Prologue: Xavier School for Gift Youngsters

This entire story came about as a reaction to a game Mike was running on DreamLyrics: A Random Act of Kindness. It was driving me just a little daft that the players weren't seeing what I was seeing. I've called this A Deliberate Act of Ninja as a nod to that story, despite the fact that Ninja doesn't actually do anything but Witness. Mega thanks to Mike for running the game and providing the inspiration for this story!

"Ms. Yazzie?"

Both Charles and I are looking at the doorway when the youngster approaches and discovers that she doesn't need to knock on the frame. He's the most powerful telepath I've ever met, and he knows all his students. Me? I just follow the qi. And there had been a disturbance in the Force, as my dear husband likes to put it.

"Was it just Paul this time, or did both of my hellions wreak havoc somewhere?"

I'm serious, even though I try to make it sound like a joke. The girl is one of the youngest students here, a teleporter, and skittish. I'd turned in my chair, so my back is to the school's headmaster.

His chuckle puts the girl — Annabelle? No, Annalise — at ease more than my not-particularly-funny joke.

"Um, I don't know anything about that, ma'am. Doctor McCoy sent me to fetch you."

I give her one of my very friendly Andrea the Former Librarian smiles.

"That's okay, Annalise. Tell the doc I'll be with him in just a minute, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am."

I shake my head as she winks out and then turn back to Charles. "That teleporting thing is almost as disconcerting as Rene's disappearing tricks." I stand as my smile returns . . . the Ninja one. "We'll just have to continue our discussions after I find out which universe my son wandered into this time. Without my permission. I have a feeling he'll get the hang of opening portals properly, however, long before you find a way past my shields," I add with a laugh. "And I'm not overly optimistic about my son learning any time soon."

Charles laughs. "Perhaps next time we can try with Cerebro."

"We can try, sure. I still don't think it will help you." I wink at him. "Quicksilver isn't around is he? He likes to get in the way when I'm, ahem, moving too slowly for him."

"No, no. He's off in a wilderness training class with your niece."

I chuckle. "I'd feel sorry for him if he didn't test my dexterity every other hour. Emelia might just twist his head back on all well-adjusted and thoughtful-like. Catch you later, Charles!"

Without Pietro to stick a leg out and let me practice the power of flight I gained from Pablo or my natural dexterity as a Taiji master, I make it over to Hank's lab lickity split. It's not so quickly, however, that I don't have time to wonder yet again how Pietro manages to move faster than his qi signature. I'll figure that guy out one of these days, assuming he'll ever hold still or stay in the same room with me long enough to study his qi.

"Hey, Hank! How's it going? Annalise said you wanted to see me. I assume my son opened another portal improperly. Again."

The twins are sitting side-by-side on a bench. Maria is practically wrapped around her brother, and Paul is terrified. I raise an eyebrow. Interesting.

"Or not," I amend for Hank's benefit.

"I'm quite well, Andrea. And no, there was nothing wrong with Paul's execution today. It was as impeccable a piece of work as I've seen from him to date. Very nearly as neatly done as your technique." He glances over at the children, a worried expression on his blue-furred face. "At least, I thought so until he collapsed and his sister flew in — literally — and got him up on the bench. They won't tell me about it."

"Huh. How was her form?"

"Peregrine falcon, on the smaller end of the scale but perfect as far as I could tell. Pulled him out of whatever state of shock he was in, though she still needs a little work on the healing end of things."

I nod. "It's her secondary power, and we just found out about it a few weeks ago, so I figure it will take longer than the shapeshifting to settle down."

It might appear to a casual observer that I'm a heartless and callous mother. Casual observers, however, can't see qi. And Maddie has drilled it into my head over the past ten . . . no, twelve . . . years that getting a sit-rep is the first priority if nobody is in danger. And the kids are just rattled. True, they're badly rattled, but they're still just rattled.

"You didn't notice anything obvious?"

Hank shakes his head. "Paul opened the portal perfect as far as I and my instruments could tell. But instead of closing it properly, he dropped and let it slam shut."

"Ah. That would have been the disturbance in the Force that I felt."

Hank chuckles, though there's very little humor in it. "Indeed."

"Thanks. You need me to get them out of here, or can you give me the room?"

