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Give Me One Reason to Stay Here

Chapter Text

Aleytys was fond of calling him an old coot.

Despite himself, he was grinning about that moniker as he weighed the largest of that day’s catch on the scale once it was unloaded on the docks. Paolo grinned at him with a gappy smile, his crinkling gray eyes bright and merry as he boasted “Yer lookin’ at one helluva fish story with that beauty, eh?” The swordfish was almost too beautiful to sacrifice, he mused to himself as he struggled with the sleek specimen that was still trying to flop itself loose from the hook.

The setting sun cast its rosy glow across the San Francisco harbor, reminding him of the old saying “Pink sky at night, sailor’s delight; pink sky at morning, sailors take warning” as they disembarked and prepared the catch for transport to the local monger and markets. Lee took great pride in radioing them ahead of time from the tiny sloop’s cabin that they’d landed the best catch that spring, and let’s see any other fishing boats top that. She grinned wickedly at Erik in passing, patting his shoulder with the rough regard and affection he’d expect from a man twice her size. She was growing on him.

She’d been up already, waiting for him in the wee hours with tea and one of her patented blueberry muffins when he’d had his latest nightmare. The steaming mug of Earl Grey was a smoky and mellow contrast to the rich, fluffy pastry as he held her gaze across the pine kitchen table. Erik had taken up residence in the spare room of her tiny two-bedroom beach house overlooking the pier, and was delighted to discover that like him, she was a nocturnal creature of habit and an excellent listener. Their weeks ashore were typically brief; Erik gradually got over his seasickness and began to enjoy the grueling work on the unpredictable but preternaturally beautiful sea, pulling his weight as part of Lee’s tiny crew. His thick, silvery hair grew long enough to brush the back of his shirt collars, and he’d allowed himself to grow a mustache and goatee that made his face look less ascetic and severe, softening the planes of his knife-sharp cheekbones. His slate blue eyes held none of the coldness nor cruelty left from a lifetime of Machiavellian tactics to further his own ends.

Charles would have told him that he had gone soft. He could almost hear his throaty laughter in his head, and with a pang, realized he missed him very much. He’d contemplated his chessboard and played against himself for hours before finally becoming drowsy enough to slip between the slightly rough, lavender-scented flannel sheets.

Usually, the eerie, bone-chilling sounds of twisting metal and his mother’s shrill screams invaded his sleep, making him writhe and thrash, tangling himself in the covers. But tonight, he was running through the woods, the damp earth icy beneath his bare feet. Anya’s panting breath matched his own as he gripped her emaciated hand more tightly and urged her to run faster. The tree branches were devoid of their usual foliage during one of the cruelest winters Erik could remember. Briefly he almost regretted leaving behind the faint warmth of sleeping in a knot of his bunkmates’ bodies in the filthy little barracks. There was a tiny hole left in his camp-issued uniform from when he’d torn off the offending yellow Star of David stitched there, letting the wind bite his flesh and chill him to the bone. The branches and shrubs seemed to reach out for him and his charge with probing, snatching fingers in the gloom.

The desiccated leaves made muted crunching sounds, despite his strategy to make their escape when the snow would still blanket them and muffle their steps.

“We brought nothing to eat. How will we live?”

“There was precious little to bring, liebling,” he reminded her. “And we would have died, even if we had stayed.” He took no comfort in the fact that she never argued with his logic.

Her heartbeat was sharp, and alarmed him when he felt it so keenly as he hugged her close, attempting to warm her as they crouched beneath the brush, deadly silent as footsteps in the distance and muffled voices surrounded them, calling out to each other that the two Jews had indeed gone this way. Erik’s feet throbbed with the unforgiving cold and the onset of frostbite as he bowed his lips into Anya’s boyishly short brown hair. She’d taken his breath away the first day that she’d arrived; it had been luxuriant and long before they’d shaved her head to prohibit the spread of lice. He intended to make sure she lived long enough to grow it back.

“Erik,” she whispered into his shirt. Her tiny hands clutched at him desperately, pleading with him to look at her. Their eyes locked, and she risked speech again, even though silence was precious, and their lives depended on it. “Don’t let them take me again. If you have to…then kill me.” His eyes rounded with denial, but she gripped his jaw with determination and nodded. “Promise me.”

His eyes never left hers as he nodded, fighting the clenching in his gut. She didn’t object when his lips brushed her forehead and he held her as closely as her delicate frame would allow.

“This is becoming a habit, old man,” Lee sighed, shaking her head at his wistful smile and the dark circles under his eyes. She fished the old red Bicycle deck of cards out of the drawer and dealt them five cards each, setting the rest between them on the table. “Got any sevens?”

He indulged her, widening his smile to its full wattage, taking ten years off of his face. “Go fish, Captain.” She snorted a moment, before crowing with glee as she found the card she wanted on her first draw and slapped down the pair. His shoulders jerked once with suppressed mirth. She stuck her tongue out at him, just because. Once in a great while, she’d indulge him in a game of chess; it wasn’t her favorite. Backgammon became their mutual favorite game of choice, but neither of them was in the mood for the intellectual stimulation that would likely keep them up longer than necessary. They were setting sail for the next two weeks to fish for king crab before it was out of season. They both acknowledged the need for rest, but his mind was too alert, and her concern for him was almost empathic, not allowing her to sleep when she could sense his restlessness, even from the opposite end of the hall. He’d joked that she must be a mind reader. When she’d asked him how he knew, he smiled in that knowing fashion and told her “I’m an expert on that sort of thing, my dear.”

The demons of his past were rising up again, no matter how deeply he tried to bury them. He knew his sojourn in the tiny little Bay Area hamlet was drawing to a close the day that he reached for a mound of steel-linked rigging when they docked two weeks ago, and the chain literally skittered free of his hand before he’d touched it. His eyes scanned the crew fleetingly, searching for surprised glances or accusing looks in the event that any of them had witnessed what happened. He found none.

That was when the dreams began anew. Lee moved to refill his teacup, missing his contemplative look at the faded numbers tattooed on his forearm, scraping his fingernail over it out of habit as if to scrub it away.

 

Westchester County, Graymalkin Lane, The School for Gifted Youngsters:

Marie was fond of calling him an old coot.

He only had himself to blame. They’d been shooting the shit in the game room over a few rounds of foosball. Logan’s quick reflexes made him a worthy opponent, and he loved the way she cut up and raised a ruckus whenever she lost. Unlike Logan, Marie wasn’t as much of a loner as he’d first assumed, despite her mutation that automatically limited her contact with her peers to the occasional pat, fully-clothed hug, or gloved caress. The chatty Southerner fired questions at him a mile a minute, and she made no bones about interrupting his solitary enjoyment of a cigar or progress through a case of beer to nag him about his hands-off “bulldogging” ways and general love of making older and younger students alike nearly pee themselves with a mere snarl of his lips.

He was making short work of her red-shirted players as she spun the rods just a fraction of a second too slow to keep the marble-sized ball from moving a row closer to her goalie, when she looked up at him suddenly, swinging her lustrous fall of auburn hair over her shoulder as she blurted out, “Logan? How old are ya?”

“What?! Why d’ya ask, punkin’?”

“Just because,” she demurred. “Ya never told me. Ah’ve known ya for a while, and it’s never come up. Ya know how old Ah am,” she reasoned.

“Big deal. I knew how old ya were the moment ya crawled outta the back of my trailer, without havin’ ta be told ya were too damned young ta be out on yer own. Be glad no one in that bar thought you were with me in the sense of being ‘with me,’ or we woulda been arrested.” She made a sour face for his benefit before using the distraction question to her advantage, giving the rods a spin. The ball volleyed back another row through his little green-shirted players, and he smirked at the gleam in her brown eyes.

“Brat,” he chuckled. “I know what yer up to, Marie.”

“A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do,” she grinned. “Ya still didn’t answer mah question, Logan.”

“That’s cuz I don’t know what ta tell ya, kid.” He thoughtfully parried the ball back two more rows without trying that hard, flicking his wrists deftly, enjoying the increased hunch of her shoulders as she leaned in closer, trying to close in on the ball’s movement across the board.

“Whaddya mean, Logan?”

“I mean I can’t remember my parents’ faces. Where I grew up.” He paused a second, then quirked one brow as he saw an opening that Marie left vulnerable and unguarded – not unlike the way her question left him – and pulled back the rod, giving it a savage twist that launched the ball all the way into the goal.

“Cheater!” she shrieked.

“Nuh-uh,” he countered. “Beatcha fair and square.” She grabbed the ball with a smothered “hmmph” and dropped it back in the center of the table, and they began another round.

“Ya don’t remember anything at all about when ya were young?”

“What I can remember feels like it happened to someone else. And it ain’t pretty.” His voice was moody as he confessed, “I’d never wish my life on anybody. The best I can tell ya, Marie, is that it’s been pretty friggin’ long.”

“Really?” She nudged the stray lock of hair from her eyes, drawing his attention to the gleaming white streak that had gradually grown on him since she’d acquired it. “Like, how long are we talkin’ here, shoog?”

“Back when my trailer burned up, I had a few little mementos stowed in the back that I never got ta salvage. Mostly stuff like letters and postcards.” His eyes held a faraway look, but Marie wasn’t fooled; he was still whupping her behind. “There were even a few medals.”

“What, from Vietnam or sumthin’?”

“Uh-uh. Like, from World War II.” He reconsidered his words after they left his mouth, then added “And a few from World War I.” This time Marie jerked herself upright, leaning back from the table to stare at him open-mouthed.

“Yer kiddin’,” she accused.

“Nope.”

“Yer not just pullin’ my leg, Logan? But…that’d make you…”

“Old enough ta be yer great-grandpappy,” he finished for her, giving his back row a cavalier spin as he waited for her to come back to the game.

“Shit!”

“Watch yer tongue, punkin’, don’t make me run and get the soap and Tabasco,” he warned.

“No worse than hearin’ you walk around an’ cuss,” she pointed out with undiluted impertinence. “If Ah have a potty mouth, Ah blame you for settin’ a bad example.”

“It ain’t like I’m forcin’ ya ta do it. If all the other cool kids jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge…” She didn’t let him complete her sentence this time.

“Ain’t gonna be many bridges ta jump off of pretty soon. Look what Magneto did ta the Golden Gate. Dang thing looks like a pretzel.” Well, never mind his lecture on peer pressure, he couldn’t argue with that.

After another three games, it was Logan five, Marie zip, and he pleaded the need for a smoke break before bidding her goodnight with a friendly tug of her white streak. She saw him off with a smile and knew he cheerfully ignored her warning that his lungs were going to shrivel into blackened walnuts in his chest. He went up to his room and stepped out onto the balcony, lighting up and blowing a cloud of smoke that begged for memories of the first time he’d ever tried a stogie. He couldn’t even come up with one. For as long as he could remember – what he could remember – he’d always smoked, drank, and ate enough red meat for a doctor to call his blood type “sirloin.”

No amount of beer or Jack Daniels could even begin to take the edge off the screaming in his dreams. Sometimes the voice that he heard was his. Thing about his healing factor was, he wore his scars on the inside. His knuckles were the exception; minute, pink crescents decorated each of his middle three joints where his claws burst through. They were barely visible to the naked eye, but when he probed them, he could feel the nodules of scar tissue that never quite flattened out due to repeated use of the nine-inch blades beneath.

Marie’s scars had healed nicely enough after what she playfully named “the night ya shish-kabobbed me fer gettin’ too familiar” against his objections. The real pity was that no one ever saw that flawless, creamy skin, anyway, when she had to cover herself against accidental contact. Her joking about it didn’t keep him from reliving the nightmare of impaling her, feeling his claws slide through her flesh through to her back, adding one more terror to a towering pile. When he nagged her to quit joking about it, she merely sniffed “Keeps me from cryin’ about it, shoog.” So there you had it.

His talk with Marie made his feet itch. The only thing that could cure him of it was the feel of the custom souped-up hog in the garage rumbling through his boot soles on the open road. He’d taken to keep a duffel packed with at least three days worth of clothes in the back of his closet, and he chucked his Old Spice solid deodorant and an old comb into it before zipping it shut.

He knew pitifully little of his own life to share with Marie, or anyone else who gave enough of a damn to ask. He decided to remedy that.

Now came the tricky part. He needed to tell Ororo.

Chapter Text

It never failed. Whenever he tried to make a speedy, quiet exit, ten things interrupted him, one after the other, until he forgot what he was going to do or where he was going to go.

Icicle tripped alongside him into the elevator before he could press the button for the main floor. “Where ya headed, Teach?”

Logan snorted at his new nickname. “Nowhere ya need ta worry about, boy.” His grip tightened on the handles of the battered duffle bag slung over his shoulder. Logan reminded Bobby of the way he’d looked the first time they’d met: rumpled, disgruntled, haunted, and like he’d woke up in his clothes from the day before. Bobby hadn’t lived long enough, nor hard enough, to know troubles like the ones etched across Logan’s face. Logan hoped he never would.

The two ceased chatting until the elevator doors swept open, admitting them into the crowded foyer.

“Danger Room workout today?”

“Nope. Not with me. Yer trainin’ with Blue.” He didn’t clarify when Bobby could expect to train with Logan again. Clear blue eyes measured him thoughtfully. Before he could probe the matter any further, Kitty scuffled her way down the hall with Jubilee in tow, chattering a mile a minute.

“Mister Logan! We need you to settle an argument for us. Jubes said that there was only one guy who played Darren on ‘Bewitched.’ I know that’s wrong, he looked totally different in the later episodes of the show!” She folded her arms over her chest and watched him expectantly.

“I ain’t got time fer this crap,” Logan grumbled.

“Excuse us for sopping up so much of your precious time doing…whatever it is you do when you’re not kicking our butts in the Danger Room,” Jubes demurred with a casual little fan of her hand. She cracked her gum and blew a huge, pink bubble. Logan never missed an opportunity when one presented itself.

*POP.*

“You’re such a …” Jubilee began, freeing the tip of her nose from the offending sticky skin of Hubba Bubba Strawberry. She stopped herself. Mister Logan, or “Wolvie” as she took to calling him, had that gleam in his eye that just challenged her, dared her to explode at him (literally). Demerits, and possible umbrage made her next words evaporate.

“Yer gonna chew that shit til yer jaw drops off onto the floor, Punkin’,” he admonished. “An’ by the way, Kitty’s right on this one. The first guy who played Darren on that show was Dick Sargent. They replaced him with another guy named Dick York.”

“Told you!” Kitty crowed.

“They were both Dicks,” Jubilee whined, before it occurred to her what she’d said. Bobby snorted under his breath.

“Gotta go. Amscray,” Logan hissed, nodding to them as he made his way into the teachers’ lounge. He’d just left them in his wake when he was nearly bowled over by Artie and Jimmy scuffling their way out of the kitchen. They were a rolling, churning ball of arms and legs as they played an impromptu game of “noogie tag”. Artie found himself shoved squarely into the wall of Logan’s chest. He “oophed” with the impact of hitting something so solid and unyielding.

“Watch it,” he snarled, quirking a brow. “I’m walkin,’ here.” His hand shot out to ruffle Artie’s hair before swatting him lightly upside the back of his head. Artie grinned back and darted away.

“Sorry, Mister Logan!” Jimmy called back over his shoulder. Logan’s boots clicked against the marble as he veered to the left, heading into the lounge. Hank was ensconced in the brocade-upholstered wing chair, enjoying the New York Times.

“Going somewhere, friend?” Hank used the term loosely, but he was optimistic. He grudgingly respected the gruff loner, even liked him, even though his grammar seemed limited to “Eh,” “Furball,” “Bub,” “Beer,” and Hank’s personal favorite, “Fuck off.” He was rough around the edges, but Hank decided that it took all different types to make the world go around…that, and an irresistible magnetic pull.

“Where’s ‘Ro?”

“Oh, she’s not here,” Hank offered, flapping the pages of his periodical and ducking his head behind them again.

“Hnh. ‘Kay. Let’s try this again, now that we’ve got that nailed down. Where’d she go, Blue?”

“Oh. Yes. Right. Beg pardon, my boy. She’s in her office, going over the lesson plans and the expansion for the new wing upstairs.” Cobalt blue eyes with the large, dilated pupils of a cat peered at him over his paper, noting the duffle. “Taking some personal time?”

“Call it whatcha want.” He took his leave, not bothering to offer a goodbye, but he halted by the doorframe, hand on the knob. “And I ain’tcher ‘boy.’ Thought we established that, Furball.”

“Must’ve slipped my mind,” Hank rumbled. The corners of his broad mouth quirked up, without a trace of contrition.

The halls gradually grew quieter as the children made their way to class. Logan barely heard a sound coming from the headmistress’ office from behind the closed door. The faint scratch of a pen against paper underscored her breathing, and the occasional huff of annoyance from her lips. He could smell her tension before he even knocked.

“Come in,” she beckoned in reply to his hard raps against the heavy oak.

“Hey, Boss.” She sighed through her nose at her recently acquired title, even though her blue eyes brightened when she saw him. They hardened slightly when she noticed the duffle.

“What is this about, Logan?”

“It ain’t about anything. I’ve got some business ta take care of.”

“Business.” She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms over her chest, much like Kitty had a minute ago, but with none of the sly one-upmanship. “Don’t let us keep you with our trivial needs, then.” He bristled under the sharpness that crept into her rich, deep voice.

“Never have before,” he parried easily, even though a frisson of guilt nagged at him. They both knew, even if they wouldn’t acknowledge out loud, that the children were growing on him like moss on a tree.

“Just let me know how long to clear your docket for,” she advised him cheerfully. “We’ve decided to extend Sean’s contract for another year. He’s been working out so well with flight class and the shop electives this quarter, and he’s already mentioned that he has no intention of heading back to Muir Island just yet until his next sabbatical.”

“Another year?” Logan scrubbed his nape with his palm, ruffling hair already disheveled from the collar of his worn leather jacket. “Sounds like ya already have it covered, then.”

“If you like.” She shuffled some papers and reached for a stack of folders on top of her inbox. “We can always use a spare pair of hands, but yours are full. We’ll manage without you, one way or another.” She kept her tone cavalier, and Logan didn’t want to admit that it bothered him, her willingness to dismiss him like some errant child she’d just lectured. She wasn’t watching him directly, giving Logan a chance to give her a quick once-over.

Sunlight streamed in through the windows where she’d drawn back the heavy velvet drapes, bathing her in the warm glow that seemed to love every inch of her caramel brown skin. Her hair was down from its characteristic ponytail, tumbling around her shoulders and framing her face in soft, curling waves. The sunlight brought out platinum and blonde glints in the blazing white, turning it into a shimmering corona. She was wearing a casual white button-down blouse with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows and a small, silver yin and yang pendant on a choker-length chain. One of those trendy little Italian charm bracelets with the square links decorated her slender wrist. She paused to play with it, twisting it randomly and giving Logan a glimpse at the collection of charms she’d accrued so far. He stifled a smile at the ones with Winnie the Pooh, a Batman logo, and Hello Kitty.

Ororo was never gaudy. Even when she went a little nuts with her hair, she was always turned out in simple clothes that never interrupted the lean, elegant lines of her body or overwhelmed the piquant beauty of her features. Dimples played in and out of the corners of her lush mouth, her upper lip a perfect cupid’s bow that revealed even, white teeth when she smiled. Right now, though, she was wearing her game face. Logan adjusted his and planned his speech.

“I’m headed up north, back t’my old stomping grounds. Got a hold of one of my old contacts with a defense branch up in Canada. Hank’ll fill ya in. They call themselves Department H, instead of the usual long-ass names with goofy acronyms.” Logan’s tone revealed that he didn’t find their current moniker any less ridiculous.

“Henry’s been helping you?”

“Yep. Furball’s not half bad with a computer. Almost as slick at hacking as Pryde,” he mused. It was no secret that the school’s resident specter could slip through firewalls as easily as plaster walls when it suited her. Among Kitty’s gifts, aside from being a superb fighter, were a keen intellect and remarkable technical skills. Every computer gave up its secrets like a Sunday quilting circle after dipping into the sherry beneath Kitty’s sharp eye and lightning-quick fingers. “Blue helped me track down a guy I knew a while back. Name’s Mac Hudson. Stayed a while with him and his old lady, Heather. Decent folks.”

“What made you decide to strike out again to visit them?”

“Department H gets its funding from the same outfit that supports Weapon X.”

“What on earth is that? It sounds so…”

“Don’t ask. Ya don’t wanna know.”

“Try me.” She jutted her chin defiantly, shooting him a look that promised she could take anything he threw at her.

“Weapon X,” he sighed, “was responsible fer these.” SNIKT. He slowly extended his claws, holding them up to the light, letting the sun caress the length of the adamantium blades. “Problem is, I can’t remember the how, or the why. Stryker took that to Hell with him.”

“So Stryker led this so-called Weapon X project?”

“Eh. More or less. It’s complex.” Logan felt the pull of Ororo’s eyes, urging him to stay a while, despite his itchy feet. He sighed, finally dropping his battered duffle. “Awright, ya pried it outta me, Boss.” He grunted as he collapsed into the guest chair facing her, annoying her as he slung his feet up onto her desk, crossing them at the ankle and making himself comfortable. “Stryker was a sergeant. Bigwig in the US military. Dishonorably discharged after his wife died, and he went out on a bender. Hank pulled that up from his files.”

“So you remembered him, when he attacked the school?”

“Just traces of him. That friggin’ Southern drawl.” He nearly added on “and those fucking cruel eyes.” He scratched himself behind his ear. “I remember his scent, from the night that I fought my way out from underground. Not too much else. But that was enough.”

“Go on,” she encouraged, setting aside her file in the inbox and closing her ledger, leaning forward as she listened. Her eyes searched his, warm, open and kind.

“I don’t know how old I am. That much is a blur,” Logan admitted. “Stryker has a clue. He trailed me fer a long time before they dragged me underground. He wasn’t the only one in on it. The only thing I saw of the catacombs at Alkali was the tank.” Ororo saw the shiver that ran through him and her own blood ran cold. “They did things ta me in that damned thing, Storm. Things that no man should live through. I’ve lived through a lot of shit like that.”

“Don’t let that keep you from wanting to live the rest of your life, however you choose to live it.” Her tone was almost protective with those words. He wasn’t imagining it. “You have people in your life now who value you beyond what you can do. Who care about who you are. Logan. Not the Wolverine.” No one had ever separated the two before. Ororo was unique in her ability to recognize that there was more to him than gruffness and violence.

And he was a damned brilliant Jeopardy player.

“Yer soundin’ like a Hallmark card.” She stuck her tongue out at him, surprisingly un-goddesslike. He smirked.

“You’re the one attempting a velvet-coated goodbye. You still haven’t told me how long you expect to be gone.”

“Til I find some answers.” That alone told Ororo to expect his room to be empty for weeks, possibly even months.

“What do you want me to tell the students?”

“Tell ‘em I went away ta battle the Big Bad and keep it from their front door. Tell ‘em whatever ya want. Marie already knows,” he qualified. “Kitty, Petey and Icicle are old enough ta figure it out.”

“Do you think it’s easy for them when you walk out that door?”

He slapped his hands against the armrests of his chair and swung his booted feet to the floor. “Do ya think it’s so damned easy fer me?”

“Yes,” she replied through gritted teeth. “On some level, I do. And I think you’ve grown used to doing this, to protect yourself. And to protect those around you, being able to detach. Walking away before you leave any trace of where you’ve been. Letting any ties you form slip loose and dangle. It hurts too much, letting people in. That’s when they hurt you. When they disappoint you. Fail you. Isn’t it?”

“Think ya got me figured out, eh?”

“You don’t make it hard.”

“That’s where yer wrong, darlin’. It tears strips outta me every time I leave. Weapon X gave me the tools ta kill. They gave me the rage. They gave me the fuckin’ hate. That don’t mean they took away my ability ta feel pain. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t burn through my gut. Sometimes the pain’s all I feel. Ya know it ain’t like I don’t care, princess.”

“Try convincing the children. That’s what they are, even if many of them come to us as teenagers when their mutations manifest, Logan. They have feelings, too. So many of them are cast out from their homes when they receive their gifts. They lose their friends, their ordinary lives. When they walk through our doors, their powers are all that they have. Not unlike when you walked through our door, Logan.”

“Hnh. More like when you and Scooter carted my butt in here. Ass’s still frost-bitten,” he accused. Ororo smothered a dark little chuckle.

“You see my point.”

“Wish ya’d see mine.”

“I do.”

“Then ya know why I hafta leave. I need answers. I need ta sort out my life. It’s the only way ta get back a little of what they took away from me. Get some closure.”

“Closure.” She pronounced judgment on him as the syllables formed themselves on her lips. “If all you focus on is what they took away, you’ll never know what you could gain from reaching out for what’s offered to you now.”

“Chuck was tryin’ t’help me when I first came here. He went as far into my gray matter as he dared. What he saw wasn’t pretty, and keeps me up at night in snatches and pieces. Ya couldn’t live with yourself, Storm, if ya had this dark, ugly thing living inside ya, eating up yer soul.” An eerie blanket of silence settled over them both, hanging thickly in the air.

“I suppose not,” she reasoned. Logan scented her tension again, this time laced with a whiff of anxiety not reflected by her calm demeanor. “None of us really know what you’re going through. It would be silly to try to make you stay.”

She rose from her chair, and Logan’s eyes held hers as he, too, abandoned his chair, drawn up by the fluid movement of her body, pulling at his like marionette strings. She’d coupled her white blouse with a slim pair of black jeans that fit like a second skin; he savored the view now that she was out from behind the desk. She came around from it and reached for his duffle, slinging it over her shoulder and leading the way to the door.

“I can get that,” he offered on a futile grumble.

“I can manage,” she assured him with unspoken resignation. We can manage without you. Her strides were long, swift and even, forcing him to practically jog after her. He was surprised when she headed toward the kitchen instead of the front door.

“Why’re we-“

“You’re not leaving without packing some essentials.”

“Thought I already did. Clean undies, Speed Stick, and socks should about cover it.”

“Not for dinner,” she chided him. “If you aren’t staying long enough to eat with us, then at least have a sandwich." He reached for his duffle, brushing his hand over her shoulder.

“Storm…” Her hand clapped over his before he could get a grip on the straps of his carryall. An almost electric tingle ran up his arm, making the hairs stand on end and sending heat shooting into his stomach. His nostrils flared as he narrowed his eyes. Her hand felt satiny and cool as she squeezed his fingers.

“Sit!” she scolded imperiously. “Don’t make me tie you to a chair and force feed you. You don’t get the bag back til I’m finished.” Her eyes challenged him, and a hint of a smile quirked the corners of her mouth.

He was left with the image of being tied to a chair, with Ororo grinning mischievously, hovering over him and teasing him with tidbits from her fingers. Suddenly his jeans felt very, very…very tight.

He sat grumbling to himself as Ororo hummed cheerfully, taking down the loaf of bread and pulling meat and condiments from the refrigerator, having gotten her way. The duffle bumped against her curvy hip as she moved about the kitchen. She fished out a big grab-size bag of his favorite lime and black pepper potato chips and tucked a thick sandwich full of his favorite cold cuts, topped with spicy mustard and jack cheese into a Ziploc baggie.

“I take it ya’ve done this before?” he muttered.

“Ward, I think you need to have a talk with the Beaver,” she quipped, nonplussed. She packed the items into a vinyl-lined cold sack and unzipped his duffle. He shook his head when she included a Hi-C juice box.

“Ya’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.”

“Beer bottles would break,” she reasoned.

He opened his mouth to argue the point, that the beer wouldn’t last but five minutes anyway, he’d more than likely have drunk it down to the last drop before even making it out of the garage, but Ororo was still radiating tension so strongly he could feel it from across the room.

He settled for more smart-assery.

“They’ll never let me sit at the cool kids’ table with a lunch like that,” he mock-complained.

“Then they aren’t really your friends,” she trilled. She plunked his duffle onto his lap, clapping her hands free of imaginary dust. “All done and ready to go!”

“Don’t sound so happy about it,” he opined. She stepped back to let him rise to his full height. They stood nearly eye to eye, his height topping hers by a mere four inches.

“I don’t know how we’ll ever manage without you, Wolverine,” she allowed, preceding him out the back door of the kitchen, holding it wide. “But we will.”

“We will?” he mocked.

“But of course!”

“Uh-uh. Don’t put me on with that shit.”

“Excuse me?” Her smile, falsely cavalier, faltered.

“I wanna know how yer gonna manage while I’m gone.”

“The same way I did before you came.”

“Ya had Chuckles, Jeannie and Scooter before.”

“Don’t remind me of what I’ve lost,” she hissed, her smile gone now. “The world won’t stop turning just because the Wolverine is off on a mission, gone without a trace. That includes my world, Logan. I’m an adult. My sun doesn’t rise and set with you, you cocky, arrogant-mmmmmmphhh!”

Her lips were still forming the words to beat him over the head with when he closed in on them, capturing them with his. Damn his lightning fast reflexes; she hadn’t a semblance of a chance to pull away before his arm snaked around her waist, pulling her against the muscular wall of his torso. The scent of worn leather, a hint of cigar smoke, and the wholly male tang of his flesh tickled her nostrils as she breathed him in. He smothered her complaint, inhaling her protests as he held her immobile and savored his first taste. Pillow-soft lips released a small sigh that mingled momentary surprise and yearning, and her slender fingers snaked their way through his thick hair before he’d even realized her arms had wrapped around his neck.

They collapsed against the doorframe, ignoring the breezy chill sweeping inside and stirring the leaves outside. Her lips parted for him, and Logan’s duffle hit the floor with a light thud. It was his turn to be surprised, and to inwardly kick himself.

She tasted, and felt, like a bit of heaven on earth.

Logan’ stubble rasped beneath her palm as she caressed his cheek, exploring the planes and contours and rugged texture of his warm flesh. His tongue teased the inner seam of her lips, beckoning to hers to come out and play. She melted into him, breasts pressed into his chest as she accepted the “play date” and took what he gave. More, her body screamed, feeling her skin tingle as his hands grasped her hips and ground her pelvis against the straining bulge that reared its head as soon as she threatened him – albeit playfully – with tying him up.

The doorframe was killing his butt, but he didn’t care, ignoring the digging of the wood into his back as he drank his fill of Ororo, letting his mouth trail fiery havoc along her cheek, nibbling her chin and settling deliciously down the graceful slope of her throat.

“Goddess! Please, Logan…please.” She couldn’t phrase what she wanted from him, but her hands clutched him, working their way between the buttons of his shirt, seeking his heat. She felt the ticklish mat of hair on his chest beneath the faded flannel, and one of his flat nipples pebbled as she lightly scraped it with her fingernail.

“Don’t…aw, God, Ororo, don’t make this harder than it is,” he groaned, panting with need as he pulled her back enough to stare down into her face. Her lips were faintly swollen and rosy, and her eyes searched his face, beseeching him for a moment before she looked away.

“All right. I won’t,” she agreed, slowly untangling her hands from his shirt and stepping back, wresting his hands from her hips. The invisible wall between them slid back into place as she reached up and smoothed her hair, twisting it into a loose knot at her nape before she reached down and picked up his duffle.

“Godspeed.”

“Yeah. Traffic gets mighty fierce over the George Washington Bridge at this hour,” he mumbled.

“Wasting time here won’t make it any better.” She turned away, not planning any further attempts at goodbye. He hated the sight of her retreating back, efficiently sleek and beautiful, her spine proud and stiff as she strode away.

“Ro,” he called out.

“Go,” she threw over her shoulder without looking back. His hands itched with the craving to touch her again. He let himself out and locked up behind him.

Ororo had already made her way back into her office, back up to her elbows in her lesson plan when she finally heard the roar of the motorcycle’s engine zooming down the road.

Her lips still burned.

 

*~*~*

 

It never failed. Whenever he tried to make a speedy, quiet exit, ten things interrupted him, one after the other, until he forgot what he was going to do or where he was going to go.

“I packed you a muffin, Erik. That Thermos is already full of fresh coffee, I just brewed it a few minutes ago.” She tossed two of the plastic, single serving tubs of flavored creamer into the bag before turning away from the counter. Her crystal blue eyes were slightly bruised from a rough night of sleep, and Eric felt guilty over causing her concern.

She woke, running down the hall at his harsh cry. She knocked gently, calling his name in a low voice, not expecting him to open the door to her. Dazed, haunted slate blue eyes peered out through the crack at her, and she heard her name rasped through his chiseled lips, almost a desperate prayer. He swung it open and pulled her inside, and her arms wrapped themselves snugly around his waist, still slim from a lifetime of Spartan living. She felt him drawn tight as a bowstring and was rocked by the shudders that ran through his body. She made herself more comfortable against him, tucking the top of her head beneath his chin and stroking his back, murmuring soothing sounds low in her throat.

“Aleytys,” he pleaded. “It still burns. It won’t go away.”

“Erik,” she whispered.

“Nothing can save me from it. Not even you, my dear. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your apologies. And I don’t need them. You can’t, or won’t change who you are. I won’t ask you to try.” She smiled against his chest. “It was nice while it lasted.”

“Yes, it was,” he agreed, tightening his embrace and kissing her sweet-smelling blonde hair, nuzzling it with affection he hadn’t thought himself capable of in several decades. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel Magda holding him like this in the dark. When he opened them, Aleytys was regarding him with a soft look that almost broke down his resolve. Tiny laugh lines around the corners of her mouth and eyes gave her face character and dignity and heightened her classic beauty. She cradled his cheek in her palm before leaning up and kissing him. He flinched at the gesture at first, then brushed his lips over hers, returning it. Each kiss slid slowly, languorously into the next as she showed him how much their time together had meant to her. She knew it wouldn’t make a difference. She branded him with the memory of her, nevertheless, granting him something to cling to on dark and lonely nights.

She unbuttoned his flannel pajama top and slid her hand inside, flattening her palm against his heartbeat. His fingers deftly untied the sash of her robe and slid it from her shoulders, letting it puddle onto the floor, already free of any other clutter. Erik was nothing if not meticulous.

She took her time making love to him, offering him surcease and muting the screams echoing through his consciousness with her touch. They lay sprawled together in the dark, Erik stroking the length of her slender arm with lazy fingertips as she slept, adopting the pace of her breathing.

This was the life he’d never have. The happiness that was stolen from him during what should have been his golden years.

“Give my regards to the crew,” Erik offered.

“Paolo already had a clue you were champing at the bit. I talked them out of throwing together one last shindig for you. Wouldn’t just been an excuse for everyone to quit early and drink a few brews on deck, anyway. Lazy bums,” she huffed. She retrieved the last of the box of Earl Grey tea from the cupboard and tucked that into his satchel. He’d come with barely anything. What sparse possessions he had he was leaving behind for Lee to dispose of how she chose, except for the clothes on his back. She saw the large lump in his knapsack that he’d guarded protectively since his first arrival in their midst.

Lee dithered and fussed over him, stealing valuable moments before he took his leave. He surprised her as she drove him to the docks, standing in line with him at the ticket booth as he purchased a place on the next ferry. As they walked away from the booth, he pulled her close. Her hands explored the rough knit of his thick cable-knit sweater as he held her in a loose embrace, staring into her eyes.

“Behave yourself,” he admonished.

“Look who’s talking,” she shot back. He reached for her hand and she felt him tuck something into it. She peered down at a small, glossy paper rectangle.

She stared into a small, black and white photo of a dark-haired boy of about ten, standing in front of a shop on an empty street, gripping the handle of an old-fashioned Red Ryder wagon and smiling gappily into the camera. The picture was worn and turning sepia around the edges; the boy’s clothes were impeccably neat, the knee-length breeches, wool socks, sweater vest and oxford harkening back to a time before Aleytys was a glimmer in her father’s eye.

“Think not of what I am, but of what I could have been.”

“You can’t move forward with your life if you’re mired in ‘what could have been.’ Be well. Be safe,” Lee bade him, ignoring the sounds of people milling around them as she kissed him one last time, not giving a damn that Erik despised public displays of affection. She smiled beneath his lips as she felt his fingers tighten, buried in her sheaves of long blonde hair.

“I have one last token for you,” he whispered. He reached into the pocket of jeans so worn they were as soft was a cotton handkerchief. He held out his fist, turned down, waiting for Lee to touch it. She tapped it impatiently, enjoying the last gleam in his eye, just for her.

He turned his fist over and opened it. A cherished sterling silver Claddaugh ring that she’d given up for lost after it got caught and mangled in some wrigging rested on his palm, intact and newly polished. The band had previously been bent and worn through.

“Erik…when did you…?”

“Enjoy it,” he suggested, taking it from her and sliding it into her finger before kissing her knuckles. Something proud sprang into his eyes, and he moved away from her, letting her hand drop as he retrieved his knapsack. “You won’t know where I’m going. It’s best this way.”

“All right.” He heard a patina of tears in her voice, even though her eyes remained dry.

“Aleytys…”

“Go.” She waved to him, letting her fist close as if to capture him in her grip.

The clang of the ferry bell chased her, drowning out her footsteps on the asphalt as she made her way to her tiny car.

Chapter Text

“It's the wrong trousers Gromit, and they've gone wrong!

Sputtery snorts answered the droning, pounding television screen, the faint glow supplementing the scant light illuminating a very large, hopelessly filthy bedroom.

“LORNA?” The annoying, familiar alto dripped with concern and frustration, nearly drowned out by the speakers tucked in the bookshelf. Bobblehead dolls of various celebrities teetered and rocked atop each one with the vibrations, seeming to dance in jerky rhythm to the sounds of vintage nineties “progressive” music that her father compared to cats screeching in heat. Antique dolls with cracks in their porcelain faces and missing fingers smiled out vacantly from a rack of shelves nailed haphazardly to the wall above the full-sized bed, sharing space with a motley assortment of maquettes and figurines guaranteeing lingering paranoia, standing sentry over their unusual charge. She peered up at her favorite one of Pinhead from the first movie, scowled, and leaned up to straighten him; he was facing in the wrong direction. Satisfied, she grunted and allowed her fingers to lazily scrabble through the heap of spilled cosmetics on the bedside table. She unscrewed the cap from her bottle of nail polish, a mottled, greenish black aptly named “Oh Deadly Night” and began refreshing the chipped coat clinging to her nails, hissing in disgust when she noticed that her thumbnail was torn. She bit it off impatiently and spat it out, ignoring her mother’s footfalls on the stairs.

“Lorna,” she barked, her voice drifting closer. Blue eyes rimmed in a smudged layer of thick kohl rolled toward the closed door, momentarily distracted by the poster of the Osbornes grinning back at her.

Clipped knocks signaled the beginning of a lecture that she knew would last at least a half an hour.

“Unngggghh…WHAT, Mother?”

“Don’t give me that. I’ll ‘what, Mother?’ someone out of their cell phone privileges for a month if you don’t open this door right now, young lady,” the voice intoned.

“Pfft.” Lorna flipped double bird fingers with her still wet nails. Her mother sensed the gesture anyway.

“I’m sick of this, Lorna. Test me. I dare you.”

“What’s the capital of New Mexico?”

“Funny. I’m canceling your Verizon account as soon as I walk away from this door.” Her tone was bland, and Lorna’s heart quickened just a bit as she heard retreating footsteps.

“Shit,” she hissed, jamming the polish brush back into its bottle haphazardly and flinging it aside. She launched herself with a bounce off the disheveled bedspread and lunged for the knob. She nearly yanked the door off the hinges, the back breeze knocking loose sheets of paper from her desk. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Sure you didn’t.” Tired brown eyes studied her as Lorna watched her mother’s arms drift up and cross themselves over her chest in a familiar gesture of resignation. “Lorna, we’ve given you one chance after another. You bring home these bizarre friends, when we can get you to leave the house at all. Your grades are in the toilet. You won’t talk to me or your father with the exception of telling us every day that we suck. We’re ruining your life. We supposedly ‘don’t own you and can’t tell you what to do.’ The gravy train stops here, kiddo.” She held out the envelope that she’d carried upstairs with her and pushed it at her daughter. Lorna stared down at it with questions in her eyes.

“What’s that?”

“Read it. It’s your future.” She shook it at her; Lorna shrank back from it reflexively until her mother reached for her hand, grabbing her wrist. She pressed the envelope into her palm. “Your father and I love you, honey, but we’ve had enough. You won’t let us harbor any delusions that you’re our ‘baby’ anymore, which would be fine, but in the meantime, you refuse to grow up. You show us no respect. You don’t treat us the way you should treat the ones who love, feed and clothe you.” Tears sparked at the back of Lorna’s eyes, and she mimicked her mother’s earlier posture of crossing her arms over her meager breasts, her eyes darting to the floor to avoid her gaze.

“Whatever.”

“That’s what you always say. ‘Whatever.’ Do I deserve that?”

“I dunno…” Maybe she didn’t.

“No. You know I don’t. Stop saying you don’t know, Lorna. It’s passive-aggressive. Doctor Samson said you need to communicate without hostility if you want us to understand how you feel. Make me understand your anger instead of throwing it at me.”

“Yeah. Like nothing’s ever your fault, Mother,” she snarled, glaring down at her, rocking her weight onto one hip sullenly.

“Stop acting like EVERYTHING’S my fault, then. Or your father’s. We’re not mind-readers. We can’t get into your head. You need to talk to us if you want us to get along like a family.”

“Maybe…” Lorna’s voice drifted off.

“What, honey?” Her mother’s voice only softened slightly, but didn’t back down.

“Maybe…I don’t want you in my head. No! Maybe we’re just not a family! Are you kidding me? What a joke,” she babbled on, not caring that she was digging herself in deeper. “This is my future,” she mocked, waving the letter in the air. “What is it, a subpoena?”

“No. An acceptance letter and welcome packet. Your father just mailed out the tuition check to your new school. We discussed this with you.” She really meant We warned you.

“You’re sending me away.” Her fingers began to sweat, making grubby streaks on the paperstock.

“Yes, Lorna. We’re sending you away. We need some time to regroup and figure out where to go next. All of us. We can’t live like this. You’re unhappy.”

“How would YOU know???” The tears leaked from her eyes, diluting the kohl makeup and smudging it in macabre rivers down her pale cheeks. “You don’t know me,” she insisted. “You don’t even know…how I…feel,” she rasped. Her mother reached for her, but she flinched back as soon as she grasped her shoulders. Hands were slapped away.

“You don’t let us in. We give you everything you ask for, and it’s not enough. You just keep shutting us out. We’re enrolling you into a program that’s based on modifying your behavior and taking accountability for your actions…”

“Like rehab?”

“No. More like probation. It’s still an academic program. You’ll be evaluated by your teachers and also by your peers.”

“So, you’re kicking me out?”

“No. Just letting you try something new. Different school, a chance to start over…”

“Start what over? You’re ruining my life,” she moaned. She bowed her face into her fingertips, rubbing at her eyes as her mother let the words pour out that she wouldn’t hear.

“You call this living? Being angry every day? Getting suspended? Intimidating people? You won’t go with us to church. You quit all of your activities. You don’t even play your guitar anymore. You were so good at it, honey,” her mother implored her.

“I’m not into it anymore,” she insisted, even though her fingers itched with the urge now to dig it out of its case, buried underneath a mountain of dirty clothes in her closet. Journals of poetry and fledgling song lyrics were stuffed in her bookshelves, hidden from view. She’d never share them with her parents. They’d just haul her back to Doc Samson and put her back on antidepressants.

“You won’t give it a chance. You might feel differently once we get you out of that school.”

“Sure. School will fix everything. That’s the fucking magic cure, right?”

“Lorna, watch your language!”

Why? It’s too late, right? You’re sending me away! I don’t have to watch my goddamned mouth anymore! I hate you! I HATE you! You don’t love me any goddamned way!”

“That’s not true; calm down!”

“NO! I WON’T CALM DOWN! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” Her words were still competing with the blaring music escaping her room. The cartoon DVD made a surreal counterpoint to her swirling storm of anger balling itself up in her chest, choking her. “DO YOU HEAR ME? YOU…CAN’T MAKE ME DO ANYTHING!”

The air surrounding them charged itself with a fog of energy that thrummed through them both. Lorna’s mother felt the fine layer of hair on her arms stand on her end.

“Honey, calm down,” she advised, her voice plaintive now.

“Calm,” she laughed mirthlessly. “Fuck you and your ‘calm down.’” She chucked the envelope aside, letting it slide across the floor and thunk off the baseboard. “Like you and Dad are so damned happy, you can tell me how to be,” she continued.

The aluminum shelves and bookends began to rattle. Lorna’s mother heard the metal hardware mounting them into the wall studs squeak and groan in protest. The television set’s image began to skip as the DVD player emitted an odd squeal.

“Lorna, this won’t solve anything…”

“Quit trying to solve me! I’m fine! You don’t get it!” The music rose and swelled in volume. Lorna’s mother squinted inside her room, and thought she was imagining things when she saw the knob on the overpriced stereo system roll toward the indicator for maximum volume. Her eardrums throbbed in time with her heart, and she felt her breathing quicken as chills ran down her neck. The macabre menagerie of dolls and bobbleheads grinned maniacally back at her before they began falling from their shelves. Lorna’s nail polish leaked a trail of putrid color across the expensive hardwood floor where it landed earlier.

“LORNA?” The floor beneath their feet began to rumble, and various objects and beloved heirlooms hanging on the hallway walls began to pitch themselves to the floor. A brass-framed photograph crashed, scattering shards of glass the glittered in the light from the nearby sconce. It wasn’t left undisturbed either, as the matching brass neck of the light warped and twisted, groaning as it was wrenched from the wall. A shower of sparks sizzled as the wiring was jerked loose from the plaster, wrenching a ragged scream of alarm from Lorna’s mother. “You don’t want to do this,” she insisted. Lorna heard the front door swinging open downstairs and shrugged. Great. The other warden just got home.

“No.” More glass shattered as the television launched itself face-first from the dresser, denting the hardwood irreparably. The hinges of Lorna’s wooden jewelry box popped open, the latch bending back, allowing the myriad, mismatched earrings and tangled necklaces to dangle and dance through the air. “I do want to do this.” Her tears dried on her face, muddy and stark. A silver hairbrush that her mother had purchased at an estate sale that was knotted up with strands of green and black hair and puffs of dust and lint flew out the door, narrowly missing Lorna’s mother’s temple, only because she ducked.

“Barbara? Where are you?” Her father’s voice was hesitant and worried, rising as he headed toward the stairs. “What the hell’s going on? A water main just burst down the street, and I nearly got hit when the Johnson’s Rolls flipped at the intersection! It’s nuts out there…” His words evaporated on his lips.

His only child’s hair was wild and practically standing on end, resembling an eerie halo of static. He felt energy currents ripple over his flesh, and a strange pressure seemingly pushing him back. The hallway lights flickered, drawing his attention to the smoking sconce fixture and broken glass.

“Holy…”

“Mark, get back,” his wife begged.

“What the hell’s going on here?”

“Mom just showed me my future,” Lorna intoned, resigned. “Here’s yours,” she offered. One slender hand flew up in front of her in a sweeping arc, as though she were scattering grass seed on the front lawn like she’d done last spring, under extreme duress, when they forced her to help with yard work under threat of grounding.

His wrist watch, belt, snaps on his pants, even the grommets of his shoes tingled and burned against him. Unseen hands seemed to shove him backward.

He toppled like a rag doll over the banister. Lorna’s mother’s scream was guttural and shrill.

Oh my GOD! MARK!” Lorna watched the scene unfold in slow motion as her mother ran for the railing, eyes wide as saucers. Her fingertips grazed his, and the railing groaned beneath the impact of her leaning over it to catch him…

His face was twisted in confusion and shock as he fell backwards, the flaps of his jacket fluttering with his descent. Lorna tore herself from the sudden trance and extended her hand again, this time gathering her knuckles into a ball, clutching the air.

Mark hovered mere inches from the floor for seven scant, agonizing seconds. Cold beads of sweat gathered in every nook of his body, and his breathing was harsh and clipped. His face mirrored his wife’s as her head hung over the railing in disbelief, murmuring defiantly.

“That didn’t just happen…you didn’t just do that…Lorna, why?” She turned away from her husband for one conflicted second to face her daughter. Lorna’s clenched fist was white-knuckled, and she appeared to be straining over some unseen effort that her mother could not fathom. “How?” she pleaded.

“I don’t…know,” she sobbed, her voice finally cracking. She only tore her eyes away from her daughter when she heard the faint thud against the living room floor. Her mother dashed down the stairs and threw herself into her husband’s lap, clutching him to her chest and rocking him after a frantic check to make sure he was in one piece. He breathed in deep gusts into her shoulder, peering up at Lorna where she leaned over the railing with wet eyes. Her face twisted before she ran back into her room.

Most of her possessions littered the floor now. Patches of plaster were torn loose from the walls. What was nearly a pigsty before was now a shambles. Lorna grabbed her black snakeskin purse and a ratty, razor-slashed denim jacket with Eminem screened onto the back of it and climbed out the bedroom window, edging her way along the roof until he reached her usual branch of the huge oak planted in the side yard. She scooched along, climbing her way down in stained, faded Converse high top sneakers until her foot slipped. She fell this time, not bothering to catch herself, no longer as desperate to save herself the pain. She bit her tongue when she landed and felt her teeth clack together.

She literally hit the ground running, heedless of the destruction that marked her quiet neighborhood. Mr. Cleveland’s cast iron lawn flamingoes were hopelessly mangled, their legs twisted into pretzels.

Barbara Dane released her husband reluctantly as she crept back up the stairs. She searched Lorna’s room, looking for any sign of where she could have gone. It was the same hopelessly black room. She wouldn’t bend when she tried to persuade her to outfit the room with a more cheerful color scheme; the bed was dressed in a black acetate spread and blood-red satin sheets. Black tab-top panels covered the windows and were now blowing in the breeze. Horror movie posters leered at her from the back of Lorna’s door as she searched the closet, looking for drug paraphernalia, empty beer bottles. Anything that could explain her behavior and push her to that fever pitch…

She’d always known Lorna was different and just accepted it. She’d feared the day that her adoptive daughter would one day announce that she was leaving to find birth parents, or some clue to her origins before she became a part of their family.

She’d never truly feared losing her before now, with such chilling finality. She only felt numb when Mark bellowed up to her that he was calling the police.

Chapter Text

Ya couldn’t live with yourself, Storm, if ya had this dark, ugly thing living inside ya, eating up yer soul.

So she lied. The betrayal fluttered in her chest. She’d never felt the urge before to be anything but honest with the Wolverine. Ororo had the lion’s share of dark, ugly things consuming her soul with greedy, gnashing teeth. Her hands had been running on autopilot, fingers flying over the keys of Charles’ PC as she typed up the syllabus for Henry’s ethics class. Her skin felt itchy and tight, and the air in the cozy, elegantly appointed office began to stifle her. Her fingers stuttered to a pause on the keys, her pinky leaning on the ‘Z’ and making a messy row of them across the page. She tsked in disgust and hit “Undo.” She bowed her head into her chest and laced her fingers behind her neck to work out a kink.

What would Scott do?

Jubilee and Kitty coined the phrase after watching one too many State of the Union addresses on the news, sprinkling it into any available debate at the breakfast table or Danger Room training sessions as conversations permitted, often to the delight – and gradually, annoyance – of all involved.

He’d already been gone two weeks. Screw calm, she fumed. She wanted to hit something.

How dare he just kiss her like that, and then leave her hanging? The feel of his lips took three days to drift away, the impression of him finally cooling enough that she didn’t feel flushed when she remembered him slamming his mouth down against hers. She wanted to show him she didn’t need him. It was a worthy ambition. Then that blasted feral went and proved her wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Back to the syllabus. She sighed, hit “print,” then saved it to the faculty network drive. She did a quick scan of the folders on the network and noticed that Kitty and Jubilee had been downloading celebrity photos again; at least ten megabytes of space were devoted to Hugh Jackman. She made a mental note to have a frank discussion about misuse of school resources…and archiving personal files on CD. She did, however, right-click on a gorgeous black and white shot and save it as her screensaver.

Her own growing years should have been so carefree. Posters on her walls. Passing notes. Her hardest decision being what shade of lip gloss to use each morning.

Some nights found her up and wandering the halls after “lights out,” her footsteps taking her downstairs to the kitchen. Her slippers had worn a groove in the corridors; photographs of former classmates and lost loved ones seemed to watch her with curious eyes in the dark.

Her routine on these nights seldom varied. One last check of the locks. One last peek at the security cameras. Then came the restless prowling of the cupboards and pantry. She was never particularly hungry.

It was hard not to take inventory of every shelf, every rack, every cabinet, mentally counting how long every bite of food would sustain the children. Phantom pangs burned in her memory. Her hand often brushed her abdomen when she recalled nights of going to bed hungry, when she even had a bed. Her imagination strayed on nights like those, or on a day like this, taking her to an unpleasant place. An unwelcome vision of Kitty, Jubilee, and Marie, clad in rags and dirt, vulnerable, wasted with hunger danced behind her eyes. She brushed it away and shivered, disgusted with herself. It would never come to that. Not while she drew breath.

Ororo leaned back in her chair and twisted her hair into a loose knot, and held it there a moment. Exhaustion nagged her as she skimmed her day planner. Each space was littered thickly with her sharp scrawl.

“How did you manage, Charles?” she muttered aloud. She continued to stare at the pile of paperwork on her desk, willing it to shrink.

It didn’t budge. She toyed with the idea of “letting” a stray bolt of lightning turn it to cinders. Bobby would never let her live it down if he caught her in the middle of a sopping wet study, extinguishing her charred desk with a self-contained rainstorm, particularly not after the incident (now legend) at the welcome barbecue they’d thrown the students last autumn. Logan double dog-dared her to light the grill herself when she nagged him about taking his sweet time, claiming “the coals ain’t ready yet, Princess, quit harpin’ an’get yer sweet ass back inside.” He continued to throw more lighter fluid on the coals in a vague male ritual of stoking it as high as the flames would go, only to let them die down to mere sparks. Repeatedly. Empty beer cans began to accumulate on the deck railings. Logan’s cigar burned down to a stub between his teeth.

Ororo had had it.

Her eyes glowed eerily, a faint breeze kicking up out of nowhere, blowing her hair into a crackling halo of energy.

Tell her to get her sweet ass into the kitchen, would he?

In hindsight, her timing could have been better. She could have reigned in that spark, oh, by just a second more. Not just let it fly as Logan sprayed a sparkling stream of lighter fluid across the graying coals.

To her credit, she’d put out the fire before the whole deck went up. Logan’s eyebrows had grown back nicely, if she did say so herself. He’d merely grunted at her peace offering of a new chambray shirt to replace the one he wore that day. She tried to walk away before the twitch of her lips gave her away.

“Thought John was the resident matchstick ‘round here,” he muttered to her retreating back. She knew he caught the brief, convulsive hunch of her shoulders before she made it out the door. It was hopeless.

Ororo reviewed the stack of emergency contact forms, imposing but surprisingly short for a school of roughly two hundred students. She began entering them into her spreadsheet, mentally nagging herself to give Piotr, Sean and Logan a copy…when and if he came back. Her fingers flew nimbly over the keys in a rhythm that nearly caused her eyes to glaze over with the monotony. To her dismay, the “Person to Notify” column was empty on half of the rows. Newcomers to the school often arrived in the nondescript sedans of social workers or in the back of squad cars. Ororo could count on two hands how many parents she’d been introduced to who escorted their own children to the academy, and still have fingers left.

“You’ll type your fingers off,” a rumbling baritone chided her from the doorway. Ororo’s face lit up with unbridled delight.

“Henry!” She shoved her chair back so forcefully it banged into the rear wall before she flew across the room. Hank released a low “ooph!” as she flung herself into one of his infinitely snuggly, decadently warm hugs. “Mmmmm. Missed you.” He rocked her, chuckling at her usual tendency to “groom” him, feathering her hands through his muttonchops. “It might be better if they did fall off. It might save me from tearing my hair out at the roots.”

“Save that honor for that overpaid stylist of yours. Better yet, leave that glorious mane of yours alone.” He toyed with a lock of shining hair, enjoying the faint scent of lavender in the shampoo she used.

“Silver-tongued devil.”

“That would be Kurt. Mind you, I am blue, but that’s where the similarities end.”

“You’re both sweet,” she corrected him.

“Not as much as I’d like to be today, dear heart,” he sighed, letting his hands slide down her arms to gently clasp her hands. “I have good news and bad news.”

“Good first.” Her voice brooked no waffling. She led him to the chaise and poured him a finger of single malt whiskey. He fortified himself with a sip and rested the glass on his knee.

“I may have finally bypassed the need for a psychic interface with Cerebro.” Ororo’s cup of tea sloshed jerkily as she absorbed the impact of his words.

Hank felt a faint chill in the air despite his thick coat of fur and a well-cut wool suit.

“The Stepfords have come a long way in their training. They’ve developed so much since…”

“You know we can’t risk children. There isn’t safety in numbers. They aren’t expendable, nor are they as skilled as Jean was.”

“Stop it. I never implied that about the girls. You said it,” she accused. “Each of them focuses on a different facet of psychic awareness. Empathy, telepathy, psychometry, precognition, manipulation…”

“…if they were septuplets, it would be like owning the psionic equivalent of the seven-in-one screwdriver,” he quipped. Ororo snorted into her tea.

“You call ME incorrigible.”

“You haven’t disproven it. Or refuted it.” Of course she didn’t.

“Go on, Henry. Brief me.”

“Cerebro was ingeniously designed to operate in synch with a telepathic ‘battery.’ The interface was locked to Charles’ unique psychic signature and brain wave patterns. One can’t even turn the console on without a telepath enabling it, opening their mind to the thoughts of the general populace. That many thoughts in your head at once would be like sifting through mountains of sand to isolate one grain.”

“That was why Stryker kidnapped Charles.”

“And why Jean was able to find Rogue at Liberty Island.”

“The effort nearly killed her.”

“No. I examined her readings shortly after her episode, once Scott filled me in as to her condition when he found her in the chamber. She was merely overwhelmed.”

“No. She nearly drowned.” Ororo stirred her tea with growing restlessness.

“If you like. But she rebounded from being saturated with that level of cacophony by harnessing enough power to level Manhattan. The spikes in her energy levels were uncharted, staggering, and unfortunately, lost.” The scientist in him was already getting carried away. “I was unable to retrieve the data from the infirmary’s monitors, and Charles’ journals of her progress and recovery after Alkali was corrupted, I couldn’t retrieve anything.”

“If we cannot retrieve that data, then neither can anyone else,” she pointed out in a clipped tone.

“Cerebro’s security and the technology that sustains it came at a high cost. We can’t benefit from what we could have learned if we had the needed failsafes in place.”

“The cost was always too high.” Heat flushed Ororo’s cheeks with uneasy tingles, and Hank bristled at the anxiety and grief that rolled off of her, his animal instincts nearly overwhelmed by her change in mood. Too late he realized that he said entirely the wrong thing. He stood and set his half-empty whiskey glass on the settee.

“Don’t you think I miss her too?” She didn’t fight him when he embraced her again, this time in the steady, soothing grip she’d grown to rely on over the years. He was her bulwark when she needed shelter from the storm. “I still don’t sleep at night,” he admitted. Ororo’s sniffle was muffled by his fur and his arms tightened around her before the tears slipped like quicksilver down her cheeks.

“I take no solace in this, Henry.” She clutched at him, shaking and raw. Hank closed his eyes, wishing above and beyond everything that she didn’t feel she had to be strong every moment. Tension knotted her lithe body, embracing him in a show of shared strength instead of sagging into him. Ororo was no everyday damsel in distress. Mentally he chided her to just BEND, damn it…

“I know. Jean would want us to carry on. We can’t rely on those who need us merely coming to us. There will always be those who can’t fight for themselves or live their lives freely without their rights being crushed or compromised. Look at Warren. Logan and Marie found us, God bless them. Charles found you.” Hank felt her nod into his fur. “That was a wondrous day.”

“I don’t want new recruits,” Ororo rasped. “I just want to protect the children.”

“We have to protect them from the Strykers in the world, or whomever would dare to believe that mutants are an abomination, or something to be feared. Hated. Resented. Oh, yes. There will always be someone pointing the finger and calling us a disease. Telling us we need to be cured. Whether it’s a bookish lab jockey like me who sheds every spring, or an angel like you who makes rain fly from her fingertips, darling Ororo, we need to be able to find those who can’t find us.” Ororo knew his wool suit was suffering from her tears. She leaned back and smiled at him apologetically, eyes wet and slightly red. “We’ll be all right.” His palms, large encompassing meat hooks that always surprised her with their gentleness and steadiness when performing finely detailed, precision tasks, cradled her face and daubed away the streaks on her cheeks. He made a sound not unlike a leonine husk of contentment and warmed her forehead with his kiss. “You didn’t let me finish my good news.”

“Oh, goodie.” He handed her back her tea before striding back to the doorway to retrieve his satchel.

“We have assistance from an exciting source to get Cerebro up and running, as well as possible upgrades and portable modules.”

“Really?” Now she felt a faint frisson of excitement.

“Really.” He paused for emphasis. “He’s a mutant.” Her eyes widened and her lips dropped open. “Silly girl. You look like a guppy when you do that.” She shut her mouth only to stick her tongue out at him instead. Hank smirked.

“Where – and how – did we find this mutant paragon of technology?”

We didn’t. The Pentagon did. More accurately, the Department of Defense. I’m not the only mutant who enjoys the privilege of an audience with President Cockrum when national security demands it.”

“Who is he?”

“Inquiring minds want to know,” he quipped. “He maintains aliases and has passports in twelve different countries. He talks like a Texan,” he grinned. “He goes by Forge.”

“Uh-huh.” She quirked a snowy brow.

“He has all of the credentials that look good on paper. Humble upbringing, Ivy League education, ethnic minority –“

“Where are his people from?”

“Wyoming. He’s Cheyenne. Orphaned, not unlike yourself,” he continued thoughtfully before listing the rest of his so-called ‘credentials.’ Ororo’s face settled into thoughtful lines, slowly growing more intrigued. “Unmarried, and no siblings or known relatives to trace or compromise his position and mobility. He’s also a veteran. Forge was honorably discharged from the United States Army when he was injured in a shell blast. Stepped on a landmine.”

“Bright Lady.” She made a small moue of pity.

“Didn’t stop him for a minute,” Hank chuckled. “He designed his prosthetics himself. What’s more, they’re bionic. How many people do you know who can rebuild themselves, literally, to be stronger than they were before?” Hank gulped the last of his whiskey. She pondered that and sighed.

“When can we expect this paragon of mutantcy and technology?”

“He’ll be upon us within twenty-four hours.” She choked on her tea this time.

“Thank you kindly, Henry, for giving me so much time to prepare!”

“He’s been briefed. He knows that you have assumed Charles’ position as headmaster, and he’s been told what he needed to know in regard to both Jean and Charles’ involvement in the senate hearings regarding the Mutant Registration Act prior to Robert Kelly’s unfortunate demise.” Ororo shuddered at the memory of his final moments, the grimace of pain and shock twisting his features until his entire body lost cohesion and ebbed away before her eyes in a tide of plasm. ”And it was on a ‘need to know’ basis, of course.”

“Of course,” she retorted dryly. The glance they shared inferred that pertinent details about the X-Men’s more covert activities had not been divulged…yet.

Ororo and Hank reviewed the new syllabus for his ethics class, deciding that the Mutant Registration Act was a worthy project for the seniors for the following semester. While Hank helped himself to some tea, Ororo settled herself more comfortably in Charles’ old chair.

“Now… about that bad news.”

“I was hoping you’d forget about that.”

“Pity. Lay it on me, Henry.”

“There have been reports that the Cure isn’t as permanent as Worthington Labs previously believed.” Ororo’s stomach dropped into her shoes.

“What?” Ororo hissed and whimpered a moment as she dropped her cup of fresh tea on the floor, the steaming liquid and shards of porcelain pelting her ankles. Hank cursed under his breath and leapt up to fetch a tea towel.

“The Worthington clinics were close down in the wake of the Cure being pulled from the market to protect the neighboring citizens and public. A few of the sites have since been vandalized. The largest facility in District X – “

“District What?” Ororo’s brows shot up.

“X. Yes, like the gene. That’s what the media labeled it. Local law enforcement has been forced to take more drastic measures to handle the problems they’ve had with squatters and trespassers attempting to us the clinics and the block it’s situated on as a refuge.” Hank handed Ororo a leather-bound folio and extracted a gleaming CD case, tucking it carefully into Ororo’s tower, selecting the file. “New screensaver?” he inquired.

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Hm.” Hank’s lips curled before he returned to the matter at hand. “Everyone in the Pentagon’s fond of PowerPoint presentations.”

“They like to look at the pictures. And there’s fewer hard words that way.” Ororo hovered over Hank’s shoulder and scanned the graphs onscreen. “What am I looking at?”

“The estimated figures of mutants who were treated at the Worthington clinics.”

“That’s a violation of confidentiality laws.”

“Hold on, I’ve got something in my ear…” Hank drilled his furry pinky into the canal and mimed being hard of hearing.

“Scamp.”

“Washington’s full of scamps.” Hank clicked through the slides as he spoke. “The Mutant Registration Act was never swept off the table, Ororo. It’s merely been rewritten to include newly depowered mutants.”

“That’s an outrage.”

“Senator Kelly once tried to sway the nation into thinking we were weapons, not human. The usual laws don’t apply.” Hank’s fur bristled, even though his voice was calm. “Our powers subject us to a lot of unwanted attention and invasions of privacy. We’re under scrutiny now, more than before since Alcatraz. That Cure equaled fewer mutants, no matter how benign their traits and abilities. The world at large is calling for the eradication of our kind. That Cure brought them one step closer to that goal.” Hank paused on the next screen. “There are the figures from the clinics during the first two weeks of opening their doors. The column in green shows the number of successful cases – “

“Successful?” Ororo’s eyes sparked, and Hank felt his hackles rise.

“Let me finish. The treatment was proven effective in ninety-four point four percent of those participating in the initial trials.”

“Trials?” Thunder rolled low and ominous overhead, and Hank’s nostrils twitched with the scent of ozone. Ororo’s tone was rife with indignant rage. He let the other shoe drop.

“The formula for the Cure had not been labeled for use yet by the FDA.”

“Yet Warren Sr. would use his own son…that bright, beautiful boy with a unique gift as a guinea pig. For something untried.

“He thought he was helping him. Misguided notion, granted, but Ororo, the boy was confined to his home. They didn’t realize they were only providing the boy with a gilded cage.”

“A cage of any kind is a fate worse than death,” she snapped, “gilded or not.” Her heart went out to Warren, whom she’d adopted into the fold of her surrogate “little brothers” that included Piotr, Kurt and Bobby.

“To one with your gift, Ororo, anything below the clouds qualifies as a cage.” Hank tapped the folio in Ororo’s lap. “Read the report. A lot of what’s in there falls in line with Forge’s theory, and with mine.”

“What are your theories?”

“That the Cure was meant to target the impulses in the human brain linked to mutant abilities. I could liken it to tying a left-handed person’s hand to their side to force them to use their right instead. You’re forced to adapt, except this time, it’s your neural cells being manipulated to behave differently.” Ororo leafed through the sheets and scanned through gene sequences and molecular diagrams.

“What does Forge think?”

“That mutant genes can relearn what was stripped away. That the gene sequences are still existent and still active. Forge means to give them a refresher course. Some mutants may fare well enough without it, however.” Ororo’s hands stilled, the rattling of the pages drifting into silence. At her expectant look, Hank continued. “The equipment still works. We’re still working on the ‘on’ switch.”

The possibilities were mind-boggling. Ororo exhaled through her nose and steepled her fingers over its bridge.

“Now, the reports. Westchester County General treated six locals over the past month whose mutant abilities resurfaced.” Hank showed Ororo a scan of a phoeo and medical file redundantly stamped “CONFIDENTIAL.” She ran her fingertips over its glossy surface. A young man drifted ominously in a containment tank roughly four by seven feet. His face twisted with pain, his skin covered with welts and sores. Ororo noticed his neck and cheeks featured long, angular creases that were splayed open and pulsing pink.

Gills.

Leads and tubes decorated his body, clad only in briefs and an undershirt. Her heart thudded with dread and ached with sympathy for the agony of another living being.

“He’s amphibious. His mutation was like Kitten’s; it was never truly dormant. He remained able to breathe in our atmosphere, on land for brief periods, through an act of will. He previously utilized a breathing device that synthesized the oxygen to be more saturated. He also needed a special lightweight suit to avoid becoming dehydrated. Those sores are heat blisters. The lad was hiking in the hills when his mutation re-activated.”

“We don’t know the catalyst?”

“No. All we can surmise is that his mutation was dormant, but also dominant.” Hank smoothed his palms over the legs of his trousers, grooming the knife-sharp pleats. “I wasn’t always the walking shampoo advertisement you see before you, dear heart. My mutation is still “passive.” My fancy parlor tricks include agility, strength, and performing a decent tango. With these feet, no one can knock me over.” Ororo grinned. Hank was the only person Ororo had ever met who wore a size sixteen shoe. “In a sense, I ‘am’ my power.”

“And me, Henry?”

“You are linked to the earth’s atmosphere, perhaps even a living, breathing extension of it. But you wield your gift. Your power has an off-switch. If you lost your powers, you would not die.”

“Liar,” she argued. “So much of who I am is expressed by my power, Henry. When I had nothing else – no one else – I had that. I had the wind. I had the rain. I had the entire sky to myself.”

“Not anymore. Share your toys, young lady.”

“Warren and I have an evasive maneuvering lesson tomorrow.”

“And, Ororo…you have us.” Hank relieved her of the folio, setting it on the plush sofa cushion and enveloping her hand in his.

“I know.”

“You always will.”

“Don’t make me promises, Henry.” She leaned over and kissed him warmly. “When do you meet with Forge next?”

“Tomorrow.” He rose and straightened up effortlessly with the grace and strength afforded by leonine, sinuous muscles.

“Are you meeting him in Texas?”

“Dallas. And no. He’s coming here.”

“Henry! Have you taken leave of your senses? You’d bring him to our doorstep?”

“Would you prefer having communications with him traced over the phone wires or cyberspace? Dealing with secret service? This is the best way.”

“Care to blindfold him on the way over?” she offered.

“Silly goose. He has GPS built into his prosthetic hand.”

“Rats.”

“He knows discretion. He won't leave this school with knowledge he shouldn’t have.”

“It’s what he brings to the table that scares me.”

“We won’t let this fall into the wrong hands.”

“We said that the last time, Henry.” Oror looped her hand through the crook of his burly arm and led him to the kitchen.

 

Elsewhere:

“Wanna soda? Or maybe a beer?”

“Eh. Whatever, I guess.” The offer was greeted with an indifferent shrug.

“’Kay. Don’t…don’t move, all right? Be right back.” Lorna watched his retreating back, garbed in safe, fashionable Jnco jeans with a flaming skull grinning from the hip pocket.

Doug was such a tool sometimes. Nice, but still…what a poser. At least he had a nice pad. Didn’t hurt that his folks were loaded. Doug scooted his way through the crowd of their classmates. Some punk. Some prep. Mostly posers. Lorna picked at her fingernails. He moved in the unassuming, aw-gee-shucks way of someone who hated disappointing people, flattening himself as he made his way to the refrigerator.

Doug was clean-cut, despite the trappings of boarder-punk chic. His honey-blond hair was floppy and brushed his shirt collar. He wore the same distressed cotton two-in-one tee shirts with “false sleeves” except that his came from Aeropostale or Buckle instead of Hot Topic or the bondage shop owned by that hippie couple downtown in the garment district. His pants slouched over battered Converse sneakers. His fingers were adored with tarnished silver rings, including a claddagh ring that Lorna actually liked. Not like she’d admit it, though…

He came back, two sodas in hand. Lorna smirked at his choice of Mountain Dew for himself even as she uncapped her Pepsi. She licked a bead of soda from her lips, glossed in lipstick so blood-red it was practically black. Doug’s eyes flitted over her mouth at the gesture and he shot her a funny, sheepish little grin. Okay. He was cute. For a tool.

“Didn’t wanna go any further than that little thing in your ear?” Lorna flicked the silver hoop adorning the crest of his ear.

“I can’t walk around with an extra hold in my face. My mom’d kill me.”

“Pfft.” Lorna shrank guiltily back into her seat on the sofa, rolling her eyes to her lap. She picked at her tattered shirt. Her mother’s eyes haunted her. She distractedly scratched her brow, carefully avoiding disturbing the silver hoop nestled there.

“So…was that you I saw coming out of metal shop?”

“So what if it was?”

“Nothing. Just asking.” He took a drag of soda and dangled the bottle between his knees. His legs were spread wide and slack. His thigh bumped against hers. Lorna peered at him though lowered lashes. She looked away every time his swung her way. They volleyed the look back and forth for another minute. Doug gave her the crooked grin that Ali claimed was enough to make her faint. Yup…there it went. The cute little eye crinkle. The dimple. The left corner of his lips twitching up first…her stomach fluttered. Damn it.

“Quit it,” she mumbled.

“What?”

“Quit doing that.”

“What?” he repeated, giving her the age-old “shoulder flirt” bump. He felt warm, even through her jacket. She huddled into it more deeply.

That.” He shrugged. “You know what.”

“The music blared from the expensive speakers; home-burned CDs littered the side table that had been meticulous an hour ago. Soda bottles, empty beer cans and ominous, red plastic cups accumulated on the counters of the wet bar in the basement rec room. Girls hunched between their friends’ knees, braiding each other’s hair. Lorna smelled something pungent that reminded her of her aunt’s wood-burning stove, maybe even like rice when you burned it onto the bottom of the saucepan.

“Shit,” Doug hissed.

“What?” Lorna inquired, sitting up and tucking her hands into the overly long sleeves of her jacket.

“Shit,” he repeated by way of explanation. “Someone lit some upstairs. Smell that?”

“That weird little smell?”

