A/N: This is a doozy of a chapter—7,000 words—but it takes the story through the end of X2. On to the original stuff.
If you're reading this, I really would appreciate reviews, even if you didn't like it. And I do accept anonymous reviews.
BIG BOLD NOTE: I have not seen X3. I will not see it until this story is complete. Please, if you review, do not include spoilers for it, or criticize me for being uncanonical to X3. Thank you.
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The sound of her bare feet slapping against the cold stone floor was unbearably loud to her ears. She went as fast as she could, but carrying the boy, the guns, and the jackets was awkward; she was forced to stop to shift her burdens around.
Exits opened off of the tunnel, but outside each of them wary alertness indicated the presence of soldiers. So she kept running, hoping that the end of the tunnel was unguarded. If it wasn't... well, she'd been in tight situations before.
Squinting, she stifled a wave of relief as she saw starlight glinting through a grate ahead; a quick survey of the area indicated only faint concentrations of emotion, which were diffusing out of the mansion. She shifted her burdens again, readying one of the tranquilizer guns; then she swung the grate open, slipped out, and shut it behind her.
Narra hugged the walls as she headed for the dense forest, wary for the surge of emotion that would indicate she'd been spotted. She had to find Peter and the others; how many had gotten out? She knew the soldiers had managed to take some of the children.
She risked stopping once she reached the cover of the trees to spread out her senses and search for a concentration of emotion. That coming from the mansion made it difficult to find, like a larger heat source obscuring a target on an infrared radar, but finally she tasted it: fear, apprehension, excitement, wariness. Straight ahead.
She ran again. Twigs on the ground cut into her feet, and larger branches slashed at her exposed legs; after giving up her robe, she'd been fighting in loose shorts and a tank top. She was able to shield the boy in her arms from the overhanging limb, but knew that she'd be bloody when she stopped.
Where were they? Narra had to stop to get her bearings again. She was running straight towards the foothills, listening for emotion ahead of her and behind her. The mansion would not occupy the soldiers forever; if they were really serious about taking the place, they'd start sending out patrols. The students had to be gone before that happened.
She kept running, her breathing ragged in her own ears. It was a familiar feeling after six weeks on the run, and one she'd hoped never to experience again: fleeing for her safety. But now the haven she thought she'd found had been destroyed mere weeks after her arrival. Did she have anything to do with it? Had her shadowy enemies found her, and gotten desperate enough to launch a full-fledged attack against the mutant refuge? If so, they'd succeeded: the precious DVD was destroyed, but the data it had contained was on her laptop, in the mansion's central computers, and uploaded onto a very secure server.
One thought comforted her: if they were still after her, they hadn't gotten her family.
Preoccupied, she didn't notice the shift in emotion in her surroundings, and almost ran straight into the figure who appeared out of the darkness.
Instinctively she put her hands up to block a blow, but the boy and the guns fouled her reach. She recognized the person in front of her. "Narra!" he said, his voice laden with surprise.
"Peter," she gasped, trying to breathe normally now that she was stopped. She looked around the area, and slowly her eyes made the shadowy shapes of children. There were more than she'd dared to hope, perhaps forty. Over on the far side of the clearing she saw Kitty Pryde, the phaser; near one of the trees, surrounded by children, was Hope, or Trance. She didn't see any of the other older students.
"We didn't think you'd make it out," he said, taking the boy from her, as well as the bundled jackets. The latter he frowned down at. "What are those?"
"Supplies," she said. "Some of the kids can use them to keep warm. I would have brought more if I could." She realized her hands were shaking.
"Are you alright?"
"I was stupid," she said. "I tackled a soldier."
"Did you get hurt?"
"No." She shook her head. Her distress lay in the knowledge of her own folly, not in injury.
Of course he could tell that there was something else in the garments, but he didn't ask. Instead, Peter said, "Is anyone else coming?"
Narra shook her head, still trying to catch her breath. "If they're not out by now, they're not getting out," she said. "I was the last one." She looked around at the assembled students. "We have to move. They could scan the area with heat sensors."
"We can go back towards the mountains," he said. "The rock might foul their readings."
