Rise or Fall

Chapter 331: Hazards of Heroics

Chapters to Check: 266, 272-277, 293, 294 305, 327-329

NOTE: Hi, fam. We have a lot to address with this one, so let's get to it. As underlined up in Chapters to Check, I strongly urge you not to proceed with the following until you've re-read 293, 294, and to a slightly lesser extent, 305. You see, these chapters mark a first in Rise or Fall history due to it being the only time a sub-plot is significantly altered. Since this is the first time this has happened in eight years, obviously it's not a frequent occurrence for me to wave a magic wand over past plot points and just make them vanish from our hearts and minds. That's what we have telepaths for. I normally would not do such a thing, whether I liked a storyline in retrospect or not, but certain events in 293 and 294 would not stop making me feel unclean for months. Seriously. Do not bother bringing up plot holes and inconsistencies if you haven't taken another look at those chapters, altered while I was working on the flashback special in 330.

Next order of business (yes, I know, what a drag- we'll be done with official dull grownup stuff later). Fam Member Heather, I greatly appreciate and respect you taking the time out of your life to create chapter summaries. I'm unable to visit the link you shared and I'd like to take a look at it before it becomes open to all Fam Members. Anyone wanting to take on similar RoF related projects to share, please do NOT hesitate to contact me to discuss it beforehand. Check my profile to e-mail me or hit me up on Facebook at any time. Please and thank you.

Alright, now, I'm trying to remember, what else was there to ment—Happy Anniversary, Rise or Fall Fam! Eight years long and strong! Thank you all so much for remaining loyal, supportive, and generally awesome, even through these last few difficult years of my life that have caused unwanted gaps between updates. Thank you for caring and checking in with me. I appreciate all of you, from those that have been here since Chapter 1 to those who stumbled across these insane millions of words only five minutes ago.

Nothing more to say at this point than please enjoy and review!

Head bowed and eyes shut, the pensive figure remained in a rigid position until the signal whistle bombarded the silent exterior surroundings. Resolute yellow eyes revealing themselves, she leaped from her one-knee crouch. Beginning her solo relay race, she sprinted with gaze focused forward. For fifteen seconds, the cerulean woman only increased her speed, long ginger ponytail flapping against her back. When a dozen jagged gears burst from the trees to block her path, she did not slow down even marginally. At their inability to deter her, the gears became animated again and darted at her like a multitude of assassin's bullets. With the metal bits missing her skin by less than an inch, Raven abruptly jumped. She reached a height of fifteen feet and landed on the top gear. Diving off of it next, she continued without losing a step the instant her sneaker covered feet met the grass again.

Another hindrance came in the form of a body of molten lava that stretched wide and long in place of her picturesque lawn. An assortment of stones sticking up from the fiery pit provided a passage to the other side. Immediately suspicious, Raven lightly pressed her foot to the closest stone. The second she withdrew from it, the circle of gray rock collapsed into the lava. Faced with a literal point-of-no-return scenario, she shrunk herself to sprog stature. The shapeshifter then skipped to the second closest rock and kept on until her dainty form reached solid land once more. She glanced back in satisfaction at the pit disappearing.

After growing into her adult body again, her jaw nearly dropped upon seeing what awaited her up ahead. A series of pendulum axes dangled seemingly on air left and right with every other one swaying in opposite directions. In the span of eight seconds, she studied the pattern, absorbed a breath, and made her move. Amazed she had to go even faster than when hopping across the lava, Raven maneuvered straight through the split-second opening between the axes. Though one blade nearly sliced her ankle, a well-executed backflip got her out unscathed. Landing in a handstand, she opted to use the pulsing momentum to her advantage. Vision blurring from perspiration, she speedily flipped three yards at a time the rest of the way to the designated fountain.

Raven felt a towel draped around her shoulders before she heard, "Just when I thought you couldn't get any more flawless."

Peering up at her husband, she uttered, "Thank you," at the thirty-two ounce water bottle presented to her.

Directly behind Hank, Leon monotonously announced, "Red rising," staring upward.

Both McCoys raised their heads to witness the incoming aerial mutant.

Wind whisking through copper follicles and sun sparkling against the irises that currently rivaled the sky's brilliant blue, the wingless figure coursed through the atmosphere. Stilling suddenly, he moved to a vertical position. The tall frame tilted to execute a series of backward spins that resembled a reversing tire. After covering another extended stretch, the X-Man somewhat grudgingly made his descent. As his wife came into view, he picked up speed and landed directly before her on the grass. Close to the fountain, Maya received no chance to voice her kudos due to his immediate capture of her lips.

From a few yards over with her own beau, a deadpan Cordelia stated, "I'd advise them to get a room, but they have an entire townhouse to decorate with this disgust."

Fabian remarked, "When wallflowers bloom… I suppose this time next year, I'll be your escort to the baby shower."

At the same time Maya laughed dryly, Sean responded in delighted disbelief, "You're coming to our baby shower?"

With Alana and Charles inside his electromagnetic sphere with him, Erik carefully guided them back to terra firmer.

"Baby shower?" Erik reacted to the tail end of the conversation, one eyebrow high.

Charles eyed his newlywed students. "Something you neglected to tell us, dear precocious pupils?"

Maya fielded that one with, "Besides the fact that none of you people are remotely funny?"

Erik only replied, "I believe the Professor said something you neglected to tell us, Mrs. Cassidy."

A not remotely interested Alana wanted to know, "Where did my mini man in the mirror go?"

"Hey!" All raised their gaze skyward, locating the teen in question immediately. "Slight miscalculation!"

"Frank!" Alana then demanded, "Erik, get him down from there before he breaks his neck and leaves me with nothing to strangle."

"Straightaway, dear," Erik started to comply.

"Mom, Dad!" Frank protested to no one's shock. "Lay off! I got it!"

Hand going right to her weary brow, Alana shook her head. "It's the Training Wheels Protest of '55 all over again…"

Getting up, Raven cheer-shouted, "Move it, man-candy!"

Vanishing with pleasure, Frank instantly reappeared again. Four feet above ground, the recently-made redhead plopped into the grass.

"I was trying for my room." Quickly rising once more, he maintained a nonchalant exterior. "Wrong turn is all."

"Way to overachieve, Frank-O," Sean commended, going to him for a fist pound.

"Thanks, Seanie," Frank attempted to muster enthusiasm. "I just don't get how you're soaring, Rae's spryer than ever, but I'm still spazzing." He turned to the other boychick present. "How do you make this teleporting bit look so easy, Lee?"

The youngest instructor replied, "A decade-plus with an escapist mentality."

Hank tacked on, "Add to the fact that he shifts and seeps, but doesn't actually transport his entire anatomy between unseen locations. There is a significant difference between gliding on air towards visible endpoints and transferring your every molecule instantaneously."

As he dexterously garnered the concentration of the assembled, Maya voiced their shared sentiment of, "Oh holy nights, we've missed you."

II

Stationed at his widest window with amusement written on his features, Nate turned from the backyard merriment to resume his far less engaging activity. As if his mother's keen eyes observed his every movement from clear across the pond, he folded his garments meticulously. The expectation to dump it all into his hamper as soon as he returned to his Boston bedroom made the effort utterly pointless, but nonetheless instinctive.

A light knock preceded the feminine petition of, "Nate?"

The boy invited, "It's open, Em."

The woman in white entered, noting his nearly filled duffel. "You're a vastly superior packer to certain X-Boys of mine. Neat as a pin."

"And I desperately beg you never to make that known beyond these walls," Nate half-joked.

"Deal," she promised, making her way over to his side of the bed. "Myles phoned from the rest stop. He's about an hour away." Emma's good-natured expression diminished. "I know this has been far from a dream vacation for you. At the very least, I wish Charles and I could've taken you back."

"Em, come on," Nate spoke reassuringly. "Between the wedding and pulverizing poachers, I never expected that. Besides, in what reality do I have the right to balk at having my host dad's best man chauffeur me between mansions?"

"You deserve nothing less." Emma tugged him towards her for a hug. "I have to finagle Brian into a nap." She held onto the teenager, so relaxed in her arms, for another moment before instructing, "Come to the kitchen as soon as you're done in here. I am not relinquishing you to Boston on an empty stomach."

Nate mock scoffed. "You're such a slave driver, Big Sis."

"Aren't I? Give me lip and I'll let the dogs make chew toys of your action figures," the blonde teased before departing the room.

After he could no longer hear her footsteps, Nate moved to shut his door again. Heading for the closet next, he squatted to a blue compact cooler. Once he lifted its white lid, the two vials of liquid stared back at him.

IIIIIII

After considerable- debatably, painstakingly excessive- deliberation, final outfit selection took place. Swaying her hips from side to side before the wall mirror, she examined the end result. Covered from chest to hem in turquoise polka dots, the spaghetti-strapped rockabilly dress came an inch below her knees. Black sandals attached to her feet, she accessorized with her raven necklace and seashore themed bracelets from Los Angeles. Though she had yet to adjust to such long, high volume hair that she herself did not have to extend, she overall approved of her reflection. When the further regions of her mind went so far as to express a preference for it, she had to stifle the guilt and ignominy that resulted.

With a breath, Raven petitioned, "Mom… are you ready?"

Currently seated at the small table in the McCoy master bedroom, Edna jested, "Only for the last forty minutes or so, dear. Are you?"

God no! "Yes," she fluffed out her hair a bit more, "coming."

Too many flashbacks of the aftermath of her overly extroverted antics at certain Oxford mixers surfacing at once, she, at last, left the shroud of her walk-in closet.

Raising her head from the errands list she began during her wait, Edna wordlessly took in the debut. "Did I get you that one for your birthday?"

Incredulous expression quickly forming, Raven corrected, "Christmas," and had to look herself up and down to ensure her lack of disguise. "Notice anything else? Perhaps the fact that your daughter-in-law resembles an outcast from The Smurfs comics?"

"Your pre-adoptive background has never mattered to me."

Raven almost rolled her bumblebee yellow eyes. "Mother!... Look at me." She gestured at herself. "I'm not pulling off a practical joke with my powers. I know this is a huge, out-of-nowhere bomb, but that gorgeous blonde? She was the joke; the façade." She did a slow spin before facing her again. "This is my real natural form- well, now it is, I guess. Before yesterday, I had—"

"Scales and shorter hair?" Edna supplied imperturbably. "And if I'm remembering correctly, a more midnight blue?" A grin stretched across her face when the younger woman appeared torn between fainting and catatonia. "My darling girl, give me slightly more credit than Lauren Patterson."

When she could speak again, Raven squawked, "Who told you?"

"Who had to?" Edna countered. "You were so exhausted last night, you probably scarcely remember finding your way to bed. Before then, do you really think I've never checked in on you and the children after you've gone to sleep? Especially when you've been upset or not feeling well. Not to mention the fact that your nephew's unique art style masks you about as well as Clark Kent's glasses."

"Why…" Raven continued reeling herself from the shock. "Why did you never say anything?"

"Good question," Edna responded pointedly. The shapeshifter sighed dolefully, starting to pace. "Raven, kindly look at me when we're talking. Seeing my daughter's actual face during daylight is something of a momentous occasion for me."