His features are harder to read than a lot of folks, but his qi is a lot easier to read than most mutants. It's always struck me as incongruent that his mutation is — genetically speaking — nearly identical to Logan's, and presents so differently. Even the Spirits don't recognize him as an Elder like Logan and Em. But it means I know how worried his is about my children. I can almost see him weighing his options.

I wrap an arm around one of his. "I know you want to stay and help, Hank. And we all love you for it. But Mama needs to take care of her cubs. They'll only go silent and telepathic if you stay. They need to use their words this time."

He smiles and pats my arm. "I'm sure there's something I need to discuss with Charles. Unless Pablo is here . . .?

"Nope, 'fraid not. He's in the air, though, so . . . soon? Depends on the air currents. Go on, Hank. Scram. Bring him in when he gets here . . . if he gets here soon enough. And thanks again."

I watch him leave. Something else is bothering him. Well, maybe Pablo can drag it out of him. Tomorrow. Then I walk over to the twins, kneel in front of of the bench, and gather them both in my arms.

"Whenever you want to tell me about it, sweetheart, I'm here to listen."

It takes him a long time to say anything. Maddie's the one with the stopwatch in her head, but I'd peg it at about ten minutes.

"Shimá, there were horrible bad things there."

I'm very careful not to show any surprise. Neither of them has called me mother in Diné Bizaad since shortly after they were born.

"Paul won't even share with me, Shimá," his sister whispers.

I hug them more tightly and wish their dad were here. He's a lot better at this comforting thing than I am.

"Honey, you know that some places are going to have bad things. That's why you're practicing at Uncle Charles's school and not at home. But the bad things are somewhere else, not here."

When he looks up at me, his expression nearly breaks my heart. Kids shouldn't have that kind of expression on their faces . . . that look that says they've seen some of the darkest horrors of humanity.

"Oh, Mommy, it was so awful!"

"Shhh, baby. Mama can—"

Well, Mama can't do anything if her phone is ringing.

"Maria, honey . . . go fetch Uncle Charles, okay? Human form."

"Are you sure, Mom?"

"I'm sure. I'll take care of your brother until you get back."

The phone rings a third time as she slides off the bench and runs out of the room.

Paul sniffles. "Maybe that's Dad calling."

I sigh and pull the phone from my jeans pocket as it rings a fourth time. Nope. Not Pablo. He hates using the phone when he's flying anyway — he still thinks he's going to drop it and crush a house with it. I press the little green circle to connect.

"Hi, Talia. I'm a little busy here."

"You and me both, cousin. I'm in labor."

"Well, then you're having less fun than I am. No, wait. You have simple, easy, fast, no-problem deliveries, and have I mentioned that I hate you?"

"You don't hate me, Andi. You're just jealous. And I just . . ." She stops speaking for several seconds and it sounds like she's dropped the phone. When she comes back on the line, she picks up right where she left off. ". . . wanted to tell you not to do whatever it is you think you ought to do."

"And what is it that I think I ought to do, Talia?"

Nah, I'm not suspicious at all.

"Dunno. I just know that you should not go with your instincts, no matter what."

I sigh. "And can you tell me what I should do instead?"

"Nope. Sorry. Pretty sure this is one of your stupid trans-dimensional things, and I can't see into other dimensions like some people. But whatever your gut tells you to do . . . don't do that."

"You know, Tali, if I knew a better precog on this planet, I'd put them on retainer and fire you."

The noise she makes probably would have been a laugh if it didn't sound like a strangled cry at the same time. She calls me during active labor to tell me this? Shit.

"No, you wouldn't. I'm family. Listen, gotta go. Baby thing and all. Give my love to Pablo and the kids." Then she hangs up.

"Mommy?"

I put the phone back in my pocket and hug my son. "Yeah, baby, I'm here."

"I should show you what I saw. I think. Didn't want to show Maria. It's too scary for her."

"But not too scary for you?"

"No, Mom. It's way too scary for me, too."

I feel him shuddering.

"I take it I shouldn't call Uncle Rene."

He shakes his head. "No, no, no. It's too much like . . ." He just shakes his head again.

Shit.

"Like Auntie Lin?" I whisper, and he nods. "Well, then neither one of us is going to like this." I get up and sit on the bench beside him, then pull him into my lap. "You're getting kind of tall for this, you know."

