"A, B, C, D, E, F, G..." Alex Summers sang quietly to himself as he wandered down the aisle, head tilted at an awkward angle so he could read call numbers as he went. A quick look up the aisle showed that there was a woman there and Alex made a point of remembering not to walk right into her. Attractive as she was, most women did not find being bowled over appealing as a come-on. Instead, he concentrated on finding his book, flicking the finger with the Post-it attached to it and unconsciously moving his eyes down the rows of books in time to the beat he was setting with the tiny neon pink paper.
His second week back in the swing of things and he was still buzzed. Normal life. Graduate school. No skin-suits, no Danger Room, no having to pretend that it wasn't Guido who hadn't cleaned out the hair trapper over the shower drain. Now it was Princeton instead of the Xavier Institute or Headquarters in DC. Now he had griping classmates he had to sit in seminar with and then part from instead of griping teammates he had to live with and never not see. Now the greatest evil in the universe was no longer En Sabah Nur but instead the Registrar. Life was good.
He stopped when it looked like the call number range he needed was right where the woman was standing. She was leaning a book against an empty space on a shelf and he grumbled to himself about Murphy's Law dictating that whatever book he needed would be on the bottom shelf and in someone else's way.
"Excuse me," he said quietly, waiting for the woman to look up before gesturing with his Post-it finger where he needed to be. Giving him a quick half-smile as she tucked a loose strand of brown hair behind her ear, she took a step back, leaving the book on its shelf and gently kicking her backpack behind her as she moved. Alex noticed that she had runner's legs, trim and tapered without being skinny, as he crouched down on his haunches to avoid having to kneel on the dusty tile floors.
The book wasn't there. Alex hissed his irritation through his teeth. Who the hell (else) would need a fifty-year-old treatise on process geomorphology? The computer catalog had said that it wasn't checked out, but he hadn't counted on it being lost. He scanned the shelf again in case it had been put back in the wrong place, double checked his call number... and then mentally smacked himself. He needed the QE's and he was in the QC's.
Too embarrassed to admit to such, Alex made a quiet noise of frustration as if the book was missing and got up, smiling in apology to the woman watching him as he did so.
"You want the next aisle over," she said with a wry smile, gesturing behind her with one hand while gesturing with her chin at his Post-It. "Unless you're actually interested in electrical field theory."
Alex's shoulders sagged in defeat. So much for not making a fool of himself. "I'm having a bad alphabet day," he admitted, scratching the back of his head absently. "I'm rusty."
"Rusty with the alphabet?" An arched eyebrow.
"With thinking," Alex elaborated. "It's been a while since I've had to do anything other than focus on a variation of 'breathe in, breathe out.'" And the funny thing, he added to himself, was that it was mostly true.
"Mmm," the woman said, lips pursed in an obvious attempt to hold back a comment. Her eyes were twinkling and Alex fought the impulse to get ready to defend himself.
"You might as well spit it out," he told her instead. "Someone should have fun at my expense and it probably won't be me."
"Oh, I wasn't going to laugh at you," she replied with a smile, shifting her posture and checking with one hand that the sunglasses hanging out of the pocket of her denim shorts were still there. Princeton was still very much a chinos-and-blazer kind of place, but this was still before the semester began and, well, nobody in the sciences dressed very formally. "At least not until you say what you were really looking for instead of hundred-year-old Russian texts on the future discoveries of electrical engineering."
"Can we open them to see if they're right about any of it?" Alex asked mischievously. "Actually, I was looking for an old German book on process geomorphology."
"You're a Civvie?"
"A wha?" Alex gave his best Confused Summers look. Guaranteed to get the girl every time. Rumor had it even Domino was not immune to it.
"A civil engineer, which apparently you're not," the woman elaborated, leaning back against the shelves as a pair of students walked by whispering in Chinese.
"Geology," Alex said.
"Ah," she replied, eloquently mischievous in her expression. Alex thought she looked part Asian - there was something about the set of her eyes. "Rocks."
"You make it sound like such a dirty word," Alex chided, putting on his best wounded expression. "Like 'Philosophy' or 'Comp Lit'... well, that's two words. But you get my point."
That earned him an amused smile and he was about to go on when he heard someone call out in a loud whisper.
