Part One: Acts of Terror
This story is set in the world of the X-Men movies, not long after the second one ends. The world and some of the characters belong to Marvel; the story and the rest of the characters are mine.
Walt made a show of trying to catch the leader and not quite making it, then made a show of having to catch his breath after coming in second. Several people approached and congratulated him, as well as offering sympathies. More were clustered around Toby Holgrade, since he had won.
"Waited too late again," said Coach Winston, as Walt approached the entrance to the showers.
"Sorry," said Walt, with a sigh. "If I start too soon I run out of steam; wait too late and, well, I'm too late."
"Boy, you need more practice," said Coach, shaking his head. "You could be Olympic level if you'd just work harder."
"I appreciate the compliment, but there's so many things I want to do..."
"Spread yourself too thin and you'll vanish," Coach warned, before turning away, obviously dissatisfied.
Which might not be such a bad thing, Walt thought, as he entered the showers.
All he'd ever wanted was to not attract undue attention. No, that wasn't quite true. He wanted the same things most seventeen year old boys did; he just didn't want them badly enough to reveal his secret. A few near-ruinous attempts at trying to be "Mr. Popular" had soured him on that.
Even four years after his powers had manifested, Walt still worried about both being found out when he used them, and not fitting in if he didn't. Fortunately, they were inherently low-key; at least, the powers themselves were. Some of the results weren't. He'd had to join the track team after carelessly letting people see how fast he could run. Now he had to make sure to not win too many events, and not let people see that sabotaging his own efforts was more trouble than winning every race would have been.
"Hey, shrimp," said Joel Petersen, as Walt returned to the locker room.
The tone and timing were far different than they had been four years earlier. Almost friendly.
"Shrimp?" said Walt, smirking as he flexed a bit. "I'm almost as tall and muscular as you are, these days. Fifth tallest kid in school."
That change actually hadn't been a surprise. Both his parents were tall. He'd just been a late bloomer.
"You never live down a nickname," laughed another of the boys. "You could turn into another Andre the Giant in a few years and people would still call you that."
"Yeah, but at least that would be an ironic usage," said Walt, as he opened his locker.
Some of them got it. Which reminded Walt that he was also having increasing difficulty hiding his intelligence. IQ tests were trivial to fool, but holding back, all the time, around everyone, was a major strain. He was so glad his girlfriend was a "brain."
"Andre was a mutant," chided another boy, half-seriously.
And then there were the people so busy fooling themselves that Walt wished he could show them the truth, since dealing with that probably wouldn't be any worse for him than dealing with their delusions. As just one example, right after gym he had an appointment with one of the school counselors. For something someone else had done.
"Yeah, but wouldn't you want to be a mutant, if it meant getting all that fame, and money, and women..."
"And whiskey. I hear that guy could drink it by the quart and hardly feel it."
"You guys are sick! Mutants are sick!"
"Andre had acromegaly," said Sammy Thuvis. "Caused by a hormone problem. It could have been a mutation, but a classic one, not the sort you're talking about. Most likely it was a teratology. An accident in the womb."
Sammy was one of the few kids in school Walt actually found interesting to talk to. But he made the mistake of showing off his smarts in front of people who didn't like hearing anything which reminded them they were average or worse.
"Listen to the nerd," said one of the younger boys, sneering.
Fortunately, Sammy knew when to shut up, and most of the worst bullies were tired from the hard track and field practice during gym class.
* * *
"I shouldn't be here," Walt muttered, as he sat in the chair across the desk from the counselor.
"Son... use of racial epithets is grounds for expulsion," said Mr. Jacobs. "Due to your good grades and otherwise good record, you're being counseled, instead."
"Then why is Jimmy Fields still in school?" snapped Walt. "He's not only the most foul-mouthed kid in school, he has some of the worst grades."
"The kid who called my... who insulted my girlfriend!"
"This isn't about him. This is about you using a racial epithet."
"I was just telling the principal what Jimmy said!"
"And if Jimmy jumped off a roof, I suppose you'd jump off too?"
Walt just stared at the counselor for a moment.
"For your information, I'm not ten years old. Jimmy Fields insulted my girlfriend, using the 'N' word, and I reported him to the principle. For some reason beyond human understanding, this got me in trouble."
"That's not what I was told."
"Look, my girlfriend is black, and Jimmy insulted her due to her skin color. I reported this as a piece of racial hate speech. I don't understand why I'm here."
"This counseling session is to explain why using racial insults is wrong..."
"I already know that! I wouldn't have reported it if I didn't know that!"
"Son, you're not going to make any progress until you calm down and admit you were wrong."
"But I wasn't wrong," said Walt, groaning. "I am one of the victims, here, not the culprit!"
* * *
"I was threatened with expulsion unless I made a public apology for using the 'N' word," said Walt, as he and Susan walked home.
"But... you weren't the one..." said Susan.
"I told him that. Repeatedly. Somehow, though, my report got into the system with me as the villain, and since he had it in writing it had to be true."
"Well, I'll just march right down there tomorrow and put them straight!"
"Forget it," snapped Walt. "I told that microcephalic counselor that if he insisted on blaming me for reporting hate speech I'd personally file a complaint against him for encouraging it, since he was punishing someone who reported it and ignoring the culprit, and follow up with a lawsuit for harassment because I reported him. That finally got through to him, but not in the right way; 'lawsuit' was about all he heard. So he let me off with a warning. Idiot."
Susan hugged him and gave him a brief kiss.
"You are too much the champion," she said, teasing. "I'm glad I met you, and a few others, but otherwise I just wish my parents hadn't moved here. Most of the folks are nice, but there are a few..."
"You find that anywhere you go," said Walt, philosophically.
They were interrupted by Jimmy Fields jumping out in front of them, swinging a baseball bat studded with nails at Walt.
Walt grabbed Susan and moved both of them back out of the way.
"What is your problem?!" Walt yelled, as Jimmy, overextended, took several staggering steps to catch his balance.
"You fucking bastard!" the other boy screamed. "I'll fucking kill you!"
"Why are you mad at me?! They... Yipe!"
Walt dodged another swing.
"You told on me!"
"And they didn't believe me! So what's your problem?"
"You fucking traitor!" He swung again. "You don't just date her, you side with her against your own kind!"
This time, fed up, Walt grabbed the bat and jerked it away from the manic boy. He stepped back and deliberately broke the bat over his thigh.
"That's enough. You don't like me, fine. I don't like you. But if you come after me again, or hurt any of my friends, I'll do to you what I did to that bat."
"You're a fuckin' mutie!" Jimmy screamed, backing away, eyes wide in terror. "I'm gonna report you!"
"To whom? It's not illegal, you know."
"I'm gonna report you, mutie," were Jimmy's parting words.
"I don't believe this," said Walt, tossing the pieces of bat away.
"Are you all right?"
"Physically, yeah. I mean, it wasn't like it was a fair fight."
That last was in a very sour tone.
"You shouldn't have let him see how fast and strong you are."
Though they had never discussed it openly, Susan knew Walt had extraordinary physical abilities to go with his keen mind.
"I just got fed up with everything," said Walt, throwing his arms wide. Then he sighed. "Yeah, I know. One emotional moment could have ruined my whole life."
"Hey, it's all right. The only people who would listen to that crazy guy deserve to."
Walt had to laugh at that. The duo resumed their walk home.
"You coming in?" said Walt, as the reached his house.
"Not right now, but I'll be back in a bit. My Mom wanted me to return your Mom's casserole dish. Probably be by with it after supper."
"That's great," said Walt, grinning. "We can help each other with homework."
They both laughed at that. Because they'd been using that excuse to hang out together since they were twelve. Neither ever needing more than trivial help with the lowest common denominator classwork they were issued.
* * *
"You still haven't applied to college," said Mr. Thorndyne, as they were cleaning up the dishes after supper.
"I was waiting to see if the Xavier school would accept me," said Walt. "But they've had some kind of big disaster and I guess are too busy to reply."
"Well, I can't say I'm sorry," said Walt's mother. "I know you were counting on a scholarship from them, but a fancy New England private school just doesn't seem like the sort of place where you'd fit in."
"You'd be surprised, Mom," said Walt, sighing.
"You gonna come up and help me with my homework?" said Kerrie.
"In a bit. Susan is supposed to..."
"Stop by to return the casserole dish," said Susan, poking her head in the kitchen door from the side stoop. "Hey, Mrs. Thorndyne, Mr. Thorndyne! Hi, Kerrie!"
"Hi, Susan!" the girl replied. "Will you help me with my homework? My big brother won't."
"I said I'd help," said Walt. He grinned at the others. "She just gets mad because I don't do all of it for her."
"Well, just remember, we're supposed to do homework together, too," said Susan, with a smile. "So why don't you go ahead and help her?"
"Go ahead," said Walt's mother. "I want to ask Kerrie about her college plans, anyway."
"All right, all right..." said Walt, muttering as he took his little sister by the arm and left the kitchen.
"All right, Kerrie," said Walt, once they were upstairs in the girl's room. "What's the problem?"
Kerrie was bright and athletic, but so far showed no signs of powers, something which left Walt relieved.
She's a year older than I was when I noticed my powers, and girls develop faster, he thought to himself, feeling hopeful. Maybe it missed her.
"What was that?" asked Kerrie, at the sound of breaking glass.
Then they heard screams.
"Stay here!" Walt yelled, jumping up and running out of the room.
From the stairway he could see that the kitchen was an inferno. He was amazed how quiet things were; the flames weren't all that loud... and the screams had stopped.
Maybe they got out the side door,.
He knew they hadn't, but until he was certain he would hold on to that.
Walt jumped at the sound of more breaking glass, coming from much closer. He spun around and hopped to the top of the steps. Something had crashed through his bedroom window, breaking on the foot of his bed and spattering its contents. He saw the remains of a 2-liter bottle with a burnt - though no longer burning - rag in the mouth. Then there was another crash down below. Turning back, Walt had time to see another bottle smash through the bay window. Cut open by the glass it sprayed liquid as it spun, it's burning rag sputtering but staying lit long enough to catch the liquid. Walt smelled gasoline from his room, now, and realized his peril just too late.
Heated fumes from the kitchen had already been pouring upwards, filling the upstairs hallway. Now the burning gasoline in the living room ignited those smokey gasses, which carried the fire up the stairway in a roiling wave, over and past Walt, into the east end of the hallway and his bedroom. Walt screamed and dropped, rolling away.
Some part of his mind, divorced from the hideous moment, recognized that he was hurt but still functional. That his sister was so far unhurt, but stuck in the west end of the house, with the stairs blocked by fire. And that the gasoline in his bedroom would catch any moment. That same part knew that he was her only hope for survival... and that his parents and Susan would need avenging.
Ignoring his hurts - there actually wasn't much pain, yet, and he figured that while his burns were extensive they were mostly superficial - Walt scrambled to his feet and charged down the hall. Kerrie was just coming out the door. She screamed when she saw him.
Walt grabbed her and in one bound jumped from the door to her window, turning in mid-air to take the brunt of the impact. He had planned to land on his feet, but one heel caught on the bottom of the sill and he wound up falling from the second story bedroom to the ground flat on his back. Fortunately, the lawn was covered in tall, thick, soft grass. He had the wind knocked out of him, but wasn't seriously hurt. That is, he had no significant injuries on top of his burns.
"Y-you all right?" he gasped, lifting Kerrie off his chest.
"Mom! Dad! Susan!" the girl screamed, trying to tear free.
"Stay here!" said Walt, again, as he pushed her aside and tried to get up.
He needed three tries. And then Kerrie wrapped herself around his legs, screaming that she didn't want to lose him, too. Walt hesitated. And then something in the house blew.
Realizing that anyone inside was long dead, Walt reluctantly turned, grabbed his sister and ran into the Phelps' yard. He was starting to hurt, now.
"G-garden hose," he gasped, letting her down and falling to his knees.
Kerrie might or might not share Walt's problem, but she was definitely a smart girl. She cranked the outside faucet wide open, grabbed the business end of the hose and sprayed her brother. Walt actually cried out at the shock of that relief. Then fainted.
* * *
"What do you mean he's not here?" said Theodore Carver, Walt's history teacher and one of his favorite adults, not quite believing what the receptionist had just told him.
"She means the boy's just been transferred to city lockup," said a new voice.
Mr. Carver turned to see an old nemesis, who through some error of the political process was now the city's chief of police.
"Why in the name of sanity did you put a badly-burned boy in jail?! Even if that was for his own protection, in case the attackers try again, shouldn't he..."
"This boy firebombed his own home!" the police chief cried, deliberately interrupting. "Killed his parents and his girlfriend!"
"Now, just a moment," said Carver, startled. "The people I've talked to say he nearly killed himself getting his little sister out of the inferno. Even tried to go back, in spite of his own burns, but she grabbed him and held on until he collapsed."
"Much House Syndrome," said the Chief, smugly. "And as for those burns?! He was halfway healed by the time the ambulance got him to the emergency room! Paramedics say they've never seen anything like it!"
"Why are you trying to make one of the victims of this tragedy the culprit? People heard and saw a car speeding away from the Thorndyne home just before they noticed the fire. And we know the boy has enemies at school."
"Like a school grudge would escalate to a firebombing," said the chief, sneering.
"That's far more likely than that a boy who's never been in trouble, and by all accounts loved his family, would do the deed."
"I'm telling you," said the chief, jabbing his finger into Carver's chest, "there's something unnatural about that boy."
"Why don't you tell that to his doctor?" snapped Carver. "I'm sure he'd be glad to hear your diagnosis!"
The history teacher spun around and stormed off.
* * *
The chief scowled at his visitors.
Damn feds. Always poking their noses into things which aren't their business. Had this all but sewed up, and they had to pry. Just because someone whined "Hate crime!" How'd they get here so fast, anyway? The fire was just yesterday. They must have known it was coming!
"From the accounts of various witnesses, we've pieced together what happened," said the agent, opening the folder. "A beat-up Camaro drove down the cross street west of the Thorndyne home. A young man matching the description of Jeremy Fields leaned out the right rear window and threw a gasoline bomb into the kitchen. The car turned right on the main street in front of the house and the same man threw two more bombs - apparently lit and handed to him by another young man inside the car. One went through the front bedroom window of Walter Thorndyne, the other through the living room window. The car then accelerated hard, but there was smoke pouring out the open window. Three blocks later the driver lost control, possibly due to smoke, and drove off the road. As the car went over the curb the bomb-thrower fell out, his lower body on fire. The car crashed into a convenience store on the corner and burned to a shell. Nobody else got out. Two bodies were later found in the car. They are still being identified, but one is probably Joel Petersen, the owner of the Camaro. Several empty beer cans and two large whiskey bottles were also found in the car. The bomb-thrower died of his injuries on the way to the hospital. Autopsy shows he was well over the legal intoxication limit."
Agent Harrison closed the folder and threw it down on the chief's desk.
"What I want to know is, with all this evidence, why are you accusing one of the victims of the crime? For that matter, why did most of the witnesses we spoke to say they had never been questioned before we arrived?!"
