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Whole: Twenty Years Later

Chapter Text

Please, I know that we're different
We were one cell in the sea in the beginning
And what we're made of was all the same once
We're not that different after all
~The Minnow & The Trout; A Fine Frenzy

Bones Justice let out a mental sigh--the only kind of sigh someone without lungs could release. He couldn't even blow a whistle, so he was forced to forgo that particular staple of coachdom and squeezed the small horn in his hand instead. The scolding shriek it let out was extremely loud and annoying, and left no doubt in the mind of anyone who heard it that they were in big trouble.

In front of him in the exercise area of the locker room, two rookies--who were supposed to be going through basic wrestling moves together--broke apart guiltily. Bones was glad that the new season didn't start for several months yet. Half the current team was fresh from college, and training them for their very first game in the Mutant League was proving to be a challenge.

Training one rookie in particular was turning out to be especially challenging.

"Trina," he called tiredly, beckoning.

Preparing the sprightly young athlete known as Trina Kidd for her debut season was a feat wrought with difficulties--though none of them stemmed from her skill or focus, thank goodness. On the contrary, she had exactly the drive, the determination, and the talent to make it, and make it big. She was the real deal, but she had a couple of issues working against her.

For one thing, she was the daughter of one of the most popular and most successful mutant athletes to ever set foot inside the Dome. This automatically applied pressure to prove that she had gotten to where she was now on her own merit, while other athletes, the press, and the fans all debated on whether she was just riding the wave her father had created or not.

For another thing, she was, well--a she. Bones would have liked to have said that numerous female athletes had followed Thrasher--an ironic notion, considering how he and his teammates reacted in the beginning--but in truth, there had only been a handful, and none had garnered the kind of following and success Thrasher had. As a result, Trina also had to deal with the question of her being the next Thrasher, or the next wannabe-slash-failure. If that wasn't bad enough, she had to deal with something that Thrasher never had to worry about: her appearance.

Although attractive in her own way, there was never any doubt that Thrasher Malone, with her stocky build, blazing white eyes and unique features, was an intimidating figure on the field. Trina, on the other hand, wasn't a full-blown mutant, but a mutant-norm hybrid--the first to ever join the League, in fact. With her smaller build, cornflower blue eyes, and glossy black hair, Trina was anything but intimidating.

Conversely, it meant that other athletes didn't take her very seriously. Her mother said it gave her an advantage, since it meant they would underestimate her on the field, and while Trina claimed to agree, it was clear she felt the need to prove herself in some way. Because she always tried to run faster, respond quicker, and hit harder than anyone else--whether it was called for or not.

"Trina," he said again, "this is just a friendly sparring in the locker room. There's no call for breaking your partner's arm."

He tried to give his hardest glare, but Trina, staring down at her toes like that, was obviously remorseful, so he couldn't quite manage it. That was another problem; finding the right level of discipline and force for everyone, whether they were your niece or not. If he went too easy on her he would be accused of playing favorites, but he didn't want to dig into her harder than anyone else, either. Not unless she deserved it.

Instead of scolding her further, he absently gestured to the mutant she had been sparring with, who was clutching his shoulder and looking unhappy. "Go on, go take a soak. And then go home. Practice is over for today."

He headed off with a pained grimace. Trina shuffled her bare feet. "I didn't mean to," she mumbled. "I got--"

"Carried away," Bones supplied. "I know. That happens to you a lot."

Trina nodded and hung her head lower. "I know, I know. Save it for our opponents and leave my teammates in one piece. Especially on the field."

Bones opened his mouth to add something--and then shut it again. She had already summed up pretty much all he wanted to cover.

Without waiting for actual instructions, she headed off to start her usual punishment: cleaning the locker room. She always seemed to know what he was going to say before he said it, which made training her a much different experience from the other rookies. Bones assumed it was because he was her uncle and she had known him all her life.

Either that or she had inherited the ability to read his mind from her mother. He sure hoped not.

Ed Justice whistled quietly to himself as he parked his car and hopped out. He made sure to park at the back of the bookstore, and to stroll up to the rear entrance--common practice for him these days.

He checked his watch before knocking; right on time. A second or two passed before the door creaked open. An average-sized norm opened it, mouth open in greeting and eyes fixed at a point roughly level with Ed's chest. The greeting died on his open lips as he looked up, up, until he found Ed's face.

"Ummm...are you him?" he asked, sounding a bit dumbstruck.

"I'm him," Ed said mildly, flashing his ID. "May I please come in now?"

The man shook himself and stepped back, ushering him inside. He led him through the back room--storage, mostly--and into the main part of the large bookstore. It was still early and the store opened at noon today, so Ed took his time setting up his space at the table set aside for him, arranging his latest publication on the sides and corners of the table in stacks that would show off the cover, while leaving room in the middle for book and autograph signing.

While he worked, the man who let him in absently crossed through the room several times. He kept busy, straightening a few displays, switching a few sales tags, but Ed could tell he was keeping an eye on him, his look of disbelief plain. Ed just smiled to himself. He was used to that reaction.

When people were told they were going to meet a twenty-six-year-old novelist who specialized in violent action and gritty crime dramas, they expected a young John Grisham or Stephen King type. Smallish, ruffled hair, glasses, a suit or at least a blazer. Soft-spoken.

They never expected him to be six feet tall, to dress in worn leather and denim and to have a rust-colored ponytail that hung to his waist. He generally spoke in a quiet voice--it helped keep his presence from overwhelming the easily frightened--but did he have a loud streak that he had developed during the last sixteen years of being around his aunt and uncle? You better believe it.

Inside the bookstore, the employees were darting around rapidly, preparing to open for the day. Outside, customers--though fans was probably a more accurate description--were lining the sidewalk, chattering with each other as they anxiously waited for the doors to open. They came armed with pens, cameras, and books waiting to be signed.

Ed settled back in his seat, putting on his best 'relaxed and approachable' expression as one of the clerks unlocked the door. Showtime.

Regina Malone covered another jaw-popping yawn. Modeling had to be the most boring form of work ever invented. The entertainment industry painted it as wild, fast-paced and exciting. In reality, about ninety-percent of it was waiting.

She had to wait while her hair and makeup was done. She had to wait while someone made sure whatever outfit she was wearing was perfect, down to the last fiber. Even once she was ready, she had to continue to wait while the photographer adjusted the lighting, camera angle and lenses. The photographer in charge of the shoot today was especially picky and was taking a year and a day just to set up the first shot.

Back when she was a child, her parents slapped away anyone wanting to put her on film, either for magazines, TV ads or movies. They managed to keep the worst of them away when she was small--blood-thirsty vultures, her father called them--but when she reached her teen years and started spending more time away from her parents, the vultures swarmed worse than ever.

Regina understood why her parents had refused to pay someone to take her picture when she was small; they wanted her to be old enough to make that decision for herself and not make it for her when she was too young to really understand. When she was old enough to understand, she came to this conclusion: the vultures were going to swarm no matter what anyone said or did, and they took pictures and distributed them without paying her--or getting her consent--so she decided she may as well sign up with someone actually willing to pay her for her image.

People were constantly talking about her beauty, but she knew that her looks had nothing to do with the interest. Her parents were both famous, but even if they weren't, the world would have still acquired an almost perverse fascination for her once she was born, because she had the honor and distinction of being the first mutant-norm hybrid ever conceived.

Many more had been born in the last twenty years--including Trina, who came mere months after her--but they weren't given a fraction of the attention she was. She was the first, and that made her extra-special.

She wondered absently, as the photographer finally finished his prep-work and started giving clipped instructions, if her parents were a little disappointed in her. They spent over half her life keeping the drooling wolves away from their little lamb, and now here she stood in the center of the wolf den--in three-inch heels and a gown with a balloon skirt and matching sleeves.

Even if they weren't, there was no denying she was disappointed in herself. She never felt proud of--or remotely interested in--her own work, and she never used the products she was supposed to be endorsing. If she could, she would quit this very second and go home...but there was that unfortunate thing known as a contract.

There was still a year left on hers, so she forced a smile and pretended to love whatever clothes she wrapped herself in, to be ecstatic about whatever makeup product she was holding. Other girls would probably start acting out at this point, making their displeasure known to all in no uncertain terms. Regina didn't have it in her to be a prima donna--and even if she did, she wouldn't.

Fame was funny that way. Some people could get away with the most atrocious behavior, doing everything from bad-mouthing anyone who ever lived to destroying property, and as a result they were constantly booked for interviews by people dying to see what they would do next. Some of her fellow models, for example, never hesitated to throw a tantrum over the most trivial things.

Other people didn't get away with it, and there never seemed to be any rhyme or reason as to why or why not. Regina had a feeling she was one of the latter types, and so she behaved to the letter, no matter how unhappy she was. Because she knew if she so much as threw a small fit at the tiniest shoot, word would get around--fast.

For some, this meant more publicity. For others, this meant their days were numbered. And Regina didn't want to have trouble finding work once her contract was finally up, so...

What did she plan to do once she permanently retired her poses? Honestly, she wasn't sure. But just about anything sounded better than 'look this way, smile more, lean that way, etc.'

She had one thing to look forward to every day, at least; the most awesome family a girl could ask for. Once she finally escaped the wolf den of boredom, she was free to spend the rest of the day any way she wanted, with a person or persons who were always happy to see her.

Chapter Text

Ed took a moment to stretch his stiff muscles before getting into his car and driving away, leaving the bookstore behind. The signing ran long and the sun was already starting to set as he headed down the street through the main part of town. As usual, he was peppered with questions about his personal life--and the personal lives of members of his family. An occupational hazard when your relatives were just as famous as you. Or even more famous, in some cases.

Today, though, the most popular question hadn't been about his aunt, uncle, cousin, or his parents. Instead, everyone seemed to want to know when he was getting his next dog, and if he was going to get a different breed this time.

He loved bulldogs best, but after losing his latest one a few weeks ago, he was seriously considering getting something else. They made an awesome, affectionate pet, but they had notoriously short lives. He was thinking about getting something hardier--something mutant, specifically. Pets with mutant features--something they were passing on through breeding these days--weren't recommended for non-mutants, but Ed was confident he could handle it. He didn't look it beyond his ears (he would be sorely tempted to have those silly points clipped off if the doctors weren't convinced they would just grow back) but he had more than enough mutant blood flowing in him to make him exceptionally strong and hardy. Not quite as strong as a hybrid like Trina, but...

A loud grumble paired with a sharp pang suddenly reminded him that he hadn't had anything to eat since the light lunch he had earlier. After thinking about it for a moment, he turned off the main road and headed down a narrow side street that led past a group of small, all-night restaurants.

Some of his family had sophisticated--aka expensive--palates, but Ed's heart belonged to a small, family-run Japanese restaurant on the corner. There was no parking lot--too small for that--so he pulled up at an empty spot by the curb and headed inside, pausing just inside the doors as he gazed around at the familiar dark red walls and black wood tables. A plethora of rich, tangy fragrances greeted him, making his mouth water.

A dark, swarthy-looking fellow dining near the front window spied him and waved. "Hey, Edo-chan," he said cheerfully.

Ed rolled his eyes. "I think you know by now, Dave, but...when Cecilia says it? Cute. When you say it? Creepy."

Dave just laughed and went back to his yakitori. Ed marched up to the front counter and was greeted by Miku, a petite girl with frosty white hair and pastel green skin that reminded him of an after dinner mint. She was pretty cute, and his uncle was constantly pestering him to ask her out.

"Hey, Eddie," she greeted, in the subtle accent she and the rest of her family had. "The usual?"

"You know it."

Smiling, Miku sent an order for his favorite meal off to the kitchen: chikara udon. Ed wanted it to go, so he hung around the counter until his meal was ready and then took the box out to his car. He poured an extra packet of soy sauce over the noodles and stirred them with a set of chopsticks for a moment, probably making the dish richer and spicier than it was supposed to be, but that was how he liked it.

Udon noodles, he discovered, were an acquired taste. Regina, for example, preferred the much more delicate ramen noodle. As far as he was concerned, nothing beat the extra thick, unusual flavor of an udon dish, and he pushed aside some mochi so he could reach a clump of noodles and popped them into his mouth. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the headrest of his seat, savoring the tangy flavor that filled his mouth. Heaven.

When he scraped the bottom of the box a while later, he let out a quiet belch and returned to the road, though he was in no hurry to get home. He turned down an alley and then a side street, taking the long way back to his apartment. Maybe, he mused as he paused at a stoplight down the block, he would head to a pet store--just to browse.

Or maybe, he thought dryly as he suddenly looked across the road at a nearby parking lot, he would run into trouble instead. Because wasn't that...? And weren't those...?

Yes. It was. And they were.

Gritting his teeth, Ed pressed the accelerator to the floor and spun the wheel. In the old days, there would have been tires squealing as he rounded the corner. Instead, there was only the angry hum of his engine to herald his break-neck approach.

Regina absently clicked her teeth together as she paced the edge of the empty parking lot. The shoot closed down almost half an hour ago, but there was no sign of Trina. No one answered when she tried calling her cell, so Regina assumed she was being punished for something--again. Quietly muttering to herself, Regina adjusted her shoulder bag and continued to pace.

Behind her, she heard footsteps crossing the lot, but she didn't think anything of them. Not until she heard someone say, in the oiliest of voices, "Well, hey, babydoll, need some company?"

Pulling a face of disgust, Regina whirled, scathing remark at the ready--and felt that remark die on her parted lips as she saw what was approaching her.

The speaker was a mutant--a big one. He was relatively normal-looking except for his gray-brown skin-tone and excessive bulk, along with the most common marks of pure-blooded mutantcy: four fingers on either hand and a complete lack of hair. The group collecting behind him were also mutants, and Regina watched as they subtly but swiftly fanned out--hungry beasts corralling their prey.

Regina shot a look behind her, but Trina's car was nowhere in sight. Just the occasional vehicle she didn't know, humming swiftly by on the otherwise empty street. She folded her arms around herself--a gesture she knew conveyed fear but couldn't stop herself from making--and took a step back. "I'm meeting someone," she faltered. "They should be here any minute."

Oh, that was weak. But were you expecting anything else? Regina told herself bitterly. It's you.

As she took another step back, Regina found herself wishing, as she had countless times across her life, that she had been born a girl like Trina. Her last name was Kidd, but that special something that existed in all Justices lived on in her, and lived strong. It gave her the power, the strength, to never back down from anything--to never let anything or anyone intimidate her.

Trina was a girl nobody screwed with.

In fact her entire family, male or female, was enviable in pretty much the same way. Her big brother? Legendary. Her big sister? She might be small, but she could chew nails and spit tacks. Or what about her parents? Her mother was generally soft-spoken and gentle, but the second you messed with her children or loved ones, she became a lioness--ready to fight you to the death. And her dad? Look up badass in the dictionary and you got a picture of Malicious Malone.

Thrasher was no slouch either. She remained the most successful and most celebrated female athlete to ever set foot in the League, and to this day she didn't hesitate to chew up and spit out anyone dumb enough to cross her.

You would think that all that kick-assness would rub off on just about anyone, that anyone who had this family's blood in their veins would never have to be afraid of anything--but no. She was just Gina. Her small, frail, lamb-to-the-slaughter self.

"You look cold, babydoll," someone said, as Regina continued to edge back. "I bet I could warm you up..."

Regina stopped, but not because she wanted to. Another male mutant, who was obviously part of this charming little group, lay reclined on the hood of a car parked at the edge of the lot. He looked relaxed, but Regina knew he was ready to spring if she tried to run by.

"She's warm enough," someone else sneered. "You could probably buy a three-story home with that jacket."

Regina felt her face burn. Modeling--it controlled your life. Because even if you weren't on the job, everyone expected you to look like you were, no exceptions. If you dared go out to buy milk and toilet paper in the middle of the night in old jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt, it would be all over the papers the next morning what a cheap slob you were.

So she had grabbed her current outfit on the way out without even thinking about it; designer jeans, a baby-doll halter top that hung past her hipbones, the latest boots, and a black-and-pink imported jacket that probably cost five times more than it would to fly to Paris and buy it in person.

You're going to have to run, a voice inside her said. These guys were way worse than vultures--all they wanted were pictures, unflattering ones if possible...those always sold for more. These guys...she knew just who they were. There was nothing obvious that marked them--a signature tattoo or something--but she knew from the second she saw them, just by the way they carried themselves, and by those smug expressions on their faces...

They were Cajathars.

"You think you're better than everyone else or something?" the first one asked as he drew uncomfortably close.

No, but I know you do, that voice inside her snipped. Regina kept her mouth firmly shut as her eyes darted around for an escape.

Unfortunately, there wasn't one. There never was. She wasn't born to be the girl who had the power to save herself. She always had to wait to be rescued.

She was used to it. Be it her father, her mother, her brothers or sisters. Someone was always there, ready to swoop in and whisk her off to safety. But someday, she was going to end up in a place where no one could come--she knew it. Maybe that day was today.

But just as the group drew nearer, trying to box her in, she heard a distant humming sound. In a moment it wasn't so distant; a car was streaking through the parking lot, hover-motor shrilling as the driver spun around crazily, driving right between a cluster of mutants and sending them scattering with frightened shrieks.

And there he is now, Regina thought absently, as the wheelless vehicle turned so sharply it was nearly on its side as it wedged itself between her and the leader of the group. The knight-in-shining-leather himself.

Regina didn't hesitate a second; she tossed her purse through the open window in front of her and dove in after it, sprawling head-first onto the front seat. Grunting, Ed put a hand on her back to keep her from falling into his lap as he steered with the other, righting the lopsided car and whizzing out of the lot. Regina waited until they were about a mile away before letting out the breath she was holding and settling into the seat.

"Were those Cajathars?" Ed asked, though he sounded like he was pretty sure of the answer.

"Uh-huh," Regina said absently as she buckled in.

Ed let out an angry huff of air. "What did they want?"

"The usual. Harass anyone they think is beneath them."

Ed muttered a few things under his breath that made her flush and look out the window. After a moment he asked, "Is this the first time they've bothered you?"

Regina gave a small shrug. "Yes," she mumbled.

In person, she added silently. She had received the occasional message, but this was the first time she encountered the group face to face.

"You should tell the police," Ed told her firmly.

"About what?" Regina asked unhappily. "Celebrities being pestered by weirdos is nothing new, Eddie. If I ran to the police for every creepy love-letter I ever got, they would probably ban me from the station."

"Yeah, but..."

Ed muttered to himself again, then focused on the road. "Want me to take you home?"

Regina gave her head a shake. "Trina was coming to pick me up, but she never showed. Probably mopping the locker room again," she added, laughing weakly.

Ed didn't smile. "I'll take you to the Dome, then. And don't act like nothing is going on when you get there. Tell Trina what happened. She needs to know--she could be a target, too."

Regina didn't bother arguing; he was right. Trina was exactly the kind of mutant a Cajathar would go after--Ed, too, though they probably didn't dare harass him. Sighing, she rested her head against the cool glass of the window and closed her eyes. "Don't go blaming yourself," she heard Ed say quietly.

She didn't answer. She couldn't, because she did blame herself. Like it or not, she was the direct cause for a group like The Cajathars to form in the first place.

