Money, telepathy, more connections than a field of crab grass and Xavier still hadn't found anything worthwhile. Scott sensed Remy's oncoming rebuke. It was going to involve a lot of expletives, unnecessary mention of bodily functions, and a spattering of patois French what would be more impressive if he didn't sound like a drunken Pepe LePew.
He scanned through the pictures for the fourth time since the meeting, seeing nothing but shades of white and grey.
"What am I missing?" he murmured, willing the digital information amalgam to give up its secrets. The ghoulish lab, the surrounding area, and the video clips were imbedded in his retinas. When he slept, they whirled in his head and when he woke up, he saw them in the mirror.
He refused to answer the voice that scolded him for ignoring Remy, even if it did sound a lot like Jean.
He moved his attention to another set of information: the maps. They'd gone back to Nevada twice now, once to Kelsey and another time to a city in the next county. The second location didn't have a large concentration of Adam's biosignature but it was the closest and he thought it could be a transportation stop.
No such luck. There hadn't even been anything to hide in the painfully suburban town. Scott's temples throbbed and he lifted his glasses off press his fingers against the pain. The familiar pressure of the optic beams was threatening to take the top of his head off. He had to let some energy loose.
The next highest concentration of biosignatures was in Georgia. Granted, they were human but they weren't sure about the state of Adam's mutation. That's what he had to investigate just as soon as he finished grading tests.
God, his life was bizarre.
Warren was playing basketball with the junior students when Scott emerged from the meeting room. Scott's mouth threatened to lift up. Warren always did well with the younger kids, especially the ones who had Christian backgrounds. A real life angel did wonders for their morale.
"No fair, no powers!" Jones cried out as he tried to guard Warren. The older man's wings proved to be an adequate deterrent.
"I'm not using powers, they just fall that way" Warren said. "It's like telling Artie not to tepe images."
Artie chose that moment to telepathically submit an image of Warren passing the ball to him. Warren executed a perfect chest pass to the twelve year-old who then leapt into a passable lay-up.
"All right, Artie!" He and Warren exchanged high-fives. "We'll catch up to them soon."
Jones and Teresa hooted companionably as Warren took Artie to one side to discuss strategy. Scott approached the duo. "Don't you have a mega-million business enterprise to run?"
"A good CEO can go on vacation and still have the company running smoothly."
"So a good CEO is useless," Scott paraphrased wryly.
"Shhh!" Warren narrowed his eyes playfully. "Business secret. They give it to you with the country club membership." Artie backed away, sending an image of Warren and Scott in their X-uniforms but Warren shook his head. "If we stop now, they'll think we gave up. Artie and I are just going to deliver a little payback, okay? I'll meet you in your office."
Fifteen minutes later, as promised, Warren knocked on Scott's office door, two sports drinks in hand. "Candygram."
Flashing a tight smile, Scott gestured to the chair across the table. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I really hate screwing up."
Warren sat down and leaned forward. Those words sounded like they were wrenched from somewhere in Scott's solar plexus. Scott Summers opening up was a rare event indeed and Warren would not have the honour of being his best friend if he didn't know when to pay attention.
"I really hate it, more than art theory and Anne Rice novels."
"No-one can hate anything more than you hate Anne Rice novels."
"Yeah, but it's worse when you know you have to apologize." He whirled his chair around so he wouldn't have to face Warren as he spoke. "I have really fucked up, haven't I? Especially handling Remy."
Warren arched an eyebrow. Only the ruffling of his wings gave depth to his emotions. "I thought I smelled an awful lot of cigarette smoke wafting in from his room." Taking a deep breath, he prepared to unload Scott's eternal baggage of guilt for the umpteenth time since they first met. "You shouldn't have let him goad you into a fight but he was wrong to bring the girl into the lab."
"It's not always his fault, you know," Scott snapped.
Warren held his arms up. "I call them as I see them, Slim. Every time you and Remy are together for longer than two seconds, something explodes. Literally."
"You're an only child; you wouldn't understand."
His feathers stood at the dismissal. "Try me."
"Just because we argue, it doesn't mean--" Scott shook his head and tried again. "It's like there's this line; most of the time it's fun to fight and we draw blood but we never... it's not hateful. I don't hate any of the boys. I just get... they take so much energy."
"One could argue that teaching forty kids also requires energy."
"I suppose." He sat motionless, staring at the wall for so long that Warren started to grade test again, thinking the moment was over. Then suddenly: "Does it come off that I hate them?"
