Beta readers: Nathan Pico & Kam Martinez
“Could somebody please explain to me just how I’m supposed to get the solution to this problem?”
Victor Brokowski looked up and saw Dallas Gibson put his trigonometry textbook down. He watched as the blond cradled his head between his hands before promptly falling back against the grass, arms spread wide at his sides. He shook his head and picked up his used-up piece of scratch paper, balled it up and aimed well at Dallas’ stomach, hitting his mark and oddly satisfied with the “Hey!” that the other boy called back before he scrambled up back into sitting position.
“What’s the big idea, greenie?” Dallas frowned, throwing him a rather disgruntled look as he began brushing bits of grass off of his t-shirt.
“Look,” Victor started, ignoring the well-meaning jibe at his skin-color. Dallas was an okay guy, and was a teammate of his best friend, so Victor never took issue with any impromptu nicknames. “We’re all trying our best here, but if that’s Problem Number Twelve on page twenty-three, then you’re out of luck.”
“Figures,” Dallas muttered, picking up his calculator and notepad, retuning to scribbling away and solving – or trying to – the same problem for what seemed to be the third or fourth time in a row.
The November sunlight was warm, but not brutal since autumn was gradually making way for winter. The weather was perfect, at least for sitting out on the lawn for a study session. A well-needed one, as the junior year level batch of students from Xavier’s School for the Gifted prepped themselves for the first of possibly many trigonometry exams that they would have to take under Professor Scott Summers.
Well-needed because they knew they had to be prepared, or else they were going to get it.
None was more conscious of that than Laurie Collins, who sighed, her weariness audible as she craned her neck from one side to the other. Her head and eyes hurt from all the numbers. Trig, as their professor and her Team Supervisor put it, was a fun thing to do – but, “How does Professor Summers do all of this in his head? I can barely memorize a handful of these formulae.” She said the words to no one in particular, which had become a habit that many of them had acquired during these long study sessions.
“The man’s a bloody genius, Laurie, it’s not as if it’s anything remotely new.” She angled her head to the boy sitting not too far to her left to pinpoint the familiar voice. “Besides,” Tommy Jones droned on, his cheek resting against his lightly fisted hand as his eyes scanned quickly over the page of his textbook. “No matter what I do, the perfectionist in him will eventually get on my case just because he’s the drill sergeant and I’m one of the poor blokes stuck under him.”
The blond, teenaged girl frowned and squinted at her teammate, not so much because of the words that he said – she’d long known that Tommy’s little complaints and jibes were more often than not of the sarcastic nature and that he never meant any offense – least of all not to the X-Man they regarded with such awe and near-reverence.
No, she squinted and frowned at him because of the way his eyes were skimming the page: up and down, right to left.
Definitely not the way any other kid brought up in a Western-oriented country would read notes on mathematical equations.
She expelled a heavy and slightly disgruntled breath. “Well, if you quit reading your comic book – or… or manga, or – or whatever it is you call it, and started studying, Tommy, you wouldn’t have to worry about Professor Summers getting on your case.”
The Londoner looked up at her, an indignant expression coating his features. “I am studying,” He replied in protest, though his hand closed the book in a near-admission of guilt.
“Gimme that!” Laurie reached over, yanked the textbook out from his grasp, unceremoniously clutching either flap of its hard-bound cover to jerk whatever it was that was hidden between the pages. Sheets of paper with printed black and white line-art scattered on the ground, and Laurie felt a measure of satisfaction when she caught a brief glance of the mortified look in Tommy’s eyes as the wind was picked up, scattering the papers up and away.
But in an instant the boy clapped his hands together and the ground beneath them shifted, as did the tree they were sitting under. Roots, branches and small bits of grass sprung to life to shoot out, grab and impale the pieces of paper as to prevent them from getting away. And when everything stilled, when the earth no longer moved attuned to Tommy’s commands, a collective groan filled the air.