Chapter Text

Trina was putting away the last of the cleaning supplies when she noticed the time. "Ah, crap," she muttered, rushing to her locker and taking out her cell.

She was just starting to dial when she heard a clumping set of footsteps approaching; she hastily slapped her phone shut. "Sorry," she said sheepishly as Ed breezed into the locker room, followed closely by Gina. "I should have called, but..."

She trailed off with a frown. Ed had his 'protective big brother' face on. Sure, he wasn't actually their big brother--technically, he was her cousin and Gina's nephew--but since he was almost seven years older than them, it didn't really matter. He had kept a protective eye on them both from day one, and continued to do so--particularly with Gina.

She couldn't blame him. Gina had a kind of delicacy about her that just made you want to wrap her up and keep her safe. Either that or it triggered the predatory nature in people. It all depended on someone's personality.

"What happened?" Trina wondered, as Gina hurried forward and wrapped her arms around her. She was clearly shaken.

"A bunch of Cajathar goons," Ed reported grimly. "Tried to gang up on her out in the lot outside the studio."

Trina felt awful; she should have been there. She would have kicked all their asses and taken her home. "I'm sorry," she said again, hugging Gina tight. "I would have been there ages ago, but..."

She let out a weak laugh. "I'm still figuring out how hard I can hit these guys without breaking a bone or two."

"Speaking of breaking bones," Ed went on, his expression darkening, "if these guys are pulling something like this out in the open, it means they're getting more brazen. You need to be careful."

"Just let them try it," Trina muttered, eyes narrowing. "I had Blunt slam into me the other day, and I walked off the field to the tank on my own power. I can take these losers."

Ed glanced at Gina, who was silently smoothing the front of her shirt, eyes downcast. "It isn't me I'm worried about."

"I won't take my eyes off her," Trina promised.

"Not good enough," Ed argued. "You have your own obligations and can't be with her every second."

"Neither can you, Mr. Best-selling Novelist."

Ed scowled at her for a moment. "Okay, we'll do it this way," he decided, his expression smoothing again. "I'll drive her to her shoots and keep an eye on her while you're here practicing."

Trina thought that now would be a good time to hire a bodyguard or something--but Gina nixed that idea when she first got into modeling, claiming that she didn't want or need someone following her around all the time.

Judging by her unhappy expression, she was less than enthused at the idea of the two of them babysitting her for the time being, but she didn't argue the fact. Trina and Ed didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things, but when they were in agreeance and Gina wasn't, well...she had learned a long time ago that trying to battle the two of them at once was a waste of time.

"All right," Trina said, after thinking for a moment, "we'll try it that way for a while. And if they keep showing up, we can always bring in someone else--like your dad."

At this, Gina shot her head up. "Don't bring Bones into this," she said, her voice pleading. "He's got enough on his mind these days as it is. If someone as famous as he is were to get involved, well--it would have repercussions. Big ones."

She had a point, unfortunately. Trina's uncle and coach was too big of a name to step in without people taking notice. With this sort of thing, most celebrities tried to stay neutral, not saying they were for or against a particular idea; doing so brought on attacks from whichever side opposed whatever view they had. Plus with people like this, the more attention they got, the more active they became...but completely ignoring them wasn't a good idea, either.

Sighing, she slid her arm around Gina's shoulders and steered her toward the door. "Come on, let's go to dinner."

"You're going directly home afterward, right?" asked Ed as he followed them.

"Yes, Edo-chan," said Trina, with a roll of her eyes.

"Not cute, Tri."

Trina snickered in spite of herself. "Stop calling me that," she shot back. "Makes me feel like I should be leafy or something."

There were no smiles or jokes as Ed went his own way and she and Gina got into Trina's red-and-black convertible, which she made sure to close the top of after they got inside. "Don't look so guilty," she scolded, recognizing the look on her relative's face. "You don't have any reason to feel responsible for idiots like them."

Gina kept quiet as Trina backed out of the lot and started down the empty road. Trina withheld a sigh; she didn't get why Gina felt like she should blame herself for people like them. She was the exact same thing--a half-breed--and she didn't feel one bit responsible.

The Cajathars were mutants--one-hundred-percent mutant mutants, which they made sure to let everyone know. In this day and age, people her and Gina's age could only find examples of old prejudices in history books. Thirty years ago everything had changed. The quake hit, and other forms of discrimination vanished practically overnight. Suddenly there were only two types of human beings: mutant and non-mutant. Full-stop. End of story.

There were arguments from both sides in the years that followed; mutants who thought they were better than norms, and norms who thought mutants were an abomination. These negative feelings slowly soothed over time, however, and there had actually been only a few groups that truly acted out, and the ones that did were little more than extremely vocal. Mutants couldn't risk getting physical without seriously injuring a non-mutant--something that would only make the bad view of them even worse--and non-mutants were too worried about that physical prowess to state their opinions in close proximity.

Nowadays, those who spoke out on either side were so few and far between, they were almost non-existent. It was believed by many that it was loving unions such as the ones in her family that had helped subside the negative views of mutantcy--something that hybrid births, such as hers and Gina's, had helped boost tremendously. Mutantcy suddenly went from unnatural to natural, an accepted part of human society...most of the time.

With all these happy feelings floating around, no one was really expecting a group like The Cajathars to pop up. They weren't interested in going after normal humans--they weren't worth the time or effort, they said. They knew they were better than them--the amoebas, they called them--and didn't have to waste time proving it, and so norms were ignored. No, their targets were those who were only a little mutant. People who were either only partly mutated, back in the day--like Cecilia--or were the offspring of two normal mutants, as they were called--like Eddie.

Those were bad enough, the group said, but the worst were the ones like her and Gina--the direct offspring of a mutant and a norm. Why they were the worst, Trina didn't know or care, but the group made no secret that they thought they were a mistake of nature that shouldn't exist.

Ironic, coming from all-mutant mutants, who were once considered a mistake of nature themselves. How did that make them better, exactly? If she had one with her now, she would have two words for them: it doesn't.

So far no real attention or concern had been given to them, since up till now they had stuck to the quiet basics. Vague anonymous threats, angry messages left outside--or on--buildings or homes, communication passed through an underground newspaper, and the occasional, minor vandalism. This was one of the first times they actually approached someone directly, which meant, as Ed commented, they were getting bold.

As she pulled into a quiet restaurant parking lot, Trina silently hoped that things didn't go beyond a little vague bullying, but she had an unsettled feeling that this was just the start of things to come.

With a yawn, Bones closed the front door behind him and hung up his jacket. The entryway was dark, so it was by feel that he found the stairs and headed up to the second floor. The house he shared with his wife was big--maybe a little too big for just the two of them--but their extended family visited so often it never felt like it. In fact, it felt nice to come home and find it quiet and empty for a change.

Empty except for his wife, of course, who he found in the bathroom connected to their bedroom. It was a softly-colored, cozy room, with a tub set in an alcove in one wall and a slender shower with a cloudy glass door in the corner. Next to the toilet was a long sink with a marble counter; Sherry stood in front of it and was busy combing her hair, her eyes on the large mirror adorned with dressing room-esque lights along the top. He slunk up behind her, slipped his arms around her waist and pressed a kiss to her cheek. "Evening, Beautiful."

Sherry let out a laugh and shook out her hair. "Flatterer."

"Just being honest."

Grinning, Sherry twisted in his arms and kissed him a moment. Then, nose wrinkled, she gripped his shoulders, turned him around and steered him to the shower. "You smell like a mutant locker room," she informed him. "Go. Wash."

"Care to join me?" Bones asked as he started to undress.

"Can't," Sherry said crisply as she turned back to the mirror. "I have a late interview."

Bones watched as she finished primping and straightened her clothes. She had changed a bit since he married her twenty years ago, her features growing a little softer, her limbs a little more slender. A few months ago she decided to change her hairstyle, claiming that forty was too old for waist-length hair. Bones disagreed; his mother still kept her dark red hair no shorter than the middle of her back, and she still looked elegant and beautiful.

Not that he was going to argue with her. The new style--a full, chin-length bob--was extremely becoming, and with subtle streaks highlighted to a brighter blond mixed in with her natural honey color, she looked a lot younger than she really was--and gorgeous. In fact, he was pretty sure she was in the best shape of her life.

"Are you changing before you go?" Bones wondered as he stepped inside the shower stall and twisted the water on.

Looking puzzled, Sherry glanced down at herself. "I wasn't planning on it. Why?"

She was dressed in a pale pink mini-skirt with a matching vest over a short-sleeve blouse. The vest hung a little loosely, but the blouse and skirt hugged her subtle curves in all the right ways.

"Just thinking about all those young, upstart athletes who might try to steal you away," he teased.

Sherry rolled her eyes and smoothed her skirt. "Oh, give me a break. I decided over twenty years ago that I was never settling for anything less than you, and there's no one else alive who comes anywhere close to your willpower. And a good thing, too," she added cheekily. "The whole planet would probably implode if there were two of you."

Bones snickered a moment. "But there are two of me," he reminded her. "Just because she's female and puny doesn't mean she's any less willful."

"Oh, you know what I mean..."

"Yeah, but I'm just a guy. I need reminding and reassurance."

Rolling her eyes again, Sherry nudged the shower door open and kissed him goodbye, apparently not minding that he was dripping wet. "I'll be back late, so don't wait up," she called as she left the bathroom.

Bones took his time with his shower and then changed into some casual sweats, but he had every intention of 'waiting up' and not going to bed alone. As unmanly as it sounded, he found that these days he had trouble falling asleep without his wife in his arms.

After thinking about it for a minute, he headed downstairs and outside and walked the short distance to the house next door. It was mostly dark inside, but there were lights on in the living room. When he gently tapped on the front door with its old-fashioned brass knocker, his diminutive twin greeted him with a noisy yawn.

"Jerk," she muttered, scowling at him. "I have a talk show thing in the morning, so I have to go to bed while you three get to stay up and play."

Snickering, Bones followed her to the living room. Like Sherry, Derikka had shortened her hair, though not nearly as much. It hung a little past her shoulders in airy wisps, billowing behind her like a veil as she walked briskly down the hall. Dressed in a baby-doll tee and a snug pair of white sleep shorts covered in cherries, she didn't look a day over twenty-five.

"Don't stay up too late," she called, before heading reluctantly up to bed.

Bones went and sat down in the living room, where Razor was relaxing in the arm chair, with little Sunni curled up on his lap.

Three-year-old Sunni was that extra addition to the family Razor and Derikka had been planning to have since before Bones and Sherry adopted Ed. The two didn't act on this urge right away, claiming to be waiting for the right time. That time came in the form of Derikka having an empty nest moment; Trina turned seventeen, graduated from high school and promptly went off to college with Regina. Almost immediately afterward, Derikka dragged Razor to the doctor's office, and a few months later she gave birth to Sunni.

What Bones thought was ironic was that Sunni looked almost exactly like what he had pictured years ago, when Mom was carrying Regina--a miniature of his twin sister. Not that those singular features would have been possible for her, what with Malone being her father and all. She had everything: the naturally tan skin, the black hair, the bright green eyes. No doubt about it; she was a Justice. Bones had a feeling that if it wasn't for Trina's green scales and tail, Razor would be complaining that his genes just weren't potent enough.

"How's Trina doing?" Razor wondered.

"She's...improving," Bones allowed.

Razor eyed him suspiciously. "Not sure I like your tone, bro. What'd she do now?"

"Honestly, she's already mastered her speed, but she needs to learn how to withhold her strength until the time is right. Otherwise she'll be leaving her teammates in pieces across the field."

"I'm sure you'll have everything together by next season," said Razor, unconcerned.

"Easy for you to say," Bones muttered. Curbing Trina's exuberant use of strength was just one of the problems he needed to solve before this new team was whipped into shape.

"I hope you're not suggesting I come back to work," Razor said warily, as Sunni let out a quiet yawn and cuddled her head on her father's shoulder.

"No, but I have been wondering when your little vacation will end," Bones commented mildly.

"When Sunni leaves for college," Razor responded crisply. "You know how fast they grow, Bones. I don't want to miss a second."

Bones could relate. Though he liked living alone with his wife in their big, cozy house, he sometimes missed having his little boy around...which he made sure to never mention out loud, since that boy was anything but little these days.

"Dare has cut back on preforming, too," Razor went on, "and then next time she goes on a tour, she's taking us with."

Smiling, he rubbed Sunni's dark hair for a moment. "Won't that be fun?" he asked brightly.

Sunni gave a sleepy nod. "The position of coach is pretty much filled," Bones noted, lowering his voice a little as Sunni closed her eyes, "so what do you think you'll do?"

"Don't know," Razor said with a yawn, again with a complete lack of concern. "I'll decide when it's time to decide. In the meantime, Emmy has worked out a sweet endorsement deal for me."

If coaching his niece wasn't enough, that was another thing that left an opening for accusations of favoritism. His own mother, along with Malone, were co-owners of the team now that the elderly McWhimples had officially retired from the world of sports.

"Speaking of which, it's been a while since I've seen her," Bones commented, a bit sadly.

He had been awfully busy with the new team and hadn't stopped by to see Mom or Malone in a couple of weeks.

"I'm free tomorrow night," Razor noted, brightening. "Maybe we can all go out to dinner."

"Maybe. I'll have to check with Sherry, but I'm pretty sure she's free."

Smiling, Razor leaned to put his mouth close to Sunni's ear and whispered, "You'd like to come too, right?"

Sunni, who had obviously fallen asleep, didn't answer. Razor softly kissed the top of her head and stood, cradling her carefully. "I'll see myself out," said Bones, as his best friend/brother-in-law carried his daughter up to bed.

"See you tomorrow," Razor called back quietly.

As Bones left the house and walked leisurely back to his own home, he noted absently that he felt equally comfortable in either place, and he was pretty sure everyone in the Kidd family did, too. They lived in two different places, but during the years their children were growing up together, they had basically operated as one household--and still did, in many ways.

They had changed a lot in the last twenty years, but Bones was still of the opinion that they had the best--and closest--family around.

Chapter Text

Regina sat at her vanity table, absently poking a foundation brush in her powder box. Behind her, Trina was tugging a long-sleeve t-shirt over her head. "I've got to get to practice," she said, as she hurried to lace up her Spikeys. "Eddie should be here in a few minutes."

Regina nodded slightly, her gaze focused on her reflection in the antique mirror above the vanity. Her own ice blue eyes, looking a little droopy from the poor sleep she had last night, stared back at her from her heart-shaped face--her perfect heart-shaped, she reminded herself cattily.

Sighing, she slapped her powder box shut and ran a hairbrush over her pale blond hair before turning from the mirror. People often commented--disapprovingly--about how she never wore any noticeable amount of makeup when she wasn't at work. Why should she? All she needed was a dusting of translucent rice powder and a dab of lip-gloss and she was happy.

Trina was lucky. As an athlete, no one even noticed that she never wore makeup--not that she really needed any. She had her mother's looks, including her glossy black hair and extra-thick eyelashes, which went well with her father's shimmery, iridescent scales. She had the slender nose of a Justice, though her jawline was more square than anyone else in her family. She was the kind of girl who didn't need--or want--to reach for anything more than lip balm when her lips were dry, and no one expected her to head to the gaming field wearing full-makeup when she would only end up sweating it off anyway.

If only she had been born capable of becoming an athlete...

"I'll see you later, okay?" Trina told her. "Stay safe."

She gave her a quick hug goodbye before hurrying outside to her car and driving away. Regina took a moment to slip on her shoes--flats, which the gossip rags constantly ridiculed her over wearing, but what could she say? She hated heels and never wore them when she wasn't on a shoot.

Regina went out to wait out on the front walk for a few minutes before Ed hummed up in his gray car. She was glad that its windows were tinted. Hopefully, no one would recognize her today. She wasn't in the mood for candid shots.

"So, what's on the agenda today?" Ed asked as he pulled away from the curb.

"Runway show," Regina sighed. "For some up-and-coming designer whose name I can't pronounce."

Ed snickered. "That's why I didn't opt for a pen name. My real name is already nice and simple."

"But I bet people still screw it up," Regina commented knowingly.

"Yeah, they can screw up pretty much anything," Ed noted with a snort.

She wasn't sure what they could do to 'Ed' but she had seen 'Justice' get massacred beyond recognition. And she was pretty sure if someone rhymed her own name with 'vagina' one more time she was going to lose it. 'It's Regina!' she always wanted to scream. Reh-jee-nah.

"What are your plans for the day?" she wondered as Ed pulled up outside the building where the fashion show was being held.

"Yesterday was my last bookstore stop, so I don't have to travel to any other cities for the moment," he said. "I'm supposed to head to a library later to read the first chapter of my latest book, then do a little Q&A. Then I'm free for the day."

He sounded relieved that he didn't have to travel right now, and Regina was pretty sure she knew why. He wanted to stay right here in town so he could keep a close eye on her.

She forced a small smile. "See you later then, big brother," she joked.

Instead of cracking a smile, Ed frowned as he reached over to give her hand a squeeze. "Be careful, okay? And if Trina gets herself in trouble again, don't hesitate to call me to pick you up."

"I won't," she promised, though she honestly didn't believe The Cajathars would be dumb enough to approach the same person twice.

She knew mentioning this would be a waste of time--along with pointing out that a barely-mutant mutant like Ed could easily be a target, too. Though it was probably unlikely that anyone would be stupid enough to mess with Bones Justice's son, even if he hadn't grown into the behemoth he was today.

Speaking of his height and impressive build...she was often asked if Ed would ever consider getting into modeling. The idea always made her laugh--though she tried hard not to--and say that he was perfectly happy being a writer.

She could understand why some photographers were interested, though. Ed had changed completely from the small, shy boy she knew when she was younger. He was as toned and muscular under his jeans and leather jacket as any of their athletic relatives, and his facial features were a strange mixture of strong and nearly delicate that gave him an alluring, almost unearthly appearance.

Chiseled looks, her fellow models would say. A Grecian god sculpted from marble. An Adonis. And all those other ridiculous, disgustingly overused tropes and clichés.

Regina scooted across the seat and kissed his satin-smooth cheek before getting out of the car and hurrying into the building. "He's cute," commented a string-thin blonde who was watching through the glass doors as Ed's car pulled away.

"He's my nephew," said Regina. She chuckled at the look of bewilderment the model gave her and headed off to change.

Trina blew a strand of sweaty hair out of her eyes as she bent forward with her hands on her knees, waiting for instructions. Bones had her and the rest of the team running through practice plays on the football field for almost two hours, but she wasn't about to pause for a tired as she was.

"Okay," said Bones, who was tossing the ball into the air and catching it, "let's do a quick run-through of a situation that each of you will find yourselves in at some point or another. You and a teammate are alone in the middle of the field. Your teammate has the ball and a clear view of the end zone--only two of your opponents are ready to hit him hard, and the only thing standing in their way is you."

"Sounds like a position where you need to take one for the team--literally," commented Blunt.

"Exactly. You and Mac get to be the opposing team; Trina and Axle will serve as the defending team. Axle, you get the ball."

Trina nearly sputtered out loud. 'Are you crazy?' she wanted to ask as she eyed Mac and Blunt--a troll and a whiptoid, respectively--but held her tongue. She noticed that her uncle was paying particular attention to her speed today, which she had to agree was probably her best asset. They knew she could move fast, and she could hit hard enough...but could she handle being hit back?

