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Problems and Bigger Ones

By JenX & JinxoLAL
"here's a fact you cannot rise above:
we'll have problems and then we'll have bigger ones
spiteful confrontations, trial separations,
it's just another present to get past
most likely you go your way
i'll go mine
you wanted to go alone though
i never said no"

-"Problems & Bigger Ones", Harvey Danger

Ring. Ring. Ring. /Pick up the phone. Please. Help./ One more ring and I'd get the machine ... and this was the sort of message that didn't go on the machine. Ri--

"Hello?"

Thank goodness. "Alison?"

"Hi!"

I tried my hardest not to project worry, even though I inevitably was. But that sort of thing didn't work over the phone ... at least, not to my knowledge. And I tried to calm down. "Hi, it's me."

"Yeah, what's up?" I looked down at the letter in my hand again, at the crinkled paper with the worn edges I must've read a thousand times. How had they found me? And for that matter, how had this bloody letter gotten into this world? This sort of thing just wasn't -- it wasn't possible. "Um, I got this letter ..."

"Yeah?"

" ... from this, um, school ..."

"College stuff? I get those all the time, from these schools I've never even heard of."

That wasn't exactly it. "That's not exactly it."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, I'm, um ... they're sending me away ..." I somehow couldn't get the words out. I never really could. " ... to this place in Massachusetts ..."

"Where? Why? That's so far away! Don't leave me!"

It wasn't the distance I was worried about, but the content of the letter. See ... "Um ... well ... I called you for two reasons, really ... well, first I figured it was just something you'd sent me, 'cause you'd probably do this sort of thing, like with Jimmy, Jack and Freddo ..." She must've seen Apollo 13 a million times; Alison was obsessed with the space program and once sent me a letter from "Jack" claiming that "Jimmy" was going to hijack the moon and it was a matter of national security. It had, of course, been carbon copied to Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. And it was very cute, because she'd gone to great lengths to make it look very official. But this was almost too official-looking.... " ... 'cause you read those stupid comic books ..."

"Jen?"

"This letter, it's from, um, it says I'm, ah, maybe you'd better, I mean --" I was spluttering and it was embarrassing. "I mean this stupid thing says I'm a Zeep and I'm off to Zeepland forever and ever. But they can't do that, right, 'cause Zeeps are just comic books and they don't take real people 'cause they don't really exist but I don't know maybe it isn't 'cause it's not the real Zeeps it's like some high school or something and I just wanna go home!"

Pause.

"You didn't write it, did you?" I asked. It had been my last hope -- maybe this was a trick? -- despite all the arrangements already made. But even Alison wouldn't go *that* far.

"No ..."

"I'm not a Zeep!" But ... maybe it explained the weird things going on lately. I mean, I've always been considered "psycho freak girl" and I didn't know why -- there's never been a decent explanation for it. If I was ... a Zeep ... then it would make a lot of sense. But I wasn't ... I couldn't be. Even so, I couldn't deny that I'd been ... feeling things ... that I didn't normally feel. And I was a "fanta-chondriac", at least, that's how I put it -- I always thought strange or unusual things were happening to me even when I knew they couldn't possibly be. But here this letter was, right in my hand, spelling things out in black and white.

"This isn't fair," Alison pouted into the phone.

"What!" I screeched.

"You get to be a Zeep and I don't. It figures!"

"But I don't want to go," I pointed out. "I want to stay here." Where, I reasoned, I may not like life but at least I knew what to expect.

"I wanna see this letter."

"Um, okay. Come on over ..." I suggested.

"Okay, be right there."

"Okay, bye."

"Bye."

I hung up the phone and tossed it on a pile of dirty clothes that had accumulated in the corner. And my parents had seen the letter and thought nothing of it. School had even recognized this "Massachusetts Academy" as legitimate, and I would be sent there as soon as possible. Surprisingly, there were no tuition fees demanded, no strings attached: just come and they'd explain everything to us. I didn't want to go.

Frustrated, I turned on my CD player. Thoom, "Every finger in the room is pointing at me," sang Tori Amos. Thoom, "Wanna spit in their faces, but," Thoom, "get afraid of what that could bring ..." And Thoom, thoom, thoom, until the intricate piano harmony kicked in, followed shortly by the drums ... "nothing I do is good enough for you..." I sighed and flopped down on my bed in the dark, staring at the ceiling. "Chains ... chains ... oh-oh-oh." It was nice in there. I could be alone, and just listen to Tori and her piano and I didn't have to worry about parents or school or freakish letters from comic book worlds. "Crucify" finished and "Girl" started ... more music I could sympathize with, somehow. "She's been everybody else's girl, maybe one day she'll be her own ..." Ugh. I was growing so tired of these games.

Downstairs, Alison had let herself in. I couldn't hear over the music, but I just knew somehow ... more of these frightening feelings. And that stupid letter that said I was a Zeep. Gross. And now that she was here, I'd have to get up, open my door, and let her know where I was. I did so. "I'm upstairs!" I yelled and went back into my room before she could bother me.

Moments later, she opened the door and saw me laying there on my bed, in the dark room with the music blaring from my stereo. "You are pathetic," she informed me.

"Thanks," I muttered sarcastically.

"You're welcome. What's this letter?"

I waved it like a flag of surrender from my prostrate position. She grabbed it from my hand and read it over.

"That is so cool," she said finally.

"You'd think so," I sighed unenthusiastically. "You're the one who reads those stupid comic books."

"They are not stupid."

"Speak for yourself." I sighed again and sat up. "I'm leaving next week, starting fourth quarter there. And don't give me that look," I added as I noticed her eyes widen in surprise. "I only found out myself the other day. I would've called you sooner but you weren't around."

"Uh-huh ..."

"I want to know how it got here. I mean, Zeeps aren't real ... unless there's something I don't know about?"

"And something I don't know about, either," she remarked.

Perhaps I ought to explain our terminology if it hasn't already crossed your mind. Years ago, Alison began reading comic books, specifically Spider-Man and X-Men. She often converts me to things -- she's the one who got me into Star Trek and seaQuest, among other things -- and I feared I might start actually enjoying her new love as well. So I immediately I made up nicknames: Spider-Man became "Soup" for some inexplicable reason (to this day I can't remember the origin of that) and X-Men became "Z-People" which was later shortened to "Zeeps" and soon "Zeep" came to mean "anyone with strange or fantastic powers"--so even someone in comic book land who wasn't on that particular team was also a Zeep. At least by my unusual standards. Back to your regularly scheduled moaning and complaining.

"Well, I don't want to go." I, like most people, have a knack for stating the painfully obvious.

"I do." So does she.

And, as people are wont to do, we carried this discussion in circles for close to half an hour, until which point one of us effectively changed the subject -- to my relief, might I add.

***

And so time passed, and I lived my life as sanely as I possibly could until that magic day I was picked up from my house by some guy I didn't recognize -- not that I really would recognize anyone unless they were terribly prominent; the only Zeeps I knew were those from the Saturday morning cartoon, and this guy was not apparently quite so special. Or perhaps he was a newer character. Light -- I couldn't believe I was thinking like this. This was impossible. Or a really bad dream. Yes, that was it ... it had to be a dream. And I would eventually wake up. Right? Right.

And at this point I was traveling in this car with this guy I didn't know -- but he said his name was Sam, how was I today? All in all he was rather polite and very nice, the sort of person I was sure this bloody school from Massachusetts sent to make my parents think everything was okay when in actuality I was being kidnapped and would be taken to a far away place ... but on second thought, perhaps that wasn't so bad. I could get away for once: away from parents and away from people at school calling me psycho and away from everything I wanted to get away from.

I almost felt sorry for him, that is, unless I was only picking up his emotions again and assuming they were mine. And that, dear friends, is why I was going to this school in the first place: because I was some sort of telepath or something!

Right. And Fox Mulder was going to come by and tell me it was all one big alien conspiracy.

Which wouldn't be too surprising, considering.

Thankfully, Sam had stopped singing along with the terribly annoying country music on the radio. Not that I really mind country or anything, but in moderation ... all things in moderation! I wondered, though, why he'd just stopped all of a sudden. But I didn't care; I took this opportunity to change the station to something a bit more ... tolerable. Luckily some station was playing Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery", so I left it there for the duration of the ride.

***

I had fallen asleep. And it was quite embarrassing. I hadn't intended to fall asleep. But the break was welcome.

"Jen? Jen, yer gonna hafta wake up now."

Did I mention Mr. Sam had a strong southern accent? I pretended his twang hadn't penetrated my thick, sleeping skull, and I was still lost in dreamland. That is, if I wasn't already lost in dreamland, which, by the way, I was still praying I was.

"Mmmgfff," I explained, which means, "I'm still asleep; go away."

My plan hadn't worked.

"C'mon, Ah know yer awake."

No. Not "Ah". If this kept up I would soon be speaking like him, and I didn't want that.

"Ah gotcha stuff already," Sam explained. "Are ya comin' out?"

I opened my eyes and simply Looked at him. He was peering in my window, my bags stacked in a neat pile behind him. "No," I answered bluntly. I then turned my head back to the dashboard, eyes open since I wasn't pulling off feigned sleep, blatantly ignoring him.

"Aw, c'mon," Sam urged, "it won't be that bad. They're all real nice here."

Somehow I doubted that.

"Not even for a little while?"

I glared at him, one eyebrow arched as though his elevator hadn't gone to the top floor and I knew it.

"Ah'll even come with ya," he promised.

No. Not "Ah" again.

"An' Ah'll introduce ya ta everyone if they don't do it themselves first. They really are very nice," he insisted.

Perhaps a few minutes wouldn't hurt. But I would be coming right back into this car and driving home myself if I had to. Or maybe to New York City. I always wanted to go there; I had friends there and if I had free rein of where to go, I'd certainly take advantage of it. I slowly unbuckled my seat belt and got out of the car.

I walked behind Sam, suddenly feeling shy rather than stubborn, though still quite unwilling to remain in this prison, as I was so sure it would be.

A few moments after he rang the doorbell, there was an apparent fight over who would be the one to answer as voices rose in argument. I gave Sam a wary glance as though to ask, "This is what you're dragging me into?" The only response was a na‹ve shrug, just as the door was finally opened by a platinum blonde dressed in ... white lingerie and boots? She smiled an only slightly devious smile as Sam dropped his eyes to the woman's feet. "Good, ah, Mornin', Miz Frost ..."

I couldn't help but snicker. He was quite amusing.

Catching my laughter, "Miz Frost" peered around Sam to find me hiding behind him. "I see," was all she said before her voice seemed to brighten a few degrees. Thus far, her name seemed quite fitting. "Welcome. I am Emma Frost, headmistress," she introduced herself crisply and turned on her heel. "Come in," she invited, far from being warm and very nearly domineering. As domineering, that is, as an invitation could possibly be. She expected us to follow her inside like so many ducklings.

I knew she was a telepath even before she set about probing me. It was bizarre -- a week ago I'd never expected this sort of thing to happen. Nobody else was supposed to do this, just me. Because nobody else could do this -- nobody else could get inside my head, only I could get in theirs. That was the way of things. And people most certainly were not supposed to glow the way Ms. Frost was. A pink halo had set itself up around her head as she tried to scan me.

~surprise~ Her emotion came flooding to me, though only physically expressed in the slight widening of her eyes and a diminishing of color in the magenta aura that surrounded her. "Please," I asked softly, "if there's anything you'd like to know, just ask."

Sam glanced at me sideways but said nothing.

"Come with me," she ordered, leading me into some room adjacent to the foyer. "Have a seat," she instructed. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked. I shook my head as I sat down. She picked up her own glass of something I probably wouldn't like, as she sat on the couch across from the chair I'd selected. I was fairly certain that the position she'd placed herself in was simply to make Sam feel uncomfortable.

"Now," she began, "tell us about yourself."

Us? I knew Sam already knew "about me", and Ms. Frost wasn't plural, at least, not to my knowledge, but I supposed that if I'd gotten this far, anything was possible. "My name is Jen," I offered. "So far as I know, I'm not here because of my exceptional grades or anything--it's because I'm telepathic or something, isn't it?"

Ms. Frost nodded ever so slightly.

"Well, ah ... I'm 17, and I'm in some honors classes. I was on the speech team but the season's over. My grades are decent, I take Spanish and art...." This was what she wanted to hear, wasn't it? She was so hard to read; all I'd gotten from her was that flash of surprise earlier. And that in itself -- that I was even thinking that she was hard to read -- was weird. Beyond weird, even, because these things, these emotions were coming to me and I wasn't making them up. And I was starting to accept it -- at least in my own head. There was no need to let anyone else know that I'd accepted it, though. Because I hadn't. Denial is a beautiful thing sometimes.

"That isn't what I mean, child," Ms. Frost said.

Child? This would be a long day.

"Tell me about yourself," she explained. "What do you do?"

Do? "Well ... um. I draw, paint ... well, not that I'm any good, just what I do in art class. I like clay when it decides to cooperate with me. I like music ... " Exactly how much I liked music was a fact I decided not to share; the piano was like a friend to me, a friend I could go to and let out all my energies when they were bottled up. My lyrics were my poetry, my truest emotions put into words. Music soothed me; when I needed to I turned on Tori or Sarah and just listened, tuning everything else out. I got the feeling, however, that this wasn't what Ms. Frost wanted to hear about. "As for everything else," I added, gaining a confidence I didn't know I could possess, now looking right at her, "I'm sure you already know."

She was about to say something but was interrupted by an exuberant female voice calling from the stairs above. "Hey! Frosty! Who's that?"

Three heads, mine included, turned towards the voice's source, who was munching on a crunchy something and wearing a bright yellow jacket, which was fanned out behind her as she ran down the stairs.

Now, the extent of my prior Zeep knowledge (aside from Alison's endless ramblings) being random viewings of the animated series on Saturday mornings (as I'm sure I have already mentioned) when I found myself bored completely out of my skull, I knew of only one person who would ever wear such a thing: Jubilee. I sincerely hoped she wasn't as annoying as her animated counterpart.

"This is Jennifer," Ms. Frost introduced me. "Jennifer, Jubilation Lee. You already know Sam."

"New kid!" Jubilee exclaimed. "I'll go get everyone!" She retreated from view, running back upstairs, though could still be heard. "Hey, Hayseed! Guess who's here!" Thankfully her voice diminished shortly afterwards.

Ms. Frost only shook her head disdainfully. "I apologize for the interruption," she said, rearranging herself on the couch. "Now, as you were saying?" "I wasn't," I answered, still uncomfortable. She was trying to invade my head again, the pink aura flaring again. Wordlessly, almost unconsciously, I put up walls. I hadn't had much practice -- like I've already mentioned, not that many people have tried to get inside my head. I knew they weren't very strong, but it was the best I could do right now and I most certainly did not want this woman -- who displayed herself like a piece of meat, might I add -- poking around in my skull.

Now that I thought about it, she looked familiar. Perhaps I had seen her on the cartoon ... trying to concentrate on holding the walls, I racked another section of my brain. If she'd been in an episode I'd seen, I could change it from a buried memory into a surface thought and subsequently scare her -- or at least try to scare her. It didn't seem like much could faze her.

Then I found it: an animated version of the white-corseted woman before me had been a player in the oft-repeated "Dark Phoenix Saga". I played that part I remembered over and over again and slowly took down my own walls, repeating the poorly animated sequence replete with cheesy dialogue at a level comparable to a song stuck in one's head.

~!!~

I smiled, thoroughly satisfied with myself. I'd scared her.

Almost immediately I was hit with the probe she'd been trying to conduct on me. And it hurt something awful, like someone pounding on every part of my psyche -- from the inside out. I wanted to shove her out, to get rid of her in any way I possibly could, but I couldn't. She was too strong.

What seemed like hours later -- but must have been only a minute at most -- she was gone, and I could open my eyes again. "Don't," I whispered angrily, "ever do that again."

~satisfaction~smug~ (*I don't foresee a need to,*) she cooed directly into my brain, some unspoken intent behind her words. (*Provided you've learned your lesson. You have nothing to worry about.*)

I was certain I did.

"I will be returning shortly," she told us. "Make yourselves comfortable. I imagine you'll be staying with us a while."

Not if I could help it. It was time to go, I decided. She retreated into a room I didn't notice previously, and as soon as she was gone, Sam lifted his eyes fully, letting out an almost indiscernible breath.

A split-second later, Jubilee reappeared, bounding energetically down the stairs. "Hey!" she greeted brightly, in startling contrast to Ms. Frost's icy tones. "So you're Jennifer, huh?"

"Jen," I corrected. "Jennifer's okay, sometimes Jennaea but that's online, never Jenny, but mostly Jen."

"Okay," she agreed, "Jen. Kewl. Frosty was tellin' us all about ya but now it's like nobody wants to talk to ya or nothin'. I don't know what's up with that. She said you were some sorta empath or somethin'? That you read emotions. I don't know how much of what she said's true, sometimes she likes ta try an' scare us -- doesn't work half the time, y'know, but doesn't really matter much t'me anymore. Don't worry about her -- ya get used t' it."

I wondered how she could possibly speak so much -- and so fast -- around the rather large wad of gum she chewed.

"So is she right?" ~excitement~curiosity~

Darkly outlined Asian eyes looked at me, fully expecting an answer that I wasn't prepared to give. Was who right about what? She was wearing too much eyeliner ... not that I was any expert on makeup, but it just seemed like too much.

"Uh ... yeah," I answered vaguely, trying my hardest to send a plea for help to Sam. I'd known him longer, if only by a few hours. I almost knew what to expect from him. At this point I was being thrust into dangerous territory, a situation I didn't know with people I didn't know and didn't really want to know. I listened as she babbled on, dragging me along on a tour, about the school and its facilities -- I knew she didn't really care too much, either.

I looked again to Sam for help, but he only shrugged at me. Some friend he was turning out to be. "Ah -- Ah'll be right back," he explained. "Go on with Jubilee. Ah got some stuff ta take care of." He was most decidedly uncomfortable even though Ms. Frost was quite out of sight. Perhaps she was still bothering him telepathically. I wouldn't have put it past her at that point. The hallway we now stood in as a result of Jubilee's tourguide-ism was far removed from the main foyer, but Sam left us decisively in the manner of one who knew his way around the building. I wondered if he stayed here or if he was simply a chauffeur for new students. And then I had to wonder if there were any other new people coming. I imagined so -- it just didn't seem likely that a school would recruit one incoming student for a new term.

I followed Jubilee to what she explained was the "Danger Grotto", or Biosphere. Her introduction of the self-sufficient unit was peppered with vocabulary from the late eighties: "rad" and "kewl" and "totally" and the like. I smiled to myself.

"Now ya get ta meet everyone! This is the fun part, trust me."

I laughed, employing a setup of friendship, but I wouldn't trust her with my life in a tight situation, former X-man or no. I sincerely hoped that wouldn't be necessary, though. Sincerely. I was nearly chasing Jubilee down the hall, that bright yellow jacket like a flag before me, when I heard music -- yes, music from somewhere. Somewhere nearby someone was playing a guitar.

"Jen?" Jubilee noticed I'd stopped dead in my tracks. "That's yer name, right? Y' all right? Yer not, like, totally --"

"Shh," I hushed her, interrupting by waving a hand ambiguously in the empty air beside me. "Do you hear that?" I whispered.

"Yah, that's just Jono ... "

Oh, yes, that certainly explained things. But a musician! There was a musician living within these walls! The very thought was enough. I followed to the source of the faint guitar music; as it grew louder I knew I was traveling in the right direction.

And now Jubilee was the one to follow me, even though I had no idea where I was going. I was attracted to the music like a shark is to blood in the water, and I couldn't let go. It was already too late.

"I don't think ya want ta do that," Jubilee warned.

I heard her, but I wasn't listening. Fascinated, entranced, I pushed open the door at the end of the long hallway and was faced with an even darker cavern of a room. The only illumination consisted faint pinpricks of light that seemed somehow muffled, like they weren't anywhere near their full intensity. These minute stars seem to shine from within the shadow-shrouded figure on a couch against the wall.

I'd found the musician ... but he had stopped playing the guitar he held. It was so dark in there.... What had Jubilee said his name was?

"Hey, uh ..." Jubilee ventured tentatively, snaking around me to come into the dark room. "Geeze, it's dark in here," she muttered.

The musician's shoulders rose and fell in an exaggerated shrug. *Whadder yer want?* I knew the words came from him, and they were complete phrases, individual words which had somehow become stuck inside my skull, not the sorts of vague emotions I was used to feeling from people.

"This is Jen," Jubilee introduced me. "She's new. Jen, this is Jonothon Starsmore. Chamber."

*Jono,* he corrected.

"Whatever."

He shook his head and picked up his guitar again, picking at strings aimlessly. Before long, random notes turned to chords as he started strumming some song or another. I listened, watched, as the music flowed, fascinated by the eerie tones he played, accented by the occasional brighter note. There was a curious question surrounding him, much like the indigo blue -- no, not light, it couldn't be classified as quite that. But something similar to light, and I wasn't sure where it came from -- it was probably just him, some darkly beautiful halo that was as much a part of him as anything else. Just beyond that, on the border of intangible color, shone an invisible radiance I knew marked him as a telepath -- again, I just knew, and it was a very odd feeling. I wasn't, though, as uncomfortable around him as I was around Ms. Frost, but the energy that radiated from him combined with his apparent interest in music to create odd forces of attraction before I even knew any more than his name. And yes -- I wanted to meet him. But if this -- thing -- had started, as I believed it was, there was no way I could possibly stay here. Already I choked on whatever words I was about to say, but as soon as I was able to give voice to my emotions I had already forgotten the terms I wanted to use.

He wasn't reading me, not inside my head, but somehow simply aware of my eyes on him, studying him. *Something wrong?*

I bit my lip, which wouldn't have done me any good in preventing unwanted thoughts from surfacing as spoken words since I'd completely forgotten how to speak, anyhow. "Um ... mm, no," I mused thoughtfully, half to myself and the sounds coming out of my mouth coming as a complete shock to me since at that point I'd thought I couldn't say a thing if my life depended on it. "I play the piano. Did you -- did you write that?"

*Yes, after a fashion.*

After a fashion? Something inside me trembled; my hands went suddenly and inexplicably cold, numb, and away. I feared the same might happen to my feet. What was triggering this? Light -- this was not good.

"It's -- it's haunting," I said, emotions spilling from me, overflowing out of my mind and I could not curb them even if I tried. I was -- tight inside and loose, warm and cold all at the same time. I feared I might have to sit down soon if this kept up.

But before he even had a chance to respond, someone or something grabbed my arm and dragged me out into the hallway. Once I could regain what little composure I may have had to begin with, if any at all, I glared sharply at Jubilee. She had been the one to remove me from a situation I may have actually enjoyed had I not been feeling like the world might swallow me whole at any given moment. "What did you do that for?" I hissed, still trembling, still almost afraid.

"He's already got a girlfriend," she explained.

A girlfriend? What! That wasn't my intent. It hadn't even seemed that way! And if it had, then it was no fault of mine. Still, her statement managed to sting: now I knew I wouldn't stay here. There was no way I could, not with this -- thing -- developing in the back of my brain and refusing to leave. "Look, it's like I said," I tried to explain, trying and perhaps failing to sound rational, "I write music, too." Had I even managed to say that much, or had she grabbed me away before I'd voiced that thought?

"Sure ya do," she laughed, grinning and assuming things she had absolutely no reason to assume. As I turned my head away from her, not wanting to deal with the thoughts I knew she was forming but couldn't read -- and didn't really want to read -- I caught an obnoxious flare of color. It was a bright shade of magenta, closer to red, actually, and I figured she was perhaps demonstrating the fireworks I knew she was capable of displaying. I blinked and turned to her again; it was still there, a some transparent wispy glow encircling Jubilee closely in three dimensions. She hadn't been glowing like that before. It grew only a fraction of a shade purpler as she grew uncharacteristically suspicious. Of me. "You okay?" she asked, her voice matching the aura that colored the air close to her.

"Um, I guess," I replied. "You're ... glowing ...."

~amusement~ as she grinned back at me, her aura coloring back to the bright magenta it was only moments before. "C'mon, let's go!" She grabbed my arm again and led me, rather violently, through hallways and up and down various staircases. She hadn't believed me, I realized with a moment of confusion. This was weird -- just plain out weird. She hadn't been glowing like that before -- why was she now? Maybe, I thought, maybe Ms. Frost could explain it to me -- maybe it was some sort of weird telepathic thing, but there was no way I was going to talk to her ... I couldn't stand her. Wasn't there some other adult here? If I had to live here, like this, with that white-corseted ... woman ... as my legal guardian I feared I would go quite mad within a matter of days.

I was taken to a section of the school where the girls' dorms were located. "I'm pretty sure Paige is in here," Jubilee explained. "If she's not in her room studying she's exercising somewhere." The yellow-jacketed girl rolled her eyes before knocking on the door in front of her. While she awaited an answer -- I wasn't particularly interested in meeting anyone else; my mind was still thoroughly muddled by a combination of my confusion and the growing attraction to the musician in the back of my head -- while she waited, I noticed she was shorter than I was. Not too much shorter, as I might've expected, but still shorter. And still glowing -- the light's presence was annoying enough, that I didn't know why it was there just made things worse.

The door was soon opened quickly in that slightly annoyed manner of someone who's incredibly busy and doesn't want to be bothered -- simply turn the doorknob to release the catch and let the person bothering you come in on their own. A terribly miffed figure retreated from the door as Jubilee forged the way into the girl's room. As the blonde girl sat down at her desk, she asked, "What do you want, Lee?" Each word was forcibly enunciated, clipped in an unnatural manner. Her eyes remained on the task before her, some paper or notes I wasn't particularly interested in, but she apparently was.

"Geez, bite my head off already, I just wanted t' introduce ya --"

The studious one spun in her chair, not getting up, examining me through black-rimmed glasses like some specimen in a lab. It felt ... humiliating. Again my voice was hard to find, but not for the same reasons as before and not nearly as far gone.

"I'm Jen," I said for what felt like the tenth time that day, "um, an empath. Out of courtesy (and uncertainty) I extended my right hand.

She took it, shaking firmly, and introduced herself. "Paige Guthrie. Husk."

Husk? What the heck did that mean? I dropped her hand.

"Nice to meet you," I added, even though it wasn't.

Her smile seemed as forced as her words. "Likewise," she stated and turned immediately back to her work. The palest of pale glows could be seen around her head and shoulders as she took her meticulous notes. Not her, too ... oh, not her, too. But I dismissed it; it wasn't that visible and could easily be written off as my own hyperactive imagination, which I hoped it was.

"Well," Jubilee continued as she walked out of the room, with me not far behind, "she's not usually so ... Scullyfied ... but I guess it happens, y'know?"

Had she just said "Scullyfied"? As in Dana Scully? If I hadn't misheard, that meant Jubilee watched X-Files ... and that, I noted, was a good thing. A very good thing.

"I guess you'll be able to take any of the other rooms here," she added as she gestured down the long hallway, "well, those that aren't taken, of course!" She laughed. Apparently she was under the impression that I was staying. Of course she'd been misinformed. "I'm not -- I mean, I can't --"

"Huh?"

"I'm not staying," I managed to spit out.

"Whaddaya mean? Of course you're staying! Sam already dropped off all your stuff! Why didja think he left us? He already knows this place, there'd be no need for him t' stay here, 'cept maybe to annoy Paige -- she's his sister -- but he's too nice for that, y'know? And she really isn't in the sorta mood I'd want to annoy anyone in!"

I couldn't believe a word I was hearing. Even the part about Sam being nice. He'd left me here? He'd left my luggage behind? I couldn't believe I'd fallen for it -- the exact same trick was used on Captain Bridger in the first episode of seaQuest! I should have known they'd try something on me. Sam's innocence had been greatly underestimated -- or perhaps that was an evil ploy as well, to get me out of the house and then back here. This couldn't be happening. I had to be dreaming. Yes -- of course I was still dreaming, because I wasn't here in the first place, standing here, talking to a girl out of a cartoon!

I said no more to her, as though not speaking to her might prove she didn't exist, and stalked off in some greatly annoyed huff to one of the empty rooms. The walls were stark and bare, the contents empty and as pristine white as Ms. Frost's entire ensemble. The bed was shoved off in a corner, wedged between square walls. I paid no mind to the room's other furnishings as I flopped angrily onto the bed. Its sheets were bleached and starched, rough with an excess of detergent like the sheets of a hotel bed, an uninspiringly plain beige comforter stretched across its horizontal plane. I tore the sheets from it in a stupid rage, threw the single starched pillow from the mattress and laid there, face down in the upset, shaking ball that I'd become. I hugged my knees close to my chest, rolled onto my side and wanted desperately to cry. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Tori Amos CD so I could blast "Precious Things" and scream along. I didn't want to be here; I didn't like it and it was impossible. It was bloody flaming impossible, and I had no ride back to reality!

I picked up the nonexistent covers, threw them over my head, and simply let the hot liquid run from my eyes down my face, soaking the nonexistent fitted sheet beneath me. I missed my flannel sheets from home; they were so warm. But now I created my own warmth, an angry, homesick warmth that filled my tiny space underneath the nonexistent sheets. And I thought, /Perhaps if I fall asleep here, I'll wake up at home, and I'll be fine 'cause everything'll be okay then ... /

***

I did fall asleep. And I'd dreamed I was in my grandmother's basement, where I found a positively ugly T-shirt transfer of a one-eyed one-horned flying people eater (it wasn't purple). Thinking it belonged to my grandmother, I ironed it onto a shirt for her, but when she came home, she told me it wasn't hers. Only moments after she disowned it, the guy from Counting Crows strolled in the back door, claiming the T-shirt as his own, and left. Truly odd. What seemed even stranger, though, was that from just outside, holding his brand new T-shirt bearing the image of a one-eyed one-horned flying people eater, the guy from Counting Crows called, "Come and eat, we got pizza!"

I was awakened shortly thereafter by the door of the room I'd apparently claimed swinging open and an ever-exuberant Miss Lee shouting at me to wake up; the pizza was getting cold. I was still so tired, but hunger won out over my reluctance to join the group. I followed Jubilee downstairs (she chattered all the way about seemingly everything and nothing all at once) to some sort of den, where a group of people were seated around a TV, which was showing a repeat episode of X-Files -- "Grotesque", to be exact. Nobody was really paying attention, and no wonder -- I'd seen that episode twice and still didn't understand it!

Of the group gathered, I recognized a few faces. Paige sat on the floor contentedly munching a slice of pizza, her mind quite obviously elsewhere. She hadn't struck me as the type to needlessly daydream but it certainly looked like she was, and it was probably about calculus. Ms. Frost was still in the white corset and boots, though nobody seemed to mind or call any attention to that fact. She'd opted, it seemed, not to eat the greasy, topping-loaded dinner that graced the coffee table and almost everyone else's plates -- and no wonder; I imagined her "outfit" (if it could be called that) stained easily. Jono was glaring at the television with a bored, disinterested look as though it wasn't what he wanted to watch at all, and he'd much rather be anywhere else at this point. I couldn't blame him. A copper-skinned girl I didn't know sat quite regally in a chair by herself, her posture perfect and every inch of her being screaming ~I am above this!~ She'd cut her pizza into bite-sized pieces and was daintily eating them with a fork. A red-haired man, also unfamiliar, took up the portion of the couch beside Ms. Frost.

