It had happened so often, she'd forgotten how many times they'd tortured her. So often, that now she had lost count. She would always remember the first time, but that was only because it was the first time. She remembered some of the other times, because of Moonshine, Night Thorn, Sky Flower, Midna. Because of Orion, Star Fox, Luna and Crescent. It was those eight children, those eight little glowsticks in the dark, that made her remember, and helped her forget. She remembered their times. And she remembered this time, because the blood still dripped down her thighs, soaking her jogging pants and her socks. If they hadn't been black, she might have been worried about wandering around, staggering as if drunk, on the Manhattan streets at night with pants drenched with crimson. But as it was, all she was worried about was the fact that if she didn't find the children soon, she'd bleed to death before she could meet up with the rest of her team.
Maybe she ought to stop and do something about her wounds. Maybe... but the moment she stopped, the moment she sank to the ground to stop, rest, and tend to her injuries, she knew she wouldn't be able to get back up again. She was already staggering. She couldn't afford to let her guard down or slow down for a minute. Even though her back burned like blue fire and her hips, legs, and pelvis throbbed and screamed at her that the abuse was too much. Even though she knew what that wet tickling in the back of her throat meant. Even though her fingers and toes were beginning to tingle with numbness.
How many times had they done this to her? The humans? Homo sapien sapiens, the normal humans, the "real people?" How many times had they ripped her open this way? How many times had they drawn her blood? How many times had they broken her bones and infected her with...
Well. Never mind. Find the children. Her children, and the others. That was what mattered. The children and the team. Once she found them, she could relax. She could calm down, take a break, and help herself.
Before she bled to death on the street.
Neo Trine, better known as the mutant New Moon, wasn't sure exactly whether or not he was right about the direction he was leading the Blue Stars, but he was pretty sure they were going in the right direction. Then again, if the real leader of the Blue Stars was here, they wouldn't be in this mess, because Moonshine would've been able to find the leader every one of them was looking for. They needed to find Eclipse, their main leader, because none of the Blue Stars knew what to do.
And why should they? In order to be a Blue Star, one half of the Celestial Team, you had to have mutant powers and be under sixteen. The Red Stars, the adults, were all missing. What was a bunch of elementary school kids supposed to do? It wasn't as if they had any experience busting themselves out of trouble. Most of them didn't even have real powers, just physical mutations or something wimpy, like Nightlight's ability to glow in the dark. So what were they supposed to do, out in the night, alone and without anyone to help them? Except, of course, to do exactly what they were doing now – following New Moon, their only telepath, as he did his very best to find their leader in a city full of humans and mutants who posed every threat imaginable.
"Are you sure my Mom is this way, New Moon?" Night Thorn asked softly, trying not to wake the toddler in his arms. His sister, Crescent, slept fitfully in his grasp, sucking her thumb. The other children could barely walk – their feet ached, and New Moon could hear one of the other children, Nightlight, thinking about the burning blister on her left heel. Sky Flower couldn't stop coughing. It wasn't good that she'd been sick with the flu when their newest home had been attacked. It was worse that she had been forced to carry Dawn at first, when the younger boy had broken his leg. Now that task was being given to the super strong Midna, whose asthma was starting to flare up.
"Sure I'm sure," New Moon replied to Night Thorn, rubbing the black bruise on his right shoulder from where the Sentinel had thrown him into the wall. "I can hear her thoughts. She's somewhere nearby, I can sense her. I just can figure out where."
"Maybe you can't," one of the other children said, "but I can. I know where Mommy is." The child that spoke cast an anxious glance at Sky Flower, who made a small noise in her throat, then at Dawn, who had silent tears trickling down his cheeks.
"How d'you know that, Orion?" New Moon demanded wearily, brushing ineffectually at his spiky bangs. His black hair, once soaked with mud and blood, had dried into sable spikes in front of his face. Until he washed it, there was nothing he could really do about the irritating curtain of spikes in his eyes. Irritated, he scrubbed at the drying blood on one cheek, but when he reopened a scabbed-over gash, he desisted.
"Mommy's smell," Orion said.
"Her perfume!" New Moon cried, shocked he hadn't thought of that. This was why they needed Moonshine – he could be counted on to think of everything. But Eclipse always smelled of lavender and chamomile. She used it in hand lotion when she could get it, in soap and shampoo, in body spray and laundry detergent. The calming smell helped her focus her powers, she said, and kept her once-in-a-blue-moon migraine-inducing precognition suppressed. Orion's heightened sense of smell could find the special combination of Eclipse's natural smell and the soothing scents she used. "You can smell her perfume! Can you find her?"
"Maybe... I think." The little boy wrinkled his nose and sneezed, scratching at the drying blood in his curly, brown hair.
"Oh," Midna, one of the younger girls, whispered. "I hope, I hope, I hope."
"Come on," New Moon ordered, sounding a lot more sure of himself than he felt. He put an arm around the trembling Midna. He wasn't sure if she was trembling with tiredness, or her hope. He put another arm around Sky Flower, who let her head fall onto his shoulder. Her face felt hot through his jacket, and the heat of it turned the thirteen-year-old mutant's blood to ice. "Let's get going. We gotta find Eclipse."
