The first time he'd come to the mansion, John had been half-asleep in the passenger seat of Prof. Summers's BMW, clutching a greasy McDonald's wrapper in one hand, his clothes still singed and reeking of smoke. Now he was driving an unremarkable-looking Honda up the winding driveway himself, shifting gears with a gloved hand while Magneto leaned back next to him, eyes closed. The grass of the long lawn was still scarred in places where the soldiers had dragged heavy equipment over it; he scowled as they passed the worst of the damage. When he pulled in to park at the edge of the driveway and killed the engine, no one was waiting for them outside. He looked at Magneto.

"What do you think?"

"I doubt anyone here is interested in making us feel welcome," he said, opening his eyes. "But at least one person is curious."

Bobby? He followed Magneto's gaze up and caught Kitty leaning out a window, looking down at them. He grinned at her ferociously, and she gave a little inaudible gasp and ducked back inside. "You think there's going to be trouble?"

"There is always trouble."

With his dark suit and hat, Magneto looked like he could be just another professor at the school as he went up the steps and through the doors ahead of John, but the professors had never had exactly the walk he did, cautious and fierce at once. He took the hat off as he crossed the threshold like it was an automatic gesture. Professor Xavier was waiting in the entry hall for them, with Professor Summers standing behind his chair. No one else was around. Xavier looked as calm and patient as ever, but Summers behind him was restless, drumming his fingers on the handles of the wheelchair. The glasses didn't hide the expression on his face.

"Hello, Charles," Magneto said mildly. "This isn't much of a reception, considering that I was invited."

"You weren't--" Summers started, but Xavier raised his hand.

"Please, Scott. Considering the circumstances," he looked at Magneto, "I thought it best that you arrive quietly."

"Considering the circumstances, I shouldn't have come at all. This site could hardly be more compromised. You know that."

Xavier folded his hands over the blanket on his lap. "I can't move the school, Erik. We've already had this argument. You conceded the point."

"Not because I was persuaded of its wisdom."

"Professor, we don't need to put up with this crap," Summers said. "Let's just--"

"Scott." Xavier's voice was quiet but firm, and Summers subsided.

John stepped up next to Magneto. "That's right, Scott. Listen to the professor. Be a good boy."

Scott snorted. John was ready to say more, but Xavier's eyes pressed in on him, and he felt the brush of the professor's mind against his. He started to say something, til Magneto touched his arm. After a minute, Xavier said, "Hello, John. It's good to see you again."

He tried to take all the expression off his face as he stared back. Show Scott how it's done. "Yeah. Whatever."

"I trust you are well?"

That almost made him laugh. "Sure. I'm fine." World was falling to pieces around them, but him? He was great.

"Well, then. Scott will show you both to the guest wing."

"I'm sure we can find our way ourselves," Magneto said, and Xavier smiled. The sun hit him just right, and John could see the tightness in the skin around his mouth.

"Scott will show you," he said, politely and firmly.

There was a really amazing set of muscles twitching in Scott's cheek and neck as they followed him to the guest wing, where the halls were as Ye Olde and gloomy as ever.

"Charles was making sure you were actually you," Magneto told him.

"But that's dumb. Why would Mystique pretend to be me now?"

"Mystique is sadly misunderstood here."

Scott was pretending he didn't hear them; his triceps clenched and unclenched while he marched along, swinging his arms. The guy always had been a maniac for working out. He stopped abruptly in front of one door and yanked it open. "This one's yours, John."

John looked inside. It was twice as big as the room he used to share with Bobby, dominated by a high bed piled with comforters. Scott didn't stop, but kept going down the hall with Magneto. Instead of going in, John followed the two of them, a few steps behind, until they halted next to another door. Across from it, the wood paneling had obviously been replaced recently; the color was a little lighter than average. John tried to figure out who would've gone through it, that night.

"You're staying here," he told Magneto brusquely. "For now."

"I see you don't approve of my presence here," Magneto said, not opening the door.

"Stryker should've killed you." His tone was so flat that his words took John by surprise.