"Um," I said quietly, afraid to talk to all these new souls, "hi."

The red-haired man's face lit up, smiling and amicable. Before he could say anything, though, two tall guys pushed through a door to the rear of the room, each carrying cans of Pepsi. My attention was immediately drawn to the first, whose build seemed a bit too lanky, and as he came into the light, I could see his skin was an unnatural shade of grey. What? /Comic book,/ I reminded myself. /These people don't exist. They can be whatever color of the rainbow they want to be./ The second guy, whose dark-skinned head was shaved bald, carried a tall glass of iced tea in addition to the Pepsis. /Probably for Frost,/ I thought.

The click of claws on tile followed them -- I sensed some creature following them into the room. Immediately I tensed. I couldn't stand dogs, and this one sounded big, which made it even worse.

Frost introduced me to the newcomers, graciously accepting her tea from the guy named Everett. The grey-skinned one was Angelo. There was still no sign of the dog. No, I corrected myself, taking a slice of plain pizza and settling in a chair by myself. There was no dog -- the presence I sensed was too intelligent to be canine. So what else had claws? A really big cat?

And was someone talking to me?

Not more small talk.

I glanced around the room. Dark. Blue light coming from -- Mulder, going crazy on TV. Strange, colored lights dancing around everyone. Where had those come from? "Jen?" Jubilee's voice. "Jen, I'd move if -- "

Flashes of black and red jumped between me and the pizza box on the table. The large shape settled itself back after taking the last slice from the box. And what under the Light was that? The creature was certainly built like a human, but was most decidedly red, with long, sharp spikes that grew from its head and fell in a single curve down its back. Its -- no, her, it was female -- her limbs were wrapped in black strips and fastened with myriad silver buckles that caught reflections of dim light. No, this was worse than a dog. I couldn't move or scream, paralyzed in my seat. Didn't anyone see that? I glanced helplessly about, but nobody gave any indication they'd even seen it -- her, I corrected.

She turned her head, crowned with its red spikes of hair and showed me her red face with large pupilless blue eyes. She saw me. She saw me.

I stood atop the chair, jumped from its arm, and bolted from the room. I couldn't stay in there. Not with -- that. Her. Whatever. I couldn't stay in there. I ran upstairs. Had to get back upstairs. I didn't care about the pizza I left to get cold. I wasn't hungry anymore. I went back into my room. Were those voices calling after me?

I didn't care. I didn't want to stay here. When could I go home?

I stayed in my room for what seemed like forever, not caring and not wanting to talk to anyone, just curled up under these awful covers in bed where it was nice and I could just be with myself. That was all I needed, anyway.

***

I stared at the ceiling from the bed. The sheets were itchy and thin around my face, the blanket didn't fit: it was too short. I was getting cold. I didn't ask to come here or anywhere, I didn't want to be a Zeep -- oh, must I use that term? Why candy-coat facts with colorful euphemisms? Thing was, I was here, and I was a mutant. No question. But then, so was everyone else here, even Ms. Frost and Mr. Cassidy, and they were the only adults I could find.

A soft knock sounded on the door. I sat up and turned on the generic lamp that stood on the night stand, casting a warm yellow glow about the room. I rubbed my eyes and took my glasses from near the lamp's base, putting them on before gently calling, "Come in."

The door creaked slowly open to reveal Paige standing there with an armful of old -- well, they looked old -- sheets and blankets. She smiled. It wasn't quite so forced as before ... was it? I thought perhaps she was on a mission from either of the adults, but there was a sincerity about her that wasn't there the first time I'd met her. "Hi," she said, "I thought ya -- you -- might be able to use these." She laughed gently and stepped further into the room.

"Uh ... thanks," I said, standing, and taking some of the blankets from her. "That was really nice."

"You're welcome." She shrugged. "I'm sorry about before, but I was studying."

"That's okay," I said. Hmm. I didn't really think it was okay, 'cause she really wasn't paying attention to me or anything, but it didn't matter. I unfolded one of the blankets -- some garishly colored orange, brown, green, and tan thing that I could have sworn must have come straight from 1972. It was thick, though, and its age gave it comfort, unlike the hotel-wannabe sheets of this former guest room. I decided that, despite its less-than-appealing color scheme, I liked that blanket. It was a happy blanket.

"How have things been going here?" she asked, unfolding another of the blankets. "So far, I mean," she added.

"Okay, I guess. I haven't been here long, but it looks like I'm stuck here." I laughed at something, I didn't know what, since whatever I'd said certainly hadn't been funny. "I do want to go home, though," I admitted. I thought about that a moment. I wanted to go home, but what was home? Angry parents yelling, homework every waking moment, responsibilities that were enforced upon me but without the freedom and individuality I so craved.

I tore the remainder of starched sheets from the bed and threw them into a heap on the floor. I'd pick those up later. I picked up the happy ugly blanket and wrapped myself in it, sitting on my feet in a corner of the bed, my knees drawn up in front of me.

She took that as a dismissal, which it wasn't intended to be, but by that point I was tired (despite my earlier nap) and I let her go. I turned over and put my glasses back on the night stand, and turned off the lamp. The comfortable sheets were welcome and, curled inside them, I soon fell asleep a happy person in spite of my homesickness.

***

"EWWW!"

The now-familiar voice of the aptly-named Jubilation Lee awoke me at -- I checked my watch -- promptly 9:42 AM. Thankfully, it was Saturday, and I didn't have to worry about any classes my first full day here, and I could spend the time continuing my acquaintance with the students. "GROSS!!" came the excited -- albeit slightly annoyed -- reprise. I turned over in bed, throwing the covers over my head in hopes of drowning out the noise. It didn't work. She continued shouting at the top of her lungs as she was wont to do about some disgusting mess left in the bathroom that she didn't want to clean up.

Unfortunately, the sunlight streaming in my window combined with the fact that I was already up, to force me completely awake. I sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. Happily, the shrieking had stopped, but I wanted to see for myself what she'd been so up-in-arms about. It couldn't be that bad; after all, she was prone to exaggeration.

Wasn't she?

I crawled down the hallway after putting on my glasses. The sunlight was so bright it hurt my eyebrows. Jubilee stood outside a door with a disgusted expression on her face. I assumed that was the bathroom. I started to push open the door, but she was ready to interrupt me. "You don't want to go in there," she informed me. I continued in. In the middle of the tiled floor was a pile of ... well, to tell the truth, I wasn't sure what it was. But it certainly was gross. "Yuck," I commented, "what is that?"

"It's Paige's," Jubilee answered. "And she's gonna hafta clean it up!"

"But what is it?"

She didn't answer, vowing to kill someone after she'd eaten breakfast, which, I assumed, was where she was going at that point.

"It's her skin," interrupted Monet, who simply appeared out of nowhere. She had a knack for that, I'd noticed.

I vaguely remembered, though, now that Monet had mentioned it, that Paige was what was called a "perpetual metamorph", which involved ripping off her skin and other such things ... so it would stand to reason that she'd create such interesting messes for those around her to deal with. I decided I wasn't going in there until it was cleaned up or until it was absolutely necessary. Whichever came first.

" ... and I am the epitome of perfection."

I raised a questioning eyebrow. I hadn't heard all of Monet's little speech, effectively tuning most of it out, but the snatch I'd heard had been enough to make me wary of her credibility. I knew she thought she was superior in every way, but I didn't think she'd actually tell us that.

I glanced at the pile of skin in the bathroom again, and shook my head. Ignoring Monet's continued testimonies of perfection (I'm sure she loved that), I went back into my room to get dressed.

After changing, I went downstairs to where I was pretty sure the kitchen was located. Fortunately, my guess was right. Jubilee kneeled on a chair at the table, a stainless steel mixing bowl before her. A perfectly normal-sized spoon had stopped on its journey to her mouth, carrying its cargo of chocolate frosted cereal bits. "There ya are!" she greeted. "Thought ya'd never show up!"

"Hi," I said unenthusiastically. "Where is everyone?" I asked, searching the fridge for something to eat.

Jubilee shrugged. "How'm I supposed t' know?" she asked innocently between mouthfuls of soggy cereal.

"Mm, good point," I muttered, pulling a bag of bagels from the freezer. "Where's the toaster?"

"Got me," she answered.

Great ... I settled for defrosting my bagel in the microwave oven and then put the bag back. Just as I closed the door, I noticed a document on official-looking paper -- its header was a school logo accompanied by Frost's name. I scanned the crisply handwritten note affixed to the fridge. It read,

"Sean --

I have official matters which must be
attended to at once. I will be away for the
next few days. Watch the children in my
absence and try your best to prevent the
school from burning down again.

-- Emma."

I explained its contents to Jubilee. She dropped her spoon into the bowl with a loud clink. "Whoa!" she exclaimed, rising to her feet and crossing the room. Tearing the note from my hand, she read it silently to herself. "Frosty's gone! Par - TAY!"

I rolled my eyes. "I don't think that's such a good idea," I spoke up, but my words fell on deaf ears. She was so ... well, jubilant (pardon the pun) at the news she forgot completely about the rest of her fermenting cereal (I didn't even want to know what would happen to the spoon that still drowned in the chocolate frosted milk) and ran off to tell her classmates.

The microwave had finished thawing my bagel ages ago, so I grabbed it and went off in search of a computer. It had been a long while since I'd checked my e-mail; the Purple Tower was probably getting worried about me. There was, however, no computer to be found. But that didn't mean it wasn't there. I made a mental note to ask someone later. And to find out about a piano.

Instead, I trudged up the stairs back to my room. After all, there was always snail mail. I wrote a letter to Alison which I had absolutely no intention of mailing, and another to Patty in the Purple Tower which I probably would eventually e-mail once I'd found that computer as I had forgotten her snail mail address. It explained my absence but I doubted it would be believed. I was, after all, now living in a comic book. Perhaps I was in the latest issue? Doubtful ... with my luck I'd be one of those cheesy fanfic characters from one of those awful "new student comes to Gen-X" stories that were so prevalent. Maybe if I was good, and not quite so cheesy, I'd wind up on the archive I'd heard so much about. If I ever got back home I promised myself I'd visit it.

I crumbled up my letter to Patty and tossed it into a nearby garbage can. So much for that bright idea. Alison would probably believe me, though. She'd already seen the letter that initially brought me here, and she knew I was gone, so she had proof. So I kept the letter to her and went back out to look for an envelope when I was distracted by voices coming from just beyond an open doorway.

"I hardly think that is a wise course of action, Jubilation."

"But --!"

"And you don't know when --" another voice was chipping in, but I had already been spotted, as conversation stopped dead and three heads turned to look at me.

"Um," I said, my mouth full of one last bite of bagel.

"Jen! You've got to help me!" Jubilee petitioned.

"Um," I repeated. I walked to the doorway and peered in. The girls were apparently holding some sort of conference over something or another. Monet had seated herself regally in one corner, head held high; Paige reclined on the bed, smiling a greeting at me; and Jubilee was on the floor, cross-legged, a giant bag of Skittles in her lap. Why hadn't I been invited? Maybe they were talking about me. Though, given Jubilee's earlier enthusiasm concerning Emma's note, it was probably over that. Unless the topic of conversation had switched to me.... Surreptitiously Jubilee sneaked one brilliant green candy between her lips and pretended she hadn't just done so.

"Skittles!" I exclaimed in disgust. "What wonderful eating habits. And so soon after breakfast, too."

Monet stared at me, first in slight shock but her features softening into an expression of approval and an unspoken thanks. Paige laughed.

"Skittles?" Jubilee asked innocently. "What Skittles?"

Glance. Glance. Ignore the Skittles. I understood and said nothing more on the Skittles. "So," I continued instead, "what's this meeting you're all having without me?"

Jubilee sneaked another Skittle.

"Nothing, really," Paige answered. The palest of yellow lights that surrounded her was dimmer now than when I'd noticed it the first time when we'd met before. I didn't know exactly what that meant, but it was different, and it wasn't a good kind of different, either. I studied her glimmer as though it might give me a better understanding.

Apparently my study creeped her out. "What?" she asked. "What's wrong?"

"That's ... that's what I wanted to ask you," I responded almost enigmatically.

"Uh, nothin' ... nothing. Just ... " The words were very nearly out but she covered them with the oh-so-general, "I'll tell you later, okay?"

I nodded, only half understanding, but soon feeling eyes hot on my back. I turned. "Sorry," I apologized softly.

"Hey, no problem," Jubilee answered, quite obviously chewing a particularly sticky clump of what could be no less than eleven Skittles at one time. "So whaddarwe gonna do with Frosty gone?" she inquired, a decidedly impish gleam in her eyes.

"We are to behave," Monet explained, "just as we always do." Silence filled the room as the four of us just sat there.

"Behaving is boring," Jubilee commented, shattering the silence. "And so are you." She grabbed her one-pound bag of Skittles and left the room.

"Um," I said. Paige turned over in the bed, stretching lethargically, to face the wall. I tried my hardest to will Monet out of the room -- I knew very well I wasn't Emma, and I was glad for that fact, but there was something up with Paige -- something <i>wrong</i> and it seemed she needed help. If it truly was nothing, the others could certainly come back. If it wasn't ... well, I'd think about that, then.

"I suppose I've earned the job of trying to talk some sense into Jubilation," Monet commented and rose to the task. Wow. It worked. Cool.

As soon as she was out of sight, I turned to Paige, who was still sprawled out on the bed but was staring at the ceiling now.

I felt a concerned smile creep across my face. "Hey," I said gently, "you wanna talk about it?" She said nothing for a long time as I only looked curiously at her, awaiting an answer -- any answer, anything. Waiting. And waiting. The silence was finally, eventually broken as she let out a long breath I hadn't realized she'd been holding. Her pale, ashen yellow aura wavered around her as she was caught in indecision. She didn't know me all that well -- why should she tell me her fears? I knew that if I were in her place, I wouldn't just open up like that. But I didn't know her place.... "Look, if you don't wanna talk about it, that's okay, too."

"Okay," she answered dejectedly and simply moped there staring at the ceiling.

I sighed inwardly. This wasn't what I wanted. But if she didn't want to talk about it ... I hoped later she wouldn't be so ... moody . "C'mon," I urged, "let's go see what everyone else is up to."

Another curious look from behind a blonde curtain. "Alright," she acquiesced and stood again, now trudging despondently behind me. I was simply going to let her uncharacteristically gloomy demeanor go, but she heaved a disconsolate sigh shortly after she exited the room.

"That's it," I snapped -- only half-angry -- and whirled around to speak to her face. Her head hung, staring at her feet. "What's wrong?"

She sighed again, raising her eyes. "I am not feeling well," she informed me defiantly. "Do you expect me to act like Lee or something?"

"Well," I offered hopefully, "no. But there's no need to act like -- like Jono, either."

Visibly, Paige tensed, locking her eyes on me as her aura flared a bright yellow identical in shade to Jubilee's trademark jacket. "Ah'm sick!" she insisted. "Can't Ah be sick without anyone blamin' it on mah -- on that -- ooh!" She stormed off, into a different room, and slammed the door behind her.

I hoped she was okay -- or eventually would be, since she quite obviously wasn't at that point. And it didn't seem like she wanted to talk to me, either. I'd wait, I decided, until she cooled off. Maybe she would have cheered up by then. I briefly considered undertaking my original mission: prevent the death of either M or Jubes by the other, but decided against it -- they'd been at each others' throats before, I was sure, so instead I went looking for that computer again. By the time I'd come across the regular PC (as opposed to the huge computers that graced the Academy), I spent a few good hours checking up on my e-mail, newsgroups, and other various things.

Lunch was on one's own.

I avoided almost everyone all day long, not wanting any sort of conflict with Paige and positively terrified of what might happen to my nervous system if Jono so much as showed up.

Such was my first full day at the Massachusetts Academy.

***

The second term of classes began that Monday, after I'd had only two days to get acclimated. As a mid-year transferee, there was quite a bit that still needed to be explained me. Apparently I'd learned history and physics all wrong. I used what fraction I knew from Alison's comics and the only slightly erratic animated series to just barely convince them that I wasn't crazy. I knew I was crazy, I had to have been, but I guess in the long run it didn't matter because we all were.

I spent my first week there alone. Not moping, just alone. I didn't really click with anyone, well, not the way that I might've expected to. Paige hated me for reasons I couldn't fathom. Monet was her arrogant self with an ego even worse than David Duchovny's. Jubilee was quite exuberant, as usual, but tried almost too hard to be my friend. I appreciated her efforts, though. Jono managed to frighten me, but not because he was missing half his face ... in fact, quite the contrary. I couldn't speak to him only because he was ... well, on my mind a lot. I tried not to think about him, but he just kept popping up inexplicably in my head. Speaking of entering one's head, thankfully that awful Emma woman was away on some business (as aforementioned) and I didn't have to deal with her one bit. I dreaded her return, but knew it would eventually come. The other guys, Angelo and Everett, I didn't know too well -- somehow they'd kept pretty much out of my sight. I wondered what I was doing to scare them off, but didn't really care.

***

"OK, listen up!"

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. It was Thursday morning, nearing the end of my first full week here, and "class" had started: a strategy lesson in the Danger Grotto. Mr. Cassidy paced before us, delivering a speech that could have been borrowed from TC McQueen.

"Ye'll be, as ye know, in the biosphere--this time as a team, not against one another." There was a modest hope in his emotions as he described what we were to do: discuss among ourselves how to successfully overcome the electronic "enemy" which had been planted among the foliage, then carry out the plan. And to leave no one out.

I almost longed for the rigors of Honors Geometry -- anything would be better than this freakish form of PE. But this, at least, had some point, even if a hidden one. Still, I'd been in PE for 11 years now -- I'd never participated in anything like this. And I never thought I would.

Mr. Cassidy was in the middle of his speech when the doorbell rang. He took a deep breath, trying not to get angry, counted to five, then returned his attention to the less-than-attentive students. "I'll be returning shortly," he promised. "Don't any of ye go killin' one another," he added with a sharp glance at Jubilee.

I sensed the arrivals at the door even before the group collectively decided to ignore Mr. Cassidy's request to stay put and went to see who it was. "Guys," I ventured, "shouldn't, um, shouldn't we stay here? I mean, Cassidy said --"

"He said not to kill each other," Jubilee pointed out. "He didn't say anything about staying here."

It was a valid point, I had to admit. I followed the others out.

(X)

I was bored. Incredibly, extremely, horribly, frighteningly, and I hoped to God not irrevocably, bored. B-O-R-E-D bored. Jennifer was gone, off in Massachusetts having fun with Generation X - which I would much rather be doing, might I add - while I was stuck at home, doing stupid AP US History terms for the stupid AP test that I was going to fail and get a -1 on anyway. Boring!!

I was on term 65 out of 80 when the doorbell rang. Thank God - I was the only one home, but decided to answer the door in the hopes that the person there would kidnap me and take me away from these stupid terms and maybe then I would get to do something interesting. What I got wasn't so far from that wish. No, not far at all. For I opened the door to see ... Emma Frost?! On my doorstep?!! Wearing that?!!!

"Oh ... uh, hi!" I said, finally grasping the implications of this rather interesting and unexpected turn of events. "Can I help you?" The White Queen seemed unfazed; she merely opened the screen door and walked in as I got out of the way to avoid being trampled like so much dirt.

"Good afternoon," she said coolly, eyeing the insides of my foyer and living room. The greeting was also said with an air of superiority that only she could effectively exert, she being Emma Frost and all. "Please get your things. You are to come with me. Your parents have already been notified. And please -- don't take forever." Oh my God -the White Queen was here and... was I going to get to go to Massachusetts?! Without finishing my History terms?!!

"Um ... just give me a few minutes. Have a seat or something...." I motioned to a nearby chair, which she sat in as elegantly as I think I'd ever seen anyone sit in a chair in my life. I raced up the stairs as fast as I could, running into my room and shoving stuff into any bags I could find. I grabbed anything and everything I thought I could possibly need, and then some. All this with the White Queen sitting in my living room! Wow!

After about 10 minutes of this frantic packing, I had just about everything in the room that I could fit into any bag I had. I ran back downstairs with all my stuff to find Emma in the exact same position, albeit looking just a bit bored and possibly a touch exasperated.

"Okay ... lemme get my jacket and I'll be good to go." I ran back into the utility room to grab the jacket, glancing around to make sure I had everything. "Sorry to keep you waiting so long." I apologized, coming back through the foyer once more.

"Are you ready now?" she asked.

"Yep!" I nodded, smiling.

"Then come along, child. Bring your things." I followed her out the door, feeling like one of those overloaded bellhops in Looney Tunes cartoons. I loaded all my bags into the immaculately spotless white sports car and, after some pushing, shoving, pulling, and even a bit of pleading, we were ready to go. And so the loooong trip to the Massachusetts Academy began.

(X)

Things were odd here. That much didn't need to be said. It was already quite obvious. The truly odd thing, though, is that I was all too familiar with the recruit Emma had brought back.

"Alison?" I exclaimed upon encountering her, Emma, and Mr. Cassidy in the foyer with the others after we'd all gone to see who was at the door. Mr. Cassidy turned around briefly, unaware that we'd followed him out, but not surprised that we had. He probably would have called us out anyway.

"Jen?" Alison asked, in slight disbelief even though I knew she knew I was here.

I couldn't respond. This was weirder than weird. This was beyond weird. This was plain out bizarre.

"You know each other," Emma stated. "Good. You can introduce each other." She left to discuss something or another with Mr. Cassidy, dragging him down a hallway I suspected led to her office.

"I just spent two days in a car with Emma!" we were informed.

Jubilee gasped.

I nodded. "Good for you."

"No," she reiterated. "You don't understand. It's EMMA!"

"Pobrecita," Angelo commented sarcastically.

"Um, this thing itches," I announced, referring to the "standard issue" red thing the Gen-X'ers wore for training sessions.

"Nobody understands me!" Alison wailed plaintively, dropping her bag on the floor. She went to go sit on the couch, burying her face in her hands and letting her thick curly hair spill all over the place.

"Now you sound like me," I said.

"I'm hungry," Jubilee announced.

"I find that unlikely, Jubilation, since you've just eaten breakfast."

"I'm still hungry."

"Um, everyone," I tried, "this is Alison...."

"How could you still be hungry, J?"

"Simple, Ev, I just am!"

"Alison, you know everyone already.... " At least, I assumed she did.

"I just spent TWO DAYS IN A CAR WITH EMMA!!"

"There's no need to complain about your impending starvation," Monet observed. "It is much simpler to refrain from --"

PFK! PFK! A rather nice fireworks display sparkled around Monet's head. She rolled her eyes.

*Children, please!* Emma's telepathic voice cut through the air like a knife as she emerged from the hallway, Mr. Cassidy not far behind. I still didn't like the feeling of her inside my head and I wanted very much to kick her out.

Jubilee froze, one hand about to grab Monet's collar, the other raised above her head, the air around it smoking. She gave a sheepish grin and put both hands quickly behind her back as though it might erase what we'd all just seen. Monet looked downright smug. This was all soon canceled by a telepathic command from Emma.

"Now," she continued, eyeing Alison and me all the while, "as you all have noticed, we have another new student with us. Please make an effort to get along -- not only with them, but with each other." Knowing glances were given to Monet and Jubilee, as well as Jono and Paige, who had effectively separated themselves to either side of the room. A quiet anger radiated just beneath Paige's surface -- was that why she was "sick"? I guessed such a situation -- if she was having a problem with him somehow -- would warrant her supposed "illness".

"We will be going shopping in a half an hour to pick up extra things for Alison and Jennifer," Emma continued. "Please be prepared to go, and leave your grudges elsewhere."

(X)

Since I didn't have an official "uniform" yet -- nor did I actually know what my power was, even -- Emma led me off to the girls' dorm to pick a room. She led me down the long, straight hall, passing up the occupied rooms at the beginning to show me the ones that were vacant yet. Although there were quite a few empty bedrooms lining the walls after the rooms in current use, I decided that I liked the one on the very end the best - the farthest from the stairs and on the right, separated from everyone else's rooms by at least three empty rooms on each side. Emma eyed me in a way that made me quite uncomfortable, like she didn't exactly approve of my choice, but said nothing. I then took several trips out to the car and back to tote my bags into my new abode -- there was no one else there to help, and Emma certainly wasn't going to start carrying bags - but I finally made it after four trips. The first thing I did was take out my CD player and, with the Foo Fighters blasting, I began the long task of unpacking that was certainly going to take much longer than half an hour.

I had only gotten three shirts unpacked when there was a soft knock at the door.

"Come on in!" I shouted, going over to turn the music down a notch. It was Paige, looking somewhat pained yet cheery at the same time.

"Hi. I'm Paige Guthrie -- I'm sorry we weren't formally introduced before," she gushed, coming in. Wow! The younger sister of ... Sam!!

"Hey. Alison."

She looked around, taking in the still bare room as though I had already made it my own. Well, I had, in a way. Just not a very observable one ... yet.

"Are you ... sure you want to be all the way down the hall? You're so isolated back here." she asked, a hint of something in her voice that I couldn't quite name. I suddenly wondered if she was thinking of Jono, in his isolated basement cavern. I smiled.

"Well, yeah. It's for a couple of reasons, really. I like being alone sometimes, and I also like loud music. And I also tend to hit the snooze button about twenty times a morning. I kind of like it back here, you know?"

She merely nodded, obviously not satisfied with my explanation. "Well, I just wanted to come and introduce myself," she said. "We're leaving in about ten minutes. I'll see you then." And then she left, closing the door behind her. I resumed unpacking, considering Paige as I stuffed clothes in drawers. (I never bother to fold them -- they just get unfolded anyway!) She seemed nice enough, although something seemed to be bothering her. I wasn't quite sure what it was, although my first instinct was that perhaps she and Jono weren't getting along so well these days. I didn't have much more time to consider it, though, because a loud knock interrupted my thoughts.

"Come on in!"

Jubilee waltzed into the room, followed by Jen.

"Hi! I'm Jubilee!" Jubes announced cheerily. Jennifer smiled wanly and waved a bit, sitting down on the still-made bed. It wouldn't stay that way much after today, and she knew it.

"Alison," I introduced myself. Jubilee nodded, plopping herself down on the bed as well. Jennifer and Jubilee? Now that was an interesting combination.

"We wanted to come get you," Jennifer said. "We're leaving in a couple of minutes."

"Oh, okay," I said, turning off the CD player and grabbing my sunglasses. Of course, it was raining outside, but you could always do with a cool pair of sunglasses.

"Hey! Those look just like Cyclops' sunglasses!" Jubilee suddenly squealed, pointing to the red lenses in my glasses. Well, of course they did - that was why I'd bought them in the first place! I shrugged as she launched into one of her "When I was with the X-Men --" before Jen cut her off with a look. I just smiled; this was all just way too cool.

I only had a couple of bucks, but I shoved what I had into my jeans pocket and grabbed my jacket. Jen and Jubes were off the bed by this point, standing by the door ready to go. I followed them out, noting how I would have to fix the bareness of that door when I got back.

After a couple of minutes of last-minute planning and making sure everyone had everything they needed, we all crammed into one of the school's Jeeps. How it was possible to fit this many people -- teenagers, nonetheless -- into one Jeep was beyond me, but somehow we managed. Jennifer was uncomfortably wedged in between Paige and Jono (I really felt for her, especially if they were having problems as I suspected) while I was sitting in the back "trunk space" with Angelo, probably illegally so. It was nice though, because we had a considerable amount of room, despite Angelo's extra feet of skin. On the way there, I got to know him a bit better, as well as was introduced to the remaining students, whom I already knew from my avid comic book reading. But I just pretended I didn't know them, and all was well. I didn't know if Emma knew I was pretending, but if she did she didn't appear to let on that she did. I just hoped she hadn't been poking around in my head -- it was my mind, and I decided that I would therefore retain supreme rule and dictation over who would enter it, thankyouverymuch. And that was that. No matter what Emma thought.

(X)

Alison went upstairs to unpack her bags as I wondered what I could possibly get at the mall when I didn't have any money. The problem was soon solved when a platinum card bearing the name "Emma Frost" fell into my lucky hands. I would have to be careful, though, to only buy what I needed. An angry Emma was not a happy prospect. We were all somehow packed into a cramped Jeep. I was wedged uncomfortably between Paige and Jono, who apparently still weren't speaking to one another. I'm still not sure how ten people managed to fit into one Jeep, but we did, though not without discomfort.

The second most annoying thing about the ride was the mixed colors that danced above everyone's head, mixing and mingling but generally staying put around one person. They were distracting, especially the rainbow of hues that surrounded Everett. Apparently this dizzying spectrum of fluctuating colors became visible to everyone when he engaged his synching power, but to me it never faded. It gave me a headache.

The most annoying thing, though, was the discomfort. Not only was I squished, but I was squished next to Jono, so close I could smell the leather of his trademark black jacket, and ... something else. I wasn't sure what, but it certainly smelled good. I wondered if psionic energy had its own scent.

Eek -- was I thinking about what I thought I was just thinking about? Not a good thing to think about when I knew full well he could read my mind if he wanted to. But he didn't want to -- I wasn't sure how I felt about that. At least he had ethics, unlike -- well, you know. He seemed perfectly content to stare at the rain falling on the streets outside the window. I wondered what was going through his head. What did he think about all the time?

I tried my hardest to think about something else -- anything else. But when someone tells you not to think about the grey elephant in the living room, it's all you can think about -- and Jono certainly was my grey elephant!

I was finding it hard to breathe, the air thick and soupy, which was most likely due to cramped quarters. Sure, I reasoned, and I could keep on lying to myself like that. Fortunately, we arrived at the mall, and were all allowed to collectively fall out of the packed Jeep. I viewed this with mixed feelings: I was certainly more comfortable, but ... well.

(X)

As we pulled up to this huge mega-mall, Emma began explaining -- rather loudly, as if to a group of kindergartners -- the rules for this outing, such as the time of return, which was, according to her, "non-negotiable." Yeah, right.

We pretty much tumbled out of the Jeep, and I noticed that Jennifer instantly looked a whole lot more comfortable. Well, who wouldn't be? Since it was raining, the students of the Massachusetts Academy soon turned into a raging stampede for the mall entrance, with Emma merely looking on in disgrace. As we entered, however, I walked warily in, aware of the turbo-shopper I knew Jubilee -- and even Monet or Paige -- could instantly transform into. I briefly wondered if Jennifer would be turned by their frightening ways as well.

"Hey!! Sale at the shoe store!!" Jubilee screamed, and my worst fears were realized as she, Paige, and Monet all broke for the store at what could only be second to a dead run. Jubilee stopped, however, as she noticed that only Jennifer had begun to follow, and that I hadn't joined in the mad dash for footwear. Shoes were not exactly what I wanted to look at, despite my chromosomal arrangement.

"Hey -- aren'tcha comin'?" she asked, obviously confused at my lack of enthusiasm over saving a couple of bucks on a pair of shoes.

"Well, not really," I admitted. "To be honest, shoe sales don't exactly enthrall me." I heard murmuring among the boys as I explained this to her. "Is there a bookstore anywhere? Or a music store?"

"Yeah -- quite a few. They've got really kewl stores here," came the official report from the world's leading mallrat. I noticed that her eyes kept sneaking back to the shoe store, though, and she was beginning to inch slowly towards the brightly colored banner announcing the "Big Savings" that awaited within.

"Well ... we're going that way," Everett piped up.