They were about to find out.

Steeling herself, Trina took up position out on the field, absently flicking her tail behind her. While she hunched over a little, body tensed and ready, Axle was preparing to run. After that things kind of went by in a blur. She was expecting a clear signal from Bones, but none came--at least not to her or Axle. Without warning Blunt and Mac seemed to be on top of them, and the only thought that flickered through her stunned mind as the two came bearing down on them was that there was no way she was getting out of this in one piece.

Might as well make use of herself before that happened. Acting on instinct, she launched herself forward as hard as she could, grappling Mac around the middle. She had to cross in front of Blunt to do it, and she made sure to snap at his ankles with her tail before she and Mac toppled over. Not that her small impact did much to stop the meaty troll's rampage. All she'd managed was to knock him off balance, and momentum sent him sprawling to the ground and skidding across the grass for a few feet, dragging her along with him.

Then everything stopped--including her heart--and for one silent moment she thought she'd made it out acceptably okay...but then she felt it. That fiery flare of pain that told her that her body had taken more damage than what was normally acceptable--pain that continued to sharpen, centering around her right shoulder, until she was on the brink of crying out.

And then just like that, the agony was gone, leaving her with a numb sensation that was strangely soothing. It was always like that; an intense rush of pain that was quickly replaced with an almost euphoric feeling, one that made her feel calm and relaxed, maybe even a little giddy. Mutant endorphins ruled.

Grunting, Mac pushed himself off her and looked her over, his usually gruff expression now one of concern. "You okay?"

He sounded doubtful, and as Trina followed his gaze she understood why. Her arm had been pulled clean out of its socket, where it lay limply on the grass beside her, anchored to her shoulder by a meager handful of veins and tendons. "I've had worse," she said nonchalantly--though she was pretty disappointed. This would take a little longer than the usual five to ten minute soak in the tank.

Mac helped her sit up, just as Axle came running back. Trina looked over and saw that she had apparently tripped up Blunt enough that he hadn't been able to catch up. "Touchdown," Axle announced, sounding pleased with himself.

Bones, who was watching the whole thing from the side, came over and gave a nod. "That's enough for today. Go on home."

As her teammates scurried off to the locker room, Trina noted that Bones didn't look either pleased or displeased with the little show they just put on. Bones was like that. His stoic demeanor left you guessing, and the usual conclusion was that if he wasn't praising you, then you needed to give more, so more you gave. Whether or not that was what he intended, Trina wasn't sure...and right now she wasn't really worried about it.

Gingerly, she gripped her right arm and held it up carefully as she stood, making sure not to tug out the lingering tendons in the process. That would just add minutes more to her soak time. "If no one else needs me, I'm off to take a toxic chemical bath," she said.

Bones nodded again and wrote something on the clipboard he was holding. "I have to say I'm impressed. I didn't expect you to get up in only two pieces."

Coming from Bones, that was high praise, and she grinned as she saluted him--cheekily, with the arm still clutched in her other hand--before heading inside. In the locker room, she stuffed her things into a duffel bag before heading down the hall to the Rejuvenator, where she found a technician waiting to be of assistance. They were used to giving athletes a hand, since they often came in here missing one or both of their own, and Trina was grateful for help getting undressed in her current state.

Once she was down to only her sports bra and undies, she left her duffel bag on a nearby bench and stepped into one of the tall, clear tubes, still holding carefully onto her arm. The technician helped her fasten on the oxygen mask, then closed the door for her. With a sigh, Trina leaned her back against the cold glass and braced herself.

It was supposed to be a much smoother experience than it was years ago, but if someone ever asked her which felt more uncomfortable, getting her arm ripped off or getting Rejuvenated, she'd pull her other arm off to make her point.

It wasn't like that lovely rush of mutant endorphins, which left you with nothing but a faint tingling, a pleasant pins-and-needles kind of feeling, only fuzzier. No, this left you with a burning, itching kind of feeling that spread all over you, and the longer you floated there, the more irritating it got. Even with the mask on, the taste of it got in her mouth, and after a while her insides started to feel as burny and itchy as her outside.

But it was necessary in order to sew herself back together, and she cringed and waited as the brackish-colored fluid started to flood through the pipe at her feet. When it first hit your skin it didn't feel all that bad, and it filled up so quickly you were immersed before you knew it, and as you relaxed and let yourself float you usually started to think, 'Okay, maybe it won't be so bad this time.'

She had only been in a handful of times, but it was enough where she didn't bother to remain optimistic anymore, even after several minutes went by and all she felt was a faint prickly feeling, sort of like when an ant or a caterpillar was sticking to your skin. But after five minutes or so this sensation was replaced by a much scratchier one, and she had to fight the urge to claw at her scales.

If the irritation wasn't bad was all so boring. What made it even more annoying was that she was awake--if it was a bigger injury she could at least go through most of the process unconscious. Not so with smaller injuries, and so all she could do was float and watch the bubbles popping around her, and any activity that was going on outside. Her gaze suddenly fell on her duffel bag, still resting on the bench. If there had been room, she would have kicked herself; her E-Vale was in there.

They were a palm-sized computer unit that did pretty much everything, including hold a monstrous library of digital books. The current model also had voice-activation and hover features, for the extremely lazy reader who wanted to lie back and tell the thing when to turn the page. If she'd had the foresight, she could have set it up outside the glass...but she hadn't thought of it, so she was stuck here.

Fortunately, her arm wouldn't take that long to heal; she could safely let go of it already, and she could wiggle her fingers a little. That probably meant she had another ten to twenty minutes to With another sigh, she shifted into a mock-sitting position via propping her feet up and pressing her back against the tube, absently wondering what Ed or Gina was up to right now.

After he finished up at the library and talked to the press that showed up, Ed headed out to grab lunch. He was just finishing up when his cell phone rang. "Hey, Eddie," came his father's voice when he answered, sounding tired but cheerful. "You busy?"

"Not really," said Ed as he headed out to his car. "Why?"

"Trina took some damage during practice today, so she's busy taking a soak. I just checked on her and it looks like she'll be in there a while longer, so she told me to tell you to pick Regina up. Though she didn't mention why Regina can't just drive her own car," he added, a note of suspicion creeping into his voice.

"Sure, I can pick her up," Ed told him, skirting the issue. Regina asked them not to mention to her big brother what happened, so he and Trina would respect her request.

"While you're at it, do you two want to join us later? I'm treating your grandmother to dinner."

"I'm not sure if she'll be in the mood to come, but I'll ask her."

They spoke a moment more, and then Ed hung up and headed back to the fashion show. There was no sign of Regina as he pulled up outside, so he got out and headed in. People were milling around the foyer; models, photographers, and journalists. Ed looked around for a moment, then approached a slender norm dismantling lights and placing them in a lined case.

"Is the show over?" he asked. "I'm looking for Regina Malone."

The man glanced at him. "She's still in the back. You a fan? You can't go back there without a pass."

"We're family, actually. It's okay, I'll wait here."

The man finished packing up his lights and left, and Ed absently paced the large room for a few minutes. It was kind of noisy, and there were so many bodies moving around, he didn't notice anyone behind him until they said, "So you're him, huh?"

Surprised, Ed turned around--and found himself face to face with a goddess.

She had long, honey-brown hair that twisted into tight, perfect curls that seemed to glow around her face. That was flawless, with sculpted cheekbones, a defined nose and jawline and perfectly-shaped eyes. They were the most unusual eye-color he had ever seen; a rich golden yellow color that had him picturing warm sunshine and buttercups and peridot gemstones. They were framed by lush, naturally full eyelashes that brushed her creamy cheeks when she blinked.

Her skin was a lovely cocoa-cream color, and the smile she was giving him displayed bright, even teeth. Her lips were wonderfully plump and full, and a tiny bit dewy. She was tall, too--statuesque, even. Willowy. The soft white dress she was wearing only added to the unearthly image she made.

Ed tried to swallow; his throat felt oddly dry all of a sudden. "Him?" he echoed, and then cringed inwardly. Oh yeah, that sounded intelligent.

The ethereal being let out a laugh--oh, that laugh, and that was like a blanket of liquid velvet wrapping him in an embrace he never wanted to escape.

Ed gave himself a mental kick. What the hell is wrong with you? You write bloody, gory action, not romance. You don't have any business even thinking a crappy simile like that.

"You're Ed, right?" the angelic vision went on, in that rich, velvety voice that was making every hair on his body stand on end. "Regina's told me a lot about you."

Ed was glad it was Regina and not Trina who had been talking to this otherworldly creature about him. Regina would only have nice things to say...while Trina would have no doubt taken the opportunity to embarrass him in any and every way possible.

"I'm here to pick her up," Ed told her. "Regina, I mean. To take her home."

Oh, yeah. With scintillating dialogue like this, she was going to start questioning his legitimacy as a writer. You know, a person who made their living with words.

But the willowy being was smiling again, those amazing yellow-gold eyes bright. She was looking at a spot behind him; Ed automatically glanced over his shoulder and saw Regina hurrying toward them, tugging a denim jacket on over her glossy blouse. The otherwise casual fabric of the jacket was imbued with some kind of thread that shimmered as it caught the light.

Ed knew she was unhappy with her current career choice, but he also knew that a petite knockout like her could always find work where her looks were concerned. "Remind me why you're still single?" he asked teasingly.

Regina flushed and elbowed him as she brushed by. "The same reason you still are," she muttered.

Ed quickly glanced over at the golden goddess, hoping she hadn't heard--but she was gone. Frowning, he scanned the room for a moment before following Regina back out to his car. He didn't even have a chance to get her name.

He knew that finding out was as simple as asking, but he hesitated to as he got back on the road, while Regina sat looking pensively out the window. She was right; they were both still single for the same reason. Not to say they both hadn't dated over the years, particularly in high school. But significant others had been few and far between for them both, for Regina because most boys were painfully intimidated by her father, and for him because he didn't really start to get over his shyness until he was almost twenty.

On top of that, there was the issue of worrying if someone was really interested, or just attracted to the celebrity perks of dating someone who came from such a famous family. If that weren't enough, he was pretty famous in his own right these days, so the worry of someone mistaking star-struck fandom for love was always present, a problem he knew Regina shared.

Not that he had ever gotten close enough to someone he had to worry about that. Analysts would blame it on his birth mother, and they were probably right, but he tended to be leery of women outside of the family. He knew there were plenty of trustworthy, devoted women out there, but that leeriness still lingered. So to respond to someone like he did was kind of a big deal.

Resigned to whatever teasing it would incur, he forced himself to ask, "So, who was she?"

"Huh?" Regina looked a little startled.

"The girl who was standing there when you ran up."

The golden-eyed goddess, he added silently.

"Oh. That was Alexia. Alexia Holt. She's nice."

Ed gave a nod, trying to act as casual as possible as he kept his eyes on the road. But he really didn't have to worry, it seemed; Regina looked pretty distracted today. She didn't even ask why he and not Trina was picking her up. Not that she would tease him even if she was paying attention...but she would probably mention it to Trina, and then he would never hear the end of it.

"Oh, by the way," he went on, quickly changing the subject, "my dad called earlier and wants to know if we want to join everyone for dinner."

He hadn't said specifically who would be coming, but he had a feeling the bulk of the family would show up. It had been a while since they all got together en masse. Ed was looking forward to it. "Trina's busy putting herself back together at the moment," he added with a grin, "but she should be joining us later."

Regina was absently fiddling with a button on her jacket. "I think I'd like to just go home," she said quietly. "It's all right if I spend an evening alone, isn't it?" she asked, with a sidelong glance.

Ed could tell she was already growing impatient with their new arrangement. "I don't see why not," he said, after thinking a moment. "Honestly, I don't think it's likely you'll be bothered again, brazen or not. You're too big of a name. The fallout from your fans and supporters would be pretty big if this made it to the press. Trina and I, we just..."

"Overreacted a little?" Regina supplied, with a tired smile.

"Maybe a little," he sighed. "But humor us for a couple more days, okay? We'll get our over-protectiveness out of our systems eventually."

Regina sat back with a sigh, looking put out...but Ed could tell she was glad that they both cared so much.

When he pulled up outside the house she and Trina shared, Regina scooted across the seat and gave him a quick hug. "Thanks, big brother," she whispered.


Chapter Text

"Darn it," Derikka suddenly muttered.

Bones, who had been admiring the outfit Sherry was wearing, looked over at his twin. "What?" he wondered.

Pouting, Derikka folded her arms and leaned back in her seat a little. "This place is smorgasbord only. No waiters."

Beside her, Razor snickered. "Unless you're getting one out of the fountain, they still have to take drink orders," he pointed out.

"But you're going to behave, right?" Bones asked warily.

"How come?" Derikka asked with a grin. "Sunni's in bed at home."

"We were going to bring her," Razor added, sound a little sad, "but she came down with a cough this morning, so we thought we'd better not take her out so late."

Right now they were waiting around their table for everyone else to show up. Feeling a little restless, Bones leaned back and idly brushed a hand up and down his wife's back. Sherry was dressed in a soft silk dress colored a deep, rich brown, like moist dark chocolate. It kind of looked like it as it shimmered in the light, too. The neckline swooped down a little, displaying a modest but still tantalizing amount of cleavage. A tiny diamond necklace dangled from her throat and nestled perfectly between the soft valley below. Bones was having an awfully hard time putting his eyes anywhere else.

Noticing his gaze, Derikka suddenly elbowed him. "Ease up, big guy. Mom's here."

The restaurant they chose was small, quiet, and out of the way. There were numerous walls made of lattice work separating the different sections, giving off a sense of privacy. The decor was classy, with white table cloths, soft lighting and textured wallpaper. Mom came in the front door with Malone, wearing a pretty blue-gray dress with a short black jacket. She caught sight of them and started to laugh. "Well, what a coincidence," she said as Bones got up to hug her.

"You look great, Mom," Bones said quietly as he held her.

Mom laughed again. "You're just saying that because you're my son and we're in public."

"Or because you're gorgeous," added Malone, leaning down to kiss her cheek.

And it was true. Mom was pushing sixty now, but she was still lithe and slender, her hair thick and the same deep red it always a few subtle lines of gray, which she claimed she was too old to be worried about covering. There were soft lines around her pale eyes and her cheekbones weren't as defined as they once were, but her face was still as lovely as ever.

"I knew something was up when you suggested we go out to dinner out of the blue like that," Mom said wryly, addressing her husband as they sat down together.

"Don't I always spoil you like this?" Malone asked with a grin.

"Not in public, no. When you feel like spoiling me you cook for me at home."

Sherry smiled and rested her head on Bones' shoulder. "Bones does that too, sometimes."

"I make a killer breakfast in bed," Razor volunteered.

"Uh-oh," said a deep, familiar voice, "is this going to turn into a conversation we're too young to hear?"

Grinning, Bones looked over to see Ed approaching the table, with Trina close behind. The pretty lizoid had her nose wrinkled in distaste. "Age doesn't matter," she said, with a small shudder. "No matter how old they get, kids never want to hear about what their parents do 'in bed.'"

"You have a point."

Derikka rolled her eyes and pushed her chair back. "Fine, I'm going to go cruise the salad bar while you impressionable little kids stay here and view a menu or something."

Smiling to themselves, Mom and Sherry got up and headed to the salad bar with her, while Trina obliged her mother and grabbed a kiddie menu. "Dude," she exclaimed, "there's beer on here!"

Ed snorted on laughter for a second. "Don't forget the word 'root' in front of there," he pointed out. "Very important."

Trina pretended to squint at the menu. "Oh. Say, did you know that root beer is actually a supernatural substance capable of dissolving ectoplasmic entities?"

The remaining group sitting around the table stopped what they were doing and stared at her. Ed cleared his throat and turned to Bones. "Regina decided not to come, and we called Thrasher and she said she wasn't up to it,'s just us."

He looked at Trina, who promptly grabbed his hand and dragged him off to the buffet table. "She gets it from her mother," Razor commented, the affection in his voice belying the blank look on his face.

Bones smirked. "We know, Raze, we know."

Grinning, Razor got up and skipped the salad bar, instead heading straight for the main courses with Trina and Ed. Instead of getting up to join them, Malone stayed at the table with Bones. "How's the new team coming together?" he wondered.

"It's...coming," Bones said hesitantly. "They all have an awful lot of potential, but..."

"But?" Malone pressed suspiciously.

"But I'm not sure how things are going to fall into place," Bones admitted. "I don't even have a team captain picked yet."

Malone eyed him a moment, white eyes narrowing a little. "If you had to pick one right now, who would it be?"

Instantly, his eyes flicked behind his dark lenses over at the buffet table. "You could probably guess."

"So pick her, then. You can't keep worrying about how people are going to talk. They're going to talk anyway, so do what's best for the team. If she's got what it takes, that's all that matters."

Bones knew that she did. She needed to work on her focus and discipline, but she had a natural take-charge ability, and she was a quick thinker and decision-maker. Bones just wanted to make sure that it was clear to everyone--especially the team--that putting her in charge was the best choice.

There was probably something he could do--a test to display the best of each of their abilities--without making it an outright contest. When Trina showed the highest marks--and he knew she would--then there would be no question.

He wasn't sure what kind test he could use without being too obvious about it, but he doubted it would take that long to think of something. With that decided, he sat back and relaxed. The others came back to the table a few minutes later; Razor was grinning ear to ear about something. "What are you so happy about?" asked Derikka, eyeing her husband warily as she sat down with her salad.

"Guess what they have here," he said, shaking a small, clear plastic container.

"I give up."

Still grinning, Razor popped the container open and sprinkled a healthy amount of moist, dead flies onto his plate.

Mom, who had sat down across from her son-in-law, paused with her fork heading to her mouth, eyes on the insects being stirred happily in with the other food on the plate across from hers. Clearing her throat, she set her fork down. "That reminds is your, um, pet, dear?"

"Libby? Old," Derikka sighed. "Most corn snakes don't live past twenty, so I keep expecting to find her all stiff one morning."

She looked awfully sad about it. Mom, on the other hand, would probably throw a party. Smirking, Bones relaxed further, sliding an arm around his wife's shoulders, and enjoyed the playful banter that continued throughout dinner. Ed and Trina finished eating first and excused themselves early, citing a need to burn off excess energy before bed.

Shortly after the two left together, Derikka pushed her seat back and blotted her pink lips with a napkin. "I need to visit the bathroom before we go," she said as she got up.

"Me, too," said Razor, pausing to stretch before following her to the restrooms.

"And I'll be handling the bill," said Bones. "My treat," he said firmly, as Mom opened her mouth to object.

Smiling, Sherry put her arm around her mother-in-law and walked with her and Malone out to the parking lot, talking softly. Bones headed over to the front counter, where he waited for a cashier so he could pay for dinner. Straight ahead behind the counter he could see the restrooms, a standard t-shaped alcove with men on one side and women on the other, with a drinking fountain in the middle.

As he waited, Bones saw Derikka come out of the ladies room, absently smoothing her hair with one hand and holding her clutch purse in the other. Her cheeks had a rosiness to them, and he could tell by the look on her otherwise solemn face that she was up to something.

