play when he crossed her path, even if they both knew it was a bluff.

Victor smiled crookedly. "Where's the blue rat?"

"If you want to talk to him, you should probably wait," K said before she made to step around him and was, of course, blocked. "I'm sure he'll be along any time."

Victor took a step forward, and K took one back, though she didn't have to fake the nerves at him being in her space like that. "Guess I'll just keep you company until then. Though … it'd be a shame if you weren't here when he came back for you."

K did her best to look off her guard, even if this was exactly what she knew he needed to do for her to catch him. "How about no?" As she started to walk backward, Victor reached out and grabbed a hold of her wrist.

"Don't make a scene now," he growled out low, a smile painted on as he watched a little group of preschoolers walk by in a single file line. "Don't want anything to get out of control, do you?"

"Why are you even here?" K asked, pulling steadily to get her arm back from him. It wasn't the one with the device, but there was no reason to jump the gun when she knew she could get in closer. And she'd need to.

"Lil' mini-vacation," Victor replied in a purr. "What about you? I don't catch a whiff of the Runt or your little brat …" But that was just a step over the line for K, and before she could school it, she was growling. "Easy now, girlie. Lots of tiny witnesses might could get in the way. You wanna try an' throw down, we can take it somewhere more private."

"I'm not going anywhere with you," K hissed.

"Yeah? How ya plannin' ta stop me from makin' ya? Where's your sweetheart, eh? Ain't like him to let the girl that owns his lil' battered heart run around without back up. Not knowin' full well that there's a price to be paid for carryin on in the open like you two have been … an' it's long past time you paid up."

"Not here," K replied between her teeth, though she didn't drop his gaze one bit. Half of it was the challenge he as looking for - and the other half was honest fear.

"Then you better start walkin' nice and easy," Victor countered with a growl of his own, looming over her before he pulled her closer to his side - nearly knocking her off her feet as he kept an iron grip on her arm. The two of them walked down several blocks from where he'd first approached without a word between them, though Victor kept yanking on her now and again just as a show of dominance. When they got far enough away from the little square, he dragged her into an alley, and a moment later, he'd pinned her against one of the brick walls. Which … worked to her advantage.

He still had a hold of her wrist and he took his free hand to wrap around her throat in warning. "Stab me and I'll tear your throat out," he growled out, which had her growling in response and narrowing her eyes as he started roughly searching her for bugs. She began to push on his shoulder with her loose hand, and when he let her slip down the wall to barely let her toes touch the ground, she was quick to reach up with the device - pressing it to the back of his neck before she managed the buttons.

With a little sound of irritation, Victor had his hand wrapped around her throat as promised and pulled her away from the wall only to slam her back into it a few times. She was seeing double as he growled low a few inches from her face and K held up her hand with the now-spent device - showing it to him before she let it fall to the ground. Which was when he started to visibly slow down. "What the hell is this?" he asked thickly as his grip started to slip on her, but that had him pulling her tighter to himself.

"Pretty sure it's karma," K replied, but she couldn't get out of his grasp as he went to the ground, collapsing almost entirely on top of her as the drugs kicked in. He was too big to push away when he had her pinned so awkwardly, and it wasn't until the first onlooker passed them by that she realized how it probably looked to someone from the street. Of course, when she got a look at his watch, she couldn't help but let out a sound of pure frustration. Fifteen minutes to be stuck under Victor Creed.

Eventually, she heard the sound of a teleport before Kurt put his shoulder to Creed to move him. "Well. This is a predicament."

"He drooled on me," K said in a flat tone that surprisingly didn't hide how relieved she was to be rid of him.

"That is certainly offensive." He held out a hand to help her to her feet. "Mystique is dead."

"Oh, what a shame. If I'd had better leverage …" She let the statement fall and started to restrain Victor. "And that strict warning not to kill him."

"I didn't have that warning."

"No, you did not," she said. "Lucky boy." She made quick work of being sure Victor was secured before she looked up at Kurt. "I guess … ready when you are."

Kurt nodded and then teleported all three of them back to where Graydon was waiting.

"Just the one?" Graydon asked.

"Mystique is dead," Kurt said flatly.

"I'd be happy to finish this one off right now," K said, doing a fine job of keeping her smirk under control, even if she would have loved to do just that.

"Not just now," Graydon said, waving her off. "I'll tell you when I need you next."

As soon as the two of them were out of the room, K stopped and gave Kurt a significant look. "You catch that?"

"What? That he has our mother's sense of sadism?"

"That he needs us," K replied. "It's not pure sadism."

Kurt couldn't help but smirk. "Well. He isn't as stupid as he looks."

"I wouldn't go that far," K said dryly as they met up with the soldiers that would take them back to their cells. "I'm getting tired, sweet fuzzy blueberry."

Kurt took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "Then you can sit the next one out," he said. "I'm sure my best friend and I can handle matters from here."

K gave him a tight smile as the two of them were led down to the cells to join the others.

Logan relaxed visibly when the two of them showed up, though he was frowning at the scents he was catching. But as usual, they were put in their separate cells, leaving the two ferals across the little hall from each other. And again, after a moment of what was clear longing, the two of them retreated to their usual spots to curl up and watch each other while the rest of their team discussed what they could.

"Nothing good can come out of Graydon Creed asking for Sabretooth alive," Scott muttered. "We're lucky he still wants K alive, or I doubt there would have been an equalizer."

"Which one wants her alive?" Kurt said. "It sounded like Victor had plans too. There was no blood shed today with them."

"What kind of- I don't want to know," Scott said.

"I can tell you firsthand it's best not to try to figure him out," Jean said in a dark tone.

Scott nodded and leaned into her. "Either of them," he whispered.

"One thing we do know: neither Creed is going to give the other an inch," Jean whispered to him.

Scott let out a breath. "So long as we don't get caught in the middle…"

Jean kissed his forehead. "Something is due to go right."

"We'll see."

"So this is where the boy has you X-geeks stashed." Victor Creed's voice echoed off the walls as he stepped into the cell block where most of the X-Men were being kept. It had been a little over a week since Sabretooth had been captured and the torture on the two ferals had ramped up as well, but now? They were trapped, and Creed was free. He was already splattered with blood, and the emergency lights down the hall were flashing, if the red, pulsating light coming through the small window on the main door was any indicator. And yet … here was Victor Creed looking perfectly livid as he slowly walked through the cell block.

"Boy took his homework to heart, didn't he?" Victor said, though he certainly wasn't looking happy at all. He stopped in front of Storm's cell and stretched his hands out - letting his claws out when he flexed his fingers. He turned her way and let his sneer turn into a snarl. "I'll get back to you. I got business first."

He kept walking until he got to the end of the cell block where Logan and K were - on opposite sides of the hall, still - and for a moment, Victor simply looked between the two of them with a growing smile. "Where to start, where to start …"

Logan began to growl low, more than ready to dive in after him, but that only had Victor turning his whole body slowly, showing Logan his back as he took the handful of steps toward K's cell while she got to her feet. "No drugs for you to cheat with this time, frail," Victor said, looking entirely livid with her as he unlocked the door. He let it swing wide open and left it that way, though he stood in the doorway - daring her to try to get by him. Not that it would have done her much good when he was blocking her path so clearly and itching to get a hold of her. For a moment, she forgot that she was barefoot and in a dress after another little mission Graydon had sent her on. She had nothing to her advantage in this fight.

But still … K was more than willing to bring the fight to him. She was back to a fractured means of thinking with all the torture that had been handed down to her with no time to rest or to heal unless it was to go on an errand. Before anyone could say anything to her, she dove in, all snarls and claws. To start with, it was bloody and every bit the fight that K knew she had to put forth to keep her head above water against him. Victor was getting hits in; of course he was. The man's arms could reach from one side of the cell to the other if he only held them out - and K was fighting to keep a little distance, slashing at him when he'd get too close.

They were halfway into the fight when Logan realized he was on his feet as he watched them and almost holding his breath. Victor had been spewing all sorts of vitriol her way from the moment she'd rushed him. Not only calling her every filthy name under the sun but outlining in vivid detail all the things he wanted to do to her. Only … the monologue was different from his usual torture diatribe in that he wasn't speaking as if that was what his plan was now. Only what it had been. K managed to ignore most of what Victor said … until he had bashed her backward and then looked over his shoulder at Logan with a crooked smile stretching across his lips.

"You know that boy of yours was askin' for you just before they killed him," Creed said casually, and like he'd hoped, Logan froze. But more importantly, K did too.

Creed didn't snarl as he turned to snatch her up, lightning quick. Instead, he saved the growl for after he had a solid grip on her. His growl mixed with Logan's snarl and Kurt's as he quickly restrained K by knocking her strong arm out of socket, only to readjust how he had a grip on her. As he liked to do, one hand was curled tightly around her entire neck - the claw on his thumb digging into the hollow where her jaw met her ear as his index finger did the same on the other side of her skull. He had her pulled in tightly to him so both of them were facing Logan, and on seeing the look of pure venom and outrage from Logan, Creed smiled slowly. He leaned in close over K's shoulder, moving her hair out of his way with his nose so his lips were brushing her ear when he spoke.

K was trembling - though not from Creed. Not at first. Not when she had just been told that her son was dead. The tears streaming down her cheeks had nothing to do with her current predicament. Not yet.

"This isn't how I wanted this to go, frail." He let the fingers in his free hand sink into her stomach - right below her ribs, though shocking those closest to her, K didn't let out a sound. "We were gonna have a good time, girly, but you went and got yourself caught up with little Graydon - and now I don't have the luxury of doin' this the way you deserve."

Victor shifted so that he was speaking over her opposite shoulder, though he was clearly watching Logan. "You're lucky I'm feelin' generous. For old time's sake. So how about you give me a good scream. Just one ...and I'll make it go quicker." To accentuate his point, he dug his fingers into her belly more, articulating the lion's claws to make the cuts deeper and nastier.

K's face twisted in agony as she tried to squirm away from him - really only succeeding in pressing into him deeper and earning a dark chuckle from him.

"Come on now; be nice for your Uncle Victor," he half purred, shifting his cuts and moving the hand around her neck so he could at least threaten to bite her throat out - though his close proximity and his breath on her neck as he leaned closer paired with how badly he was hurting her was enough to get K to let out the tiniest, strangled little sound that wasn't quite identifiable as she tried to keep her composure in check.

It was all made that much worse when Victor grinned on hearing it and actually started shushing her gently as he ran a hand over her hair and retracted his claws. "I wish I could say this was for Logan," Victor said softly, though even Kurt and Scott could hear it over Logan's growl. K had closed her eyes and was steadfastly refusing to look toward Logan even if it was painfully clear to everyone where it was going as Victor continued to quietly whisper things to her that K only answered by minutely shaking her head, not trusting herself to allow a noise to slip by her lips.

Victor glanced at the door when he heard soldiers boots well down the hall, then leaned forward enough to gently kiss her cheek. His fingers wrapped around her neck again, squeezing hard this time as his other hand removed something from his back pocket. She was choking for how tightly Victor was squeezing - and when K tried to wriggle out of his grasp, his other arm went up toward the back of her head, lighting fast. There was an odd metallic scraping sound and two almost hollow snaps before Victor dropped first the broken dagger handle - and then K's lifeless body.

There was a full second of silence before every one of the X-Men was spewing invectives and threats, well beyond furious, though Logan was too shocked to join them.

"Thought you people knew not to get attached by now," Victor almost purred out at the outrage around him.

"Something you taught your son perfectly," Scott snapped at him.

"Never had a thing to do with him," Victor said easily as he started back down the cell block.


But Victor smirked quietly to himself as he passed them. Which only had the rest of the group that much more furious.

But, surprising the X-Men anyhow, when the group of soldiers came into the cell block armed to the teeth with Graydon along with them, the younger Creed positively blew up when he saw that K was dead. "What did you do, you imbecile!" Graydon shouted - as close to a snarl as any of them had heard. "She wasn't supposed to die."

"Hell of a way to keep her alive," Scott shouted back.

"Stay out of this," Graydon snapped.

With a roar, Victor bounded forward and most of the X-Men found themselves hitting the deck as he tore through the soldiers between himself and Graydon. They were trying to fire off rounds, but of course, Victor was making the shots go wild as he ripped into them, not bothering to stop until he got a hold of Graydon, too. And shocking every single one of them, for once, Victor didn't try to talk until after he'd broken Graydon's neck. "Made me waste a perfectly good weekend for a quick kill instead," he muttered to himself before he turned back around to look through the cells. Every one of the X-Men was beyond angry, but when he got to Logan - Logan was shaking in rage and hoping like hell Victor would open the damn door.

"Look at you," Victor said, tipping his chin up as he looked down his nose at Logan. "Still want to pretend like you're the same as these little heroes?" He leaned closer, his sneer twisting up his features. "Even your friends know that's a load of crap. And it's high freakin' time you just admitted it." Logan hadn't moved a muscle, even as Victor got closer still to the bars, smugly talking down to him.

The two of them stared at each other for far too long. "You're right," Logan said quietly, which was just enough to get a broad grin out of Victor and horrified looks from his teammates - just before Logan darted forward and reached through the bars to grab a hold of Victor around his neck. When he yanked him closer, he pulled to spin him so he could face the mess he'd made of K. Though that only seemed to fuel Logan's rage more.

Logan's arm was over Victor's windpipe, and he was pulling back with everything he had - to the point that his feet were on the bars too as Logan threw his weight back, pushing with his legs to get every ounce of leverage he could as Victor tried to pry his arm off.

Victor pulled hard enough to dislocate Logan's shoulder, but it didn't slow Logan down from reefing that much harder on his own arm to finish the job, choking him out - and pulling back harder every time Victor tried to loosen up his hold. And as Victor was turning shades of purple people were never meant to turn, he made a last ditch effort to slice through Logan's arm - and Logan readjusted his grip slightly, popped his claws ,and simply took Victor's head clean off.

When Victor hit the floor, Logan did too, and after a moment to catch his breath, all Logan could do was stare across the hall at where K was still and lifeless with Victor's last taunts still ricocheting around in his head. The crash was a hard one, and the stunned silence from his teammates only fed the ringing in his ears as Logan started to come apart on himself. He'd tried so hard. Again. And again, he had nothing.

"Logan," Kurt said in an almost-whisper. "Logan, listen to me. We need to get out of here."

It took a few tries before Kurt seemed to cut through the haze, at least a little, and after Logan caught his breath, he reached through the bars to find the keys that Victor had used to open K's cell. When he found them, he got his door opened and then headed for Kurt to free him - and then simply handed him the keys as he made a beeline for where K was still laid out. He didn't make a show out of it at all as he slid to the ground, gathered her up, and clutched her to his chest, wrapping himself around her as much as he was able.

Kurt unlocked Ororo's cell and had given her the keys before he went right to Logan, one hand on his shoulder as he crouched beside him. "I'm so sorry, mein Freund," he whispered, his own voice shaking, though he couldn't think of anything else to say as he sat beside Logan - while Ororo worked as quickly as she could to get the collars off the rest of them.

As the group was trying to lay out a plan - with Scott doing his best to come up with a strategy based on what Kurt could tell him about the layout beyond the basics that Scott had seen, Logan very quietly picked up one of the discarded collars that had slid close to him and held it for a long moment as he stared at K's unseeing eyes. Victor hadn't lied about his son. That much was clear. Logan would have caught a blatant lie like that. And on seeing that the little dagger he'd broken off in K was carbonadium, he knew that Victor had thought it through before he went after K. He still took a moment to try and revive her. But Victor had done a good job of making it stick, and Logan had no way to get the dagger out. Which meant even if there had been a window … he had no way of using it to bring her back.

Ideas were flying back and forth with the team as they came up with a game plan, and the group was sure they had a few solid options, though all of their forward progress came to a screeching halt when a sharp, echoing snikt superseded all other sounds in the room.

All at once, it was a different kind of chaos as Kurt teleported to Logan before he'd fully crumpled over, swearing at him in every language he knew plus a few that he only knew how to swear in from traveling with Logan and K. The blood was more than Kurt could stop, and the injury was instantly fatal anyhow. Especially since everyone had missed the fact that Logan had put a discarded collar on before he'd sent his claws up into his own head from under his chin.

Kurt panicked, trying to get the collar off of his best friend, hampered not only by the blood but by the fact that the collar had locked again. Kurt couldn't hold back the sheer despair that his brother wasn't going to heal from this because of something this barbaric and simple.

Chapter Text

While Kurt was loudly losing his cool, begging God and luck and anything he could think of to help him, the rest of the cells were nearly still and silent. Ororo had a hand over her mouth as she tried to hold in a sob, her other hand braced against the wall just to stay upright. Scott was frozen in stunned horror as the blood drained from his face and Kurt's voice got less angry and more desperate- and Jean… Jean had gone somewhere beyond the horror that Scott was feeling to something else entirely.

It was too much at once. Not just the captivity and torture but losing the professor, watching her husband hurt, worrying about their kids, hearing Victor's promises as he tortured a woman that had become a good friend that had helped balance their team out… then in the matter of minutes to lose James and K - and Logan, too. The fire started before she'd even thought about it, and once it did, there was no need to plan an exit strategy. The Phoenix was going to burn its way out of the compound; the X-Men simply had to stay ahead of it.

"Jean," Scott started to say, but when a deafening, heartbroken, rage-filled cry from the Phoenix was the answer, Ororo grabbed him by the arm to pull him toward the exit.

"We need to find the others," Ororo told him, making sure to keep her grip on him, since he couldn't see the destruction of the compound around them. "Anyone that's left."

Scott would have argued, but Kurt teleported to the two of them and then teleported once more, getting them both out of the way of what would have been part of the wall collapsing. "I know where they are," he said, his voice rough with emotion and barely controlled before he teleported them both to the room he'd been to before to observe the kids- and then disappeared again, though he didn't exactly say what he was up to.

Ororo let out a soft "Oh, Goddess," before she handed one of the kids to Scott, though she didn't say who it was, and he didn't know.

Not until the little guy wrapped his arms around Scott's neck and quietly said, "Want my Daddy."

Scott froze and took a step back just to keep himself upright. But after a beat, he wrapped James up and held him tight. "I know, buddy," he breathed out. "Right now, we need to get out of here, okay? You hang on tight."

James tightened his grip a little, though it was clear he was still upset at seeing everyone but who he was looking for, especially when even as he was holding tight to Scott, he started calling for his Mom and Dad.

"James misses his Dad and Mom," Rachel said helpfully. She was holding Kitty's hand, and Ororo had Mia clutched tightly as the little girl happily babbled to her mom and snuggled into her shoulder. With Bobby - still stiff and sore - behind Hank, who was carrying Nate, that was everyone accounted for, though Ororo at least had the wherewithal to keep a hand on Scott's arm to steer him so it wasn't blatantly obvious to the kids that this was more than just an issue with no visor.

Their timing couldn't have been better, either. They had just spilled out onto the main floor when two destructive forces seemed to collide - a magnetic force that was ripping through the compound's aboveground levels and the Phoenix force as it burned its way to the surface.

"What has happened to all of you?" Erik demanded. "Where's Charles?"

"I'm afraid we're all that's left," Ororo said when it was clear Bobby and Kitty didn't know and Scott was barely keeping it together as it was. "Kurt is… somewhere, and Jean…" She gestured toward the flames steadily growing beyond them.

But before Erik could even process that much, Kurt teleported up - with both Logan and K. He was determined not to leave them behind, though the singed fur was an indication of how close a call it had been.

"Gather closer," Erik said. "I'll … take you all away from this place."

"All of us," Kurt said, a sharp light in his gaze that none of them had ever seen before. "If I knew what they had done with Charles, I would bring him too. And I will find Ja-" He froze when he turned and saw the little boy in Scott's arms. James looked back at him with wide, teary eyes. Kurt teleported over to rest his hand on James' head, needing to touch him to see that he was really there. When Kurt spoke, the unfairness and sorrow was palpable in his voice. "Was is… nein, kleine junge…."

"They're all alive," Ororo told him.

Kurt looked between the kids and then down at Logan and K before he swore all over again, closed his eyes, and then teleported to Ororo to steal a long kiss and to kiss Mia's forehead tenderly and run his hand gently over her hair. "Then we will ensure that nothing will threaten them again," he said soft enough that Ororo was the only one to hear it before Kurt teleported off again - this time close enough to Jean to catch her attention before he got closer still and then, all at once, the firebird and Kurt were both gone in a poof of swirling pink and purple.

Erik took in the scene for a moment before he looked down at Logan and K, frowning to himself when he saw the damage on both of them. And simply because it offended him, he removed the collar Logan was wearing and turned to Ororo and Scott. "The children shouldn't stay here while they … continue." He turned toward the downed ferals again with a barely restrained look of distaste. "And they should not see that."

"We're not leaving them," Kitty said, her gaze positively locked onto Logan. There were tear tracks down her face, and it was blatantly obvious that the only thing keeping her from breaking down into a puddle right there was the fact that Rachel had a death grip on her hand and was starting to cry as well - even if she didn't quite understand all that she'd seen. Kitty had tried, of course to block her view of the worst of it … but with death and misery all around them, it was inevitable that she'd have seen some of it.

"I'll stick with them," Bobby offered quietly, his tone one no one had heard from him before. "You guys take the kids… I'll wait with them, and you can come back."

"Bobby," Scott started to say.

"Hey, I owe him," Bobby said. "I got it. Besides … the kids have been missing you. Probably had more than enough of me."

"We can put those two near Jubilation," Erik said, gesturing to Logan and K. "Once we get the children somewhere safe and Jean and Kurt return."

"They should be near one of the cabins," Kitty said, shaking her head. "But not … not right now."

"Later," Scott agreed, still holding onto James tight and unsuccessfully trying to keep the little guy from getting upset - since he didn't quite know how to angle him to keep him from seeing anything he wasn't supposed to. And for how still James had been since Kurt had teleported off, Scott suspected that he'd seen much more than he should have.

"Yes. It's long past time you all left this place," Erik said quietly before he raised his arms and picked up a considerably large section of sheet metal that all of them were standing on. In a moment, he'd curled up the edges, and they were on their way to Genosha.

As soon as they were in the air, the rescued X-Men lapsed into near-silence, though not everyone was old enough to fully understand what was going on. Which was how a two-year-old Nate wound up peeking over the edge of the metal and smiling up at Erik. "Fast," he giggled.

Erik couldn't help but to spare the little boy a muted smile, though he didn't slow their progress down one iota. "Stay back from the edge, young man," Erik told him gently.

"Okay," Nate said, though he was still peeking anyway - at least until Kitty managed to pull him back and he was distracted by trying to join into the snuggle Scott had almost enforced with James. On seeing the two boys curled up with her father, Rachel immediately wanted to join as well, leaving Scott with a little boy in each arm and his daughter attached to his side where he was sitting toward the center of the metal - while the rest of the X-Men sat in silence around him, warily watching their blinded leader. Kitty had her knees drawn up to her chest with her arms around her shins, shoulders shaking as she tried to keep her grief as silent as possible. Hank was simply shell-shocked - as were most of them - and Ororo kept her full focus on her little girl, quietly humming one of Kurt's lullabies as she rocked Mia.

When it got a little too crowded with Scott when Nate fell asleep, James tried to wriggle away from the pile of Summerses. "Wait," Scott said. "Wait until we get to the ground, okay, buddy?"

James squirmed a little but settled back down with little more than a soft sigh that Scott could feel spoke volumes of how scared and out of sorts the little boy was. "I'm sorry. I promise you can run around when we get settled," Scott said.

James frowned at that, though Scott obviously didn't see it, and he was too tired and lost to fight with him, so instead, he just rested his head on Scott's shoulder and went limp, which was evidence enough to anyone that knew him that he really didn't want to run around.

Meanwhile, Bobby was still keeping up his vigil over the two Howletts when he heard the whine of an engine outside the wreckage and narrowed his eyes, getting stiffly to his feet before he iced up and stood guard in front of Logan and K. He didn't know who these newcomers were, but all things considered, he was sure this was more bad news.

"Looking for a fight, Drake?" Tony Stark's voice echoed out before he appeared a few moments later - fully armored up and looking like at least he was ready for a fight.

Bobby relaxed slightly when he saw it, but he stayed iced up - and in front of Logan and K. "You're so late it's not even funny," he said.

"Giant firebird left, huh?" Tony asked as he touched down - and made his way closer.

"Yeah. That's… still a problem. But that's not what I'm talking about," Bobby said before he stepped slightly aside - at least enough for Tony to see just who he was watching out for. And why.

"What the hell," Tony breathed out as the faceplate shifted out of his way. "What happened?"

"Short version?" Bobby crossed his arms. "The Friends of Humanity ambushed us."

"They're not smart enough to off these two," Tony pointed out, staring in shock at the two dead ferals.

"Yeah?" Bobby gestured to Logan and K. "Well, give them weeks of nonstop torture, bring in Victor Creed, and tell them their son is dead? I mean, I wasn't there, but even I know how that was going to end."

Tony looked more wide-eyed. "The kid too?" he asked quietly.

Bobby shook his head quickly. "No. That was a lie to screw with them, I guess. James, Rachel, Nate, Mia - they're on their way with the survivors to Genosha." He let out a long breath that showed how tired he was. "You're late. So damn late."

"No kidding," Tony agreed softly as he made his way over to kneel down next to them, still not believing that they were both just … gone.

"I don't suppose you know where the Phoenix went after it left here," Bobby asked as he de-iced and sat down heavily.

"I've got satellites tracking," Tony said distractedly as Steve rounded the corner and outright stopped.

"Gonna be hard to follow. Nightcrawler is with her," Bobby said.

"Yeah, that would explain the sudden bursts of fire," Tony said, then turned to look up at Steve. "We screwed up. So bad."

"What…" Steve was just staring at Logan and K, still stopped at the corner. And when he did look up to see a de-iced Bobby who was still not back to normal human colors after the beating Logan had given him, he looked furious. "What happened? I thought this was a Phoenix issue."

"No," Bobby said tiredly. "But I'm sure that's the only problem the guy screening your calls would find even though we're in the middle of a building full of nothing but genocide. The Phoenix didn't even come into play until Jean lost it when Logan…" He gestured with one hand. "Where are they hitting? That's a very special combination of fury and hurt that I only wish on my worst enemies…"

Tony drew his attention away from K and Logan and consulted his on-board computer even as his suit started a scan on both of the bodies. "Looks like all the known FoH and MRD facilities right now … at least … that's what the dozen or so that are already leveled were."

"Yeah. Well. I'm too tired to act like that's a bad thing," Bobby said, leaning forward to rest his head in his hands. With the Avengers there, he was really starting to crash.

"You wanna head to the Quinjet, take a load off?" Tony offered. "We'll bring them with."

"I promised not to leave 'em," Bobby said.

"Then let's get them out of here before someone that's actual trouble comes pokin' around," Tony said before he looked up at Steve. "C'mon, Cap. We gotta take 'em home."

Steve nodded slowly at that, finally kicking away from the corner he'd been leaning on to keep himself upright in favor of going to Logan, while Tony was sure to pull K into his arms as they headed to the Quinjet. It had just been the two of them, since the other Avengers were spread out trying to put out literal and figurative fires in the wake of the Phoenix attacks, so there wasn't anyone else in the jet to see the mess the Howletts were as the Avengers set them down and Bobby sat down close to them, his hands shaking as he watched the whole thing.

Steve was frowning hard but didn't say anything until he was sitting up front with Tony. And even then, it was just a quiet, "Tony…"

"Yeah," Tony breathed out. "Looks like a regular Romeo and Juliet thing, doesn't it?"

"How did it get that bad that fast?" Steve asked in a breath.

"I think … it's been worse than we thought for a long time," Tony said. "Obviously."


A few moments passed between them before it was clear how angry Tony was. "Damnit, this is exactly the kind of thing we made the Avengers to stop. Why is it that our calls so rarely go to help mutants? Who's in charge of that?"

"I don't know, Tony," Steve said warily. "We handed that side of things over to SHIELD years ago."

Tony was agitated as he thought it over and glanced back at the bloodied couple only long enough to let out a bitter sound from the back of his throat. "This never should have happened. They never should have gotten anywhere close to them - we should have paid more attention when they told us how bad it was." He was barely keeping his temper in check - and only because he could see how traumatized Bobby was. "I'm gonna get to the bottom of this, Cap."

"We both will." Steve glanced back at the three mutants in their hold. "I didn't catch where we're headed."

"Magneto picked them up, so … "

Steve frowned at that. "Are we running a rescue from Genosha? We've already got the Phoenix to deal with…"

"I don't think this is a rescue, Cap," Tony said. "Sounds more like Magneto was the one to get them out of danger. If it makes you feel better - which I'm sure it won't- he was late too."

"Really doesn't," Steve muttered and glanced back again, though he didn't actually voice any further opinion on the matter.

"Scanners show that she got a carbonadium blade in the back of the head along with a dislocated neck," Tony said quietly. "Half a dozen other more minor to her injuries …"

"And him?"

Tony drew in a deep breath and clearly didn't want to respond right away, though when it was clear Steve was still waiting … "Self-inflicted."

All of the wind left Steve's sails, and he glared out the window. "How did we miss this, Tony," he said after a long, long silence.

"I don't know," Tony replied. "Not like we can fix it at this point. All we can do is stop it from happening anymore."

"Yeah," Steve said, though he didn't say anything further until they were nearly to Genosha, at which point he surprised Tony by taking over on the message declaring their business and requesting permission to land. "We've got Iceman, Wolverine, and K," he said in a businesslike tone. "We're just bringing them home - and want to make sure the rest of their group is in one piece."

A few moments later, they were granted permission to land, though Tony was nervous going in. It was more than a little disconcerting to have Magneto meet them there himself - though they had been expecting someone a little higher up the chain of command in the X-Men than Kitty to be there when they landed.

"We'll take care of them," Kitty said, though her eyes were red and puffy and her voice was hoarse.

"I can help," Steve offered.

Kitty blinked at him before she nodded, though Erik was already shaking his head. "We have a place prepared for them until we can find a suitable burial site," he said. "I can manage. Katherine, please show Robert where he'll be staying." With that, he turned his wrists in a graceful gesture, and both Logan and K rose up from where they'd been laid out. A moment later, the bodies floated past the Avengers - and Erik left with the Howletts in tow.

Kitty gave Tony and Steve a tight smile before she turned to Bobby. "Okay. Well. I guess I'll just…"

"Miss Pryde, I'm so sorry about all of this. Please, let us know when the service is," Steve said, sounding a lot more like himself with all the bluster gone.

Kitty paused and looked Steve's way before she nodded. "There's… a lot," she admitted. "I don't know how soon it will be when Jean and Kurt are still, you know…"

"Can't really blame them," Tony said before he managed to hand her a card. "Give a call either way. We'll make time."

"Right. He was on your team too." Kitty gave him a small ghost of a smirk. "Sometimes."

"Goes back a little more than that," Steve said quietly. "But yeah. That too."

Kitty paused and looked Steve over more carefully. "Do you want to stick around, or are you just dropping Bobby off? Everyone's in the living room - Magneto gave us a house to stay in…"

"I … doubt we're welcome," Steve said.

"Just don't start anything. The way Scott's going, you'll stress him into a heart attack," Kitty warned.

"I really do want to see how everyone is doing," Steve said. "Offer my support. So if it's alright … we'll come along."

Kitty nodded. "Just a warning," she said over her shoulder as she led the way, "you bring up Professor Xavier and I'll phase you into a loading dock."

"What … what's the deal with him?" Tony asked, unable to leave it alone.

"He died," Kitty said flatly.

"Did you lose anyone else?" Tony asked.

"Yes." Kitty looked over her shoulder. "We're not talking about it. Especially not when Jean is playing Phoenix. That has historically not ended well."

"Got it. Just trying to keep a running list of who not to talk about," Tony said.

"If you don't see them, assume they're dead or in danger of dying," Bobby said dryly. "It's been that kind of a week."

"Fair enough," Steve agreed with his eyebrows high in surprise before he shot Tony a look and they fell into step behind Bobby and Kitty.

Eventually, they did reach the house - which was within sight of Magneto's looming tower. And as Kitty had said, most of the people on the team were in the living room, unable to relax while they watched the spotty news coverage of the Phoenix attacks and took stock of themselves. Mia was asleep on Ororo, who was green as she watched the footage. Hank had managed to get Nate to let go of his fur long enough to set him back on his shoulders, though Rachel was tucked into Scott's side and James was leaning on his shoulder. It didn't escape the Avengers' notice that all the X-Men looked … spent in addition to the more obvious physical signs of their ordeal, not least of which were the wraps on Scott's eyes and head.

Tony and Steve shared a look and made their way over to Scott, taking the closest available seats. "Scott. How are you hanging in there?" Steve asked. "Looks like you've got good support with the little ones, anyhow."

Scott frowned at the new voice and visibly straightened. "We're fine," he said shortly, unconsciously tightening the arm that was draped around James. "He's my godson. He'll be fine."

"He looks fine where he's at," Steve agreed, even as he gave James a little wave and tried to look friendly. James watched him for a long moment, and instead of being his usual playful self, he simply turned away from Steve and seemed to melt into Scott's side.

And while Steve was trying and failing to navigate the rough waters of small talk with Scott, Tony had flat out ignored that any such thing existed and dove right to scanning Scott quietly to himself … which … was more than enough to keep him quiet when the results came in with undeniably distinctive treble slashes that were still freshly healed.

Finally, Scott leaned forward. "I know you're here about Jean," he said bluntly.

"Actually, we were there for Jean," Steve said. "We're here for … well. We gave Bobby a ride, among other things."

"Alright. Then I'll ride back with you," Scott said. "She just…she needs something to hang onto to get it back under control. If I can get there-"

"To be frank, the places she's wrecking? No one on our side is going to stop her," Tony said.

"They're not the ones I'm concerned about."

"I understand," Tony agreed. "I'm just saying: we know this isn't in our skill set, and we're not stupid enough to piss off the giant firebird any more."

"First time for everything," Scott said dryly. He got to his feet. "Like I said: I'll talk her down. Someone has to."

"Alright," Steve agreed, though when Scott tried to get James to let go, it was clear the little guy wasn't having it. At all.

"James, you can't come," Scott said quietly. "This is too dangerous for you."

"No," James replied stubbornly, holding on that much tighter.

Scott let out a breath and then turned to Tony. "If this goes badly, put him in a suit and get him out and don't let him see it," he said without any room for argument. "He's been through too much already."

"I'll make sure he gets out safe," Tony said, though he looked more than a little confused at how the little guy was running a racket on Scott like that.

"Fine." Scott took a second to give Rachel and Nate both a kiss before, with James still attached to his neck, he gestured for the two Avengers to lead him out. "Let's go get my wife."

It took a longer than Steve and Tony had anticipated to get caught up to the Phoenix, if only because just as they were about to catch up, Kurt teleported them again, and they had to find out where those two were headed before they could catch up again. This time, the two of them had managed to find more trouble than before, upending a government facility - though it was on top of a Sentinel factory, so neither was going to survive the Phoenix fire.

Of course, even without seeing it, Scott could feel the extreme heat of the Phoenix fire and could hear in their connection that there was only hurt. There was very little of Jean in the fire. The rage of the Phoenix was getting stronger with every act of destruction.

Even Kurt had burned through enough of his rage to see it, if the pleading the Avengers could hear was any indication. "I can't even get close to you, Jean," Kurt was saying as they arrived. "I can keep going, but I can't help if you don't rein it in!"

Scott shook his head when he heard it and didn't bother to shout, instead reaching through their connection. Jean, I need you back. Please.

But that seemed to be the wrong avenue to take, because, when Jean paused for a second to look his way, the fact that he was tired and hurt and holding James hit all the wrong buttons. James being there was proof of how pointless it had been for Logan to give up, and Scott was a reminder of everything else that had been done to them. She looked them both over… and the flames got that much hotter.

"Stark, get James out of here," Scott said, though he didn't move from where he was, either, too focused on trying to get through to Jean.

Tony moved to get a hold of James, and as he picked him up from Scott, the little guy started to put up a fight, staring up at the firebird in the sky with tear streaks easy to see on his cheeks. "No! Want Scoot an' Eeenie!"

"James, let go," Scott said as James struggled. "You need to be safe."

By that time, James was flat out crying for Jean, but he was also far too little to argue with them. For just a moment, Jean turned in time to see it as James was holding his hands up to her, his little voice hitching as he called out quieter and quieter for her. And for a moment, the flames drew back - just a bit. Jean was in control - just long enough to really feel the injustice of it all. And just long enough to feel the pure heartbreak that the Phoenix needed to really start sinking its talons into her.

Tony took James and held him tight until James gave up and buried his face in Tony's shoulder - just before Tony got him out of there, leaving Scott and Steve to deal with the rest of the mess.

Jean, come on. We need to get home. The kids … we need to be there. James needs us too. You know it.

Even if the fires were burning bright, Steve could see the difference as Jean looked toward Scott. It wasn't the same fury as the Phoenix had alone, and Steve could see that she was struggling for control, her face contorted with the effort.

Kurt teleported to where Scott and Steve were, frowning over the familiar scene. "They share a telepathic connection," he explained to Steve, since he had no idea what the Avengers did and didn't know.

"That certainly explains a lot," Steve said quietly, though he kept his focus on watching Jean. "Tony just got James out of here. I don't think him tagging along helped at all."

"She's fighting it," Kurt argued. "She needs something good. The Phoenix feeds on anger, destruction, all the worst things…" He let his shoulders drop. "I'm sorry. I have only been feeding that… My best friend…he ..."

"I know," Steve said. "We saw what happened to them. I'm sorry, Kurt."

"Yes." Kurt looked toward Jean, who had her gaze locked on Scott as she tried to fight the Phoenix. "So much has happened, Captain. So much that can never be undone."

"I just don't understand how it happened so fast," Steve said in a breath.

Kurt frowned and turned his way fully. "Captain, I wouldn't call this fast. 'Fast' is a mob whipped up in a frenzy at a whim to kill a blue demon or turn against a goddess of the weather. This was planned, careful murder and torture. There was nothing 'fast' about it."

Steve let his shoulders drop at that. "I know. It's not .. I'm not being clear. We couldn't find where you all had gone, and honestly - we thought you were hitting them back." He turned toward Kurt. "I don't mean anything cold by it, I don't. But a couple weeks to those two … even in the worst circumstances ... "

"Do you know how Logan died?" Kurt asked, his tone almost as deep as a low growl.

"Only that he did it to himself," Steve replied. "I still don't understand how-"

"Until today, he was only on the edge," Kurt said, though he had turned his gaze from Steve to the fire. "He … he was close already. They killed Jubilee. They held our children over our heads and ordered him to torture and mutilate our teammates or the children would pay for it. And when Victor Creed told him his son was dead then tortured and killed his wife in front of him - in front of all of us - what on Earth would keep him here?" He asked, though Steve could hear the bitterness ringing in his tone as Kurt's composure cracked.

What little was left for Steve to hold onto his own composure with was clearly gone and he stared back at Kurt as if he'd been slapped. "I didn't know it happened like that."

"There is a lot you never knew." When Steve looked like he was reeling and had no response, Kurt simply turned his attention back to the Phoenix, his eyes narrowed as he abruptly changed the subject. "She should have gotten control by now."

The Phoenix had taken Jean higher into the air than before, and the firebird in the sky was far bigger than before - despite Scott's best efforts. It was clear he was trying everything, even on his knees and begging Jean to pull it back. And she was trying with everything she had. She was. But she was losing.

The last time this had happened, Logan had been the one to stop it. And even when Jean had come back, Kurt knew Logan had always considered it his job to step in if things ever got that bad again. But Logan wasn't there to stop it when Jean's face contorted in agony as she fought with tears in her eyes against the cosmic firebird whispering lies and promises in her ear. All that she could ever want could be hers … if only she'd give in and let go.

But Jean was still psychically linked to Scott. And even if no one else could hear it…. Scott heard every lie. Every empty promise. He saw the world the Phoenix promised it could give her - with all of their friends and the professor back to life, alive and whole … and God help him, the idea of it all being undone was enough to make Scott's heart ache even though he, too, knew it was a hollow lie. It was so strong a picture, though. Such a deep temptation... and it was more than Jean could fight when all she wanted was her life back - and the lives of those she loved who had been discarded like simple garbage.

And it wasn't just the team. Jean could see her parents and her sister, Sara, who had died a few years earlier, smiling and laughing as she tossed Nate in the air, only to let him down gently so he could rush off and play with a grinning and laughing James - both of whom looked to be a couple years older than they were right now. It was a glimpse of a future that Jean desperately wanted deep down in her bones. The knowledge that it was ultimately a lie … and that if given the chance, the Phoenix would destroy everything and everyone that Jean held dear … No.

But she couldn't stop it. She wanted to, she wanted to so badly, but there wasn't enough strength left in her to fight it back. Even as she tried to reach through the psychic connection with Scott in a last-ditch effort to have him help build her up stronger - she could feel the fire taking a deeper hold on her mind. All she wanted in that moment was her husband. But it wasn't enough. Her face contorted, and she drew in a sobbing breath even as the breath was knocked out of Scott for how deeply in despair she was.

As Kurt watched, Jean closed her eyes and tipped her head back, and a screech rent the air. When she looked their way again, there was no recognition in her gaze, and that was what decided it for Kurt.

"Get Scott out of here," he told Steve over his shoulder as he unsheathed both swords.

"What? Why? What can you even do against the Phoenix?" Steve asked, pulling himself together. "Kurt -" He shook his head as he watched Jean and the fires growing faster than before - hotter and wilder. "There can't be much that can be done."

"No," Kurt agreed. "We have very limited options." He took a deep breath and gave Steve a tight smile. "Please, when you talk to Ororo, don't tell her how much I regretted egging Jean on." With that, before Steve could object, Kurt stepped back and teleported away, leaving Steve in the quickly-dissipating brimstone.

He reappeared exactly where he meant to be, both swords thrust out so that even if the fires around him and Jean were too hot, both of his swords were through her chest before the metal could melt.

For just a moment, the whole world seemed to stand still. Kurt and Jean were both suspended in the air, and even the fire around them paused as the Phoenix flickered from Jean's eyes, giving her one last private moment in her connection with Scott before the fire went out. All at once, the world began to move again, and Jean and Kurt simply dropped from the sky.

Chapter Text

Without even thinking about it, Steve just started running to where Jean and Kurt had fallen, one hand at his comm, shouting for someone to get there and help, but of course, only the little group that had come was left. And while Steve was panicking, Tony made his way back with James.

"I know this is a bad time, but I need to go help Cap, and you said to keep James from seeing anything else, so …" Tony very gently handed James back to Scott with whispered instructions for James to keep an eye on Scott before he rushed over to both assess the situation and to get Steve to breathe again.

Of course, Scott had known the second Jean was gone, even if he hadn't seen how it happened. One minute, he was talking with her in their minds, and the next, it was deafeningly quiet. And he was barely conscious enough to take James before the little guy hugged him, and Scott wrapped himself around James. He wasn't able to do much more than that, but it was clear to anyone that saw the two of them that James was doing his level best to wipe Scott's face of tears beneath his wraps while quietly sniffling himself.

Tony did what he could to settle out Steve while a transport was called in to gather up the two fallen X-Men. Had they been in a situation without a little kid, he'd have just dealt with them himself, but … for how much James had wanted his Aunt Jean … and for how close he knew the kid was to the Elf, he didn't even want to attempt it. Once the transport arrived, he made his way over to Scott and James and dropped down to sit with the two of them. "We can help with the little ones, if it gets to be too much," Tony offered quietly.

"No." Scott kept one hand on the back of James' head. "They need to be safe."

"Then at least let me come up with something to help you see again," Tony said.

"Why." In just the one word, Tony could hear just how much Scott didn't trust the offer.

"Because, like you said, they need to be safe," Tony replied. "And no better judgement call on them than you. Obviously, Logan knew what he was doing when he picked you."

Scott froze, his mouth slightly open, before he let out a wordless noise. "Fine."

"Like it or not, Summers, we're going to do all we can to help, and I know that has to sound hollow coming off of all of this, but … we know we blew it."

"No kidding."

Again, the group made the trip to Genosha, and this time, on the way back, Steve tried to at least attempt to check on James as well as Scott. But that was shut down fast when James pushed him away with a stern-sounding 'no' that was laced with a touch of a growl.

"I got him," Scott said quietly, angling his body so he was between James and Steve.

"I see that," Steve said, letting out a weary sigh as he watched the two of them. James had never done that with him, and it stung, if he was being honest. "Tony's offering a place for you all to use until you decide where you want to be. And … that should give you time to make your arrangements. I can't even begin to say how sorry I am about all of this, Scott."

"Yeah." Scott had his eyes covered, but even if he hadn't, he wouldn't have been able to look at Steve. "Yeah. There's a … we have an arrangement with Magneto."

"So they'll be in Genosha, then?" Steve asked quietly, hoping that Scott didn't plan to turn to Magneto as a permanent solution.

"Maybe only until I can set something up," Scott said slowly. "I"m not sure yet."

"That's what Tony was offering," Steve said, watching him openly. "Anything you need."

"My kids safe are in Genosha," Scott said. "My team…"

"I know; we're headed there now," Steve agreed. "I'm not trying to divert you. I'm just trying to make sure you know there are other options available."

Scott nodded, though it was clear to Steve that he was still trying to process everything and wasn't quite up to thinking. "I know a little place. I took James fishing there before. It's Logan's."

"I'll make sure the jet you take doesn't have any tracking capabilities," Steve said. "No reason for anyone to bother you."

"Good." Scott nodded. "I need to keep them safe."

It was uncomfortably quiet for a short moment as Steve tried to find something to say that might help. "I know for a fact that James destroyed Tony on a level I didn't know was possible. If you say the word, you'll have him bending over backwards to do anything you want. All of us will, really."

"I just need my kids and …" Scott paused. "I … I'll let you know. We had a good security system before. Only reason he got in was he blew it up."

Steve let out a breath. "When word gets out … on top of the best Tony can come up with, I know for a fact you'll have Natasha invested. Might not mean too much to you, but she might surprise you."

"Fine. But they're the only two who can come. I don't need their location getting out. You know how dangerous that is."

"Understood," Steve said, nodding to himself. "No one else."

"Fine." Scott leaned back with James.

The rest of the flight to Genosha was quiet, and when they made their request to land, again, neither of them was surprised when they had the same group to meet them on the landing strip. This time, it was Tony that took the initiative to go talk with Erik. "We're leaving them both quinjets," Tony told him. "I'm working on something for Scott to enable him to see, you can run it by your tech people when I get it done - there will be no GPS, no trackers or tracers of any kind on anything, but I'll need to come back to make sure that it works right."

"You'll understand if I don't take your word for it and insist on my own labs."

"That's fine," Tony said, nodding at that. "I have a list - if you don't have some of the components here, I can arrange for them to get here without anyone else stepping foot on your soil." He didn't try to hide the clear regret in his voice. "I know it's late, but I need to do what I can to help now. And I can help."

"Clean up the mess you never bothered to help prevent," Erik said, not bothering to keep his own anger hidden.

And surprising Erik, Tony simply nodded in agreement. "If there's anything left of the labs of the people that started this mess, I will go in myself and take them apart."

Erik watched him for any sign of a lie and then very slowly nodded. "Yes," he said slowly. "If we can salvage his sight, then at least one of Charles' children can be saved."

"All due respect, there is no 'if' in this equation," Tony said. "I'll make it happen."

"Then I hope to see you quickly."

Tony held up both arms. "Just tell me where I need to go. I'll start right now."

Erik watched Tony carefully before he gestured with one hand - and Wanda joined them, looking worn as well. But she did smile tightly when she saw Tony.

"Mister Stark will be working in our labs. Under careful supervision," Erik said pointedly.

Tony turned to Wanda, doing his best to ignore Erik's warning or at least pretend like he didn't care about it even as the armor he was still wearing vibrated slightly. "I have an idea, but I need a lot of very small parts. I can get Pepper to package them up into part of a suit to get them here, if you want to catch them."

Wanda nodded and made it a point to take Tony's arm, which at least had the vibration letting up slightly. Though it wasn't until they were out of earshot that she told Tony in a low tone, "The way he's feeling right now, I'm not sure it was such a good idea to come in the suit, Tony. He's ready to go to war over this."

"I don't blame him," Tony said softly. "I wasn't kidding, either. If there are any traces left of the people that started this, I'll be right there burning them to the ground."

Wanda glanced up at him before she broke form and gave him a kiss on the spot on his armor where his cheek would be. "If Jean left anything of them at all, I will wipe them from existence." She glared and settled back on her heels. "They killed my brother."

"I know," Tony said quietly. "And both of the Howletts are gone."

"I heard. I don't know how Kurt is going to deal with that, but I don't blame him for giving the Phoenix a joyride."

Tony stopped and opened up the faceplate so she could read his expression. "No, Wanda … Kurt died with Jean. He killed her."

Wanda froze. "...what?"

"That's why we're here. We brought them back - Cyclops tried to talk her down, but it didn't work …"

Wanda narrowed her eyes and then shook her head, holding her arms tight to herself. "I'm tired of this, Tony. This is why I agreed to come here to stay with my father in the first place."

"I know," Tony said softly. "And as far as I'm concerned, we're not standing in anyone's way when it comes to stopping genocide. I didn't know it was this bad."

Wanda frowned and then put her hand on Tony's arm. "I wish you hadn't lost your innocence, you know."

"I wish we hadn't lost our friends," Tony countered.

"Me too." She led him around a corner to where the elevator would take them down to the lab but didn't say anything until they arrived. "If this doesn't work, get out of here fast. I know you think you're God, but I'm just warning you now…"

"It'll work," Tony said. "I know exactly how much trouble I'm facing, and if I can't do this … well … maybe it'd be earned."