Narra nodded. "There are caves back there. I saw them on my way in. We can hide in them." She looked at the children again. "I'll keep them calm if you tell them where we're going."
Colossus looked at her. When Austin and Jane had told him that she'd sent them ahead, he hadn't thought she'd been able to get out, but children had kept appearing, saying she'd helped them get out. Narra herself had not appeared, and he'd given her up for captured.
Now she appeared against all odds, having rearguarded the mansion as long as she could. And somehow she'd managed to defeat at least four soldiers and take their weapons, then escape, carrying a last child out with her as well. "You lead the way," he said. "You know where we're going. Kitty and Hope can keep the kids in line. I'll bring up the rear." He hoped she wouldn't argue.
Narra had no intention of arguing with logic. "All right," she said. Then she took the bundle from him, opened it, and handed him a gun. "You should have this. I'll give the other two to Kitty and Hope."
She made her way through the students, giving the jackets to the littlest ones to share, to the other two elder students. "Take these." She handed them the trank guns; surprise roiled off of them, at both her appearance and the weapons. "We're heading for the hills. Can you get the children in a group?" Suiting actions to words, she quietly gathered the nearest students and explained what they were doing, adding a request that the older ones help the younger ones along. Calming suggestions helped, and very soon the students were ready to move. There were seven with them who had been shot with darts; Narra, Peter, Hope, and Kitty each carried one. Two of the older students carried one each, and two more students managed to support the last child, who was starting to stir, between them.
They made their way through the trees, away from the barely-visible lights of the mansion and into the darkness of the hills. Kitty, Hope and Peter managed to keep them fairly quiet, but each whisper or suppressed yelp seemed to reverberate forever. Narra walked as fast as she could in the darkness, but the pace was still slow enough that the students behind could keep up.
A young girl made her way through the group to Narra's side, and held up her closed hand. "Here," she whispered, and slowly opened her fingers, letting a faint glow escape that illuminated the ground a few feet ahead.
Narra considered quickly. The light wasn't strong enough to be seen very far, she decided. "Thank you," she said. "But I can see well enough. Can you take that back to the other students and help them?" The girl-- Alicia, she remembered-- nodded and disappeared again.
They walked for maybe forty-five minutes. Narra's feet were numb from walking, and some of the children were starting to cry softly. She sent calm and soothing back towards them, knowing they had to stop soon. But the increasing prevalence of rocks under her feet made her hope that they were near to the foothills. Soon the ground started to rise, and she knew they were close.
Narra stopped abruptly. Before her gaped a hole that was darker than the surrounding night. It was the entrance to one of the caves she remembered.
Peter came up beside her and transformed, his metal skin gleaming faintly. "I'll see what's inside." He disappeared into the darkness.
She looked around for Alicia and found her. "Can you stand at the entrance and light his way?" she asked quietly. The girl nodded, put her hand gingerly into the dark hole, and opened it; the strong glow was contained by the stone walls, providing light to Peter but not to anyone who might be searching for the students. Over Alicia's shoulder Narra could see that the cave was large, large enough to hold all of them with room to spare; the back stretched out into darkness.
After a tense moment, Peter reemerged, his hair filled with dirt and dead leaves. "It's clear."
The four young adults stood by the entrance as the students filed past them and crawled inside; then Kitty and Hope followed them. "What now?" Pete asked quietly.
Narra thought. "First, we have to find out who is here and who is missing," she said. "Then we see what condition those awakening from the darts are in. Then we decide what to do next."
Getting the kids into groups kept them warm, and allowed them to be counted easier. Several minutes of looking at faces yielded the information that there were twelve children missing.
"What about Logan?" Peter asked. "I saw him right before we went into the tunnel."
"He got out with Bobby, John and Rogue," Narra said. "That is, they got into the tunnel. I don't know if they made it out." She was pretty sure they had, though; had the Wolverine been captured, there would have been a fight large enough that she surely would have noticed.
"Then we're down to nine."
Kitty frowned. "I think... I think Rogue sent two of the little girls through the tunnel and told them to go to the first house they saw," she said. "It was Attior and Bresthana."
