Jubilee spit them both with her most withering glower, but the expression was lost on them.
Ugh, being the "cool" grown-up totally sucks when I actually need to punish someone.
Yana sat up straight, her arms folded beneath her breast. She lifted her chin in indignation, crossed her long legs, and turned her back as much as she could to Quentin Quire while still facing Jubilee across her desk. Quentin, for his part, slumped in his chair. His face was smudged with soot, his clothes were rumbled and stained with sweat, and the shock of pink hair running down the center of his shaved head hung limply across his face.
"All right, look, I don't care which one of you guys started it," she said. "Yana, you don't just stick someone in Limbo whenever you feel like it!"
Yana clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes. "I made sure to put him somewhere reasonably safe! They only would have eaten him if he tried to move!"
"'Only?!'" Quentin said, aghast. "Those things were salivating the whole time I was in there!"
She glared over her shoulder at him. "I warned you what would happen, didn't I? You brought it on yourself!"
"Oh come on, you totally overreacted!"
"Dude!" Jubilee said, interjecting before Yana could dig herself in deeper. "I don't care how Yana reacted. When a girl says — or thinks — keep your hands to yourself she means it. And that includes the TK, mister! Copping a feel is still copping a feel no matter what appendage or lack thereof you're using."
She turned her eyes on Yana, just in time to see the satisfied grin tug at her lips. "But there's better ways to handle it than teleporting him to your pocket dimension. Maybe he was safe, but he could just as easily have been hurt or killed."
Yana pouted. "I have total control of everything that goes on in there! I made Sy'm promised he would only let the others scare him a little."
Quentin gawked at her. "Those things have names?!"
"Of course they do!" she said and glowered indignantly at him. "They're demons, not animals!"
"I don't care!" Jubilee said. "No more siccing demons on your classmates!"
"That is so unfair!"
"Suck it up, dude! If you've got a problem with Quentin's wandering hands and head, that's what I'm here for." Jubilee glared at Quentin. "And you: Touch another girl — and I mean that in every sense of the word, so don't get cute with the TK or TP — without her permission again and I will totally paf you into your next birthday, got it?"
Yana fumed, and Quentin ducked his head so he didn't have to look her in the eye. Neither of them said a word.
"I said, 'got it?'"
"Yes," they both said in chagrined voices. Jubilee looked from one to the other for a moment, then nodded. "All right. Now I'll do you guys a favor and I won't put this little incident in your records, but I don't want to see you in here over this again, deal? Go on, get back to class."
She watched them go, Quentin making a show of raising his hands in the air, while Yana spit him with a murderous glare. Then they were gone out the door and slamming it shut behind them. Jubilee let out an exasperated growl and buried her face in her hands for a long moment, her frustration over the squabble mingling with memories of being on the other side of her desk.
"I hope you were listening in on that, Professor," she said to no one, but with so many telepaths under one roof you never knew for sure. "I'm sure you'd appreciate what I just had to deal with."
Yana stormed from Jubilee's office, and fought down the urge to tear Quentin apart. Fortunately for him he kept out of her head — or at least she couldn't feel him in her head. With telepaths you never knew who might be bouncing around where uninvited. However he responded to her warning glare with a smug and self-satisfied grin, and that just made her even hotter.
"Just so you know: Totally worth it," he said, showing a hint of teeth through his lopsided smirk, before strutting off down the hall. Mel, Megan, and Fabio were waiting for her, and watched him pass by.
"What was that all about?" Mel asked when she joined them, still glaring daggers at Quentin's back.
"The little pervert TK-pinched my ass during Dr. Grey's class," she said, and folded her arms beneath her breast. "So I sent him to Limbo."
Megan's face blanched. "Alone? Yana, you didn't...!"
"Oh come on, Megan, I wouldn't have let them hurt him, just freak him out a bit to teach him a lesson! But Dr. Grey didn't think it was very funny and made me bring him back, then sent us both to Jubilee."
Fabio scratched the back of his head and shifted from foot to foot. "That's kind of harsh. I mean, I've been in there, and I couldn't get out fast enough."
She smirked. "That's because you're so plump and juicy. Quentin's too scrawny for their tastes."
"Come on, Yana," Mel said, "that's cruel even for Quentin."
Yana rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated groan as she started off down the hallway. "You guys are no fun at all!"
"Well, I don't think the Professor wants to tell anyone their kid was eaten by demons at the next parent-teacher conference."
"I made it very clear to them there was to be no devouring."
"An' they'd really do as you say all the time, even when you're not there to keep an eye on 'em?"
Yana rounded on her, and her eyes flashed. "Of course! Limbo is my world, and nothing happens there that I don't control."
Megan's wings fluttered, and she hugged herself tightly. "The demon doggies tried to eat me even when you told them no."
"Ok, sometimes they can be a little rambunctious, but housebreaking takes time and love."
Mel rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but most puppies just jump on you, not try to gnaw your face off."
"Aren't we losing sight of the important part of this, that Quentin Quire is a perverted little creep who needed to be taught a lesson?"
"Yana ..." Mel said, with that impatient sort of tone Yana heard Mrs. Guthrie use whenever one of the million Guthrie siblings got up to something they ought not to.
She threw her hands up in the air in defeat. "All right! All right! Fine! Poor Quentin, what did he do to deserve it? Can we just get back to class, now?"
Without waiting for a response from the others, Yana stormed down the hall and headed for the classrooms.
The shuttle let them off on the corner near the movie theater, and Yana, Mel, Megan, and Fabio all piled out and onto the street. It wasn't quite dark yet — a smidge of rosy gold smeared the horizon in the west as the dying light of the sun made Salem Center glow — though it was still rather cool for her liking. Yana ignored the chill against her bare legs, and uselessly tugged down the hem of her miniskirt. Had it been up to her, she would have just teleported the lot of them right to the Grind Stone, and taken advantage of the fire-and-brimstone warmth of Limbo to avoid the spring chill, but the others quite emphatically balked at her suggestion.
The streets of Salem were unusually crowded that evening, not only with their classmates enjoying the end of classes for the day, but the locals as well. As usual the residents ignored the student body with the casual disinterest that came from the school's proximity. Piotr's towering frame poked above the heads of the crowd — and she had no doubt Ms. Pryde would be somewhere nearby, though her diminutive figure was lost in the sea of bodies roaming the town — keeping a quiet and surreptitious watch on the students in their charge. Well, as surreptitious as well more than six and a half feet of muscle could be.
Everyone at school took the surveillance in stride, and Yana doubted the locals even noticed it at all. But though things had been quiet in Salem since Stryker's attack, the Professor insisted on having someone keep an eye on things.
"So what do we want to do first?" Megan asked. The breeze ruffled her bright pink hair, but though her fairy princess costume was little longer than Yana's skirt, she showed no sign of being the least bit troubled by the weather.
"I don't know about y'all, but I'm starvin'," Mel said.
"I could do with something to eat," Fabio said.
"We could see if Luna's running any specials tonight."
"As long as it isn't pizza again," Yana said, and made a face. "Last time I went to Limbo after a slice my babies wouldn't leave me alone! And you would not believe how well demons can work the puppy dog eyes. I'd have to bring some back for everyone, and there's a lot of everyone."
They started up the street for the Grind Stone, and Mel glanced sidelong at her. The corners of her mouth twitched upward into a smile. "Can't you just, like, conjure it up with your powers while you're in there?"
"Conjured pizza? Ugh! And you guys think I'm deranged?"
"I wonder what I'd do if I could work real magic," Megan said. "I mean, my pixie dust can make people see things that make them happy, but it'd be great to be able to actually make it come true, you know?"
Yana smirked, and allowed herself a quiet chuckle. "Oh Megan, you're so cute. The dark arts are so much more fun!"
"You always talk about it, but I hardly ever see you actually doin' it," Mel said.
"Magic is harder to work outside of Limbo. In there, I could make you and Fabio fall desperately in love with each other."
"Oh my god! You wouldn't!"
"Hey! I'm standing right here!" Fabio said, and made a face.
"I'm sorry! It'd just be kinda weird."
Yana's smirk broadened to a full, toothy grin. "Oh don't worry, I won't. He'd just get nervous, and then you'd have his balls flying at your face."
Megan and Mel gawked, and Fabio's cheeks turned a brilliant shade of crimson.
"Yana!" Megan said, her expression aghast. Mel and Fabio blushed fiercely, but didn't say a word.
She just laughed off their discomfiture and continued up Titicus for the café.
A number of locals gathered outside the doors, laughing and chatting over steaming to-go cups. Megan's rainbow-colored wings drew a few curious looks, and an awkward compliment from a Salem boy about their age that made them flutter. Mel wasted no time in suggesting she give him her number, which just made her freckled cheeks turn red. Yana smirked and rolled her eyes as she took hold of the door handle and swung it open.
Just as someone standing inside the door while fumbling with his phone and cup burst through.
The man yelped as he distractedly ran straight into her, and dumped his cup all down the front of her shirt. For a moment she could only stare down at her clothing in a mix of shock and indignation. Everyone around her gasped, and scattered out of the way to avoid the spilled coffee arcing through the air.
"Hey!" she snapped. "Watch where you're going!"
For his part the man colored in embarrassment and fumbled for a napkin. "Oh! Oh god, I'm sorry! I didn't see you!" The man immediately made a move to wipe down her shirt front, but Yana seized him by the wrist and sneered.
"Don't even think about it!"
"Calm down, Yana!" Mel said, and tried her best to squeeze in between them. "I'm sure it was an accident!"
"Yeah, right, it's always an accident. Maybe I should accidentally—"
"Yana!" Megan said, and her wings fluttered anxiously at the threat in her voice.
"What?" Yana fixed the man with her most withering glare, and his face paled at what he saw in her blue eyes. "It would serve him right!"
"Come on, it's not that bad," Mel said. "You don't want to get detention this time, do you?"
"I'm really, really sorry!" the man squeaked, his voice going very small. By now more of a crowd had gathered to see what the excitement was about, but before anyone could say anything else Nori forced her way through the crowd inside the Grind Stone, her gauntlets clacking and clicking, and an apron tied securely around her waist.
"Hey, what's going on?" she said, and looked between Yana and the oaf standing there with a handful of napkins hovering irritatingly close to her boobs.
"It was just a little accident," Mel said, cutting her off and spitting her with a glare. "Nothin' a few wet wipes an' the school's laundry room can't fix."
Yana scowled back, and Nori sighed.
"All right, Yana, you can clean up in the ladies' room. And you—" she turned on him and folded her arms across her chest "—just watch what you're doing, huh? You know I'll have to clean up the spill, now!"
"I'm sorry! Really!" he said.