The woman turned and the smile she gave the approaching man told Alex all that he needed to know. Giving a quick, tight smile to the woman - apparently named Lily - when she turned back to him, Alex headed off to find his book. Already having been accepted as a protégé by John Frohmeyer, one of the most respected geomorphologists in terms of field work currently working in the United States, and having all of his credits transferred without issue, it was too much to hope for that everything good from his first stint in grad school would come back... although perhaps he'd get a bit more work done this time around if he wasn't trying to juggle a relationship and his exams. And fighting evil. But he had mostly taken care of the fighting evil part.
By the time he walked past the aisle after finding his book (on a different bottom shelf), Lily and her boyfriend were gone.
"Head's UP!" Cyclops called out as the satellite dish came crashing to earth. With Phoenix currently occupied tracking down escapees, there was no one to slow the massive dish's descent and the ground shook as it impacted and Alex braced to retain his balance as he looked around for anything that might have been shaken loose and make a new danger as a result.
An eye in the sky to spot hazards above would have been nice, but if the choice was between Jean chasing the runners or providing a telekinetic umbrella, it was going to be the former every time. If the X-Men had learned anything from the increase in Sentinel attacks, it was that for every fugitive they let free, four more seemed to pop up to support them. The Sentinel population was not diminishing despite best efforts from all around.
Inside the compound's main house, a team worked on getting in to any rooms that might hold crucial plans or databases. Just blowing the place to smithereens would be easier and, quite frankly, more enjoyable. But in what was rapidly becoming a war of attrition, there had to be a change in tactics if the X-Men were going to have any success. And if they would not rescind their standing policy regarding the taking of life, then there had to be other changes. And that was why Psylocke's badly burned and lacerated leg - a result of a risky mission that would not have been undertaken only a few months before - had been considered a fair exchange for a chance to gain information.
"So," Iceman called over as he toyed around with the ice block he was using to freeze three Sentinels in place without killing them. They were unconscious, but there was no point in taking any chances. "How's civilian life?"
"What civilian life?" Havok made a face as he realized that he had overestimated the width of the obstructed keyhole. All he had meant to do was bore a hole through the tumblers, but now he'd have to melt the entire doorknob and lock. He sighed as the molten metal alloy and burned plastic slid down the steel door - whatever the damned thing had been reinforced with was pretty impressive. "We're in," he announced into his headset as a kick to the door sent it swinging slowly open.
"You know, the one you have when you're not getting called back to the mansion for drills or emergency missions," Iceman elaborated as he quickly froze the pool of molten metal that was starting to burn a hole in the floor.
"I told Cyke that I'll drill once a month and if I feel like it," Havok replied as they looked around at the wall of computers. "And look how well that worked out."
That had been a rather unpleasant conversation, although it had gone a lot less poorly than had the original one. With both Apocalypse and the Sentinels running around in addition to the usual contingent of mutant supervillains, Alex had known that Havok was much more likely to be needed than otherwise might have been the case. Even if neither Scott nor Lorna (his successor as head of X-Factor) had broached the topic of a full return, Alex knew he'd have to expect a few recalls. After a similarly-recalled Archangel had gotten himself shot during a maneuver that should have been elementary for him had he been training regularly, Cyclops had insisted that Alex return to Westchester regularly to drill in the Danger Room and had unilaterally decided on a training routine for anyone who wanted to consider themselves part of the reserves. That Alex had wanted to consider himself part of the retired had not factored in. Nor would it, hence most of the shouting.
Alex had tried to appeal to logic and reason - it was impractical from both an academic and a logistic perspective to be running between Central Jersey and Westchester every weekend to get his ass whipped in the Danger Room. Scott, unmoved by Alex's threat to transfer to a school too far away to be commuting distance, had eventually compromised - only after Jean had gotten involved - to a twice-a-month schedule, but Alex had intended for it to only be temporary. Even if Scott chose not to recognize the firmness of his decision.
"You want first crack or should I?" Iceman asked as he made an irritated noise at the computer.
"I'll do it," Havok replied, sitting down. "Don't want you getting ice chips on the keyboard."
"Geez. You'd think they'd use something other than Windows," Iceman muttered as he watched Havok boot down the computer and dig out a disk from his utility belt. "Didn't Independence Day teach them anything?"
