See previous disclaimers.
Once he had cared what happened to him. Once he had fought the haze that numbed his mind and limbs. And after he had forgotten why he needed to fight, the vague memory of something different was enough to sustain him.
Now there was nothing but white walls and emptiness and pain.
* * *
Kitty stared at her physics homework and closed her eyes. "Sha-zam!" she intoned, waving her hands dramatically. She peeked at it again. The problem sheet still lay there, its depressing blankness emphasized by the dark wood of her desk.
"Ohh," Kitty moaned, and sank through her chair to collapse on the floor in a heap. I can't deal with this today, she thought. While normally she enjoyed physics, her love of the subject had been somewhat dampened in the last few months. She shuddered at the memory of her last test. She had known the material perfectly – and had still received a C. The teacher, when she could not fault Kitty's answers, removed points for "sloppiness" and "unclear interpretation of the problem." Kitty had not missed the look of revulsion that had crossed her teacher's face and had deliberately walked out of the classroom through the wall rather than the door.
She had used to like her physics professor.
Kitty massaged her forehead slowly. It was hard to be enthusiastic about a class where her grade dropped just for walking into the room. Briefly she wondered why she bothered – it wasn't as if a college would accept a mutant student. She shook that thought away. She would continue to learn because she liked it, and who cared what anyone else thought.
Much to everyone's surprise, Kitty had taken the loss of their secrecy rather well. Perversely, it had taken the rejection of her classmates, rather than the acceptance she had craved, to teach her the simple truth – that her situation was not her fault. That it wasn't a fault at all, just a fact. She was a mutant. She would always be a mutant. Those who hated and condemned her for it were simply bigoted and afraid. It was all the lessons Professor Xavier had taught them from the beginning, but now she understood them. In ways that she herself failed to realize, she was growing up.
So Kitty Pryde largely ignored the snubs and insults from the other students. It wasn't as if she was popular before, she told herself fiercely. In a way, she pitied Jean, who stood to lose so much more. Jean had almost lost her position on the girl's soccer team before the team decided, reluctantly, that there was no one who could take her place. Principal Kelly had been one of the strongest opponents of her continued position. Kitty thought that it was like, major un-cool that her own principal was so openly anti-mutant.
Just because she was growing up did not mean she had stopped being a freshman valley girl. And as a typical fifteen-year-old girl, her mind quickly leaped from the rather depressing topic of her physics class to the equally problematic but far more interesting subject known as Lance Alvers.
She couldn't help it, really. Just the fact that he was a senior and interested in her was enough to fully engage her interest. Add in the factors of their history together and their status on opposite sides of the mutant war, and it was a sure bet that Lance was never far from her thoughts for very long.
Contrary to popular belief, Kitty wasn't entirely naïve. She understood that when most older guys started looking around to date someone younger, it wasn't because of intellectual interest. She knew that Scott had had more than one "conversation" with Lance on that very topic – Scott was very overprotective of the younger X-Men. For a little while, Kitty had deceived herself into believing that his over protectiveness was a cover-up for deeper feelings, but she realized the silliness of that idea now. Scott had always belonged to Jean – whether or not the older girl chose to acknowledge it.
Without any warning, Kitty's mind had slipped to the problem of Scott and Jean. Jean insisted on remaining with Duncan Matthews, and while Kitty had to agree that he was popular and good-looking and an extremely good catch, she couldn't help but feel sorry for Scott. His feelings for the redheaded telepath were common knowledge, both inside and outside the Institute.
As she contemplated the sticky situation, her eye fell on a wilted flower on her desktop. It was from the corsage Lance had given her at the Sadie Hawkins dance. She wondered why she still had it.