Professor Charles Xavier set the helmet of Cerebro back into place, pondering what the machine had shown him. What he had seen was remarkable- mutant children, the youngest mutants he'd ever seen with active mutant powers. But they needed help. They were under attack. He'd seen an eight-year-old girl flying around a mansion he recognized very well, a girl whose mind was a cacophony of terrified weeping and the repeating thoughts of Mommy. Night Thorn. Moonshine. Crescent. Midna. Star Fox. Orion. Luna. Mommy.
He'd tried to link with her young mind, but after making initial contact with her, her surprise had forced her to lose her concentration on the attacking enemy and been unable to dodge a laser beam shot that hit her right in the chest. She'd started to fall and been caught by another mutant, a boy of the normal mutant age who'd set her on her feet before attacking the giant robotic hand reaching for them with photokinetic blasts. More children – all of them far too young to be naturally occurring mutants – had come up behind them and attacked what he knew to be the hand of a Sentinel robot. But where had those children come from? And why did they look so neglected? Thin to the point of emaciation, almost as a pale as corpses, they looked sick and exhausted.
But Xavier knew the people who owned and lived in that mansion! They would never treat children that way! They would have taken steps to ensure the children were well cared for... unless something else had happened to the Avengers...
Turning away from Cerebro, he hit the comm. button attached to his wheelchair.
"Yes, Professor?" Ororo's voice misted from the speaker. Xavier thought for a moment and said, "Send me Gambit, Wolverine, Rogue, and Beast, please, Storm."
"Right away, Professor."
As the communication line severed, Xavier sighed, and sent his mind out again, trying to find the little girl who could fly. Was she still alive? Had she survived the fight against the mutant-hunting machines? That child could not have been more than ten years old, yet she had mastered her ability of flight and was using it in a defensive way. How had she come by such control?
Mutant, he murmured in his mind, calling to her. Mutant, answer me. What is your name? Now that Cerebro had found her once, Charles Xavier himself could find her whenever he wished. Who are you? Where are you? Let me help you, little-
Get away from us!
The terrified, furious cry ripped through his mind, severing the link he had been trying to form between himself and that little girl. The voice that had broken his concentration was older, angrier, richer. And it was a boy. A young boy, younger than Jubilee by some years, but older than the other children he had seen in his vision. Perhaps the oldest, the boy with the photokinetic powers. Was he also a telepath?
Mutant child, I wish to help you. Let me help you, Xavier tried again, bridging the distance between himself and the children he was attempting to contact. Let me help, children. He could feel distrust, anger, and beneath it all, he could feel terror so strong he could nearly taste it. What was happening, that they were in such fear? Children should never know that kind of petrified terror.
Who're you? The child's voice demanded in his mind. How come you can hear me? I ain't strong enough to project to you! Who are you?
Instead of telling him, the older man showed him. Images of the school, of all the children going to classes and chatting in the cafeteria and playing on the grounds, of the X-Men helping others and working with their powers. He could sense a weakening in the child's walls of icy mistrust, feel the boy weighing Xavier's words, considering them.
Is this an acceptable place to you?
I... I gotta talk to Moonshine and Eclipse, the boy said, uncertainty making him sound heartbreakingly young. They're in charge and I... I...
Xavier could feel the terror and exhaustion weighing on the poor child's mind. He sensed burdens the boy was unaccustomed to, trials he was unsure he was capable of facing. Something was very wrong over in Manhattan. The boy needed help, and quickly. But the girl...
Do you know a little girl who can fly? Charles asked. He was pretty sure they were together, perhaps brother and sister.
Sky Flower, the child replied softly. Worry tinged his voice, an undercurrent to his fear. She's sick. She went too far when they attacked us. She can't stop coughing. She's coughing up blood. And Dawn's leg is broken...
Who attacked you?
The robots, the boy whispered. They took Eclipse... but she escaped. She tried to find us, but she's hurt. I can feel it. Orion's looking for her. But we... we're lost. We just moved here...
Gently, ever so gently, so as not to frighten the boy, Charles murmured, What is your name?
New Moon. Will you help us? Please? Sky Flower is so sick...
Do not be afraid, Xavier murmured in the boy's mind. I will send my X-Men to help you. I promise. Hold on for a little longer, New Moon.
New Moon, exhausted and now stuck carrying Sky Flower, stumbled over his feet when Orion suddenly yelled, "Mommy! It's Mommy!" The other children – all eight of them – rounded the corner and staggered into the alley, where Eclipse sat on the concrete, her weight sagging against the wall. New Moon saw the busted lip and the black eye, and did his best not to start shooting off sparklers. Eclipse's hair hung in her face, the dull ash-white hair darkened with streaks of blackness that might have been mud or grease... or blood.
"Mama!" Crescent, from the circle of Night Thorn's arms, reached out with her chubby arms, squalling for her mother's embrace. But Eclipse wasn't moving.
What is wrong?
New Moon heard that familiar voice in his mind and immediately responded. Any adult was better than no adult. If someone could help Sky Flower and Eclipse, then even if they were a bad guy, everyone else could escape after their leader was back to normal. They'd always managed to escape before. Just because he was a kid, didn't mean he was stupid. They needed help, and New Moon was positive the man in his head could help them.
