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Days Of Our X - Chapter 5

by ebonbird and Kassia

Title: Days Of Our X - Chapter 5
Authors: ebonbird & Kassia
Fandom: X-Men
Rating: NR
Feedback: Is very welcome at (ebonbird@hotmail.com & kassia06@yahoo.com) Summary: It's all about death and love in this story set after the apparent death of Cyclops/Scott Summers. Previous chapters are available at http://ebonbird.tripod.com/daysx.htm Disclaimer: Nobody belongs to us. The characters within save for Travers belong to other people.


-5-

Wind lashed the air of Salem Center, New York. A weeping fog cut visibility and left a thin layer of wet over every outdoor surface.

In the attic of the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, Ororo Monroe woke from a fitful sleep on a king-sized futon littered with official-looking documents and manila folders. Papers rustled and wrinkled as she pushed her chest away from the futon with one arm. Before her tired eyes could blink their cloudy irises clear, she had reached for her portable telephone on the bedside table. She miscalculated, knocking the phone from the stand. Her other hand shot out and grabbed the phone before it fell to the ground.

Small drops of rain pattered the skylight above Ororo's bed.

From memory, Ororo punched a long number into the phone. It rang ten times before an answering machine picked up the line. Scott Summer's recorded voice was still familiar and she closed her eyes against tears as she'd done the many times she'd tried reaching Jean before. He sounded precise, exacting. Humorless.

"You've reached the answering machine of Mr. and Mrs. Jean Summers - '

'Grey-Summers!' Jean's recorded voice yelled.

Scott paused, laughed a dry, joyous laugh and continued with an audible smile. "Leave a message. We're the Grey-Summerses. We'll get back to you eventually. If at all."

And in the background Jean said, "Scott, did y -" and the machine cut it off. There were many beeps indicating that the recording tape was full.

There was a beep and Ororo said in a tight, sleep-frogged voice, "It's Ororo!" before the call was disconnected.

Ororo frowned, placed the phone in the cradle, shoved files and folders off of the bed and hugged her pillow to her face. Sighing deeply she said, "Goddess, be with her."

Between worries, the sole leader of the X-Men, the woman bearing the codename Storm, managed to fall back to sleep as rain turned into snow.

*

Early in the morning, when day had barely dyed the sky with gray, Kitty went down to the basement. She was dressed in her super-comfy jeans, knock-around-boots that had become an indeterminate color long-ago but were still watertight, and a faded-black, long-sleeved, Thinsulate lined T-shirt. She took the drop tube to the lowest level of the Institute.

As she fell, she tried to catch her reflection in the gleaming, scrubbed metal walls of the tube. They looked much the same as the main elevator doors had when she'd first come to the Institute - then Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters - as a thirteen year-old girl. Her reflection looked just as distorted and strange.

Kitty touched ground lightly, her knees bending and her mass of curls flopping into her face. She slid the drop tube hatch open without a sound. She remembered that when she'd first entered the high-security level of the School, her legs had been shaking so hard that she'd been sure she would pee her pants.

She'd clasped her hands together and smiled while following the Professor to the Danger Room where her mutant powers were tested for the very first time ever. Four years later, here she was, with a tool belt hitched around her waist, strolling through secured areas like she was in the rumpus room of her mother's house in Oak Park.

Things changed and she didn't mind change even if she didn't exactly enjoy the people who came along with it. Scott was dead; Storm was weird - again, but that was leadership stress - again; she wasn't in love with Piotr Rasputin - if she ever had been (some days she wasn't so sure); Wolverine didn't scare her anymore, and heck, neither did Kurt, whose codename couldn't suit him less in her eyes - he neither crawled nor was a demon-like denizen of the night. He was handsome and she loved him like a brother. As for the professor, well, if she could keep from bashing his pointy head that made her a real grown-up.

"You've come a long way, baby," Kitty muttered. Now, if she could keep from strangling the professor all would be right socially.

The safety hatch to the Morlock tunnels beneath Xavier grounds was behind a pile of rubble. A maintenance robot trundled to it just as Kitty punched in the code disarming the security protocols.

She phased through the lock and turned on her Mag-light as soon she entered the tunnel.

Studying a map by Mag-light, Kitty headed east, her hand grazing the wall. She looked to where the cameras were when she passed them, and made a mental note to service them.

She followed the path she'd marked out on the map, the one that led to the former cold house. Unfortunately, where there should be a door, there was a blank wall. She passed the recess in the stone several times until she stopped, closed her eyes, and walked straight where she was supposed to go.

"Ow!!" she yelled, covering her forehead with her hands.

She faced the unyielding stone, studying it, wondering if she was looking at vibranium and why there were security measures in effect that she didn't know about.

"Hunh," she finally said. "I know there's a cave down here somewhere."

She shone the flashlight at her feet, knelt, and rubbed the dirt between her fingers. It was damp.

I'm gonna have to look at the original maps again, she thought. I need volunteers.

