Nine Lives

Scott had a dream, a wish, a prayer. That was all he had, but it was enough. It had to be enough.

She slid onto the bike behind him, fingers gripping his shoulders through the old leather of his jacket. It was as smooth, as pliant, as silk from age and wear. This jacket had seen his life with him. Hands smoothed down his arms, and then the weight of her head against his shoulder as her arms snaked around his waist. Her hair tickled the back of his neck, and he rested one hand on hers, lacing fingers.

"Take me away," Ororo whispered against aged leather.

He smiled as he untangled his fingers. The bike started with a liquid snarl. "Your wish is my command."

* * * * *

"Is that so?" Amusement evident even through the sleepiness in Ororo's voice.

Scott turned off the light and slipped under the covers, sliding across to spoon against her back. He lowered his head to press a kiss to her shoulder, just beside the strap of her nightgown. "It is," he confirmed. "As long as the wish is something as close to my heart as coming to bed with such a beautiful woman." Another kiss, his hand dipping down into the hollow of her waist, brushing up to the peak of her hip. "So before you even think to ask, no, I will not grade your senior theory exams. I've had enough of that bunch in my own classes."

She laughed, snuggling backwards against him. "Sure there is nothing I can do to change your mind?" Steadily sounding less sleepy by the minute.

A trail of kisses up her neck and he grinned into her hair. "Why, Ms Munroe, I thought you were tired."

In answer, she merely turned, her lips finding his in the darkness.

Of course, the Professor always had the world's worst timing when it came to interruptions. Then again, things happened when they happened, with very little regard for how tired, or otherwise occupied, the X-Men were. Which is how they came to be standing in the Professor's office two minutes later, learning that Magneto had... well, he hadn't escaped, technically. He hadn't left the facility he'd been held in. He'd just taken it over, with the help of his Brotherhood, taking the staff of 57, including a good score of various law-enforcement officers, hostage.

"Are we waitin' for a signed invitation?" Logan - fully dressed despite the hour - growled from his position near the door. "Let's go."

"This mission will require more than just the four of you," Xavier said warningly.

"We did fine last time," Logan noted.

"Barely," Ororo murmured from her seat.

Scott nodded. "We weren't facing them all at once at the Statue, and by the end Magneto was pretty much out of action. Now they're together, ready, probably waiting for us to get there and reinforcing their position with every minute." He looked to the Professor. "But the students have barely had two months training. A couple of them might be capable, but none of them are really ready."

"Rogue, Pryde, maybe that Jubilee kid could handle it. That new one - LeBeau - knows what he's doing," Logan listed, demeanour not changing. "And Drake and Allerdyce together, and only together."

Half of the senior students who'd been involved in training for the past two months. Logan had proven himself skilled, rigorous and determined as their main instructor. At the beginning, at least, he'd been the kids' worst nightmare. They'd been positively delighted to have Scott for the odd tactics class. But they'd settled down remarkably quickly. Not that Logan had become any less demanding as the training went on. They'd just got used to it. Some of them, Scott thought, had even come to enjoy it.

"Rogue, definitely," Scott said after a moment's consideration. "She knows what she's doing better than any of them." Logan nodded his agreement. "LeBeau's too new, but I think we're going to need him anyway. Drake and Allerdyce, together. Kitty could be invaluable, but Jubilee would just be an extra neck to risk; I'd prefer to leave her at home." He turned to Xavier. "Can you have them meet us in the ready room?"

At the Professor's nod, Ororo stood up. "Let's go." Logan was out the door in two seconds, and they followed him.

"Scott?" He paused in the doorway, looked back to the Professor. His guardian, his mentor... his friend. "Look after them."

* * * * *

Why couldn't he fucking look after them?

Wrap himself in layer after layer of control, of composure, of business-like efficiency. Get the hell out of there. Get them all in the Blackbird. Run. Jean already inside, with a pale and shaking Kitty. Bobby and St John, wide-eyed and blessedly quiet. Logan. And Remy, carrying in his arms the unconscious form of Rogue.

Control, composure and efficiency. Like armour. Hard. But hard is such a small step away from brittle, and he could feel the cracks appearing already.

