Ties Never Binding 17/?

Disclaimer: (deep breath) Okay, Dawn, Glenn, Karen, Jason, and Shrive belong to moi. GenX, X-Men, Excalibur, and associated heros and villains belong to Marvel Comics. Got that?

Author's Note: Surprise! Y'all didn't think I'd be coming out with one of *these* any time soon, did you? Oh ye reader of little faith! I couldn't possibly desert my "baby," could I? Never! Not even overloaded with homework and the pressures of high-school! (I'm hoping this will change--maybe when I get a little more adjusted I'll be as prolific as I once was! ;) I know I promised I wouldn't do any more TNB until Fading Embers and Circles was under control, but sometimes you've just got to write. So enjoy this--especially you, Luba, who spurred me on for this! --and have fun!


I doodled on my Biology notes, not even pretending to pay attention to Hank anymore. My concentration had been shot to hell yesterday, and with it my usual attentiveness in class. I usually *liked* Biology, and Hank certainly had enough of a sense of humor to keep it entertaining, but... something was wrong, and it showed.

I kicked my feet idly against the chair as the a/c ruffled my hair. I wondered vaguely why, when being taught by one of the finest scientific minds on earth, couldn't anyone fix the air conditioning..? Not that I could feel it, of course, but I could see Paige shivering out of the corner of my eye, and even Jonothon was looking a little uncomfortable.

Hank, however, continued talking about how malaria had been discovered. I could tell the man was really immersed in the subject--the way he talked about it made me suspect he was reciting it all by heart. I usually found his enthusiasm infectious, but not today.

I was worried about Karen, I think. It had been three days since her abrupt metamorphosis, and every now and then I would zone out and allow my mind to drift over to Muir to check up on how she and Shrive were doing.

And what I found wasn't all that encouraging.

Douglock was still out of it, I knew that much. He seemed to have gone into some kind of coma since Karen's little attack, fit, seizure, or whatever you want to call it. Shrive, I believe, was brooding. A lot. From what I'd gathered from Kitty he'd gone for a walk the next day and spent the rest of the night on a cliff, staring at the water. He was still in bad shape, and likely getting worse thanks to the fact he seemed to have sworn off sleep.

Karen, apparently, had done the same, but for different reasons. It appeared she didn't *need* sleep anymore. From what little I'd gleaned she had holed up in the hanger yesterday, constructing... something. Something very large and complex. And when Captain Britain had tried to ask her what she was doing, she had given him at least six ways he could improve the Midnight Runner, which, of course, Brian had seen fit to muddle over right that moment.

This was beginning to worry me. Of course, whenever someone starts building something large and complex people are bound to wonder, and perhaps get a little worried, but *why wasn't Moira trying to stop her*? It was *her* hanger, after all--wasn't she the least bit curious? Karen had told them it was some kind of advanced communication device, but for who? E.T.?

I shivered involuntarily. There was something in the air that was setting me on edge, and when you don't breathe this comes across as just the tiniest bit strange.

I began to drum my fingers on the desk. This wasn't disturbing, since I didn't have much in the way of nails anymore (if you want pain, see what happens when you're in the middle of a fight or training session and a nail snaps in half) but it wasn't a good sign. I usually didn't have any nervous fidgets aside from rubbing my arm, and when I displayed any it was usually a sure sign my subconscious was trying to tell me something. Unfortunately, my conscious was being stubborn and doing its best to keep me from finding out just what.

As Hank droned on, I suddenly realized I hadn't actually gone to "sleep" since yesterday. I realized I was still new at this whole disembodied slumber factor, but wouldn't I have *noticed* I was tired? It's hard to ignore in my case--my molecules keep trying to escape. Like they were doing now, for instance.

I politely waited for Hank to pause for breath, then raised a hand politely. He raised an eyebrow after glancing at my doodle-filled notebook and said, "Yes, Dawn?"

I held up my left hand, which was in the process of dematerializing. I.e., it stopped being a hand just above my thumb. It looked more impressive that it was, really. I took a deep breath and said, "Dr. McCoy, my physical and psionic cohesion is deteriorating due to exhaustion and considerable mental strain to my person. I would like to request permission to retire to my quarters and engage in the recuperative state of semi-consciousness required to regenerate my physical being before I discorperate in the midst of this class."

The thing about Hank is that, to get excused from his class, you've got to phrase the question right. I even shan't go into what you've got to say to go the bathroom.