"Not really," Wanda said, frowning up at him. "Tony… I didn't think you liked Scott that much…"

"It's not about him. He's got three little kids depending on him now," Tony said. "And he can't do right by them if he can't see them. Just James on his own … the kid doesn't say much - and I know. He's little, but he gets his point across with looks, you know?"

"Billy does the same thing," Wanda said. "It's not easy."

"Right, so just imagine trying to keep track of Billy without being able to see him." Tony gave her a look. "I have to do something."

"So, when are you and Pepper going to have your own, then?" Wanda asked, a quiet smirk at the corner of her mouth.

"Ought to get married first, don't you think?" Tony said, quietly bristling at the question.

"You haven't done that yet? Really, Tony, I've been gone for how long…?"

Tony hedged and shrugged one shoulder as he quietly shook his head.

"Give me a wedding, Tony. We need something - anything - good right now."

"I'd need a bride first," Tony said, finally turning to face her. "And Pepper's not it. If you must know."

Wanda looked honestly surprised. "You were head-over-heels when I left!"

"Yeah, and when I wasn't moving fast enough for her, she started trying all kinds of … jealousy… games, you know what … I don't really want to talk about it."

Wanda let out a breath and squeezed his arm. "I'm sorry."

"Its fine," Tony said. "She and Happy are making an honest run at it." He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. "But hey - you might get an invite to that if you're really hard up for weddings."

"Maybe," Wanda said. "I just need something to go right. Just one thing."

"Against all sense, I've got a few dozen drones deployed at the original FoH base - just to see what, exactly, the damage was, how many mutants were killed there in this last … mess. When I get the numbers, I'll let you know. If you'd like. Also low-key looking for Xavier. Figure they ought to be able to have all of them for the services if they can." Tony was frowning to himself as he stopped at the bench that had a whole slew of tools and supplies laid out. "In the meantime …" He looked around the lab. "At least I can get started while I wait for my parts." With that, Tony gave Wanda a muted, forced smile and then stepped out of his suit as he got to work at an almost frantic, concentrated pace that Wanda had seen him fall into so many times before.

As for the rest of the survivors, no one really had to ask what had happened once Scott and James got back. They'd seen that specific kind of hurt before.

Ororo had been holding it together with strings and tape until then, but that… seeing Scott so broken … and with the glaring absence of Kurt … she knew what the score was even before it was confirmed, and that burst through all of the strings and tape and hope she'd been clinging to. The dark black storm clouds that had been gathering and swirling overhead finally let loose with an earth-rumbling peal of thunder that hid her sob, and the citizens of Genosha sought shelter from the tempest the goddess inadvertently created as nature itself wept along with her.

Rachel was old enough that she knew what was going on, even if her ability to grasp the permanence was a little shaky. The basics were really all she needed to know, though. For instance, she knew her dad was sad and that a lot of her friends were gone.

Nate and James had fallen asleep with Scott, but Rachel slipped over to Ororo and put her hand on Ororo's knee. "I love you, Stormy," Rachel said earnestly. "Lots and lots okay?"

Storm took a moment to give Rachel's hand a squeeze. "And I you," she said, though Rachel was frowning at her wet face.

Rachel rubbed her face against Ororo's side as she snuggled in. "I'm sad too," she said quietly. "Everyone is sad."

"They are," Ororo agreed, trying to smile for the little girl.

"Do you need a hug?"

"Always, little one."

Rachel nodded and then wrapped her arms around Ororo's middle, listening to the rain against the roof of the house, which was enough to soothe the goddess at least a little bit.

Over the next few days, the surviving X-Men were visited by not only Scott's brother and sister-in-law, who were clearly destroyed, but Wanda as well. She hesitated to bring the twins along, all things considered. Not because she didn't trust the group - but she didn't want them overwhelmed by a pair of highly curious and helpful little boys. Not until the kids from Westchester started to show some kind of emotion other than numb, anyhow. She knew that Billy in particular would bend over backwards to help. And she wasn't sure watching those affected that it was the right time. Yet.

Instead, she helped Tony.

For as fast and dedicated as Tony was to his project … in the end, it took more time for Magneto's people to clear Tony's work than it took for Tony to create new bionic eyes for Scott. Finally, after what felt like forever to Tony, several of Magneto's people brought Scott to the lab so Tony could make sure that what he'd created for Scott was going to work properly for him.

"Sorry it took so long," Tony said as he took a seat near the bench, his tools close at hand.

Scott let out a breath as he sat down. "It's fine. Rachel is making a game of telling me everything she sees, so I haven't gone without."

"So you know, this isn't just a fitting," Tony said. "They should be done. All of it. This is for tiny adjustments and confirmation that it'll work for you."

Scott tipped his head to the side. "Yes, well, we'll see what you've got. Nate picked out my glasses, so if they're really that offensive to you…" It was the first attempt at wry humor he had made, and Tony somehow wasn't surprised it was dark humor.

"No, you don't understand," Tony said before he let out a breath. "You can keep the glasses. Whatever glasses you want. That won't impact what I made." He sat back while Magneto's staff came over to do the actual fitting with Scott. "The only thing I wasn't sure of was the color."

"Oh, I'm boring. They were brown," Scott said dryly.

"Well, I went with blue," Tony said.

"Fine by me. Nate will like that."

There were a few semi-uncomfortable moments as the doctors finished, and then, Tony quietly gave him a moment to process. Scott blinked his eyes as the bionics powered on … and slowly, for the first time in weeks, he could see. Scott looked like he was in shock as he slowly took in the details of the room. The doctors were watching both Scott and Tony carefully, which was when Tony spoke up again. "We have a whole slew of color and focus tests when you're ready."

"Yeah." Scott was still looking around. "I'm not used to … color."

"That actually makes sense," Tony said. "I rushed this set, though. I can change anything you don't like."

"No, that's not what I meant," Scott said. "I just meant - it's been a long time since I saw anything other than red. Let me get used to it."

"Then maybe I should wait to tell you the other features," Tony said slowly.

"No, go ahead," Scott said.

"Alright, so, you can ask for night vision or infrared. It's keyed to your voice only, so no one will be able to tweak that for you," Tony said. "When I get back to my lab, I already have ideas for a better pair that will have scanners that will help you with threat assessment - not too much different than the stuff I have onboard my suit."

Scott finally turned to look at Tony and blinked a few times in open surprise. "That… will help immensely."

Tony nodded and let out a breath of obvious relief. "Alright. Well. Consider this the starter version."

"Thank you." Scott reached up to rub a hand over his face. "I didn't expect… all of this."

"You know I don't do anything halfway, right?" Tony said. "Especially when I screwed up so badly already."

Scott frowned Tony's way. "You sure you're alright, Stark?"

"Yep. Fine." Tony nodded to himself, though it was clear he very much was not alright.

"Wasn't anyone's fault but Graydon Creed," Scott said, surprising himself with his concern - but then, he knew that look intimately.

"Still," Tony said with a shrug. "Alright. I'm going to suit up. Head out. I told Magneto that the two Quinjets are for you and your group. I'll grab Cap and get out of your hair, just … let us know when it's time … you know. We want to help see them off and pay our respects."

"It will probably be a combined service. Too many… it would be too much to do them all one right after another."

"No kidding," Tony breathed out. "You've got my number, so …"

"Yeah." Scott got to his feet and looked around. "Thanks again. I know our teams don't… mesh. So I wouldn't have blamed you-"

"Yeah, that's not gonna work anymore. blame me," Tony said. "Just let us know when you need help. No questions asked but when and where."

"Honestly, I don't know that the team will… well, there aren't enough of us…"

"It's not just about the teams," Tony said. "But if you want to keep working for good and don't want to carry all the liability, you can join us."

"It's not about liability," Scott said. "I just don't know if we can ask anyone to keep… to come back after this."

"There's no time limit on this, Scott. Take your time; take care of your family and friends. We'll be here when you're ready either way."

Scott nodded gently before he put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "I'll call you when it's all set up. Thanks."

"Anytime," Tony replied, and when he stepped back from Scott, he made his way over to where he'd stashed the armor and quickly suited up. "Wanda seems to think I've got a death wish," he said with a little smirk.

"Knowing How Magneto feels about the Avengers? Wearing that suit? You might."

"Haven't got anything else, and the rock tee and sneakers seemed like I was under-dressed," Tony deadpanned.

"True enough. But you didn't murder me, so he might let you come back."

"One way to find out," Tony said before he waited for his official escort to take him away from the lab. While he waited, he hedged on telling Scott the other bit that he'd found out from his drones, but … seeing as Scott was taking charge of the funeral arrangements, it really was something he had to do. "Oh, Scott. I know there's no good time to tell you this kind of thing, but … I had sent out a small army of drones to search that site - where you were being held. I was looking for … well, I was looking for answers, if I'm being honest."

"And?" Scott said, half holding his breath on what it was that Tony might be hanging onto.

"I've recovered the professor's body along with the body of a young man that DNA matched up with Logan. He did lose a son; it just … wasn't the one he thought he'd lost."

Scott nodded slowly. "Akihiro," he said, though he barely breathed it out. "I didn't know him well, but Logan told K about him when they were married…" He shook his head and then swore under his breath. "The bastard wasn't lying."

"Probably ought to elaborate on that," Tony said.

"Sabretooth told Logan just before he killed K that his son had been asking for him when he died," Scott but out through his teeth, his hands in fists at his sides. "When K died, Logan thought he had lost everyone in his family."

Tony stared at Scott for a long moment. "And because of this guy … he wasn't lying."

"Logan would have known if he was," Scott said, still visibly angry. "Dammit, this shouldn't have happened."

"He played him," Tony said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"He'd never been able to before. Not that I ever saw," Scott said. "If it wasn't so damn believable, it would never have worked."

"But he wasn't technically lying. Logan just … didn't think about the other … this Akihiro?"

"They weren't close," Scott said. "At all. The fact that he was asking for Logan… he had to have been well past the breaking point. Logan wouldn't have believed it."

Tony nodded at that. "We found Creed's body too. Both of them."

"Stark, I don't give a damn about them. Leave them to rot. I don't care."

"No, I just … I know how much of a pain Sabretooth was, and you should know he's not coming back. He was pretty well torched."

"Good." Scott made a visible effort to calm back down before he turned toward Tony. "And… the professor…?"

"He's waiting for you in New York ... " Tony let out a breath. "I'm sure he'd have wanted to be home."

"Yeah." Scott was almost holding his breath before he sat down again. "Yeah. He… yeah."

"Anything you need," Tony said as his escort arrived. "Just say the word."

"Thanks," Scott said in a whisper, all the anger from before gone at the thought of burying the professor. "Really."

Chapter Text

Scott took his time leaving the lab, honestly torn on how to process everything while he was taking in the fact that everything on Genosha was so … vividly bright. But the joy and wonder at regaining his sight was still bitterly tinged with the heavy losses they'd sustained. And those losses were touching every single facet of their lives. For instance, Scott nearly lost his breath when, on seeing the beautiful flowers that lined the sidewalk, his first reaction was to automatically reach out to project to Jean what he was seeing, only to very suddenly need to find a bench to rebalance himself for a good, long while.

It was emotional whiplash of the worst kind, and Scott was already hurting before that had started up. The confusion and joy of finally being able to see in living color instead of shades of red since he was a kid was almost enough to make him momentarily forget that he'd lost the girl who held his heart. But that only lasted long enough for him to instinctively reach for her. Because she'd been there, in his head since …. Well, since the first time the Phoenix had nearly destroyed their world. Since the flaming firebird had chosen his first love to be its host. And even the memory of how that telepathic link had been forged was now tainted, since even that had been partially thanks to the bloodthirsty, lying ,cosmic parasite that had stolen her.

If he wasn't so damned depressed over all of it, Scott would have been furious. But he didn't have the energy to be that angry. Not when he knew it wouldn't bring Jean back. Not when he knew what little energy he had left was best spent taking care of their kids … and Logan's orphaned son.

Scott turned and found a clock that read out the time clearly - something that he might not have been able to read properly considering that the numbers were red - and he forced himself to his feet. He'd been gone for far too long. Especially when it was obvious that James got nervous when left with Bobby and Kitty for too long - as if he was just waiting for someone else to step in and take him to live with someone new.

He was almost back to the house where the team was holed up for the moment when he heard his name and turned to see Erik making his way over. It was a little different seeing the Magneto regalia in living color, though he tried not to look too surprised all the same at the garish combination - even if the red and purple were distressed and battle-worn.

"Hello, Erik," Scott said softly as Erik touched down lightly. Scott didn't know it, but Erik had rarely been walking the past week or so since the X-Men had been rescued from the brink of their own executions. He'd simply been too furious.

"How are you feeling, Scott?" Erik asked gently, though it was clear he was studying him as they walked.

"Still getting used to it," Scott admitted. There was no point in lying about it. "It's a shock going from the visor to bandages to living color."

"Stark pulled through, then," Erik said, sounding almost surprised.

"He did," Scott said. "Even better vision than I had as a kid." He was sure Erik's men would tell him about the upgrades, but old habits had Scott holding back the rest of it.

"I'll be honest," Erik told him. "I had my doubts about letting him remain here, even for this."

"I spoke with Storm. If anything had gone wrong, if there were implants or worse, she'd have taken the kids and gotten lost on the wind." Scott tipped his chin up. "I'm not risking them. Ever."

"You know you're welcome to stay here, where it's safer, Scott." Erik was watching him carefully. "Even if I know you were only planning to be here until you could get your feet under you."

"If it was just my kids, I'd consider it," Scott said. "But I think James needs to be able to get out in the woods. When he comes into his mutation, he'll need the quiet, not an island full of people."

"You don't know for sure that he'll be anything like his parents," Erik said.

"I know it's the most likely outcome. And I know from dealing with them both that crowds overwhelm their senses." Scott crossed his arms. "It's not something James will be able to control. Not like what our powers were."

"You still have several years before that would be a concern, my boy."

"I know." Scott let out a long breath. "And you have a point about safety in numbers. Just … let me think about it."

The two of them walked together in relative silence, but in trying to avoid looking at Magneto, Scott saw all of the mutants who obviously knew who he was - and what had happened to his team, if the sympathetic looks were anything to go by. It only made the quiet walk to the house that much more uncomfortable, but Scott had to find a better subject to discuss, or he was going to lose his fine grasp on his emotions.

"You should be at the memorial." Scott swallowed hard, a muscle working in his jaw as he dug for the words while Erik was still quietly in shock at their current, strange cease-fire. "I'm sorry. About the professor. I know he thought a lot of you, and the respect he had ...I know you meant a lot to each other."

"You've lost so much in such a short span of time," Erik said quietly, clearly touched by what Scott had said.

"I couldn't save him," Scott said, looking past Erik with his hands still in fists.

"We couldn't save any of them once those wheels set into motion," Erik said in a sad, metered tone.

Scott was quiet for a long time before he finally met Erik's gaze. "You were right," he said thickly, his voice catching in his throat.

"And I've never wanted to have been wrong so badly in my life," Erik replied with a tight smile.

"I'm sorry about Pietro," Scott said, his hand on the doorknob. "Kurt told me what happened. If it's any consolation, K was operating under threat of my daughter's death - and she knew that Creed had plans to use him. I wouldn't be surprised if that was going to be Creed's path here. Pietro would be killed or worse along with the rest of us."

Erik's gaze hardened a bit at that. "There's no way to know that for certain, is there?"

"I know it's hollow." Scott looked down. "Not one of my people had a choice in it. She was desperate, and I think … I think she fully expected to die. Just not … how she did. I can't make it any better or apologize enough."

"Let's not talk about the what ifs or could have beens," Erik said. "We both still have our losses to deal with."

"Then I can only say I'm sorry," Scott said.

"And I the same," Erik replied as Scott finally opened the door and the two of them stepped inside. The two Summers children rushed over, clearly excited to see their father, but James stayed back - warily watching the two men.

Nate immediately started to explore Scott's face with his hands, his eyes wide and his expression one of awe. "Daddy!" Nate declared happily. "Blue! Blue blue blue blue blue!"

It was the first time Scott cracked a smile. "What do you think, Rachel?"

"I dunno," she said, scrunching her nose up. "Where did your glasses go?"

"I don't need them," Scott explained. "When my eyes got hurt, it hurt my powers." He crouched to pick her up too. "Is that okay? No more optic blasts?"

Rachel looked shocked and then looked closer until she was nose-to-nose with Scott. "No more glasses?"

"No more glasses."

"O...Kay." She narrowed her eyes and then nodded once. "Okay. No glasses. You can just play with me an' Nate an' James, cuz we don't have optical blasts either."

"What about Mia?" Scott asked, failing at hiding his amusement at Rachel's assessment.

"She's with her mom," Rachel said. "Her mom is real sad." She glanced over her shoulder to James. "James too. Cuz of everyone dying."

Scott nodded at that. "What about you, sweetheart?"

"I'm kinda sad too," Rachel said. "But I'm tryna not be. Because everyone needs hugs, and I'm really busy makin' sure they get hugs."

Scott kissed the side of her head to hide the fact that he was so emotional hearing her say something that was so very Jean. "It's alright to be sad, Rach."

"Okay," she said, melting into a hug as Scott carried her and Nate to sit down with them both - and made sure to beckon James over too if he wanted it so he didn't feel left out.

James was slow about making his way over from where he'd been sitting in the window watching everyone as they walked by the house. Half of his attention was on Erik as he haltingly hedged closer to the Summers family. He was wary of all the new people coming in and out even though he was watching every one of them, and it was obvious that James was adrift. Scott knew it better than anyone else there, too. He scooped James up and then bent close to his ear. "We're not staying here forever, I promise," he whispered. "We're going to the woods soon. And we're going fishing. Okay?"

James still was watching Erik, even as Scott spoke with him, but finally, he very quietly nodded his head, though with all of the new changes - and Scott's new eye - James was standoffish about everything, even being close to Scott … unless Scott was walking out of the door, that is.

Scott let out a breath and tapped James on the shoulder. "Hey, buddy, I know it's a lot. Do you want 'em brown instead?" He tipped his head to catch James' gaze. "I don't care."

James stayed silent and shook his head lightly.

"Well, that's probably good anyhow- I think Nate is attached." Scott said, trying to get a smile out of the boys. "You can pick my shades, though. I still need sunglasses, and I'd like a break from red."

James shook his head again and tried to take a step back. "Rachel can pick."

Scott let out a breath. "Alright, James," he said gently. "I'm just - just trying to be a good godfather, alright? I don't want you to be left out."

At that, James turned away from Erik entirely and looked up at Scott for a moment before he stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Scott's neck to snuggle in without another word.

Scott let his shoulders relax with the hug, even as the two Summers kids joined in. "Yeah. Love you too."

Erik had just opened his mouth to ask a question when there was a light knock on the door that broke up the little snuggle fest. James let go of Scott quickly and zipped off to a more hidden spot- though Scott realized he needed to learn the layout of the house before he could do much else. He wondered for an instant how many hiding spots James had found for himself for when he was overwhelmed. But he didn't have time to think about it much when Wanda opened the door and let herself in.

"I hope it's a good time," she said just before a pair of three-year-olds darted around her legs, and Vision stepped up to stand behind her. "I held the boys back as long as I could, but they really want to spend some time with kids their own age." Billy made a loop back to his parents, and Wanda rested her hand on the top of his head as he hugged her legs, smiling up at her. "Say hello to Scott, boys."

"HI!" Billy and Tommy sang out - from opposite sides of the room as Tommy raced around.

Billy let go of his mother before she could stop him, and he bounced over to the living room, barely pausing to wave at his grandfather with a grin before he climbed up on the opposite end of the couch that Scott and his kids were on. He smiled at the Summers kids for a moment, and though Rachel smiled back a little, Nate didn't hesitate to climb down from his father and head over to play with Tommy - and the cars he'd brought along.

Wanda gave her father a look, though the others seemed to miss it, and a moment later, she took the seat next to Scott when Billy followed Rachel over to where she'd been working on a puzzle. "Sorry for swinging by without the warning," she said. "The boys were pushing to meet everyone. They heard all about your little ones from Alex and Lorna, so of course, they wanted to see if they were as fun as he'd said they were."

Scott nodded, honestly glad to see Rachel and Nate trying, at least. But he couldn't help but turn his head and look for James. "They can use the boost, honestly," Scott said, and a moment later, he'd tried out the scanner to see where James had tucked himself away without alarming him.

When he found James hiding under a corner table that had a cloth that covered it to the floor, Scott made his way over to him and simply stood there while he chatted with Wanda. When she frowned at his odd placement in the room, he pointed to the table to tip her off but not entirely bust James out as to where he was hidden.

Wanda made a face that showed exactly how much she wanted to pull James out and snuggle him, but instead, she nodded and stayed close by while Scott told her how he was adjusting to the colors.

Which drew Tommy and Billy closer. "My favorite color is red," Billy said, smiling up at both of them but staying just out of Wanda's reach.

"My fav'rit's green," Tommy announced, just as Nate threw his arms up and shouted out 'bluuueee!'

"What about you, Rachel? What's your favorite color?" Wanda asked, keeping half an eye out for James and hoping the kids would draw him out.

"I like a lot of them," Rachel said. "I like green because my eyes are green, but I like pink, too. And light purple cause lotsa flowers are purple that smell pretty." She looked around them for a moment as the twins bounced in place, only to gasp and look up at Scott. "Daddy! Where's James?"

"I think he's hiding," Scott said. "He'll come out when he's ready."

"Ooooooh! Hide an' seek!" Tommy laughed, clapping his hands as he bounced in place almost enough to fall over.

"No..." Scott tried to tell him, in a vain attempt to slow him down - but it was too late, and the three boys rushed off to find hiding spots.

Twice, Tommy returned just to circle the adults before darting off another direction - and once more to inform Rachel that she was 'it,' since she hadn't gone to hide. So Scott almost missed it when Billy came from the other direction and apparently decided that the little table that James was tucked into was the perfect hiding spot.

Scott was close to smiling, but when he saw Billy slipping under the table cloth, he turned to try and stop him - but it was a little too late, judging by the surprised sounding 'oh!' that Billy almost squeaked out when he saw the spot was taken. "Do you wanna share spots?" Billy whispered loud enough for Wanda and Scott to hear - and his tone shifted to one of deep concern when James' only answer was to curl in tighter around himself, his arms around his knees and his face half hidden as he folded himself over.

Billy lost much of his smile as he watched James react, and instead of pushing or trying to talk, Billy echoed James' posture as he scooted in to sit next to him, though he wasn't quite ready to sit entirely still like James was doing. He wiggled and tried to be still, and when James didn't answer any of his very soft questions, Billy unfolded himself and stuck his head out from under the table cloth to look up at his mother. "Mom," he said quietly - and very serious. "Help! He sad."

Wanda glanced at Scott and crouched down. "Who's sad?"

Billy looked very serious as he picked up the table cloth a little as if Wanda could climb in and fit with them. "He is. But I don't know his name 'cause he doesn't talk."

She peeked under to see James looking up at her - still folded up, still hiding as best as he could - and then she gently pulled Billy out and ran her hand over his hair and held him almost in a hug with her other arm. "That's because he lost his mom and dad," Wanda whispered in Billy's ear. "He feels very sad about them."

Billy was wide-eyed as he stared back at her. "Do we have'ta find 'em?"

"No, sweetheart," Wanda said as Billy went still to listen closer. "James is going to stay with Scott and Nate and Rachel from now on."

Billy nodded at that. "I think he really needs a hug."

"I think so too," Wanda said, then quietly picked up the edge of the table cloth and offered James her hand. "Hello, I'm sorry we interrupted your hiding spot."

James's shoulders went up to his ears, but he didn't run the other way.

"This is Billy, and I'm Wanda," she said as she sat cross-legged on the floor. "Would it be okay if we gave you a little hug? We hugged all the other kids here, and I'd hate to miss any of you."

James thought about it for a long moment before he very carefully unfolded himself and slipped toward them, only to pause and look up at Scott, who nodded once before James stood up, still half curled into himself as he tried to look smaller. Wanda reached out and gently pulled him in the rest of the way, letting him go at his pace, but also making it clear that she wanted to follow through on the hug … and surprising Scott, once Wanda had her arm around him, James melted into her shoulder.

Wanda let out a little sigh and held the little guy there, though it wasn't long before first Billy - and then Tommy and Nate  -came in to join in. Of course, that only seemed to last for exactly as long as it took James to realize how many people were around him … and then immediately start to squirm his way out of it. Which was easier said than done when a couple of snuggly, very small kids were involved.

Scott picked him out of the dogpile, and James leaned toward him as the other kids seemed to just run with a little snuggle pile without him. "You alright, bud?" Scott asked quietly, and for an instant, James looked toward the window before he shook his head 'no'. "I know. It's hard with all the people you don't know, but they just want to help." James didn't really nod as he hid his face in Scott's shoulder. "What can I do to help?"

"I wanna go home," James said, whisper quiet - but it was the most he'd said since they got to Genosha.

Scott doubled down on holding him a little tighter. "I know, and we won't stay much longer, alright?"

The kids played for a while longer, until the twins started showing signs of being worn and tired, and then Wanda and Vision scooped them up and took them out with a promise to see them again soon. Erik had stayed behind, watching Scott and the others as they interacted with the kids.

In particular, he couldn't help but focus on how Scott was with James, quietly watching the whole thing with a strange sort of frown. For one thing, it was no secret that Scott and Logan weren't terribly close, so the godfather title had been a surprise. But watching Scott with the littlest members of the group outside of Storm's blue-furred little girl … it was clear even before Scott could think it over properly what his answer was going to be to his invitation to stay on Genosha.

Erik stuck around until Scott got James and Nate to lay down for a nap - and Rachel insisted on tucking them in. Scott closed the door to the kids' room behind himself and came out to meet Erik.

"I can't stay here. I can't stay where people knew her," Scott said, trying to explain his thought process to avoid a fight. He just wanted to leave and stop thinking about anything but the kids for a while. Especially with how traumatized they were over the losses they'd sustained.

"The door is always open should you change your mind," Erik said gently.

"Thank you," Scott said. "I'm only speaking for myself. Bobby, Kitty, Ororo, Hank - I don't know what they're thinking."

"As you well know, my offer is good for all of you," Erik replied as gently as he could. "I don't think I could turn my back on Charles' old students."

Scott's eyes tightened, and he nodded. It was clear to Erik why Scott wouldn't be staying, seeing how affected he was by the kids - and how dependent they were already on each other. Scott was positively wrapped around the kids' fingers, and if any one of the kids wanted out, he'd bend over backward to make it happen. The time simply wasn't right.

Bobby sat down beside Erik after Scott stepped back to check on the little ones, with a muttered, "Yeah, Logan shocked the heck out of … well, everyone when he told Scott who they wanted for godparents. K explained it better, though. Figured Scott and Jean would step in if anything happened…." He trailed off. "I mean, he was right. But you know. It sucks."

"I didn't realize …" Erik let the sentence fall.

"Yeah, I think they saw him do that thing?" Bobby tipped his head toward the semi-open bedroom door. "With Rachel? And it only was getting worse every time someone had a kid, so… clearly, it's a thing."

"I see."

"Yeah." Bobby let out a breath and turned to face Erik. "I know right now everyone's focused on the cleanup. And the funerals. And everything. But I gotta ask - did they get 'em all? I mean, not to downplay the Phoenix or anything, but there's the FoH and the MRD and Department H and it's not like there's a shortage?"

"It's been … very quiet," Erik said.

"Darn." Bobby glanced up quickly. "I mean - good. That's good. I just…" He let out a frustrated sound. "I didn't get to really do - after they knocked me out at the institute, I haven't gotten to do anything to hit back."

Erik looked surprised at that and turned toward Bobby. "I'm sure you'll find that even when one of those places is eradicated, more will show their ugly faces in short time."

"Yeah, it's just…" Bobby shook his head. "I got played. And I can't make it up to a dead guy. And it sucks."

"I don't know what you'd need to make up," Erik said. "But if you want to fight, you know I won't turn you away."

"Yeah, well, maybe I will," Bobby said, glancing toward Scott and Ororo, who were both clearly just hanging onto their respective kids to stay upright. "Not like the team's getting back together after this."

Erik frowned as he followed Bobby's gaze - and almost missed it when Kitty phased through the couch and made a space for herself to sit too. "You're not going anywhere without me," she informed Bobby, one finger pointed at his nose. "I didn't even get to see Logan before he died. I'm getting my katana and fixing a few problems I know the Phoenix didn't get to."

"You mean like Lady Deathstrike?" Bobby asked.

"Yeah, and some of those other idiots in Japan…" Kitty tipped her chin up. "I might not be able to bait out ninjas as easy without him, but I still know how to fight them."

"Once our official stuff is taken care of," Bobby said, nodding. "I'll go with you."

Kitty smiled grimly at that and then squeezed his arm. "I guess I can use a sidekick."

"If you want a sidekick, we can probably get Spidey to go with, too," Bobby pointed out.

Kitty smirked at that. "He would."

"Do you still have his number?" Bobby asked in the most low-key teasing Kitty had ever heard from him.

Kitty blinked at him and then shoved him in the shoulder. "I mean, yes, but - shut up!"

"Would you feel better if I passed him a note for you?" Bobby said with the start of a smile. "'Do you want to go on a world tour of butt kicking - check yes or no'."

"Are you asking for me or you, because you're way too happy about this," Kitty shot back.

"You were cute with your flirting," Bobby said. "I can see it."

"He… shut up, Bobby."

"I feel like I should try to stand in and be intimidating for you," Bobby said. "Set the ground rules …"

"Bobby, first of all, I'm way more intimidating than you are…"

"This is about intent," Bobby defended. "And I can be intimidating!"

Kitty smirked and then reached over to pat Bobby's head. "Sure you can."

"Just wait, Pryde. Just you wait," Bobby said.

Kitty smirked at Bobby and then stuck her tongue out before she phased back into the other room, leaving Bobby shaking his head at her - though in a considerably better mood.

For most of the people that attended the funeral, the whole thing went more or less in a blur. It was just… a lot. And nobody who came was remotely at a point where they had truly processed their losses.

So Tony was surprised when Scott was the one to find him, since he was sure the guy still had to be a mess of emotions from… all of it. But he had Nate asleep on his shoulder, while Rachel kept close to James, who was quietly listening to some Asgardian story that Thor was telling them. It was plain to see that Thor was completely entranced with Rachel's spunk and James' tenacity, even if he was still being unnaturally quiet for a three-year-old.

"Whenever you're ready," Scott said in an undertone, "the kids' belongings have already been unloaded. We just need to finish the security checks."

"I'll get Natasha," Tony said. "I've got some portable stuff you might appreciate."

"Well, so far, you haven't let me down…"

"How are the second gen eyes working out?"

"Focus is better," Scott said. "Rachel gets a kick out of the long-range scanners. So thanks for making me a video game."

"Welcome to my world, my friend," Tony said under his breath before he headed off to grab Natasha. The two of them had a quiet word that Scott watched go down. It took Natasha no time at all to compose herself, though one glance at James had her nodding quickly and strutting back toward Scott with her most professional expression in place.

"You're sure you want to use one of the old cabins?" Natasha asked. "I could find somewhere more hidden if you'd like. I never did find all of hers, but …."

"I need something familiar," Scott said. "Not for me, for James. Something that was his dad's." He met her gaze steadily. "It's not just about the security, though being that remote is part of it."

Natasha did a less than stellar job of keeping her game face on as she nodded along. "Then let's get it secured for you."

Scott nodded at that. "You understand I'm not letting anyone but you or Stark near this."

"He has access to the tech, and I spent part of my childhood with Logan," Natasha said. "I know what his idea of security was, and it was generally lacking."

"That's the only reason I'm letting anyone see the place. At all." Scott raised both eyebrows and gave her a pointed look. "Jean wiped Department H off the map, but I've always said you can't kill an idea. If someone finds out about James, they will come for him."

"I'll keep my ear to the ground," Natasha promised.

"And so will I," Scott said. "Believe it or not, I've got Magneto on my side on this one. So we're all in agreement."

Natasha nodded her head and turned in time to catch James and Rachel headed their way. Rachel was cheerful but cautious, and little James was apprehensive and openly watching her.

"You have red hair like me," Rachel informed Natasha as she came to stand by her dad, automatically holding onto his pants leg as she'd been doing since she really understood that her mom wasn't coming back.

"Yes," Natasha said with a little smile. "I think it's the best color, don't you?"

Rachel nodded. "It's like my mom," she said softly, twirling her hair around her finger.

"And you'll be just as beautiful, I'm sure," Natasha told her before she turned to wait for them to head to the Quinjet. "Are you ready for a little break from everyone?"

Rachel glanced up at Scott, who had a hand on her back automatically as soon as she was close enough, before she looked back to Natasha. "My daddy needs to be sad by himself, so we're going to go fishing."

"I happen to think that's a very smart thing to do," Natasha said, sparing Scott a little smile.

"Miss Storm says it's okay to be sad, so I think I will be too," Rachel said, hugging Scott a little tighter. "But right now, I'm doing hugs." She paused. "Do you need hugs?"

"I do," Natasha said. "But I won't ask for one unless your dad says it's alright."

Rachel glanced up at Scott, who nodded minutely, and then she rushed over to give Natasha a hug - with James watching the whole interaction carefully from the other side of Scott.

"My mommy and daddy were superheroes, so I'm tryna help like them," Rachel whispered to Natasha as she hugged her. "'Specially 'cause Daddy don't got his optical laser face no more."

Natasha melted into the hug, pouring it right back to Rachel as she gave her the best snuggle she knew how. "Then it's a good thing he never needed that to keep you safe."

Rachel smiled up at Natasha. "He looks silly now 'cause he's got blue eyes instead of red!" she giggled quietly.

Natasha smirked crookedly. "I think they suit him."

"They're like my Nate's!" Rachel said with a grin. "But mine are green like Mommy, see?" She got nose to nose with Natasha and opened her eyes wide. "See?"

"Stunning," Natasha replied, smiling a tiny bit more crookedly at the little girl's enthusiasm. "And that means all three of you have different eyes, don't you?" She peeked over to James, but he didn't step forward like she'd hoped he would.

Rachel let out a sigh. "James is shy," she said.

"He wasn't shy before," Natasha said.

"Uh-huh. And now he's sad 'cause of he lost his mom and also his dad."

"I'm sad he lost them, too."

Rachel nodded. "He's gonna be my brother now, just like Nate," she explained. "So I'll take really good care of him, okay? I'm really good at helpnin' with Nate, and James is a little older, so maybe he can help too once he's not so sad an' scared."

"If you ever need help, you'll let me know, won't you?"

"Uh-huh, 'cause we need to help our friends," Rachel said. "That's what Mommy says. She says you gotta help everyone and be nice and stuff."

Natasha gave her a warm smile and started toward the Quinjet. "Has your Daddy shown you how to fly this yet?"

Rachel giggled. "No, silly! I'm not big enough!"

"Getting close, though," Scott said with a soft, fond smile her way.

"Tony will fly with us - just to keep from drawing attention," Natasha said to Scott. "You can stay with the kids if you'd like. Or you can fly."

"I'll stay with them," Scott said, pointedly looking down at James before he picked him up with his free hand. "Pretty sure James isn't going to come unstuck until we're more solid."

"How's he been sleeping?" Natasha asked quietly.

"Not any better than I am," Scott said.

"That bad, huh?" Natasha said. "Has to be tough for such a little guy."

"His mom always put him to sleep," Scott said. "When his parents were out on a mission, he slept over with us, and Jean was the one who always did it." He smiled tightly. "I'm not a good replacement for any of them."

"That … I'm sorry to hear it," she said, frowning a little deeper. She started for the cockpit, paused, then went to the back of the plane to come back with a few little blankets. "Just for the trip."

"Thanks," Scott said, already unfolding the blanket to tuck around the still-sleeping Nate.

The Quinjet went in fast, low, and totally undetected right to the coordinates Scott had given them. When they landed, both Tony and Natasha were sure to suit up and head out before Scott could even begin to rouse the kids, though as he'd said to Natasha - James hadn't fallen asleep on the flight. Even if he looked exhausted.

The two of them started out doing a general sweep of the area and a much more thorough sweep of the cabin itself, though Natasha was having trouble getting through the little cabin without some tears.

"Remember? It's okay to be sad," Rachel said quietly, catching Natasha off her guard when she grabbed Natasha's hand.

She blinked back what she could and gave Rachel a tight kind of smile as she crouched down. "Logan was very special to me," she told her quietly before she rested her hand on Rachel's hair.

"I loved Logan and K lots," Rachel said, staring up at Natasha intently.

"Then you know how special it is to be in this place that he loved so much," Natasha said before she took a few steps back and quickly composed herself to get back to work - setting up all sorts of miniscule equipment.

Eventually, all three of the adults were convinced they were set up, and Rachel made sure to hug Natasha. Nate even hugged her too - having just woken up and deciding that whoever his sister was hugging, he needed to hug.

James finally made his way over to Natasha, while Tony was telling Scott about the panic buttons in addition to all the other measures, and for a moment he stared up at Natasha. When she crouched down, he came close enough to give her a little kiss on the cheek - like he would do before all this mess came down on them.

Natasha positively melted, and she snatched James up into a tight hug and pressed a kiss to the side of his head. "Ya tebya lyublyu."

"Proshchay," James replied quietly.

Natasha let out an involuntary noise. "I will see you soon. Whenever you need me. I promise."

When Natasha and Tony got back to the Avengers Tower, it was clear both of them were still reeling. There was no good way to leave behind a broken family, but they both knew the best thing for them was to let them find a new normal together.

They hardly spoke a word to each other before they split. Tony headed for his lab, and Natasha headed toward the residential halls, though not to her own room.

When she walked in, Clint was working on his bowtie with one hand as he pulled some leftovers out of the mini fridge. He smiled up at her when he saw her come in and then tipped his head to tell her to come in. "Figured you'd want to be alone, but if you want company, I can order out. Really only enough for one…"

Natasha shook her head as she closed the door behind her. "I don't want to be alone."

"Not complaining," he promised. "Really. This whole thing was rough. Even those of us that weren't that close… it's rough."

Natasha nodded before she kicked off from the door and crossed over to him in a few steps to snag him by the half-tied bowtie and pull him into a long kiss that didn't end until they were tangled up in each other.

Clint grinned. "Well, that's one way to cheer up."

"Shut up, Barton," she said, pulling him into another long kiss.


From Russian:

Ya tebya lyublyu - I love you.

Proshchay - goodbye (as opposed to do svidaniya which is 'until next time')

Chapter Text

When Clint woke up the next morning, Natasha was already awake, though she hadn't moved from where she was, either. He was always slower to wake up anyway, though usually, she just went on with her day.

He figured she was still reeling from the funeral, so he turned to face her and kissed her shoulder. "Ain't a shrink, but I approve of this mourning mechanism."

"Shut up," she said, shaking her head at him.

"Already did that," Clint pointed out, smirking harder.

"Good." She turned to face him properly. "Then you won't be opposed to doing this until we get a little one."

Clint froze. "I… what?"

"If you mind terribly, we can do things in order. I can have the paperwork drawn up-"

"Nat." He blinked a few more times, though he kept smiling wider the longer he watched her. "I mean, sure."

"Unless you think I need to find someone else entirely."

"Um, no?" Clint stared at her, one eye closed in a wince. "But, c'mon, Nat. You want a family, you should, I mean, I'd want to be more than just DNA?"

"That's what I was hoping for," Natasha replied. "You didn't seem overly sure about yourself, though, so I thought I'd give you an out."

"You… sprung it on me," Clint said, shaking his head with that same disbelieving smile as before.

"I thought you liked surprises," she said with one eyebrow arched up slightly - teasing him.

Clint shook his head and let out a laugh. "I do. I just - are you sure this isn't just because of Logan? I know you weren't okay, and I don't want you to wake up in a year regretting it…"

"All teasing aside, I know exactly what I'm doing, Clint." She shrugged lightly. "Besides, it was James that got me thinking. Not Logan."

"Yeah?" Clint pulled her over to tuck into a snuggle and kissed the side of her head. "Hate to break it to you, Nat, but we'd probably have a blonde or a redhead."

"That's not what I was talking about, and you know it."

"Just had to make sure you knew what you'd be getting," Clint teased. "Might be a little blonde girl, and then we'd just have to try again for a little boy just for you."

"I didn't say we had to have a boy."

"Mmm, that's what I heard," Clint said, grinning at her. "No take-backs. We'll have five girls, and the fifth will have a twin brother."

Natasha tipped her head to the side and narrowed her eyes for a moment. "No … there are no twins in my family. That won't work."

"Triplets, then," Clint said without missing a beat.

"If it's triplets, you can carry them."

"There's my Tasha," Clint said with a laugh. He pulled her into a longer kiss this time. "I'm on board, Nat. For all of it. You know I can't say no to you."

"You've thought about this possibility already," Natasha accused him.

"Um, vaguely?" Clint shook his head. "When I was thirteen and it was the princess and we were gonna have a dozen circus brats?" He shrugged. "Then I grew up and figured no one in this biz would settle for me, so hey, I'm lucky you kiss me. Let alone this."

"I'm not settling; Clint, you need to get that straight right now. Settling would be talking to Bucky out of the blue about this."

"So you did have a backup plan."

"That would have been … plan 'D'."

"Steve beat him out. He'll never live it down," Clint teased.

"By a mile," she said, keeping her serious expression but smirking to herself all the same.

"Who was Plan C? Please tell me it wasn't Stark, because I just - I can't."

"Oh, no, of course not," she said, shaking her head. "There's a very sad little X-Man …"

Clint let out a disbelieving sound. "Cyclops? Seriously?"

"He's got three sweet little kids clinging to him - one of which belonged to my Logan," Natasha defended. "And his daughter has red hair and green eyes and calls him out all the time."

"Ready-made family for you, huh?" Clint shook his head. "He's Plan A, isn't he?"

"No, if he was plan A, I would have stayed."

"Well, small miracles," Clint said and then kissed her again. "Let's work on those kids, huh? We'll get to the paperwork after coffee."

"I can backdate it if we're busy," she said with a smirk.

"That's my Nat."

The echoes of the jet leaving hadn't even settled before Kitty and Bobby made good on their plans to head out to Japan looking for trouble - and a means to finish Logan's business there - which left Storm to decide which path she wanted to take. Though Erik's offer to stay in Genosha was a generous one, Ororo simply couldn't turn her back on Charles' dream. Not when she'd put so much of her life into it, living and breathing it as much as Scott had since joining the team.

But … the team was defunct. They'd lost so many important members, and Scott … seeing what had happened to Scott was too cruel for Ororo to forgive and too horrible to ignore. So when the time finally came to make a decision, it should have shocked no one when she and Mia packed up and went to New York with Hank to the Avengers.

She couldn't sit on the sidelines - not for long, anyhow - and she knew out of all of her options that the Avengers were more than likely the safest option for her little girl who had already lost too much so early in her life.

At first, the Avengers were sure to give her whatever space she needed, though it seemed like every time she crossed paths with Hank, the sweet fuzzy blue doctor would drop everything to give her one of his warmest and most heartfelt hugs.

Which … was more or less exactly what Mia needed. It wasn't the same as snuggling up with her papa, but … Hank was certainly fuzzy and warm and more than happy to entertain her.

It wasn't an instant fix, of course. There were still times that Mia was fussy and angry and nothing could calm her down except her papa - until she was too worn out and fell asleep anyway. But watching Mia with Hank, it was at least a little easier to hope that the youngest of the surviving X-Men would be able to move on to a healthy, happy life.

What's more, little Mia had the entire roster of Avengers practically wrapped around her little blue fingers once she and Storm moved in. While the team had been giving Storm room to mourn on her own terms, Mia was still too little to want to be alone. Sure, she was upset and unhappy without her father, but she needed the contact of other people to play with instead of space.

Which was entertaining to Ororo in itself, because the Avengers had never had such a little one around before - since Wanda had gone to Genosha before having her twins. And they all had different ways of adjusting.

Thor was the easiest. He would just scoop Mia up and play with her to her heart's content. Whatever she babbled to him, he'd run with it, and it took no time before Mia figured out that she could rope him into all kinds of trouble.

Steve, on the other hand, seemed completely unsure of what to do with a little one underfoot - until he started simply picking her up when she would come close and just doing everything one-handed while she talked to him.

Tony wasn't as noticeable - but Ororo saw how quickly the Tower was baby-proofed and how many new toys would magically appear in the playroom he'd designed for her.

Natasha was interesting as well. She liked to be around Mia and would go out of her way to sit with the little girl and help her with the little things like opening her packet of snacks or putting on her coat to go outside. She was just quietly there.

Jan and Clint, on the other hand, were almost as terrible as Thor. If Mia wasn't having a dance party with Jan, she was with Clint, who would get on all fours or lie on the floor to be at her level and play pretend for hours on end.

So yes, the Avengers Tower had been an excellent choice. For many reasons.

But eventually, it was Natasha who approached Ororo with an offer of a 'soft' mission. "I know you've been through it, and you can of course say no," Natasha said. "It's honestly a favor to Clint - some old mobsters in the neighborhood where he crashed for a while are causing trouble."

"As long as it's actually something simple, I suppose I could stand to get a bit of fresh air," Ororo replied. "The roof is fine, but …"

Natasha nodded. "I always feel better when I've put a few men through walls, but that might just be me," she said with a soft smirk.

"No, no, the ones that ask for it … that does make a girl feel like she can walk more upright."

Natasha smiled and nodded. "Well, these are your regular low-lifes. Running extortions and harassing people. Nothing world-ending, and I can handle them myself if you decide when we get there you're not ready for a fight." She smirked. "I've been instructed to low-ball you."

"If we get there and I don't feel like fighting, then the fight will be over soon enough," Ororo said with a little smirk.

"Then we'll get along just fine," Natasha said, gesturing with one hand for Ororo to lead the way.

It wasn't a long drive out, really. All they had to do was get to the other side of the city, away from the tower and the well-to-do houses and toward the inner city, where the artwork jumped out from every wall and there was a pickup basketball game not far from where they parked.

"Clint had a place near here when we were working together when we first met," Natasha explained as they walked together. "He keeps it up as an escape. Mostly, I use it to crash between missions if I don't feel like dealing with people."

"Perhaps I should consider a place like that," Ororo said, almost to herself.

"You're welcome to use ours," Natasha said. "Like I said: it only really sees use when I'm doing a job outside of the Avengers. And Clint hasn't used it in ages."

"We'll have to see when we get there," Ororo said, smiling almost wistfully. "Jean and I had a place in the city just the two of us years ago …"

"To get away from the boys. Yes, I know the feeling."

"They can't help themselves," Ororo laughed.

"Oh, I barely tolerate that excuse from them," Natasha said. "Make them do better - that's what I say." She was smiling as they rounded the corner - and very nearly ran into a little girl, about three, with wide eyes and mismatched clothes that she'd clearly put on herself. The little one had very nearly barreled into them, and when Ororo reached out to catch her, she yanked her arm back quickly.

"No!" the girl shouted. "No touching!"

"Calm yourself, little one," Ororo said, looking concerned as she tried to catch her gaze. "Who has you so scared?"

"I don't wike 'em," the little girl insisted. "I don't wike this new house!"

"Who?" Ororo asked, finally crouching down to her level.

"Funny men with funny voices and funny clothes," the little girl said. "I don't wike 'em."

Ororo reached out to rest her hand on the little girl's shoulder just as a small group of ill-dressed men rounded the corner.

"Oh, you find our girl!" one of them said Ororo's way.

Ororo raised one eyebrow as she stood up and pushed the little girl behind her. "Who are you and what do you want?"

The men, all of them in tracksuits, glanced at each other before the guy who spoke up shrugged easily. "We run this block, yes?"

"No," Ororo said. "I don't think so."

"You must be new," the guy said. "This block? Is our block. We protect it, you pay, is all good."

"Natasha," Ororo said, looking for just a moment down to the cowering little girl. "I think I can handle this just fine."

"I won't stand in the way of a goddess," Natasha said, making it a point to give Ororo space to work. "I'll be here."

Ororo turned back toward the men and tipped her chin up. "What do you want with the little girl?"

"She part of the family now," the man in charge explained. "We take her in, yes? After whole project goes up in flames."

"Do you want to go back to them, little one?" Ororo said, smiling sweetly at the little girl.

The little girl shook her head and held onto Ororo's shirt. "Nuh-uh."

"Would you rather go with us?" she asked.

"I guess," the little girl said quietly.

"Then please," Ororo said, "hold on to Natasha's hand for a moment." As soon as the little one stepped back from her even the tiniest bit, Ororo whirled around to face the still advancing men and took a step forward … before she started to float off the ground - the winds around her lifting her up as her eyes clouded over. "Go back to whatever rock you crawled out from under. I won't ask again."

"Is kidnapping, lady," one of the others broke in. "We get little girl."

"I doubt you're her legal guardian," Ororo said as the clouds started to crackle and grow darker over head. The moment one of them took a step toward them, a loud crack split the air, and a bolt of lighting hit just in front of the group of criminals.

To their credit, the guys seemed to realize how outclassed they were and scattered quickly, and Natasha let out a laugh as she picked up the little girl so she could be at their level. "You were right. It was a fast fight."

"It always is with men like that," Ororo replied as she turned and floated back down to the two of them. "Are you alright, little one?"

The little girl nodded, though she looked nervous as she held onto Natasha. "I don't wanna go to the smelly house," she said.

"You don't have to," Ororo promised. "We have a very nice-smelling place you can go to, if you'd like."

The little girl looked between the two of them. "That's what the funny guys said when they got me from my dance class."

Natasha tipped her head at that. "Your dance class?"

"Uh-huh." The little girl twirled her hair with her finger. "I'm real good. But then the funny guys said my mommy and daddy got burned up!" She let her lower lip quiver. "I don't wanna get burned up!"

"I don't think you need to worry about that anymore, sweet one," Ororo said with a decidedly down tone.

"Okay, but you made lightning," the little girl said. "Poof!"