"Yeah, the chica can hang with us," Angelo added. Jubilee glanced at the shoe store, then back at me and the guys.

"You wanna go with them, then?" she asked.

"Are you sure you don't mind? I don't want to impose or anything?" I turned, asking the three boys. I felt out of place - I mean, I had just gotten here, and here were the guys offering to take me through the mall.

*The gel's welcome to join us.* Wow - even Jono was okay with that. Wow.

"Yeah - I'll go with them," I decided. "You go get some shoes."

"Kewl!" With that, she raced off so fast that I expected to see a trail of dust form behind her, like in the cartoons. Paige and Monet had disappeared within the store long ago, and Jennifer only hesitated a moment before finally being drawn into the shoe nexus as well, casting me a slightly ... accusing? look.

"Oh-kay," I said, turning back to the guys, who were once again murmuring amongst themselves. "Well, thanks for saving me from the shoe demons," I said gratefully.

"Sure," Angelo said. "They're completely loca whenever they see a sale involving any type of clothing. It's really frightening."

"Tell me about it." I glanced back at the shoe store. "Well, where to first?"

*The CD place is this way.* Jono pointed off to the right.

"Okay, let's go!" I started off, walking ahead while the guys hung back and continued conferring. What the heck was so interesting back there? It wasn't like I had cooties or anything... but then again, they were guys. I just continued walking on ahead, still grateful that they had offered to take me with them instead of leaving me to the sharks. I wondered if this was being too "tomboyish" -- Jennifer often accused me of being something like that, since I preferred "boyfic" to the normal "chick" things girls were supposed to like. Like romance movies and novels, and soap operas, and makeup, and shoes....

We finally arrived at the CD store, and I headed off towards the soundtrack section. I noticed Jono heading predictably towards the Pearl Jam display while Ange and Ev wandered around, looking at various CDs. I happily found Lost in Space and Deep Impact and, my soundtrack requirements met for the time being, headed for the "New Artist" rack hoping to find either Semisonic or Fuel. I found both at rather good prices, and since I had Emma's credit card (or at least, one of her many), I decided that just this once it'd be okay. Sure, Emma wouldn't mind....

I headed for the counter with my prizes just as Jono did the same, carrying the newest Pearl Jam CD. What a surprise. I was about to say something when I remembered that I wasn't exactly supposed to know about his fondness for the band. He eyed my selections as I paid for them, ever-so-chivalrously letting me go first.

*Interesting variety,* he noted. I shrugged and smiled.

"Yeah, well, I guess I just like a little of everything. Except rap. I hate rap." He nodded and then paid for his CDs; I followed him out of the store feeling like a really big dork. How could I have acted so ... stupid?! I was being so dumb.... I didn't know why, but something about him and the way he responded to me just made me feel like the idiot I often feel I act like. It just made me ... uncomfortable.

Maybe it wasn't even so much his attitude -- although that certainly was a big part of it -- as it was his presence: not only was it dark and brooding, but he was so much taller than I was! Not that that's an accomplishment -- I'm only 4'11" (tall enough to be an astronaut, though, so that's all that matters!) -- but being around really tall people, such as Jono, and even Ev and Ange, always makes me feel incredibly small and stupid. Like a 1st grader intimidated by the much older, much bigger, much smarter and obviously superior 6th graders. And since I was new here, that only augmented the feelings of inferiority growing within me until they threatened to overtake me and make me want to just sit down in a small corner and hide from the world.

But there was Ev, and Ange, and Jono was already walking towards them and running away now would just be ... stupid. Embarrassing. It just wasn't an option, so I tried as best I could to shove my fears and self-consciousness into the back of my brain -- it didn't work -- and walked over to join them as they milled about just outside the store.

"Where to now?" Ev asked.

"The bookstore?" I suggested.

"Sure. This-a-way." Angelo pointed in a direction, and we headed off once more. This time, however, Angelo walked up next to me while Everett and Jono hung back a bit. I wondered if he had been exiled, or merely charged with interrogating or observing me.

"What's so interesting back there?" I indicated Jono and Ev, wondering if Angelo would actually tell me. Probably not -- I had a gut feeling that it was me they were talking about for some reason, but it was worth a shot.

"Huh? Oh, it's nada," he assured me. "Nothing."

I shrugged, sure that he was lying. If it was enough to get boys to talk, it must be something.

Angelo was even taller than Jono was, and walking next to him was like walking next to someone on stilts. I'm sure it wasn't really that bad, but it sure seemed like it to me. We walked on in silence until we finally reached the store, and I immediately headed in for the comics section. Of course, I knew there were certain comics I wasn't going to find, but there was always DC....

I soon found the latest issues of Superman and Batman, as well as Robin (I already had the Flash and Impulse due to my subscriptions), and decided to head on over to look at books. Not that the comics weren't books, in a sense, but more at the ... novels. I found the sci-fi section with little trouble, and began searching for a copy of Starship Troopers, which I had been meaning to pick up. Ev glanced over and caught the title; he flashed me a thumbs-up, which made me smile and -- was I blushing?!!

Nah, couldn't be. That'd be so not like me.

I picked up a few other things: The Island of Dr. Moreau and the Han Solo Trilogy, getting amused looks from Angelo the whole time, who seemed to be hanging around me while trying not to make it seem like he was doing so. I paid for the books and exited the store to find Jono sitting on a nearby bench, leafing through what appeared to be a guitar magazine. Ev and Ange followed me out of the store after a moment, and as they approached my stomach growled embarrassingly loudly. I could just die -- especially with Jono right there! But he was used to not eating, right? I still felt bad, though, and was annoyed at my stomach for reminding him of the painfully obvious fact that he had neither a stomach to growl nor the ability with which to appease the missing organ.

"Sounds like you're hungry," Angelo observed.

"I'm hungry too," Ev mentioned; apparently they weren't quite as conscientious about Jono as I somehow felt I should be. At that moment, Ev spotted Jen headed our way, and Jono got up as I turned to meet up with her, hoping that she might join us for the food break we were obviously going to take.

(X)

I decided to join the girls at the shoe store. I wasn't particularly interested in footwear, but Emma had insisted I only buy the necessities. Clothing was among that, right? Besides, I'd get yelled at if I blew her money on CDs ... and who knew what would happen if I went with the guys? Strange things were bound to happen in the presence of ... psionic elephants. I coughed. Quite honestly, I was tired. And bored. As aforementioned, I didn't really care about shoes. I wanted to buy other stuff. I flopped down in a chair, kicked off my sneakers, and waited, bored.

With a heavy sigh, Paige seemingly fell into the chair beside mine, a pair of brown leather sandals in hand. While she displayed a certain exuberance towards the sale, her heart just wasn't in it as she methodically untied first one shoe, then the other. I wanted to help -- she was much more sad than angry and being in such close proximity to her made her emotions rub off on me. Probably, I noted, a side effect of empathy.

I watched, concerned, as she tried on the sandals she'd brought with her and then a similar pair. "Were you going to get anything?" she asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

I shrugged. "I dunno." The truth was, I had seen some boots which could be considered cool, but I didn't have anything that went with them. And besides that, my sneakers were quite comfortable.... I stood up, though, and pretended to look for a pair of shoes, if only to be away from her lingering mood. Jubilee was already at the register, a stack of shoeboxes piled atop the counter, a crazy -- almost maniacal -- grin plastered across her face. Monet sat in a chair in her socks, staring off into space.

A flare of bright yellow, seen from the corner of my eye, grabbed my attention. I snatched the nearest pair of shoes off the display and returned to my seat beside Paige. As I had suspected, it had been that funny color she seemed to emit, and it was growing in intensity, shading to orange, actually, with every second.

"What?" I asked innocently -- instinctively.

She threw one glance at the pair of shoes I'd carried back -- which I now realized were actually black army-style boots. I'd grabbed them out of haste -- how dumb and unfortunate!

"Um," I said. "We should probably go," I suggested.

"I'm staying here," she informed me. "You can go on if you like."

There was no need for that, I decided, bright as the prospect seemed. Again I was caught in the middle, stuck somewhere between the three of them and completely on my own. Weren't they all supposed to get along? This was comic books -- people were supposed to get along, join together to fight a common evil. Right?

Right?

Jubilee paid for her shoes with Monet's borrowed credit card. The latter didn't notice as she was still zoning out. What, I wondered, was up with that? The glow I'd become used to seeing around people consisted of two separate colors: a velvety purple shade and a deep forest green. How, I wondered, could anyone possess two distinct auras? That wasn't possible. The zoning bothered me, too -- she wasn't just spacing out, she was ... completely oblivious to everything going on around her. Somehow, she was eventually brought out of this, ah, zone, to join us as we made our way out of the shoe store and into the crowds of the mall.

I still felt like I didn't belong. And I didn't -- I was new and different, still strange -- though now despite my abilities rather than because of them, as had been the case at school back home. Now it was who I was rather than what I was. I wasn't sure which hurt more. That was funny, I thought. "Back home" -- yes, I'd been feeling strange in my days before coming here, but was that as a result of, um, activation of certain latent powers? Or was that simply me thinking I was feeling strange? And if I did go back home, would I still be an empath? Would I still be seeing these bizarre colors, people glowing? I didn't know.

My sense of smell was soon assaulted as we passed a Bath & Body Works. My olfactory nerves were further deadened upon entering the store. A particularly chipper sales clerk in a red and white checkered apron asked us to hold out our hands, and before I knew what hit me, there arrived in my palm a generous dollop of some new product they were trying to market. It was a pale purple shaded sort of thick lotion that smelled strongly of something that tried desperately to be floral. As I rubbed the goop between my palms, I felt tiny grains rolling about in the stuff.

"Um," I said, confused. Lotion wasn't supposed to be so coarse ... was it?

"That's our new exfoliating lotion," the clerk explained.

Exfoliating?

"Pardon?" Monet queried.

At this point Jubilee was sniffing her hands. "Lilac!" she exclaimed.

"In our classic freesia scent," the clerk continued. "May I help you find anything else?"

"No thanks," Paige said rather tersely. "We're fine."

Well, fine, then, she could be that way. She might not be in a good mood but there was no need to bother other people about it. Even if those people were in need of some sort of mood adjustment.

The clerk left to share her magical exfoliating lotion with the new customers.

"But I needed --" Jubilee began protesting. Whining, actually, but was silenced with a Look from Monet.

"I've got a minor problem," Paige said.

I felt my eyebrows instinctively knit together, confused as well as concerned. Then it dawned on me: exfoliating ... which removed the outer layer of dead skin cells. It was all I could do to keep from laughing -- there was no reason for me to find it so humorous, but I did and I bit my lip.

After first looking to see if anyone else was watching, she slowly brought her hands out from behind her back. The skin on her palms was ripped open, not appearing to really hurt, but still worrying her. And it was disgusting.

"Um," I said. "We should go ... ah ... " I couldn't think. My head hurt. I tried not to laugh. I tried not to be too grossed out. And could exfoliating lotion really do such a thing? I thought she'd had more control than that. Oh, well ... I guess not. Maybe it caught her off guard.

"To the ladies' room," Paige finished.

Monet nodded and turned towards Jubilee, but the effervescent firecracker wasn't there. A flash of bright yellow jacket accompanied by a magenta aura indicated her presence in the back of the store; she was "testing" various types of lotions and refresher sprays and practically everything else one could imagine. "You go," Monet insisted.

Curious -- she was actually offering to stay with Jubilee? And her aura glimmered with green, which had overtaken the purple that had fought with it earlier.

Anyhow, I was virtually dragged from the store as I followed Paige to the ladies' room. "Are you okay?" I asked gently as we stood on the escalator.

She blinked. "I'm alright, I guess ... I didn't think anything of it ... "

Of the lotion, I knew she meant. Didn't she? I nodded, though her hands weren't what I was referring to. We got off the escalator and pushed through the crowd, on our way to the restrooms. Surprisingly, there was no line, and the restroom itself was relatively empty.

I turned on a faucet (Paige's hands were still dripping lotion) and she thrust her hands under the running water, giving me a very small, yet somehow thankful smile. Under the water she peeled the remainder from her fingertips and let the pieces of skin wash down the drain.

"Are you okay?" I asked again, this time meaning nothing even close to the little incident that had just occurred.

Startled, she blinked at me again, searching for words and finding none. "I'm going to ... I'll only be a moment," she said before disappearing into a stall.

That wasn't what I'd meant.

"I mean," I told the closed door, "I know you don't know me all that well, and if I -- I mean, I just want to help is all."

"You're a telepath, figure it out," came the response.

Where had she gotten that impression? This wasn't turning out good at all. "No," I reminded, "empath. It works different."

"The end result is the same, though, right?"

"Not really, no."

She didn't answer; the sound of something ripping could be heard. Almost like paper, actually, or -- no, not paper, more ... flexible. Sort of like the glue thing that was all the rage when I was in elementary school, when I'd spread a layer of Elmer's over my palm and then slowly peel it off. The imprint of one's hand could be seen in the dried glue and it looked rather like ... well, shed skin.

"It -- " I continued, trying to define exactly what it was I did. "I -- I pick up on emotions and stuff, people glow ... I don't really know how it works but I do know I'm no telepath. And even if I were," I added, "I'd much rather ask outright than go poking around in your head without permission ... and, I don't know ... I just want to help."

A long silence followed. Almost too long.

"Paige?" I called. "You in there? You okay?"

"Ah -- I'll be right out." She was worried, more so than she'd like to have me believe. I didn't let on that I knew. I wondered if that was just as bad as an unwilling telepathic invasion of privacy.

"You sure?" I asked cautiously, fearing I might step on something that would set her off again. The girl was like a minefield....

"Yeah -- you go on ahead," she suggested. "I'll be right behind you."

"If you say so.... " It had gotten to the point where perhaps I shouldn't butt in. After all, her personal life wasn't my business. But it still didn't prevent me from worrying about her. I went on headed back out into the mall, into the sea of people and their dimly glowing auras. Thankfully, only Zeeps glowed so brightly -- I could easily find Alison and the guys just outside a CD store, bags in hand. Taking a deep breath, I walked over. It wouldn't be so bad, not with Alison there. She understood me ... most of the time. She knew where I was coming from and if I went psycho here it wouldn't matter, it wouldn't matter, she would think nothing different of me because she was used to me, but, well, I didn't know about ... about other people.

"Jen!" Alison called, spotting me. "Hey!"

"Hi," I answered softly. Jono was right there oh my gosh he was standing right there what was I supposed to do/say/think/feel? Oh my gosh and I could feel my blood pressure steadily increasing and I thought I might die --

"We were just gonna get some lunch," Everett explained.

Lunch? I couldn't eat not now not here not with him and besides I'd feel so guilty eating in front of him but --

"You want to come with?" Everett continued. Come with when Jono was going to be right here no there was no way I could eat anything but oh my gosh he probably -- He probably wouldn't be coming with, I realized all of a sudden as my thoughts slowed down, and began to form coherent phrases instead of that wild chaos that was my mind at that point. Right. It all made sense: there was no way Jono would be coming to lunch, because Jono didn't eat. And that way, everything would be okay.

"Sure," I agreed, and joined them all to the food court.

Them all? He was coming with? No no no this was worse than I thought what was he doing here he didn't eat!

"So," Alison asked of me, "what do you want?" Everett and Angelo had already gone off to get in their respective lines for food.

I didn't want anything. Not now. But I scanned the food court anyway, or at least pretended to. Truth was, there was no way I could eat. "Um," I answered. I seemed to be saying that a lot lately.

"Okay," Alison said. "I'll go see if they have any of that," as she trotted off to get a veggieburger, leaving me behind with Jono, who quite obviously wouldn't be getting lunch. Some friend she was, leaving me to my own devices in a situation such as this! Such as this! She ought to have known better ... shouldn't she?

"Um," I heard myself say -- couldn't I have possibly said anything more intelligent? Trying very hard to ignore my current predicament, I plunged past Jono into the crowd to secure a table. Finding one open as well as clean -- usually a miracle -- didn't seem to be a problem. I turned a chair from the table and began people-watching, my favorite sport. Anything to get away from --

*Do I scare you that much, gel?*

I wanted to deny that beautiful British voice rolling around in my head, to deny that it even existed, because as it was, it was only fostering my insanity. I turned around very slowly, trying not to fall out of the chair as I did so because that would simply be too embarrassing. Somehow, Jono had managed to silently take the seat across from mine and was now awaiting an answer.

"Uh -- er -- no," I managed to say, feeling something jump inside me -- my heart, perhaps, threatening to leave if I didn't acknowledge it soon.

*That's surprising.* A hint of sarcasm? Was that what I sensed? No -- no, he was sincere. He truly thought I found him frightening. That wasn't it -- not quite it.

I bit my lip. "I didn't see you," I lied, the words pouring from my lips without any control on my part.

He didn't believe me, just sort of nodded, no discernible emotion in his eyes. That subdued ring of indigo blue light surrounded his dark shape as he tried to decide what to make of me. *I'm not that 'ard ter miss,* he finally pointed out.

"Well ... " I admitted, "no." If only he knew -- if only!

The subject was dismissed as Alison, Angelo, and Everett showed up with their trays of food. "You sure you don't want anything?" Alison asked before she said so much as "Hi, I'm back".

I nodded. "I'm not hungry." I was starving.

"They have Chinese," she tempted.

Mmm, orange chicken ... eggrolls ... fried rice ... Fruitopia! "No thanks, maybe later."

"If you say so," Alison said and took a large bite out of her veggieburger, chewing thoughtfully. She eyed her sandwich with a funny look, then gave me the same expression.

"What?" I asked. She was starting to bug me.

"You want this?" she offered.

"No! I'm not hungry!" I insisted. "Besides," I added calmly as the people at nearby tables were beginning to stare, "I don't care for soyburgers."

Alison grumbled and shoved her styrofoam plate towards the center of the table.

"I don't want it. You eat. Grow." I shoved the plate back towards her.

"Well, I don't want it." Shove.

"I'm not hungry!" Shove.

"Neither am I!" Shove.

Jono looked longingly at the plate. Why did everything always come back to him?

I wanted to crawl under the table. "Um," I said yet again and stood up. I said nothing as I effectively removed myself from the situation and made a beeline for the Chinese food, if only to get away from the pure oddity of it all.

When I returned, my paper plate piled high with orange chicken and fried rice, the guys had already left, leaving Alison at the table to await my return.

"What happened?" I asked, thankful that I could eat my food in peace without feeling guilty and without the threat of melting into the floor.

She shrugged. "Well, Jono just got up and left. Then Ange and Ev followed after him."

I twisted the cap off my Fruitopia bottle and took a drink, letting the sweet red liquid flow into my throat. "And you're here because ...?"

"I'm such a good friend," she finished.

I nodded and set my tray on the table and shovelled forkfuls of fried rice into my face. "So what's goin' on?" I asked between bites, trying to make some sort of makeshift conversation.

"I thought you weren't hungry," she commented.

"Are you kidding?"

"But you said ... " she was about to point out before realizing that the point was quite inarguable.

"I know," I answered anyway, "but that was, ah, the elephant." I coughed before she could get another word in to even ask what I meant by "the elephant".

We were then interrupted by a telepathic command from Emma. She was nowhere to be seen -- how had she managed to do this? Long-range ... *All students please report to the west entrance. We will be leaving in ten minutes.*

And then she was gone. She'd given us a time to meet back earlier, and now that it was nearing that time, she was issuing warnings. Lovely. "Did you hear that?" I asked.

She nodded. "Yeah -- I wish she'd just stay out of my head!"

I agreed wholeheartedly. I finished up my chicken and dumped my garbage but carried my half-filled bottle of Fruitopia with me.

"Fruitopia doesn't go with Chinese," Alison told me.

"Of course it does," I insisted. "Fruitopia always goes with Chinese!" I was ignored for the remainder of the walk to the west entrance. Fortunately the doors were labeled; since moving so far east my usually well-honed sense of direction was all messed up.

It was just another unusual thing about me, I guessed -- if one were to spin me around and ask me which direction I was facing, I could do it. I could because I homed in on east, though, like there was some magnet somewhere I could focus on. I knew it didn't have anything to do with being a mutant, and it couldn't be, because my friend Katja had the same thing, only she homed in on south. I guess we're just weird, you know? Either that or aliens ... and Mulder and Scully hadn't come for us yet.

(X)

Once we got back from the mall, we all wandered back into the main building, most of the students just kind of depositing themselves on the couch. I trudged slowly up to my room to decorate my way-too-bare walls and put the rest of my things away, all with the help of Semisonic blasting out of my boom box. I was tired, but I wanted to get everything done tonight - besides, I knew that my ever-present insomnia would keep me from going to bed for at least another two hours.

By the time I was done, the place looked a whole lot better. My new Apollo 13 poster was on one wall and my Tombstone poster was currently taking up another. Various comic strips, astronaut and space pictures, and other cool stuff decorated what remained of my walls and the back of the door, and I smiled as I taped my sign up on the front :

Al's Room -

Trespassers will be
spammed
paintballed
tarred and feathered
Hansonized
decapitated!!

The dry-erase board was proudly armed with the upcoming episodes of Quantum Leap and Highlander for the week, along with an empty spot for The Sentinel, which I didn't yet know the title for. I had a carefully modified version of "the wall" (on which I put pictures of all the cool people I like) which displayed pictures of Jack Dawson, Jim and Blair, Duncan MacLeod and Methos, Krycek and Shep, Seargent Riggs, and Harry Stamper. There was already no longer a floor, long since buried underneath bags, books, and tapes, and the bookshelves in the closet were overflowing with just the things I'd packed from home. I set my autographed stuff on the desk by the lamp, and decided that this was most definitely a job well-done. I flopped down onto ceiling-staring central (the bed), and was listening to the ending chords of "Closing Time" when Jubilee ran in my door, carrying something under her bright yellow jacket. What it was, I couldn't tell, but whether that was because I was lying upside-down -- or not, I wasn't sure. In any case, I rolled over to look at her right-side up, wondering whatever in the world was so important that she had to barge right on in here without even knocking.

"What --" I began, but before I could get anything else out she slammed the door and shushed me with a finger to her lips. What was going on?

"You gotta hide me!" she squealed. "Quick! Oh -- the closet!" She leapt for the closet, slamming the door shut behind her as there was a rather loud and impatient knock at my door. I got up to answer it, still wondering what was going on and whether or not I should divulge the walking sparkler factory's location, should the subject come up with whomever I was about to talk to. I opened the door to see a vary miffed-looking Paige; she glanced around my room as I opened the door a bit further.

"Hi. Have ya seen Jubilee?" she asked, exasperation and impatience evident in her voice. I suddenly wondered about that "bundle" Jubes had been harboring underneath her jacket.

"No." I shook my head. I heard the closet giggle, but Paige obviously didn't over the noise of the music that was still playing. "Why?"

Paige sighed, the exasperation becoming more evident than before. "She stole mah ice cream! Mah Reese's Peanut-Butter Cups ice cream! Arrgh!!" The accent was on, full-force, although I had to admit that the stolen food sounded pretty good. I wondered if -- if Jubilee had taken the ice cream -- she might consider giving me some. "At least, it had tuh be her!" Paige continued. "Who else wouldah stolen mah ice cream? Jonothon?! When Ah find her ... Jubilee!!" she yelled out into the empty hall. "When Ah find ya, ya're dead meat, ya hear me?!!" With that, she turned on her heel and was gone, fuming off down the hall to continue her now-futile search for the culprit. I suppressed a giggle as I closed the door and addressed the closet.

"It's safe now. She's gone." The closet door slid open slowly, revealing Jubilee holding a carton of -- was that? -- Reese's Peanut-Butter Cups ice cream.

"Thanks!!" she said, sighing with relief as she emerged from the closet. Thank GodI hadn't put my X-Men and Gen-X comic books in there! I was glad to have decided to hide them in an old box under my bed until such time as I found a more suitable place to hide them. "Want some?" she asked, offering me the already open carton.

"Sure!" I said, grabbing the spoon she offered. We dug in, and somehow managed to finish the entire carton in 10 minutes between the two of us. Man, that stuff was good. I could understand why Paige would want the stuff back, but now I wondered about the validity of that thought. We sat there on the floor giggling, and I could tell that I was going to have a lot of fun here. Of course, right now there was the question of what to do with the evidence....

"Hey -- I've got an idea!" I said. I continued in response to Jubes' interested look, and her eyes lit up as I revealed my plan before we rushed off to put it into action.

***

Well, considering it wasn't yet midnight, Jubilee and I had finally wandered into the den, hoping to watch VH1 only to find that it had been commandeered by Paige, who was watching some nature documentary. We decided to stay anyway, and made comments on this and that, basically driving Paige nuts. Angelo came down and decided to join our MST-ification of the documentary, and we were in the process of driving Paige to the brink of insanity and back when a psionic voice rang through the room.

*Wot's this?!*

Jubes and I glanced at each other as Jono came into the room, holding what appeared to be an empty ice cream carton and a spoon. Paige looked up to see what was the matter, and was suddenly transformed into ... well, it wasn't pretty. I got the notion that one could possibly fry an egg on the top of her head right about now.... "Jonothon Evan Starsmore?! How could you do that?! How ... could you...?" The look on her face went from one of fuming anger to extreme puzzlement as she contemplated the sight before her.

*But Sunshine ... I didn't....* he protested, even as she realized the impossibility of what she had originally thought to be the case.

"He couldn't have," she finally just stated simply. Then she turned to us, a look of pure murder in her eyes. "You two ... Ooh!!!!!!"

We took off at a dead run, only praying that it would be enough of a head start.

***

I couldn't sleep. It just didn't come this early. Well, it was early -- early in the morning, that was. It was 2 AM, and I could not sleep. I sighed and climbed out of bed, hoping that I might be able to find something to do. It felt so odd here; like I didn't fit in just yet. Sure, I fit in with Jen and all, but I wasn't sure about everyone else. I knew it would take time, but it just felt so weird because it seemed like I had know all these people for so long, yet I hadn't. All that comic book reading, all that fanfic, all that drawing -- I felt like I knew them so intimately, yet my knowledge didn't even scratch the surface of who they truly were. And now I was here, one of them. It was just so sudden, and I didn't feel like I was ... good enough. Like I deserved to have something so incredibly cool happen to me.

I turned on the light and grabbed a book off my nightstand: Catch-22. I opened it and settled down on the floor in a cross-legged position, my back supported by the bedframe. I looked at the page, but I wasn't reading the words. I was thinking.

Well, I knew Jen, so being around her was no big deal. And this whole Jono thing -- I'd dealt with her and her "crushes" before, but never in the same place as the object of said crush. That would be weird to deal with, I decided. And Jono himself -- I didn't know what to think about him. I'd always liked him - always connected with him somehow when I read the comics. Now, though, I hadn't really gotten to talk to him but I already felt like he just brushed me off. Like I didn't matter, which was actually how I felt most of the time. Insignificant. Annoying. Small. Alone.

Angelo was cool, and so was Everett. They liked to have fun, and so did I. I was sure that they wouldn't have a problem playing hockey with me, or teaching me how to actually get a basketball in the basket, if I approached them right. I mean, Angelo was cool and laid-back, and so was Ev. I figured I would get to be pretty good friends with them. And Jubilee -- if tonight was any indication, she and I would get along just fine.

Paige and Monet, however, were entirely different matters alltogether. Actually, I felt around Monet a lot like I did around Jono: small, stupid, and inferior. But that was okay with Monet -- she just exerted that air. I didn't know what it was with Jono, and that was driving me nuts. Oh well, I'd get over that. Paige was pretty cool - I didn't know if she really liked me all that much, but she was willing to study with me and that was cool. I didn't think we'd ever be incredibly close, but it's always nice to be friends.

But back to Catch-22, I reminded myself. I still wasn't done with it, although the book report on it had been due at the end of last quarter. Just chalk it up as yet another book report done on a half-finished book -- that was the way I did things. Got a 98 on that thing, too. Not half-bad. But I found that I liked the book -- I found it strangely intriguing, and it drew me in so that I actaully wanted to finish it. Back to the words on the page....

***

The next morning, the alarm went off way too early for my liking. I slammed my fist down, hoping to smash it into oblivion and make the awful noise go away. But I only got ... air? I opened my eyes and looked for the alarm clock, which seemed to have moved of its own accord during the night. Well, there it was, right there on the nightstand, only it was ... two feet down?! Was I --?

"Oof!" I bounced on the mattress, opening my eyes and slamming my fist onto the stupid alarm clock. Wow -- what a weird dream. I got a vague feeling, along with a flash of *Clark Kent*, but figured it was just the residual traces of sleep floating around in my still-fuzzy mind. I shrugged and dragged myself unhappily out of bed and slowly made my way down to the bathroom. I yawned and tried not to run into any open doors as I finally made it to my desired destination, only to have to go back to get fresh clothes. Grumbling, I tried the trip again.

I had reached the doorway a second time when a surprised male voice rang throughout the hall.

"Madre de -- who did this?!!" Angelo yelled. I smiled as I heard another voice follow the first.

"Hey Ange, what's the -- augh! Hey -- what?!" Followed by another:

*Wot in the -- bloody --!* I turned as three sopping wet boys climbed up the stairs into the hall, dripping all over the carpet and looking, all in all, quite amusing.

*Wot's the meaning of this?!* Jono demanded of me as I laughed uncontrollably at them. I'd never imagined that it would be this funny....

Monet, Jen, Jubes, and Paige all emerged from various rooms to see what the fuss was all about. Jubilee immediately dissolved into giggles; Paige and Jen did the same after a moment while Monet seemed to snicker a little. And was that a smile?

"Come on, chicas! Which one of you did this?!" Angelo demanded. No one answered.

"Boys! What is the meaning of this?!" Uh-oh; here was Emma, climbing up the now-squishy carpeting of the stairs to see what was going on.

*Some bloody ... bloody ... dumped water on all o'us!* Jono managed to get out. He looked especially amusing, what with his bandages all wet and soppy, as well as his hair hanging down in his face in a wet clump. I wondered if Jennifer found this so amusing, considering....

"Get off my carpet!" Emma was yelling at them. "Now!" The three boys reluctantly trudged back down the stairs, making squishing noises every step of the way. Emma then turned to all of us, giving us one of the coldest looks I think I've ever received.

"And once I find out who did this ..." The threat was left unfinished as she stamped angrily back down the stairs, to leave all of us laughing in the hall.

"That was ... so great!!" Jubes gasped to me, holding out a hand. I high-fived her, laughing along with her.

"Yeah!" I agreed.

"You dumped water on them?!" Jen asked -- or stated, I really couldn't tell.

"That was so ..." Jubes dissolved into more gales of laughter. Jen just sighed and turned on her heel, striding back into her room and closing the door. Apparently she didn't quite appreciate my having dumped water all over Jono. Well, too bad. I thought it was funny, although I also had a sinking feeling, like I was going to get caught and that he'd hate me for life or look down on me or something. I suddenly hoped he never figured out it was me....

"Did you see the look ... on their faces?!" Jubes squealed.

"It was the best!" I gasped.

"You are incorrigible," Monet stated before disappearing into her room. Paige was gone as well, and I managed to stumble into the bathroom to take my shower.

***

Almost an hour later I entered the kitchen to be greeted with accusing looks from Ev and Ange, who were sitting at the kitchen table and warily shoveling Cocoa Puffs into their mouths.