One of the younger students, who had an affinity for words, had pen and paper; Narra made a list of all the children they had with them, and the seven whose whereabouts were unknown. Then she looked over at the seven children who were with them but still unconscious. Only time would tell what ill effects the tranquilizer darts would have. For now, she made sure they were as comfortable as they could be in a dirty cave.
She and Peter flanked the narrow entrance, talking in quiet voices as they watched the children. Kitty and Hope comforted the younger ones, who had started crying again. Narra projected soothing suggestions at them.
"What were they after?" Peter asked. "And why would they want us?"
Narra shook her head, remembering her earlier postulation that the soldiers had been after her data. But that made no sense. Why would they take the children? A stray memory, overheard from the air ducts, came back to her. "They wanted Cerebro. I have no idea why."
"They might still come after us here," Peter said, his voice quiet with worry.
She nodded. "I know. We'll have to start posting guards. Maybe one of the students has an optical mutation that could be helpful..." Their needs swirled through her head, and she sorted them into categories. They formed two: one devoted to surviving, and one devoted to staying out of the clutches of the soldiers. She wished they had some way to get in contact with any of the adults who had left, but knew it was a futile hope. It occurred to her that the teachers might even have been lured out of the way; the attack had come at such an unpropitious time it was hard to believe the timing coincidental.
"We need food and water," she said, thinking out loud. "We need an escape route and a way to stay hidden. And we need to keep the children calm."
Peter opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by a rising wail. Kitty and Narra both hurried to the girl's side to comfort and quiet her, but her agitation was contagious. "What're we gonna do?" echoed through the cave.
Narra closed her eyes and tried to calm them until they were quiet. "It's going to be all right," she said when she could be heard. "We're safe here now."
"But what are we going to do?" It was one of the younger students who asked, a boy with curly blonde hair, an angelic and rather dirty face, and brilliant orange cat-like eyes.
"We gonna live out here forever?" his older brother added, his-- more normal-- eyes shining at the prospect of the adventure.
Narra shook her head. "The Professor and Ms. Munroe and Dr. Grey and Mr. Summers should be back soon. They'll be able to help us."
"What if they don't come back?"
She looked down; the voice had come from near her knee. A girl was looking up at her with huge green eyes, sucking her thumb. The cave became silent as everyone waited to hear what she would respond. Narra could understand their anxiety: far too many of them had had parents walk out on them, or throw them out, or abandon them at the Institute. It was a wonder they trusted the teachers at all.
"Then we'll go over the mountains," she answered. "I did it on my way here. We'll leave Salem and go somewhere safe." Narra looked at Peter. They both knew that, while she might have managed to cross the lower regions of the Catskills without much difficulty, getting forty young children across would be nearly impossible. They also both knew that if help didn't come, they'd have to do it. "Hopefully we'll be able to go back to the mansion. But if not, we'll just start over somewhere else." She looked around; most of them seemed at least partially reassured. "For now, try to get some sleep."
"But I'm hungry," whined one of the older boys.
"If you're asleep, you won't notice," she said. "And we'll try to get some food for you when you wake up." Slowly, aided by Narra's gentle empathic suggestions, most of the students settled down, huddling together in groups for warmth.
She rejoined Peter by the door, and Kitty and Hope joined them as well. "How long are you going to wait?" Peter asked.
She considered, weighing the dangers of staying, the dangers of leaving, and the likelihood of the teachers returning with substantial help. "Three days," she said at last.
Hope looked surprised. "That's it?"
Narra nodded. "We have to plan for the worst," she said quietly. "Assume the teachers aren't coming back." Which means they would be entirely responsible for not only getting the children to safety, but taking care of them when they got to wherever they were going, perhaps for a long time. "At first light I'll go out and look for food and water."
"Did you see any when you came through here last month?" Peter asked.
"No," she admitted. "But I wasn't really looking."
"Narra, do you still have that list?" Kitty asked. Narra pulled it from the crevice in the rock where she'd tucked it and handed it to her. "Some of the children might be able to help us with their mutations."