Ororo nodded and then held her hand out to make a miniature raincloud right at the little girl's eye level - and let it start sprinkling down showers. "That's not all that I can do."

"Oh wow," the little girl said, leaning nearly out of Natasha's arms to touch the cloud. "Wow, wow, wow!"

"My name is Ororo," Storm said. "But my favorite people have always called me 'Ro."

"My name's Katie," the little girl said. "I like your name!" She turned to Natasha expectantly, which got a little laugh.

"Natasha," she said.

"I like that too," Katie said.

Natasha smiled and then turned toward Ororo. "Well, I don't know about you, but I did just tell Clint I wanted a family, so if you're not claiming her…"

Ororo smiled lightly at that. "I think that decision should be up to Katie."

"We'll see," Natasha said, though her tone was clearly teasing. "The way Clint is with Mia? I'll still get what I want."

"I won't stand in your way," Ororo said with a little smile.

Natasha smiled wider as the two of them headed back to her car - and in short order, Katie had a milkshake and clothes that suited her before they got back to the tower.

"Oh, okay. Um. Hello," Tony said when the two of them walked into the main area, with Katie holding each woman's hands and skipping between them. "I thought you were going to deal with those weird Russians…?"

"Yes, we were," Natasha said. "And the weird Russians decided to snatch up a little girl. So, here we are."

"Uh-huh," Tony said, before he made his way over and frowned down at Katie. "What's your name, princess?"

"I'm Katie!" she sang out happily.

"Katie what?" he asked before he offered her his hand. "I'm Tony Stark."

Katie grinned up at him and drew herself up, putting on a prissy sort of attitude. "Katherine Elizabeth Bishop," she sang.

"That ... is quite the name for such a little girl," Tony said.

"It's pretty!" Katie insisted.

"It is," Tony agreed, nodding his head. "And I think I know exactly who you are. Did you know you were famous?"

"I am?" Katie gasped and danced in place. "Like a superhero?"

"Not yet, but in this crowd? Give it time," Tony said. "Who's your favorite superhero?"

Katie giggled. "All of 'em!" she declared happily. "But 'specially I like Spidey! He's funny, and I saw him after dance once!"

Tony made a face at that and drew himself back up to his full height. "Gonna have to work on that."

"I like 'Ro too," Katie said. "She gots a whole storm in her hand! Didja know that?"

"You know that's her hero name, too?" Tony said. "She goes by Storm."

"I like that!" Katie said. "I like Tasha too. She's a dancer like me! She said!"

Tony nodded at that and then picked Katie up so he could walk her around the place. "That's not all she is. You tell her who you are yet, Nat?"

Natasha smirked as she caught up to them. "I may have been waiting to tell her I was an Avenger until she could meet Hawkeye too."

Katie gasped delightedly. "Oooh! Yes please!"

"Got news for you kiddo," Tony said. "You're surrounded by Avengers."

Katie giggled delightedly and squirmed to be let down so she could run in a small circle and generally get overly excited about everything - which gave Natasha a chance to pull Tony aside. "You know who she is?" she asked. "I was going to look her up when I had a moment alone…"

"You don't have to," Tony said. "Her dad was a big, dirty publisher. Big money, big trouble, too."

"She said her family burned up," Natasha said. "Considering the Phoenix debacle, I had to wonder…"

"You can look into it. Name's Derek Bishop. Guy was a piece of work and about as dirty as they come."

"I will," Natasha said, then smiled over at Katie. "In the meantime…"

"If you want to keep her safe, I'll get my legal team on it to make sure no one pulls anything shady."

"Please and thank you," Natasha said. "I think I'll have to tease Clint about this one. Dark-haired and sassy…."

Tony nodded at that and didn't make it more than another couple of steps before he'd pulled out his phone to get the ball rolling. "We'll fill in names later," he promised. "I just want to make sure no one can use her for leverage or anything like that."

"Absolutely. And what safer place to be than the tower?" Natasha said. "I have full confidence."

"Try telling that to the first X-Man - the one in hiding."

Natasha let out a breath. "That's different, Tony. You know it is."

"I know it, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."

"That family has every reason to be paranoid," Natasha said. She tipped her head toward Katie. "This is just dirty money, not … that."

Tony had the phone to his ear as he followed Natasha's focus. "Don't make me take her for a flight."

"Hey. I've actually put in the paperwork to marry mine and do this properly. You can wait your turn."

"Yeah, not happening," Tony said, ducking out of the way of the hit he knew was coming. "She'll have a little Iron Teddy bear before you can stop me."

"Ah, but can teach her ballet!" Natasha sang out. "You lose, Stark!"

"Armor with a tutu," Tony teased.

"Just accept defeat gracefully!"

"Nope! Never gonna happen!" Tony called out as he headed off to finish his call.

Chapter Text

Natasha laughed to herself, still entertained with Tony's ongoing antics as she made her way to Ororo - with Katie still running in circles around the other Avengers. When she found Ororo leaning in the window with grey clouds gathering in the skies behind her, Natasha put her hand on Storm's arm. "I wouldn't mind doing more runs with you," she said. "I know how it can be to try to start a new life. You're taking it much better than I did."

"That part is easy," Ororo said. "Helping those that can't defend themselves … it's the rest of it that brings me more trouble, though … Mia keeps me focused."

"She's amazing - and the sweetest, most beautiful little girl," Natasha agreed.

"She's so much like her father," Ororo replied.

"I didn't know him well, except that he had excellent taste in best friends," Natasha said.

Ororo let out a breath of a laugh. "The two of them were something else," she said. "And my closest friends in Westchester. The three of us joined the team together, you know."

"I knew Logan since I was a child," Natasha said. "You aren't alone missing them. I hope you know it."

"Oh, I don't believe that Logan was lacking for friendship anywhere he went," Ororo said with a smirk. "But it is nice to know I'm in good company. He spoke highly of you - when he spoke."

"And when he was with the Avengers, he only had the best to say about the X-Men," Natasha said. "He was so proud when you and Kurt were married, even if he didn't say anything to us."

"He was," Ororo agreed. "And when Logan spoke at our wedding, he had Kurt in tears."

Natasha's smile turned sadder. "I would have liked to hear him do something like that for my wedding. But of course, it took him dying to put me on that path in the first place, so I'm sure he would argue he's already done his part."

"These last few years … he seemed at peace."

"He always wanted a family, Ororo. Everything else was noise."

"Which was why he snapped when he lost them," she said, her whole body showing her sorrow as she wilted.

Natasha pressed her lips together and put her hand on Ororo's shoulder. "And you?" she asked gently. "I have seen Cyclops holding back the worst. You must be just as affected."

"I am trying to keep Mia in mind. I know in my heart that if Logan had known James was alive, he wouldn't have done what he did. He would have been miserable and broken, and he would have mourned K for years," Ororo said. "Likely for the rest of his life. But for as heartbroken as their little boy is, I'm determined not to leave Mia to the same desperation."

Natasha nodded softly. "I know Logan was her godfather," she said. "So let me make the same promise to you I did to Cyclops: anything I can do to honor his children, I will do it."

"And I appreciate that," Ororo said, covering Natasha's hand with her own.

When there was a soft silence between them, a squeal from Katie, who was with Tony, broke that silence, and Natasha shook her head. "I need to spoil a dancer before Tony steals her from me. Mia is with Hank, I'm sure. Thank you for coming with me."

"Good luck," Ororo said as she looked past Natasha to where Tony had clued Katie in on the Iron Man issue. "I think you have an uphill battle on your hands with that one."

"I play to win, my friend. And she hasn't seen my pointe shoes," Natasha said before she slipped off on a mission.

Ororo watched her go with a smile before she started toward where she knew Hank would be - reading a story to a very sleepy Mia and making a point not only to use voices and side commentary but also to bust into his thesaurus and make many of the descriptions far more complicated than the text indicated. She watched them for a long moment before she made her way over and perched on the arm of his chair to look over his shoulder as he continued the story. "Don't let me interrupt."

Hank smiled up at her for a moment before he read through the last few pages, smiling more when he saw Mia lose her battle with sleep on the last page and simply snuggle in, her mouth open just enough to show off the few teeth she had - especially the pointy ones.

"I take it your first venture into the dangers of Avengering went well?" Hank teased.

"I'm afraid I could probably venture into those waters in my sleep and come off no worse for wear," Ororo teased right back.

"Ah, we should graduate you to more horrendous foes. Perhaps the Serpent Society. Or a common bank robber."

Ororo couldn't help but laugh at that. "It was almost a petty crime," she said. "If it weren't for the little girl that needed to be swept out of danger."

Hank raised an eyebrow at that. "Not so petty then." He readjusted the way he was holding Mia as he said it, so that she was more comfortable.

"Not entirely," Ororo admitted. "Though I was reminded of Logan's insistence that the Avengers were spending much of their time rescuing kittens up trees." She smiled his way. "Her name is Katie."

"Sometimes, we dabble in kittens, yes," Hank said. "Or Katherine's, as the case may be. What brought you to such a little kitty?"

"She ran into us," Ororo replied. "Trying to escape some Russian mobsters."

"What on earth was she doing with them?"

"I believe Tony said it was a big business issue of sorts," Ororo said. "At any rate, he and Natasha are arguing over custody."

"Let me let you in on a secret, my dear," Hank said, smiling and leaning closer. "Always bet on the Black Widow."

"Oh, I don't doubt it," she laughed before she smiled once more and then leaned over to kiss his cheek. "You've been wonderful with her."

"She is so easy to love," Hank said, shaking his head. "She has her father's heart and your expressions."

"She's more him than me," Ororo said.

"Perhaps you need to look a little closer," Hank said. "I see a strong-willed goddess in her eyes."

"I think, my dear friend, we only see what it is we're searching for."

"Then I hope you never cease to see our Nightcrawler when you look at her," Hank said gently.

Ororo's smile slipped a bit at that. "Henry, I have a more serious question to ask, if you don't mind …"

Hank sat up straighter to give her his full attention. "Of course. I know it has been said often, but the phrase 'anything you need' is still my creed for my dear friends."

She let out a sigh and rested her hand on his arm. "I don't want to think of all the losses we've had any more than I need to, but Mia is now without both her father and her godfather. I was hoping that you'd take up Logan's role and watch out for her."

For a moment, it was clear that Hank was simply stunned, his lips slightly parted and his eyes wide. But when he cleared his throat, his voice still had a slight wobble to it. "Yes," he said softly. "Yes of course."

"Thank you, Henry," Ororo said. "That is enough to ease my mind at least a bit."

Hank reached over and pulled her sharply to him in a one-armed hug, with Mia between them. "I'm honored. Truly. I only wish it wasn't necessary to make that change."

"You and I both."

"You know, of course, that this gives me official license to spoil her rotten with every confection in my labs," Hank said after a moment.

"And when have you ever needed an excuse to do that?" Ororo replied with a sparkle to her gaze.

"It is novel to have the excuse," Hank laughed. "I may become even worse than before!"

"As long as it brings you both happiness, then I am in favor."

Hank smiled and gave her one more squeeze. "I wish happiness for you too, you know. I know it is hard to find right now, but as Kurt would say, I have faith it can be found again."

"Now you sound like Kurt," she said.

"Coming from you, that is a high compliment indeed."

It was well past midnight when Rachel came in to Scott's room and very quietly woke her dad up. "Daddy, James isn't feeling very good," she said. "And he's real hot."

When he got to where the boys were sleeping, Rachel really wasn't wrong at all. James was burning up, his blanket wrapped around himself tightly, and he was shivering in spite of the fever. Worse still, he really wasn't breathing very well or even answering questions for Scott either.

If it had just been the fever or a stuffy nose on its own, Scott would have tried to to help him through it on his own, but the fact that he was that feverish and struggling to breathe right?

Scott swore under his breath - and then had to tell Nate to not repeat that word, please - before he simply scooped James up and turned to Rachel. "Help Nate get his shoes on. We're going to take James to see Hank."

Rachel nodded quickly, her eyes wide. She was obviously scared, considering how much loss she had already seen, but to her credit, she managed to get Nate to put on his shoes (on the wrong feet) and helped to get him to the jet while Scott hurriedly grabbed a few things and then set the perimeter alarm before he jumped into the pilot's seat.

"James is not okay," Nate said, shaking his head slowly.

"Yeah, I know," Scott said, trying to sound calmer than he felt. "What about you, bud?"

"I have a funny tummy feeling…"

"Me too," Rachel said quietly.

"Then everyone is going to go see Hank, okay? He can fix you up." Scott pushed the engines a little harder as he said it. "Everything is okay."

By the time they got to Hank, James was shivering hard enough to chatter his teeth in spite of the fact that he was absolutely cooking. And it had Scott that much more worried as he rushed past Steve and straight to Hank.

"Henry, James is sick," Scott called out as soon as he got in.

"I see that," Hank said as he made his way over. "How hot has he been?"

"When I checked at the cabin, it was 103," Scott said in a breath. "The other kids don't have it - yet - I don't know what - it just came out of nowhere-"

"Then let's try to get him cooled down," Hank said, directing Scott toward the showers. "Keep the water on the cooler side of warm."

Scott nodded and rushed off with James, while Steve stepped inside the lab and Rachel asked timidly, "Is James gonna die?"

"Not if I have anything to say about it," Hank said, though he was gathering up a few things to make it easier to get James settled in once his temperature broke. He touched the very tip of her nose with one finger. "And I have plenty to say about it."

"I'm scared," Nate said from behind Rachel, holding onto his sister's hand with his blanket clenched tightly in his other hand.

Hank paused and let out a little breath. "And how are the two of you feeling tonight?"

"My tummy's twisty," Nate said.

Rachel nodded. "Me too."

Hank let out a little hum. "Captain Rogers, if you'd be so kind to take my two tiny patients and help them settle in until I get back - I'd like to check them both over. Scott will likely be a little while with young James."

Steve still looked blindsided, but when he saw the two obviously worried kids, he did his best to give them an encouraging smile. "Can you tell me about your jet ride?" Steve asked as he picked up Nate in one arm and Rachel in the other.

The two Summers kids glanced at each other and then nodded, quietly explaining to Steve all about how Rachel had gone to get their dad and how James had been shaking and it was really scary...

It took nearly half an hour, but finally, between the medications that Hank gave James and the cool water shower, the fever broke - and when it did, the little guy was entirely exhausted. Enough so that when they carried him back to the lab for a break - with an oxygen mask in place, since he sounded rough - he was passed out to the world, and Scott looked as if coffee wasn't going to be a requirement to stay conscious due to the high level of anxiety he was coping with.

"I'll get him started on a few medications," Hank said. "But the other little ones are fine. They could use your attention, and I'm sure I can round up enough volunteers to keep watch over James."

Scott nodded, though he still looked frazzled. "You'll let me know if anything changes…"

"Of course," Hank promised.

Scott nodded and let out a tired breath before he squeezed Hank's shoulder and crossed the room to where his kids had Steve pinned between them. "You guys okay?"

Nate nodded and held his arms out to be picked up. "I'm tired."

"Yeah, I know. Sorry you had to wake up," Scott said as he tucked Nate under his chin. "How about you, Rach?"

Rachel nodded. "Mister Steve said it's okay to be scared, and it helped me and Nate to not have scared tummies."

Scott looked toward Steve and smiled slightly at that. "Smart."

"I can leave you three alone," Steve said as he got to his feet. "I'll just go see if Hank needs some coffee."

"Very likely," Scott said. "And thanks."

"Anytime," Steve replied, already doing his best to give them a bit of privacy while digging to see what the story was with the little guy in the lab.

"Bye, Mister Steve!" Rachel called out, halfway snuggled into her dad already as Nate started to drift off with his dad gently rocking him.

The three of them weren't alone for long, though; Janet came around to play welcoming committee. "I've got a room set up for you three to stretch out and rest," she said quietly, offering to help get the two little ones there. "I may have snuck down to the lab and gotten a peek at little James … Hank says he'll be there for at least a day or two. He's got a nasty little case of pneumonia that popped up fast … on top of what Hank says looks like asthma." She shook her head lightly. "For a little guy that came from two people with healing, he really seems to have hit all the low points, poor sweetheart."

Scott raised an eyebrow but nodded all the same. "His parents never got sick with their powers. Maybe he'll grow out of it."

For a moment, Jan paused and it was clear she was weighing out her words. "How are you doing, by the way? I mean … it's a lot. Three little angels … all by yourself... "

"I'm fine," Scott said in a tone Jan knew well.

"Oh. Of course you are. I know that," Jan said, waving one hand and shaking her head. "I mean, look at how much they clearly adore you - you're doing great! With them. But I meant … you know. You need to breathe a little too. If it helps …" She pulled her phone out and held it out for Scott to see that the picture she'd taken was of Steve keeping close track of James and obviously making sure that he was at the right angle to get air better. "Big. Squish. Star Spangled Squish."

Scott let out a minute breath. "Good," he said. "Hank's the only doctor I trust right now, so it's good for him to have support when we come out here."

"I don't blame you on that," Jan said. "Hank's great with the kids. You should see him being ridiculous when he reads to Mia."

"I've seen it," Scott said simply. "He and Kurt tried to outdo each other."

"The Ravenously Ridiculous Caterpillar?" Jan raised an eyebrow. "I swear that man ate a thesaurus."

"And that's when he's sober," Scott said dryly.

"Oh, but now I want to see how bad it is when he's not," Jan giggled as she skipped over to get a blanket. "I can help you get them settled in tonight - you have to be tired."

"I'm really fine," Scott insisted.

"Okay … but how about be fine over there snuggled up where you're all more comfy?" Jan suggested. "Look - Rachel's a little restless. That'd be easier out of the chair, right? I think. Please tell me if I'm wrong, and I'll just be quiet and tuck you all in."

Scott shook his head, smirking despite himself. "Yeah, alright," he said, smirking a little more when Jan's response was instantaneous and gleeful as she rushed to help with the kids. And he did have to admit that he was tired - not that he'd say as much in front of the kids.

"You're spoiling Mia properly, right?" he asked once the kids were squared away.

"Proper is such a subjective word, Mr. Summers …" Jan said with a little shrug. "But … if you mean she is played with by every single person on the team and in the tower that's close to the team …. Then yes. Yes. She's being properly spoiled."

"Good. She's probably the most social of all the kids. She needs the attention or she starts pouting."

"Well we'll probably never see that the way things are going," Jan said with a little grin. "Even with the new girl - she's loving every minute that she's awake." She tipped her head. "It was rough sometimes to start … but … she's tough, you know?"

"Has to be with the parents she had," Scott said softly. "I think Nate's doing alright now too, and the fresh air was great for James until he came down with this thing. But Rachel … was old enough to understand it. It's going to take longer."

"If there's anything she might like - just … tip me off and I'll make some magic happen," Jan promised. "But … I know you want to peek in on James. It was clear you're still stressed about him."

"I can't screw up with that one," Scott told her simply.

"I don't think you're capable of that with him," Jan said. "He's little, and quiet, but I think he's a quick enough little guy. He'll be great with time." She was nodding to herself. "But … if you're worried? I can totally find you a children's therapist. Natasha would run them through her whole system to make sure they'd be on the up and up …."

"Maybe," Scott conceded. He paused. "It's just - Rachel used to tell her mom everything. Project it telepathically. So… we'll see."

"So she probably needs to learn new ways to communicate," Jan said, nodding. "I'll start looking. And I'll make sure they're all screened - and if you're nervous, I'm sure you could do it as a full family session, too. You know. To start with."

"That would be best. James gets nervous if he thinks he's being left behind. He still thinks he's going to be handed off to someone else," Scott said, his gaze on the sleeping kids and the worry evident in his tone. "Just last week, he finally stopped looking for his parents to come back. He'd been watching out the windows every time he heard something. Took me a while to figure out what he was doing… he's been more quiet since then, somehow."

"He'll grow out of that," Jan said with a sad little smile as she rested her hand on his arm. "Especially with you watching out for him. He won't be able to ignore how much he's loved."

"We might be fighting genetics with that," Scott said dryly as he settled in with Rachel and Nate. He leaned his head toward Rachel as Nate slept on his chest. He absently rested his hand on the side of her head as he pulled her closer and kissed the top of her hair, and before he knew it, Scott had passed out with both of them curled up half on him. He'd been exhausted himself, and though he didn't mean to do it, he was out almost as fast as the kids.

Scott woke up with a blanket over his lap and a fuzzy blue face inches from his nose. Mia's fluffy white hair stuck up from all angles as her tail swayed behind her. "Hi." Before Scott could react, Mia leaned forward and kissed the end of his nose before she shimmied down and toddled off to find Rachel and Nate.

"Rachel has already been in to check on James," Ororo said from the far end of the couch. "He's very tired still, the poor little thing."

"How's he feeling other than tired?" Scott asked, sitting up and frowning around himself as he ran his hand though his hair. "Where's Rachel - and Nate?"

"James is a little out of it, to be perfectly honest," Ororo said. "And Rachel and Nate are with Katie."

"Who's that?" Scott asked with a frown. "I thought I knew the roster-"

"Katie is a force of nature disguised as a little girl that Natasha and I rescued not too long ago," she said with a sly smile. "There was a very short argument on who would adopt her between our Widow and Stark."

"I didn't think either of them were…" Scott shook his head. "Alright then."

"She's a lovely young lady, and they are perfectly safe and happy - for the moment, anyhow."

"Glad to hear it," Scott said, shaking his head as he ran a hand through his hair. He really hadn't meant to fall asleep. "And Mia? She's alright?"

"Obviously," Ororo replied. "She waited for you to wake up before she went back to her big sister, Katie."

"Oh, so you won the match between Widow and Stark?" Scott asked with the tiniest of smirks.

Ororo smiled wider at that. "No, but the girls seem convinced they should be sisters."

"And who are you to argue with them?" Scott said, shaking his head. "How old is Katie, then?"

"She's just a month younger than James," Ororo replied.

"Then she'll fit in well," Scott said. He paused. "And you?"

"I'm going out on missions again," Ororo said.

"Right." Scott let the word hang in the air between them without really meeting her gaze. "That's good."

"I know you can't leave for a few days at least, if nothing else because of James' health, but I can't help but think that this might be easier on all of you if you were to stay."

"I'm not doing that again, Ororo," Scott said in a tone that she'd heard before when he'd made up his mind. "I'm not mixing family and work. I won't let them live where a team is headquartered."

Ororo reached over to rest her hand on his arm. "I was only making sure you knew the door was open. You know I won't try to force it."

Scott let out a breath and then at least tried to look less like he was holding his breath. "I know," he said. "But you know I need to keep them safe."

"I know," Ororo said gently. "As do I."

"You and Mia - if you change your mind, you're welcome…"

"I think we'll see how this works, first," Ororo said. "The Avengers are trying very hard. I won't ignore their efforts."

For a second, Scott looked like he was biting back a comment before he nodded. "And you've never been one to sit still, either."

"Neither are you, but I can imagine with three little ones, that won't be an issue."

"No, it's not," Scott said with the hint of a smirk. "Rachel is naming the deer."

"So they still come up to the cabin?" Ororo asked, smiling in spite of herself when she was fighting the aching sensation of loss.

Scott nodded. "You should see James with them, 'Ro. He-" He paused. "It's … he's a good kid."

"Yes, he is," Ororo agreed before she slid over and simply wrapped him up in a hug.

If it had been anyone else, Scott would have tightly returned it, but with Ororo, he let out a breath and put his head on her shoulder as he hugged her for a good long time. "He's just like them," he said in a breath of a whisper as she wrapped him up warmly, fighting the urge to melt and weep with him.

"I would expect nothing less," Ororo replied just as softly, doubling down on the hug.

"And then there's Mia and Rachel…" Scott shook his head. "How are you - I know it's-"

"It's not easy," Ororo admitted. "But she has Kurt's pure joy in life."

"That helps," Scott agreed, leaning back slightly. Ororo would never tell him, but losing the visor made him so easy to read. He was more expressive than he realized because he was used to hiding his eyes, and that just made the grief easy to see. "Nate's got a lot of me in him. He's looking out for James like it's his mission in life, even if James is older."

Ororo couldn't help but let out a hollow chuckle. "He's practically your carbon copy."

"Jean was happy about that," Scott said, looking beyond her at the wall that was easier to talk to. "Rachel looks so much like her…"

"That will only intensify as she grows up," Ororo said.

"Mia will be the same way," Scott said. "If she ends up teleporting…"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," she replied. "And I hope … that before then I have a new place for her to learn all that comes with it."

Scott frowned and turned sharply to face her. "What?"

"I plan to eventually reopen the school," Ororo said, drawing herself up slightly. "I've thought about it a lot, and I know that it's needed now more than ever."

"Ororo, you saw what happened. You can't-"

"I did," she agreed. "And for that much, you're right. Mixing the team with family was disastrous. But that doesn't mean we can turn our back on all that we were taught."

Scott held his breath. "It's a risk," he said. "I don't know if I can help … I need to…"

"I wouldn't ask you," Ororo said. "I know how much you lost. But when this finally happens, when I have the school running again, I will step away from any kind of hero work. I know, Scott. The X-Men are over. I won't even consider bringing that back."

"I just don't want it to happen again," Scott said, putting a hand on her arm. "Mia can't lose you."

"No, but I can't get the other children out of my mind either," Ororo said. "There are still so many that have lost as much as we have - or as much as our little ones have. Charles' school needs to be there to catch them. Even if they only learn to control their abilities. Not use them."

Scott sighed. "Yeah. I know," he said in that breath.

"I still believe that Charles had the right idea," Ororo said. "But it was simply too early."

"He-" Scott swallowed. "-was ahead of his time. Yeah."

Ororo smiled tightly. "You should probably check in on your three."

"Right." Scott got to his feet and then pulled Ororo to hers as well for a tight hug. "Whatever you need, you know I'll be there for you."

"And the offer stands true for you, as well," Ororo said.

Scott nodded to himself, thinking deeply about what Ororo had said, though he was still processing it as he got to the med bay. James was still tired and out of it, but apparently, the Avengers were taking turns, and Jan was curled around the little guy and clearly enjoying herself as he slept.

"How's he doing?" Scott asked.

"I'm probably the wrong person to ask," Jan said. "But he's exhausted. Obviously."

"Yeah, that doesn't surprise me," Scott said, sitting down next to the two of them and not really asking before he scooped James up - and the little guy curled right into him like that was where he fit.

"Kinda scary to see him like this though," Jan said, wrapping her arms around herself and shrugging her shoulders high.

"I didn't know he had asthma," Scott admitted.

"Well to be fair," Jan said. "It sounded like Hank didn't know either. So. Maybe it's new?"

"Maybe," Scott said. "I don't really know enough about the family medical history to know if it's…"

"Again, I doubt they knew either, so … right." Jan watched them for a moment before she reached over to gently brush the hair out of James' face.

"Yeah, I think everyone is making that face right now," Scott said dryly.

"Do you want me to leave?" Jan asked, though she managed to not make it sound like a threat or an accusation.

"I'm not kicking you out," Scott said, shaking his head.

"I know. But … I don't want … you know what? I'll just … how about I bring a little coffee over for you?"

"That would be great, thanks," Scott said. "I wanted to check on James and find Nate and Rachel - I know they were freaked out too."

"Do you want me to tell them where you are?"

"Please," Scott said.

"You got it," Jan said, doing her best to put on her usually cheery demeanor, but still falling short as she turned on her heel and headed off, leaving Scott alone with James for a minute.

While she was gone, Scott took a moment to check James over, to listen to his breathing and to make sure that he was, well, as healthy as possible for the moment. It was such a relief to have him on the mend that he wasn't aware the door had opened again after several long minutes until Nate and Rachel rushed over.

Scott grinned and carefully set James down so he could catch both of his kids in a hug. "Are you running the Avengers into the ground?" he asked at just over a whisper, his tone forcibly brighter than it had been before.

"Dr. Blue says we're a force 'a' nature!" Rachel told him proudly.

"So that's a yes," Scott said.

"I helped," Nate told him, climbing up his side until Scott picked him up instead of just hugging him. "I made PB&J!"

"Who helped you?" Scott asked.

"Umm, Arrow Guy."

Scott smirked at that. "You made sure he cut it in triangles for you, right?"

"Uh-huh." Nate snuggled into Scott's shoulder.

Scott had one hand on Nate's back and the other on Rachel's shoulder as he looked up at Jan, who was watching the whole thing from the doorway. "Thanks."

"No problem," Jan said as she zipped over to set his coffee down on the table next to them. "When you're ready to take a break from things here, let me know. I don't mind snuggling up with the little guy."

"You can come play with Katie and Mia too," Rachel told Scott.

"We got cars," Nate agreed, then reached into his pocket to show Scott the toy car he'd stolen from the toy bucket upstairs. "Blue, like me and Daddy!"

"That's right," Scott said, nodding quietly before he glanced up at Jan again, one-handedly grabbing the coffee. "Are you sure you don't mind staying with him? You'll let me know if anything changes?"

"I don't mind, really," Jan said. "And if anything changes at all - if he so much as flutters a lash, I'll let you know."

"Thanks." Scott smiled wryly. "I only have two hands."

"And they're full of snuggles," Jan said, smiling.

"Daddy needs hugs," Rachel informed Jan. "Hugs are good for if you're sad."

"He sure does, and it looks like you give the best ones," Jan said.

Rachel nodded and rushed over to Jan to hug her too. "I like giving hugs because I'm sad too, and Daddy says when you hug, it's like you're getting wrapped up warm."

"He's right," Jan said. "But even when I'm happy, I like hugs."

"So I can hug you lots?" Rachel asked.

Jan tossed her hands up. "Any old time you want."

"Didja hear that, Dad?"

"Looks like you found a willing victim," Scott said without missing a beat - or looking up from where Nate was almost nose to nose with him telling him about his friend Mia.

"Victim?" Jan blew her bangs out of her face. "No such thing as a hug victim."

"Uh-huh," Rachel insisted. "There is if you do a hug tackle and knock 'em over!"

Jan put her hands on her hips and shook her head. "Um. No. That is a shortcut to a snuggle, that's all!"

"Okay, but you're wrong," Rachel said, one eyebrow raised.

"We'll just have to see about that, little Miss Rachel."

"I'm almost seven; I'm not little."

"Well, I'm still little, and I'm all grown up," Jan said.

"You're weird," Rachel said, wrinkling her nose at Jan.

"I'm just used to being smaller than everyone around me," Jan said, tipping her nose up as she tried to get a smile out of Rachel, but when that didn't cut it, she blew her bangs back again and then shrunk down.

Rachel blinked once and then burst out into delighted laughter, and Nate came tumbling over to see what was going on. "Daddy, Daddy, look! Did you see? Did you see?"

"Neat party trick," Scott said with a smirk.

"It's worth the laughs sometimes," Jan said, still tiny.

"Yeah, I know. You should have seen the carving I could do with a fine beam to show off for the kids too."

"Oooh, I'll bet that was amazing," Jan said. "But … I think I can take my party trick out of here if you're soaking in the snuggles." A moment later, she'd grown back to full size and turned back to Rachel. "We can play hide and seek with Katie if you think you can spot me."

"Race you there!" Rachel said - already running toward the door and giggling madly.

"Is that okay?" Jan said at the door, looking worried. "We'll just be in the play room."

"That's fine. I'm just going to ask Hank about what I need to take care of James long-term and I'll probably join you," Scott said as he picked James up again.

"Okay, well. They might need your help anyhow. But Katie is kind of amazing at this game," Jan said.

"I'm sure you'll make them work for it," Scott pointed out. "And cheat."

"Oh, absolutely," Jan said. "I'm wildly outnumbered! I have to!"

"Yeah, that's the reason," he said with a dry smirk.

"Alright, mister, we'll see who cheats first," Jan said, leveling one finger at him. "Just wait!" with that, she headed off at a jog to catch up to the girls who were already squealing with laughter from down the hall.

Chapter Text

(Four years later)

The new Xavier Institute had only been up and running for a couple of years, but it was finally getting to a point where things had leveled out. Since there were no X-Men, and since they didn't teach the students anything more than how to control their abilities and then to hide them as much as possible, no one really bothered the residents at the school. Of course, there were some repercussions from it. Ororo herself barely caved to temptation to use her own abilities and tried to keep her flights and moments in the wind confined to storms that were already passing overhead. Yes, it was restrictive and more than a little sad, but … it kept the students safe and showed anyone that was paying attention that there really weren't any more X-Men in the world.

Thankfully, groups like the Friends of Humanity and their like had largely lost public support because things had been so quiet… and largely because of the Avengers' outlook, as well. The first time a sitting US senator had called for action against mutants, Ororo had actually seen the change that came over Captain Rogers' expression - since the school hadn't been built yet at the time, so she had seen his response in person.

The next thing she knew, the good captain was all over international news, telling any reporter who would give him a microphone (and there were several) that the Avengers would destroy any groups that practiced hate, including and especially anti-mutant groups.

So while the X-Men were gone, the Avengers didn't let things get quite as bad as they had with the Friends of Humanity - though the anti-mutant fervor stayed under the surface all the same, in little things like graffiti on the fences or hate crimes in the cities. But nothing systematic, and that was something, at least.

As for Ororo herself, she'd finally gotten into what felt like a more normal routine. As soon as she had begun to really move on, Forge had shown up to help with the school and, in no time, Mia as well.

Which was good, because it was clear that the older Mia got, the more she had her father's mischievous side - and that wasn't always good for a school that tried to stay out of the spotlight. She was all of five years old, but she was already telling everyone who would listen that she wanted to be a pirate - "or at least a X-Men!" which was hard to correct her on while also honoring the stories Ororo wanted to be sure she heard about Kurt.

At the moment, though, she was hanging off of Forge's arm by her tail and grinning up at him crookedly. "You gotta play," she told him. "You're supposed to be the bad guy!"

"I told you: I don't know how to be the bad guy," Forge teased.

"Well, you can be a dragon and just roar a lot," she reasoned. "And then I can vain-squish you!"

"Don't you think I can be a knight?" Forge asked, waving at her with his metal fingers before he scooped her up and started tickling her.

Mia burst into delighted laughter, squirming around until he stopped and she could throw her arms around his neck in a hug. "You're so silly!"

Forge smiled as he pulled her closer and kissed her cheek. "Only when I've got someone fun to play with."

"I love you," Mia said, grinning at him widely.

"I love you too, little goddess," Forge said before he tossed her in the air and let her climb onto his shoulders.

Mia was grinning as the two of them caught up to Ororo, who was in the gardens as usual. Those had taken the longest time to replace, but she had kept at it, and for the first time, they were starting to bloom in splendor much like she used to see.

"Hi, Mom," Mia called out from Forge's shoulder. "My Forge is silly!"

"He certainly is," Ororo agreed before she leaned close enough to kiss his cheek. "And we like him silly, don't we?"

Mia giggled when Forge stole a proper kiss in response. "He's ours, huh, Mom?"

Ororo smiled at that. "For as long as he stays with us, yes."

"Oh, so forever," Mia said confidently, which had Forge laughing.

"Looks like you've trained the teachers well in who actually runs the place," called out a familiar voice - and Storm looked over in surprise to see that Scott was there with all three of his own kids. It was a rare occasion to see them there, after all. The boys were talking with their heads together, but Rachel was attached to her dad and wouldn't let go of his arm, looking distressed and overwhelmed and hiding her face as they got closer.

It was a surprise to see them there when Scott had made it a point never to come to the school. He'd invited Ororo and Mia to Christmas a few months prior, but for the most part, they kept to themselves, fishing and hunting and attending school in the small town a hundred miles north of Westchester. If not for the fact that Ororo knew better, she would have even said they looked the part of a small town family, in jeans and plain shirts; Scott even had a beard, and Rachel normally had her hair in braids, though it was down and she was using it to hide her face this time.

Mia grinned, faster to blink out of surprise than Ororo was, and bent over nearly backwards to wave Scott's way. "Hi, Scott!"

Scott smirked and waved right back. "Hi, Mia. Can I borrow your mom for a minute? You can play with Nate and James."

"Okay," Mia said happily, and Forge set her down so that she could rush over to her friends. It didn't take long before all three of the younger kids were chasing each other through the garden - and Forge went with them to give Scott some privacy to talk with Ororo.

Scott took a deep breath and let it out, one hand on the back of Rachel's head as the little redhead tried to disappear into his side - though she was getting old enough that it was harder for her to hide now that she was taller. "She's a telepath," Scott explained, getting right to the heart of the problem, as usual.

Ororo took just a moment to blink at the two of them before she couldn't stop the growing smile. "Well that's good news, isn't it?" Ororo said.

"Yeah, you could have gotten my powers and had to hide your eyes," Scott said Rachel's way, though she held on tighter, and he sighed. "It's overwhelming," he said.

"I'd imagine it would be easier where the four of you are," Ororo said before she gestured for them to take a seat.

"Yeah…" Scott trailed off and rubbed the back of his neck. "She's having a hard time with … with me, honestly," he said in a breath, and it was clear to hear in his tone how much the admission hurt.

Ororo straightened up at that. "Scott."

"I know. I don't let the kids see it, but every time she brushes my mind, it feels like Jean and-" Scott cut himself off.

"Betsy is here," Ororo said. "I know she'd be more than happy to help in any way she can."

Scott nodded, his shoulders relaxing. "Thank you."

Ororo offered Rachel her hand. "Do you remember Betsy?" she asked.

Rachel nodded quietly. "Yeah. I like her hair."

"She cut her hair since the last time you saw her," Ororo told her. "It's very short."

Rachel nodded shyly. "Okay."

Scott let out a breath and then simply picked Rachel up and gestured for Ororo to lead the way. "Come on, Rach. Betsy is one of the best."

"Not like Mom," Rachel said quietly - and Ororo could see the moment Scott almost lost a step before he shook his head.

"No, but she can still help you."

When they got to Betsy, she was sitting with Warren, quietly having tea, though to say that Warren looked ragged would have been a massive understatement. He simply didn't have much of a chance to stretch his wings anymore - and it showed. Both of them looked up when the three of them walked into the room, and both of them looked positively relieved to see Scott there. "We need to find you a razor," Warren said.

"You'd scare half the elementary school teachers. I'm a regular fixture, and they wouldn't recognize me," Scott said dryly.

"Maybe they need to be shaken up," Warren replied as he got to his feet and ruffled his feathers as he stretched. It was just an instant before Warren offered him his hand, and when Scott took it, he pulled him into a brief, tight hug. "It's been too long, stranger."

"You haven't noticed when you've got Betsy," Scott shot back with the beginnings of a smile.

"Are you kidding? I can hardly leave the house. I've noticed."

Scott shook his head as he looked over his old friend. "You do look worn down."

"No room to fly; don't want to draw attention," Warren explained.

Scott let out a sigh and nodded. "That's the one nice thing about ditching the shades. Seems like no one knew what I looked like under there. We're flying under the radar pretty well."

"Someone will notice you got a few good-looking kids sooner or later," Warren laughed as he smiled at Rachel. "Even if they all aren't color-coordinated to you."

Rachel smiled shyly up at him. "Hi, Warren."

"Hey, gorgeous," Warren said. "You here to steal my Betsy?"

Rachel nodded. "Yes, please."

"Alright, but only because it's you," Warren said before he ruffled her hair and threw an arm around Scott's shoulders. "Why don't you have a little tea, Miss Rachel? I'll take care of your Dad for a little while, okay?"

"He needs it," Rachel said, and Scott scoffed.

"You're trouble, Rach," he told her, and she smiled lightly.

Once the others were gone, though, Rachel looked up at Betsy, and her lower lip started to quiver as she finally stopped trying to hold it in. "I don't wanna die," she whispered out as the first tear started to fall.

Betsy was shocked, but she pulled the little girl over to wrap her up in a hug all the same. "What in the world makes you think you're going to die?"

"Dad thinks it," Rachel blurted out as she latched onto Betsy and clung to her shirt. "All the time. He thinks about Mom and her fire and the Phoenix and I've got fire when I touch his mind and I don't want to die!"

Betsy was on the verge of losing it herself as she pulled Rachel tighter, wrapping herself around her. "He's worried, Rachel. But it's not your fault, and I think you'll be alright with some training. We can help you build up your psychic defenses, we can make sure you learn to control your powers, and I can help you to keep out of other people's minds. If you like."

"Mom couldn't stop, though," Rachel said, still scared and holding on tight. "I can feel it in my dreams, and I don't want to!"

"Your mother couldn't stop because she was wrapped up in grief and rage," Betsy said. "You have to learn to not let the fear and bad feelings control you."

Rachel nodded and buried her face in Betsy's shoulder, crying hard in a way that Betsy could hear without even brushing her mind - since Rachel was projecting pretty loudly - that Rachel had tried to hold back. Rachel hadn't wanted to cry, because she could hear how scared not only Scott was but her little brothers, who had picked up on that specific type of fear and were worried themselves.

When Rachel had finally finished crying, she finally looked up at Betsy, who was emotional herself. "You're scared too."

"I'm afraid for you," Betsy said before she cupped Rachel's face in her hands. "I know that you can be strong enough to control it, but I also know how hard it is to focus when you're scared and worried about the people you love."

Rachel nodded, her eyes wide as she met Betsy's gaze. "I wish I had Dad's powers," she said. "I don't want to be a telepath. And I really don't want to be the Phoenix."

"Sweetheart, we don't get to pick what we are," Betsy said.

"I know," she said. She let her shoulders drop. "Dad thinks you can help me. He was happy to hear you're teaching here."

Betsy smiled at her. "That's because I'm a telepath too. So I can not only tell you, but I can show you - and even help you to see what you need to do to control things."

Rachel nodded. "Yes, please."

And while Betsy and Rachel talked a little more about Rachel's powers, Scott was in the hallway talking with Warren, shaking his head as he looked around the school. "It doesn't feel the same," he said. "Or maybe I'm just not used to seeing it in color."

"It's a little bit of both," Warren said. "I'm pretty sure, anyhow. It doesn't feel quite the same. But the color … that's … it's pretty close to what it always was."

"I wouldn't know," Scott said. "I'm sorry you're grounded, Warren."

"It's still better than some of the alternatives," Warren replied.

"Believe me, I know," Scott said softly, then cleared his throat. "But Ororo's right. Kids still need this place. Rachel needs it, for one thing."

"A lot of them need it," Warren said seriously. "It's a good thing that Betsy and I are still around and kicking in, too. We get more kids every year. Some of them can't go anywhere else because of the physical mutations they've got. We're planning a new wing just to house them."

"I know Mia was complaining this Christmas about sticking to the school. She wants to see the world."

"It's just too dangerous right now, Scott," Warren admitted. "And the old image inducers don't cut it like they used to."

Scott frowned at that. "I haven't heard it was that bad."

"Components are hard to come by, and some of the MRD guys have little devices that fry them. It's been driving Stark up the wall."

"I thought the MRD was mostly defunct after Captain America busted up their main headquarters when they tried to reorganize after the Phoenix."

Warren raised an eyebrow. "They're targeting mostly physically mutated people, but it's not defunct."

"I've been more out of touch than I thought, then." Scott ran a hand through his hair. "It's been really busy. James' teachers have been running him through a bunch of of tests. He's already skipped two grades like it was nothing. And then he came down with chickenpox and gave it to the other kids…"

"Wait," Warren said, holding one hand out. "He's skipped how many grades? And in how long?"

"Two grades this year," Scott said.

"How …" Warren let out a breath. "And with as sick as he is, that's … a little bit wild, isn't it?"

"Yeah, if he hadn't come down with chickenpox, we had a test lined up with some specialists, but then this thing with Rachel happened, and we haven't had time to reschedule…" Scott looked honestly exhausted just talking about it.

"I'm sure if you're around for a few days, Storm could line something up for you. She's still pretty tight with the Avengers - if nothing else because they're still bending over backwards trying to make up for … everything."

"I'd appreciate the help with him," Scott said, shaking his head. "He gets restless when he doesn't have anything to keep him engaged."

"Or we could just call up Hank," Warren said, already offering Scott his phone.

Scott chuckled at that. "You never were patient," he said.

"I don't want to interrupt Storm and Forge," Warren corrected. "They're getting really serious."

"They were pretty close when they came for Christmas. I know Mia thinks the world of him."

"She calls him 'my Forge'," Warren told him as he hit the button to call Hank. He smiled at Scott for just a moment as Hank picked up the line. "I have someone here who has a question for you about placement tests." He didn't wait for a response from Hank before handing Scott the phone and waving him on.

Scott shook his head at his old friend. "Hey, Hank. Got a minute?"

"For you, I have all the time in the world," Hank replied.

Scott smiled lightly. "I need to meet up with you or have you come to Storm's school and run some tests for James."

"Is there a problem?" Hank asked, sounding concerned.

"No," Scott promised quickly, knowing that Hank had seen James through many illnesses. "No, it's not his health. He's skipped two grades already, and I need to know where to take him so he's getting the academic challenge he needs."

Hank was quiet for a long moment at that - simply not having expected that kind of news. "I shall consult with my peers and find a reasonable solution. How long are you in town?"

"A few days. Rachel's registering for classes."

"Already?" Hank asked, sounding surprised. "We can be there tomorrow, I'm sure. While Ororo is working out a schedule for Rachel."

"Thanks, Hank."

When Hank arrived along with Tony, Jan, and Bruce Banner, the four Avengers were surprised by just who greeted them first - as Nate Summers came tumbling over and positively latched onto Hank with a troublemaking grin.

Though before he could even say hello, James came running around the corner soaking wet and wielding a water pistol that he'd clearly stolen from Nate after the initial attack - and James didn't have any hesitation about hitting Hank along with Nate, either.

"Harboring a fugitive!" James called out. "Also, hi."

"Hi, Hank!" Nate said, grinning and wet and laughing.

Hank smirked and scooped Nate up - though he was sure to dramatize an 'oof' as he did so. "You're getting too big for this."

"I'm gonna be as big as my dad!" Nate agreed.

"Maybe bigger," Hank said with a laugh.

Nate nodded seriously and then waved at the other three Avengers. "Hi. You missed it. I totally nailed James."

"Sure looks like you did," Tony agreed, looking entirely amused at the whole situation.

"I'm a crack shot. Dad says so," Nate said proudly.

"And what about you, James?" Jan asked with a grin. "I see you got his gun."

"I fought him for it," James said as he set the water pistol down.

"He cheated," Nate said. "He licked my hand!"

"Not my fault you're squeamish."

"You bit me last time!"

"I'll bite you again if you stick your hand in my face, too."

"Is this typical?" Bruce asked Tony, though Bruce was smirking hard and obviously amused.

"Little boys," Tony said with a laugh.

"So typical," Jan laughed before she booped Nate on the nose. "Hey, do you want to show me around while your brother takes a test?"

"Okay," Nate said. "We can go play with my dad and Mia!"

Jan flashed a smile at the other Avengers. "Have fun, boys. I'm taking my sharpshooter," she said, letting Nate take her hand to lead her out to the gardens, where Scott was watching Mia very carefully and methodically put flower petals in a pattern on the rocks, singing a song to herself the whole time - at least until she saw Nate, and then she roped her friend into playing with her. It wasn't long before they were screaming and laughing and dragging the adults into a game of tag.

As for James, he was more than a little out of his comfort zone with the adults around him. He didn't care that he was dripping wet, but he didn't really spend much time with any of them anymore - and Bruce Banner was definitely a new addition.

"If you gentlemen wouldn't mind," Ororo said as she rested her hands on James' shoulders. "My office is open for you to set up; I'll get our little friend dried off."

James looked up at her, tipping his head back to do so, and as soon as they were away from the three Avengers, he blurted out, "But I didn't do anything wrong."

Ororo shook her head and crouched down to his level. "You're not in trouble," she promised. "Your father told me about how you've skipped a few grades-"

"Only because they were boring," James said quickly. "And it wasn't my idea."

"Exactly." Ororo nodded and smiled gently before she rested her hand on his shoulder. "Your father wants to find you a class that won't be boring, so I asked three very smart people to come here and see just how clever you are. That way, your classes won't be boring."

James thought about it for a moment. "Will I have to go somewhere else like Rachel?"

"If you do, I know for a fact your father will go with you, though I don't know that it would be much of a challenge here for you," Ororo said. "Rachel is going to school here because she'll need to learn to control her abilities; maybe you'll move closer to the city to keep the family close."

James frowned at that but didn't respond, instead remaining silent as he let Ororo lead him down the hall to get changed and dried off. When they got to her office - dry and ready to go, it was clear he was still mulling things over.

"Are you nervous?" Ororo asked kindly.

"No," James lied, shaking his head.

"I had to ask. You looked like you might be."

"I don't think I'm smart enough for this." He shrunk in on himself as he watched the three brainiacs manage a few final adjustments. "I can just stay in the class they put me in. I won't cause any trouble. I promise. It's fine."

Ororo let her shoulders drop before she turned James to face her and draw his attention away from three of the brightest minds on the planet. "I tell you what, my little friend. You can give it your best shot, and no one will be upset with you if you're not smarter than Albert Einstein," she teased him lightly. "I promise you, James: this is only to see what grade you should be in and if you should be in a different school. We all know you're smart, James; we just want to know how smart." She ran her hand though his hair with a sedate sort of smile as he watched her. "But you must promise me that you will try your very best."

"I don't want to leave," James whispered to her softly, and all at once, she took in how stressed out the little guy looked and pulled him into a hug.

"You don't have to, James, I promise you. You can stay with your dad and your brother and sister."

"But we'd have to move, you even said so - and we just got comfy where we are," James said as Ororo held on tighter, though she had to keep a fine handle on her self control when he continued in an even quieter whisper: "Dad doesn't sleep when we move."

"Does that mean you don't sleep too?" Ororo asked quietly, to which James glanced over to the Avengers and barely nodded. She forced a smile into place and kept one hand on the side of his face to make sure his attention was on her. "He's only watching out for you all. But you don't have to worry. And you're getting far ahead of yourself. Take the test first, then I'll make sure your voice is heard on whatever the next step is." She could feel the tears prickling at the corners of her eyes as her next words bubbled up on their own. "Have a little faith, my sweet boy." James stopped what he was doing and glanced up at her with such a familiar expression … that was all the more striking when she could see Logan so clearly in his features.

