X-Men fan fiction
part 1: Gifted Students
Chapter 1: Homecoming
Chapter 2: Recharge
Chapter 3: Regenerate
Chapter4: Xavier's Decision
Chapter 5: X-Men in Training
Chapter6: Mission Fatigue
Chapter 7: New and Improved
Chapter 8: Fear Itself
Chapter 9: Through the Glass
Chapter 10: Mourning Glories
Chapter 11: Ghost Stories
Chapter 12: The Devil and Despair
Chapter 13: Spuytin Dyvil Falls
Chapter 14: Evil Spirits
Chapter 15: Heart Stone
Chapter 16: The Rubble O'r Our Sins
Chapter 17: Shadow Boxing
Chapter 18: House Rules
part 1: Gifted Students
In the lower levels of the Xavier Institute for Gifted Students, Charles Xavier was still staring at Scott’s X-rays. Thinking of the past, thinking of the future, pondering the decisions that lay before him now. Promises and ethics. When he had begun laying the foundations for the Xavier Institute he had surrounded himself with different viewpoints, knowing that some of those viewpoints would test his own. He had hoped differences of opinion would broaden their horizons, push them all to be better... instead those differences had driven them apart. Xavier wondered if he was still going down the same path, but to potentially even more disastrous results. Was he following through on the very threat that had forced them apart back in the early days?
Even before this most recent crisis of faith, Xavier had occasionally wondered if he had unconsciously chosen Warren and Hank to fill the vacated roles of their predecessors because he saw similar qualities in them. Had he been unconsciously trying to fill his own losses? Hank, like Moira, was ever the dedicated scientist, idealist, problem solver. And Warren, also an idealist, but with more than a slight chip on his shoulder for the world’s treatment of mutants. Quick to take action and long to hold a grudge. Xavier had been reminded of Warren’s volatile temper when the latter had unexpectedly stormed out of the infirmary this morning.
Hank had watched, worriedly. “I thought I had better prepared him for this.”
“Warren is conflicted, and with good cause. He put his own concerns aside to help Scott. But seeing a thing in reality can be very different from imagining the same thing in theory. Give him some time to process.”
“Hmm. I suppose it is a lot of new information to absorb. Medicine is always more personal from the patient’s point of view.”
“Or, in this case, the test subject.” For a moment, Xavier realized with complete certainty that Erik would find this turn of events utterly intolerable. Maybe Warren was more inclined to agree with that protectionist philosophy than Xavier had realized. Warren had always shared the same disdain for hiding in plain sight, the same resentment for limits placed upon him because society was not yet ready to accept mutants. He tended to see the ever-present danger of hostilities – or the dark specter of capture – well before he saw the more distant promise of peace and acceptance.
Xavier’s thoughts returned to the more immediate present, watching as Hank began taking down Scott’s arm radiographs. A moment later he replaced them with head scans, taken just after surgery, while Scott was still sleeping. Hank compared those to the original CT scans from two years ago.
“No changes to speak of. I suppose that’s a good thing, given the recent head injury: there’s no change in his brain function, or in the expression of his mutation.”
“None was expected,” Hank agreed, “but it’s good to confirm.”
Xavier paused for a moment. “Do you think there’s any chance the healing factor–?”
Hank smiled and put up a third set of scans. “Scott asked me the same question this morning.”
Xavier sighed as he studied the new set of nearly identical brain scans. “I suppose he was quietly crushed to learn he still can’t control his gift without use of the glasses.”
“Crushed is a strong word. I warned him it would be a long shot, to see new healing in such old injuries. I would say he was still understandably disappointed.” Hank paused for a long moment. “I can’t tell you how tempted I was to tell him, all of it, Charles.”
“I’m grateful you decided to keep your silence.”
Hank shook his head. “I kept thinking to myself, he wasn’t ready before, but perhaps now....”
“Hank– I won’t be so obtuse as to think I can forbid it. You must follow your conscience. But remember the conversation we had the other night while Scott was lying in the infirmary. Just because he’s strong enough to withstand this burden doesn’t mean he should have to carry it. Scott has already lost his home, his family, his control over his mutation – he has had to accept the harsh reality that, at any time, without warning, he can pose terrible danger to all those around him, and especially to those closest to him – and somehow he thrives in spite of all that! What good will it do, revisiting the past, pouring over how and why the worst has happened to him? Why not simply leave the past in the past and let Scott continue to move forward?”
Hank nodded reluctantly. “Perhaps you’re right, Charles.”
“I believe I am, Hank, and time will tell if my belief was truly right or very wrong. But right now, in this moment, I know without any doubt that Scott is better off without this burden of truth hanging over him.”
After thoroughly exploring the garden loft and rooftop greenhouses, Ororo Monroe, Jean Grey, and Scott Summers returned downstairs for lunch, then settled into the living area on the first floor for the afternoon. Even though it was a medical necessity for Scott at the moment, none of them really liked sitting around idly. Scott was flipping through channels on the tv without finding anything worth watching for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Jean was reading one of the medical textbooks Hank had loaned her. Ororo was staring distractedly out a window, still pouring over the dilemma presented by the garden loft, mildly agitated by not being able to go outside.
“He’s in his office,” Jean finally said without looking up from her book. “You should go ask.”
Ororo glanced at Scott for a second opinion.
“Why not?” He shrugged agreeably. “Now’s a good a time as any. The worst he can do is say no.”
Jean looked up from her book to scowl meaningfully at him. “Which he has no reason to do.”
Ororo wasn’t as certain of that as Jean. She hadn’t told them everything that Warren had told her regarding the history of those rooms. Until she had a better understanding of what they meant to Xavier she didn’t want to assume anything, but Scott was right. The only way to get an answer was to ask the professor outright.
