Chapter 43: “Loose Threads and the Ties That Bind”

Part I: December

John and Peter walked through the familiar corridors together. John’s feelings about being back in Westchester could best be described as “complex.” He scowled and scratched at the patchy beard that he had grown. He had planned to shave, but maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to disguise his all-too infamous face.

“We have almost 75 students now,” Peter was telling him, “So if you could help with the teaching while you’re here, it would be really appreciated.”

John responded with a non-committal grunt.

He looked through the open door of one of the classrooms, at the circle of young mutants taking notes as some teacher he didn’t recognize lectured them on Geography. The maps on the wall were the same as they had been when he had been a student here. He did some quick math and was shocked to realize it had only been 14 months since Stryker’s raid on the school, since he had left them all behind at Alkali Lake. It felt like years; years of danger, adventure, disillusionment.

A kid with long, orange hair noticed him at the door and immediately whispered excitedly to his neighbor. Within seconds, the whole room was staring his way, including the teacher.

“How ya doin’?” John said, caught off guard.

Peter gave a wave. “Sorry Mr. Padawa,” he said and led John away by the arm. “Everyone’s pretty excited to have you back. You’re a bit of a legend around here. Probably half of them have already read your novel. I bet you could be a really inspirational English teacher.”

“Okay, cool it with the sales pitch,” he replied, but he felt pretty good about his little bit of fame.

John and Bobby had spent the days since they’d arrived in the infirmary under the supervision of the school’s doctor and Emma Frost. John had just been released, but they were deliberately keeping Bobby in a coma to heal the psychic shock. Even though John knew Frost and Dr. Selvananthan had the situation under control, he was getting desperate to see his boy’s eyes and hear his voice.

Peter led him to the foyer where they sat down in a couple of arm chairs. Christmas decorations were already up, and John wondered if he’d be here to celebrate with everyone. He picked up that morning’s Times from a side table and glanced at the top stories. Fugitive Chinese gang leader, Cassius Kwan had been found in an alley behind FBI headquarters in LA, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. He had a broken arm and was, reportedly, covered in numerous small burns.

“Crime doesn’t pay, buddy,” John muttered. He asked Peter, “Why is the school still open? I looked out the window and saw the Army outside guarding the place. They must be pretty spooked about this being a training ground for future mutant terrorists. Not to mention home of the X-Men.”

“Everything’s still up in the air. We’re living in an uneasy truce and the terms change day by day. Hank’s been on the phone or in meetings with Washington 24/7 since we got back. Right now, they’re not allowed in and we’re not allowed out.”

“Fuck! We’re prisoners.”

“I guess, but on the other hand, they could be storming the place, taking away anyone they thought was dangerous, dismantling the sub-basement or whatever. The fact that they haven’t done that means we might be winning in the negotiations. Hank’s convincing them that with all the angry mutants still out there, it’s better to have us on their side like we were at Alcatraz. Better than having us as enemies in a future human-mutant war.”

“Do they know I’m here?” John asked bluntly. “I mean, I’m happy to hang out with you, Pete, but it’s pretty clear you’re guarding me.”

Peter looked ashamed. “We took a chance bringing you back to the mansion. If the feds know we have Magneto’s number two under our roof —”

“Not to mention Magneto himself…” John said with a smirk. “And you don’t want me to do anything dumb. Okay, listen, and you can tell Storm this: I’m not going to cause any problems. I won’t tell anyone outside that I’m here. I won’t burn the place down or use the photocopier to print revolutionary pamphlets.”

Peter laughed at that. “I’ll let her know.”

John looked away and cleared his throat. “Okay, well thanks, I guess. I admire your collective balls. I mean, I’m surprised you’re not throwing Magneto to the wolves.”

“The last time he was in custody, they let Stryker torture him. I guess we’re looking out for our own. So, please just stick around and lie low until things cool down.”

“Pete, I’m not going anywhere, at least until Bobby’s okay again.”

Peter took a long at John, as if taking his measure. “If you say so. Before you left, you acted like you couldn’t stand the guy.” He seemed to be waiting for John to reassure him. But when John said nothing, Peter continued, lowering his voice a bit. “What’s wrong with him anyway? What happened to you guys?”

John got to his feet abruptly. The memories of the camp — false as they were — were still too close to the surface. “Nothing. Xavier just gave us a nasty psychic blast. Bobby got the worst of it. He’ll be fine.” He turned to the window, hoping Peter would take the hint and just drop it.

“But what kind of… Hey, Sam, aren’t you supposed to be in class?”

A meaty hand clamped down on John’s shoulder and spun him around. He found himself face to face with a furious Sam Guthrie who snapped, “What the chicken-fuckin’ Hell do you think yer doing here?!” Sam’s foot flew out catching John behind the knee, and with a fast shove, he knocked him on his ass.

John’s heart was pounding, but he hid his shock with a smirk and a growl. “Hey, Guthrie, swell to see you, too.”

“Let me make something perfectly clear, Allerdyce,” Sam said, standing above him, gritting his teeth. “There is no place in this house for Brotherhood bastards, and especially not for goddamn traitors!

Locking eyes with Sam, John rose to his feet. He felt a terrible urge to light up a flame ball from his bare fist. He hadn’t told anyone yet about his newly augmented powers, and he knew this wasn’t the time. Instead, he just set his jaw and shouted back, “Hey! If you have problems with me being here, talk to Storm!”

Peter hurried between them. “John’s right, Sam. Storm’s okay with him being here. Keep yourself calm.”

Sam tried unsuccessfully to grab at John again around the considerable obstacle of Peter. “You joined those murderers!” he snarled. “You betrayed the Professor’s memory for that psycho Magneto.”

John stood his ground. “Last time I checked, Xavier’s right upstairs in his suite. And the Brotherhood is dead, okay?! Maybe it’s time we started working together instead of fighting.” He gave himself a mental pat on the back for that one. Wow, John, doing the whole high-ground thing!

Sam turned away and began to storm off angrily. Peter gave John an uncertain look — as if the fight had been his fault — and followed, trying to calm the boy from Kentucky. They argued in hissing voices at the foot of the stairs, and John walked to the other end of the foyer, not wanting to look like he had run away, tail between his legs. At one point, Sam raised his voice to say, “Well, if she lets him into the X-Men, I’m quitting!” John realized then that Sam must have made the A team. That explained the little ‘X’ pin on his shirt collar.

Eventually, Sam turned and huffed upstairs. “Sorry about that,” Peter said, walking over to John.

“Wow, Pete, you really are a salesman, aren’t you? I’m not quite as welcome here as your bullshit made it sound.”

“Okay, maybe I overstated it. You joined the Brotherhood. You’re going to have to work to regain everyone’s trust.”

“Assuming I give a shit. Assuming I’m not going to leave first chance I get. Is anyone on my side? Are you?” Suddenly, a stab of pain caught him between the eyes. He staggered a bit and put a hand on the wall to steady himself.

Peter asked. “You okay? I-I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m fine. Not your fault. Frost said I shouldn’t overdo it first day. I’m going back to the med lab to lie down.”

Peter unlocked the subbasement elevator for him, but didn’t accompany him below stairs. John took that for a sign of trust. Or maybe Pete was calling ahead and telling them to watch out — the traitor was coming. Stepping out of the elevator in the cold underworld of steel, he looked down the hall one way and saw yellow warning tape strung across the hall where they were rebuilding Cerebro. Of course, with the Feds breathing down their necks, they couldn’t exactly go in and out with construction material, so work had ground to a halt. He walked the other way. The new doors for the Med Lab were standing in the hall, still in their packing crates. The damaged doorway, half-melted in some places, was still awaiting repair. Jean, he had been told, had made an impressive exit.

Emma Frost was already walking towards him as he entered; so either Pete had called ahead or else she’d sensed his approach telepathically. Before he could say anything, she had put her hands on his forehead, probing. Her long immaculate nails, polished in white glaze, dug little divots in his flesh.

“Good, your mind is healing quickly. You’re very resilient.” She removed her fingers, but he could still feel her probing. “I see you got a warm reception from your little friends,” she said.

“Will you keep out of my thoughts? Fuck!”

“Trust me, Mr. Allerdyce, your thoughts aren’t much joy. For one thing, your taste for bland, sugary men is as surprising as it is unappetizing.”

He blushed. Somehow, Emma Frost was the only person in the world capable of actually embarrassing him. “Shut up,” he snapped weakly. “Can I sit down?”