Yana snatched the napkin out his hand, and raised her nose to him and stormed through the door. Behind her she could hear Mel returning his apology. "I'm sorry, she's kind of havin' a bad day, no harm done ..."
She released her hold on her powers, and with it the urge to teleport the idiot right to the darkest, dankest dungeon in Limbo she could find. And if she couldn't find one, she would have willed one into existence just for him.
The Middle East Side, Manhattan, aka Mutant Town...
Kevin mopped the sleep from his eyes. The sizzle of bacon and pungent aroma of coffee filled the run-down apartment, much as it had every morning of the past few weeks. He sat up in bed as his stomach began to rumble, and, as he had every morning, resolved that this was the day he would tell her it was time for him to move on. The weather was warming as spring drove back the Mid Atlantic winter, and he heard no rumor that he was still being hunted. Certainly Professor Xavier could find him in a heartbeat if he really wanted, and yet when he looked out the apartment window there was never a sign of the X-Men coming to take him back.
A hollowness crept into his gut at that thought: They really did care that little about him.
He sighed, and swept his gaze across the cramped spare bedroom. As New York City went it would almost be considered lavish, but it was old, with peeling wallpaper and warped floorboards, and worst of all to most prospective buyers, right in the heart of one of the biggest populations of mutants in all of New York City. By chance she had a mattress his powers wouldn't destroy, and after sleeping on the hard, frozen ground it came as a welcome relief to have a real bed again. Something that just made it even harder to leave.
Kevin swung his legs out of bed and dressed, then left his room and headed for the kitchenette. She stood over the stove and stirred breakfast around in the pan, an old crocheted shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Her face was obscured by the fall of her silver hair, but she stiffened as he stepped out of the short hall connecting the kitchenette to the bedrooms; a barely perceptible hitch in her movements he quickly learned meant his arrival hadn't gone unnoticed. His host had thus far been coy about her powers, but if she was a telepath she never gave him the same sort of hints he noticed in the Professor or Dr. Grey.
Without a word he approached the small table in the middle of the room, and dropped into a chair. The table was already set; a plate for each of them with a heaping pile of scrambled eggs, a glass of orange juice for him, and her strong, black coffee steaming in a white ceramic mug. The woman — strange, he thought she once mentioned her name, but now it slipped through the back corners of his mind like a ghost, always at the tip of his tongue but just out of reach — finished her cooking, and tossed the pan with a dexterity belying her gnarled hands. She turned off the burner, then smiled in greeting as she turned away from the oven and shuffled to the table with the pan in hand.
"Well, good morning!" she said. "Did you get a good night's sleep?"
Kevin smiled back when he met her brown eyes. They were warm and soothing, and if he stared into them too long he thought he might lose himself in them. There was something he meant to tell her that morning, wasn't there?
"I did, thank you," he said.
Never mind, it would come to him.
"I'm glad to hear it!" She served him a few strips of bacon from the pan. "I was afraid you might run off and leave me all on my lonesome after a few hot meals."
The last was added with a wry turn of her lips, but Kevin was aghast at the very notion he could be so ungrateful. "I wouldn't think of it! This is the first place I guess I've felt welcome in a while. I really appreciate it."
She smiled again, and returned the pan to the stove after serving herself the rest of the bacon. "So do you think today you might finally be up to telling me something of yourself?"
Kevin's face warmed in chagrin; all this time together and he had never said a word about who he was or where he came from, though to be fair she neither asked nor offered to do the same in turn. That odd, raspy chuckle rattled in her throat at his discomfiture. Her chair squeaked when she sat down and started on her eggs. "Oh, don't be so embarrassed. I know what it is to run from something, and that for people like us it's sometimes easier not to say too much about who we are or where we came from."
He swallowed a mouthful of his eggs. "What makes you think I'm running from something?"
"I'm merely old, my boy, not senile. I've seen that look many times in my life. And, well, you've been quite secretive, avoiding the windows and such." She narrowed her eyes and scrutinized him closely. "I hope you're not a thief."
"No, I promise I'm not a thief," he said.
"Good! I don't have much, but I would prefer my charity is not so rudely rewarded as to wake up and find it all gone. Though I suppose it wouldn't be worth all that much, anyway. Trouble with your family, then?"
He shook his head, and stared down into his plate of eggs, suddenly not feeling particularly hungry. "I don't have any family."
"Ah," she said, and when he looked up her eyes widened sympathetically. "I'm so sorry. That's a story of our kind I've heard a bit too often, I'm afraid. I didn't mean anything by it, I suppose I just figured that might have been your big secret."
"I wish that was all it was." Kevin heaved a steadying breath. "I used my powers on someone."
She raised an eyebrow. "Well, that does explain a lot."
"He hurt someone I cared about. I was upset, and ..."
She reached across the table for his hand, but Kevin flinched back reflexively.
"Don't touch me!"
She jerked back, and her brown eyes widened in shock at the outburst. "I'm sorry, I was only trying to—"
"It's not that. It's just...when someone touches me it hurts them. If they hold on too long ..."
"Oh, I see. So then you're not running, you're being hunted."
He winced at the accusation in her voice, but gave a stiff nod of acknowledgement. "Yes. Maybe, I don't know. I was a student at the Xavier School. I'd have thought they would have come for me a long time ago. Professor Xavier or Dr. Grey could find me anywhere, you know? But they haven't come after me here ..."
"Well, my young fugitive, perhaps they're merely waiting for you to be careless. But I suppose now I need to ask myself what I'm going to do with you!"
Her thoughtful musing startled a whole flock of butterflies into flight in his belly. "I'm sorry if I'm bringing you any trouble!" he said. "I appreciate you putting me up the last couple weeks, and that's not how I wanted to repay you!"
She smiled, and the warmth of it lighting up her face and eyes washed over him and quickly soothed the butterflies. "Ah, so you do wish to repay my hospitality. Very good! And as for whatever you did, it's a hard world for us, and I suspect will be even harder before it gets better again. So don't worry, I wouldn't think of tossing you back out onto the streets for something as noble as protecting someone you cared for."
The sour taste of bile filled his mouth, and he took a drink of his orange juice in a vain attempt to wash it away. The memory of Laurie lying cold and still in a pool of blood flashed unbidden through his mind, and he heard the screams of her killer as his face rotted into dust in his hands.
"But!" she said, and raised a finger pointedly, "I do expect you to start earning your keep! And I do have a few things you can help me with."
He eyed her warily, and try as he might he couldn't keep the suspicion off his features. "What do you need me to do?"
She picked up her coffee mug and smiled at him over it. "Oh, nothing too objectionable. I'm an old woman, after all, and more than anything I could use a strong young man to help me keep this place up, and just keep me company."
Kevin considered for a moment, and swept his eyes across the kitchenette. "Well, I'm pretty handy. I mean, I was an artist at school, but I took shop, too. I could probably help you fix this place up a bit."
She pouted. "Ah, so you think I've done an abysmal job of keeping my house?"
He colored. "No, not at all! I mean, it's a really nice space and all, it's just ..."
That raspy cackle filled the room. "Easy, boy, no need to defend yourself. This place is quite the wreck. Maybe when I was younger I could take better care of it, but now?" She clicked her tongue and shook her head. "Very well, I think that will do for a start. Now, eat up! I'd like to do some shopping later and could use a hand with the groceries!"
Kevin relaxed and turned his attention back to his breakfast. The emptiness that threatened to overtake him after Laurie's death faded to a dull ache, and as he watched his strange roommate dig into her breakfast, he found himself feeling as if things were actually turning around.
Yana leaned over her desk, her face buried in her hands, and listened to Dr. McCoy drone on and on. And on. Or at least she might have had his voice not been an all but unintelligible buzzing in her ears. The pressure between her eyes was becoming unbearable, it was too hot by about a thousand degrees, and her guts did handstands and somersaults in her belly.
She really ought to have just stayed in bed that morning.
"Psst! Yana!" Mel whispered from the next aisle over. Yana risked looking away from her desk, and immediately wished she hadn't. The overhead lighting stabbed spikes of pure agony straight into her brain, while Mel and her identical twin sister spun dizzyingly around each other. They might have worn a concerned frown, but Yana couldn't quite get them to hold still well enough to be sure. It just made the gymnastics routine going on in her bowels all that much worse. "You ok?"
She grimaced and lowered her head, squeezing her eyes shut tight in hopes the darkness would settle her swimming head and stomach.
"Yana! Wake up, you know what Dr. McCoy says about sleeping in class!"
Yana mumbled a response into the crook of her arm that was unintelligible even to herself.
"Excuse me, Ms. Guthrie," Dr. McCoy said. "I'm sorry if my lecture is interrupting your private conversation. Do you and Ms. Rasputin have something you'd like to share with the rest of the class?"
Everyone else snickered, but Yana just kept her head buried in a vain effort to shut out the light and get her stomach to behave. "Ms. Rasputin!"
"Mmmmpf," she replied, and wanted to cry. Sweat beaded on her brow, and the churning in her belly just got worse.
"Dr. McCoy, I don't think she's feelin' very well," Mel said.
"Hm ..." Dr. McCoy started across the classroom, his footfalls as imperceptible as a cat, though the rustle of his fine tweed suit was almost deafening right now. He stopped next to her desk, and Yana raised her head. It was all she could do to hold it upright. His big, blue, furry face lowered until he could look her in the eyes, and he placed a paw to her brow. "Stars and garters you are burning up! Melody, help her down to the medical bay, I believe Dr. Grey is on duty this morning."
"Yes, sir." Mel's chair scraped along the floor as she rose, and stepped around her desk. "Come on, Yana."
Yan grimaced. The very thought of getting into any position except horizontal made her stomach tie itself in knots, but she pushed away from her desk and, with her shaking arms for support, managed to stand. Mel put an arm around her to guide her for the classroom door, but she didn't make it more than one tottering step before her belly decided to make its displeasure known. She gagged, collapsed to her knees, and everyone around her groaned in disgust as she vomited onto the floor.
"Whoah! Chunky!" Santo said from the back of the classroom.
Her stomach lurched again and again, emptying the entirety of its contents — breakfast, dinner from the night before, a late-night snack snuck from the kitchen when she ought to have been asleep — into a slimy, sickly-sweet pool spreading out in front of her. And when there was nothing more for her to throw up her body was wracked with dry heaves. Dr. McCoy and Mel were immediately beside her, and they held her upright as her body threatened to give way beneath her. Then she retched again, but to her surprise and Dr. McCoy's horror it wasn't dry this time.
This time she vomited blood. A lot of it, and bright red.
"Oh dear god!" Dr. McCoy said, and Yana was distantly aware of a crowd forming around her when her classmates realized something was very much out of the ordinary. "Everyone get back! Give her room!"