Just close the door, Scott. Bark out the orders. Get into the pilot seat. Don't stop beside Jean, where she's working so feverishly. Don't look over to the empty co-pilot's chair. Don't think.

Don't look down, or you'll fall.

The Blackbird was a dream for two, a nightmare for one. But it kept him blessedly occupied, mental and physical. A stocky body brushed past, dropped into the seat beside him. Scott grit his teeth as he flicked a switch, started her up, hands flying over the controls to keep her steady. "I don't need your help," he grated.

"Well, you're gettin' it."

It was impolite to play with another guy's toys without asking, but what else did he expect from Logan? The Blackbird eased under Scott's hands, gliding smoothly into the air, back towards Westchester. It meant he could relax. But he didn't want to relax. Because then his mind turned in circles, an endless slow-mo replay of fifteen vital seconds. And his body wanted to turn, look back, crane for a glimpse of stunning white hair. Except that it was almost all obscured by grime. Or by blood.

He stared ahead, body tense, mind screaming in circles, as the plane sliced through the night. And for the first time in years, since he'd grown up, into himself, he allowed himself the luxury of three little words.

It isn't fair.

* * * * *

"No, it isn't," Scott agreed, but still didn't step out of the way. "But it's an order, Jubilee. Go back to bed."

Rogue seemed to be almost holding her breath as she watched her friend. Jubilee's jaw was set hard, and she was none-too-pleased about being left at home while the rest went off on the mission. Scott wasn't precisely happy himself. This wasn't fun, this was business, and if he thought he could get away with it, he wouldn't risk a single one of his students. He certainly wasn't taking anyone who wasn't absolutely necessary.

"Fine," the girl growled, and Rogue breathed again, slipping past Scott as he stepped aside to let her into the ready room. Jubilee turned and stalked away.

Scott - Cyclops, rather, fully uniformed and visored, ready for business - turned back to the others in the ready room. Rogue zipped up her own uniform, a faint blush on her cheeks as she turned back to face front. He ran his eyes along his entire group, cataloguing them in his mind. They were the raw material from which he would shape the mission. Skills, deficiencies, quirks. Code-names the students had chosen themselves in a brain-storming session at the beginning of the training. There had been a lot of giggling, teasing, over the names, and they'd been ill-fitting to begin with. As time passed they had grown into them. They all did, eventually.

Clinical, business-like, he started the briefing. Took the younger members through the situation, and watched Shadowcat take a deep breath as he outlined what they were probably up against. Pyro clenched his jaw; determination. Iceman merely watched, his face serious. They understood. Maybe, just maybe, their training had been enough. He roughed in the initial plan of attack, simple, but hopefully effective, and they nodded. They would follow orders. They were prepared.

As he'd caught Storm's eye, preparing the Blackbird for take-off, he'd smiled, just a little.

* * * * *

Not now, never now. Can't smile when the bottom's been torn out of your world and now, now it was over and they were back and he could go to pieces. But he couldn't. Not Cyclops. Not even Scott. Couldn't lose control like that.

So he sat here, cold metal against his back, his legs, in front of his eyes. Locked in this tiny, shiny box of a corridor when all he wanted was to be on the other side of that door. Not that there was anything he could do to help her.

He'd done enough.

He'd had her blood on his hands, on his uniform, when they'd come back, but he didn't even have that now. He'd operated on auto-pilot, because Cyclops doesn't break, not in front of anyone, not ever. Direct the younger members, be what they needed. A debriefing he hadn't heard a single word of because all his concentration was on the two women who weren't there. Help Kitty take Rogue into a closeted session with the Professor. He should care about that, about Rogue and what had happened to her. He did, but it was far away, on the periphery. Get out of the uniform, into regular clothes, like you might wear on any regular day when the woman whose smile powered your heart hadn't been ripped open and dropped at your feet like so much garbage.

Don't think about that, but there was nothing else to think about, out of tasks to perform, and the autopilot had let him down, led him down here. Outside the door that wouldn't open, wouldn't let him in, wouldn't tell him anything. So he waited, head tilted back against the hard wall.

Time passes slowly when it's measured in fifteen-second replays. It became meaningless, and he wondered if it was passing at all.

And then the door opened.