“Wish me luck,” she murmured as she got to her feet and walked to Xavier’s office. Both Scott and Jean complied; Jean again added her certainty that the professor would say yes.
“Hello, Professor,” Ororo greeted him after she had been instructed to come inside. “I hope I’m not interrupting you.”
“Hello, Ororo. Of course not,” he assured her. He placed a marker into the book he’d been reading before he set it aside. “To what do I owe this pleasant interruption?”
She quickly told him about her project on the third floor and how it had led to her discovery of the garden loft. “Well,” Ororo finally added, “I was hoping you might consider allowing me to take one of the lofts and to reestablish the rooftop greenhouse and gardens.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Those loft rooms have a certain emotional attachment, hence my reluctance to use them apart from their intended purposes. They were very special to my parents, to my mother in particular,” he added softly, “and to myself as a small child.”
Brian Xavier had used the east wing loft as an art studio. At first it had been a concession to his wife who had insisted it wasn’t good for him to spend so much time sequestered underground in the sub-basements (where he had set up several scientific labs) or to let his scientific study cause him to lose interest in other things that he enjoyed, like art.
Sharon Xavier had been so pleased with how the east wing loft turned out, she’d decided to follow suit with the west wing, and then to open up the attic adjoining the two. Whenever one of his parents had been using the lofts Charles had been free to use the adjoining attic as a playroom. He still remembered the attic playroom as it had been in his childhood. Often the air was filled with the sounds of his mother’s soft music, or his father’s out-of-tune singing while concentrating on his painting. It had been a magical, adventurous place that Charles had too soon outgrown.
Charles had been nine years old when Brian died. It wasn’t until after they had returned from New Mexico that his mother decided to add the greenhouse and rooftop garden. It had been winter then, and she had insisted that they all needed to see some fresh greenery.... Thereafter, what had once been his magical place had become her private escape... from too many harsh realities. It was never an escape for Xavier again. His childhood had ended with his father’s death. His mutant powers emerged soon thereafter, and there was no escape for him anywhere anymore.
“I understand if you would prefer to leave them as they are.”
Xavier smiled, bringing his attention back to the present. “I appreciate that consideration, Ororo, but I think your proposal would better honor the purpose of those rooms. They were never intended to stand empty,” he added softly.
“Thank you, Professor. You have already been so generous to me. I am deeply appreciative.”
“I’m proud of the way you have embraced this place as a home, but I know that leaving your homeland to come here was more difficult on you than the rest of us can understand. I hope that this small concession may ease the loneliness a little.”
“I don’t know that anything will ever ease that particular loneliness,” Ororo admitted, standing to leave, “but I do love this home also, and my family here.”
Xavier smiled as he watched his student go. He suddenly recalled their first meeting: the brave little knave who had picked his pocket in Cairo. He’d sensed Ororo’s enormous latent talent even at her young age; she couldn’t have been more than seven years old. Knowing then that she was far more than just a skilled little thief, he’d looked deeper into her circumstances only to find that Ororo had been orphaned and unofficially taken in by a local street merchant. Since she was an American citizen by birth, the thought had crossed his mind of taking her back to the States, possibly returning her to the care of her father’s family there. But before those plans could progress very far, his curiosity had drawn unwelcome attention.
As Xavier had been looking into Ororo’s background, he was confronted by the Cairo crime lord known as the Shadowking. Xavier had discovered him to be a very powerful and very dangerous mutant. He was the first of his kind that Xavier had ever encountered: a mutant who was unconcerned with keeping his talents hidden from general knowledge. Instead, he believed that his mutant powers granted him the right to rule over his domain in any way he saw fit. Xavier battled Shadowking and won. But Charles Xavier left that encounter knowing he had much work to do if he was to prepare himself to face such threats in the future.
Assured that Ororo’s future was reasonably secure and that she was happy in her current circumstances, Xavier had continued on his travels. He knew that Ororo had remained in Cairo until the death of her father-figure, Achmed el-Gibar; at such time she had gone in search of her mother’s family and her African homeland. Given her entirely unique connection to that homeland, he understood that the physical separation was genuinely painful for her.
He was heartened by her enthusiasm to take over the garden loft and restore it. He truly hoped that this small concession, as he had called it, might bring her joy. Truly, nothing could do more to honor the rooms’ intended purpose than that.
Outside in the living area Scott was watching Jean reading. She had a smile on her face that he was sure didn’t relate to the Handbook of Comparative Physiology.
“You’re listening,” he accused knowingly.
“I am not listening,” she insisted, pausing to look in his direction. Scott didn’t buy it. “Well, not exactly listening,” she amended.
Scott continued to stare. “Well?” he finally prompted, grinning in reaction to the suspense.
“Xavier’s not mad, Ororo’s very happy,” Jean summed up.
“I guess we’ll be helping her move soon,” Scott concluded, returning his attention to the tv.
“Told you the professor’d agree,” Jean reminded him matter-of-factly, her attention already back on her book. Scott laughed under his breath.
Ororo emerged from Xavier’s office a few minutes later to confirm the good news. Jean hugged her excitedly before she got that far.
“You already knew, didn’t you,” Ororo assessed. Apparently her foreknowledge did nothing to dampen Jean’s enthusiasm.
“Of course she knew; according to Jean, you didn’t even need to ask,” Scott reminded them.
Jean ignored him and suggested to Ororo that they go look at the rooms again. Both girls were chattering excitedly all the way up to the third floor.
