"You will live in interesting times and, if lucky, survive them."
"What the hell!"
Chase had been peacefully listening to Hootie and the Blowfish when the screams and shattering glass had penetrated through his headphones. For a long moment, he managed to convince himself he was just hearing the noise Angelo had going in his headsets, but when the cold, wet wind swirled into the store, it destroyed that hope.
By the time he tore his headphones off, Everett was already at the front entrance to the CD store and staring open-mouthed at the sky, where what had once been an impressively arched glass roof was now nothing but shards. Above it hovered something metallic and gray that resembled nothing so much as... a flying saucer? With legs? What the hell?
"We've got problems!" Ev yelled. "Get Angelo, I've got to find out what's happening!"
"And do what?" Chase shouted, but Everett had already torn down the hallway towards the center escalator. He gritted his teeth and hauled ass back into the store, ripping Angelo's headphones off.
Heavy metal poured out as Angelo yelled, "Hey, que pasa? Gimme my phones!"
"Something's happening out in the mall," Chase yelled back at him. "Everett went to.... Oh my God." Awareness burned its way through shock, ice crystallized in his veins. "Shea!"
He didn't bother to wait for Angelo, but ran out of the store towards the center of the screaming. Behind him, Angelo swore in a mix of English and Spanish and followed hot on his heels.
They took the escalator three steps at a time; it was empty, since everyone else was apparently sane enough to be trying to get *away* from the trouble, and were jammed into the other side. Chase's sneakers skidded on the tile as he took the sharp turn at the second level, heading for the ground floor. Halfway down, he saw what was causing the noise, and felt his heart stop.
Shea crouched behind an overturned table, one hand splayed against it and her eyes closed in concentration; under her fingers, the plastic shimmered and changed. Jubilee stood in front of the table, explosions flying from her fingers, and completely ignoring the gun that a tall, armored form straight out of a Heinlein novel had leveled at her. Something dark gray and strange that resembled Paige Guthrie was sprawled on the tile several feet away -- behind him, Chase dimly heard Angelo's enraged shout echo over his own.
"Jubilee!" Everett's voice rose from somewhere, as the intruder's weapon shot a burst of something red and vicious at the girl. Jubilee hit the dirt, but one of the streams still caught her in the side; she cried out and Armor Boy advanced on her, weapon raised to finish the job.
Before it could lower, a red blur flashed through the air, taking a grip on the gun and pulling up. Armor Boy started to go with it, then the weapon broke away, and he dropped ten feet back to the floor, landing with a clatter and thud.
"It's about time, M!" Jubilee shouted irately from the floor, and Chase realized the flying object was, in fact, Monet St. Croix, dressed in some kind of skin-tight red uniform. Still airborne, she twisted the weapon she'd just broken in her hands like Silly Putty and dropped it into a garbage can, before turning to swoop back down on the thing like an avenging angel, her hair flowing behind her.
"What does she think she's going to do against his armor?" Angelo said between his teeth. "He can throw her across the room!"
"What *is* that?" Chase demanded without taking his eyes from the action. Monet slammed into Armor Boy's legs like a linebacker, with an impact loud enough to be heard throughout the mall. He fell backwards, but swung its arm around at the same time, slamming into Monet's shoulder. She flew away in an awkward spin, regaining control just before she would have hit a wall, and hovered, shaking her head from side to side as if to clear it.
Monet's assault broke the trance Chase and Angelo had fallen into, at the same time the escalator ended. "That's Orphan Maker!" Angelo explained over his shoulder, as he hit the floor running. "He's trouble!"
"No shit," Chase muttered, before hollering again, "Shea!"
"Chase, stay back!" she shouted, still focused on whatever she was doing to the table. One corner of it was clear now, like glass; she stood and slammed her foot down, and it shattered, thick fragments breaking off.
At the same time, Everett and Jubilee intersected on the fallen Orphan Maker, who was desperately trying to regain his feet despite the bulk of his armor. Chase stifled a grim chuckle -- their enemy looked like a giant, overturned turtle. As the two young mutants came within a few feet of him, something new popped out of his armor, a smaller version of the gun Monet had destroyed. At the same time, gossamer thin lines shot out of his other arm to wrap themselves around Monet, pinning her. The new weapon leveled itself in her direction.
But Angelo suddenly shouted, and his hand leapt forward -- and forward and forward, stretching across ten feet to wrap around the gun and yank it off-target. At the same time, a rainbow light flared around Ev's body, reaching out to enfold Jubilee. "Now!" he shouted, and streams of explosions flowed from both their hands to pound down on the Orphan Maker.
Orphan Maker yowled in anger over the staggering, blinding noise, then screeched as the heat apparently penetrated his armor. His movement threw Angelo off and he had to release the weapon, which was twisted and unusable anyway. But the fireworks weren't doing any other damage -- Maker was still fighting to get to his feet.
"Disable the power regulator on his chest!" Monet shouted, still sounding dizzy as she struggled against the lines wrapped around her body. "That will disrupt the electrical patterns throughout his armor."
"Speak English, M!" Everett shouted.
Monet breathed out in heavy frustration, straining against the lines. "Destroy the round purple thing on his chest and it should stop his armor from working!"
"Good idea, but we're a little busy!" Red, blue, silver, gold and green flowed from Jubilee's hands, dancing in the air before they exploded against Orphan Maker. "Skin, pronto!"
"Got it, chica!" Angelo's arm shot forward again, ducking under the stream of fireworks towards Armor Boy's chest. Ev cut off his attack to keep from hitting Angelo's unprotected arm, and Orphan Maker didn't miss the opportunity. He lunged suddenly and clumsily forward and Angelo whipped his arm away a little too late; Orphan Maker got a grip and used it to pull himself to his knees. Ev's fireworks instantly cut back in, but Orphan Maker seemed braced this time. He hauled Angelo slowly forward into the fight -- it seemed even The Great Stretch had his limits.
"Let him loose!" Chase shouted, grabbing Angelo from behind and lending his 200 pounds to the cause. Angelo's body bent and deformed under Chase's arms, but he held on grimly.
The sudden resistance almost tipped Armor Boy back over; Everett tried strengthening his blasts, with no effect. "Get him back down!"
With a sudden flash of inspiration, Chase shouted in Angelo's ear, "Let him pull us!" Angelo looked blank, then winced and nodded, bracing himself before letting his arm contract, the force of Orphan Maker's now-unresisted tug yanking both him and Chase across the room and full-tilt into Orphan Maker. Chase tried to get his body between Maker and Angelo, with partial success; all three went sprawling to the floor.
Jubilee and Ev both instantly cut the fireworks, but not before Chase felt something sear the skin of his shoulder. "Sorry!" Jubilee yelled.
"No problem," Chase growled in her direction, trying to lever Angelo off of his chest. Orphan Maker howled in rage, thrashing his armored limbs around underneath them; Chase finally shoved Angelo off to one side and rolled himself to the other.
Monet broke free of the lines that trapped her; as Orphan Maker raised his arms to attack again, she was able to swoop in and pull Angelo's limp form out of the way, just before Orphan Maker's arms smashed down where the young man's head had been. She deposited him gently by Paige as Chase rolled across the floor to avoid his side of the attack, coming up against Shea's overturned table. Behind him, the fireworks kicked in once more, pinning the Orphan Maker's arms to the ground where he'd slammed them.
"'Let's go to Massachusetts, it'll be safe there,'" he quoted sarcastically as he scrambled behind the table to shelter. "Yeah, safe with the Keystone Kops of superherodom. Who the hell came up with this brilliant idea, anyway, Sundance?"
"Less bitching, more thinking, Butch," Shea snapped without lifting her eyes from the fragment of the table she was still manipulating. Under her touch, it had turned from glass to something that shone with a steely gleam under the florescent lights, a long, jagged spike. "And that was a really stupid stunt."
"He's down again, isn't he?"
"For how long? You could have gotten killed, you idiot!"
"Hey, dudes!" Jubilee shouted, her face starting to look drawn as the explosions paffed from her hands. They were getting quieter, Chase thought, and more spread-out as the kid got tired. "We can't keep this goin' much longer!"
"Who's he after this time?" Ev yelled over the noise.
"He wants O'Reilly! Someone had better come up with a good plan, like, now!"
*How's this?* Monet's voice said calmly in their heads; Chase was too far gone to even be surprised. M ducked through the stream of fireworks to reach on Orphan Maker's chest for the regulator; her fingers caught the purple protrusion and pulled with all her considerable strength, as Jubilee and Everett kept Maker's arms pinned.
*I can't get it!* M 'yelled' in frustration. *It's part of the armor itself!*
"He's getting up," Ev hollered at the same time, as Orphan Maker tore one of his arms from under Jubilee's weakening blasts, stiff-arming Monet even as he struggled to a sitting position. Monet avoided the blow, reaching instead for the variety of hoses that protruded from the back of his helmet, and yanking them free. It didn't seem to accomplish much besides annoying him. Neither did Everett and Jubilee's sudden shift of fire, to focus their energy on the regulator.
"You're starting to make me really mad!" Armor Boy hollered in the voice of a pissed-off five-year-old. "Nanny's not going to like this!"
"Like we care!" Jubilee's words were pure bravado; her fireworks abruptly winked out and she staggered, then fell to her knees. Her right side was charred and bloody where Maker had shot her.
"Jubilee!" Everett shouted, his own blasts weakening.
"Got it!" Shea finished whatever she was doing and launched herself over the table. "Everyone -- jump on him!"
"Oh, no way!" Chase tried to protest, but Shea was already running from behind the table into the fray, her new weapon clutched firmly in her hand. A battle cry straight out of Xena: Warrior Princess burst from her throat as she dove for Armor Boy.
"Well, it's not good, but it's a plan!" Everett's explosions stopped and his aura left Jubilee to wrap around Monet; with a kamikaze yell, he jumped onto Orphan Maker's chest. Paige staggered from behind them to get back into the fight, her dense new form collapsing on Armor Boy's Legs as her talons dug into the armor to anchor herself.
"Let me up!" he bawled angrily, thrashing beneath them. "I'll get you for this, I really will!"
"Way cool!" Jubilee gasped, ignoring Armor Boy and crawling forward to join Husk. "Dogpile on the Orphan Maker! Where's Mondo when we need him?"
Chase cursed and followed Shea, landing on Orphan Maker's right arm. He pinned it with all his strength as Shea ducked under Everett's arm, sprawled over Armor Boy's head next to Monet, and slammed her metal spike directly through the center of the power regulator.
Naturally, it bounced right back up. She cursed and slammed it down again, with the same result. "Dammit! Monet!"
"I have it!" Monet dove over the helmet to take the spike and Everett wrapped his hands around hers. With the combined strength of both their bodies and both their powers, they drove the spike down through the regulator.
As his armor shattered under the blow and sparks flew wildly, Orphan Maker howled from underneath Shea and stopped moving, his powerless armor now freezing him in place. "All right!" Jubilee shouted triumphantly from the vicinity of his feet. "We win!"
"No! Peter!" An electronic voice boomed over the last of Jubilee's yell, sending agonizing feedback through Chase's head. "What have you done to my precious boy?"
"Or maybe not!" Chase groaned, rolling over to face the new threat; the sight of said new threat froze him almost as effectively as the Orphan Maker had, this time with sheer absurdity.
"It's an egg," he said calmly.
"That's Nanny!" Orphan Maker shouted. "Nanny, help me! They're cheating!"
The round, metallic robot strode down a ramp from the 'flying saucer' towards them, its wide yellow eyes blinking in agitation. "So they are, Peter," it said in a ludicrously proper English accent. "But Nanny won't let them hurt you, pet. Get off my boy!"
They got up as well as they could, but only to stand between Nanny and Orphan Maker, Shea buried in the middle of the crowd. "We're being attacked by Humpty-Dumpty," she groaned. "Why me?"
"Why us?" Chase echoed, making good and damn sure he was between Shea and all comers.
"Back off," Ev calmly warned Nanny, his aura still wrapped around Monet. "Shea O'Reilly is under our protection --we're not going to let you take her."
"Yeah!" Jubilee chimed in. "What he said!"
"She's better off with me! I can take care of her," Nanny proclaimed, as a beam of bright, solid light suddenly flared from her chest towards Shea. Husk lunged in front of it, and it disintegrated harmlessly off her new skin. The second and third staggered her.
Angelo caught her as she stumbled backwards, wincing as her elbow hit his ribs. "Well, that was stupid, chica."
"You had... a better idea?" Husk gasped, one hand clutching her side. Her form hadn't protected her that well, after all.
"Why won't you let her come with me?" Nanny wheedled, apparently letting the brute force idea go under the bloody-minded gazes of Generation X. "Those nice people looking for her will take care of her -- look how they've already helped me and my precious Peter, giving us our new ship and Peter's lovely new armor. You should let me take her to them, instead of attacking my boy. There's no one else who wants her as much as they do."
"Wrong, R2-D2," Chase said grimly. Anger was a burning ball in the pit of his stomach now, steadily fed by fear. "I want her."
Shea blinked up at him, then smiled. "Why Butch, I didn't know you cared," she purred under her breath.
He shrugged, struggling against a completely inappropriate laugh. "I don't."
"Nanny, make them let me up!" Orphan Maker whined from behind the line of scrimmage. At the same time, sirens started to cut the air outside the mall.
Nanny looked as pissed off as a robot could. "Then take her," she finally said, with a burst of static that sounded like an offended sniff. "Just let me have my boy!"