Curious, he continued to watch as Razor joined her. Derikka pulled herself straight, her eyes and face lighting up like she hadn't seen him in ages--or ever.

"Well, hi," she said brightly, her tone overflowing with eager interest. "Fancy running into you like this. Razor Kidd, right? I've been your biggest fan since the moment I first laid eyes on you."

For a moment, Razor looked bewildered as his wife took his hand and shook it. He quickly recovered, his expression turning sly. "Always nice to hear that I inspire such...devoted interest."

Derikka gazed up at him from half-closed, heavy lidded eyes with a look that could only be described as lustful. "I think we both know this goes way beyond mere interest."

She made a quick show of glancing around, like she was worried someone in the near-empty restaurant was listening. "I'm not going to play around here...I want you. And there's a nice big reclining back seat in my car where I can show you how much."

Razor responded with his own heavy-lidded gaze. "Right now?" he wondered, voice lowering to a sultry purr.

"Good point. Let's drive to a spot where my husband won't see us."

Snickering, Razor followed her out the side door, which closed behind them with a loud clunk. Bones stared blankly at the empty spot where they just stood. Well, he thought dryly, that was a little...odd.

Yet at the same time...

The cashier finally showed up, and he gave himself a shake and paid the bill before heading out to the lot. Mom and Malone were already gone, and Sherry had already started up her jeep. She'd needed to replace the old one a few years back and stubbornly got the same model, claiming it was perfect for every terrain. And as a reporter who never knew where a story would take her, she needed something that could handle getting rugged.

When they arrived home, Sherry kicked off her shoes and headed upstairs. Bones followed, stepping quietly behind her as she went into their room and over to the dresser, where she started taking her earrings out. He reached over and did what he had been longing to do all night; trace his finger down the slender shape of her necklace chain...and a little beyond it.

Sherry rewarded him with a quiet shiver, her skin prickling. She edged back a little. "What's wrong?" Bones asked teasingly. "Is your husband around?"

Sherry laughed softly and set her earrings on the dresser. "Something like that."

Grinning, Bones wrapped his arms around her slender form and held her tightly. "In all seriousness," she said, squirming a little as he started kissing her hair, "I'm not really up to anything right now."

Bones stilled, his mouth near her ear. "Why not?" he asked gently, unable to restrain a flicker of disappointment.

Sherry let out a sigh and gestured vaguely at her midsection. "You know, it's...girl business," she finished lamely, sounding uncomfortable.

Bones rested his cheek against hers and gazed at their reflection in the mirror above the dresser. "So?"

Sherry slipped out of his arms with a laugh. "'So?'" she echoed. "You're a guy. When you hear about 'girl business', you're supposed to..."

She put her arms in the air and mimed screaming hysterically. Bones calmly took her hands and kissed them. "Remember that time, years ago, when we were playing on the football field right after they started covering it in mines? And someone grabbed my ankle when I had the ball and I nearly landed face-first on one? And Britt dove to take the ball from me without thinking about why I wasn't trying to get up and run for the goal?"

Sherry grimaced in disgust. "I remember," she said. "I managed to forget about it, thank you very much, but I remember now. His head exploded all over you."

Bones tenderly kissed her cheek. "I was picking his brains out of my hair for days. Do you really think someone with an occupation like mine would have a problem with a girl being a girl?"

"No," said Sherry, though she still tried to squirm away as he pulled closer. "But I'm still not up to it. I'm kind of, well, tender."

"Oh." Frowning in sympathy, Bones put a hand on her midsection; Sherry flinched and pulled away. "Go take a warm bath," Bones told her, letting go. "When you're done I'll give you a back-rub until you fall asleep."

Looking relieved, Sherry kissed his cheek before heading to grab fresh clothes. "Thanks. You're so sweet."

While she headed off to the bathroom, Bones changed into his sleep clothes and got into bed. As he waited for Sherry to return, his mind wandered back to what he and Malone talked about during dinner. He still wasn't sure what exactly he was going to do to test the best of each new team member's abilities, but he was confident that something would come to him.

Regina wandered the house restlessly, glancing out a window from time to time to see if Trina was coming. It was pretty late but she was still out--goofing off somewhere with Ed, no doubt. With nothing else to fill her evening with, she tidied up around the house, then tried to read for a while, but it was no use. She was too agitated to sit still--agitated and hungry.

She never had dinner tonight, but she wasn't in the mood to cook something. In fact, she was in the mood to be bad. She had been exceptionally good lately, sticking to the strict diet she was supposed to adhere to in order to maintain her wisp of a figure. Her mouth watered as she thought about chowing down on a greasy cheeseburger and fries for a change.

She was pretty sure Trina and Ed wouldn't be happy if they found out she went out alone, and at night, but they hadn't told her not to, specifically. So, after procrastinating for a while, she finally grabbed her keys and purse and headed out to her car.

Regina liked small, nondescript cars--inconspicuous ones. She traded models frequently, too, to keep the likelihood of being recognized on the road down.

Regina drove to a small all-night fast food joint, ordered a large cheeseburger, fries, and a cola and went to sit at a booth near the back. The place was empty except for one other diner--a trucker, from the look of him--and the waitresses were friendly. The pool of tension in the pit of her stomach for the last day or so started to relax, and she with it. And then someone tapped her on the shoulder; she nearly sputtered soda up her nose.

"Hey, baby girl," a teasing voice said as she wiped her mouth. "Why out so late?"

Regina felt a rush of relief as she looked up at the speaker. "Just didn't feel like eating at home alone," she explained. "Trina went out with Ed and the rest of the family for dinner someplace. I...wasn't in the mood to join them."

Whenever her family got together, it was always a happy occasion. She didn't really feel happy right now and didn't want to bring down everyone else's mood--plus she didn't want to explain why she was so gloomy.

Thrasher looked understanding as she slid into the seat across from her. "I know," she sighed. "I didn't feel like socializing tonight either.

Regina nodded absently as she nibbled a fry. Her big sister had always been her best friend after Trina, despite being twice her age. Thrasher was someone she admired as much as she did her parents. She had a bold, brash nature, a take-no-prisoners approach to life that guaranteed no one ever messed with her.

She had been keeping herself scarce these days, though, and Regina understood why. The first female athlete to ever enter the League, Thrasher had one of the most celebrated and talked about careers ever, and she really hadn't wanted to give it up. But during the last few seasons she noticed her reaction time dropping, her skills losing their edge. Knowing her age would only continue to catch up with her, she chose to retire on top instead of clinging to fading glory until it was gone and she was a joke in the sports world.

She had officially stopped playing less than a year ago, and she spent most of her time looking restless--dissatisfied. She hadn't picked a second career yet.

Regina also wondered if she wasn't a little dissatisfied with her personal life, too. She, Ed, and Trina weren't supposed to know about it, but people talked, and sports stars had as much trouble keeping their private lives private as any other celebrity. People didn't really talk about it anymore--old news--but Regina had come across an old article, years ago, that talked about how interested Thrasher had been in Bones when she first joined the team.

It was weird to think about now--that her big sister used to be in love with Regina's big brother, AKA Thrasher's stepbrother. Regina wondered if she still was, a little, but she didn't dare ask. Whatever the reason, Thrasher had remained single all these years.

It was another thing they had in common. Regina wasn't completely opposed to finding the right person, but...there was that whole lamb-to-the-slaughter problem. She either attracted guys with predatory natures, or guys who enjoyed rescuing people. She didn't want a knight-in-shining-armor; she wanted an equal. But that would mean she would end up with a wimp, like her, so she was content to stay single forever.

Thrasher suddenly reached over and placed a hand over hers. " okay?"

Regina shrugged and absently stirred her straw through the ice in her cup. "Just thinking. Switching careers is rough business, huh," she noted, with a weak laugh.

Thrasher didn't smile. "If you hate modeling so much, why don't you find a way out of your contract?"

"I tried. If the company you work for doesn't want to let you go, even if you pay them double what they think they can make off you in a year, they'll take you to court if you try. I put a few feelers out weeks ago; they don't want me to leave. They're even dropping hints about how they plan to fluff up my next contract."

"How many years do they want now?" Thrasher wondered.

"Five," said Regina, with a roll of her eyes. "Greedy sobs."

"Sobs?" Thrasher echoed, white eyes dancing.

Regina flushed. "Mom hates it when I swear."

Thrasher looked amused. "You mean you actually tried once? I bet it was pretty funny."

It was. She was around ten or so when she'd yelled 'crap on a cracker' about something--a phrase she picked up from her other brother. Everyone had cracked up, including her mother, though she later pulled her aside and threatened to ban her from Razor and Derikka's household until further notice. Regina had kept her language squeaky-clean ever since.

It was funny to look back on it now, and she let herself laugh a little. She felt a lot better now; being around her big sister always made her feel safe. Years ago she had worried that Thrasher would bond more with Trina, since Trina was the future sports star, but even though the two got along and hung out frequently, that special closeness she and Thrasher had shared for as long as Regina could remember never changed.

"What do you plan to do next year, when the contract is finally up?" Thasher asked, as she snatched one of her fries.

"I'm not sure," Regina said with a sigh. "I've been thinking about it."

Honestly, she was worried. Aside from her looks, she didn't have a whole lot of talent. She wasn't smart enough to get an office job like her mom, she wasn't musically inclined, and she definitely didn't have the stomach to go to medical school.

"Well, what are the things you like to do?" Thrasher pressed.

Regina was so used to hating her job that she hadn't really thought about doing something she enjoyed. "I like to swim," she said, after thinking for a moment.

"Good. Go back to school and get a degree in oceanography. Problem solved."

Regina let out a laugh and sipped the last of her drink. "That's not all I like to do," she went on, warming to the idea now. "I also like painting and horseback riding. Oh, and I love kids."

Thrasher smiled and gave her head a small shake. "Yeah, the kind of runs in the family. You can do whatever you want, you know. You're bright, you're a quick learner, and your last name is Malone. The sky's the limit, baby girl."

So it would seem. And she had a year to work on it, so she was bound to come up with something long before then. "Thanks, big sis," she said as she got up from her seat.

"You leaving?" Thrasher wondered.

"After I hit the bathroom. See you soon?"

Thrasher stood and gave her a quick hug. "You bet."

She turned to go, and Regina scurried off to the restrooms. No one else was around as she made quick use of one of the stalls and then washed up; the restaurant sounded like it was silent outside the restroom door. So it took her by surprise when she pushed open the door and nearly bumped into someone standing on the other side

"Oh--sorry," she said automatically, hopping back.

Then she looked up--and felt her heart drop inside her. It was the same burly mutant who approached her in the parking lot the other night. Her eyes instantly darted around, looking for either an escape or help, but he was so large she couldn't see around him in the narrow hallway that led back into the restaurant.

"Hey, little vermin," he sneered.

Regina grimaced; his breath smelled horrible. And if she had to choose, she'd rather he called her babydoll. "What do you want?" she asked, trying to keep her voice from shaking and failing. She wanted to stall for time, hopefully someone would notice. She wouldn't be able to get away on her own; the restroom door opened outward and her back was almost pressed to it, so there was no room for her to turn around and pull it open. Not that she believed he wouldn't follow her into the ladies room--but there was an emergency exit at the back. If she ran fast enough, she might make it to her car...

If she could get the door open.

"I think you know what I want," the mutant said lowly, lifting his hands and cracking his large knuckles. Like something straight out of a cheap action thriller, she thought dryly. Only she didn't feel very thrilled. In fact, she was pretty sure she was moments away from becoming terrified.

"We've been trying to pick the right one to send a message to all the other vermin out there," he went on, his voice dark and hateful. "We decided that a dainty little thing like you would be perfect."

He moved closer; her back was pressed against the door now. No escape. She cowered back like a cornered rabbit. "Wouldn't you be better off taking on someone bigger?" she asked, her voice a tiny whisper.

You should be screaming, a voice inside her said. She honestly tried to, but her throat was so dry and tight she could barely breathe.

"We could," he allowed, "but the message we're trying to send here is that we don't discriminate."

He grinned at his own twisted joke, a sight that made her stomach knot up unpleasantly. "Big or small, it doesn't matter to us. Vermin is vermin."

He shifted his weight, starting to take another step closer; Regina saw her chance--or what she thought was her chance--and took it. She ducked down and tried to dart between his legs.

Rough fingers clamped down on her hair, yanking her back up. Regina managed a clipped, sharp yelp before a hand was slapped over her mouth. "Now," he said coarsely as he forced her to turn around, "we're going to take a walk through the ladies room and out the back to where my buddies are waiting. Okay?"

Regina's head swam as horrible thoughts of what they were going to do to her filled her mind. Were they going to kill her? Rape her? Do both and then leave her body somewhere it would be easily found? She was about to find out.

The burly mutant was shifting his weight again, edging back so he had room to pull open the restroom door. And then he suddenly let go of her, the weight of him pulling away from her as he let out a harsh yell of surprise. There was a sound of impact and then he was slumping to the floor.

Heart pounding and breathless, Regina turned around slowly. Thrasher was standing over the prone, unconscious mutant, rubbing her balled fist. Her expression was dark and fierce. "Isn't that a..."

Her jaw hardened. She gripped Regina's arm and helped her step over him. "Come on," she ordered, pulling her out of the restaurant.

"Are we going home?" Regina asked weakly.

"No. To the police."

Chapter Text

"You shouldn't have gone out by yourself," Trina said angrily when she found out what happened the next morning.

Honestly, she wasn't mad at Gina. She was mad at the idiots responsible for this--and at herself. After dinner, she and Ed decided to goof off in an all-night arcade for a few hours and didn't finish up until after one in the morning. By that time, Gina had already finished telling the police what happened and gone to bed. She'd confessed everything over breakfast.

Now Trina was darting around, muttering to herself as she got ready to go in for practice. Gina was perched at her vanity, frowning hard as she dusted translucent rice powder across her pink-orange face. "I don't want to live in fear, Trina," she said darkly. "I just went out for a cheeseburger. I didn't think..."

Grunting, she closed the powder box and put her brushes away. "You don't have to worry. I'm pretty sure Ed plans to drive me everywhere I go for the rest of my life."

Ed wasn't the only one upset about this. Thrasher already told the other members of the family what was going on--family members who were now mad at the three of them for not saying anything earlier. "I'll put up with the chauffeuring," Gina went on, in the same dark tone, "but I'm not going to go into hiding. That's what they want."

Trina let out a groan of frustration and ran a brush through her hair. "You are so stubborn. Just like..." She waved the brush vaguely. "Everyone."

Gina's fists were balled on top of the vanity table. "I might not have the blood of a Justice flowing in me," she said quietly, "but I am a Malone. I'm supposed to be better than this."

Surprised, Trina stopped pulling her hair back in a ponytail and looked at her. She'd never heard her talk like that before. "Better than what?" she wondered.

Gina's fists tightened. "Better than a lamb. Or a rabbit. Or a mouse. Or whatever pathetic animal I'm cowering like at the time."

Her expression in the mirror was stormy. Trina fidgeted uncertainly. "Okay, so you're not all big and buff," she said slowly, "but that doesn't make you weak. There's more to being strong than being able to lift buses. No one expects you to be tough."

Gina met her gaze in the glass. Her pale blue eyes looked dark. "The one person whose opinion of me that counts does," she insisted lowly.

"And who's that?"


"You really should have said something to me," Bones said unhappily.

"I'm sorry," came his baby sister's quiet voice over the phone. "I didn't want to get you involved. I know how annoying the backlash is when someone famous takes a stand on an issue."

"Pardon my French, but I don't give a shit about backlash," Bones informed her. "What these idiots are doing is wrong in every way imaginable. It's not going to help anyone and it spits in the faces of people who did more than just stick up for mutants, but went so far as to support them in the very way that they lived--like our parents. I didn't think I had to say that I'm against them and everything they stand for, but attacking my baby sister officially makes me their biggest enemy."

There was a long pause on the other end. "You know, there's this really zen talk show host who says that in a hundred years or so, everyone will have a little mutant blood in them."

She spoke lightly, so Bones forced a quiet chuckle for her, even though he didn't feel remotely humorous. "Well, we only cover less than half of the entire population of the US, so I don't think we could breed that quickly, even if the rest of the world wanted us to."

Although he had heard some groups say that this was actually the natural direction the human race was supposed to take. What was natural about an eruption of toxic chemicals, Bones would never know, but The Cajathars were one of those groups. Only they believed that mutantcy was supposed to spread in its original form, unsullied by any normal characteristics.

"Is Trina with you?" he asked, remembering that he had to get going soon.

"She just left. But don't worry, Ed will be here in a minute. I don't have to work today, so I'm tagging along to one of his Q&A sessions."

"Good. You tell the big lug I said to take good care of you."

"I will," said Regina, sighing quietly. "Bye."

She hung up, and Bones hurried to finish getting ready. Sherry was getting ready too, but she wasn't dressing for work. "Where are you headed?" Bones wondered as he tugged on his sneakers.

Sherry didn't answer right away, instead focusing on buttoning her blouse. "To the doctor," she finally said, though she sounded really reluctant to admit it.

Bones stopped and stared. "Again? You just went a few weeks ago."

Sherry was at the age where she went in for annual checkups--including mammograms. She had just gone in for one, so he didn't see why she needed to go in again. Unless she was going in for something else.

"It's just a followup," she said lightly, her eyes on her hands as she slipped on a light jacket.

Bones put his hand on her arm. She paused, but she didn't look at him. "Sherry," he said, softly but firmly. "Is there something I should know?"

Sherry lifted her head and looked at him, though she only met his eyes for a second. "No," she said, in that same light--odd--voice. She kissed his face and stepped away from his grasp. "Nothing's wrong. I'll call you later, okay?"

Before he could respond, she had darted down the stairs and out of the house. Frowning, Bones grabbed his jacket and went out to his bike. Really, he had enough on his mind right now without having to worry about...whatever was going on here. He didn't even want to think about the words 'doctor,' his wife, and 'wrong' in the same sentence.

He tried to think about something else she might be trying to hide, but there wasn't anything coming up soon. No anniversaries, no birthdays. And in all these years, the two of them had never kept secrets from each other. Their relationship had always been one of total honesty and trust. Needless to say, this rattled him considerably.

When he reached the Dome, he forced the issue out of his mind. He had a team to whip into shape.

Ed barely noticed the fans who questioned him from the audience, and hardly paid attention to his own mechanical answers. His eyes were on Regina, who was sitting quietly, pensively in the back. She sat with her hands folded on her lap and her eyes downcast, not looking anywhere or at anyone. He couldn't tell if she was afraid, or just felt bad that he was stuck with her for the day. Knowing her? Probably both.

When the Q&A ended, he hurried to grab his jacket and put an arm around his aunt/little sister as they headed out to his car. He helped her in and closed the door, and was just going around to the driver's side when footsteps approached. Sharp, clacking footsteps that heralded the arrival of someone in spiked heels. He turned around--and found himself face to face with the goddess again.

Alexia, he reminded himself, as the willowy creature rushed past him and leaned her hands on the car door. Regina lowered the window and she reached in to hug the smaller girl. "I just heard," Alexia said, sounding stricken. "Are you okay?"

"You mean this has hit the news already?" Regina groaned. "Wonderful."

