"...but to tell you the truth, I'm starting to have mixed feelings about the entire project. I'm in over my head, Charles, and I could really use your advice."
As usual, Beast was the first to arrive. He rushed into the large room like a huge, blue-furred avenging angel, a bubbling test tube clenched in his massive fist. Xavier wondered how he had managed to swing through the halls without spilling a single drop. Still, the burly scientist's incredible agility made him a valuable member of their team.
When he saw that the room was empty, Beast hesitated. Then he nodded at Xavier, and moved over to the large conference table. "I apologize for my haste, Professor," he murmured, carefully setting the vial down. "You sounded most urgent!"
"I did not mean to interrupt your experiments," Xavier countered, gesturing at Beast's long white lab coat and the protective goggles dangling around his throat. "I trust that your rapid departure will not unduly endanger our lives!"
Beast grinned, revealing shiny white teeth. "Rest assured," he chuckled, "I am not in a hurry to die. It would interfere with my plans to join Dr. Nedstrom in surgery tomorrow morning!"
Then he sobered and glanced around the large room. "I assume there was a reason you sent for me. Is there a problem, Professor?"
Xavier lifted a calming hand. "Beast, I need you to fly out to the Parkwood Institute this afternoon, and collect our newest student," he explained. "She will be..."
Before he could finish, Jubilee dashed into the room, gasping for breath. "Sorry I took so long, Professor!" she panted, skidding to a stop beside his gleaming hoverchair. "I was outside playing basketball with Gambit when you called! What's up?"
Her eager, impetuous question made Xavier smile. "A new student will be joining us tonight," he repeated. "I would like you to prepare a room for her, Jubilee. Clean sheets on the bed, and perhaps some fresh flowers."
Jubilee's black eyes widened in delight. "A new student? Cool!" she exclaimed. "I'll finally have someone my own age around here!"
Xavier regretfully shook his head as he raised a hand to forestall her enthusiasm. "I'm afraid not, Jubilee. This young woman is in her early twenties. But there is no reason why you cannot be friends," he continued, ignoring her outraged groan of disgust. "I think you will get along quite well."
Jubilee moodily kicked at the base of a nearby chair. "It's just not fair!" she protested. "When are you gonna get some other kids in here?"
Then she sighed, and her slender shoulders fell. "Oh, well, at least she'll be closer to my age than the rest of you! That's something, I guess. Okay, let me change my clothes first, and then I'll get started."
Xavier and Beast hid amused grins as she stalked from the room, raking both hands through her damp hair. "Ah, the impetuosity of youth!" Beast murmured as she disappeared into the long, curving hallway. "Were we ever so young and full of life, my friend?"
"It is difficult to believe, isn't it?" Xavier conceded. Then he met Beast's deep-set blue eyes again, a secretive smile curving his lips. "Can you leave right away?" he urged. "Bob Parkwood is expecting you."
Beast blinked a few times, startled by Xavier's apparent need for haste. Then he slowly nodded. "I do not have any other experiments currently in process. May I know just who I am to retrieve?"
Xavier's smile widened, and he tried to control his reaction. His stern expression was not terribly convincing. "This student is...rather unusual, Beast," he hedged. "I would prefer that you form your own conclusions. Your unbiased opinions will be very valuable to me."
Beast frowned, sensing something unusual in Xavier's crisp voice. It was not like the Professor to withhold pertinent information.
Still, he knew when it was useless to press for further details. "At least I will be able to visit with Carly for a few minutes while I am there," he nodded. "The university where she attends classes is only an hour away from the Parkwood Institute."
Again Xavier apologetically shook his head. "There will be no extra time for visiting on this trip, Beast," he insisted. "I need to begin working with this student as soon as possible, for her own safety. She is currently in a rather...volatile situation."
Then another mysterious smile curved his lips. "There will be other opportunities to visit with Carly, I assure you."
He clapped Beast on the shoulder, silently willing him to obey without further question.
Sighing, the blue-furred scientist reluctantly gave in. His wide shoulders sagging, he retrieved his bubbling test tube, then turned and left the room.
"...oil pressure, check. Magnetos, check. Retros, check. Pre-flight checklist complete."
The minijet was in proper working order. Satisfied, Beast nodded and eased the throttle forward. His sleek little craft turned in a circle, then smoothly accelerated toward the far end of the massive hangar.
On cue, the massive double doors slid apart. Bright sunshine flooded the huge enclosure. A moment later, the plane burst out of the dark hangar opening. It seemed to hover above the ocean's turbulent waves for a brief instant as Beast pensively glanced back toward the distant Mansion.
Then the minijet rose straight up, curved to the west, and vanished into the distance.
The sun was just edging past its zenith when Beast's minijet emerged from the mountains and sped toward the western coast.
He momentarily succumbed to temptation, and circled once above the huge, sprawling metropolis beneath him. "'Loneliness is never more cruel than when it is felt in close propinquity with someone who has ceased to communicate,' " he sighed. "Germaine Greer."
Then he sadly shook his head. "Why have you not returned any of my calls or letters, Carly?" he whispered. "Have you finally found a human to love?"
Dreary depression settled over him as he reluctantly turned north and flew up the wandering coastline. He had only himself to blame...he had urged her, even pressured her, into traveling here to complete her studies. He had insisted that she needed to see more of the world, needed to experience everything that life had to offer.
And out here, away from familiar friends and surroundings...and him...she could more freely decide her own course through life.
Had she chosen to follow a different path than his?
Only deeply ingrained obedience to Xavier's orders kept him from turning the minijet back around and returning to his familiar university. Why, of all places, had he advised Carly to attend his old alma mater? Would he ever be able to return without being haunted by visions of her sweet, innocent face?
Professor Xavier's new student was waiting for him.
Sighing, he turned his thoughts to Xavier's parting words. I need to begin working with this student as soon as possible, for her own safety. She is currently in a rather...volatile situation.'
What danger could she possibly be facing that Bob Parkwood and his well-trained staff could not deflect?