"No way!" Jubilee started to yell. Ev clamped his hand over her mouth.
"Fine," he answered shortly. "Get him out of here -- and don't come near Generation X again."
With another static sniff, Nanny marched between the teenagers to pull Orphan Maker to his feet, extruding a cable from her middle to plug into the ruins of his power regulator. The joints of his armor started moving again, as he whined, "But Nanny, you can't let them go. You promised they'd come with us. You promised the people she'd...."
"That'll be enough, Peter," Nanny cut him off firmly. "We'll deal with these obnoxious children another day, when you're feeling better. Come along now."
He followed the robot meekly up the ramp to the ship; it closed behind the two, and, with something that sounded distinctly like a backfire, ripped away across the sky.
They watched it go in total silence for a long minute. Then Jubilee and Paige both abruptly sat down, Angelo groaned and leaned over, pressing a hand against his ribs, and Shea started hyperventilating. With barely a glance at the others, Chase lowered Shea to the ground and knelt next to her.
"Breathe, Sundance," he ordered, as her breath hupped in and out in huge, uncontrolled gulps.
"You're a... big help," she said between gasps. "Jesus, my... chest... hurts."
"I know." He pulled her tightly against his unburned shoulder, holding her up as she struggled to draw air into her abused lungs. "Next time you have pneumonia, Shealee, don't go out and get into bar fights the next day, all right?"
"It was... a mall... fight," she corrected without opening her eyes.
"My mistake." He tightened his arms around her, trying to ignore the pain from his shoulder. "Mutants, supervillains, robots, government agencies.... Why is this my life?" Then, more loudly, "Is anyone bleeding?"
"Externally or internally?" Angelo gasped, clutching his side.
A few feet away, Ev knelt next to Jubilee, peeling her jacket away from her side. "This looks pretty messy," Everett reported. "Laser burn."
"Laser burn," Chase repeated in a disbelieving mutter. Husk closed her eyes and started... ripping her skin off, revealing normal flesh underneath. Chase looked away from them all, his reality strained enough for one day. Panic bubbled in his chest; he snapped orders out to Everett to keep it below the surface. "Keep Jubilee's burn dry and wrap something around it to keep the air away, or it'll get infected before we make it home. Not too tight, don't cut off circulation."
The sirens got louder, and shouts began to intrude on the weird silence of the food court. "We've got to get out of here before the cops get here," Ev said, as he followed Chase's instructions, wrapping a scrap of something that had once been someone's shirt around the ugly burn on Jubilee's torso. "We'll have to fly to the car."
"Fly?" Chase did *not* like the sound of that, but then, he didn't really like any of this.
Ev grinned sympathetically. "'Fraid so." His aura flared again to wrap around Monet, and he levered his arms under Jubilee, Angelo and Paige grabbing him at the same time. Monet crossed the floor to take hold of Chase under his shoulders, as Chase tightened his grip around Shea. Ev and Monet took deep breaths -- then the entire bunch was slowly lifted into the air, towards what had once been a glass ceiling.
As the ground dropped away, from them, Chase inspected the chaos they'd left behind. Shattered glass, splintered tables, terrified bystanders... "So much for safety," he sighed inaudibly, feeling the small box in his back pocket press hard dig into his flesh under Monet's grip. *And so much for getting out of this the easy way, damn it.*
A few feet above him, clutching Everett's neck, Jubilee echoed him more loudly. "Irish is gonna have a most major cow."
"Have a little trust in us, when fear obscures the past
"While Shakespeare took quite a few liberties with history when writing 'Julius Caesar' -- it is filled with anachronisms and, obviously, quite biased -- he also succeeded in drawing a rather vivid portrait of the people involved in Caesar's assassination. Consider Brutus...."
Shea, who had read 'Julius Caesar' in sophomore English and listened to roughly the same lecture at the time, tuned Ms. Frost out, gazing out the windows over the grounds and wishing she was outside instead of trapped in a classroom.
It had been more than three weeks since the battle at the mall, and life had settled down to something that, according to Paige, closely resembled normal. Personally, Shea didn't think any life which included classes on psychic shields, training sessions in a miniature biosphere, a computerized math teacher, casual visits from superheroes, and classmates who regarded all of the above as status quo, could be considered normal, but she was willing to go with it.
Chase, on the other hand....
She sighed soundlessly, propping her elbow on her desk and her chin on her fist. She could just see her partner back under the trees at the edge of campus, doing something to the sprawling lawn. Mr. Cassidy had offered to let Chase join the classes, of course, but aside from the 'mandatory for all residents' psi-resistance courses, Chase had firmly declined, pointing out that he'd been out of high school for four years.
Classes or not, everyone had been more or less confined to campus since the fight in the mall. Mr. Cassidy had, indeed, had a lot to say about that particular debacle, most of it obviously censored for underage ears, as he and Ms. Frost patched up the various injuries. No one had actually gotten into trouble, since even Ms. Frost couldn't figure out a way to blame them for it, but their teachers had *not* been happy.
Shea had a sneaking suspicion, backed up by late-night conversations with Paige, that what bothered Mr. Cassidy and Ms. Frost the most was, not the attack, but Orphan Maker and Nanny's comments about the people who had bribed them to kidnap Shea. They were even more disturbed by how quickly Orphan Maker and Nanny had located Shea and Chase.
Even to Shea's inexperienced eye, the whole thing looked messy as hell.
Paige hissed suddenly, and Shea yanked her attention back to the lecture. Ms. Frost was looking at her, her arms crossed over her chest, obviously waiting for an answer. Unfortunately, Shea hadn't heard the question.
*Marc Antony,* someone supplied psionically. Shea repeated it out loud, praying Jono hadn't suddenly developed a sense of humor.
"Correct, Jonothon," Ms. Frost answered in an icy tone, not even slightly fooled. Shea winced and slumped lower down in her chair, shrugging a 'thanks anyway' to Jono, who shrugged back. Paige and Ev both gave her sympathetic looks as Ms. Frost went back to her lecture.
Even with that bit of humiliation as motivation, Shea's attention wandered back out the window to Chase. He didn't look back, which worried her. When they'd first arrived, it was as if they'd had some kind of radar -- she always knew where he was, and vice versa. Now....
She sighed again, running her fingers idly along her pencil. Under her touch, it changed from wood, to plastic, to chalk, and back to wood. She knew what adamantium was now, and could have changed it to that, or even gold. But she didn't feel like making the effort.
It was costing her more and more to pretend everything was all right, that she was comfortable in this school with these people, that she didn't still have nightmares about the Bureau and the Orphan Maker. That the government wasn't still trying to find her. That Chase wasn't acting like a stranger.
It had probably started the night after the mall fight, when Ms. Frost had insisted Chase transfer from the infirmary to the boy's dorm, and Mr. Cassidy had backed her up. Shea was in her own room in the girl's dorm now, and slowly getting used to getting by on her own.
But it was more than just sleeping in separate buildings; they were also spending most of the day apart, her in classes and him working around the grounds, trying to keep himself occupied. He smiled when they were together, hugged her and teased her like always, but.... She didn't think he was avoiding her -- at least, she tried not to think it.
At least Chase had been able to stay pretty busy around campus. He loved being outdoors, Shea had discovered, and spent the better part of his days working on the lawn, which was just beginning to turn from winter brown to the pale green of spring, and in the gardens. He also disappeared for hours at a time into the woods that surrounded the school. Shea had no idea what he did while she was in class, but she could see him growing steadily more restless. And as his restlessness grew, so did her fear.
As she watched, Chase straightened from raking up the remains of last fall's leaves and turned to the front of the house, apparently in response to someone's call. He listened, then suddenly dropped his rake and took off running around the side of the mansion.
Shea leaned forward automatically, trying to see past the window frame to what had gotten Chase so excited. Her answer came a moment later, with the low-pitched, throbbing gun of a very familiar engine. Chase came tearing down the side walk and onto the paths into the woods on the back of his precious Harley, popping a wheelie as he entered the trees.
"All right! They got the bike back!" She hadn't meant to shout, but the sight of the bike brought her to her feet, excitement racing through her. Despite her endless complaining during the solid week she'd spent on the back of that motorcycle, she'd missed it almost as badly as Chase had.
"Shea, sit down, please!" Ms. Frost said sharply. "We're in the middle of class."
For a brief moment, Shea weighed Ms. Frost's displeasure against her own excitement and Chase's obvious joy. There was no contest -- she jumped over Angelo's outstretched feet as she raced into the hall and down the stairs, shouting, "Sorry!" over her shoulder.
She broke out the front door into the May sunlight at a dead run, nearly flattening Mr. Cassidy, who was watching Chase's antics with a wide, satisfied grin. "You got the bike back!" Shea shouted, forgetting herself enough to throw her arms around Mr. Cassidy's neck in an enthusiastic hug, then releasing him an instant later as the motorcycle came roaring back down the path towards the front.
Chase had a broad smile on his face, the first true smile she'd seen from him in... too long, she realized. He guided the bike directly towards her, and their eyes met in that odd communication they'd almost forgotten over the last few weeks. As the bike slowed, he held out his arm and she grabbed his hand, jumping on behind him in one smooth move. He gunned the engine again and then they were tearing away together down the driveway, as her whoop of triumph echoed off the walls of the school.
The wind whipped through her hair, destroying her ponytail, and she savored the feeling of freedom it gave her, snuggling closer to Chase's back. She could feel him laughing through her arms and hands, could almost see the manic grin pasted across his face. The gates stopped them at the end of the drive, and Chase executed a death-defying turn that tilted them to only a few inches above the sidewalk. Shea didn't even flinch.
As they turned around and headed back up the drive, she saw the rest of her English class come pouring out the front door, Ms. Frost, resigned, bringing up the rear. Jubilee, Angelo, Ev and Paige were cheering, and Jono looked as cheerful as Jono ever got. Mondo always looked cheerful, of course, but his face was split in a grin that almost matched Mr. Cassidy's. Even Ms. Frost was smiling reluctantly.
The little boys came tumbling around the other side of the building, drawn out of the biosphere by the noise, and jumped up and down happily, probably not quite sure what the cheering was about, but more than happy to get in on it. Shea made a mental note to take them for rides, then they were drawing up to the main house again, and Chase was slowing.
They stopped a few feet from the noisy crowd; Chase braced them with one leg and half turned to look at her, letting the motor idle. He was smiling so broadly she thought his face would split, his eyes shining with a joyous light. The wind had whipped color into his tanned cheeks, and his hair was thoroughly messed up, tumbling forward into his face. Shea couldn't help herself -- she leaned forward and kissed him.
His arms came around her instantly, twisting her forward and around until she was sprawled across his lap. She almost fell off, but recovered herself by clutching him around the neck. The sun was in the sky, she was in Chase's arms again, there was no distance between them, and all was right with the world.
The sound of renewed cheers and whistles finally got through to them; Chase stiffened and broke the kiss, forcing Shea a few inches away. She went unwillingly, laughing up at him until he relented and smiled. But he still made her move off his lap.
"Now that you've gotten that out o' y'r systems," Mr. Cassidy said, trying to sound stern -- the attempt was spoiled by the twinkle in his eyes, "Y' can go inside and call Jennifer t' thank her."
"How'd she do it?" Chase asked, running his hand possessively over the handlebars. "I thought Van Dyke and Monkey Boy confiscated it for good."
Mr. Cassidy smiled smugly. "It seems she had a little talk with the Pittsburgh Police Impound Yard. Since the two of y' were never formally booked, and the Bureau didn't bother t'involve the local constabulary in their so-called arrest, they dinnae have records o' you two ever bein' there. Therefore, they dinnae have any legitimate reason not t' release the bike they picked up off the road t' y'r attorney, once she paid the towin' fee. The two agents who grabbed ye apparently took y'r wallets and the keys, but Jennifer had a new set made. The truck delivered it about ten minutes ago."
"Thank you, Jennifer!" Chase said with deep feeling. He grinned at Shea, tugging a strand of her hair. "Hey, Sundance, want to go into town after we call Jen?"
"Hell, yes!" Shea answered happily, bouncing off the bike. "Soon as I change clothes." Ms. Frost gave her an evil eye. "And, um, finish English class," she finished guiltily.
"Actually...," Mr. Cassidy said carefully, "it would be better for the both of you if ye stuck close to home for a while longer."
"Aw, come on, Teach," Shea teased, still bubbling with joy. "We won't go far and we'll be home by bedtime."
"I'm sure ye would be, Shea." Mr. Cassidy didn't even smile at her; his attention was focused on Chase. "But, for a while longer at least, it would be safer for ye both if y' stayed on campus."
Shea, her good mood slowly dissipating at Mr. Cassidy's serious tone, followed his eyes to Chase. The smile had disappeared from her partner's face; he looked nearly as grim now as Mr. Cassidy did.
"So what you're saying," he said slowly, "is that we're stuck here."
Ms. Frost started to say something; Mr. Cassidy cut her off with a single look over his shoulder. She didn't look happy, but didn't say anything, either. "It's for y'r own safety, lad. Orphan Maker and Nanny found ye too damn quickly, and we dinnae know who they told. If the wrong person sees the two o' ye, they could trace y' back here."
Chase smiled again, but it was humorless, with a sharp edge of bitterness. Shea had a sudden flash to a Pittsburgh interrogation room, when Van Dyke had been threatening them both to find out where Xavier's was. As he'd told her to go to hell, consigning himself to prison, Chase had had that exact same expression on his face.