James looked over at the three men in the room and bit his lip, missing the struggle Ororo was having with her emotions. It took a moment, but he turned their way and squeezed Ororo's hand as she joined him for the walk over so he could at least see what they wanted.

Ororo kept by his side as long as he wanted her there, too, though as James got more invested in the tests, she was able to step back slowly to observe.

And for James, though at first he was nervous, it all seemed like a bunch of stupid games that each one of the adults would play with him. Before long, the games were broken up with memory tests, reading and comprehension evaluations, and some math that was well above what they knew he already had down.

Ororo knew it was going well when Tony showed James how to work out an equation with a bubbling joy that she honestly hadn't seen from him in quite some time. When Tony gave him a new problem with a similar format, James hardly slowed down to solve it. It wasn't super high level for the adults in the room, but for a kid that wasn't even ten yet, it was pretty clear that he was picking things up as fast as they could put it in front of him.

Which honestly turned into a whole lot of fun for Tony, Hank, and Bruce as they decided to see exactly how far they could push the kid without prepping him properly. And once James was invested in the 'games', he barely noticed that the test had transitioned slightly - and he didn't notice Tony recording parts of it on his phone, either.

Chapter Text

Eventually, Jan and Scott had managed to get two overly energetic kids inside, fed, watered, and in front of a kid-appropriate movie while they ate their graham crackers and milk. If that wasn't impressive enough, the snacks didn't come until after they made sure the kids had their healthy lunch first - something that entertained Jan to no end when Nate seemed perfectly used to Scott laying out the rules, even when Mia wanted to negotiate getting graham crackers first.

The two adults were both finally getting to sit down and have something to eat themselves, though Jan was sure Scott wasn't even thinking about it as he got out the sandwich supplies for both of them like it was normal to just make food for whoever was in front of him.

"Ham or turkey?" he asked over his shoulder as he got started building sandwiches.

"Oh … whichever," Jan said, her shoulders up to her ears as she leaned on the counter watching him go into autopilot.

Scott shrugged, and a few minutes later, he sat down next to her and slid her some lunch. "Nate doesn't get to play with younger kids very often. He's used to bringing up the rear."

"He's keeping up great," Jan said, and was sure to thank him, even if it was wild to watch autopilot dad on Cyclops.

"What about you? I thought for sure you'd be next. Last time I really talked to Natasha, it had sounded like you were going that way and she was expecting a boy after their little girl a couple years ago, but we haven't been in regular contact."

Jan frowned at that. "Yeah, I haven't … really been seeing anyone seriously enough to get that far," she said.

Scott frowned and turned her way with a confused expression. "I thought you and Hank…"

"No," she said, shaking her head quickly, though for how she said it, it was clear something had happened. "No. That is waaaay over."

Scott froze, realizing he'd hit a nerve but not sure which one. "I'm sorry."

She turned toward him with wide eyes. "No, no. No. It's better this way. Really. He wasn't the guy I thought he was." She put on a forced smile. "He's not on the team either, so there's that, too." She shook her head. "I can't believe you didn't hear about that. It was kind of … public."

"I've been keeping my head down, Jan. If it didn't reach my small town or if it wasn't something one of our friends said in a visit…"

"Yeah, I know. It was kind of national news for a minute there, though. I mean … it's not every day Captain America bodily throws someone out of the tower."

"Well, now I'm curious," Scott said with the smallest smirk at the corner of his mouth.

"Hank lost his temper," Jan said, shrugging lightly. "And Steve … lost his, too."

Scott frowned as he put together what it was Jan wasn't saying. "I would have thrown him out too."

"You don't know that for sure," Jan said, forcing a little laugh. "Circumstances …"

"You think there weren't a few parents I was ready to put through a wall back when the X-Men were rescuing kids from bad home situations?" Scott shook his head. "If it hadn't been for our creed, there would have been more people-shaped holes in walls."

"Now you're sounding like my therapist."

"Must be a rotten therapist, then," Scott said without missing a beat. "Everyone I talk to around here says I need one, so yours might be a little nuts if they're agreeing with me."

"Well, it was a therapist that Tony found for me, so, you know … she might be biased."

"Yeah, that's why I haven't gone to any of the ones Storm recommended."

"Because they might agree with you or back you up?"

"Because they already know the story, and I'm not interested in rehashing it."

"Maybe you can be my therapist, since you don't know the story," Jan said.

Scott smirked and leaned back, gesturing with one hand. "I'd be terrible at it."

"Yeah, but it sounds like you're the one person in the country that hasn't heard it," Jan teased.

"I know. I'm slipping," Scott said. "Used to be I knew everything before even the Avengers did."

"No, no, you've got much better things to concern yourself with," Jan said. "And the Avengers didn't know … well. Nearly as much as we should have." She leaned toward him. "Between you and me? It's a pattern. I blame the guys in charge of information gathering."

"Well, did you put Katie in charge yet? Because the last time I saw her, she told me she was."

"She thinks she is," Jan said, nodding. "And she was mad she wasn't around when Cap threw Hank out."

"Anyone who hears that is mad they missed it. It sounds like a good show," Scott pointed out.

"Not really," Jan said. "It started with Tony, really - there was a lot of yelling, took his clearances, banned him from the workshop loudly, and you know, Tony's really not much of a yeller? So that drew in Steve … and, well … the two of them yelling in agreement is definitely weird, but ... " She gestured openly. "I thought Tony was going to hit him."

"I'm glad he's out of your life, then," Scott said. "And I'm sorry for what happened."

"I've gotten worse on the job," she said, the closest she'd say outright to a confirmation of what had happened.

"That's the thing, though," Scott said. "Even on the rare times Jean and I managed to get in each other's way on the job - which, by the way, I wouldn't recommend when Rachel comes into her own - it was a string of apologies, and it was all accidental, and we felt rotten for weeks. That? That's not the same thing."

She shrugged up one shoulder. "I still shouldn't have gone into the lab when I did."

Scott frowned and leaned forward, one hand on her wrist without thinking about it. "No way," he said sharply. "Nothing that happened is your fault. Don't even think it."

She smiled at him for just a moment. "Well, sure. I know that? But it doesn't change how I think about it."

"Yeah, you sound like-" Scott let out his breath. "Well, it's pretty common in the job."

"Yeah," she said, then quietly watched the kids for a moment before she reached over to steal a potato chip off his plate. "But here I am bringing you down, and I'm not supposed to do that."

"Oh, I didn't realize I came with rules of engagement," Scott said dryly.

"No, no, you don't," Jan clarified. "do. I'm supposed to just … not do this."

"I'm not sure what 'this' is that you're avoiding, unless it's telling me about what's been going on in your life," Scott pointed out.

"Wow, you're really good at looking for stuff like that, Scott, no," Jan said, shaking her head. "I'm not supposed to get all wrapped up thinking about what happened with Hank. And I stink at that."

"You're talking to the wrong person, Jan. My daughter got telepathy and immediately freaked out because she could hear me panicking about her mom's powerset," Scott said, his smile tighter than before.

"That actually seems totally sensible though," Jan said. "At least as a first reaction. All things considered."

"Well, that makes you the first person to think so," Scott said, shaking his head.

"Then I must be nuts, right?" Jan teased. "I mean, it's not like I'm avoiding dating anyone because of this - or that the rare times I've considered it, I ended up shrinking down and flying off instead of going through with it because … well. The pity look."

"Jan, I'm active at an elementary school PTA of mostly women. I'm well-versed in that look," Scott said, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling.

"Then … don't throw stones, crazy person."

"Wasn't trying to," Scott promised, both hands raised.

"PTA, huh?" Jan asked after a long while.

"Hey, I used to run strategy for dozens of X-Men. I can handle a book drive or two."

"I'm not judging," Jan said. "Just sounds like a nice change of pace."

"The kids need to know I've got their backs," Scott said with a shrug.

Jan nodded and let out a sigh. "We were talking about kids before the .. ah … the thing."

"You'd be great. Nate was already saying he wants to come back and play with 'the nice lady,' so I think you're winning him over," Scott said with a smirk.

"Ooh, good," Jan said. "Maybe he'll remember my name when you come by next."

"Might be more often with Rachel going here," Scott admitted. "We've never been apart longer than a day - and only because I had to stay with James during a few overnight hospital visits while Natasha watched the kids with Katie, Clint, and Lexi."

"So what you're saying is that I've been robbed this whole time by that arrow slinger?"

"A...pparently," Scott said slowly, smiling despite himself that that was the direction she'd taken with that information.

"Unbelievable," she said under her breath. "Undercut by a freakin' cold war spy and her corn dog-breathed boy-toy."

"No, Jan, tell me how you really feel," Scott chuckled.

She turned his way and gave him a falsely angry side eye - not that she could sustain it. "I think I may have already," Jan said. "But … since you asked - that is totally a mistake. They can't be trusted. Honestly. Horrible influence. Both of them. And I will tell that to their faces. Their smug, kid hogging faces."

"Okay, okay, I'm convinced," Scott said, smiling a little wider. "Your application for first shot at babysitting is received, Jan."

"Oh good; it only took me this long to get my foot in the door. Even though I am clearly the best candidate."

"Hey, Natasha helped me set up security on the house."

Jan waved a hand. "Oh sure, that's one thing that she does well that can be applied around kids." She was at least smiling by that time, though.

"Oh, come on. You've seen her with Katie and Lexi," Scott laughed.

"Biased!" Jan said. "Totally biased!"

"I didn't even know you were so deeply interested until just now!" Scott said, still laughing.

"Well, you didn't really ask around, did you?" Jan said. "I have always loved these little troublemakers." She tipped her head. "Though … admittedly, I don't think I've really seen James outside of the lab and that little while that he was with Tony. And he totally hogged him the whole time."

"Yeah, we're pretty regular customers for Hank. He's starting to grow out of it as he gets older, thankfully, but he does still come down with every single bug that goes around the school," Scott said, shaking his head.

"Maybe it's a trial by fire for him," Jan said. "Get all the sick over with ... "

"Maybe," Scott said. "We had to get an X-ray last time we came after he landed wrong falling out of a tree, so we know he's got bone claws."

"So it's a possible thing," she said.

"I'd say at this point it's a likely thing," Scott said. "Considering his parents, anyhow."

"Just trying to be scientific. For like … five seconds."

"Well, you're not wrong. Nothing's guaranteed. For all I know, Nate will heal, and James will shoot optic blasts." Scott chuckled and gestured to his face and the three-pronged scars there. "Could surprise us."

"If that's the case, then I think you'd have some serious explaining to do," Jan teased.

"Oh yeah. The fact that he looks like his dad and Nate looks like me..."

"That just makes it really confusing," she giggled.

Scott rolled his eyes. "If you say so, Jan."

"I really don't," she said, smiling still. "But I think this is the most fun talk I've had with anyone in a while. All the guys are still half afraid to talk to me or, you know, treat me like I'm not a china doll that's going to shatter at any moment."

Scott shook his head. "You really need to get out more if I'm your measuring stick for fun. You can ask Rachel: I'm a boring dad."

"Hey. You bring the fun with you," Jan said.

"Oh, I see. You're using me to get to the real fun."

"Closest I'll ever probably get," she replied.

"I already said I'd let you babysit," he said, shaking his head. "We're going to be here pretty often for Rachel, and if James ends up needing more advanced schooling, we'll have to find a place close by and commute between them."

Jan tipped her head in concession and turned to watch the kids in the living room as Mia curled up with her head on Nate's shoulder as they started to settle down better. Which was about when Jan seemed to realize how long the kids had been separated from James. "How long is that evaluation supposed to take, anyhow?" Jan asked. "Seems like we might be getting close - if you go by how tired the kids are."

"I have no idea," Scott admitted, looking toward where Mia and Nate were curled up on the couch. "I don't know. Is that a good thing?"

"Want me to go spy on 'em?" Jan offered. "I can fly right through the keyhole."

Scott laughed, but before he could answer either way, the geniuses in question hit the hallway headed their way, and Scott got to his feet so he could grab James up into a swinging hug and check on him. "Hey, how'd it go? Did you make them all feel like neanderthals?"

"I don't think so," James said, shaking his head and looking a little confused now that he was out and away from them.

Scott raised an eyebrow and then readjusted the way he was holding James so he could point his gaze toward Tony. "See that look? That is the look of a man who has no poker face and is excited about his hand. That look tells me you did amazing."

"I don't know," James said slowly as Tony and Bruce came the rest of the way toward them. "They've been like that since before we did anything."

"Well, let's ask," Scott said, then made a show of looking toward Tony and Bruce. "Well?"

"He's got some serious potential," Bruce said, even cutting across Tony, which was impressive on its own.

"I could have told you that," Scott said, ruffling James' hair.

"He picks up equations after seeing the way they're solved," Tony said. "Nothing rocket-science level - yet - but yeah. He's gonna be bored with most things, I think."

"So, what do I need to do?" Scott asked. "Whatever program he needs, I'll do it."

"It's okay," James said quietly, curling in on himself. "You don't have to."

Scott let out a breath and turned to press his forehead to James'. "Hey, bud, it's not a problem. We found Rachel a school that works for her; now we need to find you one. And we'll find something for Nate where he can play every sport the world has ever known, too."

"Ah … about that. It might end up being more like a group of tutors," Tony said. "I can tell you from experience being a kid in a place meant for older teens and adults isn't … a great idea. And if he takes off like I think he will, a program might be restrictive." When Scott glanced up at him, Tony tried to clue Scott in at exactly how well James was doing. "I know I was bored in my programs most of the time."

"Right." Scott nodded and gave James a hug until he relaxed, then turned back to Tony. "I need them to be cleared by you, me, and Natasha before I'll let them meet him."

"Wouldn't dream of anything else," Tony said. "I'll start looking. Don't worry about costs; I'll get whoever you pick on contract and take care of it."

"Thanks," Scott said, adjusting the way he was holding James. "This really does mean a lot to me."

"Told you before you just had to tell me what you needed," Tony said. "I'm sticking to it." He reached out to rest a hand on James' back, which drew the little boy's attention. "You did great, kiddo. Really great."

James smiled quietly at that but kept close to Scott as Bruce started to chat with Scott and Jan - who was enthusiastic and cheerful enough that James started to relax more - a point that had Scott smiling at her. She was going to be an amazing influence if she was serious about her offer to spend time with the kids.

Chapter Text

Jan's first shot at babysitting Scott's kids came just a few days after the evaluation had been completed for James. Scott had asked Natasha to help him find a place where he could be close to Rachel and he could be available for the private tutors Tony was looking into. He wasn't necessarily looking for anything permanent, just something he could use while his kids figured out this new turning point in their lives. As a result of the quick rush of new information and the buzz going around the Avengers regarding all of Scott's kids, Natasha had suggested using one of the apartments in the building Clint owned in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Since Natasha and Clint had adopted Katie, the place was one of the safest buildings in the borough - in no small part because the tracksuit mafia that had tried to make Clint's life hell had gotten scared off by a combination of Storm's wrath in the early days after losing Kurt and then an unrelenting Black Widow making their lives a living hell as her hobby until they finally retreated.

So Clint's building was a safe place, with the promise of anonymity and the Avengers close enough that if there was a problem at the school or if there were problems as the two boys got older and grew into their powers, he'd have backup, too.

But Scott wanted to get everything set up himself, triple-check the security, and talk to the school that Nate would be attending - which also happened to be Katie's school, so the chances of it being problematic were low. Still, it just meant that Jan got to watch the kids while Scott let his paranoia guide him.

They were all hanging out at the park for the day, and when lunchtime came around, it was back to the tower, where Katie and Lexi Barton attached to the group. The next thing Jan knew, she had four kids building a fort to play pretend in. Once they'd worn themselves out, Jan somehow wound up in the fort with all four of them snuggled up with her while a movie played on the little laptop she'd brought in.

"That's impressive," Scott said as he came in and knelt down at the opening of the fort. "Usually, the boys keep to themselves the more tired they get."

"Really? They're so snuggly, though," Jan said. "No wonder you don't like to share."

"Hey, James has spent enough time being sick and needing the human contact…"

"And he was the one to start the snuggles, too," Jan said. "I am not complaining."

Scott shook his head with a quiet smile. "Well, now you're stuck in there, I hope you know."

"Again, not complaining," Jan laughed. "He's a great little teddy bear."

"He'd hate to hear that," Scott said, unable to hide his quiet laugh.

"I don't know," Jan said, tipping her head to the little guy. "He looks pretty comfy to me."

"Sure he's not sick?" Scott teased.

"He's been tired - no temperature though," Jan said. "And he wasn't complaining about anything - not that I think he would, but ... "

"No, you have to intuit it with him," Scott agreed.

"Then I would guess if he is coming down with something, it's probably not super bad."

Scott nodded to himself, though he was looking around the room until he saw that Lexi was curled up with a puppy at her side.

Jan tipped her head as she thought about it. "He was playing with Lucky a lot, too."

"Oh, yeah. There you go. He has a hard time with pets."

"That is so weird," Jan said with a little laugh.

"Yeah, especially since he has his dad's penchant with wild animals. He found a wolf pack that was ready to adopt him and was sniffly for days, but he still goes to them to say hi when they come around."

"Wait. He was playing with a wolf pack?"

"Freaked me out too, but you should see him. He knows how to communicate with them, and honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same pack out that way that was friendly with Logan."

Jan stared at him for a moment and then pulled James a little tighter. "Seriously."

"Hey, I don't … whatever it is, it used to drive me nuts. Logan would go missing or on one of his walkabouts, and sometimes, if we had to go looking for him, we'd find him with a pack." Scott shrugged. "K joked about it all the time. She thought it was hilarious."

"Things I didn't know," Jan said. "And … kind of interesting. I didn't know that was part of the powerset."

"I don't know that it is part of his mutation," Scott said. "The more I've seen it, the more I think it's an instinct to treat everything the way he wants to be treated."

"Then … I guess that means more snuggles, all the time. Oh darn!"

"You're just happy for the excuse."

"That's what I said!"

Scott shook his head, sitting back as he watched her with the kids. "James will snuggle Natasha sometimes. I've learned Russian just to keep up with the two of them."

"Well, he plays with wolves too, so you know..."

"I don't think Natasha would appreciate that," Scott chuckled.

"No, but you did!" Jan said. "Admit it! There's a parallel there, somewhere!"

"Russian timberwolves?" Scott shot back with a dry smirk.

"Yes! That. Exactly that." Jan was nodding along seriously. "Red Room was code for 'grrrrrrrr'."

Scott laughed. "Oh, is that why Lexi's so attached to the dog?"

"Probably," she said. "So … how do you usually get these sweetie pies to bed? Or is it just … camp out on the floor once they get here?"

"If you're very careful, you can get them to bed," Scott said. "But I don't know how well that will work while we're here at the tower."

"And … if I don't want to put them to bed? What if I'm just trapped?" She kissed the top of James' head. "Oh no!"

Scott chuckled and leaned back as he watched them. "I guess that makes me superfluous."

"Well, superfluous, why don't you toss me a blanket, then?"

Scott laughed as he did just that. "You're terrible."

"You kind of did it to yourself," she laughed. "And … I had to."

"If you say so," Scott said, lying back with his hands behind his head as he looked up at the ceiling. "I'm glad they've got someone here that they all trust. James does well with Tony, but Nate and Rachel ..."

"They're great kids, Scott," Jan said, settling in.

"They had good material to work with. I just stay out of their way and let them shine."

"Yeah, you help them shine," she said.

"I used to think that," Scott said. "The older they get, the more I'm convinced they're outpacing me. Which is good. They should."

"They're only outpacing you if you're giving them all they need," Jan said. "And more. You're doing a great job, in case no one's said so."

"It's not really about me, Jan," Scott said.

"I didn't say it was, but I am trying to give credit where it's due," she said. "They're amazing kids, but they get to be amazing because of the job you're doing as their dad. Own it."

Scott let out a breath of a laugh. "You're seeing a good day. You should have seen me last week when Nate tried to convince me he wanted a long-range rifle. He hated me for days until I promised I'd teach him personally when he was old enough."

"He's just in a hurry to grow up," Jan said. "Like most kids."

"He thinks he's got to keep up with the other two."

"Of course he does; he's the baby," she said, smiling at him. "It's always like that with the baby. Look at Natasha's kids. They get cutthroat about it."

"I didn't realize Lexi was so dangerous," Scott said with a smirk. "And I know for a fact Jim's still too young to follow them around."

"Yet. Too young yet. He still tries to lean away from Clint to get to them."

"Poor guy."

"You can't tell me I'm wrong. What about your brother? Wasn't he a total pain trying to keep up?"

"Oh, definitely," Scott said. "He still is. Visits from Genosha sometimes to be the 'fun uncle'."

"How does that work out?" Jan asked as James picked his head up to see what was going on.

James glanced up at Scott with one eye half opened. "Hi, Dad," he said quietly before snuggling in better with Jan.

"Hey, James," he said with a quiet smile. "You want to keep using Jan as a pillow or do you want a better nap space?"

"If you want me to go, I will," James said, sitting up a little, since he thought that was what they were after.

"No, it's up to you," Scott said. "I'm fine staying here and talking with Jan while you hang out."

James looked up at Jan, and when she nodded, he mumbled out a quiet 'okay' and settled back in with her, which had Jan melting and making sure he was as comfortable as could be.

The two adults waited until James was asleep again before they dared to say anything, and then Scott let out a breath. "I'm trying not to let him think he doesn't have a choice in what happens to him. He was young when everything happened, and I know getting passed around … not having a choice in who was in charge of him for a while…it made an impact."

"I didn't realize he was passed around that much," Jan said softly. "I saw him when he was with Tony …"

Scott was quiet for a long time. "He started out with me. Then things got complicated when some anti-mutant groups were looking to retaliate for what the Phoenix did, and we needed to make it harder for us to be identified. So … it was Kitty and Bobby for a while, at least until it was clear they couldn't handle being his watch 24/7 and he panicked about them taking him to Genosha. So I stepped up until, again, the idiots in special forces were getting too close. Then it was Tony. Then me again. Then Natasha. Me. We've all done what we had to in order to protect him - and us. Rachel and Nate even spent time with Alex, too - and they all had their turns with Ororo. It's what we've needed to protect them. But I can't let James think that he's a spare part. And I know firsthand that is an uphill battle."

"You know that just makes me want to snuggle him more, right?"

"Yeah, I have that reaction too."

"And I'll bet Tony was hard to get him from. Harder than you thought he'd be anyhow."

"I wasn't expecting him or Natasha to be so attached," Scott admitted. "But I helped raise James, and as much as they're attached, they had their own problems crop up. He needs stability, and I'm doing my best to give it to him."

"You're doing great, Scott. Really."

"I hope so."

"Yeah, you're getting a hug too," Jan said.

"Gonna be hard to do when you're trapped under that pile," Scott pointed out.

"I'll get around to it," she said. "Priorities."

"Yeah, I have to agree; the boys come first," he said. "Katie and Lexi too." He let out a breath. "You really are good with them. I'm sorry about-" He let out a breath. "Yeah."

"Well, I guess we're all settled in now," Jan said, gently shifting the subject. "So … good night."

Scott chuckled. "They'll wake up in about an hour anyway. They never take long naps."

"They didn't have a full-sized Wasp teddy bear before," Jan pointed out. "You never know."

"If you say so," he said with a smirk. "In that case, I'll just fall asleep where I am. Take full advantage."

"Fine by me," Jan said, then yawned a little as she got comfy too.

It actually was a few hours later that Scott woke up - because Nate had climbed on his chest and started poking his cheek. "Um, Da-a-a-ad, we're all playing, and you're still sleeping."

Scott peeked one eye open to see that, in fact, the kids were all quietly playing together with a game of Trouble. Lexi was too young to really play, but they let her pop the dice for everyone's turn. But apparently, Nate was concerned that their dad might sleep forever.

Scott shook his head. "Sorry about that. I guess I was tired," he said, ruffling Nate's hair and pulling him into a hug. "You go ahead and play. I'll talk to Jan about dinner, and we can all head to our new apartment once we've eaten, okay?"

Nate nodded. "Okay," he said, then hugged Scott and rushed back to take his turn.

Scott checked the clock and was surprised to see just how much time had passed as he came to sit by Jan on the couch. "I guess I needed that."

"Yeah, well … I can stay with them when you need to recharge," Jan offered. "You need to breathe sometimes, too."

"I usually get more space to breathe during the school year," Scott admitted, then paused. "Okay, so that's not - I guess with the projects and everything-" He let the argument drop and cleared his throat. "I didn't notice I was tired."

"Oh, I know how that works," Jan said. "That, too, is pretty normal for what I know."

"You should've seen me on the X-Men, then. Hank knocked me out once or twice. I was told afterward it was for my own good," Scott said dryly. "Still don't believe him."

"I've seen the other side of it when it goes too far," Jan said. "Tony once fell asleep on his feet after a three-day-straight bender tinkering in his lab. It was ugly. He thought he was fine until he just … dropped."

"Logan did that once."

"Bet it took longer than three days," Jan said dryly.

"Three weeks," Scott admitted. "It was right after Rachel was born. Sinister took an interest; Logan took offense. It was a long month."

"How did that turn out?"

"Well, at the risk of jinxing something, Sinister hasn't come back yet, so I think it was worth it."

"Well, good," Jan said. "He probably came back thinking he had another day or two in him, didn't he?"

"Yeah. I was grateful for K. She … made it easier to get on the same page with him." Scott's gaze was fixed beyond them.

"She really could handle him," Jan agreed. "Made it look easy, too - which I know it was not."

"Yeah, I used to laugh when people would tell me to get better 'control' of my teammate. Like I had control of anything."

"Yeah, well - Steve and Tony. Need I say more?"

"Which one's supposed to be controlling the other?" Scott asked dryly.

"That's kind of the ongoing argument," Jan said.

"You'd think it would be simple," Scott said. "But I grew up on Captain America newsreels."

"So did he," Jan said. "But Tony started the Avengers. So it's a thing."

"And you named them," Scott pointed out.

"Well someone had to," she said with a grin. "They weren't ever going to come to an agreement on it."

"So, why don't you step in?" Scott asked, genuinely curious. "Show 'em how it's done."

"I have," she said. "But it's a pain juggling those two. So … let them duke it out."

"Yeah, I know that feeling," Scott said.

"I'm sure you do," she said, smiling his way. "It's awful being in charge sometimes."

"Yeah, well, that's not a problem anymore," Scott said.

"Nope, sure isn't," she agreed. "This … this is much better. All around."

"Yeah. The world wasn't ready for the X-Men. But I think I can get the kids through life in one piece," Scott said in a sigh.

"I have full faith," Jan said.

"Rachel's got a fiery telepathic touch," Scott pointed out. "James keeps trying to die of … typhoid fever or whatever is going around. I think Nate's alright. He's on the soccer team."

"Well, that's the trouble. Put them all on the soccer team. It'll be fine."

Scott snorted. "James hates team sports."

"You're kidding," she laughed.

"Not even a little bit," Scott said, grinning her way. "He's good, but the other kids drive him nuts."

"Oh my God." She covered her mouth with one hand, trying to cover the giggles. "I thought for sure he'd go for like … hockey or football or something."

"He didn't do too badly with hockey. Actually, Nate's the football fanatic, but I told him he couldn't play until he was older. He's still so small and doesn't realize he's as skinny and short as he is."

"A recurring problem with your boys, then?" she teased.

"You know it," he laughed.

"They're going to be amazing," she said. "Well. Continue to be amazing."

"Yeah, I think they're already there," Scott agreed.

"I heard that Bruce is kind of excited to spend more time with your little genius," Jan said. "So that's kind of weird."

"Hey, I'm not complaining," Scott said. "He's a top scientific mind - and no one will bother James when he's with the Hulk."

"It's just … funny," Jan said with a little snicker.

"Hey, everyone said the same thing about me being James' godfather. At this point, it's practically part of his legacy," Scott said, smiling despite himself.

"It's a great match up," Jan said, grinning. "Genius move on his parents' part."

"I hope so," Scott said.

"I know so," she said, getting to her feet. "So. I'm buying dinner for you guys. Call it a housewarming present."

"You really don't have to."

"I know, but I want to," she said. "So … tell me what you want and I'll order in."

"Nate's kind of picky," Scott warned. "But he'll eat burgers from pretty much anywhere."

"Great - round up the orders and I'll make a call or two."

Scott shook his head, smiling to himself as he wrote down what he knew the boys would eat - and Katie informed him in no uncertain terms that she wanted to have whatever Nate had but she needed lots of ketchup.

Which was hilarious when the food arrived and Kate informed Nate that they matched and kept eating his fries until Nate took the last half of her burger.

"Should I be concerned that they're escalating?" Scott muttered to Jan.

"Nope," Jan said before she stole one of his fries. "Not at all."

"Oh, I see where Katie learned it," he chuckled.

Jan laughed and shrugged. "I dunno. I think it's a mystery."

"Yeah, sure," Scott said, shaking his head at her before he plucked her chicken sandwich out of her hand. "Well, this is a good trade, right?"

Jan burst out laughing. "I guess so!"

Scott grinned, though he eventually gave her dinner back to her, still smiling and shaking his head. "Thanks, Jan. I think everyone needed this after Rachel's powers freaked us all out a little."

"It's been a long week or so for you guys," Jan said. "And I'm always up for movies and take out."

"I'll keep that in mind," Scott said.

Chapter Text

Betsy and Rachel were just finishing up their lesson with the tall grandfather clock slowly marking time with its soft tick-tock in the drawing room at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and Rachel was making good, solid progress. Enough so that they were working not only on how to stop her from hearing every thought around her, but how to gently reach out - since it was such a natural thing for telepaths to do anyhow, and it was an excellent way to know when it was time to get out of any given area should trouble arise.

The two telepaths were sitting peacefully with some classical music playing in the background as Ororo looked over some English papers across the hall in her office when, very suddenly, Rachel's head popped up and she let out a gasp - about half a second before Betsy reached over to her and physically covered her mouth, blocking her from Ororo's view. Shhhhhhh, Betsy projected. I heard it too. Stop.

But he's gonna ask Mia-

I know. You have to play it cool. Consider this a lesson in keeping secrets. We have to keep everyone's secrets.

Like how Warren misses the X-Men so badly?

Yes, Betsy said, though her smile dropped, knowing how much isolation was devastating the man she loved. Like that.

That's the biggest secret with everyone, Rachel told her. You all miss it. You too. And you miss Bobby and Kitty and everyone on Genosha.

I do, she agreed. Because we were doing so much good. And it's hard to turn away from that when it's so desperately needed.

What about Dr. Blue? He's an Avenger now.

He misses it too, but he was an Avenger then, Betsy told her. So was Logan. But the X-Men were different. It was more like a family than a team.

Rachel nodded, though she kept her thoughts to herself as she watched Forge carrying Mia on his shoulders. She was sure that all of the adults had been happier when they were X-Men, her dad included. And it was hard to reconcile the way Betsy was teaching her to use her powers and not to give in to fear when everyone's thoughts were tainted with anxious nerves and spiraling in 'what if's.

But for the moment, she didn't bring it up - especially when there was so much excitement to be had watching Forge talk to Mia… and then watching Mia light up like a Christmas tree and throw her arms around Forge's neck.

...and then immediately take off running, shouting "Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!" with Forge behind her trying frantically to stop her before she could upstage him. Though he was laughing the whole time, so he wasn't too put out by her reaction, either.

But it did mean that everyone within the reach of Mia's voice knew what had happened when Mia caught up to Ororo, wrapped herself around her mother's leg - and then Forge cut in with, "I asked her if it would be okay if I proposed, and I guess she's trying to beat me to it." He smiled at Mia and shook his head. "Dramatic little goddess."

Ororo looked surprised and then broke into a wide smile as she waved Forge over so she could kiss him while her legs were still trapped by a happy five-year-old. "I'm glad you know you would be marrying both of us," she teased before she looked down at Mia and rested her hand on top of her flyaway white hair. "It appears as though you have permission to ask, Maker."

Forge grinned and kept a light hold on her hand as he sunk to one knee and produced a box from his pocket as he asked her properly - and Ororo mildly inclined her head with a soft 'yes' that was befitting her royal title from the African plains.

Betsy, we gotta tell Dad, Rachel projected as the soon-to-be family settled into a solid hug.

Do you want to call him, or do you want to join me and reach out for him? Betsy asked.

Rachel faltered. Will it scare him if I'm in his head?

I can reach out first to test the waters, if you like.

Yeah, I think he's still worried.

Betsy smiled at her for that. You're not nearly as fiery as you think. But I'll go first. She squeezed Rachel's hand before she focused on Scott and gently reached out to call for him. Do you have a moment, Scott? she projected, since once she knew what someone's mental signature was - it wasn't easy for her to forget.

Scott startled, and Betsy could hear the worry in his mind. Is something wrong? He asked, sounding almost like he had been expecting - and dreading - news.

Not at all, she replied. I was going to have Rachel reach out, but she was afraid to try it unless you were prepared for it.

No, that's - yeah, I'm fine.

Take a moment to compose yourself and I'll guide her, Betsy said. She's doing wonderfully.

Of course she is. She's her mother's daughter.

And very much like her father, as well, Betsy corrected, though when it was clear that Scott was settling out with the unavoidable pride of how well Rachel was learning already, she gave him one last, gentle warning before she guided Rachel so she could reach out to her father.

Hi, Dad.

Scott's grin was obvious even this far away. Hey, Rachel. You're already running circles around everyone there, huh?

I'm working hard, Rachel promised.

I know you are, Scott said.

I wanted to tell you something really cool, though, Rachel said.

You're too young to date.


You're only eleven…

Oh my gosh, Dad. Rachel shook her head, but she couldn't stop her smile. He was obviously doing a lot better than he was before if he was making jokes, and she was glad to hear it. She had been worried, because moves always turned him into a pile of nerves, especially when those moves included him being forced to ask others to watch the kids so he could plant misleading trails elsewhere. I wanted to tell you that Ororo and Forge are engaged!

Good for them, Scott said, sounding honestly pleased. I knew they were getting more serious.

It's so cute, Rachel said. You should come congratulate them.

I'll bring them something when I come get you for the weekend.

Okay, but you're missing out on the hugs.

You really just want me there, don't you?

Yes, please!

Okay, let me tell the boys I have places to be, Scott said, and Rachel grinned before she turned back to Betsy and hugged her.

"He's gonna come over," Rachel said.

"Oh good," Betsy said as she wrapped her up in a tight hug. "I'll bet it felt good to tell him how you feel, didn't it?"

Rachel nodded. "It's so much easier to talk to him like that."

"It really is," Betsy agreed. "He's always been easier to talk to like that."

"Which is weird because he was so scared about it when I did it for the first time," Rachel said, rolling her eyes.

"It will get easier," Betsy said.

Rachel nodded and then glanced toward where Ororo and Forge were wrapped up with Mia. She grinned and then rushed over. "I told my dad!" she told Ororo happily. "He's going to come and celebrate with you!"

"You did?" Ororo asked, smiling at her. "That's wonderful, Rachel. You're learning so quickly!"

"Betsy says I've got a lot of power. I just have to use it right," Rachel explained before she gave Ororo a hug. "Thanks for letting me learn here."

"We're tickled to have you, Rachel," Ororo promised. "For as long as you'd like."

"I want to see you get married," Rachel said, her eyes wide.

"Of course you're all invited to the wedding," Ororo said.

"Oh good, because I want my friends to see me get a dad," Mia said, snuggling into Forge's non-metallic shoulder.

Rachel smiled at that, though she hadn't meant to project to Betsy that, Maybe my dad will find a mom for my brothers.

Betsy was well-practiced in keeping her reactions to herself, but that was more than enough to tug at her heartstrings. She knew that Scott hadn't allowed himself to move on from the tragedy that had destroyed the X-Men, but with Rachel's infectious hope, she found herself wishing for Scott to find someone for them too.

Thankfully for her, Mia was already running around as soon as Forge set her down so she could tell everyone about her mom and her Forge getting married, so the mood didn't stay down too long.

Jan was tickled that she'd already gotten another shot at babysitting, even if it was just for a few hours. She got to watch Bruce Banner and James making friends, she got to watch Nate get totally into a football game on TV to the point that he didn't realize he was standing on the couch, and when Scott got back from Westchester, she saw him grinning - and that was a rare enough sight it had her grinning too.

"The boys didn't give you any trouble?" Scott asked as he locked the door behind him, a habit at this point even if the apartment was way well-protected, in Jan's opinion.

"Of course not," Jan said. "We even ordered buffalo wings and pizza for the football game. Total necessity."

"You're spoiling them," Scott said with a smirk.

"What? No way," she said with a wave. "Besides, it was Nate's idea to try something new."

"Wait, you got Nate trying something new?"

"Nope," she said, shaking her head. "It was his idea. I just went along with it."

Scott grinned a little wider. "Well, look at that."

"He loved it, too," Jan said, bouncing in place. "Different-flavored wings. Devoured them."

"Well, he might be hitting a growth spurt, then. Did the same thing a couple years ago and shot up several inches at once." Scott grinned. "He's going to be tall."

"I wouldn't bet against that for anything," she said. "I'm just surprised how James keeps growing."

"Me too. I can barely keep up with these kids. Rachel grew out of all her clothes, and then James hit a growth spurt, and now Nate…"

"You know, Scott," Jan said as casually as she could, failing spectacularly at doing so while she stared at her nails. "I do have an in for that kind of thing. It's kind of low-key a huge hobby of mine."

"What, tracking growth spurts?" Scott teased.

"Yes. Yes that exactly," she said with a nod, her head held high. "Especially since it means new clothes."

"We probably should change clothes anyway. We've been going with jeans and plain shirts - small town wear…"

"That's pretty classic, though," Jan said. "Even here in the city. I can update you guys a little bit, but I wouldn't want to alter your style too much."

"Yeah, nothing too flashy," Scott agreed. "And James doesn't like anything with a high collar. He says it feels like it's choking him."

"Pretty common complaint," Jan said as she made her way over to the kitchen table - and pulled out a notebook to start sketching. "Favorite colors?"

"The boys like blue," Scott said. "Rachel prefers green."

"And you?"

"Oh, I'll wear anything," Scott said with a shrug.

"Well sure, and you'd do well in just about any color … maybe not orange, but …."

Scott shrugged. "Hey, for a few years, it was nice to have a range of color options. Everything was red for a long time, Jan. Since I was a kid. So I just wear whatever is comfortable."

"That had to be wild," Jan said, sketching away.

"It was," Scott agreed. "Jean was powerful enough at her height that she could turn it off a few times, but never long-term."

"That's kind of amazing," Jan said, glancing up at him for a second before she pulled over some colored pencils that the kids had nearby, already diving in to the colors - including the palettes she was making for each one of them.

Scott looked over her shoulder with one eyebrow raised. "I didn't realize 'plainclothes' was so involved."

"Well … you know how it is," she said. "Something you love doing … it's easy to get carried away. Besides … collarless overshirt? That's totally not something to find off the rack right now, but it would be so comfortable."

"I'll defer to the expert, then," Scott smirked.

Jan smiled and handed him the first set of sketches and the color keys for each member of the family, already diving in to what was clearly for Rachel - if the hair on her little model was any indicator. Even if the style on the hair was more elaborate than what Rachel wore. Ever. "Little girls need at least one dress," she said.

"Rachel's not a big - she hates dresses," Scott said.

"Really?" Jan said, blinking up at him. "Well … maybe I'll just show it to her and ask first."

"She says they get in the way of keeping up with her brothers," Scott explained. "And she'd rather wear shorts and a tee shirt."

"Oh, well that might be a style thing, but maybe she could go for one that's actually shorts but looks like a dress. Stylish and easy to kick all the boys' butts."

"There you go," Scott said, nodding along.

Jan was smiling and humming to herself as she kept going - lots of pretty shades of blended greens with highlights here and there of gold or blue. Clearly, she was enjoying coming up with things for Rachel.

But the boys color schemes were wildly different - even with 'blue' as a basis for both. Nate's color swatches leaned to a darker blue with notes on the margins to add in bits of silver for accents, and she created a plaid for him that was mostly white - with shades of blue making up the checkers that would complement his eyes perfectly.

James' things were a different cut than what she had in mind for Nate - since the boys were built differently and she wanted to make sure they both had something that was clearly their own. But his blues were closer to a caribbean blue than Nate's dark ones, and Scott watched as she hesitated on her accent color for him before she went with an almost vibrant shade of violet, working those colors into a different pattern of plaid too - with white and black.

"Okay," Jan said, leaning back. "I think that's a good start."

"You're going to have a whole closet for them by the time I turn around, aren't you?"

"Maay-be," she sang out. "Throw in a few hoodies and they'll be set, I think."

Scott smirked as he leaned back and grabbed a slice of pizza for himself. "You really don't have to go all out," he said.

"If I went all out, I'd have tuxedoes and long dresses picked out," Jan said with a wave.

"They'd hate that," Scott chuckled.

"See? I restrained myself," she said, nodding to herself.

Scott laughed. "Well, I guess it's a good thing we moved out here. You'd be lost without them to spoil."

"I so would."

Scott smirked, but before he could say anything else, his phone went off with an alert, and he looked like he nearly came out of his skin as he grabbed his phone out of his pocket.

"What the heck is that?" Jan asked, startled by the sound.

"Perimeter alert," Scott said tersely.

Jan was on her feet in an instant, looking like she was ready to fight. "Where?"

"The cabin," he said. "We just moved out…" He was watching the video feed with wide eyes as it showed several black-clad soldiers bursting into the house with guns drawn.

"Oh. That's … I mean, that's good you're out, right?"

"How did they find us, though?" Scott asked, running a hand through his hair. "We've been lying low. We've been careful."

"I don't know how they ever found you to begin with - let alone at a place that no one knows exists." She leaned over his shoulder to watch the video with one hand drifting up to cover her mouth.

"Yeah." Scott shook his head before he snapped out of it enough to call up Natasha. "Did you get the alert?" he asked without saying hello. "By the look of the guys on surveillance, they're either MRD or government-issue."

"I'm pretty sure MRD doesn't have that caliber of weaponry right now," Natasha said in a clipped tone.

"Then this is government-run," Scott said. "I thought Jean burned out the department. What's this?"

"I don't know, but I'm going to find out," Natasha said. "Stay close. Go to the tower if you're concerned. And I'd say stick close to Bruce."

"He just left, but I'll call him back," Scott said.

"Good. I'll send Clint over," she said. "And I'll call Storm and let her know."

"Tell her to be on alert. I don't know how they found us, and if it was Rachel…"

"That's the plan," Natasha said. "Raise the alarm." Before the call was over, Clint was knocking on the door, since as it turned out, Natasha had been home, so sending Clint over had been a simple matter of saying out loud that she was doing it and glaring at her husband until he moved.

Clint waved, with Katie on his shoulders. "Hi. I'm here to play backup to the Hulk. Which is superfluous."

"Not if he's wrapped up in Scrabble with James," Jan sang out, even if her tone didn't quite match what she was going for. Especially with James and Nate watching the adults in a very solemn and silent manner, wondering if they were going to have to split up and hide again - even if Scott was doing his level best not to do that anymore when he could see the toll it took on them and could see that the kids were old enough to follow his security protocols anyway. "He got distracted."

Clint grinned. "You know what's more fun? Scrabble with the Hulk."

"I'm super curious if James can charm him too," Jan said, forcing the smile a little before she turned to Scott. "They were trying to do Scrabble with only the names of the elements."

"Of course they were," Scott said dryly before he turned to Clint. "What does Natasha know?"

"Right now? Someone's going to bleed." Clint shrugged as he set Katie down. "She's got Stark on the satellite to see where they came from and who sent them."

"The Avengers said they'd be watching for groups like this," Scott said, one eyebrow raised.

"And they have been," Clint said. "But if this is a government op, it's new and tiny."

"It's about to be extinct," Scott said.

"Pretty much," Jan agreed.

Scott paced a small path, running his hand through his hair, but once Bruce returned looking ready for a fight before he settled in with James, and Nate and Katie were trying to one-up each other on who could jump the highest, Scott had to sit down, feeling more useless than he had in a long while.

"Captain America's in the news," Natasha said with a dry smile as she sat down by Steve. "You're making headlines."

"Shouldn't have to," Steve replied, sounding irritated still, even after he'd chewed out a few Senators that he knew were behind the little group that had triggered Natasha's alarms. "This kind of thing is supposed to be over."

"We pushed it underground, Steve." Natasha sighed. "It's just what happens with evil like this."

"We still don't know for sure who they were after, though, and this isn't going to help Scott relax with those kids."

"I looked into it, actually," she said.

Steve turned her way, obviously waiting to hear what she'd found. "And?"

"School nurse," she said tightly. "She's the one who tipped off the MRD, and the government took over."

"Which one were they looking for, Tasha?"

"All three of them," Natasha said. "She tested for the X-gene when the kids had chickenpox."

Steve swore outright and started to pace, his hands on his hips while he had nothing useful to do with them. "She had no right to test them-"

"Steve, if you don't think she regrets her every life decision after I interrogated her, you don't know me that well," Natasha said darkly.

"What got her attention?"

"It was Rachel, actually," Natasha said. "She looks so much like her mother, and you know the X-Men who died had their faces all over the news after what happened."

"And the fact that James looks like Logan but is with them …"

"Right. She knew he was adopted, but the family resemblances were too much to ignore once she got on the right track." Natasha shook her head. "It's a good thing James is working with tutors and Rachel's in Westchester - or the kids would have been in the middle of it when those men came in."

"No kidding." Steve let out a relieved breath as he thought of what might come of those kids should someone unscrupulous get a hold of them. "James and Rachel won't be able to run from that. They're both already spitting images."

"Nate looks like Scott too, but his face wasn't blasted all over the national news, and the visor…" Natasha shook her head. "I'm going to keep an eye on Nate's school anyway."

"He'll be starting in a new school here, won't he?" Steve said. "Maybe they can register under a different last name."

"He'll be going to Katie's school. And the last time I talked to Scott, he suggested his mother's maiden name. No one knows what that is, publicly."

"Suggest it again," Steve said.

"I'm going to pull some strings on the school nurse, too," Natasha said.

"I'd like to get her license revoked," Steve said. "Breaking patient confidentiality? At least."

"By the time I'm done with her, she won't be able to get more than a part-time waitressing gig."

"Good," Steve said. "We need to update Scott. He's probably pulling his hair out by now."

"Might do him some good on his undercover work," Natasha said dryly.

"I'm sure that's what he wants to hear," Steve said just as dryly before he tossed Natasha the keys.

"I don't know if this is the right move," Scott told Natasha as he paced. The kids had gone to bed, though he wasn't sure if they were sleeping after all the tension and nerves that had sparked up earlier with the raid.

"You have to be somewhere, Scott, and considering how close they got, I think you're better off to be near us. Tactically speaking," Natasha said - her tone perfectly business-like as she watched him pace.

"You know I don't trust being so close to a team-"

"And it's a good thing that you'll still be far-removed from said team," Natasha pointed out. "They don't come here. Only Clint and I do. And Stark is sending his very latest in surveillance and defense to reinforce the building. You'll be safe here. I swear it."

Scott stopped and turned her way, the anxiety clear in the lines at the corners of his eyes. "If there's even a whisper of trouble-"

"I'll fly you to one of her places if the need arises."

Scott thought about it for a moment, then nodded to himself, running his hands through his hair when it was clear he didn't have much of a choice in the matter. "They need the best Stark has to offer. I'm talking about the caliber he uses for himself."

"Absolutely," Natasha agreed. "He already swore to do that much and more."

Scott nodded, his hands on his hips. "Okay. Okay. That … alright."

Chapter Text

Even though the Avengers had destroyed the fledgling secret government agency that had been hunting the Summers kids, it wasn't until a month into the new school year that Scott relaxed at all. Natasha had checked the nurse at Nate's new school three times over, but it wasn't until Nate had gotten sick and there was no resulting raid after the school nurse had treated him that Scott felt like he could breathe again.

So it was almost inevitable that the same weekend he was starting to relax, Rachel came home from school looking pale as she immediately grabbed onto Scott's arm with a panicked look on her face.

"Why can't I hear James?"

Scott could feel his heart skip a beat, and he took off running to find that James was passed out asleep on the bottom bunk of the boys' bunk beds.

He sat down next to James and watched him breathe as he held his own breath for a long moment. Finally, he looked over his shoulder to see that Rachel was wide-eyed and standing in the doorway. "He's okay," she breathed out, her shoulders dropping as she said it.

"Yeah," Scott said, one hand resting on James' shoulder absently. "Yeah, he's fine."

"But I can't even peek at his dreams," Rachel said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as Scott stood up to let James sleep.

Scott watched James for a long time and then nodded. "Jean had a hard time reading his parents," he said softly once he'd gently ushered her into the hall and closed the door behind him so they could speak more easily without interference. "He's eight… it's a little early, but considering how everything has gone for him, he might be at least starting to come into his powers. Some kids come into it slowly instead of all at once like you did."

"So he's not in trouble?"

"Not any more than usual," Scott said, shaking his head.

"You're still worried."

"I don't want anyone to find out about this who shouldn't know," Scott said, since she looked like she was on the verge of a panic.

"You don't want anyone to grab him."

"I really don't."

"And you're worried that the Avengers aren't going to see it."


I'm a telepath, Dad, she said. You can't lie to me.

You are just like your mother, he said with a soft smile before he pulled her out of the doorway into a hug, letting James sleep in peace.

All three of us know how to take people down, Dad. We've known how to take apart a gun since I was in first grade. We're going to be okay. We could even-


Dad, I wasn't-

No. Scott put both hands on her shoulders and looked her squarely in the eyes. "Rachel, the second your existence hit the government's radar, they called in special forces. Anything more than that - any confirmation for them on what any of you can do with your powers - and they'll call in more."

