Disclaimer: Nearly all the characters belong to Marvel, as interpreted by Bryan Singer. Some are originals. Please don't kill me.
The Godless Among Them
There were six of them, of the only seven remaining in the program...three boys, and three girls. Two of the girls, identical, with long pale hair, were clinging nervously to each other. The other, dark-haired, was shifting nervously from one foot to the other, eyes restlessly scanning their surroundings. To her left, a tall blond boy was doing the same thing. To her right, a dark-haired boy who could have been her twin hovered protectively over the twin girls. The third boy, standing a little apart from the others, tugged absently on a small earring in the outer curve of his ear.
"I don't like this," he said quietly. "Something's not right."
He heard the first gunshot without surprise, not turning as he sensed one of the twins crumple silently to the ground. The other screamed, to be silenced a moment later. The boy with the earring closed his eyes, one hand sliding absently over his smooth scalp.
~We're being culled,~ he sent.
A bullet tore through his chest, and he crumpled onto the gritty concrete floor. ~You can escape,~ he sent calmly. ~It's time now.~
~...yes...~ he thought, touching the distant seventh's mind, feeling the sudden rage, the warm blood of her handlers spilling over her hands. ~...revenge would be nice...but then go.~
Not very cold, because she never did get very cold. Her body heated itself efficiently, the icy chill of her skin a mere annoyance. And anyway, her grey jumpsuit was designed to protect her from extremes of temperature. Still, it was torn and damp, and it wasn't nice, being cold.
"Hey, honey, are you lost?"
She looked around. A man was watching her, his eyes narrowed. He smelled hopeful, but cautious. Reflexively, she let her eyes widen and her voice raise childishly. "I don't know where I am," she said, and that at least was true. "What's your name?"
"My name's Harry," he said in the same kind of pseudo-friendly voice the Doctors always used when they wanted you to like them. She could see him eyeing the institution-grey jumpsuit, the red number emblazoned front and back. "What's yours?"
"Viola," she said, keeping the play going. She didn't know enough, not about the Outside, she'd never been field-rated...this was the only ploy she knew. She had to use it.
"Viola what?" he asked.
"Just Viola." She shrugged, twiddling a blonde curl around her finger. A finger that, for now, showed no signs of heavy dark claws. "I don't know where I am," she repeated vacantly. "Where am I?"
"Well, you're in Grace Street, honey." The man held out his hand to her. "Tell you what, why don't you come home with me? I'll give you dinner, and something warmer to wear."
Viola nodded. "Okay," she said in her soft, childish voice, and took the man's hand. "Can I have ice cream?"
"Sure you can, honey. As much as you want."
She'd have to be neater next time.
"I was just going to hit you on the head," she said absently, running her fingers over the slim spines of the books on his shelves. "You really shouldn't have grabbed me. I can't help being overtrained."
Harry bubbled a little.
"You have a lot of books," she said wistfully. "I've never seen this many books."
Harry gurgled weakly.
"Oh, no, I'm not sorry for you. I saw those magazines you had in your room, and they weren't nice. Not nice at all." Viola wandered back over to him, her yellow eyes contemplative as she looked down at her first real kill, bleeding to death. "Those girls were all younger than I am. And I know I wouldn't like it. So you can just suffer.".
She watched until she was sure he was dead, and then went looking for the bathroom. It had been nearly a week since she'd had a shower, and she'd smelled a bit ripe even before she'd got blood all over her.
It took her all night, and a lot of the next day, to read all the books in the apartment, but she persevered. She needed to learn how these people thought. What the world was like outside the Program.
When she finished, she went over to the wall and looked at the little plus-shaped thing with the man on it. A crucifix. Christianity. Religion. Jesus Christ. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Well, he obviously hadn't believed THAT very hard. She'd found his video collection, too.
Her eyes tracked over to the body. Murder one. Police. Arrest, justice, injustice, truth and the American Way. She should probably leave.
There had been some clothes in her size. Most of them she wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, but a few weren't too bad. A bit cute and little-girly, but that was all to the good. It'd make her look more harmless.
She packed some food and one or two of the better books into a backpack, along with all the money she'd found. There had been little cards in his wallet too, but she didn't know what to do with those yet. Still, she'd learn. She'd learn everything. And then...
She'd learned a lot from the books. Things about morality, about justice, about right and wrong. They were ideas she'd only ever vaguely encountered in Chase's thoughts. Chase had been smart, and he'd thought a lot about things that he didn't think were fair. It was hard to tell, for her, what was right and what was wrong. She'd have to think a lot about it.
And about changing her name, too. She'd found a volume of Shakespeare, located her own name, and decided that Viola wasn't really her.
One thing she WAS sure about, though, was that killing her brothers and sisters had been wrong. Really, really wrong. And she wanted to know why it'd happened.
...shopping for clothes wasn't fun anymore.
She couldn't look for pretty things, for something with a low neckline or no sleeves. Now she could only buy jeans, long skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and gloves. As many pairs of gloves as she wanted. The only things she could still wear that she liked were her scarves.
At least they were eating like normal people. Jean had gone to get a salad sandwich and a cup of coffee, but Rogue was firmly and decisively standing in line at Burger King. It'd been a while. And she might not be a normal teenager anymore, but damn it, at least she could eat like one.
"Hi," someone said beside her. Rogue looked around.
She looked down.
Wide, angelic blue eyes, framed in a tangle of blonde curls, gazed up at her with interest. "Since we're gonna be in this line long enough for the next ice age to arrive," she said cheerfully, "I thought, hey, I'll say hello."
Rogue smiled awkwardly. This kid looked about...twelve? Thirteen? A mere infant, to a near-adult of seventeen. "Uh...hi."
"I love your hair," the girl said brightly. "The streak is so cool." She sighed, blowing a curl out of her eyes. "There's NOTHING you can do with hair like mine, except succumb to cuteness. My only other option is to shave my head, and even then there's still my face to deal with."
Rogue giggled a little, biting her lip. "Your hair's pretty, though," she objected weakly.
"Please. I look like Shirley Temple." The girl sighed. "Ah, well...actually, I have an ulterior motive talking to you, I admit it. You're here with Doctor Jean Grey, right? The Mutant Rights lady?"
Rogue looked around nervously. "Uh...I dunno about that, she's...uh...a teacher at my school, that's all..."
"Lucky," the girl said enviously. "She is the word, you know? I saw her speech on that Mutant Registration thing. I wish I went to that school, that'd be so neat having her for a teacher..."
Rogue gave her a relieved grin. Finally, someone who LIKED mutants. "She's pretty cool, but she gives you way too much homework."
"Ah, the price of glory." The girl stuck out her hand. "I'm Annie, by the way."
Rogue checked her glove automatically, and shook the hand shyly. "I'm Rogue."
"Great...ooh, we're here. Cheeseburger, large fries, and a drink. Surprise me." She flashed a brilliant smile at the counter-guy, who stuttered a bit and went to get the drink. "Ah, always works." She got her food, and smiled at Rogue. "Well, it was nice meeting you. Seeya!" And she was off, threading her way through the crowd, looking for a table.
Rogue smiled a little as she ordered, feeling a little better. A normal interaction, with a normal kid. That'd been...nice.
She and Jean had finished lunch and were discussing what to do next, when something or someone dived under their table, scattering bags right and left. "Help!"
Rogue and Jean looked at each other.
They both leaned sideways to look under the table.
A rather nervous-looking blonde cherub looked back. "Uh...hi."
"Ah... Why are you under our table?" Jean asked, in her best kind-and-understanding voice.
Annie looked guilty. "Let's say, hypothetically, that I'm a mutant."
Jean and Rogue traded another look, this one a lot more worried. "All right," Jean agreed slowly.
"Then let's further our hypothesis to include the possibility that I may have, completely accidentally, converted two and a half shelves full of stuff to a crystalline compound similar in appearance to blue topaz."
Jean's lips twitched, even as her eyes filled with sympathy. "I see."
Rogue eyed the large backpack, and nodded. Aha. "And you can't pay for the stuff, huh?"
"How long you been on your own?"
Annie thought for a second. "Uhm...about three months, give or take. You know, me hiding under here isn't gonna do much good if you're both sittin' there looking at me..."
They both straightened up hastily. By craning her neck, Rogue could see a couple of mall security guys looking around on the other side of the food hall. "Why us?" she hissed to the table.
"Because you're both mutants," the table hissed back. "I could tell. You wouldn't turn in an innocent victim of an accident that could happen to anyone with a certain kind of mutant power, would you?"
"Of course not," the two chorused. Jean grinned at Rogue. "Listen...um..."
"Annie," Rogue supplied.
"Annie," Jean said gently. "Do you have any family at all?"
"I got a dad somewhere. I think. Only I'm pretty sure he doesn't know I exist." The table sounded a bit uncertain.
"I see." Jean bit her lip, nodding thoughtfully. Rogue was willing to bet that Jean's rudimentary telepathy was testing the kid's intentions. "Listen...I teach at the school Rogue goes to. It's a boarding school for...special children."
"You mean mutants," the table said flatly.
"Well...yes. If you want, you could come back with us, and have a look around. If you like it, and the Professor agrees, you could stay."
A pair of suspicious blue eyes appeared over the edge of the table. "There better not be any funny stuff," Annie said firmly. "'Cause I'm not THAT desperate."
Jean's lips twitched again, but she shook her head seriously. "No funny stuff, I promise. The school exists to help kids like you."
Annie's eyes swivelled to look at Rogue. "What's this school like, anyway?"
"It's good! I mean, it's okay. Really. Better than being out on your own." Rogue nodded earnestly. "You should give it a try."
There was an audible sniffing sound. "If I can have a shower, then okay. It's been WAY too long."
Rogue and Jean both giggled. "It's a deal," Jean agreed. "As soon as the security men are gone, we can go."
"Sure." Under the table, Experiment A-99, formerly called Viola, grinned. Infiltration? This wasn't infiltration, this was walking in the front door, throwing your coat on the couch, and putting your feet on the table. Still, as she understood it, it was the nature of Good People to be kind and trusting, so she'd give them the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway, she was smelly.
He kicked the door open, charging in, opening his mouth to snarl--
Something hit the side of his head.
Then the world suddenly went bright and dark and something hit the other side of his head. It was the carpet.
"Hey!" Rogue yelled somewhere above him. "Cut it out!"
"Oh. Is he one of yours?" someone asked in an apologetic voice. A very female, very young apologetic voice. "I just have this ingrained reaction to guys jumping out of doorways at me, sorry..."
Logan sat up, and looked at the newcomer. She was short...maybe five-two, wearing denim overalls and worn sneakers, her curly blonde hair in two bunches above her ears. Big, innocent blue eyes were gazing down at him. "Sorry I kicked you," she said, stuffing her hands in her pockets and looking down at her shoes. "I've...uh...been on my own for a while. Habit."
"Right." Damn, he felt stupid. Okay, so the kid had a bit of an edge to her scent, that was only to be expected from someone who'd been on the streets for long enough for habits to form. "Sorry I scared ya."
A blonde eyebrow spocked upwards. "Scared? Me? Hey, buster, it takes more'n ONE guy jumping around behind me to scare me."
Logan scrambled to his feet, scowling. "Yeah, sure, squirt." Although he had to admit, for such a little-looking kid, she kicked damn hard. She'd even rung HIS bells for a second there. "Who're you?"
"This is Annie, Logan," the Professor said in that mild voice. "She may well be our newest student. Annie, this is Logan. He teaches metalwork and physical education."
The big blue eyes looked him up and down, and she grinned. "I'd never have guessed," she said drolly. Behind her, Rogue snickered. Logan glowered.
"Funny," he said brusquely. "If everything's okay in here, Prof, I'm gonna go...get ready for class." Oh, damn the bald bastard for making him teach...he wasn't any good with kids, and he didn't like teaching. But everyone needed a cover story, here, and the other option was being a student, so...
"Seeya, Mr. Logan," the new kid said brightly.
He stalked out, muttering.
"I like it here already," Annie said happily.
"Yes, well, I hope you won't make a habit of random attacks on the teachers," the Professor said seriously. "It's very important that everyone obeys the rules, here, or there could be anything from fist-fights to a bomb-blast."
"He started it," she pointed out reasonably.
"I know. But still...fighting is not permitted."
"I'll be good," Annie promised impishly.
The Professor gave her a Look.
"I will! Unless they jump out at me or grab me," she said reasonably. "A girl's gotta be able to take care of herself."
"Fair enough," Jean agreed, before the professor could say anything. "Does that mean you'll stay?"
"For a while, at least," Annie agreed. "It's a nice place. Pretty gardens." She'd already gotten the Edited Tour, and had evidenced the most interest in the gardens and in the library, from which she'd had to be coaxed with promises that she could come back very soon.
"Good," the Professor said, smiling at her. "In that case, Rogue will show you to the room you'll be sharing with a couple of our younger students. Rogue, you do know where Jubilee's room is, don't you?"
Rogue nodded, and the two girls slipped out of the study. "It's this way," she murmured, leading the way up the stairs. "Yana's pretty much the youngest here -- she's nine. Jubilee's fifteen, and you're...how old are you?"
"Thirteen," Annie said, looking around avidly as they walked down a beautifully paneled hallway. "I never went to a school like this before."
Rogue nodded. "Me neither. But it's nice." She smiled tentatively. "When I've showed you your room, I'll show you the refectory and stuff. It's easier to find your way around than you'd think."
"Oh, I never get lost," Annie assured her confidently. "I've got an eidetic memory -- that means I never forget anything. Literally."
"Oh." Rogue blinked. "That sounds more useful than most mutant powers." Like mine, she thought wistfully.
"It's overrated." Annie hitched her bag on her shoulder and shrugged. "Imagine never being able to read anything twice, because you never forget anything after the first time. Good for study, bad for reading for fun."
"I guess it would be. This is your room here." Rogue tapped on the door. "Is anyone there?"
Jubilee pulled the door open with a jerk, earrings swinging. "Hey, Stripe. Whassup?"
Rogue indicated Annie. "This's Annie. She's your new roommate."
Jubilee's eyes narrowed as she inspected the blonde girl. "Why?"
"'Cause Doctor Grey and the Professor said so, I guess." Rogue shrugged. "Annie, this is Jubilee."
Annie was staring with obvious fascination at Jubilee's big hoop earrings. "I like those," she said admiringly. "Wish I could get my ears pierced."
"Why can't you?" Jubilee asked curiously.
"The holes don't heal right," Annie explained. "They always try to close over the earring."
"Oh. Well, that makes sense." Jubilee looked friendlier. "Where're you from?"
Annie shrugged. "Around," she said vaguely. "Started out in Wisconson, moved around a lot in the last little while. Hitch-hiking, mostly."
Jubilee, a street-kid herself before the X-Men had picked her up, nodded. "As ya do," she said simply.
"As you do," Annie agreed. Jubilee stepped back, and Annie slid through the door. "Hey, nice room. Where do I sleep?"
"That bed's free," Jubilee shrugged, pointing. "Just toss your bag there, we'll clear some cupboard space for you later."
"Won't need much. All my stuff's in that bag." Annie dropped the bag on the floor. "Hey, pictures!" There were a handful of delicate pencil sketches pinned up on a cork-board, and Annie gazed admiringly at them. "Whose are they?"
"Yana's brother draws them," Jubilee explained. "He's a student here too."
"Think he could show me how? I'd like to be able to draw." Annie was obviously fascinated by the drawings. "I mean, I can sketch out diagrams and blueprints and stuff, but not pictures like this."
"Piotr's pretty gifted," Jubilee said proudly. "Nobody else at the school can draw that well."
Annie nodded, then she brightened. "Hey, is there a music class?"
"Not really...there's only a coupla kids who're into it, so they get private lessons from a music teacher in Salem Center," Rogue explained. "Why? Do you like music?"
"Yeah..." Annie knelt, digging around in her bag. She pulled out a large instrument-case, that had to have been taking up most of the room in the bag. "I've been trying to learn to play this, but I'm not very good yet."
Rogue blinked. "Is that a saxophone?"
Annie nodded proudly. "It's harder than it looks. But I like music, and I want to be able to play it."
"You're nuts," Jubilee said cheerfully, shaking her head.
"No, I'm stubborn." Annie grinned. "I'll learn to play the damn thing good if it kills me."
"Hey, kid." He was towelling at damp hair, barechested, faded blue jeans belted snugly around his hips. "Ya missed class again."
"I don't like basketball," she said in a small voice. "I'm scared someone'll bump into me and...you know."
"Yeah, I know." He took one more swipe at his hair, then tossed the towel in the general direction of the bathroom. "I talked t'the Professor. He says you can do somethin' else."
Rogue stuffed her hands in her pockets, trying not to stare at him. He was so...sexy. Even if he was way too old. "Like what?"
"A couple of the students go out running every morning. You're gonna go with 'em, instead of doing phys-ed."
"But they go out at dawn!" Rogue moaned in horror. He looked at her. She blushed and looked down at her hands. "I mean...okay, I guess. It's better than basketball."
"Good." He grinned a little at her. "Didja want something?"
Rogue shuffled a little. "Uhm...I was just wondering if you were okay. I mean, Annie kicked you pretty hard."
Logan grunted, scowling a little. "I'm fine. It just surprised me is all."
"Oh, it surprised me too. I mean, I was looking at her, and I hardly even saw it. She was really, really fast."
Logan blinked, looking up sharply. "How fast?"