They spent the remainder of the afternoon happily planning out Ororo’s move into the loft and brainstorming about what she could do with the greenhouse and garden. The girls did most of the talking. Scott listened and offered his opinion when asked. Neither gardening nor interior design were among his top interests, but he had an uncanny talent for spacial dynamics. Be it two-dimensional or three-dimensional settings, he could instantly visualize the layout of a space and break it down into dozens of measurements. It was a useful planning tool.
Hank had a theory that it all related to the way Scott’s mind processed the necessary information to effectively utilize his optic blasts. The two of them discussed that possibility for a while during one of Scott’s afternoon checkups. Scott found Hank’s theory interesting. It would also explain his natural aptitude for subjects like geometry, trig., and physics. In any case, Scott found it amusing that it meant his ideas on things like garden landscaping and interior design were taken seriously.
Hank studied him curiously for a moment. “I bet you would do well as an architect.”
“Maybe,” Scott conceded, then shrugged it off, “but I can’t see myself cooped up in an office studying blueprints all day. I’d rather be the guy out there doing the building.”
Hank chuckled as Scott hopped down from the exam table. “A man of action. Why does that not surprise me?”
Once the planning was thoroughly exhausted and everyone was getting hungry, Scott, Ororo, and Jean returned downstairs for dinner. As the three walked down the huge staircase that stretched toward the Institute’s main entrance, Scott and Jean were in the middle of arguing the necessity of this evening’s outdoor sun session. Scott was arguing in favor this time. Jean insisted that his morning session had already run too long, and she refused to acknowledge his counter argument that this morning only proved he could tolerate more sun exposure.
Ororo sighed at their characteristic bickering. They weren’t going to settle this one without mediation from Hank. Neither of them took the argument personally. Actually their arguments were more like debates, and any subject would do. The two of them were intractably stubborn, but they enjoyed the playfulness of the interaction, the give and take of the conversation, and the challenge of trying to outwit one another. If either of them did lose their cool, they might as well have forfeited; it was over at that point.
Luckily, the elevator door opened onto the main level just as the three of them reached the bottom of the stairs, and Hank stepped into the room. A moment later he was holding his large hands out before himself, calling for a cease-fire as Scott and Jean simultaneously launched into efforts to sway his opinion.
“This dispute will have to be postponed,” he told them. Hank then motioned everyone toward Xavier’s office. “I believe the professor would like to speak with all of us.”
Professor Charles Xavier was situated behind his desk when his students filed into the room, followed by Hank. The three students took seats side by side across from Xavier. Hank stood alongside them. Warren, already present, left his place by one of the tall picture windows, also to come stand beside the students.
Their teachers would likely always think of them that way, Xavier reflected. But teachers couldn’t protect their students from the dangers of the world forever, no matter how much they might wish to do so. Truthfully, Scott, Ororo, and Jean were young adults now. All three of them, strong, capable, independent young adults. Xavier tended to think of Hank and Warren as students as well, though to a lesser extent: perhaps graduate students, in their cases. Xavier had recruited them, trained them, and over time they had become close peers, even friends. He wondered if, in a few more years, the same dynamic would hold true for their current students.
“I’m glad you’re all here,” Xavier began warmly. “As we agreed earlier, I’ve taken my time in thinking over this decision.” Now Xavier would keep the promises he had made along with this decision. “Now I’d like to discuss the matter openly with you all.” Now was the time to lay out all the facts, all the risks, see where the others would stand, and allow everyone involved to make an informed decision about the course of their futures. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
His gaze rested on Scott as he spoke; it was especially important to Charles Xavier that he keep his promises to Scott. As he had said just a few short days ago, something told Charles Xavier that this decision might be one of the most important decisions he would ever make. He hoped it was made correctly... but time would be the judge of that. Likewise, Scott was listening intently. He quickly glanced around the room to make sure he wasn’t speaking out of turn, but it seemed everyone fully expected that Scott would speak first.
“Professor, you know where I stand on this. When you first came to us with the dilemma Jack Winters presented, I told you then that I thought we needed to act. We needed to do what the rest of society couldn’t: stop a dangerous criminal from launching an unstoppable crime spree, and protect the innocent people who would get in his way. Winters won’t be the only mutant out there willing to use those powers for the wrong reasons. Those mutants have to be stopped before they can hurt people, before their actions endanger us all.”
Xavier nodded heavily. “And at the time I agreed with you, wholeheartedly, Scott. But there are differences between then and now. Our actions did not prevent Jack Winters from transforming himself into Jack O’Diamonds, and when we could not capture Jack O’Diamonds we were forced to destroy him. We did what we set out to do, but I don’t believe the result should be called a success.” He came to a heavy pause. “And we should also not overlook the fact that we incurred injuries of our own in the process, or the possibility that those injuries could have been a lot worse. Next time, they could be a lot worse.”
No one spoke for a time after that. Scott, Ororo, and Jean all looked uncomfortable. Most likely each of them was wondering if their own shortcomings had caused Xavier to lose faith in them.
“This experience has brought to light very real and very grave dangers,” Xavier continued. “I thought – and hoped – that the fight to bring Jack Winters to justice might be an isolated incident, and a task easily accomplished. The latter of those hopes was proven untrue, and I have little reason to believe that the former will hold true for very long. But perhaps even more foolishly, I thought that I could protect the three of you from harm in the process. Obviously, I could not.”
“I fear you are correct in your assessment of the risks, to all of us, Charles,” Hank offered. “I suggest we should next consider the risks to those other than ourselves.” A moment later he added, “Local law enforcement authorities could never have apprehended Jack Winters. Frankly, I hate to imagine them trying.”
“I agree with Hank,” Warren said. “There is considerable danger to us, but far greater danger to the public at large; at least we know what we’re facing.”
“And we have our own strengths. We don’t go into this blind or defenseless,” Scott agreed.