Magneto didn't seem surprised, though. "Oh?"

"As far as I'm concerned, you killed Jean. I don't care if the Professor thinks he needs your help to repair our Cerebro. I'm not going to forget that."

"Dr. Grey was killed when the dam at Alkali Lake burst. Surely you don't blame me for that."

"If you had just stopped the second Cerebro instead of trying that insane scheme, we could've all gotten out in time. I hear there was a helicopter."

"Oh, there was," Magneto said coolly. "But as I recall, it was you who caused the damage to the dam that made our rapid--and separate--exits necessary."

"You..." For a minute, John really thought Scott was going to punch him, and his fingers went to the pocket in his jacket with the torch. But he swallowed instead, hard. John wondered how he had ever thought Scott was an actual badass. "If it weren't for the Professor, I'd kill you myself."

He turned on his heel and stormed off, knocking into John as he went. John shoved him back, but Scott didn't even acknowledge it.

"Dr. Grey gave her life to save her friends and fellow-mutants," Magneto called after him. "We should all hope for as useful a death."

Scott didn't look back.

"Didn't you give me a lecture before coming about not pissing people here off unnecessarily?" John asked Magneto.

"Scott Summers doesn't have the strength of will necessary to kill someone for revenge."

"Still, he's going to be a pain in the ass to work with now."

"I don't care to be blamed for the deaths of mutants," Magneto said, and his eyes were iron. "Can you stay out of trouble until dinnertime?"

"I think so." There was some stuff he'd like to get from his old room.

"Good. Keep in mind, however, if you're planning a little vengeance, that Rogue has echoes of me in her mind. She has the will to drain you dry, and I won't lift a finger if she does."

He grinned. "I'll behave."

The room was empty when he got there. His old bed had been stripped bare and there was nothing on his side of the night stand. So, Bobby had played his leaving to get the room for himself. Sneaky. John approved--or at least he did except for the part where Bobby had clearly moved his stuff.

He crossed the room to Bobby's desk. Same old stuff, books, CDs, chewing-gum wrappers...There used to be a picture of the "junior varsity" b-ball team there, taken the day he, Bobby, and Piotr had actually beaten the professors' team, mostly with the help of some heavy cheating. Now there was just a picture of Marie. Man, he would've teased him about that...

"Your stuff's in the back of the closet," Bobby said from the door. He looked...the same, John guessed, or he would have if he weren't standing like Scott, arms crossed, glowering.

"Couldn't wait to get all this space to yourself, huh?"

Bobby didn't answer. He came into the room, picked a book off the shelf, and laid down with it. John shrugged, opened the closet, and started tugging at the sad little cardboard boxes.

"You've been gone three months."


"I said, you've been gone three months."

"Meaning, you weren't in a hurry? That's sweet."

"Whatever." Bobby kept watching him past the edge of his book, though, and a minute later he asked, "Did the Brotherhood give you a nicer room?"

"I take what I can get. Like everybody else. It's cool not having a roommate, though."

"So it's as good as you imagined? Being a terrorist, I mean?"

"No." He dropped a box on the empty bed, started sorting, tried not to think about what kind of answer he could have given if things were different. "It's better. No more fucking around."

"Well, you look like an idiot."

He looked in the mirror on the closet door. He cut his hair a lot shorter ever since the last time he'd singed it all off. His jacket, shirt, and pants were made of the same stuff Magneto used for his own--some kind of custom-made metal that was soft, flexible, and most importantly, nonconductive. They were red and silver, covered over with straps and pockets and zippers to hold all the stuff he used in fights; he looked more like an extreme skier than anything else. Not an idiot, except by Bobby "Suburban Boy Wonder, Except that the Suburbs Tried to Kill His Mutant Ass" Drake standards. "Get back to me when Xavier actually lets you wear a uniform."

Bobby just snorted.

John rummaged some more. "Where's my lighter?"

Bobby's face was hidden now by the book. "You took your lighter."

"Not the one with the shark, the one with the 'Vette."

