"Hey, J-P, telephone!"

Jean-Paul turned around in the hallway to face an out-of-breath Jubilee holding a cordless phone in her hand. "Who is it?" he asked, puzzled. Off hand, he couldn't think of anyone who would call him on the mansion's phone; his broker was the only one from whom he received regular calls, and he always called his cell phone, not the school's main number.

Jubilee simply shrugged. "Dunno, dude – I didn't ask," she replied, handing him the phone. "Some woman who asked for you as Northstar. Who do I look like, your personal secretary?"

"No, I assure you, you most definitely look nothing like my assistant," he answered, eyeing the young girl's bright pink and black spandex exercise apparel with distaste touched only slightly by amusement. She looked nothing like the oh-so-proper secretary he'd left in Chicago, that much was for certain. For which he was greatly relieved.

"This is Northstar. With whom am I speaking?" he asked, gesturing for Jubilee to leave, and turning his back on her with irritation when she declined to do so.

"Jean-Paul? This is Heather," came an all too familiar voice, " I just called to let you know we had a lead as to Jeanne-Marie's whereabouts…"

"Whereabouts? What do you mean, Heather? Is my sister missing?" Jean-Paul asked anxiously, cutting off the former leader of Alpha flight mid-sentence. His heart felt as if someone had clamped a vice around it as images of his sister lost, hurt, perhaps dead flashed through his mind. The sister he loved as he'd never allowed himself to love another living being. The sister who was all he had, in the world. Whom he'd thought was in an institution, where he was not presently allowed to visit or call.

The woman on the other end of the phone paused before answering, and Jean-Paul's anxiety quickly turned to irritation. "You hadn't heard?" she asked finally, after what seemed like an eternity to him. "I'd assumed Xavier filled you in; I know I asked him to."

Jean-Paul's eyes flashed dangerously as he took the phone into the empty study and shut the door, not even noticing Jubilee, who was still standing in the hall, a curious look on her face.

____________________________________


"You knew! You knew, and you never said a word!"

Xavier steepled his fingers and took a deep breath, meeting the eyes of the enraged French Canadian fearlessly. He knew better than to be confrontational with the new addition to the X-Men, but he also believed that he'd acted in Jean-Paul's best interest, keeping the news of his sister from him. "I didn't tell you that Jeanne-Marie was missing from the institution because there was no sign of her. I've been searching with Cerebro for the past month, since the news reached me--"

"She is my sister," Jean-Paul hissed, through clenched teeth. "She is my life. How dare you withhold information from me, as if I were some child in your classroom, incapable of handling my own affairs."

The Professor blinked at him, and shook his head. "It was not my intention to hide anything from you. I searched for Aurora thoroughly. She is nowhere to be found, Jean-Paul--"

Northstar cut him off again, this time pounding his fist into the older man's desk hard for emphasis, creating a rather definitive thump. "And when would you tell me, Xavier? When you found her? When someone else found her first? They told me I could not see her in that place, they told me they would take care of her. I trusted them, and I trusted you. I came here with the understanding that you were an honest, well-meaning man, with admirable goals, with something I could..."

Xavier arched one eyebrow at him, "Something you could what?"

But Jean-Paul only shook his head, unwilling to admit to what Xavier knew he had been about to say. Something he could believe in again.

Because, as he knew, Jean-Paul had not believed in anything in quite a long time.

"I'm leaving. Now. Consider this my notice. I'm through here."

"Jean-Paul, wait. You cannot go after her alone," Xavier raised his voice, hoping to catch the Canadian's attention.

But Northstar was already out the door.

Charles Xavier shook his head and put his fingers to his temples, allowing just the faintest sigh of frustration to escape him.

________________________________

"Hey, J-P, where's the fire?" Bobby asked as Jean Paul stormed past the rec room where he was idly flipping channels on the tv. Despite the fact that the Canadian X-Man always seemed annoyed about something, he seemed even more…annoyed than usual. Which was quite an accomplishment, given his baseline.

Jean-Paul had cleared the doorway even before he finished speaking, however, and Bobby saw him back up until he stood inside it once again. "I don't have time to chat now, Drake. I'm leaving." And, with that cryptic comment, he continued down the hallway.

"Hey, wait up!" Bobby yelled, jumping to his feet and charging down the hallway after his teammate. He caught up with him halfway down the hallway, realizing that Jean-Paul must have slowed his pace to allow it, and clamped his hand on the other man's shoulder. "What do you mean, you're leaving? You can't just leave! They'll make me teach your classes tomorrow," he quipped.

"Forgive me if I don't offer my condolences, but I have matters of importance to attend to," Jean-Paul replied. "And as it's certain that I won't be returning, you might as well prepare some syllabi. Unless, of course, the Professor decides to have Worthington teach the classes what little he knows of business economics. Now, if you don't mind…" he concluded, coolly brushing Bobby's hand off his shoulder.

"Actually yes, I do mind," Bobby said, clamping it back on. "Come on, you're not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on." Despite the Canadian's protests, he steered him back to the rec room and pushed him down onto the couch, then sat down in the chair across from him. He didn't know Jean-Paul well – hell, it didn't seem as if he knew ANY of the X-Men well, anymore – but he wasn't about to let him storm out of the mansion in his current frame of mind. Besides, he thought to himself, inwardly sighing, he definitely owed the guy one, after having threatened his life over the whole thing with Warren and Paige.

He still wasn't sure why he'd done that in the first place. He'd been in a foul mood recently, taking it out on everyone in sight. Things had just gotten so… complicated lately. Between Alex's return, the whole aborted Alex/Lorna wedding, Annie – he didn't even want to think about Annie – and the implications of his secondary mutation, none of which were positive, he found himself longing more and more for the early days of the X-Men. When things were just…simple. When life consisted of going out, fighting the mutant menace of the week, and coming home and horsing around. When the worry was whether or not Warren would find out that he and Hank had swiped his car to pull off a twinkie run, because there was NO WAY they were going to lose a battle, or get injured, or die, or get punctured through the chest and have the wound fill up with ice…

He shook the cobwebs out of his head, and turned back to Jean-Paul. "So, J-P, what's going on…what'dya mean, you're leaving? Where are you going?"

"I don't see that it concerns you," Jean-Paul replied weakly, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, the palms of his hands cradling his head.

"Of course it fucking concerns me! You're my teammate!" Bobby practically shouted, then shook his head. Getting confrontational with Jean-Paul was not going to resolve anything, he knew, so he took a deep breath before continuing more calmly. "What's going on? Is there anything I can help with?"

"Not unless you can explain to me why the Professor would withhold information from me regarding my sister," Jean-Paul replied, and Bobby saw his hands clench into fists as he dropped them in his lap and raised his head. "For a man with such ideals…how could he fail to inform me that Jeanne-Marie was missing? She could be anywhere – anything could have happened to her while he sat, searching futilely with that blasted machine of his…"

"What are you talking about, Jean-Paul?" Bobby asked cautiously, sensing that the other man was near his breaking point.

