Mon, 7 Aug 2000
[X-Men, Movieverse] "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave"

Yeah, yeah. I know I should be archiving or packing or something constructive... but I did this instead. Call it an early birthday present to myself. :-)

Disclaimer: The X-Men don't belong to me and are property of Marvel Entertainment Group. No money is being made from this endeavor... yadda, yadda, yadda.

Continuity: X-Men Movie Universe. Set after the events in the movie with flashbacks from before.

Characters: The whole team.

Summary: The prodigal son returns. Warren Worthington, one of Xavier's original students finds himself back at Xavier's School.

Archiving: Archive only with my permission.

Feedback: Yes, please! Comments are adored, cherished and drooled over at

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave



"And in other news this evening, Warren Worthington III, chairman and majority stock holder of Worthington Enterprises answered allegations that researchers employed by his company have in fact been tampering with government research in Mutant physiology. A long-time defense contractor for the Federal government, Worthington is accused of derailing government efforts to isolate the x- factor genome to more easily identify mutants among the human populace."

"We go now to taped footage of the press conference earlier this afternoon at Worthington Enterprises in New York."

'Though I cannot confirm or deny my company's involvement with these accusations, I believe the more important matter is what these allegations have revealed about our own government and what they are doing with the tax payer's money without their consent. The Mutant Registration Act was killed in the Senate, yet the government continues to pour funds into research towards identifying and even eliminating mutants. This research is not just targeted toward dangerous mutations but every mutation. Even latent mutations. It could affect people who show no signs of mutation, carriers who do not even know they possess the gene that may be passed onto their children or their children's children. I am afraid that if this research is not checked, it may lead to the unauthorized registration of mutants across the country and even the globe, beginning a cascade effect of which we can only guess the horrible outcome.'

'Mr. Worthington! What is the harm in research and in documenting instances of mutation among the general public?'

'It only harbors paranoia. It becomes a tool for those who hate and fear what is different from them.'

'What are you afraid of?'

'Afraid? Sir, if I am afraid of anything it is of my government committing a quiet genocide against its people's will.'

'Genocide? But the information the government released indicated these tests are meant to repress the so-called x- factor in mutants and to keep latents from passing the genome onto the next generation.'

'If you'll excuse the cliché, ladies and gentlemen. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.'

'Mr. Worthington, is it true that you are not only a mutant sympathizer but a mutant yourself?'

'We are all human, sir.'

'You didn't answer the question, Mr. Worthington.'

'Yes. I believe I did.'

"Mr. Worthington finished the press conference still denying the charges against Worthington Enterprises. It is believed by unnamed sources that he along with a team of Worthington researchers will accept sole responsibility for the charges and disassociate themselves from the rest of the company. This is Trish Trilby with the Evening News. Stay tuned for the weather and this weekend's travel outlook."

Scott Summers turned off the television with a heavy sigh as he narrowed his eyes behind his ruby-quartz lenses. His mentor, Charles Xavier, shook his head as Scott slumped on the couch and held his head between his hands. "It seems your former classmate has gotten himself into trouble."

A small smirk on his lips, Scott asked, "Would you expect any less?"

"From Warren? No."

"What do we do? Let him handle this on his own? You know when he left the school he said wanted nothing more to do with the X-Men."

Pressing his fingertips together, Xavier appeared deep in thought as he answered, "That he did. Which is why you and Wolverine will watch him from a distance. He doesn't need to know you're watching his back. I'm afraid of what may happen to him now that he is out of the proverbial closet. I can't allow one of my first students fall to harm... even if it means going against his wishes."

Scott nodded as he stood and prepared to leave the room. It had been exactly two years since Warren Worthington III, also known as the Angel, had left the halls of Xavier's school. It had been close to a year since he had last spoken to the man he once referred to as his best friend. Closing his eyes and breathing another deep sigh, he wasn't sure what he would say to him when and if the time should come. He only hoped it wasn't the disaster their last meeting had been.

"The Professor sends his regards."

Warren Worthington III placed his cup of coffee on the table and furrowed his brow as he studied his friend from across the table. "I was wondering when you were going to bring up Xavier and ruin an otherwise enjoyable afternoon."

He noticed Scott shift in his chair as his posture grew stiff. "I'm sorry. I thought you'd want to hear how he was doing. How we all were doing."

Staring at his reflection in Scott's glasses, he wished for once he could see his friend's eyes. He was always so hard to read behind those red lenses. Over the years Warren had been able to get past the barrier and find other ways to read his friend's moods: the hang of his shoulders, how his head tilted when he was concentrating, the smirk he got when he was being sarcastic. But now all he could read was a red, glassy void. Apparently in the year since he had left Xavier's he had gotten out of practice. "You know I care, Scott. It's just best for me to keep that part of my past distant right now. I know you don't understand... but I chose a separate path. Hearing of the school will just dredge up all the bad feelings from when I left."

Scott sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Okay, fine. I understand."

"Okay, then."

"So how are things at Worthington Enterprises?"

Warren spoke in a tired tone as he placed his cloth napkin on the table. "It's been difficult picking up where my father left off. It took the board members a long time to accept me as the new chairman, especially considering my age. But they're coming around and we've got a lot of work to do to get the company back on its feet. Dad's death struck the company a harsh blow. It will take time, but I look forward to the challenge."

Scott picked at the last of his dessert with his fork as he asked casually, hedging around the unmentionable topic but still keeping the conversation in safe waters, "So you think you made the right decision?"

Nodding his head and picking up his coffee again, Warren answered, "Yes. We're doing good work, Scott. I think we can really make a difference."

Across the table, Scott smiled. "Good."

Returning his smile, Warren said, "I always knew I wanted to make a difference in this world. Luckily I inherited the engine to do it." He paused as Scott finished the last of his tiramisu. "So how's Jean?"

Scott smirked. "I thought we weren't discussing Xavier's?"

"We aren't. This is different. This is you and Jean."

Shaking his head, Scott placed the fork on his empty plate and said, "Jean's fine."

"So have you popped the question yet?"

"No. But we are sharing a room now."

Warren chuckled. "And Xavier is fine with you living in sin? No, wait. Don't answer that... I'm breaking my own rules again."

"So how about you? Any lovely ladies in your life since I saw you last?"

"I'm afraid that I haven't had the time with all the work at Worthington Enterprises. Besides, getting close with a woman is a little awkward," he gestured with a thumb at his back, "considering."

"Ororo never had a problem with them."