“It’s pot. It better not be in my parents’ room. Jono promised me he wouldn’t bring it here. Back in a sec,” he promised. His hand flicked out to stroke her knee, urging her to stay. He looked back at her as he climbed the steps before his face disappeared from view. He caught her staring back.

Damn it.

“I’m such a dork,” she hissed out. She helped herself to a handful of tortilla chips.

“Whatcha doin’, Raggedy Ann?” Monet sidled up to the chips. Lorna groaned to herself, raising her brows until they disappeared into her overgrown bangs.

“Hangin’ out.”

“So, like, when’re you gonna figure it out and make up your mind, Lorna?”

“Figure out what, Monet?” Like she gave a damn.

“Whether your natural color’s puke green or shit black. It’s nasty,” she sneered, wrinkling her patrician nose. She looked proud of herself. Her Bebe tee glittered with rhinestones, and her own chestnut brown hair gleamed with hair gel.

“I got inspired one day when I saw your mom on the front porch, munching a booger. It was a big one.” Lorna feigned admiration over the spectacle.

The roots of Lorna’s hair lay defiantly exposed and unrepentantly green. She hadn’t had a touch-up for a few weeks. Her mother nearly grounded her when she shunned the sedate, sable brown hair color she picked out and came back with blue-black. In contrast, Lorna’s skin was enviably clear and fair, not a freckle or blemish in sight. Beneath the thick layer of smudged kohl, her eyes were a clear sapphire blue, almond-shaped, deep-set, and fringed with long lashes beneath arched brows. The shrewd intelligence that twinkled out from their depths, Monet decided, seemed to be mocking her now.

“Bitch.” Monet bumped her way between Lorna and the nachos, intentionally knocking her soda off the table. It fizzed over the carpet, wetting her Doc Marten boots. Lorna’s cry of outrage was strangled and promised retribution. “I don’t know what you’re even doing here, Lorna. Everyone hates you, you’re such a loser.”

“Yeah. That’s why Doug invited me.” Which wasn’t entirely true. She’d finally slowed down from running the past six blocked and turning up the next street. Doug saw her scuffing along while he was talking to his friends in the front yard and called out, “LORNA! Dude, c’mon in, take a load off. We’re gonna have a band in a few!”

She had nothing better to do, and nowhere to go. She hadn’t thought any further than that.

“Says a lot for him. Doesn’t mean shit for you. Guess he believes in being kind to strays.”

“Yeah. Doug just went upstairs. Might wanna ask him to fetch you some nice Purina Cat Chow. Nachos might go to your hips?” She flicked her eyes, pretending to crane her neck around to Monet’s butt.

“God, I hate you,” Monet flounced off.

“Awww…” Lorna whined. “Don’t go!” Monet flipped her the bird. “Buh-bye,” she shot back, with a little Princess Diana wave for good measure.

Lorna was up rooting through Doug’s CDs, pondering that his taste in music wasn’t what she expected. She felt a warm presence at her back and a familiar baritone by her ear.

“See anything good?” She felt a funny quiver that sent hot tingles into her cheeks.

“Um…yeah, I guess. Kinda.”

“Pick one,” he offered, taking the stack of discs from her hand and spearding them out. His fingertips grazed hers. More tingles. He smelled like Speed Stick and Tide. She pointed to one at random. “Girl after my own heart,” he encouraged. He popped it into the disc carousel and hit play. Creed’s guitar riffs set the mood and evoked grunts of approval from those assembled. They were an okay band, she considered…

…and this song might become her favorite now. She barely heard the lyrics as Doug continued staring at her, taking her in bit by bit.

A sudden stampede of footsteps thudded overhead. “Now what?” Doug huffed.

“Doug, DUDE!” Cops are here,” Roberto piped up as casually as if it were the pizza man at the front door.

Nonononono… Lorna smothered a small moan.

It was just a noise complaint. That was it. Nothing more.

“Gotta go.” Doug shot her a wishful look, blue eyes thoughtful as he tugged a lock of her hair, which felt soft in his grip. “Stay!” he commanded.

“Arf, arf!” she joked, crossing her eyes. He emitted a crack of sputtering laughter. Lorna looked for placed to hide. Her heartbeat skipped, and the music and chatter swam around her, as though she were standing in a tunnel.

“Told you she’d scare him away,” Money drawled, nodding to Paige Guthrie. Her shirt was the baby blue twin to Monet’s, paired with low-rise jeans and a purse party Prada knockoff.

“Skank,” Paige agreed.

“Scary skank,” she emphasized back.

“You really that scared?” Lorna challenged.

“Paige tsked, sneering. “Duh. >i>No. Just that I might catch something from you if I get to close.”

“Only below the waist. Don’t think we have to worry about that, since I don’t swing that way…”

“ohmiGOD! SKANK!”

“You think you’re tough shit.”

“You think your shit doesn’t stink.”

Monet tsked in disgust. “That was original.”

“You’d know,” Lorna sang. Monet rolled her neck, eyes snapping, before her French manicured nails, sparklng with pink glitter raked through Lorna’s hair in a gesture that hinted at a slap.

“Back off!” she hissed.

“Make me,” Monet huffed. Her black eyes suddenly widened. “What’s up with your hair?”

“Shit,” Paige breathed.

It was standing on end. It was happening again. Lorna nearly forgot about her surroundings, not wanting to dig Doug any deeper with his parents, but she knew in the back of her mind that things were too far gone.

The speakers squawked and the digital display of the stereo flickered. Stunned gasps erupted as beer cans, key rings and cigarette lighters danced through the air. Whatches and belt buckled whipped through the air, tripping up Paige’s brother Jay when his baggy jeans went sliding down to his ankles in his effort to tuck tail and run.

All eyes were riveted on Lorna.

“I knew you were a freak!” Monet shoved her. Lorna extended her hand and shoved back, sending Monet, hurtling into the opposite wall…

…where she made a dent. The rest of the partygoers didn’t know whether to be shocked that Lorna hadn’t laid a finger on Monet, or that Monet merely stood up without missing a beat, not so much as a scratch on her. Paige’s eyes landed accusingly on her friend.

“You SO didn’t do that!”

“I didn’t do anything,” Monet argued. “SHE did!”

“Guys, bad news; the neighbors complained, if we don’t turn down the …what happened?” His glance was quizzical, perturbed to find his friends in varying states of panic. “What - ?”

“LOOK OUT!” The beer cans weren’t drifting in mid-air anymore. They were finding random targets.

“DOUG!” Lorna cried, finally noticing him, hating the look of horrified disbelief widening his eyes. Her concentration broke; she felt an odd surge of connectedness with every molecule of metal in the room. Eerily, it went deeper than that. She heard the iron and other minerals rushing through the bloodstream of everyone there. Smelled those elements in their sweat. Various bits of metal in her own clothing warmed and buzzed against her flesh, tingling. She throbbed with power.

Her hands whipped out convulsively, and seconds too late to summon back the stereo speaker that was ripped loose from the wall, hurtling straight for Doug. It struck him in the sternum, knocking the wind from him. He staggered back, crashing into Jono, who supported him and glared back at her balefully.

“What’s your fucking deal, Dane?” That came from Jono; Doug merely looked stunned, and strangely sympathetic.

“I…I don’t know.” Every person in the room had already back up against the wall reflexively, burrowing under furniture and shelves. “I’m sorry,” she choked, darting up the stairs. She burst from the house, heading out the back door in the hopes that the police wouldn’t still be there or recognize her.

It just kept on getting worse. Night fell; the cold air bit at her cheeks, and the twinkling stars appeared to mock her.

~*~

 

“Closure.” Her gaze held no disgust, only resignation tinged with sadness. “If all you focus on is what they took away, you’ll never know what you could gain from reaching out for what’s offered to you now.”

Ororo’s words lingered in his memory, like the aftertaste of a mellow lump of caramel. She was right. He knew she was right. But here he was, alone and kicking himself.

Reaching Canada by motorcycle was a whole different story from cruising in the Blackbird. Logan preferred the thrum of the machine beneath him, wind rushing over him and tearing through his hair over the left-my-lunch-behind-when-we-lifted-off feeling of the jet’s oppressive, streamlined cabin.

The proud pines and firs swayed with the nighttime breeze, seducing him onward, even as those unnamed, buried memories warned him to turn back the way he came. He smelled a hint of pending snowfall the higher he climbed into the hills. He still remembered Jim’s final words to him before he left.

“Department H has spent a lot of time and money on you, Logan. I took a risk vouching for your sorry hide. You wanna walk away, don’t expect me to hand you that trust so easily next time, bub.” So he already had fences to mend.

He’d do whatever he had to do.

Chapter Text

We’re not mind-readers. We can’t get into your head. You need to talk to us if you want us to get along like a family.

Lorna’s mother’s words echoed in her troubled thoughts as she hunched against the cramped cell’s concrete wall. The prison cot was hard beneath her, the sheets scratchy and coarse, smelling of some industrial, institutional laundry soap. She hadn’t stopped trembling ever since they brought her by patrol car to the 77th Precinct station across the street from the towering Stark Industries building. Her eyeliner and mascara were a lost cause, her tears creating muddy slashes down her cheeks. The other three occupants of the cell wore hard expressions, but kept their distance when they heard the guards muttering the words “mutant” and “convenience store bust” as they brought her in.

She used her one phone call at home. Her parents wouldn’t answer. She couldn’t blame them, but despair overwhelmed her and forced her further into her cocoon. She plowed her hands through her tousled, sweat-soaked hair as she ran through the night’s events, reviewing them as through she were watching them unfold on a choppy projector screen…

Three hours ago:

 

The selection of groceries was dismal, even by the standards of a sixteen-year-old girl who only had five dollars in her pocket that had to last until she found a place to stay. Doug’s was out of the question, that much she knew.

She was just so tired of running.

Her fingers ached from the climb up the tree in Ali’s back yard, where she’d thrown pebbles against her window in an attempt to take cover. The look on her face would have been funny if she hadn’t promptly thrown open the window and rasped, “Lorna, you retard! You practically scared me shitless!”

“Al, you’ve gotta let me in! I need a place to stay tonight,” she choked, her blue eyes pleading.

“You’re out past curfew,” Ali reminded her. “Your mom’s gonna go ape-shit.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore. I can’t go home!” Her face crumpled, and the tree branches rattled as Lorna clung to the thick cane supporting her weight. The bark rasped against the bits of her leg exposed by her ratty skirt and tights. “I…I did something stupid, Al, I couldn’t help it! I pushed my dad over the stair rails!”

“Oh…oh, Lorna, please tell me you didn’t do anything that fucked up,” Ali moaned, clapping her hand over her mouth, also painted in a slash of black lipstick. She hadn’t changed into her pajamas yet, so she was still clad in the same black Evanescence tee shirt she wore to school over faded denim shorts and black and white striped Raggedy Ann tights. Like Lorna, she enjoyed an addiction to hair dye, and her own locks were short, framing her face in a shaggy blunt cut on most days, but today it was gelled into a stiff “fauxhawk,” each black spike tipped in magenta pink tint. “What happened?” Her tone softened, and she was already opening the window more widely, reaching out to help Lorna climb inside. “You’re a mess!”

“I know,” she hiccupped, rubbing her arms.

“And you’re cold,” Ali crooned. “Poor thing! Don’t be too loud, my mom told me she expects lights out in another fifteen minutes. Told her I had homework,” Ali smirked, nudging Lorna onto the bed. Her room was at odds with her usual style. Unlike Lorna’s, Ali allowed her mother to hold sway, outfitting every surface with accessories and linens straight from a Pottery Barn catalog. The whole room was a blend of cream, pale pink and ecru. The curtains were tied back with little cast iron rings shaped like stars. Ali’s favorite teddy bear held the place of honor on her dresser, and her posters were even framed, hanging neatly alongside art prints by MC Escher and Ansel Adams.

“Mom told me she’s sending me away,” Lorna hiccupped again, smoothing back a lock of hair from her mouth. “They don’t want me anymore! I HATE them!”

“Why did they want to send you away?”

“They’ve been wanting to for a while. They gave me that stupid speech about how I’m not ‘communicating’ with them,” she mimicked, doing a surprisingly convincing impression of her mother’s best lecture voice.

“Man, I hate that speech,” Ali agreed. She sat beside Lorna on the bedspread and hugged her, leaning her head against her shoulder in sympathy. Ali was petite, but there was more strength in her small and wiry frame than met the eye. She felt solid to Lorna in that moment, like an anchor. “What’re you gonna do?”

“They were gonna send me to some lame private school. One of those scared straight, rehabby-type programs.” Her lip quivered.

“I’d still be able to email you, right?”

“I don’t know,” she wailed, her tears falling again. “They’ll wanna put me in jail now! I almost killed my dad! I didn’t mean it, Lorna…I didn’t…mean it,” she moaned, falling forward and catching her face in her palms, repeating the words in a litany of despair.

“Did you two argue?”

“N-no. Me and m-my mom. My dad just came home, and…and I couldn’t help it. He was coming up the stairs. I threw him.”

“What? What do you mean, ‘threw’ him?”

“I just stretched out my hand…and he went flying! It was horrible, Al! And…the freakiest part was that I could feel different parts of him pulsing, letting me grab hold…”

“Like the last time, at school?”

“Like what happened at school,” she repeated. Ali had been the only person that noticed that Lorna was sitting there in chemistry class, mindless of the iron filings that the teacher doled out onto their lab tray slowly marching up her arm when she was zoning out, listening to her iPod under the guise of taking notes.

Lorna…Lorna! she hissed. Look! DUDE! As soon as she saw what was happening, she shook off the filings as though they had burned her, smothering a shriek. Monet craned her neck around from the table in front of her and sneered, noticing the spilled filings and Ali looking sheepish.

“I don’t know how I’m doing it, Al,” Lorna muttered, “but something’s happening to me. I can feel things…it’s like they’re pulling at me, and…it’s gonna sound retarded, but it’s like I’m this…walking magnet.”

“Wow,” Ali whistled. “Freaky…” Then the thought occurred to her. “Speaking of freaky, check this out.” Her elfin face lit up briefly as she pointed at her tiny boom box, which pumped out faint strains of Coldplay’s “Yellow.”

“Yer gonna love this…” With that, she closed her fist in an elegant gesture, as though capturing an invisible fly. The music suddenly grew fainter, diminishing in volume.

It was as though Ali were sucking the sound from the stereo. Lorna’s eyes widened, watching Ali speechlessly as her hair seemed to dance on the faint air currents, even though the window was now closed.

Her skin began to glow.

“Holy crap,” Lorna whispered. “Ali…that’s…whoa.”

“Ain’t it cool?” she drawled. She looked like a child with a new toy.

“It’s…beautiful.” Sparks of light danced around Ali like glimmering fireflies, almost like rainbow prisms thrown by a disco ball. She opened her hand, releasing the captive sound, and the stereo squawked back to its original volume. The glow dissipated, taking the sparks with it. “You never said anything.”

“You never asked.”

“I don’t walk around asking my friends at random if they’re mutants, Al.”

“Whaddever…” She waved it away dismissively. Then she turned serious. “Still love me?” Lorna nodded.

“Like I could ever stop.” Lorna sniffled. “Help me, Al.”

“I don’t have the first idea of how,” she admitted. “Worst case scenario, you could go home.”

“My folks already called the cops.”

“It might have been to bring you back. They’ve gotta be worried.”

“I can’t go home,” she whimpered. “Please, Al!”

“I don’t even have any money to give you,” she muttered, but she was already rummaging through her jewelry box. “Got a fiver left over from the lunch money I was saving to get that new CD I had my eye on at FYE,” she offered, pressing it into Lorna’s hand. “Ain’t much.”

“More than I’ve got.”

“Then take this, too.” She retrieved another small item and circled Lorna slowly, letting a small chain dangle against her collarbone as she fastened it behind her neck.

“Oh…Ali, I can’t take this!” It was a small gold St Christopher medal.

“Got it for my confirmation gift. Maybe it’ll protect you. If you stay here, I’m gonna hafta explain to my mom why I let you. Think about going back home. If you don’t, find a way to call me.”

“Thanks.” Lorna’s voice was hollow as she headed back toward the window.

“Wish you’d consider it.”

“Can’t.” She flung open the window and shouldered her way through it, leaping back out onto the branch.

“Bye, babe.”

“Bye.” Her voice was carried off on the breeze as she made her way back down to the ground, and she blew Ali a kiss once her feet touched the grass. Upstairs, Ali wrung her hands, praying the future didn’t hold anything more frightening than Lorna had already endured.

Her prayers might as well have been in vain.

Call it a case of the wrong place at the wrong time. Lorna felt her stomach growling as she ducked into a convenience store, regretting that she hadn’t had dinner at home or anything more than a handful of chips and a sip of soda at Doug’s. His astonished face still haunted her. She riffled through a rack of snack foods, contemplating a package of Twinkies and a bin of Slim Jims. She wondered how many of either she would need to get full…

“Everybody DOWN ON THE GROUND! NOW!” Her heart thundered to a creaking halt in her chest. The first speaker had a sawed-off shotgun leveled at the head of the cashier, still young enough to have acne. He screwed up his features, whether in an effort to keep from crying or peeing his pants Lorna couldn’t tell. His partner came in behind him, his shaggy blond hair poorly concealed by the ski mask over his face; scraggly dreadlocks dripped down the back of his neck in stark contrast to the black sweatshirt he wore.

“Empty the register…”

“Please…”

“I said EMPTY IT, ASSWIPE! Do I LOOK like I wanna dance? C’mon, let’s dance!” He cocked the gun and aimed it sky-high, blasting a hole in the popcorn ceiling. Plaster bits showered all three of them. Lorna cringed, wondering when she had the foresight to hit the floor face-first, practically hugging the grey linoleum tile. Her empty stomach was forgotten; she wished she didn’t feel like pitching up its meager contents. She heard the harsh ding of the cash register and the clerk hitting the no sale button, jerking it open and being roughly shoved aside as Blondie leapt over the counter and helped himself to the take. “I didn’t say I wanted fries with that, dumb ass! This ain’t fuckin’ McDonalds, now MOVE!”

“C’mon, c’monnnnnnn…” urged the taller of the two, hesitating a moment before he decided to double back to the refrigerators in the back. He yanked out two twelve packs of beer, performing a last-minute check of the store.

Please don’t come over here. Oh, God, please, don’t let them notice me-

“What’s goin’ on, baby doll?” drawled a voice that sounded no older than her own. He nudged her with the cold, hard barrel of his Glock, and she suppressed a tiny moan into her sleeves. She avoided looking at him, cringing away when he bent down to get a better view himself.

“Damn, baby, easy on the war paint! Got ourselves a little Joan Jett!” he crowed. “She’s before yer time, honey bunch!”

“That was my mom’s lame ass music,” the other man grunted. “Let’s get the fuck outta here!”

“She’s coming with us. Gonna have a party, babe!”

“Nononono, p-please, you don’t want to do this, youdon’twanttodothisyoudon’t…”

“UP! NOW!” he thundered, jerking her hastily to her feet. His eyes were mean slits beneath his hood. “Bet yer tasty, baby. Owwwwww!” he leered, as though he were hooting from the window of a passing car at a sweet piece standing on the corner.

She felt her heart stammer and skip as her feet stumbled along after him, trying to drag themselves in some semblance of purchase on the tiles. Her eyes flew over to the clerk, who was cringing behind the counter, his hands wrapped tightly over his ears.

“Help me,” she whimpered, barely audible.

Her last sight was of his slender, pale hand reaching up to press the panic button.

Too late. Too late. Too late… Her lips couldn’t form words, and she bit them shut, too terrified to scream. The Glock pressed itself into her ribs, bruising her through the thin denim of her jacket. She was hauled into a dilapidated Dodge Dart so old that the paint was worn down to primer, and the driver side door was rusted a mottled burgundy-brown. She was dragged by the hair and savagely kicked into the back seat.

She knew it was the last anyone would see of her if they started the ignition.

The doors slammed, and she considered her options. She could scream. She could attempt to blind them, hit the driver with something before they could aim their guns at her, attempt to make them swerve off the road…

They gunned the gas before she formed a coherent thought.

“Nice,” Blondie remarked, shrugging off the ski mask and letting the twelve packs slide to the floor.

“I gotta piss.”

“Shoulda done that first,” he countered, laughing like they’d just gotten away with TP’ing a tree in their neighbor’s yard. He leaned over the seat and leered at Lorna, who was still shivering and huddling in the back, flattening herself against the grimy, peeling vinyl seat.

Before he could say anything else, Lorna saw the flash of red and blue lights behind them, illuminating the cracked windshield.

“SHIT!”

“GO!” He gunned the motor, flinging Lorna even further against the seat, where she clawed for purchase, never considering the seatbelts. She didn’t want to stay in the car one minute more, even if it meant being flung free. Anything was better than whatever they had planned…

“LET ME GO!” she screamed, her vocal cords tearing with the effort! “LET ME GOOOOOO! NOOOOOOO!” She beat her fists against the driver’s seat, and found herself shoved back and the gun pointed at her face, but this time, Blondie’s nostrils were flaring, and she could see the whites of his eyes gleaming in the dark.

“If they catch us, I’ve got nothing to lose, bitch!” he spat.

Lorna had nothing to gain…

“Let me go,” she rasped, her voice and eyes hollow, and before his eyes, her hand stood up on end, the spirals of colored strobe from the police beacons casting an otherworldly glow over the greenish mop of waves. She covered Ali’s medal with her hand, gripping it protectively, like a talisman.

The car had been careening and swerving through the building traffic as they reached the off-ramp toward God knew where. Green highway signs loomed up ahead, and Lorna concentrated, holding her breath as she reached out for the first concentrated mass of heavy metal atoms she could touch, projecting from the center of her being…

The car. The car lurched, the tired bouncing and warping in the wheel wells as its driver cursed roughly, spittle flying from his lips.

“What the fuck?”

“I said let me GO,” Lorna intoned, fisting her hands at her sides, every muscle in her body locked.

When the policemen filed their report the next day, their lieutenant’s notes would reflect that the doors flew off as though someone ripped them from the frame and flung them off like the backing from a label, sending them skittering across the road into the path of oncoming cars.

It was a pile-up the likes of which Westchester had never seen. To Lorna, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. The doors slid beneath the wheel of an oncoming Toyota pick-up truck and sent it cartwheeling through the air. Frosty wind blew freely through the car, buffeting the carriage and occupants, battering them nearly senseless. The car began to skid, and Lorna’s captor attempted to correct the spin, flooring the brake…

The car rolled…over and over it tumbled across the concrete, finally stopping its fearsome flight when it crashed through the iron-gated window of a neighboring pawn shop.

Glass and crunching metal. Those were the final sounds that Lorna heard before she mercifully blacked out, aside from the screams…

She awoke to a bright light shining into her eyes, gentle fingers probing her, making her wince as they grazed a particularly nasty cut over her brow.

“Can you speak, kiddo? Can you tell me your name?”

“Please…” She hardly recognized her own voice. That timid, breathy sound didn’t issue from her throat.

“Talk to us, kiddo. We’ve got an ambulance on the way…”

“No. You can’t.”

“The heck we can’t,” he huffed, scratching his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “You’re no older than my daughter if you’re a day.”

“I don’t need it,” she insisted. She struggled, leaning up onto her elbows as if to demonstrate, even through every movement felt as though she were being squeezed in an iron vise. Her feet crunched against shattered glass.

“She’s in shock,” another officer muttered. “Stay where you are. We can’t move you until they get here…”

“I don’t need it!” she sobbed, glaring up at him and slapping away the hands that tried to hold her down. “Leave me alone! Don’t TOUCH ME!”

“There’s no way she should even be conscious after a wreck like that,” murmured a voice behind her. Lorna couldn’t absorb the impact of his words. She needed to get out of there.

“You’re not taking me anywhere,” she insisted. She felt it again. Pulling at her. She became aware of every bit of metal within a thirty-foot radius. Rings. Watches. A steel guitar hanging on the moldy particle board wall. The twisted bars flayed back from the ruined display window.

Pens. Spiral-bound notepads. Badges. Belt buckles. Gold fillings. Screws holding stems onto wire-rimmed spectacles.

Pistols…

“What the hell’s happening to her ha-“ The first officer’s voice was cut off as she cast out her hand, flinging him backward, plummeting back into a glass display case. She cringed, hating the look of shock and disbelief etched across his features. She cried out, sobbing as she remembered the look her father gave her, pleading with her as he hovered over the floor…

She felt a sharp thud against the crown of her head before she once again blacked out.

That brought her here. At least in the ER, they’d had the foresight to offer her a small plastic cup of cranberry juice and a packet of crumbled saltines.

Her x-rays and a CT scan showed no fractures or broken ribs. No skull injuries or ruptured arteries. She’d barely been touched.

Both robbers were dead, scarred beyond description. Lorna took no solace from that fact.

“Ali,” she mourned, tugging on the tiny St. Christopher medal and twisting and untwisting the chain until her knuckles ached with the movement. She stared through the iron bars until her vision blurred.

 

School for Gifted Youngsters

 

Ororo nursed cup of chamomile tea, savoring the fragrant steam as she readied herself for bed. She lay atop the cobalt blue damask comforter, rereading the hard copies of Forge’s emails that Hank retrieved from his account.

“Looking forward to meeting the staff and discussing those upgrades I recommended. Give my regards to all. Forge.”

The rest of the dialogue string went on for about five pages of banter, quotes from Hank’s favorite poets and philosophers, and more technical jargon than Ororo had the patience to read. She was more visual, earning more from watching Hank work with his capable hands, or Scott diagramming out the schematics one piece at a time.

She missed Logan growling at her to hand him tools from the box or to shine more light where he made his adjustments to his beloved bikes.

The phone by her bedside rang as if on cue, stirring her from memories of his voice.

“Hello?” She omitted the school’s salutations; this was her private line. She’d learned early never to give her name unless necessary.

“I’m here,” rumbled a scratchy, sleepy voice at the other end.

“Your ears must have been burning.” She set down the emails beside her and sat up, abandoning her cushy pillows.

“Just wanted ta let ya know I made it,” he replied gruffly. “And ta tell ya goodnight, ‘Ro.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, her hands cradling the phone as if it were fragile. She didn’t ask where he was.

“I’ll call again before I take off.”

“Good night, Logan.”

“Later, ‘Ro.” She settled the handset back on its base and sighed, retrieving her tea cup.

Now, at least she could sleep.

 

Alberta, Canada:

Logan eased himself back on the crisp white sheets, relishing their cool feel and the faint scent of Tide within their folds. Heather always knew how to make a nice bed, he mused, staring up at the ceiling in the dark. Across the room, his duffle lay opened, his discarded clothes spilling out from the gaping zipper where he’d stuffed them before.

He’d already polished off the sandwich in his pack earlier, three stops ago in his way up into the hills. He reached for a small yellow box sitting on the nightstand.

He lifted the skinny straw to his lips, skraking the bottom of the juice box until he finished the last drops. He glanced at it, made a sound resembling a chuckle, then tossed it into the wastebasket. Two points.

He knew he couldn’t sleep easy. At least he could cling to the sound of ‘Ro’s voice, and if he imagined hard enough, he could almost see her murmuring those words from his doorway, a faint smile on her lips.

 

Amtrak train, northbound:

Erik had never been fond of trains. Nights of being cramped in the transport cars, piled together like cattle and flanked by the Reich’s best and brightest as he and his parents were moved to Auschwitz came back to him with vivid clarity. He still remembered scraping his fingers over the rough weave of the yellow Star of David hastily stitched onto his worsted wool jacket as he gripped his mother’s hand. His father’s hands stilled him, clutching him snugly within the press of their bodies, as if to shelter him.

His father’s coat smelled like smoke and the lingering aroma of his mother’s chicken stew. She’d burnt it the night they were taken, filling the entire salon of their home with the scent of singed fat.

He picked at a packet of crumbled saltines, attempting to distract himself from the myriad odors of so many bodies crammed into the coach class car.

He knew he’d never sleep.

Chapter Text

Ororo was up to her elbows in dish suds and first-year students when Marie came running into the kitchen, slightly out of breath. She wiped a stray lock of hair from her eyes, tucking the snowy white tendrils behind her ear where they’d escaped from her ponytail. The remainder of the rich, chestnut brown mass gleamed in the sunlight flooding in through the windows. Ororo greeted her with a smile.

“Miss Munroe, you’ve got a visitor in the study,” she puffed, pausing to snitch a strip of bacon from the rapidly emptying platter. “Dr. McCoy’s in there with him right now. He asked me ta come an’ get ya.”

“Thank you, Marie,” she replied, nodding to a stack of clean plates beside the stove. “Help yourself before it’s gone.” She dried her hands on her apron before untying it and hanging it back on the peg. Behind her, Marie ladled scrambled eggs and toast onto her plate as Ororo swept from the room, walking briskly so as not to keep their guest waiting.

She was greeted by the sound of Henry’s laughter drifting from the room, instantly cheered by it. She knocked briefly on the door before letting herself in.

“Ororo! The woman of the hour! Come and meet the man who’s going to redesign the way the school reached out to those who need us and reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Forge, this is Ororo Munroe, the Professor’s successor and the school’s new headmistress.”

“Good morning. The pleasure’s mine, ma’am,” a rich bass voice claimed as the tall, athletically built inventor rose from his seat and faced her, extending a gloved hand.

“Call me Ororo,” she offered, crossing the room and shaking it. His grip was gentle, but she noticed how solid his hand felt in hers. Then she remembered Hank’s words from the other day about his wartime injuries.

“Mighty pretty name,” he mused.

“Flatterer,” she scoffed, but her smile dimpled.

“Call ‘em like I see ‘em,” he shrugged, releasing her and holding up his hands in a matter-of-fact gesture. His sable brown eyes danced as he looked his fill of Charles Xavier’s protégée, taking in every detail and committing them to memory. Forge prided himself on being a man who never forgot anything.

She was exquisite. Behind him, Hank cleared his throat.

“Come,” he announced, rising from Ororo’s desk and leading the way out the door. “Let’s adjourn to the basement, Forge. There’s something you need to see.” Ororo’s lips quirked in a more amused smile as Forge allowed her to exit first with a flourish. Her nose twitched; he smelled spicy, and his clothes held the faint scent of the outdoors.

They entered the elevator and Hank punched the key for the sub-level. Forge’s eyes took in the control panel and button pad, complete with a schematic blue print of the complex, examining the interior with undisguised interest.

“Impressive,” he murmured.

“It gets better,” Ororo assured him proudly. She felt his stare, and she fought the urge to meet it headlong.

DING… They filed into the hall, with Ororo taking the lead this time and gesturing them forward without going into further detail regarding the reinforced glass cabinets holding the reserve uniforms. Their first stop was the Cerebro suite.

“Welcome to Charles’ sanctum sanctorum,” she sighed. “At least it was, once.” She knelt by the retinal scanner and infrared indent module, allowing it to read and match her ocular data and feed it into the security system.

[Welcome, Headmaster.]

“The module doesn’t recognize gender?” Forge arched his thick black brow in concern.

“It certainly does. But why make it subscribe to a bias?” Ororo’s voice was smooth and unfazed as the doors slid open to the chamber that was now so empty that it echoed. The Cerebro console had been taken offline and broken down to its base components in anticipation of Forge’s arrival, since the lack of a strong enough telepath to run the module made it impossible to demonstrate its capabilities.

“What’s it made from? Titanium?” Forge was awed by the size alone of the cavernous, darkened chamber and the unspeakable fortune it must have taken to build it.

“Indeed. More specifically, my friend, we used an alloy of titanium, adamantium, and a rarer but equally useful mineral known as vibranium.” Beast’s expression was enthused during his explanation until Forge cursed under his breath.

“Vibranium? How did you come to acquire the amount of that substance to construct something this large, McCoy? Do you have any idea, man, of how difficult it’s been for our own government to obtain the necessary permits and trade agreements with the nation who produces it? We’re lucky if we can get our hands on a mere bar of it at a time for testing and R&D!’ His tone was indignant, and he planted his hands on his hips as his eyes continued to flit about his surroundings.

“The Professor had connections, and he was well-traveled. That’s all that needs explaining on that matter, Forge.” Henry’s tone held the unspoken “That’s all you need to know” that made Forge bristle. Ororo suppressed another sigh.

Henry was never above a pissing contest. It was like watching Einstein arm-wrestle with Newton.

“And you wonder why the government’s so interested in the comings and goings of mutants,” Forge carped, reaching up to rub his nape. His glossy dark hair was long enough to cover his collar, and he had the long, dexterous fingers of someone who was adept at handling minute circuitry, Ororo considered. Or perhaps who played the piano?

She mentally slapped herself. Piano, indeed.

“The government’s interested in the containment of mutants,” Ororo corrected him.

“Only the ones they perceive as a threat,” he countered. Hank sighed.

Ororo, too, could piss with the big dogs…

“Do they perceive you as a threat?” She straightened up haughtily, and Henry bit his tongue, watching her hands settle on her hips.

“Touché. And yes.” He removed his right-hand glove, tugging it off with his teeth. “But they also consider me useful.” Ororo sobered as she peered at his hand with renewed interest. She’d expected a prosthetic. She hadn’t expected this.

The bionic limb was riddled with circuitry, finely crafted and fully articulated. Unlike a hook attachment enabling the wearer limited use for simple grips, or a plain hand for the sake of aesthetics more than function, his hand flexed with full-range of fine motor skills as easily as Ororo or Henry’s own.

Forge merely smiled as he reached for the control panel’s interface, depressing the power button.

“It’s offline,” Henry reminded him.

“I just want to see what she’s made of,” Forge murmured cheerfully. With that, a tiny probe released itself slowly from his index finger, giving Henry and Ororo yet another surprise in a day full of them. Henry practically drooled with glee over the possibilities. Ororo read the look of “I’ve got to get me one of those” in her oldest friend’s eyes. Forge tapped the release for the console’s circuit board, and it slid neatly from the cabinet.

The probe moved of its own volition, as though sensing the location of the outlet, and inserted itself, glowing filaments twisting and adapting, like a custom-fitted plug. The unit came online, and the chamber was filled with the faint hum that they hadn’t heard for months since the Professor’s passing.

“What is it doing?”

“You mean what am I doing,” he corrected Ororo, allowing her a lazy smile. “And since inquiring minds want to know…”

“We do,” Henry muttered. “Get on with it, already…”

“I’m interfacing with it and translating the encryptions and logarithms.” He cocked his head as the mesh of circuitry outfitting his hand continued to glow and flash. “Nice firewall this thing’s got,” he remarked to no one in particular. “Hm.”

“Kitten needs to be here to see this,” Ororo mused. “You’d be her hero. She’s also quite gifted with electronics.”

“Tell her I’ll bring the chips and soda if she wants to talk shop.” Forge typed some commands into the keyboard at the prompt on the small monitor in the console, lefthanded, and the characters appeared line by line. Ororo watched the yellow text reflected in his eyes and flickering over his burnished flesh with his efforts. “Just running a schematic. Nothing’s been fouled…and there’s nothing to keep you from harvesting the data already collected in the Professor’s previous scans. You have access…”

“But?”

“You just need a different key.” His fingers continued to fly over the keyboard. “Mutants characteristically have different psychic energy that this unit is designed to detect. Almost like using a litmus test on the wavelengths of those thoughts. There are also different factors in mutant genetic structure which Dr. Rao’s research managed to isolate that she detailed in her files before the clinics were shut down. Metabolic rates and cell growth. Respiration and biorhythms.”

“Anyone could have access to that information,” Henry protested. “The files aren’t locked?”

“They’re the property of Homeland Security,” Forge assured him. “Relax, Hank.”

“Good Lord, that’s what I’m afraid of,” Henry muttered, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his furry, thick fingers.

“Kavita was interested in what made mutants ‘mutants.’ Not just how their powers worked, Hank, but how they came to be. What makes some people born with blue eyes, and what enables some to fly?”

“Or what makes some people better at making a cherry pie,” Ororo quipped. “Or doing the tango.”

“I’m tango-dancing recessive,” Forge commented dryly, “but I make a mean pie.”

“We may put you up to that. Then you’d be my hero,” Ororo admitted. She hadn’t mastered pie.

“I’ll be onsite tomorrow,” he countered, then returned to the matter at hand. “Dominant genes. Two parents who are both mutants may give one of their offspring mutant potential, just like rhesus positive blood. Or, they may only pass on the recessive genes and have a baseline child.

“Neither of my parents were mutants.”

“Not that you know of. Mutantcy normally manifests itself in adulthood, most often during adolescence. But these traits can sometimes lie dormant for several years; they may be passive enough that you may not even realize you carry them until you’ve had a breakthrough.” He nodded to Henry, who assented with a tilt of his leonine head. “It may seem like the world has a growing population of mutants; truthfully, we may just be discovering more of the ones who already walked among us to begin with. Kind of like an allergy to shellfish, if you never ate shellfish before, but suddenly went into anaphylaxis after a shrimp cocktail.

So, we can isolate mutant genes. That means we can also scan for them, just like using an x-ray to view a broken bone.”

“Again, with treating mutantcy like a disease,” Ororo sniffed. “I wasn’t a particular fan of Dr. Rao’s work, Forge, so you will have to excuse me if I don’t extol her virtues and value her hard work right now.”

“Her research helped many whose mutations were not as benign as yours, Ororo. Some of them got back the lives they were always meant to have.”

“Tell that to one of my students, who Dr. Rao attempted to ‘cure’ of a gift that was beautiful and vital to the life that he has now. Not all mutants are monsters, something you know firsthand. Warren is proof positive that angels, as well as mutants, walk among us. This isn’t just a school to him, and many of the other students that come to us. It’s a haven.”

“What then? When it stops being a school? Do you induct them into the ranks? Offer them a place at the round table? Dress them in a uniform and send them out to fight the good fight?”

“Only if they choose to.”

“Thus turning those gifts into weapons, Storm,” he challenged.

“Pot calling the kettle.” Henry sighed again. Ororo wasn’t finished marking her territory… “Who’s pulling your trigger, Forge?” His gaze turned stony, and, Ororo winced, hurt.

“That’s enough for today,” he announced, his voice clipped and sharp as he disengaged himself from the console, retracting the probe. “I have what I need for the moment. Hank, I’ll be in touch.” The console was rendered inert once more as soon as he broke his connection, as though he alone were animating the controls; the low humming sound died away like the chords of a plucked guitar string. He donned his glove once more and shut down the interface, nodding at Henry as he turned on his heel. His stride was lanky, his back stiff as he headed for the door.

Henry and Ororo shared a brief look. Henry gave her an exasperated look and threw up his hands. Her lips tightened into a thin line as she exhaled a shaky breath.

Her feet pulled her after him before she planned what she’d say.

“Forge!” He was halfway to the elevator by the time she caught up.

“Hank has me on speed dial,” he assured her. “I’m staying in Salem Center this week; Homeland Security’s footing the bill. You’ll be one of the privileged few who will know how to find me.”

“Forge…” She kneaded her neck in frustration, toying with a lock of her ivory hair.

“I was a soldier, once.” She heard pride in his voice; his words held simple candor. “I fought for my country and my countrymen alike. Mutant, baseline or otherwise. I did what I thought was right, and I paid a heavy price. Yet if I hadn’t, perhaps I wouldn’t be the man I am today. Necessity breeds invention.”

“Forge?”

“Are you finished judging me?”

“I didn’t realize I had begun. Tell me something; has anyone ever stood up for you, to protect you when being a mutant automatically labeled you a menace?”

“It never came to that.” Still, he waited for the elevator door to admit him, turning to face her as he held down the open button.

“For many of us, it has.” Her eyes measured him, no longer icy. “That’s why I soldier on.”

“Don’t let them turn you into a weapon, Ororo.” Her brows drew together as he took his leave, the elevator doors swallowing his wry look.

Ottawa, Canada:

 

“Man, I’ve missed this,” Logan mumbled between bites of Heather Hudson’s blueberry pancakes and plump links of sausage. “Still ain’t a woman on the planet that can hold a candle ta yer greatness, kiddo.”

“You might feel differently when you have to help me with the dishes,” grinned the slender strawberry blonde gazing fondly at him through her spectacles. “Leg’s still hollow,” she added.

“Been a while since I made this long a trip on the back of a bike,” he replied, downing the last of his orange juice and wiping his mouth. He leaned back contentedly from the table, looking sated and happy. “Yer lookin’ good, Heather.”

“I’m feeling good, bub.” She toyed with her own food, using a sausage link to mop up the stray puddle of syrup on her plate.

“Might tempt a man like me ta make off with ya in the middle of the night.”

“Might need that healing factor if you tried. Mac’s made some upgrades to the suits.”

“Wouldn’t have that hard a time tracking you down either, runt,” James McDonald Hudson’s voice rumbled as he rounded the corner of their spacious kitchen. “Just follow the trail of empty beer cans and people muttering ‘He had CLAWS, by God!’ Never were subtle.”

“Part of my charm, Mac.” Logan’s gaze swept over the cozy kitchen, decorated in roosters and sunflowers. “Married life’s makin’ ya soft.”

“Look who’s talking. They teaching you to play hopscotch and to share the swings at that fancy school? Look at you,” Mac muttered, sipping from his black coffee; his dark eyes measured Logan with amusement and interest. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you almost look tame!”

“Excuse me, got somethin’ in my throat - *cough* FUCK OFF *cough…that’s better.” Heather snorted under her breath she rose from the table, beginning to clear the plates. “Come out an’ spar with me, buddy, and I’ll show ya tame.”

“After we brief you,” Mac reminded him solemnly, swirling the last of his coffee in the bottom of the cup.

“Yeah,” Logan agreed. “Whatever ya want.”

“C’mon.” Mac rose, clearing the rest of his own dishes and depositing them on the counter. He leaned in to kiss the nape of his wife’s neck, sweeping her red-gold ponytail aside and making mock growling sounds just to make her giggle. Logan felt the familiar pang of jealousy witnessing their affection for each other. It never failed.

Heather and Mac had everything he couldn’t afford to have for himself. The cost was simply too high. He couldn’t put down roots, or as Mac put it, leave a trail. No connections. No attachments.

Ororo’s voice haunted his sleep. He woke up with her name on his lips. That was dangerous.

Logan followed Mac to his study, a man-friendly den with a small computer desk and huge, overstuffed couches. The LazyBoy leather recliner was the best seat in the house, currently occupied by Heather’s ugly pug, Huggles. The dog yawned at him, raising his head from his paws and panting for a rubdown. Logan obliged the pooch, scratching behind his ears; the dog rolled to his back, showing his belly.

“Spoiled little sonofagun,” Logan muttered.

“Blame Heather.” Huggles yipped at Mac, hopping down from the recliner and wagging his stump of a tail. He stood on his stubby hind legs, begging for Mac’s attention. “Sit!” Mac barked, and the dog instantly complied. Logan was just about done with him when Mac cradled the dog’s saggy, poochy face in his palms and let out a stream of “Who’s a good boy?” that would even make Mr. Rogers gag. “Back to business.” He moved behind the desk, flicking down the green, leather-bound volume of Catch-22 resting on the top shelf.

The bookcase retracted itself into the wall unit with a loud click, and then it slid aside, revealing that it was a door.

“Can’t believe ya still keep a friggin’ Bat Cave in yer house, Mac.”

“Where else would I keep it?”

“Might as well just spray paint it on the roof: Canadian Secret Service Here.”

“Eh. Just as long as folks use the back door. Heather gets pissed when people walk in the front door and don’t take off their shoes. Just got that new berber carpet.” Mac ducked inside the doorframe, taking care not to rap his head against the panel. Logan stood several inches shorter than his oldest friend from Department H, and he eased inside, smirking at the surprisingly spacious interior.

“Blue would be droolin’ over this shit,” he quipped.

“Blue?”

“McCoy. Hates it when I call him Furball.”

“Nice to see you’re making friends. And don’t tell me this ‘Furball’ happens to be Dr. Henry McCoy?”

“Eh. Whaddever.”

“Man’s a genius. Leader in his field. Heather stumbled over his thesis on mutant genomes that he wrote during med school.”

“He’s keepin’ close company with the Pentagon and the White House now. Makes time every now an’ again ta come and see ‘Ro-“

“Who?”

“Sorry. Ororo. She took Chuck’s place after we lost him.” His expression darkened, and Mac felt a pang of remorse for his friend, watching the skin over Logan’s knuckles draw itself taut and whiten along with his lips. “It sticks with ya. Watchin’ somebody go like that, and seein’ ‘em look at ya like they wanna tell ya it couldn’t be helped. Like there was nothin’ you could do that woulda made a damn bit of difference.”

“Makes it worse for you, buddy,” Mac agreed, his tone full of empathy as he rubbed his nape. “Down to business,” he announced crisply. He took up the rolling chair and seated himself at the console of the enormous database and archives of the Flight program’s files. Mac’s work-thickened fingers flew over the keys effortlessly as he searched for the records he wanted.

“Thought this was Heather’s bag.”

“Live and learn. She showed me everything she knows.” Mac keyed in the password at the prompt before it accepted his request for the records.

[WEAPON X; ARCHIVES]
[WELCOME, HUDSON,JAMES…]

“Back in the day, that quack, Cornelius, was on the Department of Defence payroll just like us. Department H owned the patent on some of the work he did on the strength and endurance enhancement trials they were working on back then. The purpose was to serve and protect. Find a way to keep our men safe if they ever saw fire. Make them stronger, faster, tougher. We found some of his files harvested from the archives after the original Weapon X complex was destroyed…”

“Ya mean cleaned out,” Logan grumbled. His knuckles itched restlessly.

“Easy, old man. They ran trials for about six months before Cornelius made noises about needing more funding. Guy only shared enough of his research to keep the department’s yap shut. All of the subjects participating in the trial were young, healthy volunteers. Baselines, not mutants. At least the ones on paper.” He scrolled through the records, mostly scanned pages of what looked like a microfiche. “Then we found these.”

“What?”

“Police reports of a crematorium they raided, since it was too close to a crystal meth lab. Keep in mind, Logan, these records have had fifteen years to lose their gloss and for the Department to move on. They kept files at the crematorium of the incoming remains. Gave us names to go with the faces, even after we didn’t have faces to identify them. Check out the notes.” Logan’s eyes flitted over the data line by line. Coroner’s reports. Physician reports. Journals from the crematorium. Times of arrival for the bodies.

Logan’s razor-sharp mind absorbed all of it, processing clues and analyzing the facts before him like a chessboard. All of the subjects were male. All of them had military backgrounds, with a history of injuries sustained in live combats. Logan didn’t flinch when he noticed photographs taken of each corpse; some of the bodies were visibly broken and riddled with scars. Whether they were sustained during their trials, or way before Weapon X got their hands on them was moot.

Cornelius and those other bastards had made sure that the Department felt that way, too.

All of the bodies had been brought in during the wee hours, in dead of night.

Mac toggled through each screen, speeding up as Logan nudged him to continue. His stance was impatient, and his face was stony and calm as he reviewed the records. Mac nearly jumped when Logan clapped his shoulder firmly to make him pause.

“Holy shit,” he rasped. “Sons of bitches.”

“What am I looking at?” Mac winced at the image in the file, a photograph paper-clipped onto the coroner’s notes of the body of a man no older than twenty. The vague, grim impression that he was even younger than Piotr wasn’t lost on Logan, but what disgusted him, gnawing at his gut and nearly making him lose his breakfast were the scars, neatly spaced over his limbs, chest, and neck.

His body had been etched with a surgeon’s marker, indicating where cuts were to be made. Round scars resembling bullet holes indicated where intravenous tubes and probes had broken his flesh, feeding into ports resting below the muscle tissue and arteries.

“Those look deep,” Mac muttered.

“They go all the way to the bone.” SNIKT. Mac bristled, feeling a shiver run up his spine as he magnified the screen twenty percent. Logan was correct; Mac wished he wasn’t.

“What the hell were they doing to these boys?”

“Trying ta duplicate their efforts. They wanted ta make more o’ me.” Logan’s nostrils were flaring, and he was nearly hyperventilating; Mac promptly punched in a few more keystrokes and closed the records. “Mac,” he grunted. “Let me outta this fucking cave. I need ta hit somethin’.”

“Fine. C’mon.” They’d been down this road before. Mac recalled the day he and Logan met with a shudder.

“Bring the suit.” Mac suppressed a smile.

“Shit. Now we’re talking.”

Chapter Text

Ororo’s feet followed her nose downstairs to the kitchen, making her mentally shrug that she hadn’t slept past her alarm, and that it was her turn to make breakfast. She rounded the corner and found Hank at the pine butcher block cooking island, enjoying his morning cup of coffee over an issue of The New Yorker. He greeted her arrival with a leonine smirk.

“Someone beat you to the punch.”

“It smells…mmmmmm. Did you do this?” she inquired, peering into a skillet that still held a savory medley of potatoes, ground sausage, mushrooms, and other goodies, a smaller pan of refried beans, bowls of grated cheese and diced tomato with cilantro, and a depleted platter of scrambled eggs on the sideboard, sitting next to a warming dish of tortillas.

“Not my particular specialty,” Hank admitted, even though his eggs Benedict was nothing to sneeze at. “Our guest did the honors. Forge is an early riser.”

“So am I,” she argued defensively, before stopping herself. Hank raised an eyebrow over his mug before taking another sip of the potent brew. “That doesn’t smell like the coffee we usually use.”

“It isn’t. Get some before I finish the pot,” he warned. His threat was justified; she realized it as she poured herself the remains, using her favorite light blue Justice League mug that she won on eBay. She took an experimental sip and smiled.

“Wow.”

“Even ground his own beans.”

“I might not need much more prodding to keep him if he keeps this up.”

“Does this mean you’ll give him a chance, instead of a swift bum’s rush out the front door by the seat of his pants?”

“Sure would appreciate it, ma’am,” rumbled a Texas-flavored drawl behind her, nearly making her drop her mug. She set it down gently before facing him, returning his gentle smile.

“Hank didn’t exaggerate your talents. And neither did you.”

“Help yourself.” His smile widened. “Love the mug.”

“Everyone needs a hero.”

“You folks aren’t ‘everybody.’”

“You didn’t have any growing up that you admired?” He leaned back against the empty counter beside the stove and pondered that a moment.

“There weren’t too many that grabbed me back then. I was more of a Star Trek man. Thing is, there was no way Scotty could have beamed anyone up in that tiny little containment field without his passengers losing cellular cohesion. Too unstable, and it would have to be keyed to everyone’s genetic structure. Their ship couldn’t even chart half of the planets they encountered or the species that inhabited them most of the time.”

“Did you ever notice how they never arrived on the planet equipped for a hostile atmosphere? No pressurized suits? No jetpacks? No oxygen? Just ‘we mean you no harm, all phasers set on stun?’” Hank chimed in eagerly.

“And every alien species automatically spoke English!” Ororo crowed, warming to the subject, selecting a plate from the cabinet and loading it with Forge’s breakfast offerings.

“And let’s not forget, all of them were anatomically compatible,” Forge quipped, wiggling his eyebrows. “Now…sixty-four dollar question of the day: Picard or Kirk?”

“Neither. Janeway,” she answered simply.

“ENNNHHHHH!” Forge buzzed, cupping his hands around his mouth. Hank chuckled under his breath. “Janeway doesn’t count.”

“Because she was a girl?” Ororo challenged.

“No. Just on principle. She was always trying to get everyone home to Earth. What was the point? The original series had everyone trying to ‘boldly go where no man had been before.’”

“Yes, but with so many uncharted planets, how could they prove that no man…or that no WOMAN…had been there before?”

“Here we go,” Hank sighed. They’d run this gauntlet before.

“More often than not, there was always some mind control plot afoot. Anyone who came before them ended up slaves to some mind-sucking nether beast in the bowels of the planet that they worshipped as a god. Or, it was sentient computer.”

“Kirk managed to save the day, save the girl, kiss the girl, and to never lose more than an ensign or two on his away missions. And he went on ALL of his away missions.”

“Please! Every other episode had Bones checking his tricorder, looking up and announcing, ‘He’s dead, Jim.’ One or two ensigns, my foot. That should tell you never to ensign on any Enterprise ship with Kirk at the helm!”

“Hey, don’t knock Bones and his tricorder!”

“Always did admire all of those functions in such a tiny module,” Hank agreed. Ororo folded her arms and shot him a “whose side are you on?” look. “What?” he pleaded, holding his furry palms out wide.

“Janeway was a decent captain. She went by ‘sir.’ She didn’t just run around in a cheerleader’s outfit and end up as a damsel in distress.”

“Troi was a strong woman.”

“Not in season one,” she countered. “And she ran around in a cheerleading outfit. Followed by lopsided cleavage and huge hair.”

“What? She was the ship’s counselor. She had to look approachable.” Forge’s smile was wicked. Ororo rolled her eyes, then made a sound of approval as she bit into the breakfast burrito she’d built from his ingredients.

“Am I the only one who liked Sisko?” Hank muttered.

“Floating space station. Boring opening theme music. And he always sounded like he was reading Shakespeare. First two seasons sucked.” Kitty made no bones about eavesdropping as she phased her way down through the ceiling. Ororo was impressed, noting that Forge remained both calm and amused as opposed to startled the way most people were at Shadowcat’s entry. “Oooooh, I want some,” she whined, eyeing the offerings on the stove. She tweaked a bit of sausage from the pan and popped it into her mouth.

“Fingers, Kitten! Use the spatula,” Ororo nagged. “And introduce yourself to our guest.”

“Kitten, huh? Hank said you’re the school’s other gearhead,” Forge grinned, extending his gloved hand. She shook it enthusiastically, practically pumping his arm off.

“Dude, just wait til you see the routines I wrote for the Danger Room last week! They totally rock! Are you working here now? Are you gonna teach the mechanics class? Are you single?” She launched question after question at him as she heaped her plate high.

“Kitten!” Ororo scolded, wishing she were standing close enough to pinch her into silence. Kitty smiled sheepishly and shrugged her narrow shoulders.

“Right. I’ll get out.” She made her way toward the door that led to the dining room before tossing back, “Sisko was the only captain crazy enough to bring his family on board. Don’t forget Jake!”

“Touché,” Henry retorted, cocking his forefinger at her as she departed.

“Spock was a better second in command,” Forge recovered, getting back to the discussion at hand. “Paris was a smooth talker and a ladies’ man…something I’m not averse to, mind you…but he was always getting into trouble. So was Ryker. Spock never let his emotions get in the way. Just calm, cool and collected ‘Mr. Logic.’”

“Until he went through that whole ‘pon far’ thing when they discovered he had a wife. Logic doesn’t trump hormones.”

“O-HOOOOOO! Spurned! Ice-cold,” Forge cried, palming his heart as though she had wounded him. “But Spock wasn’t a hostage as often as Paris or Ryker.”

“Gads; Ryker was ALWAYS a hostage,” Henry agreed in disgust, snorting into his coffee.

“Not much of a second in command.” Forge’s voice was silky with this pronouncement. Ororo made shooing motions with her hands. “And Paris was a weenie.”

“Fine,” she huffed. “But Janeway wasn’t.” She mopped up the last of her salsa and beans with a scrap of tortilla and tucked it into her mouth before depositing her plate in the sink. “She was a real captain’s captain. She even answered to ‘sir’ like the other three.”

“Just like you and Cerebro,” Forge reminded her. Ororo cocked a snowy brow in his direction. He just smiled, enjoying the way she looked in her teacher’s garb. She’d chosen a simple ice-blue wrap dress that fell to just above the knee and a pair of low-heeled taupe pumps. Three-quarter length sleeves and a modest v-neck revealed only glimpses of her caramel skin that glowed in the morning light of the spacious kitchen. Her hair was pulled back into low ponytail, held back with a polished tortoiseshell hair clip.

“If you like.”

“I do.” Amusement and admiration still winked back at her from his dark eyes. She cleared her throat. Henry rattled the pages of his magazine at her, giving her a moment to recover her wits.

Forge was making that difficult. He wore jeans as easily as Logan did, like a second skin. A simple black tee stretched itself over lean, taut muscles; he was built sparely, not unlike Scott. Her first impression had been correct the day before. And Scott would have probably liked the friendly inventor very much.

She missed Scott’s pro-Kirk tirades, too.

“How long will you be here today?”

“Long enough to go back over some of the data I retrieved yesterday, and to install some of the new components I fiddled with last night.”

“Fiddled with?”

“It’s what I do.”

“I’ll finish up here,” Henry announced. “I’ll meet you two downstairs, but don’t start without me,” he admonished, reaching for the apron hanging on the peg next to Forge’s fleece-lined denim jacket.

“After you, mon capitan.” Forge ushered her through the door with a silly little bow.

“Stinker.” She swept out in a swish of ice-blue acetate and Lycra blend, supple calves flashing with her lengthy, swinging stride.

“I have class in a half-hour,” she injected, punching the basement floor key as they entered the elevator.

“This won’t take that long. I just need your security clearance to get inside.”

“Hank has personnel clearance, too.”

“I’d like it if you could be present for the upgrades whenever possible,” he suggested.

“All right.” Why argue the point?

He followed her from the elevator, wishing they could linger there a moment to better enjoy the faint little scent of sandalwood that was easier to pick out in close quarters. He’d noticed that Ororo was calm and relaxed in the kitchen setting, but tensed up almost indiscernibly in tighter confines, almost leaping into the hallway once they reached it.

She allowed the Cerebro security interface to scan her optical data, surprised when Forge reached for her hand to pull her back up onto her feet. His grip was firm and easy, sending a fuzzy little prickle over her flesh, but she released him quickly, skin still warmed from his touch.

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you,” he countered, again letting her precede him into the chamber.

He moved around confidently once inside, turning on the interface and console without difficulty and scanning through the database, this time more quickly than he had yesterday.

“I don’t know whether to be relieved or worried that this is second nature to you.”

“I’m the not the one you need to be worried about. Or to hide anything from,” he murmured.

“That’s what they all say.”

“I’m not ‘they.’”

“Your credentials say otherwise. Now,” she announced briskly, smoothing the skirt of her dress with her palms,” what are these components you mentioned earlier?”

“I think you’ll like this.” He reached into his pocket and extracted a small case, slimmer than a wallet.

“That’s it?” she blurted incredulously.

“Hold your horses!” He flicked it open with a tiny release clasp on the side, and Ororo leaned in closer, smoothing back a lock of hair that drifted loose from her clip as she studied the tiny components that resembled tiny, rectangular plugs, laced with filaments of microcircuitry. “Good things come in small packages, didn’t anyone ever teach you that?”

“This is something you ‘fiddled with’? Just last night?”

“Yup.”

“What’s it made from?”

“Similar to what I used for my prosthesis,” he shrugged, practically crooning the words to the modules he was currently handling with “kid glove” precision. “Are you familiar with nannites, Ororo?”

“Henry’s mentioned them briefly. Interactive circuitry, said to mimic the human nervous system and its pathways. They communicate with each other using similar signals. They fire in the same patterns as synapses and neurons do, from what I’ve read.”

“Give the lady a gold star,” Forge chuckled. “Henry’s only mentioned them briefly, you say?”

“I’ve known him for a long time. I appreciate his quirks, and he reciprocates.”

“Do your quirks include a love of genetics?”

“Only if the discussion is held over a good cup of hot cocoa. Snickerdoodles don’t hurt, either.”

“Snickerdoodles…right.”

“How will you install them?”

“They practically install themselves,” Forge replied, fine with the fact that they were getting back to business. He slid open the console’s cover after unscrewing the bolts, and he opened the small faceplate housing the wires and ports. “You’re gonna get a kick out of this.” She watched him press a small button on the first nannite plug, and much like his prosthesis had done before, this module slowly fed a slender, thread-fine probe into the ports, bypassing the wiring as it communicated with the console in a series of low-pitched beeps. The web of circuitry over its casing began to glow, and to Ororo, seemed to take on a life of its own. Multiple filaments slowly eased their way from the module, wending their way to their nesting places instinctively, like offspring feeding from its mother.

“Forge,” Ororo breathed. “That’s…that’s impossible. That didn’t just-“ She hushed herself, merely letting her lips cease their movement as the entire module eased itself like quicksilver and rolled from Forge’s palm. It shifted and warped, changing shape until it flattened itself into a more compatible plug to fit the smallest, oblong port inside on the left. The port’s small, blue blinking light momentarily slowed, glowing steadily until its rhythm was matched by a new light on the nannite plug.

Two blue lights blinked in a matching rhythm back at Ororo, who now knelt carefully beside Forge with rapt attention.

“That’s not fair,” Henry grumbled from the doorway. “I said don’t start without me.”

“We’re not done yet, Blue,” Forge assured him, craning his neck around to greet him and make room. “You can do the honors with the next one.” He held the case out to Henry, who took it reverently, holding it carefully in his furry palm.

“Magnificent. I’d expect no less from you, my friend.”

“Knock yourself out.”

Henry made himself comfortable, with Ororo moving aside to allow him to nimbly drop to a crouch beside Forge and lean in toward the console. They continued to tinker, and Henry ran off at the mouth, clearly enjoying himself as he peppered Forge with questions and theories.

As they worked, Ororo paced the ramp leading to the Professor’s previous perch in his sanctorum, feeling the walls seems to hum with life again, even though his presence and the warmth of his psychic energy was absent. In his way, Charles was the lifeblood of the school and pulsed through its veins, surrounding them all like a blanket. Ororo missed the sound of his voice and his pear-shaped vowels and enunciation when he spoke, the contemplative way his intelligent blue eyes used to study her, quiet humor dancing in their depths.

“It won’t be the same without him,” she mused to herself.

“It works,” Henry declared, as though he had only half heard her. He stood up and brushed his hands off with enthusiastically. “What next?”

“Test it,” Forge offered. Hank reached for the helmet, but he stopped him. “No need for the headgear. It operates in sync with DNA now, rather than psychic energy. Place your hands on this touch screen,” he said, nodding to it. Henry obediently laid his palm against it, letting it warm beneath his touch.

[Greetings, Dr. McCoy.]

“Oh, my stars and garters,” he breathed, and his face lit up like a kid with a new toy.

“Type in a city. It’s very user-friendly.”

“Like Google Earth?”

“Ohhhhhhhh, MUCH better than that.”

“Westchester County,” Ororo intoned, doing her best to sound bored just to confound him. Forge smirked. Henry tapped in the location and then scrolled through the menu of prompts that surfaced onscreen as soon as he began typing:

Scan mutants in database
Scan for new mutants in this city
Scan for mutants not found in database
Scan for *key in specifics*___

“Mutants not found in this database, Westchester County,” Ororo recited, and Henry’s fingers automatically began typing again, keeping up easily with her thoughts. “Newly discovered. Status, active.”

“That’s a tall order,” Henry muttered.

“No it isn’t,” Forge shot back. “Let her rip.” Henry hit enter.

The chamber continued to thrum, the sound growing in volume and resonance, and soon a list of about a half a dozen names unfolded themselves one after the other, rippling like falling dominoes. Henry selected the first with a tap of his clawed finger.

[Mutant. Active. Gamma level, class four. Female…]

True to its original programming, Cerebro offered them a visual image of the subject in question, creating a three-dimensional hologram of a girl who looked to be about Kitty’s age, seated on a narrow cot and chewing her nails. She was waiflike and slender and garbed in black, and her expression was miserable. Afraid, Ororo recognized, like she’d been abandoned.

“Where is she?” Ororo inquired, reading the display on the console.

“Westchester County…77th Precinct?” Henry’s voice rose on a doubtful note. “Oh, my.”

“She’s incarcerated? Why?”

“We don’t know until we ask,” Forge answered simply. “That doesn’t mean we’ll like the reason. Nor that we can just waltz inside and tell them “let her out, because we said so.” She could have actually committed a crime, Ororo.”

“Or, she might not have.” Her voice was calm. “Sometimes we acquire students who have run away from home.”

“This one looks like a rebel,” Forge pointed out. “I like her hair.”

“So do I,” Henry sniffed. “I’d like to keep tabs on her, Ororo. I’m saving her profile where I can find it again.” He entered her signature, along with cryptic notes under the filename “DANE,LORNA” once he’d successfully identified her.

“What are her abilities?”

“They’re psionic in nature. They tend to stay dormant longer, according to this, her powers manifested about six months ago…she’s sixteen. And a Capricorn,” he noted, making Ororo smile. “They tend to be moody and pragmatic.”

“Is she a telepath?”

“Hmmmmm…no. Not quite. She’s an elemental. Not unlike you. Controls inert matter, according to this display,” he said, toggling through the screens of genetic data that resembled several bar graphs of moving cells. “The shorter wavelength is typical in someone who has a more active power that they wield, as opposed to mine, like we discussed, my dear, where ‘I am my power.’ Your own power is psionic in nature as well, Ororo, even though you might not realize it.”

“I never think about it. I just…use it. It is what it is. I’m connected to everything, Henry. Anything that floats through the atmosphere on a current or a wave.”

“In a sense, so is she. It’s fascinating, she has interesting…traits.” His voice died off as he continued to read the data.

“Do we have another weather witch?” Forge drawled playfully, curious about the thunderstruck look on Henry’s face. Henry continued to toggle through screen after screen, scanning it at quickly as he could absorb the information.

“No.” He pointed to the display again. “We have another Magneto.”

 

Downtown Salem Center:

 

Erik adjusted the lapels of his deep plum trenchcoat, shivering against the chill in the air while he watched the six o’clock news on a dozen different television screens displayed in the appliance store window. He seldom felt the cold before his powers were disrupted, having availed himself previously of his ability to envelop himself in a magnetic shield that protected him from the elements, as well as being able to speed up the flow of his own blood as necessary to generate more body warmth. He mourned the loss of such a simple, yet useful luxury. “A god among insects” he’d pronounced, once, upon witnessing that young upstart John’s trick with the open flame dancing in his hand.

Eric shuddered that he’d fallen so far, crawling among the ants. Slowly, with a faint movement of his gloved hand, he willed the volume knob on the largest set to turn itself up a few notches, and he strained toward the window to hear it.

“…this is Manoli Wetherell, bringing you the latest update to a disturbing robbery that happened in Westchester County’s garment district, mere blocks from where I’m standing here, at the Stark Industries headquarters. Workers at a convenience store and gas mart reported being robbed by two armed men, and that one of the gunmen took a young girl as hostage right after emptying the cash register and stealing various other items from the mart. He described them as two men of average height, wearing ski masks, and the girl as being in her mid-teens.

Area policemen received the call at about 7:01PM that there was a Dodge Dart weaving in and out of traffic and creating a threat to other vehicles, driven by two men who appeared to be attempting to restrain a third passenger; the police report included that they witnessed a young woman matching the missing girl’s description in the back of the Dart, struggling to make contact with anyone outside the car. Their pursuit of the vehicle took them just a few blocks shy of the off-ramp that would have taken them onto highway five when the car suddenly rolled and veered off the street, crashing through the window of a closed pawn shop. Witnesses at the scene cited that prior to the crash, the doors of the Dart appeared to have been PUSHED out from the frame, almost as though they were blown off. The passenger inside was last reported in stable condition and was taken to Westchester County General Hospital…”

The screen flashed brief banners across the bottom of the broadcast about the story that was already being aired, citing This just in: Teenager identified as 16-year-old Lorna Dane from Westchester County. Police holding teen in custody after verifying her parent’s call that she ran away from her home after an attempt on her father’s life. Mother suspects daughter may possess mutant gene and abilities…

Erik’s eyes widened, and a flush of excitement jolted through him from his scalp to his toes, making his hair feel as though it were standing on end. He felt almost giddy.

He strained for more of the news, wanting so badly to shush a mother pushing her toddler closer to the window in an umbrella stroller. The child was screeching at the top of her lungs for the televisions to be turned to some godawful program called the Teletubbies. He smothered a groan, returning the mother’s hapless smile with one of his own that didn’t reach his silver eyes.

“We’ve received further details from Westchester County PD about the crash. The armed gunmen who were killed as a result of their crash into the pawn shop were thrown free from the vehicle. Police efforts to restrain their hostage, Lorna Dane, were initially unsuccessful, and they had to use blunt force. She was reported as having thrown one of the attending officers at the scene by merely aiming her hand at him, not even touching him!” The newswoman squinted as though not believing the text running across the teleprompter. “Without even touching him, Neal?” Erik smirked at the look of astonishment on her face when it was confirmed. “Various items in the store, according to witnesses, FLEW through the air as though they were flung. More details at eleven. Neal, back to you.” Erik turned away from the window, ignoring the commercial for denture cream that followed and inwardly enjoying the mother’s plight when her daughter continued to scream and point at the store window for her program.

His Anya had never behaved like that. Ever.

Ever since Erik flew back to the East Coast after leaving Aleytys, he’d had an almost incurable case of itchy feet. He couldn’t explain if it was nostalgia for easier times that he’d had when he and Charles were peers, both recently graduated from Oxford, or if there was just something about seeing Liberty Island again that sang in his blood. Would it look the same to him, now that he was a baseline. An insignificant. A nobody.

He’d miss Aleytys. He’d miss the harbor at Pier 39 and the taste of fresh chowder and listening to Paolo’s deplorable music on their fishing rig at dawn every morning. Something was tugging him, pulling him back. He imagined Charles gazing at him everywhere he turned. He mourned him, even as he shook his fist at him: Look at what happened to you, Charles, when you attempted to control one of your own!

He’d have given anything for his oldest friend to have never shown up at the Grey’s household that day. It was inevitable. Charles had to save everyone; it was simply the way his mind, and his heart, worked. Nothing else but complete redemption would do. Even for him, self-proclaimed master of magnetism…

Ach…who the hell am I fooling?” Erik muttered to himself. Master…in the end, they’d all run scurrying away from him and his cause like rats from a sinking ship.

Yet it was nearly impossible for him to stay away from here. He didn’t know where he was going yet, despite having traveled hundreds of miles.

His stomach decided the next destination, growling audibly at him as he was about to pass an outdoor café. The wafting odors of pasta and balsamic vinegar enticed him, and he made himself comfortable at a table facing the street so he could enjoy the diversity of the country’s favorite “melting pot”. How many among them, he wondered, were still mutants?

He could count at least one. Lorna, they’d said her name was. Lorna Dane.

~0~

 

Magda couldn’t count how many miles she’d traveled within the confines of the evening train. She’d sworn she’d never set foot on the car of one again after her first night in Auschwitz, huddled together with the frightened faces of men and women she’d had no opportunity to become acquainted with as they were herded off like cattle.

She steeled herself, fighting back motion sickness and nausea as it lurched into motion again from the last stop. She nibbled the napkin full of dry, tasteless crackers, struggling to hold something down…

This pregnancy was nothing like Anya’s. This child twisted and kicked, causing her swollen abdomen to grow taut, her muscles bunching with a fledgling contraction. It could be false, she reasoned. She laughed mirthlessly to herself, deciding that the child already had its father’s temper…

She dropped the crackers back into the napkin from nerveless fingers, her hands trembling as she covered her mouth to choke back sobs. He couldn’t find her. Not after what he’d DONE.

She’d lived each moment silently as since That Night, as she called it in the back of her mind. Flames licked up at the starless sky in her dreams, and she still heard Anya crying out…every night it ended the same. Every night…

They’d taken Erik away from her, and left her with a monster.

~0~

Erik winced at the sting of lemon juice seeping into a minute paper cut he’d earned himself while flipping through an edition of The Daily Bugle as he squeezed some into his cup of herbal tea. One more discomfort to nag him atop a growing heap. A room at the new tower of Four Freedoms Plaza appealed to him; he’d already withdrawn more funds from his overseas accounts held under the alias of Erich Magnusson, wisely keeping his assets in multiple commodities and vehicles. Now, in every sense of the word, he could retire. It was laughable.

The headlines of the tabloid-format newsprint screamed “Spider-Man Unmasked!” The editorial spanned three columns before the jumpline directing him to page seven, but he was more interested in the coverage given the pawn shop crash and the status and whereabouts of the Dane girl.

They’d already processed her as a prisoner. Her mug shot showed a girl in her mid-teens, wearing a deplorable amount of makeup. The black-and-white picture was given less priority than the enormous photograph of the garishly costumed young man standing at a crowded podium in full color above it.

“Haven’t people in this town got anything better to read?” he murmured wryly, shaking his head as he took another sip of his tea, some New Age blend of white tea leaves and chamomile.

77th Precinct, the article read. Still awaiting transfer to local juvenile detention center. Parents not found for comment.

He peered back at her picture, noticing the runnels of ruined eye makeup streaking her cheeks, the outlandish hair and fingernails holding her identification plate.

She looked lonely.

Erik planned to remedy that.

~0~

 

Logan winced at the scalding he gave his tongue as he took too large a gulp of the hot tea, nearly dropping the practical Corelle ware cup back onto its saucer.

“What the hell is this shit? Some New Age herbal crap?”

“It’s chamomile. Sleepy Time tea. Goes better with the cookies than beer,” Heather reasoned.

“The hell it does! I’m tellin’ ya, Mac, somewhere between here an’ the altar, ya misplaced yer stones, drinkin’ this crap!”

“She hid the beer,” Mac admitted, crunching savagely into one of Heather’s famous butter cookies for emphasis.

“Likely story,” Logan snorted.

“You’ve got a healing factor, Logan. Same can’t be said for Big Mac, here. I’m not up for another round of you two caterwauling ‘I’ve Got Friends in Low Places’ until the neighbors spray you with a hose like the last time.”

“What’s wrong with Garth?” Mac complained helplessly.

“No song deserves such foul treatment. No beer,” Heather insisted. Logan made a silent vow to himself to tiptoe downstairs after both Hudsons retired to bed. “So Mac showed you the files?”

“Yeah. Saw ‘em,” he grumbled. He shoved away the cup of tea before retreating behind his “Wolverine” mask. Heather sighed.

“Not all of the team members involved in the Weapon X project were attending the laboratory that day, Logan. We know that much from names we retrieved from Personnel in their records on that date.” He didn’t have to ask which day she was talking about.

