Sara looked a lot younger when she was asleep.
They'd had to improvise with her restraints, owing to the fact that there was no way the traditional arrangements would have worked. Her injuries covered her left arm and a swath of skin along her back. Hardly up to the standard of a typical second-degree burn in a human, Sara's injuries were much worse for her because her epidermis was alive.
He'd made himself listen to Hank's lecture on her skin.
How each 'scale' was actually a cluster of nerves, pigment cells, and muscles intricately woven together into a tiny, neat package.
None of them were larger than a freckle.
Sara herself had told Hank that her skin was amazingly informative. Every touch was like gathering a novel's worth of information on the head of a pin.
Small wonder, then, that her brain was wired to process large amounts of data at phenominal speed. Otherwise, she'd match Avery in terms of not keeping up with events.
And also small wonder that she was currently asleep under the influence of pain medication. Even first-degree burns - the majority of her most recent injuries - would be agony for her.
Hank's newest formula, a mixture of acetominophen and antihistamine, had her numbed to the pain without making her loopy. And since she was largely unconscious, that meant a reduced likelyhood of further seizures.
Unfortunately, when she was *awake*... she was in the high risk zone. They needed her awake so she could eat, and to answer the obvious medical questions. The obvious compromise, to keep her *just* medicated enough to relieve discomfort, yet have her awake enough to be aware, was a very thin line to balance on.
Sara should be coming back 'up' from her drug-induced stupor any minute, now. Scott nuked a small serving of nutritious broth for her while Hank re-dosed her injured skin with silverzine.
Just in time. "Can't let you out of the restraints," he reminded her. "If you have a seizure without them, you could aggravate your injuries." Sara blinked, still halfway 'under'. "Really did it t' m'self th's time," she mumbled. "What'll I do f'r an encore?"
The exchange had been exactly the same almost every time she awoke. Except the first few, when he established the correct pattern.
"I hope you won't *need* to have an encore," he said, doling out a spoonful of broth for her. "We'd actually like you to go through twenty-four hours *without* coming in here, you know."
A wise-ass smile. "I'm not my best when I'm worried about those I love," she murmured, accepting more soup. "And lately, I'm worse when I get cold."
"I know," he said. "I should have kept an eye on you."
Sara winced. "I seem to recall... mutual bouts of nausea..."
Scott froze, staring at the all-too-familliar face at the infirmary door. "What's *he* doing here?"
"Wouldn't you?" said Kurt. "In the same situation?"
If, by some miracle, Jean turned up in some hospital... he'd move heaven and earth to get to her. But this wasn't about him and Jean.
"We had an arrangement," he put the soup down as he stood. "It hasn't even been four days."
The Toad looked dishevelled. Gone was the cocky and arrogant warrior. "Please," he said. "I'll do anything you say. Just ten minutes. Ten little minutes. Just a little time with 'er. Please. She needs me. I... I can 'elp. Five minutes? Five minutes... I'll fix all th' plumbin'. I'll supercharge yer cars. I'll fix anythin' you like. Anythin'. Just a coupla minutes. I can help... Just let me help? You want a pound o' flesh? Name the fuckin' cut."
Sara whimpered and hissed.
Toad bit his lip and danced in agitation, torn between the want to get close to her, and the arrangement they had. He could clearly see the irritated flesh, each spot of a scale blinking in pain. "I can help her. Please. Just let me help her..."
A tiny noise.
"For God's fucking *sake*... she's in *pain*..."
Maybe it was guilt over ultimately causing her current condition. Maybe it was some frisson of sympathy worming its way through a chink in the armour that was his perception of the man. Maybe it was the near-ceaseless and desperate babble.
Whatever it was, Scott stepped aside. "Help her, then."
Toad moved so fast there was red-shift. "I'm 'ere, luv. Shhh..." a gentle kiss to her forehead. "I'm gonna have t' touch yer burns, but it's gonna be all right. Just take it easy..." He focussed intensely on his hands, which developed a sheen. Then, gentle as a butterfly, brushed his shiny skin against her burned and scorched flesh.
Sara hissed, then breathed out a great sigh of relief. "...oooooooohhhh... *Bless*..."
"You watch out fo' tinglin'," he said. "Means it's wearin' off. An' if you start t' get swellin', it means it ain't any good for you anyway."
"...mmmmmmmmh," said Sara.
Toad moved around to her back, tracing the path the fire had made on her skin. "Le'me know if I missed any spots, eh?"
"Not that I'm complainin', luv... but you usually talk and *I* make agreeable noises."
Scott kept his eyes on him as he returned to the soup. Sara was drowsy and relaxed, but awake. "You need to eat," he told her.