"That's great," he said sarcastically. "Instead of being prisoners wherever Van Dyke and Monkey Boy would have taken us, we get to be prisoners here. That's a lot better. So, how long are going to be trapped here? Days? Weeks? Years?"
"You're overreacting, Chase," Shea intervened, stepping between him and Mr. Cassidy. "You're making it sound a lot worse than it is."
He shook his head harshly. "No, I think I'm telling it just about like it is. We get to sit around here until someone *does* find us -- either the Bureau, or one of the villain-types you people attract -- and be just as much prisoners as we would've been anyway. Isn't that right, *Mr.* Cassidy?"
Shea spun to face Mr. Cassidy, waiting for him to deny what Chase had said, desperately wanting him to explain how everything really was going to be all right. But he couldn't quite meet her eyes, and she felt her hard-won illusion of safety begin to shatter around her.
The other kids were clustered behind Mr. Cassidy; most of them looked as if they were torn between defending their teacher, and waiting breathlessly for his answer. Ms. Frost looked cool and remote, as if her body was present, but her mind was involved with countless other thoughts, all of which were more important than Chase's question.
Mr. Cassidy closed his eyes as Shea turned her gaze back to him, rubbing his forehead tiredly. "I let y' go off-campus once, and y' almost didn't come back," he said, his brogue growing thicker and slower. When he opened his eyes again, they were almost pleading for Chase to understand. "This is the only way we can keep y' safe, at least for now. I'm sorry, both of ye, but I just cannae think of another way."
Chase breathed out hard through his teeth. "Sorry. That's just great," he said shortly. Without another word, or even a look at Shea, he gunned the motorcycle and spun it in a half turn with a squeal of rubber, before racing back into the woods.
"Dude," Jubilee whistled as the sound of his bike faded away. "Never thought I'd see Mr. Cool throw a temper tantrum."
"He was not throwing a tantrum," Shea snapped.
"Tantrum or not, I'd better be goin' after him," Mr. Cassidy said grimly. "Just in case he decides t' do somethin' foolish."
He drew a deep breath, and Shea covered her ears hastily -- she knew how noisy his sonic Superman impression was, and had no desire to replace her newly-healed hand and lungs with burst eardrums. "Mr. Cassidy, wait," she said, just as hastily. "It's better if I talk to him. He'll listen to me... well, sometimes. I can get him calmed down."
Mr. Cassidy looked at her for a long second, then nodded, letting his breath out slowly. "Can ye find him?"
Shea shrugged. "Sure. How many motorcycle tracks can there be around here?"
"All right, then, go on. But ye'll make up the English class later," he tacked on after Ms. Frost cleared her throat pointedly.
Shea smiled a little, trying to hide the sick feeling in her stomach. "Yeah, Teach. I'll make it up."
She started after the motorcycle as Mr. Cassidy and Ms. Frost started herding the others back to class, but paused. "Mr. Cassidy?"
He turned back to her, and she fumbled for words. "He's just... not used to depending on anyone else. He's not good at it."
Mr. Cassidy sighed, running one hand through his hair, as if he didn't know what else to do with it. "I know, Shea. But ye've got precious little choice right now, the both of ye."
Shea shrugged helplessly. "He knows. That's what's driving him so crazy."
Mr. Cassidy looked as if he would say something else, but tightened his lips instead, and walked into the house. Shea, her shoulders hunched and her hands pushed deep into her pockets, started after Chase.
Finding Chase wasn't too hard -- he was more or less where she thought he'd be. The tiny pond in the middle of the west woods apparently only existed for a couple of months in spring. When she'd first seen it during one of the 'nature hikes' Mr. Cassidy liked, Paige had said the students used it as for wading and water fights; it wasn't really deep enough for anything else. Shea had brought Chase back later, and they'd promptly tested the water fight part.
Now, Chase stood at the edge, one foot propped on an old stump. He had a handful of pebbles and was methodically plunking them, one by one, into the shallow water. He didn't say anything when she came up, although she didn't make any effort to move quietly. His bike leaned against a tree nearby; Shea propped one hip against it, silently waiting for him to speak first.
"You going to yell at me?" he asked, not as if the answer meant anything.
Shea bit her lip. "No."
"Good." Plunk, plunk. He wasn't meeting her eyes, staring instead at the ripples the pebbles left in the still water of the pond. Shea cleared another stump of leaves and possible creepy-crawlies, and sat down, trying to find something to do with her hands and eyes. She settled for fiddling with her hair, which was falling in a tangled mass around her shoulders and into her face.
"It's not their fault, you know."
Her voice seemed too loud in the silence of the trees. Chase didn't react. "Yeah," he finally admitted, plunking the last of his handful of rocks into the water and dusting off his hands. "I know. That doesn't make me like it any better."
"I wish...." Her words came out on a tiny breath of air, trailing away into nothing. She hadn't really meant to say anything at all, and had no idea how the sentence was supposed to end.
Chase apparently did. "Yeah," he repeated, "I know. But it did happen, all of it, and we're stuck with it."
"Could be worse," Shea offered, trying to lighten the moment. "We could still be in Copper Lake.
Chase groaned. "Anything but that." He grinned, though, and Shea felt her own mood lift slightly. He sighed heavily and took his boot off the stump, then flopped to the ground next to her, crossing his arms over his bent knees and staring out into nothing.
"I'm sorry I got you into this," she said, after another long, silent moment. "If I'd known...."
"It was my call, Shealee," he cut her off before she could get back into the self-pity mode she knew he hated. "I was the one who came tearing to the rescue. My choice, not yours."
"Your choice, my fault."
He didn't deny it that time, and Shea bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. "I wish you wouldn't fight everything so hard. It's not forever, Chase. Just a little while, until Mr. Cassidy and Professor Xavier and Jennifer can figure out how to get us out of this."
"And how long is that going to take, Shea, huh? How long am I going to be stuck here?" He exploded back to his feet and stalked across the ground, shoving his hands through his hair.
"I didn't realize it was such a chore to be around me!" Shea was on her feet as well, shouting. "I wish you could leave, I'm sorry you're stuck here, I'm sorry I got you into this whole damn thing! But I guess you're just going to have to live with it, 'cause there's no way to go back!"
"Dammit, Shea, I didn't mean it like that." He caught her arm before she could turn and stomp away; she pulled it free with an angry yank. "Dammit, will you just listen to me!"
She kept her back turned to him, sniffing back hurt, angry tears. Damned if she would give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. "Well?"
He breathed out hard, frustration echoing in the sound. "Look," he said through his teeth, "it's not because of you, all right? I just... I don't know how much longer I can do this, Shealee. It's like... why did I bother getting us out of Copper Lake in the first place? We're just as stuck here as we were there, and then some. Hell, I can't even go to the city and pretend I'm free. I hate this, all of it!"
"Well, you'd better try pretending for a little longer," she replied, her voice as tightly under control as his. She didn't want him to see how much his careless words had frightened her, hurt her, and hid the emotions under anger. "Van Dyke and the Bureau aren't going to give a damn about your itchy feet. They'll be happy to throw you into another interrogation room, or a jail cell. This is the only place where we're going to be safe. So get used to it, and give us all a break."
They faced each other down for a long moment, then Chase abruptly turned away, his face set and hard. Shea bit her lip, then started walking back towards the school. Unconsciously, she moved faster and faster, until she finally broke into a run, letting the wind whip every thought and emotion from her heart. Blinded by wind and tears, she didn't see the cars in the driveway until it was almost too late.
"I'm a man that will go far
As the sound of Shea's pounding feet faded away into the trees, Chase called himself every name he could think of. No matter how miserable he was here, he'd been determined to hide it, to make sure Shea settled in, that she was safe. But no, he had to go and have a temper tantrum in front of her, her teachers, and her classmates.
"Congratulations, Matthews," he muttered to himself, kicking at a tree stump. "That was very mature. Very dignified. Way to keep her feeling happy and safe. First kiss her, which you were *not* supposed to do anymore, then kick her in the gut. Real good."
He caught a branch with his toe and sent it skittering across the clearing into the shadows -- which jumped. Chase stopped and squinted into the trees. "Penance? That you lurking in there?"
Everything was very still for a long moment, then Penance slowly edged away of the trees without leaving their cover. She crouched close to the dirt, her red-and-black body blending oddly with the ground.
"Don't want to get any nearer, huh, Penny?" Chase sighed, sitting down on the ground and letting his head hang between his raised knees. "I don't blame you. *I* don't particularly want to be around me these days."
Penance cocked her head slightly, but didn't answer, which was no surprise. She didn't talk to anyone. Still, it helped to have someone listening -- at least he could pretend he wasn't talking to himself.
"I didn't mean to go off at Shea," he told her, raking his hands through his hair. "I just.. I don't belong here. All of these kids, with all of these powers, and all of these brains.... Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, what am *I* doing here? I dropped out of high school, for god's sake!"
He got to his feet abruptly; Penance flinched, but didn't run. "Supervillains, government agencies, outlaws, mutants all over the place, blowing things up and trying to kill each other -- I never asked for any of this! I'm just an ordinary guy, nothing special, not like them! Not like Shea!" He stopped, blew his breath out hard, and thought seriously about beating his head against a tree, refraining only because he already had a headache. He leaned his forearm against it instead, burying his face in his sleeve.
"Shealee's the special one," he said quietly, not even pretending to talk to Penance anymore. "I'm just a small-town loser, and I am never going to belong here. No matter how much I wish I did." He rubbed his shoulder, where the burn from Jubilee and Everett's fireworks had left a small, barely-visible scar. "All I can do here is get myself in more trouble than even I thought was possible."
He was so lost in his own self-indulgent pity that he didn't hear Penance come up behind him until something smooth and hard touched his cheek. He turned his head enough to see Penance standing mostly erect, staring at him with wide, blue eyes, one finger touching his cheek with extreme care. She could have cut him to the bone with a careless touch, but she didn't.
"I know what I have to do, Penny," he admitted to her softly. "I know. I just don't want to."
They stood staring at each other for another long moment, then Penance dropped her hand and silently slipped back into the trees. Reluctantly, Chase followed her lead and started walking the bike back towards campus.
He had just hit the treeline when a voice echoed oddly inside his head. *Finished sulking, Chase? Stay away from the house.*
*Get out of my head,* he thought fiercely back at Ms. Frost, getting the mental equivalent of a shake in return.
*We have unexpected visitors.* Even telepathically, he could hear the repressed anger in her cool voice. *I want all of you children to stay out of sight. If you must come in, go directly -- and *quietly* -- to the war room and remain there until we come.*
Visitors.... There weren't that many kinds of visitors that would bother Ms. Frost -- even after only a few weeks, Chase had figured that much out. And any visitors that could shake Ms. Frost meant bad news for him, and Shea.
He leaned the bike against a tree and took off for the main house at a dead run.
The center of the grounds looked oddly quiet. There were no basketball games, no exuberant rounds of tag, no one showing off their powers or setting the lawn on fire. There was a new car in the driveway, parked behind Ms. Frost's -- a black four-door sedan that was too damn familiar. He knew who it belonged to even before he recognized the license plates.
Chase had to slow down to open the back door, then started running again, through the kitchen and down the hidden staircase that had seemed like a joke when Everett and Angelo had first shown it to him. He wasn't laughing now, though.
The steel door at the end of the staircase stood open, and he barreled through it, slamming open the door to the so-called 'war room' --
-- And stopping in his tracks as five teenagers turned on him, ready to attack. "Chill, it's me!" he snapped hastily.
Everett's aura, which had flared to wrap around Jubilee, subsided slowly. "Don't do that, man," he said seriously. "You almost got fried."
"Sorry," Chase apologized automatically. "What the hell is going on?"
"We got bad company," Angelo said, without turning away from a flickering security monitor. Monet hunched over a terminal next to him, typing so quickly her fingers were a blur.
"See for yourself." Everett gestured over his shoulder at the various computers and viewscreens that made up the war room, covering every wall and not a little bit of the floor space. When Chase had been down there during the grand tour, they'd been mostly deactivated. Now, all of them were glowing, clicking, beeping, and otherwise turned on. Under normal circumstances, Chase probably would have been fascinated by the sheer tech level of the various electronic toys, but these circumstances were anything but normal.
Shea was sitting tensely in one of the chairs around the main table, staring at the huge viewscreen on the wall. As Paige and Jubilee calmed down from Chase's loud entrance, they returned to her side. "Looks like some old friends of yours are paying a visit," Jubilee cracked, blowing a huge bubble. Her tone was flippant, but her eyes were intense. "There's gonna be some fun now."
"Shut up, Jubilee," Paige snapped. Shea didn't appear to notice either of them.
Chase strode across the room to Shea's side, but she didn't seem to notice that either. Her eyes were glued to the screen, which was currently displaying a wide-angle view of Cassidy's office. Cassidy was sitting at his desk, Ms. Frost standing behind him with her arms crossed grimly over her chest. Sitting on the chairs in front of the desk were the two people Chase least wanted to see.
"Van Dyke and Monkey Boy," he groaned. "What the hell is the Bureau doing *here*?"
Everett came up behind him. "I don't know," the younger man said calmly, "but they've been in with Ms. Frost and Mr. Cassidy for almost half-an-hour."
Chase fought down a surge of terror. "Let me guess -- they want me and Shea."
Everett nodded slowly. "They're being really polite about it, and Ms. Frost and Mr. Cassidy are denying you're even here six ways from Sunday, but yeah, that's what they want."