On his feet in an instant, across the space. Jean looked haggard, exhausted, eyes dull as they met his. She was silent for a moment, scanning his face. "If she wakes up, she'll be all right," Jean said, finally. "But I don't know." She stepped back, held the door open for him. "Come in. We can watch her together."

He hesitated just inside the door to her room. It wasn't Ororo, laid out on the bed, an almost lifeless body. The machines around her had more energy, beeping and whirring.

It was wrong. It was all so horribly wrong.

* * * * *

But this, this was right. Her arms snug around his waist and body moulded to his. The road was splashed with moonlight filtered through the trees, stark white and shadow that they flitted through like some sort of motorised fairy.

It was a beautiful, spangled dream. Moonlight was their element, had been since that first night in the library.

She shifted a little, leaned up to bring her mouth closer to his ear. "Faster," she whispered, but he could hear her easily over the wind. "Make us fly, Scott."

He grinned, and flicked the switch. Revelled in the sudden burst of speed, the tightening of her arms, her laughter. It rang in his ears as she threw her head back, hair whipping around her. And they flew.

* * * * *

Even though Magneto surely knew they were coming, Cyclops landed the Blackbird far enough away from the complex to hide their arrival. No point in giving him any more warning than absolutely necessary.

There was a moment of hesitation as they approached the complex, and he felt eyes on him. They knew their orders, but they wanted a sliver of confirmation. It was more real here. This was it.

"Get into position. Don't start in until everyone's in place. Go."

And they went. They knew the layout of the building, they knew the probable points of defence, they knew their groups. Wolverine, flanked by Iceman and Pyro, melted into the darkness in one direction, heading for the main entrance, as Jean and Shadowcat crept forward, heading for the unbroken side wall. Doors weren't necessary for all, and training had proved Shadowcat could phase more than just herself. Just as Storm could carry more than her own weight into the air, another trick to be utilised as her eyes whited over, and the wind lifted her feet off the ground. Gambit seemed a shade insecure in her arms, glancing down towards the ground frequently, but he didn't look like he'd pass out before they reached the roof. Cyclops turned his attention to his own task; making it around to the back entrance with Rogue.

The complex looked mundane. Normal. Cyclops could almost believe that they had the wrong building. A few scattered lights were on, most off, but nothing moved. There was nothing remarkable about the small building, and absolutely no sign of hostile occupation. But then again, the Statue of Liberty had looked harmless at first glance. That's what this was all about, wasn't it? Not judging on appearances.

"Wolverine here; we're in position."

"Jean; us too."

Cyclops and Rogue settled into bushes a short distance from the rear entrance, and he held his hand up to his face to whisper. "This is Cyclops; we're right. Storm?"

A pause. And then: "Ready to go."

"All right, then. Remember, draw their attention from Shadowcat and Jean. Neutralise the resistance if you can, but don't take chances. Stay whole, and when you hear the word, get the hell out of there." Take a breath. "Do it."

* * * * *

"What did you do?" Watching her chest rise and fall, taking his own shaky breaths. Can't form a coherent sentence; three tries just to get it out.

Luckily Jean understood. "The neck wound wasn't too bad immediately, no tendon damage. It'll bear watching for infection - bites are bad like that. She's lost some blood from the abdominal wounds as well. I think she's stable, but the knock on the head is the main worry. There's so many things that could go wrong."

So many things. Wrong. It was all wrong to start with.

There was a chair beside the bed, out of the way of the equipment, and Scott barely knew how he made his way over to it. Her hand lay above the covers, just there. Long fingers with their short, well-cared-for nails. One of her small vanities that he hadn't even noticed until he'd noticed her.

He couldn't take her hand. Not yet. But he raised his own hands to the bed, smoothed the blanket - something pale and blue-based - along the edge of the bed. And when he was ready, taking a deep breath, he followed the dark skin from wrist, to elbow, to shoulder...

To face. Long lashes on cheekbones, shadows and grazes and a bruise forming on the side of her jaw. But so serene. She was always so serene. He'd seen it broken though. With passion, with pleasure... and now with fear and agony.

"I'm sorry." Jean's voice, snapping him back so sharply he flinched. "Scott, I'm -" Her voice broke a little. "I'm so sorry."