"Hey, I've known both those boys all their lives!" said the chief. "I went to school with Joel's dad! They couldn't have done anything like this! I already know who did!"
"By 'both those boys' you mean Jeremy Fields and Joel Petersen?" said Agent Hoskins.
"That's right," said the chief, nodding emphatically. "They were good boys."
"Good boys who have rap sheets of over twelve pages each," said Harrison.
"That's all boy stuff, just rough fun. Nobody hurt."
"Nobody hurt?!" said Harrison, almost yelling. "There were three hospitalizations, fourteen complaints of assault, three court orders..."
His partner put a hand on his arm and he stopped.
"We are recommending the charges against Walter Thorndyne be dropped," said Agent Hoskins, taking over. "If he is a mutant, as some of the friends of Fields and Petersen are claiming those boys thought, this counts as a hate crime, and your action is exacerbating the situation; that could even make you culpable. If he isn't, this was still a case of multiple murders, whatever the motive may have been, and you are looking at the wrong person as a suspect."
"You feds think you're so smart," sneered the chief. "You come in here, pretending you're God's own lawmen. Well you're full of shit! I know what happened and if you keep trying to pin the blame on a dead boy to spare the government the expense of a trial, I'll go to the press! I wouldn't be surprised if that Thorndyne boy were the one who set fire to the car! Just to get back at some normal kids who had guts enough to stand up to him!"
"Do that and you'll be revealed as the fool you are," said Harrison, coldly. "We've given you our findings. We've told you what we recommend. If you take any other action we'll be working against you. And we'll win."
The two men left without further words.
The chief immediately got on the phone.
"This is Scorpion Three," he said, quietly, one hand cupped around the mouthpiece. "Got a couple of mutie-lovers here trying to get the boy off with faked evidence. Tell Beta Three we may need to take action."
* * *
"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Agent Hoskins," said Xavier. "I will definitely have someone look into the matter."
"Thank you, Professor," said Hoskins. "I can't tell you how much this situation stirs my bile, as my grandma used to say. I got the distinct impression I wouldn't have even been allowed in that man's office if I hadn't been a federal agent and with a white man. The way he looked at me..."
The agent stopped and caught himself.
"Sorry. I'm old enough to remember some of the civil rights era personally, and still have to put up with some of what this guy is giving that boy, just because he thinks the young man might be a mutant."
"I'm no stranger to discrimination," said Xavier, looking down at his legs. "Though it's for a different cause with me, all bigotry comes from the same source."
* * *
"Ah don't like this," whispered Rogue. "Never liked jails."
"Shush," said Storm. "We move in, we give the boy the spiel, then we leave. If he agrees we take him with us. Simple."
"Still wish we could have one of the guys with us," said Laura. "These small city law types respond better to male intimidation than feminine wiles."
"Given what the boy's been through the Professor feels that the less threatening our organization appears, the more likely we are to recruit him."
"And the only guys available were Wolverine and Nightcrawler," said Rogue, with a bit of a snicker. Her mood shifted abruptly and she shivered. "Don't mind me. I'm just nervous because I'm about to steal the life from some guy who's just an ordinary person, innocently doing his job."
"I know this is hard on you, and I wish there were a better way," said Laura. "Remember that such a short contact won't cause him any permanent harm, and we're doing this to help a boy in trouble."
"Why don't you ask him later, and see what he thinks about it?" muttered Rogue, walking off before they could reply.
There was only one person in the front room of the police station, the sergeant behind the desk. Normal public hours were over, but the town was big enough they needed someone here twenty-four hours. Rogue steeled herself, took off her gloves and, holding them in her left hand, entered the building.
"Can I help you with something, miss?" said the desk Sargent.
"Yeah," said Rogue, trying to look irritated as she covered the distance. "Some guy grabbed my purse as I was leaving the grocery up the street. Less than a block from the police station!"
"Hang on," said the sergeant, reaching for the phone. "I'll get someone out here to..."
Rogue realized her mistake; she'd started talking before she was close enough. She lunged forwards, slapping her hand against the side of the man's neck. She winced as the transfer began; the sergeant gasped and started dropping. Rogue pulled him forward and draped his arms on the counter to keep him from falling. She held skin-to-skin long enough to put him out for maybe an hour; more than enough time. And if anyone came by he'd look like he had fallen asleep. With luck, when he revived he'd have only vague memories of what had happened.
Rogue stepped back and looked around. Good; her assault - which was what it was, something she was well aware of and which made her sick in spite of the necessity... Or was it merely convenience? - hadn't attracted any notice. She stepped back far enough to wave to the others. By the time they entered she was already behind the counter, getting the keys.
"Only two more on watch," she said, hands and voice shaking. "I know a way in which should miss both of them."
"Gloves," Storm reminded her.
"Sorry," said Rogue, wincing, as she handed her team leader the keys and pulled on the protection. "I... He doesn't ever wear gloves, not even in cold weather, which they don't have much of down here. Just... forgot."
"Easy," said Laura, putting a gentle hand on the girl's clothed shoulder. "Just relax and focus on who you are and what you're doing."
"That's kind'a hard when there's more than one of me in here," was Rogue's wry reply, accompanied by a sickly grin. "This way."
Within minutes they were at the cell. The boy had been placed in isolation, well away from other prisoners, which greatly helped their mission. Rogue retrieved the keys and unlocked the door, absently wiping them down with her gloved hands. The boy inside was already sitting up as they opened the door.
"Please don't be alarmed," said Storm. "We're with the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. My name is Ororo; this is Laura and Rogue. We received a notice from the FBI that you might be in danger and are here to take you someplace safe."
He didn't look injured at all, except for missing a large patch of hair on the left side.
"Charles Xavier's school?!" said Walt, startled. "I sent you folks a letter, but never got a response. Then I heard about the terrorist attack..."
"You aren't the only one having troubles, unfortunately," said Laura. "We're still in business, and the school isn't our only facility. Now, do you want to come with us? If so, we have to go, now."
"Yeah," said the boy, jumping off the bed and grabbing his clothes. "This is like a dream... on the tail end of a long and horrible nightmare."
"Do you have any other belongings you want to bring with you?" said Storm.
"Everything else burned in the fire," said Walt, sadly. "Wait. Do you know what's happened to Kerrie? They wouldn't tell me a damned thing."
"Your sister is staying with your Aunt Rose. We have people keeping an eye on her."
"Thank you," said Walt, with obvious relief.
They hurried back out the way they'd come in, locking the cell door behind them. They had one tense moment, when they heard someone walking down a side corridor, whistling. Fortunately, he turned out to be going the other way. Back in the front room Rogue used the still-unconscious sergeant's hands to leave his prints on the keys, then put them back. They scampered out of the police station and into the gathering dusk.
The car was nondescript, but definitely functional. Laura took the driver's seat. Walt was startled when she simply patted the steering column to start the engine.
"I was right," he whispered.
"We're all mutants here," said Laura, as they drove away. "At least, we're assuming you are."
"That's my assumption, as well," said Walt, his speech patterns changing noticeably as he spoke up from where he sat on the rear seat beside Rogue. "I haven't had the Xavier-Hayes test, but given what I am able to do..."
"You know about the gene test?" said Laura, startled.
"I... read the Xavier-Hayes paper when I was fourteen," said Walt, with a modest grin. "I could tell they were holding a lot of stuff back, but that their data was good. And that it applied to me."
"What is? your IQ?" said Laura. "It's obviously higher than the 110 you tested at."
"By my estimate... two-fifty," said Walt, with a sigh. "Conservatively."
"Wow!" laughed Laura. "That's almost as high as Sylvia's!"
Walt was definitely startled.
"If it's any consolation," said Laura, with some sympathy in regard to his sudden re-evaluation of his position in the intellectual world, "her genius seems to apply mostly to her work."
"Both the authors of the paper you quoted are in the same range," said Storm. "As is Eric Lehnsherr."
"You mean Magneto?! Wow..."
She had wondered just how much he had been able to learn about other mutants, especially those with connections to the school. He had already revealed knowledge of several things which the public wasn't supposed to be aware of. Now, her little test had shown that he had definitely made an extensive - and skilled - study.
"There seems to be a natural limit on intelligence," said Laura. "Never met anyone who tested over 300, in spite of some claims. Of course, effectiveness of application is another matter. The highest I've verified - a guy with an IQ of 285 - can barely tie his own shoes and works as a bank clerk."
"Nothing wrong with being a bank clerk," said Walt, a bit hotly.
"I'm sorry; was that what your father did?"
"No; he was a CPA with a local business," said Walt, with a sharp pang of grief. "His younger brother is a bank clerk."
* * *
"We had a message from Scorpion Three," said Oracle Thre. "He says the feds are trying to bully him into removing the charges on that Thorndyne boy. Wants us to do something about it."
"I told them not to induct that bigot," said Beta Three, almost spitting the last word. "Did you know that three generations of his recent ancestors were high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan? The last thing we need is that stigma hurting our cause."
"So what do I tell him?"
"Nothing. He's out of the loop on this matter from now on. The other Betas and I will consult and decide what to do, and order it done, using Defender resources."
* * *
They drove all night, at exactly the speed limit almost the whole time. Rogue muttered a few times about how long the trip was taking, but Storm pointed out that a low profile was more important than speed. They chatted, Walt being the only one who noticed that Laura was skillfully interviewing him during what was, on the surface, a series of casual conversations. And that she was the only one who noticed he was doing the same thing to learn about them.
"I had to stop using the gym after that," said Walt, with a sigh. "Just attracting too much attention. I put together some exercise equipment from stuff I bought at yard sales and worked on finding my limits. Only I didn't."
"Well, the equipment we have is non-standard," said Laura, proudly. "By the way, as I'm sure you've noticed by now, we're not heading to Xavier's. Not only are they still making repairs to the school, but you're going to be a wanted man, soon. Better we keep you away from people as much as possible."
"Fine with me," said Walt. "No offense, but... I've learned to enjoy being a loner. Most people just... don't interest me."
"I know the feeling," said Laura, with definite sympathy. "My IQ is only one-sixty, and I tend to get really fed up with anyone under one-twenty. Sometimes I think the reputation geniuses have for eccentric behavior is simply from them trying to liven up the dull people around them."
Walt had to laugh at that, echoing as it did some of his own thoughts, and even predicting some of his actions.
"There's probably a lot less practical difference between one-fifty and two-fifty than between one hundred and one-fifty," he ventured.
Their destination was a two-story farmhouse which at one time actually had been part of a farm, where they arrived just after dawn. Most of the land was developed, now, the rest left to go wild. The house and outbuildings had been thoroughly modernized and the grounds landscaped. They parked in a garage beside and behind the house, which Laura explained had previously been a stable.
Once inside they gave Walt the tour and introduced him to the rest of the staff, already awake and dressed in anticipation of the expedition's return.
"This is Julia Boddington, aka Courser," said Laura. "She mostly teaches self-defense, and runs security. This is Consuela Rodriguez, or Falcon Edge, who handles both physical training and physical therapy, and also helps with security. Dr. Sylvia Harper - LabRat - is our medical officer. I go by Coordinator, by the way. We have some part-time staff members, but Julia, Consuela, Sylvia and I live here."
"And I'm afraid Rogue and I need to be leaving, soon," said Storm. She tried and failed to suppress a yawn.
"I still say you should wait until you've had some sleep," said Laura, sternly. "The trip will be both easier and safer if you're awake and alert. If not sleep, you should at least have breakfast."
"We'll be home in half an hour using the 'copter," said Storm. "That is, if it's still in the barn where we hid it."
"Don't let the rustic appearance fool you," said Julia, proudly. "This property is better wired than the lawn at the Pentagon. You're bird is still there."
"Then we better leave now, before this does catch up with us," said Storm. She moved to Walt, touching him lightly on the upper arm. "Good bye, Walter. I'm sorry for your loss; many of us mutants are orphans, and we do know how you feel."
"G'bye, Walt," said Rogue, a bit shyly, and not offering contact. "Glad we met."
"Thank you for getting me away from there," said Walt, quietly.
The pair said their goodbyes to the others then left. There was a long quiet moment, which Walt, feeling acutely uncomfortable, endeavored to break.
"I love this basement," he said. "A full, compact biochem lab, training area, infirmary..."
"Looks like you may finally be getting some live-in help," said Consuela, grinning at Dr. Harper.
"How much lab technique do you know?" asked Sylvia.
"Just basic high school stuff," said Walt.
"Yeah, but he's really smart," said Laura. "He could probably pick it up fast."
"So, I'm expected to earn my keep?"
"Eventually," said Laura. "We know you've had a rough time the past few days. We also want to find out just what you can do before giving you a job. So you've got a grace period."
"Is this normally an all-female installation?" said Walt, as they went upstairs for the previously mentioned breakfast.
"Normally, but not deliberately," said Laura. "It just worked out that for the purpose and size of this particular installation we four were the best choice."
"So you're an all-female group of X-Men," said Walt, tongue figuratively in cheek.
"Well, strictly speaking, that's a nickname the student's at Xavier's gave to the adults who act as field operatives," said Consuela. "Though Julia and I could be considered auxiliary X-Men. You were a special case, so Laura went instead; she normally doesn't go on missions."
* * *
"Well, you're definitely Xavier-Hayes positive," said Sylvia, waving the printout. "Don't know any other details, yet, except that you don't have the most common physical enhancement gene complexes, though you definitely have standard regeneration."
"There's non-standard regeneration?"
"Fast regeneration. Like Wolverine has, if you know about him. What you can do in an hour, he can do in a minute, roughly. Anyway, your increased strength, speed, stamina and so forth don't come directly from your mutation; they're a result of your mutation adapting you to the demands you place on your body. Adaptation isn't a common power, but I have seen it before. Although you are the first person with it I've seen train hard enough to cause it to improve them beyond human limits. Note that this ability usually isn't very good at actually giving you powers. It has to work with what's on hand."
"So, if I fell off a building I might not gain the ability to fly, but instead become very good at landing," said Walt, imaginary tongue again figuratively in cheek.
"That's a distinct possibility," said Sylvia, laughing.
"Walter!" Laura called out from upstairs. "You're on the news!"
He wasn't the only one who hurried into the living room. The announcer was just finishing.
"Don't worry; I've got it on Tivo," said Laura. "I'll play the whole thing back, soon as he's finished."
The replay was a bit anticlimactic. The announcer mentioned a strange disappearance from a small city police station. Then came a bit with the chief ranting about how Walt was a "murdering mutant" who had disabled a police officer during his escape. Then came a statement from a black FBI agent, who rather sternly announced that the chief was a "paranoid bigot" who had ignored evidence that others had been responsible for the fire and arrested an obviously innocent boy right out of his hospital bed. He closed by hinting the chief might be the one responsible for Walt's disappearance.
"Whoah," said Walt, stunned, once Laura hit PAUSE.
"Yeah. Our FBI contacts say the desk sergeant doesn't remember what happened, and no-one else saw anything. So how you got out is a complete mystery to them."
"All the better," said Julia. "The fewer clues they have, the less likely they are to find you."
"Unfortunately," Laura continued, "our contact in your case was the man you just saw, and he's been placed on mandatory leave pending a hearing. FBI agents aren't supposed to speak out like that."