"From what everyone else has said, you don't mention them very often," replied Warren, "but you've always been very private." He smiled, wearily but warmly. "Stop beating yourself about it. That's why I'm here, remember? I'll do all the worrying for you; you just concentrate on eating, bathing, and saving the world from certain destruction."
Scott snorted. "That was your dream job."
"You're better at it," said Warren. "Always have been; always will be. I'm just here to discretely push money your way."
"Or not so discretely." Scott glanced pointedly at the filling box that held the bills.
"I have to get my little thrills since I resigned myself to never putting on the suit," said Warren. "Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking back then. What was I supposed to d as an X-Man? Fly around and tickle people into submission?"
Scott grinned. It was the first real smile Warren had seen since Jean's funeral. "We had the plan with the bazooka, remember? You were supposed to act as a look-out from above and if anyone tried to attack, you'd blast them with a bazooka."
Warren covered his face in embarrassment. "Obviously, we watched too much G.I. Joe as kids."
"You're showing your age. I didn't get into Saturday morning cartoons until the Ninja Turtles first made an appearance." Scott grinned.
"Keep rubbing it in, infant. Just remember, I know you still keep your old Teen Ninja Mutant Turtles comics somewhere in this office." Reaching over the desk, Warren flipped through a few of the tests. "You're giving these poor kids geometric proofs? You are an evil, evil man."
"Geometric proofs are the least of it." Grimacing Scott passed a thick binder forward. "They're supposed to have pre-calc by senior year, too. Pre-calc! When most of the kids still have to catch up on advanced algebra."
"Is this where you beg me for money?" asked Warren lightly.
"No, this is where I beg you to come and handle all the administrative stuff for the school so I can teach in relative peace and quiet." Scott grimaced. "You look better on the brochure."
"And if I cover myself a bedsheet and bronze paint, I can greet the visitors in a shower of light," said Warren dryly.
"Let's not and said we did." They both laughed.
"Honestly though, if you're in need of my expertise, I can take another few months off." Warren flipped his PDA open. "I'll have to cram a few meetings into next month but it's doable. I'll call Hodge right now and let him know."
"Ah, hell, Warren, you don't have to." Scott began to protest but Warren, already dialling, angled away from him.
"You already took a month off to help me with the funeral," said Scott, trying to dissuade him again. Warren smiled and flipped a perfectly manicured middle finger at him.
In a few minutes, Warren had signed off at his office, securing his schedule conflicts for the next two months. "So, where do you want me to start, boss?" he asked.
"Well, for one thing, you can help me find my Fleetside," Scott said. "I had it in it's box on the top shelf with the homework stuff and now it's gone."
"The toy car? One of your kids probably found it and borrowed without asking," said Warren.
"The only kids who'd go through the extra homework box are went home for the summer," Scott said. "Last time I checked it, they were all still there."
"When was that?"
"Right after the funeral." Scott's forehead wrinkled. "I don't care if they play with it; I just wished they'd ask me first."
Warren patted his shoulder. "Give it until September. If they took it for a little joyride down the halls, it's not going to show up any time soon. If they've sold it for money, hell, I'll get you a new one."
Scott's chin jutted forward. Letting out an irritated breath, he said, "My mom bought me that."
Warren's wings stiffened. Remy had come to the mansion for something other than Adam. He'd been riffling through Scott's things and besides, else knew the resale value of first-edition comics regardless of sentimental value? It wouldn't be the first time he stole something from Scott.
Broaching the possibility wasn't going to be fun.
He'd been standing stock-still for the five or six minutes that Warren tried to think of ways to tell him that his brother's burgling days were most assuredly not over. Some people made notes in a diary or PDA; Scott stood still and catalogued information in that filing-cabinet that was his brain.
"Tomorrow," he caught Scott saying
"Tomorrow what?" Warren asked.
"I'll ask about the car tomorrow," he replied. "There's a mission in an hour."
Okay, taking everything into stock.
Item 1: He'd been in this laboratory for almost seventy sleeps. Assuming he'd been knocked out three times a day, that meant he'd been missing for almost a month.
Item 2: Dad had just been stationed at Kuwait so no one at home was going to be looking for him.
Item 3: Remy and Scott were pretty smart. If they hadn't found him yet, there weren't enough clues on his whereabouts.
Item 4: He had no idea what to do about all of the above.
Adam rubbed his eyes again. They felt like they always did when he had a vicious case of the flu. Just what he needed; the freakin' sniffles while he was playing punching bag to a bunch of whacked-out mutants. Life totally sucked large under-ripe lemons. Or maybe they didn't. After all, if lemons tasted sour when they were ripe; maybe they were sweet when they were unripe so it would be an awesome way to make craploads of money on that except that if it were true, people would have discovered it by now since lemons had been around since the dinosaurs or at least black and white movies and, whoa, this was a really pathetic train of thought even for him.