*The real question,* Jono inserted psionically, seating himself on the edge of the table, *is how they found you.*
Chase's mouth tightened grimly. "Got that right. Is that woman a bloodhound? Or just too damn stubborn to know when to quit?"
"Both, probably," Shea said wryly. Chase looked down at her, and she smiled quickly, a crooked grin that didn't hide the sick fear in her eyes. He shook his head in return, rolling his eyes at the screen in silent, grim amusement the luck of the universe.
Shea shrugged in rueful agreement, then leaned forward abruptly, the grin dying. "Angelo, up the volume!"
"Si, got it."
The volume rose, and so did Van Dyke's voice. "--mn it, I know those kids are here," the slender, dark-haired woman hissed at Ms. Frost. Even on screen, her dark eyes were cold enough to send a chill down Chase's spine. He sensed more than felt Shea's shudder, and put a steadying hand on her shoulder. "They were spotted with students from this school, just a few miles away in Boston, and Matthews's motorcycle was just delivered here. The longer you wait to turn them over to us, the more it's going to cost you. *All* of you."
"Van Dyke's getting nasty," Everett observed.
"They must have spotted us at the mall, thanks to Nanny," Shea groaned, hiding her face in her hands. Paige dropped her hand to Shea's other shoulder, tightening it in sympathy.
"Take it easy, Shealee." Chase forced his voice to be calm and soothing. It was hard, when all he wanted to do was kick something... or kill something. "They're probably just blowing steam. If they could prove anything, they'd have come bulling in with a warrant again. Those two aren't exactly big on subtlety, you know?"
"No joke." Shea sniffed heavily and scrubbed her hands across her cheeks, tilting her chin up defiantly.
"Who *are* they, anyway? And why do they want you so bad?" Jubilee asked, staring at the screen with interest.
"Van Dyke and Monkey Boy, from the Bureau. They were two of the ones chasing us," Chase told her. "Looks like they've caught up again, dammit."
"And they want me because of my powers, mostly," Shea added with resignation. "They want me to, I don't know, spin straw into gold, or the nineties Rapunzel equivalent. Besides, from some of the things we've heard, I'm one of the only mutants their project has tracked down for sure."
"And you call him Monkey Boy because?" Ev asked.
"Because the first time we saw him, She-Hulk was dangling him out a window by one leg. And because it annoys him." Chase looked down at Shea. "What is his real name, anyway?"
She shrugged. "Garnet, Garner, something like that. Who remembers?" The total unconcern in her voice didn't match the tension radiating from her body.
"Andrea Van Dyke and Jeffrey Garner, to be specific," Monet contributed, without looking up from her terminal. "Special agents, Bureau of Mutant Affairs, both assigned to something called Project: Nike."
Everyone swung to look at her. "How do you know that?" Chase demanded.
"Because I'm currently accessing their personnel database," Monet answered calmly. "They are a sub-section of the Department of Health, and their computer security is laughable."
Everett, Jono and Paige both got up to look over Monet's shoulder; Chase stayed with Shea, who seemed unable to tear her eyes away from the main screen. She was watching Van Dyke with the horrified fascination normally reserved for a snake crawling across someone's foot.
"Either you cooperate with us, or we'll be back with a warrant!" Monkey Boy said loudly, getting to his feet.
"Y're welcome to bring back a warrant," Cassidy said without budging, his face pleasant and completely unreadable. "But ye won't find anything here ye'll be interested in. I guarantee that."
Paige chuckled softly. "Only Mr. Cassidy could tell someone t' go t' hell in such a nice, polite kind o' way," she explained, when everyone's eyes swung to look at her.
Ms. Frost wasn't bothering to be nice, or polite. "And if you do return a warrant," she said coldly, uncrossing her arms so she could glare better, "you'd better be prepared for the lawsuit I'll bring against you. I will not have you disturbing my students to play out some kind of delusional, paranoid fantasy."
"What students?" Van Dyke asked silkily. "I haven't seen a single child since we arrived. Hiding them, are you?"
Ms. Frost's eyes narrowed until only a slit of ice blue showed. "Our students are in class, studying. That's why we call it a school. Are you familiar with the concept of school, Agent Van Dyke?"
"Uh-oh, Frosty's getting mad." Jubilee popped her gum again. "Hope she doesn't try any mind games, or Irish is gonna flip."
"Hey, it could work. 'These aren't the mutants you're looking for'," Angelo intoned in a deep voice.
Paige and Shea both giggled nervously, but their amusement faded quickly. "God, how did they find us so fast?" Shea moaned.
"Orphan Maker," Paige and Jubilee said together, Everett and Monet echoing them half a beat later. "We know they were workin' for the Bureau and Nanny has some kinda weird tech advantage," Paige continued softly. "She found the X-Men when they were hidin' in the middle of nowhere in Australia, for Pete's sake. But even if they did hire her, that stuff ain't... *isn't* going to be admissible in court. Ah don't know how they're goin' t' get a warrant."
Paige's usual efforts to hide her accent were slipping in and out, depending on how much attention she was paying. Chase thought about pointing it out, but decided this wasn't a good time to be a smartass.
"They could probably obtain a warrant based on the delivery of Chase's bike to the school," Monet pointed out. "That was, perhaps, an unwise action on Ms. Walters's part."
"This would be a lot easier on everyone if you'd just turn the kid over to us instead of playing games," Monkey Boy said, standing so that he could look down at Cassidy.
Cassidy countered by standing as well; he had a good two inches on Monkey Boy and used them. "I don't play games where m' students are concerned," he said, giving each syllable a very clear emphasis. "And I don't have time t' be playin' at all. If y'r finished here...?" His tone implied that they'd better be.
Van Dyke stood gracefully. "Yes, I think we're definitely finished. You will be hearing from us."
Ms. Frost smiled nastily. "I look forward to it."
"They're leaving!" Ev hissed.
"Angelo, follow them," Monet snapped without looking up from her keyboard.
"Si, si," Angelo said with annoyance, already pounding on his. "I got it covered."
The screen shifted from Cassidy's office to the front hall. It was a weird angle, the camera positioned behind the office and off to one side, but they could still see almost everything.
"You've got one more chance. If you turn O'Reilly and Matthews over to us now, we might not shut your little school down." Monkey Boy continued to issue threats as he left Cassidy's office. Van Dyke let him talk, her eyes flicking around the front hall like a snake's.
"F'r the last time, we dinna have yer missin' children," Cassidy said with exasperation.
"And you expect us to believe that?" Despite the height difference, Monkey Boy hadn't given up on staring Cassidy down. It still didn't work.
"Seein' as how it's the truth," Cassidy lied levelly, "yes."
Monkey Boy's face darkened and he started to shout something, but Van Dyke cut him off with a gesture, staring steadily past Ms. Frost towards the door. "Enough. We'll be returning with a warrant," she told them, "and when we do, I'll expect Miss O'Reilly to be waiting. Or you'll find yourselves being arrested for kidnapping and obstruction of justice."
Ms. Frost's eyes were narrowed to slits, but all she said was, "Try."
Van Dyke smiled, a tiny smile with an edge of smugness that worried Chase more than all of Monkey Boy's bluster. "We will," she said calmly, then strode past Ms. Frost and out the front door. After one last furious glare, Monkey Boy stalked out after her.
Ms. Frost and Cassidy exchanged Meaningful Looks, and Cassidy went to the front window, presumably to make sure the agents actually left. Angelo played with his terminal, and the viewscreen shifted to show the black sedan slowly pulling out of the driveway. Everyone else watched silently.
"Ever notice how so-called adults start actin' like children when they don't get what they want?" Paige finally observed, her voice a little shaky. "All of 'em sounded like my kid brothers arguin' over a baseball."
The door to the war room opened and Ms. Frost stepped inside. "Our guests have departed," she told them, before noticing the viewscreen. "Ah. I assume you eavesdropped on the entire conversation, children?"
"You expected anything else?" Monet asked coolly.
"No, actually. Why do you think I told you to go to the war room?" She flicked her eyes around the room, taking in the small huddles of people. Paige was leaning unconsciously against Jono, both still standing behind Monet. Ev leaned back against the desk next to Angelo, his arms crossed and his eyes solemn. Angelo sprawled in his chair, looking upside-down at Ms. Frost, and Jubilee still hadn't budged from her position holding up the side of the table.
Shea turned in her chair to look at Ms. Frost, her eyes wide and her face pale. Chase resisted the urge to hug her and assure her everything was going to be all right. "What's... what's going to happen next?" she asked.
Ms. Frost looked surprised. "Trigonometry class for you and Angelo, algebra for Jubilee; I believe Sean is expecting the rest of you for calculus, and it is Paige's turn to cook dinner. Is Mondo still in the biosphere with Artie and Leech?"
*Yeah, they're there,* Jono confirmed.
"Good." Ms. Frost turned and went regally back up the stairs. "Class begins in five minutes."
Chase glared after her with impotent frustration. "Nice to know where you stand," he muttered.
"No lie." Shea's jaw was clenched, one hand running over the opposite wrist in the nervous gesture she'd developed while her handcuff bruises had healed. "Damn it, why does she treat us like kids?"
"Because she can." Paige sighed and left Monet, taking Shea's arm. "Come on, we better get movin' before she decides t' take her lousy mood out on us."
"What if I take mine out on her?" Shea grumbled, letting Paige tug her to her feet and towards the door. Chase's hand dropped uselessly from her shoulder as she moved away without even glancing at him. Crisis over, she'd apparently remembered she was mad at him.
With varying levels of complaining and muttering, the others followed, until only Monet and Chase were left. But Monet was still staring intently at the Bureau database, lost again in her own world.
"M? Yo, Earth to Monet." Chase tried a few times to get the girl's attention, then gave up. Shoving his hands deeply into his pockets, he started towards the stairs.
He was halfway up when Monet's voice came floating up to him. "I wonder what Agent Van Dyke was looking at before she left?" she asked in a peculiar, indifferent tone.
Chase shrugged, then froze. Then, his heart pounding, he raced up the stairs, skittering past the knot of students into the front hall. It was only a moment before he figured out what had happened, and his curse echoed through the distinguished halls of the Massachusetts Academy.
"There's not a word yet
"Chase?" The viciousness behind Chase's curse caught Shea by surprise; she forgot she wasn't speaking to him and ran to his side, Paige half a step behind. "What is it, what's wrong?"
"That," he said through gritted teeth, pointing at the coat rack. He reached out and snatched something off, shaking it in his fist. "*This*."
It was Shea's rubbery ski jacket, hung up that morning in plain sight and forgotten in the rush to get from dormitory to class. The ski jacket she'd been wearing when Van Dyke and Monkey Boy had arrested them, the completely unique jacket that could only belong to one person. And Van Dyke knew it.
Mr. Cassidy had come out of his office at Chase's curse; his automatic reprimand died on his lips as he saw what Chase held. The small group stared at the jacket in dead silence, letting the implications sink in. Chase's grip tightened until his knuckles turned dead white, to match his face.
Shea bit her lip so hard she could taste blood and ran one trembling finger down the jacket sleeve. The same hand balled into a helpless, terrified fist, and she leaned her head on Chase's shoulder. He didn't seem to notice.
"Take it easy, lad," Mr. Cassidy said softly, reaching past Shea and prying the jacket out of Chase's hands. "Ye dinnae know they saw anything."
Chase's jaw was clenched. "You don't know they didn't. And if they did...." His voice trailed off, and his fists tightened again as he spun on Mr. Cassidy, almost knocking Shea over. Paige steadied her. "You said she'd be *safe* here!"
"She will be," Mr. Cassidy responded grimly and Shea swallowed. If Van Dyke or Garner had seen her coat, then they'd know beyond a doubt that she and Chase were at the Massachusetts Academy. And what would stop them from coming back with a court order? Or a SWAT team? What could the MassAcad do against that?
"We won't let them have ye, Shea," Mr. Cassidy spoke again, this time to her. She wondered for a moment if he was the telepath, instead of Ms. Frost, then realized her thoughts must be written all over her face.
She forced herself to nod as if she believed him; he didn't buy it, but with a heavy sigh, he turned to rehang her jacket. "I believe all of ye have classes," he said as he turned back to them, looking tired. "And it's your turn t' cook dinner, Paige."
"Yes, sir," Paige said in a subdued tone. "Ah remember."
"I'll help," Shea volunteered, after another look at Chase. He still didn't acknowledge her, staring at the jacket with an expression that frightened the hell out of her. It was only slightly comforting to realize his rage was directed at the Bureau, not her. "I don't think trig class is going to be real useful right now."
Mr. Cassidy nodded. "Go on, I'll clear it wi' Emma. Go on," he repeated when she hesitated, smoothing her hair with one big hand in a comforting gesture. She resisted the urge to throw her arms around him and just hang on. She would rather have hugged Chase, hidden in his arms, but he was still refusing to look at her, his body tense, his face blank and completely unreadable, even to her. Especially to her.
So she trailed after Paige to the kitchen.
They worked together silently, patting out hamburgers and starting the deep fryer heating for French fries. Shea put a lot more concentration into tearing lettuce for a salad than necessary, but still couldn't stop dwelling.
Van Dyke and Garner's appearance here, in the place she'd finally started to believe was safe, had shaken her badly. It seemed so unfair, so wrong. The bastards had chased her across an entire country already. "Damn it, why can't they just leave us alone!"
She didn't realize she'd said it out loud until Paige looked over. "Mr. Cassidy meant what he said, you know," the other girl said sympathetically. "He and Ms. Frost, they'll protect you. Everyone will."
