Chapter 6

 

Ororo dreamt of drowning beneath relentless, thin surges of water, lit through by bright, sunless sky.  She felt like she was choking on air while waves, tasteless and without scent, crashed and swirled around her clenched hands.  She woke awash in the surf of her own hair, gasping as she coughed strands out of her mouth.

 

The tendons of her shoulders and chest stood out against her skin in relief stark as lightning in a clear sky.

 

Now dreams, she thought and pressed her hand hard to her chest, shutting her eyes until her ripping heartbeat dropped into a bearable rhythm and the adrenaline-rush ebbed. Groaning in relief, she opened her eyes and raised them to the dead sky as seen beyond the skylight. In the wake of her panic she felt bereft, like a hummock of rock bared on a sand bar at low tide.

 

Disentangling herself from rumpled bedding, Ororo shook her head at the bleak turn of her thoughts and blamed it on her troubled sleep. The dream had been unusual. The feelings it had deposited were not. Fatigue upon waking was only one draining legacy of Scott's death. At least it had been neither his fault nor hers. And to be sure, they had learned long ago that jobs well done did not always yield victory. They had known this and more importantly, they had embraced it.

 

Wrapping this thin comfort around herself, Ororo rose from the futon. Taking up the top sheet, she neatly sidestepped the three thick folders and the musty journal stacked beside the bed. Labeled "EB - Richards", "EB -Xavier" and "EB - McCoy" respectively, the folders contained preliminary reports on Betsy Braddock's recent transformation. She would reread them later, perhaps when her shoulders were less stiff. The journal, one of the pre-cog Destiny's volumes, had been the companion of too many nights and was welcome to trouble someone else with its portents of unavoidable doom.

 

Spreading her toes, Ororo planted her feet on the floor. Bending one knee after the other she spread her arms wide. An unnatural breeze swept round the room as she reveled in the motion. The sheet she held fluttered and sighed. Her wrist joint sounded with a loud and abrupt 'crack' and she grimaced.

 

"Old, so old before your time."

 

She bent slowly at the waist until her nose met her knees. The sheet draped the floor as her hands slid down her thighs. She could hear the sounds of people moving about on the floors below and realized that she was holding her breath, waiting for a familiar voice or steps.

 

Twisting the sheet about her body and knotting it neatly between her arm and breast, Ororo made her way into the bathroom. She studied her reflection blearily as she brushed her teeth. She took up her hairbrush and gave her staticy mane several hard licks. The tearing sound this produced brought Ororo up short and she gentled her strokes, but partway through brushing her hair she lost interest in the task and began to clean her brush instead. Red stands were threaded through the bristles, gleaming dully among white.

 

Sighing deeply, Ororo exited the bathroom and returned to her bed. Sitting, she reached for the phone. A small mark appeared on her forehead as she dialed Jean's home in Anchorage. Holding the phone between her head and shoulder, she frowned as she listened to the dial tone. The knot in the sheet loosened. After the thirteenth ring, she hung up and redialed.

 

As she tightened the slipping knot in her sheet, she remembered that she did not give a damn if she were naked or not and stood.  The phone rang. She put it on speaker and began to pack, stalking from armoire to closet to bureau as she selected warm and versatile clothing. She rolled pants and sweaters and body stockings in tidy wads and had just begun to arrange her rolled clothing into a canvas carry-all designed to fit into the smallest of airplane storage spaces when a familiar psychic voice, vibrant but unobtrusive, brushed her natural shields.

 

:ORORO!: sent the professor. :I've been calling you. You are preoccupied with something?:

 

Her many concerns stopped her throat but after a moment, a single one rose to prominence and she was able to say, "Jean."

 

Wordless resignation laced with complex regret presaged his, :Of course. She has not returned any of my messages either.:

 

Ororo zipped shut her carry-all.

 

:Have you determined the extent to which Reed Richards, Henry's and my reports explain the effects of Betsy's most recent transformation on her combat performance?:

 

"No." Ororo replied, uncharacteristically succinct as she unwound the sheet from her body.

 

:How soon can you review her most recent Danger Room sessions? Your input is invaluable and I need it as soon as possible:

 

She straightened the sheet and tucked it under the futon. "I was planning on taking a leave of absence, Professor. To look for  Jean."

 

Immediately, the color of his thoughts gained opacity and the Professor sent, :Between that and the report on the satellite Kitty and Rogue destroyed, I doubt you'll be able to leave today.:

 

Abruptly, Charles' mental presence swirled away, like water down a drain. Too perturbed by his wishes to attend to this uncharacteristic rudeness, Ororo finished making her bed. She summoned a tight rain for a quick shower. She dressed in the first things touched when she reached into her closet - a shirt that could have belonged to any of the larger X-men and ancient pants.  Permitting herself a hasty breakfast, she plucked several finger-length bananas from the one bearing tree in her greenhouse; ate them on the way down to the War Room, pausing at the kitchen for some coffee. All the while her senses were opened for the evidence of the lives under her care. Thus she steeled herself for the hours she would spend deep underground, closed off from live scent, natural light, and fresh air.