Xavier nodded. “I haven’t forgotten your earlier words to me, Scott. Your determination that we continue in this, despite our setbacks, is admirable.”
“Scott was correct when he said that we need to stop dangerous mutants before they can hurt people, before they endanger others,” Ororo stated. “We should do this because it’s the right thing to do. But we should also do it because it’s in our best interests to protect ourselves and to safeguard those like us from being prematurely exposed for what we are.”
“Professor,” Jean said softly, “you’ve told us repeatedly that part of the reason we we’re here is to learn to use our powers for the greater benefit of society. Scott and Ororo are right. When there are dangerous mutants who needed to be stopped, we have to stop them.”
Scott and Ororo both smiled at her. Jean’s vote of support was unexpected, but clearly appreciated.
“I fear you all are right in that,” Xavier said as softly, regaining everyone’s attention. He was met with three surprised looks. “I do not disagree with the need for action on our part,” Xavier clarified, “I simply want you all to realize how much is at stake here, how greatly this decision affects the course of our shared future, how there is no guarantee of success – or even of safety – in this dangerous venture. It pains me greatly that I cannot promise you protection, as I did when I first brought the three of you here. That has been the most difficult aspect for me in reaching this decision.
“I have been so proud of you all. In these last few years I have seen the fruition of my dream for this Institute begin to take shape, but it is your hard work and dedication that has made this Institute a success beyond my most optimistic hopes. Only with the greatest difficulty can I reconcile my responsibilities to this school, to protecting its students, with the risks that must now be taken to meet this premature necessity of combating dangerous mutants... and the great lengths we will all need to go to in order to successfully pursue that end. It is a much different future that we must now work toward and prepare for.”
Warren spoke up next. “We were not so successful fighting together against Jack O’Diamonds, but when the situation went bad you three stuck together, you protected each other, you showed bravery and remained cool-headed under enormous pressure. Your actions were creative and inventive, and you refused to relent in those efforts until the mission had been accomplished and all of us had reached safety.”
Xavier readily concurred. “The places where you failed can be corrected, but the places where you succeeded are things that cannot be taught.”
For a moment there were only surprised expressions staring back at him.
“You mean you aren’t giving up on us?” Scott asked.
“No. On the contrary, I am very proud of you, my X-Men.”
“Clearly, if we choose to continue down this path, we will need more preparation, better training,” Warren added.
Hank nodded. “But that decision will be yours to make,” he concluded.
“If the three of you wish to continue, Warren, Hank, and I are ready to make that commitment also. We will train you so that, next time, you will be ready. We all will be,” Xavier corrected himself, “as a team.”
Scott, Ororo, and Jean looked at one another, gradually reaching an unspoken consensus.
“X-Men?” Scott asked curiously.
Professor Xavier shrugged, smiling. “The team needs a name. You each possess an ‘extra’ gene which normal human beings lack, instilling each of you with ‘extra’ abilities.”
“It’s also logical to assume there will be some degree of mystery and secrecy about our actions since we will need to avoid public notice as much as possible,” Hank noted.
Warren nodded. “Seems appropriate.”
“Guess that would make you Professor X,” Scott replied, deadpan.
Jean and Ororo repressed laughter.
“I guess it would,” Xavier considered, steepling his fingers to hide traces of an amused smile.
It was agreed. They were X-Men.
After a week’s worth of treatments with the regenerative serum, Hank deemed Scott fully healed and saw fit to release him from further medical care. With Scott fully recovered, the team that would become the X-Men began their training with a series of martial arts and self-defense classes meant to teach them the basics of hand-to-hand combat. After that, Warren and Hank (both of whom had previous experience in martial arts and self-defense) were to design a more comprehensive physical training routine. But the real challenge would come in learning to integrate the use of their mutant abilities alongside their physical skills, both offensively and defensively.
Scott and Ororo took to the physical training right away. Jean was a bit more uncertain of herself, but her competitive nature was more than enough to ensure her competence. Scott and Warren couldn’t help but laugh upon regularly seeing Jean or Ororo successfully manhandle Hank (he volunteered to work with them on self-defense, insisting that if they could learn to defeat him they’d have no need to fear anyone overpowering them). But it was always funny. The girls would apologize profusely, hoping they hadn’t injured him, while Hank (often flat on his back at the time) complemented them on form and gave pointers.
Warren clapped his hands, indicating that the session was done for today. “You’re all doing well. Tomorrow we should try it with powers.”
Hank nodded in agreement. “I see no reason to linger any further over rudimentary skills.”
Scott and Ororo each nodded enthusiastically. “Jean, you coming?” Scott called.
“I’ll catch up,” she answered.
Hank gave the others a wave. He’d already noticed Jean hanging behind; he’d talk to her.
“Are you all right, Jean?”
She quickly nodded. “Just wondering if I made the right decision, I guess.”
“I’d say you’re doing quite well. I have the bruises to show for it.”
Jean looked up at him, appalled.
“Only joking,” Hank smiled reassuringly. Having gotten her attention, he sat down beside her on one of the tumbling mats that covered the gymnasium floor. “But you are doing well. Why do you think otherwise?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes when I’m watching Scott and Ororo, it just seems like they’re a lot more invested than I am. I can do what they do, but I don’t always get why they do it. It’s the same way with the team. I understand why it’s necessary, and I’ll stand by them. But I really wish none of this was necessary.”
She shook her head. “Before this summer, I thought the three of us were more or less the same. Even though Scott and Ororo had it a lot rougher than I did before we came here, we all wanted the same things now. We were all focused on making the most of our opportunities moving forward. I guess I told myself the past didn’t have to matter so much, but now I’m starting to feel like the outsider.”
