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The Death of the Hired Man
Chapter 3

DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are
used without permission for entertainment purposes only.

Rating note: For the whole series, I'm going to say R/NC17, as I tend to wander into sexual situations. Don't expect a "sex story" though ... that's always a sideline for me, a compliment to the emotional balance of the story as necessary, rather than a primary attraction. Still, the majority will be in the PG range, and I'll make those questionable areas "skippable" and well mark them if you'd rather bypass them ... they won't be "necessary" to read the story.

When the call came in that it had all gone to Hell, Scott and his team were ready to roll. He and Remy piloted the Blackbird, while Kurt, Kitty, and Jubilee awaited instructions in the back of the jet.

Scott had mixed feelings about taking the younger team members, but he knew that they would need all the help they could get. He'd even asked Kate to suit up for the mission, and had been stunned speechless when she'd refused outright. Even the brief argument he'd offered couldn't change her mind, and he purely hadn't had time for more persuasion.

In retrospect, he had to admit that it made sense to keep a physician back at the mansion. More than once both Jean and Hank had been hurt on missions and it had been a mess trying to get them medical care. Still, logic aside, he would have been more comfortable with someone along who could gauge the uncertain emotions of their enemy.

The altercation had begun simply enough, which was why the professor had wanted to keep it as low-key as possible. An isolated branch of the Friends of Humanity had found and invaded a small orphanage that had been set up to provide a home for unwanted mutant children. Because the potential for injury to those children was so high, they'd planned to get in and get the kids, then get out, with a minimum of fuss. They'd hoped to do it before the zealots figured out that the X-men were even aware of the situation.

Unfortunately, the situation had become deadly in a hurry. When the soldiers decided that they would begin sacrificing children for the media, and had proceeded to demonstrate, Logan had intervened. Scott would have done the same thing.

The problem of having only half the team in attendance proved to be their undoing. This, and the fact that children make effective hostages. While one had been saved from a horrible death, the orphanage held more than a dozen other children that ranged from birth to fourteen. Each of the mutants was obvious, although not able to defend themselves in any way. These were the rare mutations, the ones that were physically apparent from birth. They were the children that had the hardest time, even though they were the most innocent.

There simply hadn't been enough hands to evacuate the children once the fighting started. The result had been a defensive stance in the basement of the orphanage, and they couldn't hold off the soldiers indefinitely.

The team hadn't even been able to get back to a radio to contact help. Instead, Scott had received a cry for help at the same time that the Professor became aware of the situation. Jean had screamed in pain, although Scott still wasn't sure if the pain was mental, emotional, or physical. But the dull throb of it was still there in his head, so Scott feared the worst.

Scott had felt the cry, and had sent the team to the Blackbird before he'd even received the Professor's command to do so. That had been less than fifteen minutes ago. Two minutes to ask Kate to come, three minutes to prep, six minutes to fly to the landing site, and another 3 minutes to land and secure the jet. They had done this a thousand times in simulation, even his youngest team members were well-trained, and yet Scott was still uneasy about the situation.

Seeing the scene around the orphanage did nothing to ease his mind. The soldiers had effectively demolished the single-story building with weaponry. While the walls were still standing, there were more holes in them than in a piece of Swiss cheese. Some were bullet holes, but the majority of them were larger. Bombs, grenades, and shrapnel had done the majority of this damage, he realized.

The bystanders had done nothing to stop it, at least nothing that Scott could identify. They huddled around the edges of the perimeter that the soldiers had set up, watching even in their fear. There were no police in attendance, but he hadn't expected that. Amazing how the Law could ignore brutality when it was directed towards a minority group. He shook his head at the senseless interest in destruction that was evident even now. The crowd gaped at the team, dressed in black and rapidly approaching the perimeter, but they didn't take the opportunity to leave.

The soldiers were another matter. Dressed to the hilt in camouflage uniforms, sporting the latest military weaponry, only the previous media coverage made their true identity as FoH Terrorists known. The press had since moved back to safer ground, as the story of killing mutant children was so weak in their field of interest. If anyone had cared about the children, they wouldn't have been here in the first place. The soldiers were still standing, and ready for action.

