It was a sunny day.

A dark red motorcycle roared up onto the Institute grounds, as its rider removed her helmet and shook free her long, glorious dark hair.

Sarah Howlett smiled, lifting herself up and off of the bike, kicking the stand and turning off the engine, taking the keys and sliding them into the pocket of her black leather jeans. She unzipped the front of her jacket. It was unusually warm this fall after all, and she'd only needed it for the high speed winds of the travel on bike.

It was good to be home.

Sarah smiled as she made her way around the side of the Institute. As always when returning from a good long ride, her first stop was always the same. Kurt's church. It gave her a sense of calmness and peace. She never actually stayed long, nor prayed or argued with God, as he did. But it was soothing to her troubled soul.

The stone and the clearing had not changed over the past few years. However, a number of additions had been made since her coming to the Institute. A few tiny stone markers had been added. Miniature graves, though none of them contained any remains, save the first. 'Raven Darkholme, Mystique. Birth: Unknown. Death: August 30, 2003.' Interred within were what had previously been suspected were the remains of Kurt's mother. After Rogue had shattered the statue, the fragments had been respectfully gathered and buried. After discovering that Mystique was, indeed, still alive, Kurt had left the grave. To serve as a reminder that his birth mother was gone. She'd been replaced by a woman who was all hate and anger.

Two more stones had been added since then. 'X23'. Sarah was, she thought with a wry grin, not buried beneath. She and Kurt had buried her name. The name that Hydra had given her. Her weapon name. Left it behind. Beside it was another name, though again, no body. 'X24'. His body had not been found, but that was no surprise. The entire mountain complex had been all but vaporized and crushed by the explosion. Not many could survive such destruction. Again, the stone marker was mostly for her sake.

A muffled bamf and the scent of sulfur alerted her that the church's local priest had arrived.

"Guten tag, Kurt," she intoned, not bothering to turn around.

"Guten tag, fraulein," he replied amiably, sitting down on the rock, legs folded beneath himself.

"Anything change while I was gone?" she asked, turning again to face him. He hadn't changed much at all. Though most of the fretting and self-doubt had long vanished with his teenage years. Kurt Wagner was now very much the essence of confidence.

"Nein. Schwester Rogue is busy teaching the New Recruits self-restraint, and Gambit is giving her a hand. Hank's left to speak with Dr. Patronete on behalf of the scientific community for a few days... other than that, not much."

"Has there been any word from... from Jean?" asked Sarah quietly. Kurt, his lips pressed together in a frown, shook his head. It was a sore subject with all of the X-Men, what had happened to Jean. Scott had been hit the hardest, but so had the Professor, and Logan. But they all missed her. The Institute was not the same without its resident redheaded telepath.

"Are you staying long this time?" asked Kurt, masking his pain, as always, behind a happy smile.

"For a while, yeah... at least 'til Winter break," she replied with a smile of her own. "I can't stand being cooped up with that many kids for so long."

"Just like your sire," remarked Kurt, as Sarah turned to leave. She chuckled at that, knowing it was the truth, and gave a respectful bow as she left the church and Kurt, giving him privacy. He came there often these days. With all the anti-mutant hysteria and laws and such, it was getting harder on the visible mutant. And Sarah had thought her life had been bad.

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The dark-haired former assassin entered into the living room, spotting Piotr and Ororo. Piotr lay, as he was wont to do, on the couch, sketching images onto parchment with his pencil. Ororo sat by the piano, filling the air with the soft, melodic sound of her music. Sarah smiled, moving past the room and down the hallway. Her nose guided her unerringly to the kitchen.

On the way, she was forced to dodge aside a small pack of young children who came bursting out of the nearby hallway, nearly trampling the dark-haired woman as they ran down the corridor. She recognized most of them. Multiple. Leech. Husk. Krystal. Torpid. Mirage. Blink. The New Recruits, most of the former ones having graduated and moved on. A few new kids she didn't recognize. Presumably, Cyclops had been recruiting while she'd been away.

Not surprisingly, Rogue and Remy were right after them, yelling at them to slow down and not run, lest they break something. Upon spotting Sarah, Remy gave her a brief hug, then said to Rogue he'd let them have time together while he grabbed the kids. Sarah and Remy had never been on best of terms. Something about their personalities just didn't click.

"Good to see you back here," remarked Rogue, brushing aside her auburn and white locks to get a better look at Sarah. Because of the heat she was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, but Sarah spotted her restraining bracelet on, so she felt safe as the two shared a sisterly hug.

"Good to be back... how're things?"

"Ah... hate... teachin'," remarked Rogue, stretching out each word and giving each a very healthy portion of her hatred for her current profession. Assistant teacher. Much like Scott and Jean had once done, she and Remy now taught at the Institute. They did not focus on the sciences, but on the now very highly demanded self-restraint. Both were, of course, experts on it. Their relationship, if anything, proved that.