*

Thanks to her ninja training, Kitty could be stealthy without using her phasing power to make herself intangible. More importantly, she had a devil of a good time sneaking through the sleeping underbrush of the grounds. But Wolverine had trained her and she wasn't trying all that hard. It was all she could do not to laugh as she watched him waiting for her to appear. He drew a cigar from his mustard and black plaid shirt. A 'snikt' sounded as one of his adamantium claws sliced out of the bristly back of his hand.

The gleaming blade loped off the end of his cigar.

Kitty braced her hand on the cold, rough trunk of a convenient spruce and popped her head into view.

"Wolvie?"

Wolverine glanced at his protege sidewise, pausing in the middle of lighting his cigar. Kitty hadn't called him that in a long time. "Yeah, Punkin'?"

She scrunched her nose; her cheeks rosy with surprise. He hadn't called her that in a long time. His tender delivery clashed with his rough appearance, genuine Canadian roughneck what with all his hair, the steel of his flame blue eyes, his biting nose, craggy cheekbones and massive build. His eyes, though, usually so shadowed, were clear with something like pain. It could be any number of things behind that accepting, stoic gaze, tinged as it was with longing. One of which could be Jean.

"How 'bout you write a check?" She waggled her eyebrows. "Help the school out."

"How 'bout you write a check? Girl like you oughtta be sittin' on a couple a patents worth a lot o' money 'bout now."

Kitty blinked.

Logan squinted.

"Damn it." She slumped; her elbows resting on her jean clad thighs, her slim hands crossing at the wrists. "I wouldn't be good for it."

He shrugged a shoulder, pinched out the flaming match, and puffed on his stogie. She leaned on the stump beside him. They were of a height but he dwarfed her. She took a deep breath of the rich smoke drifting from his canted mouth, exhaled, and let crisp air into her lungs.

"See," Kitty said, more to herself than to him, "if we were solvent we could get the water back on and do something about our wells like we should've the last time they conked out. Or maybe we wouldn't have to be solvent."

"You a hydrogeologist now?"

"Do I have to be?"

Bemused, he twisted down a corner of his mouth.

She snorted with impatience. "Breakstone Lake," she jerked her head in its direction and raised a finger. "Lake in the cavern." She raised a second finger. She splayed her hands in the air, wiggled them and hunched her shoulder. "We've got water. We just need to pipe it into the . . . pipes."

"You clear this with Chuck?"

"The professor's headin' out. The Skrull mutants have been really helpful but they've gotta get off-world. Need to find their own homeworld and they need guidance doing it." She sighed. "He's got other mutants to train. Apparently, they really need him." She tried not to sound bitter.

A branch snapped under the weight of snow. Only Logan heard it fall into drift-covered hillock of leaves.

Kitty sat a little straighter, blinking while her lips thinned. The burly arm nearest her shifted suspiciously and she fixed Logan with a stoic glare. It stopped moving. He blew a smoke ring, put the hand that held the smoking cigar on the stump beside her. She looked down at it, looked a question at him. He nodded, most slightly. She took it from his hand and examined it, glistening end to burning end.

"Didn't you give these up?" she asked.

"Yep."

She handed it back to him. He puffed on it.

Her shoulder docked against his arm; then, she nestled close, closer.

"We've survived without him," she said, staring at their breath, so white in the air. "Despite him."

Wolverine's eyebrows twitched upward at that.

He smoked. She inhaled.

She didn't ask about Jean. Didn't ask about anything and he didn't say a word.

*

It was another gorgeous day in Port Jefferson, New Jersey, and Bobby had decided that it was in his best interest to spend most of it under the icy blue skies, lit as they were by the sharp-edged sun that merrily failed to warm the frigid outdoors.

Snowboard under his arm, Bobby was half-way down the stairs when the voices reached a volume he could hear. It was impossible to make out most of what was being said, but the swear words were unmistakable.

"Fuck, Maddy. What the hell were you thinking? Do you realize-" There was a soft, somewhat weary-sounding interjection, a mumble at this distance, then a snippy, condescending reply. Stopping only to prop his snowboard against the wall, Bobby retreated as softly as possible up the staircase. The voices seemed to grow louder in proportion to the increase in distance, though, and he found himself retreating a few more steps into the bathroom.

The bathroom door didn't lock; it never had. He sat on the floor with his back pressed against the door to keep it shut. A bathroom without a lock was a better sanctuary than a bedroom with one. People were more wary of entering an occupied bathroom than their son's bedroom. The familiar tones could still be heard through the door, and his stomach knotted in response, but he could no longer make out any words. Not even four-letter ones.

He hugged his knees, automatically falling into the same old position. His eyes traced the cracks in the ceiling, but either the cracks had changed, or his eyes had, because he could no longer find in them the pictures he had thought to be so distinctive as a child. The tiles used to have pictures, too, but they had been redone.

There was the drip-drip-drip of the faucet, which pounded on his brain like he was being subjected to Chinese water torture. He considered doing something about it, but, for some inscrutable reason, decided against it. Maybe he just felt more comfortable keeping his back to the door.

