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Uncanny X-Men: Lost Shadows

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It's nearly midnight, Central European time, as the Blackbird threads through the cold, dark night sky. Tonight's mission brings the X-Men to Cuxhaven, Germany, and their flightplan has them arriving from the northwest, ensuring that they stay above water and avoid eyeballs for as long as possible. Invisible and silent, the first light they've seen for hours belongs to a large cathedral on a cliff, overlooking the North Sea. Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, is on the stick, and as he brings them closer to their ultimate destination he can begin to make out more than a dozen large government and military vehicles spread out around the building. Knowing that if he can see them, they could see him, although the odds of anyone on the ground actually looking up into the dark sky and out over the water is slim to none, he brings the Blackbird up into a layer of heavy clouds where they can lay in wait as the local humidity begins to slowly climb, and the local temperature slowly falls.

If you'd never met Ororo Munroe, aka Storm, you would probably find it strange to see such a massive fog rising from the sea, especially this early in the evening. The heavy mist, crawling up the side of the cliff like a kraken come to consume the cathedral, wastes no time burying the entire building and the cliff upon which it rests, in its oblique breast. Safely concealed amidst the towering blanket of moisture, the plane lands without attention, and as the ramp lowers from beneath its fuselage, eight figures disembark, dividing themselves into two teams of four. Jean Grey, the leader of this and every mission, stops and faces out towards the gates at the front of the property, and the trucks full of soldiers standing guard around it. Using her unbelievable powers, she reaches out and touches their mind, creating a massive illusion of a series of large, WWII Nazi tanks, trudging up the road towards the cathedral, drawing away the full attention of these armed men who had been posted outside to prevent the arrival of those such as Jean, and these X-Men. As shots begin firing off into a deceptively empty night, her team head to a nearby crypt in the graveyard, and use it as an underground entrance into the building. Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, takes the lead, lowering his body temperature down to match the chilly night air, making him perfectly invisible to the thermal imaging used in most military surveillance equipment. Behind Bobby, Scott and Alison Blaire, aka Dazzler, move in tandem, each tasked with scanning for threats from either the left or the right, and providing cover, if necessary for Drake. Jean takes the rear, always the last one in or out, making sure her team is safely through and covering their flank before following them, herself.

Ororo’s team, Remy LeBeaux, aka Gambit, Anna Marie Darkholme, aka Rogue, and James "Logan" Howlett, aka Wolverine, fly up to the top of the building, each man dangling in front of the woman carrying him, and enter through an open window on the top floor. Each team begins their search for the target, moving in secret from room to room, and floor to floor, in absolute silence and with dazzling efficiency. Jean's team works her way up from the basement, like a film on mute thanks to Alison. While she prefers to use her dazzling powers to blind and astonish, they are equally handy for absorbing the sound waves generated by footsteps and old doors, transforming them into a blinding light unable to escape the black velvet glove over her left hand. As they get to the second floor, a young guard unexpectedly emerges from what appears to be a bathroom. His face turns to shock and horror when he realizes that even he can't hear his own desperate screams for backup. Scott hits him with a force blast straight to the chest, which sends him back into the hard stone wall at the end of the hallway. The overwhelming force sandwiches him from both front and back, and he crumples to the floor unconscious, like a marionette whose strings have just been cut. The team clears each room on the floor before moving up, and as the other three hit the steps, Jean stops to briefly check the guards pulse and prop his head, before rejoining her team. 

The second group isn't as fancy, but are equally effective. The ladies hover two inches above the ground to keep from making noise, while the boys rely on skills acquired in what feels like another life to move without detection. Logan runs point, and his preternaturally acute senses allow him sniff out the location of anyone on the floor before they begin their searches. Years as a thief gave Gambit feet as soft and nimble as a ballet dancer, and his MMA training allows him to bring each soldier to unconscious submission before they even realize they were under attack. Rogue could take the whole building down, if necessary, but this part of the mission requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, so she waits in the rear alongside her equally powerful team leader, acting as essentially backup until needed.

It's not easy to catch Logan off guard, but he'll never get over the fact that even he can't tell that Bobby is around when the corner when he's got his temperature down and Alison is working her magic. The two teams meet on the stairway in the middle of the building, and Jean connects them all with a telepathic link before moving forward. You don't have to have heightened hearing to know that this floor is where the action, as the sloppy footsteps of the nearby soldiers are practically an afterthought compared to the heavy, musky smell that is bound to surround thirty grown men in full military gear, close together in a poorly ventilated stone building. The floor is filled with heavily armed German agents, and their fingers are all anxiously on the trigger of their large, assault rifles as they try to retain composure. A series of “Bamf” noises begin to get louder and louder, and throughout the hall bursts of purple light on the other sides can be seen escaping around the doors, bouncing back and forth across the hall, randomly moving from room to room. The X-Men look to Jean and she gives them the nod, it's go time. As one, they enter the hall, silence and stealth no longer a concern. Blasts of red make their way down the corridor first, followed by an array of exploding projectiles and blasts of blinding light streaking towards the Germans' eyes as if moving with a mind of their own.

There was a pervasive air of superiority to the Germans when the first arrived at the monastery, the heroes had arrived to vanquish the "demon," and the poor blue bastard had no idea what he was in for. Their confidence had started to shake when their attempt to corner him proved instantly futile, and brought with it an immediate humility and realization that the heroic feats they've seen on news broadcasts from places like New York, and Sokovia where reserved for just that, heroes. Now, engaged in combat with a team of eight people, some of them women, yet powerful enough to take on an entire army, all they have left to fall back on are screams and prayers as they fire their guns without even knowing what they're trying to hit. Thirty becomes twenty before the mutants are close enough to throw a punch, and between the short one who moves like a feral animal, and shreds their guns with the amazing claws protruding from his fists, and the dark-featured man whose fists are like frozen sledgehammers, twenty becomes ten just as quickly. One of the females, with a wild streak through her hair, lays herself out straight and flies through the air like a human arrow, taking first one soldier off of his feet, and then gathering a second, a third, a fourth, and amazingly a fifth before bringing them all into the stone wall at the end of the hall with a force that surprisingly didn't send them crashing through it. Red beams and explosions incapacitate three more men, until there is only one German agent left standing, with eight frighteningly calm opponents closing in in him. Begging for mercy in a language they can't understand, he throws his gun to the ground and tries to run in terror, but unfortunately runs too close to the larger of the men, whose expert training allowed him to throw an arm out faster than the soldier can avoid it, and clothesline him into oblivion.

Jean looks at Remy, and gives him a look of disappointment like a parent who just saw their kid try to sneak a cookie. "What? It's better this way, non?" he says, with his french-cajun delivery.

"Non, it's acceptable, but never better." The tone of her voice is a blend of a loving mother and devoted teacher. There is no condescension or condemnation in her admonition, rather an understanding that she wants the best of him, and he should, too. "Kurt," she says without raising her voice, "it's okay to come out. Its safe, now."

~BAMF~

A purple light flashes behind a door to their right, and then it slowly opens, to reveal their blue-furred friend, with curled, two-toed feet sticking out from the bottom a long brown robe. "Dankeschein, mein brothers and sisters. I am sorry you had to come here, but thank you so much for what you have done. I do not want to imagine what the alternative might have been."

Ororo steps forward, and gives Kurt a hug. "It is nothing, you are family, Kurt. There is never a time in which we will not gladly be here for you." Gambit puts a hand on Kurt's shoulder, and nods in agreement, and as Kurt looks across the faces of his friends who have just crossed the world for him, he knows without questions that they all feel the same, and they all truly mean it.

"These guys aren't gonna sleep forever, Jean." Logan says, breaking the moment with a necessary reminder. Jean nods, and the nine of them make their way quickly downstairs, back towards the tunnels that will take them out to the graveyard, where their ride home awaits. Along the way they pass a section of wall with an old, rusted pipe running along the outside, from floor to ceiling.

"Remy!" Jean says, grabbing his attention. "This one," motioning towards the pipe. Gambit walks over, and puts a hand on it. Within seconds it begins to glow red, he lets go and quickly turns his back to it as the pipe bursts into pieces in the spot where he had just held it. "That will do, thank you." 

They continue on through the crypt, and out the way some of them had entered only a few minutes earlier. As the rest of the team boards the Blackbird for the trip home, Jean stands before the ramp, facing out towards the cathedral and the soldiers in the road beyond it. She allows her previous illusion, of the massive tanks to dissipate -- it hadn't too much of her attention to maintain it during the operation, inside -- and sends out a mass telepathic coercion. She can feel the memories of the German soldiers and government agents, the fear and anger from the battles they just faced, both real and illusory, and like wiping a chalkboard she brushes them aside and replaces them with a calm, soothing suggestion. 'Quickly, grab your masks. There has been a gas leak in the church. Your brothers need your help!' There won't actually be any gas, but the broken pipe and unconscious comrades will be evidence enough to confirm a theory in which they already believe. The last thing she sees as she boards the jet are brave German men, throwing down their arms and running valiantly to their fellows' aid, and she smiles knowing that along with procuring the safety of her own fellow, this is the memory these men will take with them from this evening.

The ramp lifts, and the rest of the team is already buckled in as Jean heads past them to the co-pilot's seat, taking her place next to Scott. Alison is already on her phone, posting selfies to Instagram that Jean doesn't even remember noticing her taking, and Anna has taken off her boots, and stretched her legs out across the aisle so Remy can rub her feet, no doubt at his request. Logan closes his eyes, hoping to get a couple hours sleep on the way home, but listens contentedly to Kurt answering Bobby's questions about the Bible, reassuring the younger man that purpose of the scripture is the spirit of the message, and that the spirit is always one of love. Ororo turns on a small reading light, next to her end of the bench, and reaches underneath to pull out a thin canvas bag, and a stack of essays on the lasting effects of colonialism in modern Africa that she had meant to have graded by now. For the moment, everyone is safe, and the team is on their way home. These moments don't come too often, so Jean is going to savor this one as she looks back over the cabin at her family, with gratitude.

Chapter Text

The Blackbird cruised home at a cool 850 mph, and by flying up above the 60th parallel north, they actually outrun the Earth’s rotation, and managed to make it home a couple hours earlier than when they left. All that time in the air had the team well-rested and eager to stretch their legs and attack the evening. By the time the Mansion came into view, and Scott could be heard radioing in for the Professor to slide open the basketball courts, everyone in the back had already begun unstrapping and standing up to stretch their legs. “Come on, team, I feel like I have to remind you every time we fly, every member must remain in harness until the Blackbird has landed and the loading ramp begins to open. We have safety protocols for a reason.” Not a single teammate even turns to acknowledge that Scott is talking. “Tell them Jean!”

Jean, too, unstraps herself from the co-pilot seat and begins to stand, turning to head towards the rear of the jet. She puts her hand on his shoulder as she turns and climbs out of the cockpit, “It’s a sign of how much they trust their pilot. You should take it as a compliment.” Jean smiles, reassuring Scott as much as someone who knows everyone else is wrong can be reassured, and leaves him to complete what is sure to be a textbook landing.

From inside the hangar, the sounds of the hydraulics coming alive and the gears breaking into motion signal the imminent lowering of the ramp from beneath. Professor Charles Xavier, the wealthy and renowned Headmaster of the school, stands safely to the rear, and as his team is itchy to disembark, he sees them lined up, as if for a team photo, when they come into view. Allison barely even recognizes he’s there as she runs right past him, her attention abjectly locked onto the four inch screen in her hands. Bobby is right behind, but slower and more respectful in his approach to Xavier.

“Evening, Professor.” Bobby stops for a moment in front of Xavier, and nods respectfully.

“Good Evening, Robert. Welcome home.” the Professor replies back warmly, although as usual, without a trace of a smile.

“Thank you, sir.” Bobby loves the Professor, in many ways Charles Xavier has been more of a father to him than his own father has, especially these last few years, but he has always felt more comfortable speaking to him in private, than in public. He puts his head down breaking eye contact, and continues on, eager to get back to his room and drop off his gear.

As the others follow closely behind, they walk past the patriarch and headmaster with simple greetings…

“Pro’fess’oh,” off that cajun tongue that manages to speak fast, despite excessive glottal stops.

“Broofesser,” with that Eastern European contralto that effortlessly rolls r’s off like a purring feline.

“Chuck,” as always, saying so much in the fewest words possible.

...but never actually break stride, as they continue back towards the living quarters. It is their guest, and the reason for this particular mission, who is most interested in stopping and engaging with the old man.

“Professor, you have my eternal gratitude. I do not want to think about what might have been, had these brave brothers and sisters of ours not arrived when they had.” Kurt’s praise is effusive, and sincere.

“Of course, my friend,” Charles replies, “What good is all of this…” he raises his arms and gestures around the hangar, “...if it does not allow us to help our own when they need us most. You, as well as anyone Kurt, understand what we strive for here, day in and day out. We would travel the world in a heartbeat, to save a single mutant from the hatred and intolerance that lurks around every corner outside of these walls. How could we not come, when a dear friend such as yourself, is in distress? This is what we are here for. This, my friend, is our ‘raison d’etre,’ our ‘Grund des daseins.’”

Ororo and Jean wait aboard the Blackbird, watching Scott run through the post flight checklists, double and triple checking everything behind him. It’s not that they don’t trust him, but for Scott things don’t make sense when people don’t follow the rules exactly the way they’ve been written, and according to Xavier’s official flight procedures, all post-flight operations must be observed and confirmed by both team leaders. They love Scott, he’s family, and so after every mission they do this for him. Once all of the fuel levels have been recorded, and the tamper-indicator tape on each parachute checked for watermarks, all three sign the checklist at the bottom of the page, in the proper order, and are finally ready to disembark.