Warren narrowed his eyes at Scott, amazed and insulted at his bluntness. "Ororo is different than most women and you know it."

Unflinching, Scott stuck to the topic. "She misses you."

"And I miss her."

"Then why don't you visit?"

"You know why I don't visit."

Scott shrugged and released a heavy sigh, his voice laden with annoyance as he responded, "Yes. I suppose I do."

Blinking slowly and steadying his breath, Warren thought of leaving the table, of running far away from Scott Summers and his damned X-Men. But he couldn't walk away, not like this. "Why are you acting like this? You're supposed to be my friend, Scott. You always were before."

He watched Scott fold his arms defensively over his chest and if he could have seen his eyes, he is sure he would have been glaring at him. "I'm sorry. I didn't come here to attack you."

"Then why are you?"

"Because I think you made a mistake leaving us. It's like you left a hole in the team."

Warren shook his head. "You'll get over it."

"I'm sure we will. We'll have to. We've got a lot of work to do. Important work."

Warren couldn't help but laugh out loud at his words. "I'm sure it is."

"What? What's so damned funny?"

"Just the thought of the three of you running around pretending to be superheroes. I mean doesn't it bother you, Scott? That all those years ago when Xavier brought us in, gave us a place to learn and adjust to our powers... gave us safety, protection and an education. All those years and what he was really doing was training us to be a bunch of soldiers for some damned mutant war? Don't tell me it doesn't."

He stared at Scott who remained motionless across the table, his breathing controlled and his lips pursed tightly. "Well, doesn't it?"

"Yes. Sometimes... but it's for the greater good. We all have a duty... even you."

"Duty? The greater good? How many children does he have there now?"


Warren laughed weakly and placed his head between his hands. "And how many of them will become part of Xavier's arsenal? Listen, I know he's a good man, with good intentions... but seriously, if the public ever got an inkling of what he was doing at that school of his it would create mass hysteria. You want to change the public's view of mutants? You want to make sure that we will have a place in society? Don't hide away and train to be lethal weapons. Do something about it like I am."

Scott leaned in toward Warren and pointed at his glasses as he whispered angrily, "Some of us don't have the luxury of blending in with society. And some of us were lethal weapons before Xavier found us."

Sighing and avoiding looking at his friend's face, Warren said quietly, "We've had this conversation before. You know I won't change my mind. I know you had a difficult life before Xavier found you and you've always had my empathy, but that doesn't change how I feel."

"No. I know it won't... because you're a coward and can't face the fact that you've made the safe choice in this life. We're not the ones hiding in an ivory tower."

His eyes flashed and his face grew hot with anger as he snapped his head up to glare at Scott. "What did you call me?"

In response to his anger, Scott back-pedaled and apologized, but Warren couldn't hear anything but the pounding of his own heart in his ears. Blindly, he got to his feet as he fished in his wallet and left a pair of twenties on the table. As he grabbed his coat from the back of his chair, he managed to speak before he prepared to storm out of the restaurant and swayed on unsteady feet. "I've been called a lot of things in my day, Scott, but never a coward. I won't let anyone call me that. Not even you."

As he turned to leave, he felt Scott's hand on his back and the sensitive flesh twitched as he flinched and tore himself away. Without even intending it, he found himself raising his voice. "Don't touch me!"

Around him he felt the stares and heard the murmurs of the other diners. And before Scott could apologize again, he left without another word. It was that day he decided he would live a perfectly happy life if he never heard the name Xavier again. He would make a difference, but it would be on his own terms and in his own way. Scott was right. He did have a duty to the rest of mutant-kind. But it wasn't as a soldier in Xavier's army and it would never be.


Warren grimaced as he shuffled backwards into the alleyway. He'd thought it was odd when his taxi driver took a wrong turn off of Fifth Avenue but didn't think it was any more than the usual New York City cabbie scam of "take the rich guy the long way to get a larger fare." When they turned into the warehouse district and two of his friends emerged from the shadows and forced him out of the car, only then did he begin to grow a little worried. Now that one of them was screaming slurs at him and wielding a Louisville slugger he was definitely much more than worried. It was safe to say he was scared out of his wits.

He continued to back away from the three men as he said with a forced smile, "Listen. We're reasonable men... so why don't you just put down the baseball bat and I'll give you my wallet?"

The men only grimaced as they advanced on him slowly and he could have sworn he heard one of them growl as he pulled out his wallet. "See? I've got more than a few hundreds in here. We'll call it even and all walk away."

"We don't give a shit about your money."

Nervously sizing up the three large men and realizing that he barely stood a chance against one of them, he pocketed his wallet while he tugged his necktie free from his neck with trembling fingers. "Then what do you care about?"

"Seeing your mutie-lovin' hide smeared across the pavement."

Before he could get another word in, much less start an offensive attack, the man swung the bat at his face. Luckily he deflected the blow with his arms as he ducked away, but it still made a sickening thud as it made a glancing impact with his elbow. While he dodged one swing after another, his eyes darted madly around the alley and he realized they were slowly backing him into a corner... that the only way out was up. He then screamed out in pain as the bones in his forearm snapped as the man finally landed a solid blow and he fell to his knees as he tore at the buttons on his shirt with the hand on his good arm. Standing over him, the three men laughed as one of them kicked him once in the stomach as he writhed on the pavement. They barely noticed as he tore at his shirt and reached his fingers toward a locking mechanism on his chest.

As he tried to find his bearings and get back to his feet, he felt a pair of large, hairy hands pick him up and toss him against a garbage dumpster as the back of his head made impact and he stumbled forward, fingers still reaching toward the lock even as the world spun around him, the halogen street lamps swirling in pinks and greens against the muddy-gray night sky.

But as the lock gave and the harness sprung open, the pain and curses no longer mattered. He didn't even notice as the men held their mouths open in shock as he unfurled his great, white wings. He didn't even care as the entire alley filled with a red light and his attackers were knocked against the far wall and a man with metal claws held them at knife point... because he was free and they couldn't hurt him any more. No one would ever again. In the sky he was untouchable.

In the alleyway, the X-Man code-named Wolverine stood over Warren Worthington's three attackers as Cyclops raced to his side. "Did you get anything out of them? What did they want?"

Sheathing his claws, Logan grimaced. "No. Two of 'em were knocked unconscious by yer blast. The third passed out when he saw me. Guess he'd seen enough mutants for the night. I'm guessin' they were just yer run of the mill mutant- haters."

Cyclops frowned as he looked up at the night sky. "Most likely."