"Hi." I greeted them; they just grunted in response and gave me looks that I thought they might need licenses to wear. Hmm... could it be that they were just the slightest bit miffed? Nah... I did notice, however, that Ange's hair looked kinda fuzzy, which amused me. I began searching for the bagels, deciding that they were the very confection that I so craved this very morning. I searched all the cabinets in vain until I finally found a half-empty, sloppily-sealed bag of chocolate chip bagels in the back of the freezer. Who in the world kept bagels in the freezer? Obviously, someone here did. I began, thus, searching for the toaster. Of course, upon careful examination, I found that I could most definitely not find the toaster.

"Um, do you guys have a toaster?" I finally ventured to ask.

"We did." Angelo got out between spoonfulls. "Don't know where it went."

"Great. How am I supposed to toast a bagel without a toaster?" I threw my hands up in exasperation.

"I'm sure Lee could help you with that, chica." Angelo noted grumpily. I just stuck my tongue out at him. He smiled, which made me smile, 'cause it meant that he wasn't mad at me anymore. If he ever knew that I was the one who had helped Jubes set up the buckets in the first place, that is.

As I continued my ongoing search for the toaster, Jen happened to enter the kitchen. We exchanged "Morning"s before she headed for the juice. As she did so, I suddenly realized something.

"Hey, Jen - you 'find' stuff, right?" She looked at me a moment before nodding hesitantly.

"Uh... yeah." she finally confirmed. As she did so, her eyebrows arched, heading for her hairline. "Why?"

"Can you find me the toaster?"

"The toaster?"

"Yeah." I held up the frozen bagels to emphasize my point. "The toaster. You know, it toasts bagels..." She just gave me a look. "Come on!" I pleaded. "All I want is a toaster so I can toast a bagel! Pleeeaase?"

"Fine." she said, rolling her eyes and muttering something about Jubilee and the effect she had on certain people named Alison. Ange and Ev stopped shoveling chocolate cereal puffs into their mouths and watched as Jen closed her eyes. She appeared to concentrate for a minute before opening her eyes again.

"You know, I can't concentrate with all of you staring at me!"

"Sorry." We mumbled collectively as Ev and Ange went back to their cereal-shoveling. Although, I still had a feeling this worked kind of like Jennifer's "gray elephant" principle. I smiled to myself, thinking about that very principle and how it had gotten soaked this morning...

I think Jen got the drift and she glared at me, but then, being the wonderful person that she is, she once again closed her eyes and (once again) commenced trying to find me the toaster. After a very long minute, she opened her eyes.

"Didja find it?" I asked. She said nothing, only went over and opened a very high cabinet over the fridge, pulling down a beaten-up, generic-looking and dingy silver toaster. "Thanks!" I smiled, taking the toaster and happily plugging it in, envisioning crisp bagels and cool cream cheese spread perfectly over them in a manner I could never accomplish if I tried for thirty years. Well, one could always envision... As I was about to insert the jaggedly- and unevenly-sliced bagel, however, there was a bright flash of light, followed by a

BOOM!!!!

I opened my eyes to see Jennifer staring at me funny; Ange and Ev had stopped eating, spoons frozen halfway up to their mouths, My head hurt, and so did my hands - upon careful inspection I realized that they'd been burned. Rather badly, I might add - and they hurt.

"Ow. That hurt." I noted appropriately.

"Whoa, chica!"

"Did the toaster do something wrong?" Jennifer finally queried.

"I didn't do it!" I protested.

"Of course you did! Look at your hands." Angelo pointed out. I did so, failing to see his logic.

"But... I didn't! Did I? I would know if I had... right?"

Jen shrugged, a generic "I don't know" look on her face. Suddenly Jubes came running in, followed by Paige and Sean.

"Saints preserve us! What happened in here?" Sean wanted to know.

"Um... I don't know?" I offered.

"She blew up the toaster." Jen accused. Well, thanks, oh best friend mine...

"Kewl!"

"I didn't do it! And if, by some odd, insane, cosmic and uncanny chance I did, I didn't mean to!" I insisted. Sean just looked at the charred counter where the toaster had been, and then glanced down at my hands.

"Well, no matter what, you'll be needing ta get those bandaged, lass."

"Okay." Well, at least we could agree on that. Because my hands hurt, and my head was really beginning to pound. I followed Sean out of the kitchen, trying to ignore all the talking I could already hear drifting out into the hallway. Jennifer started to follow, but then hung back as if she'd changed her mind.

"Now lass, considerin' where ye are... what ye are... ye may have to accept the fact that you were responsible for... whatever happened." Sean was saying. I nodded absentmindedly. That would be weird - if I had actually blown up the toaster. Well, it would have been cool, too... but weird. It was like mutant powers were always something I'd dreamed of, and I knew that since I was here I must have them, but actually manifesting them... it was beyond anything I could ever imagine. It was... just different. And cool. And strange. And almost frightening, because now this was real life, and... anything could happen, and I wouldn't necessarily be okay. Oh, stop it! I was thinking like Jono or something. Argh... this was cool, no two thoughts about it!

We arrived at the med lab, and he took out some rubbing alcohol and began cleaning off the burns on my hands. Not a pleasant experience. It hurt, but I figured it was babyish and stupid to complain so I didn't. I guess I'm not really one to complain about stuff like that. After he had done that, he took out some gauze and began wrapping up my hands. It was as he was doing this that he finally spoke again.

"Now, what exactly happened?"

"I just wanted to toast a bagel," I explained, "and as I plugged in the toaster there was just this flash and an explosion, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the floor with this pounding headache and burned hands." He nodded, looking pensive as he reached over and took out a bottle.

"Do ye still have a headache?" he asked. After I nodded he took a pill out of the bottle and handed it to me. "Here, then. This'll help." I was handed a glass of water that he got from a nearby sink and gratefully swallowed the medicine, hoping that it was fast-acting. As I was finishing the water, Emma walked in looking... well, once again, does she ever look anything other than "Emma"?

"I have been informed as to this morning's events." she told me. "I do in fact believe this was a manifestation of your powers, and would therefore like you to stay here for testing." I shrugged and nodded, seeing no reason to protest. Sean left, presumably to teach classes or something given the time of day, and the "testing" began. It took nearly all morning, and was incredibly dull and annoying. At first it was just a lot of poking and prodding and medical mumbo-jumbo, a lot of which I remembered hearing on ER and things like that. After all that, though, Emma jumped in with the weird psychic stuff that I wasn't quite as used to, and that was when it got interesting. Most of the pure "psychic" testing I didn't pass, which wasn't much of a surprise to me at all. Jennifer had tried to test me in a lot of that stuff before, and I had always failed miserably. It just gave me a headache, which seemed to encompass all of my head and encircle it with a ring of throbbing pain that would not go away. Of course, complaining to Emma Frost wasn't going to help, but that didn't make my head stop hurting, either. And on it went, boring me - and probably Emma as well - to death. But finally, something worked. Well, actaully it was the failure of something to work the worked, but whatever.

"All right," Emma said for what had to be the gazillionth time this morning. I stole a glance at my watch and saw that almost two hours of this had passed. Would it ever end? "Now I'd like you to move that pen. Ah - without touching it, of course." she reminded me as I was about to reach for it.

"That sounds like an Arena/Gobble project." I complained. Emma's eyebrows Rose in question, but she voiced nothing and just pointed to the pen. Well, fine. If she wanted to watch it just sit there and me make a fool out of myself, the she could go right ahead. I mean, how was I supposed to do this? How did one go about moving things with one's mind? Think like George Malley?

I closed my eyes, trying to get the pen to move, trying to focus some semblece of concentration on doing what there was no way I could do anyway. I could feel Emma watching me, making me uncomfortable, and this was obviously not working. I opened my eyes and shrugged.

"I'm sorry, I guess -"

BOOM!!

And the pen was... well, it was no longer on the table. Emma looked at the charred table and then back at me.

"I...?" I asked.

"I believe that is obvious." Emma answered. /Duh! Way to go, Alison, sound stupid!/ "Now we only have to find out exactly what it is you managed to do."

"Blew the pen up?" I suggested. Emma only sighed - apparently, she didn't appreciate my wonderful knack for stating the obvious.

"Yes; wait a moment, please." She turned to a computer and began typing things up. This was going to be a really looonnng morning...

"All right," she finally said, turning back to me, "I believe the computer has an explanation for exactly what happened." I sat up, wondering myself what exactly I had done. I mean, it's not every day I blow things up just by trying to move them with my mind!

"The computer traced your energy output during the test; during the time you were attempting to move the pen, there was a massive buildup of telekinetic energy iniside the pen. When you stopped trying, however, the energy stopped building up and reached a critical point, thus causing it to explode."

I nodded. It seemed to make enough sense, so who was I to argue? It actually sounded kind of like what Gambit did, only not. Whatever.

"But what about the toaster, then? I wasn't trying to move that." I wondered.

"I don't know about that." Emma admitted. "The most likely explanation is that you unconsciously projected the energy into the toaster, possibly by thought alone, and ended up causing it to explode." I nodded, but this time a bit uneasily.

"Then I could blow up anything without meaning to."

"Yes, you could. That is why you will begin working on controlling this power immediately." Emma advised. I agreed with that, for sure. I didn't want to go about blowing everything up, especially if I wasn't meaning to.

"However," Emma continued, "it is almost time for classes to begin, and now is not the time to practice this; just be as careful as you can. You may get something to eat now, but make sure you're on time for class."

I got up then, leaving and heading upstairs to the long-deserted kitchen for something to eat. Preferably non-toastable.

(X)

Friday afternoon. English class, taught by Emma, and it wasn't nearly as fun as English class back home! Call me what you will, but being in a class geared specifically towards right-brained learners was interesting at the very least, and indescribable at best. We watched a lot of movies and drew a lot of posters -- we didn't just read novels and study adjectevial clauses -- we actually learned. Such was not the case, here. I flipped open my notebook and started doodling in the margin. There wasn't really a point to answering any questions, even though I knew the answers. Or thought I knew the answers ... Alison and Paige sat attentively in the front of the room, the latter with her hand perpetually raised, every answer in mind. She almost reminded me of myself in Spanish class back home. But here she responded with answers completely different from those I had in mind -- and the problem was, she was right and I wasn't.

It had gotten to the point now where I didn't even want to take notes, so I began actually drawing in my notebook rather than simply doodling in the margin. I was turning out a pretty decent picture of ... well, I wasn't exactly sure who it was. I'd intended to draw this character Miriam from a story I wrote long ago. I'd always envisioned Miriam in a lab coat with straight chin-length blonde hair, sort of like a blonde Scully but not quite.... After I finished going over the pic with a pen, I drew vines in the margin. Then I drew vines on my hand and around my wrist like henna designs. I was really quite bored, but one could always be amused if one had a pen!

"Jennifer!"

I snapped back to attention, jumping at the sound of my full name. Quick, startled glances ... "Huh?"

"Jennifer, you must pay attention," Emma insisted, staring me down.

I sank lower in my seat, trying to hide from the world. Wasn't I supposed to be the smart one? A lecture from Emma was the last thing I needed right now. Her mental probe lashed out towards me; instinctively I set barriers without realizing exactly what it was I was doing. So much of my defenses relied on instinct; I knew I needed training. What was this, public humiliation day? I imagined it likely was.

"Now," Emma smiled smugly, "where would you be if you hadn't been paying attention?"

I kept up my barriers but gave Emma a Look, my eyes unwavering. If she wanted me to fight I could certainly try. She echoed my glare, only stronger -- she'd had so much more practice at this. I wasn't about to let her get the better of me; I vowed to pay her back for embarrassing me like that. Nothing too harsh, mind you ... nothing too harsh.

"Let this be a lesson to you all," Emma remarked, then sat at the desk in the front of the room.

Everyone just sorta stared at everyone else. Alison turned briefly around and shared a knowing, sympathetic look with me. I wondered what was wrong with her; Emma could easily catch that, and if she did, Alison might soon be dead. I shrugged back, smiling weakly.

"Class dismissed."

Feeling thankful for the order, I gathered my notebook, textbook, and folders and jogged to catch up with Alison, who was chatting about something or another with Paige. (*Jennifer, come here,*) Emma instructed. I grudgingly acquiesced, and as I stood beside the desk where she sat, purposely let my eyes glaze over, intentionally spacing out. Purposely ignoring her, purposely not paying attention.

And, being Emma, as she was, she knew it, too.

"I am worried," she admitted.

I doubted that.

"Not for my sake," she continued, "but for your own, and for the sake of your classmates."

Oh. Well, why should I have any impact on them that she'd worry about? I hadn't done anything wrong.

"You must be focused," Emma went on. "This sort of behavior will not be tolerated." She stopped, walked around the desk to look me in the face. "You're a very bright girl," she began. Oh, Light, not this crap again. I was so used to this speech. "And you have so much to offer. I would love to see you reach your full potential, both in academics as well as with your gift." Yadda yadda yadda. "Now, give me your notebook."

I held it tight. My eyes and emotions dared her to make me.

(*Give me your notebook,*) she ordered.

I suddenly felt very small and helpless and was for some odd reason compelled to give her my notebook. Funny -- I didn't usually like to part with the thing.

She flipped through it -- mostly class notes and journal entries, some songs and poetry -- but stopped when she came upon today's work. The margin doodles were apparently of little importance to her, but she laid my picture flat on the desk. I only now realized the startling similarities between Miriam in her labcoat and Emma in her bright white business jacket.

"I will be confiscating this until further notice," she informed me, an smooth hand indicating not just the pic, but the notebook as a whole. Her words and intent burned; how dare she even think of taking what was rightfully mine? I was certain she knew how I felt, she was Emma, and Emma knew these things, telepath or not. I locked dark eyes on her a moment more, echoed a sentiment of ~fine!~ and left the room before she had so much as a chance to respond.

Standing in the hallway, far enough away from Emma as I could get without being actually inside the wall, I conducted an empathic search for Alison. She was upstairs. I went where the "feeling" told me -- she was in the isolated room she'd claimed as her own.

Still angered, I opened the door without knocking and exclaimed, "She took my notebook!"

Two pairs of confused eyes turned to me from their owners' positions on the floor at the foot of the bed. Alison and Paige both had open textbooks on their laps, and were writing something or another on their own respective papers. They were doing homework already?!

I hadn't, however, expected Paige to be around. I should have known she was there, though, despite my expectations. If I could find people, I should be able to detect other presences.... Her being there threw me off guard, though, and my words evaporated; I froze. At least it wasn't Jono. Who knew what might become of me then?

"Who took your notebook?" Alison asked, finally breaking the tension.

"Um, Em, Emma," I answered absently, my eyes still fixed on her guest.

~??~

"I don't know," I responded, then almost felt my voice tangibly cooling several degrees. "Am I interrupting something?"

"Not really," Alison answered at the same time Paige said, "Yes," rather emphatically.

I sent an empathic plea for ~help~ hoping it worked ...

"I'm gonna talk to Jen now," Alison announced. ~Thankyouthankyou~ "Don't try to get too far ahead."

Paige turned back to her work, turning a cold shoulder to me. Alison followed me out into the hallway and waited to let me talk.

"Why are you doing homework?" I asked the floor.

" 'Cause it's after school and that's what people do after school ... " She didn't understand how my question related -- and with good reason: it didn't. Well, not really.

"Why her?" I pleaded.

"She offered?" Alison suggested. "I dunno. She wanted to find out about Bobo."

"Bobo is a monkey," I pouted, still speaking to the floor.

The floor didn't respond, though. Alison did. "No, it's actually ... nevermind. I'll tell you later," she finished as she realized I didn't care. Or wouldn't understand.

"I want to go home," I told her. "I hate it here. I hate Emma, I hate class, I hate those stupid training sessions. Paige doesn't like me, but that's okay I guess 'cause I'm not too fond of her, either. Jubilee's annoying and I don't like her coat; Monet's a stuck up little bi -- er, priss; I don't know the guys all that well but Everett's aura is annoying and we're all gonna get cancer from the secondhand smoke of Angelo's cigarettes. And Cassidy's just a ... just a dork!" I whimpered pitifully.

"He is not a dork!" Alison defended quickly. Then she counted the names I'd listed on her fingers. "What about Jono or Penny?" she asked.

"I -- well, I only met Penance that once, when I first got here and haven't seen her since." Thankfully! I gave another pitiful whimper, evading the real question. Had it been that obvious?

"Well," she pointed out, "there's nothing wrong with Jono."

Oh, had she any idea all the things that were both wrong and right? "Uh, well," I said. At least I was finally off of simply "um" when it came to this subject.

"Well?" she echoed.

"Well," I re-echoed, "I -- he -- that is, I mean I ... " Could I just spit it out? Could I even admit it? Not likely. "I want to go home." The words left my mouth apparently of their own violation; I had no say in the matter.

"I'm sorry," she apologized after a while.

"It's okay," I said instinctively. It really wasn't, but I'd already spoken. Stupid habit. "I just -- I don't like it here."

"Would you rather be home?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Jen! C'mon -- we're with Zeeps! Maybe not the grown up Zeeps, but still Zeeps nonetheless. And you've got those cool powers!"

"I ... find stuff," I said slowly. "People glow."

"See, that's cool!"

"I'm not even a real telepath."

"But it's still cool!" she insisted.

I wondered fleetingly if perhaps her unnatural exuberance was due to Jubilee rubbing off on her. The very thought of my friend in an eternally perky state such as that of Miss Lee's frightened me a great deal, so I tried very hard to shove the thought from my mind. But again, as they say, "when you're told not to think about the grey elephant ... " which immediately reminded me of said psionic elephant, which was just what I needed at that exact moment. "Erg ... could you stop being so ... perky?"

I was given a Look and told to shut up. Jokingly, of course. I hoped. "I'm going back to my room now," she told me. "You gonna be okay?"

No, I thought. But as she was no telepath, either, she couldn't hear that. "I guess," I responded instead.

"Alright," she said and went back down the hallway to talk to that -- that Paige. Yayfun. Time to look for a piano. I went down the stairs humming Savage Garden, 'cause "Truly Madly Deeply" was firmly lodged in my brain for no apparent reason whatsoever. If not particularly "cool", my abilities were certainly useful, I noted, as I used them to find said piano. I continued on my semi-merry way, heading for the piano and now plainly singing. "I wanna stand with you on a mountain ... I wanna bathe with you in the sea ... I wanna lay like this forever until the sky falls down on me ... " over and over again, just that chorus until I collided ever-so-gracefully with a small warm mass and fell backwards.

"Hey!" said mass, namely Jubilee wearing a navy blue and yellow Michigan Wolverines T-shirt, called annoyedly. "Watch where yer goin', wouldja!"

My head hurt. "Sorry," I apologized. This just wasn't my day.

"Whatever," Jubilee answered and kept on her way, running up the stairs with an urgency I have yet to be seen duplicated. For someone who was supposed to be able to detect people coming, I certainly seemed to be ... well, malfunctioning. I guessed that, as Dr. Wendy once said, "It's like golf -- some days you just can't putt." How ... encouraging.

I was nearing the piano, though, I could tell. When I found it, it turned out to be a beautiful shiny black expensive-looking baby grand, and I wondered how I could have ever possibly missed such a beautiful thing the first time around. Then I had to wonder why they would even have a piano here in the first place. Who played? Or was it just decoration?

I first opened the keyboard. Eighty-eight smoothly polished black and white keys stared back at me, my reflection broken over their individual surfaces. The lid was closed, but that didn't matter; I was playing for my own enjoyment and practice, not for some concert. I pulled out the bench and turned it at an angle to the keyboard, then sat down, my left leg stretched far to the side and my right foot working the sustain pedal. With my hands and their imitation henna designs spread across the lacquered keys, I began to play.

My first instinct was to test the instrument with a scale or something, to see if it was in tune, but then deemed that unnecessary. I didn't care. I needed to play the piano here, now, like I needed to breathe, like a fish needs water. I let my first worry flow into the keyboard, still feeling somewhat self-conscious even though nobody was listening. There wasn't anyone around to listen. Sorrow, homesickness -- c-minor, touched with accidentals, a random melody that seemed almost mournful -- a little too like a dirge. I moved to a-minor with little difficulty and increased the tempo, a distinct pattern forming in the chords: a-minor, F-major, g-minor, F-major. The delicate arpeggios flowed into a pounding rhythm. I stopped changing the pedal after a while, keeping it held down and angry so angry -- anger at Alison for being with PAIGE as well as anger at our friend the metamorph, all channelled through my right hand as it pounded out a furious melody. Slowly it escalated as octaves in the bass kept the rhythmic harmonies, slam, slam, slam. I breathed heavily, deeply, my heart pounding and I knew I was in it, I was so completely in it, me and the piano engaged in some improper act to flush the frustration from the both of us. And slowly, then, everything died down, growing slower, calmer -- I was growing calmer with the music, as it faded away, dying on a soft B-natural in my melody line, an a-minor chord, broken, in the harmony.

*That was lovely.*

I jumped, almost falling off the bench as I did so. My heart was pounding again, my breath shorter and words barely escaping trembling lips. "Thanks ... " I had the dizzy feeling of one who wasn't getting enough oxygen to her brain -- I hadn't even recovered from the piano therapy yet, and here Jono decided he was going to show up out of nowhere. I could swear he hadn't been there before. Had he? He wasn't there before, he wasn't, and now he stood in the doorway, reclining against the doorframe casually. So beautiful ... Light. I felt sick suddenly, very ill and for no apparent reason. I had to get over this -- it wasn't going to happen, and I could never hope for it to. I had to get over this.

*Could I hear another?*

Another? Another what? Another ... song? I didn't even know he'd been listening to the first one! Did I have another song? Sure -- I'd written plenty of songs; I knew countless others. Somehow all the music vanished then and I was left helpless in the face of my elephant, pressure slowly rising -- it would soon burst if I didn't do something ... anything.

"I -- I just sorta made that one up ... " I confessed. I had. It was just me emptying my frustrations, like I always did. It was nothing new.... I was immediately aware of the ink designs I'd drawn on my hands and hid them in my lap, folding them and trying as best I could to be casual about it.

*Really? I'm impressed.*

I'd impressed him? I debated whether this was good or bad for a moment: naturally, given the way I felt about him, it was a good thing, but I didn't want to bother Paige's claim or make her even angrier with me. But, I reminded myself -- they weren't speaking to one another. And Paige had absolutely no justification for not liking me. And so I decided it was a good thing.

"Thanks," I said again, now closer to a whisper as I looked at the keyboard and ran my fingers over the keys, not pressing very hard at all. Good thing, I reminded myself. This is a good thing. I settled my hands on the keys, the vines across my fingers now completely evident, and resumed my position on the bench. The song I played came naturally under my fingers, and after the introduction I sang. The melody was in my low register, but still comfortable for my voice.

"Travels through light and darkness; community fills my head. And there's so much more proof of this than what's written on my face." I faltered a moment -- this wasn't right, I couldn't sing for him. And yet -- yet I had to. "Angel of love," the chorus began, "angel of life, angel of peace, a beacon in the night. Angel of love, angel of hope, angel of truth guiding me home."

It was my song. While I'd started off quietly, the middle escalated to that hopeful and almost happy emotion that's too hard to name. A feeling of rescue despite confusion, a longing for love ... that's what the song was about.

The weirdest part was -- usually I was too self-conscious to actually play for people. I'd be too afraid they wouldn't like my music or that my lyrics might sound dumb. Or that my voice would suddenly falter and come back off-key or I'd forget the lyrics entirely. But at that point in time, Jono was there, and he was listening. All before I'd feared running into him -- not because of his appearance, like he might think, but because of these crazy feelings I'd been having whenever he was around. Now it seemed he was exactly the opposite: his being there let my emotions run wild within my music -- I could finally express what I'd been meaning to tell him. Somehow. " ... angel of truth, guiding me home." Home. I let the word echo on a drawn-out hum. Was this home now, and -- oh, how cliche my thoughts were! As I let the last note fade, I looked to the doorway, to the couch, but Jono wasn't in sight.

I hadn't been hallucinating, had I? Was this my muse's way of letting the raw emotion show? Confused, I turned back to the piano and started playing random notes: some impromptu passive song that was neither loud nor angry, neither here nor there. It certainly wasn't the same as anything else I'd played that day.

Someone was coming. For once my powers were working right! Alison emerged from the doorway, smiling, flute case in hand. Jubilee was not far behind and grinning madly. I turned back to the piano and pounded out the angry chords of "Real", purposely ignoring both of them.

Alison apparently took this as an invitation; she all-too happily joined me, playing her flute. I only banged harder on the ivory keys beneath my fingers. She countered it, playing her flute louder. The song became a contest -- at least, from my perspective. From hers, it was an attempt to make up. We'd played together many times before ... even that time we'd won the talent show at camp years and years ago. And with this song, I realized -- it had been a bad choice. But the chords were the angriest of any song I had: "Real" was my "mad song", as I'm sure all musicians have -- a song to play when you're angry, one that's easy to just kill the instrument and let everything fly.

Unfortunately, her tactic was working -- I was forgetting about everything I was angry about and immersing myself in the music. When the song ended, I was breathing hard but smiling; all previous emotions had rolled off me like water off a duck.

Music was a sweet balm to soothe my soul. There was an unspoken apology in Alison's eyes, an understanding that things were better now.

"Wow," Jubilee said. "You guys are good." She was being sincere.

I found myself looking at my hands, which were once again tracing the contours of black keys. Purple nail polish was chipping ... my nails were getting a little too long; any longer and they'd get stuck in between the keys when I played a fast song. And I'd have to wash those ink vines off later. "Thanks," I said. I glanced up at Alison again. "Okay?" I asked gently.

"Okay," she answered.

"The Miss-You-Miss-Me song?" I suggested.

Alison nodded.

I glanced over at Jubilee quickly -- I'd written the song about her, well, before I'd come here and actually met her. Or rather, about her situation, since I had all but flat-out refused to read the comic books Alison prized so highly. I started the introduction, grinning almost madly. I slowed, though, and eventually stopped when I felt someone coming.

"Jen? What's wrong?"

"Someone's coming," I stated.

"Just like Duncan!" Alison pointed out, enthused.

Whatever. Whoever was coming felt familiar.... I watched the door for the presence to show itself. It appeared that I was, however, mistaken. What was wrong with me today? Was I just defective? I was afraid perhaps I was. "Oh, nevermind," I muttered and turned back to the song -- but it just wasn't there anymore. I knew the words, I knew the music and where my fingers were supposed to go, but my heart just wasn't in it. I stopped halfway through the song, stood up, and kicked the bench. This tactic brought subsequent pain to my foot and I hopped around with my good one. "Ow! Ow! Ow!"

"You okay?" Jubilee asked.

"Yeah, just my -- ow! -- foot!"

"Jen? Um, elephant," Alison whispered, pointing somewhere over my shoulder. Gingerly I felt for a presence, and -- yes, Jono had returned. Why had he come back? Why had he left in the first place? And how the heck did Alison know about the elephant thing?

I couldn't just stand there like a dolt, though, so I turned around even though I already knew that he was there. But because I had just injured my foot, I could not manage to turn around properly -- and as a result, I lost my balance, and crashed onto the hard floor.

This really wasn't my day, I noted. Jubilee was snickering -- she really was easily amused, wasn't she? A funny sort of good-humored sympathy radiated from Alison, and Jono simply lingered in the doorway, holding his guitar by its neck. I sensed ~regret~ from him but couldn't place why....

*Perhaps I should go,* he suggested calmly.

No -- he couldn't go -- not yet. I couldn't imagine anything I'd possibly say to him, but I didn't want him to leave. Not when he'd just gotten back.

Alison and Jubilee glanced at one another and would have dissolved into giggles -- I don't know what kept them from doing so right then and there. But thankfully they didn't -- Alison muttered something about meeting Angelo for a game of something, and somehow Jubilee knew immediately to follow her. Hadn't they just gotten here? Why was she leaving me again? Why was she leaving me with Jono again?

I found myself giving a sheepish grin -- I felt like the room was growing around me, the dark figure in the doorway looming ominously before me. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps if she knew as much as the elephant thing, she also knew more. Was I being that obvious? The air was soupy and viscous, I was finding it hard to breathe again. And there was a tiny voice talking to me, gently reminding me that he was Paige's, and Paige was mad at me, and Paige could seriously hurt me in any of her stronger forms, and Jono could very easily blast me into a million tiny pieces if he wanted to --

I told that tiny voice to shut up.

"J -- Jono?" I'd said his name -- and all of a sudden he existed, he wasn't -- whatever he was before. At this point he existed because he looked right at me and I wasn't just whispering to the wind. "Are you ... are you okay?"

That hadn't come out the way I'd intended it to. "I mean, there are so many ... things I have to say but it's like I can't say them because I'm afraid -- afraid of -- well, you shut yourself off from everyone so well I only want to help but I --" I took a breath and searched for words. He was shocked, surprised. I bit my lip and looked at the floor (upon which I was still sitting), suddenly afraid I'd said the wrong thing. The last time I'd said anything like that I only wound up hurting myself....

*I'm not sure I follow,* he admitted.

He didn't "follow"? What, did I have to spell it out? Perhaps -- despite everything, he was still a guy, and guys can be extraordinarily dense at times. Ugh. Why not just admit it once and for all? "I'm so confused. I don't know what's going on here. I don't even know what it is that I do; whatever it is it sure isn't flashy -- not that I necessarily mind that or anything, but I -- I hate Emma, I hate her poking around in my head when she could perfectly well ask and I want to go home except the problem with home is that you aren't there --" I stopped short as I suddenly understood what I'd just babbled out and the impact it could have on my life here.

*Wot's so special about me that yer'd wont me 'home'?*

The words just poured from me again and the me behind my eyes was barely aware of them. I didn't care -- he was being so obstinate! "What do you mean 'what's so special' about you? Would you quit feeling sorry for yourself already? That's the one thing holding you back -- not the way you look. I think you're beautiful --" Where had that come from? "--and don't care what anyone else says. I'm not afraid of you -- not like that, far from it. I'm -- I like you. Very much. Perhaps that frightens you -- so be it. But it isn't going to stop how I feel. And no -- I can't explain it, either. Hearts fly where they will -- I have no control over it. I'll understand perfectly if you're going to hate me now. But if there's one thing -- oh, I want to help you! I only want -- I mean I just -- I mean -- " My courage was fading fast. "It's not that hard for people to be attracted to you," I said softly, not even sure if he heard me now. "It does happen, you know. But ... but it's so hard to get through to you...."

I waited for an answer, a response, anything. Time and silence drifted nervously by, and I would have spoken but I was certain he was forming some response, and I didn't want to interrupt him.... But besides that, even if my random fragments of thought were to coalesce into one coherent sentence I doubted I could speak well, if at all. And in this bizarre, worried, waiting, trembling state I could feel nothing from him -- not that he wasn't feeling anything, but that I was so messed up inside there was no way I could possibly read anything. I felt sick -- ill -- my heart pounding so hard inside my chest I was worried it might burst. I could feel his eyes on me, hot ... I drew my knees up to my chest and buried my head in them, perhaps in an effort to quiet my raging heart.

Why had I said those things? I'd been so stupid. It would have been better if I'd just kept quiet. My eyes were wet and hot -- oh, Light, was I crying? How immature I must've looked ...