She led him to a chair and helped him sit. “Here,” she said more kindly. “I’ll do something about that headache. And I have a little surprise for you, too.”

She stood behind him and smoothed her hands over his head. He could feel her psychic presence dancing around the edge of his consciousness. The tension of the day began to fade away and with it, the headache.

“That’s awesome,” he said, feeling a slow, muzzy happiness suffuse him. “I had to deal with a lot of assholes today.”

“I recall telling you to avoid confrontation,” she scolded.

“Sorry, confrontation has a way of finding me, no matter what I intend.” He yawned. “Hey, you said you had a surprise!”

“Hmm, I’m not sure it’s a good idea in your delicate condition,” she teased. “You might find it too… stimulating.”

“What? You gonna flash your boobs? Sorry, not my poison.”

“Have you ever thought of becoming a comedian? One of the vulgar kind who substitute sophomoric wankery for true wit?” She put her hands back on his head and said, “Hold on.”

“To wha

 

He is sitting on a rough, wooden floor in a rough wooden box with a door and window cut roughly in its walls. The little room is decorated with thumb-tacked posters of superheroes and hockey players. The whole structure is swaying gently, and John realizes he is up a tree. The breeze is warm… a late-summer afternoon perhaps. He can hear lawn mowers in the distance and squealing children playing. A squirrel appears in the window and blinks nervously at him before making a hasty retreat. John turns to watch it as it runs past the doorway, and suddenly Bobby is there, sitting cross-legged right in front of him, barefoot, in cut-off jeans and a blue t-shirt. His tanned face is spotted with the faintest summer freckles.

Bobby’s smile is full of mischief and delight. “Hey,” he says. “Glad you could make it.”

John’s heart is racing a bit at the not-altogether-welcome feeling of being in another psychic Neverland. Nonetheless, he smiles back, and he can feel himself calming down, as if Emma is still soothing his stress away. “Where are we?” he asks, pulling himself into the same cross-legged position as his friend. Their knees touch.

Bobby is excited. “It’s my tree house! It blew down in a storm when I was 11, but before that it was the best place!” He looks around appreciatively. “My dad and I built it. I guess it must be a bit bigger than it used to be… since I’m bigger.”

Bobby reaches out and places a hand on John’s chest. The touch is so real that John forgets to be freaked out anymore. He returns the gesture, feeling Bobby’s heart beating strongly and steadily beneath his hand. He asks, “How are you feeling?”

“Good. Emma says I can actually wake up tomorrow.” He pauses and looks up as if listening to something. “Well, hopefully tomorrow. She says it depends on my, uh, something levels.”

John looks up, too, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Is Frost here?”

“Yeah, but not right inside. The club house is boys only.” This cracks John up. Bobby grins but then grows serious. “John, Emma says you saved my life.”

John pulls his hand away. “What did she say? Did she say what happened to you?” He is already on the edge of anger. Frost had promised to keep the memories of the camp and his torture away from Bobby’s mind.

“She said it was the Professor. That he was confused and he sent out a… psychic blast or something. And you shielded me from it. You called for help with your mind, and Emma brought the X-Men to save us. Please put your hand back.”

He returns his palm to Bobby’s chest and remembers to breathe again. The sound of birdsong is a miraculous balm. He glimpses the Drakes’ house through the trees and wonders if Bobby’s parents are inside — some long-ago idealized version of the uptight couple he met a year earlier. He feels a pleasantly cold sensation and looks down to see a sheet of ice growing across his chest under Bobby’s hand. John reaches inside himself and lets out a flame, which grows around them like a cocoon. The walls shimmer with the orange glow of the flames, the silver blue reflections of the ice.

“Of course I saved you,” John tells him. “Just like you saved me. That’s what we do. Fire and Ice.”

Bobby has tears in his eyes. For a second, his whole body seems to shimmer like liquid, shifting in and out of this reality. “Thank you,” he says. Then, “Oh, shit, Johnny! You lit Red Tornado on fire!” John watches the comic book hero go up in flames. They both laugh again before Bobby again looks upwards.

“Emma says I have to go. I’m not supposed to…” he cocks his head quizzically. “Right… not supposed to be exposed to so much literal space.”

“What does she usually let you see?”

“Just flashes of stuff. Some of them are memories, some of them are what she calls therapeutic imagistics.” He leans forward and whispers in John’s ear. “And sometimes, I just see us having sex. Like for hours and hours.”

John feels himself growing excited. He says to the ceiling. “Hey Frost! Think you could give us a few minutes alone?” He turns back to Bobby, but he is gone. And then so is the tree house

 

John raised his head, feeling heavy and all too real. Emma was standing in front of him.

“I want to lie down,” he mumbled and she walked him to his bed. Bobby lay in the next berth, still unconscious, hooked up to the same machines he had been connected to for the last three days. John turned on his side and watched the young man he loved, knowing that he was getting well. He wasn’t even aware of falling asleep.

 

John slept almost 12 hours, waking up hungry. He left the med lab and took the elevator up from the steel caverns to the warm wooden world of the mansion. It was 6 a.m. and the teachers and students would only just be waking up. He headed for the kitchen where he surprised head chef, Margit in the midst of supervising her staff as they prepared breakfast for the expanded student body.

“John Allerdyce! They told me you were back.” Margit was as unsentimental as they came. Her curt nod indicating he could enter her domain was like a hug from anyone else.

John walked in cautiously, jumping out of the way as a lanky young kitchen worker trundled by with a big bag of flour. “I hate to think what else they said about me,” he told Margit.

She made a dismissive noise. “You don’t listen to a word of it. You’re home and that’s what’s important!” She fixed him a plate of eggs with tofu cubes, emmenthal cheese and diced tomatoes, along with a fresh-baked multi-grain roll. He slipped upstairs with the food, disappearing into the empty library just as early risers began moving through the halls.

He ate in the bay window, looking out on the drizzly December morning. The soldiers were in plastic ponchos, hunched down and miserable. Well, he thought. I might be a prisoner, but at least I’m warm and well-fed. He began walking along the familiar shelves, looking at books read and unread. On impulse, he pulled down Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and spent the morning reading through the bloody chronicle of revenge.

He considered skipping lunch, but his stomach was rumbling, and furthermore, he knew he couldn’t avoid facing the indigenous population forever. He walked into the cafeteria with his head held high, though trying not to look too cocky; his old bag of tricks wasn’t going to work this time. He knew his appearance would arouse curiosity, but he was taken aback by the air of doubt and hostility. By now, everyone knew of his return, and they’d obviously spent the last 24 hours debating his worth. He wanted to run back upstairs and hide, but he knew that only by being with the students and teachers would he be able to convince them he meant no harm, that he should be allowed to remain.

He got his food and sat down with Kitty, Terry, and Doug, who all smiled and welcomed him, but even from these friends, the reception was a little frosty.

He asked them, “Who’s the chick with the lizard skin staring daggers at me?”

Terri answered. “Calls herself Skelimorph. Her brother died during the battle at Alcatraz.”

“And that’s supposed to be my fault?” he asked, already losing his cool. “Most of the people who died were turned into confetti by Jean.” He looked at his friends for sympathy. “Come on, guys, you’re making me feel like a zit on prom night. What’s going on?”

Kitty took a deep breath. “Look, John, we want to believe you’re back here for the right reasons, and everything’s going to be the way it was, but…” she paused, staring at him, her brows knitting busily.

Terri picked up the thread. “But a lot has happened, okay? Dr. Grey and Mr. Summers are dead. The Professor isn’t — you know — himself. It just makes us kind of nervous.”

John nodded. “Yeah, I can see that.” He looked at Doug for support, but Doug just blushed and began shoveling food into his mouth with discomfited haste. John rolled his eyes. Kitty was still staring at him. “Pryde, is there something else you want to say?”

She looked annoyed, as if he were forcing her to be rude. “Okay. On Alcatraz, we were all about to escape when Bobby has a shit-fit and goes tearing off into Jean’s TK storm. He was going after you.”

John had never heard all the details of that day. Remembering the chaos on the island, he felt himself growing scared for Bobby, as if he didn’t know the end of the story. “Yeah…?” he prompted.

“We don’t see or hear from him for like 10 days. We don’t know if he’s alive or dead. And when we do find him, he’s in a coma.” She paused before delivering the death blow. “And you’re fine.”

John stared at them. “So, what are you saying? You think I did that to Bobby? You think I would hurt him?!”