He nods and leans his head against mine.

An eon later, when I open my eyes, I know they're glowing with a golden light. At least we're not on a plane . . . and it's not my sister I'm trying to protect, but a couple of teens and a little girl . . . and didn't Talia say something about not doing what I really, really want to do right now? Yeah. Stupid precogs. Unfortunately, Talia is rarely wrong.

I can barely see him through the golden haze, but I know Charles is in the doorway with Maria. His chair has an odd frequency oscillation that makes it ever-so-distinctive. Hank is standing behind them.

"Ninja," Charles says in that soft, even, cultured voice of his. "Perhaps you should calm down."

I close my eyes, and Paul wipes the tears away before they get very far down my cheeks.

"I am calm, Charles."

"You eyes say otherwise."

"I know," I whisper as I hug my son. "I know."

"Momma? Can Uncle Charles fix my head like he did for Aunt Lin? I'm not grown up enough to know that stuff."

"Shimá??" Maria runs over to wrap as much of her arms as she can get around her brother and me. Mostly her brother. "You're supposed to share, Paul. You promised in the Before Time when we were in the Not Born Place."

He shakes his head. "It's too ugly. I don't want it in my head. It shouldn't even be in the Before Time."

"Honey, you know it's going to wind up in the universal qi whenever I get there, right?" I say softly. "Because I can't forget." And there are times when I desperately wish I could. My Curse is an asshole . . . but I've come to at least accept that there might be a reason for collecting the memories of everyone I love.

"Andrea?"

"Charles?"

"How does your son know what I did for Madeline?"

I open my eyes and look at him; at least the golden haze is mostly gone.

"I was already pregnant when we went to France to say goodbye to Alois. I didn't know it, but the hellions remember."

"That's exceptional," Hank says.

"Yeah, well . . . they're a couple of . . ." I sigh. "This is right up my alley for the Weird and Crazy, but honestly, Hank? I'm too tired to get into the metaphysics of it. Catch me later, though. We'll talk."

Charles moves closer; if he could stand, he's be able to reach out and touch Paul's head, which is again resting against my shoulder. Maria has climbed on the bench, too. They've gotten too big to sit in my lap one at a time, never mind both at once. She rests her head on my other shoulder and reaches around me to keep in contact with her brother.

Although there's still a slight tinge of gold in my peripheral vision when I look at Charles, I feel more sadness right now than anger. I feel far more protective of my own children than the children of strangers . . . which isn't like me, but I'm told it's normal.

"You've had a connection to Maddie for years, Charles. I'm sure you can wall off the memories for my son just as you did for my sister, but at what cost?"

He regards me for a moment, then looks at the twins before tapping his temple.

I just close my eyes again and lower the shields he hasn't yet found a way to circumvent.

I assume whatever cost you envision isn't something for eleven-year-old ears, I say for his mind alone.

I suspect not, though they would hasten to correct you about their age.

Even inside my mind, his voice is soothing and refined.

Their birthday isn't for two weeks. Why do kids want to grow up so fast?

Necessity, I would suspect. But to answer your question . . . it is possible that any wall I place around the memories will be temporary due to his age. And it could be dangerous for those memories to escape at the wrong moment.

Yeah, I thought about that. And anything permanent . . . Well, his gift is similar enough to mine that he'd eventually break through, either accidentally or with great conviction. I'd put my money on the latter, by the way. What if I work with you? That way I can keep a watch on it and bring it down slowly when he's older.

Lucy! I'm home!!

"Daddy!"

I groan. Pablo, do you have to shout?

Humor and laughter and joy bubble through the connection we share. Was I shouting?

"He was shouting," Charles confirms.

"I'm going to meet Dad outside, okay, Mom?"

I nod to my daughter, then look at Hank. "This could be your last chance to chat with him for a while."

At least I can manage a smile about that. Pablo had stopped his absurd talk about having a whole baseball team of children after the twins were born, but in the past five or six years, he seems to have decided he's the surrogate dad to any of the kids at the school who need one. Everyone wins.

"Then I will leave you and Professor to tend to Paul. Come, my dear," he says, holding out a hand to Maria.

"Momma?"