"I'm just really glad they didn't mention my sister," said Walt. He had a catch in his voice with the next words. "She's... all I've got left."
"You realize that if we can't get this matter dropped, you would either have to stand trial, or stay in hiding the rest of your life."
"Yeah," said Walt, with a sigh. "I was already thinking that before you folks came for me. Actually considering escaping and going into hiding. I just don't think I could take a trial, or even appearing in public, right now. Maybe later."
* * *
"So when do I get one of those kinky black leather outfits?" asked Walt, after lunch.
"That's up to Professor Xavier," said Julia. "You have to prove yourself, in one or more of several different ways. And they're not kinky; they're very practical."
"They provide protection, the color helps us blend in when it's dark, and they give a psychological boost to us while being intimidating to others," said Consuela. "All without looking too extraordinary in most places."
"If those places are accustomed to motorcycle gangs," said Laura, dryly.
"Doesn't Rogue have a real name?" said Walt.
"Yes, but she prefers to use her code name," said Sylvia. "Too many bad connotations associated with her birth name."
"So what code name do I get?"
"That's like the leather outfits," said Julia. "Well, some are all leather, others only have a leather jacket. Anyway, you have to earn it. Although that's easier than getting one of the outfits."
"Anyway, if your food is digested, we have a few more tests to run."
"Diamond coated needles," said Walt, quietly, as he examined some of the equipment while Sylvia and Consuela set up. "Rolls of stainless sheet steel. Full hazmat outfits. Do you really need this stuff?"
"You'd be surprised," said Consuela. She looked over at the doctor. "How many mutants are there with acid blood?"
"Well, known to have it," said Sylvia, looking upwards for a moment, her eyes vague. "Twelve, if by 'acid' you mean extremely corrosive."
"Better than any computer database," said Consuela, grinning.
"You have stuff like that memorized?" said Walt. "I remember them saying you had a high IQ; is the memory part of your mutation, too?"
"I don't have any genes known to be specifically associated with heightened memory," said Sylvia. "My memory is good but not that good. And what I'm doing isn't memory."
"Mutants like Sylvia and me have an ability we usually call Innate Knowledge," said Laura. "We're not sure how it works. It could be some sort of telepathy, allowing us to scan the group unconscious like using a mutant Internet search engine. Most people who have it - we have tested nineteen and know of a few more - have a specialty for which it works either much better than for anything else, or exclusively. I'm the only general one we know of. My only other ability is an affinity for or perhaps empathy with devices."
"So I can ask you anything and you'd have a good chance of being able to give a good answer."
"Yep," said Laura, proudly. "As long as it's something someone would know. And the more who know it, the easier I can access it."
"And that second power explains how you started the car."
The tests began, and Walt found himself both impressed and disappointed. He was actually stronger than he expected, but not nearly as strong as the capacity of the machines.
"We've had a couple of people come through here who were stronger than you," said Sylvia, seeing his expression. "Neither of them went the limit, either. There have been mutants tested elsewhere who would be stronger than even these machines could measure, though."
Some of the tests were identical to what any physiology lab - or even many gyms - could do. Others were mildly altered versions. And a few were just plain weird.
"Can I come out, now?"
"Almost done," said Sylvia, absently, as she read indicators and nodded. "Okay, Consuela, let him out."
Walt emerged from the tank dripping salt water.
"Just what did that do?"
"Several things. It let us test for innate energy fields - we didn't find any - as well as give us clues about some extrasensory abilities - haven't seen any sign of that, yet, either. It also lets us measure tissue density. Yours is a bit above average but still within human range."
"Can we take a break, now?"
"Sure. You need to shower, anyway, or you'll start itching. Well, maybe you wouldn't, but most people would."
"Shower's upstairs, just three doors from your room," said Consuela. "C'mon; I'll show you."
Cleaned up and rested, Walt wandered back into the lab a short time later.
"Do you have Internet access here?"
"Yes, and you can use it," said Sylvia, "but don't use any e-mail accounts or login-IDs you already had. Too much risk of being traced."
"But if I use anonymous..."
"No," said Laura. "We're good, but unless you have a very good reason which we agree to, you don't do anything which can be connected to your previous life. Don't even visit favorite chat rooms."
"Yes Ma'am," said Walt, with a sigh. "What about contacting my sister?"
"That we can arrange," said Laura. "Already working on it, in fact. Probably tomorrow, sometime."
"Best news I've had all day."
Part Two: Fitting In Again
This story is set in the world of the X-Men movies, not long after the second one ends. The world and some of the characters belong to Marvel; the story and the rest of the characters are mine.
"It's so good to hear your voice," said Kerrie. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine. I'm in a sort of witness protection program. Don't know when or if I'll ever be able to go out in public as myself again. May have to change my name and history to protect both of us. How are you doing?"
"I'm bored. The police here are taking the whole hate crime thing very seriously, and the FBI is involved. I can't even leave the house without two escorts. And they wouldn't even tell my why I was being brought here! Oh, well; at least we get to talk."
"Yeah, but I can't tell you anything else about where I am or who I'm with. Some of the stuff I told you is lies, just in case."
"I kinda figured that," said Kerrie. He could almost see her impish grin.
"Tell Aunt Rose and Uncle Theo hi for me," said Walt. "They say I have to get off soon. Sorry we couldn't talk longer."
"Me, too," said Kerrie, obviously sad. "Bye, big brother!"
"Bye, little sister!"
* * *
Days passed. The medical team finished their tests and began their lengthy analysis. Walt started doing chores around the house, and even the rest of the property. He was taught the basics of how to use the security equipment, and then learned the rest on his own, even suggesting and, after Laura approved, making improvements.
He also began basic self defense training, just in case.
In spite of now considering the women of the staff here friends, Walt still felt out of place. He was a teenage boy living practically full-time in an isolated house with four women, all older than him, though not a great deal older. As he grew more accustomed to his current life he also became more uncomfortable with some aspects of it. He just felt like he wasn't fitting in.
* * *
"What's wrong, Walt?" said Laura. "You're not eating."
"I don't feel so good," said the younger mutant.
"You don't look so good," said Sylvia, moving to feel his forehead. "You've got a definite fever."
She stood, quickly.
"We better get him down to the lab."
"There's been bug going around school," said Walt, looking distinctly pale, "but I never get sick..."
"I think it's either something very serious - in which case it could have already infected all of us - or something's happening with your powers."
"Yeah, let's get to the lab," muttered Walt, standing.
He was just starting to wonder why the floor was getting closer when he fainted.
* * *
What seemed like a very long time later, Walt stirred. Late morning light streamed in through the windows of the room.
"Well, I wondered when you'd wake up," said Sylvia. "Listen, I don't want to worry you, but I also need to warn you. You went through some... interesting changes over the past fourteen hours."
"I feel really weird," said Walt, with some throat clearing. "Sound weird, too."
"That's not surprising," said Sylvia, sounding like she was being serious but fighting an urge to laugh. She brought over a small glass with a straw in it for Walt to take a sip. "After you passed out last night you regressed in age to about five. You're back up to about thirteen, and still aging."
"No wonder everything seems small." Walt shifted around in the bed. "My chest is sore and swollen, and my... Ohmygod!"
"And you're a girl," said Sylvia, too late, as Walt frantically felt around. "We think you regressed to make the change to female easier."
"But... but... but..."
"Please, calm down," said Sylvia, putting the glass on the night stand and leaning forward to restrain Walt. "Remember what you said about your adaptation being good at helping you to fit in?"
"Wait. You mean... because everyone else here is female...?!"
"That's our working hypothesis. Which means if you get into mixed company you should change back. In the meantime, though, well, think of this as the perfect disguise. Unless the people looking for you somehow manage a DNA test."
"I'm still ecks-wye?"
"As of a bit over an hour ago," said Sylvia, removing her hands as Walt calmed. "That's when we performed the most recent of several genetic tests. No change from baseline, as far as we can tell."
"So... all the genetic information is intact... just reinterpreted."
"Yes. So this shouldn't be permanent."
"Okay," said Walt, though she didn't seem too certain.
"Now, I want you to carefully see if you can sit up. You need more fluids and it'll be easier to swallow if you're upright."
Walt, however, simply wasn't used to being either sick of weak. Without waiting for her help, Walt threw the covers back and sat up quickly... too quickly.
"Woo," was all she could manage, as she swayed back and forth.
"Better take it easy for a while," said Sylvia, holding Walt steady.
"If I could market these sensations, I could make a bundle," said Walt, a bit drunkenly. "Wow... People pay good money for a buzz like this."
"You're taking this pretty well."
"Like I said; I'm buzzed," said Walt. "Probably have a screaming attack in a private a couple of hours from now. I'm naked."
"We had you on a catheter and some IVs for a while. After your plumbing settled down. When I decided you were getting ready to wake up I removed all that and had you brought to your room. Figured the more familiar surroundings would make things easier. And, well, no clothes because we don't have anything appropriate, and you aren't done changing yet."
Walt looked down at her barely teenage chest and crotch.
"I have a feeling I'm desperately going to need a bra," she said, words tumbling out quickly. "There's big women on both sides of my family. And I really don't like the shaved look, especially on me. Will be glad with I grow some pubic hair."
"Your current appearance is only partly shaped by your genome," said Sylvia. "Notice your skin. You're definitely darker than you were, though not as dark as Consuela."
"So I'm going to be an average of everyone here," said Walt, with sudden insight. "Can I have some more of that water?"
"Sure," said Sylvia, holding her with one hand while using the other to bring the straw to Walt's lips. "And, yeah, that's what I figure. That you're 'fitting in' by becoming an average of the group."
"Where did the mass go?" said Walt, after nearly draining the glass. "For that matter, where is it coming from, now that I'm aging?"
"No idea," said Sylvia. "You aren't the only mutant who defies what we smugly call the laws of physics."
"Need to pee," said Walt.
"Think you can make it to the bathroom? Good; I forgot to bring the bedpan upstairs. Here, let me do most of the work. We'll get you into this robe and then down the hall..."
Some minutes later, bladder emptied, Walt was sitting in a chair in her room.
"My, that was an interesting experience," said Walt, in an odd tone.
"It's something I do several time a day," said Sylvia. "Don't make such a big deal out of it. Now, think you're up to visitors?"
"Yeah. I'm starting to feel pretty good, actually," said Walt. "Better by the minute. Even starting to feel hungry."
"You actually look older now than when you woke up," said Sylvia, peering at her. "Your regeneration must be working with your adaptation, which surprises me. I figured it would fight the changes."
"Maybe it did," said Walt, frowning in thought. "At least at first. Maybe that's why I passed out."
"Well, we can worry about that later. Along with a lot of other things."
She moved to the hallway door and opened it.
"Okay, Consuela, you can stop eavesdropping and come on in. The rest of you, too."
A bit shamefaced, the other inhabitants of the safehouse/clinic filed in.
"Wow," said Laura, slowing abruptly at her first glimpse of the new Walt.
She wasn't the only one staring.
"You are going to be a knockout," said Consuela, grinning.
"Big whoop," said Walt, muttering.
They queried how their changeling was feeling, and made noises of commiseration.
"I remember when I got stuck in my raptor form, once," said Consuela, sympathetically. "Thought I was marked as a freak for life. But after I calmed down and worked it some, I changed back."
"I don't think things will be as quick or easy for Walt," said Sylvia. "Still, her powers are working, so it could just be a matter of finding the right stimulus. Meanwhile, a quick trip to the lab, then breakfast."
Once it was just Walt, Sylvia and Consuela the housecoat came off. Walt sat naked on the cold pad of the exam table while they quickly checked her reflexes, blood pressure, eyes and ears, and some other body parts.
"I'll spare you the pelvic exam until later," said Sylvia. "Don't want to inflict that on anyone before breakfast."
"Stop feeling yourself," said Consuela, while Sylvia wrote notes.
"I'm not! They... hurt."
"Growing pains," said Consuela, with a sympathetic smile. "Had those myself. And they're so tender you can't really even rub them, aren't they?"
Walt nodded, actually having traces of tears in her eyes.
"You're bigger now, I'm sure of it."
"Okay, let's get you up on the scales for weight and height," said Sylvia. "And, Consuela, let's both keep an eye on her until we're sure she's stable. She still has a bit of a fever."
The exam over, Walt went upstairs and had a huge, early lunch. This seemed to spur her maturation. Over the next hour she grew nearly 15 centimeters. By early afternoon her aging appeared to have stopped, at early to mid twenties.
"Tape measure time!" said Consuela, with far too much cheerfulness. "Clinic or your room?"
The physical therapist was keeping track of Walt's measurements. And also, once Walt stabilized, intended to provide sizes for the purchase of new clothing.
"Room," sighed Walt, turning to head up the stairs.
With the door closed Walt simply dropped the bulky housecoat.
"It's in the way, and you've already seen me naked more times than anyone else but my m-mother," she said, sourly.
"Okay, if that's how you want it." She wrapped the tape around Walt's hips. "Thirty-five inches. Not bad."
Her bust was thirty-eight inches, and she was a C-cup, verging on a D.
"Those would be a definite D on me," said Consuela. "With your slightly larger frame they're not quite that."
"I knew I'd wind up with a giant pair of tits," muttered Walt.
"That's actually pretty close to the average of us here, once we take what you've told us about your adult female relatives into account. And only a small change from last time. You might be stable."
"My muscle tone seems to be coming back," said Walt, making a fist and testing her bicep after the measuring was over.
"We'll measure you against your baseline later this evening," said Consuela. "Want to make sure you're fully recovered before putting you through anything strenuous."
"I don't think I'll be fully recovered until I get my dick back," muttered Walt, making Consuela snerk.
"Okay, then, completely healthy, how's that?"
"I guess it'll have to do... Can I at least put some panties on, now? I'm tired of feeling a draft."
"Girl, just wait until your first skirt," said Consuela, giggling. "Here. New in the package, and in the right size range. Part of our emergency supplies, actually. You aren't our first customer who arrived without a change of clothes. And for some reason mutants tend to be tall, hippy and buxom. Even some of the guys."
"Before you open the door," said Walt, gathering her nerve, as she pulled on panties and then robe, "you've seen mine; I want to see yours."
"Are you saying you want me to strip?" said Consuela, not sure whether she should be outraged or laugh in Walt's face.
"No! I've heard about your raptor form. I want to see it."
"Oh! Well, to show you without ruining my clothes I'll have to almost strip, anyway."
"I didn't realize," said Walt, blushing. "If you don't want to..."
"It's just us two girls, here," said Consuela, winking as she started unbuttoning her blouse.
In moments she was down to her bra and panties. Walt blushed even harder, but couldn't stop staring. The woman had an incredibly fit and sexy body.
"I normally do this quick, but for you, since you've been very good about all this, I'll take it slow."