There was a huge part of Scott that just wanted to blast the bastards. He knew they were misguided, as frightened as he was regarding the changes in human genetics. He also knew that they had attacked innocent children only because they were different. It took all of his control, and every moment of the Professor's tutelage to keep him centered. There were innocent bystanders, or at least "not guilty" bystanders. There were children as well as his team still beneath the building, as well as a few staff members most likely. This had to be done carefully.

"Step away from the building," he called out, his voice carrying the authority that he'd been taught for the last fifteen years. "This is private property and you are not welcome."

"Try to move us, Mutie, and you see what happens."

Scott gauged the man's voice and almost smiled. There was no certainty there, only bravado. He imagined that Storm's team had made quite an impression on their way to the basement, even though they had been cut off from retreat. "You've already lost this," Scott called out firmly. "You know it and I know it. Just clear out so no one else gets hurt."

"Not gonna happen, you freak," the soldier called.

Scott saw the guns rising, yelled a single command to his team, and then proceeded to take out the soldiers one by one with his visor. In his peripheral vision he saw Jubilee's fireworks exploding, saw Kurt leap up to slam two unsuspecting soldiers together, and saw Remy take out half a dozen more with flying cards. He focused his attention on methodically taking down the enemy, injuring rather than killing. He was pleased to see that his team was doing the same.

They'd discussed their rolls on the jet. Given the explosive nature of their gifts, they would be able to take out the two dozen soldiers quickly and with a minimum of fuss. He, Remy, Jubilee, and Kurt were the distraction, and Kitty was the cavalry. A quick glance towards the building showed the she was already slipping past a wall. She would be the most likely to make it past the barriers, though any closed doors, and inform Storm's team of the situation.

Scott sent out a mental yell, a call to Jean that all was under control, and prayed that she received it. He had gotten nothing from her since the initial scream of pain, and that worried him more than he would allow himself to acknowledge. He had a team to lead. *Kitty's on the way,* he forced out mentally. *I love you, Jean.*

It took them longer to clear the area of soldiers than he'd expected. In fact, it was almost twenty minutes before the last one fell. It would have been faster to have killed them, he knew, but that wasn't the way the X-men did business. Still, Scott was satisfied when he looked around the yard and saw that not a single man was standing. The bystanders had finally gotten wise and left the immediate area, and there was no police intervention at all, which angered Scott at a very deep level. Still, he was satisfied as he looked around to see his four team members converging on the building in relative safety. All they had to do now was get their friends, their family, home.

* * *

Kathleen watched the video monitor with mixed feelings. She was worried, she was proud, and she was incredibly guilty.

Scott had reluctantly told her to stay in the war room and keep an eye on the cameras that the Blackbird kept rolling automatically. She was able to direct them by remote, and as long as they were in range of the Blackbird she was able to see all that happened. It was rather like being there, only without the danger. That explained the guilt.

The team moved well, worked in tandem as though they did this kind of thing every day. In truth, they did. She knew that. One element of living here that she hadn't missed was the daily practice in the Danger Room.

She saw Scott address the apparent leader of the group, saw the rest of the team take up defensive positions, and then she saw it all explode. They moved quickly, efficiently. God, they were good! Scott had told her to watch for injuries so that she had the infirmary ready upon their return, but she didn't see any of them injured. No one laid a hand on them. They leapt clear of weapon fire, dodged grenades, and protected one another fiercely.

There was a spark of memory that nagged her, but she didn't give it reign until after she saw the last soldier fall. They *did* protect one another. Still, she was envious of the way they all defended one another. She smiled as Remy tackled a soldier that had a weapon raised to Scott's back, and she squeezed her eyes shut as Scott lifted Kurt to the side in order to blast a soldier that was about to smash him with the butt of his weapon. More than once Jubilee was rescued by either Remy's bow or Kurt's agility. Each had his weak point, and they knew one another well enough to defend as well as attack.

