Takes place right after Generation X '95, well before Beast is replaced by Dark Beast, and before Onslaught and Operation: Zero Tolerance. Apologies for the accents if I mess 'em up. (I particularly apologize for Jono...).

Events to date (if you're too lazy to read 'Hazard'): Shea (pronounced Shay) O'Reilly is forced to reveal her mutant powers to save the life of an acquaintance, Chase Matthews, in the small Oregon town of Copper Lake. When the Bureau of Mutant Affairs attempts to take the young mutant into custody, it's Chase's turn to rescue her; with the help of Jennifer Walters (a.k.a. She-Hulk), the pair seeks sanctuary with the X-Men. That plan fails miserably and the two are forced to cross the country on their own in a desperate attempt to find safety at the Massachusetts Academy. 'Pennies' is continuous to the ending of Hazard.


It was always hard to sleep during a storm.

Not that Jubilee was afraid of thunderstorms or anything stupid like that. But never knowing when the thunder was going to crash, and the way the lightning strobed the room, making the shadows dance -- it was enough to make *anyone* a little jumpy. Especially when you'd had really bad experiences with sudden, loud noises in the past.

Lightning flashed and thunder shook the walls simultaneously, the rain rattling against the windows with renewed intensity. Jubilee jumped and looked over at the other bed, where Paige was peacefully sleeping, oblivious to anything other than her dreams.

Jubilee glared half-heartedly at her roommate, then tossed back the covers, reaching for her robe and rabbit slippers and dragging them on over the huge T-shirt that had been Wolverine's, until she'd snagged it months before. Sleeping was definitely out; she might as well go see what was on television.

The girl's dorm had once held upwards of fifty girls, when the Massachusetts Academy had been a 'real' private school, not an extension of Xavier's Institute. These days, the upper two floors were empty -- Jubilee and Paige had staked out a corner room in one of the 'towers' and Monet had chosen an attic room.

As she crept through the halls, Jubilee wondered idly what the dorm had been like in the Hellions's time, bursting with people and noise. Now, the silence echoed oddly between rolls of thunder.

To her surprise, a flickering light came from the TV room, accompanied by the scent of fresh popcorn, and canned laughter -- 'Hogan's Heroes', from the sound of it. She shoved the door open the rest of the way, half-expecting the unpredictable Monet.

But it was Chamber who sat on the couch, remote control close at hand, Artie and Leech even closer, curled next to him on the cushions. *'Ey, Jubes,* he said psionically.

She leaned against the doorframe. "What're you doin' here, dude? TV at your place broken?"

He shrugged; at least, that was what it looked like. It was hard to tell, sometimes, through the layers that swathed his upper body. The glow from his chest flickered in counterpoint to the light from the television. *Nah, we just thought the storm might make some of you gels nervous,* he said with a significant look at the two younger boys. *'Sides, I couldn't sleep.*

Jubilee grinned, willing to go along with the gag to help the 'kids' save face. "No one around here's nervous, Sparky, but thanks for the thought. Gonna share that popcorn?"

He held out the bowl in a 'be my guest' gesture; she took a handful and settled on the other end of the couch, munching contentedly. Leech instantly leaned against her knees; she grinned down at him, then back at Jono. "Anything better on?"

*It's 2:30 a.m.*

Leech yawned widely, without removing his eyes from the television. "Show is funny," he said through the yawn. "Leech like." Artie seconded the motion with a small hologram of himself rolling on the floor laughing.

"Looks like we're outvoted anyway." Jubilee reached over Leech to grab another handful of popcorn. They watched the inmates of Stalag 13 in silence for a half-hour, then settled on 'Mork and Mindy' after a brief 'discussion'. Robin Williams gave way to 'Three's Company' and they changed channels in mutual accord, stopping at MTV for lack of anything better.

Artie and Leech had both fallen asleep along the way, Leech using Jubilee's feet as a pillow, Artie sprawled on the carpet along the bottom of the couch. The storm still raged outside, but it was easier to ignore it from the warm comfort of the dorm.

A-ha was doing Jubilee's favorite video, 'Take On Me', when Jono sat up abruptly. *Did you hear that?*

Jubilee cocked her head to listen. "Don't hear anything but the hayseed snorin'," she shrugged, without taking her attention off the video. The girl had just been tossed out of the comic book back into the diner, leaving her boyfriend trapped with the bad guys. "What'd *you* hear?"

Jono stood up, trying not to step on Artie. *Someone's callin' f'r help. Outside.*

Jubilee gave the video one last, regretful look, then bounced to her feet, barely remembering to get them out from under Leech first. "Let's check it out."

*Let me wake Ms. Frost, first.*

She made a rude noise. "And if you're wrong? She gets woken up at double-o-dark-thirty, you get caught in the girl's dorm after hours and we both get busted. Clue, please, this is *not* a good plan."

He thought about it, then nodded. *All right. But if we run into any trouble...*

"You give her a call on the ol' Psychic Hotline and the cavalry comes runnin.' Let's go."

They were soaked within two seconds of leaving the dorm. Jubilee had thought to replace her robe with her trenchcoat, but kicked off her huge bearpaw slippers when they started squishing after a few steps. Jono ducked lower into his black leather coat.

"Where was it coming from?" Jubilee almost had to shout over the noise of the storm.

*Over there, near the front gate.* They slogged their way across the grass to the paved path, heads down against the rain. The gate loomed ahead of them, the black iron silhouetted against the lightning. And, in front of it, was a monster.

Jubilee disgraced herself by stifling a shout, feeling even more stupid when the 'monster' separated into two people, one riding on the other's back. The rider, a girl, waved at them, calling weakly.

"Hey!" Jubilee called back. As they watched, the girl slipped from her companion's back to the ground and stood close to him, shivering.

*Get the gate,* Jono ordered, running forward to the pair. Jubilee fumbled for the computer controls, protected by a heavy steel panel, and managed to remember the correct access code. The doors opened silently and the girl tried to say something, but started coughing instead; the guy first steadied her, then swung her back up into his arms when the choking didn't stop.

Both of the strangers were wearing jeans and sneakers -- soaked through and not much use in a Massachusetts early spring anyway, although the guy had a leather jacket which looked as if it had seen better days. The girl was wearing a battered ski jacket with a strange, rubbery look, which still hadn't done much to stop the rain.

"We'd better get 'em inside, Jono," Jubilee concluded.

Chapter 1

"Natalie Wood gave her heart to James Dean
A high school rebel and a teen-age queen
Standing together in an angry world
One boy fighting for one girl"

   -- Shenandoah, 'I Want to be Loved Like That'

Shea Leanne O'Reilly had basically been having a lousy week. When you start out getting caught in an attempted armed robbery, are revealed as a mutant in a town that's scared to death of anything new, and wind up escaping by the skin of your teeth from a government agency, pneumonia and a thunderstorm just add insult to injury. But she found it hard to concentrate on indignation, badly distracted by her wet jeans and the pain in her chest.

It was certainly easier to think about that than the two people who'd let them in and were leading them to the huge house that was, apparently, the Massachusetts Academy, otherwise known as Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.

Sure, the two kids were friendly. But Jono, the tall, dark-haired Brit in the leather jacket, had the terrifying habit of talking in her head, and she kept seeing flashes of light working their way out from beneath the bandages that swathed his neck and lower face. Were those flames she saw under there? Couldn't be, they weren't burning through his jacket or anything. But they sure looked like flames....

She clung a little harder to Chase's neck. At least the girl, Jubilee, wasn't doing anything overtly weird, other than wandering around in the middle of the night in a T-shirt and a yellow trench coat. She was small, about 13 or 14, but her mouth more than made up for her size, since she didn't stop chattering questions and comments the entire walk up the driveway.

"Where did you two come from -- it's, like, a really long walk from Snow Valley. Didja hitch? That's totally a mondo bad idea; never know what kinda crazies are gonna be wandering around...."

Shea traded a look with Chase at that comment; considering what they'd been through, an ordinary, everyday kidnapper or pervert would have been just fine.

*This's the main house,* Jono announced, cutting into the girl's monologue, still without saying a word out loud. He shoved the big door open with an effort -- it took both him and the girl to shut it again against the wind. The sudden silence was brutal. *I asked our headmaster and headmistress to meet us down here.*

"S-Sean?" Shea stuttered hoarsely, trying to pretend it was just her teeth chattering, which they were.

"Yeah," the girl said with narrowed eyes, sudden suspicion on her face. Shea could relate. "How'd ya know that?"

"We were told he ran this place," Chase said, his voice annoyingly calm, but his arms trembled slightly around Shea's back and under her knees.

"Told by who?" the girl demanded.

Jono silenced her with a look. *The cross examination c'n wait until Mr. Cassidy and Ms. Frost come, Jubilee.*

"Then ye willnae have t' wait too long." Shea almost jumped, discovered her shock circuits were burned out, and instead thanked whoever was listening that the new arrival spoke out loud. And with a familiar, comforting Irish brogue, no less.

The tall, handsome man, whose hair was almost the same color as Shea's, had appeared from an office to the side of the long, winding staircase; he stood in the open door, studying them with calm, penetrating eyes. Sean Cassidy, without a doubt.

As he looked them over, the penetration gave way to something much warmer, but no less calm. "Welcome t' the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. Although we normally don't get visitors at this time o' th' night... well, mornin'," he said with a smile that didn't quite hide the tensed muscles in his back and shoulders, as if he was prepared to attack if they turned out to be a threat. Chase's arms tightened around Shea in response, suspicion radiating from every line of his body

Still, Shea got the distinct impression that the Irishman was *trying* to broadcast trustworthiness and goodwill, and tried in return to look helpless, which wasn't hard. "We're sorry," she rasped, trying to sit up as much as possible in the cradle of Chase's arms. "We didn't know where else to go. A... friend said we'd be safe here."

"Really? Who would that friend be?"

*And away we go,* she thought with resignation, before answering, "Jennifer Walters. She said she told you we'd be coming."

"Ah." He seemed to relax suddenly; stress lines faded from his face as she watched. " Shea O'Reilly and Chase Matthews, o' course. We've been scourin' the country f'r days and nights, and y' casually stroll up the front walk. " He laughed slightly at some joke Shea didn't get, shaking his head. "Y'll fit in well around here."

*All right, he was expecting us! He was worried about us!* Shea started to laugh in sheer relief, but it turned into a choking cough; Chase's arms tightened around her again until it passed.

"I, uh, wish you'd found us," he said over her head, still not able to hide his nerves, at least, not from her. "The last few days... haven't been fun. The government..."

"The government was after you?" Jubilee popped in, her mobile face and expressive eyes a study in curiosity, the suspicion of a moment before already forgotten. Shea would bet real money the kid couldn't get away with a lie to save her life. "Are you mutants?"

"Yes." Shea got her breath back, bracing herself out of sheer habit. "I am."

No one even blinked. "Well, ye've come t' the right place, then; this school swarms with them. I'm Sean Cassidy, headmaster of Xavier's. These two curfew-breakers--" Jubilee made a face at him, but otherwise ignored the charge, "-- are Jubilation Lee and Jonothon Starsmore. And the two o' ye are more than welcome here, I assure ye."

He meant it; she could see it written in his eyes. Warm, friendly eyes with gentleness and strength in them, which reminded her of nothing so much as her father's. The strength seemed to drain out of her and she sagged against Chase, expecting him to relax also.

But he had gotten more tense, if possible, the muscles in his shoulders straining against his skin. She started to comment, but he shook his head, once, without loosening his clenched jaw. Fear returned in a rush; she closed her eyes, and tried not to give into the tears that threatened as another coughing attack took over, ripping through her lungs.

"Jono, please take Chase and Miss O'Reilly t' the infirmary," she heard Mr. Cassidy say over the coughs. "I'm goin' t' go give Jennifer a call, let her know her lost lambs have arrived. Jubilee, I would appreciate it if y'd wake Emma."

"Too late."

*How many people are we going to meet tonight?* Shea wondered, forcing her eyes open one more time to meet the new arrival, trying hard to control her breathing. It was a tall blond woman, dressed all in white except for the large amount of skin that was on display through her lacy gown and peignoir set -- she probably would have been beautiful, Shea thought, if she didn't project ice. She stole a glance up at Chase to see his reaction, and saw that his eyes were focused on the woman; but there was only caution in their narrowed green depths. Despite his tight lips, he managed to grin crookedly down at Shea; she felt the heat rise in her cheeks, and tried to stop coughing, with only a little success.

"How nice," the woman said, her voice suggesting it was anything but. "Unexpected visitors."

Mr. Cassidy's voice held a warning as he spoke to her. "These are the two She-Hulk was tellin' us about last week. They've had a hard time gettin' here, so how about givin' them a break until mornin'?"

Shea's eyes widened at the tension that had suddenly appeared between the two, but the woman only raised an eyebrow at his tone. "Of course. I'm Emma Frost, the headmistress," she introduced herself calmly, her eyes taking in Shea, then narrowing with unreadable emotions as she studied Chase. "Come to the infirmary and we'll deal with that cough, Shea."

Given the choice, Shea would have rather stayed with the warm Irishman than this ice queen. But Mr. Cassidy smiled encouragingly at them, so they trailed reluctantly up the stairs behind Emma Frost.