"Oh, not mutant-fast. Just...like in a Bruce Lee movie. Her foot just whizzed up, you know?" She smiled lopsidedly. "I always thought that was like, faked or something when I saw it in the movies, but she really did it."
"Huh." Logan grunted, running a hand through his damp hair. "Martial arts, huh? Explains how a kid that young made it so long on her own."
Rogue nodded. "That's what I thought." She traced a pattern on the carpet with her toe. "You think I could learn stuff like that?"
"No reason why not," Logan shrugged. "It takes a lot of work, though."
"I could do that," she said hopefully. "I mean, I'm pretty sure I could."
"Uh-huh." He pulled a t-shirt over his head. "Yeah, well, if you want, I'll talk to the Prof, see if we can work something out."
"That's okay." Rogue tried to look tough and capable. "I mean, I can talk to him."
Logan grinned at her, patting her shoulder fondly. "Good girl. I gotta go have another 'training session,'" he rolled his eyes, "with Storm and One-Eye. Seeya later, okay?"
"Okay..." Rogue stuffed her hands in her pockets, and tried not to be obvious about watching his butt go.
She looked him up and down, a distinctly unimpressed expression on her face. "That's nice for you," she said coolly.
"Annie!" Rogue gave Bobby an embarrassed smile. "Annie, Bobby's a friend of mine."
"Oh." The blonde girl gave him a longer look. "He's brighter than he looks, right?"
Rogue grinned. "A little bit, maybe."
Bobby rolled his eyes at her. "Gee, thanks."
Annie grinned. Bobby couldn't help noticing that, as baby-cute and innocent as her face was, there was something...toothy...about that grin. "All right, all right. I'll be polite." She shrugged. "I'm not usually that rude, but it's been a kinda long day."
"First day usually is, here," Bobby said sympathetically. "I heard your powers went outta control at the mall, is that true?"
"Yeah," John Allerdyce said from the other end of the table. "I heard Doctor Grey rescued you from Security."
Annie snorted. "Her? Rescue? No way. I hid under her table, that's all. I'da gotten away fine without her."
"So what happened?" John asked persistently. "What are your powers?"
"Uhm... Okay, I'm not real good at this yet, but..." Annie held out a hand, frowning a little. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then a tiny blue sparkle appeared in her palm. It seemed to flicker at first, then as it got bigger Bobby realized that it was spinning, so fast that it was a blur. Annie frowned harder, and it kept growing, until it was about the size of a quarter.
"Cool," someone said quietly.
Annie jumped, and the blue-glowing thing shot off her palm and clattered onto the table.
It stopped glowing immediately, and Bobby smiled as he picked up the tiny, perfect model of a cat balled up in sleep. It had ears, paws, even tiny whiskers. "Hey, this is really good," he said admiringly. "I can't get this kind of detail yet."
Annie smiled a little shyly, accepting the bit of blue crystal as he dropped it into her hand. "I can only do detail on the really small stuff," she admitted. "Anything bigger than an orange and I kinda lose it."
Rogue held out a hand. "Can I see?" Annie passed it to her, and Rogue held up the tiny...well, it wasn't a carving, but it looked like one. The deep, cool blue was beautiful, and when she tilted it she could see little shimmers catching in lines, simulating fur, almost too small to see. "This is beautiful."
"You can have it," Annie shrugged. "I can make more."
"Thanks." Rogue smiled shyly, tucking the little cat into her pocket. Surreptitiously, she pulled her glove off under the table and slid her hand into the pocket to touch it. The crystal was cool and smooth, round curves snuggling into her palm.
Annie shrugged again, and poked at a pale mass on her plate. "Uh...what exactly is this?"
Bobby grinned, and Rogue chuckled. "Nobody knows," Bobby said confidingly. "John thinks it might be part of our training."
Annie sniffed it, and made a face. "Training as what? Kamikaze food-tasters?"
Rogue and Bobby exchanged looks. "You'll see."
She was supposed to be in bed.
Since leaving the Program, though, Annie had decided that rules were for other people. So she was sitting out on the roof, which was easy to get to from the bedroom window if you didn't mind pulling yourself up over the edge by your fingers. Which she didn't, not when the alternative was staying inside all night long.
She looked up at the stars and sighed softly, the breeze ruffling her hair. Until she'd left the compound, she'd never seen real stars, in a real sky. In the whole time since she'd left the compound, she'd never spent a whole night under cover. Never passed a night without looking at the stars.
She looked at them because they were beautiful, and because they couldn't be contained. Animals could be caged, trees uprooted and transplanted, even mountains leveled, but the stars were utterly indifferent to humanity.
She was scared witless.
What was she doing?! She'd been loose for less than three months, she couldn't pass herself off as a normal teenager! Not even as a mutant teenager! It was hard staying 'shifted all the time, even if it was only her face and hands. She knew enough about her genetic donors to know that looking like them would make trouble for her. But she couldn't do it every minute of every day, she didn't have that kind of control yet.
And even leaving aside the matter of her appearance, she didn't have the basic social knowledge to get by. She didn't know enough about music, current fashion, those silly magazines that girls her age read... Jubilee had asked her what her favourite magazine was, and Annie had gotten the feeling that "New Scientist" hadn't been a good answer.
She sighed, resting her chin on her knees. She had to stay somewhere. Here, at least, people would accept that she'd never gone to a conventional school. They'd expect her to be a little strange, a little off. And she could learn from them. Learn how to be normal. Learn how to make the computers give her their secrets. And then, finally, she'd find out why her sibs had died.
"Annie, isn't it?" someone said behind her.
Annie clenched her fists, fighting the reflex that curved her claws out of her fingers and tried to send her at his throat. The cuts in her palms healed almost instantly. "That's me. You're...uh...Mr. Summers, right?"
"That's right." The tall, good-looking man squatted beside her on the gently sloping tiles. "What are you doing out here at this hour?"
She shrugged, not looking around. "Sunbathing?"
He chuckled dryly. "Uh-huh. You know, I think you and one of the other teachers are going to get along."
This time she did look around, grinning. "If you mean Mr. Logan, I kinda accidentally kicked him in the head. I think it upset him."
This time the chuckle sounded a lot more genuine. "Oh, that was you, was it? Guess I'm lucky you didn't do the same to me, with me sneaking up behind you like that."
"Damn straight." She tilted her head back, gazing up at the stars again. "I'll go back in, I promise. I just wanted to look at the stars for a while."
"Fair enough." He paused, and cleared his throat. "Just out of curiosity...how did you get up here in the first place?"
"Climbed outta my bedroom window."
His head tilted questioningly. "The window that's a floor away from the roof? With an overhang after that?"
"It's not that hard." Annie stood up, and grinned. "Want me to show you?"
"I really don't think that's a good idea--"
Annie shrugged, and stepped off the edge of the roof. Turning in mid-air, she caught the edge of the roof, using her momentum to swing her legs against the wall and get her feet securely on the small ledge. After that, it was child's play to dig her fingertips into the cracks in the stones, and start climbing down. She paused first, and looked up. The teacher's head was framed against the stars. "See?" she said brightly.
"Please don't do that again," he said weakly. "You nearly gave me a heart-attack."
"Oh, okay, okay." She sighed deeply. "I'll use the stairs next time."
"I'd appreciate it."
He looked around, to see Jean climbing out of the same trapdoor he'd used himself. "Hello, love," he said, still feeling a bit weak and limp from shock.
"Are you okay? I could sense your panic from all the way downstairs." She sat down next to him, absently tucking her skirt around her legs. Autumn was here with a vengeance, and it was chilly.
"Yes, I'm fine. I just watched a student jump off the edge of the roof, but I'm fine..." He hastily forstalled her worried exclamation. "Don't worry, she's fine. But I think we should institute a rule about not climbing the outside of the building."
"Oh dear..." Jean smiled ruefully. "Let me guess...the new girl? Annie Winslow?"
Scott nodded. "She's a strange kid, Jean." He smiled a little. "But I can understand it, I guess. I don't think she's spent a lot of time around other people."
"You empathize with her," Jean said softly, resting her head on his shoulder."
Scott nodded, resting an arm around her shoulders. "We have a lot in common, I think...well, she has a
lot in common with me when I was her age." He chuckled softly. "She was sitting in my stargazing spot."
"Remember how I used to have to come up here to drag you down for dinner?" Jean chuckled too. "Even in the dead of winter, you'd be up here in your coat and your little bobble hat..."
"Hey, you knitted that hat for me. I still have it somewhere." He kissed the top of her head gently. "I love you. Did I mention that today?"
Jean smiled. "Only five or six times."
"I'm slipping. I used to average an even dozen." He grinned down at her. "But there's still time to fix it."
His fiancee giggled softly. "There is indeed. Shall we go downstairs?"
Scott nodded, feeling suddenly blissfully happy. He had never, would never get used to the wonderful, startling knowledge that this woman loved him. "Let's."
"All right, everyone, settle down..." It was the bald guy. He looked a lot like Chase, only older, and without the tattoos. "As most of you know, today we'll be discussing Shakespeare's 'Macbeth.' Annie, since you're joining us for the first time today, I don't expect you to have read the play, but--"
"I've read it," Annie interrupted.
"Oh. Well, then, you'll be able to join in our discussion." He didn't reprimand her for interrupting, even though the rest of the class were muttering, but he did raise a gently interrogative eyebrow. "Perhaps you'd like to start us off?"
Annie blinked, puzzled. "Uh...start off?"
"What did you think of the play?" he prompted.
Oh, that. "I thought it was stupid."
"And why is that?" he asked, a little condescendingly.
Annie shrugged, leaning back in her chair. "It was stupid," she explained patiently. "I mean, killing the king in their own home? With knives? Seriously bad decision. It woulda worked if they'd just thought it through a bit more."
He blinked at her, looking extremely surprised. "Indeed?"
"Oh, yeah. For preference, I'd've left the king alone, and focused on the other two, you know, the sons? A little accident, say, out hunting, and there Macbeth'd be, the heir, all nice and proper. But no, they had to get all impatient and they screwed it up."
There was a moment of silence.
"She's right," John agreed. "It was a really stupid plot."
Several people around the room nodded. "It was kind of implausible," Bobby offered diffidently. "I mean, this Macbeth guy was supposed to be really smart, right? And he was a soldier and all. He shoulda been able to come up with a better plan than that."
Annie nodded smugly. "It was dumb," she agreed. "I mean, I came up with at least a dozen better plans before I even finished it."
Xavier looked a bit rattled, but he rallied himself creditably. "That's probably true. However, 'Macbeth' was not supposed to be a realistic play. It was actually written as a piece of political propaganda."
"It was?" Jubilee asked, showing interest for the first time.
"Indeed it was. King James ordered it written to strengthen his own claim to the throne."
"Really?" Annie leaned forward, eyes brightning. "Wasn't he the same one who rewrote the Bible?"
Jubilee, who hadn't had so much fun in chemistry ever before, grinned. "I think Ms. Monroe wanted you to stop asking questions."
"But she told me to! She said if there was something I didn't understand, I should ask!" Annie sulked, glaring at the book. It wasn't as if reading an extra chapter was going to be hard for HER, but still. It was the principle of the thing. "She just didn't wanna admit that she didn't know."
"Yeah, teachers hate that." Jubilee looked critically at what she was prepared to tentatively call a new friend. For the sheer entertainment value, if nothing else. "Are you gonna do it now?"
"Not if I don't have to." Annie eyed her saxophone. "Is there someplace I can practice with that where I
won't bother anyone?"
Yana, who was a cute little blonde kid of about nine, looked up, following Annie's gaze to the battered black instrument case. "<If you want to play music, you could go to the gazebo,>" she suggested in Russian. "<My brother goes there to draw. He says it is very peaceful.>"
Annie responded without thinking. "<Thank you, little one,>" she said absently. "<That's a good suggestion.>" Belatedly, she realized that Jubilee and Yana were both staring at her, open-mouthed. "What?"
"You speak Russian?" Yana asked in her halting English.
"A bit," Annie said guiltily. She HAD to forget about her early training, or she'd never pull this off... "I grew up around a buncha Russian people," she said truthfully. A lot of the scientists HAD been Russian, at least originally. "You pick it up."
"Oh. Kewl!" Jubilee beamed. "So what'd she say?"
"That I should go play in the gazebo. It's the little white thing you can see out the window of that room with all the plants, right?"
"Right." Jubilee grinned at her. "Thanks for not doing it in here."
"I like you both too much to want to make your ears bleed." Annie picked up her sax and ambled out the door. "Later."
She found the gazebo -- empty, fortunately -- and took the sax out of its case. "I know you don't like me much," she told it seriously. "But I'm gonna learn to play you, if it takes me WEEKS."
The sax looked obstinant. "It's not MY fault the old guy died," Annie told it crossly. "I TRIED to revive him, but he'd already stiffened up. He'd have WANTED someone to have you, instead of leaving you all mixed up in the trash."
It didn't say anything, of course, and she sighed, putting it to her lips and giving it a hopeful blow. The noise that came out sounded SORT of notelike...she adjusted her fingers and tried again.
About an hour later, she'd gotten a few more notes down, and was trying to make a tune out of them. The whole business was a lot harder than it had looked.
"What's that godawful racket?"
Annie lowered the saxophone and gave him a reproachful look. "I'm doing my best, Mr. Logan," she said in an injured tone. "I've only been learning for a week."
He grunted, giving the instrument a hostile look. "Can't ya practice quieter?"
"No. It goes all droney." Annie remembered that not everyone could buffer their eardrums against loud noise, and felt a little more sympathetic. He DID have very sensitive ears, after all. "I'm sorry if it bothered you."
The craggy face softened a bit. "Yeah, well...I guess you're doin' your best. It just...uh..."
"Sounds awful, I know." Annie sighed. "I haven't gotten the hang of making notes yet."
"Yeah, I noticed." He gave the instrument a baleful look. And he could hardly fault the kid for having a hobby, even if it was a damn loud annoying one. He looked around. "You got a book or something you're learnin' out of?"
Annie shook her head. There were books you could learn music out of? THAT had never occurred to her. How could you write music down? It didn't have any words. "No. I'm just kinda...teaching myself. I can make a B-note, wanna hear it?"
"Uh... no thanks, kid. I heard it already." At least, he assumed he had. He'd heard enough to make his ears really WANT to go numb. "You should talk ta...uh...I guess Doc Grey'd be the best. There are some kids who have music lessons." And if the kid with the violin didn't tune it properly, he was going to do something drastic... "She could fix some up for you too."
"Really?" The blonde girl, whose angelic appearance didn't fool Logan one bit, tilted her head. "That would be interesting. How many kinds of music are there? Would I learn all of them?"
Logan blinked. "I dunno. How many kinds you wanna play?"
Annie thought about it. "I want to do the one they play in the bars," she decided after a minute. "Jazz. With this." She held up her sax proudly. Probably the only halfway-valuable thing the kid owned.
"Makes sense," Logan approved. She might be a bit odd...it had taken him an hour to explain basketball to her, since she'd obviously never even seen the game played...but she was a sensible kid, he'd give her that. "Okay...well, guess I'll see ya at the self-defense class."
"I'm not going," she said mildly. "Don't need to." His eyebrows rose, and she gave him a very direct look. "If you don't believe me, I could knock you down again," she said calmly.
Well, he could hardly argue with that... "No thanks, kid," he said a bit grumpily. She'd dented his ego with that kick, if not his head. "But you better go explain to Summers why you ain't gonna play."
She nodded, slinging the sax over her shoulder by a worn strap. "That's true," she agreed. "That's be polite, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah. They like it if you tell them when you're not gonna be there." He snorted, and they exchanged an eyeroll at that obvious foolishness.
"If it'll make them feel better, I suppose..."
"Hello, Annie." He smiled at her from the floor, where he was leading a group of students through their warm-ups. Logan was already on the other side of the room, rather impatiently coaxing a cluster of kids through a basic throw. "You're a little late, but if you get changed fast--"
"Oh, I'm not staying," she explained. "I just came to tell you that I wasn't coming. I mean, that I'm not staying. I already know how to defend myself."
He frowned, standing up. "Annie, I'm not sure you understand. This class is compulsory. That means everyone has to attend."
"I know what compulsory means," Annie said patiently. "I just don't think there's anything you can teach me."
"Really." He folded his arms across his chest, looking down at her with that funny visor he always wore for things like this. "I know that you have at least some training, given what you did to Logan, but I still think that you should attend the class. There's always more to learn, you know."
Annie looked him up and down, and grinned. "Don't take this the wrong way, Mr. Summers, but I seriously doubt it. I'm gonna go study, okay? I'll be working, I promise." She turned to leave.
"You think so?" Even though she hadn't, intellectually, been expecting it, the faint sound of motion behind her gave her enough warning that she didn't automatically break the teacher's neck when he grabbed her.
Instead, she grabbed the arm that was around her neck, dislocated the elbow with a practiced twist, elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to crack a couple, and then did the over-the-shoulder toss he'd probably been expecting. Using the arm she'd just dislocated meant that instead of rolling when he hit the floor, he just lay there and tried not to scream. "Yes, I think so," she said firmly. "And you've only got yourself to blame for this. I TOLD you I knew what I was doing."
She looked around. Everyone was staring at her, open-mouthed. "I warned him," she appealed. "You all heard me warn him."
"I...yeah, we did. Did you have to hit him that hard, though?" Bobby asked nervously.
