Title:A Haunting in Westchester
A Haunting in Westchester
"Maybe you could go as, like, a vampire," said Jubilation Lee, idly twirling her strawberry lollipop between her fingers. "’Cause it’d fit. You know, with the whole life-sucking thing and all."
Without looking away from The Bride of Frankenstein on the television screen, Marie "Rogue" D’Ancanto made a pouting face. "Not funny, Jubes."
Scott Summers rolled his eyes behind his ruby-quartz glasses.
At that moment, he was sitting on the couch in the darkened TV room with his fiancée, Jean Grey. Sprawled across the floor in front of them were nearly a dozen students of Xavier’s School, most of them engrossed in the latest creature feature on Turner Classic Movies. It was two weeks before Halloween, which meant the house rules limiting the kids’ intake of horror movies had gone out the window for the remainder of the month. Ordinarily Scott would have disapproved, but even he had to admit to a certain soft spot for the old Universal monster flicks the kids had discovered this year.
Some of the students had decided on their Halloween costumes months ago. Others had still not made up their minds, and among these was Rogue—hence Jubilee’s helpful suggestion.
"Well, maybe you could do a Gone With the Wind, Southern belle kind of thing," offered Kitty Pryde.
"Like Ah haven’t heard that one before!" Rogue drawled.
"Hey," Bobby Drake murmured, uncoiling from his chiropractically unsound tangle on the floor. "You know what? I think I’d like to go as him." He pointed to the menacing image of Boris Karloff stalking across the TV screen as Frankenstein’s Monster.
"You’ve got the brain for it," Jubilee sniffed.
Rogue stared at Bobby for a moment, then giggled and ruffled his hair with her gloved fingers, as if he were a toddler who had done something adorably precocious. "You’re so cute."
"Wait a minute!" Kitty broke in. "Rogue, if he goes as Frankenstein, I know what you can be!"
"Frankenstein’s Monster," Scott corrected quietly. He couldn’t help himself.
When a dozen pairs of eyes stared back at him, in a silence broken only by the growling of said Monster, he squirmed and cleared his throat.
"Well, what’s your idea?" Rogue asked, turning back to Kitty and incidentally letting their math teacher off the hook.
With a devious grin Kitty pointed to the television, where the hissing, tottering Bride of Frankenstein had just been unveiled. "You could go as Frankenstein’s Mate!"
Rogue’s eyes widened. "Aw, no. No way."
"Hey, that would be kinda neat!" Bobby exclaimed, with a fawning grin at Rogue.
"After all," Kitty urged, "you’ve already got those white streaks in your hair. All we’d have to do is frizz it out and make it stand up."
Jubilee snickered. "Maybe we could get Miss Munroe to kick up a lightning bolt for that."
"Okay, that does it!" Rogue snapped, and shoving Bobby aside, she pounced on her squealing friend.
Scott braced to separate the two, aware that Jean had raised a hand to reach out telekinetically and do the same. However, their concerns proved unfounded; both girls began laughing as they play-wrestled over Jubilee’s bag of Dum-Dums. The two adults exchanged a glance and a shake of the head, and Scott smiled at Jean, receiving the same in return. They would have to remind Rogue, as they did every now and then, to be careful with herself—but for now, there was no harm done.
Jean started to turn back to the kids, but then her head swiveled in the other direction, taking note of a new presence she had sensed. Scott followed her gaze, and as he recognized the silhouette in the doorway, he mentally let out a sigh.
Logan strode into the room, his eyes taking in every inch of it from beneath lowered brows. He had been gone for most of the day—and, as usual, no one knew where or why. Now he was carrying a folded piece of neon-orange paper, and as he approached the back of the couch, he held it out to Jean.
"I just got back. Found this on the gate."
Her lips quirked in curiosity, Jean took the paper and unfolded it, tilting it and squinting to read it in the dim light of the television. Some of the kids instinctively sensed a mystery, and as the movie credits were rolling anyway, they crowded around the couch to investigate. They blinked in the sudden brightness as Logan helpfully switched on a lamp in the corner.
"So what is it?" Peter Rasputin asked.
Jean frowned thoughtfully. "It’s an invitation to a haunted house someone’s having on Halloween. I think this address is the Old Willows Place down the road."
"Isn’t that the house some retired actress moved into about six months ago?" Scott asked.
"I think it is."
"Can I see?" Kitty begged, holding out a hand for the paper. Jean absently handed it over, and Kitty began to read with eager intensity.
From the tone of Kitty’s voice, Scott instantly knew they were in trouble.
"What?" Rogue asked, sitting up on her knees and jostling Kitty in an effort to read over her elbow.
Ignoring the shoving, Kitty replied, "It says here they’re looking for volunteers to help set up the haunted house—and to play the characters in it." She looked up excitedly. "Maybe I could, like, play a ghost!"
Across the room, Logan scowled—and for once, Scott was in total agreement.
"Wait a minute, Kitty," Scott cut in. "You’re not thinking about using your power, are you?"
Kitty blanched slightly, but managed to retain an even, reasoning tone. "Well, why not? If anyone asked, we could just tell them it was special effects or something." She glanced around at the other teens, looking for moral support. "Can’t you just imagine me popping out of a wall and freaking people out?"
"Hey, maybe I could juggle knives…" Peter mused.
And that set off the rest of the kids.
Amidst a sudden, excited babble of young voices chattering about the haunted house, Scott reached up to massage his temples. It was some comfort to him that Logan was doing much the same thing—but Jean was smiling slightly, with a calculating look in her eyes.
"Oh, no, Jean. Don’t look like that." Logan’s tone was as close to a whine as Scott had ever heard from him.
Jean blinked, looking back and forth between the two men. "Well… maybe it would work. It depends on the person running the haunted house, of course, but…" She drifted again.
"Can’t we at least find out more?" Kitty asked pleadingly, backed up by a chorus of "Yeah!" and "Please?" from the rest of the kids.
Jean did not answer, but glanced up at Scott, with the sort of cheerfully expectant look that a grown man would be well justified in fearing.
That was the coup de grace, and Scott let out a prodigiously long and heavy sigh. "Alright. I’ll talk to the Professor about it in the morning—if you all agree that what he says about it is final."
With reluctantly murmured agreements, the kids stampeded out of the room and up the stairs, all talking at once. Scott closed his eyes and slid his fingers under his glasses to rub his eyelids. He looked up in time to see Logan step forward, wearing an ominous expression.
"Please tell me you’re joking."
Scott gave a shrug that was more like a wince. "It’s up to the Professor now."
"Cop-out," Jean retorted, but she was still smiling.
"Why do you look so happy about this?" Logan demanded. "You can’t be serious about letting those kids use their powers in public."
"Actually, this might be a great opportunity to let them do just that. Like Kitty said, if the conditions are right, we could pass it off as special effects," Jean replied. When Logan’s frown deepened, she pressed on, "Think about it. We try to teach the kids to take pride in their abilities—yet they always have to hide them from the rest of the world. This is one day out of the year when they just might be able to have some fun with their powers."
"Yeah, it’s always fun ’til somebody gets hurt," Logan grumbled, and with a shake of his head, he stalked toward the door.
He was almost there when he paused, then took a step closer to the shelf beside the doorway. He leaned over to scrutinize something amidst the stray odds and ends scattered upon it. When he spoke, his voice was entirely lacking its habitual growl; in fact, it had acquired a slight quiver of unease.
"There’s an eyeball sitting on the shelf, and it ain’t made of glass."