He didn't look back. Couldn't look away now that his eyes had found her face. "She's your friend too, Jean." His voice was distant, under someone else's control.

"But she means more to you." It sounded almost wrong, but he knew what she meant, and she knew he knew, and neither of them was going to quibble about expression now. "I'll be in the next room."

Scott could only nod, looking at her face, back down to her hand. Almost on its own, one hand slid across the blanket to cover hers, slip fingers around into the cool, smooth palm.

More to him. So much more. So much. She meant to him.

Somewhere behind him, the door clicked closed.

* * * * *

Cyclops paused a moment in the entrance hall, Rogue calm and steady beside him. He'd told the truth about her readiness; she handled herself with more confidence than any of the others. Perhaps a throwback to Wolverine's incorporation. She scanned the crazy shadows of the foyer, thrown by the pillars onto marbled walls from the pale light streaming in from outside.

No alarms yet, that was good. The override codes they'd been given had worked, then. Or the alarms had been disabled. Assume Magneto knew they were in. Always safer to assume the worst.

They moved quickly, then, finding the stairs - don't chance the lifts - to the third floor. With the entire blueprint of the complex laid out in his mind, Cyclops had no reason to hesitate at any corner. Right, straight, then left. Corridor after silent, dimly-lit corridor. Empty. Quiet. Eerie.

Where the hell was everybody?

As if in answer, Jean's voice sounded quietly in his ear, a bare whisper sounding unnaturally loud. "Heads up. They're on their way out from the control room. Looks like they've been recruiting - there's some people I don't recognise."

"Be careful," Cyclops said quietly into his handpiece. "We don't know what sort of powers they might have."

A snort that could be none other than Wolverine. "No shit." And then silence again.

They continued onwards, even more wary now, careful, clinical, both of them all-business. The silence stretched. It was starting to get uncomfortable. Cyclops almost jumped when his earpiece sprang back into life.

"We could use a little help up here." Gambit, terse but calm, though he sounded a little winded. "Sixth floor, main corridor."

"On it," Cyclops returned immediately, and started for the stairs again, Rogue running sure behind him.

The silence receded as they moved up, and the sounds of fighting were obvious as they took the last flight of stairs. No reason to be careless, though, and they moved cautiously into the main corridor.

Gambit was barely holding his own against a blue-skinned blur that could only be Mystique. Cyclops' blast went over her shoulder as she ducked, twisted out of the way, delivering a last kick to Gambit's stomach before sprinting away down a side corridor. She was gone by the time they reached Gambit, the faint patter of bare footsteps fading quickly into nothing.

"You all right?" Rogue was asking Gambit, who only nodded, leaning on his staff.

Cyclops waited while he took a few deep breaths, and then asked curtly: "Where's Storm?"

Gambit pointed at the ceiling. "There were two of them," he wheezed. "The other one was a flyer. Storm was chasing her back to the roof last I saw her."

"Then let's go. Gambit, you lead. Rogue, take the rear. Be on the lookout." Two nods, and they moved off.

* * * * *

"They were all so sure." Somehow, he'd just found himself talking, his thoughts turning into rambling sentences without him really noticing. It helped, calmed his mind, slowed everything down. Distracted him from the endless loop. Talking to her hand, because it was easier than her face. "They all knew what they were doing, most of the time. Not like us our first time. We were flying blind, remember? How did we ever make it through that first mission? So many narrow escapes, and we had no idea.

"They'll all be up there now, trying to get rid of the adrenaline. There's no rush like the first one, right? I sat in the Professor's office that night and felt like laughing, and didn't know why. There was so much energy inside me it was like I was going to burst. I didn't hear a damn word he said until he told us to go and try to get some sleep." The faintest trace of a smile creeping across his face at the memories. "But that just wasn't happening. I couldn't sit still, let alone lie down. It was late, and Jean was already asleep, the entire mansion was asleep, but I'd never been further from it. We ran into each other. No need for words because we just understood. It was the same for both of us.