Beside him, Wolverine closed his eyes as he breathed deeply. "I lost his scent. What does this friend of yers do?"

Scott climbed a nearby fire escape and said flatly, "He flies."

Releasing a heavy sigh, Logan joined him on the fire escape as they climbed toward the rooftops. "Great now ya tell me. Flies, huh?"

"Yes. With great big wings."

"What was his code name? Angel?"

"How did you guess?"

"Dunno. Guess it seemed more poetic than Chicken Boy."

At the top of the ladder, Cyclops extended his hand to help Wolverine up onto the roof as he smirked. "Chickens don't fly."

Logan grinned as he walked toward the edge of the roof. "And neither do ya. Coincidence? Ya tell me."

Shaking his head, Scott looked out over the low buildings and caught a glimpse of something large and white dropping between the buildings. He pointed as he spoke to his teammate. "There. About ten blocks northeast."

Logan ran back to the fire escape as he called over his shoulder almost before Cyclops could blink, "I'm on it!"

And as he slid quickly down the ladder and raced back out of the alley toward Warren's position, Scott could have sworn he heard him clucking.

When Scott caught up with Logan he found him holding Warren's head off the pavement with one hand as he secured a splint with the other and Warren's large white wings twitched above both their heads. Without looking in his direction and completely focused on his patient, Wolverine said to Cyclops, "So is this who yer lookin' for?"

Crouching down next to both men he said, "That's him, alright. Is he okay?"

"We need to get him back to Jean quick. I think he's got a concussion. Arm's all busted up and he's got a lot of surface bleeding, but he'll live."

Scott frowned as he looked down at Warren's face and he blinked back at him, seeming to look past him. He was about to step away and retrieve the Blackbird jet when Warren called out to him. "Scott? Is that you?"

He took his friend's good hand and said gently, "Yes, Warren, it's me."

Warren coughed once and then smiled. "It's about time you showed up."

"Sorry I couldn't be here sooner, buddy."

He turned his head away and Logan looked up at Cyclops with a frown as he shook his head, obviously hurrying him toward the Blackbird and their quick ticket home. "It's okay, Slim. I forgive you."

Scott sighed as he got to his feet and sprinted toward the jet as Warren's words rang in his ears. If only they had found him sooner. If only they had been with him in the alley when he had been attacked. Warren might forgive him... but he wasn't sure if he could forgive himself.

Ororo Monroe's heart raced as her feet pounded down the hallway toward the X-Men's underground med lab. Had it really been two years since he was last here? In so many ways it felt like yesterday. They had all been so busy teaching the children, training and learning to operate as a team. Between Jean's work with the government and the insurgence of Magneto and the Brotherhood, she had almost forgotten about Warren... almost. In her heart, she always hoped he would return to the team and to her. But not like this. Never like this.

As the medical bay doors shut behind her, she saw Scott, still in uniform, and asked him quickly, "Scott, what happened? Is he seriously injured?"

Her frantic tone jarring Cyclops from his train of thought, he said distractedly, "He was attacked before Logan and I could get to him... three bigots with a baseball bat... Luckily he got away from them before they could do any major damage."

She could tell he was beating himself up over not being there for Warren when he needed him but he seemed less distracted as he continued, his words reflecting a more professional tone. "Jean's treating him now. He's got a broken arm, some bruised ribs and a slight concussion. She thinks he'll be back on his feet after a few days bed rest."

Glancing nervously over his shoulder towards where Jean was treating Warren, she asked bluntly, "Can I see him?"

"Well... I," he sighed. "I don't see why not."

As she walked past him, he caught her arm and she stared up at her reflection in his ruby-quartz lenses as he spoke to her, his voice filled with concern, "Be careful, Ororo. Don't expect too much too soon. I couldn't stand to see your heart broken again."

She smiled at him and patted his arm as he let her go. "Do not worry, old friend. I can take care of myself."

"I'm sure you can, Storm. But humor me anyway."

As she walked further into the medical bay, she smiled at Scott. "Always."

"Jean?" Warren sat up groggily as he wiped at his eyes. "Is that you?"

He felt her hands on his shoulders, steadying him as he blinked himself awake, somewhat unsteady from his injuries. "How are you feeling?"

Turning his head to look at her, he flashed his most convincing smile. "Better. Much better. Thanks for your help."

She smirked as she pulled a chair next to his bed. "You can't lie to a telepath, Warren."

He released a sigh as he reclined uncomfortably in the narrow bed and let his wings fall to either side of him. "In that case I feel like I've been hit by a Mack truck."

Grinning as she made a few notes on a clipboard, "Now, I wouldn't say you're that bad off. But just to be safe I want you to stay here for a few days and get some rest. That bump on the back of your head has me a little worried."

Warren grimaced. "You're not the only one."

"One thing I can say for you, Mr. Worthington. You do know how to make a dramatic entrance. If Scott and Logan hadn't called ahead I would have thought you were doing this just to get my attention."

"You know me, Jeannie. Always trying to steal the show."

They sat in silence for a while as Jean continued to scribble on her clipboard when Warren finally spoke. "So how have you been, Jean?"

Looking at him over her glasses, she put aside her work and smiled. "I've been good. Busy but good."

"That's good to hear. And Scott? How's he been?"

"He's been good."


Warren stared at the floor, at a loss for anything else to say. Two years ago he vowed he'd never set foot in the Xavier School again and now there he was, lying battered, bruised and broken in Jean's infirmary. The last time he was in here was from injuries he sustained in one of Xavier's training sessions and that was when he knew there was no place for him in Xavier's dream.

"Cyclops. Angel. Look sharp! The purpose of this exercise is to simulate real combat situations. You'll need your wits about you if you're to defend yourself under a real threat." Professor Xavier's voice boomed over the intercom as the two young men stood in the empty metal room, dressed in battle gear. From the looks of it, the room took up a good size of the mansion's foundation and was over six stories high, buried deep into the soil and bedrock beneath the great house.

Warren shrugged and smirked at his friend as the mechanisms hidden in the room's walls whirred to life and seemed to come alive. But Scott ignored his friend's casual air and stared straight ahead in his custom-made visor that allowed him to release his optic blasts with a touch of his finger. He was taking this seriously. Too seriously, Warren thought. Dressing up in leather and battling high-tech obstacles in the School's basement was hardly his idea of a productive curriculum.