“No sense in putting all of your eggs in one basket,” Mac huffed, stretching his clasped hands in front of him in a vertebrae-cracking yawn.

“They knew,” Logan growled. “Sons a’bitches knew I’d come out of it, ready fer a scrap after what they did ta me.”

“They knew who you were going in. You’re one of a kind, Logan.” Heather laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. His muscle was rounded, bulky and rock-solid beneath his soft flannel shirt.

She chose not to feel rebuffed when he covered her hand with his and lifted it off, releasing her.

It wasn’t her fault. She just wasn’t ‘Ro.

“I ain’t gonna be one of a kind fer long,” he replied. “I mean, how…does anyone wanna tell me HOW, on God’s green earth someone’d do this again? It’s like it ain’t enough fer me ta be a mutant. I’m a weapon. A loaded gun.” SNIKT…Heather winced.

“Not in the house, bub,” Mac muttered sharply, nonplussed. SNAKT!

“You’re a man, Logan. A good man. They couldn’t take that away from you. Look at the life you have now.” She shot him a grin that shaved five years from her face, blue eyes dancing behind her reading glasses. “Who’d have thought you’d be living at a school?”

“Shit…not me,” he admitted, chuckling. “They’ve even got this crazy training room instead of just making the kids take gym class. Scooter named it the Danger Room!”

“Scooter? What kinda names do you guys come up with at that place?” Mac roared, slapping his knee.

“Henh…yeah,” he muttered, letting his mask finally drop. “He didn’t like One-Eye any better.”

“He didn’t, huh?” Mac caught the slight droop of Logan’s shoulders and the way he raked his fingers through that rough-and-tumble hair. Past tense.

“He was a good man. Ya woulda liked him,” he offered. “Guy even had a thing for redheads. Just as pussy-whipped, too.” Heather made a noise of shocked outrage, and Logan ducked when she flicked the dish towel at the back of his head.

“A-herm…man, that tea messed up my throat – cough*ASSHOLE*cough –“

“Beer might chase that away. Might even grow some hair on yer stones.”

“How did you lose him?” Heather finished her own tea and took another cookie.

“Alkali. It was an accident. He went to retrieve Jeannie. That was his sweetheart. Ya heard about what happened at Alcatraz. Saw those weird weather patterns over the reservoir? He was gone; I could barely track where his scent ended. Like someone just wiped him away. Never woulda figured someone could go out like that til I saw her kill the Professor.” Logan stared into his teacup. “That’s why we’ve got a school. Keep stuff like that from happenin’, hopefully. Keep those kids from being turned into weapons, if we’re lucky. If we can get to ‘em on time.”

“It’s when the Strykers of the world strike first and beat you to the punch that you end up with collateral damage.” Heather leaned over Mac’s shoulders and kissed the top of his head.

“So Mac…about these personnel records. What else have you got?”

“We’ll retrieve them tomorrow,” Mac promised. “Doesn’t mean you’re any closer to pay dirt. Weapon X isn’t calling the shots where you’re concerned anymore, Logan. We’ve got talented people working for us now.” Logan knew it wasn’t a hollow boast.

“It ain’t about ‘em callin’ the shots, Mac. This can’t happen again. It can’t,” Logan emphasized quietly. “Cuz if it does, folks are gonna keep turnin’ up dead.”

 

~0~

 

Lorna leaned back against her cell’s unyielding concrete wall, staring at the toes of her sneakers. The sounds of the surrounding holding tank in her ears faded down to a dull roar.

All she could hear were the metals. Calling out to her. Reaching out to her with cold fingers.

Her parents answered on the third day that she called. Her mother refused to speak with her.

“I’m scared, Daddy,” she crooned plaintively into the receiver. “I want to come h-home.”

“We can’t handle your problem by ourselves, Lorna. This is bigger than what your mom and I can do for you,” Mark explained, and his voice sounded resigned. “We haven’t stopped loving you.”

“Then please…let me come home!”

“We can’t. It’s a risk, Lorna – you don’t understand. Everything that happened ended up on the news. In the papers. It’s…it’s not just that you ran away anymore. They saw what you did.”

“I didn’t mean it!”

“Lorna…you’re a mutant. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Daddy.” Her voice cracked.

“We can’t do anything for you. I’m so sorry. You need help we can’t give you. Your mother canceled the registration and your spot at the boarding school. You’ll need to come to the hearing next Wednesday. Our attorney’s recommending the juvenile detention center as an alternative to a higher security prison.”

“Juvy,” she sneered, letting her tears drop onto her shirt as she twisted the phone cord.

“They…they have ways of helping kids in trouble. Of holding their powers in check. It might help you if –“

“That’s a load of crap, and you know it,” she snapped. “It’s my lige. You’re just gonna stand by and let them do this to me? Just like those people did with the Cure?”

“Goodbye, Lorna,” he told her, his voice breaking as he hung up. She wanted to hurl the receiver against the wall, even pull the phone from its moorings.

She placidly cradled the receiver before being escorted back to her cell.

Time ticked by so slowly she didn’t bother to watch the clock anymore. She toyed with the St. Christopher medal and tried to focus on the footfalls of the officers and social workers pacing down the corridor. Anything was better than hearing the metal calling to her.

At the front reception desk, Erik was practicing one of his less frequently used talents, knowing Charles would be absolutely appalled if he were alive to witness it.

Bullshitting. It was an art form.

“I’m here to file a missing person report,” he murmured, affecting a tremor in his slender, chapped hands, making them seem even more fragile. “Can you help me find my wife?”

“Oh, sir…we have a different department for that, you don’t want – “

“Magda! Magda, darling! I – they won’t tell me where you went! I’m ready for lunch, Magda! I bought you licorice!” His normally lyrical, resonant bass became querulous and peevish.

“Sir, if you’ll just tell me your name?” She rifled uselessly through the stack of unprocessed APBs on top of her inbox, wondering if anyone reported an old man missing matching HIS description.

Naturally the officers came out to see what the hold-up was at the receptionist desk. An elegantly attired but flummoxed looking elderly man was sending her into a dither.

He needed to speak with their captain, they said. He was led inside gently by the elbow to a spacious desk and handed a cup of coffee.

The captain listened to his pleas and reasoning that law enforcement wasn’t the same as it was in his day. They took down three false addresses from the last three homes he’d resided in over the past five years.

Or was it ten?

And could he use the gentleman’s rest room?

Next stop: The forensics artist. Erik described Magda to a tee, detailing her so clearly that there was no way in heaven she could be mistaken for about ten different elderly women feeding birds in Central Park.

And could he have some water? He was really quite parched.

Three officers down the hallway heard his rambling account of how much they reminded him of the son he never had.

Erik continued a steady stream of nonsense, drinking in his surroundings like a sponge. By the time he’d been there an hour, the entire precinct knew that Magda’s favorite flowers were lilacs…

…and he pocketed a tazer lifted from the captain’s overcoat, shoving it deeply within the folds of his coat.

“Oh, Magda, how could you leave me like this?” he insisted, mustering tears. The receptionist whispered that he didn’t smell like alcohol, until Erik began singing old battle hymns and Souza marches in a garbled melody, with little regard to tone, pitch, or volume.

Just as they escorted him to the drunk tank, Erik jabbed his tazer into their chests. He whistled jauntily as he lilted the badge and shield from the pocket of the taller of the two, clipping it atop his lapel.

No one questioned him as he moved steadily down the next corridor on light, quick feet.

Lorna greeted the newest set of footsteps with a scowl and a snarled “whaddaYOUwant?”

“Young people these days,” Erik lamented, shaking his head as he remained within the shadows. “No one teaches any basic manners in the schools or the home anymore.” Lorna only saw silvery hair and cool slate-gray eyes glinting out from beneath a wool cap.

“What’s it to you, old man?”

“You can win more bees with honey, my dear. And you’ll be a much nicer traveling companion, I trust.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” she huffed with renewed bravado.

“Child, come with me, and you can go wherever you want,” he chuckled, finally drawing closer and resting his hands against the cool bars. His intake of breath was sharp and seemed to catch in this throat.

Despite the remnants of horrid makeup, Magda’s blue eyes stared back at him from a piquantly beautiful face.

His lips seemed to move by themselves, speaking as though he were watching the scene unfold as a spectator. “Tell me something. When you touch these bars…what do you feel?”

“What, are you nuts, old man? What do you think I-“

“Hush! ENOUGH! I don’t want arguments, just a simple answer to my question.” She swallowed thickly and found herself faltering beneath his gaze.

“It…it pulses. It has a pulse. Movement. It breathes,” she muttered. Lorna scowled again as girls in neighboring cells jeered at them both, crying “MUTIE!” just because they’d already heard the news secondhand.

“It’s living,” Erik agreed. “Take my hand,” he ordered.

“No,” she tsked, shrinking away, but his next words gave her pause.”

“It even speaks to you when you stop to listen. You can make it do anything.” He gently raised his hand and Lorna felt the faint tug of Ali’s St. Christopher medal pulling at her neck.

It was floating, pointing toward her cell door. Her lips quivered and her eyes grew wide.

“You don’t belong here. They can only hold you here if you let them, child.” He reached for her hand.

She grasped it through the bars, craving human contact so much that she wept.

“You know what to do,” he assured her.

The bars groaned and warped, tugging themselves and bending apart like soft taffy. A chorus of shrieking cries and “holy SHIT!” resounded from the corridor as Lorna linked arms with him, just as a pair of officers burst through the security door.

Raw power coursed through Lorna’s veins, fortifying Erik’s strength and giving him a heady rush.

He aimed the tazer and shocked the guard.

“Now what?”

“Up.” One word barked imperiously as he held tightly to her arm. He concentrated, siphoning her power and pressing downward with his hand, as though to repel the ground.

They were buoyed up, and Lorna reacted instinctively, throwing a magnetic force bubble around them as they burse through the roof, showering the precinct floor with rubble.

Magneto had given his newest protégée the first of many valuable lessons, namely how to make a memorable exit.

Chapter Text

Erik couldn’t remember how many nights found him camped out under an inky sky, shrugging off the chill and wrapped in the song of crickets. He could almost feel Magda huddled against his once-emaciated frame, attempting to share his scant warmth in the thick brush of the woods surrounding the camp. Now, he stirred the flames idly with a long, fractured branch, still green enough to crackle under contact with the fire. He watched the waifishly slender, scruffily attired teenager before him, doing her best to huddle against the fallen log and make herself invisible. She’d skirted around speaking to him directly for much of their journey there.

The campground was deserted, but bore signs of recent occupancy. They’d tramped through the brush under cover of darkness, nearly tripping over abandoned, collapsed tents.

“Why did you bring me here?” she muttered sullenly, catching him off-guard when she made the first overture toward a real conversation.

“We need time to regroup. One doesn’t break out of jail without drawing a bit of unwanted attention, my dear. I’m spent; I’m not quite as spry as I was, perhaps, when I was your own age. I had no one to assist me when I introduced myself at the precinct.”

“How the hell did you get in?”

“Not with the fanfare I would have employed before. I just walked inside.” She stared at him in disbelief before narrowing her blue eyes, again the same cornflower hue as Magda’s. “Tell me something,” he beckoned, gifting her with the smile of an indulgent old man scoffing at someone young and irresponsible. “Is that your real hair?”

“I bought it. Guess that makes it mine,” she shrugged impudently. He suppressed a snicker but mastered it, scratching his chin thoughtfully. He needed a shave, he mused to himself.

“It’s quite garish,” he announced. “Another of my young protégées favored hair like that. She’s gone now. You remind me of her.”

“I’m not some ‘protégé’ of yours, bub. I’m grateful and all, you busting me out before they could ship me off to juvy-“

“Where would you go, my dear?”

“What’s it matter to you? Better yet, why did you come, anyway? You just some guy trying to get your kicks with a little girl? Are you some kind of sicko?” She threw her arms wide. “You brought me to the middle of nowhere, in the dark! Hardly noble, if you ask me.”

“Where are your parents?” he asked her smoothly, ignoring her diatribe for the moment.

She clamped her lips shut, allowing them to settle into a thin, mulish line. He could tell he pricked her. She toyed with the silver rings on her fingers and picked at that godawful, brackish nail polish, chipping it more than it already was.

“I called them.” Her thoughts raced with the possible story she could tell him that might convince him to let her go, even as her pulse skipped. He was astute, despite being old, and his eyes watched her with interest and amusement. At her expense. She sent up prayers to God that she hadn’t thrown her lot in with a psychopath or a rapist.

Great. Could have just stayed in my nice, cozy…cell. Damn it! She tugged on Ali’s St. Christopher medal, twisting and untwisting the chain.

“You’ll break that trinket if you keep doing that,” he suggested dryly. He rummaged through a carry-all that, surprisingly, had already been there when they broke camp, and he produced a large Thermos.

“Hot cocoa,” he announced, unscrewing the cap and pouring some into the deep, cupped lid. “This might warm you up a bit.” He reached around the edge of the fire and handed it to her, thankful that she accepted it without fighting him.

“Maybe,” she murmured, taking a sip. “Thanks.”

“You’re quite welcome, my child.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Let’s discuss that, while we’re on the subject. What is your birth name?”

“Lorna. Lorna Elizabeth Dane. That’s what’s on my adoption certificate, anyway.” His silvery brows arched in surprise.

“Adoption papers? How old were you?”

“Dunno. Guess I was too young to remember. My folks have always been my folks, more or less. I guess. Until this week.” She stared into her cocoa, swirling it before taking another hesitant sip. “I don’t really belong there after all. I’ve got no place to go. Shit, why’m I telling you this?”

“Language,” he chided gently. He helped himself to some of the cocoa, pouring a small measure of it into a small tin among his belongings, deciding it sufficed as a cup. “Lorna’s a nice name,” he remarked. “Elizabeth would be perfectly suitable for someone else. You don’t look like one,” he mused.

“Elizabeth sucks,” she snorted. “So does Lorna. I couldn’t get a cool name like Paige, or Monet.”

“What constitutes a cool name?” he inquired politely. She warmed to the topic, letting her shoulders relax as she slumped more comfortably against the log.

“Anything that isn’t mine.”

“Elizabeth is beautiful, and it’s certainly dignified. A classic, really. Several queens throughout history managed just fine with it.”

“Doesn’t matter what I call myself, I guess. I’m a freak.” She set down the cocoa cup dispassionately, releasing a ragged sigh and folding her arms before leaning against her knees. She stared into the flames as though she were willing herself to be anywhere but where she sat.

“No. Not hardly,” he corrected her quietly. “You’re gifted. Different, certainly. But not a freak.”

“Kids at school think so. I had an accident,” she continued. “I went to this party at my friend Doug’s house. He’s got money. Had a nice place. The basement was packed. So these girls, the ones I told you about, they started messing with me, giving me a hard time. I got mad.”

“I can imagine.”

“Then things got weird. I felt…energy. Felt it just, I dunno, running through my veins. I felt the metal. I felt it heating up around me, almost…like I could feel its atoms speeding up and becoming charged. I felt my hair stand up…like that little girl in Firestarter!”

“Not familiar with it.”

“Whaddever. Stephen King flick. Actually a little before my time, I figured you’d know an old one like that,” she accused tartly. Erik allowed himself to chuckle this time. She picked at her chipped polish, scratching off most of what was clinging to her ragged thumbnail. She warmed to her subject, and for a few minutes, she nearly forgot that she was only where she was at his tolerance and mercy.

He could turn on her any time.

“So all of the sudden, all the metal in the room just started flying all over the basement. Monet called me a name again. Her and Paige.”

“They don’t sound like very good friends.”

“I never said they were.” She tossed a twig into the flames just to hear it crackle. “I threw Monet away from me. I didn’t mean to. I just…she flew back. I didn’t even touch her. And…the weird thing is, she wasn’t hurt, but I felt like crap.” She swallowed stiffly, feeling her throat clog up and threaten to clamp itself shut. “And I hurt Dougie.” Her lip quivered, and Erik felt a flush of pity. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Of course you didn’t, Lorna. You said it was an accident. Accidents happen when you lost control, my dear. You’re young. You’re untried. You have a gift that you have yet to learn how to properly control. It couldn’t be helped.”

“Everyone hates me now.” She sniffled harshly this time and dragged her denim jacket sleeve over her nose and lips, mopping at her eyes.

“Hate is only another word for fear,” he assured her. “You’re a striking young woman. I imagine that until your little display at this friend’s party, no one would have suspected you were a mutant.”

“So? It doesn’t change anything! I’m a freak! My whole life is over!” Her voice broke, and she was so swept up in her own sorrow that she didn’t hear Erik abandon his seat by the fire and make his way around to the dead log. She buried her face in her palms and gave in to strangling sobs that wracked her narrow frame, giving full voice to the pain.

“Your life is just beginning.” He sat beside her, and she didn’t protest when he tugged her hands away from her face, her eyes red-rimmed and damp. He was painstakingly gentle as he collected her into his embrace. He rocked her tenderly and carefully, as though she was fragile and very dear to him. “It’s all right,” he assured her, his voice a low croon. She continued to sob and cling to his wool sweater, heedless of her makeup as she rubbed her cheek against its fuzzy texture.

“I…have…nobody,” she rasped. “I’m all alone, and-and I can’t g-go back to school. My parents hate me! They wanted to send me away anyway, s-so where’m I s’posed to go?”

“Among your own kind,” he replied easily. “You’re not the only one, you know. Unique, certainly, but still one of many similar.” He stroked her hair, tousled and tangled from days of having no grooming items. “Do you know who I am, child?”

“N-no,” she sniffled, finally pulling back and craning her face up at him. “Some guy who had nothing better to do than bust me out of jail?”

“You’re the first person who has ever referred to me as ‘some guy,’ but I will excuse it in favor of educating you. My name is Erik. Erik Magnus Lensherr.” He wiped away her tears with his thumb, and her mystified look tugged at him. He smoothed down her hair carefully, still amused at its odd colors. “The media blessed me with a different moniker. You might know me as Magneto.” He didn’t flinch when she backed away from him, nearly falling over the stump in her haste.

“Holy shit,” she whispered.

“I’m a mutant,” he explained. “I manipulate metal, in even its most infinitesimal form. Any kind. And I thought we agreed you would watch your language, child. You might not think you have to stand on ceremony in these humble accommodations, but I would appreciate it if you remembered you were a young lady.”

“You…you turned the Golden Gate Bridge into…wow. Wow,” she repeated, sitting back down, looking dumbstruck. “Why?”

He sighed gustily, a reasonable answer escaping him. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wanted to make a statement.”

“Could’ve just announced ‘I’m here.’ Guess I just don’t have vision for these kinda things,” she admitted, and Erik caught a hint of mischief dancing in her eyes. It was refreshing, having his own wit thrown back at him with such finesse.

“The impact would’ve been lost. Humans are never satisfied unless you enter with a bang. They take nothing else seriously, and my dear, I am a man who must always be taken seriously.” He sat up and stretched, hating the crack of his joints after so much cramped travel but still grateful he’d come this far. His youth was a blur of dark nights and excruciating days filled with the certainty that tomorrow, his time was up.

Tomorrow had a new meaning for him now.

“News flash, buddy. I’m a human, and last time I checked, all it takes is opposable thumbs. That’d make you a human, too.”

“Rule number one, if you would like to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with me, child: We, meaning you and I, by token of being mutants, are not merely human. Remember that. Now, about this hair of yours…” Lorna found his voice compelling, noticing he had a rich accent whose origin she couldn’t quite discern.

She felt her hair stirring all the way down to the follicle, and a tingle of surprise tinged with wonder ran through her as Erik gestured with his hand.

“They thought they cured me, back at Alcatraz. I thought all hope was lost, until I discovered you, child. For the past few weeks, I’ve felt something tugging at me.” As he spoke, her hair continued to wave as if buoyed by a breeze, even though the evening air was still. “I was drawn to it like a beacon. A wave of energy, magnetic in nature. It kept winking in and out of my awareness, calling to me. My powers have lain dormant since the coup at Alcatraz. Members of our own kind – mutants – took my gift from me, but it’s proven only temporary. I still feel the metal calling to me. Its song resonates within my being. Just as I suspect it resonates through yours.” Incredulously, she watched flecks of sooty black matter rise and dance on the air current Erik created, slowly realizing it was the actual dye from her hair, slowly dissipating and falling away. “Promise me in the future you will reconsider your choice of hair color. Or at least use less harmful dyes. Oh, my,” he breathed, stealing her earlier feelings of shock.

“Don’t laugh,” she implored, shrinking down and huddling inside her jacket.

“Never,” he vowed. “It’s…fetching. It’s you,” he amended, and for the first time since they’d become acquainted, Lorna grinned. She ran a hand through her jaw-length, chartreuse green hair and tried to restore some semblance of order to it as Erik fetched the small aluminum sauce pan from his satchel.

 

Ottawa:

Logan couldn’t remember how many nights found him camped out under an inky sky, silently daring anything creeping on four feet to try to steal his dinner from him. Heather and Mac nagged him out of the “Bat Cave” for a barbecue over an open pit. Logan regaled them with tales of the kids, particularly the night he’d met Marie.

Logan continued his scan of the personnel files into the wee hours of the night, savoring the opportunity to be alone with his thoughts. He loved Mac and Heather to death, but some things a man just had to absorb privately.

The names were familiar enough as he toggled through the screen with the mouse, clicking on each one. Malcolm Colcord. Madison Jeffries. Dr. Zander Rice. Dr. Carol Hines…Logan vaguely remembered a woman with her dark hair skinned back ruthlessly, peering down at him through wire-rimmed spectacles, reminding him of Nurse Ratchet in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Dr. Sarah Kinney. Dr. Robert Windsor. Brent Jackson. John Sublime…he hopped back a name or two, wondering why that one rang a bell.

Windsor…dark hair. Fair-skinned, like someone who never got outside. Logan clicked on the record and expanded the database on him, taking in Department H’s elaborate details with interest. Guy received his PhD in genetic engineering and biophysics, not unlike Hank. No previous medical records on file. Ten years in service of the Department of Defence prior to his work on the Weapon X project…

“No personnel record updates following the dissolution of Weapon X project, discontinued due to lack of funding and uncertain security of complex,” Logan snorted to himself as he read the screen aloud. He wondered if that trail of bodies he’d left behind qualified as “uncertain security.” The steely squeal of his claws ripping through concrete haunted him, sending a shiver down his spine. The memory nagged him, now that Jean had unscrambled it. She’d immersed herself in his psyche, swimming along the tide of his memories, imprinting herself into his mind before he took her life. Logan never trusted telepaths or empaths sneaking into his head, even though he’d allowed the Professor access to help him find the clues he was so desperate for. It was too personal. He’d had too much taken from him already. His thoughts were sacrosanct, untouchable by science, government reach, or human cruelty. He claimed to possess nothing else.

The records began to blur, Logan was so tired, staring listlessly at the screen and sipping a mug of cocoa that had long since gone cold. Heather, bless her, left the treat for him prior to booting up the system in Mac’s den and offering her goodnight. Her touch still lingered; she’d ruffled his unruly hair prior to taking her leave, scooping up Huggles so the pooch wouldn’t disturb him on her way out. Logan could have sworn the mutt had a foot fetish…

He set the mug down on the side table before he could drop it. His fingers were suddenly trembling, and he smothered a curse.

“Dr. Winsor expressed interest in the potential for implant technology in baseline, healthy volunteers that would enable the military to interface directly with Homeland Security mainframe, essentially remaining ‘online’ at all times, in sync with directives and orders from the Department of Defence. The implants would enhance strength and physical endurance in subjects/militia, enabling fewer casualties during times of war and fewer civilian deaths. Dr. Windsor is optimistic that we may be witnessing the dawn of a new brand of soldier to protect the Canadian countryside, and its bordering nations as Weapons Plus pursues these new modalities. Local law enforcement would also benefit from the new technology, particularly in regard to super-powered beings and threats from mutantkind.”

Logan scooted back from his chair so sharply that he nearly knocked it over, running from the den to wake Mac. He didn’t care that it was late.

He needed some way of getting the files back to Hank and ‘Ro. First, he had to gas up the bike.

According to the files, the funding had never cut for the Weapons Plus program once the Department’s interest in Weapon X folded. Windsor wasn’t among the members of the research team who’d been present the night Heather and Mac found Logan, half-frozen and bleeding in the snow.

That maniac was still out there, with all of Logan’s medical history at his disposal.

 

Westchester, School for Gifted Youngsters:

“Bobby, quit hogging all the marshmallows,” Kitty nagged, reaching over his shoulder and snatching it from his lap. He grinned up at her innocently, blue eyes twinkling in the firelight.

“Just helping you keep your girlish figure, Kit-Kat,” he shrugged. Anna Marie socked him heartily in the chest, unfazed about doing him any real harm.

“Pass me the chocolate while you’re at it, Kitty,” Dani implored, selecting a graham cracker from the cellophane wrapper.

Forge surprised Ororo yet again, this time with a bonfire by the lake front and the suggestion of s’mores and an impromptu barbecue. When she’d begged off, using the mountain of ungraded test papers atop her desk, Hank had smoothly led her by the elbow from the house after announcing to the students that they would be dining al fresco.

“I’m prohibitively busy, Henry!”

“They’ll pepper me with questions all night long about ‘Where’s Miss Munroe?’ if I let you escape back to your cave, my dear. Out!” He flung one pointed, clawed finger in the direction of the back door. Ororo opened her mouth to protest, but clapped it shut again as he turned her shoulders and marched her outside. “Go! Eat! Enjoy, for a change. Take off your teacher’s hat and take a rest.”

“The papers,” she murmured weakly.

“I’ve some notes to go over in the lab,” Henry reminded her. “I can take care of the test papers while I’m down there. And I already ate,” he added, deflecting her argument that he wasn’t coming with her. “I’m not your only source of adult conversation, either, Ororo. Don’t keep our ever-so-helpful guest waiting.” Ororo eyed him carefully, a twinkle of curiosity in her eyes.

“Henry,” she accused, folding her slender arms beneath her breasts. “You’re up to something.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No I’m not,” he sang liltingly.

“Ohhhhhh, yes you are,” she insisted.

“Miss Munroe!” Sam called, his voice carrying easily over the water as he waved a bag of marshmallows. “Come an’ have some s’mores b’fore they’re all gone, ma’am!”

“He’s right,” chuckled a resonant Texan voice behind her. “Snap one up before they disappear, Ororo. Get ‘em while they’re hot.” He swept his arm out toward the lake, ushering her forward without actually touching her, but she felt his nearness with a ticklish glow in her stomach. He once again wore his denims with casual grace, this time wearing a khaki button-down camp shirt and coffee brown leather boots. A necklace, choker-cut, adorned his neck, made from bone hairpipes and sandstone beads. A buffalo tooth pendant dangled from the center.

“I really shouldn’t – “

“I’m going inside. Forge, makes sure she gets some fresh air and junk food. I expect to smell graham crackers and chocolate on your breath before you come back inside.”

“Aye, aye,” he grinned. Ororo shot Henry a look that promised retribution, but he excused himself with a jaunty wave, whistling cheerfully as he returned to the kitchen. Ororo turned back to Forge, searching for any reason why she should have to go back to her study. His ebony eyes made reason of any sort elusive at best as he continued to drink his fill of her.

She was beautiful. Despite her insistence that she had work to finish, she’d already dressed for comfort. Tapered, faded jeans and a lightweight white henley shirt of downy cotton displayed her elegant curves; she’d also completed the look with short black boots. Her lustrous hair was bound back in a French braid with soft tendrils framing her face. Gold hoop earrings swung from her ears and complimented her skin, warm as maple syrup in the firelight the closer they drew to the lake front.

Eyes as blue as snapdragons peered up at him through thick lashes. “You’re in league with Henry.”

“Oh, no. I can do bad all by myself, Ororo. This was my idea, all right. There’s a s’more calling your name. Here,” he offered, grabbing a long branch from the grass, peeling a long twig from it and stripping it of its leaves and bark as he led her to the clearing. Rock music blared from the boom box that Kitty brought along, and Ororo smiled despite herself at the cluster of students gorging on hot dogs and marshmallows. Jubilee and Kitty were having one of many Lord of the Rings debates that sent them arguing through the halls of the school and sent Piotr and Bobby scurrying away for refuge from flying fur.

Forge’s hand felt warm, nudging her arm and urging her to take the makeshift marshmallow skewer from him. “Thank you,” she murmured, and was about to duck over to the fire to find a vacant place to sit. She found herself rooted to the spot when he didn’t let go of the twig.

“Just a sec,” he murmured, and he winked at her as he deftly pushed a marshmallow onto the end of it. “Don’t run away just yet. Might help if you have one of these.” She cleared her throat and tugged the stick lightly from his grasp, a hint of indignance creeping into her flushed cheeks.

She wished he’d stop looking at her like he wanted to eat her up…

“Much obliged,” she assured him coolly before turning to the fire. Sam welcomed her eagerly and moved over to make room for her to kneel and place her stick in the dense, sandy soil, propping it where it could easily roast while she prepared her cracker.

“You don’t have to sit on the ground,” Forge announced. He snapped open a double club chair and smoothed it a few feet behind the bonfire before strolling over. He had such a lanky gait, she mused. His bearing reminded her of Scott, with the same proud posture and confidence; the only difference was the faint roll of the one hip that he seemed to favor. She remembered that he’d been injured while on active duty in Vietnam.

“I’m nearly finished,” she replied.

“That marshmallow’s just this side shy of well done,” Bobby pointed out, removing her stick from the dirt and blowing out the tiny, burning cinders dancing along its edge. He handed it to her with a knowing grin. Ororo sighed and rose, taking the seat Forge offered in silent defeat. Ever the gentleman, he brought over half an unwrapped Hershey bar and the cellophane wrapper of crackers. Before she could reach for one, he sat down next to her, his arm inadvertently brushing hers and sending a quiver of electricity dancing along her flesh as he relieved her of the marshmallow stick. He prepared it for her, neatly pressing a perfectly separated square of chocolate over the marshmallow and graham and sliding the stick out from the sandwich. He topped it with another cracker and handed it to her. Their fingertips bumped. Forge licked away a smudge of chocolate from his finger. His chiseled lips curled beneath his neatly trimmed mustache, bringing out a dimple in his cheek.

“Why don’t you like me, Ororo?”

“I never said I didn’t like you,” she countered, nibbling a corner of the sandwich and licking up a stray blob of marshmallow.

“You’ve been avoiding me. If you don’t walk out of the room whenever I’m there, or if we’re not discussing business, you send Hank or one of the students to be the messenger to come and get me. And you’ve made it clear that you don’t seem to trust me.”

“We wouldn’t have anything else to discuss besides business, sir.”

“Ah. So it’s like that.”

“You came here as a favor to Henry. Don’t get me wrong, Forge. I appreciate what you’ve done. You’ve restored a valuable resource to this school, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t think highly of the government’s role in the past persecution of mutants like myself. Like us,” she amended. “You have a special gift. The same people at the Pentagon who pay your salary are the same ones who sanctioned the use of the Cure.”

“It doesn’t stop the fact that the Cure was funded and sanctioned by the father of a mutant, as you told me before.”

“I told you that with a different intent, Forge,” she shot back, fuming and gathering steam from the sugar rush. “You’ve met Warren, then?”

“Yes, I have.” His eyes flitted over to the pier overlooking the lake, where Warren sat dangling his feet into the water, enjoying the faint breeze rustling through his feathers.

“Does he look like he needs to be cured of anything?”

“Of course not.”

“Do I?” Her voice held a hard edge, even though her face was tranquil. She licked up a dab of chocolate from her snack as she met his gaze unwaveringly.

“No. You don’t. Ask yourself, though, Ororo…how many mutants have you met or witnessed who were crippled by their power? Imprisoned in their homes for fear of interacting with others? A danger to themselves, as well as to others? Disfigured? Incapable of leading a regular life without supportive devices or barriers?” This time, he followed her eyes over to Marie, holding court with Bobby and Jimmy as she tussled with them over a bag of chips. She snatched a gloved handful of them and munched a few before handing Bobby back the bag. “Denied something so simple as human contact and comfort?”

“Some sacrifices have to be made. It’s a mutant’s choice whether to seek a so-called ‘cure’ to rid themselves of their gift. Not a clinic’s. Not a pharmaceutical company’s. And not the government’s, unless it’s a large-scale threat to national security. And even then…they would do well to call us first.”

“The President has Hank on speed dial,” he murmured. That earned him a smile. “And that leaves me with the question now, for you. If you lost your powers, Ororo, would you consider yourself crippled?”

“What an odd thing to say.” She scowled at him, affronted. “I imagine I would adapt. I’m a mutant. But first and foremost, I am a woman. And for the moment, a headmistress. If my niche no longer rested with the academy, I would perhaps pursue something else. My powers are valuable. They open another world to me that many only imagine in their wildest dreams. Warren and Sam can relate, to a degree. And Jean…” her voice trailed off. “She was very dear to me.”

“Close friends?”

“Sisters in all ways but blood.” Forge was thoughtful as he sipped from a can of Coke, sucking a bead of liquid from his lip. He leaned back in the club chair, making it rock slightly with the motion, and Ororo then became aware of how closely she’d been leaning in toward him as they spoke. His skin, hair and clothing still held that spicy little scent she’d come to associate with him, without realizing that she had. Forge…was just Forge.

“You don’t believe the Cure could have saved her?”

“She didn’t want anyone to try. Jean wasn’t built that way. All things considered, I don’t know that I am, either.”

“What about that ‘I’m not just a mutant, I’m a woman’ speech?”

“I can make it rain. I can fly. Figure it out for yourself.” She sighed and shared a wicked look with him. “I would live, certainly. That doesn’t mean I would like it.”

“You never know what you can do to adapt until you try.” He removed his glove, displaying his impressive prosthetic. “I can do anything with his hand except feel. The nannites send messages to my nervous system, which loops them back with signals to move my fingers to perform whatever task that I need.” He laid down the glove before reaching to tug his foot into his lap, removing his boot. Before she could stop herself, Ororo reached out to run her fingertips over the intricate net of circuitry and filaments winking up at her from the titanium alloy of his leg. Forge watched her reaction with fascination.

“Amazing,” she breathed, stifling the idiotic urge to ask him “Does it go all the way up?”

“It makes some folks nervous.”

“Some folks are idiots.”

“I lost my leg all the way to halfway up my thigh. Landmine,” he explained, guessing she was curious, and glad when she beamed at him again. “I don’t consider myself crippled.”

“You shouldn’t,” she agreed. “Your gift helped.”

“It’s not all that I am.” He replaced his boot, zipping it back up. “I’m a man first,” he reminded her, and he took the brief liberty of reaching out to tweak a slender, curling tendril of her hair that reminded him of spun moonbeams. His fingertips were warm and painstakingly gentle as they grazed her cheek. She smothered her sharp intake of breath and he watched her eyes dilate. She licked her lips and cleared her throat in an effort to recover her composure.

“I…I’m headed inside. I obeyed Henry’s orders to the letter. Mission accomplished. Thank you for this. For everything,” she stammered, rising from her half of the club chair on shaky legs and gesturing to the dwindling bonfire and her students.

“My pleasure, Ororo.”

“Good night.” Niggling pangs of guilt and feminine appreciation warred within her stomach as she nearly ran back to the house.

She felt his eyes following her.

Chapter Text

“LOGAN!”

Logan had just shucked his leather jacket and tossed it onto the workbench in the institute’s garage and was clutching his flannel shirt’s hem, fanning cool air against his sweat-drenched skin and craving a shower.

“Five friggin’ minutes,” Logan muttered wryly, turning around stiffly and stretching himself as Kitty ran into the cavernous garage to greet him. “Lemme cool my heels, punkin.”

“Ohmigodyou’llneverguesswho’sherehe’sawesomehisname’sForgehe’stotallycool,” she gushed on an incomprehensible string of babble, only pausing to take a breath when Logan handed her his duffle.

“Where’s Ororo?”

“In the house.” On the way back inside, she peppered him with questions and wrinkled her nose at his gamey condition, wondering when he shook hands with his stick of deodorant last. His knuckles itched, and he was craving a smoke, but the files and the briefing with ‘Ro and Blue couldn’t wait.

The kitchen held a few stragglers rummaging through the pantry for snacks, and several heads popped up at his arrival, taking in his rumpled appearance and windblown hair with a mixture of amusement and fear. Jubilee grinned at him and inquired “What’d you bring me?”

“Nice manners, kid. Don’t even tell me yer glad ta see me home, safe and sound.”

“Yay! You’re home!” she retorted, clapping her hands like a drill team captain. “Now, what’d you bring me?”

“Gads,” he muttered, but his lips twitched as he reached out and tweaked her nose. He nudged past Kitty to the refrigerator and searched for a beer, grumbling under his breath when all he found was IBC cream soda. He jerked one of the bottles from the cardboard carton and leaned the cap’s edge up against the counter, deftly slapping it off.

“Wait’ll you see what Forge did with Cerebro!” Kitty gushed. He choked mid-swig and wiped his mouth.

“Who the hell’s he?”

“Weren’t you listening?” She made a noise of disgust. “I TOLD you about him! He knows Hank, and he’s really good with computers, electronics, and anything you can plug in.”

“Ya sound like the guy’s cheering section.”

“I wanna be Forge when I grow up,” she announced pithily.

“Thought ya wanted ta be mayor of Chicago.”

“I was thinking too small. Things change,” she sniffed, helping herself to a soda. “So, are you gonna shower before you talk to Ororo and Hank?”

 

~0~

 

“I don’t see why I needed a blindfold for this.”

“It’s a surprise.”

“I’m headmistress of a school for mutants, Maker. I’ve learned to resent surprises more than appreciate them.” She gripped his hand comfortably, walking steadily beside him without stumbling as he guided her through the sublevel.

“I love how you keep such an open mind,” he chuckled. She liked his laugh.

“Why did you bring me to the Danger Room?” she inquired as they stopped. He flicked her a surprised look that she clearly felt, judging by her smug smile.

“How did you…?”

“I know every inch of the mansion even with my eyes closed, in the event of a blackout or a lockdown. Jean walked me through it and planted the impressions of every scent of the room, the sound of my footsteps on every floor, and the sounds of every generator, vent, and echo resonating from every wall, depending on where I’m standing inside of my consciousness, in what she calls my ‘back brain.’ It doesn’t hurt that I used to be a thief.”

“So all this time you’ve just been casing the joint?” She reached out to lightly smack his arm.

“Can I take off my blindfold now?” The object in question was a black cotton Harley Davidson bandanna tucked in Forge’s jacket pocket, knotted carefully and gently behind her head.

“Not until you key us in,” he sang patiently. She sighed, and stepped forward, placing her palm against the security plate. The entry doors gave a hollow click before sliding open to allow them entry. A green light above glowed with the words “Engaged.”

“The obvious question that springs to my lips at this particular moment, Forge, is how did you manage to do anything worth dragging me away from my history lesson plan without having me key you in before?”

“Blue,” he shrugged. “He was my partner in crime. When I showed him the schematic for the changes I wanted to make, he salivated and started muttering under his breath, throwing around big words. Flattering, but creepy. Hank’s fun.”

“He’s a great Trivial Pursuit player, too.”

“Open those baby blues, pretty lady,” he offered. His hands were gently as they untied the bandanna, and she shivered as the soft cloth was whisked away from her face, brushing the side of her neck as he collected it.

“Goddess,” she whispered. “It’s my greenhouse,” she confirmed, feeling the faint rasp of gravel and mulch beneath her booted feet. The scent of her prized purple orchids enticed her, and she reached out to finger the leaves of an African violet. Sunlight streamed in through the roof, and she watched the clouds drift across a clear sky in wonder before narrowing her eyes.

“I can’t manipulate them.”

“No.” Forge stared up through the glass-paned skylight, following her gaze. “Three-dimensional holograms that replicate sound, form, function, scent…if I programmed it to rain in here, it would feel wet. You’re not the only one that can make it rain after all,” he grinned.

“Show-off. And your boast is hollow,” she scoffed, letting her eyes glow until the placid blue swirled away, revealing a translucent, milky white that lent her face an otherworldly quality that stole his breath. A faint breeze stirred the chamber, actually making the leaves of all her “plants” rustle as she summoned a zephyr to lift her up into the air.

Forge watched her float gracefully, drifting along like someone wading and coasting on an ocean wave, treading air. Her hair billowed and rippled like a cloud. Awe and reverence clenched his gut and made his mouth go dry. The simulated sunlight that shone in through the phantom panes of the ‘greenhouse’ roof paled in comparison to the angel hovering above him.

“Then this may be more to your liking,” he suggested, and he reached for a module in his pocket. He punched a button and in the blink of an eye, the greenhouse dissipated, shifting and changing around her, giving her pause. The plants vanished, leaving dessicated grass the color of straw waving in its wake, surrounding a shallow river and bordered by a lush rain forest. A family of gazelles peered up at her, and the mother resumed its task of nosing its calf to stand on its own feet.

Ororo smiled mischievously, her only reply a rumble of thunder that shook the ground beneath Forge’s feet. He staggered to regain his purchase and emitted a shout of astonished laughter. “Put that back in your pocket,” she warned him. “It’s about to get wet.”

Forge smelled ozone – and it occurred to him, briefly, that he hadn’t programmed that charged, exhilarating scent, not yet – and felt the first droplets of cool rain pelting him, making the dust rise up in puffs over the caked, dry soil. She raised her hands as though in supplication to some unseen deity and allowed lightning to streak across the sky, almost convincing him that they were outside witnessing the spectacle from the front veranda. He craved a cup of hot chocolate and a cozy porch swing to better enjoy it the storm.

He made a note to program that simulation the first chance that he had.

She floated back to the ground, touching down as light as a feather beside him. The winds still whipped her hair and caressed them both, even though the rain she’d summoned dwindled down to a drizzle.

“Now who’s the show-off?” he murmured, once again reaching out to smooth back that magnificent hair, allowing himself this time to cup her cheek in his broad palm. His skin felt hot, despite the cooling rain still falling around them, and her eyes never left his as she instinctively leaned into his caress. Her hand was steady as she reached up to cover his hand as it cradled her face, stroking it with her fingertips, and on a whim that she couldn’t explain, she closed the gap between them and captured his lips with hers. His heart hammered and skipped a beat, sending blood roaring through his ears as she consumed his abbreviated reply and traced the inner seam of his lips with her tongue, beckoning to him for entry. She could have sworn she felt his knees buckle slightly, right before he enveloped her, snaking his arm around her waist and dominating the kiss, stoking the embers into a crackling flame. A muffled voice of reason implored her to untangle her fingers from the collar of his shirt and to stop cleaving to him, molding her body to his as he suckled her lower lip, but she squelched it, reveling in the feel of his wiry muscle and taut skin, and the spicy scent of him that went straight to her head.

The pattering of the rain against the ground increased in its intensity, soaking them both and playing havoc over their senses and fevered skin. Ororo sensed a kindred connection between Forge and the forces of nature she communed with in each breath. She felt no fear from him of her link with the maelstrom surrounding them, embracing the source of its fury. Of its beauty. The small mewling sound of need that bubbled up from her throat tightened his grip on her waist, and one kiss tumbled after another, nearly making him dizzy. She tasted ripe and succulent as a sun-warmed peach, and he thirsted for more.

Down the hall, Logan’s footsteps padded leisurely toward the men’s locker room. He’d hoped to avoid more of the kids climbing him like a tree, clamoring to know where he’d been when all he wanted was a shower and a chance to unwind in the steam room. His muscles ached abominably from the long ride home, despite his healing factor, and he wanted to refresh himself before he called Ororo and Hank into the conference room to go over the contents of the disk.

It had been two weeks since he’d last heard her smoky voice, imagining her lying in bed and dressed for sleep. Despite the revelations of his sojourn with Mac and Heather, the kiss in the kitchen had nagged at him, distracting him and making it hard to focus on anything but getting back to her. Above and beyond anything else, he wanted her to tell him why.

Why now. Why him? How long had she let those feelings just simmer beneath the surface?

It started as one fleeting, curious moment. Just to see if she tasted as good as she looked. A double-dog dare to himself to see if she’d even respond to the contact and let down her guard. He wouldn’t admit to himself or anything else that he needed…no, craved…one more for the road. A reminder of her to take with him if he never came back.

He’d admitted that he loved Jean to her face that last time that he’d said goodbye. He read resignation, hurt, and a surge of betrayal in those lambent blue eyes before she donned her mask again, once more resuming her mantle of teacher for the armor of a warrior and stealing away that last precious glimpse of what she was feeling. Life went on. They grieved. They nursed new hurts along with the old and counted their scars. Neither of them dug too deep for fear of losing the tenuous connection that they both valued with one another. I won’t show you mine, if you don’t show me yours.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t look.

Every day, their eyes met across the room or over the dinner table. He knew mannerisms and gestures and daily habits that she had, such as how she rolled back the front cover of a magazine before reading it or kept her shoes paired together and facing the door before stepping into them. He listened for her footsteps whenever she came and went. Her scent teased him the moment he set foot in the house. He even began following it before he could stop himself, slave to some unnamed whim.

Before he left, she’d spoken to him of closure. Of not missing what was being offered to him if he’d move forward instead of looking back. Much like that night before they left for Alcatraz, he’d ignored what was staring him in the face. She’d challenged him.

And he tucked tail and ran.

The locker room was echoingly empty; third period had started and there were no phys ed classes scheduled until tomorrow; Ororo had deferred his self-defense training until after he came back, offering to even take it herself, but he’d been adamant that she didn’t overfill her plate. He sat down on the bench and shucked his boots, groaning in relief at the chance to wiggle his cramped toes. He peeled off his clothes one layer at a time, trying to shed the memory of the horrors revealed in Mac’s database and scrubbing it from his vision as he dug the heels of his hands into his drooping eyes. His clothes lay in a rumpled pile on the bench as he made his way to shower, turning up the hot water just a shade past his normal tolerance, wanting to soothe away myriad discomforts so he could unhinge his shoulders from his ears. He’d held the same stance of his arms raised in front of him for so long that even when he relaxed them, they still wanted to drift up and grip imaginary handlebars. Runnels of water sluiced through his thick hair as he made generous use of the herbal-scented shampoo and a plain yellow bar of Dial. Dust and grit from the road rinsed down the drain, but his burden of knowledge and the need to kick his own ass lingered like the taste of sour milk.

He needed to see ‘Ro. He needed answers to what he was feeling before he drove himself nuts. It could be a fluke. A hiccup from God. They’d been weak. Momentary insanity.

Sure. Why not?

He rummaged through the locker room cupboards for towels and for the spare supply of men’s sweats, grabbing a school issue black tee with the school logo and a pair of canvas running pants like the ones that Scooter favored. He snagged his comb from his duffle and gave his hair a lick and a promise before chucking his soiled gear into the laundry bin and locking away his bag. For the moment, it was good enough.

He traversed the long corridor to the uniform case, noting none of them had been disturbed, reassuring him that things had been quiet after he’d left. He stopped by Henry’s med lab and grunted when it, too, was empty, the blue-furred physicist’s scent cold. That left the Danger Room before he headed back upstairs to Ororo’s office or the greenhouse. He didn’t remember catching her scent on the breeze outside or seeing her on the grounds when he’d rode in.

The faint hint of sandalwood and rain touched him with fleeting fingers as he strode to the suite, noticing the green light over the door. His ears had to be deceiving him; there were no sounds of battle, and no impacts against the floor or reinforced walls.

Yet he could hear rain. A mild, steady shower. His senses buzzed at him, sending his hackles up and knotting his gut.

He slapped his palm against the security plate, noting that Ororo’s name showed up on the roster display as the last person to enter the suite. The doors slid open, revealing a sight that socked him in the gut.

A lioness lay sunning herself and flicked her tail at him as he stepped inside, yawning a warning while her cubs rolled and wrestled in the grass. Wind rustled through the reeds and fronds of enormous trees that his eyes told him were miles off in the distance, even though the room was only a thousand square feet. He smelled ozone.

And he saw red.

Ororo and a tall, lean man with one gloved hand were playing tongue hockey in an embrace that belonged in the bedroom, right before the clothes started flying. Her curves were molded to him, her fingers tangled in his glossy black hair, cinnamon skin pressed against caramel. They were soaked to the skin and heedless of the rain and wind.

Logan drew their attention to it quickly, his claws popping through his flesh before he could stop them.

“Fuck.” His rusty voice broke the spell, and Ororo’s eyes flew open before she loosened her grip on her guest, spinning to face the entryway with guilt in her eyes. Black eyes swept over him and assessed him in ways Logan easily recognized.

He’d just met his rival. He flashed his canines, his lips curling back as steel sprang into his spine.

“Ya didn’t answer yer phone. I left ya a message that I was comin’ back today.”

“Logan…”

“Cute special effects,” he growled, irritated by the puddles of rainwater soaking his sneakers. He kicked his foot through it, throwing up a wavelet of drops before he retracted his claws and folded his arms.

Ororo drank in the sight of him, hair glistening and skin glowing from his shower, imposing and mouth-wateringly sexy. His nostrils flared, and from where she stood his cheeks had darkened with barely restrained anger. She cleared her throat and backed away, letting Forge’s hands drop from her waist before she smoothed her palms over her jeans.

Logan gained a full view of her luscious body, soaking wet and shrink-wrapped in the clinging cotton, her shirt nearly transparent. Whether it was from the rain or her contact with the guy who had “needs his ass kicked” practically tattooed over his forehead, Ororo’s nipples had stiffened into taut peaks, and her face was flushed. Something resembling shame flavored her scent, along with an arousal that choked him.

Mine.

“Forge, this is Logan. He just came back from a meeting with some colleagues of his in Canada.” Her eyes never left Logan’s, even though he wasn’t the one she’d addressed.

“Wanna turn off the friggin’ rain?” He wasn’t interested in any of Forge’s qualifying credentials. All he cared was that he move away from her.

“Of course.” The milky glow faded from her eyes, and the rain disappeared. Logan felt the temperature of the suite climb, and a warm breeze whip through the chamber, evaporating the shallow puddles and drying the rain-slicked walls, making all three occupants’ hair flutter. The damp spots on Ororo and Forge’s clothing were nearly dry.

“Cute trick,” he added. “Wanna get rid of the zoo while yer at it?”

“Let me take care of that,” Forge offered, reaching into his pocket for a silver gadget that resembled a remote, only it was the size of a credit card. He hit a button with his thumb, and the room slowly reverted back to its customary, chrome-finished walls. No more swaying trees. No more birds screeching in the sky.

Just one guilty-looking weather witch.

“If the two of ya are done playin’ in the Land of Oz, I’ve got some files ya need ta see, Storm,” he grumbled. “I’m headin’ upstairs. Tell Blue ta get his furry ass in the conference room when ya get a moment.” He turned his back on them without further comment, his strides long and sharp.

Ororo didn’t realize she’d been clenching her fists until she felt Forge’s hand gently grip her shoulder.

“You weren’t expecting him to come home today?” She stared back at him, looking thoroughly rattled.

“I have to go upstairs.” She offered no explanation as she preceded him out of the suite, but her steps were heavy, and she tugged on her hair, helplessly twisting it into a knot at her nape.

That was all the explanation Forge needed. He sighed and tucked his module back into his pocket.

 

~0~

Hank’s fur stood on end beneath his carefully tailored viscose suit from the moment they’d adjourned to the conference room. Logan hadn’t said a word as he moved around the desk, booting up the PC and plugging in a flash drive. He scented tension from Logan and his best friend so sharp it nearly stung him. Forge was conspicuously absent, having excused himself back to his rented penthouse in New Salem, and he’d been in something of a hurry. Hank had stifled his disappointment, wanting to discuss the upgrades to the mansion security system in more detail, as well as an enhancement to the Blackbird’s GPS system and its interface with Cerebro.

“What are we looking at?” Ororo inquired, taking the seat closest to the door. Logan scowled impatiently at the screen in front of him as he turned on the projector using the roller ball mouse, clicking the little icon.

“Gimme a minute, yer Highness, and I’ll give ya the short version. Don’t expect any big words.” Hank winced. Ouch.

“I trust you had a fruitful trip?”

“Ya can’t call the shit that I brought back ‘fruitful,’ Blue.” He opened the archive of microfiched files and the database in separate windows, toggling from one to the other as he explained his findings. His voice was dispassionate and cold as two sets of eyes scanned the screen before them. The projector threw a soft glow over Ororo’s caramel skin that Logan fought to ignore…damn her.

“The Weapon X project. Department H gets its funding from the same outfit that sanctioned these.” SNIKT. “These ain’t what makes me a mutant. But my bein’ one was a big draw when they brought me in as a so-called ‘healthy volunteer.’ I’d seen my share of combat, and lived through it. Weapon X wanted to build a better soldier. With me, they got a weapon and more than they fuckin’ bargained for.”

He flicked through one image after another of the bodies, their visages twisted in agony and covered in scars. Holes had been gouged and burned into their flesh, and Ororo and Hank both grimaced, more aware than ever that Logan had escaped the closest thing they world they knew had to hell. Ororo’s stomach lurched, and she breathed sharply through her nose, gripping the arms of the chair. The sight of such human suffering nearly made her cast up her accounts.

“They did this in the name of national security. Notes in the personnel files and progress reports from the sight suggest that they ain’t through. They wanna implant the adamantium into new subjects and make ‘em into puppets. They don’t wanna make the same mistake they made with me.”

“And what was that, Logan?” Hank murmured, still aghast as he watched the screen, unable to turn away.

“Make me strong enough ta get past anything in my way without figurin’ out a way ta turn me off.” He flicked his mouse over the entries about a Dr. Robert Windsor. “According ta this, Windsor wasn’t in the complex the night that they ran the experiment. That means he’s still alive.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“The rest of ‘em never saw the light of day again.” A vein in this jaw throbbed, belying his level voice. “I thought I’d cleaned house. Apparently I thought wrong. A few roaches skittered away into the crevices where I couldn’t reach.”

“Your friends had access to these files?”

“And so does the Canadian Department of Defence. Ya think they’d keep shit like this locked up tighter than Fort Knox. They know me inside and out. And they’re out there.” Logan shut down the files and rose from his seat, rubbing out a kink in his neck. “Tryin’ ta finish what they started.”

“This is worse than anything I ever imagined.” Henry’s voice was soft and nearly trembled. “They’ll go to any lengths to use us. They’re so convinced that mutants will destroy everything in our path, yet they want to use us to do the exact same thing.” He reached out in an unfamiliar gesture of compassion toward the Canadian and clapped his shoulder, squeezing it. “We’ll stop this. We won’t let this happen again, man. For the love of all that’s holy, we just can’t.”

“For all we know, Blue, it’s already happened.” He shrugged off Hank’s touch and busied himself with closing out the projector. Ororo sensed he was making a hasty exit and rose from her perch.

“I’d like to discuss the upgrades with you that were made while you were gone, if you’d lend me some more of your time,” she implored.

“Fill me in on ‘em later,” he snarled, avoiding her eyes.

“Logan – “

“Don’t stand between me and a brew, ‘Ro. I’m goin’ ta Harry’s. Don’t wait up.” She cursed his speed as he whipped out of the suite, nearly leaving smoke in his wake. A smart woman would leave him alone.

“He’s had a long journey, Ororo. Best to let him defuse and unwind.”

“Like blazes,” she threw back, her long legs tearing after the fuming feral. Henry sighed and shook his head. The air was still charged with tension, even after they both departed, and he had the keen, clawing feeling that he’d missed something.

She finally caught him as he headed out through the back door of the kitchen, barely missing having it slammed shut in her face. She jerked it back open and fell in a mere stride behind him.

“Don’t run away from me,” she barked.

“I ain’t runnin’. I’m walkin’. And then I’m hoppin’ on my bike. Walk. Ride. No runnin’ involved,” he snapped. The set of his posture was still stiff and radiating quiet irritation with her, even though she sensed rage bubbling beneath the surface. “There is gonna be beer involved, sweet cheeks.”

“I won’t let you leave like this,” she hissed, throwing caution to the wind and reaching for him. Her slender fingers closed around his elbow and jerked him back. He spun on her, face implacable, his eyes boring holes through her.

“Ya might wanna let go, Storm.” She winced at the use of her codename.

“Then stop making me chase you.” Again, nagged a mean little voice in her head. She shook herself, realizing that she’d been chasing him way before that particular afternoon.

She was tired of it.

“Get back inside ta yer desk, then. Don’t wear yerself out. Waste of time fer both of us. My plans involve a beer and a smoke. Maybe a few.”

“I want to talk to you.”

“I said my piece inside. There’s nothing else ta talk about. Ya saw what they did ta me. Ya know that they ain’t finished. I came home ta let ya know how big this thing really is.” Some homecoming. “But I see ya had everything well in hand while I was gone. Didn’t need my help managing anything, didja?” he accused, reminding her of their talk in the kitchen. He could tell by the flare of her nostrils that she was remembering it, too, and he shook her hand off, breaking her grip as he continued his trek to the garage.

“You just came back. You were missed. The students asked about you the whole time you were gone.”

“They’ll see me when they see me.”

“Yet they’ll never know when, or if you’re planning to simply leave again. Like you always do.” Her voice had risen, and he caught the tang in her scent. She was getting good and riled up, and something inside him growled in challenge. He relished it.

Let the pissing contest begin…

“Ya didn’t seem ta have a problem with my bein’ gone til I got back and walked in whatever ya were up to in the Danger Room. He just a colleague?” She snorted at his use of her own words.

“Yes. He is. One of Henry’s, as a matter of fact. Forge is a government contractor. He and Henry share some of the same connections in the Pentagon.”

“That ain’t what I asked. Looked like a different kinda connection ta me.” He threw his hands wide. “What the fuck was that all about?”

“I don’t know,” she countered, eyes flashing. “What was that episode about in the kitchen before you left?” His jaw tightened again, and she wanted to reach out and stroke it despite herself, craving the chance to smooth away the angry brackets around his mouth, which had flattened into a thin line. “Did it mean anything to you? Were you just trying to shut me up? Goddess, Logan!” she swore, shaking her head. “This is just like you. You stir up the pot, making anyone concerned about you care more than it’s healthy to care, and then make a speedy getaway before anyone can get too attached.”

“You didn’t have that fucking problem.”

“Like hell I didn’t!” she screeched, and Logan didn’t think quickly enough to dodge her fist as she pummeled his chest, nearly knocking the wind out of him.

“Ow,” he muttered. “Knock that shit off, Storm!”

“You listen to me, and listen good, Wolverine,” she hissed, invading his personal space, tourmaline eyes still blazing and unrepentant. “You think I wasn’t attached? Think again. This isn’t the first time you’ve run off. And each time you came back, you came running back to Jean. Even when she loved someone else. Even when she left us…died, and that hasn’t stopped digging into me, because it’s still raw and gaping and burns me everyday, you ran to her. You didn’t care about the cost. You woke the Phoenix. You disregarded what Charles warned you about and practically knelt at her feet. You knew she killed Scott, and you still chased her to the ends of the goddess-forsaken earth.” She was breathing stertorously, and her scent was still marred by Forge’s touch and drenched with rage, her heartbeat thundering in his ears. “I’m tired of wondering when you’ll tuck and run. I hate myself for hating what Jean did, because I loved her so much! I loved her longer and harder than you ever could, Wolverine, because she was like my sister! But what’s worse is that I know…if Jean ever came back, if she ever came back you’d chase her again. You’d throw away anything else to be with her. You’d follow her to the ends of the earth!” She clouted him again, even though her hand was smarting from the previous impact. He barely flinched, but her voice cut him like a knife.

“If she died and came back a thousand times, you’d still be off and running to be by her side. And you’d run away from anything you could have with me.”

“Storm, that’s bullsh-“

“You know I’m right.”

“You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me at all,” he claimed, skirting around her and stomping into the garage. Her footsteps followed him more slowly this time, but his hackles were still up. She was still pissed.

“Then I guess I don’t. And you, Wolverine, don’t know me. You don’t know how long I’ve watched you play the lone wolf and stalk Jean. You don’t know how much it hurts.”

He had already straddled the bike, and his hand froze, the keys dangling halfway toward the ignition. He willed himself not to look at her, but her pull on him was too strong.

“Forge made it plain from the moment that he walked through that door that he was interested in me. I didn’t think I’d trust anyone crossing that threshold with government credentials and that much interest in our school’s technology, but he’s turned out to be an amazing man in many ways. I’m sorry that you saw what you did today, but I can’t say that I’m sorry I let myself end up there. It chafes me, however, that it took something that drastic for you to remember that I have needs, too. That wasn’t how I wanted to get your attention. Enjoy your evening, Wolverine.” Her jaw was tilted at a stubborn angle, and she stared at him haughtily, just daring him to argue with her.

“Fuck,” he muttered, slapping the handlebar of the bike so hard his palm stung. “Storm…wait. Will ya just wait?” He climbed off the bike and pursued her, gripping her and spinning her to face him. Undiluted defiance and indignance stared back at him.

“I’m not just a piece of pie, Logan. You can’t…you don’t just pull up to the table and pick up your fork, take one bite, and decide you’ve had enough.” She gave a shuddering sigh.

“Ro…what the fuck-“

“Pretty soon, someone else might want a taste. And they might be hungry.” His raked over her, different emotions flitting over his face before he released her. “I won’t tap dance around what we have or don’t have while you’re making up your mind.” She backed away and strode back into the house. She didn’t look back after his bike roared down the driveway.

He was a mile outside the front gates before he started muttering to himself. “Someone else might want a taste,” he mimicked, fuming. Fuck.

Chapter Text

“I hate this.”

“It’s fetching,” he insisted.

“I look like Radioactive Barbie.” She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, now devoid of all but one of the silver hoops that previously nested there.

“You look like someone who commands attention and respect,” he corrected her, but his silver eyes gleamed with pride. He straightened the collar of her coat and dusted it with the flat of his palm. She snorted, arching one tapered, chartreuse brow.

“Whoopee…”

“Come. There’s something I need to show you.” The past three weeks found them busier than Lorna could ever remember. She took smug satisfaction that she’d avoided going back to her old school, after the big basement party debacle. She was still unused to her surroundings in the heavily wooded thicket where they’d made their camp, but at least it was a little less rustic, thanks to her trainings with Erik, her mysterious savior.

He was almost okay, for an old guy.

~0~

 

She’d learned to love metal, her imagination brimming with new possibilities of what could be done with it every day. The past three weeks brought fewer episodes of her powers running on autopilot and living life as a walking magnet, and she learned to trust Erik a bit more and to accept his guidance, allowing him to channel her energy in tandem with his own powers. She joked that he was treating her like a Duracell.

Together they’d forged a shelter from the items abandoned by the campsite’s previous occupants. Lorna had run across several small, rusted syringes in the clearing, stooping to pick one up between finger and thumb and examine it in the morning light.

“Erik…look what I found. Did a bunch of junkies live here? Are we close to a meth lab?” His lips tightened at the sight of the needle, and his movements were clipped and abrupt as he strode over and plucked the syringe from her grasp.

“Don’t let the needle break your skin, my dear.” His voice was hard, and she wrinkled her brow in confusion.

“Well, duh. I don’t know where it’s been.” She gestured back to the clearing. “There’s a whole bunch of these. Seems weird that this place has been deserted since we got here.”

“I have a chore for you,” he suggested, and she crossed her arms petulantly at her questions being derailed so casually. “Gather these up. Don’t touch the tips.”

“Easy squeezy, lemon peasy,” she shrugged, and she stretched out her open hand toward the clearing. One by one, the syringes lifted themselves into the air, floating out from their hiding places and slowly landing in a heap by Lorna’s booted feet.

“What’re we gonna do with these?”

“Harvest what we can of what usable metal that’s left. You’re tired of sleeping outdoors, correct?” She blinked, then nodded, wondering what he had up his sleeve.

“First, we clean up the camp; then we glean out what we can use.” Lorna remembered back to an Earth Day cleanup and recycling drive that her school had participated in, but the most it had accomplished was raising a few hundred dollars toward the building improvement fund. Now she was seeing “recycling” taken to a whole new level, the results more direct.

Soda cans. Pen knives. An old money clip. Loose change. Housekeys. An old canteen. A whiskey flask. Tin camping pots, save the two that Erik said they could still use. A chain of abandoned dog tags. Scraps of tin foil. A few lengths of rusted chain. A hunting rifle that Lorna refused to touch, save while using her gift, the bullets still chambered within it. “This time, and this time alone, humans and their guns have their uses.”

They hadn’t stopped there. Lorna nearly gave herself a nosebleed, concentrating on the surrounding woods, divining the metals in the merest pebbles on the ground or from the silt lining the stream. It floated through the air on currents guided by her own hands, gathering like a sandstorm overhead. The air around her was a hazy, silvery blur as she communed with the ore fragments and minerals, in sync with them as she manipulated their atoms. It was a rush. Erik initially synched his returning gift with hers, the energy resonating through him like a conduit, but eventually he merely had to direct her where to search first, nodding with approval and a strange sense of pride.

She never would have believed it could be done, until she and Erik actually did it. She nicknamed their new domicile the Fortress of Solitude.

“I take it you’ve done this before?” she quipped, wiping away the beads of perspiration from her cheeks. Her hair was plastered to her forehead from her exertions, manipulating the lightweight beams of metal as Erik guided her to fuse them together using what he called a “mortis and tenon” technique to create a series of tabs and slots that interlinked.

“One of my more useful tricks.” He brought her a sandwich from their rations and handed it to her. She took a grateful bite, sinking her teeth into the thick layers of wheat bread, mustard, lettuce and turkey meat, not caring that it was sticking to the roof of her mouth.

“What is this place, Erik?”

“A refuge, for now.”

“A refuge. Riiiiiiiiighht. Man, I feel like Ralph Macchio’s character in the Karate Kid.” Lorna stomped over to a tree stump and tore off another chunk of her sandwich, pressing it into her mouth. “To learn karate, first must paint fence,” she mimicked, making Erik raise an eyebrow in her direction. “Here a clue, there a clue, everywhere a clue-clue. You never just give me a straight answer. It’s always this cryptic, dignified, just-follow-my-greatness mumbo-jumbo. It’s like…I feel like you’re gonna have me running around in a cult next.”

His laugh was rusty but resonant, throwing back his silver-topped head and showing surprisingly white, even teeth. He recovered himself and grinned at her, wiping the corner of his eye.

“Is that how I seem to you?”

“Yeah. Kinda.”

“I like to think of myself as a teacher. I was, once. I co-founded a school for young mutants such as yourself.”

“So why aren’t you there now?”

“My colleague and I had a difference in opinion and in our long-term goals for the school, and our vision of the future. He was a brilliant man,” he added wistfully. “We parted ways.”

“So, that thing with the Golden Gate bridge…was that part of your plan for the future?”

“I mentioned it before; I wanted to capture people’s attention. Humans persecuting mutants is something I will not suffer lightly.”

“Who were all those people with you when it happened?”

“I like to think of them as my students, in a way.”

“Students, huh? What were you teaching them?”

“How to take back what was theirs. To be proud of their gifts. Among other things.” He swept his arm out broadly, motioning toward the thicket. “We camped here for a time,” he explained.

“That’s how all this stuff got left behind?”

“Yes, it is.”

“So that’s why you brought me here? To join your little cult?” She threw the remark over her shoulder as she was working, missing the stiffness that crept into his spine.

“If you would show me more gratitude for releasing you from the prison where the humans held you, you would do well to watch your tongue, Lorna. I’m a patient man…to a point.” She turned to face him, pausing in her labors and biting her lip when she found herself staring up into his nostrils, which were flared like a bull’s. She hadn’t even heard him approach, so light were his steps.

“I’m just saying…” her voice trailed off. She couldn’t continue to meet his gaze, and she eventually looked away. Lean, withered fingers grasped her chin and tilted it back up.

“Take more accountability for the words that come out of your mouth. And don’t be so quick to judge me, child. There are many things you could learn from me.” He loosened and shifted his grip to cradle her face, caressing the stray locks of hair trapped between his palm and her cheek. Chastened, she resumed her work, stepping away from him.

“You were adopted.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Where did your adoptive parents find you?”

“Dunno. All I know is, they spent a bundle. It was an international adoption. I’m sixteen. Had my birthday in January,” she explained, as though that would suffice.

“You have no idea which country you hailed from?” He sounded disappointed. She shrugged.

“Somewhere in Germany. Tiny orphanage in some little village in the mountains. My mom went on sabbatical from her job to live over there for a year. Said she was a relief worker at an orphanage that had more abandoned children than they could afford to keep. I dunno why she bothered,” Lorna carped miserably. “She adopted me, just so she could send me away.”

“So you didn’t have a happy childhood?” Erik moved to the campfire to start a pot of hot chocolate, one of Lorna’s favorite rituals that they shared since she’d arrived.

“Eh. Not so much. Mom always died my hair. I hated the smell of that stuff. Boring old brown,” she grimaced. “What about you? Did you have a so-called ‘happy childhood’ with a white picket fence, a mom, a dad, and a dog?”

“It was stolen from me, when I was younger than you,” Erik mused, and Lorna was surprised to see him looking so forlorn and sad, pensively stirring the flames with a stick. That, he decided, was a story for another day. “Lorna?”

“Yeah?”

“Did your mother perchance mention the name of the village where you were adopted from?”

“Shoot…I dunno. Had a funky name. Sounded like something out of a science fiction novel or an RPG.”

“Pardon?”

“RPG. Role-playing game.”

“Ah,” Erik agreed, nodding, even though it still escaped him. Lorna snorted under breath, but she gifted him with a smile.

“Wonderland, or something…like a little hippie commune. Wunderkind. Wun…Wunga,” she paused thoughtfully, looking askance at him as though he was the one who had the answer.

It dawned on him, like a bucket of cold water splashing in his face.

“Wungadore,” he murmured, more to himself than to her.

“DUDE! That’s TOTALLY it,” she shrieked, smacking herself in the forehead and pointing at him. “I would’ve been up all night, wondering about that name!”

“Fancy that,” he replied, but he still looked thunderstruck. He poured them cocoa, serving it in some ceramic cups he’d purchased from a nearby surplus store, garbed in his street clothes and a concealing hat.

Magda.

 

~0~

 

“I don’t know what I have to get so dressed up for,” she complained to him, scowling as he handed her a small pair of black gloves. She donned them, adjusting them so the webbing between her fingers wasn’t so snug, and she untucked her St. Christopher medal so she’d at least have some jewelry to brighten up what she thought was a drab outfit.

“We’re making a special trip,” he announced cheerfully. “I hope you like to fly,” he added. She rocked back on her booted heels.

“There’s no way I’m gonna get on a plane. I have no ID, no social, no nothing. And I’m wanted,” she huffed, as though the fact had escaped him. She threw her hands up in defeat.

“You won’t have to,” he assured her. “Bundle up,” he suggested. “I don’t want you to catch a chill.” They strolled into the clearing, still bright with the mid-morning light, and he linked their hands.

“Don’t let go.” She felt his surge of power as he bore down with his free hand, giving them a gentle “push” and sending them aloft. Lorna felt the energy tickling her nerve endings and making her hair flutter on the breeze, almost resembling a halo as she matched Erik’s power with an answering wave of her own, boosting their propulsion to send them higher, flying faster as they coasted over the treetops. A bubble of laughter escaped her lips; she reveled in the feel of the air currents buoying them along within the magnetic field she’d created. Everything below them looked tiny. She met Erik’s gaze briefly, and she could tell from his smug expression that he felt the same.

 

~0~

The pain was too much. Icy fear rippled over her flesh, mingling with the perspiration from too many hours of taxing labor. Sweat soaked her long brown hair, plastering it around her face. Her skin was florid, and her lips twisted in a grimace with the contraction that bunched her abdomen into a hard knot. The baby kicked in protest at being disturbed from its nest, and she said a silent prayer as another scream was torn from her lips.

“She’s dilated and fully effaced.”

“We can already see the head! Baby’s bound to have a full head of hair,” encouraged the nurse, smiling genially despite her patient’s struggles, her fingers biting into the bed rails as she rasped out another gurgling cry. She reached out to swab Magda’s cheeks with a damp towel.

Her wrist was caught in an implacable steel grip. Desperate blue eyes pleaded with her.

“Don’t let him find me.”

“Relax; it’s all right, we’ll deliver this baby safe and sound,” she crooned back soothingly, but unease prickled and made the hairs on her arm stand on end.

“He’s a monster,” she insisted. “He can’t find us. If you would spare my baby…you won’t let him find me.” Another contraction followed quickly and furiously on the heels of the last, cresting to its peak and wrenching her nearly off the cot. She arched, and the readings on the baby’s heart monitor were erratic and shrill. Magda’s eyes suddenly rolled from blue to white, veins visible as she went into shock. She seized, spasms wracking her frame and twisting her body in unnatural contortions.

“Blessed Father!”

The half hour was a blur. Magda remembered pain, and darkness. Unwelcome images of flames licking up toward the sky and her own screams taunted her as she sought to find shelter within her own consciousness. They’d taken Anya from her.

They’d killed Erik, as surely as he’d killed them.

She felt a new pain, burning, cutting into her, as though someone were reaching inside to steal the last precious thing she possessed…and then there was nothing.

The nurse stood weeping silently behind her surgical mask, holding the small, wailing infant girl swaddled in a pink receiving blanket. Tiny fists flailed the air, protesting her entry into a world she already sensed would not welcome her with anything but more grief. She cradled her fragile charge and rocked her before taking her to the tiny exam table and scale to weigh her and clean her up.

She rubbed the baby’s skin down with a washcloth and plain, warm water, swabbing away the sticky fluids and traces of blood, rubbing some circulation into the tiny limbs. Her features were perfect; she held the promise of stunning beauty already, and appeared to take after her mother. It was a shame she’d never know her. She carefully ran the washcloth over her scalp, working away the stickiness matting her fine hair…

Her hand stilled, and the washcloth slithered from her grasp. She had to adjust the small lamp to better confirm what she was seeing. She still didn’t believe it.