"I was making a point," Annie said firmly. "And anyone else who tries to grab me is gonna get the same, IF they're lucky." She looked around the class, eyes hard. "I don't do grabbing. We all clear?"
"Crystal," John agreed weakly. There was a suspiciously deep snicker somewhere behind him.
"Good. Uh...you guys just keep warming up, or whatever it is you're doing. I'll take him to the sickbay." She helped the teacher up, slinging his uninjured arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry I had to do that, by the way."
"You didn't have to..." Summers trailed off, grinning ruefully and wincing at the same time. "Okay, maybe you did. But you didn't have to demonstrate quite so hard."
"I wanted to be sure you believed me." Annie shook her head...which was about on a level with his armpit. "You're lucky I knew it was you. I could've killed you."
He blinked. "What?" What kind of child HAD they welcomed into their midst?
"Overtrained. Me, I mean." She patted his back reassuringly, hauling him along like a little tug pulling an ocean liner. "I've been learning since I started to walk. It's reflex, now."
"I see." Scott had actually encountered a couple of people like that before...Elektra, for example. Once martial-arts training reached a certain point, it seemed to just...sink in. Stop being a habit, and start being a reflex. Admittedly he'd never seen anyone quite so young in that state, but presumably it happened. "I see."
"You said that twice," Annie observed, steering him into the infirmary. Jean was already there, presumably called by one of the other students. "Dented your boyfriend a bit, Doc. Sorry. He started it."
"I know I said it twice." Scott gave Jean a deeply embarrassed look. "Uh...I did start it. Sort of."
Jean nodded, helping him onto the padded bench that was optimistically called a bed. "So I heard."
Annie stuffed her hands in her pockets, looking a bit guilty. "I'm pretty sure nothing's broken," she offered apologetically. "But I did dislocate his elbow."
Jean gave her an exasperated look. "You couldn't have just thrown him?" she asked, sounding rather annoyed.
"I was making a point," Annie said mildly.
"You made it, too." Scott winced as Jean touched his elbow gently. "you don't have to come to the class again...do you have any practice you do on your own time?"
"I do katas in the morning and evening," she offered.
"All right. We'll count that as your self-defense course unit." He winced again. "I'm starting to wonder if Logan didn't get off lightly."
"Oh, he did," Annie assured them blithely. "Anyway, I'll leave you to it." She paused. "I'm not in trouble, am I? Only the Professor told me not to hit any more teachers, but you DID start it and I DID warn you."
Jean frowned, but Scott nodded. "I did start it. Don't worry, Annie, you're not in trouble."
She beamed. "Good. Sorry about your arm."
Jean frowned as the girl scampered out the door. "Scott, we can't have students starting fights with the teachers--"
Scott shook his head, wincing. "It was my fault, Jean. She told me she could take care of herself, and I didn't believe her. And you can believe ME, the next time someone tells me they know more about martial arts than I do, I'm not going to grab them around the neck from behind, no matter how little and helpless they look."
Jean frowned, but nodded reluctantly as she fussed with his arm. "I'D certainly think twice before I tried it."
Scott nodded and sighed wryly. "Logan enjoyed it, didn't he?"
Jean shook her head, grinning reluctantly. "Oh, he did indeed."
Scott sighed again. "Oh, great. You know, dear, I really don't LIKE him very much..."
"What about that?" Annie pointed. "It's green."
Rogue looked around with a little trepidation. She'd learned fairly fast that Annie's fashion sense extended as far as "hard wearing" and "comfortable" and "doesn't show the dirt," and stopped right there. She had two pairs of denim overalls and one pair of jeans and that, until today, had been the majority of her wardrobe. That said it all, really. "Which one?"
Annie pointed again. "The green shirt. It's got long sleeves, look. And it's all soft."
Rogue unhooked the green silk shirt from the rack and held it up. "Not bad," she said in some surprise. "Are you sure it's my colour, though?"
"Oh, green's definitely your colour," Annie assured her. "And it'll go nice with your coat. That's green too."
Rogue giggled. "That's true," she agreed.
"You should get it," Annie said firmly.
"I'll try it on," Rogue agreed. "But we're supposed to be finding clothes for you, remember?"
Annie gave her a whipped-puppy look. "I got clothes," she said hopefully. "New jeans, two new shirts, some socks...plenty of stuff. We should find things for you now."
"That's not enough, silly," Rogue chided. "Ya still need something nice to wear, and a new jacket, and underwear..."
Annie perked up at the suggestion of a new jacket, but Rogue could swear her ears went down at the mention of underwear. "But..." she protested.
"Come on, you've got to need some new stuff," Rogue said firmly. "If you've been on the road for three months, you have GOT to need new underwear, believe me, I know."
Annie got a hunted look.
Rogue dragged her firmly over to the lingerie section of the store. "Come on, don't be silly. Doctor Grey told us to get everything you needed, and that includes underwear."
Annie grabbed the first package-of-eight that caught her eye. "Right! Got underwear! Can we get my jacket now?"
Rogue looked dubious. "Don't you...uh...want to look around? For...stuff?"
Annie gave her a blank look. She looked down at the eight changes of sensible black cotton underpants in her hand. "Like what?"
Rogue opened her mouth. She closed it. Her eyes narrowed. "I don't wanna get too personal, Annie, but...uh...are you wearin' a bra?"
"Do you HAVE one?"
"No." Annie shrugged. "Don't need one."
Rogue eyed her new friend. Annie might only be thirteen, but she was thirteen-with-the-major-growth-spurt-in-full-swing. "Oh, yes you do."
"No I don't." Annie bounced illustratively on her toes. "They hardly even move, see? Muscle tone, that is."
Rogue blushed. "I don't care, you still need at least one," she said firmly. "What about when you...uh...wanna wear a thin shirt or something?"
"What if I DO? What's that got to do with ow! That's my ear!"
Rogue, gloved fingers clamped firmly on one ever-so-slightly pointed ear, hauled her over to the appropriate rack. "There. What about that one?"
Annie pulled away, rubbing her ear and scowling. Rogue had been THIS close to a messy disembowelment... "It looks itchy."
"It does not either look itchy," Rogue argued. "Satin isn't itchy."
"It is for ME. I have sensitive skin. I only wear natural fibres." Annie folded her arms and scowled. "And I don't NEED one."
Rogue looked around. The argument was attracting some rather intent male interest. "Look," she said in a quieter voice. "Just get a couple of the sports ones, okay? Then we can go."
Annie eyed her cautiously. "If I do, you'll stop bugging me about it?"
"Okay." She grabbed a black one and a white one. "There."
Rogue looked puzzled. "Don't you wanna try them on?"
Oops. She could hardly say "no, I'm a shapeshifter, I'll just adjust myself until they fit." "I know how wide around I am, Rogue," she said patiently. "Trust me, they'll fit."
"I still think-"
"Rogue, please. I like you. Don't make me stab you to death with a plastic hanger."
Rogue admitted defeat with a sigh. "Okay, okay. Let's go get you a coat."
"I want one like yours. With a hood. And big pockets."
"I swear, it's like shopping with a toddler," Rogue moaned. "Can we go look at the toys, can we go look at the puppies at the petshop, I'm hungry, I'm bored, I want to go home...and I had to physically drag her out of the bookshop."
Jean smiled sympathetically. "I can imagine. Annie can be very...ah...individual."
"She can be a real pain," Rogue grumbled. Then she smiled ruefully. "Although it was kinda cute, the way she ran around looking at everything. I don't think anyone ever took her shopping before."
"I got that impression, too." Jean shook her head. "Scott's fairly sure she was in an orphanage before she took off...he says she reminds him of some of the kids he grew up with, who'd been orphaned or abandoned when they were very young."
Rogue nodded. "I thought so...she never talks about having a home or parents. She said something about a doctor, once, but then she just clammed up. Wherever she was, I don't think she liked it much."
"Neither do I." Jean shook her head. "But if she doesn't want to talk about it, we can't make her."
Rogue sighed. "I know, I know...oh." She dug the school credit card -- which she'd only been allowed to borrow after swearing on her life, her soul, and her grandma's grave that she'd only use it to buy things she and Annie really needed -- and gave it back to Jean. "I just got a couple of long sleeved shirts for me, and some clothes and books for Annie."
Jean nodded. "We trust you," she said gently. "There are only a couple of students allowed to use this."
Rogue smiled shyly. "I appreciate it," she said softly.
"I know." Jean patted her shoulder, careful to only touch her shirt, and stood up. "And I appreciate you taking the time to take Annie shopping. She doesn't really trust anyone but you and Scott, and...well..."
"He's still got a dislocated elbow." Rogue smiled ruefully. "But Annie's going to apologize, don't worry. She promised."
Scott looked up from trying to use his mouse left-handed. It was actually easier than he'd thought it'd be. "Yes?"
She slipped around the door, and held out a small paper bag. "I got you something," she said a little shyly. "To say I was sorry for dislocating your elbow."
Scott blinked, glad that most of his face was hidden behind his visor. "You didn't have to do that," he said seriously. "But thank you." He took the package, and opened it awkwardly.
"I didn't know what you liked," she admitted. "But everyone likes chocolate, right? And it's in little bits already, so you don't have to try and break it with your left hand."
"Thank you." He smiled at her. "Was this your idea?"
"No. Rogue told me to." She gave him a puzzled frown. "I'm not sure why food is supposed to make a damaged limb less annoying, but I guess it might take your mind off it or something."
"It's a social custom," Scott explained. "It indicates that you're genuinely sorry that you hurt someone, and that you'd like them to feel better."
"Oh." The frown cleared a bit. "Why didn't she tell me that?"
Scott grinned. "She's naturally good with people. I'm not, so I have to think about it."
"Well, that makes sense." Annie scrunched up her face and gave him a humorous look. "I'm not good at people either."
"I noticed. Uh...this is just a suggestion, but I think your classes might go better if you pretended not to know more about the subject than your teachers." She'd spent over an hour arguing voiciferously with Jean about some medical point or another, in class, and, eventually, had been proven right. Jean really didn't LIKE Annie very much.
Annie blinked. "Really? I should lie?"
Scott measured an inch or so between finger and thumb. "Just a little."
"Oh." She looked puzzled, then shrugged. "If you say so."
She seemed to like the Museum, though...if the loud comments from the back of the group were anything to go by. For someone who didn't know much about art, she sure had a lot of opinions. Rogue was looking terminally embarrassed, but John was getting into it, trading opinions and comments with almost equal volume. They were getting shushed a lot, but it didn't seem to be sticking.
Scott sighed, asked the gods for patience, and herded his charges into the next room. "All right...you've all got your assignment sheets, so spread out, pick a painting, and fill out the first page."
Obediently, the kids spread out, finding unoccupied benches or cheerfully frightening people away from occupied ones. But that was all right. Kids did that. It was a field trip, and it was going fine...he was doing his deep breaths and he'd taken his hypericum tablet and everything was going to be fine...things were not necessarily going to go wrong just because he was injured and out alone with the children...
Scott closed his eyes. "I knew it," he sighed.
The shouter was a thin, unremarkable looking man...well, unremarkable except for the machine gun. That was a real attention-getter. "I AM ANGRY!" he screamed. "AND I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW WHY! I'M ANGRY BECAUSE PEOPLE, ORDINARY PEOPLE LIKE YOU, ARE KILLING AND DESTROYING A PEACEFUL AND GENTLE SPECIES! GORILLAS ARE PEOPLE TOO, AND--"
There was a sound entirely unlike "bam" or "pow."
The man sighed softly, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he tumbled to the floor. That left Annie standing behind him with an interested look on her face, and John holding the machine gun. "Hey, Mr. Summers, look!" he said proudly.
"John, put that down!" Scott said automatically. "How many times do I have to tell you kids not to touch automatic weaponry?"
John sighed heavily and laid the gun carefully on the floor. "You never let us have any fun," he said reproachfully.
"You're at the Art Museum. That's plenty of fun." Scott looked around at the rather baffled expressions on the faces around him. "Uh...okay, kids, I'm glad you've all been paying so much attention in your self-defense class. But I think you should let the security guards handle it from here, okay?"
"Okay," the kids chorused, still gazing at the unconscious man on the floor with much more interest than they'd shown in the artworks.
"What security guards?" Annie asked. "I don't see any...oh, hey, there's one, hiding under the bench." Her voice really had marvellous carrying power.
"Yes, Annie, and I'm sure he can take it from here." Scott risked life and limb just a little by settling his good hand between her shoulderblades and propelling her firmly into the next room. "Come on, kids, fun's over."
The other kids trooped after him, babbling excitedly. Under the cover of the chatter, Scott leaned down and murmured to Annie. "What took you so long?"
"I wanted to know what he was angry about," she explained in a whisper. "What did he mean about the gorillas?"
"They're endangered," Scott explained quietly. "I'll give you a book about it when we get home." He and the other teachers had learned that that was the quickest way to shut her up.
"Okay. Will there be pictures?"
"Annie?" she said sleepily. "Have you been up all night?"
"Yes." Annie looked up, blinking a little. "I ate your Snickers stash, too. Don't worry, I'll get you some more." She held up her book, voice taking on an aggrieved note. "Did you know that there's a square kilometre of rainforest being cut down EVERY MINUTE??"
"No. Is there?" Jubilee pulled the covers back over her head. It was barely even dawn. She could get another hour or two's sleep if she hurried.
Annie pulled the covers down again. "Yes! And the gorillas! They're being WIPED OUT!!"
"Yeah, well, I didn't do it." Jubilee pulled her pillow over her head.
"Yes you did! Every time you eat at McDonald's, you kill a mile of rainforest all by yourself!" Annie made a face. "Not to mention the hideous cruelty to your stomach microbes."
"I'm toughening them up. You know, like Marines." Jubilee gave up on sleep and sat up. "What do you think people should do about it?"
"Well, eradicating humanity would solve the problem, but I think we should keep that for a last resort."
Jubilee chuckled. "Yeah. The staff come down hard on it. Look at Magneto."
"He's in jail, isn't he? That doesn't sound fun." Annie frowned. "Do you think there're mutants who can make rainforests grow?"
Jubilee wrapped her arms around her knees. "I guess. I mean, there're mutants who can do pretty much anything."
Annie plopped down on the end of Jubilee's bed. "The gorillas might be harder. I mean, it's not like there are mutants who can make baby gorillas...at least, I don't think there are..."
"Eww!" Jubilee giggled. "I sure hope not."
"Me too. I mean, unless they're mutant gorillas."
There was a moment's pause.
"With the power to make many baby gorillas. Like, more than they could the normal way."
"No, still gross."
"It is, isn't it?" Annie pulled her knees up under her chin. "I guess they're gonna have to handle that themselves."
"I know I don't wanna help." Jubilee felt around. Yep, Gummi Bear stash still there. She pulled it out and offered them to Annie. "I think there are like...clubs and stuff you can join, for caring about the environment."
"Oh." Annie took a Gummi Bear. "How do you join?"
A herd of adolescents thundered down to the front hall...and skidded to a ragged halt.
On the hall table, next to the small pile of letters and a couple of parcels, was a mountain of coloured papers and envelopes. Even a couple of small parcels. Some of them had spilled onto the floor. And Mr. Summers was standing next to it with his Stern Face on.
"What's going on?" someone asked.
"The mail is here. Bobby, hand it out." Scott scanned the crowd. "Annie?"
Annie bobbed up from near the back. "What?"
"Why do you have mail from eighteen save-the-rainforest groups, thirteen save-the-whale groups, fifteen save-the-endangered-animal-of-your-choice groups, nine lots of people who want to save the ozone layer, and one that wants you to save starving children in Africa?"
Annie took the envelope he was waving and looked at it. "Children in Africa? I didn't send for that one." She shrugged, and tossed it over her shoulder. "They can stand on their hind legs and verbalize. They can take care of themselves."
The stunned silence took on an element of shock.
"But you did send away for all the others?" Scott said patiently.
Annie nodded, her face a picture of trusting innocence. "Yeah! 'cause, you know...the gorillas. And I read all the books you gave me, and there was an address in the back of one. So I wrote to it and asked them to send me everything they had."
Annie gave him a worried look. "Shouldn't I have? Only Ms. Monroe said that if something interested me I should research it thoroughly."
Scott looked helplessly at the mountain of mail. She'd obviously been bad, but he couldn't actually figure out anything she'd done that was actually wrong. "Well..."
Annie smiled up at him, her eyes bright and innocent. "They have newsletters and things, to keep you up to date. And if I join the Southern Amazon one, I get a stuffed snake."
"Really." Well...it would keep her out of trouble...although what Annie would do with a stuffed snake didn't bear imagining. "I suppose. But you can only join a few, all right? One of each kind."
Annie's lip quivered.
"All right, two. But that's ALL. And don't do anything dreadful with the snake."
Annie grinned. "Define 'dreadful.'"
"If it's another petition to save...whatever it is you're saving..., just forge my name at the bottom," Scott said absently. "I've got papers to mark."
"Oh, I already put your name on the petition. The Doc said I could." Annie slipped around the door, tucking her hands behind her back. "Uhm. Can I talk to you?"
Scott looked up. "Is it something important, or something that can wait?"
"It's something I'd like to talk about."
Scott nodded, pushing the papers away and leaning back in his chair. "All right. Take a seat."
Annie curled up in the small armchair, tucking her feet under her with sublime disregard for the upholstery. "Uh...you know how I'm on that mailing list? You know, they send me brochures for charities and environmental groups and stuff?