Still, the minijet was capable of tremendous speed. Perhaps he should take a circuitous route on their return flight, utilizing its sophisticated stealth mode to shake any potential pursuers.
What would the girl even look like? As in his own case, genetic mutations could cause a host of physical changes. Some mutants, such as Morph and the evil shapeshifter, Mystique, had the ability to change their physical shapes at will. Others--the less fortunate--were cursed with bizarre appearances.
There were often compensations, though. By mimicking their enemies, Morph had saved each of their lives on numerous occasions. Beast's own superior strength and agility had also proved quite useful, and his terrifying appearance frequently startled opponents long enough for him to gain the upper hand.
Had it finally frightened Carly away? Would he ever see her again?
He must stop thinking this way! Gritting his teeth, he guided the sleek jet toward the Parkwood Institute.
The grounds looked green and peaceful in the early afternoon light. Beast found the tranquil sight oddly soothing to hisjumbled nerves.
He heaved one last melancholy sigh, then guided the plane toward the expansive front courtyard.
"Here he comes!" Bob Parkwood gratefully waved toward the bay window as a small black dot appeared on the horizon, and quickly resolved itself into a sleek two-man fighter jet. "Are you ready to go?"
His student, a pretty young woman in her early twenties, threw him a teasing grimace. "Eager to get rid of me so quickly, Professor?"
A guilty flush promptly stained Parkwood's angular face. "Of course not!" he insisted. "You should know better than that. It's just that I've already taught you everything I can--there's really no more you can learn from me! Professor Xavier can help you develop your talent to its fullest potential."
And he can protect you, he silently added, though he was careful not to echo that thought in his conscious mind.
He knew, better than anyone else, how easily this girl could sense the emotional auras of those around her. Her unique talent had stirred more intense controversy among his associates than all the other research he'd done in the past five eventful years!
Her large green eyes were bright with suppressed excitement. "Did he come for me himself?" she urged in an eager whisper.
She was deliberately refraining from 'sensing' their visitor's mind, to heighten the anticipation. Oh, to be so young again, so full of life!
Parkwood gently smiled. "Shall we go see?" he suggested, hefting her two battered travel bags.
She swallowed hard, then nervously followed him toward the wide double doors.
The thick grass had barely settled into place again when Beast popped open the cockpit and swung down to the ground. If only he'd thought to bring his standard camouflage--a long coat and his frayed fedora. He could only hope that exotic mutants were a common sight here, so that his sudden appearance wouldn't raise awkward questions.
He braced himself for possible trouble as he quickly ambled toward the front door. The sooner he met with Bob Parkwood and headed back east, the better he would feel! The temptation to abandon his current errand and search the university campus for a brief glimpse of Carly was still too persistent.
Then the large double doors swung open, and he froze in stunned shock.
"Carly? What are you doing here?" he gasped.
She was here! Somehow, incredibly, she was here!
Carly hesitated for one brief instant, avidly tracing his familiar features. Then she darted forward, laughing with eager delight. "Oh, Hank, I've missed you so much!" she whispered as she threw her arms around him in a fierce welcoming hug. "You look wonderful!"
He could no more have resisted her ingenuous greeting than he could have forced his heart to stop pounding.
She was here!
But how? Why?
Surely he could not have misunderstood Professor Xavier's terse instructions!
Beast stepped back and gently caught her small hands, his blue eyes narrowed with confusion. "So do you!" he exclaimed. "Carly, do not misunderstand me--I am very pleased to see you! But I do not understand! Professor Xavier asked me to pick up his newest student! Why are you here?"
Carly smugly tossed her long auburn hair over one shoulder and grinned up at him. "I'm your new student, Hank!" she explained. "Professor Xavier promised to finish training me! Isn't it wonderful? Now we can finally be together!"
Carly was the Professor's new student? Bewildered, Beast glanced over at Parkwood for an explanation.
"It's the truth, Hank," the scientist solemnly nodded. "Charles really does want to work with her. Carly's a very unique young woman!"
Beast was fully in agreement with him on that issue--he'd always known how special she was. Yet why should Professor Xavier have taken a sudden interest in her?
Carly slid her arms around his waist and gave him another affectionate hug. Parkwood chuckled at his disconcerted expression. "You'd better get going now, Hank, before things start going crazy around here. Carly can explain everything on the way," he assured him.
Without waiting for a reply, he stepped up to the minijet's open cockpit and tossed her bags into the back of the plane. Then he gave Carly a warm hug. "You take good care of yourself, now, and let me know how things are going. Don't forget what I've taught you!" he urged.
Hot tears flooded Carly's eyes as she earnestly nodded. "I promise!" she whispered. "I'll call you as soon as we reach the mansion, okay?"
She whirled and hurried to the plane before the betraying tears could spill down her cheeks. Parkwood slowly nodded as she scrambled inside, vigorously rubbing at her face.
Left with little other choice, Beast uncertainly followed her. The cockpit slowly descended over them as the powerful engines roared to life.
Parkwood waved as the sleek minijet shuddered, then smoothly rose into the air. For one brief instant, he thought he saw Carly's face pressed against the window, staring back down at him. Then the backblast reached him, and he spun away to protect his face from the intense surge of hot, dusty air.
When he finally turned back around, the little plane was already vanishing into the distance. Another moment, and it was entirely gone.
Parkwood heaved a weary, dejected sigh as he trudged back into the main building. He knew that he'd done the right thing--Carly would be safer under Charles Xavier's expert care.
Nevertheless, he had come to depend on her cheerful assistance and bright laughter over the past year.
He was going to miss her. A lot.
For several long minutes, an uncomfortable silence filled the small cockpit. Beast prudently used the time to program their flight path into the navi-computer. When he finally pushed the autopilot button, the minijet rose higher in the air, and began cruising back toward the high, snow-capped mountains.
Carly watched as his agile fingers darted across the small control pad. Yet when he finally met her steady gaze, she quickly glanced aside. He couldn't quite shake the impression that she had been studying him, trying to fathom his emotions.
Suddenly Beast found himself at a loss for words. There were so many things he wanted to tell her! Why should he, the learned scholar with a dozen ready quotations always on tap, be tongue-tied and unsure of himself?