The fair hair that she originally assumed was blonde, once free from the offending blood and mucus, was an eerie, pale shade of green.

“Doctor,” she murmured, not looking at him as the other attending physician’s assistants unplugged the monitors and detached the IVs from the body, finally at ease and tranquil in death. The elderly physician was still seated on the wheeled stool, making notations on the treatment record clipped to his board and looking the worse for wear. He looked up to meet her gaze, and it tugged him to his feet.

He crossed the small suite and peered down at the squalling baby.

“The child has no father.” It wasn’t phrased as a question. His voice was flinty and cold.

“She begged me not to let him know of the child,” she replied, still shaken, but re-wrapping the baby in the receiving blanket, knowing that the effort was futile, but that it was the least she could do. He rubbed his palms over his pants legs as if scrubbing them of the touch of the tiny baby and her shamed mother.

She was a pariah.

“She must be placed. There’s nothing more we can do for her here.”

“Please. You can’t. We can’t do that to her, for the love of God!”

“Take her to the nursery. It’s out of our hands.”

~0~

There just wasn’t enough beer in the world, he’d decided, repeating the same futile effort with his sixth. His teeth still weren’t numb yet, and the sting still stung.

He knew he should be back at the school, going over the files again with Blue, but all it took was catching the slightly spicy scent that Forge fucker seemed to wear like a rival male in the pack to make his blood boil. Ororo’s cat-that-got-the-cream smile wasn’t helping matters any. The tall, brown technical wizard was at ‘Ro’s beck and call, grinning, handing her things, bringing her lunch, and making Logan nauseous with his aw-shucks charm.

She wasn’t going out of her way to avoid Logan; he was doing fine with that for the both of them, all by his lonesome. He read her body language, still fluid and graceful, but more cautious and measured around him. Not afraid, but her guard was back up, higher than it had ever been before.

She’d kissed him like she couldn’t get enough of him before he left. So when the fuck had she decided she’d had enough?

“Am I gonna hafta pry yer scrawny ass off my barstool with a crow bar like last time?” Harry threatened good-naturedly, sliding Logan a small dish of honey roasted beer nuts.

“I dare ya ta try, see how much of yer hands ya come back with, let alone the crowbar, bub,” Logan snarled, but Harry simply chortled as he toweled dry a rack of beer mugs fresh out of the dishwasher of the Hideaway’s kitchen. Harry’s was a legend in its own right. An enormous, taxidermied grizzly bear nicknamed “Chewy” occupied a place of honor in the bar and grill’s front window, clad in an oversized New York Mets jersey and cap, despite the threatening grimace or outstretched claws forever frozen for prosperity. The interior was comfortably lit in a soft glow that enhanced the “beer goggles” affect of its patrons that sent them home from the bar with a Playmate and found them waking up with escapees from “Elimidate” the following morning. The tequila shooters were the dollar special of the night. Logan wasn’t in the mood for a quick buzz. “And who’re ya callin’ scrawny?”

“Yeah, yeah. All piss and vinegar tonight, sport. What’s her name?”

Logan rolled his eyes and grunted, staring into his half-empty beer mug as though it had all the answers.

“Shit. Got it that bad, huh?”

“There’s nothin’ goin’ on. Same old shit, different day. Thought I saw something there that wasn’t. It’s a done deal.”

“No it isn’t. You wouldn’t be here working your way through my Molson if it was a done deal. She put the hook in you.”

“Bullshit. I ain’t headed down that road again. I ain’t chasin’ a woman who’s already cozying up ta someone else. A guy’s only gotta bang his head against the same wall before it starts ta hurt like the dickens.”

“How d’you know she’s cozy with this other guy?”

“Walked in on ‘em. She was sampling his mouthwash.”

“Ooh. Ouch.” Harry turned to mix a Long Island that guaranteed a hangover and floated a cherry on top, tossing in a wussy red straw. A cute brunette sidled over to pay him, giving Logan her patented (and well practiced) “my roommate’s not home tonight” look, complete with a hair toss that flagged her immediately as too young and definitely high-maintenance. “So what about that other one you liked so much? The redhead?”

“She was taken. And that didn’t work out.” It chafed him to remember Jean’s soft smile, shining on her face, even while dying.

“You’re batting a thousand, my man. The single ones don’t get your blood pumping?”

“Ro ain’t got a ring on her finger,” Logan huffed. “She just started seein’ this guy. If ya can even call it that. Follows her around like she was leaving a bread crumb trail through the house.”

“Follows her, huh?”

“Like a puppy.” He downed the rest of his beer and popped some nuts into his mouth, chewing them dispassionately, barely feeling the crunchy fragments grinding between his teeth.

“So what’re you doing while he’s busy following her around?” Harry cocked a grizzled eyebrow at him. “Nice way to let the horse out of the corral, Logan. Close the gate, for God’s sake!”

“Ya think I don’t know that?”

“You’re not exactly proving me wrong. You said the redhead was engaged. I appreciate that one. Can’t keep slobbering over a woman who’s already spoken for; she’d as soon cheat on you as she would leave the man she’s already with. That’s asking for a kick in the balls. But has this new paragon of womanhood and ‘please, baby, PLEASE!’ given you the impression she feels the same way about you before this new guy stepped up?”

“She didn’t exactly say no when I kissed her. Back before I left on my road trip. Thought it might lead to somethin’ else. Don’t know what the fuck I was doin’. Just seemed like the thing t’do at the time.”

“You knew what you were doing. Testing the waters. Drinking the milk to see if it’s worth buying the cow. You’re not fooling anybody, guy. Can’t keep doing that.”

“Can’t keep doing what?” Logan sneered, scowling at Harry over the rim of his refilled beer mug.

“Playing cat and mouse. You don’t wanna get burned. Chances are, neither does she. I like you, Logan. You’re a decent man.” Logan snorted at him around a handful of beer nuts.

“You don’t come in here with that look of ‘walking wounded’ like some of the riff-raff that breezes into my bar. Trouble, piss and vinegar, sure, but you don’t let much knock you down. But I know you don’t stick around much, definitely not long enough to form any attachments. Tokyo, Madripoor, Ghana, Cairo, Alberta, Paris, Germany, LA…you’ll drift out of here tonight and have your bags packed tomorrow, without so much as a by-your-leave to anyone at that fancy school. Maybe a note to that fine woman who’s got you tied up in a knot, cleaning out my Molson.”

“I ain’t one fer leavin’ notes. Ya want fancy words, don’t expect ‘em from me.” Logan didn’t leave behind signs of himself. He only left people behind. He didn’t deny his friend’s words. Harry sighed and shook his head, rubbing a knot out of his nape.

“Logan. Listen. If you really feel anything for her, anything at all, don’t do this little dance. If she’s worth going after, then go after her. She meant something to you before this new guy barged in. This isn’t just a case of wanting a dump truck because some other kid’s playing with it, and not acting like he’s done with it yet. And just so you don’t think I’m giving my blessing to cut in on this other guy’s turf, if she seems like she’s really happy with him, back off. All the way off.” Harry leaned the heels of his hands against the bar and leaned forward, sincere, concerned walnut brown eyes staring him down. “Don’t keep walking straight into something you know is gonna kick your ass and leave you licking your wounds. And don’t pull her in after you.”

“Take care of my usual spot,” Logan nodded, and he reached into his leather jacket pocket and pulled out a roll of bills. He tossed them deftly to Harry, who caught them lefthanded, snatching them out of the air. He already knew the amount was more than enough to cover his tab and a hefty tip without counting it. Logan liked his quick exits more than most. His stride was even and long, not so much as a stagger to mar his steps. Harry watched his retreating back, sighing again over the tense, proud set of that back, a bulwark against the storm for anyone he cared about. The man wouldn’t be knocked down, he repeated to himself as he went back to his chores and drink orders that made themselves heard over the clamor.

Harry was about to be proven wrong.

A deafening buzz and a startling crack of sound was all Harry heard before Logan came crashing back through his bar’s front window in a shower of tinkling glass. “Chewy” was knocked off of his stand and looking the worse for wear, becoming a makeshift landing pad for Logan’s adamantium-laced body. Muttered curses were drowned out by the immediate screams and running footfalls as the entire crowd began flooding out the back door and into the alley. Harry was rooted to the spot, cold sweat breaking out over his skin as he watched his friend jerk himself to his feet, dusting off shards and cussing again over the tiny tears in his shirt and leather jacket. Blood streaks laced his flesh wherever it was exposed.

A man of medium height casually strode inside through the makeshift door Logan inadvertently made in the window, looking like he wanted to finish what he started. His movements were graceful and predatory, moving fluidly and ignoring the class crunching beneath his feet. He could have been any man off the street. Leather boots shod his feet. Unremarkable features, except black eyes that seemed a little too bright. Dark, short hair, shaved nearly to the scalp. His physique was wiry and rangy, with no discernible body fat. Cables of muscle laced his arms where his rolled-up sleeves revealed them. He gave Harry a chilling smile that sent him running back to the kitchen for his shotgun that he kept for special occasions.

It didn’t matter. He wanted Logan.

“Mutant 1010-616. Ident nomenclature Wolverine. Status, active. Action: Terminate.” His voice was expressionless, but he continued to smile with satisfaction. His eyes were cold, and he raised his outstretched hand before Logan could react. A small projectile was launched from his palm, his flesh opening and peeling back to reveal a metal chamber housing the bolo-web. It spread itself wide and snared him in coiled wire filaments that felt like steel and dug into him with sharp, serrated edges.

“FUCK!” Logan grimaced. SNIKT! He struggled and began to cut his way free, but it burned. His attacker reached up and tapped his – or its – chest and Logan heard a small, metallic click.

An electric current ran the entire length of the cables, burning him and running jagged fingers through every nerve ending of his body, wrenching ragged cries from his throat. His breathing rasped and stuttered as the pain continued its relentless onslaught, becoming undistinguishable from his urge to tear its source limb from limb. Spots of light throbbed behind his eyes even when they were shut.

He wouldn’t take his eyes off this fucker again.

The cables were stubborn, but they cleaved apart and landed in shreds with a few flicks of his claws. Logan bared his fangs and felt his hackles rise. He tasted copper as he lunged for the stranger, who was still looking fresh as a daisy.

He moved with precision, parrying Logan’s blows, seemingly reading each move before he made it and formulating countermeasures within fractions of a second. Logan ducked and feinted when the being seemed ready to hit him with another goodie from his arsenal. He leapt back before it could blast him with an dart tipped with a collapsible capsule of poisoned acid, shot from a cuff on his wrist that resembled a watch.

Someone had devoted themselves to the most minute details of making this thing, whatever it was, look and act like the average Joe.

“Halt, Mutant!”

“Halt this,” Logan hissed, arching back nimbly and avoiding another projectile dart. He recovered and lunged, chucking a heavy table straight at his head.

“SQWWARRRRKK!” The object connected with its target, but the being only wobbled to regain its balance, glaring at Logan and shaking it off. Logan had the momentary pleasure of watching the thing bleed. That, he crowed to himself, he could work with.

The torn flesh exposed gleaming bone underneath. He should have been lying on the ground, out of commission.

“Motherfucker,” Logan swore, watching in disbelief as his enhanced vision zoomed in on the tiny microfilaments that began knitting the flesh back together, like watching the incident happen in reverse. Logan watched the thing’s pupils dilate, revealing growing discs of white light illuminating the black irises, and he heard a small whirring sound that reminded him of a laser charging itself for –

SHRAKKOOOWWWWWW! He never knew what hit him. All he knew was that it didn’t tickle, and that Harry was gonna kill him for tearing up his bar.

 

~0~

Hank had no problem burning the midnight oil when it came to his experiments and sifting through the school’s data banks for anything that would help mutantkind’s safety and the preservation of their kind. Tonight was such a night. Twinkie wrappers and an empty cocoa cup that held mere dregs of brown syrup in the bottom cluttered the side table as he pored over the monitor in the Professor’s chamber, reviewing Cerebro’s latest findings.

The Dane girl was still on the move since the jail break reported on the news. Her power signature was stronger than before, and Henry changed his search criteria, measured the levels of her biorhythms, reaching the conclusion that her abilities were no longer nascent.

They were enhanced, fully functional, and in sync with a familiar power signature that was growing and easily detected now by Cerebro’s energy grid. According to the latest readings, she was airborne, and carried a passenger with her. Or was it the other way around?

He backed his wheeled chair away from the monitor briefly, rolling his burly shoulders and letting the joints in his neck pop and crack, groaning in relief.

He heard Ororo’s soft footsteps padding down the hall before she even turned the corner. His ears had never failed him before. She still moved like a thief. He welcomed her company, and from the sound of it, she was alone.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed, Henry?” she chided him.

“Hello, Kettle, this is Pot?” He rotated the chair slowly until he faced her, enjoying the quiet grace of her movements and the simple, midnight blue silk bathrobe she’d tied over her white pajamas. Her feet were bare, the polished nails winking up at him in the sparsely illuminated suite. Out of long habit, she strolled down the catwalk and moved his hand from his lap to make herself some room. She perched herself there, temerity and mischief shining in her eyes as she enveloped him in a hug that made him feel positively gooey.

“Flirt.”

“Is it working?”

“Never.” His leonine muzzle curled into a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes.

“I’ll just have to try harder.”

“Forge might take exception to that.” She blew out an exasperated breath and balled up her slender knuckles, giving him a gentle noogie.

“Love me, love my friends,” she murmured. “That’s the rule. It’s a package deal.”

“At least you aren’t ignoring how he feels about you.”

“I was exaggerating, Henry.”

“He isn’t.” Henry’s grasp around her waist was gentle but firm as he lifted her from his lap, regretting the loss of her light weight and soft warmth. “He’s a remarkable man.”

“So you keep telling me. And he keeps proving it.”

Henry sighed raggedly, pinning her with a look of male bafflement reserved solely for moments like these.

“But?” he prodded.

“But nothing,” she countered. Henry was still leaning forward on his elbows, waiting for the explanation that was like pulling teeth to find. “He’s sweet. He’s funny. Brilliant. An excellent cook. He spends a lot of time with me, even when it feels like I don’t have any time. And he’s not bad looking.” The corner of her lips curled in a bashful little smile. Henry half-expected her to twirl her hair and gush “I think he LIKES me, likes me.”

“You don’t have to sell me on his virtues. I heartily approve. My stars and garters, Ororo, it’s not even like I have to approve! I’m not the one dating him.”

“Don’t think that isn’t a hysterical image dancing around in my head right now.”

“Stop it,” he quipped, standing to stretch, shaking himself like a majestic beast after a long graze and nap, even though Ororo knew he hadn’t yet slept. The clock in Charles’ study ready two AM before she made her way down in the elevator. Henry hazarded his next question with the proper decorum, even if it lacked discretion.

“Is Forge still here?”

“No, he already left some time ago,” she replied simply, head held high as she smoothed her hands over her robe needlessly, flattening phantom creases in the silk. “We took a walk in the park. I needed to go over some paperwork and update my syllabus for Sean’s classes and make sure that Kitty signed up for the SAT. I had too much on my plate for much else. Forge said he needed to run an errand before he turned in for the night, anyway, so it was just as well.” She retrieved Hank’s mug, staring into it with a hint of amusement. “Really, Henry! You’ll go into sugar shock.” She wadded up the Twinkie wrappers with a crinkle and chucked them into the wastebasket beside the console. “Don’t blame me if you have nightmares, eating this junk so late at night.”

“I needed the brain fuel.” He turned back to the monitors, halting her steps when he didn’t follow her toward the door. He clicked the display back on, re-opening the files. “More movement from the Dane girl, and she’s still with her accomplice. Look at these readings.” Ororo’s eyes flitted to the fluctuating energy bars onscreen, noticing that they were moving with the same frequency, glowing the same shade of blue with little variance.

“The energy signatures are almost identical,” she breathed. “Henry, is that…?”

“Magneto. I’d wager my aunt Matilda’s oatmeal cookie recipe on it. His status is fluctuating according to this, but active, nonetheless. I’ve been tracking it these past few weeks, but I wanted to be certain. The breakout from the 77th Precinct fed my suspicions. Who else would want to free a fledgling mutant from jail who’d caused so much damage?” Ororo took his place on the wheeled chair, feeling the blood drain from her head as her eyes remained glued to the screen. Henry relieved her of the cup; her fingers were cold and nerveless, and she heartily wished that Forge was there to add his own conjecture and interpretation of what she was seeing to the discussion.

And possibly, to hold her and make it go away.

Her voice had other ideas. “Where’s Logan, Henry?”

“Scan for him,” Henry suggested, closing out the file on the Dane girl and typing Logan’s name into the field. “Salem Center,” he rumbled. “Downtown…Harry’s Hideaway.”

“His favorite haunt,” she mused. She didn’t notice the funny look Henry gave her as she toggled through the different displays, bringing up a map of his location. A shining cursor marked with an “X” glowed and flashed where Logan was, in the center of the city block. A second light flickered onscreen beside Logan’s indicator, and gave Ororo pause. “What’s that?”

“You mean who’s that,” he corrected her, but his eyes narrowed as he entered in different commands. “Active mutants, unarchived, unmatched. Salem Center. Fifth Avenue and Smartship Way.” He punched enter.

“Goddess!”

“Oh, my stars and garters,” he agreed, and he felt the Twinkies he’d blithely consumed form a knotted stone in his gut. The screen spewed data detailing the new mutant’s biorhythms, along with a schematic of cybernetic implants whose technology looked eerily familiar.

His body was infused with adamantium. Not the efficient endoskeleton of their feral teammate. Cerebro detected the nannites and delicate, yet deadly cybernetic implants that replaced and enhanced its organs and nervous system. The capabilities of the implants practically made Logan’s inner armor obsolete.

“Wake Kitty. I’ll start the Blackbird.” Henry’s coffee mug sat abandoned on the console as Henry powered it off. Ororo’s robe was already flapping out behind her as she hurried out of the suite. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and icy fingers seemed to cut off her breath.

I’m coming, Logan.

 

~0~

Alberta, Canada; safehouse:

Erik hated making house calls without calling ahead first, but there was no help for it.

Their host would not likely welcome him and his companion with open arms. Firearms, perhaps. But that would prove futile. He chuckled as he reached out and used his magnetic field like pincers, working the screws to the heavy steel door out from the bolts. He flung the door away as though it weighed nothing, reveling in the flush of power coursing through his veins. Lorna stood behind him, nonplussed and shaking her head, making her green locks swing sway with the motion.

“Nice. More destruction. Who was this guy again?”

“He isn’t very nice.”

“So why’re we here again?”

“I need some information that will help us.”

“Help us do what?”

“Save our race.”

“Maybe I’m wrong on this one, but I don’t think he’s gonna feel like helping us if we tear his little hovel apart. He might actually like his hovel, didja ever think about that?” Lorna reached into her coat pocket and fished out a limp, depleted pack of gum. She popped two Trident sticks into her mouth and started cracking away. Erik sighed wearily and beckoned for her to follow.

“We really need to work on your manners, young lady.”

“So says the guy who blew off the door instead of just knocking.”

“For us, that was a knock, Lorna.” He wrinkled his nose at the faint stench of stale food and mold that permeated the foyer, before they even reached the living quarters or the laboratory that Erik knew lay beneath the complex. He cocked his ears and scanned the corridor with impatient eyes. The security cameras didn’t appear to be armed. There was no beam to be broken across the floor with their footfalls. No claxons.

Windsor was going soft in his old age, he marveled, if he hadn’t punched the panic button by now. Erik’s heart hadn’t grown any fonder with years of absence from the shrewd physicist and genegineer.

“Doesn’t look like anyone’s here,” Lorna sniffed.

“Don’t trust what you see.” She didn’t pull away when he reached for her hand and tucked it into his, drawing her protectively behind him. The gesture made her feel slightly better, but didn’t erase the unease rippling down her spine.

This place felt wrong. Unholy. She shivered as they headed past a tiny kitchenette.

The dishes were unwashed; flies hovered over the sink and the tang of rotting garbage made Lorna taste bile. She chewed her gum more furiously and was gently rebuffed when she offered Erik a piece. Her grunt of nauseated disgust landed on deaf ears as he sought out the elevator shaft to the sublevel.

The old passcode still worked. Erik’s near photographic memory hadn’t failed him after all this time. Lorna followed him meekly inside the car and felt her stomach dip as the doors slid shut with a slight squeal. It hummed to life and descended. The buttons on the pad still light themselves faintly as they descended three floors. From the outside, the safehouse looked deceptively tiny, Lorna realized.

They reached the floor they needed, and Erik stepped out first, still gripping Lorna’s hand snugly. The tails of his long coat swept gracefully behind him with a faint ripple as he took brisk steps toward the laboratory. Windsor practically lived there, surfacing only to attend to the necessities. The kitchenette was proof that he’d been immersed in work.

“I still don’t think he’s he-“

“Shush!” he whispered on a rasp, and Lorna’s mouth clapped shut. She jutted her chin impatiently while Erik keyed in another passcode on a worn, cracked button pad.

The stench that greeted him this time was chillingly familiar, one he hoped never to know again while he still drew breath. Lorna choked behind him and gasped in shock.

“Oh, my God…Erik, what is that? Can’t…stand it!” She doubled back into the hall, wresting her fingers from his grip and staggering into the hallway to cast up her accounts. He winced, but continued on, knowing she was better off not seeing the source of the miasma assailing their senses.

“My dear Robert,” he intoned carefully, slowly allowing the syllables to roll out of his mouth, “you haven’t changed a bit.” The corpse’s face was twisted in a mockery of a smile, the eyes sunken and gazing soullessly toward the ceiling. Erik still felt as though they were following him as he moved about the lab, not touching anything. He expanded his awareness of the metals in the suite, cataloguing any mineral-based substance Dr. Windsor had handled recently. There was a residue of gunpowder, almost redundant while the doctor’s hands still grasped the Colt .45 he’d used to shoot himself in the temple. His body was emaciated; Erik guessed he’d been slumped in his chair for roughly a week.

The console of his PC was powered off, dust collecting on the keys. The suite never saw sunlight, and the dust motes danced in the light of the full-spectrum bulb once Erik turned on the work lamp over the desk. Erik’s eyes grew accustomed to his dim surroundings, and a small, cream-colored rectangle laying in Dr. Windsor’s lap caught his eye.

His blood ran cold when he saw that the heavy stationery bore his own name on it, in the doctor’s familiar scrawl. He tore open the envelope and cursed his shaking hands.

I hope you enjoy the fruits of your own labors. Say goodbye to all that you know, and to all whom you hold dear, Lensherr.

Never wound what you can’t kill.

Erik’s attention was diverted briefly to the faint sobs drifting inside from the hallway. “It’s all right, child. Don’t come in. I need a few moments more.” He heard her collecting herself and the faint crunch of more gum being unwrapped and hastily chewed.

He turned on the PC, callously kicking the doctor’s wheeled chair aside, heedless of his body slumping further over the arm. More thick, coagulated blood stained the floor nearly black and left a grisly trail as Erik began typing in passwords and commands. Windsor was meticulous, and he was a creature of habit. No one was meant to see these sealed files after the Project disbanded. He’d assumed a different name, left his family, and was relocated to a safehouse with tighter security than the White House.

He was arrogant enough to have never changed the passwords. Erik shook his head and chuckled gamely, scanning the data and toggling through each frame with the arrow keys.

He downloaded what he needed onto a tiny flash drive from the file quaintly named “Precious Metal” that was stored in the Weapon X folder.

He and Robert had once joked about that filename over the water cooler.

“Good times; good times,” he murmured. He turned off the PC and turned to Windsor, silently saluting him with a gloved hand.

“Say hello to the next stage in evolution, Robert. Pity you couldn’t meet my daughter. She’s quite charming.” Despite the macabre scene that greeted him, Erik exited the suite whistling a jaunty tune, more for Lorna’s benefit than his own.

She was still shaken and pale, sitting with her back to the wall and her arms wrapped around her knees. She scrambled to her feet, babbling so quickly he couldn’t make out what she was trying to say.

“D-dead, and he’s just dead, blood, sogrossohmyGodwhydidyoubringmehereErikWHY? WHY! Please, please, please, let me out! LET ME OUT!” She was tugging on his lapels and hanging on him; her fingernails dug into his arms, making him grateful for the dense wool of his coat. Her eyes were bloodshot and glistening with tears, and it tore at him that she had to witness such horror at her tender age. He shrugged it off.

At her age, he’d survived worse during the course of war. As would she.

His words were low and soothing as he indulged her with a hug, something he hadn’t given anyone in longer than he could remember. He supported her as she walked on jelly legs toward the elevator and promised her fresh air and to never return to this place again.

He had what he needed.

 

~0~

Forge was roused from a sound sleep by the jangle of his cellular phone; he cursed himself for keeping it in his jacket pocket clear across the room, hanging over the upholstered chair in the corner of the tiny bedroom. He missed Aerie and its various comforts, particularly the Jacuzzi tub in his bedroom, but he was grateful that the Pentagon was footing the bill for his stay in the rented penthouse.

He wondered if Ororo was thinking about him. The faint scent of her perfume lingered on is clothing when she’d kissed him goodnight; the tactile memory of her fingertips caressing his cheek still remained, as well as how it felt to tighten his arms around her slender waist. Her cheeks were flushed when she broke away, pleading paperwork and a ruthless class schedule the next morning. Forge was left with the sight of her retreating back, the sway of her hips, that magnificent hair floating on an errant breeze, and a relentless hard-on. She was a merciless woman…

“They’d better be calling me to let me know I won the mega lottery. Great big check, balloons, and Ed McMahon at my front door,” he muttered in the dark, fumbling for his prosthetic. His leg occasionally throbbed with phantom pains that woke him at night, exploding artillery shells still ringing in his ears. The dreams wouldn’t leave him.

They tried to break him. They succeeded in making him rebuild himself better than before. His calling was clear for the first time in his adult life: Improving the lives of mutants and people who couldn’t easily live in society, by its usual rules and norms, one invention at a time.

He eased himself into his prosthetic limb, waiting for the interface to his nervous system to go online. He sighed in relief as the unit’s biofeedback stimulator soothed away the pain and made the muscle relax. Forge no longer relied on prescription pain control again after discovering that he had only to stimulate the correct nerves to release the correct endorphins and urge it to heal itself.

He strode across the room and dug inside his jacket for his mobile, snapping it open impatiently. “Forge,” he barked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, wondering who had the gall to –“

“Gyrich here. Hope I didn’t wake you.” He didn’t sound sorry. Forge stiffened and shook off the remaining stupor drawing him back to his warm sheets.

“What could you possibly have to tell me that won’t wait?”

“When you work for Uncle Sam, you’re on call 24-7.”

“I’m a contractor,” Forge reminded him dryly. “The National Security Council only has me on loan now. Being on the payroll doesn’t mean I’m on the clock.” He yawned gustily, listening to his joints settle and crack as he stretched. “I’m not taking my work home with me this time.”

“No rest for the wicked.” As usual, Gyrich’s voice lacked sympathy and humor. “When can we expect you to have finished your current project?”

“In roughly a week.” They didn’t need to know that he’d already finished the upgrades that he’d promised Hank; his emails to Gyrich’s office documented his reason for leaving Dallas as a “personal sabbatical and independent contract” in Westchester. “Has your staff gone over the files for the prototypes I created for you?”

“We’ve reviewed the blueprints. Nice work, by the way.”

“Well, shucks, Pete, you’re making me blush. Flattering this humble boy off the ranch!”

“We’ll let you know when we’ve finished the testing for those new implants. Homeland Security’s anxious to give it the greenlight.”

“You mean the FDA,” Forge drawled.

“Excuse me?”

“The FDA. We’re waiting on an approval for clinical trials to begin for their use as ‘smart prosthetics,” he pointed out. “Washington owes its veterans the best that they can give. And this is one of the best things we can give them.” He drummed his cybernetic fingers impatiently on the side table as he sat back in the chair. Henry Peter Gyrich was at the top of Forge’s shit list.

“The technology’s versatile. And Uncle Sam funded it. He can use it for whatever he wants. Give us a call when you get back to Dallas.” He rang off with no further salutation. Forge grumbled and slapped the phone shut, tossing it onto the side table. He returned to bed, but sleep eluded him.

Chapter Text

The damned thing just kept getting up every time Logan knocked it down. Stubborn sonofagun. Various wounds staggered him, but he focused his energy on the creature who didn’t understand the meaning of the words “Not in this lifetime, bub!” Those damned eyes, black as obsidian and devoid of all human feeling flashed at him again, and Logan wondered what else he planned to throw at him.

His enhanced hearing caught the familiar but faint whoosh of exhaust; the Blackbird was cloaked, and landing nearby. The biggest and most stable building in the vicinity was the penthouse at Four Freedoms Plaza; no other tenement could withstand a landing by an SR-71 on its roof.

Storm was gonna be pissed. Staying out past the school’s so-called “curfew” was infraction enough. Destruction of public property? Kiss his adamantium-plated ass bye-bye.

The creature paused in its scan of Logan’s physiological damage. The mutant offender was still operating at 87% efficiency, and regaining physical cohesion and function between attacks by this defensive capture unit. Re-analyzing data. Adamantium fortifying 100.0% of bone mass. Healing abilities active. Tissue regeneration active. Scanning. Scanning…Resolution reached.

The target wasn’t immune to flame.

Logan charged him again, this time feinting to throw his opponent off-balance, even if it was just to borrow more time until the cavalry came to save the day. It was like fighting himself. Each kick, every jab of his fist, each slice of his claws was met with counter maneuvers that made him look like he was shadow-boxing in the middle of Harry’s. Overturned tables with splintered chairs littered the main lounge, running Logan’s tab into quadruple digits.

Damn thing didn’t even look winded.

“Stand down, Mutant 1010-616. Termination imminent.”

“Not while I’m still standin’, bub.” He knew he was asking for the mother of all migraines in the morning.

He grabbed the creature by the lapels of its shirt, still barely intact, and rammed his forehead directly into its nose. There was something to be said about adamantium.

It made one heck of a nice dent.

“SQQQWWAARRRRRRRKKK!”

“That’ll shut yer lyin’ mouth!” Logan grimaced, gritting his teeth as the thing staggered back.

He spoke too soon. Turned out Smiley didn’t come alone to the party.

“Regroup. Revise resolution. Termination imminent,” intoned a different voice, no less chilling for the fact that it was female. “Stand down, Mutant 1010-616.” He spun, claws poised to do some damage, and stared into the equally soulless eyes of…

…the same brunette who’d given him the eye while he was finishing his last beer.

“Sorry, Jail Bait, ya ain’t my type,” he sneered. She had just as many bells and whistles as Romeo, as she opened her mouth and emitted an ear-splitting sonar that left him hunched and screaming on the pavement. His nose bled from the onslaught of the vibrations that cut a fiery swath over his nerve endings and impaired his balance. Her lips twisted in a cruel mockery of a smile.

That was how Ororo, Henry and Kitty found him.

“Wolvie!” Kitty cried, air-walking, or air-sprinting toward him as fast as she could reach him. She grimaced in pain as she was caught in the waves of sonar, but managed her cellular cohesion enough to continue phasing, and she swiftly wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled them both underground.

He was still trembling and fighting not to tear his ears from their buds to stop the infernal ringing. “Damn,” he rasped miserably. “Hurts…like the dickens.” She’d phased them into a sewer tunnel, and they rested on a ledge, avoiding the smelly, fetid water. Kitty wrinkled her nose.

“Sorry. Best I could do.”

“Ain’t complainin’, Half-Pint. Doubt they’ll follow us down-“

THOOOOOOOOOMMM! Kitty covered his body with hers, making Logan curse at her foolishness, even though she’d phased them safely, letting the rubble and broken concrete pass harmlessly through them. Absurdly spike-heeled boots splashed down into the water as Logan’s erstwhile admirer leapt down through the hole she’d created in the roof of the tunnel.

“Mutant 1010-119. Ident nomenclature Pryde, Katherine. Status, active. Action: Terminate.”

“It’s called a codename, skank! Tell the whole world, why dontcha? My name’s Shadowcat! Don’t wear it out!” The creature grinned at Kitty, having a better sense of humor than her boyfriend overhead. She lunged at Kitty, not shy about going head to head, or hand to hand. Kitty stood fast while Logan caught his bearings. She feinted and ducked; Logan wanted to protest. Kitty was getting sloppy, relying too much on her phasing skills. She could selectively make her limbs solid to enable contact during combat, and she wasn’t shy about it. Logan heard the clang against the creature’s body, somewhere in her back as Kitty’s foot connected with her. He wondered how much of her was synthetic. And deadly.

He was eerily reminded of Deathstrike.

The creature reached for Kitty, who easily evaded her grab, but she saw a tiny vent open itself in her wrist, too late. A greenish nerve gas hissed out, quickly filling the narrow tunnel. Kitty didn’t assess the risk quickly enough to react. Her phased state didn’t protect her as the molecules of the nerve gas worked their way into her lungs. She had the immediate reaction of vomiting, breaking her concentration long enough for the creature to get the drop on her.

She was lifted up by the neck.

“NO!” Adrenaline pumped in his veins as he caught the horror glazing her eyes, her face clammy and pale from the creature’s unbreakable grip. He’d just have to break it for her.

His claws flew clean and true, slicing off the offending limb. Kitty tumbled into his arms as the creature turned and stared at the gaping wound. Blood mingled with microfilament circuitry oozed from her rotator cuff, and her eyes swung on them with something resembling shock. His healing factor would help him to recover, even though he already felt the gas stinging his corneas and burning his nasal passages. He had to get Pryde out of there.

“Initiating self-repair. Correction. Resolution evaluated; resolution in 2.09 seconds,” announced the creature. The severed limb remained inert, but the exposed wires began to realign themselves into an orderly mesh, effectively cauterizing the injury shut.

“Logan,” Kitty whispered hoarsely.

“I’ll get us outta here! STORM!” he bellowed.

“Hafta…phase…”

“Ya can barely talk,” he barked. “STOOOOOORRM!” Almost on cue, howling winds swept through the tunnel, heralding Ororo’s entry through the hole. Bits of rubble flew up and swirled around in a mini-cyclone.

“RO! The GAS! Ya can’t breathe this shit, darlin’! Get Shadowcat outta here! NOW!”

“Mutant 1010-025. Ident nomenclature Storm. Status, active. Class Four. Action: Terminate.” Ororo’s eyes flashed white as she cocked her head.

“I think not,” she assured her. A ball of lightning leapt from her hand and struck the creature dead-center in her chest, burning away her clothing.

“SQWWWAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRK!”

“Take her, Storm!”

“What happened?”

“Take her the fuck outta here!” She gave him a look that promised a long-winded interrogation and several lashes with a wet noodle when they were back beneath the school’s roof. She cradled Kitty in her arms, alarmed at her pallor and how limp she felt, and she flew back up to the street in a rush of wind. Thunder rolled in the distance, and a steady, pelting rain materialized from nowhere. Kitty found the sight of Ororo’s glowing eyes and fearsome glare somehow comforting, despite the pain that wracked her body and seized her chest, squeezing her lungs within an iron grip. The rain felt cool against her cheeks and served the dual purpose of cleansing away the residue of the gas, but she wasn’t out of danger yet.

Hank was holding his own against the first creature, leading him on a merry chase as he leapt out of range of its various weapons. Cords of springy muscle coiled and sprung as Henry darted and feinted, narrowly avoiding a strangle web like the one Logan struggled to escape only minutes earlier. He was strong, but not bulletproof, and he didn’t want to risk getting close enough to see if his strength was enough to do it any real damage.

“Where’s Wolverine?”

“Down in the tunnel,” Ororo replied. “Is the scrambler ready?”

“Right here,” he assured her, tugging it loose from the belt pouch of his uniform. Ororo had ordered Henry a new combat suit in the customary black leather, cut generously for his tall, solid build. He still preferred to forgo the boots, since even a custom-designed pair left him feeling off-balance. So much of his dexterity was in his toes, allowing him an easy, graceful gait in spite of his enormous feet. He found shoes confining, and he was the only X-Man on the roster, he’d often joked, who wouldn’t die with his boots on.

The gleaming metallic strap felt lightweight in his massive hand, and he stroked it gently with his thumb as the creature sized him up. His ears perked up at the sounds of Logan’s claws and guttural cries of pain echoing up from the tunnel, and he knew there was no time for dithering.

He didn’t think, something that was taboo for one of the world’s most brilliant mutant minds. He just moved. He continued to lead the creature away from Storm, who was still attending to Kitty and stirring up spirals of wind that threatened to bloom into a full-blown tornado. He dodged small projectiles and darts and a beam of energy emitted from the creature’s eyes. His attacker’s expression was still cold and hard, but he was driven to follow the dictates of his programming. Henry bolted, lunging and leaping up and over the bumper of a large sedan, feeling the creature close in on him. On this third step, he backflipped cleanly and tucked, sticking a perfect landing right behind his pursuer.

He clapped the mnemonic scrambler over the thing’s forehead, startling it before he threw himself clear.

The cry the thing emitted was piercing and unholy in its suffering as its entire mainframe was disrupted, the connections to its nervous system being overwritten with commands to shut down.

Its scream was all too human. It would haunt Henry’s sleep.

It reeled and jerked, clasping its head between its hands. His face was an anguished grimace of disbelief, unable to fathom that it had been defeated by its prey. His body emitted stray bolts of glowing energy and fiery sparks, spasming and seizing as he finally tumbled to the ground.

The energy ebbed to a dull glow, and the creature lay nearly silent amidst the howling winds. Ororo was about to take Kitty back to the Blackbird when she heard a faint moan.

“Did we win?”

“Not if we don’t get you home, safe and sound, Kitten,” Ororo chided her. Her eyes welled with tears, even as she offered Kitty a shaky smile.

“Quit babying me,” she carped, “ and quit calling me that! Logan’s still down there, Storm, you can’t leave him down there alone with that thing!” She still struggled for breath.

“We need to get you back to the jet!”

“Wolvie needs me,” she insisted stubbornly. Ororo swore when Kitten phased from her arms and staggered forward toward Henry.

“SHADOWCAT! GODDESS, NO!”

Everything happened at once. A dull crack of crunching concrete and cables exploded up from the tunnel, and Logan was flung back up through the opening the second creature had created. His body was a gruesome jigsaw puzzle of torn flesh, his clothing in tatters, barely providing protection. He flew through the air as though he weighed nothing, a contradiction to his armor-plated bones and dense muscle tissue. He landed with a sickening slap. Blood oozed beneath him, creating a wide smear against the asphalt. Ororo’s heart stopped at the agony twisting his limbs and features, and rage bloomed in her belly.

The creature flew. Her body rose like an avenging angel through the gaping hole in the pavement, and she was quickly repairing her own systems, eyes gleaming red in the darkness, like a beacon. She hadn’t escaped the fury of Logan’s claws, giving Ororo a grim moment of satisfaction.

The lightning flowing out from Ororo’s fingertips was a rush. She spared the creature no quarter as it continued to advance forward to finish the job it began on the feral mutant; Ororo was having none of it. Blinding flashes of bluish-white light made her platinum hair whip around her face, uncharacteristically cruel and devoid of mercy.

If Logan died tonight, he would remember her this way, and that wasn’t what he wanted. ‘Ro wasn’t a killer, even if the creature only mimicked life as they knew it.

“Son…ofabitch,” he groaned from cracked lips as he struggled to rise, falling back when the throbbing in his head nearly blinded him, blurring his vision and making him weak. The nerve gas hadn’t worked its way out of his system, and his healing factor was still compensating for his loss of blood.

“Termination imminent,” the creature purred, driving forward with her hand raised to strike Logan again. Her body wavered and trembled, but still she maintained her balance. Ororo was straining at the raw energy she harnessed, barely holding the reins of her lightning without overloading her own body. Putting this storm to bed would not come without cost…

“You can’t have him,” she hissed.

“Beast?” Kitty beckoned to him hoarsely, as he knelt, rooted to the spot, witnessing Ororo’s fury. She stumbled over to his side, fear for Logan written on her face. He moved to drag Logan from harm’s way, but he was muttering curses and chanting something that sounded like “Not ‘Ro. Help her. Not like this. Don’t let her kill…” Kitty gingerly stroked Logan’s blood-drenched hair and suppressed a sob. Tears streaked the grime smudging her cheeks.

“Gotta help ‘Ro…”

“He’s in shock,” Henry roared over the din.

“It’s not working, Hank. We need the scrambler!”

“It won’t work; it needs another charge! We didn’t count on whatever that thing was having a partner. We need to take thing out some other way.”

“It’s not completely human,” Kitty shouted back. “Your scrambler disrupted its system,” she reasoned. He felt her slender hand gripping him with that strength she had left. “Henry, throw me at it!”

“Heavens, Shadowcat, have you taken leave of your senses?”

“Remember that happened last week when I accidentally phased through the burglar alarm on the front gate?” He stared at her, her plan and its implications dawning on him.

“Can you phase?” he asked gravely. She looked like death warmed over.

“We’ll find out in a minute.”

Henry only hesitated a moment. Ororo was keeping the creature busy.

Henry enveloped Kitty in his arms and bound forward; she phased him as he ran, still ducking Ororo’s stray blasts of lightning as they took out the front window of a consignment shop, spraying the street with shattered glass.

His muscles burned as he hoisted Kitty up onto his shoulder and gripped her hip with one hand, and her upper arm with the next. His aim had to be precise…

He flung her toward the creature, feeling the grab of her phasing power leaving him solid once more, and he sent up a silent, desperate prayer for his favorite student…

She flew through the creature, diving gracefully despite her weakened body. Years of dancing and gymnastics taught her how to move and how to fall without doing herself damage. She needed all of it now.

“SHADOWCAT!” Ororo screeched, stunned and outraged at the foolish sacrifice and hating herself for not stopping it. The lightning sizzled and ceased as she glided back to the ground.

The creature was lying on the ground beside Kitty, twitching and seizing and emitting sparks. Ororo nimbly sidestepped it and reached for Kitty with trembling hands.

“Kitten,” she whispered. “Bright Lady, help me!” She swept Kitty’s damp hair back from her face and peered down at her wan features and blue lips. Watery brown eyes met hers and filled with tears.

“*KAFF, KAARRRRGHHH!* You should…see the other guy,” she joked as Ororo scooped her up into her arms. Her grip was firm and strong as she turned to Henry.

“I have to prepare the jet,” she announced. “Rest,” she murmured to Kitty. On cue, her eyes drifted shut and she sighed into Ororo’s cloak. Her eyes glowed once more, and the storm around them died down to a dull murmur, the rain fading to a light shower. She wasn’t expecting Henry’s voice, speaking into a tiny mobile phone.

“Forge, we need you downtown. Over by Four Freedoms Plaza. You need to see this.” He kept nodding his head, scratching his furry head and kneading his neck. “There was a struggle. Logan was attacked. No, no. Ororo is all right. But again, there’s something you need to see.” He rang off the mobile and tucked it back into his belt pouch.

“Damn,” Logan groaned, his voice still a low gurgle. “Anybody…get the number of that truck?”

“Easy, man,” Henry admonished.

“Hurts,” he mumbled.

“I can imagine.”

“Feels like I went ten rounds with Mike Tyson and his lawnmower.”

“It’s just a scratch,” Henry humored him, but his thick, clawed fingers pressed gently into Logan’s neck, checking his pulse. It was steady, but his breathing was ragged. He watched in awe as the torn flesh around his scalp where it had been split began to slowly knit itself back together. “I’m taking you back to the Blackbird.”

“Don’t…strain yerself…Blue.” He grunted as he felt himself body shift, the change in position making him want to vomit. His head was still spinning, but in the back of his mind, he was impressed that Henry hefted him and carried him like a child back to bed. He fell in step alongside Ororo, whose strides were long and smooth despite her own burden.

“Ro,” Logan whispered. She paused long enough to peer down into his bruised face, his left eye swollen shut. Her gut clenched, and it was an act of will to cease the trembling of her chin. There was trust and relief for her radiating from his gaze. He was battered, but not broken.

“Rest,” she urged, repeating her injunction to Kitty. His fingers shook as he reached for her, and then his hand dropped limply as he passed out.

Not now, she scolded herself as she strapped Kitty onto a gurney in the Blackbird and bolted the harness in place, holding it immobile for takeoff. Oxygen hissed from the mask she slid over her charge’s face, the only sound in the jet’s cabin.

Henry’s voice was thoughtful. “Why did they come after Logan?”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Ororo sighed miserably. “Why not add one more reason for him to look over his shoulder? Charles wanted him to find shelter with us. To finally have some peace and some closure that he needs so badly, Henry. Someone took great pains to bend him to their will and to forge him into a weapon. The problem with weapons is often the person wielding it.”

“Someone didn’t learn from their mistakes. They were fortified with adamantium implants. From Cerebro’s readings they were mutants, and they were connected to a remote mainframe grid. We still don’t know where the signal came from.”

“So there could be more.”

“There could be many.”

“How will we trace the signal?”

“We ask the source. Get these two to the infirmary. Radio Piotr to meet you in the hangar. Forge and I will convene with you with our findings once I have the time to check the implants.” Henry sighed. “This’ll be a hell of a story to give to the coroner’s,” he muttered.

“There’s no help for it,” she replied as she continued to get Logan situated on the gurney, peeling off his ruined flannel shirt and fitting him with an oxygen mask. She fetched a thick blanket from the overhead compartment and tucked it around him tenderly. There was so much blood, even though the shallower cuts had already healed. The deeper wounds would need cleaning and careful observation throughout the night. Ororo was comforted by a low sigh that escaped Logan’s lips, and he seemed to lean into her touch as she stroked back his hair. “Put whatever spin on it that we need. The authorities will want to know as badly as we do where those implants came from, and who was responsible for damage to public property.”

“The X-Men might take the brunt of the blame.”

“They’ll live long enough to point the finger. We fight to give them that privilege, Henry.” She hugged him briefly, savoring his strength as she rubbed her cheek against his. His fur tickled her skin. She’d need to lean on him again before the night was over.

“I want that report.”

“See you at home.” He disembarked, and the ramp retracted, closing the hull as the engines screamed to life. He strode back to the man, or what was left of him, lying listlessly in the street. His eyes were blank, seeming to stare sightlessly up at the sky. Blood flowed freely from where wires and filaments interlaced through its tendons from the implants had torn free. Henry reached for his scrambler, meaning to remove it and to see how many of its components could be salvaged.

He nearly jumped out of his skin as the being’s hands spasmodically jerked to life. His wrist was captured within its grip, and its head flopped to the side as it stared him in the eye. Blood trickled from its mouth.

“10101010101010101010…” it squawked, struggling to hold Henry within its grip. Henry reached up with his free hand, already balled into a crushing fist to strike and put the thing out of its misery, but the thing’s next words stopped him cold. “H-help…me. Please…kill…meeeeeeee.” His body began to twitch, and the strange glow that lit his eyes dimmed and faded away as his pupils became visible, focusing on Henry’s face. “B-blue?” he murmured incredulously.

“One of my more charming traits, yes,” he replied with a huff. “Who sent you? Why did you go after Logan?”

“It…was the directive. The Project,” he moaned. His voice was raspy, but he wasn’t droning on in the eerie, mechanical mockery of a voice he’d used before. “Used us…to hunt down our own. P-prime. We were Prime. N-new an’ improved. Needed…soldiers. War…on mutants. NSC…”

“Who?”

“Nnnnghhh…council. Nassshnl…council. Urrrggh…” he grimaced, never releasing Henry, even though his grip weakened. Henry’s stomach rolled at the sight of human suffering, even for the being that did his level best to kill them.

“You let them use you. Twist you into this,” he accused.

“Help us. Said they’d help us,” he insisted, and a tear leaked down his gaunt, bloodless cheek. His pulse barely discernible, and Henry smelled the tang of death upon him; his flesh felt cold. “Fix me. Served my country. Wouldn’t…*KAAAARRGH!* wouldn’t let…mutants…serve with baselines. M-monster. Diff…different use for us. Protect. Humans.” His body trembled briefly. “Gyrich,” he rasped. Henry committed the name to memory. A moment later, the man gurgled one last, labored breath and expired. The faint, choppy hum emanating from his body finally drained away. He released Henry and his hand drooped to the ground, limp.

He had no sooner stood to recover his wits before he heard another, fainter moan from feminine lips. It pained him that he was more concerned about gathering more information than preserving what ember of life that yet remained in this second mutant, enhanced by technology that also controlled her and made her a puppet. A killer.

She was in worse shape. Kitty’s powers caused a massive shutdown of her components and their link to her organ’s systems. She was, quite literally, falling apart, filaments of the circuitry leaking out through her vessels and tendons, snaking out of her skull and mouth.

Henry respectfully removed his uniform’s jacket and laid it over her. A faint smile twisted her lips before she moaned in agony. She, too, no longer wore that eerie, robotic look of cruelty.

“M-more,” she whispered. “They made…more.”

“Who’s NSC?’ he inquired. Always believing in bedside manner, Henry reached for her hand, clasping it carefully within his palm.

“National Security Council,” she clarified for him, even though it took tremendous effort. “Gyrich,” she added, repeating the name the man had provided Henry with. “You want them…go…through him,” she advised. Her pulse was almost gone.

“Tell me something,” Henry murmured. “What’s your name, miss?”

“Took my name,” she choked. “N-not human. Not…anything. No…memmmmmmmmm…” Her head jerked and seized, and her hand flopped free from Henry’s in her final death rattle.

He would mourn her later, Henry promised himself, reaching down to close her eyes. He reached back into his belt pouch and produced his image inducer, a compact module meant for times like these. The sounds of ambulance sirens grew closer as he keyed in the physical specifications that he deemed suitable, and when the authorities arrived on the scene, he was a businessman in a Brooks Brothers suit, nearly identical to how he looked when he first graduated from the Institute. Forge arrived in a rented sedan and nearly ran past him in his zeal to get to the scene before it was roped off.

“Forge,” Henry rumbled. He whipped around to stare at him with disbelieving eyes, unsure of the source of Henry’s familiar baritone.

“Blue?” His eyes scanned the scene, and he spied the two bodies lying in the street with barely disguised horror and denial. It hadn’t been the first time he’d been confronted with the ugly reality of death on the battlefield and civilian casualties, but it didn’t get easier with repetition.

“Just making use of the upgrade you provided me with,” he explained simply, but his gaze was hard. “The best thing you can do for me right now, my friend, is explain two things.”

“Name them.”

“How the hell did your technology end up in these two mutants. And who in the name of heaven above is Gyrich.” Forge suddenly turned very, very pale and the palm of his remaining hand began to sweat.

He had a lot of explaining to do. None of it would help.

 

~0~

 

“Status,” Gyrich barked to the technician reading date from a roll of paper printing out from his console and punching in keystrokes at his monitor.

“Two units down. The mutant targets avoided capture and termination, sir.”

“Are the units salvageable?” One auburn brow rose above his transitional lenses.

“The implants are offline. No signal. The Prime units themselves aren’t responding.”

“I’ll take that as a no, then. How long til we release the next flank?”

“They’ve already been dispatched, sir.”

“Keep me posted, lieutenant,” he ordered crisply. He took his leave from the control booth and adjourned to the break room for a Danish.

He’d been waiting for this day ever since that bastard, Lensherr, popped back up on his radar after months of chasing his signature. He’d patched into Cerebro, technology wasted on that school of freaks, right under Forge’s nose. He scoffed at that cripple’s nerve…playing benefactor to that group of muties and offering them components paid by government funds. Granted, Forge was contributing his own labor and funds from his own firm, but he was still a government contractor. He didn’t sneeze without Gyrich and his people getting wind of it.

He sent a crew of “cleaners” on a recon to Windsor’s safehouse. The files were retrieved, and his fingerprints burned away with acid, his identification and other documents destroyed. Gyrich felt no qualms; they would have inevitably had to make Windsor disappear. He’d done them a favor. They torched the safehouse, setting off the pipe bombs and leaving no trace.

Gyrich sensed Lensherr had been there, even before his crew sent back the report that the files had been accessed and copied. They never found the letter Windsor left behind, but Gyrich still knew that the wily devil would show his face again when he was back in fighting form. Chickens come home to roost, he reasoned, biting into the flaky cream cheese-filled pastry.

 

~0~

 

“You should have brought me along, Ororo. Not Katya,” Piotr accused harshly. The tall Russian looked haggard, and his shoulders were bunched and knotted with tension as he sat vigil by Kitty’s bedside. His body was absurdly crammed into the rolling chair in the infirmary, and Kitty’s hand was dwarfed within his.

“I needed you here,” she replied, but she didn’t make any further effort to defend her choice.

“She’s not ready to be out in the field.”

“She’d be very angry to hear you say that. And I don’t think you really believe that, tovarisch,” she reminded him firmly. His lips tightened into a thin line. “She handled herself admirably. She factored in her ability to disrupt electrical systems when she phases herself through them.”

“Then how did this happen?”

“Nerve gas. The molecules dispersed so quickly that phasing didn’t help. She absorbed the vapors, and that broke her hold on her powers. It hit her hard.” He shuddered involuntarily and tightened his grip on Kitty’s hand, stroking her fingers tenderly. “She’ll pull through.”

“And then what? What if these things come back?”

“Now we know the risks. Henry created a scrambler that took down the other one and put him out of commission.”

“Him?” Piotr craned his neck around to stare at her as she moved about the suite. Ororo was still clad in her battle leathers, and blood stained her rubber gloves as she toiled over Logan and saw to his comfort. He lay bandaged and cleaned up, and she hooked him up to the monitors in Henry’s absence, knowing he would examine him once he returned. “You said it was a robot of some kind.”

“He was a mutant. Someone programmed him to hunt and kill his own kind; Henry believes that they were finishing their previous attempts to do the same to Logan before we ever found him.”

“Boszhe moi,” he breathed, scrubbing his face with his palm. “It never ends.”

“Charles warned us that that it might never end, my friend.”

“The cost is too great.” His voice cracked slightly, and he struggled to master his emotions. “She’s so young, Ororo. Katya’s life is just beginning. She deserves better than this.” Piotr was no stranger to loss. He’d lost his older brother in a freak accident while he was working to repair a satellite on a lunar mining expedition. He’s spent years helping his parents to eke out a living when Mikhail departed, only to lose his father as well to a heart attack. His mother was killed a month later in a random traffic accident when she’d gone to market; he thanked God that his baby sister, Illyana, had been staying with one of his aunts.

He wanted a better life for her. A safer world for mutants. He didn’t know what the future held for Illyana, or for Katya, if they didn’t continue to fight for Charles’ dream.

Kitty’s eyes flickered open and her chest expanded quickly, making her choke with the precious gulps of oxygen. She coughed weakly, and Piotr soothed her, hurrying to adjust her mask and adjust her bed. He propped her more comfortably and smoothed her hair that was spread out over the pillow.

“Hi,” she whispered.

“Hi, yourself,” he murmured back, and his soft blue eyes swam with relief and a sheen of tears. “Don’t scare me like that again, Katya.”

“Someone’s…gotta keep you on your toes, big guy,” she assured him, and the wink she gave him was almost saucy.

“Brat.” Ororo reached out and tweaked her bare toe from where it stuck out from the covers before she smoothed out Kitty’s blankets.

“Logan,” Kitty muttered, and her eyes flitted around the infirmary.

“He’s here,” Ororo assured her. “He’s resting.” Kitty fell back against the pillows and relaxed.

“You look tired,” Kitty remarked, even though her own eyes were drowsy, and Piotr looked knackered and stressed.

“I’ll manage,” she replied, even though she wanted nothing more than to have some time alone to care for her other patient. He still hadn’t woke up. She couldn’t rest until she heard his voice, and he opened those intense eyes.

You can’t have him. Her own words echoed in her mind. She’d been ready to kill, if she had to.

Again.

His voice stirred her from memories of blood staining her hands, of a dirty switchblade falling from trembling fingers into the dust.

“What…the flamin’…?”

“Logan,” she cried, and she rushed to his bedside, checking his vitals and crooning over him as his eyes slowly adjusted himself to the dim light and his surroundings.

“Ow,” he complained, wincing and grunting over various discomforts. He poked impatiently at an IV in the crease of his elbow. “Got me trussed up like a friggin’ turkey.” His hazel eyes settled on her face, and he let them drift over every inch, grateful she was standing over him, and that she wasn’t the one on the cot. There were smudges beneath her eyes from a lack of sleep. One glance at the wall clock told him it was shortly after dawn.

“Welcome back.”

“Some flamin’ welcome,” he nagged. Then he scowled. “Where’s Punkin’?”

“Here,” she called weakly to him. It hurt when he tried to crane his neck toward her voice, and Piotr crossed the suite to lean over him.

“I will take care of Katya.”

“She took good care of me,” he huffed. “Don’t mean I want her ta get ‘tween me an’ one of those fucking things again, mind you. Ya hear that, Kitty? Yer on timeout!” Ororo suppressed a giggle when Kitty stuck out her tongue at him.

“I saw that,” he growled, even though he hadn’t looked back over at her cot. “How long’ve I been out?”

“We made it home five hours ago. Henry’s not back yet. We can convene and go over his report once the children have returned to class.” She turned from him and went to the small refrigerator in the corner. His eyes followed the long, graceful line of her back and her slender legs striding along in those snug leather pants and boots. Her hair was loose and mussed, and she shucked her rubber gloves, chucking them into the disposal bin as she rinsed her hands in the sink. He heard the faint snap of the refrigerator door opening as she removed a can of soda; she popped it open and lifted it to his lips, letting them close around the straw she’d poked inside. He sucked in the needed moisture and groaned with relief. His throat was parched, and his mouth tasted like cotton.

Piotr tucked another blanket around Kitty and urged her to go back to sleep; her eyes wouldn’t stay open another minute, and he left the suite on silent feet after kissing her temple.

“Damn,” Logan muttered. “Bet he’s pissed.”

“Once Kitty has a clean bill of health, I know he’ll be ready to let me have it,” she shrugged.

“Can’t say I blame him,” he mumbled, and turned away from her when she attempted to give him more of his drink. She sighed and set it down on the bedside table. She busied herself with small tasks, filling a small tub with warm water and fetching several cotton washcloths. She set the tub on the table and wet a cloth, wringing it out and using it to sponge blood and grit from his thick hair. She gently pulled out bits of debris, and her fingers felt soothing against his scalp.

“Ya don’t hafta play Florence Nightingale.”

“Henry carried you onto the Blackbird. Humor me.” She cleansed more grit from his hands, and the warm rag refreshed him with her careful swipes and gentle caress. He fumbled beneath the covers, stretching his legs to get more comfortable. It struck him then that he was missing his shirt and jeans; the sheets felt cool against his skin. He still wore his boxers and socks.

She looked wan and was still ethereally beautiful, despite being disheveled. She’d removed her cloak and laid it over another wheeled chair, and her uniform was slightly unzipped, its weight stifling and binding until she could shower and change. The creamy caramel swells of her breasts burgeoned from their nest, her skin and platinum hair glowing under the dim lights. Her eyes were liquid sapphires, and full of worry.

“How’d ya know where ta find me?”

“Cerebro. Henry was up late, scanning for that mutant signature we found while you were gone. Instead, he found the one attacking you at Harry’s, and determined that the adamantium components in its body were similar to yours.”

“Shit. That’s why the damned thing was so hard ta take down.”

“Henry came up with a temporary solution. He and Forge worked on a mnemonic scrambler. It disrupted the creatures’ communication with whatever was sending it signals to attack us. It also broke down their neurological control of their own bodies, including how to use their mutant abilities. All of their physical functions ceased at once.”

“Why did that other one go kaput when Kitty phased through it?”

“Her powers work along the same principle. She can interrupt electrical signals.”

“Way ta go, Half-Pint,” he smirked. Her touch was addictive. The swelling around his eye had abated, even though the flesh was still bruised. He still reminded her of a prize fighter after ten rounds. She swabbed at a patch of dried blood matting a wisp of hair to his ear. It tickled, and the faint sensation rippled through his stomach.

She sensed his body’s reaction to the caress, and she withdrew her hands. The washcloth was chucked back into the tub, and she moved to empty it back into the sink.

He moved faster than she did, capturing her wrist in his grip. Her eyes followed the long line of his arm, traveling over his bare, tanned skin and its fine layer of dark hair, up along the crest of his shoulder, molded in lean muscle. Over his collarbones, and the cords of his thick neck. His fine chin and stubbled jaw. She couldn’t stop her eyes from drinking in the sight of that perfectly chiseled mouth with that sinful, tempting notch in his upper lip, or the long straight nose.

His eyes pinned her.

“Don’t go.”

“You need rest,” she reminded him feebly.

“Fuck rest,” he muttered. The tub landed back against the table with a faint splash. Her eyes dilated, and he felt the pulse in her wrist skip. He still felt weak as a kitten, but that still made him stronger than most people who survived what he had that night. He grunted under his breath as he tugged Ororo down to him, practically yanking her over the edge of the bedrail. She lost her balance and fell over him with a faint yelp. Long, calloused fingers threaded themselves into her hair as he leaned up to kiss that tempting mouth.

“Mmmmmmph!” The shock of his lips moving beneath hers, sliding over them and coaxing her to open for him stole her breath and dashed her composure to bits. She tried to regain her balance, but he held her snared against him, and with each struggle, her hands grazed his bare skin and sculpted muscle. Her fingertips didn’t listen to her, exploring the pulse in his throat and the line of his jaw as he tasted her.

This, he decided, was how he would have wanted to remember ‘Ro if it had been his last night on earth.

His kiss was hungry and insistent, just daring her to leave, and she answered the siren call of his lips, and the rasp of his velvety tongue wrapping around hers. She made sounds of protest, but they were muffled by the painstaking nibble of her lower lip between his teeth. His blunt fingertip traced a figure-eight over the crest of her cleavage, testing her softness, and she moaned at her body’s betrayal. Her nipples puckered and strained beneath her leathers, and her scent changed, to Logan’s delight, from one of overwhelming worry to that of arousal, undeniable and hot.

He squirmed in discomfort when she collapsed against his bad arm, still connected to the IV. The needle and the tape holding it still tugged painfully beneath her weight, and she scrambled off of him, thanking any goddess listening for a chance to compose herself and end the madness before things escalated…

Forge. He’s coming to brief me later today.

Her lips were still swollen, and she couldn’t stop herself before her tongue darted out to lick up the last taste of him. “Rest,” she ordered sternly before she reached again for the tub and darting away from his reach. She dumped its contents into the sink and discarded the cloths.

“Ro?” His voice stalled just before she could leave the suite. “Just one thing.”

“What might that be, Logan?”

“I ain’t ready ta leave the table yet. And I ain’t finished.” His eyes were hot, and she felt butterflies take flight in her stomach. The door swung shut after her with a click.

Logan sighed and fell back against the pillows, toying with his IV. He suppressed a bellow of pain as he tore back the adhesive strips, scowling at the angry red streaks they left behind. He eased the needle from his vein and flexed his arm, relieved when the tiny prick healed itself shut and proper blood flow was restored to his limb.

His eyes landed on the long black cloak lying across the chair, mere inches away from his bed. He lowered the bedrail and reached for it, enjoying its slippery heft as it slithered over the rail, tugging it over his lap. He buried his nose in its folds.

It still smelled like her. He extinguished the bedside lamp and burrowed under the cloak, wrapping himself in the memory of her kiss.

You can’t have him.

He definitely wasn’t finished.

 

~0~

 

Work equaled freedom. That empty promise kept Erik searching through the rubble every day. He stared into hollow eyes of men he’d known scant weeks. They’d held out hope, day after day, that their captors would keep their promise.

The metal called to him. His wasted fingers searched through pockets, finding minute treasures and keepsakes, laying them out in a collection tray.

He thought he could stop at serving on the Sommerkommando, helping the men who slaughtered his own family bury more of his kinsmen whom they’d felled. He wouldn’t sink further into madness. He would die before desecrating another man, woman or child’s body for the sake of stealing what bits of metal he could glean for a cause that wasn’t his.

The metal hummed, its buzz stirring him from his task of undressing the bodies, preparing them for cremation. He sensed the minute trace of gold, this time.

Threadlike filaments twined their way out from the cavity of the withered woman’s molar at Erik’s silent command, joining the other cursed fruits of his labor. Her eyes seemed to beseech him: Why? He reached down to gently close them and sent up a silent prayer.

He was nudged sharply by the stock of a bayonet. He didn’t meet his eyes, hooded and dark beneath his helmet as he was ordered in clipped tones to finish his forage. This one was special, the lieutenant reminded himself.

That was why he was still alive. He mistook Erik’s obedient silence and slumped posture for submission.

He’d underestimated a man who would eventually, literally, move mountains. He’d be among the last to ever make that mistake again.

Erik resumed his task. The metal whispered to him again, this time from an elderly man who reminded him sorely of his father, that last night on the prison train. He reverently slid the gold wedding ring from the withered finger and laid it on the tray.

 

Erik awoke with a start, a cold rash of sweat pricking his skin.

His eyes scanned his surroundings, following the sound of slumberous breathing to its source.

Lorna was curled up in her cot, thick blankets pulled over her head, barely covering her hair. Moonlight shone inside through the window in sharp slivers, illuminating her face. She reminded him so much of Magda. Her mannerisms, features, physical build, and those inquisitive eyes tugged at him. He wanted to question her endlessly and quench his thirst for her past, and the childhood he’s missed witnessing for so long. When did she lose her first tooth? When did she learn to ride a bicycle? He had no milestones to savor of Lorna. No photographs or keepsakes. No lock of hair, no hospital birth certificate, no framed baby footprints.

He rose and stretched, grunting at the discomfort it caused. His knees complained of rheumy joints and rebelled when he tried to straighten them and take a brief stroll to clear his thoughts.

There was a strong breeze rippling through the branches overhead, making them sway in a nocturnal dance. A flock of swallows chattered and took wing. The air smelled crisp, and he craved a cup of cocoa to warm his chilled hands.

Something felt wrong.

He heard footsteps crunching over dried leaves. He felt the call of metal, muted, as though it were embedded within something. The presence was familiar.

Wolverine. It felt like the Wolverine. He gestured and levitated the discarded lantern from behind their shelter and lit it with a bit of kindling leftover from the burned out embers of their campfire.

His eyes flitted into the brush. No one. He turned slowly, silently, barely drawing breath.

“Halt, Mutant 1010-952. Identification designate: Lensherr, Erik. Magneto. Status: Active. Class Five. Hostile mutate.” Glowing eyes illuminated a face devoid of compassion. “Termination imminent.”

“LORNA!” Before the creature could make a move, Erik harnessed his energy, synching himself with the metal implants he sensed within it.

He was right; it was adamantium.

“Let’s see what you’re made of, my fine friend,” he sneered, and with a thought, Erik tugged, and the creature flew forward toward him with a jerk. It had the temerity to look surprised.

“Halt, mutant! Cease your hostile actions!”

“Oh, I think not. I don’t appreciate unannounced guests.” Erik strained, the effort twisting his features as he lifted the creature off its feet, hovering mere inches off the ground. His struggles were for naught, however, since he couldn’t immobilize his limbs.

This was a different breed of soldier, Erik marveled, right before the creature aimed his palm in his direction and fired a projectile that hit him squarely in the chest.

It was a sedative dart. Dense plastic. He felt his legs wobble and collapse beneath him, and he dropped his attacker. The woods around him spun in a visual assault as he haggardly cried Lorna’s name.

She came running up behind him on light footsteps. “Erik! Oh, my God! Are you okay?”

“Unidentified mutant. Status, active. Processing. Processing,” droned the creature, and Lorna’s skin crawled at the mention of “mutant.” She bristled; Erik’s previous lectures that humanity wanted the destruction of those like them, who wielded powers they never asked for, suddenly rang true. She wrapped Erik protectively against her, cradling his silver-topped head.

“Process this,” she snapped, and with a quick wipe of her hand, she sent it careening away, like swatting a fly. She was rewarded by the sounds of its body slapping the branches, the sounds gradually dying away as she peered down into Erik’s face.

He looked gray around the mouth, his eyes watery and pleading with her.

“I…knew we would get along…splendidly,” he rasped, covering her hand with his limp one. “Take us from here,” he added.

“Where?” Her eyes reflected her uncertainty, but she wouldn’t question him any further. He was her savior. She had no one else.

“Up,” he replied simply, and they clasped hands more tightly. She hugged him to her, wrapping her arms as snugly around his torso as she could reach, and their shared field of energy buoyed them up. She followed his urging to head south, following the edge of the treeline toward the highway. Erik fingered the flash drive that created an awkward feeling lump in his pocket. That was the only thing of value that he possessed, aside from the young woman desperately fighting for his life. His heart swelled with pride.

Several kilometers away, the creature shook itself and rose, finishing its self-diagnostic and repairs.

The mainframe corrected its signal. The subject and the new mutant were headed south. Pursuit would be covert; offensive action was not necessary. Not yet.

The last remnants of human consciousness stirred inside the Prime Sentinel combat unit.

I’m not a monster.

 

~0~

 

Henry pored over the findings of his examination of the components they’d harvested from the Prime units; Ororo had the foresight to retrieve Henry in a staff vehicle, and Esme, one of the Stepford sisters, accompanied her. She created the illusion that the creatures were lying still on the ground, with chalk outlines being scrawled around their bodies. Forge and Hank used this diversion to extract the central processing unit, damaged but still salvageable from the base of the female Prime’s spinal cord.

Henry wanted to roar the injustice of it all to the sky. She’d been paraplegic. The implants that allowed her to fly also enabled her to walk. The perpetrators of this heinous manipulation lured her with the promise of a life of restored mobility.

The ride back to the school had been quiet, save for the blare of contemporary music Esme had chosen from the available radio stations. Forge followed them in his rented sedan, and Ororo was fuming, her knuckles whitening around the steering wheel.

Ororo padded into the lab in a pair of sensible black suede flats. She was showered and styled, wearing a conservative pair of chocolate brown slacks and a white cashmere sweater with three-quarter length sleeves. Her eyes were still exhausted, despite the cup of coffee she’d swallowed without really tasting it. She announced her entry to Henry’s laboratory by setting his mug on the table. She sidled up to him and watched him with cautious eyes.

“I’m afraid to ask what you’ve found, Henry.”

“You should be,” he agreed, and he didn’t attempt to smile. “The components match. The processor feeds from a remote signal, carried by a network of nannites, which Kitty disrupted when she phased through the Prime unit. The implants work in sync with the host subject’s biorhythms. The nannites practically replace the host’s nervous system. In short, the nannites function for it in tandem with the programming, relayed by the signal from the mainframe.”

“English?”

“Smart aleck,” he groused around a gulp of coffee. “The implant is like a symbiont. It enhances the physical strength of its host in return for the nannites having an environment to keep its network connected to the signal and the mainframe. Since the hosts are mutants, most like with healing capabilities or physical endurance like our resident Wolverine…”

“…they can withstand being implanted with adamantium,” she murmured. Her stomach had dropped into her shoes, and she tugged helplessly at her hair, knotting it at her nape in a gesture that Henry knew meant she was at a complete loss.

“They’re using our own kind to destroy us,” he added unnecessarily. “They’re fighting us with our own medicine, before we could attack again and destroy another Golden Gate Bridge or threaten baseline humans with extinction and succession. We’re all Magnetos in waiting,” he railed, throwing up his hands in defeat. “The actions of a few,” he sighed. “I hate this.”

“I know, Henry.” Slender arms embraced him from behind, her hold on him protective and sympathetic. Like Logan had before, Henry took quiet comfort in her scent and warmth, but he harbored no lustful intentions toward his favorite weather witch.

It would be like making out with his sister…

“Ororo, you won’t like what I’m about to tell you. Forge is on his way, but this can’t wait.” She released him and sat beside him on a rolling stool, leaning her elbows over her knees.

“Out with it, Henry.”

“The processor unit and the circuitry match the components Forge installed in Cerebro when he upgraded the interface.” The blood drained from her face, and Henry barely thunked his coffee mug on the table before she collapsed to the floor. She landed on her knees, and her face was a mask of horror. She gasped convulsively and grasped him, clinging to him like a life preserver. She couldn’t pull breath into her lungs. A field of static danced across her vision, and painful tingles worked their way along her jaw as she began to hyperventilate. Henry bristled at the roll of thunder overhead as she hung on him, her nails digging into the sleeve of his labcoat.

“He’s doomed us,” she whispered.

“Breathe, Ororo!” She wouldn’t stop trembling, and he heard her swallow convulsively, most likely around bile.

“I’ve doomed us,” she whispered. “Oh, Bright Lady! Henry, I’ve been such a fool! We allowed him into our home! He’s seen everything,” she cried. “Everything, Henry.”

“Calm down, Ororo. Look at me,” he ordered, helping her back up onto the stool when her legs wouldn’t support her. “We don’t know what Forge’s role was in the Prime units receiving those implants. He might not be the one we have to worry about.”

“No,” she promised. “I’m the one he needs to worry about.” She nodded to the components on the table. “Bring those with you to the briefing. I’ll be in my office. I also want to check on Logan.”

“He’s in the Danger Room,” Henry mentioned, watching her smooth her hands over her slacks and tuck her hair behind her ears. “Ororo, promise me you won’t confront Forge before hearing him out.”

“We gave him our trust. This is inexcusable.”

“Ororo…take a moment, for me. Think of how you would have felt in Forge’s shoes. If you’d seen live combat and survived it at great personal cost, wouldn’t you do anything you could to preserve peace and to serve the needs of your homeland once the smoke cleared?”

“I’ve survived war, Henry. I lost everything, but I never lived my life by the whim of those who took everything from me. Mutants are not the enemy. And I intend to remind Forge of that.” Her stride was brisk as she exited the lab.

“Heaven help him,” he breathed before reaching for the remainder of his coffee. He wouldn’t want to be in that poor bastard’s shoes.

 

~0~

 

It felt good to hit something. And to kick something. And to tear something to shreds.