She took a deep breath, and her eyes unfocused. She raised her arms, and concentrated. Colorful feathers began sprouting on her arms, as her fingers stretched. She had turned a bit before starting, and Walt could also see feathers poking out of her back, just above the waist of her low-slung panties, forming a short, splayed tail. Her feet changed shape and colors, becoming a hybrid between bird and human, complete with large, dangerous-looking talons. By the time Walt finished looking at those and directed her gaze back upwards, Consuela's - Falcon Edge's - arms and upper body were completely covered with feathers, and her nose and mouth had fused into a blunt beak. Done, she moved into another pose, one definitely meant to be menacing. Then she turned and lifted one horny heel, putting the palm part of her left wing on her left hip in a stereotypically sexy pose.
"Like what you see?" she teased, her voice muffled and shrill.
"Oh, yeah," said Walt, feeling some rather interesting sensations in her new body.
"Girl, you are turned on!" said Falcon Edge, laughing. "You could put an eye out with those!"
"I want to see you change back," said Walt, firmly, blushing even more and shifting her robe on her body.
The bird-woman rolled her eyes but complied.
"That is fantastic," Walt gushed, as she watched Consuela dress. "Your wings look too small to fly, but can you glide?"
"Not very well. Mostly I just use them to extend and guide jumps. I don't like being in that form unless I have to; no hands, you know. Makes me feel awkward. So count yourself blessed."
* * *
"Okay, we're done," said Sylvia, leaning back and peeling off her gloves. "There's some wipes over there."
"Please tell me I won't ever have to go through that again," said Walt, sounding almost desperate. "I remember my moth... mother and even my aunt complaining in a joking way about medical exams, but I had only a vague idea..."
"Sorry," said Sylvia, with some sympathy. "Until we know what caused this change, we don't know how long you'll be like that or how to keep you from changing again if you do change back. If it's any consolation, you appear to be a perfectly healthy human female."
Walt muttered direly under her breath, but her heart wasn't in it.
"Okay, get dressed, and then I want to do a psych evaluation."
"Surely you don't think I'm imagining this?"
"Of course not. But many of the physical alterations mutants experience have a mental cause, or an associated mindset."
"Like Bruce Banner Hulking out when he gets angry," said Walt, nodding.
"That was a terrible movie," said Sylvia, scowling. "Completely scientifically inaccurate."
Walt muttered some more and headed for the dressing room. Soon she was doing word associations, Rorschach cards and similar tests, followed by a general interview.
"What was your mental state that evening?" said Sylvia, towards the end. "I was there and you seemed to be doing okay, but you also seemed a little subdued. I figured it was just reaction to the emotional trauma you've been through lately. But was there anything else? Something you were feeling then you weren't before?"
"Actually..." said Walt, frowning in thought. "Yeah. I was feeling uncomfortable."
"Okay, I'm a seventeen year old straight guy essentially living with four beautiful women..."
"Why, thank you..."
"Beautiful and exotic women," said Walt, unable to not echo her smile. "I was feeling a bit... attracted, but you're all a little older than me and essentially taking care of me. So I was feeling... conflicted. Uncomfortable. Out of place."
"That could be significant," said Sylvia, nodding. "You told me, before, that your adaptation powers first manifested after an episode where you felt very uncomfortable about not fitting in at school. That could be the trigger."
"Great," muttered Walter. "So any time I feel uncomfortable around women, I turn into one?"
"I doubt it's that easy, or it would have happened before. Anyway, I think that's enough for now. Just keep in mind you could change back with the right mindset."
For the rest of the afternoon Walt took things easy, though gradually increasing her level of physical activity.
"The weirdest part of this whole change is that except for the obvious I feel perfectly normal."
She was back in the basement, having yet another of the brief exams to track her changes.
"Well, you're not normal. You're a mutant. And this is weird even for one of us."
Sylvia sighed, and reviewed the latest vitals. All were back to normal range, almost as if to belie her.
"I only know of two other persons who have changed genders this completely: Mystique and Simile. Both of them shapeshifters. And if we ever figure out how that works, it might - though probably won't - tell us how you did this."
"Okay, my breasts aren't sore any more," said Walt. "I've had two good meals and some snacks and I feel fine. I haven't gained weight or height in over two hours. My measurements likewise haven't changed. Can we see how much strength and such I've lost, now?"
"You like being strong, don't you?" said Sylvia, smiling. "Can't say I blame you. Okay, come on. Just be sure to let me know if you start feeling sick or even just tired. Oh, and Consuela, while she's getting dressed, could you tell the others to go ahead with the rest of the clothes?"
"Dressed?" said Walt. "Rest?"
"You're closest in size to Laura," said Sylvia. "She's agreed to donate an unused - still in the package, actually - leotard. You put your panties and that on and we'll start the tests. By the time you're finished the others should be back from their shopping trip."
"Why do I have the feeling I'm going to spend the rest of the evening as a living manikin?"
Shortly, they had the results.
"Looks like you've lost between ten and fifteen percent of your strength, endurance and resilience, evenly across the board, but gained quite a bit of flexibility. Especially in your legs."
"Better than I was expecting," said Walt, nodding. "Though going down in complete splits with nothing in the way was... disconcerting. As was finding out an impact between the legs still hurts."
"Common misconception," said Sylvia, nodding. "I once saw a full-grown woman - a very strong and durable mutant - get dropped by a kick to the crotch from a normal human man. Who happened to be an master martial artist. She actually looked more surprised than hurt."
"So when do I get real clothes?"
"I think I heard them come in just a few minutes ago," said Consuela, leaning over the railing to peer up the stairs.
Contrary to Walt's fears, the others restrained themselves. Most of the clothes were fairly conservative blouses, jeans and slacks. Interestingly, Walt's feet were close enough to her pre-change size she could wear the shoes she'd arrived in. She was also only a bit shorter, though much lighter.
"Nearly the same strength with much less muscle mass," said Walt, peering at her current combination of apparel in a full-length mirror.
"Well, the bulky muscle so characteristic of men is actually not as strong as the more streamlined muscle common to both sexes," said Consuela. "That looks really good on you."
"Yeah, I like it," said Walt. "Though probably for different reasons."
"That gives you four sets of every day wear, a couple of nice dresses, five changes of underwear, a leotard, a unitard, and a jogging suit and... What else?"
"Hygiene and grooming supplies," said Laura, holding up two stuffed shopping bags.
"Oh, joy," muttered Walt. "Periods. Or will I have those, since I'm genetically male?"
"Your hormones and anatomy are definitely female," said Sylvia. "I'd say hope for the best but keep a pad handy."
"So if I'm a girl, why do I still keep sneaking peeks, including at myself?" asked Walt, sourly.
"Learned behavior, most likely," said Sylvia with a shrug. "Though I'll be glad when we can scan your brain, especially your hypothalamus. I bet the gross structure - both of your brain in general and of the hypothalamus in particular - is completely female."
"You better start taking the pill," said Consuela, with a straight face.
"You're... serious," said Walt, grimacing.
"If nothing else it will make your periods easier," said Sylvia. "And whether or not you find yourself attracted to men, I bet you will want to experiment. Especially if we figure out how to control these changes."
"There is that," said Walt, admitting to herself that while she didn't find men attractive - yet - she was curious.
* * *
For training the next morning Walt wore the donated leotard, with Laura and Sylvia similarly dressed, while Consuela and Julia - Falcon Edge and Courser - wore their "kinky outfits," minus the heavy jackets. As they assembled for self-defense lessons, Walt couldn't help comparing herself with the others.
"Oh, yeah," she sighed, with an odd smirk. "We're definitely an all-jug band."
Consuela and Sylvia laughed, while the others simply looked confused.
"I made the comment - when explaining, yesterday, how we arrived at our predictions for her final measurements - that the four born women here were all at least a B-cup, and most C or larger," said Sylvia.
"I don't think that's so unusual," said Laura, one of their two Ds, a bit defensively. "US women are getting larger in the chest in a long-term trend."
"Keep in mind that the 'kinky outfits' come complete with padded bras for the women," said Courser, the other D. "That's partly for disguise, and partly for protection. Walt, fair warning: getting punched in the tit can really hurt. Especially when they're this big. On the other hand you should see what some of the guys have in their outfits!"
"Well, as the lone B," said Sylvia, dryly, "I can tell you that living with this group there have been times when I've been glad I stand out. Even if it's by not standing out."
The laughter this brought lasted until Courser regained enough control to call the class to order.
* * *
Another week passed, with Walt still stubbornly female. She continued to improve slowly in all physical categories. She also had the basics of self-defense down pretty firmly.
"You know, if I had to live like this the rest of my life, it wouldn't be so bad," she observed one day to Julia, as they rested after practice. "I think I'd rather be a woman and have my powers than be a man without them."
"Well, those powers give you advantages the vast majority of women don't have," said Julia, sternly. "You have a lot less worry about rape, and the extra confidence they give you should make it easier to stand up to the way some men bully women."
"With your speed and reflexes I guess you should know."
Julia scowled, and Walt wondered if she'd accidentally offended her. She was just about to apologize when Julia spoke.
"Not... at first. Even after my mutation triggered I was... shy. Reluctant to stand up for myself. In part because I was a mutant. I felt vaguely ashamed. Then a friend and I were assaulted by three teenage boys. I was scared out of my wits, but Angie started fighting back. And winning against two guys, who were so surprised they could hardly react, while the third held me. Guess they were so macho they'd never imagined a woman could stand up to them. So I shook free and took her back and we drove them off."
Julia laughed, her mood changing completely.
"We really whooped those boys! Angie had to stop me from chasing after them."
"So there's more than powers involved in protecting yourself," said Walt, nodding.
"Definitely. You have to be determined to act, have a positive attitude. Even be willing to get hurt in order to keep from being hurt more if you don't fight back. And having training is a major plus, in both confidence and capability."
* * *
"All right, let's review what we've determined about your abilities, starting with your adaptation," said Sylvia. "There seem to be two triggers - or, rather, two types of triggers. One is physical stress; you change physically - though not always obviously - to adapt to whatever is causing it. The other, though, is emotional. When you feel uncomfortable - especially that you're not fitting in - you also trigger the power. For the first instance, you are in many ways just like a normal human in that the harder you train the better you get... except that you get better much faster and to a much greater extent, far beyond normal development. And on top of that your body can adapt in ways far beyond what is available to normal humans."
"That's for sure," said Consuela, laughing.
"Yeah," said Walt, thoughtfully. "I already knew I had depth as well as breadth and speed over normal biological adaptation. I just hadn't wanted to test myself extensively for fear of causing a change which would be noticeable."
She looked down at herself and sighed.
"Your adaptation power seems entirely, or maybe almost entirely, physical," said Sylvia. "That is, you don't change mentally, no matter how extreme the physical changes. Of course, besides the moral constraints against psychological torture, we don't have a telepath or empath here to really test that."
"I caught her ogling me as I came out of the shower last night," said Consuela, winking at Walt.
"Well, if you'd wear a robe instead of parading around in your underwear with a towel wrapped around your hair there'd be a lot less to ogle," muttered Walt.
"What, in a house full of girls only, you expect me to dress like a nun?"
"Your regeneration and heightened intelligence appear to be completely separate powers," said Sylvia, trying to ignore their verbal interplay. "We can measure no change in those when your adaptation alters your body."
"So how do I get back to being a guy?"
"Let's not rush things," said Laura. "Right now you're stable and healthy, and can pass as a normal girl in her early twenties who doesn't look anything like Walter Thorndyne. If we have to go underground that's all to the good."
"Besides, this is an opportunity few people have," said Julia, with a slight smile. "You can explore the mystery of feminine culture."
"If you do learn anything about the mysteries of feminine culture," said Sylvia, sourly, "please tell me. I'd love to know."
That brought some general laughter.
"I guess a geek is a geek is a geek," said Laura, regaining control quickly.
"We need to figure out what to call you," said Julia. "Can't think of any feminine equivalent to Walter."
"My middle name is Charles," said Walt, sighing. "I had a phase just before turning 13 when I went by it. How about Charlene? Or Charlotte?"
"Sharla," said Laura. "We already have Charles Xavier. The soft beginning sound versus the hard should be sufficient distinction. We say it's really Charlene but that you prefer Sharla. And Sharla fits your apparent ethnicity better."
"I don't know about that last part," muttered Consuela. "But it is a nice name. And what for a last?"
"Bunton," said Julia, suddenly. "That's my brother-in-law's name. We can claim she's my niece."
"We shouldn't have her claim something that easily checked," said Sylvia, frowning in thought. "No fictional relatives, for example."
"Grimes," said Consuela, shrugging.
No-one had any objections, or relations with that name.
"Welcome Charlene - aka Sharla - Grimes," said Julia, smiling as she gave the girl a brief hug. "I think you're also ready for a code name, and as team leader it's my say. How about Adaptor?"
"You make me sound like either a sex toy or an electrical component," muttered the now Sharla, a bit flushed from that doubly-buxom hug. "How about Adaptive?"
"I like it," said Julia, nodding. "Reasonably short, distinct and descriptive for those who know what your powers are, so we'll remember it."
"I'll start working on ID in a bit," said Julia. "Should have SSN, birth certificate - will need a scan of the soles of your feet for that - health insurance, credit cards, checking and savings and some other nick-nacks before nightfall. You and I can work on an actual background over the next few days. We should probably make you your apparent age. You're smart enough and well-read enough to fake that."
"Credit cards and bank account sound good," said Adaptive/Sharla, nodding. "I'm going to need some more clothes."
"Wow, you're adapting to the culture quickly!" said Sylvia.
There was more laughter.
"No, it's just that with all that training I do I'm wearing things out. I'm also putting on more muscle. And I'd like to have the chance to actually choose stuff for myself."
* * *
Over the next week and a half Sharla mainly trained and learned. Meanwhile, the staff observed, learned and helped teach. At first Sharla worked the special exercise equipment distinctly harder every day. After five days, though, it was obvious she had reached a plateau. Worse, if she trained one particular aspect of her physical abilities extra hard, that improved, but the others declined.
"I think we can see a general trend," said Sylvia, on the eighth day. "See, how there's a slow improvement in the combined curve? You are getting better over all, and more quickly and to a much greater extent than a human would. And you're already more than ten times as strong and tough as would be true of a normal human female of your size, weight, age and apparent physical condition. Furthermore, you have nearly ten times the endurance, and three times the speed."
"That's pretty good," Sharla acknowledged. "I wonder, though, if my adaptive power is still actively keeping me female? And, if so, if that's holding down my peak performance?"
"If it is, that would only be to correct any wrong instructions your Y chromosome might be sending," said Sylvia. "Given the blood work I've done, I think your body is completely female in every way except genetic, and would stay like that even if your powers stopped working. Though you might have some problems from that pesky Y. Anyway, don't be so eager to improve your strength. You're already stronger than the vast majority of mutants we've tested."
"Most of whom only have normal-range strength," Sharla pointed out, smugly. "What's next?"
"I already have... had my learner's permit."
"Can you drive a standard? By 'standard' I mean a manual."
"What other kind is there?" Sharla stopped, blushing. "Wait, do you mean a stick shift?! Only people who drive old cars use those any more."
"Along with most modern performance car owners," said Sylvia. "Julia used to do autocross, and will be the one teaching you. By the way, Laura is horrible for teaching about things like this."
"Because her mutant power makes it too easy for her," said Sharla, nodding.