 

*

 

In his bedroom, Charles Xavier turned his attention from Ororo and focused his awareness on the woman hurtling through the underbrush bordering the northeast edge of Graymalkin Lane.

 

Her brilliant mind shone with innumerable facets but it was marred by terrible scar. Where the seat of her telepathy should have been was a terrible blankness, like a massive keloid. His lack of foresight had caused that scar but she had managed to fashion what remained of her psychic abilities into powerful shields that he could only breach with difficulty.

 

Purpose rode her like a horse.

 

She had to get to him and get him out of the mansion - post-haste.  It was with his heart in his throat that Xavier sensed her stumble across the stream in shoes ill-suited for rough journeying and make her way to a free-stranding, scruff-strewn boulder. It contained a hidden opening to a dank, subterranean path. The path slanted to the shore of Breakstone Lake. He stayed with her as he hauled himself from his desk-chair to his hoverchair and she fastened a tiny breathing mask to her face. He watched over her as he directed his hoverchair to the space beside his bed, his breath catching with sympathetic shock as she dove into the freezing waters. He triggered open a hidden panel in his wall just as she found the lead wire leading to a specific spot on the lake-bottom, and hurled himself into to the drop-tube behind that panel as she swam into a hole screened by carefully molded rocks and water plants. He fell in darkness, breaking through a spiderweb. She crawled through chill depths of a watery tunnel.  He was caught in the gravity net in a manmade cavern deep beneath the mansion when her head broke the surface of the subterranean pool that cavern contained.

 

"Tessa," he said from where he was sprawled beneath the drop-tube.

 

Gasping, she tore off the mask and crawled out of the water on hands knees, gaining the shore and resting only when she lurched to the computer bank set into the wall, lifting the clear lid on a red button and slamming her palm firmly against it, activating the cavern's defenses.

 

Wheezing, she sank to the floor, the skin of her face squeaking as it dragged down the length of the cabinet. Her face was white, the tattoos beneath her eyes blacker than wet coal against her skin. Her lips were an flat-orchid. Water pooled beneath her.

 

The professor pulled himself along the floor until he was beside her.

 

"Who is it?" The professor asked, resting his hand on her wet head. "Whose measure are we taking?"

 

"They call themselves the Neo," Tessa finally gasped. "And they are not benign."

 

*

 

As far as mutations went, Warren's did not convey wide-ranging offensive capabilities. At best, he could soar to the stratosphere and thus deprive a combatant of air, but short of murder (he could lift someone high into the air and drop them, rather how seagulls obtained clam suppers) he had only speed and agility to rely upon in a fight. When his vintage Lincoln had broken down, Warren had decided to walk to Bobby's house rather than take a Taxi into Manhattan because 1) Betsy had cancelled their date, 2) in the two weeks since he'd been absent from Xavier's school for gifted youngsters, he hadn't challenged his endurance and 3) he hadn't heard from Hank in ages and if anyone knew where Hank was, Bobby did.

 

Normally, Warren avoided walking long distances. His preferred means of travel was winged flight. Walking to Bobby's house was more an exercise in discipline. And when the third semi to pass him splashed damp road grit onto him along with the choking backwash of dust he'd only recently learned to avoid by turning his head away, pride kept him on Nicholls Road North.

 

Being Warren he nonetheless looked smug. This had as much to do with innate grace as the image-inducer that hid his wings and disguised the blue of his skin. His tracksuit was still crisp; the splashes from the road fell on the red fabric in geometric streaks. His curling blond hair, which Betsy had cut only recently, was a study of unnatural-seeming perfection, despite having been repeatedly raked by grit laden gusts.

 

Normally, Warren would have noticed three attackers converging on him. Two stalked him from the deep embankment beyond the road's shoulder; one fell towards him from the sky. His eyes were fixed on the distance as he put one foot before the other.

 

The call of the sky was echoing loud within him when a reek of dank stone and still water assailed his nostrils. Without thinking, Warren's wings beat furiously, driving him into the air. He barely got a glimpse of his two ground assailants before the net they launched at him bloomed to his right. In two beats of his wings he was high above them and tapping his X-comm for help. Before he could realize that the communicator was dead, a whistling shriek warned him that a large was mass hurtling towards him.

 

His attacker's feet were aimed at his back, and may have broken it had they connected, but Warren was fast, mercury-quick, and he dropped and dodged, taking the blow on his arm. His arm went numb and he flipped in the air, grappling with a foe who was as fast as him if not faster. They punched and hit, dodged and spun in the air. Elbows, thighs and arms collided, grunts and wheezes sounded and feathers rained. The man could fly and he was strong and fast, but in the air he was not Warren's match. Warren drove his shoulder into his assailant's midsection then landed a solid hit to his face. His assailant fell out of control, his grey-white hands glowing a pestilent yellow.

