Notes: Bolded italics denotes mental communication. Any and all feedback is vastly appreciated! Enjoy!

I'm warm.

Mercilessly, needles and pins stab my skin.

Can't... can't think, but I know I'm dead... at least half of me.

I want to die too but I keep breathing. I tell myself to stop but I don't.

I can't because something wants me to live.


A jolt courses through me.

Whatever little control I had leaves and I stay, here but not...

... wherever here is.

A lone red candle flickered in the cold room. Shadows played against the backdrop of hauntingly beautiful portraits, antiquated oak, and colorful rugs. Though two people sat atop the fine material, not even the sound of quiet breaths broke the silence. Both had their eyes closed; both were in trances, at the height of their impressive meditative abilities.

Doctor Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, protector of Earth, witnessed many inconceivable things in his lifetime, so much so that the unexplainable became ordinary. Not to say nothing startled him or piqued his interest from time to time, but to do so generally required a thing of monumental proportions.

Elisabeth Braddock never failed to surprise him.

She existed in a nexus of the mystical, scientific, and extra-dimensional. A child of the Otherworld's royalty, a member of the mutant population, and a product of Spiral's Body Shoppe, she was a living anomaly, a point of convergence where none should've been. A resume like that tickled Stephen's curiosity, but the real clincher?

She was alive. By all accounts, she was suppose to be dead. The X-Men were there for her last breath; the EMTs didn't even try to revive her because there was nothing to save. In fact, her twin brother bought her casket and lowered her into the grave himself. She was dead, but now, she was alive. The body wasn't hers (then again, neither was her previous body) but she was here sitting in front of the Sorcerer Supreme in her childhood home, Braddock Manor. Not that he wasn't happy about her return to the living, but Stephen liked to know why, especially when it came to those he considered friends.

"Breathe normally for me, Elisabeth."

Breathe normally? With her new existence, Betsy didn't need to breathe anymore. She didn't need to eat, drink, or have sex either, but that didn't mean she stopped any of those life-affirming acts. However, breathing seemed trivial, enough so that in the months leading up to this meeting with Dr. Strange, she'd unconsciously stopped it all together.

She had Belasco--the now-dead, demonic sorcerer, scourge to the Otherworld--to thank for that.

She also had Belasco to thank for this second chance at life. Twisted journey it might've been, painful and soul-wrenching at many times it was, but without his apocalyptic goals, without his drive for revenge against her family, without his hatred of the X-Men, she would've had an embarrassment of regrets. Despite living with danger most of her life, she never told others how much she loved them. If she did, she didn't tell me often enough. She never loved like she loved now, never felt like she felt now. She never appreciated who and what she had.

What use was living life on the edge without purpose?

Oh, she always had Charles' purpose, S.T.R.I.K.E.'s purpose, even the Hand's purpose. She didn't have her own and it took death's wisdom to teach her what she lacked.

Betsy forced herself to breathe. In with the air wafted a pleasant scent of pine, but within the scent lingered a peculiar power. It sung to her, found its way into her body, and soothed her. It spread through every crevice of her being, permeating mind and soul indiscriminately.

"Do you feel any pain or nausea?"

"No," smiled Betsy, "This is a rather interesting sensation."

"I should warn you that parts of this spell I am invoking may not be as... interesting."

"Stephen, I've experienced some gruesome varieties of pain. I trust you didn't bring me here to test the limits of my endurance."

Strange nodded but continued in his clinical voice, "Please, brace yourself now in case something does happen."

The spell's swelling feeling turned tepid and tingled in her limbs. The unique stimulation continued to warm, broaching the area of hot. Betsy bit her lip as a hunger spiked against her basest desires. No pain, no nausea, just... hunger.

"Stephen? What are you doing?"

"Let it go, Elisabeth."

"Let it go?" she asked, disbelieving.

"Let it go."

Only because this was Dr. Strange. Only because this was this world's foremost expert on the mystical. Only because he asked for it.

The world around her slowed, time dilating but she herself unaffected. Shadows moved, this time no longer to the beat of the playful candle. A wound appeared over her forearm but she didn't bleed: instead, streaks of oozing darkness crept forth. Her eyes turned hollow and bloodshot, traces of her spirit disappearing. Nails, extended and razor sharp, dug into the carpet. Canines extended into fangs, Betsy hissed like a snake while more flowing appendages erupted from her. Calls to destruction excited her, the promise of a fight muting her reason.

The demon in her salivated at being free once more.

But before she degenerated into a thing, her rigid discipline reasserted her self. While still a disturbing sight of Otherworld anatomy, the shadows around her didn't advance toward Strange. The demon in her quieted, snuffed away by her telepathic mastery. Her muscles loosened, allowing her to reclaim her natural grace.

This body--the body of what was known in the Otherworld's seediest parts as a "flayer"--was Belasco's gift to her. It and the Shadow King were suppose to control her, give her the raw, unguided hatred needed for her to kill her brother. The dreaded sorcerer stole her resting soul and put it into this abomination so that he could torture her, gloat at her, destroy her, remake her, then use her. He succeeded but the people she loved brought her back to life.

People like Brian, Stephen, and Emma.

"Thank you," said the Doctor without a hint of anxiety, "Relax."

Claws retracted. Eyes calmed. Shadows stilled. Betsy emerged from the haunting demon, its hunger far but present. A bit rattled and still unused to the transformation, she shook her head to get rid of the cobwebs. "Can we take a break?"

The man smiled and cupped the candle in his hands. "As long as you'd like: my diagnosis is complete."

"Anything... well... strange?"

"With you? Always. I can bring you to my sanctuary and we'll-"

Sanctuary? "Can't we talk about me here?"

"I assumed you'd like to keep your privacy about this."

"Not from my family."

"Shit," the soldier grunted as he shook off the snow-rain sludge, "I hate this weather."

"You'll be hatin' this place even more if you don't keep your eyes peeled, corporal."

The unexpected, stern reprimand jolted the soldier out of his dark mutterings and straight into the unwavering gaze of Nick Fury. "Sorry, General Fury!"

"Just don't go off starin' into space again, soldier. That's the kind of thing I'd expect from a wide-eyed private, not a decorated corporal."

With his personal entourage--all fifteen of them--now sufficiently alert and focused on business, the commander of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned his own attention to his PDA. About eighteen hours ago, scientists from NASA and CSA reported a sudden, intense, and unusual burst of energy in the Canadian wilderness. The kind of energy? Unknown, but when someone uttered the word "mutant," a firestorm erupted out of the cracks and crevices.