* * *
That evening Sylvia announced she had rented a DVD for a special group presentation.
"Just came out! I've been waiting months for this!"
"Triumph of the Magical Girls," said Sharla, reading the blurb on the DVD box.
"Who'd think she'd not only be an anime addict, but like the really cute, saccharine stuff?" said Consuela.
"I like anime," said Sharla, looking disgusted, "but from what I've heard this will dissolve your soul."
"Don't knock it 'till you've tried it," said Sylvia.
They tried it. And except for Consuela grudgingly saying it had a certain charm, they didn't like it.
"Well, I can honestly say that my taste in anime hasn't changed," said Sharla. "I feel like I need an insulin injection."
"You're not alone," said Consuela, reluctantly. "Notice the Laura and Julia found excuses to leave early."
"Philistines," muttered Sylvia, retrieving the disk from the player.
"I think I'm going to go upstairs, get cleaned up and maybe get to bed early."
"Don't be in there too long," said Consuela. "I know you're still getting used to being a girl, but there's only one full bath in this house. Several times, now, you've taken over an hour just for 'a quick shower.'"
"I'm just exploring my new body," said Sharla, defensively.
"Yeah, I know. I hear you in there 'exploring' just about every night. Sometimes during the day, too."
"Oh, come on!" said Sharla, blushing furiously.
"I'm not saying you shouldn't. It's something healthy women do. Just be considerate."
Part Three: Standing Out
This story is set in the world of the X-Men movies, not long after the second one ends. The world and some of the characters belong to Marvel; the story and the rest of the characters are mine.
"A field trip?" said Sharla, looking and sounding uncertain. "What if we get in the middle of a mall and I start changing back?"
"Well, even though subsequent applications of the same adaptation come faster, you should still have plenty of warning," said Sylvia. She grinned. "Just don't get so distracted buying clothes or ogling boys that you don't notice until too late."
"Fat chance," muttered Sharla. "Besides, wouldn't those be sufficiently feminine activities that they'd encourage my current adaptation?"
"So you have nothing to worry about. Now, go get ready."
Sharla rolled her eyes.
"How do I look?" she asked shortly.
"Powder blue slacks, blue blouse, dark blue shoulder bag, white running shoes with blue trim," said Consuela, frowning as she tapped her cheek with her index finger. Finally, she nodded. "Not what I'd wear, but it should do."
Actually, the trip into town went rather well. Sharla was nervous, but had two friends along for reinforcement so didn't have much trouble even at first. And as she realized that no-one was paying any of them any particular attention she remembered how much she'd enjoyed getting lost in the crowd as a young man.
They shopped for groceries and other supplies first, Sharla getting quiet instruction on some of the latter. With five women in the household they definitely needed large amounts of certain products. Sharla had been given two hundred dollars for her personal use, and spent some of it on favorite snacks and foods. A few dollars more went for comics and magazines, the latter being of an unusually wide variety. She didn't bother buying any "women's" publications, since several of those were already on the list. Cold items went into two large coolers in the back of their SUV, packed in freshly-purchased ice. The rest was simply piled around the coolers.
Their next stop was three different clothing stores in close physical proximity. The last of these was a lingerie specialty shop.
"I really don't think I'm ready for this," said Sharla, quietly.
"You're the one who has been complaining about nothing fitting right," said Consuela. "Trust me; it's worth spending extra on underwear that's comfortable."
The three of them managed to avoid attracting suspicion by disguising Sharla's questions and the resulting instruction as "girl talk" discussions on the merits of various styles and brands. Forty-five minutes after entering they left with Sharla and Consuela both in new bras. Sylvia had simply bought more of the same thing she always wore. Sharla actually joined Consuela in teasing her over her conservative choices.
"They're a known quantity," huffed the doctor. "Some of us don't need to experiment simply for the sake of novelty. Besides, being properly built I don't have nearly as much trouble finding comfort."
They were chatting happily on the trip back, despite running late. Night had already fallen, and a cold front moving in had caused some patches of fog.
"You should let me drive," said Sharla. "A few minutes of adaptation and I see in the dark a lot better than either of you."
"No license," said Sylvia, who tended to become close to monosyllabic when behind the wheel. "Still learning."
"For instance, I can see that there's something off the side... It's on fire!"
"Seriously?" said Sylvia, braking. "Yeah, I can see the glow, now, through the fog."
"Yeah. Looks like an old station wagon rear-ended a camper when it slowed for some fog. They're really burning!"
"Sylvia, get us up there," said Consuela, digging into her purse.
She called 911 while Sylvia grabbed her bag and she and Sharla ran up to the van and helped the occupants out. By this time the fire was burning fiercely.
"There's a propane tank on the back," gasped the man who had been driving the camper. He had almost no injuries, but was badly shaken. "The guy in the station wagon is still in it, too!"
"Let 'im roast!" shouted the teenage boy with the broken arm.
"I'll get him," said Sharla, running towards the flames.
"Sharla!" Sylvia shouted after her.
The entire front of the station wagon was engulfed, and Sharla could see that the frame was badly crumpled, jamming the doors. The older man inside was screaming for help, beating on the broken windshield, a gash on his forehead streaming blood into his eyes. Getting either door open would take time, and Sharla could hear bubbling sounds from the propane tank. She almost jumped out of her skin at a loud bang and fire flying towards her, but quickly realized the culprit was the right front tire, hurling flaming debris in a wide cone as it blew. The left had apparently already blown.
The tank was almost in the heart of the flames, but already half detached, just hanging by the top fixture. It was a large one, plumbed to feed appliances inside the camper. The paint on it was starting to blister.
Sharla hesitated, having flashbacks. But she'd been burned before and not only survived, but healed in hours. Gritting her teeth she jumped onto the front bumper of the station wagon and jerked the tube free, quickly kinking and folding it over to reduce leakage. Then she braced her right foot against the back of the camper and grabbed the tank, screaming as it seared her hands. Bizarrely, she flashed to images of an old martial arts TV show. She pulled the tank free easily, and jumped away from the two vehicles, into the woods on the side of the road opposite to where they'd evacuated the passengers. She frantically hurled the tank away into the dark trees and undergrowth, then took a moment to check on how hurt she was.
She wasn't nearly as badly burned as she should have been. In fact, the pain was already receding. Her clothes were almost gone, and her arms and legs blistered, but even her hair - just getting to shoulder length for the first time in her life - was only mildly burned. Realizing her adaptive power had learned from the fire in her home, she turned and ran back to the station wagon. The flames were actually dying, now, but still a threat to the man.
Sharla needed three tries to tear the driver's door open, searing her hands on the hot metal. He wasn't wearing his seat belt, but the crumpled frame had squeezed his seat forward. Sharla almost grabbed the man and pulled, but realized she would probably tear him into pieces. Instead she shoved on the seat back, which fortunately made enough room for him to get his legs free without having to move the lower part of the seat. She helped him out and away from the car, and they both collapsed in the middle of the road.
Consuela ran up, carrying a fire extinguisher and fireproof blanket. She threw the latter on Sharla and the man she had just rescued, then used the latter on the fire. Several long bursts of dry powder were needed to quell the blaze, but at last it was out.
"Paramedics and fire truck on the way!" she gasped, turning to Sharla. "How are you?"
"Not nearly as bad as I look," said Sharla, obviously relieved as she checked under the blanket.
Sylvia came running up, yanked the blanket off, gave Sharla a quick once-over due to her clothes, expressed surprise, then turned to the man.
"Looks like you get the blanket," said Consuela, helping Sharla stand.
"Well, I'm the one who needs the blanket. From now on all my clothes are going to be fireproof."
The father came over while Sylvia was treating the driver of the station wagon.
"Is he drunk, or something?" the man asked, sounding angry.
"I don't smell any alcohol on his breath," said Sylvia. "I'll be sure to tell paramedics to check."
"What was on fire, anyway?" said Consuela, carefully approaching the site of the blaze. "Modern campers are supposed to have their gas tanks up front, just because of the danger of a fire if they're rear-ended."
"Camping gear in an outside storage bin," said the man, sourly. "Including several gallon cans of white gasoline."
Emergency vehicles started arriving not long after. Sylvia identified herself as a doctor and briefed the paramedics. Sharla stated, firmly, that she didn't need treatment and Sylvia supported this.
"I'm her physician. I've already checked her over. She's surprisingly unhurt; just some first-degree and a couple of second-degree burns. I guess she was just not in the fire long enough for much heat transfer."
"Well, I want to thank you people," said the senior fire fighter. "You probably saved at least one life tonight, even though it meant putting yourselves in danger."
"We couldn't just drive on by," said Consuela, modestly.
"Many people would have," said the fire fighter.
* * *
"I still smell like smoke," said Consuela, the next morning, at breakfast.
"You smell like smoke?!" said Sharla. "I almost was smoke."
"You have a very useful set of powers," said Julia, sounding envious. "I don't think any of us could have done what you did without getting hurt a lot worse. Even me, doing it more quickly."
"Well, I'm not responsible for what powers I have," said Sharla, modestly. "Though I will take credit for the courage and quick thinking, and for building up my strength."
"You said that half-joking," said Julia. "Truth is, I think you've earned this. I spoke with Professor Xavier earlier, and he agreed."
She stood, reached around the corner outside the kitchen, to the phone stand in the dining room, and returned with a bundle.
"What's this?" said Sharla, accepting it, puzzled.
Laura simply smiled. Sharla glanced up at her, shrugged and opened the package. And found herself gaping.
"You proved last night you can handle yourself in an emergency situation," said Julia, with a big smile. "You get the kinky outfit."
Sharla quickly moved to the counter and laid the components out. Snug black stirrup pants, black athletic shoes with black socks, a dark blue blouse... and a black leather jacket and mask.
"All that stuff is made of special fabric a lot more durable than what you had on last night. And it's all ties and velcro. Nothing metal at all. Just in case we have to go after Magneto."
That last was said with an impish smile.
"Why a mask?" said Sharla, holding it up as she looked at the others.
"Sylvia and I have masks," said Laura. "Consuela changes appearance so greatly, and Julia moves so fast, they don't really need them as part of their mission uniforms."
"It ties, but it also has an adhesive backing," said Sharla, tentatively picking at the cover over the latter.
"For masks a suspenders and belt approach is definitely a good idea. I'll show you how to use it to distort your features later."
"You can customize the outfit if you want, but I suggest waiting a while, and then consulting people who have worn these outfits before making any alterations. Some things are more practical than others. Oh, and while we had the other components handy padded bras in your size had to be ordered."
"Oh, joy," said Sharla. "Even more up top."
"Of course, you're on call, now," said Julia.
"Eh?" said Sharla, turning to give her a puzzled look.
"Accepting that outfit means you agree to help with mutant related problems. Either helping mutants, or helping normals threatened by rogue mutants, or any combination."
"Oh," said Sharla, examining the garments thoughtfully. "Okay."
"You're sure? You didn't think about that much."
"Yeah," she said, nodding. "I'm sure."
Once in her room, Sharla quickly stripped and donned the costume - except for the mask - and went into the bathroom to use the long mirror on the back of the door. She posed, scowling.
"Nice, but it definitely needs something," she said, quietly.
Shortly, with the mask now on, she tried again.
"Oh, yeah," she said, grinning. "Look at the super hero! Hoo!"
She grimaced, as she noticed something.
"Knew I should'a bought that vibrator," she muttered.
Part Four: Exceptional Acts
"I hate my life," Sharla sobbed, as she huddled on the couch in the living room, a comforter bundled around her.
"Can't you give her something?" said Laura, half annoyed and half cringing in sympathy.
"I have given her something," said Sylvia, frowning. "Several somethings. In multiple doses."
"Oh, right," said Laura, with a sigh. "She just adapts to the medication."
"Keep in mind that we all worked our way up to adult menstruation. Her menarche is at an effective age of twenty-three. Given that, and the fact that I haven't found any medication which works for her more than the first few minutes, I think all we can do is provide what comfort we can and try to be understanding."
"This may be why we haven't seen any female adaptors," muttered Laura, scowling at the weeping Sharla. "Too likely to kill themselves, or be killed by others."
"What about psychological factors?" said Julia. "I mean, you mentioned that Walt - and, later, Sharla - seemed to be adjusting maybe too well, and might be repressing some things. Could that be aggravating her condition?"
"It could," said Sylvia. "I just don't know. And right now is not a good time to try any form of psychotherapy I know of. At least, not if we actually want to help her. She's having too much trouble concentrating."
"Is she actually in that much pain?" said Laura.
"No, but the changing hormones in her body and her lack of familiarity with the effects have greatly reduced her ability to deal with pain as she normally would. Also, the discomforts of menstruation are alien to her, and hence feel exacerbated. Again, these are things which would not be nearly as problematic if she could have built up to adult menses normally, instead of having her first one be full-blown."
"Poor girl," said Consuela. She looked momentarily hopeful. "Do you think maybe this could trigger her to change back?"
"I have no idea."
That night was largely sleepless for the staff of the installation. Not because Sharla was noisy - she wasn't - but because the knowledge that a woman under the same roof was suffering so from her period was so disturbing. Sharla herself fell into a restless and miserable sleep on the couch around ten, but most of the others were still tossing and turning for hours after. Yet as they sat down to breakfast the next morning it was Sharla who came dragging in, still wrapped in the comforter, red-eyed and pale, hair a mess.
"You feeling any better, hon?" asked Consuela, quietly.
"If you mean better than yesterday, yes," she replied, with even less volume. "If you mean better so that I no longer want to just go ahead and die, no."
"You need fluids," said Sylvia, firmly. "I don't care if you eat anything this morning, but you are going to drink at least a liter of water in the next hour or I'll put you on an IV."
Sharla simply nodded and sat gingerly in the proffered chair. Even with the heavy pad she had in place, she grimaced in pain at contact. Consuela brought her a tumbler full of water and she sat, sipping slowly, while the others had a subdued breakfast.
"I ache," said Sharla, spontaneously. "Not... just where you'd expect, but all over. Like people tell me the flu feels like."
"You've never had the flu?" said Consuela.
Sharla slowly shook her head.
"No flu, no colds, none of the childhood diseases. I've been hurt, but never felt sick before. So I'm sorry if I'm not handling this well. It's... a new experience for me."
"I think you just lost all hope of sympathy over your suffering," said Laura, smiling to try and take the sting out of her words but not quite succeeding. "If this isn't just your first period, but the first time you've ever felt sick, you're still well ahead of the rest of us."
Sharla just muttered indecipherably into her tumbler.
* * *
Slowly, through the day, Sharla began feeling better.
"I think her regeneration is helping her get over her period more quickly," said Sylvia, thoughtfully, as she and Consuela did some work to help take up the slack for the damaged main lab, at Xavier's. "And that may be why it was so bad the first day."
"You mean she was having double or triple discomfort over what she would have had because...?"
"Just an idea. I won't know if it's anything more than that until I do some more tests and compile the data."
"Be diplomatic when you ask her down here," said Consuela, warily. "She's really snarky, right now, and could fly off the handle at the least little thing."
"Frankly, I hope she does change back soon. She just doesn't know how to handle being a woman, yet, and I'm not sure we'd all survive the learning process."