Thankfully, Carly seemed to understand. She shyly smiled and extended her hands. He hesitated for one brief moment, then uncertainly laid his palms across hers.
Soothing peacefulness seemed to radiate from her small fingers, spreading up his arms and through his body like warm honey. "It truly is good to see you again, Carly," he murmured, smiling. "I had not realized just how much I have missed you!"
Carly leaned close enough to kiss his cheek, her eyes glowing. It was just what he had secretly hoped for...yet despite his better intentions, Beast self-consciously pulled away.
His unexpected rejection brought fresh tears to Carly's eyes. "Please don't be angry with me, Hank!" she pleaded. "We didn't mean to trick you, honestly! I thought Professor Xavier had told you!"
How could she have known exactly what he was feeling? An anxious frown darkened Beast's rugged features as he glanced away. "The Professor told me nothing!" he protested.
Then he shook his head, bewildered. "Carly, you are not a mutant! Why does he wish you to study with him?"
Carly flinched, and pulled her hands away. The unexpected warmth faded from his body, leaving him strangely empty and forlorn, as she turned away and blindly stared out the window.
"Hank, do you remember the first time we met?" she whispered, her throat tight with unshed tears. "You refused to shake my hand, because you were afraid I'd be repulsed by a mutant's touch. But I knew what you were like inside, where it really mattered!"
She turned back to face him then, and he was surprised to see the tears trickling down her cheeks. Without thinking, he leaned forward to wipe them away. Carly caught his hand, and caressed the thick blue fur on his wrist. "I didn't care what you looked like! I just wanted to be your friend!" she insisted.
She seemed to brace herself as she took a deep breath for courage. Then she bravely met his wary gaze again. "Hank, haven't you ever wondered how I knew what you were really like, when I could only hear your voice?" she urged. "Or how I could possibly recognize you in the doorway, when I was totally blind?"
Beast hoarsely cleared his throat as he recalled those long-ago days. How he had looked forward to seeing her sweet, smiling face every day! "You said that you recognized my aftershave lotion," he whispered, his deep voice husky with suppressed emotion.
A reproving smile curved Carly's lips as she stroked his cheek. "You don't shave, Hank, so why would you wear any aftershave?" she countered. "You knew that I was lying. But you let it go so you wouldn't have to explain that you were a mutant!"
She was right! Was he really so transparent...could she could read him that easily? "Then how did you know it was me?" he demanded.
For a moment, she seemed almost afraid to answer him. Then she took another deep, steadying breath. "Because I'm an empath, Hank," she admitted. "That's why your Professor Xavier wants to train me."
Beast angrily jerked his large hand free again, startled by her unexpected revelation. "Empathy is a mutant talent, Carly! You are not a mutant!" he protested. "I should know--I researched your genetic data very carefully before your operation! I had to know..."
He suddenly faltered, and his eyes closed in visible anguish. Carly smiled as she bravely stroked his long fingers again. "You had to know whether I was a mutant? But why, Hank?" she persisted. "Not for the operation--you already knew that would be successful. Why was it so important to know if I was a mutant, like you?"
Her unswerving confidence in his abilities made him smile. Then he sobered again and heaved a weary sigh. "You already know why--because it is too dangerous for you to be seen with me," he muttered.
A bitter frown darkened Carly's pretty face as she angrily shook her head. "Prejudice again. And from the last person I'd have expected! Haven't you learned by now that I don't care what those stupid humans think?" she retorted.
Beast quickly glanced back at her, startled by her revealing choice of words. "You are still one of them, Carly," he cautioned. "Do not delude yourself into believing..."
Carly impatiently jerked her own hand away. Her green eyes glittered with barely-suppressed anger as she glared up at him. "Dammit, Hank, you're not listening! I am not like them, not anymore!" she insisted. "I'm...different! I know I'm not really a mutant, either, but I am not a normal human!"
As quickly as it had flared, her spurious anger faded again. She hunched back down in her seat, dejected.
"Hank, I started working with Professor Parkwood because I wanted to learn more about mutants," she explained, frustrated by his sudden inability to understand. "I thought that if I could figure out what makes them different from humans, I could find a way to fit into your world. But that's not what happened!"
She shook her head in confusion as she stared out the window again. "I've always been able to hide my empathy from other people, but not with him. He knew right away that I was--well, different," she sighed. "So he accepted me as his assistant. And when he found out what I could do, he was fascinated!"
New tears sparkled in her eyes as she turned to look at Beast again. "Hank, don't you understand? I'm not like you or them! I'm the only person alive who has a mutant's powers without really being a mutant! I don't have that genetic aberration...but I can sense nearly every single person around me, and tell exactly what they're feeling!"
Silence filled the cockpit as Beast considered her urgent explanation. Beneath the minijet's wings, the mountains began to climb higher into the sky. The plane's powerful engines briefly surged, lifting them above the snow-covered peaks.
Beast automatically checked the glowing control panel, then warily glanced back over at Carly. There were so many issues to consider! Yet if her assessment was correct...
"Did Professor Parkwood give you any explanation as to why you are so different?" he urged.
Carly meaningfully touched her eyes. "You're already familiar with the concept, Hank," she nodded. "Lose one sense, and your other senses will overcompensate. That's why I could say that I smelled your aftershave. Even you accepted it!
"He thinks that I developed an empathic tendency when I was very young, to make up for being blind. And working with him for the past year has really strengthened it!" she added, enthusiasm rekindling in her voice.
Beast caressed her soft face with one large hand. "Then you know everything I am feeling?" he concluded.
Carly's eyes glowed as she rubbed her cheek against his palm. "When have you ever been able to hide your feelings from me?"
Then her expression clouded over. "Hank, why was Professor Parkwood so worried about me?" she added. "He never would admit it, but he seemed to feel that I was in some kind of danger!"
Beast scowled as her plaintive question stirred his own concerns. "Professor Xavier also felt that you were in a potentially dangerous situation," he murmured. "The pro-human leagues have discovered your unique talents, Carly, and they could wish to harm you. Simply by existing, you threaten all that they hold dear!