"Jeanne-Marie was abducted more than a month ago from the…hospital. Alpha Flight called and left a message for me with the Professor once they learned of her disappearance, but he chose – as if he had any right to do so – not to tell me. He didn't want me to be concerned," Jean-Paul added, the edge to his voice far sharper than Bobby could remember ever having heard. Not that he could blame him, given his provocation.

"Yeah, the Professor's got a knack for not mentioning things he's afraid will "upset" us," Bobby sympathized, and was surprised to hear the bitterness in his own voice. "Always has. It's one of his worst qualities – well, that and treating us like children."

"Exactly. And I will put up with it no longer. So, mon ami, while I appreciate your concern, I will be departing now," Jean-Paul replied, rising to his feet and stretching out his hand. "I do apologize that you will undoubtedly be loaded down with my courses in addition to your own, but I must go search for Jeanne-Marie. Alpha Flight had some leads as to her whereabouts that I must investigate…"

"Hold it – you're not going anywhere, not by yourself," Bobby said, rolling his eyes. "Sit your butt back down and let's talk about this. Ok, the Prof screwed up, but he meant well, right? What're you going to do, go find your sister and then sit back on your ass and count your money? The Prof may have been wrong, but his goals are right, and you know it. You have a responsibility –"

"I have a responsibility to my sister, first and foremost," Jean-Paul argued. "Everything else is secondary."

"I'm not arguing with you about that!" Bobby yelled. "Damn it, I SAID I'd go with you to find your sister – you're just not going by yourself." He saw J-P raise his eyebrows, and grinned self consciously. "Well, I MEANT to, anyway. You kept interrupting my train of thought. But anyway, I will – you're right, if you've got a lead we – and I do mean WE – should check it out. But what're you going to do after that? I mean, I can't blame you about being upset, God knows this place has been fucked up lately, but you can't just take off permanently. Shit, if it were possible, I'd probably have done it by now," he admitted, rubbing his hand through his hair, his eyes closed. Truth be told, the idea sounded awfully attractive right now. He wasn't happy here anymore, but the idea of going back to accounting didn't appeal, either. "Once an X-Man, always an X-Man – I keep getting pulled back, so do all the others. We're not fit for normal life anymore, we've done something more important with our lives, and it makes everything else pale by comparison. We just keep coming back…" he felt as if he were at the edge of breaking down himself, and tried to pull himself back together, feeling rather than seeing Jean-Paul lay a hand on his shoulder.

"All right, all right, you can come with me. If for no other reason than because I fear for your sanity if you stay here, feeling sorry for yourself."

"Oh gee, thanks J-P," Bobby said sarcastically, silently kicking himself for losing it in front of the usually so-composed Jean-Paul Beaubier. Damn it, where had all of that come from? Most of it he hadn't even dared let himself think before, let alone share it with anybody else. Recent events must've taken a greater toll than even he had realized. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that leaving the mansion was exactly what he needed to do. For a while, at least.

"Am I hearing what I think I'm hearing?" he heard from the door, and flipped around to see Paige standing in the doorway, an incredulous look on her face. "The two of you are planning to take off and start your own team or something?"

"Hey, I didn't say THAT…" Bobby objected, but before he could comment further she interrupted.

"Good. Because I could've SWORN someone said the two of you were going to go search for Jean-Paul's sister, and not come back to the X-Men once you found her. As if you could find your way out of a paper bag without assistance," she sniffed, coming into the room to stand next to Bobby and Jean-Paul.

Bobby found himself wishing he could simply wipe the superior grin off Paige's face. Preferably with a large, blunt object.

"And you could, I'm sure," Jean Paul stated sarcastically. "Well, be my guest – go and start your own superhero team. Just leave us alone while you do it."

"Actually," Paige replied with a sudden change in demeanor, cocking her head thoughtfully, "it's not a half bad idea. Oh, not with either of you leading the team – that'd be impossible – but I'd be willing to take on the responsibility."

Bobby looked at Jean-Paul and burst out laughing. The sour-faced Canadian, despite his highly agitated state, even managed a rather mean half snort, half laugh at the idea.

"What's so funny?" Paige complained. "Honestly, I would think you'd jump at the offer…"

"Why, do we need someone to lead us around in circles inside the bag?" Bobby quipped. It was a ridiculous idea, of course. Running off, starting their own team... well, actually, that wasn't really the ridiculous part. Hell, it had been known to happen. But imagining Paige trying to tell Jean-Paul Beaubier what to do was so hilarious it was really almost sad. The speedster would have her in tears twice a day, with that forked tongue of his. No, they'd need someone older, someone with more experience...

Paige wrinkled up her nose at them, and crossed her arms over her chest. "Look, I'm just as pissed off as you two about what's happening around here."

"Pissed that Wings isn't responding properly?" Jean-Paul raised his eyebrows. Amazing, how he could be sitting a few feet under her and still appear to be looking down his nose at her like that.

She narrowed her eyes at him, but held her ground admirably, "Warren is part of the problem, but it's his attitude in general that I take issue with. Jean-Paul, you of all people should understand how frustrating it is working with someone whom you can't respect on a purely professional basis. And this place... you're right Bobby. It doesn't feel like home anymore. And if you two are leaving anyhow..."

Bobby found himself nodding at what she was saying about halfway through her little speech. But, "I don't know Paige... Wait a minute! How much of that conversation were you listening to?" That little eavesdropper! She was as bad as Jubilee!

"Either way," Jean-Paul interrupted before she could answer (which was probably good, considering how pink her cheeks were suddenly turning,) sounding even more irritated than he had a moment ago, "first things first. You can argue over who will lead this imaginary team later. Right now, my sister is out there." And he stood, as if he were about to try and shoot out the door again.

Bobby stood as well, and nodded, "You're right, J-P. Paige, you in?"

She nodded, "I'm in. But someone has to be the team leader--"

"Don't think I don't appreciate the offer of help, girl. But right now you are leading two things. Jack and shit. And Jack just left town. Forget it," Jean-Paul shot at her, but without his usual venom. Instead, he almost sighed it at her, really.

Paige's mouth opened, and her eyes flashed with that green fire she had that usually signaled imminent meltdown, so Bobby cut in before she could get started. Or, for that matter, before J-P could cut her down any further. "Look, we can use the help. Paige, it's nice of you to offer, ok? But we'll ask someone else to lead. Someone we can all trust."

Two sets of eyes fixed on him, asking the same question, one set flaming green, the other icy blue.

"Kurt," he heard himself say. "Kurt will help us."

Paige blinked at him, but said, "Yes, he will."

Jean-Paul nodded, slowly, "Agreed. Quickly, then. Every moment the trail could be growing colder."

_______________________________

So much disaster in so little time.

Kurt Wagner had been through so much in his life. In Germany, with the X-Men, with Excalibur. And now back here again. As always, God had pulled him through. At the end of the day, he could come home, bow his head, and take comfort in the fact that His everlasting love would be there for him. Take away his sins, lift him up into the light.

Him. The demon with the heart of an angel, they said.

Oddly enough, the first time someone had referred to him as such, they hadn't known that he was, in fact, descended from the demons.

