The Race

by Indigo



DISCLAIMER: The characters, save Aiko Carey, belong to the Marvel Comics Group and are used without permission for the sole purpose of entertainment. Aiko Carey belongs to Indigo, and should not be used without his permission.

FEEDBACK: always appreciated to 


ARCHIVE: Usual rules apply. Carte blanche, go ahead. Otherwise, please ask.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Matt Nute, Redhawk, and Mughi (nobody you know) for help researching some of the Nietsche quotes I used. To Frito for being a beta-reader par excellence, and to Falstaff for some New Mutants backdata that was important to some of this story.

POST DATE: June 7, 2000

Emma Frost was awakened by someone politely calling her name.

[~Miss Frost. Excuse me. Miss Frost.~]


The White Queen stretched languidly, and raised her hands to her face to lift the sleeping mask. [~Yes, Tessa, what is it?~]

[~Monet asked me to wake you. She says there's something in the ... radio room that you should see.~]

Emma nodded, slipping soundlessly out of bed. Sebastian Shaw mumbled, slightly disturbed by the motion, then turned and went back to sleep.

[~Tell her I shall be down directly. Have a pot of coffee sent down, and my usual breakfast.~]

[~Very good, Miss Frost. Jamaican Blue Mountain, Hawaiian Kona, or Sumatra?~]

Emma paused thoughtfully, padding toward the bathroom on bare feet. She considered the question as she turned the spigots and waited for the steam to indicate her shower would be hot enough. [~Sumatra, Tessa. And thank you.~]

[~Very good, Miss Frost.~]

Emma stepped into the steaming water and closed the telepathic connection.

The "radio room" was where the Hellfire Club kept their version of Cerebro -- a device designed on Xavier's own mutant-detecting computer. And if Monet thought this required Frost's personal attention, then she had found something unique and interesting.

Emma smiled as the hot water washed the languor of sleep from her mind and body. The four months since she had returned to the Hellfire Club with Jonothon Starsmore and Monet St. Croix at her side had been fairly uneventful, save for re-securing her position as White Queen. Selene, sorcerer or not, was no match for Emma's psionic abilities. And Hellstrom seemed willing to hold the rest of his people in line under Shaw.

Monet had been flourishing in the Fifth Avenue Mansion the Hellfire Club called home. The rich surroundings suited her, as did being away from the riffraff back in Massachusetts. DaCosta's attentions had not hurt in the slightest...and Monet's returning them distracted the boy sufficiently that he frequently forgot to be suspicious of Emma and Shaw's activities. She might have a turncoat White Pawn in her ranks before long, at this rate. She and Shaw often discussed playfully making a bet whether that would be so.

Starsmore, unfortunately, had not been doing quite so well. His grasp on his psionic abilities was much improved. He was proficient enough now to send the length of the house without much difficulty -- this was practically a quantum leap from his previous ability to speak telepathically. He was impatient, but making a concerted effort not to let it discourage him from his efforts. He knew he was making progress, even if he had not yet developed sufficient control over the psionic energy that roiled within him to reconstruct his face. And while Amara Aquilla and Marie-Ange Tolbert now occupied the mansion as well, and fawned over him -- he remained unmoved by the girls' affections. His single-minded devotion was to restoring his body. And Emma knew, at that time, he would likely, since she remained in his thoughts, attempt to return to Paige Guthrie -- or seek to bring her to the Club. At which point, Paige would refuse, and Emma would get to see where Jono's loyalties really lay.

The duration of her reverie was sufficient for her to finish her shower and return to the bedroom. Sebastian sat up in bed, regarding her with a sleepy, sloe-eyed smile. "Good morning, Emma."

She leaned to favor him with a kiss and the scent of her gardenia-fragranced skin, warm from the shower. "Good morning, Sebastian. Would love to stay and have -- breakfast -- with you," her smile indicated more than merely breakfast, "but it appears Monet's found something on the seeker system."

Shaw's brows lifted, and he reached for his black satin robe. "Really, now? A potential Hellion?"

Emma chuckled throatily. "Depending on what she's come up with."

Shaw grinned. "You have taken well to getting back in the saddle, my dear."

Emma's smile remained on her face, though her eyes filled with ominous thunderheads. "I should never have left it, Sebastian." She let fall the white robe, and stepped nude into her closet, smiling as she heard Sebastian's back-throated growl of appreciation, and the accompanying rustle of the bedsheets.

The closet was full of clothes -- all white -- but no two alike. After some thought, Emma chose a form-fitting white dress with a matching lightweight overcoat. The fabric was thin enough to hint at the shadows of her legs when she walked, and snug enough to accentuate the curves she cultivated to speed men's hearts. White stockings and pumps completed the outfit. Her hair went up into a loose bun, with calculated wisps falling against the back of her neck and in front of her ears.

She glanced over her shoulder one more time at Sebastian, then went out to begin her day. The servants all greeted her with self-effacing politeness. She strode to the end of the hall and descended the stairs. "Good morning, Roberto."

Roberto DaCosta, the Black Rook, smiled solicitously. "Bom Dia, Miss Frost."

"And to you, Roberto." She continued down, not giving the young Brazilian a second thought. He had brought himself down from the level she considered a threat. Whether Monet had planned it or not, rendering the otherwise powerful Sunspot complacent was quite a coup.

Tessa was just exiting quietly from the radio room as Emma approached the door. "Your breakfast is ready as you ordered, Miss Frost."

"Excellent, Tessa. Thank you." She smiled as the aroma of coffee reached her, and finished her entrance. "Monet? You have something for me?"

Monet, who went by Arete as Emma's White Bishop, turned. "Yes, Miss Frost. We have a contact. By the readings, this one's fairly powerful. I thought you'd want to be notified at once."

Emma drank deeply of her cup; the first coffee of the day infusing her. "Well done, Monet. And what can you tell me about the contact?"

Monet's fingers flew with blinding speed across the keyboard. "The power readings are registering psionic and energy manipulator, Ms Frost. Higher than Jono -- almost as high as yourself." She smiled up at her teacher.

"You can be sure that the Xavier School will probably be after this one as well, if their seeker device is giving them similar readings."

"Indeed," Emma nodded, nibbling croissant. "And we shall have to get there first and secure this new contact's acquaintance and trust first. Where is our contact?"

Monet smiled and hit a key. A holographic heads-up map display flickered into existence between Emma and herself. A flashing golden pitchfork icon indicated the Hellfire Club's location in New York City. A little flickering green arrow tracked across the state, triangulating against the current location. It finally came to rest in Oklahoma. A few seconds later, the voice of the computer announced, "Custer City, Oklahoma."

Emma smiled. "Excellent. Pack a few things. We must be in the air in thirty minutes if we're to beat Xavier and Cassidy."

Monet arched one brow inquisitively.

"Xavier has the original Cerebro, upon which the one at Snow Valley and this one were both based. Xavier habitually prefers to see the new manifests himself...or, last such an encounter happened, he did. You children who became Generation X were a different case entirely. But the Phalanx necessitated a change from his customary methods of contact."

Frost strode toward the door. "I'll be contacting our tyro about the Frost Academy directly. Do let Jonothon and Roberto know I wish them to accompany me."

As Emma strode upstairs, sending a mental command to Tessa to pack her a bag, she left part of her brain to think. ~Custer City Oklahoma is likely to be quite ... off the beaten path. While the affluent approach may awe our young mutant, it may also offend or put him off. That means I may need someone else for him to relate to.~ She sat down on the bed, and lifted her phone to her ear, dialing one of her memory-stored numbers. ~Heaven help me, that Jubilee might actually have been useful to me in such a situation.~

The phone rang at a modest yet opulent villa in Spain.

"Si?" Manuel de la Rocha answered the phone himself.

"Manuel. Darling."

"Emma!" Manuel's voice lightened with amusement. "What do you need?"

"You know me so well," Emma replied, making no pretense that she ever called Empath for anything else.

* * * * *

"Sean, luv, looks like you've got a new one." Betsy Braddock looked up at Sean Cassidy. Her eyes glowed faintly pink-violet.

Sean nodded. "Show me what you have, Betsy, would you?" He thanked the saints one more time for Jubilee's presence of mind. The girl might have been a colossal pain in the butt most of the time, but it had been her former affiliation with the X-Men, and Psylocke in particular, that had given him the idea to ask her to replace Frost at the school. ~We *need* a telepath, and the damnable Frost woman took M and Chamber both when she reverted to type!~

Had Sean been a less reasonable man, he'd have called up Charles in New York to say, "I told you so." But he knew also that he was covering up his disappointment with good old fashioned Irish temper. Part of him had expected Emma to go back to being The White Queen ... but a greater part of him had, however begrudgingly, developed some affection for her...and, worse, begun to believe in her.

