Title: Oh Say, Can You See?
Author: Skybright Daye
X-Verse: Movieverse, post-X2. I do not believe in X3.
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters are the property of Marvel/20th Century Fox. I own nothing.
Author's Notes: In the comics, Artie's appearance is very different -- and he can't speak. I've conformed to movieverse characterization here, but I've sort of aimed for a more-silent Artie nonetheless. Written as a gift for jordannamorgan.

We didn't notice the kid was missing until it was nearly dark.

It was July 4th, and any holiday that combines summertime with explosives is pretty much guaranteed to cause (more than usually) widespread chaos with the rugrats; every teacher at the School had spent most of the day trying to keep the kids from detonating their rooms, the library, their classmates or themselves with the contraband firecrackers Pietro Maximoff had been circulating (at a tidy little profit, I should add. The little motormouth might be annoying, but dumb he ain't).

Cyclops and Storm had an actual fireworks display planned for after nightfall; One-Eye was justifiably paranoid about one of the kids getting into the heavy artillery, so I'd spent most of the day guarding that while everyone else ran damage control. They did an okay job of it; the worst casualties of the day were a few singed patches in the grass and a really ugly statue in the back garden that we were probably better off without anyway, although saying so was enough to make Scotty make the Oh-not-you-too-I've-got-enough-to- deal-with face (which, after all, was most of the reason I said it).

It was dusk when Ororo and Kurt started rounding up kids to get 'em ready for the big show – and their headcounts started turning up one short.

A missing kid at Xavier's isn't any small matter. Leaving alone the havoc that your average mutant kid could wreak, the estate's got its own share of hazards. There's a lake more than big enough for a kid to fall in, old trees that aren't safe to climb – and even if they're not exactly the unexplored wilderness, the woods that the estate backs up on to the north are still big enough to get good and lost in, at least for most people.

So as soon as Artie turned up missing, Chuck called an emergency staff meeting. Artie's a nice enough kid, as kids go, but he's also 100 city-born and doesn't have the sense of direction that God gave a hammer. If he hadn't struck out along the road towards the next house, then chances were he was well and truly lost out in the woods.

Ororo and Scott, as usual, took the job of hitting up the neighbors in search of the kid – 'Ro's an old hand at the charming-nonthreatening-schoolteacher act, and Cyke isn't all that scary when he's trying, so they make the best candidates for public relations. Chuck and Kurt took over the task of keeping the other kids entertained in ways that didn't involve explosions; that left me and Hank the task of tracking Artie down before night fell in earnest.

We started at the chapel and split up; Hank struck off eastwards in the direction of the lake, while I headed northwest into the woods, each of us taking a communicator in case we spotted the kid.

Behind me in the rapidly-darkening sky, a cluster of green, yellow, and pink fireworks went off – Jubilee's doings, probably. That'd keep the other kids entertained for a while, without breaking into Scott's stash. The girl has an okay head on her shoulders, on the rare occasions she stops talking long enough to use it.

I caught Artie's scent after about twenty minutes; a meandering, haphazard trail that was heading more or less to the North, with the kind of rambling route that a kid would leave while just wandering around in the woods – but then, the School was still close enough that the kid wouldn't have been worried about finding his way back yet.

I radioed back to Hank that I'd found Artie's trail and wouldn't have any trouble finding him myself, then switched the communicator off. I could always call back if I ended up needing help – doubtful – but right now, I didn't want the static.

Hunting's only fun if you're quiet about it.

Like I said, the woods at Xavier's aren't exactly the Great White North, and I already know 'em more or less by heart (it's a better option than lying in bed on bad nights – trust me) – so I made good time, even with Artie's erratic trail to follow.

The night was getting darker, though the heat of the day still lingered in the air, and the woods were thick with leaves and underbrush. I followed Artie's trail as it slowly lost its carefree, meandering pattern and grew more hesitant, then suddenly headlong and panicky, then hesitant again.

It took most of an hour, but I finally tracked him down at the foot of a long, sloping hill. In a way, it was bad luck he'd stopped there – if he'd climbed the hill, I knew, he could've seen the School from the top.

Of course, then he just would've gotten utterly lost again trying to get back. Like I said, directional ability of a hammer.

Artie was sitting with his arms around his knees, huddled at the foot of a tree and looking about as miserable as I'd ever seen him. His head jerked up with a terrified little squeak when he heard me coming – he'd probably spent the last half-hour or more imagining all the animals that were coming to eat him.

"Relax, kiddo." It was dark by now, but there was part of a moon; I moved close enough that he could see me by the faint light. "Just me."

Artie scrambled to his feet and – before I could sidestep it – threw his arms around my legs in a relieved hug. The kid doesn't talk a lot – he seems to use sticking his tongue out as his main form of communication, actually, though that may just be because he's proud of it.

I gave him a minute before gently shoving him away from my legs. "Okay, okay. Let's get back to the mansion so Scott can give you the wandering-off lecture again, huh?"

Artie, whose fear had vanished once I showed up, rolled his eyes at the prospect. Then his face fell slightly and he shuffled his feet. "Gonna miss the fireworks, huh?"

I looked down at him for a second, then cast a speculative glance at the hill in front of us.

Not being able to ground Artie from watching the lightshow with the other kids would most definitely get on One-Eye's nerves.

I nudged Artie's shoulder and set off. "C'mon, kid. Keep up."

From the top of the hill, the fireworks over the School were even more impressive – huge flowers of red, white, and blue, green and gold, orange and purple and white – interspersed with liberal helpings of pink that were probably Jubilee's unasked-for contributions. Artie watched the whole thing with eyes the size of saucers, grinning and occasionally poking my shoulder at the sight of an especially impressive firework.

I've never been much for fireworks – the sound and the flash and the gunpowder smell of 'em stir up too many frustrating almost-memories that I can't place – but the night was warm and the view was impressive, and Artie's sense of wonder was just a little bit infectious. I fished a cigar out of my pocket and let the faint orange glow of it add to the brighter lights down below, and thought a little about what the holiday meant, at least as much as I knew (Gimme a break, bub. Wherever I came from at first, wherever those almost-memories happened, most've my actual memories are Canadian ones).

Independence Day. The idea of freedom and not being afraid, of safety and the chance to live one's own life. I glanced down at the top of Artie's head, blew a little smoke into the air, and smiled. Yeah, that I could get behind.

At last the final shower of bright golden sparks faded into the air, leaving nothing but the faint moonlight and the tiny glimmering lights in the School windows. I put out the cigar and nudged Artie as I rose.

"C'mon, kid." I said. "Let's go home."

The End