Her eyes fluttered and a gray fog passed across her vision. She saw shadowed faces looming over her, but they were frustratingly vague and indistinct, and their excited chatter echoed dully in her ears, as if from a great distance.
"Yana? Yana!" Mel said, her voice breaking in fright. "Doc, what's going on?"
"Please clear the classroom. Go back to your dorms immediately, and remain there. Go on!"
The words were spoken with just the right blend of urgency and practiced calm that everyone started moving without protest. Their chatter — she was just cognizant enough of what was happening to know it was about the mess she just made on the classroom floor — grew fainter and fainter until it faded away to nothing
"Doc, is she ok?" Mel said.
And that was the last she heard, as darkness reached up and swallowed her whole.
"Let me see her!"
Peter tried his best to shoulder his way past the wall of bodies between him and the new isolation ward, but Hank stubbornly put his furry blue body in between them. He was clad from head to toe in a biohazard suit, and the sight of it as he emerged from quarantine just as Peter arrived — responding to Jean's frantic telepathic call as fast as he could excuse himself from his class — made his heart jump into his throat.
"I'm sorry, Peter!" Hank said, and gently pressed his paws against his chest, more of a symbolic restraint than any meaningful attempt to do so. If he wanted to, Peter could have tossed him aside as if he weren't even there. "Until I know what it is we're dealing with I can't let anyone in there without taking the proper precautions first."
Scott, Jean, and the Professor were all there as well. Jean sat at the monitoring terminal mounted beneath the observation window, while Scott leaned his hip against the console with his arms folded across his chest and his head bowed. Xavier wore a sympathetic frown, and steepled his hands together in thought. Melody Guthrie was there, also, rocking from side to side in a chair as she wrung her hands.
Peter ran his hands back through his hair in an effort to keep himself from ripping the console out of the wall. "What's wrong with her?"
"I'm afraid I really don't know yet," Hank said. "We've only just begun to run tests. All I can say for certain is that she's running an alarmingly high fever, along with symptoms of severe nausea, hematemesis, vertigo, and photophobia."
He muttered a string of curses beneath his breath in frustration, and approached the window looking into the quarantine area. Illyana lay in bed asleep and hooked up to Hank's machines. Sweat plastered her golden hair to her brow, and her face was frighteningly pale. Her breast rose and fell with every ragged breath, but otherwise she lay absolutely still.
"Melody, did she say anything to you about feeling unwell?" Xavier asked. Peter just stared at his sister, and let them talk behind him.
"No, Professor," she said. "I mean she was fine last night, but I first noticed she didn't seem right when we came to class this mornin'. She started fallin' asleep in Dr. McCoy's class, an' that's when she got sick."
"Has she eaten or done anything unusual?" Hank asked. "Anything at all, maybe something from Limbo? Illyana has thus far declined my requests to study it in more detail, and there's a possibility that perhaps whatever flora and fauna are native to that dimension may be harmful."
"Nothin' I know of. If she goes in it's just to 'port 'cause she doesn't feel like walkin'."
"It wouldn't be anything in Limbo," Peter said, with as much conviction as he could muster while his own stomach was doing its best to turn itself inside out. "Yana essentially is Limbo; nothing can happen there that she doesn't will to be."
"Respectfully, Peter, I understand Illyana has considerable power there, but from what little I've gleaned the denizens are nonetheless naturally occurring entities and not constructs of her imagination or even her mutation. They have wills of their own and, if I'm not mistaken, even her control over them can be tenuous when they get, shall we say, uppity."
Peter spun around and fixed the elder mutant with a glare, but was interrupted by Scott before he could offer his retort.
"Can you think of anything else?" he asked. "Anywhere at all she might have been, maybe even somewhere she used Limbo to teleport to where she might have ingested or been exposed to something unusual? Are you absolutely sure?"
Tears poured down Melody's face at Scott's laser-focus fixing on her. She rocked in her chair, and if she wasn't tearing at her own hair, it was because she was hugging herself so tightly. Peter sighed and crossed the observation room to lay a hand on her shoulder. The younger girl was all but trembling.
"I don't know!" she said. "I mean, she hasn't even left the grounds as far as I know since the last time we all went to Salem!"
"What did you do in Salem?"
"We just went to the Grind Stone! That's all!"
"Who was with you?"
"Me, Yana, Meg, and Fabio."
Scott rubbed his chin as he considered that. Jean turned her attention away from the terminal just long enough to deliver a warning look to her husband.
"Scott, that's all she knows," she said. "Questioning her further isn't going to help."
"I'm sorry!" Mel said, and her voice came out as something between a sob and a squeak. "I wish I could be more help, but that's all!"
"It's all right, Mel," Peter said, and gave her shoulder another squeeze. "I'm sure it will be a big help."
She sniffled and reached up to touch his hand.
"Well, it's a start, at the very least," Hank said. "Melody, I'd like you to remain here so I can run some tests as a precaution. I need to see Fabio and Megan as well."
"But you don't know what it is you're looking for," Peter said.
Hank folded his arms across his chest and twisted his leonine features into an indignant scowl. "I am aware of my current predicament, thank you very much."
"All right, that's enough," Xavier said. "Henry, I'll have Megan and Fabio excused from class; under the circumstances I do agree it's wise to take precautions in the event that we're looking at something communicable. Let me know whatever you find."
The furry blue mutant nodded.
"Jean, I'd like you and Scott to go to the Grind Stone. Speak with Ms. DePaula. For all we know it could very well be a case of food poisoning."
Jean nodded. "I can't imagine she would get lax on the health code, but we'll see what we can find out."
"If I may offer a suggestion," Hank said, and raised one digit of his paw. "I think it would be best that we confine the student body to the school grounds until I have a better idea of what this malady is. Best to err on the side of caution, after all."
"I agree," the Professor said. "Peter, would you see to it that for the time being all shuttles into Salem Center are suspended? You may want to coordinate with Jubilee informing the students that we are taking precautions in light of Yana's illness."
Peter hesitated a moment, and opened his mouth to protest the command. Xavier's eyes met his, and he didn't need words to understand in that moment just why the Professor chose him for this particular task. He sighed in resignation and nodded. "Yes, sir."
He held Peter's eyes a moment longer, then nodded himself. "Thank, you, Peter. Afterwards, I'm sure Illyana would appreciate having you here when she wakes up. I'll arrange for Paige to substitute for you in your classes."
"Thank you, Professor."
Scott looked between the two of them, and gave a curt nod himself. "All right, we've all got work to do, so let's get to it.
The group slowly broke up. Peter paused at the observation window as he started towards the door back into the subbasement hallway himself, and gazed at Yana lying pale and fragile in bed. A big, furry paw took hold of his shoulder, and when he looked back he found himself staring straight into Hank's solemn golden eyes.
"I promise, Peter, I'll do my absolute best to get to the bottom of this, as quickly as I can."
Peter clenched his fists in a Herculean effort to restrain the desire to start smashing something — anything — in frustration. But he supposed Hank needed all of his equipment, especially having only just recently put the quarantine bay in order after what Laura did to it a few weeks before. He sighed, hung his head, and nodded.
"I know, Hank."
The grip on his shoulder relaxed into a gentle pat. "Well, I don't envy you your task; I think the students may well tear you to pieces. But, once you're finished and I surgically reattach your limbs, I'll see if I can scrounge up a suit to fit you so you can sit with her."
Peter managed a smile in spite of himself, and gave him a stiff nod of appreciation. "Thanks, Hank." He sighed. "I guess I better get to it.
With that, he slipped out from under Hank's paw, and started for the door.
"Man, this sucks!" Santo said, and threw himself down on the couch in front of the television. The springs squealed in protest as his weight abruptly settled on it, and for a moment Cessily thought the legs might give way and the whole thing would collapse beneath him. Bad enough they couldn't go to town, but if Santo destroyed the best couch in the lounge she would never forgive him.
"Oh come on, it's not the end of the world," Victor said, and dropped lightly on the opposite end, leaving the center cushion for Sooraya. She lowered herself with her particular grace and adjusted her abaya around her legs.
"But it's so nice outside! That means the chicks from Salem are gonna be wearing skirts again!"
Cessily rolled her eyes in disgust, and curled up in one of the chairs sharing the circle around the television. She took a sip of her Coca-Cola. "God, you are such a pig."
"What?" he said, and shrugged innocently. "I like variety, and I've seen all the chicks' legs here at school already!"
Victor pinched the bridge of his nose. "Santo, stop talking."
"I dunno, I'm with him," Julian said, as he lounged in his seat across the circle. Laura perched in the chair next to him with her arms wrapped around her legs and her knees drawn up to her chest. "Besides, Vic, it's not like you've got a lot of options cooped up in the school, either."
"I'm just gay, Julian, not boy-crazy." He turned his reptilian features on Santo and spit him with a warning glare before the walking pile of rubble could open his mouth. "And don't you even say a word, dude, I'm not in the mood for it."
"Aw, now you're just taking all the fun out of it," Santo said, and leaned his hand on his fist.
"Children," Sooraya said. Her expression might have been hidden behind her niqab, but Cessily could practically hear the rolling of her eyes in her voice, "Perhaps we should give some consideration to Illyana."
"No kidding," Cessily said, and swept her own glare from Julian to Santo. "It must be pretty bad if Dr. McCoy is confining us all to the grounds."
"It looked pretty bad," Santo said. "That was the chunkiest puke I think I've ever seen!"
"Thank you, Santo," Julian said from behind his hands. "I was actually thinking about grabbing some lunch until you opened your mouth."
"Sorry! But it was!"
"Seriously, that's enough!" Cessily said, as she finished off her soda, and plinked the can off his forehead. "Let's just think of something to do, ok? Especially so I don't have to listen to you talking about puke."
"It would be best to be productive so long as casual diversions are out of the question," Laura said.
Cessily regarded her with a frown, but Laura just leaned her chin against her knees, and her expression was unreadable. "Like what?"
Julian groaned. "There's got to be something else we can do. No offense, but I can only stand so much being tossed around on the floor mats."
Santo quirked a grin. "I dunno, you seemed like you were enjoying the last session a lot."
"Can it, rock pile! Before I make bird bath out of you!"
The big, rocky mutant just snickered at the defensiveness in Julian's tone, and Cessily looked between them with a raised eyebrow. Sooraya shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose over whatever this private joke between the two was, and Laura just blinked in confusion.
"Train more and you fall less," she said, in her uniquely matter-of-fact way.
"That sounds an awful lot like homework," Santo said, and his rocky features twisted into a suspicious glower.
"Dude, you used to wrestle," Victor said. "Didn't you ever have to work out on your own?"
"...Yeah. But that was like, before I became this granite god." Santo made a show of flexing, though the effect was somewhat lost due to the fact that his skin wasn't exactly flexible. "These guns don't need any work!"