"It's out west," Betsy explained. "Oklahoma or thereabouts. This knock-off you have here isn't as strong as Cerebro, so the magnification is not as optimum as I'd hope. Not to mention I'm not nearly as --focused -- a telepath as Charles...or Emma."

"Can you do any better than 'thereabouts', Betts?" Sean asked, leaning forward eagerly. "I hate to press you, but you know with Emma havin' returned to the Hellfire Club, she'll likely be actively recruiting again."

"You don't know that for absolutely certain," Betsy said reproachfully. "We have been monitoring the news, television, radio, and the Internet for any mention that the Hellions had resurfaced and were up to their old tricks."

"And how public were the previous set of Hellions, hmm?" Sean shook his head. "She's marshalling her forces, Psylocke. I just know it. And we have to get to this poor lad or lass first."

Psylocke nodded. "Valid point," she conceded, and turned back to attempting to triangulate in on the signal from the second-rate Cerebro.

* * *

Charles Xavier sat brooding in his study, the Cerebro helmet on his head. ~Do I really have the right?~ he asked himself. ~The right to draw another innocent life into this war?~ As much as he hated to admit it to himself, 'war' was becoming an increasingly appropriate term for the volatile situation between mutants and humans. Worse, he knew he was partly responsible for that sad condition. ~Do I have the right to recruit someone else to a Dream I'm not even sure is working any more?~ He squeezed his eyes shut against the hot tingle that threatened tears. Self-doubt was not something that Charles Francis Xavier permitted himself ordinarily; admitting, even to himself, that his dream was perhaps futile, was as painful to him as a physical blow. Even so, he relished the pain. The man he used to be would have shut that pain away, ignored it, denied it. But he was no longer precisely the man he once prided himself on being.

The man he had once prided himself on being had succumbed to his darker his primal his rage. And that had been the weakness that had proven the fracture in his psyche, allowing the damage to fester, personify, and finally manifest as Onslaught. He had failed everyone and everything that ever had mattered to him, then. Worse, he'd *betrayed* everyone and everything he cared about. *He*, Charles Xavier, father of the Dream, had been the traitor Bishop had come back in time to stop.

Charles closed his eyes, letting the memories unfurl in his mind's eye. He had manipulated Emma Frost's mind when she had only been moments awake from her coma. Even if he never spoke it aloud, or let the thought beyond his mental shields for any other telepath to hear -- in his heart of hearts, Charles Xavier believed that he had done so with the best of intentions. ~But thus, as they say, is paved the road to hell, Charles,~ he reminded himself. ~I must do better than this. I must learn from the mistakes of my past.~ Thoughts of Jean, and the unrequited love he once held for him helped him steel his resolve. ~I slipped once. But now I must be ever-vigilant and remember -- "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Nietsche said it and I should have heeded that warning. I failed in that once and nearly destroyed all I've worked for *with my own hands*. I cannot slacken my efforts...I cannot let things become worse.~

"Cerebro," he finally said at length, voice heavy. "Identify location of contact."

Cerebro hummed and buzzed as it followed Charles' command, and finally answered, "Custer City, Oklahoma."

Charles nodded, and cast out his thoughts for his X-Men. [~Cerebro has located a new manifestation.~] Even this long after Operation Zero Tolerance, he dared not allow some mutant to manifest alone. Who knew if all the Omega Sentinels had been taken in and deprogrammed? The manifesting mutant in Oklahoma could be in danger. ~Just as long as you're not rationalizing the reason to yourself, Charles.~

Or so he told himself.

Bobby Drake, Hank McCoy, and Cecilia Reyes were the only X-Men in the house, so they answered his summons.

"I will not be accompanying you. But you must make certain this mutant is safe, and you must make certain they know ours is a place they can learn to use their powers in peace," Charles said.

"Should be easy enough," Bobby shrugged. "Hank with an image inducer, and Cecilia would be my choices."

Cecilia raised her brows. "Say what? Me? You know I don't wanna be part of this whole super-spandex club."

Hank smiled toothily at Cecilia. "That's true, my dear. And that is a point of view we have not often had represented when dealing with a new manifestation."

Charles nodded, brows and eyes dark over steepled fingers. "While I would be most pleased and least worried for our new manifestation's safety if he chose to return with us -- in fairness, I must make certain they are aware of all their options."

Hank and Bobby exchanged a glance between them. This was unusual for the usually unshakably self-assured Professor Xavier.

"And what're we to do if this kid just wants to stay in ..." Cecilia frowned at the map behind Charles on the wall. "Oklahoma?"

"We let him live in Oklahoma," Charles answered simply. "With the knowledge that we are here should he change his mind."

"Oh, bull*SHIT*!," Cecilia snapped. "That's the same line you gave *me* when I turned you down years ago, and look where I am now. In your goddamn mansion. I didn't change *my* damn mind. I had no *choice* when the Sentinels came calling and shattered my life. You want the kid to have the choice to grow up alone and live happy, you should just not *go* and leave him the hell alone." With that, Cecilia whirled on one heel and stalked out, forcefield activating to protect her as she straightarmed the study doors open.

Charles' expression could have not been more stunned and horror-stricken if Cecilia had dumped the entrails of young children in his lap. "They...they infiltrated the Mansion. Cable attempted to protect or destroy the information! I did not intentionally break my word!" He raised his voice against the receding sound of Cecilia's footfalls. He paused, took a slow breath, and schooled his face back to its customary imperturbable mask. "She may not forgive me for that soon, Henry, but we both know this is the best place, the safest place for her."

Hank gave Charles an apologetic smile. "If I were to agree with you wholeheartedly, Professor -- I cannot give you incontrovertible assurances that my concordance was entirely bereft of selfish motives." He glanced at the doors as they swung slowly closed, then back to his mentor. "You, sir, see only sequestering us under your auspices -- where we may shelter from the hatred of the world. Cecilia sees only that she had a happy, if hard life -- one in which a quirk divergence in her DNA made no difference in how she lived."

Charles sighed. "I daresay you have a point."

Hank smiled wryly. "You have our best interests at heart; this has never been disputable."

Bobby nodded. "Hey, you turned me from the Abominable Snow-Punk to the Iceman I am today. That has to count for something to somebody besides me. I wouldn't have traded this life for a so-called 'normal' one for a million bucks. Sure, it's been hard. But Professor -- I've seen *Asgard*! I've seen *outer space*! And poor Cecilia's only seen the crummy side of wearing the blue and gold."

Charles raised both brows to regard Bobby with veiled surprise. That had been a startlingly insightful remark from the normally jocular member of his first class. "Perhaps you're right, Bobby. But the question at hand remains." He gestured to the map.

Hank regarded his best friend with similar amazement as had Charles. He visibly came to some resolution to an inner conflict, turning an apologetic smile on Charles. "I ... had better go calm her down." He bounded out of the room, leaving only Charles and Bobby, looking uneasily at each other.

"Are you up to dealing with this alone, or would you like to wait for one of the others to get home and accompany you?" Charles asked.

"I can do it alone. I'm not the baby of the family anymore, or the class clown," Bobby said softly.

"Excellent," Charles said, nodding and genuinely smiling. ~And this way, with no telepath present, there will be no question of coercion.~ He turned, tapped a few keys, and waited patiently for the printer to finish. He turned in his hoverchair and handed the printout to Bobby. "Godspeed then, Iceman. I am ... very proud of you."

Bobby smiled uncomfortably, but nodded. "I'll call if I need backup, but I don't expect to." He turned and bounded out the door, full of exuberance.

Charles could sense in his thoughts the eagerness to do this right and bring the new kid home.

"Godspeed indeed," Charles whispered.

* * *

One night earlier, in Custer City Oklahoma, Population 443, a fourteen year old boy sat on the steps of his new home, looking out at the flat, dry land before him in all directions -- and devoutly, fervently, wanted to get the hell out of here.

There were 75 kids within five years of his age out of the entire town...and he had nothing in common with them save the same things he had in common with any other human being. He didn't know how to ride a horse. He didn't know the first thing about farming or ranching, nor did he care. He didn't know how to square dance, and Country/Western music made him want to defenestrate himself -- or, preferably, the person playing it at him. As a result, they treated him like a Skrull with a highly contagious case of some rare tropical disease.