"If the genetic marker is no longer sufficient proof of being a mutant, any one of them could possess latent tendencies!" he added, when she cast a bewildered frown his way. "And they would not like that at all!"
A harsh beeping suddenly attracted their attention, and he glanced back at the instrument panel. His eyes instantly widened in alarm. "Oh, dear," he murmured. "It appears that I have been quite remiss in my duties!" An anxious expression darkened his features as he quickly reached for the controls. "Please strap in, Carly--we are about to have company!"
Carly twisted around, trying to see out the rear of the plane. Then she gasped and grabbed at her safety straps as the plane swerved. Beneath them, the mountains tilted back and forth at a crazy angle.
"Hank, what is it? What's happening?" she demanded, clutching the edge of her seat with frenzied strength.
The jet dipped, then swung into a tight turn with alarming speed. She stared in horror at the reeling horizon, her face pale.
"A smart missile," Beast tensely informed her. "Surface-to-air interceptor. It has locked onto our engines."
Carly stared at him in blank disbelief, her eyes wild with panic. "Why?" she gasped.
Beast's fingers nimbly danced across the control panel as his other hand curled around the throttle. "Our engines represent the nearest available heat source," he muttered in an absent tone. "The missile is programmed to follow that heat source until it makes contact, and explodes."
The sleek little jet abruptly veered in a different direction as he threw it into another sharp turn. The radar's harsh beeping seemed to quicken with strident urgency.
"No, I mean why?" Carly impatiently clarified, her voice cracking with fear. "Why is someone trying to kill us?"
Beast nodded in grim satisfaction, and depressed a small, brightly flashing button. The plane shuddered as a dazzling explosion of light erupted from the bottom compartment, and shot down toward the distant mountains. Four seconds later, a massive eruption shook the air beneath them as the missile followed the brighter "sunburst," and violently detonated.
"They were not trying to kill us," he finally responded, his voice tight with barely-suppressed fury. "They were trying to kill you! Professor Parkwood's instincts were quite accurate!"
"Me?" Carly stared at him in numb shock. "But why?"
Beast's fierce expression made her draw back in sudden fear. "Because in their eyes, you are an abomination!" he retorted. "You are everything they..."
The console began to flash again. Two more glowing dots were converging on their position.
"Oh, dear," he anxiously repeated. "It appears that our pursuers are more determined than I had anticipated! I may have to take rather drastic evasive maneuvers..."
Gritting his teeth, he yanked back on the throttle. The engines roared as the jet shot off at another sharp angle. Then, without warning, he threw them into a tight, spiraling tailspin.
The tremendous gravitational forces instantly smashed them back into their seats. "My apologies, Carly!" he gasped as, at the last possible second, he snapped out again, and looped back up into the sky. "I have not attempted anything this intricate in quite some time!"
Carly was already unconscious...no mere human could withstand such incredible pressures unscathed. And in that respect, at least, she was still undeniably human. Little good it would do her, though, if he failed to save her life!
Behind them, the two large missiles veered from side to side, striving to overtake them. Only one managed to correct its course in time. Engine howling, it relentlessly homed in on their exhaust trail, gaining on them with every passing second. The other lunged past with frightening speed, then looped back around and resumed the chase.
For one brief instant, Beast found himself directly between them. It was not a location where he preferred to remain.
He yanked the throttle back again. The minijet shot straight up, then looped back over, across its own exhaust trail. The tail and rear engines promptly disintegrated in a blinding flash as the closer missile sheared through the jet's sturdy stabilizing fins. Then the other missile smashed headlong into the first.
The violent concussion threw the plane aside, and into another dangerous tailspin. For a few brief moments, even Beast was stunned half-senseless by the tremendous close-range blast. The cockpit seemed to swim around him as he weakly shook his head, trying to focus again.
The snow-capped mountains were looming closer with steadily increasing speed. Suddenly coherent again, Beast grabbed the throttle and yanked it almost into his lap.
His fingers blurred with frantic speed as he rapidly programmed several new commands into the navi-computer.
The front thrusters were still functioning...that was some small comfort. Grimacing, he fought the controls with every ounce of his considerable strength, and gradually managed to lever the nose up.
Then the icy mountainside reached up to smash into them with unthinking, savage force.
Cold air roused Beast from his dazed stupor. A huge pine tree was looming in front of him, its thick, shaggy bark shattered into long, ragged strips. The minijet's sleek nose was half-buried in the thick trunk. The cockpit glass was shattered.
Beast groaned and painfully unhooked his safety straps. "Carly?" His hoarse voice echoed in the eerie silence as he slumped forward, then pushed himself upright again.
Small fragments of glass fell from his thick fur as he awkwardly knelt at Carly's side. She was still unconscious; her slender arms flopped off the edge of her seat as the plane settled with a creaking groan. He could see the deep marks where her small fingers had gripped the sturdy fabric with frenzied strength.
Could the entire incident possibly have happened so quickly? It felt more like hours had passed since he'd caught sight of that first deadly missile on his radar screen!
For several breathless moments he hesitated, pressing gentle fingers against Carly's throat, searching for her pulse.
There it was, faint but slow and steady.
A heavy sigh of relief escaped Beast as he cradled her close, and her long, silky hair cascaded over his arm.
Professor Xavier had sent him to protect Carly! Instead, he'd nearly allowed her to be killed! If anything had happened to her...
And a heavy snowstorm was on the way. He hardly needed Wolverine's ultra-sensitive nose to confirm it...he could already feel the icy gusts of wind rattling the treetops above them. He needed to set up some kind of shelter quickly, before they both froze to death!
A jolt of pain shot up his muscular right leg as he staggered to his feet. He ignored the discomfort and jumped to the ground. Then he hobbled across the small clearing and laid Carly down against the base of another large tree.
Her head fell to one side, and he caught his breath in sudden fear. She'd been tightly strapped into her seat, but...could she still have been injured in the crash?
"Carly?" he whispered again, tenderly curling his fingers under her chin. "Can you hear me?"