They talked quietly for a moment, and Ed waited patiently. It gave him an excuse to gawk discreetly. Alexia was dressed in a cream blouse and a lavender sarong-style skirt. The skirt and blouse sleeves rippled as she moved in a way that reminded him of flower petals.

"If you ever need anything, anything at all, you let me know. You've got my number, right?"

"Yes," said Regina, sounding tired. She started to raise the window. Alexia straightened and stepped back, and Ed admired how her unusual eyes looked in the sunlight. Such a deep gold...they were almost inhumanly beautiful.

And then it hit him. "You're a mutant, too."

Looking surprised, Alexia turned and looked at him. She smiled. "Sort of. My father was--just a tiny bit."

"He's worried they'll go after you next," Regina called, before closing the window all the way.

Thanks, Gina, Ed thought dryly. "That was sort of what I was getting at," he admitted.

Something dark passed through those yellow-gold eyes. "Just let them try it," she said dangerously. "My bodyguard is a troll the size of Detroit."

She smiled, the dark look passing quicker than it had come. "I'm Alexia, by the way--but you can just call me Lexie. Everybody does."

Still smiling, she extended her hand, which Ed gripped gently. "I'm Ed--but you already know that."

"Uh-huh. It's nice to finally meet you."

She let go of his hand and started walking away. Ed watched until she was out of sight before turning and getting into the car. As he started the ignition, he noticed that Regina was looking at him, a slightly smug look on her face. "You've got good taste," she observed.

Ed felt his pointed ears start to heat. "Oh, quiet," he muttered.

"I'm serious. She's a great girl. You want her number? Here--I'll give it to you."

"You're just trying to distract me from my duty as honorary protector," he accused warily. Though if she really wanted to give him Lexie's number, he wasn't going to argue.

"I am not," she muttered, as she scribbled on a scrap of paper. "I'm trying to make it up to you for having to be stuck with me until further notice. Here."

Acting like he was only humoring her, Ed casually took the paper and pocketed it, making sure not to look at it as he did. The less interested he acted, the less likely it was for her to mention it to anyone.

Not that mentioning it was necessarily a bad thing. It would probably invoke a plethora of advice from Razor, barbs from Trina, an encore of 'the talk' from his dad...

Yeah, he really didn't want her to mention it to anyone.

Trina let out a groan as she stumbled for her locker. She ached from head to toe--where was that mutant rush of pain-free goodness hiding at?--but she was proudly in one piece today.

As the only female on the team, she and the others had worked out a system; she kept to herself while the rest of the team showered and changed, then went into the shower alone after they were gone. She sat and rubbed her sore muscles for a while, then said goodbye as they trooped through the room, high-fiving Mac as he passed.

She liked this arrangement; it allowed her to soak in the shower for as long as she wanted. After taking her clothes out of her locker and leaving them on a bench, she wiggled out of her uniform and went to stand under the shower spray, making it good and hot. She lost track of how long she stood there, letting the tension slowly ease out of her body until she felt pleasantly light and drowsy. Yawning, she twisted the shower off, wrapped herself in a towel and headed back into the locker room.

She was rubbing a smaller towel over her hair when she heard her cell phone ring. Yawning again, she shuffled to her locker and answered it. "Hello?" she said sleepily.

"Hey," came a familiar, cheerful voice--thought there was an underlying edge she couldn't quite name in it. "Are you busy? I thought we could have lunch together or something."

"Why, is your hubby busy?" Trina asked teasingly as she dried her legs off.

"No," Sherry said wearily, "I just thought...never mind."

"No, I'll be out in a minute," Trina said quickly. "I could use a nice relaxing afternoon for a change."

She hung up, finished drying off and hurried outside. Her aunt was waiting by her jeep, which she stepped away from as Trina neared. "Let's take your car," she said. "We can always come back later."

Shrugging, Trina took out her keys, popped open the doors and slid into the driver's seat. Sherry looked distracted as she buckled in. "Where to?" Trina wondered as she started the engine.

"Huh? Oh, I don't care. Anywhere is fine."

Trina thought it was a little odd that she suggested they go to lunch without having any particular place in mind, but she started for a café that was a few miles away that she knew had great coffee. "So, how is he, anyway? Your hubby, I mean."

She imagined he was pretty upset about what happened to his little sister. But ever the professional, Bones didn't let his personal emotions show when he was coaching, so she hadn't been able to read his mood today.

Sherry didn't answer right away, her eyes unfocused as they gazed out the window. Trina noticed suddenly that she looked a little different today. It took her a minute to figure out what it was, and then she realized that she didn't have her blouse tucked into her skirt. It wasn't a big deal, but for as long as she could remember Sherry had been an impeccable dresser, so it just struck her as a little...strange.

"Bones?" she said distantly. "He's wonderful. Too wonderful for words. Even after all these years together, sometimes I can't believe that he's really mine."

That wasn't quite what she had meant, but Trina felt too awkward to say anything. That was another story she had heard, though no one in her family had told her directly--the rather shaky way her aunt and uncle's relationship first began. Sherry had loved Bones for a long time and had fought to be with him, but she hadn't acted like a pushover about it. When she reached the point where she wanted to know if he loved her too, she asked him flat out, with full intention of walking away if he said no. She still loved him, but...if he didn't feel the same, she wasn't going to keep following him around like a little lost puppy. She was going to let him go and move on. Forget about him.

Of course, it didn't turn out that way, and Trina, as she often did, found herself thinking about how strong the women in her family were. They were fighters, every last one of them...and she really didn't wonder why Gina felt like she didn't measure up.

"You two are really great together," she said, not wanting to think about that right now. "My mom and dad, too. And my grandma and grandpa who would deck me if I called them that to their faces," she added, snickering. "Will all this love and devotion around, I would be pretty jealous if I wasn't so obnoxiously independent."

As it was, she liked being single. But that didn't mean she didn't admire the unconditional love she was surrounded with.

"You all went through so much together," she went on, mostly to herself now. "It's amazing how it all turned out. Better than any fairytale."

Sherry laughed softly for a moment--and then, to Trina's shock, she burst into tears. "What--?"

As her aunt buried her face in her hands and sobbed, Trina hastily pulled over. "What happened?" she asked, feeling bewildered.

She unbuckled and scooted closer, putting a hand on her aunt's shoulder. She was trembling all over. "Are you okay?"

Sherry shook her head, peering at her through her tears. "No," she sniffled. "I'm not. Something's happened and I'm so scared. I don't know what to do."

Feeling even more bewildered--and frightened--Trina tried to stay calm. "Do you need help? Does Bones know?"

Sherry shook her head again--violently. "Bones doesn't know a thing--no one does. I can't--oh, but I feel like I have to tell someone," she cried, clearly in anguish.

"You can tell me," Trina offered, not knowing what else to say.

Sherry sniffled again and wiped her eyes, though the tears continued to fall steadily. "I can't. Or if I did, you have to swear not to tell anyone. Understand?"

Trina didn't know where this was going, was starting to worry her. "But--"

"You have to," Sherry said sharply. "And if you tell someone anyway, I'll never forgive you."

Okay, Trina thought dryly, this is serious. Her mother had always taught her that secrets were wrong, especially among family, but...

"Okay," she said softly, before she could change her mind. "I won't tell anyone. I'll pull off my own tail and beat myself with it if I do."

She was trying to lighten the mood that had settled into the car. Sherry looked as stricken as ever as she ran her fingers through her short hair. "I'm trusting you," she whispered.

Trina swallowed and waited. Sherry took a breath and let it out slowly, her eyes glued to her hands as she tightly clasped them in front of her.

"I'm pregnant."

Chapter Text


Sherry slapped her hands over her eyes and started sobbing again. Trina leaned back against the seat, her head spinning as her perception of reality tilted severely. No, it wasn't just was upside-down and standing on its head.

"Not possible," she heard herself say weakly. "Because that means you--"

"I didn't!"

Sherry spoke so sharply Trina flinched. "I don't know what's going on," she said, her voice almost a wail. "I don't know what happened!"

The world was spinning so hard now Trina had to squeeze her eyes shut. She waited until the colors swirling behind her lids slowed before opening them again. "Okay," she said, taking in a breath and letting it out slowly. "Waiting for the explanation."

Or the punchline to this extremely sick joke.

"I don't know how to explain it," Sherry said, wiping her eyes. Her voice was a little calmer than a moment ago...but still dangerously close to hysterics. "A while back I went in for my annual exams. Hospitals are legally bound when any woman comes in for a mammogram to give them a pregnancy test first. Everyone has to take them, even virgins. I took mine like I have ever since I started going in for screenings--and it came back positive."

Trina waited silently while her aunt gave her head a shake. Her eyes were starting to dry, but her face was drawn and miserable. "I'm not all that young anymore, so I laughed it off at the time. Hormone levels sometimes get high when a woman is starting menopause, and the nurses said that was probably the cause and told me to come back in a few weeks. I did, and the test came back positive again. So I went back again today," she said, choking back a sob as she pressed a hand to her eyes, "and it came up positive again."

"But," Trina said slowly, "it's still just a mistake, right?"

Because there was no way that her aunt, who had risked her life for her husband more than once, would up and have an affair. The very thought turned her stomach.

Sherry was shaking her head again, sitting slumped against the car door. "I don't know what to think anymore," she whispered, her face pale. "I started noticing changes, but I didn't think anything of them. I thought it was just my age."

Trina studied her aunt, her gaze falling on her middle, loosely covered by her blouse. "Changes?" she pressed gently.

Sherry gestured to herself vaguely. "I stopped menstruating regularly--and then I stopped altogether. I gained a few pounds. My breasts and abdomen are sore."

Trina thought about all that, adding it up to something...not good.

"I just kept thinking it was my age," Sherry went on bitterly. "I just told myself I was lucky I wasn't shrinking and growing a beard and forgot about it. But then it got impossible to ignore. I keep gaining weight, but it's all going to my stomach. And now..."

She swallowed thickly. "I started lactating a few days ago."

Trina cringed. "Yikes. That's..."

"I didn't do it," Sherry cried, making her flinch again. "I love Bones more than anything and I would never have sex with anyone else! I wouldn't!"

She slumped forward and broke down, so forcefully that it made Trina feel a little afraid. "Okay," she said again, taking another calming breath. "I believe you."

And she did. As crazy as it sounded, she couldn't bring herself to doubt the woman sitting next to her, crying like her soul was about to shatter. "Let's go over other possible, um, causes," she said uncertainly, running a soothing hand over her aunt's back. "Were you knocked out recently and woke up to find your undies missing?"

Sherry let out a strange laugh and shook her head, still buried in her hands. "No."

"Okay, you ever use any toilets at the Dome other than the one near your office?"

Sniffling, Sherry sat up again. "Sometimes. But that's what handiwipes and seat covers are for."

"Oh. Well, what about..."

Actually, that tapped for her ideas. Sherry was staring off into the distance. "I can't tell him," she whispered. "He'll think I did it--I know he will. All these years I've loved him with all my might, and I know that he's still worried, somewhere deep inside, that someone with skin will come and steal me away. He won't ever believe I didn't and--"

Choking back a sob, she turned, shaking, and pressed her face against the upholstery of the seat. "I can't lose him," she said, as tears streamed down her face. "I can't."

"You won't," Trina told her. Not knowing what else to do, she put her arms around her. "I don't know what happened here, but we'll figure it out. And I won't tell anyone. We'll figure this out together."

Sniffling and trembling, Sherry clung to her. "Thank you," she whispered.

The only trouble was...Trina had no idea how to figure this out.

"You know," Regina said wearily, "most guys go through this long before they're twenty-six."

In front of her, Ed was pacing with a phone in his hand, trying to gather the courage to dial Lexie's number. "Hey, if you're going to crash at my place, no wisecracks. Got it?"

Rolling her eyes, Regina settled back in the over-sized chair she was sitting in, her eyes trailing over the living room they were in. Ed liked dark colors--the opposite of what she liked--so the furniture was brown leather and black metal. The coffee table was glass and metal, as was the nearby entertainment center, which was packed with bloody action films and gory war movies. At least it wasn't full of Asian horror flicks whose covers alone were guaranteed to give her nightmares. Those were at Cecilia's place.

"Any romantic-comedies in there?" she asked slyly.

Ed looked up from the phone, which he had left off the hook for so long the operator message was playing. "What are you, whacked? Now quiet, I'm trying to think of what I'm going to say."

He was just lucky it was her sitting here watching this display normally seen on someone half his age. If it were Trina...well, she'd have some pretty choice words. Probably something like, "Don't forget, you're an almost thirty-year-old virgin. Remind her to ride you easy at first."

Regina snorted on laughter at the thought; Trina could really be terrible sometimes.

Irritated, Ed hung up and glared at her. "Don't you have some poses to practice or something?"

"No," Regina sighed, with another roll of her eyes.

"Well, when was the last time you went home?"

"Alone? Yesterday. Turned out real well, too."

Ed just looked at her, eyes slightly narrowed; Regina flushed and looked away. "It's been a while," she admitted.

"Get your things."

Knowing it was no use arguing, she slipped her shoes back on, grabbed her purse and followed him out to his car. A little while later they pulled up outside her parents' house. Regina had barely stepped out onto the front walk before her mother came rushing down the porch steps.

"You should have told us, sweetie," she said as she yanked her daughter into her arms, making her stumble. "You should have come to dinner with us last night, or--"

"I know," Regina said quickly. "I messed up. I'm sorry."

Ed waved and drove away, and her mother kept her arms tightly around her as she led her into the house. She let go to close the door; her father promptly appeared and took her place.

Regina swallowed thickly as she was pressed into his warm, comforting arms, her cheek resting against his firm middle. Something about being in her father's arms made years of her life peel away, until she felt like a little girl again--safe. Someone without any troubles or worries.

If only it were that simple.

"You should have said something," he told her, his voice low.

Regina swallowed again, but it didn't stop tears from flooding her eyes. "I know," she whispered. "I didn't want to bother you with it. I wanted..."

She wanted to handle it herself, without running to her parents--or anyone else. She'd pretty much failed miserably.

Her mother came over and ran a soothing hand over her hair as she sniffled. Her father continued to hold her, not moving or saying anything. He didn't need to; she knew what he was thinking. It was what he always thought when he was worried about her. That he was ready to protect her from anything and anyone.

Her father had the kind of presence that when he was around her, she believed that he could.

Between the two of them, her tears were slowly soothed away, and eventually she sat in the kitchen with her mother, quietly sipping tea. Her father hovered nearby.

"Sweetie, maybe you should think about dropping out of sight for a while," her mother said gently.

Regina started dully down at her teacup. "I have to work."

"Your life is in danger, so I'm sure they'll--"

"I can't," Regina said firmly, eyes still on her cup. "If they want all diluted mutants to disappear, then I'm not going anywhere. That would just be giving them what they want."

Sighing, her mother looked over at her husband, obviously expecting him to chime in, but he stayed quiet. "I suppose it won't be bad if you keep working," she allowed, "as long as they keep security up. But I'd like you to consider moving back home."

Regina almost choked on the mouthful of tea she'd just sipped. "What?"

"Just for a little while," her mother said quickly.

Like it mattered. Move back in with her parents when she was almost twenty-one--a stone-throw away from finally being a full-fledged adult? Goodbye, adult cred won during her years at college. Goodbye, adult cred, period.

Regina gave her head a shake. "It's fine," she said gently, trying to sound calm and reassuring. "Trina and Ed..."

She trailed off. Her father had moved from his post and rested a hand on her shoulder. Oh, great. If he backed her mother up on this, she would probably wind up living here with them for another twenty years.

To her relief he said, "Just for tonight," in his quiet, gruff way. "We'll discuss it further in the morning."

Mom looked a little disappointed, but she nodded in agreement. Regina hoped she would have a worthwhile argument worked out by then, but in the night wouldn't kill her. In fact, she was pretty sure she was secretly going to enjoy this temporary return to childhood where she let her parents pamper her. She would have to try not to enjoy it too much.

After the teapot was drained, Regina insisted on helping with dinner. It was nice, reliving the kind of evenings she used to have a mere four years ago, before she left home for college. She felt more relaxed than she had in ages, helping her mother chop vegetables and load the oven and then helping her father clear the table when dinner was over. She was pretty sure she had the best parents ever.

She knew the story about the troubled events surrounding her birth, but she had a feeling that even if the two of them had gotten together under smoother circumstances, they would have still treated her like she was the best, most special treasure either of them could have ever been given. It made her feel pleasantly flushed with warmth as she headed sleepily off to get ready for bed.

Her old room had been converted back to its previous use; a guest room. The formerly rose-colored paneling had been repainted a more neutral nut brown, with white wallpaper dotted with pale green and yellow flowers covering the upper half of the wall. The rest of the room looked pretty much the same, other than the different furniture and bed.

Having not brought a change of clothes with her, Regina slipped into one of her mother's nightgowns...which hung well past her toes and onto the floor, thanks to how many inches her mother had on her. The neckline hung a little immodestly low on her as a result, and she hastily snugged the straps as best she could before climbing into bed.

She slept soundly that night and woke up extra early the next morning. She didn't plan to--in fact she felt so warm and snug she was tempted to go back to sleep for another few hours--but she pushed the blankets off and tiptoed barefoot to her parents' room.

They were still asleep, her mother lying curled up on her side, with her father stretched out beside her, his arm draped protectively over her. Their hands were clasped up near the pillow.

They both looked so peaceful Regina wouldn't have disturbed them for anything, and she tiptoed across the house to the kitchen. As she started brewing a pot of coffee--her mother mostly stuck to tea but her father loved a good, melt-a-norm's-mouth mutant brand--her mind wandered, thinking about how good the two of them were to her--and then a thought struck her.

Right now, The Cajathars were only targeting normal mutants and mutant-normal hybrids, but what about people who had willingly created someone like her? If this was only the beginning of their agenda, then she had to wonder if they would one day decide that normal-mutant couples were equally guilty--and punishable. The thought of someone trying to hurt her wonderful, loving parents made her sick to her stomach.

She wouldn't allow it to happen, she thought grimly as she quietly made toast and pancakes. It was probably inevitable that this thought would cross someone's mind eventually, but she was going to do what she could to delay that thought. And if that meant fighting this on her own and keeping the focus on herself and off her loved ones, then so be it.

With this decided, she finished making breakfast and changed back into her clothes. She then left a note telling her parents not to worry--and that she loved them more than anything--on the kitchen table next to the breakfast she'd prepared before she quietly left the house and started for home.

Chapter Text

Trina was in the middle of lacing up her Spikeys when she heard the front door open downstairs. "Gina?" she called in surprise.

Ed called her last night to tell her that he left Gina at her parents' house. He also mentioned that he was busy today and couldn't head back there to pick her until later, if someone else couldn't. Trina had been about to head out to pick her up herself before practice when Gina came upstairs and into the large bedroom they shared. "I was just on my way out the door," she said, as Gina drifted over to her dresser on her side of the room. "Did your parents drop you off?"

She hadn't heard a car pull up.

"No," Gina said distantly as she slipped off her flats and pulled out a change of clothes. "I walked."

Trina stopped snugging her laces and stared. "You what? Are you nuts or something?"

"No," Gina said, sounding impatient. "I told you, I'm not going to live in fear. Besides, I needed to walk off the cheeseburger I had the other night anyway."