Scott walks ahead of the two ladies, because team leaders deboard last, and heads directly towards Xavier. He stops in front, and as if before his commanding officer, stands at full attention and greets the man with a crisp “Sir,” and an even crisper salute.

“At ease, Summers.” Among mixed company, and despite the affection for and history with their azure guest this is mixed company, the Professor must deftly balance his public persona, defined by patience and compassion, and his private one, which is a bit more relentlessly demanding. He allows the corner of his lips to curl upwards, and can feel the immediate dopamine surge inside Scott’s brain at even this slightest bit of positive recognition.

Jean and Ororo join the conversation, “As you can see, Sir, the extraction was a success. The mission went exactly as planned, zero surprises, zero deviations.”

“Yes, thank you, Ororo.” the Professor replies. “I look forward to reading the full report…”

“It will be on your desk first thing in the morning, Sir.” Scott says, interrupting. After a moment of awkward silence, he adds, “By Oh-Five-Hundred.”

“Of course. I would expect nothing less. Now, I do believe Mr. Wagner has some information to share with us that is of a classified manner, Mr. Summers. You are dismissed.”

“Sir, yes, Sir.” Scott salutes again, turns and nods towards the other three, and marchs back to his quarters to begin promptly preparing his mission report.

As the automatic doors close behind Scott, the two senior women turn their attention towards Kurt, who begins to speak again. “Verzeihung. I am so sorry to have had to drag you into this. I had been most careful this time.”

“It’s okay, Kurt.” Jean says, radiating comfort and reassurance, “I meant what I said, before, you are one of us, we will always be there for you when you need us, no matter what.”

Taking the lead in this conversation, Xavier refocuses it in the specific direction he needs it to go, “Start from the beginning, Kurt. Before the beginning, even. Last we had spoke, you were safe within the walls of the Cuxhaven Abbey, all of the other brothers there accepted you and were supportive, or so we thought. What happened?”

“Ja, it is true. All of mein brothers were most accepting of me, and my role within the monastery. Then, about drei months ago, a young man came to us, seeking asylum. His name was Christopher, and he too was a mutant, like us. He was unable to control his powers, he didn’t understand what was happening to him, or why his body was doing the things that it would. When he was attacked, or struck by a blow or an object, his body would release tremendous energy blasts in defence of itself. The German government found out about him, and they sent agents, mannschaften, like the ones who came for me last night. Ze Abt agreed to grant him asylum, and when the agents came, we denied having ever seen him. Christopher became one of us, unser bruder, and I even began working with him to help control his powers, so there would be no accidents within the walls of our home. Then, one day last week, he was gone. His chamber had been locked from the inside, he had no windows from which to escape, no way anyone could have gotten in and taken him… except for myself. I did not do it, and most of meine bruder believed me, but not all of them. One of them most have called the authority, afraid of what I might have done to poor Christopher.”

“I am so sorry for your friend,” Jean says, placing a consoling hand on Kurt’s shoulder.

Maintaining focus, Xavier asks, “Do you have any idea, any suspicions or theories of your own about what might have happened to this young man, Christopher?”

“Nein, Professor. Again, I am sorry. He simply disappeared. I do not know of anyone, besides myself, who could have taken him so quietly, or secretly, from a locked room. Even I am not that quiet when I move.”

“Could it have been the German government? You said before they were looking for Christopher.” Ororo inquired.

“Nein, again. I do not believe that. I had suspected this at first, but had they the power to take Christopher in this manner, why would they have come for me in person? Why not just zap me away, also?”

Having gotten all of the information he needs from their blue-skinned friend, Professor Charles Xavier begins wrapping up this conversation, and moving on to his next order of business. “Well, Kurt, I am sorry that this has happened for you. Over the next few weeks, if you so wish, we will assist you in finding a new home, someplace safe and appropriate for you to live out your life of worship. In the meantime, you are safe and welcome, as always, to remain here with us.”

“Dankeshon, Professor. I am happy to stay here with you again, for now, but please, bitte, I ask of you as I did before, allow to me be of service while I am here. I must work to give back to you and mein brothers and sisters while I am here.”

“Of course, Kurt, the same as before, I promise. Ororo, if you would, please escort Kurt to one of the open rooms upstairs, where he can make himself comfortable. Jean, follow me, I have something to discuss with you in the Situation Room.”

While Kurt and Ororo head for the door that takes them upstairs, and outside onto the grounds in the direction of the main building, the Professor and Jean head in the other direction, keeping in the underground parts of the mansion that are not listed on any official blueprints. The walls to many of these rooms are lead lined and secured in all six directions, making what is said inside them confidential to those outside, human and mutant alike. The same precautions have been taken with Anna and Remy’s bedrooms, although for very different reasons. Despite the fact that the two most powerful telepaths on the continent are currently inside the Situation Room, Charles and Jean wait for the doors to fully re-seal before either of them utters the first word, or thought, of their conversation.

“Another one?” Jean asks, getting them started.

“It would appear so. My greater concern is that the frequency of these disappearances continues to increase. The first two were nearly a month apart, but now, including what we just learned from Kurt, that makes three last week.” He pauses, unsure if now is the time to share the next piece of information. Not wanting to violate his privacy, Jean tries to telepathically skirt along the periphery of his mind, just to try and sense what type of emotions are attached to this item he is withholding, but his powers are too strong to allow even that.

“What is it, Charles? If you know something else, I need you to tell me. I can’t begin to help unless I know everything that you do.”

“Yes, of course. I suppose you are right.” He pauses, preparing what he wants to say, and confirming to himself exactly how he wants to say it. “While you, and the team were gone on this last mission, two more young mutants went missing… simultaneously.”

“Oh God. There’s never been more than one at a time before.” Jean responds, shocked.

“Exactly.” Xavier says solemnly.

“This has been our fear, that as they started happening more and more we would eventually see more than one at a time. It’s happening. Do we know anything else? Tell me everything you know, so far.” Jean is getting excited, it’s a lot to process, and she’s talking faster than she’s thinking and it’s all just coming out; very much the opposite of how Xavier is handling his end of this conversation.

“Slow down, Jean. Now, I am not entirely convinced that who or whatever is responsible for these disappearances has gained, or possesses, the ability for mass abduction. The two young mutants who disappeared were brother and sister, and whether or not the abductions were separate, or the result of them being together during the abduction, we can not say. The situation creates just as many questions as it answers, perhaps more.”

“Where were they when it happened? Were there any witnesses. Do…” Xavier puts a hand up, motioning for her to stop. She does, allowing her resentment over the way he kidgloves her to radiate telepathically so that even a non-mutate could feel it.

“It happened here in the States,” he says, “Kentucky to be exact. Whether or not there are witnesses, I can not say. There have been no reports on local news or social media, which suggests either a lack of witnesses or a greater authority suppressing their statements.”

Jean processes this new information quickly, and uses it to eliminate possibilities that she has spent countless hours analyzing and overanalyzing. “I would suggest, in the name of parsimony, that we move forward assuming a lack of witnesses.”

“Explain your reasoning.” The Professor says, with less condescension than before, but enough to still put a little extra fire into the words of the woman standing across from him.

“Well, a greater authority suppressing the statements suggests that some organization is attempting to secretly remove mutants from the human population. If we were to assume that an entity or organization had the motivation, means, and opportunity to do such a thing, it would be foolish to then think they would carry out such a sophisticated operation by first removing those with the least powers and training, knowing that by doing so, they risk alerting the more powerful and highly trained mutants, who have the better chance of stopping them. An operation like that would most soundly be executed by taking out the leaders, or most powerful members of the mutant communities first, leaving the rest in disarray and unable to protect themselves.”

“Well said, I have to agree. So then, moving forward, what type of entity or organization, human, mutant, alien, or otherwise, would be removing mutants in such a manner as leaves no witnesses?” Jeans last comment impressed the professor, so much that he has unconsciously shifted from asking her questions he feels he already knows the answer to, to asking her the questions he has been painstakingly asking himself.

“Humans are out of the question, any human individual with the access or technology to be responsible for this would carry it out in a more strategic manner. Mutants appear out out of the question, as well. Assuming the information you’ve been given from other groups and communities around the world is accurate, they are all experiencing this the same as we are. The most likely answer is alien/otherwise, as the fact that these don’t appear to be murders, but you are unable to detect the presence of any of these mutants on Earth using your own powers. Everything we’ve seen and learned about aliens so far, be it the Chitauri, Kree, Skrull, Asgardian, etc is that if they aren’t knocking on the front door, they’re probably up to no good.”

“The universe is a big place, nearly infinite in its range of possibilities.” The Professor pauses for a moment, then exhales and continues, “Speculation is pointless, we are trying to describe the sun based merely on the shadows we see from within the cave.”

“Then we must continue to collect as much evidence as possible, learn everything we can.” Both excited by what any new evidence might tell them, and driven by concern for the threat it represents, Jean is done talking, for now, and ready to take action. “I suggest Ororo and I take the team out to investigate these new disappearances first thing tomorrow morning. Kentucky is not that far, the Blackbird can have us there in just under an hour.”

“I agree,” the Professor says, finally having made it to a place in this conversation where he is trusting Jean to move this forward. A lifetime of standing in between two massive continents and trying to keep them from coming together has created too much bias as to what this could possibly be. So many years, trying to control what humans see and know about mutants with one hand, and fighting against opponents from his own kind who are hellbent on starting a war between the two races with the other, makes it difficult to believe that this new threat could be anything other than one of those two sides finally getting the better of him in his old age. Jean’s logic is without fault, and also without bias. She is the right person to be making the decisions on this matter… for now. “But the team has had a long night, and has been jumping back and forth between time zones for the better part of a day. Let them get some rest, have breakfast, we’ll call them together for a debrief around ten-hundred hours, local time. Remember, this is Kentucky, not New York, I wouldn’t expect the locals to even begin looking into this before that time, anyway.”

Jean nods and agrees, trying to figure out if the Professor is hiding something from her. It’s unlike him, to both defer to her so much on any matter, or to be the one suggesting time for rest and recuperation for the team; that’s her place. In all their years doing this, he’s the hard edge, she’s the soft force. He’s the father, the disciplinarian, the one always pushing the team harder, further, always demanding more. She’s the mother, the one who takes the holistic approach, the one who guides through encouragement and understanding. Is he just trying to throw her off? He is right though, as much as she wants to be there searching for evidence, now, the others would benefit from a night of rest before heading out again. Xavier stands and walks towards the door from which they entered, he places his hand on the biopad, and she can hear the air pressure release as the door opens, signifying that the final word has been said on any and all of these matters. For now.

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Alison sits on her bed, legs criss-crossed in front of her, her face alit by the glow of the phone in her hands in front of her. Her computer is open on the desk across from her, the flatscreen television on the wall above it is on, her stereo is blasting one of her favorite band’s latest albums, while she listens to another of her favorite bands on the wireless earbuds she is wearing. She’s famous enough that she could be in the city, at any club or party she wanted to, but as long as she’s got her phone, she doesn’t have to be if she doesn’t want to. It can be exhausting, dealing with fans and paparazzi after a mission, and she’d much rather do what she’s doing right now. Earlier tonight, she timestamped a selfie of herself back in Germany, and then another when they got back to New York. Her latest post has already got 7 million views, and she’s amused to no end at some of these comments.

 

“Photo game so strong, you can’t spot the fake.”

 

People are going nuts trying to convince themselves, and each other, that they are absolutely certain they’ve figured out where the work was done, because she couldn’t have possibly been on both sides of the ocean in the same night. Every now and then she jumps into the comments to tease them a little more, and they’re eating it up with a freakin’ spoon. It’s a good thing the Professor doesn’t have Instagram.

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Bobby gets to his room, and starts unpacking his gear bag right away. These uniforms don’t really breath, and if you don’t unpack quickly enough, all your stuff starts to smell like sweaty balls. Thursday nights in the city are his favorite nights to hit the clubs and party. Lately, his favorite spot has been over in Jackson Heights. They play salsa all night long, and the boys are not only pretty, but they only gets handsy if you want them to. Right now, all he wants to do is take a shower and put on one of his crisp, white linen shirts, one of the ones that makes him feel dark and sexy . He loves that feeling of heading out into the night, feeling completely fresh, clean clothes on clean skin, no inhibitions or anxieties, knowing he looks good and is ready for anything. Stripping down, he tosses all his clothes in the laundry bag, and drops it next to the door to throw down the chute on his way to the showers. He puts on a pair of basketball shorts and his slides, grabs a clean towel out of his closet, and heads out into the hall.

The hallway is filled with the sound of Alison’s music, not uncommon, and he realized he must have been thinking about it a little too much when he gets to the showers. He’s not surprised when he opens the doors and walks into a wall of steam, the showers are a popular spot after a mission. He is surprised when he gets past sed wall and sees Anna and Remy soaping each other down, wearing nothing but matching pairs of purple TPR sex gloves. They both seem to be deeply focused on Anna’s impending orgasm, and so he very quietly starts walking backwards before he interrupts something and they notice that he’s there. What the hell, taking a shower was a dumb idea anyway, he’s just going to get sweaty once he’s out, and he does look good sweaty, too. He can try again when he gets home.