Cessily just rolled her eyes at the display. "That doesn't mean you still don't have anything to learn about fighting or working with the rest of us."
"Dude, I'm already not allowed to fight because I'll just squish everyone that's not Colossus or a Sentinel, so not like it matters, anyway."
"There are numerous mutants with enhanced physical strength and durability which rival, if not exceed, even Colossus," Laura said. "The X-Men have, traditionally, been required to engage many of them in combat when they presented a threat to the public. This does not include human threats such as powered armor, and other technological developments beyond merely Sentinels. Neglecting practical training to focus strictly on your physical characteristics is a weakness to be exploited."
Victor grunted. "That's not counting the ones that can just outsmart him, either. Which is already a pretty low bar."
"Hey!" Santo groused, and glared between the two of them. "I've got, like, street smarts! And I could totally have taken Colossus last time we fought him. I just didn't want to take all the credit."
"Right, you keep telling yourself that. I'm sure there's even some corner of that goldfish brain of yours that actually believes it."
"It's not like we've got much better to do," Cessily said, interrupting before Santo could voice the retort forming on his rocky lips. "So if we're going to go all cabin fever on each other we may as well do something useful. I'm with Laura."
Victor shrugged. "May as well. It might be fun watching Julian get tossed around the floor again."
"Har har," he said, and glared. "I don't remember you doing all that much better last session."
"He did," Laura said flatly.
Cessily smirked into her hand as Julian's indignant expression twisted into one she read as "Low blow!"
"Oh, snap!" Santo said, and he guffawed at the knockout blow to Julian's ego.
Laura, for her part, didn't seem to find anything amusing about the exchange, and regarded the big rocky mutant with a measure of confusion etched on her features.
"It's on now, lizard boy," Julian said, and rose from his chair with his hands planted on his hips.
Victor smirked and jumped up, matching his posture. "Ten bucks says she floors you in five seconds."
"Put up, dude!"
Cessily smiled at Julian. "Yeah, you heard him! Put up."
"All right!" he said, and reached for his wallet. He pulled out a couple bills and held them up in front of Victor. "Ten bucks. Just to show I'm good for it."
Laura just looked between the two of them, bemused by the exchange. "I do not understand ..."
Cessily hopped out of her chair and extended a hand to her. She flinched back reflexively, and for a moment her smile faltered. Man, every time someone reaches out to her she jumps like they're going to bite her or something... Laura didn't accept the help up, but slipped out of her chair and stuffed her hands in her jeans pockets.
"Easiest way to get Julian to do something he doesn't want to do," she said. "Either appeal to his ego, or take a shot at it."
"Come on, let's do this," Victor said, and started out of the lounge. Julian fell into step behind him, and Santo levered his bulk off the couch to follow.
"Hey Soo, you coming?" Cessily asked.
"I think I'll pass for now," Sooraya said, and shifted a bit on her cushion to get more comfortable after Santo removed his rocky butt. "I am sure there will always be another opportunity to watch Julian make a fool of himself."
"I heard that!" he shot over his shoulder.
"Ok, we'll catch you later," Cessily said.
Sooraya waved, and the corners of her eyes wrinkled as she smiled behind her niqab. "Have fun! And Laura, do try not to bruise him too badly."
"I make no guarantees," Laura said. "It depends on how well Julian has practiced his falling."
Cessily laughed, and hung an arm around Laura's shoulder — she shrunk away from the contact — as they started after the guys. "Well, he's certainly had plenty of it. Let's go give him some more!"
Scott opened the door to the café, and the bell chimed in welcome as he ushered Jean inside. It was not yet noon, so the Grind Stone was largely deserted when they arrived. A few patrons sat in scattered ones and twos around the establishment. Some looked up from their drinks, papers, and phones when the newcomers arrived, then returned to their own business. Luna DePaula busied herself behind the counter stacking cups. She paused at the sound of the door chime, and leaned her hip against the counter.
"Good morning Mr. Summers," she said with a pleasant smile, and a nod to each in turn. "Dr. Grey. What can I get you? The usual?"
"Good morning, Luna!" Jean said pleasantly, and smiled back as they approached the counter. "Actually, I think I'll try the orta şekerli today, Sooraya recommended it."
Luna quirked a grin. "I hope everyone doesn't start to get experimental. Laura has already been through almost every combination on the menu, and I pride myself on my variety. Scott?"
"Nothing for me, today," he said.
"Suit yourself," she said, and went to work behind the counter loading a hand-grinder. The fragrant scent of freshly-roasted coffee beans taken from the air roaster filled the café. "You know, you guys really left me short-handed today."
Scott raised an eyebrow. "We did?"
"Mm-hmm. I just got a call from Nori that she wasn't going to be making it in today. Everything all right over there?"
"We're sorry for the inconvenience," Jean said. "But one of our students is sick and we thought it best to confine everyone to the grounds until we can be sure it's not contagious."
Luna's lips twitched down into a concerned frowned, and she paused in the middle of grinding the beans. "Oh my! Is it serious?"
"We don't know yet," Scott said, and leaned over the counter.
Luna went back to work grinding the beans into powder. "Who is it?"
"Yana Rasputin," Jean said. She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the counter. Scott glanced in her direction, and noted her eyes grow distant as she swept them across the patrons.
Trouble? he thought.
I don't know, she replied in his head.
"We were hoping to ask you a few questions," Scott said, and returned his attention to Luna as she went back to work.
"You don't think she got sick on something here, do you?" Luna asked, and raised an eyebrow at him while she poured the grounds into a cezve, and added the sugar and water.
"Right now we're just trying to piece together where she's been and what she's done lately. She hasn't left the grounds — that we know of — since the last time she came to Salem, and this is the only place she came on that trip."
"Have you seen or heard anything unusual lately?" Jean asked, her attention still focusing on somewhere beyond herself. "Maybe someone snooping around, or acting strangely?"
Luna shrugged and set the cezve on a burner. She leaned her hip against the counter so she could address them while watching the coffee. "Nothing, no, it's all been pretty quiet. Aside from the usual squabbles between the kids. Keller and Nori getting into it, Quentin Quire trying to cop a mental feel, that sort of thing. Honestly I've been happy how well things have calmed down since last fall and Christmas. As much as I support what you do at the school, the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and all of it last year was still pretty hard on business."
"Did you change any of your suppliers within the past weeks? Maybe get a bad shipment?" Scott asked, and leaned in closer to study her features more closely.
Luna shook her head. As Jean's coffee began to froth she took the cezve from the burner until it subsided, then replaced it to heat up again. "No. And come on, Scott, you know me; if I ever got a bad shipment my foot would be so far up my sales rep's ass you could see what color I painted my toenails whenever he opened his mouth."
He quirked a grin, but sobered at the indignation in her voice. "I don't mean anything by it. As I said, we're just trying to be thorough."
She sighed, and repeated the process when the cezve frothed again. "I know. I wish I could be more help, but there really hasn't been anything out of the ordinary lately."
That's all she knows, Jean's voice echoed in his head.
Scott sighed. "Thanks, Luna. If you do think of anything else, please call me right away, ok?"
"You know I will. Tell Yana I hope she feels better."
"Thanks," Jean said. She smiled, but her distant expression lent it an eerie quality that made Luna squirm a bit. "I'm sure she'll appreciate it."
The coffee frothed twice more while they spoke. The first time Luna again took it off the heat for a moment and poured off the froth into a cup, then returned the cezve to the heat one last time. When it frothed again she finished pouring the cup and handed it to Jean. Scott dug into his back pocket for his wallet while Luna rang them up, and after paying made his way with Jean to a table not far from the karaoke machine. He helped her into her seat, then circled around to sit across from her.
Jean took a small sip of her coffee, and nodded appreciatively. "Remind me to thank Sooraya for the tip when we get back. This really is good."
That man in the front corner by the door, her voice echoed in his head while she spoke, I can't read him.
Scott kept himself facing Jean, but flicked his eyes towards the man in question, his glance hidden from view behind the lenses of his glasses. His face was obscured by a newspaper, but after a moment's scrutiny it was clear the man wasn't actually reading. Every time he turned a page he lowered it just enough to peer over the top at them.
"I'm sure she'll be glad you enjoyed it," he said. Is he blocking you?
"I don't think there's anyone at the school more thoughtful." No. It's like he's not even there. Like there's just a void where his mind should be.
Scott clenched his jaw and his whole body tensed. That meant only one thing. What about the others? Is he alone?
She took another sip of her coffee. Just him. This can't be a coincidence.
I agree, especially because he's been watching us ever since we sat down. He's hiding it, but even if you can't read him I can see right through him.
Jean frowned. What do you want to do?
Scott rubbed his chin and considered a moment, and made a show of checking his phone. We'll wait until he leaves, and follow him. He could just be watching Salem, but the timing is too dubious.
They sat and talked for a few minutes longer, and chatted casually over class schedules and trips, and ill-advised pranks (as if the perpetrators could so easily fool a telepath). Scott watched their suspect from the corner of his eye, and eventually the man reached the end of his paper. He folded it up neatly and tucked it under his arm, before pushing away from the table and heading for the door.
Scott gave Jean a subtle nod. Here we go.
She finished the last of her coffee, leaving the muddy grains at the bottom, and returned the nod. Here we go.
The man paused in the door long enough to zip up his coat, then opened the door and stepped outside. Scott and Jean rose and headed after him, Jean tossing a parting wave towards Luna. "We've got to get going," she said, "thanks!"
"Any time!" Luna said. "Again, tell Yana I hope she feels better, and let Nori know I won't make her take any of her sick days."
Jean grinned. "I'm sure they'll both appreciate it, and if you hear of anything give us a call."
And with that they stepped out onto the sidewalk, and into the chill of early spring. Pedestrians crowded Titicus and June as they made their way along the strip mall. Scott swept the crowd, but their quarry vanished into the sea of bodies enjoying the improving weather, his appearance just unremarkable enough to be nondescript, allowing him to vanish from sight. His lips twisted into a scowl, and he pushed through the crowd gathered in front of the café, searching each face from behind his glasses.
Do you see him?
No. I'm searching everyone I see, but it's a lot harder to find an empty spot than— Wait! Headed towards the theater, just ahead of you to your left! Blank spot!
Scott spun in that direction, and sure enough caught a glimpse of the man's back. He hurried after him, and politely excused himself as he pushed through the crowd. The man showed no obvious sign he knew Scott was following him, and casually continued on his way for the theater. He walked with his head bowed and his hands stuffed in his coat pockets, weaving through the pedestrians and exchanging a few polite "good afternoons." Scott spared a glance over his shoulder to be sure Jean was still with him. She followed a few paces back, sweeping the crowded streets of Salem with her eyes and power. She twisted her features in concentration, and Scott didn't envy her the difficulty of searching every face for an absent consciousness. There were dozens of people abroad just in that small part of Salem, and finding what wasn't there was certainly even more trying that sifting through what was.