"Oh, great." Shea's smile was bitter. "What are they going to do -- take all of their students and go out and fight the bad guys for us? Get hurt, maybe get arrested or killed, for a couple of people you barely know? That would just be really great for you guys."
Paige's face hardened and she dropped the hamburger patty she'd been shaping. It fell to the counter with a splat. "We know you plenty, Shea," she declared, her blue eyes burning into Shea's with an intense glare that dared her to argue. "You fought with us against the Orphan Maker--"
"Who wouldn't have come after you if it wasn't for me," Shea inserted.
"And we beat him because o' you *and* Chase," Paige finished, ignoring the interruption. Her accent had gotten thicker, a sure sign that she was upset. "You'd fight for us an' we'll fight for you. You're part o' Xavier's now, part o' Generation X, and we take care of our own, no arguments. Got that?"
"I... Yes, ma'am." Shea felt strangely ashamed. "I didn't think.. I mean, I thought...."
"You thought you couldn't depend on anyone but Chase," Paige finished for her. "Ah know exactly what you mean. But what you don't get is that neither o' you are alone anymore. You got Mr. Cassidy t' depend on, and Ms. Frost, and Ms. Walters, and the Professor, and all of the X-Men, especially us. We take care of each other." She shook her head grimly. "We have to -- there's precious few other people in the world who're goin' t' do it for us."
Paige smiled a little. "Yeah, well -- Chase is real special. You're lucky you found him -- Ah envy you findin' him." She looked away for a second, a quick cloud passing through her eyes. Then she shrugged it off, pinning Shea with her strangely adult glare again. "What Ah'm tryin' t' say is that protectin' you is our choice t' make, and it's a choice most of us made the day we came t' Xavier's School. So let us help you, and don't worry so much. You'll most likely get a chance to pay us back some day."
"And this is supposed to comfort me?" Shea grumbled, but a grin worked its way onto her lips.
Paige returned it, her face losing its evangalistic glow and returning to that of a sixteen-year-old. "Guess not. Ah forget... *I* forget sometimes that not everyone's used to having a target painted on their backs."
"And you are?" Shea asked, eager to change the subject. She turned back to the salad and started cutting tomatoes.
Paige picked up her abandoned burger and put it on the grill, and started pulling rolls out of a plastic bag, apparently just as happy for a slightly new topic. "More than most of the others, except maybe Jubilee. My oldest brother, Sam, he was one of the New Mutants when they were first formed, years ago. He was deputy leader of X-Force and now he's an X-Man. For practically as long as I can remember, I wanted to be just like him. When Ms. Frost asked me to come to the MassAcad, I didn't even think about it, just joined up. It's what I've always wanted."
"You wanted this? To... how did the Professor put it... 'protect a world that hates and fears us'? This is your idea of a great career opportunity?" Shea's words were flippant; the question was anything but.
Paige took it as it was meant. "Sounds crazy, huh? But, near as I can tell, mutants only have two choices. We can choose our ground and stand it, or spend our whole lives running." She shrugged. "Guess what Sam and I picked."
Shea chuckled slightly, and Paige looked sideways at her. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing," Shea answered. "It's just... you and Chase have more in common than I thought."
Paige thought about that, then tilted her head in acknowledgment and started putting hamburger buns in the oven to toast. "How about putting on some music, give us something else to think about?"
That sounded like a great idea; Shea washed her hands quickly and dried them as she walked over to the CD played on the other wall. According to Angelo, the students had ganged up on Ms. Frost to get a TV in the kitchen, and bargained her down to the stereo. He claimed that had been the objective all along, but Shea hadn't decided yet whether to believe him.
She chose a Queen CD and slid it in, setting it to her favorite track. A minute later, 'Princes of the Universe' began shaking the walls.
"I love this song," Paige shouted over the music, her hips swaying to the heavy beat.
"Bet the Professor hates it," Shea shouted back. Returning to the counter, she dumped her vegetables into the salad bowl and started tossing. "The 'born to be kings' part has got to make him crazy."
"That and 'no man can be my equal'," Paige agreed. "Let me guess, he gave you one of the 'dream' speeches."
"How many are there?" The industrial-sized deep fryer was finally hot; Shea started lobbing frozen tater tots in from two feet away, which was inefficient, but entertaining, and required concentration. Grease splashed and hissed.
"Too many," Paige groaned theatrically. "I think I heard three or four when I was just hanging around the New Mutants and X-Force, and he gave another one the day this school officially opened. Plus, Beast and Cyclops each have their own version, and so does Mr. Cassidy."
"Yeah. The burgers are almost done, can you watch them while I go set the table?"
"Go for it."
Paige started to head for the dining room, then stopped. "Don't worry too much, Shea," she said, unexpectedly seriously. "You and Chase are our friends -- we're not going to let anything happen."
Shea nodded, and tried to smile. "Thanks, Paige," she answered, just as seriously. "I trust you."
"Good." With that, she disappeared into the dining room, and Shea went back to her tater tots. If only she could forget that Van Dyke and Monkey Boy were wandering around outside; or forget the icy, murderous look on Chase's face. Forget that he'd frozen her out again.
Shea was still trying to forget hours later, as she lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling, but not even the noisy dinner and noisier evening in front of the TV, everyone alternately working on homework and arguing over the station, had been enough to distract her. Her mind was too busy worrying over the events of the day, shaking them up and laying them out in new and increasingly worse patterns.
She turned over again, accidentally shoving one of her pillows off the bed. Her room was bigger than she was used to, and emptier, with none of her familiar possessions around her; they'd all been left in Copper Lake when she and Chase had started their desperate ride.
Sighing, she tightened her hold on the teddy bear that had appeared on her pillow her first night in the new room. Paige said it belonged to Jubilee, and told her not to thank the girl for it; it would just embarrass her. But Shea was grateful for the loan. Even a strange teddy bear helped chase off some of the demons.
For just a tiny, split-second, homesickness threatened. She hadn't liked Copper Lake much even when she'd been living there, but life had been so much simpler when all she'd had to worry about was school, running, and avoiding Chase.
She blinked back a tear and snuggled the teddy bear closer, as a gentle tapping at the door headed off the spell of self-pity. Paige shoved the door open and put her head around the corner. "Ah though you'd still be up."
She came the rest of the way into the room and settled down on the window seat, pulling her fleece robe closer around her. Her blond hair gleamed in the moonlight. Shea tossed her sheets back, pulled a pair of sweatpants on under her T-shirt, and joined her.
"Too much to think about to sleep," she said, looking out over the grounds. She'd brought the teddy bear along without noticing, and rested her chin on the top of its head.
"Too much to worry about," Paige corrected her wisely. Shea made a face, but didn't deny it. "So, what is it now? The Bureau still? Chase? Ah know it can't be your grades, even if you did sleep through English today."
"Can I just go with all of the above?" Shea sighed and leaned her head sideways against the window. The glass was cold and slick under her cheek, and she saw Chase's equally cold face in front of her eyes again. "Men are more trouble than they're worth."
"Ah thought everyone knew that," Paige said with an exaggerated gesture involving rolling eyes and lifted hands. She sobered when all Shea could do was lift a corner of her mouth. "You and Chase havin' problems? Ah mean, besides the obvious?"
Shea shrugged. "I thought I had him figured out," she said after a long minute. "I thought he cared, you know? But ever since we got here, it's like... he's here, but he's not. And he's going out of his way to be a jerk. Then, today -- first he's kissing me, then he's trying to get away from me."
"Ah know all about that," Paige groaned in sympathy. "You should try gettin' close to Jono sometime. Ah swear, that boy just can't make up his mind. One second, he's ready t' get closer, the next second he's pushin' me as far away as he can."
Shea had heard the Jono saga already, in another one of these late-night talk sessions; she and Paige had gotten into the habit the night Shea had moved into the dorm, when the nightmares were so bad she couldn't sleep. Paige had kept her company through several long nights, sharing stories about her thousands of siblings and the history of the X-Men, listening to Shea's memories of her parents and grandmother, and gradually building on the tentative friendship that had started that day in the mall.
Shea echoed her friend's groan now. "I hear that; Chase is the exact same way."
Paige stared thoughtfully down at her robe, picking at balls of lint. "Shea... are you in love with Chase?"
It was one hell of a question. "I... don't know." She shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. "God, until a month ago, my mission in life was to avoid him, he was such a pain in the neck. Now, I can't imagine life without him around. I *want* him around, always. So.... maybe I am. I don't know." She looked at Paige. "Are you in love with Jono?"
Paige echoed the uncomfortable shrug. "Ah... don't know."
Tense silence stretched between them, then Paige suddenly chuckled. "And aren't we a pair?"
The absurdity of the situation hit Shea at the same time. "Maybe we should just ditch both of them and seduce Ev and Angelo, huh?" she suggested lightly.
Paige looked thoughtful. Then their eyes met and they both dissolved into helpless giggles. "Maybe not," Shea admitted.
Paige got control of her laughter with an effort. "It's not a bad fall-back position, though. Mr. Cassidy's real big on fall-back positions."
"The question is, which one of us gets which of them?" Shea pointed out. They both considered, then said, "Ev's mine," in unison, which set them both off again.
Jubilee stuck her head around the door before they sobered. "The two o' ya fightin' over Ev, now? Don't you have, like, enough problems with guys? And can't ya do it earlier than midnight?"
"Not as much fun that way," Shea pointed out. "Pull up a floor, it's easier to eavesdrop if you're in the same room."
Jubilee came the rest of the way into the room and collapsed on the carpet next to the window seat in a boneless heap. She was wearing another one of her huge T-shirts and her legs and feet were bare. "So, is this, like, a female bonding thing or what?"
"Or what," Paige answered. "Maybe we ought to wake up Monet."
"No," Shea and Jubilee both objected. Shea shut her mouth hard; this parallel thought thing was getting just too scary. Jubilee grinned; if she'd been chewing gum, she'd have cracked it. "Gotta hate group think, huh?"
"Knock it off."
Paige laughed at both of them. "How'd the math go, Lee? Did you finish the homework all right?"
Jubilee looked away. "Um, kinda. Could you... um... check it tomorrow mornin'?"
"I'll check it," Shea volunteered. "How come algebra gives you so much trouble? You're bright enough, even if you do goof off for most of class."
Jubilee shrugged and tucked her knees up under the bottom of her shirt, wrapping her arms around them. "I'm disnumeric -- it's a kinda learning disorder. I'm not so hot at reading numbers."
"Bummer." Shea sensed she should keep this casual. "Is Mr. Cassidy helping?"
"Yeah, 'course. Beastie Boy's a better teacher, but Sean does okay. Wolvie says I should just relax and give it time, and it'll come."
The younger girl's voice dropped a little as she mentioned Wolverine -- Shea had gotten the run-down on everyone's sensitive subject from Paige's, and knew that that was Jubilee's. She didn't quite have a handle on why Jubilee seemed so attached to someone who sounded perilously close to a psychopath, but what the hell. Everyone was entitled.
Still, there didn't really seem to be a good place to take the conversation, so she went back to staring out the window -- and sat bolt upright after a moment. "Paige, did you see that?"
"See what?" Paige twisted to follow Shea's stare.
The movement Shea had spotted out of the corner of her eyes returned, near the basket ball court between their dorm and the boys'. "That," she pointed it out. "Someone's moving around down there."
Paige's eyes narrowed. "A couple of someones. Pretty big, too..."
Jubilee had come up from the floor to crouch between them. "I see 'em -- they're sloppy. Amateurs. Wolvie would eat 'em for lunch."
"Amateurs." Paige and Shea's eyes met.
"They wouldn't," Shea half-stated, half-asked.
Paige considered, then nodded. "They might. Ah bet they are."
Jubilee's eyes flicked between them. "The guys? Raidin' us?"
"Gotta be." Shea rolled off the windowseat and fumbled in the still-dark room for her sneakers, pulling them on without bothering to undo the laces. Everyone was still tense and wired after the confrontation with the Bureau that afternoon; it would be just like Angelo -- or Chase, for that matter -- to decide to burn it off by pulling a panty raid. According to Copper Lake rumor, Chase had done just that more than once; the last one had nearly gotten him arrested when the chaperons at the YWCA lock-in party had called the cops.
Paige grinned in anticipation. "How about we give them a little surprise in return?"
"Dude!" Jubilee scrambled out of the room with Paige hot on her heels and Shea pulled a heavy sweatshirt over her head.
The other two met her back in the hall after only a few seconds, both attired in dark sweats and sneakers. Their practice uniforms, while bright, snazzy, and comfortable, were also highly impractical for sneaking around without being noticed.
"Ah'll take the back, Shea takes the front," Paige whispered as they headed down the stairs. "Jubilee, go around the left side an' flank 'em. Light the sky up on my signal."
"Got it," Jubilee snapped, saluting with what strongly resembled -- and probably was -- a SuperSoaker water rifle. On muffled giggles, they split up; Shea and Jubilee slipped out the front door and snuck across the porch, Shea snatching Jubilee's baseball bat from a corner as the younger girl crossed the porch quickly and disappeared around the side.
Under Shea's touch and powers, the heavy plastic of the bat changed to soft, spongy material, the better to bash an unsuspecting male attacker over the head with. She hugged the wall as she heard the noisy breath of the first 'attackers', and entertained herself trying to identify the guy by the breathing. Not Chase, not Ev, but possibly Angelo....