"...okay." She obediently held her mouth open for a spoonful.
"What on *Earth* is that substance?" Hank wondered.
"Technic'ly? Guess it's some kinda nerve suppressant. I leak it all over th' place when I hurt. Numbs th' pain. I can control it a bit... not a lot, but enough."
"I didn't notice any when I was suturing your thumb," he said.
"'Course you bloody didn't. You were sewin' me up. Can't have a soddin' doc sewin' you up with numb fuckin' 'ands. Just di'n't let meself feel the pain."
"And this morning?"
"Remembered it. In exquisite ball-breakin' detail."
He had no reason to lie. There was no... motive behind those words.
Perhaps... just perhaps... Toad was telling the truth. Not only about his abilities, but also about his emotions.
And yet it was still *wrong* to allow a grown man within touching distance of an underaged girl. Not when his intentions were clearly immoral.
But he kept *restraining* himself - every instant, in fact - from taking action based on that intent.
For the first time since his initial dismissal of the man, Scott began pondering the Toynbee equation.
Mort was lingering. He knew it, and he was certain that everyone else did, too. Hank gave him an excuse with the analysis of his skin secretions, and the collecting of a sizable sample to see if they could reproduce it for the good of Science... and a completely unnecessary detour through an indicator of exactly how much time Hank had on his hands.
The good doctor had noticed, when Sara was bought in late last night, that her prior injuries from her encounter with glass had healed somewhat faster than he would have expected. This, in turn, lead to him setting up a time-lapse camera to monitor her progress through the night.
There was already five minutes of footage.
Scooter-boy was in one place long enough to be a high-speed, yet recognisable blur by Sara's side.
He'd never left her alone for a minute.
As for the burns... sped up, he could see the area of her injury reduce like melting ice. There was still too much, in his opinion, but if he'd seen her when the wounds were *new*... Mort would have gone to fucking pieces.
The last thing they'd have needed at that time - what with the seizures and all - was a hysterical boyfriend in the room.
Sara's eyes kept wanting to shut, even though her mind was awake. This always seemed to happen when medication was involved. Bits of her kept passing out, leaving the others to cope on their own.
"Just one more spoonful," coaxed Mr Summers.
"At least I'm not asleep," she said. It was when she correctly intercepted the broth that she began to wonder how the heck she did it. Usually, if she attempted that sort of thing, there'd be a mess of spilled soup all over the place. "...how on Earth did I just do that?" she wondered aloud.
"Maybe you're used to it," offered Mr Summers.
"Maybe." Sara eased into meditative mode, allowing her senses to expand. Mr Summers shifted on his chair, making himself comfortable. Hank and Mort were discussing this or that in the rambling fashion caused by one participant desperate to hang around.
_Naughty Mortimer, dancing on the edge of the deal. Don't slip too close to the edge, now._ Oddly enough, she felt warmer for his presence in the room, even though the temperature had been obsessively adjusted with her peculiar adaptations in mind. Maybe it wasn't that odd at all, given her feelings for the man.
Did she really love him? Or was it something like Nightingale Syndrome... where the carer and caree fell in love through extended contact? Was that even a false love? Relationships formed through such familiarity could last a literal lifetime. Was she just *used* to him? Could she seriously expect anything better?
But then... there was something deeply endearing about him. Underneath the tough, brash talk and the obvious experience at dealing with a cruel world, there was a soft and tender underside that wanted to care and be cared for in return. Craved it, almost. Like something held apart from him until the want of it nearly became an addiction.
Sara smiled at the memory of catching Mort surrupticiously sniffing some garment she'd recently worn. That darling look of covert ecstasy as he just stood there and *inhaled*, the dreamy expression he got as he savoured that one breath... and the slightly guilty way he put the garment back as he had found it.
Perhaps he, too, thought he didn't deserve love.
That thought made her crave for time to move faster, just so she could hold him close and protect him from thoughts like that and never, *never* let go.
Just having one of them messed up like that was bad enough.
How could they heal each other if they both suffered the same wounds?
"Deep thoughts?" said Mr Summers.
"Deep and troubling," she said. "Love defies equations... and that unknown factor is therefore alarmingly hard to quantify. You know it, at least. Were there ever times you were - afraid? Any times you doubted what you felt was real?"
She could sense-feel Mr Summers beside her, and somehow knew he was looking at Mort as he tried to stay but knew he should go. She could almost *sense* the internal debate.
"In the very beginning... yes," he said. "But it gets to the point where you just can't picture your life without them and then... it's just the way it is."
Sara sighed. "And we haven't even had a first date," she mused. "Just tumbling together through one necessity after another... would we even last in a normal relationship?"