His name was Aiko Carey, and he wanted to go home.

Unfortunately, that was a wish that would never come true for him. Home was here, now -- in this dusty, boring one-horse town because it was all he had left.

It was 99 miles to the nearest airport, and the pickup truck parked out front had barely made the trip back from the airport as it was. It was a ten mile walk to the nearest Interstate. There was one McDonalds, and it closed at 8 pm, for crying out loud! They didn't even have their own public library! If the unspeakable, awful, non-city *quiet* wasn't enough to bother him, the only noise that *did* permeate to his bedroom at night was the never-ending thrum of the oil pumps.

He knew that going back to San Francisco, home of his birth, was completely out of the question. His parents had died and with no next of kin, he went to his godmother Banji Darwin -- who much preferred the simple life afforded her here as a schoolteacher. He had, literally, nowhere else to go. He was two years from being an emancipated minor, and seven from inheriting whatever his parents had left him. ~Can't blame them, though,~ Aiko thought, brushing the long bleached-blonde bangs out of his face. ~It's not like they expected to get killed in a battle between a bunch of kids in purple and gold superhero outfits and some big purple robot guys.~

"Go home, queer boy!"

Aiko had five seconds to duck before the Coke bottle came flying over his head. It was *glass*, and they still called it "pop" out here... yet another reminder of how he would never be able to fit in. A half-Japanese, half-Jamaican boy was a standout no matter where he was, but in a small town in the heartland of America, he was practically a target. Nevermind that he'd been *born* in San Francisco; he looked too different for the insular little community's preference.

Just because he was from San Francisco, the kids Aiko's age teased him about being gay. They'd never seen a kid who had brown skin and epicanthic folds, nor one who wore dreadlocks. They didn't skateboard or rollerblade in Culver City. They didn't understand that it was a sign of individuality to dye or bleach one's hair, nor did they grasp it was a fashion statement to have both ears pierced with gold hoops; nor the fact that he had tattoos -- an IRIE on his left shoulder to signify his Jamaican heritage, and a rising sun on his right, to signify his Japanese ancestry.

Outside the school, almost no one had an internet connection! The nearest one was a long distance call.

Banji was as understanding as she could be about it, but it was either this or let him become a ward of the State. Banji told Aiko she was sorry he was unhappy but that she couldn't dishonor his mother's memory by allowing her son to become one of the faceless statistics of the world. Aiko couldn't argue that point. His mother had loved him dearly. Both of his parents had. They had still been as in love the day they died as they had been when they married, Aiko imagined. Most of the kids his age back west had families that were divorced and blended. He had been the only kid he knew over the age of 10 who had both his original parents still living happily together.

Oklahoma was everything San Francisco was not. His home city was all green and color and rolling hills. Oklahoma was flat and ... prairie colored. Dull. By comparison, lifeless. It had only been four weeks, and he was out and out miserable.

"Aiko, hon -- dinner!" Banji called.

Fighting tears, Aiko ran inside, the derisive laughter of the townies dogging his steps.

* * *

Sean Cassidy absolutely *hated* to fly if it wasn't under his own power, or with himself in the pilot's chair. But when Emma had abandoned her Massachusetts Academy, she had taken her private jet with her, leaving Sean to resort to commercial transportation. He also knew he had little in the way of advantage. Betsy was at his side, but they both knew if it came to a psionic confrontation between the two, Emma would have the advantage there as well. Sean could turn the advantage to a win with Banshee's scream, but he sincerely hoped Emma would not escalate the situation to that level.

Simply put, he planned to beat her to the punch -- get in, contact the new mutant, and get out again with the new mutant safely under his wing.

And God help Emma Frost if she tried any of her old tricks to get her way.

* * *

Emma Frost chuckled to herself, as Bumpkin drove Jono, Monet and herself to Kennedy Airport. She admitted with bemusement that she had made an oversight. Or, rather, she had discovered the advantage to having not forced the Generation X kids to join her when she returned to New York. Jubilee, Angelo, and Paige, were not privileged rich kids. They were able to relate to kids of their own station far better than Monet could, or Jono could from their position of privilege. She would have to rectify that situation as soon as possible.

In the meantime, though, if her affluent appearance was offputting to this new contact, she had an ace up her sleeve.

She quietly sat back in the seat, listening to Monet and Jono discuss who their new contact might be. Beside her, Tessa was on the phone, attempting to secure accommodations for them. "Oklahoma City is the best we'll be able to do, Ms. Frost. Only place within 100 miles of our contact with four star accommodations."

"It will have to do, then."

* * *

Bobby knocked on the edge of the doorway. "Hank, you decent?"

"It's ten am, Bobby. Of course I'm decent."

"Well," Bobby said with an air of mischief, "One never knows. Last I saw you, you were looking for Cecilia and..."

This got Bobby a beaker thrown at him, which he caught, laughing. "Seriously, I need your help."

"I have tried to persuade our Cecilia that this would be a good opportunity for her to see the less -- chaotic side of being an X-Man first hand, but she is immovable and refuses to accompany you." Hank shook his shaggy head slowly, looking faintly disappointed. "She is, I'm afraid, quite stubborn." Then, he grinned goofily, and added, "Whatta woman!"

"No, I'm good going by myself, Hank, honest. I was just hoping you'd make reservations at a hotel for me, so I could get a move on that much sooner." He already had a duffel bag and a garment bag slung over his shoulder.

Hank nodded. "Very well. You have my cellphone number. Call me in an hour and I'll let you know where you'll be dwelling for the duration of your scouting visit."

"You're the greatest, Hank, man. I owe you one."

"Indeed you do. You can take me out for beer at Harry's when you return."

"Done." Bobby turned and pelted for the door as he heard the cab honk for him. "I'll see you in a few days."

"Best of luck, to you!" Hank called.

"I'll need it!" Bobby called back before the door slammed behind him.

Once safely on the road, Bobby closed his eyes. The Professor hadn't mentioned it, and that lack of acknowledgement was all Bobby really needed. There were more organizations than the Xavier School and the Xavier Institute interested in contacting new mutants now. He doubted X-Force would care, nor what remained of X-Factor after Havok's death. But Banshee had raised holy hell telling the Professor that his plan had finally backfired -- that Emma Frost had showed her true colors and gone back to the Hellfire Club.

Bobby doubted it was as simple as that. He'd been there when Emma had awakened from her coma. He'd seen the horror and shock in her eyes when she'd found out that the first Hellions had been murdered in cold blood. He'd seen the regret. He'd heard from Jubilee, despite the girl's outward condemnatioon of her, that the White Queen had developed compassion and genuine concern for the new students to which she had been entrusted.

It just didn't *fit* that she would go all the way back to the dominatrix bitch who had kidnapped Kitty Pryde after all this time.

As a result, Bobby Drake expected to run into Emma in Oklahoma, taking a less 'villainous' approach at swaying this newly manifested mutant to her camp.

Bobby decided that whether he would stand by and permit this would depend solely on whether Emma's change of heart had been as thorough as Charles and Sean would have him believe. He knew very well that, with rare exceptions, when someone reformed and joined the ranks of the X -- they usually stayed reformed.

He didn't want to scare off this new prospect, but he was determined to see for himself what the deal was with Emma. ~Why not do both at once?~

He settled in to close his eyes. His powers would inform him by the ambient heat around him when they approached the airport. ~In the meantime,~ Bobby thought, ~I'm going to need all the rest I can get.~

* * *

April wasn't especially warm in Custer City, so when Aiko woke, he shivered when he crawled out from under the handmade quilts and staggered sleepily to the shower. It was Friday, and the only day of the week Aiko regarded with anything resembling hope. It meant that if he survived this school day, he'd be able to come back to Banji's house and hole up in or near it for the entire weekend, thus sparing himself the jibes and jeers of his so-called peers.

He padded quietly down the stairs on socked feet; it wouldn't do to wake Banji. She taught afternoon classes and did what little the high school considered extra-curricular activities, before driving the 75 miles to Cheyenne and teaching night school there.

A breakfast of corn flakes -- ~God, what I wouldn't give for a croissant or a bowl of Chocolate Sugar Bombs,~ Aiko lamented, and then it was the three-quarter mile trek to school. ~I'm just glad Banji's not teaching at the high school or I'd really be in bad shape, having a godmother who's a teacher.~ He shook his head ruefully. ~Count my blessings where I can get 'em, I guess.~ He straightened his shoulders, lifted his chin, and prepared to deal with the tribulations the day would hold.