The infirmary was high-tech to end all high-tech. Due to various running injuries, Shea had spent a lot of time in and out of emergency rooms, but she didn't recognize even half of the equipment.

"Check this out," Chase whistled in spite of himself. "It *is* Star Trek."

"Not quite," Ms. Frost said repressively. "But it should suit our purposes. If you would please put Shea down...?"

Chase hesitated a long moment, his eyes skimming over the room and then back to Ms. Frost, but he finally lowered Shea to the surface of what appeared to be an examining table, hovering nearby as Ms. Frost started playing with the console next to the table, staring at the flashes of light as if they meant something to her. They were incomprehensible to Shea, who watched them nervously, expecting to be zapped at any moment.

"Congratulations," Ms. Frost finally concluded out loud, "You have an impressive case of walking pneumonia."

"Oh, joy." Shea rolled her eyes, not terribly surprised. Things had been going that way, lately.

"Trust you," Chase commented, prowling from the table to the window in the far wall and back without ever removing his eyes from Ms. Frost. "On the run from God and everybody, and you get pneumonia."

Shea wanted badly to hit him, even if he was just echoing her own thoughts, but couldn't figure out where she was going to get the energy. She settled for groaning, "This never happened to Linda Hamilton."

The Terminator reference got no more than raised eyebrows from Ms. Frost; there wasn't even a flicker of humor in her pale blue eyes. "I'm going to keep you here in the infirmary until we get this cleared up. As for you, ah, Chase, I believe Jonothon has prepared a bed for you in the boy's dormitory. You can go there after I inspect your head."

Chase's hand twitched towards the swollen, cut lump on his forehead. "I'm staying with Shea."

Ms. Frost's eyebrow went up again; she was something less than pleased. "I assure you, Chase--" she said his name with an edge that should have drawn blood, "-- no one is going to attack your... friend while she is at the Massachusetts Academy."

He shrugged with deceptive casualness. "I'm staying with Shea."

Ms. Frost's eyes narrowed at him in a killing glare, but he only returned it, his face almost blank. The staredown continued until Shea's fascinated observation was broken by another fit of racking coughs. Surprisingly, it was Ms. Frost who caved first, but she didn't look happy about it. In fact, she looked truly pissed, the first real expression Shea had seen her show.

"All right, you may use the other bed for tonight." She gestured past him at a second bed tucked against the wall a few feet away. "Tomorrow night, you will move into the dormitory." It was an order, not a request, but Chase let it go, apparently content to win tonight's battle. As Shea sat up and swung her legs over the side of the table, he sat down and allowed Ms. Frost to examine his head injury.

Mr. Cassidy appeared carrying a small pile of clothes, as she pronounced Chase owner of a major goose bump, but no concussion, and handed medicine to both him and Shea.

"Here's some dry things and extra blankets for ye," Mr. Cassidy smiled, his green eyes crinkling at the corners. "I thought ye might be pretty uncomfortable. There's some scrubs for you, Chase -- I couldn't find anything around t' fit ye. Hopefully we'll be able t' make due with Everett's clothes tomorrow."

"If they're dry, I'm happy." Chase stood and took the clothes, separating his out -- *What is a school infirmary doing with scrubs,* Shea wondered, *and do I want to know?* -- and tossing a heavy sleepshirt to Shea.

She looked from it back to him and Mr. Cassidy; Mr. Cassidy took the hint. He smiled again and left the room, saying, "Pleasant dreams," over his shoulder. Chase just sighed and turned his back as she stripped out of her wet clothes and squirmed into the sleepshirt, conscious of Ms. Frost's eyes on her the whole time. "Okay, you can turn back around."

"Gee, thanks."

"As the two of you seem settled," Ms. Frost said pointedly, "I would like to get some more sleep."

Shea heard the unspoken accusation behind the words. "We'll be fine," she mumbled uncomfortably. Ms. Frost nodded once and swept out of the room, shutting the door behind her.

"Real warm and friendly atmosphere," Chase said with an acid look at the door. "Gotta love the welcoming committee."

"Hey, the others seemed okay, and Mr. Cassidy is great."

"You just think that because he looks and sounds like your dad."

"And?" She pulled back the sheets on the small, twin-sized bed, and got in, savoring the feel of dry clothes, clean sheets, and a soft mattress. "Besides, how do you know what my dad was like?"

"You told Jennifer he was Irish." Chase stripped off his shirt and shoes, letting them drop into a soggy heap on the floor, before he went into the small bathroom. "And you showed me the picture in your wallet."

The wallet that was now in some police evidence locker, but Shea tried not to think about that. "Yeah, well, okay, he does. But it's more than that -- he seems like he actually cares. God, he was practically waiting up for us!"

Chase came back out of the bathroom, dressed only in the bottom of the scrubs, which dangled several inches above his ankles and rode low on his hips. His dark brown hair was tousled, his green eyes half-closed with fatigue, and one swollen almost shut by the lump above it. He might look like a younger, taller James Dean, Shea thought with a sudden rush of possessiveness, but James Dean had never looked like this.

"Whatever," he said, dropping his jeans onto the pile of wet clothes. "Good thing I'm skeptical enough for both of us."

"You're skeptical enough for at least five people." She moved over automatically as he lay down on top of the covers next to her, pulling one of the extra blankets over himself. Conflicting instincts fought in Shea until insecurity won; she snuggled up against his side and buried her face in his shoulder, feeling him stiffen.

"We did the right thing," she said, her voice muffled by his skin. "I know we did."

He sighed heavily, then finally put his arm around her, pressing his cheek to her hair; she felt the gesture clear down to her cold toes. "Sure, Shealee. Sure we did."

She knew neither of them was convinced.

Chapter 2

"It's been twenty long years and my heart is raging
Something to believe in spite of the fears
You know it don't come easy"

   -- Adrenalin, 'Road of the Gypsy'

Shea was sleeping like a baby, tucked under three blankets and snuggled into the white linen sheets. Whatever Ms. Frost had done had quieted her coughs -- Chase checked her forehead one more time, pulling the blankets more securely under her chin. The fever was going down, too.

He sighed and let his head fall back to the pillow case, shifting his legs to lie more comfortably on the too-short bed. The storm had finally subsided, leaving the gentle patter of rain against the roof as the only sound in the room. Lights shone and flickered on the consoles across the room, lending odd shadows to the shadows. He tried to ignore them, closing his eyes and ordering himself firmly to sleep.

It didn't work. Too many thoughts flashed through his mind, too many worries. *I should feel safe, like Shea. Jen is good people, so this crew must be okay. But, dammit....*

He'd made too many mistakes before in his life -- trusting the wrong people, trusting himself -- and wound up flat on his face in the mud. He couldn't afford to make any mistakes now, not when he was responsible for Shea, too.

Shea coughed quietly against him, stirring; he rubbed her back under the blankets until her breathing went back to normal. She was curled against him trustingly, her face even younger than her sixteen years in her sleep. *She's just a kid, for God's sake. *Someone* has to take care of her.*

*Yeah, right,* another voice mocked from inside his head. *But who in this crazy place is going to take care of you?*

Finally, completely unable to sleep, he shifted his shoulder out from under Shea, brushing her heavy copper-gold curls away from her face. She was still pale, her skin pulled tightly against the bones of her round, wide-cheeked face, her stubborn chin set even in sleep. She murmured once in protest as he left, but quieted quickly under the influence of her medication; he opened the door as silently as possible and slipped into the hall.

The rubbing of his scrubs sounded like a shout in the near silence of the hall. The main house was dark, the only light coming from the bottom of the long staircase. With the light came quiet, almost inaudible, voices; Chase followed them to the bottom of the stairs, slipping once and nearly killing himself on the water they'd tracked in earlier. He regained his balance with a whispered curse, grateful he was in bare feet, and settled back on the foot of the stairs to listen in.

It wasn't that he was paranoid, about mutants or anyone else, he told himself, just that the last few days hadn't really been the type that build your trust in the kindness of strangers. And the people in this place were too *damn* strange for his peace of mind.

Besides, contrary to Shea's frequent snipes, he paid attention to the news -- he knew what mutants were capable of, and the chaos that seemed to follow them around, even when they weren't actively causing it. Hell, Shea was living proof of that. He had to be sure they hadn't stumbled into even more trouble.

Conscience quieted, Chase opened his ears for some serious eavesdropping.

"--nifer's coming, then?" Ms. Frost was saying coolly.

"Aye, she said she'd be here tomorrow... this afternoon," Cassidy answered, fatigue evident in his voice. "She wanted t' get into a car the moment she got off the phone, but I was able t' convince her Shea needs t' rest. I don't think Jennifer's goin' t' believe the children are all right 'til she sees them f'r herself -- she's been throwin' things since she found out about th' fiasco in Denver."

"So I've heard. Have you contacted Charles yet?"

"I was about t' call the Institute when ye came down. If we're t' be awake t' deal with wanderin' waifs at 4 a.m., someone there can be, as well."

There was the sound of a dial tone from a speaker phone, then a series of numbers. The other end was picked up before the second ring. "Xavier Institute for Insomniacs," a bass voice yawned tinnily.

"Actually, I've no problems sleepin'," Cassidy joked, "it's the children showin' up on me doorstep in the wee hours that bothers me."

"Children? Jennifer's two?" The other voice was suddenly very wide-awake. "Where did you find them? When? Where are they?"

*How the hell many people were looking for us?* Chase wondered uneasily, shifting his foot before it could go to sleep.

"They showed up on our front steps, o' course," Cassidy answered ruefully, "so ye c'n call off the search. They're in fairly good shape, I think, although I'd like ye t' have a look at them soon. All in all, they proved t' be surprisin'ly resourceful; I think they survived rather well."

"The girl, Shea, developed a case of pneumonia, and has a nasty slice on one hand," Ms. Frost contributed. "I have her in the infirmary now; I don't believe she is in any danger. The boy has a head injury, not too serious. Not even a concussion."

"I look forward to hearing their story. I will depart in the morning to check on Miss O'Reilly, and I'm sure Professor Xavier will wish to accompany me."

"That'll be fine, Hank. We'll be expectin' ye. Ah, should we be expectin' anyone else, d'ye think?"

"I... couldn't say for certain. From what She-Hulk says, the government would like very much to gain control of the girl, and I can't imagine they'd give up easily. Shea is in the foster care system, and a minor. I understand the government's first attempt to take her was made through Child Protective Services -- they may attempt legal maneuvers again. But, of course, they would have to locate her, first." Hank -- whoever he was -- sounded thoughtful. "Unless the children are far less capable than Shulkie believes them to be, the representatives of our fair and impartial government should not yet become a concern."

"I hope y're right, Hank. We'll see you in the mornin'." Cassidy hung up and groaned with what sounded like a stretch. "We're goin' t' be havin' lots o' visitors tomorrow."

"Wonderful," Ms. Frost sighed, sounding slightly more human. "We'll have to speak with Jennifer about giving our address out."

"Y' know I told her she could," Cassidy said, sounding tired. "Where else was she supposed t' send the children?"

"Still, I have to wonder what trouble these two have brought with them. And I am particularly uneasy about the boy."

"He looked like a good enough lad. What makes ye worry?"

"I worry about anyone who comes in here without good reason. He's not a mutant; what's to keep him from telling the world at large about what's really happening at Xavier's School? About Generation X?"

"Y're paranoid, woman; just because he's not a mutant doesn't mean he's not trustworthy. Besides, he seems damned protective of the lass; I'm not thinkin' he'd endanger her."

Ms. Frost's voice was hard and unconvinced. "I still don't like it."

Cassidy sighed as if giving up. "Well, I'm sure they're nothin' we're not up to, considerin' what the others've already put us through." A chair creaked as if someone was getting up; Chase shot to his feet, ready to haul ass back up the stairs. "And ye'd better loosen up towards the boy if we want them t' decide t' trust us and let us help."

"Perhaps, but...."

As Ms. Frost's voice came closer, Chase retreated to the infirmary, bare feet soundless against the wood floor. No one spotted him and Shea was still asleep when he crept in; again ignoring the second bed Ms. Frost had directed him to, he lay back down beside Shea, drawing the top blanket over them both. She instantly curled back up against his shoulder, working her injured hand over his bare chest, and he hugged her tightly, resting his cheek against her hair.

"Where'd you go, Butch?" she murmured sleepily, without opening her eyes.

"Nowhere, Sundance," he answered softly. "Go back to sleep."

She obeyed, for once, leaving him to cradle her against him like a teddy bear and stare into the dark room, wondering what the hell they'd gotten into this time.

The Sandman was a long time coming.

Chase woke to the sound of shouting voices outside and the sun shining much too brightly through the window, directly into his eyes; he groaned and tried to roll over, but couldn't, since a warm weight was planted firmly on his chest. Trapped and too groggy to figure out how to get free, his head aching with renewed ferocity, he just groaned again.

"Ah, one of the wayward travelers is re-emerging to the land of the living," someone said from across the room. Chase pried one eye open and attempted to follow the sound back to the source....