“That’s understandable,” Hank considered. “In some aspects, you are. Scott and Ororo share similar backgrounds. The two of them have been hustlers and scrappers for most of their lives; they’ve had to scrape and work hard in order to survive. They both channel that same drive into their successes here, and they also share a common knowledge of how profoundly the professor changed their lives when he brought them to the Institute. For that reason they share a strong desire to do the same for other young mutants.
“You, like myself, Warren, and even Professor Xavier, come from a place of privilege. You’re smart, strong, and successful – not because those things were given to you, but because you choose to embrace them. You nurture and cultivate your skills and talents, make the most of your opportunities through hard work and dedication. We all have our own choices to make, and obstacles to overcome. That is a reality we share regardless of our circumstances, but the difficulties that each of us must face are unique to our circumstances. You and I may never entirely understand the desperation for survival and the hunger for independence that shaped Scott and Ororo, or, as a result, the fearlessness with which they face risk and adversity. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stand alongside them and be their friends.”
Jean smiled, recognizing his intent to encourage her. “Thanks, Hank, but I worry that this divide is only going to get wider,” she confided. “Scott is already really good with his visor, and Ororo is constantly gaining more control over her weather-making abilities. I never wanted to use my powers like this; the most I ever wanted was to gain enough control so that the voices went quiet, and I didn’t have to worry about accidentally hurting anybody.” She shrugged warily. “I guess I should want more, set my standards a litter higher; I know that’s why I’m here. But I really like the idea of doing what you do: you use your talents for science, research, medicine.”
Hank nodded. Jean had gravitated toward Hank almost from the start. Xavier had allowed her to pursue her interests in science and medicine almost exclusively, even though it sometimes worried him that she was far more reluctant than Scott or Ororo in the use of her mutant abilities. Hank also had seen that hesitation and reluctance, even before the start of this training.
“My intellectual talents, yes. But that doesn’t mean I neglect my physical talents,” he reminded her. “Nor should you neglect your mental abilities. They are a part of you, Jean, and you owe it to yourself to know who you are and what you are capable of.” He paused briefly. “Remember what I said about the things you choose to embrace. The same is true for what you choose to let go. ”
She nodded, though it was unenthusiastically.
“Jean. What we all want for you is for you to be comfortable with yourself, mutant abilities and all. And if you’re uncomfortable with any course of action, you shouldn’t pursue it.”
“I know,” she answered.
“When you find the course you are meant to pursue, you’ll know it.”
Jean nodded again. She was certain that she had found that course, at least she had been a couple of weeks ago, before all this had started. She wanted to be a doctor, and after the last couple of weeks she was also realizing that she wanted to do research. She wanted to better understand mutation so that she could successfully treat sick or injured mutants. As she had told Hank, she was far more comfortable in her studies, but maybe “uncomfortable” was too strong a word to describe using her powers.
Jean could use her mutant abilities, and she would do so when needed. The last two years, and the events of the last two weeks, had taught her that. But she still felt an uncertainty about using her abilities that the others didn’t seem to feel, and especially about using them in this way. No longer were those talents a skill to be mastered for their own sake. Now they were a tool to be used, offense and defense.
But after facing Winters, she had to see the necessity of using her abilities in this way. If Jean hadn’t acted when she had, Scott could have been gravely injured or killed. He had been so hell-bent on stopping Jack Winters from transforming himself into Jack O’Diamonds that Scott hadn’t hesitated to risk his own life in the process. It wasn’t just the way Scott and Ororo fearlessly faced risk and adversity, it was also the way they willingly faced death. Jean wasn’t willing to risk losing either of them, not when her actions could prevent that.
“I can do this,” she said determinedly. It couldn’t be avoided... nor did she wish to try.
“I know that you can, Jean,” Hank replied calmly. He also knew it wasn’t what she wanted. “When Charles first brought me here, I faced a similar challenge. Until that point in my life, my primary concern had been to downplay my appearance, and even my abilities, so that I could better assimilate into society. But once I arrived here, I found I had to reevaluate my personal goals in terms of how they related to society as a whole. To paraphrase a famous president, ‘Ask not what your mutation can do for you, but what you can do for mutants.’
“The truth is, I would have been quite happy to carry out my scientific research into mutation, all while denying my own status as a mutant. Or at least overlooking it, as best I could. Telling myself that, mutant or not, it didn’t matter. But that proved impossible, and – might I note – irresponsible. Instead, I came to believe that I had a duty to act. We have a duty to act, to better ourselves, to serve the common good of other mutants and of all of humanity – because we can. We can do this, where so many others cannot, because we stand in a place of privilege. We owe it to them, as well as to ourselves, not to squander the opportunities we have been given.”
“Ask what you can do for mutants?” Jean prompted, lifting an eyebrow.
Hank shrugged. “Too overdramatic?”
Jean giggled. “Maybe a little.”
“On a lighter topic, has Charles perhaps mentioned to you that his colleague, Dr. Moira MacTaggert, has recently consented to visit us in the fall?”
Jean shook her head. “No, but Ororo spoke of her recently. She said she once lived here.”
“Yes, I understand that she did,” Hank agreed, but offered no further information.
‘Why is she coming back?’ seemed a more appropriate question than, ‘Why did she leave?’ So Jean went with the first question even though she was more curious about the second.
“Dr. MacTaggert is a preeminent scientist in the fields of applied genetic research and human evolution, officially. She is equally well-versed in mutant genetics and mutant evolution, unofficially. She will be in the city to present a seminar this fall, so Charles has offered her accommodations at the Institute for the duration of her trip. I am very much looking forward to meeting her, and I think you would be wise to avail yourself of her knowledge while she is here.”