He turned his attention back to his quarry. By now his pace had allowed him to close within a few dozen feet of the man. Scott caught a slight turn of the man's head, and perhaps a flash of eyes flicking over a shoulder, but he continued on his way at the same, unhurried pace. A ball of ice formed in his gut; the man knew he was there, and was calmly leading him along.
Scott, be careful, Jean's voice echoed in his head, as she clearly picked up on his sudden anxiety. He searched the edges of the crowd but found no sign the man had backup. The windows of the storefronts on the south side of Titicus gazed impassively down onto the street, any one of which could hide unseen observers. On the north side stood St. James Episcopal, and his strategic mind quickly conjured visions of gunmen crouched in its tower, with clear lines of fire all up and down Titicus.
Up ahead his target stopped, and alarm bells rang in Scott's head as he removed his right hand from his side pocket, and reached across his body. And in one motion the man spun to face him, pulled a pistol from inside his jacket, and leveled it at his face.
"Gun!" Scott yelled as loud as he could. "Everybody look out!" His hands shot towards the frame of his glasses, and he dove to the side.
Not quite fast enough. His target squeezed the trigger, and a sharp crack split the air. The people nearest to them screamed, panicked, and bolted. A sharp burning sensation nipped at the side of his neck as he narrowly avoided the bullet. He vaulted through the air, hit the sidewalk on his shoulder, and rolled into a defensive crouch, his hands on his glasses and ready to tear them off. But by the time he was up again the man was gone; vanished into the crowd stampeding away from the center of the uproar.
"Scott!" Jean cried, and rushed towards him, pushing past panicking pedestrians. Others crowded in to gawk and try to find out what was happening, and the distant wail of a police siren responding to the shot echoed across Salem.
Scott regained his feet and released his glasses. He swore under his breath as he searched the crowd, but it was no use: The man was gone.
"Scott! Are you all right?"
He sighed, twisted his lip into a scowl, and planted his hands on his hips in frustration. "I'm all right. He missed, it was just close."
"No, he didn't!"
Scott rounded on Jean without comprehension, and found her eyes wide with alarm and her jaw hanging slack. He casually reached towards the side of his neck to nurse the graze, and his hand froze as it brushed something sticking out of his skin.
"What the hell?"
"Don't touch it!" Jean barked, and slapped his hand away.
He froze on instinct, and waited as Jean leaned in, one hand holding his head steadu while she carefully plucked whatever it was from the side of his neck. She held it up between them, and Scott's gaze settled on a small hypodermic dart.
He frowned, and rubbed the side of his neck. His hand came away with a small smear of blood. "Jean?"
"Come on, we need to get you back to the school, now!"
He watched from the cover of a nearby shop. The crowd slowly calmed and pressed in around Summers, craning their necks in curiosity while Grey tended to him. A tight smile tugged at his features when she removed the dart from the side of his neck. With the chaos of the scattering crowd and Summers' attempt to take cover he wasn't sure whether his shot had struck home.
Police cars screeched to a halt, blocking off the intersection of June and Titicus as they responded to the reports of the gunshot, and the two mutants were stopped and questioned before they could depart. No matter, his mission was accomplished.
He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed in. After a brief ring a woman's voice responded.
"This is Base, go ahead."
"Two-One-Beta," he said. "Confirming subject zero is presenting symptoms."
"Well done, Two-One-Beta. Anything further to report?"
His smiled broadened. "Yes. Summers has been hit. Two-One-Beta out."
He shut off his phone, and started past the movie theater after one last look towards the officers closing off the intersection.
Peter sat still in his chair, leaning out across his knees with his head bowed, and his hands clasped in front of him. The lights in the quarantine room were dark, with only the displays monitoring Yana's vital signs providing any illumination. Machinery whirled and beeped, and pumps hissed, not quite masking a distant background hum emanating from the mansion's enormous computer core somewhere deep beneath the floor. His sister's breath came so faint and quiet that only the sensors hooked up to her body, and the faint fogging on the nasal cannula, offered any indication that she was indeed still alive. Her face was frighteningly pale, bathed as it was in the muted blue-green glow of the monitors inside the bay. The light cast her features in a sickly and unnatural hue, not her usual healthy, beautiful, Slavic complexion. Her hair hung limp and lankly, spilling down her pillow, and sweat beaded on her brow.
And for all his strength, and the organic steel of his armored hide that made him so dangerous in battle, he could do nothing more now than sit helplessly at her bedside. He was supposed to protect her, but he was helpless in the fight now raging inside her, as her body desperately battled whatever this malady was afflicting her.
He moved a hand to run his fingers back through his hair, but was cheated by the hood of the plastic hazmat suit covering him from head to foot. Hank was nothing if not thorough in his adherence to procedure.
The airlock door behind him hissed, and groaned as it yawned open. He raised his head, but his suit's mask robbed him of his peripheral vision, and he had no desire to look away from Yana as she slept. He listened to the soft footfalls drawing nearer. Logan, perhaps, might have been able to identify the intruder on his vigil by sound alone, but Peter needed to wait until they circled around to where he could see them. But they made no move to step around from behind him. They slowed, almost hesitant, and finally stopped a few paces behind him.
"Peter?" Kitty said, her voice tinny and somewhat muffled by her suit.
Peter finally turned in his chair and looked back at her. Her face was invisible behind the mask of her suit in the darkness, and the barrier of plastic between her and the air of the quarantine bay disguised the shape of her petite figure.
"Hey," he said, and turned his attention back to Yana. "Hank has you all bagged up, too, huh?"
"Yeah, he's a stickler for his procedures."
She rolled another chair over beside him, and her hazmat suit squeaked as she settled in next to him.
"How is she? Any change?"
He shook his head, though he doubted Kitty would be able to see the gesture. "No. Nothing. I tried talking to her half an hour ago, thinking maybe it could help, but I don't think she can hear me. The Professor won't even tell me if her mind is active right now."
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. Maybe she can."
"Then there's not much use Xavier telling you otherwise, right? If you believe she can, that's good enough."
Peter twisted in his chair so he could glance in her direction, then lowered his head again. "I just feel so powerless right now. Yana and I, we're all the family each other has left. I'm supposed to be taking care of and protecting her, but all I can do now is just sit here and hope she wakes up again."
She reached out with one hand and gripped his forearm, and her slender fingers couldn't even close around his wrist. "You're the strongest man I know, Peter, but sometimes that's not enough. Hank and Jean are doing everything they can to find out what's wrong with her, and you know they're not going to give up."
He sighed, and laid one of his meaty fists on hers. He clasped it tightly, and wished it was actually her hand he felt, and not just the plastic of their suits separating them. "I know, Katya," he said, and if he squinted really hard, he might just make out the corner of her mouth twitching into a smile at the pet name. "But it doesn't make the waiting any easier."
Kitty leaned her head against his shoulder, and he distantly felt her nod through the material separating them. "It never does, but if it were you that was sick, there isn't anyone I'd trust more to find out what it is."
Peter nodded, and for a long moment they sat together in silence, and listened to the pumps, and computers, and medical equipment he couldn't even begin to name. He found little solace in the sensation of her pressed against his side, particularly through the layers of plastic between them, and just sat and stared down on his little sister as she slept. Memories of another vigil, a long, long time ago, flooded to the surface again, and tears welled up in his eyes.
"The last time I sat with Yana like this," he finally said, and his voice was raw from the lump rising up in his throat, "was when her powers first started to manifest. She was so young that we didn't even realize that was what was happening. We thought she was having nightmares, and imagining monsters under the bed. We didn't know that there really were monsters under the bed, drawn out of Limbo by her powers.
"Well, she was terrified to go to sleep at night because she thought the monsters might get her. So I made her a promise: If she went to bed, I would sit with her all night in my armor and keep the monsters away. Long after she finally fell asleep I remained at her side, and I kept my promise."
He drew in a ragged breath as his tears broke free, unable to wipe them away. "But this time I can't. The monster already has her, and there's nothing I can do to keep it away."
Hank squeezed his eyes shut tight, and rubbed them with the index finger and thumb of one big, blue, furry paw. When he opened them again the solution had yet to materialize, so he heaved a sigh and bent over the microscope once more. He carefully adjusted the magnification until the cells of the blood sample on the slide came into focus, and he just stared quietly. He forced all other distractions from his mind, and all that existed for him now was the sample and his equipment.
He carefully studied the structure of the cells, seeking for anything out of place, painstakingly moving the slide this way and that until he searched every square micron.
"No indication of bacterial infection in sample AB-4," he said to the recorder running at his terminal. "ELISA tests for common viral infections are also negative. I have begun cultures, but given the rapid decline of the patient's condition this may not yield results soon enough. NAAT has yet to yield results. Toxicology is also negative in all samples, ruling out poison or envenomation, nor is there a sign that this is a parasitic infection. Should Ms. Rasputin regain consciousness I'm certain she will be appreciative to learn that the flora, fauna, and environment of Limbo has been exonerated as the vector for her condition. Nonetheless, it's hard to believe I'm saying this, but this malady has me stymied!"
He sighed and stood away from his microscope, and ran one claw down the length of his jaw.
"Samples from Ms. Guthrie, Ms. Gwynn, and Mr. Medina have likewise come back negative. All three subjects remain in quarantine for observation, though have yet to present with symptoms. As clinically morbid as it may sound, I may need another subject exhibiting symptoms to search for some commonality in their biological response to this pathogen."
Hank removed the slide from his microscope and gave everything a thorough cleaning, his mind spinning with hypotheses and postulations while he worked. "The only place off the school's grounds Yana visited before falling ill was Salem Center. Therefore either the school or Salem are the most likely sources of the infection. The school, I think, can be ruled out: Had Illyana fallen ill here, then at the very least other students in her classes would almost certainly be affected, and I suspect that those she had the most contact with — her brother, and her friends in observation — would have likewise already presented symptoms themselves. This means Salem is the most likely source ..."
He paused in the midst of his musings and frowned. "However this assumes an incubation period of only the past two weeks. If, perhaps, the pathogen has a longer incubation period this could expand the potential range considerably." Hank rubbed his chin. "Which means I'll need a more thorough history on her activities over the past months ..."
Hank! Jean's voice echoed in his mind, shattering his focus and derailing his chain of thought. Hank staggered as if struck at the double-whammy of the urgency and alarm in the summons, and he squeezed his temples between his paws. I need you upstairs right away! Medical emergency!
