Beta readers: Nathan Pico, Kam Martinez
Xavier Institute front steps. Sometime before dawn.
There is no sun. Not yet. The sky is still black and the shadows creep, shifting in the trees. The only light available is a frail glimmer from inside; thread-thin, a sheet so fine it only hints at the slightest illumination.
He bows his head as he hears the footfalls approach, the soft fall of bare (and furred) feet coming out to stand just slightly behind him. The night is still enough you can hear a body breathe. He does, and expels a breath once: a heavy sigh.
“It’s the first time she’s missed mass in years.” The words barely break the stillness, but there is no need to speak any louder than that. In quiet such as this, even the softest of whispers can be heard.
Kurt Wagner turns to Hank McCoy, the latter settling down on the Mansion’s front steps beside him. They are a picture to see: two blue, furred, men — mutants of one or another broody nature. Once teammates, always comrades. True friends.
“I thought I might find you here.” The X-Man known as Beast hands a mug of coffee to his companion, the thick ceramic cup steaming at the top. “Have you slept at all?” The concern is there, evident in both the tone of his voice and the look in his eyes.
“No,” the smaller of the two replies, his eyes turning back to where the tops of trees give way to sky. To where the gate stands and where Graymalkin Lane snakes out into the city of New York.
It is dark still. Like the gnawing ache at the pit of his belly.
“I’m worried.” He looks over, yellow orbs for eyes glowing against the indigo of his fur, twin lights in the night.
Hank can’t help but think on how shadow has half a claim over his companion, his figure perpetually bleeding into the dark. He watches then, as the one called Nightcrawler pulls up his knees to his chin, looking very much like the first time they took him in: young, partly afraid of the world and of his own self.
“She’s been gone for longer, Kurt.” Hank lays a hand on Kurt’s shoulder, the gentle squeeze a gesture of reassurance. He let’s it fall away soon thereafter, his free hand lifting to remove the glasses that often rest on the bridge of his nose. He smiles a little, and offers up something that he hopes might lift Kurt’s spirits: “Remember her road trip with Bobby?”
Kurt curls further into himself, a little ball of deep blue and dark, “Ja.” The reply sounds hopeful, at the least. And relief comes in time with the lightening of the sky, the black splashed now, with just a hint of light.
“Remy bitched for a week.”
“Yes,” Hank lifts his cup again and smiles, letting all worries go, even for a while. “That he did.”
Xavier Institute backyard basketball court. Late afternoon.
He’s not paying attention. Bobby doesn’t have to be a genius to know that. It’s rare enough for them to come out here, play some ball, shoot some hoops like the old days. Days when he and Warren would tease Scott for being too stuck-up to let loose and play a game that brought them back to just being boys. Not X-Men-to-be, not mutants-with-an-obligation-to-save-the-w
Just boys. Boys who were entitled to a little R&R.
He tosses the ball, Scott suddenly snapping out of his zoned-out mode and coming to attention, body going into the well-practiced motion of dribbling the large orange ball whose predecessors had seen their fair share of mutant ball.
Several ball-hitting-concrete-beats later, Scott stops, the sports item held lamely between his hands.
“Sorry, Bobby,” he murmurs, one hand letting go to adjust the ruby-quartz glasses that kept his optic blasts at bay. Your run-of-the-mill elastic band keeps it secure, but the habit is an old one and everyone knows the saying about that.
“Dude, c’mon,” Bobby goads him again, crossing the space to steal the ball, eliciting a near-automatic response honed from years of friendly competition in or out of the Danger Room. “Relax a minute.” He slips past Scott, his strides carrying him back towards his safe zone. “I’m sure Alex and Lorna are fine.” Scott’s got no heart and he knows he ought to give up, but he remembers his conversation with Jean over the kitchen counter and he tries again. “Hell, Alex is nearly as good a field leader as you. He can take care of himself and everyone else with him.”