“OhWOW, thanks a lot Tommy! Geez!” The wave of grumbles spread out on either side as the other students sitting in the shade adjusted themselves to recovering from the instantaneous display of Tommy’s – or Alchemy as he was known also as – powers. Bodies stood or shifted, as the teens rearranged themselves on the now oddly-shaped area of lawn.
“Real cute, Jones,” Laurie made a face as she ducked underneath a root that had arched right in front of her like the overly-extended arm it resembled. “Do you really have to do the whole clapping thing? Cause it’s getting really old.”
“Well, luv,” he beamed, not the least bit guilty of his little display of power, while beginning to collect the salvaged pages of his printed out Full Metal Alchemist scanlations. “I can’t help it if you can’t appreciate a little finesse.” He narrowed his eyes at her as he carefully handled a page that had the bad luck to get shredded in half. “I am the real-life Edward Elric you know,” He pressed his palms on either side of the paper, and with a flourish the tear healed and the crumpled edges straightened out, leaving him with only a smug, self-satisfied look on his lips.
In reply, Laurie let out an exasperated sound and the sixteen-year-old pushed herself to her feet, stomping over to stand toe-to-toe with the Brit. “If you don’t pass this exam, Jones, we’re all going to be in trouble. Not that you seem so concerned, oh forgive me for worrying that Coach Summers is going to all but ground us, since we’re his Corsairs.”
“Look, sweetheart,” Tommy fisted his hands on his hips, leaning in close so that they glared each other in the eye. “I have studied my bum off for this exam, so pardon me if I want to take a little breather now and again which is technically my business and hardly any of yours.”
“Shut up already, both of you.” A gruff, female voice broke in, the irritation evident in each syllable she managed to breathe out.
Victor bent his head to hide his smile as both Laurie and Tommy backed down in the face of Laura Kinney’s potential wrath. If there was anyone who was capable of keeping the peace around here, it was her. Not that he wanted her to have to resort to whatever means she usually turned to earn her fair share of quiet. Pausing for thought, he couldn’t help but think that if some of the Corsairs – the most disciplined of all the three squads currently present in Academy X (as they had so nicknamed their school) – were close to wringing each other’s necks from the tension this exam was giving them, then maybe they were all stressing just a little too hard.
Maybe. But not quite.
On his end though, Victor decided it was high time to call for a personal fifteen minute break just to give himself some away time from staring at the same line of numbers intermingled with letters that had already begun not to make sense to him. He quietly told himself that if he couldn’t make heads or tails of the infamous Problem Twelve, page twenty-three, he would leave his fate to the deities of Mathematics.
Setting aside the textbook, he looked up and around, his eyes taking in as much as he could of the place that he had come to call home - at least for the meantime. The great expanse of brick wall that made up one side of the Mansion rose up just behind them, and from this distance he could see Rhiannon Maddox, Dr. McCoy’s teaching aide in their Natural Science Class, puttering around amongst the flowerbeds. To the untrained eye she looked as if she was doing no more than checking to make sure that there were no weeds, but all the students who had lived a week on the grounds knew that she was doing what her powers provided – Rhia was talking to the plants, and listening right back to whatever it was they had to say.
Word had it that that was precisely why Dr. McCoy usually preferred to have her administer his midterm and final exams, since most of the classrooms had a fair share of blooms sitting on the windowsill; it was also why no one had the stomach to cheat on ‘Professor Beast’s’ exams.
Leaning back against his elbows, Victor noted how the Five-in-One huddled together on one side, undisturbed by Tommy’s extravagant display. A separate unit from the mishmash of students – Hellion Corsair, Gen-Xer or otherwise, they were studying too, but their group simply opted to exclude the rest of them.
Tommy sat down beside him then, obviously needing a breather from Laurie and what the Londoner would refer to as ‘her nagging’. The other boy leaned in and murmured softly: “Hey, Vic, mate, you think we could get the Five-in-One to help us out? They should be on top of this, after all...” and all Victor could do was to smile back wryly at him.