Things were not as he'd once thought, that much was for certain. God and Satan, words he'd heard as a child, concepts that were vague feelings, understandings. Angels and devils. None of them, as it turned out, were at all what he'd been told. Everything his faith was built on had been pulled down in front of his eyes. He felt like a child at the theater. So long, he'd been watching the play, believing in it. But when he left the theater, saw the actors without their make-up, their costumes... the illusion of the play came crashing down around him. And this play... this was the play that had defined his sense of self. His sense of worth. His sense that all things had a place in the plan.

Those ideas had helped him survive it all. The revelations and the villains and the diseases and the pain. Years "fighting the good fight" with the X-Men, with Excalibur. Years devoted to the dream of those who, he'd once thought, shared his ideals, his goals. His sense of worth, of the plan, had kept him running through all those years.

And the basis for that sense, the thing that had kept him going through it all, as it turned out, was a lie. Did that not render his entire sense of reality invalid?

Kurt sighed, and laid the rosary he was idly thumbing down on his desk, cradling his forehead in one three-fingered hand. Weeks, months, he'd been rolling it all over in his head. Wishing for his friends, wishing for things to be the way they used to be. Nothing felt right anymore. Not in his head. Not in his heart. Not in this house. No one here cared for anyone, not like they used to, when the X-Men were a family. He needed out, needed to sort his head out.

But what would he do? He was not a priest... and how could he ever be, now? After all that had happened? After his faith was so shaken? He didn't want to be anywhere near a church, in fact, let alone a seminary. And he'd tried living outside of the world of the superhero once... and found it sorely lacking. No, too many things in the world, no matter how shaken his sense of reality, meant too much to him for him to lie down and do nothing about them. But what would he do? Find an apartment in the city, patrol the streets for muggers, come home and watch sitcoms all night? Team up with Spider-Man and--

A knock at his door cut off the thought, and he looked up, surprised. "Come in, it's unlocked."

Further surprising him, the door opened to reveal a determined looking Bobby Drake, a jaw-clenching Jean-Paul Beaubier, and a stiff-backed Paige Guthrie.

"Fancy meeting you here," he mumbled, standing, "Please, come in."

They took the offer, silently, and shot each other concerned looks. Kurt furrowed his brow in confusion, and was about to ask just what they were up to, when Bobby finally spoke, "We... we need your help, Kurt."

Iceman, Northstar, and Husk needed his help? He really could not have pieced together an odder bunch to share a common problem if he'd been trying... but he was intrigued, and if there really was a problem, of course he would help them with it. "What do you need, my friends?"

Jean-Paul shook his head, "My sister has been missing for a month or more, and I've only just found out. Xavier knew, but kept it from me. I received a call from Vindicator not an hour ago, and she informed me that Alpha Flight had a lead on where Aurora might be. I'm going to find her."

"And we're going with him," Paige added.

Jean-Paul shot her a look. She met his eyes, for just a moment.

And to his eternal shock, he saw the French Canadian nod at her, slightly. And saw her nod back.

His mind was made up, of course, "I'll come as well. Where are we going?"

"West Virginia," Bobby told him. "But Kurt...," the young man lowered his voice suddenly and took a few steps forward, putting a hand on his shoulder and catching his eyes, "We want you to be in charge."

Kurt considered the expression on Iceman's face for a moment, the sincerity in his brown eyes. Eyes that lately hadn't been laughing nearly as much as he remembered they had only a few years ago. "Of course," he said, despite the fact that he knew, and they knew, that lately he had not been much of a leader for the X-Men. He'd just been so distracted... so many things... nothing was right anymore... "Anything you need. We will find her."

"And," Bobby continued, "the three of us don't want to come back."

Kurt blinked, allowing what the younger man was telling him to sink in. And then nodded. He looked over Bobby's shoulder at Northstar, and the natural counselor in him took charge as he assessed the situation. "You cannot trust Xavier."

The dark-haired man shook his head, once, and flexed his jaw. Kurt neglected to mention that the man had never truly fit in here at the Institute, anyhow, and always seemed on edge. No, he had not expected Jean-Paul Beaubier to stay long.

He looked to Paige now, still beside Jean-Paul, "You've outgrown this place."

Her eyes went wide, and he wondered if she'd even realized that she'd been getting impatient with the X-Men lately. They would never treat her as a fully grown woman fast enough for her, and Kurt knew it. And once Warren had ended their tenuous relationship, it was only a matter of time before she had to move on. "Yes," was all she said.

And he looked at Bobby. Who was still staring at him. "You haven't been happy here for a long time, mein Freund."

"No," he shook his head, still meeting Kurt's eyes with his own. "You know I haven't. I took it out on you, more than once probably. But Kurt, you're the best leader the X-Men have."

"Not lately."

Bobby shook his head, and clamped down a little harder on his shoulder. "Bullshit. You know it's bullshit, Kurt. Lead this mission, and you'll see. We need glue, and you're it, man. We've got a prankster, a bastard, and a conscience. All we need is the glue."

Northstar raised one eyebrow in a clever Spock impression, but said nothing about being referred to as "the bastard." Paige simply nodded, once again.

Kurt looked at the three of them, and started to nod, slowly. Yes. He would have gone with them even if he were not considering leaving the Institute, at least for a small break.

But perhaps, if this worked... he wouldn't have to come back either. Perhaps he could start again. Perhaps this was the very chance his battered soul needed, to repair itself. And if that was true... perhaps God had not forgotten him so completely after all.

"I might not make such great glue, but I will be happy to lead your team. Northstar, tell me the situation. There is no time to lose."

___________________________________

The briefing ended, and Paige followed her fellow conspirators out the door, still wondering how she'd gotten herself into this.

Kurt was right, of course. She HAD been growing increasingly unhappy with her role in the X-Men. It had all seemed so simple when she'd started at the Massachusetts Academy; she'd get her education, learn to control her mutant gifts, and follow in her brother's footsteps as leader of her own team.

The reality had been somewhat…different.

First of all, she hadn't been made leader of Generation X. Of course, no one had, not really, but it had been her first real disappointment. She'd spent what seemed like most of her life set on achieving one goal, and the first step to it had been snatched from her, seemingly by whim. Then GenX disbanded, but instead of forming their own X-Team they'd scattered to the winds, for reasons that had seemed sound to all of them at the time. She'd done some activist work, which she'd loved, before being approached by Sean Cassidy and offered a role in X-Corps.

Not a leadership one, true, but it seemed as if her life were getting back on track. But then X-Corps folded as well. For good reason, she reminded herself – the concept behind it was unsound at best. But it had left her at loose ends, so when Charles Xavier had approached her and offered her a position within the X-Corporation, she hadn't turned him down.

Which had led to her long-coveted position in the X-Men, and her relationship with Warren Worthington, III. Presently referred to, at least in her mind, as The Asshole.

Neither the position with the X-Men, nor the relationship, had turned out exactly the way she'd wanted.

