The Gift

The New York chapter of the infamous Hellfire Club was celebrating the re-opening of its traditional seat of operations. To most, the multi-storied building, now newly repaired and remodeled after the string of unfortunate events that had led to it's previous state of ruin, was simply an exercise of hedonistic excess. Here, where the world's wealthiest and most powerful came to play, in private rooms safe from prying eyes, they also brokered the secret deals which set policy and pulled the financial strings of nations. It was the epitome of a rich man's club, where it was rumored every pleasurable vice was catered to, and nothing was forbidden for those who attained the enviable status of the Lords Cardinal.

And while these things were certainly true, it barely scratched the surface of what the Hellfire Club truly was. If there was any one person who truly understood the scope of the Hellfire Club's clandestine purposes, or the full reach of it's influence, it was the dark haired woman who sat with a quiet, regal grace in one of the elegant private salons that was set aside just for her own use. As the personal aide for the reigning Lord Cardinal and Black King, the woman known as Tessa held considerable power even without a recognizable rank. Tessa was also known as Sage, a codename that alluded to her vast store of knowledge and the uncanny ability she had to access and evaluate it, like a living supercomputer. Sage was a mutant, whose special abilities made her a dangerous and valuable resource to those who could claim her loyalty. Unfortunately, for many who'd once thought the lovely young woman was firmly set in their camp, Sage's loyalty was a deeply hidden truth known to none but herself. Hellfire Club and X-men both had felt the sting of betrayal as her allegiance to either and both had shifted from one to the other without warning.

It was mindful of Tessa's proven capacity for treachery that had the coolly beautiful blonde woman on watchful edge as she reclined in the offered seat across from her one time companion. Emma Frost, who herself was once the White Queen of the Hellfire Club and through some truly ironic twists of fate was now one of the X-men, had been surprised to receive a personal invitation to come and speak with Tessa. Though they had been close acquaintances when both were members in the Hellfire Club, their relationship had been for the greater part coolly formal, save for those rare few times when need had required them to be very … intimate. An unexpected flush of warmth from memories Emma had thought long put aside crept through her. The Hellfire Club expected sensual excess from its leading members, and as the White Queen, Emma had played her role with consummate skill that had made her legendary. At times that legend had included the services of Shaw's personal aide, in ways that would have brought a blush to Emma's cheeks if she were still capable of such displays.

But that had been another time, another life. When Tessa had finally revealed herself an X-men agent, long ago planted by Charles Xavier to spy upon the Hellfire Club, and returned to the Xavier Institute in Westchester, the X-men base of operations, Emma had already made her own switch of allegiance and thrown herself headlong into the role of headmistress to a new generation of X-men affiliated youth at what had once been the Massachusetts Academy, reborn as Xavier's new School For Gifted Youngsters. In that strangely more innocent time, their paths had not re-crossed, and Emma now wondered at that, and suspected that Tessa had deliberately avoided contact with her fellow former Hellfire Club member. Not that Emma herself had gone out of her way to try and initiate any contact… Emma pushed what might have been regret from her mind. Now was not the time to reminisce on might have beens.

It was only some little time ago that she and Tessa had finally met up again, when the rogue team of X-men that Storm had splintered off from Xavier had attempted to appropriate one of Emma's students in their pursuit of a mutant murderer. That meeting had been much less than cordial. Their adversarial encounter had ended with Emma and Storm together attempting a rescue of Tessa, Bishop, and a group of young mutant children that had been captured by an old and dangerous enemy that Emma hadn't even realize she had. Said rescue had gone wrong almost at once, though to the detriment of Emma's pride, Storm had won out in the end while she herself had fallen to the enemy with terrifying completeness and speed. It had shaken her to the core to realize that the creature known as Elias Bogan had mental hooks set so deeply into her psyche, which she had never suspected. Strangely, it was Storm who'd offered her some measure of comfort afterwards, swearing to find out how such a thing had come to pass. That in itself held it's own unsettling implications for Emma, as the once sharp lines between enemy and ally began to waver and blur.

"Emma, I'm pleased you came." Tessa's voice was cool, soothing silk, the trained voice of a Hellfire Club employee whose smooth tones were meant to convey pleasant and professional service.

"How could I refuse such a enticing invitation?" Emma's own voice held a razor fine edge of sarcasm in it's well bred, New England nuances. The notice that had summoned her had been terse, almost an order. She'd considered simply ignoring Tessa's demand, but her own begetting demon of curiosity had won out. Tessa, Sage… or whatever the black haired minx was calling herself now, knew too much, had seen too much to disregard out of hand. And it preyed upon Emma's peace of mind, what little she had these days, that Tessa's game was too subtle and deep a thing to let play out with investigation. "I'd be flattered that I was the one X-men you sought out as an envoy between Xavier's Institute and the Hellfire Club, except that I have a feeling I may be the only one who does not currently look at you as a social pariah. I hear Storm still refuses to speak with you, even though you've called her a dozen times or more.

"As past events have shown, lack of well established lines of communication between X-men have led to often disastrous consequences." Tessa's voice was still calm, but the shadow dark blue of her eyes seemed to deepen at Storm's name. "Twice Elias Bogan has had the benefit of setting different groups of X-men against each other, advancing his own cause while those who should be allies wasted time in unnecessary opening conflicts."

"And that has what to do with the Hellfire Club, darling Tessa?" Emma tilted her head in question as her ice blue eyes narrowed. "Or have you forgotten you are no longer an active X-men?"

"I forget nothing." Tessa's eyes caught those of the former White Queen with an almost chilling intensity. "But our current Lord Cardinal, Roberto Da Costa is also head of X-Corp, and he and I are not the only members of the Hellfire Club who have been X-men, or X-men who are Hellfire Club members. There is quite a bit of cross pollination between the two groups, and it would serve us all well if we had protocols in place for the eventual joint crisis we both know will arise."

"We've played such games of alliance before Tessa. When Magneto held both the Hellfire Club's kingship and a crucial place amongst the X-men. It was such a transitory event that someone blinking would have missed it." Emma's softly drawled derision was deliberately provoking, but it only brought a slight smile to Tessa's enigmatic face.

"Because it was based on one man's fleeting memberships, instead of a true establishment of deep relations between organizations. X-men and Hellfire Club have their differences, but the world has become too dangerous for us to continue the petty competitions for the same resources in those times we should be working jointly. It's not only inefficient; it is inevitable that it will one day prove fatal."

"Inefficient. Ah Tessa, you've never really changed, not deep down at your core, have you? All cool ordered computations where a heart should beat." Emma's tone of patronization did not veil the true interest in her eyes. Despite her demeanor of cruel, dilettante disaffection, she did not discount the true worth of Tessa's proposal. "So how would you suggest we establish real, deep and abiding links between the X-men and the Hellfire Club? Storm was your own team leader with the X-men, and she's not even willing to take a phone call from you now."

"Storm has a very passionate nature, and right now she's angry with me." Tessa acknowledged, "But I think I've found the perfect peace offering, a gift that will calm her enough to work out our differences."

"Really? And what could that possibly be?" Emma's laugh lit up her face as she shook her head at Tessa in scornful disbelief. "Ororo is the last person on the planet that I'd expect could be simply bought off, no matter how fine a prize you might present her with."

"Even if that prize is you?" Tessa's finely arched eyebrow rose suggestively as she watched the laughter drain from Emma to be replaced with a expression of speechless shock.

To be continued