Skateboarding was not a pleasure in Custer City; it was just ... slightly faster than walking, and gave him a slight advantage over the kids who walked. The kids who had bikes were, unfortunately, another story.

"Hey, hey, Jimmy! Look! It's the freak!"

~Oh God, here it comes again.~ Aiko sighed, and pushed a little harder off the sidewalk, so he could get what little head start he could against the boys who approached.

"What's the matter, freak boy? Scared to deal with some real men?"

~Don't answer them. Don't answer them. Don't answer them.~ Aiko whirled, flipped them the finger, and called, "I'll deal with some real men when you can *find* me some, Tad!"

"You little --"

And the chase was on. ~If I have to put up with this Akane Tendo routine every day, I may as well make the most of it.~ For the first time since he'd arrived, Aiko Carey found a reason to smile. In fact, he felt positively invigorated!

Fortunately, since he was skateboarding into the rising sun, the glow that suffused his body went unnoticed.

* * *

"Monet, shortly after we land, you will fly ahead to the high school. Tessa and I have already enrolled you as a new student. You will attend classes and learn what you can about our new manifestation, discreetly," Emma said.

"Of course, Miss Frost."

* * *

Bobby Drake whistled cheerfully as he drove his rented jeep toward the little burg the pocket Cerebro was pointing him to. He knew he had a youthful enough face to pass for a high school kid if need be. ~Cerebro wasn't really sanguine on the details. The damn thing's been a little on the fritz since we rebuilt it after Bastion. Even Charles couldn't amplify the signal enough to pinpoint it exactly this deep in the boonies. So I get to do the undercover thing and use my looks to their advantage. Who'd'a thunk? Normally it's a nuisance to look this young; the guys needle me to death when we go out to Harry's to tie one on.~ But today, he felt certain, it'd serve him well.

* * *

Sean Cassidy made a plane-to-ground phone call to the Department of Education. "I'm just confirming our appointment for this afternoon. I will be with Miss Braddock, doing career training for any interested students. We've been working our way through the Midwest, and we're making a special effort to not over look the smaller towns." He glanced at Betsy and shrugged. ~This better bloody well work,~ he thought in Betsy's general direction.

[~You're a natural actor,~] Betsy smiled. It had been her idea to take this approach. It was a lot simpler than coming in with all mutant powers blazing and stirring up the community. ~Besides, this is a tiny little hamlet. Their nearest hospital is 16 miles away. They've got all of one police officer, according to my research. We don't want the town population to decide we're a threat. If we seem to have the welfare of their children at heart, they'll have more reason to trust us. Hopefully.~

* * *

There weren't skateboarding hills, or big ramps to jump his board off, but Aiko suddenly found himself in higher spirits. He felt like he could run circles around the local yokels all day and never get tired. But he knew he couldn't disappoint Banji -- so it was off to school. Still -- this ray of hope gave him something to keep his spirits up all day. They'd undoubtedly come after him again, and he could show them how they did things in San Francisco.

* * *

Monet St. Croix sighed. ~I'm surrounded by philistines.~ The girls looked at her with envy and hatred. The boys looked at her with unveiled lust. All except for one -- the dark-skinned, exotic looking boy in the back row who resolutely kept his nose in his history book. ~This may make my task easier.~ [~Ms. Frost -- it's a very small class, and one student is quite obviously an outsider.~ I don't dare check the pocket seeker device, though. It's a little obvious.~]

[~Keep me posted, Monet.~]

[~Of course, Ms. Frost.~]

* * *

Sean and Betsy, wearing their most intimidating professional clothes, sat in the tiny cafetorium -- a room serving the dual purposes of cafeteria and auditorium. They would have an assembly called of the handful of students during the lunch break, and Betsy could surreptitiously identify the manifestation.

* * *

Bobby Drake had borrowed one of Sam Guthrie's old flannel shirts, and donned the most worn pair of jeans he owned. To his horror, the class was a lot smaller than he expected. ~Think fast, Iceman. Play it cool.~ "My paperwork's held up a day back east," he explained to the teacher who asked him if he was sure he belonged here. "My uncle Hank is tryin' to get it straightened out. Please let me stay in class today? He'll have kittens if he finds out I started a day later than we hoped!"

[~Nice performance,~] a voice said sarcastically into his head.

Bobby slammed down his psionic defenses and straightened slightly, but otherwise gave no indication that anyone had discomfited him. However, in his thoughts, he was fighting down panic. ~You must chill! You MUST chill!~ he told himself. He gathered his wits and scanned the room briefly behind the Clark Kent hornrims. In such a small group Monet St. Croix stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. The shock of seeing her here was enough to snap his thoughts back into line. He felt calmness settle over him like a comforting snowfall. ~Well, that's one precinct heard from. Sean, if I know him, is probably around here somewhere.~

* * *

Assembly -- if you could call forcing 100 13-17 year olds into one room an "assembly" -- was shortly after lunch.

~Ah,~ Bobby thought. ~There's Sean.~

~Shite!~ Sean thought, eyes widening. ~There's Emma!~ She was sauntering in on the arm of the principal. In his distress, he missed Bobby, filing in with the rest of the reluctant, shuffling crowd. Monet, however, he spotted. ~Shite! She brought Monet as well.~ Chamber brought up the rear as Emma's bodyguard, and Sean's stream of thought became a bit more colorful. ~Betsy?~

[~I see them, luv. What, would you have me do the psychic knife thing to them, then, in the middle of the audience?~] Betsy was not visible, though her thoughts were clear in Sean's head. She was using her shadow power to obscure herself in case a fight broke out; which possibility was seeming more likely with every passing moment. [~They're playing it straight, so far. Emma's not doing anything telepathic.~]

Bobby glanced around the room, seeing if he could spot the kid by eyesight. The obvious choice would be the kid with the blonde-and-black hair, since he was ... not as midwestern-wholesome-looking as every other kid, but Iceman knew better than anyone that you could not judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, ~the pocket pal Cerebro seems to have gone on strike. Great.~ He poked the thing once, twice, and was ready to give it a good whack.

"No hand-held video games on school grounds, Mr. Drake. I imagine you're new here, or you'd have known that." He found the pocket Cerebro plucked from his grasp.

"HEY!" Bobby looked up, annoyed, and found himself staring up an expanse of white-clad leg...thigh..hip...smooth flat belly...~Oh, shit. It's Emma.~

[~Well, hello to you too, Drake.~]

Bobby gulped and grinned sheepishly. ~Okay. All players accounted for. Let the games begin!~ Despite the comedy he was using to whistle past the graveyard of his nerves, Bobby felt a little skip to his heartbeat upon laying eyes on the White Queen again. And his thoughts were almost wistful. ~Damn. Shame that she's gone back over to the Other Side.~

Emma flashed him a brilliant white smile, and arched a brow as if to ask "what makes you so sure I have gone over to some 'other side'," then continued to the little stage at the front of the room. The White Queen smiled beside the principal, as Sean went on, stumbling uncomfortably every few sentences about "career day." ~This,~ she mused, ~Will be fun.~ [~And hello to you too, Psylocke.~]


Sean dropped the handful of papers he was holding.

~Oh, yes. This will definitely be fun.~

* * *

Aiko had been feeling sort of strange and twitchy all morning. The feeling had intensified when the new girl arrived. ~It has nothing to do with her whatsoever,~ Aiko insisted to himself. ~Besides, even if it does, if she's anything like the rest of the kids in this stupid town, she will only want to drive her heel into my eye anyway.~ He shrugged it off. ~I'll get to burn this rush off after school when I get chased home.~

The rush actually intensified when they were herded into the cafetorium. ~Whoa. If I didn't know better I'd say one of these 'clats slipped me something. But they couldn't have.~ His head swam, and the room was blurring around him. ~Maybe I should see about going to the nurse.~ He shrugged the thought off. Other than the semi-psychadelic moment he was currently experiencing, he felt fantastic.

But the awkward redheaded man on the stage was saying something about 'Career Day'. Aiko hadn't remembered anything like that being in the curriculum, but then again, he wasn't paying much close attention to anything but trying to survive each inexorably boring day. The names were being called. The other kids were being given little slips of paper and sent to sit down again.

~Of course, I can't say that much for *this* particular day,~ he reminded himself, fidgeting in his chair.

"Aiko Carey."

Aiko blinked. Someone called his name.

It was the principal.

