A light mist hung over the Xavier Institute. Thunderclouds rolled around the sky shadowing the sun and chasing away its light. What remained of the mansion limply pouted like a dying pet, sadness, pain, and regret hanging from its droopy awnings and bowed pillars. The smells of pine dulled themselves in the relentless cold, their pleasantness offset by the sting of a land on the verge of a frozen season. Blades of grass swayed in the winter's winds, each coping in a way the man with a lifetime's of disappointment couldn't.

And the man was Scott Summers, alone and standing before the marble gravestone of his wife. The simple epitaph read "Jean Grey-Summers. She Will Rise Again." No coffin lay in the soil: there wasn't a body to bury.

Wife dead. Mansion shattered. Everything Scott Summers ever worked for, everything he believed would be his rock--wrecked, gone, gutted. Never again would he see the love in his wife's eyes or feel the homeliness of this mansion's embrace. Never would he hold Jean in his arms and make her feel like the only woman on the planet.

Never again.

"Never again."

"Calm down, Summers. This will only be what? The third time you've buried her?"

He craned his neck to see Emma Frost in her diamond form, arms crossed and infuriating grin on her face. She wordlessly screamed of condescension, the mischievous twinkle in her reflective glare outdone only by the immaculate sparkle of her body. As droplets of condensation beaded off of her, she gained more radiance till it almost seemed like an angelic halo pulsated from her.

Angelic might've described her features, but it didn't describe her words. "It must be getting rather tedious, Scott dear." She walked up closer to him, her lower lip jutted out mockingly. "All these reruns of your sorrow--it's sad but in the funny kind of way."

"This is not funny!" Scott yelled, the powerful energy behind his glasses flashing with his anger.

"Oh, I think it is and you know it."

Years ago, he would've struck Emma for belittling his grief. Woman be damned, she went too far and even the fairer sex wasn't above human decency. Since she strutted around like an overgrown engagement ring, Scott surmised a good optic blast would shiver her timbers enough to shut up. Years ago, that's what he would've done, his mind given in to the impulse

Years ago, as in two years ago.

Things changed since the final encounter with Apocalypse. Cable and Jean freed him from the madman but things changed. Scott changed. Others thought he couldn't feel, somehow his emotions trampled by his horrific experience under Apocalypse's possession.

They didn't grasp the truth.

He felt, but all he felt was crushing helplessness. Somewhere along the way, Apocalypse took away his hope, a blow much greater than any other attack he could've plotted. New days didn't excite him anymore; new opportunities, once grabbed with fervor, now languished. The world was dark, the next great wrong always on the horizon like an eternal specter.

Scott lost his hope. He tried to convince himself otherwise, but even when he woke next to his beautiful wife and curled in the warmth of his own bed in a mutant sanctuary he helped forge, he couldn't see a brighter day ahead. Tethering on the edge of emotional ruin, he balanced as best he could, forcing himself to ignore his burden.

In the back of his mind, he knew how close he was to retreating into himself for good. He knew the extent of his troubles, but he refused to give it power by acknowledging it. For two years, he kept up his act, sometimes at the expense of the relationships he held most dear.

He leaned on others like a crutch. He pushed the X-Men harder so he wouldn't have the energy to hear the constant doubts in his soul. He distanced Jean so they'd argue and fight, so when they were alone there'd never be silence. Everything went well, each distraction enough to pull him from the brink of oblivion, each well-calculated, manufactured struggle (and subsequent victory) enough to carry him through the next day.

And then Jean died. Well, she left and said they'd never see each other again. Said he had to move on, fight the good fight, finish what they started, make the world a better place for their children, and then learn to love again. She explained but he didn't listen. All he knew was her absence and who it was caused by.

"Fantomex," he said with vile hatred, "Tessa."

He slammed his fist against Jean's marble gravestone. "My eyes were opened. Something about the X-Men makes others want to kill us. Nothing we do--none of the good we do--makes a difference."

"A difference to who? To people? To the crazies who want us to make them famous? My God, Summers, who cares about them? Haven't you been in this situation enough times to realize that there will be zealous, jealous morons till the end of time?"

"You're not helping, Emma."

"Help? If you want help, go to the Hellfire Club and fuck the nearest big breasted red head. No, I'm here to tell you to pick yourself off of Jean's grave and get yourself together." She pointed to the back of her, to where the mansion decayed, unattended. "That is not going to fix itself. Students who count on us for instruction and shelter will not disappear into nothingness. Every single X-Man, who is running around in the student dormitories because their own rooms are ruined, will undoubtedly let you wallow in your own misery for however long you want. Me? I'm too impatient to let you grind this institution to a halt."

Scott barked with bitter laughter. "Is this your attempt to comfort me? It's endearing."

"This is my attempt to get your head out of your rectum. I'll give you credit: for all your boy scout ways, you have a talent for leadership and an unfathomable sway over your teammates. I know of no other person who can try as little as you do but yet attain so much respect just by leading his life. Your dirty paws have a stranglehold around this school's pulse. Where you go, it goes with you."

She locked her eyes on him like a bird of prey. "Xavier is in one of his 'woe is me' moods, marinating in shame he can't change. Do I have a modicum of sympathy? Yes, but sympathy won't change the fact that the school is destroyed. I want to reopen the school with my own funds, perhaps even work out a lease with the old man for his land. I need you to-"

"Forget it," he interrupted. "This dream is over. Whatever else I had left in me, this school took away. Jean's gone and others are considering leaving. It's done, Emma. The costumes, the heroics, the selflessness... it's done. I want no part of this fight for justice anymore because it's just not worth it."

With that, he ventured into the thickening mist.

"You can do so much more than just walk away." The call--the challenge--halted him midstep. "Think of the marvelous teachers we could be with your talents and my unwavering methods. Think of the new generation of gifted, bloody brats we can stop from becoming another Tessa or Magneto. Why, we could even inspire them to greatness! If you want to honor your now-dead-again wife, you'd pick up where she and Charles left off."

A handful of long strides later, she caught up to him and put a sturdy, dispassionate hand on his shoulder. "I need your help to keep this staff of well-trained mutants together. And together, imagine what we can do. Don't you want to inherit the earth?"

Sighing, Scott yanked away from Emma's grasp. His jaw clenched harder, set into a grim mold no human face should ever achieve. "Someone else can have it," he replied. "I'm tired of the loss, the pain, the expectations, and most importantly, I'm tired of you.

"No. I quit."

"Good Morning America" filming from an ABC affiliate in Charleston, West Virginia...

"Today is perhaps the darkest time in national history. I say perhaps because we thought it couldn't get any worse than 9/11, but we were wrong. The official death toll is still being calculated and experts estimate the number in the tens to hundred thousands. Yes, hundred thousands. That's saying that about one in fifteen people in Manhattan died."

The reporter shook his head and sighed. "What else can you say?"

Excerpt from the front page of the Chicago Chronicle...

I have never seen such destruction. Those close to the blasts left nothing behind except for ashes. Whatever you think, that was not the worst fate possible. Oh no, not by far. Things came out from Battery Park, just rushed out and started gnawing on people and mutants like rack of lamb. I do not know what they were but they looked like things straight out of hell.

I was not a religious man, but after watching that scene, I tell you now that I get down on my knees every night and pray for all I am worth. I pray for those dead and those that have to bury their dead. I pray for those who pray for others because they themselves need prayers.

I still don't know who I'm praying to. There might not be a god but I have seen the Devil...

"Where will you go?"

Logan shoved another wad of clothes into his olive green satchel. "Away," he grunted in his customary fashion, "Probably back into the Canadian Rockies, home country."

"Have you told anyone?"

"No. I ain't fixin' to tell no one either, elf, so keep yer mouth shut."

Kurt moved aside as his stout friend reached around him to grab a flannel shirt from the collapsed closet. Yes, everyone said the mansion proper wasn't safe, but one thing was for certain: the student dormitories didn't have their stuff (or the spackled remnants of their stuff). By sheer luck, Kurt--who'd absconded to the area to salvage some personal affections--stumbled upon the scene of Logan packing and heading out on another one of his trips. He would've missed the stealthy Canadian if his room was in one of the other wings, but it wasn't, so here they were.

"Mein freud, isn't this a little sudden?"

"Sure is n' that's how I want it."

Another pair of jeans crammed into the growing bag. His ways might've looked haphazard but Kurt noticed that Logan put a good deal of things into his lone piece of luggage. "Is that bag going to be enough?"

Stopping, Logan gave him one of those "Are you shittin' me?" glances. "I survived fourth months in the jungles 'o Cambodia with nothin' but the clothes on my back. This," he said, pointing to the bag, "is a damned luxury."

In went a fistful of cigars and a box of matches.

"The last time you went on one of your trips, we ended up getting invited to a wedding in Japan."

"Well, I guarantee there won't be no weddin' this time. Mariko's dead n' I got plenty o' thinkin' to do."

"About Jean?"

"'bout Jean."


"Can it, elf. There ain't nothin' ta say unless you'd been there. Shit happened, I'm pissed, and that's all you need to know." He tightened the draw strings to his satchel and looped the burden onto his shoulders. "Got some soul searchin' to do n' it ain't pretty."

"When can we expect you back?"

"When I have my head screwed on straight."

That could either be two days or two decades, an observation Kurt didn't voice. Something troubled Logan, and in the German's experience, the best way was to let him work through his problems in his own stubborn way. It wasn't efficient but fewer people got killed.

As Logan readied himself to jump out the window, Kurt shook himself out of his revelry and blurted, "What about Jubilee?"

The man answered without hesitation. "Girl's all grown up. She don't need this sack o' bones to keep her on her toes." He considered his words for a second before adding, "If she asks, tell her I'm gone. If she don't, she don't."

A strong breeze blew by and made Kurt blink. In the time his cat-like eyes closed and opened, Logan disappeared.

CNN's "World News Update..."

"... and the generosity continues to pour into Manhattan. In the last forty eight hours, charities report over $100 million dollars have been donated to aid the search for survivors. All the branches of the United States armed forces have converged on the area to help police, firefighters, and civilians with food, shelter, and rescue.

"The private sector has also been heavily involved, evidenced by the three following standouts. Bristol-Myers Squibb, pharmaceutical giant, is providing free medication to the wounded to alleviate the strain on hospital supplies. Donald Trump, with the help of NBC, has started an international fundraiser expressly for the rebuilding process. Finally, embattled Frost Enterprises founder and CEO Emma Grace Frost has allowed the use of all Frost Enterprises facilities in the New York area. She has also privately recruited and flown in volunteers from around the globe including the likes of Captain America, security expert Silver Sable, and noted scientist Henry Pym."

The last bag tumbled into the backseat. Hydraulic arms and mechanical servos put the bulky hover chair into the intimidating trunk. Shifting seats, automated everythings, and responsive hand controls greeted the car's only occupant. For a fully loaded Lincoln town car, the luxury vehicle was surprisingly accommodating to the handicapped Professor.

He didn't expect anything less since he poured so much money into it. Times like these he needed to get around without assistance and now was when every penny spent paid off.