Scott nodded. "You really sold Jean on that one for saving the eagles. She sent a donation."
"Yeah, so did the Professor. I told him the eagles were bald like him, and he laughed and gave me money." Annie rested her chin on her fist. "Well...I got another one today. For saving the humans. From mutants."
"Oh." Scott's carefully blank Leader Expression slid quickly into place to hide his shock and sympathy. "I see. And you wanted to talk about that?"
Annie nodded. "Why do humans need to be saved from mutants?" she asked in a small voice. "I mean, given that the human to mutant ratio is 10,000:1 in their favour, they control 99.99992340845082349075% of the world's wealth, they have a forty percent greater chance of living to old age and they're allowed get medical insurance...why are they so threatened by us?"
Scott blinked in surprise at all the figures, but he courageously launched into the they're-just-afraid-don't-worry-we'll-reason-with them speech. "Oh. Uh...well...the idea of someone with mutant powers is very scary to a normal human, and--"
Annie gave him a flatly disbelieving look. "The real reason."
"The same reason that they used to supress ethnic minorities and women. They're afraid we'll get all the good stuff they've got."
"Oh." Annie thought about that. "That makes sense, I suppose..."
"That's just my opinion, mind you," Scott amended quickly. He wasn't supposed to tell the students his personal theory on the subject. The Professor worried that it might make them bitter. "But...well, when people have a certain standard of living, they get protective of it. They want to be sure that nobody can take what they have away from them...and somebody with powers they can't even imagine is pretty threatening."
Annie twiddled with a blonde curl. "I guess...is that why there's no human/mutant tension in Zimbabwe?"
Scott nodded. "I think so. When you've got nothing, what's to lose?"
Annie looked down at the expensive carpet. "Humans kill mutants, though," she said softly. "That's taking possessiveness of their status a little too far."
Scott wished he was better at being comforting. "It doesn't happen often, really--"
"I used to have brothers and sisters. They were killed," Annie said flatly.
Scott abandoned dignity and got up, moving to kneel beside her chair. "I didn't know that," he said very gently.
Annie's face was still calm, but her voice caught ever so slightly. "They were executed," she said quietly. "Of no more use, they said. Expendable."
"I see." He didn't, but never mind. He took her hand anyway, patting it gently. "Is that why you're on the run now?"
He nodded. "I only have one brother," he said softly. "I haven't seen him since we were very small. He was adopted, you see, and I wasn't. We lost contact after that. But he's alive, at least, and I'm very grateful for that."
There was the slightest trace of moisture in Annie's eyes. "Do you miss him?"
"Every day," Scott said softly.
Annie's eyes filled up slowly, and her lip trembled. "I miss mine, too," she whispered.
Scott nodded. "I'm not very good at this sort of thing, but... Will you break my arm if I give you a hug?"
Annie shook her head mutely.
Tentatively, Scott slid a comforting arm around her shoulders, and winced sympathetically as she started to cry quietly. "Shh..." he whispered soothingly. "It's going to be all right now." Then he frowned. "Annie?" he said as gently as he could manage. "What did you mean...expendable?"
She looked very small, sitting at the table in the War Room...a small, slightly stocky anachronism with grubby overalls and messy blonde pigtails. Her eyes were fastened on the table.
"Annie," Scott said gently, resting a hand tentatively on her back. "I know it's hard for you to talk about this, but we want to help. If people are killing mutant children, we need to know. We need to be able to help them."
"We know you have no reason to trust us," Jean seconded, sitting on the other side of Scott. "But please, can you try?"
Annie's eyes inched up, and she looked around the table. "You won't like it," she whispered.
"We're getting used to that," Jean said a bit grimly.
"All right," she said, straightening up and lifting her chin determinedly. "I'll tell you."
"Thank you," Scott murmured.
She swallowed hard. "My name is A-99," she said evenly. "But my handlers called me Viola. I'm unit ninety-nine of 124, A-series."
"What?" someone said involuntarily. She ignored them.
"I was an experiment," she continued bleakly. "We all were. To make tame mutants, whose powers would be known before they came into existence. Controlled mutants. Weapons." She blinked once, then continued. "I was...they thought I was a failure. But in a good way. Defective, they said. Fast, strong, powerful, but mentally defective." She took a deep breath. "I wanted them think that."
"Why?" Scott asked gently, cold with horror.
"Because I was afraid. If they knew how smart I was, they'd have killed me, like they killed the others." Her blue eyes darkened, suddenly seeming almost black. "The first cull happened when we were six months old. Ninety-eight left. The second, when we were two. Seventy-two left. The third, when we were five. Thirty-six left. The fourth, when we were seven. Eighteen left. The fifth, when we were ten. Seven left." She looked up. "We reached puberty when we were twelve and a half. The other six were culled five months ago."
"My god," Jean whispered in horror. She looked up, to meet the Professor's eyes. "That can't...how could they do this?"
"Far too easily, I suspect," Professor Xavier said. His voice was calm, but his hooded eyes were very cold. "How did you escape, Annie?"
She looked at him, her small face bleak. "They were going to keep me," she explained. "I was mentally defective, you see, so they didn't think I was a threat to them. They were done with the A-series, but they wanted to keep one around. Just in case."
"When they killed the others...one of them, Chase, was a telepath. When he died, I felt it. He told me to run." She tilted up her chin, giving them all challenging look. "I killed my handlers," she said flatly. "And the ones who killed my sibs. Then I ran away. They'd trained me well...even they couldn't find me, once I was gone."
She could hear the shock...the fluctuation in a heartbeat, the indrawn breath...to her ears, it was as if they'd spoken aloud. "They killed one hundred and twenty-three children, from infants to adolescents. Do you think I should feel remorse? I don't."
"That is understandable," the Professor admitted. "If not laudable. And then you fled?"
Annie nodded. "I had to learn the world," she said simply. "I knew seventy-nine ways to kill someone with a blunt object the length of my hand, but not what pizza is. Every capital of every nation this world has ever known, but not how to use chopsticks. I wasn't supposed to be operational. They just used me to crack codes and stuff."
"You were at a disadvantage," Jean observed quietly. "Is that why you came here?"
"Yes. I knew about you." She shrugged. "They knew too. They have no plans to interfere at this point."
Xavier's eyes sparked. "And when DO they plan to interfere?"
"I don't know. But not any time soon, so don't worry." She lifted her chin, meeting his eyes with a flinty gaze. "I plan to have gotten rid of them by then."
And that was all she would say.
Eventually, Scott shooed the others away, taking her to a spare room. He didn't think it would be a good idea for her to have to deal with curious roommates. "If you want something, call, okay?"
She nodded, and he patted her shoulder awkwardly and left.
Annie waited until he'd gone downstairs, sitting silently in the middle of the bed. Then, slowly, she stood up, moving to lock the door. There was a mirror hanging on the wall, and she looked into it.
Slowly, her curly blonde hair thickened and lengthened. Her cheekbones became more prominent, as did her chin. Her nose lengthened from a cute button to a Grecian straight line from her forehead. And her soft blue eyes turned bright yellow, from lid to lid.
She lifted a small hand, now a little larger and weighted with heavy dark claws, and looked at it.
Maybe she should have told them the rest? About Jamie and Janice, who looked so much like Wolverine that he still startled her when she looked around. About Chase, who could have BEEN Xavier were it not for forty years, the tattoo, and the earring. And about herself, who SHE was derived from...but no, better not. She really couldn't predict how they'd react to that, and she wasn't quite ready to be rid of them yet.
"So could I," Xavier agreed, steepling his fingers and resting them against his chin. "But I sensed that she wasn't telling us everything."
Jean nodded. "I got the feeling it was personal," she said a bit doubtfully. "Was that right, professor?"
"Yes, quite right," he agreed, eyes distant. "She told us what happened, but no personal details, about herself or about the...the other children."
"It's hard to believe that something like that could happen." Storm's voice was soft, and she bit her lip unhappily. "Those poor children...some of them were only babies."
"She said that they were all killed," Scott said quietly. "But what if she was wrong? We have no way of knowing if there was more than one group, or if that installation was the only one. We don't even know who did it."
There was a moment of horrified silence.
"Scott's right," Jean said slowly. "She said that they were 'finished with the A series.' Not that there wasn't a B series...maybe several."
"Heck, Annie's at least thirteen. They could have a whole damn alphabet by now," Logan growled. "We gotta stop this. It's bad enough pulling this crap on adults, but on kids..." He trailed off, rubbing his thumb absently over the back of his hand.
Xavier nodded. "Scott, I want you to talk to Annie. See if she knows any names, anything that can help us. Jean, start sounding out your contacts. All this would have required a substantial amount of medical intervention; someone must know something. Logan, I know you have contacts of your own..."
"I'll put out some feelers," Logan agreed. "See what I can see."
Xavier nodded. "Storm, please, come with me. I'm going to use Cerebro, on the off chance that I can find something. A large group of mutant children should be easy to find. So easy, in fact, that I should have found them a long time ago."
"Shielded?" Jean asked.
"Almost certainly." Xavier sighed. "But I will try."
Jean nodded, and turned to leave. Scott took her arm gently, shooting Logan a brief, smug look, and Logan sneered at him. Ororo shook her head as she watched them go. "Whatever there is to know, we will learn it," she said softly. "You must believe that, Professor."
The Professor gazed at his steepled fingers, and his jaw tightened. "One hundred and twenty-three children dead...I can't imagine how it must feel to be the only survivor of such a massacre."
"You could tell Magneto about it," she said quietly.
Xavier looked up, blinking. "Ororo, I hardly think telling Erik that over one hundred mutant children have been callously murdered is going to make him less hostile to humanity."
"No. But it might convince him that he's not the only one who has suffered."
She tilted her head back to smile up at him. "Hey, hot stuff," she murmured. "How did you do?"
"I got a few details," he sighed. "She remembers a logo, shaped like a stylized A and T intertwined. No names of anyone still alive, but she knows that a lot of them were Russian...could be an international company. Not government, though. No soldiers, no military, just research."
Jean nodded. "That's something to work with." He kissed the top of her head, and she smiled. "What're you going to do?"
"I thought I'd see what I can do with the logo," he said, sitting down at the computer next to hers. "Let you focus on the other stuff."
Jean smiled at him. "Thanks, love."
He reached out to take her hand for a moment, squeezing gently. "Anytime.
In no time at all, Annie, Scott, and Rogue were heading for the station in Scott's very nice, shiny
car. It wasn't his bike (which didn't seat three people, no matter how much they liked each other), but it was still a reasonably cool mode of transport.
"Are we gonna take the train?" Rogue asked uncertainly.
Scott nodded. "I thought we'd drop the car at the station, and catch a train into the city," he explained. "I know you're worried, Rogue, but it's going to be fine." He gave her a reassuring look in the rear-view mirror.
Rogue nodded, patting Annie's hand gently. The younger girl had been very quiet for the last few days, except for when she practiced on her saxophone...which was actually sounding much better, lately. "You'll like the Natural History Museum," she said encouragingly. "It's got all...nature stuff."
Annie brightened ever so slightly. "Displays? With the little written-down bit on the thing outside?" she asked hopefully. For someone with so cavalier an attitude towards culture, she liked museums an awful lot, Rogue thought. They seemed to come under the heading of "educational," which for Annie meant the same thing as "very entertaining thing about which I will argue a lot with everyone and be right, nyah."
Scott listened to the two girls talking quietly and worried. He'd never really gotten close to Rogue, but he knew that the idea of being pursued by a mysterious group of people who killed mutant children would panic her, if she found out. And he WAS close to Annie, or as close as anyone ever got, and she was acting strangely. Quieter, cooler, less brash and inquisitive and more calculating. Not that he blamed her, but still...it was worrying.
They reached the station, and this time it was Annie who took Rogue's hand comfortingly. She'd heard a bit about what had happened here last time, and she and Scott flanked Rogue automatically. They bought tickets, and headed out to wait for the next train.
"I've never ridden on a passenger train before," Annie said, with a spark of her old interest. "I was on a not-passenger one once, though. It had all these bales of wool in one of the carriages. It smelled funny, but it was cosy."
Rogue nodded, relaxing a little bit. "I did that a couple times, too," she agreed. "Only no wool-bales. Mine were always boxes. Good for hiding behind, though."
Scott nodded too. "I tried that once," he said, surprisingly. "When I was fifteen." He grinned his oddly rakish grin. "I got caught, though."
"Amateur," Annie sniffed, grinning back at him.
"I know. I only got one station along before the guard found me." Scott shrugged. "That was how the Professor found me, though, so it wasn't all bad."
The girls nodded. "Happy ending," Rogue smiled shyly, and he returned the smile. They were good kids, he thought fondly.
On the other side of the platform, a tall, muscular blond man in a heavy coat and a pulled-down hat lifted his head sharply. There was a familiar scent in the air...two of them in fact...laced with something else, something enticingly almost-familiar...
Unobtrusively, Annie sniffed the air. She could smell a strange scent...only just, the breeze was against her...but it was definitely an interesting one. It was one she wanted to find out about. Maybe she'd fight with it, maybe she wouldn't. But she wanted to find it.
Sabretooth scanned the opposite platform, eyes narrowed. He wasn't sure why he'd come...maybe to pick a fight, maybe just to throw a scare into them first...but he'd been bored, and he wanted to beat Wolverine up some. Maybe kill him, but not too soon. That wasn't any fun. And now he was looking for...something. It wasn't exactly across from him, more to the left...
There was Redeye, all right...and the stripy-haired girl was there, too. The familiar scents, yes...but where was the other one?
Annie scowled at the large woman who was standing in front of her. Damnit, she couldn't see where the interesting smell was coming from! It smelled even more interesting than Wolverine, and he was downright fascinating. She'd never met a person who smelled so much like a wolf before. Anyway...nimbly, she scampered around Scott and up one of the decorative wrought-iron pillars that were spaced out along the platform. Hanging from it like a small blonde monkey, she looked around. This was better, she could see everything now...
A flash of movement caught Sabretooth's eye, and he looked up at the small, sturdy kid that'd appeared apparently out of nowhere to scramble up a pillar. Blonde hair, fair skin, overalls...nothing special, just another brat...
Then their eyes met, with an almost audible thunk.
He knew who she was, he just knew... He wasn't sure if it was the look in her eyes or the way she moved or the scent he'd finally placed...but she was his, he knew it! There was just something calling to him, and he started looking around for somewhere he could cross the tracks, to get over there and find out what was going on...
Annie stared at the tall man. She had an advantage, in that she knew at least who he must be...but the shock of recognition had come as a complete surprise. She'd seen Mystique, once, and the woman had looked right in her eyes and neither of them had felt a thing...Annie had only known at all because she'd caught the scent and seen a flash of gold in the eyes as they passed over her. But this...she scrambled down from the pillar and made a beeline for the tracks. She could just run right across, it'd take one second...
Scott grabbed her by the collar as she zipped past. "Hold it!" he said automatically. "Where do you think you're going?"
Annie blinked, trying to refocus on something besides the pack-urge that was tugging at her. "I was just...uh..."
"Well, it'll have to wait." Scott pointed. "This is our train."
Annie suppressed a yowl of disappointment as the train pulled in between the two platforms.
Sabretooth suppressed an angry roar as a train pulled in between the two platforms.
Annie whimpered silently in protest as she was hustled onto the train. How was she going to find HIM again if people went around pushing her onto public transport!? But if she protested she'd blow her cover and HIS too...
Victor Creed snarled silently and grabbed the nearest commuter. "Where's that train goin'?" he demanded.
"N-New York," the woman stammered.
He pushed her away...not too hard...and stalked down the platform. If he remembered correctly, there should be another one in just under an hour...
Annie gazed with fascination at a stuffed leopard. "I wish they'd let us touch," she said wistfully. "I wanna know what the fur feels like."
"Me too," Rogue agreed. "Only I'd wanna pet the stuffed badger."
Scott smiled indulgently. For once, for ONCE, he had company that really appreciated how much fun the museum really was! He hadn't had so much fun for ages. "Annie? Rogue?" He tapped Annie on the shoulder, making sure she could see his hand move towards her. "Time for lunch, don't you think?"
Rogue nodded, and Annie bounced a little. "Food!" she said happily. "I like food. It's something I'm very into."
Scott nodded solemnly. "Me too."
"Me three," Rogue agreed with a grin. "Let's go stuff ourselves at th' cafe."
They headed for the cafe, and were halfway there when that faint, fascinating scent reappeared. Annie's head snapped up, and she looked around eagerly. "What is it?" Rogue asked curiously.
Annie pointed, smiling her most innocent smile. "Stuffed owls!" she said brightly. "And raptors, look! Can I just have a little look?"
Scott and Rogue exchanged looks. "But I'm HUNGRY!" Rogue complained.
Annie smiled a sweet, guileless smile. "You two go on ahead and get food," she said reasonably. "I just want a little look, then I'll catch up with you. Order for me, okay? You know the stuff I like."
Rogue looked around a little nervously. "But what if--"
"Oh, I'll be fine. Always am."
Scott nodded. "Okay, but just a few minutes," he said firmly. "You know where we'll be, right?"
Annie nodded, giving him a grateful look. "Thanks."
Scott nodded. He knew the signs of "I just wanna be alone for a minute" when he saw them. God knew he'd sent the same signals himself a few times. And it wasn't like anything bad would happen to her. If anything bad turned up, he was willing to bet that Annie would be the one who happened to it.