Several agonizingly long moments slipped past. Then a soft groan escaped her as she started to shiver. Relieved, Beast thoughtfully moved closer, protecting her from the icy, gusting wind. "How do you feel, Carly?" he murmured, stroking her cheek.
Carly sluggishly rubbed her forehead, and grimaced in sudden pain. "Mmmmmm...like I got hit by a freight train," she mumbled. "What happened?"
Beast managed a wan smile. "I am afraid that your analogy is closer to the truth than I would prefer. Would you settle for several large pine trees and half of a mountain?" he lamely joked.
Carly groaned and forced her eyes open. The cloud-filled sky whirled around her in sickening patterns. Then Beast's familiar, furry blue shape slowly swam into view.
The concern in his deep-set blue eyes made her smile. How could anyone possibly believe that Hank McCoy was dangerous, or violent? His gentleness, his protective compassion, had attracted her from the very beginning. No one, not even her father, had ever loved her so completely, despite her crippling disability.
She could sense his anxiety--it settled around her like a cold, rippling waterfall. Yet something else was also disturbing him. She delicately probed at the edges of his mind.
Carly had never dared to reach so deeply into anyone's feelings before, and the experience was a little frightening. But this was Hank...her lovemate, the other half of her soul. Surely a swift foray into his emotions couldn't do any harm!
Vibrant sensations instantly enfolded her, thick and deep. Fear, like an icy finger down her spine. Love, warmly dispelling the eerie chill. Deeply buried, a tingling hint of suppressed passion. Then the last traces of adrenaline, like an electric jolt across her quivering nerves.
Startled, she stared past him at the mangled ruins of the minijet. Her eyes promptly widened in stunned disbelief. "My God, Hank, what happened to the plane?" she gasped, gripping his large hand. "Did one of those missiles hit us?"
Beast guiltily avoided her horrified gaze. "I am afraid that I have not been spending sufficient time in the simulator recently," he confessed, embarrassed. "Professor Xavier has chided me for burying myself in my laboratory. It appears that, as usual, he was quite correct.
"I should have been able to avoid both of those missiles!" he added, scowling. "Instead, we were fortunate to have escaped!"
His earnest penitence nearly overwhelmed her. Carly quickly withdrew from his mind, and threw up an instinctive barrier to protect herself. When would she learn to buffer her own reeling senses?
Then she shivered again as another icy breeze swept through the open clearing. "I'm cold," she mumbled, rubbing her bare arms in a vain effort to warm herself.
Why hadn't she worn some warmer clothes? Her short skirt and thin silk blouse were useless in this kind of weather! And sandals! What had she been thinking of when she'd gotten dressed this morning?
Still, it had been blistering hot in California. There was no way she could have anticipated being stranded in the Colorado mountains only a few short hours later.
Beast glanced back at the ruined minijet. Carly's bags were certainly gone now, lost somewhere over the highest mountain peaks. His once-beautiful jet was a mass of jagged black metal.
He swallowed hard, sobered by the awful sight. Then he managed another half-hearted smile. "I regret that I cannot simply offer you my fur coat!"
Beast's feeble attempt at humor brought an answering smile to Carly's lips. He was trying so hard to bolster her courage!
She grasped his sturdy wrist and staggered to her feet. "I suppose you are rather attached to it," she generously conceded. "So what other options do we have?"
The admiring light in his deep blue eyes momentarily warmed her. Then he gestured toward the wreckage with his free hand. "Perhaps the emergency kits will provide a better solution," he suggested.
Carly wondered if she had the strength to move--her head felt like it was about to wobble off her shoulders!
But it couldn't be helped. This was an emergency, and that meant she'd better ignore her own discomfort if she wanted to survive! "Well, then I guess we'd better find them," she agreed.
Snow crunched underfoot as they carefully avoided the numerous metal fragments littering the ground. Then Carly hesitated, eyeing the wrecked plane with wary caution. "It won't blow up, will it, Hank?" she demanded.
Beast curled a comforting arm around her shoulders, and drew her against his chest as another cold wind swept through the clearing. "Do not concern yourself, Carly," he assured her. "The minijet is not powered by combustible fuel, so there is little danger of an explosion."
"Oh, good!" Relieved, she relaxed and burrowed tighter against him, grateful for his unexpected warmth. A brief smile brightened his face as she sighed in contentment.
Then he sobered again. "Given the amount of structural damage, I am not sure that the jet's framework will support my weight again," he confessed. "If I lift you up into the cockpit, can you retrieve the emergency kits?"
A shiver swept down Carly's spine as she envisioned the plane collapsing beneath her. Then she straightened and mustered a brave nod. "I'll try," she promised. "Come on, let's hurry. It's getting colder by the minute."
Beast curled both hands around her slender waist. She was so light, like a small child in his arms! Stubbornly suppressing his baser instincts, he lifted her up into the damaged cockpit.
The plane made an ominous creaking sound as she knelt down between the seats. Beast instantly braced his shoulder against the outer hull. "There should be a kit beneath each seat," he instructed, his voice tightening with strain as the broken hull began to shift. "If you would be so kind as to lower them over the side..."
Carly quickly obeyed his terse commands, her face pale. She could feel the tremors in the floor as Beast dug his large feet more securely into the hard-packed dirt.
If the plane should roll over...
The metal boxes were heavier than she'd expected, and she had to use both hands to pull them free of their protective webbing. Then, grinning with inspiration, she looped her seat belt through the handles and lowered them over the side.
"I'm coming back down now, Hank," she warned as she nimbly scrambled out of the plane.
The ground was farther away than she'd anticipated. Carly grimaced in disgust as she brushed dirt and snow off her bare knees and lurched to her feet.
"Are you all right?" Beast urged, immediately abandoning his post. The minijet shuddered without his sturdy support, then settled back into its original position.
Large flakes of snow were already drifting across the clearing. Carly shivered again, and hugged her ribs. "I'm fine," she assured him. "Come on, let's find someplace warmer to wait out this snowstorm!"