Bureaucratic red tape delayed this deployment, security officials bickering back and forth whether to involve the X.S.E. or keep this strictly an in-house affair. Flashes of Manhattan's grizzle destruction still lingered in all their minds and along with it came an unpleasant dose of mutant distrust.

It was as if every wrong, inequality, and prejudice multiplied a thousand fold in one fateful day.

Fear ran both ways: there was a firm understanding that neither party, human or mutant, were going away. Mutants knew the evil humans had in their souls; humans tasted the rage and bitterness residing in mutant hearts. The middle ground shrank because of experience, ignorance, and selfishness. Those like the X-Men--and if he cared to admit it, Nick Fury himself--were a dying breed, dying because of shit like this, dying because the unknown brewed fear, dying because people wanted to live their lives and ignore getting along.

Dying because the world decided it wasn't big enough for everyone.

Shaking his head, Nick surveyed his rough and ready team. Their jaws clenched and their trigger fingers ready to go, they looked more like a death squad than anything else, yet even these men armed with the best technology reeked of fear.

"Hold on," the soldier taking the point up front belted, "I'm getting something on the infrared."

At a moment's time, they dropped into a defensive position, surrounding Fury in a formidable human shield. Half the team dialed their goggles to various detection protocols--infrared, motion detectors, even radars for those nasty and unexpected overhead threats--while the other half kept a silent vigil for ambushes.

Nick calmly pulled out his pistol.

A sudden thump off in the trees prompted one of the jumpy men to shoot, and like lemmings, the rest followed, each spraying the foliage with round after round of classified projectiles.

Before Nick could lambaste his men for firing without his command, the scenario tickled a memory in his well-experienced mind. Canadian Rockies, middle of nowhere, wilderness tricks--someone was playing with them, toying with them, and seeing as they weren't dead, not too maliciously either. There were only a handful of people who could evade the best Stark Solutions had to offer.

Turning around, Fury strained to see a familiar figure perched atop a rock, watching and waiting. "Stop!"

The soldiers ceased fire, smoke from their weapons rising into the clear air like unbidden spirits. They all turned to where their general frowned.

A match lit up the figure's face. Like he had no care in the world, Logan brought the open flame up to that cigar in his mouth. A soothing drag of tobacco later, he tipped his hat to the men with their guns trained on him.

"Fury, what brings ya to my neck o' the woods?"

They gathered on the largest of Braddock Manor's many balconies. One of those chic metal fire-pits warmed them while the drinks in their hands brought uneasy laughs. The four heroes sat at a round metal table while crickets and crackles from flames filled their ears. Brian, never one to hide his emotions well, cast furtive looks at both Stephen and Betsy. Meggan held his hand, squeezing it lightly to affirm her understanding and support.

The pleasantries were short.

Sipping his cranberry juice to combat the dryness in his throat, Brian pressed forward. "How's my sister?"

Summoning up his bedside manner from ages ago when he was a mere surgeon, Stephen bypassed the stressed out family member (see Brian) and focused on his quiet patient (i.e. Betsy). "Your body is as it should be: heartier, faster, stronger, and more resilient than the normal human's. I'm sure your brother has told you all you'd ever wanted to know about the current vessel you inhabit, but should you need more information, I have a few tomes that will satisfy most of your curiosity."

Not getting the point, Brian spoke again. "So she's fine?"

"No," replied Strange, still focused on Betsy, "I never said that. Health is not merely a physical state of being but also a harmony between body, mind, and spirit. As such, my greatest concern at this point is for your mental well-being."

Clink went the highball glass as Betsy placed it onto the table. "Not to be arrogant, but I am a telepath, a damned good one at that. Should my 'mental well-being' waiver, I'd know."

Instead of backing down, Stephen challenged, "Then explain to me your baffling psychic resonance."

"Baffling psychic resonance? I have no idea what you're-"

The thought slammed into Betsy's head cruelly: her bond with Emma. Stephen was talking about their unique connection, one born to defeat the Shadow King and nurtured with their increasing affections. These past months only magnified those affections, coming to such a point now that their constant presence in each others' minds became comforting, even domestic. It gave an extra dimension to their blossoming relationship, allowing them to be close in their own most private ways. This was theirs and only theirs, their secret, their sanctuary, their comfort.

Now, Betsy couldn't decide whether she was surprised, offended, or relieved that Stephen picked up on it.

"You're referring to the psychic rapport I have with Emma?"

"That is not a psychic rapport," contended Strange, his voice and eyes softening as if talking to a child, "That's a personality disorder. Betsy, part of another consciousness is practically living within you. Do I have to point out the numerous issues that could arise from this malaise?"

Feeling slightly overwhelmed, Brian made another attempt to interject. "For us less telepathically inclined fellows, would either of you tell me what's going on? What's this about Emma and a consciousness in Betsy?"

Being defensive would only lead to pointless debate, yet Betsy couldn't help but feel defensive. For the first time, others encroached upon the peace she had with Emma. Despite being amongst family and friends (well, in this case, friend), that encroachment felt threatening.

Her instincts told her to retaliate; luckily, her better sense won out.

"It happened when you found me in Limbo. The Shadow King was about to get loose and Emma... Emma helped me stop him. We had to merge our minds for it to work." A pause, both to steady herself and for the revelation to sink in. Betsy shook her head and peered at her brother. "Since then, we've been bonded in a comfortable arrangement."

The last two words set Brian on edge. "What kind of comfortable arrangement are we talking about here? I don't want that shrew wandering around your-"

"Take that back."

A deadly iciness reserved for the most vile of enemies appeared in the suddenly oppressive air. The hairs on the back of Brian's arm stood on end. "Sis, Emma Frost is a bloody shrew, there's no two ways about it. She'd be the first one to admit it."

"I'm asking you to stop badmouthing Emma. You don't know enough about her to say anything."

"Which is exactly why this so-called 'bond' concerns me," cut in Strange. "We know Ms. Frost primarily by her ghastly reputation: her past actions give even the most loose-morale individuals pause. While our negative judgment may be hasty, none of us at this table can give her a ringing endorsement either."

"I'm not looking for your approval."

"I understand that, but what you have to understand is that your mind is not functioning correctly. Emma Frost's personality is bleeding into you, turning you into part of herself. How can you stand by and just let this happen?"