It wasn't enough. Hadn't been enough, even when she and Warren had been together; She had wanted more of a role within the team, and he'd only laughed when she'd mentioned it. A few years, he'd said. Some more experience. But she knew, deep down, that even after a few years had passed she'd still be the junior kid on the block, the skills she knew she had completely ignored and passed over. Damn it, it had even happened to Sam, after all. Small wonder he'd left and joined the former X-Men who were creating the XSE. Better to get in on the ground floor, if you wanted to move to the top.

So, here was her opportunity – a brand new team in the making, and neither of its original two conceptualizers made any pretense of having leadership ability, and were both capable, powerful mutants and experienced heroes in their own right. The thought of Bobby Drake leading ANYTHING nearly made her laugh aloud, and Jean-Paul was far too self-centered. Here was her chance…

And they'd laughed at her. Outright laughed at her offer.

Which rankled. But she couldn't argue their choice. If she had to work under someone, Kurt Wagner was definitely her first pick. And HE, at least, was willing to listen to her input, willing to recognize her ability. But…they didn't have to laugh.

It consoled her slightly that Bobby, at least, had jumped on her offer to help. And Jean-Paul had accepted it, which in some ways meant more, especially since she knew just how much this mission meant to him personally. Not to mention his reluctance to trust anyone in the house, or show any kind of faith in them. They had laughed... but they wanted her to help. Thought she COULD help, had something to offer. And, of course, it meant getting away from the mansion, and Warren's attitudes, a fresh start… a chance to fill an important role somewhere, to put her gifts to use.

The conscience, Bobby had called her. Which surprised her. Not because she couldn't, or wouldn't, fill that role, but because he'd seen her in it. Not "the kid". "The Conscience".

It wasn't too bad a beginning.

They'd agreed to pick up some personal belongings from their rooms – not enough to arouse suspicion, just enough to get by for a couple of days – and meet outside the garage, where they'd take Jean-Paul's SUV to the nearby airport where he stored his plane. She shook her head, grinning at the thought. The guy actually had his own plane. She'd stuffed some clothing into a duffel, resolving to return or send for the rest of her things, and been the first to reach the garage.

"So much for you guys complaining about WOMEN always taking an eternity to get ready!" she said in greeting as the others joined her, and pressed the button that would open the garage door.

Where she saw, sitting on the hood of J-P's vehicle, a determined looking Jubilee.

"Where are you all going?" she asked before Paige could even open her mouth.

Behind her, she heard Bobby whisper, "Busted!" and was nearly as positive that she heard Jean-Paul's eyes roll.

"Jubilee, we don't have time to discuss this now," Kurt said, but Jubilee shook her head.

"You're not leaving without me," she stated calmly. "I'm like, totally going with you."

Paige opened her mouth to protest, but her roommate met her eyes, and she knew there'd be no talking her out of it.

.

As suffocated as Paige had felt recently with the X-Men, she knew Jubilee was in even worse shape. Crucified, brought back to life by the virtue of Warren's blood only to face Angelo's death, the rest of the X-Men had alternated between handling her with kid gloves and trying to ignore the situation entirely. Neither of which was helping her in the least.

"Jubilee," Paige cautioned, still maintaining eye contact with her friend, "we're not planning on coming back. Not after the mission, probably not ever."

"There's a newsflash," Jubilee replied, breaking eye contact with Paige to look around at the others. "Look, dudes, I need to get outta here in the worst way. Take me with you, at least to rescue Johnny's sister. I really need to shake things up a bit. We can work out the rest later."

Paige saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and turned her head to see Kurt, who raised his eyebrow as if to say, "Any way we can talk her out of this quickly?"

Paige shook her head. A determined Jubilee was a stubborn one. And, even more importantly to her mind, Jubes needed to leave every bit as much as anyone else here.

Kurt sighed. "All right, Liebchen, you can come."

Jean-Paul's protests went largely unheard as Jubilee let out a triumphant whoop, grabbed up a backpack that had been beside her on the truck, and grabbed the passenger's seat in the vehicle.

______________________________________________


"I think I saw an episode of the X-Files that took place here once...," Bobby was muttering behind her.

Jubilee remembered that one, actually. In fact, she thought she might've watched it with him. On the couch in the rec room at Xavier's. God... years ago. Back when things were... normal. "Yeah... wasn't that the one with the weird leper colony and the alien experimentation? They were like, crossbreeding the aliens or something?"

"Yeah, really creepy," Her friend nodded at her, coming up to stand next to her, just in front of where Jean-Paul had landed the plane. She wasn't really sure how the flyboy had done it, landing in the middle of the mountains of southern West Virginia, but knowing that guy he probably had the latest in technology-- some kind of plane like the X-Jet that could go up and down pretty easy. Boys and their toys. "Man, what is it about Appalachia being so freaky? The whole region is out in Butt-Fuck Egypt, and the people--"

He was interrupted by a loud throat-clearing noise from Paige, who had come up on the other side of Bobby as he spoke. "That's enough with the Appalachia jokes...,"

Bobby raised an eyebrow at Jubilee, and she smiled back, covering her mouth to hide it from her roommate. Who happened to be from Kentucky, not all that far from where they were standing right then.

Former roommate, she supposed. If she had her way, she wouldn't be going back to Xavier's any more than the four of them were. Back to the coddling and the sympathetic glances. Back to the fake smiles and the cheerful well-wishers. Back to the place where she'd grown up... grown up too fast, maybe.

Na, she definitely needed a break. A shake-up. Needed something to do. And between Bobby and Paige, two of her best friends, the acerbic Canadian and the swashbuckling elf... she couldn't think of anywhere she'd be more likely to get that, and have a laugh at the same time. She have to call Wolvie, of course, once they took care of Johnny's family issues. But he'd understand. He always understood things like this.

Kurt and J-P were coming up behind them now, and stepped out in front, as Jean-Paul was saying, "These are the coordinates Vindicator gave me. It was a Department satellite scan that picked up the anomalies, and there have been reports from the locals-"

"They have locals here?" Bobby cut in.

Jean-Paul turned to look at him, and Jubilee half expected a decent sized explosion. The speedster had been on edge, understandably, during the entire flight. Even more so than was usual for him. And the closer they got to their goal, the more tightly wound he seemed. But, to her surprise, he only rolled his eyes at Bobby. "Apparently so, Drake. My point is, that they're here."

"But just who they are is the question," Kurt threw in, nodding thoughtfully and looking around, scanning the area quickly with those glowing yellow eyes of his.

"They didn't tell you who she was with, Northstar?" Paige asked, furrowing her brow thoughtfully.

The Canadian shook his head, "No, not a word. Reports of two men, both dark haired, caucasion. Nothing more. But they recognized Aurora in the photograph..." and he trailed off in mid-sentence, suddenly looking upward, almost nervously, as if he'd heard something odd.

Bobby stepped forward, put a hand on the other man's shoulder. "What? What is it?"

Jubilee watched Jean-Paul's face carefully, watched him as he stared off in one direction, clenched his jaw tight. He looked like he was fighting something... inside. She took a step forward, without meaning to, feeling the need to do something for him. But his head snapped around and his eyes were wide and bright as he whispered, "She's here."

Paige raised an eyebrow, and Jubilee couldn't help but shoot her a confused glance. What the hell...?