~I didn't even *do* anything,~ Aiko sighed, but trudged toward the stage toward whatever punishment they planned to mete out to him.

"Here are your appointments to see our career counselors. They'll be here until Wednesday of next week."

~Career Counselors?~ Sean's head snapped up, and he found Emma smiling serenely at him from the other side of the stage. ~You bloody devious, manipulative bint.~

[~But of course, Sean.~]

Bobby waved to Sean on the stage.

Sean facepalmed.

[~Face front, Sean. The contact's on his way to the stage!~] Betsy's tone was clipped and had the inflection that indicated she would brook no backtalk. From the shadows, she slid close to Sean and dropped the pocket Cerebro into his lap. It was glowing insistently, and getting brighter as the obvious misfit from the class approached.

The other kids had had their slips handed to them, and some few were still waiting for theirs. Sean's charade had demanded that he and Betsy see the other hundred or so kids to make their cover believable. But a simple telepathic suggestion to the principal made it possible for the right kid to end up in their presence.

"Everyone else is dismissed, now, until such time as your appointmentss with Miss Braddock and Mr. Cassidy. You'll find tests in your homerooms in the morning to fill out and take with you," the principal said, waiting for the kids to file out. The last class of the day had been used for it, and the kids were only too happy to take off.

Except Aiko -- whom Betsy gave a simple telepathic suggestion to linger curiously.

* * *

Aiko prided himself on being an observant kid. He should've been. His father, Roger, had been a reporter. His mother, Kaoru, had been a professional photographer. It was only natural that that combination would've produced a kid who didn't miss much.

At present though, he was busy being astonished that he had been singled out for the first career counseling session, while most of the other kids' seemed to be scheduled early next week. He was almost to the stage when something cold gently tapped his shoulder. He turned around and found himself looking into the face of a kid he didn't recognize.

"Hey, I'm new here. You wanna show me around instead of doing that boring career thing? Oh, by the way -- I'm Bobby." He extended a hand and smiled impishly.

Aiko regarded the hand with mingled hope and suspicion. ~If this guy's on the up-and-up, I may actually have a friend an an ally against the townies. Screw career counseling. I'm in 10th grade. I have two years before college to figure it out.~ "You're on."

~He shoots! He scores! The Iceman Scores!~ Bobby resisted the strong urge to do a victory dance in the middle of the cafetorium. "Any decent place to get pizza around here? I'm *starving.*"

"You have *got* to be kidding," Aiko laughed. "Have you *seen* how small this town is?"

[~Nice interception, Robert,~] Emma thought, amused. [~You've actually developed some talent for the devious.~]

~Must be you rubbing off on me, Ems.~

[~Indeed.~] Emma smiled after him. [~Monet. You know what to do.~]

[~Right away, Ms. Frost.~] Monet, lingering outside the girls bathroom with a vapid clique of teenagers who fawned over her *hair* and her *makeup* and her *clothes*, was only too thrilled to have a reason to leave them. She clutched her backpack. "Whoops. My pager's on vibrate. I've got to go. Excuse me, ladies. Another time." ~Over my dead body.~

"Oooh, Monet has a *pager*...!" they choroused as she stalked off just short of running. Once out of sight of the main school building, she glanced around, and kicked into superspeed, the better to catch up with Iceman and Aiko.

"Wonderful," Sean sighed. "Bloody brilliant, that's what I am. Ex-interpol, even, and what do I do? Get stuck promising to evaluate a handful of kids, while the one lad I came for gets away with someone else!"

Betsy tried not to laugh. "It isn't as though you've had much practice."

Sean closed his eyes and tried not to think of the last time he'd had to do first contact on a newly manifested mutant. ~My last failure cost Blink her life. I've no idea what this boy can do, even though I've a positive ID on him and can find him again easily in this buttonhole of a town. But I mean to find out. Bobby's obviously working for Charles -- that's acceptable, even if it's a little odd that Charles himself didn't come. But Frost's still here, and as long as she is, this lad's in deadly danger. Betsy, shadow them.~

[~Oh, droll, Sean. Ever so droll.~]

Sean facepalmed again. Betsy was touchy. ~I hadn't expected her to get so defensive about Emma being here,~ he thought with a shake of his head as he nodded, shook hands with, and smiled at the students who filed out past him.

Betsy's grouchiness was due to more than Emma's presence, though... ~The kid shrugged off the telepathic suggestion like it was nothing. That's ...impressive. Troublesome, but impressive.~ She did as Sean asked, sliding into the shadows to follow the boy and his "schoolmate."

* * *

[~How goes it, Robert?~]

Bobby rolled his eyes as he and Aiko stood in line at the sole McDonald's in the entire town. There was one cashier and no drive through, and ~it looks like every kid over the age of ten all simultaneously had a Big Mac Attack! So naturally,~ Bobby mused, ~The Professor picks now to see how I'm doing.~ He paused and opened his thoughts. ~Fine, Professor. We're about to get burgers, fries, then go find someplace where we can talk privately.~

[~Excellent. Keep me apprised of your progress.~]

~Of course, Professor.~

"Yo! Yo, Bobby, man, what you havin'?" Aiko gave Bobby a nudge, and shook him out of his 'reverie.'

"Oh, I got it, Ike." He grinned at the younger boy. "Two Big Macs, two large fries, two oreo McFlurries --" he paused with the bills in his hand. "You're not like, vegan, are you?"

Aiko grinned. "Is this the face of a guy who eats SOY?" When Bobby returned the smile, he laughed. "Thanks for asking, though. This town usually assumes I eat nothing but tofu and seafood, just because I came here from San Francisco." He shook his head. "Small town mentality. Somebody save me. Where you from, anyway?"

"New York." Bobby smiled widely as Aiko's eyes lit up. "I thought I'd go nuts here, but at least they have another coastal kid." He took the paper sack from the sole cashier, and headed for the door with Aiko.

"Yeah, but don't expect it to be easy. This small town doesn't much like people who shake up the status quo." Aiko jerked a thumb in the direction of the knot of teenage boys who were even now beginning to cluster behind them.

Bobby glanced over his shoulder, and did a double-take. "Zoinks! Gee, Scoob, we better hide." He made certain the sarcasm was audible in his voice. "We don't play this bully-the-new-kid crap where I'm from, Aiko. You willing to fight?"

Aiko's eyes widened, then lit up like someone had flipped a switch inside his skull. "Oh, yes, man. Especially now that I've got slightly better odds." He cracked his knuckles and set the paper bag into his backpack. "Haven't you guys got anything better to do? Cow-tipping? Hay-baling?"

"You're *dead*, Carey! Dead, you hear me?" Tad and Jimmy led the cluster of eight boys toward the two new boys. "And your punk Big City friend, too."

Bobby splayed his fingers over his heart. "Aw, man, and they told me Oklahoma was all friendly and welcoming like in the movies. Geez." He shook his head, mock-sadly.

[~I can run the little bastards off, Bobby.~]

~No thanks, Betts. I've got it all under control. Besides, you'd give the little goobers hard-ons if you turned up doing the ninja babe thing. They're teenage boys, remember?~ He suppressed a chuckle. Bobby left his hands behind his back, and waited for Tad and Jimmy to advance with their little coterie behind them.

Tad swung first, and Aiko nimbly leaned backward. The punch swiped through empty air with a foot's distance before Aiko's face. "Swing and a miss!"

Bobby tossed his soft drink cup to the side, and casually sauntered past Tad, to pat Jimmy on the shoulder. "Hey, why can't we all just get along?" he asked. He turned and walked back to Aiko, smiling conspiratorily. A moment later, Jimmy screamed, and began frantically clawing at the back of his shirt. " punk! You put ice cubes down my back!"

Aiko laughed, and then dove to the ground, avoiding another punch from Tad. "You can do better than that."

[~Clearly the boy knows martial arts.~]

~That sets him apart from most starting-level students,~ Bobby agreed, watching the boy lead the eight teenagers around the small parking lot. ~And now that nobody's watching...~


Bobby was eating his Big Mac when the entire group of nine kids stopped yelling taunts and posing. Sam, the biggest boy in the group, was standing in the middle of the group with a snowball melting on his face and sliding down the side of his head. He was looking thoroughly perplexed by this odd happenstance.

The shock only lasted a few seconds, though, before Tommy stepped around Tad and kicked Aiko in the knee.

Aiko yelped and went down.

[~Oh, yes, looks like everything's under control,~] came Betsy's sardonic commentary from the shadows.

