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Games of Attrition

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Kevin was the last to the Hellions’ table in the Academy’s game room. Cessily watched him, of course. He stayed over at the New Mutants' table for as long as he could get away with, talking with Laurie.

The game was already spread out on the table in front of the Hellions. "This is stupid," said Julian, flipping through his cards.

Ms. Frost, standing by with the other teachers to make sure that nobody broke out in fistfights or worse, was either close enough to hear her star student or was making a special effort to listen in telepathically. She walked over casually and tapped the table. "This is a team building exercise," she said pointedly.

"Combat drills are team building exercises," Julian said. "This is kid stuff."

"However juvenile you think it to be, you will not disappoint me. Play along and be good little students. You will do that, won't you?" She gave the rest of them a pointed look and sauntered back to where the other teachers stood talking and laughing. They seemed to be having a good time. So did the other students at their tables, from what Cessily could see.

"'Apples to Apples'? What's this game even about?" Kevin said, picking up the stack of cards that had been dropped in his previously empty place at the table.

"Okay, see the green cards? Those have characteristics on them. And the red ones have nouns." Cessily flipped a few from the deck over to show him, and to refresh the rest of the group in general. She wasn't sure Santo had been paying attention at all. "See this green one? 'Dangerous.' And these red ones--'Top of a roller coaster,' Discovering America,' and 'Blood.' So then whoever the judge is has to pick the one that's most fitting."

"See? Stupid," Julian said, arranging his cards.

"It's not stupid," Brian said. "It's pretty fun once you get going."

"Hey, we're helping Sooraya practice her English, right?" Santo said. The cards looked ridiculously tiny in his giant rock hands.

"My English is fine," Sooraya said patiently. "But thank you, Santo."

"So, who's the first judge?" asked Cessily. "My vote's on Kevin since he got here last."

Santo snorted. Julian's mouth twitched a little. Cessily narrowed her eyes at them.

"I'm first," Santo said. "I called it. So the first card is... 'Boisterous.' Who talks like that?"

"Is there an option for 'you, you are the boisterous one?' in here?" Cessily muttered, looking through her hand. Her options weren't great. Windsurfing was rowdy, she thought. Maybe 'The 1970s' was the better option. She went with that, putting it face-down in the middle of the table.

One by one, other cards joined hers. Santo picked them up and flipped through them, frowning. "So we got... 'The San Andreas Fault.' Heh. Good one. 'A crawl space,' ooh, nice. 'Tornados.' 'The 1970s.' And 'skiing.'" He laid the cards out on the table as he read them out. "I'm going with 'a crawl space.'"

Julian smirked and took the green card. Telekinetically, of course. Show-off. Cessily scowled. "Hey, that's not how you're supposed to play. How's a crawl space boisterous?"

"I'm the judge, I make the call," Santo said, looking smug. "When this crawl space gets a-rockin'--"

"Don't finish that," Cessily grumbled.

"--things get boisterous," he continued. "Keller, you're next."

"I think I like San Francisco better than New York," Santo said, looking out of one of the large, spotless, floor-to-ceiling windows of Graymalkin Industries with his massive, craggy rock arms crossed across his massive, craggy rock chest.

Cessily looked up from her book. "Oh?"

"Better weather. Chicks wear less clothes. Am I right, or am I right?"

She rolled her eyes. "You're such a pig."

Julian, glowering from the doorway, snickered. "The more things change. Am I right?"

"Don't remind me." Cessily leaned back, feeling the chair press into her shoulders. If she let it, if she really relaxed, she could ooze over it. But that would be weird, and she liked feeling as normal as she let herself. "I wish--"

"Wishing isn't going to change anything," Julian said. "It's just us here now."

"I wonder where Sooraya is?" Cessily marked her place and put her book down on the table, resting her head on her arms. "I haven't seen her in a couple of days."

"Maybe she got tired of getting shot at," Julian said, telekinetically turning a chair backwards and moving over to straddle it, slouching his arms over its back. "Smart of her."