Contritely taking the chair across from her, Raven managed to keep their eye contact even. "My brothers knew this would come out eventually. So did I. It just never seemed like the right time to tell you. When we first met, Norton went on and on about how pretty I was. Even in a false face, I reveled in that." She smiled feebly. "After what they did to him and we started getting closer… my track record with moms isn't the greatest. I kept making up excuses because the thought of you disgusted at the sight of me- even for a split-second- was something I didn't think I could recover from. I shouldn't have let my pathetic self-esteem get the better of my judgement yet again."

After a thoughtful moment, "Oh, my Raven," Edna reached across the table to link hands with her, "I can't begin to know the adversity and terror you've faced. It's impossible to turn on the news without becoming sick to your stomach with what this world is coming to. After Norton and Henry fell out over that cure business, I don't blame you for being so hesitant. Not a day passes that I don't regret missing your wedding."

Raven insisted, "You don't have anything to feel bad about, Mom. Hank and I certainly don't resent Norton. Trav and Kiki are the best wedding gifts we could've hoped for."

"That they are," Edna agreed brightly then questioned, "How are you feeling? This change was so sudden- did it hurt you?"

"No," Raven answered without consideration. "In fact, as weird and random as the whole thing was, going through it felt pretty amazing. Frank's powers tend to have a funny effect on me, but this was… different. I can't say I hate the final product."

"That's wonderful," Edna stated earnestly. "It's so nice to see you able to hold your true head up high. And I do love seeing you in blue."

The murky hue permeating the shapeshifter's eyes became overridden by a euphoric sheen.

IIIIIII

To Nate's quite pleased surprise, fortune fancied him when Myles collected him later that afternoon. Throughout the day, Nate got the bulk of his goodbyes out of the way. He had taken the liberty of starting the morning off with feeding all of the animals so that Dr. Sullivan as well as his herd remembered him on favorable terms. Joey and the younger children gave him new artistic keepsakes. Hank insisted he help himself to his treasure trove of mechanical bric-a-bracs. In addition to some leftover baked goods for the car ride, Charles and Emma slipped him ten dollars in spending money. Naturally, the boy claimed he did not need it, but Emma maintained her point of emergency preparedness. Charles merely pulled rank as the elder brother/alumnus of their homeland and Oxford. The biggest fortune came when no one uttered a word about recent events in Myles' presence.

After his prolonged embrace with Cordelia, his fellow rascal and host sister reminded him that their bidding adieu would soon be a thing of the past. That acted as the tenderizer to the inevitable ache whenever the Xavier Mansion diminished to a speck in the rearview mirror. Oddly, at the same time, relief always trickled in as well with every landmark that indicated Boston on the horizon. Specifically, the Frost Estate. He still laughed at every recollection to his first time viewing it. So many bleak scenarios straight out of the works of Dickens had bombarded his imagination.

While no one could claim Bob Cratchit as Winston Frost's spirit animal, Nate's host father still proved anything but miserly. For starters, the man did not treat food as a privilege he would withhold at the slightest infraction. In fact, when they originally met, despite how compliantly Nate cleaned his plate, Winston always probed to ensure the skinny lad received his fill. The older male tried to downplay second helpings of dessert as the necessary refueling Nate needed between rushing about with the dogs outside and other such frequent episodes of zealousness.

As thoughts of his mother and grandfather joined his jumbled head, Nate wondered not for the first time if his feelings resembled those of divorced kids. Except split between three homes instead of two, minimal resentment and hostility, and no leper treatment from the community. Other than those tiny details, Nate connected with the youngsters from broken families swimmingly. The teenager's peculiar musings sharply ended as he heard an impact that made him flinch.

Nate clung tighter to the cargo in his lap. "What was that?" Despite his driver petitioning him to do otherwise, he caught a glimpse of an alleyway fistfight.

"Jonathan," groaning inwardly at the seemingly inescapable bouts of unrest, Myles applied a layer of gentleness to his voice, "the usual riffraff, not worth our attention. Now, tell me all about your visit with your host sisters. Just what are you hiding back there, hm?"

The youth's head shot forward. "What do you mean?"

"What sorts of goodies are you smuggling?"

Remembering he currently held the cooler as if it were his firstborn, Nate formed a smile. "Nothing too tasty in here. But try these." From his wrapped paper bag, he used a Kleenex from the box in the car to retrieve a scone and an apple-cinnamon muffin. "Hank McCoy's mum is the baroness of baking."

"And you, dear child, are a godsend," Myles declared. He spared one hand to seize and promptly bite into the scone. "Mm, I don't know how I forgot to grab a snack at the gas station."

Elated that he remained undiscovered, Nate avoided looking out the windows or doing anything else to draw unnecessary attention to himself. He did not need to put in that effort for long. The next time he lifted his head, the Frost property greeted his eyes. Blinking, Nate initially entertained the notion that they had gone through a wormhole to transport there so instantaneously. Naturally, he simply grasped that he had dozed off without so much as noticing his own lethargy. Having not missed the boy's short snooze, Myles benignly advised him to go in while the man saw to his luggage. Nate took the cooler then grabbed the treat bag as well to be even less questionable.

As soon as he stepped into the mansion's grand entryway, he had to put his things down long enough to brace himself for the bounding Beauty. Much appreciated euphoria spread through him with every cheek lick from the eager Beagle. With her all but glued to his heels, Nate made it to the second floor. In the center of the hall, Courage stood from his curled up position on the floor to make a slothful path for the adolescent human. Despite his glee to see the large dog, Nate frowned. Though Courage possessed more decorum than Beauty, he almost always joined his charge in welcoming the returning household members.

When Nate went to one knee, he balanced his containers to rub his head and offer his hand. Courage only briefly sniffed the teen's fingers before getting a good whiff of every possible inch of him. At the look the imperious Border Collie gave him, Nate worried he sensed something off in him, only to remember that he had so recently been surrounded by the entire Sullivan herd plus the Xavier critters. Nate offered a one-armed hug, letting Courage nuzzle him to his heart's content to apologize for allowing other mammals anywhere near his property.

The dog duo accompanied him to his quarters. Clicking on his light, Nate absorbed the sight of his quarters with more jubilation than he anticipated. Besides being regularly vacuumed and dusted, the space appeared the same, including his numerous gizmos being somewhat in order. Before his visit to New York, a certain host father had been adamant that the room not be left in hazardous disarray only suitable for swine. Nate considered the order such a "mum" mandate but dared not share that observation with Winston. Leaving his sweets on the desk and securing his cooler to the highest shelf in his closet, Nate went to the bed to plop right in the middle of it. As Courage and Beauty joined him, the English lad found himself surveying the space thoughtfully.

Unlike a lot of his classmates- even older ones- for his soon-to-be sixteen years on the planet, Nate lived in four different bedrooms. On two different continents at that. He did not count his dorms, mainly because the heads of Residential Life ever so subtly made it known that even gazing upon their housing was strictly a privilege. Before the bank reaped whatever glee came from snatching a house away from a recent widow and her child, Nate had a fairly normal bedroom that began as his nursery. So used to it, he never gave much thought to it until they ended up in his mother's childhood home. While she returned to her old room, Nate got the smallest. He did not mind it too terribly since he could still tinker in the basement or barn.

Despite how welcomed he felt at the Xavier Mansion, Nate considered the Frost room to feel the homiest since his first bedroom. He had expected treatment in line with Residential Life, except stricter. Very quickly, Winston started treating him as if he had grown up there right alongside his actual offspring. For the most part, anyway since Chris revealed that Winston's nature had somehow become a pinch less "Stalin-esque", as the blonde put it. Of course, Nate knew the top tier reason he leaned more towards his current bedroom. The suite also belonged to the one and only Count Domino.

When Myles came through with the rest of his luggage, Nate rolled to his side and asked, "Where is everyone? I know Chris will be back on Wednesday, but…"

"Mr. Frost has been delayed until Thursday evening." Myles glanced over from situating the box of spare parts on top of the desk. "I'm driving you to your internship tomorrow. Christian wants you to shadow the rest of the team members and keep notes for—"

"My reflection paper," Nate inserted, withholding a sigh from the thought of his sole but mind-numbing summer assignment. "Yes, Chris told me."

"Good. Now, go on and wash up. I'm going to warm some vegetables and casserole for your dinner."

"Myles, do you think I could maybe eat up here? Please?"

Aware of how off-putting the sizable dining room could be without other participants, Myles granted, "Alright, but be sure you clean up after yourself."

After the man left, Nate took a cool shower. When Myles brought his food and milk up, the boy engaged in a Frost house rarity of enjoying the evening meal in pajamas with the TV on. Once only crumbs and droplets remained, he brought his empties downstairs to the dishwasher. With Courage and Beauty staying in step with him, Nate retrieved additional bowls of water for them to have in his room. He also gathered more ice for his cooler. Unsure if the drive or if a suddenly full stomach got to him, he fell into slumber at only a quarter to nine.

IIIIIII

Out of the charcoal armor of Lord Onyx and in the casual gray attire of Byron Niko, the broad-shouldered man made an automatic path for the captain's chair. While airborne, he periodically eyed his teammates' reflections in the front window. White wig and scarlet armor shed, Felicia Hardy now wore a ruby cocktail dress. Her gold-highlighted hair flowed in waves impeccably styled for one involved in combat less than an hour ago. In the seat next to her, Chris' exterior- bizarre for anyone possessing the Frost surname- did not fare nearly as well. Clothed only in his slacks, he released faint grunts as Felicia helped him into his sage dress shirt after she tended to his mild wounds.

Having not missed the bruising along the other male's torso, Byron piped up, "Does your armor need refining or just the boots? You look like you collided into more brick walls than in our earlier days."

"As if your precision was once anything so noteworthy," Chris countered lightheartedly. "Thanks, Fel," he said when she finished adjusting his second sleeve.

"I lost count of how many hits you took back there." Felicia ran comforting fingers through his blonde hair. "We weren't prepared for such a barrage of bullets."

"We stole a good 10K worth of merchandise from a drug cartel," Chris emphasized, taking another long swig of the mineral water he drank with his muscle relaxers. "Considering we can utter those words while impossibly remaining on the mortal plane, I think I'll bounce back from a few aches and pains."

"True enough," Felicia had to admit. "And not to look that gift horse in the mouth, but wasn't this a tad overtaxing for a diversionary deploy?"

Chris reminded her, "This is the same cartel that frequently transports chemicals for known mutant eugenics outfits. Huge and, debatably, stupid venture, but the worst risk is the underground figuring out our actual angle. Better rival criminals than crazed crusaders."

"Sir Malachite, please," Felicia gripped his chin to arch his head higher, "we prefer the term Crazed Courtiers," and gained a smile from him.

"And we just enjoyed almost three weeks free of nefarious activity," Byron brought up. "You knew we were going to be made to suffer for that eventually."

The other two easily concurred with that bit of existential truth.

Another hour passed until they touched down on their primary destination on the private Pittsburgh airbase.

Byron veered his chair to properly view his friends. "Ready to play your next parts?"