Most of the core X-Men team had taken up teaching. Without Logan or the Professor around, Hank and Ororo had managed to day-to-day business of the caring and schooling of now almost two-dozen students and teachers.

"Give it time," replied Sarah. "Listen, Rogue, have you seen Scott around? I was hoping to have a word with him. He seemed depressed when I left."

"He's been straight up depressed ever since his redheaded girl left him," remarked Rogue dryly. Sarah knew about their past relationship, and knew how Rogue had felt about Jean. None-the-less, she also knew that Rogue had also grown close to Jean in some ways. Since Remy LeBeau had come to live with them and he and Rogue had grown close, she'd viewed Jean less like a rival, and more like a sister. And she missed her just like everyone else did. "In his room last Ah saw him," she said, giving Sarah another squeeze before the two reluctantly parted and made their way down separate routes. Sarah to find Scott and comfort him. Rogue to find and discipline some very wild mutant children.

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Sarah took her time in the kitchen, stocking up on a large number of foodstuffs. She normally didn't stuff herself so, but after the long trip she was absolutely famished. She took her time, eating slowly, then made her way up the stairs to Scott's room. She passed by her own. It was immaculate, as always. The New Recruits never dared to enter, and the adults were too respectful.

She passed by Logan's old room as well. The door was closed, the room was empty. One day after Jean's disappearance, Logan, without a word to anyone, had grabbed his things, revved up his motorcycle, and hit the road. He hadn't been seen or heard from since. His room was left as it was, however, in the hopes that someday he would return to the Institute. The Professor's room was empty too. It had been ever since...

...Sarah preferred not to think about it. She'd put it away with all the dark memories of Hydra, locked them deep inside of her mind. Rogue had shown her how.

Sarah came to the door and gave a gentle, tentative knock. She was mildly relieved when Scott beckoned her in. When she saw him, however, she gave pause.

He'd changed little over the years. Now at the age of twenty-three, he was leaner, more muscular, but mostly unchanged. His brown hair was cut a little shorter, but he still wore the same ruby-red sunglasses over his eyes, and he still had the serious, withdrawn look on his face. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at a picture in his hands. He glanced up, smiling as he saw who was there. He rose to greet her, placing the photo on the bed.

"Sarah... hey, how are you?" he asked. Typical, she thought wryly. He was the one suffering, yet in the good leader fashion, he made sure others were alright before he was. Sarah smiled, without a word wrapping her arms around his neck for a warm, heartfelt hug that he definitely needed right now. To her surprise, he clung to her, resting his head against her shoulder. Ironic, how she had once clung to him, only five years ago, for support. Now he did the same with her. Jean had only been missing for a year, but it had hit him the hardest. They'd been engaged.

"I'm fine Scott... you?"

"I'm managing," he replied, sitting back down on the bed. Sarah slipped off her riding gloves and sat down beside him, idly examining the picture he'd been looking at. To her surprise, it was the big group photo, taken four years ago. Shortly after she'd joined, when Colossus, Angel and Gambit had also come to live at the Institute.

Idly Sarah reached out, running a finger along her fifteen year old counterpart, frozen in time in the photo. She was smiling, for the first time part of a large, happy family. Now, at the age of twenty, she was still part of that family. Even a vital member of the team, or so Scott was wont to quote. She'd taken over after Logan had left, and also some Danger Room training with the New Recruits. She was their instructor, and every bit as feared as Logan had been, though there was no reason to be.

So much had changed in that photo. Angel was long gone, another set of woes she preferred not to think about, sealed in the back of her mind. Rahne was here, though she spent the majority of her time in the woods instead of the Institute, getting in touch with her animal nature. With the passing on of mother, Tabitha had moved to Bayville in a local apartment, which she shared with Amara. Tabitha worked part time as a bartender while her roommate, Amara attended classes at Bayville University. Ray had left the Institute two years ago, returning to the Morlocks. Bobby had remained at the Institute, but teaching wasn't his thing. Instead he spent his time at the beach with his girlfriend, the hydrokinetic mutant Darcy Harper, who worked as a lifeguard. He was working in a ice cream parlor part-time last she'd heard. Sam was still around too, having decided to stick with his little sister at the Institute, and Roberto had too... once he'd seen how cute Sam's little sister was. Alex had joined up with private security agency, after his dream of going pro had gone down the tubes. He'd been disqualified, just like Evan had years earlier at the skateboarding, just because of an extra gene or two.