And nearly jumped right off the bed at the sight of a large man covered with blue fur and, incongruously, a white lab coat, sitting at one of the computer consoles and peering at him over the top of half-glasses. His instinctive jolt of shock was enough to disturb Shea, who was still sprawled half on top of him; she murmured and rolled over, then opened her eyes. One sharp gasp and she started coughing again.

Chase got it back together quickly, recognizing Henry McCoy from the TV. Jennifer said this guy was okay. "Chill, Shealee," he told her, trying to stay calm and not let his instinctive fear take him over, as he reached over to pound on her back. "He's not gonna bite."

"No, really?" she rasped, visibly trying to control her breathing. "I never would've guessed that, *Charles*."

One of the helpful backslaps drifted up to smack the back of her head as she used his real name. She yelped through a cough and threw him a glare of death over her shoulder.

"Time out, please," McCoy intervened smoothly. "I believe enough damage has been inflicted on both participating parties, without attempting to add, ah, insult to injury, as it were." He took off his glasses and stood up, crossing the room to offer his hand... paw... whatever. "I am Hank McCoy, more affectionately known as the Beast."

"Chase Matthews, Shea O'Reilly," Chase performed his half of the introductions, forcing himself to shake McCoy's hand with only the slightest of hesitations. The palm was callused, the hair on its back soft and silky. "When did you get here?"

It came out more abruptly than he'd intended, but McCoy didn't even blink. "I arrived but a few brief moments ago. I have been taking the opportunity to study your medical charts -- you've managed to inflict quite a bit of damage on yourselves in a short time," he observed with a tone caught between admiration and censure.

Shea had also taken McCoy's hand, and was now using it to struggle to a sitting position. Chase assisted her with an arm behind her back, settling her against the pillows. "Thank you," she managed to say sarcastically to McCoy, her vocal cords obviously protesting every word, "we tried really hard."

She rubbed her wrists with her bandaged left hand unconsciously, trying to soothe the bracelets of bruises that surrounded them. Reminded, Chase rubbed his own bruised wrist against his jeans. Handcuffs were not kind to skin and bone, especially when the users were annoyed.

"My erstwhile colleague Mr. Cassidy has requested full physicals for both of you," McCoy continued, not even stopping to acknowledge Shea's wisecrack, although Chase saw his eyes sharpen as they studied the matched bruises. "How is your head?"

Chase shrugged. "Aches a little, but it's not as bad as yesterday."

"I should hope not. Any dizzy spells, blackouts, spots before your eyes? How long were you unconscious?" McCoy leaned forward to inspect the bump and the scabbed cut over it; Chase shook his head to answer the questions and forced himself not to recoil as McCoy stared into each of his eyes, covering first one, than the other. "And what did you hit, by the way?"

"A gun."

McCoy's eyebrows, distinguishable from the rest of his fur only because they were bushier, went up, but he didn't comment. "You appear to be in adequate condition; your head is mending itself nicely. I recommend food and, perhaps, some minor exercise, both of which are, I believe, available without. Don't overdo; if your head begins to hurt or you grow dizzy, stop at once and have one of the children fetch me."

Chase took the pointed hint and swung his legs off the bed, groaning as every muscle in his body protested the movement. He stood and pulled the top to the scrubs over his head, then hesitated, looking from Shea to McCoy. It wasn't that he didn't trust McCoy, not really; it was just that...

*Okay, dammit, I don't trust him. Not in this place, and not with Shea.*

"Chill, Chase," Shea said as his hesitation stretched on, speaking as sweetly as one can through laryngitis. "He's not gonna bite."

He let the snipe go, sending a Look at McCoy. "If you need me, yell," he told Shea. "I'll be around."

Shea rolled her eyes at him, but her grin was suspiciously wobbly, her face uneasy. "I will. Go feed your face."

Unhappily, he retrieved his sneakers from the floor and went.

The remains of lunch for a *very* large crowd were still in the dining room when Chase came down the stairs, carefully avoiding Cassidy's office. Someone was banging pots in the kitchen; he didn't stop to look, but piled cold cuts and cheese between several slices of bread, grabbed the first piece of fruit he saw, and followed his ears out the front door, wolfing the sandwiches as he went.

The weather had improved, at least, although heavy clouds threatened to bring more rain before the day was over. The grounds were even more impressive in daylight than they'd been the night before -- wide green lawns stretched to meet stands of very old trees, just beginning to show new growth. The buildings themselves were nearly as old as the trees, all soft brick and fancy carving. The front porch on the main house sprawled out like something from Tara; a large, late model luxury sedan was parked in the long, twisting driveway, next to the large marble fountain which tinkled away. Old money, and lots of it, was the obvious conclusion. Grimly determined not to be intimidated, he wandered around the side of the house towards the back.

The yells and shouts he'd heard from the infirmary window eventually resolved themselves into the distinctive sounds of a bloodthirsty two-on-two match, being played out on a wide basketball court. A covered pool stretched to the side of the court, behind a volleyball pit, and the wide back porch held several chair and tables, as well as spectators to the game.

It seemed as if a serious mismatch was in progress at first glance -- the girl from the previous night, Jubilee, was teamed with a slender, fragile-looking blonde girl about Shea's age, against a tall black guy who matched Chase for build, if not height, and a big Samoan in a loud Hawaiian shirt, who weighed more than both his opponents put together. Chase leaned against the corner of the house and settled in to observe, but the spectators quickly drew his attention away from the game.

Jono was leaning against a picnic table on the sidelines, wearing the same leather jacket and strips around his chest as he had worn the night before; an eerie light still flickered from behind them, although paler in the sun. A skinny gray guy, whose skin fell in loose wrinkles over and around his Lakers tank top and baggy shorts, sprawled next to him, smoking a cigarette. Two hyper kids who looked to be about eight or nine chased each other around the table; one was pink and bumpy, the other green.

"Okaaay," Chase told himself after a minute, trying to shake off the creeping itch on the back of his neck and feeling the muscles in his shoulders tighten automatically. "Green, gray, bright pink and on fire. Helluvan audience."

A rush of motion on the court caught his eye. Jubilee had the ball, but was being effectively blocked by the black guy; she suddenly broke right and ducked around him, dribbling down the court while the other girl watched her back -- unnecessarily, since the Samoan guy had apparently been taking a nap.

"Mondo, stop her!" the black guy yelled with frustration.

"But she's going to score," the aptly-named Mondo pointed out in a deep, cheerful voice. "Don't you want her to do well?"

"Not when she's on the other team!" It was too late; Jubilee reached the end of the court and bounced higher then she should have been able to. The ball went through the hoop, nothing but net.

"Yeah!" she exclaimed, trading high-fives with the blonde. "How's that for sportsmanship, hayseed!"

"Nice shot, chicas!" the gray-skinned guy yelled around his cigarette, the little kids bouncing up and down enthusiastically. Chase almost thought he could see something next to the pink one, but couldn't figure why a disembodied thumbs-up would be floating around in mid-air.

The black guy caught the rebound, shaking his head ruefully. "18-8, J, your favor. No offense, Mondo, but I'm changing partners."

Mondo didn't look offended, but both girls instantly reacted. "No way, Ev!" the blonde said with a smug grin and a trace of a Southern accent. "You chose him, you have t' stick it out."

Ev looked at her pitifully. "I know Jubes hasn't got a heart, but you, Paige?"

Paige's grin got wider. "All right, we'll go easy on you." She lunged forward and caught Ev flat-footed, knocking the ball out of his hands and spinning to shoot a perfect lay-up cross-court. "20-8. Game's over, we win. Now you can choose a new partner."

Chase involuntarily started laughing at the look on Ev's face, gaining the attention of both players and spectators. He swallowed a mouthful of bread, thought about it, then lifted the rest of his sandwich in a casual salute in their direction. "Hey."

"Welcome back to the living, dude," Jubilee caught the ball and started dribbling it absently, grinning widely at him. The yellow trenchcoat of the night before had been replaced by holey jeans and a faded pink sweatshirt; matching pink earrings bobbed above her shoulders. "Nice black eye. Where's your friend?"

"Getting examined." Chase polished his fruit -- which turned out to be an apple -- on his sleeve casually, trying to hide his deep-seated, uneasy awareness that any of these 'kids' could probably take him out, age and weight advantage notwithstanding. It was not a comforting thought. "Good shot."

"Which one, hers or mine?" Paige asked, crossing her arms and giving him a suspicious look. She was also in a sweatshirt and jeans, both in much better condition that Jubilee's, with Lila Cheney's logo splashed across her chest. Everett wore jeans as well, with a long-sleeved Cardinals jersey. His steady regard matched Paige's.

Chase tightened his jaw and returned the look, answering Paige's question. "Both of 'em."

Paige didn't look any happier, but nodded. "Thanks. Ah have brothers."

Jubilee's eyes drifted past him suddenly, and she grinned, slightly maliciously. "Better not turn around."

Naturally, he started to turn and jumped when something touched his back, twisting the rest of the way. He found himself face to face with something dark red and spiky, reaching clawed hands out towards him, its face lost in shadows.

Chapter 3

"When the world turns you in circles and the wind is at your face
And you need somewhere to run to, I know the place."

   -- Collin Raye, 'I Volunteer'

Shea watched Chase go with mixed feelings; she didn't particularly want a witness to a physical, but she also did *not* want to be left alone in this place. And, although she was slightly embarrassed at the clear warning he'd sent Dr. McCoy with his last sentence, she *really* appreciated the sentiment.

The doctor's eyes were as kind as Mr. Cassidy's, but they weren't much of a distraction from his thick, alien, pelt of blue fur; and for all her wisecracks to Chase, she didn't know much about mutants either, even if she was one.

"Sorry about that," she forced herself to shrug out of politeness, without looking up from an intense study of her wrists. "It's been kind of a bad couple of days."

"No offense taken, I assure you," Dr. McCoy told her with studied cheerfulness. "I look forward to hearing the entire story."

"It'll take a while," Shea warned. A yawn crept up on her, stretching her jaw until it cracked audibly, and, of course, sending her off into another coughing fit. "Sorry," she apologized once more when she got her breath back.

"Again, no offense taken." Dr. McCoy carefully took her left hand, first inspecting the bandage on the palm, then looking over the bruises. "I believe your hand wins the battle for first priority. How on earth did you manage this?" he asked, gently unwrapping the gauze Ms. Frost had changed the night before.

Shea looked at the ugly, half-healed gash, which slashed right across the perfect M that the lines of her palm used to form. M for mutant.

The image of the stoned kid who had attacked Chase less than a week before flashed in front of her eyes, sending a shudder down her spine. "A knife. Someone tried to hold up the grocery store at... " She couldn't bring herself to call Copper Lake home. "Where we used to live."

Dr. McCoy didn't seem to notice the hesitation; he turned away to rummage in a cabinet, withdrawing a syringe and a labeled ampoule. "It's not infected, so you seem to have received reasonably competent treatment; however, it should have been stitched days ago. I'm afraid you're going to have quite an impressive scar."

"Chase took care of it. We couldn't exactly go to the hospital -- I kinda got it using my powers."

"Ah, yes," he replied absently, filling the syringe with quick, deft movements that belied his bulk. "Jennifer mentioned that incident. You transmogrified the knife to rubber, correct?"

Shea winced as he injected something into her hand, which quickly went numb. "Cool, another Calvin and Hobbes fan. Yeah, I did, but we couldn't tell the sheriff that -- our story was that it had been rubber all along."

"A tale which would have been quickly disproved by the evidence of your injury." Dr. McCoy nodded, setting stitches quickly and competently; Shea did *not* watch. "A perfectly logical conclusion, if somewhat injurious to your physical condition."

Shea blinked, trying to decipher the polysyllables, and settled for a rather blank, "Yeah, right." A memory suddenly clicked into place in her admittedly foggy mind. "You were at the airport, weren't you?"

He winced visibly, but his hands didn't stop work. "Yes, I was among the lively bunch who attempted to meet you in Denver. The X-Men asked me to convey their profound and collective apologies for being unable to complete that mission. Psylocke, in particular, expresses her regrets."


"The, ah, telepath who attempted to call you back from your hasty, if fully justified, retreat stage left from the airport debacle."

Shea wasn't about to forget the voice that had shouted in her head, spurring both her and Chase from fright into total panic. "Yeah, right," she repeated, trying not to sound *too* pissed off. "That wasn't a real smooth move; Chase almost crashed the bike."

"So she became aware." He took the last stitch and reached for fresh bandages. "I would advise light use of your hand for the next several weeks, and absolutely no heavy lifting with either arm, until the bone bruises heal."

"I know the drill."

"Excellent. Now, allow me to examine your chest." He pulled up the stethoscope that had been dangling around his neck, settling the ends into his ears, half-hidden beneath his fur; unlike most doctors in Shea's experience, he also took a moment to warm it in his large hand before helping Shea sit forward and sliding it down the back of her sleepshirt.

"Cough, please," he said, listening to the instrument with an intense, professional concentration. Shea obeyed, then couldn't stop; his big hands patted her gently on the back until she could breathe again. "One more time," he requested with a warm smile, "but with slightly less enthusiasm, if possible."

She returned his grin and somehow kept control of the cough this time. "Very good," he praised, "Now take a deep breath." They went through the entire lung procedure, then he helped her sit back again and took her temperature and blood pressure, calmly explaining what he was doing the whole time.