Doug’s voice cracked a bit as he said, “John, we’ve seen video footage of the battle. You were fire-blasting Bobby full force, like you wanted to kill him.”

“And he was blasting back!” John jumped to his feet, tripping on his chair and staggering a minute before righting himself. He looked all around at the faces in the room, and all he could see was hate. He wanted to scream, to cry, to torch the room. They didn’t understand, could never know what he had been through! There were people in America who wanted to imprison or kill every mutant in this room. Only John knew what that would look like! He alone had the memory of the mutant concentration camps.

And these idiot, sheltered children thought they had the right to judge him! Fear rose in him. Would they actually let him go if he wanted to? Or would they lynch him right here in the cafeteria? He turned for help to the teacher’s table, but Storm and Beast were deep in conversation, ignorant of his imminent demise. He began making his way to the door, looking from face to face for a shred of sympathy or understanding. He was breathing hard, fighting the overpowering desire to light up a flame ball, when suddenly there was a voice at the door.

“Hi, everybody,” the voice said, and John looked up to see Bobby entering, a bit pale, but smiling that winning Drake smile. “Hey, Cora, Darren!” he called to a couple of students. One girl of maybe 12 ran up to hug him and Bobby tousled her hair. Then he spotted John standing in the middle of the room and moved quickly to his side, not comprehending the gravity of the situation, the thunderhead of judgment that was gathering around him.

“It’s really great to be back,” he told the assembled student body in a strong voice, oblivious, putting an arm around John’s shoulders. “Listen, some of the new students don’t know this joker here. This is John Allerdyce; he used to be a ‘gifted youngster,’ too. If it wasn’t for him… I’d be dead now.” Bobby grinned at him, and John felt like he was being buffeted by waves, one minute drowning, the next tossed whole on the sand. Bobby blushed all of a sudden, and then continued, his voice still loud and clear, but shaking a bit. “Uh, I should also say that he’s, um, he’s my boyfriend.”

John turned to him and stared, dumbfounded, but in that moment, Bobby’s face descended on his and John found himself sucked into a kiss of monumental political and personal significance.

The room became a bee’s nest of shocked buzzing, before a second unexpected voice rang out.

“Shit, you guys!” it called. “Way to steal my thunder!”

Bobby and John broke from their kiss and turned, along with everyone in the room, to see Jubilation Lee standing there, hands on her hips.

 

***

 

Jubilee sat very still and listened while Storm raged. She didn’t roll her eyes or try to interrupt or toss down her chair and march out in a huff as she might have in the past. She just listened.

“You stowed away on the Blackbird. Not only that, you brought an outsider onto the jet. What if you had still been on board when it was destroyed? What if we had been shot out of the sky?” She covered her face with her hands. “Oh, Goddess, what if Warren had been killed? His father would have sued the mansion out from under us!” She resumed her tirade. “Then there are all of the assignments you missed at school!”

Jubilee was a bit startled as Storm switched hats from leader of the X-Men to Headmistress. She suddenly had a picture of how much was on the woman’s plate following the deaths of Cyclops and the Professor. Well, Xavier’s death had been downgraded to “illness,” but still…

Storm caught her breath for a second, and Jubilee took the occasion to speak up. “I know, and I plan to make everything right.”

“But where were you? What did you think you were doing?”

This was the hardest part of the interview, but Jubilee knew she just had to stay firm. “I can’t tell you.”

“Now listen, young lady, you are my responsibility; you are my student. You can’t just assign yourself missions and wander off —”

Jubilee interrupted. “I know. And it won’t happen again.” Her back was aching from sitting up straight like a good girl. She let herself slump into a more accustomed posture. “You know that usually I’m ready to do anything you say. You’re my boss, and that’s fine. But just this one time, I needed to take care of some personal business. Once and for all.”

“But how can I trust you in the field? How can I trust you to train new team members?”

“Because you can. You know that.” Storm was finally really looking at her, not just bawling out a rule-breaking kid. Jubilee decided to up the ante. “Look, I saw some of the video footage from Alcatraz. My new X-Men weren’t exactly bad, but they need some whipping into shape. And we have to reintegrate John into the team.”

“John Allerdyce is not an X-Man.”

“But he’s back now!”

“And leaving soon. I’m not opening any positions for members of Magneto’s Brotherhood.”

Jubilee was about to argue, but she could tell from the set of Storm’s lips that pressing the point would only hurt her cause. She’d have to be patient. She sat silently while Storm drummed her nails on Scott’s old desk.

“We’re in a difficult situation,” Storm told her at last, and Jubilee could feel the shift, that she was being taken back into the inner circle. “Hank has been negotiating with the government, and it looks like we’ll be able to continue as a school, and probably as team. But we’ll need approval for any missions.”

Jubilee was outraged. “But what if it’s an emergency? ‘Excuse me, Uncle Sam, they’re killing some mutants in Texas; may we go and help? Pretty please?’”

Storm nodded coldly. “Yes, and they’ll promise to get back to us in three days. Furthermore, we’ll probably be sent on special missions by the government. I don’t know if we’ll be able to refuse.”

Jubilee blinked and fell silent. She looked around the room. Ororo had brought in a dozen of her plants, but the office was still largely Scott’s. His meticulous bookshelves were still filled with his books. On top of one sat his baseball glove. But the desk that he had always kept so spotless was a tangled mess of Storm’s unprocessed papers. “Things sure have changed,” Jubilee murmured.

Storm managed a half smile. “They sure have, girl.”

John, Peter and Kitty were waiting for her in the library, John and Peter reading, Kitty apparently practicing knots with a length of rope. “That’ll come in handy if we have to become pirates,” Jubilee said as she entered and flopped down on a couch.

“How did it go?” Peter asked.

“We’re golden. Practice resumes tomorrow at 7 a.m. Don’t be late.”

Kitty tucked her rope in her pocket and came to sit by Jubilee on the couch. “Really? She’s not suspending you or anything? Wow, you may be the only person who can charm Ms. Monroe.”

“What can I say? She needs me.” She sat up. “And so do you, you knuckleheads. I’ve been watching video of the Alcatraz mission. Peter, you seem to have a knack for putting yourself in the worst strategic positions. Kitty, some guy was firing particle weapons, and you totally forgot that you can disable electronics by phasing through them.” Kitty and Peter looked abashed. “And Allerdyce…”

John looked up from his book. “Speakest thou to me, o strident bawd?”

“Since when did you forget everything we practiced? Turning your flame up to 10 isn’t the only maneuver you know! Or was that just a lovers’ quarrel?”

John smirked and put his head back in his book, saying, “Methinks the lady hath her period.”

Jubilee flipped him the bird and asked, “Where is Bobby anyway?”

John sighed and closed the book, sitting up. “I sent him back to his room to lie down. He’s still kind of groggy.”

“He gonna be okay?”

“Yes,” John replied with a tone that said, stop asking.

Kitty turned to her. “So, fearless leader, maybe it’s time you told us how you spent your vacation. Did it have anything to do with the return of one Cassius Kwan?”

Jubilee kept herself calm, made her face betray nothing. “No comment,” she said. “And Sam! Is he part of the team now? He’s walking around with some fancy X pin.”

Peter nodded. “Just turned 18, eager as hell. If I tell him practice is at seven, he’ll be there at six.”

“How are the two hotheads going to get along?” Kitty asked, indicating John. She had begun tying her knots again, this time practicing the slippage of a hitch on her wrist. “Sam and John are liable to turn on each other during a mission.”

Jubilee answered, “Well, for now Storm’s not letting Magneto’s number two go on any missions.”

John’s face turned to stone. He stood up, tucking his book under his arm. “Well then, I’ll just fuck right off.” He started for the door.

“I’ll fix it, John.” Jubilee said. “Wait for me; I want to walk with you. Tomorrow morning, everyone.”

She and John walked in silence, and by some unspoken agreement, headed for Jubilee’s room.

She took her black fedora with the yellow band off a hook on the wall and dusted it with care. “I don’t know… I half expected my stuff to be gone when I got back.”

“Come on,” John laughed. “None of the Girl Scouts around here would have touched it.”

“No, I mean… It’s dumb. It’s like I was prepared to lose my place here to do what I had to do.”

“Which was…?” he prompted.

She wanted to tell him. It was a pretty great story, full of detective work, action, near fatal encounters, and eventual triumph. But something was stopping her. Telling it would reduce it to some thrill ride. She knew she would have to process all the things she did — and some of them didn’t sit right with her own morals — in the months to come. Besides, John was on her team, and she was his leader. It wasn’t his job to listen to her troubles.