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Logan didn’t even bother going into the main building. That many hours in a tight steel tube is a little too much like being back in a cage, and now that they’re home every bone in his body is calling him to run free. He dropped his gear on the ground outside and went straight into the woods. Chuck inherited a nice chunk of land from his Daddy, 840 beautiful acres, and he probably hasn’t even developed more than 20 of them. It doesn’t take too long for him to get deep enough into the woods for the sounds and lights of the Mansion to disappear, and for the total envelopment of nature to make him feel like he’s back in a simpler world. Logan doesn’t do churches anymore, listening to Kurt talk on the plane took him back, stirring up some nice memories and some not so nice ones, too. But, out here, this is where his God lives. This is where it still makes sense for him, and where he has any hope of feeling a little bit of peace.

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After showing Kurt to one of the empty rooms on the first floor (she’ll never submit to calling ground level the first floor, Americans and their ridiculous ways with numbers), Ororo excuses herself and heads farther upstairs to where her and Jean’s lofts reside, on the second floor. She carefully unpacks her bags, and then flies up to open the skylight and let the night air in. Even though she’s been in the air the better part of the night, there’s no comparison to flying free, with the wind on your skin. Her instincts get the better of her, and although she hadn’t planned on it, she keeps moving upward, through the window and out into the open evening, until she’s eye level with her clouds, bathing in the moonlight. For a claustrophobe, there is nowhere on Earth more open than this.

Having bathed in the coolness of the night sky, she composes herself and heads back down through the skylight into her loft. Taking a moment to water her plants, and make sure their needs are being met, she then heads downstairs, and out of the main buildings for a quick round through the dorms. It is incredibly unlikely that the Professor has been through here, and on a Thursday night somebody needs to make sure all of the kids are in the right beds and accounted for. It baffles her how free these kids are with their bodies. Sure, back in Kenya there was no shame attached to viewing another person’s body, but not passing each other around and doing the things these children do. If she leaves them unsupervised for twenty minutes, at least one of them is bound to lose their undergarments.

She heads to the boys’ dormitory first, that way she has an idea how many of them she should be on the lookout for when she reaches the girls’ house. As she walks into the common room, she sees three boys playing video games, passes one more in the kitchen, and half a dozen at the desks in the study hall. As she turns the corner to head upstairs, Ororo smiles at the site of a blue pointy tail sticking out of the open door to the laundry room. After making her rounds in the actual dormitory of the boys’ building, she heads back outside with a head count that is three short of what it should be. “What would be worse…” she thinks, “three of our boys sneaking into the girls’ house, or sneaking out into town.” The trouble, either way, could be beyond reparation. As she walks into the girls’ common room, she sees Jean coming around the corner from upstairs. “I’m missing three boys.” Ororo says.

“Not here,” Jean says. “Most of the girls are asleep, and the ones who are still awake are either studying, or on their phones.”

“Everyone accounted for here?” Ororo asks.

“Zero short.” Jean responds.

They turn the lights off, and head back outside where they nearly crash right into their three missing students.

“I could smell their cheap beer from a half mile away.” Logan says, as he follows behind his three detainees.

“You three.” Jean says, with a combination of resentment and disappointment in her voice. “I thought I told you last time, if I caught you in the girl’s house again I would turn off your pituitary gland and make you eunuchs until you graduate.”

“But… but… Ms. Grey,” the boy with the bleach blonde hair stammered, “we didn’t go near the girls house. That’s why we were out in the woods.”

“DRINKING BEER?!? Come on, Pastorius, do you really think this is better?” Jean is usually the good cop, so when she starts to get loud the boys know they’re in trouble. “We will all, and I mean everyone here right now, be sitting down and having a chat with Professor Xavier tomorrow about all of this, do you understand?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the boys all say in unison.

“Now, back to your dorm and straight to bed. I don’t want to see you again until it’s time for your first class tomorrow.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” they repeat, and turn around and run as fast as they can back to their dorm.

“Thank the Goddess,” Ororo says, as soon as they are out of earshot.

“Excuse me?” Jean asks, legitimately confused.

“Ya can’t get beer pregnant,” Logan remarks.

“Exactly,” Ororo says, “Nor can you frighten it by accidentally exposing your powers. I was terrified they had snuck off-campus.”

“I guess,” Jean conceded, “All things considered, we can be grateful. But…” she screams a little, “those three make me crazy sometimes with their stupid shenanigans.”

“I don’t think we have to worry too much about them, Jeanie.” Logan said, charitably. “They were scared to death of you, I could smell it.”

“Let’s hope so.” She says, as the three of them walk together back to the main building, ready to call it a night.

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Remy and Anna lay in his bed, their special collection of gloves, sleeves, prophylactics, and blankets strewn everywhere. Remy, naked except for the gloves he is still wearing, lays on his left side facing the window, while Anna, wearing velvet gloves velcroed on to the sleeves of the blanket draped between them, and nothing else, lays behind him, her plush arms wrapping him up, holding him close, and her velvet fingers delicately teasing the overworked nerve endings of his chest, and farther down. The sex was amazing, and yet torturous at the same time. Her powers are their curse, to never be able to actually touch. There is so much you can do and feel, with a little extra preparation, even when your skin can never touch, but to never kiss… to be so close, and yet feel like there are infinite barriers between you, is absolutely maddening. This has been her curse since puberty, for as long as she’s wanted to kiss a boy, any of them, she’s known that do so might be the death of them -- a lesson she cruelly learned the first time she tried. She’s beared this burden her entire life, she can only imagine what it must be like for him.

Laying this way, Remy can feel her tremendous strength as she holds him close, as close as she can, anyways. He’s never felt so safe, which is crazy. He’s supposed to be the tough guy, he’s supposed to be the one who decides when someone is safe or not. Growing up knowing nothing but desperation, he decided early on that he would make sure he was always the strongest and toughest guy in the room. Until he met her. Now he knows that it’s okay to let someone else take care of you. It’s so hard to not reach out and kiss her, he must stop himself from instinctively doing it at least a dozen times a day. One of these days he’s gonna accidentally kill himself because he’ll forget, and that will be it. But I guess if you have to go, what a way. At least he’s been able to kiss girls before, he can only imagine what this must be like for her.

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Scott sits at his desk, the wooden surface completely bare except for three items, the laptop in front of him, the small lamp in the back right corner of the desk, and the plastic souvenir cup from the United States Marine Corps that he uses to hold his pencils in the back left corner. Each item before him is perfectly clean, having been dusted and/or polished this morning before breakfast, same as he does every morning before breakfast. The sheets on his bed are military crisp, the way a Drill Sergeant would expect to find them were this bed located on Parris Island, where he still sometimes wishes it was. He gets that this is the best possible situation for someone like him, not just a mutant, but a mutant whose powers are difficult to conceal out in the world for an extended length of time. In so many ways, he has gotten far more from this life, and the training he has received here than he ever would have in the Corps. He could spend his whole life training as a Marine, and never have an opportunity to be part of a mission that could affect the safety and security of the world as he knows it. Xavier hasn’t just given him a life, but a life filled with meaning. And yet… he still sits in this room sometimes, tightening a sheet, or straightening out his desk, and he feels a bit like an amputee, trying to move a limb that isn’t there anymore. The dream of being a marine was the only thing that got him through so many of the bad times in the foster homes and group homes he grew up in, before finding out he was a mutant. Without that dream, he never would have survived, and he’s not sure that losing it, no matter how great that trade-off turned out to be, will ever stop stinging.

Not important. Xavier needs this paperwork by zero-five-hundred, and I can’t let him down. He shakes off the thoughts that he knows he shouldn’t be thinking, and focuses on finishing filling out the template on the screen before him. Can’t let the Professor down.

 

Chapter Text

The bell rings, and the classrooms on the ground floor of the main building fly open, releasing a wildly diverse group of teenagers from around the world to spill out into the entryway. There’s a twenty minute break after the first class of the day, and most of the students who were inside are headed outside, because their next classes will all be either workouts or power-training. Bobby walks in amidst the commotion, he had been waiting outside for nearly ten minutes for the opportunity to sneak in undetected, sporting dark sunglasses and a very large Starbucks cup.

“All teachers are required to be on campus at least 15 minutes prior to the start of the first class, and since classes begin at 7:00 am, that means 6:45.”

Bobby stops and sighs, “The kids don’t have Spanish on Fridays, Scott. You know this.”

“It doesn’t matter, ‘ALL TEACHERS’ those are the rules. What if someone was sick, or there was an accident, or…” When Scott starts listing hypothetical scenarios, someone eventually has to stop him, or his need for thoroughness will get the better of him and he will never stop talking.

Bobby interrupts, “There wasn’t. If the Professor needed me, he would have contacted me. He’s the Professor, it’s not even possible for us to be AWOL from him.”

“You smell terrible, you should take a shower.” Scott says, naively.

“Si Dios quiere,” Bobby mutters under his breath. Scott looks at him funny, so he changes the subject, kind of, “Where are Remy and Anna?”

“They’re outside, Remy’s got hand-to-hand, and Anna’s doing power-training with the kids who have strength or flight powers. Why, do you need them for something?” Scott asks, not understanding the connection between the last thing they were talking about, and this.

“Noooooooooo. No. No. No. No. Noooo. I’m good, just gonna go take a shower, now. Like you said. Good advice, thanks Scott.” Bobby raises his coffee cup towards Scott, in an ambiguous gesture of respect, and heads upstairs.

As he trudges up the steps, he hears Scott calling out behind him. “Meeting with the Professor at ten! Don’t forget!”

“Gracias.” Bobby replies, making no effort to ensure his voice was loud enough to be heard by someone downstairs and behind him, and heads straight for his room to grab a towel.

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At about five minutes until ten, the team members begin filing into the Situation Room. Jean and Ororo are together at one end of the table, comparing notes on the morning drama with the students. Remy and Anna sit next to each other on one side, talking about what they want to do for dinner tonight, while Alison sits beside them on her phone, ignoring them 100%. Logan drags a chair away from the table, and sits in the back, up against the wall, placing himself outside of the conversation for as long as possible. Scott sits on the long side opposite Remy and Anna, but as close to the head where Jean is as you could get. Bobby walks in last, as far as members of the team go. “You gotta do better than that.” Logan says without even turning to look at him.

Startled, Bobby stops in his tracks, trying to stealthily smell himself as he turns around. “What do you mean? The shower… or the guy? he asks, whispering.

“Yup.” Logan says, offering no follow--up despite Bobby’s continued staring and waiting.

The Professor walks in, and all conversation stops. Anna reaches over and puts a hand over Alison’s phone, pushing it out of view beneath the table, and breaking her attention so she would realize that the meeting has begun. Bobby walks behind the Professor and takes a seat near Scott on his side of the table, and then, still thinking about what Logan said, slides a little farther away from him.

“Everyone is here, so let’s begin, shall we.” Xavier remains standing, at the head of the table, opposite Jean and Ororo. “Yesterday, while you were on your way to Cuxhaven, I felt the loss of two more mutants, simultaneously. Just as with all of the other disappearances, I sensed no fear in their thoughts, no pain, no struggle; one moment they were a part of the mutant collective, and the next, nothing, as if they were never there.” The team looks around at each other, each member, minus Logan and Jean, showing the same look of surprise on their faces. “There are two things about this case in particular that make it important for us, right now. The first, and most obvious, is exactly what you are all thinking about, the fact that it involves two mutants, as opposed to just one. This is the first we have seen of this, and it raises many new questions that require investigation. The second key factor is where this occurred, right here in the United States, Kentucky to be exact. I have decided that the most prudent course of action is for us to investigate, immediately. I am sending the team, and I am sending you now. Kurt has agreed to speak to the students on his experiences living as a visible mutant in Europe, and his ‘Guest Lecture’ will serve to release you all from your formal responsibilities around the institute for the rest of the day. While you are out, I feel it is vital for you to try and keep a clear mind while you investigate. Do not try and come up with your own theories for the disappearances, lest you risk subconsciously only looking for evidence which supports your pre-existing beliefs. Mutants around the world need, whether they realize it or not, are depending upon you to collect every bit of information you can, so that we may analyze every piece thoroughly and objectively. It is this and this alone which will provide us with the best chance of understanding what is happening, and developing a plan of action which can ultimately put an end to it.”

With solemn expressions, the team nods, except for Jean, who is staring into her mentor’s soul and once again allowing her resentment to emanate so strongly that Xavier, with his finely acute extrasensory perception, can see it as clear as if it were pink wavy lines drawn around her face. Xavier continues, “Scott will have the Blackbird ready for takeoff in 20 minutes, and Jean will fill you in on the specifics of the mission, and be willing to answer any questions you may have, once you are airborne. Godspeed, my X-Men.” And with that, Professor Charles Xavier turns and leaves the situation, while the team takes a moment to get their bearings and fully digest the message that was just delivered to them.

“Ugh,” Alison groans, “this is terrible. I can’t be seen in Kentucky. And I definitely can’t post selfies from there.” She crosses her arm and pouts, waiting for someone to come and comfort her. The rest of the team heads out to either change clothes or gather what they might need to bring with them, while Jean, Scott, and Ororo head to the jet to begin the pre-flight checklist.

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On the short flight in, Jean catches the team up on everything her and Xavier spoke about the night before, and as a group they toss around ideas of what could possibly be happening to those who have disappeared. Gambit thinks they’re dead, Ororo believes they must be trapped somewhere that the Professor can’t sense them. Alison gets super excited at one point and yells out, “Maybe they’ve been changed into something other than mutants!?!” But Logan quietly points out that the boy in Germany would have still been in the room, if that was the case.