"Not funny," Trina groused. "What if someone saw you, or--"

"I kept out of sight," Gina informed her, her low voice taking on a dark tone that quieted her. "And I don't have anywhere to be today, so don't worry. I'm not so stupid that I'm going to go looking for trouble."

With that, she stretched out on her bed, pressing her face into the pillow. Trina stifled a sigh and rubbed her dry, tired eyes. She didn't feel comfortable leaving Gina alone--there was a good chance a Cajathar or two knew where she lived, and if they didn't they could probably find out--but she didn't have the energy to argue.

She didn't get much sleep last night. After she and Sherry parted ways, she had pored over medical textbooks and researched cases of unexpected and downright bizarre pregnancies, trying to piece together how her aunt could be pregnant without having real, full-blown sex since college.

Maybe, she thought crazily as she pulled her hair into a ponytail, there had been some dormant sperm in her reproductive tract that suddenly woke up over twenty years later.

Oh, yeah. That sounded possible.

"This is nuts," she muttered as she grabbed her duffel bag.

"Huh?" said Gina sleepily.

"Nothing. Stay here and be good, okay?"

Trina continued to mull the problem over as she drove to practice. After calming her down and heading to lunch yesterday, she tried to have Sherry think back about any odd or unexplainable occurrences in the last few months. Any sudden blackouts? No. Had she come in contact with any less than cleanly surfaces? No. Had she taken a dip in a public hot tub, AKA a place where leftover nookie and almost every disease known to man could lurk? Heck no. Not that it mattered; Trina knew that hot water killed sperm. Cecilia taught her that years ago.

It was one seriously messed up mystery, and it didn't look like they were going to solve it any time soon. Unfortunately, lying awake thinking about it had taken its toll, and she couldn't stop yawning as she stumbled into the locker room.

Her uncle noticed immediately. "It's dangerous to hit the field in less than top shape in any sport, let alone mutants sports," he commented with a frown.

"I know," Trina said, yawning again. "Worrying about my sisterly aunt is making it a little hard to concentrate on most things, like sleep."

Fortunately, this was true enough that Bones didn't question it...though she did notice that he eyed her for a long moment, his frown almost suspicious, before moving on. With another yawn, she changed into her uniform and followed the rest of the team out to the field.

Ed would be glad when the promotional part of releasing his latest novel was over and he could use writing the next one as an excuse to drop out of sight for a while. He was too distracted right now to properly give interviews or pay much attention as he signed autographs, and he was glad when his brief plans for the morning were over so he could head off to check on Regina. When he got there, he was relieved to hear there was nothing to report. Trina was off practicing--as usual--while Regina was relaxing on her bed with a book.

"Want to try one of mine?" Ed asked teasingly.

"After the way you killed off the villain in the last one? No."

Snickering, Ed turned to drape his jacket on the chair next to Trina's bed. People often took it upon themselves to point out that it was outdated, but he didn't care. It was the same kind of jacket his dad used to wear--the one he wore all the time before giving it to Ed when he grew big enough to wear it. Ed had worn it until it was in tatters, then promptly went out to find a worthy replacement.

As Regina continued to read, apparently not in the mood to talk, Ed rested his shoulder against the wall as his eyes trailed over the room. There were enough rooms in this house, which was of a modest size, for the girls to have separate bedrooms, but they had opted to join this one large, wide room instead. It didn't surprise him; the two girls had been closer than close since they were babies.

You could easily tell that two very different people slept here, though. Trina's side of the room looked like a marriage of her parents' tastes; white furniture, a purple bedspread, glass star-shaped candle holders with blue and pink tealights on the nightstand next to a pile of sports magazines. Sports posters and memorabilia were tacked to the wall above her bed, along with a display case holding all the trophies she won in high school and college.

Regina's side of the room had a distinctly different flavor that wasn't really reminiscent of either of her parents. Her mother liked soft colors, but where as Grandma Emmy liked pale blues and soft whites in her decorating along with natural pale woods like oak, pine, and chestnut, Regina preferred pinks and creams. Her furniture, which honestly didn't look all that much more mature than what used to be in her old room at her parents' house, was cream-colored with hand-painted designs of pale pink flowers with green leaves, like the ones on the drawers of her dresser. The lamp on her nightstand had a gold-colored frame with an opaque white glass shade, also painted with pink flowers and green leaves.

There were even a few dolls and stuffed animals tucked here and there. Ed was pretty sure Trina had dumped both for sports equipment by age five. Regina, on the other hand, set aside her book and absently picked up a snow-white stuffed bear with a red bow tied around its neck. "Did you ever call Lexie?" she wondered, as she rolled comfortably onto her side, tucking the stuffed bear under her chin.

Ed didn't answer right away. Never mind the technicality that made her his aunt; Regina was still seven years younger than him. On top of that, she was so small and delicate-looking, especially lying curled up on her bed in a baby-blue sundress. Looking at her now, clutching a stuffed bear in her slender make him think of a porcelain doll. Fragile. Breakable.

The idea that someone wanted to hurt her, and for such a stupid made his blood boil.

He moved over and gently brushed a sunshine yellow lock of hair from her eyes. "I have a date with her later this afternoon, actually," he said softly. "But if you don't feel safe being here alone, I'll call her and cancel."

Regina lifted her ice blue eyes, eyebrows arched sharply. "Your last date was before your first book was published," she reminded him dryly. "I'm fine. So go on--get out of here. Have fun."

"Don't hesitate to call me if you need anything," he told her. Regina grunted something and closed her eyes. He planted a soft kiss on her temple before heading out to his car.

"Okay," he mumbled to himself as he started the engine, "you can do this. You're a Justice. You're not afraid of anything."

Well, he was a Justice by law and not by blood, still counted. That was what he kept telling himself, anyway.

Despite his attempts at self-assurance, Ed was a bundle of nerves as he drove across town. He parked at the corner of a special mini mall that spanned several blocks and covered both sides of the street, though at a glance they looked like any other colorful collection of stores, boutiques, coffee shops, and diners.

Closer inspection showed that each place specifically targeted mutants and mutant interests. Not to say that normal humans weren't also welcome, but for the most part only large, confident norms or norms accompanied by mutant friends or a significant other came around. Small norms flying solo were few and far between.

It was well known these days that products designed specifically for mutants were popular with norms, too--especially young moms who were trying to raise rambunctious little hellions. For them, things like dishes and other breakables originally designed with bulky, clumsy mutants like trolls in mind were a god-send.

Today, Ed wasn't interested in anything domestic for his apartment, but something a little more lively. When he caught sight of Lexie waiting for him outside the pet store across the street, his heart gave an excited thump.

As always, she was dressed to perfection, today in a pair of casual but elegant tan slacks, pale green sandals, and a matching pale green blouse with butterfly sleeves. As Ed hurried across the street to meet her, dating stories he was told as a child stood out sharply in his mind--particularly the tale of his Uncle Razor and Aunt Dare's first date, which had also involved a pet store. That special day included their first kiss--and the start of their life-long love.

Ed was kind of hoping history would repeat itself today.

Hurrying forward, he opened the door to the pet store for her, and she flashed him a smile as she went inside. As he followed, Ed felt tempted to take hold of her in a small, subtle way--holding her hand, or putting his hand on her waist--but he wasn't sure that was appropriate just yet. He kept his hands to himself and stayed close to her as they drifted down one of the aisles.

"Do you have anything in particular in mind?" Lexie wondered as she eyed a large cage full of colorful birds that were chirping noisily.

"Another dog," Ed responded, his eyes drifting across the store to where the glass cages that housed them were kept. "Something nice and sturdy."

A lot of the new mutant breeds were supposed to have great health and extra-long lives. He was just thinking about talking to one of the sales clerks when he spotted a group of mutants clustered in the back of the store, between the racks that held dog and cat food and other house-pet supplies. He only glanced at them, uninterested--but then he did a double-take, his muscles tensing.

He recognized the large one from the group that harassed Regina in the parking lot the other night. And as the bulky, dark-skinned mutant happened to turn and look in his direction, Ed knew that he recognized him, too.

Growing even more tense as the leader of the group nudged the others, directing their attention to him, Ed quickly reached out and grabbed Lexie's hand. "Come on," he said in a low voice, "I think we should come back later."

Looking puzzled, Lexie followed his gaze. Ed doubted she knew them on sight--no one really knew what members of the group looked like--but her instincts of danger must have been in full working order, because she quickly moved closer to him as she drew a nervous hand to her mouth.


"It's okay. Just keep moving."

Looking back later, he was surprised by how calmly he reacted that afternoon. His heart pounded, but he didn't panic, even when another burly mutant suddenly darted in their path, blocking their way to the exit. "Well, look at this now," he cooed. "Two little vermin on a date."

Ed set his jaw and pulled Lexie a little closer to him. "Kindly move," he said evenly, while his keen ears picked up the sound of the others hurrying up behind them. A worried murmur was rapidly spreading through the store.

"Or what?" the mutant standing in their way asked, sounding amused.

Ed didn't answer as he quickly shot a glance behind him; the others were closing in, while the other customers were instinctively drawing back. Perfect.

Carefully gauging his strength so he wouldn't break anything or knock them into someone fragile, he reached out, gripped the front of the sneering mutant's shirt and flung him at the group behind him. There was an impressive series of crashes and shouts as they fell over, knocked into displays and tripped over each other; Ed took the opportunity to scoop Lexie--who let out a startled yelp--in his arms and rush out of the store and into his car.

After safely depositing the surprised model into the passenger seat, he started the car while whipping out his cell phone at the same time. He rather doubted any of them would still be around by the time the police showed up, but it didn't hurt to try.

Chapter Text

That afternoon Trina emerged from the basketball court in one piece, so she headed to her locker without bothering to take a soak first. She skipped taking a shower too, skirting away to a private corner and changing into her regular clothes before ducking out ahead of the rest of the team. She headed across the Dome to the news section and rapped on the door to Sherry's office.

"I had a brainstorm today," Trina said after the slender blond let her in. Actually, she had a strange flash of inspiration after the moving backboard of the hoop knocked her flat and bounced her head off the floor, but there wasn't any reason to mention that. "Are we alone?" she wondered.

Sherry nodded and locked the door. "I was just about to close up. What's on your mind?"

"It's kind of strange," Trina began, folding her arms and leaning her rear against Sherry's desk, "but it might give us a place to start."

"Oh? What?"

"Like I said, it's strange, but...we should do a paternity test."

Sherry looked blank for a moment--and then she cringed, resting back against the closed door and running her hands through her hair. "I don't know if..."

Trina had been expecting her to hesitate at the idea. It made the reality of the situation all the more solid, but Trina couldn't think of anything else at this point. She was hoping that once they knew who fathered this mystery baby, it would help them figure out how it was fathered. "You don't have to worry about anyone finding out," she quickly went on. "Hospitals these days keep your identity and the results strictly anonymous if you ask them to. And matching up a sample is an easy task, too. They just run it through the computer against every male in the system, mutant and norm alike. That system spreads over hospitals all across the country, too."

Some argued that it was a little unethical, but it prevented public confrontation--and humiliation, if the woman accusing someone of impregnating her, particularly someone famous, turned out to be incorrect. This method had been developed for this very reason; a woman who just wasn't sure could find out discreetly, without contacting anyone or bringing it to anyone's attention. Then, after she knew the father for sure, it was left up to her how to proceed. That way if it turned out she was wrong about the one she suspected, he didn't have to have his life interrupted or, in case he was famous, have it all dragged out in front of the media.

Unless the woman in question wanted it that way.

Sherry was shaking her head, hands pressed to her slightly rounded middle. "I don't know," she said, with a shaky breath. "The thought of it being someone I know, even someone I work with..."

"I know it's a scary thought," Trina said gently, "but it'd be worse to go on not knowing. Bones is going to find out and you'll want to understand exactly what happened before then."

The thought made Sherry turn pale, but she nodded. "Okay. I'll make an appointment right away. Although," she went on, with a scared laugh, "Bones is probably getting pretty suspicious by now. He knows it's not normal for me to keep going to the doctor like this. He probably thinks I'm dying or something."

The way she said that, Trina got the feeling Sherry would prefer that scenario to this one. Her heart aching for her, she went over and put her arms around her aunt. "It'll be okay," she whispered. "I don't know how, but...we'll get through this."

Sniffling, Sherry hugged her back. "I sure hope so."

Ed felt pretty melancholy as he pulled up outside of Lexie's apartment. With a quiet sigh, he killed the engine and leaned his head back against the seat for a moment. Being attacked by a crazed group of mutants and then spending the rest of the afternoon at the police station filling out a report was not his idea of a successful first date.

Spending all that time at the station was relatively pointless to boot. The police already had a growing number of reports of these guys, along with a smattering of descriptions, but no names. No possible locations. They all seemed to be working together and did a good job of staying anonymous and covering their tracks. What bothered Ed was that he suspected that none of them cared if they got caught. They were determined to keep recruiting more and more, spreading their activity further.

"All in the name of a good cause," Ed muttered sarcastically to himself.

With another sigh, he turned to Lexie, who hadn't said a word since they left the police station. "I'd say see you around, but..."

Lexie turned her head and looked at him for a moment. Her expression was a little deadpan, so he wasn't sure what she was thinking as she reached over and rested her hand over his. "It's not your fault," she said quietly. "But next time," she went on, the faintest hint of a wry smile touching her full lips, "let me pick the place. Okay?"

Ed opened his mouth to ask 'Next time?' but quickly closed it again. He really needed to stop asking or saying things that were only one to two words long. "You sure you want to take the risk?" he asked, with a weak laugh.

Lexie smiled openly now as her hand tightened around his. "I think we both know that right now I'm at as much risk when I'm alone as when I'm with you. And after the way you handled yourself today, I think I'd rather just stick to being with you."

With that, she leaned over and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek before slipping out of the car. Ed watched her through the window, waiting until she was safely inside before restarting the car and pulling away. It was growing late and it was about time for dinner, but he wasn't really hungry. He wasn't really in the mood to just go home, either, and in the end he turned down a quiet little street he knew as well as his own and parked outside a medium-sized house.

"You're not going to start checking up on me more than once a day, are you?" Regina asked after she let him in. She sounded both tired and frustrated.

"No," Ed said quietly, "I just..."

He hesitated to tell her what happened today. He didn't want to scare her, but he thought it was better to keep her informed than to keep her in the dark. After she sat him down at one of the long island counters in the kitchen and handed him a soda can, he gave a brief account of what happened that afternoon.

"Why are you here?" Regina wanted to know when he finished. "Why immediately come check on me?"

There was a clear challenge in her voice, and Ed could tell she was losing patience with being babied. He couldn't help it, though. He couldn't love her more if she really was his baby sister and he didn't know what he'd do if anything ever happened to her.

"Trina is in as much danger as you or me," she pointed out. "And she hasn't come home yet, or called to say why she's running late."

She looked at him hard as she spoke, again like she was challenging him. Waiting for him to get as nervous as he did when he thought of her in harm's way. Ed had to admit, the idea didn't bother him nearly as much. Trina was the smallest member on the team, but she was still impressively muscular, and a little taller than Thrasher. Plus she was an athlete, and had been involved in hard physical activity since she was a child. She was tough and wasn't going to be easily caught or hurt.

Yesterday he would have shrugged off the idea of her being a target at all, but after what happened to him today...he wasn't going to rule out anyone anymore.

"Did you try calling her?" he wondered.

Regina gave him an exasperated look before turning and absently rubbing a dishrag over the already spotless counter. "Of course I've tried. Her phone is off."

Ed frowned; that wasn't like Trina at all. It was also strange for her not to call Regina to say she was running late...especially right now.

Just then his ears picked up the sound of a car pulling up outside, followed by a car door slamming. A minute or so later Trina came into the kitchen, absently draping her coat over a chair. Ed tapped his can against the counter as he gave her a pert frown. "Where've you been?"

She looked distracted. Her eyes were distant, and he had the feeling she barely heard him. "The library," she said distractedly.

Regina made a snorting sound. "The library?" she echoed. "There are a lot faster ways to get books or information nowadays, you know."

Ed had to agree. These days there were plenty of virtual libraries on the network, easily accessed with things like Trina's E-Vale. Actual brick-and-mortar libraries were almost like museums in this day and age.

"I wanted the quiet," Trina said absently as she opened the fridge. "I needed to think."

She looked worn out and unhappy, and Ed hated to dampen her mood even further, but he filled her in on his disastrous date this afternoon. Trina appeared to half-listen as she threw together a plate for dinner and popped it in the microwave--and then she did a double-take. "Wait. You were on a date today?"

"Can we stick to the relevant issue, please?" Ed asked wearily.

"I think this proves," Regina said, ignoring the glare the two of them were giving each other, "that they're willing to go after anyone. Anyone not significantly mutated from the quake or born from two mutants who were are open season, as far as they're concerned. But if I had to hazard a guess after what happened to me the other night and Eddie today, they're deliberately going after the most famous targets they think they can get away with."

"For the biggest exposure," Trina added cattily.

"It's disgusting," Ed agreed, "and we need to do something about it."

"We need to stick by each other, that's what," Trina said decisively. "Stronger together, as they say."

As she spoke, she extended her fist, which Ed automatically thumped with his own, a gesture the two developed when Trina was ten or so. That was Trina for you; always a team player.

"How about it, Gina?" she asked, smiling at her slightly older aunt.

Regina shrugged absently before shuffling out of the room with a distant 'sure.' Trina's smile faded. "We'd better come up with a plan, and soon, before someone gets hurt," she said grimly.

Ed heartily agreed, but he knew from the past that groups determined to see their cause through--no matter how twisted that cause was--were never easily swayed.

Chapter Text

Trina woke up the next morning feeling unrested and cranky. She stayed up late last night with Ed, lounging around the living room and absently channel-surfing as they tried to think of a way to better protect Gina--and themselves. No clear answer presented itself, but it still felt good to talk it out, to get all the negative feelings that were brewing inside them both out in the open. It helped remind them that none of them were alone in this.

What she was left on her own to deal with was trying to figure out the mystery of Sherry's pregnancy. Sitting around in the library all day, combing through antique medical source-books had been oddly calmly in its way, but it hadn't introduced her to any new possibilities.

As if these two things weren't stressful enough, Bones recently started dropping hints that he planned to choose a team captain soon. Trina wasn't sure which thought scared her more: that he wouldn't pick her...or that he would.

Groaning, she rolled out of bed, rubbed her eyes a moment, then looked over at Gina's bed. To her surprise it was empty, but then she looked at the clock and saw it was almost noon. A note left on Gina's pillow told her that she was out with Ed.

That gave her a quiet day to herself for a change--or so she thought. She was just finishing up a hodge-podge breakfast in the kitchen when the phone rang.

"Hey, Killer," her dad greeted teasingly after she'd picked up.

Trina grunted unintelligibly and chewed on what was left of her toaster waffle. Her dad chuckled. "Is Bones trying to practice you guys into an early grave? I know the feeling."

"Well, it's Sunday, so I have the day off for a change," Trina noted with a yawn.

Her dad paused. It was only for a moment, but it was the kind of silence that spoke volumes, and she had a feeling she knew what he was going to say before he spoke again; he needed a favor.