"Only since birth." Felicia finished applying her cherry lipstick before pressing a few kisses along Chris' neck area.

"Thanks, m'lady." Chris stood with Felicia attached to his arm. "Most of my seasoned colleagues should be bombed to procreative proportions by now, but you're still my best explanation should the standard wise-guy notice I snuck out of the hotel."

"Christian Frost's token trollop." Felicia humorously considered that. "Though, that was a life goal for most of the girls in my class."

"Diversionary deploys," Byron echoed with a shake of his head. "The perks of leadership." He spread the plane's doors apart for them. "Alright, Bonnie and Clyde, proceed with caution. No side trips, please."

"Give Rissy and Dex our best," Chris requested as they departed, "Dad."

After seeing the pair secured inside their pert leader's rental car, Byron ascended again. The simple mention of his sister and son propelled him greater than the engine fuel. Along the way, a specific slew of other spirited youngsters seeped into his headspace as well.

IIIIIII

Almost instantly upon awakening, the English teenager believed the grand house's air-conditioning had suffered an overnight fatality. Pajamas damp with sweat, he knew the animals could not be blamed since Courage slept at the foot of the bed with Beauty sprawled close to the bigger dog. Getting up, Nate ruled out AC damage when he discovered his unit still running along with the window the housekeeper kept raised to prevent stuffiness. When another issue dawned on him, Nate fled the room at top speed. Courage barked after him while Beauty scrambled down to follow the hastening human. They both returned shortly with a container of ice.

After he refilled his cooler, Nate lingered in the closet, more vexed than the day before. Clutching the cooler as if it carried an organ transplant, he tried to think what to do with it while he had to be at his internship. Courage and Beauty studied him, seemingly knowing what troubled the boy. Once he pieced together an idea, Nate finally noticed that his mad rush for downstairs had left him sweatier and short on breath, even after four minutes of solid thinking. He credited that to his prior fretfulness.

Compliments of crashing into bed so early, Nate had ninety minutes to spare before the usual time he needed to get ready for going into the office. That allowed him to take a drawn out cool shower. When the perspiration started up practically as soon as he dried himself off, he switched on a table fan while he got into his short-sleeve maroon and white sweater vest ensemble. He also used three additional layers of deodorant with some of the high-priced cologne gifted to him by Chris. At the time, his mentor knew he did not require aftershave yet. However, with the stray fuzz he felt here and there, Nate wondered if Winston would possibly impart on him the refined art of the razor. Either that or accompany him to the barbershop- not that the almost-sixteen-year-old needed his hand held or anything…

On his next trip to the kitchen, Nate met up with the housekeeper and delayed her steadfast routine to converse for a moment. He requested to have his bedroom taken off her cleaning schedule due to his upcoming projects as well as his wanting to pitch in more. To his relief, she did not find this too suspect due to the boy's scientific inclinations and pleasing manners. She agreed, but only if he promised to keep his room suitable and his gadgets contained within it. He promised and she next offered to prepare his breakfast. Nate declined, only having room for toast and juice. He figured last night's dinner had not completely digested.

Due to Nate's favorable promptness, Myles got him to Thibault Technologies twenty minutes sooner than when the lad arrived with Chris. While the elders around him appeared happy with the timekeeping, the impression did not prove strong enough. All too soon, Nate became an occasionally addressed piece of furniture. Though not the only summer intern there, the rest consisted of older university students. The most regard Nate received from them came from new faces with inquiries about his current grade level and if he was there visiting his father at work. Oddly, the smallest twinge of pleasure followed the latter question for Nate. While he missed his mentor greatly, Nate knew Chris would have snapped on whoever dared ask the teen anything pertinent to his paternity. It felt nice not to have pupils of pity directed at him.

Nate spent the morning shadowing the team Chris managed, keeping notes as they went over updates. The boy noticed a specific but consistent correlation. When their conversations drifted over to their nightlives and similar topics, they suddenly sent Nate to fetch something on another floor or get himself a soda. Considering how the thirty-something-year-olds could embellish, Nate did not mind the side trips. He only had trouble withholding his laughter every time he feigned wholesome blue-eyed naiveté at their jokes.

At lunch, they invited him out, but since Nate wanted the hour to himself, he told them he preferred to stay to work on a few things for Chris. Normally, he only had to put in short days as an intern, staying over only when he and Chris got really involved with something. However, one of Winston's many philosophies went into the teenager doing a full day in Chris' absence. Intelligent little boys made idle all too easily became insufferable little b's-of-the-cruder-sort.

Once left to his own devices, Nate bought a tuna fish sandwich from the cafeteria and acquired his fourth cola of the day. A familiar easiness washed over him as soon as he reached Chris' office and settled behind the desk. He switched on the portable TV to watch while he ate. However, ten minutes into animated escapades, he had yet to finish even half his sandwich. Weariness overtook his amusement over the show and he had to turn the black and white set off as he felt a throb building between his ears. Digging into the desk's second drawer, Nate would have jumped for joy over the ibuprofen he sought if not for all of his limbs suddenly gaining forty extra pounds each. Ignoring all adult medical advice ever, he used the last of his cola to swallow two of the pills.

Once the pressure lightened enough that he could partially open his eyes, Nate glanced around the office to distract himself from the aching. His vision landed and lingered on the far left wall. Getting up from the desk, he crossed over to study the décor. An enlarged framed photograph of himself with the rest of Chris' tech team hung above the massive bulletin board. Even more pictures along with clips of written kudos from upper level management covered it. Not only did Nate feature alongside Chris in the pictures more times than the others but most of them depicted them with his mentor's arm slung across his shoulders. One photo of Nate and Chris engrossed in a project had an overhead caption scrawled in pen: Luckiest Mentor Ever with his Right-Hand Man. The flood of euphoria seemed to treat the tension in the teenager's head sooner. He felt better enough to sit at the desk and begin a letter to his mother and grandfather for the remainder of lunch.

By the time Myles picked him up, Nate experienced the relief of being done for the day yet a peculiar sense of dread pooled the closer they got to the house. The lad solved his own emotional puzzle upon entering the oversized emptiness. On cue, Beauty's small frame perked him right up. He brought her upstairs, where Courage awaited them. Nate went right to his closet, glad to see no signs of foul play with his cooler.

Myles carried dinner to him again and Nate only left his room that evening for refills on ice for his cooler. He ate his mashed potatoes and two spoonfuls of mixed vegetables. Only keeping his milk to sip, he gave his meat and the rest of the plate's leftovers to the dogs. Though Courage stared at him a moment, his inner wolf set about gobbling the larger bits too overwhelming for little Beauty's intake.

IIIIIII

Due to the extreme strain of recent events, the entire Xavier estate seemed to bask in the noticeable decline in manic activity. By eleven, the majority of the mansion dwellers gladly retired to their beds or partook in other noiseless tasks. In the living room, the McCoy matron settled into an armchair with the floor lamp on her left providing her the minor illumination she required. Posted at her feet, the black canine's gratified gnawing comprised the only sound in the showplace beyond Edna's periodic sips of iced tea. When his notable ears and nose informed of another impending lifeform, Bruiser popped his head up attentively.

Edna started to remark curiously to the dog until her son arrived in the wide archway. "Henry." She promptly shut the book she looked through and placed it on the end table beside her mug to rise. "I thought all four of you had long gone to bed."

After he ceased focusing on Bruiser, Hank met her midway in the room. "And I can't tell you how amazing it is to be in our actual bed again in a wing that doesn't reek of rubbing alcohol and latex. But leave it to me to rile myself simply by watching my family sleep."

Edna smiled in treasured fondness. "Caffeine has nothing on the exhilaration that comes with seeing your children alive and well."

Hank eyed her in returned reverence then noticed, "You haven't been to sleep yet, either. Mom, please tell me you're not still fretting over me."
"Only since the first trimester," Edna half-joked, returning to her chair and reading. "We're keeping each other company until Jed gets in from his ER call." She caressed Bruiser between his ears before the dog resumed chewing on his raw lamb bone.

"Yes, his brother is still upstairs with Raven and the kids." Hank darted eyes from Bruiser to his mother again. "If you're tired, Dr. Sullivan will be fine. There's a reason we're the only house in town with live-in security."

"It's no trouble, Henry," Edna simply dismissed, flipping between pages. "Especially for the one who brought my son back from the brink."

Hank appeared thoughtful then came to see what held her attention. "Are you remodeling the Dundee house?"
Edna shook her head. "These are for Jed." She peered through the numerous color swatches in the catalog. "He's thinking about having his first floor repainted to go along with the rest of the repairs."
"Fresh coat, fresh start."

"Exactly. And I know well how you ambitious scientific sorts operate," Edna asserted humorously. "You'll get us to the moon before you spare five minutes to go over paint samples."

Hank came back with, "Well, I suppose that's why Dad said your greatest contribution at the car dealership was, 'oh honey, the green one'."

To that, Edna specified, "Chartreuse, heartstrings."
"Chartreuse," Hank dutifully amended. "Listen, Mom," his features sobered, "you've already been through the wringer and after all this, I can't say thank you e—"
"Back to bed, Henry Philip," Edna pointedly dismissed. "The delirium is trying to set in again."

"Yes, ma'am." The young man stood fully again. "I love you."

"I love you, baby," she returned.

On his way through the main level and up the stairs, Hank's senses rang as if introducing themselves to his system for the first time. The steady breathing of the sleepers beyond their doors and their combined scents coupled with antique scents of the old home eased instead of bombarding him. Even his nearly lifelong poor eyesight seemed a degree more reliable as he stepped into the shelter of his lab. Climbing the next flight of stairs, the warmth of his wing greeted him. Sprawled at Kiki and Trav's feet, Sandy looked his way servilely before resuming slumber.

Not missing the prominent absence from his bed, the animalistic mutant quickly calmed when the radiant figure stepped forth from the terrace. Her honey fire sleepwear of a tank top and cropped pants with her sheer silk robe complemented her distinct eyes. At her crooked finger summonses, Hank walked across their floor almost hypnotically until he got within reach of her.

"R—" her arms coiling his neck gave him temporary pause, "Raven, what are you doing to me? We can't…" Hank dipped his chin to connect their foreheads. "We can't rush… unifying our fluids yet."

"What am I doing to you?" Raven pulled back to eye him provocatively. She moved backward onto the terrace with him. "After how delectably tiptop Alana made you sound? If you'd only heard her and Erik during your last diagnosis—"
"My lack of dependency on a catheter is not the medical marvel here," Hank stated. "Frank, Sean, you- my God, you, sweetheart." He touched the side of her face in arm, lacing his fingers through a portion of her hair. "Your reflexes, resiliency, dexterity- that rapid metamorphosis should have sent your entire system into shock, but you—"
Raven brought her finger to his lips. "Now, who's seducing?" Letting her robe fall silently to the floor, she went back sharply into a flip until she landed on the railing.

Thrown by the maneuver, Hank cautioned, "Raven…"
Spreading her arms horizontally, the shapeshifter reminded, "Super-duper reflexes, remember?" At that, Hank kicked off his custom house shoes. Massive feet unleashed, he took a mighty leap and came down directly before her. Arms going around his neck again and legs his midsection, Hank brought his hands to the small of her back. "How 'bout we give that resiliency a test drive?"