“Say Uncle!” he grunted, feinting and ducking the advance of one of the Danger Room’s programmed bots that strongly resembled the Prime unit that smacked him through Harry’s window. He still felt guilty about leaving his bar in a shambles. Poor Chewy…

His claws cleaved through the bot like warm butter, and his muscles burned, but it was a good burn. He’d been at it since he woke up in an empty lab. Kitty was still slumbering when he crept out, and he’d smoothed her covers on his way out, draping Ororo’s cloak over her like a security blanket.

The shower soothed his muscles, and blood and grime swirled down the drain as he wiggled his toes. He leaned into the steaming spray and let the runnels of shampoo foam drizzle over his ears, wishing it would drown out the clamor from the street that he could still hear.

He wolfed down a piece of toast from the nearly empty breakfast platter in the kitchen and skirted around Marie’s questions and Bobby’s prying eyes.

He finished his workout, ending the program and straightening the hem of his tank before he retrieved his fresh flannel from the bleachers. He felt eyes watching him, and he craned his neck up toward the observation booth.

Ororo. She met his eyes and disappeared; he waited for her to enter the suite, but she never came. Logan took that as his cue to head upstairs. He took strange comfort in the fact that she’d sought him out.

He didn’t have time to ponder it when the mansion’s alarms sounded before he could even enter the elevator. Instead, he dashed up the back stairs, taking them two at a time.

He barreled through the back hallway to the main foyer, where Henry and Piotr we joining Ororo by the security monitors.

“We got a hostile?” Logan barked.

“We’ll know in a minute,” Piotr replied, and he adjusted the cameras to zoom in on the two people who were currently standing outside the gate.

Henry watched in awe as a young girl, who looked remarkably different from his first glance of her on Cerebro’s monitors, gestured toward the gate and bent apart its bars. A familiar, gaunt figure garbed in a long, plum-colored overcoat leaned against her for support. “Oh, my stars and garters!”

“Bright Lady!’

“Holy shit.” Without further preamble, he headed for the front door, jerking it open with a savage yank. His talk with ‘Ro would have to wait.

Chapter Text

Logan was deaf to Blue’s warnings that attacking Magneto was the last thing he needed to do, knowing what he was capable of. All he heard was the rushing of blood in his ears and the voice growling in his head to take him out before he batted so much as an eyelash at ‘Ro, Marie or the kids.

“Still playin’ the Pied Piper, herdin’ young kids into the flock ta do yer dirty work?” Logan stalked out onto the front lawn and stood with his feet planted apart, like an ogre guarding the drawbridge to the castle. To Erik’s surprise, his claws weren’t extended. Not yet.

“The man with adamantium claws goes up against the man who can control metal,” he tsked, though his voice was hoarse. His silver eyes glinted with irony. “There’s something to be said for hindsight, Wolverine.”

“Last I knew, ya ran outta juice at Alcatraz, bub. There ain’t much ta keep me from rippin’ yer leg off an’ kickin’ yer ass with it.”

“That’s no language to use in front of an impressionable young lady,” Erik nagged. He still stood slumped against his young charge, who stared at Logan with skeptical eyes.

“Why’d we have to come here?” She studied the odd, tufted peaks of Logan’s hair and his scowling brows. “You’re weird,” she pronounced.

He blinked. “I ain’t the one glowin’ in the dark, Punkin’.” She made a disgusted sound under her breath and straightened up, bristling back at him. He almost liked her.

“No. You’re the one dangling upside down.” With a flick of her wrist, she lifted him off the ground, yanking his feet out from under him, and he smothered a curse as he was upended, the blood rushing to his head. Erik suppressed a smile.

“Where’s Storm?”

“Here,” she replied, and her strides were brisk as she crossed the porch and descended the steps.

“Always a pleasure, my dear.”

“Great…gonna chat out here like it’s a friggin’ tea party!”

“You have no business here, Erik.”

“You’re right. I’m here for your help, something I would normally never ask. I was attacked by a creature who knew my abilities and identity, as well as where to find me.”

Ororo looked nonplussed. “That wasn’t a coincidence.” She gave Lorna a hard glare. “I cannot concentrate with him just hanging there like that. Put him down. Now.”

CLOP! “GAH!” Logan took a face plant and sat up, rubbing his head and treating Lorna and Ororo to a sour look. “Thanks a heap,” he snarled. Erik tried to suppress his smile but failed.

“And like our friend here, his body was implanted with adamantium. I had no opportunity to analyze it or to disable him. I had to get Lorna and myself away as quickly as possible.”

“Ya didn’t disable him?” Logan grunted. “Nice. So ya come here. Damned things are gonna show up on our doorstep next!”

“Then we need to be ready for them,” Ororo replied curtly. “We’ve just encountered two of the creatures you described, Erik, but we were more successful in taking them down. We also made a very tragic discovery.”

“Tragic?” His brow furrowed, and he shivered at the graveness of her expression. Crystal blue eyes bored into his with a look of pity and regret.

“They were mutants. The implants were given to them as a means of controlling them, and of forcing them to hunt and exterminate mutants. Henry has been analyzing implants’ components to determine where they came from and how they function, as well as how we can protect ourselves from the creatures. At best, we know they can be disrupted and that they have a name.”

“What are they called, Storm?”

“Prime. They called themselves Prime.”

Erik’s face went pale, and he spoke with a dry mouth.

“Holy Father, forgive me,” he whispered. He collapsed, nearly dragging Lorna down with him before Logan hurried forward to relieve her of her burden. She followed them inside the house, three steps behind and hugging herself with shivering arms.

 

~0~

 

Forge rang Gyrich’s office for the fifth time that morning; his receptionist was still offering him vague answers and empty promises that she would forward the messages. He clapped his mobile phone shut and threw it into his duffle.

He locked up and made his way down to the penthouse’s lobby, checking out and leaving the key. His conversation with Blue had been terse and brief; he wanted to tear his hair out over what he’d allowed to happen, but it wouldn’t matter. None of it would matter, if his creation made him responsible for the loss of mutant lives.

The creatures were being programmed and controlled remotely, most likely via satellite, to make it harder to trace the signal. According to Henry, once the implants were disabled, the host regained cognitive function and control, provided that they survived once the implant was destroyed. Two casualties so far; a clammy rush ran over him as he pondered the implications.

Many soldiers had to be recruited before starting a war.

He navigated his way through the mid-morning traffic, ignoring his empty stomach for the time being. The speedometer of his sedan ticked down the remaining miles far too slowly, and he was relieved when the familiar treeline of the orchards surrounding the Institute came within view, flanking the grounds like sentinels.

He had to see Ororo, even if it meant letting her tear him a new one that he so likely deserved. He’d worked so hard to make a connection with her, and to scratch her hard, smooth and glossy surface, and instead he’d succeeded in fortifying that wall she’d thrown up to keep him out. He was no better than the baseline oppressors she vowed to defend mutantkind from in the first place, and he’d proven her right.

He didn’t know how to fix it. Give him something that ran on a motor or that could be assembled and taken apart, and he was your man. Toss him a righteously angry headmistress whose faculty and students his own invention inadvertently marked for death, however, and he fumbled, not having a clue. His flesh broke out in a cold sweat and he gripped the steering wheel until his biological hand ached.

A fresh wave of unease rolled over him and knotted his gut when he saw the bars of the security gates throwing off a shower of blue sparks and bent back like a crumpled beer can. He jerked the gearshift into park and leapt out of the car. He reached for the small intercom and pressed the page button.

“BLUE! What the hell happened here, it’s Forge! Have you been attacked? Answer me if you can!” he barked.

“We haven’t been attacked, so much as invaded,” was Henry’s dry reply over the static. “I’m overriding the security code so you can come in, Forge. Ororo’s waiting for you in the War Room.”

“I’m coming in now,” Forge announced, and he climbed back into his sedan, pulling it carefully into the long, winding driveway. To his relief, the school grounds and house looked untouched; there was no rubble or other signs of destruction other than the gate. There were no strange cars in the garage when he parked, and his steps were brisk as he carried his briefcase and duffle into the mansion. He knocked soundly on the front door before depressing the doorbell twice; his hands shook, and he felt relief bloom in his chest when Warren opened the door, wings neatly folded against his back.

“C’mon in, sir,” he offered, stepping aside to let him enter. The halls were relatively quiet; Forge heard no chatter from the students, telling him that they were likely in class or sequestered in their dormitories until further notice. Henry stepped out of the kitchen, his face weary and anxious. Warren flushed nervously, rattling his feathers slightly at the look of tension the two men shared before he wordlessly took his leave.

“Want coffee?”

“I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I just want to bring what I have to the table.” Henry nodded and clapped him on the shoulder, leading him to the conference room.

Ororo and Piotr were already seated, and made no move to greet Forge or stand when he let himself inside. Her face was an implacable, hard mask, eyes glittering and resembling a cat’s before it pounced.

“What happened to the front gate?”

“Our guests upstairs decided to let themselves in without knocking first,” Piotr murmured. “Coincidentally, the same young mutant whose signature we have been following since you restored Cerebro’s full level of function.”

“But you have more than one guest?”

“He doesn’t really count as a guest, since he used to reside here. She came to us with Magneto, in an attempt to help him after he was attacked.” Ororo wasn’t surprised, nor sympathetic when Forge’s eyes widened and he rocked back on his heels. “Her powers appear at first glance to be identical to his. Henry would like to run some tests when we have more of an opportunity.”

“I’ve brought the report.” He set down his briefcase on the table and unfastened the locks, extracting a report bound in a black folio, which he passed over to Ororo. She didn’t reach for it, and he dropped it onto the table in front of her in defeat. Only when he sat down across from her did she open the leaflets and scan their contents. Henry lingered over her shoulder to save the time of waiting for her to finish. She drew small comfort from his warm bulk at her back.

“The implants were a variation on my original design,” Forge explained. “Someone adapted them to sync with that remote signal that we haven’t traced back to its source yet. By themselves, the implants exchange signals uninterrupted from the patient’s nervous system.” His choice of words gave Ororo pause, but she still let him speak. “My own prosthetics function in a similar manner, even though I can wear them externally. They can adapt to my needs, and do anything except feel for me. They can adjust the amount of pressure and strength of grip that I need according to whatever the task is that I need to perform. These implants were never originally meant to be programmed by an external user or operator. I found something else when I retrieved the implants from the female host.”

“It galls me that someone could be so cavalier about manipulating the human body so callously,” Henry rumbled. “Let alone in the guise of providing medical care.”

“What else were you able to find, Forge?” Henry bristled noticeably when Ororo placed the question to Forge in a voice that was icy and distant.

“I’m afraid it’s more bad news. I retrieved other components besides the endoskeletal implants. There were also neural implants affecting their cognitive function and memory, overwriting their thought processes and logic. Someone didn’t want these beings to have a conscience.”

“That’s why they seemed to act without reason or thought to the consequences,” Henry murmured. “Why they could kill their own kind.”

“Yes.” Forge toyed with the edge of his glove, shrinking in his chair and looking like a chastised little boy.

“That’s why they were disoriented and we were able to speak to them before they died.” Ororo merely sat with her eyes glued to the paperwork in her hands. “Once the prosthetics are disrupted, and the nannites can no longer maintain their integrity to communicate with the network, the neural implants no longer affect their thought processes. By the time they are back to being themselves, it’s too late.”

“They need the nannites to live once their implanted?”

“They replace the host’s nervous system. The only way to turn off the implants is to turn off the host.” Henry’s voice was grave. “Forge, we need to know if you’ve devised any countermeasures to your invention. And we need to know now.”

“I’d like to tell you that I’ve thought that far ahead, but I would be lying.” Ororo had had enough.

“That’s comforting to hear, since you’ve lied to us enough. You introduced us to this marvelous technology in the guise of helping us.” Her eyes glittered at him, and she snapped the folio shut, shoving it so firmly across the table toward Forge that it nearly hit him.

“I did mean to help you,” he replied, and his face was tightly drawn, his chiseled lips flattened into a thin line. “I never wanted this to happen, Ororo!”

“Yet you let it happen. You played right into the Security Council’s hands, and you took us with you!” Their conversation from the moment that they introduced him to Cerebro rang out in her memory, nagging her to stay angry with him. She couldn’t let go of the indignant rage, or she might hurt herself more by believing him.

 

“And you wonder why the government’s so interested in the comings and goings of mutants.”

“The government’s interested in the containment of mutants.”

“Only the ones they perceive as a threat.”

“Do they perceive you as a threat?”

“Touché. And yes. But they also consider me useful.”

 

Instead, it tore at her. He’d lost so much, fighting for what he believed in, and the same people he was fighting for wanted to destroy his kind, using him as a means to an end.

Their end.

“Ororo, that’s enough,” Henry growled, and she was chastened by his thick, furry palm clapping over her shoulder and holding her captive in her seat.

“We can’t find a way to disable the implants?” Piotr suggested hopefully. “And leave the nannites intact? Or find some way to support the life of the Prime host once we disable them?”

“No one said we can’t find a way,” Forge assured him. “No one said I would walk again, either.” He demonstrated his point by rising from his chair and striding from the conference room. “I’m leaving the report with you.”

“Where are you going?” Piotr inquired.

“I would work more efficiently with my own tools. I’m flying back to Dallas,” he threw back as he paused in the doorframe.

“How quickly you flee,” Ororo challenged, and she pushed Henry’s hand away as she stood.

“I’ve never run from anything, Storm.”

“This looks like you’re running. And no one said you wouldn’t run.” Her chin rose a notch as she stared him down, throwing his own words back at him.

“I’ve already checked out of my rental,” he explained. “I’d lose more time getting settled in another hotel.” Ororo snorted with disgust.

“Then we’ll prepare you a room,” Henry offered crisply. His tone didn’t brook any escuses, even from his old friend.

Forge blanched. “Hank, it might not be the best-“

“He can stay in the guest wing,” Ororo interrupted. She folded her arms beneath her breasts in challenge.

“…idea?” Forge’s mouth went dry, and the cold sweat came back.

“I’m not taking my eyes off of you. When Henry isn’t supervising your work on the implants, I will be. Mark my words. I also won’t allow any untapped communications between you and anyone in the Security Council office. If you have a cell phone, kiss it goodbye. Piotr, accompany Forge to his car and confiscate his laptop. We’ll be keeping it in the vault. And for the record, I’m the only one in the school who can open it.” She brushed past him coolly, and he stepped back reflexively to avoid being knocked out of the way. Her steps were brisk and louder than Henry was accustomed to hearing them, as close as Ororo ever came to a stomp.

“Shit.” Forge scrubbed his gloved hand over his face. She was still regal, proud, and beautiful, even pissed off at him. And he pitied anyone who got in her way.

“I’d say you’ve stepped in it pretty deep,” Piotr quipped dryly. “I used to live on a large farm with my parents, tovarisch. I learned about livestock, and assisted in every aspect of raising beef and pork. When I was a young man, I nearly passed out from watching one of my father’s workmen castrate a steer.” Forge paled, and Henry winced.

“Nice image.”

“I get the feeling that you’re in for much, much worse.” Piotr led him companionably back to the front door. “But in the meantime, let’s get your things from the car.”

 

~0~

Downstairs in the infirmary:

“It’d be nice if ya’d siddown and quit doin’ that, kid,” Logan grumbled, watching Lorna pace the suite like an agitated lion as Sean made Erik more comfortable on the bed and dressed the small wound left from the sedative dart. The flesh was already purple around the point of impact, but aside from that he was merely groggy.

“Sit, Lorna,” Erik muttered, also feeling more restless each time she turned and paced in the opposite direction. She shot him a look of annoyance, but sank into the chair by the bed and began chewing her fingernail until it was ragged.

“Like that ain’t annoying either, Punkin’,” Logan informed her. This time, she merely made a face at him and stuck out her tongue. Erik chuckled, but winced as Sean tightened the bandage and adhered it with tape.

“I’ve done my best to work on my young charge’s manners, Wolverine; please don’t undo my efforts. She’s impressionable.”

“Am not,” she huffed. Sean grinned as he turned his back and put away the bandages. She reminded him of his daughter Theresa, who was just as outspoken, albeit less flamboyant with her clothes and hair.

“Ya acted like ya knew what those things were that attacked us,” Logan interjected, and Erik fixed him with a solemn gaze from his silver eyes, still puffed from fatigue. “So talk.”

“You might remember a Dr. Abraham Cornelius?” Logan’s face contorted with rage, and his skin flushed all the way down to his neck. “Ah, yes. You do.”

“What’s that fucker got ta do with what happened last night?”

“I have another piece of the puzzle.” He beckoned to Lorna to hand him his trenchcoat, which was folded neatly on the floor beside the bed. She obediently retrieved it, and he reached into the pocket for the flash drive. “Give this to Ororo. She may find it helpful.”

“Where’d ya get this, Mags?”

“From a safehouse of an old friend of mine, who regretfully took his own life before I could get more answers. A Robert Windsor, one of the directors of the Weapon X project that was funded by Department H?” Logan took the drive from him and studied it silently, still unwilling to give credence to anything his adversary had to tell him.

“Name rings a bell,” he grumbled. Erik smiled.

“Then perhaps you won’t shed a tear at the news that I found him with a bullet in his head,” he replied.

“Ain’t exactly cryin’ a river over it.” He felt a wave of remorse, however, when Lorna leaned forward and hugged herself, breathing in deeply through her nose, as though she were trying to master the urge to vomit. “Ya took a kid into that hell hole?” he accused.

“If that Prime unit had captured me, she would have seen worse.”

“Come along wi’ me, lassie, an’ we’ll make fer the kitchen, get ye somethin’ t’snack on,” Sean offered, nudging her gently and treating her to his boyish, dimpled smile.

“Isn’t Lassie that dog who’s always saving Timmy from the well?” They bantered back and forth like that the rest of the way out of the infirmary.

“Ya got yer hands full with that one. Speaking of which, that how ya get yer kicks these days, Mags, bustin’ kids outta lockup?”

“You saw the news report; she was defending herself during an armed robbery.”

“She resisted arrest and attempts to get her medical attention. Turnin’ that pawn shop ta rubble didn’t help, either. Guess ya didn’t hear the details on what happened before she ended up in that store. Her parents reported that she attacked them in their home and ran away.” It had been all over the news; Lorna’s mug shot with its battered eye makeup and mad hair were plastered all over the headlines and on CNN.

“The child was understandably upset. She’s never been at ease, being raised by baseline humans,” Erik murmured smoothly.

“Ya think she ain’t the first mutant ta be ‘raised by baselines’ and ta feel a little like the odd man out?”

“They weren’t her real parents. Lorna was adopted.”

“Ain’t no difference. She wouldn’t have had any business attackin’ ‘em even if they were blood.”

“She was overwrought. They planned to send her away to a school to deal with discipline issues, but they cared nothing for her gift. Not like this institute would,” he pointed out.

“Chuck never treated this school like a juvenile hall. Kids that come here still hafta behave, powers or no powers. Ya always figure ya know best. Just like ya thought ya did with Jeannie.” Erik settled back on the bed and sighed raggedly, closing his eyes with the same memories that kept Logan up at night. “Everyone needs ta follow the rules. Even you. That kid upstairs with Cassidy’s the only reason I ain’t shishkabobbin’ ya right now. She might take exception to that.” Logan moved to the refrigerator and yanked it open, reaching for a soda.

“She might, indeed, but not for the reasons she thinks,” Erik mused. “I’m her father.” Logan’s hands froze in the middle of popping open the tab. The liquid foamed over and dripped onto his boots.

“Fuck!”

Erik rolled his eyes. “Language! Does NO one observe any pleasantries anymore?”

 

~0~

 

Henry sat vigil in the Cerebro suite as Forge lay on his back, reaching up into the gutted console and removing circuitry panels as he disconnected the components from the interface. Henry nursed his third cup of coffee as he watched his labors.

“Ororo feels betrayed. Deeply betrayed.”

“I know.” He paused, eyeing him askance for a moment before going back to unplugging a handful of wires. “I never meant for this to happen.”

“Someone that you work for did. You know what this means. Someone’s been eavesdropping on your communications with me and this school ever since the inception of your upgrades to Cerebro.”

“I’ll let that logic rock me to sleep tonight,” Forge grumbled.

“More importantly, we’re no longer anonymous. We’ve been tagged like a herd and marked for slaughter. When the Prime units attacked, they knew our identities and codenames, as well as our power type, class and physical weaknesses. Cerebro is the only possible source for that kind of information. I’d bet my life on it that this is why your interface was tampered with, when someone in your department knew you were coming here.”

“That someone is Gyrich. I’d bet my life on it.”

“Gyrich.” Henry set down his coffee mug and joined him beside the console. “That’s the name that the Prime unit gave us before she died.” Forge ceased his tinkering and set his pliers aside as he backed out of the console and sat up. “Go through Gyrich, she said, to find what we can of where the Prime units came from.”

“That explains a lot,” Forge confirmed. “Particularly why he’s been making himself so scarce.”

“You know him?”

“I work with him.”

 

Twenty-four hours later:

“I don’t see why I hafta go to class,” Lorna snarled miserably.

“I don’t make the rules, chickie,” Jubilee shrugged, cracking her gum. “But we’re gonna be late. C’mon!” Ororo had agreed with Erik, something she hadn’t done in several years, that Lorna needed to avoid further truancy while they were deciding what to do with her. They still had no success getting through to the Danes’ residence on repeated calls.

“What are you learning here, anyway? Basket weaving?”

“Nope. Flight class with Mr. Cassidy. You’ll love it!”

“And bring ear plugs,” Kitty advised. Before Lorna could ponder the dubious advice, she was shuffled by two pairs of hands tugging her along by the arms.

So far, all of the students she’d seen so far lingering in the halls and in the kitchen made her classmates at Westchester High look like poster children for Wonder Bread. No snotty cheerleaders or fussy fashionistas like Paige and Monet, or safe little posers like Doug and Jono. Lorna dragged her feet to class, balking when they reached the door.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she carped. The classroom was growing crowded, and Lorna was becoming steadily more claustrophobic.

“Sure you should,” Kitty insisted. Lorna’s only comfort was that the bubbly brunette and her friend reminded her of Ali, whom she suddenly missed so much it hurt.

She squealed in terror as she felt herself yanked through the wall in lieu of waiting their turn to file through the door.

“Holyshitdon’tdothatagain!” Kitty grinned while Jubilee just rolled her eyes. Lorna was thoroughly unnerved, and her blue eyes sparked with indignance.

“Creeped me out the first time she pulled that with me, too.”

“Didn’t last long, if the sparkler you tossed down the back of my neck was any indication. Ruined my favorite shirt,” Kitty reminded her.

“Sparkler?”

“Yup. Little self-contained plasmoids of energy. They make a big bang, depending on how much juice I put into ‘em. Pretty to look at, too.”

“Wow. I have a friend who can do something like that. Minus that whole ‘exploding’ thing.”

“Well, where’s the fun in that?” She fished in her pocket for her pack of Wrigley’s and handed it to Lorna, who was about to take a piece until the tall, strawberry blond instructor who showed her around the house the night before swept into the large classroom. Jubilee promptly spat the piece she had in her mouth into her hand, hiding it behind her back. Kitty plucked up the sticky glob and snuck it into the wastebasket, phasing it free from her fingers.

“Hope ye brought enough fer ev’rybody, lass,” Sean admonished as he began diagramming the day’s lesson on the chalkboard, his back turned as Jubilee was about to tuck the gum back into her pocket. She groaned and marched up to his desk, plopping the pack onto his blotter before resuming her seat. Lorna giggled.

 

~0~

“All right. Run that by me again?”

“There was a time when I lived among humans instead of surrounding myself with people who possessed gifts like mine. I was married to someone whom I loved very, very much. She was a baseline human. I met her while I was held at Auschwitz, and when I planned my escape from the camp, she came with me. She was the only light in my miserable life until she gave birth to our daughter, Anya.”

“That doesn’t gel, bub. yer talkin’ about being in Auschwitz, durin’ the war? Lorna’s only a kid.”

“Anya was my firstborn.” His eyes clouded, and he didn’t seem to acknowledge his host as he continued his tale, growing lost in it. “She was perfect from the moment the midwife handed her to me. Bright. Beautiful. She never cried, and she spread joy wherever she walked. Anya and I could only afford to rent a tiny cottage in Vinnitsa. We needed money; the only position I found was as a builder, and the compensation was scant at best. The foreman felt an immediate dislike for me, and he tried to cheat me of my wages. I fought back. It was the first time I ever struck out in vengeance, using my gift. Word spread fast. I was a wanted man.”

“Ain’t exactly easy ta hide,” Logan agreed. “Times haven’t changed all that much.”

“My neighbors informed the authorities of where Magda and I lived. I went to find Magda and warn her that they were looking for me, but when I returned, there was smoke rising from the roof. My daughter was trapped inside.” His breath hitched, but he remained composed. Logan grunted briefly in pity.

“Damn.”

“The foreman and his crew beat me and held me down while my daughter burned to death. They took the one thing from me that I couldn’t afford to lose. She was my life. She was my future. I reacted without thinking. I reached out with my hand, and felt the power coursing through me. I felt and heard the metal calling me, this time rushing through their veins, and I made it expand and increase in volume until it could no longer be contained by its vessels. I tore them apart. And all I could hear were my wife’s screams.”

“Keeps ya up at night, don’t it?” Logan muttered. “The screams. When ya kill, and ya feel like ya had no choice. Even when it’s just ‘baseline humans,’ it still carries a cost. I’m sorry they did that, Magneto. Sorry they took away yer family, when that was all ya had. I know that kind of pain better than most people, and I wouldn’t wish it on a dog.” Logan’s face was stoic, but his eyes reflected shared grief and remembered anguish. For the only time since he’d known the gruff, feral Canadian, Erik realized they were cut from the same cloth.

“Magda was horrified, but she had no one. She stayed with me out of necessity. She wouldn’t allow me to touch her for a long time, on those rare instances where I craved her comfort, no matter how cold. I knew she blamed me for what happened to Anya. It was in her eyes and in her voice. That first night, she called me a monster. I never felt any differently about myself until I met Charles, but by then, Magda deserted me. She left our home one night and never came back. Foolishly, I had believed that she had finally come to terms with what happened, since she stayed with me over twenty years. Have you ever held someone who made your arms still feel empty, Wolverine?” Logan blinked, knowing Erik would offer him the answer if he just shut his own mouth. “Magda believed I had taken everything from her, and I didn’t know how to give it back. I believe she took my unborn child with her.”

“What makes ya so sure, bub? Ya wanna make yer case that she can do everything you can and then some, that’s one thing, but I thought I was the only one of my kind, healing factor, claws and all, til I met yer second asshole in command, Sabertooth. That don’t make him my brother,” Logan huffed. “When ya broke Petunia out of jail, didja run for the swab and scrape up a few cheek cells? Better yet, have ya told her yer revelations and theory about the only parents she’s ever known not bein’ her biological ones? Not every ugly duckling knows it’s a swan; sometimes they’ve gotta swim with the first thing that quacks.”

“Still eloquent as ever.”

“And ya still hafta wonder how well she’ll take it that her father’s a terrorist, even if ya tell her. Kid’s got nothing, Mags. Her whole life got turned upside down, she doesn’t have a home, and until she mends fences with her parents, she doesn’t have a family.”

“I could be that family.”

“Excuse my lack of faith. Charlie believed in ya and accepted ya like a brother, from what Cyke told me once upon a time, and ya didn’t have a problem cutting him off and goin’ after his nearest and dearest.” Erik wavered a moment; his demeanor and scent changed at the mention of his departed former colleague. “Most of whom are kids, just like our Lorna.”

“My Lorna,” Erik corrected him bluntly. “She senses a connection between us. If you beg so much to differ, Wolverine, feel free to test me; this infirmary is certainly equipped.”

“I ain’t gonna walk up ta her and demand she open up and say ‘ahhhh,” he growled. “Storm ain’t gonna be open ta testin’ her ta give that kid one more reason ta think her life is a lie. Bein’ a mutant’s hard enough. Doesn’t help that you’ve made your agenda clear about not liking baseline humans much, what with tryin’ ta slaughter all of ‘em like so many cattle.”

“They haven’t given me reason to believe they shouldn’t be. Humans took away my family, and ultimately any vestige of mercy I ever had. They started this war, Wolverine, not me.”

“Ya forgot one thing, Mags. Lorna’s a kid. She’s young. She’s a mutant, and a pretty powerful one at that. Ya used ta help Charley teach incoming ‘new blood’ for the sake of controlling their powers, but since I’ve known ya, yer interest lies in recruiting ‘em ta fight this little ‘war.’ Do ya want Lorna as a daughter, or as a soldier? Sharin’ this part of yer life with her and bending her ta think it’s fine ta kill, as long as they aren’t mutants sounds like doin’ the same thing ta her that was done t’you.” Logan wasn’t expecting the wry smile and deprecating chuckle. Erik stared at him with an odd gleam in his eye.

“Look at what the humans did to you, Wolverine. Look at what they’ve taken from you. You were recruited for this war by the Weapon X project, created, planned and funded by humans.” Logan growled, barely restraining the urge to pop his claws and fillet him, just to get him to shut up. “Your disposition hasn’t mellowed much since then.”

“How the fuck would you know?”

“How did I know where to find Windsor’s safehouse?” Erik twisted the knife more deeply. Logan felt his stomach bob and twist, and his breathing quickened dangerously; Erik eyed him with amusement, despite the feral’s stance of an animal preparing to lunge at its prey. “Despite the government’s stance on the dangers of mutants roaming at large among its populace, they still find us useful. Charles and I shared a mutual love of genetics, but my other talents were what interested Windsor when he approached me with his proposition. You recall our encounter at the train station?”

“That ain’t something a guy forgets, but thanks for pourin’ vinegar on it.”

“That was the second time you and I met, my friend.” For the first time in his long, tortured existence, Logan felt himself grow pale.

SNIKT…

“Ya mind runnin’ that by me again?”

“Don’t be foolish, Wolverine, put those away. Or I will.” Logan sensed an almost invasive current creeping along his nerve endings, literally feeling Erik’s intent in his bones.

“Then explain yerself!”

“Adamantium doesn’t just create itself, you know. And who better to divulge its secrets than someone who can shape metal like clay? Cornelius and Windsor had been interested in you for a long time, Wolverine. I thought a man like you would have been better at covering your tracks.”

“Sonofabitch.” Logan’s voice sounded like someone else’s. “You helped Stryker, Cornelius, and those other bastards do this ta me?”

Does that remarkable metal run through your entire body?

“No. I had no part in the adamantium feed itself. I merely tempered the adamantium needed for the Weapon X project. The Prime units were only in the planning and conception stages when Windsor and I parted ways. Prime was meant to be a means to an end for their mutant problem; to me, I saw an available opportunity to further my own cause. Enhanced, mutant soldiers that would help take back what the humans stole from us.”

Woodenly, Logan stalked to the intercom, never taking his eyes from Erik as he depressed the button. “HANK!” he bellowed.

“How’s our patient doing?”

“Breathin’. Now come down here before I hafta show him his intestines.”

“Oh, not on your best day!” Erik purred.

“If yer lyin’, ya might make it outta here in one piece.”

“Everything you need is on that drive,” he shrugged. “You’ll realize soon enough that I’m telling you the truth.”

“That ain’t gonna change a damned thing. Ya’ve damned me, ya sick fuck! No matter how ya package it up and try ta wrap it in a pretty bow, YOU DID THIS TO ME!”

“The same ones who did this to you also gave you the weapons to fight back. A wise man spends his life moving forward, not looking back.”

“Yer not the one ta give out that kinda shitty advice. You, least of all, bub.” Henry swept inside and paused, letting his senses tell him what he needed to know. Logan’s pulse was erratic, and he smelled his tension all the way from the door. The look on his face spoke of pure, unadulterated hatred.

“Go,” Henry ordered simply.

“Gladly,” he barked before stomping out. Henry watched him depart and suddenly didn’t envy anyone who stumbled into his path. He turned back to Erik and treated him to a menacing, leonine scowl, baring his teeth, just challenging Erik to bait him.

“We’re both men of knowledge and action, Henry.”

“Despite appearances, I’m more of a man than you, Erik. And don’t provoke me.”

 

~0~

She heard his footsteps while she was updating the syllabus in Charles’ study and instantly saved her file, rising from her chair and hurrying into the hall. Logan walked like a man ready to do damage and think later.

That didn’t bode well.

She wasn’t surprised when he made his way outside, heading toward the woods beyond the cemetery. The anger animated him, changing the set of his spine and making him move smoothly and efficiently, like a machine. She didn’t want to know what brought about this change in him so suddenly. Not yet.

Logan ignored the rush of wind whipping behind him and making his clothes flutter. He already knew its source, and he wasn’t in the mood to talk. He caught her scent as soon as she followed him out the door, and a few placating words or reminders of how hardheaded she thought he was acting wouldn’t do it this time.

She landed light as a feather a few feet in front of him and stood her ground imperiously, hands on her hips and feet planted apart like a five-pointed star.

“Move,” he grunted.

“What happened?”

“Ya don’t wanna talk ta me right now, Storm!” His use of her codename should have been warning enough.

“Don’t make me have to.”

“There ain’t room in that big, fancy schoolhouse for me and that fucking asshole yer sheltering under Charlie’s roof!”

“We needed to know why he came here. He knows more about the Prime mutants who attacked us.”

“That ain’t the half of it,” Logan snarled. His pupils were dilated, and the veins stood out in his neck. “Now get outta the way.” He skirted around her attempts to pull him back, easily evading her grip and extending his claws.

She said nothing as he emitted a guttural roar, taking out his bile on an enormous, proud oak. Slash after slash of his six gleaming claws shredded its bulk into kindling. Large splinters exploded from the trunk like shrapnel, and Ororo winced as they ricocheted against his flesh, drawing blood, but he carried on as though he didn’t feel their impact. He gritted his teeth, drawing savage satisfaction in the destruction and the feel of the wood cleaving apart. Ororo never wavered; she assessed the angle of the tree’s descent before it began to topple and she sidestepped out of the way. She stood without fear as she watched the ripple of his muscles at play within his body and the sheen of sweat breaking out over his tanned skin.

He’s inside. I’m out here. I ain’t breakin’ any rules. Ain’t down in that fuckin’ lab, tearing his arm off and beatin’ him over the head with it… Logan lectured himself soundly as he went to work on the fallen tree, cutting until his knuckles oozed blood, but it was a good pain. The kind he inflicted on himself was the sweetest. He was in control. Each chop and dice of the wood brought him closer to the goal, in his mind’s eye, of Erik lying mangled and bleeding at his feet, begging him for mercy that he never spared for Logan or anyone else.

Ororo stood placidly behind him; he felt her eyes easing over him, again without fear. He sensed her tension, and also concern, but he wasn’t finished by a long shot. Rage drove him into a frenzy, and curses flew from his lips in a growling, raspy jumble. His misery was tangible. Ororo felt its sting, and she was grimly drawn back into the worst day of her life.

Her arms remembered the feel of him, rocking back and forth against her and quaking, all hope destroyed amidst the ruins. She’d choked back dust, her body aching from the sting of the flying rubble, despite her protective uniform. His eyes were haunted and lost, and agony was written on his face, marring its rugged beauty and breaking her heart. Denial strangled her own screams in her throat. She felt the burn in her muscles as she stretched herself around him, trying to shield him from the sight of Charles’ empty chair and the callous murder they’d both witnessed by the woman they trusted and loved. She wanted to envelop him, and to offer him an anchor. She could do nothing but hold him. It was a horrific thing to watch the Wolverine, the strongest man she knew, mired in helplessness and broken.

She offered him her strength. She felt the answering grasp of his hand in hers, his grip so hard that it bit into her fingers, but she held on. His sobs were low and ragged, eventually mingling with her own.

In the end, nothing she had to say calmed him; exhaustion set in, and his blows slowed as his hands flared and throbbed from the brunt of each strike.

I ain’t an animal. The revelation beat a relentless tattoo in his heart, and he felt the squeeze in his ribs. The blood rushed from his head as he staggered, and he finally slumped against the jagged stump, ignoring its rough, unyielding surface.

Her scent still beckoned to him. He felt her presence again at his back. The faint breeze still caressed him, offering him what solace it could.

“Seemed like ya were in a big fuckin’ hurry ta leave me before, Storm. What’s keepin’ ya? Go back inside.”

“I won’t,” she informed him crisply. Her voice was soft but firm; part of him craved the chance to stab with his words. He drew no quarter.

“Ya’ve got yer fuckin’ hands full, woman. Too many houseguests are like fish; after a while, they stink just as bad. How could ya let that fucker in here, after all he’s done?”

“Lorna was my immediate concern. And he wouldn’t set foot here unless we were sorely needed.”

“Only thing he sorely needs is his ass kicked. Ya might as well have handed him a shopping cart and told him to take his pick of the kids! That’s what he’s good at, darlin’, leadin’ all of the ones he can trap like lambs ta the slaughter. Here,” he snapped, reaching into his pocket for the flash drive. “Take this away from me. I’m gonna be out here fer a while. Share whatever’s on it with Blue and that other dickhead ya let in here. He ain’t any better. When ya lie down with filth, yer likely ta get dirty.”

“How. Dare. You.” She snatched the flash drive from him, eyes blazing an icy blue right before they began to glow their signature white. Barely suppressed lightning danced in their depths. “Whom I choose to lie down with is none of your affair.” The memory of Logan’s kiss burned, but she still had business to settle with Forge. Ugly business, indeed.

“Yer right. It ain’t. So go ahead. Don’t let me keep ya from that traitor ya were suckin’ face with. Keepin’ our enemies closer than yer friends, eh?”

“Don’t treat me like the enemy, then.”

“The only kinda friend I want ya ta be, Storm, is the kind with benefits. Thought I made that clear downstairs.” She ignored his snide look, even though it rankled. His eyes flashed amber, a sign that he wasn’t finished with his attack.

“I’ll make note of that. But you wouldn’t have stayed this long after Jean was taken from us if you didn’t feel there was something worth staying for. And that something doesn’t have to be me. This isn’t about me.”

“You and Charlie’s little mission ain’t it.” It was a lie that he despised as soon as it left his lips. “Don’t flatter yerself. And don’t throw Jeannie at me if ya don’t wanna get hurt.”

“I’m still not your enemy. What is this?” she inquired, holding up the drive.

“Magneto gave it ta me. Open it up and show it to Forge. Stick it up his ass. I don’t care what ya do with it.” He waved her away impatiently. “Probably his kink, anyway. Give him my regards. Tell him I told him to ‘implant’ it where the sun don’t shine.” Ororo cocked one haughty brow.

“Come inside and tell him yourself.”

“I’m fine where I am.”

“You’re not fine.”

“Then let me be pissed off in peace.”

“This isn’t peace.”

“I can go at it all day like this.”

“So can I.” The sky rumbled sonorously overhead and grew dark. Logan gave his rage its head as he spun on her, claws extending even though his flesh had just healed, reopening his wounds.

“THIS IS WHAT THEY DID TA ME! They trapped me like a fucking ANIMAL! They tore me open just ta see me BLEED! They kept cutting inta me ta watch me heal before they’d cut me again! Then they pumped me full of this fucking poison, when they knew they hadn’t done enough. They wanted a weapon. Nothin’ else. Magneto had a part in that! The same motherfucker that Charlie treated like a BROTHER! Who claims ta wanna save mutants from the humans? Whose gonna save the mutants from HIM? These,” he gestured to his claws, hands shaking, “were because of HIM.”

The glowing fire in her eyes extinguished, leaving behind only sorrow. The rolling clouds gradually ebbed away, barely breaking the blue.

“They did this to me,” he continued, “and cut into me, but he handed ‘em the knife.” SNAKT. He stared down at his hands, and she felt him retreat into himself again, and the voices in her head rose in a clamor that she couldn’t allow it.

He was trembling. No tears fell, and as much as her own sorrow choked her, she marshaled her strength and stifled the ones that pricked at her eyes.

He felt her first touch and fought against it, batting at her hands and flinging them away from him. “Don’t.” His anger was the only thing holding him together; he wouldn’t abandon it. “I don’t need anything from you right now, Storm.”

“I need something from you.”

“I’m all out.”

“I don’t believe that. I need you to trust me when I say that I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, before you came to us. You told Charles that you had very little memory of what was done to you. There are some things that the human mind, and that the spirit will not accept. You’ve been so strong, for so long, and fighting down the pain, Logan. Healing over old wounds, again and again, but it doesn’t take away the pain. You’ve let it remain, because you don’t think you have anything else left. You cling to it. And it’s consuming you.”

“Bullshit.” He still felt her eyes on him. It burned. Her truth burned.

“You pushed aside those memories for a reason. From what we knew of Stryker, they tried to take them from you to suit their own purpose. So you would think what they wanted you to think. Kill who they wanted you to kill. Make you a blank slate. Train you.”

“Shut. Up.” His clenched jaw began to ache. He hated it about her, and loved it about her, that she wouldn’t back down or turn away. Her words hit home, and the beast within him snarled in warning.

“Only when you hear me out.”

“I’ve heard enough. I don’t know how or when we’re gonna figure out how ta deal with these so-called Prime mutants, Storm, but the only thing I’m gonna promise you is that I’ll do my part, and then to hell with you. I’m done. This ain’t my dream. It’s just the same fuckin’ nightmare but with a different spin. I can’t tell my enemies from my friends anymore. Do ya really wanna be the one twisting the knife?”

This time her grip on him was firm and swift, and he smelled ozone building in the air, stinging his nostrils.

“Ya wanna let go now.” She felt power spring into his muscles, and he bared his teeth, exposing gleaming white canines that would cow anyone else.

“I’ve never wanted to let go. So, to hell with me. I’m not so easy to chase away.”

“Then yer not very smart,” he accused, still attempting to shake her off. She clung to him like moss. Her scent enticed him, and he nearly moaned at the feel of her arms entwining him with her strength. He was still haunted by Magneto’s words, and with the vision burned into his memory of his guardian angel hurling lightning from her fingertips. He wouldn’t crumble.

Ororo wouldn’t be denied. Each time he succeeded in prying away her hands she reached for him again, tirelessly while she took advantage of his exhaustion from bringing down the tree. In the back of his mind, Logan wondered if that had been her aim all along. Her skin was soft, and her natural scent bore a touch of sandalwood and lavender, and he caught her wrist in his grip for one tense moment, his chest heaving like a bellows.

He relaxed his grip and drew her hand against his chest, flattening it against him. His heartbeat pulsed beneath her fingers as he absorbed her warmth. She enveloped him, and no words were needed as he accepted the comfort she gave. She bent forward over him and once again rocked him soothingly, and her silky hair caressed his face. He felt her tuck her chin into the nook where his shoulder met his sturdy neck, and again she felt his thundering pulse. The rhythm of her breathing matched his and he shut his eyes, just allowing himself to dwell within that moment. She rubbed her cheek plaintively against his, not caring about the rough, scratchy layer of stubble. He was solid within her embrace, even as he accepted the support she gave, and she was rewarded with the relaxing of his knotted muscles and his low sigh, still so full of pain.

“Ororo, I didn’t mean-“

“Hush,” she murmured. “You’ve never said anything that you didn’t mean, on some level. That isn’t you.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes regret what I say.”

“Life’s too short for regret. Even for someone who’s lived as long as you.” He felt the tender press of her lips in his thick, wavy hair. Much like she had before, she tucked his hand within hers and felt the familiar stroke of his calloused thumb. “Still want me to go to hell?”

“Ya wouldn’t be alone. I’d just end up keepin’ ya company.”

“Friends do that,” she agreed. He heard the crack of her smile.

“Yeah, they do.” She breathed in his scent, a mixture of cigar smoke, perspiration and a hint of the shampoo he’d used earlier that morning, and she was comforted by it.

She was loathe to leave him. “I want Henry there to go over the contents of this with me,” she announced, and he felt the moment that she recovered herself and put her game face back on. She still eased him slowly from her embrace, her hands still greedy for him as she backed away. Her touch lingered on his flesh, and he felt the ache of her withdrawal just as keenly.

“Do what ya have ta do.”

“If…if it isn’t too much to ask…”

“It is. But I’ll be there after I have a smoke.” He was already reaching into his shirt pocket for his hand-rolled Cuban and pearl-handled Zippo. Before she could leave, he muttered “What about Magneto?”

“Lorna’s still my immediate concern. Until we know how many of the Prime mutants we’re up against and where they came from, we need to know what he knows. I would like her to stay.”

“That’s gonna be complicated, darlin’.”

“No less so than the fact that she’s a fugitive.”

“It ain’t just that. While he was gettin’ me good and riled up down in the lab, he told me somethin’ that just made what ta do with him that much harder.”

“And?”

“He said the kid’s his daughter.”

Chapter Text

The only comfort Logan took over the next two days was hearing only one set of footsteps overhead, moving about in Ororo’s loft before he went to sleep. She wasn’t saturated in Forge’s scent anymore, ever since the revelations he’d beaten them over the head with when he showed them the files. Logan didn’t feel any less inclined use him as a bulls-eye.

He was a civilized man. A man of experience and reason. He resolved issues and his problems with other people using the usual tools: Taking a motorcycle ride, smoking cigars, and imbibing lots and lots of beer. What did it matter if he had the mad urge to stroll outside, unzip himself, and piss an invisible moat around the school to mark his territory? He was making progress with the second tool at hand; the smoke curled sweetly on his tongue before he breathed it into his lungs. See? He was still snugly zipped. No problem.

Then there was Magneto. Okay, big problem. There just wasn’t enough beer or tobacco in the friggin’ world.

He was starting to outstay his welcome. Logan admitted he was developing a growing fondness for Erik’s protégée, whom he wouldn’t acknowledge as his daughter yet. He wanted to cling to his steadfast belief that she was inherently good, not manipulative and self-serving, nor did she seem to share Magneto’s agenda of mass genocide, despite recent events. She’d been cast out of her family home by the same people who had chosen her as their child. That didn’t come without cost or collateral damage. She was orphaned, and who better to follow and vow loyalty to than a man who knew the same tragedy?

Then again, Logan knew something about being orphaned and losing everything…

 

~0~

 

Beast didn’t enjoy playing warden. More appealing activities included having root canals, being strung up with a rack and thumb screws, and setting himself on fire.

“Quaint little device, McCoy.”

“So you’ve told me.” With little variation. Henry counted eight times so far, each one losing more of its gloss with repetition.

“I see you’ve continued to carry out Charles’ pacifist beliefs and ideology beyond the grave. He’d be touched, as am I.” His tone wasn’t taunting, but Henry hated the gleam in his wintry eyes. “This won’t hold me.”

“I beg to differ.” Henry licked his thumb and turned the page of his Daily Bugle with a crisp flap.

“You’ll wish you’d killed me.”

“And one day, you’ll wish you’d shown more mercy, Erik.”

“To whom?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Henry savored his mug of coffee, careful not to spill any on the console of the Containment Room. “Take your pick,” he offered blandly, measuring him with large, slanted cobalt eyes over the rim of his cup. Erik smiled.

“I can’t show what I’ve never known.”

“Charles would argue that point with you.”

“Charles isn’t here.”

“You played a larger part in that than you feel like admitting.” Erik’s smile faltered a bit, and he sank back from the currents of energy streaming from the ceiling to the concrete floor.

His makeshift guest room had been years in the making. Constructed of vibranium and more of the high-density plastic used by the Homeland Security’s special division assigned to handle mutant threats, particularly Magneto’s previous captivity, it served the dual purpose of dampening his power and containing him without the metal he needed to utilize them. The concept came courtesy of Dr. Moira MacTaggert, spawned following the death of her son, Kevin. Tragedy, in tandem with necessity, bred invention when the X-Men had been forced to take his life. Piotr suffered crises of conscience when he’d been forced to strike the killing blow; his organic steel form was Kevin’s one Achilles’ heel, since contact with metals proved both toxic and fatal. He refused offers from both Charles and Jean to place a telepathic “blanket” over the memory of the incident to help him cope with it. It gnawed at him, but it renewed his belief in the cause that mutants would always need help in controlling, rather than just containing, their powers so they would never be a danger to themselves or anyone else.

Moira, like Forge, held a personal stake in protecting mutantkind’s future; however, she wasn’t subject to government intervention, having complete autonomy on her isolated manor in Kinross and a sizable trust she’d inherited from her father.

Moira had played a part in the creation of Cerebro; Erik had never been privy to the containment module, and never would have supported its creation, perhaps even resorting to sabotage.

“Charles chose to make himself my enemy, but I never let go of my respect for him. A broader vision of our kind’s potential was all that he lacked. He had his virtues, mind you,” he reasoned, noting the tense set of Henry’s shoulders and the faint bristling of his hackles with a hint of satisfaction. “But he refused to see that the only way to end human oppression of mutants was for us to rise up and wipe them from the earth. They have grown too sure of themselves and have spread their narrow-minded goals like a stain, infecting the next generation with their ignorance. When you refuse to grow and evolve, you’ve consigned yourself to extinction.” His eyes skimmed over Henry’s massive, hirsute body with a mixture of amusement and derision. “Or in some cases, we regress once more to the beasts that originally crawled this earth.”

“You wound me,” Henry declared in a voice that contradicted that Erik had done any such thing. “Bravo. Skillfully done. How ironic is it, then, that I’m outside your cage, looking in? Some would say animals are more humane than humankind, the same humans who call us monsters. Mutants were never meant to subjugate and prey on our brethren, Erik. You claim that Charles’ vision of the future was too narrow, but your vision merely relegates us to the end of the food chain. Devour or be devoured.” Henry drained his coffee. “And let me remind you, my friend, that you have also played a part in creating the beast that may one day swallow our kind without any remorse. Or mercy.”

“The Prime units are mutants, enhanced and used by those who seek to destroy our kind, and yes, McCoy, I had a hand in it. I will also have a hand in righting that wrong. Mutantkind will be saved from this new threat,” he promised wryly.

“And then?”

“And then we will rule. Any who oppose that rule will be dealt with according to the mercy they have shown us.”

“An eye for an eye.”

“Ten lives for a life.” Henry sighed heavily and laid aside his paper.

“Have you shared these views with Lorna? How do you think she would feel, knowing she holds someone on a pedestal who would sanction the taking of so many lives? They aren’t merely humans, Erik, particularly not to her. They are her friends, her peers, her parents, and anyone who she interacts with every day of her life. You would take that away from her, much in the vein that everything was taken from you. You would use her like that.”

“I don’t agree. They aren’t her peers. And judging from her flight from her own home, how can you call them her family?” Erik leaned back on his cot and reached into his pocket, extracting a photograph taken in San Francisco before he’d left. He held it up; Henry peered at it from his vantage point at the console. “This young woman is the exception, not the rule.” Aleytys smiled radiantly from the pier beside Paolo and her crew, hoisting up an enormous swordfish with pride.

“If she stood in the way of your goals, would you kill her?” Henry asked smoothly. Erik laid the photograph on the cot before replying, and his expression brooked no doubt.

“Yes.”

“Then she isn’t the exception to the rule. And the rule you defend so strongly doesn’t accomplish what rules are established for, namely to maintain order and ensure good will.”

“The wrong order is being maintained. I mean to change that, too.” But Henry didn’t miss the look of longing and regret that washed over Erik’s features as he continued to stare at the snapshot.

“Lorna misses you, Erik. If you would serve her best interests, since you declare that you care for her and her future so much…you won’t push her down this path.”

“Don’t be surprised at the path that she chooses, when offered that choice.” Henry suppressed a low growl before barking into the intercom for Piotr to send down the afternoon meal for two.

 

~0~

 

“Can I speak with you for a moment?”

“I’m occupied right now.”

“Feel free to stay that way. I just wanted to bend your ear.” Slender fingers manipulated the mouse and clicked through the database housed on the flash drive. Her expression was bland and thoughtful, and her voice held no hint of the scorned, immovable goddess who’d read him the riot act upon his return to the school. He almost favored the threat of castration that Piotr had suggested in jest than the silent treatment. Silence could be deadly.

The images and words onscreen were reflected in her clear, intelligent azure eyes, her face bathed in the glow of the monitor.

“We’re making progress in tracking the signal.” Forge sat opposite Ororo in the spare chair in front of her desk without further invitation and eased himself back against the cool leather upholstery. His face looked slightly drawn, but it didn’t diminish his dark good looks; Ororo wanted to muster sympathy for the faint dark circles beneath his coffee brown eyes, but it was a strain.

“You’ve isolated where it’s coming from?”

“Not quite that much progress. We’ve narrowed it down to several different locations where we detected similar signals using different frequencies. Henry asked me to continue testing and tracking them while he’s on vigil.” Forge never suggested that he spell Henry, knowing that he was a liability with the metal that composed his prosthetics, despite the power-dampening capability of the containment cell. No sense in tempting a shark from a life raft…

“I’ll join you shortly. I’m nearly finished.”

“Where do we go from here?” His gaze never wavered, while hers never met it.

“Pardon?”

“When we find the signal? What action do you plan to take, Ororo?”

“We interrupt the signal. Worst case scenario? We do what we do best, namely put up a hell of a fight. The students are safer here than they would be if we dismissed them and sent them home. If the Prime units can detect us by our mutant physiology, they won’t stop at searching for the children, one by one. There’s safety in numbers.”

“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” She huffed under her breath in disgust. “You’ll fight,” he continued.

“There’s no other choice.”

“And what then? Will you kill?”

“Not if I can help it. But sometimes it can’t be helped.” He felt her bristling at him, even though her face remained calm.

“Spoken like someone who’s seen war.” His tone held no judgment, and she took small comfort in that.

“More like someone who’s incurred loss. Of everything I knew.” She kept clicking and typing dispassionately, but her lips tightened and gave him pause. Nervous pangs of anticipation stirred in his chest. “I refuse to lose everything I’ve gained.”

“Tell me.”

“Excuse me if I don’t feel comfortable telling you anything, given recent events.” She reached up to knead a kink out of her neck, sweeping aside the lush fall of hair. She reached into her desk supply tray and fished out a rubber band, looping it once around her tresses to pull it into a loose ponytail.

“I know you feel I betrayed you,” he murmured, echoing her gesture as he rubbed his own nape and continued to watch her. The stubborn tilt of her chin hadn’t softened once she went back to reviewing the files.

“My own fault, I guess. You can’t betray someone without winning their trust first. And you did.”

“I’d like to win it back.”

“Then you’re fighting a losing battle.”

“Then call me stubborn.” He went out on a limb and stood, circling her wide desk and leaning his haunches against it, forcing her to follow the long, lean lines of his body up to his concerned face. Only when he had her attention did he grasp her hand, stilling its almost rhythmic clicking. Barely suppressed indignation and the first tendrils of rage sparked in her eyes, and he felt her tense up like a cat about to pounce.

“I can come up with better names to call you.”

“Save your breath. I’ve already called myself worse since this happened, Ororo.” Ororo glared up at him, not believing he’d accomplished his boast. Her fingers felt cool in his grip, and every bit as soft as he remembered. Brief moments they’d stolen before the incident downtown pricked at him, and he felt a flush of heat sweep through him that he futilely tried to hide. “You don’t know how sorry I am. No matter what happens, please…just know that I can’t live with myself if we don’t stop Gyrich and put Prime out of commission.”

“I’ll let that rock me to sleep tonight, provided I get any. It’s unlikely.” Forge’s nostrils flared, his eyes dilating as he stared at her mouth. No more radiant smiles, he mused with regret. He’d taken them away.

“I’d give anything to know who dared to take anything from you, Ororo.” She wrung her hand free from his grip and leaned back in her chair, tilting herself to better stare at him.

“I was a child. I could hardly stop them, now could I? A fighter plane flew over my home. A spare shell hit the roof of our apartment. My parents and I were inside when it happened.” She sighed, and suddenly her face looked as exhausted as she felt. Forge’s stomach clenched, knowing what she was about to reveal, and hating it. “I was the only one who walked away. And I walked for miles.”

“Where?”

“Across the Serengeti. I nearly died, but something was guiding my steps. I found out early it was a journey I had to make alone.”

“You were a child?”

“I was a potential target. Vulnerable.” She stood abruptly, forcing him to back away to avoid contact with her while she was still seething. “Weak.”

“No. Inexperienced,” he corrected her.

“Easily led,” she countered. “Do you know why I don’t trust strangers, Forge? Particularly those who hide behind sweet smiles and charming words? Because that charm doesn’t come without a price.” She stood and reached for her cup of tea, which had long grown cold, but she fortified herself with a shallow sip as she steadied herself. “I paid it in blood.” She set the cup back on its saucer, and her back was turned to him as she spoke. Her words stuck with him: Vulnerable, now that she let down her guard. He couldn’t waste it. Her stance wasn’t as stiff; he knew that her arms were crossed over her chest and that she stared at her feet. “Killing should never be a necessity. I still believe that. Even after we lost Jean. When I cried for her, after she died, Forge, it wasn’t just that I lost her. I cried because Logan took her life so that I wouldn’t have to. He had another death on his head and more blood on his hands. And he loved her. It defied description, to love someone like that.” And the memory of his eyes that night, when she was shouting at him to see reason still burned. “I have blood on my hands, too.”

“Ororo?” His voice was plaintive, and while he didn’t touch her, she could feel him at her back, closing the gap between them, his breath stirring her hair. “I don’t deserve to know…but I’d like to.”

“I was nearly raped on my trek. A man drove up in his truck and offered me a ride. I had a torn sandal that was rubbing my foot raw, and the heat was cooking my soles. He promised me a drink if I got in.” He hissed out a breath through his teeth. “He was touching me. Trying to use me. He hurt me, Forge.” Overhead, Forge heard the rumbling of thunder, the advent of a storm he knew would leave them all on edge.

“Oh, my God,” he whispered, horrified. He felt a surge of protective anger rise up within him on behalf of the child she once was, likely younger than any of the students he’d met at the school.

“I reached for the first thing that came to my hand. I’d stolen a hunting knife while I was still in Cairo, not knowing when I’d need it. I didn’t expect it to feel that way, when I stuck the knife in. Nothing feels worse.”

“No. Nothing feels worse.”

“I had blood on my hands. All over my clothes. I couldn’t wipe it off.” She recomposed herself briskly. “I still can’t. Perhaps now you have an idea why I don’t trust very easily, and why that’s for the best.” She stared down at her hands, turning them face up before reflexively rubbing them together; Forge read her mind in that moment.

She felt something moving over her hair, and the blanket of warmth enclosing her from behind. She startled briefly at the contact of his chest against her back.

“Don’t.”

“One minute. Give me one minute, now that you’re not so occupied, and I’ll go.”

“I hate you right now.” She still felt raw.

“Hate me later.” His hands rested in the curve of her narrow waist, absorbing her heat. She still held herself stiffly. “I’m good at fixing things, Ororo. Except for my own mistakes, and the people I hurt.” She felt the words, as well as heard them, murmuring along her temple, and she suppressed a shiver. “I want to fix this. Everything’s riding on it, and I work best under the gun.”

“One of the qualities that makes a good X-Man,” she huffed.

“I’m not much for costumes.”

“Uniforms. They’re called uniforms,” she pointed out, but her voice failed her when his arms stole around her and embraced her. His body telegraphed supplication and need as he breathed in her sweet scent, letting her hair stroke and tickle his cheek. To drive the point home, she gently grasped his wrist and removed it, releasing herself from his gentle grip. The goddess had her game face back on; the moment had vanished.

And so had any chance he’d have to mend things between them.

“I’ll keep tabs on the signals. We’ll weed out the right one.”

“You do that.”

“I’d like to try one more thing, if you’ll help me.”

“That’s asking a lot of the wrong person, Maker.” He cocked his eyebrow at the nickname but avoided the smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

“Not as much as you think. Take me into Cerebro again.” He knew it really was asking too much.

“All right.” She retrieved her tea cup and stalked out of the office, throwing “I will meet you downstairs” over her shoulder. He knew he was temporarily dismissed.

And Ororo was so caught up in her roiling emotions that she walked right past Logan, whose eyes were glued to her retreating back from the other end of the hall.

He’d heard everything. And he was floored.

Ya couldn’t live with yourself, Storm, if ya had this dark, ugly thing living inside ya, eating up yer soul. His own words echoed in his memory, pricking him. “Shit,” he muttered. The storm brewing outside was shaping up to be a doozy; the smell of ozone drifted inside through an open bay window and made the hairs on his arms stand on end. The first lacy streaks of lightning cut through the rolling clouds in the distance; he could feel it singing in his bones. And it had Ororo’s pain written all over it.

His only comfort was that she hadn’t allowed Forge back in, even though he was still craving the feel of his fist slamming into that fucker’s nose. He retreated, hearing Forge’s footsteps and deciding he was still tightly wound not to give into temptation.

 

~0~

 

Kitty and Jubes meant well, Lorna decided. But they didn’t have a clue.

She knew there was a secret drifting in the ether, stroking her with a whispering touch. She felt it in the way the bossy headmistress with the cool white hair looked at her, her and the scary guy with the haircut like a hedgehog.

“So that green’s your real color?” Kitty prodded, joining Lorna and Jubilee at the round lunch table. Lorna was dying to be alone with her own thoughts until Jubes showed up chattering a mile a minute, balancing an overloaded plate and a can of Pepsi.

“Yup.” She idly twirled a lock of it around her finger and poked at her food with little interest, in it or the conversation.

“Cool. My mom would never let me dye my hair, but I guess that’s fine now. I can kinda do what I want now, but I don’t think I want to anymore.”

“How’d you gain so much freedom?” Lorna inquired.

“My parents were killed before I came here. That’s how I ended up here,” she explained, punching open the tab of her soda. A rush of pity swept over Lorna, her indolent manner gone.

“Shit…I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. Shutting up now.” She made zipping motions with her fingers over her mouth. Jubilee tossed her a funny little smile, peering up at her with hooded eyes.

“I’m used to it. Still sucks.”

“Makes me glad I have one parent who still loves me,” Kitty remarked before biting into her sandwich. “My folks are divorced. Dad’s not in the picture anymore. But my mom’s awesome.”

“My folks were kinda okay til I became a walking magnet. All of the sudden, it all became a matter of controlling me and telling me it was for my own good. I felt…weird. Like they were afraid of me.”

“Like they didn’t love you anymore?” Kitty’s face was wreathed in sympathy. “My parents were freaked out about it, but the Professor talked it over with them, which helped. He told them I was gifted. That’s how he talked them into letting me come here.”

“Gifted,” Lorna snorted. “Feels like a curse.”

“I dunno. I think it’s kinda fun.”

“That’s because your power IS fun,” Lorna reminded her. “I’ll take being a walking sparkler any day.”

“You can fly,” Kitty replied. “That’s gotta count for something. You, Ororo and Warren are so lucky.”

“I’m not good at it yet. Erik helps me with it. I don’t think I could manage it on my own.”

“Feels weird thinking of Magneto as helping anybody with anything.” Jubilee bit into a snickerdoodle and wiped crumbs of cinnamon and sugar from the corners of her mouth.

“It’s not weird. Don’t talk that way about him,” Lorna snapped. “He’s a little off, but he’s done more for me over the past few days than anyone else I know.”

“Don’t you have any friends that are worried about where you are now?” Kitty toyed with her yogurt, stirring it thoughtfully with her spoon.

“Just one. Well, two, if you count this one guy at school who kinda acts like he likes me. He’s okay.”

“What’s his name?” Jubilee nagged. Her face lit up with questions, and Lorna sighed.

“Doug. Little poser boy. Clean-cut. Almost too nice. Rich. Hits the books pretty hard,” she allowed.

“Is he cute?” Kitty grinned. Lorna’s lips twisted before she allowed herself to smile.

“Eh. Yeah. If you like that whole blond, blue-eyed floppy-haired thing. He got his braces off a couple of years ago, so his smile’s pretty nice. He’s just so…I dunno. Nice. To me, I mean. No one else treats me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Not like a freak.”

“Oh. Score one for Doug,” Jubes murmured. Lorna lightly shoved her.

“Ali’s the only one who really gets me. She gave me this.” She held up the St. Christopher medal, making Kitty and Jubes lean closer for a better look.

“Why’d she give it to you?”

“For protection. And because it was all she had to give. Can’t beat a friend like that.” She took a drink of her fruit juice. “No one else cares about me like that.”

 

~0~

 

Gyrich reviewed the radar display before him with anticipation.

“Looking good, sir.”

“Have they detected us yet?”

“Doesn’t look like it. Signal’s still strong. Nothing’s interrupted it since we released the first squad.”

“Good. Get the drop on them while they still think we’re laying low.”

“We’ve got a fix on Magneto and the girl. They’re right where we want them.”

“Where?”

“Westchester. Like bees in a hive. They’re at that school, sir.” Gyrich wasn’t as pleased as his technician hoped he would be when he heard the news.

“We’ve got to handle this with kid gloves. Relay it to the Prime flank that the school’s fair game, along with everyone in it, but don’t let anything happen to Cerebro. That’s our golden goose. Once we have it, we’ve got an end to our mutant problem.”

“Sir, we still haven’t heard from Forge.”

“I already know where he is.”

“Shouldn’t we contact him?”

“The school’s fair game,” he repeated crisply. His subordinate was glad he couldn’t see Gyrich’s eyes behind his customary pair of dark glasses. They would have chilled him.

 

~0~

 

Piotr was content to retreat into the den with his charcoals and a huge Strathmore drawing pad, staring outside from the picture window, roughing in a sketch of the treeline. His eyes skimmed over the front gate, which Lorna had grudgingly restored with her powers while Henry rewired the security cameras and reset the access codes. He sighed; that one would prove to be a handful.

The storm had raged for nearly an hour, with random stops and starts; whenever the clouds rolled back to reveal slivers of sunlight, they just as quickly reappeared and sent torrents of cold rain to soak the ground, making the grass slick. Piotr was thankful he would have to mow the lawn that day.

He almost didn’t believe his eyes as a strange flock of what looked like low-flying geese broke the pristine cloud cover, their dark bodies littering the sky. He didn’t hear them trumpeting, he mused. He looked back up from his pad with a strange prickle of unease.

It was the wrong season for geese. And they were growing larger, looming over the grounds.

Out of recent habit, he opened his thoughts in the hopes that one of the Stepfords would hear him as he chucked his sketch pad onto the settee and darted down the hall. Esme’s girlish voice greeted him cheerfully.

What’s going on, Pete? He felt a faint pang that it wasn’t Jean’s voice in his mind, but the quints were proving themselves useful in the wake of her passing.

“Contact Ms. Munroe,” he spoke aloud. “And gather the students into the Danger Room. And whatever you do, stay calm.” He knew it was a waste of breath. As soon as they heard the words “Danger Room,” he knew he’d be neck-deep in panicked kids, and keeping them all together would be like herding cats.

In a flash he was fully armored and charging down the hall. He rounded the corner and caught sight of Logan right before he could raise a bottle of Molson. He scowled at Piotr’s steel form and set it down, automatically extending his claws.

“What’s goin’ on, Tin Man?”

“Outside,” Piotr barked.” He needed no further urging, following him and feeling grateful that he had something to take his mind off the talk he’d overheard in Ororo’s study.

 

~0~

The school’s satellite feed had narrowed down the signals to six potential sources, but something about the wavelengths gave him a sense of déjà vu, as though he had viewed their frequency before. He couldn’t place it.

He went back to plan B, using Cerebro to scan for the Prime units, wondering if he could track them using the same search specifications that Ororo and Hank had before when she’d traced Logan downtown. Forge’s wrists were now buried in Cerebro’s console, searching for the nannite module he’d installed so recently.

Henry had told him something that rang a bell now that the dust had the chance to settle. The Prime units knew Logan, Kitty and Ororo’s capabilities and identities when they had attacked. The school’s security was buttoned up and airtight, he reasoned. Somehow, someone had gotten inside and informed whoever was sending the signal.

He found the interface to the module and moved to disconnect it while Cerebro was still powered down. Ororo was standing behind him on the catwalk, watching him vigilantly as he worked.

“Storm?” She relaxed slightly at the use of her codename. It helped.

“Yes?”

“You remember the signals that I was showing you? Remember how the wavelength looked?”

“Vaguely.”

“Check this out.” He slid out of the way to make room for her to peer inside. He pointed to the module and pressed a small button with the tip of a slender screwdriver, and Ororo watched what looked like tiny screen eject from it. She watched in awe as it rippled with an odd display of what looked like radio waves.

“What is that?”

“A self-diagnostic tool that lets me know if there are any malfunctions with the interface, or if the nannites aren’t communicating with Cerebro.”

“And it’s working, as far as we know. You managed to use it.”

“I know it’s working.” She wasn’t expecting him to disconnect it so abruptly. “Problem it, it’s working too well.”

“Excuse me?”

“The implants aren’t the only thing that Gyrich got his hands on. The wavelength we just saw matches the signal. Perfectly.” Blood drained from Ororo’s face as she backed away from him.

Before she could speak, Mindee Stepford’s telepathic distress call jolted her from her revelation.

There’s trouble outside, Ms. Munroe, Pete said to come get you! Her thoughts were laced with fear.

“Stay here,” she ordered him before she ran from the suite.

“Ororo, wait, don’t go-“

“I’m needed, just do what you have to, and disrupt that signal! I don’t care if you have to tear the whole unit apart! DO IT! NOW!” Before she departed, she palmed the security faceplate and locked the chamber from the outside.

“God help me,” Forge breathed before he went back to work, adrenaline pumping through his veins. Under the gun, he’d promised her.

 

~0~

 

“Where are we going?”

“Danger Room. That means business. Go!” Kitty shooed Lorna along after Jubilee, turning back toward the foyer, pursuing Colossus.

“Where are you going?” Lorna demanded.

“I’m needed outside.”

“Bullshit,” she hissed back. “I’m not just gonna be shoved downstairs in a room with everyone else, like sardines in a tin can!”

“I’m a senior student; I’m on the team roster now,” Kitty announced.

“Show-off,” Marie remarked before tugging Lorna along.” With that, Kitty was off.

“I need to see Erik!” Lorna dragged her feet, trying to fight Marie’s gloved grip.

“This ain’t the time, shoog, and he’s right where he needs t’be!”

“Trapped? I won’t let you do this!” she hissed. She fought Marie and broke free.

“Ya heard Kitty! And Miz Munroe said skedaddle downstairs!”

“Make me.” Marie’s breath was knocked out of her as Lorna repelled her with her magnetic shield. She landed with a loud thump against the wall, slumping unconscious to the floor. Lorna dismissed the guilt rising up into her chest as she ran to find Erik. She managed to scamper into the elevator as the rest of the students used the stairs the way they were trained to do during drills.

 

~0~

 

A claxon in the sub-basement rang out, and Henry’s blood ran cold.

“It’s happening,” he announced. Erik stared at him from the containment cell.

“You won’t leave me in here,” he informed him.

“The Prime units know you already, Erik. You may very well be better off down here.”

“You don’t believe that any better than I do.”

“I won’t take your word for it if you tell me you’re on our side, Erik, and you can’t blame me.”

“I had the chance to kill Charles when he came to see me while I was imprisoned. It wouldn’t have been difficult. You need me.”

“We may need to take our chances.” Henry looked up when he heard Lorna’s plaintive voice on the other side of the entrance to the chamber.

“Please let me in! I need to see Erik!” she cried.

“Lorna, GO! Go to the Danger Room like Ororo told you! It’s not safe here!” Reluctantly Henry opened the door, and she stared at the containment cell, revulsion plain on her face.

“Oh, my God, what have you DONE to him?”

“Erik isn’t the man you think you know,” Henry explained, trying to defuse her to no avail.

“You don’t know him,” she grated out. “He took care of me! You don’t UNDERSTAND! He’s all I have, and I won’t let you treat him like this!”

“Don’t get involved, you don’t know what he’s capable of, child, it’s for the best if he-“

“Don’t tell me what’s for the best. I’m tired as hell of hearing that. You’re no better than my parents.” She threw him back like a rag doll; Henry felt himself thrown back into the concrete wall before everything went black.

“How do I get you out?” She wrung her hands as she scanned the chamber.

“We still need our friend Dr. McCoy for that, child. His handprint is what activates the locks. If you can manage it, lift him up and press his palm against that plate.” She dutifully levitated Henry’s still form, straining with the effort. Like Logan, he wasn’t exactly light. She grasped his furry hand and mashed his palm against the plate. A green light flickered, and when the option on the screen came up with the option to unlock the cell, she selected it and hit ‘enter.’

The beams of energy dampening Erik’s powers diminished and vanished, and the thrumming sound stopped. His smile was benign but brief.

“What do we do with him?”

“Leave him. We’re needed upstairs.”

“Erik…”

“You won’t defy me,” he ordered harshly, and his hand encircled her arm, nearly bruising her, and his face was a stony mask.

“Erik…you’re hurting me!” she yelped.

“You’re needed. Leave him. You hated being in a cage,” he reminded her, his voice smooth as syrup. His grasp never softened, and she leaned her face away.

“I hated it,” she agreed.

“Then show the humans what you think about cages. They’d see you locked up or dead if they had their way. Even our hosts at this school would contain you if they thought you presented a threat. Learn from my example.”

Her lips trembled, but she finally nodded.

“Will you give me your loyalty?”

“Yes.”

“Then come with me.” He released her only to take her by the hand and lead her back up the stairs. He felt his powers growing once more with the contact, the energy coursing through him and nourishing him.

Chapter Text

She’d never be helpless again.

Ororo’s vow was sealed in a man’s blood. She was a nurturer and protector. She’d emerged from the dark and exchanged dust-drenched rags and a torn sandal for armor forged in thunder.

~0~

She’d never be helpless again.

This wasn’t recess, this wasn’t homeroom or study hall, and she wasn’t on time-out. It was no longer a question of whether Lorna belonged, only of where.

~0~

He’d never be helpless again.

He’d die before letting them take him down, and he’d take them down with him when they tried. They’d wounded him to watch him heal. They’d wounded him to watch him bleed. In the end, they’d made Logan unbreakable.