There had been a time when she had wanted to fight with them. She'd willingly joined the team just before she'd achieved her high school diploma. She'd trained faithfully, and she'd really wanted to help, but even in the Danger Room she'd known that she was a weak link. Kathleen was simply not designed for fighting.

Still, she had trained harder, worked on her balance and strength, and even learned to fire a weapon. The result had been Scott deciding to take her on a couple of missions. For the most part, it had all been harmless. Jean had encouraged her, as had Warren, and though she'd stayed in the Blackbird she'd felt a part. The last mission had gone differently, though.

She had stayed behind, as usual, but when Jean had gone down she had felt compelled to join the fight. She got verbal approval from Scott over the communicator, and left the safety of the jet. That had been the last she remembered.

They had been battling the Brotherhood of Mutants, and one of Magneto's minions had grabbed her as she left the jet. She'd been unconscious before she knew she was in danger. After Warren had managed to get Jean back to the Blackbird, and realized that Kathleen was gone, he'd called for help. Hank and Ororo had both tracked her, but it had been Scott who'd taken down Toad to get her back. She never knew the risks they had taken until she'd been safely back at the mansion, lying on an exam table next to Jean.

They'd both been okay. Jean's wounds had healed, as had Kathleen's mild concussion, and they'd been back to normal within the week. Kathleen had not, however, been back in training. All the arguments in the world hadn't persuaded her, and they had all used their share. Scott had reminded her of her duty to the team, Warren had emphasized the glory of a successful mission, Hank had reassured her that each of them had needed defense on occasion, and Ororo had reminded her that the more they trained, the less likely it would be to repeat the incident. Only Jean had listened. She'd cried with her, reluctantly agreed, and finally explained it to the others. Kathleen would *not* be a liability.

There had been a level of tension after that. Within the year, Kathleen had been unable to take the discomfort and she had gone to the Professor to request her education in a traditional university. He'd helped her with strengthening her mental shields, given her blessing, and paid the tuition. She owed him everything.

She owed him her education, her sanity, and even her home. And still, she sat in front of a monitor watching the action instead of helping. He'd never condemned her decision not to fight, had known that she shared his dream even if she lacked the strength to do battle. She knew by empathy, if by no other way, that he shared her feelings. He, too, wanted to be a part of the battle. He was, as she was, unwilling to put the team in danger because of his handicap. He, the most powerful Psi in the world, arguably the most powerful mutant in the world, felt that he was just as much a liability as Kathleen knew she was.

He did his part. He provided the dream, the funding, the training, and the support. He gave mental assistance and guidance. Charles Xavier did not, however, go on away missions. Even though he could pilot the Blackbird better than Scott. Even through he could change the tone of a battle with a thought. His place was here, in support and love. Kathleen couldn't help but wonder if her place was the same.

With a sigh of relief, Kathleen saw Kitty reemerge from the building carrying a small child. She was followed by Kurt, then by Jean. Each carried a child or two, and they were heading back towards the cameras, the Blackbird.

Kathleen watched the monitor closely, looking for any apparent injuries that she should be prepared for. She hadn't been a great deal of help as of yet, but that might change. If they needed her when they returned, she was bound and determined to be ready. Then she saw Logan emerge, carrying Ororo, and her heart plummeted.

* * *

Jean shivered as she felt Scott's presence. Straining, she managed to readjust the shield that protected them all from the worst of the cold, but her success was limited. It took all her concentration to protect them all from the ice-barrier that Bobby had put in place when the explosions overhead and smell of smoke had convinced them that the soldiers were just crazy enough to burn them all alive.

Children cried around her, the temperature was in the forties or fifties, and yet this wasn't what was bothering her the most. What worried her, terrified her, was that Ororo was losing it. Her phobia was shredding her thoughts, and in turn that was destroying Jean's concentration.

Logan sat a few feet away with the woman in his arms. He rocked her, spoke quietly to her, but she didn't respond. Jean had been far less worried when she had first heard Ororo's sobs a few moments after Bobby had iced them in. Now, she was completely incoherent. If it weren't for Logan's movement, his soft voice in the background, she would have wondered if Ro was still alive.

