"Can't you just hear them talking,
They were there again.
The two men had been there for the last three days, parked in front of Harding High School, staring through sunglasses and a tinted windshield at God only knew what. In the midst of old model cars and pickups, their black sedan stood out like a beacon, shouting, "Strangers!" As Shea O'Reilly walked past them, she felt their eyes on her back, but tried to tell herself it was just an illusion. They couldn't know... no one did.
It was a ten-block walk home, which was about as far away as anything was in the small town. Cold Oregon air whipped through her still-damp hair and scoured her lungs with every breath -- winter was losing its grip to spring, but fighting the change every step of the way. She didn't mind the cold; it was clean, and carried the smell and taste of the sky and earth.
It was quiet, too; the day shift at the garment factory wouldn't end for another fifteen minutes, so the streets were still almost empty. The few people who didn't work at the factory ran the stores for the people who did -- and they could almost close down except for lunch, weekends, and evenings. Just another exciting day in Copper Lake, Oregon.
Halfway home, Shea remembered the grocery list her foster mother had given her that morning. She reached frantically for it and sighed in relief when it was in her pocket, right where she'd left it. A left turn, another block, and she was at the small grocery store that served most of the town.
The wind caught the door as she shoved it open, swinging it back towards the wall. She grabbed it just in time to keep the glass from shattering against plaster; the door broke an average of once a month during winter and spring, but Old Man Graves got angry anyway.
Closing it was a different story -- the wind had grabbed it and refused to let go no matter how hard she shoved.
Another hand appeared above her own and added its weight to the problem; the door complained, but finally settled into place. She let out a deep breath and turned to thank her rescuer, but the words died on her lips.
Chase Matthews waited for a long moment, then his lips curled sardonically. "You're welcome, Shealee."
"Don't call me Shealee," she told him irritably, then mumbled, "Thanks."
He dropped his black-leather-clad arm and swept it ahead of him in a grand gesture, motioning her into the store. She ducked under the arm , letting her gym bag slam 'accidentally' into him, then did her damndest to ignore him. Which wasn't easy, considering how casually he sauntered away. The guy looked like a green-eyed, dark-haired James Dean, knew it, and exploited it.
There was no justice, Shea reflected. She was painfully aware of her own plainness, despite her striking coloring -- red-gold hair and amber eyes that almost matched it. Unfortunately, the hair was uncontrollably curly and surrounded a face with round cheeks, a pointed chin, and not much else. It was as if Mother Nature decided to play a game and gild a rough copy. Real great sense of humor, there. She got plenty of first glances, but no second looks -- certainly not from Chase Matthews.
*As if I care,* she thought defiantly. The guy was the closest thing this town had to a juvenile delinquent, even if he was over 21 -- more intent on causing trouble and hitting on anything in a skirt than doing at his job in the factory. The last thing she wanted was a second look from him.
She concentrated determinedly on the grocery list, determined to get home before it got any darker out. She almost regretted that track practice that had kept her late, but Coach Wierzbowski was already talking about the Olympic trials in four years.
Her long legs and fast feet were going to be her ticket out of this damn town, no matter what it took.
Bread, milk, cereal, yogurt, dog food -- she ran down the list, finding everything by memory. Old Man Graves hadn't changed the store on twenty years, and had no intention of starting now. Anyone in town could shop blindfolded.
Over by the pharmacy counter, she could hear Ruth McCabe behind the counter and Myra Williams in front of it, both over sixty and determinedly claiming forty. They had seen the exchange between Shea and Chase and she groaned quietly. Word would be all over town about Chase Matthews putting the moves on little Shea O'Reilly in maybe twenty minutes. She started counting the days until graduation.
She made it to the counter in less than ten minutes, only to find that Chase had beaten her there. Mrs. McCabe and Miss Williams were gossiping away, trying to pretend they weren't watching Chase; he was leaning casually against the wooden counter, his arms crossed as if he didn't have anything else in the world to be doing. Knowing him, he probably didn't. She dropped her groceries next to him and reached for the nearest thing on the news rack, a copy of the National Inquirer, as it turned out. Trying to pretend that was what she had been after, she buried her face in the middle of horoscopes.
"Aliens killed Elvis, witnesses say. King buried on Pluto."
She turned the page.
"Lose twenty pounds in three days on miracle chocolate diet."
She concentrated fiercely on the psychic predictions for the 1997 Academy Awards.
"Mutant 'superheroes' destroy national monument."
She almost dropped the paper. "Chase, practice your limited reading skills somewhere else!"
He held his arms up innocently. "Hey, I just wanted to make sure you didn't miss any of these stories. They sound interesting, huh? Riveting reading."
"Yeah, can't put 'em down." Shea slammed the paper back into the rack. The two women spectating giggled in gossipy glee. Wonderful; now they'd be able to add a 'lover's quarrel' to the story. "Where's Mr. Graves?"
Chase shrugged, coolness personified. "I tied him up in back so I'd have more time to hassle you."
"I don't doubt it," Shea shot back. "That'd be just about your style."
Old Man Graves shuffled out of the back of the store just them, followed by another customer. He took his place behind the counter, opening the cash register, but ignoring the six-pack of Coke Chase had put there.
"Yo, Mr. Graves, you gotta ring that up before I can pay for it," Chase pointed out, taking out his wallet.
The customer, a teenage boy slightly older than Shea, turned towards him. "I got a better idea," he said, pulling something shiny out of his pocket. "Why don't you just pay me, instead."
A knife, Shea realized in shock. Someone just pulled a knife on them. This wasn't supposed to happen in Copper Lake. There was nothing worth stealing here, so nobody did. Ever.
She was aware of Chase freezing next to her, his arms going up automatically. The women had gone silent, staring in frozen terror. "Hey, chill out, man," Chase said carefully. "You want the money, you've got it, just relax."
The boy smiled strangely, showing nicotine-stained teeth in a greasy face, and moved the knife from side to side, letting light reflect off the blade into his victims' eyes. "I know I've got it, so hand it over. Now."
"Okay, man, it's cool." Chase started to lower the hand that held the wallet. Then, too quickly to follow, he flicked the wallet into the boy's face, grabbing for the knife with the other hand.
Chase outweighed the boy by at least 40 pounds, and had almost a foot of height advantage, which should have been more than enough. It wasn't. Shea watched with amazement as the boy fought back, struggling against Chase's grip with incredible strength. Then she realized why the boy's smile had been so strange.
*Great. Chase decides to play hero against some drug-crazed Los Angeles reject with a knife and a _really_ bad attitude. Perfect.* Her thoughts were suddenly painfully clear; she knew exactly what she had to do. Which didn't make it any easier.
The boy broke one hand free of Chase's grip and slashed for his arm. Chase flinched as the metal slashed through his jacket with an audible rip, but got the boy's wrist again. The thief promptly started forcing his opponent's hand down towards his stomach; Mrs. McCabe screamed as the knife point touched the black T-shirt under Chase's jacket.
Shea ignored the noise, gathered her nerve, and took the two steps she needed to grab the knife. The boy jumped, trying to twist the blade into her hand; it sliced into her skin, but she ignored the pain, concentrating.
Under her touch, the gleaming blade dulled and grayed, the shape changing subtly. The boy stared in astonishment at the rubber knife he now held. He was still staring when Chase twisted it out of his hand and slammed him into the counter, twisting his arm behind him in a neat armlock.
The knife hit the floor and bounced. Five pairs of eyes followed it with varying levels of surprise, then reverted to Shea.
"Neat trick," Chase grunted as the boy recovered and started fighting him again. "What do you do now, disappear?"
Shea saw the shock and dawning fear in Old Man Graves's eyes, saw Mrs. McCabe and Miss Williams turn pale with shock, then avid with glee at the wonderful piece of gossip that had just fallen into their hands. "I wish," she sighed.
Needless to say, the sheriff was something less than happy about an attempted hold-up in the middle of his quiet little town. He was even more unhappy when Old Man Graves, Mrs. McCabe and Miss Williams told their story, which Shea and Chase steadfastly contradicted. No matter what Mr. Graves thought, they avowed, the knife had been rubber and Chase's jacket had started out ripped. And the gossips had been too far away to see for sure.
Shea had no idea why Chase was backing up her story, or why he'd put his jacket around her shoulders, carefully hiding her bloody hand. She was too busy shaking at the thought of what had almost happened, and what she'd been forced to do in front of five witnesses, to be anything other than grateful.
The sheriff finally sent them home with an order to be in his office the next afternoon to sign official statements. With Old Man Graves giving them the evil eye all the way and the gossips exchanging excited whispers, they left.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Shea had been planning to make a break for it before Chase could demand any answers, but he apparently read her mind, taking her upper arm in a gentle but extremely firm grip and steering her a few blocks north to the tiny apartment complex he called home.
His place was on the second floor; between pain, shock and exhaustion, Shea was strongly considering blacking out by the time they made it up the stairs. "No, you don't," Chase warned, steadying her as he unlocked the door and guided her inside.
She sank down on the battered couch, waiting for the colored dots to clear from in front of her eyes. A light flicked on across the room, and she could hear Chase moving around, setting something down on the floor and unwrapping her hand from his jacket. As her vision cleared, she saw that he was kneeling in front of her studying the gash, an open first aid kit beside him.
"Impressive," he told her casually, starting to clean off the blood. It hurt like hell and Shea clenched her teeth, determined not to make a sound. "It needs stitches, but I don't think you want to go to a hospital and explain how you got this from a rubber knife."
"That would be a Bad Thing," Shea agreed, trying to keep her voice normal.
"Thought so. I'll wrap it up, but you'd better come up with a story before you have to explain it to your foster parents."
Shea almost laughed. "There're four other kids in the house, Chase; they're not going to notice for days."
He shrugged. "They'll notice eventually." He was cutting cotton pads with suspicious ease, as if he'd done this many times before. Which was odd, when she thought about it, because Chase was a lover, not a fighter. She could count the number of times he'd actually gotten into a fight on one hand, including this afternoon. So, where had he learned to patch up knife cuts?
She was going to ask, but he beat her to the punch. "So, how'd you do that?" he asked casually, still not looking at her.
She stiffened, trying to pull her hand away. "I'd better get going, Mom Reynolds is going to be worried, especially if the sheriff called her."
He kept his grip on her hand. "How did you do that?" he repeated.
She tried to struggle again, but he had no intention of letting go, and it suddenly seemed like too much work. Four years of hiding collapsed, and she sank back against the back of the couch, letting her eyes sink closed. "I just can," she said quietly.
He nodded, winding gauze around her hand. "Metal to rubber. Can you do that with other things?"
She shrugged, not bothering to lie. "Almost anything, if it's small enough. I think it probably has something to do with changing the molecular structure of the material, but I don't know for sure."
"Just metal to rubber?"
"No. I can change almost anything to almost anything else, as long as I know what whatever I'm changing it into feels like, and as long as it stays the same shape."
"So you're a mutant."
Stated as flatly as that, there wasn't much she could do to deny it. So, again, she didn't bother. "Yeah. I guess I am."
She waited for his reaction, for the fear and disgust she'd seen on faces when the word mutant was mentioned, when the headlines screamed about mutant activities. But Chase never stopped his work, finishing taping her hand quickly and competently. He held it for a moment after he was done, the warmth of his hand spreading through the bandage. Then he seemed to realize what he was doing and stood up, backing away to open one of the Cokes he had bought.
Shea jerked her hand back to her lap self-consciously, waiting for the explosion. He'd sure backed off quickly enough. Probably wanted to make sue she wasn't going to turn him into a frog or something. If she'd been able to, she might have considered it.
"Don't worry so much, Shealee, I'm not going to go running out of the room screaming 'Mutie here, mutie here!'" he told her, interpreting her expression with disturbing ease. "You saved my neck, the least I can do is keep quiet. But the other three, not to mention that little drughead, aren't going to, and there could be trouble. That was really a stupid thing to do, you know."
"Fine. Next time I'll *let* the idiot turn you into a pin cushion." She shoved herself to her feet, trying not to use her left hand. " I have to get home."
"Want a lift?" he offered off-handedly.
She shook her head, picking up her gym bag and heading for the door. "I don't need your help, I'll be fine."
"Fine," he shrugged, taking a long gulp of the Coke. "Just don't bleed to death on the way, they'll probably blame me."
"I'll be sure to wait until I'm home before I die," she shot back. The door slammed behind her.
"We don't like what we don't understand, in fact it scares us
The sheriff *had* called her foster parents and they *did* notice her bandaged hand, but she made up a quick story involving a broken bottle and a trip to the school nurse. Since she told it at the same time her youngest foster brother created a tidal wave of milk across the kitchen table, they were too distracted to question her more closely, and she escaped to her room soon after, locking her foster sister out without a trace of guilt.
Flopping back on her bed, she considered starting homework, then snorted. *Yeah, right, as if I care about trig tests or 'The Scarlet Letter' right now. Not when someone's liable to slap a scarlet M on my chest any day now.*
Images danced in front of her -- of the tirades the Friends of Humanity liked to run on television; of the screaming crowds that had risen against her favorite singer, Alison Blaire, when her identity as a mutant had been discovered; of the fear and disgust on Old Man Graves' face when he looked at her.
She buried her face in her pillow and drifted off into a fitful sleep, tossing through dreams involving pointing mobs, shiny knives and James Dean....
The next day was weird, to say the least. Track practice at dawn, almost solo, was all right, but everything went downhill from there.
Mrs. McCabe had apparently wasted no time spreading her conclusions about Shea to her three granddaughters. Homeroom, Shea was surrounded by people either asking about the robbery or looking at her out of the corners of their eyes. *Waiting for me to grow pointed ears and a tail, I bet.* First period French brought the furious whispers; by second period trig, they'd progressed to just- audible sneers of 'mutant'. Her English teacher got into the act third period, staring at Shea with unveiled hostility for most of the hour.
Lunchtime started with an 'accidental' trip that sent Shea and her lunch sprawling across the floor; it would have been easier to ignore without the snarled, 'Mutie,' that had followed her to the ground. Her usual lunchtime crowd of 'friends' looked so uncomfortable that she left the cafeteria without speaking to them and spent the period hiding out in the library. A sympathetic biology teacher fourth period made things worse with a discussion of genetic mutation -- just in case there was anyone in the whole school who hadn't decided they knew what Shea O'Reilly was.
Fifth period social studies, and her teacher decided to address civil rights -- with the Friends of Humanity as a prime example of Americans exercising their civil rights. By that time, resentment mixed with sick fear had taken over Shea's stomach.
Not for the first time, she hated the narrow little town and its narrow little minds. She started counting the hours until graduation. Sixth period track practice was what kept her going through the day. And when Coach Wierzbowski pulled her out of her locker room and told her, without meeting her eyes, that he thought she needed a break from the team, it was the last thing she needed to push her over the edge.
She ran, ducking out a side door and letting her feet hit the pavement in an unceasing rhythm that she didn't have to think about. She knew a few places she could hide out until school ended, but that still left tomorrow, and the next day. She tried to tell herself it would blow over, as long as she kept acting normally, but even she didn't believe that. A town this small lived on gossip, regardless of whether there was any real evidence to support it. Even now, out at the factory, the adults were buzzing about Shea O'Reilly, the mutant who had been hiding among them.
She started counting the minutes to graduation, the wind stealing the breath from her lungs in great gasps. She didn't stop running until her feet splashed into the edge of the lake.
Then she cried.
She didn't make it home until well after dinnertime, trudging through the back door and throwing her gym bag -- minus one Copper Lake Cougars uniform, now floating in Copper Lake -- on the floor. Her jacket actually made it to the table before she noticed there was no one waiting to yell at her for being so late. Her foster mother came in, but didn't look ready to start shouting.
"There are some people here to see you, Shea," Mrs. Reynolds said gently. "I think they're from the government -- they're dressed like Clint Eastwood in that movie..."
"Which one, Dirty Harry?" Shea tried to joke. Her foster mother didn't smile. "Yeah, I know, 'In the Line of Fire'. Dark suits and shades." She took a deep breath, trying to calm the knot in her stomach that said she was busted, that four years of hiding were down the drain because Chase Matthews had stupidly decided to play hero and she had more stupidly followed suit. "Well, let's see what they want."
She followed Mrs. Reynolds out into the living room, where three people waited, an older man on the couch, a man and a woman standing next to the door. She didn't recognize the woman, but was somehow unsurprised to recognize the two men that had been parked outside of her high school. Silently, she yelled at herself for not coming in the front door -- she could have seen the car, could have gotten a head start.... One of the men stood up, taking off his shades. He was in his mid-forties, older than the other two, with slightly graying brown hair and eyes that were a cool, level blue. "Shea Leanne O'Reilly?"