"That's a good idea," Narra said as Kitty started perusing the list.
Hope went back to the children, and Kitty sat in the corner, writing by the faint starlight that drifted in through a crack in the rock. "Why don't you get some sleep," Peter suggested. "I'm not tired. I can stand watch for a while."
He might have been lying, or perhaps he was just running on adrenaline; Narra's own adrenaline had worn off long ago. Either way, she wasn't going to argue.
She curled up near the entrance to the cave and drifted off, keeping her senses alert even in sleep, and sending soothing suggestions towards the children. Slowly, the noise in the cave lessened and was replaced by the sounds of quiet breathing.
She was on her feet in an instant, noting as she did so that it was early morning and the sun was rising. Peter was standing outside the mouth of the cave; she joined him, blinking against the sudden light.
"There." He pointed. Scarcely visible through the trees was the mansion, looking deceptively intact in the early morning light. Tiny dots that had to be soldiers were swarming in and out of it, but as she watched, she discerned a pattern to their movement. Narra frowned and squinted, trying to see better.
It was unmistakable: they were leaving. Two large trucks, troop transports, slowly pulled out of the driveway, laden with soldiers. The blades of the helicopters started slowly revolving, the whuff-whuff-whuff audible even across the distance. More men emerged carrying equipment which they loaded into the waiting jeeps.
"It could be a trap," Peter said. She nodded, trying to read the emotions of the departing men, but they were too far away and too calm.
"We should get everyone back from the entrance in case the helicopters fly over," she said.
They did not fly over the cave; instead, they circled the mansion lazily before heading straight north. Narra watched them through the crack in the roof until they were out of sight, bright gleams vanishing against the blue sky. Then she stood and picked up one of the jackets that the children had discarded when the sun started to warm the cave. "I'm going for food," she told Peter, and picked up the tranquilizer gun from where she'd laid it the night before.
She looked down at the mansion again. It appeared deserted, but they had no way of telling for sure. Unless one of the students could tell through a mutation? She'd have to ask Kitty.
She headed uphill towards the mountains. The landscape was vaguely familiar; she must have taken this route through the hills the month before. As she'd told Peter, she hadn't been looking for food then. The scant supplies in her backpack had been enough to get her to the mansion, and she'd been more worried about avoiding any ambush her mysterious pursuers ahd arranged.
Now she kept her eyes open, not quite sure what she could bring back. Most things were edible, when it came down to it, but leaves and twigs, for example, were neither palatable nor nourishing. Still, it was summer, and she out to be able to find something.
Thirty minutes' steady walking and searching brought her to a clump of blackberry bushes bearing early fruit. She buttoned the jacket and tied the sleeves in knots, intending to use it as a sack; only when she ventured into the thicket did she realize that she ought to have brought another jacket to protect her arms from the sharp brambles. The pain, though aggravating, was easily disregarded, and she picked steadily.
Some forty minutes later the jacket was full and the bushes were nearly stripped of all the ripe fruit. Before she returned to the cave she climbed higher into the mountains, exploring their surroundings, until she came to a nearly vertical cliff face.
About to turn back, she let the jacket of blackberries rest for a moment and studied the ascent. Then she looked over her shoulder, confirming that she was out of sight of the mansion. Wedging her bare feet into a crevice in the rock, she began to climb.
Narra's arms and legs were shaking with fatigue and her exposed skin was scraped raw ten minutes later when she achieved her goal, a wide ledge outside of a dark hole in the rock. This cave entrance was tall enough to walk into without stooping over, and the cave itself was spacious and dry. Reemerging into the sunlight, she noticed a faint but distinct trail leading away from one end of the ledge, and descended that way instead of climbing back down.
It was midmorning by the time she returned to the others. Kitty was on top of the cave, watching all the approaches, gun at her side. Peter and Hope were sleeping inside, as were most of the children. She decided not to wake them, but put the full jacket and its precious contents on a ledge out of the way, then looked over Kitty's list. It was promising: a girl named Ashlyn had the hoped-for optical mutation that allowed her to see long distances and gave rise to her nickname, "Eagle Eyes"; one of the older students was a telekinetic.