Beast frowned. "I am afraid we will have to construct our own shelter," he apologized. "Perhaps beneath the minijet.
"In the meantime..." He briskly opened the emergency kits, and shook out a pair of sturdy thermal blankets. "These should keep you warmer," he smiled, securely wrapping them around her slender body.
His unfailing courtesy brought a grateful smile to Carly's lips. Thank goodness he wouldn't be as severely affected by the cold--his thick blue fur was an excellent barrier against the hostile weather!
A nearby boulder offered some protection from the biting winds. Carly gathered her blankets closer, and avidly watched as Beast stared at the twisted wreckage for a moment, then stepped forward. His muscles bulged as he curled large hands around one of the metal panels and fiercely wrenched it from the plane's framework. The plane trembled in response but, thankfully, held its position. Encouraged, he wedged the thick partition below the curving undercarriage and reached for another panel.
Within minutes, the wrecked minijet was reduced to a bare framework as he rapidly constructed a small shelter beneath it. The overlapping black metal plates looked out of place against the snowy hillside...but warm and snug, all the same.
Beast cast one final anxious glance at the gray, cloud-filled sky, then politely ushered Carly inside the shelter. The light dimmed as he pulled the last panel shut behind them.
Carly fumbled with one of the emergency kits, her fingers numb. In addition to the thermal blankets, each metal box contained several packs of dried food, a radio transmitter, and a small lamp. Beast flipped one on, and warm golden light immediately filled the snug shelter.
Carly spread one of the blankets across the floor, then snuggled against him, sighing with contentment. Suddenly, inexplicably, he felt a bewildering wave of shyness sweep over him.
Strong, confident Doctor Henry McCoy, smitten like a schoolboy, he mused as the other blanket slid from Carly's shoulders.
They were alone for the first time in so long...
He quickly leaned forward and reached for the radio transmitter. Anything to distract him, to keep him from delving too deeply into his own confused feelings...
Carly watched, a troubled frown on her face, as he delicately adjusted its small controls. Finally she stirred, and gestured toward the makeshift doorway. "How long do you think the storm will last?" she asked.
Not 'how long will we be trapped in here?' Beast shrewdly noted.
He tilted his head and listened to the rising wind. Mountain blizzards had been known to last for days. Fortunately, they had other available alternatives.
He reassuringly hefted the transmitter in one hand. This, at least, was something he could understand.
"The minijet was equipped with an internal emergency beacon," he explained. "When we crashed, it began broadcasting our position to Professor Xavier. This hand-held unit will act as a backup. It should not take them very long to locate us."
Unless someone else locates us first.
The unspoken words hung in the air between them, frightening in their implication. Someone had fired those missiles at them...someone who might not be content to assume that they'd died in the crash.
Carly soberly met his uneasy gaze. "Even through this blizzard?" she whispered.
He knew that she was referring to more than just Xavier's team, but chose to ignore her deeper meaning. "The Blackbird has operated under much more hostile conditions," he assured her. "They will not have any difficulty in retrieving us."
She silently accepted his evasion, yet once again he had the uncanny feeling that she was studying him, trying to judge his mood.
Finally she glanced back down at her lap. "Hank," she murmured, "back up there, during the fight, you said that they consider me an abomination. Do you..."
She hesitated a moment longer, then gathered her courage again. "Do you think that I'm an abomination, too?" she ventured, swallowing hard.
Beast stared at her for an instant, shocked by her assumption. Then he gathered her close, his arms warm and secure around her slender body. "Of course not, Carly!" he protested. "How could you possibly think such a thing?"
Carly apologetically ducked her head. "You were so angry!" she whispered. "I thought..."
Beast grimly shook his head. "Had I not been so rudely interrupted by the arrival of two very deadly missiles, I would have assured you that you are nothing of the sort!
"Unfortunately, most humans are frightened by anyone different from them," he sighed. "Simple skin color has sparked some of the bloodiest wars this planet has ever seen! The advent of mutantkind has stirred even deeper fears and resentments."
Carly stared up at him again, bewildered. "But Hank," she argued, "how can you be sure that it was humans who shot at us? If what you're saying is true, wouldn't other mutants have just as much reason to hate me?"
Carly's unexpected question startled Beast into momentary silence. Once again, she was quite correct. Not all mutants were united in a common goal to peacefully co-exist with humans.
Many, such as Magneto, yearned only to carve out an isolated niche where they could live undisturbed by humanity's petty hatred. Yet there were others, such as the diabolic Mr. Sinister, who actively plotted to exterminate all humans, and populate the world with pure mutants.
Human or mutant, there were certainly those who might wish to kill Carly for what she had become. The very thought left Beast chilled to the core.
"Have you reason to suspect mutant involvement?" he urged. Mr. Sinister was still being held in stasis on Muir Island, but the various members of his so-called gang had escaped. In addition, there were many others who might attempt such a dangerous endeavor. He'd been foolish to assume that she was safe from either side!
"I--" Carly started to respond, then faltered. "I'm not sure," she finally admitted. "For just a moment, I thought..."
"With your new talents, you would be more likely to isolate a saboteur than most," Beast encouraged, hugging her. "Is there someone you suspect?"
Carly considered his question for several moments, then nodded. "There was this one mutant at the Institute," she explained. "We called him the Sultan because of this weird pendant he always wore. He was a telekinetic second-story thief before Professor Parkwood hired him."
Beast leveled a reproving frown at her. "A person's past misdeeds do not make him automatically guilty, Carly," he cautioned. "My teammate Gambit was a professional thief in New Orleans before renouncing his Guild and joining Professor Xavier's school."
Carly quickly nodded, yet he could still glimpse a hint of concern in her clear green eyes. "Oh, I know that, Hank," she conceded. "I didn't mean it to sound that way.
"The Sultan was different, though," she explained. "Telekinesis was his primary talent, but his secondary ability was really weird. Telepathically, he was a complete null-factor."
Beast's blue eyes widened in confusion. "I beg your pardon?" he demanded. "Every living being, human or mutant, emits a discernable telepathic trace. Even a shielded mind can be detected!"