An arm came around the corner, holding a familiar shape -- *water pistol*, Shea's mind supplied, *J's Supersoaker has them out-gunned* -- followed by a head. From the back of the house, someone cut loose with a rebel cry and Shea echoed it, slamming her newly-created Nerf bat down on the extended arm. Her victim cursed, caught by surprise, and dropped the pistol; she grinned and jumped off the porch, twisting and slamming the bat into his head. Knocked off balance, he tripped backwards and fell.
Fireworks popped and exploded over the top of the house, lending surreal light to the scene. Jubilee shouted something, Paige cried out shrilly, Shea looked smugly down at her victim -- and saw Agent Jeffrey Garner, a.k.a. Monkey Boy, glaring up at her with hatred.
Something whined with a machine-like sound behind her and she whirled to find herself staring down one of Orphan Maker's guns. His armor had been repaired.
"This time," he said, without a crack in his voice, "I'm taking you to Nanny."
"I've been up and down a busted ladder
Ev was already at the top of the stairs, blinking sleepily and rubbing at his jaw. He was dressed only in boxer shorts, a robe slung crazily over his shoulders, inside out. "Sounds like Jubilee," he said through a yawn. "What's she up to?"
*Stop talkin' and start movin'* Jono's voice said in their heads, cold with urgency. *Someone's attackin' the gels!*
"Again? Oh, no way!" Ev protested. "Didn't we just do this?"
His objections didn't stop him from taking off down the stairs, Chase hot on his heels. Behind them, there was a crash and a stream of curses in mingled Spanish and English, and a door slammed open.
"Angelo's awake," Chase observed unnecessarily, taking the steps two at a time.
"The whole flipping campus should be awake! Angelo, get moving!" Ev hollered. With more curses, Angelo appeared from his room as the front door banged open under Chase and Ev's combined weight.
The grass was wet and cold, and Chase realized he hadn't taken time to put on shoes. He also hadn't taken time to put anything on over his shorts, but he didn't stop to think about that. Jubilee's lights were better than an arrow saying 'Fight Scene Here!'; as he and Ev pounded towards the girl's dorm, he saw Jono come tearing in from the biosphere.
"Everyone split up until we find the girls!" Ev shouted, taking charge.
"Good idea, we can get into more trouble that way!" Chase shouted back sarcastically. A dark shape suddenly lunged out of the shadows at him; he ducked instinctively and heard something go whistling over his head. Without pausing in his forward motion, he tackled his attacker, sending them both sprawling on the grass.
The black-clad man fought beneath his, driving an elbow into Chase's gut. Chase's lungs emptied of air in one agonizing rush, and the man tried to throw him off. Before he could, two hands came up from the ground and got him around the neck in a sleeper hold. He quietly passed out, the knife in his hand dropping to the grass.
*Breathe,* Chamber's voice said in Chase's head, as the rest of Mondo appeared from the ground and lifted Chase to a sitting position with one hand. Chase nodded and hupped as air flooded back into his lungs.
"Thanks," he said hoarsely, pushing himself to his feet. "Jono, it's the Bureau."
*Thanks for the tip.* Someone gasped in front of him, and Chase looked up. Chamber was standing a few feet away, confronting another Bureau guy, also dressed in black and armed to the teeth. But the Bureau guy was backing away; seeing how the flames in Chamber's chest were flaring and pulsing, Chase didn't blame him. The agent's nerve finally broke and he ran past Jono with a howl, straight towards the biosphere.
Chase pulled himself to his feet with only a little help from Mondo. "Should we go after him?" he asked hoarsely.
Even without a face, Chamber somehow smirked. *Nah.* At the same time, another muffled howl drifted towards them from the general direction of the biosphere. *Sounds like that plonker just ran inta one o' Artie's holograms; that or Penance. He'll be runnin' 'til dawn, if he didn't pass out.*
Chase grinned ferociously. "Then let's damn well take care of the rest of them!"
The other members of Generation X seemed to have basically the same idea. Skin and Husk, the latter shapeshifted to something solid and gray, were squared off against two agents on the grass between the two dorms. Skin blinded one by wrapping his arms around the man's face from three feet away, and Husk slammed a rock-hard (literally) punch against the man's temple. He dropped and the second raised a pistol at Husk's back.
"Watch it!" Chase warned with a shout. Husk hit the dirt and the agent turned, right into Chase's swinging elbow. Pain flared through his arm, but the agent joined his friend on the ground.
"Thanks!" Husk panted.
"Where's Shea?" Chase demanded.
"She's in front. We thought they were you guys!"
"Great, Paige! Just great!" Chase took off at a dead run towards the front of the dorm, as the fireworks on the side of the house cracked again. Synch caught up and they piled together into two of the agents who been ganging up on Jubilee. Her fireworks knocked over the third, then Synch's aura wrapped her and his blast blinded one of the two on the ground. Jubilee got another in the face with a... water gun? Chase decided he didn't want to know and ignored the whole thing, scrambling back to his feet and around the corner of the dorm--
-- And almost breaking his nose on Orphan Maker's armor. He skidded and fell trying to stop and Shea shouted a late warning. "Watch it, Chase!"
"Thanks a lot!" he shouted back, as the Orphan Maker bellowed something and tried to kick Chase. He rolled out of the way and to his feet, finding himself standing beside Shea. Orphan Maker flanked them on one side, Monkey Boy -- big shock -- was moving in on the other. Another agent Chase didn't recognize was coming around from the driveway.
"We've got a problem," Chase said judiciously, going back to back with Shea. They circled slowly, trying to watch all of their attackers at once. Shea was holding a suspiciously soft-looking baseball bat, with a wave of lighter color creeping up from the grip. It was halfway to the top now. Chase stalled. "You know, Monkey Boy, you really didn't have to go through all of this just to get a date with Shea."
"Yes, he did," Shea corrected him without taking her eyes off Orphan Maker
"He did? Come on, Shealee, I've heard of playing hard to get, but this is ridiculous."
Shea shrugged easily; the bat had almost completely changed color now, and looked solid. "A girl's gotta do...."
"Very funny," Monkey Boy said acidly. His eyes were flicking between his two targets and his gun, laying on the grass a few feet from him. "Orphan Maker, you see the kind of people we're dealing with here. This is what we're trying to take the girl away from."
Orphan Maker nodded ponderously. "This isn't a good place, not like it is with Nanny. I don't like it here."
"Orphan Maker, you're an idiot!" Shea exploded. "This is the best place! You're not helping me, you're letting the government get their slimy hands on me! Are you out of your mind?"
Orphan Maker shook his head. "Nanny knows what's best," he said with utter confidence. "You'll see."
"Absolutely," Garner agreed with a slimy smile. He sent a look past Chase and Shea at the agent behind them, and Chase braced himself to jump as Orphan Maker lifted an arm, newly-repaired with one of his laser guns.
From across campus came a high-pitched wail.
"Shealee?" Chase said calmly.
"Yeah?" She tightened her grip on the bat, her head cocked in a listening pose.
The distant wail built abruptly to a scream and they both hit the dirt as Monkey Boy shouted and Orphan Maker suddenly fired the laser. It blasted into the ground as Maker staggered under the physical impact of the noise, and Sean Cassidy dove down from the sky, clad in a yellow and green uniform. The force of his sonic scream actually knocked Orphan Maker back a few steps and clearly frightened the hell out of both Monkey Boy and his stooge.
Chase, slightly more prepared for Cassidy's attack than the intruders had been, still stayed on the ground, his head swimming dizzily under the assault to his inner ear. It didn't stop him from tackling Monkey Boy at the knees. Garner fell forward over Chase's back and Chase twisted to kick him in the stomach. The man grunted, but got a grip on Chase's wrists, and returned the kick, with an odd twist Chase couldn't counter in time.
The air whoofed out of his lungs for the second time in five minutes, and his head slammed back into the hard ground. The world went momentarily black, before fireworks worthy of Jubilee started popping soundlessly in front of his eyes.
A crack sounded a foot away from his ear, audible even over Cassidy's sonics. Garner went stiff, then collapsed forward. Chase fought against the deadweight on his struggling lungs; then it was lifted off, and he found himself staring up at Monet St. Croix, who was casually dangling Monkey Boy from one hand. Shea stood beside her, her baseball bat raised to strike again if necessary. He'd never seen her look so grim.
"What.. did you change.. that thing... into?" he huffed, his bruised and battered ribs protesting strenuously.
Shea's jaw was clenched, her eyes very serious. "A baseball bat."
Chase nodded, and let his head fall back to the grass. "Not bad." Then his eyes snapped back open. "Where's the other guy?"
"Currently, he is clinging to the top of the girl's dormitory, praying the repairs on the roof are current," M informed him, letting Garner drop back to the ground with a thud.
Footsteps pounded against the earth and Chamber, Husk, Skin and Mondo came tearing around the side of the building, looking slightly the worse for wear and prepared for battle. Jubilee and Synch, apparently having finished off their three, came around the other corner, shouting something incoherently. Chase looked dizzily up at the closer group, feeling no real inclination to get up.
Until Cassidy shouted from several feet away and he realized he'd forgotten all about the supervillain behind them. Cassidy forced Orphan Maker methodically backwards with the force of his sonic attack; Maker flailed blindly, trying to hit back, but Cassidy kept his distance, well out of range.
"Shouldn't we help him?" Husk asked, breathing hard.
"He seems to be doing pretty well on his own," Shea said with awed approval, her eyes wide.
Then the roar of a powerful engine ripped across the sky. A silver blur flashed overhead, lasers blasting in all directions; Cassidy had to abandon his assault on Orphan Maker to dodge Nanny's attack run. The backwash from the craft tore into all of them and Cassidy's sonic scream broke off as he slammed into the ground, much harder than he'd probably intended.
"Mr. Cassidy!" Husk yelled, then the entire herd of teenage mutants was running forward, Shea keeping pace with the rest.
"Shea, no!" Chase tried to shout, making it to his hands and knees before the dizziness was too much. He could only watch, helplessly.
M and Synch both took to the skies, facing Nanny's UFO as it turned and came back for another strafing run. Irresistible force met unmovable object with a mind-numbing crash, and M and Synch went flying into the side of the building, landing hard. But Nanny's ship didn't do any better, spinning out of control, smoke pouring from a hundred cracks and breaks until it crashed into the lawn near the trees.
"Nanny! No!" Orphan Maker howled in rage and took a swipe at Shea with one armored arm. But his aim was destroyed by the fireworks Jubilee set off in his face and Shea ducked the clumsy blow, slamming her bat, which was shifting colors again and now gleamed like steel, into his knees.
The blow rocked him without doing any damage and Shea cursed, then ducked his backswing, rolling out of the way. His flailing arm caught the bat, and sent it flying in Chase's direction, leaving Shea unarmed; but it had been enough distraction for Skin and Mondo to get to Cassidy, pulling him out of the way of the fight.
Their headmaster safe, Generation X got down to serious business.
"Plan alpha!" Chamber led them, lashing out with some kind of psionic attack that sent the flames of his chest spiraling even higher. Orphan Maker spun around in confusion, and slammed into Husk, who had shed her rock form for the dark nightmare Chase remembered from the mall. Her claws lashed out, gouging chunks from Maker's armor. He howled and struck back but she had already ducked away. His fist slammed into Mondo instead, who simply blinked at him.
"You shouldn't try to hurt my friends," the big Samoan said simply, before taking Maker's arms in a firm grip. His hands melded with Maker's armor and Maker howled, trying to pull away with no success.
Which made him a sitting duck when Monet and Everett, still shaky from their impact with the building, slammed into him from behind. Mondo released his hold as the duo lifted Maker off the ground and high into the air, ignoring his kicks and thrashing as they carried him to the fountain at the center of campus, and unceremoniously let him drop.
Water flooded into the damage Husk's claws had done, and Orphan Maker's armor shorted out in an impressive display of sparks, as the boy wailed helplessly, furiously, for his Nanny.
Chase's knees collapsed on him, and he fell face-down into the grass, barely avoiding the bat Shea had lost.
"Well done, children." It took a major effort, but Chase turned his head enough to see Cassidy sitting up with Husk and M's help. He looked dazed and groggy, but more or less uninjured. "Are all of ye all right?"
"Yes, sir," Synch said soberly, although he had a bloody lump rising on his forehead. "We're all here."
Cassidy looked around to confirm for himself. His eyes landed on Chase, taking in his sprawled and limp form with concern. "Lad, are ye hurt?"
Chase thought about it. His body didn't seem to want to respond to any commands and his head was swimming, but nothing outside of his ribs actually *hurt* or seemed to be bleeding. "Oh, I'm fine," he responded finally. "I'm just not going to try to get up for a while."
"That makes two of us, son," Cassidy half-laughed, half-moaned. "Where's Shea?"
"Ummm...." Now that was a damn good question, Chase realized dizzily. She'd disappeared some time between when she'd cracked Monkey Boy over the head, and when M and Synch had gotten into the act.
"If you're looking for little Miss O'Reilly," a cold, snide voice said before Chase could reply more coherently, "look no further.
Chase rolled over fast and instantly regretted it, as the fireworks in his head came back for an encore. Squinting through the colorful explosions, he saw his worst nightmare come to life.
Agent Van Dyke stood twenty feet away, one hand clamped painfully on Shea's arm, the other pressing a pistol into her side. "Isn't this interesting?" she continued casually, her dark eyes flashing with barely restrained fury. "Mr. Cassidy, I thought you said the fugitives weren't on the grounds of your school? How odd that we find them here. I'm sure the police and the Department of Education will fascinated to hear how well you aid and abet wanted runaways."