“You’re just as likely to have Esme chase you off as you are to hear Sophie say yes,” the reptilian-looking teenager replied, referring to the two ‘extremes’ of the quintet. Esme was often aggressive and suspicious of others, just as Sophie tended to be sweet and willing to help out, and as the other three Cuckoo siblings – Celeste, Mindee and Phoebe – were more or less likely to be swayed by either of the two, it all really boiled down to who was more assertive of her point.
From the way Esme was leading the discussion, it didn’t take much for both Victor and Tommy to conclude that asking help from the psi-enabled five-some was definitely out of the question.
“Looks like I’ll have to go look to the other math whizzes, eh?” Tommy mumbled as he turned his gaze just slightly towards where Jay Guthrie and Lance Alvers were talking. “Think I could bother Lance?”
Victor shrugged. “It’s really up to you, Tommy. But I’m throwing in the towel on this. As the Beatles’ song goes, my friend: que cera cera.” And as he lay down on the grass, he smiled at the clarity of the high, blue sky.
“So, you think you could do it?” Jay asked, watching Lance’s face for any sign of change. They had buddied-up temporarily to trade notes for the exam – which had made for an opportune moment on Jay’s part to ask Lance about tutoring his kid sister. Melody wasn’t doing so well in her math classes, and as he wasn’t too good on the subject himself, he knew better than to let his sister sink when another could help her swim.
Lance shrugged as he flipped a page, double-checking the answers on the back pages of his review book, aware that the elder Guthrie was waiting for an answer from him. “Sure, no prob,” He replied, not really all that bothered with the prospect of teaching the kid. He was okay with kids, though as a rule he didn’t want that getting around too much. “If Melody needs help with her math, just send her over and I’ll try to sort things out with her.” He frowned again, checking his numbers and the ones printed on the back. If he didn’t know better, he’d say that Problem Twelve was a dead-end; the kind that happened once every other lifetime in textbooks when the proof-reader didn’t check too well. He was betting on it, especially since he came up with the same, different answer each and every time he applied his formula.
“Thanks, man,” Jay replied with a smile, feeling a bit of a burden lift from his shoulders. Ever since Professor Xavier and Dr. Grey had reshuffled the room assignments this year, which had led Melody to moving in with another girl her age, he had taken to worrying not just over whether or not she was getting along with the other kids, but over her grades. Sending home better-than-good looking report cards to their Mom, he knew, would minimize the number of fretting phone calls and letters.
As a general consensus, his baby sister was studious enough (more so than he in any case) to make sure that her subjects pulled Bs and B-pluses, the occasional A where she felt strongest and a sometime C when she was having trouble. But mathematics; therein lay the rub. Basic Algebra was an area that had those notorious Ds coming out in quizzes. Now, he had always known (to a certain extent) that Melody, who didn’t exactly favor the subject, might flounder. And he also knew that as a brother, it was a basic responsibility on his part to help her out. But he just wasn’t as good at the one-answer subjects as, say, Sam.
Shrugging off the brief memory of his brother he turned his focus quickly back to the relief that Lance Alvers, one of the genius students of their batch, would be seeing to her and decided that he could rest easy for now.
When Kitty Pryde opened her eyes just a little, she smiled and pressed her face closer to the warm expanse of chest that held her close. “Disaster averted, eh Petey?” She murmured, her fingers curling around the slightly tattered shirt that her companion still wore as he carried her through the crowd of people who were – thankfully – being held back partly by the local police. News had spread fast about the truck that nearly crashed. And while she had managed to phase into the incoming vehicle and out again, the driver in hand, and just as Peter had caught the truck in time as not to allow it to cause more damage than it already did – a new mob had formed in the wake of it all, albeit a well-meaning one, eager to meet and greet their heroes up close and personal.
Now though, she just felt exhausted, as she normally did after the adrenaline rush had passed, and true to form, thinking random or not-so-random thoughts accompanied the heaviness of her eyelids.
Though she could still remember the anxiety she had felt back when she had first realized that she was a mutant, here and now, her powers were something that she could never quite imagine her life without anymore. Just as she couldn’t imagine not having met Professor Xavier and all the other X-Men who were just as much family to her as her own flesh and blood. Still, she mused, beginning to doze off to the steady rhythm of Peter’s stride, a break once in awhile from all the superheroing would be nice, though statistically impossible, to think of it in Hank’s terms.