One of the youngest awoke, crying, and when Narra went to soothe her, she whimpered that she was thirsty. Of course; water would be more of a pressing need than food.
"There's a stream not far away," Peter said, coming up behind her.
She nodded. She'd scouted it on the way back, traveling as far upstream as she could along its banks to check for possible sources of contamination. She'd found no litter or dead animal carcasses, but that didn't mean it was safe to drink from. "What if they get dysentery or giardiasis?" she asked quietly, twisting around to look up at him. He was silent. Dysentery, if untreated, could be fatal.
"I found it first!" The cranky voice of a child broke through their worries, and Narra looked over to see two young students fighting over an opaque black pouch. She walked over to them. "What's wrong?"
"I found this in the jacket," the girl-- Elyse-- whimpered, "and he took it from me!"
In the jacket? "May I see it?"
They relinquished the object to the neutral party, and she examined it. It was a rectangle a little larger than her hand and nearly flat. The zipper was hidden in the fold of one seam. Opening it, she found a variety of small items in plastic cases and what looked like a Ziploc bag. She sat down with her back to the wall to have both hands free.
The small items turned out to be a small, slender knife, a lighter, a compass, and a case of water purification powder. After unfolding the flexible plastic a few times, she realized it was a poncho. It was ultra-thin, but when she tugged at the edge, it didn't stretch or tear.
She looked up to see the two children watching her. "Can you show me where you got this?"
Examination of the other two jackets produced two more black pouches from hidden inner pockets, and she showed the finds to Peter. He turned them over in his hands.
"Military-issue survival gear," he said, and looked up. "Now we know who we're dealing with."
"They could have gotten it from a surplus supplier," she said.
Peter shook his head. "This is top of the line. It wouldn't be available to civilians. In fact, it probably wouldn't be available to the regular armed forces."
"Good news?" Hope came up behind them, rubbing her eyes.
"We found a way to get clean water," Narra said. "And I brought back food." She didn't mention that elite forces of the United States military had been responsible for the attack on the mansion. There was nothing they could do about it, and it would only serve to frighten. "If you and Kitty can pass out the food, I'll start hauling water."
The blackberries, when they were distributed, provided only a few mouthfuls to each student. Narra ate only three, leaving the rest of hers in the common pile. She was used to hunger. Peter went out to look for more food as Hope and Narra brought water from the stream, placing it in a makeshift basin constructed from one of the ponchos suspended on sturdy branches wedged into crevices in the rock floor. "Should we try to boil it?"
She shook her head. "Let's use the powder for now. We don't want to risk smoke."
The water appeased the children for a while, but Peter returned midafternoon, emptyhanded. "I can't find anything edible," he said quietly, making sure the children didn't hear.
"Let me try," Narra said, putting on a jacket and picking up a gun. "I'll go over the mountain if I have to."
She had no better luck than he did, and was finally forced to return at sundown, bruised and thwarted. Kitty had managed to find some mushrooms she knew were edible, as well as some tubers, and they'd cleaned another batch of water so that the kids could at least fill their stomachs, but if they couldn't find food now, they'd never be able to make it across the mountains.
"I'm going down to the mansion," Peter told her after the sun had set. Anticipating an argument, he added, "We can't go much longer without food. It'll give me a chance to see if any soldiers are left. And my skin is impervious to anything they can shoot at me."
Narra knew he was right, much as she disliked the idea of anyone going back there. She would have preferred to have been the one to go into danger-- she knew her own abilities. But again, his logic was unarguable. She could be felled by a transquilizer dart or a bullet; he could not. So all she said was, "Be careful."
He nodded and disappeared into the darkness.
The night was colder than before, and everyone shivered, though the three large ponchos helped. Even the older children started to whimper, and the feeling that permeated the cave was not one of fear. It was misery and despair.
Narra tried to use her empathy to calm them and comfort them. She took two of the smaller children on her lap to try to keep them warm. The night wore on, but no one slept. Some of the students cried quietly, and Hope and Kitty were too exhausted to reassure them; she couldn't blame them. So she gently shifted the two kids off of her lap and went around to all of the crying ones, trying to ease their misery.