He just didn't know if it was safe to ask. But he let the man see anyway.
Try to wake her up, the telepathic voice commanded, but before New Moon could do anything, Sky Flower was stumbling forward to Eclipse's side and began tugging at the woman's arm.
"Mommy! Mommy, get up! Mommy, we gotta go! Come on, get up!"
Eclipse's eyes flickered open, and the first thing she saw was her daughter's too thin face, and the speckle of blood on Sky Flower's thin lips. Ignoring the agony in her body, Eclipse hauled herself to her feet, steadying herself with a hand on the wall. She hoped the children didn't see the bloody patch on the ground where she'd been sitting. They looked terrified. She did not wish to scare them any further.
Wondering how long she had before she simply couldn't go on any longer and fell in the middle of the street, unconscious, she took a step. Her leg shook, but she could manage. For a while. She had to – the children needed her.
"Roll call," Eclipse said softly. New Moon didn't like the breathy quality of her voice, but when her night-black eyes met his, he saw that she was still there, still Eclipse, still strong enough and aware enough to protect them all. "Crescent?" The mutant called.
"Crescent's here, Mom," Night Thorn replied, hefting the toddler.
"Me!" Six-year-old Dawn, carried by super strong Midna, waved weakly. Eclipse suddenly remembered that his leg was broken, and bit her lip, but didn't let the sudden stab of panic show. New Moon might've caught a flash of it, but she suppressed it enough that she doubted it.
"Midna's here, as well, then," Eclipse whispered, leaning against the wall. Her toes were starting to tingle with numbness. "And Luna, Star Fox, Orion-"
"I smelled you, Mommy!"
"Nightlight, too, I see," she whispered.
"Hi, Eclipse," the young Belle Braun, codename Nightlight, little glow-in-the-dark girl, nodded at her, still keeping an eye out for anymore Sentinels or any other potential threats.
"Daisy and Drake..." Sky Flower and Night Thorn groaned at their real names. "Where's your brother? Where's Moonshine?"
"We don't know, Eclipse," New Moon replied. "But help is coming. We just gotta keep moving, keep out of danger until they get here to us."
Nodding, hating the fact that he was right about keeping on the move and hating even more that she had to actually move around, she took her daughter's hand and sighed.
"Come on then. Let's get moving."
Remy LeBeau, better known as Gambit, strode down the halls of the basement headquarters of the X-Men as if he had far more important things to do, much more exciting people to see, and better places to be going to, than the door to the Cerebro Room to meet the Professor to talk about some mutants that might need their help.
But the truth was he didn't, because the only person he wanted to see was Rogue, who wouldn't speak to him or see him unless ordered onto a mission by the Professor. And the only place he wanted to be was in Rogue's room or his own room, or maybe the Rec Room, by the pool table, so he could shoot some pool and maybe forget about the untouchable woman walking around the mansion, killing him piece by piece. And the only things he wanted to be doing were kissing Rogue (which was not going to happen ever, unless she got some control over her powers), kissing someone else to forget about Rogue (which he knew from past experience was not going to work), getting so drunk he forget everything, including Rogue (which, unfortunately, always ended with him blowing something up because he'd lost control of his powers), or playing pool.
Nowhere in that incredibly short list of things to do did it even hint at the possibility of going on a mission that was going to rip his heart out because he'd be working with the one woman he couldn't touch and desperately wanted to.
So why was the Professor making him work with Rogue? Did Xavier think this was just a boy's crush, inconsequential and lacking any real feeling behind it? Did he think the pain and frustration coursing through Gambit's veins was just going to go away? And what about the others? Why hadn't Storm protested when the Professor had informed her of his plans for the Cajun? What about Beast? Didn't the big, blue Doc realize that Rogue's presence would ruin his concentration and endanger the team? Wolverine always doubted him – why hadn't the older mutant said something about it?
Or had they, and Xavier had just brushed them off?
He didn't know, and didn't really care. He just wanted one of them removed from the Field Team. Or to die. Or to go back into his room and fall asleep and wake up a couple weeks from now. Or get rip-roaring drunk and pass out from the hangover with a pillow over his head.
Moments after these pleasant thoughts passed through his mind, Gambit found the people he'd been assigned to work with for this mission – whatever the mission was.
Wolverine, an old friend and a half-rival, in that they ribbed each other all the time. Gambit knew better than to assume he could compete with Cyclops for Wolverine's animosity, however.
Beast, with his huge muscles that the Cajun envied and his penchant for spewing poetry and literary quotes, greeted Gambit with a friendly nod. Dr. Henry "Hank" McCoy had better things to do than pick fights with irritated Southern boys.
And Rogue, a sultry siren in hunter green and gold, with the gifts of angelic flight and godly strength, made him catch his breath. He hated that- the fact that she could still do that to him after all this time. He'd left the X-Men for a year, just to see if he could keep his breath when he saw her, the moment he got back. Every time, it hadn't happened. He still lost his breath when he saw her. And when he met her gorgeous eyes, his knees still buckled.
"What you want, Professor?" Gambit demanded.