“Are you sure?” Jean asked. “I mean, she probably doesn’t have time to answer questions from a pre-med student.”
“Actually, I understand she’s quite interested in meeting you.”
Jean paled. “Why? I mean, because of me, or because of what I can do?”
Hank smiled, his response suddenly reminding her of the professor’s. “Both, Jean. The two are inseparable.”
“Dr. MacTaggert is doing some very interesting work right now on neurological evolution and adaptation. I suspect your thoughts on the matter would interest her, literally.”
Suddenly, Jean felt very angry. “I don’t care whose friend she is, I’m not anybody’s guinea pig.”
“Forgive me,” Hank apologized. “It was an inappropriate joke. I wouldn’t suggest such a thing, and neither would Charles,” Hank told her.
“But–” Jean persisted stubbornly.
Hank sighed. “But, you may find yourself interested in what she has to say. So try not to jump to any unpleasant preconceptions.”
Jean nodded stiffly.
“Remind me to loan you some of Dr. MacTaggert’s publications so that you may familiarize yourself with her work.” He grinned. “And when she arrives, do try not to insinuate that her research involves any untoward experimentation on human or mutant subjects. I understand that she’s very sensitive to ethical considerations. We don’t want her to leave us prematurely.” Hank’s voice trailed off. “It may take another five years to facilitate her return.”
Jean wasn’t sure she was meant to hear that last part. But she got the distinct impression that Hank had been working toward this goal for quite some time.
The following day’s training session with the use of their powers started off pretty much like their previous sessions. First they divided into groups: Scott and Warren were playing an elaborate game of tag while Ororo and Jean were busy trying to sweep Hank off his feet.
Ororo and Jean were having a harder time gaining an advantage over Hank now that he was frequently employing his acrobatic abilities against them. Likewise, Warren was usually able to avoid Scott’s optic blasts from the air.
“Those blasts punch harder than you do,” Warren noted when Scott did connect.
Scott’s jaw tightened. “I can tone it down.”
Warren only grinned. “I’m a fast healer, remember?”
Scott smiled back, relaxing. “Then let’s go again.”
But before they could resume, Xavier rolled to the edge of the patio, overlooking their position in the courtyard below.
“I have something a little different in mind for today, that is, if the five of you are up for some healthy competition.”
About half an hour later, the five of them stood looking up at a forbidding series of cliffs on the north-west section of the grounds. Xavier had explained the task back at the mansion. It was to be undertaken like a scavenger hunt, with the objective being for them to compete to see who could carry out the task first. Then, as they had approached the site, Xavier had given them individual instructions, explaining to each of them the ways in which he or she would have a clear advantage over the others as they pitted their skills against one another.
What he didn’t tell them was that he did not expect any of them to succeed. What he really wanted was to see how long it would take for them to realize that, in this particular task, none of them could succeed alone.
Good luck, my X-Men, he finally bid them.
For a couple of seconds all five of them stood staring up at the cliffs. From where they now stood, they might as well have been a million miles away from civilization instead of a fifteen minute hike from the Xavier Institute. There was a faint glimmering in the sunlight high overhead. That glimmer marked the place where they were to retrieve a certain type of mineral that crystalized atop the cliffs. It only formed there, and was very fragile. The crystal would have to be retrieved by hand.
Scott, Ororo, and Jean exchanged uncertain looks. None of them had any experience at rock climbing, nor did they have any gear for it.
Warren noticed their uncertainty. “Easy pickings,” he scoffed. “Why don’t you all just stay put down here. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” And with a confident smirk, he took to the air.
“Easy? We’ll see about that.” Ororo obscured his view of the cliff with threatening storm clouds.
Hank tipped his head to her in approval before he politely wished them all luck. Then he took to the trees, quickly making his way up the cliff after Warren.
Jean gave a huff in exasperated disbelief. “So much for teamwork!”
“The professor did say it was a contest,” Ororo reminded her.
“Right. Well, let’s go,” Scott offered unenthusiastically.
The three teens started to hike up the mountainside. Even though their instructions had been every man for himself, Scott had no intention of abandoning his friends. He led the way up, relying on his talent for spacial observation to help him locate the safest, easiest, and most direct paths, and stopping to help Ororo or Jean when either of them had trouble. He didn’t care if it broke the rules; he wasn’t willing to leave them behind. Besides, he knew they’d do the same for him. And they did. More than once, when the ground gave way under his feet Ororo was there to grab hold of him physically, and Jean to help him regain his footing with her telekinesis.
Scott wasn’t sure how much time passed before they caught up with Hank and Warren, but judging from their expressions the two of them had reached an impasse about two thirds of the way up. Scott turned to look back at Ororo. Abruptly, the thick clouds cleared from overhead. Their destination was within sight, but getting to it remained a problem. With the proper equipment, perhaps they could have repelled over the chasm that separated this rock face from the next, landed on the opposing cliff wall and continued climbing... but even with the proper equipment, that would be risky.
The winds were fierce higher up the mountain, hence the reason Warren couldn’t fly any higher, nor could Hank further bridge the distance by climbing or jumping. The trees on the opposing cliffs were bent nearly double against the winds, and Scott could tell that the winds only got stronger closer to the crystal, where they were concentrated through a narrow rock pass.
Perhaps Ororo could dampen the winds, but she still couldn’t get herself across the chasm. Jean would be able to grasp the crystal, but her telekinetic control was limited; she was too far away and the winds were too strong. If she tried to remove the crystal, the winds would likely wrestle it from her grip before she could lower it down to their level. Scott could try to blast the cliffs, create a cave in that might block the winds, but in order to create himself passage across, he would have to do a lot of reconstruction. He didn’t like his chances of not damaging the crystal or bringing down half the mountain in the process.