"That's me." She was amazed at how steady her voice was. Her foster father was sitting on the other end of the couch, next to the window, holding her youngest foster sister. He refused to meet her eyes.
"Agents Peterson, Van Dyke and Davis, Bureau of Mutant Affairs," the suit said, flipping a badge out and back into his pocket too quickly for her to read it. "Please come with us."
Shea clamped down on rising panic. "Where's your warrant?"
Peterson's lips tightened as his eyes narrowed, and something flashed across them. His voice was calm and extremely correct. "You are a ward of the government; a warrant is not necessary to move you to a new facility."
Shea copied Chase's most annoying casual shrug. "Tell it to my caseworker. Better yet, have her tell it to me. I'm a ward of the State of Oregon and until Social Services says so, or you show up with a warrant and a charge, I don't move."
To her surprise, Mrs. Reynolds nodded in agreement, glaring at the agents as only the mother of five could. "Shea is under our care, and I'm not going to turn her over to you just because you dress like Clint Eastwood."
Shea grinned appreciatively and thought she saw the lips of the male agent twitch, but her foster father flinched, and Peterson and the woman were unamused. Peterson grabbed Shea's arm, not roughly but extremely firmly, and started to pull her towards the door. "I'm sorry, Miss O'Reilly, this is not up for debate. You are coming with us."
Instinctively, Shea twisted and, in the move all children with siblings learn young, landed a kick squarely on his shins. It surprised him enough to let her twist loose with the other move all children learn. Before he could recover, she ducked past the other two agents and was out the front door, pounding down the front stairs in what felt like her fastest wind sprint ever.
But they were only a few steps behind as she ran for the street, chasing her with a silence that was worse than threats. She reached their car and veered away as a hand caught her shoulder.
"Stop right there," the male agent said between his teeth, pulling her back from the street. She yelled, looking around desperately for help. Three of her neighbors had come outside at the racket, but, to Shea's shock, the people she had baby-sat for and had neighborhood barbecues with just stood and watched. Mrs. Reynolds was at the front door, but her husband had grabbed her arm, holding her back as Davis and Van Dyke started pulling Shea into the car.
Before he could force her in, a motorcycle came roaring down the street. The male agent's grip weakened and Shea twisted enough to bite him on the hand. He shouted in pain and she broke loose as Chase braked the Harley in front of her. "Get on," he yelled.
She paused, glancing back at the agents, then at Chase. He gestured frantically, and she made her decision, swinging her leg over the back of the motorcycle and holding on. As Chase gunned the motor, she had only a moment to wonder when she had wandered into a Mel Gibson movie.
She looked over her shoulder once and saw Mrs. Reynolds screaming at the agents and her husband, while the male agent nursed his hand, the woman cursed and Peterson stared after them, still and thoughtful.
Then they were speeding away.
She had no idea how long they drove; she vaguely remembered passing the shores of Copper Lake and, later, crossing the California State Line. After that, everything started to blur together. She buried her face in the back of Chase's leather jacket and tried not to think.
Much too soon, the motorcycle began to slow. She looked up as Chase pulled into a rest area. He stopped the bike and got off, offering her a hand. She tried to get off by herself, but wound up accepting his help when her stiff legs refused to move. She made it to the nearest picnic table before collapsing.
He sat next to her, putting his jacket around her shoulders for the second time in two days. "Try not to bleed on it this time, okay?"
She wanted to throw it back in his face, but she was too cold. All she'd been wearing when she'd run out of her house was a pair of muddy jeans, wet sneakers and a sweaty, dark green sweatshirt that cheerfully proclaimed 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling, They're Up to Something.' Not exactly regulation attire for riding a motorcycle through Northern California in April. At least she hadn't kicked off her shoes at home as she usually did -- they were high tops and the laces had been too hard to deal with one-handed.
Chase, on the other hand, looked completely comfortable in his black jeans and the gray T-shirt which declared him to be 'Property of the University of Oregon Athletic Department.' She started to dwell on the injustice of it all, but decided it would be a waste of energy. She already knew life was unfair.
Instead, she settled for asking, "How did you know?"
He leaned back against the picnic table and crossed his arms. "News about your stunt last night has been the main topic around town -- for once, they're talking more about you than me. I've been looking for you all over the place, where the hell have you been?"
"Coach took me off the team," she said quietly, hugging herself. "I cut the rest of school and went down to the lake. Guess I should've stayed there."
"Guess so. They gave you a hard time?"
She made a sound that was intended to be a laugh, and came out more like a sob. "Oh, yeah. Mrs. McCabe must have been burning up the phone lines all night."
Chase shrugged. "She had a lot of help. I spotted the Feds last week and saw them talking to people about you today. I figured they'd wind up at your place eventually, but I couldn't find you in time to warn you. Sorry."
She ignored the off-hand apology. "So? Why did you care? One mutie more or less isn't going to affect your life."
He didn't even blink at the bitterness in her voice. "I pay my debts. This whole mess is because you saved my skin."
"Great." She pushed the jacket off her shoulders as she stood up, starting to pace. "That's just great. What am I supposed to do now? No money, no clothes, the government trying to chase me down, and my only help is a guilt-ridden biker. Wonderful."
"Who said anything about guilt-ridden?" Chase objected without moving a muscle.
She glared at him. "What am I supposed to do now? You going to dump me here?"
"And do what, go back to Copper Lake? Your friends in the suits are going to want to settle a few things with me now. So we're stuck with each other for a while."
That stopped her; she sank to the ground. "Oh God. You're right. Oh damn." She looked up at him with guilt-stricken eyes. "This is all my fault. You're in trouble now and it's all my fault. Oh God, what are we going to do?"
"Stop whining, for one thing." He still hadn't moved. "I've been in trouble before; this is nothing new, believe me. Second thing is to get ourselves lost. We're about a hundred miles outside of San Francisco; there's no way anyone's going to locate one kid in the middle of the weirdest city on earth."
"Who're you calling a kid?" Shea demanded, starting to feel slightly better, "And I never whine."
"Yeah, you do. Why'd the government want you?"
"Huh? Because I'm a mutant."
"There's lots of mutants out there, why pick on you? They were watching you for days -- that's a major operation. How'd they know about you to begin with?"
"God, you ought to be a reporter," She sighed, resting her cheek on her knees. "I have no idea how they found me, but they probably came after me because they thought I'd be an easy target. I'm only a foster kid -- they could have gotten me reassigned wherever they wanted through Social Services. They just jumped the gun and tried to pick me up on their own."
"Okay, I'll buy that," Chase nodded. "But why'd they jump the gun? What makes you so important they couldn't wait?"
She mumbled against her knees.
"My powers, I guess," she said again, lifting her head so he could hear.
"You're a walking transmogrifier. So?"
She gave him the best 'you are *such* an idiot' look in her repertoire. "Think about it, I'm sure they have. And I'm sure the first thought that came into their mind was something along the lines of changing lead into gold."
He nodded slowly, still stretched out. "Yeah. I can see where they'd like that. Can you do it?"
"Probably. And lots of other things they'd like. Platinum, adamantium, semi-conductors -- all made from cheap wire or rubber, no factory required. At least, that's what they think they'd get."
She shuddered. "Only if they wanted the golden goose to die from radiation sickness. And it helps if the atomic mass remains constant -- they'd have to give me an awful lot to work with before I could make anything that dense."
"So you have limits."
"Hell, yes. It's not like some bibbity-bobbity-boo shtick, I can't just wave a magic wand." She huddled deeper into the jacket. "But try and convince them of that. I'll tell you right now they won't buy it."
She sighed, pulling the scrunchie out of her hair to take some of the tension out of her temples. The French braid her hair had been in that morning was hopelessly tangled; combing the wild corkscrews was going to be fun, provided she could find a comb. She settled for separating them into messy strands and rebraiding, awkwardly because of her bandaged right hand. "I feel like that chick in 'Rumplestiltskin'," she thought out loud, her hands moving automatically. "You know, the one who was supposed to be able to spin straw into gold? Except I really can. And they're going to lock me in a room with a spinning wheel for as long as they can get away with it."
"Boy, no pessimism here. Maybe they just want to study you or train you or something?" Chase offered, not sounding even vaguely convincing.
She snorted. "Yeah, right. And there's this great bridge in California I can sell you, cheap."
"Man, you're young to be so cynical."
"You're not arguing."
"Can't afford a bridge." Chase got up, reclaiming his jacket. "We'd better keep moving if we're going to make San Francisco by dawn."
"You're not going to let me keep the jacket?" Shea complained out of habit. "That's really chivalrous."
"Chivalry is for idiots," Chase informed her, zipping the jacket. "I'm riding in front being a windbreak for you, so I get the coat. Are you coming?"
She pouted for another moment, then got up and swung onto the back of the motorcycle behind him. "Some knight in shining armor."
Over the roar of the motorcycle, she could have sworn she heard him laughing.
"I believe there is a distance I have wandered
They made it to San Francisco a little after dawn; Chase had enough cash to pay for an extremely cheap motel room. "If we have to keep running, you may have to do that straw to gold thing," he warned Shea, working at the lock to their door. It finally jolted open and he flipped on the overhead light. The hotel room was no worse than they'd expected, maybe a little better, although Shea had no desire to turn on any more lights and actually see what they were going to be sleeping on.
"Do we actually have a goal in mind?" she asked, sinking down onto the mattress of the double bed. "Or are we just going to keep driving aimlessly?"
"If you've got any ideas, I'm all ears." Chase told her, prowling around the edges of the room as if looking for intruders, picking up and squinting at a newspaper the previous tenant had left, jingling his keys in his hand.
"Well, there's the Avengers -- they have members who are mutants," she thought out loud. "What'shisname, Henry McCoy, was an Avenger."
"They're in New York." He dropped the paper back on the dresser.
"Yeah, but there's another branch here on the West Coast; they get into trouble sometimes."
"Must be genetic."
"Thank you, Graydon Creed."
Chase winced. "Sorry."
"Yeah, I know. Now apologize. Problem is, the Avengers *work* for the government, at least they used to. Well, for the U.N., anyway."
"I can see it now. We'll go strolling up to Avenger headquarters -- 'Excuse us, could you take time out from battling supervillains and saving the world to get the government off our butts?' I'm sure they'll drop everything. On us."
This time, she ignored him, reaching over and snagging the newspaper. She paged through it, looking automatically for the comics, as she continued thinking out loud. "There're lots of groups of mutants who work outside the law, like the, um, whatdyacallem, X-Men..."
"Sounds like our kind of people."
"... but I don't have clue one how to find them. I think they mostly hang out on the East Coast."
"That narrows it right down."
"And there's X-Factor, but they're another government crew, and I'm damned if I'm going to trust them."
"Good call. Where did you get all this?"
"I read the papers, O Illiterate One," she informed him, rattling the one in her hand.
"What, is today's 'Dilbert' about mutants?" Chase was starting to look superior and frustrated. "Can we please get real? I have some old friends in L.A..."
"Chase, we want to get *out* of trouble, not further in." She dropped the paper to the floor and fell back onto the bed. "I give up. Wake me when the movie ends."
Chase sat on the other side of the bed. "This isn't a movie, Shea."
She yawned, letting her eyes drift shut. "Wish it was. Maybe when I wake up it will be."
As darkness took over, she heard him sigh. "I hope so."
The answer came to her, as answers often do, in the moment before she woke. She sat straight up on the bed and blurted, "Jennifer Walters."
There was no answer; she looked over and saw Chase sprawled out on the bed next to her, snoring slightly through his open mouth and looking all of twelve years old. She had the sudden urge to hand him a teddy bear. Instead, she poked him in the ribs.
He snorted and rolled away from her. Naturally, she followed, poking him again. He swatted at her hand and she attacked the other side, starting to have fun. "What?" he finally snarled sleepily.
"Jennifer Walters," she announced again.
"Will you wake up, already? I've got an answer, and she's right here in San Francisco." The newspaper was on the floor where she'd left it; she located the front page and actually read the article she'd skimmed past in her hunt for the comics.
"Yeah, I heard, Jennifer Walters. What's a Jennifer Walters?" He managed to get his eyes open all the way and blinked up at her.
"She's a lawyer, practices in New York. She used to be an assistant district attorney..."
"A lawyer?" He said it in the voice normally used to announce the presence of a cockroach or a Republican. "A *lawyer* is your great solution?"
She glared at him. "Before she was a lawyer, she was an Avenger, and one of the Fantastic Four. Think tall and green."
Chase thought, then his eyes got wide. "She-Hulk? The one who throws cars around on the 11:00 news for fun? *That* Jennifer Walters?"
"She's a lawyer?"
"Come on, she's got a real reputation as a good guy. And she's a *defense* attorney; I saw on the news once she was going to go to Genosha to defend those mutants last year, except the Genoshan government wouldn't let her. She wouldn't do that if she wasn't sympathetic to mutants." She waved the front page of the paper in his face. "More importantly, she's currently defending some guy in San Francisco -- she's staying in a hotel downtown."
"Shea..." he started patiently, as if talking to a very small child, "she's a superhero. What makes you think she's going to care what happens to us?"
Shea got off the bed and reached for her sneakers, which had mysteriously vanished off her feet during the night. Unfortunately, putting them on one-handed was no easier than taking them off and her hand chose that moment to remind her it was injured. "Ouch! She'll care because she *is* a superhero," she argued, cradling her hand. "It's, like, a law or something."
Chase rolled off the bed. "Let me do that, Cinderella." He shoved her hands out of the way and started putting her sneakers on for her. "You read too many comic books."
"At least I read!"
He finished tying one shoe and turned to the other, shoving it on her foot with a little more force than was necessary. "I read," he said defensively.
"Popular Mechanics does not count in this case," she informed him. "Trust me, Jennifer Walters is our best bet."
He finished tying the second shoe. "Shea, in the future, when someone pulls a knife on me..."
"Yeah?" She rolled to her feet, beating him to the jacket and checking the clock. 2:08 p.m.
"Let them kill me. It'll be easier."
She threw his keys at him. "Now who's whining?"
He caught them before they hit him in the face. "I am not whining. How do you intend to find the sensational Ms. Walters, anyway?"
She pulled out the drawer in the bedside table and took out the phone book. "Let your fingers do the walking."
"Superheroes listed in the phone book. What a concept."
"Only the superhero's hotel. Shut up and look like an adult instead of a biker."
"Excuse me? I'm not the one who looks 12. Someone's going to haul you in for playing hooky."
"How would you like me to turn your bike into Silly Putty?"
"How would you like to be thrown into the ocean?"
"How would you like..."
"Excuse me." They looked up and saw the older woman who'd let them into the hotel suite standing at the connecting door and looking at them quellingly. "Ms. Walters has a moment to see you now."
They exchanged another set of glares and got up from the sofa, where they'd been waiting not-so-patiently for more than an hour. "Please keep it brief," the secretary warned, "Ms. Walters is extremely busy, and had a long day in court."
"Yes, ma'am," they chorused; something about the woman seemed to call for good manners. Shea automatically tried to straighten her hair, ran her fingers into a tangle and gave it up.
The secretary leaned back through the doorway, announcing, "Ms. O'Reilly and Mr. Matthews to see you, Jennifer."
"Send them in, Weezie."
It was probably a very nice hotel room, with art on the walls, huge beds and all the comforts of home. But the duo didn't have any attention to spare -- the woman sitting at a huge desk in front of the window claimed all of it. Seven feet tall, green skin, green hair, and a figure any red-blooded woman would kill for.
Shea instantly hated her. Chase instantly fell in love. Well, lust.
"I'm Jennifer Walters," the lawyer said, coming out from behind the desk. "What can I do for you?"
Chase started to say something, but it came out incoherent.
Shea looked at him with total disgust. "Would you like a towel?"
Ms. Walters rolled her eyes. "This happens all the time. Ignore him, it'll wear off eventually. At least he's not from another dimension like the last four or five. What can I do for you?" she repeated with a warm smile for Shea.
Shea felt the hatred die quickly -- it was impossible not to like anyone who refused to take herself seriously. "We're sorry to barge in on you like this, ma'am, but we're in trouble and we were hoping you could help us to get out."
"What kind of trouble? I'm assuming this is a bit more serious than a late homework assignment?"
"Oooh, yeah," Chase breathed, apparently recovering at least some mind function.