Rebooting with Shadowcat's customized override-and-destroy program, Havok set up the uplink; they'd copy all of the files, infect the network with some specially-built worms, and then reduce the machine itself to scrap. "Are there any useful papers lying around?"
"A ton," Iceman replied from the other end of the console. "Are they useful? Well, that's the question. I can't read Bulgarian. I guess we'll take everything and then lock Colossus in a room with them."
"Can he read Bulgarian?"
"It uses a Cyrillic alphabet," Iceman replied with a shrug. "It'll be easier for him to learn than for us."
"All right," Havok announced, standing up. "We're done and confirmed. Grab what we're taking and let's get out of here. The stink from the melting plastic is going to be noxious and the further away we get Wolverine from the smell, the less he'll bitch on the ride home."
"'We Can Smell What the Rock is Cooking', 'We Can Rock like the Rolling Stones', 'We Can Rock You Like a Hurricane'..."
"Okay, stop at the Scorpions reference," Alex cried out, waving his hands as if he were drowning and signaling for a lifeguard. "Who put you in charge of designing the department t-shirts and where did you get the pictures of them with a goat?"
Rob sighed dramatically and gave Stephanie, nearly dying of laughter next to him, a withering look. "I've been doing this for three years," he replied.
"That's because nobody else will," Sanjay retorted from his safe position on top of the short bookcase. "You bring brown-nosing the department secretary to new levels."
"Or maybe I'm just good at it?" Rob suggested.
"That's not it. That's definitely not it," Valeri said as he crossed the Geosciences lounge carrying pizza boxes. "There were suggestions involving investigating cracks last year."
"They were funny," Rob defended.
"That's because you're Mister Rainforests and Green, Leafy Things and have no taste," Stephanie told him as she stood up. "For those of us who actually toil in the ground because we don't have radical environmentalists leaving us money…"
Right on cue, everyone groaned. The Geosciences department was wildly uneven in the funding it could secure and those in the more popular fields - like Rob in Environmental - did much better off than the rest of the students, whose research often as not depended on the unrelated (and often unlikable) motivations of both nations and men. Paul's grant was from some tiny post-Soviet Bloc country that wanted to double its GNP by proving that dinosaurs used to roam its southern districts. Alex himself had spent his winter break getting paid to use hydrology to settle a land dispute that would decide the fate of a silver mine. ("Greed is often at the root of beneficence," Frohmeyer had told him when the check had come.)
"I like the 'pictures with a goat' theory," Ji-Won added, dropping the plastic bags containing the soda and ice on the table with a grunt.
"Yo, Primakov," Paul called from where he was digging out the supply of plastic cups and paper plates. "Why are you carrying the pizza and making Ji-Won do the heavy lifting?"
"She's stronger than I am," Valeri replied easily, taking off his hat and unbuttoning his pea coat.
Alex pointedly looked at Ji-Won, who weighed all of eighty pounds. Ji-Won shrugged, flexing her dainty fingers. "Ever see a Russian whimper? It was so not pretty."
"Actually, I have seen a Russian whimper. And sulk," he answered, thinking back to Piotr. He actually missed the big guy. "You probably had the right idea. They are dangerous in their wounded pride."
"Uh, guys," Valeri interrupted, sorting the pizza boxes by their contents. "I thought this was a 'Pick on Rob' event."
"Indeed it is," Sanjay agreed, hopping down off the bookcase and clapping his hands together with glee. "But I am much more withering in my sarcasm on a full stomach. You are merely the warm-up act. The appetizer."
"Well, here's the entrée. Left is meat, middle is veggie, and right is omnivore," Stephanie announced as she lifted the box lids. "Oooh, you remembered the olives."
"I don't know, Summers," Paul warned as he settled on the couch with his pizza and a beer. "You better start sharing your tricks for getting the takeout back to the lounge without it cooling off or you're going to be on every food run until you're outta here."