The voices were subsiding gradually. He looked down at himself, and the part of him that had actually grown up was surprised to be seeing himself here again, sitting like this, listening to the angry voices through the door. That part of his brain told him to stop being an idiot, stand up for God's sake, but the habits of childhood won over.

Until he noticed that he was alternating gnawing his lip with biting his cheek in fury.

How dare they, he thought.

"You have each other, you jerks," he said aloud. "Least you can do is be grateful."

He stood, grabbed the bathroom door handle to do something, BUT he didn't know what.

There was a moment of silence, and he thought he heard a door slam. He wasn't sure, so he waited a few more minutes.

He opened it quickly, marched out and barreled down the stairs, his chin off-center as he was sucking on his cheek.

"Mom?" He called when he reached the bottom stair. He clung to the banister arm, swinging his body out and called, "Dad?"

The front door was slightly open. It bumped against the frame. Bobby dropped off the stair, closed the door and walked through the living room.

He could hear his mother's voice, reassuringly soft though a tad distressed. Perhaps his dad hadn't left as Bobby had thought. He stood in the kitchen a moment, and listened intently.

"No, no. Don't say that.... I just don't know what to do sometimes when... Yes, right." And then a bleak, "I love you."

She was on the phone. She sobbed and said it again. "Yes. Always. Forever."

Bobby went quietly back upstairs. He sat in his bedroom, turned on the computer and logged in and with desultory actions began to check his email He'd deleted several unsolicited advertisements, with the comments, "spam sucks" accompanying each press of the 'delete' key before running across an email from an old Dartmouth friend - R. Tolliver Robb.

"Rob Robb, you louse," Bobby said with affection. "What do you want now?"

He opened it and read:

"Drake, if you're still wasting your life part-timing as a CPA in your dad's tiny, insignificant company, get off your ass and call me. Corcione and I started a day-trading firm and we're making money up the ass. 631.473.0068

"Catch the wave, baybee."

"R. Tolliver Robb Senior Accounts TC&A Securities 650 Chestnut St Cedarhurst NY 11516 tel: 516.473.0000 fax: 516.473.0001 http://www.tcasecurities.com"

Daytrading, Bobby thought. Good way to go broke in 25 minutes or less. But he clicked on the link and called.

*

In the basement, all six dryers and washers were going, thumping and swishing as clothing and linens were sloshed and tossed. Sarah, shivering slightly, lay curled in the corner of long couch, a ragged yet surprisingly comfortable piece of furniture. She grunted as pain flared in her ribs and solar plexus and blazed. Stressed muscles in her torso and back gave off the sick achy feeling she got after only the most brutal physical exertions.

She'd heard other women complain about cramps, sometimes. Seen them hunch over, put their hands over their stomachs, whine a bit about the pain. Ha. Pain made you strong or it crushed you. Today, it wasn't making her strong.

She took a deep breath in anticipation, right before her body turned into one huge cramp. She sensed a crunch, felt trapezius muscles tear as a bone spur began to work its way out of her body. An off-balance washer began to jump and shudder, but she couldn't hear anything above the deafening roar of blood rushing through her body.

Yeah, I have bones popping out of me, but I'm not gonna break.* She had seen people go hysterical or even faint from injuries involving protruding bones. It made her want to laugh; sometimes she had.

This was bad. As bad as puberty, when her hormones had kicked her mutation into high gear and out of her control.

The blood roar abated, her body relaxed. She counted breaths, listened to the thumps and muted splashings of the working machinery, the banging of the off-balance washer, and heard the soft footsteps of an X-Man entering the laundry area.

The lights overhead snapped into gray-hued life.

She groaned, and then realized that the X-Man would probably interpret the noise as an expression of weakness, instead of the expression of annoyance it was meant to be. She straightened out and fixed a surly expression over her anguished one. Her eyes narrowed against shock at the fresh onslaught of nausea that accompanied her new position.

She looked over to see which X-Men had invaded her Privacy - it was Rogue who was looking from Marrow to the noisy washer.

"Hey," Rogue said sympathetically. "How ya doin'?"

Marrow just raised her eyebrows. So much energy was going into not whimpering, she didn't have any left with which to think up an answer.

"I mean, ya feelin' okay?"

"Fine," Marrow bit out. She stood, stepped over the tumbled hopper of magazines and newspapers that were scattered between the couch and the machines, crossed to the troublesome washer, and jerked opened its door, silencing it.

"Right," Rogue countered evenly. "Pain makes you strong."

"Stronger 'n you," Marrow said under her breath. She used her clean hand to redistribute wet linens.

"It's okay if ya don't want to talk to me. Lord knows, Ah do my best to not talk to other X-Men about things."

Marrow turned to face Rogue, and leaned against the washer. Rogue smiled slightly. "But, about the X-Men -you can't fool 'em, Sarah. No point in pretending, 'cause no one is falling for it. Ah speak from experience."

"That's great. Glad we had this chat. Bye."

"Like Ah said, no one's falling for it."

"Would you fall for a bone spike in your throat?" Marrow growled, her hand over her fourth left rib.