With a groan, Jean shot up off the couch. "Norbie’s at it again…" She snatched a tissue from the box on an end table, used it to pick up the disturbing object in question, then disappeared into the hall.
Logan stared after her, then looked back at Scott, one eyebrow raised. "Do I wanna know?"
"Probably not," Scott replied. When Logan continued to stare at him, he went on, "Norbert Smith. Sleuth. His eyeballs function independently outside of his skull, and he’s always leaving one of them lying around. Usually aimed at the TV when he’s elsewhere, supposedly studying."
The Wolverine stood still, absorbing that information, for a full ten seconds before he spoke—in language that suggested a bit too much time spent in the vicinity of Jubilation Lee.
"Okay. That’s officially the grossest mutation in the house."
Kurt Wagner felt a certain amount of tension in Professor Xavier’s office the following morning, when the adults were called together to discuss the haunted house and the students’ interest in it. The blue-skinned German crouched on his haunches in a chair beside the window, listening in attentive silence as his friends debated the issue.
"I don’t like it," grumbled Logan, who was slouching near the door. "I thought it was risky enough that you let the kids go begging for candy. Besides, isn’t it—exploitation or something, to let ’em put their tricks on display?"
"Not if they’re volunteering," Ororo Munroe replied earnestly. Fun-loving at heart, she had taken her friend Jean’s side of the issue, and was in favor of having a romp on the Eve of All Saints.
"Personally, I think Logan’s right," Scott muttered.
Ororo grinned at him. "Hey, wait a minute. You mean you two actually agree about something? This is a Kodak moment."
Logan growled. Scott grimaced. Jean stifled a chuckle behind her fist.
"Alright," Xavier interrupted from behind the desk, hands raised in a conciliatory gesture. "I am aware of the risks. I also think that Jean is right—it’s difficult for the children to live their lives with the secret of their gifts. As much as I disapprove of showing off, with the proper precautions, the chance to share those gifts for once could do a great deal to relieve some of that pressure."
Kurt was slightly startled to hear himself say, "I agree."
All eyes turned to him, and he fidgeted, his pointed tail swishing nervously.
"I was a performer," he reminded them softly. "The circus was a place outside of the ordinary world, where people could see me as I am, and feel wonder instead of fear. It was nice to have those times, when I didn’t need to hide myself." He cast a shy glance around the room. "Even if no one knows that the children are mutants, I think it would be good for them to have that, just once."
A long moment of silence followed, as his friends considered his words. He shifted uncomfortably on his chair, only relaxing somewhat when Ororo smiled at him.
"So what would you do?" Scott finally asked Xavier. "Tell the woman setting all this up that our students want to rig their own ‘special effects’ in her house?"
"No… not exactly," Xavier replied, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. He considered for a moment, then looked up with a steady resolve in his eyes. "I want to go to Old Willows Place, and meet the lady in question. If I can determine that she would respond well to the truth, that is precisely what I’ll tell her. If not…" he let the statement trail off meaningfully.
"I still don’t like it," Logan muttered. Then his glance passed over Jean, Kurt, and Xavier, and he shrugged. "But I’ll go along with it… until things get out of hand."
"They won’t," Xavier replied calmly. "Of that I can assure you."
Old Willows Place, named for the family that had built it in the mid-nineteenth century, stood roughly a mile down Graymalkin Lane—making it one of the closest neighbors to Xavier’s School. An elegant, three-story Victorian mansion, with a broad front porch and three gabled attic windows, it stood upon several acres of wooded property. It looked ideal for the role of the stereotypical haunted house. In fact, it outwardly did a respectable imitation of the Addams Family residence.
Evening was approaching when Scott drove Professor Xavier through the open wrought-iron gate and into the long driveway. As they pulled up in front of the house, a woman stepped out onto the porch.
Helen Conover looked much younger than her sixty-two years. She was still beautiful, perhaps all the more so because she seemed to make no special effort to be; her gold-and-silver hair was uncolored, her makeup was light, and her only jewelry was a wedding ring and a gold locket necklace. Her slender figure, clothed in a modest blue dress, had the grace and carriage of more than thirty years as a stage actress.
"Good evening," Xavier said, as the lift lowered his wheelchair from the van. "I’m Charles Xavier; we spoke on the telephone this morning. And this is Scott Summers."
"It’s a pleasure to meet you," Helen said, with a warm smile and a trace of Georgia in her accent. She shook both men’s hands with a firm, confident grip. "I want to tell you again how delighted I was by your call. I haven’t had any other volunteers for the haunted house yet, and I was hoping some of the students at your school might be interested."
"Yes they are, very."
"Wonderful." Helen’s smile faded a bit as she glanced at Charles’ wheelchair, then back toward her porch. "I just hope this won’t be too much trouble for you. It’s an old house, not terribly accessible…"
"We’ll manage," Charles assured her with a smile. "Thank you for inviting us."
Presently, with some maneuvering, the Professor and his chair were installed in the front sitting room of the house. This was a pleasant, comfortable space, with a bay window, a fireplace, and shelves filled with the trinkets and mementos of a life lived to its fullest. On the walls hung photographs affectionately signed by past costars, and framed playbills from the shows in which Helen had performed.
"So you played Queen Gertrude in Hamlet," Charles noted, admiring the testament to Helen’s work which surrounded them. "I believe I would have very much enjoyed seeing that."
"Thank you. It was my last role before I retired," Helen replied, with a slight blush. "Critics said it was some of my best work, but after my husband Arthur passed away… my heart just wasn’t in my performances any longer." She smiled ruefully, then stepped over to the table, where a polished silver tea service was laid out. "Would you like some tea?"
"Yes, please." Charles rolled his wheelchair up to the table, accepting the cup Helen poured for him. At the Professor’s side, Scott politely declined the tea, but took the seat Helen motioned him to. If she was curious as to why he wore sunglasses indoors, she had the grace not to ask.
Helen sat down herself, stirring sugar into her tea. "So, you teach at the school down the road. Are you the principal, Professor?"
"Something like that," Charles replied, with a small smile.
In a friendly conversation such as this, he disliked intruding on a person’s thoughts. Even now, when his goal was to determine how Helen Conover felt about mutants, he was loathe to pry into the mind of such an obviously good-willed woman. He compromised by examining only the general perceptions and feelings he sensed from her. What he found was precisely what he had expected: enthusiasm, kindness, and more than a little curiosity.
He decided to take a direct approach.
"When our students heard of your plans for a haunted house, they were very excited," he went on. "Many of them are interested in taking part in it. However, in all fairness, I want you to understand that the talents they have to offer are… rather beyond the ordinary."
The actress shrugged slightly. "Well, coming from a school for the gifted, I would imagine…"
"Yes, they are gifted." Charles paused, then concluded softly, "The children at our school are mutants."
Helen gasped and fumbled her teacup, splashing the hot amber liquid into her saucer. She was radiating surprise, but beneath it Charles found a wave of much more troubled emotions. Fear and alarm he could well have understood—but instead, Helen felt a powerful sorrow and regret, the echoes of something past and terribly painful.
Exchanging a glance with Scott, Charles readied himself to reach out with his mind, and erase his revelation from Helen’s memory.
"I’m—I’m sorry, Professor." Helen looked away, focusing on her nervous hands as she mopped up the spilled tea. Charles did not need his telepathy to see that her mind was racing. He remained silent, allowing her to collect her thoughts.
When at last she raised her head to face the two men, her eyes were brimming, but she spoke in a quiet, steady voice.
