Continued from yesterday:
Scott was slightly unnerved by the presence of Todd in the back seat, but he gritted his teeth and put up with it, much the same as Jean put up with the slight over-crowding of the car. It was over soon enough, with various passengers leaping, bamfing and phasing out as quickly as they could.
“Treefrog,” said Logan, by way of greeting.
“Where’s Sara? Is she okay? Does she need anyth–"
"You’re here!” Sara’s shout was jubillant as she sped out of the front doors. She’d changed into some old, love-worn clothes that did nothing for her lanky figure. “You'rehere, you'rehere, you'rehere, you'rehere!” She had, Jean observed, also lost the old layer of skin that had made her less than attractive. The new scales, appearing from a distance to be a shade of aqua, shone in the sunlight like gems. Sara scooped him up in a bear-hug. “You’re *here*…"
Todd laughed in her arms and hugged right back. "Yeah, I’m here,” he snuggled his head into her shoulder. “Missed you, too.” His feet were dangling off the ground and he gave every sign that he didn’t care.
Jean felt more than a stab of jealousy for a relationship like that. For all her popularity… nobody *missed* her in that kind of way.
The moment was ruined by Logan. “Tallwater… put the Frogboy down. He’s here to work, this time."
Mutual sighs of anguish. "Sorry, love,” Sara kissed him and released him.
“Yeah,” said Todd.
“Knock ‘em dead, Sir Leapsalot,” Sara grinned.
He saluted. “Yes’m."
Well. If there was one person who knew the most about Sara Louise Adrien, it was the girl herself.
"Hi,” she said. “The Professor’s had me researching you,” she began. “Finding out what’s true and what isn’t."
"Ah,” said Sara. “I bet that’s been educational."
"I made the mistake of interviewing *Janine*."
"In that case, ludicrously educational,” said Sara. “Let’s find a place away from everything and open the floor. I trust I won’t be quoted out of context?"
"After the way your *life’s* been taken out of context?” Jean shook her head. “No way."
They strolled together until Sara found a sun-warmed bench in a small, isolated flower patch. One of Ororo’s little conversation-nooks.
"Having spent–” What was it? A subjective eternity? “–six to seven hours listening to the things going around about you - I have to ask. How the hell do you *stand* it?"
Sara chuckled. A warm, *real* sound. Not like Jean’s forced Party Laughs. "There is a subtle distinction between honour and reputation,” she quoted. “Honour is what you know about yourself. Reputation is merely what others *think* they know about you. Sometimes, you can even use reputation against those who would hurt you with it.” Sara smiled. “Lois McMasters Bujold, _A Civil Campaign_. More or less."
"Has that actually *helped*?"
"Not– not a lot, no.” Sara twitched. “After the shedding, the Professor, Ororo, Dr. McCoy and Logan have all been assisting me with a catharsis regime… one that won’t set off any episodes of manifestation sickness. That helped somewhat more. Being a mutant is more complicated than I thought."
"Try having other people’s migranes, sometime,” said Jean, wry.
“Try feeling every weave and pigment in your clothing,” Sara countered.
Only now did she notice that Sara was very careful about touching things, and kept clothing between almost everything that -well- wasn’t her. “I’m still getting used to the influx of information. The Professor helped *infinitely*, there…"
Oh yes. That was what Professor Xavier was good at. He could help lock or unlock whatever a student needed, aid them in finding - whatever it was that helped them find some fragment of peace.
"Back on track,” Jean said, more to herself than to Sara. “The daily locker rat… what the hell is *up* with that thing?"
"I only have theories, alas. It’s one person’s idea of a joke… or it’s several people’s idea of a joke. I think , though, given the variety of rats, that it’s more likely to be one person. A test, perhaps. How long can Adrien - or Essel, of that matter - put up with a verminous corpse? I’ve yet to spy anybody observing, alas, so perhaps it’s all imagination after the -ah- package has been delivered."
"Todd was trying to watch your locker, today,” said Jean. “I… wasn’t paying much attention, but - I think he was trying to solve that mystery for you."