"Would it help if I tell my brothers to take it easy?" he asked his invisible captors. "They could kill you quickly instead of torturing you first."
To his surprise, there was a reply. A panel in the cell's wall slid open. A really pale guy walked confidently into the cell. Buck-ass naked. Now, Adam was pale for a Californian but this guy just didn't look healthy. It was like he tanned only under fluorescent light. Although his head was shaved, the carpet was dark brown. That whole area kind of looked like Bruno, their neighbour's wire-haired terrier. He wasn't happy to see Adam but since Adam wasn't in a cuddly mood either, there was no loss.
The guy walked up to him, chin lifted, and got into Adam's personal space. Way into his personal space. He normally wouldn't mind since the guy was ripped like a Greek statue but, really, those weren't lovin' vibes he was getting. Adam backed off a few steps.
"I will not submit," said Bruno.
"Good for you. No means no," said Adam, now officially weirded out. And he thought the giant test tubes-cum-sleeping pods were strange. No, this guy was Twilight Zone made human. "Uh, I usually try to date someone first, nothing fancy, maybe a coffee..."
Bruno punched him in the face.
Flailing, Adam slammed against the wall. "Ow! Dude! I said I wasn't going to touch you. Jesus!"
He punched Adam again. This time, Adam had the presence of mind to roll away although the guy's arm moved so quickly, he still managed to graze Adam's shoulder.
"That wasn't a rejection, y'know." Adam ducked under a straight-legged kick and rolled away again. "That was more like 'I'm not ready for a commitment'."
He twisted away from a chop to the neck and blocked the following knee. "Okay, I lied. I'm real shy when it comes to BDSM. We haven't even established a safe-word."
"Why do you not fight me?" Bruno demanded, highly affronted.
Adam hugged the wall, ready to slide away again when the guy got his second wind. "Honestly? I don't want to prolong the agony. I know the drill: I go in, you kick my ass with your powers, everything goes black and I wake up in my waterbed. The faster I can get from Step One to Step Four, the better."
Bruno bared his teeth. "You would make a fool of me."
"Dude, I'm not the one who walked in airing my balls."
"You refuse to burn me?" asked Bruno.
"Burn you?" Adam laughed. "Where in this Matrix wanna-be outfit do you think I keep my Zippo?"
"We must fight," said Bruno, urgency seeping into his tone. "If we do not fight, we cannot rise to the next level. We will remain sheep."
"Baa," said Adam, deadpan. "Look, you want to get burned? You go stick your head in a toaster. Me, I'm gonna wait here and try to stay low so my brothers only have one piece to rescue."
Now Bruno really looked worried. He searched the ceiling. "What do I do, sir? You did not give me this factor to compute."
Adam looked up as well. "Is that where the cameras are?" He spun in a slow circle, waving a one-fingered salute. "You could have at least thrown in someone with lube, you turds."
Bruno nodded to the little voice in his head. "I understand, sir."
"This is officially way too weird for me," said Adam, turning his back. Two icy hands landed on his shoulders and shoved. Adam whirled around. "Hey!"
Bruno held up his arm and bit himself. Right through the friggin' skin!
"You're a freak!" Adam yelled. "Forget the nakedness and talking to air, you need some serious Dr. Phil."
Bruno only cocked his head to one side and shoved him again. This time, he kept his hands at Adam's shoulders until he hit the wall. Bracing one hand against Adam's throat, he cupped the younger man's groin with the other.
Adam lashed out, forgetting his training in his panic. He was not getting raped. He would shit down a tube, pickle in a jar, and play punching bag to a hundred mutants but he would kill himself before he was raped. Especially not by this nudist boyband reject.
God, this guy was strong. Adam threw futile punches at his captor but Bruno ignored it. His hand was way too rough, rubbing against the suit's cold metal things that were needles and tubes despite Adam's denial.
Adam couldn't get enough air. He tried to kick but that only wedged Bruno's arm tighter on his throat. His vision blurred around the edges.
Pulling every last dreg of emotion he had in him, Adam bared his teeth and tried to throw one last punch. Air hissed past his fist.
No, no, no, no, fuck no! I'd rather burn!
Something in Adam's brain clicked. Heat gathered in his eyes. The scent of toasted flesh assaulted his nostrils.
What, is he torturing me now?Adam thought.