Rogue forcibly straightened out her smile. "Ah'll stop botherin' you now. Just wanted to point that out and that the school's here to help us students manage our powers."

Marrow snorted roughly. "You my example?"

Rogue's smile became strained. "Ah'm just hopin' ya feel better soon. Or when you feelin' better, you come up to the professor so we can see what can be done."

Rogue glanced at the colorful splash of magazines, newspapers, and puzzle books on the floor as she passed through the doorway.

The moment Rogue was out of view, Marrow gave in and emitted a body-wracking sob. Two tears, grown fat from standing in her eyes, raced each other down Marrow's cheeks. She quickly took hold of herself again, suppressing any further tears before things got out of control. The pain was abating. She'd had worse spells, and even they hadn't lasted that long. She washed her hands in the laundry sink, dried them, and began to organize the spilled books and magazines. Her teeth ground together but her eyes were dry.

"Sarah?" Soft, heavily accented, masculine.

Of course, that described half of the X-Men's voices. But this was the softest, certainly. Didn't grate on your nerves like Rogue's stupid hick talk.

"Hey," said Marrow, glancing up at Colossus. Would he go, and then another person come, and then another and another until she finally broke into a sobbing heap and babbled about childhood traumas, just so they'd stop?

"Are you in too much pain to put up with a little conversation right now?"

"You soft in the head?" she snapped.

"Hmm."

Rogue's word echoed in Marrow's mind. Not fooling anyone. Marrow had long ago decided she preferred the men to the women. It was a close call, seeing as how X-males got her people massacred and the X-females ripped her heart out, but what it came down to was that the males were less likely to ask searching questions about her feelings. "I was going on a drive. To search for inspiration. Would you care to accompany me?"

Marrow scowled at this bit of kindness, and was debating whether to give into temptation and agree, or reply scathingly, when Kitty rushed into the room. An endless stream of X-Men, indeed. They are trying to break you.

"Hey, Sarah," Shadowcat said breathlessly; then: "Piotr, I need, need, need your help. There has been a slight mishap involving large, heavy pieces of the mansion, cluttering our entrance to the Morlock tunnels."

Colossus glanced quickly, covertly, at Marrow. "Sarah and I were about to go out," he began. The look he gave Kitty was pregnant with meaning, Marrow suspected, but she had no idea what sort of meaning. Probably bad. For her.

"Uh, well, uh..." From the look in Shadowcat's eyes, the lump of mushy grey matter in her skull was trying to translate Colossus' hidden message. Marrow liked that the shadow-kitten was also confused. "I guess it can wait," Kitty said at last.

"Are you sure?" said Colossus softly. Always softly. Even when he was angry.

"Positive." Kitty flashed a bright smile, and disappeared through the doorway. "I'll get started, and if I get stuck, I'll come back to you - or Rogue." Marrow didn't hear her walk away, but that could be nosiness on Shadowcat's part.

Colossus turned back to Marrow, "I'm afraid I spoke out of turn. Are you and I about to go out?"

"Fine," she said, sticking out her lower lip. He smiled. She remembered. Rogue's words: You can't fool 'em, Sarah. No one's falling for it.

"We'll be driving out to the naval yards. I can finish up here while you get ready."

Marrow sighed, a sigh of resignation more than anything else.

No one was falling for it, hunh?

*

In a section of her workroom clear of Forge's stuff, Kitty stood over a partially unrolled sheaf of dusty, faded schematics of the Xavier institute. She pressed a yellow bandana over her mouth while she studied documents that dated from the original construction of the house by the light of an adjustable fluorescent lamp.

"Hrm," Kitty said, her finger tracing the location of the spring fed cold house which used to be by the outdoor kitchen which was now - sheets of paper rustled and slid as she moved the old designs aside and examined the grounds' map - the chapel cemetery?

The bandanna fell from Kitty's hand as she bent forward while reaching for the fluorescent lamp. She brought the lamp and her head closer to the old schematics. Where was the well? There had to have been a well for water back then. And it wasn't by the cold house... Kitty's finger, bitten back nail and dry cuticle, traced around and around until she did indeed spot the well.

"Bingo!" she cried.

"What's this got to do with Skrull code?" Forge asked at her shoulder, causing her to jump. His breath smelled like fresh coffee. She glared at him. He didn't notice.

"You shouldn't sneak up on people," she grumped, scrolling closed the designs. His large, fine-boned, red-skinned hand flattened a corner open.

"1855," he read from the upper left hand corner. "We've got the architectural designs for the Institute going back to the late eighteen hundreds on database."

"Don't like ESRI," Kitty pronounced but he was already walking away from her and heading towards his temporary workstation, complete with desk and bank of flat screen computers and ergonomic pullout everything. His black hair, longer and thicker than hers, snaked down his back from a leather-cinched ponytail.

He favored her with a dubious look.

"I don't like ESRI," Kitty insisted.

"That mean we're not working today?" Forge asked, hitting power buttons and flipping toggles in rows as he turned on his system. "You're the one who called me in to help you with security."