"Almost as fascinated as the Department of Justice will be by y'r midnight raid onto private property w' SWAT teams and a wanted team o' killers," Cassidy spit back, making it to his feet on the force of sheer fury.
Van Dyke just shrugged. "Extreme times call for extreme measures, and I think you're being a bit harsh on Poor Nanny and her 'precious boy'. She was just attempting to help the government apprehend a kidnaper and his mutant victim."
"And the money ye gave them didn't mean anything," Cassidy grated. "Sell me another one."
She smiled, cold and deadly, but otherwise seemed to ignore him. "I'll be leaving now, as soon as Mr. Matthews gets his feet under himself and joins us. He has a date with a jail cell. Too bad I can't take more of you children to safety with me -- I'm sure many of you could prove useful -- but I'll take what I can get. And I will be back."
"Over my dead body," Chase snarled. He was surprised to find himself on his feet -- he had no idea when or how he'd gotten there, and didn't particularly care. All his attention was focused on Van Dyke, and the defiant, terrified girl she was threatening.
Taking a step towards them, he sensed Chamber, Husk, Skin and Synch coming up on either side of him, and realized with an oddly distant part of his mind that Shea's bat was now clutched in his fist (which might explain how he'd gotten off the ground). He lifted it slightly, tightening his grip.
Van Dyke raised her eyebrows at him, unaffected. "Still the hero, Matthews? It's going to get you killed, even with your little friends to help you. Or, more likely, it'll get Miss O'Reilly here killed." She poked the pistol harder into Shea's ribs and Chase almost went for her throat right then.
*You won't hurt the gel.* Chase took vengeful satisfaction in seeing Van Dyke jerk and blink as Chamber's psionic voice echoed in her head. *Y've chased her f'r too long t' kill her now; y' need her. Nice bluff, but we're not buyin'.*
Chase grinned savagely, nodding towards Chamber. "What he said. You're not chasing a couple of kids on their own anymore, Van Dyke; we've got friends now." Husk and Synch nodded in grim agreement. Jubilee had joined them, Chase noticed, and her young face was set in determined lines. Cassidy stood behind her, his eyes hard, and Chase smiled again, utterly sure of his ground for the first time in his life.
"Let her go," he told Van Dyke levelly, "or you'll have *all* of us to deal with."
They faced off for a long, long moment. Then Van Dyke shook her head and started backing away, without releasing her grip on Shea. "No, I think the bluff that's going to be called is yours. We're leaving."
Something moved in the shadows behind Van Dyke, and he heard Husk's in-drawn breath. He nodded slightly, to tell the others he'd seen it, and let his eyes drift past Van Dyke, grinning maliciously. "Better not turn around," he warned her.
For all their training, even government agents are still human; naturally, she looked, and found herself face to face with something dark red and spiky, reaching clawed hands out towards her, its face lost in shadows.
Van Dyke shouted and loosened her grip on Shea, stumbling back in shock. Shea broke free, throwing herself to the side, and Chase lunged forward, the bat swinging out and down to crack into Van Dyke's arm. The momentum sent him to his knees; she screamed in pain, but somehow held onto the gun.
"Damn you," she hissed, tightening her grip on the gun. He saw it come up, saw the enraged light in her eyes as she aimed it at his head, and braced himself for the pain.
The gunshot echoed through the night and he jerked in reaction, then again when he realized he hadn't been hit. Then Shea was kneeling beside him, her arms wrapped around his neck and sobs shaking her body, and he looked up.
Penance crouched beside them, a piece of cloth that matched the brand-new, bloody tear in Van Dyke's sleeve caught in her claws. In front of them, two of the agents -- the ones he and Chamber and Mondo had fought together -- were holding Van Dyke, calmly squeezing her arms and wrists as she jerked and flailed away at them, screaming orders that they ignored.
"What the hell?" he breathed, even as his arms came up to hold Shea close, assuring himself she was still all right. "When did *they* change sides?"
"When I told them to." Emma Frost made her usual impressive entrance, strolling past Van Dyke and her captors as if she was walking into an expensive restaurant and expected the maitre d' to start fawning. "You may as well stop fighting it," she told Van Dyke coolly. "Your men are under my control, until I choose to release them."
Without waiting to see if Van Dyke followed her advice, she knelt next to Shea and Chase, ignoring what grass stains would do to her spotlessly white slacks. "Chase, were you hit?"
He gaped at her, then to the agent, who did look pretty blank, then back to her. "No," he finally forced out. "We're both fine."
She actually smiled. Astonishingly enough, it even seemed to be more or less sincere. "Good," she told him, quirking one eyebrow. "You did well."
Trust Ms. Frost to make even a compliment sound patronizing. "For a human?" he challenged, pushing Shea's hair away from his face and pulling her a little closer.
Ms. Frost didn't seem offended. "For anyone."
Cassidy interrupted before the conversation could deteriorate, for which Chase was grateful. "Well, and ye took y'r own good time showin' up, Emma!" he said loudly. "Where the devil've ye been?"
Ms. Frost looked at him coolly, rising back to her feet. "I was rounding up the agents who were attempting to get away, rather than allowing them to go whining back to their headquarters about just what is going on at Xavier's School. I thought that would be a Bad Thing, but maybe that's just me," she ended with sweet, icicle sarcasm.
Cassidy growled, but didn't respond. Shea abruptly shoved herself upright and hit Chase on the arm with all of her strength. "Hey!" he objected. "What'd you do that for?"
"You scared the hell out of me, you jerk!" she informed him, her amber eyes flashing sparks at him. "I thought she was going to shoot you! Don't ever do that again!" More punches punctuated her scold, until he caught her arms between them and wrapped her close again.
"Sorry, Shealee," he apologized humbly, although a laugh seemed to be trying to bubble up from his stomach. "I admit it, it was all my fault."
"Damn straight." Husk -- no, Paige, she'd gone back to normal form -- stood over them, not even trying to hide her relieved smile. Chase found himself grinning back up at her, then the rest of their friends were gathering around them, pulling them to their feet and into relieved hugs and backslaps, as Van Dyke watched with fury, and Cassidy and Ms. Frost watched with indulgent smiles.
"you know if I leave you now
"This sucks! We should be up there, too!"
"Shut up, Jubilee, we can't hear what they're saying."
"Excuse much! I'm just sayin' that--"
"Jubilee, shut up!"
Shea actually sympathized with Jubilee; she desperately wanted to be upstairs in that meeting. But Mr. Cassidy had gently but firmly told them to let the adults handle this last round.
"Y've done enough, the both of ye," he'd said, hugging Shea with relieved affection, and laying a proud hand on Chase's shoulder. "Y've all been brave and strong beyond anyone's wildest expectations. But, just for once, let us be takin' care of you."
Phrased like that, they hadn't really had much of a choice. So, three hours later, Generation X was once again clustered in the war room, eavesdropping on a conversation between the Bureau of Mutant Affairs and their headmasters. This time, however, there were a few additional participants.
Jennifer Walters, for instance, who was stalking up and down in front of Cassidy's desk in an aura of righteous indignation as she recited, chapter and verse, every law, constitutional amendment, and government regulation that Van Dyke and her goon squad had violated when they broke into a private school at night, with weapons and without a proper warrant, and exactly how many ways the MassAcad was prepared to sue the Bureau for said violations.
Listening and nodding patiently, understandingly and consolingly, was a man of medium height, with graying brown hair and piercing, pale blue eyes. Special Agent Peterson of the Bureau of Mutant Affairs was not a happy man, and made no attempt to keep his displeasure to himself. In between agreeing with Jennifer, he shot killer glares at a subdued Garner and a still-infuriated Agent Van Dyke, bound with their own cuffs to chairs in the corner.
Only five people listening to the one-sided conversation knew for sure just how much of an act was being put on, although several of the others certainly suspected.
Two of the ones who were sure sat together at the table beneath the main viewscreen, watching with enjoyment as Jennifer put Van Dyke through the wringer. "I think Peterson is having a little too much fun," Shea observed happily.
Chase, sprawled out in the chair next to her, chuckled without moving. "How can you tell?" he pointed out. "I've never seen him smile."
"Ah was just thinkin' he looks real pissed off," Paige contributed from Shea's other side, too tired to care about her accent. "Ah sure wouldn't want t' be in Van Dyke's shoes."
Shea and Chase exchanged looks, but didn't otherwise comment. The fewer people who knew that Peterson, Van Dyke's superior in the Bureau, was actually part of Charles Xavier's mutant underground and a mutant himself, the better. They'd only found out after he'd helped them escape for the second or third time.
"I just hope Ms. Frost had them tighten those handcuffs real well," Chase shrugged, wincing as the motion pulled at his ribs. They were wrapped, and would be until there was time for a long session on the Shi'ar biobed to heal the various cracks and bruises.
Shea rubbed her wrists in remembrance. "Amen to that. And I hope her bruises hurt as bad as ours did."
*No hostility in here,* Jono observed facetiously, although how he could be facetious psionically was anyone's guess.
"No, none at all," Chase agreed breezily. Shea laughed and started to hit him, remembered his ribs, and settling for ruffling his dark hair a la Jennifer. For once, he didn't object.
"Aren't we supposed t' be bein' quiet?" Jubilee observed nastily from the chair where she'd been sulking. Ev, not constrained by anyone's injuries, swatted her lightly on the back of the head.
"Then be quiet already," he told her with a half-grin. She stuck her tongue out at him, but sat up straighter and paid attention.
Jennifer was finally winding down -- it had taken a while, but she'd had a lot of impotent anger to burn off, after she'd heard about the assault on the school and, more specifically, on Shea and Chase. With a few last threats, she threw herself down into the chair behind Mr. Cassidy's desk and crossed her arms, glaring at Peterson and Van Dyke over the top of it.
Peterson shook his head slowly. "I can't tell you how sorry I am for the misguided and dangerous actions of my colleague," he said regretfully, leaning forward in his chair and meeting Mr. Cassidy's eyes. The headmaster was leaning against the front of his chest, Ms. Frost standing beside him and glaring daggers at anyone who happened to get in front of her. "I assure you, the Bureau will be dealing quite severely with her."
"Goddammit, I didn't--!"
"Quiet!" Peterson's controlled shout and less controlled look cut Van Dyke off before she could get three words out. She snarled, but Ms. Frost's eyes suddenly focused on her; under the combined force of the glares, she shut up.
"All right, Peterson!" Angelo cheered softly. "I could get to like that dude."
"As I was saying," Peterson continued, returning his eyes to Mr. Cassidy, "the Bureau will, of course, make reparations for this gross misconduct. I only hope we can reach an amicable agreement."
Mr. Cassidy nodded thoughtfully, but it was Ms. Frost who answered. "How's this for amicable?" she asked icily. "The Bureau will pay for all damages incurred to the grounds of the Massachusetts Academy, and sign a legal agreement never to set foot on said grounds again. In addition, you will drop all charges against those poor children you've chasing from one end of this country to the other. Ms. Walters has told us everything, and I will not tolerate the further endangerment of *any* children should any of your agents become delusional again."
"What?" If she hadn't been handcuffed, Van Dyke would have gone for Ms. Frost's throat. "Dammit, those kids are here, along with half the mutants on this planet. You can't let them get away with hiding here, not after what we've found here! We've got proof!"
Peterson half rose, presumably to forcibly silence the other agent, but Ms. Frost held up a regal, restraining hand. Peterson paused, then gave a dignified nod in her direction and resumed his seat. Ms. Frost left the desk to stroll over to Van Dyke; Mr. Cassidy just leaned back a little farther against the desk.
"That's right, Irish, let Frosty do the lying," Jubilee cracked, getting over her sulk. "She's better at it than you are, anyway." The others laughed quietly, but no one took their eyes off the screen.
"And just what proof do you have of these paranoid allegations?" Ms. Frost was asking. If physics had allowed, every word would have drawn blood. "Your own men say that no one saw Miss... O'Reilly, was it?... here. Not do they remember anything about being attacked by a 'vicious group of mutants', as you put it."
"That's because you brainwashed them!" Van Dyke said through gritted teeth. "Tell them, Garner. Tell them about those little monsters, tell them what happened, what they did to us!" She lifted her heavily-bandaged arm for emphasis; what Chase had started with the bat, Penance had finished with her claws.
Monkey Boy flinched, as if startled to be addressed, then sank deeper into his chair. "I don't remember anything like that." He lifted his eyes, gazing pleadingly at Peterson. "I'm sorry, sir. We were way out of line, and those security guards the school hired had every right to take us down. It won't happen again."
"Goddammit, Garner--!" Van Dyke started to explode.
Peterson talked right over her, as if she didn't exist. "You're right, Garner, it won't happen again. I'll be placing your actions before the review board -- and the psychiatric section -- first thing in the morning. If you're lucky, all you'll lose is your job." He looked back at Ms. Frost. "We'll agree to the first two conditions, certainly, but... the charges? Miss O'Reilly is still either a runaway or being held against her will by Matthews. Either way, we must locate them, for her own good."
"What's he doing?" Shea hissed in disbelief. "He was supposed to go along with that!'
"Chill," Chase told her, although his eyes had narrowed. "He can't go too easily, or Van Dyke will know it's a set-up for sure."
"Like she doesn't now?" Shea muttered.
"A set-up?" Paige asked quietly and pointedly. Shea winced, threw her friend an 'I'll explain later' look and shut the hell up.