"It appears Ms. Frost was correct," he concluded eventually. "You have indeed acquired quite a thorough case of pneumonia. I'll begin you on antibiotics immediately, and we have a few... non-standard treatments available which should assist you in a speedy recovery."

"Great," Shea rasped, annoyed by how quickly her energy had flagged. But any nervousness she had felt around Dr. McCoy had evaporated; he exuded an aura of warm humor and safety that was impossible to resist.

At the barely concealed irony in her reply, he glanced over the clipboard he had been scribbling on, lifting one bushy eyebrow over the glasses he'd replaced, in a good imitation of Mr. Spock. But he didn't actually comment, just put the clipboard down and slipped his arms under her knees, lifting her effortlessly off the bed. "Upsy-daisy, as they say."

Shea giggled, caught by surprise; it was like being carried around by the world's greatest stuffed animal. She had to fight back the urge to snuggle into the soft fur at his neck, and could barely make herself let go as he lowered her back down to the examining table Ms. Frost had used the night before.

"Lay back, please," he requested, fussing with the lights and panels that ringed the table. She obeyed -- and almost jumped off the table when it started humming, a pale light rising from the surface. Warmth spread through her body.

"I assure you, Miss O'Reilly," Dr. McCoy chuckled, "this will not hurt you. In fact, I believe you'll be feeling a great deal better tomorrow."

She wasn't happy about it, but couldn't quite bring herself to believe this giant teddy bear would hurt her. She lay back on the strangely comfortable molded headrest and tried to relax.

Dr. McCoy nodded in satisfaction. "Do you feel up to another visitor?" he asked, looking her over assessingly. "Or would you rather rest?"

Shea looked at him sideways. "Depends on who the visitor is."

He half-smiled, then finished with the clipboard and hung it from the bottom of the bed, going back to the cabinet to find another syringe. "The Professor accompanied me from Westchester," he said over his shoulder. "He would like to converse with both you and Chase regarding your, ah, adventures."

"The Professor?" She thought, then her eyes widened as she made the connection. "*The* Professor? Charles Xavier? He's here to see *me*?"

She was amazed enough that she almost didn't feel the prick of the needle in her arm. "I'm not aware of the existence of another," Dr. McCoy said, struggling to keep a straight face. But even the fur couldn't hide his amusement at her reaction.

Embarrassed, she tried to fall back on Chase's 'I'm too cool for the room' expression, which apparently needed more practice. Finally, she just shrugged casually. "If he wants to come in, I guess that's okay."

"I'm sure he'll be pleased to accept your gracious invitation," Dr. McCoy answered gravely, his eyes twinkling at her through his glasses. "I'll go deliver it."

Shea blushed and watched him leave. Charles Xavier -- she'd been vaguely aware of his existence for most of her life, like she was aware of who was president and who was currently sleeping with whom in Hollywood. He made the news some nights -- more frequently these days than before -- and occasionally showed up on the covers of magazines she glanced at in the check-out line at Graves's Groceries.

She probably should have started paying more attention when her mutant powers had decided to show up, but she had been so very busy trying to pretend they didn't exist, to ignore everything that had to do with mutants. She'd concentrated on school, and running, and hadn't given herself time to think of anything else.

But that over the last week, she'd discovered just how important her powers, and Charles Xavier, were going to be to her life. He was the driving force behind her sanctuary at the Massachusetts Academy, and his decisions would determine her future.

Not a happy thought.

*I will *not* hyperventilate,* she told her struggling lungs firmly. *He's just a guy. Practice self-control. Be cool. Be cool.*

It was easy to say -- much harder to do when the brown-suited man in the wheelchair actually rolled through the door. Half-watched newscasts hadn't prepared her for the way he seemed to fill up the room without saying a word, or the air of authority and confidence that radiated from him. Nothing had prepared her for a personality so strong it seemed to override everything else in its way, simply by existing.

*Definitely a mistake, Rita,* her subconscious babbled, caught in Animaniacs mode for some bizarre reason. *Coming here was definitely a mistake.*

Swallowing hard, she forced herself back into coolness and met Professor Xavier's eyes as he rolled next to the bed, only to get another shock. They were pale blue eyes, reserved and formal, but with none of Ms. Frost's chill. Eyes which combined all the attributes of a concerned father, a dedicated teacher, an instinctive leader, and an Army drill sergeant in their depths. Shea was at once comforted and wary, relaxed and completely terrified.

*This is what the President should look like,* she thought vaguely. *Or maybe God.*

His face contorted slightly as she finished the thought, and her stomach sank, remembering a voice invading her mind outside an airport. It seemed silly, but.... "Are you, um, a telepath?"

"Yes," he answered calmly. Even thought Shea *knew* his reassuring expression was phony, it almost worked. "I am."

So much for reassuring. Shea groaned and covered her eyes with her arm, her cheeks turning bright, neon red. "Warn people next time you're gonna poke around in their heads!" she shouted through her elbow. "That is so wrong!"

"You are, of course, correct." He sounded sincere; she worked up the nerve to peek out from under her arm. "I apologize for reading your thoughts, Miss O'Reilly -- I'm afraid you, ah, broadcast them rather forcefully."

"Yeah, well, try earplugs, or whatever," she grumbled, trying to move from embarrassment to righteous indignation.

Still peering from underneath her arm, she was treated to what she sensed was a novel sight -- Professor Xavier looking slightly guilty. "Again, I apologize."

"Yeah, well..." Her blush had faded enough that she could come out from behind her shield, but she couldn't quite think of anything else to say.

Professor Xavier looked equally uncomfortable, casting around for a topic of conversation. "I, ah, understand you came here with a companion."

"Dr. McCoy kicked Chase out a little while ago -- he's probably downstairs feeding his face." She made a face. "I wouldn't mind doing that myself."

As hints went, that would have been broad enough for even a non-telepath. "I believe that can be arranged. Hank?"

Dr. McCoy's head appeared around the half-open door instantly. "Yes, sir?"

"Is Miss O'Reilly allowed to eat?"

"Of course. " Dr. McCoy winked broadly at her and came the rest of the way through the door, bearing a tray of food. "In fact, you might say you read my mind."

Shea groaned again, fighting back her blush, and Professor Xavier actually smiled for real. Dr. McCoy did something to the control panels of the table that made it slowly incline upwards like a hospital bed, then set the tray in front of her with a flourish. "Chicken soup, hot tea, and a grilled cheese sandwich, made with the hands of our own lovely Miss St. Croix."

"Thank you," Shea breathed, closing her eyes to savor the smell of the soup. "I can't remember the last time we had a real meal."

Dr. McCoy, already lifting a cup of coffee for himself, and Professor Xavier traded glances. "I understand it was a difficult trip," the professor said casually.

Shea looked at him over one triangle of her sandwich. "Which part do you mean? Almost getting kidnapped from my foster home, escaping from Jennifer's hotel one step ahead of the bad guys, escaping from the Highway Patrol at the gas station, the fiasco in Denver, the cross-country road trip on the back of a motorcycle, getting arrested, Chase getting hit over the head, or me getting pneumonia?"

His eyes were troubled. "All of it."

Shea took a bite, melted cheese spreading like ambrosia over her tongue. "Ah, that was no sweat. The hard part was putting up with Chase for a week."

That won her an actual chuckle from the professor, and another from Dr. McCoy. "Seriously," she continued around her food, "it was pretty weird, but we did okay most of the time, thanks to Jennifer, and Davi--" She cut herself off, giving Dr. McCoy a quick sideways look. "Um, some other help."

"It's all right," the professor reassured her quickly, raising mind-reading suspicions again. "Hank is aware of the assistance you received from Agents Davis and Peterson, and their places in my network."

She swallowed. "I wasn't sure; they said they were part of an underground. It was kinda strange to have the same guys who'd been chasing us help us out."

Professor Xavier closed his eyes as if in pain. "It seems I am destined to spend all afternoon apologizing to you, Miss O'Reilly. This entire matter was... rather badly handled. The pick-up at the airport alone--"

Shea waved her spoon in the air; with her stomach filling, her body warm and her chest getting better with every breath, she was much more inclined to be generous. "The airport was Davis's fault, not yours; he's the one who let it slip to Van Dyke when she came after us. Peterson saved us, anyway, and the X-Men did their best, I guess."

The professor winced again, although she hadn't meant it to come out as an insult. Then he abruptly straightened. "The X-Men? How did you know...?"

She gave him a Look, a bit startled at her own chutzpah. This really wasn't the kind of man you smarted off at -- he could probably fry her brain with a sideways thought. Still, she couldn't work up a very good case of fear towards him anymore.

"Come on, give us credit for being able to put a few things together. I've seen the Beast on television lots of times, when he was with the Avengers and after that, and Chase and I recognized some more of the X-Men at the airport from the news. Besides, your name is all over a school for mutants."

There was a long pause, then Dr. McCoy very deliberately took a sip of his coffee. "Jennifer told us they would deduce your actual involvement," he commented.

Professor Xavier looked non-plussed. "Still, you understand, Miss O'Reilly, that this is not common knowledge. If Xavier's School was conclusively connected with the X-Men, the danger to us all would be--"

"I know," Shea interrupted impatiently, "Jennifer swore us to secrecy before she sent us to the school. You helped save our tails -- we won't tell anyone on you." She leaned forward over her tray. "One thing I do want to know, though."

She was delighted to see the professor look wary; it made him look actually human. "Yes?"

"How *did* the X-Men get out of that mess in Dallas? The one that was on CNN?"

Chapter 4

"hey there take a deep breath babe
if you need me me and neil'll be
hanging out with the dream king"

   -- Tori Amos, 'Tear in Your Hand'

As the taloned hands reached for him, Chase abandoned all thought of cool in favor of escape, yelping and trying to bounce backwards away from the whatever-it-was, and tripping over his feet in the process. His left wrist protested painfully as he landed on it and his butt.

He blinked and shook his head, trying to make the world stop spinning. Through the haze of panic, he heard the kids laughing hilariously behind him, and saw that the dark red thing had also jumped back, gazing at him through huge, suspicious blue eyes, the huge clawed hands held defensively in front of her. She.. she?... was scared to death, he realized, fighting back his own instinctive terror.

"Sorry," he found himself apologizing to her, trying not to stutter. "I was set up." He managed to tear his eyes off her long enough to send a baleful look over his shoulder at the culprits, all of whom except Jubilee had the grace to look embarrassed, then returned his attention to the girl in front of him.

"Did you want something?" he asked her, reaching for and finding the same voice that calmed Shea down when she was acting like a five-year-old.

The stiff red body relaxed a little in response to his voice, but still leaned away as if posed for flight or attack, the blue eyes blinking, then focusing on his hand. He followed them and found himself staring at the apple he was still holding. "This?" He debated his hunger (and terror) versus her claws, then held it out tentatively, keeping his hand flat. "Be my guest. I've, um, already eaten."

She looked at him for another long moment, then sidled forward, reaching out hesitantly to take the fruit. He forced himself not to flinch. Hard, smooth skin touched his, then snapped back to a safe distance, taking the apple with it.

"Great," Chase breathed, relaxing slightly. "No problems here."

*Not bad,* Jono's 'voice' said next to him. *That's Penance; she doesn't normally get that close t' strangers.*

"I wonder why," Chase said sarcastically, pulling himself to his feet without using the hand Jono had offered. "You always use her to chase off visitors?"

Jono threw a hard look at the others, who were kicking the grass and trying not to meet anyone's eyes; even Jubilee now looked slightly abashed. *Nah, only the one we want t' throw off-balance.*

"Sorry," Jubilee apologized without further prompting. "Penny wouldn't have hurt you, but I shouldn't have set you up like that."

*Kids,* Chase sighed with mental disgust. *Powers enough to take over the world and they still play practical jokes. Just great.* But this was the only place Shea was going to be safe; he had to go along with it. He *had* to, no matter what.

"No problem," he lied out loud. "Ev, you need a partner?"

Twenty sweaty minutes later, the score was tied, 18-18. Jubilee had proven to be a ruthless opponent, completely unintimidated by the fact that both members of the opposition outweighed her by about 100 pounds. She sped across the court like a miniature Roadrunner, perfectly willing to go around, under or over anyone between her and the hoop. Paige Guthrie played a more straightforward game, but with no more scruples than her teammate showed.

But Chase and Everett 'they call me Synch' Thomas still had a considerable height advantage, and discovered to their surprise that they played well together, tossing the ball over the girls' heads and dribbling complicated patterns up and down the concrete that the other two couldn't quite intercept. After a few minutes, Chase's muscles had actually started to loosen up, the various aches and pains fading in the rush of the game.

His confidence growing, elected to use one of the overhead throws to get the ball over Jubilee's and into Everett's hands. He glanced almost a foot and a half down at the girl, then hefted the ball across the court straight at Everett, grinning in anticipation of a game-winning shot.

His ears were immediately assaulted by the pops and pafs of fireworks going off not more than a few feet away. Colored lights danced and exploded around the basketball, the concussions shoving it away from Ev, who lunged for it and missed. It bounced out of the court, and Angelo Espinosa's gray-skinned arm suddenly stretched out about three feet to grab it before it rolled into the volleyball court.