Kitty's nostrils flared but she did not share that the Professor had suggested she call Forge and speed up the process.

Strings of code appeared on the central screen of Forge's computer bank. He stood with his hands planted on the pullout keyboard drawer. He squinted as he scanned the code as quickly as it appeared.

"We've got this water problem," Kitty said.

"Took a shower earlier this morning," Forge answered turning off his system.

"City water. We can't afford city water."

He stared at her.

"Not for long anyway. Have you considered making a donation to the school yet?"

"Pryde," he took a deep breath. The words that followed were measured, even. He was being patient, and this only made Kitty's face contort in annoyance. "I'm here for one reason, one reason only, and specifically at your request. And, you're no hydrogeologist." He ducked under his desk. He was a bendy one, managing to fit his length beneath it though his legs went on and on against the floor, ending in duct-taped cowboy boots.

Kitty could hear the 'fsst' noise of an air duster. Forge cleaned his station before and after every use. It was wild. Fsst! Fsst! Fsst! Before and after he powered down.

"Forge!" she yelled. The fssting noise stopped. His foot began to bend back and forth.

How was she going to put this? "You've built a house from scratch before, right?"

Forge's foot stilled.

Kitty winced. Forge crabbed out from under his desk. Pens tumbled from his chambray shirt pocket and he reached for them. When he lifted his head to address Kitty it was doubly red. Kitty told herself it was from blood pooling in his features but she knew better.

"With running water, right? And, and --"

"Storm told you."

She nodded.

"I've built a house before. From scratch. Not the same thing you want to do." He gripped the back of his chair, punctuated that movement by extending and retracting his chin.

"I'll be down in the tunnels. Don't test those security protocols until I get back."

"We're on a schedule," Forge answered, his mechanical hand holding the chair steady while he lowered himself into it. Kitty spared him a glance, noted the breadth of his shoulders, the size of his arms, the fluid yet massive grace of them and shook her head. Storm had her reasons, but Kitty very much doubted that they went beyond the aesthetic. Falling in love with Forge that was. Not being in love with Forge anymore - and, oh god she hoped so, well - Kitty got that just fine.

"What are you saying?"

"I don't have time to waste. So why don't you pull out what you wanted us to solve, and if I have the time, we'll figure out you water problem later."

"But the water is -"

"Not my concern."

Kitty covered her eye with her hand. Her fingers drummed on her forehead as she counted to three - then counted to ten.

"Sure," she said lightly. "Whatever you say."

But her cheeks were tensed and her mouth was clenched.


On his way to Manhattan, chauffeured in the stretch Lincoln Continental that his father had acquired before his death, Warren Worthington III received an unexpected call on his secured line.

He had an open briefcase beside him, and an open contract on his lap, one that didn't require immediate attention. He locked it into his briefcase and accepted the call.

"Mr. Worthington," spoke a brusque, professional voice.

"Travers?" he asked, straightening out. There was a pause. "What's happened?"

Travers wasn't exactly an emotional man, but he didn't manage to keep the annoyance out of his voice when he spoke. "Ms. Grey isn't in Anchorage. We lost her at Minneapolis."

Ah, the annoyance was for himself and his people, then. Warren's brow furrowed, trying to keep up. "She flew there from Chicago?"

"Hitchhiked, sir."

Warren's eyes widened and he sat forward. "From O'Hare?"

"Yeah."

Warren dragged a hand through his thick, neat blond hair. It immediately sprang apart from its slick coif and into tousled waves. "What do you intend to do?"

"Find her." It was almost a growl. "My time is free if I don't manage to. All of our time." This time he did growl. No doubt it was directed at which ever people he had working with him.

"Of course," said Warren. The man was obviously ashamed. Good. "Contact me immediately if anything comes up."

He broke the connection and leaned back with a sigh. He was annoyed, of course. He demanded the best from his subordinates, but perhaps having normal humans keep up with a telepathic, grief-stricken X-Woman was too much to expect. Travers had come highly recommended and had seemed to have some super-human abilities himself. But he was no Jean Grey. That was definitely too much to expect.

Warren sat back in the plush seat, watching the world go by and wondering what Jean could be doing. When she, he, and her late husband, Scott, had been children together at the original Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, he'd done his best to get between Scott and Jean. Scott had helped Warren's cause, but Jean had set her cap on Scott and eventually, despite Scott's utter-Scottness, they had come together. Warren had accepted that he was a close second.

Eventually, he'd come to rely upon the constancy of Scott and Jean's love for one another. As one of her best friends, Warren knew of some of their difficulties, but from his perspective, Jean and Scott's relationship had gone from strength to strength, aside from that brief time when Scott had believed her dead and married a woman who more than resembled her in physical appearance.

Even when Jean had discovered the many truths Scott and Warren had neglected to tell her - that Scott was

married and had a son, even when Jean had left Scott and their small circle of almost-family, Warren had been certain that one day Jean would return to Scott. She forgave him sooner than she forgave Scott, which had surprised Warren. But she'd understood that he'd had faith in her rightness with Scott, even when she gave up on it.