"Yeah, baby," I say to Paul as we resettle on the bench. "Uncle Charles and I are going to help you. Now, I want you to understand that this isn't a forever fix, okay? But I'll be able to keep a watch on the walls he puts up and we'll make sure we keep them away from the shields I taught you, all right? And when you're older, we'll work together, you and me, to dismantle the walls slowly."

"A lot older."

I nod. "A lot older."

Of course, a lot older doesn't exactly mean the same thing for my kids as it would for normal almost-twelve-year-olds. They've both inherited the Heal From Everything Including Dead, Live Who The Hell Knows How Long gift or curse that Maddie had given me when we formed the Pentad. And sometimes I do wonder if it's a curse — so many people I love have already walked on in the years since Maddie shared that gift with me. It's all been the usual run of life stuff: people live long and productive and happy lives, but they eventually die. It's what we all face over the course of a typical lifetime: saying goodbye to those we've let into our hearts. But when your life stretches infinitely far into the future?

"Momma, don't be sad."

Sometimes Paul is creepy. He's not an empath like his cousin.

Oh. Right. He sees qi just like his mother.

Well, he's still creepy sometimes.

"Most everyone comes back from the Not Born Place," he says. "We just might not recognize them every time."

I give him a half-smile, shake my head, and sigh. "You might have to remind me every decade or so." Then he's treated to a full smile, although it's more of a Ninja smile that Bobby once called Mommy Dearest. He's still a brat, of course, and will be until the day he walks on. My gaze turns to Charles.

"Ready?"

"Yes." He looks at Paul, serious but kind. "I'll need one of your hands, young man. And then relax your mind."

"Like Mom and Aunt Lin taught us for meditation, right?" he asks as he trustingly stretches one hand out to Charles.

"Exactly so. Andrea?"

"Ready when you are, Chief."

My shields are tinned only enough to allow Charles to speak mind-to-mind if he wants. I'm adding my own qi to the mix — a fair precaution to use as a warning system in case the walls he's building are disturbed prematurely. I don't have the same connection to the twins as I do with the Pentad, but they are my children. That should be enough.

Charles creates more of a pliable, tightly woven net around the memories of the world Paul found when he opened the portal rather than the sturdy wall he placed around Maddie's childhood memories. I'm no less protective of my son, but I'm far calmer today than I was more than a dozen years ago when he helped my sister.

It's a quick bit of work, too.

Andrea, would you prefer to set your own seal on the block?

I nod, although I'm not sure he's watching me.

Yeah. It's probably best if I close the circuit. Don't need you getting electrocuted, do we?

It takes less time to finish up than it takes to breathe. I look into Charles's eyes.

"Thank you."

"Of course. You know I will do anything I can for you and your family. Now . . ." He releases my son's hand. "How do you feel, Paul?"

Paul opens his eyes, blinks a few times, shakes his head, and then smiles brightly. "Much better, Uncle Charles. Not even a stuffy head feeling! Thank you!"

"Okay, kiddo," I say, shifting enough so he can stand up without tripping over Charles and his chair. "Take it easy the rest of the day. Make sure you spend an hour or so doing your Taiji, and don't forget your whole body breathing."

"Okay, Mom. Can Maria and I hang out with Vin? You and Dad probably want to figure out what to do about that place, huh?"

I chuckle. "You are so transparent, son of your father. Don't think I don't know that Vin is teaching you about the Blackbird. But go ahead. Between you and your sister and your cousin, I suspect Aunt Lin will expect you to be able to take it apart and put it back together again . . . perfectly . . . the first time."

He giggles has he hugs my neck tightly. "No way. Aunt Lin won't expect me and Maria to be able to fix it before we can fly it!"

"Oh, don't count on that, pal. Go. Scram."

He hugs Charles somewhat less forcefully and then runs out, calling back, "Thanks, Mom!"

I take a cleansing breath and roll my head to loosen up the tension in my neck. I ought to take my own advice about practicing. "Well. He's better. It helps that he's one of the most resilient people I've ever met."

I continue to look at the doorway as I speak. Pablo is waiting in the corridor to see for himself that his son is fine. He's been magnificent about not hovering, about not letting his fear of losing them show very often. Mostly, I think, I'm the only one who notices when he's thinking about Rosalia and Juan. Maddie and Logan's daughter would probably pick it up, too, what with her being an empath. Even though Maddie's hellions are going on twenty-three, Pablo remembers the joy they brought into our lives when they were our children's age. I'm glad he remembers his first wife and eldest son. I wish I could erase the pain of their murders that still sits in his heart, but I can't. And Tita is always saying if you never feel the pain, you can never know the joy.