 

Holding his wings close to his body to cut lift, Warren followed.  He caught his assailant around his head and shoulders. The miasma of cave dweller - dead skin, deader eyes and the metallic reek of heavy ground water - was strong.

 

A second net launched from below captured Warren and his assailant. Both dropped to the ground, the air shrieking around them as the ground reared up. Grounded, Warren was quickly overwhelmed.

 

*

 

Storm knew better than to wish that Scott were alive, but the low-ceilinged, narrow room, designed to comfortably seat two long-limbed persons, was unfriendly since his death. Her mouth twisted with humor only Scott would have appreciated, shared. 

 

"Had Betsy grown another limb and were still in the process of using it, we might see a clearer result. The professor has informed me that Betsy tends to tell her limbs to move a certain way. She craves flight. When she tells her feet to run harder, or her fists to punch she yells telepathically." Storm crooked her mouth and her expression gentled. "This only makes me thankful for my own natural shields."

 

Looking to the chair beside her, the one which normally contained Scott, Ororo reached for her comm badge and tapped it. There was short series of chirps and she spoke: "Outside line, Betsy Braddock's cellular phone, 212 area code."

 

There was a series of clicks but no open-line hum. Odd. It had been at least ten hours since her last telephone call to Betsy. In glancing at her timepiece to make sure of this, Ororo saw that she had been beneath the mansion too long for her comfort: the small hairs on her arm stood straight. The faintest crawling sensation resulted when she brought her fingertips to the skin of her arm. She studiously did not look upward.

 

Deciding to give herself a break, Ororo stood.

 

Whenever she had been down in the second subbasement anteroom with Scott, he made sure that she stayed only a little longer than their previous time there. Thanks to him, she could spend hours in the anteroom, focused on the X-Men and their progress, and not on the crush of stone and earth above her.

 

It had been Scott's idea that Danger Room footage be viewed in the antechamber. Here she had no illusions that they were outdoors or in a wide-open space. Her concentration, already formidable, usually served to distract her from where she was and her imagined vulnerability. Still, she did not relish being down in the subbasement more than she could help it.

 

Betsy's outside line did not pick up. Tapping her comm badge, Ororo said, "Outside line, Warren Worthington – Manhattan residence." She powered down the monitors, exited the anteroom and approached the elevator doors. Her nostrils flared as she waited for the doors to open and she steeled herself as she entered the lift. She began a stately ascent into the mansion to break her fast properly, but there was a series of horrible sounds as the power failed. The soothing, comforting whine of the Shiar powersinks and generators halted and she was plunged into crushing, silent, darkness.

 

*

 

Forge and Kitty were hunched over his computer monitor, studying an electronic schematic of the house power plans.  The lines were glowing green when the first massive clunk of total power failure registered.

 

"No!!!" Kitty wailed as Forge's computer powered down and darkness fell. There were fizzling chirps as each tried to activate their X-comms. Calmly, Forge reached for the circular punch-light on the desk and tapped it. A feeble fluorescent glow threw their faces into harsh relief. He pulled a handheld unit from his pocket and activated it. On the small display, the schematic they'd been scrutinizing on the computer screen appeared.

 

Kitty stepped away from Forge, reached to the wall behind the computer monitor and with a flip of a switch connected the computer to a dedicated power source. The computer monitor blinked on and the house plans they'd been studying re-appeared.  To Kitty's disappointment and Forge's frustration, the power lines were depicted in red.

 

*

 

Ororo's eyes opened their widest.  A weird, vicious howling sound began as the air pressure in the elevator dropped. Electric arcs, purple, pink and white, crawled and flickered over her hands and face, snapping and crackling as Ororo beat at the door. Her eyes were glowing white and a rhythmic banging began as Ororo's terror manifested as fluctuating air pressure.

 

Claustrophobia, worse than she'd experienced in a long time, threatened to take her mind away. By the feeble, eldritch light of her eyes and the St Elmo's fire she'd summoned, Ororo could barely see.  Panic had her imagining that the elevator was rocking and groaning around her, but that was the motion of her own self-propelled body and her voice.

 

There was a 'BAMF'.  Sulfur-stink filled the elevator.

 

"Ororo!" cried out Kurt, shielding his face as sparks shattered the air.

 

"Kurt!!" Ororo screamed.

 

His hard-muscled arms, densely velveted with short, comforting fuzz, fastened around her waist.

 

She shut her eyes tight in anticipation of vertigo.  They vanished in a sulfuric burst of air.

 

*

 

"We've got no power," Kitty observed.

 

"This is very strange," Forge said, frowning more than usual at his handheld.

 

"What is?" Kitty asked, tossing him a flashlight from under the desk. H e caught it without removing his eyes from his handheld.

 

"Well, according to that," he pointed to his computer, "we're completely offline."

 

Kitty reached under her desk for the laptop computer she kept there.  "But?" she asked.

 

"There's a . . some kind of diagnostic running."