Smoothing his hair back, he reached for his telephone and rang the penthouse he shared with his current lady, Elisabeth Braddock, in Manhattan. The videophone rang and rang. He stared at the dark screen with his hand massaging his cleft chin. His eyes burned as he willed Betsy to appear on the screen.

"Hello," said her voice over the sound of a shower. The screen remained blank.

"Betsy, we still on for tonight?"

"Warren!" He could hear the smile in Betsy's voice and it made him relax in turn. "Warren," she purred, sounding very posh in addition to terribly improper. She'd probably been talking to England - her twin Brian or his wife, Meggan. In the background he could hear the echoey splashes of water falling on marble.

"Turn on the video, lover," he coaxed.

"But my modesty, Warren."

As former model, Betsy had no modesty. But in actuality, she was as comfortable in a carelessly draped bathsheet as her own enigmatic expression. She did enjoy Warren's eyes on her, almost as much as she appreciated his hands. If she was keeping the vidphone image off that meant she was up to secret, feminine things. Rituals that involved pots of esoteric waxes and ironed muslin cloths, dainty scissors, gleaming tweezers and silky brushes. Rituals that were secret and unimaginably feminine; things that he was manifestly not allowed to watch.

"You busy?" he asked, with a mild leer.

"Wouldn't you like to know," she teased, her voice dropping a few notes. She turned off the shower and there was a clink of metal on stone. Tweezers, scissors or clippers, Warren surmised. He pursed his lips and shook his head in appreciation, then chuckled.

He smiled a little, stretching across the plush seat of his surroundings and undoing his tie.

"Warren, are you with me?" Betsy voice was crisp

"If you had the video on, you'd know."

She laughed gaily.

"How's dinner at The Grill sound for tonight?" he asked.

"No can do, luv. But I'll take those reservations."

The water shut off and the Betsy blinked into view. Water dotted her smooth face and her hair was hidden in a large blue towel as she rubbed a shimmery lotion on her mellow, dawn-gold skin. Her jaw was full, her chin delicately angled. Her lips were elegant and full, their curve understated but well defined. Her nose was short and bridgeless. Her spirit was evident in the cool glitter of her long, sparsely lashed eyes. They lacked an epicanthic fold but were shaped like lilies, their color a brown so rare it was almost plum. A trail of her dyed-purple hair runneled down her neck.

"Meggan's in town. She says because she missed me."

"You're showing her the sights?"

"Perhaps some other time. It turns out some actor friends of mine she's fond of are in a movie I inadvertently produced. The premiere's this evening and I'm taking her."

"That Polish filmmaker? The one who only shoots in French?"

"Krzysztof? Heavens, no. No, some girls I worked with when I modeled, and so I don't suppose subtitles will be a problem. Still, I can only hope Brian's taught his wife to read since I saw her last."

She kissed the air at him and stood, walking away from the camera.

Of course, she was nude. "Hold on while I switch phones," she said over her shoulder.

The screen blanked. Then she were in his - their - the bedroom. She was fussing at his bed, laying out clothing from what he could tell.

"What film?" Warren asked loudly, watching the shift and play Betsy's out-of-focus bottom.

"Don't recall, correctly. Peyote something. Struggling models by day, singing 'tavern wenches' by night. Tedious, but Meggan is family and we see each other infrequently."

Suddenly, Betsy was seated at her vanity, examining herself in the mirror. She removed the towel from around her head. Her wet hair splashed around her face and shoulders in clinging strands.

"Thought you wanted to see me, lover," Warren said, wishing he was their to dry her hair.

"I see you now, lover," Betsy smiled, bending her head and patting the ends of her hair between folds of blue bathsheet. "Wouldn't mind seeing more of you," she added slyly, tilting her head and rubbing the back of it with the bathsheet. "Aren't you hot in that suit?"

He laughed.

Her neck was long and smooth, lovely to behold, bent as it was. Even Betsy's ears, close to her head and delicately shaped, were appealing.

"Have you heard from Jean yet?" she asked, changing the subject so quickly that Warren frowned.

"No one has."

Her eyes squeezed shut briefly and her full lips tightened. "Don't worry so much. She's a formidable woman."

"Last time she lost somebody and she went off on her own to grieve, it went deadly for billions."

"But it wasn't her, was it?" Betsy asked, finger-combing her locks.

"No, it wasn't. But she shouldn't be alone." A line appeared between his eyes, and his eyes narrowed against the tear-like prickle.

"Don't be so sure she is," Betsy murmured, pumping mousse into her hand. "Maybe she needs this time away." She massaged fluffy styling product into her hair. "To think and to feel what she's thinking and feeling in peace."

"She's not that way, Betts. She's never been that way."

"You could be wrong," Betsy replied mildly, all the edge coming off her consonants.

"No."

Betsy didn't understand; Scott was Jean's reason; just as much as Jean had been his.

Warren only half-watched her style her hair. Occasionally, Betsy looked from her reflection to him.