"You're brooding, Andrea."

I look at Charles with a hint of a smile. "Is that what it's called? I was just thinking about the kids — both sets of twins, Leon — and family. You know . . . typical Navajo mother stuff."

"He will be fine, Andrea. Neither you nor Pablo needs to worry about your son."

"Sure, I know. But just telling me not to worry isn't going to stop me from worrying, you know. Besides, I'm every bit as stubborn as my sister."

"Some might say even more so."

"Oooh! Compliments!" I grin. I hardly ever get a chance to tease Charles.

"I'm not sure it was meant as such."

"And yet, that's how I take it." I look up as Pablo is silhouetted in the doorway and stand up, pausing to rest a hand on Charles's shoulder for a moment. "I'll probably spend the rest of your life thanking you for everything you do for my family."

"And I will continue to remind you that what you did for Madeline when you first met was repayment for several lifetimes of favors, both great and small."

His smile is that of a man who is utterly gracious and beyond generous. Even I can't see how deeply grateful he is — he's the only person I've ever met who is actually impossible to read. But I've come to understand his gratitude a lot better over the years.

Madeline means an awful lot to all of us.

"I assume you would like me to keep your youngsters occupied for a few hours."

"If you would, please. Vin has a lot of patience, but those two still feel as though they need to torment him mercilessly. It'll take them decades to get over being so excited about reuniting with him and Em in this lifetime." I say that somewhat reluctantly. Their talk about the Before Time and their decision to remember all their past lives still unnerves me.

"Consider them occupied, then. Do you have a plan?"

I'm pretty sure I whine . . . just a little.

"You don't have a plan?" Pablo asks, his smile just as boyish and infectious as it was when I met him back in college. "Hang on . . . let me give Madeline a call. She'll want to hear about this, maybe mark it on her calendar."

"We'll be as far from the main building as I can get," I say to Charles. "I'm going to cause my own disturbance in the Force and might toss Mister Smartass through the portal. And you . . ." I give Pablo a mighty stink eye even as I take his hand. ". . . are the one who's coming up with the plan, Captain Detective, sir. Talia told me not to go with my instincts, so you're going to lay out options."

"I'm going to recommend not doing anything," he says as we walk down the hall toward the front door, "and I don't even know what's going on. Well, other than something terrified Paul."

"The something that terrified Paul was worse than what Maddie and I found in Stryker's lab . . . but not as bad, maybe not as bad as what happened to Maddie." His hand tightens around mine; I'd say painfully if I weren't stronger than he is. "He only caught a glimpse of it. I want to get a context for what's going on."

"Never hurt children," he says, the anger banked but still evident.

"We all agree on that, Pablito."

Although it's late afternoon, being only a week or so away from the summer solstice means it's still a bright and beautiful day. Thanks to my Curse and Mother's enjoyment of sharing her vast amounts of energy, I see the ley lines running under the property as distinctly as airport landing strip lights. We walk along one of them in silence for several minutes, heading for the far side of the campus.

"You might not have a plan," he says as we reach a stand of trees, "but you have an idea."

"A vague one. I want to see what's going on. I want you to advise me. Based on what I saw, what Paul saw, my first instinct is to call the Wolf Pack together and clean out a viper's nest."

"Not the X-Men? Charles would help if he could. So would all the people here."

"No. Not the X-Men. This is Wolf Pack business."

He shrugs. "I trust you."

"I'm glad one of us does."

That garners a raised eyebrow from him. "Since when have you decided to be less than confident, Wife?"

"Since I was told not to go with my instincts, Husband."

Then I shrug and step purposefully onto the minor node of ley lines here. I feel Mother trying to bathe me with her energy through the soles of my feet. As I begin one of the short forms, I search for the energetic signature of the portal Paul had opened. When I find it . . . Well, it's not difficult. It has the most peculiar oscillation, resonance, energy markers, whatever you want to call it of any dimension I've ever seen. Although it's completely different, it still reminds me of Tezcatlipoca's realm. I carefully open a window.

Next up: Track One

© Kelly Naylor