Chase looked from Angelo to Jubilee incredulously, trying to hear past the ringing in his ears, as Jubilee blew calmly on her fingertips. "Out of bounds, our ball," she informed them.

"We called 'no powers,' J," Ev said threateningly, picking himself off the pavement. "Chase doesn't have any, remember?"

Chase wasn't actually listening, too busy dealing with the fact that the tiny, cheerful Chinese girl had just shot a burst of explosions out of her hands. Firecrackers, sure, but.... And where the hell had Angelo grown an extra three feet of arm?

"Tell it to the ref," Jubilee shot back at Ev smugly, "if ya can find one."

Ev swung to look pleadingly at Angelo and Jono, both of whom immediately expressed complete and total disinterest in the proceedings; Angelo didn't even try to hide his laughter as he dribbled the ball off the ground. The two younger boys, Artie and Leech, were rolling around on the ground, chortling happily and obviously useless as officials. "This is so wrong!" Ev groaned.

"Need a lawyer?"

The amused voice came from several feet away, which saved Chase from his third heart attack of the day. He was able to glance over casually instead, then a huge smile spread across his face. "Jennifer!"

He had only enough time to reflect on how much his life had changed, that he could consider a 7-foot-tall, green woman with muscles bigger than his to be familiar. Then Jennifer Walters was sweeping him against her in a brief, but very firm, bear hug.

"Thank God you're all right," she said with great sincerity, letting him step back as far as her hands on his shoulders. "I really thought the two of you were going to disappear for good!"

"That'll teach you," Chase cracked, uncomfortably aware of the stares of the kids against his back. "But don't think we didn't consider it."

Jennifer lost her smile. "I'm so sorry, Chase, I never should have sent the two of you off alone."

"Hey, it wasn't your fault," Chase tried to reassure her, conveniently forgetting the occasional curse that had been tossed her way during rainstorms, arrests and escapes. "There wasn't much else you could do. We got here, didn't we? No problem."

Her look was politely disbelieving, but the crooked smile had reappeared. "Yes, you did get here; nice job." She reached out in a joking attempt to ruffle his hair and he ducked out of the way fast, before his dignity could take any more hits. Jennifer's grin got wider. "I was just going to see your partner in crime. Sean says you took good care of her."

"Yeah, that's why she's got pneumonia," Chase responded uncomfortably, running a hand through his hair. "It was the other way around most of the time; we couldn't have made it without her." He saw Jennifer's eyes narrow when she saw the bruises on his wrist and forehead, and shrugged. "They're worse than they look -- can we go back to Shea now?"

"Of course," Jennifer told him cheerfully, but with something grim still lurking in her eyes. With one hand, she gently shoved his hair away from his swollen forehead, inspecting it with quiet concern. "She's probably right where you left her."

"Great." He turned to go, then hesitated. "Jennifer? You're coming?"

She smiled at him, seeming to read his mind, and let her hand rest reassuringly on his shoulder. "Yeah, I'm coming."

Together, they walked back to the house.


Shea's squeal, despite her sore throat, was loud enough and high enough to shatter windows; McCoy, moving faster than anyone of his bulk should have been able to, barely managed to rescue her tray before she overturned it, lunging forward on the examining table into Jennifer's fierce hug. Chase lounged in the doorway to watch the reunion, trying not to let his less-than-macho grin become visible.

After a certain amount of incoherent babbling, Jennifer and Shea finally broke loose from each other. "I am so glad to see you," Shea said fervently, with more animation than she'd shown since they'd gotten to Massachusetts. "It has been such an unbelievably weird week."

"So I've heard." Jennifer stepped back far enough to look Shea over as she had Chase. "How's she doing, Hank?"

McCoy looked at the lights and readouts on the side of the table. "After a little rest and relaxation, Shulkie, she should be returned to her former tip-top condition."

"I knew I could count on you, Hankster. You look even worse than your partner," Jennifer told Shea.

"Gee, thanks." Shea made a face. "If there was any justice in the universe, *he* would've been the one who got pneumonia."

"Excuse me, Shealee?" Chase straightened. "How do you figure that?"

"Well, I got cut up saving your neck. The least you could have done was get sick saving mine. But nooo, you let me stack up all the damage."

"Getting knocked cold with a gun isn't enough for you? God, I love gratitude."

"Excuse me.... You would be Chase Matthews, correct?" a fifth voice questioned. Chase located the source in a wheelchair at Shea's side, and almost swallowed his teeth when he realized who it was.

"Professor.. um, Xavier?" he guessed. The bald man nodded, and Chase took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Pleased to meet you."

"The pleasure is mine," Xavier returned gravely. "I am, I suspect, more pleased than you know."

Chase gave him a suspicious, sideways look. "Why?"

Xavier smiled wryly, looking from Chase to Shea and back. "Because you have, by your actions this week, proven that my dream has some merit."

"Dream?" Shea, this time, biting her lip. Jennifer leaned against the high-tech bed beside her, arms crossed over her chest and looking very serious. McCoy sat back like he'd heard it before, but wasn't tired of it yet. "What're you talking about?"

Xavier leaned his elbows on the arms of his wheelchair and steepled his hands in front of his eyes. He looked like Mr. Fraser, Chase's old English teacher, getting ready to start a discussion of Poetry and Other Things Meaningful. "The first Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and by extension, the X-Men and this second school, were created because of a dream, a rather simple one." he began. "That one day, mutants and non-mutants will not be divided by fear, and hatred, or perceived superiority, but able to live together and work together as people, rather than genetically-divided categories.

"By helping Shea, Chase, by endangering yourself to help her despite the differences between you, you have proven that there is still truth in that dream." Xavier suddenly looked old, and very tired, talking more to himself than to Chase and Shea. "You've given us hope in times when, I fear, the dream has little left to hold it up but hope."

"Save the Martin Luther King speech," Chase said abruptly, more to snap himself back to reality than to be rude. He could see why Xavier was the leader of the X-Men -- the man had a hypnotic way with words and ideas -- but Chase had no intention of being drawn in. "I didn't help Shea because of any dream; I don't give a damn whether she's a mutant or not. I helped her because.... Well, because I was there and I owed her. That's all." That *wasn't* all, of course, but it was bad enough Shea could see inside his head half the time. Damned if he was going to spill everything to Xavier.

McCoy cleared his throat meaningfully at Chase's tone, but Xavier waved him back. His face had lightened with amusement, but Chase sensed that only a part of it was aimed at him. "If that is true," he said slowly, chuckling at some joke Chase didn't get, "than I grow even more optimistic for the next generation."

McCoy and Jennifer apparently understood, since they also started laughing softly, but Shea just looked thoughtful. "So that's why Sean let Jennifer send us to you."

"No, Shea." Xavier leaned forward intently. "You would have been welcome here regardless. This school was established specifically to help young mutants like you. If I had been able to discover your existence before the Bureau of Mutant Affairs, rest assured, the X-Men would have contacted you, and brought you into our protection before Agent Van Dyke had a chance to land in Oregon."

"I don't know if that would have been a good thing or not," Shea said quietly, without lifting her eyes from the sheet she was methodically wrinkling between her hands. "I never wanted to be a mutant, sir, and the only dream I've ever had is the Olympics."

McCoy started to say something, but Xavier stopped him with an imperceptible shake of the head. "An admirable dream in its own right," he said gently. "Rest assured, Shea, no one here will ask more of you than you can give. I promise you that."

Shea tried to smile up at Xavier, hesitant trust shining from her eyes. And something else, too -- like she'd finally accepted what she was, now that she had found a place where others accepted it, and her.

Chase had seen that expression once before, when she'd decided to run to the Massachusetts Academy, instead of running away to Canada or L.A. It had been the right choice for her then. But where did that leave him?

Suddenly, Chase felt very much like an outsider here.

Fortunately, Jennifer broke the moment. "Well, since we've established that," she grinned, rumpling Shea's hair, "I want to hear every detail of your little adventure, beginning to end."

"I believe we all would," Xavier agreed. "For instance, we intercepted a rather outraged report from a highway patrolman in New Mexico -- something about his pants being turned into wood?"

Chase remembered the incident vividly -- he'd been terrified they were going to be caught, and had only escaped with timing, luck, and judicious use of Shea's powers. Looking back at the expression on the cop's face, he was able to laugh at their exploits for the first time.

Shea was also giggling at the memory, without coughing, Chase noticed. "Plywood, actually. It was great!"

Xavier sat back in his chair, inviting, "Tell me about it."

Chase and Shea looked at each other, then Chase shrugged and walked the rest of the way into the room to pull a chair to her side. It seemed warmer over by the 'examining table', more comfortable. The faint throbbing in his head began to fade away again. "Well, I guess the whole thing started when I went to the store back in Copper Lake to get some food," he started, straddling the chair backwards.

"You went in to get a fix, O Great God of Caffeine," Shea corrected him. "That stuff's going to kill you."

"Look who's talking, she who drinks Coke for breakfast. Anyway, this guy at the counter pulls a knife...."

McCoy and Xavier left more than two hours later to talk to Cassidy and Ms. Frost, who had mysteriously appeared almost as soon as Shea and Chase had started their story. McCoy left a long list of instructions with Shea, and instructions for Chase and the headmasters to make sure she followed them.

Jennifer left a few minutes later, after more hugs, an admonition to stay out of trouble, and a promise to come back down for the weekend.

The infirmary was finally empty, leaving them alone for the first time that day. Chase let his head fall forward against the chair back, and rubbed his neck. The simple 'tell me about it' had turned into a gentle but firm interrogation worthy of the Spanish Inquisition, with Xavier cast as the kinder, gentler Torquemada, as he'd drawn out every bit of information on the Bureau and their cross-country trip they had to offer. Shea had gotten to doze off occasionally, but Chase hadn't had the excuse of sickness.

"You know," he said thoughtfully, without lifting his head, "I think it was easier when all we had to do was drive and avoid cops."

"No doubt," Shea agreed with a sigh. "But I'd like to put the Professor into a small room with Van Dyke one of these days. He'd rip her to shreds just by pinning her with one of those looks."

"Oh, hell yes." Chase laughed weakly, too worn out to put much effort into it. "I'd pay to see that."

"We could probably sell tickets." Shea was in even worse shape; even as she talked, her eyelids drifted shut.

"Getting tired, Shealee?" he asked, forcing himself to his feet to lean over her.

She smiled up at him sleepily. "Umm, a little. Did you meet the other kids?"

"Yeah, I did. Played basketball."

"Who won?"

"Game was called on account of cheating."

"What are they like? Tell me about them."

"They're..." Chase stopped before he could get started. "It's hard to describe. Get back in bed like McCoy said, and I'll tell you about them."

"'Kay," she yawned, holding her arms up to him like a little girl. He sighed heavily, more than a little uncomfortable with the trust she placed in him, then lifted her into his arms with an effort, surprised at how warm the 'examining table' was. As he lifted her away from it, the readouts went blank. He tried not to notice.

It was only a few feet from there to the small bed they'd used the night before. He settled her onto it carefully, then, when she refused to unwrap her arms from his neck, reluctantly sat beside her, cradling her against his chest. "Tell me about them," she demanded again.

Chase ran his fingers through her heavy curls and let his hand drift down to touch her cheek, then to her back, resting his head against the wall as he thought. He wanted to put as good a spin on things as possible.... "Well, you met Jubilee and Jono last night, but there's also Paige and Ev and Angelo and these two hyper little kids named Artie and Leech, and another... um, girl named Penance. Jubilee cheats at basketball, but she's an okay kid otherwise, a motormouth. Paige is kind of reserved, and has a strange sense of humor...."

He kept talking long after her eyes had drifted shut and her breathing evened out; talked just to hear a familiar voice, as the sun slowly set outside the window and the room turned once again to darkness, ending their first day at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.

Chapter 5

"Every finger in the room is pointed at me
I want to spit in their faces then I get afraid of what that could bring
Got a bowling ball in my stomach got a desert in my mouth
Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now"

   -- Tori Amos, 'Crucify'

"Hey, O'Reilly, wake up!"

Shea groaned and turned over, burying her head beneath the pillow. The last thing she remembered was Chase talking, his voice soothing her and putting her to sleep. She cuddled that memory to her, prepared to sink back down into the warm depths, when the annoying voice intruded again. "Shea! Come on, deadhead, rise and shine!"

Shea seriously contemplated stuffing her pillow down Jubilee's throat -- she'd recognize that obnoxiously cheerful Valley accent anywhere, even though she'd only heard it once before -- then realized that she was lying on her chest and not choking. Carefully, she took one breath, then another. No rasping, no coughing, no nothing. "Hot damn," she gasped, rolling over and sitting up. "I can breathe again."

Jubilee stood in the doorway, fully dressed in blue jeans, black t-shirt and yellow trenchcoat, blowing a bubble and looking unimpressed by Shea's recovery. "Yeah, Beastie-Boy said you'd be better this mornin', the Shi'ar stuff's good for that. Come on, get up, Irish is givin' us the car t' take you an' Chase shoppin' in Boston. Get a move on or we'll leave ya behind."