Hank was in motion almost before the words stopped rattling around his head. He snatched a medical kit from the wall, and shouldered through the door of his lab. The cold metal hallways of the subbasement passed him in a blur as he rushed for the elevator leading back up to the inhabited levels of the school. He punched the call button, and an eternity passed while he waited for it to arrive. It took another eternity for the elevator to make the trip back to the upper levels, and all the while Hank kept repeating I'm coming! I'm coming! in response to the undercurrent of panic Jean was broadcasting across the school.
He emerged in the wood-paneled hallway of the living areas outside the classrooms, and broke into a dead run for the entry hall. He wasn't the only one; students and staff alike mobbed towards the front of the school in response to Jean's broadcast. Their confusion and alarm was palpable, as they weren't privy to the why, and all they knew was something had upset one of the most powerful telepaths in existence, almost certainly giving them a splitting headache in the process. So curiosity overrode caution, and Hank found himself forcing a path through the sea of bodies.
"Out of the way! Out of the way!" he said, mixed with a few "excuse me's!" and "pardon me's!" to the few who couldn't quite clear the way fast enough, and ended up thrown aside by his furry bulk. Finally he broke free of the crowd filling the hall, and stumbled to a halt.
Scott lay cradled in Jean's arms, and she knelt in a spreading pool of vomit and blood.
"Oh my stars and garters!" he managed to blurt out, and sprung across the open floor between them. Fortunately the student body had the sense to give them room. "Jean, what happened?"
"We were attacked in Salem," she said, a barely-perceptible hitch in her voice that anyone other than those who knew her best would miss.
Hank tore open his medical kit and went to work. "Jean, I need to check his eyes, can you hold back his power?"
She nodded, and closed her eyes. "I have it."
Gingerly, and with no small amount of trepidation at the thought of being blasted across the room, Hank removed Scott's glasses.
"Significant mydriasis," he said, at the sight of Scott's dilated pupils. He dug through his kit for a flashlight. "Attacked how?"
"There was a man staking out the Grind Stone while we were checking in with Luna about Yana. I couldn't read him."
Hank frowned when he waved the flashlight over Scott's eyes, and there was no response. "One of Stryker's toys?"
Jean nodded. "I think so. When he left we followed, but he must have been waiting for us to make a move. He took shot at Scott. He thought it was a conventional pistol at first and that the round missed, but he was hit by a hypodermic dart."
He paused in his work and stared up at Jean. His expression froze somewhere between shock and curiosity. "Did you save it?"
"Yes, I bagged it as soon as I saw what happened. We rushed back as fast as we could, but barely got through the door before he vomited and collapsed."
Hank replaced Scott's glasses, and Jean visibly relaxed as she released her telekinetic hold over his powers. "We need to get him to isolation immediately, I think whatever Scott was hit with is the same as is affecting Yana." He sniffed and craned his neck at the familiar scent lingering nearby. "Jubilee!"
"Right here, Doc!" she said, and squeezed through the sea of bodies. Her features twisted with concern at the sight of Scott lying sprawled on the floor.
"Jubilee, get everyone out of here. And I mean now! Until further notice the entry hall is off limits."
"Got it!" Jubilee spun around to face the gawking crowd of children, and spread her arms wide. "All right, you heard Doc Fuzzy! Get back to class, your rooms, or the lounge. Don't make me paf you!"
A low mumble rippled across the crowd as they dispersed, and Jubilee ushered them off, leaving Hank and Jean alone.
"I'm sorry to ask right now, Jean," he said, "but I'm going to need your help in the lab. I don't want to say it in front of the others, though I suppose with Mr. Quire's lack of restraint he's probably already spreading the news, but whatever this is even has me stumped."
"I'm all right, Hank," she said.
"You understand I also need to quarantine you, as well."
She managed a small, tight smile. "And here I thought I could slip out for a night on the town."
"Well, come on, Scott is in no condition to make it to the medical bay on his own. Watch his head ..."
"You keep letting your guard drop!" Laura said, and Julian felt his legs fly out from beneath him, ending up somewhere over his head as she effortlessly flipped him backwards.
All the air rushed from his lungs with a grunt as he landed flat on his stomach, and it took his brain a moment to process the fact that the blow to the back of his knees sent him nearly through a full 180 before he came back down again. He rolled himself on to his back and gasped in a desperate breath. For a long moment just stared at the gym's ceiling tiles and light panels spinning overhead. Laura's face appeared in his line of sight upside down above his. Her simple ponytail swung down in front of her shoulders, and a thin film of sweat plastered a few stray wisps of hair to her face as she leaned over him. "Are you all right?"
"Ow," he grunted, and every bone and muscle throbbed in protest as he declined the offered hand up, and slowly forced himself back to his feet. Laura stood away to give him room as he leaned his hands on his knees and panted for breath. For a moment he just stared at the floor mat he spent most of the afternoon falling on.
They were alone, now; Cessily, Victor, and Santo tired of watching him get his butt kicked about an hour ago (he lost the bet) and headed off to get something to eat. Julian wasn't sure if it was pride or masochism, but he couldn't bring himself to call it quits just yet, and insisted on working out for a bit longer. He straightened with a grimace, and as he did so he concluded there was a third possibility for why he continued to subject himself to the beating she was giving him.
Laura stood with her hands on her hips. She watched him with those big, calculating green eyes, and a slight inquisitive tilt to her head that reminded him for all the world of a cat sizing up a stuffed mouse for a pounce. Her gymnast's figure was clad in a pair of those tiny black compression shorts that barely reached past the top of her thighs, and a matching sports bra. Truth be told he hadn't been able to concentrate on anything she was trying to teach him all afternoon.
"You know you don't have to go easy on me," he said dryly, and stretched his back.
Laura blinked, and her features twisted in confusion. "I have adjusted my technique to account for your skill level. If I were not holding back you would be unconscious."
Julian couldn't help but laugh at the obliviousness in her tone. Laura blushed slightly and she shifted awkwardly, apparently not recognizing the joke. "I'm kidding! Laura, it's a joke!"
She hesitated a moment and her cheeks reddened even more. "Oh."
He smiled and shook his head. "It's ok, y'know? Everyone has their skill sets. I need to work on not getting my ass kicked, you need to practice your sense of humor ..."
This time the corners of her mouth twitched into a barely-perceptible smile. "You have improved considerably since we began training with Colossus, though you seem distracted this afternoon. However I confess I still don't pick up very well on the nuances of humor ..."
Julian gawked at her, and when she noticed him staring open-mouthed she trailed off subconsciously, and tried her best to shrink down into herself.
"Back up a sec, what did you say?" he said.
She chewed her lower lip a moment and considered his question. "I said I do not pick up very well on the nuances of humor," she said, in that matter-of-fact way that always made him feel as if he just asked the most foolishly obvious question in the world.
"No, you said 'don't.' You actually used a contraction!"
Laura blinked and screwed up her features. To anyone who didn't know her the expression would be virtually unreadable, and a couple months ago he just wouldn't have cared. But as he began to pick up on the subtle quirks and gestures, her amazement was palpable.
"I did?" she said, astonished. "Is that wrong?"
"Not at all!" He quirked a grin. "For a second there you actually sounded like a real girl."
This time Laura picked on his teasing — she was learning — and her face all but lit up at that. "Then I should do so more often?"
He offered her a playful shrug. "Well, baby steps, you know. But yeah, it wouldn't hurt to loosen up a little bit, and not be so serious all the time."
"I admit I don't find it easy." Something passed across her lips that almost looked like a mirror of his teasing smirk from before, and Julian eyed her suspiciously. That's new. "But it helps to have an example who never takes things seriously."
The remark came so unexpectedly that it took Julian a moment to realize that she was actually poking him back. He folded his arms across his chest and pouted. "Hey, I can be serious!"
The slight smirk remained on Laura's lips as she resumed a guard stance. "Then concentrate, please."
Julian mirrored her stance, then thought better of it and assumed one he recalled offered a better counter to hers. She gave a short nod and began shifting through several different guards at random. He responded by taking up the appropriate counter.
"Y'know it's not easy when you're seeing spots and double. I think you gave me a concussion."
Laura paused and regarded him for a moment. "Perhaps we ought to stop, then."
"Joke. I'm good, really."
She considered, then nodded again and returned to her pattern. "Ok. This is a simple throw. When you are ready, move in and grapple me."
Julian's mouth went a little dry at that, and he had to fight to keep his voice even. "Right. Grapple. Got it."
They danced around one another a moment longer. When Julian found a comfortable stance from which to make his move he rushed in. He threw his arms around her shoulders as if to throw her to the mat, and was suddenly aware of her lithe figure pressed close against his, their cheeks almost touching. The scent of her sweat filled his nostrils, and the heat of her body bled through his loose gym shirt. Her state of dress did little to help him concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing.
"Tighter," she said.
"What?" he said, and cringed when his voice broke in surprise at her instructions.
"You are supposed to be grappling me." A hint of impatience crept into her voice, and Julian couldn't help but notice their current position put her lips rather close to his ear. "This technique relies on your opponent attempting to control you in the clinch. You are holding me too loosely, so don't have control of me."
"Oh, right." Julian complied and tightened his grip.
"Good. This is called koshinage. When your opponent grabs you, put your hands on their hips to open up some space between you, then take their tricep with one hand, and reach around their back about at the belt line with the other."
She demonstrated as she spoke, and Julian felt a small measure of relief when she took hold of his hips and pushed away. Her small hand clamped onto the back of one of his arms, and the other threaded around his waist.
"Stay low and keep your feet together. Turn into them to get them onto your hip ..." she said.
Julian's face heated when she demonstrated, and her backside pushed against him. Oh god! Don't think about it! Think Santo skinny dipping! But don't hurl on her when you do!
"...then push up with your legs and use your grip to lift and roll them over your hip."
Laura kicked against the mat, and the movement jammed her butt even deeper into him. Before he could even think of distracting himself from that he was lifted from his feet, and once again found himself tumbling through the air. He struck the floor at her feet on his shoulder, and grunted with the impact. For a moment Julian lay there in a daze and stared up at Laura spinning above him.
"You need to practice your falls," she said, and extended him a hand up.
Julian accepted the help and got back to his feet. He nursed his shoulder. "I think you've helped me get the falling part down. It's the landings I need to work on. Still amazes me you can do that, I've got to outweigh you by like eighty pounds."
Laura folded her arms across her breast. "Because of my mutation, my musculature and skeletal structure are denser. But it is as much a matter of mechanics and leverage as of strength. Are you ready to try?"
He rocked his neck to loosen up the muscles, and rolled his shoulder. "Sure, why not, it'll be nice to be the one doing the throwing for a change."
She gave a short nod and took up fighting stance. Julian assumed its counter, and once again they circled each other for a few moments. Then Laura lightly sprung in with catlike speed, and threw her arms around him. She gathered him into a crushing bear hug belying her size, pinning his arms to his sides. Once again Julian was suddenly conscious of her body pressed close against hers.