"How should I know? You've got forty or fifty of those things. You probably left it in Luxembourg or something when you were running from the cops."

"No. I didn't," John said, determined not to show that he was surprised that Bobby had been following his career. "And for your information, we weren't running from the cops. We had planned to get out of there way before they turned up." He closed the box. "So, how's Marie? You and her still trying to figure out how to hold hands?"

"Fuck. You. John."

"That's really sweet, you know? 'Course, when you're with the Brotherhood, you meet so many girls, you can take 'em or leave 'em..."

"Right. I'll bet you still wet your pants when Mystique even looks at you funny."

Which, shit, was true, and he wanted to laugh, to say, "Hell, yeah," but he just picked up the box. "Well, I'll let you get back to your homework. The adults have things to do."

Bobby managed to slam the door behind him without even getting up, using a streamer of ice. John had to admit, that was impressive. For a kid.

John was eating dinner off a tray in his room when the house phone rang. "Xavier's School for Mutant Morons," he answered it.

"John." Magneto was all business. John recognized that tone. "Come down to Charles's rooms, please."

He had hardly ever been in Xavier's rooms, except to be yelled at. He felt a faint, automatic twinge of guilt as he came through the extra-wide double doors that separated Xavier's wing from the rest of the mansion. Magneto and Xavier were in the study, prime location of John, I'm Disappointed in You and John, You Should Have Known Better talks, looking over a bunch of faded diagrams spread out on a table. They seemed worried and preoccupied; two trays of food were cooling on a sideboard. "Ah, John," Magneto said, hardly looking up, and handed him a sheaf of papers of his own. "These are Cerebro's schematics. I want you to learn them and then go survey the damage."

He hated it to say it, not then, being handed an assignment by Magneto in front of Xavier, but it'd be worse if he didn't. "I don't think I'll be much help figuring out what Stryker did to the electronics. I've never studied that."

"I mean the structural damage. Stryker was selective in what he took--almost exclusively from the operator's console--but he and his troops weren't particularly careful going through the place. You and Colossus are going to be repairing the panels in the display chamber so that I can concentrate on reproducing the electronics he stole."

"Oh. Okay." He thought of the sweetness of flames hot enough to melt metal into place and smiled. "You should've let me bring my flamethrower."

Magneto smiled back faintly. "I believe you'll manage without it."

Xavier narrowed his eyes. Obviously the word "flamethrower" had given him an attack of indigestion. "John, I want you to be careful. I'm still not convinced it was wise to let you work on this project, and I don't want you getting injured."

John started to swell with indignation, but Magneto cut in. "I'm sure we'd both prefer that Dr. Grey do this work, Charles, but she isn't here and she isn't going to be. You wanted Cerebro repaired; well, this is the only way."

Xavier looked away. "That's...very true," he said, and John couldn't remember ever thinking of Xavier as old before, but right then he looked it. "Will you excuse me for a moment, Erik?"

"Of course."

When the door closed behind him, John turned to Magneto, shoving down his own thoughts of Dr. Grey with his annoyance. "For Christ's sake. I can do the job!"

Magneto was looking at the door Xavier had gone through, gently rubbing his thumb against one finger. "Yes," he said absently, "yes, you can."

"Magneto, is everything okay?"

"Hmm? Yes." He finally focused on John. "But there's something we need to talk about. I brought you along to do more than weld."

"Yeah?" He liked the sound of that.

"Yes. Charles and I are going to have to be working together extremely closely to rebuild Cerebro’s electronics. Mind to mind."


"There are...certain risks entailed, however necessary. Normally, I would have no concerns about Charles's telepathic ethics, but given what happened at Alkali Lake..."

"You think he might mess with your head? Professor Xavier?"

Magneto frowned at him. "It's just possible. Just possible. Therefore, I want you to observe me closely. If I begin to behave erratically--in particular, if I try to send you away--I want you to get in contact with this woman and explain the situation."

He handed John a slip of paper. The address of some school in Massachusetts. "Friendly telepath?"

"Friendlier, at any rate."

"Why didn't you tell me about this before we came?"