"Not this guy!" Carly insisted. "There was nothing, Hank! None of us could detect him, either telepathically or empathically. He gave me the creeps," she confessed. "I guess I'd suspect him simply because I couldn't 'read' him the way I could with everyone else."
"Such a talent would make him admirably suited to espionage," Beast reluctantly agreed. "Who better could hide evil intentions than the one person whose mind cannot be analyzed? Still..."
Suddenly Carly stiffened, and her green eyes widened in startled fear. "Hank, someone's coming!" she gasped, clutching his fingers with frightened strength. "Several people! And they absolutely hate mutants!"
"Several people! And they absolutely hate mutants!"
Beast tensed in alarm. That did not describe Professor Xavier's team at all! And his exotic appearance made the prospect of serious trouble entirely too likely!
Suddenly an ingenious light brightened Carly's clear green eyes. "Hank, no matter what happens, do exactly what I tell you!" she urged. "I think I've got a plan!"
Beast warily tilted his head to one side. "Just what do you have in mind?" he demanded.
Her smile widened into an impish grin as she leaned up to kiss his furry cheek. "You, my love, are about to join the circus!" she cheerfully exclaimed.
Then there was no more time for discussion. Muted voices surrounded their small shelter, angry and distrustful. Carly gathered the blanket around her shoulders, then scrambled to her feet and began pounding on the curving metal wall.
"Hello? Is anyone out there?" she cried, deliberately infusing an urgent note of panic into her voice.
The outermost panel shuddered, then fell back into the snow with a muffled thud. Several bright flashlights cascaded over Carly's face, half-blinding her. She instinctively raised her arm, blocking out the worst of the dazzling glare.
Fear flooded over her like an icy shower as she tentatively sampled the newcomers' emotions. Six of them, and each was armed with long-bore rifles. Lumberjacks? She could just see the closest one through the snowy haze. He was glaring at her, his eyes narrowed with outright hatred.
Suspicion gave way to surprise as the men stared down at her. Then the biggest one cautiously stepped forward. "It's only a girl!" he exclaimed. "Put your weapons away, boys. She won't do us any harm, even if she is a filthy mutant."
This was it...she'd have to rely on her acting abilities like never before! Carly laughed in disbelief, and let the warm blanket fall completely away.
"Mutant?" she echoed as it settled around her ankles. "I'm not a mutant! I'm an animal trainer!"
Her unexpected reaction startled and confused the burly men. "Animal trainer?" their leader repeated, raking her slender body with an intent, piercing gaze.
Had they been wrong, then? Everyone knew those filthy mutants were big, hairy beasts with strange abilities that normal people would never consider having!
She didn't look like a mutant...she just looked like a frightened, pretty young girl!
Carly tensely waited, maintaining the helpless look that seemed to strike a chord on the harpstrings of his emotions. Had she read him correctly? If she could convince him, the others would be easier to control!
He wanted to believe her...she could feel the longing deep inside of him. Despite his mutant-hatred, he was still a decent person. Their chances for survival had just gone up.
"That's right," she laughed, sweeping into an agile curtsy. "'The Amazing Alicia,' at your service!"
Then she feigned a hurt frown. "Don't tell me you haven't heard of me! Why, we've performed all around the world!"
Behind their leader, the other five men traded wary glances. "You an' who else?" one of them demanded.
"Why, my pet, of course," she innocently responded, patting her leg. "Come on, Beast--don't be scared. These nice men are going to help us!"
It was the first time she'd ever used his codename, and the word sounded strange in her ears. Henry McCoy was so much more than a mere beast! He was witty, clever, intelligent...but was he a good actor? Could he fool these men into believing that he was only a well-trained circus animal?
Nothing happened for a moment. Then Beast hesitantly lumbered forward, his massive body hunched low, hands dragging against the ground. Six rifles instantly snapped up again as the mens' eyes widened in horrified disgust.
Carly ignored the icy cold wind cascading over her, and protectively jumped in front of her partner. "Oh, no, don't!" she cried. "Beast won't hurt you--he's really quite tame. See?" And she mentally reached out toward the lumberjacks again as she stroked his shaggy head.
Beast obediently leaned against Carly's leg. Her trembling hand betrayed her intense effort to touch the core of their emotions and subtly soothe them. Then the men's suspicious expressions eased, and he felt her tensed muscles relax.
Very clever, my dear, he thought, hoping that she could also sense his approval. Very clever, indeed!
Carly's smile brightened as she fondly glanced down at his bowed head. Then she shivered again as a blast of frigid air swept through their tiny shelter.
Despite his wary suspicions, the leader couldn't help feeling sorry for her. "Here," he muttered, lowering his gun and shrugging out of his own thick, fur-lined coat. "Go ahead, put it on!"
Carly was startled by his unexpected consideration, but lost no time in gratefully pulling it around her shoulders. "Thanks, mister," she murmured, smiling up at him. "I really appreciate it! But won't you be cold now?"
The big man chuckled, amused by her naivete. "Don't you worry about me, little lady," he grinned. "Let's just get you and your, uh, pet out of this storm before it gets any worse! C'mon!" He turned and stalked back across the clearing, brusquely gesturing for her to follow.
The other men hesitantly lowered their own guns, and moved back as Carly and Beast stepped through the small door. What was probably meant as an honor guard felt more like a police escort as the lumberjacks surrounded and accompanied them down the steep hill.
Just out of sight beyond the far trees, several large powered sleds were idling in the deep snow. The men nimbly jumped aboard as their leader lifted Carly up in front of him.
Beast's eyes narrowed. He was not allowing that burly human to manhandle Carly! Snow flew around him as he lumbered to a clumsy stop right in front of the sled and crouched down, waiting for her next command.
Carly urgently touched her companion's muscular arm. "We can't leave Beast behind!" she appealed. "I need him for my act! And anyway, he'd never be able to survive out here alone! Please, mister, can he ride with us?"
The lumberjack's eyebrows lowered in an uneasy frown. That huge, hairy creature riding on his sled, only a few inches away? What if it attacked him?