"She's here. Follow me. Hurry," Jean-Paul said, this time louder, starting off toward the north, into the valley below them, visibly shaking with the strain of going slow enough to let them all keep up.

Jubilee hung back with Paige, as the three men walked ahead, all of them searching the area for anything that looked out of place. Anything that might tell them where they could find Jeanne-Marie Beaubier out here in the middle of, as Bobby had put it, Butt-Fuck Egypt. "What's his deal?" She finally asked her Paige, once the boys were far enough away to be out of immediate ear-shot. "He can like feel her or something?"

Paige shrugged, "No idea, Jubes. I guess so, though. He looked pretty damn sure...,"

"He's kinda freaky when he's like that. Interesting guy, isn't he?"

Paige raised her eyebrow again, "That's one way to put it, I guess. Hey listen... I'm glad you came."

Jubilee smiled at her, and reached out to pat her on the shoulder. "Thanks for... you know. Understanding and stuff."

The other girl just smiled at her, and nodded, and they continued on their way.

If there was one positive thing about recent events, it was seeing Paige again. Not that she and the hayseed had ever been best buds or anything. They'd fought over everything except a mutual love of Sugar Bombs, after all. But shit, they'd been teammates for years, and she'd missed her, and her damn five a.m. workout videos, and her stupid fake glasses to make her look smarter, as if she'd needed to, and her goddamned textbooks with titles that'd make anyone except Hank's head spin…

And, somehow, they were closer now. Maybe each of them had less to prove than they had back then. Maybe they'd just matured. But it didn't matter, because it was kind of cool, no matter the reason.

Eventually, the boys stopped, Kurt and Bobby watching Jean-Paul carefully as the dark-haired speedster looked around, and then stopped facing a solid rock wall in a hillside. Jubilee and Paige caught up with them, just in time to hear Northstar say, "She's in there. Something's wrong. Something's wrong with her."

Jubilee felt her heart speed up. She barely knew Jean-Paul, had only met the arrogant Canuck a handful of times before he'd joined them at the Institute, and since he'd come to teach there, she really hadn't had too much interaction with him. But she knew him well enough to know, just from seeing him every day (and from hearing his students complain), that this soft voice, this uncertain body language, this... bout of bloodhound insanity was not him.

She began to think that Bobby hadn't been so far off after all, bringing up the X-Files.

But Jean-Paul was glancing around now, and she could practically see the frustration building in him. She could feel it, he was about to panic.

She was about to try and calm him down, somehow, feeling an instinctive need to do something for him, when the ground below them started to shake.

"What the hell?!" Bobby exclaimed, grabbing hold of her tight and looking around for any signs of trouble. She saw Paige beside her, out of the corner of her eye, peeling off a layer of her skin, revealing a glimmering grey steel-form beneath, getting ready.

Kurt looked behind him, at all of them, "Remember, if they're hostile, Aurora's powers are similar to Northstar's. Be prepared for anything, since we do not know who the two men with her are, and don't forget--"

"Eyes!" Northstar suddenly shouted, pushing off the ground hard and then blurring into a streak that went straight upward before he disappeared entirely, all of it too fast to register until a moment later.

Quickly, Jubilee squeezed her eyes shut, and dug into Bobby's arm hard. A flash of white nearly seared through her eyelids. Something much larger than anything she'd seen Jean-Paul generate.

Apparently, Aurora had found them.

She felt Bobby's cold arm around her waist and the wind on her face, and opened her eyes to see that she was speeding down the valley on an ice-slide, a frosty looking Iceman at her side. Kurt and Paige were already ahead, just around the corner of the rock wall they had been in front of moments ago, facing off with a mechanical monstrosity that was trying to wrap Nightcrawler up in its tentacles. They stood next to a huge hole in the ground, where two large metal doors were sticking up, like they'd just been opened...

Those totally hadn't been there five minutes ago.

Soon they were back on the ground and Bobby was running to Kurt's side, a jet of ice from his hands crashing into the squid-like mechanical monster that was threatening their teammates. Jubilee felt another breeze, this time something that ruffled her hair from above, and looked up.

"Where is Northstar?!" She yelled, as she caught something out of the corner of her eye, near the hole in the ground and the metal doors. Another of the squid-things. Crawling up out of the hole like some kind of spider, twice as tall as she and about a thousand times heavier. Clanking and clacking and heading right for... her.

"Right here," said a voice at her side, strangely... threatening. "These things are not normal. They're mechanical but all of their lights are out-- there is no power in them."

She looked to her left, just over her shoulder, and saw the Canadian in question, staring hard at the squid advancing on them. He was right though. These things were definitely not being animated by electricity. She could see it now, all the lights on them were out, the two giant windows that looked like eyes on the hulking thing were dark and dead. And Jesus, that was freaky. Like some kind of army of undead... metal squids.

Ok, when she looked at it that way, it was kinda funny. But still, her heart sped up, because that thing was getting damn close. "What the hell does that mean?!"

Without sparing her a glance, or an explanation, he blurred, and the squid before her suddenly started falling apart. As if someone really fast was running around it and... taking it apart, actually.

She felt another breeze behind her and instinctively popped off a round of firecrackers, whirling around to face whatever it was. She heard a scream, as her sparklers connected with something, and a woman suddenly appeared, hunched over on the ground.

A woman with long black hair, a ripped, too-tight t-shirt, and a pair of excercise pants that looked like they'd been through the wringer for a few weeks. The woman looked up at her, clutching her arm, with cold, blue eyes.

"Jean-Paul!!" Jubilee bellowed, backing up just a little from the intensity of the glare she was receiving from the woman before her, the woman she knew to be Jeanne-Marie Beaubier. Because damn, she looked pissed.

"The parts keep trying to come back together!" She heard Paige yell behind her, followed by a loud crash (probably her smashing something or other, Jubilee'd swear Paige really had some anger issues she couldn't admit to...)

"I'm on it!" Came Bobby's voice, followed by the familiar sounds of the human snow-cone icing up what she assumed were the parts of the metal squid that Jean-Paul had disassembled.

But Aurora was on her feet now, and coming toward Jubilee. She suddenly blurred, and Jubilee felt an arm around her neck, a body tight against hers, and lips on her ear. "What do you want with us?! Who are you working for, X-Man?! Who sent you?!" A French accent hissed into her ear.

Oh... oh shit. Jubilee closed her eyes, touched the woman's hand, and let the sparkler in her do its thing, sending a charged *paf!* right into Aurora's skin. The other woman shrieked, and Jubilee used the slight window of opportunity where she lessened her grip to duck down and take the Canuck's legs out from under her with a quick sweep. Aurora hit the ground with something that sounded remarkably like a growl, and Jubilee spared a moment to look up, to take stock of the situation around her, on the reflex that had been hers since she first became an X-Man. Years ago.

Both of the metal squids were taken apart, each section either iced up thick or smashed completely, leaving them surrounded by a metal and ice graveyard. Northstar was rising out of the hole in the ground, dragging by his armpits a dark-haired man.