Lips quivering with initial uncertainty, Hank at last raised them to meet hers for the first time in days.

IIIIIII

When Nate woke up to get ready to go to Thibault for his second day, only some weighty lethargy troubled him. The boy chalked that up to his lack of enthusiasm. Going from being surrounded by people and being of need to the X-Men to being an adorable office novelty made for emotional whiplash to say the least. Nate ate a slightly bigger breakfast than the day before until his stomach seemed to threaten him if he dared even glance at or smell another piece of egg. He got the remains of his plate dumped and into the dishwasher without running into the housekeeper and having to explain his sudden finicky attitude towards her food. He certainly did not want allegations of ingratitude getting back to Winston.

All felt mostly normal by the time Myles dropped him off. For the first two hours, anyway. At that point, Nate's flushed features and mentally checked out posture distracted the team members from their exchange of stories. Linda, the receptionist, agreed with the men and offered to call Nate's house for him. However, the teen assured her he had more than enough cab fare on him without interrupting any of the staff's daily duties. He only took the time to gather his things from Chris' office. When his taxi came, Nate directed the driver a significant distance from the Frost address while clutching the cooler he felt propelled to bring that day.

IIIIIII

"They're good to go, honey."
"Be right there, better half," Sean returned via communicator, picking up his pace.

The ginger continued out front where Charles, Erik, and Edna looked on at the awaiting travelers. Lauren, the Walshs, and the Cassidys stood around the X-Van with their belongings fully loaded.

Once his wife finally stood from her prolonged embrace with their youngest, Liam put forth, "Are you sure you don't want to come along to the airbase, sport?"

"Nah, that's okay, Dad," Tommy shrugged. "I already did what Mom wanted; prayed you and Grandpa don't kill each other midair."

Amidst the laughter, Lydia claimed, "That'll be the true miracle of this expedition."
Doreen sent Sean a smile. "And here's our handsome chauffer now."
"Well, this is it. What do you say, Edna?" Flynn looked towards the woman in question. "Last chance to join in. Care to see what Creation has in store for us?"
Through a stiff grin, Edna replied, "With all the enthusiasm of awaiting the change."

"She's still awaiting the change?... I want to be the head cheerleader," remarked a shades donning Lauren before getting into one of the van's detached seats.

"And on that note of top ten thousand things I never thought I'd hear my mother say…" Maya got in on the passenger's side.

Erik strolled over to pick up and hold Tommy on his hip, "Safe journey," before returning to stand alongside his brother.

"Let's get going, geezers," declared Sean, making a path for the driver's seat.

Charles waved after them then used the same hand to tug on Tommy's ankle. "Seems it's going to be a scorcher today. What's say we equip ourselves with a little ice cream?"

Tommy nodded eagerly then kept his head on Erik's shoulders as they all headed indoors.

IIIIIII

The number of hours he clocked with Jed Sullivan plus the very many in the mansion's infirmary, the British teenager felt roughly sixty to seventy percent certain about his current endeavor. The Fitness Castle being deserted due to Byron, Felicia, and Doc Ock's business hours helped a great deal. However, being stationed in the medical bay with the constricting tourniquet tied to his arm proved less encouraging. Still, he identified his most bulging vein and inserted the sterilized needle. He inhaled sharply until the vile completely filled with his blood. He secured the red bodily fluid to his cooler and slipped that into the bay's refrigerator while he bandaged his arm and clean up whatever minimal evidence as best he could.

Taking the elevator up to the lab, Nate sat to resume going through the available medical encyclopedias before he did anything further. He became so wrapped up in memorization that he barely registered the next ding of the elevator.

The dividing doors sent his chest plunging until he recognized, "Chris?" Rising from the desk, he maneuvered around the desk to greet him in a hug. "Hey, bro! I thought you were coming home tomorrow."
"A train of thought that factored in greatly to my failed attempt at spontaneity. I wanted to spring you from corporate captivity." Hand in one pocket of his viridian crop-sleeved blazer, the blonde removed his Ray-Ban sunglasses to fully view his mentee. "Only to get to the office and find out they sent you home sick, so I had to rework the plan a little, figured we'd catch up in front of the TV. Except when I went by the house, Myles told me that you phoned about the team taking you out to a jazzy event and would get you home by dinner." At the boy's now petrified form, Chris snickered. "Relax, pal, I've been at this gallivanting game a lot longer than you have. I didn't say a word about your supposed declining health. But something told me I'd find you here. So, from what I've been able to piece together," he pocketed his shades, eying the teen squarely, "feigned a few sniffles to get out of your internship early?"
A multitude of responses flooded Nate at once, but he could hardly muster one. "Chris, don't be mad. Not that you don't have the right—"

Chris lifted his palm in a calming gesture. "Mad at you? Are you kidding? Nate, I get it. Em's house, home, work- you just wanted a few adult free breathing hours, right?"
"… Something like that." Nate then brought up, "And as cool as Thibault Tech is, full days there can get a little… you know?"

Chris sent a hand through Nate's brown hair. "I missed you, too, buddy." The boy gave him a small smile. "And I get it. You've been the best part of this promotion for me. And of course, your idea of flaking is winding up in an empty lab. Still," he eased onto the edge of the desk, continuing to face the teen, "as your wise, responsible mentor, I'm afraid I have to throw the book at you." He then pronounced, "No sundaes for a week. Try to argue and I'm confiscating your apple pie privileges." Nate made a show of zipping his lips shut. Chris grinned until he spotted the band-aid on his forearm. "What happened here?" He indicated the spot.

Nate quickly came back with, "Typical hazards of being amongst the X-Kids."

Chris nodded his amused understanding then got up to sling an arm over Nate's shoulders. "Let's grab some eats." He started them off towards the elevator. "How was your first July 4th in the good ole US of A? Details, details."

Feeling his most lighthearted in some time, Nate eagerly went into the recollection of teenage escapades in Mt. Kisco.

IIIIIII

With their wee ones in the care of the teens as well as Alana and Edna, the Headmasters took the opportunity for an instructor meeting. On the physical plane this time, the members all made their way into the library. Their usual pair of tables had already been pushed together to the center of the large research space. The Instructor Quad arrived first, taking seats in pairs across from each other.

"Are they still hurting?" Raven asked of Leon's wounded appendages.

Hank finished inspecting them. "He could've been a little more efficient with this stitch job. Still, at this rate, I can have them out in about another week."

Leon finally answered Raven with, "They barely sting anymore," next relinquishing his hands for Alex to massage on top of a cushion. "It's their care that's irritating. I think it would've been easier to chop them off cleanly and stick them in the freezer."

Alex looked over at Hank as he reminded, "And Doc Sullivan was under mitigating circumstances of random. Plus the little fact that his specialty isn't patching up people."

"A comforting fact sure to help me sleep soundly," said Hank sardonically. "In the next day or two, I expect that injection to give me The Shaggy Dog treatment."

While the younger males gleamed some measure of amusement out of the remark, Raven nudged her husband less than delicately.

The library soon filled with the remainder of the designated X-Men. Charles, Emma, Erik, Trick, Raven, and Hank sat on one side with the other row accommodating Kayla, Logan, Victor, Alex, and Leon.

To the two at the very ends of the tables, Trick put forth merrily, "It's a joy to see both you blokes back on your feet again."

Leon replied, "My defects are more of the hand and head- like that's anything new- but appreciated."

"And I believe more than enough time has been spent on my brief lapse in health," Hank asserted briskly. "Please, let's bring our attention to this new development with Raven and the boys."
Glancing between Erik and Emma, Charles concurred, "Quite right. Now, from what mine and Fabian's combined efforts have deduced is that Frank's undergone a secondary mutation; independent of his eyes. That's why he's still struggling to adjust to it while Raven and Sean have essentially taken evolutionary leaps. By necessity it seems."

"Necessity?" Raven repeated curiously. "Not to betray the female code or anything, but a random makeover is considered an essential evolutionary leap?"
"It's an incentive," stated Emma, looking directly at the younger woman. "While your blue skin does still fall out of aesthetic norms, your former darker shade and scales made you an alien threat to the uninitiated. This new vibrant skin falls closer in line to human parameters. The longer, lusher hair signifies your… mature feminine attributes."

Raven right away urged, "I get the idea, Em."
"Basically," surmised Logan, "you squash dragonflies but stare at butterflies."
Tapping a pen with his power, Erik's lips formed a taut straight line.

Alex then brought up, "So, what about Sean?"

"Try evolutionary leaps and bounds," Hank boasted uninhibitedly. "Similarly to Brenda Howley, Sean's completely defied gravity. He's no longer at the mercy of artificial wings and atmospheric shifts. He can prioritize using his scream defensively."

"Yeah, all well and good," Logan interjected, "except I'm interested to know how the Glowworm's shine mojo teed up Blue and Red in the first place. And how's he a copperhead himself now?"
Charles explained the latter with, "Mere activation of the MC1R gene he received from Alana."

"On the sixteenth chromosome, I believe," Hank added.

"Huh, I'd have guessed fifteenth and a half," Logan deprecatingly quipped.

"As for the rest, Logan," Charles addressed the older blue-eyed man, "we still know too little about Frank's inner light. All I can determine from what I learned in his mind is that it is a good development, however reflexive. Frank doesn't consciously command it. Altering Sean and Raven is not significantly stranger than mass teleportation."

"My powers have never exactly had rhyme or reason, either," Kayla reminded her husband. "You and Vic have traveled longer and further than I have and still haven't met a similar mutant."

"True." Logan eyed her deferentially. "But somethin' tells me, we're not gonna find the answers inside a lab."

Raven, Alex, and Leon easily picked up on Hank's eyeroll resistance.

None of them wanting to be away from the fledglings for longer than necessary, the meeting disbursed twenty minutes later.

On their way out, Raven seized Hank's wide arm for herself. "So, Seanie's leaps and bounds, hm? Do I underwhelm you that much?"

"Great, now I need to send you in for a cat scan." Hank pressed her back into the nearest wall as soon as they stepped out of the library. "This transformation clearly cost you a massive chunk of cerebral tissue."

IIIIIII

As soon as they made it back to the Fitness Castle, Nate and Chris swiftly became enraptured in their prior projects and continued catching up. Chris admitted to envying Nate's carnival and fireworks launching Independence Day more than his own. Those festivities included an office party where he and the other designated drivers had a contest for who can capture the most incriminating photographs of their livelier colleagues. Nate had to struggle against his heavy limbs and momentary spells of dizziness, able to contribute that along with his perspiration to the humidity. Unfortunately, he wound up having to battle against the constriction in his chest that built when Chris cranked up the air-conditioning.

By four, Chris determined they needed to get a jump on the traffic. In all his listlessness, Nate almost forgot about his cooler. He thought about leaving it overnight since Chris said they would be returning after work the next day. After all, none of the Courtiers should have a reason to stop by and certainly not poke around the medical bay, let alone it's refrigerator. Nonetheless, the boy opted not to risk it.