* * *
"I take back every joke I ever made about PMS and women having periods," said Sharla, fervently, at an early supper that afternoon. "No wonder primitive cultures think the gods hate women."
She still looked pale and a bit drawn, but was already showing some of her accustomed energy.
"You're truly one of us, now," said Consuela, with mock solemnity.
"If you feel up to it, Falcon Edge and I are going into Philadelphia to check on a mutant sighting," said Julia. "Something about a pig-faced boy. After we saw the news reports Laura was able to use her Innate Knowledge ability to narrow the location to a ten-block area. Unfortunately, few people actually know anything beyond rumors, so that's all she could get."
"Maybe," said Sharla. "When are you leaving?"
"About an hour. The trip is why we're eating so early."
"Yeah," said Sharla, nodding slowly. "I think, between that hour and the time the trip will take, I should be functional enough."
* * *
"It turned me on, too, the first few times," said Consuela, smiling a bit when she noted Sharla's reaction as they changed into their costumes in the van.
"You'd think, me still being sore, it wouldn't," Sharla muttered.
They had waited to change until night was well underway, to reduce the chance of someone noticing the outfits being worn inside the van. Consuela had started out driving, so Julia changed first. Then she switched positions with Consuela and drove while the other two changed. Consuela hadn't transformed, yet; she would wait until just before they left the van. Her costume was custom designed to accommodate the transformation in physiology.
"One of my college roommates liked to have sex during her period," said Julia, with a grimace. "Said the endorphins helped with the symptoms. But she always had easy periods, and her boyfriend knew enough to be very gentle."
"God," said Sharla, groaning. "I get nauseous just thinking about sex right now. Especially with a guy."
"Still get turned on by women but not men?" said Consuela, with a bit more than clinical interest. "I was thinking that after your period your hormones might kick in."
"I hope not," said Sharla, rolling her eyes behind her mask. "Of course, I'm not quite over it yet, so I could still be in for a rude surprise tomorrow. Right now, though, I'm not feeling particularly amorous towards either gender. I'm just... excited."
"I don't envy you the trouble you had," said Julia, "but the way you're recovering..."
"Turn left here," said Consuela.
They were soon stopped in a dark alley in a low-income district.
"Eeewww..." said Sharla, as they quietly stepped out of the van. "Not only does this place stink, the concrete is greasy!"
"What are you complaining about?" said Falcon Edge, now in her avian form. "I'm barefoot!"
"Quiet!" Courser hissed. "This is a scouting mission. We need stealth."
"Wait," said Adaptive, raising a hand. "Hear that? Sort of a roaring?"
"An angry mob," said Falcon Edge, shivering. "You hear that once, you never forget it."
"Let's go!" said Adaptive, charging ahead.
She was quickly passed by Courser, who turned around, matched speeds while going backwards, and slowed, forcing Adaptive to slow. All before they reached the mouth of the alley.
"Slow down! We look, first!"
They looked. And then Courser charged out, Adaptive right behind her.
A pig-faced man in filthy rags was clinging to the bottom edge of the lowest landing of a fire escape, screaming in desperate fear, while people tried to pull him off.
"Get away from him!" Adaptive screamed, unheard by the mob.
Courser was having to thread her way in, greatly slowing her. Adaptive simply jumped for the fire escape. She landed badly, but managed to grab the ladder. Which promptly started descending from her weight. She hung on and, fortunately, her noisy and dramatic arrival made the two-dozen members of the mob shy back. Adaptive climbed up a bit and grabbed one of the pig-man's hands, lowering him to Courser, then dropped to the pavement. She grabbed a mostly-empty dumpster and menaced the mob with that, driving them further back.
"He's hurt!" said Courser. "Almost unconscious. Think he fainted."
"Where's Falcon Edge?"
"Over here!" she called out, from where she was approaching from the side, having diverted to avoid the mob. "Get him out of here! I'll cover you!"
"But..." said Adaptive.
"She's right. We can come back for her if she needs help."
"I'm built for hurtin', not carryin'," said Falcon Edge. "Go!"
She charged off, leaving them little choice.
Seeing their prey escape caused some the mob to stir in that direction. Falcon Edge moved in their way, wings up and out and shrilling loudly. The sight of something resembling a large bird of prey in their path changed their minds. They were already hearing multiple sirens in the distance. Adaptive just hoped she'd be safe until they could get back.
She wasn't. By the time the pair returned for their partner she was down on the pavement, obviously hurt. Two police officers were standing over her, holding the mob back at gunpoint. Paramedics were just arriving.
"We have to go," said Courser.
"Even if you did, you'd probably have to hurt some people doing it. We let the police and paramedics help her for now. It'll be easier to get her out of a hospital than both of you out of the morgue."
Reluctantly, Adaptive agreed. They left.
* * *
The pig-boy - he was younger than they first thought - was named Michael. He seemed to be mentally retarded, though part of that could have just been shock. He didn't know his last name, or where he lived, except "with George and Harriet."
"You better take him to Xavier's," said Coordinator, when informed of this by cell phone. "They're better equipped - even with repairs still under way - than us to handle someone like that."
"Another long, night drive," groaned Adaptive, after tucking the boy in to sleep on the pad in back.
* * *
They finally came staggering in after dawn the next morning. The duo had take turns with one driving while the other napped, but they were still half out of it. They were disappointed in not having been able to see much of Xavier's, but given the need to get back to the safehouse and possibly go rescue Falcon Edge, the all-nighter was necessary.
"Go. Sleep," said Sylvia, firmly, upon seeing their condition. "We'll let you know if we hear anything. When and if we do mount a rescue we'll need you two in the best condition possible."
Reluctantly, they went to bed. Both were surprised that they fell quickly to sleep.
* * *
They woke just before Noon, Sharla shortly ahead of Julia. After showering and descending for a brunch, they were summoned into the living room by Laura.
"I have some bad news about Falcon Edge," she told them. "I wanted to wait until you were ready before telling you. According to the news reports, she was arrested, and is being held in the closest police precinct to where you found that new mutant. Reports are that the police refused to allow paramedics to treat her, even forcing them back with guns."
"That... could just be a mishearing of the police holding back the mob," said Julia, tentatively. "Also, the only witnesses we saw were the mob."
"Nevertheless, she could be in danger. Professor Xavier and I are pushing our contacts to the limit, but so far nobody is talking."
"One good thing," said Julia, "we know she has to deliberately change back. So she'll stay in her tougher raptor form even if she's unconscious."
"Which will also keep her from being identified," said Laura, nodding. "Even her DNA takes on avian characteristics."
Without a word, Sharla rose and headed for the stairs.
"Where are you going?" said Laura, moving to intercept her.
"To get Consuela out."
"You'll just get both of you killed!" snapped Laura, emphatically. "Think, Sharla! Apply that high IQ of yours! Is this an effective approach? Is it even what Consuela would want?!"
"No," said Sharla, with a sigh. "But I have to do..."
"You've thought of something, haven't you?" said Laura, with a tight smile, as the other paused and changed expression.
"Maybe. You need to make some calls. What TV stations, newspapers and such would be sympathetic?"
* * *
"Must be a slow news day," said one of the detectives, to the desk sergeant, looking out the front doors.
"There were TV news vans outside when I got here this morning," said the desk sergeant. "The guy I relieved said there had been some there since shortly after that freak was brought in. Now even more are arriving. But they're just waiting. Not trying to come in, not interviewing anyone. It's creepy. Almost like they know something's about to happen."
"I remember my dad talking about similar situations during the civil rights movement's heyday," said a black officer. "Activists would alert the media about something, to make sure they had witnesses."
"No, this has to be something else," said the desk sergeant, shaking his head. "If muties tried that someone would report it to us so we'd be ready for 'em."
"If everyone they contacted hated mutants," said the detective, pointedly.
"Who doesn't?" said the desk sergeant, shrugging.
"Wait," said someone near the door, craning to get a better look to the side. "Looks like the shutterbugs see something."
He stepped outside, followed by several others. A striking, masked woman in a black leather jacket, black leggings and a dark blue blouse was approaching a group of five TV reporters. They had already arranged themselves for an interview, away from the others, as if in anticipations, leaving the rest of the crews scrambling. The woman stopped in front of them before reaching the other reporters. As those selected began asking questions the woman held up her hand, quieting them.
"I will return to answer your questions - if I can - later. Right now I have a statement to make before doing something very important."
There was a pregnant pause as she looked around dramatically.
"This is an exercise in peaceful civil disobedience," said Adaptive, slowly and clearly. "I'm simply here to help my friend. I intend no harm to anyone."
She turned and began walking up the steps, leaving all the news crews scrambling to follow. Two officers moved to intercept her. Adaptive simply kept walking, surprising the men by not stopping, no matter how hard - or where - they pushed. They were displaced, relatively gently, simply by her passage.
Before she had left the safe house that morning, Sharla, Laura and Julia had sewn every piece of lead or tungsten they could find into her costume. Even her gloves had lead plates sewn in the backs. She was now carrying nearly a hundred kilos of extra mass. This not only gave her huge momentum and greatly improved her traction, it provided some protection. Another officer tried to grapple her, but with her strength he couldn't pull her down and simply wound up being dragged along a few feet before he finally gave up.
They didn't think to lock the doors in time. Neither did they think to stop the news crews before three of them had followed Adaptive inside. She walked up to the front desk.
"Where are you holding Falcon Edge? The bird woman?"
The desk sergeant simply stared at her. Perhaps realizing how wrong he'd been a few moments before. Or perhaps simply overwhelmed.
"She's in isolation," said a man in a suit - the same detective who had spoken with the desk sergeant a bit earlier - pointing. "Down the stairs and through the security door."
Several of the others present expressed resentment at his providing information. He glared back at them defiantly.
They couldn't stop her, but they did stop him, physically restraining the detective. By that time, though, Adaptive had a good idea of where to go. She noticed that more men and women in plain clothes were arriving, and one of them ordered the TV crews ejected. That meant they wouldn't see what happened, but it also meant there were fewer police to get in her way. She went through the door and started down the stairs. Once on the stairs she short-cutted by hopping over the handrails to the steps below, leaving the police trailing her behind. In the basement level the few police she saw were completely surprised and substantially baffled. Obviously, a failure in communications had left them unprepared. Adaptive walked past them, ignoring their questions, towards the heavy door in the far wall. She could hear people pouring into the basement behind her, coming down the stairs.
Adaptive was almost to the security door to the cell block when she felt a sting in her left shoulder, accompanied by the bark of a handgun. She winced, clenched her teeth, and staggered a bit, but kept going. The bullet had through bad luck passed between lumps of heavy metal. She wasn't invulnerable, but the tough materials of the costume combined with her own super-resilient tissues, meant that the bullet didn't go in deep. She became aware of people yelling, but refused to look back. She could tell there was an argument going on, with someone - apparently the shooter - being ordered to lower his gun.
The door was locked. It was also tough. She tried simply pulling it open, but it was too strong for her. She backed away a bit, then rushed in to ram with her right shoulder. The jolt of her heavily weighted form hitting the door shook the whole building. Dust sifted down from the ceiling. The door now had a distinct dent in it. In spite of the pain the impact had caused to her wound, Adaptive nodded, and backed up again. Three more hits later and she was able to brace herself against the frame and bend the door back against the wall, wincing as she used muscles in her injured shoulder. She could tell she had almost stopped bleeding, and wondered how long before the bullet actually healed out.
Cell after cell was either empty or contained the wrong person. Finally, at the end of the corridor, behind a door uncomfortably like the one for the cell where Walt had been held, she found Falcon Edge. The raptor woman appeared to be unconscious, and her lower left leg had a distinct kink in it. There were no bandages, no splints, nothing.
"You bastards didn't even treat her!" Adaptive screamed, whipping around in rage to face the watching police.
They shied back. Adaptive turned her anger on the door, and had it open in seconds. Falcon Edge roused as Adaptive knelt beside her.
"Can you move?"
"G-get me out of here," the bird woman husked.
Carefully, wishing she could take time to at least splint the break, Adaptive helped her up, supporting her on the side of the injured leg while being careful not to touch it. Together, the two women slowly made their way back out, police parting before them, unwilling to confront Adaptive after her demonstrations of strength and toughness. Back upstairs, Adaptive noted that the TV crews which had made it inside hadn't been completely evicted, but were waiting in the lobby. The reporters shouted questions.
"Not now!" Adaptive yelled, not stopping. The clamor quieted. "These bigots didn't even treat her! I've got to get her to medical attention as soon as I can. I'll have to come back later and talk."
Mollified by the promise of an interview later, they not only let the pair pass, but actively got in the way of the police.
Adaptive went out a side door, to be closer to Courser and to avoid the crowd she could see gathered out front. Police followed them, or watched from doorways, as they went down the hall but didn't try to stop her. Outside, down the steps, and onto the sidewalk they went, Falcon Edge moaning and whimpering, tears streaming down her beak, police still following. Adaptive caught Courser's high sign from the mouth of an alley ahead.
"Brace yourself," said Adaptive, quietly. "She's gonna have to get you out of here fast."
Falcon Edge grimaced and nodded. Adaptive looked back up and nodded to Courser.
Everyone but the two costumed women was caught by surprise as a figure darted out of the alley and hurtled towards them. For once wearing a mask, Courser stopped just long enough to carefully put Falcon Edge over her shoulder, then darted off faster than anything human could have followed.
With her friend on the way to safety and proper care, Adaptive sighed and sagged. However, she still had a lot to do, not least get away herself. Before that, however, she had an interview to give.
Taking a deep breath and straightening, Adaptive reversed course. Back at the front of the police station the TV crews were waiting eagerly. As Adaptive approached men and women still putting on riot gear came hurrying out onto the front porch of the station. Adaptive watched for a moment, to make sure they were merely taking position and not actually attacking, then turned to the waiting cameras.
"The only person injured here, today, was me," she said, turning so they could see the bloody hole in her jacket. "I went out of my way to avoid injuring anyone, and made it clear beforehand that I wasn't here to hurt anyone. And they still shot me in the back!"
"Miss..." shouted a woman from one of the top stations on the list they had made back at the safehouse.
"Call me Adaptive."
"Adaptive... who was that you freed and why was she in there?"
"That was Falcon Edge," said Adaptive, obviously both sad and angry. "She, Courser and I tried, last night, to save a mutant we know only as Pig Boy from a mob. He was killed before we could drive them off. We were checking him, trying to see if he were still alive, when the police arrived. The mob, emboldened by this, started for us again. Courser and I took the body, to keep it from being further mutilated, with Falcon Edge providing a diversion. Unfortunately, she was caught in the leg with a thrown brick and went down. Before we could get to her the police surrounded her. We assumed they would protect her from the mob and left, wishing no further confrontation. What happened afterwards was not witnessed by me, but has been covered on the news."
She and Laura had carefully worked out just what to say, for maximum emotion appeal combined with a good degree of confirmability. Her statements were also intended to protect Michael, and possibly cause "George and Harriet" to come forward.
"Where was she taken?"