_______________________________________________

Kurt surveyed the scene and determined that the remnants of the metallic squids were unlikely to be a threat, then teleported over to where Jubilee had pinned a still-struggling Aurora.

"I thought we were supposed to rescuing her!" Jubilee complained as she struggled to keep Aurora's arms pinned behind her back. "Damn it, knock it off!" she practically growled at Aurora, and Kurt had to fight to keep back the grin that was trying to form on his face. Had it not been for the circumstance, it WOULD have been an amusing sight; Aurora far outsized and out massed the diminutive Jubilee, who was nonetheless holding her own. Still, far better not to take chances…

"If you'll allow me?" he offered, and with some maneuvering he switched places with Jubilee. "That's quite enough of that," he hissed in Aurora's ear. "Your brother will be here shortly, there's really no reason for this…"

"My brother?" she laughed coldly, and Kurt realized that, if there was any sanity, or humanity for that matter, left in Aurora, it was hidden very, very deep. This was not the Aurora he had met all those years ago. Gott in Himmel, where had she been that would have done this to her...? "My brother is of no interest to me. Let me go, X-Man. You have no idea who you are facing."

A gust of wind, and Northstar suddenly appeared at his side. Kurt glanced to the side, and saw that Jean-Paul had left his prisoner in the custody of Iceman and Paige; apparently Bobby had already frozen his legs to prevent his attempted escape. He turned his attention back to the situation at hand in time to hear Northstar say, "Ma soeur – where have you been? I only just received word that you were missing."

"Mon frere," she replied mockingly. "You were not intended to know." She kicked backwards at Nightcrawler suddenly, and he nearly let go his hold, but instinct kicked in and he tightened it instead, then teleported, hoping to unbalance her. They reappeared a few yards away, and he was relieved to find that Aurora's head was lolling slightly to one side as if she were dizzy. Jean-Paul reappeared, his eyes flashing angrily.

"We are trying to help you, Jeanne-Marie. Why are you fighting us?"

"Why would I not?" she asked, and Kurt could feel her body tense up in his grip. "I neither need nor want your help, brother. The Director will give me all the help I need."

"Jeffries?" Northstar asked, his eyes squinting suspiciously. "He is already…on ice, so to speak. And why would you turn to him for help? What are you hiding from?"

Aurora laughed again, and Kurt nearly shivered at the sound. Colder than Bobby when he was pissed off. "Not him, mon frere. He came with us to escape the mechanics of Weapon X, but he is no more loyal to the Director than you. But it doesn't matter, really," she added, tilting her head, her hair brushing against Kurt's face. "You'll find out soon enough – the Director will not suffer this outrage against me."

"What do you mean?" Kurt asked, as the fur at the back of his neck stood on end at the mention of that murderous program, Weapon X. Even as he spoke, however, the ground began to quake beneath his feet. He felt Jean-Paul grab hold of his arm and take to the air while he maintained his own hold on Aurora, saw another set of doors open up and another mechanical squid emerge, this one's eyes glowing with electrical intensity. Jubilee held her ground and fired off a series of fireworks aimed straight at its optics, and the glass "eyes" exploded. Unable to see, the construct continued in the direction it had been traveling, straight toward Jubilee. Even from his vantage point far above them, Kurt could feel the air chill as Iceman fired of a stream of ice to immobilize the creature, and saw Jubilee follow up with another blast of *pafs*. The combination of the cold and electricity appeared to short-circuit the squid, and it collapsed to the ground.

A nice display of teamwork, Kurt thought, his mind processing the information absently. Perhaps there was hope for this team of misfits, after all…

He was still thinking that as Paige, still in her steel form, jumped into the open doors in the ground.

"Vat does she think she is doing?" he exclaimed, teleporting out of Jean-Paul's grip to rematerialize on the ground, hardly even considering the affect it would have on his captive. Aurora bent over as far as Kurt's grip would allow, retching, and Kurt barked out, "Iceman! Follow her in!" Bobby nodded in response and ice-slided into the hole as Kurt grumbled, "Gott verdammit, I thought better of her than that!" But seconds later Iceman and ice-slide reappeared, Paige gripping his waist with one hand while holding an unconscious, dark haired man with the other.

"What have they done?" Aurora gasped as she straightened up. "If they have harmed him, I swear…"

"Ma soeur, it is not your concern," Northstar said, landing at their side, and Kurt gladly transferred Aurora to him. He could hear them, still arguing heatedly, now in French, as he walked over to where Iceman, Husk, and Jubilee were standing with their own prisoners.

"Husk, what were you thinking?" Kurt asked, his tail swishing with irritation.

"I was thinking," she replied, pausing dramatically, "that whoever was operating the squids would probably be blinded by Jubilee having taken out the optics, and that I would take advantage of the situation. And he was," she added, gesturing at the unconscious body at her feet as proof. "I knocked him out, and was about to rejoin you when Iceman swooped in."

Kurt mentally counted backwards from ten before replying.

"Good logic, Husk. But did you even consider he might not be alone?" he answered, staring straight into her eyes.

She dropped her gaze after only a moment, and Kurt shook his head. Apparently, they had things to work on, after all.

________________________________________________________________________


Jean-Paul had to admit, he'd had worse days in his life.

But at the moment, he also had to admit that he was pretty fucking devastated.

She wouldn't even look at him. There she was, in the corner, looking underfed and tired. Once he'd had a chance to get a good look at her, while Kurt flew them to Chicago, he'd noticed the nearly faded bruises. On her arm, a yellow mark, probably green the day before. On her face, near her eye, a scratch.

Jeanne-Marie healed faster than he did. Which meant that someone had hit her less than a week ago. And she wouldn't even look at him, wouldn't say a word. She hadn't since he'd put her in the plane. She'd stopped fighting, but she wouldn't even look at him.

He'd gotten his answers from Jeffries-- perhaps a little too forcefully, as Kurt had so gently reminded him. Weapon X. The very thought made him want to shiver. He suppressed it, of course, ever conscious that someone was watching them. Someone with a camera, somewhere in the building, who was monitoring his sister's condition. But... he didn't understand how it could have happened. The Weapon X program had nearly been the cause of her death, not so long ago. The bacteria that ate through her mind, fragile as it was, even then. Since then, they'd been through so much... but how could she have forgotten what they did to her? How could she work for such a murderous, purely evil group?

Madison Jeffries had told him, once he'd calmed down and stopped threatening the man's life, that there had been a coup. The Underground had come, and the Program had fallen apart. The three of them had escaped, fearing for their lives because of their involvement in the previous Weapon X, before the changing of the guard. They'd hidden away in an old CIA bunker known to The Director, who was apparently his sister's latest obsession. Sauron, Agent Jackson, and Wild Child were still there, with the Program.

Kyle. Jean-Paul put his head in his hands, and took a very deep, shaking breath. No wonder Alpha was so half-ass these days. Most of their members were involved in a nefarious government plot to bring down mutant-kind. His ex-comrades. His once upon a time... friends? He had never wanted to be a part of Alpha Flight, of course. Yes, there were a few brief flashes of something good, during those years, but mostly, he was only there for her. For his sister. He had never pretended otherwise.

