Tue, 28 Sep 1999
D Benway <d_benway@yahoo.com>
The Chosen Ones: Prologue
Visitor's Day Benway did this.

The story of which this is a prologue is not intended for children of any age. It contains descriptions of human behaviour which many might find distressing. You have been warned.

The characters belong to Marvel. The story is my own, and copyright to me. Many thanks for the editorial assistance of Luba and Tina. Other stories are archived at the website of Luba.


The Chosen Ones

Benway

 

Visitor's Day

The boy led his parents away from the main school buildings, towards the place where he lived. They crossed the lawns along a carefully raked gravel path. The weeds had been destroyed by an application of an illegal but potent herbicide the month before. The chemical was much cheaper than Mexican gardeners. At the top of the hill stood a simple three story red brick building.

"It's the second oldest school building in Massachusetts," said the boy. The original school that it had served had closed in 1852, after which it was used as a home for distressed gentlewomen. He decided that it would have been impolitic to tell them that a minor poetess, deranged by tertiary syphilis, had hanged herself in his very room.

"It's away from the rest of the dorms," stated his father.

"Yes. All the students on special scholarship live here. Kitty does, and all the other kids from the school."

"Ah. Yes. Terrible business. Have any of them heard anything about what might have happened?"

"Nothing. They're pretty upset about it." That had to be the understatement of the century. "Still, this school is one of the best in the country." Founded in 1958, to take in refugees from integrating New England school districts. There were Black students, of course. They lived in Crispus Attackus house, behind the heating plant. The Massachusetts Academy regularly took the basketball and football titles for Massachusetts private schools.

"Patrick Henry House," said his father.

"Give me liberty or give me death," said the boy.

"I always thought that was a morbid sentiment," said his mother.

"Two hundred years, and the Winfields are still Tories," said his Father.

The boy said nothing. He led them into the lobby just inside the main door.

"Reminds me of every apartment lobby on 5th Avenue," said his father. "Does anyone ever sit down here?"

Guards. "Sometimes. There's not much reason to. There's a kitchen through there, for late night snacks, and there's a study through here." He heard his mother gasp as they entered the room. He didn't mention the elevator hidden behind the paneling that led to the world Down Under.

"My God," said his father.

"Those aren't reproductions, are they?" asked his mother.

"No," he said. "Didn't Grandpa Winfield have a cabinet like that?"

"He did," said his mother. "But we had to sell it to pay for the repairs to the porch on the old house."

His father had stopped in front of a bookcase filled with old leatherbound books. He opened one and a look of amazement crossed his face.

"Learned Hand owned this. It's his copy. He touched this."

"Oh."

"A brilliant jurist. Remarkable man." His father replaced the book, reverently.

"Is this a Sargent?" asked his mother.

"Yeah. And the one above the fireplace is by Whistler." Both were acquired from older German men, who had come across them in France during the last big war. He decided not to mention that either. He took them up the main staircase to the third floor.

"I'm up here with all of Xavier's kids."

"Who's on the second floor?" asked his mother.

"International students on scholarship." Foreign psychopathic mutants. "They're mostly back at the school giving tours. You remember Manuel, in the library?"

"Nice young man," said his mother. "He spoke beautiful Spanish. Are his parents not here?"

"No. They're off in Africa, on a safari." That was what Manuel said. Instead, he imagined that Manuels' widowed father was putting in his usual day at the farm vehicle licensing office in Cacares. He didn't want to think of what Manuel might do if he learned who had found out that little bit of information.

He took them to his room, beside Sam's and across from Bobby's.

"The girls also live on this floor?", asked his Mother.

"On the other side of the landing."

"Even so."

"Elaine."

"Mom, they made us sign a pledge. We're all on best behaviour up here. It's no big deal. Just an early start on the rest of our lives."

"A pledge?" His father laughed, derisively.

He flushed. He had signed much more than that. "If we violate it, we're out." That was an outright lie. Frost encouraged fucking. She practically required it. "Kitty has a boyfriend, and the other girls are all very religious." Amara's religion had a markedly different attitude towards sex than did Rahne's, but he didn't mention that. There was so much that he could not say. He led them into his room.

"My God. They gave you that?"

"Yeah. Impressive isn't it?"

"I guess it's a bit more powerful than my PC at home. Is Cray a good brand?"

"It's an experimental model." And stolen, but that wouldn't be obvious.

"That bed is bigger than ours," said his mother.

"Like something out of a fairy tale," said his father.

They must have seen something in his face, because they both looked very serious, the naive wonder gone from their faces in an instant. They hadn't seen the place before, as he had come here on the visit alone. His father had been bogged down in a capital case, and his mother had been crushed by the depressions that often attacked her. They had been more frequent since she had beaten the cancer. They had been hiding something from him behind their awestruck expressions ever since they had arrived.

"Doug, are you happy here?" asked his mother.

"Of course I'm happy. It's wonderful here. Who wouldn't be happy here?"

"You look terrible. You must have lost ten pounds. You have bags under your eyes."

"They have a major phys-ed program here. I'm just getting into shape. I stayed up late last night getting a demonstration ready down in the computer lab."

"Doug, that looks like more than one late night.", said his father.

"It's nothing."

"I don't believe you and neither does your mother. You don't look any better than when you left home."

"We thought you were so happy here, you sounded so happy after you left."

"I'm still happy being here. It's great."

"Bullshit."

"Donald!"

"Cut the crap, Doug. Whatever was bothering you back home's still getting to you. Was it us? We spent all that money on family therapy, and we never did get an answer."

"Donald, shut up! This isn't going to help. Doug, you have to be honest with us."

"I'm being honest. There's nothing wrong with you. That therapist was totally full of crap anyways."

"I agree with you're father. Something _is_ wrong. Why can't you tell us what it is?"

Obviously denial wasn't going to work. Sooner or later...

"Doug, I thought I was doing the right thing. You withdrew-"

His father actually looked pained. But then, he always did when he was talking about the asylum.

"Dad, we've been through this a million times. I don't hold it against you. I don't even remember a thing about it."

"Dr. Barrett thought that was very strange. He said that you shouldn't recall anything from when you were catatonic, but that it shouldn't have gone back before that. I mean, for a while you didn't even remember that I had been ill. That was frightening."

No fucking kidding. Kitty had told him what Xavier had done to his head, and he wasn't happy about it. He wasn't sure that she had told him the whole truth about it. He wasn't sure that she even knew all the details.

"You understand why your father and I are worried about it. You were doing so well, after we moved, but then you got so moody. We tried to do all we could."

"Look, Mom, I'm doing better here. My grades are up, and now you have the time to go back to school. How's that going?"

"Your mother hasn't signed up for anything for anything just yet."

She looked away, flushing. In fact, she looked close to tears. This wasn't going well at all. He wondered how many people were watching or listening in.

"Mom, I'm all right. I get a bit sad sometimes. I see someone here about it. I kind of fell for someone, and she, well, things didn't work out."

"Oh."

"You did use protection, didn't you, son?"

"Donald!"

"Elaine, he's practically an adult now. He has to come to know the ways of the world."

"It didn't get that far. I've got it if I need it, and I keep track of the expiration dates. And besides, I've pledged to be on best behaviour. I just got kind of sad about it, you know?"

"Son, I wish you'd told me about it."

"Donald, it's his business. It wasn't Kitty, was it?"

"No, Mom. I mean, I just couldn't see you as being someone to talk to about that sort of thing."

An awkward silence. A long, awkward silence.

"Son, there is something else we wanted to talk to you about."

Divorce? Was he the only thing that kept them together? He went very cold. He had seen what a divorce had done to Kitty.

"Doug, your father has a new job."

"What about your practice?"

"Most of my practice was bound up in Xavier's school. All of his assets are tied up in legal limbo now, until he's declared dead or comes back from wherever it is he went to. The fees weren't enough to cover the legal aid work and the debts, so I started doing a bit of property work on the side. I'm working with a firm that does a lot of developing in our area, and I've finally got enough money to pay off the mortgage on the house."

"Cool. What firm?"

"Sclerini/Pierce. They're doing a lot of work on aqueducts upstate."

"That's great, Dad."

He wondered if his father knew of the connection. He decided that this was unlikely, as Frost would have told him at once. It would have been another lever to pry them apart,

"Doug, this means that your father and I could pay for you to go to another school, closer to home, so you could attend as a day student."

"You know the Roxbury School? We've had an interview there, and if you wanted to, we're sure-"

"NO!"

"Doug?"

"Son, I thought, I mean, you could get back to your old friends, and if you didn't like it here-"

"Dad, please, I'm _happy_ here. I don't _want_ to leave. Please. I'd love it if you lived nearer, but I'm happy here, really."

"Doug, I'm not sure-"

He was on the edge of losing it.

"Kitty. I'd lose her. I'm really fond of her. I've made other good friends here. I'd lose them, too. I've lost a lot of friends. Changing schools again would just make things worse. I'm trying hard to be happy. I'm making it, too. I have someone to help me here. I can make it here, and be happy. Please."

His father put his hands on his shoulders, and looked straight into his eyes.

"Son, we won't force you to do anything you don't want to do. If you think that staying here is the right thing to, we'll respect that decision. You've beaten back bigger challenges than this. A man can do anything if he puts his mind to it. Anything."

"Oh, Dad." Always the idealist. Defending trash, never getting paid. Always believing that everyone was inherently good. Ignorant. If only he knew. He almost lost it again.

"Just keep it in mind, as an option. If you want, we can see about a transfer. Just keep it in mind."

"I will. Thanks. I mean it. But I'll beat this thing. I'll make you proud of me."

"We are proud of you. Both of us."

It struck him that his father had never said that before. Ever. He went to his mother and hugged her. He never wanted to let go. It took all of his will to stop himself from clutching her so tightly it would give the whole thing away. He stepped away, then embraced his father. His father still didn't like embraces, but he wasn't pushed away. He supposed that the therapy had had some benefits.

"I'll be fine."

His father said something about the time. They left his room and walked back to the car park together. He passed Danielle on the way, and introduced them to her. James wasn't around, nor were either of the two teachers who had a habit of showing up in class drunk. There were so many things that he couldn't tell them. So many things.

They embraced again at the car. No-one cried, although his Mother's eyes seemed misty. He watched as the little brown Toyota left the parking lot and drove down the road towards Haverhill. He watched the tail-lights until they vanished over the hill a mile away, then turned away and walked slowly back to his cell.


Part 1 of 12

A Visit From Old Friends

 

They became immanent outside the small, century-old cottage. The larger of the two men, if that was what they were, pointed to the sign at the entrance to the old school grounds across the road.

"Can you see the irony of it, old friend?"

"The Harrison Leland Institute For International Peace. Peace is wonderful."

The larger man sighed. With all of the changes that they had undergone, he resented the fact that he had been left so far behind and had retained so many human characteristics. Even his resentment, he supposed, was a sign of that atavism.

"That's the house. Where they are."

"Yes. Try to remember what it was like before. They are sensitive to unusual things, so you must be careful not to do anything that could be misinterpreted. Please, try to think, first, before acting."

"Facades are frequently made of glass, when they aren't made of metal."

The larger man sighed. Of all of those who had Returned, they were the least changed. Many of the Returned could no longer manifest themselves on the physical plane, and some were so changed that ordinary humans would not survive in their presence. That would soon change. It would be so wonderful, the very thought of their elevation bought a tear to his eyes.

The larger man recalled what it was to walk, and approached the door of the house. His companion drifted along in the air beside him, inverted. They stood by the door for a few moments, before it occurred to him that the inhabitants of the cottage would have no way of knowing that they were there. The door was an obstacle. Going through it was feasible, but that action might lead to a misunderstanding. Sounds. They could sense sounds. It was one of their five senses. He struck the door carefully, so as not to break it. There was no response.

"When one sense is lost, the others often become sharper," said his companion, pressing the glowing button on the doorframe with the point of his tail.

"Is there not supposed to be a sound?"

The door opened. A man stood there, tall, bald, and wasted. For a moment, it appeared as if he might collapse.

"You've come back," said the old man. "I knew that you would come back. I told her."

The voice was oddly modulated. He decided that it was deafness. He recalled that some of the deaf could read lips, so he made sure that his moved when he spoke.

"Yes, Samuel, we have come back. We have many things to talk about."

Guthrie didn't invite them in, but instead turned and staggered back into the house, leaving the door open. His companion floated in, and he followed. They entered the front room of the cottage. In the back somewhere, someone dropped a ceramic object. A second wasted figure returned with Sam. It had to be Rahne. He could smell the stink of death on them. It was not the death of the body but the other, more terrible kind.

"I'll put the tea on," she said, with the speech of the deaf.

Sam returned and sat down on a small wooden structure. He recalled what sitting was for, and the appliances required. He Made a chair, for that was what such devices were called, and sat in it. Guthrie's eyes widened at this. He tried to remember if he could Make things before, but failed to come to any conclusion. His companion floated in the air beside him.

"Piotr, what's happened to Mr. Wagner?"

He was not sure how to respond to this. There were so many possible answers.

"Happened?" asked his companion. "What has happened to you, little flying man? You are a prisoner of gravity, and I am one no longer."

"Where did you go?" asked Guthrie, his strange voice cracking. "We had no idea what happened to you. You left us all alone."

"It is not easy to explain. I would prefer to wait for Rahne before saying any more. We mean you no harm."

"Harm?" Guthrie stiffened, defensively. He wondered why they were so suspicious and fearful.

"We've come to help you."

"Help us? How do you intend to do that?" Guthrie smirked, his face contorting into a sneer. This was unexpected. He used higher senses to confirm the identity of his host. He felt a chill come over him. It was a human but useless reaction.

Rahne came back onto the room with a tin tray. Four mugs rattled on it as she walked. He politely took the mug that she offered him, but did not drink. He wasn't sure that he knew which orifice it was polite to use, or what he was supposed to do with it once he had ingested it. Kurt had reoriented himself to a horizontal position, and was drifting around the room at head level. His hosts looked on silently, with dread in their eyes.

"We need to know what has happened," he began. "When we returned, we found the mansion gone, and its grounds filled with dwellings. The records for most of you appear to have vanished from synthetic information accumulations."

"Synthetic information accumulations?" asked Rahne.

"Cyberspace," said Kurt. "The wired world. Nerd heaven. Computer memory."

"Mr. Wagner-" began Rahne. "Why did you leave us?" Her eyes glistened.

"If I may answer that," he interrupted. "We received a summons. It was not to be refused. We were taken to another place, and we fought something there. We conquered it, and became as we are now."

"Who did you fight?" asked Sam.

"That is difficult to say. Perhaps we fought nothing at all, perhaps we fought everything."

"We looked into the eye of God, and it blinked."

Kurt was upside down again, slowly rotating.

"Our God?" whispered Rahne.

Kurt giggled. "What a stupid question."

Rahne started to weep.

"You won't see anything clearly if your eyes are full of water," suggested Kurt helpfully.

He put out his hand to touch her shoulder. She barely suppressed an urge to flinch away, but he felt it all the same.

"Rahne, you must understand. Kurt means no harm. We were all changed by our experiences. Greatly changed. Some of us were destroyed, others transformed beyond recognition."