"You all know the team called the Avengers, headquartered at the Stark Mansion in Manhattan. That mansion has been attacked by Sentinels. I know that the team itself is safe – they're capable of handling themselves until help arrives – but they had visitors. Children, with mutant powers. I do not know whether they meant to send the children to us eventually or not, but the Avengers might need our help. The children most definitely require assistance. I contacted a boy, New Moon, who said that their leader, Eclipse, was missing. Another of their group, a little girl named Sky Flower, is sick. Sick enough to worry a young boy – he says she's coughing blood. Another of their team, a boy named Dawn, has a broken leg. The children seem to believe they were the target of the Sentinel attack. I must send someone to them, and with Jean so sick and Cyclops so injured, I figured the best team to send would be you four."
"Ya think we're the best team?"
"Yes, Rogue, I do. A doctor, a charmer to soothe frightened mutants, a woman with enough power to protect children and enough maternal instinct to comfort them, and a warrior with enough bravura to impress young boys. So I suggest you hurry, before someone is critically injured, or worse."
There was a woman in the restaurant called Gianinni's who couldn't believe that vagabonds looking like that dared to walk down Main Street. Eclipse could've lived without that information, but New Moon thought she ought to know, in case the humans started causing problems. Eclipse had to wonder how humanity had come to the point where children looked at every stranger they saw and, because they were gifted with extraordinary powers, saw them only as potential threats. On a normal day, she might have chastised New Moon for not keeping a tighter leash on his telepathy, but as tired as he was, she knew he was doing the best he could. And after the job he'd done of getting most of the Blue Stars to safety, she figured he deserved a serious break.
She sincerely hoped he'd get a chance to take that serious break some time soon. Before they were all wiped out by anti-mutant homo sapiens or the government or X-Gene or something.
She also understood why the woman in Gianinni's was looking at them strangely. They looked like homeless waifs off the street. The group of children with her had clothes that Good Will wouldn't have taken if they were desperate. Blue jeans ripped to shreds and stained with blood, mud, and grease, the dirt smudges and cuts on their arms, knees, and faces made them look as if they'd slept on the streets for years. They were far too thin- a result of them being on the run for almost a year and only being able to take decent care of themselves for the last two weeks. Everyone looked filthy. Eclipse felt filthy, all the way down to the roots of her dull, ash-blond hair. She hated it, hated being so disgustingly dirty. Hated being caked with drying blood and mud. Hated how the still soaking wet, blood drenched pants she wore and chafed at her skin.
But she had more important things to worry about than dirt, grunge, and grime. More important things to worry about than her own pain and discomfort. She needed to get the kids to safety... somewhere.
Sky Flower was flagging, fading quickly. Her steps were dragging, her head nodding. If she weren't a possessor of super strength, the little girl probably would have passed out long ago. She had been the one to fly through the mansion, screaming the alert that Sentinels were attacking, flitting around to avoid being grabbed by the robotic mutant catchers. Her clothes showed the wear, covered in dirt and dark grease spots. Her pale face was bruised from where'd she been flung into walls and floors, ceilings and machinery. Her coughing had reached the point that her throat was scraped raw, and every time a shuddering hacking ripped through her thin frame, blood flecked her lips. Eclipse's heart shrank in her chest every time that cough broke the stillness.
New Moon wasn't complaining, but then, before joining the Celestials, he'd been a member of a child street gang whose leader rewarded complaining with beatings and starvation punishment. A year attached to a kinder, much gentler team hadn't broken the thirteen-year-old of his reticent habits or his attitude of "if it's not killing you, you can't complain about it." Probably, Eclipse reflected, the scruffy, dark-skinned boy was thanking his stars that he still had shoes on his feet, clothes on his back (regardless of their condition) and an adult to take care of him who wouldn't beat him, no matter what was going on. No matter that they were on the run from X-Gene, and that they were all in desperate need of assistance.
Night Thorn, her little stalwart trooper, wasn't complaining, either. In fact, he was doing everything in his power to keep his friends, his sister, and his mother from losing hope. How he could keep smiling and talking about inconsequential, cheerful little nothings even as he stumbled over his own feet in his weariness amazed her. How did he keep going? She knew he was struggling – every time light touched him, he gasped in pain and shied away, usually stumbling as the light sapped what little strength from him he had left. Eclipse had absolutely no idea how she had managed to conceive, carry, and bear the precious infant that had grown up into this amazing little boy.
Crescent, with the incredible resilience and vitality of a toddler, was fast asleep in her older brother's arms. Eclipse had to resist the urge to touch the cap of silky blond curls that carried a softness unique to three-year-olds. How had something so disgusting, horrendous, and ugly created something so angelic? Something that gave a hurting, exhausted Eclipse the strength to keep walking, one foot in front of the other?