Alex managed to smile easily as he bit into his own originally still-hot-but-not-that-hot slice that he had surreptitiously warmed up. Eight months into grad school and he was still normal. Well, as normal as any grad student could be. He had found a cohort to join, had gotten used to the local routine - East Coast Ivy League versus southwestern state university was as much a change as X-Men was to X-Factor - and had settled in to his new life. He had the dinky's schedule memorized, could announce with a nearly straight face that he was making a Wawa's run and did anyone need anything, and was on a first name-basis with both the late-night librarian and the late-morning hostess at the pancake house.
There had been a few moments over the past semester-and-change where Alex had had to talk his way out of potentially interesting situations. Going to visit his brother on the weekends was within normal parameters, but the questions about what he had done in between his grad school stints had petered out after he had said that his most recent job had been with a government contractor - at some point Paul had apparently told everyone that that was what Delta Force operatives said and Alex had already admitted to some paramilitary training. A couple of unexplained mid-week disappearances added to the non-story and he was immensely grateful that none of his Havok-related activities had been captured on any sort of film. Oh, for the invisibility that had been so useful in his time in Australia...
"Earth to Alex," Ji-Won called to him, waving her hand in front of his face.
"Sorry," he said. "What did I miss?"
"Sanjay has eaten enough to be ready to start insulting Rob now," Paul answered. "In case it turns out to be a virtuoso performance, we wanted you to be able to fully appreciate it from the beginning."
"It's always a virtuoso performance," Alex answered with a smile, raising his glass to Sanjay, who nodded. "But I wouldn't want to miss it."
Four hours later, after the pizza was consumed and the systematic rejection of every one of Rob's t-shirt slogans complete and the night guard had come to warn them that the building closed at ten, the group broke up for the evening. By dint of pure luck, Alex's apartment was in the opposite direction of everyone else's - his late application for housing had put him on the waiting list, which in turn had left him free to take a sublet from an adjunct professor who had gotten a last-minute fellowship in Germany - and he waved goodbye to the crew and started the long walk home.
March was supposed to come in like a lion and out like a lamb, but Alex had spent enough time in Westchester to know that that didn't happen in the Greater Tri-State area. In fact, the reverse was usually true and after two weeks of almost-early-spring-like weather - groundhog on Staten Island be damned - the air had turned brutally cold the previous weekend. While Alex didn't especially mind the change in temperature, he could appreciate everyone else's frustration.
Passing the museum, Alex noted a lone figure waiting by the bus stop and felt sympathy as he drew closer - there was no bus service tonight. There had been signs posted, but between the high winds and Facilities' overzealous war on all paper flyers and posters, none remained. As if on cue, the wind picked up slightly and Alex, unbothered except for the wind in his eyes, was reminded that freaky genetics were not all bad.
Another gust of wind blew and Alex squinted. The woman at the bus stop turned away from the wind and towards him and Alex realized he she looked familiar, although after eight months on campus that probably wasn't as uncommon as it once had been. But from where... the glint of the streetlight flashed on a textbook and Alex connected the dots.
"Lily, right?" He asked, walking up to the woman.
She looked at him warily. "Yeah?"
"We met in the library at the start of the academic year. You made fun of my rocks," he said. "I was having alphabet issues."
Recognition dawned. "Hi," she said less suspiciously. "I'd offer to shake your hand, but..." she gestured down with her chin to bare hands balled up and pulled into her coat sleeves. "I left my mittens in Montreal."
"Is that like leaving your heart in San Francisco?" Alex asked.
Lily frowned at him. "If you're going to tease a freezing woman on a cold night, at least give me your name so I can scribble nasty things about you on the bathroom wall."
"Alex Summer, Geosciences," he said, then frowned. "You do know that there's no bus tonight, right?"
"What?" Lily squeaked. "Why would they do that on a night like this... and why isn't there a sign?"
"There were, but we had a storm," Alex explained, waving his hand in the general direction of a pile of fallen branches.
"I wasn't here for that," Lily replied ruefully. "Shit... err, pardon my language."
"I've said worse," Alex scoffed. "I can curse in... six languages, I think." Seven if you counted Shi'ar, but Alex didn't want to do so lest he be asked for a demonstration. "Can I walk you somewhere? It's kind of late... I'd offer you a cell phone to call someone, but I don't have mine with me."
Strategic forgetfulness with the phone didn't get him out of all X-Men-related business, not with both Cerebro and telepaths who knew his predilections at hand, but it cut down on the summoning for the less-urgent business that Scott had a nasty habit of calling emergencies just because he could.