"Now, put your hands on my hips and push away," she said, and Julian did as she instructed, gripping her tightly on either side of her pelvis and backing away from her.
"Then I grab your arm like this, and put an arm around your back ..." he said. As he spoke he took hold of her arm in one hand, turned slightly away, and threaded the other around her back. His grip ended up somewhere just below her shoulder blades.
"Your hand is too high on my back," she said. "Lower."
"Sorry, there's a height difference, you know ..." Julian fumbled around behind him to find the right spot, and probably because someone up there was having some fun at his expense, when it settled he found himself with a handful of her backside.
If Laura was as surprised or embarrassed by his hand on her butt as he was, it didn't register in her voice. Instead she maintained the same professional tone she had throughout their training session. "Too low."
"Shit! Sorry! Sorry! My bad!" Julian cringed that he couldn't keep the chagrin from his voice, and hastily readjusted his grip to somewhere around the small of her back. Get it together you idiot!
"Good, now push into me, and lift me over your hip."
Julian did as she instructed. He pushed his hip into her and kicked off with his legs, but rather than rolling her over his hip as she so effortlessly did to him, he only succeeded in lifting her straight up off the ground. "Crap!"
"Try again, make sure to use your grip on my arm and back to help roll me over."
"Right, right," he said, and silently cursed himself for the mistake.
Julian tried again, and this time managed to flip her. Laura struck the ground on her shoulder, and smoothly rolled back to her feet.
"Good!" she said, and turned back to face him. The corners of her lips twitched into a slight smile, and Julian smiled back in satisfaction (and more than a little relief that it was over). "You might try dropping lower next time, that will make it easier to get under me when you lift me for the throw; paradoxically this technique is actually easier to perform if you are shorter than your opponent."
"I'll keep it in mind," he said, and rubbed his shoulder, which started to throb around the time he accidentally caught a handful of Laura's butt. "Look, if it's ok with you I think it's probably time to hit the shower. I'm gonna be one big walking bruise in the morning, so should probably call it quits for the day."
Julian hesitated a moment, and met Laura's eyes. She stared back, and the confidence and ease she demonstrated while kicking his ass across the gym faded. She tried to shrink down into herself at the scrutiny, though the effect was lost without her oversized jacket. A small thrill worked its way through his gut as he considered what he was about to say. "Do, uh, you have any plans for dinner tonight?"
Laura considered the question for a moment, and was just about to respond when a voice cut through Julian's head.
To me, my X-Men! the Professor's voice echoed between his ears.
Julian stumbled under the urgency of the summons, and pressed his hands to his temples.
"Ow! What the hell!" he blurted out.
Laura swept her eyes across the gym, and a disconcerted expression twisted her features. "That was the Professor ..."
Julian shook his head to clear the ringing and blinked. "Oh good, I thought I was going crazy for a second."
"Come on," she said, "we should see what he wants."
Laura started away from him and Julian ran to catch up as she hurried for the bench where they left her things. His belly churned at the moment and opportunity slipping through his fingers. "Woah, what? You don't think he meant us, too, do you?"
"Why would he broadcast it to us if he did not?"
"I mean we're not real X-Men yet."
She considered that for a moment. "Perhaps, but nonetheless the Professor would not have broadcast such a command to us if he did not intend us to respond."
Julian heaved a sigh and let his shoulders slump in defeat as the moment was destroyed. "Man, this better be good ..."
Laura and Keller were the last to arrive, slipping quietly into the Professor's office together. Nori guessed from their mussed and sweaty hair — and Laura's sweatpants and hoodie thrown on over her workout clothes — they must have just come from the gym. Santo snickered something under his breath in Cessily's ear that earned him a solid sock in his rocky shoulder, and it was about as effective as she imagined punching a rock wall could be. He just grinned that big, stupid, vacant grin of his in response, and continued munching on a bag of Cheetos. The pair found seats together in their usual spot on the couch, saved for them by Sooraya, and the Professor regarded them with that barely-perceptible smirk he wore whenever he allowed himself to actually be amused by some antic of the student body.
"Thank you for joining us," he said. "And yes, Mr. Keller, it's safe to assume that when you hear that summons it does include you, as well."
Keller blushed fiercely and did his best Laura-shrinking-into-her-jacket impression at the public rebuke. Nori allowed herself a smile at his discomfiture over the scolding. David chuckled under his breath from the chair next to her.
The entire team was crammed into Xavier's office, made even more crowded by the presence of Dr. McCoy, Mr. Drake, Ms. D'Ancanto, and Jubilee. She frowned at the absence of Mr. Summers and Dr. Grey. With Yana so sick it stood to reason that her brother would be staying by her side, but if the X-Men were assembled where were...?
Xavier heaved a sigh. "There's no point in stepping around the situation or in holding anything back," he said, "So I will come right to the point. You all know that Illyana Rasputin has fallen very ill. Dr. McCoy and Dr. Grey are still working hard to identify the nature of her illness, but we have, unfortunately, determined the cause."
"I've said all along there's something wrong with the food. Those school lunches are a health violation," Keller quipped with a lopsided grin, and leaned back on the couch. Nori rolled her eyes, the others groaned, and Keller's smile faltered under the Professor's withering glare.
"Henry, show them the footage Ms. DePaula sent us," Xavier said, and his tone as he stared Julian down lowered the temperature in the room by several degrees.
With grace belying his bulk, Dr. McCoy slipped around the others crowded into the office towards a nondescript wall panel otherwise identical to all the others. He touched a button concealed in the paneling with one clawed finger. It depressed with a quiet click, and a soft hum filled the room as the panels split open, revealing a big screen TV tucked away inside one wall.
"Dude, can we get one of those for the lounge?" Santo asked.
"Shut up, Santo!" Victor hissed.
Nori didn't spare them a look, and just focused her attention on the TV as her stomach twisted itself in knots. What on earth did Luna have to do with this?
"Earlier this afternoon," Dr. McCoy said, "Jean and Cyclops visited Ms. DePaula as part of our investigation into the vector for Illyana Rasputin's illness. She was as bewildered upon learning the news as we are, and Jean can confirm that she wasn't hiding anything."
She released a breath she didn't realize she was holding as her boss was exonerated. The thought of Luna's friendly and welcoming smile masking sinister intentions couldn't have come as a more appalling shock.
"However, while she may have had nothing to do with it, we now have reason to believe that Illyana did, in fact, contract this illness at the Grind Stone."
Nori gawked at him, and raised her hand. Dr. McCoy gave her a slight nod of acknowledgement. "How is that possible? I mean, I help her stock everything, and she's completely anal about her expiration dates and making sure none of the shipping cartons are tampered with. We sent back an entire bag of beans just because there was a teensy tear in the seal! And if it was something at Luna's, how come I'm not sick, too?"
He held up one furry claw. "Watch and see, Nori."
Dr. McCoy slipped a small remote from the breast pocket of his lab coat, pointed it at the TV, and started a video. Nori immediately recognized the grainy, black-and-white security feeds watching over the café. Dr. Grey and Cyclops sat at one of the tables, but everything else seemed pretty normal. She was about to raise her hand to interject again when one of the patrons visible in the recording got up, and Dr. McCoy paused the image.
"While Ms. DePaula was unable to provide much information for us to go on, this individual caught Jean's attention for a rather sinister reason: She was completely unable to read him."
When Nori looked back to take in the others' reactions at the Beast's ominous pronouncement she saw the Professor staring as cold and hard at the picture as she could ever recall. She shuddered; normally he kept his feelings tightly controlled, but damned if his composure wasn't on the verge of failing outright. The barely-fettered rage in his eyes made bile bubble up in the back of her throat. Laura's green eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and Keller leaned forward on the couch with a concerned frown. Even Jubilee's easy smile was gone, and she folded her arms beneath her breast as she stared angrily at what they were seeing. The only sound was the ceaseless crunch crunch crunch of Santo blithely snacking away on his chips.
David swallowed, and Nori self-consciously reached out and squeezed his hand. "Another mutant blocking her?"
She could tell from the tone of his voice he didn't honestly believe it.
Dr. McCoy's leonine features twisted into a scowl, and he shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The sensation she described is identical to the effects of the Purifiers' technology."
Electricity danced along the surface of Nori's arms, and made her finer hairs stand on end. She quietly discharged the build-up into her gauntlets.
"Cyclops and Dr. Grey pursued, however he must have been watching for them. They did not get far before he stopped and opened fire on them." McCoy bowed his head. "Cyclops was hit."
"Is he all right? How bad was it?" Josh asked. Nori glanced at him over her shoulder, but the expression on his metallic golden features was unreadable as he leaned against a bookshelf and stared at the footage.
"He was struck by a hypodermic dart. I'm still analyzing what was left of its contents, but by the time Jean managed to return him to the school he was exhibiting the same symptoms as Illyana."
The silence that followed Dr. McCoy's pronouncement was so thick and oppressive Nori doubted even Laura's claws could cut it. She looked from face to face; Sooraya bowed her head in silent prayer and Cessily deflated. Laura's expression was, per usual, unreadable. Keller's eyes darkened and he folded his arms across his chest. Josh shifted from foot to foot, and Victor mopped his scaly face. Santo's expression was as empty as ever, but his rocky hand stopped halfway into his bag of chips, and his glowing blue eyes flared slightly. David heaved a sigh and lowered his head as well.
"What has this to do with Illyana?" Sooraya asked, when she finished her prayer and found her voice again.
"After the incident with Scott and Jean, I requested access to more of Luna's security recordings," Dr. McCoy said.
He tapped a button on his remote and the video they were watching was replaced by another one that made Nori's gut go all hollow and queasy. There she was, working the counter at the Grind Stone. A figure seated at one of the tables stood up and headed for the exit, only to run right into Illyana as she entered. Dr. McCoy froze the video there, but he didn't need to: Nori already knew what was about to happen.
"We ran the two recordings through facial recognition software, and this is the same man encountered by Scott and Jean."
"Oh god ..." Nori said, and something rose up into the back of her throat. It was all she could do to keep from throwing up all over the Professor's floor.
"Nori?" Jubilee said.
"That guy spilled his coffee all over Yana's shirt. She just about popped him off to Limbo over it!"
"Unfortunately," Dr. McCoy said, "Yana already ran it through the laundry when she got back. I've already fetched it and brought it to the lab, but unless we're dealing with a particularly hardy little bug, I highly doubt there will be anything left for me to find."
"Nonetheless, it leaves us with little doubt: This was an attack," the Professor said, and there was a hard edge to his voice that sent a chill down Nori's spine. "The concern now is blunting it before it gets worse."