Even Meggan couldn't hold her tongue anymore. "Betsy," she pleaded, "if you have a problem, you can tell us. We are family."

"Goddamn it, sis, what did she do to you!"

"Brian, don't yell at her."

"What's Frost's agenda?"

"There might not even be one-"

"And how do you know? Betsy doesn't even acknowledge a problem!"

"Both of you-"

Their voices blended together into a passionate cacophony and made Betsy rub her eyes in aggravation. They didn't understand: no one understood. For once, Emma wasn't "playing games" or "bartering for power." The bond wasn't a prison or ruse but rather a mutual sharing that neither of them wanted to go without. Already Betsy felt the ebbs of Emma's concern from beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Gentle, tender assurances trickled into Betsy's agitated self, an act an "enemy" or "shrew" would've never considered.

Now then, how to make these three understand and appreciate such a close attachment? Objectively, Betsy saw reason for their apprehension, but... but...

But nothing. If she truly loved Emma, she'd defend her. She'd be proud of their relationship. She'd show her family and friends how wrong they were. That was love: not just a quiet, comforting breeze in fair weather but also an angry storm when trifled with. Emma's past was a deplorable mess but her current life deserved none of the flak it received.

As she bolted to her feet, she yelled with a incensed edge, "Shut up!"

Her voice carried for miles, scattering around the British countryside and reducing the night to its haunting stillness. The demand was neither sophisticated nor mature but it encompassed the swirling emotions in Betsy's heart. A part of her demanded retribution while another preached understanding; she wished to go on the offensive but remained steadfastly defensive.

"There is nothing wrong with me," Betsy whispered, her eyes closed in search of clarity and guidance. Unfortunately, there would be no guidance since the truth--as simple to state and as difficult to accept--was the long and the short of this debate. "Emma and I have a relationship."

People said that "coming out" lifted a great weight from their shoulders. How come, even with her eyes closed and her telepathy bottled up, the burden seemed heavier? How come a nagging pain in her chest throbbed like a portent of terrible things yet to be?

"What kind of relationship?"

How come her own damned twin brother was denser than a brick?

"We're in love, Brian."

The first word out of his mouth? "Why?"

Opening her eyes to glare at her brother, Betsy carefully said, "What do you mean why? Why not?"

"You? In love with Emma Frost? You've got quite a sense of humor for saying that."

Her hands slammed onto the metal. "Mock all you fucking want, but I swear on Mother's grave that it's God's honest truth. Emma and I are together and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Dr. Strange frowned, the tumblers in his mind fitting together the puzzle and none of his projections positive. "What brought on such a relationship, Elisabeth? Does it stem from your traumatic experience together? If that's true, what you're experiencing is a case of severe co-dependency brought on by artificial conditions. It-"

"It's none of your business anyway, Stephen. Where do you come off calling my feelings artificial? Life is experience and love comes from life. You have no idea what we went through to be where we are today. You have no idea the lengths we went to for each other. Artificial? I don't think so, not by a bloody long shot."

"But you don't deny it has something to do with part of her mind residing in yours?"

"Our bond opened the possibility of a relationship; our experiences solidified it." A shimmer of warning flashed across her face. "What I feel for her isn't a disease."

"Then you wouldn't be adverse to cleaning up your mind. Don't you want to be sure that your relationship is of your own volition?"

"It is, Stephen, don't question it."

The idea of Emma and her sister finally finished processing, Brian jumped up from his seat and gripped Betsy by the shoulders. "Look me in the eye and say it to me again."

While sibling held sibling in their gazes, the whole world stood still. Meggan watched in rapt attention; Strange squinted as he silently measured his options. The crickets stopped their song as the wind quieted and the fire ceased its constant crackle.

Brian searched for any hints of clouded judgment. He prayed for a sign of Emma Frost, to see this wasn't his sister in her rightest state of mind. He wanted... he wanted...

He wanted the best for Betsy. He wanted her to live a dream, a charmed life. The idea of the manipulative, condescending White Queen (reformed though she was) sharing a bed with his sister revolted him. A part of him, the benevolent superhero part of him, wanted to say he had no objections about Betsy's sexual preference: indeed, he'd known a good many homosexuals, some he considered friends. Yet Betsy was family and therefore subject to different and higher standards. He wanted his sister to have a normal relationship, one that could temper those wild ways and be as fulfilling as the one he shared with Meggan. He wanted her to marry a good man, an easy going, quick to laugh, loyal to a fault man. He wanted the best for Betsy.

He could accept that man being a woman.

He could even tolerate that person being a danger-craving X-Man if said person made Betsy happy.

He just wouldn't settle for less.

But as he watched his sister's eyes, all he saw was a indefatigable, passionate fire. He saw an utterly Betsy-styled defiance and a fierce conviction shared by powerful leaders, ideological stalwarts, and soul mates. It was a fire possessed by Meggan when anything threatened their marriage, and in his own better times, he liked to think he possessed as well.

Without mentally twisting Betsy, without some unfathomable hold, Emma could never capture Betsy's affections. A powerful romance between veritable strangers didn't happen unless there were extenuating circumstances. More often than not, that powerful romance was a lie, one of the parties using the other for their own nefarious end.

And the other times? True love, but true love was hard to find. True love certainly didn't happen alone which was what this "relationship" looked like.

Undaunted, Betsy said, "I love Emma Frost."

Instead of convincing him, the conviction in her voice put a spine into Brian's misgivings. "Emma Frost who is now one giant stone. You're in love with that?"

Her palm crashed against his cheek, the gunshot of a crack making both Meggan and Stephen flinch. "Fuck you, Brian. Of everyone in the bloody world, I'd expect you to be happy for me, instead you're acting like the reason why I've kept the relationship secret. You should be happy for me, you intolerant piece of-"

"Happy for what? For letting her brainwash you into being her slave?"

"She's done nothing like that!"

"How do I know? In fact, how do YOU know? Stephen said this is unnatural, that it's a disease! Betsy, you aren't well and Frost is taking advantage of you."

Hands quivering from her boiling anger, Betsy forced herself to go through a series of meditative exercises. She needed distance and calm, things in short supply around here. Brian didn't believe her; Stephen didn't believe her.

Fuck them.