On their way to his seafoam Fiat, Chris wondered, "What are you lugging around in there, anyway?"
"New experiment," Nate replied with a mysterious air about him.

Chris probed no more, partly because his mind soon went elsewhere. "Hold on a minute, pal." Praying his nerves remained invisible, Nate stopped walking to look at the blonde. "So, there's this prancing Dumbo in the room I, unfortunately, can't leave to whimsically rampage."

"The most fascinating idiom I may ever hear," Nate inserted.

"Listen," Chris continued, "you've been an asset to every area of my life. Someone I thought I didn't want yet now, I don't know how I got through the day to day without you. I love that we're both Crimsonites, how we foam at the mouth at just the sight of gadgets and gears, that our record collections have more doubles than I had with both my wives combined."
"Their disgrace, not yours."
Chris patted his shoulder with an amused exhale before redeveloping his earnest tone. "You really haven't been yourself today, Nate. Not concentrating as much as usual, acting sluggish- yes, I noticed." Nate's eyes magnified but he remained silent. "Whatever else we have in common, there are… certain quirks of mine I never want rubbing off on you. I only hope I'm wrong on this one."

Nate rushed to assure, "Chris, I am not drinking, I swear. I haven't since after Cordy's prom and only because we got the OK."

"Whoa, hey." Chris tightened his grip on his shoulder as if to keep the teen upright, "that is not where I was going with this. If you had that little issue, I'd know it without question. But I saw you at the Arches earlier. Sneaking half your fries into your pocket, taking a massive bite out of that burger then hopping up to spit it into a napkin at the trash can with the supposed blind spot, wanting to save your apple pie for 'later'. Later for you is within five seconds of finding an empty table."

The English youth searched his mind for a reasonable rebuttal. "I think I'm outgrowing fast food is all."

Chris stared at him with an unimpressed countenance. "So, there's fudging the truth and then there's body-snatcher fabrication. Ever since you set foot on our soil, you've been infatuated with what Father calls America's garbage can cuisine. Nate, look, at lunch I tend to… go lite. That doesn't mean I'm advocating it. Man can't live on black java alone, buddy."

All dots sufficiently connected at that. "No, Chris, it isn't like that. It's, you know, the weather and all. My appetite is up and down in the summer. When I used to get wrapped up in my farm chores this time of year, I would've starved on the daily if not for Mum calling me in for meals." The reminiscence made up the bulk of the sincerity in Nate's response.

At last pacified, Chris put forth, "The alcoholic and the workaholic; peas in a pod, huh?"

"Former alcoholic," Nate corrected. "Feeble workaholic."

Chris sent an arm around him to draw him close to his side. "Let's go, ace. See if we can find a Bogart picture on TV."

When they got into the car, they struck up a conversation considered normal for their unique universe. It helped Nate relax considerably. After leaving the Fiat on the circular driveway, they kept talking straight into the house. Neither took notice of their foyer audience until the cutting throat clearing caused them to peer up. The elder male duo stood hardly two yards from them.

"Host Father," Nate identified, hoping the strain in his voice only sounded in his own mind.

"Daddy," Chris addressed more casually, "what are you…?" An array of disconcerting possibilities went through him. "What happened in the Dakotas? I thought you were delayed."

"And I thought your host brother was sick." Winston finally shrugged out of his jacket, which Myles took from him to neatly fold in half. "Or missing. Perhaps strewn across the highway in a variety of pieces." Gripping the scepter, he took purposeful steps towards the pair. "Among other possibilities that flashed through my head while I spent three hours on the first available flight home."

"You did?" Nate gaped.

"A bit of an overaction, Father," Chris responded offhandedly. "And since when do you drop everything over one of us having a case of the sniffles?" He looked past him towards Myles. "Didn't you tell him Nate was with me and the team?"

"Of course I did," replied an equally none-too-pleased Myles. "However, you didn't tell me he'd been sent home sick." He eyed Nate next. "Something you also failed to mention when you claimed to be out with his co-workers."

In an unsettlingly even tone, Winston demanded, "Where have you two been?"

With a sigh, Chris answered, "At the Castle. I came back early to get a little time in with him. That's all."
Winston concluded, "So, you encouraged him to lie."

"No," Nate finally piped up. "That's not what happened. I did leave early because I wasn't feeling well. I- it wasn't that bad and I just thought I'd get more done at FC than laying around the house all day."

Winston's ire waivered not in the slightest. "That does not excuse you lying to Myles, let alone going off anywhere on your own. You are well aware of the rules I have for you, Jonathan."

"He just wanted a few hours to himself," Chris interceded. "He's a college kid on summer break. There are a lot worse things he can get into than a few science projects."

"Do not try to justify him, Christian," Winston rebuked. "You might be willing to accept such a pitiful excuse, but that's not going to fly with me."

Chris scoffed. "Where have I heard that before?"
"Mr. Frost—"
Aiming his scepter at the boy instantly muted him. "Have you been spoken to?" Nate shook his head. "I thought not. To your room, now."
Jittery hands combined with a misstep made the teenager lose his grip on the handle. He felt a piercing in his chest when his cooler immediately opened upon hitting the floor. Ice and one of the- fortunately, unbroken vials- slid out of it.

"Shit!" Nate hissed, dropping to his knees after the contents.

At the uncharacteristic utterance, an already taken aback Chris frowned deeper. "Nate, what…?"

Winston unceremoniously plucked the red vial from the English lad's grasp. "Where did this come from? Whose blood is this?"
"No one's!" Nate insisted. He desperately attempted to shovel the ice back into the cooler and recoiled when Myles attempted to approach. "I've got it, just leave it alone." He gasped at being pulled up by his left arm.

"What did you do?" Holding him by the wrist, Chris located the band-aid again. "What is this, Nate? Are you experimenting on yourself?"

"No!" Nate could not continue the denial, needing his right arm to abruptly clutch his belly.

Quickly noticing the color draining from the youth's face, Winston directed, "Myles, get him upstairs."
Giving the boy both his arms, Myles carefully guided him towards the stairs. "Easy now, Jonathan, slowly."
Left with the younger Frost male, Winston ordered, "No more games, Christian. What is going on here?"

"Daddy, if you find out, clue me in." Chris picked up the cooler, finding the other two vials within. "Then, we'll be both know."

II

After Myles got him to his quarters, the man brought Nate straight to his bed and acquired comfortable clothing for him. Nate managed to change into the red and white Harvard tee and gray pajama bottoms and promptly laid down. Despite some muscular difficulty, Courage climbed on top of the bed to lay beside the boy. Nate used one hand to reach down and scoop up the urgently yapping Beauty. Coming out of the bathroom, Myles placed a cool towel on the youth's tense forehead and gathered his discarded clothes to deposit in the hamper.

"Is your stomach in pain or just woozy?"

"Don't know," replied Nate honestly, still holding onto that part of his anatomy. "It's all twisted." He closed his eyes. "Can you turn off the light? Please? My head's hammering."
Myles moved to switch the overheard bulbs for the desk lamp. "When did you last eat?"

"At lunch… a little. I haven't been that hungry since yesterday."

Not dwelling on that fact for the time being, Myles reacted to the Frost men entering. "I'm hesitant to give him medication of any sort with an empty stomach."

"We'll try some mild aspirins with ginger ale." Winston watched his woeful host son as he spoke. "Myles, please."
"Right away, sir." Myles closed the door as he went to fulfill the task.

Winston left his scepter leaning against the nightstand before going to sit on the side of the bed. Chris approached as well and laid his palm on top of the damp towel on Nate's forehead.

"So much for noticing you," the blonde put forth forlornly. "We've been together practically all day and I couldn't even tell how sick you really were."
"It's not your fault, Chris," Nate disputed softly. "None of this is…" Eyes still shut, he spoke in the direction of the oldest man present. "Mr—"
"Priorities, Jonathan, priorities," Winston cut off with his unique brand of placid firmness. "You're to lie still and keep calm. We'll broach the rest in due time."

Nate quieted and despite the mostly dark atmosphere, he experienced a measure of tranquility while sandwiched between their shadows. Silence reigned in the room until Myles returned to drop off the requested ailment aids. He departed again to next deliver supper to the horses. Nate swallowed the aspirins, finishing most of the ginger ale in the process.

Crouched by the bed, Chris delicately asked, "Any better than downstairs, buddy?"

"A bit," answered the lad faintly. "It's been so up and down since yesterday."
Winston kept a palm pressed to his back. "Can you look at me, son?" Nate's blue irises peeked out through his partially peeled eyelids. "First and foremost, did you use a sterilized syringe to take your blood?"

"Yes, sir," Nate assured. "I made sure. And I am not conducting random experiments on myself. I only went to FC to run my bloodwork. Withdrawal is as far as I got, though."

"Why do you need your blood tested?" Chris wanted to know. "And what does it have to do with those other two tubes you were carrying around?"

Not missing the telling signs of adolescent discomfort, Winston emphasized piquantly, "The truth, Jonathan. Has a girl gotten you into some sort of trouble?"

"Nate, if that's the case, I'll take care of you," Chris vowed. "We'll go to a private doctor—"

"No!" Nate swiftly interjected, traces of repulsion on his face. "It's nothing like- I'm fifteen. I was checking for rabies."

Though the men experienced initial relief when the boy shot down their original theory, they formed twin gazes of bafflement at the admission.

The increased confusion did not deter Winston for long. "You are a country boy and if you were attacked by an animal, not only do you have the most basic common sense to seek medical attention right away, but you also would never have the dogs in here with you. Now, do I need to bring Emma and Charles into this conversation?"

Nate immediately pleaded, "Don't call them, Mr. Frost, please."

Jarred by the audible threat of the teen's voice cracking, Chris coached, "Don't get worked up, pal, come on." He rubbed his shoulder. "Just talk to us."

"I'm trying to give you the chance to explain yourself," Winston reiterated. "And I want the absolute truth, Jonathan. Not your carefully tailored version of it."

With the dogs nuzzling him and the Frosts patiently stationed near him, the teen began the lengthy recollection of his recent visit to New York state. His head pain declining helped him stay on track from the Duke's lost and found dog- not embellishing too heavily on Joey and Cody's parts there- to the X-Men's latest mission. Chris turned on the table lamp when Nate tugged up a sleeve to show what remained of his wound.

Winston scrutinized the scratches closely, satisfied to see them fairly well sealed with no obvious signs of infection. "This must have been grotesque when it first happened. How did you manage to conceal it?"

Nate replied with an air of uncertainty, "Things were a bit frantic that morning. I got Kiki to my room quickly and while she hid in the closet, I cleaned it as best as I could with alcohol baths. She didn't come near a single drop of my blood and I got rid of the shirt I ripped."

Not allowing any visible reactions on his face, Winston decreed, "We must have your blood screened immediately. Even if you don't appear to be suffering Hank's exact symptoms, this is a manmade disease we're dealing with. We've lost too much time on this as it is."

Nate could only bob his head as a tremor of guilt coursed through his belly.

"Let me get Felicia on the phone." A formerly silent Chris resumed his full height. "I'll have her contacts meet me at FC. They'll run the sample tonight. Once we know what we're dealing with, we'll be able to go from there."