As Scott blasted at a set of missile-shaped projectiles, Warren took to the air, moving with ease in the wide-open spaces of the specially constructed part of the sub- basement as he dodged and weaved through an array of laser beams that fired from a cannon lowered from the room's ceiling. This was ridiculous. What was he supposed to do with a set of wings? Unlike Scott or Ororo or even Jean, his mutant power was completely non-offensive. All he could really do was get out of the way. Xavier had coached him before the exercise, telling him that he needed to focus on not being a target. He needed to be as agile as a bird and as fast as a hawk. He sighed as he pushed off a wall and flew back toward the center of the large room and told himself that even hawks had talons.

Before he had a chance to wallow further in his self-doubt, the door opened at the far side of the room as Ororo Monroe stepped in. Xavier's voice once again boomed over the intercom. "The exercise is about to get a little more interesting. Storm will be joining in the battle... not as a teammate but as an adversary."

Warren winked at his girlfriend, still retaining a bit of levity about the simulation, but before he even had a chance to blow her a kiss, her irises grew white and her body crackled with power. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as the temperature of the room dropped more than forty degrees and the cold air and wind made navigating extremely difficult. While Storm continued her windy assault, the obstacles continued to fire from the walls and Warren narrowly avoided getting tagged by a laser beam. Just as he thought he was in the clear a sudden gust blew him into a tailspin and he flapped his wings desperately as his mind reeled in panic and he did his best to straighten out and regain control over his flight. But it was too late. He spun out of control and flew into the path of the missiles Scott was battling on the ground. As the hard floor rushed up to meet him and the projectiles exploded all around him... he knew he would definitely feel this error come morning.

As he crashed into a heap on the floor and he heard Ororo crying out his name, one thought entered his mind before he lost consciousness. Training to be a super hero was dangerous work. Way too dangerous for him.

"I won't lie to you, Warren. We all took it very hard when you left," Jean removed her glasses and rested her elbows on her knees. "But I think I understand why."

Warren raised an eyebrow as he looked out over the well- manicured garden from the bench he and Jean shared. It was his second day here and Jean had suggested he get some fresh air, a prescription he avidly accepted. "You do?"

She nodded her head. "Yes. I think so... maybe more so than the others. We all need to do what we're best at. That's why I went on to medical school. To carve my own niche in Xavier's plans and to still do what I enjoy... what I find most fulfilling. It may have set me back a few years as far as learning my powers go, but in the long run it means I have more to contribute. And that's what it should all be about, really."

Releasing a deep sigh, Warren massaged his forehead. "I don't think Scott, Ororo and the Professor see it that way in my case."

"I think they took your departure very personally."

"And you didn't?"

Jean winked at him. "Well, I didn't lose my roommate and best friend like Scott. Or have my heart broken like Ororo."

"So what's the Professor's excuse?"

Turning her gaze away from Warren, she said quietly, "You were the first to walk away. To him you'll always be the prodigal son."

"I haven't seen him yet."

"You need to. Soon."

Just as he was about to ask Jean for advice on what to say to Xavier, Warren heard the bustle of students racing through the garden. A few of them smiled as they raced past him toward the house and he searched their ranks for any familiar faces. Before he had a chance to compose himself and remember any of their names, he found the smiling visage of Bobby Drake standing before him along with a few other students he remembered from his stint at the school.

"See, Dani. I told you he was here."

Warren shook his head. "Well hello to you too, Bobby."

Bobby blushed as Jean chided him. "Bobby. Where are your manners?"

"Sorry, Dr. Grey. Hello, Mr. Worthington."

Warren smirked as he studied the boy. He had grown so much since he had last seen him and was well on his way to becoming a man. "I'm not a teacher here anymore, Bobby. You can call me by my first name."

Bobby blushed again and smiled, "Sure thing, Mr., um, Warren."

Next to him, Jean was doing her best to repress a giggle. "So how have you been, Bobby? How are your studies coming along?"

"Good. I'm really getting the hang of my powers. Ms. Monroe has really been a big help."

Warren looked up to see Ororo standing behind them and as she made eye contact with him, he said, "I'm sure she has."

Turning his attention back to the students, Warren asked the dark-skinned girl next to Bobby, "And how about you, Dani Moonstar? How have you been?"

"Well, sir."

He tried his best to remember the names of the other students... Kitty Pryde, Jubilation Lee, Sam Guthrie... but there was one standing off from the crowd that he didn't know and he was sure he hadn't met before. She wore a scarf and long gloves, even though it was a warm spring day. She kept glancing nervously around her, every now and then sparing a look at Bobby and his friends. It was obvious she had formed a tight bond with them. Warren spoke in her direction in a soft tone so as not to startle her, "And what about you, I don't think I've met you before?"

She stepped forward, a shy grin on her face as she stared at the immense wings hanging from his back. "I'm Rogue."

"Hello, I'm Warren Worthington. I used to be a student here... a long time ago."

He extended a hand that she refused to take, stepping back from him but still remaining amicable. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Worthington."

"Please. Call me Warren."

She smiled and her voiced dripped with a strong southern accent. "Warren."

Ororo then stepped forward and placed a hand on Bobby's shoulder as she addressed the students. "Back to the mansion with you. I believe you have a Biology lesson with Dr. Grey?"

Jean cleared her throat as she got to her feet and addressed the students with a mockingly stern tone. "Yes. And I hope you read your chapters last night because I'm in the mood for a pop quiz."

The students groaned as they followed her back to the main house and Warren couldn't help but laugh. While Jean was one of the most understanding teachers at the school, she also had the reputation as one of its toughest. They had his deepest sympathies as he watched them leave the garden.

As soon as they were out of sight, Storm sat next to him on the bench and they sat in silence for a few excruciating seconds before he finally spoke, staring at the fine gravel of the walkway in front of him. "Jean tells me you came to visit me yesterday. I'm sorry I wasn't more lucid."

"I probably should have waited but I just needed to see you. I think I just needed to make sure you were not a dream."

He looked at her and smiled, "Well, it's me. Warren Worthington III... in the flesh."

Returning his smile, she said steadily, "I can see that."

He stared at her for a long while, realizing that in the last two years he had almost forgotten how beautiful and graceful she was in person... almost. Seeing her like this again brought all the memories tumbling back and for a brief moment he felt like he couldn't breathe. What a fool he was to run away from her like that. Out of everyone at the school, she deserved an explanation. He hadn't meant to cut her out of his life so suddenly and so brutally... but at the time he felt he had no choice. He only hoped that over the last two years she had come to understand his decision.