It seemed like forever before the sounds of battle stopped. She felt Scott's mind brush hers, but she was too intent on her sheilding to understand what he was sending her. Just then, Kitty dropped from the ceiling and held her crouched position.

Rogue was the first to move forward, shifting a couple of chilly children off her lap to do so. "What's the status?" she asked as she quickly hugged Kitty.

"Under control," Kitty reported with a smile. "How about here? Any injuries."

"Just Ms. Munroe," Rogue reported with a nod in that direction.

"How badly is she hurt?" Kitty asked. "What happened to her?"

"Claustrophobia," Bobby said simply. He glanced over to her himself, worry evident on his face. "She can't take closed-in places at all. She was okay until I iced us in, but we were afraid they were going to burn us out."

"It looks like they tried," Kitty said softly. "There's not much standing upstairs except for beams and what's left of the outer walls."

"I'm scared," said a tiny voice. Kitty looked down and saw a little girl, maybe three or four if her size was an indication. She had a dark bluish skin and eyes that were set far too far apart so that she saw to the sides, rather than straight ahead.

Kitty reached down and lifted the child into her arms. "It's okay, Sweetie," she said as she kissed the child's cheek. "We'll be out of here in no time. All the bad-guys will be gone in a few minutes."

"I'm cold," the child complained.

"I'll warm you up," Kitty smiled, sitting down on the cold floor and wrapping her arms around the little girl. "We'll keep each other warm."

"I could start the thaw," Bobby offered. "If you're sure that fire isn't a danger anymore."

"No," Jean said. Her voice was stilted, shivering. Her concentration was clearly elsewhere. "Wet, cold," she stuttered. "Don't know how long."

"She's right," Kitty agreed. "If it thaws we'll all be wet, and we don't know how long we'll be here. It's better to wait until Scott blasts us out, that way we stay dry."

Jean nodded, her eyes still unfocused, distant.

Kitty looked around their shelter, a room barely twenty feet by ten, and knew why Ms. Munroe was having so much trouble. She wasn't claustrophobic, but even she felt the lack of air. Most of that was probably due to the lenght of time they'd been down here, and the seal that the ice and psi-shield created. "It won't be long," she told the child in her arms.

* * *

Remy had grumbled when Scott told him to stay outside and guard their backs as they went inside. In a rare act of capitulation, the team leader had changed his mind and let Remy lead the team into the orphanage. Surprised but grateful, Remy led Jubilee and Kurt into the building.

The inside of the building was gutted. Aside from the abused outer walls, there was essentially nothing here. Signs of fire were everywhere, mostly obscured behind melting sheets of ice. Bobby had been busy. There were bodies as well, burned and charred, and none showing any signs of life. He'd seen worse, of course, but he still tried not to think about it as he headed towards the back of the house where they assumed the entrance to the basement would be.

They found the trap door beneath the kitchen table. While it was clearly not designed for convenience, neither was it concealed. Remy wondered why they'd have a "secret doorway" and not bother to hide it. Shoving the thought aside, he called out. "We're here, so don't be freezin' Gambit when he comes down."

Kurt stepped up behind Remy and noted that there was ice securing the trap door. "Let me go in to make sure they are out of the way," he offered. "Like Kitty."

Remy didn't relish the idea of ice exploding into children, so he nodded. "Good idea."

Kurt wasted no time, disappearing with a puff of smoke. A moment later, Remy's communicator went off. "We are ready," Kurt's voice said.

Remy took a deep breath and hoped that no one was in the way. He'd seen enough death for one day. Placing his hand on the wooden door, he concentrated and it began to glow.

* * *

When Kurt had appeared in their midst, half of the children had laughed and the rest had cowered. Such was the situation when fuzzy blue people popped out of the air. Still, they listened and followed directions, moving to the far side of the tiny room and away from the trapdoor.