Luna was only managing to keep up because seven-year-old Midna was carrying her. Super strength came in handy. Right now, Sky Flower wasn't carrying anyone because her sickness was pulling at her strength, and it was quickly running out. She needed it all for herself. The milk-white girl carrying Luna didn't have that problem. Midna seemed not to be having any trouble carrying her sister and keeping up with the grueling pace Eclipse was forced to set. In fact, Midna was the only person not having any trouble. She was also the only person who wasn't injured in at least some way. After all, her job in the Mansion had been to round up Crescent and Luna in case there was ever an attack. A three- and four-year-old were of no use in a fight, but Eclipse couldn't guarantee they wouldn't get hurt. So, Midna had been assigned to collect them. She had, and they'd escaped unscathed. It was getting under the fence of someone else's yard that had inflicted the deep, now infected scrapes on Luna's back. The little girl was so exhausted she didn't even care. She was fast asleep in Midna's arms.
Orion stayed beside Eclipse. As much as she hated it, she needed the little boy's sharp senses to help her flagging ones detect any dangers. She would not let any of her children come to harm. Not again, not after all they'd been through. But because Orion was terrified of the dark, Star Fox and Belle also stayed beside him. Those three were such troopers. How could the kids have gotten this far without them?
Lastly, there was Dawn. Dawn, whose constant questions about his mother were starting to break down through Eclipse's guard, making her want to cry. Heaven, Dawn's mother, had been separated from them during the attack. Eclipse had no idea where she was. But the injured boy she carried on her back didn't understand that. And Dawn wasn't doing too well physically, either. Eclipse was being forced to carry him, which wasn't helping her stamina at all. She could barely feel her hands and feet anymore, despite the shadow bindings she'd wrapped around herself. And that irritating, wet tickle in the back of her throat was constant now.
She was so tired... and her mind felt stuffy and cobwebby, her skull filled with glass shards. Her telepathy wouldn't respond to her commands at this point. Once the pain in her head subsided, she might be able to use her power to find the others... if she was still alive by then. For a moment, she thought about just dropping onto the pavement, telling the children to stop where they were. Everyone needed a break. But they had no choice but to keep moving. Sky Flower coughed blood. Luna had infected scrapes. Night Thorn's skin was marred with first-degree burns. Everyone but Midna was hurt, and Dawn... the seven-year-old boy's leg was fractured in three different places. Eclipse was no doctor, so she didn't exactly know how to deal with that. She just did the best she could and hoped that no infection or anything else she definitely couldn't handle wouldn't set in.
Wolverine stared out the window of the Blackbird, wondering what he was doing, still running missions for the Professor. He was way, way too old for something crazy like this. At his age, he ought to be suffering from things like arthritis and rheumy eyes, or jeez, even dead. Instead, he could heal any injury and slip open anything with his ice-cold adamantium claws. He could rescue the girl, defeat the bad guy, and make it home in time for some of the excellent cooking they offered as a bonus to the X-Men who lived at the Mansion.
But he never ended up with the girl. After all, Yuriko had left him for what he'd done to her father. Heather was married to Vindicator – not that the pompous, egg-sucking scumbag deserved a brilliant lady like that. Shadow Cat was with Colossus, and Wolverine was happy for the couple. And Rogue, well... as much as the sight of her looking so depressed broke his heart, he knew that the little Southern spitfire's heart belonged to the card-throwing Cajun from Louisiana. And he had no business interfering with Rogue's love life, even if his heart did ache for her and that sad expression she always wore.
And Jean... Jean.
Jean Grey was happily married off to the one-eyed laser-beam shooter with the chip on his shoulder a mile high. Cyclops and Jean were happy together. Jean was pregnant, for crying out loud. And even though Wolverine wanted to rip that red-eyed jerk's head off for even thinking about putting his hands or anything else near Jean Grey, he knew that the grief and tears in Jean's eyes if he did would damn him to hell forever. So instead, he focused on the fact that even though Scott had violently protested, Jean had made Wolverine the godfather to their unborn daughter, Rachel, and how much that meant to him. How much it eased the pain in his chest when he thought about Cyclops and Jean together. Thinking about Rachel Summers, who'd have her mom's gorgeous red hair and beautiful, cobalt blue eyes, made everything a little easier to take.
And so it was because he ought to be at the Mansion, cooling his heels and waiting around for Rachel to be born, that he was starting to second-guess his commitment to the X-Men. He owed the Professor everything, and no way in Hell was Rogue going anywhere without him to keep an eye on her. Same for Jubilee, whenever she got thrown out again on a mission for the Professor. But as Cyclop's recent injuries – fractured skull, shattered femur, broken ribs, cracked sternum – indicated, someone had to be around in case the laser-shooting mutant finally bit the dust and left Jean and Rachel alone. He considered the unborn girl his own daughter – forget that half her chromosomes belonged to his rival. She was Jean's daughter. Therefore, she was his. And he wasn't sure a father ought to be taking the kind of risks he was taking with these missions these days.
After all, he was getting kind of slow.
Besides, it wasn't like he was ever going to be able to bring home any of the girls he managed to save. He never got the girl, and every time he had a brush with a beautiful damsel in distress, it was another needle into his heart. Cyclops had once said that not everyone healed as fast as Wolverine.
Sometimes, Wolverine didn't heal that fast, either.
Eclipse had no idea how long she and the children had been wandering the streets of Manhattan, but it felt like a million years. She didn't have a watch, and she hadn't known the time when they'd attacked the Mansion. But the sadness eating at her was like acid in her mouth. The Avengers Mansion was supposed to have been safe. Doctor Banner had sworn that the Avengers' headquarters would be the long-awaited sanctuary for herself and her team, including the children who longed for a normal life. And for a while, it had been a safe haven for the Celestials.