He turns away just a bit, lifting the ball and arms overhead, angling for a shot.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But he still should’ve checked in on the weekend.” He hears Scott say the words, a variation of other similar speeches from before. His response is immediate, a habit of his own: “Why? ‘Cause you’re the boss?”
He takes the shot.
And a flash of red spins the ball away, and the item is momentarily lost in the bushes.
He bites back the expected “Hey, what’s the big idea,” turning to see the shadows cut across the other man.
“No.” The word is even on Scott’s lips, and the pause that follows is but a prelude to what he says next. “Because he’s my brother, Bobby.” Scott’s voice is tight, and Bobby knows that the game will have to wait another time.
“I know you hate me saying this,” he walks over, throwing an arm around the older man’s shoulders, the gesture an indication of a friendship that often crosses into the terrain of family. This is a discussion of brothers, and Scott is one of the three he quietly regards as his own. “But I’m keeping to optimism.” He can’t be sure himself, but he wants to believe that they’re alright and that tomorrow he can just laugh, falling back to teasing his perpetually stressed-out friend that there was nothing to worry about.
“Let’s go back in. Jean said she’d make us sandwiches.” He lets Scott go; jogging idly ahead and stopping several paces away to glance back. When he turns to check, he lifts a hand to shield his eyes and Scott’s tall form comes into view, growing larger and larger as he bridges the distance so that they walk side by side on the way back to the house.
Harry’s Hideaway, Salem Center. Roughly around eight o’clock in the evening.
Her coffee’s gone cold. Then again, so have theirs, she imagines, as all three cups remain untouched on the table.
Tessa misses nothing. She chalks it up to necessity and training as Charles Xavier’s spy, to all the years spent playing covert operative for the betterment of those she swore in her heart to protect at all costs. To her ability to simply remain aware of everything that goes on around her.
“Ororo?” She asks softly, reaching over to cover the elder woman’s hand with her own. Her skintone borders on the deathly pale, almost like paper against the mocha of Storm’s.
“Wednesday nights were her idea.” The once proclaimed weather-goddess murmurs softly, her gaze still turned to the window and the world outside. “Betsy always said that we all deserved a night devoted to reminding us that we were women.” Her tone is wistful and just a touch sad. There are only three of them tonight—Ororo, herself and Katherine—and Harry’s is hardly a common venue for Ladies’ Night. They should be in a club somewhere, with Betsy all amused that Warren has conveniently sent one of his office minions to the same bar with the guarantee that all drinks will be charged on his tab.
“Jean said she might follow.” Tessa brings it up, hoping to lighten the mood. But it’s a futile attempt at cheer. Jean won’t come. She has enough to deal with, with Scott wound tight like a spring. The thought prompts Tessa to recall the phone call she received just as they were heading to the car.
Mr. Worthington didn’t show up for the meeting he called today. Is he alright, Tessa?
She’d fabricated a noncommittal answer that sent the man on his way, stomaching a certainty that something was wrong. In all the years that she’d come to know him, she might have often enough called Warren Worthington III the most irresponsible, unreliable man she’d ever met. But when it came to his business, the man was serious and precise to a fault.
“Can we go home?” It’s Kitty talking now, her expression hasn’t changed much since they arrived nearly two hours ago. “I just want to check on Kurt.” She murmurs apologetically. There’s a standing rule for Ladies’ Night. Nobody asks to go home before one.
“Sure.” Both she and Ororo reply. There’s nothing left to do. None of them feel up to gossiping or sharing stories. Not that there are any to tell given the recent events at the Mansion.
“I’m sorry,” Kitty murmurs as they stand, the sound of chair legs scraping floor a relief to the awkward company they’d kept with each other.
“It’s alright, child.” Ororo gives Kitty’s arm a squeeze and they leave, blending into the rush of people in the street outside.
Xavier Institute for the Gifted, Library/Study Hall. Midday.
Study hall is quiet with students grouped together or sitting apart: alone or in pairs. Books and notebooks or laptops with websites loading are set on the tables. Homework is either done or ignored. There are no classes now, but it’s a holiday that no one wants.