Jean sets the teams, and announces “I’ll take Bobby, Allison, and Logan with me; if any of the locals get prickly over seeing Bobby, I want to be there to help keep them calm so we don’t have any incidents.” Jean turns to her surrogate sister, “Ororo, you have the rest, but remember, this isn’t New York. If you have any trouble with the locals, pretend Scott’s in charge.” Ororo turns and looks at Scott, with a GIF-worthy expression of incredulity, but can’t help but smile at how goofy and proud he looks about the fact that he even gets to act as if he is in charge.

They land in a small, remote clearing just south of Little Shepherd Trail, about halfway between Kingdom Come and Kentenia State Forest. There aren’t a lot of eyes out here, and they shouldn’t have to worry about anyone stumbling across the Blackbird, especially not in the middle of a workday. Jean and her team head west towards the high school, while Ororo, Scott, Remy, and Anna head East toward the Guthrie Farm to search for clues.

As they walk through small town Kentucky, it begins to dawn on them that this might not be as easy as they had presumed. It’s hard to blend in when there aren’t any crowds. There’s nothing explicitly conspicuous about the way they look, except for Bobby who might be the first Dominican to ever step foot in this part of the Earth, but everything about them screams ‘New,’ and this is a place where ‘new’ doesn’t happen very often. “I think it would be better if we hold off on any direct contact with the locals for now, at least until we get to the school.” Jean says.

“I’m not sure they’re gonna be too comfortable talkin’ to us anyway, Jeanie.” Logan adds. “We’re makin’ em nervous, just being here.”

“Yes,” she replies, “I sense it, too. I’m giving them a little pop of endorphins as we pass by, which so far seems to be working to keep them content going about their day.”

“This is impossible,” Alison complains. "How are we supposed to find people, who may or may not be missing, that we are also trying to keep a secret, while also trying to keep ourselves a secret?"

“I think it’ll be much easier once we reach the high school. Younger people tend to be a little more open-minded, and a little more eager to talk… especially to a celebrity.” Jean says

“Ha!” Bobby starts laughing hysterically.

“Noooooooo, there’s gonna be like a million hillbillies tagging me on Instagram.” Alison whines, ridiculously.

“Probably more like a thousand, but you’ll be fine. You’ll probably even enjoy it -- you usually do.” Jean’s comments are reassuring, and Alison begrudgingly accepts her role in this mission. Internally, she knew it was probably going to go this way before they left; it’s not the first time she’s made a surprise celebrity appearance to give the team time to work.

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As Ororo and her team walk through the open gate and enter Guthrie farm, they are amused by how quaint the setting is. Anna thinks to herself how surreal it is that something like this can be quintessentially American, while also feeling so familiar to the farms in places like Germany, or Latvia where she was born. People are not as different as they like to make themselves out to be, she thinks, pleasantly forgetting for the moment how different she tends to feel as a result of her powers.

Two small children, a boy and a girl, both vibrantly blonde and about three or four years old, possibly twins even, come running across the path in front of them. The girl appears to be chasing the boy, holding some kind of frog and threatening to make him touch it. The sound of a screen door slamming itself shut brings the team’s attention back to the house, where a matronly woman about Anna’s age is walking down the steps and coming out to greet them. She is wearing a pair of overalls, a white apron with little yellow daisies on it, and a natural, friendly smile as she say, “Howdy, folks. Name’s Lucinda. What can I do for ya’ll today?”

Scott looks at the team, and then back at Lucinda at he takes a step forward and extends his hand in greeting. “Hello, Ma’am. My name is Scott Summer and we are from the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in Salem Center, New York. We’d like to speak with you about a couple of your children, if you have the time.”

Lucinda finishes drying off her hands, “Well, aren’t you adorable, but around here we let the grown-ups speak, first, honey.” She walks right past him and stretches her hand out for Ororo to shake. “A school fer gifted young’uns, huh? Well, if ya wanna take a couple a mine, yer gunna have to be more specific. I got at least ten, last I checked, but it’s hard to be sure. There’s always extra ones runnin’ around, too, y’know, aftur a while ya really just stop keepin’ count.”

“Yes, Ma’am, of course.” Ororo says politely, already loving this woman. “We’ve received referrals on two of your high school aged children, Samuel and Paige. Are they around?”

“Excuse ma mouth, but why in Hell’s name would my “high school aged children” be wandering around ma farm in the middle of the day on Friday? Who exactly sent you those referrals, if you don’t mind ma askin’?” She may have been suspicious all along, but Ororo’s slip-up made her feel like it wasn’t impolite to show it. “It wun’t the Cabot’s, wuz it?”

“No, Ma’am.” Ororo says, smiling as she takes a small silver business card holder out of her jacket’s inside breast pocket. “We are who we say we are, I assure you.” She hands Lucinda one of her cards. “Our school is for very special children, and we try to keep a low profile, to avoid politics and troublemakers. Surely, you have noticed by now that you’re older children are special, yes?” A beat passes, without response, so Ororo continues, “You do understand what I am referencing, yes?”

“Miss Munro, I assure you, all ma children are special.” Lucinda Guthrie states, very matter of factly.

Slightly embarrassed, Ororo tries to clarify, “Yes, Yes, of course they are. I did not mean to imply…”

Lucinda interrupts her, “No, Ma’am, I understand exactly what yer sayin’, now it’s yer turn to stop and understand me. All. Ma. Children. Are. Special.”

“Oh.” As the realization washes over all four team members, they stand in amazement at what this woman is telling them.

“All of them?” Anna interrupts. “Even those two?” she asks, pointing to the two little ones, still chasing each other in the distance.

“Who? Lew and Cissie? Naw, not yet, at least, they’re still too young. But once these kids hit puberty, Sweet Jesus help me, they’re not just chasing boys and chasing girls like when I was their age, naw, these kids is flyin’ around and blowin’ stuff up, scarin’ the ghost outta the horses, I’ll tell you whut.”

Scott, trying to make sense of everything, starts shaking his head back and forth. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there is a lot of new information I’m trying to process, here. You have so many children for someone as young as you appear to be. How many of them have hit puberty?”

“Oh, just the eldest fur. But they’re all special, so I just gotta assume the rest will be too, ya know.”

“And you could just tell?” Anna asks, still trying to digest all of this.

“Well, it wasn’t hard, I mean, Good Lord, one of ‘em has wings. Big ‘ol red feathery thangs. Woulda been hard to miss that one.” Lucinda’s beginning to have fun with this. She’s known her family was special, but so apparently are these folks, and it’s not often she gets to brag about these things.

“Wow.” Remy says, finally saying something. “And you’re just, okay, with all of this?”

“Well, it’s not like there’s much I can do about it. It’s just the way ma babies is. They’re always gunna be ma children, ain’t nothin’ ever gunna change that. This is the way Jesus made ‘em, he musta wanted ‘em to be special, and I ain’t gunna be the one ta tell ‘im he’s wrong.”

“Miss Guthrie, I must say, we have met with many, many parents, and your perspective is quite refreshing.” The smile Ororo is wearing comes from so deep inside, she couldn’t hide it if she wanted to. “We were not aware that more of your children had already begun to present, but should you choose, I promise you there is a place at Xavier’s for as many of your children as you would like.”

“Ya’ll are more than welcome to head down to the school, if ya wanna see em. The younger ones come home on the bus, but between sports and friends and all that other teenage stuff, not to mention the times they try an help people, I feel like I never know when Paige and Sammy are comin’ home.”

“Did they say anything before leaving this morning?” Ororo already knows the answer to this question before she asks it, but it doesn’t appear that their host is aware two of her children have gone missing, and at this point, Ororo doesn’t have the heart to tell her.

“Hmmm… come to think of it, I don’t think I saw either of ‘em at breakfast this morning.” Lucinda’s face begins to drop, as all of those smiling muscles she’s been working out start to relax, and the worry begins to creep in. She shakes it off, and puts a smile back on for her guests, but the contrast between the two is as stark as night and day. “There are so many people in and out of the kitchen, in the morning, I could’ve just missed ‘em. I’m sure they’re fine.”

“Of course, Ma’am.” Ororo tries to sound like Jean would, she’s alway so good at doing the reassuring thing. She reaches out and takes Lucinda’s hand in her own. “I’m sure they are fine.” She wants to ask her next question, but feels like she should wait a moment before moving on, and the collective silence has now become interminable. Finally, “Do you remember the last time you did see either of them.”

They got so sidetracked earlier, learning about this very special family, that there is a collective awkwardness shared among the four of them as they begin the transition into the reason they are actually there. They all just hope that Lucinda likes them well enough to let them have a look around, without having to explain much more than they already have.

Ms. Guthrie exhales dramatically, then tells them what she can remember. “Sammy has practice on Thursdays, so I’m usually in bed by the time he gets home. I don’t think I saw him since breakfast yesterday. Paige was here for supper, last night, then went outside to finish some chores. Last she said she wuz headin’ to the stable to brush down the horses.”

“Thank you so much, Ms. Guthrie. As I said, I am sure they are both fine. From what we are told, they are very responsible young men and women you are raising. Do you mind if we walk around, and explore your lovely farm for a little while, before heading over to the school. It would help us get a better feel for where they are from, we don’t have too much of this out in New York.”

“Really?” Lucinda asks, surprised. “In upstate New York? I thought all they had wuz farms and schools up there?

“Oh, well yes, I suppose you’re right…” Ororo is kind of stammering, and motions for one of her teammates to step in and help her.

“But it’s nothing like this Ma’am. You’ve got the real deal out here. Somethin’ special, if ya don’t mind me saying.” Remy adds an extra special smile, laying on the cajun charm, and battin’ his eyelashes all nice and pretty like. Suddenly Lucinda forgot what they were even talking about.

“Of course,” she says, lost in his eyes, as if hypnosis was his mutant power. “Anything you want, just go ahead. It’s yours.”

Confused, Scott tries to correct her, “I don’t think…”

But Anna doesn’t let him get very far, speaking over the top of him and dragging him away. “Thank you very much, Ma’am. We promise not to be too much of a bother. We’ll be back to talk about the one with the wings later. Come on, Scotty,” she says, as much for their audience, as for him, “Let’s go check out them stables.” Scott couldn’t break free from her grip if he wanted, so he has no choice but to follow along, lest she accidentally tear his arm off. Ororo heads inside to check out the house, while Remy follows Lucinda into the kitchen for a glass of lemonade.

As they enter the stable, Scott and Anna get the distinct feeling that something is amiss. For one thing, the position latch on the outside of the door was never swung shut. It’s nothing that would keep a person out, but it works one-hundred percent for keeping other animals away. Anna and Scott have both known a couple ‘horse girls’ in their time, and not a one of them would ever forget to swing that latch on their way out. As they walk down the aisle, they notice a small stool up ahead. It’s positioned in front of a stall whose gate is still open, with only the safety net keeping the horse inside. Laid out next to the stool is a brown canvas tool kit, filled with various brushes and combs for grooming the horse. The kit appears to be full, minus one wide pouch for a curry comb.  The two unhook the safety net and let themselves inside the stall. The poor girl is still tied to the eyehook, and Anna unleashes her, for which she is visibly grateful. As they walk around in the stall they notice something strange in the clay floor. A single pair of footprints, from what looks like a smaller pair of boots, has been burnt into the clay. It’s hardened and shiny, now, almost like pottery.

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“So… the cutest boy in Kentucky sent me the most adorable letter…” Standing atop a small set of steps, placing her a foot or two above the gathering of students in the courtyard of the high school, the ‘9th Most Influential Person on Instagram’ (according to Buzzfeed), Alison Blair, explains to her fans what has brought her out to Harlan County High School on this particularly Friday. “...and I mean a legit letter, like a DM, but on real paper and everything, and he asked me if I would be his date to Prom!” The crowd is abuzz, jittering teenagers frantically looking around and asking each other as quickly as they can if anybody knows who it is, as if she would have come all this way and not tell them. “And when I saw his picture, OOOOOOOHHHHHHH-WWWWWEEEEEEE, how could I not say ‘Yes!’ So, come on up here, where are you? Where’s my new boyfriend… SAM GUTHRIE!!!!!!!” The kids are insane, they can’t believe it, Sam?!? Everyone’s looking around, but nobody has seen him all day. How could he be missing this?

Jean stands to the back, along with Principal Burkhart, watching admirably as Alison plays the role of Magician’s Assistant with expert flair. She sends out a telepathic message to Logan and Bobby, “Alison has the entire school eating out of her hands, they’ll be here taking selfies with her for at least an hour. How are you two faring?”

“Just leaving the locker room, now.” Logan replies, in conscious thought. “ The kid’s school clothes are still in his locker, doesn’t look like he ever made it back to change after practice. Heading out the field, next, my guess is, if there’s anything to find, we find it there.”

The two men turn the corner and get to the field, but as they stand there looking out over the athletic facilities, they realize they’re not entirely certain where to begin. It’ a pretty standard scene, multi-purpose field, surrounded by a clay track, and bleachers rising out from the two long sides. There are some blue mats somebody left out near the high jump spot, and a couple duffle bags near one of the benches on the sidelines, but nothing startling or obvious. “All right, kid, we’ll split up. You take one half of the field, I’ll take the other. Start by looking at everything worth looking at, then look at everything else. Odds are, if we find anything, it ain’t gonna be in the obvious.”