"When my grandson was twelve… we learned he was a mutant. He could never have hurt anyone, but my daughter and son-in-law were afraid of him—so they sent him off to some kind of institution, to try to make him ‘better’. All they did in that place was pump him full of drugs, until there was nothing left of the Kenny I knew."
She paused then, taking in a deep breath that shuddered with emotion.
"After three years, when he was almost gone already… he committed suicide. I haven’t seen or spoken to my daughter since his funeral."
Charles had heard such stories before, but he felt the same fierce hurt in his soul each time. With a sigh he lowered his gaze, giving Helen some measure of privacy as she regained her composure.
"I’m deeply sorry, Mrs. Conover. The losses you’ve suffered are truly undeserved by a woman as caring and generous as you. My life has been devoted to preventing such tragedies as that of your grandson, so I understand your pain… and I apologize for having opened old wounds."
To Scott he said quietly, "I think we should leave."
"No. Please don’t go." Helen managed a broken smile, shaking her head. "Don’t you see? If I’d only known there was a place like your school… and people like you… then maybe Kenny would be alive today."
"I wish I could have helped him," Charles said gently, and meant it with every fiber of his being.
Slowly, Helen straightened in her chair, the mist clearing from her eyes. Her sad smile gradually warmed into something stronger, compassionate and resolute.
"Professor Xavier, I would be glad and honored to have the help of your students."
In the days that followed, the X-Men found in Helen Conover a better neighbor and friend than they could ever have expected.
The day after their first meeting, she reciprocated Charles’ visit, and he gave her a tour of the school. The children were taken with her at once—especially when she told them that as an actress, she had created her own makeup effects, and would be glad to help them with their Halloween costumes. As for the adults, she quickly gained the friendship of Jean and Ororo, and delighted Kurt by her unhesitating acceptance of him. Even Logan lost his distrustful scowl after a short time in her presence.
When she was among the students, Helen’s love of youth became evident. After the school day was over, she sat with them in one of the classrooms, seeming like a teenager herself as she talked eagerly about the haunted house and collected their suggestions. Once they had warmed to her, a few of them demonstrated how they could use their mutations for their roles, and she responded to their sometimes-startling gifts with the same pleased admiration she might have felt for a young musical prodigy.
As he watched her through the day, Charles’ heart was warmed by the vision of what could have been, and should have been. People like this kind and gracious woman were the reason the X-Men fought to protect humanity.
By that evening, with the children’s help and some technical advice from Scott, Helen had drawn up a plan for the arrangement of the haunted house. The elaborate layout would span the front rooms of the lower two stories of Old Willows Place, with a different theme for each room. She left after dinner with a copious bundle of notes, and a long list of supplies to purchase the following day.
The work—and the chaos—began that weekend.
"Tell me again why I’m doing this."
It was a Saturday afternoon. A very nice Saturday afternoon at that, cool and breezy, with a bright sun that was not too warm. A perfectly lovely autumn day…
Except, perhaps, for the cranky Wolverine sitting on the roof of Old Willows Place.
With a screwdriver in hand and a disgruntled expression on his face, Logan was helping Scott and Kurt to install colored spotlights. These would be used to highlight the attic windows and several points of interest on the front lawn, which Jean, Ororo, and several of the kids were currently turning into a mock graveyard. Other students were inside with Helen, working on the interior of the house, or taking a break to enjoy the seemingly endless supply of lemonade and sugar cookies on the porch.
Ingenuous as always, Kurt smiled as he answered Logan’s plaintive question. "We’re doing this because the Professor decided it was not safe for the children."
Logan thought about that for a long moment, the shook his head sagely. "No, that’s not it."
Rolling his eyes behind his red glasses, Scott heaved an impatient sigh and ground out, "You’re doing this because Jean told you to, hoser."
Logan frowned. "Oh. Yeah." Then before Scott could get a word in, he changed the subject, surveying with exaggerated interest the tools and equipment scattered around them. "We’re missing the nail gun. Kurt, see if it’s down on the porch."
"Ja," Kurt replied pleasantly, and vanished in a puff of indigo vapor before the word had even died away.
For a moment as he stared at the spot where Kurt had been, Logan allowed a faint smile to cross his face. He would never have said it in so many words, but he liked Nightcrawler tremendously. The German was kindhearted and cheerful in spite of the difficulties in his past. His serene presence had a calming effect on Logan, and he was unerringly patient with the older man’s often bossy demeanor toward him. The roles of superior and subordinate were a peculiar hallmark of their friendship, an arrangement with which they were both content.
Besides, the blue elf was the one creature in all of Westchester who was even stranger than Logan.
Shrugging to himself, Logan glanced over at Scott. "I thought this was the kids’ project."
"It is," Scott replied earnestly. "They just need a little help."
"Yeah, that’s what they always say. Only a pushover like you would believe ’em. Hand me the pliers."
Wordlessly, Scott picked up the pliers and held them out to Logan—but as the Canadian was reaching over to take them, disaster struck.
Kurt suddenly rematerialized—and Logan, having moved slightly in the interim, was just a bit too close for comfort. Startled by the bamf and the puff of displaced air, he recoiled, lost his balance… and tumbled over the edge of the roof.
Since he’d taken up residence at Xavier’s School, Logan had become used to a lot of things: black leather uniforms, random explosions at all hours, patches of ice on the floors—even the sight of Jean and Scott kissing. However, in spite of entirely too much unintentional practice at it, free falling was not on the list of things he had learned to shrug off. He popped his claws on instinct, flailing frantically in an effort to catch himself on the side of the house, regardless of any damage he might cause. When that failed, all he could do was brace for an impact with the ground; not likely to do him any permanent damage, but no picnic, either.
The denouement to his three-story plunge never came. Some eight feet from the ground, he felt a hard jerk on his entire body, and found himself neatly suspended in midair—upside-down.
As his senses caught up with him, he heard giggling from the porch, and sincerely wished he was dead.
Jean stepped gracefully into his inverted view, right hand extended, lips twisting in suppressed humor. She stopped almost directly beneath him, regarding him with the same sort of clinical interest she might have for an unusual insect caught in a net.
"You know, you’re really heavy," she remarked, somewhat anticlimactically.
Trapped in Jean’s telekinetic grip, Logan grunted and retracted his claws. "It’s the adamantium, okay? Now put me down. I’ve had enough of this. I’m going back to the school."
Jean’s amused smile turned into a frown. "You can’t quit now."
"Just watch me." Logan made vague swimming motions in the air, a futile attempt to right himself.
"Oh no you don’t." Jean twitched her fingers, and Logan felt an invisible something crawl up his ribs… or down them, according to his current perspective. "Remember, I’m your doctor, and I know exactly where you’re ticklish."
Logan choked off his involuntary laugh, resulting in a very ignominious whimper. "No, stop it. C’mon, Jean, you’re gonna make Cyke jealous."
That got a reaction, albeit not the one Logan had been looking for. Jean’s expression went flat, she twisted her wrist sharply, and his stomach lurched as he suddenly snapped right-side-up—still eight feet above the ground.
At least now he was in a better position to appreciate the full measure of his humiliation. Ororo and a dozen kids including Rogue and Bobby were standing around, watching Jean make an idiot of him, and Scott and Kurt were looking down from the roof above. Logan ground his teeth together and mentally ran through the gamut of swear words.
"Oh, shut up. You’re going to stay here and finish," Jean reiterated.