Roberto da Costa sighs, leaning back as he glances over his shoulder to where Clarice is asleep on the couch, one arm falling over her stomach. Over the week, the house has fallen strangely quiet. He supposes it’s because everyone’s responding the same way: taking cautious steps, avoiding sudden movements.
There’s tension building. No one talks about it, but it’s there.
He thinks back. Back to late Friday night, when the front doors of the mansion had burst open thanks to what people initially thought was a gust of wind. One of the Avengers—Thor—had arrived, a teenager cradled in his arms.
Those who weren’t asleep had been downstairs or close enough to the stairs to see it firsthand. Those who were, had woken up as soon as Professor McCoy bounded across the halls up to Professor Xavier’s room, the sound enough to rattle even the most log-like of sleepers. If that wasn’t enough to wake them, the noise the other adults had made when they all came running down from all over the house did.
Word had it that the alert had been telepathic and from Dr. Grey, an immediate response after the psychic had heard the distressed mental call from Professor Summers downstairs.
Maximillian Tejada, one of the three newbies on campus had been placed in the infirmary again. Two days after, he was still there: breathing, heart beating and alive but unconscious. (*)
Gunshot wound through the head. I imagine the boy was fortunate that you were close by, Thor. I’m not sure exactly what he briefly borrowed from you. But it saved his life.
Dallas Gibson had overheard that bit from Dr. McCoy, having snuck down to the basement hidden in Bobby Drake’s shadow. That was all he’d gotten though, since Ms. Frost and Dr. Grey had come down with Professor Xavier and all three psychics had spotted him on-sight, sending him back upstairs.
On Tuesday, several other kids spotted Gambit standing by windows, watching the sky or the far end of the estate where the gate stood silent, a sentry to the street outside. Rogue hadn’t been home for the same length of time that Max had been in the infirmary, and since the boy was near-comatose, there was no way anyone could ask if he knew anything about her disappearance.
Sarah Vale had brought up that she’d seen Rogue and Max talking Friday night, but no one else could confirm it and even she said she couldn’t be absolutely sure.
Xavier can look into his mind. He done it before, Jean. Why not now? We need t’ know where Rogue is. On the way out from an afternoon consultation with Ororo that same Tuesday, Sooraya had halted in the hallway upon hearing the Cajun’s voice echo against the wood. When she looked up, she spotted him following Dr. Grey quick on his feet as the redhead descended from the second floor.
The Professor says it’s too dangerous at this point. Whoever shot Max didn’t intend for him to live, Remy. And ontop of that, there could be trauma. You know how accidents to the head can fracture psyches. No. We can’t push Max at this point. Jean shook her head, hoping to dismiss the subject, but then found herself whirled around to face a pair of angry red pupils. Damn it chère, I need t’ know where she is. Came his gruff response. It matched the grim expression on his face.
We all do, Remy. Don’t think that you’re the only one. Jean had hissed back before pulling her arm away, leaving him standing at the base of the stairs.
Wednesday had been quiet, things going on as per normal. But Victor Brokowski had been quieter than usual in drama class, not participating as much in Kurt’s discussion of King Lear.
His copy of the play, Roberto recalls, had just lain there on his desk. If the green-skinned mutant had ever picked it up, it had been to cradle it between his palms, his thoughts far, far away.
“Dani left last night,” he’d murmured softly at dinner. The main dining room had been emptied, the women of the house save for Jean Grey off to do their usual Wednesday thing. The men save for Scott Summers holed up in the upstairs lounge marathoning movies or scoring tests.
“I overheard her talking on the phone with someone.” The look in Vic’s eyes had reflected worry for their guidance counselor. “She was crying over something.” Everyone was close to Dani, true. But the unassigned students had her for a part-time adviser and she mattered in equal measure to Emma Frost, Ororo Munroe and Scott Summers.