"But you don't think the Avengers will catch it," Rachel argued.

"Natasha and Steve dismantled-"

"You can't just sit around and wait for us to get caught," Rachel said, drawing herself up to her full height with a flush to her cheeks. She looked so much like her mother in that moment that it set him back a step.

Scott held her gaze and then dropped it. "You're not going to get caught," he swore. "We're all doing everything possible to keep you safe. I just need you to trust me."

Rachel nodded, though she wasn't convinced in the least, and she reached out for Nate as soon as Scott went to get dinner started. Nate, James is getting powers and Dad's freaking out, and no one is going to actually do anything about how stupid this is.

What do you want me to do about it? Nate projected back. Not like I can stop James from doing whatever he's doing.

No, but you can help me convince Natasha and Steve to train us. We'll tell them we want to be Avengers.

I'll bet James can too; he's at the tower a lot more than we are, Nate said. And I'm pretty sure Stark is already hoping he'll be an Avenger.

Then it'll be easy to convince them to teach us to fight, Rachel reasoned. And then we can do something about this. Dad won't, and Ororo won't, and the Avengers are too busy to catch it all.

I think we can do this. Between us, anyhow. But how do we keep James in the loop now? Without getting caught, I mean.

Well, he has the tutors come here most of the time, but I know Mr. Stark is pushing to have him spend more time up in the labs with his tutors. He even told Dad it would be easier to keep track of everyone. But … even if that happens, you see James every day still. Until I can figure out how to talk to him like Mom talked to Logan, we'll just have to make it work and you'll need to keep him in the loop.

Alright, Nate replied, though he didn't sound overly sure about it.

Believe me, Nate. We're going to be amazing. She paused and smirked. And Katie would probably help too. She wants to be a hero when she grows up.

Katie will do more than just help, Nate said. She's going to take over on Clint's name. Or Natasha's. It's Clint's this week, though.

Mia wants to be an X-Man too, Rachel said. Once she's old enough to keep a secret, we'll pull her in.

James hasn't said anything one way or the other, though, Nate pointed out. Every time we talk about it, he just gets really quiet.

He knows Dad's freaked, and he remembers moving between everyone because of things like this when we were little.

Pretty sure James is a little freaked, too.

Yeah, well, if you could see what Dad sees every time he thinks about Mom and James' parents… Rachel shook her head. It's pretty … it's really bad.

How bad? Nate asked cautiously.

Dad… he was blind for a lot of it, but I can see the cells where they were kept, and I can see Logan in a room right before…. Her mental voice went shaky, and Rachel closed her eyes to block out the memory that was not hers.


Yeah. It scares me, too. But Nate, there's no one else to stand up for us. Do you really want to hide for the rest of our lives? Ororo and Betsy taught me how to hide my powers. What if you get Dad's powers? Are you going to be like Warren stuck inside because of your glasses?

No way.

So you'll help me?

Yeah. We'll need to get James with us though. I don't want to leave him out, and he should be with us. I don't really want to do it without him.

Then you talk to him. He listens to you more than me, Rachel said. He thinks I'm bossy.

You are.

Shut up, Nate.

There you go, bossy boots.

Rachel rolled her eyes before she headed upstairs, though Scott had been sure to stay close by until James woke up, and then Scott grinned when he saw him coming out of his room.

"Hey, bud," he said.

"Hi," James said, sounding tired still as he rubbed his eyes. "Didn't mean to fall asleep."

"Don't worry about it," Scott said, coming to sit down at the table with him while dinner was in the oven. "You're tired a lot lately, aren't you?"

"Yeah," James said, nodding to himself. "Didn't think I was doing much, though."

Scott nodded and let out a breath, not sure how to approach this conversation. "James, I think you're starting to come into your powers."

It was almost like someone had flipped a switch for how quickly James woke up and froze. "What? Why would you say that?" he asked in a bare whisper that had Scott frowning.

"You're tired a lot more than usual, and to be honest, Rachel can't hear your thoughts. So you'll need to pay attention to when your senses start to kick in more."

"But that's not …" James was wide-eyed as he shook his head. "You never said anything about her not being able to ... Maybe it's something else. Like … the opposite of Rachel."

"No, I don't think so. Jean couldn't get into either of your parents' minds," Scott explained. "Neither could the professor. Not without them opening their minds first."

James paled as he shook his head. "No."

Scott frowned deeper. "James-"


"You know you have claws, James. This is just the rest of it."

"I don't want it."

Scott let his shoulders drop, and he pulled James into a tight hug, though the little guy was tense as a drawn bowstring. "James, I swear, you're going to be fine."

"You don't know that. Not if I'm … no."

"Yes, I do," Scott said. "I'm going to make sure no one gets anywhere near you kids. You know that. The tutors are safe, this apartment is safe - you're fine."

James watched him for a long moment but didn't respond to him, mostly because he didn't believe it - and it felt like Scott wasn't very confident about it himself, either. So instead, he let Scott pull in tighter to tuck into a hug. And though Scott was trying to reassure him, James kept his mouth shut, even though all he could think was that sooner rather than later, he was dead, and all the trouble Scott had gone through to keep him safe was just a waste of time.

"I promise, James, there is nothing I won't do to keep you safe," Scott said as he pulled James closer.

"Can you make it stop?" James asked quietly.

"No, I can't," Scott admitted. "I can't - and I don't want to change anything about you, James."

"Why not?"

"Because I love you," Scott said. "Unconditionally. And you can't change anything about your genes, and I would never ask you to."

James didn't reply to that, though it was pretty clear that he was upset, because coming into this power set, his parent's power set, the one that had prompted so many people to try to use them, felt like a death sentence to him - and he was supposed to just … accept it.

After a long while, Scott took a deep breath and then kissed the top of James' head. "James, please trust me."

"I do," James said quietly.

"Then trust that I will keep you safe. And that I love you."

James couldn't come up with a response other than a very quiet "Love you too."

"Hope your streak of different chicken wings is still going strong," Jan called out as she came into the Summers' apartment with James. "I brought seven different kinds tonight!"

It had become a regular thing for Jan to bring James in after his day of tutoring once Tony put forward a solid argument in favor of the security of the tower - and keeping home and schooling separate - which left Scott free to get a little quiet one-on-one time with Nate after school.

"Jan!" Nate rushed over and threw his arms around her neck. "You're just in time. Dad and I just got done with homework, so we can play."

"Yes! Just what I was hoping for!"

Nate grinned. "I already kicked Dad's butt at Yahtzee."

"Ooooh, good, you're all warmed up to be competitive for me to beat you."

Nate grinned, dragging Jan along with him as Scott pulled his arm around James' shoulders. "How're your lessons going?" he asked.

"Fine," James said.

"Still tired?"

"Yeah, a little," James admitted. "Hank spent some time with me today, so that was … different."

"Different good?"

"Sure," James said, shrugging. "He brought a bunch of sweet stuff with him, too. Then he looked disappointed all afternoon."

"I thought you hated sweets," Scott teased lightly.

"I do. That's why he was trying to guilt-trip me."

"He loves Twinkies," Scott said. "Our team overdosed on sugar every time we got hurt."

James raised an eyebrow at that. "Sounds like him."

Scott ruffled his hair. "You can ask him for something else and he'll bring that for a snack."

James shook his head. "I don't really need anything when we're doing stuff."

"Yeah, well, Jan brought wings," Scott said.

James wrinkled his nose a little at that, though. "I'm not really hungry."

"You sure you're feeling alright?"

"I'm fine."

Scott watched him for a while and then gave him a hug. "Well, stick around for dinner, okay? Even if you're not hungry, I like having my boys around."

"Okay," James agreed before he returned Scott's hug and started for the table.

Scott watched James out of the corner of his gaze, sure that James was taking the revelation of his powers just as hard if not harder than Rachel had, as the four of them sat down for dinner - though the conversation was mostly dominated by Nate telling Jan about the fact that Katie was in the grade ahead of him and had lunch at the same time as him and they had gotten in trouble for launching food at a couple bullies using rubber bands.

"Yeah, I got the call from the principal. You know better than that, Nate," Scott said, shaking his head with a sigh.

"Yeah, but I won," Nate said without missing a beat. "And they were asking for it."

Scott rolled his eyes. "It's not more important to beat Katie than it is to keep your head down."

"She can get in trouble!"

"She's not a mutant," Scott shot back.

The silence that followed Scott's statement was just long enough that both James and Jan stopped to watch how it was going to play out, though James quickly ended up going back to minding his own business and staring at his empty plate.

Nate glared at his dad before he got to his feet. "Whatever, Dad," he said and stormed out, leaving Scott frustrated and rubbing his forehead before he also got up and quietly excused himself as he left the kitchen, leaving Jan and James in a sort of awkward silence. It took a few minutes, but after a little while, James reached down to his book bag and silently pulled up a book - though Jan was pretty sure watching him that he wasn't reading so much as he was trying to show that he wasn't eavesdropping while Scott had a chat with Nate.

Jan could hear even with the door closed that the two Summerses were not in agreement on anything at all. Nate was furious with his father for making them hide; Scott was trying his best to keep them safe… Neither of them wanted to back down.

"Nate, would you just trust me?" Scott finally said, louder than before, obviously trying to keep his temper. "Do you want to get taken away, is that it? I'm doing my best to keep you safe."

But that was obviously one step too far, and a second later, Jan could hear Scott apologizing - and Jan felt like she couldn't even begin to figure out how to act like she hadn't heard the whole thing when Scott finally came out of the boys' room with his hand over his eyes.

Before Scott could look their way, James slid over next to Jan and took out some paper that had dozens of tic-tac-toe drawings on it - some of them finished, some empty, some of them halfway done. While Scott was composing himself, James slid Jan a pen and propped his chin up with one hand like he'd been waiting for her to make a move the whole time.

Jan blinked at him, then smirked and kissed his cheek. "You're the best," she whispered.

"Is that why you're losing?" James said, completing the little act.

"Um, lies. am the x's. You can't claim my victories just because I kicked your butt."

"We're alternating," James said. "You can't claim all of those."

"Mmm, I think I can," Jan sniffed. "All mine."

"I'll let you think that," James said. "Just like I let Tony think it, too."

Jan shook her head at that as Scott sat back down at the table and cleared his throat. "Sorry about that," he said.

"I'm sure it's just the age," Jan said. "You wouldn't believe the discussions Katie has with Clint."

"About what, wanting to steal his name before she breaks ten years old?"

"That's an ongoing issue," Jan said seriously. "She says he's too old and needs to retire before he breaks a hip."

"Where did she learn that one?" Scott asked with an attempt at a smirk her way that wasn't quite convincing for as upset Scott had been moments before.

And Jan was more than willing to ignore it for his sake. "Believe it or not, I think it was from a back-and-forth between Steve and Tony."

"You know, I think I believe that," Scott said.

"Would you believe it was from Steve? Preemptive strike."

"Okay, that part I wouldn't believe." Scott shook his head, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth despite himself.

"Cap is very sassy," Jan said.

"And those kids are still in elementary school. What are we going to do when they're teenagers?" Scott said, tipping his head back to look at the ceiling.

"Retire before we break hips?" Jan said with a shrug and a smile.

"Speak for yourself; I'm already a single parent staying home with the kids."

"Well, you can't escape them," Jan laughed. "You're doomed."

"Hey, I got good kids to work with," Scott pointed out, reaching over to ruffle James' hair, though James only halfheartedly tried to duck Scott's hand.

"You sure do," Jan agreed. "All three of them are smart as a whip."

"Don't I know it."

Jan smiled and pushed back from the table. "I'm going to start up a movie, I think … James picked one out earlier."

James waited for Jan to leave the room before he leaned toward Scott and dropped his voice low. "Hey, Dad, Nate's only showing off because he's got a crush," James said softly.

"Seriously?" Scott raised both eyebrows.

"Mm-hmm," James agreed, nodding slowly.

Scott shook his head, though he pulled James over to kiss the top of his head. "You're a good kid, you know that?"

"I'm just telling you what he wouldn't," James said as he gave Scott a little hug. "Mostly because he doesn't want to admit it, either."

"Well, he's not as old as you are," Scott teased.

"He doesn't know that."

"Little brothers are like that. Mine broke his ankle trying to keep up with me playing hockey when I was your age."

James smirked at that. "I just thought you should know. He doesn't mean to be like that. He can't help it. And I know he isn't trying to cause trouble."

"He gets it from me," Scott said, smirking hard as he thought of it. "When I met Jean, I couldn't string two words together."

James smiled at that. "That might be better."

"Well, he's got enough of his mother in him to give him more confidence than I had."

"Oh no," James deadpanned.

Scott laughed and shoved James lightly in the shoulder. "Really, James. Thanks. You know I'm just trying to keep you boys safe, don't you?"

"I know," James said, nodding. "And I know you're right."

Scott laughed out of sheer surprise and then pulled James into a hug. "You're so smart."

"You're only saying that because I'm agreeing with you."

"That's what makes you smart."

"Well, I'm going to go make sure Nate's alright," James said. "And if it's okay, I think I just want to read for a while before bed."

"Alright. Love you, bud," Scott said.

"Love you too, Dad," James replied before he got up and took his books with him, leaving Scott with Jan and a movie.

Scott shook his head as he came to sit down. "Yeah, I did warn you that it's not always as smooth sailing as you've seen before, didn't I?"

"They're kids, right? That's bound to happen sometimes. I still remember the bumps when I was a teenager. It's fine." Jan shrugged. "Of course, I was as close to a perfect child as one could be."

"Oh, I'm sure," Scott snorted.

"It's true!" Jan insisted. "Especially when my friends were all in the papers with Tony. Made me look downright innocent by comparison."

"Seriously? You're using Tony Stark as your measuring stick for good behavior?" Scott laughed.

"I am using him as proof that I wasn't in the wrong side of the columns," she said. "It's accurate!"

"Hey, you and I grew up in entirely different circles, clearly. I don't even know how to react to that."

"Yeah, that's true," Jan said. "I mean, I was friends with him waay before the team happened." She stuck one finger in his face. "Friends."

"I think you're protesting too much," Scott shot back with a crooked grin.

Jan let out a gasp and shoved him in the shoulder. "Rude!"

"Hey, you're the one with the terrible taste, not me," Scott said, holding up both hands.

"I … well. That's just … shut up." She was giggling by the end of her staggered statement. "Poor availability, okay?"

"Oh, yeah, I'm sure the dating pool was small for a gorgeous rich girl."

Jan blushed but grinned at him "When you weed out the guys that were after my bank account? Yeah. Pretty tiny, believe it or not! Especially when there were girls like oh, I don't know - Emma Frost - screwing up the nice guys, too."

"Hey!" Scott shook his head. "That's not fair. Jean told me to - there was a - the first time she died-"

"You're agreeing with me; you just don't know it yet."

"Yeah, well, Emma is not the motherly type. That's not happening again."

Jan snorted. "Yeah, no kidding. If she was a mother, she'd be the kind to eat her young."

"You haven't met the Cuckoos, then."

"Clones don't count!"

"They're still technically kids, and they're at the school."

"Yeah, but no one had to be forced to sleep with her for them to spring into being. Doesn't count."

"This conversation is taking a weird turn," Scott said.

"Oh, you love it," Jan laughed as she squeezed his arm. "And I'm right!"

"Everyone has an ex like that," Scott defended.

"I'm not even picking on you, Scott. I'm totally laying it all on her. I promise. You were probably mind-controlled anyhow."

"You sound like Kitty. She was second-guessing every choice I made until Jean showed up again."

"Smart girl."

Scott shook his head. "And now all my bad decisions are my own."

"That's just like everyone else, Mr. Summers. And you're doing fine, I promise. Those kids adore you. Even when they're mad."

"Well, it helps that James let me in on what's going on with Nate," Scott admitted.

"Oh? What's that?"

"Turns out my son is just as clueless about how to act around women he likes as I am," Scott said.

"Huh," Jan said.

"It was worse when I was sixteen…."

"You were probably adorable," Jan said.

"Yeah, I lost all ability to speak in sentences."

"That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard," Jan said, grinning at him. "I couldn't really talk at all - and then when I did, it was all at once in a big rush."

"I bet it was endearing," Scott assured her.

"Maybe," Jan said, blushing and biting her lip a little.

Scott leaned back slightly. "Hey, at least we both grew out of our awkward teenage phase into… whatever you call it when one of us is divorced and the other is a single dad. Not sure if that's good or bad."

"It is what it is," Jan said. "Not really our fault on either call, right?" A somewhat companionable silence fell between them as the movie got going, and for a long while, neither of them said anything - but finally, Jan had taken about as much as she could handle.

"So... all things considered, what would you think about maybe going out some time?"

Scott was obviously surprised, and he blinked a few times before he could even answer. "I… sure? Are you sure, I mean?"

"You're probably one of the sweetest guys I know," Jan said. "And … I think we get along alright, or am I way off? Because if I'm off, it's okay, and I won't get mad, I promise, really. Just … say the word and I'll back off, because I really don't want to push. I just thought … it might be fun." She'd picked up speed the further she got into it, and when she finally stopped, she'd shrunken in on herself a little and was holding her breath.

Scott was staring at her before he grinned quietly. "You're right," he said. "You do blurt everything out at once."

"Oh my God." Jan buried her face in her hands.

"No, hey, no." Scott shook his head and put his hand on her shoulder. "I'm still terrible at words too, apparently. You're - you're not off-base. I just meant ... I'm a mess, and are you sure you're - I guess if you're interested, what about dinner this weekend?"

"That sounds great," Jan said, letting her shoulders drop in relief before she broke out into a brilliant smile.

Scott still wasn't entirely sure how to respond, but he sat back all the same, watching the movie in relative silence. "You know this means the second-string babysitter gets to watch the kids, right? Natasha will try to be their favorite."

Jan rolled her eyes theatrically. "She can try, but she'll lose anyhow."

"What are you gonna do if Nate and Katie end up together and she gets the trump card of 'mother-in-law'?" he teased.

"Um … no, that … even if that did happen, I will eternally be the coolest. It's like a law or something." She nodded to herself. "Might even be snuck into the Constitution."

"I think I missed that in Rachel's social studies homework…"

"Oh, sure, teeny tiny print," Jan said, nodding, holding her fingers apart so there was just a sliver of light between them.


"Yes. Yes that."

Scott laughed. "I'll keep that in mind."

Chapter Text

James had positively thrown himself into his studies, which was a different look for him, all things considered. Yes, he'd been doing well with his tutors, but he hadn't pushed himself. Not like this. He wasn't really taking the breaks that his tutors had worked out for him - instead, he was powering through his lessons and then working on some yet-unnamed project. Or at least reading up on half a dozen studies at once, fully immersed in what he had found.

It was enough to draw more than a little attention from the geniuses keeping tabs on him. But it wasn't until one of his tutors realized what exactly he was digging into that Hank was brought in to talk the kid down. Especially seeing as he was digging deeply into genetics - and how to alter them, if it was even possible.

Hank let out a sigh as he sat across from James, who barely even looked up from what he was doing. "I know what you're trying to do, James," he said gently.

"I'm just reading," James said, still not looking up from the research paper he was waist-deep in.

"You're trying to find a way not to be a mutant," Hank said.

James stopped and finally looked up at him. "What's wrong with that?"

"There's nothing wrong with you, James," Hank said, his tone heavier than James had expected, even with the topic at hand.

"I disagree," James said. "And so does the rest of the world."

"And what does your father say?" Hank asked gently.

James frowned as he considered how to answer him. Scott hadn't specifically said it was good or bad But ... "He says we have to hide it. So, I don't see what's wrong with just getting rid of it." He was looking at his hands by the time he had finished his little statement.

Hank sighed and reached forward to rest a hand on James' arm. "Have I ever told you how I came to be the magnificent Beast you see now?"

"No," James said quietly, though it was clear he had James' attention.

"I wasn't fuzzy - or blue," Hank said with a rueful smile. "But I was proportioned this way." He held his hands out, palms up. "I wanted desperately to be normal, and so I did what you're trying to do now. I searched for a way to hide what I was, to change what I was - to stop being a mutant. But instead, despite my best efforts, I only made myself even more obvious." He smiled tightly. "It was a spectacular failure."

James looked up at him after a long while and spoke with an almost desperate tone. "Then help me. Please."

Hank sighed, his expression more heartbroken than before. "No, James," he said softly. "I am helping you by keeping you from repeating my mistakes." When James didn't look convinced, Hank tried another path. "My dear boy, even if we were to succeed, what then? Shall we play God, we mortals with our test tubes and numbers? Shall we consign the entire mutant population to deny what they were born to be?"

"I just don't ... " James let it fall for a moment. "I don't want Dad to have to worry about someone taking me. And I don't want to die like my parents did."

Hank sighed and then pulled James into a tight hug. "You're too young to take a burden like that on your shoulders, James."

"I don't want this," James said.

"I know," Hank said gently. "But we must do our best with what nature has given us. And you, my young friend? I believe you are destined to do great things with your mind-" He rapped James' head with one knuckle. "-and your heart." He rapped James' chest. "The rest is, as they say, window dressing."

"Rachel can't hear me anymore," James said softer.

"That's just part of your mutation, James," Hank said.

"I hate it."

"Do you think Rachel likes being able to hear every errant thought around her?" Hank asked. "Or that I revel in cooking in my fur coat during the summer? Everyone has something they struggle with. Even those of us who aren't blessed with the mutant gene."

"It's not a blessing," James said, with a touch of a growl lacing his tone.

"Yes, it is," Hank said firmly. "I know you don't see it now, but think of how you can help your father as you come into your abilities. When Nate gets in trouble, you'll be able to find him - and you know he will. Or when Rachel starts to date?" Hank tapped the side of his nose. "Your father could tell with a sniff whether men were interested in using up young women or if they were lying. You can protect her."

James gave him a dry look at that. "She can read their minds. She doesn't need me."

"She may be able to read minds, but she does need you, James," Hank said. "What about Mia? Katie? Lexi?" Hank kept his arms around James. "You have so much to give, my boy. Think of these gifts as a way to help your family."

James didn't look convinced at all, but he'd quit trying to argue with him entirely, and it was clear the tone from the little boy was one of solemn defeat.

"James, I want you to stay away from this kind of research," Hank said. "Not only because it could backfire so spectacularly on you but because there is so much potential for evil in it. The X-Men were plagued by a geneticist who did unlock the power to change his own underlying genetic structure, and he stole powers and people alike to bolster himself into something much stronger than he was on his own. I don't believe you would become like him, but if your research were co-opted or stolen, there could be so much damage."

"Fine," James breathed out finally, and the bitterness in his voice was crystal clear.

Hank let out a sigh and kept James in a tight hug, though he was absolutely downhearted long after James headed off with Jan to go back home. For a long while, he sat in the lab, shaking his head at the impressive collection James had stacked up around him. He was heading down the right paths already and Hank was sure that he'd make a solid attempt to alter his genetic sequence if he wasn't stopped - that much was obvious. So with that in mind, Hank wearily got to his feet and started to remove every scrap of James' genetic research.

"You okay?" Tony asked when Hank finally left the room after clearing out everything he could find that even remotely addressed the x-gene or genetic engineering.

"As well as can be expected," Hank said heavily. "It's always hard to see another young man in the same dire straits I found myself in years ago."

Tony paused and turned toward the door Hank had just left, frowning deeper to himself. "What's the story, doc? And where are we at with our little wonder-kid that's got him in dire straits?"

"He's trying to find a way to become human, Tony," Hank said. "He doesn't want to be a mutant."

"That's not really even possible," Tony said. "Why would he even start on something like that?"

"Is it so hard to believe, Tony?" Hank asked as the emotion began to creep into his voice. "Is it so hard to imagine why he might want to turn his back on his genetics when his father has taken such measures to keep them hidden simply for what they are? Who they were born to? Is it so difficult to see, when not too long ago, men in black uniforms came to their home armed to kill - all for the simple crime of a genetic test showing that they were more evolved than their classmates? When our little genius had to change homes and guardians so often when he first found himself without Logan and K? What child do you know wouldn't want to wish that problem away?"

Tony nodded, more upset than he'd thought he would be on hearing anything like this. "How'd you figure it out? And are you taking it to Scott?" Tony asked thickly before he tipped his head. "I should say: when are you taking it to Scott?"

"I don't think I should tell Scott just yet," Hank admitted. "I'd wager he's already aware of how all three of the children feel. Rachel was terrified of her abilities; James is trying to wash his hands of his genes to keep Scott from worrying; and according to Natasha, Nate is rebelling against his father by trying to be a normal, misbehaving child. How do you suggest I then approach one of my oldest and dearest friends to tell him that his son is willing to risk his own life in a terrifying scientific endeavor like this?"

"Not much to open conversation with," Tony agreed. "What I don't get is how you figured it out so quick. It's not like he was asking anyone for help."

Hank took his glasses off and let out a weary sigh. "Tony, I knew what James was up to because I tried the same experiments myself. Not all of us who are genetically gifted have handled it as well as we could have."

Tony took a few steps to rest his hand on Hank's shoulder. "You know I just want what's best for everyone involved, right? I'm not questioning you on any of it. I trust you to watch out for him. And the last thing I want to see happen is that kid falling apart. Or Scott. Or the others, either."

"I know," Hank said, resting his hand on Tony's outstretched arm. "There are limited options for us these days, that's all."

"It'll have to ease up," Tony said. "That's the only option."

"That's the hope," Hank agreed. "Things have improved, Tony. Don't misunderstand me. The weapons programs, the Friends of Humanity, all those who openly called for genocide - they're gone. But we've bought our lives with silence, and it's not easy to accept the price we've had to pay. Especially that family. Give the boy time."

James was quiet on the way home and didn't say more than a handful of words to Jan as she brightly tried to question him on how his day was, and as soon as they got back, he quietly made a beeline for his bed and climbed in, pulling the blanket up to his nose as he curled up on his side, his back to the door in a crystal clear gesture that he wanted to be left alone.

Not that it was going to stop Scott, who came into the room and sat at the end of his bed, quietly watching him as he rubbed the back of his neck trying to think of what to say. "Hard day?" he asked at last.

"I'm just really tired," James said. It was a lie, of course, but he didn't want to trouble Scott with how low he was feeling. James couldn't help but feel worse anytime he saw Scott worrying over him. Like he was being more of a burden than he had a right to on an already stressed out family situation. It wasn't fair to Nate and Rachel, and it wasn't fair to Scott. They'd already done more for him than they'd ever had to. So instead of the truth … James tried to keep his worries to himself. Which was tiring.

"That's only part of it," Scott said. He sighed. "You know you can't hide things from me."

"I know," James said, pausing for a long moment before he tried a little bit of truth. "My nose has been bothering me, too."

"Yeah, I'll bet the super senses are something else," Scott said.

"Not so super," James said flatly.

"I know," Scott said, scooting closer to rub James' back. "It's always hard to start. I used to get splitting headaches."

And then a little more truth: "I hate it."

"I know," Scott said. "I hated mine too. For a long time. But then I learned to use it." He paused and then rested his hand at his temples. "Now, I miss it."

"There isn't a good use for what I've got," James said. "Just … stupid."

Scott frowned at him and then went back to rubbing James' back. "You won't get sick anymore," he pointed out, trying to find a bright side for him. "Not once your abilities are fully realized. No more doctor's visits."

"I'd rather be sick."

Scott sighed. "Well… think of it like insurance. If anything does happen, you can help me keep the others safe."

"How?" James asked, though the bitter edge was still in his voice.

Scott paused. "Your father and I-"

"I don't want to be like him." The tone James had used was harsh enough to stop Scott in his tracks.

"Why not?" Scott asked with a frown.

"I just don't."

"James, he was one of the best people I knew."

"Sure," James said low.

"I thought I told you enough about him that you'd know that," Scott said in a bare whisper. "I tried - I tried to tell you stories about both of them. They were heroes, James. The best in the business."

"Yeah?" James said before he twisted to look him in the eyes. "Then why aren't they here?"

Scott let his shoulders drop and closed his eyes. "I wish to God they were. Your mom would make everyone laugh, and your dad would tell you what to expect from your abilities. And he'd find a way to tease every one of us while he did it, too." He smiled tightly. "But you have her sense of humor and her heart. I love that about you."

"I just wanna go to sleep," James said in a breath, clearly on the brink of tears as he turned away from Scott again and curled up tighter. He'd gotten too close to what was bothering him and already Scott was upset by it. Which only had James feeling worse.

"I know," Scott said, still rubbing circles in his back. "You know I love you, James. And I'll be with you every step. I promise." When James didn't respond, Scott sighed and simply sat with him, not about to let James feel like he was alone. Though once James really did fall asleep, Scott slipped out of his room and into his own before he put his head in his hands and let his shoulders shake.

A few hours away and a few days later, Rachel was having a great time in Westchester. In particular, she loved being around Betsy and Warren - especially since Warren seemed to need a little cheering up from being grounded and cooped up.

It was Monday, which meant that she'd spent the weekend with her family. And it had been a little bit of a mixed bag. Nate was worried about James, who was hiding more than usual and speaking even less than usual. And James really did look miserable. But on the other hand, Jan had spent the whole weekend with them, and she'd even gone to dinner with just their dad.

"How was your weekend?" Betsy asked with a smile once Rachel was back at the school.

Rachel smiled. "Kinda weird," she admitted.

"How so?" Betsy asked, frowning at the answer. "I thought it was supposed to be a fun one."

"Well, yeah, I mean, Jan was there, and did you know she and my dad are dating?"

"They are?" Betsy said, smiling in spite of herself. "That's very good news."

"I think so too," Rachel said with a bright smile. "Dad seems happier with her around. And I like playing with her. And she helps with my brothers." She paused. "But my brothers are a whole handful."

"I'm pretty sure they've always been a whole handful," Betsy said, shaking her head. "What was it this week?"

"James hates his powers," Rachel said. "And Dad doesn't know how to help him, because they aren't powers like I have or he had. It's sounds and smells and his senses are bothering him."

"They just are what they are," Betsy said, thinking of the connection she had once shared with Logan and trying to explain the powerset to Rachel in terms she would understand. "They're on all the time, and he can't turn them off. Ever."

"Well, it's making him and Dad sad - and Nate hates that he has to behave when he just wants to get in trouble with Katie."

"That sounds like Nate," Betsy said, nodding. "How upset is your dad?"

"Really upset," Rachel admitted. "He wants James to love his birth parents too."

"He doesn't?" Betsy asked, frowning deeply. "When did that happen?"

"They're gone," Rachel said quietly. She took a deep breath and let it out. "Sometimes, I get mad at my mom too. She could have taught me so much, and not just how to use my powers," she admitted, her gaze on the ground as she tried not to get emotional. "I miss her all the time, and so does Dad."

Betsy took a step forward and pulled Rachel into a tight hug. "It's perfectly normal to feel this way - and it's alright for James to feel that way too."

"But Dad loves Mom still - and James' parents - and it's not right and-" Rachel held her breath. "I don't know how to help."

"It's very sad, then, that you can't just reach out to James and see what he's thinking, don't you think?" Betsy said.

Rachel nodded. "If I could see James' thoughts, I could talk to him. And even if he thinks I'm bossy sometimes, I might be able to help."

Betsy nodded. "And how do you think James feels now that you can't peek like you had been doing?"

"He's sad. It's easy to see when he's just crying and sleeping all the time." She paused. "At least, I think that's what's going on when he's hiding in his room curled up in a ball under the covers."

"And no one else has the powers he does," Betsy said. "I'm sure he feels very alone right now. Even with everyone around him. Logan used to get that way sometimes, too."

"Nate and I try to make sure he's not alone," Rachel said. "That's all we can do."

"Being alone and feeling alone are two very different things," Betsy said. "Even when you and Nate aren't around him, James has people with him most of the time, but that doesn't make him feel any less alone."

Rachel was quiet for a long time as she considered it, and then, finally, she said, "I think that's Dad's problem too."

"I'm very sure that's true," Betsy said. "But … what if I told you that it was possible to reach out to James?" She smiled at Rachel as she watched her expression shift.

"Can you show me how?"

"Not without him," she said. "It was easy for me to reach out to Logan because we had a psychic rapport, but before that happened, and when I met K - the only time I could get in was when they would reach out to me. You need to see if he'll let you in."

"So… I can reach out like I reach out to Dad?"

"Only if he lets you in," Betsy said. "He'll have to learn to open up his mind to you."

"He'll have to come here. Dad doesn't want anyone from the school at the apartment," Rachel said.

"Then maybe the next time he comes, I can talk to him and see if he's willing to try."

"Thanks," Rachel said, pulling her arms around Betsy in a hug. She laid her head on Betsy's shoulder for a long time before she said, quietly, "I think Dad likes Jan. A lot."

"Good," Betsy said. "She's a wonderful person."

"She makes him laugh. And he really doesn't do that except with us," Rachel said.

"Then he needs to spend more time with her, doesn't he?"

"That's what I said, but he says he needs to look out for James, and that's fair, too," Rachel admitted.

"It is," Betsy said. "But maybe we can work something out to get the boys here and give your dad a day to have some fun."

"Well, what if we said Mia wants a playdate?"

"I'm sure she does. That wouldn't even be a lie."

"Then let's do that," Rachel agreed with a crooked grin. "Then I can talk to James whenever I want, and Dad can laugh some more."

Chapter Text

"I'm 90% sure my daughter was going to push us out the door," Scott said with a smirk as he and Jan headed to a quiet cafe in Manhattan for a dinner date while Betsy worked with James and Rachel in Westchester and Nate kept Mia entertained. "I think she approves."

"That's like half the battle, isn't it? Kids' okay?"

"That's the rumor, anyway," Scott said, smiling as he held the door open for her.

"Such a gentleman," Jan said with a grin. "Thank you, kind sir."

"Hey, I was raised right," Scott said before checking them in for their reservations.

"I can tell; it's amazing," Jan told him. "Don't stop any time soon, either."

"I don't think I can," Scott said. "My mother would have had my hide otherwise."

"I like her already," Jan said. "Smart lady."

"Oh yeah. She taught me and Alex everything we know."

"Oooh, how is the not-as-cute brother doing these days?"

"I don't see him much. He married Lorna and moved to Genosha full-time," Scott admitted quietly. "The princess needs to be in her tower - apparently even after she's been married."

"Oh, wow," Jan said, eyebrows raised.

"Alex comes by sometimes. He taught the kids to surf last summer."

"I'll bet that was a laugh and a half," Jan said.

"Nate was so mad that James was as good at it as he is, especially since Nate's usually the athletic one."

"Well, individual sport," Jan said reasonably. "Right? Get to run it solo."

Scott chuckled. "Exactly."

"How did Alex take that?" Jan laughed. "I'm sure he was in stitches."

"Oh, he hasn't let it go."

"I hope he never does," she said. "I hate to say it, but it is funny when your little Nate gets twisted up on something like that."

"James has been gaining muscle too, and Nate hates it."

"I noticed," Jan said. "His shirts aren't quite right anymore, and I don't quite understand it for as much as he's just … studying. I mean, sure … he has access to the gym and he uses it, but it's mostly running."

"You remember how his dad was," Scott said. "He could lose half his arm, and the next day, it was right back. Must be part of the mutation."

"Must be nice," Jan said in an almost sarcastic tone. "Not like the rest of us that have to work for it."

"Yeah, add it to the list of things that used to drive me nuts," Scott said.

"Past tense - not worrying much about that list," Jan sang out.

"Well, we'll see how the boys do. I'm hoping I've done a good job keeping them from ending up like me and Logan."

"You absolutely have," Jan promised, giving his arm a squeeze before the maitre'd led them to their table. "Those two watch out for each other all the time. It's precious."

"All three of them do," Scott said as he pulled her chair out for her. "Rachel pops in even from Westchester just to leave psychic 'I love you' notes."

"Awwwww, she's such a sweetheart," Jan said. "She's always trying to take care of James with Nate … and don't think I missed James helping Nate with his math."

"The only real fight Nate ever got in at school was when someone was picking on James for skipping grades," Scott said with a fond smile.

"Surprised James didn't handle it himself," Jan said.

"He would have, but Nate was closer," Scott laughed. "James has always tried to keep from drawing any attention to himself."

Jan tutted. "I'll never understand why they'd pick on a kid for jumping a grade or two."

"There's always a reason," Scott said. "Before I had my glasses, I was a skinny, poor kid with no parents. With Rachel, she was too bossy for a girl. Nate's getting flack for playing with girls instead of the other boys. Always something."

"I'm pretty sure you just said 'jealousy' three different ways," Jan said.

"Oh yeah, everyone was jealous of me," Scott chuckled.

"Um, yes. You could have been a model, skinny."

Scott flushed red. "Not… really…"

"Yes, really!" she said. "Cute, tall guy, skinny too? They'd have loved you in Paris."

"Yeah, well, I was in Nebraska."

"Oh, there's your problem," she said heavily.

"If only I'd been born in France," he said dryly.

"New York would have gotten you there," she said quickly before she gestured to him generally. "Your bone structure? That hair? Done. Deal."

"I feel like you're just finding excuses for your own fashion dreams," Scott said, turning a red color on his cheeks that would have matched his glasses once upon a time.

"To say you're pretty? Kinda." Jan grinned and rested her chin in the palm of her hand. "I can do that. I'm well within my rights to point out the obvious."

Scott flushed a little deeper. "I'm… at a severe disadvantage when you're the first woman I've ever dated in full, living color all the time. Makes you stand out - and I never learned how to properly compliment anyone …"

"I'll take it," Jan said, nodding. "Sounded like a compliment to me."

"I was trying for that, anyway," Scott said. He tipped his head to the side as he watched her but didn't say anything until after they'd ordered drinks. "I do like it when you smile." He smiled and shrugged. "Sorry. I'm terrible at this."

"Thank you," she said, grinning at him. "You're awful cute when you smile too, but honestly, the little crooked smirk? Super attractive."

"Oh good. I don't think I can turn that one off," Scott said, complete with a smirk.

"Lucky me!"

Scott laughed and shook his head as he looked over the menu. "You're absolutely outclassing me in flirting, you know that? I'm not equipped for it."

"I enjoy it," Jan said. "It's fun once you get started, I promise."

"I only ever learned to do it telepathically."

"If it makes it easier on you, I can just make eyes at you - and you can guess what I'm thinking," Jan giggled.

Scott laughed outright as he looked over his menu. "You're thinking… 'how can someone with his bone structure be this bad at dating'?"

"Um, that's easy," Jan said. "You were always scooped right up before you could practice."

"I feel like I should argue that, but I don't know that I can," Scott laughed.

"You can't! I'm right," she said, positively enjoying herself.

"Okay, but now you have to try it," Scott said. "I'm on the spot!"

"I think we're doing just fine," Jan promised.

"Good," Scott said. "Because I do want you to enjoy yourself."

"Honestly, barring some calamity? I think I always have fun with you," she said. "So you can just … roll with it. We'll have fun no matter what."

"I think you're already past the limit and the wine hasn't even arrived," Scott teased.

Jan gasped. "I did not pre-load before we met up!"

"Are you sure?" he teased.


"I think you might be lying to me. That's a terrible thing to do to someone on a date!"

"Which is why I haven't," Jan laughed, clearly having a ball.

Scott grinned as the waiter came around to get their order, and for the most part, the date continued along those lines - with plenty of teasing from both of them… and a short interruption from Rachel telepathically sending her love with the boys.

By the end of the night, Jan was hanging onto Scott's arm, and they were both laughing as they headed back for the tower, still teasing each other the whole way. It was easy for Scott to read Jan - she was so open and honest about her feelings. And as for Jan, she loved how sweet Scott was, holding her doors open and pulling her chair out.

Scott was still a little paranoid about getting too close to the Avengers in the open like this, so they decided to part ways within sight of the tower, and then he'd drive out to Westchester to get the kids.

Jan gave his arm a squeeze as they came to a stop, and Scott turned to face her with a smile. "Next time, try to come without the pre-date pick-me-up," he teased.

"I did not-" Jan hit him in the shoulder. "You're never going to let that go!"

Scott grinned a little wider before he leaned forward and stole a quick kiss. "Well, I did also say I'd like there to be a next time, didn't I?"

Jan blinked up at him, completely caught off her guard, before she grinned, stood on her toes, and kissed him right back. "Looking forward to it."

James had been working away at his schoolwork, finally back up to his normal pace after a few weeks of dragging following his talk with Hank. He still wasn't in a good mood over any of it, but he knew he didn't have a route to deal with it yet, either, so for the sake of not causing a giant fight, he let it go and tried to just … stick to his homework.

But that was pretty frustrating, and he spent most of his breaks hitting a punching bag to blow off some steam. It wasn't much, but he did feel a little better when he was hitting things at least. Especially when everything seemed to be fighting him lately. It had taken several visits with Betsy playing intermediary for Rachel and himself to even begin to make it so Rachel could reach out and the repeated failures had him feeling like there was something wrong with his mind, too.

Needless to say, he was having a hard time and was using the gym to deal with it. He was frustrated and angry, but it wasn't until he stopped hitting the bag that he really got mad. His jaw was locked, and he was glaring at the ground, his hands in fists. He wanted to hit something but it just … didn't feel like enough to hit it, even when he was hitting it with everything he had. He was clenching and unclenching his hands, almost like they were itching, when he shifted his wrists a hair.

An odd sound echoed the gym that James had never heard, but the sound wasn't anywhere near the front of his mind when all he could do was keep himself from screaming. He stared down at his hands to see that, yep, he'd somehow managed to pop his claws. All at once, James was dizzy and sick to his stomach. His hands were shaking and he couldn't catch a breath right. He hadn't realized that there'd be so much blood. His arms were screaming at him, and the burning sensation had everything feeling white hot from his elbows to the tips of his fingers. But in spite of the pain, he couldn't quite make a noise as he crumpled to the floor, staring in shock at the blood that didn't want to stop dripping off of his hands.

In Westchester, Rachel heard the moment James popped his claws. She didn't think he'd meant to do it, but he was projecting panic and pain, and since Betsy had helped them set up a connection, it all flooded her way.

The sensation was so overwhelming that she nearly passed out herself, and then she started to panic, reaching out telepathically for her dad. James is hurt.

What? Scott wasn't even bothering to hide his panic. Where?

I don't - I don't know. I - I'll ask Betsy to help me.

I'll take Nate to Natasha and Clint. As soon as you have something-

I'll tell you, Rachel promised.

At the apartment, Scott was pacing, running both hands through his hair before he got Nate up from the couch. "We have to go," he said. "Now."


"I'll explain later," Scott said. "I need you to stay with Natasha."

"Dad, what's going on?" Nate asked, and there was no mistaking the honest fear in his voice.

Scott stopped, held his breath, and then he took a moment to look Nate in the eyes. "You're going to be alright, Nate. I promise."

"You don't know what's going on, do you?"

"Nate, please, just stay with Natasha."

Nate nodded, though he was scared as they got to Clint and Natasha's apartment at the same time Scott's cell phone rang - with Steve on the other end.

"What do you know?" Scott asked in a breath.

"James used his claws," Steve said. "He can't retract them, and honestly, he's in shock. We've got him as settled as we can, but … he'd probably be better off at home. His healing isn't exactly on all the time."

Scott nearly lost his footing, and he leaned heavily against the door. "Claws," he repeated. "He … he used his ... Oh, God."

"Hank says it tore the muscles that control them loose but that they'll heal on their own, one way or another."

Scott was massaging his forehead as he leaned a little harder against the door. "Rachel heard him projecting pain when it happened. I thought… Damnit, I thought he was in trouble."

"We were with him almost as soon as it happened," Steve said. "Tony found him. I'm giving it to you as Hank tells me."

"Thank you," Scott breathed out. "I'll come get him. I'll tell Ororo … claws. I didn't even think what that would do to him the first time…"

"Neither did we," Steve said. "I knew it wasn't pleasant, but …I didn't realize it would be this bad."

"There's so much they never told us," Scott whispered.

"You know how Logan was. He didn't like to complain if it was only a problem for him. Specifically if it was something like this. He'd never say a word, just … tear himself apart and keep going."

"Yeah, I know," Scott said. "K wasn't much different about it, either."

"We'll be waiting for you. He's safe and fairly comfortable, though, so you don't need to rush."

"I'll be right there," Scott promised.

When James woke up again a few days later in his own bed, with his senses going totally haywire, the whole family was around him, and Scott looked so relieved to see James conscious that it only took a few seconds for him to pull James into a hug with James' head under his chin.

"Hi, Dad," James said tiredly.

"Hey, bud," Scott said, his voice still ragged even after a couple days of waiting for James to sleep off the shock as he healed. "How you feeling?"

"Like I could sleep for a few days."

"Yeah, you already did that," Nate pointed out.

"I did?" James asked with a frown as he sat up a little bit.

"You tore all the muscles in your arms when you popped your claws and lost a lot of blood," Scott explained. "I'm so sorry, James. I didn't think to tell you - I didn't realize it would be an issue. I should have realized that it would hurt … I should have warned you."

James frowned at that and looked down at his hands, running his fingers over the skin that had healed up while he was asleep, though the bloody, gruesome image of the claws sticking out of the backs of his hands hadn't left his mind's eye. "Yeah, it still hurts."

"You scared the cripes out of everyone," Rachel told him. "No one knew it would hurt like that." She sat down and inserted herself into the close space between James and Scott so she could hug her brother tightly. I'm just glad you're okay. No one likes to see you hurt.

I wasn't even trying to do anything, James told her, sounding both tired and upset in his mental voice.

I know. You sort of… instinctively called for help, kinda. Rachel gave him a little smile. I'm glad you did, though. I want to be able to help you when you need it. You're my little brother, and I want to take care of you.

I really didn't mean to bother anyone, James told her.

It's okay. That's what family's for. You'd come get me if I called for help, Rachel pointed out.

I wasn't calling for anything, James said.

Yeah, you were just hurt. But I'm glad you called me when you were hurt. If it had been something bad, I'd want to know, right? The system totally works!

Still feel bad that everyone got all bent out of shape over nothing.

Yeah, I know, but it's not nothing, James. It took me a while to stop feeling like crap for scaring Dad with my powers, too. I guess it's a family tradition, Rachel teased lightly.

Hopefully that's the last of it, James said, sounding irritated all over again.

Yeah, it should be, Rachel said. Unless Nate shoots lasers through the ceiling. That seems like a Dad heart attack again.

At least he could feel like he could give advice on that, James replied.

I'm really sorry you don't like your powers, James. Mine suck sometimes too. She paused and took a moment to loop Nate into the conversation. She knew their dad was aware that they were telepathically talking anyway, so she might as well. Nate and I have been talking about how stupid it is. The whole thing. We get these powers, and we can't even do anything but pretend they don't exist!

For good reason, James said.

Yeah, but what if we fought back? Nate put in. Everyone's hiding all the time, but that just means the bad guys are hiding too. What if we just… didn't play by the rules?

And do what? James asked.

Restart the X-Men, Rachel said.

James let out a sigh at that. I don't know. What would we even do other than be giant targets?

Maybe we could take down the lynch mobs and stuff like that. The stuff our parents used to do, Nate pointed out.

Let me think about it, James said. I'm not real anxious to do this again. Ever.

Well, Nate and I were going to ask if we could train with the Avengers. We'd tell them we wanted to be Avengers like Hank. And we'd wear masks so Dad doesn't freak over our identities. And not all the Avengers have powers. I'm sure they could work something out.

Dad'll freak out anyhow, James pointed out.

Yeah, but he'd also freak if we got caught and couldn't fight back, Rachel reasoned.

James mulled it over a little longer. Tony was kind of asking if I might consider the Avenger thing when I'm older. 

Then we have an in, Nate said. You don't have to use your claws if you don't want to. You could do like I'm doing and be a crack shot. Or just hit people.

Maybe, James said. But the claws kind of just … they did it on their own. I don't know how I did it.

We'll figure it out, Rachel promised. But… even if you don't want to fight, will you back us up with Dad? Please?

Yeah, James replied. I told you about Hank. I'm still mad about what he told me, you know. Pretty crappy that we're supposed to be happy to hide. Doesn't make sense.

Yeah, you told me, Rachel agreed. And I'm kinda feeling the same way at the school. It's good to learn about our powers, but you can't get away from the nerves, and people like Mia and Warren don't get a choice. They can't go anywhere. Maybe if there were X-Men, we could, I don't know, do something about it. Challenge people to get over themselves.

Everyone keeps telling me about Logan, James said.

Yeah? Nate raised his eyebrows. What about?

All kinds of stuff, but.. I don't think he would have gone along with this at all.

I don't think my mom would either, Rachel said. Not from what people keep thinking about around me, even if they don't say anything at school where they're trying to keep quiet.

Dad's not even that happy about it, Nate put in. I overheard him telling Jan how he wishes things were different.

So why don't they do something? James asked.

They're scared, Rachel said. I can hear it every time we talk about it. They're scared of what happened to our parents.

Yeah, well. I've been reading about that, too, James admitted. And I don't just mean when we lost everyone. The stuff that happened to Logan and my mom - they have good reason to be nervous. If those people catch up … He stopped, frowning to himself, not really meaning for Rachel to hear it when his thoughts continued without him projecting '... I'm dead,' though she heard it anyway.

We have to stop them, Rachel said. The adults are too scared to do anything, so it's up to us. We just have to play smart, like Dad taught us. We'll start training with the Avengers. Maybe we can be junior Avengers or something. Let people get used to more than just Dr. Blue on the team, right? No one says we can't be Avengers. They just don't want X's on our chests.

We're totally putting X's on our chests, Nate said with a smirk.

Yeah, but like they keep telling me, you can't get what you want. So... James projected, trailing off.

So they want us to give up?

If I have to live with these stupid powers and the stupid legacy that goes with it, I'm not going to keep doing this, James insisted.