Shea ignored him. Completely. "Yeah, it's a bit more serious than that. See..." She tried to find a way to phrase it, then gathered her nerve and blurted, "I'm a mutant. Yesterday, some government types, they said they were from the Bureau of Mutant Affairs, tried to take me from my foster home and my foster mom told 'em no dice, but they grabbed me and were going to make me come, so I kicked one of them and bit the other one, and then Chase rescued me and now they're after both of us and we drove all last night from Oregon and..." She had to stop to take a breath.
"That was very coherent," Chase complimented her.
"At least it was a complete sentence," she shot back. "That's more than you could do."
Ms. Walters interrupted before they could get going. "Hey, you two, I enjoy a good fight as much as anyone, but can we save the battle of the sexes for later?" They glared at each other, then Shea made a face and looked away. "Thank you. Take a seat."
They sat on the edge of the king-sized bed while Ms. Walters leaned against the front of the desk. "Let me see if I've got this straight," she said calmly. "You're a minor, Shea?"
"An American citizen?"
"Yeah. My parents moved us to the States, to L.A., when I was two."
"Where are they?"
"Car crash, nine years ago."
"So you live in a foster home?"
"They sent me to my grandmother at first, in Copper Lake. Then she died and they put me in the Reynolds' house."
"How long have your mutant powers been active? About three, four years?"
"Yeah." Shea cocked her head in surprise. "How did you know?"
"They usually manifest around puberty, except in a few rare cases. At least, that's my understanding." She tapped a pen against her teeth. "What are your powers?"
Shea and Chase exchanged looks; here was where it was going to get tricky. Then Chase leaned back on his elbows with an 'it's all yours' gesture.
"Thanks a lot," Shea muttered at him. "My power is...well, I can turn things into other things."
Ms. Walters waited patiently for a better description. Shea fumbled around. "I can turn wood into plastic, or, um..." She gave up and held out her hand. "Can I borrow your pen?"
The lawyer handed the Bic over. Shea held it in one hand, and concentrated. When she opened her fist, the pen had the gleam of silver. "I can do this," Shea said simply, handing the pen back.
Ms. Walters took it, bounced it a few times in her palm, then looked at the girl. "I see your problem."
"Yeah." Shea slumped, resting her elbows on her knees and propping her chin up with her hands. "We drove all last night and wound up here. I remembered reading in the paper about you, well, about She- Hulk and you and... well, we couldn't think of any better ideas."
"You did just fine," Ms. Walters assured them, reaching behind her for the phone on the desk. "I'm going to call a friend of mine in the government..."
"No way!" Shea and Chase said simultaneously, bouncing to their feet.
She looked at them with a mixture of sympathy and amusement. "Give me a dollar."
They exchanged suspicious looks. "Why?" Shea demanded.
"Haven't you two ever seen 'The Client'? Give me a dollar." Chase pulled out his wallet and handed over a dollar bill. She accepted it, and said loudly, "Weezie!"
The older woman poked her head around the door. "Yes, Jennifer?"
"I'm going to need a new case file for Ms. O'Reilly and Mr. Matthews."
"All right, Jennifer, I'll bring it in as soon as it's ready."
"Thanks." The door closed again and Ms. Walters leaned back in her chair, playing with her new silver pen. "Okay, now you're my clients. And I promise you right now," she was suddenly deadly serious, "anyone who wants to take you is going to have to go through me. Which has been tried. Got it?"
"Good." She smiled again. "Now, I'm going to call a friend in the government and find out just what's up with this Bureau of Mutant Affairs. You two sit tight for a minute."
"Like we have a choice?"
"Shut up, Chase."
Ms. Walters rolled her eyes to the heavens and muttered something under her breath about 'Byrne or Smith,' before picking up the phone.
"Only just when you've made a friend and all
It was actually closer to an hour before Jennifer ("Ms. Walters is fine in court, otherwise, it's a pain.") put the phone back down. Her two clients had been listening intently, trying to look as if they weren't, as she talked to people with names like Forge and Beast. At one point, she sent them out of the room with Weezie, to find food and get Shea's hand rebandaged, while she made a third call.
When she was done, she steepled her hands on the desk in front of her and looked serious. "You two are in trouble."
"Thanks for the update."
"Shut up, Shea."
"Eat snakes, Chase."
"People!" They stopped bickering and listened. "The Bureau of Mutant Affairs is a relatively new wrinkle in the bureaucracy. Forge, the current liaison to X-Factor, is checking into it now -- he'd never heard of it. Which doesn't mean much, as that's the sort of thing the government tries to keep X-Factor from finding out about." Jennifer leaned back in her chair, playing with the pen again. She looked calm, but neither of the two bought it -- she was about as relaxed as a tiger. "What means a bit more is that a few other friends, who tend to find out about these things, haven't heard of this bureau either, which means someone has been going to a great deal of trouble to keep it quiet."
"This is bad?" Chase ventured.
"It's not good." The pen rolled between her hands, catching sparks of light from the windows. "But I *have* found a place for you to go, at least temporarily."
She leaned forward in the chair, looking at them very seriously. "What I'm going to tell you has to remain a secret. It took a while for me to convince some people that it was safe to tell you anything, and it's on my head if I'm wrong."
This didn't sound good, Shea thought, seeing the same thing flicker over Chase's face. But it wasn't like they had much choice. "No one will find out anything from us, Jennifer."
Jennifer sighed. "I hope not. All right, there's a school in Massachusetts I have connections to, called the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, formerly the Massachusetts Academy. It's a private school, specializing in children in... situations."
"Mutants?" Shea asked.
Jennifer paused in the middle of saying something, then changed her mind and nodded. "Yes, mutants, mostly about your age. The headmaster is an old acquaintance of mine, he'll keep you safe."
"What about me?" Chase asked.
"Sean said, and I quote, 'I'm not turnin' any children away from this school, whether they're mutants or not.'" The mock-Irish brogue came through loud and clear.
Chase shook his head. "I'm 21, not exactly a 'youngster' or a 'children'."
"You're about his daughter's age and in trouble, and Sean's over- protective; in his eyes, you count as 'children'." Jennifer was trying to hide a smile and not succeeding. "Besides, Shea's Irish. You'll be welcome to stay there as long as necessary."
"Quiet, you idiot." Shea elbowed Chase before he could make any more objections. "The government... won't it cause them trouble?"
"Trust me, Shea, the people who run this school know all about trouble. I know, I've been there for some of it. There's nothing the two of you can bring them they haven't seen before."
Shea nodded, slightly reassured and starting to make some connections. Quiet, tenuous connections, but... "How are we going to get there?"
"That's the problem," Jennifer admitted. "Normally, I'd put you on a plane, but by now they're bound to have the airports staked out and you two aren't very inconspicuous."
"A redhead walking around with a 6-and-a-half-foot James Dean look-alike tends to get noticed, believe it or not," Jennifer told them wryly, "Especially by people who are looking for exactly that. We could probably handle the hair, but we can't do much about the height. I'm surprised you got into the hotel without being spotted."
Chase slouched even lower as Shea tugged self-consciously at her braid. "So what do we do?" she asked.
"We do what any good superhero would do, " Jennifer said with a grin. "We use Plan B. You two are going to go to..."
The door opened again and Weezie put her head in. "Ms. Walters, there are three men here to see you. From the government."
Shea and Chase were on their feet, already looking for a way out. Jennifer was also standing, thinking hard and fast from the look of it. "Thank you, Weezie," she said calmly, "I'll be ready for them in a minute. Can you bring in that paperwork for me?"
The door closed carefully just before Shea squeaked, "How did they find us?"
"Good question," Chase's eyes were suddenly very cold.
Jennifer shook her head. "Shea's right, Chase -- you're an idiot. I didn't call them, you must have been spotted in coming into the hotel after all. They have good security here, I'm afraid, and Murphy lives for things like this. Stand away from the door so Weezie can come in."
They got into the far corner just as the door opened and Weezie entered with a large stack of papers. She set them on Jennifer's desk, and produced an envelope from somewhere in the middle, handing it to her boss.
"Thanks, Weezie. How about keeping those suits distracted for a few minutes?"
"That shouldn't be a problem." Weezie left the room and they heard her raised voice a moment later, demanding to know why they were interrupting Ms. Walters' busy schedule. Jennifer grinned appreciatively and held the envelope out to the two in the corner. "We're down to Plan C, guys. This'll get you back to your motorcycle and then some. How do you feel about a nice drive?"
"Do we have a choice?" Chase took the envelope, opening it. Shea saw quite a few twenty dollar bills inside.
"At the moment, no," Jennifer said bluntly. "By now, those jokers have warrants for both of you, as a runaway and probably as a violator of the Mann Act on you, Chase, taking an underage female across state lines. There's no way I could legally stop them from taking you into custody at this point, and they might be able to make you disappear from there. So we're going to make you disappear from *here*."
She was writing as she spoke, and handed Chase the paper. He didn't even look at it, just passed it to Shea. There were several phone numbers listed. "These numbers are for the school, Dr. Henry McCoy at the Xavier Institute, and my office. Memorize them, then get rid of the paper. Anyone at the first two will help you if you run into trouble. Head straight for Denver and go to Stapleton Airport. They shut it down, but a plane should still be able to land there and one will meet you in two days, at -- oh, 10 a.m. on Thursday. Go straight to Denver, do not pass go, do not collect $200. If the cops or the government catches up to you, call me immediately."
"Denver?" Chase asked, sounding *very* unhappy.
Jennifer smiled apologetically. "I know how far away it is, but this isn't my territory; it's the only airport I know off-hand that should be safe and we don't have time to research anything closer. Can you make it?"
Chase didnıt look any happier, but he nodded. "It won't be fun, but we can make it."
Jennifer smiled again. "Good. I'll stall these jokers for a while; you two go out the back way." She opened the other door to the room and checked outside. Shea looked past her and spotted Agent Davis outside the other door to the suite. He was looking inside the suite, his back to the hall, apparently distracted by Weezie's tirade. Jennifer gestured them out. "Quick, get moving. Be careful, and remember, call me *immediately* if you get picked up."
Shea looked up at Jennifer. "Thanks, for everything. We'll pay you back."
"Don't sweat it, I've already got someone footing the bill for this one." She put a comforting hand on Shea's shoulder; the girl had to resist the urge to fall into her arms and hang on.
Chase pulled gently on her arm before she could give in. "Let's go, Sundance."
Shea grinned weakly. "Right behind you, Butch." They left the room and took off down the hall as fast as their feet could carry them, Shea almost leaving Chase behind.
The familiar black sedan was waiting outside the four-story building when they emerged from the hotel's back alley. "Why don't they just put a sign on it, 'Secret government agents here.'?" Chase asked sarcastically.
"Too subtle," Shea explained facetiously, "people might miss them. Come on, let's go out the other end."
There was a chain link fence on the other end; since they were both wearing sneakers, it was not an obstacle. But halfway over, they heard a shout behind them and saw an unfamiliar suit looking out Jennifer's window. There was the *very* loud sound of something or someone slamming into something hard; three seconds later he was *hanging* out Jennifer's window, dangling from one strong green hand. The two saluted her from the top of the fence, then jumped down the other side and ran.
After a few blocks, they jumped on a cable car that seemed to be going in the right direction. Three wrong turns and a cab ride later, they were back at the motel.
"At least we don't have to worry about anyone following us?" Shea pointed out.
Chase just snarled, kicking the motorcycle into gear. "Get on." Shea got, and they pointed the bike east.
"Under a blackened sky far beyond the glaring streetlights
It warmed up the farther into the desert they got; then the sun went down and Shea started having lustful thoughts about Chase's jacket again. They stopped only twice, once for gas and once at some no- name town around 8:30 at night, to raid a Dairy Queen that seemed to be the only game in town.
"You know," Shea thought out loud, dipping a french fry into her vanilla milkshake, "They're going to be looking for your license plates."
"I do know, that's why I switched them before I went to sleep this morning. The cops should have pulled over some other guy on a Harley by now -- remind me to get another set before we leave town. You're not really going to eat that, are you?"
"Yeah, I am." She ate the fry and reached for another one. "That's pretty illegal."
"So's what you're doing to those fries," he said around a bite of his second hamburger, then swallowed and continued, "And legal and illegal aren't exactly our main priority right now."
"True." She picked at her burger, eating the cheese that was hanging outside the bun. "If we keep switching plates, isn't that going to leave kind of a 'Mutant here' trail all the way to Colorado?"
"Not if we use the right bikes. Harley's tend to get around and they don't tend to be too fond of cops; no one will be sure where the plates got switched, even if the owners do decide to co-operate."
"Oh, and you know so much about Harley's... or is it cops?"
Chase rolled his eyes. "Can you just let my reputation rest? Anyway, switching plates is risky, but better than getting pulled over by the State Police. If you put that in the shake, you're eating alone until Denver."
"You don't put onion rings in milkshakes." She nibbled on the ring she'd stolen from his plate. "Jennifer was really nice."
"Yeah, you were probably right about going to her," he admitted magnanimously.
Shea considered throwing the onion ring at him. "How gracious of you. But she was cool, not like I expected a superhero to be."
"What did you expect?"
"I don't know. Someone bigger than life, I guess. Like on the news."
"Seven feet tall isn't big enough for you?"
This time, she did throw the onion ring. "You know what I mean."
He fielded the ring with one hand and popped it into his mouth. "Yeah, I know. She was cool."
Shea dunked another fry, ignoring Chase's exaggerated shudder. "I wonder if the mutants will be as cool as her."
"Shea, you're a mutant, and you're relatively cool. For a kid." A french fry went flying this time and a waitress glared at them. "Knock it off, people are going to notice a food fight. We're supposed to be keeping a low profile, remember?"
"Yeah, right. Sorry." She waved sheepishly at the waitress, trying to look casual. "And I don't think of myself as a mutant most of the time. Mutants are the ones in skintight costumes on the news, wreaking havoc all over the place. I'm just a kid in high school. Nothing special." She ducked her head, focusing intently on shredding her napkin. "Not like, oh, Polaris."
"She's in X-Factor, I saw her doing a press conference once. She's beautiful." Said in the tone of someone who knows damn well *she's* not, and never will be. She heard her own voice and deliberately changed gears, balling the napkin in her fist. "You know, I've been trying to pin down where I've heard of Xavier before -- the name sounds really familiar."
Chase looked at her for a long second, then went back to his onion rings. "Isn't he that guy who debated Graydon Creed and that senator on Nightline last year? They were watching it at the diner -- I thought Mr. diContini was going to die laughing when McCoy blew Creed a raspberry."
"That's it! He's some big mutant rights activist, almost got killed at a Lila Cheney concert a while back."
"I can think of worse ways to go. Lila Cheney's a babe." Chase finished the hamburger and checked his watch. "We'd better get back on the road, it's still a long way to Denver."
Shea sighed, dropping the remains of her napkin, and got up. "Can I drive?"
"Come on, aren't you getting highway hypnosis yet...." They trailed out of the restaurant, leaving behind at least one set of curious eyes -- and shreds of green silk embossed with the Dairy Queen logo, scattered over the table.
The desert night was cold and clear, the stars shining furiously overhead, with no city lights to dim them out. As they drove out of town, Shea leaned against Chase's back, her hands clamped firmly on the sides of his belt, and looked at the stars through eyes that kept trying to close.
"Don't fall asleep back there," he warned once, without slowing down. Shea nodded sleepily against his back, searching out constellations to keep her mind busy. Casseopeia, Cepheus, Sirius....
She didn't feel the bike stopping until something started shaking her shoulder. "Come on, Shealee, wakey wakey."
She blinked and yawned, trying to figure out what was going on. This didn't feel like home... "Huh?"
"Coffee, Shea. If you wake up, I'll buy you some coffee."
She made a face automatically. "Yuck. Coke?"
"Anything, just get off the bike so I can stretch."
She yawned again, and realized she was snuggled against Chase's back, her arms wrapped around his waist; he was twisted around to look at her. She instantly swung off the bike, trying to put distance between them. The world spun around her as her feet hit the asphalt; she swayed in place, blinking in the light of an extremely early dawn as Chase, moaning and groaning, stood up.
"Where are we?" Shea asked, looking around. They were in the parking lot of what looked like a general store, with gas pumps outside and clothing that was supposed to be Native American inside.
"About two miles outside Utah." Chase walked around stiffly, working kinks out and combing his hair with his hands. He looked rumpled and tired and basically adorable. She squelched the thought hard. "We need gas, I need coffee and you need a coat. Then you're going to get your first lesson on how to drive a motorcycle."