Just like now.
“Shhh, Katya,” Piotr Rasputin smiled, keeping his eyes steady on the van that waited for them at the end of the street. “Sleep for now. I shall wake you up once we have reached the Mansion.” Up ahead, the beautiful Ororo Munroe was leaning against the sleek SUV with her arms folded over her stomach. From the front seat, the window rolled down, and Kurt Wagner smiled back at him with curiously raised brows.
“Vell, vell, Piotr my friend,” the German clucked his tongue, obviously amused at his Russian friend’s current state of dress – or undress, as it was. “Back with us not a few months and you’re sporting your metal muscles in public again.” The teleporter winked at him jovially and continued the expected spiel: “I’m sure there are a few ladies out there whose hearts have all but leapt out of their chests by now.” Piotr knew the jibe was well-meant, and he took it in stride though no witty comeback left his lips. The bemused look on his own face was enough considering their history as friends.
“Excuse Kurt, Peter. I believe he is only jealous that he was stuck doing class plans while your simple trip to the grocery turned into yet another life-saving activity.” Ororo smiled, her snow-white hair bound back in a sleek ponytail, and she walked over to her tall friend, reaching up to brush the auburn curls that shielded Kitty’s face from sight.
A soft smile touched her lips. “She will be asleep the whole way home, I see.” And when she turned her eyes up to Peter, the query in them was obvious.
“She will be fine, Storm.” Piotr turned his head a little to look to where the crowd had lessened. “We were lucky to be here.” He murmured softly to no one in particular, that familiar, serious frown sweeping his features. “The ambulance that was called is now taking the man to the hospital. They say it was a mild heart attack. It is unfortunate that it happened while he was driving.” Ororo smiled inwardly, letting the cadence of his strongly-accented English soothe her. “The police, I trust, can see to the people here.”
She would echo Kurt’s sentiments, but merely to herself, because it was good to have Peter home. “Perhaps it would be good for you to get inside, little brother,” She touched his forearm, where the muscle was tensed just a little from carrying the youngest of them all. No words could express just how glad she was to see that he was now once more among them.
When Piotr nodded, she stepped back to open the door to the backseat, revealing Kurt blending in just slightly to the shadows that had settled due to the van’s position under the tree.
“Give Katzchen here, meine freund,” he held out his arms in a gesture, his tail snaking out to catch Kitty by the waist, leaving his hands – three chunky fingers on each – to support her head and shoulder.
“Andrew, Mary – wait!” A woman’s voice cried out, causing Ororo and Peter to turn, and two children – one close to eleven or twelve, the other roughly six – ran up to where the four X-Men were, grocery bags carried in hand.
Speechless and recognizing the things they had bought earlier on, Peter glanced to Ororo who stepped forward. “May I help you, children?” She asked, that mild, kind smile softening her normally stern features.
“These are theirs,” the girl – Mary, said simply, setting the bags infront of the older woman. She looked over to her older brother expectantly waiting for his approval on whether she had done the right thing. For a moment, the boy named Andrew glanced worriedly over his shoulder to where his mother stood a distance away, and then turned back his gaze to Storm, and from there, sliding over her shoulder to where Piotr stood by the open door.
Shifting the grocery bags, Andrew offered the woman a nod, walking past her with an expression that attempted to look composed, but hinted just slightly at the awe he felt inside. He stood before the much, much taller man who he had watched turn into steel before his very eyes and felt rather small despite his own height. Adults tended to look bigger, yes, but the one he knew from TV as Colossus seemed to tower like a building.
“The lady dropped these when the truck came down the street,” he said simply, offering the bag up to Peter. “My mom said we shouldn’t disturb you guys, but these are yours, right?”
“Hey, kid,” a raspy voice called from inside the van, and though the sight of the one called Nightcrawler stunned him, the girl who looked back sleepily turned his heart soft. “Thank you.” Kitty Pryde smiled and leaned her head against Kurt. “And don’t mind the fuzzball, alright? He doesn’t bite.”