Mr Summers shrugged - how could she know? Yet she did. "One way to find out, I guess."
"Tomorrow?" she pleaded.
"We had a deal. He proves he can be good for a week, and *then* you guys get to try normalicy for a while." His next words fell perilously short of a joke. "Assuming you don't put yourself in a coma before then. Or worse."
Even he cared. In his militaristic way. Everyone cared so much. So *openly*. And without the undercurrent of pretense that meant incoming torture of one form or another at a later date. "I'll try to be g--" oh fudge. Another box was peeling apart. All her focus intensified inwards. Steady the breathing. Achieve centre. Be always aware that that coming loose is not the emotion of *now*. Remember the mantra. "Ashair elam ithenne onu... ashair elam ithenne onu..." And above all else... let that inside that wants to be loose slide out with the breath. Release into the air... and breathe in freedom.
 Tip o' the hat to the late Douglas Adams ^_^
Hank ceased talking the instant he realised he'd lost his audience. It was hard to miss, given that Mort's anguished expression hardly matched a mini-lecture on the fascinating co-ordination of physical adaptions.
He was fixated on someone else. On four whispered and repeating words.
"...ashair elam ithenne onu..."
It had taken Charles quite a while to find the mantra that had no meaning for her. Sara's knack for languages - not to mention her thirst for them - made it nigh on impossible to find four words that perplexed her. So he'd made them up.
Focussing on the words, concentrating on finding meaning where there was none, distracted Sara enough while her 'boxed' emotions and physical reactions eased slowly out of her semi-conscious mind at a safer rate.
Watching her doing this was disturbing, since the violent swings of her fits trickled out in clearly-interpretable movements. Tics co-ordinated - when she was free to move - into a ballet that spoke of abuse. Restrained as she was, it was just a case of watching the muscles twitch, her face move in horrid extremes of expression, and her emotive skin ripple and wash over with colours that betrayed feelings long past.
In his more academic moments, he seriously considered writing a paper about her particular method of emotive and reactive repression, and the unnerving complications that arose as a result. The work would have to include the collaboration of the Professor and most likely Sara as well. The former for his far more impressive psychology degrees and the latter for actually being there and experiencing it.
But then, did Sara really need people reading about her pain and analysing it for generations?
A movement caught his eye and bought his attention back to Mort, hovering on the edge of an invisible barrier and trying not to distract anyone.
Moisture seeped into patches on his shirt.
_Interesting sympathetic reaction,_ he mused. Then his doctor's training took over. "Perhaps it would be better if you sought some other occupation for the meantime," he said, guiding the man towards the door. "Sara's in the best of care. Rest assured she'll be up and about in no time."
One last, lingering look. "When she goes out? Make sure she has a fuckin' bodyguard?"
"Indubitably, dear fellow. We dare not risk any other action, considering the most recent developments."
"...onu..." A shuddering sigh. "One would think," said Sara, "that I had *dealt* with most of these..."
"Relieving the pressure's slower than an out-and-out breakdown," said Scott.
"Not to mention more annoying," griped Sara. "There's so *many*... it could take forever to bust them all out. Especially like this. A seizure's over in a few minutes--"
"And it could injure you. Not to mention the fact that a severe enough seizure could trigger a complete emotional breakdown... which has its own inherent risks." He patted her uninjured hand. "Think of it like... eating fibre. You gotta do it, but the damn stuff just plain sucks."
She giggled, showing greener colours. Except where the Toad - *Toynbee* - had touched his slime to her skin. There, it remained a sickly yellow, spotted with violent reds. At least... according to Hank. Every colour *he* saw was through a ruby filter.
Hank checked the readouts. "The good news is that there's a minimal risk of aftershock seizures."
"And the bad news?"
"That means we have to move you so your skin doesn't crack - while you're conscious."
Sara's eyes opened for that, trepidation clear in their dark depths. "I take it I made disturbing noises?"
"More than a few," said Scott. "It's almost heartbreaking."
She stared right into him. "*You* don't have to be here and endure it..."
"It's my fault you got hurt. I deserve it."
"Is that the result of a court of inquiry?" she said as Hank unbuckled her.
"Do you defend anyone who crosses your path?"
"Just those without a defender," she smirked. Then hissed slightly as she moved by herself for the first time in almost eight hours.
It was later. Pain had happened, and he'd had to watch it happen to the sufferer for the sake of their long-term wellbeing. That didn't make it any easier to face.
She was sleeping, now. Genuine sleep, which apparently couldn't be matched by anesthesia. And that gave him at least three hours to get clean and changed.