Bobby just looks at him, “So… we look at everything. Entendido.” They head off, Bobby towards the far side of the field, Logan beginning on the side where they entered. They spend the better part of 45 minutes looking at every divot, rail, and bench, but don’t see anything that indicates Sam was ever even here, or that any sort of struggle or abduction occured. It’s just a field. Eventually, they have to accept that they’re not going to find anything, and Alison can only take so many selfies, so they turn around and begin to make their way back.

As they turn the corner, making their way out the student gate, Bobby stumbles a bit, but catches himself before falling. “They beat the hell out of this field, man. You’d think they’d replace the grass a little more often.”

“That’s not a divot,” Logan replies. “Look again.” The two head back to the spot where Bobby tripped, and look at the spot in the grass he caught his foot on. “It’s a footprint, and the grass and dirt around it look burnt.”

“So, what?” Bobby asks, “a kid was stomping out a cigarette?”

“Nah, no butt, no tobacco, and the rest of the earth is untouched. It’s burnt, but not stomped or ground into.” Logan lowers his face real close to the singed blades of grass and dirt, and starts to sniff. “Not fire, either. Energy, more like one of Ali or Remy’s blasts than anything else.”

Bobby slaps Logan on the back excitedly, “Looks like we found our clue!” Logan grunts, unamused.

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“Okay,” Jean says, sorting out the last 40 minutes of analysis, theorizing, and debate, “so we are all in agreement that they appear to have been transported away by some sort of energy beam. This explains the disappearance of the young man in Kurt’s monastery, as well as the Guthrie kids in Kentucky. There have been no witness reports of anything unusual, here or in any other location, so wherever this energy is coming from, it doesn’t appear in the sky, and must work pretty quickly. Also, it seems to take with it whatever else is in contact with the person, like anything in their hand, or even the grass under their feet. Am I missing anything?”

“A lot, maman, I mean, practically everything.” Remy has been trying to follow along, but the energy of the conversion, all of his teammates feeling confident and excited by what they’ve learned just doesn’t match up with what he’s actually hearing. “We don’t know who doin’ dis, why dey doin’ dis, how dey doin’ dis, from where dey doin dis... we don’t know nuttin.”

“Now, Remy, while you are very right about how far away we are from being able to punch someone, we have learned quite a bit.” It’s Ororo’s turn, and she’s never quite as soft as Jean with her responses. “We know these abductions are targeting mutants, and they’re happening with greater and greater frequency. Also, whoever is responsible is getting more bold, taking two at a time with the Guthrie kids, now, and they weren’t even together. It’s true we don’t have enough information to act today, or prevent the next abduction, but we are positioning ourselves to put an end to this sooner, rather than later. This might well turn out to be a marathon, rather than a sprint.”

“Well, like you said, Gambit wants to be able to punch sumtin.” He replies.

“Remy!” Anna pushes him in his seat, “We just had a mission with combat last night.”

“Nah, chere, I want to punch sumtin dat punches back.”

Stepping in to put an end to this, Jean speaks up, “Now, Remy, while you know I value your special skills when it comes to combat, I always hope that with each and every mission we go out on, you get to come home disappointed. This team here, we can fight if we have to, and I pity any soul that finds themself across the battlefield from us, but part of why this works, how we are able to do so much good, is that we believe there is always a way to do this without violence. We are better than that, all of us, even you, you wouldn’t be here if I thought otherwise.” Remy smiles and lowers his head in concession.

A few minutes pass, and Alison looks up from her phone to break the silence. “Hey, Scott. Are we gonna be back soon, I got a show in the city tonight, and Guido’s at the school waiting for me.”

“Aww, it will be nice to see Guido, again.” Jean says. “He doesn’t come by the school as much as he used to, anymore.”

“No.” Alison barks back. “No reminiscing, no coffee and catching up, I’ve got a show and I’m already running late. It’s Friday afternoon, it’s gonna take me a century to get into the city as it is.”

“Coming in, now!” Scott yells, from the cockpit.

“Finally!!!!!” Alison groans, and the team settles in for landing. Within a few minutes they are back in the hangar, and walking down the ramp. Upon exiting, the team sees Guido waiting for them in the hangar, standing with and speaking to the Professor. He’s a large, muscle-bound, Italian man, in his late 40’s-early 50’s, with a small island of hair on his mostly bald head, and he looks like he never met a steroid he didn’t like. Wearing his sunglasses inside, like always, he turns and smiles when he sees his old friends heading his way. “Get off!” Alison can be heard screaming from inside the plane.

“We have procedures!” is Scott’s losing protest, before being shoved down the ramp, checklist in hand. He turns to his teammates, and walks up to join them. “She’s changing.”

“It’s so good to see you again, Guido.” Jean says. “You should come back another time, when you’re not working, and we can catch up.”

“Not much of that, feels like I’m always working these days.” Guido replies in a typical LawnGuy Land accent. “Business is good for a strong guy like me. Between the private security gigs, and workin’ the doors at clubs and offices, I’m a pretty popular guy.”

“Offices?” Ororo asks, surprised.

“Oh yeah,” Guido goes on, “all dese big hotshot executives in the city love havin’ bounca’s at the door. You don’t do nuthin but stand there and look scary, and they’ll pay like a G a day, sometimes more. It’s ridiculous, but it’s money.”

“Yeah, some guys I used to train wit would do dat.” Remy interjects, “but nobody eva asked Remy. I’d ave taken der money.”

“Can’t imagine why not.” Anna says, laughing, before giving him a big hug, just tight enough to force him to grimace in front of everybody else.

Jean tries to get back to where they were, “I’m glad…” when from behind them they hear…

“GUUUUIIIIDDOOOOOOOOO!” as Alison runs downs the ramp straight for him. Even more surprising, however, was the response…

“ALLLLYYYY!” Even though they’ve known Guido for years, nobody expected a response befitting a teenage girl to come out of his hulking, middle-age man-frame. The rest of the team backs away as she comes barreling straight for him and jumps up to give him the biggest hug she can, looking like a child in his large arms.

Suddenly, the Professor starts to grimace, and Jean notices something is wrong. Jean and Ororo look down at Guido’s feet and notice they have started glowing, shimmering a little. “Quickly,” Ororo yells, “Everybody grab Guido!” They all lunge in and grab part of his massive body, and a moment later they are all gone.

The Professor is dumbstruck, he can’t sense any of them. At all.

Chapter Text

There was no sight, were no senses at all, just a brightness, a sense of white, that engulfed everything. As it began to dim, and the world, a world, came into view, it was not the same as where they had been previously, not the same at all. As white turned to grey, the re-emergence of senses started with sounds, faint sounds of deep voices barking in foreign tongues. Then came the smells, stronger for some than others, of burnt air and the most horrible, incomprehensible body odors, beyond what the mind is capable of imagining. Next came touch, the feeling of the weight of their bodies being pulled downward by the local gravity, and the hard concrete beneath their feet pushing back up against them, proportionally. The returning sensation of mass was immediately followed by that of temperature, and not just the heat of the room against their skin, but the thickness of the air and all of its humidity. Finally, the grey succumbed to darkness, which began defining itself into shapes and forms, with the spaces between them opening up for the older, familiar light, to move within and give them color and definition. And as the picture slowly focused, and the realization that they were indeed alive, again, became more certain, the X-Men looked around at where they were.

Standing in the center of the room, the nine of them slowly regain their footing and balance, each reluctantly letting go of where they had been hanging onto Guido’s massive frame for dear life. As they take in their new environment, the first thing they all notice, and would have had trouble missing, is the large alien guard standing directly in front of them. Clad in a sleeveless, skintight silver bodysuit, with a plain chrome helmet and matching chrome shin guards and  gauntlets, the guard was holding some kind of energy rifle, and had it aimed right at them.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Logan snarls.

“Assess the room.” Jean commands sternly. “Silent count, attack on four.” The team quickly scans the room, moving as little of their heads or bodies as possible to avoid premature provocation. Identical guards stand, one each, to their left and right, equally armed. The reflections off of the guards helmets give the impression that there is also a fourth guard behind them. One. The room is essentially a cube, approximately twenty feet across, twenty feet deep, and twenty feet high (they must bring some large captives in here). The walls and ceiling are an identical bare concrete, as the floor. Two. There are no doors or windows, so the only way in and out must be by the method from which they arrived. There are electronic devices which may or may not be cameras, up high against the wall and across the ceiling. Three. The number of guards appear to have been chosen based on what would be needed to properly secure Guido, but it doesn’t look like they are anywhere near prepared for something like us. Four .

Bobby screams and Alison fills the room with a blinding light. The team attacks as one. They have protocols they practice regularly in the Danger Room back home in the event of a situation just like this one. Each member attacks the closest adversary with narrow, focused strikes to avoid any ricochet or collateral damage. Scott and Ororo had been holding on to Guido’s left and right arms, respectively, when they arrived. At the moment of attack, Scott dropped low and turned left as Ororo rose high and turned right, each dealing a focused blast directly to the chest of their respective guard, before either had a chance to fire their rifle.

Jean noticed right away that the helmets the guards were wearing protected them from her telepathy. At the count of four, she dropped to the floor, and Logan took advantage of the extra space to launch himself forward and shred the guard’s rifle with his deadly sharp adamantium claws. The guard threw a huge right cross, hoping to take the small, deadly man out of the fight, but Logan rolled clear leaving the guard wide open for a devastating haymaker from Guido that literally embedded him into the concrete wall behind him, and had to have killed him.

To Guido’s rear, Anna and Remy timed their attack so that she would grab him and swing him around into the guard behind them. Remy uses the tremendous momentum to kick the rifle out of the guard’s hands, leaving him wide open, and completely without defense for the crushing left Anna delivers. Fortunately for the guard, Anna has a tendency to pull her punches, and he’s able to shake it off and tries to get up and back into the fight. Before he even has the chance to get off of his knee, Remy jumps back in and grabs his helmet with both hands, energizing it past the point of stability, and causing it to explode while still on the guard’s head. He’s not coming back from that one.

They stand in formation, waiting for a second wave, but from where none of them could say. Adrenaline courses through their veins like a tidal wave, and they almost pity whatever poor soul steps into this room, next. Almost.

“What, now?” Guido asks, after a couple more seconds of anxious silence.

“We hold until we are certain our position is secure, then we find a way out.” Jean responds, with military precision.

“I really wish Kurt was here with us, right now.” Alison says. She loves her powers, and if she’s being honest with herself, she wouldn’t trade them for anything, but there are times, like here and now, when she wishes they were a little less flashy and a little more practical.

“We work with what we have, Sweetie.” Jean says. “Ororo and Anna, fly up and check ou…” Suddenly, a pulse of green energy fills the room. Emitted from each of the four corners of the ceiling, the four waves converge in the center and reverberate back out again, disappearing into the walls. Within an instant, everyone in the room is unconscious.

The camera pans across thirteen still bodies.

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“They’re gone!” Charles Xavier says this out loud, although there is nobody else left in the hangar to hear him. “ Kurt! Quickly! Code Orange! Have all students move into one of the shielded rooms in the sub-basement. NOW!” As he thinks it, Kurt hears it from where he is gathered with the full student body, in assembly. The blue-skinned lecturer immediately informs the students of the situation, and drives them all towards the stairs. Xavier can feel the surge of emotion, all at once, in so many young and unguarded mutant minds. He knows they are on their way, as he can feel the movement of those minds together, like a wave of energy, as it moves through the building and makes its way closer and closer to where he is at. Running towards the lower doors of the hangar, Charles Xavier rushes to meet his students. He can feel his age in the joints of his knees as he sprints, and realizes that he can’t remember the last time he felt the need to move this fast. Urgency is for young people, or so he had believed.

He enters the Situation Room, and heads to the computer where he activates the cameras and monitors so that those in each of the sealed rooms will be able to see and hear him. Taking a deep breath, he turns around and composes himself, buttoning his suit blazer and smoothing out the bunches. He takes the pocket square out of his left breast pocket and dabs the sweat on his forehead. As planned, he is neatly folding it and replacing it in his suit coat as the first wave of students begins to enter. “ Remember, children, there is enough room for everyone down here. As soon as one room has become full, simply move to the next one.”

Once everyone is seated throughout the rooms of the sub-basement, and each room has been sealed to psionic energies, Professor Charles Xavier begins. “My students, we are currently engaged in a Code Orange scenario. This is neither a drill, nor a simulation. Everything that I tell you now is because it is essential for you to know in regards to your own safety.” You could hear a pin drop, as he pauses for dramatic effect.

“Over the past many months, the mutant population has become the target of an unknown and potentially hostile threat. Be it systematic, or random, this threat has been tracking and abducting mutants from all parts of the world. No haven or community has been unaffected, and while the leaders of these schools and villages have been in communication with each other regarding this matter, we had felt it was best to keep it secret from those in our care for the time being, to avoid panic or undue harm. Our heroes, and this school’s first line of defense against threat or incursion, the X-Men, had been aware of this threat, and had been acting in the interest of all mutantkind as they investigated a great many of these disappearances. Moments ago, the threat actualized itself here in Salem Center. A former student who was on campus became the target of one of these abductions, and in an attempt to protect him, the X-Men leapt bravely into action. They are currently all missing in action. I do not know where they are, but stretching the furthest limits of my powers, I am confident that they are not anywhere on this planet.”