Finally, Warren said, "I didn't know Meggan was coming in today. She with Excalibur?"

Slicking shine onto her lips, Betsy hummed a negative, "Mmmm, nn-nnh." She shifted the mirror and videophone, so that it only gave Warren a view of her shoulder and her face's reflection in the mirror in front of her. She took up a fine brush and small lacquered box. "Warren." The edge in her voice was serrated.

"Right, she had a fight with Brian."

"We don't know that," Betsy replied, brushing color onto her eyes. Before his re-interested gaze they became deeper, more beautiful, shining. She didn't even look at her own reflection; she was doing it while looking at his image, all her attention, ravenous attention, he realized, on him.

"God, Betts," Warren murmured. "If I was there you'd be so late."

Her reflection moistened her lips. Had he blinked he would have missed it.

"Later, lover," her lips said.

She rose from the vanity and adjusted the videophone so that he could watch as she crossed to his tall bed. She lifted filmy stockings into the air, perched on the edge of the frame and rolled them on. Her hair got in the way, and the videophone camera didn't track well that far, but what he could see was almost heart-stopping.

"Come to think of it, I do believe that she and Brian had a row," Betsy began conversationally, but there was a telltale wobble in her voice as she smoothed on her hose. "As much as Meggan can quarrel with anyone."

"She's a sweet one," Warren murmured.

Betsy's eyes looked up from her stockings, traveled that room and hooked him right through the phone screen. There was a sultry heat in her gaze. "Very much so."

Betsy stood and turned from him, lifting a brief and glittering shift from his bed. It was only a few shades lighter than her skin. She stepped into it, raised it over her legs, hips, waist, slid it over her breasts and fastened the clasp around her neck. The dress bared her shoulders and back to dip beyond the small of her back. The abbreviated skirt was little nothing more than glorified beading; the lace borders of her stockings barely vanished beneath the hem.

She turned in three-quarter profile, her pose so easy he would not have guessed it was calculated for his benefit if he hadn't known her so well. Her hair licked down her back and arms, and he sighed at the wonder of Betsy formally dressed for a movie premiere in the middle of winter.

"Say something," she cooed.

He couldn't remember the last time she'd covered her essentials so indecently. "I hear it's going to be cold out."

"I have a wrap." She stretched sensuously, reaching for something on their bed, and retrieved an enormous chocker that bordered on the distasteful. It flashed pale purple and white with tanzanites and cuts of rock crystal. A monstrous topaz, or perhaps a yellow sapphire, maybe even a diamond, clung to its center.

"Now that's a look." Warren said as she fastened the thing around her neck.

Betsy's teeth were very white as she grinned. "It's a gift from Meggan. She and Brian brought it back from some universe-or-another.

"You going barefoot?"

"I knew I was forgetting something." Holding onto the bed post, Betsy sank to her knees, her skirt rising, her thighs parting. She leaned away, stretched her body and rooted beside the bed.

"Jesus, Betsy." Then, "Jesus, Betsy," as she pulled forward a wicked pair of shoes. They had high, spindly heels, toes covered in gleaming, nude fabric and thin complicated laces that stroked and kissed their way around her ankles as she tied them on. She stood, her legs looking longer than ever. Her shift shimmied and slid over her skin as she walked back to the phone.

"But we had plans." There was no censure in his voice.

She kissed fore- and middle finger. "Chastise me later," and placed a tawny lipstick mark on the screen. Warren touched the screen back. They stared at one another, then the screen blanked.

Looking out the window, Warren watched New Jersey pass by. He thought of Betsy's grace and artifice. How was so many different women in one. Of all the X-Men, he had the most in common with her, having been transformed against his will, body and soul, into a weapon turned against the people he loved and the hopes of his heart. Of all women he knew, she was the least frightened for him.

Their relationship was troubled and troubling, but pleasurable. She cared for him and he for her, but their priorities were different. He considered their relationship like a Jaguar -expensive, demanding, exhilarating, and in the shop more often than not. One day, if he stuck it out, and provided he kept pumping effort and time into it, he'd have a high-performance vehicle of the likes that would ever challenge, never let him down.

He looked forward to falling in love with her again -preferably, sometime soon.

There was a sound, an alarming clunk, and the limousine slowed to a crawl.

*

"GODDAMMNIT!!!" Bobby Drake yelled in the guest bedroom, his voice rattling the kitchen ceiling.

Maddy Drake looked up from where she was bent over the kitchen sink. Her wet hair clung to her scalp and the dye bottle in her left hand had begun to link, staining her rubber glove a viscous orange-brown. Whatever was her son doing?

"TAKE THAT, VILLAIN! TAKE IT! TAKE IT! TAKE ITTTTTTT!!!!!!" Bobby screamed.

"Oh, my word," Maddy snapping off her gloves and trotting to his room.

She knocked on his door and opened it before Bobby could answer. "Whatever are you doing, Bobby Drake?" she asked.

"Hold on, market's gonna close in a bit."

"Market?"