"Because I knew you couldn't keep it from Mystique. If she had found out, she'd have insisted on coming along, and there is more important work for her elsewhere."

"What if Xavier gets me, too?"

"You didn't try to use him to wipe out humanity altogether, John. Let us trust and hope that that will be sufficient to protect you."

At that moment, John wanted nothing more than to get out of there, to go somewhere, anywhere, where he'd be safe from having to think of Xavier as a guy who would do that kind of thing. Which was pretty dumb, he realized, since he wouldn't expect a telepath from the Brotherhood to do anything else. It was just that...Xavier.

"Are you sure it's a good idea for us to be here?"

"None of this is a good idea," Magneto said firmly. "None of it at all."

Peter didn't say much the next morning. He always was quiet, but John would've liked to know what was going through his head as they worked side by side for several hours. John was actually in charge, looking at the schematics to figure out what should be where before Peter armored up and muscled the big chunks of metal into place for him to weld. It was weird. Cerebro had always had a serious cool factor, and trying to put it back together was like...building a thunderstorm or something. Putting together something that was actually way more powerful than you.

After about five hours of work, they had to stop. It was about a hundred million degrees in the chamber, there was a spot in John's mind too chafed to touch, and even Peter was starting to puff a little. John sat down on a chunk of metal to look at the papers and figure out how much more they had to do. He hadn't actually thought this trip would involve quite so much work. Peter ducked out the service exit and returned a few minutes later, much to John's surprise, with a couple bottles of Coors. He handed one to John and hoisted himself onto another chunk of metal.

Male bonding. You didn't get a whole lot of that with Magneto. "Thanks," he said, tipping the bottle in Peter's direction.

Peter tipped his back. "It's thirsty work."

He leaned against the cool metal. "Sure is. Fortunately, we don't have too much more to do, at least not til some more replacement components are installed."

"We worked faster than I thought we would. You have much more control than you used to. More power."

"I've been practicing."

"More than you would have here?"

He snorted. "Lots more."

Peter was quiet for a while. John gazed up at the remote ceiling, worked on his beer, and tried to imagine the chamber full of lights again. Mutants. The more he thought about it, the more he didn't get why Magneto had agreed to help Xavier fix Cerebro. Why would he help him bring more mutants into Xavier's, when those mutants would only be a problem for the Brotherhood to deal with later? Especially if he thought it was so risky even to be there...

"The children miss you."

John jerked his head to look at Peter, who was studying him gravely. "I've seen Bobby. If he's missing me, he's hiding it pretty well."

"I didn't say Bobby. I said the children. Theresa. Kitty. Artie. Sam. The others."

"Oh, come on. It wasn't like I hung out with them. Not like you."

"Still. You know the children who come here are lonely and frightened. They don't like people to leave. With you and Dr. Grey both gone..."

He pressed the bottle against his temple. "Yeah, well, I'm an official bad influence now. They'd better keep away from me."

"People don't change, John. Not that much."

"Damn, Peter!" he exclaimed. "I forgot what a stubborn fuck you were."

"Do you not miss them at all?"

"I'm only going to be here a couple of days, man. There's no point in pretending like everything's back to normal. Okay?"

Peter didn't say anything for another moment, then: "Some of them have been watching us this morning, you know. On the cameras."

"Fine." His head was starting to ache, and his throat, too. "Let them watch. It can't hurt."

He knocked on Magneto's door in the early evening, after a quick shower. He and Xavier would have been working on their chips and stuff all day; it was as good a time as any to check if Magneto had suddenly come down with a bad case of Pod Person.

There was no answer, so John pushed the door open. Magneto was sitting in the chair by the bed, eyes closed, with his fingers steepled in front of him. John wasn’t sure whether he was awake or asleep.

"Hey. Are you okay?"

Magneto stirred slightly. "Close the door behind you, John," he murmured.

He did. When he turned back, Magneto was sitting up straight, looking as alert and focused as ever. "How did the work go?"

"We made better progress than I'd anticipated, actually. Some things once learned are never forgotten. And you?"