At around dawn that morning, several of the early risers had seen one of the Blackbirds leave from the cliff behind the Mansion. Some of the adults had flown out to L.A., resulting in drama and music classes being postponed, Kurt leaving his students with mini-projects and play-reflection papers to keep them out of trouble. For the squads, training with Wolverine had been temporarily replaced with more sessions with Tessa, and on a more general take, other familiar faces from the senior batch were now absent from the halls.
After throwing concerned, near-pleading looks at Ms. Pryde in Algebra, Kitty had conceded, informing her students briefly that there was “just some trouble and X-Factor needed some people to fly over to help.”
During lunch, a mix of Gen-Xers and Corsairs had seated themselves picnic-style right underneath the window of the third floor rec room, eavesdropping through Sofia’s wind-bring-me-their-voices technique. The Hellions hadn’t been too far away, and Julian had come over once or twice to ask discreetly for updates.
The adults had holed up and closed the windows to hold conference, but as Sofia had told them all, wind was the most lithe of the elements, capable of squeezing into near-nothing through the thinnest of cracks. Their little stakeout had yielded information that wasn’t exactly comforting: All members of X-Factor were now declared missing.
“Can I just say that this totally sucks.” Nori murmurs as she settles down beside him, snapping him out of his blank-faced stupor. “Seriously ‘Berto,” she whispers, resting her chin on the heel of her palm, “I know regular kids ask that classes be suspended, but this is ridiculous.”
At that moment, the door to the large library of the Xavier Institute for the Gifted opens, the sound the proverbial creak that is a requirement in old houses such as this. Nori and Roberto look over roughly at the same time to see some other students enter, one of which spots them and briskly walks over.
“Ms. Moira MacTaggert and Banshee just walked in through the front door.” Max Jordan, nicknamed Quill, passes them the news, sliding into the nearest seat available to the two. There is an ominous quality to the way that he says the words, as if there is reason to be worried now that the Muir Island members of the X-Men have arrived.
“Doesn’t mean anything.” A voice calls from the next table and all three teenagers look up to see Julian watching them, his expression slightly guarded. “I hear it’s thesis defense season over at MI. Last I heard, Ms. MacTaggert was Jay’s brother’s mentor. That right, Guthrie?”
At the other end of the room, Jay just looks up to acknowledge his former teammate, but fails to say a word. His fingers are still over the keyboard; at his elbow is a well-worn copy of Romeo and Juliet, on the screen his paper is already done.
“We hardly have any of the adults around,” Max responds, his voice defensive. At eleven he is caught between the senior batch and the ‘babies’ and is more often lumped with the latter. He has valid concerns but these are rarely ever taken seriously, his elder peers still treating him like a child. “There’s something wrong. Or haven’t you guys noticed?”
Roberto notes that it’s Nori who meets Hellion’s gaze, and the message is clear enough for them both: Not a word. Not to the kids. Not now. They don’t need to know.
It’s an agreement they all made; all three squads nicknamed the Junior X-Men by their peers. Whatever information they gain in subterfuge, they can’t share. Whatever fears that come as a result will be silenced for the sake of the rest. The unassigned teens and the younger ones don’t need to know that the adults already speculate foul play. That Havok and Polaris haven’t checked back in, and that Angel and Psylocke never made it back from France. Like Laurie, most of them are already convinced that’s why Professor Summers is running on a particularly short fuse.
None of the younger ones need to worry about the Professor’s continuous withdrawal and how Sooraya snuck through the vents, confirming yes, the school headmaster spends most of his time now in the underground section of the institute, tuned into Cerebro while the rest of them wait, children as they are, in the figurative dark.
They agree (albeit begrudgingly) that they will help keep up the charade as the adults expect, going through each day as if nothing’s amiss.
“It’s nothing, Max. Relax, kid, you’re so paranoid.” It’s Santo now, passing them by, all grim granite and looming bulk. But the truth is, its all Roberto can do to wish that that were true.