Spinning on her heel, Betsy trudged back into her childhood home. Her brother's condemning shouts and his wife's pleading protests hounded her. Faster she walked, faster toward the front door and into the night, faster and faster still as her brisk walk became a tireless run. The voices dimmed, faded away into the countryside night. The land of her youth swallowed her, and in the darkness, she called out to the constant in her life: Emma.

"What's been on your oh-so-top-secret plate, chief?"

Smiling, Alex Summers leaned into his chair. "Visiting old friends, sorting out my life--you know, the really introspective things you don't get to do when you're out fighting supervillains."

"I hear you there," nodded Jamie. He glanced at his nearly untouched beer, considered it for a moment, and looked back at his friend. "And I... I also heard about Lorna. People back at the Institute aren't saying much, but I saw her on all those news clips. What really happened to her?"

Years ago, they used to be the heart and soul of X-Factor: Alex the leader, Lorna the conscience, and Jamie the spark of life. The three of them held the respectable team afloat and formed a close friendship few expected. While circumstances (namely Alex's disappearance and Moria's death) separated them, they remained tight knit.

Tight knit and out of touch, but tight knit all the same.

Alex hopped up from his seat and began pacing around the room. "She's part of the reason I'm here."

"Is she still in a coma?"

"Probably, I don't know."

"Probably? Chief, she's your fiancé."

"Not anymore. If I was being honest, I would've said she never was to begin with."

"Then what about all that marriage stuff a few months back?"

"A lie," Alex said coldly. Still pacing, he turned his head toward his friend. "Tell me, you ever wake up in your bed and know everything around you is fucked up?"

While Jamie was no telepath, he wasn't a fool. Alex didn't sound or look well. The much too gruff facial hair, the pointlessly fiery attitude, the empty voice--something didn't add up. "Hey, you need a nap? I can clear out one of the guest rooms and-"

"This world is tainted, Jamie. I don't feel like I belong here in this... this... festering cesspool. There's so much chaos, so much hate, and I can't change it: no one can. Every second I'm here I'm dying one little bit at a time." The younger Summers brother seemed wistful as he contemplated his next words. "I had my happy ending and I need it back."

"The hell are you talking about?"

Alex froze and faced off with Jamie like a gunfighter. "Where is James Braddock?"

Slam went Emma's diamond hands down on the windowsill, paint chipping and wood cracking underneath her powerful grip. She gritted her teeth and stared off into the moon, troubles great and many building up below her layers of self-control. In the past, Emma released her overwhelming stress through physical gratification, but ever since Esme gave her a fatal dose of Kick and forced her to remain in this damned form, release came much more difficultly.

No sex, no food, no drink, no massages, no sleep, nothing: her body imprisoned her mind. She became a pressure cooker, turbulent feelings growing but unable to escape, her mind trying to cope with something wholly unnatural.

Was this Atlas' plight? Was this how carrying the world on tired shoulders felt?

Frost Enterprises languished in disarray. Beyond the logistical nightmare of having her Manhattan headquarters looted, sullied, and now demolitioned, the mutant hysteria blitzed her corporation like none other. Foreign investors withdrew their funds; governments demanded she turn over her many mutant research projects; conservative "humanist" groups phoned in daily death threats to employees; some scheming backstabbers from within her own board of directors tried to usurp her. Each moment amounted to another headache, another press conference to address another rumor, another crack in her formerly flawless Frost Enterprises.

All because she was a "rich mutie."

Emma's grip on the windowsill tightened.

Thanks to the discrimination visited upon her, she refocused herself to breathe new life into the Xavier Institute. If Emma Grace Frost suffered such indignities from the cold, uncaring world, what of the less fortunate mutants who were poor, young, and weak? It took a Herculean effort to rebuild the school, rehire staff, organize the student body, and slice through the roadblocks suddenly erected by the human Westchester community. And the X-Men? Never mind that a handful of them still considered her a sociopath, they barely lifted a muscle. Correction: they lifted and toiled, but few of them had the foggiest idea what it took to maintain this mutant safe haven. They had no inklings of the planning, the legal maneuvering, the incredible daily resources this place consumed, and the organizational prowess needed to keep this chaotic dance from stopping. Had she been able to tire, Emma was certain she would've been dead at least ten times over by now.

Not even begrudgingly, she came to respect the egg headed Charles Xavier. It was one thing to oversee a school but an entire other beast to have gallivanting hooligans aboard as teachers and mentors.

How did he manage this for so many years?

Maybe that's why the entire "Onslaught Incident" happened. Come to think about it, this never-ending pressure probably brought out the old man's homicidal tendencies, and right now, Emma couldn't fault him: offing some mutants would've been a great way to relieve stress. She understood his position all too well.

Then there was Betsy. Emma could lie and say their relationship was comfortable and safe, but she'd be lying and she didn't want to lie when it came to Betsy. No, their relationship was fervent and scathing, an obsessive affirmation of life in times so bleak. Betsy was dangerous and expressive, the emotional lightning rod that let Emma cling onto humanity, vicarious though it might've been. Betsy was... was... everything.

Never before had Emma relied on someone else for comfort, yet here she was, a hopeless romantic who at times wanted to break into song. Granted the song would be angry, frustrated, strung out, and explicative ridden, but there'd be some tenderness to it. God, the crazy, illogical, paradoxical things love did to people baffled her.

Emma smiled: what a fool, fuming one second and grinning the next. Her distress soothed ever so slightly at the thought of her lover, and in that moment of respite, the blonde pulled her eyes down from the moon and onto the resurrected Xavier Institute.

The place resembled a real learning institution and not just a big fancy mansion which happened to house knowledgeable mutants. A scattering of small buildings surrounded a regal, ten story hub towering above all. Forge's space age technology mingled with Storm's functional input, Hank's research oriented needs, Warren's demand for luxury, and Emma's own staunch insistence that the building remain a school first and foremost. Come July, inside it would be the X-Men's new home, the X.S.E.'s base of operations, the newly online Cerebra ("Version 2.0!" the Beast proudly proclaimed.), and a new chapter in Emma Grace Frost's life.

Despite the heart and head aches, despite the protests and her own dubious past, Emma would serve as the school's headmistress, a position which, at the insistence of Ororo, held no sway over the X-teams. X-teams, who had time for them? Already the global response to the school overwhelmed them all. This property no longer stood as an exclusive club for those with awesome enough powers to get noticed, a previous recruiting guideline Emma changed with criminally gleeful abandon.

You needed money too.