Of course they'd heard or had a hand in the fate of many others besides the X-Men as well. Forge had been working with SHIELD to develop mutant containment measures. His restraining collar (and the women's bracelet, like the one Rogue wore) had proven most effective in the restraining of dangerous mutants. SHIELD's special Freedom Force took care of their actual capture and fighting of such dangerous super humans. Ironically, most of its recruits were formerly members of an organization known as the Brotherhood of Mutants, and even former Acolyte St. John Alberdyce. Including Kitty's fianc┼Ż, Lance Alvers. Of their leaders, Magneto and Mystique, nothing had been heard of in ages, nor some of their lackeys. Mastermind had all but vanished, and with Logan's disappearance so had Sabertooth. Lucas had been seen here and there, stirring up trouble, but on the whole he'd kept quiet since Xavier's departure. Mesmero had been spotted around ancient and not-so-ancient ruins, desperately seeking a way to restore his long-departed master. Amanda and Kurt had married, with both parents blessings, of course, and Amanda was expecting their first child sometime around Christmas. The Morlocks were prospering well enough, keeping out of sight of the world above them, though the X-Men maintained a fairly consistent communication with them, particularly between aunt and nephew. They'd even sent some of their younger members, those that could pass as human with a little cosmetic work, to live at the Institute.

So much had changed, so much has stayed the same. The X-Men still fought for the very same people who feared and hated them, against super villains and mega-mutants and crazed fanatics. All that and schoolwork too.

And there, in the middle of the photo: Scott Summers and Jean Grey. So close, so happy.

Sarah lay a comforting hand on Scott's shoulder, squeezing gently to remind him, as he'd once done for her, that he wasn't alone. He smiled, turning his visored gaze to meet hers. "It wasn't your fault Scott," she said softly. Scott sighed. He seemed about to argue, but he'd argued enough. He was tired of it. So he just nodded. "Now come on," said Sarah, taking his arm and gently drawing him off of the bed. "Kitty's lunch is almost ready..."

"How can you...?" he started to ask, but Sarah laughed, tapping her nose. He understood.

"Come on Scott you need to have a good night for once," she stated as they walked side by side down the hallway. "Why don't we have Ororo and Hank put the young ones to bed, then drop by the bar where Tabitha works? We can invite the others to join us... we'll have fun," she said.

"Well..." he started to hesitate, before he saw her expression. "Oh alright... but just a few people, let's not get Tabitha in trouble again."

"Those drunks started it," remarked Sarah idly, rubbing her knuckles in remembrance of the brawl.

"Aren't you still a year too young to be drinking?" he teased.

"Come on, -Professor S-... I thought we agreed to live a little... besides, you know alcohol doesn't affect me."

"Healing factor or not, you're getting soda," he replied, nudging her in the side playfully. She stifled a giggle, her sides were very sensitive.

"Oh alright fine... I'll be designated driver then... but only if we take your car," Sarah replied as they arrived at the dining room. Unsurprisingly, the New Recruits had beaten them there. Young growing kids need their food, so experts say. Nowhere is this more true than with mutant youngsters. As the others all gathered around the cluttered and now full dining room, one or two empty chairs remained. Family who'd been lost, or who'd left, but would always be there in the X-Men's hearts. And maybe, someday, they'd come home.

One thing had definitely changed in the past few years.

Kitty's cooking had vastly improved.

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Author's Notes:

Ending Numero Dos! Yet another reference to Internutter's story 'Don't Pity Me' with Kurt's church and the graves (though in her story she had someone else interred. I won't spoil it by saying who). Mystique's date of "death" is actually the air date of Impact. Fitting, yes? Jean is gone because, of course, she became the Phoenix. I leave Professor X's fate unclear despite that he's gone... maybe I'll make -that- into a sequel. . The new New Recruits include Leech (Dorian Leech), Husk (Paige Guthrie), Krystal (made her up based on someone I spotted briefly in TAS), Torpid (you know, the little Morlock girl), Blink (Gabi), and Mirage (Danielle Moonstar). Darcy Harper, codenamed Torrent, is a character from Kinomi's story 'Melt Me'. Gabi, codenamed Blink, is a time-freezing mutant from the brilliant works 'Listen What the Man Said' and 'Learning to Fly' by a slew of authors, including InterNutter, Lyra Silvertongue, Amicitia, Scribbler, Nemain and Yma. They're two of the most interesting OC's I've ever run across, and I totally recommend their stories. Oh and Hydrokinesis is, in laymans terms, water control. Think Pyro with water. The picture referenced above is, of course, the infamous last shot from Ascension, which many people (myself among them) have set up as their computer wallpapers.

Risty: You and your scooby-doo endings. Better idea, why not next I do the drive-over-the-cliff ending? No, the super-happy ending! And believe me, X23 could go either way as far as the Institute is concerned. Yet another reason I picked two endings instead of one.

Kinomi: Glad to know I have such a loyal fan. I hope you liked my vision of the future. I can't help but feel it is inadequate. And if they do have a fifth season it'll be interesting to see if any of my predictions turn out right.