"Someplace safe, well outside the city. You'll understand, after seeing what those in power did to her, why I don't tell you exactly where, or give our real names."
There were more questions. Adaptive answered several of them, then abruptly announced that she was leaving.
She turned and started down the sidewalk, gradually building speed. People - police, newsfolk and bystanders - reflexively moved out of her way. At the curb she leapt over the street, catching all pursuers by surprise. She nearly stumbled on landing, but managed to keep going. A sharp turn down an alley, a leap onto a fire escape and a scramble to a roof later and she was safely away. Fortunately, no news or police helicopters were on the scene, yet, but that couldn't last.
"I'm clear," she announced over her headset.
"Go two blocks north and one east," said Coordinator. "Courser and Falcon Edge are safely away. LabRat is working on the latter."
Deciding speed was more important than stealth, Adaptive took a running start and jumped to the next roof. The extra weight only cut her jumping distance a bit, since it also let her push off harder. Her landing left a deep dent in the target roof, but that just couldn't be helped. By the time she reached the top of the fire escape down into the alley where she could see Coordinator's disguised car she was sweating, and only partly from tension. She didn't see anyone around, so instead of removing her disguise on the roof she simply took off the weighted jacked and dropped it beside the car, then jumped after it. She still hurt both feet and her right knee. Wincing, she gathered her jacket and got into the car.
"You scared the Hell out of me when that jacket hit the ground," said Coordinator, as they took off. "Thought you'd fallen."
"Sorry," said Sharla, stripping off her mask and headset.
Some minutes later they were on a freeway heading out of town. Courser announced that they were also well on the way.
"Good," said Coordinator, relaxing with a sigh. "You see anything?"
"No signs of pursuit," said Sharla, peering out through the sun roof. "Lots of helicopters, but none seem to be paying attention to us."
"Is that blood?" said Coordinator, seeing the injury for the first time.
"Got shot. It's already healing. Bullet fell out and is somewhere around my waist."
They stopped at an out-of-business garage and removed the "decorations" then continued. Two hours later they were back at the safehouse. Noting that the van was already in its accustomed parking place, they hurried inside.
"How is she?" said Laura, catching Sylvia on the stairs, coming up from the basement infirmary.
"Bad break, left untreated unconscionably long," said their doctor, obviously outraged and angry. "Once she was in the van I put her out as soon as I determined it was safe, immobilized the break, got her on two IVs. Her vitals were already stronger by the time we got here. I just finished reducing the fracture and putting a cast on."
"So is she going to be all right?" said Sharla, anxiously.
"Oh, I expect her to make a complete recovery," said Sylvia. "The structure of her lower legs is close enough to human that I didn't have much trouble. But she'll have to stay in raptor form until the break heals."
"Oh, she's going to hate that," said Laura, rolling her eyes. She turned and put a hand on Sharla's shoulder. "Good work, by the way. Both the plan and its execution."
"Thank you," said Sharla, starting to shake with relief, now. "If it's all right I'd like to go sit by her."
"She'll be out for hours," said Sylvia. "Why don't you go get cleaned up and take a nap, and get some food? She should be reviving by then."
Sharla nodded and left.
* * *
The news that day was almost entirely in favor of Adaptive and her actions, and full of criticism of the police. The mayor and police chief were both left playing catchup, making themselves look bad by saying they hadn't know what was going on and would have made sure "the captured mutant" had been treated humanely if they had. Thereby not only claiming incompetence in managing their charges, but missing the point. A few of the more radical commentators ranted about the "attack" on the police station, implying several mutants were involved and dozens of officers injured, but the only people believing them already thought mutants were evil.
* * *
"All that work, wasted," said Scorpion Five. "I'm even in trouble for trying to stop that mutie!"
"Well, you did shoot her in the back," said Oracle Five, dryly. "Don't worry about this. Once the liberal media has their attention attracted by some other whiney, politically correct cause we'll track those three down and take care of them quietly."
"If those damn paramedics had just minded their own damn business...!"
"You did the right thing," said Oracle Five. "If there hadn't been so many witnesses you could have silenced those mutie lovers properly along with the mutant and made it look like the mob did all the killing."
"Something to remember for next time," said Scorpion Five, dangerously.
* * *
"The sample was either contaminated, or it wasn't from that woman in the first place," said the lab tech. "It was a man's blood."
"Damn!" said the detective, angrily. "They've already cleaned the floor, too. Guess we missed our chance."
Part Five: Dissension in the Ranks
The anti-mutant rally was in serious trouble. More opponents - including a few obvious mutants - than supporters had shown up, but even they had fled when Magneto arrived. The hate mongers hadn't been much of a challenge for him, but the local SWAT team had been on standby for just such an emergency. They even had some weapons with non-magnetic components; not designed for use against the master of magnetism but useful anyway as side effects of their intended purpose. Glue and pepper pellets, a kevlar net launched from a tube, and so on. Magneto had been both surprised and mildly impressed when these were applied against him. He still managed to block or dodge everything thrown at him while also methodically disarming and rendering immobile the opposition. Just now he was slowly juggling several of the marchers over his head, holding them by the metal on their persons. Which resulted in some rather painful pulls, considering where the metal was located.
He barely noticed the slight disturbance in the powerful magnetic fields around him. He did notice, however, and was just starting to apply part of his mind to examining the anomaly, when he felt someone grab him from behind and something cold and sharp touch his throat.
"Ceramic knife," said the youthful-appearing man who dared accost the powerful mutant. "I like you, Eric, but if you don't gently put those people down I'll use this."
"Hello, Edgar," said Magneto, mildly, as he followed the other's instructions. "Do you mind if I defend us from their retaliation? Not that you need my protection."
"We won't be here long enough to worry about that. We're going to a meeting. And you have my word that we're only going to talk. About a mutual problem."
"Charles put you up to this, didn't he?" said Magneto, as he thoughtfully lifted a manhole cover and moved it in place for his old friend to stand on.
The blade against his throat didn't move a hair as the other stepped onto the disk. The two of them lifted gracefully into the air, and Magneto flew them in the direction his passenger indicated.
"Actually, I came to him. And since this involves one of your inventions we both felt you should be involved."
They were soon swooping over lush forest. At Edgar's instruction Magneto landed in a small clearing, far from human habitation. Professor Xavier was there, sitting in one of those ubiquitous white plastic chairs. There was no-one else visible, or detectable to mutant senses.
"Charles," said Magneto, amiably, as they landed.
"Eric," said Xavier, a bit coldly.
The edge against Magneto's throat vanished, and Edgar stepped well back. Magneto turned to examine him.
"You're looking well. Which, of course, is no surprise." He turned slowly, as if searching his surroundings with senses not possessed by mere humans. "No metals beyond the traces naturally present in the rocks, trees and animals. Including your own bodies. Very thorough. And your skills have only improved, Edgar. I can't even tell where you hid that knife."
"A man can learn a lot in a hundred-plus years," said Edgar, with a slight smile. "You have your helmet and that disk. You can leave at any time, or defend yourself with the latter if you need to. However, it's just us three, here, for several kilometers."
"As you wish," said Magneto, with a mocking slight bow. "Still, it distresses me that we have diverged so greatly in less than even a human lifetime."
"What happened to the young partisan, who swore to give his life to free the oppressed from dictatorship?" said Edgar, bitterly.
"He grew up, old man. And grew old, himself."
"Eric, you have aged. But not as much as a human would have. Given your abilities you are good for at least another fifty years, perhaps another hundred. So don't play that card with me. I could get hit by lightning as soon as this meeting is over."
"I'm... shocked you think I would arrange such a thing," said Magneto, in mock horror.
"Gentlemen," said Xavier. "As interesting as hearing you two talk is, we have something urgent and of mutual interest to discuss."
* * *
"Good morning," Falcon Edge called out, as she slowly and awkwardly made her way into the shop building, out behind the safehouse.
"Good morning!" Sharla called out enthusiastically, putting her tools down and hurrying to pull out a chair. "I'm surprised to see you moving around so soon. It's just been three days."
"I was going crazy in there," the bird woman replied. "I can't get down into the basement to work unless someone carries me, and you're the only one who can do that alone."
She was moving around on crutches - not an easy task for someone with wings instead of arms, and no proper hands - towards the proffered chair, examining the objects on the heavy work table where Sharla was creating a new version of her public outfit.
"How are you feeling?" said Sharla, quietly, her smile vanishing.
"A lot better," Falcon Edge said, carefully letting herself down until securely supported by the chair. She sighed, in a mixture of physical relief and psychological pain. "I don't really remember much of it. I was out a lot, and in too much pain to care for most of the rest."
"Bastards," muttered Sharla, fists clenched.
"The worst part of it was, they seemed to consider me a trophy, rather than a person." She shook her head. "I've done some hunting - that's part of the culture, where I come from - and no hunter I know would have let an animal suffer like they did me. But there wasn't any deliberate cruelty. It just never seemed to occur to them that there was anything wrong with letting me lie there, with an untreated broken leg. And you know, they never arrested me, never read me my rights, nothing! Just... captured me, as if to have something to show off!"
She noticed that Sharla was literally shaking, face white with rage. Falcon Edge reached up and gently rubbed her arm.
"Hey, girl... I'm the one who's supposed to be the hothead. Calm down. It's over, and the public attention you brought to what they did is causing them to be raked over the coals."
"It's not enough," said Sharla, bitterly. "But it'll do. For now."
"I can't believe you're keeping all that weight in your new costume," said Falcon Edge, deliberately changing the subject.
Sharla was, of course, completely healed from the bullet wound by now, and her first costume had been cleaned, patched and returned to it's previous lead-free status. This new one, though, would take their weighty improvisation and develop it to the practical limits.
"It did prove useful," said Sharla, allowing herself to be distracted from thoughts of vengeance. "The extra mass lets me use my strength more effectively. It also helps keep me in shape, lugging that around. We figure that by switching from discrete lumps of lead and tungsten to polymer-coated tungsten carbide powder we can distribute the mass better, and provide more uniform protection."
"Well, if you get knocked out on a mission, I'm not carrying all that," said Falcon Edge, shaking her head. "Better make that stuff quick detach, or you'll have to be stripped to your skivvies before anyone can lift you!"
"Uhm, actually, I'm putting some in my costume's underwear, too," said Sharla, blushing. "That's part of the weight redistribution. I'm even putting some in my mask. Figure I can use it as a sap if I have to. There's solid tungsten plates in the backs of the glove fingers, but I'm using the powder everywhere else."
Consuela started to make some snide remark, but was interrupted.
"We've got visitors coming in, by 'copter," Laura stated, as she entered the workshop. "Charles Xavier wants to talk to us about something. Sharla, you just have time to get cleaned up and ready."
"This sounds important," said Consuela. She looked down at herself, and the crutches, and sighed. "Guess I'll be sitting out any field trips for a while."
"Sorry, hon; but I probably won't be going, either. Charles sounded pretty grim, so most likely they'll only want people who can take care of themselves."
* * *
"Wow," said Rogue, looking bemused. "You have been through some changes."
"Temporary, I hope," said Sharla, sighing.
Besides Rogue, the Professor had also brought a young man none of those at the safehouse knew. Xavier introduced the group to the stranger as they assembled in the living room. Even Falcon Edge was there, raptor form, crutches and all.
"You all know Rogue and me," said Xavier, once the meeting he had called was underway. "This is Edgar S. Hayes, aka Gooney Bird. And he has some worrying news."
"I'm certain most of you are familiar with the strange events at the special UN ceremony last year. Officially the odd light effects were just part of the fireworks which went a little awry, but it's widely known something odd happened out at the Statue of Liberty. Charles?"
Xavier preceded to relate the digest version of events. Sharla, hearing of Rogue's involuntary participation in the plot, looked over at her. She was putting on a brave front, but appeared definitely uncomfortable.
"The machine was disassembled and taken to a private research institute," the Professor concluded. "An institute my friend, here, is closely associated with."
"I thought only Magneto - or someone with the same ability - could power the device," said Sylvia, giving Rogue a brief glance.
"That's what Eric thought. But as Charles and I both know he has some peculiar blind spots."
Edgar shook his head sadly.
"He developed a device capable of altering living tissue in situ, and all he can think to use it for is a weapon."
"If it can be powered without him, and it's effects more closely controlled..."
"You begin to see the temptation," said Edgar, giving Sylvia an acknowledging nod. "I had only noble aspirations for the device, and I honestly believed my partners did as well. But with such potential at their fingertips they were tempted beyond their ability to resist."
"What were you hoping to do with this thing?" said Laura. "Use it to heal normal humans?"
"That, as well as find a way to empower humans without fatal side effects," said Edgar. "At least, those were the official lines of research. I have uncovered evidence they also were examining ways to use it in wartime to create a small army of superhumans. The US government said no, however, and they then began - covertly - looking elsewhere."
"At least we know they can't turn it against us," said Julia, sounding relieved.
"Actually, there's evidence it could affect some mutants," said Edgar. "The most likely result would be a dramatic power increase, though most likely at the expense of a greatly shortened life from the strain of channeling such energies.
"At any rate, the device was stolen by two of my partners - Ellen Harrison and Sullivan Gumble - with some violence in done in the process. No-one seriously hurt, but several injured. And they violated my trust."
"You want us to bring it back for you," said Laura.
"Or, if that proves impossible, destroy it and whatever data they may have gathered," said Edgar. "I have asked Charles to help, since he could suppress their memories of what they learned."
"You would do that?" said Sylvia, looking over at the telepath in surprise. "Invade their minds to keep them from rebuilding this thing?"
"Yes," said Xavier, though reluctantly. "The situation is that serious. If word of this device gets out... The terrorism applications alone would tempt any of a dozen nations and perhaps double that many independent groups to attempt to gain access to the device."
"We don't know, yet, whether Harrison and Gumble have told anyone outside the research group about the device," said Edgar. "However, unless they have backers they are almost certainly on a small budget. Any backers would be impatient for results, and probably pressuring them. Either way, things could get desperate quickly."
"How much progress had been made before they stole the machine?" said Sylvia.
"Very little, actually. In order to study what the machine does we would have to power it and measure its emissions, and as you can imagine we were very determined to do this only in the safest way possible. We had just begun construction of a Faraday cage large enough when an intern suggested we simply move the machine to an isolated area and operate it remotely. The truck carrying it was just twenty minutes from the area we had prepared when it was hijacked. Harrison and Gumble subsequently went missing, along with all the notes, and even the computers and some of the testing equipment."
"So they're probably a lot closer to there than to the original lab, now," said Sharla, nodding.
"That was our thinking."
"We have been able to detect some odd energy emanations from the central Rockies," said Xavier. "Besides being characteristic of the device's signature, these have been accompanied by short-term alterations in the Earth's magnetic field. We believe Harrison and Gumble are using a large electromagnet to trigger the device. Except that so far they haven't reached the necessary threshold to cause anything but sporadic emissions."
"How many Gauss would that be?"
"At least a few hundred," said Xavier, seeming impressed with Sharla's question. "Remember, though, that the device could be variably powered to cover different areas. And that it was intended to work with power from a living man, not an insensate machine. So far more is needed than simply a magnetic field of the correct strength."