While a spot wasn't out of reach for the common folk, well-off families who wanted something better for their mutant children spared no expenses to send them here. More than a few prominent families (all, of course, wishing to remain anonymous) paid eye-popping amounts in the form of donations. Of course, Emma Frost wouldn't be Emma Frost if she turned down so much rampant generosity.

And then again, the X-Men wouldn't be X-Men if they didn't take on the occasional charity case.

Sob stories inundated campus mailboxes and emails, many telling of horrific treatment and all pleading for a chance to escape their torment. The X.S.E. personally answered a handful of these distressed cries, an approach which drew Emma's ire because, more than a few times, those sob storytellers turned out to be liars or freeloaders.

Still, Ororo and Hank insisted. As long as Emma herself wasn't going to get these dirty (mostly) and annoying (often enough to be grating) urchins, there wasn't going to be a problem.

To tutor this diverse group, adult mutants--some who'd worked with the X-Men before, most who'd only read about them--were hired while some even volunteered. Long-time friends (Moonstar, Rahne, Jean-Paul, even Sean's daughter, Theresa) signed on, something which made those already here incredibly happy and Emma incredibly sick from needless nostalgia. Faculty swelled, those known taking precedence over those unknown. People came for different reasons, but at the very least, they came.

And the best part?

By default, Emma inherited Charles Francis Xavier's legacy on a silver platter. Ororo or Rogue had neither the knowledge or inclination to run the school. Hank had the inclination but not the experience. Warren had the knowledge and experience but none of the inclination. The Summers brothers fled, Scott to Alaska and Alex to places unknown. Jean was dead... again. And Bobby? Bobby couldn't keep his sock drawer organized much less the physical education class he was suppose to teach.

Soon the world wouldn't know Emma as a billionaire and family friendly mutant. They'd know her as an educator, an activist, and someone who would make a flipping difference in everyone's lives. In a selfish sort of way, she considered this a direct consequence of her choice to eschew villainy. She told herself that money and power amounted to nothing if it couldn't change the world, and school was where worlds changed. This was where bigotry could be fought and defeated, where a new generation like Paige Guthrie and Jonothon Starsmore wouldn't see her as a pariah, where differences in people's lives would actually be seen.

If Charles Xavier could do it, Emma Frost could do it better... at least, that's the line Betsy fed her whenever she muddled about her soul's deeper, darker waters.

Speaking of Betsy, distress and a good helping of resentment trickled through their bond. Emma blinked at the stark emotions but didn't press further, deciding to give her lover space rather than smothering care. Instead, the blonde sent ebbs of support and confidence out across the ocean and into Betsy's rapidly agitated mind.

She said nothing when Betsy's temper exploded for reasons unknown. She said nothing when she felt Betsy's habitual twitch, the one she covered up so very well just moments before she struck someone. She even bit her tongue when distress turned into sadness and stinging tears.

Emma waited, wondered, and surprisingly, even agonized for an eternity of moments. Watch, don't act, don't be an insufferable, overbearing busybody. Betsy was a woman, not a dainty glass statue: she could take care of herself until needed. After all, wasn't she with family? Wasn't she suppose to be relaxing and decompressing from the oppressive trap New York had become?


The mental plea wiped the thoughts away, replacing them with an urge to act. Emma turned her considerable powers on herself and their bond, exhaling uselessly as the Xavier Institute faded from her hardened eyes...

"Get out of here, Logan, I'm on official business."

Cigar ash flubbed onto the soaked grass. "Since when's S.H.I.E.L.D. got something 'gainst hikers, bub? Last I checked, it's a free country up here."

Not having the time or patience for this, Nick Fury squinted his good eye and decided to end the encounter quick. "Don't make me waste honest tax dollars by turning you into a bullet riddled beehive."

"Fat chance," chuckled Logan as he eased off the rock he perched on. "Your toy soldiers wouldn't go five minutes with me before I'd gut 'em all. Guns don't do you no good if you can't breathe."

Fury, living up to his furious name, stomped toward the diminutive disturbance while his people kept their weapons readied. The man jabbed a strong finger into Wolverine's chest to emphasize his words. "Get out or get dead, whatever, just get out of my sight. I've got a mountain of shit hanging over my head and I don't need your brand of meddling! By God, I'm authorized to make you a stain on the ground if I have to."

Like he never heard a threat, the stout man shrugged. "Now that we're talkin' like civilized folk n' all, why don't you tell me why you're up here in the middle of nowhere?"

Staring into Logan like pond scum, Fury motioned for his men to train their sights on the interloper. "You're the last person I've got to answer to. Outta respect for you X-Men, I'm giving you one last chance: leave."

Logan didn't do a lot of things. First and foremost amongst those "things" was listening to dirty pricks or jackasses, both categories which Nick Fury fell under... when he was in his military persona. In many respects, Fury wasn't that bad of a guy, only a little too dedicated when The Job ever came up. And whenever The Job came up, that meant Trouble lurked around the bend.

Great. Stuck in the Canadian wilderness with a hard-charging General Fury and his merry band of hair-triggered donkeys.

If there was ever a worse distraction to soul searching, Logan hadn't found one yet.

"Sir!" one of the men exclaimed, "I see someone in the woods!"

Everyone's attention focused onto the point the soldier pointed at. Logan narrowed his eyes and let his superior senses take over.

For starters, it wasn't someone but rather a pair of someones. From a distance, they appeared small, at least smaller than anyone involved in this standoff. One word came to mind: children. Whoever they were, the kids knew the basics of sneaking because they moved downwind, their placement good enough that even Logan's nose only now barely caught a whiff of them.

Their scent, however, seemed familiar, distinct even. Couldn't put a finger on the recollection, but it reminded him of a person... a woman... No, not Jean, he'd know the scent in a heartbeat. Damn it, the name tethered on his tongue and refused to come out!

Personal frustration took a back seat to gut reaction when he saw a soldier take aim at the fleeing targets. Fury and Logan noticed the jittery gunman at the same time but Logan acted faster. Relying on his vaunted quickness, he darted forward, brushed past Fury, extended a single claw, wove between two men, and slashed at the ready-to-fire gun.

The trigger went click when half the gun hit the ground.

"Goddamn it," Furl roared, "that's the second time! When the hell did I give any of you screwballs the order to fire!"

"Sir, I-"

"Don't 'Sir' me! We have unidentified subjects to catch! Form up and pursue!" The foaming from the mouth general turned to Logan. "And you, fuck off!"