*Jen --*

I pressed my forehead even harder against my knees; I didn't want to look at him. He was going to say something stupid and ignorant and so like a guy --

*Jen, look at me.*

Tentatively I raised my eyes -- somehow he'd come across the room; somehow he, too, was sitting on the floor; somehow -- somehow I was still crying and gave a pitiful sniffle. I wiped my wrist across my face in an effort to eradicate any signs of tears but I was afraid I just worsened it....

I brought my eyes up and looked at him -- I looked right at him and there he was, every nuance and detail that made him Jono and I couldn't stand it any longer. "What --" I began but there was no sentence there and I just looked at him like that, just looked at him -- the way the light played off his jacket and hair that fell just so, the texture of the bandages that covered where the rest of his face ought to have been but wasn't and I didn't care -- I didn't care and it didn't matter to me.

*Do yer honestly believe that?*

"Yes," I replied instantly. "Yes! I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true -- this is how I feel, can't you just accept that?"

*No,* he said after a while, *I can't. Yer don't even know me. How could yer possibly -- *

"Shut up!" I told him. "Just shut up! You don't understand! You don't! You're blowing me off and it's making me sick! Why won't you let anyone in? Why do you do this to yourself? Wake up -- wake up, we care about you. All of us! We aren't -- we're not afraid of you!"

*But I'm a --*

"No, you're not! Listen to me -- just listen to me."

My voice shook, trembled as I spoke. It took me some time to find the words. "You are not a freak. Don't think for one -- one minute you are. We're all freaks ... " I bit my lip, I thought maybe I was going to cry again as the memories resurfaced: memories and names and faces, faces of people I couldn't stand to be with but I didn't have much choice. "If anyone's the psycho here it's me. Me. I'm the psycho. I'm the freak. I'm weird and strange because -- because I'm different. I get shoved around and beaten up, I get blamed for the world's problems -- I don't know how to deal with it. I don't know how to deal with it so I talk to people on the computer, who don't know who I am and don't care 'cause they see me for my personality instead of some psycho freak. I'm the one who seeks solace in music, in my piano and CDs and everything -- I'm the one who turns myself outside-in to the world and only wants -- " I caught myself in what I was going to say. "-- only wants to -- to -- to --" My voice faltered and I fell silent.

*To wot?* He was calm; he wanted to know and not so he could laugh at me. He was the last person who would laugh at me.... But could I tell him, even though I'd admonished him for the same crime only moments earlier?

"To hide," I whispered, shaking, looking back at the floor. I hugged my knees close to me again, my head gently resting on them and hair falling into my face, so wet. I just curled up like that, rocking back and forth and back and forth ... and hiding. Because it was so easy to hide -- so easy. Hide from the world and you wouldn't have to deal with it. You wouldn't have to get close and you wouldn't have to hurt anyone. It was just easier....

"I don't want someone to be with forever and ever," I admitted slowly, the words coming out just as they popped into my head -- things I already knew. "Light -- I don't even think I want someone to be with -- it's not that way at all. But a friend -- I need an anchor here. I hate everything else so much I really ought to just go home. It seems like you're the only thing keeping --"

Shudder again, sniffle, and I really was quite pathetic. But all these emotions were so real, even those that contradicted one another.

I wiped my face again with my sleeve, which by now was quite thoroughly soaked. My eyes were hot and tired; I was so weak and pitiful and helpless and I didn't want to be like this.

As I looked outward, I uncoiled, letting go of my knees. There was no reason to hide from him -- through the fog of my own emotions I knew he understood.

His hand was extended -- I took it and was helped off the floor. I expected him to ask me if I was going to be okay, people usually did after -- after things like this. I was sure I must have looked pretty awful; I'd been crying and confused and everything. But he understood.

I let go of his hand with its callused fingers and tried to wipe away the salt residue that had stained my face. Something was thick inside my throat and I couldn't swallow it back. My eyes were hot and something pounded in my head.

A question was perched on the edge of his mind, about to explode into my own consciousness, but he didn't say anything -- I wanted to touch him again, to feel his hands on mine, but I knew it wouldn't work ... I bit my lip so hard I thought I'd draw blood. I closed my eyes and stood there, reaching out, crying out for help, this insatiable need --

And there was an external warmth, wrapped around me in leather and I knew he wouldn't have -- he wouldn't -- just wouldn't -- but it was probably me --

-- I didn't know where I was; I was comforted but encased in mingling emotions. I searched for some part of me I could find and finally found sensations under fingertips that relayed leather and loosely wrapped cloth and he smelled just as he did yesterday in the car and I could have stayed there like that if I could. All I saw was black -- different degrees of black -- and they mixed so beautifully.... I could sense emotions and I didn't know or care whose they were: comfort, relief, the need for a friend -- yes, a friend -- perhaps something far beneath my surface still wanted something else but it was so far beneath me I didn't want or need to bother it. I'd found my anchor somehow -- through anger -- I'd found a friend. And I realized that I had every intention of staying here.

I wish, though, that I was better skilled at whatever it was I did. If I had I would have noticed someone watching -- someone who was rather upset -- why I didn't notice her blaring emotions sooner is still beyond me. Instead it was her voice that called my attention to her ...

"Ah cannot believe you!"

"Ah"? No, not again ... I bit my lip even harder, immersed within this warm black jacket world I didn't want to leave -- I think I tightened my grip. But Jono let go; I had no choice at that point. I didn't look at Paige -- I was afraid of her -- she could kill me, I was sure. And she would -- her anger pounded inside my head, inside my heart so threateningly. I thought she was going to kill me. I really did. I wanted to run away, to leave all of this behind but my anchor was here -- and I couldn't leave him with this screaming creature -- complete with unconscious Southern accent -- that Paige had become.

*We're friends, luv, that's all,* Jono tried to explain. He was referring to me. I wanted to hide. I silently offered a petition to whoever might be listening: ~mercy?~ I did not want to die....

"Friends?" she echoed from behind me, as if the word were foreign to her. "Friends?"

I wanted to leave but I was frozen in place and that paralysis scared me half to death.

"And you," I got the impression she was pointing one long, accusing finger at me, "Ya got no right ta jus' walk in here an' proclaim yoahself--"

"I -- " I began, turning slowly to her and hoping praying pleading she wouldn't kill me, "I am not proclaiming anything," I interrupted, enunciating each word concisely to the best of my abilities through the clouds in my throat. I know she'd kill me so I braced myself.

She just glared at me, debating whether or not to rip her own flesh so that she might do the same to me -- I wouldn't survive, of course, and that was perhaps her intent. And then she looked to Jono, measuring him with a level gaze. "Okay," she finally decided, "go on. I don't care." Paige spun on her heel and left without another word; whatever she'd originally come down for undone and unsaid.

And Jono was torn -- his indecision radiated and nearly overflowed onto me.

"I -- I'm going to go wash up," I said. "You go after her. She -- she needs you." I could barely believe I'd said that, but I had -- and I'd meant it.

Gratitude replaced his indecision. *Thank you,* he said, and went upstairs.

I lingered, hung back -- stared at the piano a moment, and at the guitar lying on the floor. I picked up the guitar and set it on the askew piano bench so nobody would step on it. I smiled then; glad despite of everything. I thought I'd helped him in some way -- the same way he'd helped me, I think.

"Thanks," I told the piano -- and the guitar. "Thanks."

(X)

"Hey!" Jubes said, coming into the kitchen with an unusual exuberance, even for her. It made my head hurt more, but I nonetheless looked up from my book, sandwich in hand. I had figured that maybe if I ate something my head would stop hurting, but the tactic had unfortunately failed me so far.

"Yeah, what is it, Lee?" Angelo asked. He and I were sitting at the table eating a late lunch after a hockey shoot-out. He had won, of course, and the game had eventually given me this killer headache that it seemed all the ibuprofen in the world would not alleviate. Grr... Although I had been happy to find someone to play hockey with, I still did not enjoy pounding headaches, and reading my book was not really helping, either.

"Half off tickets at the cineplex tonight!!" she announced, waving the newspaper in her hand before us as if to tempt us into going.

"Really? What's playing, chica? Anything worth seeing?" Angelo wanted to know. She began reading off a long list of movies, but amazingly nothing I wanted to see was included. Angelo, however, found quite a few titles he approved of.

"Cool!" he exclaimed, upon hearing that Godzilla would be among the movies being shown tonight. Personally, I didn't want to see it.

"Wanna go?" Jubes then turned to me, trying to draw me in as well. "I've already asked everyone else, and they're all going. 'Cept Jono." she added, a pout not on her face but rather in her voice. She thought that he was a big "party-pooper" that never wanted to do anything and basically lived a boring and pointless existence. I hoped he never found that out.

I weighed my options, although I had a feeling I knew which way the scales would tip. I figured Jen must be going for City of Angels in one theater, since they had somehow -- somehow -- neglected to have any sci-fi shows. Personally, I was hurt. The action movies were all Jackie Chan, of whom I am not particularly fond. Too bad they weren't Bruce Willis or something. Because Bruce Willis is always good. Besides, I had to finish my book... if this headache would let me. And then there was this headache, to boot. All in all, it seemed as if the fates had decided that I was just not meant to go.

"Nah, I've got this killer headache," I eyed Angelo, "and besides -- there's no sci-fi." Jubes' eyes widened in shock as I passed the marathon up.

"But -- but, Jackie Chan!"

I smiled, but shook my head. Even that was beginning to be painful.

"Sorry. I think I'll just veg here tonight." She looked hurt, but said nothing for a moment.

"All right." she finally gave in. She then turned back to Ange, informing him, "We're leaving in an hour. We're going out to dinner too -- Frosty's takin' us."

I wondered how on earth Emma had agreed to do that. Jubes then turned and left, presumably to prepare for the Jackie Chan barrage she was about to encounter. I shrugged and picked up the sandwich. I was suddenly not hungry, though, so I put it back down in favor of putting my head down on the table in the hopes that the pounding inside it might go away.

"You okay, chica?" he asked. "I didn't mean --"

"No, I'm okay. Just tired," I lied. He shrugged and got up, leaving his empty plate on the table and leaving the kitchen. I just closed my eyes, and I must have fallen asleep because when I opened them again to a fuzzy-looking kitchen the whole place was quiet. I glanced at my watch, which told me that an hour had indeed passed, and it was not late evening. That meant that the only other people here were most likely Sean and Jono, and probably Penny as well. I mused over the fact that I had not actually met Penny yet as I dragged myself out of the chair I had fallen asleep in and up to my room, which now seemed like an impossible journey.

I finally made it and slowly changed into my pijamas: flannel pants and a seaQuest shirt. My headache wasn't any better, but since I didn't feel like cleaning off my bed to go to sleep I decided on the couch in the rec room. Hopefully I could crash there, and with practically no one else there I didn't see why I couldn't. I took out my contacts and pulled back my hair, and then I dragged myself back downstairs to the couch in the dark rec room and grabbed for the remote, flipping the TV on as I collapsed onto the couch. There happened to be a throw sitting conveniently on the arm, so I grabbed that and draped it over me as I flipped through the channels, hoping that something at least semi-interesting would be on.

I was handsomely rewarded with a rerun of Highlander, and settled back to watch the episode while curled up in a somewhat fetal position on the couch, hoping the headache might somehow decide to just go away. I must have been starting to drift off, and the TV began to seem more dark than light and the sound more soft than loud when I managed to pick out some shuffling, which sounded like it was coming from across the room.

"Hunh - wha?" was the most I could say in this state, as I managed to pull myself up off the couch somewhat and look around the room. I saw Jono in the corner, having just come through the doorway. He stopped abruptly, apparently startled despite the fact that the TV had been on.

*Oh! Sorry, gel. Didn't know you were in here,* he said after a moment of awkward silence.

"Yeah, well..." Was that the most interesting thing I could say?! God!

*Well then, I'll just be going...* He turned to leave, but somehow I didn't want him to. As I watched him leave, I suddenly felt really... bad. He looked so lonely, so tired - like he didn't have a soul in the world to talk to and he had something important to say. He looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, and there wasn't anyone to help him with that burden, which no one could possibly bear alone. And his voice - although it had merely been words in my head, his voice had sounded like he needed someone to talk to.

Well, I was someone, and he could certainly talk to me. I guessed I could handle feeling like a dork if he could stand talking to me.

"Jono?" I called after him; he hadn't quite disappeared completely yet, and now he turned back to confront me. "You... wanna take a walk or something?" He paused a moment, but then his expression softened and I thought I detected a hint of relief behind that pale yet dark mask.

*Sure, gel.* He already had the ever-present black leather jacket that he seemed to live in -- perhaps he did -- so I just went to grab my coat and joined him back at the door a moment later. My head was still pounding, although it wasn't quite as bad as it had been, and perhaps the sleep had done me some good. Besides, if he needed someone to talk to, then I could ignore my headache. It was the least I could do. We went outside into the darkening Massachusetts night -- the sun had just set, but a few orange stripes still lingered in the western sky. It was cool, but not cold, and a fresh breeze ruffled the grass as we walked.

"Are you... okay?" I finally asked, as the silence began to grown uncomfortable. He looked down at me from his perch high atop the two feet he could've easily held over me for all I knew.

*Wot do you mean?*

"Well, I know you act like, well, like you and all, but you seem so... sad lately. Introverted. I don't know - just different. Like something's bothering you. I know you probably don't want to talk about it, but if you do I'll listen." He just shrugged, and I immediately felt the dorkiness set in. We walked on a bit more until the silence was finally broken by a rather interesting sound: psionic laughter. Jono was laughing.

I followed his gaze down to his feet, but found nothing humorous there.

"What?" I asked, confused and surprised and wanting to know for all the world what could possibly make Jono laugh.

*Nothing. It's just that ... for every step I take, it seems you have to take two and a half.* He laughed again, and as I looked back to te ground I saw that his observation was indeed true.

"Well, so?" I asked, mocking offense. He shook his head.

*No offense. It's just funny, is all.* That laughter seemed to banish any of the dorkiness of a moment ago, and it kind of made me feel -- well, to sound corny, all warm and fuzzy inside. It was just so amazing that something as simple as my having to compensate for having shorter legs could make Jono laugh. It was ... well, it was gratifying, for some reason, that I could help this poor, self-induced and self-perpetuating modern Quasimodo to laugh, even if for just a moment.

We walked on, the silence enveloping us once more. I chanced a look up at the dark sky, and was suddenly taken aback with the beauty that lay just above me: the sky was crystal clear, and the stars were visible. Oh, were they visible -- twinkling above me were thousands - millions - of stars, shining down with a sparkling light that was unmatched by anything I'd ever seen. The dusty wisps of the Milky Way trailed across the sky, leaving its trail among the glittering shapes and pictures of the constellations. It was beautiful. It was awesome. It was breathtaking. It was a dream come true.

"Oh, wow," I breathed, stopping in my tracks to get a better view. Jono tilted his head up as well, wondering what I was so taken with.

*Wot?* he asked, unsure of what he was seeing and what I was so awed by.

"The stars... they're beautiful up here. Wow."

He said nothing, merely looking up at them. I got the feeling that stargazing was not something that he did very often, if at all. Taking a chance, I moved just off the footpath and sank down onto the soft, cool grass, lying on my back with my eyes to the sky. It kind of made my head spin, but I didn't care. I wanted to see these glorious stars as I never had at home. There were too many streetlights by my house, despite the fact that we were out in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking for Chicago. But here -- here on the campus there was little to no light, and the sky shone with a splendor I had only seen a few times before.

A bit to my surprise, Jono followed me onto the grass, similarly sitting down on the cool ground. Not lying down, but sitting with his knees to his chest and facing a bit to the side, so that I was basically faced with an odd view of his profile. It was a dark profile, with so much sadness and pain in it that I could see it, even out here in the dark of night. He also gazed up at the sky, though not at as sharp an angle.

"Look!" I exclaimed, pointing upward to a pattern of stars. "It's Orion! I love that one. And the Pleiades, and Taurus..." As I spoke, I traced the patterns in the sky with my hand. He seemed to follow for a moment, following my hand as it made shapes form in the chaotic sparkle of light in the sky. "And Vega, in Lyra." I smiled, remembering the implications Carl Sagan had begun with that very star. "Hey, and the Orion Nebula..." I trailed off, sighing and just gazing up at the stars in silence as it enveloped us. I wondered how Jen would ... feel ... if she knew I was out here with him. Yeah, sure -- like I would do anything? Come on ... he was cool, but not in the way Jennifer saw him. No way... I almost shuddered at the thought of ... something. Nothing.

"I've got to get a good telescope. Then we could see the Orion nebula really well." I knew he probably didn't care about in the least, but I needed something to say, and whenever I got into stargazing I always complained about my lack of a good telescope. Like he wanted to hear about that. He didn't care, I suddenly realized. No one ever really cared ... Way to go, Alison!

*Yer really like 'em, don'tcha?* he asked.

Yeah, it's just another one of those things that I like that no one else likes, so I'm stupid and annoying for liking it and talking to everyone else about it... I was all too familiar with that brush-off. And wasn't I supposed to be helping him? Well, since neither of us was big on talking, it wasn't going anywhere fast.

"Yeah. Someday ... someday I'll be up there." I sighed. "If I'm good enough. I hope..."

More silence as we sat there, me gazing up and wishing that I was already up there so I could quit worrying about which college I would go to and if I would ever actually get to be an astronaut. Or so I wouldn't have to be out here, feeling so uncomfortable and out of it. I was drifting here and there, forgetting what we had actually come out here for when he broke the silence.

*Can I ask yer something?* he finally asked, not facing me but staying turned to the side.

"Sure," I said drowsily. I propped my head up on one arm so I could get a better view, but he still would not face me. I wondered if he was actually going to address what had been bothering him. Probably not; he was probably going to ask if we could go in or if I was really certifiably stupid or crazy or something.

*Your friend -- Jennifer. She's ... confusing,* he admitted. I laughed a little at that. Was that the question? Well, yes, she was. Very confusing sometimes, but I guessed I was just used to it after so many years of friendship. And, after all, wasn't I confusing as well? Confusing people must understand each other.

"Yes, she is," I said after a minute.

*She says ... she says she wants ter be friends. She says that this* -- he indicated the bandages covering where his jaw, neck, and chest should have been -- *doesn't bother her. But that can't -- I don't know what to think.*

There was a pause, but I felt that he had something more to say so I said nothing. I was right; after a moment he continued.

*She called me her "anchor" today. Says I'm the only thing that's really keeping her here. I don't understand.* He fell silent again, this time finished with what he had to say. I contemplated this for a minute. Jennifer was often very emotional - and way better at it than I was - and she felt things a lot stronger than I did. Yes, that was confusing, but it was also a part of her that made her unique and different. I knew she didn't feel the way I did - she didn't want to be here - and that she needed something important to keep her here. Obviously, that was Jono.

So how did I feel about that? I didn't know -- I'd never really thought about it before. Sure, I liked him -- but she obviously liked him more. And she probably had the right to -- that was a lot more like her than it was like me. Besides, I didn't like him like that. That just wasn't me. But she did like him, and she liked him a lot. He just couldn't see that, so it confused him. He couldn't understand why anyone would like him, because he was Jono and that was the way he was. Suddenly I felt a chill - that seemed a lot like what people said about me sometimes. So how could I explain that to him? Hmm...

"Well, first of all..." I began. He didn't move, still facing the side. "That doesn't bother me, either."

*But--*

"Just listen. I'm not good at this kind of thing, so let me talk and get it overwith. Then you can tell me how stupid and wrong I am, okay? Second, Jennifer likes you. A lot. And if you can't see that, then I don't know what to tell you. Like I said, I'm not good at stuff like this -- she is. But I do know Jennifer, and she doesn't really want to be here. So you must be pretty important to her if you're keeping her here. Because a lot of the time, she feels alone. A lot like you."

I paused.

"A lot like me. And she wants to be your friend -- I do too. Someone you can talk to freely and truthfully. Someone who understands, even though it's hard to talk. I know, because I'm like that too. I don't talk. This is probably the longest most serious speech you'll ever get out of me, and even now it's about someone else," I admitted. At least, I hoped it was. I was afraid of where I was taking this.

*But you don't understand,* he protested. *Neither of you do -- you can't. Not about how I --*

"No. Don't even, Jono. I've been there."

Oh God, how much was I going to tell him? How could I actually talk to him about this? Just be vague -- that was the way I was. I could do that, because then it wasn't really like talking about my feelings, right? Because I couldn't do that -- that just got you all sad and confused and miserable, and it was stupid. Pouring my heart out was just not the way I did things, especially not when I was supposed to be consoling someone else.

"You think you hate how you look?"

He turned to face me now, unsure of what I was getting into. Well, I wasn't sure either, but I was on a tirade and I wasn't going to stop now.

"Don't even get me started on hating yourself, 'cause I've been there. Heck, half of the time I still am there. But you -- I love the way you look."

Oh my God, what was I telling him? I was acting like a complete dork, and I was sure he knew it. Great job of helping him, right?

"I love the way you look," I repeated. "It's what makes you you. I know that sounds weird -- mean, even -- but I'm weird, so you don't really have to listen to me. I'm not important. I know you don't really care about what I feel or think or say, but I'll still like the way you look. It makes you different, it makes you special. You're a totally unique and deeper person because of it, even if it is a terrible thing. I know it's a terrible thing, and no one should have to live like that. No one. But you do now, and you have to deal with it."

What was I now, a counselor?! Where was this all coming from? All this to a guy I didn't even really know, who thought I was a dork, that Jennifer liked?!

"I don't care about 'that.' And neither does Jennifer. Heck, neither does anyone in this whole Georging school!" I stopped, with nothing more to say, and the silence suddenly hung in the air like a heavy cloud. Oh my God -- did I just say all of that? Great, he thought I was insane now. He had to.

*Georging?* he finally asked. I smiled, but I was still uncomfortable after all of that. That was so not me, and suddenly, even though I'd meant it, I wanted to take it all back. He was Jen's and this was hers to tell him. Not me. I was in the wrong place, the wrong role, and I felt odd. Wrong.

"Yes, Georging. You've got to stop it sometime, Jono. I've been there. It's not fun -- you know that. It's not. And it's really hard to come out after you've been alone for so long. It is. But ... it gets better."

All right, that was it. I was done. What the heck had I just said?! I wanted out suddenly, and I got the feeling he did too. This was just awkward, even though I didn't want it to be. Why didn't I want it to be? I still felt strange, like there was a knot in my stomach. What was going on? He said nothing, merely turned his head back to the sky. I had no idea what he thought of that -- of me -- but I didn't think he really cared about any of it. It was all stuff people had tried to tell him before. And here I was, regurgitating it all back out at him while I was supposed to be helping him with something that he really didn't want me to help him with in the first place. I sighed, and looked back to the stars as well, as if they might give me some answers. Instead all I saw was a shooting star, as it trailed through the skies across Cygnus and fell down towards the Little Dipper.

*Well, that's all fine and easy for you to say, but impossible for me ter believe.*

Argh! I knew I hadn't gotten through to him, but was he really that dense?! Geez -- he really should talk to someone who was better at this than I was. Someone like Jen, who liked him and who could really talk to him. I was just blabbering on, and it was stupid. Stupid and pointless, and I wanted to go back in and go to bed and forget about this whole thing so Jennifer wouldn't kill me over something that never should have happened with some guy that she liked. Ugh! Life was just too darn complicated. So why not simplify?

"Well, if you're gonna see it that way, then there's not much that I'm good for, now is there?"

*Don't know.*

Well, this conversation was most definitely over. Conversation -- hah! I'd just blabbered some stupid crap in his direction, and he hadn't listened anyway. Why did he have to make me feel so George stupid?! I should have been used to feeling this way, considering it was how I always feel, but it was still bugging me. It always bugs me. I hate this, I hate this, why can't I just be up there in space so I know I'm already good enough and I can be out there among those stars...

He said nothing more, but stood up and began heading for the path. I took that as a definite end to our conversation, as if it hadn't been over before. And I was glad, too. My head was pounding worse than before, and I felt stupid out here anyways. This was wrong, I thought as I walked down the path after him. I wasn't like this. I wasn't like this around guys. This was wrong.

I passed him up in my hurry to get back to bed, which I now felt was an urgent issue. As I walked up the steps to the door, I turned, figuring I should say goodnight or something.

"Goodni --" I stopped. He wasn't there. Where was -- I thought I saw a figure then, a dark outline against the dark sky. Yes, it was Jono, farther out on the footpath, hands shoved in pockets, leaning back and looking upward to contemplate the stars.

(X)

"But I don't want to go!" I protested, to no avail. I was trapped inside that pristine white dungeon known as Emma's Office, the White Queen herself staring me down, imposing her will on me -- all without the aid of her psi-powers.

"You will go with us," she ordered from her desk across the room. "And you will enjoy yourself. You are a part of this group and you will act like it."

"But --"

An arched eyebrow interrupted my deprecations. There was no arguing with her, that was just the way things were, no questions asked.

Somehow Alison had managed to get out of going to the stupid movie marathon. I'd have to ask her how later.

"We have already purchased tickets," Emma explained, as though she was telling this to a child for the thirty-fifth time. "At the time, Alison did not want to go, but you did. Therefore, you have a seat and she does not. You will be coming. That is all."

The dismissal came like a door slamming shut in my face. I left, certain that I radiated some loathing for the woman but I didn't care -- I couldn't stand her and would make that plain as day.

I stalked up the stairs to my room, each foot pounding with every step. Once in my closed cavern, I turned off the light and put Under the Pink in my CD player. Lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling, I let the almost sonata-like notes of "Pretty Good Year" wash over me, soothing me. And "Hey, what's it gonna take till my baby's alright?" -- the angry section in the middle; I just let all my anger at Emma be channelled through Tori's screaming and banging and whatnot. The music slowed and calmed again and I cooled off -- I truly needed that.

"JENNNNN!"

On my CD player, "God" was starting. I turned over. I didn't want to be yelled at.

"TIME TO GO!!"

"... sometimes you just don't come through ... "

I really didn't want to go.

"... do you need a woman to look after you ... ?"

My door flew open and Jubilee stood there, impatient as ever. I was beginning to feel ill.

"C'mon, we're gonna be late!" she insisted.

"... you make pretty daisies, pretty daisies ... "

"What's this?" she asked, distracted by the music, her brow furrowed.

"Tori," I explained halfheartedly.

" ... a few witches burning gets a little toasty ... "

Jubilee walked over to my CD player and was about to turn it off, hoping that I might come to her stupid movie marathon.

"Don't even think about it," I warned, only half-joking. I knew perfectly well what she could do to a CD player, even inadvertently. Reluctantly, I got up and trudged to the CD player and turned it off myself. I grudgingly followed her out of my room after grabbing my purse from the mess on the floor.

As those who were going piled into the car I found myself between the window and Monet. At least, I noted, I wasn't by Paige again -- and the window was a welcome relief. But Jono wasn't with us. How had he managed to get out of this, too? And now I was completely alone. Or at least, that's how I felt.

I wanted to fold in on myself, to crawl into my own little world and not be bothered by anyone or anything. Someone -- Paige? -- had apparently decided on the movie we'd see: City of Angels. And there was much protest -- nobody else cared to see a "mushy" movie. I didn't mind, though. Perhaps I could lose myself in the fiction on the screen instead of dealing with the strange reality of life.

The usual waiting in line for popcorn and candy and pop and other paraphernalia conducive to a moviegoing environment took place. I would've loved a box of Junior Mints and a raspberry tea, like I usually get at the theater, but I was flat broke. It was nice that I didn't have to pay for the actual movie, though.

As much space as possible was placed between our crowd and Emma -- thankfully! Previews and the usual ads for the snack bar rolled, and then the feature. I was soon caught up in the bittersweet love story -- although I hadn't known that angels dressed entirely in black and didn't eat.

Perhaps ... perhaps then he was an angel ... because eventually angels felt human emotions, too. And that was what he was, I decided: a fallen angel.

When the lights came back up, I was in tears -- the earlier events of the day were of no help to me at all. Finally I looked around at the rest of the group. Paige was also in tears, sniffling quietly like a sentimental fool -- perhaps I had more in common with her than I'd anticipated. Did we have too much in common, though? I didn't know.

Jubilee (who had been initially protesting because of the movie's "mushy" nature) had actually fallen asleep on Everett's shoulder -- he was taking this rather well, only a touch embarrassed as he tried to wake her up. And failing. I found this mildly amusing, and apparently so did Monet, who had wayward kernels of popcorn trapped in her hair. She didn't know they were there. Some passerby's aura flared an incredibly bright orange and it was all I could do to try and ignore it. Auras that bright generally meant the owner possessed some type of mutant ability, as I'd noticed in the mall.

Emma found us, appearing by our row all of a sudden. Everett was still having trouble waking Jubilee up; she was now muttering something, caught in that world between awake and asleep. "Mmm ... Ev ... yummy."

With the mention of his name and "yummy" in the same sentence, Everett's characteristically kaleidoscopic aura went haywire, and he tried to shove Jubilee off his shoulder. His aura caught the flash of orange I spotted from the corner of my eye. Almost simultaneously, the temperature of the already cold theater dropped. Emma grew irate as a split second later some guy whose aura was the same brilliant orange came up behind her grinning madly, his hand on her shoulder. She whirled around -- she most certainly recognized him. As did the half asleep Jubilee, who was only now becoming aware of the rest of the world.

"Hey, Emma!" the orange guy greeted almost too happily. "Good to see you!"

"Robert," Emma said coldly and sent some telepathic message to him -- seconds later he lifted his hand from her shoulder, finger by finger, an "innocent" look plastered across his face.

"Excuse me," Monet interrupted, clearing her throat. "I would assume you haven't already noticed: Angelo is no longer with us. I propose a search of the building."

Emma seemed a bit off-guard -- like too many things were happening at once. Maybe her corset was too tight ... I chuckled to myself at the thought, but agreed to help Monet find Angelo ... if only to get away from Emma. Everyone else apparently thought the same -- they followed Monet and me out, leaving Emma to deal with this orange-ringed Robert guy.

As I walked behind Monet, I wondered if I should tell her about the popcorn in her hair. I decided against it as I ran my fingers through my own hair to check for catapulted snack food. I found one piece that had apparently been sitting atop my head for a while. I was about to toss it onto the ground when I noticed something oddly familiar about the lost puffy kernel -- it had been Angelo's. I had no idea how I knew, I just knew. And with that recognition I was immediately alerted to his location like a compass needle within me. Weird.

Meanwhile, Monet and Paige were headed off in the other direction. Everett stayed in the lobby -- I noticed his aura spread thin across the general area, radiating in a perfect circle from him. It touched everyone, each person creating a tiny ripple of their own; those with mutant abilities tinted the layer with their own unique shade -- really just me, Jubilee, and some guy in the line who I think may have been a latent telepath. It made me uncomfortable; my blue was even visible to me now and I felt like something was crawling inside me just underneath my skin.

"What's he doing?" I whispered to Jubilee, who (just for some odd reason, you know) decided to stay here in the lobby. Somehow the situation warranted a whisper. "He's lookin' for Ange," she whispered back, quite pleased with herself and oblivious to the crawly feeling.

"But I've already found him," I explained.

"Huh?" Jubilee asked, confused, as Everett (also confused) dropped his search, the multihued aura springing back around him.

"I, ah, found him. He's that way," I said as I indicated left.

"Uh, okay," Jubilee muttered.

Everett nodded. "That's what I thought."

We walked and stopped in front of a closed theater door. "He's in there," I said.