At the same time, Bruno staggered back, gagging and clutching his arm, the one that he'd bitten. Adam sagged against the wall, coughing out the mouthfuls of air he'd tried to take in. Bruno dropped to his knees, quietly keening. Smoke sizzled from his open wound. It was getting bigger, the sizzling flesh slowly darkening. Ragged, angry strips of red crawled from the wound up his arms. The smell grew stronger.
"I hope you ch-choke on it," said Adam, gathering his knees to his chest and giving Bruno his best glare. His eyes were still burning.
Spit hanging from his mouth, Bruno arched back, screaming. The red streaks darkened immediately, skin peeling in dry, ashy flakes. Adam scrambled away, his eyes wide. The adrenaline left him now, his fear draining the boil of angry energy, but the heat in his eyes didn't.
Bruno slumped on the floor, panting and shivering. The burns-- those streaks were obviously burns-- reached his torso now, tearing lightning bolts down his back and chest. His arm was nothing but a blackened husk, his fingers curled into charred sticks.
Vomit surged up Adam's mouth but he couldn't turn away until he actually felt warm liquid splatter on his leg. He didn't get it. Mutants came in here and beat on him. They never beat on themselves. It was always the same, every time he went in a cell. One mutant came in and beat up on one human. Why would Bruno burn himself? Was he completely over the edge?
He was whispering something. At first, Adam didn't want do anything about it but Bruno looked so pathetically frantic. Gulping down his apprehension, he leaned forward to try to catch the words.
"You are... as powerful as... they say." Bruno's eyes, set in a blistered face, rolled back. He said no more.
Quotes from Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" throbbed in Alex's head. Sure, the heart was actually Milbury's little present and he'd stuffed it under his dirty laundry pile, not the floorboards, but it still kept on thumping.
"Crap." Alex leaned away from his statistics notes. He pressed the balls of his palms against his burning eyes. Remy had never been a model citizen but he'd never deal with something like... Shit! This was all sorts of messed up and he wasn't going to get any peace until he sorted some of this out.
Pulling a phone card from his pocket-- thank God for Scott and his posh job-- Alex punched in the number for home. The phone rang four times before the machine picked up. Adam didn't pick up his cell-phone either. He tried his dad's office, knowing that the secretary would give a practiced spiel that Captain Summers would not be available for some time, would he like to leave a message? Alex bit his tongue, his fingers poised over the keys. With a final, muttered oath, he dialled Remy's New Orleans office.
"You've reached Les Beaux Temps," said a voice better suited to 1-800 numbers. "We specialise in museum-quality furnishings and rare collectibles. I'm sorry we can't come to the phone at the moment but please leave your name, number and a brief message and we'll--"
"Fuck me sideways." Alex hung up. "Remy, you son of a bitch, if you don't answer your cell, I'm going to sic Scott on you." He dialled Remy's private number.
Two rings later, the line clicked on. "Hello, Remy's phone," said Scott. "Remy's getting castrated right now. May I take a message?"
"Alex?" His eldest brother grunted. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing!" said Alex. "I was just... wondering what Remy's doing there. Or are you visiting him?"
"Hell has frozen over and Remy's in New York." The connection muffled and Scott yelled something indistinguishable on the other line. When he came back on, the sound of water splashing was even louder. "Did you want to talk to him?"
"Hell, no... I guess... I mean, I think so."
"Make up your mind. I've got hotdogs to roast."
"Screw off." Alex paced his small living room. "Why is Remy there? Angry Girlfriend #201?"
"I wish," Scott snorted. "Adam's run away again."
"The kid needs a new act."
"He's been missing for seven weeks now," Scott continued. "That's extreme, even for Adam."
"Any leads?" When Scott didn't answer, Alex repeated the question.
"It's kind of complicated," said Scott, his reluctance obvious. "I can't talk about it over the phone."
"Well shit." Alex thumped his head on the wall. "Have you told Dad?"
"Dad's incommunicado for the next few months, you know that."
"Well, did you even try?" demanded Alex. "He might know someone who can--"
"We're working on it." Scott used his no-arguments voice. "We know people, too."
Alex stared at the space under his bed where his dirty laundry sat, stinking. "Yeah, I guess you do." He began to dig under the bed then, cursing silently, spun away. Bashing his head on the mattress cleared his thinking a bit. "Okay then, Scott. I, uh, I guess I'll see you around." He rammed his head into the bed one last time.
"I'm going nuts," he told the room. "I'm going totally--"
Just then, a rocket crashed through his dorm room window.