"Peter and I cleaned up most of the lowest level. There was a lot of random vandalism, but we took care of it."

"No injuries on either side, I trust?"

"None." He scruffed his hand over his hair. "But my head hurts. I don’t think I've ever done that much work over so long before."

"It's not a typical battlefield situation," Magneto conceded. "There are some painkillers on top of that dresser."

"Will they help?" John asked dubiously.

"They are, in fact, one of Dr. Grey's finest achievements–specifically designed to counter the physical effects of psychic stress in energy-manipulating mutants. I think you'll find they’re rather effective."

"Okay then." John helped himself to the bottle, swallowing two dry. "Do you...feel bad about what happened to her?"

Magneto was silent for a little while. "She was gifted, John. Every loss of a mutant is a loss to us. You must remember that. It can be very easy to forget."

"You've killed other mutants before, haven’t you?"

"Yes, and I probably will again. But I never regard it as a triumph." He passed his hand over his eyes. "Would you hand me that bottle?"

He did, astonished. "You're tired?"

"What we did today was very intensive work. It..." His hands struggled to remove the cap, his fingers slipping uselessly away. Once, twice, three times. "Will you open this, please?"

John stared, but complied. "How many do you want?"

"Four." He rose, accepting them. "I think I'll go to–"

His knees gave out from under him, and he fell heavily to the floor, the pills spilling from his hand.

"Magneto!" John knelt by him, but didn’t quite touch him. He didn't actually know what to do in this kind of situation–he knew first aid now, he could dress wounds, splint a fracture, but this–he didn’t even know if it was a result of something Xavier had done, or... "Talk to me!"

"I'm all right." Magneto raised a hand. He grimaced, then levered himself up from the floor. "I'm all right. I'm just...very tired."

And he looked it, sagging skin over old bones. What the hell. This so wasn't worth it. "Why are you even doing this?" John demanded, putting his arm around him to help him stand. "Why can't Xavier just get whoever made Cerebro in the first place to fix it?"

Magneto laughed shallowly as he lay down on top of the covers. "Didn't he ever tell you, John?"

"Tell me what?"

"We made Cerebro. He and I. There is no one else."

John blinked. "You mean...you were an X-Man?"

He laughed again. "Are you scandalized? This was before there were X-Men."

"But you worked with him?"

"I used to live here, John." Magneto folded his hands over his chest. "It was a long time ago."

"And you helped build Cerebro."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time."


Magneto looked at the ceiling. "I didn't want Charles to give up."

"Give up? Professor Xavier doesn't give up."

"But he wasn't Professor Xavier then. Just a very bright young man who'd suddenly found himself confined to a wheelchair for life and thought all his dreams had been dashed. And...don't let him fool you. Even now, Charles can despair."

"So, fine. You built it for him then, but why rebuild it for him now? It's not like you're here anymore, and--"

The house phone rang. John grabbed it. "Yo."

"John, is that you?" Peter.

"Yeah, what is it?"

"You might want to come down. Professor Xavier has collapsed. We're taking him to the hospital."

"Shit. Yeah. I'll be right there."

He turned to Magneto, who was already sitting up. "I heard that."

"Don't you think you should–"

"No. I'm coming."

His face was set, as determined and undeterrable as if he hadn't just been laid out in near-collapse in his bed. You still care, don't you? John almost asked. Then sanity took over, and he went to get Magneto's coat.

Kurt and Ororo piled into the back of their car for the quiet, tense trip to the hospital. Magneto sat motionless, resting his fingers on his temple, the whole time. John wondered how many trips like these he had made over the years.

The hospital was small and sleepy, especially at that hour; their group was by far the largest waiting, and got some odd looks. John and Magneto sat some distance away from the main group, but they could still hear the hushed conversation. Bobby and Marie took turns glaring daggers at them, like it was their fault.

"Did we really have to bring him here?" Wolverine, looking grouchy and tired.

"Without Jean to check him, it wasn't safe," Ororo answered, with a pained look at Scott.