 

"It's not your handheld interacting with your computer or some other auxiliary system kicking in? Mansion is riddled with 'em."  She checked the batteries in her flashlight.

 

"Hardly."

 

She cocked her head, her hip, and her foot and waited. When he said nothing, "What, we're being scanned? The professor would know if we were under attack."

 

Forge didn't answer.

 

"And our auxiliaries do work when it comes to defense."

 

"I need to concentrate," Forge muttered.

 

"Professor?!" Kitty yelled, augmenting that with a mental shout.

 

Forge sucked his teeth, pursed his lips.

 

"Guess he's not here," Kitty said, turning on her laptop.

 

Forge refrained from glaring.

 

"I'm gonna go more hands on and check out what's going on with the powersinks. You gonna join me?" Kitty asked.

 

He grunted.

 

"That handheld is not gonna slow you down *too* much."

 

He ignored her.

 

Kitty wheeled on her heel, made a face, and hefting the flashlight into her palm, headed for the second subbasement.

 

*

 

"You're unhurt?" Xavier asked Tessa, who was shivering beside him. She stood tall, despite her obvious discomfort, her posture perfect.

 

"Yes," she said, eyes on the monitors depicting the quiet grounds.  The infrared monitors revealed three humanoid shapes on the Institute grounds.

 

"You took a great risk coming here."

 

"My earlier attempts to alert you were unsuccessful. I surmised that the failsafes had been compromised."

 

Xavier nodded. "Forge and Kitty have been reworking our mansion’s defenses."

 

Tessa nodded.  "How open are the intruders' minds to you?" she asked.

 

"They're only testing us," Xavier said, his voice distant. "Assessing our defenses as you said.”

 

Tessa nodded.

 

Xavier spoke again, "I sense great hostility but no intent to attack -- at least today."

 

"You only heard me just in time. The probability was high that they would attempt to take you captive were you in residence."

 

"What else do you know?"

 

"Only what I've told you: that they are old; that they have been hidden and seek to take our measure; that they are not benign."

 

He nodded. "And so we wait." And they did, but not before he turned his awareness to the garage and motor pool.

 

*

Ororo and Kurt landed on the cold flagstones of the dark chapel. Frozen for a moment, Ororo beheld that  what little of Kurt hadn't melted with the shadows looked singed around the edges.  His long sleeved T-shirt, a deep purple, was burnt at the hem.  The turpentine-stain laced carpenter’s pants he wore smoked.

 

"Mein Gott," he gasped, his flame-yellow eyes blinking rapidly.  "You almost gave me a heart-attack."

 

"Never!" she gasped, and hurried over to him. Tightly, she embraced him and he hugged her back.

 

"That was very dangerous what you did, my darling Elf," she said hoarsely.

 

He chuckled and could not help but nod emphatically, but ever the gallant he said, "No risk is too great."

 

"Thank you," she replied.

 

They pulled away from one another and rose to their feet. Their hands remained linked as they walked down the aisle to the shut doors.

 

"What made you come?" Ororo asked.

 

"There was a terrible noise. I was sawing through some boards for the pews--" Kurt gestured at a carpenter's stand where boards were waiting to be sawn into pieces. Ororo released Kurt's hand and hurried to the extension cord, pulling it from the wall.

 

He grinned, thanking her with a nod. "When the saw and the light I'd hung from the wall died, the silence was conspicuous.  I teleported to the mansion foyer and called for anyone. No one came. Then I remembered that you were supposed to be in the War Room all day but when I teleported to there, I still couldn't find you. When I heard the disturbance in the elevator shaft, I guessed you were there."

 

And panicking, Ororo thought. She said, "You should not have risked it. But I thank you."

 

They each grasped a handle, shouldered the chapel doors open.  Snow and leaves blew in from outside.

 

By daylight, Kurt looked exhausted. His warm amber eyes were glassy and his cheeks sagged. The neat fuzz napping his skin had lost some of its sheen.

 

"Thank you, my friend. You risked much for me."

 

"Ach," Kurt demurred, "anything for a pretty girl."

 

Chuckling despite herself, she slipped her arms around his waist and jumped. Her hands hooked beneath his arms as she caught the wind and they flew back to the mansion.

 

Kitty met them at the garage, a bucket of used motor oil in her hands.

 

"Katzchen," said Kurt, dropping from Ororo's hands to neatly land on the driveway. "What happened to the power?"

 

Storm touched down beside him.

 

Kitty shook her head. "It's probably a glitch but Forge is checking it out anyway. Though wouldn't that be a hoot if this was something prophesied in one of Destiny's journals?"

 

Unconsciously, Ororo shook her head 'no'. Kurt blanched as much as was possible considering his skin color.

 

"That was a joke, guys."

 

"Those journals worry me," Ororo said.

 

"And I as well," said Kurt. "Who else is at the mansion?"

 

"Just us - Pete and Marrow took off earlier this morning for the naval yards and a car came for Professor 'bout a half hour ago.  Oh, and Rogue went out to get us some lunch."