So she ignored the question and sat down beside him. “So, you and Bobby going to make it work this time?”

John gave a shuddery sigh. “I sure as fuck hope so. He’s changed. We both have.”

“Think Rogue’s going to come back?”

“God, that’s a fucking depressing question. But he told the whole school about us! Remember how scared he was to come out before? It’s got to count for something.”

“John, what really happened to the two of you in San Francisco?”

“You don’t want to know, trust me.”

“You’re wrong; I do. It’s not going to help, keeping it locked up inside you!”

His eyes grew hard. “Is that why you wanted to talk to me? You just trying to get caught up on all the gossip? Or maybe you’re making sure we’re not a danger to your team.” He stood and walked to the door, stiff as a soldier. “This story’s not yours, Jubilee. It’s mine. Mine and Bobby’s. We’ll work it out for ourselves. Got it?”

She knew she didn’t have the right to be, but she was royally pissed. “Fine, wallow in your own shit. You’re so fucking stubborn!”

“Says the Queen of Stubborn Island,” he snapped. The slam of the door reverberated in her head like a bell tolling, “fail, fail, fail.” She lay down on her bed and didn’t move until the details of the room vanished in the gathering darkness. She sat up and dug in the side pocket of her cargo pants for her phone.

He answered on the second ring. “Hello? Jubilee is that you?”

“Hey, Mike,” she said and found herself grinning, imagining Mike Haddad’s eyes, his pierced eyebrow, his warm olive skin. “Just thought I’d give you a call. Guess you heard I was, uh, missing.”

“No, no I didn’t. I’ve been busy. Kind of out of touch with the mansion. Missing? Everything okay?”

She laughed, and she wondered if it sounded as false to him as it did to her. “You know me! I always come out on top. Yeah, Mike… To be honest, it was actually pretty serious. It was about my parents’ murder. I thought maybe… I could talk to you about it?” Her chest felt all spongy, her head full of acid cotton. Was there anyone else other than Mike she could trust to hear her talk like this? So full of doubt and need?

But he said, “Oh. Look, Jubes, maybe another time, but I’m just waiting for my… for a friend here. Sorry. I’m moving to California in two days. I’m going to be an intern at the mutant center in Berkeley!”

Jubilee felt her throat closing up, but she forced the words out. “Oh wow, that’s great! I was just in L.A.”

“Oh yeah? Anyway, there’s so much to do, and Twitch and I don’t have much time together before —”

“Oh, that’s okay! I totally understand. Call me when you’re settled in Berkeley.” She was suddenly desperate to hang up.

“Are you really okay? You sound kind of… We could talk until she gets here.”

“No, I’m fine! You know me, I just wanted to show off as usual. Hey, bon voyage, guy!”

She hung up, breathing hard. The tears squeezed out of her almost painfully. She threw the phone to the floor and it bounced and rolled across the carpet as she curled up on the bed, weeping, thinking about the future. Storm, Xavier, even Scott in his way. They were loners. What was the price of being a leader? Doomed to always be alone?

 

***

 

Bobby awoke as the door opened. “Johnny? Is that you?”

“Shit, I didn’t mean to wake you up. I’ll leave.”

“No, come here, lie down with me. Ugh, I had this horrible dream.”

“What was it about?”

“I’m not sure. I was in this box. They were poking at me with sticks. Maybe it was a cage. And I needed to get out, but I knew — okay, this is weird — I knew I wasn’t real. And I had to get out of the cage or I’d be, uh, not real forever, right? It was so fucking scary.”

“How you feeling now?”

“Like this.”

“Oh. Nice. Heh. But we better not. You need to rest.”

“No, I need this. I need it now. Here.”

“Bobby, I want to so much, but… you’re really tight, man.”

“I don’t care! Do it. Do it hard. Please, Johnny! Maybe I haven’t woken up, ’cause I still feel like I don’t exist! Like there’s no substance, like I’m going to float away. Hold me down. Go as deep as you can. I don’t care if it hurts! Please, make me real again…”

 

***

 

It was two more days before Bobby finally found the nerve to go upstairs and see them. John accompanied him as far as the door, but at the last minute refused to go in. Bobby knocked twice, and then turned the handle and entered. Xavier’s suite had been transformed into a hospital ward for the two men. Emma had said she wanted them kept separate from any other patients — meaning him and John. Bobby knew it was also about secrecy. Magneto was a fugitive, and Charles Xavier was officially dead.

The overhead lights were off, the curtains drawn, and the dark room was broken into islands of light where the lamps were turned on. Ms. Frost was standing beside the Professor’s bed and checking his IV. He appeared to be unconscious. Bobby was still surprised every time he saw the man’s new body.

Emma’s voice sounded loud in the stillness. “Good morning, Mr. Drake. You’re sure you’re ready for this?”

Bobby wasn’t sure, but he knew it was up to him to make the gesture. “If you think it’s safe.” Bobby was suddenly aware of a hissing sound. He looked deeper into the room and saw Magneto, sitting half-slumped in a wheelchair, hooked up to an IV, breathing through a ventilator.

“Don’t worry. Charles is in a much more stable frame of mind today.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “He’s ready for you. Don’t worry; I’ll be watching.”

“What should I do?”

“Touch the horse,” she said, indicating the chestnut brown porcelain statue on the table. Bobby reached out his hand reluctantly and closed his eyes as his hand met the cool, smooth surface.

 

“Hello, Robert,” the Professor says, and he looks again like he has in all the years Bobby has known him, sitting in his familiar, high-tech wheelchair. They are still in the front room of his suite, but the curtains are drawn and dust motes dance in the sunlight. Bobby looks around for Magneto and sees him sitting by the window, staring out. He is no longer in a wheelchair, not hooked up to machines, looking as potent and intimidating as he had in the past. Emma Frost is nowhere to be seen, but Bobby knows she is around.

“I don’t think Erik will join us today,” Xavier says. “Please, sit down.”

Bobby sits on one of the antique armchairs. He has a creepy sense of disconnectedness, no matter how genuine the fabric feels. “Is this real?” he asks.

“As near as possible,” Xavier answers with a smile. “You may, in fact, be sitting on that chair in the real world, but your senses are experiencing only the duplicate chair that I have created in my mind.”

“Weird,” Bobby says, and decides that it’s easier to just accept the reality at face value. Still, he can’t bring himself to take a biscuit from the tray beside him.

Xavier leans forward in his wheelchair. “Robert, I asked you here to offer you an apology. I was… not myself in San Francisco. Adjusting to my new body has been a challenge, and I became confused.”

Bobby nods. “Did it have something to do with Magneto?”

“I believe so, yes. With my confusion and Erik’s physical distress, I lost perspective on my own reality.” He looks back at Magneto, who is still staring out the window. “We are old friends. It was too easy for me to forget where I ended and he began.”

What Bobby really wants to ask is if they were lovers, but he can’t think of a way to phrase it that doesn’t seem rude. Instead he says, “Yeah, I think I understand what that’s like. Are you two going to stay here? In this, you know, this telepath room?”

“It is tempting — living in a world of one’s own creation, half nostalgia, half idealization. But Emma has helped me a great deal, and I believe I’m ready to begin rejoining the world.”

Bobby finds some comfort in that. Even if he looks different, it will bring some normality to the mansion to have the Professor back. “And what about Magneto?”

“Erik has been severely disabled by the cure sickness. Sadly, his symptoms are at the more critical end of the spectrum.” He grows quiet for a moment and Bobby imagines how hard it would be if John were sick like that. “We will begin his rehabilitation right away, but I think I’ll bring us back here for an hour or two a day for some respite. So we can feel… normal.”

“That sounds like a good idea. And you’re rebuilding Cerebro?”

“Yes. I’ll need Erik’s help for that. And Forge will be lending us his talents, too. We need Cerebro so we can continue to locate and help mutants.”

“Rogue’s still missing,” Bobby says, and the Professor nods.

Just then a crease appears in the air, and when it smoothes out, John is standing beside them. Bobby jumps up. “Hey, I thought you didn’t want to —”

“Changed my mind. Bobby, you done chatting? ’Cause I want a few words with Charles.”

Bobby shakes the Professor’s hand, smiling. “It’s glad you’re feeling better, sir. Uh, how do I get out of here?”

“Just take a deep breath and close your eyes.”

On impulse, Bobby grabs one of the biscuits before following the instructions. He and the biscuit vanish.