"Who died?" whispered Rahne.

"None of our immediate group. All of the X-Men lived."

"Where are they?" asked Sam.

"Some are in an abandoned Sentinel base in the Adirondack Mountains. The rest stayed behind, outside this space and time as you know it. They find it difficult to return. The effects of the transformation were profound. We are much more than you can see of us."

Rahne morphed to half-human form. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "You _are_ different."

Sam was glowering at her. "Was that necessary?"

"It confirmed what he said. It was necessary. "

"Why should her transformation be necessary, Sam?" he asked.

"It's nothing," muttered Guthire, not meeting his eyes.

"We agreed not to use our abilities, except when there was no other choice."

"This is puzzling."

"Cut your nose off to spite your face!" exclaimed Kurt, who appeared to be relieving himself on the ceiling in defiance of gravity. But then, gravity always was vaguely ridiculous.

"We were not worthy of our gifts," said Sam quietly.

"This is related to our disappearances?"

"Why did you go for so long?" Rahne said so quietly that human ears would not have heard her.

"Gone for a long time?" asked Kurt, quizzically. "A picopicopicosecond in the grand scheme of things."

"The grand scheme of things be damned!" exclaimed Sam. "It was almost our whole lifetimes! Our lives, wasted, ruined!"

"We returned as soon as we could. Where we had gone, time had no meaning. It was difficult for us to re-introduce ourselves to causality, but we did so. We needed to do it for you. For all who are still like you."

"I'm sorry," choked Rahne. "It's been so long. We've been waiting for so long."

"Tears. Wet. Storm. Rain. Rahne. Kurt did not want. I did not mean to upset you. Correct?"

She stared at him, then shook her head.

"No. I'm sorry Kurt. If you are happy as you are now, I am glad. We are transformed too, but we are not happy."

Sam placed his hand over hers, but did not smile. He did not seem to have smiled for a very long time.

"Piotr, you want to know what happened to your sister, and to Kitty."

"Yes. This is what I want to know. And what happened to the others. We located Roberto Da Costa, but he was not as accessible as you were."

"Rahne, do you want to leave?" asked Sam.

"Samuel Guthrie, I have no intention of leaving. I have lived for this day, just as you have. We must tell it all."

Sam closed his eyes and nodded.

"We must. Oh Jesus, we must."


Part 2 of 12

The Blasted Heath

 

He walked through the brush, away from the school. He passed through a clearing that opened onto the Snow River, flowing slowly past. It might have been one of the rivers in the hills of his birth, but for the nature of the waste it carried into the ocean. It would be flowing slowly past, just like this, long after all of them were dead. He could be seen by four cameras where he stood now, but once he was back in the bush the best they would be able to manage was IR. Kitty had told him that she had that fixed. He prayed that she was right.

He hated being watched all the time, more than anything. It reminded him of the day when he realized what it meant when they said that God was watching everything that he did. His mother had found him hiding under the stairs, crying. When she asked him why, he said

"I'm damned. God saw me."

He knew it then, and he was sure that Rahne knew it still. He didn't feel that way anymore. His mother had held him and told him that God looked down on him with Love, and that as long as he tried to do what was right with all his strength, his soul would be saved. What he had seen in her eyes had been closer to God than anything he had seen in any book or heard from any preacher. Even so, knowing that someone other than Hellfire Club goons were watching over him was sometimes the only thing that kept him going. He wasn't sure what kept the others going. He wasn't sure that all of them would stay the course.

He entered the second clearing. He could hear the river beyond the trees, but couldn't see it. Tall, leafy bushes surrounded it on all the sides. The others were already there, having arrived by different paths. Doug was crouching, with his head down between his knees. Kitty was crouching beside him, with her arm around his shoulders. Illyana was off on the other side, watching them with a neutral expression.

"So fair and foul a day I have not seen," he said.

The words came to him from the play that he had been reading. They came more easily than anything natural would have, after months of watching every word.

"We're short two witches though," said Doug, smiling weakly.

Doug looked like he hadn't slept in a month. He might not have, if had been spending as much time on the Hellfire Club codebreaking project as he had been spending on breaking the Club's own codes. Illyana exhaled a smoke ring, which Doug didn't see. It drifted over Doug's head and hovered there for a moment before dissipating. He would have been more comfortable if she had been smoking something.

"Any tails?" asked Kitty.

"No," he said. "I followed the path you suggested. Bobby wanted to talk to me, so I had to get rid of him. That's why I'm late."

"We've got 30 minutes," said Kitty. "Isn't that right?"

"Almost," said Doug. "Twenty-seven now. Then we have to be out of here."

"I thought the whole place was watched."

"It is," said Doug. "They were stupid, though. They put the cameras in back in the Spring, before the undergrowth grew back. Used as few as possible, to cut costs. Earned some poor fucker a pair of concrete shoes."

"What about sound?"

"The river messes up the mikes," said Kitty. "We put a loop in the security system that just runs samples from the leaf and river sounds that they hear all the time. We arrived during the shift change Down Below, so I doubt if anyone saw us walk in."

"I thought they changed the guard at random times," he said, uncomfortably. He could imagine a horde of faceless ones clustering around a monitor, tensing in anticipation of beatings to come.

"They do change at random times, but their random number generator belongs to me," said Doug, with a small smile.

He knew it couldn't have been easy. The Hellfire Club had a great deal of xenotech linked to their systems, and Doug had told him how much harder it was to penetrate than normal terrestrial systems.

"Is it safe?"

Illyana snorted.

"You've got to be fucking kidding," said Doug. "It's breaking the Compact. If our families are alive tonight, we'll know that they couldn't see us."

"Great," muttered Illyana. "Now that's out of the way, can we get on with it?"

Doug was getting his cigarettes out, but wasn't finding his lighter. Illyana muttered something and a faint orange glow appeared at the end of the cigarette.

"Thanks," said Doug, barely hiding a tremor of fear in his voice.

"Did you lose it on the way?" asked Kitty.

"No. Left it somewhere. Back in the house."

"You're sure?" he asked.

"We have 25 minutes left," grumbled Illyana. "If he wasn't sure, he can look for it on the way back."

"This is the safest we've been in months," said Kitty. "The real shitstorm might be about to hit, and soon. I think there's a conflict in Inner Circle."

"A conflict," he said. "Who?"

"Shaw versus Frost," said Kitty. "We think he's behind the attack on Angelica."

"We got proof?"

"Circumstantial," said Doug. "There was a lot of traffic between Shaw and Frost just before and just after. All of it was erased or taken off the system, but we able to read the logs for the mail files. None of the stuff that's still on the system refers to the attacks directly, but Shaw's messages are pretty fucking hostile. Keeps going on about Frost not breaking us."

"Shaw set some sort of deadline for the end of the month," said Kitty."I don't know what it's about, but it's at the end of Founder's week."

"Any word on Angelica?" he asked, his mouth dry.

"Messy," said Illyana, flatly. "Her soul is gone. Only her body lives."

"Shit," said Kitty.

"So she's dead?" asked Doug.

"Her body lives," snapped Illyana. "Her mind is gone. She sits in her bed and rocks from side to side, when she does anything at all. They feed her with a tube. She wears a diaper. Sometimes she screams for an hour at a time."

He thought that he saw a ghost of a smile flit across Illyana's lips. "It happened because of the attack?" he asked.

"No," said Doug, hollowly. "Frost did it."

"Frost?"

"We found some security reports," said Doug. "Whoever did it, they nailed her right out of her bed in the dorm. They dumped her in the road in front of the gate. They, they-" Doug's mouth worked, but no further words were coming.

"The med report says that she had been repeatedly raped and tortured," said Kitty, grimly. "She woke up while they were examining her Down Under and she fried two nurses and Dr. McKenzie. We think Frost tried to stop her by breaking down the barrier in her mind, and messed up."

"Shit," he muttered. "That's what happens when she tries to break through?" He knew that Frost wanted more than anything to be able to dismantle the anti-psi barriers in their heads.

Illyana nodded. Doug's hand was shaking as he threw his butt away. He fumbled for his lighter again. Illyana obliged him with another murmur, and an unintelligble grunt caused the still-smouldering butt to vanish in a blaze of blue hellfire.

"It doesn't make sense," he said. "How did they rape her in the first place? Did they knock her out? There's no point to torturing someone in their sleep, and Angelica would have fried them all if she was awake."

"I know," said Kitty. "The reports said that she was raped and tortured while awake. They could tell that from the pattern of the injuries. There was no head trauma, or any traces of drugs in her system."

"Do they have anyone that she couldn't fry?" he asked.

"They haven't got anyone microwave-resistant in the club," said Doug.

"Suppose the stuff you found is made up," he wondered. "Could Frost just be covering up an attack on the barrier?"

"Don't think so," said Kitty. "Doesn't fit with the other stuff we found. She's been going out of her way to defend us from Shaw."

"Another telepath?" suggested Doug. "Shaw has Tessa."

"Tessa's read-only," said Kitty. "You have to able to write to break down a barrier. She's the only telepath besides Frost that Shaw will allow near him."

"We have twenty minutes," said Illyana, her irritation obvious. "We plainly don't know enough to decide who did it or how. What truly makes no sense is that anyone would do it at all. Shaw knew how powerful she was, and how stupid and manipulable she was. I've known donkeys with more sense than she had."

"Yana, for fuck's sake," said Doug.

"Illyana does have a point," said Kitty, carefully. "It would have been a waste, and Shaw doesn't like waste. We should look through their files again, try to make a list of the enemies of the Inner Circle."

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," he muttered.

"We have 19 minutes," said Illyana.

"Maybe-," Kitty was wearing a very abstracted look. "What if we try to turn Frost?"

"Turn Frost?" he asked, incredulous. "She's the one who's been trying to break us all along."

"Yeah," said Kitty. "She hadn't been trying all that hard, though, has she? She hasn't killed one of our hostages yet. Who is the real enemy here? She has been defending us against Shaw. She agreed to the pact, and Shaw was really pissed about that. She has been acting weird ever since the attacks. Why does she spend all her time here, instead of running her company? If it came down to us against Shaw, she might take our side."

Illyana was grinning. It was an unpleasant sight. "I like the way you think, Pryde. She has been spending a lot of time down in that room with Jones. Trying to fix the damage, I think. Futile. She cries, when there's no-one to see her."

"I thought Frost could sense you when you looked in," he asked.

"Not when I use the scrying pool," said Illyana. "Only if I try to go on the astral plane. I'm not trying that again."

He knew well what had happened the first time. Demons all over the house at Westchester. Still, if someone could get to Illyana on the astral plane, it would be well worth remembering. Just in case.

"Yeah, Frost loves all the little children," said Doug. "Look at what she did to James."

"I'm not sure that she was happy about how that turned out, either," said Kitty. "She lies to Shaw about it. She tells him that James is recovering wonderfully when he's stoned out of his mind, passed out behind the boiler Down Under. I mean, she always tells us how sex and love aren't the same thing, but maybe she's still got it confused herself."

"I'm pretty sure she's slept with all the Hellions except for Sharon," said Illyana. "They all have her smell on them."

"Even the girls?" he asked.

"Oh yes," chuckled Illyana. "Especially the girls."

"Except Sharon," he said. "Do you think that she actually died in a training accident, like Frost said?"

"That's what the security files said," muttered Doug. "Zapped by a Kree disintegrator during that live fire exercise that Frost sent the Hellions into after that trip they took to New York. She was pissed about that."

"Jean Grey solution," muttered Illyana. "I was watching Berto, not them. Missed all the fun."

"No body, with a disintegrator," said Kitty. "Convenient. The Hellions haven't said anything about it. Didn't seem too broken up about it though. Creeps."

"Yeah," he said. "That's what doesn't make sense. Marie-Ange was hit pretty hard when James cracked up. After Sharon, if anything, she looked, well almost happy. Not so dark, like she usually does."

"She broke her arm trying to save Sharon," said Kitty. "Or at least, that's what they said. Suppose they broke it, as punishment? Maybe she orchestrated an escape for Sharon."

"Sharon was pretty miserable that last month," he mused. "She wasn't much use in a fight. I mean, half the time, she would just curl up in a corner and go to sleep during combat exercises. Frost had her beaten, I'm sure of it. Didn't do any good. She wasn't human, in some ways."

"No kidding," said Doug. "Frost didn't just have her beaten, she pulled the hostage trick with one of the staff Sharon was friendly with. The dessert lady who left last month? We found a report. They beat her to death, then threw the head in with Sharon in a cell. Sharon played with it, ate part of it, and went to sleep."

There was an awkward silence.

"Fifteen minutes," said Illyana.

"Okay," said Kitty firmly. "The Hellions and Frost, maybe not with Frost, plot to let Sharon escape. She goes, and Marie-Ange has something to do with it. Frost isn't involved, so she has Marie-Ange beaten up to make a point, but she lies to Shaw. She doesn't tell him, because she doesn't want any retribution to fall on Sharon or Marie-Ange. She doesn't tell us, because she doesn't want us to know that someone could get away without any hostages being hurt. Shaw finds out somehow, and sets the dogs on Angelica. What do you think?"

"It is plausible," said Illyana. "But then perhaps it is Frost and Shaw, wanting to break us more quickly."

"Yeah," said Kitty. "But if we could turn Frost, we could bring this whole place down, and free everybody. We've got to get confirmation of our hypothesis."

"So it's all up to me," said Doug grimly.

"We might be able to find stuff out off the computers," said Kitty, a faint hesitation in her voice.

"Fuck, it's obvious that if your idea is right, she's not going to commit things to her computer," snarled Doug. "I'll bet she knows about Shaw's backdoors onto her systems as well as we do. She didn't say anything about at her last little summit with you, did she?"

"No," said Kitty, quietly.

"And Sam, you didn't hear anything from your Bible study group, did you?" asked Doug. "Not that you ever do."

"We do get good info from him," said Kitty. "Logistical info."

"Great. What the help knows. How much extra work they have down in catering for the next week."

He was bristling. Doug's comment had not been welcome.

"Illyana could split her attention between Shaw and Roberto and Frost," said Kitty.

"That's spreading me very thin," said Illyana, quietly. " I can't watch all the time. You know that." She turned to Doug with an innocent little smile. "Besides, Doug, is so good at getting information from Haroun."

"See?" said Doug, bitterly. "It does come down to me. He wants you, Sam, and you know it. He says your name, sometimes, just before he comes. You could get it from him much more easily than I could, but you're too fucking pure."

Doug was looking at him with a burning anger.

"It would be wrong," he said quietly.

"I know it's fucking wrong, but _why_ is it wrong for you?"

"Doug," said Kitty. "If you don't want to do it, you don't have to."

Illyana was watching them, suppressing a grin. He wanted to hit her, very, very much.

"I'm going to fucking do it, because I want to get out of this fucking place," snarled Doug. "I thought I was getting a start to my life. Great school, free trip to MIT at the end of it. Instead, I find out that I've been drafted into your private little war and that I have to turn tricks with some Arab shit who thinks that cologne substitutes for bathing. I mean, if I'd been given the choice, I would have joined you anyways, but I didn't have a fucking choice did I?"