 

"Piotr took Sarah out there again?" Kurt asked.

 

Kitty shrugged. "Yeah. The girl really likes all that heavy rusting machinery. Especially the chains.

 

"That can't give Peter much to paint that he likes, though."

 

*

 

In Port Jefferson, Long Island, Bobby preened under his mother's attentions, purring comically as she tinted his hair. She had the *best* hands.

 

"Jesus God, Maddy," said Willy Drake, halting his wheelchair in the middle of his wife's kitchen with a sharp squeal of tires.  Envelopes, flyers, and advertisements cascaded from his lap onto the floor. Maddy looked up from brushing dye onto a section of Bobby's brown hair. Bobby hunched under the drip-cape, clutching the egg timer he'd been fiddling with to his chest.

 

"You gonna teach him to play with dolls, too?"

 

Maddy pursed her lips, folded foil around the section of hair she'd been color-treating, and sniffed. Her expression curdled further as the stench of dye hammered her.

 

Bobby started to stand but his mother's fist pressed into the meat of his shoulder, keeping him in his seat.

 

Willy fixed mother and son with a withering stare. Maddy and Bobby glared back. Willy angrily spun one wheel of the chair, whirling in a tight arc, and trundled out of the kitchen the same way he'd come.

 

Maddy tsked.

 

"Can I get the mail now?" Bobby asked.

 

Foil rustled as Maddy highlighted another section of his hair. Her fingers worked as quickly and surely as they had before Willy's interruption, but Bobby could sense her tension. Also, she was tapping her heel on the floor.

 

"Mom?" he hazarded.

 

"Let me get the rest of this in here and turn on the timer and then I can clean up your father's mess - like I've been doing for these past thirty years and more," she added under her breath.

 

"Mom, are you - are you . . . ?"

 

"Am I *what*, Bobby?" she snapped, setting aside her tint brush.

 

Having an affair, he thought. "Happy?" he asked.

 

She reached over his shoulder, grabbed the egg timer and wrenched the dial to the fifteen-minute mark. "Not at the moment, dear."

 

"Mom," he began, twisting in his chair to face her.

 

She looked up from the egg timer with a thoughtful expression.  "Some horrible woman called for you the other day."

 

Bobby's eyebrows almost met over his nose.

 

Maddy's gaze sharpened, pinning him. "She has this hideous finishing-school, Northampton lock-jaw." Maddy swayed a little from side to side, a haughty sway. She spoke through barred teeth: "I haven't heard its like in years. Said she's your headmistress of all things."

 

"Was her name Emma? Emma Frost?"

 

Maddy nodded. "Yes, it was."

 

"She's the headmistress of the Institute's sister school in Massachusetts."

 

"Oh. Well, she's called for you a few times now."

 

"And you're only telling me now!" Bobby yelled, then winced as he realized he sounded just like his father.

 

"I just remembered now!" Maddy yelled back, her face flushing.  "And in any case, you've been waiting on Henry McCoy's call, not some -" her face became petulant, "Chippy." Her snippy, condescending reply sounded way too much like his dad's acidity for Bobby's comfort.

 

"I suppose you've been talking to Hank all this time but you haven't bothered to let me know he's called either."

 

"Temper, Bobby." Maddy replied, then more gently. "I'd do no such thing. I'm as worried about him as you are. He was close to Scott too."

 

The front door bell rang, playing Dixie of all things.

 

Maddy's eyes widened in dismay at the tune. Bobby cringed.  Maddy said, "That man!"

 

Whereupon Willy bellowed loud enough to be heard in the kitchen, "Son!"

 

*

 

Forge stood before the double doors to Professor Xavier's suite, a datadisk in his hand. His breath came in short pants and his mouth was clenched. He raised his hand to pound on the door but a sudden spurt of rage moved him to duck his chin.  The doors opened with a sudden whoosh, revealing Storm in disheveled glory. Printer ink smudged her cheek and nose. Her shirt, an over-large, much used chambray one was very similar to his, down to the blue ink stains on the front pocket seam. It had been buttoned out of order. Her frayed cargo pants were dirt stained at the knees and thighs.

 

She also carried a manila file folder.

 

Forge colored dramatically, his skin purpled with rushing blood.  Her blue eyes widened with blank surprise. Anger looked strange on him - at least, it did not suit him.

 

With a slight toss of her head, she shook off her surprise. "Forge."

 

Silenced by the notion that the shirt she wore had once been his, he could only nod.

 

She took a deep, quick breath. "Have you seen the Professor?"

 

He opened his mouth to reply but she spoke out of turn. "Of course not. You are looking for him. Obviously, he is not here."

 

Forge backed away. Stepping over the threshold, she closed the doors behind her.

 

He scowled. Or rather, his brow furrowed and lowered and the wing of his jaw surged and twitched.

 

Resisting the urge to soothe that tic with her hand, she managed a tight-lipped smile at Forge before striding away from him.

 

In a breath, Forge took three steps in her direction and reached for her arm.