He ignored her, concentrating on sending an email to -

she had to squint to read it Rob T. Robb. What a name!

"What is it, mom?" He asked her. There was a flash of something flat in his eyes as he looked at her.

"You've been locked up here all day."

He bit his cheek, hollowing that side of his face. "I heard you and dad this morning."

"I am sorry, but it's not that big a house, Robert. Hardly a mansion like the one you live in with your friends."

"Right." Her son's pretty eyes, brown in the afternoon sunlight shining through his window, were unpleasant to look at.

Feeling judged, she blinked and scowled a little. He beetled his brow at her.

"And you've been screaming profanity in the privacy of your bedroom why?" Maddy asked.

"Daytrading. Also known as 'day-trading' and 'day trading.'"

Maddy didn't laugh.

Bobby continued, "Some friends of mine from Dartmouth started a firm and I'm helping them out for the day. Adding to my disposable income through the wacky world of online trading."

"Does your father know?"

"My father knows all! Actually, no. I had a few dollars I started playing with and it turned into, well, y'know that cruise you always wanted to take to Alaska?"

Maddy crossed her arms and tilted her head at him. "No."

"You can afford to go to Alaska! And Bombay and Reykjavik if you want to. But not all at once. There's this online travel agency -"

"And you've done this through online gambling casinos?"

"Online trading. It's like daytrading, only in the privacy of this home," he was actually smiling now. He looked as pleased as he did when he'd presented her with mixed media art from preschool through grade four - his eyes had thawed.

Bemused, she smiled at her grinning son and pinched his cheek. She had to grab a lot of it because he'd leaned down over the years.

"Well if you're done making money, whyn't you come down to the kitchen and help me do my roots?"

"I don't know."

"If there's any left over we can hi-light your hair."

That got him to his feet.


Cars sped past the stalled limousine. The chauffeur looked immaculate in his gray uniform. His expression was slightly sheepish as he fetched his employer's attache case from the trunk, then slammed the trunk shut.

Worthington had to laugh at the chauffeur's discomfort. Though dressed in a red tracksuit with white piping (his wings hidden under the tracksuit jacket), and cross-trainers, and a five o'clock shadow highlighting the angularity of his chiseled jaw, Worthington looked immaculate as well.

"I'm so truly very sorry, sir."

"Well, don't let it happen again."

"Oh no, sir."

Warren sighed inwardly. Sometimes joking only made people more ill at ease.

"Port Jefferson is -"

"Much too far. Another limousine will have arrived by - of course, sir."

"We just passed the exit. I'll walk into there. If I need anything, I'll use my cell'."

"Yes, sir. But it's cold, sir."

Warren missed his usual chauffeur. What was this one's name?

"Horribly, terribly cold," said this chauffeur.

"Ah -" Goethe? Warren subvocalized. No, that wasn't this chauffeur's name. "The exercise will keep me warm." If the unstable molecule undergarment I'm wearing doesn't.

"I can't apologize enough, Mr. Worthington."

"It's your first day, Goethke." Yes! "First days are notorious." Warren smiled and shouldered his briefcase. "I'll see you later, then."

Goethke visibly relaxed, "Oh, thank you, Mr. Worthington."

Still smiling, Warren nodded. He slipped on his Van Cleef & Arpel shades and headed to the Iceman's house.


Great Falls, Montana's international airport only had six terminals. Jean got off the plane and checked with the airline representative for information regarding her connecting flight. The attendant told her she had two and a half hours until boarding time - if the weather held.

Jean glanced around at the short corridor, and considered the Plexiglas lining it. It was still light outside, it being early afternoon, but the day outside looked dreary what with the grayish sky and skuzzy snow. The tarmac looked wet and the people working out there looked as if they were freezing, bundled up as most of them were. When she went to the information desk, she meant to inquire about hotel lodging -just in case. She didn't relish staking a claim on the brown carpeting and using her carry-on as a pillow if her flight were snowed in.

She waited in a long line for her turn, glancing at the lighted posters advertising Montana attractions. Several advertised casinos and other gambling establishments. Those in particular caught her eye.

Instead of asking about nearby motels, she heard herself say, "Is there a shuttle that goes out to the Magic Diamond?"

The complimentary beverages and snacks were good after her cash ran out. Whenever she wanted more tokens she sat herself down at slot machine next to a man.

Most overlooked her faded jeans, the red chamois shirt. They'd let their eyes skim past the ring hanging from the chain twisted around her neck, linger on the lace edging her camisole, her bustline.

She'd say, 'Hi'. Either they'd smile back, or freeze.

She'd reach over into his bucket of coins or trough and help herself to a couple of tokens. "For luck," she'd say if he protested, and this was really rare. So eventually, she'd say, 'for luck' as she reached her hand past their leg anyway.

-0-


Computer games don't affect kids; I mean if Pac-Man affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in darkened rooms, munching magic pills and listening to repetitive electronic music." ~~~Kristian Wilson, Nintendo, Inc, 1989


If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to ebonbird and Kassia

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