Scott opened his door and sighed.
His room had been turned upside-down. Literally.
He had to say this for the kids. They scored high on enginuity.
At least this time they'd left his clothes and his hygene products alone. They just made getting to some of them... difficult.
_Professor,_ he 'called' as he adjusted the last details of his fresh clothes. _We're going to have to have a school-wide meeting._
_So I 'see',_ jibed the telepath.
_Actually, this lot is second on the agenda. First is an official inquiry into last night's accident... and arranging a schedule of bodyguards._ Sara had been right on that count. He was too eager to judge and condemn himself with little to no input from anyone else. And since the students had declared him target of the week *anyway*... why not let them have a target that truly deserved it?
Mort revelled in the hot water and soap substitute. To think, once upon a time, he'd have just festered in his beslimed clothing until someone made him bleed on it, or his 'master' Magneto ordered him to do something about his odour. The old fart didn't care about Mort's sensitivity to soap, nor his ability - or handicap - of being able to detect every impurity in the water just by soaking in it... and subsequently being ill.
Sara had cared enough to find an ultra-non-allergenic soap substitute for him, and apologised about the water, since there was little she could actually do about that.
But Xavier's... was prepared. It was highly plausible for a mutant to be sensitive to pollutants, so he laid in space-age plumbing that kept the water as pure as possible.
Mort, who hadn't been bothered as a matter of self-defence, could almost adore every instant of this luxury. Being clean without being ill as a result? Paradise.
Were it not for Sara's intervention, he would have been supremely thankful for just that. She somehow helped him recognise as a right what had previously been treasured as a luxury, and brooked no going back.
She was pleased whenever he took pride in himself, boosting him up to achieve the next goal.
It was after he dressed - clean clothing every day, another once-upon-a-time luxury - that Xavier's voice entered his head. School-wide meeting, *there*, to discuss what must be done and who was to blame for last night's accident.
Mort resolved to sit on his hands and keep his mouth shut. He knew what he *felt* about the entire ordeal... it's just that his brand of vengeance wouldn't sit well with Sara.
She'd give that sodding one-eyed git a chance just because he didn't have one.
And that's why Mort loved her.
Mort found himself an unobtrusive corner up at the back of the lecture hall to lurk in, and almost instantly found himself surrounded by friends. Rogue. Kurt. Even Ororo and Rogue's tag-along boyfriend, Bobby.
"You think Scooter's going to surrender?"
"Nah. Seen what this is about," said Mort. "God knows why he decided to open the floor on blamin' 'imself, though."
"Did Sara do something *else* to herself?" wondered Ororo. "Already?"
"Don't be bloody daft," said Mort. There may have been forgiveness for the attempted murder on both sides, but verbally assaulting Sara when she wasn't around to defend herself was something of a sore point for him. Then, because Sara demanded brutal honesty about herself, he added, "She hasn't had the time."
For anyone else, it would have been funny, but those seated closest to him knew the truth.
Sara was accident prone through having her mind occupied by personal business.
Translated - it was *Mort's* fault.
For hanging around when he should have left. For wanting to be as close as he could to her. For wanting to be closer. For *worrying* her to the point of distraction.
If he was gone, completely, then he would have been out of sight and out of mind for her. She could forget him... get on with the life she truly deserved.
Who was he fooling? Sara couldn't forget. She'd find him or kill herself through some form of accident and he'd never have the chance to say goodbye.
He hoped to deaf heaven that he'd saved her by demanding she was constantly watched over.
The mere thought of not being there to help her in her hours of need - *hurt*.
Scooter-boy stepped up in front of the gathered students - those who didn't have somewhere to go for the holidays. "Last night," he began, "there was an accident..."
Mort listened again to the essential details, made himself watch the footage they had of Sara setting herself on fire.
Obvious lack of 'higher functions' through lowered core temperature. In essence, Sara wasn't at home to recognise the danger she was in.
He was worse, true, but at least he was familliar with the danger signs, and could extract himself from trouble. Mostly. The instinct to find a 'safe' person needed some fine-tuning, but he was *almost* there.
He could teach her... *if*...
_Three an a half days, Morty. We just gotta wait three and a half days. Then we'll see her again._ He sighed. Thinking of himself as plural was a danger sign of stress. He did things to his own body out of stress that were a bitch to heal. Bleeding ulcers were the lightest symptom. As were distraction accidents, like his thumb.
Once, locked in the little dark room for too long, he'd ground his teeth to bleeding stumps and broken every bone in his arms from the elbow down. He'd spent two weeks after that calling the old fart 'master daddy' and variations thereof out of the sheer gratitude of basic medical care until he regenerated.