The crowds in each room begin to stir, and muffled voices fill the rooms as nearly each and every student begin whispering in panic or awe with their closest neighbor. The Professor coughs, and the rooms comes back to attention. “Until our team returns, and if our history assures of anything it is that they WILL return, classes are hereby suspended. Trainings will be conducted by type leaders, and dormitories will be supervised by senior house members. Any situations that extend beyond their ability to monitor or control will be referred to Brother Wagner or myself. You are all responsible men and women, if I did not trust that you were capable of and prepared for this you would not be here. That is all for now. You are to remain in here until sunset as a precautionary measure, at which time your house leaders will dismiss you. There are no questions. Thank you.”

Xavier walks through the gathering of students, and the door at the rear of the Situation Room opens before him and closes just as quickly upon his leave. Kurt meets him in the hallway, and Xavier doesn’t need to be the world’s most powerful telepath to know that they are in agreement. “Zey are good kinder, Charles. Zey have had good lehrer. Zey vil be gut.”

“Thank you, my friend.” Xavier says, sincerely. “It looks like you will have that opportunity to be of service that you were seeking. I do not know how I would fare, were you not here with me.”

“It is meine Ehre.” Kurt bows to his former teacher, and friend, and heads back into one of the rooms to be available for the students. Xavier heads upstairs and calls for a driver.

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Two hours later, Charles Xavier stands amidst the swirling masses of people trying to make their way through New York. He finds himself on Bleecker St, between MacDougal and Sullivan, and while he knows he is in the right place, he is also aware that what he is looking for is not exactly here. He is, in fact, not looking for a trendy Vietnamese restaurant, although that is what is staring back at him. Charles Xavier is not one to wait for others, and after an interminable five minutes he decides to take things into his own hands. Walking over to the building, he turns around leans against the brownstone exterior. Like a QiGong Master harnessing his chi, Charles closes his eyes and begins drawing down all of the massive psychic energy flowing through his lifeforce, concentrating it in the center of his being, allowing it to build, feeling it as gets stronger and stronger, until it is taking all of his power to restrain it and hold it in, and then finally, he feels the dam break and sends this unfathomable burst of pure psionic energy straight into the sky.

He puts his hands upon his knees and leans forward as he attempts to catch his breath and regain his composure. He chuckles briefly, as the possibility occurs to him of his blast hitting an alien ship in orbit and freeing his team. Feeling better he stands up and begins to lean back against the brownstone, but instead falls, only to be caught by the steady hands of a friend.

“You could have just called.” The voice says. Charles turns around to see a man dressed in a navy blue tunic with a high collared red cloak, and he smiles.

“You don’t have a phone.” Xavier replies.

“Of course, not. Then I would have to talk to people.” Dr. Stephen Strange pats his friend on the shoulder, and they turn and walk up the steps into a building that is decidedly not a Vietnamese restaurant.

As they walk up the stairs, Xavier stops for a moment when he hears what he swears are telepathic screams coming from the refrigerator. “Ignore that.” Doctor Strange says.

Xavier continues up the stairs, following his friend, and remarks, “It sounds like it’s coming from your refrigerator.”

“That is literally the opposite of ignoring it.” Strange replies. “Do I come to your house and questions how you live?”

“You don’t come to my house, Stephen.” Charles says.

“Exactly. I think you’re starting to get the point.” There are only a handful of people in the entire world whom Charles Xavier would allow to speak to him in such a way, and that’s part of the reason why his friend feels the need to do so. For Stephen Strange, this needling is more of a civic duty. If he didn’t want Xavier here, he never would have brought him in.

Strange takes a seat behind his desk and motions for Xavier to find one of the chairs across from him. “So tell me, Charles, what could be troubling you so much that you’re willing to fire psionic fireballs into the sky in the middle of Greenwich Village. It’s quite unlike you.”

“It’s my team, Stephen…” Charles Xavier needs a moment to finish this sentence, “they’re gone.”

“I’m going to need a little more than that, they’re gone like you did one of your misogynistic political things again, and they got pissed and left, or... they’re gone gone?” The tone in Stephen’s voice changes as he gets to the end of his question and sees the pain on his friends face, the needling has ceased to be amusing, for both of them. “I’m so sorry. What happened.”

“It has to do with those disappearances we spoke about last time we met, I need to know, did you discover anything else about them via your methods?” Charles asks, eagerly, and a bit demanding.

“No, I’m afraid not, I’m sorry." Strange pauses and thinks, "I shouldn’t say that. They are definitely abductions, I can tell you that, and definitely from another world, but whether that means another planet, another plane of existence, another dimension, I cannot say. The energy that captures them is entering our world via another dimension, my theory is this other dimension is acting like a shortcut around the limitations of our spacetime, allowing them to pop in and pop out at far points of our galaxy or universe, points far enough apart that conventional travel would be either impossible or highly impractical.”

Xavier nods, “And you are sure of this?” he asks.

“I’m sure of nothing,” Strange responds seriously, “this is my best theory based on the information I have. It’s possible the abductor resides in this other dimension, unfortunately I’m not incredibly popular there, and cannot stay for more than a few seconds without being engulfed by what are best described as ‘flaming rage locusts’. But this is what makes the most sense. I can say for certain it isn’t coming from this planet, if that helps at all.

“Thank you Stephen, I suppose that is the best that you can do. Sometimes I forget, that you are only human.” Strange looks at him with intense disdain at that last remark, and then both men break into laughter, a welcome reprieve from the dire nature of this visit.

“I will keep an eye out for anything that might be of interest of to you, but objectively speaking,” Dr. Strange pauses for a moment, knowing his friend probably won’t want to hear this next part, “having your team on the other side of that energy source is probably the best possible scenario in terms of putting an end to these disappearances. Whoever it is that’s responsible for this, they had no clue what they were doing when they grabbed the X-Men.”

Chapter Text

Alison slowly opens her eyes, but the world is sideways, and what she can make out feels like it probably wouldn’t make much more sense upright, either. As she pushes herself up, she feels the cold smooth floor beneath her hands, almost like the concrete in a garage, except metal. As she looks around, it’s as if she is in an incredibly busy airport terminal, like Super-Laguardia, only nobody here speaks English… and nobody here is human. As she tries making sense of an absolute overload of foreign sights and sounds, creatures of all different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and smells, she does notice one thing that seems a bit out of place, even for all of this, the collars. Every single being wandering through this… this place, is wearing some sort of metal collar. Three of them really, and on the humanoid ones they are on each wrist and one around the neck. She quickly checks herself, and finds that she is no different.

Frantic, Alison jumps to her feet and begins spinning around, looking in every direction for a familiar face, for at least one of the members of her team. They have to be here somewhere , she thinks to herself. I might not be able to see them, but I can damn sure make it so they can see me , she thinks and punches both of her fists straight into the air as she draws on the cacophony of sounds around her and turns them into a massive distress beacon the X-Men couldn’t possibly miss. Except they do miss it, because she doesn’t actually. She hears the noise, she pulls on it the way she’s been trained, the way she worked so hard to master in her sessions with the Professor, but it’s like reaching for spiderwebs you swear you can feel on your skin, only your fingers find nothing. There was nothing to pull, and the sounds continue because here, wherever here is, Alison is powerless.

“Shut up!” The words pierce through everything else that is happening, and spin Alison around 180 degrees on her heels. The southern belle who shouted them can’t be far, and Alison begins pushing and shoving her way through the crowd, scanning desperately for anything human.

“My brother’s about to fight!” She hears the voice again, and spins to her two-o’clock. This girl is close, she knows it. Suddenly the walls of this, this what?… terminal?... begin to light up, and the dirty facade of stone and metal suddenly becomes a lifelike and intense projection of what looks like an arena floor. What she sees on the display is like some cross between American Ninja Warrior, Monday Night Raw, and the booby-trapped gauntlet from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Standing on one side is a skinny, teenage boy-- HUMAN, he’s human!!--, with short blonde hair and no shirt on. On the other side is a giant, three-headed, 25-foot tall Rock Monster-- also with no shirt on.

~Ding~ ~Ding~ ~Ding~

As the sound of the bell tramples over every other noise in the place, all three gauntlets on both competitors are suddenly aglow with a pale blue light. The giant rock monster grins, he raises both arms and begins morphing them into even more arms, each of them converging into a heinous, dangerously-shaped rock weapon.

An electronic ticker above the display of the arena shows what appear to be betting action, and so much money is being placed on the rock monster that the odds are spinning out of control, symbols spinning faster than Alison can make them out. On the screen below, the boy starts to get a real serious look on his face. Curious , Alison thinks, he doesn’t look scared. His legs begin to glow a dim orange, which slowly becomes a brighter orange, and then out of nowhere he bursts off at rocket speed, straight towards his opponent. With a marvelous trail of flame streaking behind him, the boy goes straight into the chest of the rock monster, and like a bullet he pierces straight through the heart of the beast, blowing him to pieces. The ticker stops abruptly, and the crowd goes silent. There is utter disbelief, followed by deafening and raucous cheers. The boy spins around and as the crowd goes wild, he looks desperately for a way out. He sees his shot, and starts to fly straight up towards the roof, when all of a sudden...

~ding~

His gauntlets go dim, no longer do they have that blue glow about them. Within a few seconds his acceleration gives way to that of the local gravity and he begins to fall, stunningly, back down to the ground, only to be transported away at the last second, just before crashing.

The crowd around Alison begins to part, and before her now she sees a teenage girl, blonde, almost like a younger version of herself, and in her lap lays the boy, safe, alive, and unconscious.

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“ANNA!” Remy screams. He’s been screaming her name as loud as he could since the second he woke up in this God-forsaken place, and he’ll continue screaming it until his voice goes out… no, not even then, he’ll continue screaming it until he finds her, there is no alternative. “ANNA!” He pushes his way through crowds of aliens, most of whom are ridiculously larger than him, and when some push back, he pushes again. Some of these things are covered in blades, one or two in fire, but not a one of them is willing to mess with Remy, not with the look he’s got in his eyes, right now. “ANNA!”

Out of the corner of his eye he sees something, he tries to catch it again through the breaks between all the aliens and creatures passing by him, but he just can’t seem to get the angle right. He starts moving towards it, towards the wall, slowly. There it is again , he thinks as he sees it again, this time certain that it was what he thought it was… a boot. Her boot. He starts pushing things harder, throwing wild punches into the air, and making swim moves like a defensive lineman, trying to move through the crowd and clear out as much space in front of him as he can. Then he sees her, she’s on the floor against the wall, hiding behind some kind of large slug-thing. He’s never seen her look lost, or frail before. He walks over to her slowly, like she’s a stray cat that he’s trying not to frighten. The light from above casts his shadow in front of him, and it begins to cover her like a blanket as he gets closer. When it covers her face, she looks up, large eyes filled with fear until she sees that it is him.

It’s him! she thinks.

He scoops her up and holds her close, and she lets out a breath like it’s the first time she’s exhaled since they arrived. She’s never needed his strength before, can’t remember any time in her life that she’s felt so weak. To suddenly lose all of that strength, her muscles feel like they can barely carry her own weight. And here, surrounded by the fiercest and scariest things she’s ever seen, and she’s seen some things, it was all she could do to find something akin to a corner that she could crawl into. Remy’s strong, but she’s always been the strong one out of the two of them, and while she loves him with her whole heart, she’s never felt like she’s needed him before... but the one time she does, and here he is. He lets her go, just a little so she can lean back, and they look each other in the eye.

They both have the same realization at the exact same time. Anna had had her arms around his neck, but she lets go and slowly takes off one of her gloves and touches his face. Remy’s hands had been holding her close, by the small of her back, but he too lets go, and takes off one of his gloves. His finger grazes her cheek, and he catches himself bracing for the shock, but it never comes. They lean in closer to each other, ahain, and for the first time ever, in this of all places, Remy and Anna kiss.

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Scott stands alone, fully alert and at attention as foreign hostiles swarm in every direction. He takes inventory and finds that his clothes and personal effects are all fairly in order, a quick mental checklist confirms that nothing is missing. In fact, he is in possession of three new articles that were not on his persons before departing the hangar, a pair of gauntlets and matching collar, made from an unknown alloy, possibly alien in nature. Systematically, he begins taking in a 360 degree scan of everything and everyone around him, slowly turning in position and looking at every face -- or otherwise distinguishable feature, at every level, for signs of anyone, or anything familiar to him.

After about 240 degrees of rotation, he sees something familiar enough to warrant further investigation. Slumped up against a wall is a smaller humanoid looking individual, their head and appearance covered by an old, worn brown leather bomber jacket, but open just enough to keep their own reconnaissance. If Scott didn’t know better, the skin on the hands and the posture would make him assume this was an elderly male, possibly 80 years old or more, but he recognizes the jacket, and knowing the owner it’s not likely somebody stole it from him; Logan.

Scott makes his way over to his teammate, “Summers. Secure.” he states, firmly. The jacket tilts up as Logan checks him out, then tilts back down, as Logan ignores him. “Summers. Secure.” He repeats. Nothing. “Dammit, Logan. You’re supposed to give a status update.” Scott waits, but Logan still doesn’t respond. “Summers. Sec…”

“Fuck off,” Logan grumbles.

“Come on, Logan, ‘In the event a team member is separated from his party, re-establishment of contact shall consist exclusively of name and status.” Scott doesn’t understand why his friends don’t follow the rules and regulations, especially in times like this. This is the reason we have them, so that when everything is upside-down and nothing makes sense, you know exactly what you are supposed to do next.