A moment later, Aiko was on his feet again, and his eyes and hands were beginning to glow. It wasn't enough that the normal kids noticed it, but the two X-Men present spotted it at once.

Bobby chose to take the better part of valor. Producing snowballs out of nowhere, he pelted the clutch of boys mercilessly until they fled in bewilderment, screaming that they'd return with friends and big brothers to settle this later.

Aiko, covered in dust, but grinning and still glowing faintly, turned expectantly to look at Bobby. "So, you're a mutant. Cool."

[~That was unexpected.~]

~To you, maybe,~ Bobby responded coolly. ~The boy's from *San Francisco*, Betts. Hello! Social acceptance capital of the WORLD!~

"That why you're here?" Aiko scooped up the bag and began scarfing fries like they were going out of style. "Too much noise in New York for mutant kids?"

Bobby grinned back. "There's noise and static all right, but most of us New York types thrive on it. Besides, with all the other super-types: Avengers, New Warriors, Fantastic can't swing a dead bigot without running into somebody with powers. Mutants are just a little more local color."

"You don't seem too freaked out that I figured you out," Aiko pointed out, slurping at his melted McFlurry, as they walked toward the single park in town.

Bobby shrugged and shook his head, then frowned as he spotted Monet sitting on a park bench filing her nails. "I'm not," he confirmed. "See, you're the reason I'm here."

Aiko paused, gave Bobby's last comment a moment's thought, then raised a disbelieving brow at him. "You're saying ..." he paused again, and lowered his voice to an incredulous whisper. "You're saying you're here to see me? What for, man? It's not like I'm a straight A student in anything but English and Creative Writing..."

Bobby merely smiled silently. "You're a bright kid, Aiko. Think about it for a minute," he said after a moment. Betsy remained silent, making no further comments from wherever she had hidden herself.

Aiko thought about it, as Bobby suggested. What he came up with, he didn't believe right away, and said so. "It can't be what I think it is."

"Oh, but it can, young man." Betsy Braddock stepped out of the shadows behind the nearest tree. "I'm Elizabeth Braddock, and I too represent a group interested in continuing your education."

Aiko raised both brows. "Wait, this is a mutant recruitment drive? Are the Avengers gonna show up? The T-Bolts?" He hopped to crouch on the back of the bench and regard the pair with frank curiosity.

"No, merely us. Mutants are turning up at a faster rate every day," said a new voice. "But we have not yet found ourselves in favour with the public." Monet St. Croix got up from her park bench and joined the conversation uninvited.

"Wait," Aiko repeated, and allowed himself to drop to a normal sitting position. "You people are saying that *I* am a mutant...?"

Bobby nodded. "Yup."

Betsy smiled. "That's right, Mr. Carey." She blinked and the violet butterfly effect of her telepathy was visible. "I'm a telepath. That's how we're able to have this conversation in public and remain relatively undisturbed."

Monet extended a hand. "As are each of us."

Aiko shook hands with Monet, then looked back at Bobby. "Okay, fine, suppose I buy this "you're a mutant, I'm a mutant" thing. Why did you guys wait until I was in West Hucklebuck before coming to look me up?"

"Because," said Emma Frost, walking up with Sean Cassidy beside her, "Until this morning, Mister Carey, your mutant abilities hadn't manifested." [~And don't think I missed him shaking off Psylocke's suggestion, Sean. I daresay that indicates he has significant natural psionic shielding.~]

Sean blinked, then frowned at Betsy. ~You didn't mention that.~ He then glanced at Emma. [~No attempts to sway the boy yourself, then?~]

[~Pointless, if he could shake Psylocke off. Besides, I am showing you in good faith that I am far from the pernicious witch you would prefer to believe me, Sean. That said, I still have every intention to return to New York with Mister Carey on the plane with me.~]

~Over my dead body, Frost.~

Emma merely smiled as though Sean were a favourite nephew she was indulging a bit.

"Manifested?" Aiko repeated. "Whoa. This is some heavy stuff, you guys." He closed his eyes and let his chin fall to his chest. "Me. A mutant." He looked up. "You guys are -- like, the good guys, right? If you were the bad guys, we wouldn't be standing around talking. You'd have kidnapped me and forced me, right?"

"An excellent point, young Mr. Carey," Emma said smoothly, inclining her head at Sean.

Aiko's face slowly relaxed. "And you haven't started fighting or hurling beams at each other, either."

[~Well, it is a small town,~] Jono pointed out, leaning against a tree. [~But we do like to keep the profile low. No point in making a huge scene, right?~]

"Aye, young Starsmore's right," Sean Cassidy conceded almost in spite of himself. "Mutants have a hard enough time discoverin' themselves in a big city like New York, or a small town like Cumberland, Kentucky, or even a suburb of Chicago. This town, small as it is, might be understandin' about one of their own being a mutant...they might not. It's better we not risk it." He gave Bobby a pointed look.

Aiko waved a hand dismissively. "One of their own, I'm not, Mr. Cassidy. I just live here since my folks died." A wave of pain passed through his expression like a ripple through a video image. "So, what can I *do*?" ~If it gets me *out* of here, I don't care if I can hock acidic, explosive loogies.~

Emma stepped forward, and sat beside Aiko. "We're not certain yet. We got some preliminary readings that brought us here to meet you, but beyond that we'd need to bring you back east to our facilities where we could measure your ability and strength."

"You're all from different 'facilities' though, right?" Aiko looked from face to face. "And the choice is up to me who I go with, right?"

Bobby nodded. "Totally up to you."

Emma nodded as well. "The choice is entirely yours. I would like the chance to show you what you could expect with us, first, before you make a final decision."

"As would we," Betsy added.

"Same here," Bobby said, glancing toward Emma, with his head tilted inquisitively. ~No mindgames? No tricks? Who are you, and what've you done with the real White Queen?~

[~I assure you, Bobby, despite your mentor's best efforts, I *am* the true White Queen,~] Emma replied coolly.

~Whaddaya mean 'despite my mentor's best efforts'?~ Bobby wanted to know.

[~She's just trying to rattle you, Bobby,~] Betsy said, moving protectively toward her fellow X-Man.

[~Am I?~] Emma asked. She turned her attention toward Aiko. "My headquarters is in New York, but the school I run for other gifted youths such as yourself is in Florida, and populated with students your age."

Emma turned her eyes to Psylocke, who was staring accusingly at her. [~It would be, of course, easier to believe that. Safer to rationalize that I am up to something as an explanation. Is it so impossible to believe, then, that I genuinely mean the boy no harm? But if you don't believe me -- probe the boy. See if I, or Monet, have tampered with his thoughts in the slightest.]

Aiko looked expectantly at Sean.

"Ours is in Massachusetts. Small town called Snow Valley. The kids're about your age there as well." Sean held out a brochure. "Weather's nice, it's fairly exclusive."

"And we're in Westchester," Bobby finished on cue. "And we've probably got the longest track record of training young mutants to understand their powers and use them safely -- as heroes or as normal people."

Emma smiled politely, and kept her response to telepathic -- and for Bobby's mind only: [~Ahem. Rogue. Ahem. Cyclops. Ahem. Sabretooth. Ahem. Mystique. Ahem. Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Nightcrawler.~] She turned her gaze meaningfully on the silent Chamber, who stood dressed in white as her bodyguard. She then turned her eyes to Cassidy, and continued, [~Angelo Espinoza...~]

~All right, all right, I freakin' *get* it, Emma!~ Bobby's eyes flashed in anger, but he did not amend his statement to Aiko.

Psylocke glared daggers at Emma, who seemed to neither mind nor truly to notice.

Bobby, on the other hand, had been given food for thought. ~Emma's being a little catty, a little provocative -- but she's not acting in the way the old, "evil" White Queen would have been expected to behave. If she's putting on an act, it's a damned good one. Psylocke hasn't determined any duplicity. Not that that's saying much, since Emma is far more powerful a telepath; but... I guess, deep down inside I want to trust her. We shared something no one else but us has a hope of understanding, and I guess because of that connection I want to give her the benefit of the doubt.~ He took a deep breath, and shrugged. "Ike, man, it's all your decision."

Sean blinked at Bobby, but glanced almost reluctantly at Emma and nodded. "Aye, 'tis your life, and your choice. But we hope you'll give each of us the chance to get t'know you and share our experiences with you."

"Are you *kidding?*" Aiko laughed. "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me." He paused, sobering. "I just wish my parents were still alive to see it. They'd have flipped." He glanced skyward.