Still, it did look gentle enough. And despite its thick fur, the girl was right--there was no way it could survive in a heavy snowstorm like this.
The last traces of his resistance melted as her small fingers tightened. "All right," he sighed. "Let it climb up behind us. Sure hope it knows how to hold on tight!
"And my name's Jake," he muttered, embarrassed by the glow of gratitude in her green eyes.
Before he could change his mind, Carly swiftly patted the large sled. "Come on, Beast," she urged, smiling. "Climb up! It'll be okay!"
Beast was careful to keep his movements clumsy and awkward, but he wasted no time in obeying her. He might be better suited to this weather than Carly, but he was not entirely impervious to it. The numbing cold retreated as he crouched down on the back of the sled and gripped Jake's seat.
Carly could hear the other men grumbling as Jake revved the motor, and they shot down the hill. They were glaring over at the bedraggled refugees, dark suspicion clouding their thoughts.
They had to be mutants--the strange woman had been so sure of it! And she'd known right where to find them, too. What kind of strange spell had these two cast over Jake, that he couldn't see the truth?
Trees whipped by at a frightening rate as the lumberjacks zigzagged down the mountainside, following a trail that only they could see. Carly was aware of their growing misgivings, and struggled to project soothing thoughts. She couldn't lose control of them--not when Hank's life hung in the balance! Yet it was difficult to keep her own fears from intruding as they slewed around a sharp corner and down another steep slope.
Huge snowdrifts slowly gave way to bare patches of frozen mud as they left the bitter storm behind. Without missing a beat, Jake hit a switch on the sled's control panel, and the long snowskis retracted into the undercarriage. Heavy treads left a wide track behind them as they plowed through the narrow gaps between the trees.
"You're sure lucky we found you!" Jake suddenly exclaimed. His deep voice rumbled like thunder above the sled's engine. "Didn't think there'd be anything left, the way your plane exploded! You got any idea what happened?"
Carly hesitated, trying to sense his emotions. Did he know more than he was telling? Should she profess total ignorance, or pretend that she had piloted the minijet through those incredible maneuvers?
Ignorance was definitely safer. After all, she never had actually seen those missiles--she'd been unconscious at the time!
She managed a weak smile, and shrugged. "I haven't a clue," she confessed. "I'd swear something hit us, but I can't imagine what! To tell the truth, I'm not even sure how we made it down safely, it all happened so fast!"
"I can believe that!" Jake muttered under his breath. "You're one real lucky lady!"
The thick forest suddenly gave way to a huge, empty clearing. Several sturdy log cabins were scattered in a large half-circle, sheltered from the strong winds by the surrounding trees and boulders. The sleds rolled to a stop by the nearest building, a long equipment shed that doubled as a communal shower and bathroom.
It was warmer here, Carly realized as Jake politely lifted her off the sled. Not balmy by any means, but certainly not as bitter as up on the mountainside!
Relieved, she shrugged out of his large coat and handed it back to him. He carelessly dropped it across the sled and retrieved his rifle as Beast hopped down and straightened to a half-crouch. Carly affectionately ruffled his thick blue fur to reassure the scowling woodsmen.
Jake was no problem--his oldest daughter was only a few years younger than she was, and her mental image was strong and clear in his mind. But his companions were still angry, distrustful. Now that she could concentrate again, she focused her mental energy on reassuring them.
"I can't thank you enough for rescuing me!" she exclaimed, favoring them all with a brilliant smile. "I know that my manager will be glad to reimburse you for your troubles!"
A few of the men perked up, and exchanged interested glances. "Well, now, we ain't got any phones or nothin' to call anyone," the boldest one drawled, leaning against his sled. "How're you gonna get in touch with your boss, honey?"
The man's barely-veiled threat made Beast stiffen. Carly laid a hand on his shoulder, subtly calming him.
She could feel the man's greed, like a bitter taste in her throat, wash over her in palpable waves. Money motivated him, enough to leave the hills and live in style in some fancy town.
More money than...than the other woman had offered them?
Suddenly alert, Carly glanced around the clearing. Someone had fired those missiles, someone who wanted them both dead.
Vibrant fear swept through her as she mentally reached out, searching the encampment. Fear, and a cold determination that sent shivers down her spine.
There, in the farthest cabin!
"Hank, look out!"
The words were out of her mouth before she realized she'd even spoken. An instant later, the tree behind her exploded as a glowing laser beam sliced across the wide clearing.
Beast instantly abandoned his menial stance and hurled himself at Jake. Another energy bolt shrilled by just over their heads, barely missing them.
The other lumberjacks stumbled back in shock as Carly ducked behind a boulder, gasping for breath. Then instinct made them scurry for cover.
"What the hell was that?" Jake sputtered, yanking away from Beast and staggering to his feet. Another bright burst of energy nearly singed his shoulder. Swearing, he threw himself back down, and glared at Carly. "Who's shooting at us?"
Carly pressed shaking fingers against her forehead. "She's holding your people hostage!" she whispered, her face pale with strain.
Beast's long fingers closed over hers, warm and supportive. "Who is it, Carly?" he demanded.
Carly helplessly met his intense gaze. "I don't know, Hank! Everything keeps moving, shifting! I can't get a clear picture!"
Jake stared at Beast in stunned horror. "You can talk!" he gasped. "You are a mutant!"
Beast's eyes narrowed. "My name is Dr. Henry McCoy!" he retorted, his deep voice icy-cold with anger. "And right now, I am the best chance you have for saving your companions!"
He dismissed the shaken lumberjack with a steely glare, and turned back to Carly. "Can you tell how many of them are in there?" he urged, laying a gentle hand on her arm.
Carly obediently struggled to concentrate again. "I--I think there's three of them, Hank," she finally gulped.
"But what do they want?" Jake insisted, hefting his gun. Another laser blast made him duck back again, scowling. "Why are they holding my people in there?"
Grim fury darkened Beast's features again as he spun back to face the big woodsman. "Why did they tell you to capture us?" he retorted. "How much did they offer to pay you?"
Jake simply stared at him in blank shock.
To be continued...