 

She whirled on him, keeping her arm well out of his reach.

 

The liquid black of his eyes shone and his voice was low with intent, "We need to talk."

 

Reflexively, she shook her head no.

 

The brilliance of his gaze dimmed. "It's business, Ororo."

 

"Then you would do well to conduct yourself accordingly," she said severely. The weary affront this evoked shamed her and she relented. Her voice husky, she said, "Is this regarding the satellite communications mishap? Or today's power failure?"

 

"Both are related."

 

She tapped the file she held against her warding hand, the one she'd raised when he'd tried to grab her. "You are welcome to a copy of this incident report. Most of the pertinent information is included. Should you have any questions, you need only forward them to Katherine - Kitty."

 

Additional lines wrinkled across his forehead. "Downed satellites are the least of our worries. I think I found something about the mansion's power source. I could use the original consultant's input and I hoped I could be put in contact with him."

 

"Cable rebuilt the mansion but he is away indefinitely."

 

"Right." Forge's face was thoughtful.

 

Suddenly, she felt his fingers brush her shirt - his shirt - her shirt and he slipped the data-disk into her pocket. It was a casual gesture, but her inner control slipped its moorings, sliding the length of her body to pool heavy between her legs.

 

A hint of ozone buzzed in the air.

 

"We need to talk." He patted his pocket significantly.

 

Ororo nodded. She and Forge parted ways. She started for the Professor's labs, her fingertips at her lips. Her pulse had yet to return to normal when she turned a hallway and almost ran into Rogue.

 

Rogue caught Storm's shoulder with one gloved hand, holding her at bay and neatly preventing a collision. "You in some kind of hurry?"

 

Storm brushed Rogue's hand from her shoulder with more patience than she had shown Forge. "Forgive me. I did not see you."

 

Rogue nodded, folding her arms. "You okay?"

 

"Or course," Storm replied, but noticed then that Rogue looked dubious. "Considering," Storm added. "Have you seen the Professor?"

 

Rogue raked her full bottom lip with her upper teeth. "Not since this morning. He was gone when I came back with lunch."

 

Storm's head tilted. Her mouth stilled. "He insisted that I have this report ready for him today." She looked at the wall bordering Xavier's room and shook her head. "He should have informed me that he was leaving."

 

Rogue smiled sourly in sympathy. "Yeah, least he coulda done."

 

Rogue then tilted her head at Storm and bit on her inner cheek.  "Speaking of neglectin' to say goodbye, you know when Gambit took off? He say goodbye to you?"

 

If the question was meant as consolation for her embarrassing ignorance of Xavier's whereabouts, Ororo thought it was a noble effort. She chose her words carefully. "I believe Remy left us two days after Jean did."

 

"Mm-hmm," Rogue hummed as if to say, 'Thought so.' Her skin was flushed and her full lips were thinning as Ororo watched.  "And when's he comin' back?"

 

Reflexively, Ororo shrugged, touching her hands to her chest and dipping her hands gracefully towards, Rogue. The placating gesture was one she had seen Egyptian shopkeeper after street-vendor after taxi-driver use to deflect the heat of misplaced anger.  Part of her was surprised that her body made it and that it worked.  "I know no more than you."

 

Rogue was twisting her hand around her thumb. "No?"  She sounded hopeful.

 

Storm raised her hand to her forehead. Her spread fingertips grazed her hairline as she mastered the urge to flee.

 

"I'm sorry to bother you about this. It's just, you an' Gambit are so close an', I figured you'd know where was. I shouldn't bother you."

 

"I had been meaning to see you regarding something that is unrelated to your relationship with Gambit . . ."

 

Abashed, Rogue laughed. "What can Ah do for you, 'Roro?"

 

"What exactly happened on the night that the Harrisblite satellite was damaged?"

 

"Ah shoulda filed a report. Ah, Ah don't know what Ah was thinking."

 

"True, but we had recently buried Scott. Will you sit with me and tell me what happened?"

 

Rogue clasped her hands in thanks and shook them at Ororo.  "Lemme run down to the chapel and tell Kurt Ah won't be helpin' him with the pews. An' then I'm all yours." She started down the hall towards a window. "Take me two shakes."

 

"Could you not use your X-comm?"

 

"Mine's broken too," Rogue said, working the stuck window latch delicately. "Meet you where? Your attic?"

 

Ororo nodded. "Should I help you with the latch? It might be painted shut."

 

"Nah." Rogue grinned when she tripped the latch. Storm stifled a wince as Rogue shoved open the window. Cold, dry air flooded the hall, making her nostrils itch. Storm couldn't stifle another wince when Rogue stepped onto the white windowsill and it creaked under the weight of her foot.

 

Rogue grabbed the top of the window frame. "Lock up?" she said over her shoulder.

 

"Of course," Storm replied.

 

Rogue jumped out of the second story window, leaving a dirty boot print on the windowsill. Wiping off the boot print with the hem of her shirt, Ororo watched Rogue turn a tight right rather than fall to the ground. There was hardly any snow on the ground, rather, hard packed dirt and dead grass. Storm closed and locked the window with much more exertion than Rogue had used.