Growing new teeth was worse than a bitch.
Scooter cleared his throat. "I am responsible for her initial condition. In an effort to... cheer up a bad mood--"
_My fault. She was depressed 'cause she misses me._
"--I instigated an ice-cream duel. I did notice her shivering and went to grab her coat from the art room. And I turned the heat in there back down to 'standby'. If I'd left the thermostat alone, Sara could have thawed in safety. If gone for another coat..."
Rogue held up her hand. "Uhm. If you'd taken too long lookin' fo' a coat, Sara'd wandered off on you anyway."
Point. He and Callisto shared minder-stories from back in the camp. Callisto had the more lurid ones, owing to her necessarily having to round the *both* of them into the relative warmth of indoors when they weren't at all 'home'.
Mort knew too well Sara's almost insanely suicidal attitudes in the cold, lurching towards the 'shinies' on the razor wire, for instance. He'd have to bug the living piss out of Scooter just to teach her essential cold-survival. Love her dearly though he did, he couldn't keep her safe forever. There would be times when they'd have to be apart.
Hopefully by choice.
One of the kids held up his hand. Simon. "Sir? I could have stayed in the art room instead of going off to -uh..." a telling hesitation, "do stuff."
Scooter gave him the fish-eye. A remarkable feat for someone with their eyes obscured. "We'll discuss *that* part, later," he advised.
Bobby raised his hand. "I could have run for the extinguisher..."
A group of other hands raised.
"I could've gone to the rec. room and been there and changed things."
"I could've remembered."
Mort lost the plot as many other eager volunteers to take the blame over-spoke each other.
"I could've been with her," Mort whispered under the babble. At the time, he'd been taking baskets of dirty clothes from washer to dryer, completely unaware of what had been going on above.
_Don't blame yourself,_ said Xavier's voice in his mind. _Even I couldn't detect her peril._
_Stay outta my head, thanks,_ he mentally growled. It had disturbed him how bloody easily Xavier got in his head. And took control. _I'll call when you're wanted._
_Very well._ And then he was gone. Just like that.
The babble fell to an eerie silence, and for a minute, Mort wondered if Xavier had turned them all 'off'. At least, until he found the focus of the room's attention.
She'd borrowed a top that barely qualified for the name. 'Front' would be more apt, since it consisted of a single piece of fabric anchored at the neck and the back with spaghetti ties. Hank had obviously forbade her to walk by herself, and pushed her into the room via a wheelchair. It had a drip-stand on it.
"You shouldn't be here," said Scooter.
"The Professor did call *everyone*," said Sara. "And what better witness than the survivor?"
"I'm sorry I woke you," murmured Xavier.
"I woke myself," she soothed. "Just in time for the APB." She shifted, leaning on her uninjured arm. "If there's anyone to blame... it's me."
The entire room howled objections to that - though the adults were a little more restrained than the kids.
Scooter and Xavier both pleaded fruitlessly for quiet and order. All Sara had to do was hold up a finger. Very shakily as it happened, since that finger belonged to her injured arm.
Mort could see the spots of pain firing. Little blips of red amidst the sickly yellow. There was less of it, true. By the afternoon, she'd be free of caution. But that didn't stop him wanting to run to her and do everything he could to ease her discomfort.
"I knew it was happening," she said. "I could have 'called' for someone to... help, despite my considerations for Mr Summers' nausea. But I didn't. I went *looking*, when all I had to do was *think*... and then capacity for thought fled. I was stupid. In more ways than one. This is *my* fault. Don't blame anyone else?"
 What the hell are these called? I refer to them as 'hankie-tops', but I know that's not the name for them.
 All Points Bulletin - basically, everyone gets notified.
Rogue tapped Mort on the arm. "Why is she defendin' him? Ain't he the guy that's keepin' you apart?"
Mort had the goofiest look on his face. "That's Sara," he said. "Defending the defenceless..."
She had to smile, knowing what it was like to be in love. But this was an adult in love with someone her own age... more or less. "How's it... gonna work with you?"
"Day at a time?" Mort shrugged. "Any day, she can wake up to 'erself an' realise... there's lots of better fish in the sea. I'll take whatever I can get."
_Ouch,_ thought Rogue. He really *had* given up on self-worth. It was hard to hate him, having witnessed what she had. Harder to comfort him, given the age gap between himself and the girl he loved. She laid her gloved hand on his arm, giving him a companionable squeeze. "She saved your life," she said. "That's gotta be worth somethin'."
"Everythin'," whispered Mort.
Scott stared down at the girl he was usually used to looking up at. "Are you *serious*? I got you exactly the wrong coat... I let you go on your own..."