Xavier indicates the chair Bobby has just vacated. “Won’t you have a seat, John?”

“No thanks. I don’t want to get the fantasy furniture dirty.” He eyes Xavier carefully, as if he’ll see through the illusion, but the man, the room — it all seems real. As real as the camp did. “I don’t know what I want to say to you. Part of me still wants to tear you apart, to do things to you they did to us in your little hall of horrors.” It feels both good and wrong to speak like this to his old teacher, to make him cringe.

But Xavier’s voice does not waver as he answers. “If I could undo what was done, I would. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, John. We cannot change the past; we have no choice but to move forward. I think your request of Emma to erase Bobby’s memory was both correct and compassionate. I admire your maturity. It has been hard-won.”

“Well, don’t take any credit for it. I did it myself.”

Xavier seems about to speak, but he just sighs. They lapse into uneasy silence. John becomes aware of the ticking clock on the wall, hears the furniture creak in the dry winter air. He wonders if beyond the door of the suite, he would find a simulacrum of the school, or if the mansion would be as it was when Xavier was a boy. John knows how your childhood home can live on in your mind.

“I read your book,” Xavier suddenly says and John stops himself from asking what he wants to ask. But Xavier knows, and tells him, “I enjoyed it very much. I was pleased that you eschewed cleverness for truth of feeling, and how you opened your heart for your readers.” John finds he is holding his breath. Xavier smiles at him. “I hope you will forgive me saying this, but I was proud of you.”

John can’t look at him. He has no acceptable outlet for all he is feeling. He looks up at Erik, sitting by the window. “I’m going to talk to him,” he says, and walks deeper into the room. On the table beside Lehnsherr are blueprints labeled “Cerebro II” as well as pages and pages of technical notes in the man’s precise German-schoolboy hand. John has always loved Erik’s handwriting. “Magneto,” he says loudly, and then more gently when the man doesn’t react, “Erik, it’s me, John Allerdyce.”

Magneto’s voice is surprisingly strong. “I know who you are, Pyro. And if you’re going to treat me like an invalid, you might as well leave.” He continues to stare through the window.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” John sing-songs acidly. “I forgot; you’re always master of your domain. Even if it’s a fake room inside Charlie’s head where you’re not just an old cripple.”

Surprisingly, Magneto laughs. “You never fail to amuse, young man. That’s what they all think of me, you know. Powerless, old, disabled. But as usual, they underestimate Erik Lehnsherr.”

John doesn’t know how to react to this. Mostly it seems pathetic, but part of him feels a tiny twist of fear, as if the man were about to rise and tear the mansion apart with a wave of his hand. He comes around behind him and looks out the window. He is not altogether surprised to see the outer fences of the mutant work camp, Wolverine’s skeleton still stretched above the gate. Prisoners, their faces pale and hopeless, stare through the wire fence at them.

He says to Magneto, “What do you see?”

“Auschwitz,” the man answers.

 

***

 

Part II: February

“That was bullshit,” Jubilee said angrily as soon as they climbed down from the plane. “We didn’t even know who we were fighting!” The four of them began walking across the echoing hangar, away from the borrowed Worthington Industries jet, toward the change rooms.

Bobby looked back nervously, hoping Storm and Beast hadn’t heard. But they were still on board the plane, and so was eager-beaver Sam, who had spent the whole flight from Central America rehashing the best, bloodiest moments of the battle.

“Seriously,” Kitty said as she dug in her uniform for her phone. “Were we even there to protect mutants, or were we just fighting some drug cartel for the DEA?” She pushed buttons on her phone and shouted happily, “Hey, Warren’s going to be here tomorrow!”

Peter seemed to ignore that piece of information, returning to the subject of the mission. “I guess we just have trust the government to use us for the best purposes.”

Jubilee guffawed. “Seriously? You trust them?”

“Do we have a choice?” he answered.

As they removed and stowed their uniforms in the men’s locker room, Bobby said, “The girls kind of have a point, Peter. Are we going to do just anything we’re asked to? What if we think it’s wrong?”

“Storm and Beast are trying to win us more autonomy, Bobby. In the meantime, we have to support them and do as we’re told.”

Bobby was still getting used to everyone knowing he was gay. Even though Peter seemed entirely at ease getting naked in front of him as they headed for the showers, Bobby found himself going to ridiculous lengths to look away from his teammate’s body so he wouldn’t think he was checking him out. In general, everyone seemed fine with his coming out, though some of the girls were put out on Rogue’s behalf. His roommate, Kevin, was a little bit too pleased when asked if he would move out of their room so John could move back in. The 15 year-old flinched away when Bobby tried to touch him in even the most casual way.

“Closet case,” John had concluded, a bit too easily. He sat on his newly reclaimed bed and watched Bobby folding clothes into his backpack.

Bobby said, “I’m worried people are going to hassle you while I’m away.”

“You’re only going to be gone for 24 hours, Bobby! It’s been almost two months. I’m winning everyone over bit by bit.”

“With your undeniable charm.”

“Exactly. And, hey, it’s me that should be worried about you. Last time you visited your folks, they called the cops on us.”

Bobby laughed. “Don’t worry. The X-Men are civil servants now. My parents will be totally happy I found steady work in this economy.” He checked again for his ID before he zipped up the bag and put it by the door. The residents of the mansion were now technically allowed to leave the grounds, but the army sentries at the gate still had the right to detain anyone at their discretion. “Okay, wish me luck and kiss me goodbye.”

John kissed him deeply and then pushed him away. “Wow! Twenty-four hours without you bugging me to change my shorts, or telling me again how James Cameron is a genius! Paradise!”

After Bobby left, John headed down to the cafeteria. He spotted Jones showing his classmates a kid’s electronic alphabet game which seemed to be displaying stock market data. John whispered in his ear, and Jones rolled his eyes and said, too loud, “I told you I’d get it and I will!” John said a simple thank you and spent the lunch hour using a book to deflect conversation.

He sat on his bed after lunch, forcing himself to breathe slowly and evenly, keeping his mind in neutral, though it wanted to fly apart like a frog in a propeller. Half an hour later, there was a knock on the door and Jones entered without being invited in.

“Guess that means you’re not a vampire, after all,” John said.

Jones always ignored things he didn’t understand. “Okay, here it is.” He handed John a scratched and banged-up cell phone that was held together with what looked like medical tape. “It’s already programmed in. Speed dial #5.”

“Was it hard to find her number?”

Jones just looked annoyed at the question. “Even if the FBI is watching her line — which Doug thinks is likely — they won’t be able to trace the call.”

“Awesome.”

Jones suddenly got more animated. “Actually, that phone was once used by the FBI to remotely blow up a van. Cool, huh? I found it on eBay.”

Soon John was sitting alone again, this time staring at the phone in his hand. What had been meditative calm before was now catatonia. “Fuck,” he muttered and pushed the speed dial.

“Hello?”

Her voice was too real to be just a voice. It was like a slab of raw meat had jumped out of the earpiece and slapped him in the face. It sounded strange, foreign, like a trick. At the same time, it was as familiar as breathing.

“Hello?” she said again, and he could hear her breathing. She knew it wasn’t just a wrong number — he could tell. She had been waiting for this moment. For how long? Years? “Johnny, is that you?”

And still he couldn’t speak. He didn’t even have unspoken words trapped behind an unwilling tongue. He was just empty.

“Please, Johnny, say something.”

“Hey, Mom,” he managed in a breathless rasp. Then he cleared his throat loudly and spoke as if his heart weren’t pounding, “How’s it going, Sally?”

She was already crying. Shit. Couldn’t she have waited until he actually said something? Did his very existence have to break her heart?

“Oh, Johnny. I’m so glad to hear your voice. You don’t know what it’s been like! I see you on the news. They say terrible things about you.”

“Yup, mom. I’m the mutant terrorist you’ve heard so much about. Maybe you’d be better off pretending I’m dead.”

“Don’t say that! You’re my son, Johnny, I worry about you! How could I not? I pray for your safety every day, Jelly Bean.” And that wasn’t fair, using childhood nicknames on him. Not fair at all.

“Well, just don’t tell anyone you talked to me, or you’ll have to pray for your Jelly Bean from jail.” She cried quietly and he gritted his teeth. What an idiot he was. What a mistake! He thought about just hanging up. Push one button, and all this misery just vanishes! But he couldn’t do it. She would have to hang up first. “Look, Sally, don’t you have to get going? If you don’t make his lunch on time, he might show you the back of his hand.”