“Things aren’t right here,” Logan groans. He has to pause, cringing, as he tries to hold in the pain he’s experiencing, “Our powers... they’re not working.”

It hadn’t occurred to Scott that his powers might not be working, at this point he’s been wearing the visor so long he doesn’t even think about it anymore. Hesitant, he reaches up with his right hand and touches the safety dial on the side of his visor that allows him to manually adjust the lenses, and create a small exit slot for the force beams to escape through. He turns it the tiniest bit, clenching and bracing for accidental destruction, but nothing happens. He turns it a little bit more, but still nothing. A little more, a little more, and finally all the way, but still, nothing. He moves his hand back to the clasp on the back of his head, and begins to slide the strap through. He feels the visor loosen, a release of pressure against his face, and then despite initially sticking to his skin, gravity ultimately forces the visor to drop down, first onto his nose, and then around his neck. He looks around at the room, and for the first time in his adult life, sees a world absent the tint of rose colored glasses.

Stunned, Scott Summers stands in the midst of a foreign world, under the control of a malevolent force he knows nothing about, surrounded by alien creatures the likes of which were, as of thirty minutes ago, beyond anything he could imagine, and despite all of that, it’s the color blue that his him most at a loss. He remembers it from when he was a boy, it had even been his favorite color once, but it’s been so long that he had forgotten how beautiful it could be. “This is Amazing!” he says.

“It’s better for some than others,” Logan groans, having to roll over onto his side as he clutches his chest and tries to swallow down the hurt.

Scott hadn’t noticed it before, but suddenly he started to think about what he knew about his teammate, and he realized that there was probably a reason he wouldn’t stand up and look at him. “Oh my God!” Scott says, “without your powers, are you… are you going to revert to your actual age?”

“Ughhh,” the sound leaks through Logan’s throat, despite his best attempts to keep it there. Wincing hard, he says, “I don’t think that’s how cells work. But I am pretty sure that without my healing power, the vibranium covering my skeleton is gonna kill me from metal poisoning.”

“How long do you think you have?” Scott asks, genuinely scared, and at a loss, for a man he’d like to think of as a friend.

“Probably a few days, but if I’m lucky, less.” Logan replies, now from the floor as he’s gone full fetal position.

“How can you say that? Scott asks, disgusted and confused.

“You’re not the one feeling it, Bub?”

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As a Kenyan woman living in the United States, Ororo Munroe is used to feeling like a foreigner. No matter how long she has been there, how good her English has become, or how much of her life is spent in the service of the people around her, she can’t get a cup of coffee without someone commenting about how exotic her hair is, or how beautiful her skin tone is; and that’s just the people who are trying to be nice. For those with lesser intentions it’s the looks, the whispers, or the implied tone of superiority when speaking to her that cut into her, sometimes dozens of times a day. Objectively, she has never been more of a foreigner than she is here and now, in this moment, and yet the safety she feels in the anonymity of her situation, the absence of stares, whispers, and tones, are ironically comforting. She savors it, but only for a moment, because for the rest of her team, for the young men and women like Scott, Bobby, and Alison… my God, Alison, she must be terrified.

Ororo begins to spin around looking quickly in every direction. She can’t just stand here, and tries as best she can to find something that feels like the direction she should be moving in. It’s a wide corridor, with plenty of diverse beings throughout it, and around her, but none look familiar. She wants to rise up, and look over the top of the crowd for her people, but doesn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention upon herself if she doesn’t have to. The corridor extends beyond where she can see in both directions, and there doesn’t appear to be any sort of indicator in regards to why people are moving in one direction or another.

She thinks about her teammates again, assuming they are here somewhere, and where they are is similar to where she is, what would they be doing? Alison would most definitively make her presence known, the child draws attention the way I command the winds , she thinks. Remy and Anna shall find each other, of that there is no question, and until they do both are well-experienced and can fend for themselves. She laughs to herself a little as she thinks of Scott, Scott will undoubtedly want to follow protocol, which means maintain his position and wait for one of us to find him. No, of all the members of her team, of all her family who are lost here with her, there is one she is chiefly concerned with, Bobby. What would he do? He is so guarded, how would he react to something like this? It’s Bobby she is most worried about, and while she is looking for anybody, it is him she most hopes to find.

She looks about her once more, and as she becomes lost in the staggering amount of diversity in her surroundings, a new thought strikes her… So many prisoners, someone must be feeding them. With renewed purpose, she begins approaching some of the smaller, milder looking creatures and trying to ask them about food. Words prove futile immediately, but even gestures, trying to move her hand to her mouth to simulate eating seem to go either unrecognized or unimportant, or in one instance, evoke terror that she’s about to eat them. She sees another about her size, humanoid, his skin and dress both a deep purple, and whose facial expression doesn’t appear too angry, and she tries again. Words fail, as expected, but the gesture evokes a response she does not expect. He grabs her, violently, by the hair and begins dragging her backwards towards God knows where. She claws at his hand, but his skin is tough like kevlar. She kicks and pulls, she swings violently at him, but it is more futile than if she were a child being drug away by a disapproving father. She tries calling upon the elements, moving the air, pulling the electrons within it together into a charged burst, but although she pulls at them, it’s as if someone has cut the strings. Finally, he swings her around and she crashes brutally into someone sitting by themselves against the wall.

Human hands reach out to hers, and she looks up to see Bobby’s face, examining her with care and concern. “Bobby?” she asks, with disbelief.

“You tried asking him for food, didn’t you?” He says.

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It’s been about ten minutes since Jean made her way over to a wall, and out of the bustle and commotion at the center of the corridor. She’s only peripherally observing what is going on around her, and only really out of concern for her own safety, as she leans back against the wall, lost in thought. It’s as if someone has cut off all of my fingertips , she thinks. I reach out to try and touch something, to try and feel it, and I know it is there, but I just can’t make the connection anymore . Her concentration is broken quite abruptly as someone manages to, for the first time in a very, very long time, catch her by surprise as they reach out for her.

“Oh my God!” she screams. “Guido, it’s you.” She pauses, straddling the massive faultline in her mind between gratitude and fear. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“Wow!” He says, “I didn’t mean to spook ya. I thawt you alwayz knew when someone was comin’ up on ya.”

“No… I mean… Yes I usually do.” Jean is stumbling over her words; saying this out loud is proving incredibly difficult when she is only still coming to terms with it, herself. “My… Our… I think… Our powers don’t seem to work here… wherever here is.” She gradually tells him.

Guido look around at some of the other creatures walking by, and then down at himself. He begins looking intently at his own arms, as if trying to determine if they were smaller, or different in any way. He tilts his head in confusion, and Jean can tell that he is thinking hard about this one, and then he reaches out and puts both hands on her waist and lifts her high up in the air, shoulder pressing her a couple times before gently setting her back down. “I don’t know,” he says, “I guess I’ll have to take yer word fer it. Must be one a da perks a bein’ a Strong Guy, with my powers I’m Super Duper Strong, and without I’m just Super Strong… Or Duper Strong, I don’t know. One a da two.”

Jean laughs at him, a little, and begrudgingly. “Thank you, Guido.” she says, smiling at him, “I needed that.” After a moment, of just standing there, the two of them, Jean continues, “Our main concern right now needs to be in finding the rest of the team.” Guido smiles and feels good about the implication that he was, or is still, a member of the team.

“Absolutely, I agree One Hunderd Pahcent. My job, whether we’re heya, or anywhere else, is to keep Ali safe. I’ve got to find her,” he says.

Smiling, Jean says, “That is the one part of this that I feel won’t be too difficult. Alison is not one to keep a low profile. It’s the rest of the team I am worried about.” Guido looks at her as if he doesn’t fully understand, so Jean explains, “When we are out in public, Alison has been trained to draw attention, she is good at being found and noticed. The rest of the team has been trained to avoid detection, to stick to the shadows and not be found, and they’re also very good at it. My biggest worry is that if we’ve trained them too good, we might not ever be able to find them here. We don’t even have any idea how big here is.”

“Well,” he says, “I found you, and I’m a big dummy. I’m sure you can find ‘em in no time. You do tha thinkin’ and lookin’, and just know dat I’m here ta keep ya safe, no matta wut.”

About 400 feet behind Guido and Jean, a young, blonde, human woman begins climbing up onto some kind of bench or ledge. This round gathering area appears to be the end of this section of corridor, and so she turns and faces out so that she is looking down the barrel of the corridor, at what feels like an endless tunnel of crowd. Imagining that a stage manager out there was giving her some kind of green light, Alison Blaire begins belting out her latest hit song at the absolute top of her lungs.

 

♩♪♫♬”And I don’t want the world to see me…♩♪♫♬

♩♪♫♬“Because I don’t think that they’d understand…♩♪♫♬

♩♪♫♬“When everything’s made to be broken…♩♪♫♬

♩♪♫♬“I just want you to know who I aaaaaaaaaaam!!”♩♪♫♬

 

Guido immediately smiles and the two turn and start heading to her. Somebody somewhere must be amused because after about thirty seconds of singing, every wall up and down every stretch of corridor switch back into display screens, but instead of the next fight from the arena they are now displaying Alison, live and in concert.

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Bobby and Ororo are startled, and have to back up into the crowd in order to make out what they are seeing on the screen. Once they realize that not only is it their girl, but that she is definitely somewhere in here, with them, they take off running down the corridor, now easily able to tell from the direction of gazes and attention which way the action is.

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“FIne,” Logan says as he slowly, and painstakingly rises to his feet. “You stay here, and I will  investigate the disturbance and report back.” He shakes his head at the silliness of ‘protocol’ as he hobbles off towards Alison’s beacon.

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Remy and Anna are still in each others arms when the screens kick on, and while they are already smiling, they both immediately start to laugh, as well. “I never thought I’d be so happy to hear that horrible song, in my life,” he says. Anna punches him lightly in the chest, and -- gloveless hand in gloveless hand -- they head off towards their friends.

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The whole team, minus Scott, all converge at the end of the corridor, and just because they’re there, it doesn’t mean she’s going to stop. After another minute, and some exhausted, but grateful, looks from her friends, she finally stops singing. From her position above everybody else, Alison waves her arm down at the two other humans, displaying them as if they were prizes to be won in the Showcase Showdown. “Everybody,” she says, “meet Paige and Sam.” The looks on the faces of her friends and teammates is absolute disbelief, not only did she figure out how to regroup the team, she also found the two kids from Kentucky they had been looking for before being abducted. With an uncontrollable grin spanning from ear to ear, she says, “Found ‘em!”

 

Chapter Text

Alison is practically bouncing with excitement as her teammates slowly begin to digest the magnitude of her achievement. Jean steps forward and offers a hand to the young girl, by Alison’s side. “Hello there, Paige, Sam, my name is Jean Grey, and I am the leader of this group of… stewards, if you will, known as the X-Men. Back on Earth, we represent a small community built around a school in New York. A school and community specially designed for people like us, people who are special, people known as mutants.”

Sam’s face begins to widen in awe, and he appears to be bursting with questions. “So... pardon muh manners, excuse me, Ma’am, you mean tuh say that there are more people like us back home? Not just the Cap’n Uh-mericas and Iron Mens that we see on the tee-vee, but other people just livin’ thur lives with powers, like me and muh brothers and sisters?”

“Oh, yes, Sam.” Jean replies, “There are thousands of us, all around the world, and a number of communities that act as schools and safe havens for our kind, where we can learn to control our powers, and where we can turn in times of need. Charles Xavier’s school in New York is just one of these places, albeit the only one in North America, but there are others all across the world.”

“Wow.” The siblings stand there, slack jawed in amazement. Finding themselves in this alien environment was one thing, but learning that there's a whole nother world of super-powered people on their home-planet that they never even knew about is quite another.

Ororo steps forward and joins the conversation, “As a matter of fact, Samuel, I myself am from Kenya, while Anna here is from Latvia. Logan and Roberto, as well, are from Canada and the Dominican Republic, respectively. Our community represents a very diverse group of individuals from many different parts of the world, and just recently, we visited your mother to speak to her about the two of you. She appeared to be quite receptive about the possibility of you both attending our school… once we have returned home, that is.”

“Thank you, Ma’am… um… err… Ma’am’s. That sounds amazing.” Paige, says, her excitement getting the better of her language capabilities.

Jean chooses this opportunity to redirect the conversation, and switches back into operation mode. “Yes, and it can be, but before we get there, we have to get out of here. You two have been here longer than we have, what can you tell us about this place?”

Sam and Paige look at each other, Sam speaks first. “We’ve only been here a day, but as far we can tell everyone here has been kidnapped, like us, and sooner or later, everybody has to fight. There are cameras everywhere, and it’s kinda like when yer watching the WWE, and in between the fights they show all the drama and stories going on backstage… well, this is the backstage.”

“Yeah,” Paige adds, “the fights are the main attraction, but whoever the audience is, they watch everything. Anytime something special or crazy happens back here, whether it’s people fighting, or arguing, or trying to escape, it goes up on the main screen. There seem to be some characters… ummm, that’s not a good word, some of… us, I guess, that the audience like more than others, because we’ll see them pop up on the screen way more often… like the blonde guy, they freakin’ love him. They put him up on the walls just to watch him eat breakfast, earlier. And they bet on everything, or at least, I think it’s betting. There are these numbers that go up and down, and change over the course of the fights. If you pay attention, you can tell that they are linked to the action, so I’m pretty sure it’s people gamblin’, I can’t imagine what else it might be. But the crazy thing is, they bet on everything. Anything that goes up on the screen, you can see the numbers moving. Never as much as with the fights, but even earlier, I’m pretty sure people were bettin’ on which food the blonde guy was gonna eat first.”