As the breeze picked up, scattering a few fallen leaves across the garden, a lock of white hair fell across her face and without even thinking, he reached out and brushed it away. She blinked at him as his hand lingered on her cheek and he quickly took it away as he said awkwardly, "I'm sorry. I didn't... you know, old habits?"

"Die hard? Warren, I don't want to be your habit."

He smiled as he shook his head. "You were never a habit, Ro. You were my goddess... I think you know you always will be."

Tilting her head as she studied him, she said quietly, "I don't want to be your goddess, either."

He breathed a deep sigh as he turned his gaze away from her. "Then what do you want from me?"

"I want to be your friend again."

"And I want to be yours."

Taking his uninjured hand in hers, she asked, "Promise?"

"With all my heart."

A smirk rose on her lips as she released his hand. "I will hold you to that, Mr. Worthington."

He grinned, the pressure in his chest disappearing at the radiant smile on her face. "You'd better."

"So are you going to be rejoining us now?"

He had been wondering when someone would broach the question. He had thought it would be Scott or even Xavier. Somehow, he wasn't expecting it from her. "You know I can't."

She sighed as she turned her head to stare out over the garden. "I know. But I thought I would ask... just in case."

They sat quietly for a while, the only sound a pair of birds chirping from a nearby tree. Finally, Ororo got to her feet and offered Warren her hand. "I need to get back to the mansion. I have another seminar in half an hour I need to prepare for. Will you accompany me back?"

"No. I think I'll stay here for a while. You don't get this kind of peace and quiet in the city."

She took his hand one more time. "Let me know if you need anything?"

Squeezing her hand lightly and then releasing it, he said, "Actually there is one thing. When I'm feeling better, I'd love it if you would go flying with me."

A broad grin spread across her face and her eyes seemed to twinkle with delight. "But of course."

"Then it's a date?"

She nodded as she walked toward the house, "A date it is, Mr. Worthington."

And as she left his view, Warren smiled to himself. It seemed ending back up at Xavier's wasn't the disaster he had dreamed it would be. No, it was turning out to be almost pleasant if it wasn't for the injuries he had to endure.

"No. I won't allow it. I forbid you to turn in your resignation."

Warren's eyes darted with anger as he stood quickly from his chair and addressed the Professor. "I don't care about your permission. It wasn't a request... it was statement of fact. I am leaving and that's that."

Xavier looked studied Warren with a calm expression from the other side of his desk, his tone composed and even as he continued to plead with him, "I can't believe you would consider leaving after one minor set back. It isn't like you."

Clenching his jaw tightly, Warren spoke quietly. "It wasn't a minor setback, Professor. I fell the equivalent of four stories in an exercise of your design. I was out cold for close to a day for crying out loud."

The Professor smiled gently, trying his best to be reassuring. It was an expression Warren had seen a hundred times before and it always seemed to set him and the other students at ease. But it wasn't going to work this time. No, a pat on the back and a simple pep talk were not enough to smooth away this discomfort. "But you weren't seriously injured, Warren. And this was only your first time in the battle simulation. I know you will get better."

Planting both of his hands on the desk, he stared squarely into the Professor's eyes as his wings twitched on his back. "Maybe I don't want to get better, Professor."

The Professor furrowed his brow in response and seemed to wear an expression of earnest confusion, but Warren found it hard to believe the world's foremost telepath could be taken by surprise with his statement. True, Xavier didn't make it a practice to actively scan his students, but Warren knew a telepath of his power couldn't ignore the turbulent thoughts of one of his first pupils completely. He wasn't going to play whatever mind games Xavier had in store for him. It was time he started playing by his own rules. "I'm leaving in the morning. I've already spoken to my father and he wants me to come home... learn the business from him before..."

Xavier frowned. "I see. I didn't realize that. So he's getting worse, then?"

Sympathy. Somehow he hadn't quite expected that. Yes, Xavier knew his father was dying of cancer. Yes, Xavier had been like family to him for many years. So why was he so surprised by his compassionate expression? He was beginning to realize that this wasn't a game to Xavier. This wasn't a power play or a mind trick. It was concern... pure and simple. He simply wanted to make sure he was making the right decision.

"Yes. He is... but that doesn't change how I feel, Professor."

Warren shut his eyes and heard the motor on Xavier's wheelchair whir to life as he moved from behind the desk. "You know I will grant you sabbatical for as long as you need... but leaving the School permanently? That I cannot understand."

Drawing a deep breath and opening his eyes, he turned his head to look down at Xavier. "I can't be a part of this any longer. I have to find my own way."

Xavier raised an eyebrow. "That sounds awfully selfish to me, Warren."

Warren rolled his eyes as he slammed a hand down on the desk. "Selfish?! Oh, that's fair, Professor. Make me look like the snotty, rich brat and hide from the real issue at hand."

"I'm sorry, Warren, that's not what I intended. But we have goals here that you are a part of... something much bigger than all of us."

Releasing a deep sigh Warren folded his arms over his chest. "Yes. Your dream of the co-existence of mutants and humans. I've heard the speech a dozen times before. But do you really think turning us into a bunch of soldiers is the best means to that end?"

Xavier narrowed his eyes. "If you had objections, you should have spoken up long before."

"Well, I'm speaking up now."

"So you are."

"Listen, Professor. I still believe in the dream... but your methods frighten me. The way to acceptance isn't in militancy. It's in industry and law."

Xavier pursed his lips. "We need to know how to defend ourselves."

Waving a hand nonchalantly, Warren continued, "Defense is fine... but suiting us all up in battle fatigues and giving us codenames? I'm sorry, but it's preposterous!"

His expression suddenly growing intense, Xavier spoke evenly. "There is a war brewing, Warren. Someday you will see that and the X-Men will be there to protect the innocents that are caught in the crossfire. That is all."

Warren chuckled. "The X-Men? So that's what you're calling them?"

"Them? All of a sudden you find it so easy to separate yourself from your fellow classmates... your friends?"

Shaking his head, Warren walked toward the door. "That's not fair and you know it. I never signed on for this. I came here to learn how to control my powers... to get an education away from ridicule and judgment. And to be fair, you've given me that. But I never asked to be a soldier in some undeclared war. And frankly, when I look around and see your growing throng of young students entering these 'hallowed' halls, I am very afraid for the future."

"Don't even begin to cast judgment on me, Warren. I brought these children here to protect them. You of all people should understand that by now."

Placing his hand on the doorknob and opening the heavy, oak door, Warren spared his former mentor one last scathing glance. "Are you sure you didn't bring them here to protect yourself, Charles?"