"Mr Summers, are you suggesting a Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda duel? I know what my body does. If there's any better judge to care for me... they're welcome to step forward." Her eyes flickered, however briefly, up to the corner where Toynbee was.
Toynbee flinched in his seat, then forced himself to stay still.
"It's still my concern to see to the safety and wellbeing of the students here," he said. "The fact that you've been in so many accidents in so many days... points to a dangerous lack, somewhere."
Sara put up her 'well' hand, smirk wide on her face. "Speaking," she chirped. It wasn't funny. "Everyone else is accident-free. Mishap-free. Incident-free. Ergo, the flaw must lie with me. Straight-up logic."
"So... logically speaking, what can be done to prevent further - trouble?"
"A bodyguard-keeper," said Sara. "Or a set of them. I know one person who would volunteer on a permanent basis--" again, a flicker to Toynbee, "--but we're all honour-bound to stay away from that option."
They drew up a schedule, in the end, of students and staff who were willing to keep Sara 'company' during her many waking hours. And it would start the instant she left the infirmary.
As Hank began to wheel her out, he said, "Mr Toynbee, I request and require your assistance with Miss Adrien's wounds. At your earliest convenience, of course."
Toynbee all but leaped to his side.
Sara leaned forward instinctively, trying to get away from the pain despite the fact that she *knew* it was part of her. Her right arm cupped her borrowed top to what could charitably be called her bosom, and even then, the straps were like ribbons of fire.
"Strings," she said urgently. "Inna back, please. Please... undothestrings..."
A kind hand - Mort's, if she could judge by the relative coolness - pulled gently on the ties and moved them away from the searing agony that was her back. A cool, careful touch spread blessed numbness across the area.
"Move out from the middle, dear," she advised as soon as she could breathe easier. "I know what this has to cost you."
"Just a memory, luv," he soothed. "Makin' itself useful for the first time in forever." His touch lingered on the more painful bits, though she could feel little else but the pressure of his hand. He worked on her arm, next, carefully guiding it about so he could - well - apply himself.
There was no pain in his eyes, just - concern.
Sara watched idly as the illusion of popping red bubbles of pain on her skin settled down into little red freckles amidst a sea of vomitous yellow-green. "You're a minor miracle, Mr Toynbee."
He smirked at that, and bowed and kissed her hand. "And you, Miss Adrien, need to look after yer fool bloody self, awrigh'?"
She could feel the idiot grin overtaking her, even as they wheeled her into the warmed infirmary. "My dear Mr Toynbee, for your sake, I think I should eschew ice-cream forever."
"Wouldn't make you do that. Just until next week, eh?"
Her skin pulled at her as she moved, but she performed the necessary stretches anyway. "A small thing bothers me, though... Did you or did you not leave an ample supply of your secretions with Dr McCoy?"
"I thought I did..." said Mort.
Hank turned back to them from his computers. "Testing has proven that the beneficial effects of Mr Toynbee's -er- epidermal discharge lose efficaciousness on the shelf... and all attempts at replication have been - less than encouraging."
"I thought this bugger spoke English, luv," said Mort.
"Hank said your miracle goo loses potency over time," she translated. "And what a champion liar he is, too."
Hank grinned. "Took me ages to find the right circumstances to spoil the stuff."
"Cheers for the Scooter conspiracy," laughed Mort.
Apart from the periodic visits from Mortimer, it was a dullish day. Visitors drifted in and out to check up on how she was doing, ask the obvious question - "Does it hurt?" - occupy her mind and time for a while and then drift out again.
Sara never thought she had so many friends.
_A month ago, a realisation like that would have had me in a twitching heap..._ Sara pondered. _Huzzah for the Professor's mantra, it seems._
"Deep thoughts?" prompted Kitty.
"Self-realisation," said Sara. "I really messed myself up over the last decade."
"Don't blame yourself. You had help."
"From every quarter, yes." Mortimer's miracle goo actually sped her recovery to the point where one could watch it real-time. It tended to distract her from the chess game if she let it. Sara moved a knight. "Now that I have genuine help, I have trouble accepting that it exists."
"Trained into bad thought," said Kitty. "Y'know... we *could* prank you if you think it'd help. Shaving foam in the phone... spring-snakes... a 'compliment me' sign on your back..."
"Once a week, perhaps," said Sara, laughing. "I wouldn't want to start thinking people had something *against* me." She observed a 'wave' of scales turn from sickly yellow pain colours to pale green-blue, and then fade into her proper aqua. "Beware, though, I may retalliate... creatively."
"We've found your movies," said Kitty, moving a bishop. "I think we're warned."