Then we're agreed, Rachel said. Something has to change. Let's just keep it between us until we're ready to break out the X's instead of the Avengers logo.

We won't announce it when it happens, then, James said. When we get there, we just do it.

This is why I love you, Rachel said, grinning as she hugged her brother, since she really wanted to anyhow. We're going to be the best team ever.

Chapter Text

While things had been calm-ish on the mutant terrorism side of things, the same could not be said for the Avengers where Hydra or AIM or their assorted villainous troublemakers were concerned.

Steve had, in fact, made it a point to move from simply stopping them to completely disabling every faction he came across - far more aggressive than he'd been before - but the end response was that their reactions to the Avengers was also increasingly more violent.

For the most part, it was easily dealt with by using armored uniforms - not quite to Tony's level of shell-like protection, but more than enough to keep them safe from almost anything.

And Jan was still active on the membership roster, which was good for the kids to see, but it was also a point of concern for Scott. It didn't happen often, but every now and again, Jan would be late coming over on a Saturday morning for breakfast with fresh injuries that had been patched up or with a scent clinging to her that had James making a face, even when the rest of the family clearly didn't notice.

But it also gave James the chance to spend more time between subjects reading up on his biological parents. He was to a point that he was ready to start asking some questions. Mostly things like why did they keep going after so much suffering? Why not just disappear somewhere like Scott and the kids had done? Or better yet, how did they get started on that path? It had him wondering more and more about what kind of people they were. Especially when he realized that not only had his father been an X-Man, but he'd been on several X-Men teams, two Avengers' teams, and one other team all at the same time - though that last one was even marked as 'classified' within the heroes' own bookkeeping systems. And that didn't even touch the part-time or short-lived team assignments … like the fact that he'd been in the Fantastic Four for a little while with Spider-Man, too. For the life of him, considering how he'd been raised, James simply had to know: what was driving him so hard?

Of course, all of his questions were dropped to the wayside when the mood of the table shifted as Jan's comm went off and she had to abandon their quiet weekend time to deal with business.

"Oooh, okay," Jan said as she got up and kissed the kids one at a time, then made a point to give Scott a lingering kiss that was still rated for all audiences. "Hate to do it, I do! But I have to take this one."

"Be safe," Scott said, not bothering to hide his concern - not that he'd ever learned a poker face after losing the visor.

"I always am," Jan replied with a broad smile as she bounced out of their apartment.

The table was quiet for a moment before Rachel nudged James' mind. You know, you had, like a whole list of things to ask….

Sorry, I'll try to keep from projecting, James replied.

I don't mind, Rachel promised. Besides, I think Dad needs distracting. You know how he gets.

Do you really think those questions will distract him and not tick him off? James gave her a pointed look.

Probably, Rachel said with a shrug and a cheerful tone. Besides, if you're trying to wait for sometime when Dad's not stressed, you're gonna be waiting until the day you die.

There's that winning positivity we all love so much, James shot back, though it was clear he still didn't want to broach the subject.

I know. I'm amazing, Rachel replied without missing a beat.

James let out a breath and looked up to see that Scott was watching the two of them. "She was talking about you," James said, if nothing else, because it was the truth - and maybe a little bit to get a rise out of Rachel.

"That's usually the case when a telepath can't keep a poker face," Scott told him, and Rachel let out a huff.

"So... always?" James said, nodding to himself, well aware that this track of chatter would put Scott more at ease.

Scott grinned crookedly. "Pretty much. Jean and I used to get busted all the time by the rest of the team for silent conversations. I'm glad to see you guys are carrying on the family tradition. It just means you're close and that you love each other and trust each other enough to share your thoughts."

"We were actually kind of talking about that," Rachel said when James didn't say anything else, not that it surprised her. She never noticed how much her little brother kept to himself until she was able to hear his thoughts and then she had been surprised by the amount of self doubt that colored his thoughts. "You know, the X-Men?"

Scott visibly straightened. "You were?"


"Not exactly," James said, cutting across her as he tried to keep Rachel from starting what was bound to be another lecture for getting too close to a sore subject. "Not the team."

Scott frowned between the two of them. "I'm sure you've both been hearing stories," he said slowly.

"Not really that, either," James said, trying to defuse a situation before it became tense. "No one's telling stories about the team. And we're not asking."

"So what…?" Scott shook his head. "I think you've lost me."

James sighed and looked down at his hands in his lap. "Tony's been letting me read about the team from the archives - not … it's not for the team itself. He said he wanted me to know where I came from."

Scott nodded gently. "I can see that."

"Well, you can only see half of it," James said. "There's next to nothing about my mom, anywhere and what I found on Logan … I don't really understand."

"Your mom always liked to stay out of the spotlight, so that part makes sense for her," Scott said.

"It's almost like she never existed," James said.

Scott sighed. "You have to understand, James: your parents escaped the department I told you about and came out the other side determined not to let it happen again."

"Yeah, I know. I read that. And I read the files on what the department did to them," James said, though he looked like he immediately regretted admitting as much.

"You did?" Scott blinked. "James…"

"I ... wanted to know."

"James, what those people did was beyond-"

"I know," James said as the frown got a little deeper. "What I don't understand is why, after all that, my parents joined on with any team."

Scott watched James for a long time, obviously weighing out his answer. "It's…"

"I'm not even talking about the fact that it was your team and the Avengers. It was a lot more than that, and no one told me. He wasn't just on two teams. He was on almost all of them. Why?"

"You know," Scott said slowly, "I actually had the same questions for a long time."

"But what was driving him so hard?" James asked.

"Well, your mom let me in on the secret," Scott said, not even noticing that Rachel had taken Nate into the living room so the two of them could talk in private - even if Rachel and Nate were still totally eavesdropping on the other side of the door. "I don't even remember why, but your father and I were arguing about something, and our tempers got the better of us. We'd yelled at each other, I threw it in his face that he was on other teams…" He shook his head and rubbed a hand over his face. "Jean asked K to come talk to me, because she was worried we'd drive the team apart. And do you know - I'll never forget how she sat down in the garage with me and laid it out." He was talking in a slow and steady meter that James had come to recognize as one that meant he missed all of them and was trying not to show it. "Those two couldn't remember everything after the department messed with them, but one of the worst things the program did was to leave them aware of their actions. They knew what they were being forced to do. They knew they'd hurt and killed people. And they worked so hard to do good once they were out of that program, because they felt like they had to make up the difference for the harm they'd been forced to cause." Before James could say anything, Scott held up a hand. "I've told you before that I have never, not once, blamed your father for these scars," he said, pointing to his eyes. "The same thing applies here. None of us feel like they were responsible for what they were forced to do while the department had them. But they still felt it."

"What was the classified team he was on?"

Scott held his breath for a moment before he decided to answer him. "We called it X-Force," he said quietly. "It… we didn't want the X-Men to be faced with missions that would cross lines, but there were times…"

"So they were dirty." It absolutely wasn't a question the way James said it, and his opinion on the matter was clear by the tone of his voice and the fact that he'd cut across Scott - something he never did.

"James, no," Scott said, one hand on his arm. "You have to understand. There were some missions that had to happen, but we were trying to keep the world from thinking of us as killers and weapons. asked them to do the missions I couldn't ask the team to do, because I knew they could keep the missions covert, and I trusted them to only cross the lines they had to cross. Nothing more than that. Maybe it wasn't my best decision, but we were trying to - God, we just wanted to keep our heads above water."

"That was why Cap asked him to join the Avengers to start with, too," James said. "Because of his rep."

"You'd have to ask Steve about that."

"I don't. It's in the files," James said. "I read it."

Scott sighed and ran a hand over his face. "James…"

"I'm just trying to get the whole picture because I don't remember them, okay? Everyone keeps telling me that I'm like him - and I don't know what that means. But from everything I've read … I don't … "

"I know," Scott said. "But the files… they only show what he was trained to do. What they both were trained to do."

"I know," James said. "I want to know more. But that's what I've got to work with."

"Your father was more than what he was trained to do," Scott said gently. "James, he was so good at being a hero, I … I felt like I could barely keep up."

"Is that why everyone quit?"

Scott felt like all the air had left him, but James was watching him so steadily that he couldn't leave it hanging between them. "No," he said, the sound almost strangled.

James leaned forward. "Then why? The risks were always there. The danger was always there. The trouble was always there. I read every file - every bit of it. It's all laid out. So why give up?"

Scott stared at James for a long time. "You remind me of him," he said softly. "He had a way of getting right to the heart of the matter."

"I honestly don't know if I should take that as a compliment or not."

"You should," Scott said.

"He was not a good guy," James said.

Scott shook his head. "James, all the stories I told you - those were all true, too. Just because they weren't in the files doesn't make them any less true. The people I told you about - those are your parents."

"So is the rest of it."

"James…" Scott shook his head. "You didn't get to see him in action. He could tear apart an army bare-handed and in the next breath keep a little girl from crying over her broken doll…."

"It's not a criticism," James said. "It's just a fact."

"I just don't want you to think they were anything less than what they were," Scott said in a breath.

"And what they were was defined by who you ask," James said before he gestured openly. "I just want to know all of it, since everyone wants to tell me I'm like him."

Scott nodded, his heart in his throat. "James, they were family," he said. "That… that's why we quit."

James narrowed his eyes for just an instant. "I know you're going to tell me I'm too young to hear it, but one day, I'm going to ask how it happened. And I want to know the truth. Not the kid version of it. Please."

"You are too young to hear it right now," Scott said.

"Which is why I'm not asking right now," James said. "I already know you won't tell me."

"James, you have to understand. The way we lost them…"

"Doesn't make sense. The way they died - in the files - doesn't make sense. And I know that it had to have been written down in a way to keep this talk from happening too soon. So I'm not pushing. I'm not. But I will want to know. I do, but I know it's not time yet."

Scott nodded almost numbly. "When you're older, I promise, I will tell you," he said. "All three of you. But it was terrible enough to drive the X-Men apart. We couldn't…. James, we could barely hold our lives together, let alone a team."

James nodded, clearly on the brink of tears anyhow just from the weight of the conversation. "I don't want to find out that they died for no reason. That's all."

Scott let out a small sound from the back of his throat before he reached out and yanked James into a hug. "James, all I want you to know right now is that they both loved you more than anything. There is nothing they wouldn't have done for you. And if they'd walked out of that place and I'd been the one to die, I guarantee you they would be doing for your brother and sister exactly what I'm trying to do for you."

"Okay," James said with a nod.

"When I tell you how much you remind me of them, that's what I see. Not what was in the files you read, alright? I never want you to think that's what I see when I look at you. I see your mother's sharp wit and your father's heart, and I love you for it, James."

"Love you too," James said quietly. "I'm not trying to be a pain, I promise. I just … "

"I know you're not. I did the same thing when I was a kid, trying to find out more about my parents. It's hard to feel like you're trying to know a ghost."

"Yeah, but that had a very different outcome," James said dryly.

"Yeah, well." Scott let out a sigh. "You've met him. He's…"

"In love with a skunk-cat."

"Yeah. I wasn't too thrilled when I found out … all of it."

"She's nice at least," James admitted.

"She is," Scott agreed. "But I promise, James, you're not going to find out that your dad is secretly some space pirate renegade-"

"No, I know," James said. "He's gone. Pretty clear. If he wasn't … they'd probably be using him in some weapon program."

"No, James. If he wasn't gone, he'd be right here, because there is no force in the universe that could keep him away from you, let alone your mother." Scott smirked. "She growled at me when you were little and I was hogging you. She had an intense mother bear reflex."

James smirked, but there really wasn't any joy to it. "Okay. I won't ambush you with anything like this again."

"James, you know you can ask me anything, anytime. And even if the answer is 'not yet', I'll tell you that too," Scott swore. He took James' face in his hands. "You kids mean the world to me. There is nothing you can do that will make me love you less. You know that, right?"

James shrugged at that and let his gaze drop to the floor. "Okay."

Scott smiled and tried to redirect into something a little lighter for James' sake, knownig perfectly well what he was feeling since he'd felt that way himself when he was a kid. "Um, no, the answer is 'of course I know you love me, Dad! Just like I know Rachel and Nate are dirty little eavesdroppers!'"

"You sound like Jan."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Scott said.

"You should," James said. "You've been smiling more. It's nice."

"I'll try to do that more," Scott promised. "I've got three great kids - I should be celebrating all the time when you're not getting chickenpox, right?" he teased lightly.

"Or getting in trouble," James said.

"Oh, no, you never get in trouble," Scott said.

"Su-ure," James said, frowning.

"Nate never ends up in the principal's office. Rachel never flirts with boys I don't approve of. You never hit me with zingers I can't come back from…"

"Seems like a whole different level of trouble for everyone," James said. "And I thought you'd hear about other stuff. Not just … my stupid questions."

"They're not stupid questions," Scott promised. "You want to know about your parents. Nothing stupid about that."

"Kinda stupid."

"No, stupid would be if you wanted me to explain why, say, Alpha Flight kept trying to win him back when clearly I was the superior team leader," Scott teased.

"Um …that's because they had a guy that went by 'Puck' on the roster. They needed something that sounded more intimidating."

Scott laughed outright. "See? Ask a dumb question, get an obvious answer!" He ruffled James hair. "Come on. Your brother and sister are probably getting in trouble without us level-headed types."

"They'll stub a toe trying to run from the door."

Scott grinned crookedly. "Race you."

As expected, both Rachel and Nate scattered when Scott and James hit the door, but they weren't quite quick enough to pretend they hadn't been eavesdropping - especially since Scott had been sure to actively block Rachel so she couldn't see his thoughts when James had brought up what had happened to break up the X-Men. So the kids still had questions, but from Scott's perspective, they were still well-insulated from it all.

"We… we were... um…" Rachel floundered for an excuse.

"Watching the Avengers on TV," Nate said helpfully, pointing at the news broadcast. "Because Jan is totally taking down Hydra. With some help."

"Best Avenger," James said. "Least nosy, anyhow."

"I dunno," Rachel said. "I kinda like-"

"If you say Thor, I'm gonna puke," James said.

"No." Rachel turned bright red.

"Lie." James pointed her way without looking at her as he and Scott started to watch the broadcast.

"I don't see what the big deal is," Nate said, rolling his eyes. "All the guy Avengers are blond or stupid."

James frowned. "I think … you might be looking at another team. The non-blond isn't as stupid as he makes himself out to be."

"He's been pretty stupid lately."

"He's been nice," James said.

"He's nice to you," Nate said. "He makes weird noises around Jan and Dad."

"Well yeah," James said, shrugging. "Totally jealous."

"This conversation is going off the rails," Scott said, shaking his head. "Rachel, I think we need a movie. Can you pick something out?"

"You don't wanna see Jan?" Rachel asked, one eyebrow raised.

"I do want to see her - in this living room, in person," Scott said with a smirk.

"Dad's in love," Nate said, making a face.

"And Tony's jealous," James added.

"Boys." Scott gave both of them a look - not that it was going to stop them.

"You told us not to hold back from telling the truth," James said.

"I did, didn't I?"

James gestured with both hands, and Rachel fell apart giggling. "Got you there, Dad."

Scott shook his head at all three of his kids, but before he could come up with anything to say, the news caught a flash and a sound that Scott recognized, and he froze as he saw the aftereffects of the localized EMP playing out on the screen.

The camera was far enough away from the EMP to still be playing footage, but Iron Man had taken a bad hit and dropped - though the armor had crash safety measures in place… What was more concerning was that the last Scott had seen of Jan on the screen, she had been level with Tony, and at wasp-size, that was too far a fall.

The news crew hadn't picked up on it yet, not when Tony's was the more obvious fall. But Scott hadn't seen the countermeasures he knew Jan had… There was supposed to be a chute… Maybe it had deployed off-camera…

"Get your coats," Scott said, already headed for the counter to grab his keys. "Right now."

Not one of the kids was going to argue when they heard the tone Scott was using, and they followed him out the door and to the tower. Scott had a passkey for the place - an open invitation from the Avengers if he ever decided to take them up on the many offers to move the family - so he let himself in and then started to pace, not even hearing Jarvis telling him that he could wait somewhere more comfortable. He didn't hear anything Jarvis said until "they're on their way," and then he simply nodded and sat down by the medical wing.

Less than five minutes passed before the first wave of Avengers made it back - with Tony and Jan being rushed in first - and medical personnel had been waiting to dive in the moment they showed up. But that only meant that Scott and the kids got the front row seat (or close to it) to hear everything that was going on beyond the doors.

Neither of the injured Avengers were doing well, but the doctors were a bit more panicked with Jan than Scott was ready to hear. And when it was clear Scott wasn't moving, it was Clint who got the kids' attention with a hand on the boys' shoulders.

"Hey, the docs are the best in the biz," he said. "She'll be okay."

"She better be," James said quietly.

"Yeah. Well. Looks like you're staying the night, so why don't you come upstairs, I know Katie will be happy to see you, and Lexi will probably tackle you…" Clint was already trying to steer them away. "I promise I'll let you know as soon as the docs tell us we're out of the woods, but we can't do anything right now, okay?"

"I'm staying with Dad," James said, setting back on his heels.

"Me too," Rachel said in a breath.

"It's gonna be a few hours in surgery, guys," Clint said.

"That's okay," James said. "We'll be fine."

Clint looked between the members of the Summers family and realized pretty fast it wasn't an argument he could win. All three of the kids were just as protective as Scott was; he knew that from experience.

For a few minutes, it looked like the kids were just going to sit with an unresponsive Scott, but ten minutes in, Scott said, very quietly, "You can go. It's alright."

"Okay," James said, crossing his arms as he settled into his chair better.

Scott let out a breath and then almost absently kissed the side of James' head and gave him a hug without taking his eyes off the door to the medical wing. And with that, Clint quietly backed away to leave them waiting - and to tell the others what was going on with the family keeping watch.

Clint didn't return to check on them himself, but he did send Natasha down to see the level of stubborn going on with the kids and to see if she could at least get them to break away for a few minutes - or to rest.

We're staying with Dad, Rachel projected to Natasha before she could even begin to say anything.

It's going to be a long wait, Natasha said. Maybe you could-

No, we're staying with Dad, Rachel said. Because if something bad happens, he needs us.

Natasha let out a sigh and then nodded. "If you get hungry…"

"We've been here before," Nate said. "We got it."

"I know," Natasha said gently. "But your dad looked like he needed the reminder."

"Our dad can hear you just fine," James said. "We're all fine. If anyone gets hungry, I know my way around. I'll take care of it."

Natasha smiled softly, unable to stop herself when James sounded so much like Logan. "I know you will."

The little group stayed right there, every now and again interrupted by one Avenger or another that was checking on them. Which was expected, of course. But every time, it was the same response - and the little family only seemed to regroup better as interruptions continued.

Finally, Hank came out of the double doors Scott had been watching so closely. "I thought for sure you'd find somewhere more comfortable to wait," he said.

"How is she, Hank?" Scott asked - which was the first sign of life the kids had seen from him the whole time.

"She's stable," Hank said. "She had a hard fall, and her chute slowed her descent enough to keep it from being much nastier."

Scott waved a hand. "I know that part. How is she?"

"She's asleep still, so she's not in pain, but she broke several bones, punctured a lung and her liver. She will heal, but she'll be stuck in bed for a while. If you'd like, I can take you to her - though I wouldn't expect much conversation for a while still."

"I just want to see her," Scott said in a breath.

"Of course," Hank said, stepping back to the double doors and pushing them open for him. He led the way, noting to himself how anxious the kids looked as they kept up all the way down to where Jan was - all cleaned up and hooked up to almost every piece of machinery available to monitor her as she slept on. She had bandages on her head and her arm, and one leg was in a cast, but the machines showed that she was breathing easily and steadily, and her heart was strong.

For just a moment, Scott paused in the doorway before he stepped inside and rested a hand on her arm, watching her for a long time before he simply sank into a chair beside her and leaned forward, resting his head on his arms crossed over his knees. They didn't hear much when his shoulders started to shake, but the kids all looked like they didn't know what to do.

The three of them didn't discuss it, and they didn't look like they'd thought about it at all before every one of them simply made their way over and did their best to wrap Scott up in a wordless hug, staying there until Scott gathered himself up enough to sit up and pull them in so he could hold onto them, too.

Hank backed out slowly, leaving the group of them to their own devices, and he was glad for it, too, since he couldn't possibly have been expected to speak with the lump in his throat, let alone to be eloquent about it. With a very heavy heart, Hank headed toward the upper levels of the mansion to let the rest of the Avengers know not only how Jan was but how Tony was faring too, though he was in a little better shape since, even dead, the armor had all kinds of shock absorbers and redundancies in place for just this kind of emergency.

But Hank wasn't expecting the assault when he turned the corner to head toward the living room and Katie came barreling toward him.

"Dr. Blue, where's Nate?" Katie demanded, climbing up his fur until he picked her up.

"He's with his father and his siblings," Hank said, snuggling into her for a moment. "You're getting a little big to be scaling me, I think." He tapped the end of her nose. "But don't ever stop."

"One day, I'll be tall enough to take you down with a tackle instead," Katie told him.

"I await that day," Hank said. "But until then, I'll just have to make do with losing handfuls of fur."

Katie grinned at him crookedly, though when he sounded a little hoarse with emotion, she cocked her head to the side. "It's alright. Jan and Tony're gonna be fine. That's what my mom and dad say."

"I know they will," Hank said. "I've been taking care of them myself. Of course they will."

"Well, how come you're sad?" Katie asked. "You've got a wet spot on your fur." She touched the fur just under his right eye. "So… you can't hide it."

"I'm simply unused to seeing my oldest and dearest friend so upset," Hank said. "Though it's also quite rare for Ms. Van Dyne to find herself so injured."

"Dad said it was pretty bad," Katie said with a slow nod.

"It was, for both of them," Hank said.

"My daddy gets pretty upset when Mom gets hurt, and I caught Mommy crying when Daddy got shot a couple weeks ago," Katie said. "Mom says it's part of being a 'Venger."

"It can be," Hank said.

"So it's okay to cry if you gotta. Dad says you can let it out, and then you can be okay when you're done and get right back up and give the other guy a black eye."

"I'm afraid there's no one to give a black eye to," Hank told her as he gave her a little squeeze.

"Oh, well, then that's just a job for hugs," Katie said, snuggling in tightly.

"It is," he agreed. "And when the Summers kids finally come upstairs, I hope you'll be sure to give them the hugs they need."

"Oh yeah," Katie promised. "I'll get all of 'em. Even Nate."

"Somehow, I heard that Nate would be at the top of your list," Hank teased.

Katie scrunched her nose up. "Um, he's a boy."

"And a cute one at that."

"Okay, you can think that, but my daddy says if grown-ups think kids are cute, you gotta kick 'em in the balls if they get fresh."

Hank burst out laughing at that. "He's completely right, but I meant he was cute to you. You seem to worry about him more than the other two."

"Um, yeah, 'cause of he's my best friend. We're gonna get married."

"You wouldn't marry him if he wasn't cute, would you?" Hank asked with a smile.

"Yeah, I guess," Katie said. "Mom says everyone is pretty, though, and I shouldn't pick on anyone for looks or nothin,' so I try and think everyone's cute."

"There you have it," Hank said.

"What about you, Dr. Blue? Do you think someone's cute?"

"Are you trying to play matchmaker, Katie?"

"Well, you're askin' about Nate, so my dad says turn-bout's fair play."

"It is," he said before he set her down. "Why don't you work something out with your parents to have some food ready when they come up? It probably won't be too long."

"Okay," she said brightly, giving him a wave before she skipped upstairs.

Chapter Text

It wasn't really until late the next morning when Jan finally fluttered her eyes open, and when she did, it was pretty clear she was hurting.

"Hey, you're alright," Scott said, though his voice was gravelly, and he was still wearing the same clothes he'd been wearing the day before. At least he'd managed to talk the kids into going to bed instead of sleeping in the medical wing with him - even if James had made a point to check on Tony before he'd allow Natasha to take him away from the medical unit.

"Are you?" Jan asked quietly.

"Fine," he said with a quiet shrug.

She smiled lightly. "I'm sorry I worried you."

Scott nodded and put his hand on her arm. "Yeah," he said in a breath. "Yeah, don't… do that."

"Roger that," she said, nodding once.

Scott watched her for a long time before he couldn't stop himself from reaching out to brush some sweaty hair from her face. "So, Hank says you're grounded for a while. In case you were wondering."

"I so earned it?" Jan said. "It totally wasn't my fault, and I didn't get the plate number on that guy, but I'll take it."

Scott smirked at that. "You know, if you want, you can stay with us while you're stuck being a civilian."

"Are you sure?" Jan said. "I'll bet I can pay someone to take care of me if it's too much."

"Jan, I've seen James through just about every childhood illness on the planet, not to mention all three kids have had their share of broken bones-"

"And you're saying you miss that," she teased.

"I'm saying that even if I'm not in the business anymore, I never got out of practice on this part," he said.

"I know, I just … don't want to make you think I expect it, you know? And I know your space has to be a thing with the kids, and it's a big imposition. I know it is." Again, she was picking up steam the more she spoke. "Idon'twanttopush. Or assume… or..."

"You're not pushing," Scott cut in. "I'm the one making the invite."

"Really?" she said, double checking again and almost wincing. "You're not going to decide I fell off a building to get your attention?"

"Jan, if you fell off a building on purpose, we're going to have problems, because I don't think I can handle that," Scott said, one eyebrow raised.

"I didn't," she swore, then winced a little from moving too quickly. "I was trying to be funny ... "

Scott let out a breath and then leaned in to kiss her forehead. "I know. Sorry. I just… you scared the hell out of me."

"I'm sorry; I scared me too."

"Let's try not to do that anymore, huh?" Scott said, smiling lightly.

"Yeah, totally worst decision of the week."

"And that's including the bad sushi on Monday that we were feeling until Thursday…"

"That was totally not my fault either."

Scott let out a breath of a laugh and kissed her. "Oh, sure. You weren't trying to poison me at all. I've heard that before."

"I'm really not the poisoning type," Jan said.

"Spoken like a true evil queen…" He smiled and cupped her chin. "I'm just glad you're alive, Jan. Really."

"Me too, and for the record? Best wake up in the hospital I can remember."

"Let's not make a habit of it."

"Cross my heart," she swore.

For the next couple of months, the Summers family had something almost like normalcy. Jan stayed with them through James' birthday, which she loved, and all the way through the Christmas Break, too. Not only Scott but all three of the kids were spoiling Jan with their attention, too. It was starting to really feel … comfortable for everyone involved. Every one of the Summers family was relieved to see her doing better - and the kids were happy to see their dad smiling again as he took care of Jan.

It was fun for Jan, too, because she got to see the four Summerses at work, balancing Rachel's schooling, James' tutoring, and Nate's sports all while never making her feel like she was a burden.

It was honestly hard for her to think about going back to the team when she was enjoying playing house - but she loved being an Avenger, and she really did want to go back to it now that she was back up to speed.

The problem now would be telling Scott.

She knew he hadn't taken it well when she'd been hurt. Clint had been pretty clear on that much when he'd helped her pack up her things so she could stay at the apartment for a while. She knew Clint was trying to watch out for her, and she appreciated it, but that was a heavy thing to have hanging around her neck.

It was just… she really did love being part of Scott's life. Especially now that she had a full-time part in their lives. She could have stayed there forever helping the kids with homework, playing house, and curling up with Scott while the kids were all gone. She really could have. It was the instant family she'd longed for.

It was that much harder for her when she thought about how he might take it. Especially when she came out of the bedroom and Scott was sitting at the table at his laptop looking over the school schedule for Nate so he could find a good time for Alex to visit again - he and Lorna had "news" that probably meant a little one if how cautious Lorna had been acting at Christmas was any indicator. It was all very… domestic.

"So, I talked with Steve, and he says it's totally fine if I want to keep living here. I can still be on the team even if I'm not in the tower. I mean, Clint and Natasha live here most of the time too, so if you're - I mean, I don't want to assume anything permanent, but like, I sort of need to figure out if I'm living with the team again now that I'm back up to snuff…"

Scott frowned as he looked up from his laptop. "Are you sure?"

"Well, yeah," Jan said as she dropped into the seat nearest him.

"So you're rejoining… are you sure?" Scott asked again, his voice a little tighter.

Jan frowned at that. "I never quit, Scott. I just had to heal up."

"Right. I know. That wasn't…" Scott shook his head and held his breath. "That didn't come out right."

Jan reached over to rest her hand on his wrist. "You can take your time thinking it all over, and this has been fantastic, so don't think I'm trying to push for something more permanent or anything. And I'm not running away. It's just - if you want me to go back now, I get it."

Scott shifted his hand so he was holding hers. "It's not anything like that..." He paused, and she could see him make an honest effort to take a deeper breath. "I'm sorry, Jan. I'm a mess."

"We all are," she promised, giving his hand a little squeeze.

Scott nodded. "I want to ask you to stay," he admitted.

Jan lit up on hearing it. "That's great!"

"No, Jan, I-" Scott closed his eyes for a second and let all the air out of his lungs. "I can't. I can't handle it. I can't take a chance to lose anybody else."

"I'm fighting to keep them safe," Jan said quietly, her smile completely gone by that time. "You know that, right?"

"Jan, I lived that," Scott said in a breath. "From the day that we started the X-Men, that was my life."

"I know; I'm not saying you didn't. I just … the job isn't done yet."

"It never is," Scott said. He let his gaze drop. "I still believe in it, you know - the professor's dream."

"Of course you do," Jan said gently.

"But I can't … this isn't my fight anymore. God, Jan, I couldn't - when you got hurt, I couldn't even breathe, and it was just like-"

Jan stared at him for just a moment before she darted forward and stole a kiss. "It's okay. I know. I get it. Family has to come first."

"You're still part of mine," Scott clarified, looking positively miserable as he ran his thumb over her knuckles. "I'm just not built for your life anymore."

"Which is a big part of why I can't stop," she told him. "You shouldn't feel like you have to pick …"

"I know. And I know I can't ask you to," Scott said. "Which is why I won't."

"This has to be the dumbest reason to split up," she said as she wiped away the tears brimming at her lash line before it could wreck her mascara. "But I get it. I just don't want you guys to disappear on me, either."

"We're not going anywhere," Scott promised. "Nate likes his school too much, and James is doing well with the tutors. And…" He let out a breath. "Look, maybe one of these days I'll figure out how to breathe."

Jan nodded almost enthusiastically at that. "I hope so. That's not how I want to take your breath away."

Scott couldn't help but laugh at that. "I love you, Jan, you know that?"

There wasn't any warning before Jan launched herself at him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders to hold on tight. She had to to keep from completely bawling on the spot, after all. "Love you too."

Considering how well things had been going between Jan and Scott, Steve thought when Jan showed up at the tower that she was there to grab the rest of her clothes and other things for a more permanent stay. And he was absolutely thrilled for her and ready to congratulate her - until he saw the look on her face.

"Jan, what happened?" he asked, at her side in an instant with a hand at her elbow.

"Oh, just … that's it. That's all."

"What?" Steve stared at her. "What are you talking about?"

"We called it off." She shrugged her shoulders up in a motion that didn't look natural on her at all.

"Why?" Steve led her somewhere she could sit down, still looking like the rug had been pulled out from underneath him.

"Cause we love each other, and we're going two different directions, and it just isn't gonna work," she said in a rush before she started to cry.

Steve didn't really know what else to do, so he pulled her into a tight hug. "I'm so sorry, Jan. We were all pulling for you both."

"He just can't take anything to do with a team. I thought it was just the X-Men that had him upset, really! But I don't blame him; he was so scared when I got hurt …"

Steve frowned harder when he heard it. "Is that what… Jan, I'm so sorry."

"I mean … I kinda should have seen it coming. Really. I should have."

"No, how could you have?" Steve asked.

"Steve," Jan said, stopping to look him squarely in the face. "He's so not even close to over what happened to his team. At all. All the warning signs were there - he didn't want to be spotted too close to the tower when we first got started. I should have seen it!"

Steve let out a breath. "I don't think any of them are over what happened," he had to admit. "Hell, Jan - we're not over what happened to them."

"Yeah, but it's so … it's different for him. It is." Jan shook her head. "You'd have to really be around him a lot to understand it. But it wasn't the same for him as it was for the others."

Steve nodded quietly as he thought it over. "It's hard to lose someone you led," he said, thinking of the war and Bucky and everything he'd seen, too. "Especially when you consider them family, too."

"And I really think the only thing keeping him going is the kids. And you wouldn't believe the look he gets when Rachel does something little that is so Jean, or when … well. Whenever James questions him about anything."

"You really love him," Steve said gently.

Jan nodded her head. "Which is why I won't stop the fight," she said, drawing herself up a little bit. "That's what happens if we turn our backs again. How many other people are just as crushed as he is?"

Steve smiled at that and pulled Jan under his chin. "There's the Wasp we all know and love."

"I'm not going to let those kids be afraid of keeping heroes in their lives, either," Jan said in an almost sullen tone. "We have to do this. And they need to see it's okay."

"I had sort of assumed Nate would let the others in on that secret when his 'best friend' becomes the next Hawkeye," Steve said, trying to tease her into a better mood.

"Oh, sure," she said with a sniffle. "But all three of them are ones to watch. Mark my words, they won't be content to be so …."

"Hidden?" Steve offered.

"Yes. Yes. That. Some of the questions coming out of those kids …"

"That actually gives me some hope for them."

"Keep an eye on what James is looking into," Jan said, pointing a finger at him. "He's a lot sneakier than the other two, even if he's more hesitant to cross Scott."

"That doesn't surprise me one bit," Steve said. He let out a breath then got to his feet and pulled her up with him. "But right now, one of my best friends just had her heart broken. And that's where my focus is. How many Hydra LMDs do you want to hit? I'll line 'em up for you and you can break Hawkeye's record. Again."

"Right now, I think what I really need is Natasha, some gelato, and a spa." Jan shook her head before she patted his arm. "No offense. I'll kick your trash around tomorrow."

"None taken," Steve assured her, one arm around her shoulders until they could find Natasha.

"Are you sure I can't convince you to stay in Bed-Stuy?" Natasha said for what had to be the fiftieth time. "You know my security is top notch; you'd have back up just one floor above you…"

"And Avengers dropping in, drawing attention …" Scott let out a breath. "I started paying attention, you know. After Jan was here for a while. It's just a matter of time before someone spots one of us and puts two and two together. Your security is great, Natasha. It is. But it's no substitute for as much anonymity as I can give these kids."

It was still fresh - the break up with Jan - and it had been obvious that Scott was ready to put more space between his family and the teams if he possibly could. At least, as much space as possible when Rachel was going to school in Westchester and James was still getting tutored by Stark's hires. The image inducer James was using to get in and out of the building was working, but no one knew how long that was going to last.

Natasha pursed her lips as she considered Scott's angle. "Then at least let me help you find a suitable place. I know that the very idea of changing schools has Nate pulling out his hair."

"The neighborhood is already too busy for-"

"There are other neighborhoods in the borough," Natasha said, cutting him off. "You'd still be close enough if you needed help but far enough away to have your space. And the boys could keep their schedules mostly intact."

Scott watched her for a moment, weighing out what she had to say. "You've been thinking about this already, haven't you?"

"I may have had a contingency plan in mind," Natasha admitted. "But selfishly, I did want to keep you nearer to us, so I also kept it to myself. It was nice to be near you four for so long."

Scott let out a breath of a laugh. "Alright. Show me what you've got."

What she had was a house in a reasonably well-to-do neighborhood with room enough for the kids to have their own rooms - and a view of Manhattan that made it possible for them to spot Avenger's tower from their living room if they opened the curtains. The neighborhood was clean - or at least as clean as Brooklyn could be.

"Quiet neighbors," Natasha said as they walked through the house. "Good area … fairly conservative, but I think you'll find that they won't take issue minding their own business. Mostly."


She shrugged lightly. "They're very religious. Don't be surprised if you get more questions about your faith than you do anything else."

"I'm not so sure that's a good fit," Scott said, though Natasha was already shaking her head.

"Don't be ridiculous," Natasha said. "I've looked this over more times than I care to admit, and this area is the perfect spot." When Scott didn't look convinced, she blew out an impatient breath. "Sentinels aren't allowed in this neighborhood, Scott. The population here - they won't stand for anything even close to something that targets people based on their genes or their familial ties. The area has strong political pull. None of the politicians on either side want to cross them, so they get more say than other areas. And … there are a few mutants in the area that enjoy the protection that this neighborhood provides."

Scott didn't look entirely convinced. "This is a little more advanced concern than just being mutants."

"And for anything even resembling special forces, you have me somewhat close - and ... "

Scott raised an eyebrow when Natasha let her sentiment fall. "And …."

"And … we're just a neighborhood over from where Steve lives."


"Hey. Everyone in the borough is proud of their local superhero," Natasha said with a crooked smile. "And they won't bother you. I'm sure of it." She bumped his shoulder with hers. "Besides … don't try to tell me you didn't want to see where Captain America grew up."

Scott didn't have any solid argument against it - and Natasha was very sure she'd seen the smallest smile tugging at the corner of his mouth - so before he could argue it, she made the call to get Tony to have one of his unconnected companies buy the place. By the time the ink was dry, and even before Scott could get the kids to really pack up anything, Tony and Natasha headed into the place wearing image inducers with his newest security measures to give them a serious upgrade before any of them had the chance to even step foot in the building.

When moving day finally came, though, Scott felt far worse than he'd prepared for when Nate was clearly heartbroken to leave the building in Bed-Stuy, even with Natasha promising that the apartment would remain their spare safe house.

Still, the little boy was dragging his feet as they made the trek to almost the other side of Brooklyn to their new place by the river. Rachel was there to help - and to set up her room - but neither she nor James seemed to react to the move at all, instead working hard to get the job done.

They'd barely gotten their second round of boxes from the truck when the first neighbor came by bearing welcome gifts and a broad smile, welcoming them to the neighborhood. Of course, it only took a look from Scott before James and Rachel started moving a little quicker to get things put away while Scott spoke with the neighbor - and they both were watching as the dreaded first questions came out, like they had any other time they'd stayed somewhere. It didn't matter if it was for a few days or for much longer; it was always the same. 'Welcome, welcome - where's your wife?' or 'When will your wife come by?' or one that was somehow worse 'What did she do that let you have custody of all three?'

And the questions were always repeated ad nauseam, with every single person that came through, so the Summers kids were preparing for a good few weeks of bucking their dad up after 'well-intentioned' neighbors came nosing around.

But this time, it seemed just a little bit different. And it was Scott who had noticed it, not the kids.

One time. Just one time amid the dozens of neighbors that came by - just once did he have to answer anything regarding his MIA wife. Scott answered it as truthfully as he could - since even for him, the truth with a few tried and true omissions was a much safer route to take than a cover story. And his answer of 'she died a few years ago in a fire' was enough to placate neighbor number one … and no one else that followed asked about her at all.

Instead, the questions turned to the kids as they brought gifts to welcome the Summers family, and it wasn't long before the kitchen was stacked with baked goods and bottles of wine and honey. To be frank, the kids didn't know how to process it, and Rachel was shaking her head within the first hour. "If we're really going to live here, I'm going to have to learn yiddish," she said. "It's driving me nuts not knowing what they're all projecting toward us."

Scott smirked at her line of thinking as they sat down to their first meal together in the new place. "Is this for threat assessment or curiosity?"

"Both," Rachel replied truthfully, and Scott let the matter fall, though he couldn't help but be amused by Rachels commitment to nosiness. She really was so much like her mother sometimes.

It wasn't long after that, though, that one of the neighbors came by with a concerned look. "I haven't seen those kids of yours in school," said the woman, who, Scott realized, was a teacher at the closest school to where they were living. "Are they alright? Or are they in the Montessori?"

It took Scott a moment to answer, though he'd known that it was possible for this to come up - it wasn't something he'd dealt with in Bed-Stuy, and again, a partial truth for now seemed to be the wisest route. "No, they're fine," he said, putting on a practiced smile - or close enough to it that most people wouldn't push for more. "My daughter is in a private school upstate, and my boys … well. My youngest wanted to stay in the school he was in before, so we're trying to keep him there for now. It's a few miles east. And my older boy … he's got tutors in the city."

"He's okay though, too?"

"Yeah, we just haven't been able to find a program to keep up with him," Scott reassured her. "He's tested off the charts, but I didn't want to put him in classes with kids that were a lot older than him. Tutors are a better fit."

She seemed relieved to hear it - just before she went on a bit of a rant about how much trouble it had been for her cousins-in-law who had a genius too - though that little girl simply skipped a few grades and got caught up in affairs much too old for her age. "You're doing the right thing, keeping that boy away from older kids like that all the time." She paused after she'd gone down the first two steps toward the street. "I hope your daughter isn't in a questionable place, though … those boarding schools can be trouble."

"I'm on good terms with the headmistress," Scott said, trying not to smile at his new neighbor's concerns. She sounded genuine - and perfectly prepared to impart her wisdom on him should he answer her questions incorrectly.

"Good," she said, pausing to nod to herself as if her job there was done - for now. "You know, if you're not busy, we always have room Friday night at dinner."

"I'll keep that in mind," Scott said, admittedly a little uncomfortable at how approachable most of the neighbors were trying to be. Whatever Scott was expecting out of this neighborhood … this wasn't it. But it wasn't necessarily a problem, either. After all, even knowing that they had solid reason to hide and to keep away from trouble, he didn't want his kids to grow up paranoid and afraid of everything…. So maybe, if these people were being genuinely nice, it would let them have some semblance of normalcy.

Chapter Text

For weeks after the big move, Scott was simply going through the motions. He barely spoke outside of what he felt was needed - and that mostly boiled down to making sure that homework was done, meals were served, and the kids were sticking to their new, slightly altered routine.

And over the course of time as they quietly tried to settle in, Scott seemed to lose the drive to do all of the day to day self care that he was usually so meticulous about. The most glaring example of such was of course the full, beautiful beard he was wearing.

A month in and his hair was shaggy, his beard was getting bushy, and he was still quite clearly mourning the end of the relationship with Jan. He couldn't watch the news with the kids around. Not without obsessing over it and scanning to see how Jan was holding up because of course, if she was upset, that was Scott's fault. She was healed up from all her injuries, but even that had him watching for her more, worrying about her. And pining.

There was a part of him that wanted to throw caution to the wind … but the wound from losing Jean was still white-hot when he allowed himself to think about it. And now, when he was in the depths of depression nd trying to keep a stiff upper lip for the kids, it was like those early days back at the cabin all over again, but this time, the kids weren't as needy and that only meant Scott didn't have the busy work that came with three kids that still needed teddy bears and tucking in to keep him distracted from the ache in his chest.

Losing Jean had been soul crushing - the single worst moment of his life was the moment that their psychic link went silent. But that didn't mean that this wasn't enough to send him down a spiral too. And this time the spiral didn't involve losing the mother of his children - it was more about the doubts he had.

Doubts that he was teaching them the right thing by having them hide away. Doubts that trying to keep the separation between them and the teams was giving them the right message when he couldn't even think about hero work while he was doing everything in his power to keep them safe and alive.

Doubts that he could manage any of that when he was both no longer in possession of his powers while being a walking target with an x-gene that had no use anymore.

If it wasn't for the fact that the kids all seemed to be thriving in their studies and needing the time together with him on the weekends, he'd have rethought the arrangement all together. But that would once again draw down the need to have the Avengers intervene - and as it was, they were already overly involved in th safety of the Summers family. He couldn't ask them to move them already. And he couldn't take James from his tutors any more than he could take Nate away from the normalcy he'd found competing with Katie at school.

He was trying to get through the day. That's all he wanted to do, but he seemed to be stuck on just finishing his coffee. The day slipped by, as it so often did, and Scott seemed almost startled by the alarm that he had set to tell him that he had five minutes before he had to leave to get Nate. He'd set the alarm intending to get some work done while the kids were gone … but somehow, the day had slipped by him and instead of doing his usual rush to get himself together, all Scott could do was take his mug to the sink, dump the contents out, rinse the cup, then pick up his keys where he'd left them near the door on his way out.

He didn't bother with grabbing a coat. He wasn't driving anyhow, just … walking to the subway station down a few blocks so Nate wouldn't be riding home with an Avenger in tow when Hawkeye inevitably elected himself to step in and help.

It was bad enough that James was getting rides home from any one of half a dozen different Avengers, though Scott didn't know that James had been keeping to himself more while he was a the tower to avoid as much time with any of them as he could manage. And that meant that for him, the safest place to hide to avoid too much talk about feelings was to stick close to Tony when he had to be near the timing was such that Scott didn't know that James had managed to talk them into letting Happy fill in to take him home more often than not so the Avengers could stick with keeping Jan upbeat.

And Scott was distracted enough that he didn't see that Nate was on his best behavior at school and at home - or that he had James helping him with whatever homework was giving him trouble just so he wouldn't bother his dad when he looked so forlorn.

They just didn't know how much he could have used that. So it only made things harder for those first few weeks in the new house.

He picked Nate up and walked home with him, lost in his thoughts to the point that Stark's upgraded eyes were the only reason he was able to pay attention to possible threats.

By the time all the kids got home, all three of them were convinced they needed to do something to help - they just didn't know what. And they definitely knew that they couldn't get away with putting on anything with an X on it like they'd been talking about. Not with Scott as depressed as he was.

None of them expected Scott to more or less get forced into being more social when their neighbor showed up.

Nate blinked up at the tall man on their door - this was different, considering most of the well-wishers that were obviously both concerned and interested in their dad. "Um. Hi."

The stranger smiled at Nate warmly. "Hello, I'm afraid I need to apologize for not coming by to introduce myself sooner. Is your father home, young man?"

Nate crossed his arms as he looked the man over. "Yeah, he's in the living room. Who're you?"

"Rabbi Toby Cohen," he replied, still smiling warmly.

"Huh." Nate tipped his head to the side and then held up a hand. "Wait a minute - I'll go get 'im," he said. And then, characteristic of a little boy his age, Nate started yelling for Scott when he'd only taken a couple steps away from the door.

A few moments later, Scott got to the door, frowning slightly - though the rabbi couldn't have known that he was accessing his scans to make sure he wasn't armed. "I really appreciate all the well-wishing, but we're fine, really."

Rabbi Cohen held his hands out to his side. "It's a very nosy neighborhood, I don't know what to tell you." He smiled to himself. "But that's not why I'm here. Not entirely. I am your most negligent neighbor when it comes to playing welcome wagon, but I think that makes me your most honest one."

Scott smirked only the slightest bit. "Probably."

"Do you have a little time to chat, Mister Meuller? I have to admit, I'm not the kind to get excited about seeing what kinds of things people are moving in with. I prefer to get to know the people that are trying to mind their own business."

Scott glanced to Nate, and Nate nodded quickly, going to find his brother and sister so the three of them could find something else to do while Scott invited the rabbi into the living room. "There's not much to tell," he said. "Like you said: we try to keep to ourselves."

Rabbi Cohen waved a hand as he took a seat. "And most of what people would ask you answered already. I tend to watch the people in my neighborhood before trying to bother them. And you … are you alright?"

"We're fine," Scott said automatically.

"No, I know the kids are okay," the Rabbi said. "I'm asking how you are. You haven't lived here more than a few months and already you can go on autopilot like someone who's been here their whole lives." He gestured to Scott openly. "And it's not a criticism, but that beard wasn't something you grew to fit in." He leaned forward. "It is a good look. It'd be better with some help though."

Scott paused, absently raising his hand to his chin. "We moved at a… rough time. That's all."

"Anything I can do to ease things for you?" Rabbi Cohen asked. "Or was it just that the closing happened too close to an Anniversary … or …"

"No, nothing like that," Scott said.

"Then I hope you forgive me, because you look like every grieving widow I've ever met who's going through a knot hole. I can't ignore that look. It goes against everything I am."

Scott frowned and then decided to fall back on his usual tactic: a little bit of truth. It was easier to keep the story straight that way anyway. "I tried to get back into dating. It didn't go well." He figured that would not only explain it - but might have the extended consequence of this rabbi asking the "well-wishers" to back off.

"I'm sorry to hear that. If there was some kind of signal I could light in the window for you to get the single women to stop, I don't know that I would."

Scott very nearly smiled; he could appreciate the rabbi's sense of humor. "At least you're honest."

"That's what I tried to tell you earlier," Rabbi Cohen said. "And also that the area is nosy - and that I can't ignore when a neighbor is in pain. So. We're all caught up. What are we going to do about it? We can't let you wander the streets looking so downhearted or the matchmakers will be beating down your door."

"So you're saying I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place here."

"I'm saying 'welcome to the neighborhood. You can use a friend - what time is good for coffee'?"

Scott shook his head, an almost-smirk at the corner of his mouth. "You remind me of an old friend," he said, thinking of Kurt and the way he was persistently trying to instill faith and hope in his friends at their lowest points.

"I will go ahead and take that as a complement, but I still need to know what time to show up with coffee."

Scott shook his head again. "You're not going to accept a 'no', are you?"

"In this instance, I don't even know the meaning of the word." He shrugged. "Give it a chance. Worst case scenario, after a few times if you really can't stand my company, I won't bother you but to ask how the kids are."

Scott tipped his head to the side and then sighed. "The mornings are busy with the kids going to different schools. Your best bet is late in the morning, around ten."

"I'll be here at ten fifteen." He held up one hand as he got to his feet. "And I'll bring the coffee."

Winter was melting into spring, finally, and as Brooklyn and the rest of the city began to kick off their outdoor activities, the Summers family found themselves hosting the other Summerses.

Alex and Lorna had finally come to visit - and they were radiating joy everywhere they went. Alex was his usual positive self and Lorna was even more cheerful and excited in spite of the obvious baby bump she was carrying.

"Hey big brother," Alex said with a grin as he pulled Scott into a tight hug, before Scott could even begin to address what he was seeing while Lorna pulled the kids over to say hello with bear hugs and lots of kisses. "Nice place."