Logan stifled a groan, embarrassed by the note of desperation in his voice. "Look, we can argue about it all you want—just put me down. ’Cause if you don’t, I think I’m gonna throw up."
"For all that regenerative power, you’ve really got a weak stomach." Jean looked around at their audience, smiling wickedly. "Think I should put him down?"
Several heads nodded, and it was even money whether they wanted to avoid seeing the Wolverine have a berzerker fit or lose his lunch.
In the next instant, Logan let out a yelp as he shot straight up in the air, only to be deposited gracelessly on the roof once more. He dropped flat against the shingles, sucked in several deep breaths to put his stomach back where it belonged, then gingerly sat up to give Scott and Kurt a defiant glare. The dork was smirking, and the blue demon was trying his best to look angelic.
"I found the nail gun," Kurt said rather sheepishly, holding up said piece of equipment.
Heaving a sigh, Logan snatched it and held it out to Scott. "Do me a favor. Put this to my head and pull the trigger."
The corners of Scott’s mouth turned up in surprised amusement. "Gladly, but with that hard head of yours, I don’t think it would do you much good."
"Hmph," Logan grumbled, not really listening. He leaned over the eaves to glare down at Jean, but she was once again innocently preoccupied with fake cobwebs and plastic spiders.
"You know, Cyke… sometimes I wonder if you’re the luckier guy, after all."
On Sunday morning, Ororo Munroe woke bright and early. She threw on a pair of slacks and an old pink T-shirt, stopped off in the kitchen to grab an apple, and headed out to water her garden with some localized rain clouds.
Neither students nor teachers were stirring yet on the ground floor of the school. Everyone was sleeping in after their hard work of the previous day—so Ororo was taken by surprise when she stepped onto the back porch and nearly tripped over Logan.
Fortunately for her, he must have heard her coming, because it would have been a very bad time to startle him. Not that any time was a good time, of course… but at that particular moment, he just happened to be packing claws. He was sitting at the top of the steps with a cigar between his teeth, his legs stretched out, and his back resting against the edge of the porch railing. His right foreclaw was extended and gleaming in the morning brightness.
And he had a pumpkin on his lap.
Ororo did a double-take and almost dropped her apple, trying to rationalize the odd sight, while still working through the fact that she may have narrowly escaped an accidental skewering. "Uh… hi, Logan."
Without even glancing at her, he murmured a casual "Hey, ’Ro," in the quiet voice which suggested one of his more approachable moods. His attention was taken up by the pumpkin. Shifting the cigar in his mouth, he frowned critically at the orange gourd, then executed a short, swift stroke of his claw on its surface with almost surgical precision.
It was now clear what he was up to. Curiosity got the better of Ororo, and she stepped to one side, gaining a better view of Logan’s jack-o’-lantern. It was unfinished, but the face was startlingly recognizable, with its catlike eyes, shaggy whiskers, and vicious teeth.
"That looks like Sabretooth."
Logan’s lips drew back slightly from around the cigar, baring his teeth in a savage little smile. Unless Ororo was mistaken, there was a tone of grim humor in the rumble that came from somewhere in his chest.
"It’s… really good." Ororo sat down on the wooden rocking chair close by, feeling surprised, amused, and just a little bit unsettled by Logan’s subject matter. "I think Rogue and Bobby were onto something when they started calling you our ‘art professor’."
"Hey, don’t start that up again. Took ’em months to stop callin’ me that." Logan glanced up at her, grinning slightly, but there was something odd about his expression. He looked down thoughtfully at his handiwork, then with his left hand took the cigar from his mouth and made a small, futile gesture. "It’s just one of those things that comes out of all that empty space in my head, sometimes."
The admission was strange and unexpected, and Ororo wasn’t sure what to say. She remembered that none of them knew just how long Logan had lived. The rough simplicity of his ways was deceptive; perhaps he’d had decades to acquire many diverse skills, of which he had only just scratched the surface.
A smile slowly worked its way across Ororo’s lips, and she held out her apple to him.
He glanced up at her with one eyebrow raised in amusement, but passed on any of the obvious jokes as he stubbed out his cigar and took the apple from her. A sweep of his claw sliced it neatly in two. Retracting the claw, he handed over one half of the fruit, then leaned back and chewed contentedly on the other. For a few minutes they ate in comfortable silence, enjoying the crisp beauty of the October morning.
"So what are you going to do with it?" Ororo asked at length, nodding to the jack-o’-lantern.
"Hmm…" Logan swallowed a mouthful of apple, turning the carved pumpkin in his hands. "Well, I figured for now I’d let the kids put it with the ones they’re doing for the haunted house. But after Halloween…" He paused, grinning deviously. "I think I’m gonna have Jubilee put on a little light show for me, with ol’ Sabes here as the centerpiece."
Ororo’s lips twitched. "I see your therapy is coming along just fine."
"Heck yeah. I haven’t beaten the tar out of anyone in almost two weeks." Logan grinned as Ororo rolled her eyes and folded her arms. For a few humorous moments, they stared each other down.
"Oh, fine," Logan surrendered at last. "You can have the first shot at it. One lightning bolt. No more."
As Ororo thought of her own acquaintance with Sabretooth, she couldn’t resist a sly grin.
Charles Xavier smiled as his wheelchair rolled up the flagstone path to the front steps of Old Willows Place. His students—and their teachers—had been incredibly industrious for the last two weeks, coming over to work on the haunted house after class and on the weekends. Now, the day before Halloween, was his first chance to see their handiwork, and he was impressed.
The oak-shaded lawn had been transformed into a mock graveyard that would be genuinely eerie at night, with painted headstones sprouting unevenly from the broken sod. Unlit jack-o’-lanterns grinned between the railings of the cobweb-shrouded porch, while plastic bats and spiders hung from the eaves. A menacing scarecrow loomed over the hedge, and ghostly apparitions peeked from the attic windows high above.
Then Charles noticed another change, entirely unrelated to ghosts and ghouls: a plywood ramp had been built and fitted over the porch steps. He understood its purpose, and his smile deepened as he maneuvered his chair up it with ease.
As he reached the top of the ramp, Helen stepped out onto the porch, wearing a pale yellow sundress and a welcoming smile. "Good afternoon, Professor! How do you like your students’ work?"
"It’s extraordinary." Charles took her hand and shook it, giving it the lightest of grateful squeezes before he let go. He gestured to the ramp. "Especially this. You’ve made me feel very welcome here."
"Well, you are," Helen replied, with a small laugh—and a slight blush. "Anyway, the credit goes to Bobby and Peter. They built it; all I did was ask them to."
"I’ll be certain to thank them as well," Charles replied, his eyes twinkling.
Helen blushed a little more deeply and lowered her gaze, fidgeting with the ruffles on her sundress. "The outside of the house has been done for a few days. We’re just giving some finishing touches to the rooms. Come on in and have a tour. There’s lemonade right now, but I have some tea brewing."
She turned to hold open the screen door for Charles and his wheelchair. He smiled, thanked her, and went in.
Once tastefully decorated with soft colors and elegant antiques, the rooms at the front of the house had taken on a diverse range of characters, from a haunted Egyptian tomb to a space station invaded by aliens. Charles followed Helen from one room to another, greeting the students they found hard at work, and with a smile he imagined the roles they would play in these fantastic settings.
He had been right to allow this. They were already having the time of their lives with it.
In one room, Charles received a preview of what the haunted house’s visitors would experience, when Kurt Wagner suddenly appeared. The teleporter materialized on a high shelf that would be safely out of the way of straying hands.