"Hey," Santo said, barging in and plopping himself down at the table. The surface shook. He'd always been big, but since Limbo, and since he'd learned how to play around with reforming himself, he was huge. "She's had it tough lately, she deserves a break. So do we. You losers can sit around and whine, or you can have some fun."

"I'm not going to find someone to make a fake ID, Santo," Cessily said without looking up.

"Not this time," he said, sliding something in front of her. "Huh? Huh?"

She did look up this time, and saw a box in front of her. A brand new, still shrink-wrapped box of Apples to Apples.

Julian stared at it, too. "No way."

"Why not? It's fun. I saw it at the store and I thought, you know..."

"You need more than three people to play it, don't you?" Cessily said, looking at the box. "Four to ten. I mean, I guess we could go get some of the others--"

"No," Julian interrupted. "Fine." He started ripping at the wrapping. "We'll make it work. I'm first judge."

"Are you sure?" Cessily asked. "You don't have to if you don't want to."

"Would I be here if I didn't want to?" he snapped.

Cessily and Santo exchanged glances. "You okay, Keller?" Santo asked.

"Oh, I'm great. Why wouldn't I be great?"

"You're not the only one who's had a tough few months," Cessily said, snippy despite herself. She was sick of walking around eggshells around him. It wasn’t like she didn’t know how it felt to be kicked out by the family that raised you, or how it felt to be in more pain than you thought you could take,

She wished that he could remember that she knew how that felt, too.

He must have remembered, or at least picked up on it from the look she gave him, because he shrank down in his seat. "Yeah, I--look. I'm sorry. Can we just play?"

He dealt out their cards in silence. No telekinetic shuffling--since Ms. Frost had removed the blocks on his powers, he'd said he'd been having trouble with fine control. Maybe she should bug him about that, Cessily thought. The cards might be a good form of therapy. But in his current prickly mood, it was more likely to cause him to just storm out. And with only the three of the Hellions here, she wanted to keep things as calm and comfortable as she could.

Julian flipped the first card and snorted. "'Odd.'"

"Us," Cessily said.

That got a small smile out of Julian. She felt warm inside, and started browsing through her hand.

The grounds were gorgeous. They looked landscaped, but for the occasional movement of Krakoa or something moving that Cessily was fairly sure might have been a stray bamf or two. She sat on the grass in her uniform, her jacket tucked aside as unnecessary. in the pleasant weather.

"Freaking New York," sighed Santo wistfully. Cessily still wasn't sure how exactly he could sigh, but since he was basically just rocks held together by force of will, she wasn't exactly sure how he talked, either. Some things didn't bear thinking too much about if you weren't a scientist. "I miss the California sun."

"It's sunny here right now," Sooraya pointed out.

"It's not the same."

"You know what I don't miss?" Julian said. "Being shot at." He wiggled his fingers--his prosthetic fingers--for emphasis. The prosthetics floated just above where the stumps of his arms began, visible now that his school uniform jacket was off, since Sooraya was right and it was really sunny and warm outside. She could feel Krakoa rippling distantly in the nice weather, the school grounds' equivalent of purring.

"You were just complaining about the bathroom trying to kill you last week," Cessily pointed out. And justifiably so. The school was still a deathtrap.

Maybe not "still." It wasn't the same school, after all. It had a new name, and had been mostly rebuilt.

Julian flipped a prosthetic finger in her direction. She stuck her tongue out at him. Sooraya pretended politely not to notice. "Things do seem to still be hectic here," she said instead.

"It's like high school on crack," Santo said happily. "Think we'll get a prom? I call asking the Cuckoos this time."

"Jerk," Cessily said, elbowing Santo gently. From several feet away. There were advantages to being made of living mercury sometimes. "You could ask me, you know."

"Are you kidding? You're like my sister."

She didn't know whether to roll her eyes or give Santo a hug for that.

"So, you're back in student-world after all that crap," Julian said to Sooraya. "How does it feel?"

"Slower," Sooraya said. "Familiar." While most of her face was hidden behind her niqab, Cessily could see her eyes crinkle in a familiar smile. "Something like being home again."

Sooraya had rarely talked about her home. Kind of like Julian. Or herself. Or even Santo, for that matter. "It's nice to be back," Cessily said.