"It's new," Scott said, blinking a few times before he smiled despite himself. "And that's not the only new thing. Boy or girl?"

"A boy," Lorna said, grinning with an arm around each of Scott's boys. "I think that's what my family does best this generation."

"Wanda's boys must be thrilled," Scott said, still stuck in a surprised smile.

"They are," Lorna said, beaming up at him with a grin. "Of course they are. They're such sweethearts."

"I haven't seen them in a while. Send them my love, will you?"

"I'd rather you guys just came to visit," Lorna said. "Maybe when the baby gets here? August?" She grinned wider. "Please?"

"I… will think about it," Scott said. "But you have to talk to your father. Last time we were there, he was pushing for a more permanent stay. Again."

"Oh, Daddy just wants to help if he can," Lorna said. "He worries about you, Scott."

"We're alright," Scott said, absently bringing a hand to his recently-shaved chin. "The community here is supportive. Sentinels aren't legally allowed in the neighborhood-level supportive."

"I think he'd like this neighborhood," Lorna agreed before she pulled Nate over to kiss his cheek again - and made sure to leave a lipstick print just to watch him complain about it. "It's lovely."

"Aunt Lorna-a-a-a-a-a," Nate whined.

"Get used to it, handsome - all the girls are going to want to kiss you!" Lorna told him with a delighted laugh.

"It's already started," Scott said with a dry smirk.


"If I'm wrong, I'll say so."

"It's true," Rachel said, smiling to herself at how much their Dad was already enjoying himself. "And Nate's in trouble all the time with Katie."

"Rachel!" Nate tipped his head back and groaned. "How come I'm in trouble?"

"I ask myself that every day," Rachel shot back, crossing her arms. "You're just like this."

Nate stuck his tongue out at Rachel, but he projected to her: It's hard to get mad, because Dad's just… so… happy.

I know. And I think he's actually considering visiting them, too. Rachel was grinning at him while she took her turn getting the treatment from Aunt Lorna and enjoying every bit of it.

Nate smiled. I hope so. He's happier with Aunt Lorna and Uncle Alex.

Do you want to go? Rachel asked.

Nate paused. Not… really. Magneto gets pushy, and he treats James different than you and me, and that doesn't feel right. James hasn't even gone for a long time. Which isn't fair; he's our brother!

He doesn't want to go there, Rachel said. He wouldn't go when we were smaller, either. I think he's kinda afraid of that place.

So, yeah, I don't think Dad'll say yes because of James, but, like, Rach. He's smiling?

I know. It's nice. Rachel turned to grin at her brother. And don't say anything to James about Dad not going for any particular reason.

Don't worry; I won't.

Before they could continue their conversation, Lorna busted them out. "Oh … I've seen that look before. Alex. Alex. They're talking privately. I'll bet it's about you and your brother."

Alex broke into a grin and spun Rachel in a hug. "You're just like your parents. Both of them. Stop that," he teased.

"I didn't … we weren't talking about you!" Rachel laughed.

"Well, what else is there to talk about? I'm clearly the life of the party. Or I guess you could talk about my son. That's good too."

"What are you going to name him?" Rachel asked, knowing that her Dad wanted to ask, but hadn't found a good way to do that yet.

"It's the subject of some… discussion," Alex admitted, smiling over at Lorna. "We've got it narrowed down to 'Michael' and 'Christopher' - just didn't want to steal Scott's thunder, seeing as he gave Nate five hundred names and Christopher's one."

Scott shook his head at Alex. "I don't mind, you idiot."

"Scott, you know he's just like this," Lorna said. "He wants to rile you. I think he misses when someone else calls him a dork."

"Oh, good; I'm glad you haven't stopped," Scott said, smirking Lorna's way.

"I'd have to lose my mind to stop," Lorna laughed, then finally got away from the kids to give Scott a hug. "We've missed you!"

"You'll have to visit more often, then," Scott said as he returned the hug. "I've got three kids with three different school schedules. I feel like you have the easier time finding a minute."

"I know, but summertime, Scott," Lorna said.

"Surfing's going to be great, too," Alex said.

"Come take my kids to the beach," Scott said. "Nate's going out for baseball. He wants to play every sport under the sun. Throw surfing in there…"

"Alright, I hear you. You're not interested in visiting. What about a joint family trip to Hawaii again?"

Scott actually grinned - something that Alex and Lorna didn't realize was as big a deal as it was. "Now you're talking."

"Alright then," Lorna said. "As soon as the baby's here and we can travel - something in the fall maybe? Doesn't have to be very long, just a weekend would do it. A long weekend."

"Sounds perfect," Scott agreed. "I'm sure we can find a few days somewhere."

"Great!" Alex said, grinning wider as he came over to throw his arm around Scott's shoulders. "So bigger, older, much older looking brother … how about you fill me in on everything that's happened since Christmas?" He pulled Scott along into the kitchen leaving Lorna to make over the kids in peace - and she was thrilled to get them to herself, too - sure to pepper each of them with a dozen questions - and kisses, much to Nate's well hidden delight.

She made Rachel promise to show her around the school before she left - and she promised Nate to watch him play catch with Alex as long as he promised not to take it easy on him, of course. And she talked James into agreeing to take her to the botanical garden, since she was sure that asking to go to the tower might push the wrong buttons with those in charge there.

Lorna was a great fit for Alex, and she was bubbling with raw joy more often than not, but somewhere in the farthest reaches of her psyche, she did buy into a lot of what her father said. She wasn't blatant about it, but she did have a healthy distrust of the Avengers after everything had gone south with them so often. The fact that Wanda and Vision had been on the team for so long hadn't really tempered her opinion of the organization as a whole. Especially when faced with Wanda's reasons for leaving.

So while Scott was cautious about spending time in Genosha, Lorna was almost as cautious about spending time in the city. Her concern however, was tempered by the confidence of someone who felt they were more untouchable than those around them. So it didn't show quite as vividly as it did for Scott. And she really did love the kids, so she wanted one on one time with each of them in their own environments.

Alex … Alex never did understand nuance, though. And he was very much like an overgrown kid himself most of the time, so for him it was always a simple matter of 'your house or mine'.

By the time the Summers brothers returned to the living room, Lorna had moved on to teasing Nate about how tall and lanky he was getting to be. "Are you sure you don't want to be a basketball player?"

Nate shrugged. "Maybe I'll try that next year. But I'm pretty good at football."

"American or everyone else's football?" Lorna asked.

"Yes," Nate replied with a crooked grin.

"You might have to teach Wanda's boys. They can't get a decent team to play. Either sport."

"Yeah, and that's why I don't wanna live on your island. Sorry, Aunt Lorna, but you don't have a good football team," Nate teased.

Lorna pulled him over to kiss his temple. "That's as good of an excuse as I've ever heard," she said. "I'll be sure to bring it up to Daddy. 'Not enough sports. Your country is lame because of it.'" She turned to grin at James. "What about you? What are we lacking for you?"

James didn't miss a beat or take any time to consider it before he answered with one word. "Snow." Which was of course, impossible to honestly get for an island so near the equator.

"Boys my age," Rachel put in, since Lorna was looking her way.

"We have those, actually," Lorna said. "And you're not even related to them." She smiled at her. "I'll bet there are even some other telepath boys."

"Yeah, but she's got her eye on someone at school," Nate said, grinning outright.

"So do you," James said, not letting the opportunity pass when Nate was obviously crushing on Katie.

"Um, no I don't," Nate said.

James stared at him without saying a word or blinking until Nate got frustrated - and only then it was only to say "Really."


James rolled his eyes at that. "Sure, Nate. whatever you say."

Alex burst out laughing and pulled James over one armed to give him a hug. "You can't just bust him out like that, bud. He takes after my big brother too much. You'll break him."

"It's literally the same thing he's trying to do to Rachel -only Rachel isn't flipping out and lying to herself about it," James said, which had Alex laughing harder.

"Give your baby brother a break, wouldja?" Alex snickered. "And let's order a pizza. That's something else about Genosha - they don't have much for pizza."

"Yeah, we can't live there then," Nate said. "Ever."

While Lorna did her best to act shocked and shaken - and got Nate laughing uproariously, Scott took a moment to pull his little brother into a hug. "Hey. Congratulations, really. I can't believe you didn't tell me sooner."

"She wanted to," Alex admitted. "But I really needed to see you in person with news like this." He looked over to where Lorna was doing a fine job of keeping all three kids engaged with her, even going out of her way to snuggle on James as soon as she finally got a good hold of him. And while the two tucked in for a good bear hug, Alex took advantage of the moment for a little privacy and dropped his voice low. "I'll be honest, Scott … I think this is the scariest thing I've ever done. And that's including everything with the X-Men and taking on the North Shore."

"Alex," Scott said, smirking crookedly. "You've got this."

"I don't know-"

"What are you worried about? You grew up with a Dad. You know how it's done. You're amazing with my kids, and I'll bet you're great with Lorna's nephews, too."

"It's a little different when it's nieces and nephews, Scott. And yeah. My dad was … we had our issues, but he was there, yeah," Alex said as he stepped back from his brother, one hand at the side of his neck in a gesture that had to be genetic. "I wish you'd have been adopted with me, Scott. Mom would have loved you, and you would have gotten to know my Dad better. Probably would have had him toeing the line." He smiled ruefully. "We're headed to see Haley next. She ought to get the same square chance to meet her nephew. And I know my parents are going to be excited to find out about their grandson. I just … I'm not good at stuff like this. Not like you."

Scott was honestly surprised by that, his eyebrows high as he took half a step back. "What?"

"Come on, Scott -you're a natural. How do you do it?"

"Alex … you'll be amazing. If Lorna didn't think you'd be great, there's no way she'd have let you-"

"Yeah, that … well it was kind of a surprise," Alex admitted with a troublemaking grin. "Her morning sickness involved levitating everything metal in the room."

"Alex … stop."

"See? This is what I'm talking about!"

Scott laughed and draped his arm around Alex's shoulders as he steered him toward the kids and Lorna. "You're going to be fine. In spite of being yourself. Relax and enjoy it."

"Yeah, Alex," Lorna said in a teasing tone that had Rachel giggling in spite of herself. "Did you order the pizza yet?"

When Alex paused, she sent the kids after him to tackle him - leaving her and Scott to handle being the logistics of the big crew.

Chapter Text

"You've been running yourself ragged lately," Rabbi Cohen said as he took a seat at Scott's breakfast table. "More so than usual. What's the new drama?" The little family had been living in the neighborhood for a little over a year - and over the course of time, their neighbors had proven to be both friendly and patient with giving them a chance to warm up. When the little Summers family hadn't joined in on any of the block parties in the first half-year of living there, the rabbi next door had taken notice. Especially since he'd yet to meet a kid that didn't join in an open party sooner or later. But these three? They seemed to be perfectly obedient and quiet - another little thing that had gotten him motivated to make friends with the family … to check in.

Even at that, it had taken Scott a while to warm up to him - though he was much more willing to trust the rabbi once he realized that not only did Rabbi Cohen know they were mutants but he knew exactly who they were. And there hadn't been a problem with it. After they'd been living there for a year and there wasn't even a hint of trouble, Scott had warmed up enough to be social - and he could at this point even say he was friends with Toby Cohen.

So when he asked about the latest family drama, Scott just poured him some of the orange juice from breakfast because that was what he had on hand while the coffee percolated and sat down with him. "Nate's started soccer, and he wants to do baseball again in the summer," he explained. "He was pushing for hockey and football this fall, too, but I told him he's gotta slow down and do one at a time."

"That's good for him, isn't it? The soccer?" Toby asked as he reached for the juice.

Scott shrugged lightly. "It's great for him. It's a lot for me when the other two are still doing private studies. And I have to look into the coaches."

"I thought your pretty red-headed friend was the one that liked to do all the digging," Toby said with a smirk.

Scott smirked right back. "She's busy right now. Her husband got into some trouble with some Russians again, and it's more time-consuming than anything else right now."

"So business as usual with those two, hmm?" Toby teased.

"You'd think they would figure out how to deal with small problems like that, but…"

"They're just too busy looking at the bigger picture," he agreed.

"Likely," Scott nodded.

"So, what's the big plan then, hmm? Are you going to keep running yourself ragged with all the sports now? Or can you get both of the boys to be in one place for more than ten minutes?"

Scott started to laugh at the suggestion. "James lasted one practice."

"He doesn't look like the kind to give up that quick," Toby said.

"It wasn't that he gave up," Scott clarified. "But he disagreed with the coach's style and didn't like being bossed around with no explanation. If I'd let him keep going, he would have organized a revolution by the third practice."

"Did he want to keep going?" Toby laughed.

Scott shook his head. "I think he went to support Nate, but even people who don't know him well could tell that thirty minutes in, he was practically shouting 'this is stupid' without saying it out loud. The fact that he went rogue partway through practice and took it on himself to try and run the field on his own was just the cherry on the cake."

"That's too bad," Toby said, shaking his head. "He could use something outside of just schoolwork."

"Believe it or not, he gets to play racquetball at the tower, and he likes to surf," Scott said with a smile. "Last time we met up with my brother, he took the kids surfing, and James is a natural."

"So what you're saying is that he likes solo sports." Toby did a fine job of keeping his amusement controlled - but the expression on his face and the dancing light in his eyes gave away exactly how funny he thought it was.

"If you'd met his parents…" Scott shook his head. "I'm not even surprised."

"You're doing good by him," Toby said - always quick to hop onto that train of thought when the opportunity presented itself. "You've got good kids. That's your work showing through." He tipped his head slightly. "But … I have to wonder how they might act up in a few years as they get older."

Scott shook his head. "We'll see. Nate is already a handful; I don't want to think about the teenage years with him just yet. I'll go gray even faster."

"I'd imagine you'd be more concerned with how Rachel will handle things, seeing as she's almost there now."

"Rachel is at a school run by one of my oldest and dearest friends. She'd have to work hard to get away with anything I'd disapprove of," Scott said with a quiet smirk.

Toby laughed at that. "I haven't seen her in a while now. Does she still come home on the weekends? Or is she getting more independent - so far from home."

"No, she still comes home on the weekends. She's actually been bringing back stories for the boys in case they decide to go to school there too. I doubt James will, since he's pretty well past most of the curriculum, but Nate might."

"Might do them both good," Toby said. "Spend more time around kids dealing with the same things they are." He paused and drew in a deep breath. "Of course … it wouldn't hurt if they wanted to go to one of our youth nights. We're not recruiting, mind you, but … it's a safe place for the neighborhood kids to spend a few hours. It's not in the open like the block parties that I know you're all allergic to."

"You know why I don't like those parties, Toby," Scott said in a sigh.

"I know," he agreed, nodding. "I hate to see them so isolated. Though your youngest clearly has a good handle on things if he's pushing for sports."

"He was too young to understand what happened," Scott admitted. "He was old enough that he can remember his mom, sometimes, but…"

"The other two were old enough though," Toby said when Scott's sentiment faded. "And it shows."

"I know," Scott said. "I see it every day."

"You know, if your pretty lady friend is too busy to research, all of you are welcome to talk with me. It would be good to know where the kids stand, don't you think?" He shrugged, holding both hands out. "I'm sure she's already looked into my records or whatever, but she can look again if it makes you feel better."

"No, we already know about the college arrest when you were protesting," Scott teased.

"Then you know I can't keep my nose too far out of it forever when I know something's wrong." He leaned forward slightly. "Let me try to help."

Scott rested his chin on his hands clasped in front of him. "You know the kids flat-out refused to talk to any therapists, right?" Scott said slowly.

"After what you said happened with that nurse, I'm not surprised," Toby replied. "But I'm not saying to go down to the office. We can do this here. Just like this. It's not like I don't come by anyhow. It can just be us. No one outside of your house needs to know either way."

Scott was quiet for a long time as he considered the idea before finally, slowly, he nodded. "I can't promise anything, but I personally don't have a problem with you talking to them."

"That warms my heart," Toby said with a teasing smile.

Scott chuckled. "Hey, the fact that you know any of our story at all should tell you how much trust you've earned with me and mine."

"I can tell you - the stories the neighborhood has cooked up on how you got those scars is quite the adventure," Toby said. "Especially when your James gets dropped off by the little rotation he's got for rideshares."

"They try to be discreet," Scott sighed. It was the one thing he hadn't been able to do himself - managing to get all three of his kids to where they needed to be at the same time. And while Steve was alright at blending in, Clint was not. And while Natasha was good at spywork, she ended up only making fuel for gossip when she came by.

"In any other area? They'd probably be perfectly fine. But you've got a whole neighborhood that's gonna be watching the single dad of three anyhow. Add to it that all three of the kids are good-looking, too … you're going to have trouble when they get a little older, that's all I'm saying. People are paying attention and interested in getting to know them better."

"Rabbi, are you looking to find my daughter a match already?" Scott teased.

"Not this week," Toby laughed - a constant tease between them. "Ask me again next week."

Scott smiled and shook his head. "The rumors don't bother me, to tell you the truth. It's actually helpful to have them flying around."

"Of course they wouldn't bother you. Most of them think you singlehandedly saved Captain America's life somehow," Toby laughed. "I'm not going to argue with them. Neither is he, apparently."

"To hear him tell it, he still thinks he owes the old team, so of course he won't argue it."

"Are you arguing it?" Toby shot back. "Because it doesn't sound like it to me!"

"I learned a long time ago not to argue with Steve," Scott said, thinking of some of the fights he'd had with the Avengers when he'd been trying to get them to see how bad things were for mutants when all the Avengers cared about was the way mutants stood up for themselves.

"When you were right and Steve finally admitted it, you mean," Toby said just before there was a knock on the door.

Scott smirked but didn't confirm Toby's assessment either way as he went to the door, somehow not surprised to find one of his neighbors there - one of the women his age, and a widow herself, so she was always sympathetic. "Hello, Sara," he said.

"I just thought I'd check in and see how you were doing," Sara said. "I know the new semester started up, and I didn't know if you'd gotten the boys gathered up or not yet."

"They're doing great, thanks for asking. Nate's going out for soccer, and James has a new science project that's consuming his attention already."

"Oh, good," Sara said, smiling widely. "I hope they can get the time to spend an afternoon with the kids this weekend. Rebecca would love to see them, I know."

Scott smirked, knowing Sara's daughter had a crush on Nate and that Nate was completely oblivious. "We'll see. You know Rachel comes home on the weekends, so we try to dedicate that time to being all together."

"Yes, and it's wonderful that you're all so close," she said - absolutely genuine with every word. "Of course, you're all welcome to join us, if you haven't got anything set in stone."

"Thanks. I'll talk to the boys and Rachel and see what they had in mind and let you know," Scott promised.

Sara smiled wider. "Alright, well, you take care of yourself until then," she said. "Tell the boys I said hello."

"I will," Scott promised - and didn't wait longer than it took for Sara to be out of earshot from the door before he turned toward the kitchen. "Not a word, Toby."

"What would I say?" Toby asked, doing his best to look innocent. "I'm just here, temporarily deaf … enjoying my morning."

Scott shook his head, though he couldn't help but smirk. "Sure."

"It's not like she's available or interested," Toby said, shaking his head.


"I said 'it's not' …" He shook his head more insistently.

Scott chuckled and then picked up Toby's empty cup. "I think I need to go research coaches. You can play matchmaker somewhere else."

"You just tell me when I should come by to talk to those kids," Toby said. "One at a time, if you think we can't gather them up."

"I'll let you know," Scott promised.

"Then I wish you luck in your searches," Toby said as he got to his feet. "Incidentally - if you tell me who you're looking into, I can maybe give you what the word is from the neighborhood too."

"You know what? I'd really appreciate that."

Rabbi Cohen didn't have too long to wait for his opportunity. A few weeks passed, sure, but it was easy enough for him to see that Scott wasn't blowing him off when the day-to-day schedule was organized chaos - even with just the boys home. Early in the morning, Scott had to get Nate off to school - and since his school was in an entirely different area of Brooklyn, Scott took him there himself - at just about the time that James' ride came by to pick him up and take him to Manhattan, where he'd study and work on …. Lord only knew what. That was something that Scott had never been overly specific about.

From there, the house was mostly vacant until after school when, once again, Scott would get Nate … and a few hours later, someone would roll up to drop James off. At least, that was the normal schedule.

Toby was over for a lovely mid-morning coffee with Scott, as usual, when the lock in the front door rattled and James let himself in.

"What happened?" Scott asked, on his feet in a heartbeat and already on his way toward him - ready to check him over for injury, which James didn't fight him on at all.

"Ah ... " James glanced over at the rabbi and censored the details out entirely. "Power's out in the building and half the block - and the back ups aren't working very well, so … I got sent home until they fix it." He set his bag down and slipped his shoes off at the door as he let Scott look him over. As soon as Scott was momentarily satisfied, the two of them started back toward the kitchen, though Scott was wearing a frown as he walked behind James, steering him to the kitchen with one hand on his shoulder. "Hi, Rabbi Cohen," James said with a little wave, then quietly took the seat Scott pointed at.

"What happened with the power?" Toby asked - mostly to see if James would share. "And am I going to read about it in the Daily Bugle tomorrow?"

"Maybe." James replied slowly, though he seemed to almost shrink in on himself in the chair. "They told me it was a bad experiment."

"Was it yours?" Toby asked, trying to tease him, but James was perfectly serious as he shook his head.

"No, my stuff is on an independent power source," James said, tipping his head down. "Less chance of it causing trouble if I screw up. I think it was something with my afternoon tutor." He looked toward Scott with a significant expression. "He tried to call, but communications are down too. They were scrambling to fix it when they sent me home." He slid his cell phone to Scott. "So I need to fix mine, too. I heard something about reversed polarities, so it shouldn't be a big deal, unless i damaged circuits."

"Then maybe you can take a few minutes to tell me about what you're doing up in that big tower?" Toby said warmly.

"O-kay." James nodded as soon as he saw the look on Scott's face - they'd discussed this as a possibility, and James knew that Scott wouldn't have brought it up unless he wanted them to do it, so … he drew in a breath and started to try and explain what he did. "It's really just tutors," James said uncertainly. "There isn't much to tell."

As soon as James was trying to halfway answer Toby's questions, Scott got up to leave them to chat while he dug into what happened at Avengers Tower to shut the place down.

He didn't have to search too hard for answers either, as there was a text from Stark explaining that they were still investigating matters, but it looked like it had been an attempt on his life. Nothing that they'd found so far, including going through the creep's communications and correspondence or any of the taps Tony used to dig into the guy's connections, showed that they had any idea that James was there … which at least meant that the image inducer he was using to go in and out of the building was doing its job.

But it also meant that for James' studies to continue - as a matter of paranoid security - they would have to happen either from the Baxter building or Clint's apartment building for the next week or so until Tony had given Natasha a chance to chase down every possible concern. It would screw up the usual flow for Scott and his boys, but … it also showed Scott exactly how paranoid Tony was being on James' behalf. Not that he was surprised. James had a standing open invitation from Tony to simply stay there if he wanted or needed to, and it was clear the more time James spent with his tutors and with Tony that he was getting more and more attached. And lamenting not having simply kept him instead of letting Scott take him back after he'd spent months with the kid.

And with a few hours to kill before Scott had to be at the field to pick up Nate from soccer practice and while James was tied up talking to Toby, Scott decided his time was best spent helping dig in to what was known and what wasn't about the attack on the tower.

He already knew that Tony was going to shift the tutor to the Baxter building - if nothing else than to keep the trouble out of Brooklyn and in close reach of a large contingency of superheroes that could dive in to help. And … it didn't hurt that James and Franklin Richards got along well enough. Though, Scott had to wonder what would happen if the two boys got competitive.

Chapter Text

Toby Cohen had spent a little over a month taking little opportunities to chat with the Meuller kids next door. They were going by "Meuller," but Rabbi Cohen knew that it was the Summers family, not the Meullers. And only three of them were Summers by name, the fourth - well. It would be unfair to say that the rabbi wasn't worried about all four of them, but some of the behavior he was seeing from their odd man out did have him watching even more carefully. He just didn't know how to explain to Scott what he was seeing without alarming him unnecessarily. And with Scott's stress levels, that was an entirely new level of balancing act.

James was, by all accounts, a good kid. And to the untrained eye, he was more than just a good one. He was easy. He didn't rebel against his family, and he seemed to approach everything with an attitude of quiet gratefulness that most people aspired to. However, it was the fact that James was totally unwilling to even consider going against the grain his family had established. And his motives as to why that was so were of deep concern to the Rabbi. In the time that the Meullers had lived in the neighborhood, not once had Rabbi Cohen heard a complaint about the dark-haired boy. Not only from the family, but the people in the neighborhood too. In fact, if he was going to analyze it, it seemed to him as if James was constantly conscious of everyone around him, always testing the waters of his family before saying or doing anything - purposely avoiding any topic that might upset his adoptive dad in particular. he was polite to a degree that Rabbi Cohen simply didn't see in kids his age - even in the strictest of families, and he knew that wasn't the case in Scott's house. The other two kids had little trouble rocking the boat with their father - even if it was minimal, they didn't seem to be purposely avoiding it like James was.

But Toby had been around for a few dinners with the family now - and though all the kids paid attention to the conversation, James was consistently quiet unless asked a direct question. Always. And when he did answer, it was always with the most direct answer that used as few words as possible. Which was intriguing since the boy was a genius.

Rachel … Rachel had clearly tried to do all her growing up at once. She seemed to be trying to take care of her father and her brothers - though James was careful to keep from being a bother to her, too. She had a kind of anxiety just behind her eyes that Toby couldn't quite put his finger on - but it was the kind of thing that was universally something that needed outside help to keep from blossoming out of control.

And Nate? Nate was the little rebel out of the three of them in the most amusingly normal way ever. Where else would you find a little boy that was arguing by wanting to be like everyone else? While Rachel was content to be a small adult and watch out for who she could and James was trying to blend in with the furniture as far as neediness went, Nate just wanted to be a kid.

There were three very different problems happening at the Mueller house. Every one of them needed a different approach. And every one of them was worrisome if left unchecked. Yes, Scott was the picture perfect father - and Toby knew he had the ulcers to back it up - but that didn't change the fact that there was no way for the Summers kids to avoid the numbers when it came to risk. For Nate and Rachel, having lost their mother so young was the gateway to anxiety and mood disorders right off the bat. Especially since Scott had obviously suffered from the same trouble himself.

What he didn't know how to explain was the fact that Nate was at a higher risk for those troubles than Rachel was. It was something that even the most involved experts didn't quite understand yet, but it was an issue. The younger they were at the time of the loss, the more likely they'd have attachment issues, depression, or anxiety. Substance abuse issues and eating disorders weren't off the table, either. And while James was at risk for all of the same, the fact that he'd lost both of his parents and was showing signs of trying to fly under the radar at his age to avoid conflict had the rabbi concerned that if the pattern continued, he'd keep tipping his risk factors closer and closer to self-harm and suicide.

And that was without knowing any of the fine details on how the kids had lost their parents. Extended trauma the kids might have suffered, or how much they knew of how their lost parents were killed … all of it factored in, and none of it was easy to discuss. Had he known the details on what had happened to them - and what James had been there to witness, he would have been much more alarmed for all of them.

The lone glowing beacon of hope in the whole mess was how absolutely dedicated Scott was to those three kids. It was obvious he'd put his life on hold so he could be there for them at the drop of a hat. Toby had seen him interacting with the three of them. It was obvious that Scott knew where they kids were coming from, emotionally. And he knew how to support them and how to be there even if they looked like they didn't want it. That … that was the one thing that made Toby think the kids had a solid chance at being alright. If their issues were addressed and the downward spiral was stopped before it became a tailspin.

But Toby wasn't sure of the best way to approach Scott with his concerns. Especially when some of the reasoning the kids were showing was a double-edged sword. Rachel had to take care of her father and brother because they were both so stressed out and needed someone to watch out for them … while ignoring that what she was trying to give them was exactly what she needed.

Nate was trying to be the normal that the mutant family was pretending to be - by embracing it as fully as he could - and not realizing that he was almost making fun of how 'normal' he could pretend to be, even while he was spectacularly ahead of the curve in cleverness.

And how should he break it to Scott that his adoptive son absolutely hated when anyone called him 'lucky' for his family and his private studies because if he was lucky to have it, then his luck could run out - and that if the people in his life thought he was special and had picked him, it was just as possible for them to change their mind? It was just the tip of the iceberg with James, and the kid had been quick to shut down and get quiet when he thought he might have said something that would eventually upset Scott. Toby wouldn't even have been surprised if James had read up on psychology just to protect himself from the therapy that Toby was trying to help him with.

So Toby waited until he knew that the kids were going to be at their respective schools and that Scott would be free for a long while that day before he came over with coffee for both of them from the cafe down at the corner.

"I know you don't want to leave anything laying around for the kids to read," Toby said in a softer, more somber tone than what Scott was used to hearing from him. "So you're going to want to read the email I just sent you when they're not around. It's not about them specifically - but it is an outline of what I'm concerned with for each of them. And it's also a strong suggestion that you get them professional help sooner than later. If they can't trust a doctor, you know I'm more than happy to help, but they do need the help."

Toby set the cup of coffee down next to Scott and took a seat. "I can stay here while you read if you have questions, or you can call me once you get through it. But, if it's all the same, I'd rather be here with you for clarity."

Scott didn't hesitate to open his computer and open up the email. He was completely silent as he read through what Toby had written, though Toby could see a muscle in his jaw getting tighter and tighter until he finally sat back in the chair and let out a breath. "I'll… talk to them," he said at last.

"And do what?" Toby asked, honestly not surprised at Scott's first reaction. "You're already doing all you can."

"Obviously not," Scott said, gesturing to the email with one hand.

"Scott, this isn't from anything you did or didn't do," Toby said. "This is just their way of coping. And they need help learning new methods."

"Then, yes, if you'd be willing… I can't even get Rachel to think about a doctor, let alone the boys…"

"Of course I'm willing," Toby said.

"And… if you're not opposed, I'd like to forward this to a friend of mine. A telepath at Rachel's school. She could help too," Scott said, obviously working out a plan for himself to move forward as a back up if he couldn't get the kids to go along with Toby.

"Do with it whatever you will," Toby said. "I just thought that would be the easiest way to outline what I'm seeing and a good way for you to be able to go back if you want to later..."

"I'll talk to the kids, too," Scott said. "James needs to know … and God, Rachel's doing the same thing did.."

"Apple didn't fall far, did it?"

"For any of them. You should have met Jean when we were young."

"From the sounds of it, you just need to point to which kid is most like her, and I'll try to imagine," Toby teased.

"You could look at either Rachel or Nate, depending on the day," Scott said with a fond smile at the corner of his mouth. "She wanted desperately to be normal when I first met her… but she couldn't help trying to nose into others' business to help, either."

"I like her already," Toby said, perfectly straight-faced. "Just think of the team-up we could have run on you." Toby reached over to rest his hand on Scott's arm. "I meant what I said before, too, Scott. Every one of those kids of yours is an absolute gem. Best kids around. I just don't want to see them lost in their own heads or to get too carried away with bad choices if it comes up. They're not the tiny adults they think they are."

Scott was quiet for a long time before he let out a soft sound from the back of his throat. "I could use the help," he said at last, thinking through his next words before he said, "Look, not many people know this, so don't spread it around, but I honestly don't remember much between the ages of ten and sixteen. This age… I'm flying blind."

Toby frowned and nodded, agreeing to it before fully grasping how literal Scott was being in the moment. "Is that a circumstances thing, a 'it's so long ago' thing, or just a matter of not being able to visualize where your head was?"

"Evil telepath," Scott said simply.

"Oh, sure," Toby said. "Should have known."

Scott smirked lightly. "I think if you'd known the X-Men in our prime, you'd know that's not even the strangest thing we dealt with."

"I assumed that it had to get wilder for as casually as you said the words 'evil telepath'."

"Yeah, believe it or not, that's the mild description."

"I believe it," Toby assured him. "So … how do you want to move forward? Talk to the kids first? Then we can try to make it happen slow and easy? I know it won't be a simple matter of making an appointment. As soon as James thought something was off … your daughter, too. They got quiet fast and stayed that way."

"Why don't you let me talk to them, let me explain what I told you about this particular age not being my forte… I think, from what you've told me, if they think it's helping me…"

"Seeing a bit of yourself in some of what I gave you on them?" Toby asked gently.

"Hey, I'd be surprised if I didn't."

"Not a criticism, my friend. I didn't say there was anything wrong with you." He got to his feet and brushed himself off - not that there was anything to brush. "Let me know when we start. Otherwise, good luck."

Scott took a few days to weigh out all that Toby had said to him - and to try to find a way to relay all of that to the kids. But before he could sit down to discus things, his usual routine was interrupted when he got a phonecall from Ororo - requesting that he make his way out to Westchester at his earliest convenience.

It wasn't a huge problem. But when he heard the tone in Ororo's voice, he switched gears quickly and made a phone call to Clint to see if he could take Nate home with Katie for a few hours if he didn't get back before the soccer game was over. He knew Nate wanted to spend time there anyhow, and once Clint heard there was a possible issue with Rachel, he not only agreed to take Nate, but he promised to have Natasha bring James home, too.

So without anything holding him back, Scott grabbed his keys, locked up and started the drive to Westchester. Nothing seemed out of place when he got there and the kids outside were in fine moods, enjoying a sunny day. So he wasn't sure how to process things when Ororo gave him a perfectly flat, serious look before leading him to her office where Rachel was bright red at the cheeks and waiting for him. "I'll give you two a moment," Ororo said, closing the door to give Rachel a chance to fess up to her father.

Scott paused and raised an eyebrow before Rachel let it out in a rush. "It was supposed to be a date, and I know you think I'm too young, but I also know that you'll say that when I'm 40, but it wasn't a big deal until he got … stupid!"

"What happened then?"

"I punched him," Rachel said, blushing brighter, somehow.

She didn't expect him to nod to himself with a quiet 'okay then' before he opened the door for Ororo to come back. The room was tense with silence as Ororo returned and took her seat at the desk, only looking up at Scott once she was comfortable.

"Scott, I'm sure you could have guessed that this was going to be an issue sooner or later," Ororo said to Scott as he took a seat next to Rachel - and across from Ororo. "And it's not that I think she should accept it, of course. But perhaps the next time this issue presents itself, you shouldn't retaliate for just a thought."

Rachel's shoulders were shrugged up to her ears - not because she thought she was wrong - of course she wasn't. She just felt badly about her Dad being pulled out of his usual routine to deal with something so monumentally stupid. And she was not the Summers kid to get phone calls over. That was Nate. This? This had to be the single most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to her. Ever. And that included when she caught Betsy and Angel making out. That … She blushed just thinking of it - and found herself desperately trying not to think of it.

"Did she tell you what happened, Scott?" Ororo asked with the most clear cat who caught the canary look that Scott had seen in ages. "I'd assume that it would either be a point of contention or one of pride. Perhaps both."

"Just that the guy deserved it," Scott said, trying not to smirk at Rachel's description, since he had been the one to teach her how to deal with guys that tried to push her or got too handsy.

"Scott, all he actually did was kiss her good night," Ororo said, though she was barely doing a better job than Scott at controlling her smile. "And that's not an offense that is paid back by doing what she did."

Scott turned toward Rachel, one eyebrow raised. "Rach…"

"You don't know what he was thinking, Dad," Rachel insisted, blushing high on her cheeks.

Scott let out a breath and rubbed his eyes. "Rachel…" He shook his head, still rubbing his eyes, before he finally looked at her again. "It's only the guys who act on it that deserve to get laid out like that."

"But he was thinking it." Rachel stared at him wide-eyed. "Loudly!"

"Yeah, I'm sure he was," Scott said, holding her gaze steadily. "Every teenage boy does. It's the ones who keep it to thoughts that matter. The ones who push? Destroy 'em."

"But Dad."

Scott smirked and leaned forward. "Okay, Rach. What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking it had been a nice date until he got all super-perv on me!"

"Did you kiss him first or did he initiate?"

She paused and thought about it for a moment. "What difference does it make?"

Scott smirked. "I'm just wondering if you even wanted to kiss him…"

Rachel blushed deeply as she turned his way. "If you try to say that this is my fault that he can't keep his mind out of the gutter-"

"No, obviously not. I'm just pointing out that you were ready to be physical too, and he was only thinking about the future."

"But just a kiss! Not - ugh!"

Scott let out a breath and leaned back in his chair. "He let the kiss end when you wanted it to?"

Rachel sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. "Yes."

"So he was just thinking about how he'd like things to go down the road?"

"Like a pervert."

"Rach…" Scott sighed and rubbed his hand over his face.

"They can't possibly think like that about everyone all the time."

"God, if your mother was here, she'd be laughing," Scott muttered.

Ororo had by that time, turned partly away from them and had one hand over her mouth to hide the feeble attempt at avoiding outright laughter. Especially since her shoulders were shaking from silent giggles.

"You're no help, 'Ro," Scott shot her way.

"She's thinking like a rational reasonable person, Scott," Ororo managed, though she was grinning broadly. "They can't possibly think like that all the time, can they?"

"Dammit, 'Ro."

Ororo gestured broadly. "I'm not a telepath, Scott. I cannot answer that with any true knowledge."

"Dammit, 'Ro."

Ororo entwined her fingers and rested them on her crossed knees. "Yes, Scott? I was under the impression that you'd have some wisdom to give your sweet daughter on this matter."

Scott gave her the driest look he could before he sighed and turned back to Rachel. "Look, what I told you about boys… all of that's true. If they start pushing you, deck them. But-" He sighed. "-look, you can't punish them for their thoughts. Lord knows your mother didn't do that to me or I'd be dead a hundred times over."


Scott smirked lightly. "What, did you think you sprang up from the ground fully formed?"

"I would like to think so!" Rachel almost shouted back.

"So you're telling me that when Jan and I were dating, you didn't pick up on any of that…"

Rachel glared at him. "First of all - no because you had the decency not to broadcast it." She drew herself up. "Or did you want me to know what you were up to?"

"I'm just saying: you're old enough to date now. That means you need to learn how to differentiate between what boys would like to do and what they are actually doing or planning."

She crossed her arms again and slouched in her chair. "I know what I'm gonna do …"


"What?" She smirked. "I didn't do anything. I'm just thinking it."

"Well, now you sound like your mother, so I know you'll be fine."

By that time, Ororo was laughing outright. "Yes, I think she will be," Ororo said, wiping tears from her eyes. When she got a little better control of herself she turned to Rachel with a grin. "Off the record? I agree with you. They should keep their minds out of the gutter. If at all possible." She looked back to Scott. "If only they could discover how to do that at some point in their lives after they reach puberty, all the world would be more relaxed."

Scott gestured to Ororo with a smirk. "You saw my rebound taste. I'm no good for this talk."

"Yes. Every one of your rebounds," Ororo shot back.

"Then if you girls have things under control…"

"Yes, I think we should further discuss this in Salem Center, Rachel," Ororo said. "My treat."

Chapter Text

Scott shook his head to himself most of the way back to the city after that little meeting with Ororo and Rachel. He couldn't believe that Ororo had managed to make him defend the boy that kissed his little girl. But it hadn't taken all afternoon. And he had time to find a way to laugh about it during his drive. By the time Scott managed to get to the soccer fields where Nate was playing, the first games were already underway, and the sounds of referees blowing whistles on one field or another were easy to hear even from the road.

Rabbi Cohen was watching the games from the sidelines - having promised to show up for the game on behalf of several kids on the field. Nate had yet to take the field, but he was nearly bouncing in place waiting on his turn. When he saw Scott, though, Nate lit up like Christmas morning and waved enthusiastically at his dad.

It was a relief, frankly. After dealing with the uncomfortable situation with Rachel … and having the whole drive back to the city to mull it over ... an enthusiastic Nate was the perfect break. Scott raised one hand in a muted wave - which was all Nate needed to puff his chest out and bounce in place - chomping at the bit to get out there and show off for his dad now that he was there.

"Everything okay with Rachel?" Toby asked as Scott stood next to him.

"Yeah … she took offense to a boy's thought process, that's all."

"Good for her," Toby said, nodding, though Scott was smirking and shaking his head at Toby's obvious misinterpretation.

"I'll tell you about it later," Scott said, his focus on Nate.

Toby did a little double-take. "Oh. Oh," Toby said, made a face, and then turned back to Scott. "Oh, that poor girl. You mean she hears …." Scott raised an eyebrow at him as he turned to face him. "... all the time?"

"Only if they're loud about it, so … yeah, I'd bet most of the time," Scott said, to which Toby made a noise at the back of his throat.

"It'll be a miracle if she ever dates a boy seriously," Toby said, shaking his head at all of it. "Poor girl … I mean, I know they all have to suspect how boys think, but still …"

"If it's all the same to you, Toby, I'd like to just … try not to think about that too much. Especially considering that one of my oldest and dearest friends is far too entertained by all of it and has punished her by taking her out for ice cream."

"How is that a punishment?"

Scott sighed. "It's not. At all."

Toby chuckled to himself but didn't comment further as the game got underway - likely trying to think about what Rachel might or might not have 'heard'.

Nate was doing well right out of the gate, running fast and scoring and assisting with just about every play he was involved in. All while grinning broadly. It was even better, then, when, on the second game he played, he was squaring off with Katie.

Katie had her hair pulled back in pigtails and was also bouncing in place. "You gonna cry if you get your butt kicked by a girl?" she teased Nate.

"You gonna cry if you get your butt kicked by a boy?"



The first few plays were rough, and it was pretty clear that they were well matched - for now. But … as soon as the whistle blew, it was on, and Katie wasn't taking any prisoners as she flat out ran Nate over. He got up quickly and gave chase, and the two of them fought hard - more or less ignoring their teams as they concentrated on trying to beat each other first and foremost.

The ball went back and forth - and both teams were scoring - and every goal was accented by one or the other doing their best 'in your face' that had been recorded in kids that age. But during the final showdown, Katie was more than ready to go, and she zipped past him, leaving Nate not only stunned but determined not to let it stand, either.

Which meant the kiddie soccer game was getting far more cutthroat than either kid's coach was prepared for.

Nate had just caught up to Katie and was running level with her, but as soon as he pulled ahead enough that he could kick the ball away from her, she faked him out, dribbling the ball backwards so it was behind her feet and Nate kicked air instead - with enough force that he went flying.

Katie burst out giggling and then ran with the opportunity, all while Scott could see exactly what words Nate was muttering through mouthfuls of dirt and was not happy about it.

Nate brushed himself off and went back into the game, though much more sullen and less smiley than before. But time was running out - and he was more determined to keep from letting her get another goal in, even if neither team scored again. He was angry with himself for not seeing the set-up as Katie pulled it - and more angry with himself, once the game was over, that he let it mess with his gameplay after the fact.

He was just getting a good scowl on when Katie bounced over with a grin. "Good game," she said before she very quickly kissed his cheek and then headed back for Clint, leaving Nate staring after her and Scott shaking his head with a grin.

"We need to have a word about your boy," a deep and rich voice said - from just behind Scott - and the angle was such that he knew without turning that this guy was big and tall.

It was such a shock that Scott's first reaction was to take a defensive stance, though he also switched the visual on the bionic eyes Stark had given him to scan for anyone else in the area and to quickly realize that at least this guy was alone.

Though when he turned to see Luke Cage, he almost repeated Nate's words - which would have only cemented the kid's problem - before he caught himself. "Give a man a heart attack."

"All I've done so far is say hello," Luke defended with his arms crossed. "But like I said: we need to talk. And I came all the way out here from Harlem to do just that. Your business if you go and have a heart attack about it."

Scott shook his head. "Whatever Nate did-"

"Wrong boy."

"Seriously?" Scott straightened up. "What did James do?"

"You mean aside from kissing my daughter?" Luke asked - a little louder than he'd honestly meant to. "She was supposed to be getting help with her little science project, but if this is what your boy considers help..."

"...what?" Scott couldn't come up with a better response. James had never gotten into trouble, and he hadn't even seemed interested in flirting with any of the girls in the neighborhood… Scott shook his head as he thought about it - and realized that even if he wasn't flirting with the neighborhood girls, all of the Avengers that had kids close to his age were bringing them to the tower - and at one point or another, most of them were going to him for tutoring help.

Jessica Jones was laughing a few paces behind Luke, and Dani was behind her, arms crossed and not looking amused one bit. All the while, Jessica had one hand over her mouth to keep it from bubbling out too much, but still … "I told him it was her idea," she said, with Dani echoing 'it was!' before Dani shook her head and ran off to hear how the game went for Katie. "But Luke can't seem to believe his sweet little girl would take the initiative. No idea how he got so delusional."

Scott spared her a smirk but was still shaking his head. "Did you ask Dani what the story was?" he asked Luke. "Because James doesn't get into trouble. He just doesn't."

"I didn't come down here to get redirected on how angelic you think your kid is," Luke said. "I came down here to make sure you knew that your boy is on notice."

"He didn't ask Dani or James," Jessica said, cutting over him. "Dani told him what happened; he's gone deaf to anything like common sense."

Scott shook his head. "It's just that kind of day," he muttered.

"What else happened?" Jessica asked. "Because now I'm curious." She tipped her head to where Dani and Katie were cackling with laughter next to a grinning Clint.

"Rachel decked a boy."

Luke gestured openly. "See. That's how it's supposed to work. Boys bein' fresh get laid out."

Jessica narrowed her eyes and tipped her chin up at Luke. "Sure about that?" But Luke just nodded, looking as serious as he was able, so Jessica turned back to Scott. "Anyhow. I wasn't going to let him come down here and start anything that didn't need to be started. James is fine. He didn't do anything wrong except, you know …be a boy and breathe."

"I didn't think he would," Scott said. "I taught my kids right." He tipped his head toward the soccer field. "And, apparently, they keep attracting girls who kiss first. Or did you miss Katie and Nate over there?"

"Yeah, but that's the new Hawkeye," Luke said with an ill-hidden laugh. "Bumps and bruises and everything that goes with it."

"They're getting kissed because they're good boys," Jessica said.

Scott gestured to Jessica with one hand. "They are. And they know what I expect of them. And they have a telepathic sister who would send them into next week if they even thought otherwise," he added, leaving out the part where James wasn't exactly open to Rachel all the time.

"You just tell that little troublemaker that I'm keeping an eye on him," Luke said, looking perfectly serious as he pointed at Scott. "And there won't be any more one-on-one tutoring sessions."

"Fine by me. You tell your daughter to make sure he wants to kiss her if she wants another one."

Jessica snorted at that. "He wasn't complaining," she said as she pulled on Luke. "Leave him alone. He got your stupid macho message." As she passed Clint by, and they caught up with Dani, Jessica raised a hand to wave - then loudly called out "Oh wow! Is that Iron Fist?" just to irk Clint, which at least had Luke in a better mood. Even as Scott's smile fell completely.

"Shut up, Jessica," Clint called back.

"No way to talk to your adoring fans, Iron Fist."

"I hate you, you know that?"

Jessica turned with a huge grin and blew a kiss as she walked backward. "Right back atcha, big guy. See you at work."

"Are you okay with all … whatever it is that just happened?" Toby asked as Clint and Jessica traded a few last snipes back and forth. "Because I kinda think I could use a drink."

Scott finally relaxed slightly and rubbed his eyes. "The kids being kids part? Yes. The Avengers going back and forth with me at a public game? I'll need to get back to you on that. And possibly spend a few days elsewhere." With that, and with a heavy sigh, he turned to go gather up his youngest.

Just a few hours passed after Scott and Nate got home when James came in with Steve - though Steve was wearing an inducer, which was new. As soon as the door was closed behind them, Steve flipped it off and called out to Scott. "It's already being handled, by the way. The Luke and Jessica thing."

"You came here in an inducer to tell me you're handling my son's love life?" Scott asked dryly, even though he was actively sweeping the neighborhood with long-range scanners from where he sat.

"Didn't want to draw any more attention in case people were looking for Avengers," Steve said. "And it's not about his love life. It's about a noisy security breach." He looked down at James, who looked like he was ready to pack up and move again, since this broke all the usual ways of dealing with things. "So you know, James didn't do a thing wrong."

"Oh, I didn't think he did," Scott promised, even going so far as to pause his scan to smile James' way. "She kissed you, huh? Nice."

James dropped his bookbag by the door. "Not my idea," he swore. "But I'm not dumb enough to tell her no, either."

"You can if you don't want her kissing you," Scott pointed out. "But…"

"She's cute," James said with a shrug and an understated, crooked smirk.

Scott smiled. "She is. And she must have noticed you're just as good-looking, kiddo. Good taste, that one."

James scrunched up his nose. "Yeah, okay. Su-ure."

Scott got to his feet and squeezed James' shoulder on the way past before he gestured for Steve to follow him to the living room. "I did a scan at the soccer game after Luke showed up, and no one in the immediate area was suspicious, but the gossip is going to spread."

"Clint was swearing up a storm, in case you missed it," Steve said. "He said Natasha was on the move before Luke opened his mouth."

"I noticed, yeah," Scott said with a small smirk.

"Luke honestly thought you were settled and not hiding - Jessica, too," Steve said. "For what it's worth."

"Sounds like you need to remind your team the reality on the ground for mutants," Scott said, his eyes narrowed. "It's better, not genocidal, but…"

Steve nodded. "Already done. And Luke is ticked off at himself. Jessica is … well. Jessica. It was a fluke thing on his part, and I'm sure if Natasha and Tony hadn't both chewed him out about how he approached initially, he'd be apologizing for throwing a monkey wrench in the works."

"Good. Then he can help deal with the fallout if there is an issue."

"He already volunteered to," Steve agreed.

Scott nodded once and then, simply because he could understand it, relaxed his stance slightly. "I get it, though. My daughter's dating now, too. I get it."

"I'm sure you do," Steve said. "And between you and me, Jessica had a talk with Dani about warning a person before kissing them."