A turn of the key and the engine purred to life. A piece of the dashboard rolled away and revealed a colorful monitor, on it dancing dots and real-time snapshots of surrounding traffic.

"Greetings Professor Charles Xavier," said a disembodied, computer generated voice, "What is your destination this morning?"

The passenger side door opened without his approval. Blue, furry limbs lumbered their way into the spacious seat. Leather creaked under the shifting weight and frustrated wiggling. Despite the already larger-than-average arrangement, the bucket seat couldn't comfortably fit three hundred some odd pounds of Hank McCoy.

Sheepishly, the good doctor smiled a toothy smile at his mentor. "They sure don't make these things for the plus sized mutant, do they?"

"I'm afraid they don't, Hank."

"What a travesty! I'd be doing a great disservice if I didn't battle this girth-based discrimination!"

Humor. Hank's first, last, and best line of defense against the emotions boiling over within him. Charles made the observation ever since the nimble boy enrolled in his school. After all this time, after all the attempts to change this knee-jerk response into a more useful, self-critical tool, Hank's manner went unchanged.

Failure. Charles couldn't even handle something this small. What gave him the right to stand against the darkest demons of mutanthood? What kind of teacher was he? Did his methods drive Hank to be like this, constantly barraged by unbearable pressures and only able to cope one way? Did his vision cause Tessa's vile bitterness?

Tessa... The lessons learned from teaching her gave the first generation of X-Men a better, firmer grasp on Charles' mission. She was his guinea pig, and by treating her so, he misused her trust and set this series of catastrophic events into motion.

In a very direct way, Charles killed Jean. If he was nothing else, Charles was a responsible person. Others called him many things but he never shrunk away from his duty or his beliefs. He accepted every consequence of his actions; drawing the connection from him to Tessa to Jean wasn't difficult. Responsibility accepted, but that did nothing about the regret.

A responsible man could still be too weak to shoulder the responsibilities. Words like betrayer, murderer, and above them, failure rolled around in his empty soul, sapping his will, drowning him in a cesspool of his own responsibilities.

Responsibilities he had to get away from, if only for a short while.

Hank cleared his throat. "You know the saying, 'Parting is such sweet sorrow.' How come I only feel the sorrow and none of the sweetness?"

"It's because we aren't parting, Hank. I'm going on sabbatical."

"While the mansion is in ruins? While all of us are still trying to cope with this immense tragedy Macbeth himself would cringe at?"

Charles finally looked at his student. "It's time I've stepped back to reconsider my staunch views on mutant-human coexistence."

"Such a retreat is one which I can relate to," said Hank. "Perhaps a word of advice, Professor?"

"Of course."

"A smart red head said to me once, 'You can't hide from adversity.' Knowing that nugget of wisdom, the greatest thing I can offer to you is my unconditional support."

"I appreciate your generous offer, but it's a sabbatical, Hank."

"It's never just a sabbatical, Professor. We've known each other long enough to see the lackluster shine in our eyes. You're tired, you're unsure of yourself--you're going on something more than a sabbatical. Wasn't two winks and an eyelash ago when I was where you are."

Every syllable hit too close for comfort. Charles put the Lincoln into reverse to signify his intention on leaving. "How are the others taking my forthcoming absence?"

"Oh my stars and garters, I'd tell you if I knew. I don't think the news has even hit everyone yet."



"Less fanfare. Less tearful goodbyes."

"But what about the school?"

"As long as there are X-Men, the spirit of this institute will live on. The time and place will change, but the ideals set forth will be the same. Who knows? Perhaps someone else will come up with better methods to coexistence than my own. Change may not be a bad thing."

"There you go again, talking like you're never coming back and all expecting one of us to take up your untouchable mantle. See, my dear Professor? Methinks tis no mere sabbatical."

Kitty held the tiny baby against her chest. She watched the slow, rhythmic breaths draw in and out. The old, lime green couch dominating the student commons provided the perfect perch for the two to lounge. Besides the minimum ambient lights, nothing else illuminated the usually bustling room. Students still weren't allowed back on campus yet and there was serious discussions on what was going to happen to the mangled institute.

That, however, was neither here nor there. In the velvety haze of a tired night, those empty bottles, that jostled baby, and some dirty diapers became Kitty's biggest concerns. Good thing none of those three were in effect right now. While the girl slept an innocent sleep, Kitty lost sleep over her earlier conversation with Doctor Strange.

The comment took the wind out of her sails. "Say that again?"

"Your suspicion is absolutely correct, Katherine."

"But... but..."

"Reincarnation. Rebirth. Those are not just myths, especially in the Otherworld. Fate is not just a word but a powerful tie to time and reality itself. Yours and hers are interwoven together, impressive alone but stronger together, stronger than the sum of its parts even."

He patted her on the shoulder. "This baby girl is Illyana reborn."

"Didn't we just free her from Belasco days ago?"

"The metaphysical does not run by a schedule, Kitty. Things happen, sometimes for no reason, sometimes under the direction of greater beings than ourselves. Make the most of this chance you've been given."

"Chance? But Stephen-"

"You wished for her to have a better life. You wanted her to be happy and free of her torments, free of an existence punctuated by many bouts of sadness. You wanted her to have the childhood Belasco took away from her. This is your dream come true."

Was it her dream come true or a nightmare waiting to happen? A child. The life snoring away required dedication and love. Having never been a mother (or for that matter, never thought about being a mother), Kitty didn't know if she was capable of raising a child. On one hand, as Strange pointed out, this girl--this baby she had trouble referring to as Illyana--had the perfect chance to make right what went wrong with her previous life. On the other hand, Kitty had a good chance of screwing up what little happiness this girl was meant to have, reincarnation or not.

The effort. The sacrifice. The responsibility.

Felt like steel weights tied themselves to her ankles. The soul might've belonged to Illyana, but the experiences that made this infant into Kitty's friend weren't there. In Kitty's eyes, forever and a day this little girl would live in Illyana Rasputin's shadow. Could a friend who doubled as a secret love ever be treated like a daughter?

The weights grew heavier.

A mother? The word pulled Kitty back to her own marginally passable childhood. Mom and Dad didn't abuse her, never even thought of it, but they did bestow a lifetime's worth of apathy on her. They didn't care and Kitty remembered the nights she lay in bed crying, wanting to please her parents, needing a small bit of attention.

She learned to shut off the need for familial approval, though if she was honest, she'd admit to the dull ache occasionally stabbing her heart. A parent was supposed to be loving and supportive. A parent wasn't suppose to be totally consumed by divorce, promotions, and social status. A parent needed to be there for a child. Neither of Kitty's parents did a good job, and the last thing she wanted was to bring the same uncared for life on this slumbering baby.

Mutanthood, especially mutanthood around the X-Men, left little time for children.

Kitty sighed to herself. "Villains attacking, people calling you freak, never knowing if your friends will come back from a mission alive." She shook her head and stroked the light strands of hair. "Kid, you don't know what you're getting into."

"So what are you going to do?"

Turning her head, the brunette spotted Mystique standing by the hallway entrance in all her blue glory. Like a cat mewing at a cornered mouse, she exuded an air of playful derision. Her arms folded under her bust while her eyes danced like a naughty four year old's.

"The baby isn't going to tell you what to do," said Mystique, "but talking is one of the few skills that takes little effort to learn. Trust me, when they're old enough, they seem to forget how to shut up."

As if the woman's voice had an alarm, the little girl pried open her cute eyes and let out a most horrific wail. Despite her incredible genius, Kitty couldn't stop the shock from seizing her face into an equally horrific and panicked expression. Chuckling, Mystique sauntered to the disturbance and slipped the baby into the crook of her arm. With a gentle swaying, a soft, matronly smile, and easy patting, baby Illyana morphed from banshee to Gerber baby.

"There, there, little baby," Mystique sang as she slowly twirled around the room. Her voice, smooth, distinctive, melodic, and sweet, hit a pang of jealousy in Kitty. "Do not cry and I'll sing you a lullaby. Care you know not, therefore you sleep, while over you watch do keep. Sleep, pretty darling. Do not cry, and I'll sing you a lullaby."

The child's tears went away and her frown turned upside down. Her two palms clapped together in approval while her toes wiggled in rapt anticipation.

Mystique danced back over to Kitty and returned the girl to her initial resting place. "You should play with her some more. Even babies get bored. That and she's probably hungry. When was the last time she had her milk?"

Play? Bored? Hungry? Milk? Forget all that, Kitty still hadn't processed the sight of Mystique crooning a lullaby with a power that would make Aretha Franklin proud. "That was beautiful."

"Answer the question, Pryde. When was the last time the kid's had her milk?"

"A few hours ago. I... I..." Kitty's face blushed scarlet red. "I lost track of time."

"No wonder you X-Men have no children: they'd all starve to death because of how much you like to talk instead act."

The remark put Kitty on the defensive, stress and doubt about Mystique's character rallying her to reflexively retort, "You shouldn't be one to talk after what you did to Kurt and Rogue."

Took much to anger Mystique, a proven spy and literal chameleon. While she never professed to be the greatest parent ever, she did have a decent maternal instinct that she was proud about. Didn't always show it, but she knew it was there. Few insulted that instinct, and those who did never did so again.

Ms. Katherine Pryde wasn't going to be an exception.

"What do you know about Kurt and Rogue?" she sneered, daring Kitty to fire back.

"Amanda told me-"

"Oh, Amanda Sefton, my son's childhood, spell casting heart throb told you. Someone tape this because what she speaks is gospel!"

Unaccustomed to loudness, Illyana sniffled and prepared to cry again. Ever observant, Mystique picked up on the impending waterworks and lowered her voice.

The scathing tone remained. "Amanda Sefton knows nothing about villagers chasing us seconds after Kurt was born. She knows nothing about their threats to burn us alive. I was exhausted and it was a miracle I didn't get gutted where I lay."

Outrage from a wound untreated glowed like white hot coals. She clenched her fists and let her sharp nails break skin. "Tell me," she continued, the passion deliberately removed from herself, "What is a mother to do? Nowhere to run, no place to hide, everyone surrounding her wanting to kill her and her child. Do you have any conception what those small minded, backwater villagers would've done to Kurt? They'd make him suffer and laugh as he cried for me. They'd probably kill him before my eyes seconds before they'd burn me to cinders with their pathetic little torches."

She pinned her eyes on Kitty. "I spared him. I thought he'd die in the river, but at least he wouldn't suffer. He didn't die, and the small part of me that didn't want to give him up is very happy. However, do I expect his forgiveness? No. I'm fine with his rejection; after all, I did try to end his life moments after it began. I'm fine with him scorning my existence and us never forming a relationship. What I'm not fine with is other clueless people pegging me as a heartless child killer because they weren't in my position and can't even begin to fathom the desperateness of the time.

"So Kitty cat, did your Amanda Sefton tell you any of that? Do you want to hear about Rogue too or do you get the picture?"

Wisely, Kitty resorted to glaring at Mystique instead of answering. The blue skinned woman let the hostility roll off her back like water and leaned down to touch the squirming baby.