"Oh… Entschuldigung," he said politely, peering down from his perch like a friendly gargoyle. "Guten Tag, Professor."
"Good afternoon, Kurt," Charles replied mildly. "I see you’re looking forward to performing again."
"Yes. I have often missed it." With a catlike grace Kurt leaped down from the shelf, landing lightly on the floor. "Tomorrow night I will be moving back and forth between most of the rooms, so I wanted to practice them now."
"Well, this one certainly appears to suit you," Charles replied, glancing about him at the room they were in. Already possessing a large, beautifully wrought stained glass window, it had been made up to resemble an abandoned church. "Was this your idea?"
Kurt smiled and ducked his head.
Since the sitting room had been transformed into a haunted Victorian parlor, Charles and Helen ended up in the breakfast nook at the rear of the house for tea. Logan and Peter were standing in the adjoining kitchen, munching on Helen’s endless supply of junk food as they discussed something to do with the wiring. For a moment the Professor listened to them with a smile. Logan had grumbled, complained, and barked orders for the entire two weeks—a clear sign that he was enjoying himself immensely.
"When I was helping the kids work on the attic windows, I came across some things the original owners of the house had left up there," Helen recalled, stirring her tea. "I found this beautiful white nightdress—a real Victorian heirloom. It’s still in good condition. Kitty absolutely fell in love with it, so we decided to use it for her ghost costume."
Charles smiled. "What are you planning to dress as?"
"Oh, I have a few options. I also found a box of old costumes from my off-Broadway days." Helen laughed. "I even found out my flapper dress from Capone still fits. That musical was a spectacular flop, but I have to admit, Minnie Malloy was one of my favorite characters."
"You were in Capone?" Charles queried. "I saw that show, but I don’t remember seeing your name on the playbill."
Helen smiled. "You wouldn’t have. I used a psuedonym. Partly because I knew the show was going to be a disaster, but more because it was my first time starring in a musical, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to own up to my singing voice."
"You gave yourself too little credit, then. I distinctly recall that I enjoyed Minnie’s solos very much. What was that one song… ‘Love or Money’?"
"‘The cops want to put their cuffs on my honey, but I won’t give him up for love or money…’" Helen sang lustily, then laughed and shook her head. "Not quite a masterpiece of verse, but it was so much fun while it lasted. I’m amazed you remember that. It was more than thirty years ago."
"I have always been an avid fan of theater," Charles replied with a smile.
"Oh, yes. Bad theater, apparently." Helen grinned at him, resting her chin on her interlaced fingers. "That’s the costume I’ll wear tomorrow night, then."
"I’ll look forward to seeing it."
"Good. And what can I expect to see you dressed as?"
"Ah. Well." It was Charles’ turn to blush slightly. "I really hadn’t given the matter any thought. To tell the truth… I wasn’t planning to wear a costume."
"That’s too bad." Helen’s smile became rather impish. "But we’ll let you into the party anyway."
"Madam, you are too kind."
"I can’t believe I let you talk me into this."
As sunset approached on Halloween, Rogue stood before a full-length mirror in the parlor of Old Willows Place, fidgeting and tugging at the long, straight white gown she was wearing. She had remained indecisive about her choice of costume until the last minute, leaving little time for alterations. It would be a miracle if she got through the night without tripping on the hem and falling flat on her face, but at least it covered her skin thoroughly, complete with bandages wrapping her arms and hands.
In fact, she was more worried about damaging her intricate makeup than herself. Protected from her power by latex surgical gloves, Helen had spent nearly an hour on her, applying lines of fake stitches and styling her hair.
The result of that cosmetic expertise, and several cans of hairspray, was that Rogue now looked every bit The Bride of Frankenstein—right down to the bolts on her neck.
She was not the only one on whom Helen had worked a bit of stage magic. The former actress spent much of the afternoon meticulously making up first the haunted-house cast, then the kids who were going trick-or-treating. The room was now full of Xavier’s students, eager to watch each other’s transformations into ghosts, zombies, pirates, and vampires.
Bobby, costumed to match Rogue as Frankenstein’s Monster, lurched to her side in a very bad imitation of Karloff. "Woman… good," he grunted, attempting to put an arm around her waist.
She giggled and pushed him away. "Aw, stop it. Ya sound like Logan."
Seated in a wicker chair across the room, Logan choked on his cigar smoke, and a grinning Jean leaned over to thump him on the back. Costumed as a princess in a long, glittering, pale-blue dress, with an elegant tiara on her head, she had indeed prompted a less-than-articulate reaction from him when she first glided into the parlor.
Scott stepped through the doorway, wearing the khakis and bomber jacket of a World War II Navy pilot. He scrupulously ignored the sight of his fiancée’s hand resting on Logan’s back, and turned instead to their hostess. "Helen, are you about ready to open up the house? It looks like you’ve got your first guests lining up outside the gate."
Helen, who had not yet put on her own costume, was touching up a student’s makeup. She smiled at Scott and then glanced at the antique clock on the wall. "They’re a few minutes early, but I’m almost done here." To the room in general she asked, "Could one of you please go hand out some candy to those people, and thank them for being patient?"
"I’ll do it," offered Jubilee, as she bounced to her feet and trotted out of the room.
Of course, Jubilee would volunteer for anything that had to do with candy. She was colorfully dressed as a gypsy in layered skirts and bead necklaces, with a kerchief tied around her head. It was an idea Logan had offhandedly given her, distracted by her swaying hoop earrings when she cornered him to ask for costume suggestions.
Watching Jubilee’s retreat, Rogue shook her head. "There goes the only person I know who can eat candy and chew gum at the same time."
"Speaking of Jubes…" Bobby turned to an aloof teenage boy in pirate costume who was sitting in a corner. "Tommy, isn’t that one of her earrings?"
Tommy "Crash" Krieger grinned slightly and tugged at his left ear, where a gold hoop hung in place of the stud he usually wore. "I bribed her. First pick of my candy haul tonight."
Rogue grimaced. "I hope she disinfects that thing when ya give it back to her."
Throughout this exchange, Kristen Mayhew—a tiny blonde dressed as a Powerpuff Girl—had been looking with an eight-year-old’s earnest scrutiny at Logan. Now she arrested all attention in the room by asking him in a small voice, "How come you’re not wearing a costume?"
Dressed in nothing more than his usual jeans and flannel shirt, Logan squirmed and uttered a growl so soft, it was practically a whimper.
"Yeah, how come?" Rogue echoed with a grin, always happy to tease her friend. She poked a finger at her towering Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. "If I’ve gotta wear this getup, the least you could do is suffer along with me."
"He doesn’t need a costume," Scott put in. "People are going to mistake him for a werewolf as it is."
Logan snorted. "Yeah, just wait until the next full moon, Phaserface."
The students erupted into laughter. Jean rolled her eyes with an exasperated sound. She, Scott, and Logan had been elected to escort the trick-or-treating contingent of the student body—which meant she not only had to shepherd a dozen teenagers and children, but referee two unruly male egos. She expected to last for about half an hour before she wrapped a lamppost around somebody’s neck.
Someone yelped as Kitty abruptly popped through the wall, made up as a ghost in the Victorian nightgown Helen had given her. Along with Peter, Kurt, and other members of the "cast", she had been going over her act in the sitting room, and she was breathless from running through the house—in a very literal sense. "Miss Grey, Norbie just got sick!"