Wordlessly, he handed the groceries to Colossus, and he lifted his hand in a hesitant wave, beaming slightly when Kitty winked at him, and when Nightcrawler’s tail waved for a lack of free hands.
He dashed off, catching his sister’s hand in his own, ignoring her wide-eyed queries about the tail that she had seen, allowing only a quick, bright-eyed smile to the dark-skinned lady with pretty white hair as he rushed them both back to his mother.
“If only the rest of the world could appreciate us the way children do, eh Ororo?” Kurt murmured softly as Kitty fell asleep against him. The leader of the X-Men’s gold team took the wheel, her chocolate-colored skin warmed by what little sun filtered through.
“We can hope, my friend. And that is something we will always have.” Checking her rearview, and lifting a brow to Piotr to clasp his seatbelt well, she pulled out of parked position and onto the road with no other thought except home.
His eyes scanned the room, his things, the empty seats and the shelves that housed a fair number of books on a variety of topics. Science and literature stood side by side, facts and bouts of fiction interspersed as though there were no difference between them. In-between, pictures made themselves at home, and the faces that smiled back at him made his heart swell with pride.
Professor Charles Xavier leaned back against the rest of his wheelchair and listened to the sound of his own breathing, noting the ease by which the air passed in and out of his lungs. Moments like this were ideal for thinking, but it was not thought and introspection that he craved right now. He craved to feel, to grasp that flicker of essence that made everything more real to him than what his eyes would allow him to simply see.
In a heartbeat – one where he didn’t need to close his eyes or propel himself into the Astral Plane – he could sense all life scattered from the farthest end of his large, sprawling childhood home, to where the river lapped at the wood supporting the platform that extended from the boathouse and onto the waters.
In the dining room, he knew that Jubilee had her feet propped up on another chair, one of the six cordless phones in the manor sandwiched between her shoulder and her ear. Not too far away, he felt the intense concentration of the students taking a test, their resolution tightly bound as the string of a harp. His heart filled with overwhelming love as they struggled to complete their task with every ounce of knowledge that they had studied together on the grounds. Two rooms away still, he sensed the laughter trickle like the first fall of Spring rain, as Kurt gave into the cheer he had learned in the circus and maintained still as not only a member of the X-Men’s family, but as a teacher reading Shakespeare opposite chosen students who clasped their own copies of a well-loved play in their hands.
He knew that Kitty had just been laid down in her own bed by Peter’s capable arms, and that Hank and Sydney were currently exchanging views as they watched the late-afternoon news segment. He could almost hear Storm and Jean trading recipes for the evening meal, and the other ripples of thought and action that indicated the many others who still were moving about, concretized the realization that the house he had known as a child had finally once more become a home.
And then he closed his mind, steepling his fingers as the world expanded around him as if he were any other mortal man inhibited by walls and distance.
The phone rang – a compact little thing that had been a gift from the more affluent of the first batch of students he could call his own. He reached for it and in a matter of breaths it was safely enclosed in his fingers and palm.
He smiled at the name that blinked back at him, and frowned only slightly as he located the button that would need his thumb to press lightly down upon it in order for him to accept the call. “Yes, Warren, I am here,” he spoke into the receiver, turning his chair around with a few button-presses so that he could stay by the window and listen to the laughter of the much younger children below.
The female voice that greeted him warmly put the smile quickly on his face, “Oh, Betsy, I thought Warren was calling, forgive me, my dear, how are you? I trust I will see you both tonight?” He leaned back and fell into the conversation, the other grown student of his cheerful in a way that she had not been as of late. “Ah,” he nodded, acknowledging her explanation. “I see.” He smiled, listening as Warren Worthington’s voice called a hello over the voice of Betsy Braddock. “No, it’s alright, really it is. We’ll hold the fort here. You two just enjoy yourselves.”
Outside the sun grew kinder as the afternoon wore on, and though the city was far away to the eye, the entire world, in Charles Xavier’s opinion, was right there where his school watched over those who had become the vast expansion of his family.