~0~

He’d never be helpless again.

They’d tremble before his wrath before he crushed them. Erik smiled.

~0~

Henry stirred and twitched on the floor of the laboratory. Pain prodded him awake and sang through every limb and nerve, his ears still ringing.

“She’s her father’s daughter,” he grumbled, struggling to rise while the floor seemed to swim before his eyes. He snuggled and coughed, tasting copper.

Dr. McCoy?

Henry winced, groaning at the fleeting mind touch that still felt like nails on a chalkboard.

“I need you to tell me where Erik has gone.”

I can’t, sir. Mindee sounded contrite, and Henry read panic and dread through their psychic link. I can’t get a lock on him. There’s a barrier around his mind. He keeps throwing me out. Esme and Sophie both got nosebleeds when they tried… She was sobbing, and there was no comfort left for him to offer her.

“Then take me to Miss Munroe.” Despite the pain coursing through his body, Henry’s lumber quickened to a leonine sprint through the sublevel’s emergency exit. There were times when the most feasible actions Henry could take on behalf of mutantkind happened in Congressional chambers. This wasn’t one of those times.

It was just like summer. Every time you swatted a fly in the house, ten more would come inside once someone opened the door.

This was Forge’s fault. Ororo tried to cast the nagging mantra from her mind, but it echoed and grew louder until it was a throbbing tattoo. Her frustration warred with concern for the inventor ensconced in Cerebro’s containment unit, knowing his location in the seemingly impenetrable room was no guarantee of his safety. Damn him, she thought. The vision of his dark eyes, open, sympathetic and pleading with her filled her vision for a moment before she got back to the task at hand.

Piotr took exception to strangers darkening the school’s doorstep. Stryker’s invasion had unsettled him; the trauma flavored his dreams and made him more diligent in supervising the children. He enforced a rigid buddy system and often encouraged the students to participate in group activities to better keep track of where they were. Bobby jokingly muttered “Big Brother’s watching you” one night when he’d caught him with Rogue in the garden, chatting and breaking curfew.

He aimed to show them whose house it was before the day was done.

He administered his first lesson in etiquette by walking directly into a hail of exploding projectiles that peppered him in shrapnel. Beware of offending your host. The Prime unit stared at him coldly and raised its hand, readying a different tactic.

“Mutant 1010-777. Ident nomenclature Rasputin, Piotr. Class Three. Status, active. Resolution processing. Termination imminent – “ His steely voice was cut off by a swift uppercut that sent him sprawling back from the porch.

“Nyet, tovarisch.” Lesson two: Never outstay your welcome. They’d harmed Katya and pissed off the wrong mutant.

“Colossus! Hostile at three o’clock!” Bobby shouted, and he barely managed to duck a beam of sparking current as it arced through the air. As he’d learned from Logan’s account of what happened to Kitty, he couldn’t afford to rely on his armored form to counter every attack. The Prime units were highly adaptive, and assumptions like that were deadly. Bobby didn’t hesitate to aim a barrage of ice toward Piotr’s attacker wile it focused its attention on him, but he wasn’t fast enough. The Prime units’ chest cavity opened, offering a chilling view of circuitry interspersed with probes and implants obscuring where his organs should be. A shining bolo shot out and expanded in volume, spinning a web of fine steel cables that snared Piotr in a struggling grip.

Bobby moved to freeze the cables, intending to make them brittle enough to break. A taller, leaner unit descended on him from the air and blasted him with the same nerve disruption laser Piotr managed to avoid. He staggered to his knees, jerking as he struggled for breath.

“BOBBY!” Kitty was heedless of her slip, not caring that she’d skipped his alias as she bolted for him and clutched him, phasing him before another beam of energy struck him. It passed through them both harmlessly, but his blue eyes were glazing over and his pallor turned gray. “I’m taking you out of here,” she hissed, and she plunged them underground, whispering to him to hold his breath. She, too, had learned from her previous mistake, and she planned to regroup and restrategize. An IQ of one hundred eighty had to come in handy for something…

It was Charles’ worst nightmare come true. The war on mutants that Erik had always promised erupted on the lawn of his family manor, and the odds weren’t in their favor. Their own kind were being used to hunt them down and eradicate them, and the man he’d treated as a brother, who’d once shared his vision of a world where their kind could live without fear had signed their death warrant.

The wind whipped through Erik’s silver waves of hair and buffeted him, and he felt exposed without his trademark trenchcoat and helmet, but power still surged through him, waiting to be unleashed. He felt the magnetic tug of energy emanating from Lorna, nourishing him and replenishing his strength; she wasn’t just the welcome balm to his soul. Her young face was determined as she turned to face him. The pawns go first…

“You know what you must do,” he advised, the corners of his mouth curling wryly. She nodded.

“It’s calling me,” she confirmed. Feeling the various minerals and alloys of the metals he’d described to her was a rush, challenging and new. They felt like the same substance lining the scary-haired guy who she’d dumped on his head.

“Then answer its call, my dear.” A flank of Prime operatives were approaching the house and already firing mini missiles through the front picture windows, showering the foyer and drawing room with glass shards and turning the hardwood floors to rubble. Lorna stood firm and tall, unafraid as Erik squeezed her hand. Her wisteria green hair danced in the breeze as she gestured toward their attackers.

One by one, they jerked and emitted shrill, guttural squawks as she began to tear them apart. Two of them fell to the ground, spasming and wearing disbelieving faces as their bodies rebelled against them. They seized in pain while their implants were disrupted, working their way out through muscle, sinew and flesh. Lorna’s face was contorted in a mixture of confusion and nausea, but she didn’t hold back. He didn’t tell her that they’d die. Betrayal pricked at her spine. She tensed, extending her magnetic field to encompass them both. She’d just broken Erik free, and she wouldn’t watch them pry him away from her again.

Ororo watched in mute horror from her vantage point in the sky as modules of bloody circuitry were extracted from the twitching bodies on the ground. Blood leaked out from the corners of slack mouths, and they screamed in human voices and true pain.

“Nicely done,” Erik purred, as he blithely showed his daughter how it was done. “Fragile creatures, aren’t they, without their sophisticated trappings?” Three more operatives held them in their sights, and Erik was calm and collected as the red laser site appeared on his cheek an instant before he activated his mutation.

The sickening sound of flesh slamming into flesh assailed Lorna’s ears as she watched Erik drag the three of them together, crushing them into a heap and exerting strangling, smothering pressure against them. He increased the density and gravity of the adamantium implants until they couldn’t withstand their weight or stay erect. They flailed their limbs and sputtered their directives.

“Resolution process…SQUARK! Status hostile…ident designate…” ZZZZTTTT! Their bodies warped and twisted as though merciless hands were cavalierly molding them and squeezing them inside out. Their implants worked free; the tallest male operative’s face was twisted and a gaping maw of bloody tissue as its ocular implant slithered loose from its mooring, leaving behind macabre fibers of torn skin and exposing the orbital bones of the socket.

“They won’t catch us napping again. Learn what you can of your enemy the first time, Lorna.” His voice was dispassionate and cold, telegraphing malice in his silver gaze.

“Okay.” Protectiveness toward him and pride stiffened her spine and fortified the magnetic bubble around them. She flinched when another cartridge of ammo was fired, ricocheting and exploding upon contact. The scene before her would color her dreams with more violence. The image of Windsor bleeding and rotting in the dark hadn’t left her.

“Boszhe moi!” Piotr grunted, feeling the air being crushed from his lungs as the bolo binding him tightened even more as he struggled. He fought to force blood flow into his limbs, which now felt icy cold and leaden. Despite being armored, he felt himself breaking out into cold sweat and saw colors exploding behind his eyes with his efforts…

His heart nearly stopped in shock when Kitty phased through him as she emerged from the ground, tugging Marie behind her. The bolo web dropped to the ground, now inert. He shook himself and wobbled back onto his feet.

“Brought in reinforcements.”

“How’s Bobby?”

“He’ll live. Even let me take one for the road,” Marie explained, and he saw tiny frozen puffs of air escape from her lips as she spoke. “He had yer back, sugah, and so do I.” Piotr didn’t pry any further, ducking the barrage of another round of ammo and slamming into both girls. He dragged them beneath him, using his body as a bulwark and shield. The bullets made clanging pings against his back, shredding his shirt.

“And I, yours,” he offered before he gave them a hearty shove and faced the behemoth towering over him. This Prime unit easily topped him in height by four inches, even in his armored form, and Piotr assumed he’d originally shared a similar mutation, namely dense body tissue and enhanced strength.

The Prime operative grinned at him cruelly before proving him correct, his enormous fist hitting a home run with Piotr’s face. His body arched as he was flung back, crashing through the veranda as he landed. Before he could advance on him again as he recovered, Marie was as good as her word. She carefully generated and sculpted a glittering wall of solid ice between them, impeding his attack. The being’s eyes glowed a menacing red right before it fired a beam, sizzling through the ice and melting it within seconds. It cracked and gave way, shattering into jagged chunks that flew back and pummeled her vulnerable body. The knowledge of how to freeze her body to a molecular level and make best use of Bobby’s abilities had not been fully imparted to her during their brief kiss. She was additionally burdened by his fears for her when she told him she was going outside.

“Mutant-111. Ident designate…unknown. Class Four. Active. Resolution pending.” The being didn’t sound so sure of itself, and it cocked her head toward her almost quizzically. Her powers, combined with Bobby’s were throwing it off, she realized. Then the thought occurred to her…

Ms. Munroe had said during the briefing at the assembly that these were mutants. Human, for all intents.

Vulnerable.

She iced her hands, coating them with thick, rocky sheaths of ice and wielding them like heavy boxing gloves. She cocked one and gave the Prime operative her best Sunday, hope to heaven punch. The being didn’t even flinch, and it grinned at her savagely as the protective layer of ice fell away. Taking the brittle remains of her opera-length glove with it…

He hoisted her, struggling, up over his head by her throat, and her face was suffused with color as he tried to strangle her. Using intimidation as just one of its many weapons, he slowly drew her toward its stony visage, nostrils flaring. The eyes that stared at her were wholly inhuman, but its flesh was still lax enough for her to see fine, bluish veins throbbing and pulsing beneath the services, muscles and nerves working as the corners of its mouth twitched.

“Termination imminent,” it intoned.

“Ah don’t think so, varmint! This’ll shut yer lyin’ mouth!” She clapped her palm firmly over his cheek, her fingers digging into his temple as she began to leach his powers away. She was rocked by excruciating memories if his life, from the most mundane and naïve remaining from his childhood, to the savage, relentless nightmares of his time in the NSC’s labs, being tested and prodded like a rat. She suffered his indignity of his body being invaded and the last traces of humanity being stabbed and burned out of him, leaving his body along with his screams. He was no older than she was when he was taken. They were going to give him one of the implants, they told him, to cure him of the tumor growing on his thyroid and his adrenal glands so that he’d stop growing. All he wanted was to be normal. To live. To be loved…

His thoughts. They were a mockery of any she’d ever experienced and immersed herself in. So much like Logan’s, that night that she’d borrowed his healing gift, watching in horror as his skin stretched tightly across his bones, recoiling as the life in his eyes began to flicker, the canny wisdom and empathy she’d found in them being snuffed. She’d drawn back quickly, breaking the contact before she’d drained him dry. She relived Logan’s immersion in the tank, his body violated by wires, shunts and probes. Felt the warm fluids rolling over her as she bobbed in its murky depths, large bubbles faintly tickling her flesh. The press of an air mask was heavy against her face. Her nerves itched in anticipation.

Burning, tingling pain. Screams torn from her chest that no one heard below the depths of the tank, echoing in her own ears. The feed…someone please…stop the FEED!

“Feel…your pain,” she moaned aloud, and the iron grip around her throat weakened and fell slack. She tumbled to the ground, and the giant holding her slumped to its knees. Its eyes were hollow and dazed as it stared at her. Blood then trickled in grisly runnels from its eyes, nose and ears. Its lips moved incrementally, and she strained to hear its words.

“Th-thank…you,” he groaned, “take…pain from me.” Tears dripped like quicksilver down her face as he toppled back, giving up his last breath.

“Oh, mah God!” She crawled backwards on her haunches and elbows until she backed into Piotr. She cried out and fought to avoid touching him. “Ah killed him! Ah just wanted t’borrow his powers, Pete! Ah didn’t mean it!”

“Calm down, Rogue!” he hissed.

“Killed him,” she insisted through trembling lips. He fought to bring her back, but when she struggled against him, she actually broke his strong grip, confirming that she’d succeeded in steeling the operative’s gifts.

“We need you now,” he reminded her, standing and leading her with him into the fray. And now that she’d absorbed two new abilities, the X-men could be more places at once.

Some of their attackers favored the same sky that Ororo considered her second home. She was giving two airborne Prime ops a run for their money. She dipped and dove, flying in an evasive maneuver pattern she’d worked on while Jean was still alive, musing how ironic it was that Erik had choreographed it himself during his tenure at the school. More than anything, she wanted to lead them away. She heard the rush of her wake being broken by her pursuers, riding her own jetstream and avoiding wind shear that might slow them down. They were sharp. She would have to factor that in…

She heard the discharge of one of their projectiles, unmuffled by the wind, and it was time to get down to business. She spiraled, leaning right into the tunnel of air she created, then left, watching the shells fly past her. Their piercing whistle battered her ears, but she continued her flight, careening so fast she felt the pull against her skin, the friction making it feel weatherbeaten and raw. She’d ache, if she ever made it out of this.

“Halt, mutant!”

“Never,” she grated through clenched teeth, eyes sparking. They were tailing her for all she was worth. She nearly felt their breath kissing her soles as they kept up. She jack-knifed at the last split second, when it seemed like they’d overtaken their prize.

“RO!” She heard Logan’s guttural cry, faint from that high above the ground, but she tried to ignore the fear twisting his features. She rode the current they’d kicked up, allowing it to drag her behind them. They couldn’t slow their own momentum fast enough to react. Lightning charged and danced at her fingertips. She was almost grateful that she couldn’t see their faces as long streams of crackling blue electricity launched themselves from her hands and hit each of them squarely in the back. They jerked and seized, and thunder rolled across the air, declaring her intentions for anyone who crossed her path, looking to threaten the children. They hurtled toward the ground, their bodies limp. Before she could recover a lower altitude, she saw red lights glowing and flashing from the eyes of two more Prime units as they, too, leapt up into the sky.

The first two were merely tiring her out. She steeled herself and harnessed the energy from the earth and air, channeling her awareness of everything around her into the coming storm. Hail. These new combatants required a different approach. She knew from her previous conflict downtown that they were adaptable. The winds whipped up, swirling into nascent cyclones speckled with dime-sized hail. The air became frigid as the weather system drifted down from the ground. The Prime units weren’t impressed.

“Termination imminent. Resolution processing.” They cut through the oncoming gusts like warm butter, flying expertly through it, their bodies aerodynamic and resistant to pressure and friction. The hail pelted them, growing in frequency and size until hard, icy golf balls drove them back. They persevered, fighting the barrage and closing the breadth separating them from the weather witch. It was a risk, she knew, using such a passive attack.

Inside the Cerebro complex, Forge was fuming helplessly, raging at the monitor.

“Damn you, Ororo,” he hissed.

She was buying him time. He read the readings on her power levels while she was airborne, simultaneously watching the changes in the signals that he was trying to isolate and trace.

Each time one of the Prime units was deactivated, the signal rerouted itself to the remaining flanks. Forge watched each time as the signal would flare, growing stronger before it disappeared, no longer having an intact receiver when the Prime unit was shut down. He watched the monitor, toggling until he used a schematic view of the school’s grounds to watch the activity and location of each mutant signature.

Rogue’s signature was erratic and fluctuating. He calculated that her ability to sync with mutations by direct contact was affecting it. Roughly two hundred signatures were secured in the Danger Room. The rest of the mansion was devoid of any mutant occupants, with the exception of one flashing light showing up in the infirmary. Bobby Drake. He scowled with worry and maintained a vigil at the monitor, preparing to go to him if necessary. His biorhythms were weak but steady.

He keyed in different code sequences, attempting to communicate with the satellite feed carrying the signal. Just when he thought he had it narrowed down to a specific location emitting it, the flow was interrupted and rerouted to throw him off the trail.

It was like playing checkers. You moved right, you were jumped. You moved left, you were jumped. You couldn’t turn back, and you eventually ran out of pieces. Forge didn’t want to think of what the implications of running out of players on the field meant for the school.

Veterans. The government he’d sworn to protect had mined its veterans like any other commodity and used them up. It appalled him and made his flesh crawl. He watched the failing biorhythms of those who had already fallen, and feelings of hopelessness and impotent rage welled up within his breast. He felt again the heartbeats dying in the chest of his infantrymen as he begged them to hold on, and it tore pieces at him.

“I’m holding you accountable, Gyrich,” he swore as he keyed in more sequences. He continued to rewire Cerebro’s mainframe, attempting to disrupt the signal from appropriating more data on the Prime units’ targets. So much data…so much liability.

Cerebro didn’t just find mutants. It offered the school the best means of helping the students deal with their powers, revealing clues about how they were activated, and how the host could control them most effectively. Prime conditions, physical limitations, weaknesses. Gyrich was never meant to be privy to such information. The Prime units were still unexplored and unknown quantities. The X-Men didn’t have the “inside tip” yet on how they could be beaten, and they couldn’t waste precious time on trial and error.

The signal was still strong, connected to the network of Prime ops and communicating without interruption. Without interruption…

That was the key.

Henry had stumbled directly onto a battlefield. He roared in pain as glass shards dug into his feet, despite their protective coat of fur.

“HANK!” Logan bellowed. “It’s about friggin’ time!”

“I was indisposed,” he shot back as he jumped into the fray. Instinctively, his feral side took over, and guttural growls escaped his lips as he attacked an operative aiming for Piotr’s back. His teeth tore at flesh as the being stared coldly at him, mouth open in surprise.

“SQUARKKKK!”

“Shit,” Logan spat, before he plowed his claws into his own dance partner’s chest, watching in disgust as it grinned up at him. Its wounds were already regenerating as he planned his next move.

A cloud of gas erupted from its mouth, tearing roars of agony from him as his flesh and vulnerable eyes tingled and burned. It got the drop on him again, pressing its advantage and stomping a booted foot into his back, grinding him into the ground. Each time he fought to get back up he was pinned back down, dragging less air into his lungs with each blow. All he needed was a split second.

He rolled to his back and caught its ankle, neatly flipping him back and hurling him through the air.

Overhead, Ororo was losing steam. She was closer to the ground, more easily visible and showing signs of exhaustion. He felt the stinging hail pelting his body as it littered the grass with icy chips. One of the Prime operatives had been weakened enough by the searing cold and couldn’t stay airborne. Gusts of wind forced it back to the ground, where Henry and Piotr moved to deal with it and block its path to the mansion.

A long, gleaming silver coil whipped out from the wrist holster of Ororo’s second pursuer, snaking around her waist and cinching itself tight. It cut into her flesh and burned, tearing a scream from her lips. “AAAAAGGGGHHHHH!!”

It was using her powers against her. Megavolts of electricity invaded her body; the whipcoil acted like a conduit, except it drained the energy from her lightning and fed it back to her, attacking her nerve endings. It was going to burn her out. Resolution probability pending, 86.75%, approximately 2.2 minutes…

The air was burning with each breath she dragged into her lungs. She smelled smoke and ozone, and all around her thunder crashed, rebuking her. Her heart seized and pounded, tripping and about to burst. Her hands flew to her throbbing head as though trying to keep it from splitting apart. She hurtled toward the ground, dragging her captor with her.

“ROGUE! Catch her!” Piotr cried, knowing it was their last-ditch hope. She didn’t hesitate. In a twinkling, yards of softly packed ice resembling drifts of snow formed an enormous cushion, expanding and widening to accommodate her trajectory as she fell. Her body plunged into the snowy drifts with a wet, rushing sound, and Logan was already sprinting toward her, his heart pumping as he traced her path with his eyes. He almost couldn’t see her buried beneath all that ice; her slender form was obscured to where he could only see a hint of blue from her shirt. His claws flashed as he began to cut his way through the icy morass. He swung his arms tirelessly, snow pitching up behind with his efforts. ’Ro…they took down ‘Ro. “I’m comin’ for ya, darlin’!” he panted raggedly. Frostbite added itself to his body’s woes and suffering, but he didn’t feel it. He had to get her out.

His senses didn’t lie to him. He caught her scent. Henry must have, too, judging by his efforts with his own claws and brawny strength as he came in from the opposite direction. He could hear the splash and crackle of something moving ahead of him.

The long whipcoil lashed out at Henry before he could even blink. He leapt back neatly, his muscles surging with strength as he flipped himself out of the way before it could clip him. It followed him, and he led it on a merry chase, drawing it away from Ororo as Logan continued his recovery.

He choked back a mournful cry when he found her. Her clothes were hopelessly torn, and her body was lacerated with more cuts than he could count, bruises already beginning to surface on her arms and face. Her lips were blue, and that petrified him. ‘Ro couldn’t get cold…

His hands scrabbled through the ice, becoming more firmly packed the longer they occupied it. He ignored the excruciating bite of ice crystals into his flesh, which decorated it in droplets of blood while he dug her free. Ororo groaned at the sensation of her body being shifted as the ground seemed to buckle and collapse beneath her. A rush of air coated her back as she was lifted up into someone’s insistent grip. She wanted to sleep. Her body ached to rest and welcome peaceful oblivion. She felt herself falling into the cushion of darkness, drifting in its currents, caressing her with velvet fingertips…

“No. Nononono…oh, God! ‘RO! Come on, darlin’, snap out of it! Don’t do this, baby, wake up! I know ya can hear me, damn it! ‘RO!” He shook her, trying to jostle her awake, needing to see her open her eyes or wiggle so much as a finger. His meaty palm slapped her cheek, smarting against her vulnerable flesh, and he hated himself for it. Helplessness and rage fed his tirade as he cried for her to hear him.

“Yer not gonna do this to me, Ororo! Do ya hear me? Yer gonna wake up, ‘cuz we need you! Ya’ve gotta come back! I won’t put up with yer shit, woman! C’mon! Don’t play possum with me, ‘Ro, ya know I need ya, and I’ll crawl, darlin’! I’ll get on my fuckin’ knees and beg ya ta just wake up…darlin’…please,” he pleaded. Tears burned his cheeks as they spilled from his eyes. “Yer not leavin’ me, Ororo!”

“Ororo?” Erik approached, wisely keeping himself at arm’s length from the feral, not wanting to provoke him and tensing at the heavy stance, his body bristling with rage.

“Oh, my God, Ms. Munroe!” Lorna whimpered. “What can I do?” she pleaded to Erik, tears welling in her blue eyes. He whipped his head toward Henry as he continued to lure the Prime operative.

“Lend our friend Dr. McCoy a hand,” he ordered before he directed his attention back to the Wolverine. Charles’ protégée lay limply in his arms, and Erik was thrown back through time. Magda barely weighed anything as he scooped her up, his lungs pumping fit to burst as they ran through the forest…nothing would happen to her as long as he drew breath. The same determination was etched across Logan’s features, and he saw the veins in his jaw throbbing, daring him to make a move against him or to try to take her from him. His hold on the weather witch tightened as Erik drew closer.

“Ya happy now, ya twisted fuck?” Logan hissed. “This is what yer fuckin’ handiwork did! Ya helped ‘em build a better weapon out of us, and look who it fuckin’ hurt!”

“I didn’t mean…” His words died. Logan’s eyes were dilated. The only thing keeping him in check was the feathering whisper of Ororo’s pulse, so weak that he almost couldn’t feel it.

“Save it. Can ya take the rest of these things down?”

“I’m still not at full power. Lorna isn’t strong enough for the task.” Up in the sky, amidst the rolling clouds and sleet, the dark shadows of more Prime operatives appeared, filling those below with despair.

“Figure out a way, ya sonofabitch!”

Forge thought he’d stumbled back into one of his worst nightmares. Blood and rubble tripped him and he almost lost his footing. He kept a firm grip on the module in his hand. The sounds from outside were almost deafening as he made his way down the broad corridor, past the War Room and study.

There was another crash as the windows in Ororo’s office imploded, offering one of the Prime units entry into the house.

“Holy shit!”

“Scanning…scanning,” it hummed, pinning him in its black gaze. “Ident nomenclature Forge. NSC designate, Contractor. Inactive,” it announced, making Forge’s blood run cold. “Mutant status: Active. Resolution processing.” It lurched toward him and stretched out its palm, and he saw the golden glow of energy readying itself to fire. “Termination imminent.” His blood ran cold. Gyrich. So he’d decided Forge was a liability from the onset of the project. How long had he labored under the delusion that he could trust his superiors? How much of his career had been a lie?

He’d fought for his country, for fuck’s sake…

“Kiss my ass, Gyrich!” he breathed before he aimed his module, a compact firearm, and squeezed the gleaming trigger.

It was a neural disruptor. State of the art, portable, and still in development. Designed for mutants whose powers were out of control or that endangered their lives once they manifested, the disruptor had different applications he hadn’t explored yet. It had to work.

The being was bathed in energy, enveloped in a glowing nimbus.

The being fought to stay in control, its body wavering and swaying, still attempting to attack Forge, but the blast was already affecting it. It began to spew a babble of directives, garbled and hoarse as it weakened like the other units had.

He didn’t approach it until the glow faded from its hand and it was lying supine across the rug.

“Processing…processiiiiiinnnnng…help…meeeee.” Forge’s gut lurched.

“Where did you come from? I already know how you found this place. I need to know where the signal’s coming from,” he barked, kneeling beside it.

“Processing databanks…recording…executing recording,” he rasped. Forge paused in feeling the operative’s pulse as the being’s face hardened. His lips formed words in Gyrich’s voice, ridden with static but no less cruel.

“We knew your loyalties weren’t with the Council, Forge. The United States Department of Defense doesn’t take kindly to traitors within its ranks. You’re being charged with treason and aiding and abetting a national threat. All of the privileges you’ve enjoyed in your post with NSC are being suspended and annulled forthwith.” He suppressed a wave of nausea and felt gooseflesh sweep over him, making him rock back on his haunches. He plowed his hand through his hair dazedly, but his ears pricked up as Gyrich continued. “I always had a bad feeling about you, mutie. No more pretending to be a man and pulling the wool over our eyes. You and your kind are going down, and this time we’re finishing the job.”

“A traitor,” he choked. The being rolled its face toward him, weak as a rag doll.

“Help…you,” it gargled. “Port…chest.” It tugged at its vest with clumsy fingers. Forge obliged him by tearing it open. A clean expanse of flesh met his eyes.

“Look,” he demanded hoarsely. His fingernails pried at his own flesh, tearing open a small seam that resembled a scar between his ribs. “Network,” he continued. Incredulously Forge examined the fibers of microcircuitry housed in a module so tiny that he’d need tweezers to extract it. “Red light…press it.” Forge yanked out a pen from his pocket. His hands shook as he probed the tiny red light with the tip.

“What did it do?”

“Block,” he gasped. “Network. Shut down…network.”

“How?”

“Synced…with network.”

“But where’s the signal?” he cried.

“Termination…unit…shut down,” he rattled, and his head jerked spasmodically several times before the light in his eyes died.

He gathered up his gun and leapt through the decimated window. He spied Henry and Piotr first, both of them staring up at the sky.

The Prime units were retreating. The ground around them was littered with bodies and a blood-dappled glacier. Marie was huddled with Kitty on the veranda, sobbing miserably while Lorna sat watching by Erik’s side.

“Forge,” Henry blurted as he spied him. “What the hell are you doing out here, man?”

“It worked,” he replied. “The network shut down when I used this.” He handed him the disruptor by the stock. Henry handled it gingerly and with interest, questions written on his face.

“That’s why they retreated.”

“The signal depends on a powered host, as well as the integrity of the implants.”

“But did you trace the signal.”

“No.” His shoulders sagged, and Henry felt the pain of his defeat. Then his eyes darted around the lawn. “Blue, where’s Ororo?” Panic gripped him, and his knees nearly buckled as he caught sight of Logan on the veranda, his face stricken as he rocked her on his lap.

Chapter Text

Don’t leave me yet, ‘Ro…

It beat like a tattoo, roaring in his ears once they were in the infirmary.

He felt a growl escape, rumbling guttural and deep from the core of his being when he felt Henry’s hands gently tugging him away from the cot.

“Please give me room,” he ordered curtly, nodding to Anna Marie and Forge to move back. “Don’t crowd her; the best way for you to help her right now is to let me do my work.” They looked chastened. Marie’s expression crumbled and her shoulders sagged; Forge’s face was stony.

“What can we do?” Marie cried.

“I know it may seem like the last thing she needs,” Henry explained levelly,” but are you still able to access Bobby’s gift?”

“No,” she admitted sadly.

“Let’s see if I can myself,” she heard him rasp from the other side of the curtain. Marie rushed to Bobby’s side and pulled the drape aside, revealing his weak attempt to sit up. The strain showed on his puckish face and gentle blue eyes smiled up at her. “Hey.”

“Bobby…Ah couldn’t stand it if…” Her voice failed her as she clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her sobs.

“I haven’t gone anywhere,” he murmured, reaching for her gloved hand, and she felt the faint press of his lips through the thin knit. “Professor McCoy, what do you need me to do? I want to help.”

“I need you to help me lower Ms. Munroe’s temperature,” he replied. Logan’s head snapped in his direction, and he met his gaze with a mixture of shock and disbelief.

“What the fuck are ya talkin’ about, Furball? She’s blue, goddamit! Her powers didn’t protect her from landing in all that snow! She nearly froze to death!”

“The immediate problem isn’t the cold. It’s the lightning. Ororo may die of cardiac arrest if we don’t keep her temperature low right now. The longer she’s unconscious, the more likely it is that her brain will be starved of oxygen. Her fall into the ice likely saved her life.” He turned back to Bobby. “I’d like you to chill the bedding beneath her now, Mr. Drake.” Bobby’s demeanor changed to one of grave respect at being treated like an adult, and one who could offer much needed assistance.

“I’d be glad to, sir.” He extended his hand, and Logan and Forge felt the chill as a fine mist of ice crystals floated in a tidy stream from his outstretched hand, shining and ethereal as pixie dust. He aimed for Ororo’s bed, and slowly the dry frost enveloped the mattress and sheets.

“I’d like to offer my assistance as well,” a voice in the infirmary doorway informed them, and Erik’s countenance was humble as he swept inside.

“Whaddya think you can do, Mags?” Logan accused. “I think ya’ve helped us enough already, if not by helping ta create the things that attacked her, then definitely by helping ta lead ‘em here.”

“They would’ve found their way here anyway from the signal,” Forge argued. His face was became more flushed with tension, and like Logan, he was searching for a target to take it out on. Logan rose gladly to the bait. SNIKT.

“Then maybe ya need ta get the fuck outta here too, genius,” he sneered. “Maybe Ororo doesn’t need ya in here. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Ya’ve done enough, asshole!”

“I stayed to help her and help this school, Wolverine, and I’m not budging a goddamned inch!”

“Helping the school,” Logan spat. “That’s what ya call bugging Cerebro, eh? Is that how ya survived war?”

“Don’t talk to me about how I survived!” Forge’s fists were balled up as he leaned over the bedrails. Lorna had just drifted inside, hovering behind Erik and shivering at the sounds of their shouts. “I used what was in here,” Forge informed him, pointing to his temple,” instead of fucking claws and tearing the enemy apart like some animal!” Logan rose from the rolling stool in the corner, his face full of menace. Henry’s furred paw shot out behind him, striking him squarely in the chest before he whipped around to face him. His fangs were bared, his muzzle drawn back in a chilling snarl.

“ENOUGH!” Henry boomed as he readied an oxygen mask. “You’re both here as a privilege, and I won’t hesitate to take that away, do you understand me?” Logan broke their stare first, turning away from piercing cobalt eyes and standing down. He watched guilty as Henry fitted the mask over Ororo’s face, trying to draw comfort from the whistle of precious oxygen sustaining her.

“I’m scared,” Lorna whimpered, and Erik felt her insistent grip as her fingers crept into his. His eyes stung when he saw the innocent pleading and yearning in her blue eyes. Daddy will make it go away… It nearly tumbled from his lips. His throat was clogged when he found his voice.

“Sometimes you have to dig deeper to feel the pulse of the metal,” he explained, and he tugged her forward, leading her around the foot of the bed. “McCoy,” he beckoned. Henry watched him warily, not wanting to be caught unawares again. He bristled, but Erik didn’t move away.

“Don’t make me warn you, too.”

“Then accept my help when it’s offered. Or accept hers.” He gestured to his daughter. “She’s powerful and a work in progress, and you need her.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Like me, she can manipulate metals even when they’re inside a person’s body.” He guided Lorna closer and took her hand, encouraging her to hold Ororo’s. “Including blood minerals.” Henry paused in checking her blood pressure.

“I’ll hold you responsible if you endanger her further, Erik. Not her,” he motioned to Lorna. Lorna was shaking, but at Erik’s gentle touch on her shoulder, she closed her eyes.

“It’s moving so slowly,” she murmured. Her teacher’s hand felt limp and cold, and rubbed it absently, trying to coax circulation back into it as she focused on the components of Ororo’s blood stream.

She could feel the faint beat of her heart and the constriction of blood vessels within her flesh. Her hair drifted up and glowed, floating about her face as she manifested her power. She focused her awareness of the various metals. Zinc. Magnesium. Iron. She heard the brainwaves sending signals to her nervous system; the rhythms were calm and faint. Lorna acquainted herself with the flow of blood through each organ system and orchestrated them where they needed to go. Copper. Phosphorus. Sodium. She accelerated the minerals down their pathways through arteries and ventricles. Chromium. Fluorine. She felt Ororo’s muscles begin to flex and contract, and circulation began to return to her limbs.

“Please,” she whispered. “C’mon, Ms. Munroe, please!” Erik’s hand now steadied her, covering hers.

“Easy does it,” he encouraged. “It’s working.” As if to prove his theory, Ororo’s eyelids twitched. He could feel the fine-tuned concentration and resonance from her, marveling at her efforts. He was proud of her, no matter what the outcome, but he shared the anxiety shrouding the occupants of the lab.

Please, God. Please. Let this work. Logan plowed his fingers through his hair, clutching it as he bowed his head. Forge paced like a restless lion, gripping the ornate pendant on his necklace like a talisman. Marie and Bobby’s hands were joined together so tightly that it hurt.

Ororo felt pain stabbing her, prying her away from the tempting sleep blanketing her. She wasn’t floating anymore, and the warmth and laxness in her limbs gave away to crisp, biting cold. She heard voices, and she felt sorrow and worry pressing in on her. Someone was crying…

A gurgled gasp was heard in the room, the air mask making the sound echo, and Ororo’s eyes drifted open. Things slowly swam into focus. Henry watched incredulously as her eyes roamed slowly about the room, full of questions. They didn’t flit jerkily around the room. Lorna opened her eyes as she felt Ororo’s return her grip with a small squeeze. Tears ran down the girl’s face.

“Ms. Munroe,” she cried.

“Stop,” Erik ordered, his voice low. “Give her a chance to see if she can breathe on her own.” Reluctantly she let go, and Logan wanted to bellow in protest. Emotion choked him as awareness shone in her eyes when he approached the bed. He saw the same hope and anticipation written on Forge’s weary features as he stood beside Henry. This time it was Logan who carelessly shoved them away, not giving a damn.

“Ro,” he croaked. “Stay with us, darlin’, it’s all right!” Beneath the hiss of the oxygen mask, he heard her shallow breaths slowly deepen. Her chest rose and lowered, and he reached for her hand, needing the tangible proof that she was improving. She gently nodded to him, not replying but assuring him that she understood. She leaned into his touch when he stroked her hair, still matted with dirt, blood and melting chips of ice. “It’s all right,” he repeated soothingly. She felt him tremble. Logan never trembled.

“You scared us all out of ten years of life, young lady,” Henry said gruffly, moving around Lorna and Erik to check her vitals. Erik tugged Lorna away, and he urged her to step into his embrace. She sobbed loudly into the crook of his neck.

“You did so well,” he murmured. “Better than anyone could have hoped.”

“It’s all right, Marie,” Bobby crooned. Marie’s face was buried in her hands as she, too, wept, and he awkwardly lowered his bed rail and drew her down to his chest. “Don’t cry,” he begged helplessly, stroking her hair. It was times like these that he regretted not being able to hold her more closely, but she was grateful for the sound of his voice and the support offered by his supine body. She breathed in the scent of his skin and hair, even if she couldn’t touch him. The sweet, fleeting kiss that she’d risked before lingered with him, and so did a part of her. It was an even exchange; she retained traces of memories and emotions from anyone whom she absorbed, including his devotion and affection. They were connected in every way but flesh.

Only Henry saw Forge walk out.

He busied himself with caring for Ororo; Marie carefully helped him remove most of her ruined clothing and started to clean her matted hair. Erik and Lorna adjourned upstairs; Henry discreetly called upstairs using the intercom to ask Piotr if he could supervise them closely and get the children settled. Most of his afternoon was spent monitoring Ororo’s condition and cleansing various cuts. She had lacerations on her limbs that looked painfully tender; Logan winced at burns on her hands, shoulders and feet. Her lightning never hurt her before. He’d seen her manipulate it often enough, letting it dance in the palm of her hand.

As if reading his thoughts, Henry explained “That thing used her own lightning against her, feeding it back to her nervous system. It overloaded her with too much energy for her to control or to siphon off. And if I know Ororo, she couldn’t live with herself if she released any of it and accidentally struck any one of us down.”

“So she just sucked it up, and nearly killed herself in the fuckin’ process,” Logan fumed, cradling and stroking her bandaged hand.

“Had…to,” she gasped, effectively cutting off any further argument or tirade between two people she cared about most.

“I hated it when ya did that,” he admitted, but his scowl lacked its usual intensity. She read worry and fear in his eyes, realizing that she’d caused it. His clothes and hair were as desperate as hers, but he wasn’t scarred or injured.

“I’m here.” Henry didn’t stare when Logan clutched her hand against his cheek. He could still smell his anxiousness and frustration, and he read possessiveness in his posture, as well as fierce devotion. He stirred him from his vigil to help him whisk the cool, damp sheets out from under her to change the bedding and settle her more comfortably. Henry patted her foot after trimming and taping down the last bandage strip.

“You can stay with her if you like,” he offered. “I’m moving Bobby upstairs.” Marie eagerly helped him lower Bobby into a wheelchair and they transported him to the elevator. That left the two of them alone.

“I know yer tired,” he muttered hoarsely. “I don’t wanna leave ya.”

“Then…don’t,” she suggested weakly, but her eyes were warm. Color was slowly returning to her cheeks, but her eyes were drowsy.

He didn’t even remember falling asleep. He awoke with a start and nearly dropped her hand; he used his free one to grind the grit from his eyes. She was still resting peacefully, her breathing even and deep. He stood, feeling his legs uncramp painfully as he bent to tenderly kiss her cheek. Her warm scent rose up to greet him with the gesture; her face was placid, beautiful and it disarmed him completely.

“I ain’t finished yet, darlin’. His lips lingered on her skin this time, and he stroked her tangles of thick, soft hair back from her face before he let her go. Duty called; he had to check on the kids.

 

~0~

Piotr was at a loss for how to explain to the paramedics and local authorities what happened when they arrived on the scene to retrieve the bodies littering the front lawn. Henry followed the appropriate protocols, encouraging them to take the measures needed to identify who the operatives were, and to determine their purpose in attacking a sedate private school with a solid reputation. Henry’s features were calm and carefully arranged, his face one anyone would instantly trust, thanks to his image inducer.

They’d marked it up to terrorist activity, and they informed him that they would monitor the activity of any known cells that targeted institutions such as theirs. Henry was sorely tempted to tell them that just being mutants made them a target for the world at large.

He knew the implants would be confiscated, all but the one that Forge helped him to harvest from the Prime operative in Ororo’s office. The next step involved Forge’s disruptor, now that she was out of danger. Questions and the implications of such a device existing at all nagged him all the way down the hall to Forge’s guest quarters.

He knocked briskly and already had the door open before Forge invited him in. He found him seated on the bed with his back to him, oddly slumped. He heard the sounds of a ragged sob being stifled and cut off, and from behind, he caught him making the motions of swiping a hand over his face.

“She’s all right,” Henry announced. “We need to talk.”

“I know.” He stood and moved to the vanity outside the bathroom door, giving the cold water tap a vicious twist before splashing his face and the back of his neck. He scrubbed his skin dry with a plain white hand towel before facing him. His face was sober and resigned. Henry didn’t offer him any comfort, and he didn’t expect any.

“Tell me everything about the disruptor, including when and why you created it.”

“Let’s go downstairs.” His manner was all business as he poured them coffee and led Henry into the study, bypassing the children milling around in the hall.

 

~0~

“This time was different than the last, sir.”

“Explain yourself,” Gyrich barked.

“This time the Prime unit didn’t just drop off the grid. The signal was interrupted completely for about ten seconds. It wasn’t just the implants that were compromised. That only happens when the nannites stop communicating with the host’s nervous system, and with our mainframe.”

“In English,” Gyrich suggested sourly, out of patience as he retrieved his black coffee and took a hearty gulp.

“If they can’t communicate with us, we can’t communicate with them,” he replied curtly. “We couldn’t use these implants on baseline humans because the adamantium was toxic. Mutants have stronger regenerative abilities, and most of the hosts we chose demonstrated healing abilities like the Wolverine’s. So when the hosts are compromised, particularly if they lose their powers and so-called ‘healing factor,’ they treat the implants like foreign bodies and try to expel it to preserve themselves. More importantly, the hosts override their program and shut out the signal. We lose the ability to control them, even if the hosts survive.” Gyrich’s motions stilled; his coffee cup rattled against its saucer.

“Tell me something,” Gyrich mused. “CAN we lose control of the Prime units?”

“If they find a way to do what they did when they took down unit 7-alpha-1, then yes,” he answered, identifying the operative by his serial number. “Each time one of the operatives dropped off the grid, their directive programming ceased to run. We never ran any trials with units that were compromised. The candidates either survived the implanting process, or they didn’t. We only tested how well they performed in the field. We never ran through any scenarios where they didn’t.” Gyrich’s face flushed as red as his hair.

“They regain free will?”

“Again, sir, if they survive, then yes. There’s one last caveat to consider regarding the directive programming and the loss of the signal, if it happens again.” Gyrich’s hand flew up, ceasing any further explanation.

“Someone else can program the Prime units with new directive?” The technician swallowed convulsively, not wanting to meet his eyes. “ANSWER ME!” Gyrich’s fist banged down on the counter, making him cringe.

“Yes, sir, they can.”

 

~0~

“So there’s nothing else you aren’t telling us?”

“I swear on my uncle Naze’s grave.”

“I don’t need dramatics, Forge, just honesty.”

“This was the only other project that the Security Council expressed an interest in. It was further supported by Kavita’s clinical trials with mutants who had powers that they didn’t willfully manifest. Mutants like Marie, for instance, who can’t control their mutation without a barrier of some sort between herself and other people. I won’t lie, Blue. The government wanted a means of eliminating the mutant threat as much from hostiles as they did from the ones that couldn’t help the harm they committed, some just by breathing. Several of Kavita’s staff died during those trials. Some of her candidates secreted toxins in their glands. Some emitted radiation or couldn’t even maintain cohesion of their bodies. The potential for airborne contaminants was too high from some of these subjects.”

“I don’t think I like where this is leading.”

“You shouldn’t. Many of these subjects died before we could come up with the prototype. It wasn’t meant to be a ‘cure’ the way the serum was, in that sense.”

“No. This was a quarantine.” Henry ignored his cooling mug of coffee and crossed the study. He opened the liquor cabinet and extracted a bottle of scotch, retrieving two glasses without being asked.

“The disruptor effectively helped many of the subjects and protected the people around them. They have the chance to live normal lives without being a danger to themselves.”

“Some of us need our mutations to survive. I’m not just talking about a loss of livelihood or identity. Students like Warren, Bobby or Kitty would nearly lose conveniences associated with that they can do. I can only speak for myself when I say that I would still be the same person without this,” and he gestured to his furry countenance. “You could say the same, Forge. Perhaps you would lose some of your earning potential.” Forge scoffed as he sipped his scotch.

“Kavita expressed similar thoughts in her files before she was killed.”

“She didn’t have the same vested interest that we do in keeping that from happening.” Forge paled.

“How many of your students would be in danger if they lost their mutations?”

“Wolverine.” His voice was flat. He downed the rest of his scotch and poured them both another.

Chapter Text

When I cried for her, after she died, Forge, it wasn’t just that I lost her. I cried because Logan took her life so that I wouldn’t have to. He had another death on his head and more blood on his hands. And he loved her. It defied description, to love someone like that.

He’d wanted to follow her that afternoon and shake her, set her straight about his feelings.

His love for Jean could easily be described. Sudden. Gut-twisting. Exciting. Forbidden. All words he was familiar with after years of breaking the rules. Jean was the apple dangling from Eden’s tree, shining red and ripe, the stem giving under the weight of his fingers reaching for it. He’d paved his road to ruin, but Jean lit his path there.

Ororo’s love for Jean was pure and genuine, worthy of envy and humility to be its object. He saw it in the depths of those seemingly cool, detached eyes, just bubbling under the surface when she declared “You love her” that night in his room. She’d attempted to stop him, pleading with him to see reason…and to see her. He remembered the wiry, barely restrained strength in her lissome body as he gently, but firmly, moved her aside and swept out the door. He felt her frustration and defeat at his back and felt his hackles stiffen, hating what he was about to do. Hating to deny her, and to deny himself.

Feelings for the weather witch had sprouted at that moment and were nurtured every time they had a minute alone. And she was right, one hundred percent correct: He had taken Jean’s life not only to save her from herself, but to save Ororo from having to do the one thing she couldn’t live with, as well as to save her life. All of their lives, but selfishly, he admitted, the world would never be a place he wanted to spend the rest of his miserable years without Ororo. He didn’t know how many he had left.

For the moment, the only thing grounding him was her loft. His nightmares were full of screams again, but hers rose above the clamor, wounding him before he watched her fall from the sky. Helpless. He’d felt helpless and like someone tore out his heart.

He needed her scent. Her loft was infused with it; he caught a whiff of it when he’d made up the bed, the faint whiff rising up to greet him as he tucked in the sheets. He polished surfaces and mopped the hardwood floor until it gleamed. His stomach rolled at the smell of her blood staining her ruined clothing, and he threw them out, knowing she wouldn’t want them anymore. Strands of silken white hair wrapped themselves in fine skeins, nestled in the bristles of her hairbrush; he laid it in the drawer of her tiny bathroom before straightening it up. He wanted her to feel comfortable in familiar surroundings.

It would be a long time before anyone felt safe at the school again.

He’d kept his vigil in the infirmary for two days, leaving only to attend his classes and to retrieve meals for them both. She was a cranky patient, he marveled, pouting relentlessly over her weakened condition.

“Ya didn’t finish yer dinner,” Logan nagged her a little while ago, noting her meager efforts with the roast chicken and mashed potatoes, half of which still remained on the plate. “Yer gonna hurt Petey’s feelings, darlin’.”

“He knows I wouldn’t leave so much of a crumb if I had any appetite,” Ororo grumbled as she lowered the head of her bed a few inches and laid back, shoving away the tray. Logan sighed. She’d made remarkable improvement, thanks to rest and the very irritable nurse who tended to swear like a longshoreman and smelled like cigar smoke.

Logan always made her feel better. Soft looks from those intelligent hazel eyes that he didn’t often share with anyone else. That gentle touch from strong, warm hands whenever he solicitously helped her to get more comfortable, whether to bring a fresh blanket or to help her to stand. Earlier that evening she felt weak as a kitten, her legs nearly giving away as soon as the soles of her bare feet flattened against the cold floor. He caught her beneath the armpits and hauled her back against his chest. Like a limp noodle, she fumed. His solid firmness at her back and the warmth of his breath stirring her hair was soothing until she shook it off.

She hated showing him weakness. He didn’t say a word as he led her to the commode and gently shut the door after her. He was bereft at the loss of contact.

Logan was tense. Every time she needed anything, he jumped. When she didn’t need anything, he toiled and pondered why.

“You don’t have to baby me,” she offered sullenly. Her fingers picked at the hem of the sheet as she studied him. Her body screamed otherwise: Stay. Be with me.

“Last time I checked, ya nearly died,” he pointed out sagely. “Besides, once yer up and around, darlin’, you’ll be runnin’ my ranch and puttin’ me ta work. For the moment, why don’tcha stay put?”

“I can put you to work now,” she offered. “I mean it, Logan. You should be upstairs with Henry and Piotr. I can manage.” The corners of his mouth tightened, and he exhaled sharply through his nose, growling in his throat.

“Ro…maybe just once…I don’t know what ta say. Ya think ya can manage without me, is that it?” Panic leapt into her heart as he backed away from the bed, and she read hurt in his eyes.

“Logan…no. Please. Just understand me for a minute. I’m not used to needing someone to take care of me,” she admitted.

“Can’t ya get used to it for a little while til yer back in the saddle? ‘Ro…ya don’t know what it did ta me when ya got hurt. Ya don’t know…” His voice trailed off as he sat down heavily on the rolling chair beside the bed. He shut his eyes and mastered himself, but he felt the familiar roar of blood in his ears.

“I’m all right,” she assured him, but when he looked up and met her gaze, there was torment written on his face. His hands were balled into fists in his lap, and he confirmed her previous memory of waking up in the infirmary: He was trembling.

“Well, I ain’t all right, Ororo. Not one friggin’ bit. Hurts,” he informed her. “It hurts knowing ya almost left us, darlin’. Maybe the sun’ll still rise and set without me in the picture, but everything in this damned world, ‘Ro, in my world’ll stop if I lose you. If you leave me. Do ya get what I’m tryin’ ta say, darlin’? Don’t leave me.” The weight on his chest merely shifted, but he wouldn’t feel relief until she acknowledged his confession, whether she accepted it or not. “I couldn’t stand it if ya left me.”

It was like a dash of cold water. Everything came flooding back in a rush.

The sensation of being carried in his arms – she knew they were his, and that it was his low, hoarse voice beckoning to her to wake up – it nearly knocked the wind from her lungs. She heard his pleas when he lifted her out of the snow, reaching her while she drifted in the dark, and she knew he was her anchor. Just like he was now.

She couldn’t speak yet. Her lips couldn’t form the words, but her eyes spoke loud and clear, and tension was stiffening every muscle in his body as her fingers unsteadily reached out to graze his cheek.

“I need you,” he grated out. “Need ya so damned much.” It was almost impossible to get the words out. They lodged themselves around the lump in his throat, but he leaned into her touch, reaching up to stroke her hand and complete the caress. He shuddered and closed his eyes, and he felt her pulse jump, even feeling the thrum of her heart pounding in her chest.

“It hurt,” she murmured, and her voice was thick with emotion. “It hurt when you left me.” She didn’t say “us.” Her thumb lightly skimmed his cheek, barely dusting his dark, spiky lashes. “You don’t know how much. And I couldn’t tell you, because I knew why you had to go. I won’t keep you from unlocking what happened to you before you came to us. Charles wanted to do everything in his power and more to help you, Logan. I didn’t want to see you beating yourself to death chasing down your life and what you once knew of it. And when Jean –“ Her voice broke.

“Ororo…” Her words bit him and forced his own indiscretions back at him. He’d gone after Jean, even once he found out Scott was gone. Out of the picture, his conscience nagged. Mighty fuckin’ convenient, slick. He’d been willing to chase Jean even in her madness, and it sobered Logan and Ororo both. Look what he’d nearly given up.

“When you went after Jean…” Her jaw quivered, and he saw a sheen of tears that she wouldn’t let fall. “I couldn’t keep you here then, either, Logan…because you loved her. And I wouldn’t get in the way of you finding ha-happiness…” She tried to return her hand to her lap, but he wouldn’t let go of her. “Even if it wasn’t with me.”

“Even if…’Ro, that ain’t true.”

“You loved her,” she insisted with an emphatic shrug. “What was I supposed to do, chase you? I’ve gotten used to watching you walk away, Logan, so I wasn’t going to make you run.”

“Like hell,” he replied, and his brows beetled together, even though he didn’t raise his voice. “I wouldn’t have run if I knew.”

“I think you knew the day you kissed me goodbye.” He winced. She used the edge of her thumb to wipe away the hint of moisture that threatened to escape her eye. “I wanted to hold back, Logan. You made it hard.”

“What about now?” He adjusted the bed before she could protest and then seated himself on the edge. She felt the mattress sag beneath his weight, causing her body to shift closer to him so she felt his heat. He planted his hands on either side of her body to hold her captive. “How hard am I making it now, sweetheart?” She swallowed and tried to stare into her lap, but his breath feathered her cheek. “If I tell ya that I ain’t runnin’, that I wanna stay right here and that I ain’t gonna budge, will ya still hold back?” He nuzzled her, coaxing her to look at him, and her hand flew up to cover his lips to block more intimate contact. It didn’t work; he nibbled her fingertips, sending currents of sensation shivering up her arms and a flutter in her gut.

“Don’t do this now,” she hissed. “Don’t make me feel –“ Her chin was captured in his grip and the breath was kissed from her lips. The kiss was demanding and thorough; he nipped her lower lip’s lush fullness and suckled it until she opened for him. Her voice was a strangled moan of desire as they shared breath and heat. Her hands didn’t obey her commands not to touch him, instead fisting themselves in his shirt and cradling his cheek. His groan resonated through her, and she needed to hear him, see him, taste him, feel him so badly she’d die for it. Fingers curled and tangled in white hair and dark brown. She craved the feel of his flesh and cursed her weakened state as her nipples tingled for his touch. He satisfied what he could of her hunger and kissed her again and again, coming up for air only long enough to whisper her name and brush his lips over her eyelids, nose and the crowns of her cheekbones. Her eyes were glazed with passion for him, and he looked like he wanted to eat her up.

“There’s nothing I want more, ‘Ro, than ta make ya feel how I feel,” he admitted. His body had slumped against her once his arms wouldn’t hold him up, so caught up in the experience of holding her. He framed her face, reverently stroking it. Her eyes darkened to a deep sapphire and they were full of yearning.

“I can only tell you how I feel, Logan. It’s taken this long to do it, but we might not have tomorrow.”

“Don’t think about whether we have tomorrow, ‘Ro, because I don’t want that ta color whatever ya have ta say to me.”

“I loved you the moment I met you. As soon as I walked into Charles’ office and saw you barefoot and cocky, I loved you. It was hopeless. I was gone the moment you opened your mouth.” He looked incredulous, and he brushed her lips softly with his.

“Warts an’ all?”

“Warts and all,” she admitted, and a tear leaked out from the corner of her eye. This time he was the one who wiped it away.

“Damn it, ‘Ro, yer fuckin’ impossible,” he huffed. “And I’m a fuckin’ idiot.” Her smile faltered.

“So am I,” she cried. “Logan, you know how I feel now. What you do with that knowledge is up to you.” All the voices in her head cursed her as a fool for giving him a way out.

“Yer leavin’ it up ta me?”

“Yes.” Her sigh was heavy. “I am.” Please…

“I love ya so much it hurts. I can’t sleep, I hate it when ya leave a room, and I gave up tryin’ ta think straight the first time ya kissed me, darlin’. Damn it, ‘Ro, I love you! I need you!” Her arms were already drifting around his neck with his first sentence. His voice was ragged with need. She merely nodded before his lips crushed hers, proving to him that thinking was overrated. All he wanted to do was feel. His mouth trailed over her chin and jaw, painting her flesh with his hot breath before moving onto her throat. He traced her pulse with his lips, and her answering cry was full of need for him to never stop. He craved the feel of her hands against his skin, and she answered that silent call, easing them inside the flap of his shirt to roam and stroke his shoulders and chest.

He stared at her in confusion when she gently pushed him back, forcing him to catch his breath.

“Whatsamatter?” he huffed. He was still ruggedly handsome and more disheveled than she was used to seeing him; she almost laughed at his response.

“You’re needed upstairs,” she informed him, drawing his attention to the thrum of the intercom clicking on and the flashing red light on the console.

“Shit.”

“I know. I hate it,” she agreed. “I want to come upstairs tonight. Help me up after dinner. There are also some things I need to go over with Forge and Henry.” He bristled at the inventor’s name. She noticed his discomfort and laid her hand on his arm soothingly. “There’s nothing left between him and me, Logan.”

“Ya don’t hafta tell me twice.”

“Just know that I love you.”

That ya can tell me all ya want, darlin’.” He eased himself to his feet with a sigh. One last caress of the back of his knuckles against her cheek, and he was off.

 

~0~

 

He couldn’t make Ororo love him.

The cold hard truth was staring him in the face, even as he made an adjustment to his holographic imaging device. He’d see what he wanted to see, just for a moment.

Music played softly in the background, a smooth, sultry ballad made for two people getting to know each other. The interior of the Danger Room was dimly lit, ambient “mood lighting” bathing a hardwood dance floor and heightening the nocturnal beauty of its occupants as they gave in to the song. Night club patrons circled the floor in swaying rhythms, and the programmed scent of alcohol tickled Forge’s nostrils, making it feel more authentic and breaking off another piece of his heart.

She was beautiful. If he closed his eyes – and he couldn’t bear to close his eyes against the vision before him – he could almost feel the kiss they’d shared, its heat licking up over him and leaving him shaken. He watched his own temerity as his hands roamed down her back to cradle her hips, feeling her soft curves through the silk of her dress.

He was completely out of his league. And now she hated him.

Once again, Logan wanted to kill him when he found him inside, until he drew close enough to see the man’s face. He looked broken. If there was one thing Logan could recognize, “broken” was it.

The inventor was seated on the floor in a relaxed sprawl, his elbows wrapped around his knees as he looked up at the image of himself and Ororo. They made a graceful, elegant pair that made Logan want to growl, but he, too, was entranced by the sight of Ororo looking serene and beautiful, contentment settling over her features as she leaned into his embrace and moved with him.

That could be him, if he let it. It nearly wasn’t. Realizing what he nearly threw away by waiting so long to let ‘Ro know how he felt slapped him in the face.

“Part of me wants to tell you that you could’ve knocked,” Forge said dryly.

“I live here,” Logan shrugged. “I’m headed up ta talk with Blue.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“Don’t wanna interrupt.” It was as far from the truth as the earth from the moon. He wanted to smash Forge’s device to bits and grind them beneath his foot, but the vision of Ororo still held him thrall. She was perfectly rendered; his sense battled with him that only her scent was missing.

“No. I’ve got a few things to do.” Understatement of the year. “Hank’s looking over the implant and the date that we harvested after we dismantled it.”

“So what’re ya doin’ down here?”

“Clearing my head and taking a breather. Reminding myself why I can’t really rest until I fix this.” He stood and brushed off phantom dust from his palms, and Logan heard the hollow click of the module being turned off. The Danger Room’s lights resumed their full brightness, and the music stopped. He couldn’t stop his hand from reaching out toward the image of Ororo that was fading away to nothing. “I’m not a fool, despite popular opinion right now.”

“No shit?” Forge tucked the module into his pocket and leveled Logan with a somber yet steely gaze.

“You didn’t hide how you felt about her in the lab.”

“Didn’t see why I should’ve,” Logan shrugged, but he was annoyed that he was that transparent in front of Forge during the whole ordeal. He didn’t want an audience for what was easily the most agonizing day of his life.

“No. It’s good to make your feelings clear. Doesn’t leave any room for anyone else to get the wrong idea. It’s great,” Forge assured him, a dangerous gleam creeping into his black eyes. “Nice to see you decided to piss or get off the pot.”

“Wanna run that by me again?”

“She held back. She’s an amazing woman, but she doesn’t hide her feelings that well, either.”

She hid ‘em from me long enough…

“I ain’t gonna discuss this with you.”

“Fine. Just take a word of advice.”

“Whaddya think ya can tell me, bub? What am I supposed ta get from the guy that practically stabbed all of us in the back, not least of which was ‘Ro?”

“It hurts. Knowing you’ve disappointed her and watching that light die in her eyes. It’ll kill you a piece at a time. All you’re left with are the dreams and the memory of what it felt like to hold her, and then to lose her. See you upstairs.” He strode out, leaving Logan completely unsettled.

 

~0~

 

The most that any of them could do, Logan told them as the students were herded reluctantly to their rooms, was to live life and carry on with their normal routine. He’d let them know that their teachers would do everything they could to ensure their safety, but he hated the anxiousness he saw in their faces and the cautious hesitation in their steps. He’d spent enough of his own life looking over his shoulder. He didn’t want that for the kids. Piotr, Kitty and the upperclassmen were all on edge, wondering when the Prime units would come storming through the front door and who would be hurt next.

Erik was dutifully keeping his distance, remaining in the containment chamber while Lorna attended her classes and visited him whenever she was allowed. Erik recognized her shell-shocked look well, having seen it on the faces of everyone transported to the internment camp in his youth. Magda’s face continued to haunt him whenever he looked into Lorna’s, and he knew it was finally time. He had to tell her the truth.

He had to bide his time. He knew McCoy was making progress of Gyrich’s whereabouts, and he couldn’t afford to fly blind.

Lorna was slightly early as she returned downstairs with his afternoon meal. Her smile was shy as she set down the tray.

“I figured maybe they’d let you out, since you helped them out there,” she suggested. She leaned against the counter and picked at a torn fingernail that looked like she had bitten it.

“They were wise,” he mused. “I’m growing restless with their approach to this particular threat. We can’t continue to wait for them to attack us again, Lorna, when they can adapt to our powers each time they confront us. The next time we meet them could be the last time we draw breath. You don’t want that, do you? How does it feel, child?”

“How does what feel?” she asked in a quiet voice.

“Being captive here, in this school where you thought you’d be safe?”

“But…I can leave, can’t I? You and I don’t have to stay here. But I like some of the other kids I’ve met. I…I feel like I fit in here, Erik, and I didn’t before with my parents.”

“They’re making both of us hide like rats,” he sniffed. “Life has more to offer you if you reach out and take it, Lorna. And your parents had no idea of the special young woman they tried to stifle and send away. They can’t appreciate you like I can.”

“Erik…why me? I know we can do some of the same things…” Her voice faltered, and she clutched her hair, tugging it back from her face. Her blue eyes beseeched him for answers. “What made you come and get me out? Is it just that I’m a mutant? Did…did you feel sorry for me?”

“No. I would never feel sorry for you, child. You’re much too strong and gifted, and you have so much to accomplish yet. I intend to guide you in what you need to do.”

“Guide me?”

“When you told me where the orphanage was where your parents took you from, I realized we didn’t just share the same abilities, Lorna. We share blood.” She straightened up and he heard the air she sucked into her lungs. “Lorna, I’m your father.”

“Y-you don’t mean that. You’re joking, right? Please, Erik, don’t lie to me,” she cried. She folded her arms beneath her breasts, hugging herself against the sudden chill in the chamber. “You can’t just come out of the blue and tell me something like this and expect me to believe…I mean, look, how often do two people just meet, and…and…” She clapped her palm over her mouth to stifle a keening wail.

“Lorna,” he crooned. “Believe me. It’s the truth. You look exactly like my wife, and like Anya would have looked if she had grown to adulthood, something that will eat at me until I die. My daughter was taken from me far too soon, and wrongly. I won’t suffer anyone taking you from me lightly. I lost track of Magda when she first left me; no one would tell me that they saw her. I think the village was hiding her location from me once they realized who I was, and what I could do.” She collapsed to her knees, bowing her face into her hands as she rocked and wept. Heaving sobs clawed their way out of her throat.

“You’re lying,” she insisted. “You’ve killed people!”

“Yet you followed me, Lorna. I feel that you knew who I was in the pit of your soul. There’s a connection between us, and I know you won’t desert me and walk away from your father.” Watery blue eyes pinned him.

“What do you want me to do?” she pleaded. “Just act like everything’s fine? You weren’t there,” she accused. “I was an outcast, and everyone hated me and called me a freak, and you weren’t there!”

“I couldn’t be, and I’m sorry. If I’d have known of you, I would have come for you, child! I swear it on my life. Give me a chance to make things right, Lorna.” He stood and approached the security field holding him inside. “Help me.”

“Why?” She wiped her eyes. “How?”

“I need you to be my eyes and ears.” She rose and drew closer to the cell, smoothing her clothing with her palms.

“I don’t get what you mean.”

“Upstairs. Tell me what your professor, Dr. McCoy, is doing to track the Prime units back to who’s sending them here. I know he’s close to finding out where they are; perhaps he even already knows. He means well, child. They all do at this school, but they will only tell you what they feel you need to know, since they think you’re merely a child.” She stiffened, and he felt a small thrill of triumph.

He had her.

“Okay.” She turned to leave until his voice stopped her.

“Lorna?”

“Yeah?” She wouldn’t use his name; it felt strange on her lips, and there were too many things to sort out.

“I know you’ll make me proud.”

 

~0~

 

“You’ve been burning the midnight oil.”

“Can’t sleep anyway, Blue.”

“Join the club.” Henry took a hearty gulp of his coffee and set it down on the spare side table, careful not to risk a spill as he examined the readings on the screen.

“We could have figured this out sooner, once we saw them retreat.”

“Not many of them made it off the school’s grounds.”

“We still should have tracked them. They have a GPS system to help them locate our home, no matter where they’re dispatched from, so it makes sense that they also have a homing device to bring them back.”

“Like a trail of breadcrumbs.”

“If you like.” Forge probed the circuits with a tiny pincer. “We didn’t dig deep enough before when we disabled the other units, because we were using Cerebro to trace the signal. The answer was right under our nose.” He leaned back, attempting to give Henry a better look at the tiny microchip, dormant due to the lack of a host and cut off from its network. He angled the light so that his bulk mane wouldn’t throw a shadow over the device.

“My stars and garters,” he murmured. “So we can find them. We can stop the signal.”

“No, Blue. We can follow it to the source.” Forge was grim, effectively squelching his enthusiasm. “They know where we are, thanks to Cerebro, and there’s no way to redirect that signal to simply make them take a detour. They’ll always find their way back. You’ll have to give them a taste of their own medicine and bring this to their front door. When you do, get ready for the fight of your lives.”

“A preemptive strike…” Henry leaned back in his chair. “I can’t argue the value of taking such a step, but keep in mind, Forge, if we do this, the school’s reputation – and the X-Men’s in particular – will be further blemished if we attack the National Security Council.”

“Gyrich isn’t ‘the Council.’ He’s a liability to Washington if he’s taking liberties with their intellectual property and technology.”

“If we take him out of the picture, they may deem him a martyr.”

“There’s always risk in war, Hank.”

“The X-Men don’t kill. It makes us no better than Magneto at the end of the day, and we couldn’t live with ourselves if that’s what we have to do to fight for our lives. But I can’t abide what Gyrich has done. He lied to innocent people to use them against us. Can I spare him? Yes, if I want to save my soul. Can I forgive him? Not a chance in hell.” He stretched, and Forge heard every joint pop in his massive frame, his leonine jaws gaping wide in a yawn. “Ororo will need to know everything you’ve told me. Don’t leave anything out.”

“She nearly died because of one of my inventions, and now we’re putting an attack on Prime on the table. Don’t let her go, Hank. She can’t fight this battle.”

“She’s already out of the corral, Forge. Don’t bother trying to shut the gate now.” He finished his drink, ignoring the hollow growling of his stomach. “But they’ll have to trample over my dead body before I let them get to her.” He nodded to the implant. “What next?”

“We tinker. We toil. We make something to allow us to access the chip and home in on Gyrich. Then we suit up and kick his ass.” Henry made a small sound of approval.

“Well said.”

“There’s one more thing that we haven’t considered yet. It might not be just one location where the Prime units are being dispatched. It could be several. They could be underground.” Forge put his tools back in their case. “Or they could be mobile.”

“I’ll help Piotr fuel the jet.”

Chapter Text

Ororo rubbed her temples and closed her eyes; even that small gesture hurt. Stress migraines, she decided, were the ninth ring of hell.

The past forty-eight hours found the faculty consulting a disaster plan Henry had written when Charles was still alive. It was in the best interest of the students’ families not to attempt to send them home when the Danger Room was nearly impervious to an attack, the next best thing to a bomb shelter if Prime struck again.

Two of the wings were closed off; students were bundled three and four to a room, escape routes carefully outlined and safety officers designated for each group. Class schedules were scaled back to allow the students time to cope and the senior team members to plan and recoup.

Henry had disconnected the school’s entire network except for Cerebro; he and Forge were still wrapping up work on the homing device, now that they’d successfully traced the signal. They seldom emerged from the suite for more than food, coffee or bathroom breaks. Ororo kept herself occupied abovestairs, teaching and putting her affairs in order.

She had no family, but she’d drawn up a will at Charles’ insistence three years ago, both a practical and necessary measure due to the life that she lived. Her savings and personal effects would never leave the school; she chose to channel them back into her home, and she planned to be buried on Charles’ land, in the plot beside Jean’s. Indulging in such morbid thoughts wouldn’t help her mission; she planned to focus on Gyrich and Gyrich alone once she donned her uniform and boarded the jet.

Her loft was spotless, her belongings painstakingly sorted and organized; she packed them away and left little sign of herself. The room felt sterile and empty, but, she reminded herself, it didn’t house her soul. It no longer felt sacred, nor like shelter in the wake of Prime invading their home.

She was just packing the last Rubbermaid sweater box under her bed when Logan entered her loft, nearly silent. She’d been so deep in thought that she never heard his heavy footfalls on the stairs.

He hovered in the doorway. She leaned back on her haunches and gave him a soft look.

“Hi,” she murmured, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. She knew she looked mussed. Her jeans bore creases from bending and squatting so frequently over the past two hours.

To Logan, she was vulnerable, beautiful. He read unease in her posture, and her eyes were strained and tired.

“Somehow, I ain’t surprised,” he muttered wryly, shaking his head. “Right about now, most folks’d be doin’ something they didn’t have time for, or whatever they enjoyed most. One last hurrah.”

“Did you?”

“Took a ride on Scooter’s bike. Swatted some flies with my face.”

“Did it help?” He sighed heavily, and her mattress groaned as he sat on the corner to watch her.

“Nope. Not one damned bit.”

“Then your way might not be any better than mine.”

“Looks bare in here.”

“It gives me something to do to take my mind off…” Her words halted, and she bowed her head to stare at her hands as she twisted them in her lap. She searched for something to say. Her lips struggled to find words as her eyes once again met his, and bit by bit, he watched her collapse.

Her nostrils flared, she drew in thirsty gulps of air and shook her snowy head in defiance. “Tell me,” she pleaded with him. “Tell me we’ll get through this.” Her lips quivered as she hugged herself. He could see her trembling and caught the scent of her fear.

“Aw, baby, c’mere! C’mere, ‘Ro,” he crooned right before she curled herself into a ball and sobbed. She felt the air shift as he swooped down and knelt before her, tenderly gathering her into his arms. She wrapped herself in his strength and warmth; he prized her hands away from her face and tugged her arms up around his neck. He rocked her against him, soothing her with murmured words, stroking her back firmly enough to mold her body to hers, feeling her heart beat beneath his palm. Logan’s own eyes stung, but his voice remained steady. “I’m here. And I ain’t budgin’ an inch, darlin’. I know yer afraid.”

“Scared shitless,” she admitted into his shirt; he suppressed a bark of laughter at her profanity.

“No one’s gonna hold it against ya, darlin’. Not for one goddamned second.”

“I need to be there. It’s so important for me to be there for them, a-and to take c-care of them, Logan, they rely on me for so much!”

“Ya don’t hafta do it all by yerself, ‘Ro. Believe me when I say that. I’m in yer corner. We’re gonna track down Gyrich, turn off every one of those fuckin’ robots, and then we’re gonna kick his ass.”

“I’m a mess. I’m falling apart,” she cried, tugging herself back long enough to wipe away the tears that had poured down her cheeks. Her hand shook with the chore, and watery blue eyes traced the firm bluntness of his face, now so dear to her.

“Ya’ve been grace under pressure.” He cupped her cheek in his meaty palm and flicked away the last of the moisture with the pad of his thumb.

“Tell me they won’t take you from me,” she insisted. Her voice was husky and solemn as her fingers curled in the folds of his chambray shirt.

“Don’t matter what kinda hell they throw at me. No one’s gonna take YOU from ME.” She nodded, biting her lip against a low whimper, and she was already leaning into him as he inclined his head for her kiss, engulfing her. Ragged sounds of need clawed their way up from her throat, hot breath from her nostrils steaming his upper lip. His fingers lightly dug into her back and scored her through the thin pink cotton of her tee shirt.

It was never this way with Jean. Never this fierce, undeniable need sizzling through his veins, to possess her and never let her go. Jean had never given this much of herself and laid herself completely bare when he’d kissed her before, never took from him as desperately nor made him feel cherished and real. He devoured her lips and all of the sweet moans and cries, and every inch of her lithe, supple body cleaved to him. He felt her long fingers plowing through his hair, her nails lightly scraping his scalp. Her teeth tugged his lower lip, urging him to open more deeply for her. He growled his approval. He didn’t stop his hands from roaming over her ripe curves, nor from jerking her to her feet; he nearly staggered from the ache of unlocking his knees and from hauling her over to the bed. She barreled into him as he fell backward onto the mattress and took her with him. Her kiss left him breathless until he let her up; his hands smoothed her silky hair back from her cheeks as she stared down at him in anticipation.

“This is what I wanna do today, ‘Ro.”

“One last hurrah?”