Lance, she thought with a start. She had been thinking about Lance, and gotten distracted. This seemed to happen very frequently. Once more the dark-haired senior filled her thoughts. I know he was a total jerk to me at first, she thought, her mind slipping into the worn, tired paths she had been over a thousand times before. I know the others don't think he's good for me. But he says he cares about me and sounds like he means it. He did go to the dance with me –
Gosh, the dance. It had been wonderful until those creatures showed up. She had been so angry at Forge and Kurt after she learned that they had unwittingly unleashed the beasts. Why couldn't they have waited to experiment just one more night? It had been totally creepy, those huge red dinosaur creatures popping out of nowhere. Idly she considered doing something really nasty to Kurt to get back at him for it.
It was happening again! She glanced at the corsage and remembered her original train of thought. Why couldn't she manage to hold a thought about Lance in her head? What was keeping her from resolving the situation?
This couldn't be her imagination – it had been going on for weeks, maybe more. Kitty was literally unable to think about Lance for prolonged periods of time. It was almost like a voice inside her head, distracting her. Sometimes she almost thought she could hear words, telling her to stay away.
Kitty frowned. It was definitely time to talk to Jean.
* * *
Jean was not open to talking.
Admittedly, phasing through Jean's door without so much as a knock and accidentally walking through the phone line while she was talking to Duncan was not the greatest conversation starter. Still, Jean could have been a bit nicer about the whole thing.
"…try to have a little respect for others' privacy. If my door is locked, it means that you shouldn't walk right in!" Jean ranted. Kitty stared at her feet and tried to look properly apologetic. Idly she considered Jean's last statement. In how many houses would that even be a problem? The Institute had accustomed her to the strangest things…
Jean finally ran out of words and simply glared at the younger girl. Kitty seized her chance. "Jean, I'm like, really sorry, but this is important!"
"What is so important that you have disregarded all common courtesy?" Jean snapped. Kitty glowered. She was starting to get a little angry herself. For goodness sake, it had been an accident!
Jean noticed Kitty's look and sighed. The Professor counted on her to be a role model for the younger students, and here she was screaming at Kitty. She attempted to modulate her voice. "Look, Kitty, it's been a long day. I'm sorry. What did you want?"
Kitty hesitated. The problem seemed so clear in her mind, but she didn't know how to say it. "Umm…can I come in?" she asked, stalling.
Jean looked annoyed, but she let Kitty pass. Kitty sat on the bed as Jean closed the door and waited for her to begin talking. Kitty decided to just say it.
"I can't think about Lance." She winced immediately. That had sounded so stupid! Judging by the expression on Jean's face, she agreed.
"You can't think about Lance." The flat statement said clearly that Jean felt she was wasting her time. "Kitty, you interrupted my phone call because you wanted to talk about Lance?" She was starting to get angry again. Didn't Kitty get it? Duncan was her one key to normalcy, and if she didn't act like a proper girlfriend to him she would lose it.
"No, that's not it! Well, that's not really it – it's sort of about Lance but mostly it's just -" Kitty composed herself and started again. "Whenever I try to work out my…situation with Lance, or even think about him, I get distracted. No, listen to me!" she cried, seeing Jean's incredulous look. "It's been going on for months. I think about him and then I notice something else, and he just disappears from my head, like someone took him out of it!"
Jean took a deep breath. I will not yell at her again, I will not yell at her again, she repeated to herself. Then Kitty's final words fully registered in her brain. "Like someone took him out of it!" Her eyes widened, and Kitty leaped at her opportunity.
"You do believe me! What's going on, Jean?" she demanded.
No, Jean thought. It couldn't be. "No," she said aloud. Kitty's face fell. "You must be imagining it."
Kitty's face was the picture of indignation. "I am not imagining it! Sometimes I can almost hear a voice inside my head, and then I forget all about Lance for a while. It's like there's someone in my he –"
Jean cut her off. "You're imagining it," she said forcefully, if a little desperately. Kitty's words had left her very uneasy. "Now go away and stop bothering me with nonsense." With a few more protests, Kitty left, affronted. Jean buried her head in her hands.