Hank sized me up carefully, then nodded. "Permission granted," he said, "but in the future I would appreciate it if you slept *before* coming to my class." He glanced at the lesson plan. "Homework is to read pages 121-150, questions 1-24 even. I trust this will be completed by tomorrow?"

"Yes, sir," I nodded, getting to my feet. "Thanks. I... kind of forgot to sleep last night."

"I understand. Just be sure it never happens again."

Of course he understood--this was the man who had once worked in his lab for five days without sleep and a diet of only a box of Granola bars. Still, I hated to leave in the middle of a period--not only did it feel rude, but I hated to interrupt the class. Monet, Paige, Everett and Jonothon were the only ones here, but still...

I tried to pick up my book and failed due to the fact I was missing half a hand. With an exasperated sigh I concentrated and pulled myself back together, picked up my books, and left. The fatigue was so intense I found it hard to believe I could have missed it--I was so tired I tripped over my shoelace and fell on my elbows. I didn't feel the pain, only the impact of the ground, but I was fairly sure I'd end up with a few bruises. Giving up, I dropped the books and crawled over to a little niche in the hallway, which contained a nice, soft-covered bench. There were several such of these lining this hallway--I suppose when people are prone to violence and get thrown into walls on a regular basis it's always a good idea to have a little something to rest on near at hand.

I curled up, unable to believe how tired I had gotten in the past few minutes. It felt like some invisible wall had blocked off my exhaustion, and had continued to do so until the strain on my "body" had become too great to ignore. I had a thought, and groped for some paper and a pen from my notebook. I scribbled "just resting" on it, put it on the bench beside me, and allowed myself to dissolve.

He yawned, and stared dully at the big screen before him, rubbing his eyes. He'd been working for hours without a break, and his shift still wasn't over. And he was hungry. But then, he always was. He didn't see why it was so important to monitor the newscasts anyway...

"...a group of outlaw mutants known respectively as the X-Men were seen leaving the scene of the disaster shortly after the demise of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, taking with them Franklin Richards, son of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, as well as two unknowns suspected of being mutants," the anchor-man was saying, and the boy's eyes widened. He had been told to watch for information concerning the X-Men, especially for news of any new recruits. Hurriedly, he hit the Record button and watched the newscast intently. It was the familiar scene of the creature known as Onslaught being vanquished, thanks to the heros, but from a different angle than most. This was an excellent piece of footage, shot from almost directly behind the group of mutants. He watched as three people fell out of the sky--Franklin Richards he recognized, and the boy with the streak in his hair was one he had been told to watch for in particular. Excited, he began to stand up to tell his employer--

And then he got a better look at the third figure.

It was a girl of indefinite age, blue of hair and eye with a huge pair of wings that were struggling to keep their user aloft under the weight of two passengers more than twice her mass. As he watched the X-Man Rogue scooped the trio up in her arms and deposited them on the ground, right before everything went white with static.

He stopped the tape and sat for a few moments, wondering who the girl was. She looked vaguely familiar...

"Computer, replay tape," he said, cradling his hand in his chin. The computer beeped and obliged, replaying the footage. "Computer, freeze frame," he instructed as a reasonably good view of the girl's face came into view. "Magnify section 28F by 75%."

The scene zoomed in, blurry and out of focus, but clear. "Increase resolution," he instructed, leaning forward in the uncomfortable plastic chair. The fuzz and static cleared a little, revealing a surprisingly young face twisted with exhaustion, pain and fear. He stared at it for several long moments, then said, "Computer, search database for visual match."

The screen split, and images flashed across the screen. He waited patiently, brushing a strand of hair from his bleary eyes. It had been eight hours of nothing, but now, perhaps...

"Match found," intoned the electronic voice. "Designate: Embers, Dawn Vedette. Probability of incorrect match: 0.3%."

"'Vedette'?" the boy repeated incredulously.

"Italian in origin, meaning guar--"

"Never mind," he said quickly. "Personal dossier?"

Information appeared across the screen--vital stats, weight, height, powers--but across it in large, distinct red letters was a single word.


The boy swallowed, and turned to the intercom nearby. "Mr. Essex?" he said after a moment.

"Yes?" came the slightly muffled reply from the other end.

"I think you should see this..."

I wasn't dreaming, I didn't think. I was somewhere very dark and not at all pleasant, heat so intense it was almost palpable as it seared my skin. I was also naked, I noticed. I *hated* dreams that begin like that, mostly because my blush-factor is so low that it might as well be reality. I extended my wings and wrapped them around my body like a cocoon, which was hot but at least not quite as awkward as before. I squirmed uncomfortably. There were rocks beneath my feet--*hot* rocks. It reminded me of the time my parents and I went to the beach in Florida and arrived just after noon on a cloudless day. *Ouch*.

