Chapter 1: The Beginning of the End
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 I 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 2: Malicious Compliance
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 K 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.
"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 3: Leverage
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."
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 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."
"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 4: Like Father, Like Son
Word of warning : This chapter contains a MAJOR Character Death. No takesie backsies. Suicide Warning.
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."
"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 5: Too Far
*** We're not done with the horrible things yet. More MAJOR Character deaths. Psychological trauma. PTSD. ***
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 …"
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 6: Don't Shoot The Messenger
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."
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. I 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 7: Stage Four Grief: Depression
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."
"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.
Ya tebya lyublyu - I love you.
Proshchay - goodbye (as opposed to do svidaniya which is 'until next time')
Chapter 8: Investing In The Future
Where we take a small break from the *new* Summers family dynamic to check on everyone else
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 I 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 9: Burdened Goddess
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 10: Gifted Youngsters
(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."
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 11: So Much Potential
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. "I 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.