"You became my best friend that night, I think. The first, last and only time we've ever ridden the motorcycle together, you know. And it was the first time I'd ever had anything stronger than beer. I think I told you that at the time, and you laughed. I hated people laughing at me, but somehow then I just couldn't seem to care. The first time you'd ever played pool, so I taught you. Those two guys; I hustled them, you charmed them. I still can't believe it. I thought we were going to get killed in a bar brawl, and on top of everything else that night, it was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. Thank God for alcohol and the body's natural drugs, or I probably would have had a heart attack.

"We had to take a taxi home, and get the bike back the next day. That's when the Professor said I could keep it, remember? I felt like death warmed up, hung over and wrung-out. Jean was sympathetic. And at the time, that was all I needed. But you understood. You've always understood."

Pale fingers tightened around darker ones in machine-broken silence.

* * * * *

Just the sound of the motorbike in the still night, sliding into darkness and out as a cloud scudded across the moon.

It seemed that the moment froze in crisp perfection. Her arms firmly around him, her body against his, the motorcycle under them, the wind teasing, the moonlight bestowing benediction.

He added it carefully to his vault of memories. There were those with red hair, certainly, but so many with white. Old and new. Teammates, friends, lovers. She was always there. Always.

Being with her was perfection on its own, and he treasured it second by blissful second.

They ticked past, and now they were nearing their destination.

* * * * *

They burst out onto the roof, the moonlight that had shone previously wiped out by dark, angry clouds glowering low above them. They had to brace in the doorway against the raging winds that tore across the roof. A little light came up from below, but it was probably only Cyclops, able to pick up movement better than most, who could see the figures careening through the sky. They were easy to tell apart. One battled against the winds constantly, one moved with them, pure grace.

The Goddess, in control.

Lightning rent the sky, but somehow the other figure dodged it, and it passed her by, earthing elsewhere.

"There she is." Gambit pointed, unnecessarily. Cyclops was already raising his hand to his visor, adjusting the beam as they two figures swooped their airborne dance closer to the rooftop.

The other figure - a woman, Cyclops could see now, and blonde - managed to twist away from his blast, the red beam slicing behind her arched back. But she couldn't avoid the lightning bolt that followed an instant later. It struck her full-on, passed through immediately to earth below her, but that didn't matter because she was falling out of the sky, dropping like a stone.

Rogue and Gambit rushed to the edge of the roof as the winds settled. Cyclops followed more slowly, meeting Storm as she stepped off the air and onto the roof. Her eyes faded back to their normal darkness as she turned to him. "Thank you. That distraction was just what was needed."

He nodded, accepting her thanks, as the younger two turned back to them. "No sign of her," Rogue reported. "But it's too dark to see the base of the building."

"No time to waste on her now," Cyclops replied. "Back inside. There's still a lot of them we haven't seen yet."

He raised the handpiece again as they descended into the building. "Cyclops here. With Storm, Gambit and Rogue. One new mutant, female, blonde, a flyer, outside the building. Mystique somewhere still inside. Sit. reps? Wolverine?"

An immediate answer. "Toad's stuffed in a cupboard down on the second floor, tied up with his own tongue. There was some blue guy, stranger to me, but he disappeared in a puff of smoke. I'm bettin' he's a teleporter, so he could show up anywhere."

"Noted. Jean?"

No answer, and Cyclops signalled a stop as they came to an intersection of corridors. Rogue and Gambit moved a little ahead to get better views of the other corridors. He tried again. "Jean? What's your situation?"

But before she had a chance to answer, the building shifted under his feet. A jerk, and then a tremouring, and with ponderous inevitability, the floor fell out from underneath them.

Thirty seconds of noise, disorientation and bouncing rubble, and then silence.

* * * * *

Talking filled the silence, but it became hungry, and wanted more. Whenever he stopped talking, it yawned at him, vast and empty, and there was nothing to fill it but his voice and the percussion of medical machines, marking out her survival. It needed her voice to fill it, but he wasn't going to hear it any time soon, so all that was left was for him to talk.

Other times, other memories. Dwell on something other than tonight's crop.

So he talked. Other missions, recent and older. Things they'd said, waiting in the Blackbird before they'd met Logan and Rogue. The first mission Jean had ever gone on them with - there had been few of those, before the business with Magneto - and how nervous he'd been. The first moment they'd met, Ororo fresh from Africa and somehow simultaneously full of wide-eyed uncertainty and stately poise. He'd been in awe, tried to make her welcome, but felt somehow inadequate. She'd told him later that his welcome had been the one reason she hadn't bolted immediately.