It worked for a few hours; some of them fell into a fitful sleep. Around what she thought was midnight, though, they started to wake again, mostly from nightmares. "I was running and running from the soldiers but they still got me," Ashlyn sobbed furiously.
"Shh, shh," Narra whispered. "It's all right. You're going to be fine. They didn't get you..."
It was a long, long night. She worried that Peter had been caught; how long had he been gone? Hours? What time was it?
She worried about the students who had been captured. Was the military going to experiment on them? She'd seen the results of one such experiment; one day, after he had left, Jean had told her about Logan in order to explain his quest.
And she worried about the teachers. Where were they? Storm and Jean had gone to Boston the afternoon before. It was not even half an hour by jet, and they should have returned long ago. She didn't know where Scott and the Professor were.
"We're gonna die."
The quiet murmur caught her ear and she sat upright. "We are not going to die," she said, looking around. Some forty-odd pairs of eyes met hers, mostly blank and hollow. All the students were awake, and many of them seemed to share the speaker's sentiments. "We're not going to die," she repeated. "We're going to be fine. Peter's going to come back with food, and tomorrow we'll move farther up into the mountains where you don't have to stay cramped up in a cave." She projected as much courage and hope into her voice as she could.
"Tell us how you walked from Pittsburgh."
The request was totally unexpected. Looking around, she saw the speaker was a young girl with huge, green solemn eyes. Unlike the others, she didn't radiate disheartenment; her empathic sense was surprisingly calm. The others perked up, just a little; somehow, this girl had known that a distraction was needed, and had known how to provide one.
So Narra told them. She told them about eating from soup kitchens, and sleeping on park benches, and washing her clothes every other day in public restrooms and wearing them wet. She told them about hiking through the mountains, and about falling into a swift-flowing river and getting carried ten miles downstream before she could get out. She told them about walking in the woods in the warm summer evenings, the soft breeze blowing and the gentle night sounds surrounding her. At such times she had forgotten everything else: her hunger, the oozing blisters on her feet, her worry for her family, her apprehension at being pursued.
She tried to make it sound like an adventure, knowing they might be facing the exact same thing very soon. Whether she succeeded or not was uncertain, but at least she had the undivided attention of her listeners. For a time the mental sense of the cave lightened, and she felt better herself. Narra had not realized, tired as she was, how much the childrens' pessimism had been affecting her own mood.
"What's in that backpack you always had with you?" asked Elyse.
"A change of clothes," Narra said. "Spare socks. A poncho. A map. A bottle of water. A jacket. A little money. And peanut butter."
She nodded. "It's what I lived on when I couldn't get anything else." Sometimes she'd gone a week at a time surviving on a few tablespoons of peanut butter a day. Even a month later, she was still heartily sick of the taste.
"Tell us another story," a boy said sleepily.
Narra didn't know any stories to tell; looking after children was not something she had envisioned herself doing very often. But forty pairs of eyes were watching her expectantly. So she said, "Once upon a time there was a girl, with light green skin and long blue hair and bright golden eyes. She was very beautiful, and also very smart..." Narra made the rest up as she went along.
It was probably the longest night of her life thus far, telling stories in the interminable darkness, trying to keep the children warm and quiet, and worrying about Peter. She had no way of telling how much time had passed since his departure; there was no moon that night.
Everyone else was asleep when he returned at what she guessed was very early morning. Her senses told her someone was approaching, so she silently picked up a trank gun and slipped out of the cave, concealing herself behind some rocks. When she saw it was Peter, she stood up quickly. He was carrying two large garbage bags over his shoulders.
"The house is deserted," he told her quietly. "They took their equipment and their dead. I brought back as much as I could carry from the kitchen."
Narra nodded in comprehension.
Peter hesitated. "And perhaps me as well." She remembered seeing a man-sized hole in the wall near the tunnel, and belatedly understood where it had come from.
"Most of them are sleeping," she said. "We can feed them when they wake up. What were you able to bring back?"