 

*

 

"Does that hurt, dear?" Maddy asked, swabbing a long scrape on Warren's deeply sculpted, light-blue arm.

 

"Not at all." Warren grinned thinly.

 

"You sure? You *are* holding your breath," she stage-whispered.

 

"Okay, a little," Warren stage-whispered back.

 

Bobby had an uncharitable thought. He almost kicked himself for it until he looked over at his father who, as usual, sat in his wheelchair. Bobby hated that chair. What he hated even more that his dad had turned gray and was looking over a rifle with hard-eyed focus.

 

"I hate to say this," Bobby broke in. "Do you think they followed you here?"

 

"They took my attache’ case and ran," Warren replied, speaking over Maddy's shoulder.

 

"Doesn't mean they didn't follow you."

 

There was a klick ca-chick as Willy loaded the rifle. It wouldn't be any good if the Friends of Humanity showed up at the door. Or Sentinels disguised as cops.

 

"They didn't follow me."

 

"Sure, because your busted image-inducer hid your wings and blue skin *so* well."

 

"Bobby," Maddy said mildly. "Lower your voice."

 

Bobby ignored her, still training his eyes on Warren's. He aimed his thumb at his father, his jaw mulish. "Your wings are workin', aren't they? You could have flown away, called for back-up."

 

He turned away from Warren and his mom.

 

"Cops'll be here any minute. They'll take your report, son," Willy said to Warren. "Bobby: get my other gun."

 

*

 

Ororo glanced into Xavier's office. It seemed to be whispering to her, which while not entirely sane, was not unpleasant. Memories.  Not all hers, but some were, and each room had a different set.

 

The photograph on the mantelpiece of the fireplace was of Jean and Scott's wedding day. They had been caught unawares. Jean was resplendent in her shining wedding gown. Storm had secretly disliked its design, but Jean had made the garish satin beautiful.  Jean only had eyes for Scott. She was lifting a wave of sun-streaked red hair from her eyes with the help of the breeze:  the better to see him . . . Uncharacteristically, Scott looked happy:  surprised and relaxed, ecstatic and weary.

 

Once, Storm had known what that look felt like, and had seen it reflected in another's face.

 

Tenderly, Ororo touched the glass covering the photo. She replaced the photo on the mantelpiece and placed the completed report upon Charles' desk with a sticky note identifying it as such.

 

Framed photographs of other affiliates; students and instructors, past and present, graced the wall to her right. There was one of Forge and the rest of X-Factor: taken when he was X-Factor's government liaison, prior to his assumption of the team's leadership. Immense Guido and light-hearted Jamie Madrox - the Multiple Man - beamed at her. Scott's brother, Alex of the sun-bright hair and open mien; far more temperamental than his brother, his moods and thoughts had chased each other across his face like the clouds tore across the skies of the Outback. He stood beside his heart, Lorna Dane. She and Alex had been lovers longer than Ororo had been in X-men and he was long lost to them but death hadn't altered Lorna's devotion.

 

Alex was missing from the next photo, which was of X-Factor.  Ororo's gaze lingered on Forge, searching for any sign that he had regretted withdrawing his offer of marriage. This photo never failed to rouse emotions better left unattended and the windows shook with the force of the wind battering them from outside and the sky fluoresced white-blue with lightning. The X-Men were all about second chances, and their affiliates had taken that philosophy to heart: so vile Sabretooth was in the photo in addition to another feral, Wildchild. Shard, a time-traveler, sister to Bishop, was also present.

 

There was a third woman, someone Storm did not know. She was dark of hair and eyes. The cast of her features reminded Storm of the great ladies of the Garden District of Cairo. The gaze behind her dark-framed glasses was hard. She had a lush mouth and elegant features but there was a coldness to her that denied true beauty. Then Storm realized she was gazing at the shapeshifter Mystique. Ororo's expression curdled and she turned away from the portrait with hooded eyes.

 

She drifted down the hall towards the staircase, haunted by sense memories. Of quiet laughter and proud sighs that accompanied the Professor and Forge when they played chess. The two extremely intelligent men, so pleased to be able to play a game without seeming childish - though the delight they took in checkmating each other rivaled that of any five-year old's at winning a game.  Jubilee rollerblading down the hall despite being told, time and time again, not to. Or maybe, upon reflection, *because* she was told time and time again not to. Rogue, propelled by a kinetically charged basketball, crashing through the wall. Or so she had heard, and the giant hole in the wall had seemed to indicate that Jubilee had not exaggerated. The paint beneath Storm's fingertips was slightly darker than that on the rest of the wall, the paint of the repair less than a perfect match to the undamaged portions.

 

The memories distracted her from the silence that was only briefly relieved by gusts of wind as heard wreathing the eaves.  She mounted the stairs toward her attic, passing the windows overlooking the empty basketball court. The court should have been echoing with cat-calls and the squeak of court shoes.  Now the wind whistled and wailed while dead leaves chased circles around one another.