A concurring Winston said, "The cure vials stay under lock and key for the time being. I don't want anyone in possession of a trace of mutant blood unless absolutely necessary."
Nodding his understanding, Chris glanced down. "We're going to figure this out, Nate. Whatever it takes, you'll be back to a hundred percent soon."

"Thanks, man," Nate replied in soft appreciation. "I'm really sorry."

Chris shook his head, his concerned blue eyes loaded with reassurance. After running affectionate fingers through the teen's hair, he started out of the room. Before he could grip the doorknob, he found Courage off the bed and ready to exit alongside him.

Ever grateful for his stalwart ally, Chris patted his head. "Stay with Nate while I'm gone. Thanks, pal." He walked out with that.

Watching as the door shut again, Courage went to lay on the floor. The black and white canine took a fortified position by the nightstand.

On his way to the telephone in his quarters, Chris came to a sudden standstill by his seldom used bedroom desk. Making a catapult of his foot, he made the chair flip over before it hit the floor.

IIIIIII

At the entry into his nursery, the tiny blonde vessel shifted in the direction of his door. Still partially asleep, Brian had difficulty making out the silhouette with the limited illumination of his nightlight. He let loose some incoherent murmurs but did not feel compelled to cry out, especially when he recognized the hushed voice.

"Shhh, easy, Bri-Bri." Reaching into the crib, Scott delicately gathered the much smaller boy along with Dickon. "Yeah, don't worry, I gotcha."

Apparently finding the reassuring words sufficient enough for the late-night disturbance, Brian simply wound an arm around Dickon. He nestled his chubby cheek against Scott's shoulder when the taller youth rearranged him in his arms.

Letting off a yawn as he stepped out of the bathroom, Joey blinked a few times when he saw the other boys and bear headed his way. "What's going on?"

Benignly shushing him as he had done with Brian, Scott soothed, "It's okay. I was up and heard him fussing."

"Aww, Bri." Joey rubbed his back and hair then looked at Scott. "Let's go get in Mum and Dad's bed."

"No." Scott shook his head. "They're still really tired from everything and I don't want to wake them up. Come on." He freed a hand to take hold of Joey's. "You guys can stay with me."

"Kay," Joey agreed, fatigue catching up with him as he let the older X-Boy guide him towards the designated bedroom.

Once there, Scott laid Brian with Dickon at the center of his bed. Joey had to stifle a giggle when Scott hoisted him onto the mattress next. The thirteen-year-old did delight in the little artist's smile, visible by his reading lamp. Scott drew the blankets over the blondes before climbing aboard on the other side of Brian.

"You guys okay with the light?" Scott picked up his copy of Gulliver's Travels. "I just need it 'til I'm sleepy enough to lose the specs."

"I know. Brian likes some light, anyway." Joey snuggled closer to the baby. "Night, Scottie."

"Night, guys." No longer needing to combat his heavy eyes, Scott only read for a few minutes before welcoming slumber.

IIIIIII

After some gentle but convincing prodding from Felicia, a restless Chris finally took his leave of the Fitness Castle. Her vow to stay with the physicians helped that along. Besides wanting to get back to Nate, Chris knew lackluster bodybuilding and aimless welding in his metal shop. During his drive home, the only remote plus side he received came from his aching muscles momentarily distracting him from his more pressing woes.

As soon as he made it back to the relative comforts of his childhood home, the ravenous young man made a purposeful path for the kitchen. He first went to the bread box and jammed a bagel in his mouth as he moved on to the icebox reserved for their dairy products. He came tantalizingly close to simply chugging a milk bottle then and there. However, someway, somehow the wind echoed his mother's singeing tone whenever a maid finked on him for such an uncouth sin. A small smile toyed amongst his eye-pleasing features when he also remembered her pointing out Courage being gentlemanly enough to drink from a dish. After filling a full glass of the whiteness for himself, Chris downed the remainder of his bagel with it.

Once his lightheadedness subsided, he trekked upstairs to look in on who really dominated his thoughts. He peeked into the bedroom, seeing his primary target securely tucked amongst his pillows. On top of the covers, Beauty curled next to him. At Winston's feet, Courage raised his head to acknowledge the younger Frost male.

Eyes shut, Winston piped up from the armchair, "Well?"

"Delivered." Chris came in fully. "Felicia's going to contact us as soon as they know something." He sat on the left arm of his father's chair, gaze remaining on Nate. "How's he doing?"

Winston replied, "He's keeping his soup down thus far."
"That's more than he could say during lunch," Chris responded auspiciously.

"Have you had any semblance of dinner?"

"Do bagels count?"
"As edible?" Winston came back with. "Technically."
Chris then offered, "I can stay with him if you want to sleep off that flight."

Winston merely reminded, "You intercepted a drug cartel last night. Self-care isn't exactly our prerogative at the moment."

That fact verbalized, the father and son settled into affable silence. Winston remained in the chair while Chris eventually headed for his host brother. After giving a soft ruffle to Nate's hair, he stretched across the foot of the bed. It relieved him when his additional weight did not disturb the teenager. Despite the horizontal position offering no support for his legs, Chris' fatigue soon eased him into slumber.

Winston stayed awake longer and watched the duo of picturesque purity as he mulled over an earlier conversation. Myles had detailed his observations of Nate's reclusiveness and abnormally pensive, distant demeanor far removed from the spirited rapscallion whose presence radiated the grand house. The English lad really did remind Winston of the better qualities of all four of his offspring. For better or worse, Nate certainly reflected Adrienne and Winston's shared tendency to take on challenges in a solo feat. The wealthy Bostonian may have concluded business earlier than anticipated, but he knew he still had real work ahead of him.

IIIIIII

Too groggy to exercise his mutation, Leon twisted his doorknob manually to enter his suite. His already slow movements came to a halt when he beheld the top of his still made bed. Hugging a pillow, the female physique laid asleep in soft pants and, despite the July weather, his WU sweatshirt. Leon came to kneel alongside the bed and reach for a section of her hair as if to ensure a mirage did not lie before him.

Melissa's brown eyes opened to his without alarm. "… Oh, yeah, you live here, too."

"On and off. I thought you were working."

"Got back last night." She sat up a little. "Where were…" Noticing his right hand, she clasped the wrist to reel it in closer. "Are these stitches?"

"About that- hold that thought." Leon used his other hand to remove his necklace. "And this." He enclosed the star-cross in her palms. "I'm extra grounded and I only get thirty minutes for personal hygiene. You're already cutting into my blow-drying time."

Before she could further question, Leon began stripping out of his nightwear and tossed the articles one by one on top of her.

"Hey," Melissa snatched off the boxers that landed on her head, "thanks. I'm poisoning the coffee."
Leon sent, "Thanks, cheesehead," over his shoulder as he disappeared into the bathroom.

IIIIIII

Already well-acquainted with Beauty's zealous yapping, Courage's seldom heard baritone spurred Chris to take rapid leave from his bathroom. The Border collie guided him to Nate's quarters, where the lad let off distressed murmurs.

Chris went straight to him and sat on the side of the bed, gingerly caressing his face. "Hey, buddy- bud, it's okay. I'm right here." He watched the fifteen-year-old in unmistakable concern as his eyelids cracked. In the world of the physical again, Nate blinked repeatedly and rubbed his eyes. "Nightmares?"

"Big fuzzy jumbles," Nate described. "Did your dad leave for work already?"

Chris answered him with, "Unless you count fixing our bachelor's breakfast. The staff's not coming in until the early afternoon. The three of us don't need crowding right now."

Nate nodded to that then wanted to know, "What about me? Did the results come in yet?"

Chris then informed, "Felicia called me a little while ago. You weren't infected."

"What?" The teen sat up, regarding him skeptically. "Are you sure? Are they sure?"

"We're going to do a follow-up in another week or so since you're a non-mutant, but this is the outcome the old man and I were leaning towards," Chris admitted.

Nate stared in confusion. "Then why do I feel so sacked? I don't get sick this time of year."

"That was before you became the big-time globetrotter that you are," Chris pointed out with lighthearted boast. "As much as you love inhaling our food, your body's still adjusting to being on foreign soil, Nate. Doc Ock went through the same thing when he went abroad. He said it sounds like you were feeling under the weather, but having to keep all this stress and panic to yourself aggravated your symptoms."

While Nate displayed some relief, his expression dimmed. "The entire team knows about this?"

"We didn't send a memo around. Doc Ock just stopped by FC earlier and talked to Felicia. Ron will probably know before the day's out, but what does it matter?" Chris reasoned nonchalantly. "All the Courtiers plus Ron's sister found out what Fabian did over spring break. He instigated his situation and still, none of us think less of him."

Nate emphasized, "Chris, if word gets back to Cordy or Fab, Hank will find out. He already wasn't Cor's favorite person during that morning of madness."

"That's where your head is right now?" Chris eyed him in disbelief, releasing a slight scoff. "Sorry, pal, but I'm more than a little distracted by my own madness at the moment." He got up from the bed, walking off a few paces.

Courage watched the turned back while Beauty attempted to keep up with his footsteps.

Unable to mentally compute his mentor's highly displeased posture, Nate petitioned with hesitation, "Chris?"

"How could you not come to me, Nate?" Chris questioned, genuinely thunderstruck. He veered to look at him again. "I've lost track of how much privileged, high-risk information I've shared with you. More than I ever have with my sisters, including Em. Even if you didn't want to bother me while I was away for work, we spent most of yesterday together just the two of us. Why did you think you couldn't trust me?"

Despite the myriad of ponderings shooting through his mind, Nate opened his mouth to total muteness for several seconds. "Chris, it's- it wasn't that I couldn't trust you. I thought maybe I was fine then I started feeling sick and I never expected you to sneak up like that."

"And it's a good thing I did before you wound up pumping God only knows what through your veins," Chris retorted.

"I told you I worked on that antidote with Dr. Sullivan myself. It already had Hank's tissue in it. I only needed to splice it with mine."

Chris gaped at the ceiling briefly. "Right, the cracked science of the local vet and a fifteen-year-old who isn't so much as minoring in medicine." He thought about something else he had pieced together. "Though that does explain how you managed to smuggle in two of those tubes."

Gripping handfuls of his linens tightly, Nate said meekly, "I'm sorry, Chris. I never meant for everything to go off the rails like this."

The blonde stood in place with a sigh. "I know the feeling. Still, here we are."

Nate struggled for his voice again. "I… I'll be good about it if you want to do what Byron did to Fabian."

Chris' countenance went from ireful to incredulous. "Nate, no. That's not… I…" With another frustrated release of air, he went back over to a lay a hand on top of the teen's head. "I'll be back, okay." Nate wordlessly nodded under his touch. On his way out, Chris addressed the dogs as well. "Beaut', watch him. Courage, sit on him if you have to."

Nate received the smallest twinge of amusement from that, but as his door shut, his insides sank.

II

Only his forest green camp shirt and black jeans adorned son's entry into the kitchen took away Winston's gaze from his prep of basic food items. Chris eased onto a barstool at the island, his naturally handsome attributes aged and weighed since they saw each other less than an hour ago.