Annie waited until they rounded the corner, then sidled over to a door marked "Staff Only." Looking around casually, she slipped through it. It was almost pitch-black on the other side, but she could see enough. "Who're you?" she asked.
He looked down at her, his voice an interrogative growl. "Who're YOU?" he demanded.
Annie tilted her head back to look at him, not the slightest bit intimidated but very curious. He smelled annoyed and puzzled, with hints of excitement and interest. "I'm Annie," she said, pupils flaring, then contracting to catlike slits, then flaring again in the new shape. "Experiment A99, technically. You're Sabretooth, aren't you?"
He growled at the word "Experiment," lowering his head to sniff suspiciously at her. Annie returned the favour, standing on tiptoe and snuffling curiously. It felt...odd, but right, to both. THIS was the way to introduce yourself. This was how you got to know someone. "Yeah," he said shortly. "I'm Sabretooth. An' I'm..." He trailed off. He couldn't quite say it.
"My primary genetic donor," she said, lips twisting wryly. Slowly, she shifted back to her true shape, cheekbones and chin becoming more prominent, hair thickening, canines lengthening and teeth growing sharper. "Along with Mystique. But she didn't recognize me."
Creed made a face. Mystique... Mystique was creepy. She smelled funny and she was unpredictable and you couldn't tell what she was thinking. Still...how could she not have recognized the kid? Now, in what he assumed was her natural shape, she looked a LOT more like him, but even before, when she'd looked like any other blonde All-American brat, he'd known. He'd just...known.
She gazed up at him with wide, golden eyes. Those, at least, she'd gotten from Mystique. He suspected some of the agility, too...she moved a little faster, a little more graceful than he ever had...but still, she was mostly him. He was surprised to discover that he liked that. "I did."
"I know. I knew who you were, too." She sniffed again, thoughtfully. "You smelled really interesting."
"So did you," he agreed. This was...bizarre. He was standing here in a stairwell, talking to a kid he'd never known he had, who said she was an experiment and had probably been made in a lab...and the only thought that was coming to mind was that for perhaps the first time in his life, he was having a conversation that he understood perfectly. The body-language was for once readable, he could follow the train of thought behind her words...it was weird. But not in a bad way.
She nodded, smiling brightly and toothily. "We came to look at the animals," she explained. "It's fun." She frowned suddenly. "You're not gonna fight with Rogue and Mr. Summers again, are you?"
"Maybe. Why not?" He shrugged.
"Because I like them," she said, shrugging casually and stuffing small hands into the pockets of her overalls. They had a little row of red flowers embroidered along the top of the chest pocket. "They're nice to me, and they play with me, and tell me stuff."
He frowned suspiciously. She better not just be trying to protect them. "No foolin'?"
"Well, obviously they don't know about THIS," she said, pointing to her new face and rolling her eyes as if that should be obvious. "As far as they're concerned I'm Annie Winslow, a fair-haired, blue-eyed, all-American troubled teen whose only mutant power is to spontaneously generate a blue crystalline substance varying in density from ordinary quartz to something rather harder than diamond."
"It keeps them happy," she shrugged. "They like with the being good and the big words."
"Oh." Well, yeah, he'd noticed that. "Gave them a sob story, huh? Poor little kid, all alone, mommy and daddy don't love ya..."
"Nah. Dunno where mommy is, Daddy doesn't know I exist, and I grew up in a special facility. It was all even true. Technically. Not the WHOLE truth, but some of it."
Creed nodded. "Good strategy," he approved. "Them sneaky telepaths can tell sometimes if yer lyin'."
She nodded. "That's what I thought." She looked at the door, then back up at him. "I gotta go, or they're gonna suspect something."
He shrugged. "So what if they do?"
"So all my stuff's still at the school, I still need them to track down who was behind the experiments, and I don't want Mr. Summers to worry. He does it too much anyway."
Sabretooth raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. She'd been doing well so far, infiltrating the school and all...she probably knew what she was doing. "I'll be around," he grunted, by way of farewell.
She nodded and smiled at him, a swift, bright smile. "Good." Then she slipped back through the door and was gone.
"Yeah, I'm fine." She managed a smile, even though her face felt tired and sore from shifting back and forth. "Just...big week, and not much sleep."
Rogue, having received only the vaguest hints of Annie's story, frowned in puzzlement. "Why?"
Annie shrugged expressively. "Life. Homework. The universe. It's just...catching up with me, I guess."
Rogue nodded, her face clearing. "Oh. You're sure that's all it is?"
"No, but I'm not supposed to tell you the rest. They're afraid it'll upset you." Annie shrugged. Well, she'd ASKED... "I dunno why they think not telling you is better, but hey. They're adults, they're not rational."
Rogue's eyes narrowed. "These adults who don't want me to know what's going on... Logan wouldn't be one of them, would he?"
"You know, you're not gonna believe this, but he IS actually involved. What are the odds, huh?" Annie grinned. She knew all about Rogue's wistful little fancy for Logan. "You wanna tell him off?"
"Damn right I do!" Rogue snapped, tapping a foot in irritation. "What is it you're not supposed to tell me?"
"I can't tell you," Annie explained patiently. "They made me promise not to. But you can tell him that I said it's okay for you to know. I mean, I don't mind. And it's all about ME, so me not minding is important."
"Oh." So it was personal... "Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Positive. If you can tell ME about the..." Annie paused delicately. "The thing I promised not to talk about ever again, you know, the Logan-involving one..." Rogue blushed furiously. "Anyway, you can know stuff about me now."
Rogue nodded, still blushing a bit. "Right...uh...okay. I'm gonna go scream at Logan now. You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. Just gonna go, take a shower, and maybe nap for a while. If I don't make dinner, tell Ms. Monroe I went to bed early, okay?" Students weren't supposed to skip meals, it wasn't Good Health, but since Mr. Summers had just spent two hours watching her gorge herself on expensive cafe food, he'd probably let it go.
"Sure." Rogue nodded, turning and stamping down the hall with a vengeful gleam in her eyes. Annie watched her go with a fond smile. If Rogue really did want to get involved with Wolverine...and Annie saw no reason why she shouldn't...picking fights with him was the way to go. He was definitely the sort to go for strong, argumentative women.
As for Annie, she WAS going to go have a shower, and then a nap. The fact that she intended to nap in the tree outside her window had nothing to do with anything. It smelled nice out there and she'd discovered within herself an apparently instinctive ability to doze on a tree branch in absolute comfort.
He was sprawled on his bed, sucking on a cigar and reading...something he shoved under his pillow with more than a little speed when she came in. Rogue glowered. "If you can take a minute away from the cancer sticks and the dirty magazines, we need to talk," she snapped.
He sat up, scowling. "Why?"
"What is it that Annie's not allowed to tell me because it'll upset me?" Rogue did her best impersonation of his own worst snarl. "And where do you get off deciding that I don't need to know personal things about my own friend?"
Logan's scowl deepened. "Look, it's nothing you need to know--"
"But everyone else knows!!" Rogue actually stamped her foot. "Why am I the only one being left out, just because I'm the youngest?!"
"Because..." Logan sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. "We don't know anything really concrete, yet. It's all bad news, and since you weren't there at the time, we didn't wanna worry you with it.
Rogue scowled, unappeased. "Why not? She's MY friend."
Logan sighed. "Is there anything I can say that'll make you calm down?" he asked in annoyance.
Rogue blinked, a little taken aback. "Well...no, probably not."
"Won't bother then." He shrugged, leaning back on the bed and sucking on his cigar.
Rogue glared at him. "You could at least TRY!"
He sat up again, scowling. "Look, kid, ya weren't there. We didn't tell ANYONE who wasn't there. So take the attitude someplace else."
"But..." she stamped her foot in frustration and stormed out. "That...that...that....MAN!!" she fumed.
Down the hall, Jean's head appeared around a door. "Logan?"
"Are there any other that-that-that-MANs around here?" Rogue asked, blushing a little. "He's just so..."
"Stubborn? Unmanageable?" Jean grinned, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Cute?"
Rogue blushed harder and nodded.
Jean smiled understandingly, beckoning the younger girl over and ushering her into the neat, comfortable room Jean and Scott shared. "Wanna talk about it?" she asked sympathetically.
Rogue shook her head. "Uh...no offense, Doctor Grey, but it's a little...embarrassing," she said weakly.
Jean nodded. "I can understand that...have you talked to anyone else about it?"
Rogue nodded slowly. "Uh...Annie..."
Jean blinked. "You...went to ANNIE for advice?" she asked blankly.
"Well, not exactly." Rogue shrugged helplessly. "She weaseled it out of me."
"Oh." Jean's face cleared. "She's good at that."
"REALLY good at that." Rogue poked at the carpet with her toes. "She doesn't think it's such a crazy idea," she muttered, a bit rebelliously.
Jean sighed, touching Rogue's shoulder gently. "Rogue, I know that you have...well...feelings for Logan, but--"
"I know, I know," Rogue sighed. "I'm too young, he's too old, etcetera, etcetera."
"I was going to say he's unreliable," Jean said mildly. "And he has too many bad habits. But age is a factor too, yes."
Rogue sighed. "Of course he's got bad habits. He smokes too much, he drinks too much, he doesn't shower all that often, and he doesn't sort his underwear by colour. He probably doesn't even wear any." She winked and grinned. "That's why we like him."
Jean darted a guilty look at the dresser that presumably held hers and Scott's underwear, and blushed.
Rogue grinned at her. "I won't tell anyone if you won't," she whispered conspiratorially.
"That's blackmail!" Jean whispered back.
"I like to think of it as...trust." Rogue smiled sweetly.
Jean smiled reluctantly. "All right," she agreed. "Neither of us will say anything more about it."
Rogue nodded and slipped away, feeling more than a little smug. She might be a little ticked off at Logan right now, but she had to admit she'd learned a few things from him.
Even if he was a nasty, selfish, unpredictable lout who just happened to look wonderful without a shirt on.
It wasn't until she was in the middle of dinner that she realized she STILL didn't know what it was that nobody wanted her to know.
And when she went looking for Logan, the rat had skipped out, leaving a note to say that he'd be back on Monday.
He hadn't really planned what to do next...trying to slip into the school itself would be risky, and he couldn't hang around for more than a few hours, unless he wanted dawn to catch him in the middle of the Xavier Estate with no escape plan.
Fate, however, seemed to have intervened, as his nose informed him that the girl...he still shied away from calling her his daughter...was somewhere not far away. He followed the scent, and promptly had to bite his tongue to keep a sentimental noise from escaping. He'd NEVER made one of those noises, and he wasn't going to start now.
Even if the sight of his small, blonde cub draped along a branch like a baby big cat, her eyes closed and body relaxed in sleep, was about the cutest thing he'd ever seen. He'd never been the slightest bit moved by kittens in baskets, small fuzzy critters were food, not things to "awww" at, and he didn't like babies. But this...this was cute. He smiled a bit. Look at her, she thought she was a feline.
Just like him.
Hitherto unknown instincts were kicking in at high speed, as he shrugged and swarmed up the massive tree. If a branch two stories up would hold her, he should be fine. He paused a few feet below her and stretched up a long arm to tap her dangling foot. "Hey."
The foot promptly kicked him in the hand, and vanished upwards. After a moment, her head appeared in its place as she dangled from a higher branch by her hands and knees, wearing a disgruntled expression. "Don't you know better than to sneak up on someone who's sleeping?" she asked crossly. "I could've taken your hand off, and then where'd you be?"
He shrugged, squatting easily on his own branch. "'S why I went for yer foot instead o' yer hand. You got shoes on."
She thought it over, and nodded, agreeing with the wisdom of touching a limb that was a) less flexible and b) had the claws covered up. "Fair 'nuff." She swung down from the smaller branch and perched on the original one, gazing down at him with interest. "Did you come here to see me?"
He nodded, returning the gaze with equal interest. She had slightly pointed ears, he noticed, and the faint starlight glittered in her deep yellow eyes. "Was curious," he admitted. He wouldn't have admitted it to anyone else, but you could tell just by looking that the kid was as curious herself as a kitten meeting its first dog. Any second now she was gonna reach out her paw and bat him on the nose.
He might even not bite her fingers.
"Me too," she said cheerfully, sliding with boneless grace down off her branch and onto his, tucking her feet up under her and inspecting him closely. "I like those." She pointed to the wolf-furs he wore slung around his shoulders.
He nodded, returning the inspection. Her thick, wavy hair was pulled into two untidy bunches behind her ears, and she was wearing thick, sensible jeans and a dark woolen sweater. "You sleep in trees often?"
She shrugged. "Sometimes. I like it."
"Me too." There was something...comforting...about a high branch and a nice angle against the treetrunk. It was peaceful. And it made it hard for people to track you. "Too big for most trees, though."
She nodded. "I can see that." Absently she dropped backwards, swinging by her knees for a moment, then squirreled around the branch and straddled it, eyeing him speculatively. "Do you like chasing rabbits? I do."
He shrugged. "Used to. Don't bother much anymore."
She eyed him speculatively, taking in the massive size. "I guess it's a lot of running for just a snack," she nodded. "Hey, did you ever run down a deer? I tried once, but it got away." She made a dissatisfied little face. "I couldn'ta eaten it all, anyway."
He grinned. "I've done it," he said a tiny bit smugly. "There's a knack."
"I figured." She gave him a hopeful look. "Think you could show me?"
That rocked him back on his heels, eyes narrowing. "Maybe," he said non-commitally. It was one thing to look the kid over, talk a little, maybe get a feel for what she was like...but he wasn't going to be trying for any father-of-the-year awards. He wasn't even going to commit to SEEING the kid again...at least not yet.
He probably would, of course, but it'd be 'cause he WANTED to.
She gave him a suspicious look of her own. "And I am NOT joining up with Magneto," she informed him, out of nowhere. "Rogue TOLD me about that machine thing, with the spinning and the mutation and the powersucking. I am so NOT going near that guy."
A hitherto unsuspected protective instinct informed Creed that if anyone thought Mags was getting anywhere near his, Creed's, own flesh and blood, then that person had another think coming. Just the thought brought his hackles up, a growl rumbling in his throat. "No, yer not," he agreed firmly. "Anyway, he's in jail."
She nodded. "Anyway, I'm not convinced yet that mutants should rule the world." She thought about it for a moment. "Although the whole Dream Of A Peaceful World thing isn't all that convincing, either. I mean...I've READ about history, I know how cute nice people manage against the big bad guys."
He raised an eyebrow. "How?"
She drew a finger across her throat, making a sckkkt noise. "No more cute nice people."
He nodded. "Th' way of the world, I guess," he agreed. "So, you got an opinion of yer own?"
She shrugged. "Bald apes are naturally stupid?"
He laughed softly. "No argument on that."
The girl twiddled her pigtail absently. "Do you have trouble understanding them sometimes?" she asked diffidently. "I mean...they're weird. And they think in circles. And they get upset about the weirdest things."
He nodded, feeling rather companionable towards the kid. "Just basically weird," he agreed, absently picking at the bark of the branch. "Comes of bein' monkeys."
She nodded too. "You know, I read up on felines. You're not actually much like a sabretooth...at least, I don't think so. They don't know much about them on account of them being extinct." She eyed him thoughtfully. "We're more like lions, I think."
He shrugged. "I didn't come up with the name."
She gave him a puzzled look, absently nibbling on one claw. "Then who did?"
"Dunno." He reached out absently and pulled the claw out of her mouth. "You'll make it split if ya do that. And they don't heal unless ya pull them right out."
Annie sighed, tucking her palms under her shoes and rocking back onto her tailbone. "I know. Why don't you know who picked your name?"
Creed looked down at his own big, clawed paws. "Woke up in a cell. The name was on a tag around my neck," he muttered. "I don't remember much before that."
Annie nodded. "Mr. Logan has a tag like that," she said cheerfully. "Mine doesn't have my name, just my number."
His head snapped up, and his eyes narrowed. "You have tags too?"
"Just one." She held out a small foot in a grubby blue sneaker. "It's on a chain around my ankle."
Her genetic sire folded one massive hand around the small foot, so that only her toes showed. The other pushed up the leg of her jeans and tugged her sock down. There, clamped around her thin ankle, was a simple ball chain, seemingly identical to the one he'd lost, and the one he'd taken briefly from Wolverine. A small tag, much smaller than his, hung from it, and visible on the dull surface was the number she'd already given him -- A-99 -- and another, longer one that looked like some sort of serial number.
His teeth clenched on a savage growl. Somehow, this was worse. It had been bad enough waking up in a cold cell, naked save for the chain around his neck, disoriented and terrified, but at least he'd been able to remove his. To pull them off over his head and discard them, and never be able to find them again, though he'd looked many times. But this...there was no way a child could get it off, not without equipment she'd never have been able to get her hands on before escaping. It wasn't identification, it was a sign of ownership, a label...his eyes narrowed, and his fingers closed on the chain...
"Don't try to break it," she cautioned him in a calm, dispassionate voice. "You'll take my foot off."
He growled again, but forced himself to release the frail-looking chain. "You've tried?"
Annie nodded, looking at the foot that was still cradled in his big hand. "I don't know what the chain's made of, but I haven't found anything that'll cut it yet."
He nodded, letting go of her foot a little reluctantly. The longer he talked to her, the more previously unused instincts murmured to him that he should protect the little one, keep it safe, nurture it...not that he knew HOW to nurture a child, but for the first time he was getting the urge to try. "Probably a trick to it," he grunted, looking up. More time had passed than he'd thought. They'd be waking up soon. "Gotta go," he grunted.