That woke her right up. "I get to drive?"
He stretched widely and she heard bones in his back and neck pop. "Yeah. Come on."
Chase pumped the gas, then they walked into the store, rounding up coffee and a Diet Coke first thing. While Chase paid out of Jennifer's stash, Shea tracked down the womens room, splashing water on her dusty face and drinking out of her hands once she'd finished.
She'd only put one foot out the door when the state troopers walked in, and had the sense to stay there, out of sight. But she thought they could hear her heart pounding all the way at the counter.
"That your bike outside?" one of the troopers asked Chase.
He leaned against the counter casually, but Shea could see his hand tighten around the styrofoam cup of coffee. "Yeah, it's mine. Problem?"
"No problem, if you can tell me the plate number."
"Before I've had coffee?" Chase forced a laugh. "I couldn't tell you my girlfriend's name before my coffee."
"Now that's funny," the other trooper drawled. "Because we can tell you what they are -- it was written all over the police report we got from Nevada last night. You got some people real interested in finding you and your girlfriend, kid, like a government agent name of Peterson."
Chase held out his hands peaceably, then tried the same move he'd used in Grave's Grocery a lifetime ago, flicking his half-full coffee cup into the face of the nearest trooper, and bolting for the door. The second trooper caught him before he went three feet, countering Chase's attempt at a martial arts throw easily. "Not so fast, kid," the trooper snarled over Chase's yells. "Where's the girl?"
"She was in back, in the john," the confused store owner blurted, trying to hide behind the counter. "She was just there a minute ago."
"Go get her," the trooper with Chase ordered his partner, who was still trying to get coffee out of his face. He grabbed a handful of napkins and headed straight for Shea.
Shea ducked out of the doorway and did a quick fade behind three racks of clothes, keeping low to the floor and thinking faster then she'd ever thought. The trooper got too damn close; she dropped flat and squirmed beneath the racks, and he stopped about two inches in front of her hand. *What is this guy, a bloodhound,* she asked anyone who was listening, cursing Murphy with all her heart and soul.
Then the idea hit and she carefully snaked her hand out to touch his pants. A long moment of concentration as he called to his partner, "There's no one back here!", then she rolled out the other side.
"Guess again, Dudley DoRight." She bounced to her feet and he instantly started after her -- only to stop with a yelp of pain as soon as he tried to take a step.
*I'll be damned, it worked.* But there was no time to gloat; she charged across the floor to throw all of her 130 pounds against the trooper holding Chase. He staggered back and Chase pulled free, grabbing Shea's hand and hauling her out the door.
"Start the bike," Shea yelled, slipping free and running for the troopers's car. She bent to touch a tire, then leaned in and laid her hand on the radio before meeting Chase and jumping on the back of the motorcycle. They roared away into the desert.
"Not bad, Sundance," Chase yelled over his shoulder.
"Oh yeah, great, Butch, I *told* you they'd track the license plates!" Shea yelled back. "Now we've added two more resisting arrest and assault charges to our total! At least you paid for the gas."
"What'd you do to that trooper?"
"Turned the fabric of his pants into plywood, then turned their car tire into Silly Putty, same as their radio."
"You can really do that?"
"Just did it. We should maybe get off the road!" Chase didn't bother to answer, but turned the bike into the sand, leaving a cloud of brown and two highly pissed state troopers behind them.
"and in the mists as she rides
Chase crossed back onto the interstate after an hour and headed west again, without even glancing at the map they'd bought a few truck stops earlier. Since Shea usually had problems telling her right from her left, this was annoying as hell.
"Where are we going?" she asked against his ear.
"No kidding, smart ass. Where in Utah?"
"Does it matter? There's nothing *in* Utah, outside of Salt Lake City, which we're not going near."
"Good. Perfect time for you to teach me to drive the bike."
She could feel the heavy, martyred sigh leave his chest. "We'll stop for the night in about an hour -- I'll teach you then."
"We're stopping? But Jennifer said to keep moving..."
"Jennifer also said to meet them, whoever 'them' is, tomorrow. And if you fall asleep on the back of the bike again, you're going to fall off, kill yourself, and it won't matter. So we're stopping."
"I don't think this is a good idea. These towns out here are too small; the cops will see our plates and grab us for sure."
"So we'll leave the bike outside of town and walk in, tell the motel owner we hitched our way from the Interstate. No bike, no plates, no problem. Bet the APB hasn't made it here from Nevada yet."
"God, I hate it when you're smug," she muttered, wanting to argue further but not able to come up with anything at the moment. "I just hope you win that bet."
They left the bike in an abandoned shed about two miles out of town. Chase was inclined to fuss with the canvas they'd used to cover it, stroking and petting the metal until Shea physically dragged him back onto the road. "Come on, already, your baby will be fine."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Chase grumbled, adjusting the canvas one more time. "That's easy for you to say, you didn't spend almost a year rebuilding it from the tires up."
"It's a work of art, now let's go."
They made good time on foot; Shea only occasionally had to stop and wait for Chase to catch up. "You really need to get off that bike once in while," she teased. "All those muscles and you can't walk two miles."
He just growled and trudged past her. She laughed and stretched, then started jogging slowly beside him.
The town was small, but big enough to get lost in if they didn't call attention to themselves. At a small store crowded with a busload of tourists, Shea traded her sweatshirt for a Four Corners T-shirt, out on display despite the fact that they were 300 miles away from the tourist attraction. She hid her hair under a Beautiful Utah baseball cap and Chase shoved another cap over his head before they headed for the cheap motel on the outskirts of town, the kind of place that rented rooms by the hour.
"Look experienced," Chase advised, as he went in to pay for the room, leaving her outside. "And hide your hand."
"Why, so he'll think I'm a hooker?"
"Why can't you be the hooker and *I'll* pay for the room?"
"Too conspicuous. Shut up and look cheap." She stuck her tongue out at him, then tied her T-shirt underneath her breasts and leaned back against the porch post in what she hoped was a sexy pose. He shook his head and went inside, but not before his eyes clung for a noticable second to her bare stomach.
*Not bad,* Shea congratulated herself smugly. *Looks like all that running's good for something besides the Olympics.*
A couple of sleazy looking types went by, giving her the eye as they went. She smiled casually at them, giving off 'hi, I'm available at reasonable rates' vibes for all she was worth. One of them looked as if he would come over, then Chase's hand closed around her upper arm. "Knock it off," he told her, giving the sleaze a hard glare. The sleaze backed off.
"You said look cheap. If we have to get attention, might as well make sure it's the wrong kind." Besides, Shea grinned to herself, this was fun.
Chase was unamused. "I'd rather not get any attention at all, so knock it off."
The room was about what they'd expected, all bed, with one small bathroom, one tv set, and not much else. "Don't even touch that," Chase warned as Shea made a beeline for the television.
"Yeah, Daddy," Shea rolled her eyes at him, turning the knob on with a defiant twist of her wrist. "Like I haven't seen porno movies before. Maybe, just maybe, we can pick up a local station -- I want to find the news."
Chase reached around her and shut it off. "We'll buy a newspaper."
"Who died and made you God?"
"Who died and made you an idiot?"
"Look, Chase, I don't need a protector or a father!" Shea informed him, getting as far up into his face as possible, considering he had almost a foot of height on her. "So you can knock off this Daddy Dearest crap right now!"
He loomed over her, ready to start yelling back, but suddenly chuckled.
"What?" Shea demanded crossly, still spoiling for a fight.
He grinned down at her. "Sorry, I just thought *I* was supposed to be James Dean."
She looked at him in confusion for a minute, then her lips twitched as she got the joke. Rebel without a cause, indeed. "What's that supposed to make me, Natalie Wood? Hoo boy, did someone screw up the casting!"
He started laughing again. "Hey, at least we've got the motorcycle -- the prop department must be doing something right."
"Good to know someone is," Shea said through giggles that were too strong for the joke. *Hysterical, I'm getting hysterical, * she realized, and managed to suppress the laughter.
She wiped her eyes and saw Chase looking down at her, his eyes caught between laughter and worry. She waved him off in a 'no sweat' gesture and turned the tv back on. This time, he didn't bother to object, just shook his head and went into the bathroom, still chuckling under his breath.
The television was indeed set to the local version of the Playboy channel, but after one fascinated moment of wondering which of the three people on screen was double jointed, Shea disconnected the cable box and turned the channel, searching for a local station and the 12:00 news.
Her hand froze as she picked up a broadcast. Snowy and out-of-focus, it was still unmistakably her last school picture, the one where she'd still had her braces and had been refusing to smile. "Chase!" she shouted, "We got troubles!"
"What now?" He reappeared from the bathroom, grabbing a towel to dry his dripping hands on his way back into the main room. The towel stopped moving when he saw the screen. "Oh, shit. They got a picture of me?"
"I don't..." The screen flickered and a mug shot appeared. "Yeah, they do. When was the last time you were arrested?"
"Last Fourth of July and I didn't start it," he said automatically, still staring at the screen.
"Looks like the sheriff ended it." She fooled with the reception and coaxed staticky sound out.
"... thorities are still searching for the fugitive, 21-year-old Chase Matthews, and his victim, a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore. Anyone with information on Matthew's whereabouts is urged to call the sheriff's department. Channel 7 will keep you updated as the situation develops. In other news ..."
They stared dumbfounded at the screen as the story changed to a bombing in Saudi Arabia. "Victim?" Shea sputtered. "They're telling people you kidnapped me?"
"Technically, I did," Chase said slowly, closing his jaw. "You're underage and I'm not. But I bet they're not going to bother mentioning they tried to kidnap you first."
"Safe bet. Did the guy at the front counter get a good look at you?"
"No TV. Besides, did the guy at the counter look like the type who cares?"
"About a reward? Yes."
"Good point. No, I don't think he got a good look, but we'll have to be out of here before the five o'clock broadcast, just in case he's got a shift change. So we'd better get some sleep."
"Sleep? People straight out of the 'The X-Files' are on our tails, everyone in three states is ready and willing to help them, and you think I can sleep?"
"If I can, you can." He laid back on the bed, tossing his baseball cap onto the floor beside him and closing his eyes. "Turn that thing off, or you'll keep me awake."
Shea looked at him, trying to figure out if he was a complete idiot, then threw her cap at him, hitting him squarely in the face. "We can't sleep, we've got to get out of here, we've got to get to Denver!" she informed him, hearing her voice start to crack and not caring. "We can't just -- "
In one smooth move, Chase sat up and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her across the bed and under him. She shut up in shock. When he spoke, his voice was very calm and very firm. "Listen to me, Shea. We've been on the road for 13 hours, we're both exhausted, it's getting hard to think clearly and, personally, riding that bike is turning my muscles into jelly. Painful jelly. So we're going to sleep for a few hours, find some food, then get back on the road and go to Denver. I promise you, we will get there."
She swallowed hard, and heard herself admit, "I'm scared."
"I know." His green eyes were patient, firm, and, at the moment, far older than his 21 years. "I am, too. But we're going to make it, as long as we don't get dumb." He relaxed his grip on her and rolled onto his back, wrapping his arms around her and forcing her head to rest on his shoulder. "So go to sleep."
Shea lay stiff against his side, hearing his heartbeat underneath her cheek. She wanted to yell, to cry, to fight. Instead, lulled by the steady sound of his heart and the comfort of his embrace, she obeyed, and slept.
She woke up and froze, blinking in confusion. There was someone else in her bedroom with her, someone who smelled of dust and motor oil and was holding her very firmly against his chest. She came close to panicking, then remembered.
*Oh God, what a cliche,* she groaned to herself, carefully wriggling out of Chase's arms and sitting up on the bed. *From Butch and Sundance to a Harlequin novel. I always thought those heroines were twits for forgetting where they were.*
The thought of outlaws brought back another memory, and she swung frantically to look at the clock on the television, every motorcycle- stiff muscle protesting painfully at the movement. "Oh shit," she said out loud. "Chase, it's almost 5:30, we've got to get moving!"
He grumbled something, but didn't wake up. "Jeez, you sleep like a stone!" she informed him before resorting to poking his ribs again. "Come on, Butch, we've got to get on the road, I'm serious this time!"
"Five more minutes," he mumbled, turning onto his side.
"Do I *look* like your mother? Chase, wake up!"
Chase opened one eye and glared over his shoulder at her. "If you keep screaming like that, you're going to start sounding like her. I'm awake, already! What time is it?"
"5:30, Mr. 'Let's Get Some Sleep'! We've been 'getting some sleep' for almost five hours!"
"Shit." He rolled stiffly off the bed, retrieving his cap from the floor on his way up. "Let's move."
Shea raced him for the bathroom.
"Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.
She'd waited anxiously for him to pay the bill, but apparently the desk clerk still hadn't seen the news and no one had started screaming "Kidnapper!" or "Mutie!" in their direction. Another hour to walk back to the bike, and they'd been on their way. Now they were close to the Colorado state line.
Chase had indeed let her drive through most of Utah -- after a few rough spots in the beginning, when she forgot about the brakes, she'd fallen in love with the speed and power the motorcycle gave her, and given up control reluctantly, He'd had to firmly drag her off the driver's seat when they hit the beginnings of the Rocky Mountains.
"I *can* drive, you know," she'd informed him, conveniently forgetting her lack of a driver's license.
He'd had the nerve to look amused. "Yeah, I noticed. But it's my toy and when we're in the mountains, I get to play with it."
"Selfish." But she'd been in too good of a mood to object. Much as she hated to admit it, Chase had been right about the sleep. She was thinking much more clearly, and was less inclined to hyperventilate every time she remembered what was after them. Which didn't mean she wanted to think about it....
She concentrated on the mountains, admiring the stark beauty of trees and rocks, and trying to ignore the cold. They'd stopped at a Goodwill to buy her a battered green and blue ski jacket, but that still left her legs clad in only jeans, socks, and sneakers against the chill wind, which got colder as the sky got darker. It was almost night again, and the bike's headlight cast the scenery in strange, twisting shadows around them. The air smelled good, as clean and crisp as the air in Oregon, but with a different taste -- pine, where Oregon tasted of earth.
They were taking the long way that avoided main interstates and most of the cities -- it was going to add hours onto the trip, but they were making good time, going only slightly above the speed limit to avoid notice. They'd be in Denver by morning, well ahead of the 10 a.m. deadline, ready to meet Jennifer's friends. After that...
She didn't know what to expect after that. The ending of 'Escape to Witch Mountain' came to mind, when the two kids had met the flying saucer that would whisk them away to paradise. They'd more likely get a plane, that would take them to the school Jennifer told them about. A safe place, with other mutants who would understand what it was like to be different. Wouldn't they?
She tightened her arms around Chase, burrowing her face into the back of his leather jacket. What if she was wrong? What if the other mutants were too busy doing whatever the hell it was mutants-in- training did to care about one teenager, whose only claims to fame were the abilities to change metal into Silly Putty and run a four- and-a-half-minute mile? Would they even want to bother with her completely un-mutant... partner?
She was pinning all her hopes on the word of a retired superhero and a group of unknown mutants. Her life, and Chase's, rode on a line thinner than the cliff road beneath them.
Busy worrying, Shea didn't notice they were slowing until Chase brought the bike to a halt by the side of the road and half-turned to face her. "Okay, what's wrong?"
He didn't buy it. "You've been practically cutting me in two for about thirty miles, and I don't think it's because of the road. So what's got you tied up in knots?"
"I don't...." He gave her a 'don't even bother lying' look and she gave up. "Chase, are we going to make it?"
He looked at her steadily. "Of course, we're going to make it. We'll be in Denver in seven hours, tops."
"That's not what I mean." She bit her lip, looking away from him, into the dark trees on either side of the road. "We're crazy, you know. A superhero we don't even know told us to go meet up with a bunch of strangers -- renegade mutants, for God's sake -- and we very calmly do it."
"Not that calmly," Chase said pointedly.
"All right, so I freaked once." Shea waved it off. "The point is, that we have no reason to trust these people, they have no reason to help us, but we're merrily driving our asses off to get to Denver on the off chance that they'll hide us for a while. What's wrong with this picture?"
Her voice had been getting louder and louder until she almost screamed the last sentence. She heard herself and stopped abruptly, closing her eyes to try and regain control before she started crying or something equally humiliating.