And she had never cared. Not really. She'd saved him before, many times, of course. But he always felt that she meant more to him than he could ever mean to her. And he'd left Department H any time she had, or any time she cut ties with him. But every time something happened to her, every time she was in danger, scared, threatened, he found himself going back anyhow.

Jeanne-Marie found people, easily. Latched on to them, loved them, made them hers. But Jean-Paul had always been alone. Whether because he didn't know how to love, or because he simply had nothing in him worth loving, he would probably never know. It was as if his heart purposely drove him toward the worst possible choices for friendship, for love, every time. He told himself he didn't need it anyhow.

But he knew he needed something, and she was all he had. And he would never let her go, not again. Not until she was her again.

His mind neatly circumvented the problem of just who Jeanne-Marie Beaubier really was. Somehow, he knew that he'd know her when he saw her again.

He looked back up, and saw that she was looking at him, from the other side of the room. The bedspread was blue. There were pictures on the wall, a television of decent make on the table by the door. They had tried to make it less clinical. But there was no denying that they were in a hospital. And there was a nurse, just outside the door. A nurse who had not wanted to leave him in here alone, with his own sister, for fear that she would hurt him.

He knew he was stronger than her. But looking at her now, staring at him like that, he also knew that she would stop at nothing if she decided she wanted to hurt him. And he didn't know that he had the heart to fight her again. In fact, perhaps it would be easier to just...

"Where did you take him?"

Naturally, her first words to him since their argument in West Virginia would be about him. Doubtless, the one who had hit her. The one she would not stop defending. He answered her question in joual French, hoping to bring around the memories. Of who they were. Of what they'd been through. "We took him to Alpha Flight, Jeanne-Marie. Madison Jeffries requested that we leave him there, so we left your Director with them as well." It hadn't been a bad idea, really. Their little band of disgruntled X-Men certainly didn't have the jurisdiction to make any kind of arrests, and didn't have the facilities or capability to hold, question, and research what the fuck was happening with the two men who'd been found with her. He had a feeling that Jeffries truly was an unwitting partner in the whole mess-- he knew the man fairly well from his days as an Alphan, and despite the fact that they'd never been friends, per se, he knew that he was a good man.

"You fool. They'll kill him if they get a hold of him. Alpha is government, and they will tell the rest of the government who they've found. Weapon X will find him, and when they get hold of him again...," She narrowed her eyes at him, and pulled her legs in to her chest, so that her chin rested on her knees, in a frighteningly incongruous gesture. Hate in her eyes, curled up like a little girl. "You've killed him, X-Man. And you've killed me."

His eyes started to burn, and his throat grew tight, as he watched her. He could feel her now that she was so near, just barely. Distress and hate rolling off of her in waves, so subtle he could have missed it, if he wasn't searching desperately for some kind of sign from her. "I am no X-Man," he managed to push out, standing now, nervous energy threatening to eat away at him from the inside out. He needed to pace. He needed to fly. He needed to hit something and make this burning stop. "And I will see you well if it kills me, my sister."

Her lips curled up in a sneer, but the opening door kept her from replying to him. "Mr. Beaubier, you really must go now. I'm sorry sir, but it's nearly ten PM, visiting hours are long over."

His head snapped around, and he almost told the nurse to fuck off and leave them be. Like he had when they'd originally told him he couldn't stay with her for more than an hour. But he stopped himself, took a deep breath, and nodded. Then looked back to his sister. "Goodnight, Jeanne-Marie. I will see you tomorrow."

She looked away now, at the blank TV. And said nothing.

He walked away, past the nurse, past the desk, through the three different glass doors and security checkpoints that made up the Chicago hospital, the only one he knew of with the capability to hold and treat super-human patients of any sort. And he tried desperately to turn his mind off. To make his eyes stop burning.

He passed the front desk, pushed open the doors, and stepped outside, hoping that one of them would have come for him by now, since he'd left them the car to get dinner... and froze when he saw who it was.

Of course. Add insult to injury, and send Bobby Drake.

He wasn't entirely certain that he could handle this, at the moment.

Jean-Paul knew damn well that if anyone but Bobby had tried to keep him from leaving the Institute after his conversation with Xavier, he wouldn't have listened. But something about Drake... he knew it could never happen. He knew how Iceman chased after any woman who bothered to look his way. The man was straight. Awkwardly, blunderingly, but zealously straight. It was painfully obvious.

But no matter how many times Jean-Paul thought about that fact, it wouldn't change the way he felt. He hoped, of course, that time would do it for him.

And here he was, in Chicago, about to follow Bobby Drake back to his house-- a house full of disgruntled mutants who were expecting him to be a part of their new team.

Jean-Paul, historically, had never been a part of any superhuman organization for philanthropic reasons. Not until he joined the X-Men, at least. And he didn't want to think about why he had to keep going now. Was Bobby right, had he found that using his powers this way really *was* something he needed to do, once he'd begun? Not bloody likely. Was he simply bored with the CEO nonsense, counting his money day in and day out, as Bobby had said? Actually, he was rather partial to his money.

So why, then, would he stay? Why would he be actually considering *funding* such an effort, in fact? Other than the fact that it couldn't possibly be a worse investment than Worthington Industries. He was too tired to even imagine what had come over him, really.

God, if you're really there, please don't let it have to do with Drake.

"How's she doing, Jean-Paul?" he heard the other man ask, but it took a few moments for the question to register. Dieu, but he was tired. He just wanted to go home, and not think – not about Aurora, not about the Weapon X program, or Alpha Flight, or the band of former X-Men now occupying his home in Chicago. And certainly not about how Bobby looked in his rather tight if somewhat threadbare jeans. He *definitely* didn't want to think about that, not right now.

"As well as can be expected, mon ami," he said finally, letting out a sigh, and feeling at least some of the tension he'd been holding drain out with it. "She is settled in, and finally, she spoke to me. All accusations, of course, but at least she is speaking."

"How 'bout you?" Bobby asked, and Jean-Paul saw the other man search his face, trying to discern the answer for himself.

"I am…tired," he admitted, not feeling up to providing the soul-searching answers he knew Bobby was looking for. "Where did you park?" he added, peering around the parking lot in search of his SUV.

"Right over here," Bobby replied, gesturing to his right, and started walking towards the truck, as if trusting that J-P would follow. And he did.

Bobby beeped the locks open on the vehicle and turned to hand the keys to Jean-Paul, but the Canadian paused before taking them. "Drake – I wanted to thank you. I truly appreciate what you did today. If not for you…" he shuddered to think of what might have happened had he not had the other X-Men as backups. Perhaps he *could* have overcome the former Weapon X members on his own. Or perhaps his sister would have been injured, or killed, in the attempt. Instead, she was now hopefully safe, albeit completely insane. He took a deep breath, and put one hand on Bobby's shoulder. "Thank you," he finished weakly, giving the shoulder a squeeze before dropping his hand to take the keys.