 

A voice made her pause on the stairs. She turned around to see Kitty. In the then, Kitty had been a small, gracile creature, a dancer, ingenuously telling Storm that she had never seen anybody like her before. Her young girl eagerness had made the simple words into an extremely gratifying compliment.

 

"Ororo?"

 

Storm blinked away the young girl in her mind's eye and focused on the young woman standing at the bottom of the stairs. "Yes, Katherine?"

 

"Could you spare a minute?"

 

"Whatever for?"

 

"I was hoping we could try the new communicators out in some adverse weather conditions, and the equipment we have can only simulate so much."

 

"Where you not working with Forge on the power systems?"

 

"He got a bug up his butt and I decided to do something about our comms since this afternoon's power glitch fried them all."

 

Storm stepped down a few steps. "Is the Danger Room malfunctioning?"

 

"Oh, God, no. Then we'd really be screwed, Cable being so scarce and all. Naw, it's just occupied right now, and would you be so good as to summon up a storm for us?"

 

Storm started back down the stairs. "I will see what I can do."

 

Rogue, dressed in bright yellow, form-fitting coveralls, was waiting in the entrance hall for them. Her green eyes lit up at the sight of them. Smiling with preoccupied warmth, Rogue hugged her elbows and raised an eyebrow at Storm. Storm tilted her head, wondering if she looked particularly mournful. With a glance and a slight nod, Storm reassured Rogue that all was well. Rogue sighed, her green eyes twinkling, and she draped an arm over Katherine's slight shoulders, a bounce in her step.

 

When new to the team, Rogue had been trusted by no one, mistrusting everyone. But she had tried so hard. She had been valiant in her efforts to make amends for past crimes and to ingratiate herself with her former enemies. Rogue's hair had been worn short and close to her head. Though all of eighteen, Rogue's eyes had been as flat as marble. Lines had bracketed her mouth from constant frowning. Rogue had worn green and white, then, the colors she made notorious while an enemy of the X-Men and the Federal Government. Storm preferred the green, but nobody asked her about these things.

 

"Storm, boss, ya gotta pay attention." The image of the memory-Rogue vanished before Rogue's amused voice and snapping fingers. She beamed, her smile taking up almost all of her face.  "Ah don't want ya zappin' me while Ah'm up there."

 

"I was under the impression that you enjoyed that."

 

"I'll take my thrills where I can get 'em but I admit it's hell on my hair. If you can figure out a way to call lightning that doesn't make my hair all frizzy -"

 

Ororo chuckled. "Next you will be asking me to make small, *friendly* lightning bolts."

 

"If you could make them small..." began Kitty, but stopped at an exasperated look from Storm.

 

They went outside, and walked to area of the grounds chosen for the experiment, though Storm doubted her ability to keep a thunderstorm so contained that it would not spread to the whole of the grounds.

 

Even that would be tiny.

 

"Colossus has one inside the mansion, too. These things are heavy duty - distance is no problem - but I'm not sure how they're gonna respond to nearby electrical interference."

 

Rogue nodded. "And if the X-Men are gonna be using 'em, they need to work while whoever's got them is dodging lightning bolts."

 

Storm nodded absently, closed her eyes, and let her heart reach for the skies.

 

Droplets of water evaporated against the heat of her skin.

 

"Um, that's a start," Rogue said after what must have been close to three minutes. "Though I was kinda hopin' that 'frizz' could be avoided," she added under her breath.

 

Storm opened her eyes and looked distastefully at the drizzle she had created.

 

"I guess conditions aren't conducive to creating a thunderstorm," said Kitty. "That's all right. We'll try again later."

 

Storm tightened her lips at the patronization she sensed in their voices. "Give me a moment."

 

Rogue raised her arms and plunged upwards into the air. Her flight raised a breeze stronger than anything Storm had managed to call.

 

A little time passed. It felt like a lot of time. Each additional lightning-less second was an embarrassment, though she knew it should not have been.

 

Her tongue touched her lower lip. Her eyes remained placidly closed. The drizzle began to coat her face. Raindrops began to weigh down her hair, but she longed to stomp and raise thunder with her steps. She wanted to scream hail onto the earth. She wanted to go up there and squeeze the clouds until they yielded rain like rivers.

 

The rain began to fall, fast and hard. There was a distant rumble, and then a louder, closer one.

 

She opened her eyes to rain that would have blinded most – even her X-Men. Kitty was soaked to the proverbial bone. Her hair was plastered to her skin. Rainwater dribbled over the planes of her face and dripped from her chin.

 

"As you wished," she said to Kitty. "May it suffice."

 

She walked away, but she didn't go inside. Instead, she sat down on the porch and watched the lightning and rain, and tried to forget that, for a quarter of an hour, the skies had completely ignored her.

 

-0-

 

 

Chapter 7

 

Table of Contents