"He must've snuck in during the movie," Jubilee was quick to comment. And quick to break illegally into the theater, might I add. Everett shrugged and followed her in. I stayed put. They returned moments later virtually dragging Angelo behind them, who was grinning maniacally.

"He snuck in to see Godzilla!" Jubilee announced loudly.

That sounded like something he would do.

"Hey, I don't care what they try to call it, that chick flick was not about LA," Angelo informed us. "And the last thing I need to see is Nick Cage gettin' all weepy up on that screen."

I considered tossing the stale piece of popcorn at him, but decided against it and threw it onto the floor.

Because I had nothing to lock on with, I conducted a general search for Monet -- Paige could stay behind at this point and I wouldn't care one iota. I found the two not far from Emma and the orange Robert guy, who were all in the lobby by now.

Emma was quite upset but trying to hide it, presumably because of the orange guy. She was glad, however, that he was no longer in actual physical contact with her. Nevertheless, one pink tendril remained in constant contact with his mind -- if he noticed, he gave no indication of it.

"Hey!" he greeted us enthusiastically. Or perhaps just Jubilee, since he recognized her.

"Bobby!" she exclaimed and ran to give him a friendly hug. Only seconds passed -- if even that -- before she realized Everett was watching every bit of this. "Uh, this is Bobby!" she explained. I still had no idea what -- or who -- she meant by that; I still didn't recognize the guy. Though for some truly odd reason he managed to remind me of Tom Paris.

"Jubilation," Emma warned.

Oh, she definitely had something against this guy -- and I didn't have to be an empath to figure that out, to paraphrase Missy Scully. She began to drag us all out of the cineplex just as Angelo was starting to sneak off again.

"Hey," Bobby called after her in a lame effort to get her attention. "How does dinner sound?"

"Go home, Robert," Emma ordered.

"I mean tonight," he explained. "For everyone. It's on me."

She considered this a moment. "Fine," she relented, "but only because I love to give you another useless expense with which to deplete your already pitiful wallet."

"Hey!" Bobby protested.

But thankfully we weren't all squished into the Jeep; in some last-ditch effort to escape Emma, I had opted to ride with this new guy. Monet had joined me but was perfectly content to sit by herself in the backseat and stare out the window at the passing trees.

"So, I don't remember you from last time," this Bobby guy said as he drove.

"Um, no ..." I muttered. Small talk really wasn't my forte. Besides, it was meaningless. "I'm new here, I guess." But I was acclimating.

"I'm Bobby Drake," he introduced himself like he was something terribly special and I ought to feel privileged to know him. I didn't. He caught this and continued, "Iceman. One of the five original X-Men."

I only nodded. I recalled Alison mentioning something about an "Iceman" once before but didn't know him well myself.

"Uh-huh," I said. "I'm Jen. No codename."

"No codename?" Bobby exclaimed like it was some terrible crime. "Great ... we've got another Cecelia on our hands...."

I didn't know any Cecelia but there was a good deal of ~impatience~ and ~exasperation~ associated with the person behind the name.

"Oh, no," I assured him, picking up on that, "I don't hate you that much." At least, not yet. Not that I wanted to hate anyone, but his ego was monstrous. ~curiosity~ as he turned to me with a raised eyebrow.

"Watch the road!" I reminded as we almost veered off it into the inky night. The car swerved suddenly back onto the road.

"So, no codename? What do you do?"

I felt my own annoyance and exasperation at having to explain again. But thankfully it was hard to come up with a codename for an empath and the search kept Bobby's one-track mind busy for the rest of the time it took to get to the restaurant.

We arrived shortly thereafter, the Jeep not far behind. I got out of the car and slammed the door behind me, looking up at the stars -- they were beautiful. And the night air was crisp and inviting, refreshing and cool. I hung back, waiting for everyone else to get out and lead the way.

Monet apparently had the same idea, or at least a similar one; she decided it would be better to just stay in the car. I knocked on the window and waved at her, trying to get her attention. I gave up and followed the rest of them into the restaurant, dismissing her as just ... the way she was. But -- something even stranger happened. The green I'd noticed before in her aura, back at the mall, had completely taken over, with almost no trace of the royal violet I was used to associating with her.

Because Bobby had been in such a hurry to see Emma, he'd left the car unlocked, and I could open the door. I did so. "Monet?" I asked gently. "You okay?"

She didn't respond. I concentrated on the quietly pulsating green glow and searched, somehow, for the violet I recognized. It was hard to find -- the green was like another person entirely; like she'd become someone completely different. People often had a duality to them, like when they made decisions, each side examined and weighed its options -- but this was beyond that. This was weird. Could I coax the violet personality back out? I searched for it again ... It was buried beneath layers of shields and it would be hard to draw it through those layers to the surface. I tried to establish a link, some sort of hook within so I could try to pull it through the dominant green. I thought perhaps I'd gotten the hook in when I was instantly repelled, forced out of Monet and snapped back into my own mind like a rubberband. I knew I couldn't have done it -- no, she had done this. She'd forced me out.

~fear!~

I bit my lip.

Her eyes darkened like angry stormclouds hanging on a rainy horizon. "Stay out of my head," she warned me, her voice a quiet thunder in my ears.

I wasn't in her --

~fear~fear~fear~ bombarding me, streaming towards me and I couldn't shut it out. I couldn't stop it.

"How much do you know?" she asked quietly, worried, so frightened, so confused. For a moment she was a scared deer and she was trapped in my headlights -- I would run her down if I didn't step on the brakes soon.

"Nothing ... " I said. "Not -- just -- well, a ... duality -- your aura, it's two different colors, and just now it was green.... I have no idea what that means, I'm not gonna -- don't worry, what little I -- I won't -- I'm not gonna do anything you don't want me to. Trust me, I know what it's like." I recalled my first day here and Emma's attack on my psyche. But -- it was different for Monet. I just knew it was different. And it was a creepy sort of different. And I knew it meant a lot to her. "You wanna come in and eat something now?" I asked, trying to keep my voice smooth, extending a hand to her. Soft, cool fingers found my palm and I helped her out of the car. A soft monochromatic thanks colored her, and I thought I saw a weak smile through the cloud of fear that still lingered. I tried my best to broadcast ~comfort~ as we walked into the restaurant.

Monet's aura instantly flared back to violet as she dropped my hand.

What had just happened? I wondered. It was like she had multiple personality disorder or something. I wanted to find out -- but I was no telepath, and besides, I'd promised.

The meal passed uneventfully. The highlight of the evening was when the coffee someone ordered came too hot and Bobby froze it, nearly shattering the ceramic mug it came in. There was no further odd behavior from Monet, but I'd apparently moved up on her imperial food chain. And me? I missed Jono. He wasn't here. I didn't know what would have happened if he'd come, but I missed him. "When are we gonna get back?" I whined in the general direction of the other table, where Bobby was admiring Emma and she was pointedly ignoring him.

"Right now," Emma responded, snatching up her purse and stalking outside. Thank goodness! Everyone just sorta looked at everyone else and waited, then as if by some unseen cue, got up and started talking all at once. Bobby shrugged and took out his wallet, flipping through bills and expecting the worst.

I glanced over at Monet, searching for any signs of -- well, anything really. There was nothing but that imperious aloofness I was so used to -- she didn't speak to anyone, she simply sat there nibbling the thick fries that had come with her hamburger, long since eaten.

After paying the bill, Bobby came to collect both of us -- Emma and the others were already gone.

***

We arrived at the sprawling campus later than we'd expected to. Despite the hour (whatever hour it was), lights still glowed pale amber from within the building. I was tired as I plodded up the stairs to my room -- I thought perhaps Monet might follow but she was nowhere to be found. At this point I was so tired I didn't even care. She could take care of herself, I knew, despite the strange fears I'd felt from her before. She'd be okay. I hoped.

I wasn't. It had been one strange day -- thoroughly odd, indeed, knowing and coming to realize those strange goings on in my heart, and defining what I felt for the other people here. I hoped, as I turned off my light, that I might soon find my niche. I turned over in my bed, hugging my pillow tight and wrapping myself up in The Ugly Blanket. I willed sleep to come.

I didn't have to will very hard.

(X)

Morning greeted me gently, just before she melted into afternoon, and asked me to wake up. Politely ignoring her, I turned over again and buried my head under the covers.

Morning and I, I realized, had a funny sort of relationship. Sometimes she was a friend to me, and I'd be awake and painting at seven AM. Most of the time, however, her kind words were gone and she could be downright motherly and condescending, yanking me from my bed before I finished dreaming. Today she was a disgusting mixture of the two.

/No,/ I thought into my pillow. My digital clock, however, now stared at me, complaining "9:52" in my tired eyes.

"Why?" I asked my pillow, whining.

The pillow didn't answer. Groggily I ambled to the dresser and pulled out clean clothes, including my oft-worn Wallflowers T-shirt. I threw these on with the permanently paint-stained jeans I'd worn yesterday. Fearing that sleep might threaten my eyes again, I headed out the door and started to walk downstairs hoping I might wake up. Then I realized I must've looked awful -- yes, I'd just woken up, but there was no need for me to look that way. It probably didn't matter in the long run, but for now -- well, I imagined there were elephants lurking in the brush, and I wasn't prepared for the safari. Not yet.

Wondering why they didn't have another bathroom nearby, I waited in front of the closed door. This, I noted, could be a chance for practice. I concentrated on the person in there and felt gingerly, empathically, for the identity of the occupant. If, I reasoned, I could find a specific person (as I had at the cineplex), I might be able to concentrate on that one person and find out who it was.

I reasoned correctly. I knew the person in there, and lucky for me, it was Paige. I waited, now almost immediately annoyed for no real reason other than that I knew she was there. It was childish, I knew, this odd feud between us. There was no reason for me to be angry with her, and no reason for her to be angry with me. There was ... there was Jono, and there were suspicions, but nothing beyond that. She and I had never really talked with one another -- before the suspicions, she seemed nice enough. Perhaps I could put all this behind us....

She stepped out, bright golden hair shining in the light from the window, oblivious to my presence.

"Good morning!" I chirped brightly. She was first shocked by my greeting, but, as she turned to face me, resonated a quiet anger like water boiling slowly beneath her surface. Which, I noted, wasn't altogether unlikely. Briefly I wondered if she <i>could</i> Husk into steam. Steam could burn you. Badly. Steam could get inside your throat and choke you -- burning you at the same time. It could --

She breezed past me coldly.

And cold, I realized, was just as deadly an assassin. I listed the possibilities in my mind -- possibilities of my impending death. Just her discarded skin alone was enough to effectively smother a person. Like me. That in mind, I hoped sincerely she'd cleaned up after herself this time. I entered the bathroom to find that, thankfully, she had. Grabbing my hairbrush, I pulled the excess strands of hair from its bristles, ready to deposit them in the garbage can when I noticed it was filled -- and nearly overflowing -- with scraps and pieces of varying sizes of tinfoil.

Tinfoil? This early in the morning? I didn't want to know. I brushed my hair and teeth and washed up -- adding a little lip gloss and a touch of eyeshadow, even though it was completely unnecessary -- before finally presenting myself to the world of the living downstairs. Only the late sleepers, I noted, were around; everyone else had gone off somewhere. Alison and Jubilee sat at the table, their places separated by a purple box of Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs. I didn't want to touch the stuff, myself, so after procuring a bowl and spoon I pitifully whined, "Isn't there anything else besides Sugar Bombs?"

Alison was appalled. "What, you don't like Sugar Bombs?"

I turned. "No, I don't. Do we have anything else?" There were other questions I wanted to ask her, too, like did she enjoy her evening at home?

"You poor insane person, you don't like anything good!" she insisted from her position at the table.

Happily I found a box of Life in the cabinet and ate that instead. We ate in relative silence -- even Jubilee was oddly quiet -- until that Bobby guy came downstairs, a grin plastered across his face like he'd just done something remarkably stupid and knew he was going to get away with it. He stretched, yawning, then greeted us with a particularly pleasant "Good morning!" before he virtually skipped to the fridge and took out the milk. He drank directly from the carton, replaced it, and grabbed a bowl from the nearby sink.

" 'Morning, Bobby," Jubilee greeted in startling contrast to her name as well as her usual demeanor. I suspected she remained awake long after our late return from the movie, and that was now taking its toll on her.

"OHMYGODIDON'TBELIEVETHISISTHATBOBBYDRAKE?" Alison exclaimed, completely abandoning her prized Sugar Bombs and wearing a look that registered somewhere between joy and impatience.

"Light," I muttered at the same moment Bobby proclaimed, "The one and only!" with that stupid grin still on his face. I wanted to smack him. Or let someone else smack him since I never actually would. He seemed like the kind of guy that needed a good smack.

"I can't believe this," Alison was going on -- gushing, really -- about this self-absorbed, egotistical, completely full-of-himself Ben Krieg/Mat Cauthon/Tom Paris type. But then, I reminded myself, Alison liked that type. At least when it came to Tom Paris -- but this was beyond even that. "It's really Bobby oh my gosh I can't believe this this is too cool ..."

"Lay offit, willya? He's nothin' special," Jubilee grumbled.

"Ooh, someone's in a bad mood," Bobby chided gently.

Jubilee's only response was an annoyed sound in her throat that could have easily passed for a growl. Alison was going so spastic I thought she'd ask for Bobby's autograph any minute now. Bobby himself loved all the attention, and tore off his T-shirt and socks, preparing to -- well, I wasn't sure exactly <>what<> he was preparing to do. I was getting frightened. Jubilee took another bite of cereal. I stared into my bowl of soggy Life.

Bobby had now metamorphosed into a walking ice cube and was proudly demonstrating his frigid talents for Alison. I was afraid. I hoped someone might come and liberate me from this crazy scene. But Jono didn't eat and so would have no reason to come to the kitchen. Unless ...

Empathically scanning the building for him, I eventually sensed him -- beneath us? Oh, well ... Keeping a lock on him, I sent out an empathic cry for ~help~. Between my own talents and his telepathy, I figured it just might work.

By now a pile of ice cubes was stacked in the middle of the floor and some crystalline mass was hanging from the ceiling like a stalactite. Alison watched, enthralled, bombarding our positively arctic new best friend (whatever happened to me?) with questions about everything imaginable. Jubilee had gone somewhere, leaving a bowl of warm chocolate-frosted milk with an accompanying spoon in her place. I hadn't noticed her sneak off, perhaps because I was so intent on testing my empathic Instant Messages. I sighed disconsolately. My cereal had long since gone soggy, but I ate it anyway. Life is one of those cereals that works just like its namesake -- it can get a little soggy and still be alright. /After all,/ I added ruefully, /it all comes out the same in the end./ I snickered to myself at the incredibly tasteless joke when I was veritably assaulted with a double barrage of energy that could only mean two psions had just come within my range.

The first was Jono, who had arrived -- in response to my plea, I assumed -- rather concerned yet at the same time thoroughly lost. I was about to explain when the second signature waltzed into the kitchen wearing an impossibly short white silk robe -- and, I took it, not much else, if anything at all. Emma hadn't been upset when she walked in, but upon sight of the lingering Bobby creating ice sculptures -- much to the delight of his adoring fan, who at one point had been my friend Alison but was now reduced to an extremely out-of-character quivering pile of goo to be manipulated like so much raspberry Jell-O ... I wondered if only for so brief a span of time, how raspberry Jell-O might be able to kill someone. The particularly vexed Emma simply ordered, "Robert Drake, NOT in the house!"

Alison took mild offense at the chastising of her hero; Bobby took none that I was aware of but lost the snowman getup. I just wanted to get out of here. This didn't make any sense. It was all too strange.

Jono still stood in the doorway, perplexed. *Someone called for help,* he explained. *Wot's going on?*

"Nobody called you," Emma insisted. She was also in danger of losing her scrap of robe, but there was no way I was telling her that.

*I'm not making it up.*

~exasperation~ radiated from Emma as she finally gave up and tried desperately to ignore -- well, everything I was trying to ignore, though in different forms, of course. I didn't want to brush too closely against her emotions, but did I detect something a bit deeper underneath that exasperation? Something directed towards the adjectevial Mr. Drake, perhaps? I didn't want to ask; it would be way too forward, improper, and just generally wrong. There was no denying what I sensed, though, and I grinned in spite of myself.

Sensations barraged me in the next second: ~shock~surprise~pain!~ from one party and an ~amusement~ from the other, all colored with Alison's gentle ~concern~embarrassment~. I looked slowly up, afraid of what I might find.

Emma was sprawled on the floor, the robe's thin belt hanging at her sides and just a bit more showcased than we needed to see. A bit? Nah, she was ALL there, displayed for the world to see. She was growing angrier and angrier and I was so sure she would kill someone in there and I hoped it wasn't me.... It wasn't long before I noticed the shinier parts of the floor -- a patch of ice?

Bobby was in TROUBLE.

I didn't want to be here when she killed him, and I was absolutely certain she would -- perhaps not actually kill him, but she would certainly do something positively awful and I still didn't want to be here for fear I might be caught up in the frying of brains, marked as an accomplice ... or something just as bad. Or worse. I just didn't want to know. I looked for my escape, to Jono who I suspected --

-- no, he wasn't there. What the heck? Ignoring my cereal bowl I dodged quickly past the growing confrontation and followed where I at least <i>thought</i> he'd been. It was tricky: empathic signatures are not as much like footprints as one might have you believe ... and the Academy was big. Still, he couldn't have gotten very far....

He couldn't have.

And he didn't -- I sensed him before I spotted him, on a couch in one of the lower levels, channel surfing. He was so bored, so disinterested, so disgusted with the programming ... nothing even coming close to intelligent was on in the early hours of afternoon. "I don't think anything's on," I suggested timidly. I was scared half to death of this thing that loomed before me -- that quite possibly loomed before him, as well, but I couldn't read anything from him -- it was like he was a closed book, something behind a locked door and I most certainly did not have the key.

*No,* he agreed.

The most decidedly awkward silence filled the room. I wanted to say something, anything ... Instead I turned around and started to go back upstairs. That was stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. /Why leave? Just because you have nothing to say?/

Just because I had nothing to say.

Yes, perhaps I was scared to death of this. That didn't mean I had to run away from it. If I faced this -- if I faced this, I wouldn't have to deal with it festering inside me any longer. I had no idea what the outcome of the whole situation would be, but the point was, there was a situation in the first place, and because of its existence, I had to face it. And that meant gathering some sort of courage to continue speaking. I turned back around and went back into the room.

So maybe I looked like a dolt. So what? "Sorry," I apologized.

Jono said nothing, simply stared at the television screen, mindlessly clicking through channels.

I didn't know what to do. "I think I'll just go," I blurted.

*Again?* he asked.

I swallowed hard. "If -- If you don't want -- I mean, then I should just -- "

*I don't mind,* he said.

He didn't mind? What? The question of whether I had heard correctly really had no place here since he spoke directly into my head -- and it was such an intimate form of communication!

I didn't say anything -- I couldn't -- and gingerly took a seat on the opposite end of the couch.

"And I don't want the world to see me, 'cause I don't think that they'd understand ..." What? Oh, the television -- music video. I recognized the song as "Iris", by the Goo Goo Dolls -- didn't they use that in City of Angels last night?

"Cause everything's made to be broken, I just want you to know who I am ..." It was a good song, too ... and something I could work off of. A start. "Do you ever feel like that?" I asked.

*Wot?*

"The song," I pointed out. " 'I don't want the world to see me 'cause I don't think that they'd understand. Everything's made to be broken, I just want you to know who I am',

" I quoted. "It ... it reminds me of you. Ah, sorta."

Sorta?

He contemplated this, turned it over. *I guess,* he finally decided.

"... yeah, you bleed just to know you're alive ..."

I bit my lip. Had I chosen my words wrong? He didn't bleed ... no blood ... but alive. Yes, alive. And beautiful. And the music was beautiful, too. I got caught up in the song almost like I did with my own music, the way I played it -- it was weird. The video was all shades of lonely ... Did he want me to know who he was, or was I part of that world that wouldn't understand? Maybe I just didn't have a chance.

I looked over at him from the corner of my eye: so hard to read, the same black leather draped over shoulders I knew were likely scarred beneath that thick jacket. And the same demeanor draped over his emotions, this dense veil I couldn't penetrate. What was going on in his head that he wanted to keep so locked up and hidden from everyone?

I looked at my hands, squeezed my own fingers, looked at my feet and made sure they were still there. Back at the TV and then back at Jono and I couldn't read him. Trying to get through to him was like trying to drive through a fog without any headlights.

The screen flickered; there was a hint of static -- what would happen if the TV went out completely? It kicked back in and Madonna's "Frozen" came on -- now that was a beautiful video. The channel was instantly changed.

"I -- " I began to protest. "I liked that video," I stated.

*She's trying to be gothic and isn't pulling it off very well,* Jono informed me.

"But the imagery -- just look at it. Frozen. The shades of blue and black, it just looks cold. Like -- like there's something you can't get through to ..." I glanced back at the floor. "C'mon, change it back. Give it a chance."

*No,* he decided, and kept channel-surfing.

He was more stubborn than I was! "It'll be gone by the time you finally get back to it," I insisted. "And you just might like it."

" ... mmm, if I could melt your heart ... "

"Thank you."

" ... mmm, we'd never be apart ... "

*You're welcome.*

" ... mmm, you hold the key ... "

We sat in relative silence aside from the -- at least, what I considered beautiful -- imagery.

This was going nowhere. I was going around and around in circles and it would continue to do so unless I did something about it.

I was going to do something about it.

I closed my eyes -- it wasn't necessary but it helped my concentration -- and gathered all the ambient energy I felt, all my own energy and perhaps some from people upstairs -- I took it all in and held it, flooded it through every part of me. Without any warning to him I rammed all of it through the shield he'd set up. I was nowhere near as strong as he was, nowhere near coming even remotely close to his immeasurable power. And I realized my error as soon as my probe reached him -- the emotions I read from him were -- were regret, hurt, pain -- so much pain -- I shouldn't have done that, I shouldn't have ...

Jono looked directly at me but didn't say a word. He didn't need to.

I tried desperately to pull out, to pull away. His shields were back up and now I was on the inside. I didn't have enough power to pull out the same way I'd pushed in. This was an invasion of his privacy, even if I couldn't read thoughts, and it was wrong. I just -- I just couldn't let go.

Maybe it was him -- I don't know, it was nothing I'd done before and certainly nothing I could repeat even if I wanted to. I felt the fluid empathic ties encircle his mind and oh LIGHT what was I doing -- and tie off -- this wasn't me! I wasn't doing this, I wasn't in control!

Wasn't I? Or was this some odd subconscious need to be even closer to him simply because I knew I couldn't ever be --

-- tied tight and I wanted to unravel the knots I'd made but they were too strong and I don't think I was even the one to tie them!

What the bloody hell had just happened?

Jono was just as extraordinarily confused as I was. I didn't need to keep a lock on him, it simply stayed there even when I tried desperately to pull out and away again.

*Wot -- wot did yer just do?*

~fear~confusion~anger~

I had no idea. "I don't know," I whispered shakily in whatever voice I had left. "Maybe -- I should --" I got up and started to leave, but I hadn't taken two steps when something caught beneath my foot and I found myself on the floor. Again. I wanted to laugh; it was like there was some twist of fate that just kept me here and I couldn't leave even though I wanted to, I wanted to get so far away from here, from him and I wanted to scream at whoever or whatever was keeping me here.

I didn't even want to look at him. Frantically I tried to undo whatever just happened, but I couldn't -- I couldn't fix it or make it better. Upset -- but nowhere near tears -- I got up and went back upstairs. I kept climbing floors and steps and floors, walking, running, whatever -- I just had to go. This escape was the only thing on my mind, the only thing --

Floor hit me hard again just seconds after I realised I'd run into someone. My nose hurt ... my elbow stung wildly and I felt something sticky and wet running down my arm. /Nonononononono ... / I thought, some steady stream of more colorful expletives following my denial that I'd again collided with -- no, this felt different. This -- person --

I gathered myself up and kept on my way not even looking at the man -- who I knew was Mr. Cassidy -- if I had to run into someone, why did it have to be a teacher? Now he'd be asking me what was wrong, and trying somehow to fix it, to make it better.

"Jen, lass, please come back here and --" He cut himself off, sure some other words might be better. " -- let's have a look at that elbow."

Grudgingly I turned back. I had to; Mr. Cassidy was the only one who had any authority over me here since he was in charge. Emma didn't count. I reluctantly, wordlessly held out my elbow, still bleeding. With a finger wet with my own saliva, I cleaned the excess blood but it kept flowing. And it still hurt like crap.

"Ye must have hurt yuirself pretty badly," he said. He almost sounded condescending, but it wasn't the intent behind his words.

Having nothing to say to that except a particularly sarcastic, "No, really?" (which I kept to myself), I remained quiet. I was, however, increasingly aware of the terrible pain in my stinging, burning elbow.

"Let's take this down tae the medlab," Mr. Cassidy suggested. I had no choice but to follow, cradling my arm in my right hand. I didn't want to stain the carpet with dripping blood -- although it might've been fun in Emma's office. The thought made me grin in spite of myself -- in spite of this new awareness in my head.

The medlab was particularly clean, with unfamiliar medical technology gleaming pristine shades of aluminum and white. For all its sterility, there was an unusual sort of darkness about the place.

Mr. Cassidy opened a cabinet and, frustrated, searched its contents. "Ye'd think they'd put the first aid kit back where it belongs," he muttered.

And I didn't want to admit what was actually going on. It was nice of him not to ask where I'd been going so fast and not paying attention.... I didn't even know where I was going, just that I was leaving. So.

That weird dark presence --

Mr. Cassidy turned around, having finally found the first aid kit. I held out my elbow and, after it was cleaned, allowed it to be wrapped in sterile gauze.

It looked so much like --

I couldn't shake the nagging feeling of what I'd inadvertently done; there was a lingering depression that wasn't mine in the back of my head.

"There ye go. Good as new."

"Thank you," I said.

That dark presence --

"Um, Mr. Cassidy?"

He turned just as he was about to leave. I didn't have to tell him if I didn't want to. But it was so ... well, just wrong. Not right. I had to tell someone -- someone who could do something about it.

"I --" I began. "I think I did something, um, wrong." I knew I did something wrong, there was no "think" about it.

~confusion~ mixed with the soup of emotions already too chaotic in the back of my mind. "Go on ... "

"With -- with my powers." I'd been about to say "with Jono" but that would've given the wrong impression entirely. "I, um, I -- I think I --" I took a deep breath to try and sort out my words. I used the best phrases I could find. "I think I est--managed to establish some sort of empathic, ah, link." I avoided the question I knew he must want to ask: with whom? ~concern~ flashed in his sky blue aura but he refrained from asking. I wondered why -- didn't he want to know?

"I think," he said instead, beginning slowly, "that I'm not the person ye need te talk to about this."

If not him, then who? Ought I take this up with Jono, who I was still having trouble communicating with properly? Not bloody likely. "Um?" I asked.

"I wouldn't know where tae start with such a thing," Mr. Cassidy explained. "An' the nature of yuir powers bein' what they are and all, ye'd surely have better luck with Ms. Frost."

I could feel the blood draining from my face. My mouth hung several inches open before I realized what I was doing and closed it. Had he any idea what he was sentencing me to? "No," I blurted. "Please, Mr. Cassidy, not Emma. Please. Anything but that."

I sent up a hopeful look as he contemplated all of this. If anyone could help me, I was sure he could. But --

"Much as I understand where ye're comin' from -- and believe me, I do! -- I still think it would be in yuir best interests."

My best interests? I did not want to see Emma. I did not like Emma. But like it or not, I was ushered right out of medlab and straight into Emma's office. Thankfully, she wasn't in there, but that also meant that I was forced to wait for her, which I'm certain was worse, because I kept on dreading that one moment in which she returned. I took a seat just outside the office and sighed.

Mr. Cassidy glanced at his watch and muttered something about "that woman". He then turned to me and said, "I'm afraid I dinnae have the time tae wait with ye; I have a session scheduled with some of yuir classmates in fifteen minutes. Do ye promise ye'll wait here for Ms. Frost 'till she arrives?"

No. Yet I had to obey him -- not because of any suggestive powers he had, but because he was honest and real, whereas Emma was most decidedly fabricated. I couldn't help but trust him. If I told him I wouldn't wait here, I'd be letting him down. And if I said I would and then ran off, I'd be a liar, and would consequently be losing his trust. I didn't need both headmasters angry with me. "Yes," I promised. "Until she arrives."

Mr. Cassidy nodded. "I'll talk tae ye later," he guaranteed.

I still felt slippery as I made my promise. I glanced at my hands, where the vestiges of ink vines wound around my wrist and through fingers like the truth I'd so twisted to suit my needs. My Great Serpent ring coiled around my right index finger, reminding me of the Aes Sedai I acted like. I would wait until Emma came back. That was what I'd said.

I waited what seemed like hours but could have realistically only been forty minutes at most. I didn't know where Emma was, and the only reason I cared was that she was gone in the first place.

I scanned the area just outside the office as I sat in the folding chair that had been placed there seemingly arbitrarily. The hallway was dim, with just enough light to make out my own just barely visible aura. The blue-violet color that surrounded me was ordinarily invisible, but when the lighting conditions were just right, an extremely faint glow could be seen. Dim hallways were one place where this was possible; the only other one that I was aware of was in a movie theater.

Emma was one of the only people I still had some trouble detecting. Her bright white costume, however, stood out in the low light of the hallway and I braced myself. Before she could offer so much as a greeting to me, I smiled innocently up at her and said ever so casually, "Good afternoon, Ms. Frost. I was just leaving." And I bolted down the hallway.

(X)

Bobby continued whistling as Emma, refusing to turn the shade of pink that <I> was probably turning over having seen such a thing, suddenly stopped and glared right at us both, as if she was staring past our eyes and into our very minds. Which, considering that she was Emma Frost, could quite possibly be the case. Suddenly I saw this bright flash of pink light and--

Why in the world was I standing in the kitchen staring at the empty sink? I pondered this as I looked up at ... Oh, Bobby was here too. He was also staring at the sink with a similarly perplexed expression on his face. Obviously, he wasn't going to be able to give me an answer. I felt like I'd just run up the stairs too fast, and I'd forgotten why I'd wanted to get up there in the first place. My mind was a total blank. Bobby glanced down at me in confusion.

"What...?" he asked.

"I have no idea," I answered. We both shrugged it off -- it couldn't have been anything important. But now what? "So ... you wanna play hockey or somethin'?" I asked, realizing as soon as the words left my mouth that playing hockey with Bobby Drake was bound to be a heck of a lot more interesting than normal. His eyes brightened and a devious grin began to snake across his face upon hearing my suggestion. Oh George -- what had I done?

"Sure! The Iceman rules hockey!"

And with that, we went outside to find a good place to play the aforementioned game. We came upon Ange, Jubes and Ev all hanging around the basketball court on the side of the building and decided to incorporate them into our game as well. Bobby decided that right there was the perfect spot for an impromptu hockey rink, and Bobby iced the courts over as Ange and Ev reemerged from the building where we'd sent them to get the necessary hockey equipment. We laced up our skates as we chose teams, and somehow it managed to end up that Jubes, Ev, and me were pitted against Angelo and Bobby. Bobby, who (obviously) hadn't needed skates, kept trying to insist that he could take us all, without Angelo's help. Angelo thought that he could whip Bobby one-on-one, and we just laughed at them both because they were obviously suffering from some form of mass delusions. And, of course, when we finally started playing, we kicked their butts. Of course.