Amidst sighs from the adults and disgusted faces from the kids, Jean rose with more grace than her duties as a nursemaid deserved. "He hasn’t been into the candy already, has he?"
"Um… not exactly."
"Then what made him sick?"
"Well… he was letting Peter try to juggle his eyeballs… and it kinda made him dizzy."
The entire room collectively gagged.
Seated on a corner of the porch railing, Ororo Munroe closed her eyes, enjoying a moment of calm before the excitement to come. A sweet aroma of roasting pumpkin, rising from the jack-o’-lanterns now lighted and flickering, mingled with the earthy scents of cut grass and recently turned soil. The air had become still as the sun went down, and carried clearly the shrieks and laughter of visitors gathering outside the gates, far off down the long gravel driveway.
She made a spectacular ghost. Her close-fitting costume, in shades of gray, black, and pale blue, was veiled by diaphanous streamers that could flow and swirl around her slim figure in a breeze of her own creation. Her makeup, pale and haunting, was accented with glitter and luminous highlights.
Having long since grown accustomed to the bamf of Kurt’s teleportation, Ororo did not flinch at hearing it two yards to her left. She smiled and opened her eyes. Kurt had appeared on the porch, dressed simply in black garments which, in the deepening twilight, almost blended with his indigo skin. His demonic looks, as he had not hesitated to point out himself, had no need for a costume.
"Are the kids ready?" Ororo asked as he approached her.
"Almost. Norbert was… ill." Kurt smiled wanly, his sharp teeth showing a bright white against the shadowy shades of his face. "Jean is taking care of him. She asked me to tell you we should watch him carefully once she leaves. They will be taking the rest of the children in a few minutes—and Frau Conover says we will then open the gates."
"Great." Ororo returned Kurt’s smile, feeling herself blush slightly. "I think I’m a little nervous. Except for a few plays at the school, I’ve never really acted a part like this before." She glanced down at herself, taking in her splendid spectral costume. "Then again, I feel like I could scare anyone in this."
Kurt frowned in the flickering light of the jack-o’-lanterns, and hopped up onto the porch railing beside her. Except at the corner where she leaned against a beam, the rail was hardly wide enough for a human being to sit securely, but he crouched on his haunches as comfortably as a squirrel with his long tail coiled around a banister. His amber gaze was filled with puzzlement and curiosity.
"I have never understood this," he said quietly. "When I was in the circus, I learned that those who came to see me perform liked it when I frightened them—even though they would have run from me if they met me in the street. Now, here, all these people have come to this house to be frightened the same way." He shrugged, perplexed. "Why should anyone want to feel afraid?"
It was a surprising and difficult question. Ororo frowned and shifted her weight, pondering how to put her thoughts about so complex and mysterious a quirk of human nature into words.
"I suppose it’s pretty strange, when there’s already enough in this world to be afraid of," she said softly. "I guess most people just like to face their fears, when they know that nothing is really going to hurt them. Sometimes it’s a way to conquer those fears. Sometimes, it’s just a thrill."
Kurt tilted his head. "A thrill?"
"Yes. It’s a way of giving ourselves up to something just beyond our control—the part of us deep down that reacts to what feels like danger, even when we know we’re safe." Ororo paused. "Maybe the real thrill is knowing we can let those feelings out… but we might not be able to shut them down again."
"I think I understand," Kurt mused. "It is like what I felt on the trapeze. I knew that I could teleport to safety if I fell—but sometimes, I still thought about falling. Simply the thought that I could was…" he smiled. "A thrill."
Ororo shrugged. "So did you ever fall?"
Kurt’s smile deepened. His gaze held hers steadily, a merry twinkle in his eyes.
"Once," he said softly.
The screen door abruptly banged open, disgorging a happy crowd of kids in costume. They were followed by Jean, Scott, and a visibly reluctant Logan. Only Jean appeared to notice the shadowy pair sitting on the corner of the porch railing; she turned to give Ororo and Kurt a small wave.
Then she extended her hand toward the front gates, reaching out with her telekinesis to open them. To the waiting visitors, it would appear as though they had opened by themselves.
As the party of trick-or-treating mutants headed toward the side gate of Helen’s property, a stream of eager haunted-house-goers began to make their way up the driveway. Ororo stood up, grinning at Kurt. "I guess it’s showtime."
Returning the grin, Kurt gave her a small salute, then vanished.
Smiling to herself, Ororo spread her hands, her eyes misting into luminous whiteness. Mentally she reached up to the heavens, summoning the wind, sculpting the water vapor into eerie dark clouds. Lightning flashed harmlessly between them, a peal of thunder drifting to earth. Dead leaves whirled and scattered in a sudden, chilling gust that swayed the darkened trees.
With a nod of satisfaction, Ororo hurried inside to take her place in the haunted house, as a storm without rain filled the sky above Old Willows Place.
Logan had never been out and about on Halloween before, and after half an hour, he was firmly convinced that he never wanted to be again.
The streets of the well-to-do neighborhood were crawling with people—and seemingly all were in costume, from infants in the arms of their parents to adults headed for one of the local parties. Children ran up and down strangers’ lawns with their bags of candy, or squealed and laughed and tussled with each other on the sidewalk. On occasion, groups of teenagers could be seen clustered at a corner or under a tree, perhaps plotting a prank… and hopefully nothing more ominous.
In the midst of this garish confusion, it was at least a blessing that the students of Xavier’s School were comfortably unremarkable. For once they were just children, and the only looks they received were admiring glances at their excellent costumes and makeup.
As for Logan, he neither knew nor cared what anyone thought when they saw him… as long as they stayed out of his way.
He trailed at the rear of the group, where he could watch the students and make certain no one strayed. It was Scott who led the way—which, Logan thought, was extremely typical. Jean was constantly moving in and out amongst their charges, reminding them to say "thank you", accompanying the younger ones to the doors of the houses. Her energy was extraordinary.
After some time, she fell back to Logan’s side, giving him a bright smile. "Are we having fun yet?"
Logan stared flatly at her.
"That’s what I thought." She shook her head. "Don’t worry. It won’t be much longer before the kids start to tire out."
Jean rolled her eyes. "I thought grinches only came out on Christmas."
Before Logan could reply, Jubilee flounced back to them through the knot of students, her gaudy necklaces jingling. "Miss Grey, Artie tripped and skinned his elbow."
With a sigh, Jean delved into a hidden pocket somewhere within the folds of her full skirt, in which she had secreted half the contents of a first-aid kit. Producing a Band-aid and a tube of disinfectant gel, she strode forward in search of a young boy dressed as Harry Potter.
Jubilee grinned at Logan. He frowned in response.
"Riiiight," Jubilee murmured uncomfortably, and bounced ahead once more.
The haunted house was surpassing Helen Conover’s wildest expectations.
A steady stream of guests were winding their way through the Old Willows Place. In the foyer, they were greeted by their hostess, who directed them on through the frights and thrills of the varied rooms. In one, a hulking silver man menaced the curious with an axe; in another, the ghost of a Victorian girl seemed to float through the wall. In yet another, a small but menacing alien creature yanked out his eyeball and held it up to get a better look at the guests—and in many rooms, particularly that which resembled a desecrated church sanctuary, a snarling blue-black demon would appear and vanish like a shadow.
Finally, amazed and delighted by these terrifying wonders and many others, the guests would emerge from a side door onto the veranda. Here, in a milder environment of benign jack-o’-lanterns and paper streamers, they were welcomed with refreshments and candy. Buzzing with excited conversation, no one seemed to notice that the veranda was untouched by the cold, gusty winds that set such a macabre mood at the front of the house.