She nodded, standing up on the branch. The fact that they were level with the second-story windows didn't seem to bother her. "And I should go to bed. They worry if I don't spend at least a couple hours inside."
He nodded, and scrambled down the tree without another word. Although he did look up to see her scamper along a branch, make a hackle-raising leap to grab a window ledge, and haul herself inside. He shook his head disapprovingly. What were her teachers thinking, letting her climb around on the outside of the building? They didn't know she had a healing factor!
He slipped away, muttering about teachers today.
Slowly the hubbub lowered to a murmur, and several dozen inquiring faces turned towards her.
"Thank you. I know I don't need to remind any of you that all homework MUST be finished by tomorrow, and that no excuses will be accepted...but you can't say I didn't warn you." There was a resigned chuckle or two among the usual offenders, and she smiled her warm smile. "Those of you who are on cleanup duty after yesterday's waterfight incident -- and that's EVERYONE who was involved -- are to go to the main hall directly after breakfast to receive your instructions and your cleaning tools. The basketball game will be postponed until this afternoon, so try to be done by then." Her expression turned serious. "And I want all of you to stay in or very close to the school. Nobody is to go riding, and I don't want any of you going out of sight of the building."
"Awww, why?" Danielle asked...or whined.
Storm sighed. "I don't want to alarm anyone, but according to the news this morning, two of the locals were mauled by some sort of wild animal last night. Apparently they were out hunting."
There was a worried murmur. Annie blinked innocently at Storm. "What kind of animal?"
"The authorities think it may be a bear of some kind." Storm gave Annie a stern look. "And you are NOT to go out looking for it, young lady. It's a dangerous wild beast, and it doesn't want to be examined, no matter how interesting it might be."
Annie nodded. "I expect you're right," she said with complete honesty. "I won't go look for any large wild animals, Ms. Monroe, I promise."
"Good." Ororo gave Annie a suspicious look, just on principle. Annie was a very truthful child, and if she promised she wouldn't do something, then she wouldn't...but somehow she always managed to do something worse. "That's it for now, everyone. Enjoy your breakfast."
"I don't know if that's possible," John muttered. "These pancakes are so rubbery that my fork is bouncing."
"They're not that bad," Rogue disagreed. "If you let the syrup soak in for a while, they soften up."
Annie polished off the last of her pancakes, and started eyeing her classmates' plates. "They don't give us enough," she complained. "I'm a growing adolescent!"
Everyone pulled their plates out of reach. "You already eat as much as Mr. Logan," John said firmly. "If you eat any more, you'll get chubby."
Annie blinked. "I will?"
John and Bobby both nodded. "Yup," John confirmed. "And not like Fred, 'cause that's just his powers."
Annie blinked again, and looked over at Rogue. "Rogue, if I eat too much, will I get chubby?"
Rogue shook her head, grinning. "Annie, you go out running every morning, you do that martial arts stuff, and you run up and down the stairs just for fun...I saw you trying to outrun that Slinky, don't think I didn't. You're not gonna get chubby."
Annie looked down at herself. "Are you sure?"
Rogue gave her small, rather stocky friend a reassuring smile. "Annie, you're not gonna get chubby. It's all muscle."
Annie beamed. "It is, isn't it? I can lift Mr. Summers!"
There was a moment of silence.
"Just when did you lift Mr. Summers?" John asked cautiously.
"Well, not him PERSONALLY." Annie rolled her eyes. "But I accidentally bounced the basketball under that cast-iron bench, right? And I picked it up to get the ball out, and Mr Summers did that funny face he does when he's surprised and he said 'That bench weighs more than I do' and I said 'Really?' and he said 'Yeah' and so I guess I can lift him too."
There was another moment of silence.
"That's logical," John said weakly.
Annie nodded. "Of course it is." She gave him a hopeful look. "Are you gonna eat your banana?"
"Yeah?" Rogue leaned against a tree, biology text propped on her knees.
"Why do you wear gloves all the time?"
Rogue blinked. "You...don't know?"
"Nuh-uh." Annie grabbed her toes and waved her feet a bit more. "Should I?"
"Well...I guess I figured someone woulda told you." Rogue looked down at her gloved hands, biting her lip. "Uhm...if I touch someone with my bare skin, I kinda suck out their energy."
Annie stopped trying to straighten her knees without letting go of her feet, and scrunched around to look at Rogue. "Is that how Magneto gave you his powers for the machine-sucky thing?"
Rogue nodded. "He...he touched me, so I'd get his powers and stuff."
Annie flopped on her stomach, gazing up at Rogue from under an untidy mass of curls. "Does it hurt?"
Rogue shrugged unhappily. "Sometimes." Almost always. But it hadn't hurt when Logan had held her on top of the Statue of Liberty...he hadn't been fighting the drain, he'd poured his energy into her willingly, and for a moment it had felt almost comforting.
Annie reached out to pat her gloved hand comfortingly. "It sounds very interesting," she said comfortingly. Then she brightened. "Hey, could I try it? Just a little bit?"
Rogue stared at her, making a half-laugh, half-gulping sound. "You...you WANT me to touch you?"
Annie nodded, sitting up and brushing the grass off her shirt. "Sure. Why not?"
Rogue gulped again, her eyes filling with tears. "No. No, I don't want to. I don't wanna suck y-your thoughts out of you and make you sick."
"Okay. If you don't wanna." Annie hugged her carefully. "But I still think it sounds interesting, if you only did it a little bit."
Rogue sniffled softly, resting her cheek against Annie's shoulder. "Thanks."
Annie patted her hair. "Any time." She squinted upwards. "Hey, how do you think something like wings evolves? I mean, what good would a half-wing do anything?"
Rogue laughed weakly, straightening up. "I have no idea."
"Maybe they started by being like penguins, and having wing-flipper things..." Annie mused.
"Maybe." Rogue wiped her eyes with one gloved hand and smiled. She should have known Annie wouldn't be afraid of her.
Annie continued to stare upwards. "Hey, I bet I could climb this tree...Rogue, watch me climb!" She jumped to her feet and grabbed the lowest branch, pulling herself up easily.
"I'm watching," Rogue called indulgently. She watched a little enviously as her friend scampered up the tree, hauling herself up by whatever limb was the handiest. Rogue wasn't an envious person by nature, but her friend's almost preturnatural agility was something she coveted. The two-and-a-half-minute attention span, however, was something she was grateful to have outgrown. Annie was a cute kid, but she tended to act a lot younger than her age.
She stopped, just before the leaves and branches hid her from view, and hung by her hands and feet like a sloth. "Do you like climbing trees, Rogue?"
"Not really." Rogue leaned back against the tree, tilting her head to gaze upwards. "What with that whole thing on the Statue of Liberty and all, I'm not so great with heights."
"Oh. That's too bad." Annie swung back and forth a bit. "I like it a lot. 'S fun, being up high."
"So I noticed." Rogue shaded her eyes with her hand, squinting up at the small blonde figure. "Annie, you should come down. Ms. Monroe said we had to stay in sight, and I don't think anyone but me can see you up there."
"In just a minute." Annie swung up to straddle the branch, sniffing the air.
Rogue waited the requisite sixty seconds, then looked up again. "C'mon, Annie, you promised. Line of sight, remember?"
Annie nodded, looking around a little edgily. "Rogue, is Mr. Logan still gone?"
Rogue nodded, muttering a little under her breath. "Yeah, until tomorrow morning. Why?"
"And Doctor Grey and the Professor went out today, didn't they?" Annie asked, looking down at her friend. The sunlight filtering through the leaves seemed to give her eyes a greenish tinge.
"Yeah, I think so...Annie, what is it?"
Annie dropped to hang by her hands from the thick branch. "Well...we've either got intruders, or Jehovah's Witnesses. And the Jehovahs don't usually carry guns."
She let go of the branch, and dropped.
In less than a second, she was grabbing a branch just above Rogue's head, and swinging around it, spending momentum fast enough that in another second or two, she'd flipped around to hang by her knees again. "I hope heights don't make you barf or anything gross," she said conversationally, and grabbed Rogue by the belt. Then they were accelerating upwards, Rogue letting out a small shriek of surprise as she was hauled upwards faster than she would have thought possible, banging against the trunk of the tree as Annie scampered monkey-like towards the top.
The whole thing, from Annie's first drop to their rapid ascension, had taken about four seconds.
The first tranquilizer dart hit in the fifth second, followed rapidly by several more.
By the seventh second, both girls had tumbled limply to the ground again, unconscious.
By the time Bobby and John reached the spot less than a minute later, alerted by Rogue's scream, the girls were already gone.
Dammit, Prof, I told you not to do that! Logan snarled silently. He'd jumped when the sudden shout had echoed in his skull, and now there was beer in his sleeve. I'm havin' a day off, remember?
~I know, Logan, and I'm sorry, but this is an emergency.~ The deep, controlled tone of Xavier's thoughts was overlaid with near-frantic worry. ~Rogue and Annie have disappeared.~
"WHAT?!" Logan roared. The other occupants of the bar gave him startled looks, but he ignored them, throwing a handful of bills on the bar and racing out the door. What the hell happened, Xavier?!
~We don't know. We're hoping you'll be able to tell us something.~
Thank god he'd stolen One-Eye's bike again. He'd be back in less than half an hour.
Logan brushed past her with a curt nod. "Anyone got any idea what happened?" he demanded, storming through the foyer. "Anyone got one damn idea what happened to two kids you people are supposed to be protecting?!"
"Logan..." Jean stopped his rant and his forward motion with one slim hand on his shoulder. "The Professor and I weren't here, and nobody seems to have seen anything. We're hoping that your hypersenses might give us some clues."
They took him to the tree, and he sniffed around a bit self-consciously. He felt like a damn bloodhound...
Yes, there it was. A faint whiff of the two boys, fast and panicked. The girls, a calm and relaxed scent overlaid with sudden fear, with a trace of blood and salt water. The intruders, nervous, wearing polyester and carrying guns.
And another scent, sharper, and far more familiar...
"Are you okay?" Annie's voice asked. At least, it sounded like Annie's voice, through the ringing in Rogue's head.
"I hurt," she discovered, trying to sit up and failing. She was lying on something cold and hard, her hands tied behind her, and when she managed to get her eyes open, it made no difference at all. Wherever they were, there was no light.
"I figured. We fell out of the tree." There was a rustle somewhere to Rogue's left.
"Don't move!" Rogue cried instantly, trying to locate the source of the sound. "You might touch me!" Her face was uncovered, and her arms above her long gloves, and her shirt had ridden up a little to expose the skin above the waistband of her jeans.
"It's okay. I'm down here." Something...Annie's feet, she thought...nudged at the back of Rogue's knees. "I already felt around for you."
"What happened?" After another couple of attempts, Rogue managed to sit up, and promptly bumped her head against a wall a few inches to her right. She scooched over and leaned against it, pulling her knees up to her chest. "Who grabbed us?" she asked, trying not to let her voice shake. "The Brotherhood again?"
"No such luck." Annie sighed. "I'm sorry, Rogue. They grabbed you because you were with me."
"Why?" Rogue asked softly.
"Uh...you know that personal stuff that nobody wanted to tell you about me?" The high, sweet voice took on a penitent note. "It's because of that. Uh...get as comfortable as you can. It's kind of a long story."
She told it, in a small, strained voice, and Rogue bit her lip until she tasted blood to keep from crying. Now was no time for tears. Later she could cry for the tragedy of the culled children, and offer Annie what comfort she could, but not now. "It's going to be okay," she said as comfortingly as she could manage. "They'll find us. Even if we're telepathically shielded so the Professor can't find us, Logan'll sniff us out."
Annie gulped softly, making a noise that sounded suspiciously like "uh-oh." "Rogue? Say, hypothetically, that when Mr. Logan sniffed around, he not only found traces of the guys who nabbed us, but...uhm...signs of Sabretooth as well? Who do you think he'd follow?"
Rogue swallowed hard. "Sabretooth?" The huge blond man hadn't actually hurt her, but he'd been almost more terrifying than Magneto himself. "He was at the school?"
"Yeah...but he didn't do anything," Annie reassured her quickly. "I was sleeping in my best tree, and he climbed up it, and he asked me some questions, and I asked him a lot of questions, and then he went away." Rogue smothered a rather hysterical laugh, at the idea of Annie bailing up the enormous villain and subjecting him to one of her bouts of curiosity. No wonder the man had "gone away." He'd probably RUN. "I'm positive he didn't have anything to do with this, though. He really didn't like what I told him about these people."
"But he WAS there." Rogue rested her forehead against her knees.
"In the big tree outside the girls' dorms."
"And you're sure he had no idea about this?"
"Crap." Rogue sighed, rubbing her face against her knees. "We're in trouble."
But it hadn't taken long enough to find the bastard, and Logan hadn't had long enough to get a real murderous frenzy going.
Oh well...blazing fury would have to do.
He kicked the door open, and ducked the claws that lashed towards his face. "Where are they?" he roared, popping his claws and relishing the moment of searing pain. It just made him madder. "What did you do, you sick bastard?!"
"What the hell..." Sabretooth shook his head like a lion with an itch, snarling, but with a puzzled look in his cold, mad eyes. "Who?"
"The kids, asshole!" Wolverine growled. "You remember Marie, right? The kid you and yer friends nearly murdered?! What the hell did you do with her now?!! If you've hurt her or that other kid--"
Faster than he would have thought possible, the massive hands snapped out and grabbed him by the throat. Foul breath puffed into his face as huge, sharp teeth snapped an inch from his nose. "What. Other. Kid?"
"Her name's Annie," Jean said from the doorway. "Where is she?"
"I thought she was with your lot," Creed snarled, dropping Logan unceremoniously on the floor. He sounded almost...aggrieved? "Ya can't keep an eye on one little kid?" There was nothing sarcastic in his tone.
"Wait..." Jean's eyes narrowed, and Logan guessed she was reaching out with her rudimentary telepathy. "You know about her..." Then her eyes widened suddenly, and she stared at him in shock. "Oh my god...Logan, he had nothing to do with it."
Logan stared at her, easing warily to his feet. "You can't seriously--"
"Logan...Annie's his daughter."
Jean nodded. "We had to. He's not involved...well, I mean he wasn't involved in the kidnapping. He IS involved in being very angry about it."
Sabretooth growled, and Scott covered a fastidious wince at the smell. He wondered if the man had ever, in his entire life, bathed. "Why?"
"Because of Annie." Before Scott could ask his fiancee what, exactly, this supervillain had to do with cute, if obnoxious, little Annie, she'd dragged him, Sabretooth, and Logan into the Professor's study. "Professor, we have a problem."
Xavier lifted his head, and started the tiniest bit when he saw Sabretooth looming over him. He looked at Jean, and raised one eyebrow. "Indeed?"
Jean nodded. Despite the seriousness of the situation, her lips twitched a little. Finally, finally, she just knew she was really going to perturb the Professor. "You know how we've always worried that one day we'd have to tell a parent that we somehow...uh...lost their child?" She pointed discreetly to Sabretooth. "Well...now we do."
The Professor stared at her.
Scott stared at her.
Ororo, who'd come running at her summons and was now in the doorway, stared at her.
Logan made a rude noise.
"Parent?" Scott squeaked after a long moment.
"Yes, parent." Jean folded her arms and gave Sabretooth a rather hostile look. "Or so he claims."
Xavier's other eyebrow rose to join the first. "I... ah...do assume that we're talking about Annie, not..." He trailed off, with a rather horrified expression. Logan made an outraged noise, glaring at him.
"Yes, I mean Annie." Jean shook her head. "He wants to come with us to look for the girls, Professor. And I want him to submit to a mind-probe before we even let him out of this room."
Xavier nodded slowly. "I dislike intruding on the minds of others, but I would prefer to know his motivations in this matter. Sabretooth?"
The enormous supervillain nodded reluctantly. "If that's what it takes," he agreed unhappily.
Xavier nodded, and closed his eyes. "Please, try to relax..." he murmured, steeling himself and slowly, tentatively, opening his mind.
It was all he could do not to blink in surprise. He'd entered Sabretooth's mind just a few months ago, to rescue Rogue, and it had left him feeling jumpy and hostile for days afterwards. It had been all blood and anger and pain and singleminded obsession with the kill.
Since then, though, there'd been some kind of paradigm shift in Sabretooth's thinking. Right at the top of his mind...and tinged with actual worry...were his brief memories of a little girl who looked almost -- but not quite -- like Annie. This child had bright golden eyes, and elongated canines, and heavy, dark claws on her small fingers and toes. This child slept in trees, admired wolf-furs, and had a tag around her left ankle.
Xavier swallowed hard. He'd misjudged, and misjudged badly. He'd looked into innocent blue eyes and heard an innocent, childish voice, and assumed that she was "safe." That she was what she appeared to be. God only knew what the girl had planned before she was kidnapped...if she even had been. She might have--
"We came to look at the animals," the child explained, eyes bright. "It's fun." She frowned suddenly. "You're not gonna fight with Rogue and Mr. Summers again, are you?"
"Maybe. Why not?" Creed/Xavier shrugged.
"Because I like them," she said, poking at the idea thoughtfully. "They're nice to me, and they play with me and tell me stuff."
Xavier felt the baffled astonishment that Creed had experienced at that simple statement, and cringed silently. The man had never once considered, not once, that the child might actually be happy. That "normal" mutants with "normal" lives would ever be other than cruel to any child of his getting.