“What? Oh, Johnny, you don’t think I’m still with Richard, do you?”

And that stopped him cold. Richard. He had forgotten the monster even had a real name. Of course she was still with him! In John’s mind, they were eternally frozen in their little melodrama of hate and violence, in that cramped apartment — forever and ever. Otherwise, what was he running away from? “Cut the crap, Sally! You didn’t leave him. You aren’t strong enough.”

“Yes, John, I threw him out!” And in that second, as she spoke without apology, he remembered his mother from the days when they were alone, how she could be strong, even thrillingly angry. All these years, he had only remembered the scared woman cowering in the shadow of the abuser.

“When?” he said, his voice full of stones.

“As soon as you ran away. He made my son leave me!”

John wanted to scream. “That’s a touching story, Sally, but what about all those years when he was beating the crap out of your son while you peeled potatoes in the next room?!”

There was silence from the other end of the phone, and John suddenly panicked, thinking he had made her hang up after all. He said in a small voice, “Mom? You there?”

“John, there’s nothing I can say that can make up for what I did to you. Believe me, if I could have stopped him, I would have. I-I just hope you understand how confused I was in those years.”

Again, his anger flared. Her excuse sounded maddeningly like Xavier’s. I was confused, I didn’t realize what I was doing. I was too in love with some man to realize what was happening to you.

“Whatever,” he said, fighting back tears. “Hey, swell to hear your voice. Leave your number with my press agent and she’ll send out an autographed glossy. I gotta go.”

“Please, Johnny! When can I talk to you again?!”

Never! he thought. When I’ve turned to ice like Bobby does! When it doesn’t hurt this much.

His voice shook a bit as he asked, “Are you still at the same place? At our apartment?”

“No. I think they tore the house down.”

“Give me your number,” he said.

“But you called me. Don’t you have —”

“Just… give it to me.” She dictated a phone number and he wrote it in his notebook, right under an epigram he’d composed for his new novel: The brightest lamp cannot illuminate your way if your eyes are closed.

Speaking was hard, like lifting boulders. “I’ll call you, okay Mom? Give me… give me two months.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yeah, for what that’s worth.”

“I believe you, Johnny,” she said. “I believe in you.”

 

***

 

The man was making them wait, like he was the President, or Jack Nicholson or something.

“I’ll see where he is,” Kitty said and slipped from the music room, closing the door behind her.

Peter waited for her to leave before he stood up and said with a fairly definitive air, “I don’t have to time for this; I have tests to grade. And I don’t trust Warren. Sorry, but he seems to think that he can rewrite the rules around here just because he’s giving us a lot of money and equipment.”

Without looking up from his book, John said, “That’s how it usually works, Pete.”

Jubilee wasn’t sure why Worthington had asked them to meet today, but she was definitely curious about it. “Please, Peter,” she said. “Let’s hear what he has to say.” Peter sat back down. He pulled out a stack of junior physics tests and resumed his grading.

Jubilee felt nervous, excited, ready for something to come along and kick over the fucked-up status quo of the school and the X-Men. Sure, she had promised Storm she’d toe the line, but the line kept moving, and its position wasn’t under Storm’s control. She looked at John, lying on his stomach on the couch, reading a slim, well-worn hardcover. “What’s got you so engrossed, Allerdyce?”

John held up the book. “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I don’t get this new obsession. I thought you hated Shakespeare.”

“I’ve forgiven him for what he did to me in the past.” He opened the book again and buried his nose in it. “But I wish he would give up on the puns. He’s worse than an eight year old with a riddle book.”

The door opened and Bobby appeared. “Knock, knock,” he said, looking around. “I got a text from Kitty that we were meeting here.”

From the door, Bobby couldn’t see John, and he looked kind of spooked when his boyfriend leaped up and over the back of the couch to sweep him up in a hug.

“Wow,” Bobby grinned over John’s shoulder. “That’s how everyone should be greeted when they enter a room.”

Jubilee watched with suspicion at the uncharacteristic display of affection. But no, there didn’t seem to be any sarcastic zinger waiting at the end.

“You okay?” John asked, running affectionate fingers through Bobby’s hair. “Your family didn’t grind you into Bobby bits?”

“No, they were okay. We talked a lot, but we didn’t say much, you know?”

“I’m glad you’re back.” John kissed him and Jubilee saw that Bobby was just as surprised as she was. Something was up with John and not knowing what it was made her itchy.

“Damn it!” Peter snapped.

Was everyone weird today? It wasn’t like the man to swear. “What’s wrong?” Jubilee asked.

“Pen’s dead,” he muttered, shaking it like he was throttling a chicken.

She got up with a grunt. “Okay, don’t pop a rivet, I’ll check Pryde’s bag. She’s usually good for supplies.”

Kitty had lately taken to carrying a big red leather carry-all. It was sitting on the floor by her chair, and Jubilee began digging. “Here’s all her rope. That’s a weirder obsession than Shakespeare.” She resumed her search. “Okay, what?” She held up a pack of clothespins for John to see.

John jumped off the couch and hurried over. “Oh, this is getting good; keep going.”

Jubilee looked around the room. Bobby’s eyes were saying, “Huh? What?”

Peter gave her his preacher’s-son face and said, “Put Kitty’s bag down, Jubilee. I don’t need the pen.”

But it was too late, because her hand had been digging of its own accord, and it suddenly found something that felt very strange indeed. She gave a quick glance toward the door, and she must have been a good team leader, because Bobby closed it immediately. She lifted out the object. The shiny black dildo she could identify, but the rest of the gear…?

John screamed and hugged himself. “Fuckwow! It’s a strap-on! Oh my god, Worthington and Pryde are playing Bend Over Billionaire. And here I thought Hippolyta and the donkey was kinky!”

Peter stood up, stammering in his fury. “Jubilee! You have no right to-to invade her privacy like that!”

Jubilee gathered up the kinky paraphernalia and tucked it back in. It was like when she was 13 and had to return her aunt’s overstocked medicine cabinet to normal after raiding it. “Relax, Pete, it was all an accident. She’ll never know.”

Peter shook his head, blushing hotly, gathering up his papers. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this. Tell Warren I’m sorry, but —”

The door swung open again and Kitty came in, smiling broadly, with Warren following her. He was wearing a beautifully-tailored suit in hunter green, open at the neck. The suit was fashioned to let his wings free in the back. “Hi, I’m glad you were all able to make it. Please sit down. I won’t take up too much of your time.”

Jubilee watched Peter mulling this over before resuming his seat in the easy chair. John and Bobby went to sit on one couch, John sliding under Bobby’s arm, while Kitty joined Jubilee on the other couch with an expectant grin on her face.

Warren stood before them, looking calm and confident. “I have a proposal to make to the five of you. Please hear me out and then you can ask any questions you might have. The recent disastrous roll-out of the cure was an object lesson in how the future of mutant relations might look in this country. It’s not that the cure was wrong in and of itself — whether we in this room like it or not, there might be some mutants who would seek such a course.”

“That would be good for your personal fortune,” John said.

Kitty shot him an angry look. “Can we hear Warren out, please?”

But Warren didn’t look offended. “That’s true, John. I see you’re reading Midsummer Night’s Dream. Well, this ‘wing’d cupid’ isn’t ‘painted blind.’ As I was saying, the problem is not with new technology per se. The problem is that America can’t decide if mutants are fellow citizens or enemy invaders. The X-Men were poised to become our best defenders against outlaw threats, as well as those posed by our own government and military. Now, for all intents and purposes, the X-Men are done.”

Although they had all been saying virtually the same thing for a month, hearing an outsider say it got Jubilee’s hackles up. “We’re still here, Worthington. We’re still fighting.”

“But only when the fight is approved by forces beyond your control. Face it, you’re no more than field operatives now. Of the Army? The CIA? Do you even know for sure?”

Jubilee and the others shared looks. Only Peter remained stony faced, staring coldly at Warren.

“John was the first among you to see some disturbing documents: anti-mutant research briefs. Weapons, biochemicals, detention centers… I can tell you that bidding on those contracts has already begun. Mutant Containment is the hot new buzzword in the defense industry. I’m ashamed to say that my father’s company is trying to get a piece of the action.”

Peter said, “Can you blame the government for wanting defensive weapons capable of stopping a Magneto? But there are laws on the books to protect law-abiding mutants from excesses.”