"A child is precious. You have to be willing to do anything and everything for them. If you can't put their life above your own, you have no claim to them: that's why I have no claim to Kurt. I gave birth to him, but I am not his mother. The honor belongs to someone else. This six pounds of joy you're holding will grow to see you as her mother. Decide whether you want that title or not, because if you don't make a choice soon, this'll sour for everyone involved."

"But how can I take care of a child? Being a high profile mutant doesn't guarantee safety for her."

"When you make it onto S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.T.R.I.K.E.'s most wanted lists, give me a call. Otherwise, you have it easy."

"20/20" Special Interview: The Survivor...

"Did Emma Frost admit to being a mutant?"

Ben Carter--husband, son, paramedic--wiped the tears from his eyes. Talking about his ordeal was taxing, but when "20/20" contacted him about telling his story, he couldn't refuse. Fifteen minutes of fame and a helping of cash got most people to do anything.

Paramedic Carter jumped at the fame. "Emma Frost said she was a mutant."

The interviewer, John Stossel, pressed for details. "Did she exhibit any of her mutant abilities?"

"She turned clear," said Ben, "Told us she was diamond or something."

"Is she affiliated with the X-Men?"

"I dunno. She had a bunch of these superhero-types help us but I don't think any of them were X-Men."

"Why was she helping people then? When almost the entire population of Manhattan mutants were rioting, why was she interested in saving a handful of strangers she didn't know?"

"Said she didn't want to be like the others. Said she was better than them and better than us, so she'd be the better person to prove a point."

"Sounds extreme if she just wanted to make you look bad. What did everyone else think?"

"Emma Frost? Elisabeth, you must be jesting."

With the sun climbing over the horizon, Betsy ignored Ororo's comment and enjoyed the dawning of a new day. Sunrise--it was a pleasure Belasco deprived her of, and like all good things, she didn't appreciate it till it was gone. The fresh, almost minty air pleasantly numbed her exposed skin. Ororo nursed a mug of strong black tea which curled its wispy arms of steam above the liquid.

They sat on the frozen tile roof of the student dormitory. Below, the ruins of the Institute stared back at them like defiant revolutionaries. Despite Manhattan becoming a ball of rubble, Emma had enough clot to pull a small fleet of Caterpillar-armed construction workers in to repair the mansion.

It helped that she was one of the few well-connected, wealthy individuals not crippled by the recent attack. Certainly people couldn't say no to someone who'd lost and given so much already... which was why Betsy and Ororo were on the roof having this conversation to being with.

Emma wanted to rebuild the school as soon as possible. Taking the blonde's history into consideration, most of the X-Men wouldn't like receiving something from the White Queen. Betsy wanted to know how much the others didn't like the idea.

"I'm not joking," said Betsy. "Emma is going to try and open up the school in a few months."

A certain weather witch assumed a dubious expression as she sipped her tea. "What is her generosity going to cost us?"

In the not-so-recent past, Betsy would've shared Ororo's caution. Here was the White Queen, noted bad seed, notoriously selfish, and masterfully subversive: she couldn't be up to any good. A woman like that had no kind bone in her body and couldn't be reformed no matter the circumstance.

But Betsy saw Emma, the teacher, the mentor, the survivor. Did she have her selfish reasons for reopening the school under her own support? Of course she did. She wanted to show the world how a real mutant academy should be run and perchance even upstage Charles. Yet, buried in the back of the competitive spirit was a genuine concern of those left without home or hope. So many lives lost, especially mutant lives--someone had to look after the children no one wanted and everyone feared. This school would be a lot of children's last resort before a short, hollow existence of crime, violence, addiction, persecution, and tragedy ended them.

Years ago, a young Emma Frost could've met their same fate, but inhuman determination pulled her through. Now, she wanted better for the next generation. While her cool exterior didn't show it, her heart glowed with unsung pride every time another student came to her doorstep.

Glancing at Ororo, Betsy shrugged and rubbed her frozen hands along the frozen tile. "It's going to cost us trust. Believe it or not, she doesn't want to see the school shut down. She's able to repair the physical damage but she needs us to bring it back to life."

"Trust? Hard to believe that the White Queen is willing part with millions of dollars for just trust." Her blue eyes flickered at Betsy as she took stock of the conversation. Slightly trembling, the leader of the Xtreme X-Men rolled onto her side to better observe the other woman. "What has she done to you?"

No doubt "she" meant Emma. No doubt "what she did to you" implied mental violation. "Ororo, Emma did nothing to me."

"Then why are you blindly following her advice? Warren can just as easily rebuild the school and we won't have to count on outside assistance."

Her frozen hands pressed down on the tile enough for one piece to shatter. She stopped just short of making a scene. "If Warren really loved this school, he would've offered to rebuild it himself. No, he's caught up in his own problems and I doubt he has time for anything else."

"Warren is not like that."

"Yes he is," interrupted Betsy who was unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice, "You don't know him like I do. He's only made one commitment in his life, and that one was to his business. He puts everything else second... a distant second."

"You can't let your displeasure over your failed relationship with him cloud your judgment. Warren has always been there for us and I would trust him over Emma Frost."

Betsy laughed mirthlessly. "You think I'm siding with Emma to spite Warren?"

"No, I think the White Queen is manipulating you to do so."

Raking Warren's reputation through the mud crossed Betsy's mind. How many times had the man cancelled a date for something business related? On more than one occasion, she caught him thinking of her as a belonging, thinking how much having a sophisticated girlfriend elevated him in his peers' eyes. What about the times he used "I love you" as the be-all and end-all to their arguments? Those three words were sacred and not be used as a shield; Warren didn't get their sanctity.

Betsy could go on and on about the little things, about how he never called her unless she left a message on his voicemail, about how he never danced when she wanted to, about how she always danced when he wanted to. She could prattle forever, but she didn't.

For an undeniable split second, she and Warren shared a comfort. She couldn't bring herself to defile the lone bright spot in a dark chapter of her life. The displeasure she harbored for him mellowed into a wistful reminiscence of their good times. The bitterness left her.

Instead of attacking Warren further, Betsy went to defend Emma. "She did nothing to me, Ororo. She offered to help and asked me if I'd bring the idea to everyone. After seeing your reaction to her, I can see why she didn't ask herself."

"So you agree to be her messenger?"

"Why not? If we keep treating her like an outsider, whatever goodwill she has was bound to disappear."

"I am not against showing her trust, but counting on her to rebuild our base--our home--is too much."

"Ever since coming to the mansion, what has she done to earn your distrust?"

"It's not what she's done here, it's what she's done in the past."

"People can change."

"The White Queen can't."

"Look at Rogue! She came to us with nothing but the clothes on her back and a reputation almost worse than Emma's. Despite that, you gave her a chance and now you'd trust your life in her hands."

"Rogue is different."

"How? How is trusting Mystique's daughter more difficult than trusting Emma?"

"Because Emma Frost will betray us to the Hellfire Club the very first chance she gets!"

From behind the two, Jubilee, her head sticking out of a window, cleared her throat. "Frosty's not really down with those people anymore. Kinda had a falling out, ya know?"

"Jubilation, get back into the student dormitory. Elisabeth and I are discussing-"

"I heard what you were 'discussin' about, 'Ro. Just vouchin' for Frosty, that's all. I mean, she ain't all bad, at least, not as bad as you seem to think she is."

"Thank you, Jubilation, that'll be enough."

"Actually, I wanted to ask Betts something too."

Ororo looked flabbergasted; Betsy tilted her head and waited for Jubilee.

"So yeah, Betts, where's Wolvie?"

So she needed a telepath for a mental scan. Betsy focused and extended herself, spreading out into the world and tuning in to the distinct mind that was Logan. Traces of him floated in the mansion, his strong but strayed thoughts limping around like zombies. She followed the trail down into the garage, onto the Harley that wasn't there anymore, and then toward the Long Island Expressway.





"He's gone."

"Well, can't you tell me where he is?"

"He probably wants to be alone, Jubilee."

The girl had been part of the X-Men long enough to know what that meant. Logan didn't want to be found, and in his own time, he'd show up again. Unable to conceal the disappointment, she moved back into the warm building and left the older women.

Betsy picked up where she left off. "Even Jubilee trusts Emma."

"She is a child."

"But she's a child whom you trust to be an adult when need be. She's young but not naïve. If Emma was really as bad as you envision her to be, she would've never gained Jubilee's vote of confidence. For that matter, she would've never gained the Professor's, Sean's, or the rest of Generation X's confidence either."

"How did she gain yours, Elisabeth?"

Back to the veiled accusation of Emma using her psychic powers in nefarious ways. "She saved my life and asked for nothing in return."

"Don't you see that this is what she wants as her repayment? What better way to strike at the X-Men than to take the Institute?"

"It's not like that, Ororo."

"How do you know?"

"She just isn't like that."

"If you've forgotten, this is the same woman who stole my body and kidnapped Kitty."

"She's not like that anymore."

The short, unreasonable answers galvanized Ororo's suspicions. "She's tampered with your mind already. You can't even tell me why or how she's changed."

"Life changed her," Betsy sighed, Emma's memories of Everett, the Hellions, and Genosha stinging her like they were her own. "I guess you can say she got humbled."

"The White Queen? Humbled? She doesn't act that way."

"Even the White Queen feels love and pain like the rest of us."

"What makes you sure, Elisabeth? Is it her psychic powers?"

"Stop!" shouted Betsy, angered and offended, "Emma did nothing to me!"

"You always said she was a stronger telepath than you..."

This ended now. Betsy bolted up to her feet and measured her next words carefully. "We are bonded together, Ororo. You don't need to know how it happened, you just need to know it did. I can see inside of her and crippling the X-Men is the furthest thing from her mind. I trust Emma. Now, do you trust my judgment?"

The logical question, at least in Ororo's mind, was, "Why do you trust her?"

And the real answer threatened to come tumbling out. Saying "I love her" would encapsulate the argument well, but it wouldn't do anything to change Ororo's view. Actually, it'd probably serve to strengthen her negativity toward Emma.

There was a time and place for "I love her" and this wasn't one of them.

"I just do," answered Betsy. "We've been through enough to break down our weariness. Question is, are you willing to give her a chance?"

In a huff, Ororo glided back inside. Though she refused to show it, the testimony of two friends, comrades, and confidants rooted in the back of her mind and wouldn't go away. A single rebellious thought nipped at her until even her tea tasted bland.

What if Emma Frost was trustworthy?

LA Radio Station, KCAL 96.7...

"It's 7:53 AM and if you thought you had it bad on the freeways this morning, listen to this: all roads leading into Manhattan are closed until tomorrow. That's right. C-L-O-S-E-D."

"Must make for one hell of a traffic jam."

"It would-"

"Oh God, Jimbo, don't say it."

"-if half the people in Manhattan weren't DEAD!"

"Sbeept, there's goes our sponsors. I can just hear the soccer moms speed dialing the censors right now."

"Don't sweat the technique, Stu. Tiff, whatcha got for us?"

"Besides our pink slips? Well, there's this CNN camerawoman-"

"Is she hot?"