Helen was able to spare a moment, now and then, to creep back to the side door and listen to the visitors’ remarks. Without exception, she heard enthusiastic praise of what she and the students and teachers from Xavier’s School had done.
As she had promised Charles, she was dressed as a Roaring Twenties flapper, in a sequined copper-orange dress and a matching brimless hat. A long, knotted rope of faux pearls hung around her neck, and she had applied her makeup in the style of the era, complete with a beauty mark on her cheek. Although she also wore an elegant fringed shawl of black silk over her shoulders, the halter-top dress was bold for a woman of her age—but she was pleased with the way she looked.
She only hoped Charles would have a chance to see it.
The Professor had not yet made an appearance. When the others had arrived earlier in the day, Scott told Helen that he was doing some important work and expected to be late, but she had now begun to wonder if he would come at all. He seemed, quite understandably, to be a rather reticent man. However much he had approved of it as an activity for the students, perhaps this extraordinary display was not to his own taste, after all.
There came another lull in the arrival of visitors. Picking up the half-empty candy bowl from the table beside the door, Helen stepped toward the hall, intending to refill it in the kitchen.
"Why, if it isn’t Miss Minnie Malloy."
Helen stopped, a smile spreading over her face. It was Charles’ voice, approaching from the front porch. She turned to face him—and received a surprise that caused her to clap her hands together, laughing with delight.
There in the open doorway sat the Professor in his wheelchair—dressed in the perfectly pressed pinstripe suit of an old-fashioned gangster. A gray fedora sat rakishly on his head, and a white carnation was pinned to his lapel.
"I’m sorry I’m late," he said with a smile, "but I had a devil of a time finding something to wear."
The trick-or-treaters were slowly making their way back toward Old Willows Place, and Logan was relieved. Some of the younger children had begun to tire of walking. Jean and Scott now carried a few of their candy-laden bags—but everyone knew better than to ask Logan to perform such a chore.
Doubling back on their tracks, they found parts of the neighborhood now growing dark and quiet, as the residents went to bed or settled in with their horror movie marathon of choice. The hour for trick-or-treating was coming to a close, and of the kids still on the streets, many were of an older, perhaps more mischievous variety. Feeling his alertness heighten, Logan did not question his instincts, but watched and listened to their surroundings with a renewed intensity.
Then he heard it.
"Sh-shh," he hissed sharply to the students parading ahead of him, as he stopped in his tracks.
This effectively silenced their noisy chatter about candy, horror movies, and the costumes they had seen other people wearing that evening—for when the Wolverine spoke, they knew it was in their best interest to obey. The group closed in automatically, looking around in uncertainty and concern, as Jean and Scott drifted back to where Logan stood motionless and alert.
He heard it again: a scraping, a scuffling, a burst of laughter that did not sound at all kind. It was too far off for the others to hear, but to Logan, it was distinct. He glanced at the other two adults.
"Something going on a ways down that street," he murmured, pointing down the intersection to their left. "I don’t like the sound of it."
At this slightest hint of trouble, Scott reached smoothly beneath his bomber jacket and produced his visor, slipping it on in place of his ruby-quartz glasses. "Let’s have a look. Jean, you’d better stay here with the kids."
"Aw, Mister Summers—" several young voices began to protest.
"Let ’em come," Logan grunted, already on the move toward the suspect sounds. "I’d like to see the idiots that’d try to mess with this bunch."
Over his shoulder, he heard Scott sigh and relent, no doubt reasoning that the best safety was in numbers. "Fine. But stay close, you guys," he warned the students sternly.
With that, the entire group quietly followed Logan, who was moving quickly down the street. Tall old oaks provided plenty of shadows from the streetlamps, and he instinctively kept to them as he sought the source of the laughter and taunting cries. Within a few moments they were close enough for the others to hear it, and Scott sprang forward, matching Logan’s stride.
The street dead-ended at an abandoned lot, where a house had burned down some years before. There was a fence, but it was in disrepair, and Logan easily slipped through a gap between the wooden slats. Across an expanse of overgrown weeds and brush, the crumbling remains of the house’s walls rose from the bare foundation. It was from behind this cover that the voices came.
"Come on, ya little minx, drop the bag!"
The speaker was young, male, and threatening. He was also not alone; his demand was backed up by a few grunts and sniggers of approval. Logan shot a quick frown at Scott, then slithered into the shadows and quietly leaned around the wall.
What he saw set his blood to a slow boil.
A small figure—a girl of perhaps nine or ten—was perched precariously on top of what had been an interior wall. How she might have gotten up there was, for the moment, a mystery—but her reason for doing so was more than clear, for half a dozen teenage boys were gathered beneath the wall, staring up at her. One was shining the beam of a large and heavy flashlight on her, while another stretched upward, trying to prod her with a stick that was fortunately a few inches too short. Their objective was clearly the full trick-or-treat bag clutched in the little girl’s arms.
Logan glanced over his shoulder, noting that Jean had gathered the kids close against the outer wall, where they were keeping admirably quiet. Then he looked at Scott, who had also taken a glimpse around the wall, and he knew from the younger man’s hard-set face that he too was angry.
Just as Logan was about to gesture for action, the most athletic-looking of the young hoodlums jumped up and managed to catch the top of the wall, holding on with one hand as with the other he flailed for the girl’s bag of candy. A graceless backhand not only succeeded in knocking the bag to the ground, it connected with the crouching child’s leg, and she let out a small shriek.
That was when it happened.
The little girl’s arm shot out with lightning speed, swatting the teenager’s groping hand. He let out a howl of pain and dropped to the ground, wringing his fist wildly. "She scratched me!"
At this, one of his companions went for a broken piece of wooden beam that lay in the corner.
Cruel mischief and thievery now threatened to turn to violence, and without a thought, Logan stepped from the cover of the wall into the moonlight. He was aware that Scott followed him. Their movement instantly drew the attention of the young thugs, who froze as they were confronted by the two older men.
"I think you boys better find somebody else to play with," Logan remarked, his stance and tone of voice deceptively casual.
For a moment, there was silence. Then the boy who had reached for the broken beam finished the act of picking it up, and the one with the flashlight slapped the heavy cylinder against his palm. The six drew into a tighter, more menacing pack.
With a bored expression, Logan held up his fist, and the boys suddenly found themselves staring at three adamantium claws that gleamed ferociously in the moonlight.
The motley gang shifted nervously as Logan’s gaze passed over each one of them, lingering upon the one who had picked up the little girl’s fallen bag. He appeared to be the youngest, and as he stared at the blade-wielding terror which confronted them, a weak exclamation of "Dude!" escaped his lips.
Logan bared his teeth in a savage smile. "Drop the candy… and start runnin’."
If these boys had been even slightly more intelligent than slugs, they would have listened to this piece of advice. Unfortunately, their response proved otherwise, as the ringleader with the flashlight lunged forward and took a swing.
Logan met the blow with his claws. There was a dull clink, and the beam of the flashlight died, as the bulk of it scattered on the ground in three perfectly cleaved pieces.
Then all hell broke loose.
A shower of sparks exploded behind the other boys—and Logan recognized the pyrotechnics as Jubilee’s handiwork. He would have shouted at her over his shoulder to stay out of it, but the display only further alarmed and provoked the hoodlums. It was all Logan could do to avoid seriously hurting the leader, who charged at him with what was left of the flashlight’s heavy handle.