So she heard Chase sigh, but didn't see him moving until his arms closed around her, pulling firmly against him. She fought him, but he held on, forcing her to let her head rest against his jacket. She breathed in the smells of engine grease, dirt, and leather, and something else that was uniquely Chase. Two days ago, she wouldn't have believed the comfort that smell could bring.
"Listen to me," he said into her hair, pressing his cheek against her head. "We've done okay so far, and we're going to make it out of this. You were the one who said to go to Jennifer and you were right. She gave us the money, she helped get away, and she was one of the most trustworthy people I've ever met. If she's says these people she sent us to will help, we've got to believe they will.
"And you don't know she's sending us to any groups of renegade mutants. I know --" He stopped her when she tried to speak, "-- I know, she said she was sending us to a school for mutants. But maybe it's just that, a school, where'll they'll be able to teach you and take care of you."
"What about you?" she asked quietly into his jacket, finally vocalizing the worst of her fears. "You're all I... I don't..."
Chase sighed again, his breath ruffling her hair. "I'm not going anywhere, Shealee," he assured her, sounding very big brotherly. "Not for a while, anyway, and everything else can wait until we're sure you're going to be safe. Don't think too much about tomorrow, kiddo, we've got enough problems to keep us busy today."
"Thank you, Annie. And don't call me kiddo." She sat up reluctantly, feeling slightly better, but he kept his arms around her. "And it doesn't take any great leap of intelligence to realize that the only people who are going to run a school for mutants must be mutants themselves. And if they're willing to hide us from the government, that makes them, by definition, renegades." She waited expectantly, but he didn't say anything. "What, no cracks about reading too many comic books?"
"No. You're too damn logical."
"You were hoping I wouldn't think it through that far?" She tried to grin at him and surprised herself by succeeding. "No such luck."
He returned the grin, but it faded away and he ran a hand through his hair. "I just hope..." His voice trailed off, but Shea got the idea.
"I knew it! You think this is stupid, too!"
"I do not think this is stupid!" The Big Brother routine was out the window; he was suddenly yelling as loudly as she was. "I think we ran out of options when we took off and this is about the only halfway decent one we've got left! So let's just get to Denver and deal with it from there!"
Shea sniffed again, strangely calmed by Chase losing his temper for once. It made him seem much more familiar, more like the guy she'd been sparring with at home for years. "You don't have to yell."
He lifted his eyes to the sky, his sigh caught between laughter and frustration. "Yeah, I do. Are you ready to keep moving?"
She thought about it, pushing her luck. When she saw his eyes narrow, she decided she'd pushed long enough and hastily nodded. "Yeah, let's go."
"Good." Without another word, he turned around and started the bike again. Shea wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned against him, closing her eyes.
For some reason, she was feeling much better now.
They made it to Boulder by dawn, emerging from the foothills into the bustling city and losing themselves immediately. With the University of Colorado providing thousands of young people to the streets, two more weren't enough to get anyone's attention, especially not in the sea of relaxed weirdness that was Boulder, CO.
"No wonder Mork could hide out here for so long," Chase commented, watching two people dressed in shorts, UC T-shirts and ski boots go by. They jostled for space with tourists, dogs and ski bums. "Are they actually going to go skiing like that?"
"Well, there's snow in them thar hills." Shea tried not to let her teeth chatter. "I know, we just drove through some. Can we go find hot chocolate? We've got four hours to get to Denver, and the map says it's a two-hour trip."
Chase looked as if he was going to say no; she attempted to look cold, hungry and pathetic, and watched the guilt hit. "Okay," he gave in with gratifying speed. "Let's go."
She grinned and hopped off the bike -- guilt was an even better weapon than yelling, apparently. "Cool. I saw a place a couple blocks back."
He shook his head and followed her down the cobble-stone, pedestrian-only street. Both sides were lined with small stores, and a few large ones -- one record dealer took up most of a block. A small, sand-filled pit held statues for children to climb, which two were gleefully doing. On another corner, a third child perched on a bronze snail, chattering at his sleepy mother.
"That's cute," Chase said, watching the kid.
Shea looked at him with surprise. "Don't you know it's unmacho to point out cute kids?" she teased.
"Yeah. If you tell anyone I said it, I'll deny it."
She laughed and took his arm, leaning her head against his shoulder. To the passers-by, they must have looked like any of the other college couples strolling through the early morning, which was basically the idea. Besides, she admitted to herself, Chase's arm felt strong and warm under her cheek. For a minute, she could even pretend they *were* any other couple...
Then she caught sight of an issue of the Rocky Mountain News. "Oh, hell," she breathed, seeing the Fourth-of-July mug shot and her own tight-lipped school picture.
Chase followed her eyes and froze, then visibly forced himself to relax. "Yeah, of all the pictures to have spread around, that ain't it. Why'd you look so grim, were you still wearing the braces?"
She hit him. "The fact that that's a lousy picture is not the point -- and how do you know I wore braces?"
"Hey, I pay attention," Chase shrugged the arm she wasn't holding. "Besides, they were hard to miss, Tinsel Teeth."
She hit him again. Harder. "Be serious for once, Leather Breath. The point is that our pictures are now spread over the biggest paper in Colorado..."
"I thought that was the Denver Post?"
"Depends on who you talk to, and will you quit being irrelevant? Maybe going for food isn't such a hot idea."
"We've going to need food eventually, and I'd rather do it early, when there aren't very many people around. Later, it'll be that many more eyes to make the connection. Just keep your cap and jacket on and we'll be fine for a while."
"I hate it when you're right."
"I know. Must get annoying, it happens so often."
That got him punched yet again; he winced this time. "Enough with beating up on me, I thought you wanted hot chocolate."
"Then buy a paper and let's find some."
"I need change."
"This is weird," Shea said a half-hour later, trying not to get the newspaper in her scrambled eggs.
"What's weird?" Chase finished what Shea estimated was his fourteenth cup of coffee and reached for the pot, which the waitress had left there after making one too many trips over to fill his cup.
"Well, they're not mentioning the government, or the fact that I'm... um..." she looked around at the small crowd in the cafe and lowered her voice, "...that I'm a mutant. I just get referred to as an Oregonian teenager, a rising young track star, and -- blech -- a 'innocent victim of violence in a peaceful Oregon town.'"
Chase snorted. "Get real, innocent you ain't. What're they saying about me?"
"All kinds of nasty things. They dragged out your police record, your full name -- Charles Alan? No wonder you use Chase -- and your 'reputation as a delinquent.' No one in town is particularly surprised you finally lost it, by the way. Everyone seems to have known you were trouble."
"Hah." Chase ripped open a package of sugar with more force than strictly necessary, dumping it into his coffee.
Shea looked up from the paper at the suppressed anger in his voice. "Chill out, Chase, we've established that town is full of morons. What do we care what they think?" It was her turn to snort. "Hell, last time I looked, thinking was illegal in Copper Lake."
"Yeah, I know." He stirred the coffee and took a sip. "Do they say if they've got any leads on our whereabouts?"
She shoved the paper at him, more concerned with finishing her eggs before they got cold. Colder. "See for yourself."
He hesitated, then took the paper, studying it. She looked at him with narrow eyes. "Problem?"
He sighed. "No." A few more minutes of fussing with the paper, then he finally laid it down on the table and reached into his jacket, pulling out a canvas case. Without looking at her, he took out a pair of glasses and put them on, then casually started reading the front page.
Shea stifled her giggles and tried desperately to keep a straight face -- but the wirerim glasses just did *not* go with the James Dean image. She finally gave up and started snickering into her eggs.
Chase pretended not to hear.
"i almost ran over an angel
"Denver city limits," Shea called over her shoulder.
"Thank God," Chase muttered, loudly enough to be heard. "Pull over so we can switch drivers."
"Why? I like driving."
"Get better at it and I'll let you. Pull over."
She kept going. "What's wrong with my driving?'
"Nothing a sense of direction, an unleaded foot and a good dose of sanity wouldn't fix." She changed lanes without bothering to signal, almost getting them creamed by an 18-wheeler. Chase started cussing. "Pull. Over!"
She made a face she knew he couldn't see and drove into a gas station. "All right, don't have a cow."
He was off the bike as soon as she cut the engine. "That's the *last* time you drive my bike," he informed her, glaring awfully down at her head.
She was something less than intimidated. "Probably, since you're apparently driving the rest of the way to Stapleton. Where is Stapleton, anyway?"
"I have no idea," Chase said through clenched teeth. "That's why I'm going to ask when I pay for the gas."
Shea thought about it. "Maybe that's not such a good...." He stomped away before she could finish; she shrugged and got off the bike, heading for the restroom, which had suddenly become very high on her list of priorities.
Within five minutes of hitting the highway into Denver, Shea was glad Chase was driving -- the 9 o'clock traffic was murder, worse than Los Angeles. They were almost creamed in something called 'The Mousetrap' and got lost twice after that. Shea was careful not to gloat, sensing that Chase was ready to shove her off the back of the motorcycle, guilt or no guilt.
Stapleton had been Denver's main airport until a new one had been built on the opposite side of the city. Now, Stapleton was a ghost town on the edge of the suburbs, flat and empty. They didn't bother with roads, but drove straight off the highway towards the runways -- judging from the skid marks on the pavement, the abandoned tarmac had been used by hundreds of bikers and bladers in the last few years. The remnants of a stage sat in one corner near the old terminals, testifying to at least one concert held here.
Chase slowed down as they approached the gutted buildings. "Do you see anything?"
"No." Shea shook her head, studying the huge, flat area. Anything moving would have stood out like a bullseye. Her shoulder blades started itching when she realized that also applied to them. "Maybe around the other side."
"We came from that direction - we would have seen anything there from the highway."
"Let's look anyway. We don't have anything better to do."
Hr shrugged, but turned towards the old terminals, circling around them to the other side. "See, nothing." He brought the bike to a stop and leaned against one leg, letting the motor idle.
Shea rested her head against his back, disappointment mixed with fear and exhaustion nearly overwhelming her. Chase's hand took hers, where it clenched around his waist, and she hung on.
"Maybe..." he started, "Maybe they're not--"
"They're coming!" Shea cut him off. "They have to be. We can't have come this far, done all of this, for nothing..."
She felt Chase start to turn to her, then freeze. "What the --"
She looked up at the amazement in his voice, and followed his eyes to the runway a hundred feet away. "Oh my God."
The air itself was shimmering, taking on form and substance. Slowly, a big black shape appeared. Shea had another flash to the end of 'Escape to Witch Mountain'. "It's a flying saucer," she breathed.
"No, I think it's a plane," Chase corrected her extremely calmly, without looking away from the huge vehicle. "With some kind of cloaking device, I bet. When did we hit Star Trek?"
It was a rhetorical question, which was a good thing, since Shea was in no condition to answer. A hatch on the side of the plane opened, revealing stairs and three people going down them. From that distance, Shea could make out a short, stocky man, a tall woman with black skin and white hair, and a taller man dressed in blue and shiny gold. The woman looked in their direction and gestured towards them.
Chase took a breath, asking from the corner of his mouth, "Any of them look familiar? Like, from the news?"
"I'm not sure," Shea answered, squinting, a wild hope beginning to rise in her chest that was almost matched by the fear. "I can't tell from here. But the plane...."
"Yeah." He gunned the motorcycle without letting go of the brakes. "Do we want to meet them or let them come to us?"
Shea shook her head. "I don't know. I'm scared."
"We have to decide. Don't be a wuss."
"I'm not a wuss!" She hit him, then took a deep breath and let it out. "Okay, I say we --"
The harsh sound of squealing tires cut her off. They whirled to see three black government-issue sedans come racing out of the hangers that surrounded the tarmac, heading directly for the two of them. "Bureau of Mutant Affairs," a loudspeaker from one of the cars proclaimed. "Surrender or we will open fire."
"Oh shit!" Chase cursed. The bike revved again and they barreled forward. From the corner of her eye, Shea saw a redheaded woman come flying -- literally -- through the door of the plane, yelling something. She flew past the two on the bike, Shea twisting her head to follow with her eyes, and met one of the cars with a punch that should have broken every bone in the woman's hand. Instead, it sent the car flying back twenty feet, its windshield shattered.
A beam of red light came out of nowhere and blew up the engine of a second car. Shea followed a second beam back to the man in blue and gold, who was apparently shooting lasers out of his eyes. *Star Trek, my ass!* she thought wildly. *We're in the Twilight Zone!*
Something whipped past her cheek and Shea ducked even before she realized it was a bullet. She registered the shots then, and saw two more people, a woman with what looked suspiciously like purple hair and a guy dressed in not much more than blue fur, come out of the plane, jumping into the brawl. A wind came up out of nowhere, blasting them in the face, trying to force them back. But no more bullets came anywhere near them, so maybe it was working against the bad guys, as well.
She turned to check and saw someone who looked like Agent Peterson wrestling with another guy over a gun, the wind blasting their yells away. *Oh goody, they want us alive. Wonderful.*
She put her head back down and kept going, roaring past the plane. The short, stocky man jumped towards them as if to stop them, shouting something. Shea had enough time to see the claws coming out of the backs of his hand before they were past him and roaring away from the fight.
Shea screamed as a strange voice suddenly shouted at her. In her head. The motorcycle almost spun out from under them as Chase momentarily lost control.
*Don't run,* the voice kept going, pounding against them. *We're here to help you...*
"Chase!" Shea screamed over the howling wind and the voice in her head. "Get us away from here!"
He got control back and gripped the handlebars. "Hang on," he shouted grimly.
The bike peeled off of the tarmac into the flat ground surrounding the airport, kicking up a huge dust cloud that caught in the wind. Frightened beyond thinking, they drove until the voice had quieted and the wind died down. Then they kept going.
Shea didn't know how long they'd been driving before Chase finally pulled off the road into an abandoned parking lot and stopped the bike. He didn't get off, though, and Shea leaned against him, her arms still closed around him in a compulsive grip. Her breathing was choppy, on the edge of hyperventilating, and she could feel the tears running down her cheeks, smearing against the back of his jacket. Under her arms, Chase's chest moved erratically, his breathing no steadier than hers.
She finally got her breathing under control enough to ask, shakily, "What now?"
Chase shook his head, trying a few times before he could get an answer out. "I... I don't know. How the hell did they find us?"
"Cop spotted us, called it in? That gas station you asked for directions at? Who knows?"
"No way, that was an ambush," Chase said flatly. "If they'd waited a few more minutes, we'd have been off the bike and they would have had us. Who were those people in the plane?"
"The X-Men, I think." Shea swiped at her eyes, biting her lip to try and stop any more tears from coming. "I recognized one of them -- it was Dr. McCoy. He hangs with the X-Men, I've seen him with them on newscasts. He's kinda hard to miss."
"Yeah, not too many people with blue fur wandering around."
Shea made a sound that was too choked to be a laugh. "Actually, I think there's another one in that British group, um... I don't remember what they're called. "
"Excalibur," Chase filled in. She looked up at him for the first time since they'd stopped. He made an attempt at a crooked grin. "They were on '60 Minutes' once."
"You watch '60 Minutes'?"
"When wrestling isn't on."
The sound was a little closer to a laugh this time. "Anyway," she said, her voice steadying as she talked, "I think the guy shooting things out of his eyes is an X-Man, too. And as near as I can tell, the X-Men are the only ones who'd have enough of a stake in what happens to us to actually come to Denver to get us. They're always fighting the government."
"Okay, so maybe it was the X-Men. Fat lot of good they did us."
"They tried," Shea pointed out, not sure if *she* believed it. "It's not their fault those bastards caught up with us."
"Isn't it?" Chase asked bitterly. "How do we know that wasn't a set- up from the start?"
"It wasn't!" Shea sat up straight. "Jennifer wouldn't have--"
"How do you know?" He spun on her, almost falling off the bike. "We don't know a damn thing about her except she used to be a superhero. How do we know we can trust her? How do we know we can trust anyone?"
"If Jennifer had wanted to get rid of us, she could have turned us over to the Feds when they came to her hotel room after us, without doing this whole set-up!" Shea yelled back, her voice rising an octave. "We have to trust someone or we're toast -- it may as well be her!"
"So just what the hell do you want to do, then?" he demanded, raking his hand through his hair. "Go riding another 2,000 miles to the X- Men's headquarters and say, 'Hey, we're the kids you and those Feds were chasing around in Denver -- can we sack out on your couch?'"
"As plans go, that's not bad!" Shea tried to lower her voice, but wasn't having much luck.
"We can't trust them!"
So much for the voice. "We don't have a choice!"
"Yes, we do! We can disappear, head up into Canada or back to L.A...."