He opened the bags and show her. It was all wrapped, she noted, which was a wise decision. Unopened boxes of cereal, granola bars, several boxes of applesauce, more of pudding cups, and even some fruit in a hard plastic container. She looked in the other bags: cans.
"I brought a can opener," he assured her.
Narra nodded and looked deeper in the second bag. Under the cans was a stack of blankets and some jugs of water.
"I found some soap, too," Peter said.
"Good. Some of the kids have cuts that are starting to fester." She picked up one of the bags and carried it towards the cave. "This morning I found a bigger cave up in the mountains that's closer to running water and more secure. I'd like to try to relocate there tomorrow."
"Where is it?"
She described the location to him, adding, "I climbed up the cliff face to get there, but there's also a path."
He nodded. "After the kids are fed it should be a lot easier." They took the bags into the caved and moved quietly around the sleeping children, covering them with the blankets. Then Narra, convincing Peter that she wasn't tired, went outside with a blanket and sat until morning keeping watch, her worries much lighter for the relief of the most immediate evils.
The next morning was much easier. The students woke to the prospect of food, and though it was soon apparent that they'd have to make another trip to the Mansion if help did not come, there was enough for everyone. After breakfast Narra took the girls to the stream to wash as best as they could, cautioning them not to get it in their mouths, and when they returned Peter took the boys. Following that, they moved to the higher cave, where most of the children slept once again.
It happened in early afternoon. One moment the students were running around the cave in a quiet game of Tag, and the next moment they were on the ground, screaming in agony.
Narra felt like a million hot knives were taking her body apart, and it took all of her self-control not to scream herself as she fought to keep her mind clear. The pain threatened to overwhelm her, and the empathic echoes of the agony around her made her cover her ears in a futile gesture. Instinctively she struck out with her mutation-- and the pain lessened, just a little.
Got-- to-- fight-- it, she thought, using her powers to reduce the pain to a manageable level so she could sit and lean back against the wall. Then she closed her eyes and used all her strength to push, creating a bubble of blankness around the students. Slowly, harrowingly slowly, she pushed the bubble out, making it larger and stronger. Slowly, the students sat up, and the excruciating empathic pain in her head died away.
"What--" Peter said, looking at her, but she shook her head. She had to concentrate.
Some of the youngest ones started to cry, and the mental sense of confusion surrounded her. More faintly, she still sensed pain. This was not a local phenomenon, then. It had to be a very powerful mutant doing this-- whatever this was.
Sensing she needed to concentrate, even if they didn't know why, the other three kept the students quiet, and as calm as they could. And then suddenly the pressure on her mind was gone, and she dropped the shields.
"What was that?" Ashlyn asked quietly. None of the young adults could answer her.
Narra relaxed against the wall, wiping sweat from her face. The memory of the pain still bothered her, like the phantom hurt that crept up when you were about to get back on a bicycle for the first time after taking a nasty spill. But its source was gone, and echoes of relief swept through her mind, soothing it.
Then the second psionic wave struck.
Later she was told that she screamed and fell to the floor. All she knew at the time was that the world was on fire with agony. It clawed and tore at her until she nearly lost her sense of self and became lost in the pain. It buffeted her until she thought she would pass out-- until she wanted to pass out, just to end it.
Her strongest empathic shields couldn't block the agony. Dimly she felt hands on her shoulders, heard someone who might have been Peter calling her name, but all her attention was turned inward. Narra threw all of her strength into making a bubble and threw it outward.
It barely had any effect. She shoved, trying to shrink her shield so that it blocked the mutant who was causing the whole world to writhe in agony rather than blocked the world from the mutant, but she was too far away. Still, she didn't give up, and concentrated with every fiber of her being.
Time became meaningless. There was her, there was the shield, and there was the suffering. Narra was aware of nothing else. The echoes in her head went on, and on, and on, and she held the shield. There was no way she could block this mutation completely. It was too strong, and too far away, and affecting too many people. But still she held the shield, and thought the agony she sensed lessened a little.
Centuries passed, or it might have been minutes. The pain she sensed empathically stopped abruptly, just as the pain she felt physically had earlier. She slumped to the ground semiconscious.