"I don't know, Stu."

"Is she hot?"

"Fine, yes, she's hot, Jimbo. There, you two happy?"

"All right! Pink slips and hot ladies!"

"Anyway, this woman works for CNN and managed to film a lot of the carnage. CNN's supposedly releasing an edited version some time today."

"Whoa, when's the unrated version coming out?"

"I'm working with tweedledumb and tweedledumber."

"Remy," she giggled, "Ah can carry it."

"Nonsense, chere. I be a southern gentleman, and I be damned if I let a southern belle do de heavy liftin'."

"But it's so big!"

"Dey say size don't matter." The Cajun grunted with effort before gasping for breath. "Remy t'ink dem people got small-"


"What? It's true, don't lie to me like dat."

"I ain't sayin' yer lyin' but yer goin' overboard."

Another grunt. "Chere, you don't even gotta do nothin'. Remy just want you to look pretty, dat's all."

Shuffling, scratching, thumping, then, "Look out, Remy!"

An "Oh shi-" cut off just as Remy--with unwieldy king sized mattress in grasp--crashed through the room that served as his and Rogue's temporary residence. The brunette, who tried to help, ended up off-balance and falling into the Cajun. Luckily, the mattress cushioned their spill, and after bouncing twice like a ball, settled down awkwardly on a bunch of furniture and packed luggage. Incidentally, because of the general rolling around, Remy ended up on his back with his face buried in Rogue's cleavage.

It was a comfortable place to be. Rogue concurred, a seductive grin spreading as she felt Remy's crotch start to poke against her-

"You young kids certainly don't waste any time."

Sexual mischievousness degenerated into mortification. Seated on the desk: Mystique, legs crossed and eternal smile present. Rogue jumped, her face red like lava. Remy leaned his head back to the upside down image of every man's worst nightmare: the girlfriend's mother catching them in a romantic moment.

"Mama! Whatcha doin' here?"

"Can't I kiss my daughter goodbye?"

"Goodbye? But you just... we just... Ah mean..."

"What am I going to do? Stay at the Xavier Institute? That's going to do wonders for my safety and self-esteem."

"Didn't Irene's diary say somethin' 'bout-"

"Just leave the diaries alone," Mystique said tiredly, the playfulness deserting her, "It's... complicated."

"Since when ain't it, Mama? Can't ya just stay a little while?"

The woman took her daughter's gloved hand and kissed the back of it. "Such a sweet girl I helped raise. You're forgiving, just like Irene was."

"And Roguey's good lookin', just like her mama."

Both looked at a smirking, doubly amused Cajun. Mystique rolled her eyes at him. "Trying to score points with me?"

"Hey, Remy t'ink makin' your girl's momma happy is a good t'ing."

Mystique didn't like the Cajun's suggestive look, but what was she going to do? Say she'll shoot him if he touched her daughter? Rogue already had a thing about not being touched so any threat was moot.

Time to ignore the one named Gambit.

Her eyes went back to her Rogue. "I'll call."

"Ah got so many questions. Ya can't leave without talkin' ta me. You owe me that much. Please, Mama?"

Between opening her mouth and talking, a new person joined the conversation: Emma. As stealthily as Betsy, she snuck over to the trio, leaned against the door frame, and declared, "What's the hurry, Mystique? Stay awhile. As Rogue said, we have much to discuss."

Great. "Seems like I have a following all of a sudden. What happened to X-Men wanting to see me dead?"

Rogue tried to say something but Emma beat her to the first word. "Allies, especially in this uncertain time, are hard to come by. What better way to brave the dark days ahead than to show unity among us mutants. Think of this invitation to stay as gratitude for all you've done to help us out. Besides, your dear daughter appreciates your presence as much as I do."

Subtle menace hid in Emma. Her too composed body and intense stare alarmed Mystique. The words, the emphasis on "allies," "unity among us mutants," "dear daughter," and "all you've done to help us," sounded threatening despite the thick layers of sugary sweetness and feigned innocence. Seemed like the White Queen wanted revenge for being brought to the Dark Beast and she'd stoop to using Rogue to get that revenge.

Mystique let go of her daughter's hand. The newest gossip told of a defanged Emma Frost, one who spent more time chasing adolescents and teaching the dangers of underage drinking than playing the power games she was famed for. Gossip was gossip--a lot of times, it was wrong. This Emma Frost here had a lioness' swagger and a shark's drive for blood. In one swoop, she'd warned and trapped Mystique while gliding undetected through Rogue and Gambit's collective notice.

Funny thing was, Mystique didn't refuse the offer. The threat to her daughter, however remote, had to be respected. X-Men didn't go after their own, but she trusted the White Queen as far as she could throw a ton of diamond. If the threat was empty, the only to find out and take revenge would be to stay. Threat, challenge, and jab camouflaged themselves into her terse speech. Frost packaged all that in the palatable guise of "we mutants have to stick together" and lobbed it over everyone, straight into Mystique's arms.

What a bitch.

"I'll stay," smiled Mystique without skipping a beat, "but I'm staying under your invitation."

Emma's invite meant Emma's problem. Though Mystique herself wasn't friendly with the X-Men, she knew there was no way the White Queen could be any better with her supposed new teammates. Hardliners like Bishop and Storm were probably waiting for an excuse to chuck her off the team. Being responsible for Mystique's calculated, disruptive behavior went a long way to achieving that result.

Ha! Frost didn't have a monopoly on the game of subterfuge.

Apparently, she liked the parameters set forth. "I'll tell the others," she nodded, "Come on now, get to know your future son-in-law."

One sentence, three meanings. Rogue blushed, unreasonably happy to be able to talk about something normal with her mama. Remy panicked as he wondered if he'd actually have to spend time with this sharp-tongued, super sneaky, shape shifting woman (As if a girlfriend's mom wasn't bad enough, now this girlfriend's mom could turn into anyone at any time. Talk about keeping him on his toes, sheesh.). Mystique stewed with anger at the slight which implied she had no part or knowledge of her daughter's life.

If Emma wasn't solid diamond, Mystique would've dropped the uppity woman like a bad habit.

Fox News Channel...

"I implore you to send whatever you can spare. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are working around the clock to field every donation. We need all the help we can get if we are to save as many as we can. The number is on the bottom of your screen, and know that every penny will go to the rescue efforts the authorities are conducting.. Please, your help can possibly salvage someone's Christmas..."

Paige yawned and put her head down on the desk. Sam, who insisted he was fine, sent her away from his bedside by beginning to tell an embarrassing baby story really loudly. That wouldn't have fazed Paige any if the Stepford Cuckoos weren't fawning over him like he was a teenaged crush and went googly eyed when he blurted, "There was this one time when Paige we-"

She shoved a piece of dirty laundry in his mouth and made a beeline for the door. This was what she got for being nice to her big brother.

"Phooie," she muttered.

If Warren was around, she'd feel so much better. Whenever and wherever, the man chased away her discomforts and showered her with his affections. Seemed like he worshipped her as much as she worshipped him, their mutual admiration and love always begging to be shown like a gleaming award. A dreaded tinge of insignificance plagued her when he wasn't with her. She felt incomplete without him because he'd become an integral part of her life. More and more she thought of herself less Paige Guthrie and more Warren Worthington's girlfriend.

Which she had no problems with because Warren thought of himself as Paige Guthrie's boyfriend. They were in love like that and love made everything worthwhile, even staying in a much too cramped dorm room while a dangerous storm of humanity brewed in the distance, even waiting and worrying about his safety after he left to take care of some things at Worthington Industries.

And outside on the roof...



Ororo wasn't there anymore, the cold and disgust moving her back inside. Betsy relished in the bone freezing weather as her new body did nothing to keep her warm but everything to keep her alive. In this brief moment, the struggle for life and death seemed far away, the invincible illusion making her young again.

Young again... before Xavier... before the X-Men... before the drama... before Warren...

But Warren was here now, and his presence made her feel old, like she was suppose to act a certain way because she was stuck in her old routines. Another reason Betsy broke up with him: he had so many expectations of her. He wanted her to be his wife, to settle down after marriage and help him raise a child or four, to be on his arm whenever a millionaire threw a fancy gala, to laugh with him at the country club while indulging in mimosas and sangrias.

Betsy couldn't do that. Well, she could, but she didn't want to. Too much of her craved the danger and excitement. She couldn't be Mrs. Warren Worthington because she would always be Ms. Elisabeth Braddock. Warren wanted a wife; Betsy couldn't be one.

A wife--just looking at his longing eyes aged her a fistful of decades.

"Kind of cold to be flying, Warren."

His massive wings folded out of the way, enough for him to sit next to her. "It's the only way to get into Manhattan. The roads are blocked off."

She leaned back onto the sheen of ice and tile, a move he didn't emulate. She rubbed her nose and yawned. "Why are you here?"

"I love you, Betsy."

"We've been over this. We're done and we've moved on."

"Do you love me?"

"No," she replied, unhesitant.

"Did you love me?"

As quickly as the previous answer, "Yes."

"So what changed?"


"I never-"

"That's right. You, the model of stability, never changed. Me? I changed and we drifted apart. I couldn't understand you needed a wife and you couldn't understand I needed an outlet. At one point, I loved you with all my heart, but no matter how much people want it to be true, love isn't forever. Love is work, understanding, compromise, and commitment. Love is supposed to be nurtured or it dies. Our love languished because we stopped working for it."

"I worked for our love," Warren said incredulously, his eyes smoldering in disbelief, "I risked everything to save you with the Crimson Dawn! I saved you from Shinobi Shaw! I-"

"That's my point, Warren. Love isn't like a business transaction with profits and loses. You help the one you love because you love them, not because they'll be indebted to you and feel obligated to have sex with you."

Personal honor in danger, Warren let his unwavering cutthroat persona take charge. "What do you know about love? Where do you come off high and mighty when you're the one who used Neal to cheat on me?"

"Never said I was right. If you want me to say it, I'll say it: I was wrong for toying with both you and Neal like that. I have no defense for my hideous actions and it's something I regret ever doing. I'm sorry."

The blunt admission stemmed his irritation.

"Go back to Paige," said Betsy. "She's a good girl who can give you what you need. Us? We would've never worked."

"There's always going to be a part of me that loves you, Betts."

"It's because you can't have me. Things always look better when you can't have them."

"I think we could've-"

"It's over, Warren. Both of us have somebody else. I don't know if you love Paige, but I know I'm in love."

"Who is he?"

"That's none of your god damn business."

S.H.I.E.L.D. Press Conference at the Pentagon...

Nick Fury, perhaps the most famous and definitely the most visible S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, cleared his throat and drank from the glass of water. He once-overed the gathered audience and began.

"Despite the latest technology and our best efforts, an unknown terrorist managed to breach our innermost systems and deploy fighters without our knowledge and against our will. S.H.I.E.L.D. accepts full responsibility for this tragedy and is working around the clock to do two things: aid rescue workers and prevent this from ever happening again. The people of the United States of America have my sincerest apologies. To those who lost loved ones, you have my full assurance that we will find whoever did this and bring them to justice."