"And then what? Keep running? For how long? Doing this Butch and Sundance riff for a few days is one thing -- do you want to do it for the rest of our lives?"
"It's one hell of a lot better than jail! Or a research lab!"
They faced each other, both breathing hard. Shea was the first to turn away, swinging her leg over the motorcycle and getting off. "Go, then. To Canada or wherever."
Chase blinked at her. "Where do you think you're going?"
She shrugged tiredly, suddenly burned out from emotional overload. "Massachusetts, I guess. I don't seem to have a helluva lot of choices."
"No choice? I just gave you choices! We can get out of here, we can-- "
"Chase!" Her voice was firm, determined, as she cut him off. "Chase, *you* have choices. I don't." She smiled crookedly, curiously resigned to her fate. "I'm a mutant -- that pretty much limits my options right there, and the Massachusetts Academy is the only one that's still open."
He started to say something; she didn't let him. "You're right, though, you should get out of here. They don't want you, only me; you'll be safe if you don't have to haul me around." She looked away, rubbing her arms. "I don't even know why you've stayed around this long."
He ignored the implied question in favor of yelling some more. "You're crazy, I'm not leaving you here alone! We started this together and we'll finish it together, so get on the damn bike and let's get out of here!"
"Why?" she demanded angrily. "Why the hell did you start this to begin with? Why the hell do you care?"
"I just do, all right!?!"
"No." She was suddenly totally calm, thinking very clearly for the first time in days. Chase wasn't the only one tired of trusting blindly -- she wanted some answers and she wanted them now. "No, it's not enough. Why are you doing this, Chase? Why did you come get me to begin with, why did you come with me to San Francisco? Why put your tail on the line for someone you barely know?"
He raked his hand through his hair again, his face a mask of frustration. "Women! Do we have to have this conversation now?"
She made a mental note to pay him back for the sexist crack, but persisted. "Yes, we do. Answer me."
For a long time, she thought he wasn't going to; he just stared past her, his jaw tight and his fists clenched around the handlebars. "I used to see you," he said finally, just as she was getting ready to demand an answer again. "Running in the morning, then going to track practice after that, and again after school. But you always looked best at dawn, running around the lake, and I knew...."
"Knew what?" she prompted, when it didn't look like he was going to continue.
He still looked past her, his green eyes expressionless. "That you were the only person who wanted out of that town as bad as I did. And I knew you were going to make it out, and I wasn't."
"You wanted out? But..."
"But what? You think I liked being the token rebel for Copper Lake, the biggest threat to teenage virtue since the Beatles, the one who always got arrested for the fights no matter who started them? You think I want to spend the rest of my life trapped in that damn factory, fixing machinery that's older than I am until I get killed like my old man?" He half-laughed, humorlessly, and looked away, staring up at the sky. "I wanted out of there so bad, I memorized maps."
Shea was silent; she could barely remember Chase's father, a big, quiet man who had worked in the factory for more than twenty years before a forklift had overturned, killing him and three others. Chase's mother had started drinking afterwards, getting louder and louder, until she'd left four years before, without her son. Chase had dropped out of high school then to find work in the factory. "If you hated it so much, why didn't you leave?" she asked softly.
Chase's eyes finally focused, meeting her sympathetic gaze with a challenging one, that dared her to see the pain behind it. "Because I never had the guts, not like you. I used to watch you, and know you were going to run right out of Copper Lake, and I was going to be stuck in that damn factory forever."
The tension seemed to drain out of him all at once. "Then, all of a sudden," he sighed, his shoulders slumping, "those bastards were after you and no one was doing anything; I had to make a choice. I could just pretend it wasn't happening, like everyone else in that town, and turn into one of them for good -- or I could get on this bike and get us both the hell out."
*Not a rebel, or James Dean, or the town bad boy,* she realized silently, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. *Just Chase. I thought I knew him, but Christ... I wonder if anyone ever did?*
Without saying anything out loud, she walked back to the bike and climbed on, wrapping her arms around his waist. He turned his head to look at her, and she smiled. "Come on, Butch, let's get moving. It's a long way to Massachusetts."
After a long moment, his lips curved and he smiled back. Not much of a smile, but gentle and real; it warmed her down to her toes. "Right, Sundance."
They looked at each other for a long, understanding moment, and Shea knew he wasn't going to leave her. Not until they were safe.
Then his eyes hardened, just a little. "But we're going to do it smarter this time. No stopping to ask for directions, no restaurants, no hotels. We stop for gas and we sleep when we have to, not before. We're going to get ourselves so thoroughly lost it'll take the entire damn FBI to track us down."
"Amen and hallelujah!" Shea cheered with a mischievous grin. "Let's do it!"
"If you're comin' with me you need nerves of steel,
It's 1,987 miles from Denver to Boston, by the interstates. Shea and Chase took them at night, but during the day, they had to stick to the backroads, where fewer highway patrolmen lurked. They were adding about 500 miles to the total, Shea figured, and she felt all of them in her backside.
The fields all pretty much looked the same, no matter what state they were in. Long, rolling plains of black and dark brown, with the first wave of green just beginning to appear. It warmed up as they got lower, but Shea was still grateful for the windbreak Chase offered -- although she didn't refuse to chance to drive when his vision started blurring.
Nebraska, and Chase and Shea had to trade off driving four times because of highway hypnosis.
"Is this state ever going to end?" Shea bitched quietly during the second trade-off. "Or have we discovered some unique new level of Purgatory?"
"It's not that bad," Chase said unconvincingly. "It's nice and... um, brown."
Shea summed up her opinion of that with a single raspberry. Chase hit the back of her head; she elbowed him, then started the bike and got back on the road, narrowly avoiding the rig that thundered past them.
"Would you mind actually using that rearview mirror?" Chase asked not-so-politely.
"I used it."
"Great. I've got a suicidal driver."
"Oh, don't be a wuss."
"I knew you were going to make me regret that," he grumbled.
She grinned, and hit the gas, racing up to and passing the rig. Chase's arms tightened around her waist, but the wind was, mercifully, too loud for her to hear whatever he was saying.
Iowa, and they hit the first real city since Denver.
"Just fly casual," Shea advised as they went past a police station.
"Thank you, Han Solo," Chase shot back. His muscles were so tense she could feel them through her chest and arms, hard as iron.
Then the siren started behind them.
"Oh shit." They froze; Chase's foot twitched to stomp on the accelerator. "Get ready," he warned over his shoulder. Shea tightened her arms around his waist and started praying.
The police car roared up to them -- and past, chasing after a station wagon that had just run a red light.
Shea almost fell off the bike as relief relaxed all of her muscles at once. "That was *too* close," Chase muttered in front of her.
She could only nod her head against the back of his jacket. "How far is it to Illinois?"
Illinois, and it started raining.
Not just raining, but pouring, the rain coming down in a heavy sheet from the sky, icy cold and almost as mean as the wind that was trying to blow them off the road. Thunder rumbled threateningly overhead, alternating with the cracks of lightning.
Shea tried to ignore the storm, concentrating on the wet, treacherous road she was navigating. But she shivered as the water soaked through her ski jacket and sweatshirt, trickling down the back of her neck and obscuring her vision.
"Trade off," Chase said in her ear, pulling her heavy, dripping braid off of her neck. She shivered again when wind hit the newly-exposed skin.
"I'm fine," she lied through her chattering teeth. "We'll trade driving halfway through, like we agreed."
"We'll trade now, because I have the leather jacket and I'm not going to get half as wet as you already are. Besides, I'm better at driving in bad weather. Pull over."
Shea wanted to keep fighting and half-turned to do so. The front tire hit a patch of wet gravel and almost skidded out. She fought for control, got it, then pulled over without further argument.
Chase inspected his tire before pulling them back onto the road; but, showing great self-restraint and self-preservation, he didn't say anything.
Indiana, and Chase almost fell off the bike.
Recovering from the turn that had thrown her passenger off-balance, Shea reached behind her to grab his arm, hauling him back onto the seat and cursing mentally as the movement sent pain shooting through her injured left hand. "That's it," she proclaimed, "We're stopping."
"No, we're not," Chase fought a yawn. "I'll be fine."
"You'll be road pizza if you fall off again." She started slowing down and pulled to the side of the road. The thunderstorm had been trailing happily along with them for the last several hundred miles; the bike sank several inches into the rain-softened ground.
"We can't risk a hotel and we shouldn't stop anyway," Chase persisted.
"Why? We're not on a flamin' schedule!" She looked at him with disgust -- the macho routine was wearing thin -- then scanned the fields around them. "It looks like there's another barn over there," she pointed at a low gray shape in the distance, almost obscured by the rain. "We can grab a few hours' sleep, and get started again at dawn."
"It's not open for discussion," she cut him off. "I saw a gate a mile back; let's get the bike under cover and kick back."
He tried to argue, but almost strangled on another yawn. Shea kicked the bike into gear before he finished, forcing him to grab on or fall off for real. She swung the bike in a circle and headed back for the gate.
An hour later, the bike was camouflaged by bales of hay (Shea almost hurt herself the first time she tried to lift one of the unexpectedly heavy bales), and they had made the pleasant discovery that barns actually do have haylofts. It was a scratchy, slightly musty hayloft, but at least it was dry.
Shea peeled off her still-wet ski jacket and sweatshirt, kicked off her sneakers and considered her soaked jeans. Then she considered Chase's presence a few feet away and decided to live with them.
Chase yawned broadly, taking off his jacket and stretching out in the hay. "The hell with gold," he said sleepily, "can you spin any of this stuff into a hamburger and onion rings?"
"Sorry, that's a little out of my league," she chuckled, sitting down and stretching first her right, then her left leg, easing muscles so sore they seemed to be made of lead. "But I think there's a couple of granola bars left from this morning's gas station raid."
"Too much trouble," he decided without opening his eyes. "It'll wait until later."
"Good call." She looked at him, sprawled like an extremely sexy eight-year-old on the hay, and tried to remember that he was a pain in the ass. The thunder rumbled overhead and she thought about her cold clothes again, then sighed a mental *The hell with it* and sprawled onto the straw next to him. He obligingly lifted an arm and pulled her against his side. After a few minutes of shifting around, she finally found a comfortable place on his chest to rest her head and figured out what to do with her right arm, which she was lying on. Her bandaged hand lay on his chest, not hurting for once.
"Comfortable?" Chase asked with amusement when she stopped squirming.
She thought about it. His body was warm, giving off heat like a furnace even through two pairs of wet jeans, and his chest was firm, moving gently under her cheek with each breath. The hay was soft and only slightly scratchy, and the rain beat a steady tattoo on the roof instead of against her face. *Oh man, I could get used to this,* she groaned mentally. Out loud, she only said, very sweetly and sarcastically, "Yes, I'm comfortable now."
"Good. Then go to sleep."
"Yes, Daddy," she bitched quietly. A moment later, she whispered, "I wish I could call Mom Reynolds. She's probably worried sick."
"I know. But we can't risk it." His hands moved soothingly up and down her back. "They've probably got the phones tapped or something."
"I know." Another pause. "Do you think Jennifer got into any trouble from helping us?"
Chase's voice was amused. "Would you take on the She-Hulk?"
"Well, no," Shea admitted.
"Then don't worry about it; Jennifer can take care of herself."
"I know, I just..."
"Shea, go to sleep."
"Yes, Daddy," she repeated, with a little more of an edge, tired of being patronized. "Why do you keep telling me to go to sleep like a five-year-old?"
She heard him groan slightly, deep in his chest. "Because if I remember you're not a five-year-old, you're not going to sleep and I *am* going to get arrested. So shut up and sleep."
"But -- "
Putting a hand under her chin and pulling her face up, he cut her off very effectively by kissing her hard on the lips, so quickly she didn't even have time to think about resisting before it was over. Then he tucked her head back onto his chest, and tightened his arms around her. "Shut up and sleep," he repeated.
She shut up. But sleep took a while.
"I'm runnin' down the road tryin' to loosen my load,
Ohio, and Shea would be happy if she never saw a field again. Or a motorcycle. Or, for that matter, Chase Matthews.
They been extremely polite to each other from the time they woke up, around dawn. Chase had very carefully checked her bandages, put on her shoes and even helped her braid her hair -- all things that required a certain amount of physical contact. But they were both steadfastly ignoring The Kiss. It just seemed easier.
Of course, that wasn't to say she wasn't thinking about it occasionally.
The wind kicked up again, blowing rain past Chase's jacket into her face. She started coughing for the third time in half-an-hour, hanging onto his waist to keep from knocking herself off the bike.
"You all right back there?"
"Fine," she gasped, without any of the obvious 'Of course not, you idiot!' come-backs that came to mind.
He nodded without looking back. Shea remembered how to breathe, and went back to dwelling. And, a few minutes later, coughing.
"Oh, for God's sake..." Chase muttered under his breath and pulled off of the highway into a gas station.
"What-- We can't stop, there could be cops all over this place! Get back on the highway!"
"Yeah, so you can sit back there, be macha and cough yourself unconscious. Stay here." He killed the engine, and stalked into the gas station.
Shea grumbled, but obeyed. *Geez, the way he's acting, you'd think *I* mauled *him* instead of the other way around. Well, okay, maybe it wasn't mauling, but he's got a lot of nerve acting like it's my fault.*
He reappeared in a few minutes, a newspaper under his arm, and tossed a familiar box at her. She grumbled some more and tipped her head back to dry-swallow two Contacts. When she opened her eyes again, Chase had put his glasses on and was frowning at the paper. "Check this out, Shealee."
She craned her neck to see the front page. "Whoa." There, in full- color, was spread one serious battle scene, starring the X-Men. "When did that happen?"
"Newspaper said they got into a fight in New York yesterday; must have been after they met us at the airport. They stay busy."
"Yeah." She tried to read the newsprint, which was rapidly soaking up the rain. "Who were they fighting?"
He handed her the paper. "Looks like some group calling themselves the Mutant Liberation Front. Heard of them?"
"Um, yeah, I think so. They're terrorists or something, almost as nuts as Magneto. Who won?"
"Judging from the property damage, I guess it was pretty much a draw." Chase looked over his glasses at her. "Shealee, are you sure you want to meet up with these people? Seems like all they do is try to get themselves killed."
Shea chewed on her bottom lip, studying the photo. "Maybe I wouldn't have to fight. None of them look like kids, and Jennifer said what'shisname, Sean, is over-protective."
"Yeah." Chase didn't sound happy. "You know, that ski jacket's not doing a damn thing against the rain.
"I noticed," she informed him, unzipping her jacket and trying to squeeze some of the rain out of the fabric. The down was soaking wet, and didn't want to let go of the water.
"You want the leather?"
She was cold, wet, and seriously tempted; he must have seen it in her eyes, because he started taking the jacket off. "Wait, I just had a thought," she stopped him.
"Did it hurt?"
"Grow up." She touched her ski jacket, concentrating carefully. Under her fingers, the surface smoothed and hardened, turning into flexible, shiny rubber. "Voila. One water-proof ski jacket."
"Why didn't you do that two states ago?"
She shrugged slightly, embarrassed. "I, um, didn't think of it." He looked at her. "Give me a break; I'm used to hiding my powers, not using them!"
"You might want to break that habit."
"I didn't know you cared," she muttered, trying to rezip her jacket.
"I knew you were going to do this," he sighed, shoving her one working hand away and zipping it himself.
"Do what?" she challenged him.
"Get all worked up over one little..."
*Go on, say the word,* she dared him mentally. "Who's worked up?"
He saw through the casual act. "Look, Shea, I shouldn't have kissed you, all right? We're trapped in a bad episode of the 'The Fugitive', we're both tired, neither of us are thinking clearly, and this is *not* the time for boy-meets-girl crap. So can we just forget about it? Please?"
Shea seriously considered for a long moment. He was right; this was so typical as to be a cliche. And it was a *really* bad time to start he-ing and she-ing all over the place.
*On the other hand, who died and made Chase dictator?*
Summoning every bit of nerve she had left in her body, she reached up to latch her arms around his neck, and pulled him down to meet her lips. He resisted for all of three seconds before his arms came around her, pulling her halfway off the bike and hard against his body. He tasted like the coffee he'd been guzzling for a thousand miles, and smelled like rain and leather and grease and Chase....
She let go and pulled back slightly; they stared into each others' eyes, breathing heavily. Then Shea shrugged lightly. "Sure, we can forget about it."
He groaned and lowered his head to kiss her again.
Pennsylvania, at last. Only another few hundred miles to Massachusetts, where they'd be safe.