Tentatively, he reached deeper, and found a deep, confused fury at the world, a hating of all the smart, pretty people who did things he couldn't do and thought things he couldn't understand. The rage of the wounded beast combined with the intense, frustrated anger of someone unable to comprehend most of what went on around him, the baffled fury of someone who had the wrong instincts for his species, and who just wasn't intelligent enough to compensate.
And who, in a small blonde child dangling from a treebranch, had finally, finally, found someone he could understand.
Automatically, Xavier nudged the man's fascinated interest in the little girl, and was reassured. The focus was entirely parental, without any other taint. Like Logan -- and Xavier HAD checked -- Creed's sexual tastes were entirely confined to mature women...though both might feel genuine attachment to an pre-adolescent or a teenager, there would be no inappropriate interest.
He opened his eyes, pulling away from the contact. "You will take him with you," he said quietly. "Sabretooth, I believe that...given our mutual interests...we may trust you not to cause trouble, at least until the girls are found and safe."
Creed nodded again, his black eyes unreadable. "Until then," he agreed.
Jean looked at Xavier, her eyes questioning. ~Professor, are you sure this is a good idea? He has been our enemy...~
~I hope...I believe...that that may change. He can be helped, Jean, if we try...~
Jean looked sceptical. ~Professor, even I can sense the rage that consumes him...~
~The rage of a headblind child raised in a world of telepaths, of a deaf child raised by those who cannot see...for more years than even he knows, Jean, Sabretooth has been living among an entire race he can't understand. With time, it might be possible to teach him.~ He smiled as reassuringly as he could, trying to project hopeful optimism. If Jean and the others had to work with him...and he was under no illusions as to how hard that would be...it might help them to see Sabretooth as a redeemable pawn of evil, rather than an irredeemable one.
~If you say so, Professor,~ she said doubtfully. ~I'll explain to Scott, shall I?~
~Please do.~ Xavier nodded, leaning back in his chair. For now, he kept Annie's shapeshifting abilities to himself; under no circumstances could the team's feelings about the girls be confused or divided. Focus was what they needed now, more than yet another worry about the child's "true" nature -- he himself had experienced a moment of horrified suspicion of Annie's motives, and as a telepath he knew she harboured no ill-will whatsoever towards the students or the X-Men. ~And could you ask Storm to get me an aspirin?~
Jean nodded, smiling her sympathetic smile. "All right, Professor," she said aloud. "We'll be down in the War Room, planning our next move."
He nodded, and they trooped out.
"Oh, not for a while. They're trying to wear us down." Annie paused. "Do you hear that?"
"That whirring noise."
Rogue tilted her head, scrunching up her nose. "I don't hear anything..."
"I do. Stay still."
Rogue still couldn't see a thing, but she sensed movement just to her left. There was a soft rustling noise, a soft grunt, and a sudden screech of metal. "Air-circulation system," Annie explained, and something was pushed into Rogue's hands. "Pulled part of the grill off. The top edge is all jagged. It's not much of a weapon, but do what you can."
Rogue clutched the jagged bit of metal, taking a deep breath. "We fight?"
"We fight," Annie said grimly.
Rogue swallowed hard. "I...don't know much about fighting," she said in a small voice.
"I do," Annie said with a sigh. "I kind of wish I didn't, sometimes, but I do. Did you know it's possible to kill someone with a bag of marshmallows?"
Rogue blinked. "It is?"
Annie nodded. "Okay, you need some string too, but it's possible."
Rogue decided that she really didn't need to know how to kill someone with string and marshmallows. But...if Annie did, and she'd been trained...did that mean..."Have you ever...uh..." She poked at the floor with her toe. "Have you ever killed anyone?"
"Uh-huh. Have you?"
Rogue shook her head, even if she knew Annie couldn't see it. "Almost, once. But I haven't."
Annie sighed softly. "I don't like it much," she admitted.
"Well, there was this one guy I ran into while I was travelling who had these videotapes--"
"EW!" Rogue cried in horror.
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Rogue could tell from Annie's voice that she was wrinkling her nose. "He tried to grab me, and I sorta pushed him out his apartment window."
"Oh." Rogue bit her lip. Emotionally, she was horrified at her friend's casual dismissal of a human life...but intellectually, she understood exactly how Annie's rather sideways approach to life made what she'd done entirely reasonable. There was someone who liked to hurt people, who had tried to hurt her too, so she'd made sure he wouldn't be able to hurt anyone ever again. To Annie, this would have been a very moral act. And Rogue had to admit that she might have been tempted herself, under the same circumstances.
"I didn't get gratuitous about it," Annie said, obviously meaning to be reassuring. "I mean, I didn't cut him into little bits first or anything. Just one little push. I don't really like doing it much, only sometimes I feel like I have to. When it's people who hurt little kids and stuff like that."
Well, that was hard to argue with. "So...when they open the door, we rush them?"
"Uh-huh. Just scream really loudly and hit everything you can reach as hard as you can. Try to act like a crazy person."
"Does that help?"
"Well, if a cute adolescent with no history of mental imbalance leaped out at YOU screaming like a maniac and waving a jagged piece of metal, wouldn't you be startled?"
He shook his head slightly, and tried to think. It wasn't easy. The rage kept bubbling up inside him, the red haze bleeding across his vision, the hissing roar rising in his ears... For too long, he'd just given in to it. Let the world become a simple, blood-tinged place. Now, though, he needed to think, and it was hard.
"I've tracked down a company that uses the logo Annie remembered," Cyclops was saying. "It's not identical, but it's just a stylistic variation...Annie's interpretation isn't exactly flawless yet."
Creed raised a shaggy eyebrow as the too-pretty boy-scout brought up a map on one of the large video screens. A half-dozen lights blinked across the map, showing base locations. One in Canada, two in South America, the others all in the States... "Government?" he asked.
"Who else?" Logan grunted.
"Actually, it isn't." Cyclops made a puzzled face behind his visor. "It's an independent research company. I haven't been able to find the slightest hint of government involvement...any government...beyond a little information exchange, mostly regarding chemical analysis."
"Huh," Wolverine and Sabretooth said in unison, then scowled at each other.
"Anyway, that doesn't matter now." Cyclops shook his head. "My guess is that the girls are in one of the two South American bases. Wolverine and Sabretooth are both too familiar with the Canadian terrain for that to be an option, and I believe they'd want to get as far away as possible--"
"No." Creed shook his head, and jabbed a pointed finger at one of the lights. "Baltimore."
They all stared at him. "Baltimore?" the white-haired woman asked disbelievingly. She was keeping her distance from him, he noticed. Pity. He couldn't blame her, though.
"It's the closest," he rumbled.
"Which is exactly why they wouldn't go there," the white-haired woman said, giving him the you're-such-an-idiot look. He growled at her, and she leaned back in her seat, eyes widening.
"That's why they'll be there. It's the closest secured area they have." He shrugged, tapping his claws absently on the tabletop. "Look, you people know heroing, I know kidnapping. You grab two kids as powerful as those, you're not gonna screw around with dragging them right across the country. You're gonna head for the first secure cell you can find."
"He's right," Wolverine agreed, sounding rather reluctant. "There's no way they could get those two very far, not without at least one of them escaping. They'd head for their nearest facility, banking on th' fact that we haven't come after 'em yet as meaning we don't know who they are."
Cyclops frowned. "You agree with him?" he said uncertainly. The scrawny, dark-haired kid with the odd visor seemed...well...worried. And not just about Rogue, but about Annie, too. Genuinely, rather frantically worried. It made him feel...a bit odd.
Wolverine nodded. "I've done some people-moving," he said, frowning. "At least, I think I have. He's right."
"They have a point, Scott," the red-haired woman agreed. She'd be pretty if she wasn't so damn prissy-looking. "If you kidnapped Annie, especially knowing what she could do, wouldn't you take her someplace safe as fast as you could?"
The boy-scout grinned a sudden, surprisingly humorous grin. "I'd jump in front of a bus before I'd even THINK about trying to kidnap Annie," he said wryly. "Baltimore it is."
"See? They'll both live, if they get medical attention." Annie looked proud of herself. Rogue didn't have the heart to tell her off for excessive violence. After all, they'd been in that cell, without food, water, or light, for eighteen hours and twenty-seven minutes, according to Annie's fairly reliable timesense. Rogue wasn't feeling merciful.
Instead, she dragged herself to her feet, and hobbled out of the cell. Her knees were stiff and sore from hours of sitting. "What do we do now?" she asked, looking around. "Escape, sabotage, or looking for whoever's in charge?"
"I was thinking we should find the tea-room," Annie said thoughtfully, bouncing on her heels. She was a little grubby and... Rogue blinked, realizing that Annie was wearing a dull grey jumpsuit with a bright red number front and back. And that she looked...different. Her eyes had gone from blue to bright yellow, and there were heavy, dark claws on the small hands. She was a tiny bit taller and stockier, too... Rogue gulped, fighting down a wave of panic. This was Annie. She was the same cute little girl she'd always been, just...better armed. And she was staring at Rogue with puzzled yellow eyes. "What?"
Rogue gulped and looked down at herself. "How come they changed your clothes and not mine?" she said lamely.
"'Cause nothing bad happens to people when they take MY clothes off...well, not if I'm unconscious." Annie grinned a rather nasty grin. "If they try it when I'm awake, LOTS of bad things happen."
Rogue couldn't help giggling a little at THAT image, even if it was a rather gory joke. Yep, that was definitely still Annie. "Okay, okay...but why th' tearoom?"
"So'm I," Rogue agreed. "But...aren't we going to fight the bad guys?"
"Drink first. Then fighting," Annie said practically. "I mean, unless we actually run into people, then we'll have to fight them. But I'd rather have a drink and eat something first, wouldn't you?"
Put like that, it certainly sounded logical... "Any idea where the tearoom is?"
"Sure. Someplace close to the elevator. Always is." Annie lifted her head and sniffed. "Anyway, I think I smell old Office Coffee."
Scott finished counting to ten, and turned around to snap at their unwelcome passenger. "Will you sit still?!"
Creed glared at him. "Damn seat's too small," he muttered. It was, unfortunately...the massive shoulders were hunched forward, his knees were pressed against the seat in front of him, and he kept involuntarily feeling Jean up with his elbow.
Logan was looking quite unhappy about that.
Scott sighed, and counted to ten again, in German this time. "I know it's too small, but Jean is trying to concentrate." And Storm and Logan both refused to sit next to you, so Jean got stuck with you.
Sabretooth grumbled, trying to pull his shoulders in. At least his ears weren't going to get cold, he thought resentfully. He HATED being crammed in like this. It made him want to scream and kick and fight and kill things until he got clear, until he could breathe again...
Jean gritted her teeth, screwed up her courage, and patted the large elbow that had slid into her lap again. "It won't be long," she murmured. "We're almost there, right, Scott?"
"Right." Scott rolled his eyes behind his visor. ~Jean, you're touching Sabretooth. Voluntarily.~
~And it's giving me the creeps, but I'd rather pat him on the elbow than have him panic and tear my throat out.~ Jean sent a rueful smile through the link. ~Don't worry, love, I'm not enjoying it. He...well...smells.~
Scott suppressed a snicker.
Storm kept glancing nervously over her shoulder. Scott couldn't blame her. "About another ten minutes," he said softly, reassuringly.
Storm nodded. "I do not like this," she fretted quietly. "We are hinging our entire strategy on nothing more than a guess."
"An informed guess."
"But still a guess." Storm bit her lip. "If we're wrong...the kidnappers will know we are after them, and they may make the association between us and the school."
Scott smiled humourlessly. Sometimes he hated the way his mind worked. "That's why we're sending Sabretooth in first. Hopefully it'll look like we're after him, not the scientists."
Ororo gave him a sharp, horrified look. "But he will--"
"I know he will." Scott sighed, and engaged the plane's stealth mode. "We'll be right behind him, and I'll try to convince him to hold back, but our priority is rescuing the girls." Expidency. For the sake of the students still at the school, it had to seem as if the X-Men were in pursuit of Sabretooth. It had to be that way. He didn't dare assume that, given the slightest connection, these people wouldn't figure it all out. They'd been too clever, for too long, for him to take that kind of risk. Even if he knew...and he did...that Sabretooth was going to kill people.
The fact that he really didn't like it didn't matter.
Rogue jumped, almost spilling her tea.
Annie looked up from her third stale muffin. "Oh, yeah. They know we're gone now."
Rogue put her cup down. "Shouldn't we hide?"
Annie reached over to pat her shoulder gently. "We ARE hiding. We're in the tea-room. Who's gonna look in here?"
"Well...we should move anyway. They'll probably look in every room on this floor."
"If you say so." Annie tucked another muffin into her pocket for later, and stuck her head around the door. "Nobody down this end yet. Elevator?"
"No." Rogue had seen enough action movies to feel secure on this point. "They'll either cut off the power and strand us, or they'll be waiting when we get out. We're taking the stairs."
"Right. This way, then."
Ten minutes later, they'd found the laundry-room, the kitchen, a dozen empty rooms, and five bathrooms, all very, very obviously intended for male use.
"Oh, god," Rogue gagged, leaning against the wall, covering her mouth with one hand. "It smells like three hundred tom cats lived and died in that one room..."
"At LEAST four hundred," Annie insisted, holding her nose.
"How can guys stay in there long enough to go?!"
Annie shuddered. "My eyes started watering..."
"Mine too." Rogue buried her nose in her scarf, inhaling the lingering scent of the perfume she'd put on...yesterday, it was now. "We are NOT hiding in there."
"I'd rather die," Annie said firmly.
"Right." Rogue nodded.
Annie brightened. "Hey, let's go find the central computer core and smash it into tiny bits."
Rogue looked doubtful. "Won't they be expecting that?"
"Well, yes, probably. But it's theirs. And it's important. So I want it to be very, extremely dead," Annie said flatly, a feral light in her eyes.
Well, when she put it that way... Annie had been held prisoner, if not by these people, then by this organization, for all but a few months of her life. If she wanted to take some of that out on the computer, Rogue wasn't going to be the one to tell her she couldn't. "Okay," she said simply. "How?"
Wolverine nodded, tugging at the collar of his uniform. Even though he had his own, now, made especially for him, it still felt too tight around the neck. "Good nose," he admitted grudgingly. There was something oddly...familiar, about the bigger man. It hadn't really registered before, because they'd been too busy trying to gut each other, but standing here like this...side by side, sniffing the air...it felt eerily familiar. "I'd put it at twenty/twenty-five of them all up. Maybe ten of them completely unarmed."
All five of them had made it without mishap, regrouping in a small shed full of shovels and ropes and other occasionally useful things that tended to accumulate in a place like this. Security had been a joke...or maybe not. Logan had gotten a creepy feeling that the reason it was so easy to get in was because the security was all geared towards preventing people from getting out.
"Good," Scott said quietly. "Here's the plan."
"Plan?" Sabretooth demanded. "What makes you think I'm gonna--"
"Here's. The. Plan," Scott gritted out. "You're going in first."
Scott sighed. "If it's at all possible, we don't want these people to associate the X-Men with the school," he said, in his "leader" voice. Calm, rational, disassociated. "You, Sabretooth, are going in first, and I want everyone to know about it. Make as much noise and confusion as you can, all right? We'll wait a couple of minutes, then come in behind you, as if it's you we're after. Now you'll have to keep moving if we want that to work, so don't worry about taking all the guards down before you move on. We'll be right behind you. Just move as fast as you can, and try to find the girls."
He paused, and his voice got a little tighter, though no less dry. "I'd...appreciate it if you kept the casualties to a minimum," he said stiffly. He did NOT say "don't kill anyone."
Logan wasn't sure if it was because it would have been pointless anyway, or if it was because it'd screw up the plan if Sabretooth was too obviously out of character. Either way, he was grudgingly impressed by Cyke's grip on reality.
Sabretooth nodded slowly. "Right," he said in a neutral tone. "I move fast, you pick up the pieces. Works." He grinned a cruel, feline grin and stood up. "Come after me in about three minutes."
"What if another one comes in?" Rogue asked dubiously, pressing a little closer against the cold metal wall. "Or more than one?"
"So they come in. We'll manage," Annie said confidently. Before Rogue could argue that that was hardly what she, Rogue, called a plan, Annie had disappeared around the corner. There was a faint scuffle of bare feet on hard floor, a noise like someone hitting a watermelon not quite hard enough to break it, and Rogue peeked around the corner in time to see the tech fold up quietly.
"Not bad," she said judiciously, slipping into the room. It was average-sized, neither big nor small, with a row of computer terminals backing onto a large, square something that Rogue assumed contained the main computer's...well, whatever a computer core actually was. Now that she thought about it, she wasn't sure. "So now what? We each take a chair and start smashing stuff?" That idea had a certain appeal. She'd been kidnapped, shot, bruised, starved, and intimidated, and she wanted revenge.
"In a minute." Annie pointed. The terminal at the end was active. "He was working when I snuck up on him."
"Sneaked," Rogue corrected absently.
"Snuck," Annie contested, chin sticking out ominously. "Anyway...wanna see what's inside?"
She wavered between wanting desperately to just escape, wanting to destroy the entire complex with her bare hands...and wanting to know, once and for all, just what was going on.
She sighed. "Did you ever hear the saying 'Curiosity killed the cat'?" she asked rhetorically, picking the chair up from where Annie's sneak attack had left it.