Scott nodded. "It's just something about my boys. Katie kissed Nate's cheek after she made him eat dirt at the soccer game. It's just that kind of day, apparently."

"All three, huh?" Steve asked with a crooked smile. "I heard about Rachel from Storm."

"You didn't see the sudden gray streak in my hair?" Scott asked with a light smirk.

"Don't know if it'll help or hurt, but even if James wasn't expecting it - kid ran with it. You know who to blame." He was grinning as he looked toward James, who was headed up the stairs.

"Not even surprised," Scott said, shaking his head with a smile at the very corner of his mouth.

"Call if you have any trouble, huh? I'll let you know if we see anything out of the norm at all."

"Will do," Scott promised. "And Steve?" He let his shoulders drop. "Thanks."

"Sure thing. I'll keep the inducer for pick-ups - and it'll be me for a while. Until we know for sure."

"Alright. I'll make sure James knows what's up."

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Tony went out of his way to ensure that his little genius was well protected. Security breaches on the whole were down dramatically, even considering the company's reasonably good record in the field. With James there - and Scott's concerns well known with those in charge, they went above and beyond to keep the boy and his family safe - and secret from the public at large, which was quite the feat when James was coming and going in an image inducer for years. It also became more important as he got older since the older he got, the more he resembled Logan, and even if the old man had been dead for years, that didn't mean that his face wasn't well known enough to be forgotten.

But all of that found its own way of leveling out. And Scott found himself far more engaged with their every day activities. James tried to be on autopilot as much as possible to streamline his own schedule and to keep from upsetting anyone else's. He also started staying in the city longer every day after the 'school day' was over. Rachel was making leaps and bounds at school and even mentoring some of the younger kids that came in with mental prowess that they needed to master … and Nate was still doing his best to break records in every sport he ever took half an interest in, cementing that the Summers competitive nature was alive and well in the new generation.

More fun than that, though, was the kids' personal lives. The little romantic entanglements of the Summers kids continued to be varying degrees of problematic, entertaining, and flat out sweet for Scott to watch over the last couple of years since 'the day of many kisses', as Clint was calling it. Rachel had the same draw that her mother did - and always seemed to have a handful of boys tripping over themselves to try and charm her, though rarely did she bother allowing them to do so. Not when she already knew what they were thinking. Anyone who actively thought like any normal teenage boy was disqualified immediately - and often with no small amount of disappointment from Rachel. Especially when it was someone she thought was particularly good-looking or otherwise nice.

She simply couldn't stand that outlook, even if she was now sixteen years old and really wanting to go on dates with her friends now that she could drive. But … that didn't overrule her own personal codes and morals, and boys who only had sex on the brain were absolutely off limits. Not only because the objectification made her feel gross but because she really didn't want her dad to have a heart attack any time soon. He was having enough trouble with James and Nate to expect him to survive his daughter getting involved with questionable boys.

James' issues stemmed from his uncanny knack of finding new dates every few months - half of whom were the offspring of someone in the Avengers' orbit. Scott still wasn't sure how the kid was meeting the ones that weren't at the tower, though, so that was a slightly different and less controlled situation than what he was used to seeing around the young man. Which was really where the trouble was.

At thirteen, James wasn't quite old enough to be trouble on the dating front - even if he looked a few years older. Until rather recently, the most he was after was someone to watch movies with and steal kisses, but with unverified girls that hadn't been through Natasha's strict screening process…

Scott hated to think that someone would use a teenage girl to go after the kid, but he knew it wasn't outside of the realm of possibility, so he was on alert with everyone Natasha, Clint, Tony, and his own kids told him James was meeting up with outside of the tower.

Then there was Nate.

Nate had been pushing harder and harder in sports from the moment he'd gotten involved in them. Which was fine, and lined up with his competitive nature. Scott certainly couldn't fault him for that. But ...he'd gone a little too far during a hockey game and ended up with a broken collar bone and was sure he was slowly dying because of it - and because of the fact that he'd just transferred to the Institute in Westchester with Rachel. It was a double hit for Nate. Not only was he out of the game for the rest of the league's season and missing tryouts for the next sports season, but he was separated from Katie for the first time since they'd moved to the city.

He still got to see Katie on the weekends when he and Rachel came home or mid-week occasionally when she'd come to spend time with a few of the kids at the institute, but … it wasn't as much fun for him at school, and he was working hard to get better control so he could go back to public school.

But that left Scott alone all week with James - and James was increasingly concerned that Scott wasn't going to be able to make it so far from Rachel and Nate. The two of them had just gone back upstate for the week, and like they did every week, James went along with him to drop Nate and Rachel off, feeling like a third wheel in an otherwise well-balanced machine. The drives back to the city were always quiet - and James had noticed on more than a few occasions that Scott's attention would be drawn by houses for sale within a more reasonable distance to the school. It didn't take anything at all for him to put it together … and decide on a plan of action.

"Dad?" James said quietly, unsure if it was even something he should bring up.

"Yeah?" Scott replied, half distracted just a few miles before they got on the freeway.

"You know, if you want to get rid of the place in Brooklyn and move out here to be closer, I can probably just … stay with someone in the city." When Scott frowned and quickly looked his way, James tacked on another option. "Or I can quit the tutoring and stuff. I'm almost done with the last tests and I'm sure MIT can wait.."

Scott shook his head quickly. "No, no," he said. "You don't have to do anything like that. And I wouldn't leave you behind, either. You're my son."

"I know," James said a little softer. "But it would be easier for you if I-"

"Nate wants to get back into public school as soon as possible, and your tutoring is going well. Tony was just telling me last week that he's got MIT on speed dial wanting to work out a distance program for you so you don't need to leave the company. This is just a temporary thing, James," Scott assured him. "I'm trying not to uproot us. The house in Brooklyn is a good place - for all of us."

"I just know you've been going nuts with Rachel gone … and now Nate too? Come on."

Scott shook his head. "I'm fine, James. It's hard to transition to raising teenagers, that's all." He smirked James' way. "It used to be you all needed me every second for games and snacks and hugs; now you're all growing up."

"Well if you still want to lose at Mario Kart …"

"Maybe I do," Scott said, smirking harder. He turned his attention back to the road as the light turned green. "I'm proud of the people you're becoming - all of you. I hope you know that. I don't want to stand in your way."

"That's not even close to an issue," James said. "I just … I know there's not much else I can do to help."

Scott reached over to squeeze James' shoulder. "Not something either of us can fix, James. We just have to wait it out until Nate has a handle on things, and with Rachel staying in Westchester to help Betsy, we'll just find our new normal again. We always do."

"Okay. I just felt like I had to offer an option. You deserve to be happy, too, Dad."

"I love you too," Scott promised. "But you're part of the family; don't discount that. I wouldn't want to be separated from you any more than I like being separated from your siblings."

James was quiet as he weighed his words, not wanting to let Scott think that he wanted to go any more than he wanted everyone to be at odds. "Should be easier mornings anyhow, huh?"

Scott smirked and nodded. "Besides, this gives us time to hang out just us - and I will win at Mario Kart. You're delusional."

"Yeah, I'll take it easy on you, don't worry."

Scott snorted. "I'll order the pizza. You set up the game."

"James," Natasha said slowly with a perfectly even tone as she and Katie stepped into the space Tony had given him to invent and experiment in. "You have to stop meeting girls at their discretion before I can look into them."

"Why?" James asked without looking up from the programming job he was going through at his 3D printer. "No one knows or cares who I'm related to anymore."

"You know that's not true," Natasha said, crossing her arms.

"Well … no one outside of the spandex crowd even knows I exist, so …"

"They don't know you exist because I've worked very hard to keep you safe," Natasha said with some heat. "And your father has bent over backwards to do the same. Tony too, for that matter."

James let out a breath and pushed back from his desk to face her properly as he crossed his arms. "Okay. You're going to need to pick a direction," James said slowly. "Either … I'm in constant danger and I need to stay holed up and hidden indefinitely, or I'm relatively safe and should try and make friends with people that don't have aspirations to become Avengers."

"You know it's not that simple."

"Yeah, well … is it that bad, Katie?" James asked in an open attempt at deflecting. "You went with last time for coffee …"

Katie held up both hands. "Hey, I'm only here because Mom has to take me to cello practice after she does whatever this is. Leave me out of it."

"'This' is called a guilt trip," James said. "And a bad one at that."

"It's called security," Natasha said. "And you're old enough and smart enough to understand it."

"I do understand it," James said. "I keep an eye out for trouble. I did research into all the baddies and all their bad little kids … so I know what they look like and how to avoid them. You know. It's fine. Most of NYC isn't made up of creeps. Even the ones without spandex in their veins aren't all bad."

"Says the boy," Katie grumbled - since, as she was getting older, she was discovering as Rachel had what boys their age were usually thinking about.

"I know. All boys are fundamentally horrible people," James said. "But there are a pretty fair few stalkery women too."

"And not every one of them is going to be related to a bad guy," Natasha pointed out. "And the kinds of people after what you have and what you're capable of aren't above using young girls to lure you. I'd know."

"Okay, but you're not telling me what it is you want me to actually do about it outside of not talk to anyone unless you preapprove them for chatting. Which sucks the fun out of it." James held out both hands. "You told me to make friends. Socialize."

"Don't go with them unless I vet them," Natasha corrected him. "Talking is fine."

"What do you think I'm doing? Talking and coffee ...98% of the time."

Natasha shook her head at him. "Yes. Away from others. That's my point."

"So I need a chaperone for coffee too?" James challenged. "Because nothing says 'don't look suspicious' like walking around with an Avenger all the time."

"I want you to at least tell someone where you're going, who you plan to be with, - and for God's sake, do it someplace close so if there is trouble, we can help. Half the time, I don't even know who you're dating or that you've gone out until after the fact!"

He leaned back in his chair. "Fine. Give me a list of approved coffee shops and I'll do what I can to stick to it."

"Fine," Natasha said, turning on her heel to leave.

Katie gave James an apologetic smile. "You should have seen her after my first date. Sorry about this," she said before Natasha called for her to catch up.

"You're getting grumpy in your old age, Aunt Nat!" James called out just to irk her even as he smiled at Katie. "Not as 'black' anymore either."

Natasha let out a wordless noise, and Katie grinned. "Hey, say hi to your brother for me, wouldja?" Katie said.

"Any love notes you want passed?" James called back. "Boxes with check yes or no?"

Katie giggled. "Yeah, 'when are you coming back from Westchester; please sign and date'."

"I'll draft it for you in purple crayola," James said.

"Please and thank you!" Katie called out before the door closed behind them.

James hummed to himself then took his phone out to draft up a quick text. So, what do you say, Mayday? You gonna leave me hanging or are you going to go out with me? I just got the ticked off Aunt treatment and she wants to know that who I'm seeing isn't a security breach. I didn't mention who I was asking, but I know you're cleared.

There was a pause and James smirked as he watched the three dots dance, waiting for her to respond before finally: I will only date you if you come and introduce yourself to my parents.

They've both seen me here.

Dad doesn't know you've been asking me out or that you're ignoring other girls to get my attention. Yes. I know you've been ignoring them.

James sighed. Queens was definitely out of the radius that Natasha had established for him … but on the other hand, little May Parker was absolutely cleared as the daughter of an Avenger. It really boiled down to what was more attractive to him. Keeping Natasha's head from exploding or impressing Peter Parker's troublemaking but very attractive daughter who he knew was interested in him. He looked across the hallway though the glass separating his lab from Tony's as he weighed it out. It was a no brainer. I can be there in an hour.

Not tonight! I have school in the morning- not all of us are so far ahead of schedule.

James smiled crookedly to himself. He knew tonight wouldn't work but he liked to rile her. Friday then?

The three dots danced and stopped several times before May finally answered. Coffee after you talk to my parents. 3:30. Don't be late.

I won't be. See you then.

Scott was visiting the tower more often lately. It had taken him a while even to go once, because he still didn't like to associate with the team in their work environment, and the last time he'd been had been when Jan got hurt. But the more time James spent there, the more Scott knew he needed to check in and support James so James didn't feel any more like a third wheel than Scott knew he already felt. He just had to remind himself that it was like going to Nate's soccer games.

So, Scott had started going - and was going more often lately, especially with Nate and Rachel in Westchester. His world revolved around the kids, and James was the only one home for the moment. So, he went where James was.

He smirked when the first person he saw was Jan. It had taken the two of them a while to figure out how to maintain their friendship when they both knew they deeply cared about each other, even if they'd broken up. But, somehow, it was easier once Jan started dating Tony Stark. It was easier for Scott to play a protective friend than to walk a careful line of trying not to fall back so easily into the way things had been between them once. And she seemed genuinely happy with Tony - surprisingly so - so that made things easier too.

"Oooh! Good timing!" Jan said when she saw him. "You came by between strikes in the prank war! You should be safe today. Tony's still trying to figure out how to get James back."

"Oh, good, because last time, I was picking feathers out of my hair for hours," Scott said, shaking his head as he closed the door behind him.

"You know, Tony apologized for that for ever, too," Jan laughed. "But it's back in his court … I'm not sure how the counter strike is going to go when your boy managed to rig one of Spidey's cartridges and webbed him to the ceiling."

Scott laughed outright. "That's my boy."

"You know, he's kind of asking for it when he lets the kid help him design triggers?" She pulled him along to the kitchen - already offering him a cup wordlessly. "So. Anything new with you? Anything that maaaybe I don't know about yet that I should know about?"

Scott shook his head with an easy shrug as he took the coffee. "It's been nice to have more one-on-one time with James lately. You wouldn't believe the games of Risk that have been going on at our house."

"Yeah? I already know better than to play chess with him. Is he getting sassy with you finally?" She was grinning widely.

"Mostly when I'm winning at Mario Kart," Scott chuckled. "Or if I have a blue shell."

"I'll have to take you by Tony before you go because you need to see the sassiness - he's got something for you to watch but … before that, I have news … and I want to be sure that all is good in your world."

"Other than Nate regularly contacting me to complain that he's ready to get back to public school?" Scott smirked and tapped his temple. "Which I would believe more if he could maintain the contact."

Jan made a disappointed face. "Poor guy. Being overly upset can't help with that, either, I'll bet."

"Nope. And he hasn't figured out yet that it's a who that he misses, not a what," Scott said, clearly entertained.

"Mmmhmm. Well. Give him a little time. He'll get it, and when he does, I totally have a new place to go for wings that I'd love to take him to," Jan said, nodding to herself before she subtly held her left hand out in front of herself and wiggled her fingers. "So …. News…"

"I noticed," Scott said, smiling outright. "I was wondering if you could stand to keep it to yourself much longer."

"How long have you known?!" Jan said, looking shocked - but delighted.

"Jan, I have eyes that pick up metal on everyone I encounter. I saw before you took your hand out from behind your back." He paused. "And when Tony was carrying it in his pocket for weeks."

She grinned wider. "Well. You have the scoop on the press. We agreed not to let it out until you knew - and it has to be a controlled release. Don't want the press swarming our little wonder kid accidentally."

Scott nodded along to everything she said before he simply pulled her into a hug. "I'm really happy for you - but I also feel like it's my job to say if he hurts you, I'll put him through every wall in the tower. Just so you know."

Jan grinned wider and wrapped him up in another tight hug. "Aww, such a sweet guy."

"Got your back, Jan - you know that," Scott said, pulling her into a spinning hug. "And congratulations."

"Thanks, Scott. It means the world to me. And now … since you're ahead of the curve as you should be … you really need to see the video Tony has for you. He's been laughing for days over this thing. I mean … I didn't realize sass was that strongly genetic."

"What's the video?" Scott asked.

"James giving Natasha a hard time. Like … to the point she was nearly sputtering."

He grinned. "Then yes, I definitely need to see it."

She laughed as she pulled him over to Tony's lab - which was right across the hall from James, both for security and supervision issues - and as luck would have it, Tony was laughing and watching the video in question with Steve. "Oh, good. I need to know - is he like this at home, or does he save it up just for our Widow?" Tony asked when he saw Scott and Jan.

"It's for her … or for when I take Australia in Risk."

Tony was almost giggling as he cued the video up and turned the screen slightly for Scott to watch - again, the discussion at hand was security, and again, James was working loopholes and twisting Natasha's words on her like a pro - all while looking so much like an overly smug Logan it was almost illegal.

Scott shook his head. "And there's his father."

"I don't know," Tony laughed. "Awful lot of mom in there. Lawyering up all over the place."

Scott chuckled again. "You didn't have to deal with him as often as I did. They were a matched set."

"I don't know about how much we didn't have to deal with," Steve said, shaking his head. "His father gave me flack every single chance he got. The man called me his sidekick, for cry eye."

"And I had both of them trying to give me and the professor flack. In tandem."

"Yeah, but I saw her turn on him and play defense for you a couple times," Steve said. "I think she did it just to get that fully blindsided look of betrayal out of him."

"No, it was because I was right," Scott said as if it was that simple.

"Obviously," Steve said, shaking his head with a laugh.

"So … is that normal all the time at home or does he save it for special occasions?" Tony asked.

"He's never that obstinate with me," Scott admitted. "Must just be for Nat."

"Makes sense to me," Steve deadpanned. "Her spy-Nat expression doesn't work on him. He just gives it right back to her and asks what he wins when the staring contest ends." Steve grinned to himself. "Gets her worked up every single time. Even if I'm pretty sure she loves it."

"Jan tell you about the webbing bomb?" Tony asked, his expression somewhere between irritated and proud. "He won't tell me how he got a hold of one of those canisters."

"Oh, well," Jan said, grinning crookedly. "know."

"Yeah, and you're not sharing," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "I can guess just fine. Little May's been spending a lot of time making excuses to get him out of the lab.."

"Yeah," Jan laughed. "And he runs with it when he's not instigating trouble here."

"Aside from the little prank war, he's really not causing trouble," Tony defended. "And if you tell him that this war is good for him, I'll deny it, but it really is getting him even more creative than usual. I've been taking apart the trigger system he rigged for that webbing attack all morning. Amazing work."

"High praise," Jan said his way with a crooked grin.

"He's earned it," Tony defended. "And if he can keep his focus on his work … then MIT will be bending over backwards to work around his schedule." He turned to Scott. "They probably would anyhow, but considering security, I still think it'd be best if he worked for his degrees remotely. I'm reasonably sure I should have done the same thing - but I wanted away from my dad at the time."

"Totally not the problem here," Jan said with full confidence. "But … Mr. Summers, I think I'd like a moment to chat with you, if you don't mind terribly. I have a wedding to plan and I'd like your input while these two act like teenagers."

"Do they ever stop?" Scott asked, one eyebrow raised.

"No. So it's best to leave them to it." She pulled on his arm to lead him away from the two snickering Avengers who were continuing the tape where James had called Natasha the 'grayer widow' and gotten an actual huff out of her.

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Clint and Natasha's second-oldest girl was a mutant, which meant the trip to Westchester for the family - not that Katie was at all bummed about it. She'd been missing her best friend fiercely and couldn't wait to tell him about how his brother was getting into trouble with May Parker and how Spidey refused to believe that May was the source of the trouble.

Nate seriously needed to hurry up and be done with his telepathy control stuff so Katie could get back to teasing people with him.

So she was grinning as she bounded out of her parents' car and bounced past Mia - who knew exactly who Katie was looking for and directed her toward the living room with a whispered: "He needs rescuing. An idiot blonde has him cornered."

Which was great! Then Katie could tease him about being the damsel in distress again.

Except… Nate didn't need rescuing. In fact, Katie barely got a glimpse of the two of them on the couch in a lip-lock before she slammed the door shut, turned purple, and skipped out of there as fast as she could.

She'd never seen Nate kiss anybody else before, and she didn't know what to do with that information. Her brain was basically rejecting the whole idea on the premise that it was too weird.

She made it out to the family car - her mom was dealing with Storm and talking about Lexi's newfound ability to gossip with every bird in New York and to talk to Lucky - and had thought that no one had noticed her quick escape until her dad got in the car from the other side and sat down with her with one eyebrow raised.

And, look, everyone always talked about how her mom was the spy and could get what she wanted with a look, but when her dad pulled that look, it was all over. The next thing Katie knew, she just started crying, and she couldn't figure out how to stop, especially once her dad hugged her and that just seemed to be like giving her permission to fall apart even more.

Eventually, when she felt like she'd cried hard enough that she was starting to come back down to Earth, Clint asked, "So, what happened - and is anyone going to care where I bury the body?"

Despite how terrible she was feeling, Katie ended up laughing as she shook her head and wiped her eyes. "It's stupid," she said, her cheeks still burning bright red.

"Doesn't look stupid to me," Clint said.

"It's Nate."

"I stand corrected."

Katie burst into a little laugh and finally managed to get her cheeks dry. "He's just… never … I mean, I didn't mean to walk in on him making out with a bottle-blonde, but…"

"But he's an idiot."

Katie sniffled and nodded. "Yeah. I mean, I guess he can kiss whoever he wants… I just…" She drew her shoulders up. "I guess I like him, Dad."

"You can do better."

"Yeah, I know," Katie said. "I just didn't even know I liked him, y'know?" She winced out a tiny smile. "Oops?"

Clint couldn't stop his smile. "I honestly don't know if you're more like me or your mom that way."

"Well, Mom says she figured it out one of the times you were, like, dying, so at least I didn't do that," Katie pointed out.

"Maybe he needs to be dying to figure it out … I can arrange that, you know. I know a guy."

Katie laughed and rested her head on Clint's shoulder. "Love you too, Dad."

"Sorry your friend is a moron," Clint said, pulling her in for a bear hug. "If it makes you feel any better at all, most guys at his age are. Hell. most guys at my age are. Sorry 'bout that."

"Yeah, Rachel was complaining about it last time the Summerses were over," Kate said with a small smile.

"I have heard a lot about what little Rachel Summers has been forced to hear."

"Have I mentioned I'm perfectly happy being a non-telepath human?" Katie said, her eyes wide. "Because I am. Very, very happy about it."

"I'll bet. Come on, let's say good luck to your sister and get out of this place, huh?"

Katie nodded and gave her dad one more hug. "Let's jet," she agreed.

"Taser arrows," James said out of nowhere. "I can make 'em tiny. Like darts. He won't see them coming."

Katie looked up from the homework she had been doing at the tower. James was ridiculously sneaky, which she didn't think was fair, and she hadn't heard him coming until just that moment when he'd spoken up. "Who won't see them coming?" she asked.

"Anyone that's dumb enough to have ticked you off," he said, raising one eyebrow. "Anyone I know?"

"Oh, just that idiot brother of yours has been kissing blondes," Katie grumbled, flushing pink. She wasn't sure what had given her away, since she'd sworn her dad to secrecy.

"Glitter bomb if you don't want to hurt him. But I still think a taser is appropriate. Just be sure you shoot him in the butt."

"It would be more satisfying to shoot her, since she was the one, um, being pushy…" Katie said, drifting off and really not wanting to talk about what she'd seen.

"Stink bomb then. Or something to dye her hair … orange. Like neon orange."

Katie smirked. "That last one for sure."

"It'd dye the skin, too." James leaned on the chair next to her. "But … how about a study break?" He peeked over her shoulder. "You've got this lesson down."

Katie let her shoulders drop but closed the book. "Yeah, I was just trying to look busy," she admitted. "Dad keeps offering neutering services, and I love him, but I'm trying not to be that girl, you know? Not like I ever asked Nate out anyway."

"Did you even know you liked him before the skank encounter?" James asked as he offered her a hand up.

"Well, no," Katie said slowly.

"Then you can't kick yourself over it." He leaned toward her and let his voice drop lower. "He was not prepared for her at all. It won't last long. But in the meantime, you look like you could use a coffee. Or a cocoa. And I have a short list of coffee shops that your mom won't stroke out over if I go to them … so we need to ignore that list and find a new one."

Katie laughed. "She might stroke out if she thinks I'm rebounding with you - especially if she thinks I'm rebounding cheating with May's guy."

"You're not rebounding. You're just … getting some coffee with me." He snapped his fingers. "You're my chaperone. Responsible party."

"James, I hate to tell you this, but if I'm the responsible party, we're all in trouble," Katie laughed.

"We'll have fun," he said, grinning at her. "Come on. What's it gonna hurt? Cross my heart, I'm not hitting on you. You're too much like a dorky little sister to me."

"We're practically the same age," Katie said, rolling her eyes.

"Still not the same."

"One month!"

"So you should be more mature. Are you coming or what?" James was still smiling at her. "May's going to be at her debate club all afternoon and it's definitely time for a break from here. So count yourself lucky because she wouldn't ask before retaliating against him or his skank."

Katie smiled and shook her head. "I'm coming," she said, taking a few quick steps to catch up to him. "Your girlfriend is trouble, you know that? I love her."

"What? She's just … creative. And starting to get spider-powers."

"Which is why you like hanging out with her so much," Katie pointed out. "But if it's alright with you, can we just talk about something not related to dating for a while?"

"Anything but Nate, yes. Please. That's what I was hoping for."

Katie smiled and let James lead the way as the two of them talked about Tony's latest shenanigans, not to mention how Lexi was getting along with classes in Westchester and how James' dad was still trying to fend off single women in their neighborhood without stepping on any toes.

Eventually, they got to the cafe and settled down with their coffee, now well into a discussion of Katie's love of sports colliding with sleazy and sexist coaches the older she got. She told him she was leaning toward cheerleading at this point because the soccer and softball coaches were both driving her nuts.

"I will 100% beat the daylights out of any coach that looks at you crooked," James promised. "I'll even make it look like an accident."

Katie laughed. "Mom's already taking care of it."

"She's a hog when it comes to that stuff you know. And we should really watch out for her the older she gets."

"Well, you know I've been talking to Aunt Jan about designing something for me for that secret project we're definitely not supposed to be even considering…"

"Ah," James said, leaning back slightly.

"Nate let me in on it," Katie explained. "I hope that's okay, even if I'm not, you know…"

"I'm not even sure I'm in on it," James said. "I know about it, sure, I just … don't know that it's a smart move. And even though I know you're going to go into the one team, just … think it over before you commit to anything like the other one."

"Yeah, Jan sat me down to have a good talk when I approached her," Katie told him honestly. "She saw how messed up your dad was after what happened - how messed up he still is - and … she says she'll totally design for us if we do it, but I think I got her version of 'buyer beware'."

James looked surprised to hear it. "Really."

"You know she was really torn up about everything after that breakup, right? Not just the romantic angle," Katie pointed out.

"Ah, yeah, I was the only one that came up here when it was still fresh," James said. "Pretty sure I buried myself in applied astrophysics for a month. You know … before I ended up spending too much time with Franklin."

Katie nodded. "Still. If it's okay, I'd like to do it if you guys decide to go through with it." She paused. "Even if Nate's still being an idiot. Not like I only wanted to help for him."

"They're going through with it," James said. "I'm the only one on the fence. They've wanted to forever, I doubt they'll back off until they at least try it."

"Then I guess I'll have to back them up so they aren't even stupider than usual." Katie pulled a face. "Nate alone…"

"That is a really big job for just one person," James said seriously. "Both of them when they're secret keeping too?" He let out a noise of disgust. "Makes me glad I can block them out. It's nice to be defective sometimes. Make them speak."

"Actually, I like talking with Nate when he's-" She paused, blushed, and then let her shoulders drop. "Oh, never mind. That would be super awkward right about now."

"Katie. Come on. Don't lose your stride now." He dipped his head down to catch her gaze. "Do you need chocolate or explosives?"

"Um, yes?" Katie said, with one eye closed. "Sorry, I'm just…"

"You can take it out on me if you need to," James said.

Katie let out a laugh that didn't sound like her and instead of getting mad at him she started to cry a little bit. "Not your fault your brother is like this," she said. "And I really should get over it; I should."

James let out a sigh and got up to cross over to her side of the booth and wrapped her up in a hug. "I'm sorry, Katie. It's not your problem to fix."

Katie leaned her forehead on his shoulder as she hugged him back tightly with a soft, "I know."

They would have stayed like that for as long as Katie needed the hug, too - but they were joined by an unexpected visitor. A girl with curly, dark hair and a cropped hoodie that showed off her midriff sat down at their table and tipped her head at the two of them. "So, who's the jerk that made a gorgeous girl cry and can I help pound him?"

"Got it covered, thanks, new girl," James said.

"Yeah, you're a great shoulder to cry on; I can see that," the girl said before she held her hand out to Kate. "America Chavez, by the way. And my offer's good. I think most sleazebags deserve a beating anyway, but for a pretty girl, I'll go out of my way for it."

James couldn't help but laugh under his breath. "Okay, sure … been offered already and he's not that big of a sleaze. Just … stupid."

"He's dating an idiot blonde," Katie explained, smiling in spite of herself at America's brazen approach.

"Over you? Chica, you can do so much better than a blind moron," America said, smiling easily.

"She's not wrong," James said quietly as he sat back, though he didn't move away from her as he watched America.

"Yeah, I've gotten that message a few dozen times over, thanks," Katie said, brushing a hand through her hair.

James drew in a slow breath, subtly testing the air, then turned his head toward the counter. "Would you ladies like a refill? I'm buying."

"Well, if you're buying, I won't turn you down," America said easily.

James slid her a napkin. "Write down what you want. I know what she likes to order."

America smirked, took the napkin, wrote down her phone number - and gave it to Kate instead. "I'll just have cocoa, gracias."

James smirked and stood up. "De nada. You girls have fun. Don't worry, I'll take my time."

Katie was smiling in disbelief as she watched James leave and then pocketed the napkin with America's phone number on it. "Okay, I admit it: that was a good move."

"Hey, my opening move of offering to be a knight in shining armor didn't wow you," America laughed. "And you are very pretty."

Katie blushed. "You're not so bad yourself."

"I'll take it." America leaned forward with a smile. "Is 'not so bad' enough for a coffee date without your friend around?"

"We'll see," Katie laughed, knowing her mom would have a fit if she didn't at least run America's number through a few databases before she went anywhere alone.

When James came back a while later with drinks for the three of them, he couldn't help but slide another napkin to America. "Number of the barista in case you can't get any traction," he said as casually as breathing.

America laughed and pocketed the number. "Consolation prize. Nice. Should I be worried?" She was looking at James but obviously directing the question to Katie, who laughed and shook her head.

"Bout what?" James asked.

"Well, you're the friend she cries on in public. You've got sway," America teased him. "If you're already prepping me for failure with a backup option…"

"I've got a girlfriend. And I like to help wherever I can," he said with a crooked smile.

"So do I," she said, matching his smile with one of her own. "And I think I'm doing fine without the consolation number."

"I help even when it's my own brother being the idiot in question," James said.

"Ooh, that is a good friend. You're lucky, Princess," America said, grinning Katie's way.

"I know it, too," Katie said, smiling over the top of her coffee cup.

America grinned wider and then got to her feet. "Call me when you're ready to wash the taste of the idiot brother out of your mouth," she told Katie, all but bouncing out of the cafe.

James waited just long enough for the door to close behind America before he turned toward Katie with one eyebrow raised - and not a word spoken.

Katie threw both hands up. "I don't know. Maybe."

"She's cute. She seems like fun. And she wasn't being deceptive or sneaky about anything."

"No, I don't have to have a super sniffer to know how open she was being," Katie agreed, smiling in spite of herself.

"It wasn't a line either," James said.

"Well, that's good, because if I do end up kissing a girl, I don't want to dig up that conversation with, like, everyone for a line," Katie said.

"No one will bother you on that front," James said with a wave. "If you go for it now, when you're all … heartbroken, they'd probably just chalk it up to rebound or a fluke thing or … honestly the furthest thing from Nate you can find."

Katie shrugged. "I dunno. I guess it can't hurt to try it out, right?"

James held up one hand. "And I swear I won't breathe a word or have a thought about you or your pretty girlfriend to Nate or Rachel."

"No, no, you can definitely think about it around them," Katie said quickly.

"Yeah, I can. And they won't know anyhow," James said. "Cut 'em out, remember?"

"No, I mean…" Katie flushed. "I mean, turnabout…"

"Test the waters," James said, smirking and nodding slowly. "Yeah, okay. Or … ask her out. We can double. He'd hear about it through proxy by Dad and your mom won't have fits if you're not alone." He pulled out his phone and started texting May.

"James, has anyone told you you're a genius?" Katie asked, leaning over to kiss his cheek.

"Nope," he said, smirking wider as May replied with an enthusiastic 'when and where' that he tipped so Kate could read. "Genius hasn't come up."

Katie grinned. "Okay, but let me at least run her number or my mom will kill me. And besides, you don't call the same day you get the number."

James pointed at the cup America had left behind. "I was gonna run DNA, but sure. A phone trace won't be a problem either."

"Awww, you look out for me so well," she gushed.

"I have to. I'm a whole month older." When he got up, he carefully snatched America's empty cup. "Ready to go back? Just tell May the when and where. Don't worry about her parents. She'll get out anyhow."

Katie laughed. "You two are going to get in so much trouble one of these days. More than the usual level you get into."

He frowned at her. "What are you talking about? We're perfectly innocent."

"Yes, of course," Katie said, nodding along before she pulled her arm through his. "Now, come on. Let's get home so we can set up a double date."

Chapter Text

"Are you sure it's okay for Kate to bring a date to a school dance at a school she doesn't go to?" Nate asked Rachel with a frown as he put the finishing touches on his costume. A few weeks had passed since Katie and America started dating - or more accurately, double dating with James and May.

"You'd rather she went to the haunted house that America and May suggested?" Rachel countered. "Because you know if May suggested it … it wasn't for the haunted house. It was for the dark corners." Rachel shook her head with a muted laugh. "I swear, her projections are every bit as bad as most of the teenage boys I've gotten mad at."

Nate let out an annoyed breath. "That's not what I meant," he said as he flipped his pirate eyepatch down.

"Well those were the options," Rachel said with a shrug as she finished her makeup.

"Yeah, it's just… we were texting and she told me what they're all doing for costumes…" Nate muttered, not meaning to project to Rachel how he just knew he wasn't going to be able to focus all night. Along with exactly how frustrated he was that Katie was dating someone else.

It can't be that bad, Rachel tried to tell him. And you're dating someone else. I'm just surprised that everyone let them go with America driving.

America can talk anyone into anything, Nate pointed out sullenly.

Yeah, but Dad.

Dad… thinks James is the angel child.

No, Dad thinks that May won't do anything too far off the rails, Rachel corrected. Especially since the plan meant meeting Spidey once they got here.

Yeah, cuz James isn't the one dating America.

No. Just double dating with her. Rachel was smiling to herself - especially since even now, Nate still wasn't fully aware of how sullen he was acting over Katie having a date.

Nate let out a breath and then kicked off from the dresser. "C'mon. Let's watch Spidey have an aneurism."

By the time Rachel and Nate got down to the party, America, Kate, May, and James had already shown up - and as predicted, Spidey was a few steps away from having a cardiac episode as his sweet little girl was having a blast dressed up as Daenerys Targaryen and proudly grinning at the slit in the skirt that went up to her hip. She'd gotten James to go along with her 'freak dad out' plan as a shirtless Khal Drogo. America of course, thought it was the height of hilarity, too, which was all the fuel on the fire that May needed to go through with kicking it up another notch.

She and James stuck around long enough for Mia to gush about their full costumes and makeup, then turned to Kate and America as James and May disappeared with May leading the way through the crowd and giggling madly the whole time.

"You guys look so much better in person in these outfits!" Mia declared, bouncing on her toes as her tail swayed behind her. "The cell phone pic was great but this …"

Kate and America grinned at each other, both of them wearing short skirts as matching Sailor Moon characters - both of them nailing the look complete with pigtails. "Your costume's amazing too," Katie pointed out. "I can't believe Forge put together a working Ghostbuster proton pack."

"Of course he did! He's the best," Mia answered with a warm smile. "Come on! You have to show off for mom before you both get too busy."

America smirked Kate's way. "See, Princess? She knows what's up."

"Oh, hush," Katie said, though she was blushing deeply - and grinning.

Mia dragged them to Storm, gushing the whole way, only to pause when she saw Nate show up across the hall. "Oh. Right. So … did you get your candy yet? Bob for apples before the water gets full of gross."

The pause was so obvious that America leaned over to Kate to whisper "oh look, the idiot," which prompted Kate to fall apart giggling - and got Nate to frown even deeper than before, if that was at all possible.

"Hey, Nate," Kate said, waving his way. "I like the pirate costume."

Nate made a small noise at the back of his throat before his date, Taylor, started to pull him away. "I like your costume too," he managed to say - over his shoulder.

"Yep. Confirmed idiot," America said loud enough that Nate could hear it and turn around to glare at her - only for America to take that exact moment to pick Kate up and kiss her hard.

Nate glared harder, especially when Kate kissed America back just as enthusiastically, and after that, he really wasn't paying much attention to what Taylor was saying anyway.

Across the room, as Nate got more and more irritated with Taylor, Mia let out a squeak and teleported over to Rachel with wide eyes. "Um … Spidey can't … talk. I think your brother is in trouble."

Rachel shrugged, not at all concerned with that brother at the moment. "May picked the costumes, so Spidey can't claim anything against James here."

"Yeah, but he went looking for them and … found them in the corner?" Mia told her quietly. "He looked like he was going to yell, but May just picked up your brother and took off. Laughing."

"Sounds about right," Rachel said, smirking.

"Is Nate okay?" she asked quieter.

Rachel let out a sigh and gestured wordlessly to her sulking brother. "He doesn't even realize he's being like he is. And I'm actively trying not to listen to his thoughts right now ever since he saw the Sailor Moon outfits, thanks. I don't need to know my brother's fantasies. Ever."

"Oh. My. God," Mia said, even more wide eyed than before. "Can you stop him without making him stroke out?"

"I'm not that good yet, and honestly, when I'm annoyed, my touch is more fiery than usual, so… that's a double no."

"How about you step away from the sulking brother then?" Mia suggested. "But I wouldn't go toward the library. I know James is probably blocking you but May …might be problematic." She turned and took in the room at large. "Yeah, you know … I'm betting this whole party kind of stinks for you right now, doesn't it?"

"I'm getting better at tuning them all out," Rachel said. "Actually, the adults are worse in some cases."

"Okay. please don't enlighten me … and how about … we just I don't know … find something to do that's fun?"

"Yeah, let's make my brother play the advanced candy toss Warren set up. He can't resist sharpshooting," Rachel said, smirking.

"Yes. good luck with that, I'll make sure we have enough candy canes." She grinned and disappeared in a poof of smoke - only to return a few moments later and pelt Nate with a few pieces of candy. "Come on! Time to play games!"

Kate and America shared a look and grinned as they took their places at the candy toss. There was a whole line up of quick games both old fashioned and some more modern to keep the students occupied. Everything from apple bobbing and the candy toss to donut jousting and moving candy corn with only straws. Which meant there was much that Kate and Nate could do to compete.

"Partners!" Kate called out, and America was quick to snatch the bucket from Kate's hands.

"Oh, come on," Nate grumbled just low enough that Taylor didn't hear him as she took up the spot next to America holding his bucket, though he raised his voice to Kate and America. "I hope you're ready to get beaten one-handed."

"In your dreams, idiot boy," America laughed.

It was simple enough - Kate and Nate were throwing pieces of wrapped up candy for America and Taylor to catch. The two with buckets weren't allowed to move beyond their reach, so accuracy started with the two throwing and right out of the gate, it was entirely lopsided.

The truth was that Kate and Nate were pretty evenly matched with aim … the problem was that Taylor didn't know that and was trying hard to compensate and impress them by over correcting and panicking when he'd toss something at her.

America and Kate on the other hand … America barely moved. At all. It was child's play to win that round - which frustrated Nate even further as he tried to gently tell Taylor repeatedly to quit. Moving. Which really only showed him that she had zero faith in his skills.

A few tables over, Storm was overseeing the apple bobbing all while encouraging and laughing at the kids that were participating. Lexi had just come up to try, but was nervous about it. Or she was until Spidey came in, marching May ahead of him with one hand on her shoulder - and dragging James along with his free hand, insisting that the two of them stay somewhere public … though his direction was lacking the kind of laser guided directive that James decided was required, and to Peter's absolute irritation, James and May shared a trouble making look and dove into a very public borderline makeout session right there at the apple bobbing station.

Storm busted out laughing, but broke up the fun with a well-placed miniature storm cloud that had May loudly protesting and James laughing with his face tipped up to the rain. "Now that you're already wet, it won't hurt you to show Lexi how it's done," Ororo said as she pulled James back, laughing all the more when he simply used one hand to push the wet hair back and smiled up toward the last bit of the tiny rainshower.

"Are there teams?" James asked.

"Yes, and you're on Lexi's," Ororo said. "Let May find someone else for five minutes."

James was still grinning as he turned to Lexi. "You heard her. She put me on a timer."

Which of course had Ororo laughing again at him. "That is not what I said," she managed through her laugh. "Try to behave yourself."

Lexi giggled, knowing that James was picking at her, but it gave Peter a chance to actually talk to his daughter without James distracting her. It also left James and Lexi joking around as if there hadn't been an angry dad there just a moment ago. "You don't need me to win this," James said over her shoulder, though he hadn't backed away to go after May, knowing full well she should take a few minutes for both of their sakes.

"Your eye liner is running," Lexi laughed.

"Because you're breaking my heart by stalling," James said, gesturing to the apples floating in the water. "Get to it so we can get on with the game."

"Do you have a strategy for me?"

"Don't breathe in once your face is in the water," James said as seriously as he could - at least until Lexi hit him and called him a dork before diving in to try. She hadn't been at the institute for long yet, and she still was a little self conscious around all the kids, but James either didn't have that issue, or he didn't let it show because he seemed to be fine joking around and playing games with anyone around them as he and Lexi kept it up - with both of them giving the other advice - until they got their apples.

Which was when Nate came over ready to take his turn too - and wanting to at least beat America and Kate for time. "I don't know that you're authorized to play in the water, pirate boy," James said as he gestured to Nate's sling.

"It's not a cast," Nate said, frowning at his brother. "You're wearing more eye makeup than Rachel, you know." Lexi took one look at the expression on Nate's face and decided to get out of the line of fire.

"May did it," he said, not at all bothered by Nate's irritated tone, even if he was still dripping water from both the apple bobbing and the short shower that Ororo had hit him with. James grinned at Nate and crunched into his apple, perfectly at ease with all the chaos around them.

"You're supposed to go put caramel on that," America said as she and Kate came over to play, too.

"No thanks, I don't need the sugar," James said as he leaned into the chair nearest him to watch the spectacle. "And I wanna see who wins this round. I think I know already."

Nate narrowed his eyes at his brother but took up a position where he could glare at James if need be.

"You both know the rules here," Ororo said as she joined the little group of teenagers, though she paused to turn toward America. "I take it you would like to race Nate as well?"

"I could, but I already won," America said with a crooked smile. "Isn't that right, princess?"

"At one game, anyhow," James said, which was just enough to get America to shove him sideways and for Nate to regain his grin. "You sure you want to play this one, Katie?"

Kate glared as she took her spot across from Nate. "I'm on a winning streak. I totally want to play this one."

"Yeah, but are you sure?" James asked, only to get smacked in the chest by America.

"She wants to win, chico. No reason to give your idiot brother a chance." America shook her head at him. "Let her do her thing."

Nate and Kate were settled in at the same bucket. The water wasn't terribly deep, but it was still big enough for them to get soaked in if they weren't careful. Not that it was going to make a difference when the two of them squared off. They never could just play a game. It had to be a contest.

"No hands," Ororo reminded them. "And no powers."

"I don't need telekinesis to win," Nate said almost sullenly since, part of what his trouble with getting full control was his unintentional use of telekinesis. And with Katie right there it was a wicked reminder that he still had a way to go. And he hated that fact.

"Come on, little brother," James said. "There's no way you can't win this one."

"Thanks, James," Nate said, smiling crookedly until James continued.

"Your mouth is way bigger than hers."

Nate barely even looked at his brother before he shoved him back a step - aided by his telekinesis, not that it needed to be advertised, and not like James would bust him out on it. "Can we do this thing or what?"

"Waiting on you," Katie said with a smile, and after a quick countdown, the two of them dove into the water face first. Nate was determined, and Katie wanted to keep her winning streak, but … before she could quite isolate one, Nate was up holding one of the bigger apples by the stem between his teeth.

He was grinning around the apple as Katie sat up too, but the smile fell from his face when he realized how soaked she'd gotten and he quickly looked away. Before she could quite figure out what his problem was, Nate was already offering her his overshirt. "You got more soaked than I did," he said quietly, then rushed off once Katie had taken a hold of the offered shirt.

"What was that?" Rachel asked as Nate made his way over to her.

"Nothing," Nate said, still red high on his cheeks. Just trying to be nice. That's all."

Kate spun toward James with a frown as Nate rushed off. "Why did he …"

James cleared his throat and gestured toward her costume. "He probably didn't want you showing off in the impromptu wet t-shirt contest." He shrugged. "Or … he's just like that. Who knows. I'm no telepath." He kicked himself away from the chair he'd been sitting in. "I have to find May and try to talk Spidey down. Probably check on my siblings, too."

"Yeah, make sure he gets his eyes put back into his head," America shouted, then turned back to Kate.

"Worry about yourself, America," James laughed. "See you in a little while… party's almost over." He was still laughing to himself by the time he met up with Nate and Rachel and unceremoniously dropped into the seat next to Nate. "So. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Nate said, rolling his eyes.

"That was so chivalrous."

"It's more than you were doing," Nate said, though that only had James laughing to himself.

"Seeing as I had no shirt to share ... I mean … I doubt dropping my pants would have helped her."

"Oh my God," Nate said, covering his eyes with one hand. "I just … I was trying to help. And America wasn't-"

"America wasn't complaining," James agreed, cutting him off. "And she wouldn't."

"Not if she got to take a peek," Nate said almost sullenly, though James let out a long and pained sounding sigh.

"America wouldn't complain because you were helping not … being a slimeball."

"I'm never a slimeball," Nate said, sounding insulted, though that wasn't at all what James was trying to insinuate.

"I know - just … you know what? Nevermind. Have fun with Taylor. I'm going to make the rounds before Dad gets here," James said as he got up.

"Too late, he got here a few minutes ago," Rachel said, tipping her head toward the far side of the ballroom. "He's with Spidey. Have fun."

"Will do," James replied, turning on his heel to head toward where their Dad was having a muted chat with Peter and May Parker, though much of that fell to the wayside when Peter spotted him approaching.

"And here we go," Peter said, half frowning at James as he walked up and stood between his Dad and May. "Done causing trouble already?"

"I was just talking to my siblings," James said with a smile as he reached over to hold May's hand - which got a grin out of her anyhow. "So … probably, yeah."

"I'm telling you, you should have seen them earlier," Peter said, shaking his head. "I'm glad you're here to help me break it up."

"Do I need to break it up?" Scott asked, turning toward James with a raised eyebrow, though James only shrugged one shoulder up in response in a very non-committal gesture.

Until very recently, Scott really hadn't needed to worry too much about James and what he was up to with the girls he dated, but things had changed when he started seeing May Parker. Scott knew that James had been the one to kick things off after a few weeks of tutoring her at the tower for a project she was having trouble with at the Midtown High School Science and Technology, but once they had become an item, he watched as James seemed to simply hand the reins to May and let her run the show entirely.

Which meant that at least Scott knew that if they were getting into more adult situations, it wasn't from James pushing. "If you don't have a good answer, then it's probably time to call it a night," Scott said, and James honestly didn't argue it at all - which Scott thought should have been a signal to Peter that he wasn't pushing. Especially when May made it clear she wasn't pleased with the idea and dragged James off for one more goodnight kiss.

"They've been non-stop all night," Peter said, looking off to where May had disappeared with James. "Pure. Trouble."

"Has he been pushy?" Scott asked, trying to see if he could gently ease his mind.

"No, not really," Peter said, then sighed heavily. "Is it bad that I know I'd really like the kid if he wasn't dating my little girl?"

Scott did a fine job of keeping his smile in check as he shook his head 'no'. "I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same way with anyone Rachel so much as talks about."

Peter turned toward Scott with a perfectly open expression. "Is it easier with boys?"

"No," Scott replied immediately. "No, then you have to worry about everything from a whole different angle. Worry about them making the same mistakes we did at their age …"

"Oh. Man. Yeah … I'll just … I'll just try to get used to the polite and agreeable mini-Wolverine. Even if they're … they're just kissing, right? Tell me they're just kissing."

Scott tried not to laugh, though for as concerned as Peter was, he'd have been lying if he said he wasn't also wondering the same thing. "As far as I know."

Across the hall, America was saying goodnight to Katie since her parents had shown up too. It was the weekend, so those that took their kids back for a few days were picking them up a little later than their usual Friday afternoon timeslot.

While Nate and Rachel waited near the front door for their father and James to make it to them, Katie carefully positioned herself to say goodbye to America, who was driving back alone.

"So. I had a great time," Kate said, pulling Nate's shirt around herself a little tighter, but that was all she got out before America grinned and pulled her into an extended kiss that honestly left them both a little breathless for the moment.

"See you soon, Princess," America said, walking backward to the door before she turned on her heel and almost skipped out of there, leaving Kate in the entry with Nate and Rachel for the longest thirty seconds of her life.

Rachel was giving her a raised eyebrow look, though she was also smirking crookedly while Nate had taken an intense interest in his shoes, though the tips of his ears were cherry red.

The standoff lasted less than a minute but time seemed to crawl by the three of them as Scott and made his way over with James in tow. "You ready to go?" Scott asked when he came to a stop near them.

Nate was silent, though Rachel answered for them both. "Waiting on you, Dad."

Scott nodded and spared Katie a smile that she almost missed, though she didn't miss the sign James managed outside of the other's view. You OK? She nodded and smiled, then smiled wider when Nate peeked up and the Summers family got moving, leaving Kate in a haze from the admittedly good kiss with America and the flannel shirt that she had wrapped around herself … that she had no plans on ever returning.