He was looking at Kitty now with the same burning hatred. She met his gaze, square on.

"Doug, if I had any say in it, I wouldn't have let Xavier do that to you. What's done is done. We've gotten more good info from you than from any other source. We wouldn't be in the system without you. You've been very brave. If you don't want to do it, you don't have to."

He was glad that Doug couldn't see the expression on Illyana's face. When all this was over, he hoped that he would never have to see her again. She had become darker since they had arrived here, and he wondered if Frost hadn't found some way in. He wondered if anything other than Kitty was keeping her here. He was sure that she cared less for the fate of the hostages than Sharon did.

"I'll get the information," said Doug. "I'll get it, don't worry about that."

"Suppose we can turn Frost," said Kitty. "What about the others? Thoughts."

"James and Jenny have darkened souls," said Illyana. "They are not to be trusted. The others may turn to us."

"We're supposed to trust Manuel?" he asked.

"Maybe," said Kitty. "He really hit it off with Amara. I mean, he hasn't done _anything_ rotten since he started, um, seeing her. It's about the only useful thing she's done."

"That's not fair." He should have said that, but Doug did. Any thoughts about Amara were paralyzing, painful.

"I asked her to keep reading up on math so she can master the geology and geophysics stuff, and all she does is waste her time on philosophy," said Kitty, frowning. "I mean, she was reading some Roman shit by some guy called Camus last time I saw her. She has to get to know her powers better."

"We can rely on her to stand by us," said Doug. "I'm sure of it. She's got Manuel on a leash."

"I suppose that you've got Haroun on your leash, or are you on his?" he asked. He wondered if Amara had gotten to Doug, too. Doug was the weak one, who could fold and destroy them all. He was sure of it.

"Haroun will go wherever you go," said Doug, with a note of sadness in his voice.

"If we're right, Marie-Ange is with us," interjected Kitty, glaring at them both. "I'm pretty sure that she wouldn't fold. She was Angelica's best friend among them."

"But James and Jenny are out," said Illyana.

"Jenny would betray us, so she could watch them punish us," he said. "She scares me. I've never met anyone like that before."

"No fuck," said Doug. "I found out some of what she did to Haroun when she was sleeping with him. Saw the scars. I don't know about giving up on James, though."

"James is a drunk," said Kitty. "James is completely useless."

"What about our side?" asked Doug. "Who can we trust?"

"Rahne," he said.

"Dannielle can be trusted," said Illyana, with a measure of authority in her voice.

"She's still mad at us, for cutting her out of the group," said Kitty, frowning. "She won't talk to me at all. Won't cut me any slack."

"It was fate," said Illyana, with a heaviness in her voice that made him feel deeply ashamed. "Had they gone a day later, she would have had the barriers in and both she and Rahne would be with us now."

"Amara," he said, unable to keep a quaver out his voice.

"No," said Kitty. "She's too close to Roberto."

"Frost can't read him," he said.

"That's not the issue," said Kitty. "We have files from the jet that he took to New York last weekend with his father. Lots of comments about joining the mile high club. There were ten 'stewardesses' on that flight, and four passengers. They spent an hour circling LaGuardia, making up excuses not to land. Then they went to the Club in New York. Do you want to see how many times he ordered flavored condoms sent up?"

"It could be disinformation," he said. "He told me he was seeing his mother."

"If it's disinformation, they know we're on the system and we're fucked," muttered Doug. "If it isn't, they've turned him."

"You just don't like him," he said, in a level tone. "You've never gotten along."

"No, maybe he doesn't make start making fag jokes every time you come into the room," snarled Doug. "Maybe I wouldn't laugh along if he did."

He had laughed. It had been funny. It hadn't even occurred to him until it was far too late. When he seen the look in Doug's eyes, then the laughter had stopped.

"Eight minutes," said Illyana.

"We need to plan what we're going to do next," said Kitty. "We should meet in a week or so, to decide if Frost can be turned. I'll leave notes in the blue places, next Thursday."

"Yeah," he said.

"Sure," said Doug.

Illyana nodded.

"Illyana, can you split your watch time between Frost and random sweeps of the Hellions? Keep an eye out for anything that looks promising from Frost."

Illyana nodded again, solemn.

"Doug, find out what you can about Sharon and Marie-Ange. Keep going through the files, see if you can get any record of those calls to Shaw. I'll keep trying to hack into Pierce's files. Sam, can you approach the others discreetly, see if they've learned anything about Sharon?"

"Why don't you find a way of stopping the kill orders, if you're on the system?" he asked.

"Um, well, I'm afraid we can't do that," said Kitty, dropping her eyes and flushing. "Wolvie had me hack into their files once, to get some info on an old friend of his the club had targeted. I got it, Wolvie stopped the kill, and I didn't cover my tracks well enough. They took all the black ops stuff off their systems after that. It's all done by face-to-face contact, now."

"Oh." Shit. They were dead. He tried not to let it show.

Kitty reached out and took Doug's hand. "That won't happen again. Doug's covered our tracks better than I ever could. Couldn't have done it without you, Tiger."

Doug looked up with tears in his eyes. He had to look away.

"Blue notes," he said.

No-one responded. There seemed to be nothing else to say. Illyana vanished into a stepping disc. Doug and Kitty stood up and embraced one another. He turned and left on his assigned route.

He cried out when the hand touched him on the back.

"Hey," said Kitty. "Didn't mean to scare you."

"There didn't seem to be any more to say."

"He's holding it together," she said quietly. "He's doesn't have anything to believe in like we do, he's bed-pissing scared, but he's holding it together. We really couldn't do it without him. I wouldn't trust myself, not after what happened the last time."

"I-"

"I was going to do it myself. Haroun. I would have forced myself on him, but Doug got there first."

"I'm scared."

"I know. Me too. Everything I do, I could slip up, and people would die."

Her eyes bored into him.

"It's wrong," he said. "What he did is wrong."

"I don't like it either, but it was fucking brave, and we'd still be nowhere without it. Haroun was the only one who knew how to get onto the system without being caught."

"I don't know how he can respect himself."

"Well, he fucking can't, if you keep, oh shit."

She looked away, biting her upper lip.

"We're all going to-"

"No," she said, gently. She caught his eye. The fury was gone, replaced by what he had seen in his mother's eyes so long before. "We're going to make it. They've lost, they just don't know it. By summer break, you'll be on your way back home. I know it."

"I'm sorry," he said. "Tell Doug I'm sorry."

"He's sorry too."

She wrapped her arms around him.

"Hug," she said softly.

If he closed his eyes, she might have been Paige.

She released him, gave him a tiny smile, then phased into the bush. He stood quietly in the bush for a while, then wiped his eyes clear and went on his way.


 

Part 3 of 12:

Four Against The World

 

She was cycling down the hill, back towards the school, on Rahne's old Raleigh. It had once belonged to Moira, and looked as if it would outlast all of them. When she lifted it, she half wondered if it was heavier than she was. It didn't have a cross-bar, of course, but it was the only bike in Patrick Henry House that she could comfortably ride while wearing a skirt.

She hated the skirt, which was heavy wool and had to be worn in every damn season. The jacket wasn't much better, but at least you could take it off if there were no masters around. The tie always made her feel like she was choking, and she would have had to iron the fucking cotton blouse every night if Illyana didn't have some way of fixing it. It was bad enough wearing it every time she left the room (Sunday afternoons excepted), but having to wear it into town was embarrassing. It marked her out as one of the Elect, and so the locals either kissed her ass or spat at her the moment that she turned her back. Even so, she had to get out of that prison from time to time. She had no regular courses beyond History, Latin, and English on two mornings a week, and she made it a point to go into town for some reason or other every other day. The fact that her blouses fell apart every month due to Illyana's ministrations provided the excuse on this particular afternoon.

She braked to a halt at a traffic light. As she waited, she watched a bus pass in front of her. It seemed to slow, then changed its hue. Everything blue vanished, and the world became muted greens and browns. The sound of the bus died away as it smeared to a stop. There was no sound at all, though she had not phased. A bolt of pain passed across her forehead. She closed her eyes and opened them again. Frost? It didn't feel like Frost. Frost's probes hurt at the back of the head, not the front. She gritted her teeth and made her way through the proof that there was an infinitude of prime numbers. The sound of the bus returned. She opened her eyes, and all was as it should have been, at least on the outside. The strength was gone from her, and she could barely hold the bicycle upright. Using what remained to her, she clumsily dismounted and made her way to the doughnut shop across the intersection. She almost blacked out locking the bike.

She found her way to a booth near the door. She collapsed into the hard plastic seat, exhausted as if she had run a marathon. A large man, possibly an Arab, asked her if she was going to just sit there. She ordered a coffee. She could barely speak. He gave her a dubious glance. The only other people in the shop were a clutch of punkers huddled around a table. She counted five mohawks in the mass. They were looking at her from time to time, pointing and laughing. The arab man brought her a coffee, which proved to be ridiculously cheap and tasted better than anything she had ever had at the school. She closed her eyes and sipped it slowly.

Logan always said that donut shops were good places to be anonymous in. She remembered him saying it, gesturing with a walnut cruller to make the point. The memory gave her some comfort. Whatever had happened out there, it had definitely been a telepathic attack, and a powerful one. It might have been Frost, but what about Selene? They might have another telepath in the Club, or it might even be an enemy of Frost, trying to attack the Bitch Queen indirectly. She opened her eyes and concentrated on the oily swirl on the surface of the coffee. She looked at the face reflected in the surface. It wasn't hers. She looked up. It was the face of the girl sitting across from her.

There was no-one else in the donut shop. There was no-one else outside. There was nothing outside, only a gray fog.

"Kate," the girl said, quietly. She was perhaps 18, and very pale. She had short red hair and green eyes. Her face was gaunt, but one that men would find more attractive than her own. She was tall, but her body was hidden by the ragged green Army parka and pants that she wore. She smelled appalling.

"That better?" The smell had vanished.

"Get the _fuck_ out of my head!"

"I need to know," said the girl, as if she was asking the time of day. "About Xavier. I'm having trouble reading you."

"Back _off_." She started recalling the digits of pi. Everything shimmered about her, and something real flashed in the grayness outside.

"Stop. Fighting. Me. I need. To know. What. Happened. To."

Everything was real for a fraction of a second, then they were standing in a gray nothingness. The ragged girl was glowing, with a golden light.

"I can get you here, but I can't get inside. Kate, I'm your friend. Stop fighting me. I need to talk."

The girl looked terrified.

"I don't know who you are. Did Frost send you?"

"Not directly. You sent me, with Emma's help. I'm from the future. It's hard to explain."

"Get out. Frost made a deal with me. No interference from outside. I don't know where she found you, but I'm not giving up. Get out."

"But you and Emma found me and rescued me. I love you."

The girl was leaking. A wave of deep sexual desire passed over her. It was revolting.

"I've never seen you before in my life," she managed to choke out.

"But you will. You'll give me life. Let me show you."

The greyness and the ragged girl disappeared. She was in Westchester, in the prof's study. A fire was burning. There was a small red-headed girl standing there, hiding behind a curtain. The Professor was there, in his chair. He was concentrating, as if to send. He exploded. Smoke, fire. Chaos. The little girl being pulled from the wreckage, bleeding, holding onto a severed arm. Then-

A camp. A concentration camp. The prisoners all had collars. The guards were giant robots. Sentinels. Not all of them. There were men, who broke the little girl, because she was a mutant. It was Manhattan. They put all the mutants there. They trained the girl and made her a hound, to sniff out escaping mutants, so they could be killed. She saw how they trained her. She saw the hound rescued. She saw someone who looked like herself, older. Fighting all that time, and it still ended up a nightmare. She saw her older self and the attacker, talking, embracing, fucking, the only bright thing in a world full of pain-

Back in reality, graying out. The pain was overwhelming. She put her hand to her head, to be sure that it hadn't split open. Her stomach flipped over. She staggered from her seat towards the bathroom. The stall was locked, so she fell against the sink, using it to hold her up. She swayed for a moment, then threw her tie over her shoulder and retched into the bowl. There was little to come up, as she had skipped breakfast. She heard a sound behind her and looked up. There was no mirror, only an empty metal frame screwed to the wall with obscenities written on the drywall inside of it. She turned slowly. It wasn't her attacker. It was a short punk with orange hair and eyes blackened by mascara and perhaps something else.

"Don't have to do that shit," said the punker. She wondered if this was one of the ones that Frost hired to perform up at the school. They all had to watch through a one-way mirror.

"They'll still treat you like shit, no matter how thin you are," said the girl.

"No," she managed.

"Some bad hooch? Helps to get it all out."

"No," she said coldly. "You wouldn't understand."


He was walking from the Old School to the gym when Dani came around the corner. It was definitely an ambush. There was no clear way to escape her without making it obvious. She was wearing sunglasses. The sun had not shone in over a week.

"Guthrie."

"Hi, Dani."

"Anything new?"

"No."

She took off her glasses. She had a nasty black eye. He hadn't seen her since training a week before. The injury was obviously only a few days old. There was still blood in the white of her eye.

"Have an accident?"

Tears welled in her eyes.

"You could say that," she said. "Tripped and fell Down Under, behind the boiler. Clumsy."

"Not doing anything foolish, I hope," he said. It came out more coldly than he had intended.

"I didn't think it was foolish. I bruised some other parts, too."

She looked down at her left wrist. It was purpled and swollen, as if it had been partially caught in a vise.

"Does it hurt?" It was a stupid thing to say, but it was the most neutral thing he could think of.

"Course it fucking hurts. It hurts all the time."

"Tylenol. Tylenol might help."

She gave a bitter laugh, that sounded almost like a cough.

"No drugs. That's what got me into this."

That was almost too dangerous. This was not a safe location. They could be heard.

"Just stay away from them, then," he said. "Far away. Don't do ... anything on your own. It's not safe."

His mouth was dry. It was the wrong thing to say. An angry look flashed across her eyes, but then she dropped her head.

"No. I won't. See you at the gym tomorrow."

The gym that the other students didn't use. More of it might come out, if James was there. He had to stop himself from thinking of the things that he wanted to do to James.

She turned and left without saying anything. He watched her from behind as she put the glasses back on and headed up the path towards the house. He remembered what she looked like when she could stand tall, and he wanted take them all, James, Haroun, Frost, Shaw, and Leland, to take them on a flight then just let go, see how tough they really were. He wondered how far they had gotten into him already.


He sat on the bed, his back resting against the hard wood. The walls of Haroun's room had paneling from an English castle that had been imported illegally on Haroun's behalf. The paneling was uneven and uncomfortable, but comfort was the last thing he wanted now. He set to work rebuttoning his shirt and re-tying his tie.

The first time, he hadn't taken his tie off, and somehow it had become stained. Someone had pointed out the stain at lunch, and he had explained it away as some of the egg from breakfast. He had taken the tie into the woods and burned it. The next morning, a stiff white envelope had arrived from the headmistress, in which detailed instructions were given regarding the removal of bodily fluids from silk. He supposed that she would have broad experience with that sort of thing.