"They're watching and they're proud," Emma said softly, squeezing the boy's shoulder. "A parent's love endures far beyond something so mundane as death."

Sean blinked at that; the Emma he'd known had been that gentle and sensitive to the Generation X kids on occasion. Paige had told him once of how Emma had shared some of her painful past with the female students over Christmas vacation two years back. He had thought that part of her either an act -- or something she could not be bothered to show except when convenient.

Aiko smiled up at Emma. "Thanks. Ms. Frost, right? Thanks, that's ... nice of you." He smiled. "Look, this is all a lot to take in in one day. How long are you all going to be here, before I have to make up my mind?"

"Until Wednesday," Sean said quietly. "We do have the career day consultations for the mundane students. If you have not made up your mind until then --" he paused, glanced at Psylocke, shrugged, and continued. "You will have the opportunity to visit each of our institutions, tour our campuses, and meet the other students -- hopefully that will facilitate your choice." ~If Iceman's willin' to trust Emma a little, I can do no less.~

"Really?" Aiko was off the bench in a leap that took him ten feet further than he intended to go. He blinked, dumbfounded, then grinned. "I think I'm gonna like this being a mutant," he decided, then returned. "If I can't decide by Wednesday, I get free trips to New York, Massachusetts, and Florida? I don't know what I did to deserve this, but -- _yatta ne!_"

Bobby laughed. "And if you join us, you get far more than that." He clapped Aiko over the shoulder.

Aiko was practically a blur, he was so full of eager energy. "Tell me about it over dinner?"

"Actually, Aiko, m'man, I'd leap at the chance, but give a guy a raincheck?" Bobby squeezed the young mutant's shoulder, but his eyes were on Emma. "Sean and Betsy there can take you out to dinner."

"Oklahoma City all right, Aiko?" Betsy asked. "Or, if your guardian has no objection, we could do something more -- elaborate."

"Now, now," Sean chided, "No flyin' the lad off to Rome for pizza, Betsy. We're all keepin' the playin' field level here, are we not?"

"Of course, Sean," Betsy chuckled, pulling the bun free so her purple hair could cascade down her shoulders. "But no one said I couldn't have a certain pilot friend fly us out some Thai from my favourite restaurant back in New York."

They began walking Aiko home, each talking of their favourite foods, and what they would do for Aiko Carey in the interests of recruiting him.

Bobby Drake took up the rear, catching Emma Frost's elbow before she caught up with the others.

"Dinner?" he asked.

"I don't think I'm dressed appropriately," Emma smiled playfully at him.

"Aw, C'mon, Emma. I have better than this packed."

"Then I believe I might be persuaded. Shall we say seven thirty?"

~Six forty five!~ "Seven thirty, then." Bobby grinned, and bid the others good evening, returning to his tiny motel room.

* * *

Emma had made some concessions to the -- rugged terrain -- she found herself in. The jeans were white. The sweater was white cashmere, and the duster white leather; as were her boots. For her, it was as common as she dressed.

Bobby Drake actually turned up in a sport coat, slacks, shirt and tie. "Good evening, Emma."

Emma raised one brow, as she opened the door, surprised. "Good evening, Robert."

There was an awkward moment between the two of them, before Bobby broke it by extending his hand.

"Shall we go? It's not a quick drive to Oklahoma City and our reservations are for 8:45 at Saffron." He led her to his car; it was still only a Jeep, but he'd had it washed and waxed, and the top was on it. "Thanks, by the way, for accepting the invitation, Emma."

Emma merely regarded Bobby silently, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Okay, yeah, I was waiting for you to pull some sleaze like you did with Kitty Pryde. But you didn't. I ... I'm impressed."

"I would be a fool to have made the same mistake twice, would I not?" Emma asked reasonably.

Bobby winced. "Do I take that to mean, then, that you have some other sort of sleaze up your sleeve?"

"Not remotely, Robert." Emma shook her head slowly. "I didn't rescue those kids from Terrence Bedlam four months ago to brainwash them. Honestly, I'd be a fool if I hadn't learned anything from my time with Generation X...and with you."

"Rescued?" Bobby blinked, and glanced sidelong at her as they sped up route 81. "I -- hadn't heard that. I'd heard only from Sean that you'd left Massachusetts and returned to the Hellfire Club."

"That also is true, Robert. Would you like to hear the whole story?"

"Actually?" Bobby nodded. "Yeah, Emma. I would."

* * *

The story of the new Hellions and King Bedlam took them the rest of the way into Oklahoma City, and well into the appetizers. Emma left out the tiny detail that had catalyzed her deciding to break from any affiliation with Xavier and his dream; she was certain that Bobby would not understand. ~And we're getting along so splendidly, it would be a shame to ruin it with that. His students are blindly loyal to him.~

Dinner conversation lightened, going back to Aiko Carey. Both Iceman and the Queen found it refreshing and unusual that their prospective new student had taken so well to the revelation that he was a mutant.

"I suspect Sean's concession about Aiko visiting each of our campuses was your doing," Emma confided. "It was that you were willing to show me some trust that got past that stubborn Irish attitude."

Bobby just shrugged and grinned over the rim of his crystal wine glass (which contained sparkling grape juice; he was, after all, driving). "You haven't done anything yet that I should be suspicious of, Emma." He took a sip, paused thoughtfully, continued. "Relations between ... us... have been cordial and they've been strained. I have to admit I much prefer cordial."

Emma nodded over her slice of coconut cream pie. "As do I. I didn't expect this, honestly. I expected -- misunderstanding, and battle. To be honest, Robert -- I expected to face Charles." ~And to blast his eyes for what he did to me.~ "I expected him to be here, doing as he does."

Bobby's eyes flashed for a moment in anger, then he shrugged. "The Professor thought I could handle it on my own." He chose to leave out that the Professor's confidence seemed to be wavering. "And I seem to be doing all right. The kid likes me, and I'm having a great meal with my ... opponent at the swankest restaurant I could find in Oklahoma City."

"It's not Sardi's or Wolfgang Puck's, but it will do in a pinch." Emma's smile indicated she was only being playful. "Seriously, though. I am rather enjoying our little chess game. It will be interesting to see what our Mr. Carey chooses when all is said and done."

Bobby nodded distractedly and gulped visibly at the sight of the bill. But he smiled bravely and put it on his card. To his relief, the card was accepted rather than declined and cut in half. "Agreed. To the game, then." He clinked his glass with hers. "Come on. I'll take you back to your hotel."

* * *

Back to the hotel had led to "come in for a nightcap?"

"Come in for a nightcap" had led to more conversation; Bobby had showed Emma that he had indeed learned more about his powers since she had mocked him.

Emma had, in turn, explained that she was *not* the heartless witch Sean and Charles would have the rest of the mutant community believe of her. She stared out the window at the dark skyline of the city, and told Bobby, "I may have considered those kids accessories then -- but they were people. I had a responsibility to them. When they were slain, I failed them. I taught them to jibe and to taunt. I taught them to manipulate. But I did *not* teach them to be a team."

She bowed her head, and when she spoke again, Emma had a catch in her voice. "I have learned that teamwork is important. It is vital to the survival of mutants in groups. Sean may not believe I wish only to see that no more children are harmed by the factionalization of mutantkind -- but it *is* true, Bobby. I swear to you." She turned to regard him, her mouth set in a taut line. She blinked twice, hard, then set her wine glass down. "No more of the chablis. It makes me maudlin."

"Why haven't you told anyone else this," Bobby asked, walking to stand at the window beside Emma. "Why have you permitted Sean, Charles and just about everyone to believe the worst of you?"

"I have my reasons, Robert, and they are personal. Leave it at that." The cold edge of ice was in Emma's voice again, and Robert nodded, backing off. "Suffice to say that it is a harsh world. And while Charles' dream is a beautiful fantasy -- that is *all* it is. Protecting these children is a matter of preparing them for the world, not sequestering them from it like hothouse flowers.

"It's a matter of training them to survive and prepare for war, not "fighting for peace." " Emma laughed. "Does Charles have the faintest notion of how idiotic that phrase is? Do any of you?"

Bobby sighed. "You know he doesn't want us to fight for peace. You know his goal is for us never to have to."

"He won't achieve it with his methods," Emma said, as though she were attempting to let Drake down gently.

"And you won't achieve it with the methods the Hellfire Club uses, White Queen," Bobby whispered.