Logan had some difficulty moving, as Ororo was clinging to him for dear life. Jean had little more success, finally being physically assisted by Kurt. She was chilled, shaking, from both exertion and cold. She had some difficulty dropping the shield she'd created to protect them from the worst of the cold, but little in recreating a smaller, denser shield to protect them from the ice and wood that would soon be bombarding them.

Kurt radioed Remy as soon as they were prepared, and within seconds the doorway above exploded in a surprisingly mild "pop". There were a few chunks of ice, mostly large ones, that fell directly down. As soon as Remy dropped through the opening, Jean gave up her shield with a sigh.

Immediately her mind was bombarded with Scott's and Xavier's attempts to reach her. *I'm okay,* she sent back. *I'm cold and out of breath, but we're okay. None of the children are hurt.*

With her mind finally relaxing, and the warm air coming from above, Jean finally allowed her concern for Ro to become evident. "Get her out first," she told Logan firmly. "Outside and into the sunlight, if you can."

With a nod to Jean, Bobby set the ladder up against the opening in the ceiling and helped the older man to stand and arrange Ororo on one shoulder. Carrying her fireman style, he lifted her from the tiny room.

Bobby had secured the ladder with a bit of ice, then climbed about two-thirds of the way up. Jubilee followed his lead, taking the lower third of the ladder. Jean was finally feeling stronger, so she began helping Rogue to collect the children and pass them to Jubilee. In assembly line fashion, they passed the children up into the daylight and then climbed the ladder themselves.

Remy had already closed off the doors to conceal the bodies. As he had feared, not a single one was alive. They'd given their lives to protect the children, to protect those that could not protect themselves. The X-men, he knew, would see that they were remembered with honor for that.

When Rogue came up the ladder, an infant in one arm, he took the opportunity to grab a handful of hair give her a firm, one armed hug. "Good to see you, Chere," he said softly.

"You're not so bad yourself," she smiled. He moved back then, reaching down to lift two of the children that he'd previously deposited on the floor a safe distance away from the opening to the basement.

Logan was still holding Storm, kneeling over near a wall that almost wasn't. The sunlight streamed in, bathing her face, but she still wasn't responding. Logan spoke to her, rubbed her face gently, and shook her. Still, she showed no response. She was somewhere else, somewhere away from tiny spaces, and she wasn't ready to come back. "I don't want to put her in the Blackbird," Logan said simply.

"Take the Hummer," Scott said from the doorway. "Someone has to drive it back, anyway. You're right. If she comes to in the Blackbird, she might panic again."

Logan nodded, and lifted the thin woman into his arms. He settled her comfortably, her head on his shoulder, his arms behind her back and beneath her knees, and headed for the front door with his charge.

Jean lifted her eyes to Scott's visor. "You okay?" she asked. Just the fact that she used her voice, rather than her mind, showed how tired she was.

"Better, now," he said. He glanced around, saw that no one was paying them any attention, and moved in to place a quick kiss on her lips. It was fast, but it held all the fear and love that he had felt for her during the long day. "I love you," he told her.

"I love you too," she smiled, caressing his cheek quickly. She knew he wouldn't want to be caught publicly demonstrating affection. Glancing over at the sunlight she smiled. "It isn't even lunch time." Scott smiled back, reassured that she had picked up his thoughts.

The moment passed quickly as some of the older children approached them. Each carried or held the hand of a smaller child. "Where will we go," one asked. "We were here because there was no place..."

"With us," Scott said simply. "To a place where no one would dare try something like this again."

"Do you promise?" The boy was thin, and there was fear in his eyes. His arms were thicker than they should have been to match the rest of him, his hands larger, and already there was a shadow of a beard on his face.

Scott watched, remembered his own time spend in orphanages and homes. He remembered the fear, the uncertainty once his mutation began. He remembered wondering if there would ever be a place that was his, a place he belonged, a place like everyone else had.

Scott knelt down and placed a hand on the boy's arm, knowing he was too old and to tough for a hug, or so the child would believe. "I promise," he told him. "We're taking you home."

Chapter 4

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