Kitty responded, sharp as a machete, “Where were those laws when mutants were being held without due process last summer? Who gets to define who is a good mutant and who’s a bad one?” Her voice was rising. “The cure was being secretly weaponized from day one, Peter. Dr. McCoy was Secretary of Mutant Affairs and they even kept him in the dark!”

“Are they building Sentinels?” John asked quietly, and Jubilee heard the note of worry in his voice. Almost like he’d met Sentinels himself.

Warren paused — and it might have just been for dramatic effect, but it worked. “They’re beginning the R&D process. Secret labs across the country, some overseas. The nerve center is in the Los Angeles area.”

This silenced them. Jubilee found herself already inventing strategies for fighting giant laser-equipped robots. She could already see how she would deploy the team. “And what are we going to do about it?” she asked.

“I need a secret team of mutant operatives working on the West Coast. The X-Men just don’t have the autonomy for this kind of mission anymore. I want you five to join me.”

Jubilee felt something rise in her. She had been expecting some offer of employment — maybe as fancy bodyguards — but the idea of fighting against the bastards who wanted to crush them? She liked that a lot.

Warren continued. “I know this isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Let me tell you a bit more. We wouldn’t be seeing action for at least four months. At this stage, I’m better off with my intelligence team doing the research. But I want you in L.A. within six weeks, training. I will pay for apartments, give you a fair salary and benefits. If any of you are thinking of going to college, my company can help subsidize your studies.”

Without hesitation, John said, “I’m in.”

Bobby turned to him in shock. “Wait a sec, John, let’s think about this! We can’t just walk out on Storm and Beast now. Or the Professor!”

John crossed his arms over his chest. “Look, Bobby, you might have a future here, but Storm’s been anxious to get rid of me since I got back. And even if I could stay, I’m a fucking prisoner! I can’t even go out in the grounds or show my face at the window in case there’s some surveillance camera watching! I want a chance to have a life, do something useful.”

Peter stood up. “No, Bobby’s right. We owe this place too much to walk out just when things are tough. This is more than just our school. They taught us to use our powers, to be proud of who we are.”

Kitty was angry. “That’s what schools do, Peter! And then you graduate and leave. And we’ve already given back. I’ve taught here, I’ve fought with the X-Men. We all deferred going to college so we could fight Magneto! Is it wrong if we want to grow up?”

Peter looked pained. “Do what you have to do. I have my own ideas of loyalty, and I can’t be part of this.” He turned and walked out, the door clicking behind him with a wrenching finality. They all looked at each other.

Warren said, “What about you, Jubilee? I’m planning to make you team leader. I set our agenda and choose our missions, but out in the field, we all follow your lead.”

She kept her cool, even though she wanted to jump up and cheer. But she could see Worthington already knew her answer “What the fuck, let’s do it.”

“Bobby?” Warren said. “I saw what you could do on Alcatraz. I could really use your talents.”

“He’s in,” John said.

Bobby pulled away from him. “Don’t answer for me!” John gave him a look, and Bobby stammered, “But yeah, I’m in.” He smiled shyly.

Kitty jumped up and gave her own personal angel a hug and kiss. Jubilee had a sudden, and unwelcome image in her head of Kitty in her X-Men uniform, wearing the strap-on. Warren grinned at them all and his wings rippled. For the first time in the meeting, it felt like he was letting his true personality shine through. “This is excellent! You guys won’t regret it! I’ll have the contracts ready for you in the morning. By the way, we’ll be calling our group The Champions!”

“The Champions, huh? Not ‘Bottom’s Dream’?” John smirked, and Bobby had a coughing fit.

 

***

 

Part III: March

“No, it’s clear from these papers that we haven’t taught wave/particle duality as well as we might have,” Xavier said, and Peter made a note in his book. “Is it just me, or do you find it cold in here?”

“Should I turn on the space heater, Charles?” Peter asked, beginning to stand.

“No, no, I’ll put on my cardigan.”

Xavier looked at the big man, almost saying, Go out West with your friends. You don’t have to be my nursemaid. There are so many frontiers for you to explore! But truth be told, he was grateful for Peter’s decision. Lord knew they needed him, both at the school and on the team. “Anyway, if you could do a review of the subject on Tuesday, I would be grateful.” He looked out the window at the threatening skies. Would it snow again? “Emma still hasn’t decided whether to stay and join us. If she does, we’ll be absorbing the students from her academy.”

“Adding ten more psionics to the student body will be… interesting,” Peter said diplomatically.

Xavier smiled. “It will certainly keep us on our toes. Whether she stays or not, with the new team members we’ve already recruited, the X-Men will be a most effective unit. I think you’ll find it a stimulating mix of personalities.”

Both men returned to their grading. Xavier felt much more stable than he had three months earlier when he’d first occupied this body. His control over his telepathy had grown sufficiently that he could let part of himself “wander” in the way he used to, keeping half an ethereal eye on the comings and goings of his beloved children. He felt something happening out front and, with a pang, rose and walked to the window.

“They’re leaving, Peter. Did you say goodbye? You can go out if you want.”

“No, I talked to them at lunch. I…” he was at a loss for words, and Xavier could feel the ache that filled his big chest. “I don’t really like all those goodbyes. Reminds me of a deathbed scene.”

Xavier chuckled, and then sighed. “It will be strange without them. But that’s a teacher’s life, isn’t it? Forever saying goodbye and good luck.” He felt another familiar presence outside his door. He could sense that she was hesitant to knock, unsure how’d she react to him in his new body. “Peter, if you wouldn’t mind. Open the door for my guest and leave us for a few minutes.”

Peter opened the door and greeted Andi Murakami who stepped in nervously as he left. She looked around the room as if it, too might have changed along with Charles’ body.

“Hello, Andi,” he said heartily. “Won’t you please have a seat? He indicated a pair of chairs by the boarded-up fire place, and she took one, almost tripping on the carpet in her nervousness. He rose from his desk and her eyes went wide to see him walking. Feeling puckish, he did a little soft-shoe for her before sitting down in the other chair. He said, “It’s wonderful to see you.”

“And you, Charles. I mean… It’s truly amazing.”

“And you don’t quite believe it. Don’t worry, I’ve grown used to that reaction.”

Her hands fiddled with the upholstery piping. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend you!”

He smiled and put a hand on hers, as he used to. “Don’t let this young body fool you; I’m still a tough old bird.” He could feel something shift in her mood, as she came to accept he was who he said. Good. The more closed-minded never quite got there. “I apologize for the clandestine nature of this meeting. But you must understand, I was legally declared dead, my body verified by authorities and planted in the earth. Now, I can be Charles Xavier only to my friends.”

“That must be awful! You were such a respected man!”

“Actually, it’s rather liberating. A chance to begin again without so much of the old baggage. And believe me, much nicer things are said about me now than when I was alive!” They laughed together at that. “I understand you’ll be defending your thesis soon.”

“Yes, it’s finally scheduled for next month. After your… death, they had a lot of trouble finding a defense committee. But Charles! The most remarkable things are happening. Johns Hopkins has offered me a position. Can you believe that? Before I even graduate!”

“My dear, you are in the right place at the right time. I know Michael Terriedale in the Medical School. He’s been most anxious for his school to become the leading center in the study of mutant physiology.”

“And psychology! Bizarre as it sounds, I’m a leader in that field. I got there before anyone else, thanks to you.”

“What did I tell you — was it four years ago? If you acted quickly, you could make a name for yourself.”

“You did. You were most persuasive, too. Sometimes I felt like I was being taken by a very experienced con artist.”

He put a hand to his chest in mock offense. “My dear!”

“Well, it certainly hasn’t been boring.” He saw her eyes grow moist. From her mind floated images of Jean, Scott, and himself before his death. He took her hand again and gave it a fond squeeze. She smiled and said, “Thank you.”

He took back his hand, straightened his cardigan and said, “Yes, well, I think I should take a little time and make sure you’re ready for that defense!”

 

***

 

John tossed his suitcase into the back of the Beemer SUV and leaned against the vehicle, watching Bobby coming and going through the front door of the mansion with bag after bag, plus a bunch of taped-up boxes full of his junk. The driver Warren had sent was starting to look worried, and John watched him silently sizing up the growing pile against the available space.

“Jesus Christ, Drake,” Jubilee said passing him on the steps. “Even my three suitcases made me feel too girly. What is all this crap?”

“I’ve been here longer than you!” Bobby objected. He looked down at the pile, paused and then ran back inside in a panic.