He raised his head, watched the itching reporters, and prepared for the inevitable. "Questions?"

Over the commotion, one intrepid person rose above his peers. "What is S.H.I.E.L.D.'s stance on mutants?"

"The same as it always has been: judge on a case to case basis."

Another reporter climbed to the top of the heap. "Is the President calling for your resignation?"

"If he is, that's the first I've heard of it."

"How does S.H.I.E.L.D. intend to protect the nation if it caused so much damage?"

"No one's perfect," Fury growled, slamming his fist against the podium. "I can only say we're working as hard as we can to plug up the holes."

"Any idea who this terrorist is and what faction he or she belongs to?"

"We have some leads we're investigating."

"Is this a foreign or domestic threat?"

"Most likely domestic."

"What does S.H.I.E.L.D. intend to do with the X-Men who reportedly were the ones to repel the attack?"

"Shake their hands."

"A number of survivors recounted a fire sweeping over Manhattan. Was this a government secret weapon or something else entirely?"

"I can't comment on that."

"Is billionaire Emma Frost a suspect in your investigations?"

"No comment."

"Will S.H.I.E.L.D. be dissolved in light of this debacle?"

"Only if you people don't like breathing." With the veins in his neck protruding and his teeth bared, he barked, "This conference is over."

Alex Summers brought his hand onto Lorna Dane's forehead. Lying on one of the few intact beds in the medlab, she looked like the perfect woman: quiet, serene, undemanding, beautiful. This was his fiancé, if only she'd ever be stable enough to wake up. If only he even wanted her.

The prognosis? Acute kidney failure from a drug overdose. The same drugs inhibited parts of her nervous system. Foreign mutagens clashed with her unique physiology and facilitated a latent secondary mutation. Emma Frost's psychic attack left her comatose. Areas of her brain showed intense activity, pulling various glands into overdrive and producing a stressed and angry sensation.

Hank's voice cut through his thoughts. "Don't get down on yourself, ol' buddy. She'll be ok once I find a way to neutralize the drugs."

"Great," said Alex as he walked to the stairs, "I'm not holding my breath."

"Whoa there, cowboy. In the words of Logan, 'This ain't flamin' hopeless yet.'"

"I don't care anymore."

"How can you not care? This is Ms. Lorna Dane, you know, your sweetheart? The girl you went on and on about at Scott's wedding? The same one Bobby asked if she could walk on water and you said yes?"

"There's been a new development."

"Well, I'll say." The blue furred man put down the test tubes and removed his goggles. "A few months ago, Ms. Pryde came to me talking about a nuptial, and now you don't care if the better half lives or dies? That's not the Alex Summers I remember."

"I'm not the Alex Summers you remember. You don't know what happened; you can't fathom what I had to leave behind."

"Kitty told me about your rumored demise and your subsequent return from another dimension. Seems like you have a plethora of troubles on your proverbial plate."

Alex turned his back on Hank. "All my life I've lived in someone's shadow. I never was myself until I went into that other dimension. There, I was the leader. I was an incomparable hero. I loved someone there and she loved me back regardless of who I was. Then I came back to this world, and guess what? I'm back to being Scott's little brother and the Professor's pawn."

"What about Lorna?"

"Lorna's not the woman I love. She can have my body but she'll never have my heart."

"Why accept her marriage proposal then?"

He stopped at the question. "Hank, when she asked me, I was just pulled from a dimensional nowhere. My body had been catatonic for months so talking wasn't high on my to-do list. She took my silence as a yes and things snowballed from there."

"It's irresponsible to not stop-"

"I don't care about responsibility. I just want to leave this life."

Albany International Airport, Alaskan Airlines terminal--Scott showed his driver's license to the woman behind the counter.

"Going to Anchorage today, Mr. Summers?"


After the computer printed out the ticket, she slid the piece of paper into a ticket sleeve and smiled the obligatory smile. "Your gate number is A12. Enjoy your flight, Mr. Summers."

Anchorage, Alaska was the only other place he ever considered home. His was born there; his grandparents lived there; he and Madelyne moved there after their ill-fated marriage. The city held some of his happiest moments and played host to him whenever he needed to get away from his pressure laden life. He needed to see the endless snow and feel the warmth of family.

He needed something to keep the ghost of Apocalypse at bay.

He needed to keep Jean away.

Through the metal detector he went, nothing but a medium sized piece of carry-on luggage to accompany him. Didn't need much since he never sold the house he shared with Maddie up there.

Maddie... Jean...

A bubble of depression almost burst. Two dead wives? That wasn't suppose to happen to anyone. He'd invested so much of himself in them, and in the end, something else took them away. The gardens of heaven he tended, especially with Jean, weren't enough to sustain him through the fields of hell the X-Men life plopped him into.

His body wore down. His soul refused to go on. Emma might've thought losing Jean again was easier but it only hurt more each time he said goodbye. He tried to act brave and tough out the loss, but without Jean, without her omnipresent support, he had no will to live.

Following the Professor's dream got him here. Somewhere in the back of mind, this nagging, doubting, bitter voice blamed Charles for Jean's death. The rest of Scott fought against this voice, but no matter what he did, he couldn't silence it.

A small amount of truth lay in the claim.

He dropped his bag next to chair at Gate A12. The flight wasn't for another three hours, but with the three Manhattan airports nearly closed, Albany International handled an influx of passengers. Already delays were popping up everywhere and it was only a matter of time before the Anchorage flight got pushed back.

Passengers scrambled, suitcases dropping left and right. Security personnel stretched to their limits, each given so many orders from so many people that they were all confused. Airport workers zoomed about while people screamed complaints and obscenities at them. For once, Scott wasn't caught in the chaos. For once, he could sit back and say "fuck it."

The good Samaritan in him withered away. These people could rot with it.

A red sports bag dropped onto the chair next to Scott. "Not quite happy thoughts, Dad."

Rachel, smiling and carrying two cups of egg nog flavored coffee, stood over him. He cocked his head curiously at her. "Why are you here?"

"Moral support," she shrugged as she handed one of the steaming hot drinks to him. "I know how you get."

"You mean your mother knew how I got."

The cold edge cut Rachel's cheeriness in two. Part accusing, part malicious, Scott's invocation of Jean jolted his daughter. She didn't expect her father to be so... so...

"You can be such an ass."

"Leave me alone, Rachel. I don't want to be reminded of Jean or the X-Men."

"Well, tough luck. I spent over fifteen hundred dollars on this plane ticket and it's too late to refund. You're stuck with me."

"If I give you fifteen hundred dollars, will you go away?"

She sat down next to him and frowned. "Not leaving, Dad, no matter what you say. You shouldn't be alone and I'm going to keep you company so you don't do something stupid. Period."

"I'm not a child."

"Really?" she asked, raising a brow, "Could've fooled me. Look, I'm not here to be all headstrong and mean. I just want to support you and make you feel better."

"If you want me to feel better, then go away."

"Dad, can you honestly look me in the eye and say you're better off without me?"

Behind the ruby quartz, his eyes focused on Rachel. He saw her--truly saw her--for the first time. They'd always been distant before, a multitude of reasons coming between them. No secret Scott favored Nathan over her. Come on, Scott and Jean raised Nathan, of course the relationship was stronger. All the elder Summers knew about Rachel was that she popped out of the sky on day, the slave of a futuristic megalomaniac.

Father-daughter time? Exactly zero. And as anyone who knew Scott could attest to, he almost never went out of his way to get to know others. He worked in a small social circle, and somehow, his daughter never made it in to his tiny world.

Jean was a different story. She saw shades of herself in Rachel. While Scott treated the woman with a stranger's courtesy, Jean embraced her daughter. Shopping trips, heart-to-hearts, and everything in between passed from mother to child. Rachel contented herself with Jean's affections and hoped her father would come around.

He never did... until now.

Something about the cheeks and forehead reminded him of himself. The dead set glare rivaled his own. The way she sipped her coffee and glared at him brought back memories of tense morning standoffs with a cigar smoking Wolverine. The red hair wasn't as stark as Jean's, the catching color blunted by definite shades of brown. The way her lips moved when she wasn't talking, the impatient tapping of her fingers, the tendency to never cross her legs--the mannerisms smacked of Scott.

He gained a new perspective on his daughter. The door to his heart cracked open a hair. She reminded him of the greatness he and Jean were capable of. For a split second, he saw her as a testament to Jean's life rather than a monument to her death.

"Attention all Alaska Airlines passengers on Flight 1152 inbound to Anchorage: there is an earlier, unfilled flight departing now at Gate B4. If you wish to depart now, make your way to Gate B4. I repeat..."

"B4," Scott said, eyes never straying from his daughter, "That's on the other side of the airport."

"So it is."

Father and daughter glanced out into the bustling terminal full of harried travelers and runaway luggage carts.

A small smile dawned on Scott's face as he looked back at Rachel. "Race you there."

And off they went.

CNN's presentation of "Hell on Earth" filmed by Yvette Kelson-Pratt...

"... overhead. And like that."

A red-orange explosion engulfed the camera.

"Poof. Hell."

The screen faded back in. A flaming, tipped over McDonald's sign burned into focus. Ashes covered the streets, the only sound that of feet shuffling over destroyed life. Skeletons of cars pitifully sat, paint stripped away and glass shattered into millions of pieces. Not even the streetlights flickered, but the fires provided enough light to see for blocks and blocks. Majestic skyscrapers lost their luster while steam rose into the cold, cold night.

"It wasn't always like this," the female narrator's voice said, "There were people here, people and mutants and... and... things. If H.P. Lovecraft was alive, he'd have enough inspiration for three, maybe even four, more lifetimes. What I mean is..."

A flash of a hideous creature shrieking overlaid the picture.

"... terror..."

Another flash, this time lone enough for the audience to make out the gray, slimy skin and hairless features.

"... something not of this world..."

Flash like lightning showed off a bloody mouth and sharp, malformed teeth.

"... something even mutants were afraid of..."

Two red glows pierced through the darkness in place of the sudden flash.

"... something I don't ever want to see again."

More red glows appeared in pairs until they dotted everywhere.

"And yet, one mysterious man fought against these things."

Cut to the Empire State Building's base. Atop, a blast fell a bunch of winged demons and sent their singed remains into the streets.

"He called himself Remy LeBeau. He saved my life after Magneto dropped me from eighty stories up. I thought I'd never see this stranger ever again, but little did I know he fought for our existence..."

The camera seemed to be passing through stairs, slipping through ceilings and filming the damaged girders of the building. The whole effect was much like surfacing after diving into water, and when the camera broke through to the roof, a small fizzle sound teased the built-in microphone. A woman in a yellow X-Men uniform ran in front of the camera, but it didn't focus on her. It didn't even focus on a glimmering Emma Grace Frost standing side to side with British model Elisabeth Braddock. Instead, it went straight to a trench coat wearing, pipe swinging, card throwing Cajun right in the thick of things.

"Despite his obvious wounds, this brown haired man gallantly fought. One arm around his stomach and another on his weapon, he demolished monsters left and right like the right hand of God. He wouldn't be stopped. He..."