“Fuck, no. The first time outta many. We’re comin’ back here ta do this properly, ‘Ro. Better get used ta seein’ these four walls, then.” He kissed her soundly; she sighed against his lips. “And right now.” Her body moved over him as she made herself comfortable against the solid planes of his chest. His thighs opened a bit to accommodate her as he worked himself beneath her, needing to get closer. His fingers tangled in the hem of her top, only breaking their kiss to pull it over her head. Her hair cascaded back down like a waterfall, a hint of static making it cling to her cheeks. She was tousled and wanton, just the way he loved seeing her.

“I need you.” Her kisses were a benediction as she cradled his face. Her lips trailed liquid fire over his forehead, eyes, nose and lips before she moved onto his neck. He choked back a cry as she roughly nipped his chin and searched for his pulse. He knew he’d have a mark in the morning but didn’t care. She was driving him crazy with her tender assault, lapping his throat in greedy spirals while her fingers pried open the buttons of his shirt.

“God help me, baby, I need you too!” The endearment made her melt. He couldn’t afford to be patient anymore, and she was flipped onto her back so fast and so hard that she almost bit her tongue. Her fly was jerked open and unzipped; he slid down her body back onto his knees, yanking the hems of her jeans and sliding them off in a rush of denim. He peeled off her socks, revealing slender feet with toenails painted a pearly white. He smiled before bending over to nibble the ball of her foot. It made her shiver and moan. She wanted, no, craved his touch everywhere. She fiddled with the front clasp of her bra until he covered her hands, stilling them. “Uh-uh. Been waitin’ too damned long for this, ‘Ro. I’m sure as hell gonna enjoy it.” He eased her hands away, letting them slide over her satin-wrapped breasts before he popped open the tiny fastening. His fingertips trailed down the valley of her cleavage, down over her ribs and smooth belly, tracing the tiny indent of her navel. She trembled. His smile was lazy and knowing, and it seemed to eat her up. She gasped as he stroked her through her thin panties, feeling the slickness pooling there. “Yer so hot.”

“You make me feel that way.” He bent to nip her, unerringly finding the hood shielding her pearl through the royal blue satin and making it grow damp and dark. “Logan!” she breathed. “Don’t stop!”

And he didn’t. He knelt before her, on the floor, hooking her legs over his shoulders as he bent to his task. He sighed in contentment as she opened for him, her muscles deliciously lax as he loved her with nipping kisses, hot breath, and a tongue as raspy as a cat’s. “Keep yer arms up there, baby.” And she obeyed, allowing her hands to stray to her bare breasts, kneading their fullness in time with the bob of his head. Her hips arched off the bed to better off herself to his mouth. Sensations rippled through her womb, her clitoris already feeling the sweet fullness and sting of arousal. Tension and heat built up and robbed her of coherent speech. All except for his name.

“Nnnngh! Please, Logan! Oh, Goddess, please!” His fingers feathered over her stomach and crept beneath the edge of her panties, tugging the fabric aside to dip within her soft folds and stroke her. His hand twisted and probed her, sliding in and out in an easy rhythm, allowing her to adjust to the feel of him. The rasp of her underpants rubbing against her swollen lips and the twisting plunge of his digits enflamed her. Her muscles clenched around him; he grunted at her tightness, coveting it for himself when he finally took her. His tongue spiraled over her until she came, crying and shuddering. He loved the sight of her, hair fanned wildly across the pillows, her head flung back in rapture, mocha nipples turgid and easily revealed by the limp, open cups of her bra.

She felt her body shifting, hips being lifted up as he released her legs and worked her panties down them. She heard the rustle of his clothes as his shirt hit the floor and his shoes were kicked into the corner with a thud.

“Come here,” she whispered. “I need to see you, Logan.” He nodded, crawling up her body and kissing her. She was Amphitrite beneath the waves, features relaxed and beckoning to him, her hair begging to slip between his fingers. His jeans were prized open and he jerked as her fingers tugged him free, ringing his erection in her grip. She edged her way further up the mattress and took him with her; her feet edged between him and the waistband and shoved them down his legs. His hips bucked, edging himself more deeply into her fist. She began to work him smoothly, slowly, watching his face contort with passion and need.

“Baby,” he rasped. “Shit!” Her lips latched onto his throat during her ministrations. He tasted salty and male. His skin and hair smelled faintly spicy and held the scents of the outdoors. He didn’t remember how she’d divested him of his boxers and wifebeater tank. All he could do was groan in relief at the feel of her bare skin against his, her knowing touch and the addictive squeeze of her hand milking his cock. He throbbed and pulsed, heat building in his loins as she increased the pressure and friction. “Yer killin’ me.” He took control, reaching for her hand again, this time thrusting himself against her and plowing the swollen tip through her downy, wiry curls. Her mouth dropped open into an ‘O’ of pleasure, her blue eyes wide and beseeching him before he kissed her again. He couldn’t get enough of kissing her. He rubbed himself against her, building more moisture between them and making his own flesh slick with her juices before he drew up her knees and sheathed himself within her in one neat, hard stroke.

“Ahhhhhhh…Logan,” she hissed, feeling herself stretched, welcoming the press of his body and his thickness. He nearly came undone. She felt like hot, wet silk as she arched herself into him, her hips willing him to move. He answered her call, scissoring her legs open wide and grasping her ankles as he knelt and slammed himself to the hilt.

He was so beautiful, the muscles in his jaw standing out as he clenched his teeth. Perspiration coated his tanned flesh and plastered the dark layer of hair to his massive chest. Every muscle in his body was streamlined and powerful, rippling with his body’s rhythms and movement, from his bulging pectorals to his washboard abdomen. He thrilled her. His hazel eyes shone with hunger for her. Her fingernails dug into his thighs as she anchored herself, meeting his thrusts with tiny, desperate cries. It was an erotic sight watching his shaft slide in and out of her nest, the platinum curls growing dewy and glossy. Pleasure bloomed in her belly and made the tips of her breasts tingle. The headboard banged back against the wall with each thrust.

The wind picked up outside, stirring the autumn leaves into a spiraling dance. Overhead, the faintly overcast sky gave way to billowing black clouds before they opened up to admit the arcs of blinding, white lightning. Thunder rolled through the air like a timpani drum and shook the ground. Every hair on Logan’s body stood on end.

“C’mon, darlin’, open those eyes! I want ya ta feel me! Show me what ya want from me!” Her eyes snapped open, and he watched her cerulean eyes grow milky, gradually shifting to a swirling white. Sparks of lightning danced from her irises, and he held his breath. “Damn, darlin’!” She stared up at him in wonder.

“Oh, Logan, I feel you!” She reached up to press her hands against the headboard, bracing herself as she lifted her hips in time to his thrusts, willing him deeper. Harder. Faster.

“ORORO!” he roared, pistoning and slamming into her for all he was worth. She tightened around him, muscles coddling him and pushing him over that edge. When his release came, his entire body bucked and shuddered, his hips reflexively spasming and jerking as he emptied himself within her, draining away every last drop.

He let her legs drop before he collapsed into her arms. Their legs were tangled together; she tasted his sweat as her lips traveled over his hair and cheekbone. “Goddess,” she panted on a whisper. “Logan. Oh, my Logan!” My Logan. His voice was choked when he could finally speak.

“Say it again, darlin’.”

“You’re mine,” she declared, allowing him to prop himself on his elbows and stare down into her eyes. “I’m not letting them have you. They won’t take you away from me.” Her face was cradled in his palms as he nuzzled the tip of her nose with his. “I love you so much. Believe that.”

“I know. I do.” He traced her features with his lips, tasting her with feather-light kisses as her limbs twined around him. Her breasts were mashed beneath his chest, and he couldn’t help rubbing his body over hers, just to enjoy the feel of her soft skin and pebbled nipples. “Darlin’ ya make me crazy!”

“Don’t blame all of that on me,” she chuckled. Her eyes reverted to a placid, crystal blue. He rolled onto his back and coaxed her to cuddle against him, looping his arms over her back. They lay snuggled together like that for a long time, merely drinking in each other’s presence in the solitude of the loft.

 

Dawn:

The air in the hangar was crisp and cool, mirroring the icy dew on the grass outside. The wind still carried a hint of rain with it from yesterday’s storm. Piotr was buckling himself into the co-pilot’s seat as Ororo and Logan boarded the jet behind him. Ororo checked the overhead compartments to make sure they had the necessities. Once again, Logan smelled tension and anxiety so strongly from her that his own stomach tightened into a knot. She smiled at him. He caught her hand before she could move to the cockpit.

“One for the road, sweetheart.” He pulled her to him for a sweet, brief kiss. As he let her go, he adjusted her cloak. She only released his hand when she was too far away to hold on. Piotr’s face was sober but knowing as she took her seat and buckled in.

“Sean will manage just fine,” Piotr assured her.

“So will we,” Kitty chirped from behind him. Piotr sighed heavily at her chipper demeanor, even though he wanted nothing more to march her back inside and handcuff her to the bedposts if it would keep her out of harm’s way. She took that as a double entendre, disregarding his protective instincts and whispering to him “After we get back, I’ll dig out those cuffs, handsome. Suit up.” He blushed red as a beet, standing there open-mouthed in the locker room as she swept out. Her lean dancer’s body was shrink-wrapped in the gleaming black leather. She’d be the death of him…

Henry was unusually quiet, mumbling a greeting to them as he boarded. He set a travel carafe of steaming coffee in the console next to Ororo’s seat. She nodded gratefully to him and helped herself to a cup. She nearly jumped out of her seat at the sound of a voice she didn’t expect.

“Sorry there wasn’t time to make anything else,” Forge offered. “Morning.”

“Surely you don’t plan…” Her words evaporated on her lips as she gazed at him, dressed in the X-Men’s standard issue battle suit. It was missing the glove over his artificial hand, she guessed, because he needed its tools and other implements to remain unhindered. He looked tall, lean and imposing, his face an intimidating mask.

“The Blackbird’s got a good GPS system,” he reasoned, “but who else did you expect to use the homing chip?”

“I couldn’t stop him,” Henry conceded. “So he’s along for the ride.”

“And looking sharp,” Forge quipped. Kitty shot him a grin as she buckled herself in. She tossed him a slightly dog-eared sudoku book as she plugged the headphones to her iPod into her ears.

“You follow my lead,” Ororo informed him curtly. “No questions asked. We’re putting ourselves on the line for the students, but also for you, if you prove to be a liability.”

“I know how to handle myself out in the field. And I know how to survive, Ororo, but I’ll make myself plain: I don’t need you to scrape me up off the ground if anything happens to me. I can take care of myself, and I can do what needs to be done.” Her lips tightened for a moment, and he thought he saw a glimmer of apology in her eyes before she turned back to the controls. Logan grunted under his breath at the exchange. Forge was in a mood to kick asses and take names. He had no problem with that.

Their takeoff was smooth and effortless, something he’d come to expect from the weather witch. He wanted to doze and rest for what he knew would be a grueling fight. He remained awake instead, hypervigilant and edgy, like his skin was too tight. They wouldn’t catch Gyrich napping. A guy with as much tech has had at his fingertips knew they were on their way, and pissed off.

 

~0~

Sean was sipping a cup of the coffee that Forge had brewed before they departed, scorching his tongue before he rummaged through the refrigerator for the creamer. He carried his cup to Ororo’s study and decided to scan the school’s security cameras before he headed to his first class of the day.

The leather of her chair felt cool at his back. The window had already been repaired, the broken glass swept away, but he still felt a shiver whenever he entered the room. He flicked the different switches to toggle from one floor to the next, panning in on each room. The students were on edge, that much he knew, but they were coping. Heads were bowed over their desks as they worked on the pre-test he assigned them in biology.

The Danger Room was empty. There were no workouts scheduled there until noon.

He scanned the containment lab briefly, almost missing the sight of the empty cell when he was stirring his coffee. He choked on the hot liquid and let the cup thud down against the blotter.

“Mary, Mother of God,” he moaned. “We’re in it deep, now!” He booked out of the room, nearly knocking Bobby and Marie out of his way. They followed him at a quick trot, not asking him what the problem was.

“Where’s Lorna?” he grated out as he punched the keys for the elevator to take him to the sub-level.

“Ah ain’t seen her this mornin’ yet,” Marie replied uneasily, twisting her gloved hands.

“Find her!” he barked. “Erik’s gone missing!”

“Shit,” Bobby muttered. “That’s all we need.”

“He may still be on the grounds. We can only hope.”

 

~0~

No matter how many times Erik assured her they were doing the only thing they could, Lorna couldn’t shake the guilt. She felt the roar of the turbines during takeoff, the rumbling making her slightly nauseous and deafening her from their hiding place in the compartment’s confines. She’d never stowed away before, and it was a heady rush, unlike the terror of being snatched up by the convenience store robbers mere weeks ago. This time she was with her father, and she was more in control.

She still felt claustrophobic. As though he’d read her mind, Eric reached for her, encouraging her to huddle close and share the warmth of his cloak.

“They won’t be happy with us,” she whispered.

“We’re not here to satisfy them, merely to help them, whether they want it or not, Lorna.” His silver eyes studied her thoughtfully. “Do you remember the things I showed you before? Do you know how to recognize the adamantium?” She nodded.

“Wolvie’s still awake,” she replied. Erik’s eyebrows shot up at the lack of formality and he stifled a smile. He failed; a chuckle escaped his lips.

“He won’t let down his guard. It’s not in his nature, much like an alpha wolf guarding its pack.”

“I figured he’d know we were in here.”

“The hull’s well insulated. For the moment, we’ve escaped that infallible nose of his.”

“It’s still weird,” she grimaced. “What are we gonna do when we get there.”

“Fight until we no longer draw breath.” He reached for her hand and squeezed it. “We can’t afford to lose. And we won’t. We didn’t know the full capabilities of our attackers before. It will be easier this time, at first.”

“You think we can beat them?”

“Not just beat them, dear. Control them.” He was silent and calculating. Lorna chewed her nails until he made her stop.

 

~0~

“Sir, our intel says we’ve got an unidentified aircraft in our air space. Just popped up on the grid.”

“We have a visual?”

“Negative, sir. We suspect it’s cloaked.”

“Track it,” he sighed. Gyrich leaned back in his seat and stretched until his joints popped. His fingers scrabbled over his scalp through his startling red hair, buzzed mercilessly short before he adjusted his glasses and stood. “Any idea how many on board?”

“Negative.”

“We can assume the Wolverine’s involved in this. So prepare for him. That metal in his body’s unbreakable, but the same can’t be said for him.” Gyrich didn’t know how false that statement was.

He knew he was in it up to his elbows when he scanned the emails that his intel harvested from Forge’s network. That blue gorilla that had the President’s ear was involved; even though he was a freak, Gyrich reasoned, he was a brilliant freak. The Council didn’t have McCoy under their thumb the way they had Forge before they made full disclosure that his tenure was at an end, that he’d outlived his usefulness.

The Prime units were secure and ready to dispatch once the time was right. They’d received their upgrades in the wake of the operative being downed and compromised when it fell off-grid. Gyrich knew the Prime unit left behind his calling card. They were using it to track him down. They were flying straight into a trap.

He strolled down the long, gleaming corridor. The walls of the safehouse and base were solid, reinforced steel. His footsteps echoed back at him as he made his way to the loading docks. He keyed his way in with his palmprint and voice ident.

“Gyrich, Henry Peter, alpha seven.” The doors slid open, the locks disengaging with a sharp click.

Beautiful. The Prime units were lined up in their cells neatly like toy soldiers. Blank eyes stared at him as he strode past, stopping halfway down the line and letting his eyes linger on one.

The operative was male and deceptively short in stature. He’d been young when they’d recruited him for the trial, barely out of his teens, and exactly the kind of stray that those muties at that school took in and called their own. Gyrich looked down at him expectantly.

“Good morning,” he murmured kindly. The unit’s eyes snapped open. Black. Doll-like, with that strange, signature red light beeping within its pupils. He heard its systems go online, thrumming within the nearly silent chamber.

“Identity: Gyrich, alpha. Acknowledge?”

“Acknowledged. As you were.” The being’s posture relaxed, but it was still alert. The technician manning the control booth stepped out and greeted him warily.

“Sir, this operative’s ready to go. I think you’ll be pleased.”

“You’ve installed the nullifier?”

“Runs like a dream, sir. We tested it on one of the fugitives we rounded up from District X.” The government was still keeping close tabs on the neighborhoods surrounding the ruins of the Cure clinic.

“And?”

“Depowered. No signs of mutantcy, latent or active. It’s like he was never born to be anything but human.”

“That’s how it should be,” Gyrich agreed.

“It disrupts the nervous system as it works. They have no opportunity to attack us while the nullifier is activated.”

“Can it take down the Wolverine?” Gyrich wanted to know.

“We’ve had positive results when we tested it, sir, there’s no reason to-“

“Can it take down the WOLVERINE?”

“Sir…yes, sir. It will.”

Gyrich turned his attention back to the operative. His steely gaze was mirrored in the puckish, young face, its eyes following his movements. “Follow your orders, soldier. And make me proud.”

The being’s breathing quickened indiscernibly; a voice buried deep within its consciousness rose above the oppressive clamor of his directive programming: You won’t break me. I’ll be free. We’ll all be free.

 

~0~

They landed the jet on a dime behind, roughly a mile from an unmarked building that resembled a large bunker. The area surrounding it was thickly wooded and dense. The air felt almost too still, and Ororo shivered as she took the engines offline.

“Look alive,” Logan muttered to the cabin at large. He tugged his leather glove more snugly around his knuckles, and in customary fashion, extended his claws to line up the housings so they fit comfortably. Kitty exhaled sharply; he faced her and tensed at the anxious look in her brown eyes.

“We’ll be fine,” she announced, but her tone was pleading.

“Damn right we will, Kitten,” he replied, giving her a hearty nudge toward the door. Piotr took her hand and led her down the ramp. Henry made a thoughtful noise, stopping Ororo and Forge before they could disembark.

“Why’s the cargo compartment light on? We didn’t bring any supplies…” His lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl. “It’s occupied.”

“What?” Ororo was incredulous and scowling, hands on her hips.

“Stowaways,” he growled. “We can’t have this.”

“One more ass ta kick before we go home. What else is new?” Logan muttered snidely as he plowed down the ramp, waiting for Ororo to open the cargo hatch.

Lorna Dane peered sheepishly back at him. “Uh…hi.” She waved in earnest. Erik looked amused but said nothing.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t fillet ya right now, Mags.”

“One. I could yank those claws of yours out of their sockets before you could even try. Two. You need me, you need my daughter, here, and we can home in on the merest trace of adamantium more ably than any device you’ve devised for that purpose. There’s two reasons, Wolverine,” he shrugged. He stood and stretched; his helmet was tucked beneath his arm. He was immaculately groomed without a hair out of place. Kitty opened her mouth to protest Lorna’s outfit, which looked suspiciously like her spare uniform, except that Lorna had topped it with a long, dark green trenchcoat that Erik had provided for her during their time in their camp.

“You could’ve asked before raiding my closet,” Kitty complained.

“You would’ve said no,” she pointed out. “I’ll give it back…”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Ororo reminded Lorna. “Erik, how could you drag a child into this?”

“Child, my ass! I’m the same age as her!” She pointed to Kitty indignantly. “I can help. And he needs me.” Erik wrapped his arm protectively around her.

“She’s right. You weren’t just planning to stand here all day discussing the weather, were you, Storm?” She muttered something unintelligible and impolite under her breath. Logan smirked as she led them toward the compound. Henry activated the Blackbird’s cloaking device just as Forge leapt off the ramp.

Dessicated grass and thistle crunched beneath their feet, not sharp enough to prick them through their thick boots.

“Doesn’t make a helluva lotta sense ta just knock on the front door,” Logan huffed.

“We left a key under the mat,” Forge retorted. He approached Kitty and dug a small device from his pocket. Logan threw up his hands in disgust.

“Great. More tech. Ya haven’t learned a fuckin’ thing.”

“It’s a schematic. I never had any contracts at this facility. It’s a safehouse,” he explained, “much like the one where Winsor sequestered himself.” Erik raised his eyebrows and halted his steps.

“You knew where Robert Winsor was placed after the Weapon X project was shut down?”

“Gyrich knew. It was his job to know,” Forge clarified. “That facility was destroyed, according to local fire reports in the vicinity. Explosives were the suspected cause. Even the sub-basement was rubble.” Muscles worked convulsively in Logan’s jaw. “The safehouses are normally identical to ensure they had the same amenities in the even that the Council’s specialists and ops need to relocate. That way, there’re no interruptions in carrying out or completing the project. Ideally.”

“Winsor ain’t turned up yet since he relocated? Asshole was interrupted from his work.

“I’m afraid you’re correct, Wolverine,” Erik murmured. “He was long dead when Lorna and I found him.”

“Sonofabitch…” SNIKT. “Ya took a kid into that death trap?”

“It was his tomb.” Erik looked as cavalier as ever.Lorna’s lips quivered as she hugged herself against the grisly memory.

“Didja know about this safehouse, ya sanctimonious prick!”

“This isn’t the time,” Henry growled. “Logan…calm down, now!”

“Not this one. I fell off the grid before I could be relocated. My agenda didn’t coincide with their need for my special skills.” He peered down at the gleaming helmet in his hands, watching the sunlight glance off of its slick surface.

“We could’ve come straight here!”

“But why? Why would we have come here, my friend? Why here? None of the safehouses had the capacity or were equipped enough to process the recruits and outfit them with the implants. Heaven only knows how difficult it was to complete the work done on you. And you’d do well to remember Alkali Lake.” The wounds were still fresh. “If it hadn’t been for your other furry blue acquaintance,” and he smirked at Henry, “you wouldn’t have known Stryker’s complex was underground.”

“Erik, shut up,” Henry warned right before one furry blue hand shot out to push Logan back. His nostrils flared like a lathered horse’s, his eyes smoldering coals. “Or I won’t be so compelled to stop him.”

“So where do we go in?” Kitty interjected, getting back to the matter at hand as she leaned over Forge’s device. She studied it intently with Piotr at her back.

“Here. This is the epicenter.” He pointed to the building’s lower level. “It’s a sub-basement.”

“It’s always in the sub-basement,” she muttered. “How many floors down?”

“Two meters below where we’re standing.”

“Shit.”

“You don’t have to go alone.” Piotr was already reaching for her hand.

“I’m gone,” she promised. “Petey?”

“Da?”

“Hold your breath and suit up.” She squeezed Forge’s arm warmly and smiled. “Wish me luck.” She disappeared with Piotr just as he shifted to his organic steel form. They slipped into the ground as though jumping into a pool, disappearing from sight.

“That never fails to unnerve me when she does that,” Forge remarked. “Bless her little heart.”

“What about us?” Ororo inquired. He met her gaze solemnly and held out the map key.

“Rooftop. Air ducts. You’re a flyer, so you’re the logical choice to get inside that way –“

“Lorna and I can take the high road,” Erik decided. “The rest of you can take the low road.” He stared pointedly at Logan. Henry sighed.

“I don’t mind taking a more direct approach. And Logan’s coming with me.” Just like that, Logan sheathed his claws. Relief smoothed down his hackles at her calm words. “Henry, you stay with Forge as backup and to help him disable any alarms once we get inside.” Erik’s smile was serpentine as he donned his helmet, casting a shadow over her his silver eyes. He looked formidable and imposing, all traces of the doting father gone from his face.

“Come along now,” he beckoned to Lorna. She took his hand, quickly closing the gap between them. She was huddled close as she thrust them aloft. Ororo watched them quickly disappear over the edge of the rooftop and sighed.

“Goddess…I hope they don’t prove a liability.”

“Ain’t like Mags is a weak link,” Logan grudgingly admitted.

“He’s unpredictable. That makes him dangerous.”

“That’s the only thing we have in common, darlin’.” She offered him a smile before her eyes shifted to the glowing white that meant her mutation was active. Logan felt the wind whipping against him, nearly frigid enough to chill him through his thick leathers. Henry’s fur bristled and stood on end.

“Goodness, Storm, what on earth are you doing?”

“Creating a static barrier,” she explained simply. “It will help us conceal ourselves from their scanners.” A damp fog rolled in quickly, thick and dark as pea soup. “Forge briefed me.” Logan grumbled unintelligibly as he took the lead.

 

~0~

“We had ‘em. Then they disappeared.”

“Is it a glitch?” Gyrich glanced impatiently at their radar display. The feed from the security cams was blocked, they had no visual. A sheen of cold sweat broke out over his flesh.

“We don’t know.” The young tech turned in his chair and dangled his arm over the side as he faced his superior. Anxiety was written in his features at the prospect of disappointing him. “We could do a recon?”

“Get to it. Release the flank to search the perimeter.”

“Sir? There’s no sign of that cloaked aircraft, either. We’ve got no aerial feed.”

“They’ve landed, genius,” Gyrich nagged. “Since you’re feeling so helpful, assemble Security and have them do a sweep of the complex. Flush out every crevice, cranny and mousehole in this damned building and shoot anyone or anything that doesn’t have a badge or looks like they’ll shoot back.”

“Weather’s suddenly shitty. Look at the thermostat,” his tech commented. It read 20 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping. Gyrich nodded and chuckled.

“Send out the welcome wagon. Full array. The whole flank. Get that nullifier unit ready.”

 

~0~

Piotr abhorred confined spaces nearly as much as Ororo, his favorite colleague, but for entirely different reasons. He was huge, and he increased his size and mass when he activated his powers by six inches and several dozen pounds, making him weigh nearly as much as a Hummer. Kitty was unphased, as she phased them through layers of porous soil, taxing even his capacious lungs as he held his breath. He nearly cheered as they finally submerged through reinforced steel. They stared incredulously around themselves, realizing that they’d landed in a storage room of sorts, filled with various cabinets and red-bagged biohazard containers.

“Great. I feel like Han and Luke must’ve in the first movie when they ended up in the trash compactor.”

“Where do we go from here, Katya?”

“Nowhere. We’re asking to get our asses kicked looking like this,” she pointed out, nodding at his uniform. “Check the cabinets.” He rummaged through the first one and made a thoughtful sound as he pulled out two sets of blue coveralls and white labcoats.

“We don’t have any ID.”

“Then we’re the cleaning crew,” she decided as she hopped into the coveralls, nearly stumbling over the baggy legs. “Wish I wasn’t so short.”

“Wish I wasn’t so big,” he complained bitterly as he shifted back to his human form. “Didn’t help much,” he added. He finally ended up tucking the too-short legs of his pants into his boots. Kitty donned the lab coat and rummaged further until she found a dark blue cap. She pulled the bill well over her eyes before she phased herself partly through the heavy door.

“See anyone?”

“Nah. C’mon.” She phased him through to avoid the sound of the hinges squealing in the empty corridor. No sense in bringing anyone running.

In the next wing, one of the day shift operatives glanced up from a crossword puzzle when he saw the flashing red light on the wall. “Got a bogey inside,” he remarked to his partner, who was already keying open a display pad, similar to Forge’s, that offered them a schematic of the building. There were two blinking dots in the south wing, exiting the storage room.

“Two of ‘em. Didn’t make a sound coming in.”

“Bet they won’t go all that quietly, though. Let’s get ‘em.”

Erik and Lorna eased their way inside through the surprisingly wide air duct, almost able to stand erect as they traversed its length. Lorna peered down through the steel mesh bottom, surveying each room that they passed and feeling slightly dizzy.

“What are we looking for?”

“Our friend Forge nicknamed it the epicenter,” Erik mused. “There has to be one central room that houses the network for everything from security to the building’s power supply. This safehouse has a different layout than the one in Alberta.”

“No stinky bodies, though, right?” she jibed, until she met his gaze. He wasn’t laughing.

“Not yet, child.”

“Erik…”

“Keep your mind on the problem at hand, Lorna.”

“How do we know which room is the right one?”

“The one with the most guards trying to keep us out.” They rounded another corner and crossed five more blocks of duct before he stopped them.

“Down there.” He indicated several men moving about, looking like ants in a maze. “Let’s tell them hello.” He grasped her hand and gestured, and the metal duct’s floor warped and bubbled until a wide hole opened up with a deep rattle, not unlike the sound of crumpling a tin can. They descended smoothly from the ceiling. Several operatives were already riveted by the sight of the damaged duct overhead, but they stood agape at the sight of the intruders.

“It’s Magneto! Take him out NOW!” Lorna held her breath and increased the density of the magnetic bubble surrounding them and closed her eyes. A magazine of bullets flared as they fired, ricocheting off the magnetic field harmlessly, their slaps staccato and sharp. Lorna was nearly startled into losing her control over their shield, but Erik’s painful grip on her shoulder kept her focused.

“I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am,” Erik tsked. “Doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past…” As if to illustrate his point, two of Gyrich’s operatives were struck down by stray shells.

“Don’t let them out of here!”

“Try and keep us. Lorna,” he beckoned. Lorna made no bones about expanding their field to repel their attackers and buffet them back, knocking them into furniture and consoles. The two of them merely strolled toward the exit. Erik looked back over his shoulder, tutting under his breath.

“Hold on one moment,” he murmured. He felt power surging through him in a heady rush. Lorna sustained him, boosting his energy ten-fold as he reached out, weakening the steel floor and the beams supporting it below. Screams followed them out as the entire suite collapsed and dropped out from beneath Gyrich’s men.

~0~

“Place is huge,” Kitty mused as they rounded another corridor. Six rooms so far had yielded no success. “How hard could it be to find a lab? Shit, how about a bathroom?”

“Would’ve helped if Forge were down here.”

“We’re the better bet not to let ‘em get the drop on us. You and me, Colossus. Team supreme.”

Don’t move!” Piotr spun around and stared down several barrels of mean-looking guns. The corridor was suddenly full of Gyrich’s soldiers, sizing them up and surrounding them. Piotr reflexively reached for Kitty to shield her.

“Cleaning crew?” Kitty offered hopefully.

“Not likely, mutie!”

“Oh, well. Here, you can have this back.” She flung her cap at the imposing officer who was closest, nailing him in the eye with the bill.

“Sonofabitch!” In a twinkling, Piotr was back in his armored form, seeing no further reason to remain disguised.

“Clear us a path outta here, big guy!”

“My pleasure.” His gleaming limbs flashed and flung men aside like dolls. Kitty was already phasing to avoid gunfire, praying that no one was packing anything made from adamantium. The Prime units were bad enough, but these assholes were starting to piss her off. Colossus’ body was organic steel; it took a pretty big blow to take him out of the action. But adamantium, like Logan’s claws, could punch through anything. Piotr’s fist found another jaw with a sickening crack.

“They’re coming from that hall over there,” she cried, pointing to the joint of the hallway, toward the right.

“And they’re trying to keep us away from it,” he agreed sagely. The sound of two heads ramming together was satisfying. They continued to make short work of the security team and their weapons, which bent like butter in Piotr’s hands.

Security claxons blared in their ears and several red lights embedded in the walls flashed at them as they ran down the corridor, following a sign that read “Employees with security clearance only.”

“That’s keeping the important stuff a secret,” Kitty snorted. They encountered another steel door with a security identification plate. She cheerfully phased her hand through it at the prompt for a print.

Chapter Text

They swarmed out of the complex like ants out of a hill.

“Goddess,” Ororo swore under her breath. Her face was appalled. “They’d do this to so many mutants…” She was already flush with power, eyes emitting sparks. Logan shuddered at the currents of energy flowing through her body like a live wire, feeling its thrum even when they weren’t in direct contact.

She scared him. This wasn’t his ‘Ro.

The units were processing their surroundings, their scanner readings thrown off by the unseasonable fog. Logan’s own senses were tense and on high alert with the number of Prime units stalking the grounds.

At the first sign of a red laser beam setting them in its sights, he lunged for Ororo. “Get DOWN!” She grunted beneath the impact of his body covering hers as they crashed to the ground, narrowly missing a compact explosive. They rolled out of range before it hit; Logan was showered in shrapnel.

“They want to play rough, then we play rough,” she hissed through her teeth. “Go!” she urged, refusing his hand and rising on her own.

“Don’t fly off the handle, darlin’!” he cautioned, but the pent-up frustration of recent days, coupled with Forge’s involvement in the danger they were in gripped her.

“Don’t hold back, Logan.” Her voice was smooth and hard as she hurled herself into the sky.

“HALT, MUTANTS!” Two of the Prime units were already on point, scanners fixed on them warily, assessing the level of threat from the feral and the weather shifter. “Stand down. Access forbidden. Perimeter has been breached.”

“That ain’t all,” Logan snarled. His lips twisted into a grin that promised pain. SNIKT. The sting of his claws bursting through his flesh made him feel alive. “Ya came in and tore our home apart. Didja think we were just gonna sit back and let ya make plans ta do it again?” The Prime unit closest to him readied a whip coil much like that last one that injured Storm over the school grounds. “Stay airborne, darlin’!” The coil nicked him as he dove and rolled, jarring him. Before it could snare him, his claws cleaved through it in a neat arc, sending the severed limb skidding over the dry grass.

“SQUARKK!” A female operative, from the looks of it, got the business end of Ororo’s lightning at close range. Her fists were tangled in her cape, attempting to immobilize her, but Ororo worked her hand free and shocked her directly in the chest, disrupting the control module housed within it. She gave the being a heart attack. Her eyes looked surprised and reverted from the eerie black to dark brown, right before they rolled back in her head. The Prime operative plummeted to the ground.

They kept coming. Logan’s lungs burned from the effort it took to cut a swath through the encroaching tide of Prime. Their objective was the facility, but to also disable the grid. He sensed Gyrich inside and mentally wrapped his hands around the bastard’s neck.

He felt her above him, fighting for him and covering his back.

Thunder suddenly deafened. She was wrapped in it, reveling in its caress as she created a solid wall of pressure and sound, charging it with her electricity. The Prime units heading for her didn’t sense the destructive effects until they were close to evade the current.

“Termination imminent…Fall back. Hostile-“ She was fierce, her face wholly unsympathetic as each one went down like moths who drew too close to the flame.

“Yes. I am,” she agreed. She followed Logan’s progress toward the doors. Henry and Forge should have done their part by now, she reasoned. They should be able to walk right through the front door.

The Prime units had other ideas, as though they sensed her intention. A small flank of them flew toward the rear of the facility, right about where they parked and cloaked the Blackbird.

“Henry!” she hissed, realizing their intent.

Their shadows fell over the two men measuring the readings of the security panel embedded in the wall. Henry peered over Forge’s shoulder, eyes widening as he turned, instinctively shielding the inventor.

“We’ve been found out,” he cried. “Forge, get down!”

“What the – shit!” he rasped as the beings bore down upon them.

“Mutant 1010-711. Identification designate: McCoy, Henry. Beast. Status: Active. Class Four. Hostile mutate.”

“I’m only hostile when provoked, so I beg to differ,” Henry said smoothly. His fur was bristling with static. He knew it was Ororo’s doing and hoped they wouldn’t manage to survive an attack by the Prime ops only to fall victim to a stray blast of electricity. “Forge…”

“Nearly finished, Blue!”

“I’ll buy you some more time, Maker.” Forge cursed the sound of Ororo’s voice, too close to the source of danger, but he was grateful that she seemed unharmed.

SKARA-THOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMM! Before Henry of Forge could even move, they were knocked off their feet by the aftershock of thunder. Henry rolled to his back, awed at the sight of Ororo slamming into her opponent, a particularly burly operative, and channeling her thunder through her fists. His sensitive ears screamed, throbbing with the impact of solid sound.

“Oh, my stars and garters!”

“How the heck did she pull that off?” Forge muttered, hands shielding his own ears.

“Ask her on the way home,” Henry suggested hopefully. The other two operatives recovered quickly from the blast, but Ororo was faster, battering them with wind and knocking them into the wall. They stood pinned, faces staring blandly ahead as though they didn’t know the damage to come.

“Processing…processing…resolution processing. Termination recalculated…” one droned. The creature aimed its fist at the hovering target and set its sight on her, a red laser point neatly centering itself on her forehead.

“Ya wanna back off!” Logan roared. SLASH! SHUNNNKKKKKK! The offending hand was sliced off at the wrist. The being shrieked in pain before Ororo’s lightning did the trick, effectively disabling the processing modules and taking the creatures offline.

That’d teach ‘em to mess with his his girl.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Forge said softly to Ororo.

“You didn’t ask,” she tossed back, flipping her hair back over her shoulder. Henry sighed.

“We’re in?” he inquired, eyeing the console. Forge made one last adjustment with his tools. The small red light beside the panel flashed from red to green.

“We’re in. It’s no longer armed from the outside.”

“What about the alarms inside?” Logan asked, still skeptical.

“We’ve got people inside,” Henry reasoned. “And this complex is full of metal. Lorna and Erik are probably having a field day.”

 

~0~

“We want Gyrich,” Erik boomed. Lorna stood beside him, not cowering or hanging back. Her hair was already slightly charged, floating around her face. The technicians hunkered back toward the consoles and desks in the lab, looking for the best available opportunity to hit the panic button and to grab secure weapons from their cache.

They were close to the epicenter. Erik could feel it.

“Can’t let you in here, muties! Never should have come,” hissed a man in a flak jacket, wielding a mean-looking rifle. Erik tutted.

“Consider us your guests. You’re a poor host, you know.” KRNNKK! He felt the rifle jerked out of his hands, dangling in mid-air before it was neatly folded into a pretzel. Erik flung it back, hitting him squarely in the forehead and knocking him out.

“Call back the flank! Get ‘em in here, NOW!” The speaker was a young looking technician who stood rooted to the floor in fear. Erik’s display sent many of them running, but a stalwart few looked ready to take them apart.

“Lorna,” Erik murmured. “Show them how impolite they’ve been.”

“You heard my dad,” she shrugged, lips curling in a smile too canny for someone her age. Her hair crackled with energy as she latched onto the metal in their blood stream and froze their limbs.

“What are…you…do…errrrggghhh,” moaned one of the mercs. His face reddened as she choked his blood flow momentarily, strangling him.

“Make it clean, child,” Erik advised, his voice hard. She whipped around to face him, still in control of her powers.

“Erik…”

“Take them down,” he ordered again, “or I will.”

“Daddy –“

“DO IT!” She looked back at the mercs hanging suspended within her magnetic field, and returned her gaze to her father.

His silver eyes were cold. The soft-spoken man who’d held her and comforted her in the Blackbird was gone without a trace. She hesitated moments too long, emotions warring in her chest. He was her father.

He was asking her to kill.

“I can’t, Daddy. I’m sor –“ She flew back and hit the wall when he interrupted the flow of energy from her body. The mercs dropped, landing hard against the steel floor.

“Don’t ever tell me you’re sorry, girl. And never disappoint me.” The mercs attempted to stand. Suddenly they were choking again, bodies jerking like badly manipulated marionettes. Their eyes bulged, faces florid and gaping in pain and shock.

“Don’t!” she screamed. “Erik, NO!” She tried to block him, but she wasn’t strong enough. The backlash of her magnetic field flung her back like a rag doll.

She heard their screams as Erik constricted their blood vessels with a gesture, allowing the minerals to build up and block their arteries. They broke free, zooming straight into the ventricle. She was still linked to her father. To those men, through her field as she tried to re-establish a connection. To save them.

She felt them die. She shivered as they flopped back onto the floor, twitching for a minute and then laying silent and still.

“You killed them.” Her voice was low and disbelieving, the words both an accusation and a plea.

“I removed an obstacle. They were a danger to us, Lorna. They have access to those accursed creatures who attacked us before. They nearly killed me before. Nearly killed us.” She remembered her father’s eyes…her adoptive father’s, the day that she left. Horrified at what she did, of the power she held as she dangled him off the floor.

Was he an obstacle?

“Come,” he beckoned, changing tactics as he watched her. He couldn’t afford to compromise her trust in him. He would prevail. “Come now, child.” He brushed off the pang of guilt and unease at the unshed tears in her blue eyes, making her look so much like Magda it hurt.

She rose and followed him. She made no move to take his hand, and she hugged her trenchcoat around herself protectively. “Step lively. We’re taking a little tour. Then we’re going to introduce ourselves to Mr. Gyrich.” This time his smile reached his eyes. “Won’t that be nice?”

~0~

“Somebody pinch me,” Kitty breathed as she craned her neck to stare at the gleaming control panel and consoles, multiple wide-screen monitors and an enormous three-dimensional array that showed a schematic of the complex. “This would be so cool if they weren’t using it all to try to kill us.”

“One-track mind,” Piotr grumbled. He watched her warily as she ran her gloved fingers over the surface of the console. “Don’t touch it, Katya!”

“Why not? We came in here to see how to disable it. This is their eyes and ears, Colossus,” she reminded him simply. “Forge would be having an orgasm right about now.” Piotr grunted in disgust.

“Can you program it to see where the others are right now?”

“This machine’s my bitch,” she vowed, already bringing up a cursor prompt and typing in random commands. Rows of binary language flashed in response to her rapid-fire typing.

It was like watching Beethoven compose a symphony. It gave Piotr the beginnings of a headache.

She toggled and clicked through several different menus. She tried several sample passwords when it prompted her “UserID: Verify ______?”

“Shit,” she hissed. She ended up with rows of “PASSWORD FAILED. TRY AGAIN? Y/N” as she tried again and again to come up with feasible codes.

“We don’t have that long,” he urged. His tone was becoming desperate.

“What word would float this guy’s boat enough to use it to guard all these goodies?” she pondered. Her lips moved silently as she typed and clicked, mouthing each test code. “Damn it!”

“This is Forge’s area of expertise.”

“Traitor.”

“He might have some way of bypassing the codes.” Then he added “You can’t just phase through it?”

“We don’t know what else runs on this thing’s network. Come on, COME ON!” she carped, smacking the console. “Hate this.”

“You can’t keep banging your head against a wall.”

“Wouldn’t hurt you if you did; wanna do it for me?” He reached out and pinched her arm. “Ow.”

“Gyrich turned on his own contractor,” Piotr mused. “He was even offended by Forge going behind his back.”

“I know,” she agreed absently. “You heard that recording they took from the Prime unit that Forge took down? That guy sounds so creepy! Kept on muttering about Forge not being on the government payroll anymore…” She jumped with a start as Piotr clapped his hand over her shoulder to silence her.

“Try ‘payroll.’ Her brows crumpled, but she turned back to the screen and typed it in, hitting enter.

“Cripes,” she whispered as the a row of prompts laddered down the screen, ending on “Waiting…” until they left the green screen and were taken into the main database. “Got any fantasies, Piotr?”

“Katya!”

“Plan on at least a dozen of ‘em coming true when we get back to the school.”

She then proceeded to wreak havoc.

 

~0~

Gyrich sprinted down the hallway, technicians and two of his officers hot on his heels.

“That bunker better be ready! Don’t let anyone in! I don’t care if they look like they work here, do you hear me? Anyone who tries to cross that doorway gets their head blown off!”

“Understood,” a voice piped up behind him. He whipped around to face the taller of the two officers, his badge naming him Johnson. “They’ve breached the facility.”

“That shouldn’t have happened, private.”

“We’re on it. We’ve called in another flank to work from the inside.”

“Those muties never should have made it this far in, or don’t you understand the shit we’re in? Or that you’re in?” Johnson swallowed hollowly, his discomfiture felt by everyone in that corridor. Gyrich’s eyes were steely behind his glasses. Before he could reply, a claxon on the wall sounded, the light flashing and blaring bright red.

The clanging stopped, and the light was extinguished with a low rumble.

“Tell me we didn’t just lose power,” Gyrich snarled, clutching Johnson by the lapels.

“N-no, sir, we didn’t. That alarm…I hate to say this, sir, but that’s the one for the mainframe room. It’s been breached.”

“Then so much for your ‘flank,’ private!” He practically bit his tongue and flew back against the wall when Gyrich shoved him away. He fumed as the men attempted to force open the bunker’s outer security door, finally succeeding and ushering him inside.

“Just tell me that the remaining units are still online,” he barked as he approached the console.

“We have backup power here in the bunker, sir. A firewall was installed to keep us connected to the mainframe but to lock out anyone unauthorized from accessing the bunker. They can knock, but there’s nobody home.”

“I’m going to make sure you’re not lying,” Gyrich promised as he used another palm reader that slid open when he punched a black button that booted up the screen. He typed in a command and pressed his palm over the scanner.

[Gyrich, Henry Peter, acknowledged. Access granted.]

The screen pulled up a digital blueprint of the facility. He saw that mainframe access to the east and north wings was lost. Security cameras in the basement were also disabled. He wracked his brain for clues.

“It’s gotta be Forge. Bastard,” he cursed. “He let them in. Should’ve taken him down before he even contacted those muties. “I need the feeds from those cameras.”

“Should be archived on the system. We don’t build anything without a backup, sir.” His voice was full of irony as he added “Forge designed the upgrades to the bunker, sir.” Gyrich ceased his manic typing, and his face turned white.

“Just tell me where to get the feeds.”

~0~

Lorna was numb, her face devoid of true emotion even though something inside her died with the operatives they’d left behind in the lab. She scarcely heard her father’s instructions.

“Open it, child.” She focused on the next set of security doors and disabled them, bending back the locks that were constructed of steel alloy. She levered the doors off their hinges; the metal twisted and groaned as she flung them aside like discarded wrapping paper. They clanged against the wall; Erik winced, rubbing his ear at the noise that vibrated through them both. “That will do, Lorna.”

The next hallway that they approached was empty save for the sounds of someone moving about in an adjacent suite.

“You beat us here,” Erik remarked casually. Piotr turned to face them, merely nodding until he saw Lorna’s blank stare and the way she hugged herself as they entered the lab.

“What’s the matter?” he asked her, ignoring her father for the moment. “Has something happened to you?” Her lip quivered; a strong yearning to dash forward and cling to him and pour out what she witnessed choked her.

She felt her father’s disapproval without even looking at him.

“Nothing’s the matter,” she shrugged before hovering over Kitty while she worked on disabling the rest of the alarms.

“Found something else,” Kitty announced, drawing Erik’s attention to the screens. “Another big room, almost looks like a hangar of sorts. Forge didn’t mention anything about this place housing aircrafts.”

“Not likely, dear Kitten.” She scowled at his use of her pet name; Ororo coined it and it only sounded right coming from her mouth. “The security council can’t risk anyone seeing planes take off from the facility. Yet the air space for the next few miles is restricted, as you can tell by that radar. Run the feed.”

“Why?”

“Their cameras would have seen the Blackbird’s arrival before they were shut down. They’ve had time to study us and assess our capabilities.”

“The Blackbird’s cloaked,” she argued.

“Our friend Forge can build anything. It isn’t unreasonable that he can also take anything apart. If we could bypass the same instruments, alarms and security systems we found here, what’s to stop them from doing the same with our jet?”

“You mean our jet?” she countered tartly. “You two just hitchhiked, remember?”

“Shut your piehole,” Lorna snapped, roughly shoving Kitty. “We came to help you losers!”

“We tried to help you, too. You’re welcome.” Kitty glared at her until Lorna backed down, turning away.

~0~

“After you, Logan.”

“Naw, babe, I insist; after you.”

SPLAANNNGG! Lightning and tornado-level winds battered through the front gate. Astonished eyes sized them up on the other side, staring at the smoking doors. Ororo smiled. Logan smiled back.

They hurled themselves into the melee. Ororo didn’t risk using her lightning with as much abandon as before, relying on her usual credo of “stop, don’t kill.” Weeks of sparring with Logan before he’d left for Canada sharpened her hand-to-hand skills. Leather gloves protected her hands as she punched one of her attackers directly in the teeth.

Logan was barely containing his blood lust, keeping a lid on it as long as Ororo was handling herself beside him. He didn’t pull punches, but his claws reserved for armored jackets and weapons, avoiding flesh in favor of his lover’s technique. They fell into a familiar rhythm of leg sweeps, feints and kidney punches.

Another of the facilities’ guards entered the fray but hung back, almost as if assessing the ongoing struggle.

They could help us. They could free us.

The programming asserted itself, overriding the Prime operative’s thought processes. He wavered before his eyes reverted to black, pupils glowing red from its laser guides.

Nullifier protocols activated. Termination imminent. The being backed off for the moment. The subtle movements from that side of the room drew Logan’s attention.

Above the cacophony of cries and the mingling scents in the room, he smelled one that wasn’t right. Metal meshed in flesh.

“This is bullshit,” he muttered. “Storm, let’s get the fuck outta Dodge.”

“That way?” she nodded toward the entry way.

“That way.” Her wind blew back three more of their attackers, knocking them against the wall. They slumped unconscious to the floor.

 

~0~

“What’s that?” Lorna demanded.

“What’s what?”

“That blip.”

“What blip?” Kitty asked impatiently.

“The one that’s coming this way.”

 

~0~

He’d only joined the program to have a better life. He’d bought into it hook, line and sinker. Miracles of technology, “precious metal” and all that crap.

The implants would get him off the transplant donor list and back on the track running marathons again, they’d said. The country’s veterans deserved the best, they’d told him. His mutantcy was kept confidential as long as he served the needs of the Council.

He woke up from the anesthetic in several pieces that had been sewn back together in a gruesome puzzle of wires and leads. That bastard, Winsor, claimed it was a success. He’d be better than ever, he promised. He didn’t cry any tears when he heard the reports that the good doctor had gone missing.

His programming was never turned off, even when he was “dormant.” It wasn’t true sleep. Prime ops were alert twenty-four seven, on call for duty at the drop of a hat.

He kept his sanity with pain. It cut through the commands and prompts drumming themselves into his consciousness, letting him focus on the need to just be. He suffered, but it was his suffering.

They never had the Cure when his curse manifested itself. How much pain would he have been spared, then, if they had?

The nullifier implant seemed to burn him, reminding him of its purpose.

It was grim, cruel irony that his target shared his own pain, and once upon a time, the same purpose.

His scanner picked up four mutant signatures in the mainframe suite.

I’m sorry.

 

~0~

“It shouldn’t be this easy,” Forge complained, nerves on edge as they stepped gingerly and quickly around fallen men. “Or this quiet.”

“It’s no easier, just because it hasn’t happened on our own front doorstep this time.”

“I never said it was easy.” Forge took a reading of the entryway. “Seeing this many men in uniform just lying like this takes me back to a bad place, Hank. Straight back into hell.”

“I know, Forge.” Henry kicked aside a crumpled door and avoided a security card reader that was emitting sparks and smoke. “Logan and Ororo left a trail of breadcrumbs.” Forge’s snort of disgust was cut short as his scanner began to beep.

“We’re practically on top of the signal.”

“Despite Kitty’s obvious handiwork,” Henry mused, nodding to the security faceplates, “she hasn’t disabled it yet.”

“That means that there’s still Prime units active on the grid.”

“We’re about to step on the hive.”

“There’s a bunker, if this facility’s blueprint is identical to Winsor’s safehouse.”

“So much need for weapons, gates and protection. They knew someone would take offense to what they were doing, yet they thought it was the right thing. It’s madness,” Henry grumbled. “I mean, it is just me?”

“HALT, MUTANTS!”

“Shit!” Forge shoved his scanner back into his protective case hooked to his belt.

“The disruptor,” Henry barked. “Do it, Forge, NOW!”

“It’s only charged for a few shots.”

“Make them count!”

Their eyes. Blank, cold. Devoid of pity, of mercy. Henry didn’t want that sight to be his last. His ears throbbed from the piercing sound the disruptor emitted when Forge aimed it at the closest of their attackers, a man of rangy build and dark coloring. It was no less unnerving than it was when he took out the operative that invaded Ororo’s office in a burst of shattered glass. He was enveloped in the blinding glow of light, features rippling and twisting in agony as its systems were taken offline from the mainframe.

Henry’s fur stood on end; it went against everything he ever worked for as a man of science, seeing it used to destroy rather than help. Forge was his colleague and a man he respected, but something in him roared in outrage that even his gifts had been twisted, that he’d been so lax and complacent to let things go this far…it defied reason. The remaining Prime units witnessed their fallen member and recalculated their plan of attack.

“Processing…processing. Hostile mutants, active. Resolution: 86% probability of termination. Forge, inactive. Resolution reached…” The female operative, one unassuming enough on the street in the light of day, pronounced his fate as she aimed an impact grenade directly at Forge, hitting him squarely in the shoulder.

Fire. Burning agony claimed him, sweeping through him before he could even scream. He was flung back, his body arching as he sailed several feet and landed with a smack. Blood spattered over Henry, stippling his leather uniform and fur. Forge lay there, twitching and seizing as a pool of gore grew wider beneath his body. It seemed to happen in slow motion, even though Henry’s reflexes made him roll out of harm’s way.

“Blue,” he gasped. “Blue!” His hand wasn’t moving, even though he jerked and attempted to wrench himself up. His lower limb hung limp and useless.

They’d disabled his prosthetic, nearly amputating his arm. The neural connection was severed. Crippling him again…

“NOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOO!” he roared with his remaining strength.

“FORGE –“

“Take this! Do it, Blue!” He kicked the disruptor across the floor. Henry clutched it and took aim for the nearest pair of vacant black eyes.

He had to make each shot count. Blinding flashes of light illuminated the hall. Forge’s silent scream warred with the pain coursing through his body until he couldn’t tell one apart from the other.

 

~0~

“HENRY!” Ororo felt cold, breath crushed out of her lungs by the sight of her dearest friend crouching back, aiming a weapon she never saw before. The operatives closed in on him, obscuring her view of another body lying on the floor nearby.

“Hang in there, Hank!” Logan’s nose told him these weren’t Gyrich’s mercs. SNIKT! SLASH! He cleaved through the Prime’s back, just missing the spine but causing enough pain to take it down. Its companion didn’t hold back, still looming over Henry with deadly intent.

Ororo risked a streak of lightning that wrapped around the being’s torso like a lasso, focusing it enough not to turn the hallway into a giant conductor or compromise her teammates. Its body crackled and sizzled, jerking as it, too, fell inert.

“Henry, oh, Henry…oh, no! Goddess, NO! FORGE! Please, please…get up, do you hear me, GET UP!” She tripped and fell to her knees by his side. He was gray, blood streaking his face and neck. His eyes were glassy but still coherent, riveted on her face.

“Hey…good lookin’,” he drawled raggedly. “M’down…but not…out.” Logan watched him in a mixture of sympathy and confusion.

“They hit him hard.” He watched Henry hovering over him, feeling his pulse. “What next, Blue?”

“We get him back to the Blackbird, asap! In the meantime, we take him with us.” Before he could scoop him up, Ororo stilled his hands.

“Wait. Please.” She unfastened her cape and removed it, handing it to Logan. “Here. Tear off enough of it for a tourniquet. He’ll just bleed out and be gone before we can do anything for him.” Logan obediently flicked his claws through the resilient material, tearing it in one clean cut and handing her a long strip. She worked to bind it around his shoulder, winding it around and tying it tight. Forge was already in so much pain he didn’t even flinch.

“Saves you…trouble…kicking my ass later…for thisss…”

“Hush, now,” she whispered, tears welling in her eyes as she laid a finger over his lips to silence him.

“Yer not gonna get outta this that easy, bub,” Logan promised as Henry finally cradled him against his solid bulk and lifted him up. “I’ll make sure ya live long enough fer ‘Ro here ta do just that. Hang in there.”

“Ass…hole,” Forge muttered before he closed his eyes. Ororo looked horrified, stifling a low cry into her glove.

“He’s got a pulse.”

“Let’s move,” Logan spat.

 

~0~

The girls looked younger than his sister. She never developed any powers. She called him a freak. She couldn’t appreciate how lucky she was.

The one with green hair turned around first, as though she felt his approach. He felt pressure and force bombarding him, enveloping his body and squeezing him.

“Get back,” she cried hoarsely. “Don’t make me do this!”

“Do what has to be done, Lorna!” Erik snapped. The being’s eyes glowed.

“Mutant 1010-952. Identification designate: Lensherr, Erik. Magneto.” It’s expression was almost smug as it named him. Erik met its gaze, unperturbed.

“Those will be your last words.” Lorna raised him off his feet slowly, straining and wavering, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Why can’t you just leave us alone?” she demanded.

“Resolution reached.” The being opened its mouth, and a shrill, piercing wave of sound filled the suite. Piotr and Kitty screamed, hands clamped ineffectually over their ears, which dripped crimson onto the concrete floor. He couldn’t maintain his steel form as it taxed his reserves and control. Lorna tore her gaze from the being and watched her friend and the quiet assistant teacher crumple. Her force field protected her from the worst of the sonar, but the distraction took away all margin for error with one glance. Her control faltered. The being made its move.

A constricting net trapped her, its mesh creeping over her and binding her tightly. She writhed on the floor. “ERIK! Help me!”

“Not now, child!” The being advanced on her again. Kitty still reeled from the brunt of the blast and couldn’t phase yet. She watched Erik attack the creature.

Erik stood tall and imposing despite his advanced years, stretching his hand toward the Prime unit and pushing him back, feeling the adamantium implants and the nannites coursing through it. “So much like our friend Wolverine,” he purred. “With so many of the same weaknesses.” Those glowing red eyes never wavered.

“Termination imminent,” it insisted. “Targets acquired.”

“I know you can hear me,” Erik replied. “I know you can understand me when I say you don’t have to be a puppet for those who hate you.”

The being hesitated. Piotr’s face was twisted in agony as he strained to hear the words.

“Magnus,” he grunted. “Stop…him.”

“When was the last time you saw daylight?”

“Resolution…processing.” Erik never released his hold on the being, but he didn’t squeeze him as forcefully.

“They’re drumming it into your brain, what they want you to do. They dangled your freedom in front of you, just out of fingertip’s reach. Told you that you just had to pass one more test. Work for your freedom.” The metal in the being’s body still whispered to Erik seductively, yet taunted him with memories of the camp. Of Magda pleading with him. He pushed down the ache in his soul until he was immune to it.

“Security breached,” it intoned. “Access unauthorized.” Its voice lacked some of its conviction.

“They can’t control you when you have this kind of power. They live at our tolerance, our sufferance, don’t you understand? We allow them life. We’re superior,” he stared simply, shrugging as though explaining this to a child.

“That’s…what Mags…wants you t’believe,” Kitty moaned. Her gloved fingers scraped at the floor as she dragged herself closer to Lorna.

“Look what these children have gotten for their troubles. Struck down by one of their own kind, and for what? Gyrich thinks you’re dangerous. A plague upon the world. What does it serve you to serve him? An upstart destroying the future of this world in the guise of protecting his country!” Erik scoffed. “We ARE this world’s future. Don’t deny that.” He sighed. “What’s your name, young man?”

“Mutant designate…”

“I asked you, son, what is your name?” The being look confused. Strain etched itself across its features for one heavy, charged moment.

Then, “Mark.” Erik smiled.

“That’s a fine name. Tell me, Mark, have you grown tired enough yet of Gyrich pulling your strings?” The being shook itself; Erik felts body tense within the field he’d erected around it and struggled to contain him.

“Security breached. Activate contingency protocols…scanning…scanning…” His face looked triumphant. “Multiple targets confirmed. Mutants ident designate Munroe, Ororo; Howlett, James; McCoy, Henry; Forge, inactive. Termination pending…” Piotr’s blood ran cold.

“Boszhe moi!” That meant they were bearing down on them and walking into a trap.

Lorna felt something stirring against her hand. She peered into Kitty’s brown eyes and saw her lips move.

Take my hand.

She gripped her trembling fingers through the mesh and squeezed. The mesh coils fell away from her body, freeing her.

Ororo and Logan burst inside, breaking Erik’s concentration.

Everything happened so fast.

Lorna aimed for Piotr and seized him, synching herself with the metals and minerals in his bloodstream, discovering how they fed his nerves and tissue. She sent manipulated those elements, sending them to their destinations to activate his mutation once more. She stumbled to her feet, charging toward the Prime operative.

“DADDY!” She saw it attempt to raise its hand. Within its palm, a small lens opened up, glowing with a charge that it aimed toward his captor. She resumed her force field, this time wrapping it securely around her father without interfering with his hold.

They heard the thrum of its weapon as it fired. Red light refracted off the field as it struck, outlining Erik in its radiance and throwing his strained features into stark relief. He still looked triumphant.

Piotr followed his instincts and protected Kitty, wrapping his armored body around hers as she crouched against the wall. She wasn’t phasing and was still limp. Her heart beat hammered as fast as his; her warm scent and wavy hair tickled his nostrils amid the metallic odors of the lab.

Lorna stood fast against the pulse of the being’s ray battering against her shield. She was young an untried, lacking Erik’s experience and knowledge of his limits, as well as his disregard for them in regard to what he wanted. She hadn’t the benefit of a mentor in her newfound home, nor of regular sessions in the Danger Room.

Her shield weakened and lost cohesion. A scream burned in her throat as the ray built momentum from the backlash of the resistance exerted against it being taken away. She closed her eyes and braced for the worst. Goodbye, Daddy!

Ororo moved with a single intent: She had to protect her students, no matter what the cost. She was closer to Lorna than Logan; Piotr and Kitten were huddled back from the blast, but he lifted his gleaming head at the sound of the ray resuming its flight, whistling across the room. He and Ororo met eyes before it dawned on him what she planned to do.

“ORORO, NO!”

“RO! DON’T!” Logan’s heart stopped. His lover’s lithe body hurled itself between Lorna and the glaring red beam.

She glowed like a fallen angel. Pain surged through her, burning through every vein and nerve, turning her inside-out. Lightning flew out from her limbs, pouring from her eyes and fingertips. Her mouth dropped open in horror and denial. She wanted to reach for Logan but couldn’t. It changed her.

It was the end of everything she’d ever been.

He caught her when she fell, too stunned to breathe, focused only on the way her head lolled back and the way her body seemed to collapse into his embrace. Her breath stuttered; her pulse was weak and uneven.

“God, ‘Ro! Baby…?” She licked her lips, cracked and bleeding from the impact of the ray and her own lightning. The white glow that characterized her mutation slowly died like an extinguished flame. He felt the faint touch of her fingers against his jaw, dropping down to his chest. Her palm covered his heart; she attempted to draw strength from it.

“Know that I love you,” she whispered, “no matter what.”

“Good God,” Henry’s voice boomed from the doorway. Horrible déjà vu hit him when he saw Ororo cradled against Logan’s body, anguish wracking him so hard that he couldn’t…wouldn’t come back from it. He shouldered Forge now, who groaned at the sudden shift of position and loss of support as Henry fumbled for the disruptor. The being turned at the sound of this new target, readying itself for another charge.

“Mutant designate McCoy, Henry. Resolution processing…”

“I believe you’ve done enough,” Henry grated out, aiming true and striking the being between the eyes. All pity over its plight was gone in that instance. He would damn himself later, if he survived, and he would anesthetize himself with scotch, even though it wouldn’t dim the pain one bit.

God. Forgive me. Henry and the Prime unit shared the same thought as they each froze in some strange dance of conflict and self-hate over what had to be done. The man who vowed to prove himself a man and to never do harm killed, while the man who was programmed and re-made to kill died, finally free and cursing that he only carried out was he was built to do.

As they witnessed with the other Prime units they had taken down, his eyes burned into them with his final words.

“Thank…you. Couldn’t go on. Still…a man. Can’t…fight anymore. F-forgive me,” he pleaded. He rolled his head toward Ororo, still lying unresponsive in Logan’s arms and staring glassily up at his face. “Never would’ve hurt her…if I could’ve stopped.”

“You have no idea what you’ve taken away, man.” Forge slumped forward, still hanging limply onto Henry and fighting to hold his head upright. He found a ruined man as he took in Logan’s face, everything in him broken. Ororo’s hair flowed over his arm like a blanket.

The being gave up its life and became a man again in death.

Erik recovered first, turning to his daughter and collecting her to him. She sobbed long and hard, craving his comfort like air.

“So sorry, Daddy, m’so sorry! She…didn’t want her to do that! I should’ve done better, and now look what happened! She helped me! She helped me!”

“How could she not?” he murmured soothingly. “How could she not?” he repeated, rocking her as she wept. Kitty stirred, sitting up with help from Piotr, who still looked shaken and unwilling to let her go.

“I ain’t done here,” Logan choked. “I ain’t done.”

“Let’s go, tovarisch,” Piotr urged on a low rumble. “Let’s leave this place.”

“Can’t,” he argued. “Gotta get ‘Ro an’ Forge back ta the plane. Then I’ve gotta take Gyrich’s head off.”

“Logan.” Ororo’s voice cut through the blanket of red rage that settled over him. “Do what you have to. Leave me.”

“The hell I will, ‘Ro!” She gripped his hand, and he hated the pain in her blue eyes, but she was determined.

“Take him down. Shut this down. It’s bigger than you and me.”

“Nothin’s bigger than you an’ me, darlin’. Nothin’ on this earth.”

“I will take her back to the plane,” Piotr promised.

“This is my fault. This is all my fault,” Forge insisted. Tears rolled unchecked down his face, streaking trails through the blood and dust on his cheeks.

“Don’t dwell on that now, Forge.” Henry moved to take him out of the lab.

“No. We need to get to the bunker. It’s in the sub-basement.”

“What about the rest of the Prime units? There’s gotta be more.” Kitty was adamant as she limped painfully to the console. She tracked the signals within the complex. “There aren’t many left.”

“Where are they?” Erik demanded.

“Where they should be,” she mused. “The sub-basement.” She peered up into his face with more gravity than a teenager should have. “There’s our bunker. I can’t hack into its firewall to disable its defenses.”

“You won’t have to.” Erik’s look was calculating. “But there is something you can do, child.”

“Name it.”

“Disconnect them from the mainframe. Rewrite their command protocols, if it can be done.”

“Why not just turn them off?”

“Look what happens when we do,” he pointed out. “More collateral damage. More death of our own. More blood on our hands?” His voice was too measured, too smooth. Too persuasive. She dismissed it.

“Time for someone to have an attitude change,” she murmured, addressing the screen before her. Erik faded away from her as she entered the world of the mainframe, clicking and toggling through screens and speaking the computer’s language. “Buy me some more time, Mags.”

“Lorna, stay with Kitten,” he ordered sternly. She grimaced and shook her head.

“No. I’m going with you.”

“Don’t defy me,” he railed back, wrenching her arm roughly until their faces were mere inches apart. His pupils were dilated and anger twisted his mouth. “You will stay, because that’s what you’ve been told, Lorna!” Her breathing was heavy; she struggled against his too-hard grip as emotions flitted over her face. She gave in first, averting her eyes, her whole body relaxing before he released her. She backed away from him in defeat. A piece of her soul died.

Piotr gently pried Ororo away from Logan. “I have her. I’ll protect her with my life.” It hovered unsaid between them that they each failed that duty only minutes ago.

“Take her back ta the plane, Pete. I’ve got work ta do. Blue, go.”

“The disruptor needs to be charged again,” he worried. “You might not be able to take them all down. It’s a gamble that you can’t lose.”

“I’d bet on Kitten any day of the week.” Kitten didn’t entirely turn away from the screen as she found the command protocols and opened the task manager to see which programs were running on the security system.

“Kick Gyrich’s ass for me, too.”

 

~0~

Prime units reserved for defensive measures flanked the entrance to the bunker. Inside, Gyrich fumed as Johnson toggled through the network, assessing their vulnerabilities.

“That nullified unit was taken offline. Mainframe’s still running, but someone’s hacking into it, sir.”

“You can’t block it?”

“I can’t.”

“There isn’t any margin for failure here, private!”

~0~

It was like playing Tetris. Each piece fell into its proper place with some maneuvering. Kitty toggled and clicked, searched and decoded the commands as fast as thought would take her.

Her breath caught as she found a file marked “Target Log.” She opened it and recognized feeds that were diverted from the school’s databanks. Names of her classmates and friends danced down the screen in neat rows. She shuddered in disgust.

“Bastard,” she hissed.

“That’s how they knew where to find us.”

“That’s where. God, those bastards.” She hit “select all.”

[Erase all records in Target Log directory? Y/N] She keyed in ‘no’ and hit enter. The system hummed as it processed her command. The screen continued to flicker as the records were erased.

[Command executed.]

“Sons of bitches,” she spat. “Let’s see how you like it.”

“What’re you doing?”

“Something I wish we could’ve done from home. Before Storm got hurt.” She exited the menu and went back to the commands in the feeds. “These are their ‘brains.’ These commands override their minds, from what Hank told me. They’re brainwashed. So we need to rewrite the crap that they’re beating into their brains.”

“Sounds technical.” Lorna sounded unconvinced.

“Hey, who’s in charge, here?”

“That scary guy with the claws.” Kitty shot her a look and saw the tears welling in her blue eyes. She reached up to squeeze her hand.

“It’ll be okay.” She let go of her and went back to work. “We’ll get out of here,” she promised.

“All right. Here’s where we’re at. First we narrow down their scope of attack. Cerebro’s reach extends around the globe, and they’re using it like a metal detector to find us and pick us off. So we deleted the files they already had, but now we finish taking out the connection to the school’s database. Forge already did it from his end, but from what I’m seeing here, he didn’t wipe out the archived feed. So, here it goes. Bye-bye,” she clucked.

“Then what?”

“We close the program that’s running right now before we uninstall it, just like you would on a PC. Can’t remove what’s still running,” she reasoned. “And…that’s…it,” she declared, clicking open different sub-folders until she found “Prime Directives and Commands.” She right-clicked it and attempted to uninstall the .exe file, but a dialog box popped up, stopping her. “Shit!”

“It needs a password.”

“Everything in this damned place needs a password.”

“Hurry up!”

“Fuck off, Lorna, let me think! Last time it was ‘payroll.’” She tried it again.

[Password failed. Retry? Y/N]

“Damn it.”

“We know his birthday?” Lorna offered.

“No. Shit. Wait!” She typed in six alpha characters and held her breath. “Bingo,” she crowed.

“What was it?”

“Gyrich. Guy’s got an ego.”

“Some genius,” Lorna sniffed.

“And this guy’s in charge of national security.”

The blips in the facility, as Lorna so aptly named them, disappeared from the console’s radar.

“Go back to the plane,” Kitty urged. “We’ve done enough here.”

“No, we haven’t. I need to go find my dad.”

~0~

Logan smelled the Prime ops as soon as they exited the elevator to the sub-level. It was darker and more imposing than the rest of the complex. It stank of the same equipment and building materials of Alkali Lake, and it was constructed to be just as much of a maze. And they were the rats.

“I can feel them,” Erik mused, echoing his thoughts.

“Not for long,” Logan grunted, extending his claws.

“That’s always your solution, Wolverine. Your claws.”

“Got any suggestions, bub? Don’t expect me ta look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m just usin’ what they gave me.”

“They weren’t given to you. You already had them before you entered the program.” Cold unease and disbelief swept over his flesh at Erik’s words.

“Yer shittin’ me.”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Yer lyin’ now.”

“Haven’t you ever wondered how you could instinctively know how to use those claws, to extend and retract them without anyone showing you how? You can heal, and yours senses have never misled you, but you were born with those gifts. Why can’t you believe you were born with your claws as well, Logan?” Logan’s gut clenched as a light went on. “We only made you unbreakable, my friend.”

“No. Ya tore my life apart.”

“Stay quick. We’re here.” They rounded a corner of a hallway that was too quiet. Two Prime units guarded the bunker door, whose security palm plate was emitting sparks like the ones upstairs, thanks to Kitty’s tampering.

“Ya wanna get outta the way,” Logan growled as they advanced. The Prime units stood unmoving. Then he saw their eyes.

“Who are you?” one of them asked, looking Logan up and down. “What are you doing here?”

“Fuck,” Logan barked. “Are ya kiddin’ me? Ya mean ya don’t know?” He popped his claws warily but didn’t stop.

“Only just picked my own ass up off the floor. Dude, put those things down,” he pleaded with him.

“So you don’t plan to kill us? No orders for us to stand down?” Erik inquired dubiously.

“No,” the other one informed him. “Ya wanna show us the way outta here?”

“Only if ya let us inside.”

“Here?” the man nodded, beckoning to the steel bunker door.

“Yep.”

“Be my guest.” POW! He back-swung and punched the doors off their hinges, sending them flying into the bunker. Several sets of astonished eyes stared out. Gyrich’s face was red with fury.

“See him?” Logan pointed to Gyrich. “That guy’s the one who brought ya here and tried ta make ya kill yer own kind.”

“He’s not lying,” Erik added dryly, but his eyes glittered, cold and hard at the opportunity before him. He concentrated on the metals in his guards’ blood and on the weapons holstered to their belts and pinned them to the walls and the floor. Gyrich’s jaw worked roughly; Logan heard his teeth clicking together. He stretched out his hand and reach for a gun on the console.

“Don’t move, freak!” He aimed it at Logan, who shrugged.

“Go ahead. Fire. Pump me full of lead. I’ll heal.” Gyrich wavered before he leaned back against the console, shooting him a smile.

“I can send a whole flank of ops to that school of yours again before you can even blink, and here you are, miles away. Your plane can’t fly that fast.”

“Won’t have to. You don’t have any flank left. These two guys are it, bub.” The two men watched the scene unfolding before them with stony interest.

“You took me away from my family,” one of them said quietly.

“We’re just freaks to you,” the other one decided. “Fuck you.”

“Woman I love’s hurt ‘cuz of what you did, asshole. Ya ain’t walkin’ outta here.”

“Doesn’t matter. You don’t think there are more ops, more safehouses, and more people in the Council to carry on my work, Wolverine?”

“Project’s a failure. Prime’s offline. Got taken down by a teenage girl. Got a few of yer fancy soldiers alive and left ta tell about it, if they’re willin’ ta testify in a federal court.”

“Mutants don’t have to uphold the laws of ordinary humans,” Erik scowled.

“Yer singin’ the wrong tune, Magneto. Look what happened when Gyrich here felt that way about usin’ the security council’s money without so much as a by-your-leave for this little project of his.”

“Then do it,” Gyrich challenged. “Kill me!”

“Daddy!” Lorna called as she sprinted down the corridor.

“LORNA!” Kitty cried, darting after her, cursing her lack of caution. Erik was distracted and released his hold on the guards.