"Yeah." Annie sat down at the computer and flexed her fingers. "It doesn't seem to say how, though."
Sabretooth was being very...efficient.
He'd also been surprisingly restrained. There were multiple broken limbs, deep, slashing cuts, and a couple...when there'd only been one and he'd been able to take his time...that looked like rags of raw meat. But Jean had announced, with some surprise, that if they got medical attention, all but two would probably live. At least a half dozen would survive even if attention was delayed.
She shuddered, pulling the wings of her costume around her. Sabretooth frightened her, terrified her...and she was permitting him to do the same to others. Humans. People whose only defenses were guns...and against Sabretooth, those were no defenses at all.
For the children, she told herself yet again, looking away from an unconscious body with legs that should never have bent that way. For the children. They are the only innocents here. We must save them. We must.
"Pickin' up two more scents," Logan said, scowling. "Two who don't go outside. From th' smell of cola and fast food, I'm guessing they're the equivalent of computer-geeks. Shouldn't be a problem."
"Good." Scott fiddled with his visor. "Is it just me, or is this place just a little too unguarded?"
"It's just you," Logan grunted. "See this? This is what it's like when the attack is actually a surprise. It ain't ever gonna be this easy again."
"Logan's right," Jean agreed, frowning a little. "I'm sensing a lot of surprise...well, from the ones who're still conscious. These bases have never been attacked before, and they were completely unprepared."
"Oh." Scott thought about it for a moment. "Lucky us."
Ororo nodded, but...as they rounded the corner to find an intersection and yet another sprawled body, this one definitely dead, she couldn't bring herself to agree.
Logan lifted his head sharply. "Bingo," he said with an almost-smile. "Both girls...loose, too." Then he frowned. "They criss-cross a lot, though. Not sure which one's the most recent."
"Which way did Sabretooth go?" Scott asked.
"That way." Logan pointed. "One o' two or three ways they coulda gone."
"We might as well follow him, then," Scott said with a sigh. "And hope there aren't too many...more."
Nobody had to ask what he meant.
Annie's mouth was a thin, flat line, and her eyes were like little pebbles of topaz. Rogue sneaked a nervous look at her, and bit her lip. Annie was only thirteen. She shouldn't be seeing things like this.
Shouldn't be seeing the plans that had called for the eradication of her siblings. That would, within the year, have cut the "test groups" from 942 "units" down to 326. Six hundred and sixteen lives, snuffed out...and that, on top of the three thousand, five hundred, and seventy-eight already culled.
It was too many.
"What are we going to do?" she asked softly, when Annie, for once, didn't speak.
Annie glared at the screen. "We're going to make them stop," she said in a tight, precise little voice. "All of them."
Rogue reached out to touch the small shoulder awkwardly. It was twitched away, and she returned the hand to her lap with a sigh. "You can't fight all of them," she said softly. "Nobody could."
"I'm not going to have to," Annie said with a small, tight smile. Somehow, that smile on Annie's sweet, round-cheeked little face was far more terrifying than it had ever looked when Magneto wore it.
"What're you going to do?" Rogue asked in alarm. Her friend didn't respond, just started typing, hitting the keys with hard little jabs. "Annie, what're you--"
"Get in here! We can hole up in--" Pounding feet sounded behind them, and both girls spun around to see two...no, three guards skid through the door. Too late, both realized that they'd forgotten to lock it.
"You two!" one of them hissed, raising his gun. "This is all your fault--"
"No, Andros, we need them alive--"
Rogue heard the gun go off at what seemed like the same instant that pain blossomed just under her ribs.
She felt her knees buckle, and she crumpled to the floor. She was distantly aware of a furious soprano roar, and a small figure flashing over her towards the door. Somewhere there was another shot, and a sudden shriek, but they weren't important. The only thing that mattered was the pain.
This wasn't the same as last time, when Logan's claws had slid through her lungs. This was worse, and there were no brown eyes gazing into hers, no hands reaching helplessly towards her...she whimpered softly, curling around the pain in her abdomen, feeling her own blood well up through her fingers.
The noise stopped, and she was being gently turned over. "Oh," Annie said quietly. "I'm sorry, Rogue. If I hadn't been so overconfident..."
"H'rts..." Rogue whimpered.
"I know. Don't worry." A small hand reached for her temple. "It'll be okay in a second..."
Yes. Annie had a healing factor. The pain would go away in just a minute... Rogue gritted her teeth, riding out the painful jolt of energy that surged through her. She'd thought Magneto was powerful, but this...the sheer vitality of Annie's lifeforce was so strong it was like being burned...
Then the soft little hand lifted away, and Rogue sobbed softly as Annie wailed.
It hadn't worked!
He skidded through the door, to see his daughter kneeling over the skunk-hair's sprawled body. Annie was wailing loudly, the girl was making little whimpering noises, and he could smell blood. Add in the shots he'd heard, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what must have happened.
He crouched beside them. Gut shot...nasty. Pain had to be terrible, and...yep, it'd hit an artery. At least it wouldn't take long.
Annie looked up at him with big, teary golden eyes and made a wordless little noise, pointing at her friend.
"Yeah, I know, kid." He patted her shoulder gently. "Look, the doc's gonna be here in a minute and--" He took in the pleading quality of the look and the insistency of the point. "Oh, no. No way."
Annie's lip quivered pleadingly. "No," he said flatly. "Not a chance."
She scowled. "You OWE her," she choked, giving him a reproachful look. "You chained her into a machine."
And that was that, right there. It was the one thing she knew he almost felt bad about...and that they were both terrified enough of that she could hold it against him. Anyway...she was crying. He didn't like that. Reluctantly, he reached out, pressing calloused fingers against the semi-conscious girl's jaw.
As the drain set in, and his eyes unfocused and he wavered, he saw Annie's small hand settle over his, fingers lacing through his to touch Rogue's cold skin.
For the first time since the Statue of Liberty, he prayed desperately, racing down the corridors, leaving the other X-Men far behind. Please let her be okay please let her be okay please let her be okay please let her be okay, he prayed desperately. I said I'd look after her, that I'd never let anything happen to her, I promised, she's just a kid, these things shouldn't happen to her...
He smelled her blood before he got to the door, and smothered a howl of rage. He would kill them, he would kill them all, they--
--they were already dead.
It had to have been fast, faster even than he could have done it. The three of them were still close together, surprised looks plastered on their cooling faces.
He looked past them, and this time he did howl. Sabretooth was lying on the floor next to Marie, with Annie half sprawled across him, clawed hands intertwined and pressed against Marie's face. They'd probably been trying to help her. He didn't care, he just kicked the hands away from her face and picked her up, holding her tightly against him. "Marie? Marie!"
She whimpered weakly. "Lo'an?"
"Yeah, kid, it's me," he said softly, scanning those sweet brown eyes for signs of the blood-madness he'd seen in Sabretooth. "You okay?"
She smiled a little. "Yeah...thin' so. Got Annie 'n my head."
"Are you okay?" he asked anxiously.
She nodded weakly. "'s not bad. 'cept I wanna...pounce on stuff."
Annie made a little soprano growl, and sat up. "My head hurts," she said petulantly. Then she blinked, and looked at Rogue. "Did it work?"
Rogue nodded and patted her stomach. "'m fine..."
The X-Men made a belated -- and thunderous -- entrance, skidding to a more or less unanimous halt. "Rogue, are you--"
"She's fine," Logan and Annie chorused. Rogue rolled her eyes and grinned weakly.
Annie held out her hands to Cyclops. "Help me up," she demanded.
All eyes swivelled to her. They took in the bright yellow eyes, the thicker, paler hair, and the heavy claws. Cyclops gave her a suspicious look. "Rodin, Picasso, Homer, and the Third Law Of Thermodynamics."
"Good, sucks, boring but accurate, and only for those who permit themselves to be limited by physics," she said cheerfully.
He grinned that lopsided little grin he did sometimes, and hauled her to her feet. "Oh, good. It is you."
Annie wavered a little, but grinned the old gamine grin. "What would you have said if I said I liked Picasso?"
He gave her a serious look, the corner of his mouth twitching. "I would have had to kill you."
Annie giggled. "Oh, good. We're both positively identified, then." She let go of his hands, and wavered determinedly over to the computer terminal. "Jus' a second, and we can go."
"Go?" Scott said a bit blankly.
Annie tapped a few keys, then straightened up. "Yup. Let's go."
"That's it?" Cyclops gave her a puzzled look, quite a feat for him. "No bloodthirsty revenge? Campaigns of terror? You don't want to take anything with you on disk?"
"Nah. Dumped it all to a web-thingy. Several of them, actually. I can get it later." Annie smiled brightly. "Let's wake my dad up and go."
Everyone stared at her.
She sighed. "I'm going to get revenge, honest. I'm just too wobbly on my feet to do it right now." They continued to stare. "I promise, I'm seething with bloodthirsty rage. Really. Angry on the inside."
Storm and Cyclops looked at each other, and snickered quietly. It was terribly anticlimactic, but...well... "That's very mature of you, Annie," Storm said gravely, her lips twitching. "We'll hunt them down later, shall we? When you're back up to full strength."
"Yes," Annie said patiently. "If that'll make you happy."
Rogue laughed weakly. "She's ser'ous," she managed, still looking rather woozy. "Annie thinks weird."
"I do not," Annie said mildly. "For a feline, I'm perfectly normal. Is it my fault the rest of you are all simians?"
Logan found himself half-grinning as he stood up, Marie cradled protectively in his arms. They'd fought their way in, found the girls...and now they were going to go home. It was obviously wrong, in some deep and fundamental way, but the idea of getting home without bleeding all over the plane did have a certain charm. "Suits me." He looked down at Sabretooth, and scowled again. "So why'd he do it?"
Annie gave him a puzzled look, wobbling back over to the group. "Why'd he do what?" Cyclops put a gentle arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him with a grateful smile.
"Give Marie his powers," Logan asked a little irritably. He didn't like the idea of that...that beast being in his little girl's head. She didn't deserve that.
"'cause he owed her for the thing with Magneto," Annie said mildly. "His little way of not apologizing." She got another round of blank looks, and rolled her eyes. "Okay, I did the Dewy Bambi Eyes. It works on Mr. Summers, I figured it might work on him too."
When Sabretooth groaned and sat up, everyone was still staring at him.
"You're a strange child," Scott said quietly.
"This can't be coming as a surprise to you," Annie observed, putting her feet up on the coffee-table. They were watching the news, the morning after their return. "I was raised as a mentally-deficient lab-rat. I can't just come out of that a Normal Girl."
"Good point. I'm impressed by how well you're coping, mind you." Scott absently stole a handful of fruit-loops from the box on Annie's lap. "I do wish you hadn't killed those guards."
Annie looked rather ashamed of herself. "They shot Marie. I got...upset."
"Don't do it again."
"Good." Scott leaned back on the couch and looked at her thoughtfully. "Annie, you know what they planned to do with you and Marie."
She nodded, eyes glued to the screen. "Assessment, elimination, and dissective study."
"And Marie told us this morning that you discovered the existence of several more bases like the one you escaped from."
"Yup." Annie stuffed another handful of sugary loops into her mouth.
"So what are you planning to do about it?" he asked patiently. "I think you should inform the authorities--"
Annie sighed, muting the television and giving him her full attention. "Nah. They'll go in, there'll be nothing there. You think they've gone undetected all this time by not having at least one good eye on the authorities?" Annie shook her head. "It'd be nice if you could really turn people like that in, but it doesn't work."
Scott sighed and nodded. For someone who was often so very naive, Annie could sometimes be surprisingly cynical. "True. I hope you're not planning some sort of bloody rampage...are you?"
"Me?" She shook her head pensively. "I'm too young. My dad might be able to pull that off, but I'm too small."
Scott blinked at her. "Too small?"
"I'd get swarmed," she explained matter-of-factly. "No matter how strong they are, or how many powers they have, it's easy enough to swarm someone who's only five feet tall."
Scott nodded slowly. "Ah...speaking of powers... I've counted at least three separate mutant powers that you seem to have, all of them unrelated. That's...well...more or less impossible..."
"Oh, I've only got one." She grinned at him mischieviously. "I'm a mutant xerox machine."
Scott blinked. "What?" he asked blankly.
"I duplicate other people's powers," she explained. "Sort of like Rogue, only better, 'cause they don't know I'm doing it and once I do it, I have the powers forever."
Scott stared at her. "What...any powers?"
Annie grinned ruefully. "It sounds better than it is. It takes years to learn to use ANY mutant power properly. I can DO stuff, technically, but I don't have any real control with any but a couple of powers." She ticked them off on her fingers. "I've had the shapeshifting since I was little, and I'm still not too good at that...and I can do the crystal thing, but I have to practice a lot...and the healing factor pretty much handles itself. "
He relaxed a little. No supermutant to deal with, then. "And you never mentioned this?"
"I wasn't sure I could trust you," she said pointedly. "It's a big bad world, Mr. Summers; a girl can't be too careful."
Scott chuckled softly. "I told you that, didn't I?"
"Yes you did."
"And it was good advice." He leaned back against the couch. "Annie...what are you going to do? I know you well enough to be sure you won't let this slide."
"I have a plan. It's a simple plan, but I'm confident that it'll be successful." Annie kicked at the coffee-table contemplatively. "And it doesn't involve any fighting or spouting rhetoric or running around in tight black leather, which looks kinda wrong on me."
Scott waited patiently. Annie liked to talk. She'd get to the point eventually. "What's the plan?"
Annie shrugged, and jerked her head at the screen. "Trust in the fourth estate."
Annie unmuted the television, where a serious-faced woman was talking from some place with a lot of trees and concrete buildings. "--this terrible tragedy," she said gravely. "Although there is no official word as yet, the senior officials of the Atticus Tremane Corporation are believed to be in police custody at this point, following the unearthing of more than five hundred bodies at this facility alone. So far, all the bodies have been those of children, ranging in age from early infancy to approximately ten or eleven years old."
Annie leaned back in her seat, making a small, satisfied sound.
"The fact that all these children have been mutants is an alarming one," the woman continued, "bringing such attempts at 'mutant control' as the Mutant Registration Act under suspicion. Evidence has already been located of extensive chemical testing on the dead children, often resulting in their deaths. It is believed that--" She paused, touching the small earpiece nestled in her ear. "It's just come to my attention that searchers have located a small group of living children hiding in the lower levels of the complex."
"Good," Annie said with a small, relieved smile. "They got there in time."
Scott gave her a long, thoughtful look. "When you said you'd dumped all that information to a 'web-thingy'..."
"I alerted the media," she confirmed. "All of them I could find online." She gave him a small, soft smile. "There's no way they'll be able to cover this up, Mr. Summers. Everyone in the country is going to know that they tortured and killed thousands of little kids, just because they were mutants, and nobody's going to be able to ignore it, or say it didn't happen, or that children deserve to have those things happen to them just because they're mutants."
Scott took another look at the screen, and his throat constricted as he was confronted with a collection of paramedics, each carrying a tiny body-bag. They were children. Murdered children. It was obvious. It wasn't something that even he, already knowing what he did, could look away from. "Good plan," he said quietly.
"I liked it."
"None of your business," Creed said bluntly, folding his arms across his massive chest.
"I'm concerned about Annie," Xavier said, taking a calming breath. He would not summon the X-Men. Or the police. Not because the man didn't deserve it, but because Annie didn't. "What are your plans concerning her?"
The massive villain shrugged, looking down at the floor. "Not sure yet. Thinkin' I'll stick around for a while, get to know the kid."
Xavier blinked. "Do I...take that to mean that you plan to leave her here?"
Creed snorted. "What am Igonna do with a brat?"
"Well...I confess that I do believe we can take better care of her..." And he'd expected an argument on that point, too. "You are, of course, welcome to...see her," he added lamely. "Provided you don't interfere with her schoolwork..."
"Won't," Creed muttered.
"And don't lead her into evil ways," Xavier continued awkwardly. "No...encouraging her to kill people, and so forth."
Xavier sighed, looking down at his hands, folded in his lap. "This is very awkward, isn't it? Attempting to...converse...despite our ethical and moral opposition..."
Creed shrugged. "I don't care what yer ethical and moral stance is. She's my kid, and I get to see her if I want...but I don't know nothin' about lookin' after a kid, and you seem to..." He looked out the window at the students, and a keen observer would have noticed the slightest hint of an unhappy droop around his mouth. "You read my mind. You know."
Xavier nodded. "We will take the very best care of her," he promised. "She will never be neglected or made unhappy."
"Yeah." The man looked out the window again. "Kids seem happy. Good sign."
Xavier nodded slowly. From being a bitterly angry and violent man, Creed was already shifting imperceptibly towards a calmer, more rational frame of mind. It was a start. And something Annie, at least, might be able to build on. "And...you plan to visit?"
Creed nodded. "She'll know when."
Xavier smiled a small, wintry smile...the best he could manage, under the circumstances. He still didn't like the man. "Storm has...a problem with the idea," he said carefully. "She is...intimidated by you."
Creed shrugged and nodded. "She'll live."
Xavier cocked an eyebrow. "We may still find ourselves in conflict," he said coolly. "And should that be so, you need not think that the X-Men will be easy to defeat."
The big man nodded, grinning lazily. "Neither will I," he rumbled. "But f'r now...call it a truce."
"A truce is acceptable," Xavier agreed quietly. "For now."