There from the start. A connection.

How had he been so blind for so long?

His voice drifted off, into nothing.

* * * * *

A cough, shifting rubble, and Cyclops felt smooth skin against his cheek, fingers on his face. "It is unbroken." Storm's voice, and he opened his eyes behind the visor. Dust in her hair and a graze on her cheekbone already weeping beads of blood. "We have not fallen far, only two floors, but the other two are not with us, and the hole continues down further."

He hauled himself to his feet and raised his handpiece as she looked around further. "Rogue? Gambit?" There was rubble everywhere, and not far from where they were the floor was gone, a gaping, jagged pit. Above, he could see dark clouds through a similar hole in the roof of the building. The place had been torn apart. What the hell had done it?

"I think we're back down at ground level." Rogue's voice. "Can't see much for the dust. I've busted my ankle, but not bad. Gambit's fine, just scratches and bru-- Fuck."


"The flying bitch. She's --" And the rest disappeared in a sudden, rushed exhalation of breath.

There was the faintest sound of shifting rubble behind him, but the real warning was the soft growl that overlaid it. By the time Storm gasped his name, he was already moving, diving forward as claws hissed along the leather of his uniform. He landed badly on the uneven surface, rolling to the side and up to his feet.

But even as Cyclops straightened fully, he heard her grunt, and knew what he would see. Didn't want to see it. Hated to raise his eyes to the sight.

Sabretooth was using her as a shield, one arm wrapped around her, pinning her arms against her body, the other gripping her chin, claws pressed against her cheek.

"Pretty face," he snarled. "Wanna keep it after I rip it off?"

Cyclops barely heard him, his vision tunnelling to her face. Sabretooth's hand covered the faint scars he'd left her with last time, but they were there. Her face was as cold and impassive as ice, but her eyes were solid white in an instant. Thunder cracked above.

"Not this time, bitch," Sabretooth growled, dragging her backwards underneath the ragged remains of the floor above. His grip remained tight on her, claws digging into her arm. A tiny rivulet of blood crawled along his claw, down over her wrist.

"Hold it right there," Cyclops ordered, shadowing the movement as he raised a hand to his visor. Calculating. The corridor was too narrow to get around him. Sabretooth's head was exposed over Storm's shoulder, but they'd seen before how fast he could move. If Cyclops shot at him, he would still have time to tear her throat out.

And Sabretooth knew it too, black eyes cunning beside her white hair. "Shoot me, and I cut her up."

"Cut her up," Cyclops returned coldly. "And you're dead."

And so am I...

* * * * *

"You can't leave me." After being silent for so long, the words sounded especially loud, but he had to make sure she heard. She had to understand. "You've always been there. I didn't realise it, just took it for granted, took you for granted. You were the constant, steady rock in my life. My unquestioning support, and I didn't have to prove anything to you. Every good memory I have, every memory of the best part of my life, has you as a background. You're always there."

Scott looked down at his hands, white-knuckled from not gripping her unresponsive hand too tightly. He barely even saw the tear that splashed onto the twined fingers. "I'd be lost without you, Ororo." His voice was down to a whisper now. "You've got to be there."

* * * * *

They were there, pulling up at the edge of a clearing. She didn't even wait for him to cut the engine before she slipped off the bike, taking the two steps necessary to escape the dappling cover of the trees, and be bathed in liquid moonlight. She twirled slowly, her hair fanning out incandescently behind her, her faint laughter like starlight.

"Beautiful," she said simply, and it was,
she was. Just them in this tiny clearing in the woods, a stolen moment from reality. He could believe anything he wanted to, here.

As he climbed slowly off the bike, she turned again, heading away from him towards the centre of the clearing.

* * * * *

Cyclops edged slowly sideways, not really with any hopes of circling behind Sabretooth, just trying to keep the other mutant's attention on him until he could think of a plan.

Think, Cyclops!