"Oh *dear*," said Sara. "All of them?"
"Kurt said they were masterpieces in schlock parody. A bunch of us had a movie marathon. Priceless stuff, girl. 'You just love me for my braaaaiiiinnnnsss...' the whole room was ROFLTAO."
"I *said* it was an immortal line," Sara considered the board. "Are you distracting me from a check in five?"
"No, I'm making pleasant conversation. And you're sick, so I'm letting you win."
Kitty poked out her tongue. "Anyway, we're driving Scooter-boy nuts by quoting bits of dialogue out of context. All freakin' day. So far, the STFU count is up to twenty."
"You really should ease up on the poor man. He's recently bereaved."
"That's no excuse for him being an asshole."
Sara moved a castle. "If you saw *your* best-beloved near-fatally attacked by someone... someone who turned up in the tow of a presumed innocent who happened to claim they were a changed individual - would *you* believe?"
Kitty sighed. "Damnit... quit taking his side."
"It isn't about sides, dear. It's about perception. About the way people see things. Add to the existing predicament the fact that our age difference makes things... difficult... and you have the whole can of worms."
Kitty rolled her eyes. "Geez. Back in the middle ages, girls of twelve were marrying guys of thirty and nobody said *anything*. It's the way things *worked* back then. Hell, old rich guys marry barely-legal twigs after abandoning their *real* family and nobody says a thing."
"Perhaps it's the fact that he's an old *poor* guy and the twig in question is both affluent and his first love?"
"Now *that's* a theory to put up for debate," Kitty laughed. "Age and affluence versus allowable coupling choices."
"Certainly one to hash out into social math," said Sara. "Your move, dear."
"I know. I'm trying to put it off."
 Pronounced row-ful-tay-oh, and short for Rolling On (the) Floor Laughing Their Arses Off.
"...no, I gave the *peasant* the pellet with the poison... bwee-heeheeheehee..."
Scott rolled his eyes and tried to ignore it as he strolled with Professor Xavier through the corridors of his institute. Well, to be more correct, he strolled and the Professor pioloted his chair from one place to another. It didn't help that they were keeping tabs on the number of times he told them to knock it off.
"Silly season seems remarkably focussed, this year," noted the Professor.
"They're punishing me for the deal," he said. "Kurt and Emilia's lessons on how to read people are kicking in *fast*... they know exactly where the line is."
"...don't you listen to the song? Now look what you've done - untold evil everywhere! Heheheheheh..."
"And some of them are balancing on it," said Charles. His mouth still quirked in a smile that wasn't strictly allowed. "Did they put your room back the way it was?"
"More or less," Scott blushed, deciding to omit their addition of Inflatable Ingrid to his bed.
"I'm not cleaning *that* up for you, young man."
The two students ran giggling away while Scott rubbed at the incipient migrane. "On the plus side, they're exhibiting working knowledge of strategic planning, precision strikes, psychological warfare..."
"Yes. You've found me. Meep. Meep... hahahahaha..."
"Will you kids knock it the heck off?" Scott bellowed.
"Twenty-five on the tab!"
Scott winced. He'd sworn he'd never yell at them again, and he swore so anew, now. "They're really *fine-tuning* the psychological warfare..."
The Professor was having a hard time keeping a straight face. "When I warned you that you'd come to regret your decision, this wasn't precisely what I pictured."
"There's definitely plenty of damage, sir," said Scott.
"Damage?" queried the telepath. "Scott, what you're dealing with is fallout. Miscellaneous flack from the very edge of the problem."
"But... nothing else has been happening..."
"Look again," said the Professor. "Sara's seizures have been more frequent, this week, haven't they?"
Scott stopped cold. Her seizures, he knew, were caused by stress. Usually, the stress of unexpected kindness working against her anticipation of unpleasantness in her immediate environment. However, other stresses could work to trigger off a fit. The meditation regime had helped, true... but there *were* more of them. Moments when she grew close to what the Professor called a fatal break.
One of them had been when she'd panicked in front of him... before he'd started the chain of events that lead to her setting herself on fire.
And what had the girl panicked over?
The fate of Toynbee... and whether or not they'd ever be allowed to share the same air again.
 And anyone who knows what STFU stands for will know that Scooter self-bowdlerises.
 There's a sorta swing-esque song called _Don't Go In the Basement_ which I mean to make a clip someday ;) [And it's not the album version by Oingo Boingo]
 Side-fling to _Red Dwarf_
"Back in the land of the living!"
"How's the burns?"
Sara smiled. Therapy *had* to be working. This sort of warm welcome used to have her flinching in anticipation. Or twitching. Or both. The fact that she could smile back and come up with a witty reply was a huge leap forward. "It hurts and stings," she said. "Hence the supremely loose mega-shirt."