Jubilee came to stand by John. “He’s probably packing his bed.”

“Sentimental value,” John explained. He looked up at the old building, sitting solid and silent in the damp late-winter air and thought about the value of sentiment. The snow was gone, leaving the grounds muddy and brown. Faces kept appearing and disappearing at classroom windows, watching three members of their community get ready to depart.  Some were envious, but he knew some saw it as another betrayal, this time by Bobby and Kitty, fixtures from the day the school opened. Get over it, people, he wanted to shout. Nothing lasts forever.

But he knew he wasn’t immune to sentiment. He had to admit it: no matter the pain he had felt here, no matter the circumstances of his leaving, the house that Xavier built had been his first and truest refuge. It was the place where he could be a mutant, be a writer, find out how to really love. On the whole, he would miss the old pile of bricks.

Jubilee was shifting from foot to foot, drumming on the door of the car. She checked the time on her phone. “Can we get going already? I feel like a circus freak standing here.”

“Take in the atmosphere, sister; even if you do come back here, it’ll never be the same.”

“Shut up, okay? My mascara’s gonna run.” He saw she was doing the same as him — toughing over her feelings.

Kitty and Doug came outside to stand beside them.

“I’ll see you guys in two weeks after I get my parents sorted out,” she said. “They want me to get my own apartment in LA. They don’t think I should move in with Warren. ‘It’s too early in the relationship, he’s your boss, yadda yadda.’”

John said, “Don’t get yourself tied up in knots about it,” and Jubilee kicked his shoe. He put a hand on Doug’s shoulder. “So, kid, it was nice of you to see us off. Don’t worry; the Titanic is the safest ship on the sea.”

Doug smirked — a smirk John recognized from the mirror. “I wasn’t doing anything special, anyways,” the boy said.

“Where’s Jones?”

“I’m here,” responded a tinny voice. “Hold me up, Doug.”

Doug held up his cell phone and Jones’ face beamed owlishly from the screen.

Kitty said, “You guys come out and visit us, okay?”

Jones snorted. “We’re already out there. We’re Worthington’s intelligence department.”

“That’s a secret, you jerk!” Doug shouted. He snapped the phone closed and pocketed it. “He confuses being a spy with being an attention-whore. It’s a problem.”

Another car pulled into the driveway and Kitty rolled her eyes. “Shit, my parents are already here.” She ran off to greet them.

Jubilee kicked the gravel. “But why are we still here?! Bobby!” she screamed towards the mansion, and at that moment he emerged, carrying his snowboard plus a set of skis and poles. The driver paled a bit and dug in the car for some rope to tie the equipment to the roof rack.

When he and Bobby were done stowing the gear, the driver said, “If that’s everything, I’d like to leave now, if you don’t mind. We’re running late.” He went to the trunk and opened a panel in a box labeled ‘samples.’ “Mr. Allerdyce?” he said, holding open the secret door. John sighed and then gave them a little wave before climbing into the hiding place. As their resident fugitive, he would have to be snuck past the guards at the gate and onto the private jet at the local airport. Just before the darkness closed in on him, he had one last glimpse of the School for Gifted Youngsters.

Graduation day, he thought to himself.

 

***

 

She took to the air when night fell. She didn’t want to be spotted from the ground, so that was when she always traveled. She figured she was too small to be picked up on radar. She wore a face mask and goggles, and layers of thermal clothing against the winter wind. She had a GPS strapped to her wrist and kept an eye on her progress as she approached the coordinates. Then she saw the lights of the great house and began her descent. She was nervous. So much had happened to her, and so much had happened in her absence.

It was a pretty good landing. Sometimes she misjudged and knocked a divot out of the soil; sometimes, she turned off her flight powers while still a foot above the ground. But she was improving. She pulled off the goggles and mask and tucked them into a pocket of her cloak, pulling the hood up over her head. No one was around, which wasn’t surprising, considering it was nine o’clock on a winter’s night. The fresh snow crunched under her feet as she approached the door. A match flared as someone in the shadow of the trees lit a cigarette.

“Who’s there?” she called.

“Henh, I should be h’asking da same ting,” said the unmistakable voice. “You’re da one dat just flew in like H’air Force One.”

“What are you doing here, Gambit?” Rogue asked, not entirely unhappy to see the thief.

“Me? I live ’ere. Just joined da Hex-Men! Dey ran out of honest types so dey called moi.”

Remy gave her a quick rundown on the new arrivals at the mansion, and on the recent departures.

She was reeling a bit from the news that most of the New X-Men were gone. Especially Bobby. She needed to sit. One of the stone benches had tumbled over. As if it weighed nothing, she lifted and righted it, clearing off the snow before she sat down. You didn’t wait for me, Bobby, she thought. She knew their relationship had been fading away, but she had still hoped they might find a way forward together.

Remy came and sat down beside her, closer than politeness would dictate. “À tu froid?” he asked and put a big arm around her shoulder.

His presumption was maddening, but nonetheless it amused her, and she didn’t mind the comfort. She had spent the last two months on an amazing solitary journey around the world, learning to use her new powers. She was also learning to live with two strangers in her head. She had Buster and Boomer’s powers, but also their ghosts. Paradoxically, having a crowd in her head made her feel even more isolated than she had when she was just the girl no one could touch.

Tonight, her mental residents were mercifully quiet. “It’s so hard to believe. The Professor is alive? That’s amazing. Logan must have been so relieved. Do you think he’ll be coming back soon?”

“Heh. As soon as da Wolverine ’ears Remy is around, ’e’ll be back to make sure Remy don’t steal da silverware.”

But Rogue’s mind was running too fast to listen to his wisecracks. “I find it hard to imagine Bobby and John on the same team,” she said. “They’re liable to kill each other!”

Mais non,” Gambit said matter-of-factly. “Dey are lovers.”

Because of her hood, Rogue had to physically turn 90 degrees to see him, to see if it was another joke. His red eyes were unreadable, but there was no trace of the ironic smile that she’d hoped would be there. “Lovers…” she breathed. “But… Oh, my God.”

“Cher, you are floating.”

She had indeed risen a few inches off the bench in her shock. She grounded herself again. “Sorry.”

“I guess da cure did not work?”

“Fuck, I’m such an idiot! I just couldn’t understand why they ticked each other off so bad!”

L’amour est toujours fou,” Remy said.

She pushed his arm away and jumped to her feet. “Oh, God! The way I was throwing myself at him! And I could tell he wasn’t into it, but —”

Remy rose and stood behind her, hands on her shoulders, gently cooing, “Cher, dis happens all da time. Not anyone’s fault. Just love.”

She looked back at the mansion. “Shit, I bet Xavier is hearing all of this. I feel like such a fool.”

“Nah, probably monsieur le professeur cannot read you, ’cause I’m standing ’ere. I block ’is telepathy.”

Her curiosity overcame her misery and she turned to face him. “Really? He has a thief in the house and he can’t read him? That must drive him crazy.” She gave a little laugh and he smiled in return. What a dashing face he had, perfect except for a bump in his nose where it must have been broken once. Somehow that made him more accessible, more real.

Bien sûr. My power blocks most mutant energy fields.”

Rogue blinked. “Energy fields… You don’t think that it would block my…” She couldn’t continue, but Gambit seemed to understand.

He shrugged. “Try if you want, cher. Just don’t kill me, henh?”

Looking deep into his glowing eyes, she pulled off one of her gloves. The cold bit at her fingers as she reached for him. She hesitated a few inches from his face, and he grabbed her forearm, pulling her hand forward until it touched his jaw. She cringed, waiting for the awful thrill of his life energy pouring into her… but all she felt was a faint buzz, like a weak electric shock.

Any more amazement tonight, and she would explode. She slowly lowered her hand.

Remy chuckled. “See? I told you.” He leaned in close until their faces were almost touching. “You know, cher, no one knows you’re back. And da night is so cold. Toi et moi, we could go warm each other up, henh?”

Out of all the responses that flashed through her mind, she found herself saying, “But I thought you liked boys!”

He laughed. “Les mecs, les filles. It’s all good when dey are as beautiful as you, n’est-ce pas?”

She had spent years learning to control her responses so she wouldn’t accidentally kill someone, but now she had no control. “Which one is your room?” she asked, suddenly out of breath. Gambit smirked and pointed to a window on the second floor where a red bulb glowed provocatively.

She put an arm around him and they lifted off together into the night sky.

 

END OF BOOK FIVE

Next: Epilogue

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