"I hate to bother you right now, but can you watch Sunni for the afternoon? Your mother and I are both busy today and we couldn't get a sitter."

Trina started to answer--and then she felt such a cold chill cut through her it robbed her of her voice. "Is that okay?" her dad asked, breaking the silence that had fallen. "Do you want me to drop her off or can you come pick her up?"

Trina realized she was nodding mechanically, which of course her father couldn't see. "No--I can come over," she faltered. "I don't have anywhere else to be today."

There was another pause. "Is everything all right?" her dad asked softly.

Trina nodded automatically again. "Yeah--everything's great. I'll see you soon, okay?"

She quickly said goodbye and hung up, then hurried upstairs to change. Sure, she was all right, she thought sarcastically as she tugged on a clean shirt at random. As all right as a person could be when they just realized that any product of a mutant-norm relationship was considered a target--including sweet three-year-old girls. Obviously her dad, who had only just learned about the threats to Regina the other day, hadn't thought of this yet. Otherwise, he wouldn't be heading out the door right now--and her mother sure wouldn't be, either. Not unless it was to go door-to-door, calmly looking for members of the group with a Mutant League-grade baseball bat in her hand.

Not wanting to worry her parents by showing up on their doorstep looking frazzled, Trina coaxed herself to calm down and took a moment to smooth her hair back before grabbing a normal, non-athlete pair of tennis shoes, getting her keys and hurrying out to her car. When she pulled up outside her parents' house a little while later the two of them were already waiting out by the curb, her father's car idling nearby.

Her mother scurried over and stood on tiptoe to give her a quick hug. "She's still got a touch of a cough, so keep her inside and make sure she takes a nap," she instructed.

"I will," Trina promised.

While her petite mom hurried and climbed into the car, her father gazed at Trina with a small frown. "You look tired, kiddo," he observed. "Take it easy today, will you?"

"I will," Trina said again. "Have fun, or...whatever."

She wasn't sure if they were doing something that qualified as fun, or if they were heading out to a press conference to speak out against the very problem that was plaguing her mind right now, and her father didn't elaborate before getting into the car and driving away. Trina waited until it was out of sight before hurrying into the house--her childhood home.

It still felt every bit as familiar and comforting as it did back when she was Sunni's age, and a notable amount of tension eased out of her weary body the second she set foot in the door. Sunni immediately came scampering up and stretched to hug her around the waist. "Hey, sweetie," Trina said with a soft smile. "How you feeling?"

"Fine," Sunni reported, right before she covered a delicate cough.

Trina 'tsked.' "Sounds like somebody's inherited the stubbornness that runs rampant in this family."

Sunni giggled, not understanding what she meant, and gave her hand a tug. "Come on--let's play."

For most of the afternoon, Trina let her baby sister pull her to whatever game she wanted to play. She read to her, she played dress-up with her dolls with her, she stacked blocks and built forts and played hide-and-seek with her. It was nice, letting go and forgetting her troubles for a little while. Immersed in childish innocence, it was easy to pretend that there was no danger out there, that no one was lying in wait, wanting and hoping to hurt them.

When Sunni started to yawn, Trina promptly scooped her up and curled up on the living room sofa with her. She didn't mean to actually fall asleep, but the next thing she knew she was flailing awake as a strange sound rang out.

She almost fell off the sofa and onto the floor before she figured out her cell phone was ringing. She hastily tugged it out of her pocket and slid carefully off the sofa, tucking the blanket around the still sleeping Sunni before tiptoeing into the kitchen. "Hello?"

"Where are you?"

Trina blinked. The voice on the other end sounded like Sherry, but...she sounded excited. A happy kind of excited. "Home. I mean..."

She flushed. "I'm at my parents' house, watching Sunni. Why? What happened?"

Sherry let out a strange laugh. "Oh, I can't even begin to tell you over the phone. Here, I'm at home; let me run over and tell you everything."

She hung up before Trina could respond, and about a minute later there was a knock on the front door. As soon as Trina opened it her aunt, who was beaming like the sun, pulled her into a tight hug and squeezed so hard it made her glad she was mutant-sturdy. "Good news?" she gasped out.

Sherry laughed again and shook her head as she let go. "The best. It's just so strange--years from now we're going to do nothing but laugh at all this."

The image of her aunt sobbing in Trina's car was still fresh in her mind, so Trina kind of doubted she would feel like laughing at this situation any time soon, regardless of how good the news was. And as she quietly ushered her aunt into the kitchen and closed the door so they wouldn't wake Sunni, she silently hoped that Sherry was genuinely happy and not hysterical. "Tea?" she asked, gesturing uncertainly to the jar on the counter that housed the teabags.

Sherry gave her head a shake. "Oh--no. I'm too excited for anything right now."

Trina shrugged, nudged a chair away from the table with her foot and straddled it, resting her arms on the back as she faced her aunt. "So, I take it you visited the doctor," she ventured, while her aunt stayed on her feet, fidgeting and pacing.

"I made an appointment as soon as I got home yesterday and went in earlier today," Sherry began, still pacing. "They had me all set up to take a sample in a process similar to amniocentesis, which involves visual guidance from an ultrasound." She paused to take a breath and faced her niece. "Only once they had me hooked up, they couldn't see anything."

Trina blinked once, confused. "By anything, you mean..." She wasn't really sure what that meant.

"I mean, there isn't anything in there," Sherry said, with a shaky laugh. "My uterus is empty."

With another breath, she leaned her palms on the counter behind her, while Trina took a moment to soak this in. It sounded too good to be true, but if it sure explained a lot. "So, this means that...there isn't a baby?"

"Exactly. The doctors said it's a false pregnancy. I don't understand all the reasons behind it, but I don't really care at this point. All that matters is that I'm not pregnant, and I never was. My body somehow tricked itself into thinking it was. Nothing more."

Trina let out a breath of her own, blowing air through her hair as she leaned back a little. "That's sure a load off my mind...though it's probably nowhere near as big of a relief for me as it is for you."

Sherry laughed again and brushed a lock of honey-colored hair from her eyes. "Tell me about it. But I'll be okay now. I'm telling Bones as soon as he gets home. Everything will be all right."

Trina was glad to hear it, and she got up to pull her aunt into a tight hug. "Thanks for sticking with me through this," Sherry whispered.

"Hey, for family? Anything."

Chapter Text

Bones stood in the middle of his bedroom, quietly gawking at his wife, who laughed awkwardly under his gaze and fidgeted her hands. He could not believe what he just heard.

"How long were you keeping this to yourself?" he asked, as soon as he found his voice again.

Sherry shrugged and absently rubbed a hand over her slightly rounded but unproductive midsection. "A little over a month. I wanted to tell you sooner, but..."

She trailed off and shrugged again, not meeting his gaze. But Bones understood. She had been too afraid. Too afraid of what he would think, what he would say, what he might do. He gently rested his hands on her arms and nudged her closer. "You really should have told me," he said gently, earnestly. "I wouldn't have thought the worst. Not from you."

"It's easy to say that now," she said softly, still not meeting his eyes. "You know the truth. I know it's wrong to keep secrets in a marriage, joked just the other night about someone stealing me away. And like they say, there's always a touch of truth in kidding."

Bones didn't know how to respond. She was right, of course. Even after all these years, a tiny, long-buried part of him still had that lingering doubt that he wasn't fully satisfying to her, that sometimes she longed for someone a little warmer. Someone softer and more comforting to hold than his body of cold, hard bone. He realized now how stupid and selfish this doubt was. Sherry had spent every moment of the last twenty years proving to him that it didn't matter to her, that she loved him above anyone else. Yet she saw through him and knew, as she always did, that he still had this doubt, and because of it she endured the stress of this strange situation alone, when he should have been at her side where he belonged.

After giving himself a mental kick, her drew Sherry closer in his arms, pulling her tight to his chest as he lifted her chin and roughly claimed her lips. His slender wife let out a soft sound of surprise, but she quickly relaxed in his grasp, settling against him as she slid her arms around his neck. Holding her as close and tight as he dared, Bones repeatedly kissed her lips and face before resting his cheek against her soft hair.

"Can you ever forgive me?" he asked in a whisper. "Holding on to that stupid fear was the same as doubting you, and I'm so sorry."

"Of course I forgive you," she whispered back, tightening her hold on him. "I love you more than anything and I understand why you feel that way."

"It's still wrong," he insisted firmly. "You've spent over twenty years proving to me how much you don't care about all that, and now I'm going to spend the next twenty showing you that I trust you the same way you've loved me--with all my mind, body, and soul."

Sherry laughed softly and cuddled her head on his chest. "That almost sounds like a proposal," she noted.

Bones hadn't been thinking along those lines, but an idea suddenly popped into his head. It made him smile and gently scoop her up in his arms, and he carried her bridal-style over to the bed. After sitting her on the edge, he knelt down in front of her and took her hands. "It is," he said quietly. "Maybe that's silly, but I don't care. I want to swear to love you forever all over again. And I want all our family and friends there to see it, because I want to remind the world just how much you mean to me."

For a moment, Sherry just looked at him, her expression a little blank. It gave him a weird feeling, one he'd been spared the last time, since he wasn't the one to propose. A feeling that was both frightened and hopeful as he waited for what she was going to say. Which was kind of silly, since it wasn't like they wouldn't still be married if she said no...but it still made him hold his proverbial breath.

With tears springing to her eyes, Sherry reached out and wrapped her arms around his neck with a sigh. "I think that's the most romantic, swoon-worthy thing I've ever heard," she noted dreamily.

Bones grinned and kissed her cheek before holding her tightly again, still kneeling on the floor in front of her. "Our twentieth anniversary is coming up in a few months...that would be the perfect time to do it," he mused. "The new season will be in full-swing by then, but I'm sure Malone won't mind filling in as coach for a week or two. We'll be having a second honeymoon too, of course."

Sherry laughed a little and nuzzled his face. "We don't have to make a big deal, Bones. Most people don't do this until after they've been married over fifty years or so."

"I don't care," he said again. "It's like starting over--without my useless fears. And now I'm going to spend the rest of my life loving you like you deserve."

Sherry's eyes turned moist again. "You already do," she whispered.

He kissed her tenderly. "I can do better. And I will. And I'm going to stand up in front of everybody and say so all over again."

Sherry gave her head a small shake and pressed her face against his shoulder, sniffling quietly. She didn't say anything more, and he didn't either. Instead, he lifted her again and gently laid her on the bed, where he stretched out beside her and wrapped her snugly in his arms. They lay in silence for a while, just holding each other. When Sherry sniffled again, Bones gently lifted her face and wiped her tears.

"You're the best thing to ever come into my life," he told her softly. "You know that, don't you?"

In fact, he didn't even want to think about where he'd be today if they never met. His life just wouldn't have been the same. Sherry nodded before scooting closer and resting her head on his chest. "And you're the best thing to come into mine. I knew the moment I met you that you were unlike anyone I had ever known, or would ever know. You were amazing."

Bones chuckled quietly as he thought back on some of the less than friendly conversations they had in those first few days they knew each other. "You wouldn't think so, considering how we used to argue," he noted, amused.

Sherry lifted her head and smiled wryly, though her eyes were still damp. "Hey, that stubborn streak of yours can be pretty aggravating," she informed him. "Plus at first I worried about appearing unprofessional by letting on just how attracted I was to you."

Bones lifted a brow. "Unprofessional?"

"Well, you are a touch younger than me," she reminded him. "The seasoned reporter pouncing on the fresh from college rookie? It would have raised a few eyebrows, initially, but..."

She shrugged and held him tighter. "Once we reached the point where our lives were at risk on an almost daily basis, I stopped caring about what anyone else thought. I refused to let the chance to tell you how I felt about you pass me by."

And she hadn't, even though she had known that just because she placed her feelings in the open didn't mean he was going to return them. At first, he almost didn't; he hadn't been ready to. But then he changed his mind and chose to explore what was growing between them, no matter where it ended up leading them.

And now here they were, lying in each others arms, close and safe. Or as safe as they could be right now, what with that growing threat out there, he reminded himself darkly. Sure, the two of them were technically safe, since norms weren't considered worth bothering with and he was a pure mutation...but that didn't mean he didn't take the attempts on members of his family extremely personally.

But now wasn't the time to think about that. The day was wearing on, and tired out from her lengthy ordeal, Sherry was soon asleep in his arms. As he continued to hold her, absently stroking her hair, his mind returned to that other issue he had been mulling over. Maybe, he mused as he settled down to join his wife in sleep, it was time to let the new team take a little initiative.

Regina was just finishing up with an early-morning photo shoot on Monday when her cell phone suddenly rang. "I hate to spring this on you right now," Ed told her when she answered, "but I'm in the middle of a meeting with my editor and it's taking longer than I thought it would. Can Trina come pick you up today?"

"I don't think so," said Regina as she glanced at her watch. "It's still early, so she's probably still in practice."

It would make all their lives so much easier if she just drove to and from her shoots herself, and when she woke up this morning she had been seriously considering sneaking out to her car...but Trina must have anticipated this, because her keys had mysteriously disappeared. "I can always call Thrasher," she suggested, without enthusiasm.

She wasn't about to bother Bones, who called Trina earlier this morning to say that she and the others should go in to practice without him today. Trina left the house in a frazzled state, claiming this was some kind of test and he would probably be watching in secret from somewhere to see if they would train their butts off or goof around. Regina suspected that he was just tired and wanted to stay home for a change.

"Or if she's busy, I could try hitching a ride with Lexie," she added slyly. "Maybe we could stop by and check out the fascinating inner workings of book publishing."

Ed snorted. "Nice try. We're meeting for lunch later."

"Really? That's great," Regina said, genuinely happy for him. At least somebody's life was going right.

"Let me know if Thrasher can't come get you, all right?"

"I will," she told him, withholding a sigh.

But as usual, Thrasher was available since, as she put it as Regina buckled herself into her car later, she didn't have anywhere else to be right now. After muttering something about how boring a non-athlete's life was, she asked where she wanted to go; Regina quietly told her to take her to the Dome. She would have liked to have gone home, but she had another shoot in a little while, so hopefully Trina would be free to take her by then.

"I'm confused," said Mac, as he, Blunt, Trina, and the rest of the team trooped into the locker room.

Blunt smirked at him. "Of course you are. You're a troll. You can't help it."

Mac scowled and socked his arm; Blunt snickered and went to his locker, though Trina caught him hiding a pained wince as he popped the door open with his other arm. "I meant, I'm confused about why we're here when our coach isn't," Mac said, turning to Trina. He looked like he expected her, as their coach's niece, to understand what was going on in his head...and Trina was pretty sure she did.

"He wouldn't just leave us to our own devices. He's going to figure out some way to keep an eye on us today, just to see how hard we'll work when he's not around. He probably has the locker room bugged or something."

Mac snickered, knowing as well as she did that Bones wouldn't go that far, and Trina grinned before scurrying around to the other side of a row of lockers. She liked Mac; he was smart as well as a power-house, and he wasn't too proud to take orders. Irony of ironies...he was also the nephew of one KT Slayer. Trina felt fortunate that she got along so well with him, and with the other members of her team.

Not to say, as she suddenly heard someone let out a loud wolf-whistle while she was in the middle of tugging her shirt over her head, that she wasn't above putting her fist in an eye or two. They had an agreement about not peeking, and she whirled around, ready to pounce on the brazen offender...only there was no one there.

There was movement on the other side of the lockers, and a moment later she heard a quiet voice that could only belong to Gina. Trina quickly finished changing into her uniform and stepped back into the main part of the room, where she found Axle and Blunt hovering around her petite aunt. Gina was turning pink with embarrassment over the attention. Well, more pink.

Trina not so gently squeezed Blunt's shoulder as she went by, making him wince again. "What's up?" she asked Gina.

Gina shrugged and shuffled her feet. She was in an aqua cotton dress with a square collar and frilly cap sleeves, with black flats on her feet. It was a simple enough getup, but as always, Gina looked delicate and pretty, and Trina couldn't really blame her teammates for quietly gawking like they were.

"Just thought I'd hang out here until it's time for my next shoot," Gina said softly, shrugging again.

"Want to come watch us practice?" Axle asked eagerly.

Not surprisingly, Gina shook her head. Though she remained supportive of her family members' careers, she disliked anything violent and shied away from the unforgiving full-contact nature of the League. "I think I'd like to just be by myself for a little while. Don't worry," she added, with a glance at Trina, "I won't go far."

Trina gave a nod. "If you need us, we'll be out on the ice rink."

"We will?" Blunt asked dryly as she slapped on a hockey mask.

She just smirked and slung a pair of skates over her shoulder. Honestly, she was a little tired of the football field; she wanted to be out on the ice for a change. The one place her speed could go unrivaled and unchecked. She knew she was far from the hardest hitter in the League today...but when she strapped a pair of skates on her feet, she was content in the knowledge that there was no one who could catch her.

"I don't suppose we can coax you in front of the goal for a change?" Axle cracked.

Trina laughed. "Yeah, and maybe Thrasher will settle down, get married and raise babies."

Aside from the laughter of Trina and her team echoing in the distance, the inner hallways of the Dome were quiet as Regina headed to one of the bathrooms. Since there were few female players and only a handful of women on the news staff, most of the bathrooms outside of the locker rooms or the news wing were gender-neutral. The janitorial team kept them nice and clean, though there was a distinctly male fragrance permeating the air as she entered the room, particularly near the urinals, although the smell of lemon cleaner mostly masked it.

She drifted over to one of the sinks and splashed cold water on her face, scrubbing away any lingering remains of the makeup from the shoot. She was tired, and she leaned her hands on the edge of the sink and let her head drop until her chin thumped against her chest. She wasn't sure which was wearier; her body or her spirit.

While Trina and Ed stayed up talking the other night, she had tossed and turned in bed. She didn't blame them for the way she had to live right now--it wasn't their fault and they were only doing what they were doing because they loved her--but she was getting fed up with it. She wanted things to go back to the way they were--the way they were supposed to be.

And she really, really hated her job. The photographer today had been the extremely impatient, manic about every last detail type. Her movements had been sluggish due to lack of sleep, and he had rewarded her with screeched complaints and insults. Because of course she had nothing better to do with her time than stand around and look pretty. Of course she didn't appreciate how good she had it, how she didn't have a worry or care in the world other than what nail color she was going to wear next.

Grunting, she pushed away from the sink and lifted her head--and almost yelped in surprise. Reflected in the mirror in front of her, she saw the shape of someone moving around in the stall behind her. She almost laughed at her own jumpiness a second later; she was so distracted right now, there could have been an entire team in here and she probably wouldn't have noticed.

She was about to turn away, thinking absently about heading up to the news room to see if Sherry was around, when the door of the stall swung open. And in the mirror, she found herself face to face with the very mutant who had been causing all her sleepless nights.

"Didn't I tell you, boys?" he called out loudly as his hands slammed down on her slender shoulders. "To track down a little vermin, sometimes you've got to go back to where it all began."

Chuckling, he whirled her around, turning her so she faced the door leading out of the bathroom. Filing inside, filling the large room rapidly were more mutants she recognized, most of them from that night out in the parking lot. Some she remembered seeing in other places, in the background--watching her, she realized. Tracking her movements. No wonder they always seemed to know where and when she would be completely alone.