The guards didn’t let the chance get by, clutching their weapons and aiming straight for Logan. Stray bullets sprayed the bunker and flew into the hall. The Prime personnel jerked as several rounds were pumped into them, but the implants did their work, nannites rushing to repair their damaged systems. Logan took the brunt of the bullets but continued to wade through the guards, claws flashing and fighting his way to Gyrich, who edged back to the end of the bunker, gun still in hand.

Erik wasn’t fighting. He clutched Lorna to his chest and crouched beneath a force bubble. Bullets ricocheted off of it with loud, staccato pings. “It’s all right,” he whispered into her hair. His cape tented them both protectively. He’d held Magda this way in the dark thicket of the woods surrounding the camp so many years ago. She wouldn’t join Anya yet, not while he drew breath. She was his daughter.

Logan kept coming, murder in his eyes. “Time ta quit runnin’, Gyrich.”

“Go to hell,” he snapped, still pointing his gun futilely.

“Meet me there. Ya already killed that part of me that would’ve spared ya.” Gyrich expelled his air in one tortured breath as Logan drove him back, plowing his elbow into his jugular and pinning him.

“So…you are…nothing but a killer. No better than…*cough*…them.” Gyrich’s glasses had slipped off in the scuffle. Fear shone in his eyes, but he kept talking. “You’ll prove the Council right. Muties…need to die. You’re a threat.” He smiled, even though blood suffused his face as Logan ground his arm further into his neck. “You’re an animal.”

He wanted his death; his claws itched to run him through and cut out his black heart.

It wouldn’t bring back ‘Ro, if he lost her. If they didn’t get her home.

He hesitated and pulled back. Gyrich’s lips twisted into a mocking smile.

“You were a wasted effort, Wolverine.”

Before he could give his rage its head, Logan’s claws extended themselves again. Something jerked through him, shocking his nerves. His limbs moved of their own volition. Gyrich saw the surprise in his face before Logan’s fist rammed him back against the wall.

“What the flamin’…”

“HRRUKKGGLLLL!” Logan’s claws drove deep into Gyrich’s belly, twisting their way up into his rib cage. He opened a long, jagged seam through his flesh. Logan couldn’t stop himself, but horror contorted his features as his hand plunged again and again through his body. He struggled to stop himself even as the light in Gyrich’s eyes dimmed.

“Don’t stop,” Erik boomed behind him, “until you’ve cut out his heart.” Logan tried to turn toward his voice and cry out, but his body continued to betray him.

Gyrich’s vitals spilled out onto the floor, followed by his heart, which hung gruesomely by a thread until it, too, landed with a sickening plop on the concrete.

“Oh, my God,” Lorna gurgled before she began to vomit helplessly. Kitty stood numbly, peering over the shoulder of one of the Prime operatives who clutched her protectively, shielding her even though she could phase.

“Wolvie,” she whispered before she began to cry.

Chapter Text

“Ya used me.”

Logan’s voice was hard, sentencing Erik to an untold fate as blood dripped from his hands. Erik’s eyes never left his as he rose. Beside him, Kitty supported his daughter as she attempted to pull herself in check, but she had little success.

“Dad,” she pleaded, “why? How could you do that!”

“Ya hated what happened to ya during the war, and ya preach about mutant freedoms. But ya had no trouble usin’ me as a puppet. Again.” Logan’s jaw worked with his struggle to hold it together.

“You were mere seconds from killing him. We all saw you. Heard you. You can really stand there, like a hypocrite, and tell me you wouldn’t have taken Gyrich down for the greater good?”

“Me killin’ him wasn’t up to YOU ta decide, asshole!”

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way, Wolverine. Those are the costs of war.” He watched Logan warily, but he didn’t back down. “You know what genocide looks like. Feels like. And how it feels to be forced to fight someone else’s battles using your gifts…”

“Like ya made me do just now.”

“He was our common enemy. You would have watched him destroy everyone you cared about instead. Everyone around you.” He motioned to Piotr and Kitty and played his trump card. “Even Storm.”

“Leave her out of this.” His claws itched to tear through his flesh. Hearing her name from Erik’s lips was a sacrilege. Burning need to return to the Blackbird and carry her home warred with his craving for Erik’s head rolling across the floor. His breathing sounded harsh within the confines of the bunker. His eyes slowly scanned its interior.

It was too much like Weapon X. All it needed was a tank and leads snaking into his flesh, filling him with scalding poison. Unfeeling doctors heedless of his suffering, interested only in empirical, clinical findings of their pet project.

“I wasn’t going to risk what I cared for,” Erik continued grimly, gathering Lorna close. But Logan smelled something calculating in him, a confidence that he wouldn’t retaliate against him in front of his daughter.

Reason won out. Lorna and Kitten both had seen enough horrors that day. SNAKT.

He flicked his attention toward the two men watching them, faces still bearing a mixture of relief and nausea at the sight of Gyrich’s lifeless body. “What about you?” Logan asked. “Where are you gonna go?”

“Not back home,” one of them said. “My family thinks I’m dead. That happened to most of us when we were processed. Those of us that survived it, anyway. We were reported as receiving treatment for rehabilitation, then told that they ‘did all they could,’ but we didn’t make it. Dozens of us. They used fake records, different hospitals, false IDs for surgeons, you name it. We lost our names, our lives, and our whole purpose for living. Just because we were mutants. And they made us soldiers again.”

“Some recruitment,” his companion said bitterly. “But here we are.”

“You could start fresh. You’re stronger now. More capable of ruling your own destiny, your futures.” Erik spread his arms wide. “Once you leave this place, the world is your playground.”

“We just want a place in it. I just want a name, not a serial number.”

“What was it before?” Kitty said softly, walking forward to take his hand, the first gentle contact he’d had in months.

“I think it was Frank.”

“Nice to meet you, Frank.” She pondered his face, which seemed to relax and lose its hardness, the blank look in his eyes completely gone. The red glow had also dissipated, evidence that the programming was offline. “What kind of powers do you have?”

“Nothing flashy. Unbreakable bones, but I went into the program to treat radiation poisoning that was killing my organs.”

Logan grunted. “Damned if ya do, damned if ya don’t. They let ya live so ya can kill.”

“You could come to the school,” Kitty offered, hope coloring her voice.

“I want to learn how to live again on my own,” he murmured, patting her awkwardly but offering a smile that he hadn’t been capable of that morning. “Thanks, kid, but no thanks.”

~0~

 

The air was too still outside when they emerged from the facility. Logan’s lungs burned from his sprint to the Blackbird. His healing factor had already dealt with his injuries, but Ororo and Forge’s lives were at stake.

There was no life without her.

His boots banged up the ramp and his eyes fell on Henry, who was monitoring her progress. Her beautiful face was partially hidden behind an oxygen mask. Her scent was marred by blood and the smoke and grime from the complex, and he heard her weak heartbeat.

Forge was much, much worse. His face was waxy and pale, also slumbering beneath an oxygen mask. A portable blood pressure monitor displayed his weakened condition with ticks and beeps. Only now did Logan pity him. Blood stained the floor of the jet. He braced himself when he heard Piotr and Kitty’s foot steps enter the jet.

“Oh, God, Ororo!” Kitty cried, sobbing instantly and rushing back to the cots. Henry held her back and urged her to go with Piotr, just as distraught and fraying around the edges. Everyone on the jet was on a short tether.

The ride home was sober and silent except for the sounds of Henry’s equipment and the wind whipping against the hull of the jet. The blue-furred physicist occasionally stared at Erik and Lorna as they huddled in their seats.

Logan just held Ororo’s hand. He removed both their gloves and gently traced the veins and her knuckles. Her skin was satiny but too cold.

She stirred, shifting slightly on the cot and creasing the blankets.

“Baby?” Logan choked. Her moan was raspy; her face twisted in pain, making her writhe on the cot. “Blue!”

“It’s all right, I know what to do,” he assured him, urging him to step back. Henry dug into his bag of instruments and took out a small syringe and a glass bottle of clear fluid. “Painkiller. She’ll need it.” He injected it into the port of her IV; Logan’s body stayed tense and trembling until it took effective several minutes later. He smelled the change in her the way he would sense the plight and suffering of any wounded animal. It didn’t come close to describing how it felt when it was his mate. This time Henry got out of his way as he resumed his perch. She stared drowsily up at him, shivering.

“She’s cold.”

“There are extra blankets in that cupboard,” he nodded. Logan took one and draped it around her, tucking it in to the best extent that the cot would allow. She still shivered, lips quivering and huddling beneath the covers. Her uniform had been unzipped to allow Henry access to place the IV, and the tank top she wore underneath provided scant protection.

“S-still c-cold,” she stammered. “Can’t…get warm.”

“I know darlin’, it’s all right, we’ll get ya home and –“

“N-no. Don’t under-s-stand, Logan. Don’t…get cold.” Someone might as well have dashed a bucket of icy water in his face. Fingers of cold dread crept over his flesh.

“Her powers regulate her body temperature. She’s never had to worry about being overheated or too chilled, no matter how extreme the conditions of weather. Not just because she can control it.” Henry reached out to stroke her hair, despite Logan’s protective growl. “There hasn’t been any change in the weather since she was struck.”

“What the fuck did they hit her with, Blue?!”

“A weapon that was derived from Forge’s technology, in this case, the disruptor. Except this one was keyed to detect mutant signatures and to affect their biological tissue. It disrupts the neural connection to their brain stem that allows them to access their abilities. It’s an advanced form of the Cure.”

“Logan…” Ororo’s voice was plaintive. “Logan!”

“Baby?” Her eyes filled with tears, wrenching his heart and making his own eyes sting.

“They’ve ruined me.”

Erik hung back in his seat, listening to their quiet conversation. He heard the agony in the Wolverine’s voice as he broke down. He knew his pain first hand.

They were more alike than either of them wanted to admit.

Lorna slumbered against his shoulder, her face devoid of the horrible things she’d witnessed; the cost was impossible to tell yet.

He’d take her away. Show her things she’d need to know to protect herself.

To fight.

He couldn’t allow her to stay in Charles’ school. His old friend and colleague’s vision was too limited in its scope, and it left too broad a margin for his belief that humankind was basically good and worth protecting. He loved Magda, but he cursed her for denying him a life with his child after they’d already lost so much. She didn’t understand. Years. It had been years.

He was thoughtful and quiet on their journey home. He held his daughter’s hand and wrapped himself in a bubble of energy. Piotr barely noticed the change in the pressure in the cabin as he navigated them home.

Several miles behind them, the facility caved in on itself, burying everyone and everything inside.

 

~0~

They were haggard when they arrived home. Sean greeted them in the hangar and helped them to disembark. He was nauseated by the sight and smell of so much blood, but he stoically help Henry moved Ororo and Forge into the infirmary. Erik assisted a groggy Lorna upstairs and encouraged her to go to bed. His plans to depart could wait until Lorna had a chance to defuse. He didn’t plan on making elaborate goodbyes.

Logan maintained his vigil over Ororo, who refused to wake up. He felt her retreat into herself before she gave in to sleep. He kept her piled in blankets and took up temporary residence beside her, making use of the spare cot. But most of the time, he just held her, stroked her, and talked to her in the hopes that she’d hear him.

“I don’t remember much about when they took me into the project. Weapon X,” he murmured the following afternoon. He was using a warm, damp rag to sponge off her face and neck, clearing it of the offensive grime and sweat. Her hair still smelled like smoke. He knew she’d crave a shower when she woke –

It bit into him that she’d never create rain again, and he finally crumpled, letting his head fall against his arms, folded over the bed rails. He wept raggedly, long and hard.

“Shoulda been me, darlin’! Damn it, shoulda been me! How…how could anyone hurt ya! How could they do that to you!” He sagged against the rails, not feeling the cold metal against his skin, not feeling anything but anguish. “They almost took ya away from me, ‘Ro.” Tears dripped down his neck and stained his track pants. “I knew it was life or death, walkin’ into that damned building. I wanted ta keep ya safe.” He gasped and choked over the words. “Ya took years off of my life, baby. Everything just stopped, and my fuckin’ heart just stopped when ya threw yerself in front of the kid! Damn it, ‘Ro!” His fist banged against the rails. Anger poured out of him along with grief. His fingers dug into his hair, nearly tearing it out. “Damn it, ‘Ro!” he yelped. “I was supposed ta keep ya safe. Shoulda been me.”

“Thank heaven that it wasn’t. Forge and I had a long, serious talk before we left the school, Logan.” Logan never paid heed to Henry’s scent or footfalls as he entered the infirmary. “You wouldn’t have survived.”

“What the fuck are ya talkin’ about, Blue!”

“Your healing factor. The nullifier stripped Ororo of her gifts, breaking her control of the weather, but it didn’t shut down her body’s ability to function and sustain life. For you, that wouldn’t have been the outcome. Your healing factor saved you from perishing when the adamantium was fed into your body. You never would have lived through that if not for your body’s capabilities to protect you from metal poisoning. Imagine dying from gangrene, but ten times worse. You would have developed cancer. You would have suffered massive organ failure and died a painful death.”

“Wouldn’t have made any damn difference if I’d lost her, Hank!”

“But you haven’t.”

“Ya heard her on the jet. She’s pullin’ away from all of us. She thinks everything’s ruined and that she might as well give up.”

“Then don’t let her, man! I won’t,” Henry shot back, nostrils flaring and eyes dilating with his sudden anger. He threw aside his clipboard and approached the bed, hands flying. “We won’t let her go out like this! Whether we have to drag her out of bed and shout at her until she listens to us, we won’t let her go out like this! She’s been the life of this school. She’s given us so much and been there when anyone else would have quit! I won’t let her go! Do you hear me, damn it! And neither will you, so stop feeling sorry for yourself, you selfish sonofabitch!” Henry mastered himself and turned away from the bed as silvery tears tunneled through his fur. “And don’t let her know that you feel sorry for her. She’d hate that.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, furball.” Logan dried his tears and sat back as Henry checked her IVs.

 

~0~

Henry excused himself from the lab, leaving Ororo in Logan’s capable hands. Sean had Piotr had helped to clean out the jet and replenish the medical supplies. He had them retrieve Forge’s equipment as well, storing it in his guest room while he recovered downstairs.

The inventor had slipped into a coma. Kitty fretted over him until Henry explained that his body was trying to heal itself, and that his vital signs were still strong.

“He’s trying to rally back from this, Kitten. We’ll do what we can to bring him through this.”

“He’s missing a Star Trek marathon today,” she cried, her voice cracking before Piotr led her away.

“I know you heard that, Forge. Hurry back to us,” Henry mused, ruffling Forge’s black hair.

“Nnnnnhhhh,” he groaned from the bed, startling Henry.

“Sean! Get down here, Forge is coming out of it!”

It took several hours for him to be coherent enough to respond to questions with looks and gestures. His voice was hoarse and cracked from disuse over the past three days. His eyes followed Henry as he examined him and set about changing the bed clothes.

“Ororo,” he rasped.

“She’s fine. She’s…coping.”

“W-what…hap…?”

“Don’t dwell on it now.”

“All…here?” Henry leaned closer to hear his words. “We…all home?”

“Yes. We made it home.” Forge managed a low nod.

“Blue…gun. Get…gun.” Henry scowled.

“The disruptor?” Forge winced.

“Need it. Fix…it.”

“That can wait.”

“Can’t.” He was insistent, even though his eyes were drowsy.

“It can wait.” He backed off, checking Forge’s IVs one last time before he headed toward the door. “And I kept it charged on the flight back. It should still work, for whatever you think we need it for.” Forge was unresponsive; he slipped back into sleep.

 

~0~

“So what do we do with it?” Sean asked him as he searched for something to eat in the kitchen.

“That’s up to Forge. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. We keep the gun for research purposes, in case we meet other mutants whose gifts are more harmful to themselves or others than can be controlled, and we end up as bad as the people who invented the Cure. Or we destroy it before it can fall into the wrong hands again, and risk losing any potential benefits. Forge just wanted to help people.”

“Aye, lad, I kinna argue that point. I’ve been meanin’ tae talk wi’ ye about our other guests.” Henry paused in pouring himself a glass of iced tea.

“Lorna and Erik?”

“Aye. I get the feeling that the lass wants tae stay wi’ us. I know about yuir involvement wi’ Erik before. Saw the school files and talked wi’ Charley before we lost him.”

“So you know he’s a threat to the school.”

“Aye.” His voice was grim. “I ken the folks who were on the Golden Gate bridge when he twisted it up might agree wi’ me.”

“Then you know what we have to do.”

 

~0~

The day was arid and still. Ororo’s plants suffered from her absence and lack of special care. Kitty and Jubilee occupied themselves with watering the plants in the greenhouse while she was still recuperating in her loft. Logan moved her upstairs, knowing she craved the open space over the claustrophobic lab. But she refused to open the large bay windows, shunning the grounds and sky outside.

She was still reticent, only speaking when spoken to. The students were on tenterhooks, missing her familiar smile and easygoing affection, almost yearning for her lectures on the Civil War and societal norms.

Forge continued his own recovery, and Henry called in two of his colleagues, Anthony Stark and Reed Richards to assist him with rebuilding Forge’s prosthetic. He had a long way to go before his shoulder healed; Moira MacTaggert was flown in from Scotland to assist with the pending surgery.

Sean found Henry once more in Ororo’s office, cleaning up files on her hard drive and neatening the space for her return, depending on her decision.

“Tell me something, Sean,” Henry rumbled, “if you couldn’t fly, how would you cope with it?” Sean was surprised, and raked his hand through his strawberry blond hair thoughtfully.

“I could na’ always fly. I supposed I’d learn tae deal wi’ losin’ that skill. I had a long career wi’ Interpol, Hank, and I fared just fine wi’ me own two arms and legs. Me sonic scream left too many questions, would have compromised me identity an’ the agency’s need tae be covert when I was out in the field. Besides, me scream isn’t the easiest thing tae maintain. M’gettin’ older, lad. Won’t have such a melodious voice in me head forever, eh?”

“I wish we could convince Ororo that there’s more to life than making it rain.”

“The lass is faring poorly right now, aye. Moira said she’d try to pry her out of that attic even if she has tae kick her bum.”

“Bless her little heart,” Henry chuckled. He sighed deeply and asked “Where is Erik?”

“That’s what I meant tae come an’ tell ye. He’s down in the Danger Room.”

“What on earth for?”

“Said he wanted tae show his daughter some of the tricks of the trade.”

“Then come with me.” His voice was grave. Sean followed him into the elevator and they went to the sub-level.

The corridor was quiet; they saw the status light above the Danger Room door indicating that it was occupied, and that a session was in progress. Henry spoke into the intercom.

“Erik. It’s Henry and Sean. We’d like to speak with you.’

Erik’s voice boomed back confidently, “Feel free to join us, then.”

The doors slid open, and Henry was relieved to see Lorna looking in better condition since their return. She had better color and her eyes didn’t bear such prominent dark circles, thanks in part to her time with her peers. Erik was still vigilant and stayed in close contact, watching her from hallways when she was in class.

“To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“We’d like to discuss your plans, Erik.”

“Our stay is dwindling to an end.” Lorna blanched. “I think our purpose in coming here has already expired, and it’s time to leave.”

“Daddy,” she interrupted, but he held up his hand to silence her.

“Don’t argue with me over this, child. I know what’s best.”

“Do you?” Henry inquired smoothly. Erik’s face hardened, and his lips settled into a thin line.

“Lorna, lass, why don’t ye come wi’ me upstairs?”

“I don’t want to.” Her face was mulish. “Every time you take me away from my dad, it’s to lock him up.” Henry felt pangs of guilt.”

“You’re both free to come and go as you choose. Both of you.” Henry gave his words emphasis. “We hope that you’ll consider staying. Lorna, I meant to tell you, we’ve contacted your parents.”

“So?” she muttered sullenly.

“Your mother wanted to speak with you. She’s been concerned about your whereabouts. She misses you.”

“I don’t have a mother anymore.”

“Yes, you do.”

“She lost her true mother. Don’t feed her lies about who her family really is, Henry.”

“Then don’t try to convince her that her life with her adoptive family no longer exists and that there are people aside from you who care about her.” Erik’s stance changed. He stifled a chuckle before waving Sean away.

“Lorna, go on upstairs.” She tried to protest. “I’ll be fine. Go on.”

“I hate it when you do this,” she hissed, stomping heavily away from Sean, who followed her with a roll of his eyes.

“Och, it’s like Theresa all over again!” he huffed as they exited the suite.

“Charles and I built Cerebro. You know that, McCoy?”

“I know. It’s an amazing machine. Years ahead of anything else like it. No wonder the Council coveted it. And Stryker.” Henry knew he had his attention. “Even you.”

“It’s moot. It needs a competent telepath to operate it and put it to proper use.”

“We found out in recent weeks that it doesn’t, but ‘proper use’ has also become a gray area.” Henry stared at the environment Erik had chosen for his training with Lorna and shook his head. “Even now, you won’t let go of the past, Erik.” The scene was dark, shrouded in fog. Buildings lay in ruins and swastikas scarred brick walls and broken windows. “This is the legacy you want to hand down to her.”

“This is the kind of thing I want to prevent from becoming her future. How many times have you seen ‘mutie’ spray painted on someone’s house, McCoy? Or screaming from the headlines? We’re headed down the same road of hate and persecution. You’d have me be a spectator. Or worse, a custodian of the dead.”

“You love your daughter.” Erik’s eyes widened.

“You would ask that question? Now that I’ve found her, I won’t let her leave me.” He clenched his fist at his side. Measuring Henry. “And you don’t keep her from me.”

“The decision is hers to make, Erik. Do you want a daughter, or a follower?”

“You could ask the same thing of Charles. You were like his children. Yet you wear uniforms.”

“He gave us a choice, Erik. Loyalty can’t be forced.”

“Henry,” he tsked, shaking his head sadly. “You’ve been brainwashed. I hardly think you know the difference.”

“And you my friend, do not give me enough credit.” He removed a small module from his pocket and aimed it at Erik, who instinctively stepped back.

“McCoy!”

“I’m sorry.” A tiny light glowed red before the module emitted a beam that bathed Erik in energy. The artificial surroundings of the Danger Room flickered and twisted, flashes of the walls of the suite becoming visible as Erik fought to contain his energy.

His cries echoed through the suite. Henry braced himself, steeling himself against the older man’s agony until he collapsed to his knees.

“What…have you done?”

“I’ve allowed the future to determine itself, and your daughter to make up her own mind. The disruptor merely needed to be charged. Forge ensured that it could be done portably from the school or in the Blackbird without difficulty. He has a loving touch with his tools.”

“You’ve ruined me,” Erik groaned hoarsely.

“I’ve saved you.”

Chapter Text

“Does my hair look okay?”

“It does. You know it does. But if you want me and Jubes to say it again for the umpteenth time – “

“At the risk of dragging you into a headlock,” Jubes threatened on a gusty sigh, rolling her eyes.

“ – at the risk of dragging you into a headlock, then we’ll say it again. Lorna, don’t do anything else. You look fine. You look great. Stop that,” Kitty demanded, smacking Lorna’s hand for emphasis when she attempted to pick up the comb.

“But I just –“

“No you just not,” Jubes countered. “Put. The brush. Down.”

“Make a wish,” Kitty added, turning Lorna to face her as she reached out to straighten the St. Christopher medal around Lorna’s neck, turning the clasp so it lay against her nape.

“I’m so fucking nervous,” Lorna fretted, picking at her nails. They were still painted their customary black, and she was still biting them down to nubs, but Kitty silently admired how…well, how normal she looked. Kind of.

Lorna looked wholesome.

“They’re coming to see you. It won’t matter how you look, just that you get to be with them. But you look really nice.”

In the past two months, her hair had grown to her shoulders, free of any hair dyes or tints that previously hid her natural green tresses. Lorna paired her black jeans with a simple pair of K Swiss white sneakers and a snug white mohair sweater. A hint of eye shadow replaced her previously heavy layers of kohl, and she looked fresh-faced and dewy. Marie joked with her that she just needed a white streak now, to complete her look. It was the true mark of any student who survived their first encounter with the X-Men.

Lorna said she’d pass.

“Quit pacing,” Jubilee quipped as she snapped her gum.

“I’m not pacing,” Lorna muttered as she rounded the edge of the living room for the third time as she stared out the picture window.

“When was the last time you talked with them again?”

“Two days ago.” Lorna felt slightly sick.

“They’ll be fine. You’ll be fine,” Jubilee reassured her, catching up to Lorna as she stopped by the window again and giving her a tight squeeze. Kitty flanked her other side and did the same; then the two of them pretended to have a tug of war with Lorna between them, making her bust out in nervous laughter.

“Shit! You’re demented!” she squealed. “Knock it off, knock it off!”

“She’s mine!” Jubilee crowed.

“Nuh-uh! She’s mine, mine, mine! See?” Kitty licked Lorna’s cheek, leaving it clammy with slobber.

“GAH!”

“Ew. Now I don’t want her,” Jubes tsked. “You ruined her for me.”

“That was the idea,” Kitty sniffed, struggling to hold onto Lorna, who was grimacing and struggling free of her grip. She frantically wiped her cheek with the shoulder of her sweater.

“Kitty germs,” she complained snippily, but her heart nearly stopped as they heard the sound of an engine cutting off in the circular driveway in front of the school. “Shit,” she whispered. Her hand flew up to her throat, grasping the small medal like a talisman. Her body felt limp and weightless, and she began to shake.

“Come on,” Kitty urged softly.

“I can’t.”

“You can,” Jubilee argued. “You’ve been waiting for this.”

“I’m so scared,” she rasped. “My mom, and my dad…they’re all I have, and all I’ve ever had…” Her voice began to break, and she fanned her eyes, trying to stave off the prick of tears. Jubilee rubbed her back soothingly.

“They’re here because they care about you. They missed you. You told us that before after you talked with them on the phone. You missed them.”

“I almost hurt them,” Lorna admitted. “I wanted to. It’s all so messed up.” She squeezed Kitty’s hand even more firmly as they heard the slam of car doors, but she wasn’t facing the window. She couldn’t.

“Wow.” Jubilee’s voice was full of awe. She even stopped cracking her gum. Lorna tried to follow her gaze out the window, but only saw feet disappearing around the corner of the post on the porch. There was a sharp knock on the heavy door. All three girls jumped.

“C’mon. Want us to –“

“Yes.” Lorna reached for both of their hands and resolutely dragged them stiffly after her. They made their way awkwardly to the door, and with her hand still shaking, Lorna turned the knob.

Any semblance of serenity in her parents’ faces disappeared as soon as they laid eyes on the vulnerable looking girl with pleading blue eyes.

“Daddy…” Lorna whispered. “Oh, God! DADDY! MOM! I’m…so…” Her legs went limp. Jubilee and Kitty both struggled to jerk her upright as she shrank back from Mark and Barbara Dane, even as her hands reached for them. Emotion hammered at her heart at the first sight of their faces, similarly pleading with her and glowing with the same need.

They loved her.

Her father had more gray hair swimming in his thick brown locks. People always said they smiled the same. Her mother’s brackets around her mouth had deepened since that day in the house, but her eyes brightened and filled as she rushed forward. She never took a breath.

“OhGodLornamybabyyou’rehereyou’reHERE,” she babbled in a hoarse string. “ImissedyouI’msorrydon’tleaveme,” she wailed, gathering her into her arms when Kitty and Jubilee tentatively stepped back. Lorna silently sank to the steps of the porch. Her mother cradled her like a child and wept into her hair, rocking her back and forth.

“I’m so sorry,,” Lorna moaned. “I’m so sorry, Mom.” She repeated it, unable to stop once the words were out, pent up for so long.

“We’re here,” her father soothed, embracing his wife and using his free hand to cover Lorna’s, which was clutching her mother’s coat sleeve. She grabbed him possessively and squeezed his fingers, needing the tactile proof that he was really there, watching her with forgiveness and love in his eyes.

“I wanted to die when you ran away,” her mother cried. “I died inside.”

“Mom, there’s something I need to tell you,” Lorna began. “I’m different…it’s not like before, I don’t break things anymore –“

“You’re a mutant,” her father explained for her. “We know. We know, sweetie, it was all over the news. That’s why we needed to find you.”

“Did you know about Erik?” Her father’s brow crumpled. Kitty and Jubilee braced themselves.

“Who’s Erik?”

“Magneto,” Barbara answered grimly. She stroked Lorna’s hair back from her face and cupped her cheek. “I read the papers.”

“Dad…he’s from Germany.”

“I know. They’ve been running press coverage about him all week – “

“He’s from Wungadore. He lost his wife a long time ago, when she was pregnant.” Lorna swallowed. Her mother watched her speak with bated breath, somehow anticipating what she was about to say. “He thinks I’m his daughter. And, there’s something else. When…when this school found me, they used this computer. It’s hard to explain, but it’s called Cerebro…”

“Why don’t we go inside?” Kitty suggested helpfully.

“Bring your friends with you, too,” Jubilee offered, leaping forward from the porch to introduce herself to the young teens standing baffled on the lawn.

“Wow,” the girl answered, awkwardly watching the scene before them and hugging herself. “I feel like we shouldn’t be here right now.”

“It’s okay, Ali,” the handsome young man beside her replied, patting her back. “We’ll get our turn. We’re here to see Lorna. It’s what you’ve been waiting for.” Jubilee suppressed pangs of disappointment at the radiant look on his face revealed that he had been waiting, too.

First Piotr. Then Bobby. The cute young guys were always taken…

It was easy to see immediately that the girl was a friend of Lorna’s, if her attire and makeup were any indication. The girl answering to Ali was Goth’d out in black, wearing a shredded, cropped black tee beneath a fishnet mesh, long-sleeved top. Her black skirt was ankle-length and softly flared and she wore Docs on her feet.

Her hair was black and pink. Go figure, Jubilee mused. She offered her a tiny smile.

“Hi.”

“Hi.” Jubilee fished in her pocket for a pack of gum and handed her a piece. Ali immediately unwrapped it and popped it into her mouth.

“You’re a mutant, too?”

“Uh-huh.” The sounds of cracking gum underscored the emotional exchange on the porch.

“Whaddya do?”

“Make little firecrackers.” Jubilee pulled her aside and held her palm open. Tiny blue and red burst of sparks danced in her hand.

“That’s too friggin’ cool!” Ali gushed. “Okay! Okay, you’re gonna love this! Sing for me!”

“Dude…I can’t sing!” Jubilee giggled. The boy watched them with furrowed brows, feeling completely out of place.

“Just anything.”

“What, like Jingle Bells? Star-Spangled Banner?”

“Do-re-mi! Anything! Just go!” Ali flapped her hands at Jubilee to give her a few bars. Jubilee began humming the opening notes of a random song by Gwen Stefani, and was soon shocked – literally – speechless, and songless as her voice evaporated on her lips. Tiny pink orbs of light floated around Ali and danced in the sun, illuminating her gamine face.

“Wow,” breathed the blond heartbreaker behind them. He whistled in jealousy. “Man, my gift sucks…”

“Wait…you’re gifted?” Kitty piped up, glad for any excuse to let Lorna and her parents have time together. They’d already retreated inside the house.

“Tell me anything. In any language.”

“What, like, Yiddish? Pig Latin? Greek?”

“Any of them. All of them. Regular Latin. Basque. Tagalog.”

“Sooooo, if I took you inside, and showed you the cool language database we have, you could totally understand all of it without having to translate?”

“I can talk to computers, too.” Kitty’s mouth dropped open.

This guy was even cooler than Forge, if that was possible.

“Shut. Up. Oh, my God. You’re totally coming inside. This, I’ve gotta see!”

 

~0~

The scrap of paper showed signs of wear, nearly soft as velvet and curling around the edges from folding and unfolding it to reread its precious words. Erik held it up to the light and studied the girlish swirls of handwriting, so much at odds with the owner.

In his mind’s eye, he pictured her work-worn, slender hands stroking the nearly ancient photograph of a young boy with a Radio Flyer wagon and spinning her most precious possession, a silver claddagh ring, slowly around her finger.

He drove away one woman who needed his protection and strength, and he’d left the one who’d offered him hers. Erik made a sound between a laugh and groan and rubbed his eyes. They ached from fatigue accumulated from dreams that wouldn’t release their strangling grip, and he fell asleep counting the unknown number of days until he wouldn’t wake up. Clocks were his enemy, if not for the minutes of his life that he wouldn’t get back – it bent his mind out of shape, pondering it, really, there went another minute – then for the infernal ticking.

Erik was a man who time stopped for, once. In a literal and figurative sense; all clocks using a wind-up mechanism stopped at magnetic north when he lingered in the vicinity. Magda cursed him many a time for ruining her casseroles whenever they’d overcook. He’d kissed her, enjoying the familiar warmth and softness despite the heckling. Every moment was precious in those early days, when the gloom from that dark night in the woods tugged at him. His thudding heartbeat echoed forward through time to choke him. He was still huddled in the brush, cold. Shoeless. Shorn and marked and holding onto the woman who was his life to preserve it. Preserve her. Take back the life the Reich told him he didn’t deserve. A yellow Star of David burned at his chest as the silvery, twinkling bodies in the sky mocked him, beckoning to him. There’s danger down below. Come fly with us, Erik!

He’d learned how far too late.

So there it was. The only gift he’d bequeathed to his own blood in the fleeting hopes that she’d never make that run for her life. Power was her birthright. His power. Erik’s legacy.

“Still broodin’ in there, are ye, lad?” Her voice was lilting and throaty, thick with her customary brogue. She was still a handsome woman, petite and firm despite the emotional ravages of losing an abusive husband and a son who Charles couldn’t reach. Erik shared in that failure; Kevin MacTaggart flew in the face of every rhetoric Erik conceived for why no mutant should be limited by anyone but themselves. Kevin’s power wasn’t merely “out of control.” It was uncontainable.

The Rasputin boy was a fledgling, new to the senior squad when Charles ordered him to put Kevin down. In Lorna, Erik saw the same burden of duty trapping her. Her life sprawled miles ahead of her. Too late he realized that she shouldn’t be fighting so hard to save it, only to live it.

He couldn’t make his daughter fight his battles for him. Lorna was young. Impressionable, eager to please. So much, in her way, like Anya would have been had she reached her pubescent years. She deserved to choose her own path.

Moira’s smile was beneficent and teasing. She sighed as she slumped into her favorite chair beside the containment chamber.

He’d inherited it from Kevin. Erik could still feel some vestige of the boy’s essence resonating inside, strangely welcoming.

Where metal was Kevin’s bane, it fortified Erik, thanks to his mutant gift. Moira had reconfigured the chamber with help from Forge following his surgery. It had been a labor of love and need, carried out by two of the most brilliant minds in the fields of genetics and mechanics.

“What do you want now, Moira?”

“Och, but yuir in a mood,” she tsked.

The chamber once contained metal in its design, acting as a buffer to Kevin’s ability manipulate both the environment and other people’s awareness of it, causing vertigo, illusions and occasionally, madness. It was now devoid of those same elements but made use of vibranium, generously donated by the same distributor who sponsored Charles’ Cerebro project in its infant stages.

“Why ye dinna write back t’the lass is beyond my ken,” she muttered helplessly as she rose from the desk and opened a tall cabinet across the room. He wanted to ignore her, but he secretly enjoyed her visits, the same way he’d savored those from Charles. Moira understood him more than he wanted to admit.

She was a baseline. Yet she sired a mutant child, and she still loved and cherished him enough to want to save him, even at the expense of her own safety and her soul. That made Moira the “exception to the rule” that he’d wrongly assigned to Aleytys when he argued with Henry McCoy. Not that Aleytys wasn’t exceptional.

“I swore to uphold my end of this ridiculous agreement. What I do while I’m here is none of your business.”

“Dinna bite the hand that feeds ye, boyo. Especially not when we’re havin’ beef stew tonight. And Eilish made her famous blueberry muffins. So behave yuirsel’.” She laid out the old, ornate game box on a nearby table and emptied its contents. The chess pieces were lovingly lacquered and preserved, a gift from Charles while they were still engaged. Erik had been an impartial intermediary when his two best friends broke it off, pitying them both and longing to wring their necks. Charles, for going off to help the humans fight their silly war; Moira, for throwing her own dreams aside for a horrid marriage and to assume control of her family estate.

“And it is na’ much of an ‘agreement’ when ye had no choice in the matter,” she continued. He sneered at her smugness.

She stuck her tongue out at him from the safety of the barrier between them.

“I’ve had my fill of humans with their cells, yet here I am.”

“I always hoped ye’d come back tae Kinross,” she informed him crisply. Moira began setting up the pieces, arranging the white ones on her side of the board. Erik was always black. “And I always prayed ye’d recover yuir senses, Erik, an’ stop all this rubbish of ‘the war on humans’ and this strange need to treat the world at large like it was Canaan. Yuir a brilliant man, and ye had so much tae give o’ yuirsel’ tae the children at the school. They looked up tae ye, Erik. Now all ye’ve done is make ‘em afraid, as much as the humans you hate.”

“Are you going to lecture me all night, Moira, or are we going to play?”

“Bite me bum,” she answered smoothly. She moved her first pawn.

Erik pressed a small plate of many inlaid on the table top by his side, highlighting a block on Moira’s computer screen. She smiled at his choice and moved his pawn to the designated square. More vibranium and plastic. This innovation, he could enjoy.

“Where on earth were you raised, Moira, a saloon?”

“I’d be happy tae send off a letter tae San Francisco for ye, Erik.”

“It would pass through too many hands. I already said my goodbye.”

“Then how about contacting the wee colleen, and letting her know yuir all right?”

Silence. Erik pressed the plate for his next move.

“So bluidy stubborn.”

“She went back to her parents. Those humans.” It was almost a question.

“Aye. She did. Henry’s been keepin’ me apprised. The lass is thriving wi’ her peers.”

 

”You’ve ruined me.”

“I’ve saved you.”

McCoy and Cassidy spelled out the terms of his confinement bluntly and quickly: He was to leave for Muir Isle, or he would be handed over to local authorities and held on Death Row.

He wasn’t to have further direct contact with Lorna Dane. He wasn’t to further any agendas using her power or her relationship to him. He couldn’t manipulate her emotions or her need to please him, or prove her filial loyalty.

McCoy took no pleasure in the voyage on the Blackbird, nor in locking him in shackles. Erik couldn’t feel the resonant song of the metals of the jet; all he could feel was the roar and scream of the engines as they soared through the clouds.

He had no platitudes or words of comfort. He didn’t chastise him or gloat over his reversal of fortune. All Henry did was fly the jet.

 

~0~

“Ya didn’t come down fer dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Kids miss ya. Ya oughta come down, anyway.” He gave up on lingering in the doorway and ambled inside the loft.

It was echoingly empty. All Ororo’s plants were gone. Logan noted their absence with a heavy heart.

~0~

 

Two days ago he’d walked in on her wrapped in a fit of rage that had been brewing for weeks.

She’d been stoic. She’d been quiet. She was cool and perfunctory during lessons and took leave of every room once her presence wasn’t needed, never staying for a second longer.

He didn’t know what trigger sent her screaming through her loft, hurling her belongings across the room, even out of the bay window. Shit. Someone might as well have asked her “how’s the weather up there?” It was like lighting a match to a can of kerosene.

The drought lasted several weeks. The kids were sweltering, taking refuge in the indoor pool, since the Olympic-sized one outside wouldn’t stay cooler than eighty-five degrees; it was like dogpaddling in bath water.

She wasn’t fertile ground anymore for the goddess’ gift. Ororo was barren.

Keepsakes and precious objects and gifts met with destruction. Her plants flanked her, sprawling over every surface and hanging in planters from every wall. They met with tearing hands and kicking feet; she broke her toe punting an enormous pot of creeping Charlie so hard it shattered against the wall, spraying her hardwood floor with loamy soil.

Logan bolted up the stairs before Jubi even cried out, “Logan, she’s going nuts up there! Do something, quick!” The kids were scared. Blue was on Muir Isle. And Ororo was having a meltdown.

Calm the fuck down, ‘Ro!

Why? Her voice was hollow, like her eyes. Their cerulean blue dimmed to slate in the wake of her accident, as though her lost connection with the sky forbade her to share its brilliance. They looked bruised and sunken; days of poor appetite and a refusal to go outside

Don’t ya see what yer doin’?

I think you should leave now.

Uh-uh.

I said you should leave!

What part of ‘fuck, no’ don’t ya understand, darlin’?

I’m tired. Can’t you see that I’m just tired?

This ain’t tired, ‘Ro. This is givin’ up.

How astute of you.

Fuck astute.

Get out.

We covered that with no.

They’d just about brawled. She lost none of her coordination and wiry strength through her ordeal and practically handed his ass to him until he swept her leg and sent her crashing down to the bare wood floor. Ororo was a creature of habit. Her legs were her weak spot in defensive fighting, every time. He could deal with it if she hated him for exploiting it again, but he needed to reach her.

He was panting…PANTING…when he finally gained leverage, kneeling, straddling her ribs and locking her wrists above her head.

Damn you.

Ya listen ta me. Yer goin’ outside. Now.

Get OFF!

Fine, then. Get up.

Go to hell.

Get the fuck up and march down those stairs, or I carry ya out.

You wouldn’t dare…

Be that way, ‘Ro.

He was done tiptoeing around her. Dignity be damned; he dragged her screaming like a banshee down the stairs. Sean later admitted she almost deafened him with her histrionics and dramatics, but like Logan, he was just so grateful to see her showing signs of life.

What the hell is wrong with you??

He wanted to tell her “You’re what’s wrong with me.” Except she wasn’t.

Ororo was always what was right with him. She was his water and air.

Yer a claustrophobe. Ya need light and air. Ya hate closed up spaces, and ya go and lock yerself up inside, up high where no one can reach ya, like yer fuckin’ Rapunzel. Know what that tells me? That yer tryin’ ta die. Ya take away a plant’s air, its light, and it dies. Pretty simple, when ya think about it.

Don’t school me, Logan. I’m not in the mood. And I’m going back inside.

Not til ya look at that. She tried to turn her head away from where he pointed until he roughly grabbed her jaw and forced her to look at the scraggly flower beds. I know exactly what kinda mood yer in. And I know this is yer doing, woman!

The hell you say.

Everything’s felt wrong since you were hurt, Ororo.

Shut up.

Why? Ya got hurt. Ain’t so hard ta admit. Say it. ‘I got hurt. I lost my power.’

Don’t say anything. Shut your mouth.

Yer not a mutant anymore, Ororo.

I won’t hear this. I’m not listening to you, damn it, so just shut –

Ya’ve got a clean slate. Yer not a mutant anymore, Ororo!

WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME, WHY DON’T YOU LEAVE…ME…ALONE!

Because I can’t! Damn it, I can’t! Yer not a mutant! Fine! But yer still Ororo Munroe.

I don’t know who that is anymore.

I do.

You don’t know me!

His grip on her arm was punishing and implacable as he dragged her through the gardens until they reached the cenotaphs. She fought him, struggling to look away from the inscriptions on the marble slabs. Jean’s still managed to stab her heart.

Don’t ya think Jeannie would’ve been better off if she’d taken the Cure?

How dare you. How DARE you.

She’d be alive. She’d be the same woman we loved. No one chasing her or hunting her down fer bein’ a mutant. No provin’ that she’s worthy ta live, because she’d have her life back the way it was s’posed ta be…

You think this is the way my life was supposed to be, Logan?

Maybe ya aren’t thinking straight about who that woman is that ya could’ve been, and who ya can still be.

I won’t listen to this from you.

Ya need ta listen, and listen good. Do ya know the kinda man I would’ve been, ‘Ro? Do ya? If I wasn’t a mutie?

Stop.

Not a fuckin’ science experiment. Maybe dead. I don’t know how old I even am anymore. But do ya even know how long I’ve wanted ta do nothing but die?

She winced at the sound of tearing flesh and the sliding metal plating of his claws extending out of their sheathes. She watched them gleam in the harsh sunlight.

Even if those fuckers did this ta me, I wouldn’t be alive ta tell about it. And maybe then I wouldn’t have taken so many lives. I wouldn’t have these. I wouldn’t have nightmares that eat me alive every night and spit me back out. But all of ‘em are nothing against seein’ ya kill yerself like this. I haven’t woke back up from that, yet, ‘Ro, and it’s killin’ me.

They both screeched and roared at each other as they paced around the marble benches and statuary in the garden.

The winds and lightning wouldn’t come. She was vulnerable and exposed. Logan wouldn’t back down, and she hated it. Wanted to kill him. Silence him.

Run from the mirror he held up so she wouldn’t have to see how far she’d fallen.

Yer always about fuckin’ control, woman. Ya don’t hafta worry about not bein’ able ta feel too strongly anymore. Ya can laugh. Ya can cry. Ya can tell me ta go ta hell. And the sky ain’t gonna fall, the world ain’t gonna end, and ya aren’t gonna hurt a soul. Ya can just let it go.

You think you’re so wise…

Gotta be some benefit ta bein’ this fuckin’ old. Gimme some credit, ‘Ro.

You think you know what I’m feeling. And you think you can talk about feelings, and locking them up! You’re so hard, Logan, and all you can ever say is that life made you what you are, and that it’s a done deal.

She’d flipped it on him, and it wasn’t about him.

Their voices grew hoarse; they were out of breath and their throats ached from their battle for dominance.

This ain’t how I wanted ta be. Ya know how long I’ve been alone, ‘Ro? Do ya have any idea what it’s like ta have ta close up shop and move so often that I ain’t got a home? A family? Even a past I can share with anybody? Ya really think I wanna be hard?

He ached to be tender for her. She wasn’t having it.

It’s convenient for you, being this bad boy and blaming it on being the Wolverine. Blame it all on Wolverine. Never mind murder, Logan. You can get away with pleading amnesia or insanity or just being pissed off to do whatever you damned well please.

I can, huh?

He wanted to shake her.

So yer gonna do the same thing and blame not bein’ a mutant anymore for just walking away from yer life? Roll over and give up the ghost? He extended his claws again. Ya want help, ‘Ro?

Don’t push me.

I ain’t. That’d mean that it’s worth the effort ta try. Ya’ve got yer heart set on checking out.

No. I don’t. It’s already been ripped out. I’m going inside, now.

And his was bleeding.

 

~0~

“The kid’s parents are here. They brought along two of her friends. Both mutants. Might be expanding the ranks around here.”

“Call their parents; have them arrange a meeting with Henry.”

“Yer the headmistress. It’d be better if they met y-“

“I’m offering the position to Sean.” Logan’s stomach dropped into his shoes, and he tasted metal.

“God, ‘Ro.”

“God and I aren’t on speaking terms right now, Logan. Take your prayers somewhere else.”

They stared at each other and floundered in the silence.

“Yer leavin’ me.”

“No. I’m just leaving the school.”

“Then that means yer leavin’ me.” His tone was brusque and matter-of-fact.

“Give me one reason to stay here, Logan.” His gut wrenched when he saw how flat her eyes were, heard the hard edge to her voice. That wasn’t his ‘Ro.

“Ya don’t have any family anywhere else.”

“That never stopped me from coming all the way across the ocean with Charles when I lived with my tribe, did it? It’s the exact same thing.” She’d said it to hurt him and make him share her pain, disavowing him and everyone else at the school as her family. She wouldn’t stop at stripping them of that privilege.

“The kids-“

“They have you. They have Henry. Everything they need to learn is in their textbooks and in the Danger Room. I just take attendance.”

“That’s bullshit, ‘Ro.”

“Fine.” He hated it. Her passiveness baited him, making rage and frustration boil so hot in his chest that his skin erupted with a ruddy flush.

“What if I say I need ya here?” She sighed, but he felt the change in her. Guilt. Regret.

“Logan…”

“Ya said ya loved me.”

“I did say that.” Panic mingled with anger when she left it in past tense.

“Then were ya lyin’, Ororo?” His voice rose, and his body became animated, no longer feeling like his own as he paced the loft. “Ya tell me ya love me, get my clothes off, and now it’s so long, eh?” She stared at him like he’d just farted.

“Goodness, listen to you. Take the sex and run. I doubt it’s ever been a problem before.”

“That was before you.” She snorted.

“Please.”

“Yer not listenin’ again.” He crossed the room and gripped her shoulders, not bruising but firmly enough to hold her immobile. His gaze was naked and held nothing back. He felt her shrink back in her seat, but her eyes were riveted on him, taking in the details of his face.

The lines around his eyes and mouth were deeper; she told herself this wasn’t possible. Logan never aged, never looked weary thanks to his healing factor. Yet here he was, haggard and drawn, looking so much like the person she saw in the mirror every morning before she had to turn away. He was very much a man struggling not to let his inner light be snuffed out.

She felt the strength in his hands, tension drawing his body so tightly that it thrummed like a plucked string.

She felt it, then. Warmth. Just a trickle, at first. That first breath of heat after coming inside from the snow, beckoning you through the door. She’d been so cold now. Brittle.

Barren.

“Ya’ve gotten under my skin. I think of nothin’ but you. I feel nothin’ but you. Ororo. Not Storm. Yer my reason fer gettin’ up in the morning. I love ya, darlin’. And if ya wanna act like that’s something I just throw around every day, and like I’m just feedin’ ya lines, then ya don’t know me very well.” Her throat closed up, but her eyes never left his. “And yer the only one who knows me better’n anyone else, Ororo.”

Her breathing sped up. It matched his, stunning her. He had that effect on her, this uncanny ability to make her respond so strongly to him. Slowly her nerves began to itch, like the excruciating thaw of warming frozen limbs and extremities from frost bite, or seedlings emerging from the frozen crust to greet the light.

“Ya didn’t love me very much if ya think we’re through just because yer hurtin’, ‘Ro. That’s what ya do when yer in love. Their pain becomes yer pain, and neither one of ya feels whole when one’s bleeding.”

“Hurts. Hurts so much.” His eyes drew the words out of her mouth. He felt her shiver, and he continued to clutch her. His breath warmed her cheeks; that’s how close they were. Her trembling worried him. His hands rubbed her arms the way they would if she’d just stepped in from the cold.

“I know, baby, I know!”

“They tried to take you from me.” She sounded stunned. “They almost did. Henry told me about how you would have died, Logan, if they took away your healing.”

“Ya remember what happened with Rogue?” She nodded, wincing at the memory of finding him like that, seizing and gasping for breath. “I know what they left inside me, ‘Ro. All I remember is barely walkin’ away from it and wantin’ ta die. Adamantium’s unbreakable, but my heart ain’t. I’d rather die than watch you walk away from me. It’s just hell on earth without you, ‘Ro.”

“They can’t take you. I won’t let them.” Her voice was shaking yet implacable. It hit him hard that she cried those same words that night outside Harry’s. That night in her loft, when she told him she loved him.

“I ain’t convinced. Ya tell me ya love me, but ya still wanna pack yer bags. Who’s ready ta leave the table now?”

“I do still love you.” Her fingertips grazed his chest as she balled her hands up in his shirt.

“I ain’t just a piece of pie, ‘Ro.”

“Don’t parrot me.”

“Then don’t keep tellin’ me over and over why it’s a good idea fer ya ta take off and leave me!”

And suddenly she ran out of reasons why.

They struggled for a moment. Her eyes wavered and finally flitted away before he could see them fill, but he wasn’t having it. She feinted away from his mouth when he moved to kiss her; his lips steamed her temple and nipped the crown of her cheek, evoking a hoarse gasp. Her body defied her brain’s demands to just unwrap her hands from him and tear herself away.

Ororo’s heart reminded her brain that it wasn’t the one in charge.

“I won’t let you do this, Logan, do you hear me?” She pushed feebly at him, covering his lips with trembling fingers, but he bathed them in the heat of his mouth with growing need. He no longer hovered over her, lowering himself to his knees, insinuating his body between hers. “You won’t make me change my mind. You’re just wasting your time doing this.”

“I’m done wasting time. I’m where I wanna be, ‘Ro. Already wasted years of fuckin’ time before ya came into my life.” Every time her hand moved to shush him, he tasted it, teased it, and leaned into a caress that gradually became less reluctant, more needy. She ducked her mouth time and time again, but his lips chased them, landing wherever they may along her face and neck, making her lean into his touch that she craved. Her stomach fluttered, and every nerve ending in her body came alive as his hands crept around her waist and traced the column of her spine through her thin cotton top.

“Don’t…bother…with this, just stopohhhhmygod!” she shuddered. Her knees convulsed and clamped around his hips in one sharp snap, pinning him as he painted her throat, lapping greedily at her soft skin. Hands that were supposed to be pushing him away were twining themselves in his hair and exploring knots of muscle.

The next sound she made was shapeless and inarticulate, somewhere a moan and a gasp. Hungry and desperate, it slid free from her lips and stroked him. Her voice was a deep, rich, husky breath saturated in lust. The sound, coupled with the sensations rushing through him, was amplified by the shift in her scent and the rapid pulse throbbing in her neck.

It was a mating call.

“I’m gonna give ya,” he muttered against her lips, “all the damn reason ya need why yer not leavin’ this house.” Their argument died a silent death amid the hail of frenzied kisses and her abbreviated cry of his name.

They engaged in a tug of war where they couldn’t get close enough, fast enough. Her hands tore at his clothing, popping buttons off his white guayabera shirt as she worked it down his arms. The neckline of her knit top buffeted her chin as he jerked it over her head and chucked it into the corner. His touch was hot and sang through her body, making her tingle with every graze of his fingers. She tipped her head back in surrender, offering her throat to him once more to devour; his fingers tangled roughly in her skeins of hair to hold her immobile. She felt the rasp of his stubble and the heat of his lips. His voice was a rough caress.

“Damn it, ‘Ro!” She emitted more of those lusty, sexy sounds when the tip of his tongue snaked along the whorls of her ear. Ororo was on fire, wet and desperate.

“I hope you didn’t like that shirt,” she apologized, backing away only long enough to yank at the button of his jeans. He huffed at her strength as the denim abraded him. The zipper separated with a loud rip, and she hauled him more tightly against her to invade his mouth.

He’d created a monster…

“C’mere,” she moaned into his mouth as her feet wriggled and twisted into the waistband of his pants to shove them down to his knees.

Shit!” Arousal drew his sac up tightly into taut, stiff golf balls, and he was rock-hard. No, he decided, every part of him that could get hard, was hard.

Clearly the lecture and pep talk helped…and it helped him, too. Life was good…

He drank from her unquenchably once her clothes lay among his in a tangled heap. The first shock of her satiny skin rubbing against his sent his heart pumping and set his body into motion, undulating and grinding against her. He wasn’t in control of it anymore. Every molecule craved ‘Ro. When he tried to hold back to tease her with the rosy, plump head of his cock, slicking her pearl with her juices, she would have none of it. She thrust her hips off the bed, working herself along his shaft even as he gripped it in his hand. He didn’t bargain on her lower body strength as her legs scissored around him and pulled him down to her, and with a savage twist of her body she enveloped him. His face contorted in pleasure and surprise at the sudden immersion in her snug, moist heat. His hips worked of their own volition when she thrust up at him again.

“Move with me.” Typical, bossy Storm. Even when he clamped her wrists above her head, she continued to work, pumping him and taking him on a slippery ride.

“Fuck!” He bucked and thrust, rutting into her helplessly, unable to hold back any longer when she felt too addictive and looked so sexy beneath him. Her nipples scraped against his chest, tingling with the contact and tempting him. He bathed one, clamping it lightly between his teeth and drawing on the sweet nub like one of his Cubans. This time Ororo’s hips pistoned and jerked with the sensations he gave her, letting himself slam into her harder, faster. It was so good. So right, when they were together.

They changed positions when she leaned up to bite him. He cried out harshly at her temerity and gave her enough leverage to roll him onto his back. She was proud and sleek astride him, testing his hardness with a roll of her pelvis. Her fingertips danced over his nipples and pecs before she rippled and moved over him mercilessly, giving just as hard as she got and making the mattress bounce.

“HolyshitholyshitholyshitshitshitFUCK!”

He was incoherent. He was glowing and flushed, every muscle completely taut as he gripped her hips. He was aroused and lust-hazed and staring up at her with so much love in his eyes. He gave up on speech (even profanity) as his climax mounted and threatened to undo him.

Her hands were planted over his heart, feeling it pound for her.

“Logan!” she rasped. Every shunt rubbed her pearl and created friction that made her move faster, harder toward her own fulfillment.

He was hers. Hers.

“Come,” she panted, feeling his cock stiffen and cramp within her.

“Shit, ‘Ro…”

“COME, LOGAN!” She leaned over and braced herself against the headboard, ceasing its banging against the wall, and she gave him everything she had left. She reached her own ecstasy above him, twitching and shivering even while her hips worked him, pushing him over the edge. Frantic voices inside her head were hushed right about the point when they reached Coming. Coming…gonna come, gonna come…yes. Yes. Yes. YES -

So Logan did as he was told. He came. Before she could come down from her high, he roared in a mixture of pain and bliss. His hands gripped her ass as he jerked and bucked, eyes wide, beseeching her to tell him truthfully, was it really that incredible? Had she really loved him up, down, inside-out til he couldn’t see straight?

Yes, she had.

After the awkward effort was made to disengage himself – being that even the slightest shift of his spent member made him jerk, and that he hated to leave her slick, sticky warmth – they basked in the silence of the loft. Ororo stretched out beside him and palmed his heartbeat. Her hair tickled his lips. Her scent was all over him, and he was exhausted.

He heard laughter in her voice. Brat.

“I guess you expect me to stay now.”

“Pfft. Don’t flatter yerself, woman.” He drew idle pictures on her flesh with his fingertips, making her sigh in contentment. Their legs tangled together with the tumbled sheets.

“Admit it. You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

“Will not.” His grip on her was possessive. “Soon as ya put yer clothes back on, I’m unpackin’ all the other ones ya have. Shit, I might skip that altogether and just run off with all of ‘em. Keep ya up here nekkid.”

“There’s rules against that, you know.”

“We’re already outlaws, darlin’. Screw rules.” She paused in stroking his chest and burrowed more deeply into it. He felt the change in her mood and looked down into her eyes. He nuzzled her briefly. “Whatsamatter, darlin’?”

“I’m just plain folks now,” she murmured.

“Where’d ya come up with that shit? There’s nothin’ plain about ya, ‘Ro.” He tugged a lock of her hair to punish her impudence.

“When they took my powers, I felt…unwhole.”

“How do ya feel now?”

“Alive.”She leaned up onto her elbows and traced the fine lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes with her fingertip, then her lips.

“Ya scared the shit outta me.”

“You, too.”

“When ya jumped in ta protect Lorna, my fuckin’ heart stopped. My whole world stopped.”

“It’ll be a while before I jump out in front of anything, any time soon. Or off of anything…do you know how disjointed it feels not to be able to fly, Logan? I was standing out on my balcony yesterday, and I suddenly got dizzy from the height!”

“Now ya know how I feel. I hate heights,” he admitted.

“You didn’t mind flying with me!”

“The hell I didn’t. Eh…scratch that. It was with you. But my stomach wasn’t thankin’ ya.”

“Duly noted. Mental note: Logan hates to fly,” she mused.

In the meantime, how would she cope with not being able to again?

Chapter Text

“Yer gonna hafta pack something warmer than this fer Canada, darlin’.”

“Then we’ll just have to go shopping,” she mused thoughtfully, stroking a thick, cable-knit sweater before folding it and placing it in the duffle.

“Yer always lookin’ fer an excuse ta go shopping,” he grumbled, but his lips twisted into that lopsided grin she loved as he stubbed out his cigar and came inside from the balcony. Ororo continued to contemplate her wardrobe. Her loft was beginning to look occupied again, now that she unpacked more of her things following their trip to the compound.

It was also growing crowded, and cluttered. Ororo sighed as she grabbed a pair of Logan’s discarded socks. “These go in the hamper,” she reminded him, balling them up and handing them up to him.

“Nag, nag, nag,” he muttered, taking them from her and chucking them into the wicker bin beside her dresser.

It was starting to look like a man lived there, she realized with defeat. His favorite sherpa-lined denim jacket hung from a peg on her wall. His work boots were lined up by the bed beside her slippers. She spied the edge of his flannel pajama bottoms where they were folded and tucked beneath her pillow; admittedly, he seldom needed them…she shivered guiltily.

His grin widened as he crouched, devilment in his eyes. “Got somethin’ on yer mind, darlin’?” He shoved the duffle across the floor, removing the barrier between them as his arm snaked around her waist.

“Logan, MMMMMPH!” Helplessly her hands wandered into his hair and over his chest while he plundered the silky recess of her mouth. She moaned in surrender and contentment as his tongue spiraled lazily around hers. Her nipples peaked beneath her shirt, he discovered to his delight as he reached down to cup her breast.

What had she been saying about socks? Ohhhhhh…never mind.

He was kissing common sense out of her head as he worked the hem of her knit shirt over her breast. Logan was just peeling down the satin cup of her bra when the phone jangled on her bedside table.

“Fuck,” Logan muttered, leaning his forehead against hers for a moment. Her gaze was drowsy and aroused.

“I’d better get that?”

“Why?” He nosed her, nudging her face aside so he could attack her neck instead and sway her back to what they were doing. She felt cool air and his warm fingers stroke her nipple, and she gasped at the tingles pooling between her legs.

“Stop!” she hissed, but her voice was husky, needy.

The phone rang again.

“Errrrgh,” she grumbled. “I’d better get that.” She managed to get away with one, two, three kisses before she unwrapped Logan’s arms from her body and rose to her feet.

“Take that fuckin’ thing off the hook, next time. Why do ya even have a phone in here?”

“Just in the case the sky is falling, someone can let us know.” She didn’t add that once upon a time, she would’ve been the first to know. He grunted as she picked up the handset. “H’lo?”

“You have a visitor,” Henry informed her without preamble. “One you will want to see.”

“I wasn’t expecting anyone, Henry.”

“Bring Logan with you,” he shrugged, and she heard a hint of mirth in his deep voice. Before she could ask why, Henry hung up.

“Well, that was abrupt.”

“What’s up with Blue?”

“We need to head downstairs; we have company.”

“Ain’t our fault they showed up unannounced.” His broad chest covered her back, and she snuggled back into his bulk. He spoke into the side of her throat, “They can wait a few minutes…”

“Logan,” she warned, but she gasped and ground back against the stiff bulge poking her as he embraced her. Loving Ororo had its perks. Two of them were straining into his touch right now. The musk of her arousal saturated him, enflaming him.

“Ya can fix yer hair before we head downstairs!”

“Goddess, you’re an evil, evil man,” she scolded before she pried herself free. She didn’t let go of him, though, and she dragged him after her down the stairs.

Henry was nonplussed at the flushed, guilty looks both his friends gave him as they entered the kitchen.

“Ya got give minutes, bub,” Logan grumbled as he reached into the fridge for a beer. Ororo rolled her eyes. Henry chuckled.

“Five minutes is all Blue and I will need,” Forge informed him as he strode inside and set a steel-hulled briefcase on the table.

Motherfucker.

Ororo’s hand immediately restrained him before he could raise his hand and extend his claws. She laced her fingers through his to prevent him giving into temptation. Forge didn’t miss the meaning of her instinctive act, nor the protective way she huddled against Logan now. Two against one. He shook his head and smiled.

“You’re looking well, Ororo.”

“I’m feeling well. Likewise, Maker.”

Forge was back in fighting form. He wore his customary glove over his newer, upgraded prosthetic, and she could have sworn he was standing taller thanks to the one on his leg. His color was ruddy and full of health, and there was nothing of the broken man who’d recovered at the mansion and left in despair once Henry made his diagnosis that Storm’s powers were, indeed, gone. He was casually dressed, not a man who had to dash back to an office or report for duty.

His chiseled lips smiled. “I have something that may make you feel even better.”

“I got somethin’ that’ll make ya feel a helluva lot worse, prick,” Logan promised under his breath as he opened his beer and took a long pull. Ororo pinched him.

“Forge has kept in touch with me and Moira over the past few weeks. The collaboration has been fruitful.” Henry watched Forge unclasp the locks on the briefcase and flick it open.

“Ya gonna tell us ya have a bun in the oven?”

“Logan, hush!” A low snort escaped Forge, and he cocked one black brow.

“No. But here, Ororo. Hold this.” He handed her a small module that fit neatly into the palm of her hand. Its filaments of circuitry glowed with green light.

“Why?” The module slowly began to pulse and warm within her grip.

“Because a new mutant is about to be born.”

“HOLY -!” CRASH! Broken glass and beer sprayed Logan’s boots as he dropped the bottle from his grip. Ororo was enveloped in green energy that immobilized her.

“Hen.Ry.What’s.Hap.Ning,” she cried stiffly. Her body jerked as she stared at him in horror and wonder.

“Darlin’, let go of that fuckin’ thing NOW! What the fuck have ya done, asshole! Ya haven’t done enough!” SNIKT! Forge grunted and felt the air choked from his lungs as Logan plowed into him and throttled his neck. He banged his head back against the refrigerator and brandished three gleaming talons beneath his chin. He was vibrating with rage. Forge stared him down, taking in his dilated pupils and flaring nostrils, and he was hit with a drop of spittle as Logan tore him a new one. “How do ya sleep at night, asshole, thinkin’ ya can just walk in here and bend us over and screw us again? Turn that fuckin’ thing OFF! Or I’ll turn YOU off!”

“Goddess,” Ororo moaned. “Logan…please! Let him go!” He whipped his head around to face her again, torn between wanting to kill the man who’d likely taken her from him again and destroying the gadget that was holding her prisoner.

“It’s okay, baby…”

“Let him go, man,” Henry growled, shouldering himself between Logan and his prey. Logan’s fingers continued to squeeze Forge’s windpipe shut.

“Might…wanna listen…to Blue,” Forge rasped as his face turned two more shades of raspberry.

“Logan!” Ororo cried again. The radiance brightened, and the room suddenly began to crackle with the same energy that wrapped around her body. She glowed within its nexus, and her hair began to drift up from her shoulders in a corona. That odd green light suffused her eyes, until the irises swirled with white light.

Sparks danced from the fingertips of her free hand, and she held it in front of her face with wonder.

“Forge…the lightning…it’s come back!” Her voice was ethereal and suffused with joy, so beautiful it pierced them to witness.

The ruthlessly cloudless sky outside began to roil and change. Blue gave way to gray, and thunder shook the ground. Logan and Henry felt their hackles raise, and the vibrations traveled through their nerve endings in terror and anticipation.

A storm.

“I feel…so…oh,” she sighed dreamily. The module crackled briefly before she dropped it from nerveless fingers.

It shattered against the kitchen tile, and she sagged, suddenly limp as a noodle.

SNAKT! Logan flung Forge away from him and spun around, catching her before she could make contact with the hard tiles.

“Ro!” he roared, cradling her against him and shaking her. “Don’t do this ta me, baby, damn it, don’t do this! RO!” Ice ran down his spine and his temples throbbed in time with his heart. Behind him, Forge and Henry collected themselves and watched the couple anxiously, splitting their attention between them and the sky outside.

SHRAKA-THOOOOOMMM… The thunder’s low boom grew in volume and intensity, and Ororo opened her eyes.

“Hi,” she murmured weakly. Her smile was all for him.

“Baby?” His eyes sparked with tears, but he didn’t give a fuck about pride. Her heartbeat was growing stronger, even though her pulse was still erratic. “Please be okay, darlin’!”

“I am. Can you feel it?” The energy’s glow dissipated from the room but never left her eyes.

They were swirling milky white with electricity. He was mesmerized by them as she ran the back of her fingertip down his cheek.

“Come fly with me,” she beckoned.

“Are ya fuckin’ NUTS?” He craned his neck toward Henry. “Hank, she’s goin’ into shock! She’s fuckin’ DELIRIOUS! Help me get her downstairs…”

“I don’t want to go downstairs,” she argued. “I want to go outside.” Slowly she struggled free and rose. All three men gaped as she reached for his hand and pulled him upright. “Come with me.”

His legs obeyed her, not him, as he stumbled after her.

The front door flew open, buffeted by an updraft that sent papers and couch cushions flying. The wind tore at Logan’s hair and made him quake with the cold…cold. Ororo’s smile was serene, and she resembled a child with a new toy.

“Come with me, Logan,” she repeated. Overhead, lightning flared and crackled, and her hair was still fluttereing and charged with that energy that left him in awe. And no lack of fear.

“This ain’t happening,” he insisted.

“Oh, but it is,” she cried, flinging herself into his waiting arms. She thrummed with the currents that she harnessed, testing their strength. He stared down into her face.

“Yer sure?”

“I’ve never been more sure.” Then he was holding onto her for balance as a jetstream whipped up and buoyed them into the air.

A ragged scream was torn from his lips. It was like putting a leash on a tornado. His stomach bade him goodbye, he knew he left it somewhere on the ground.

All he heard was the wind and thunder. All he felt was the currents and the pounding of their combined pulse and heartbeat, and the wiry strength of Ororo’s body wrapped around him.

All he saw was Ororo’s smile and her passion for him dancing in her eyes.

Henry and Forge watched them from the front porch.

“Well done, my friend.”

“Coulda stepped in sooner before he could fillet me.”

“You didn’t give him much of a warning,” Henry argued.

“He wouldn’t have let her near it,” he reasoned.

They watched Ororo careen and swoop through the sky and heard her laughter. Logan’s eventually joined it.

“You might want to be gone by the time they get back.”

“See you, Blue.” Forge headed back to the kitchen to collect the remains of his prototype. Once he returned to his rented car, he called his penthouse and left word that he was returning within twenty-four hours. He’d start production of the restoration modules immediately.

“Goodbye, Wind-Rider,” he whispered, staring out through the window before the rain began to fall. He’d given her back her smile. It was a job well done.

 

~0~

“Look at all of the CDs,” Kitty breathed, pawing through the stacks on Douglas’ desk as he unpacked.

The Institute had a full house for the spring semester, and a full roster of staff. Sean decided to stay on, but was planning a sabbatical to Muir Isle during the summer. The school also retained Henry when he applied to the Department of Defense for a leave of absence.

“I can burn you a copy of anything you want,” he offered.

“Don’t worry about it. Just bring a few outside. Logan’s working the grill.” She hurried out with five of his discs tucked in her hand just as quickly as she’d breezed in, but at least this time, Kitty used the door.

She was cute. Taken, but cute. Doug chuckled to himself as he stacked his folded shirts in the dresser drawer.

He was suddenly distracted by girlish laughter in the hall. He spied Jubilee, that girl Marie with the odd hair, and Ali, who had even weirder hair, coming around the corner. Lorna led the pack.

“I don’t see why I was the only one who got grounded,” Jubes complained sourly.

“You were the only one standing there when Logan found you tossing a firecracker into his beer,” Lorna shrugged.

“God. His HAIR!” Ali giggled. “It just went FWOOSH!”

“Hey,” Doug greeted, leaning his lanky body against the doorframe and tucking his hands into his pockets. Lorna spun around and caught his gaze. She blushed beet red.

He looked fresh-scrubbed and tidy. Sunlight shone inside through his bedroom window, and it backlit his blond hair and the robin’s egg blue of his eyes. He was giving her that gee-shucks grin that made her stomach flutter.

Yup. It was fluttering. Beside her, Ali rolled her eyes.

“We’re headed outside. Wanna play on our team? How’s your pitching arm?” Jubilee demanded, cracking her gum.

“I’m better at shortstop,” he admitted. “I’ll be down in a sec.”

“Come on down before the s’mores are gone,” Jubes shrugged. Marie and Ali ganged up on her and started dragging her toward the elevator. “C’mon, Lorna!”

“Go on ahead,” she replied hollowly. She was staring at Doug. He was staring back. She was drawn to him, feeling the pull of his easy smile and his effect on her hormones. She felt the pink in her cheeks deepen, and she felt hot and flushed.

She leaned against the wall and looked up at him through her lashes. “Whaddya think so far?”

“It’s all right.”

“Doug?”

“Yeah?”

“You didn’t have to come here. I mean…you’re normal.”

“My folks might argue that with you. So might Jono.”

“Jono’s twisted. He can’t talk. But…you didn’t even have to tell anyone about your power, Doug!”

“Maybe I didn’t want to keep it a secret. Besides, it’s a school for gifted students. That’ll look awesome on a college application next year.”

“You’re only fifteen!”

“I’m accelerated. I’m in a few classes with Kitty this semester.” Lorna snorted. “What?”

“You guys will have all kinds of shit to talk about, then.” Envy made her blue eyes flash green. Doug’s smile grew impish. “What?” His eyes flitted to her rosebud mouth. “Doug…”

He abandoned his perch in the doorway and hooked his finger through her belt loop, tugging her to him. Her yelp of surprise was cut short as he captured her lips. He tasted like Colgate, and she sighed into his mouth. She combed her fingers through his blond waves and gave herself up to his leisurely exploration that made her tingle all over.

She felt the crown of her head thunk lightly back against the wall. Her legs were limp as noodles.

“Wow.” He nodded and cleared his throat, licking his lips. His fingers smoothed back a lock of her green hair.

“Maybe I wanna talk about all kinds of shit with you,” he pointed out, tossing her own words at her, teasingly. “You mind?” She shook her head and stared at his mouth. He lost his balance as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him back down into her kiss, not letting him back up until they were both dizzy.

Perhaps they wouldn’t talk quite yet…but at least they spoke the same language.

 

~0~

Several weeks later, Aleytys Forrester was descending the ramp of the fishing boat and stalking down the dock, untucking her bunched-up ponytail from her raincoat. The odors of fish and salty mist assailed her as she headed toward her office.

“Mail came for ya, Cap’n,” Paolo bellowed to her as he struggled with some rigging.

“Thanks!” she called back. She longed to remove her boots and gear and soak in a hot tub.

She stomped inside and approached her desk, rifling through the small stack of letters.

An envelope bearing air mail stamps stared back up at her. She removed her knit glove with her teeth before opening it. Her hands shook.

I hope you’re still behaving yourself. Pink sky at night, sailor’s delight.

She sank down into her rickety chair and settled in for a long read. Outside, the sun set over the harbor, casting it in pink and gold.

FIN.