Sure enough, Jennifer was on her feet. "Miss O'Reilly went with Mr. Matthews of her own free will, to escape from *your* attempted kidnapping," she informed Peterson. "When the charges are dropped, we will be filing documents to have Miss O'Reilly declared an emancipated minor, or at the very least, give her a guardian of our choosing, since the State of Oregon has proven itself to be completely unable to adequately protect her."
She stopped in front of Peterson, glaring down at him impressively. "Of course, at that time, both Mr. Matthews and Miss O'Reilly or her guardian will also be filing suit against the Bureau for wrongful prosecution, harassment, and attempted kidnapping, not to mention attempted murder, since one of your people actually shot at Miss O'Reilly at Stapleton Airport, showing flagrant disregard for the safety you claim to be so concerned with."
"They did?" Chase asked happily. "I mean, we are?"
Shea shrugged, fighting against gleeful laughter. Van Dyke looked as if she'd swallowed a frog, and even Peterson, who was in on the game, looked faintly green. Jennifer was really on a roll. "She's our lawyer, I guess we are."
Peterson stuttered and stammered for a moment, then regained control, adjusting his tie with finicky motions. "I see your point, Ms. Walters. I will take the matter up with my superiors, who, I believe, have some influence over the law enforcement officials. You'll be hearing from me tomorrow."
"I hope so," Jennifer smiled with a lot of teeth. It was not at all reassuring.
"He does stuffy very well," Shea commented.
"She does intimidating really well," Paige added, with an edge of hero worship in her voice.
Ms. Frost was looking over at Van Dyke now, with a very superior smile on her face. "Do you have anything to add, Agent Van Dyke?"
Van Dyke simply stared back at Ms Frost, her jaw clenched so hard, Shea could almost hear her teeth grinding. "This isn't over," she told Ms. Frost with cold, quiet certainty, expanding her look to cover Peterson, Mr. Cassidy and Jennifer as well. Peterson looked offended and Jennifer looked smug.
Mr. Cassidy just looked tired. "Yes, it is over." He spoke for the first time, in a tone that left no room for argument, and calmly threatened all kinds of hell if he was proved to be wrong. "Come near my children again, and y' will be payin' the price. By all that's holy, I promise y' that."
Shea felt unexpected tears prickling at her eyes. Mr. Cassidy hadn't been happy with a large part of this plan, particularly the part which called for wiping and rearranging the memories of Garner and the other agents who'd attacked the school. But he'd gone along with it, for Shea and Chase's sake, she knew. And she knew how much that meant.
Beside her, Chase coughed and bowed his head to hide his own eyes. Paige smiled and took Shea's hand in a strong grip. "Told you so," she whispered, and Shea started laughing.
"To the newest official student at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and her equally official guardian!" Mr. Cassidy made the toast, but it was echoed by everyone in the room, glasses of soda and champagne raised high.
Shea, snuggled under Chase's arm and next to Jennifer, downed a gulp of her soda. "Can I call you Mommy?" she asked Jennifer with a cheeky grin.
"Absolutely," Jennifer answered, rumpling Shea's hair before she could get out of the way. "As long as I can tell you to do your homework and turn out the lights."
Shea considered the deal. "Okay. Mommy, can I borrow the car?"
"Don't push it, kiddo." Jennifer's stern tone lost its impact as she pulled Shea into a bear hug against her side. Shea returned the hug, resting her head against her new guardian's shoulder contentedly.
It had taken five days, but everything was finally settled. Monet's latest foray into the Bureau's computers showed that Van Dyke had been suspended for two months pending psychiatric evaluation, based on her 'paranoid' insistence that she'd been attacked by mutants no else had seen. It was petty revenge, but Van Dyke had a natural psi-block the size of Gibraltar. Getting her declared mentally suspect had been the best Ms. Frost and Peterson had been able to do.
The Orphan Maker and Nanny, both battered but still functional, had been turned over to X-Factor. Their leader, Havoc, apparently held a long-standing grudge against Nanny and had been more than willing to take responsibility for locking the both of them away. At least *something* in the government was still working right.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Mutant Affairs, abiding by Peterson's agreement and Jennifer's threats, had quietly gotten all of the charges against both Shea and Chase dropped. Jennifer had instantly filed for legal guardianship of Shea and, after a few more threats towards Oregon Social Services and some shameless string pulling on Jennifer and Ms. Frost's parts, the paperwork had gone through with amazing speed. And just for a guarantee, a copy of the Bureau database was now resting in the school's mainframe, suitable for blackmail purposes.
Unless someone was feeling suicidal enough to challenge She-Hulk for custody, Shea was safe at last.
Which was why the entire student body of the Massachusetts Academy, and not a few of the X-Men, were currently gathered in the ballroom, celebrating. Jubilee had gone yelping across the room to brag to her old teammates, Shea had been introduced to the X-men who had attempted to pick her and Chase up at Stapleton Airport what seemed like years before, and Professor Xavier had been chewed out up one side and down the other (quietly, of course) for not letting Jennifer in on his connections with the Bureau back when it might have done some good.
It had been highly educational watching the Professor sit quietly and nod meek agreement as Jennifer yelled at him; Shea grinned at the memory.
"Chase, Shulkie, may I steal Shea from your care for a moment?" Dr. McCoy asked as he came up from behind her, a wide smile splitting his furry blue face. "Paige is attempting to murder her elder brother, and I feel the intervention of a neutral third party is in order."
Shea grinned at him and squeezed Chase's waist. "Come on," she told him. "I want to meet the infamous Cannonball, anyway."
He smiling down at her. It didn't reach his eyes, and she tried not to show how much that bothered her. "You go on, Shealee," he told her. "I've got some thing to do."
"Like what? This is a party."
"I know. Go on, talk to Cannonball." He shoved her away a little and she bit her lip, then trailed after Hank towards the tall, blond young man arguing heatedly with Paige, looking back over her shoulder at him once. He was talking seriously to Jennifer, and a cold knot started in her stomach.
She wasn't really surprised when Chase didn't show up at dinner, held early enough that the little kids could join the party. They'd earned it -- Artie's hologram of a 10-foot tall bogeyman the night of the attack had literally floored the agent who'd run for the biosphere. Then he and Leech had sat on the 'bad man' until Ms Frost had come to take him away.
Shea had already hugged both boys and taken them for the promised motorcycle rides. Now, she ate quickly, responded to what by-play and teasing she couldn't get out of, then escaped as soon as she could. Somehow, she knew where she'd find Chase.
The knot in her stomach got bigger and colder.
She was right. He was outside the main house, crouching next to the motorcycle and adjusting the straps that held a heavy duffel bag on. He didn't hear her come up until she said, quietly, "You missed dinner."
He froze and his shoulders tightened. Then he slowly stood. "Yeah, I know. What was it?"
"I love pot roast."
"Well, you missed it." Neither of them was particularly fooled by the banal conversation; Shea just didn't know what else to say. So she settled for being direct.
"Chase, why are you leaving?" she asked point blank, facing him. "You've been ghosting around for two days, ever since Dr. McCoy let you out of the infirmary. The Bureau's off our butts, we've got no restrictions on leaving campus, you haven't even argued with Ms Frost lately. So why are you doing this? Without even saying good-bye!"
Chase took a long time to answer, running his hands over the seat of the Harley; when he finally spoke, it didn't seem like he'd even heard the question. "Back in Copper Lake, did you ever go out by the lake and put pennies on the rails, and wait for the trains to come?"
Shea blinked. "Of course, I did; so did everyone. What does that...?"
"And," he continued over her impatient words, "you'd wait around for the train to come by, then go get the pennies off the track, and they'd be these flat, round things that you couldn't even recognize as a penny anymore."
"What are you getting at?" she asked, her voice tight and unhappy even to her own ears.
Chase sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Shea, I feel like one of those pennies. I'm stuck on this train track and any second now, I'm going to get flattened. No, just listen," he said when she tried to interrupt again. "You're safe here. You'll fit in here, a lot better than either of us ever did back home.
"But me...." He looked away, staring out over the driveway to the road. "Shealee, this isn't going to work. I've been out of high school a long time; I don't need teachers or guardians, and I'm damned if I'm going to go back to being a handyman, or a mechanic, just to have something to do. I don't fit here, Shea, any more than I fit back in Copper Lake. If I stay, I'm just going to trap myself again -- get run over or fall between the rails. Either way, I'm stuck."
"You haven't even tried to fit in! Mr. Cassidy...." she started.
Chase didn't let her finish. "Mr. Cassidy's great, and he's going to take good care of you. And right now, there's nothing I can do for you that he can't." His fist slammed down on the gas tank. "Christ, I almost got both of us killed last night! I'm not a mutant, I'm not a fighter, and I don't belong here."
Shea took a deep, steadying breath. "Then I'll come with you."
He shook his head and started to laugh, a wry, painful-sounding laugh. "No, you won't. You belong here, not out there with me. Ms. Frost and Mr. Cassidy, and Jen and the Professor -- they'll protect you until you're old enough to take care of yourself. You've got friends here already, you're part of the team. All I can do is screw up your life."
She turned away, wrapping her arms around her waist. "So you've made all the decisions, huh? I don't get any say in this?"
"No, Shealee." His voice was gentle, but firm, and she knew he'd made up his mind.
"You said you wouldn't leave me." It was a desperate plea, her last chance.
And it failed. He took her shoulders, turning her to look at him. "You know I'm right, Shealee. You know I can't stay here, and you know you can't come."
She refused to meet his eyes, clenching her jaw. She wouldn't cry in front of him.
Chase breathed out heavily and raked a hand through his hair, before reaching into his pocket. "I was going to leave this with Jen for you, to make it easier on both of us, but...." Something cool and heavy settled over her hair and around her neck; involuntarily, she reached up and touched the chain as it fell past her collarbone, the pendant touching the middle of her chest. She picked it up and studied it -- a small gold Harley Davidson emblem.
"So you don't forget," he said quietly.
"You got this in Boston?" She ran her fingers along the cool surface. "You knew you were leaving even then."
"Hoped I was." Her head swung up to stare at him with wide, hurt eyes, then she tore them away. He winced, catching her cheek in his hand and forcing her to meet his eyes. "No, Shealee, I didn't mean that. I just... I'd hoped this would be a safe enough place that I could leave you here, without worrying. That they'd take care of you." His voice turned deadly serious. "If I wasn't sure of that, swear to God, I'd put you on the back of the bike now, and drive so far away they'd never find us."
His eyes had never lied to her -- Shea saw the truth in them now, and the resolve. His arms came around her, pulling her close against him and she dropped the pendant to clutch desperately at his waist, surrendering all pride for one last breath of the leather and motor oil that always seemed to surround him.
"You'll come back?" she whispered against his jacket.
Chase laughed quietly against her head, his breath stirring her hair. "Yeah, Shealee. I'll be back."
She tilted her face up towards his; his eyes smiled down at her with a suspicious sheen of their own. "Promise?"
His hand came up, toying with a strand of her hair, running a finger down her cheek. "I promise." He bent over, not very far, and found her lips with his own. She clung to him, letting her kiss say the good-bye she refused to put into words.
Long moments later, he gently pulled away. Laying a second, whisper-soft kiss against her forehead, he walked down the porch stairs to his motorcycle. He straddled the bike, picked up his helmet, then turned towards her. His grin flashed briefly in the dying sunlight. "Stay out of trouble, Sundance."
She forced herself to smile, wrapping her arms against one of the tall pillars and pressing her cheek to the cool marble. "You, too, Butch."
Chase nodded, then pulled the helmet over his head. A moment later, he was roaring down the driveway, and out the gate onto the road.
He never looked back.
Shea watched him go, clinging to the pillar long after the sound of his motorcycle faded down the road. Twilight faded towards night, and still she stood there, lost in misery and the first true fear she'd felt since a man in a dark suit had told her she had no secrets left.
Chase was gone, and she was alone.
"Shea?" Sean Cassidy came through the door behind her, walking quietly. "Lass... we've been lookin' for ye."
She didn't answer, just stared ahead, dry-eyed. Mr. Cassidy sighed softly, almost soundlessly, and crossed the porch to her, laying a hand on her shoulder. "He's gone, then?"
She nodded, biting her lip hard enough to draw blood. The pain distracted her from the rough hand squeezing her heart.
"Ye know he didnae leave lightly," Mr. Cassidy said softly. "I've never seen a man as devoted t' anyone as Chase Matthews is t' you."
"I know." She had to force the words past the lump in her throat. "I know he cares about me. But it wasn't enough to keep him here."
"Ye've found y'r place, Shea.... At least, I hope ye have. Ye have t' give him a chance t' find his."
"I know." One hand crept up to finger the heavy chain he'd placed around her neck. She clutched the pendant desperately as the first tears rolled down her cheeks. "But I love him."
Mr. Cassidy's arms came around her, one of his big hands cradling her head, the other rubbing her back; after a moment, she gave in, leaning against him and letting the sobs come. "I know, lass," he said quietly, tightening the embrace. "That's why ye have t' let him go."
They stood that way until the first stars came out in the skies over the Massachusetts Academy, and Paige came out to find them.
Agent Van Dyke bears no resemblance whatsoever to Miss Parker on 'The Pretender'. Nope, none at all. And Agent Peterson doesn't look a thing like Sydney.
Thanks to my beta readers Martha (and cat), Hawk (a.k.a. She Who Points Out Plot Holes Big Enough to Drive Motorcycles Through), and the usual suspects. You know who you are. Dedicated with affection to Tom DeFalco. Just because.