"How much worse are we talking about?" Cessily said, and wrung her hands.
Dr. McCoy sighed and pinched his nose. "Unfortunately, until Jean and I can isolate and identify the actual pathogen I can't venture a guess as to how easily or quickly it can spread. However it's clearly highly virulent; Scott's symptoms onset rapidly, though I suspect that has much to do with it being injected directly into his bloodstream. Illyana took about a week to present, so I would suggest that as a more accurate baseline of how quickly it begins to affect the victim after exposure. However it does appear to be rather versatile in its means of transmission."
"What about those with healin' factors," Ms. D'Ancanto said in her Mississippi drawl, and Nori glanced at Laura. A few other pairs of eyes followed, and she shrunk into her hoodie self-consciously at the attention. "Or mutations like Bobby's ice form, Peter's armor, or Santo's...rocks?"
Dr. McCoy offered a helpless shrug. "I honestly don't know. In Santo's case, since he has no known biological component my hypothesis is he would naturally be immune, as there's nothing for a virus, bacteria, or parasite to actually attack."
"Does that mean I don't need a shot?" Santo asked, and raised his Cheeto-crusted fingers. "Because I hate getting shots."
Victor buried his face in his hands. "Stop talking, dude. Seriously, just stop talking."
Santo visibly deflated at the rebuke, and resumed munching on his Cheetos.
Nori raised her hand again. "Ok, so the point is that things are super scary bad. So what are we supposed to do?"
"Jean and Henry will continue their work attempting to isolate the disease and finding a way to cure it," the Professor said. "I would like Josh and David to help them."
Josh gave a stiff nod. "I don't know what good I can do, but ok."
"At least it helps having another pair of eyes," David said, "And being able to pool Dr. McCoy and Dr. Grey's knowledge at the same time, maybe I can spot something that they might miss."
Nori smiled and gave his hand a squeeze.
The Professor turned his attention to the others. "Bobby, I'd like you to assemble the team. Head back to Salem center and try to find this individual before he can infect anyone else or disappear entirely."
Mr. Drake nodded. "I don't think I'm going to be able to drag Pete away from Yana, so we'll be a bit short-handed while Storm's away to speak at that climate change conference."
"I know, Bobby. In fact a smaller team in this case will be less likely to alarm the public in Salem Center."
"I guess that puts me back on 'Keep everyone from freaking out' duty," Jubilee said.
The Professor nodded. "The last thing we want now is a panic. Let the students know Henry and Jean are doing everything we can to help their friends."
She heaved a sigh and pinched her nose. "You know it'd be easier if I wasn't so freaked out myself. No offense, Doc."
Dr. McCoy quirked a grin. "None taken."
Last, Xavier turned his attention to her, and Nori swallowed. "Nori, while Bobby and the others are out, the security of the school is up to you and the rest of your team in case this is prelude to another direct attack."
"Oh, great, I'm sure we'll have them running scared when we line up on the lawn," she said, and rolled her eyes.
Xavier was about to offer a retort when an alarm bleeped, and Dr. Grey's voice broke out on the intercom.
"Hank, I need you! Now!"
The tone of her voice made Nori's belly churn, and she idly wondered why Dr. Grey didn't just call for Dr. McCoy telepathically.
Dr. McCoy touched a control on his remote. "Jean? What is it?"
"It's Melody, Hank. Whatever this is has begun to spread."
Hank was in the airlock almost before he got the seals on his biohazard secured. The door closed and locked behind him, and with a gaseous hiss the inner door released and swung open, admitting him to the quarantine bay. Jean already stood over Melody Guthrie, holding her upright while the girl retched and emptied the contents of her belly into a bucket. Sweat beaded on her brow, and her hair clung wetly to her face. By the time Hank reached her bedside, blood was pouring from her mouth.
"Oh my stars and garters ..." he muttered. "Temperature?"
"Spiking hard," Jean said, her voice straining with the effort of containing her alarm. "104.5 ..." An alarm bleeped from one of the monitors attached to the bed, and Jean glanced away. "104.9."
"We need to get her temperature down quickly."
"Hank, this came out of nowhere. It jumped from normal to this in less than ten minutes! I've never seen anything like this."
Melody gagged again, and Jean hurried to put the bucket in front of her. More blood erupted from her mouth.
Hank rest a hand against the girl's back to steady her. "Neither have I," he admitted.
Melody's retching subsided. "Doctor McCoy, I'm not feelin' good ..." she murmured, her voice barely above a weak whisper.
"I know, Mel," he said, fighting to keep his voice as even and soothing as he could under the circumstances. "It's going to be all right."
She hugged herself tightly as a shiver worked its way through her body, and tears welled up in her eyes. "I want momma ..."
"You need rest," Jean said, and gently guided her back down.
"I want momma!" she mewled again. "Momma! Mom ..."
Melody's voice trailed off, and her eyes rolled back. And like a marionette whose strings were cut, her body went limp and her head lolled to the side. Hank frantically checked her vitals. So far none of the alarms went off, but her pulse was thready and her breathing shallow.
"Where are Megan and Fabio?" Hank said, and chided himself for letting his voice rise with fresh urgency.
"Next bay over, as soon as Mel presented I separated them."
Hank hurried to a control panel along one wall and adjusted the environment controls. The scrubbers filtering the air flowing into the room whined as the air conditioning units kicked in, and the temperature in the room dropped quickly. "Melody and Yana share a room so it's not surprising she's the next to present. Call Josh and David, we're going to need their help and they've already been briefed. I believe Fabio or Megan will likely be next, I want them in beds and monitored immediately for the slightest change in their condition. Temperature, heart rate, oxygen levels, everything.
"Has there been any change in Scott's condition?"
"No," Jean said, and Hank returned his attention to her at the tightness in her voice. He couldn't quite make out her face through the mask of her suit, but her distress was evident in her posture. "But he hasn't gotten worse, either."
Hank ground his teeth together, and clenched his fists as he hesitated a moment to weigh his response. "Jean, I won't insult you with false assurances; I have no hope that this is going to get better any time soon. In fact I'm afraid it's only going to get much, much worse. What we're dealing with ..."
She nodded. "I know, Hank. I'm all right. We have a job to do. I've already called Josh and David. I'll get Fabio and Megan into beds. And then I'll start preparing more, because we'll need them."
Abandoned Weapon Plus bunker, the Canadian wilderness...
Matthew wove through the bodies packed inside the bunker's command center, and tapped the tablet against his hand. Men and women stepped away from their stations only long enough to clear the path, and the drone of voices filled the installation with a buzz of excitement he had not felt since the moments just before they stepped off for their attack against the Xavier school. The hardships of winter were over, and everyone now focused their attention on their part in the war to come. He allowed himself a tight smile, and self-consciously brushed his fingertips against the mass of scar tissue as the incline of his lips tugged against his burned flesh.
After months of defeat and retreat, they just won their first victory in the struggle to come.
The Reverend stood with Jack, Mary, and several other senior officers in a quiet corner not far from the communications terminal. Stryker reviewed information on an iPad in Mary's hands, gesticulating at times at some point or other, and the others nodded their understanding. He paused when he caught Matthew's approach out of the corner of his eye, and the others all turned their attention on him as he raised his tablet in triumph.
"Good morning, Matthew," Stryker said as he reached them. "You have the morning report from our agents in New York?"
"Yes, sir, Reverend," he said. The others took note of his smile, and waited eagerly for him to reveal his news.
"It would seem you have good news this morning."
"Very good news, Reverend. Very good news. I just received an update from Beta Team reporting mission accomplished."
The Reverend's face could have lit the room all by itself, and even Jack and Mary smiled.
"The test was successful?"
Matthew nodded and handed him the tablet. Stryker accepted it and paged through the team leader's report. "Yes, sir. We can confirm that the target subject they selected has been infected. If everything works as our benefactors promised, the virus should be spreading by now."
Stryker's lips curled into a victorious smile. "Good news indeed, Matthew!"
"There's more, sir. Two-One Beta encountered Grey and Summers in Salem Center, questioning the operator of that café the abominations frequent. He was spotted and pursued, but managed to shoot Summers." His smiled broadened at the delight on the Reverend's features.
"Summers is infected, as well?"
"If everything works as expected, yes."
Stryker chucked, and shook a fist in triumph. "Very good! Very, very good!" He turned his attention to Mary and Jack, who were beaming as well at this turn of fortune. "It's time to move forward. Mary, I'd like you to take control of the operation. I've arranged a rendezvous with our friend Mr. Pierce, who will help you slip past the watch for us on the border. He's placed his people at our disposal, so we'll use them to proceed with the next phase."
Mary nodded, and tapped a few options on her iPad. "Yes, sir. What's our target?"
He considered her pad for a moment, then jabbed a finger into the display. "This virus is our legacy to mankind, people. It's time for us to make a statement that we will not bow down to these abominations and their supporters. We make the release in New York City."
To be continued...
A Note From The Author
Well, that took longer than expected. I'd first of all really like to apologize for the delay getting this episode up. Between the holidays and getting manuscripts ready I've been feeling swamped, and this just happened to be what got cut to get everything done. We'll see how the release schedule goes from here on out, but I don't know if I'll be able to maintain a "new release the first of each month" pace.
Lots of little things that needed to be set up in this episode. We've got the main arc for the next few episodes, along with preparing for things to come. As I noted last season, I wasn't actually planning on Yana being a particularly big presence in the series, but as soon as I started developing this season her role grew, especially once this plot started to come together. I knew she simply had to be a part of it. We also get a bit of a look in on what Wither has been up to, and more bits and pieces of Stryker's evil plan for this season.
I am, of course, perfectly aware that in today's era of Zero Tolerance, Quentin Quire would likely have been expelled outright for his antics, but I'm just going to leave it at the Xavier School doesn't operate under the same rules as most American schools.
And of course, we get a shameless little bit of fanservice to tease the shippers. We also get to see that Laura is developing more, particularly in her speech patterns. The funny thing about her language in the books is that everyone assumes that she never uses contractions, and her dialogue should always be extremely formal and stilted. However this was actually only a characteristic of when she was written under Liu. Even her creators, Kyle and Yost, gave her a more naturalistic — if still formal — manner of speaking. I went with the Liu characterization at the beginning of the series, as I felt that best established where she was in her development, however we're going to start seeing the influence of the others on her as time goes by.
I was asked during the break whether I considered casting for the series, but honestly I haven't really given a lot of thought about it. I will say the one character I do have an idea for is India Eisley as X-23. She has the look, and between films like Kite and Underworld: Awakening has played similar roles. So I think she'd be perfect.
Not really much else to say about this one. In other news, my second book, Bait and Switch, will be releasing soon, so be sure to keep an eye out!
Until next time!