Until tonight. Tonight, All Hallow's Eve, Halloween. And they hadn't picked October 31st for Satanic purposes, she knew. She knew exactly why they'd picked that night: the children had stayed up late trick-or-treating, and had only been in bed for a couple of hours before the attack had hit. They'd been exhausted already – now they were barely capable of putting one foot in front of the other. And there was no nearby place to lay their heads down and rest.
If things couldn't get any worse, they were wandering around, lost on the streets. They'd only come to Manhattan a couple weeks before. That wasn't enough time to become acquainted with the area. The only reason they'd even managed to escape was due to the fact that Moonshine had insisted they look for and provide escape routes and bolt holes for themselves, places to hide in case the mansion was ever attacked. Eclipse had been inclined to listen to the eight-year-old, but it had been one of those rare occasions when her lieutenants – Twilight, Heaven, and Daystar – had been willing to actually follow his advice. Unfortunately, their hiding places and hidden exits had been confined to the mansion grounds. They had no extra plans for when they managed to make it out of the place.
Well... perhaps Moonshine had thought that far ahead. Her son had a habit of thinking of things she never would have. That was why she treated him as an equal and often went to him for advice, despite his young age. But that was the second worst thing about what was going on – the Celestials had become separated in the craziness. And the only person who'd really had the time and inclination – due to his habit of disappearing all the time when wanted for lessons – for exploring the surrounding city was Moonshine, and the boy wasn't here now. She had to wonder where he was. He was only a boy, far too young to be all by himself in the dark of the night, all alone on the streets, with no one to take care of him...
Two of the children were missing – two, out of twelve. One of them, Sunbeam, was only a baby. He wouldn't have been part of the team, if he didn't just happen to be the physically mutated baby of two adult mutants. But Eclipse couldn't guarantee that Sunbeam was with his parents, where he'd be at least somewhat safe. She couldn't guarantee that Sunbeam was not with Moonshine, and having an infant with an eight-year-old was not exactly the most comforting idea right then. Hell, most of the members of the Celestials being all alone on the street while being hunted by Sentinels wasn't a comforting idea. There wasn't a one of them over the age of twenty-five. They were just kids themselves, really.
Didn't matter to X-Gene and whoever else was chasing after them, though. They were still being hunted, and they were still in danger of being killed. She wasn't going to let anything bad happen to her team, not if she could help it. It was her job as their leader to keep the Celestials safe from humans and mutants and disasters alike. But it didn't matter tonight. Tonight, somehow, they'd been found out and attacked and separated and now they were all vulnerable. And if the help New Moon was promising didn't arrive, she knew they'd all eventually die.
Unacceptable. But without outside assistance, unavoidable.
Ignoring the nagging thoughts of fear, shoving them into that little compartment in the back of her mind that kept her from panicking at inopportune moments, she focused on something else instead. That would be the question: where were they going to hide out now? Where could they go?
Rogue stared at the ceiling of the X-Men's high-speed jet, hating everything and hating herself for hating everything. It wasn't the Professor's fault her life was falling into pieces. It wasn't anyone's fault that Emma Frost's telepathic therapy sessions with Rogue and Gambit hadn't worked, and it wasn't anyone's fault (except Gambit's) that the Cajun had told her he was going to give her space and then up and disappeared like a ghost for no reason. It wasn't anyone's fault that he'd come back, still capable of killing her inside, piece by agonizing piece. And it wasn't anyone's fault that they were stuck on this mission together.
But she still wanted to give Xavier a good, hard slap across the face. Maybe zap him a little, so he'd definitely feel it, and remember the emotion behind it. Hurt. Anger. Confusion. What was the telepath's deal, anyway? Was he trying to make her upset? Was he trying to throw her biggest failures back in her face?
Because her biggest failures were two people: Gambit and Wolverine. After all, it was Wolverine who'd come to her, to comfort her when Gambit ran off. It was Wolverine who'd made the conscious choice to ask Professor Xavier, Sage, and the Empress Lilandra to amplify his powers, so that he could control his healing at will. It was Wolverine who'd convinced Sage to evolve Rogue's powers so that she could control – for a few precious moments – the sucking power that ate everyone who touched her. It was Wolverine who had given Rogue her first real, adult, perfect kiss. It was Wolverine who had done everything in his power to give her the one thing she needed: a shoulder to cry on. But it was not Wolverine that she was in love with, and she hadn't been able to fall in love with him just because she could touch him, skin to skin (for all of five short minutes).
As for Gambit... she didn't want to go there. She didn't want to think about how much his disappearance had killed her. She'd rather focus on the expansive Saint Peters' Gardens as they began descending towards the earth. She didn't want to think about how kissing Gambit, holding him, loving him, had been like arsenic pills in her mouth whenever the dreams had plagued her. She didn't want to think about Gambit at all.
She needed to focus on the mission.
"Mommy, I'm tired," Sky Flower mumbled, brushing at her ebony hair. "Can I float? My feet hurt."