"It's all right," Lily replied, shaking her head, pursing her lips in bemused frustration. "I have mine but I don't have anyone to call. When I told Evan that I didn't want to see him until hell froze over, a cold night in Princeton wasn't exactly what I had in mind. Apt, perhaps, but not what I had in mind."
Alex hoped he didn't look too happy about that, even if she didn't seem too disappointed by her apparently newly-singly status. "So can I escort you to a more populated area?" he asked instead.
"I don't want to take you out of your way, especially if you're only going to have to walk home," she replied, but Alex didn't miss the note of hopefulness in her voice.
"I'll be fine, don't worry," Alex promised. "So, which way?"
Forty minutes later, Alex was pretty sure he was going to do whatever it took for Lily to go out with him. He had first had the thought as they passed by an advertisement for a movie and they had both blurted out the same inappropriate-but-funny comment on the innuendo-laced tag line. But any doubts faded by the time they had passed the pet supply store. The store had a parrot cage in the window with a stuffed parrot toy in the cage. The parrot was apparently attached to the perch, but it was listing badly and Lily had launched right into Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch. Alex had joined in and they had been able to go through it all the way until the second chorus of The Lumberjack Song, by which point both of them were laughing too hard to continue.
Yes, Alex had a very fraught history with women, but Lily was not like anyone he'd met in the spandex set. And he was well aware that that was no small part of the attraction. An attraction that was impervious even to Lily still not thinking much of his chosen field.
"Geology isn't a real science," she retorted after Alex made a statement about the sciences in general. "You talk to rocks."
"Not everything in science has to have an impact on the average person's daily life."
"That's why we have the liberal arts. All it does is make them overqualified to work at The Gap."
"I like The Gap."
"I rest my case."
"You're such an engineer," Alex accused.
"I am," Lily preened outrageously and then laughed. "And I'm also down the block from my apartment. Is this where you confess that you live on the other side of campus and won't get home until three in the morning?"
"It'll take me twenty minutes," Alex assured her. Yes, he was across town, but he still worked out every day and ran a respectable mile.
"Are you sure?"
"I suppose it could be twenty-four minutes, but that's only because I have really bad luck with the traffic lights in this town."
Lily still looked thoughtful, and all of a sudden, Alex had a brilliant idea. "Do you want me to call you once I get home? Let you know I didn't get kidnapped and used for bacon by one of the eating clubs?"
She eyed him closely for a moment, but then shrugged. "Well, you already know where I live," she replied with an air of exaggerated resignation and shrugged.
"I was five when it came out. Ewoks are cute when you're five. Like teddy bears."
"You had Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, heck even Lando Calrissian and you chose Wicket? I would have gone with Princess Leia...Definitely Leia."
"I was always Princess Leia when we played. Wicket makes perfect sense."
"But Leia had other sidekicks. R2-D2. C-3PO. The Alliance leader who looked like a walrus."
"They had the cartoon and they were cute and fuzzy and..."
"Chewbacca was cute and fuzzy, too. And he could handle a blaster."
"Chewbacca was not cute."
"But he could fly a ship. Ewoks couldn't even drive the speeder-bikes."
"Some of us look for something other than guns and driving skills."
"Am I supposed to take that personally?"
"You rear-ended a Salvation Army dumpster."
"It was a love tap."
"You're lucky the rental place didn't notice it."
"I blinded them with my charm and personality."
"You left me standing outside in a wet sundress."
"You're not going to let this one go, are you?"
"Come on, our table's ready."
"You do realize what I'm going to have to give as our name from now on..."
"Don't you dare."
"Alex?" Scott's voice sounded almost amused through the phone. "I know that wasn't just a reaction to me asking you to help us out."
"No," Alex sighed, looking around his tiny apartment as if the walls would give him any clues as to what to do. "I've just got to figure out a way to break a date without having to say what I'm doing. I can't exactly tell Lily that I'll make it up to her after I go melt down some mutant-hating killing machines."