As he shut the door behind him, he drew a deep breath. It was the first time he had ever raised his voice to Charles Xavier and truth be told, it was the most difficult thing he had ever done. No, saying good-bye was never easy, especially to a man who had been everything to him for the last eight years of his life. As he walked away from Xavier's office toward the living quarters to pack his things, he realized that Xavier had never raised his voice in return... that he had never once heard an angry expression escape his lips since he had lived under his roof. And as he climbed the stairs toward the men's dormitory, he couldn't help but feel pity for him and hoped he would never hear of the day when Xavier's shell cracked.

Warren splashed cold water on his face as he stared hard into his reflection in the mirror. He had been called a handsome man and over the years with a boyish face, a head of wavy, blonde hair that always seemed to fall into his eyes at just the right moments, and eyes as blue as a clear sky. But he was paying his good looks no heed as he examined his bruised cheek that was fading into a sickly green. No, at the moment all he saw was fortune mocking him. He thought he could do some good in this world by standing up for mutant rights in the private sector. What good was sabotage if you were dead before you could finish the job? Why would anyone listen to him now that they all suspected that he himself was a mutant? He definitely had his work cut out for him.

As he basked in his self-pity, he hardly noticed the knock at the door. A towel slung around his waist, he muttered absently. "Come on in, Jean. It's open."

He looked again in the mirror to see Scott staring at him, a smirk on his face. "It's not Jean."

Smiling, Warren gathered his clothes and toiletries. "I'm sorry. I was expecting it to be her. She mentioned something about some more tests today."

Warren closed the bathroom door to a crack and got dressed, struggling with both his wings and his cast in the cramped space as Scott spoke from the bedroom. "She'll want to see you later. Though I'm sure she'll be sorry she missed the show."

Warren poked his head out the door. "What?"

Sitting on the bed, Scott chuckled. "You parading around in just a towel, of course."

He laughed as he ducked back behind the door. "I'm just a little distracted this morning, Scott. Besides, if I had wanted to muscle in on your girl... you wouldn't stand a chance."

As he opened the door, Scott laughed sharply. "You haven't changed at all."

Warren smiled. "It's good to see you, Scott."

Scott nodded. "And you, too."

Fastening the last of the buttons on his shirt, Warren asked, "So what's up, Slim?"

Scott smiled. "It's been a long time since anyone called me that."

"What do they call you nowadays? Beefcake? Stud-muffin? Hunka-hunka-burning-love?"

Scott snorted as he stood up from the bed and Warren grinned. "Oh, you know you'll always be that gangly little kid who barely had the sense to come out of the rain to me, Scott."

"I've done a lot of growing up since then."

He smiled and patted his friend on the shoulder. "We both have. So what did you need?"

"I wanted to show you something."

Warren nodded and followed Scott out of the room and down to the lower levels where he soon found himself led into the bowels of the sub-basement. In front of him, Scott keyed a password into a locking mechanism and he motioned for him to enter. Inside, the walls were filled with blinking lights and computer monitors. On one side of the room was a thick sheet of glass and below he saw a large, metal-walled room. It was just as he remembered it from two years ago... just as cold and daunting.

He took a chair as he looked up with questioning eyes at his friend, but he ignored him and took a seat at the control panel, addressing the group of students gathered on the floor below. "Okay, kids. Here we go. Nice and easy... from the top."

In the seat next to him, a rough voice said, "It's a beauty, ain't it? We call it the Danger Room."

Warren frowned. "The Danger Room? Yes, I would say it is that."

"These folks are just heapin' over with creative names, eh?"

Warren shook his head and tried to ignore the man as he watched Scott enter a sequence of commands on the keyboard. But he didn't get a chance.

"My name's Logan, by the way. Saved yer life back in that alleyway."

He extended his hand, "Nice to meet you, Logan..."

The man grinned a feral smile. "Just Logan."

Warren raised an eyebrow. "Okay... I owe you a debt of gratitude. Jean told me if it wasn't for your treatment I might have lost a critical amount of blood."

"Don't mention it. Just doing my job."

Logan then turned his attention to the monitor and wheeled his chair up to another keyboard where he entered his own sequence. Warren then watched as the students worked through their obstacles.

Samuel Guthrie flew at high velocity around the upper levels of the room, crushing attack robots with his blast- shield, roaring like a high-powered cannonball. While on the floor below, Piotr Rasputin glistened like quicksilver... using his power to turn to organic steel and pulverize projectiles before they had a chance to make impact. Katherine Pryde glimmered like a ghost, phasing through the circuitry of a wall of robotic drones while Jubilation Lee fired pyrotechnics from her fingertips and Bobby Drake froze them to the spot.

They moved like a well-oiled machine, anticipating each other's movements as the difficulty increased, worked as a team to conquer one level than the next. And while their determination was evident, there was a sense of camaraderie among them. They were in this together... fighting toward a common goal and never giving too much or too little. They knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. They knew when to back off and when to give it their all. They were a team. They were family. And seeing their precision took Warren's breath away.

When the exercise was finished, Scott congratulated them on a job well done and Logan excused himself while Warren simply shook his head. As Scott flipped off several switches, he asked Warren, "So what did you see down there?"

"Honestly, I was expecting a bunch of mindless soldiers."


"I don't know. It's hard to explain."

"How so?"

Warren pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. "I guess in seeing them... I suddenly felt very lonely."

Scott sat next to him as Warren continued. "I mean I've seen the blue prints... what the government has planned for mutant-kind if the Secretary of Defense has his way. But these kids... I think that if it comes to pass, they can handle it. You've done your job well in training them. But I know these students, too. And they're good souls... but they're still just kids. It's right they should be able to defend themselves... it's just..."

Staring at him with those ruby-guarded lenses, Scott pushed the matter. "It's just what?"

He continued to look out at the floor even though the students had filed out long before. "It's just so scary that they should have to."

Scott smiled. "That's where people like you come in, Warren. We're just training them to be their own last line of defense."

Nodding, Warren got to his feet to get a better look at the exercise area of the Danger Room. It was completely empty now. All evidence of the battle had been absorbed back into the walls. Behind him, he heard Scott's voice. "And you don't have to be alone, Warren."

Shaking his head, Warren said with a grin. "You know I won't come back."

Scott smiled. "I know. The Professor wants to talk to you... about something new."

"Warren, please sit down."