“I noticed those, earlier, when your brother was fighting.” Bobby says, joining the conversation. “The symbols were moving so fast, I couldn’t even really make out what they were.”

“Yeah, they move the fastest when humans are fighting. All the action seems to load up on the other side.” Paige says.

“They see a giant monster on on side, and little old me on the other,” says Sam, “who would be dumb enough to bet on me.”

“And yet, you won.” Ororo points out.

“Vegas woulda made a killin’,” Remy adds.

Anna jumps into the conversation, picking up on her lover’s comment and putting the pieces together aloud, as it starts making sense to her. “That must be why they keep taking more and more mutants. We all got different powers, and the people watching never know what we’re gonna do. We’re a fad.”

“Well,” Jean adds, facetiously, “it’s comforting to know that exploitative capitalism isn’t merely an Earthbound custom.”

“And then there’s these…” Sam says, holding his hands up to show off his gauntlets. “When I first got here, I couldn’t even tell wut it wuz doing, I didn’t even realize it wuz turnin’ off mah powers until I tried to use ‘em. But when I was in the arena, and it turned off, I could feel it flowing through me, like I wuz supercharged or sumthin. And when it cut back off agin, it was horrible, like having all tha blood drained outta me at once. It hit me so hard, it clean knocked me out.”

“Yeah, It was the same thing after my first fight. I was ready to lay down and go to sleep in the middle of all that nasty dragon guts and blood and stuff.” Paige adds. The entire team of X-Men look at her in confusion and disbelief. “Oh, right. Ya’ll didn’t see mah fight. So…”

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It had been a little over an hour since Paige and Sam had arrived, and while they had never felt so lost in their collective lives, they were able to provide themselves some semblance of security by moving as far down the corridor as they could, until they were able to get to one end and have the passageway only opening up in one direction, in front of them. They sat on the floor, crouched in such a way as to try and be as comfortable as possible while also ready to spring into action if they needed to fight. They were leaning against each other, Sam had focused on some strange creatures he felt positive were beginning to stare when he suddenly fell over as Paige just simply disappeared.

Not having Sam to lean against, herself, the first thing Paige did as she materialized inside the arena was fall over. The combination of exhaustion and confusion caused the immensity of the crowd to overwhelm her, towering above her and outward for what felt like hundreds of feet in each direction. On the ground, with her hands in the dirt half pushing herself up and half merely keeping her from falling completely prostate she was lost in awe until she heard the sound of her opponent from across the arena floor. Slowly turning her head in the direction of the scrapes and growls, the hundreds of thousands of screaming onlookers became invisible as her eyes laid upon the massive beast left alone on the arena floor with her. Each of his massive paws was bigger than her, about five feet in diameter, not including the clawed digits, arching out of the front like tremendous scythes. Her eyes traveled up the mighty hind legs of the scaled behemoth and the chest whose sheer breadth reminded her most of a grain silo, ultimately to the three branches stemming out of the top, each to a fearsome snarling head, that were there only one of them she would most comfortably describe as that of a dragon.

She started to feel the warmth of it against her legs before she realized what it was, and while objectively she would never blame anyone else for losing their bladder in a situation like this, she couldn’t help but feel ashamed. She wanted to cry, felt like she was about to lose control completely, and so she closed her eyes, trying to swallow back the tears so she could at least die with a little bit of dignity. She began to pray, asking Jesus to take care of her Momma, and her brothers and her sisters, and to please never let anything like this happen to them. And then it happened, like a surge of adrenaline, she could feel it in her veins; her powers. She opened her eyes and looked at her gauntlets, a pale blue light glowing from somewhere within the cold, hard metal. The ground shook beneath her, and as she looked up she saw the towering dragon beast lumbering towards her at full speed. Frantic, Paige began clawing at her skin, her face, her hair, every part of her body she could, as fast and as fevered as she was able. She closed her eyes tight, but this time she wasn’t hiding from anything, she was thinking as hard as she could about the hardest substance she knew she was able to husk into… diamond. As the beast skidded to a halt in front of her, it lowered its necks and angled all three heads around her small, shining frame, and then came the fire. Massive incinerating bursts of blue-hot flame, showering her for what felt like forever, and while she could feel the heat, she couldn’t help but smile, because it didn’t burn. Her husk had worked, at least for now.

The dragon, however, was not smiling, and after seeing his opponent still shimmering before him he leaned his central head low and swallowed her in one quick gulp. For Paige, the world went dark, and quickly it began to feel as if every direction was upside-down. When she finally came to a stop, it was in a tight, pungent sack that wouldn’t stop bouncing all over the place. The fact that she could think about where she was, and make presumptions about what was going on around her meant her diamond form was holding up, and if this monster’s body wasn’t strong enough to break through her husk, that meant her husk was definitely strong enough to break through the monster’s body. She reached out and grabbed handfuls of the sack that was constricting around her, squeezing and pinching it with her fingers, until her slender diamond daggers punctuated through, tenfold, giving her the opening she needed to start doing some real damage. Ripping and stretching as frenzied as she could, she was quickly out of the belly of the beast and into the slimy interstitial cavity, with varied organs and veins coursing and pulsing all around her. Swinging and clawing, Paige’s sole focus was to do as much damage as possible, and the razor sharp edges of her diamond skin were more than capable. The beast slammed hard to the ground and began rolling in pain, but with no footing to try and keep, Paige just added kicking to the list of ways she could do as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. Until finally her foot got stuck, but in what she couldn’t tell. She grabbed her leg with both hands and pulled as hard as she could, but she had nothing to give her any leverage, and couldn’t get herself free. She started flailing with both hands, until she felt her left forearm crash into what she had to assume was the spine. Grabbing onto it with both hands she pulled as hard as she could, but the spine gave way before her foot did, and she felt it snap and splinter inside her hands.

The beast went silent, the sounds of its circulatory system slowed to a halt, and all of the pulsing and thumping of organs doing their jobs quickly died out. The beast quit rolling around, and her world once again became still. Using the broken piece of spine, Paige was able to cut her way out of the beast, well the rest of the way seeing as how her foot, it turned out, had been sticking through his back since it had first gotten stuck. The light of the arena was intense and blinding after so many minutes inside the abject darkness of the literal belly of the beast, and the hundreds of thousands in attendance stood in stunned silence. Covered in vile steaming fluids from the insides of her foe, she crawled out through his back and rolled over his side, crashing hard to the dusty ground below. Picking the stringier bits off of herself, Paige began to de-husk, wiping away her diamond exterior and revealing the human veneer once again.

~ding~

And then she collapsed, like all the adrenaline and energy had been flushed out of her through some release valve. She crumpled, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and when she awoke, she was back in the end of the corridor, laying on her side on the cold, hard floor as her brother stood guard.

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“That is quite impressive,” Ororo responded, after Paige finished with her story, “Our students train for months, sometimes years, before they are capable of using their powers in a dangerous situation, the way that you described.”

“Yes, it’s very impressive the way the two of you have managed to survive, so far.” Jean added. “It’s quite fortunate that the two of you have each other, I can’t imagine what it must be like for others, having to come back here in that exhausted state.”

The kids are flattered by the kind words from the older women, “It’s not as bad as you’d think,” Sam said, “The one thang we kin say is that most people, not everyone, but most of ‘em, seem to be purty respectful when someone comes back janted up. There are even these spe’shul areas, kinda like private rooms for the champion can go rest away from everyone else, and nobody will bother ‘em.

“Yeah,” Paige adds, “there’s like a mutual respect to it.” The kids start looking around, and the X-Men follow their lead, taking in what they’re seeing around them through a different lens this time. Instead of immediately assuming that every passing alien is a threat to be wary of, they’re now seeing the compassion in the faces, even the least human of them. Muscles aren’t tense, nobody is looking to fight, if anything, most of these beings just look… sad.

After a moment, it’s Sam who breaks the silence. “But this is still where we feel the most vulnerable.” He nods over to a large, ten-foot tall warrior-looking creature, with giant tusks coming out of his warthog-ish shaped face, and a body that, dressed in nothing more than a speedo-like bottom and two arbitrary straps forming an X over his chest, has musculature on top of musculature bulging out through his rough, brown skin. “Lookin’ around at some of these thangs, thur downright scury. And as long as we got these thangs on us,” holding up his wrists, to emphasize the gauntlets they are all wearing, “we ain’t got no powers. Out there, if things get ugly we got a chance, but in here, we just gotta pray they leave us be.”

“He’s right,” Bobby interjects, “Ororo and I can speak from experience, if one of these chicos wanted to drag us around by the hair, anything we do es echar agua al mar.”

Jean nods, “I agree, while we are in here it is important we never leave anyone alone. In fact, Bobby, Ororo, why don’t you two head back and grab Scott, now, before something happens to him.”

Bobby laughs, “Yeah, he might start a Civil War between alien races over moving with the flow of traffic.”

“Just go get him… Please.” Jean pleads, and Ororo takes Bobby by the arm and leads him back down the way from which they came. “Thank you,” she calls after them, before turning her attention back to Sam and Paige. “As for the two of you, you’re with us, now. Once everyone is back together we will work out some ground rules for sleep shifts and movement. You won’t have to worry about what happens in here any more, we’re here for you.”

The kids don’t say anything, they just look at her and nod, overwhelmed with gratitude. Paige chokes back a little emotion, and a lot of relief; not wanting things to remain uncomfortable, Jean resumes the conversation. “It doesn’t look like there will be much we can do for you out there though. In the arena, I suppose, we will all be on our own. From what you described, it sounds as if the two of you are nearly invulnerable, when you have your powers. Is that fair?”

“Best we can tell,” Paige replies, “we don’t do too much battlin’ back home.”

“Ain’t never had to use our powers on nuthin’ scurier than a bear or a truck, before.” Sam says.

“...Or a Waffle House waitress.” Paige blurts out, before Sam quickly punches her in the arm, “Ouch! Whut?!? Them Waffle House girls are scary. They aint got no teeth!”

Jean does her best to maintain a professional smile and keep from laughing, “Be that as it may, when you were in the arena, and you had your powers back, where either of you able to damage or destroy these gauntlets?”

“Well, Gee, Ma’am,” Sam stumbles over his words, starting to feel a little bashful over his amateurism, “I didn’t even think of trying. Best I came to was trying to fly out of thur, but my bracelets came back on b’fur I even made it ta tha roof.”

“Me neither, Ma’am,” Paige says humbly, “It was everything I could do just ta stay alive. But I kin tell ya this, when I was made a’ diamond, and swingin’ and fightin’ with every breath, I got back here, and mine still looked good as new.”

“Same, Ma’am, I punched through a rock monster as hard as I could and mine aint even dented or scratched a bit.” Sam added. “I’m indestructible when I blast off, and these wuz just as indestructible as me, if not more.”

Jean looks to Logan, and he nods.

~snikt~

A single, shiny metal claw quickly jets out from behind the first knuckle on his left hand, and he grimaces in pain as blood begins to trickle out of the fresh wound.

“Oh, Logan.” Jean exclaims, not having realized the extent to which this place had been affecting him.

“No healing power means no healing, Jeanie.” he grunts, as he tries cut through one of his gauntlets with the razor sharp vibranium blade. His claw doesn’t even scratch it. He cuts a bit of cloth off from the bottom of his shirt, and pulls the claw back in, and uses the shirt scrap to bandage his thoroughly bleeding hand.

Jean, Remy, and Anna are distracted by what Logan is going through, but Alison keeps the questioning going without missing a beat. “Is there anything else you can tell us? We need to know everything you know, no matter how dinky you might think it is.”

“Hmmmphh…” Sam tilts his head thoughtfully as he tries to do a quick mental inventory, “From what we’ve seen an’ been told, there ain’t no doors or windows; only way in o’ out is to be transpoh’ted, and the transpoh’tah equipment, it ain’t here.”

The team looks at him fairly incredulous at that last part. Remy speaks up first, straightening his back pushing out his chest, “An’ how exactly do someone like you know all a’ dis about all a’ dis?” His cajun accent puts a little more threat behind the words than he intended, but that’s not the first time that’s happened.

Paige and Sam straighten up immediately, they’ve just made these amazing new friends, and don’t want to mess this all up. Sam was only trying to be helpful, so he quickly starts spitting out answers “We ain’t tha only humans. After Paige’s fight, some of them came and found us, they gave us sum advice. But they wuzn’t like you, afterwards they just told us to watch our backs, and then they left.”

“Genoshans?” Anna asks, turning to Jean.

“More than likely, we do know that they’ve been missing people, too.” Jean responds to Anna, then turns back to the kids, “If they were Genoshan, don’t take it too personal. They have their own politics, and they’re not very trusting, especially of Americans. Coming over to offer advice would be their way of being as nice as they can.”

“Uh… Hey Guyz!” Guido had been standing to the back, minding his own business and trying to stay out of the conversation, after all, he made a choice a while back, he wasn’t an X-Man anymore. But now, all of a sudden his boots started glowing, and he was pretty sure he knew what that meant. The team considers grabbing a hold of him again, but they look to Jean and she shakes them off. They’re gonna need to learn as much as they can about this place before they start trying to make any moves, best they can do right now is go with the flow and act as expected. Guido is well trained, and if these two kids can survive their first fights, so can he. And then, like was never even there, Guido vanished.