New Orleans, Louisiana...

"... couldn't be stopped..."

Bella Donna's eyes went wide at the image of Remy on the TV. "He's still alive?"

Back in Westchester...

"He was a sight to be behold..."

"Remy! You're on TV!"

"Mon dieu, Remy knew dat woman was up to no good. How can Remy be a t'ief now when de world t'ink he a superhero?"

The baby let go of the milk bottle and smiled happily.

"The baby," Kitty laughed to herself. Somehow, "Illyana" sounded too burdensome for such an innocent being. Dubbing her "Illyana" meant a replacement of the original, and the last thing Kitty wanted was a desecration of her best friend's memory. A side effect to the name was overshadowing the baby with unreal expectations.

Forcing that past on her was too cruel to contemplate.

So, Kitty stuck with thinking of the baby as "the baby" instead of Illyana. Besides, naming the baby implied some sort of connection, and at the moment, she wasn't sure she even wanted to keep the infant.

Hey, there were plenty of great foster parents who'd gush over a cute child like this. They'd raise her right, away from harm and this hectic life. They'd let her grown up around normal people who did normal things. She'd be taken care of above and beyond Kitty's own meager abilities. Who knew? Maybe the foster parents would have siblings for the baby to bond with. Big brother, little sister, it didn't matter, but whatever it was, it was more than what Kitty could give.

Then again, the foster parents could be terrible like those news reports painted some of them to be. They could be Church of Humanity supporters adopting mutant children so they could either be slaughtered or brainwashed into servants. Even if the foster parents weren't abusive, they could fall on hard times and not be able to support another mouth. What was meant to be a joyous gift could turn into an unwanted cross.

With baby in arm, Kitty slipped the finished milk bottle into the dishwasher and ventured to the fridge for her own snack. One hand free, she snatched a cold snickers bars hidden in the back of salad crisper. Most likely owner? Bobby. She'd have to remember to thank him tomorrow.

As she closed the fridge, she noticed Mystique sauntering into the kitchen like she owned the place.

"Excuse me," she politely said to Kitty as reached for one of the upper cabinets. Somehow, she found a box of Jubilee's favorite Sugar Bombs cereal. Next, she scared up a gallon of milk. Some went into a bowl of sugary goodness; a lot more went into the woman's stomach as she drank straight from the jug. "Ahhhh," she purred. "Nothing like ice cold milk."

Open, throw, slam. The gallon of Mystique backwashed milk disappeared back into the fridge. She hopped onto the kitchen counter and loudly munched away on her late night snack.

"So Pryde, you keeping the little demon?"

Wait a second, "Did you just drink out of the container?"

"Sure did," she grinned between mouthfuls of Sugar Bombs. "What's it to you?"

"That's just gross. Others drink that milk too."

"You think I have a terrible, transmittable disease or something? What's the problem? We're all mutants here."

"After all the things and people you've done, who knows what you have? There's a child here and I don't want her getting sick from your rancid milk or exotic germs."

"Exotic germs? Moi?"

"Oh please, who knows what kinds of diseases you've contracted from your globetrotting."

Mystique gave an approving nod. "You worry about the little things, Pryde. You'd make a good mother."

"Since when did chiding the way you drink milk turn into a critique on my parenting skills?"

Slurp, slurp, slurp went the metamorph, polishing off the last of the cereal. She wiped her mouth with a paper towel and left spoon, bowl, and used paper towel on the counter furthest from the sink. "It's just an observation. Good mothers usually stress out about their children and aren't afraid to speak up. Irene was like that with Rogue and I know she was a good mother."

One didn't associate tenderness with Mystique, but the wistful inflection in her voice revealed a seldom seen side of her. It surprised Kitty, enough for her to slightly let her guard down and relax her stiffened shoulders. "What should I do with her?"

"That's easy. When you look at her, what do you see?"

A joyful little face. Bright eyes unblemished by a hard times. Tufts of blonde hair as lustrous as gold. A child who's life could've been ruined as she lay in a darkened convenience store. A child without parents. A child who deserved parents.

Kitty bowed her head and clutched the baby tighter. "I see someone who needs love."

"There's a good start," said Mystique, leaping off the counter. "Do you see yourself giving her that love?"

"Yes... I mean, maybe or no. No, definitely no. I don't even know how to take care of a puppy."

"No one is born knowing how to raise children. You learn through experience. Trust me, she'll tell you when you're doing something wrong."

"What if I-"

Mystique crossed her eyes and waggled her tongue at the baby. Transfixed, Kitty watched the little one clap and laugh at the admittedly funny gesture.

"Tell you what," Mystique said as she tickled the baby's chin, "I'm going to be stuck here for a bit. Since it looks like you're more for keeping this child than giving her up, I'll help you get to know the ropes."

"I haven't decided yet."

"You've decided already," laughed Mystique, "Have to say, once a kid grabs onto you, she doesn't let go. You maybe all 'I can't be a responsible parent' now, but I bet if someone came to take her away, you'd fight tooth and nail."

In the deepest recesses of Kitty's heart, she admitted the truth in Mystique's observation. For the dead parents, for the memory of Illyana, for this young girl's future, Kitty couldn't bring herself to part with the baby. Was this her biological clock speaking and yearning for an offspring? Was this her way to give Illyana a new beginning?

Was this just human compassion taking over?

"Come on, Kit Kat. If you're going to make it through the day, I need to teach you to proper way to change diapers."

"How come you're helping me, Mystique?"

The blue skinned woman stopped and shrugged. "I like babies."

That and she wanted to see the look on Storm's face after she'd been so close to Kitty. Then, she'd be in stitches when said weather witch would confront the diamond bitch about letting a "known enemy stay and corrupt Katherine!"

What a riot. That'll teach Frost not to fuck with her.

Emma sat under the gazebo. She went nonstop for a little more than a week making phone calls, arranging aid, checking on key employees, trying to fix this damned school, talking with government officials, and recruiting a semi-decent faculty. Had she been flesh and blood, she would've dropped dead about three days ago, probably right after Jean's funeral. If her heart could beat, it'd probably be racing a mile a minute with the news that Xavier, Logan, and the Summers brothers were M.I.A.

All four men were pissant jerks but they knew how to get things done.

Them aside, still more work needed to be done. She needed to talk to the students who were caught up in "Magneto's" bid for world domination. She needed to placate them and make sure they were fine. Then there was the grim task of finding out which unlucky students perished in the Manhattan bombing. Of the thousands of mutants killed, some of them had to have been students.

The parents wouldn't be happy.

At the same time, she balanced the Xavier Institute's drama like it was a Hellfire Club Inner Circle meeting. Between pushing Storm's buttons, failing to keep Cyclops aboard, garnering Mystique's presence, and seeing where she stood with the rest of the X-Men, everything was just... wow.

Too much drama. Made her wish for a time when activating her secondary mutation meant sweeping aside her emotions.

Ah, her body was the last straw. She didn't need sleep, food, air, or water--that was the good part. The bad part was never being able to feel her skin, change her crystallized clothes, or taste her liquor. Kick remained in her body, put into stasis by the diamond but waiting to resume its fatal task if she ever turned back into flesh.

At least that was Hank's results after running her through a gamut of tests.

Though physically stopped, her mind continued. She thought a little break in this secluded part of the school grounds would calm her down, but no luck. Things still happened under her nose, Hank hadn't come up with a counteragent to Kick, and she couldn't even get drunk or pass out from exhaustion.

The decanter of Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac sat with her, the top off and a small sip of it consumed. It tasted like nothing. It felt like nothing. When she tilted her body, the liquor came flowing back out. The ethanol didn't effervesce in her mouth and give her a heady rush. She couldn't even smell the richness anymore. The drink she savored since her first million might as well have been tasteless and bland water.

In a fit rage, she threw the crystal bottle into the gazebo floor. Crash it went as it split into smaller pieces, amber liquid splashing and evaporating as more of it exposed to the air. Most of it dripped all over the wood, unable to be frozen. Some crystal shards retreated back to its owner but she had no mercy for them. Her diamond boot crushed and ground the transparent material until it was no longer recognizable.

Perhaps this was why Emma went nonstop. She knew if she let herself reflect, the consequences of Esme's final act would haunt her. If she threw herself into her work, she'd be numb to the underlying troubles, and after time, would forget about them when she expended all her energy.

Only this time, she couldn't expend all her energy. She was like a perpetual motion machine, wanting to stop, needing to stop, but somehow defying nature and not stopping. When the battles outside were done, she turned to the battles inside, the ones she couldn't win.

Betsy walked up the gazebo's steps and sat down next to Emma. "Here," she whispered, pulling the blonde into a soft embrace, "Let it out if you want to."

"I can't let it out," angrily snapped Emma, "I can't cry even if I wanted to! My damned voice won't scratch and I can't even force myself to sob! The only thing I can do is scream and even that gets old!"

"You can't feel a thing?"

A shining hand stroked Betsy's face. "I can't feel how perfect your skin is. I can't feel your hair run through my fingers. I won't know how you taste or what heavenly perfume you're wearing." A sigh, then, "Kissing me will be like kissing stone. Poetic justice, isn't it? The woman everyone said was made of ice is now a prisoner in her own body."

"There's no justice involved, Emma. You were nothing but kind to Esme and she tried to kill you. If you're guilty of anything, it's believing in the goodness of your students."

"So this the fate of us teachers. No wonder Xavier left."

"The Professor's gone?"

"Like a coward. Off on sabbatical he said. Felt nice enough to leave me a voicemail about how he had faith in everyone keeping the school going." Emma picked up a large sliver of crystal. Each edge had her reflection in them, and if she turned it just right, she saw Betsy's visage as well. "The world has taken so much from me. I've decided that the hope of a better future for my students keeps me going. If it wants to take that away too, it's going to have to do an awful lot to eradicate my existence. If I can't live myself, I'll live through others."

Bleak. Betsy brushed her fingers against Emma's rigid hair. "What about me?"

"You can be taken away too."

Anyone else would've abruptly left the gazebo. Betsy waited for her significant other to finish her thought aloud.

"I won't stand for it," Emma breathed, straining to feel something of Betsy, "but you can be taken away from me. Belasco showed me that."

"So we live one day at a time and appreciate what we have."

"Don't you get it, Elisabeth? I can't even appreciate you. My mind tells me I should be consumed with you but my body doesn't react. I... you... we can't..."

"You can't feel how wet I am. I can't make you cry out my name. We can't make love to each other." Flesh pressed against diamond as Betsy straddled Emma. A wanting, seductive pout graced her. "There are ways around that, love. We're telepaths."

A kiss and a rebirth. Astral bodies extracted themselves from their physical confines and coalesced inside a grand ballroom. Massive chandeliers glowed with the power of countless candles. Roman-styled pillars reached high into the domed ceiling. Eclectic stained glass windows depicting various erotic scenes partly shielded the bright stars outside; drawn red velvet drapes obediently waited for further use. The waltzes of Joseph Haydn played from everywhere, sound reverberating off of the stone walls and glistening white marble floor. Two winding staircases--one on either side of the room--each held a woman atop.