It was just the timing, that was all. There was a reasonable explanation for why Kitty's story seemed so similar to the way she kept forgetting why she had ever been upset with the Professor. That it came on top of Rogue's warning was just bad timing. It was the combination of these things that made her uneasy, not anything concrete.
"Just imagination," she whispered. She wondered that if she said it enough, she would start to believe it.
* * *
Professor Xavier sat back at his desk and sighed. Feeding and housing this many teenagers was difficult, and his financial backers for the school had withheld their donations "for the time being", they claimed. He still possessed his considerable personal fortune and several profitable investments, but he couldn't count on that forever.
Deciding he needed a break, the Professor cast his mind out over the town, seeking the ties he had to his students. He noted with irritation that Evan and Kurt were fighting again. He firmly doused them with the mental equivalent of a cold bath, then did the same to their opponents. Both parties slowly backed away from each other. Satisfied, he moved on.
Scott was upset about something – a test, perhaps? He probed further. No, it was an earlier essay assignment. He frowned. Really, didn't Scott listen to anything he said? It was unworthy of an X-man to dwell on insignificant matters. The essay would hardly matter in the future. It was only a matter of time until mutants were accepted.
Still, that didn't mean that he should let his students be exploited in the meantime. He sought out Scott's teacher and instilled a small sense of guilt in her head. It wouldn't be long before it overwhelmed her and she decided that she had been wrong. Scott would be happy to know that the Professor was right and life would improve someday, and an influential teacher would begin to rethink mutant rights. He smiled, pleased at the thought.
He sorted through his mental ties to touch Jean, Kitty, and Rogue. Rogue's mind was always difficult to read, but he could sense enough to know that she was all right. Kitty's problems were easy to set aside. He pitied his young charges, in a way – they were so young, they had no idea how to deal with problems that had such simple solutions. How fortunate they were to have someone older and wiser to guide them through their teenage years. He wished someone had done the same for him when he was younger.
Jean was worried about Duncan again. The Professor wondered if he'd done the right thing, convincing the boy to continue dating her. He had hoped that Duncan's popularity would improve the mutant-human relationships at the school, but now Jean clung to it with a desperation that was a bit troubling. Eventually, he would have to teach her not to rely on others for self-worth, but for now he would allow the relationship to continue. He could always change his mind later.
The Brotherhood boys were the hardest to reach, as he had only limited interaction with them. He listened enough to be sure that they were doing nothing dangerous or illegal before moving on.
Lastly, he cast his mind in the direction of Magneto's warehouse. He knew all about Magneto's plans for an army – while Magneto himself could conceal his presence from Cerebro, his followers could not. Their training, while impressively thorough, was not enough to cause him to worry. There were hardly enough of them, for one thing. If he ever believed they were a threat, he would pass on an anonymous tip to the police about a mutant training facility. Of course, he would make sure everyone knew that the tip came from another mutant. Anything to better his cause.
At that last thought, Xavier had an idea. He reached out to instill the same sense of guilt that he had used on Scott's teacher in the minds of his former financial backers. After all, he thought to himself, it was all for the students' good.
* * *
Wanda stalked down the hallways of Bayville High, ignoring the strange and fearful looks she was getting. The pathetic fools didn't even know she was a mutant – they judged her completely from her exotic clothing and dirty appearance. She sneered nastily at one in passing and took some satisfaction in the way he jumped back.
She growled as she turned a corner. This was getting her nowhere. The halls were nearly empty, as school had let out hours ago. The only people left were the ones involved in sports, drama, or band. She had hoped to find a member of the Brotherhood here, perhaps hanging out at cheerleading practice, but she had found no one. Abruptly she decided to take matters into her own hands.
The next person she saw was a skinny girl leaving the bathroom. Wanda swooped up and grabbed her by the shirt. "You. Do you know Lance Alvers?"