There was a Sentinel nest in Idaho; Scott had called him as a last resort. This Alex knew. He also knew that there was no way he could not say yes. The X-Men were spread too thin as it was dealing with some terror-du-jour that he normally wouldn't hear about until Jean let it slip during a get-together. The timing sucked, as Sentinel timing usually did. But he couldn't just e-mail Bastion and tell him that his first solo-authored article in one of the Holy Trinity of morphology journals had a hard deadline of next week.
"Tell her you have a lab?"
"She's an engineer," Alex replied, looking over his paper-strewn desk. Journal articles, library books, notes, Post-its, and a photo of Jean and Scott in a frame. It bothered Alex that he couldn't keep any pictures of his former teammates - who also happened to be his friends - around lest someone visiting make the connection. The same went for magazines with mutant-related articles and the like.
"Engineers never believe anyone else has more inconvenient labs than they do," Alex explained, feeling that weird weariness that came with having to explain the graduate school hierarchy to an outsider. "Besides, she's in lab now."
He let his eyes fall on the photo he kept attached to the fridge. It was of him and Lily during their weekend trip to Cape May. She was wearing a Portland Winterhawks t-shirt over her bathing suit (not that Lily needed to cover up, but Alex found something refreshing in her modesty and never nagged her about it) and his hair was all spiky from the salt water and they were grinning like escaped lunatics. Which, in a sense, they had been.
"Family emergency?" Scott sounded much too amused.
"Do you want to have to remember whatever it is I'm going to tell her for the next time you see her?" Alex asked with some irritation. Jean and Scott had met Lily twice, both times in Manhattan for dinner. Jean liked her immensely, which made sense in a weird way because she had always warned him that he'd end up with a woman who wouldn't put up with his more annoying quirks. "She's going to remember. And ask you about it."
"Make it happen to Dad," Scott suggested and he sighed. Scott was definitely having too much fun with this.
"I haven't said anything about Dad," Alex replied, letting his agitation seep into his voice. Lily was perceptive to know that there were certain parts of Alex's past that he wasn't comfortable talking about. She knew a skeleton history of his family, although Alex had had to dance around many of the details of his father and all of the details about his nephew. "That comes after I explain you."
What had been a hypothesis in March was now an evidence-supported conclusion, but not an untroubled one. Alex loved Lily enough to tell her so, but he had not even gotten so far as mentioning that he was a mutant, let alone everything that came with it. And he was well aware that that 'everything' was all well past its expiry date in terms of what he could justify keeping from her and still credibly say that they had an honesty-based relationship. It was fear on his own part - fear that Lily would leave him - or worse, would hate him -- because of what he was and what he had been. The X-Men were not superheroes to everyone. He knew Lily was uncomfortable with the notion that he had formerly been some sort of government agent - he had never disabused anyone of the Delta Force rumor that had never quite died out - and while he had never seen or heard her say anything derogatory about mutants, they had never discussed it, either. Another part of Alex's necessary double life, another part that he had not anticipated before he had left X-Factor to be a civilian.
"Hey," Scott protested. "What am I supposed to tell you? I've never had to come up with a cover story for a girlfriend before. You're the one who wanted to go out with normal women, right?"
There was the sound of sharp contact, a yelp of pain that only partially satisfied Alex, and then the sound of the phone receiver being put back to a mouth.
"You could just tell her," Jean's voice came on the line. "You two have been going out long enough."
"Jean," Alex half-whined, half-sighed.
"What?" Jean retorted. "It's been almost a year, Alex. You love her, right? You're serious about her, right? The longer you wait, the more it's going to hurt."
"It's not a Band-Aid," Scott could be heard muttering in the background.
"I'm not going to argue with you about that," Alex sighed, running his fingers through his hair, then frowning as he realized he'd tied himself up completely in the phone cord. He'd gotten so used to the cordless he'd had last year. "But it's not the sort of thing one leaves on an answering machine as a reason for why dinner plans have to be cancelled at the last minute. Can't you just use Cerebro..."
"Alex!" Jean barked. "Tell her it's a family emergency, and then when you get back you tell her the truth."
"She'll forgive me for lying to her?" Alex asked skeptically. He personally didn't think Lily would.
"No," Jean replied. "She's going to be so pissed off at you for not telling her that you're Havok that it will get lost in the larger explosion."
"That's not a comf... ow," Alex grumbled. "That was Betsy in my head. My ride is here."