"Thanks a lot," Shea muttered under her breath, shoving her hair out of her eyes and the blankets away from her legs and standing shakily. Her legs were a little wobbly, but the dizziness had disappeared. Just as a reality check, she inspected her hands and wrist. She wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed to find all stitches and bruises still present, but much less sore, and showing definite signs of healing.

"Whatever a Shi'ar is, I like it!" she grinned. "Something Russian? Japanese?"

Jubilee opened her mouth, presumably to define Shi'ar, then apparently thought better of it. Coming into the room, she instead dropped her armload of clothes onto the bed. "Paige tossed your stuff into the laundry and we found a couple T-shirts and sweatshirts for you. Your sneakers have, like, gone to Reebok heaven, but Monet had a pair she's loaning you. If you get 'em dirty, she'll probably kill ya, so you better be careful."

"I'll take it under advisement." Shea rolled her eyes, without looking up from her investigation of the clothes. Her own jeans topped the pile and she shuddered, looking at them with disgust. She didn't particularly want to put them on again -- not after wearing them almost non-stop for more than a week -- but resigned herself to her fate. The T-shirts, which ranged from a tame white to a psychedelic orange that had to be Jubilee's, looked about the right size, and someone had remembered clean socks and underwear.

"Do I have time to shower before you drag me off?" she asked the younger girl.

"You better," Jubilee said, with a significant sniff in Shea's direction. "It's not that big of a van."

Shea blushed and reached back for the pillow, but the appearance of a blond girl in the doorway saved Jubilee's life.

"Leave her alone, Jubes," the girl ordered.

Jubilee was still unimpressed. "Who put you in charge, Husk?"

The blonde's eyes narrowed, but her only response was, "Ms. Frost is looking for you, something about yesterday's math test."

Jubilee suddenly looked hunted. "I'm outta here," she declared, suiting action to words.

The blond didn't bother watching her go, satisfied with the results of her strategy. "Sorry about Jubilee," she apologized, coming through the door. Her southern accent was almost unnoticeable, but for the soft slur to her words. "We're still working on finding someone with the mutant power to shut her up. I'm Paige Guthrie."

"Shea O'Reilly," Shea responded automatically, and probably unnecessarily, "and she's okay; I've got a foster sister a lot like her."

"Great, another one like Jubes. Just what the world needs." Paige rolled her eyes, inviting Shea to share the joke. Shea obediently grinned, liking Paige instantly; they were about the same age, although Paige might have been slightly younger. She was neatly dressed in pressed chinos and a blue sweater set the same color as her eyes, with polished loafers on her feet, and Shea had a sudden hunch who'd remembered the socks.

"You've got plenty of time to shower," Paige continued, her eyes taking their own assessment of Shea. "We're not going to leave without you, no matter what Lee says. But you might want to hurry, or breakfast is going to get cold."

"Right." Shea grimaced as she ran her hand through her greasy hair. "I'll be down soon as I can."

"Do you need any help?" Paige offered. "Chase said you weren't doing very well yesterday."

"Chase lies," Shea lied. "I'll be fine."

The other girl accepted that with a nod. "Just remember not to get the bandage wet," she said dictatorially as she left. Shea stretched, enjoying the feeling of having her muscles work correctly again, then headed for the small bathroom, stripping off the borrowed sleepshirt as she went.

The small bathroom was already stocked with shampoo, conditioner and soap, as well as thick, fluffy green towels which matched the floor tiles. Everything else was in shades of ivory and gold and showed the definite touch of an interior decorator. "Oy vey," Shea muttered, "I bet Ms. Frost hired someone to color-coordinate the *garage*."

Avoiding the mirrors, she turned on the water and, for a moment, regretted not accepting Paige's offer of help, as she started trying to figure out how to wash her hair while keeping her hand dry. Then she shrugged a mental 'the hell with it' and stepped under the warm water to get clean for the first time in five days.

Dressed in her jeans, a white T-shirt with the words 'As If' scrawled across the front, and the borrowed socks and sneakers, her hair mostly dry and cascading around her face in a tangle of curls (no one had remembered a comb), Shea made her way down the stairs, looking around her in awe. She hadn't been able to really appreciate the house through the haze of cold, wet, and sick in which she'd arrived, and took it in fully now.

The stairs led down to a huge room with a fireplace on one wall and comfortable furniture arranged in small conversation groups. Everything was as clean as if human hands had never touched it, except for the jackets tossed on a coat rack by the door and the wet sneakers piled beneath them. Even the piles of textbooks and magazines on the couch looked as if they'd been stacked by a computer.

The sound of chattering voices led her past a closed door and into a large dining room. One entire wall was windows, the curtains opened so morning sunlight could stream over the huge table. The painful neatness of the main room was entirely missing here, probably due to the noisy presence of seven teenagers, two kids and two adults, most of whom were trying to talk over each other and around their food. The topics appeared to range from what movie to go see in the city, to an intense discussion of who was going to drive, to Jubilee loudly defending the math test to Ms. Frost, who wasn't, judging from her expressionless face, buying a word of it.

A tall, handsome black guy -- Everett, Shea figured from Chase's half-remembered descriptions the night before -- sitting closest to the door suddenly caught sight of her and cleared his throat loudly, cutting off the other side of the driver argument. The table instantly quieted, all eyes locking on Shea. She swallowed and tried not show how badly her stomach was jumping around, shifting her feet nervously and returning the stares with as much cool as she could manage when she was scared spitless.

They were a really mixed bunch, she realized. The other half of the driving argument was a guy who might have been Hispanic -- it was hard to tell through the beard stubble, not to mention the gray skin that folded over and around his plaid flannel shirt. Paige was sitting next to them, and a beautiful dark-haired girl, dressed neatly and expensively, was next, flanked by an empty chair on either side. The brunette was the only one not involved in a conversation -- she seemed to be lost in a world of her own.

Ms. Frost was at the head of the table, once again dressed entirely in white; at her left hand was a huge Samoan boy who smiled cheerfully at Shea before returning to shoveling in a pile of food. Two little boys, one green, one pink -- again forewarned by Chase, Shea managed not to react to their odd appearances -- chattered next to him. Well, one did, the other was silent. Jubilee was across from Paige, half-sitting, half-sprawling in her chair, evidently long-since finished eating and trying to keep out of reach of Ms. Frost. Chase was a seat away from Ms. Frost, the seat on his other side also empty. She wondered if that had been deliberate.

"Whoa, the senorita exists," the gray-skinned guy said, breaking the silence as he casually reached across the table; Shea watched open-mouthed as his arm stretched a good two feet further than humanly possible to snag the orange juice. No one else, including Chase, even blinked. "We were beginning to think you were a hallucination."

"I wish," Chase muttered just loud enough to be heard; Shea forgot to be amazed and scared long enough to swing a deadly glare in his direction, trying to hide the deep relief his presence in this room of strangers gave her. He was also in jeans, and an unfamiliar 'No Fear' T-shirt which fit tightly across his shoulders. His leather jacket was slung over the back of his chair.

His various bruises also looked much better, the swelling down and the cut across his forehead half-healed; he was going to have a very interesting scar, though. His face tried to assume an innocent expression as he gestured to the chair next to him. "If you kill me, it'll take you longer to eat."

Shea weighed the benefits and consequences, then took the seat with as much nonchalance as possible, as if people extended their limbs across a room in front of her every day. "Lucky for you I'm hungry," she informed Chase as she poured some sugar-laden cereal into her bowl, pretending not to notice the well-hidden disappointment on Stretch's face at her quick cover.

"Shealee, I've never seen you when you *weren't* hungry," Chase claimed without looking up from his plate.

"That's because you didn't feed me from California clear to Indiana."

"I fed you in Boulder!"

"And not again until Indiana!"

"Yeah," he admitted through his food, "But...."

"Don't talk with your mouth full." He glared again, but swallowed; she took her first bite smugly, happy to win an argument by whatever means were necessary.

Ms. Frost took advantage of the break in hostilities. "How are you feeling this morning, Shea?" she asked in a voice that was probably supposed to sound concerned, but didn't quite.

Shea fought back a shiver of dislike and started to answer; at Chase's snide sideways look, she hastily swallowed first. "Fine, thank you -- much better than I'd expected. What did Dr. McCoy do to me?"

"Are you sure you want to know?" Chase muttered. Shea shot a quick look in his direction, but he was concentrating intently on his food, his face locked.

Ms. Frost also glanced his way, but otherwise ignored the comment. "Henry is an excellent doctor; I'm not surprised you've improved so quickly." Jubilee opened her mouth to say something, but Ms. Frost cut her off. "I don't believe you've met everyone here. Children, introduce yourselves."

"Yes, Ms. Frost," the other side of the table -- minus the brunette and including Jubilee -- chorused together with varying degrees of sarcasm. It appeared to roll right off Ms. Frost's perfectly tailored blond exterior. Quick introductions followed and Shea split her attention between her cereal (she really *was* starving) and trying to associate names with faces and Chase's descriptions. Everett, Angelo, Paige, Monet, Mondo, Artie, Leech....

"Where's Jono?" she asked suddenly, interrupting the beginnings of a renewed driving argument between Everett and Angelo.

Everett answered, looking uncomfortable. "He doesn't really eat... He's probably out in the biosphere with Penance or something."

Biosphere? It didn't seem like a good time to pursue the question; at any rate, the door from the kitchen swung open and Mr. Cassidy appeared from its depths, carrying several plates. "Good mornin', Shea -- glad t' see you're feelin' better," he boomed cheerfully, levering one of the plates in front of her. "Leave that sugar alone, y' need t' get y'r strength back. Here's a real breakfast."

"Thank you, Mr. Cassidy." Shea smiled shyly up at the big Irishman and inspected the pile of eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns he'd set in front of her. Cholesterol City, but it smelled much better than the cereal. "This looks great."

He beamed in satisfaction and took his seat at the end of the table, next to Shea. "Eat up, then; from what I've overheard, ye've got a busy day ahead o' you." Following his own advice, he started eating. Shea also dug in, happy to discover the food tasted as good as it smelled.

"By the way, Jubilee," he continued a moment later, "just because y'r gettin' out o' lunch duty today, doesnae mean y'r gettin' away with anything. Y'll make it up tomorrow."

"Oh, no way, Sean!" Jubilee objected, as the same time that her classmates groaned in protest.

"Why punish us, Mr. Cassidy?" Everett moaned melodramatically. "We didn't do anything!"

"Do you want us all to die of food poisoning?" Paige added.

Jubilee tried to split her fierce look between her teacher and her classmates, apparently torn between defending her cooking skills and trying to wriggle out of having to use them. Mr. Cassidy's eyebrow, lifted in a clear warning not to push it, forced her settle for grousing, "I still don't see why we can't just, like, hire a housekeeper or something. It's not like White Queen over there," she gestured towards Ms. Frost, "doesn't have enough money."

Shea felt her eyebrows go up. *White Queen?* she mouthed to Chase, who shrugged in complete ignorance. *Got me,* he mouthed back.

"We've been through this before, Jubilee," Ms. Frost answered with a touch of exasperation. "It would simply be too difficult, unless you think *you* can find someone we could trust not to run screaming to the authorities the moment Penance sneaked up on them, or something --" This with a pointed look in Paige's direction; she blushed slightly and looked away, "-- blows up."

Jubilee just looked stubborn. "We could find someone," she insisted.

"And would ye like t' endanger them if Emplate or the Phalanx decides to attack again?" Mr. Cassidy's gentle question seemed to get through better than Ms. Frost's previous attempts; Jubilee made a face, but shut up. "And besides," Mr. Cassidy continued with a smile in the girl's direction, "everyone should know how to cook."

"With that settled," he said to Shea and Chase, "we'll be addin' the two o' ye to th' roster while y'r here. Can either of ye cook?"

"I can, Chase can't," Shea answered, trying not to deal with the concept of *anyone* attacking the school, but resolved to pin Paige or Jubilee down at the first opportunity -- there were too damn many questions she wanted answered.

Chase looked offended at her lack of faith in *his* culinary skills. "How do you know?"

"I've seen your kitchen. If you cooked in there, you'd be dead of food poisoning already."

"And I suppose you're Julia Child."

"No, but I'm not the Ptomaine Palace, either, Captain Cuisine."

"Are you two going to fight all the way into Boston?" Everett interrupted from across the table before they could really get rolling.

"No," Shea answered at the same time Chase said, "Probably." Jubilee started laughing so hard she almost spit her milk across the table, which set the little boys off. Their giggles were contagious and even Shea had to give in, smiling ruefully at Chase.

Under the table, her hand groped for his; he took it in a firm grip that belied his casual chuckles.

Chapter 6

"For to see the town at Bedlam
Ten thousand years I traveled"

   -- 'Bedlam Boys', Traditional

"Great, more driving," Chase groaned as he saw the station wagon they were supposed to take, stifling the sudden ache for his motorcycle, which was still in some impound lot in New York.

"You expected to fly, perhaps?" Monet said from behind him, startling him; he had started to get used to her zombie impersonation. She looked down her nose at him as if she had no idea why he was staring, then brushed past him to get into the backseat of the car next to the window.