"You could fit three of you in that thing."
"What the heck is a thy-la-kine, anyway?"
"It's pronounced 'thy-la-seen' with a soft th'th. Better known as the Tasmanian Tiger."
"Aren't they extinct?"
"Oh, there's been progress in bringing them back," Sara breezed. "Last I heard, they *nearly* had a viable foetus. It's one of my not-quite scams."
"A scam?" said Piotr. "I thought you were a *good* girl."
"Once upon a time, when I was three," Sara grinned. "This one kind-of started as research into how gullible people were... and then it started making an immense profit, so... I legally donate a percentage of the proceeds towards the thylacine projects that are making the most progress."
"But - *free* the thylacine?" said Avery.
"That's the gullability part." Sara shrugged as much as she was able to. "I figured most Americans wouldn't know a thing about anything beyond their own stomping grounds, so..."
"You picked an obscure place with an extinct critter to 'free'," Amy rolled her eyes.
"The Dodo was completely out, of course. It's *famous* for being extinct." Sara gestured at tossing the idea out of the window. "But our dear friend the marsupial 'tiger' has *just* enough cryptozoological credit on its side that I had volunteers willing to buy nature reserves for them."
"Yike," said Bobby.
"I know some people you could sell those shirts to," said Sam.
"I'm still doing a roaring trade... though some people confess to buying it for the irony factor - and being asked by strangers about how they can contribute."
"*Oy*..." said Kitty.
Rogue considered all this. "Damnit... now *I* want one."
"Twenty bucks. No friendsies discounts."
"It's still worth it."
Mort sighed. So far, he'd narrowly avoided self-injury in the kitchens, the laundry *and* the feeder bins. On the average of twice every hour.
Sara'd never forgive him if *he* wound up bruised, burned, battered or broken so close to the finish line.
Day four was nearly over.
Three more days.
He could last three more days.
Especially after he'd half-inched one of her shirts from the laundry and concealed it under his pillow. All right. So *maybe* keeping a girl's clothes to sniff wasn't exactly the first word in chivalry... but it helped him keep *sane*. It gave him an anchor.
It helped him *sleep*.
He was wearing down to a frazzle and it seemed everyone knew it. They passed on news, quotable quotes, notes, anecdotes... every little snippet they could glean. All so he could relax just a little bit and stay saner for a few minutes longer.
Mort, during his free time, gained his old strength and agility back in the gym. He sparred against the training tree and any shadow that he spotted. He threw himself into routines old and new.
Had to wear out the body to prevent the mind from whirring off into unwelcome tangents.
He was probably in better fighting form than he'd ever been in before. Better, even, than his peak under the constant jibes and taunts of Magneto. Mort didn't care what the old fart thought of him now. The old fart had certainly forgotten about *him*.
Amazing how deep a Dragon's claws could dig... even after escape.
A splintering crack woke him up from the rythm of the dance. Fuck. He'd just broken one of the knobs off the training tree. He'd have to pay for that.
Double fuck. Splinters in his hand and wrist.
Mort took himself to the nearest bin and began plucking wood out of his wounds, staving off his usual pain response until he was sure he was clean of all infection vectors.
"Impressive," said Logan. "You should be teachin'."
"Ain't no sensei," said Mort. "I just dance." Ooze and blood mixed, dried in the air he blew over the area. Set itself into an interesting scab. "And I ain't teachin' the way I fuckin' learned."
Logan just shrugged. "So teach in a better way. Teach 'em to survive."
Mort gave the man a glare. "Sure that's a good idea? I know some 'survival skills' that'd put me straight back in the fuckin' basement."
"Lockpicking? Escapology? Street-fighting?"
"All of the above *and* 'other'," said Mort. Had he dripped on the floor? No. Less work for later.
"Good. Kids'll need that and then some." Logan grinned. "It's all well and good having a discipline, an' knowin' the rules... but when it gets down to the dirt, the dirt don't care."
"Too bloody right," said Mort. He thought about it. Considered the possibility. Professor Toynbee... learned applicator of Surviving Shit 101. Well... maybe with a fancier name. "Scooter know about this?"
"He thought it was an idea."
But not necessarily a *good* idea, or one with moral merit. Mort grinned. "When do I start?"
 Like I said, 'not-too-distant future'... and someone's *bound* to have been doing *something*.
 Cockney rhyming slang. Half-inched = pinched = stolen.
 That wooden post thingy with projections poking out of it. Used in some martial-arts movies. If anyone has the official name, I'd be glad to have it.