Shea mentally kicked herself for being overly pessimistic when there was no point to it. It wasn't like she was going to be trapped there. If it wasn't safe, she and Chase could get back on the motorcycle and take off, find somewhere else to hide.
She sighed, and tightened her arms around Chase's waist, nestling her face into the solid comfort of his back and trying not to fall asleep. After five days of sitting on the motorcycle, the muscles in her legs had gone numb, at least. But without the constant, nagging ache there, it was all too easy to give in to exhaustion and nod off.
It seemed as if they'd been driving forever -- she couldn't remember a time when the wind hadn't whipped past her cheeks, when she hadn't been tired, sore, and hungry, when her hands hadn't smelled of leather and grease, just like Chase's. The bike had broken down once outside of Chicago, and again just past Cleveland. Both times had been in the dark, and Chase had made her hold the flashlight, and occasionally wires and oily engine parts, as he forced the bike back into operation. But the long trip was taking its toll, and they couldn't stop long enough to give it the kind of repair it needed.
"We're going to have to stop for gas at the next station," Chase said over his shoulder. She nodded, bracing herself. The clerk at the last gas station had looked at them as if he recognized them -- they'd paid and run and no cops had shown up. But it was harder and harder to live with the fact that just stopping for a tank of gas could put them danger.
An Exxon sign loomed around the next bend; Chase started slowing down to get off the highway, turning to say something to her. She looked at him, then past him, and her breath caught in a horrified gasp as she saw the two police cars parked in front of the station, an officer leaning casually against one. Instantly, the gasp caught in her throat and she started coughing again.
Chase followed her eyes, then his foot twitched as if to hit the gas pedal. Shea's arms tightened around his waist. "Easy," she warned between her teeth, trying catch her breath and reaching up to adjust her baseball cap in what she hoped looked like a casual move. "Just ride out of here like we changed our minds and hope Pennsylvania doesn't have a helmet law."
"We *need* gas," Chase hissed back.
"Well, we can't do it in front of cops. Go!"
He went. Shea felt the cop watch them as they went, but he didn't move and she started to relax again.
"That's going to be trouble," Chase predicted grimly. "We really needed that gas."
As usual, he was right. The engine sputtered and died as they approached a bridge over the Susquehanna River. Chase mumbled violently under his breath and put his feet down, walking the bike off the road.
"Wonderful," he said in between curses. "You get to wait here while I hike into the next town and look for gas." She was too busy coughing to answer; he pounded her on the back until the latest spasm passed. "Dammit, we need a doctor, too. Why did you have to get sick?"
"Sorry, Your Highness, I'll try not to do it again," she choked sarcastically past the constriction in her throat.
He sighed and looked slightly guilty. "All right, sorry, it's not your fault."
"Damn straight," she sniffed.
He gestured apologetically, running a hand down her thick braid in a gentle caress. "We're just so close -- it's making me a little nuts. Will you be all right if I go to get gas?"
She nodded and sneezed, grateful that at least it wasn't raining at the moment. "Yeah, I'll be fine, but what are you going to carry the gas in?"
"I'll think of something," he said impatiently, shoving his hair out of his face and looking around. "I...." His eye caught on something and he started grinning. "Oh, man, I am just about to be brilliant."
"What?' Shea demanded, studying the glint in his eye.
"You'll see," he told her mysteriously, heading for the muddy slope of the river bank.
"The river? Chase, this is no time for a bath."
"Hey, I really need one," he said flippantly. Shea tried not to think of how badly *she* needed a bath as she watched him slip and slide his way through the mud, only narrowly avoiding taking the whole slope on the seat of his pants. "You'd better have a good reason for this," she threatened from the road.
He grinned over his shoulder. "I do."
He made it to the edge of the water and worked his way along the edge to what looked like the remains of a plastic bucket. Digging the bucket out, he rinsed it in the river, then filled it from a small, shallow pool towards the side. When he started trying to carry it back up to the road, she could hear the cussing. "Here," he panted finally, handing her the water bucket.
She stared at it, then at him. "I hate to tell you this, but the bike doesn't run on water."
"No," he said smugly, "but it will run on gas. How 'bout it, Sundance -- or should I call you Rumplestiltskin?"
Straw into gold, water into... gasoline. It might work. Maybe. "I'll give it a shot, Butch."
She stared down at the water -- slightly muddy, with an oil slick on the top, which would probably help -- and tried to concentrate on the last time she'd put gas in the bike. Slowly, she touched her fingertips to the water.
Something flowed from deep inside her, rippling out through her fingertips. The water shimmered slowly from muddy to clear, as a strong, familiar smell drifted up to her nose.
She moved the bucket of gasoline carefully to the ground. "That should get us to the next station, and then some. It's unleaded, even."
"All right, Shea!" Chase whooped, picking her up off the bike and spinning her around in the air before kissing her enthusiastically.
"You're welcome," she grinned happily up at him. "I'm just glad it worked." She started to shove her hair out of her face, but stopped when she smelled the gasoline on her hands. A long moment of concentration and it was water again, ready to be dried off on her jeans.
Chase watched with appreciation. "I thank you and my jacket thanks you," he cracked, kissing her again before picking up the bucket and starting to pour the contents into the gas tank.
They both froze when one of the cars that had been rushing by slowed, and pulled up behind them. A man wearing sunglasses and jeans got out of the light blue four-door, walking towards them. Another form stayed in the driver's seat, a woman. "Any trouble here, folks?"
"No, sir," Chase answered fast, without spilling a drop of the gasoline. The muscles along his back and shoulders were hard and tense. "We just finished tracking down some gasoline and we were going to be on our way."
The man looked at the faded, torn bucket as Chase emptied it. "That wasn't exactly a good way to carry it."
Shea shrugged, trying to smile. Chase finished pouring and dropped the bucket, moved imperceptibly in the process to place himself between her and the stranger. "Desperate times," he shrugged, "we couldn't find anything else. Besides, it worked."
"Guess it did." He studied the bike from behind his shades; Shea wished passionately that she could see his eyes. "You two are a long way from Colorado."
*Eh?* Shea thought, confused. Then she remembered the last plate switch, in Grand Junction. "Yeah, we're heading back to school in New York. We sure miss the mountains this time of year."
The stranger nodded. "I'm sure you do." Then he looked over his shades at them. "Where's your luggage, Miss O'Reilly?"
"I think about my life gone by and how it's done me wrong
"My luggage? It's..." The stranger's words sank in after a long moment. Too long. "Shit!" She turned and lunged for the bike, but he was too close -- he had shoved past Chase and gotten a painful grip on her arm before she could move. She cried out as Chase lunged and all three of them went down in a pile, the stranger -- whom she finally recognized as the agent who'd been dangling out a window the last time she'd seen him -- buried on the bottom. Shea fought to free herself from the grip, which hadn't loosened even under their weight, and saw the driver running towards them. With a sick jolt, she also recognized the female agent who'd tried to arrest her the first day. "Chase!" she shouted, her legs trapped beneath his.
Chase twisted to look over his shoulder and jumped to his feet, giving Shea enough room to sit on the man's chest. She concentrated, adrenaline giving her strength, and his shirt turned into concrete. He shouted in surprise and anger, but Shea ignored him, twisting around to check on Chase just in time to see the driver draw a gun.
"Don't move," she ordered. They froze and she gestured with the gun towards her friend on the ground. "Undo what you just did, kid." Shea glared at her mutinously. The woman's only answer was to swing the gun towards on Chase. "Now."
Shea gritted her teeth and touched the concrete shirt, reversing the change. When she was done she sat back, drained, and was rudely tumbled to the ground when her victim shoved her to the side, grabbing her arm again and looming over her. "Cuff her," the driver ordered without looking away from Chase, "then get her into the car before she has the chance to run again."
"Leave her alone," Chase warned, every muscle tensed. "She hasn't done anything to you."
"Don't be a hero, kid," the driver advised him. "We don't care about you, we just want your mutant friend here."
*No cars are stopping,* Shea realized numbly as cold metal slid around her wrists. *Two people not in uniform are holding a gun on two kids and no one's stopping. Jesus Christ, they can't do this!*
"You can't do this!" she yelled, echoing herself. "You can't just arrest me, I haven't done anything."
"Sorry, kid," the driver shrugged, "but your government needs you."
"My ass!" Chase growled, lunging for the driver. But this time, it didn't work. She sidestepped him and brought the gun down on his temple with a thud that Shea could almost feel. He fell like a rock.
"Put them both in the car and let's get out of here," the driver ordered. Shea's captor finished locking the cuffs and put Shea in the car, forcing her head beneath the door. Then he picked Chase up and shoved him in the back seat across Shea's lap. His limp body sagged over her; she cradled his head in her cuffed hands and tried not to cry.
"I'm sorry," she whispered as the coughing started again, racking through her suddenly exhausted body.
"This is absolutely the *last* time I help a lady in distress."
"Guess chivalry isn't dead. You idiot."
Shea actually giggled. "Yeah, you did. Actually, you might have done better if you learned another way to fight than going directly for their throats."
"Thanks for the tip," he said wryly. "I'll take it under advisement."
She laughed again, but it faded quickly; she looked down to study the marks around her wrists. Concrete Shirt hadn't been happy with her when he'd tightened the handcuffs, and she had the bruises to prove it. "I wonder what they're going to do with us. What they want."
"We know what they want with you." Chase shook his head, wincing at the movement. The bump on his head was even more colorful than her wrists, but someone had at least cleaned off the blood before they'd shoved him into the interrogation room with Shea. "Maybe they're just keeping me out of sheer bloody-mindedness."
"Sounds about right for this crew." The interrogation room was better than a holding cell, she figured, but no one had bothered interrogating them. Not that they had much to tell. "They haven't even booked us."
"Probably don't want anyone to know they've got us."
"Oh, now, *that's* a cheerful thought."
"Yeah." She slumped in her chair enough to rest her head against Chase's shoulder. "It was a helluva ride, though."
He put his arm around her, resting his cheek against her head -- when he chuckled, his breath stirred her hair. "Yeah, it was. Beat the hell out of four days in the factory, or Harding High."
"That's for damn sure," Shea agreed whole-heartedly. "Just think, I could be trapped studying for a trig test right now, or baby-sitting one of the little kids."
"Instead, we're vacationing in sunny Pennsylvania, and check out these accommodations." It wasn't really funny, but he was working hard at it, so Shea laughed obligingly, stopping before it could kick off another round of coughs. Chase wasn't fooled; he brought his free hand up to touch her forehead. "You're hot."
She grinned. "It's about time you noticed."
"Oh, I noticed," Chase assured her, trying awkwardly to smooth her hair back from her face, then sighing. "At least they'll find you a doctor."
"Frankly, I'd rather die of pneumonia."
"Not funny," Chase said seriously. "That's not a funny joke."
"I know." She coughed and closed her eyes. "Wake me when the movie ends."
This time, he didn't point out that this wasn't a movie -- she was grateful for that. She drifted into a doze, thinking back over the last few days. It didn't seem right that after all they'd accomplished, everything they'd been through, it was going to end like this.
It wasn't fair, but she was out of ideas. There was nowhere else to run.
The door to the interrogation room opened, and the woman who'd captured them came in.
"How sweet," she commented, looking at them. She was tall, with dark hair and dark eyes that looked as if they found absolutely nothing entertaining about life. "I'd enjoy your time, you two -- you're not going to get any more."
Shea straightened up and tried to look defiant, miserably aware that she wasn't doing a very good job. "I think we've just met today's special friend," she commented to Chase, trying to be cool. "Which one are you, Van Dyke or Davis?
"And we want our lawyer," Chase added.
"I'm Van Dyke -- don't bother attempting to make jokes -- and, unfortunately, you two haven't been arrested yet, so you have no need of a lawyer. Once we get through the booking process, of course you'll be entitled to your phone call, Mr. Matthews."
"And me?" Shea asked, knowing what the answer would be. She made a mental bet as to the phrasing.
"We have no reason to arrest you -- you're simply being taken into protective custody until arrangements for your care can be completed." Shea tallied up a point on her mental scoreboard -- she'd won that bet. "I'm sure it won't take too much longer."
"Protective custody -- that's Fedspeak for ACME Labs, right?" Chase asked sarcastically. "Don't worry, Shealee, I'm sure Pinky and the Brain will help you break out."
"So young to be so cynical." Van Dyke smiled sardonically. "The fact is, we can no longer afford to have mutants wandering around wreaking havoc, as you, Ms. O'Reilly, have managed to do. You have to be studied and taught, so your powers can be used for the greater good."
"Am I going to get numbers tattooed on me? Or get to wear a cool skinsuit?" Shea leaned forward to make her point. "If I wanted to become a government slave, lady, I'd move to Genosha."
The agent's smile, such as it was, disappeared. "I'm not going to have a political discussion with either of you. I'm here to make you an deal."
"Great, an offer we can't refuse," Chase drawled. "When does Marlon Brando show up?"
Van Dyke stared at him through those cold black eyes. "Considering you're about spend a very long time in jail for kidnapping, resisting arrest, violation of the Mann Act, and assault, I suggest you quit screwing around and pay attention." Chase's jaw clenched, but he didn't answer. She looked satisfied. "Good. Now, we're prepared to erase most of the charges against you. In return, you tell us to where you children were so eagerly running. Actually, we're more interested in to whom you were running."
Shea exchanged a glance with Chase -- it was his life they were talking about, which made it his call. He shook his head once, emphatically. Shea bit her lip in indecision, then nodded in agreement, sitting back in her chair and tightening her mouth.
The agent was not amused. "You tried to meet with the X-Men at Stapleton Airport, and you were trying to go to them now. *Where* were you supposed to meet them?"
They met her eyes with stony silence, determined not to break their promise to Jennifer.
Van Dyke studied them for a long moment, then her face hardened. "You get one more chance, kids," she informed them. "You blow this one, it's going to be a very long time before either one of you see the light of day. Where. Are. The. X-Men?"
Shea swallowed hard, but lifted her chin; Chase's eyes were as cold as ice. And they stayed silent.
The agent studied them with narrow eyes, then abruptly stood. "If that's the way you two want to play it, fine." She opened the door, gesturing to someone outside. The male agent appeared, swinging two sets of cuffs.
"Oh, look, it's Monkey Boy," Chase cracked, obviously recognizing him as Shea had. "Did you have fun swinging in Frisco?"
"Time for you two to find new accommodations," Van Dyke informed them, ignoring the crack and gesturing for Shea to hold out her hands. Shea glared at her without moving and Monkey Boy grabbed her arms, forcing them out. She gasped in pain as the thug's grip tightened around her cut hand, and the handcuffs slipped into place. He released her and she slumped back in her seat, cradling her sore hand against her chest and trying to look beaten.
But underneath the pain and fear, a hot, burning rage was starting to rise. She'd been kidnapped, threatened, chased, shot at, and generally terrified, and she was tired of it. She knew, suddenly and certainly, that there was no way these two were going to take her and Chase without a fight.
She caught Chase's eye, trying to convey a message with the look. He blinked once and she prayed it had been a nod, then she started concentrating.
Monkey Boy pulled Chase to his feet as Van Dyke slipped one cuff around his wrist. Before she could close the other one, Shea pulled her wrists apart, snapping the locks on the cuffs -- which had turned from metal to almost solid rust under the onslaught of Shea's mutant power.
She jumped to her feet and grabbed her chair, slamming it over Van Dyke's head. The agent slumped to the floor without a sound as Chase twisted away from Monkey Boy. His wrist -- the one with the cuff -- came spinning back around and slammed into Monkey Boy's jaw with all of his strength.
Monkey Boy stood and blinked at them without dropping. They exchanged frantic looks and Shea raised the chair for another blow.
Then the big man fell, almost landing on Shea.
They breathed a mutual sigh before either of them remembered the traditional two-way mirror. After a tense few minutes, it became obvious no one had observed the brief struggle and Shea dropped to the floor next to Van Dyke, checking her pulse. "She's still alive," she reported with relief. No matter how angry she was, she didn't want to kill anyone.
"Good, you really nailed her." The same note of relief was in Chase's voice as he extended his wrist towards her. Shea touched the cuff, watching with satisfaction as the stainless steel was changed, inch by inch, to brown rust. One strike against the table edge and it crumbled away. "Not bad, Shealee, not bad at all," he told her, catching her in a close hug.
She rested her head on his chest for a long moment, feeling absurdly safe considering they were in the middle of a police station and surrounded by unconscious government agents. "Glad you approve," she grinned up at him, forcing herself to pull away. "Can we leave now?"