Well, at least I wouldn't have to worry about sunburns here. For one, there wasn't a sun. I took a step forward, carefully, alert for anything out of the ordinary. It occurred to me that this was a stupid thought to have when one is standing au natural in what felt like a rock desert, but such things happen when I'm tired.

I took another step, and then another. The soles of my feet itched and stung--I think I'd cut myself on the rocks. Strange that I had sensation in this dream, and not in reality. I'd almost missed pain...

Sickly green fire suddenly appeared before me with a *whoosh*, causing my wings to spread automatically, mantling like a hawk's. I clenched my fists and crouched into a defensive position, powering up...

Someone was laughing at me. The putrid stench of sulfur and brimstone floated past my nose, and it definitely wasn't a result of Kurt's teleporting. The hair on the back of my neck prickled with alarm, goose bumps raising along my arms as a wash of cold terror momentarily overwhelmed the heat. I turned around in the direction of the laugh, and suddenly my arms were bound before me with huge, rough manacles. A tarnished chain was attached, leading away into the darkness. Someone on the other end yanked and I fell forward onto my hands and knees, gritting my teeth in pain as the rough surface abraded my skin. I raised my head and looked up into blood-red eyes, burning into my soul--

I pulled my gaze away, head throbbing. Something cold seemed to crawl across my skin. I looked down to discover I was now clad in black leather. I *never* wear black leather, with the sole exception of my jacket. Heck, I was the only one uncomfortable in my GenX costume! Where on earth had my subconscious dragged *this* up from?

I abruptly decided that I didn't like this dream at all. I concentrated--ever since I was a little kid all I've had to do to get out of nightmares is think about waking up very hard, then refocus on what I know my body is doing in reality. Whether this is the result of my telepathy or not I've never discovered, but it worked. I've heard interrupting REM is bad for you, but--well, I thought it would be worth the risk in the instance.

"Oh no you don't," a voice like steel wrapped in velvet purred from the darkness. I turned to look at those burning red eyes again, head pounding like a jackhammer.

"You're not real," I said as loudly as I could, which wasn't very. My throat felt dry and my voice came out tight and scratchy. I cleared it and tried again. "You're not real, and I know it. I'm waking up now."

The voice laughed. "Perhaps you are. But I most certainly *am* real, Dawn. You will find this out soon enough..."

I snapped awake, sweating. Just like that, it was over. That was a relief. I hadn't liked the direction it had been heading (all right, I hadn't even liked the direction it had started at) and God knew I had more than enough to have nightmares about in *real* life. I curled my legs to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, thinking. It felt like something was tugging at my brain. Tugging--south. South-west. I rose to my feet, trying to focus on it. This was similar to the feeling I had gotten when that whole Onslaught disaster had begun...

The memory automatically put me on the alert. I sent out psychic feelers in that direction, but the feeling was strange, nebulous, and untraceable. It wasn't an urge, it was a *feeling*. There is a difference. I had a choice about this one, unlike the Onslaught affair. I didn't have to go this time. I really didn't.

I sighed. Mental battles are always exhausting, and I was really in no condition to try and figure out what to do just now. It didn't have anything to do with Glenn--it just didn't have the right flavor to it. But it seemed important...

...Just as that dream had...

I shuddered and shook my head. I didn't want to think about *that*. It was probably all Freudian anyway, somehow. Sure, now that I thought about it, the red eyes could suggest something to do with Sinister...

I clamped down on that thought immediately, because even the mere mention of *him* was making my body shiver uncontrollably. Of course it wasn't Sinister. It *couldn't* have anything to do with Sinister, because I knew he thought he knew I was dead. He had to, because I hadn't even done anything public since then, and I doubted that he knew *everything* that happened in the X-Mansion, decimated as it was. So I had nothing to fear.

And anyway, the voice had been different...

Karen snuck into the darkened hanger, the red light from the exit sign gleaming off her metallic skin. She narrowed her eyes and smiled; no one had disturbed her little project because she had put a defensive force-shield around it, discouraging any and all chance at physical contact with it. She was quite pleased with her little intruder repeller, too--she'd constructed it in only twenty minutes out of some spare bits and pieces she'd found. Now that her head was clear again she was free to exercise her skill to its fullest extent, starting with the communication device.

She deactivated the defense system that surrounded her creation with a push of a button, then sauntered over to the control panel of the device. She flicked it on and created a secure line to the states, brushing her wire-like hair over one shoulder. She had to wait only a few moments before she got a reply. The question was simple and direct.