"Except for the bamfs," said Julian.

"And the killer bathrooms," Santo added.

"You know what would make this official?" Cessily asked. "Apples to Apples."

Sooraya looked at her curiously. "Does this school have board games? It seems out of place."

Cessily was glad that she couldn't blush. "I bought a set when we decided to come back here. It seemed right, you know?"

For once, Julian didn't complain. "I'm in."

"Me too," Santo said. "Qadir, you weren't here the last time we played it, you have to judge first."

"I will do my best," Sooraya said as Cessily stood and started walking back to the dorms. If Sooraya were anyone else, Cessily would have said that she was deadpan. With her, though... it was hard to tell. Cessily had missed Sooraya and her solemn, hard-to-catch flashes of humor.

The game, when she pulled it out from where she’d kept it in her closet, was still shrink-wrapped. She wondered what had happened to the one that had been left in San Francisco, and the one before that from the Xavier school's game room. The former might still be sitting in a room somewhere on Utopia for all she knew. Or maybe it had been left behind on the mainland before they had been forced onto the metal island. She couldn't remember seeing it, now that she thought about it.

That original set, though? That was long gone. If it hadn't been blown into ash the last time the school had been attacked, it had long since moldered away while the grounds had sat abandoned.

But this was a new set. And a new (sort of) school. She knocked on the door before she walked in to let them know she was coming.

" then we were actually inside Toad," Julian was in the middle of telling Sooraya, his prosthetic hands waving emphatically as if swimming. "It was disgusting."

"And kind of awesome," Santo said. "But mostly gross."

"I am rather glad to have missed out on that lesson," Sooraya said.

"I've got it," Cessily said, waving the box.

Julian actually brightened up, a welcome change from the simmering resentment Cessily could practically feel even after San Francisco. "Still remember how to play?" he asked Sooraya.

"I do not remember it being particularly difficult," she said. "It should come back to me easily enough."

"We can go over the rules again," Cessily said, opening the plastic on the box.

"Whose idea was it to play this in the first place?" Santo asked. "I can't even remember."

"Brian's," Julian said, his mood dimming visibly. "I'm pretty sure he was the one who picked it out."

"Oh yeah," Cessily said. She paused. The graveyard from the old school was still here on the grounds. All the students whose parents hadn't wanted to take custody of their bodies. Brian had been another who hadn't spoken much of home back then, either. He was still here. Out there.

Not like Kevin, who wasn't... anywhere, really. He had been one of them, no matter what had happened in the end. And she'd still hoped--

"Should have guessed," Santo said, his rough voice maybe a little rougher.

"We can remember him through the gift he gave us," Sooraya said gently. "This game has brought us together again."

"Cyclops having the world's worst pissing contest with everyone brought us all together again," Julian grumbled, but one of his prosthetic hands reached out, gesturing for Cessily to hand over the cards.

She finished opening the box and pulled out a stack of cards, handing the red ones over to Julian to shuffle. He did so, showing off the dexterity in his new hands maybe a bit defensively. Or proudly. Maybe it was equal parts of each. She held out the green cards to Sooraya to shuffle, but Sooraya waved her off, so Cessily started on the task herself, her mercury fingers moving quickly and efficiently. "We're here, and I'm okay with that," she said.

"I'm pretty good with that, too," said Santo. "Even if I miss the bikinis."

"I am glad to be with my friends again," Sooraya said quietly.

Julian snorted. "You guys are saps." As he started dealing out the red cards, he added quietly, "But I'm glad we're all still here."

"To the Hellions?" Cessily asked, quirking her lips in a smile.

"We need drinks if we're gonna toast to ourselves," Santo said.

"To us," Sooraya said, taking her cards.

"So did I tell you guys about the time Borkowski and I were totally awesome superheroes?" Santo said, taking his.

"Aren't we technically superheroes now?" Julian asked, raising an eyebrow.

"We're students now. Anyway, we actually had disguises then. So there we were, and the Serpent Society wanted us dead--"

"Sooraya, read the first card or he'll never stop," Cessily said.

It felt good to be back home.