Chase glared after her in confusion and growing dislike. "Don't let her get to you, amigo," Angelo told him, claiming the front seat. "M lives in her own little world, and no one else gets invited in." He sent a look sideways at Monet as he spoke, but she ignored him, making a close inspection of her perfect fingernails, then her spotless red jacket.

Chase shook his head and looked back over his shoulder for the rest of the mob. Jubilee was back in the trenchcoat and walking towards the garage with Everett, talking a mile a minute. Ev was tolerating her with an amazing amount of patience, which may have been due to the car keys jingling in his hand. Behind them, Paige was carrying on an intense conversation with Jono, which ended when he turned and walked away across the lawn. Paige looked after him with frustration written all over her face, then tightened her lips and stalked towards the car, ignoring the mist that fell against her face.

"You coming, Shea?" Chase called out towards the last member of their party. She looked his way, then back at Cassidy, who was trying to give her something. Looking unhappy, she finally accepted it; Cassidy patted her on the shoulder with a sympathetic expression. She shrugged his hand away and followed Paige down the driveway.

"What was all that about?" Chase asked, as Shea followed Paige into the car. Wordlessly, Shea opened her hand to show him two corporate American Express cards, issued to Frost Enterprises. Chase fought down a surge of wounded pride. "One for you and one for me. Nice. I was wondering how we were paying for this shopping spree."

Bright flags of humiliated color stained Shea's cheeks. "Mr. Cassidy says we both count as scholarship cases, and that Ms. Frost is obscenely wealthy. 'What good's money if not t' use t' help our students?'" Her impersonation of his brogue was dead-on, and sounded surprisingly natural. At least, it would have without the sulking.

"Did you point out we're not enrolled?" Shea gave him a Look in answer.
"Well, it's not like we have a lot of choice," Chase shrugged, not sure who he was trying to convince. "Unless you want to keep living in those jeans."

"I've had enough of being a charity case," she muttered, shoving past him to clamber into the wagon. Chase sighed and got in behind her, closing the door. This trip looked as if it was going to be about as much fun as their last one. Less, even.

Actually, the ride to Boston wasn't bad, after they'd ganged up once to quash Jubilee's attempts to sing 'A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall', and again to keep Angelo from smoking. Ev was a good driver, staying just far enough over the speed limit to keep his passengers happy without annoying the cops too much. After a brief 'discussion' which almost turned into a holy war, the radio was tuned to a baseball game and left there -- Chase rooted for the Red Sox just to annoy Angelo, who turned out to be an Angels fan, big surprise. Rain shushed gently against the window in counterpoint to their cheers.

Shea spent most of the ride talking to Paige, who was willing enough to talk, but pretty cagey about the topics at first. That stopped as she got rolling; Chase eavesdropped in between heckling the game, and got a pretty good overview of the history of Generation X.

Paige seemed to view them as a junior branch of the outlaw X-Men; references to something called the New Mutants and X-Force, with passing mentions of 'the Institute', 'Cable' and 'Magneto', went flying by faster than he could field them. Magneto was a terrorist, what the newspapers liked to call a super-villain -- yet Paige was claiming he'd led a team associated with the X-Men? And she expected this to be taken as a good thing?

Judging from the slightly glazed expression in Shea's eyes, she wasn't doing much better. Jubilee's contributions, which consisted mostly of sentences beginning, "When *I* was with the X-Men", just made it worse. Chase finally gave up and leaned forward to ask Angelo, "Why are we going all the way into Boston to shop? We went through a city closer to here."

Angelo and Ev exchanged looks, then Angelo shrugged. "Snow Valley's too close to home, comprende? Everyone knows us; we get into trouble, the whole town figures out what Xavier's School really is. In Boston, we're just another bunch of kids."

Chase felt his stomach sink. "You're *expecting* trouble?"

"We never *expect* trouble," Ev said, apparently trying to be calming. Then he blew it by admitting, "But trouble finds us an awful lot."

"Besides," Angelo said slyly, "it's a good excuse to get out of the school for a whole day, without White Queen and Banshee babysitting. I can't believe they let us go all the way into the city without them."

"They were talking pretty intensely to Professor Xavier yesterday," Ev commented. "I think something's going on we're not--"

"What's with the White Queen and Banshee thing?" Shea interrupted from the back seat. "Are those code names or something?"

"Or somethin'." Jubilee cracked her gum as she spoke. "Me an' Irish both used t' be X-Men, 'til the Prof decided t' move the school out here. Frosty used t' be a bad guy."

"Who says she isn't now?" Monet murmured, her only contribution to the trip so far. Chase looked sharply at her, but couldn't read anything in her serene expression. Shea's eyebrows tried to climb off her face.

"Define bad guy," Ev tossed over his shoulder, in a tone that suggested he was picking up an old argument. "Just because she was with the Hellfire Club--"

"Dude, she helped attack Phoenix, and she *lead* the Hellions," Jubilee flared -- literally, as lights began flashing around her fingertips. Shea jumped slightly when she noticed, then watched with fascinated awe. "She's bad news all the way around."

"So why'd you come to her school, chica?" Angelo asked lazily, fiddling with an unlit cigarette. "No one forced you."

Jubilee's face closed up entirely, but not before Chase caught a glimpse of very real pain behind her eyes. "Don't go there, dude."

"As long as Ms. Frost is willing to teach us," Paige jumped in, with a quelling look at Angelo which only bounced off the back of his head, "and willing to try to do some good with her powers, we should support her."

"Thank you, Teacher's Pet," Angelo said under his breath.

Paige increased the power on her glare, and it was Chase's turn to interrupt before blood was shed, trying to ignore his growing unease at the casual discussion of 'bad guys'. He reached for the first available topic that came to mind, looking speculatively at Shea. "So, all of you have, um, 'code names'?"

"Don't even think it," Shea growled instantly. "I like my name just fine."

"But--" Paige tried to start.

"No." Shea's tone said the question was closed; Chase hid a grin and shut up. Paige, no fool, did the same.

"So, where do we head first?" Ev asked, as they piled through big glass doors into a mall that could have swallowed half of the town of Copper Lake in its depths. It was a weekday, so there were surprisingly few people wandering around -- not more than, say, the population of their home town.

"Clothes," Jubilee, Shea and Paige said simultaneously. "That's what Mr. Cassidy sent us out for, after all," Paige continued primly. Jubilee rolled her eyes and mimed gagging behind the blonde's back.

"And if I have to stay in these jeans for five more minutes, they're going to become attached to my body," Shea finished.

"I can think of things I'd rather attach to your body," Chase commented automatically with a long look at her legs. Angelo's mouth was open as if to make an identical crack; he closed it with a sly grin.

Shea curled a lip at both of them. "Chase, get your mind above your waist, if you can."

"Where's the fun in that?" he grumbled half-heartedly, then held his hands up before Shea could go for his throat. "All right, all right, we'll go clothes shopping. Lay on, Macduff."

"He was a Scot," Shea informed him, "I'm Irish." She turned her back on him to ask Jubilee and Paige, "Where do we start?"

"Right this way," Jubilee grinned, taking off down the mall at something just short of a flat run. Paige tried yelling after her to slow down, then shrugged and chased her, with Shea close behind. Monet followed at a slower, more regal pace, and Chase traded looks with the other two guys.

Ev shrugged with a certain amount of resignation. "We're supposed to stick together in the city."

"While they *shop*?" Angelo complained. "Come on, ese, it'll be hours before they finish."

"I'm not leaving Shea wandering around alone," Chase said firmly.

"What are you, her keeper?"

Chase's eyes narrowed, and he took a threatening step towards Angelo. "We got each other from California to here alone; I'll be damned if anything's going to happen to her now. Comprende?"

Angelo stepped back fast, holding his hands up in a 'peace' sign. His face was hidden by the baseball cap and long black coat he wore as a 'disguise'. "Okay, man, whatever you say."

Ev had been watching the exchange with concerned eyes, but only said, "Then we'd better catch up with them; J moves around a mall faster than anyone except Boomer."

Chase glared at Angelo for a moment longer, then nodded and followed the girls down the wide corridor.

Chase's determination to stay with Shea lasted through more than an hour of female shopping. Monet had abandoned them much earlier to do her own thing, but Jubilee seemed determined to hit every clothing store in the mall, and she, Paige and Shea tried on at least half the contents of every store they went into. Chase bought some jeans, a pair of dockers, more T-shirts, sneakers, and, at Ev's quiet insistence, a set of dress clothes, and considered himself done in half an hour.

In the same amount of time, Shea had bought one pair of jeans, one pair of sneakers, and two shirts. He could live with the 45 minutes it had taken for Shea to find a pair of running shoes she liked -- that was an athletic thing -- but another half-hour to choose between a white T-shirt and a red one? Get real!

They'd had some fun playing around in FAO Schwartz and Brookstones -- the clerk hadn't kicked them out until the fourth game of air hockey at the miniature demo table -- but now the three guys lurked around the dressing rooms in The Gap, trying not to look like perverts. They could hear Jubilee and Shea loudly debating the merits of reverse fit versus classic fit, with Paige playing devil's advocate to both sides. The girls all appeared to be enjoying themselves, but the guys were collectively bored stiff.

"You know," Ev said quietly, "there's a Tower Records on the third floor, right next to the arcade. Mr. Cassidy said Ange and I could use one of those credit cards he gave you, if we kept it reasonable."

Chase looked from him to the dressing room, torn between protectiveness and the equally strong desire to escape. "How long do you think it'll take them to finish?"

Angelo groaned; it was answer enough. The debate in the dressing room mutated to black versus dark blue versus stonewashed and Chase made up his mind. "Shea!" he shouted through the door. "We're going to the CD store. Meet you guys at the arcade in two hours!"

Shea appeared at the door, dressed in black jeans and a green stretch shirt that did amazing things to her amber eyes. Chase tried not to notice. "It's going to take you two hours to go to a record store?" she asked.

"No, it's going to take you two hours to buy another pair of jeans," he shot back. "We don't feel like waiting around."

Shea stuck her tongue out at him. "Just because you're a slob..."

"I am *not* a slob!" Chase protested, "but I have better things to do than hang around a mall for five hours to find the 'perfect' jeans."

"Oh, yeah? Name three."

"Strangling you tops the list -- " Chase started forward.

Ev intervened, in his apparently habitual role as referee. "Since we have different priorities on this trip, we're going to the music store while you ladies shop," he told Shea calmly. "Jubilee knows where the arcade is, and we'll meet you there."

"Fine," Shea said shortly, stalking back into the dressing room. Chase snarled after her, then did his own stalk out the front door of the store, hearing Angelo's snickers behind him.

His temper carried him only a few feet from the store before his steps slowed. "Maybe I should--"

Ev and Angelo didn't give him time to finish; they grabbed his arms and hauled him along behind them. "The chicas will be fine, let's go!" Angelo said impatiently.

Chase looked back over his shoulder once, shook his head at his own crawling paranoia, and went.

Chapter 7

"You never realize until too late that everyone's passing for normal."
   --Will Shetterly, 'Never Never'

"Wow, we finally got rid of them," Jubilee grinned, returning from her reconnaissance at the front of the dressing room. "I thought Chase was gonna superglue himself to your arm, Shea."

Shea shrugged and tried not to blush, shaking off the odd sensation of being apart from Chase. "He thinks he's my father sometimes -- like he's responsible for me, just because he saved my butt and all."

Paige looked at her archly. "Father? That's not how he looks at you when he thinks no one's watching."

Shea's blush deepened, and she shoved Paige. "Lay off."

Paige rocked with the shove, laughing, her prim dignity temporarily forgotten. "Come on, get the stuff you decided on and let's go. "

"Right." Shea started to collect the piles of clothes currently strewn around the dressing room. "Did you make up your mind about the shirt?"

"It's the wrong color." Paige stroked the heavy material of the silk shirt one last time, then hung it back up neatly. "Too bad, I really like it otherwise."

Shea held a silent debate with herself, then offered, "I can fix that, if you want to go ahead and buy it."

"You can't redye silk."

"I wasn't going to dye it."

"Look, buy it or don't! Anything to get out of this dressing room!" Jubilee groaned, pelting out of the tiny area with her trenchcoat flapping behind her.

Shea gathered up the three pairs of jeans and the shirts she'd selected and followed, stacking her armload on the counter in front of a cash register. Paige's shirt landed on top of the stack. "I trust you," the other girl said casually, heading for the door. Shea bit back a silly rush of happiness.

After she paid for the clothes with the credit card that still burned her pride, she joined the other two back in the mall. "Where to now?"

"Ice cream!" Jubilee caroled. "I'm starving!"

"We just ate a few hours ago," Paige objected. "I wanted to go to the bookstore, then we need to find some more clothes for Shea."

"I'm with Jubilee," Shea broke the tie. "After that long in the dressing room, I'm shopped out for a while. And I'm hungry, too."

Paige looked at them both with extreme disgust. "I saw that breakfast you put away, Shea. How can the two of you eat so much and stay so skinny? It's so unfair!"

"Hey, I'm a runner!" Shea defended her appetite. "I work it off. Besides, like Mr. Cassidy said, I've got to get my strength back. It's Jubilee who doesn't have an excuse."