"Aaawwww… Sweet of him.” Sara blushed.
“Okay. So. Why the heck do you hang out with Janine?"
"Hm. You know - I think we were both kind-of waiting until something better came along. She’s going to be most vexed when she finds out I got there first."
"You’re planning to abandon her?” _Okay, that sounded eager to the degree of wanting to sell tickets…_
“No. Never. I was planning to wake her from her dream. Harsh, yes. Cruel, certainly. Necessary… to the extreme. I can *not* let her persist without suffering my conscience gnawing into my soul."
That was poetic as all hell… _Poetic or not, I still want to sell tickets to the show._
A place as large as the Institute has plenty of grunt-work that absolutely *nobody* wanted to do. Most of it, in fact, had to be forced with a set of rosters. There was even a whiteboard with magnetic name tags in one of the hallways, some with post-it notes concerning trades and swaps.
Todd got the bottom-level stuff that was reserved for punishment detail, like tipping the contents of biohazard bins into the furnace. Or lugging wet laundry into the industrial-grade dryers. Or sorting out the layers of accumulated crap in any given basement. Or sweeping up the great clouds of dust from those very same basements and taking them to the trash.
It was when he was mopping up the Danger Room that his career changed forever.
Logan, who’d just broken something by accident, was halfway in its guts and swearing vehemently in several languages at once. He emerged. "Treefrog. Over here an’ hold th’ flashlight, willya?"
Todd was only too glad to abandon the mop. He held the light steady and peered into the cavernous depths of the mechanics and circuitry. "Looks like some o’ that solder ain’t too hot,” he said. “An’ one o’ yer cams has shifted."
Logan was *extremely* pissed when he emerged this time. "Think you can do better? Go ahead."
Todd wriggled into the small space and shifted the cam back to where it belonged. "Yo, I need a three-eighths gripley."
Logan passed the tiny thing, and Todd slotted it into place.
"Cool,” he investigated the wiring. “I’m'a need some solder an’ a solderin’ iron."
"Already got it warmin’ up.” Logan handed over more soldering wire than Todd knew what to do with. “How in hell you know this stuff, Treefrog?"
_Do you,_ corrected the echo of Sara. Todd shrugged. "It just… Idunno… feels like the right way.” He fixed the soldering and bound the join with electrical tape. He left the interior and replaced the borrowed equipment. “Fire it up,” he suggested. “See if it works, yo."
Logan put a panel back on and flicked a switch. The machinery whirred into life, unfolding and maneouvering as it should. Logan flicked another switch and it folded back up and slid out of sight. "Not bad,” he said.
“Mebbe it’s a knack or somethin’,” he said.
“Time to find out,” Logan took off another panel that revealed a narrow ladder. “Follow me an’ bring the stuff."
Below the Danger Room was a veritable labyrinth of machinery and wires. Logan danced around the stuff like he’d been born in it. Todd faked it by hopping from surface to surface.
The neglected part stood out from all the others. Todd didn’t know how he knew, since it was clean and oiled, but - he had no other words - it *smelled* of disuse.
"Haven’t been able to get it to raise right since Sparky fried it last week,” said Logan. “Pro repair job’d be worth seven hundred, minimum."
Ah. So this was the *challenge*.
Sara relaxed upside-down on the couch, watching something animated on the Foreign Language Chanel. Her arms were sprawled out perpendicular to her body and her feet dangled like lead weights in the air.
All the same, that posture did a lot to relax her.
She was body-tired, but her brain was still wide-awake. All that Ororo’s hot milk concoction had done was ease her into that peculiar daydream realm where memory eluded one and the fantastic creatures from the back of the mind flickered in and out of her awareness.
Watching the foreign cartoon did a lot to distract her from her childhood phantasms.
There was a kid in the room. Ten, maybe eleven at a stretch. Small for his age, regardless. He was creeping slowly towards her in that foot-shifting walk of the extremely reluctant to investigate.
"Hey?” he said.
“Hay is for horses,” Sara muttered, possibly on automatic.