"I know we need to recruit a new in-house physician," Scott muttered, looking at no one. "But it's not exactly easy to find someone who fits our requirements."

"Of course," Ororo said soothingly.

John flicked his lighter open and shut nervously. He'd already learned to dislike places that seemed official, that had security and reeked of authority. He leaned over to Magneto and whispered, "What if there's trouble?"

"Then I want you to clear out of here."

"What about you?"

Magneto gave him a very dry look.

"Never mind."

When the doctor came out, Scott jumped up to meet him. "How is he?"

"I think it's simple exhaustion, but he absolutely refused to discuss with me what he'd been doing that could have caused it." The doctor frowned. "Are you his son?"

"No, but I hold his health-care power of attorney."

"Do you know what he's been doing? We don't usually get senior citizens in with this sort of complaint unless it's extremely hot."

"He's the headmaster of a school. He...pushes himself too hard."

"Well, I think you should talk to him about reducing his activity level just a bit. It's good for seniors to remain active, but not if it lands them in the ER." He made a note on his clipboard. "You can see him now. We're keeping him overnight for observation."

Everyone got up, but as Magneto crossed the lobby, Scott put out a hand. "No. Not you."

"I beg your pardon?"

"This is your fault, too. You work with him one day and he falls over? It’s not a coincidence."

"Hey, asshole," John said, "did it ever occur to you that fixing Cerebro might be actual hard work?"

"You," Scott pointed at him, "shut up. And you," he glared at Magneto, "just get the hell out of here. I don't know what you were thinking, getting the Professor on this project in the first place–"

"This wasn't my idea," Magneto growled, low. "Nor was it something I particularly wished to do. I was a fool even to come."

"Then why did you?"

"There are worse things for a man than a brief hospital stay."

"Such as?"

"Such as despair. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but Charles has been so guilt-ridden over what happened at Alkali Lake that he hasn't recruited a single new mutant since his return to the school. That is good for none of us."

"What happened," Scott sneered. "You mean what you did. What you made him do."

Magneto made a tired little gesture with his fingers. "Yes. Which is why I agreed to help. If you don't like this project, take it up with Charles. It is entirely his."

That sounded so much like Magneto admitting he'd risked himself--and John--because he felt guilty that for a minute John wondered if he'd fallen asleep in his chair and was dreaming the whole conversation. Magneto wasn't about feeling guilty. He did what was necessary and he didn't look back. It was one of the things John admired most about him. He felt vaguely sick. He'd been right: they should never have come.

"Scott," Ororo said, "it's not worth it."

"Fine." Scott's jaw was stubborn. "But he waits. I want to talk to the Professor myself. First."

"We weren't going to all crowd in there at once anyway."

"I am perfectly content to wait," Magneto said calmly.

"If we're going to be here all night, someone has to look after the children. Kitty can't manage them for that long."


"Me? You're making me babysit?"

Scott said, "He's not responsible enough--"

"On the contrary," Magneto said, "I have found that if you treat him as an adult, he rises to the occasion. And I imagine none of the rest of you wish to leave Charles here."

After that, John couldn't really protest, and the rest of them had to give in. In some ways, John was glad as he headed out to the parking lot. It was going to be too weird if Magneto was going to get all soft.

The lights were mostly out at the mansion when he returned--it was past the younger kids' bedtimes. Kitty was sitting at the island in the kitchen, drinking a glass of milk and looking at a textbook.

"Nerd," he said, opening up the fridge himself. "The professors go out and you sneak...what is that, a calculus book?"

"I am being responsible," she said pointedly.

"Let me tell you, kid, it's not all it's cracked up to be."

"Don't call me 'kid'!" she protested. "And...I guess you'd know, wouldn't you?"

John frowned. Still no beer, even though Logan was still around. "Look, I'm back, I'm in charge, go to bed."

"You're not in charge of me."

"Oh, yes, I am."

"Oh, no, you're not!"

How exactly were you supposed to deal with a pain-in-the-ass thirteen-year-old? He couldn't just crisp her. "Fine, whatever. Just beat it."