"Hey, c'mon -- one more game!" Bobby insisted after he and Ange had lost 21-0. "Come on, you wusses!"

Well, of course we couldn't stand for that: it was just asking too much to walk away after Bobby Drake had called you a wuss. So we played another game and despite the high amusement factor of the first game, this one took a rather ... interesting turn.

As I was dribbling the puck up to take a shot on goal (Bobby was being distracted by Jubes' attempt at spinning on the ice), I slipped. This sent both me and the puck flying. At that point, Ev crashed into me head-on and we both went flying into first Angelo and then the goal net (Bobby had conventiently vacated the immediate area). As we slammed into the net, my stick exploded -- it must have been my wacky mutant power going on the fritz again. Anyway, as we crashed through Angelo, Ev must have accidentally synched with me because his stick exploded, along with Angelo's skates.

"Madre de Dios! Aaah!"

CRASH!!!

"Saints preserve u -- OW!!"

Apparently, Sean had picked that incredibly bad time to appear on the scene. The puck had, unfortunately, found the unlucky redheaded schoolmaster and effectively thwacked him in the skull. Now that had to hurt.

Not that we weren't in pain ourselves. As we tried to disentangle ourselves, though, we suddenly realized that we were hovering 7 feet in the air. How that had happened, I wasn't sure -- I just knew that I wanted down.

"­Madre de Dios!" Angelo observed again. "Get us down, ahora!"

"How are we even up here?" I managed to ask as Bobby and Jubes snickered from down on the ground. Whether they were laughing at us or the unconscious Banshee lying on the lawn -- or both -- I wasn't sure. I just wanted DOWN.

"This is all your fault!" Ev yelled at me, trying to unwrap Angelo's arm from around his leg.

"My fault?! How?" I asked, similarly trying to get Angelo's foot out from between my arms. It was not working.

"You're the one making us fly! I must have synched with you."

"Well, then, stop it!" Ev apparently did so, and suddenly he and Ange fell to the ground. Since they were still caught in the net, however, the net pulled me down as well. This hurt considerably, and I let them know it.

"OW!!"

At that point, Jubes and Bobby burst out laughing, not able to control themselves any longer.

"Shut up!" I whined, but frankly I was on the verge of laughter myself. Angelo was muttering bad things in Spanish that I'd really rather not repeat, but Ev was laughing too. On the lawn, Banshee began to stir.

"Oooh..." he moaned. Ev had finally managed to give all of Angelo's skin back to him, and we slowly began crawling out from underneath the net as Jubes and Bobby continued to be consumed by laughter.

"That was ... the funniest thing ... I've ever seen!" Jubilee shrieked. Bobby couldn't talk because he was laughing too hard -- but maybe that was a good thing, in the long run. Sean had managed to get up and was rubbing his head as Ev and I examined out throbbing hands.

"Man, this hurts!" Ev complained. I just stuck my tongue out at him.

"The Medlab, both 'o ye. Now," Sean ordered, one hand still gently massaging the large bump forming on his head. Ev and I trudged off sullenly as Jubilee and Bobby continued to laugh and Angelo continued to swear.

"And please -- will ye find something constructive to do with your time?" Sean pleaded woth the remaining three mutants before turning to follow us. "And clean up that mess! I mean it, Drake!"

***

In the Medlab, Sean first bandaged Ev's hands and rebandaged mine before wrapping his head, moving about in a very professional manner -- especially for someone who'd just been hit on the head with a hockey puck. Oddly enough, he didn't seem too angry; I mean, if it had been Emma that I'd hit, I wouldn't have had a coherent thought left to speak of. I admired Sean for that -- he seemed to really care about us, and genuinely didn't mind being here with us.

That was the difference between him and Emma. Sean was more of a "people" person: a better teacher and listener all around, and definitely a better sympathizer. Emma was ... okay, sometimes, but she just created this air of superiority and control that distanced me from her. I did not want her digging around in my mind, and I sure knew that she wouldn't be the first person I'd go to with a problem. Sean, on the other hand, would understand all that. He cared -- and so did Emma -- but the difference was that he showed he cared, a lot more openly than she did. Sean was cool.

"Now, I assume this all started when your powers decided to activate on their own?" he asked me; I nodded. "And then ye synched with her?" Ev nodded.

"Unintentionally," he told Sean, who nodded and hooked us both up to EKGs -- man, do those things bug me! But I decided that it must have been important, and that it wasn't my place to complain.

"I know that still tends to happen," Sean told Ev, and went over to type something into a nearby computer. "Mutant powers, like I mentioned before, tend to manifest themselves erratically and without warning."

"All right," he said after he finished typing, "I'm going to check on yuir other vitals." He came over and attached sticky things to both me and Ev, turning back to the monitor and punching something up. "Your heartbeats and breathing patterns are still the same, as well as some of your lower brain funcions, but this has happened to Everett before."

Ev nodded. I imagined that it was a quite plausible thing, and said nothing. Actaully, I'd never really thought about it before -- I didn't actually know what was involved in a "synch", but that seemed likely, now that I thought about it.

"I'm just going to run a few more tests for Everett before I start with Alison," he informed us, typing away at the keyboard. As he typed, though, he would explain what he was doing -- what he was testing for, what results he got, and what he believed those results meant. I thought that was a really great thing to do, and most certainly something that Emma would not do. But it was really helpful -- I mean, how else were we supposed to learn the intricacies of our powers? It did us no good for only our teachers to know, and Sean obviously felt that way too. He was definitely one cool guy.

Basically, what the tests told us was that our bodies were still in perfect synch, and would probably remain so for another 2 hours or so. Once he was done with that, he began removing the sticky things from us.

"Now that I'm done testin' Ev's powers, I'd like to explore Alison's more fully. And since ye're synched with her, lad, ye might as well help us."

Ev nodded as Sean motioned for us to get off the beds and began leading us out.

"I thought some trainin' exercises in the Biosphere might be the best thing right now." he informed us as we headed that way. Once we arrived, he informed us that he wanted to see if Ev could help me activate my powers and gain just a little more control over them, since he had pretty good control over his.

The first thing he had us do was try to get some conscious control over the explosions I seemed to be able to bring about. This was by no means easy, and ended up giving both of us a really big headache. We had to stop a lot, and didn't manage to get control over much. It was really tiring, as well as thoroughly frustrating. Sean kept us at it, but he understood and let us take a lot of breaks. We talked during the breaks, and Sean insisted on hearing all about me. I hadn't really gotten too much of a chance to talk to him before, and it was kind of nice.

I ended up telling them all about home, and the Gobble/Arena Circus (I think I gave him some ideas with that one!), and Space Camp, and about how I wanted to be an astronaut someday. He thought that was cool, and even offered to take me to MIT to visit sometime; I thought that was cool. He then ended up telling us -- well, more me than Ev, since he probably already knew -- about Muir Island, and his time with the X-Men, and all his experiences with Generation X so far. It was pretty cool, and it sounded like he had a rather interesting life, compared to most. Then the break was over, and we had to get back to work again. Not totally fun, but at least it wasn't Emma who was making us do all of this.

"All right, now could ye try for that rock over there...."

***

I had to do this. And I had to get this done. Redundant, perhaps ... but I couldn't just let this sit stagnant, fermenting in my mind forever! I knocked on the door.

"What? Come in."

I opened the door. She was studying at the desk. I picked my way over the stuff on the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, facing her. "Hi, Paige ... it's me."

She turned. She was taken off guard: ~startled~ "What do you want?" she asked crisply and I knew she was plotting my death again. I had to face her, though -- if I must die, so be it.

"I just wanted to talk. About ... well, what's going on."

"Yes?" she asked, not looking up, calm, cool, trying to be emotionless but ~angry~ and she hated my guts and -- was that ~fear~?

"Well, I -- I know you hate me."

She laughed.

"No, really -- I'm tying to be serious, here. I know you hate me. I don't even need to be empathic to figure it out. You won't talk to me, when you do it's coldly civil -- it's like when I talk to Em -- Ms. Frost. I think."

"Jen, Ah -- I don't hate you." She was being awfully condescending, like her words were directed at a child that simply didn't understand what she was saying the first time.

"Yes, you do," I insisted. "Now, I didn't come here to try and be friends and try to make everything all better 'cause I know it doesn't work that way. But I want to ease this -- so we can at least talk to one another instead of this cold resentment."

"But I don't hate you." She exuded a soft ~exasperation~ as she informed me of this yet again.

Her words snapped me from my speech. "But -- but why the frustration? The anger?" It didn't add up.

"Hate -- hate is a strong word," Paige explained. "I don't hate you."

"But I dislike you strongly," I was sure she'd add. She didn't but it had to be what she was thinking. It had to be. "But you dislike me strongly," I finished for her.

"I wouldn't say that, either." She put down her pen, took off her glasses and looked right at me. "I don't -- I don't understand you," she admitted. "There are things you do -- I don't get you half the time. You oughta be gettin' straight A's in every class. Why don't you study more?"

"I hate class," I explained. That wasn't entirely true. English was alright, and I loved history -- at least back home I'd loved history.

"If you just tried a little harder --"

"I'd be just like you," I interrupted.

~??!!~ "What the heck do ya mean by that?"

Her voice was bordering on Southern now. Keep it calm -- don't say anything to upset her more --

"I just --" I began, "I meant -- nothing."

She didn't believe me.

"I mean, I'm not you and I don't want to be." Oh, but didn't I want to be? After all, Jono liked her. And she was the one getting all the grades. She was the smart one. "No," I contradicted, though, "that's not what I mean."

~confusion~ "Then what do you mean?"

"Okay ... well, the ... grades, well, I couldn't -- well, even if I watned to I couldn't ... because I'm -- and you're just ..." Better. She was just better. And everyone liked her, Sunshine Paige, so honest and straightforward and intelligent and --

"Jen, this is it. I'm not gettin' you, here."

/Maybe because I'm not talking in complete sentences./ "Why do you hate me?" I blurted.

"I told you," Paige reiterated, "I don't hate you. I don't understand you."

"Well, why don't you understand me?" I countered.

"If I knew that I think I'd understand you."

Ah! Such logic! But of course she didn't understand me. "It's because of Jono, isn't it?"

~curious~defensive~ "No, it's not." Crisp, and she started turning back to her work again, dismissing me.

I didn't leave. "I know what you're feeling. It's because of Jono."

"Don't assume things," she instructed in a tone that could have been borrowed from Emma.

"I'm not," I explained. "I'm telling you what I know. I sense emotions, you do recall -- and it's because of Jono."

"That doesn't even make sense."

I almost laughed. She was afraid of me finding out -- of me finding things out about her that I might tell everyone else. She had her own secrets locked behind that sunny exterior -- not as deep as Monet's, to be sure, but secrets nonetheless.

"You're jealous." I realized it as soon as I'd said it -- she was jealous. Of me! When she was Sunshine! I shook my head. "You're ... you're jealous. That ... that's almost ridiculous."

"Because it isn't true!" she exploded. "Jen -- I'm not jealous!"

That laugh I'd been holding in escaped. Why was I laughing? Was this really funny? "No ... no, of course not. That's me, you see. That's me, Sunshine ..." I couldn't help it. I was laughing and I just couldn't help it. Soft unmade sheets hit the side of my face as I fell over laughing so hard. I was starting to get a headache -- had to breathe.

"Are you okay?" Paige's genuinely concerned voice shone like a ray of light through the dense fog, so murky and grey, inside my head.

The fog clouded my vision and the sight I'd known blurred. I had to breathe -- couldn't talk if I couldn't breathe -- hah! "Okay?" I questioned as though I were asking someone else instead of simply echoing her word to make sure I'd heard correctly. "Yes, yes -- I'm more than okay. I'm insane." I sat up, breathing as best I could through this dense mist clogging every part of my head and every way out. "Yes, I'm insane and it's fun! Insane ... hah, yes!" I looked right at her, in those beautiful blue eyes that sparkled in the light, at that soft complexion that could be ripped off at a moment's notice. I reached out to her, placing each of my hands on one of her shoulders, gripping so she might not leave before I was done with her. "I'm insane," I spoke in a stage whisper. "I shouldn't be here -- I should be somewhere else." I laughed some maniacal villainous laugh. "And I'm in love with your boyfriend! How's that? How is it, Sunshine? How's that feel?"

"He's not mah boyfriend!" she exclaimed, trying to pull away from me, turning and writhing underneath my hard grip.

"I suppose next you'll tell me you can't stand him, hmm? Hah!" The short explosion of words left my lips and the whisper left, my voice building and building ... "Hah! I've felt it! Your remorse -- your pain, your passion! That's why you hate me! Because I'm so bloody in love with him! He he! Otherwise we could be great friends, whaddayasay?" I felt her twisting underneath my hands, trying to wriggle out of my grasp. She left handfuls of torn skin in my fists as she got away from me. Oh, not yet ... not yet, I wasn't done with her yet! "Ooh," I marvelled sarcastically. "Such a neat trick ... but do you know what? I'm not done with you. And he doesn't treat me any better! Oh, no! Not one bit! So, Sunshine, no reason to hate me --" I advanced on her, waving fistfuls of flesh in her face. "He can't stand me either! But just between you and me, I think he can't stand me more. So you might actually stand a chance." I dropped the flesh on the ground beneath her. I didn't see her anymore, the fog was too thick, I had to get through this layer of madwoman that had grown on me. "If," the madwoman held one of my fingers in the air and I was powerless -- "If ye can ever get through ter him. And it ain't easy. Not that I 'ave or anything -- but it ain't easy."

"Jennifer?" she asked. I'd trapped her in a corner by now. Saying my name wasn't going to help anything.

But the madwoman in control didn't recognise my name -- it wasn't hers at all, it was me, it was who I was. Some grip she yet held on me -- no, not she -- he. A madman. One we both loved. " 'e's got an 'old on me ... " I muttered. I didn't know what was going on, my hands against my head as though it might drown out whatever it was in that back corner of -- no, not just that back corner anymore, but pervading my whole brain and I was unable to let go....

"Get out. Please...."

I couldn't hear her through the fog. It was only growing stronger, with ~fear~ and ~concern~ and ~confusion~ and a myriad of other emotions all mixing within me. I wanted to look at her but everything was blurry and hot and wet -- her face was wet. I remembered when my face was wet. I didn't like it. It wasn't fun. "I can't do that," I explained.

"Because if I leave you now --"

"Please."

"Yer ... you're crying," I observed, the word for the wet face coming into my vocabulary again. I'd known that word once ... "Don't cry."

She sunk onto the floor and buried her head in her hands, sobbing. She was so scared ...

"You're gonna make me cry, too ..." I said as I knelt beside her on the floor. I only wanted to help her. I didn't mean to scare her. That wasn't --

"What are ya doin'?" ~frustration~ more ~confusion~

"I don't know. I donno." No need to say it twice but maybe twice for the two of us. I always knew he was there but he was never actually in my head. What was he doing in my head? I wanted to run away but couldn't -- I couldn't leave Paige there like that; she was a wreck and so was I and I wanted to know what was going on and I think I could see myself through the fog ... My face was wet, now, too, wet just like Paige's and wet just like before ... I wanted to curl up and die. To die would be to leave. To leave would be an exit. An exit would be an off-ramp. An off-ramp would be a tollbooth. Did I have exact change? I used quarters to pay for an action figure once ...

"Jen? Do you need help? I can go get Ms. Frost...."

Frost gathered on the windowpanes signaling the start of winter. Winter meant snow and I hated snow and cold and school. I never did well on tests. But that was why I was here, right, so I could learn more about the tests and trials of every day life. Life was full of pictures, like that magazine. I once had a subscription to TV Guide but that was soon cancelled like my favorite show seaQuest. They got rid of half the characters and brought in this really cheesy writer. Sometimes writers could be bad, like Larry Hama. Who was Larry Hama, anyway?

I didn't like ham ...

"Jen, do you want me to go get Ms. Frost?"

Ray of light, and I feel like I've just come home zephyr in the sky at night ... no. Frost. Ms. Frost. Emma Frost, the White Queen. Telepath. Yes. Help. Help me get out of this. My head hurt. She could fix that. Head doctor in that bright white lab coat -- I felt my head move up and down slowly.

I let the Sunshine leave and I was trapped in the darkness behind my eyes soup swirling in my brain, no, Soup sticks to walls. Peter the photographer. An increasing pain welled up inside me and I thought I might --

/This hurts. You're hurting me./ Who was I talking to? Was I talking? No, I wasn't. I hurt too much to talk. Couldn't talk or breathe or eat or -- no, that wasn't me.

Funny feelings flooded into my head and made that grey soup even thicker, like pea soup, I hated peas ... peas did not go with carrots. He talked right into my head. He was always in my head. Did I put him there? *Sorry, luv.*

Luv -- love? I thought he loved that other girl. /What are you doing?/

~confusion~ More confusion to be added to the mix? Didn't anyone ever feel anything else? I had had enough of confusion and angst ... *I wasn't doing anything.*

/But --/ But that didn't go, non sequitur, which was a pretty decent Voyager episode about Harry Kim who went to Marseilles to see Paris ...

*I don't know what to tell yer, gel.*

I shook my head, I felt it shaking and moving ever so slightly and wilder and wilder and Dionne Wilder ... /I was talking to ... to Sun -- to Paige and I just went nuts only I think I still am; it was like I was watching --/ Had to take a deep breath, breathe and get that oxygen to my brain. It had to work that way -- it worked that way with me. I had to breathe yet. Death was not an option. Or was that failure? Either way, both -- just keep in contact. Wasn't it that contact that had been hurting me in the first place?

I had to keep talking. He was there. Maybe not actually physically there, but he was listening. For once someone was listening. I had to gain control. Tell him what happened. /I was talking to Paige and I just flipped. It was like I was watching myself from the inside. Like I wasn't me. I think I -- Light, I think I told her everything./

~?~

Not more emotions, they made my head hurt more.

/No, not everything ... I don't think I don't remember./

*Yer ... don't remember?*

/Paige went to get Ms. Frost,/ I realized.

*Do ... do yer want me to come ...?*

Of course I did. I always wanted him closer ... I tried to shove that out before -- before he came running, though. Not that he actually would come running. But if he came any closer it might only do more damage. /Stay where you are,/ I instructed. /I don't want to hurt./ The headache that came was likely a result of everything.... or something.

*I -- I don't want ter hurt yer, either.*

I wanted to check for motion, to see if Jono was staying where he was or coming. Using my powers just might hurt more, though. But I couldn't just turn it off, it was always there, that constant awareness of others, of Jono in particular. His emotions just flooded to me the moment he felt them and it seemed I felt them, too. I still didn't know what I'd done. Knowing he was there was a comfort, though. I couldn't move.

I wondered if Paige had found Emma yet.

He probably knew every single thing that had happened here because he was inside my head. Was he the madman hitching a ride on my brain?

/Jono?/

*Wot?*

/Talk to me./ I didn't know where that odd request came from, but it was me talking -- thinking -- there was no need to worry about said madman riding the boxcar on my train of thought. Perhaps it was because when I'd thought to him, and he'd spoken to me from so far away, he'd alleviated some of the insanity plaguing my consciousness or the complete lack thereof.

~??~

/Please -- I don't want to fade out again./ I knew it meant I'd be even more aware of the constant psionic contact, so much more aware of the elephant I wasn't supposed to think about. And it would probably hurt, even if only a little, all these new and old emotions coming from him to mingle with the others whirling about inside my brain and pressing against the walls of my skull. I didn't care. I needed him to be there. So I didn't go insane.

*About wot?*

/I don't care. Anything. Keep me awake. Just until Emma gets here./

*Are yer sure you don't want me there?*

I considered this. Would his being closer actually hurt so much as -- as whatever it was? /Try,/ I suggested. /If it hurts I'll let you know./ Odd, because I was sure that if I hurt, he'd feel my pain -- had he been feeling it all along?

Jono started coming. I could feel him getting closer. He didn't even have to ask where I was. That in itself was positively freaky. I stayed curled up, there, though, hot and tired and wet from crying and with the worst headache I'd ever had.

And then he was there. I didn't even hear the door open. I just knew.

*I'm 'ere.*

/I know./ That was it, that was it -- just "I know". Simple, not speaking because I couldn't talk and even if I could it wouldn't sound right at all.

~helplessness~

I couldn't move. It was a wonder I could even think to him. I couldn't see ... I could breathe, though. Concentrate on that, just breathe. Just.

*Are yer alright?*

/I think -- no./ I wasn't. In more ways than one. And I knew he knew I wasn't alright. Why had he even bothered to ask?

Jono didn't bother to even start asking the next question; he knew perfectly well what needed to be done. He intended to help me and -- -- what was this? Maybe Paige had every right to hate me.

Limp, unmoving, just breathing and thinking and feeling all these feelings swirling, I felt capable arms lift me from Paige's bed. And carry me. But wasn't I heavy?

*Yes, gel, you are.*

/I -- / couldn't think -- words -- I had every intention of staying alive. Awake, however was another --

(X)

During another break, I also got to know Ev better -- he was a history buff, and had a very intellectual mind; more so than I'd given him credit for. He loved good music, too -- jazz and some alternative. He was really a much deeper character than I'd thought before I got to know him. He was very kind and understanding, and I got the feeling that he was someone you could trust to be there - just the type of person you'd want to be your best friend. Somehow, being "in synch" with him, I could almost see into his mind. Not so much like a psychic link -- as Sean had explained to me, our subconscious and unconscious minds were linked, and as his power mixed with mine so did our minds. It was more like this tickling presence in the back of my mind, and the occasional gut feeling or instinct or impulse that was similar to mine but not mine floating in my mind. Almost like with Jennifer, because we had been friends so long we often knew what the other was feeling or thinking, but Ev was just one step closer -- he was actually there. I wondered if he felt the same thing, and got the feeling that he did when he nodded at me as soon as the thought formed.

As the 3 of us -- Sean, Ev, and I -- sat on a rock near the pond during one of our many breaks, I found it rather amusing to look over and see Ev's chest rise and fall perfectly -- well, in synch -- with mine, and even a lot of our unconscious movements mirrored each other. For instance, I would scratch my nose and his hand would twitch, wanting to rise to his own nose. Or we would both sneeze at the same time, or blurt out ideas at the same time. It was almost eerie.

After a while, our headaches had developed into migraines, and Sean apparently saw that neither of us was obviously up to training any more. Although I think the effects of the synch were beginning to wear off -- I could almost feel his presence draining from my mind, ever so slowly and gradually pulling out -- I could still sense him there, sharing my unharnessed power and randomest thoughts and, obviously, my pounding headache. Sean, though, finally told us to go down to the Med Lab and wait for him there, and we were both only too happy to comply.

As we passed the stairs, I saw Paige coming down them looking rather disturbed, and kind of like she wasn't quite all there. I wondered what the problem was, and, glancing into the mirror, I amusedly noticed that Ev had the same curious look on his face that I did. Go figure. Just as one of us (actually, I'm not entirely sure which -- it was more like a joint intention) was about to ask Paige about the reason of her distress, the doorbell rang; this caused both Ev and I to jump exactly 3 inches off the floor, and seemed to bring Paige -- somewhat -- out of her trance-like stupor.

"Ah'll ... get that," she mumbled; I noticed the unusually present Southern accent in her voice. Emma, with the ever-perfect timing she had that I was sure was not purely luck, entered the foyer as Paige opened the door to the cool, darkening Massachusetts evening. Before I could see anything beyond the doorframe, however, the headache suddenly flared up (so did Ev's obviously) and I felt a sudden strong compulsion to get to the Med Lab -- now. One glance told us that we were both sure that Emma had something to do with that twist of events, but we were nonetheless (telepathically) propelled towards the Med Lab, each of us arriving to collapse simultaneously onto one of 2 beds and landing in the same exact position. We let out a collective sigh and repressed a shared feeling of nausea as the ceiling lights suddenly became too bright for my particular liking at the moment.

"Is it always this bad when you use your powers?" Ev asked drowsily.

"Dunno," I replied with much the same lack of effort in my voice. "I haven't really used it all that much. Always gives me a headache, though." We both sighed tiredly again, and I had closed my eyes and begun to drift off when Jono came loudly through an adjacent door.

*Hey, you two! Where's either Frost or Cassidy?* he demanded. Along with his words came a sudden gush of concern, urgency, and worry that bombarded my being and caught me totally off-guard.

"I ... don't know." Ev answered, also caught off-guard. "Ms. Frost was in the foyer, but Sean should --"

"Should be here soon," I finished for him. Had that been intentional? "What's -"

"Up?" Ev finished. We cast wary glances at each other -- why was the synch suddenly so strong?

*Bloody hell...* Jono was cursing. *Where's a bloody teacher when you need 'em...?*

"What?!" we both asked.

*It's Jennifer.* he explained. *She --*

"Is she okay?!!" I was suddenly reeeally worried, and Ev looked almost pained at the amount of worry he must have suddenly felt gush throughout his being. My stomach began to churn -- I mean, if it could get Jono this worked up, it had to be bad. "Where is she? What happened?"

*She's in there.* He jerked a thumb back through the door he'd come through a moment before. Ev and I both slid off the beds simultaneously and headed for the door as I thought I caught Jono send a questioning look in our direction before continuing. *She ... I don't quite know what she did. She did something empathic to ... us ... and then she kind of just lost it with Paige. She's unconscious; I brought her down here.* We came through the door and I saw Jen lying on the bed, looking for all the world like she was just peacefully sleeping. Jono had hooked her up to an EKG, which was beeping happily in the corner of the room, doing its job and displaying what appeared to be a normal sinus rhythm.

"Her vitals are okay," Ev said, with the same concern I was feeling now.

*I can bloody see that!* Jono told us. *It's not her physical body that I'm so worried about at the moment.* As he was chewing us out for what we already knew, Sean picked that moment to come through the door and see us all there with Jono going ballistic -- well, ballistic for Jono, that was. "Saints preserve us! What happened to her?" So Jono went on to explain what had happened. Sean listened as Ev and I sat in the corner, sharing concern and curiosity at what Jono said. I knew Jen could get a little weird, but this took the cake. Was she okay? I was worried, because even what Jono was describing sounded a little "out there" for Jennifer. I mean, I knew she was all ... gushing over him and stuff, but she wouldn't go this far just for him to notice her - I was sure of that. Something was definitely wrong.... I felt almost ashamed for liking Jono too, as he spoke almost shyly to Sean about what had happened and what he felt. In fact, it was making me uncomfortable, and that was making Ev uncomfortable. When he was finished, Jono just sat down in a chair next to the bed, looking quite tired all of a sudden. Was this link-thing to Jennifer affecting him more than he let on?

Sean sighed.

"All right, let's just keep the situation under control. Since she appears to be all right physically, I say we should just let her get her rest and explore this development more fully when the lass wakes up."

"When --"

"Will that be?"

Sean looked over at the two of us as we finished the other's thought again.

Jono narrowed his eyes in our direction as well as we both squirmed.

*Wot's with you two, anyway?* he sent.

"I don't know," Ev explained, my concern for Jen only fueling his exasperation. "We keep on --"

"Finishing each other's thoughts," I said sheepishly, caught in the very act we were trying to explain.

"But I thought the synch was beginning to wear off," Sean said, just a bit confused. He glanced at his watch. "It's been almost three and a half hours since ye first synched. Has it ever lasted this long, Everett?"

Despite the fact that the question had been directed at Everett, we both shook our heads, and I was the one that answered in the words Ev was about to put into sound.

"It started to wear off, but right after we got here the synch started building up again." I had a disturbing feeling that it was only a matter of time before we both blew something up and ended up doing to the Med Lab something similar to what Jono had unintentionally done to the girls' dorm a while back. Sean nodded.

"Will ye come with me, lad?" he asked, and Ev got up to follow Sean into the other room, presumably to undergo some type of physical or diagnostic or something. "Wait here," he told me -- not that I had any intention of doing anything else. Not with Jen lying there. "I'll be back for you." He and Ev then left, leaving me alone with the unconscious Jennifer and the brooding Jono. I sighed -- not that I really had a problem with this, but even I was uncomfortable being left alone in here with the very object of Jen's angst with her right here as well, even if she was unconscious.

"You think she's gonna be okay?" I asked, not for any particular reason. It wasn't like Jono would know - he obviously didn't have too much of an idea of what was going on, either. But who knew? Maybe he did, and I just didn't know it. He shrugged.

*I don't know. I hope so. I don't really think the gel ... meant to do that. I think her power's just a little too much for her right now.*

I just nodded.

*I don't think she quite knows what she did. Actually, I don't think I know quite what she did.*

I remained silent -- what else was I supposed to do? It wasn't like I knew what she had done, and as I said, this was just the least bit uncomfortable. The uncomfortableness of the situation seemed to just hang in the air, and it was only augmented by the steady stream of ... something from Everett that I was getting through the synch. Now it was almost like white noise, or the radio static you get when, no matter what you do, your station won't quite come in and you settle for the best reception you can get. Suddenly "Monkey Wrench" by the Foo Fighters effectively lodged itself in my mind -- I was almost tempted to blame its presence on Everett, although I wasn't sure how or why it would be his fault.

"Don't wanna be your monkey wrench..." I sang softly, studying the ceiling tiles as we just sat there. It really wasn't like me to be uncomfortable like this -- usually I was the one who was all crazy and talkative. "Fall in, fall out..." I continued. Jono eyed me, and I guess I blushed or something close to it. "Sorry; it's in my head, and when stuff gets in there it tends to refuse to leave." He only shrugged - he had no obvious interest in me, and that made me all the angrier. It wasn't like I wanted him to just open up or anything, but... the whole situation was just way too Jenniferian for me. I had to do something to lighten the situation, or I had to get out of there. Come on, I reasoned with myself, you're sitting in Gen X's Med Lab with Jono, and you can't think of anything to say? Argh! You're hopeless! That beepy thing was really starting to get on my nerves, too.

"So... how exactly does Sean expect us to amuse ourselves? Especially with that EKG beeping annoyingly away in that corner. You know, those things have always bugged me."

*Have they?* he sounded almost amused, and I hoped that he might be willing to at least hold a conversation with me and not think I was a dork.

"Yeah ... like on ER and stuff. I dunno.. I'm just bored, I guess. And it's not helping, is all." The room fell silent again, and the boredom returned. I sighed; the headache was back, and so was my annoyance now that I was bored and felt like a certified, grade "A" dork. Jono seemed all concerned about Jen, which made me feel stupid -- it's not like I wasn't, because I was worried about her, but -- and I reiterate -- it was just uncomfortable being alone with him like this.

I brought my legs up to my chest, huddling up on the chair I was sitting on. This was all just too George confusing. I liked Jono, but I didn't know if I liked him like that. And if I did, I certainly wasn't going to tell anyone, least of all him. Besides, Jennifer obviously had his attention right now, and who was I to make him care about anyone else right now? I was just a friend, if even that much, and it was a status with which I was just going to be happy with. Not that I wanted more -- I'm not a mushy person like that. At least, not as far as I know. Not as far as I want to be. Oh, why did everyone have to be taken?! Why did I have to want someone in the first place? Oh, George.

Jono remained silent, so I just sat there uncomfortably, drifting off without even noticing it.