"And that, my dear Iceman, is why I am remaking the club in my image. That is why I have Arete and Chamber at my side -- willingly. It is why DaCosta *remains* with me! And why I freed those children from Bedlam!"

Bobby found himself taking a step back from the passion of her convictions. "I ... don't know what to say."

"Then say nothing." Emma placed a finger to his lips.

Bobby closed his eyes against the warmth of her touch. He closed his own fingers around her hand, meaning to lift that delectable warmth off him before it melted someplace inside him.

But somehow, he succeeded only in drawing her into his arms.

To his astonishment, she didn't resist.

* * *

~How in the world,~ Bobby Drake found himself wondering nonsensically as the onset of sleep began to envelop him, ~did Emma manage to get a hotel with an earth-tone color scheme to decorate her entire suite in white...?~

He smiled down at the halo of white-blonde hair spread on his chest. Emma had fallen asleep listening to the sound of his heart. She had asked him, just before they had connected beyond the point of no return, to allow her to go en rapport. He had consented, and what he had found in her mind had been far less cold and lifeless and brusque than he had ever imagined.

The glow of her thoughts inside his head had dwindled to a soft ember of comfort in the back of his own psyche as she had finally drifted off in his arms. There had been a bond of trust forged along with the physical bond they had shared tonight.

~God knows I may regret this come the morning,~ was Bobby's penultimate conscious thought. It was followed closely by ~I hope the Professor doesn't peek in on me toni...~

* * *

Emma Frost slept, wrapped in a white sheet, in the Mansion's infirmary. She looked pale, and wan -- fragile, like some delicate fairy princess from a fairy tale. It was only twelve hours since she had awakened from her coma, and had her psyche returned after its wild jaunt in Iceman's body.

Echoes of the cruel, mocking words she had spoken to Bobby inside his own psyche, bounced around inside the room, as if they were trapped there. They bludgeoned against Emma's pale skin, leaving bruises, or raising welts on their sharp edges.

"She has not changed. She cannot change. She is unwilling to change." The voice spoke with grim determination, with certainty. And... with a small amount of regret -- faint, almost imperceptible -- unless one knew precisely what to look for. "But change she must, or this dance, this insane waltz and game of empires and pawns will go on forever."

The voice was male, and so tired. So tired. The echoes of Emma's cruel words to Bobby dwindled and faded, muffled out of existence by the weight of Charles Xavier's determination.

He sat beside the sleeping form of the White Queen, and bowed his head as in reverent prayer. "I do what I must. For you. For the future. To protect those you would otherwise enslave. May God forgive me."

Shaking hands lifted to Emma's face, and settled gently, but firmly on her temples. "What evil was in you, I banish. What good, if any, lies within that cold heart, will have the chance to flourish it always should have had. This is for the best."

Emma, sensing the intrusion, bucked and whimpered, but was still so weak; too weak in body, mind, and spirit to resist the will of Professor Xavier. She screamed, fought and spat, kicked and screamed as though her very life, her soul, her existence depended on it -- but it was not enough.

Prison bars of psionic power wove a lattice in her brain, wrapping tight the part of her that made her a fighter.

Tiny lace-threads of telepathic force too strong for her frail body and mind to resist bound her in thoughts, philosophies, and images that were at once desirable to her and unspeakably alien.

As the last vestige of her strength and will to fight fell beneath Xavier's onslaught, Emma cried out, "You may bury me but you will NEVER destroy me..."

* * *

"...I am the White Queen!"

The cry woke Bobby up out of a sound sleep. "Ems? Emma?"

She was still asleep, but caught in the throes of a nightma--*

"AGH! GOD!" Bobby clenched his teeth on a wave of pain, as Emma's nightmare spilled over the rapport she'd established and downloaded into his mind. ~Don't cave. Don't crumble. She *needs* you now,~ Bobby told himself. ~Like Jeannie taught me. Think impermeable walls.~ He concentrated and the psionic shields slammed into place...or began to. He didn't know if that would harm Emma, so he tried to be gentle. He'd never been en rapport before; and he knew she was suffering now from the horror he was seeing second-hand.

"Shhh, shh, Emma, it's all right." Bobby wound her into his arms, whispering, "Oh, Emma, it's okay. It's just a dream, it's just a dream. It's just a dream." He repeated it over and over again, and found himself asking, ~Are you trying to comfort her or yourself?~

She never completely woke from her sleeping state, but she sensed Bobby's desire to protect her and comfort her...and calmed. ~She would never have admitted that in the light of day. She would never have wanted anyone to know she has fears, or wants to feel safe like the rest of us.~ Bobby closed his eyes. He stroked the sweat-lankened hair from Emma's brow. ~Your secret's safe, my Queen.~

He held her until her breathing evened...and watched her until he was certain the nightmare would not return to trouble her again. And even after all that, it was a long, long time before Bobby Drake could relax enough to sleep again himself.

* * *

The remainder of the night had been simpler dreams. Bobby found himself witness to exactly how it was that Emma had come to free the "new Hellions" from servitude to Bedlam.

He saw in his mind's eye how well she took care of them, and how careful she was to maintain security in the safehouse she'd placed them all.

He watched as she consulted with surgeons, Moira MacTaggert, Reed Richards, and Doctor Strange, for any inkling of a way to return Jonothon Starsmore's face to him, as she had promised.

And he watched as she fought Selene, and saw her with Shaw. The last struck a painful pang in him; but he had known this moment they'd shared might well have been nothing more than her whim.

But he had seen other things in her thoughts while she slept...and realized that of everyone in her life, it was not customary for her to lower her guard or go en rapport.

Only he, Bobby Drake, had that particular trust from Emma Frost; and he meant to keep it.

* * *

"You didn't sleep well," Emma said, frowning into Bobby's face shortly after she woke.

"Mmm," Bobby responded noncomittally. "Lot on my mind."

Emma nodded. "I understand." She paused, then continued. "Last wasn't an attempt to sway or manipulate you."

"I know," Bobby nodded, brow furrowed. "Emma, I ... I need to know something."

"Do I love you?" Emma smiled. She shrugged one bare shoulder and shook her head. "No. But there has always been something between us, since that time I usurped your body. I don't know where it will go after last night. But there was no malice in anything that happened between us from my perspective. That may not be kind, Robert, but it is the truth."

Bobby smiled faintly, wistfully. "That wasn't what I meant to ask, no. But thank you for being honest." He kissed her forehead. "Why did you leave Massachusetts, Sean, and Generation X, really? Can you tell me that?"

Emma was silent for a moment, and Bobby could feel the tension bunching in her shoulders.

Bobby swallowed hard and prepared to get cracked across the face. "Was it because ... because...the P-Professor..." he stammered. "I...I'm sorry. Your dreams, Emma."

Emma stared into Bobby's face, ice-blue eyes meeting ice-blue eyes. "It is true," she whispered, then looked away. "I couldn't defend myself in my moment of weakness; he knew it. I will *never* be that weak again, Drake. Never!"

Bobby turned her face back. "You never were that weak, Emma," he whispered, tears in his eyes.

In his thoughts, Emma could read the pain and sorrow there. Charles Xavier had been a second father to him; had halfway raised Bobby, and made him into the man he was today. He had given Bobby his second family in the X-Men. And though they had forgiven him for Onslaught, this was a betrayal that he felt on a personal level because of whatever strange bond had existed since Emma had inhabited him. Beyond that, he felt anger. Respect for Emma. Fear that she would take her promised revenge. Understanding the emotion that drove that promise. He was a chaotic whirl of emotion and thought, but on the outside struggling to maintain the cool facade.

"So," Emma said softly, sliding out of bed, and slipping into her white dressing robe. "You will return to your mentor and warn him that the White Queen seeks vengeance?" She glanced over her shoulder at him. "You needn't bother. He already knows."

Bobby's eyes widened, but he remained silent. ~That explains much,~ he had to admit. After a time, he nodded. There was a catch in his throat as he spoke. "I'm out of the race, Emma. He raised us to be better than that. And to be true to his dream -- the dream he had when he was still Charles Xavier -- I have to let that kid go somewhere he'll be safe...from the world, from other mutants..."

"...and from his mindgames." Bobby hung his head and began to shudder with silent tears.

To his surprise, the White Queen returned to embrace him.

Vengeance seemed less important now. Though she had not intended to do so, losing one of his original students would hurt Charles far more than any of Emma's rage. And her dream -- to supercede and obliterate his with a world in which mutants didn't need to "fight for peace" -- was suddenly much, much more important.


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