As Warren walked into Xavier's office the Professor sat with a cheery expression on his face, motioning to a chair in front of him. Nodding and returning his smile, Warren took the offered seat, its back the perfect height for his wings to easily drape over. As he looked around the room, he realized it looked exactly the same as it did the last time he was here. Not a solitary paper was out of place and every trinket and knickknack was exactly where he remembered it. He could even swear the same homework assignment on elementary particle physics was written on the board.

Xavier maneuvered his wheelchair around the large desk and poured himself a cup of tea from a side table. "Tea?"

"No. I'm fine, thank you."

Settling back at his desk with his cup and saucer, Xavier drew a deep sigh and then looked appraisingly at his former pupil. "Jean says you've recovered well. That you're ready to leave us."

Warren nodded. "Except for the arm, I have a clean bill of health. But I'll be back in a few weeks for another check up."

"Good. Good. It's good to see you again, Warren."

"You too, Professor. I didn't realize how much I missed this place until I came back."

Tilting his head as he folded his hands in his lap, Xavier mused, "It does tend to have a hold on people."

Warren heard the sound of children playing on the lawn outside the walls of Xavier's study and he found it familiar and almost comforting. "Yes. But you know what they say... You can't go home again."

Staring over Warren's shoulder and out the window, Xavier said absently. "No. I suppose not."

Xavier stirred his tea and then set the spoon gently on his saucer. "I suppose it was wrong of me not to visit with you sooner. But I just wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings still between us."

Grinning, Warren said, "So you let Jean, Scott and Ororo do your dirty work instead."

Pursing his lips, Xavier said, "Now, Warren..."

Warren cut him short. "No. No. I understand, Professor. You were just being tactful."

Xavier's expression grew pensive. "I'm sure you're wondering why we haven't pushed you to rejoin us."

Leaning forward in his seat, Warren said, "Yes, I am. I thought I'd get a recruitment speech as soon as I was back on my feet."

"You've made your intentions clear to all of us. There's no need to expend ourselves fruitlessly."

"I appreciate the gesture."

Leaning back in his chair and pressing his palms together, Xavier paused a moment before he spoke, his words deliberate and evenly paced. "I believe Scott has told you I wanted your help with something?"

Nodding, Warren relaxed into his chair. "He was rather vague about it... but yes, he did."

Xavier smiled. "He was vague for a reason. This is something he knows very little about... even as my second in command."

His curiosity piqued, Warren asked, "Just what is this special project, Charles?"

"I want you to be a part of my mutant underground."

Yes. His curiosity was definitely piqued. Raising an eyebrow, he said, "Explain."

"I've spoken with some other mutants in the international community. People like yourselves who take a less militant stance and fight for genetic equality quietly in their business and legal proceedings. As you may know, Jean had been attending congressional hearings on the MRA, the Mutant Registration Act. And while the MRA has been tabled in the Senate for the time being and Jean has stepped back from the limelight to once again become active with her training and the team... she attracted a great deal of attention with sympathizers. And while her affiliation with the Xavier Institute is not widely known, there were many mutants who were interested in helping the cause."

Narrowing his eyes, Warren asked, "So where do I come in?"

"I've been in contact with a telepath in London by the name of Elizabeth Braddock. She is self-taught and I happened across her presence on the astral plane many months ago. We've been communicating in secret, establishing the layout for an underground movement. A means to protect and shelter mutants who do not need or want the tutelage the School provides."

Taking another sip from his cup, the Professor continued as he studied Warren's reaction intently. "We thought it would be best to operate in smaller groups... or resistance cells as Betsy likes to call them. Each member of the underground only communicates with one or two other members. That way if a genetic war does surface and members are interrogated there is no way the identities or structure of other cells will be divulged."

Deciding that he did indeed want a cup of tea, Warren stood and poured himself a cup as he listened to Xavier's words intently. "Sounds ingenious."

Nodding his head, Xavier said, "Ms. Braddock is a very ingenious woman. But we've decided with my involvement with the School, it would be best if I were to withdraw from the underground in case either were compromised."

Sitting back in his chair, Warren took a sip from his cup. It was Darjeeling. Somehow he has expected Earl Grey. It seems things had changed, if only a little, in Charles Xavier's study. "Makes sense."

"Now this is where you come in. When I step back, we'll need a replacement as a cell leader for the Northeastern United States."

He set his cup on the desk. "But with my current trouble with the government, I might not be the best decision. I'll be under close scrutiny."

Xavier shook his head. "You're the perfect choice, Warren. The underground works two-fold and there are many unseen pieces as work. If you join, you will be protected from prying eyes. And your insight and knowledge will be extraordinarily valuable. Truth be told, we have been watching you for some time. We need someone like you... with your power in the corporate sector."

Releasing a deep sigh and massaging his temples, Warren remained silent as Xavier watched him intently. It all seemed too perfect... help in continuing his struggles with the government and an organization to continue his work if he failed. It seemed the answer to his prayers. And while he mulled Xavier's words over in his mind, his heart told him it was the right thing to do... perhaps what he was destined for the entire time he was under the Professor's roof. Without a further thought, he said, "I'll do it."

Xavier's satisfaction evident, he smiled, "Good. Someone will be contacting you in the next week or so."

Warren raised an eyebrow. "So that's it then? No secret handshakes... no midnight inductions along the Hudson?"

Wearing a grin, Xavier chuckled. "No. I'm afraid not... but if you would like to make up some rituals, I'm sure they would be open to suggestion."

Getting to his feet and preparing to leave, Warren said with a smile. "I'll keep that in mind. And thank you, Professor."

"No, Warren, thank you."

As he turned his back to Xavier and opened the door, he heard the Professor clear his throat. As he looked over his shoulder at him, Xavier said with a cordial gleam in his eyes. "I'm so very proud of you."

He smiled. "Thank you, Professor."

And as he shut the door behind him and made his way through the house to say his good-byes, he realized just how much those words meant to him... how much the entire visit, though under discomforting circumstances, meant to him. It was good to come home if only for a little while.

"Leaving so quickly?"

Warren looked up to see Ororo standing on the large staircase in the main foyer, one of her delicate hands resting on the ballast as she smirked at him, her brown eyes twinkling merrily.

He smiled. "I didn't forget, 'Ro."

Winking, she returned his smile, her face more radiant and serene than he remembered. "I should hope not."

Reaching up to take her hand, he pulled her close and the two raced out the front door. Warren felt a strong micro- burst of wind as their feet hit the green, well-manicured lawn and suddenly the ground sped away from them, as they were propelled upward by Storm's manipulation of pressure and air currents.