"Hmph," she muttered, but she slid off her stool and walked through the door, carrying her book.

A couple of hours later, John was so bored he was almost sorry he'd chased her. They were on a strict communications blackout with the rest of the Brotherhood, so as not to give anything more away about their location, which meant there was no one he could call; there was nothing good on TV; and there was only so much time you could spend looking at the stars. When he busted Artie sneaking out of bed to go check on his pet frogs, John was glad enough for the change of pace that he took him down to the lab to look at them before hustling him back to bed. Then he decided that he'd probably better do a tour of the building to make sure nobody else was sneaking around.

It was all pretty quiet, except that when he paused outside Professor Xavier's doors, he could hear the whine of the printer. It might have been an important fax or something, so he went inside.

It wasn't. It was just a Danger Room report. He was ready to trash it when he realized. It had just printed out. Either there had been some error, or someone had been using the Danger Room that night.

Shadowcat. Test Run 0001. Score: 100.

Dammit. He hustled to the basement, planning to give Kitty a good yelling-at. Everyone knew you didn't get to train in the Danger Room until you were at least fourteen. Kitty had been complaining that she was ready for months, but--he hadn't actually meant that she should go get in trouble. Get him in trouble, was more like it, and dammit, Magneto had told Scott he could handle this.

Kitty wasn't in the Danger Room itself, though, or in the control room. When he buzzed up to her room, there was no answer. After a minute, he even nerved himself up enough to make sure that she wasn't in the showers. It didn't look like she'd been in the showers recently, either--no steam in the air, no dripping faucets. And no sweaty workout clothes in her locker.

The hell? He stuck his head out into the hallway and considered his options. Kitty was smart enough to have hacked the system to dump that printout to distract him or piss him off--but she had no reason to think he'd even be there to see it. So she had done the Danger Room run, and she hadn't made it to the locker room afterwards. It was only a few hundred yards...

But there was a door. Restricted access only, but apparently little Miss Kitty was feeling her oats that evening, so why wouldn't she? The door was locked, of course, not that that would stop her. He had to melt the lock off, ignoring the little trills of pain that it set off in his head.

Beyond, there was a long metal tunnel, narrower and lower than the rest of the basement. John followed it for about five minutes, when there was an abrupt turn and the tunnel ended in a heavy-duty circular door. Locked, and with lots of security on it.

John considered calling back to the hospital and getting the override codes, but that would mean talking to Scott. And admitting that one of the little brats had gotten away from him. Melting through the door was the clear winner there.

There were more tunnels beyond, but these were rough, and stone--clearly not the work of the school. Someone had spray-painted on the wall, MORLOCK TERRITORY--GET LOST! Great. Hostiles. For once, he would've been glad to have Mystique with him, to cover his back. He looked to his left and then his right, trying to decide which way Kitty would've gone--and then he heard a scream from the left. A girl's. That answered that question.

He ran for a couple minutes, popping a flame into his hand, before the tunnel started to broaden out. He skidded to a stop at the lip of a natural cave. Further in, the flickering light of his flame revealed something truly nasty. Something that looked like a cross between a bug and a lizard, only about thirteen feet tall. It had Kitty in its...tentacle-arm thingy, pinning her against the wall. She was yelling and kicking.

John decided it was safe to assume it was hostile. "Kitty!" he yelled. "Kitty, come on, phase!"

She only wailed. He fumbled in one of the deeper pockets along his legs, found the flask he was after. He snapped off the lid and tossed it as far as he could into the cave. He could just see the faint reflections of his flame on the slick that spread out from it. Ready, but he couldn't do a fucking thing with Kitty right there...

"Kitty!" he shouted again. "Kitty! Phase!"

"I can't!"

"What do you mean, you can't?!?"

"I'm scared!"

He rubbed his temples with his palms. How was he supposed to save some stupid little kid who thought she was old enough to play with the big boys, but then just fell apart...?

"For Christ's sake, Kitty! Don't be such a fucking baby! I mean, could you be any lamer? You really couldn't!"