Haroun was sitting in a leather armchair on the other side of the room, wearing only a loosely fastened silk robe. He listened as Haroun butchered what might have been a beautiful poem in classical Arabic. The Al-Rashid family had exactly one asset, Haroun's aunt, who had married the brother of the Saudi oil minister and brought the family out from the sand. Haroun still spoke with an accent that made Sam's English sound refined.

"Did you like it?"

"Hm?" he said. "Wasn't listening."

"It's one of the great poems in Arabic. From a caliph to a boy slave whom he loved. The slave loved him back but said nothing. They both died alone, unloved by anyone, ever again."

"How tragic."

"It is tragic," said Haroun, quietly. "It's very sad."

"I'll bet the caliph wrote it."

Haroun didn't respond, but a look of intense pain passed across his face.

"I thought you read it very nicely," he said pleasantly, as Haroun climbed into bed beside him. Arms wrapped around his body. The scent almost choked him. Something wet crawled into his ear. He shuddered.

"You want more, do you?" purred Haroun.

"Yeah, but there's no time. I've got a class soon."

"I dream about you."

"Oh?"

"The golden boy. I dreamed about you, all the time, when we lived in the desert. I would meet a blond boy and he would be the love of my life. When I found I could fly, I dreamed that he would fly with me, and we would come as we flew, together."

"So it's Sam you want," he said, trying hard not to sound relieved.

"Not any more," whispered Haroun. "I want you. I want to leave here with you."

"What?" He started, and Haroun sat up, a puzzled look crossing his face. Haroun moved in close, holding him by the shoulders, and motioned that he should turn his head. Haroun knew about the range of the mikes in the rooms, too. Not surprising, since Haroun was a good enough hacker to break into the Inner Circle's private net by sheer luck using a part that could be purchased for 50 cents at a Radio Shack.

"Let's run away," whispered Haroun breathlessly. "Go away. Live on the road."

"And live on what?" he asked. Haroun and the other Hellions didn't know about the Compact or the hostages. Letting him know would be a killing offence. He began to sweat.

"The kindness of others," said Haroun, managing what might have been a Vivian Leigh whisper if Vivian Leigh had spent her life mucking out camel pens in Jeddah.

"Are you fucking nuts?" he whispered, barely remembering not to shout. "You'd get a disease. You'd die."

"We'd die," said Haroun dreamily. "Both young and beautiful. Please. Oh, please, run away with me."

"On the road, huh?" Outside this room, when others were around, he was lucky if Haroun ignored him. In this room, Haroun begged him to do things that he could not have imagined. He wasn't sure if he was more shocked by what Haroun asked of him, or by how easy he found it to do what he was asked. Haroun's hair was as thick and curly as Kitty's, after all. "Run away like Sharon did?"

Haroun gasped.

"How-"

They had hostages too. He knew it, for certain.

"I'm not just a pretty face," he muttered. "I know she's alive somewhere."

"She was dying here."

"So you all helped her escape."

"Anne-Marie planned it."

"Did the club find her?"

"No. We put her in a container on a flight to Helsinki. She had a friend there, she said."

"But the old bitch found out."

"Yeah. Didn't stop us though."

"You think she knew all along?"

"Don't want to think about it."

"Think she's listening now?"

He could feel Haroun trembling.

"I don't care ," Haroun said, loud enough for all to hear. "I want to leave with you."

"Even if it means the deaths of others," he whispered.

"Nothing would matter, as long as you loved me."

He felt ill.

"I've got a class," he said. "I have to go."

Haroun lay back on the mattress.

"She wouldn't harm us," said Haroun. "She'd let us go."

"Why?"

"She loves us. All the little mutant children."

"Like you love me."

"Yes," Haroun whispered, hollowly. "No."

He left the room without looking back.


She sat at the foot of her bed, massaging her friend's temples with slow circles of her strong fingers. This was important, since it would make Kitty feel better. She might have used a spell, but those could be unpredictable and taxing, and besides, Kitty had asked her not to.

"Better?"

"Mmm."

She took that as an assent. She released the spell that she in reserve, and Kitty moaned softly. She would not tell Kitty of it, but as soon as she had seen Kitty return from her ride, she had known that something was wrong. Kitty often had migraines, but this time Kitty had almost collapsed before reaching the bed. She had been quick, and the cameras would have seen nothing different from what they usually saw. She wondered if the migraines were Kitty's way of mourning for Piotr. The three of them were a troika, an indivisible three. No. Not possible. Kitty would never give up. Ever.

She shifted slightly. Kitty had fallen asleep, and she wanted a few moments to herself. Kitty would ask about spells upon awakening, and she would lie. Kitty had asked her not to lie, but she just couldn't manage it. It had something to do with trust, but then that had to be reciprocated. She hadn't lied to Kitty, not once, not about anything, until Kitty had told her of the old man's theory. Kitty had questioned the most important thing, and, for a moment, she had considered using Kitty's blood to conjure the last two bloodstones. If she had, she would have been rid of the pain of the world forever. It was a comforting thought. Kitty had sensed something and had told her that it was only a theory, giving her a winning smile and a hug. She knew where the edge of the precipice was now, and had turned from it. The rest could all go flaming into the pit, but that would make Kitty sad, and that could not be allowed. Kitty was the important thing in her life. Kitty Kitty Kitty Kitty Kitty-


She reclined on her divan, as that was what one was supposed to do on a divan. She might have just sat upon it, but she would have looked ridiculous sitting on a divan. She would have been much more comfortable sitting, but one never knew who might come in. It was always good to imagine that someone was watching even if one believed that one was alone.

She opened the small, delicately inlaid box and transferred a pellet of opium to the pipe from the box. She didn't need it. She knew that. She could stop any time that she wanted, it was a benefit of being the right type of telepath. It was so relaxing, and it didn't reduce one's barriers to being read. It did shred the barriers that kept the thoughts of others away, but by that time one hardly cared. If it had any drawbacks, there was the constipating effect that accompanied its use. She often wished that she had telekinetic abilities. Telekinetics never had that particular problem.

It was relaxing to go away for a while, she decided, drawing on the pipe. Even with the first of it going to her head, she could not stop thinking of what Shaw had said. He would want a death, she knew it, but therein lay the problem. The obvious choice was Rahne, whose conversion would always be suspect, if it happened at all. Damned Christians. If they did Rahne, it would be like losing Sharon again, this time for real. If they did Rahne, Ramsey would collapse, and Shaw would be furious. Ramsey and Pryde were both needed, the only ones who truly mattered. No information store could stand against them, and only the hostages kept them out of her own systems. She had the awful feeling that Rasputin might not be easily killable, but then, there was always Guthrie.

She bit the inside of her mouth, hard enough to draw blood. It didn't hurt as it should, she had taken too many draws on the pipe. Killing any of them would not be forgiven. She had given far too much away to Pryde with that damned Compact. Shaw hadn't come near her since then, and the temptation to read him was overwhelming. The Rigelian detectors were beyond her ability to evade, and Shaw would know in an instant. Pryde and Ramsey could probably disable them in an evening.

She took another draw on the pipe. She was not reclining as much as sagging across the divan by now, still aware enough to sense it but far enough under not to care. The noise barriers were slipping now, and she slipped from mind to mind, picking up on the choicest emotions. This being a very proper boarding school filled with the children of the rich, she picked up mostly upon pain, loneliness, inadequacy. The full length mirrors and fluorescent lights that she had placed outside every shower in the girls' residence halls provided a delicious accompaniment to every breakfast. She was almost under when she picked up on a very sharp kernel of anger. It wasn't one that she had tasted before, so she put the pipe aside and tried to make a fix.

She could not focus on it. This was annoying in the extreme. The one offence that one could not buy one's way out of at the Academy was being impervious to readings by the headmistress. She concentrated and caught the optical signal. She was looking through snow at what looked like the desktop of her own computer. Her heart skipped a beat. She had heard of this sort of time-memory problem before, in telepaths. It was often associated with brain tumours. No. She stimulated what should have been the frontal lobe of the brain to which she was attuned. The head turned. Hers did not. She seized on the optical signal. The head had turned back to the screen, but not before she caught a glance of Kitty's features in the mirror.

She dropped the pipe. The tiny plug of burning opium fell out and rolled across the divan, leaving a trail of ash. She stamped it into the carpet, extinguishing it. It annoyed her. She would have to have the entire carpet out if the help couldn't remove the stain. No. She had to clear her head. She crawled to her desk and removed a small injector from a drawer. She stabbed it into the skin behind her ear, then toppled over as the rush hit.

When she came to, she found the anger again. She concentrated on an image of Rasputin's brother. The mind responded with a memory of seeing a tall boy working in the yard, in one of the streets near the school. He looked similar to Piotr Rasputin. She recognized the street. It was the one Kitty traveled along when she left the grounds for the town. No-one had been able to explain that route before. She was in Kitty's Mind. She tried to read more, but encountered static and lost the connection.

She scrambled to her feet and stood, gripping the edges of her desk in a death grip. They were in the inner system. This was a killing offence, no question. Pryde, who had once been as dead as a stone, was, with difficulty, readable. With a little subtle manipulation, she would be able to move the blocks and get in to see a lot more. She might even be able to write. She smiled to herself in the darkness, as she locked away the pipe and the elaborate wooden box.


Part 4 of 12

Either/Or

 

He sat in the pew, head bowed. At 10 in the morning, the chapel was usually empty. For that matter, it was empty most of the other times, unless there was some official school-sponsored Episcopal activity going on. The staff weren't allowed in, except for the official prayer group meetings after dinner. He didn't like to pray in the House, not with them watching. He knew that they were watching here too, but he felt a quiet certainty that they weren't the only ones.

As he finished, he became aware that there was someone else in the chapel with him. The figure was wearing an old Army parka and camo pants. He couldn't see its face. He didn't have to. Kitty had left a note in a drop box, telling about the assault. He tried to stand up, but found that he couldn't move.

"I need to talk to you," she said. "My name is Rachel."

"I have nothing to say."

"They can't hear us. I've bought you to the plane. Emma can't sense us. Not your Emma anyways."

"You attacked Kitty yesterday."

He went cold. If she could bring him to the astral plane, she might be able to read him.

"I can read you, but not clearly. Takes me a lot of effort to get in. I can pick up your surface thoughts & sensory feeds, but not memories."

She didn't look like a threat, but then perhaps she was not supposed to.

"I need you to tell me what happened to everyone. I went to Westchester, and there was a big hole in the ground. Some cops arrested me for no reason and I read them and they thought it got hit by a meteorite. I come from the future, and I knew Kate, when she was older-"

"Hold on. You're from the future?"

"A future. Kate sent me back in time, to escape certain death. You can't go back to your own past, but you can go back to a near past in someone else's time. I wanted to warn the Prof, and Mom and Dad, before they came after them. Save them somewhere. Get them back."

"Who came after them?"

"The Sentinels and the Government, pushed by the Hellfire Club. Shaw thought he could control the storm, once he unleashed it. We all got nailed."

"Government and the Sentinels went after us, but we beat them off," he said. "Shaw's got us, practically."

"What happened to the Prof?" The girl looked terrified, or wanted him to think that she was. He didn't know how to interpret what he was seeing, on the plane. The Prof had told them a powerful psi could make anything appear to happen, once they had you on the plane.

"We don't know," he said.

"I've read Emma," she said, looking even more desperate. "She turned on Shaw in my time. She joined us. She's not ready for you yet. She's almost ready. If you push, she'll fold. She'll take your side against Shaw. Stop stalling and tell me what happened to the Prof. Please?"

"How can I know you're not just telling me what I want to hear?"

"Don't tell me anything that Emma doesn't know. That way, if I'm an enemy, I won't learn anything new. I don't know anything. I'm scared."

He wouldn't have anything to lose, and it wouldn't violate the Compact if she was an enemy. Then again, if she was a friend, she could be a valuable ally.

"See? Nothing to lose. Now, what is this Compact?"

"It all started November 11, last year. When we got up, there was a message on the system, saying that the Prof and the X-Men had gone off to investigate something in Central Park. We found out off the news that the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, even the King of Latveria had all vanished, too. That was it. Nothing else. No- one's heard from them since."

"No attacks from the government? No Sentinels?"

"No. Nothing. Some of them in the House said it was good that a bunch of mutants had gone, but mostly everyone in Washington's afraid. Prof told me, before all they vanished, that they haven't got the new generation of Sentinels up and running yet. Never found anyone as good with Kree electronics as Trask was."

"We did," she said. "Some guy called Cypher. Even said he was a mutant. Took a bunch of old Kree Hunter-Killers and made them into something even the Kree were scared of."

"The Prof talked the Shi'ar into bullying the Kree into cutting off the supply of spare parts, and now the government and Shaw are trying to cannibalize the old ones, and trying to buy black-market Shi'ar parts. They're not getting very far."

"The Shi'ar kind of dropped out of the picture after the Prof died," she said. "In my time."

"I didn't know anything about that, only Kitty did."

"So how did you end up here?"

"We were waiting in the house, to hear from them. We didn't know where Kitty was, neither. Then we got a call from Emma Frost. She said she had Kitty, and that Kitty had made some sort of agreement that would keep all our families safe."

"What was Kitty doing here?"

"She followed Doug. Doug got a scholarship."

"Doug?"

"Doug Ramsey. A friend of Kitty's. He got a scholarship to the school. They knew he was a mutant. So did the Prof and Kitty. We just thought he was her friend from town. Nice kid."

"What's his battle name?"

"Battle name?"

"Like Cannonball."

"Never had one. Never knew him all that well, before this."

"You don't like him."

"No. I don't like him."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I just don't. He doesn't respect himself."

"Do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Respect yourself."

"Do you want to know what happened or not?" He felt himself flushing, or what would have been flushing if he were in his real body. He wondered if it would show up on the chapel monitors.

"They won't see it," she said. "Time is passing faster, here."

"Kitty got captured. Said Frost knew that the X-men were gone. Decided they weren't coming back, and they wanted us. She had Kitty but couldn't get through the blocks. She tried to fool Kitty into thinking she had control over Doug, with a hologram. Kitty didn't fall for it."

"Xavier put the blocks in."

"Yeah. Kitty asked for them after she got nailed by Frost the first time. The rest of us volunteered. I got them, so did Rahne and Roberto. Illyana didn't need them. She's impenetrable. Even the prof couldn't get through to her. Amara refused to let anyone into her head. Dani was going to get them, but the Prof vanished before he could put them in."

"This Doug Ramsey. He's got them too."

"Yeah. Xavier put them into Doug and into a girl called Angelica. Just in case the Club got them."

"He didn't tell them."

"They had no idea. Angelica got a scholarship, too. She ended up pals with the Hellions. She's kind of dumb, but nice. Or she was. She got hurt. Doug joined up with us."

"This joining up has something to do with this Compact?"

"Frost gave us a choice. Come or she would kill Kitty."

"You could have tried to help them escape."

"Yeah. Except that she sent along a tape. It had a bunch of interviews on it. People being asked questions about their lives, like you see in commercials? Ordinary people, no names. They'd be killed if we didn't come."

"Hostages. Your family."

"She figured if it was just our families, then might be able to get them protected. If there were other ones, ones we didn't know, we wouldn't be able to get them to safety if we violated the Compact."