The girl looked terrified. Wanda realized that in her fury, the lockers had begun to shake. She calmed down slightly and demanded, "Well?"
"Lance…he's one of the mutants, isn't he?" the girl stammered. Wanda glared furiously and shook the girl hard.
"Slime like you shouldn't breathe the same air as mutants, if that's all you care about. Tell me where he is!"
"But I don't know!" cried the girl. She was still scared, but a bit of defensive anger began to come into her eyes. "And what gives you the right to say that to me?"
Wanda smiled coldly, and her aura flared blue around her – a blatant display of her power. "That does." The girl quailed.
"I don't know, exactly, but I've heard that he and the other mutants hang out in the old car lot – my parents told me not to go down there – " Wanda released the girl with a shove. It disgusted her to be in contact with someone so pathetic.
"Hey!" the girl shouted as Wanda stalked off. She hardly noticed. If she couldn't get a reaction out of Pietro, perhaps his friends could.
* * *
A fly buzzed lazily though the air in the old junkyard. A snap echoed through the air as Todd halfheartedly pursued it with his tongue. He missed, but it hardly mattered. Todd's attitude about the "outing" of mutants had progressed from shock to elation to fury in the last few months; these days he hovered between anger and apathy. This was one of the apathetic days.
Who cared if he couldn't catch a fly now? Thanks to Cue Ball's money, he no longer needed to eat them. Now that the Brotherhood and the X-freaks had called a ceasefire, improving his accuracy with his tongue didn't matter anymore. In fact, nothing really matters anymore, he thought glumly. What am I supposed to do after high school? Can't get into college anyway, no one will hire a mutant when there's plenty of "normal" people wanting jobs…I never had much of a future, but this one is even crappier than I expected.
He was jolted out of his comfortably familiar depressing thoughts by a huge hand shaking his shoulder. The gesture was not meant to be violent, but his body flailed back and forth all the same. "Jeez, Freddy! What was that for?" he cried, getting his wind back and rebalancing himself on the rusted hood of a car.
"Stop doing that," Fred answered shortly.
"Doing what? Man, I was just sitting here," Todd whined, but his voice trailed off when Fred glared at him.
"You know what."
Todd muttered furiously to himself but didn't retaliate. He did know what Fred was talking about. The big mutant had an uncanny sense of when Todd was wallowing in self-pity and seemed to consider it his civic duty to stop him. Fred believed that brooding wouldn't solve any problem, and while Todd agreed, he still insisted that a good tantrum could make a person feel a whole lot better. Of course, neither of them had actually said all that – as a rule, Fred spoke as little as possible and Todd only talked about things that were of no consequence – but they knew it just the same. Theirs was an odd friendship, but it suited them.
Lance shifted to a more comfortable position. He lay flat on his back on the roof of an old Ford, taking pleasure in not having to think for a moment. Lazily he echoed Fred. "He's right. You sulk enough for all three of us."
"Just 'cause I'm the only one who knows what's going on here doesn't mean I sulk too much, yo!" Todd exclaimed. Lance, too warm and sleepy to continue the argument, made a rude gesture in Todd's general direction and closed his eyes again.
But his pleasant afternoon had been spoiled by Todd's comment. Todd was wrong. Lance knew perfectly well that all three of them had rather unpleasant lives to look forward to. He was actually surprised that widespread lynching of mutants was not already commonplace. Todd knew that, of course – they had all come to terms with the harsh realities of life a long time ago.
Don't think about it, he advised himself. Just relax…Kitty's face passed before his closed eyes, and he flinched away from the fresh wound. He should have known that she was too preppy, too…X-men to want anything to do with him. Don't think about that either.
Lance had almost drifted into a doze when he heard a yelp from the nearby car. This was too common an occurrence to bother him, but Todd's voice held a different note in it then usual. It sounded surprised and a little…frightened? Frowning, Lance opened his eyes and sat up.
He was rudely confronted by Wanda's blazing dark stare.
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