The boy turned towards the door. “She’s not dead, guys!"
Sara had to laugh. "I do beg your pardon… but if I was dead, I’m sure I’d fall off."
"Um. Are you that new kid?” said the boy.
“Have you seen me around before?"
"Are you accustomed to sharing your training regimes with me?"
"Then I must be new. I *feel* fabulously old at the moment. A side-effect, no doubt, of lurching about the grounds for three hours with weights on my wrists and ankles. Sara Louise Adrien, please forgive the lack of civil motion. You are?"
"Um. Jamie. Jamie Madrox.” He scratched his arm. “I - kinda multiply."
Sara summoned a blink. "Three hundred and forty-seven times fifty-eight?"
"Not that kind of multiplication, then,” Sara smiled. “The answer, if you wish to know, is twenty thousand, one hundred and twenty-six."
The boy looked shocked. "It is?"
"Wow. Izzat your mutant power?"
"No. I tend to blend.” Sara relaxed her control for a minute and felt her skin match the fabric of the couch. Re-exerting control was too much to ask her tired body at the moment.
“*COOOL*!” He clapped, and then there were four of him before he stopped himself. “Oops.” A moment’s concentration, and they merged into one. “Um. Why can’t you do your clothes?"
"They’re not a part of me, of course. Apparently, I’m on the bottom rung of the shapeshifter scale, and then only because my skin changes shape when I blend."
"Whoah. Can you do paisly?"
"Possibly…” she sighed. “I’m worn a little thin at the moment, alas. I’d actually need to touch some."
"You look whipped,” said Jamie. “Do you need anything?"
"Possibly a four-course hot meal. Plenty of carbs and protein, regardless."
"Um. I’m not exactly allowed to do stuff in the kitchen, yet. I keep bumping into things."
"Oh botheration,” said Sara.
Others sidled into Sara’s view. “Hi, I’m Bobby,” said the boy who knew nothing about vinyl. “Better known as Iceman.” He formed an ice skink on his open hand. “Pretty cool if I do say so myself."
"Pardon me if I don’t get frosty about your lame pun,” punned Sara.
“Euw. Don’t encourage him. He’ll go on all day,” an asian girl swatted Bobby on the arm. “Jubilation Lee."
"Patriotic parents?” Sara guessed. “With a near-terminal attack of cuteness?"
"Bingo.” She grinned. “What’s your excuse?"
"The initials are hereditary,” said Sara. “First-born are afflicted with them."
"Logan got you on the limb weights, anh?” said a tall fellow with punkish hair. “He usually waits a week."
"My fault for getting bored. Would I be incorrect in guessing you’re the infamous Ray Crisp? The fellow who shorts electronics? Better known as 'Sparky’?"
"Hey, how’d you know?” said Ray.
Sara grinned. “I’ve been warned - fourfold, mind - not to shake your hand."
"Bus-ted,” sang Jubilation.
“Howdy,” said a tall blond fellow who just about personified the phrase 'southern hick’. “Sam Guthrie. Aka Cannonball."
"I’d make a hideous pun, but someone’s bound to go ballistic."
Sara grinned. Now *that* was a pun well spent.
The remaining individual, someone of vaguely polenesian extraction, sashayed forward. The way she held herself indicated that she was only slumming with the other proles because she had little better to actually do. "I, of course, am Princess Amara Juliana Olivians Aquilla of the Empire of Nova Roma.” She extended a hand, palm down and fingers slightly curled. “You may kiss my ring."
Her act was in no way helped by the chorus of unflattering imitations behind her back. Ray, she couldn’t help noticing, mouthed the words 'hairy nutsack’ instead of 'ring’. Thank goodness she was too body-tired to blush.
"Your Highness, I have had a very long and very tiring day. The only thing I plan on kissing in the near future is my best-beloved… for which I am saving up *all* my energy.” _Besides, I was warned fourfold about you, too._ “Correct me if I’m erroneous, but didn’t the Professor strictly stress that *all* students were equal in this establishment?"