"He's awake."

Chris did not bother feigning amazement over the- albeit selective- omnipresence practitioner. "And under the supervision of the Wonder Hounds." He stared at the island's solid canyon gold surface until an empty glass, soon filled from a milk pitcher came down before him. "I know I shouldn't test the wagon, but you could sneak me a smidge of the hard stuff." Winston placed a canister of Nesquik next to the glass. "Who died and made me your favorite?"

Directly across from him, Winston scrutinized his offspring's face further. "I take it you two weren't celebrating his prognosis up there."

"If I could stop playing this damn 'what if' game maybe," Chris spoke in confounded exasperation. "Neither one of us was scheduled to come home yesterday, Daddy."

"Yes, 'what if'. The tournament went on in my head all through the night," Winston told him. "Another fringe benefit of fatherhood for you to look forward to."

Chris shot him a disbelieving look at the very insinuation. "Yeah, right around the time Lucifer puts in that ski lodge."

Winston stayed on topic with, "You really think heading the Courtiers and this mentorship are so far removed? I know you wanted to believe that Jonathan would always be your unquestioning cutesy sidekick, but kids don't operate that way, my little Lancelot."

"I'm not you and Byron," Chris insisted. "I can't just pick up the father's mantle with the kid."

"Of course not," Winston nonchalantly agreed. "Because that's my job, entirely due to you picking up the brother's mantle. Chris, taking an intern under your wing is one thing, but you chose to bring him into this house."

To that, Chris reminded, "And I had to twist your arm harder when I wanted that Porsche."

"I'm well aware. That's a responsibility I chose to take on, including the unpleasant parts," Winston concluded plainly. "I have to punish him, Christian; severely. The child not only hid the truth about his health but lied to both our faces until a mishap forced him to come clean. There is no amount of plea bargaining you can do for him this time."

Chris tapped vexed fingers along the countertop. "You can't… don't whip him, Father, I'm serious. He's not me."

"Not with that dark hair." A more somber Winston reached across to grip his shoulder, actually sensing some alleviation of tension from his child at the maneuver. "Otto may have brought Jonathan to you, but you brought that boy home to us. You wouldn't have moved him in here if you really thought I was a ticking timebomb of ballistic. Also…" An unusual lightness laced Winston's eyes. "as set in my ways as I am, I'm not the father I was when you were his age. I know I mishandled certain situations with you."

Chris inserted, "Occasionally, due to the situations I got into. When you weren't being a tyrannical old fart for kicks."

"Don't talk with your mouth full of humble pie, son." Winston gripped then pinched his chin none-too-gently. "And drink your chocolate goop." He raised an eyebrow at the peculiar silence that followed. "Christian?"

The striking blonde exhaled slowly. "I'm not chomping on humility. It's my own hypocrisy…"

II

After his action-packed trip to the bathroom, the English youth laid flat on his back with his woeful blue eyes glued to the ceiling. Beauty cuddled next to him with Courage on the floor alongside the bed. Nate considered switching on the television to fill the agonizing quiet and drown out his thoughts. He decided against such an outwardly cavalier maneuver, considering he already had a sea of dissatisfaction to wade through with the Frosts. Instead, his fall semester at Harvard negligence played in his head repeatedly. His sole solace came from it taking an additional two months to paint himself so appalling in his host family's eyes.

Such dour musings echoed in him until a knock propelled the lad into an upright position on his bed. "C-…" He cleared his throat of the squeak he hoped only he heard. "Come in!"

Chris stepped in first, bringing a Red Sox mug Nate's way.

Lingering in the doorway a moment, Winston tersely ordered, "Courage, Beauty, out. Go on."

Beauty hopped down while Courage took time enough to lick Chris' wrist before taking his decorous leave.

At Nate's downcast face over the departing dogs, Chris joined him against the headboard, "Drink up, pal," and brought his right arm across his shoulders.

Stomach hardly having room for oxygen, Nate nonetheless sipped the lemon and honey hinted tea. That along with the ginger base helped him swallow a substantial portion of it.

Winston waited until he settled in the armchair that had served as his sleep station the previous night. "Alright, Jonathan," he leaned forward on the ruby handle of his scepter, "we all know why we're here, but first I want to hear what you have to say for yourself in this unusual situation. Starting with why exactly you didn't go to any of us after Hank attacked you."

Lowering his mug, Nate refuted, "Hank did not attack me." Little more than a raised eyebrow from the Frost elder made him rein in his tone. "He didn't know what he was doing. He didn't even know who I was. The rest of you weren't there to see the change in his eyes."

"Lucky for him," remarked Chris.

Nate glanced at him slightly accusatory. "This is why I didn't call you. You'd have flown straight to New York and lost the plot like Hank hurt me on purpose or something."

An irritated Chris wanted to know, "When did Hank McCoy reach the top of your priorities list?"

"It's not just about him," Nate emphasized. "Have you thought about Kiki and Trav? Chris, you have no idea what it's like to watch your dad- this indestructible boss- deteriorate into someone you don't even know." Chris' next counter muted on his tongue as his intern went on fervently. "Mine could get so confused and scared on the worst days that he'd throw his food or shove me without thinking, but it wasn't his fault. And at least I got to be with them. Hank's kids saw him get sicker then they weren't allowed near him. Geez, Chris," he brought a tired hand to his head, "you don't even know…"

After a few wordless seconds, Chris feebly responded, "Nope… I really don't."

When he heard his dejected mentor's tone, Nate looked at him with further guilt present. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean—"

"Not about me," Chris instantly interjected. "And don't be, buddy." He gave the teen's arm a light pat. "Not about that."

Winston took in the back and forth between the bosom pair before he spoke again. "I can see your point, Jonathan, but that doesn't explain why you didn't call me. Not if you required a little finesse." He immediately jumped on Nate's sinking pupils. "No, Jonathan, look at me."

The British boy grudgingly but dutifully raised his head again. "I…" He considered the best way to express himself. "The truth? In case I really was sick with something, I just didn't want to be bedridden. I thought I could figure it out on my own and not lose Count Domino in the meantime."

With that, Winston surmised, "So, when it was all said and done, you wanted heroic grandeur. Unfortunately for you, young man," his voice became distinctly sterner, "it's your backend that will be going out in a blaze of glory." He noted the teenager's increased trepidation but continued to berate unapologetically. "I can support your concern for the McCoys, but the rest was not the decisions of any noble warrior but of a naïve child. You hid what could have been a grave infection, remained quiet when you felt symptoms coming on, you told Myles a bald-faced lie after you were sent home sick from your internship, planned to inject yourself with an unpredictable serum that you stole, then went on to lie to both me and Chris. I'm sure I could go on, but that's a good summary to start, don't you think, Mr. Ohnn?"

A whole new breed of nausea developing within him, Nate started to nod but chirped, "Yes- yes, sir. I am so sorry, Mr.—"

"That's enough of that, Jonathan," the elder cut in unequivocally. "Stop acting as if we plucked you off the orphan train to work in our fields. You've only been a part of this family for the last six months, but I've treated you as I would that flesh and blood blockhead right next to you." An unsuspecting Chris blinked twice. "Though I will admit that I clearly should have been more attentive with you; more present."

"Same here," Chris seconded.

"Among the things the three of us will be discussing today," Winston informed. "As for your behavior, I can't treat this lightly, Jonathan. You're getting two spankings. One now and another before you go to bed tonight. I think a scorching seat and a night on your stomach will leave a lasting impression on that precocious brain of yours."

Nate had little trouble sitting in silent docility through his host father pronouncing his sentence. Actually hearing the word 'spank' verbalized had caused the involuntarily reddening of his ears, but still, it did not exactly come as a shock. Obviously, he knew what happened to Fabian in a similar position. Besides that, Nate regarded Winston as quite revolutionary for his silver age group, but the man remained a no-nonsense traditionalist in many ways. It had been eight years or so since the boy received such a punishment, but he had no case for declaring himself too old between Fabian and how he knew the X-Men handled discipline. The real surprise came from Chris' lack of argument. He knew where his host brother stood on corporal punishment, after all. Nate then had to grasp that his not so fancy footwork simultaneously landed him in hot water while, more inconceivably, putting the male Frosts on the same page.

"Jonathan? Did you hear what I just said?"

The admonishing petition brought the aforementioned youth out of the entanglement within his own head. "Yes, sir, I- I heard you, sorry."

Appeased, Winston next asked, "How are you feeling this morning? Does your head hurt at all?"

"No, sir, not really," Nate answered, touching the top of his anatomy. "I think the sleep helped. Everything just feels weak and heavy still."

"Then let's get this first part out of the way so we can all eat something."

Nate only responded with a faint, "Kay," and felt Chris squeeze him.

"I'll stay if you want me to."

Made slightly more at ease by the resolute statement, Nate looked up at him. "That's okay, man. I'm fine."

Chris nodded and quipped, "At least until you've had the old man's scrambled eggs."

"We'll see you shortly," Winston stared at him pointedly, "sweetiekins."

Rising briskly, Chris claimed, "You can't call me that."

"Out, ducky," Winston dryly amended.

With another half-heated glare, the blonde departed.

Nate watched them in blankness. Just when he believed he fully comprehended Frost culture…

Noticing the boy's confusion, Winston said dismissively, "Another time," before getting to his feet.

Suddenly finding the man ten feet taller, Nate struggled to keep a grip on his escalating nerves. "What're you… am I 'sposed to," he did not spare time to agonize over his infantile reduced speech, "go hack a switch or something?"

Winston raised a dubious eyebrow. "You've been switched before?"
"Well, no, never." Nate thought about that again. "Not unless you count my mum's wooden spoon driving me off of baked goods. It's been so long, but I only remember my dad using his hand."

The elder masked whatever nostalgic amusement the comment about the child's mother gave him as he gauged his host son. Despite Winston's doggedly assertive veneer, the household head experienced some uncertainty on his own part. While no stranger to chastising mischievous boys, Chris had been correct in emphasizing that Nate was not him. Winston found himself in foreign territory dealing with a male teenager who actually showed earnest remorse. Chris at the same age would be on his hundredth excuse while sitting in a curt huff by now.

Still, the wealthy man knew he could not afford to don kid gloves on this, lest Nate risk himself in such a way that all the money and power in the world could not reverse. How could Winston possibly explain that to the lad's mother? At least the Courtiers kept him in a high-chair, serving as overhead eyes/ears and absolutely necessary backup. With this, Nate had imprudently taken matters into his own hands, making one foolish decision after another. Chris most definitely had not been the only one plagued by the 'what if' game.

Once the man made a decision, he put forth, "I think the hands-on method will suffice here as well. Now, you're going across my knee and I'm going to spank your bare behind. You are going to lay there until I allow you up. No matter how painful it gets, you will not try to get away, fight me, and you will get no sympathy for swearing. Don't think I missed that little four-letter bomb you dropped last night, young man."

Trying to absorb it all, Nate had to think until he remembered the S-bomb in question after his cooler fell. "Oops…" Embarrassment tinted his cheeks. "I'm sorry, Host Father. I didn't mean—"

"Irrelevant," Winston dismissed, "but you'd better mind your tongue this time around." That decreed, he put down his scepter and sat on the side of the mattress, inching back a little. "Jonathan." He opened his lap space meaningfully.