A flesh and bone Emma canvassed herself with her usual impeccable white leather. High heeled boots, tight fitting pants, figure hugging corset, delicate gloves, a silky cape, and a diamond choker accented her inspiring figure, the clothes revealing enough skin to be scandalous. Her platinum blonde hair bristled and waved, each motion enunciating a move of her hips or a turn of her neck. Sky blue eyes burned a trail across the room, across to a welcoming set of hazel brown eyes.

Betsy adjourned herself with a red and green silk dress. Strapless and sleeveless, much of Betsy was on display from her lithe arms to the bare leg peeking out of a less-than-modest slit. However, the most notable feature was the dangerous dip her dress sported at the chest, enough to accent her ample cleavage. Hair tied tightly back, she opted for the more simple astral image which made its statement in its honesty.

Big dip. Long slit. It was a "fuck me" dress modeled in a "fuck me" pose, no mistaking that. How much more honest could a girl get?

As she descended the stairs, Emma nodded in approval. "Impressive."

"Grand rooms are a dime a dozen when you grow up in Braddock Manor."

"I was talking about your dress."

Stiletto heels knocked against marble as the women stalked toward each other. "You're a lot happier all of a sudden."

"I'll be happier in a few seconds."

They met like opposing forces of nature, a primitive desire spurring them to each other. They jousted for supremacy, delight of the struggle exciting them, pushing them into new heights. Emma relished in Betsy, her hands grazing head, back, and buttocks alike. She fumbled for that weakness a few inches below her lover's ribs.

Lover? The word came out of nowhere and stuck. That's what Betsy was: Emma's lover. The blonde didn't long for another. She didn't miss someone else's scent or skin. No one else made her feel like a ditzy schoolgirl and a hungry predator all at once.

Renewed, Emma pulled herself from Betsy's enticing mouth and trailed kiss down to her neck. Between roaming digits, relentless lips, and the powerful emotions across their bond, Betsy slackened, her entire being seized in a blissful sensory overload. She tried to keep up with Emma, one up her, but her mind wouldn't listen instead partaking in pleasure against her competitive spirit.

"Victory," grinned Emma, nuzzling Betsy's neck. "I told you I'd have my revenge. You'll learn that I don't do idle threats."

To prove her point, she deftly maneuvered her left hand under the silk dress and-

Betsy gasped, legs buckling and her sex ablaze. "Emma!" she screamed, her spine no longer giving her support. She fell but the blonde wouldn't let her hit the ground. She leaned further into the arm across her back as her legs obediently spread apart for more. Eyes opened but blind, she rode the motions of Emma's skillful fingers.

Thought left her. Free will left her. Her hips bucked to the rhythm Emma set faster and faster and faster until they stroked her to the edge and... and...

Betsy came, and when she did, she came so hard she lost control of her astral projection and tunneled back into herself.

Emma's body reclined into the gazebo bench. Betsy, arms wrapped around Emma's neck, still straddled the cold, hard thighs. Despite the cold, a patch of dampness spread all over her crotch and glistened against the flawless diamond. Betsy would've been embarrassed if she wasn't breathless and euphoric.

"Emma," she weakly murmured, "That was-"

Freezing lips silenced her. "Words can't describe it, Elisabeth. I know how it felt and that's enough."

Tears of joy streamed from Betsy's eyes. As if holding on for dear life, she tightened her hug. "What about you?"

Of her partners, the White Queen always demanded reciprocation; after all, her services weren't free. She had needs too and watching someone else get off wasn't enough.

But this was different. They say the truest sign of love is taking pleasure in another's pleasure. Seldom could giving be just as rewarding as receiving, but in this case, it was. Emma dabbed a tear from Betsy's cheek and felt... satisfied. The evident adoration in Betsy's face and humming through the bond left Emma in a dreamy, post-coital haze.

Maybe because of the bond, Betsy's pleasure translated into Emma's pleasure. Maybe because of her recent drought of sexual activity, any sex was satisfying sex.

Emma doubted the maybes. This was love, love as it should be.

"I'm fine, Elisabeth."

Another person would've interpreted the refusal as rejection. Betsy felt her own rapture mirrored in Emma, both of them satiated and spent. They actually wanted to please each other; they actually wanted to see the other shudder and glow. They wanted each other so much that delighting one meant delighting the other.

Emma's refusal wasn't rejection. It was a sign of greater things to come

Living life one day at a time--caught in the world's chaos, they anchored themselves together. The future could take them away but what they had now was eternal. Life wasn't forever. Love wasn't forever.

Their moment together was and they loved it like they loved each other. Under the risen sun and covered with morning dew, Emma picked up Betsy and quietly walked to the mansion's remains.

"Why are we going this way?" asked Betsy as they passed unoccupied construction vehicles.

"I'm bringing to you to my vision..."

One week later...

"Ladies and gentlemen, the founder, owner, and CEO of Frost Enterprises, Emma Grace Frost."

Putting away her cell phone, she strode out from behind the curtains with head held high and unabashedly hammering her diamond heels against the ground. Restrained clapping went around the room, most people here not knowing how to respond to the change in the respected but reclusive businesswoman. There'd been speculation, there'd even been footage, but to see the real thing set off a sea of flashbulbs and oceans of hesitation..

Emma shared a private laugh with Betsy that these photo scourging ingrates would blind themselves with their own cameras and her shiny body.

But laughs aside, this press conference bordered on life and death. Things done today would become the background for Emma's new chapter in life. The thousands of employees, the future of the school, the fate of her fortune, and the reaction of her enemies hinged on these next minutes. Most things great or terrible could be traced back to this one point, perhaps measured down to the exact word. Emma sensed the significance groaned to herself.

Another moment of truth. What was it with her and putting herself into difficult situations?

"Good evening," she began, her voice betraying none of her annoyance, "I am here today to clear up many of your concerns. Even in the aftermath of this tragic event, the media has found time to research and sometimes fabricate information about me. For the good of Frost Enterprises, the people we help, and myself, these rumors will be laid to rest right now."

She stretched her arms out and slowly spun herself around. "If it isn't apparent enough, I am a mutant. I am active in the mutant community, funding research, heading up private institutions, and trying to produce responsible mutants who can cope with today's hostile environment. And yes, in recent times, I have joined with the X-Men. I can turn myself to diamond and be highly impervious to most types of harm. During Magneto's assault on Manhattan, I was rendered incapable of returning to original self by one of his accomplices..."

In the ruins of Genosha...

"... The X-Men, with the assistance of numerous allies, fought him, and in the ensuing battle, he was kill-"

Magnus turned the TV off. "I sincerely hope she doesn't believe I was involved, old friend."

Charles Xavier shook his head. "I asked her to say that. The world will not understand the complications involved. Better they think the Master of Magnetism dead than continue to hunt him."

"He is dead," the white haired man sighed, "Both of us are dead. In the end, what have the efforts of two old men gotten our people? Death and hatred. We are dinosaurs, Charles. Our ideals are wrinkled like our bodies.."

The Professor caught onto the historical allusion. "We are like old soldiers."

"'And old soldiers never die,'" he quoted, "'they just fade away.'"

"... Frost Enterprises has always been about helping people..."
Hellfire Club, Hong Kong...

"... and being a tool for positive world change."

Selene nearly choked on the olive in her dry martini. "Bullshit!"

"Mutants are no different. We have the same concerns as the next person but with the added obstacle of a mutation. Without guidance, these mutations can turn deadly, or worse yet, be used as weapons against innocents..."
Student Commons in the Xavier Institute of Westchester, New York...

"We've read about the atrocities of the Sentinel program and witnessed the repeated exploitation of countless desperate mutants..."

With only Kitty (whose baby burden was safely asleep in one of the rooms) sitting next to her on the couch, Mystique glared at the television. "Let me get this straight: the White Queen is hopping up on a soapbox and talking about evil mutants?"

"Stranger things have happened."

"Um, no. Doesn't anyone realize that she is one of the dirtiest figures in history? I'm talking about massive fraud, telepathic manipulation, insider trading, extortion, attempted murder, littering, everything. Why, I'm a saint compared to her!"

That got a dubious stare from Kitty.

"Fine, I'm no saint but she isn't one either." They resumed watching and Mystique continued talking. "Didn't she kidnap you once? Tied you up real good and cuffed you?"

"And brainwashed my parents too."

"Shouldn't you be equally as livid as I am when the leather loving Emma Frost sings about her virtues and 'positive world change?'"

"Well, I've seen some changes. She's not as... as..."

"Come on," goaded Mystique, sidling closer to the brunette, "You can say it. I know you want to."

"She's not as much of a bitch as I remember her to be. I don't know, she just seems nicer. Like when we rescued Betsy, Emma was so adamant about doing the right thing and not wanting Betsy to suffer. It's was scary in that self-righteous sort of way."

"The White Queen has always been self-righteous. If you ask me, I think you have the hots for the bleach blonde."

Blushing, Kitty slapped the approaching metamorph in the arm. "Do not!" she yelled. Then more quietly, "Emma bleaches her hair?"

"Of course. Once in a blue moon, if you really look at her roots, you'll see little bits of brown."

"No way."

"Way," Mystique nodded sagely. "I was pretending to be a Congressman at the Hellfire Club this one time and I got a chance to get her to suck my-"

"Ew! Too much information!"

The woman slid closer to the brunette. "Your mouth says 'ew' but I see the curiousness. You've wondered, haven't you?"

"N.O. No."

Mystique's right foot rubbed up and down Kitty's jittery leg. "Don't lie to me: I'm a professional. You liked it when she tied you up. Ever since you found out who she was and what she did, you've always wanted to feel her. Am I right?"

"Stop fooling around, Mystique."

"I can be your fantasies, Katherine." Blue skin turned alabaster white. Flaming red hair elongated into strands of blonde. With the addition of skimpy leather, the image of Emma couldn't go unnoticed. "Let your imagination go wild. You know you want it." Shifting again, this time short blonde hair and a less statuesque figure.

"Illyana," gasped Kitty.

"Or how about your old friend? Maybe even..."

Mystique increased in mass and darkened her hair. Where feminine features reigned, masculine features took over. "Maybe even that Russian you've drooled over. He was a very... big... boy, if you know what I mean."

The last metamorphosis ripped apart the last of Kitty's patience. With a simple, well-leveraged flip, she catapulted Mystique off the couch and leapt to her feet. "That's enough! You went too far!"

Peter Rasputin reverted back into Raven Darkholme's blue skin and red hair. "So I was right. You did want Frost."

The persevering observation sputtered her mind and overloaded her with clashing thoughts of disgust, anger, and intrigue. "What? You're such a... Just get..."

Up and over couch and across the rug jumped Mystique. "Relax," she grinned, "We're two adults about to have some adult fun." Long nails gently grazed the small of Kitty's back while the taller blue woman held her eyes hostage.

"It's been a while for me," Mystique said softly, a clear rumble in her husky voice, "but I hear it's like riding a bike: you never really forget."