"Is it ready?" the voice on the other line asked.

"Yes," she replied softly, lest she be heard by anyone passing by. She'd already disconnected the security cameras to the hanger, but she thought it best not to push her luck.

"Excellent. Does MacTaggert suspect anything?"

"No. She's too immersed in her lab-work." Karen snorted. "Stupid woman. Worrying about a mere disease when a pivotal point in history happens right under her nose. But I think some of the Excaliburians are getting suspicious. Shrive certainly is. We must act quickly if we are to secure our place here."

"And the Douglock unit?"

"Out of commission. Systems nominal as per orders, but comatose. He won't interfere."

"Good work. We were wise to... 'hire' you, Smith."

Karen ignored the comment. "We must dispose of Shrive quickly," she informed the speaker. "He is causing... problems."

"And what would they be?"

Karen clenched her fists for a moment, the breathed out slowly. "Personal... problems," she answered slowly.

There was a significant pause. Karen swallowed hard, more by reflex than anything. Finally, the man said, "You aren't supposed to *have* those kind of problems."

"What can I say? I've known him all my life," she snapped. "I would like to get rid of him before things get any worse."

"Then simply dispose of him."

Karen gritted her teeth. "Read my lips," she said softly. "I CAN'T. So I'm asking *you* to do it. And since I'm the one doing all the difficult parts of this arrangement, I believe it's the *least* you can do."

There was a dry, raspy chuckle. "Very well," the voice replied. "We'll take care of it soon enough. We'll see you at the designated reundevous point at the agreed time. Over and out."

"Over and out," she acknowledged as the line went dead. Then, after a moment, "Bastard."

She got to her feet and reactivated the force field, brushing off her jeans. She knew she probably shouldn't have been as irritated at his reaction as she was, but she was *angry*. How dare they tell *her* to knock off Shrive? Bad enough she had to hate him now (and she felt a ghost of sorrow at this) but *kill* him? As loyal as she was to the cause, there were certain things she just couldn't do. Killing him would be like killing a part of herself, even after the mess that had been made of his personality and outlook.

Her gait became short and angry as she strode down the hall, not even bothering to be quiet anymore. The sound of her steps reverberated through the halls of Muir, off the walls and back again, like nervous little mice. Her fists were clenched now, though how they had come to be so she wasn't sure.

He's a mess. It's pathetic, really--he's become a neurotic wreck, totally without cause except keeping me alive, and now that I don't need him anymore he's crumbled completely. Idiot. A poor substitute for Jason...

Her lost twin. Now *there* was something she still cared about. She could tell, because what had been her heart tried to jump against her ribcage.

Not lost, really--I *know* where he is, but after He got done with him there wasn't much left to salvage. He wasn't like Shrive at all. He had a sense of humor and a mind of his own... he wasn't some coward who followed whomever was assertive, falling all over himself to make things "right." She shook her head in disgust. Pitiful, what that Genoshan-bonding technique can do to a person, even toned-down as it was...

Shaking the idle thoughts from her head, Karen Smith punched in a code, entered the Main Control Room, and auto-locked every electronic door in the Research Center, effectively sealing most of the inhabitants in their rooms. Of course, Kitty and Kurt and perhaps Meggan would be able to escape readily enough, but by that time she should be well out of the area.

Now time was of the essence. *Someone* was bound to be up this time of night (someone always was) and it was only a matter of time before she was discovered. Quickly, she raced back to the hanger, head now clear of distractions. She had work to do, and even in the old days work had *always* come first.

But just when she thought she was in the clear the moment she approached the Midnight Runner (mercifully intact--that Braddock idiot hadn't had a chance to tinker around with it too much yet) something small, purple, and mad as hell flew out from behind a crate.

"Yoo go 'way," Lockheed hissed, smoke billowing from his nostrils. "Leave."

"I'm trying to, you little space rat," Karen snarled nastily. Without a second thought she applied her metal foot to the tiny dragon's ribs and belted him into the far wall, where he was suspended for a moment, then slowly slid down to the floor. Karen snorted and opened the hatch to the Runner, then jumped inside. As she seated herself in the pilot's seat she glanced briefly back at the sadly crumpled little spot of lavender.

"Stupid creature," she muttered, turning her attention back to the controls. "Should have stayed back in your own solar system, fighting Brood."

She had engaged the Runner's engines and opened the hatch via remote control before doing and abrupt double-take.

"Wait a minute... did that flying rat just *talk* to me?"

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