It was early in the evening when a boy said, "Listen!"
They all stopped what they were doing, but no one else could hear anything. The boy, a superauditory, said, "I hear the Blackbird."
Narra got to her feet unsteadily, went outside, and looked up. There in the east was a tiny bright spot against the darkening eastern horizon; it quickly grew until everyone could hear it approach.
She reached out with her empathy; the occupants of the plane were easily located. As the children cheered, she felt the wild grief of the X-Men. "They lost someone," she said quietly to Peter, who was next to her.
"You mean someone died?" he said. She could sense the dismay rolling off of him.
Narra nodded, and something else about the emotions of the people on the plane caught her attention. The most violent ones belonged to two minds. One she couldn't identify, but the other, radiating wild rage and sadness, tinged with darkness, was familiar to her. That the owner of the mind should feel so strongly could mean only one thing. "They lost Dr. Grey."
Logan stared down at the ground beneath the plane without seeing it. What he did see was the water crashing over Jean again and again, the body of the woman he loved disappearing forever beneath the giant wave.
No! He clenched his fists. I need her.
Across the aisle Scott was slumped against a bulkhead, utterly still; Storm was piloting the plane by herself. No one spoke. Looking around, he saw grief etched on everyone's face, as well as confusion. Why her? Why did it have to be her?
"What about everyone else?" Rogue broke the silence, her Southern drawl worried. "What about the students?"
"We'll find them," Xavier said with a reassuring smile. From the depths of his grief, Logan grudgingly admired how the other man could still find it within himself to comfort others. "Logan, you said Peter helped get many of them out?"
"Yeah," he growled softly after a moment.
"They had Kitty with them," Bobby said. "She would have helped."
"And Narra," Logan added, not realizing he was doing the same thing as Xavier by trying to reassure Rogue. Dim memories of the fight returned to him, and he recalled coming across several incapacitated bodies that had no marks on them. "She would've got 'em out."
"Down there," Xavier murmured, and everyone turned to look at him. "Storm: take us down. The students are down there."
Mechanically he helped load the students onto the Blackbird. Some of them chattered quietly, oblivious to the grief around them, for the Professor would not tell them about Jean until they were settled back at the mansion. More of them were silent, and on their faces he read the marks of an ordeal.
Looking at Colossus, though, something was different. Somehow, he knew; it was apparent in his silence, and in the silent sympathy of his looks. Logan turned away. He didn't want sympathy.
Then he saw Narra, and knew she knew as well. Then he looked closer and frowned: she was a lot paler than usual. "What happened to her? She get hurt or something?"
Peter shook his head slowly. "I'm-- not sure. She-- this afternoon there was suddenly so much pain. It came out of nowhere. Somehow I think she stopped it. And then--" he frowned. "A few minutes later she screamed and collapsed, and it was as if she was fighting something for a few minutes. Then she nearly passed out."
He looked at Logan curiously, but the other man only swore softly as he comprehended. Narra could block other mutants' powers; of course she would have protected the students. And her empathy would have allowed her to sense when the rest of the world was attacked. She'd tried to fight one of the most powerful mutants in the world when his powers were amplified by the Cerebro mock-up. She was d lucky to be alive.
Logan wondered how the Professor was going to break that one to the kids: that he'd been the one to hurt them. Half of them probably already resented him for not being there when the place was attacked. And then he'd have to tell them that Jean had--
Jean. Logan slumped against the window.
The mechanism to open the hangar from the plane wasn't working, so Narra, who was closest to the hatch, jumped down and made her way through the deserted mansion to the lower levels to open it from there.
The mansion showed signs of a battle: shattered glass was everywhere, furniture was overturned and rearranged, debris from explosions lined some of the hallways. And the soldiers had left their refuse in the form of used cigarette butts. One hallway was waterlogged where the sprinklers had automatically put out a fire, probably caused by one of those butts.
Somehow they found places for all the students to sleep. Narra's room was unotuched; her laptop was where she had left it. She put the four tranquilizer guns in her top drawer and collapsed on the bed, asleep in seconds.