"Last call!"

Already? Pete Wisdom frowned at his empty glass and smoldering cigarette butt. Not even two in the morning and he was far from drunk, an absolute blow to his standards of near-constant sobriety obliteration. Maybe age was slowing him down, maybe he lacked the constitution to drink an entire bar's stock, maybe he didn't like alcohol as much anymore.

Only one cure for that. "Bartender!" Another pint materialized along with the night's tab.

Maybe he wasn't drunk enough to not care.

Just as he grasped the ice cold glass and prepared to put his liver through another round, someone took the barstool next to him. Pete wouldn't have given the bloke another thought if he didn't look a mite familiar from the half-drained bottom of the mug. Within the amber liquid and beyond the distorting glass sat Brian Braddock, Captain Britain, former leader, family man, and... and...

And one of those high and mighty sober people who admitted they had a "drinking problem."

Slamming the glass down, Pete--bloodshot eyes and all--slung his arm over his new companion's shoulder. "Lookit who decided to pay ol' Petey a visit! How the hell are you doing?"

A part of Brian wished he could return Pete's blissful, ignorant, and drunken greeting. Not for the first time since giving up his addiction, he craved the numbing blinders alcohol could put in front of his problems. Experience taught him the bottle never solved anything, and despite its allure, despite his jumbled thoughts, despite the surrounding bar's boisterous stench, Brian shook off the siren's call.

"Pete, you up for giving me some... advice?"

Granted an inebriated Pete Wisdom wouldn't have passed for a sage, shrink, or sensible individual, but beggars can't be choosers. In all honesty, Brian didn't crave advice, rather he wanted to vent to someone distanced enough from the subjects of his foul mood (a mentally blinded sister and her supposed "lover", a.k.a., manipulator), knowledgeable enough to not have to filter words concerning his life and extracurricular activities, and awake at this ungodly hour.

As seen here, the choices weren't exactly teaming.

"If it's advice you want," Wisdom slurred, "it's advice you bloody got! What's it ailin' ya? Can a beer make it go 'way?"

"I think beer is going to make it worse."

"Family trouble."

What in the blue blazes? "How did you know?"

Pete bobbed his head knowingly. "It's the only thing beer can't cure, Braddock. A woman you can leave, money you can make, and pride you can reclaim, but family? Family follows you to the grave whether you like it or not. Takes something mighty strong to thin out blood, stronger than a pint of ale or lager." The man gave a forlorn sigh as he polished off his drink. "Scotch, now that'll do the trick. Too bad the bar's closin' up."

"Is that your cure for everything?"

The empty beer mug slammed back onto the table. "My general apathy toward existence?"

"No, alcohol."

"Oh," Pete blinked, "Yeah, pretty much."

With such a winning personality, it was hard to see why Kitty left him. Was it the raging alcoholism, the chain smoking shenanigans, or the flippant mystique? "Well," coughed Brian, finally coming to the conclusion that this meeting wasn't destined to be enlightening, "Thank you for the earth-shattering revelations. I'll be seeing you around?"

Even as drunk as he was, no one ever said that Pete Wisdom couldn't function while under the influence. The room might've tilted and the dying chatter sounded too loud, but he still had his wits about him. Brian was a friend, and though Pete had a habit of letting friends down, he didn't consciously try to do it.

Thus, when the blonde man stood, Pete wobbled to his feet and threw a handful of pounds on the bar. "Get your knickers out of that bunch, Brian. You came to Pete Wisdom for advice and advice you're going to get. Now, walk with me."

Or rather, stumble with him. By the time they'd reached the exit, Brian doubled as a bang-up crutch. Down the street they went, moving past throngs of late night party-goers and questionable characters. No one gave them another glance, and in this very public London rue, the two melded into the anonymity granted by a city's impersonal ignorance.

Many a times Pete held clandestine meetings in these kinds of places. The remembrance sunk into his head and chased away most of the liquor floating about; the unforgiving cold nipped past his jacket and sobered him up right quick. Finally able to rein in the nausea prickling in the back of his throat, he fished out his pack of Pall Malls and lifted out a fresh cigarette with his lips. To light it, a lone index finger manifested its tip into one of his feared hot knives.

As the comforting burn and nicotine gave him a spurt of energy, Pete turned to his friend. "Start talking."

"It's about my sister..."

The sister who had a nice round ass, legs that just wouldn't end, and titties the size of zeppelins. Yes, Pete was quite familiar with the sister, if only from the nude pictures--some fake, some not--splattered all about the internet.

"... and Emma Frost..."

Emma Frost? The billionaire bitch with a heart of stone, fake boobs, and a perfect, Barbie-doll face? Yes, Pete knew her more sinister side from his days with Black Air, though their acquaintance was more by reputation than anything else. Hellfire Club and all that garbage, but that neither here nor there--the point was, he disliked the lady on principle alone, reformed X-Man or no.

"I think Frost is brainwashing my sister."

Pete took a puff of his cigarette. "You ain't shitting me? Sounds like a bucket of your typical mutant drama. Random brainwashing, strained love triangles, unexpected traitors, end of the world--it's a madhouse at Xavier's." Another puff. "Least that's what Kitty used to tell me. Got to stand your ground with those X-Men or they'll fall back into their little incestuous clique, know what I mean? Once an X-Bum, always an X-Bum."

Brian heard the unspoken challenge in Pete's words: if you think Frost is fucking with your sister, do something or you'll end up on the losing end, like me. Sound message from a unsound source. "What would you do if Frost was brainwashing Kitty?"

His eyes suddenly so far away, Pete came to a standstill. "Supposing I still give a fuck?"

"You don't?"

Devious, devious question and while Brian hated to be devious, he also hated to let his sister down. Over the years of late night telephone conversations, there was never a sign, never even a miniscule inkling that his sister was gay. Forever and a day, Betsy chased after men, talked about men, and fantasized over men. If she'd had any attraction to women, she would've told Brian because they told each other everything. They were twins, as close as close could be. They shared their lives so thoroughly that there was nothing about Betsy that Brian didn't know.

Except for Emma Frost and "the relationship."

Why the sudden attraction to that woman? Was it because Emma saved her life? Granted that act alone tweaked a pang of guilt in Brian for condemning Emma, but in this line of business, allies saved each other's lives all the time. The selflessness never translated into some kind of homosexual relationship. Something else happened: in light of Emma's selfish, condescending, scheming, and abrasive nature, Brian assumed the worst.