The ensuing chaos was worthy of any military battlefield. The scarlet beams of Scott’s optic blasts lit up the darkness, and more plasma bursts chased after the panicked thugs, who found themselves slipping on a layer of ice as they scrambled to get away. Logan ducked just in time as one of the boys sailed through the air—under the telekinetic power of either Jean or Tommy, it was impossible to say which—and crashed bodily into the ringleader.
It was all over within seconds, as the six howling and no doubt thoroughly bruised boys scattered and fled into the night.
Retracting his claws, Logan looked toward Jean and the older students, most of whom had emerged from behind the wall to gleefully take part in the mayhem. At least Rogue had herded the younger children into a more sheltered spot, for which Logan was proud of her. Leaving Scott to double-check that everyone was alright, he turned to look for the subject of the altercation.
The little girl was no longer on top of the wall. Arching an eyebrow, Logan sniffed the air. His nose and his searching gaze led him to a pine tree where, incredibly, the girl was clinging to the rough trunk a dozen feet above the ground. She was wearing a witch’s costume, a black dress with a pointed hat that had somehow managed to remain on her head.
As she stared down at him in a mixture of fear and awe, he realized there was something not quite ordinary about the widely dilated pupils of her green eyes. His gaze shifted to her hands, confirming his suspicion: the child was a mutant. Her fingers were tipped with long, curved, feline claws that dug securely into the bark of the tree. No wonder one of her tormentors had screamed bloody murder when she scratched him.
"You can come down now, darlin’," he said gently. "Nobody’s gonna hurt you now."
Slowly, cautiously, the girl inched a few feet down the tree. Then she paused, looking gravely at the other children who stood watching her, at Jean and Scott, and finally back at Logan.
"Are you mutants?" she asked, in a small voice.
With a rueful smile, Logan nodded. "That’s right."
Curiously enough, this confirmation seemed to reassure the girl. She scooted down the tree with no further hesitation, and when Logan reached out to help her, she shifted easily into his arms. Her sharp claws folded back into her fingertips as she wrapped her arms firmly around his neck. To his surprise, he realized she had no intention of letting go; he shot a helpless look at Jean, but she simply smiled.
Slowly, Logan returned the smile. As he gently shifted the child’s weight against his hip, she let out a small sigh and laid her head on his shoulder. The movement pushed her hat slightly askew, giving him a glimpse of a pointed, catlike ear.
"What’s your name?" he asked her.
"How’d you get all the way out here?"
"I was trick-or-treating with my cousins, and I got lost on the way back to my aunt’s house." Emily turned her head slightly, giving Logan a guileless gaze. "It’s on Meadowfield Drive. Can you help me get back?"
Logan smiled at her. "Sure we can. Come on."
With that, holding her securely with one arm around her waist, he carried her back to the others. Bobby had retrieved the bag of candy which the fleeing thugs had dropped, and held it out to Emily, but she continued to cling to Logan’s neck. It was he who took the bag in his free hand, ignoring the smiles and chuckles of Jean, Scott, and the students as they followed him down to the sidewalk.
The long night had just gotten longer… but somehow, Logan didn’t mind.
By midnight, the gates of Old Willows Place were closed to visitors, and the cast of the haunted house had retired to enjoy an after-party in the mansion’s old ballroom. The trick-or-treaters had straggled back not long before, bursting with a tale to tell about a young damsel in distress. Emily’s aunt and uncle had been beside themselves with worry, and overwhelmed with relief and gratitude at her return, they had detained her rescuers to enjoy their hospitality for nearly an hour.
Still dressed in his gangster regalia, Charles Xavier contentedly watched the activity in the ballroom. A few students in costume, including Kitty, Peter, Rogue, and Bobby, were dancing—and Jean was pulling Scott across the floor to join in. Some of the trick-or-treaters were sorting their candy haul, as others regaled their friends with the story of their eventful night. Ororo and Kurt were seated upon folding chairs by the buffet table, enjoying a bite of late dinner. Logan sat with them, quietly indulging in a cigar.
And then there was Helen, a busy and happy hostess, inspecting the buffet to ensure that it remained well-stocked. As she looked up, her eyes met Charles’, and with a smile she wound her way toward him through the maze of party games and dancing couples.
"I heard them talking about the scrape the kids got into out there," she said, kneeling beside his wheelchair to converse over the sounds of music and revelry. "I’m sorry that had to happen."
"In spite of their recklessness, I’m proud of them," Charles replied warmly. "They’re learning to use their gifts to help others. One day, if they choose to take their place as X-Men, they’re going to be fine additions to the team."
"They’ve got a good example to follow," Helen replied softly, her hand touching his.
Charles looked into Helen’s blue eyes, bright with tender kindness. Her cheeks colored beneath the heavy costume makeup, but she did not look away as he leaned slightly closer, drawing a deep breath.
Jubilee abruptly jangled up to them in her gypsy garb.
"Hey, Professor, can I get you anything from the buffet?"
For a brief moment, Charles’ eyes held Helen’s as he sighed. Then he turned to Jubilee, smiling gracefully, and shook his head. "No, thank you."
With a whimsical shrug, Jubilee jingled away. Charles glanced at Helen with a long-suffering look, and she burst into laughter, leaning her head against his shoulder.
Across the room, Logan scowled around his cigar. "That little brat cheated."
"What?" queried a baffled Kurt.
"I had a bet with Jubilee that the Professor and Mrs. Conover were gonna lock lips before this Halloween stuff was over with. They were just about to do it, until she burst their bubble."
Ororo sighed and rolled her eyes. "You’re impossible, Logan."
"Hey, I win by default. Sparky’s gotta cough up ten bucks now. ’Scuse me." Logan stood up and stalked toward Jubilee, who had ducked into the cover of a group of students bobbing for apples. Eyes widening at his approach, she took a deep breath and plunged her face into the tub of floating fruit, heedless of her makeup.
Fortunately for Jubilee, Logan was intercepted by little Kristen, who was one of several younger children taking turns swinging at a piñata in the shape of a jack-o’-lantern. As he passed by the group, she caught his sleeve and tugged at it.
"We can’t get the piñata to break. Could you help us?"
Logan looked from Kristen to the papier-mâché pumpkin and back again. She smiled gamely and offered him the plastic baseball bat they had been using. He brushed it aside with a grunt, and raised his fist.
Out came the claws, and down went the piñata in shreds, spilling its contents across the floor.
"Thanks!" Kristen chirped brightly, as the children pounced on the scattered candy. Logan retracted his claws and shook his head, stifling a faint smile.
As the stereo switched from a slow song to the ghoulish strains of Bobby Pickett, Jean and Scott retreated from the dance floor, leaving the Monster Mash to the kids. Holding hands, the couple sat down close to Kurt and Ororo, who were deep in their own conversation.
"You see?" Jean said to Scott with a smile. "Everything worked out just fine."
"Yeah," Scott murmured, but there were troubled frown lines at the corners of his mouth.
"What’s wrong now?"
Scott shook his head and shrugged. "I was just wondering how we’re going to top this next year."
Additional Notes:Two of the original characters here are drawn from my previous stories. Tommy "Crash" Krieger appeared in Persona Non Grata, and Kristen Mayhew appeared in Big Bad Wolf. Helen Conover, Norbert "Sleuth" Smith, and Emily Reeve are all new creations of mine. (Emily’s surname was chosen as a tribute to actor Christopher Reeve, who passed away just prior to this story’s completion.)
© 2004 Jordanna Morgan -send feedback