"Good strategy. Very much something Emma would do."

"Yeah, but hostages can get killed, can't they?"

"I've seen so many die that the guilt or innocence of victims doesn't mean anything any more. Why did you not take the tape to the authorities? Kidnapping is still a crime here, isn't it?"

"We talked about that, and voted. We decided it was better to go in and try to fight our way out."

"That was very brave."

"Maybe. You don't know what they showed us when we came. They took us down to this room, where they had Kitty sitting in front of a monitor. They showed us this tape, of the guards hurting this girl. She was tied to this table, and they did things to her. Pierce was there and he said that if I looked away, the next thing we would see is one of my little sisters on the table. They hurt this girl until she was almost dead. It took three hours, maybe more. Every time they hurt her, these little sparks would come out of her fingers."

For a moment, he felt as if he couldn't go on. He had wanted to talk about it at that meeting, but he knew from what he had seen in Kitty's eyes, it had been too raw for her to talk about then, either.

"They didn't kill her, not completely. They showed us this tape, from a TV newscast, with her foster parents and all, saying she'd gone missing. They had this FBI guy on the tape saying that they expected a break in the case. Then they let us into the room before she died. It was full of faceless ones. One of them took off his mask and it was the FBI guy. They left us alone in the room with her until she died. They turned off the air conditioning and left us with her, all night, in the dark."

"And then they had you."

"They had us."

"So what are the details of this Compact?"

"Kitty worked it out. She told Frost that she'd never get anything useful from us by crushing us physically, and she'd never get through the blocks. The only way that they would get us and be able to make use of us was to convince us that Xavier's dream was wrong, and that their way was right."

"Their way."

"Winner takes all. Find your niche and do your duty. Never question authority, and good things will come to you. Respect your masters and you might one day become one. It's the way of the world, Frost says. Sometimes, I almost think she's right."

"She's right about the winner taking all," muttered the girl. "Xavier's dream was full of shit, far as we could tell. So how does the agreement work?"

"We live together, like at Westchester. We live separate from the Hellions, we even keep our uniforms. We get trained like the Hellions do, and next Christmas we decide if we're in or out."

"Out being dead."

"Kitty said if we killed ourselves then, all would be forgiven and our hostages would live."

"That's my Kate. Always the samurai."

"If we killed ourselves before that, each one of us would lose a hostage."

"Why did you agree to it?"

"To gain time. Frost said that she wouldn't go after Amara and Dani and mind-fuck them. When the Prof and the others get back, we'll be free."

"And they kept their side of the Compact?"

"As far as we know."

"Emma could be your ally. Shaw is never to be trusted."

"That's all I can tell you. Enough?"

"I can help you."

"We can't trust you."

"She can't read you."

"We pledged not to seek outside help. That's a hostage death offence. We don't want your help. We can't risk it."

"Then just one thing. My Mom and Dad. I need to know where they are."

"I don't-" He did. At least, from the hair and the eyes and the telepathy he could guess who her mother was. Her eyes widened in horror, and he was back in the chapel, alone. A wave of inconsolable grief passed over him that reminded him, forcefully, of everything that was at stake.


He was lying in her bed, under the covers. She was beside him, equally undressed. Morrissey was plying on her CD player. Their heads lay on the pillow very close. It had taken a week of experimentation to establish that the mikes couldn't pick up anything intelligible when they were like this. It was a gamble, of course. They both knew that Frost expected something like this to be to her advantage, and so might hold off on interrupting them, as she had with phone calls during the first two or three times that they had attempted it. They knew that all of the laundry was subjected to a minute forensic analysis, so they were careful to leave signs, or at least he was. She wanted to stay intact, and he wasn't going to challenge her on that. It was harder to provide the evidence when someone else was in control, harder than he had ever imagined. Once, he would have done anything to lay where he lay now, in her hands. Instead, he could hardly wait for it to be over.

"I don't know if we can risk it without her," he said.

"She's on Frost's side," she said. "It's the first thing she said to me."

"But she said to Sam that Frost could be turned. That fits with what Haroun said."

"Do you trust him?"

"No. Not entirely. Stupid shit's fallen in love with me."

"Fuck. You really didn't-"

"Well, I did, and that's it."

"It's bad for you, isn't it?"

"How could you tell?"

"You're soft."

"Oh, fuck."

"Shh."

She kissed him. It didn't help. It felt like some sort of worm was crawling around in his mouth. Haroun's cut-off but still-living tongue, perhaps. It didn't help that both Kitty and Haroun ate the sole vegetarian entree offered at each meal.

"We've got a problem here," she said.

"Yeah, well, even Frost knows that it doesn't happen every time. I mean, those sex ed sessions, if she put them on tape and sold them she'd be able to buy out everyone else in the club."

"Mm. Hey. We don't have much longer. I think we should tell Rachel or Ray or whatever the fuck her name is to back off, next time someone sees her. Don't go onto the astral plane with her. It's way too dangerous."

"Is there anything I can to do to stop her? I still think we should talk to her. Get some proof about what she's said. Try to catch her in a contradiction-"

"That Compact depends on all of us complying. You screw up, a lot of people could die."

"What if she could get control of Frost and Shaw?"

"What if she's already under Frost's control? It's a trap. We approach Frost, turn her. We find some way to block the kill orders, free the hostages, spring everyone. There's nothing in the Compact about trying to turn her, so if we fuck up, she laughs it off, and it's just another hope dashed. It's the best way. If we turn Frost, we get two psis instead of one. Otherwise, it's all going to be ruined." There was a petulant edge to her voice, and her hand gripped tighter than was comfortable. He squirmed, and she released her grip.

"What could they do?" he asked.

"Beat Sam or Rahne to death in front of all of us, or maybe just rape them. That would probably be just as bad. You saw what they did to James." She said it in a scary, flat voice. He hadn't seen the Chinese girl in the flesh, but he had seen them huddled together in a corner of a dark room with her corpse on a tape.

"Yeah," he said. "He almost beat them off, though."

"It was reflex. He knew if he fought back, really fought back, they'd go after his tribe."

"Do you think that'd stop him now?"

"I don't know. Yana says he's still holed up in the steam plant. Dani went after him, got hurt."

"Shit. What about Yana?"

"What do you mean?" she said, tightening her grip again.

"I mean she's getting really fucking strange. She doesn't say much to anyone, any more. Doesn't come to class. She's being giving people the Look more often, too."

"I haven't noticed a change. And I've never understood what you mean by this 'look' stuff."

"The Look. She looks at you, and you can't look away. I almost pissed myself when she did it to me. I mean, I don't even believe in all that stuff, and it makes me feel what people mean when they say they're damned."

"You're just picking up on her rep. She's really very sweet, I mean, the dark stuff, it's just kind of a defense, you know? After what she went through?"

"Just what _did_ she go through?"

"Hell."

"I thought there was no hell in Russia."

"It's more like what we put ourselves through, after something terrible happens. The Prof thought the demon stuff is just window dressing. He thinks that she's like Franklin Richards, able to make changes in local reality, except that she can do it on the astral plane, too. That's where Limbo comes from, it's just a part of her imagination."

"Why does he think that?"

"The demons. All the ones we've seen are straight off TV and comic books. Not like demons from Russian versions of hell at all. She was very odd when she first came. She would be very quiet, then get all hyper. Ran me ragged. Then, I lost her down a hole on that island, and she came out different on the outside. Older. Harder. From five to fourteen in an instant. It was my fault. I let go. The Prof thinks that it was some sort of survival mechanism. Make herself more like me. Older. Safer."

"Sy'm is supposed to have come out of her imagination?"

"He looked like this character in that comic I used to read, you know, the one about the gray aardvark?"

"Shit. So she's nuts?"

"I did a search on the Interior Ministry archives. A traveling handyman named Belasco was killed by a raging mob in Siberia near where Illyana grew up, a year ago. We think that there may have been abuse."

He shivered. "I was abused. In that hospital they sent me to."

"I know."

"I don't remember any of that, thanks to your friend the Prof."

"Doug, look, I mean, he tried to do what was best, he tried to get to Illyana, but he couldn't."

"You ever talk to her about it?"

"Once."

"She gave you the look, didn't she?"

"No. No, she didn't. I just decided that it wasn't worth pursuing."

"Huh. So what are the spells?"

"Local alterations of reality. Prof had a theory that all magicians are a bit like Franklin, and that their abilities sort of pool together like a net. The spells are the commands to the operating system."

"She could get us out of this, couldn't she? She is that powerful."

She didn't respond. Her hand was still.

"How powerful is she, Kitty?"

"Too powerful."

"You don't think she would stop with them."

"Maybe not. We can't risk it."

"But if she teleported, and hit them fast-"

"First, she still doesn't have enough control of the time shifts. She might show up after we've all been killed. And besides, besides, I think, maybe, she might remember stuff, from before, and, and-"

"Get carried away. Kill everyone in sight."

"Yeah."

"But you don't believe in the look?"

"Well, maybe, I don't know. She looks at me angry sometimes, but I can always stare her down."

"Oh."

"Oh?"

"Um, well, couldn't we get a more powerful person like Franklin to do this reality-altering stuff? Fix them for good."

"Fuck no. It's totally dangerous. The Prof had a theory that if you made the effect big enough, you'd get a chaotic cascade. Everything, all of reality could unravel. The stellar powers are really upset about the lack of control over the superhumans we've got down here. They've been trying to blow this place to shit for years, but they've kind of given up. Even now, we're too powerful for them."

"Oh."

"Look, let's finish. My hand's getting tired, and I'm getting hoarse from all this whispering."

"Fine."

"Look-"

"What?"

"I wanted to know, about, I mean, you have so much trouble getting it stiff, and you never look at me, when you can do it. I mean, what do you feel, I mean, do you ever, would you ever want to do it for real? With me? Some day? Do you love me?"

"Uh, yeah."

He wanted to put into words the feelings that he had had when he had first seen her in the mall, so long ago. He didn't want to think of what he might feel about her now. If he did, he would have to think about how he felt about himself. That would be deadly.

"Kiss."

He kissed her. It was a very chaste peck, and his heart melted a little. He was going to say more, but she was already on her feet, putting on her skirt.


Fat was very useful for living things. Plants used it to store valuable energy in their seeds. Animals used it in a similar way, but also as a means of reducing density and providing thermal insulation. It burned much better than protein, and if you had the right kind, you could get a pleasant flame off of it. Some animals were better than others. Very young ones were the best.

She sat in what might have been seen by others as a dank, dark, stinking cave, surrounded by guttering candles that could not be legally purchased in any earthly place. She sat staring into a pool of something that was not water. The source of the fluid lay rotting but still twitching a few feet away. She stared down into the depths, watching the insects play.

It irritated her that she couldn't listen in on the conversations between the new player and the others. She could only hear about it second hand, and that was never as good. Always go to the primary sources, as the Prof had told her. Watching Sam or Doug was always good for a smile, especially when Doug was off with his little Arab friend. She didn't watch Kitty, and avoided watching Dani, because if she did, they might become insects, too. This would be a bad thing. Kitty was not an insect. Kitty was a friend. Kitty was important. Kitty was the way back. Except that Kitty kept asking her to watch, especially to watch Frost and Roberto. She wondered if Kitty knew what it cost her. Once she would have trusted Dani as much as Kitty, but after she watched Dani being beaten by James, it was almost impossible not to see her as weak and futile as any of the others. She shivered, but not from the cold, and shifted her attention back to Frost.


She sat at her desk. The desk was better for thinking. The pipe remained in its case, waiting. She wasn't searching the plane, even though her peripheral senses could pick up Sam's anguish crying out in the darkness. The leaks in their barriers were worrying. Some unknown ally was helping her and she was hoping that it was not Selene. Could Selene have made Tessa now able to write, as well as read? If so, then her position as the club's only read/write telepath would be in jeopardy. Selene might be able to do it. Selene could manage a great deal more than Sebastian knew. She was sure that Selene had put Sebastian up to sending the message that she had just received.

The content of the message was much the same as all the others that she had been receiving for the past month, with one major difference. Not only did it have all the standard threats, but it also now had a date. He would be attending the alumni dinner on the night of the Spring Formal, and at Midnight he would expect to see a fight to the death. Further, it would have to be one of the expendable ones. The choice of the victim was to be hers.

Hers. But then, he had been careless. He did not specify that the victim had to be one of the children. She smiled, and set to work at subtly stimulating the libido of a very angry young woman.


Part 5 of 12

Little Boy Lost

He was coasting down the main street of Haverhill, his tie flying loose behind him in the breeze. He was on Kitty's bicycle, the one that she hadn't used since being attacked by the psi some weeks ago. The psi had appeared to both Kitty and Sam in the same week, then nothing. He half-believed that it must have been some sort of test. All of their hostages were still alive, and so he assumed that they had passed it.

Behind him on the rack were the books that he bought for more than if he purchased them on the net. He did not really need them, but he needed an excuse, any excuse to get out of that prison. As he passed a row of empty shopfronts, he couldn't resist stopping at the only remaining business on the block. It was an arcade, one that still had some very old machines, ones that couldn't be found anywhere else any more. He stood in front of one, and lay his hands on the right set of controls. He closed his eyes and imagined the smell of the pretzel shop in the mall near his old house in Westchester, imagined her beside him, imagined her, just a friend with a boyfriend who was much too old for her. He looked up from the controls into the glass, but something was wrong. Instead of a view from the cockpit of a space cruiser as imagined by a programmer from Skokie, a cartoon figure of a girl with short red hair and green eyes stared back at him.

"Hi," she said uncertainly. "I'm Ray."

The machine and the arcade were no longer there. Instead, she stood alone before him, still as a cartoon. She was dressed in a skin- tight uniform that revealed a body with strangely un-natural proportions. He wondered if breasts that large would be a handicap in a real fight.

"We're on the plane?" he asked. "Time's not passing?"

"Yes, we're on the plane, and no, it isn't."

"Where are we?"

They were standing in a very ornate office in an old house. It took him a moment to recognize it. It was in Xavier's school.

"His study actually."

She was standing there beside him, human now, in the parka and camo pants that the others had told him about. They hadn't told him about her eyes. They were the most beautiful shade of green he had ever seen. She looked away.

"Don't think of me like that," she growled.

"Sorry," he muttered, looking away. "You're beautiful."

"They used to look at me like that when they were training me. When they were breaking me."

"I don't-"

"Don't you? I should have made myself ugly, but I don't want to change anything about my outside again. I want to look like I was born to look."

"What do you mean?"

Her face changed. Jagged spikes appeared at the periphery of her face, pointing inwards. Her eyebrows and eyelashes vanished. Her lips curled in a feral snarl. Only her eyes remained unchanged, a pure emerald green.

"Scary, isn't it?" she growled. "That was the idea."

"Are you going to kill my mom?"

The spikes vanished, and the girl looked away, saying nothing. He stood awkwardly in a place that no longer existed as she made small choking noises. She turned back to him, her face streaked with tears.

"I'm sorry," she said. "They trained me. I didn't mean-"

"How do I know that your tears are any more real than this room?"

"They are. Oh, they are. Where I am, they're real."

He felt ill.