As Scott reasoned through each failed plan of action, he slowly started to come to a conclusion. None of them were going to do this alone, especially if the others were working to stop them. But if they worked together....
“Ororo, can you counter the winds enough for Warren to get up there safely?”
“Most of them,” she answered. She obviously didn’t know where Scott was going with this, but she trusted him enough to give an honest assessment. “That pass is going to be the tough part, but I think I could at least get him within sight of the crystal.”
Scott nodded. “That should be enough.” He turned to Hank next. “If Ororo dampens the winds and Warren spots for you, can you make the climb up to the pass?”
He smiled. “Certainly.”
“Jean, once everyone is in position, I need you ready to make a grab for the crystal.”
“I think I can get a hold on it while it’s protected from the winds, but I don’t know if I can keep the winds from smashing it against the rocks if I try to pull it down–”
He grinned. “I’ve got that part covered.”
Jean nodded, part surprised, part curious.
“Okay. Ororo, Warren. You’re up,” Scott prompted.
Ororo managed to dampen the winds circulating around the cliff. Warren took to the air again. Hank followed behind him, climbing quickly and agilely through the trees as Warren directed his path.
“We’re in position,” Warren called down.
“Alright,” Scott called back. “The winds are going to die down, but not for long. Everybody be ready.”
Scott blasted the pass, causing a small cave in, which blocked the strongest of the winds.
“Quickly, Jean, get the crystal to Hank.”
In one smooth motion, Jean was able to loose the crystal from its resting place and pull it across the chasm to Hank.
The winds burst through the pass just as Hank’s strong fingers wrapped around the crystal. Rock debris scattered across the cliff. Jean tried to shield Hank from the debris while Ororo tried to compensate for the winds, but the winds were significantly stronger now as they tore through the collapsed pass. The tree Hank was perched in took the brunt of the gale. It bent dangerously under his added weight, just as Warren made an attempt to reach Hank.
Scott tried firing another shot at the pass, but the gap in the rock was now too wide for another cave in to be effective. Powerful winds simply swept the falling rock away. Warren’s attempt at reaching Hank came up short when he was forced to swiftly dive lower before the increasing intensity of the winds could crash him into the rock face.
“Hank,” Scott yelled, “can you climb down?” He didn’t know if Hank could even hear him over the winds. “Jean–?” Scott could see that Jean was already trying to steady him. Then, with a loud crack, Hank’s perch snapped.
“Jean– can you get him?”
“I’m trying– He’s falling too fast, Scott. I can’t–”
“Be ready. He’s about to slow down.”
Her eyes widened as she glanced at Scott in disbelief, but Scott didn’t hesitate. He fired several short bursts of energy at Hank, slowing his fall. With the crystal just barely clinging to his fingertips as Scott repeatedly slowed his momentum, Jean grabbed Hank in a telekinetic grip.
“I got him!” Jean yelled.
Warren dove down to Hank’s level, then, seeing that his fall was now safely controlled, just hovered beside him.
“I didn’t know you could fly, Hank,” he joked.
“Neither did I. But I must say, I see the appeal. The view is extraordinary. For example, I never knew how deeply these caverns extended into the mountains. Some of them must reach all the way back to the mansion.”
“How you managing, Jean?” Scott questioned. He could see the strain in her face.
“He’s getting heavier,” Jean gritted. “I don’t know–” She didn’t want to risk lowering Hank too quickly, but she didn’t know how much longer she could keep him steady in mid-air. “Scott– I’m– losing my grip.
“Warren–” Scott yelled just as Hank dropped.
Warren reacted instantly, grabbing Hank’s free hand. “Gotcha.”
The crystal fell from Hank’s other hand.
“Ororo?” Scott asked. She shook her head, “I’d only smash it against the rocks.”
“Jean? Can you?”
Jean shook her head in frustration. She tried to catch the tiny object falling toward them but couldn’t manage to get a steady grip on it.
Scott made a snap decision as the crystal fell toward them. His optic blast hit the flat rock face of the opposing cliff a fraction of a second before it bounced back to hit the crystal, which then flew straight across the chasm at Scott. He grabbed it effortlessly out of the air. Ororo and Jean stared at him in shock just as Hank and then Warren dropped lightly to the ground beside them.
“Congratulations, Scott,” Hank offered, impressed.
Ororo and Jean were grinning in amazement.
“I guess that makes you the winner,” Warren conceded.
The five X-Men made their way back to the ground and returned to the school in an exhausted silence. Scott was surprised that none of them objected to what he had done. Quite the opposite, they all seemed supportive or, at the very least, appreciative of the end result. Scott didn’t share his teammates’ clear-cut appraisal of the situation. His success had been a group effort; he’d made it that, contrary to the professor’s instructions, and Scott didn’t know how Professor Xavier could possibly interpret those actions favorably.
Even assuming that Professor Xavier didn’t already know exactly what had happened, Scott couldn’t pretend that he had won. Not only had he failed to carry out the task single-handedly, he had taken it upon himself to change the rules for all of them. He carried the crystal, but he hadn’t claimed it fair and square. As Scott climbed the steps from the courtyard to the back patio, he glanced down at the crystal and wondered how the professor would react to his mutiny.
“I see you have completed the task,” Xavier greeted him. “Very good, Scott.”
Scott winced. He had taken the initiative, his plan had worked, and he held the proof in his hand. There was nothing to do except take responsibility for what he had already done.
“I’m sorry, Professor, but I failed,” Scott offered as he approached Professor Xavier and handed over the crystal. “None of us were able to finish the task alone, as you instructed. I managed to take possession of the crystal, but I had to break all the rules to do it.”