After all, people could do terrible deeds with telepathy.

Meanwhile, Pete cursed himself, Brian, and Kitty. For fuck's sake, he still goddamn cared for Kitty, enough to lose sleep over her, enough to never want to be sober again if he thought about her too long. Pete Wisdom didn't have many regrets--many ghosts perhaps, but not many regrets--but Kitty... Kitty was one of his regrets.

Enough said.

Beyond the idle chit-chat, he sensed a bottom line: Brian was fishing for something, maybe even hinting at something he didn't want to tell. Actually, that's what Pete's gut said, and being the spy-type person, Pete's gut rarely got anything wrong. Maybe the night wasn't going to come to a boring, sober end after all.

And maybe an incensing comment would get the proverbial ball rolling.

"What do you want from me, Brian? You want to know the kind of violence I'd do to Frost if I found out she was messing with Kitty? Any man worth his salt's got three things he'd kill for: himself, his family, and his woman. You don't need me to tell you what to do. If your sister's in trouble, help her. It ain't that complicated."

They made this comforting place together. It looked like an affluent Manhattan loft which sported the usual high ceilings and wide open spaces. Modern furnishings like curvy couches, elegant tables, marble countertops, and leather stools habitated the room, all of it as white as snow. A large aquarium teaming with exotic fish species--some of which shouldn't have been living together--slotted itself in one of the walls, the diversity invoking images of Sea World. Exotic Bolivian rosewood floors added a homely warmth just begging to be walked upon and enjoyed.

Taking the place of windows were distinctive panes of shoji, its scant translucency letting in light and no more. Bamboo shoots held in matching vases sprouted tall and proud. Scrolls of Japanese calligraphy and landscape nihonga paintings meshed with enlivened blossoms of ume and sakura. One of those impressive indoor waterfalls sat to the wayside, the stone slab behind the running water engraved with an idiom written in kanji: "Ningen banji saiou ga uma."

Fortune is unpredictable.

This was theirs, their little corner of the astral plane, a manifestation of their bond.

As Emma materialized in this private sanctum, her diamond body replaced by flesh denied to her anywhere else, she saw a despondent Betsy sprawled out upon one of the couches. Putting this scene with the previous emotional bursts told Emma all she needed know about what happened in merry ol' England. She padded to the couch, sat down, and moved Betsy's head onto her lap.

With a hand stroking that purple hair, Emma smiled wistfully. "Who wrote 'You Can't Go Home Again?'"

"Thomas Wolfe," Betsy muttered, her voice vacant with hurt. "God, what a long, dry torture device."

"Really? I find it allegorical to many life experiences: self-discovery, disenchantment, even social acceptance."

At the mention of social acceptance, an exasperated groan escaped Betsy fraying self-control. "Emma, I didn't mean for them to find out-"

"Shhhh, I know."

"It pisses me off!" yelled Betsy, her limp body sparking to life in the form of a fist thrown into the cushion. "Stephen finds out about our bond and the only thing he can talk about is breaking it. That then scares the shit out of my brother and... and..."

Emma took a deep breath and assumed a tone used on only her most surly of students. "And you just felt like hitting something?"

"And I just felt like hitting something."

"As enjoyable as the juvenile act may be, maybe we can try something else."

"Hold me," Betsy whispered, "Hold me and listen to me."

Hold and listen. "I can do that," chuckled Emma.

She shifted around for a little while, maneuvering herself so she could comfortably spoon Betsy. Position secured, the blonde relished in how their bodies fit together. With not a small tinge of regret, she wondered if those was how Betsy would feel in back in the physical world. Already little things like silky skin and supple lips felt foreign to her, only these fleeting moments made in her mind keeping her sane and grounded. Despite it all (or perhaps because of it), she purred at the fiery contact, her more amorous side taking over in an un-White-Queen-like fashion.

Neither lover nor humor, however, detached Betsy from her foul mood. She tried to give a sequence to the rapid barrage she'd fielded tonight, but it happened so quickly! Even now as she lay in silence, the anger still clouded her mind. Who said what, who did what, why did they said it, all of if it was a terrible, primal blur.

"I'm disappointed in myself, Stephen, and Brian," Betsy sighed, "Really, what did I expect when I went back to London? A midnight soiree? A cocktail party? Stephen Strange was going to give me his magical examination: no good could come of it. People never went to Strange unless they thought something was wrong, that's how it worked. Either he'd find some fatal condition Belasco ingrained into his handiwork or he'd find out about us."

"Which hasn't been the first time we've discussed either outcome," Emma pointed out. "You know I don't care what the world thinks about us. Not telling anyone was a convenience so we could be alone without pompous ridicule or meddling. Do you really think that anything is going to keep me away from you? We, my dear Elisabeth, have come too far for me to give up on us because of simple words. What matters most is your health, not Stephen's reaction."

Emma's assurances didn't ease her turmoil. "They called my feelings a disease. Stephen said this," Betsy waved a hand about to signify the loft, "this was unnatural, that it's a co-dependency problem because we share each other's minds, then Brian makes it worse. He thinks you're brainwashing me into being your sex slave."

"You aren't?" Emma asked mischievously.

Although an affectionate kiss on the nape accompanied the obvious joke, a fearful spike gripped Betsy. For months she'd enjoyed Emma's loving attention, at long last happy and fulfilled. She looked past the characteristic cruel ruthlessness; she ignored the White Queen's reputation. They shared their lives and trust without strings attached.

This was love, love as it should be.

Or was it? How much did this psychic rapport have to say about their relationship? Was this the only reason for them being together or was it a mere catalyst?

Stephen's "diagnosis" struck a mine of hidden doubts. What if her love was unnatural? What if these feelings only happened because their minds were interwoven through their battles with the Shadow King and Belasco?

What if this was all fake and they were right?

"Elisabeth, it doesn't matter what they say."

Suddenly feeling ice cold, Betsy removed herself from Emma's embrace. "That's what I thought too, but it does matter. I... I don't want Brian to hate me. He matters to me, Emma. He's the only real family I've got left and what he thinks matters and hurts."

Forcing herself to bite back the demeaning barbs aimed at everyone her lover held dear,Emma replied, "They were right when they called our bond unnatural. What happened to us... it's an extraordinary circumstance that they can't understand, but just because it's unnatural doesn't mean it should be discounted or destroyed."