"I'm not going to kill your mother," she said. "I don't want to kill anyone's mother, not ever again. I want to help you, not hurt you. You're all I have now."

"You could go back to the future, couldn't you?"

"Not without Kate. She sent me here to save me, but she was a different Kate than yours. Nothing to go back to, anyway. If it'd all worked out, I would have had _my_ mom and dad here, or the next best thing. They're gone, too."

"Who were they?"

"Scott Summers and Jean Grey."

"Oh. Shit."

"Yeah. They died in my future, killed by the Sentinels. I saw it. I asked Kate to send me back to somewhere where they were still alive, and I end up here and find them gone. Daddy off with the Prof, wherever the fuck they are, and Mommy's dead. I found my heritage back there, but not the story. How did my mom die?"

He swallowed. His mouth was very dry.

"Why don't you just pick my mind?"

"Can't. You're too well shielded."

"Look, I don't know all the details, just some stuff I've picked up from the others."

"Please."

"Your mom was in a crashing space shuttle. A bunch of the X-men were on it, and they were all going to die, and your mom changed into something more powerful than she had been. She scared them all. She had more power than she could handle. She went into the stars and fried this planet somewhere."

"No."

"Yeah. Four or five billion dead. The Shi'ar tried to kill her, but she beat them. She almost had it under control, but she couldn't handle it. She killed herself, to save the universe."

"I can't believe it. No. I can."

"Kitty told me all about it. She heard it from all of them. Nightcrawler, Storm. Even your dad told her. They told all the other kids."

"But they didn't tell you."

"I wasn't in their school."

"Are you Cypher?"

"Who?"

"Nothing. You don't know Xavier."

"Why should I?"

"The barriers. They're quite impressive."

"No shit."

"There's something else, too." She looked down, frowning. He heard a loud snap, that seemed to come from inside his head.

"What did you do?"

"There was something else, besides the barriers. A failsafe. I cut it out."

"A failsafe."

"If triggered, it would have destroyed your mind. It was linked to the barriers, but it had a remote trigger, too."

He stared at her. He started to giggle. He found he couldn't stop. He wondered if he was giggling somewhere in an arcade somewhere in Massachusetts. He wondered if people were staring at him. He wondered why he should care.

"Doug-"

The laughter snapped off. A numinous golden shadow had appeared behind the girl.

"Why can't you all just leave me alone?" he whispered.

"Because I want to help Emma and Kate and the rest of you. I know you're planning something. I want to help. You're all I have here."

"I can't talk to you about that. I can't trust you. You've said you were allied with Frost."

"That was a different woman. Same heart, but more knowing. More loving, less brutal. No, not less brutal, less arbitrary. She taught me that. She and Kate taught me everything I know."

"In the future."

"In a future. She did it to save my life, and I can't imagine-"

She stopped, and everything shimmered. He was almost back in the arcade again, when everything snapped back into place and he was back in Xavier's house.

"Kitty's alive here," he said. "Maybe you could help us."

"You would trust me?"

"Oh fuck, why not, we don't know what the hell we're doing, and you never put a bomb in my head. All this, it's a fucking madhouse. I mean, I don't believe all that religious crap, but I know what she means when Rahne says she feels damned. I'm damned. We're all damned, and that bitch wants us to think its the way of the world. That's what she calls it, the way of the world. Power. Cages. Fighting in the arena. Always looking out for a way to push the person above you off the ladder, always shitting on the one below. Worst thing is, I'm starting to believe it myself."

"It can be like that. But it doesn't have to be."

"Why not? It's all you knew, if you're telling the truth. You said the dream was shit."

"Kate always believed in the dream. It was the only thing she had to hold on to."

"They told me about that, too. The futures where everyone died. They told me the club started it."

"It did. It went all to hell on them. They think they've got fate on their side. That's what makes them dangerous."

"Huh."

She said nothing, but something in her face had hardened. The golden glow re-appeared behind her. He felt something shift again inside his head.

"You're still hiding something."

"What?"

"There's something you don't want me to see," she said.

He could feel her straining to find her way around the blocks in his mind. Kitty had told him about throwing her out. He tried to block her. She pushed back, harder. A shadowy image of fiery wings appeared behind her.

"I'm going to find out what you don't want me to see," she said.

"Don't. Please. Let me tell you. You can tell if I'm telling the truth, can't you? Let me tell you, in my words. Please."

She pulled back, but still stared at him warily.

"I don't like talking about this."

"You have your own barriers to hide it."

"I don't know where to begin."

"Tell."

"My Mom got really sick. I was 10. My power kicked in early. I'm good with prying out signal from noise. I did it to people, and it scared me. It scared me so much that they thought I was nuts. They put me in a hospital for crazy kids. They gave me the wrong drugs, and I went like a zombie. Some of the other kids, they did things to me."

The girl nodded impassively. He didn't see sympathy. He was glad. He hated pity. He was glad until he saw in her eyes that she too knew that it was the way of the world.

"And they raped you?"

He nodded. His mouth was dry. Molest was so much easier a word for it. So much less emotional, as the therapist that his father had hired had said.

"I'm not your therapist."

He laughed. Something inside was growing, pacing in its cage, waiting to be let out.

"I didn't even remember any of it. I think I kept a diary, but I lost it. It never happened, as far as I know. Xavier fixed my head and made me forget it all."

"That was nice of him."

"Nice?" he screamed. He was starting to shake. "Fucking nice? Do you know why he did it? He did it because he needed me. If I'd just been some crazy kid off the street my ass would still fucking _be_ there. He needed me to fix his fucking Shi'ar computers and tech that he was selling to everyone to finance his fucking crusade. The birds had these codes that kept their tech out of the hands of the monkeys, and Kitty and I were his key to getting rid of them."

"But he-"

"I can't talk about this with any of them, because they all think he's a fucking saint. What the hell's the difference? Same methods as fucking Frost, and now he's gone, I can't go back to him to get it all fixed up."

"Your dreams."

"I'm afraid every night before I go to sleep. I don't remember them, except that they've got something to do with the hospital. I sometimes piss all over the bed. Sometimes they can hear me screaming down the hall. I don't hear myself, I just wake up hoarse. Frost keeps asking me about it. She won't leave me alone."

He was quiet now. He could barely speak.

"If she could stop the dreams, I'd sell them all. I mean it. I'd give them all to her. I'd do anything she wanted."

"She gets those dreams, too."

He stared at her.

"She had them in my time, and she has them now. Not often."

"I guess we're all victims, then, huh?"

She winced. He smiled. She took his hand. Her hand was not soft, as he had expected. It was knobby, and some of her fingers weren't as long as they were supposed to be. None of them had fingernails. He found it hard to breathe.

"We all may be victims, but some of us are survivors. None of us could have survived on our own, if we hadn't stayed together."

She held him until he had run out of tears. It was so easy to believe that all of this, her, the office, the hope was all real.

"How did it get like this?" he asked.

"You tell me," she said.

"I knew Kitty before all this started, back in Westchester. We used to play video games. She'd get so excited when we won. She was so bright and wonderful, but then, you know that, don't you?"

"I do."

"She hugged me once, after we beat a machine. I wanted her, so badly. That night I had the first dream. I was glad to get away to the school. I thought it was her fault."

"You don't think that now."

"Why don't you tell me what I think?" He felt like screaming it, but kept the anger in check. "I don't know what to think, myself. I was so glad to come to the school. They gave me this fucking monster computer to play with and all the books that I wanted. Then, two weeks later, Kitty and all her friends show up, tell me I'm mutant, and that I have to choose what team I'm going to be on. I mean, I thought the choice was obvious. I didn't question it. She didn't tell me that he put the barriers in until after."

"Kitty can beat anyone at chess."

"I know."

"The team is not the same as the conspiracy."

"No. Amara and Dani never got the blocks. Frost could get to Rahne through Dani's link, so they're all out. Roberto was in, but then he started turning into one of them, acting more and more like Haroun and Manuel and his father. We couldn't trust him any more. He's lost his soul. Frost got Amara. She belongs to Manuel now."

"Frost hasn't done anything to Dani or Rahne."

"Why should she? She's nailed two of our most powerful already."

"Did Amara ever play Kitty at chess?"

"She lost. Five moves. She's kind of dumb."

"I can't read her."

"Frost put barriers in?"

"I can't understand what I see. The pictures in her mind make no sense. It's hard to read someone who comes from such a different world."

"Huh."

"So it's just you, Kate, Sam, and Yanna."

"Yeah. Me, the iron maiden, preacher boy, and the spawn of the pit against the world."

Anger flared in her eyes.

"Why did you call her that?"

'You know how tough she can be-"

"Not Kate. Illyana. Why are you all so afraid of her?"

"She does things. Black magic. I don't know how she does it, but she's fucking nuts. Really crazy. She scares me. I don't know if she's even human."

"I was three, turning four. She looked after me. Illyana. Like my big sister. She was singing a song and reading to me. It was a song that started 'Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross' and there was this big noise and she took me downstairs to this room and the Prof tried to talk to the soldiers and something happened to him and Illyana took me away and then something happened to her and the bad men, and I never learned the second line of the song."

Her face had gone rigid, the words spilling out as if she couldn't stop them. He was so glad that she hadn't taken it deeper and shared the experience with him.

"To see a fine lady upon a white horse."

"Oh."

"I don't know any more. My mom-"

"If you're hiding something that would hurt her, you'll learn what pain really is."

He went cold.

"I know that you won't sell them to Frost if she could stop the dreams. Not yet anyways. Tell me. Now."

"I'm a whore."

A furrow passed over her brow, as if she hadn't understood.

"I'm what they want me to be. I lie, I cheat, I pretended to love someone so he could tell us how to break into the Club's network without getting detected. I did things to him that those kids in the hospital probably did to me. I'm ugly. How can anyone ever love me now?"

He was empty. There was nothing left in him. He looked into her eyes for the contempt that he knew he would find there. She was smiling a small smile.

"You're not ugly. You're beautiful, fighting to be free. You have no idea of what's really important."

"But what-"

"What's done is done. You've done more to save yourself and your friends than any of them have, and one day you will be free. Free, in a world where anything might happen. Even love."

"How can you believe that?"

"I have to. I have no other choice."

The office began to flicker into grayness. She became indistinct.

"Wait!" he screamed. The room flickered back into existence.

"Can you do something, when its all over?"

"What?"

"Fix it, fix us, Kitty and me, so we don't remember this? So all the hospital shit and this place, so that it never happened? So we can meet, and go out on a date, and have a first kiss, just like normal, just like it is on TV?"

He could not read her expression.

"We'll see."

The room vanished and he was standing with a greasy plastic handle in his right hand and three quarters in his left. He closed his eyes, and knew for the first time what it meant to be in love.


They were working late, mining the club's systems for anything that might be of use. The lights were off. She could see his face, barely lit in the blue glow from his laptop's screen. He was concentrating on something. He was better at it than she was, much better. She wasn't sure if she liked that. He had locked himself in his room all afternoon and hadn't come out until dinner. When he had, he looked less scared than he had been before. Had he betrayed them. It was a natural thing to consider, but she pushed it aside as ridiculous. Not worth thinking about. He didn't have the guts. She returned to the screen.

She was looking at something to do with the club's finances. It appeared to be a list of Korean officials on the club's payroll. Or was the club being paid by the Koreans for some obscure service? North or South? Even that was unclear. She was tempted to ask him, but she decided not to. Instead, she paged through twenty pages of dense legal phrasing that she was sure made no sense even to the person who had written it. As she reached the end, she suddenly knew that she would never see Piotr Rasputin again.

It wasn't a rational feeling. She knew no more or less about what had happened to him than she had a moment before. The certainty was there, when a moment before it had not been. She thought about the calendar, in which she was counting off the days until her 16th birthday. It had been a stupid thing to do. She knew that, but it had become a habit after two years of marking off each day. She hadn't missed a single one. And yet, he had been more distant, less responsive before the disappearance. Did he go to get away from her? Ridiculous, but it took 5 weeks for her stop thinking that it might be true.

"Hey"

She looked up.

"Something wrong?"

"No. Nothing. Why?"

"You haven't moved in five minutes, at least. I timed you."

"Nothing."

"Did she get to you again?"

She made a gesture towards the window. It wouldn't have been visible to the camera.

"I killed the bugs. Flooded one of the toilets upstairs and shorted out the transceiver. They won't be able to fix it until tomorrow."

"Flooded the toilet?"

"Yeah. They all flush automatically, but you can override them. The hub for all the sound-and-light show feeds is just underneath the second floor toilet. I mean, what does that tell you about Shaw, when he has to have control over when all of the toilets flush?"

He gave her a weak grin. It was enough.

"Come over here," she said. She wondered why his eyes were so sad behind his smile.


He mounted the stairs to the junior masters' quarters, holding the invitation in his hand. It was scrawled on a piece of paper torn from a notebook. It gave a time and a room. He had found it stapled to the assignment he had received that afternoon. He had no idea why Wilson would want to talk to him.

His knock echoed in the corridor. There was a scurrying from within, the sound of breaking glass and a muffled curse. He placed his ear next to the door to listen as it opened. A blast of fetid, smoky air choked him. He was seized by a fit of coughing.

"Get in," growled Wilson.

He followed, eyes watering. The air in the room was a greenish gray colour, illuminated by a single dim bulb hanging from the ceiling. For a moment, he imagined himself back in the hills, visiting the cousins who were too proud to take the welfare.

"Sit," said Wilson, taking the only obvious chair.

He scanned the room. There might have been a sofa beneath a pile of papers that looked as if it had been accumulating since the fall. Wilson pointed at a box stacked against a wall. It was uncomfortably close to the ground.

"Throw us one of those," said Wilson, pointing to a half open box of cigarette packages. Wilson lit up. There were at least three still burning in the ashtray.

"Filthy habit," said Wilson. "Still, they're better than the things you lot smoke."

"I don't smoke," he said.

"No. Why don't you?"

"No need."

Wilson grunted. He couldn't see the man's eyes in the dark corner of the room where the chair was, but he knew the man was staring at him.

"Why are you here?"

"What?"

"Why are you here, Guthrie?"

"I got a scholarship."

"You're 19 years old. You shouldn't still be in a school like this."

"I lost a year of schooling working in the mines. I'm almost caught up. I only take your course, and the rest of the time I help Mr. Ambrose with the Latin and Greek."

"Right. The bloody classicist from the pits. Should be good for a scholarship somewhere."

"That's what I hope for."

"And what do you get out of it? Speaking dead languages?"

"I can read the word of my saviour as it was written."

"Christ," said Wilson, covering his eyes with his hand. "Don't you ever read anything else?"

"Not lately."

"Did you ever?"

"Homer. Virgil."

"Figures. What about Sophocles? Euripides?"

"No."

Wilson leaned forward, staring at him intently.

"Do you enjoy being here?"

"I am grateful for the opportunity."

"Are your friends?"

"Our school closed. We had nowhere else to go."

"There's always somewhere else to go," said Wilson, baring his teeth. "There's always another way. Always."

He began to sweat. It was a test. It had to be.

"I hate my job," said Wilson, slouching back in the chair.

"Oh?" He didn't want to panic. He had no idea what to do.