"So they should need a while to activate it," said Sylvia, nodding. "So hopefully we have time to find them - and it - and plan our course of action."
"And what will Magneto be doing during all this?" said Laura.
"That... is a problem," Xavier admitted.
"We asked for his help in this matter," said Edgar, looking sad. "He turned us down cold. Said it was fine with him if any number of humans were killed playing with his toy. Then he left. Which, of course, means he will also be seeking the device."
"And with his sensitivity to the Earth's magnetic field and any disturbances to it, he may already have a better idea of the machine's location than we do."
"So, even though we don't know exactly where the machine is, yet," said Edgar, "we need to get people to the Rockies as soon as possible, in case we do find it remotely in the meantime, or to perform a ground search in case we don't. Preferably people unknown to Magneto, so he won't already have countermeasures against them."
"With security at the mansion still in a precarious state, I'm afraid we can't spare many of the staff there for such an operation," said Xavier, with a tired smile. "So, will you help us with this?"
* * *
"Just who is that guy?" said Sharla, quietly, as she worked frantically with Laura to finish her new outfit before the mission. "I'm assuming that he's the Hayes of the Xavier-Hayes paper and test. He is a mutant, right? What's his powers?"
"He's actually one of our best mutant finders," said Laura, smiling. "He says the light behind their eyes gives them away."
"Huh?" said Sharla.
Laura grinned impishly, but it faded quickly. She was one of those staying behind and regretted it. Despite the needs of the mission, the safehouse also had needs, and she was best suited to staying here for those.
"Charles first met him in college, when he was a guest speaker on modern medical research and morality."
"But... he looks younger than..."
"You probably will, too, when you're a hundred and eleven. Regenerators tend to stop aging in their early twenties."
"Oh," said Sharla, looking stunned by the information and its implications for her. "That explains his code name."
"'While nations fall and men retire and jets go obsolete, the Gooney Bird flies on and on, at eleven thousand feet.'"
"Sharla? Laura?" said Sylvia, from the door of the workshop, oblivious to the cause of Sharla's stunned expression and Laura's confused one. "They're ready."
"Just a moment!" Laura called back. "This is the first time I've met him, but I do know about him. Charles told me I could trust him, because he has long proven himself trustworthy. For the past several decades he has been a voice of wisdom and restraint, backed by the will to do what he sees as best, whatever that costs him personally. Some people claim he was instrumental in the relatively peaceful end of the Soviet Union. And you can be assured he has a strong motivation to fight against tyranny and persecution. He was shot for desertion in the Great War, simply because he was the only one in his unit to survive a murderous artillery barrage."
Sharla gave her a long, evaluating look. She was certain what she had just been told was the truth, and it left her feeling more than a little awed.
"Well, the underwear will have to wait," said Laura, finishing her part of the task with a sigh. "The rest of the outfit is ready, though."
"Thank you," said Sharla. "Guess I'll have to change on the way."
"Just stay out of deep water," said Laura, seriously.
Sharla grabbed the finished pieces, shoved them into a stout canvas bag and hurried for the door.
"Good luck!" Laura called after her, walking to the door to watch as the party headed to the 'copter.
* * *
Their first stop was the X-Mansion. There, while final preparations were made, Sharla managed to find a women's locker room so she could change. She was more than a bit flustered at all the women and girls she didn't know who were also using the facility, but there really wasn't time for modesty.
Dressed and feeling oddly reassured by all the heavy metal around her, Adaptive hurried to the underground hangar.
The Blackbird's ground crew was just finishing the fueling. Gregory Stoppard - Avion - the same man who had piloted the helicopter, would also fly them to the Rockies. However, as with the visit to the safehouse, he would not participate in any ground operations.
"As the Army found out, put me in an aircraft and I can rule the sky," he explained, while he finished his limping walkaround. "But outside of a plane, I'm just about useless. Can't fight, can't shoot, can hardly walk, get hurt easily..."
"No-one is accusing you of cowardice, Greg," said Xavier, calmly. "I'll be staying in the plane, as well, you know."
The pilot nodded, but still looked uncomfortable.
The flight took just under an hour and a quarter. They overflew the area the remote readings had targeted, but neither eyes nor instruments found anything out of place. They landed in a mountain meadow about two kilometers from the center of the search area.
"Courser," said Xavier, catching her attention as they unstrapped. "I'll be coordinating things, but Gooney Bird will be in charge on the scene. He has... considerable experience with this sort of operation. However, he doesn't know you, Adaptive or Rogue, so you will be his second in command and the intermediary."
"Understood," she replied, nodding.
Once outside, the ground team paused for a few moments to take stock and examine the map Gooney Bird produced.
"We're here, two klicks northwest and two hundred meters higher than the center of the projected area."
He looked up, to align his mental image of the map with the actual features around them.
"If I were going to build a secret lab for testing this device, I'd follow the plan to have two separate installations," he said, mostly thinking out loud. "That would be the quickest way. So they would want a place far from homes or power lines for the device itself, and some place at least a kilometer away from that, dug into rock, for the control station."
"So..." said Courser, frowning as she looked at the map. "Maybe here, for the device? It's out in the open, on a high spot in rough terrain, but there's a road in which looks like it could take a heavy truck. And just over here, there's an old mine, along the same road."
"That was my evaluation, as well," said Gooney Bird, nodding and folding the map. "I suggest we all hike to the closest point on that road, which would put us just west of the mine. Then you take Rogue and head to that knoll, while Adaptive and I check the mine."
"That has the quickest and the lightest traveling the furthest distance, and the strongest at the place where you may need to force an entry," said Courser, nodding. "Should work."
"Keep radio silence unless you have good reason not to," said Gooney Bird, as they started off. "Charles will monitor our surface thoughts and relay anything important."
"Magneto can pick up radio transmissions?" said Adaptive, surprised.
"They're electromagnetic radiation," said Gooney Bird. "Even when I first met him in the late Forties, Eric could detect radio waves. I suspect that these days he can read most non-encrypted messages with little effort."
Adaptive noticed Rogue and Courser look startled. Gooney Bird, however, gave them no time to question his age. Instead he stepped up the pace. Soon only Courser was staying with him easily.
"I'm a city girl," Rogue panted. "Not used to mountains in any way, shape or form."
"And I'm carrying more than my own weight," said Adaptive, not quite as winded but definitely feeling the strain. The cross-country path they were taking grew increasingly steep as they heared the road. "Maybe I should... rethink this whole... adding mass scheme..."
Once at the gravel road - really little more than a wide trail blasted into the side of the mountain - they took a moment to rest. Then Rogue and Courser turned left, while Adaptive and Gooney Bird turned right.
"More climbing..." was the last the two heading for the mine heard as they parted.
They walked quickly to within a few meters of the rusted fence surrounding the mining area, then slowed for the final approach.
"Notice," said Gooney Bird, quietly, pointing down. "Signs of recent activity, from the gate down the mountain, but none beyond."
"So the clearing isn't being used?"
"Which doesn't mean they don't plan to."
Gooney Bird checked around the gate, then simply pushed it open. The hinges squealed, but not as much as their apparent age suggested they should. Nodding to himself, he took advantage of available cover to led them on an indirect route to the entrance, where he pulled out a large LED flashlight.
"Didn't you bring a light?"
"Give me a few seconds and I can see in any light a cat can use," said Adaptive, just as quietly. "In total darkness my other senses become more keen."
"Handy," said Gooney Bird, beginning to inch his way along. "I'm starting to feel like last year's model. Look, the floor has been cleared, and the old rails removed. The lights have been upgraded, too. All of this recently."
"Turn your light out for a moment."
He did so. Adaptive stepped past him and peered into the darkness.
"I see what looks like a modern warehouse loading dock door, set in a new concrete frame. There's a card reader and everything."
Gooney Bird nodded, and switched his light back on.
"I wonder how good their security is? I'm actually surprised to come this far without interference."
"If they're on a shoestring budget they might not have any people working security."
"Odd. Charles says he can detect no minds here except ours."
"He said before that Magneto's helmet could block thoughts. Could there be something similar here?"
"Unlikely. I suspect we need to hurry."
The door was intact, but power was off.
"After you," said Gooney Bird, graciously.
"Gee, thanks," Adaptive muttered.
She squatted, shoved her hands under the roll-up, segmented metal door and heaved. The locking bolts tore from the frame and the door shot upwards with a loud squealing.
"So much for stealth," said Adaptive, holding the door up while he slipped through.
"All the more reason to hurry."
They crossed through a storeroom to the only other door. It was unlocked. Inside was a small control room. And two bodies.
"Harrison and Gumble," said Gooney Bird, sadly, as he confirmed that they were dead. "From their wounds, I suspect Sabertooth did the dirty."
He shone his light around the room.
"Looks like they've already taken the computers."
"If we could get the power back on, we could use these monitors to see what's going on."
"There should be a battery backup," said Gooney Bird, searching around the dark room with the aid of his flashlight. "It should have come on automatically. If the power has been off long enough to drain the batteries..."
"Magneto has already come and gone," said Adaptive, nodding.
"Found some tripped breakers."
There was a series of clunks as he began resetting them. Abruptly, the lights came on.
"Still no monitors."
Another clunk and the screens blinked to life.
"There's the device!" said Gooney Bird, turning at Adaptive's call. "My God, he's already moving it out!"
Three of the monitors gave different views of a rock-walled chamber, and a fourth the mountain ridge above. A hydraulic lift was obviously intended to raise the machine out through an opening in the roof. Magneto was standing on the floor by the lift, using his power to elevate the machine and a bundle which was probably the computers, inside something to protect them from his power. However, the master of magnetism was obviously startled by the lights coming on.
"You go outside and up, see if you can head him off. I'll try to find the access from inside the mine."
"Gotcha," said Adaptive.
As she ran back outside, though, she realized just what was being asked of her: She was going up against Magneto - possibly the most powerful mutant alive - alone! She didn't like the idea, but could see no alternative. Adaptive began clambering up the steep rock outside the mine. Above her, she could already see the machine poking out of the ridge. Swearing silently, she took a chance and made the rest of the trip in three hard bounds. Magneto was outside, now, guiding the machine along the ridge but still near the roof access. He hadn't seen her yet. Adaptive took a deep breath, and charged. Magneto turned, startled, as he sensed her approach.
He felt the metal on her and tried to push her away, but the physically isolated bits of tungsten powder were difficult for him to get a grip on, especially while primarily concentrating on the safe handling of his machine. She made it all the way to him with only minor impedance, leapt and swung.
Magneto managed to turn his head so his helmet took the brunt of the blow. Reinforced by his magnetism, it dented slightly, then sprang back. Even so, Magneto was stunned by the impact, sliding several meters through the air as he fell to the ground. The device and computers crashed to the hard rocks nearby, shattering and crashing as they rolled down the mountain. Adaptive started for Magneto, but before she could close Sabertooth tackled her from behind, the direction of the roof access. They crashed to the rock and rolled, stopping not far from Magneto. She twisted around and started punching, with some effect. She might even have been stronger than him. Unfortunately, he had the upper hand, and was a far more experienced fighter. Still, he rolled away, and she rolled in the opposite direction. They both jumped to their feet, and hesitated a moment. She noted, in the brief pause, that he was wearing something which looked absurdly like a hair net. Then they charged together.
Sabertooth ducked her punch and swiped at her with his claws, cutting through the tough fabric and thin bag of tungsten carbide powder to plow red-leaking furrows in her belly. Adaptive gasped and staggered back, away from the next strike. The huge mutant steadily forced her further from Magneto, who was starting to recover. Doing some snarling of her own, Adaptive threw herself at Sabertooth. The big mutant smirked and braced himself... and was shocked to be rocked off balance by her unexpected momentum. All that heavy metal had its advantages.
Adaptive got in a few good blows, but Sabertooth wouldn't yield. He quickly turned the fight back around, again forcing Adaptive away. Worse, as her adaptive power - responding to the hurts he was giving her - channeled more and more of her potential into resilience, she felt her strength fading. Worst of all, in the background she saw Magneto lift off the ground and fly shakily away, over the ridge. Adaptive screamed in frustration. Sabertooth's attacks were doing far less damage, now, but so were hers. Neither was seriously hurting the other; as soon as he realized that Sabertooth would probably follow Magneto. And there would be nothing she could do to stop him. Because her power was reflexive, not subject to her will.
Then Adaptive saw a blur of motion approaching up the steep slope. Realizing who and what that was, she lunged at Sabertooth again, clawing for his eyes. He was distracted long enough for Courser to plant a bare-handed Rogue against his back before haring off after Magneto. Sabertooth screamed as Rogue took his power. He staggered away, trying to claw Rogue off his back. Adaptive cut his noise short with the hardest haymaker she had ever thrown. She could feel her strength returning, now that he wasn't hurting her. And she was determined to put it to good use. She threw another hard punch, coming the other way, then another right haymaker.
Even with Rogue draining him, Adaptive had to clobber him a fourth time before he went down. Rogue immediately rolled off him.
"Damn!" the power-absorbing mutant panted. "Not a moment too soon! That son of a bitch is crazy!"
She stood shakily, shying a bit when Adaptive reached out to steady her, but settling down when she realized the other wore leather gloves.
"I hope he's out for a while," said Adaptive, breathlessly. "At least long enough for me to heal."
"Not bad. Between the silk and kevlar and tungsten and my own tough hide the cuts aren't that deep. Those, some bruises and maybe my pride and that's it."
"Where'd Courser go?" said Rogue, looking around.
"Okay. We can stay here and hope reinforcements come before he wakes up. Or we can go see if she needs help."
Adaptive looked down at the still-out Sabertooth and shuddered.
"We should always help our friends."
"Just what I was thinking."
* * *
"I just wish I'd been quicker," said Courser, frustrated. "By the time I caught up with him he was too high for me to reach."
"And by the time we got back to Sabertooth, he was gone," muttered Rogue. "He must heal as fast as Wolverine."
"Meanwhile, there I was, in the empty chamber below, looking like an idiot with nothing to do," said Gooney Bird.
"Don't feel too bad; I rate this mission as an 80% success," said Xavier, proudly, as they rode back in the Blackbird. "We stopped the misuse of the machine, kept it out of Magneto's hands as well, destroyed the machine and the records and no-one was seriously hurt except the two thieves. Though I am sad we didn't reach their hideout in time to save them..."
"Couldn't he just build another one?" said Courser.
"In time, yes. But I had already figured out how to use Cerebro to detect the device's emanations. Between that and keeping watch for magnetic anomalies, if he tests a new one I'll know."
"Guess that'll have to do," sighed Rogue.
"I just hope things will be quiet for a while," said Adaptive, almost completely healed herself. "I need to check on my little sister and clear my name, and for both of those I need to get back to my old, male self."
"I suggested to Dr. Harper a few days ago that she allow me to guide you in some meditative exercises," said Xavier. "Your mindset does affect your adaptive power. With the right application, you could shape your body as you wish. Though I doubt you would ever be able to make any sort of extensive change that way in less than a day."
"That would definitely do," said Adaptive, nodding.
This document is © 2006 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must acquire permission from the author, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org