"Hell, yes, but casually, like we've just been released. Hopefully it'll take a while for anyone to remember these two." He started to aim a kick at Van Dyke, but stopped halfway through the motion. "Ah, my mom told me not to hit a girl, even if she deserves it," he said with disgust.
"I'd do it," Shea offered, "but I'd probably hurt my foot. Let's go."
They opened the door and strolled out, doing their best to look like a case of mistaken identity. The corridor outside the interrogation room was busy, but everyone there seemed to have their own agenda, which didn't include paying attention to two civilians who weren't wearing handcuffs. Even Chase's battered leather jacket didn't so much as a second glance.
"This is too easy," Chase muttered as they passed the desk sergeant.
"Shut up and enjoy it," Shea told him through gritted teeth and a bright, completely phony smile.
He didn't do either. "How are we going to get anywhere without my bike or any money?"
"Hitch, and I stashed $50 in my socks."
"Hitch? Do you know what kind of crazies are out there?"
"Can't be worse than the crazies in here," she pointed out with unassailable logic.
He thought about it, then nodded. "Right."
Then they were at the wide front doors and pushing their way out to freedom. Shea took one step into the twilight and ran into a tall, solid body. She looked up to apologize, and found herself gazing into the eyes of Agents Peterson and Davis.
"Holy shit!" three people exclaimed simultaneously.
"I had a dream, I had an awesome dream
"Oh no, you don't," Davis said, grabbing Shea's body even as she tried to dodge around him. His arms locked hers to her side and he lifted her an inch off the pavement, not letting her hands get anywhere near him. Chase started for his throat, and Peterson produced a gun, keeping it close to his jacket, almost hidden. Chase froze with a violent curse.
"You two have made this more than difficult enough," Peterson informed them tiredly. "Where are Van Dyke and Garner?"
"If Garnerıs the Monkey Boy with the glass jaw, theyıre both taking a nap!" Shea spit out, trying to kick Davis's kneecap. He moved it out of the way, almost stumbling as his balance shifted under her squirming, furious weight.
"Knock it off," the agent grunted, adjusting his hold without letting go. His grip was unbreakable, but not painful. "I'm not going to hurt you if you just cool off."
"We don't have time for this, someone will see us. Get them into the car," Peterson snapped at his younger colleague. "Ms. O'Reilly, I have no wish to hurt you, but if you don't stop attempting to injure Agent Davis, I might be forced to do so. Or, more likely, to inflict damage on your friend."
She probably would have ignored him if he hadn't threatened Chase. As it was, she stopped fighting, but aimed a killing glare at the agent that promised all kinds of mayhem if she got even half a chance.
Peterson blinked slightly, his pale blue eyes blank in the dying light, but was otherwise unaffected. "Bring her." He gestured towards Chase with the gun. "And you start walking."
Chase shot Shea one warning look, then walked in front of Peterson to the parking lot. Davis let Shea's feet hit the ground, but kept his hands warningly on her upper shoulders, frog-marching her across the pavement towards the familiar dark sedan.
"Why aren't you taking us back into the station?" Shea asked with a certain amount of hostility. "Afraid someone will actually try to help us?"
"Given the number of people who have *not* come jumping to your aid, that is not one of my main concerns," Peterson told her in a level, detached voice. "However, you've already demonstrated your resourcefulness at escaping from official custody, so we're not going to bother trying that again."
Davis put Shea into the car after Chase got in, starting gently but resorting to a strong shove when Shea resisted. Peterson rolled his eyes as he watched the brief struggle. Finally, the door was slammed and locked behind the two; the agents got in the front seat and started the engine, pulling slowly out of the parking lot.
"Anything?" Peterson asked.
Davis craned his neck to study the parking lot behind them. Shea did the same -- a quick glance out the window told her they were still on a residential street, going precisely the speed limit. On the left side was a small playground; she caught Chase's eye and gestured towards it. He nodded and grabbed the door handle.
"Nothing," Davis answered the older agent. "Looks like the kids did a good job of taking out Van Dyke and Garner."
"And we'll do a better job with you," Shea muttered under her breath. Davis turned at the half-heard threat and she moved, lunging forward to grab his seatbelt and turning the fabric into plywood, before dropping her hand to the automatic locks on his side. As the lock flipped open, Chase flung the door open and rolled out. Shea dove across the seat to follow him, landing on her injured hand and biting back a gasp of pain. She rolled to her feet as Chase caught her good hand and the two started running.
Behind them came the sound of cursing, brakes squealing, and wood splintering. "Dammit, you idiots!" Davis yelled after them, "We're on your side already! We work with Xavier."
Shea tripped over her own feet and almost went sprawling. Chase caught her elbow, holding her up by strength and adrenaline alone, but it stopped them both.
Davis apparently took the pause as encouragement. "Will you two just let us explain?" he yelled, running his hands through his brown hair in frustration, leaving it standing up on end.
"Preferably at a lower volume," Peterson added quellingly, leaving the car to stroll up behind his partner.
Chase made a rude gesture and tugged on Shea's arm, ready to keep moving, but Shea wasn't quite as certain. "What's a Xavier and why should that make us trust you?" she asked the two, playing dumb with deep suspicion.
Davis moved closer; Shea backed up instinctively, feeling the cold metal pole of a swingset against her back. The sand shifted under her feet. "Xavier is Charles Xavier, who runs a mutant underground designed to keep people like the two of you out of trouble, as you know, and you should trust us because we're on your side."
"Well, to be more precise," Peterson said, mirroring his partner's movements, "your side and our side currently have the same goal, which is to be a thorn in the side of the Bureau of Mutant Affairs. The two of you have been doing an excellent job, by the way. You've been making everyone's lives very difficult over the last few days, and you have no idea how much we appreciate that."
Shea blinked at the lack of sarcasm in the man's voice -- if anything, he sounded respectful.
"We did our best," Chance answered warily, his face as confused as Shea felt. He was standing between her and the agents, ready to take them on at the slightly provocation. "And we still don't know who this Xavier guy is."
Davis blinked, then, surprisingly, grinned, taking off his dark glasses to reveal intelligent, humorous brown eyes. "Damn, you two are hard cases. Fine, don't believe us."
"It's probably better if they don't," Peterson commented blandly, straightening his tie. "Please attempt not to blurt out our extra- curricular activities to everyone in the general vicinity."
Davis was not impressed; he lounged back against the tiny merry-go- round, still a few feet away, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his suit jacket. "Ignore him," he gestured towards his partner, "he's still ticked about the fiasco in Denver. You should have heard him cussing once we got out of earshot of Van Dyke and company."
Despite her best efforts, Shea could *feel* her ears perk up at the mention of Denver. Davis saw it, too. "Yeah, we're sorry about that," he apologized, sounding sincere. "We were supposed to run interference at the airport and in the city, keep the fuzz away from you, but Van Dyke saw me on the phone with Xavier after he told us where the meet was going to be."
"And Mr. Davis here doodles," Peterson contributed with a pointed look at the younger man. "Constantly."
Davis shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah, I know, my fault. Problem is, Van Dyke's almost as good as she is dedicated to this whole 'mutant control' thing, and she was starting to get suspicious about how easily you two got away from us in Oregon and San Francisco -- the only way we could think to throw her off our track was to say we'd gotten a tip that you two were going to be at the airport."
"*You* told that goon squad about the meeting?" Chase shouted, taking a step forward. Shea grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "You almost got us killed!"
"In point of fact, we *kept* you from being killed," Peterson responded calmly, his arms crossed over his chest and his posture militarily straight. Chase started to snap back, but Shea tightened her grip, vividly remembering Peterson stopping one agent from shooting her in the back.
"Unfortunately," Peterson continued, "Van Dyke kept a close eye on us after that. She would love to have my job, and finding proof that Davis and I are working for 'the enemy' would be all she would need to have it. We couldn't get any kind of secure message to Xavier's people to warn them away."
"But you jumped the gun when you appeared at the airport," Shea said slowly, "to make sure Chase and I were still on the bike and would be able to get away. The same way you jumped the gun to pick me up at home, and were so obvious about watching me before that. You were *trying* to let me... us.... escape."
"Yeah, and it's real hard to do that without looking like a complete incompetent. Fortunately, we're real good," Davis told her with a wink. "Van Dyke and her stooge Garner -- I like Monkey Boy better, by the way -- were on us the entire time. We were getting ready to break cover to get you away from them, but luckily, you did that yourselves."
Chase was giving Shea a sideways 'you're not actually buying this?' look; she shook her head, saying hesitantly, "It makes sense, Chase. You said yourself -- Stapleton was the only thing they shouldn't have been able to figure out. Everywhere else, they could follow cops and license plates -- we weren't exactly being sneaky -- but not Stapleton. Someone *had* to have an inside source."
"And that means we should trust these two?" Chase asked, ignoring 'these two' completely.
Shea snorted. "Of course not." From the corner of her eyes, she saw Davis look wounded, but didn't particularly worry about it. "But it sure as hell explains a lot."
"You two don't have to trust us," Peterson said, finally starting to look tired. His shoulders sagged just a little. "All you have to do is tell us where you want to be dropped off. We won't even ask where you've been hightailing it to for the last week -- we don't know where Xavier's real headquarters are, and we don't want to know."
"*I* do," Davis said, sotto voce.
Peterson gave him a really good 'you are *such* an idiot' look, even better than Shea's. "No. You don't."
Davis blinked, then hastily assured the duo, "No, I don't."
Shea surprised herself by laughing at the agent's antics, feeling a reluctant liking for him. "You sure don't act like a federal agent."
"No. He doesn't," Peterson said in the exact same tone as before. "Now, if the witty banter is finished, please make up your minds whether you trust us so we can leave before our colleagues in the police station wake up."
Chase looked down at Shea. "I don't like this, Sundance."
She bit her lip, studying the agents, then shook her head. "Neither do I, Butch. But.... I don't know."
Davis blew out a heavy sigh of frustration, his amusement starting to fade. "Would you two prefer to walk wherever the hell you're going?" he asked with forced politeness.
Chase snarled at him, but Shea stepped in front of him. "You still haven't given us a reason to trust you," she pointed out, meeting Peterson's eyes.
He returned her look steadily. "The Bureau of Mutant Affairs is a sub-department of the Department of Health. They've been intercepting the blood work and drug tests taken for athletic meets and having them scanned for the X-factor, the mutant DNA in your blood. So far, they've only established the program in a few states, and you're the first mutant they've found. No one outside the Bureau knows who or what they are." He smiled, just a little. "Except for Xavier and the two of you. You get to spread the word, and we just put our necks in a very tight noose."
Shea bit her lip, studying him. "Why 'they' instead of 'we'?" she asked finally. "Why stick your necks out for us?"
The two agents exchanged looks. "Because we like sticking up for the underdogs -- it's, like, our purpose in life," Davis cracked before his partner could say anything, a forced grin spreading across his face. "Just call us The New Champions."
Shea ignored him, keeping her eyes on Peterson. "Is that it?" she asked him quietly.
He shook his head, slowly. "Not all of it." He lifted his right hand, pushing the cuff back, and closed his eyes with a familiar look of concentration. Davis lost all semblance of amusement and jerked forward, but Peterson waved him off.
Slowly, in the darkness, the agent's hand started to glow. The blue- white light cut through the playground, casting the four people in harsh shadows. Shea heard her own gasp, then the light faded and died away.
"Holy shit," Chase breathed. "You're a mutant, too."
Peterson opened his eyes -- sweat beaded his forehead and his smile was tired. "Yes, I am, although having Day-Glo skin is not generally a very useful talent. Rather a pain in the neck, actually."
"Especially when you do it for the first time in front of your partner and almost give him a heart attack," Davis contributed from the sidelines. Shea looked over at him -- he seemed to be resigned to the situation, leaning against the merry-go-round again and looking calmly, if humorously, at his partner.
"I apologized for that," Peterson answered mildly, before meeting Shea's eyes again. "Is that reason enough to trust us, Miss O'Reilly?"
She thought about it, leaning against Chase. His arms slid around her and tightened in silent support for whatever she decided. "Yeah," she finally said. "It's enough. We need to get across the New York state line; we can make it the rest of the way from there."
"Fair enough," Peterson said, taking out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead and gesturing towards the car with the other hand. "Your carriage awaits."
Together, they got into the car, slamming the door behind them.
"We're always proving who we are
The two agents dropped them at a small rest stop just across the state line. "We'd take you farther," Davis told them apologetically, "but we have to get back to the police station so we can give Van Dyke, Monkey Boy, and the local cops hell about letting two fugitives walk out right in front of them. They're going to have a lot of explaining to do."
"That's okay," Chase said, making no secret of his desire to get away from the agents. "We'll be fine from here."
"Do you have enough money to get where you're going?" Peterson asked, reaching for his wallet.
Shea stopped him with a small smile. "We're fine. Thanks."
"All right, then get on the road," Davis said. "I don't want to hear anything about either one of you until you're forty. You've given me enough gray hairs."
Shea studied him. "You're right, maybe you'd better look into hair dye."
Davis automatically turned to look in the rearview mirror, almost impaling himself on the wooden remnants of his seatbelt; Shea grinned -- she could almost start to like Davis -- and slid out of the car. Chase joined her and they watched as the sedan turned around, heading back into the night.
They stared after it for a long moment. "Life," Chase finally concluded, "is weird."
"Yeah," Shea agreed softly. "Very weird." She shoved her hands deeply into the pockets of her ski jacket and looked up at Chase. "Shall we?"
He grinned down at her, offering his hand. "Oh, let's."
They started walking.
That oldest, and fortunately truest, of road cliches, a friendly trucker, picked them up a few miles past the state line and took them into Massachusetts, but they bailed out well before the town the school was located in, just in case someone managed to track them that far.
Of course, the second they hit the pavement, it started to rain again.
"I want my bike," Chase griped, huddling deeper into his jacket.
"Fine, go back to Pennsylvania and ask the nice police officers to hand it over."
If looks could kill, Chase's glare would have had her keeling over with a funeral wreath over her chest. "Wet enough for you?" he asked maliciously.
A crack of lightning lit the sky, followed by a boom of thunder. Shea was too tired to care. "Getting rained on never hurt anyone," she informed him, and instantly started coughing.
"I can see that," he said sarcastically. She tried to throw him a dirty look, but couldn't quite make it work. Another wave of coughs hit, almost knocking her off her feet, and he took pity on her. "That's it, you're riding the rest of the way."
"The hell I am," she protested between coughs. "You can't carry yourself, much less me."
"The people in town said it's only a few more miles and I'm not debating this." He knelt in front of her, offering his back. "Upsy- daisy."
She wanted to fight, but her chest hurt too badly and she'd stopped being able to breathe a mile back. So she climbed aboard, clamping her arms around his shoulders and her legs around his waist. "Giddy-up."
He gave a shake for that, then got to his feet and went back to trudging.
When the huge house loomed out of the darkness in front of them, Shea was sure her fever had spiked. "I'm hallucinating," she informed Chase.
"If you are, I am. God, is that the Massachusetts Academy?"
Shea shrugged as well as she could with both arms clutching him. "Beats me. Guess we better find out."
They walked closer, discovering tall iron gates and a stone sign. Chase leaned over and waited for a flash of lightning, then read, "Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Massachusetts Academy." He twisted his head to look at Shea. "This would be the place, Shealee."
She nodded, biting her lips and looked past the gates to the imposing estate, barely visible through the rain. "Yeah, that's a good bet. How do we get in?"
They looked around, but there were no visible call boxes, and the gates were securely locked.
"We could be dignified and wait until morning--" Shea started.
"-- Or we could be smart and start yelling," Chase finished.
They considered the options, then started hollering.
It seemed like forever, but couldn't have been more than a few minutes before Shea spotted something moving in the darkness. She poked Chase and pointed. He stopped shouting.
The motion resolved itself into two figures, a tall young man in a leather jacket similar to Chase's and a smaller girl with bare feet, wrapped in a yellow trenchcoat, both struggling against the wind and the rain towards the gate. The girl shouted something in a cheerful voice, but they couldn't hear her words over the storm.
"Last chance, Shealee," Chase said quietly, letting her slip to the ground. "We can still turn around and get out of here. Anywhere you want to go."
Shea took as deep a breath as she could, and looked up into his eyes. "No. We've come this far, let's see it through." Chase nodded and kissed her; she clung to him for a moment.
Then they turned to face the school as the gates swung open.