"Teaching fucking little empty-headed children of empty-headed fathers and mothers to be sycophantic little courtiers. Waste of bloody time. All you people can do is make lies and aircraft."

"I'm, I'm sorry."

"It's an English class and not one of them has read the damn books, save you. Not one of them. I don't care. I'm doing it for you. Understand? For you."

His mouth went dry. He was certain that Wilson wanted to fuck him.

"What did you want to see me for, sir?"

Wilson rummaged at the side of his chair, then threw something at him. He barely managed to catch it. It was a book. He looked at Wilson and caught the cold stare again. It was black and had no title on its cover.

"Open it."

He did. There was an elaborate crest on the inside, identifying the book as the property of the Ship's Library of the HMS Hood. It was an Oxford naval edition of the complete works of Shakespeare.

"Helped me through some bad times, that did."

"Thank you, sir."

"Take it as a loan. I'm changing the course again. When we've finished Macbeth, we're starting on Hamlet."

"Oh."

Wilson stared at him for a moment, then used his butt to light a second cigarette. For a moment he thought he saw a flash from the end of the man's little finger as it flared into life.

"Awful habit. Look. This'll give you a head start. Hamlet. read it. Understand it. Please."

He had the most awful feeling, for a moment, that the man actually wanted to help him, but it passed.

"That's all. Get out."

He left, mentally composing his report of the event for Frost. He's tell her first thing in the morning. That'd show the cocksucker.


When they were finished, he decided that it had been the most disappointing event of his life. He could only finish by closing his eyes and thinking of green eyes and knobby hands beating on his back. The blood had been a surprise, too. He hadn't thought there would be that much. Worse, Frost would notice the coincidence. No sound and vision, followed by bloody sheets. How could he have known that she would have wanted this?

"You can light up."

"But you don't like me to smoke in here."

"It's what you're supposed to do after, isn't it?"

She was looking at him, a nervous little smile on her face. He didn't smile back.

"Yeah. It's also the time when we're supposed to lie about how much we love each other."

The look on her face. She turned away. Mistake. Terrible, terrible mistake. He reached over, to touch her, to reassure her, to unsay the words. He didn't see it coming, and now he was on his back, looking up at the ceiling, trying to remember how to breathe. It took some time.

"Do you love me?"

With her face turned away, he could barely hear her. Lying was not an option.

"I don't know."

"Did you ever love me?"

"Yes. Maybe. All this."

"Yeah. All this."

"Do you love me?"

She didn't respond, at first. Then she turned back towards him. Her cheeks glistened in the lamplight.

"I didn't want this to be with one of them. I wanted it to be someone I loved, or who at least loved me. You know?"

He knew, but said nothing. He hugged her, and hoped that would do.


She returned from limbo at the appointed time, more or less. Her command of the circles had been improving of late. She could almost always get the day right, but beyond that she could never be sure. If she was upset, she could arrive anywhen. She knew that it would be a very bad thing, if she lost control. Kitty was there in the room, but something was different. Something so unimaginable that it took her a moment to recognize the reek of blood and the red stains everywhere. On the walls, on the ceiling, on the floor. Dark, dark red, red blood. Blood. Blood.

"Yana?"

"Yeah," she slurred. Kitty didn't know she could see the blood.

"The cameras and bugs are off. Doug fixed it. At least we can talk."

"You promised."

"I-"

"You promised. It was one of the things we had in common. It was the one place you could go where I can never follow."

"What?"

"You know what you did. With him."

"It was vital-"

"Pigshit."

"For God's sakes Yana, it had to happen some day. I need you to get rid of this."

Kitty was holding a sheet out to her. The blood was black on it, thrashing, whirling off the fabric into the air to choke her.

"I can't. Not that sort of blood."

Yloh, yloh, yloh.

"So what am I supposed to do with this? Frost will see it and find out about us in the system."

"So slit your wrist and then go to the infirmary. Use the sheet as a bandage."

"That won't work. Its the wrong colour. Stop being such a bitch about this."

The blood was in Kitty's eyes, clouding them. Kitty couldn't see it there, blinding her.

"Yana?"

"What do you expect me to say?"

"Look, I'm sorry, OK? It just happened. By the way, do you know a good abortifacient? Just in case?"

"He did not use a condom."

"It just happened. You know?"

The blood was in her eyes now, but it was her own blood.

"It did not just happen. You were saving yourself for Piotr."

Kitty didn't have the words to respond to that. Instead, she flushed. Blood inside and out.

"You do not think he is coming back."

"It has-"

"Faithless bitch! Are you giving up on me next?"

"Yana, for God's sake-"

"No gods. How could you be so fucking stupid? If you get knocked up, you'll have their dicks in your mouth forever."

"I needed to do it. I couldn't let one of them have it."

"So he could get it up?"

"That's none of your fucking business."

The blood was so think that she was blinded now, almost choking. She imagined Kitty's pale face ending in segmented antennae below a pair of multi-hued, multi-faceted eyes.

"It is my business. What you ask me to do, do you know what it costs me? All I have is you and Piotr. That's all that keeps me remembering what is important. It's always slipping away, they could get me at any time. If Belasco came after me, the only thing that would keep me going is knowing that you were back here, waiting for me. Or would you be?"

She was screaming now. She didn't like to scream. It encouraged them.

"Yana, you're all I've got, too. You're like a sister to me. You're the closest person to me of everyone. I'm sorry, you're right, I was weak, and stupid. I shouldn't have done it, but it took a weakness from me, and I'll be stronger now."

She unleashed the full force of the Look on Kitty. The blood clouds burned away in the flames of her glare. Kitty did not flinch. She only looked sadder, if that were possible. It was Kitty, there, not an insect. Kitty.

"Unless you get pregnant."

"Yes. Can you do something about that?"

She knew the potions. She could give them to Kitty. She almost did.

"Avoid them. Most are based on ergot, and could damage your mind. There is a pill that the French have. I could steal it for you."

"A pill?"

"Marie-Ange has them. Makes you bleed and expel the mess, but you have to take it soon after. I could get you some, from her supply."

"Uh, OK. When do I have to take it?"

"Within 48 hours. I am not certain. I will bring instructions. Will you be able to read them?"

"Yes."

"Good."

"The sheets-"

She uttered a guttural command. The beds switched places almost too quickly to see. There was a flash as the microtags in the sheets, mattress and frame switched places. The bed on her side burst into blue hellfire. She focused all of the hate and fear on the bloody sheet. It flared white hot and melted the mattress frame and the carpet.

"That will be easier to explain."

Kitty held out her hands.

"Friends."

"Forever," she said, hugging her only friend in the world.

"Yana, I need you to do something."

She closed her eyes, and prayed that when she opened them, she wouldn't see blood.

"Yes?"

"This psi, Rachel, has she contacted you?"

"No. I am not receptive. You know this."

"She's a threat. She's come after me, Sam, and Doug. If we go after Frost, we can't have her around. She can't be allowed to interfere. She has a connection to Frost."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Find her. Tell her not to interfere. She knew you, in the future. She might listen to you."

"She did not know me. She knew someone who looked like me."

"So pretend. Convince her. Be your sweetest innocent self."

"What if she does not come? What if she lies to me? My spells are imperfect at identifying lies."

"Then stop her. Put her out of the picture until after we're done with Frost. Do anything you have to, to keep her away from us. Understand?"

She understood.


In her chambers, the woman in white leather paced. It was a nervous habit, one she would not have admitted to. The cameras and the sound were out all over Henry. It didn't stop her from listening in on them, but it cut off the feed to Shaw. If he knew they were in the system, he would demand blood immediately. He had already called twice, screaming at her stupidity and demanding that the contractors be beaten. If his paranoia got any worse and he demanded blood, he would have to have it. If she played by the rules, the next step would be to order the executions. The Ramsey boy's aunt, Pryde's old math teacher in the Deerfield High School, Paige Guthrie, and at least one other from each hostage list. If she played by the rules.


In a paneled chamber in a townhouse in Manhattan that no-one should have been able to afford, the powerful man was attended by his trusted servant. What was her opinion?

"It's too dangerous. I cannot read her, or the others at this range. If you were to let me go closer-"

"You will remain at my side."

"She would be a formidable opponent, if she turned against you."

"You believe that she would turn against me."

"Yes."

"She is weak. She is dependent on me, entirely. She is not aware of how much she needs me."

"She is not as weak as you believe."

"Have you evidence?"

"No, I don't. Only intuition. She will fight to protect those children."

"No. She will protest, but she will give in. It is not a large sacrifice that I ask for. As long as I guarantee the safety of the rest, she will sacrifice the useless ones."

"She sees them as her children."

"Rubbish. She makes suggestions just as we do for their eventual use."

"She would have to, if she did not want to raise suspicions."

"She would not rebel. I know her too well."

"She knows you, just as well."

"Have you forgotten the rules?"

"Sebastian, she's dangerous. If you go after those kids, she could turn on you. She could bring you down."

"I have protection."

"You have the best protection I could provide, but she's better. Unless you're willing to let Selene-"

"We go ahead-"

"Sebastian, please-"

"You interrupted me."

"Sebastian, I-"

"You do not interrupt me. It is against the rules."

She blanched and backed away. He could not stop himself from smiling.

"You are to be punished if you break the rules."

"Yes, master."

"Now get down on your knees, Tessa dear, and open your mouth."

As he undid the belt of his robe, he once again appreciated what it truly meant to be a sovereign.


Part 6 of 12

The Homecoming

 

She made her way carefully through the sewer conduit. She had entered into the main outfall a quarter hour before, and it had taken her another quarter of an hour to find her way into this tributary drain. It was unusually warm, and smelled rather pleasantly of decay. From what she recalled of their science, rot alone could not have produced this amount of heat. There were pipes running along the ceiling, wrapped in silver foil. Steam. Running to the underworld beneath the school perhaps? Kitty might want to know.

It had taken her many hours to find this place. She had stolen a very detailed topographic map from the school library that depicted Lawrence in all of its detail. She had made a grid on it in black ink, then randomly looked at squares of it in her scrying pool, seeking a figure in an old green army jacket. She had searched every house, factory, hospital, school, everything that might have hidden her prey. It had taken her days. She had found nothing, save 125 sexual acts (64 consensual, 12 incestuous, 34 homosexual, 8 bestial), four burglaries, a mugging, six wife beatings, and a small animal set on fire by a child. It was so much fun that she had almost forgotten who she was looking for. On the evening of the third day, she saw a figure climbing into a manhole in a park. Two hours later, she found the prey in its nest sleeping. After that, it was only a matter of making some minor preparations in Limbo. The prey didn't stand a chance.

She approached the side tunnel where the prey had made its nest. She was careful to take steps that could be heard. She had shield spells at the ready, but she was almost certain that the prey wasn't armed.

"Stop."

She stopped, frozen, unable to speak. For a moment, she almost lost control. The power that she felt from the alcove made Belasco look like a tiny candle next to the light of the sun. The power in that alcove _was_ the light of the sun. If her mental shields did not hold-

"God save you, Katherine," she whispered.

The girl in the army jacket stepped out of the alcove. She looked like someone who would have been ignored in the street, save for the scintillating golden wings that hovered in the darkness behind her. Those had not appeared in the pool.

"Who are you?" barked the girl, not quite disguising a quavering note in her voice.

"It is I, Illyana Rasputin."

"I can't sense you."

The prey frowned and the wings flared brightly, illuminating the dank chamber to the level of daylight.

"No one can," she managed. "The professor could not sense me."

She almost lost control of her bowels. That had never happened, not since Belasco. The light from the wings went out. She could see nothing.

"I didn't mean to scare, to, to, is it really you?"

"I am Illyana Rasputin, as I said." She managed a small smile, half artifice, half terror. "I do not know you."

"Rachel."

Light flared from the walls. TK-luminescence. The expression on the face of the prey was pathetic. Awe, and barely suppressed tears.

"It _is_ you. You shouldn't be so old now."

"No. I should not be so old. Please let me free."

The grip did not release its hold. She could not manage a gesture, and she dared not risk the guttural tones of a spell. She sent for a disc, but none appeared. Even so, the prey appeared not to know what she was thinking, since she was still breathing.

"What happened to you?" it asked. "How were you so changed?"

"A wizard took me away."

"A wizard."

The prey had little girl eyes now. They looked ridiculous on it.

"You were as old as this when I was small," it said. "You read to me. You read me a story about a lion and a witch. Some kids went into the back of a closet, they came out in a wonderful place and had adventures."

"I do not know this story."

"It kept me going, after they broke me and I wanted to die. I always knew there would be another world that was better than mine. One with lion-kings."

"And witches?"

"Yeah. Was it fun?"

"Fun?"

"Being with the wizard. Was it like in the stories?"

She was possessed, briefly, by the urge to tell the prey just what it had been like. Had the grip not held her, she would have.

"Just like the stories. The Brothers Grimm."

"I don't remember those. I'm sorry."

The prey was weeping openly now. This was irritating, but she could feel the odds shifting in her favour. She tried summoning a circle again. Nothing happened. The prey seemed on the edge of collapse.

"What happened to me, in your world?" she asked.

The look of horror was priceless. She held her face in a rigid mask of concern.

"You died."

Twist the knife.

"How?"

The prey couldn't respond. Its mouth worked and it made inarticulate noises. It took all of her will and all of her rage not to burst out laughing.

"They fired a shell into the house. We were running, you were holding my hand, then I was dragging, it cut, it cut, oh Yanna, it cut you in half. They told me you were dead. They didn't have to."

"But I am whole here."

"Yes."

The prey broke down entirely. She still could not move. She hoped that it would not approach. She did not want to feel its touch.

"You knew Kitty in the future," she said.

"I did. She saved me. I was closer to her than anyone."

"How close?"

"As close as two people can get."

"Lovers."

The prey froze. Something must have slipped out. Faces were so easily capable of such little treasons.

"My Katya is not like that," she said, barely keeping her temper.

"Everyone is like that," it said.

"Emma Frost says this."

"That's Emma."

"She taught you."

"I knew from experience."

She knew, also, but it did not seem a good place to mention this.

"You were not like that," it said.

"Like what?"

"Hostile. You and Danielle were together-"

"I do _not_ want to hear this," she said. "That was another Illyana Rasputin. Not I."

"Do you hate me, for-"

"I have never met you before this moment. I do not know what to make of you. None of us do."

She burned. The grip was unrelenting. She summoned as hard as she could. No discs.

"I'm your friend," it said. "Please believe me, I'm your friend. Doug told me about your plans to turn Emma. She's your friend too. Even if she doesn't know it yet."

"How do you know that our Frost is not different from your Frost, as I am different from your Illyana?"

"I scanned her. I scanned all of you. She sensed me, and put up stronger barriers, but I recognized her mind and her soul. She could help you, against Shaw. He is the true enemy."

"This I believe."

"Let me help you."

"Katya wants your help. She sent me to get you."

"Where is she?"

"In my special place."

If the prey scanned for Katya-

"Your special place?"

"I have a place where I can go, away from all this, where the wizard lived. She cannot meet you at the school. It was her choice. We will go there."