"Stalemate," Sabretooth growled, shifting so that Storm was always between him and the visored man. "But any way, I win. I got less to lose." The grip on her chin shifted slightly, claws trailing lightly along the curve of her jaw in a parody of a caress. "So pretty." He'd turned his head slightly, his lips almost touching her neck as he spoke. She tilted her head away, a grimace on her face.

A grimace that turned into a scream as teeth sank into the bared flesh, where neck met shoulder. Scott leapt forward a pace, and Sabretooth's head whipped up. His teeth were horrifically blood-stained as he grinned, and yanked Ororo roughly backwards, into the shadowed depths of the corridor. Her eyes were closed now, face drawn tight, not making a sound. "Me and the frail are leaving, boy," he said, triumph in the gravel of his voice, and he pulled her backwards another step.

Cyclops stalked forwards, mirrored their progress. Hand on visor, waiting for a chance, any chance. Please, let there be a chance. His world had contracted to a single focus of concentration, on the woman with white hair. On Storm, being taken away from him.

* * * * *

She walked into the clearing, ephemeral in the moonlight. Walked away from him.

* * * * *

Scott's hands fell away from hers. He couldn't hold her.

* * * * *

Sabretooth's hand had shifted from her chin during all this, now gripped at her shoulder as he drew her backwards. And suddenly, mid-step, Storm twisted in his grasp, and Sabretooth couldn't hold her...

* * * * *

His voice was broken as he whispered: "Ororo."

* * * * *

Suddenly panicked, he called after her...

* * * * *


There was a chance, and Cyclops took it in an instant, her name leaving his lips as the beam left his eyes. Still too slow, and he knew that with a sick feeling. Sabretooth still half-gripped her shoulder, his other arm around her stomach, and he moved with animal speed, yanking her to the side as he leapt away. Her head hit the wall with a crunch of plaster as the optic blast sliced through air and wall and nothing. Sabretooth was gone.

Five age-long seconds it took him to get to her side, where she was slumped in rag-doll pose on the floor. There was a tiny smear of blood down the wall, from the indentation her skull had made, and blood weeping from the teeth marks at the base of her neck. More blood trickling over her uniform from the jagged rents across her abdomen, where claws had raked in farewell. He catalogued it all in some clinical, dogged part of his mind, but the rest of him was huddled over her, cradling her face gently as he whispered her name, turned it into a plea.

Her eyes were blue behind half-closed lids as she tilted her head up towards him. "Scott," she breathed. "Won't let..." Eyes flickered closed, voice ending in an exhalation.

His earpiece burst into life. "This is Jean. Magneto is down. I repeat, Magneto is down."

That clinical part took over, raised the handpiece. "Cyclops here: pull out, regroup at the Blackbird." And he flicked the frequency, spoke again. "X-Men mission completed."

A pause, and then a business-like voice returned: "Copy that. You have ten minutes to withdraw."

"X-Men out."

* * * * *

"Out," Jean ordered, quietly but firmly. "You've been here all night. Go upstairs, get something to eat, a breath of fresh air, and then you can come back."

Scott shook his head, slid a hand up underneath his glasses to rub at tired eyes. It had been hours - long, long hours - since he'd sat down here. His panic seemed to have melted, leaving a dull, quiet ache in his head. He was so tired, but somehow almost at peace. Almost.

Once the glasses were safely resettled, he looked up at Jean. She looked as tired, as drained, as he felt. Her best friend too. Jean laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I'll go in-"

Then it happened. A breath out of place in the previously unchanging rhythm. A twitch of her hand as it lay on the blanket. It hi-jacked their attention instantly, and they waited a dozen anxious seconds before her eyelids fluttered open. Blue eyes focussed, and Ororo smiled.

Scott smiled back.

* * * * *

She turned back to him, took his hand and drew him forward, into the circle of moonlight with her. His panic settled as swiftly as it had risen as he looked into her eyes. He felt her eyes more than her hand, tracing lightly down his cheek. He was wrapped in the deep serenity of that dark gaze. He could stay there forever, safe and warm.

"I love you." Barely a breath on the wind, but she knew the wind, was the wind, leaned forward and took the breath from his lips with hers, so tender and gentle.

"And I love you."

Scott had a dream, a wish, a prayer.

It was answered.

And now he had the world.

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