"I'm not lame!" Kitty straightened up, and a second later he saw her slip through the monster's grasp. She skidded in the slick, but landed just beyond it on the right side.

"COVER YOUR HEAD!" The flame arced out from his hand across the cave, suddenly lighting up brilliant crystals in the ceiling. It touched the slick, which instantly went up in a sheet of fire.

Kitty screamed and rolled away, trying to put out her sleeve, which had dragged in the slick and must have caught a spark. John couldn't stop to help, because the beast had screamed, too, and turned to face them. That chemical caught fire quick, but it wouldn't burn long, and John had to push it, push past the jagged pain that seemed to split his head just at his right eye, until the sheet became a wall, and then the wall a torrent surrounding the beast. It was screaming continuously, thrashing as it crisped, and the smell that came across the cave was really something for the record books. It was only after the beast crashed to the ground and actually stopped twitching that John let up.

By that time, Kitty had run up to him, still clutching at her smoldering sleeve. "John! Thank God! Are you...are you okay?"

"Yeah. Just peachy," he said, and passed out.

"I sent you back to the school to avoid a fight, not thwart an incipient alien invasion," Magneto said the next day, but his voice was pleased.

John was feeling pretty good about himself, too, even though they hadn't let him out of the infirmary. It turned out that ... something had left a bunch of eggs in the Morlock tunnels (which Scott had resolutely refused to explain, but Magneto had said were left over from a bunch of mutants who'd used to live there), and John had nailed the first one to hatch just in time to prevent it from putting more eggs into Kitty. When the professors had come back at Kitty's signal, they'd explored and found and destroyed the rest.

"But you're still a big jerk, John Allerdyce!" Kitty scowled from the other side of his bed. "Calling me a baby!"

"Psychological warfare," Magneto murmured, and now he was definitely hiding a smile. "I'm glad to see you've finally mastered at least a crude version of it."

"Is your eye going to stay like that?" she asked.

John winced. One of the pupils was about a quarter bigger than it used to be. "I don't know."

"I think it looks kind of cool, actually," came a voice from the door. Bobby was doing the arms-folded-in-the-doorway thing again.

"We'll talk more later, John," Magneto said, and rose.

"Scram, Kitty," John told her, "and this time, stay out of trouble." She opened her mouth, colored, and closed it again before scrambling to follow Magneto out the door.

"So," John said.

"Yeah," Bobby answered, and came to stand by the chair next to the bed. "Kitty gave me the full story. Sounds pretty impressive. You saved her life."

"Sometimes it pays to dress like an idiot," John said. "Civilians tend to have a lot fewer flammable toys on them."

Bobby grimaced. "Yeah. I, uh, I'm sorry about that."

John waved a hand. "Whatever."

"So, I hear you're leaving in a couple days."

"Yeah, I'm off welding. Toad's coming to help Peter." If he wasn't so tired, he'd have argued that with Magneto--Toad wasn't the kind of guy who'd notice if Magneto flipped his lid. But he was tired. And ready to go.

There were a couple minutes' awkward silence. "I should go. I have homework."

"Yeah, okay."

Bobby paused, then stuck his hand in his pocket. When he opened his fist, John saw the Vette lighter. "Uh, look what I found."

"I thought you hadn't seen it."

"Yeah. Well. I found it."

John just looked at the bright red sleek shape in Bobby's palm. They shouldn't have come to the school. Magneto might even admit it, if he asked now. He wasn't signing up for fifty years of...whatever it was Bobby might want. He had joined the Brotherhood to be free.

"I don't want it," he said flatly. "You keep it."

Bobby looked surprised, and then hurt, and, yeah, John wanted to change his mind. But it was just holding on a little longer, pushing through it til Bobby's face closed up and he said "Fine" and walked out the door.

It was a little scary, to think he might have figured out something better than Magneto had, but what the hell. The Brotherhood was all about getting smarter every time.

Til they won, and nobody had to do this sort of shit anymore. John rubbed at his sore eyes. Someday.

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