"The X-Men stand as a deterrent to mutant exploitation and as a first line of defense toward malicious individuals like Magneto. In the mold of the government sanctioned X-Factor and Alpha Flight, I have proposed to the United Nations the formation of a global organization to deal with mutant-related issues. Before I came on the stage, I received the approval. This group will answer directly to the global community and is currently composed of X-Men. I am pleased to introduce to members of the X.S.E..."
Communal Kitchen in the Xavier Institute of Westchester, New York...

"... Storm, Bishop, Nightcrawler, Iceman, and Gambit..."

"Hmph," Hank grunted as he struggled with a Twinkie wrapper, "So that's where everyone went."

After turning off the kitchen TV, he whistled a bright little tune while ambling to the commons. Hey, that room had the biggest television in the building. From across the hall, he spotted the back of X'ian who although stood at the entranceway of the commons didn't walk in.

"Pardon me, mademoiselle, could I please get-"

The sounds of heavy panting from behind the couch halted him. Was that Kitty? Yup, that had to be Kitty. Who was with her? Why was that person's hand blue?

The realization hit Hank like a lightning bolt, and in his shock, he squeeze his half eaten Twinkie a little too hard and squirt its creamy contents all over himself. "Oh my stars and garters..."

X'ian took a step back. "You can say that again."

"I believe that the best way to achieve peace between human and mutants is through education. By being knowledgeable in ourselves and others, we can foster an accepting, supporting population one individual at a time. Thus, as for myself, I will reopen the Xavier Institute in the spring term. It will be a facility for mutants of all ages with the goal of teaching them control of their abilities while maintaining a positive academic environment. I envision it as a place where parents will be proud to send their children, a safe place where students will be allowed a chance to blossom..."
Summers Home at Anchorage, Alaska...

"... Applications are being accepted now while the school grounds is being renovated..."

"Renovated?" Rachel scoffed. "She just doesn't want to tell people that the mansion got totaled by supervillains."

A click of the remote and ESPN SportsCenter replaced the news broadcast. Rachel glanced at her grimacing father, his fingers around his mug of spiked egg nog tense and white.

"Could've told me if you wanted to check the basketball scores that bad."

"Not funny, Rachel."

"And this is getting sad, Dad. If hearing about Emma Frost and what's she doing to the school pisses you off that bad, you should go back and teach her a thing or two about X-Men."

"I'm not going back."

"Whatever. But really, your moping around has got to stop. Only thing I've done since coming to Alaska is sit around, drink terrible egg nog, and watch the World Series of Poker all day. If you don't want to have anything do with the mansion, the least you could do it show me around."

"It's Alaska, Rachel. There's snow. There's the sky. That's it."

Rachel slammed down her mug and stomped to the door. Seeing where she was heading, Scott stood up and said, "You're not dressed to go outside."

"Know what? I don't really care. Anything is better than watching you feel sorry for yourself!"


God damn children. He unhooked two large jackets from the closet and raced outside to find his-


A snowball dripped down his chin. As the wetness beaded off his glasses, he saw a laughing Rachel grabbing her stomach and pointing at her handiwork on her father's face.

"Gotta give it to me, Dad! I got you good!"

And here he was with jackets in hand trying to the responsible parent. Somehow, being the butt of a practical joke didn't feel right. Maybe if he changed the subject she would stop laughing. Summoning his most authoritative voice, he boomed, "You need a jacket."

Suddenly, snowballs popped out of the ground and hovered around her sides. "Don't need one," she giggled, "I've got telekinesis! Now you on the other hand, optic blasts or not, will need one."

A hail of slushy projectiles pelted him. He tried to retreat back into the house but his devious daughter had sealed it shut with her aforementioned telekinesis. His only recourse?


"Thank you. May you all have a safe trip home."

The moment of truth passed. Only time would tell whether all this--her gamble, her goodwill, her dream, and her half-honesty--would pay off. The maelstrom of conflicted emotions and enormous worry bubbled in her heart. If she could shake, she'd be shaking like she never had before. Flanked by X-Men, those here now known as the X.S.E., Emma trudged backstage to where Rogue and Betsy stood.

While Rogue hugged Remy and gave Storm a sidelong glare for not including her in her new squad, Betsy and Emma outwardly didn't even acknowledge each other. The blonde kept her inscrutable poker face while the other woman gravitated toward her friends. In their minds, however, Emma leaned heavily against the support that was Betsy, the stress of the speech mentally exhausting her.

Then, her cell phone rang. "Frost here."

"The exit route has been secured. Anti-mutant protesters have been diverted to the front entrance."

"Any difficulties, Sable?"

"None. The majority of my team is there in case something does happen. Will you exit as planned?"

"Yes. The X-Men will leave by helicopter and me by car."

"Understood. Wild Pack over and out."

"Guess dat be our cue to go, non?"

"It's for the best," conceded Emma as she tucked her phone away, "I've dropped so much information on these people that they'll either be confused or violent."

"A strange world we live in eh, Frau Frost?"


From the back of the group, Storm walked out. Everyone tensed as the women appraised each other. Eyes dead set and jaw grinding slightly, Ororo started first, though uneasily. "My gratitude for what you've done for my team."

Used to stand-offish situations, Emma took the gesture at face value and didn't allow tempers to fire--the weather witch's dislike of her was well known. "Elisabeth told me what you wished to accomplish with the Xtreme X-Men. You want an independent entity from Charles, one which can be mobile and respond to troubles anywhere. I'm under no illusions that you could possibly trust me any more than Charles."

"How perceptive."

"It's business acumen and women's intuition."

Still hesitant, Ororo extended her hand to Emma. "I may have misjudged you."

To set her mind at ease, "This is my peace offering from me to you. After today, I wish for our history to be wiped clean so we can start anew. If you want to know what I want in repayment, that is it."

Emma waited for the hand to retract. To Ororo's credit, she left it there, unfazed by the demand. A blank slate meant indifference, and with Frost, Storm could do indifference. It was a small price to pay for influence, authority, and freedom. In matters this grave and favors this big, Emma Frost was never known to lie. Like her speech at the press conference, she bent her words and left out points of truth but she never lied.

Their outstretched hands touched and shook. The collective breath a few of the X-Men held exhaled, but Emma was all business. "Everyone should get back to the mansion via helicopter. I have some things to take care of in Manhattan."

As the clutter of mutants headed for the elevators, Rogue noticed one of their number didn't stay with the group. "Betts, ain't ya comin'?"

To be or to be with Emma--was that even a question? If Betsy stayed in Manhattan, there'd be whispers, rumors, and all kinds of small but no less insidious prodding about her and her connection with the recently-little-less-hated Emma. If she went with the others, they'd be apart.

Though with their bond, they could technically be together anywhere which meant...

Emma balked at the thoughts Betsy fed her. Even miles away they could be with each other: the joys of the telepathy and the limits of Emma's body relegated their most intimate moments to the astral plane. Ever so discretely, Betsy winked at the blonde and caught up with her teammates.

"Sorry," she smiled at Rogue, "I don't know where my mind was."

Of course, she knew exactly where her mind was. The way back to Westchester bored everyone; for Betsy, she passed the time by joining with Emma in a pristine, untouched section of Manhattan's Soho area, manufactured by the best impressions of both their memories. The streets, occupied by vendors, packed coffee houses, and carefree souls, played host to their impromptu fantasy.

And what a fantasy it was.

As their warm hands clasped and their faces basked in the autumn's setting sun, they passed through the most scenic routes of the upscale neighborhood, fountains flowing to their rhythm and various musicians playing a mishmash of their favorite songs. There, on that corner! There was a trumpeter handling a Dizzy Gillespie tune! And by the woman selling beads was a duo doing their best impression of the Rolling Stones! From a jazz club whisked upbeat renditions of Neal Hefti and Beatles songs!

To this rich background, Emma grinned with a satisfaction the one and only Cheshire Cat would be jealous of. "I've thoroughly corrupted you, Elisabeth. This is an idea I'm not even sure I'd come up with."

"It's a little bit of me and little bit you."

They kissed like age old lovers, Betsy framing Emma's face with her lightly gloved hands as the blonde pressed their bodies tighter. While their souls shared another moment, their far away bodies betrayed none of their joy.

To the world, they slept and they wanted it that way.

Were they afraid of people's reaction to their union? Hardly. Throughout both their lives, especially Emma's, they lived with social stigma. Declarations of whore, home wrecker, backstabber, traitor, and worse were nothing if not routine. They'd been called more hurtful things than lesbians; many times had friends and or family called their choice of lovers into question. Dirty looks and disapproving frowns wouldn't even dent their thickened emotional armor.

A pretentious person might've interpreted their silence as shame or arrogance. That same pretentious person didn't understand a single thing. They kept their silence because this mutual happiness was their own private treasure. They guarded it with an impossible fierceness, unwilling to part with even an ounce of its richness. They wanted every bit of their relationship for each other, wanted it untouched and unnoticed by the prying world. They felt others would cheapen or dilute their love. They'd have to share, share with the rumors, share with their well-wishers, share with their detractors.

They'd have to share facets of their love with others, and Lord knew Betsy and Emma hated sharing.

In the middle of heavily trafficked Sixth Avenue, Emma peeled off Betsy's mink coat. Not to be outdone, Betsy flicked the buttons of Emma's white chemise away. Here, their blistering kiss brought the world to an appreciative standstill. Here, they only had each other. Here, they bathed in their purest emotions unhindered by inadequate words, untimely interruptions, and curious onlookers. Here, the perfect moment lasted forever. Here, the problems and concerns outside didn't seem so encompassing anymore.

Under the cover of a New York made in the ideals of their minds, they took in their joy for their own while their bodies lay far apart, separated but together. They kept themselves for each other, their selfishness moving them to secrecy, moving them to this state of being.




Love as it should be.

- The End

Author's Notes:

It's done! It's done! I want to thank you, whoever you are. You stuck through this long winded tale and even had the patience to stay for the notes. I sincerely hoped you enjoyed this story, especially this little grande finale. I'm not sure I even expected this last chapter to be this long. If you believe I've done a good job, please leave me some feedback. I'd especially like to hear about ways I could improve this story and even ideas for a sequel.

Now, with that said, I'd like to thank some people in particular:

To Drae: Thanks for all your wonderful reviews and stout encouragment. Like I've said before, it's so refreshing to talk with someone who knows the fandom and has such a discerning eye for fanfiction.

To Harry: Wow, you really reviewed every chapter of this story. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for the reviews, for the enthusiasm, and for the wonderfully nice comments on the Yahoo Group. You're awesome.

To Jean: I want to thank you for your incredibly detailed, exceptionally lengthy,and morale boosting reviews. Been meaning to thank you in private long ago but couldn't. I hope this ending lived up to your expectations.

To Nick: Talking to you has given me countless quotes to use in this story. I have to credit you for remembering the General MacArthur quote Charles and Magneto used in this last chapter. What a memory you have!

To everyone else who left a review: Words can't describe my gratitude. You not only read but took more time out of your day to comment. Thank you.

Ok, that's it, show's over!