The mutant holding her--she didn't even know his name, and probably never would--squeezed even tighter as he snickered above her head. She almost cried out, but she kept her mouth tightly shut, having a feeling any sign of pain would just spur them on. But if he squeezed any tighter, he was going to crack her collar bones pretty soon. Not that she believed he would care if he did.

"Should we take her outside?" someone asked.

"Nah," the one clutching her answered. "We'll just stay in here. No one'll hear her scream."

Unfortunately, that was true. During the off-season like this, the only area that saw a lot of activity was the news wing, and that was up on the next floor. There might be other teams practicing today, but none of the arenas were near here. She was too isolated to be heard...and no one knew she was in here.

So this was it. That moment she always knew was coming--the one where no one would be running to her rescue. Funny, she would have thought she would be screaming in terror by now. Instead, she felt strangely numb inside. Like there was no point in getting upset over her own impending doom; what good would it bring? What could she possibly do?

You're a rabbit, that snappish voice inside her suddenly piped up. So act like it. Jump down the rabbit hole.

That's crazy, Regina thought distantly. The group was closing in on her, while the nails of the one still holding her dug into her skin. She thought she saw glimpses of weapons; a chain, a baseball bat. Overkill, guys, overkill. Her eyes shifted away from the leering, maniacal faces--and then she saw it.

She almost laughed as a wild sense of giddiness swept over her. Down the rabbit hole it is, then.

Without stopping to think about it first, she dropped. Let herself fall to floor like a dead weight. Ragged fingernails scratched her skin and tore the sleeves of her dress, but she slipped free and hit the cold tile at her feet. While somebody exclaimed in surprise, she rolled to the side and reached beneath one of the sinks, where a grate leading into the ventilation system was set in the wall.

She grabbed at it, wedged her fingers between the narrow slats and yanked with all her might. For an instant she worried that her efforts were in vain, but then it gave with a snap; she tossed it behind her wildly and dove into the looming hole in the wall.

Her feet scrabbled against the slippery metal as she struggled to escape inside--and then a hand clamped down on her ankle. She yelped in pain--and anger, to her surprise. She was afraid, but the sharp hammer of her heart in her chest burned hotly with a rage that threatened to overshadow that fear. Gritting her teeth, she latched onto a pipe set into the wall inside the narrow shaft and tried to tug her foot free, but she felt like she may as well have been trying to wrestle away a twig from an elephant. Then the pipe snapped away from the wall and she found herself being tugged back into the bathroom.

For a moment, it was like time slowed down. Enough for her to look down at her feet as she swiveled onto her back, and at the twisted grin the dark-skinned mutant was giving her as he leered in triumph. With a snarl, Regina jabbed with the pipe--and to her shock he let go with a loud yelp.

She really hadn't hit that hard, she knew--but she managed to hit him right in the eye. She dropped the pipe, twisted back onto her belly and scrambled again, this time succeeding in getting all the way into the shaft. There was enough room for her to crawl, and crawl she did, scraping her knees and palms on debris and stirring up dust. Behind her, she heard the sound of pounding, along with a screeching sound that was probably someone tearing the sink out. "Go in after her," she heard someone shout angrily.

"How?" someone shouted back. "None of us will fit!"

They continued to argue, but pretty soon Regina was too far away to hear. She was almost laughing now, she was so elated. Turns out she didn't need to be rescued anymore. She was a girl who had the power to rescue herself after all.

When she found another vent, she kicked it open and crawled out into an empty hallway. She then stood calmly and found the nearest staircase that led up to the news wing. She didn't see Sherry, but she found a group of other reporters, who all got up in surprise when she came into the room. "Don't ask questions," she said, "just grab a batch of those lovely floating cams and run down to the bathroom around the corner. Oh, and would someone be so kind as to call the police?"

Chapter Text

"Is that even legal?" Blunt asked, irritated.

Trina just laughed and skated a circle around him before skidding to a halt, sending out a spray of ice chips beneath her skates. "I'm pretty sure there's nothing in the rulebooks about jumping over an opponent, so...yeah. It's legal."

Mac sniggered as he skated up beside her. "Maybe you should ditch mutant sports and try out for figure skating," he suggested.

"Maybe I could try and see how far I can jam the puck up your butt," Trina threatened.

Blunt let out a laugh and stretched his arms above his head for a moment, then tossed down his stick, which looked like it was about ready for the junk heap anyway. "I think it's time for a break," he said, reaching for his blade guards.

Trina sighed heavily. "Okay--five minutes," she allowed...though she was honestly a little relieved. The one thing bad about being on the ice was the cold. Her lizoid body grew sluggish after a while. Darn mutated genetics; why did they have to be so accurate?

With visions of hot cocoa forming in her head, she tugged on her own blade guards and headed off the ice with the rest of the team. As they clumped noisily out of the rink and into the hallway, the sound of movement behind her made Trina turn her head. Someone was coming down the hall toward them--pretty quickly, by the sound of it. In the distance, she thought she heard a woman yell something...a woman who sounded an awful lot like Sherry.

A second later two bulky mutants came tearing around the corner, practically falling over each other in their haste. The one in front noticed the team first, and instantly looked torn between running on or turning back the other way. Not that there was room to do either, what with the other one ramming into him from behind and the team standing in their path. In the end, the two fumbled, panting, to a stop.

Trina didn't recognize the one in back...but the one in front looked just like the description Gina had given of the apparent leader of the Cajathars. The one who harassed her twice now, and was probably waiting for the opportunity to do it again--and worse. Trina faced him with gritted teeth.

"You know," she said lowly, "I'm a half-breed too. Why don't you come over here and tell me to my face how much of a problem you have with me?"

There was only about a foot or so between them, and Trina continued to glare, silently daring either of them to cross the remaining gap. The dark-skinned one looked like he would gladly take her up on her offer...under different circumstances. As it stood, he was getting ready to run the other way.

Behind her, she felt the imposing presence of Mac loom over her shoulder. "Are those Cajas?" he asked.

"You got it. They keep bugging Regina."

"That sweet little thing?" demanded Axle in disgust.

"Not sweet...vermin." She scowled at the leader. "Right?"

With an impressive growl, Mac suddenly launched past her, tackling the mutant in question--who was almost as big as he was--to the floor. The other one turned around and started to run. Still in her skates, Trina vaulted over the pair scuffling on the floor and shot off after him, yelling orders over her shoulder. "Axle, Blunt--you two go around the other way and cut him off. Everyone else, fan out through the other hallways and keep an eye open for any more. Don't let any of them get away!"

Really, it was useless to run. Nobody knew these hallways better than the athletes who practically lived here did. Though when she looked back on that day later, Trina was considerably impressed by how well everyone was able to run around like that while still in ice skates and full hockey gear.

In a matter of moments, Trina caught up to Gina's would-be assailant, who was quickly losing speed as he heaved for breath. In front of them, Axle and Blunt came around the corner; Trina slowed to a stop and watched as the pair snagged the escaping mutant by either arm and tackled him to the floor.

From a hallway to her right, Trina heard footsteps running up, and a moment later an entire news team was joining them. Sherry was in the lead, a camera in hand. "The police are on their way, and security has already cornered the rest of them in a bathroom," she informed them, looking pleased.

So did someone else. Standing with the news team, watching everything with his arms folded, was Bones. Trina blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. "See? I told you he was only leaving us alone to keep an eye on us," she pointed out casually.

"When you're right, you're right," said Bones, equally casual.

He glanced at Axle and Blunt, who were hauling their quarry to his feet. "Smile pretty for the camera, now," Blunt cooed.

Trina smirked, and Bones smiled as he stepped closer. "I just wanted to see how you guys would handle yourselves for a little while without any instruction from me," he noted. He glanced over his shoulder; Mac was coming up, dragging his own quarry behind him. "Honestly, I don't think any coaching from me could have inspired a better performance."

Nearby, Sherry was talking quietly to another reporter; she nodded and hurried over to her husband and niece. "The police are here," she informed them. "I'm sure they'll have plenty of questions about what all of them were doing here."

Trina suddenly felt a cold chill. "Gina," she whispered.

In the excitement, she had almost forgotten about her. Now she was poised to race off, find her and whisk her safely home--but just then the petite blond came running up on her own. She was a mess, but she was beaming. "Are you okay?" asked Bones, as she ran up and threw her arms around him.

"Never better. I've got another job to do. Can you drive me there?"

Bones looked down at her in surprise, then over at Trina. "Why not?" he decided. "I'm sure the captain here can handle things without me."

Trina gave a start. "Me?"

Grinning, Blunt reached over and slapped her shoulder. "Good choice, coach."

Grinning in return, Bones put his arm around his baby sister and walked away. Trina gave herself a shake and tried not to smile too much as she turned around to face the others again. "Come on, team, let's get these guys comfortable until the cops put them in a nice electrified cell."

"I could sit on them," Mac suggested.

Trina snickered. "Be my guest, Mac. Be my guest."

Regina absently smoothed the front of her dress as Bones parked in front of the building where she was supposed to pose for pictures for some magazine she'd never read before...though really, there wasn't much point in bothering with it, or with the rest of her. Bones, apparently thinking the same thing, took a moment to look her over before his eyes settled on her face. "You sure you want to do this?" he wondered.

Regina nodded firmly. "I'm sure."

Boy, was she ever sure.

Her big brother didn't look convinced, but he gave her hand a squeeze before reaching over to open her door for her. Regina smiled tiredly at him. "Would you mind waiting? I won't be long."

Bones looked puzzled for a moment...and then he settled back with a faint smirk. "You got it."

She smiled, gave him a quick kiss, then hopped out of the car and scurried into the building. As she suspected, someone snapped at her the second she set foot in the door. "Well, look who finally decided to grace us with her presence," a woman she didn't recognize said coolly. She had a large tag hanging around her neck, and she got up from her seat with a hard frown.

The rest of the room was bustling with activity. "You're almost an hour late," the woman went on, gesturing to the others working around them. "You see how everyone else has to scramble to make up for it? You think the world stands still for you or something?"

"Of course not," Regina said calmly. "That's why I didn't bother to change or clean up before I got here."

A man carrying props glanced at her as he rushed by--and paused, eyebrows raised. The woman paused too, looking puzzled.

Regina's dress was torn in at least a dozen places, her shoulders and hands were bloody, one of her shoes was missing, and she was covered in dust and grime. "Obviously," Regina said, as more continued to stop what they were doing to stare, "you here in the amazing and fast-paced world of fashion aren't as on top of the news as you think you are. Because if you were, then you would know that the crazed group of mutants who've been all over the papers lately have been trying to kill me for days. But of course being here with all of you is so important that I ran right over immediately after being attacked for a third time."

The woman in the tag at least had enough mind to squirm a little. "Ummm...would you like a drink of water or something?" she ventured uncertainly, after a long, awkward silence.

Regina scoffed. "No. What I want is to drive over to my agency, shred my contract and connect them with my lawyer if they have any objections. Oh, I also want to walk away from useless, meaningless jobs such as this one and never look back."

And with her head held high, that was exactly what she did.

"And they let you out of it just like that?" Trina asked.

She and Gina were sitting on a swing-set in the park just down the road from Trina's childhood home. A little ways away, Sunni was giggling in delight as their dad twirled her on the merry-go-round...while their mom was busy climbing up the fireman pole connected to the jungle gym. "Dare, act your age," Dad said wearily.

"I am acting my age," Mom shot back, exasperated. "This is how I act at whatever age I happen to be at the time.

"Well, act somebody else's age, then. Just until Sunni's not looking," he added with a grin.

Trina smirked, knowing that an addendum to her dad telling her mom to behave was always inevitable. He liked it when she was naughty.

Beside her, Gina gave a shrug and swung between taking sips of the float she grabbed on the way here. "I don't think they wanted to, but they got pretty nervous when I threatened to sick my lawyer, my big brother, and my father on them if they didn't. So they're going to save face by claiming they're worried I'm too emotionally unstable right now while graciously leaving a spot open for me if I ever change my mind."

Trina rolled her eyes and took a sip from her own float. "Speaking of openings..."

Gina suddenly grinned at her. "Don't worry, I already told them where to stick it."

Trina gasped, pretending to be shocked. "Our little Gina? I'm stunned..."

Gina giggled and ducked her head. "So was I. Felt good, though."

"I'll bet."

What also felt good was some of the sights they saw during the drive over here. Over the last few days, stories of other half-breeds and partial mutates being harassed were all over the news...and some of them hadn't been as lucky as Gina. The group they caught in the Dome were still in police custody, while a hunt for the rest was currently underway. Some had turned themselves in; others had been ratted out by those who knew where they were hiding and changed their mind about helping keep their nasty secrets.

The public response was impressive so far. Aside from members of their family, who were already something of figureheads for mutant-norm relationships, there were loads of other extremely vocal supporters of life being perfect the way it was. Many had taken to the streets, wielding signs and handing out t-shirts sporting different sayings and phrases, all supporting the families that had formed in the last twenty years or so. Trina's favorite so far had been a sign held by a male mutant they passed on a street corner, bearing an enlarged photo of a normal female holding a clearly hybrid baby. Beneath the picture were three simple words: 'Get over it.'

"I wonder what started all this, anyway?" she mused absently.

Gina snorted. "What ever starts it? Usually a handful of people--or even just one person--up and decide things would be better done their way, usually for the worst of reasons--or no reason at all. Then it just kind of grows from there."

"Doesn't look like this'll grow much more," Trina pointed out. And if she had anything to do with it, it was going to die altogether before much longer.

They sat in silence for a while, absently swinging as they gazed around the quiet park. In the distance, a small dog barked; Trina smiled and thought about Ed, whom she hadn't seen much of lately. He and Lexie had pretty much been inseparable. Good thing she was so nice; Ed's daddy wasn't the easiest guy to win over, but he seemed to like her. "Is Lexie still going to keep modeling?" she wondered.

"Uh-huh. But she's putting it to good use. She's always donated to good causes, and now she's speaking at seminars and things about important issues. Especially this one."

"Atta girl." She smiled. "What about you?"

Gina shrugged and stirred her float with her straw for a moment. "I still haven't decided," she said quietly. "But you," she went on, smiling wryly, "don't have much longer to train before the new season starts."

The very thought made Trina's heart flip-flop. "Don't remind me."

Gina laughed softly and kicked her feet again. Trina started to do the same--then stopped in surprise. A young woman she didn't recognize was coming over to them--a mutant woman, though judging by her coloring and normal features, she wasn't much of one. She was small, and moved in a way that suggested timidness. Kind of like the way Gina used to move.

"Excuse me," she said quietly, "but are you Regina Malone?"

Gina looked up in surprise. "Huh? Oh--yes. Can I help you?"

The woman glanced down shyly. "No, I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you for what you did. Most people would have kept running, stayed until you were sure they were caught. That was very brave."

Gina flushed and ducked her head, mumbling something Trina didn't quite catch. "A lot of us think so," the small woman added.

"Us?" Trina started to ask--but then it dawned on her. Mutants like her--partial mutants too small and afraid to speak up for themselves. Though much like Gina, a lot of them were probably finding their voices about now.

"The thing is," she went on, fidgeting her hands nervously, "I used to know a girl who was close to someone who helped get the group started in the first place. She wanted to tell someone what was going on, and so did I, but..."

"You were too scared?" Trina supplied.

The woman nodded, her eyes filling with tears. Judging from the way she behaved now, Trina had a feeling that her mouth hadn't stayed closed on its own.

"And the other girl?" Gina asked quietly.

The woman swallowed thickly and didn't answer...not that words were needed. The look on her face said it all.

Gina suddenly stood and, putting an arm around the slightly taller girl, gently guided her to a spot a few feet away and spoke in a low voice for a few minutes. Trina watched curiously as the other mutant nodded several times before wiping her eyes and walking away...smiling a little. Gina returned to her swing.

"I've made up my mind," she announced. "I know what I want to do with my life."

Regina took a deep breath before getting out of her car and standing at the curb. In front of her was a small, boxy building--a modest setup, with a shade over the large front window to give off an air of privacy. The interior colors were warm and comforting, with few hard edges and anything else that suggested a sterile, business-like environment. She wanted to give her future clientele a place where they felt comfortable--and safe.

Her conversation with Helen, the woman she met in the park, had brought something to her attention. Something that wasn't often mentioned or thought about, but existed just the same; mutant victims of violent crimes.

They were mostly women, and often only partly mutated, or a hybrid--like herself. It was something the public didn't seem to be aware of since, even though people had come to accept that they were just as human as anyone, mutants were still regarded as indestructible and unbreakable, for the most part. As a result, female mutants who were running from something like an abusive relationship found they had nowhere to go.

So today, Regina--with a little help from Thrasher--was giving them a place to go.

After taking another breath and smoothing her vest, she pushed the front door open and went inside. The receptionist she hired was already parked behind the front desk, while other women were sitting quietly by a phone, waiting for a call from someone wanting to make an appointment, or looking for shelter, or just needing some advice and someone to talk to.

Regina took a long look around before drifting to a corner in the back, to the small room that made up her private office. She was just reaching to straighten a few things up on her desk when there was a footstep behind her, followed by a pair of arms slipping around her. "Hey, baby girl," a wry voice said near her ear. "Nervous?"

Regina nodded and tried not to cringe away. Weeks had passed, but her shoulders still hurt. She didn't heal nearly as fast as someone with more mutant blood in them would. Thrasher let go and smiled at her. "You'll do fine," she said confidently.

"Thanks to you," Regina reminded her. "I would never have been able to put all this together so fast without your help."

Thrasher smiled again and looked around the small office, then at the larger room behind her. "Don't mention it. As long as you kept a desk open somewhere for me..."

Regina blinked in surprise. "You serious?"

"Of course. This is way more meaningful than anything else I could be doing right now. I want to be a part of it."

Her eyes growing misty, Regina reached to hug her again. "You're always welcome," she whispered.

Thrasher smiled and ruffled her hair a moment--then let out a quiet scoff as she let go. "Would you look at that? You aren't even officially open yet, and there are already weirdos hanging around."

Puzzled, Regina followed her gaze to the front door. Standing on the other side of the glass was a stocky mutant with black hair and sunglasses. Grinning, Regina hurried outside and pulled him into a tight hug. "Come to check on me, big brother?" she asked teasingly.

"I've got time before I pick up my tux, so I thought, why not?" Bones said with a grin.

"I still think this repeat wedding thing is nuts," Thrasher noted as she joined them.

"Well, thank you."

"It's called a renewal of vows," Regina told her. "And I think it's sweet."

Bones smiled and ran a hand over her hair. "You'll do great," he told her, kissing the top of her head before letting go. "You're not a Justice, but you are a Malone, and that's...almost as good."

Regina giggled; Thrasher socked him with a scowl. Bones snickered and gave her one last hug before walking back to where he parked his bike. Regina waved and watched him ride away until he was out of sight, then went back inside. Just as the door clicked closed behind her, one of the phones rang. Regina watched, breath held, as the operator spoke quietly and took notes on the pad in front of her.

Thrasher eyed her a moment. "Still scared?" she wondered.

Regina shook her head. "No. Not at all."

In fact, she didn't see any reason why she had to be scared of anything ever again.