Xavier looked at the crystal curiously, turning it over in one hand. Of all the– disobedient, disrespectful– only an ungrateful, wretched cur would dare to bite the hand that feeds it. Xavier shook his head slightly, fighting off a sudden spark of irrational emotion. His expression remained unreadable as he considered Scott’s explanation.
“No,” Professor Xavier lifted his gaze, uncurling his fingers from their unexpectedly tight grip on the crystal. “To the contrary, Scott. You succeeded. In spite of what I told you all earlier, this task was designed with the expectation that none of you would complete it alone. In fact, the only way you could possibly have succeeded was to work together.”
Scott shrugged his shoulders, his expression a combination of curious and confused. “Why not simply tell us that from the beginning?”
The professor smiled again. “Not every task comes with clear instructions, or goes according to plan. Open-mindedness and adaptation are important. I was also curious to see how each of you would react to adversity, how long you would persist despite it, and how easily you would work together – even after I led you to believe you should be seeking individual success.”
Privately, he told Scott, I also wanted to see which of you would show the courage and the initiative to take charge when a new course of action was needed – even when that meant going against my earlier instruction.
Scott nodded. It made sense, even if it was a bit unconventional.
“Scott,” Xavier asked aloud, “what made you decide to change course?”
Scott glanced toward the others. “We were at an impasse. Pursuing the crystal independently, with each of us trying to thwart one another, wasn’t going to work. That was only going to get someone hurt.” He shrugged. “It also occurred to me that if we combined our efforts instead of pitting them against one another, the goal became much more attainable.”
Xavier nodded. “That was a good call.”
Scott shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m only sorry it didn’t occur to me sooner.”
“We’re all to blame for that,” Jean argued.
Ororo nodded in agreement. “That is true.”
“We’re a competitive bunch,” Warren added.
“But Scott did an extraordinary job of coordinating our diverse efforts toward a common goal,” Hank assessed honestly.
“Thanks, Hank,” Scott offered, “but anybody could have done that.”
“I’m not so certain of that, Scott,” Xavier interjected. “There were an infinite number of ways that task could have been attempted. You chose the most direct path toward achieving the desired result while minimizing the individual risk for everyone involved.”
Scott mumbled something that sounded like, “Guess so.” He was looking down at the patio, uncomfortable with being the focus of so many accolades.
“Well,” Hank continued, “while Warren and I were hanging around up there, I was able to make a few interesting observations....”
Xavier continued to discretely watch Scott, Ororo, and Jean while Hank filled them all in on the discovery he and Warren had made. Hank suspected a network of underground caverns running through the mountain, and likely deep into the grounds beneath the Institute as well. He insisted those caverns should be explored.
“They may prove useful for more than spelunking.”
Xavier agreed. But his students’ preoccupation was obvious even before Xavier politely dismissed them. Xavier, Hank, and Warren watched the three teenagers head inside, talking quietly among themselves. Somehow he didn’t think their topic of interest had anything to do with this new exploration project.
“Looks like the pity party is picking up momentum,” Warren noted dryly.
Despite Xavier’s earlier attempts to set their minds at ease, his young students remained troubled by their own shortcomings. The three of them were quick to defend each other, but they were also concerned about their own mistakes and inadequacies, worried that those things would eventually cause injury to or otherwise endanger the safety of their teammates. That realization caused Charles Xavier to suppress a heavy sigh.
“They’ve lost confidence.”
“Battling a mutant like Jack O’Diamonds is enough to shake anyone,” Warren offered.
“The resulting uncertainty in their abilities will take time to overcome,” Hank agreed.
“But they will grow into their roles.” Xavier remained confident of that.
“It will take time,” Warren agreed, “for all of us to bond as a team, and for them to build confidence in themselves. For a while, they’re going to take every setback personally, but they’ll learn to get past it. That’s part of being young.”
“Maybe so,” Professor Xavier conceded.”
“I think the problem may have more to do with experience than with age,” Hank considered thoughtfully. “Today was their first field test, and our first attempt at coordinatedly pursuing a common goal.”
Warren nodded in agreement. “All along, we’ve been training them to use their abilities, but not to focus their combined talents, as a team, toward achieving a common goal or facing common adversity.”
“A good point,” the professor agreed. “Then what is needed is some kind of simulation that the entire team can safely train against.”
“Precisely,” Hank agreed.
“We have technology available for a virtual reality simulator, capable of creating numerous and changing environments.”
“We do?” Warren asked.
Hank nodded. “We do,” he repeated thoughtfully.
“It’s a training tool that I’ve been working to develop for many years,” Xavier explained. “Hank has helped me to advance it greatly over the past three years. But it will require still more work if we are to move this technology from a hands-on teaching apparatus to a functional, physical, training environment.”
“It’s the practical application of that technology which we could never figure out,” Hank conceded. “Initially, our plans were for something along the lines of a video game which could adapt to incorporate into play the specific mutant powers of any student who was playing the game, thus creating a safe practice environment for students who were just beginning to explore the limits of their mutant abilities. But this,” Hank gave a shake of his head. “This program will need to be far more interactive than anything we had previously envisioned.”
Xavier nodded. “These environments will need to combine holographic projections with the ability to simulate solid matter.”
Warren nodded. “It does little good to punch through thin air.”
“Right.” Hank thoughtfully stroked his chin. “That will be a challenging feat. This virtual training environment will also need the ability to simulate weather conditions, as well as to physically withstand the ravages of weather and energy that Ororo and Scott can throw at it.”
Xavier nodded. “There’s a specially reinforced room in one of the sub-basements that I think will house this new project nicely.”
So Let it Be Written Publishing © 2004