"Hey, no problem," Bobby replied, running his hand through his hair in a gesture Jean-Paul recognized as Bobby at his most self-conscious. Despite his earlier resolution not to think about it, he found himself idly wishing he could reach out and smooth it back down, especially when Bobby pulled away his hand, leaving it standing on end. "Glad we could help. Should we head home now? We picked up Chinese, and knowing Jubes it'll all be gone before we get there if we don't hurry up. And I don't know about you, but I could really go for some Lo Mein right now," he said hopefully, rolling his eyes, presumedly at the memory of Jubilee's prodigious appetite.

"Then, by all means, let's go." And added, only in his mind, "home."

_________________________________________________

"Hey Paige, stop hoarding the egg rolls and pass them here!" Jubilee demanded, pulling down her feet that had been propped up on the dining room table.

"You're hallucinating, Jubilee - I don't have them," Paige replied, grinning as she popped the last of her egg roll into her mouth. "Besides, you're hoarding the sweet and sour sauce!"

"Am not! Kurt's got it!"

Bobby looked over at Jean-Paul and grinned, and was rewarded by an eyeroll, followed by half a wry smile that reluctantly appeared on the other man's face. He was glad that J-P was loosening up; he'd barely said two words on the ride home from the hospital. Not, he supposed, that he could blame the guy; it'd been a hell of a day.

"Ach, here, liebchen," Kurt said, passing the packets of sauce to Paige, who promptly opened one and squirted some on another eggroll that had apparently materialized from thin air, much to Jubilee's evident irritation.

Kurt, on the other hand, looked more relaxed than Bobby had seen him in, well, a long time. Not…quite himself, yet, but better. Closer.

Bobby scratched at an itch on his chest, right where the ice ended and the skin began, hoping the irritation was due to some new laundry detergent in use at the Institute and not a sign that the ice was expanding. Looking up, he saw Jubilee catch his eyes across the table, raising her eyebrows as if to inquire whether or not he was ok. He shrugged, throwing her a lopsided smile, and turned back to his carton of Lo Mein, eyeing Jubes carefully even as he struggled with the chopsticks that the others were using with such ease.

She seemed – nervous, he decided, as he finally succeeded in fishing out a shrimp and popping it into his mouth, not really caring that his chopsticks were crossed; whatever worked was fair game. But Jubes - apprehensive, probably, because as far as she knew the jury was still out on whether or not she could stay. As far as he was concerned, she wasn't going anywhere, not if he had any say in the matter. She needed them too much for any of them to be willing to toss her out. After all, Jubes was a friend.

He watched, still uncharacteristically silent, as Jean-Paul and Paige got into a heated discussion over some story on the news, not really paying attention to what they were debating, just grinning to himself over the fact that the two were actually interacting. It was cool, really – he felt as if the five of them had spent more time talking in the last 24 hours than they had in the previous six months.

"So, Jubilee," Kurt said nonchalantly, pausing his loaded chopsticks mere inches from his mouth with a grace that Bobby secretly envied, especially since Kurt's hands didn't look as if they'd be capable of manipulating chopsticks. "Do you have any suggestions for a name for our team?"

Jubilee's jaw dropped, but she quickly covered it with a grin. "I am SOOO in!" she announced.

"Odd name for a team, don't you think?" Bobby asked innocently, trying to keep a straight face. "I mean, it'd seriously confuse the reporters; 'Who was responsible for capturing the evil mutant of the week?' – 'Oh, it was the work of I Am SO In'…

Paige laughed. "Hate to think how they'd spell it…"

"Doesn't even bear considering," Jean-Paul deadpanned, shaking his head. "No, Jubilee, I'm afraid we'll have to come up with something else. I absolutely refuse to finance a team with such a ridiculous name. The public relation campaign would be impossible."

Everyone turned to stare at Jean-Paul. "Like, did you just make a JOKE, Dude?" Jubilee asked, fanning herself as if she were about to faint.

In reply, Jean-Paul simply raised an eyebrow.

Bobby seriously wondered how the guy could manage to even make raising an eyebrow look that cool. And sure as hell wished that he'd teach him how.

"Well, Jubilee's suggestion having been discarded, do we have any others?" Kurt asked mock-seriously. "While Jean-Paul may refuse to fund a team with a ridiculous name, I refuse to lead one that doesn't have any!"

"I don't care about the name, but can we use 'To kick ass, take names, and look cute while doing it!' as our motto?" Jubilee asked sweetly.

Four pairs of eyes, including Bobby's own, turned to stare at her. She shrugged, grinned, and said, "I read it in some story.1 Definitely beats the X-Men's, with all that 'protecting those who hate and fear them' crap. I'm tired of defending those who hate me – I'd rather just kick some ass."

Bobby laughed. "Channeling Wolverine now, Jubes? But hey, I'm all for the 'look cute while doing it' part. Maybe it'll help my non-existent love-life," he said, grinning as Paige rolled her eyes and Jean-Paul looked annoyed. Kurt just appeared amused.

"Well, I don't suppose it could *hurt* it any, Bobby," he joked, and Bobby grinned broader and flipped a finger at him in response. Sometimes the classic replies were still the best. "But seriously, any name suggestions?"

"The Guardians?" Paige proposed, thoughtfully chewing her lip.

"The New and Improved Defenders?" Bobby quipped, and was rewarded by groans from everyone around him. "Hey, the laundry detergent makers do it all the time, why not us?" he argued defensively, trying to keep a serious look on his face.

"Charlie's Angels?" Jubilee suggested brightly. Once again, four sets of eyes turned to stare at her. This was, Bobby thought, beginning to be a trend. "What? I liked the movie, okay?"

"I believe the name is copywritten. And all other things aside," he added, a pained look flashing over his face, making him look far more like the Kurt Wagner Bobby'd seen the last several weeks, "I believe the only type of Angels I would be leading would be fallen ones."

Paige jumped in to reassure him, but Bobby noticed Jean-Paul looking pensive. "That's not a bad name," he said finally, and all eyes turned towards him once again. He looked around at each of them in turn before continuing. "Not that I've ever been much of an angel, but I suppose each of us has recently fallen from grace somehow. Or we wouldn't be here."

A silence settled over the room, as everyone considered their own reasons for being there, and gradually, one by one, looked up at Northstar and nodded.

"Fallen Angels it is, then," Kurt said, with a rather heavy sort of finality, but a smile on his face.

"There are the issues of permissions, clearances, technical support, and various other things that should probably take precedence over names or coordinating outfits," Paige pointed out.

Everyone in the room turned to look at Kurt. Bobby was beginning to feel as if he were watching a tennis match – look left, look right, look left…

But it was worth it when he saw the fuzzy elf shake his head and put a hand to his forehead, his smile so big now that it was showing white, flashing fangs. A real Nightcrawler smile. "Consider it done, my friends."

But, rewarding though that was, it just didn't compare with the look on Paige's face when Jean-Paul turned to her, eyebrow raised, smirking slightly, and said, "You're joking about the coordinating outfits, I hope."

Maybe the X-Men didn't work for him anymore. But he had a feeling that Fallen Angels just might.

____________________________________

1. Kerrie Smith's "The Super Uncanny Adventures of Bobby Drake and his Amazing X-Girlfriends", to be precise!