"She talks it off," Paige cracked. Jubilee, of course, retaliated instantly, and they bickered their way down the mall towards food court, with Shea as a highly-entertained spectator.

It took them ten more minutes of arguing and comparing notes to settle on flavors at the Marble Slab Creamery. Jubilee dithered between bubble gum and cookie dough before settling for a scoop of each, to the undisguised disgust of the other two. Shea went for two scoops of mint chocolate chip, while Paige got a double scoop of peanut butter.

"I can see how you have to diet, Paige," Shea commented dryly as the girl behind the counter gave them the over-flowing cones and Jubilee's Coke.

Paige stuck her nose in the air. "I just didn't want to make the two of you feel like pigs." Shea and Jubilee instantly targeted balled-up napkins at her face; she batted them away and they dissolved back into laughter.

Shea's sore lungs protested the exercise and she tried to stop laughing long enough to breathe, slouching against a wall as Paige, the only one with cash, paid. It was the first time in years she'd been this comfortable around anyone, she realized. Not even with Chase had she been able to relax so much -- seeing as how they had been on the run from the government and all.

But it wasn't only that she felt safe here, laughing in a mall without anyone even looking twice at them, like they were just normal teenagers. It was that these girls knew she was a mutant, and didn't care -- because they were mutants, too. They understood about having strange powers, and being different; they knew about being feared and hated for something that wasn't their fault, just like Shea.

That was something not even Chase, for all his fierce protectiveness, could ever really understand. But everyone at this school did.

She played with her ice cream, nibbling it absently as they looked for a table, until Jubilee noticed. "Whatcha doin', Shea? Thought you were, like, gonna roll over and die of hunger."

"That was you," Shea shot back automatically, taking an inch off the top of her cone with one huge lick. "I was just thinking -- Mr. Cassidy's really nice."

"He's the best," Paige agreed instantly, pulling out a chair and settling down at a mostly clean table.

Jubilee was cooler about it; Shea shuddered as the younger girl bit off a chunk of ice cream with her front teeth. "Irish is okay. He's better than Frosty, that's for sure."

"Do you call him Irish to his face?" Shea asked curiously.

"She calls him worse that to his face." Paige's voice was caught between censure and amusement. "Ms. Frost, too."

"And you get away with this?"

The younger girl shrugged, shoving a piece of short, dark hair out of her face. She'd managed to smear ice cream around her mouth already, and her cone was dripping on the table in front of her. "Me an' Sean, we used t' be teammates -- equals, ya know -- when I was with the X-Men, and the X-Men are kinda like family. It'd be too weird to start callin' him 'Mr. Cassidy'. "

"Now, that's a strange concept. The X-Men as family." Shea handed Jubilee a napkin. "It's still hard to think of them as real people instead of news stories."

"You take what you can get," Jubilee shrugged, as she took the hint and wiped her face. "Sure beats California Youth Protective Services."

"You were a foster kid? Maybe we should start a club."

"You were a foster child, too?" Paige asked, before she was distracted by an escaping trickle. The mall was just a little too warm, and the ice cream melted almost as fast as they could eat it. "What was it like -- I mean, if you don't mind me asking? I have seven brothers and sisters; I can't even imagine not having a family."

"My parents died when I was a kid, then my grandmother died." Shea handed another napkin over to Paige. "I think I've got some relatives in Ireland somewhere, but I don't know for sure. And being a foster kid's not too bad; the worst part is never really belonging anywhere. But some foster parents are pretty cool, so you can pretend."

"Have you talked to them yet, your foster parents?" Paige mopped herself up, then attacked the drips on the table with her free hand. "They must be really worried."

"Not likely," Shea snorted. "Mr. Reynolds -- and everyone else on the block -- just stepped back and let the government try to take me. Mom Reynolds was the only one who stood up to them." She turned her cone around in her hands, looking for the perfect place to lick. "I wanted to call her, but Mr. Cassidy said it would be too dangerous. He said he'd contact her some other way."

She sighed and crunched into her cone, changing the subject back to Jubilee. "So you really were one of the X-Men, huh? How'd that happen?"

Jubilee rolled her eyes, more interested in her ice cream than answering questions. "I followed a couple of the X-Men through a portal from SoCal to Australia, where they were hangin'. Then I rescued Wolvie from the Reavers after everyone else went through the Siege Perilous, an' we went and picked up Psylocke in Madripoor, where the Mandarin'd switched her body with this Japanese assassin, then we met up with the rest of the X-Men when we, like, invaded Genosha and wound up goin' with 'em when these Shi'ar dudes grabbed us and--"

"Whoa!" Shea almost shouted, breaking into Jubilee's gleefully confusing recitation. "You lost me way back at 'portal'! And what the hell *is* a Shi'ar?"

Jubilee opened her mouth to explain, then jumped when Paige kicked her in the ankle. "We'll explain all that later," Paige said firmly. "Jubilee's just trying to make you crazy."

"She's succeeding," Shea muttered, feeling her sense of security slip away, along with her grasp on reality. "You people are very weird."

Instead of being offended, Paige grinned wryly. "Born that way."

Shea stared at her, then returned the grin. "True enough. Hand me that shirt."

Paige switched her cone to her left hand and rummaged through the bag from The Gap with her right, running her fingers over the soft shirt one more time before giving to it to Shea. "What're you going to do?"

Watch." Shea laid the shirt over her hands, studying the fabric and the color. Then, hiding the shirt between the side of the booth and her body, she concentrated.

Under her hands, the pale green material began rippling -- at least, the color did, as bright yellow chased it from under Shea's fingers to spread in a wave of sunshine over the shirt. In less than a minute, she handed the newly-colored shirt back to a fascinated Paige. Jubilee tried not to look impressed, but her eyes were wide over the top of her ice cream.

"How did you do that?" Paige ran her fingers over the material, which was now the same color as her pale hair. "That was really neat!"

Shea shifted uncomfortably. "I, ah, transmogrified the dye they used on the thread."

"Molecules that small?" Paige blinked. "Pretty good."

"The big employer back ho-- um, in Copper Lake, is a garment factory. I worked there last summer, learned all about dyes and stuff. It comes in handy sometimes." Shea crunched the last part of her cone, stole a drink from Jubilee's Coke, and stood up to throw her wrapper away. "Guess I'm pretty strange, too, huh?"

"Guess so," Jubilee grumbled, hastily draining the rest of her soda before anyone else had a chance at it, and wiping her sticky fingers on her coat. "Where we goin' now?"

"More clothes," Paige started to say, before her voice disappeared in a huge, shattering, crashing sound.

Jubilee hit the floor instantly, ducking under the table. "Get down!" she yelled at the other two, who obeyed as delayed self-preservation kicked in.

"What the hell is that!" Shea shouted over the noise.

"Glass, sounds like," Paige shot back, listening intently. She was proven right as the first shards clattered to the ground beside them, raining down on the table top. If they hadn't ducked, they'd have been cut to ribbons, Shea realized. "The skylights or the doors?" Paige shouted over the noise.

"Who cares?" Jubilee grinned maniacally. "Either way, sounds like trouble. I say we go deal." As the rain of glass died away, she scrambled out from under the table, darting directly into whatever it was that had just invaded the mall.

Shea watched her go with something between awe, shock and exasperation, as screams and panicked shouts filled the air outside their hiding place. "Is she *always* like this?"

Paige wasn't really listening. "Pretty much. Come on, we've gotta catch up before she gets inta trouble."

She started to follow Jubilee out from under the table, carefully avoiding the glass; Shea made a grab for her ankle. "Are you out of your mind?"

"There's somethin' happenin' out there, and Jubilee just ran into it! Ah'm not hidin' under here!" Her accent thickened with anger or fear, Paige shook Shea's hand away and scuttled the rest of the way into the open. Shea closed her eyes and carefully weighed pros and cons. Then she heaved a sigh of disgust, fought down terror, and followed.

She emerged just in time to see the wide shadow fall over Paige and Jubilee, and, beneath it, the thing. *An alien?* she wondered crazily, taking in the plate armor that rolled and bulged in odd places over the body of the tall, bulky... whatever it was. The helmet was pointed and the back of his head looked like a Borg, streaming with hoses and unidentifiable parts; something that looked like a gun sprouted out of the bright purple plating, and loomed impressively. Bystanders ran in all directions, with no goal except to get *away* -- all except the three girls.

"Nanny's waiting; you have to come with me," the whatever announced in what was probably supposed to be lofty, commanding tones. The effect was ruined when his voice cracked on the last word, sending the pitch up an octave. Shea didn't laugh -- the whatever-it-was was looking right at her.

"Oh, no way!" Jubilee groaned, her hands planted firmly on her hips as she faced off against the whatever, her feet planted in what Shea vaguely recognized as a martial arts stance. Her trenchcoat flapped in the cold wind blowing down through the former skylights. "Orphan Maker, dude, get a life! Shea's not goin' anywhere, 'cept with us!"

"Yes, she is," the armored figure returned stubbornly, raising his weapon threateningly at Shea. "I'll take you, if you want to come or not."

Paige's face had settled into grim lines that sat oddly on her 16-year-old face. "No way. Generation X kicked your tail last time, we can do it again."

Orphan Maker apparently took that personally; his weapon came up all the way to point at Paige. "That wasn't my fault!" he boomed petulantly. "Nanny said I did fine. And I'll do better this time, when I take the girl to her."

"Back off, metalhead!" Jubilee yelled back as he took a step towards them. "Or you're gonna be seein' stars!" Without giving him time to respond, she lifted her hands and cut loose with a stream of firecrackers, right in the faceplate of his helmet. The noise of the tiny explosions staggered Shea; Orphan Maker reeled backwards under the impact, trying to protect his face with his armored forearm.

"No fair!" he shouted, swinging his arm down and forward. Jubilee ducked at the last second, but Paige wasn't quite as fast. The side of his fist caught her against the shoulder and sent her flying back against the table, knocking both it and her to the ground.

Shea ran to her side as Jubilee rebalanced and cut loose with another stream of colored lights and explosions. "You breathing, Paige?"

"It's Husk, now," Paige gasped, fingering her ribs gently, "And ah think so. But from what the others say, Maker's not gonna stop. Stand back."

Shea obediently scooted back, hovering too close to the edge of shock to disobey. With a deep breath, Paige demonstrated why she'd chosen her code name, as she dug her fingernails into her skin and ripped.

Shea stifled a scream as Paige's skin peeled away from her body in long, ragged strips, expecting to see blood and gore start fountaining, and suddenly, desperately afraid for her new friend's sanity and life. But there was no blood, no gore -- where Paige's skin had been shone a matte-gray surface of something that looked like metal, like the armor the Orphan Maker wore. Paige's face looked at her from behind a dark mask; the lips moved correctly as she said, "Stay under cover 'less you see a way t' hit him, and be careful."

Then, the apparition darted back out from behind the fallen table, its feet clanking harshly on the tile as Husk lunged at the Orphan Maker. Her hands, which had become knife-edged talons, darted out to scrape along his armor, gouging long, deep scratches in the surface.

Orphan Maker staggered and tried to retaliate, but she was too close for him to use his gun, and his blows glanced off her this time. "You're ruining my cool new armor! Get off me!" he yelled, picking her up bodily and throwing her across the food court to crash against a huge tile planter, narrowly avoiding the bystanders taking cover behind it. She tried to get up once, then fell back, sprawling motionless on the floor.

Orphan Maker advanced on the fallen girl and the cowering people (four teenagers obviously cutting class) behind her, until Jubilee shot another shower of fireworks into his visor. "Leave 'em alone!" she shouted shrilly.

He swung out at her, his movements still clumsy, and she ducked under the swing again, this time kicking out for his knees. She connected and he staggered again, but still refused to fall. Jubilee shoved off against his shin before he could stomp her and went across the tile in a beautiful home plate slide to land against the table by Shea.

"Shea, dude, is there anyone who *isn't* after you?" she panted.

Shea shrugged helplessly. "This one's new to me."

"Well, it's not a good scene," Jubilee stated the obvious. She was enjoying this way too much, judging from the gleeful light in her eyes. "His armor is as good as last time -- the Juggernaut would want this stuff!"

"You know this guy?"

"Yeah, took him and Nanny on a couple times before. Lucky he still can't fight worth anything, but we've gotta get him down before any of the norms get trashed."

"Great plan," Shea bit out. "Any idea how to do it?"

"Well, can you turn this table inta somethin' that'll blow up?"

"Sorry, I've never been formally introduced to dynamite or plastique. Next plan?"

"How 'bout makin somethin' sharp, to get through the stupid armor like Husk's claws did? Adamantium or something?" Jubilee crouched on the tile, only half her attention on her questions, the rest focused on the Orphan Maker, who had recovered enough to begin a stalk towards the two of them.

"Ada--what?" Shea thought fast and hard back to ninth-grade science, and the section on metallic elements, the one that came with samples. "Maybe. But it'll take a while, there's nothing small around. Distractions?"

"My middle name, dude." With the cocky words, Jubilee was back out from the table, explosions streaming from her hands. Orphan Maker stopped to face her once more -- his gun still extended from his arm.

"Jubilee!" someone shouted, then fiery red streams blasted point-blank at Jubilee's head.


Go to Part 2