Amara favoured her with an icy glare of doom. "Thank you for rubbing my nose in that,” the glare said. “Expect revenge at my earliest convenience.” Aloud, however, sniffed. “Hmph,” she turned. “Obviously another peasant *far* below my social standing.” She swanned out of the room.
“She really *is* a princess,” said Jamie. “It’s this little island kingdom nobody’s heard much about. She is getting better, but."
"The mind boggles,” said Sara.
Upstairs, Jean had just finished picking a lock. It was just research, she told herself. The things we hide from others are more important than the things we put on display. Especially the things we put on display, Jean amended.
With that in mind, she opened Sara’s lost hope chest.
Something rattled, scaring Jean half out of her skin. It was only one of those ball-bearing clocks, now active on Sara’s shelves. Half a second after the rattling stopped a tchotchke-curio clock began a tinkly version of _Ach Du Liebe Augustine_ and stopped partway through. A quarter past the hour.
Jean remembered to breathe and opened the chest again.
A studio photograph of Sara and a tall, sandy-blond fellow who just *had* to be her father. It wasn’t quite a year old. There was also a photo from the same studio of her mother, looking stunningly angelic for the camera.
Underneath that was a photo album. Ameteur snaps of life in general. No. Not *quite*. These were the images that were edited from the public photo albums.
Most of them contained Sara. Or edges of Sara.
There were books, most of them written in code. Some had phenomenally intriguing illustrations and cramped notes in writing so tiny that Jean had to squint to discern that it, too, was in code.
They all had dates marking the inception and completion of each journal.
The earliest ones were scrapbooks, written in the careful writing of a person just getting the hang of their letters. Photographs, art, glitter and coloured things all crowded the pages for attention.
Until Sara turned around five. There were hospital bracelets with her mother’s name on them, and pressed flowers from get-better bouquets, all interspersed with the usual beauty-contest furforal of the previous early journals. Sara’s sixth birthday was marked with a tooth taped to the page, a birthday cake and intricate paper snowflakes sprinkled with glitter. Soon after that was a final pageant entry featuring Sara - starting to get gawky - in a pseudo-military get-up and the words to the Modern Major General.
There were some tabulations on entrants’ scores, and a page full of the word 'Why’ and a lot of question marks.
Sara had done her math right. She should have won. But she lost.
Immediately after that was a newspaper clipping Jean didn’t even remember. An inter-school choir for some kind of charity.
Jean’s young, smiling face had been circled.
Sara’s had not, yet she stood out from her age-mates by being a head and shoulder above them.
Twenty pages after this were dedicated to articles about Jean Grey, highlighted phrases and the written words, “study, study, study” over and over again.
They stopped when some newspaper mentioned Jean’s height.
Sara, two years her junior, was already an inch taller.
Jean closed the book and found the box. It was a dress from an exclusive and expensive clothiers.
Jean opened it.
On top of the tissue paper was a bundle of letters tied with a red ribbon, and then tied again with a black one. Jean put those aside. She might be terminally nosy, but she was never rude enough to read someone else’s personal *mail*. That was just plain wrong.
Inside the tissue was a simply gorgeous red dress. The fabric put Jean in mind of autumn leaves and burning embers. She didn’t unfold it to see what cut it was. Some things were just better left alone.
There were, however, two pieces of paper with the dress.
One was a newspaper clipping. It was one of those columns of little articles that newspapers had to print, but didn’t know what to do with.
One paragraph was circled.
_15YO attacked on Prom Nite,_ read the title. _A young high school girl was pelted with street debris and dog feces, last night. Witnesses at the scene state that she was waiting for her Prom date on the corner of Twelfth and Main when a rented limousine drove by, and several young men pelted her with organic waste. The girl, name withheld for privacy, has yet to press charges, even though she has stated that she knew her attackers._
The second piece of paper was the cleaning bill, on which Sara had added, 'not worth it’ in red ink.
Jean sincerely *hoped* it was red ink.
“If you wanted to know the story, all you had to do was ask,” said Sara.
Jean looked up. She was standing right next to her. “I can explain,” she said.
“I certainly hope you can.”