As his great wings unfurled from his back, he extended them far above his head and brought them down in one fluid motion, pushing them higher into the sky as the wind billowed through their clothes. Holding tight onto Ororo's hand, he whooped with delight as he took them into a tight turn and smiled to himself as she laughed enthusiastically.

Orbiting the perimeter of the school, Warren then took her in his arms and carried her in a slow, even flight pattern while she used her powers to keep the air currents even and buoyant. As her hair whipped about her face, he smiled at her. "I've missed this so much. It's so nice to not have to hide my gifts from prying eyes. I feel so free."

She stretched a hand out in front of her, slicing through the wind sheer with a playful wiggle of her fingers. "So this means you will come back to visit?"

"Yes. If you'll come flying with me every time."

Looking up at him, her expression suddenly very serious, she said, "I will always be here for you, Warren. You will always be my friend."

He drew a deep breath as she turned her face away and looked out over the school grounds. "Thank you, Ororo. I'm glad you've let us start over."

Her voice cool but amicable, she said serenely, "We may have stopped being lovers, Angel. But we will never stop being friends. There is too much at stake to forget one another."

"I could never forget you, 'Ro. Never."

Turning her head once more to smirk at him, she said mirthfully, "Good. Because I would not have let you."

He laughed as he held her tight and spun through the clouds. Regardless of her words in the garden a few days before, he would always think of her as his beauty, his goddess. He would simply have to worship her from afar with his memories and his friendship. And that suited him just fine... at least she was in his life again and that was the greatest blessing of all.

Warren Worthington III stood at the window in his office at Worthington Enterprises, watching the hustle and bustle of New York City on the street below. It had been one month since he returned from the Xavier Institute, three weeks since he received a visit from a member of the underground and two since the allegations against him were silenced. The underground made good on Xavier's promise of protection and now he was back at work and as busy as ever.

He had only met one member of the movement in the flesh, a NYPD detective by the name of Sean Cassidy. He could tell from his accent that he was of Irish birth, but he knew little else of the man save his devotion to the equality between mutants and humans. Their meetings had been brief but informative and Warren was left both pleased and hopeful.

During the last few weeks, he also had the fortune of encountering the woman Xavier had mentioned to him, Elizabeth Braddock... though their meetings were of a less reassuring nature. A telepath with power almost to rival Xavier himself, she, with the Professor's tutelage, had constructed her own version of Cerebro and used it not only to locate mutants under threat but to communicate with select members of the underground. When she had first contacted him, he had found the experience jarring and more than a little unnerving. But he found himself getting used to the experience and was almost looking forward to their weekly meetings. She was proving to be more fascinating than Xavier had let on. Her lilting, telepathic voice seemed filled with both sincerity and amusement at all times and he found himself wondering if she was as beautiful as she sounded.

As his thoughts drifted, he was snapped from his reverie by a knock on his door. It was Candace Southern, his assistant. "Mr. Worthington? You have a visitor... a Mr. Summers."

Warren smiled. "Please. Send him in."

As Scott entered the office, Warren extended his hand. "Scott, so good to see you. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea?"

His friend shook his head. "No. No, I'm fine."

"I didn't expect to see you so soon." He gestured to his arm, still in a sling. "I was planning on visiting Jean tomorrow for a check up."

Scott grinned as he stood in the middle of Warren's large office, the sunlight glinting off his glasses. "I know. But this couldn't wait."

His expression growing concerned, Warren gestured to one of the chairs in the office's sitting area. "Please, sit down."

His grin cracking into a large smile, Scott shook his head. "No... I'm too excited to sit."

Warren chuckled as he watched his friend pace in front of him. He has so much nervous energy he looked like he was going to explode. He had never seen Scott like this and couldn't help but be amused as his usually reserved and even withdrawn exterior was completely shed. "Well, what is it? Out with it, Scott. You're making me nervous!"

Releasing a deep sigh, Scott stood in front of Warren and said with an almost coy smirk, "We've set a date."

Warren raised an eyebrow. "You and Jean?"

Scott nodded and Warren shook his head. "Well, it's about time!"

"That's what she said."

Folding his arms over his chest, Warren clicked his tongue against his teeth as he studied Scott. "So let's hear the details, then."

"Actually, there was one detail that I specifically came here to ask you about."

Leaning against his desk, Warren said, "Whatever you need, Slim."

"I want you to be my best man."

Warren's eyes grew wide in surprise and joy. Here he was expecting Scott to ask him for use of one of his family's resort properties for their honeymoon and here he was... asking him to stand by his side when he and Jean started their life together. After all the harsh words and cold shoulders exchanged between them in the last two years he hadn't expected this of all things. He didn't know what to say.

Scott furrowed his brow as he watched Warren's reaction. "Warren? You will do it, won't you?"

A huge smile forming on his face, Warren clapped Scott on the back as he held him in a short, friendly embrace. "Of course I will. I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Shaking Warren's hand, Scott said happily, "Good. It'll mean so much to me. To both of us."

Releasing a sigh, Warren leaned on the desk again and shook his head as he studied Scott. He had always known he and Jean were meant for each other but it still startled him that the day they were to be married was actually in view. He was so happy for him, for both of them. They both deserved happiness and were sure to find it in one another.

Scott lightly punched his good arm and said quickly, "Well, I have to run. Jean is waiting for me downstairs. We have an appointment with a caterer in twenty minutes."

"Sounds fun. So I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Sure thing... I'll give you all the details. It's going to be next month on the seventeenth, so keep your calendar clear, okay?"

"Can't wait."

As Warren walked Scott to the door, his friend mused, "You do know it's your job to throw me a bachelor party?"

A mockingly evil twinkle in his eye, Warren said, "Oh, yes. I'm aware of that particularly dirty detail."

Scott said in almost a whisper. "Well, Jean did want me to suggest something low-key. I believe she grumbled something about no strippers."

Patting him on the back before he shut the door behind him, Warren said with a grin, "Don't worry, buddy. I'll keep you out of trouble."

But as he wandered back to his desk, he spoke under his breath, "Yes... completely out of trouble."

He pressed a few buttons on his phone and said to the operator on the other end of the receiver, knowing it was his sworn duty as a best man to break his promise to Scott and give him a night to live in infamy for the rest of his life. "Yes, I'm looking for the number for a 'Flash Dancers'?"

And as the operator connected him to the club, his only hope was that Jean would have mercy on his soul.