Ice seemed to consume Betsy the more she walked. Her hands and feet numbed, whitening to a deathly pale. Her motions grew lethargic, her eyes unfocused, and her astral self flickered.

All these signs lured a now concerned Emma off the couch. "Elisabeth?"

Before the blonde could even get to her lover, their sanctuary shattered like a mirror. Slivers of the loft spinning like diabolical buzz saws fell away into a sudden void all around them. Distended bulges appeared in the darkness, eventually resulting in a fissure of light breaking through. Betsy, shivering and panting and gibbering, dropped to her knees unaware of a menacing psychic fragment zooming at her. Emma extended her telepathy at the rogue object and turned it into meaningless bits with a mental blast.

Meanwhile, the fissure ripped with a sickening sound just as she reached a still incomprehensible, still shivering Betsy.

In one tremendous tear, light as brilliant as the sun swallowed their mindscape. Trying to discern a cause or danger, Emma squinted into the brightness. It looked very... sun-like, complete with blue sky and... were those clouds? She turned her eyes to her surroundings and saw the earth beneath her.

And they were falling toward it, fast.

Somewhere on the United States' east coast, a small, swirling, black dot appeared. The dot expanded at an alarming rate, about as alarming as their freefall. Emma saw cities and rivers uprooted into the vortex, erased like mere pencil marks. She watched aghast as the detail became finer, watched as buses, livestock, buildings, and people smashed together into a disgusting sandwich and disappeared into the eye of nothingness. Familiar faces of friends, acquaintances, students, enemies, and X-Men streaked by, each one from Juggernaut to Jonothan shrieking in desperation and agony. Thunder rumbled in the sky as lightning flashed every which way, each lance of electricity holding some sort of scene or memory but petering out too quick to observe.

And then Emma and Betsy hit the churned up ground. Instead of splattering their entrails, they fell through it like divers into water. Down here, the chaos simmered into an eerie silence. Time dawdled, sluggish like a world gripped in death. Emma tried to talk but she found her voice useless; Betsy became motionless and as cold as ice.

Lightning crashed through the water-like earth and passed before them. A woman Emma immediately recognized as Silver Sable stood behind a cadre of lab coat wearing people while shouting orders. Soldiers dressed in the colors of her Wild Pack rushed into a... a... thing and-

Another bolt, this time one which showed Emma herself naked, her eyes widened and sweat pouring from her forehead. Jean was there, curiously naked too. Suddenly, they looked off into somewhere else and-

Flash, the world came into focus just above the United States' east coast. A swirling dot grew and grew like a disease waiting to-

-slam went a door. A desperate Emma ran through the hallways of an opulent home, Logan not far behind her. They barged into a living room where two adorable girls huddled on the couch. The Emma in the vision took their hands, shouted a few words to Logan, then-

-the world again. Same soul-rending dot, same growth, but another dot appeared, this one smaller, less hungry, less angry, and a little further away.

Then, no more lightning. The brown earth turned ghostly blue and liquidy. A shimmering mirage faded into view. There were tubes everywhere; there were tiny red, green, yellow, orange, and purple lights just beyond reach. The image shook and looked down, an act akin to one of Bobby's pointless first-person shooters. Hands (held by strange straps), a torso with breasts (penetrated by needles and gadgets), and legs (bound together so they couldn't move) blended together with the distinct beeps of a heart monitor.

From everywhere, Emma heard her own voice hoarsely whisper two words.

"... help me..."

A harried knocking on her door destroyed what remained of her mental connection with Betsy. Her mind threatened to ooze itself out of her diamond crusted nostrils while her eyes felt like needles were jabbed into them. Offhandedly, she noticed her fingers had crushed the windowsill she abused earlier.

More knocking and now accompanied by Hank McCoy shouting, "Ms. Frost? Are you in there? We require your assistance on an urgent matter!"

What was that? Why did the astral plane turn into a bad rollercoaster ride? Was Betsy ok? Was the intrusion the sign of another enemy? How could-

"Ms. Frost?"

An intimate, near-categorical knowledge of her lover provided a possible answer: precognition. Betsy must've had a sudden glimpse of the future during their talk. How was it so strong? Wasn't precognition one of Betsy's weaker and most definitely uncontrolled powe-


"Shut your dirty maw, I'm coming!"

A bloodied Jamie let the cell phone go and coughed. Shit, he didn't expect Alex to nail him like that, going for the kill. What happened to the man? Why was he murderous?

Jamie coughed again, but this time, a spittle of blood dribbled out. He felt his sides, looking for an out-of-place rib or open wound that hurt so very much whenever he took a breath. The aftershocks of Alex's attack left him out of sorts and unable to do much outside of rolling around in pain. Mentally, he counted how many clones he had around the facility--three. If he could pop out a clone, another one would've been standing to him after he got leveled, but no, he was too wounded. In the state he was in now, he couldn't physically gather himself to make another clone. With Alex on the prowl, those three needed to multiply if they were going to stand a chance.

Hell, Original Jamie needed some love right about now too. He sent out an urgent S.O.S. to his clones.

At least he had the wherewithal to call the X-Men so help was on the way. Yeah, help from a few thousand miles away. Help which wouldn't come in time if one of his clones couldn't come up here and do some fancy surgery. Help which would need help themselves if Alex managed to wake up the supposedly uber-powerful James Braddock, Jr.

Another Jamie who had a medical kit tucked under his arm climbed over the debris blocking the room's entry.

"Hallelujah," the original Jamie wheezed, "Ain't I glad to see me!"

"Ok, I'm here Jamie, just don't move too much, ok Jamie, I don't think this is going to hurt too much but I'm kinda rusty at this since it's been a while since I've done surgery, right Jamie?"

Shit. Of all the quirky clones to come to his rescue, it had to be Pathologically Nervous Jamie. Slamming his head back on the ground, he motioned for his numb nut double to come closer.

"What?" asked the clone, the scalpel and needle shaking dangerously in his jittery hands.

Using the last of his strength, Jamie crossed his fingers and punched his other self in the face. The result: a sizeable bruise on Nervous Jamie's cheek and another Jamie standing not two feet away. Why the crossed fingers? Because he hoped the newly cloned Jamie wouldn't be someone worse like Idiot Jamie.

That and he prayed more immediate help in the form of the almost-always local Brian Braddock was free tonight.

- To be continued...