While the front of Nate's mind urged him forward, his rear psyche screamed as the consequences became unequivocally real.

"You're fifteen, young man," Winston reproached. "If I have to count you down…"

"No, no," shaking his head, Nate at last crawled across the designated location. "I'm sorry."

Not dwelling on the hesitation, Winston prioritized getting the boy's full form comfortably situated on the mattress. Neither had been in the position for years. With how much he regularly worked out, the added weight did not trouble Winston's recovered leg. He mainly carried the intimidating scepter in the event random weather caused the limb to play tricks on him.

"Alright, son," Winston spoke again, "let's see how well you've been listening. Why exactly is your rear end in the line of fire at the moment?"

With a locked grip on the foot of his bed, Nate organized his thoughts as best he could. "I should have phoned you the first chance I got after I was hurt. None of this stupidity would have happened if I had."

Winston proved impressed by the response. "Well done. That's what this all comes down to. I'll remind you that the X-Men are my family as well. I would have protected you and the McCoys. Hopefully, this necessary evil will teach you to act as the intelligent boy you are and not a foolish child who prioritizes playing dress-up in armor."

Nate did not have long to dwell on the pang the reprimand gave him as he felt his clothing bottoms meet his knees. He then received the first unceremonious but smarting smack applied to the center of his rear. While he had been swatted by the man here and there- usually for creeping out of bed to work on something or leaving his science 'toys' in precarious places- the rapidly building intensity caught the teen off-guard. By the sixth strike, his attempt at a stiff upper lip failed monumentally as he could not stop exclaiming incoherently as his rough punishment continued.

When the youth's foot attempted mild retaliation, Winston icily warned, "Jonathan Ohnn, do that just once more- just once- and we'll both be getting up. Long enough for me to get my belt off."

Inwardly yelling at himself for kicking without even realizing it, Nate howled, "No, Father, please! I won't- I wooooon't!..."

On his own end, Winston maintained the more obvious show of decorum but the apologetic lad's pleads brought out a surge of empathy that genuinely shocked the man about himself. However, when he heard the dry sobbing, he remembered why he could not decrease the agonizing force he currently dished out. Nate had let his pent up emotions get to the point of negatively affecting his health. He did not fault the lad for it, considering the fact that he had spent most of his life as an only child- only son at that. Academically gifted but trapped in a narrow environment that required more physical labor than intellectual rigor. Winston really had no idea how Nate maintained that fanciful juvenile side of himself after having his childhood interrupted to help see his father through his declining health. He remembered Cordelia's behavior right after Hazel and saw the still lingering effects of that loss on his baby girl. He could not fathom Cordelia having to watch Hazel wither away beforehand. Winston knew that basically summed up Charles' adolescence. True, children were supposed to bury their parents, but never with both parent and child still too young for such tragedy.

Refocusing on the unwanted paternal chore before him, Winston had to wind his arm even tighter around Nate's middle. The teenager wailed and shook involuntarily as the adult offered his burning bottom no mercy. Nate wondered if he had misbehaved too much with his movements during the punishment. Such notions coupled with the pain caused him to go from tearing up to all-out wretched weeping. He wanted to beg and apologize more, but could not formulate coherent thoughts, let alone verbalize.

Numb to his own anguished palm, Winston did not stop until the behind radiated a fiery hue and Nate cried desolately. The man half-heartedly attempted to alleviate his throbbing hand while the younger of his ore attention to trying to massage the thin, heaving back. He offered occasional pats to help with his breathing. Despite the gloom it caused them both, it pleased Winston that the boy finally got to pour out his mangled emotions from the last few days.

It took several minutes before Winston felt he could redress the boy's bottom without causing him too much additional pain. He waited another ten then delicately collected the lax teenager. Even with having to be so careful of his backside, it felt closer to holding a fragile toddler. Winston spared one hand to grab the mug off the nightstand and bring it to Nate's lips. He calmly urged him to drink the remainder of the tea until they could fully relieve his impending dehydration. After he emptied the mug, Winston put it back and, retreating to his brood's long gone nursery years, cradled Nate. When his quivering calmed, he eased him stomach down onto the bed.

"No, Jonathan," Winston interceded before he could part his lips with more words of regret, "shh, son. Don't try to talk right now. I'm going to get you something to drink. I'll be right back," he assured the alarmed, tear-stained face. "Keep still, alright?"

Despite the order to spare his tongue, Nate lowly croaked, "K-kay, Daddy," unless Winston's ears deceived him.

Time went still for Nate as he found himself alone in his room. When he became marginally aware of his surroundings through the unrelenting pain, Nate clutched his host father's soft words. Euphoria trickled in from the knowledge that the man did not seem livid with him. Maybe the punishment had been so severe because Nate only remembered his lighter childhood spankings or, possibly, Winston had been so worried that he completely made his bottom suffer for it.

Soon, the elder returned with a tall bottled water. "Here, easy now, son," Winston maneuver so that he helped Nate prop up without pressure on his behind, "There we go."

Nate chugged the bottle heartily, only taking a brief break for oxygen intake. "Th-thank you, sir."

"The pleasure's mine. I'd rather not have a shriveled raisin for a son." Nate mustered up a watery smile and stilled as Winston felt all around his head. "You're too warm. Let's get you into the shower." Standing again, he helped Nate to his feet. When the teen leaned on him, he filled as Winston's animated scepter as much as the Bostonian acted as his mobile but secure rock. "Can you make it from here?" Nate nodded, albeit reluctantly to lose the contact. "Go ahead. I'll get you something clean to put on."

While Nate continued into the bathroom, Winston made quick work of selecting a fresh outfit and underwear for the boy.

Hardly a second out of his pajamas, Nate savored the cool water raining down on him. He heard the door open and close quickly, glad when his host father did not order him to get a move on. The fifteen-year-old did not turn off and step out of the shower for another ten minutes. His bottom had stopped radiating pain but still proved sensitive to the touch. As he toweled off, he noticed the outfit Winston had left on the counter for him. He smiled at the soft blue running pants and 'Next Ivy League Legend' t-shirt. After he dressed and walked out, it surprised but delighted the boy to find Winston waiting on him patiently.

Seated on the bed, the older man asked pleasantly. "Feeling any better, son? You at least look it."

Nate somewhat shyly replied, "Yes, sir, thank you."

With a bob of his head, Winston stood and lifted his scepter as he widened his arms. Nate zipped straight into the hug, uninhibitedly burying his face in the man's shirt. His eyes glossed over again when his host father locked their embrace.

"Learn your lesson?" Winston sent softly into his ear. He accepted the lad's ardent nod. "Good. You still have your spanking at bedtime, but once that's over, except for keeping your health monitored, this debacle will be behind us. Understood?"

Nate peeked up to answer, "Yes, Host Father… bachelor's breakfast now?"

Winston let off a snort, "Music to my ears," and guided the way out of the room.

II

Initially only taking the dogs downstairs, it did not take long for Chris to have to hustle their party of three onto the back patio. Beauty in particular served as an irate signal whistle for the unpleasantness of the upstairs. Chris had to carry her out of the house like a distraught next-of-kin in the ER then distract her with a tennis ball. Though the small critter's raging barks could grate on his nerves, Beauty still expressed Chris' own sentiment. Except that she lacked the annoying adult human detail of wanting to rush upstairs to rescue Nate but being hindered by reason.

Reason, the blonde scoffed. When exactly did Chris Frost become enslaved to the inconvenience fiends of logic and consequence?

Though he had offered his consent- or at least lack of protest- to Byron with Fabian, that situation had not softened the practice of physical chastisement in the head Courtier's eyes. Whenever Chris mused on it for more than a second's time, rage bubbled in the pit of his stomach. While he of course loathed the sting, the beforehand fear and afterward mortification hurt far more. Outside of that day with the maid's daughter that he wanted purged from psyche, he knew he could not actually declare his father an abuser. Chris considered if that would be preferable to Winston frequently lacking any obvious remorse. Granted, Chris seldom displayed any, either, but he had been the angry, experience lacking kid in the equation.

Even with those acidic memories in mind, it surprised and somewhat bothered Chris how quickly Winston had gotten him to agree with the punishment method. After all, grounding Nate would be tremendously futile. The kid already spent too much time alone in their ginormous house, unable to go off on a whim like any other teenager due to the safety precautions. That had been the main reason Chris had not lectured him the day before when he believed he feigned illness to get out of his internship. Well aware of Boston's upheavals and Nate's curiosity driven excitement, the kid still deserved to feel like a normal, occasionally mischievous teen once in a while, right?

Chris felt the urge to punch his own Adam's apple when that logic train coursed through his head. That had been the same reasoning Chris went with when he allowed Nate to basically sneak onto the team after the boy showed up in untested armor. Also after Chris and the others clearly refused his membership due to his age. However, Nate had earned that spot by coming through with the shields… right?

Groaning internally, Chris stressed not for the first time that day if his constant benevolence had really played the biggest role in the whole fiasco. Nate snuck around and broke the rules, more concerned that his mentor would mother-hen him than reprimand him. Chris tried to make sense of it all. How could he provide excessive protection yet too much lenience at the same time? A familiar whimper along with a nuzzle from Courage kept Chris' musings from imprisoning him.

"I know, I know," Chris caressed between his old friend's ears, "not about me."

Beauty's excited chatter made both of them look over in time to catch the other two males making their way onto the patio.

Nate started to tentatively address, "Chris—" until he found himself affectionately seized by his host brother.

"Thank God," uttered the relieved blonde. He pulled back just enough to look Nate up and down, "One-piece and everything," then promptly hugged him again.

Deciding against a youthful eyeroll, Winston said, "Now, that he's back in safe custody, I'll see about getting this food on the table."

"Whatever, you Reconstruction Era relic," Chris waved off.

Trying not to snicker too audibly, Nate followed Chris to the table, where they took chairs next to each other. The fifteen-year-old expressed gratitude toward divinity that the Frosts' outdoor furniture came with such plush seating. With a smile, Nate picked up Beauty and enjoyed her adoring licks to his cheeks.

"Look at me, buddy," touching his shoulder, Chris met blue eyes with the boy, "are you okay? Be honest- from here on out."

Not missing that meaningful choice of words, Nate answered, "I now know what it's like to sit in molten lava, but really, Chris, I'm good- from here on out."

"Hey, I said honesty," Chris brought their foreheads together, "you are good, even if you'd prefer Ronald McDonald as a mentor."

"So?" Nate shrugged. "No discount Bozo can beat you out as a big brother."

A bit taken by the proclamation, Chris broke the resulting silence by flicking the ever endearing Brit's nose. After that, the duo relaxed into their regular conversing until Winston called for them to help carry out the nutritional arsenal.

Despite Chris' earlier ribbing of the man's cooking, Nate found the slightly runny scrambled eggs along with everything else delectable. Tucked between the two Frosts with a good view of the animals playing, no complaints of any sort registered in the gladdened junior globe-trotter.