Before Eclipse could respond, Night Thorn replied, "No, Sky. Some normal people might see you and know who we are. We just gotta go a little further and everything will be fine. We've got a nice, safe place to go, we just have to get there."
The eight-year-old boy scrubbed at his dirty cheek. She could see the tears on his face, smearing the dirt into mud and grinding it into the cuts on his face. As exhausted as he was, she knew how hard it was to keep up the facade he always did his best to maintain. Night Thorn was too young to be like that, a steadfast little warrior doing his best to protect his family. It wasn't fair to any of them... but X-Gene had twisted almost all of her children into these heartbreaking caricatures of adults.
One day, she'd kill every member of X-Gene. She'd strangle them with the shadows of their own bodies, cut them apart with their own internal darkness. If she lived long enough to get out of this mess.
"Where are we going, Eclipse?" Dawn asked. Sighing, Eclipse wondered what to do, what to say. Or whether or not she would say anything at all, since she didn't have an answer for the little boy.
Headlights washed over them as cars went by. The dull, gray beams of light drifted over and past them, illuminating them in the darkness between the streetlights. She could tell the little beams were struggling to penetrate the shroud of darkness she'd pulled up around them all to keep them shadowed. It was the best she could do in her condition, exhausted and in pain. She hated being so weak. She hated this whole thing.
"Saint Peters' Gardens," Orion whispered. "Smells safe."
"Safe?" New Moon asked, voice bitter. "What's that mean?" Stunned by the bitterness in the teenager's voice, Eclipse reached out and gripped his shoulder gently. When he looked at her, tears threatening to spill over and run down his cheeks like a flood, Eclipse squeezed. He knew what she meant – everything would be all right.
"Mommy!" Night Thorn cried, his voice a hoarse and terrified whisper. He clutched her bad leg, pointing at a beam of brilliant white light coming towards them. "Sentinel!"
With barely a thought, Eclipse grabbed Sky Flower and Star Fox and hustled them behind a large hedgerow. It was scant protection, but it was the best she could do. She carried Dawn on her back, since his broken leg kept him from walking on his own. She knew she didn't need to worry about Night Thorn – he kept one hand on the hem of her sweater the whole time as they rushed into the darkness. The others managed to scuttle after her. Pressing them against the rough, cold, dew-wet hedge, she held her breath as the beam passed the alleyway entry by. She let her breath out, but didn't allow them to sink down to the icy ground until minutes had gone by without a robotic voice ordering them to halt and be captured.
"Mommy... when can we stop?" Sky Flower begged, falling flat onto the street despite the trash littering the ground. The girl was gasping for breath.
"Can we stop here for tonight, Mom?" Night Thorn asked calmly, swiping at the sweat dripping down his forehead. "You and I can make it safe, can't we? Make it somewhere we can hide, can't we? I don't think Sky and Dawn can go much longer."
She absently stroked her son's hair, trying to think of what to do. Night Thorn was absolutely right, the girl and the younger boy weren't going to last much longer. They weren't used to this kind of thing. Even she wasn't used to this kind of thing anymore. She was getting too old, she suspected. Well... maybe not too old. Too exhausted, rather. Too beat up, too worn out.
But that didn't matter. She could keep going if she needed to, for the children.
But the children couldn't keep going for her. They were far too young, they weren't trained to be warriors. They weren't even supposed to have super powers, much less fight with them. How were they going to survive this?
And why had she allowed this? Why had she let the Celestials fall into that trap of complacency? It was because she'd allowed a feeling of safety to wash over them while they'd been staying at the Avengers' Mansion. The bolt holes and escape routes were Moonshine's idea, not theirs. They should have kept their guard up, should have considered the possibility of a night attack, should have stayed in a more secure, less conspicuous place. Now they were in trouble.
"And we're down," Hank McCoy said. "Time to disembark."
Ignoring the grumbling of his other three teammates, the blue-furred mutant strode down the ramp and into the lush vernality of Saint Peters' Gardens. What a gorgeous piece of wilderness, this. Hank reached over and gently touched a soft, peach-colored rose.
" 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,' "
"Not true," a voice cried, quickly muffled. Hank looked around, puzzled. Now what in the world? But he saw no one except for his three comrades. Bewildered, the gargantuan scientist turned to Wolverine, who suddenly sniffed the air and whispered, "Mutants. Kids. One woman. And blood. Lots and lots of blood. And listen! Whispering."
"What the crap were you thinking, Midna?" Night Thorn hissed, his hand around his sister's mouth. "They could be bad guys!"
"We're not," a voice to their right replied, and the children cried out. Eclipse surged forward, almost falling as her entire body screamed at her. She reached out to attack with sparks and shadows when New Moon yelled, "No! Eclipse, they're here to help!"
Eclipse stared up at the four people in front of her. The youngest of them was several years older than she was. Her instinctive and immediate distrust of strangers and "adults" kicked in. She almost attacked. Almost. Primed to retaliate, she glared sullenly at the strangers, unsure what to say. Unsure if she could even speak without rasping, slurring, or screaming. Her entire body throbbed, one giant piece of hurt. But before she was forced to make a decision, the one with blue fur stepped forward. The moment it spoke, she realized it was male.