The hold relaxed. The prey was weeping. It was hers. She summoned a circle, and held it in the ground between them.

"She'll be there?"

"Of course."

"I can't believe I'll be able to see her again. To hold her-"

"She is not your Katya either."

A guarded look flitted across the prey's face, then it laughed, still weeping. Messy.

"I'm just so fucking stupid. I'm talking such shit. Of course she's not the same, I know that. Just hoping, you know, thinking out loud? I don't know what I'll do when I meet her."

"You know our Katya. Whatever you do, if your heart is true, she'll forgive you."

"How do I get there?"

"Step into the circle," she said, smiling.

The prey did as she asked and vanished. She mumbled a phrase in a language not meant for human for tongues, and all signs of its presence was consumed by crackling blue Hellfire. She smiled in the darkness. A rat gazed upon her face and collapsed, dead on the spot.


He sat working at his terminal. He half expected to hear from Kitty. but she had been annoyingly unavailable since that night. No fucking wonder, though, the way he had behaved. If he could apologize again, then what? She might want to do it again, and he certainly wasn't ready for that. Rachel was in every face he saw in the school. Her eyes in the token African-American senior, her hair on that druggie from Jefferson House, her body in the senior who slept with the football team, but there was none of her in Kitty. This frightened him.

The phone rang. He started. Kitty? Ray?

"Douglas. Come to my study at once."

Frost didn't wait for his reply. He didn't notice that he had frozen on the spot until the receiver began blaring an angry tone at him. He dropped it on the floor and staggered out the door.

The distance between his room and Frost's house vanished, as if by magic. One moment he was in his room, the next on her doorstep. His mouth was dry, but no other part of him was. The door opened before he could ring the bell.

He walked across the vast Victorian entry hall. The only light came from a room off to the side, her study. There was a strange scent in the air, part floral perfume, part animal musk. He knew from the schematics that it was sprayed into the air regularly from a network of hidden atomizing nozzles. He forced himself into her presence, step by step.

The room was lit by a single candle that burned brightly. She was slumped in a chair, in one of her outfits. White leather, loose lacing, undone all the way. Her head was unsteady. It took her a moment to focus on him. She moved and the leather came away, revealing.

"What the fuck are you waiting for? Get in here."

"No."

Not the right thing to say. Frost's face darkened.

"I'm every little boy's wet dream. Am I not more beautiful than your little stick friend? Part of you thinks so."

He was excited, or at least a part of him was. A hand fell on his shoulder. Frost smiled. He almost fainted.

"Go," said Kitty.

"No."

"It's me you want, isn't it?"

Frost's smile was one of pure animal hunger.

"No, I-"

He turned and ran, out the door, through the hall, over the porch down the steps, down the hill, across the meadow into the stream, the cold, cold stream. It struck him in the chest, so hard it smashed the wind from him. He wasn't a strong swimmer, but he knew that if the water took him, he wouldn't be the only one lost. He made for the shore, thinking with every stroke of the ten faces whose lives depended on his. He collapsed at the side of the stream, and looked back at Frost's house. The door was closed, the porch light off. She was there, alone with Frost. He had left her alone with Frost. He lay on the gravel for some time, until it occurred to him that death by exposure might have the same consequences as death by drowning. Shivering so hard that he could barely stand, he walked back to the House across the quads. He picked up some eye tracks from the Normals, but they knew he lived in Henry House, and he knew that they had come to expect such things.


She lay on satin sheets, sweating. Her companion was still sleeping, breathing softly beside her. It had been a remarkable night. The girl had been fearful at first, but had hidden it well. She had taken instruction at first without passion, but then a fire had been kindled, somewhere deep inside. Towards the end, the girl had been radiating pleasure, even though she had hidden it just as well. She had wanted to initiate a feedback cycle, but that would have given the game away, and she was not certain that she could break down the girl's barriers enough to take control of her conscious mind.

She rolled over, looking at the fine features partly hidden by thick brown hair. She was sure that she could reach into the girl's mind and shut down her breathing centres, so that she would die quietly in her sleep. For a moment, the temptation was overwhelming. Serve the girl to Shaw as the sacrifice, pretend that things were as they were before. Be safe. But no. That wasn't what Shaw would want. He would still want to see blood, because that was what Selene would want. When she had Shaw back, she would make sure that he would approve of the new arrangement, an agreement that it was now time to negotiate.

"Katherine."

Her face did not show the surprise she felt as she sensed the girl's nervous system lighting up in a flash, instantly prepared for an attack. This girl was lethal, a potential killer.

"Emma," said Kitty softly, purring.

"We have to talk," she said. "The Compact is void."

"I know it. And now you're going to kill me?"

The girl slid the sheet slowly down, and stretched her lithe, muscular body like a cat.

"Perhaps," she said. "What can you offer me, so that I might not?"

"What do you need?"

"Selene has Shaw. She's pushing him too far. We have to stop her."

"You have the Hellions."

"They are as good as dead in combat with Selene. As you would be. Or me. Or all but one of you."

"Illyana."

"Yes."

"Illyana could take her."

"She frightens me."

She hadn't meant to say that.

"She scares a lot of people," said Kitty. "What do you think she would do to you and the Hellions if you hurt me?"

Her mouth went dry.

"I know where Sefton keeps your dragon. I could destroy both of them."

"Could you?"

The girl had an advantage and knew it.

"What would your friends do if I told them why the dragon is not a hostage?"

Kitty's face betrayed nothing. Neither did her own, as she sensed the storm of shame and fear under the calm surface.

"They know all the parts of the Compact."

Lying.

"We need a new Compact," she said.

"Not like the other one. The others go free."

"And why should I give them up? What do I get in return?"

"Me."

Kitty's voice was so husky, so damned sexy. Such a contrast with Anne-Marie, who had just curled up in the corner of the bed afterwards, whimpering.

"But I already have you," she said.

"As a prisoner, not as a willing ally."

"And what do I get, that I can't get from you now?"

"My body, and my mind."

"I appear to already have your body. As long as you want your parents to live, I am assuming that I will have your mind."

Kitty flashed her a roguish smile. Inside, she could feel the girl's mind racing too fast to follow. It scared her.

"How much of what you steal do you really understand?" said Kitty.

"Understand?"

"The ideas you steal."

"And what makes you think I'm stealing ideas? I have one of the best R&D operations in the country. Forbes said so."

"One, you let me see those highly praised operations. It's pure development. None of your scientists have had an original idea in years. Two, I know how you think."

"Even so, if I was stealing ideas, what makes you think I'd need your help with it?"

"You got scooped by IBM on that new chip technology last month. I saw it coming. I could have told you where to look."

She could read the bluff in Kitty's mind.

"I have people who tell me where to look."

"They're a bunch of frat boys made good from business school, who just repeat what your R&D morons tell them."

Kitty wasn't bluffing about that. If Kitty was as smart as the tests indicated, there might be something to what she was saying. She couldn't suppress a smile.

"Why would you want to do this?"

"Because we'll be putting the gains to good use."

"Which is?"

"This place, as a haven for mutants. Just like the Prof wanted."

"What?"

She went cold. Kitty smiled again, innocently.

"You keep to the terms of the old Compact, we die. Maybe Shaw will kill me. Butcher me like the firework girl. Then Illyana will come after you."

Kitty was running a hand up the side of her body, and must have felt the shudder.

"I know that you didn't want to do it," the girl said, lying. She wanted to get away from Kitty, but found that she couldn't move. If she'd had this courage in Silver Hill-

"You don't want to hurt us," said Kitty. "You train us to live, to fight, to win, just like the Prof did. You only do the dangerous shit when Shaw's around. With him out of the picture, you could keep us all safe."

"Safe," she said, numbly. "But I'd have only you."

"Yes. Only me like this. None of the others. Ever."

The disgust behind the girl's quiet eyes smouldered and burned. It reminded her of another smouldering fire that burned to no effect as the voices screamed in her head and the heavy bodies pressed her into the filthy hospital linoleum.

"I- I-"

Her mouth went dry. The burning rage, was pushing her out, replacing the blocks.

"I'm selfish," whispered Kitty. "I want you all to myself."

"I only wanted to help you survive," she whispered. "To show you the way of the world."

"You enjoyed it."

The menace in Kitty's voice was barely hidden. She felt herself flushing. Her mind was blank. She could feel the contempt like the burning rays of the sun.

"So did you," she managed, her mouth dry.

"Yeah."

Kitty did the stretch again. She couldn't read the girl at all. She lay, almost paralyzed. She found the strength to raise her arm and stroke the girl's face with a shaking hand.

"I love them," she said. "I love you all. I don't want to hurt you."

"There's no such thing as love. Only sex."

Her own words. The truth that she had learned, climbing from the street to the sky. Not a truth at all, just another lie in a world of lies.

"No. Just-."

There was a feeling in the back of her throat, a tightening. It was something she hadn't felt in a long time. It wasn't until her vision blurred that she realized that she was about to cry.

Kitty leaned over and kissed her, first on her lips, then on her jaw, with little nips of perfect little teeth.

"Kiss the tears away," Kitty whispered softly, transferring attention to her damp cheeks.

"I have a daughter," she blurted. "She's younger than you."

Kitty started. Genuine surprise.

"I keep her away from me, in a convent in Switzerland. It's a beautiful place. Far away from here. They'd use her against me. They don't know. I've never seen her, not in years. The nuns send me pictures. I go to a church in Boston to see them, then I burn them."

"How old-"

"Ten. She hates me. She thinks I abandoned her. I did. She's already my sister as well as my daughter. I didn't want her to be, to be-"

"Then leave her be."

Kitty stroked her face gently. It was partly a calculated gesture, but partly natural. The storm of the girl's rage had dissipated, and she could feel a deep sympathy shining through.

"I've never told anyone about her," she said in a tiny, frightened voice.

"What's her name?" asked Kitty softly.

"Cordelia. The nuns named her that."

There wasn't much of Cordelia in Kitty's face. Not very much. Not true. There was. Same hair. Same lips. She had seen it all along. They might have been sisters. She lost control again.

"It's our secret," said Kitty, drawing her into a tight embrace. "I won't let the others know."

She lay, helpless, in strong arms that had seen no more than 15 winters. At some point, there were no more tears, only moans that the girl stroked away with a gentle hand across her forehead.

"Thank you," she whispered when she found her voice.

"Do you accept the new Compact?" asked Kitty in a soft voice.

"I do."

It slipped out. She meant it. She was more frightened than she had been at any time since the asylum, before she had learned how to make the voices in her head go away.

"Then what will you do about Shaw?"

"I can bring him around to our way of thinking. He wouldn't trust anyone but me to fit him out with blocks against telepathy. I did it like you would, like a programmer. I left myself a back passage to get in, just in case."

A small smirk crossed Kitty's lips.

"I think it's usually called a back door. Hackers don't usually have your tastes."

"Yes. Well, if I have him, I have Leland. Leland has no spine at all. He's Shaw's creature."

"Tessa? Pierce?"

"Tessa is as much a slave as Leland. Pierce is another matter."

"What would we have to do to get Pierce?"

"Get rid of him."

"No. No killing. Couldn't we frame him or something?"

"Kitty, we don't want anyone going through his files or ours. We have many friends in Washington, but also many enemies."

"Can you neutralize him, without killing him?"

"Possibly. You have a problem on your own side."

"Roberto."

"He's been to the mansion with his father. They have both taken extensively of the club's pleasures."

"You've seen him?"

"I was with him."

"Shit." The girl drew away from her. None of the compassion remained, only revulsion that the girl was no longer taking the trouble to completely hide.

"And then there is Selene," she said.

"Yes," said Kitty.

"I know no limits to her power."

"No."

"There may be no alternative to killing her."

"Illyana killing her," said Kitty, grimly.

"She would be powerful enough?"

"Yeah."

"Would she kill Selene?"

"Only if she had to."

Another lie. Kitty wasn't sure what Illyana would do at all, or of what she might have done already. She could sense the suspicion eating away at what had been an absolute trust in the girl's mind.

"And then?"

"We run the club as it always has run, but we just keep the kids and the school out of it. Use the club to keep influencing politics while we keep the kids safe."

"I would have expected you to turn us all over to the FBI."

"The government builds Sentinels. The Congress would sell us all out to hold onto power. We can't trust them. Being with the Prof taught me that."

"Agreed. What you propose would involve few changes. It will be more difficult to win over certain powerful figures without being able to use-"

"You still have me."

"No. You're too inexperienced-"

"Liar."

It was not a lie. There were many worse than her, whose appetites if not satisfied might have consumed the world.

"You're trembling," said Kitty.

She could only nod in response.

"We can talk more of this later. We have four days before Shaw and the rest show up. We need a way of getting them apart and taking them down."

"Later. I want to show you something."

She extended a shaking hand, as if to caress but in the hope of escape into unreason.

"I thought we'd tried everything earlier," said Kitty.

"I've got eighteen years on you."

She rolled closer, embracing the girl whose parents had been strangers to each other at the time of her own initiation into the mysteries of power.

"Kitty."

"What?"

"You know there's no going back on this. You'll never be free, if you choose this path."

"Yeah, but the others go free. There are worse forms of slavery."

"Mmm. But I can show you that this is one of the best ones."

"Show me."

A little, nervous smile from the girl, but a real one. Mostly real. Real enough.


He was reading Shakespeare again, trying to finish Hamlet. He still hadn't told Frost about the meeting with Wilson, but she hadn't approached him about it either. It had seemed so much like seduction, but what had been the intent? The lecture that morning had been worse than the others. Not only had Wilson been drunk, but the man had looked at almost no others during the entire time. Making all those points about how destructive a quest for justice could be, speculating pointlessly on how Denmark might have been better off if Hamlet had returned to college and let the ship of state sail on. The metaphor made him think of the book that Wilson had given him, which lay where he had left it upon the desk. He put the school copy of the play away and picked up his bible. It would certainly provide him with the guidance that he sought. It was the word of God, after all.

Twenty minutes later, his palms were sweating but nothing had presented itself as a solution. He put the book aside, and went to Doug's door again. The footsteps had dried since the night before, but the mud was still there. He knocked. There was no response. He knocked again. Something moved inside, but Doug didn't have anything to say. He heard footsteps on the stairs, and moved away from the door. Just as if he were returning from the bathroom. Which was stupid, since the cameras had no doubt recorded what he had done.

Kitty appeared at the top of the stairs. She was dressed in the clothes that she wore yesterday, and looked tired. Her face lit up when she saw him. She threw herself at him and caught him in a firm embrace. She released him, and he was frightened by what he saw in her face.

"We did it," she said "We're going to be OK."

"What? How?"

He was becoming excited. He pushed her away. She flushed slightly.

"Tonight at Latin tutorial. Amara won't be there, will she?"

"No. She won't be."

"Doug in?"

"Doesn't answer. Rahne asked me to look in on him, see if he caught a cold. He went swimming."

"Swimming?"

He made a slight gesture that the camera wouldn't catch, pointing at the mud on the floor. Fear filled her eyes for a moment.

"I'll check in on him," she whispered.

She gave him a small smile, then phased through the door. He returned to his room, picked up the black book, and wondered what Wilson wanted him to do.


PART 7-12

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