Her mind screamed ENEMY!
"My name is-"
Before Beast could finish introducing himself, the young woman crouched on the ground in front of him gave a strangled cry and moved, herding the children with her backwards, away from the X-Men. Her terrified whimpers seemed almost unconscious, as if she didn't herself realize the extent of her fear. The children were glancing back and forth between her and them.
"Lady," Wolverine began, and a little girl staggered to stand in front of the frightened woman, throwing up her fists. "Kid, ya don't know what yer doin'."
"I got super strength," the little girl snapped. "And I can fly - oof!" The woman grabbed the child and forced her behind her.
Gambit tried to step forward, but the woman twisted her hands and seemed to throw a spike of blackness at Gambit, who easily dodged.
"What's wrong, cher?"
"Stop!" Rogue yelled, interposing herself between the three men and the frightened group. "Don't be afraid. We ain't gonna hurt ya. Ah'm Rogue. Ah'm one of the X-Men-"
"X-Men?" The oldest boy there cried. "Eclipse," he said, turning to the woman. "Eclipse, it's the X-Men. That man who contacted me, he must have sent them. It's okay, they won't hurt us." He got to his feet with difficulty, and then leaned down and helped the woman to her feet as well. He stayed by her side, hovering protectively as she gave them all a piercing, fearful stare.
"Are you Eclipse?" Beast asked. The woman nodded. "And these children?" He asked. At that, the teenage boy at the woman's side took over. Jerking his thumb at his chest, he said, "I'm New Moon. The girl with the big mouth is Midna, and the girl with super strength who can fly is Sky Flower. The kid holding Eclipse's hand is Star Fox. Next to him is Orion and Nightlight, and-"
"I'm Luna!" They saw a little girl with black hair and golden eyes waddle over and then carefully sit down on the grass. She looked up at the four X-Men and said, carefully, "I'm four." She held up a hand to make sure they knew exactly how many four was. "And Crescent asleeping," she added, pointing at a toddler in a young boy's arms. "Dat's Night Thorn. He's my bruffer. Dis my Mommy." She pointed at Eclipse.
"Are you gonna help us?" Night Thorn, the boy holding the sleeping toddler, demanded. "Are you gonna find everyone else?"
"Everyone else, mon ami?" Gambit asked gently. He took a step closer, and Eclipse jumped as if slapped. The Cajun stopped moving, holding his hands up in the universal gesture of "no harm." Gambit continued, "Who else?"
"Moonshine," Sky Flower said. "My brother. And the other grown ups."
"My Mommy," a little boy lying in the grass sobbed. "I want my Mommy! Where is she?"
Reaching into a pocket, Eclipse pulled out a worn, somewhat bent up photograph. It was portrait sized, but it wasn't a portrait. It was a group photo. It looked like a family photo, at least a year old. Twelve children, and nine adults. And only one of those adults and ten of those children were in front of the X-Men now.
"Ah'll get everyone settled on the Blackbird," Rogue said before anyone could issue any orders. "Beast can make sure none of 'em are hurt. We'll meet up with you boys later. All right?"
Eclipse could barely keep her eyes open anymore. All the children were sleeping, curled up under blankets with pillows on the floor of the great airplane that the Celestials had mistaken for a Sentinel. Only Sky Flower, New Moon, and Dawn still lay awake. The great, hulking mutant with blue fur was setting the broken bones in Dawn's leg. Hating being so close to a male, Eclipse nonetheless let the little boy squeeze her hand until the bones creaked as the bones were being set. Afterwards, Tall-Blue-and-Furry gave Dawn some baby aspirin. After examining Sky Flower, with Eclipse keeping a watchful, wary eye on him, the blue man gave her daughter something for her cough, and a mug of weak chamomile tea. Only she and New Moon were the only ones still fully awake, despite their exhaustion.
"I don't wanna sleep," New Moon replied to the look Eclipse leveled at him. "Not if you're gonna sleep."
"You can both sleep," the blue one said. Eclipse ignored him, focusing on New Moon. Even as she watched, his head nodded, and he jerked. It nodded again, and he jerked. There was a bigger pause between nodding off and jerking awake the second time. The third time, he didn't wake.
Eclipse allowed herself a little smile.
"Are you injured?" The furred one asked. Eclipse spared him a glance. He seemed gentle enough, but she didn't trust him. She trusted no man. Even the Cajun with the eyes like red diamonds. Even the furry blue man.
"Yer the one bleedin'," a new voice said. She turned and saw the one whom Sky Flower had thought to take on with her super strength, sniffing the air as she had seen Orion do. "Yer bleedin' bad. And ya smell like musk."
He knew! He knew what had happened to her...
Anger surging through her veins, Eclipse lunged to her feet... for about ten seconds. And then she fell, out cold. She didn't hear everyone's cries of surprise, or feel the strong arms catching her limp form before she could hit the cold, hard floor. She didn't hear the bitter, grief-filled voice whispering, "Cherie, cherie, why you say not'ing to Gambit?" She didn't reply. She only lay unconscious and unmoving in his arms as the blood continued to seep from the stab wound in her back and from the raw, violated flesh between her thighs, soaking her already saturated clothes.