(X)

Life was sweet, and began to involve pink cotton candy clouds; orange bits of fluff raining something sugary from their positions high within a midnight sky -- the sky above and below and all around me. It was nice here. I didn't want to leave. The sweetness was nothing tasted, or even smelled, but rather sensed. It was so peaceful. I wasn't sure where I even was or how long I stayed here, until this faint glimmer of emotion -- of lonliness -- sparked within me and simply grew until I could no longer take it. The view was beautiful -- like a scene from Contact or those pictures of nebulae ... but here I was alone, truly alone, and that was -- that was perhaps my worst fear. I'd always enjoyed being by myself. Sometimes I needed it. But I knew there were always people around, and when I needed to be heard I could go to them. I had to get out of here, I had to get back to -- to everyone. Where was the door? How did one get out of here? I felt tight inside.

As if by some sick cue, a metal door with a green EXIT sign lit above its lintel simply appeared. That was bizarre ... I pushed the bar and stepped out --

-- and gasped for air, my eyes open and light filling my brain. The bright white light -- I adjusted my eyes and before long noticed the source: a flourescent lamp in the tiled ceiling. I was dizzy, the room spinning slowly, first one way and then the next. I swam, it seemed, in and out of this scene. I was most decidedly ill.

I faded between black and white like a junior high essayist fading between present and past tense -- make up my mind and pick one, couldn't I? I didn't want to go back to black because it was so lonely, even though the sweetness tempted me. And white was so bright and full of physical pain in my head and throat and all over.... On the threshold I wavered, unsure ... until I finally decided.

(X)

I was dreaming about Jimmy, Jack, and Freddo -- and Doc Holliday? -- when someone grabbed my ... foot? I woke up immediately, crashing down hard onto the even harder tiled floor.

"Ow!!!" Ev and I both yelled as he also fell -- apparently he had been floating too. Was I flying? I suddenly recalled that I could fly and that Ev was synched with me as my mind began to clear itself. "What happened?" I asked, standing back up.

"It was rather interesting, really," Sean said, smiling although he was still concerned about our fall. "Ye see, I was running some tests on Everett when he began floating off the bed. Jono came in to tell me that ye had fallen asleep and were floating as well, and ... well, it seems that when ye began to float it sent the command through the link Everett set up when ye synched and he couldn't help but do the same." That was weird, I decided -- that Ev's subconscious was responding to mine.

"This is weird," Ev decided, and it was hard not to laugh because, obviously, I was thinking the exact same thing. "No, really. This has never happened before."

"I still can't figure out why this is happening now...." Sean said thoughtfully, examining a readout that he had brought with him.

*Maybe it has something to do with the gel's powers; not just Synch's,* Jono suggested. Sean nodded.

"It's quite possible, lad. We do know that your power is based on telekinesis, and therefore linked somehow to basic telepathy," he addressed me. "Unfortunately, that's almost all we know about your power. There's something about it that makes it hard for the computer to determine exactly what it is ye do with yuir power. Perhaps it's a latent form of telepathy -- psionic powers that ye're not even aware of yuirself that are keepin' ye linked with Everett."

"Maybe," I agreed. It was as good a theory as any. Ev followed my train of thought, voicing the phrase that popped up in my mind.

"Yeah -- maybe our powers are getting tangled up with each other, and we can't --"

"Untie the knot," I finished the joint thought.

"An interesting theory. I'm going to go call Hank McCoy ... please stay here." Sean said, leaving again. At least this time I had Ev to back me up instead of being alone.

Before I had really felt like I was imposing on something -- the whole "three's a crowd" type-thing. But now I had Ev for support. As if to further my support, Bobby Drake suddenly burst into the room.

"Hey guys!" he said. "I'm really sorry about this, but you're gonna have to stay down here for now."

"Hmm?" Ev and I asked at the same time. Bobby gave us a questioning look, but decided not to ask just yet. Instead, he went on to explain the reason we were being confined to the Med Lab.

"Well, these two government officials showed up. I think they're business associates of Emma's or something. Since you guys are not your ... typical students, Emma decided that until she's done you all have to stay down here. She wants to minimize all contact so she feels she has control over the situation.

"As if she ever really has control," I muttered to Ev softly -- he smiled back, getting the meaning of what I thought -- that oftentimes Emma only thought she actually had control, and just managed to pull it off on the rest of us as well.

"And until then, I get to stay down here and supervise you guys." Bobby grinned widely, and I had to admit, that was an interesting idea. Bobby supervising anything, in fact, was an interesting idea, albeit a frightening one. But then again, he was Bobby, and therefore he was cool, in more than one sense of the word. "So ... what'cha guys -- hey, what happened to her?" He suddenly caught sight of Jen lying on the bed, still asleep.

*Don't know,* Jono said, a bit coldly (at least, as coldly as a psionic voice inside your head can sound).

"She kind of lost it and then --"

"Lost consciousness," Ev concluded for me. Bobby gave us another weird look.

"What's with you two?" he asked.

"His 'synch' went nuts," I told him.

"Oh." He seemed only mildly interested. "Anybody have a deck of cards?"

*A deck of cards? In here?* Jono asked warily.

Bobby put up his hands, as if he'd been offended.

"I was just looking for a way to pass the time," he said in mock defense. Somewhere along the line, we did indeed discover a deck of cards, and so Bobby, Ev, and I sat down to play. I managed to convince them to play Egyptian Rat, which lasted about an hour. Jono went to sit with Jennifer in the other room, and I figured it was best just to let him be.

We later resorted to BS, which I think is an incredibly boring game. There's something about that just ... well, that just bores me. But Egyptian Rat was not working, since Ev and I kept on slapping the stupid cards at the exact same time. Half the time we couldn't tell who had gotten there first, simply because no one had gotten there first. After BS Bobby tried to run a poker game, but that was even more impossible than playing Egyptian Rat.

"You're bluffing," I told Everett matter-of-factly, and for the third time in the past five minutes.

He screwed up his face and threw down his cards.

"Man, this is no fun! How am I supposed to pull off a bluff if you know I'm bluffing?!"

I smiled and shrugged, raking in the poker chips that were now mine. Well, they weren't exactly poker chips -- more like disks from the nearby medical computer, along with a few pens and latex gloves (I don't know how those had gotten promoted to the rank of 'poker chip,' but nonetheless they had) -- but they stood for some rather high values indeed. Bobby just smirked and, since his pile of chips was the biggest, I decided that just this once I would not slug him. Then I thought better of it and decided to slug him anyway. This was amusing, because he was suddenly being ambushed from both sides as Ev and I tackled him simultaneously.

"Hey, hey, no fair!" Bobby protested, blasting us both back with ice columns. "No teaming up."

We both just stuck out our tongues -- he returned the favor -- and sat there for a moment before resigning ourselves to be civil once more.

o as they decided on something or other to do with the cards, I got up and began wandering around the small room, looking at stuff and picking things up, examining the room for lack of something better to do. After a while, Jono came out of the room and went right out of the Med Lab, obviously with some purpose. He looked; well, he looked like a man with a mission. The fact that he was leaving, however, was what interested us more.

"Hey, is he --"

"Supposed to do that?"

Bobby gave us a look but said nothing; then he shrugged. "Technically, I was sent down here to keep an eye on you three." He indicated myself, Everett, and the door behind which Jennifer was sleeping. "No one said anything about him, so he's really not my concern."

I rolled my eyes.

"Always the -"

"Literal one, huh?" Everett and I both looked at each other as we finished yet another thought together.

"Is this annoying you two as much as it's annoying me?" Bobby asked, flipping cards up into the air randomly and watching them flutter back down to the ground.

"Because it's reeeally starting to annoy me."

I smiled despite the situation - we were annoying the Iceman. In my book, that was a pretty impressive accomplishment, no matter which way you looked at it.

"Yes." Both Ev and I finally sighed in unison. "It is."

"And it's all his fault, too," I informed Bobby.

Ev looked at me like I'd just accused him of witchcraft or something.

"My fault?! How is this my fault?"

"You're the one who synched with me in the first place!" I told him.

"It was your powers that made me do it! At least I know what my powers are!"

"Oh, getting trivial now, are we?" I asked.

Bobby just shook his head, flipping another card into the air.

"And what's with the Gambit impression?" I asked Bobby, now thoroughly ticked off for no reason I could really pinpoint. Maybe it was just Ev's and my exasperation building up to make me annoyed.

"What, de petite don't like Iceman's card tricks?" he asked in a really bad Cajun accent.

"No!" I said, but I had to smile at the bad accent nonetheless. "And even I can -- hey, what's with --"

"The tea?" Ev finished, as we watched Jono come down the stairs carefully balancing a silver tray with a teacup and steaming pitcher of water. I could see the tea bag hanging over the edge as the leaves seeped into the water in the process of making the awful stuff.

"I hate tea," Ev and I both observed. We looked at each other again, but were then once again taken with the sight of a guy with no mouth carrying a tea tray for no apparent reason. Jono said nothing, just continued through the room and pushed open the door to Jen's room, disappearing behind it once again. Ev and I looked at each other, then we both looked to Bobby. This time all three of us shrugged in unison.

"Hey, who's up for a game of 52 pickup?"

(X)

Cool air brushed my face despite the bright heat of the light and the pain behind my eyes. I was vaguely aware of the rest of my body. I had no idea what had happened, if anything had happened at all, and could not explain how I'd gotten here if I were paid.

The same aluminum and white I'd encountered earlier that day was enough to designate my surroundings as the medlab, though this time around the perspective was startlingly different. I stared up at the ceiling from my position on a bed -- or table -- or bed.

I was hot from the inside out, sore in that place where the ear, nose, and throat converge and it hurt to swallow and I was all too aware of the bloody headache throbbing in the back of my skull. I reached that small distance from one corner of my brain to the other to check for Jono -- yes, he was still there. And -- and worried.

About me. Where was he, anyway?

*Right 'ere,* he alerted me to his presence not far off.

/I know,/ I answered, smiling weakly. /Thank you./ I closed my eyes and it hurt to swallow.

~concern~ *Is there anything I can do?*

Tea would have been nice. With honey, for my throat. But I didn't want to make demands --

*Tea it is, then.*

Bloody -- my thoughts had betrayed me again! Was I ever going to get used to this? I didn't want tea, I wanted company ... I wanted him to stay here with me.... But he was already gone. How far was it, I wondered, to the kitchen? And how long since he'd even set foot in a room whose sole purpose was the storage and consumption of food?

~amusement~ carried over the link -- I still didn't want to think of it as such. (*Not nearly long enough.*)

I opened my eyes and closed them again, trying to find some way to quell this raging storm in my head. One set of emotions I was used to -- another I could possibly live with (although at this point I had no choice), but here it seemed I was reading everyone in the building simultaneously....

No, I realised. Not everyone all at once, but I had retained their conflicting feelings over the course of days. I couldn't rid myself of every smile, every tear, every bit of everyone I'd been in close proximity to over the past week and a half. And when one was in quarters with a half-dozen angst-ridden teenagers (myself included), there were a lot of emotions to build up. The link was no help to this. I still didn't know if I liked the idea of someone in my head constantly, but there was no undoing it.

Besides, there was a part of me that liked it very much. I kept my eyes closed -- the light didn't hurt quite so much, then -- and concentrated on my breathing. Each intake of air only further irritated my throat and it hurt! I allowed time to pass, simply laying there so peacefully with my eyes closed and so near to actual sleep.

I didn't know how much longer it was when Jono came back. I had to smile -- he looked so cute standing there with a tray in his hands, set with a ceramic teacup, kettle of hot water with a teabag string hanging out, a spoon and a bear-shaped plastic bottle of honey.

I was too aware of my own ~surprise~thanks~. /You really didn't have to do this.../

Thoughts were quicker than spoken words, and he knew what I was going to say before I said it, so actual talking was unnecessary as well as painful. My head still throbbed; I could feel it in my ears, too, now.

*I wanted to.*

I was certain I was blushing. Positively certain. /Thank you,/ I answered, adding generous spoonfuls of honey to the tea. And smiling so much it hurt -- but in a good way. It was so strange, it was like he'd undergone a bizarre transformation in the hours since -- that thing. I felt horrendously guilty, though. Would he have turned around anyway? I didn't know and I didn't think I cared at that point. I enjoyed simply being here with him.

Those last two words being the operative ones, of course. I did not enjoy being sick, and I did not enjoy medlab. And I did not enjoy this inherent confusion as to why I was here in the first place. There was a lot I didn't remember.

I drank my tea in small mouthfuls -- when the cup was dry I set it back on the tray. /I really appreciate this./

*You're welcome.*

I smiled again. He really wasn't the monster he made himself out to be; he could be so sweet sometimes. I wasn't sure, though, if I truly wanted to ask the question forming somewhere inside me. Would it be like the last invasion of privacy? I'd already knocked down the toughest walls -- did I need to knock even more down today? Yes, I finally reasoned. Or they might never come down. I shifted position so I leaned closer to him.

*Wot are you doing?*

/Can I see ...?/ I began, reaching one hand out. I had no intention of unraveling his bandages myself --

Cool, hard fingers gripped my wrist along with a monosyllabic command. *No.*

I lowered my hand but he didn't let go.

*Yer -- you don't need to see that.*

I bit my lip and dropped my eyes to my lap. /Okay,/ I agreed. He did have a right to his privacy, after all.

It was so eerie, I noted -- sitting there in complete silence and yet -- still communicating. But that was the way of things, I guessed. The communication ceased, stopped dead. Neither of us had anything to say and it was growing slowly awkward. His hand slipped from my wrist and he pulled it back to himself.

Well, there went that.

*Wot?*

"Nothing." My voice was grainy and didn't sound quite right to me. I cleared my throat, hoping it would just jump back down there and stay there. /I'm still not used to this./

*Neither am I.*

I swallowed hard, closing my eyes and breathing.

*Wot did you do, anyway?*

I didn't want to deal with this right now. "I don't know," I said, turning over in the bed and pulling the thin, scratchy sheet around me. Light -- that wasn't the way to go. I couldn't avoid him.

That crazy, weird, uncharacteristic ~helplessness~ came barrelling at me again, coupled with ~exasperation~. If he could sigh I'm sure he would have. I sat back up, shaking my head. "No. I'm sorry," I whispered. That was all my voice would allow at that point. I looked down at the starched white blanket. I wasn't sure that I wanted to look at him or anything else in the room but myself because I knew I was there. I was all I could trust.

I detected the presences coming like one might notice a plane overhead: with the vague awareness that it was there, but feeling no need to actually do anything about it. Alison stuck her head in. "Is she okay now?"

"Can we come in?" I heard another voice add. It sounded like Everett.

"I'm fine," I announced, smiling but my throat still incredibly scratchy. I felt like I'd swallowed a cupful of gravel. "Come on in."

Alison opened the door the rest of the way, followed by an extremely ~confused~ Everett and a maniacally grinning Bobby Drake. Light, no! Not Bobby! "Hi," Alison greeted almost apprehensively.

I nodded a response, my throat hurting too much to really talk. I was getting incredibly tired. Alison, Bobby, and Everett were all chiming in to tell the tale of how and why they were all locked in the medlab until further notice.

"I've been enlisted to keep an eye on all of you," Bobby explained. "Some government types came to visit." Bobby could never in a thousand years 'keep an eye on' all of us when I was certain he was the one who needed a babysitter. But government types? Was the school in trouble? I hoped not. I did, however, detect an amount of ~embarrassment~ at the mention of the "government types", though he did not flush.

Alison continued. "And Emma wants us to stay down here 'till she -- "

"-- thinks she's in 'control' of the situation," Everett finished.

That was odd; it was like they were both riding the same train of thought.

"And you know Emma," Alison added.

Bobby snorted.

"She always thinks she's in 'control," Everett explained.

He was certainly uncharacteristically bouncy. What was up with them? And why the heck were they finishing each other's sentences like Tweedledum and Tweedledee? *She wants to know what's up with you two,* Jono informed them, all amused all of a sudden for no apparent reason. *And why the heck you're finishing each other's sentences.*

He knew why! And he wouldn't tell me!

And he wasn't supposed to be my personal relay service just because I had a sore throat, but it was certainly nice of him.

"We, uh ... " Alison said.

"That is, she ... "

"I did? You're the one that synched with me!"

"It was your powers that got us into this mess," Everett accused gently.

"I don't even know what they are!" Alison protested.

"Uh-huh," Everett said, folding his arms at the exact same moment Alison folded hers. Both instantly realized what they were doing and unfolded them, equal ~exasperation~ coming from both.

I chuckled softly at that, smiling to myself.

"We oversynched," Alison and Everett said at the exact same time.

It wasn't planned, I noted -- they each thought their thoughts were their own individual thoughts, even those borrowed from the other. It was cute. Their faint auras, which weren't actually so faint, but instead manifested that way to my eye because of my lingering illness -- their faint auras registered as varying shades of green and blue, mixing and mingling with one another to the point at which I couldn't discern where one began and the other ended. Bobby's now-quiet orange was bordering on golden yellow as he stood in the corner, truthfully believing he exerted some control over the situation. He was as bad as Emma, to tell the truth. Those two were closer in temperament than either of them cared to admit. The deep indigo that usually surrounded Jono was now as invisible to my eye as my own aura. I hadn't expected that. " ... and things were getting so boring we actually resorted to fifty-two pickup," Alison finished the sentence she herself had started.

Bobby coughed. He was being unusually quiet. Perhaps it was this charge he had been given that gave him at least some sort of maturity level. Or perhaps he simply wanted to impress Emma with his vast knowledge of how to keep teenagers in line. He wasn't too far off from one, himself, so that gave him the best sort of expertise in the area.

"But you're okay now?" Everett asked.

It had been Alison's thought -- hadn't it? -- and as a result, her usually slow temper flared if ever so slightly. They were quite obviously sick of this by now. How long had this been going on?

(*A few hours,*) Jono informed me.

I still wasn't used to this. Eventually, though. Eventually.

"Yeah," I told them. "I'm okay now."

Alison radiated a sentiment of ~satisfaction~ which mixed oddly with the strange -- what was that? She was jealous, though guiltily so, ashamed of the emotion she didn't even know she projected onto me. I curbed my own confusion so it wouldn't overflow onto the others. I would have to ask her about that later.

Wait. No, I wouldn't have to ask her about it. I already knew the source of her conflicting and completely un-Alisonian emotions, and he was standing beside me in his black leather jacket. I couldn't help but feel guilty at this realization, but stuck it in a back pocket of my mind along with my earlier confusion. Jono didn't ask the question I knew he was formulating, yet I still dismissed it with a quiet /Later./

Alison and Everett yawned simultaneously. Catching it, I yawned myself, and it sent a sharp ache down my already sore throat. Bobby found this all wildly amusing and began to laugh so hard he had to leave the room. That was the part of him surfacing that Emma would soon kill and serve in neat little portions for dinner. I chuckled as best I could at that thought, more mentally than actually chuckling on account of the pain I felt.

Interestingly enough, Emma was the one to appear in the doorway to the small section of medlab that the four of us occupied. At her arrival, Jono mentally tensed and I found myself holding my breath and tightening my own hands, curling nervous fingers around equally nervous thumbs. With all my will I wished her away, but being Emma, as she was, she did not leave. Alison was beginning to doze in the corner, simply slipping out of consciousness as easily as Emma had slipped into the room. She didn't greet us, simply vaulted into, "How did this happen? Why wasn't I informed?"

"I don't know," I explained scratchily as she leaned over me to check my vital signs on the machine overhead.

"Hmm," Emma mused quietly, and returned to her initial question. "How did this happen?" she repeated.

"I don't know," I admitted again. I suspected the initiation of the link combined with the intense emotional output Paige had given off during that ... discussion ... to send me into something near hysteria, but I had absolutely no foundation to support that theory so I left it alone.

(*There's a thought, though, gel.*)

Light. I most certainly was /not/ used to this. "I ... " I began, quite fearful to explain my take on the situation, rickety as it was. I took a deep breath and it pained me, but I continued anyway. "I think it had something to do with ... um, emotional backup. Like, it completely ... "

"I see," Emma said, voice silken in sharp contrast to my own. A brief moment of indecision flickered in her pale pink aura before she finally bit the proverbial bullet and asked, "Do you mind if I ... ?"

She hadn't been reading me this whole time? I was surprised. And the fact that she'd actually asked came as even more of a shock. I was tempted to let her in just for that display of actual morals, but I had to deny her that opportunity. I <i>still</i> didn't like the idea of her in my head and didn't think I'd ever would. "Yes," I said. "I mind." I didn't need her poking in there, searching for a way to rid my mind of this emotional crud littering it and accidentally finding Jono. "But thank you for asking," I added. She was certainly learning something.

Emma gave no "you're welcome", and I wasn't expecting one, either. Instead she tried again. "I would like to reverse this," she explained. I could tell this was hard for her: Emma Frost did not need anyone's permission to do anything. "The psionic buildup that has taken place can be cleared without any after-effects."

Like cleaning out a cache of files deposited in one's hard drive. I already said no, but she wouldn't give up, would she?

*Would yer leave the gel alone?* Jono interrupted.

Emma's eyebrow raised coolly in response to the unexpected challenge. I knew this was it. This was so completely it, and I was going to get in so much trouble for doing something I hadn't intended to do or even known how to do, and something I couldn't undo besides. I refrained from pulling the flimsy cover above my head and hiding right then and there. Thankfully, though, she said nothing more on the subject and instead changed it to, "As you may or may not know, we have had unexpected guests arrive to speak with me about ... business matters. Because their arrival was unwarranted -- as well as unannounced -- it has been decided that the student body be kept under close supervision, and remain in one general area." She paused and swallowed. "Medlab was <i>not</i> our first choice, however, because of your current condition, all other options have been eliminated. Expect those who are not already here to arrive shortly. Mr." -- she coughed -- "Drake will be supervising. Obey him as implicitly as you would me."

I held back a snort -- because it would have hurt, and I wanted to give Emma every impression of my supposed obedience and loyalty to her majesty the White Queen. It went against my former strategy of dealing with her, but I figured perhaps this way she'd get off my back and stay out of my head. I said nothing. Emma spun on her heel and left the room to return to whatever duties awaited her upstairs.

*I'm sorry yer 'ad to deal with that,* Jono apologized.

/It's not your fault. Don't worry./

He gave no response save to take my hand again. I smiled up at him, squeezing his fingers tightly, feeling them throb gently with an energy that emulated a regular pulse. My attention was broken, however, when Bobby -- oh, excuse me, Mr. Drake -- opened the door gently and asked, "Is she gone yet?" when he knew perfectly well that Emma was wherever she needed to be and thankfully not here bothering us where she didn't belong.

I nodded.

Bobby let out a long sigh and sat on a particularly uncomfortable-looking chair someone had placed in the corner. "Thank God," he praised the ceiling softly.

Well, I doubted that was the ceiling's name and occupation.

With the new arrival, Jono reduced his grip on my hand as though he were about to let go. I wouldn't let him, and only held on tighter. Anything either of us were about to say, though, was gently interrupted by Everett's call of, "Guys ..."

A quick glance in his direction showed he was hovering only inches off the floor, limbs only slightly akimbo. Floating? I wondered. But Monet wasn't ... Then it dawned on me. It was Alison, who he was still synched with. Oversynched with, even.

And Alison had managed to doze off over in the corner, seemingly unnoticed. She, too, was hanging precipitously in the air.

"This happened before," Everett explained, sleep forming in his voice as well.

I imagined it had. And I still found this whole idea rather cute.

"Someone wake her up," Everett pleaded gently.

Of course. It was "cute" when it happened to someone else, but it was another story entirely when it happened to me. It was sort of similar, I realized. Sort of. But not really. I wondered if Alison felt the same intense -- nah. She just wasn't like that.

Bobby rose to the task -- quite literally, standing up from the chair, unwilling to show his own fatigue. With a particularly devious grin, he transmogrified into a veritable icicle and prepared to awake my dormant friend. She was going to love this.

***

Night had fallen, the view outside the lone window inky. I didn't see a need to actually fall asleep, as I had been sleeping a good portion of that day, but my eyelids were heavy and my eyes were hot. I was vaguely aware of the other people in the room. Alison was as close to sleep as I was, though not yet floating, which made Everett a happy person, even though he was just as tired as she was. I had to know if this "oversynching" business had brought them closer together -- what was their status now, and would Jubilee have cause to be upset? (It seemed no secret she had a crush on Everett. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because of my empathy, but she wasn't exactly subtle by nature.) Bobby had nodded off, himself, in that uncomfortable chair he'd claimed as his own. How anyone could sleep in that thing was beyond me. I hadn't had the opportunity to sit in it myself, because I'd been trapped in this blasted hospital-style bed for half the day, though I wasn't exactly holding my breath for the chance to test it.

Jono was still here. Just ... here. He'd dropped my hand long ago, and I hadn't reached for his again. He was hard to read, despite whatever improvements had been made regarding that situation, likely because my fatigue clouded my end of the link. I thought I heard a bit of confusion, but that was natural lately. We had all been confused regarding at least one thing or another. He seemed almost ... like he felt he was obligated to stay here with me.

I sighed -- partly because of that emotion, and partly because I was so tired myself. My throat still hurt. And the general mood could be summed up in the word "here". Nobody was really doing anything, yet nobody had the simple common sense to complain about it, perhaps because we were all tired.

Except Jono. I wasn't reading any sort of fatigue from him ... he didn't sleep, either?

(*Not usually,*) he explained, exuding a strong ~boredom~.

I had to agree with his emotional sentiment, though. /What time is it?/ I wondered absently, though intentionally sending the thought along.

(*No idea.*)

He hadn't even checked. It didn't matter, though. Not much did. I shrugged and pulled the thin sheet around me, turning over. It was time to sleep now, I decided. I had nothing better to do, and it was getting late.

Everett, not quite asleep but almost there, led Alison out of the room I was confined to, turning off the light on his way out. Darkness filled my head, and just before my eyes could adjust to the new conditions, I closed them so I might not have to deal with trying to sleep in a room that was only dim instead of pitch black. The sleep I sought didn't come as easily as I hoped it would. I tried to concentrate on my breathing in hopes of dulling my thoughts and boring myself to sleep, but all that came from that effort was an increased knowledge of the pain I felt in my throat that was slowly traveling up the back of my nose. I was also finding it hard to breathe, because of the simple fact that my nose was quite effectively clogged. Breathing through my mouth only increased the sting, but I had to deal with it. I turned over onto my back, staring at the tiles that lined the ceiling. They were the sort you'd find in a basement or school building, a white that had turned grey in the dim lighting of the room, though peppered with black specks. I considered counting these specks but decided against it. The resting Bobby I could have sworn was in the awful chair had inexplicably vanished. Had he ever been there in the first place? I didn't know.

/I can't sleep,/ I broadcast instead.

(*I don't know wot ter tell you,*) came the psionic reply, colored with a dry sort of frustration and even more boredom.

I started counting the specks in the ceiling tile. One, two, three, four ...

... thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty, forty-one ...

... a hundred seventy-two, a hundred seventy-three, a hundred seventy-four ...

... three sixty-five, three sixty-six, three sixty-seven ...

... eight hundred one ... or was it eight hundred two? I'd lost count. I actually considered striking up a mental/empathic conversation with Jono, but all I heard from him was a fuzzy sort of white noise. So he did sleep. I sighed and began counting dots in the ceiling tile again, but by now they were too blurry and my eyes were too strained to see that far.

I sighed, turned and kneeled in the bed to face the pillows I'd been laying on, fluffed them, turned back over and sighed again. I still couldn't breathe. And I most certainly could not sleep.

I reached out to the main part of medlab, beyond the room I was in, to check for sensations of people awake -- and was soon gifted with an incredible headache, not to mention the lingering ignorance of whether anyone else was up or not. This was certainly turning out to be a joy. I ran through the entire cast lists of seaQuest, Babylon 5, all the Star Treks, Earth 2, Space: Above & Beyond, Sliders, and all the recurring guest stars of X-Files, matching each actor's name with their proper character name and once that was exhausted, thought of more interesting ways Paige would kill me if she ever found out about the link. I played each scenario out in my head, each definitive battle until one of us was dead -- for there could only be one. (My personal favorite was the scenario in which she accidentally Husked into a pile of Alpha-Bits which was soon eaten by a passing Little Red Girl™.) In a similar vein, each of her transformations became progressively weirder. I'll not even start on the six-foot ferret she became.

***

I was fairly certain I stood in someone's room -- or I was floating above it, I wasn't exactly sure. A soft silken quality permeated the unusually pastel room, like a watercolour wash had been administered to the scene before my eyes. A gentle velvet sunlight poured through a window that seemed to take up an entire wall. Delicate piano music played on an old phonograph set up in an almost hidden corner. Light and shadows blended nearly inexplicably together until I couldn't separate one from the other, nor could I separate the pale, subdued colours the bedroom was decorated in.

A laughing blonde girl sat on the wide bed, telephone in hand, shoes and socks kicked off in a pile near the door. I knew I was the person she was speaking to on the phone, though I couldn't hear her words. A second -- transition --

I knelt beside the night table, hands resting gently on the bed before her. She smiled and hung up the phone, so glad to see me and took my hands in hers. She leaned in towards me and gently whispered words into my ear that I heard but couldn't seem to listen to. Her breath was soft and I knew that this was -- I was only an observer in this world, and I couldn't help my actions because I knew they weren't mine. I was simply riding behind someone else's eyes. She sat back on her heels and looked at me with sparkling blue eyes, and I knew she was the picture of beautiful.

She wanted me. She wanted me right then and there, without a moment's hesitation. There seemed no logical reason for me to hold back, and I looped one strong arm about her neck, leaning towards her with every intention of kissing her full on the lips. My attention, however, was divided between this radiant beauty I held and the phonograph playing its steady piano music. The music was only intended as background noise, a constant soundtrack to the love I felt for her, but cobwebs had gathered around the antique record player and the notes were turning erratic and sour. I wanted to tell her about the phonograph, but she only pulled me closer to her. I tore myself away from her and vaulted across the room with a sudden urgency. Something was wrong with the phonograph. Something was --

-- a pain in my throat. A queasy, sick feeling had firmly lodged itself in my stomach as though I were about to throw up. The -- yes, the dim room in the corner of the expansive medlab; the dim, private room. I was -- I sat up, propping my pillows behind me -- a furious chill seemed to freeze my very bones. My teeth chattered relentlessly against one another, pounding an angry staccato inside my skull. A sharp pain shot inexplicably through my jaw and around the back of my head. I inhaled cold air and it did nothing to alleviate the sting in my throat -- no, I realized so suddenly -- it wasn't the air around me that was cold. I didn't think it was the air around me that was cold. If it was "just me", then I likely had a fever, and I most certainly did not want or need a fever right now. I put one palm to my own forehead and felt nothing different, but the chill coursed through me instead of around me and I felt --

Had Bobby done something he'd regret later? There was no sign of ice or even water but I had heard the man actually generated cold itself.

No, though ... Bobby's mental signature remained outside the room, sleeping fuzzily just beyond the doorway with the others. The chair he'd occupied was quite vacant. Jono was the room's only other inhabitant besides myself, and I doubted he was to blame for the sudden drop in temperature. My teeth chattered again and the sharp ache in my jaw intensified. My hand instantly went to the pain, but touching it did nothing to help the situation.

The pressure in the back of my head had more to do with the change in pressure that had brought the overnight rain that now fell softly outside, thrumming in chaotic patterns on the roof overhead, than it had to do with anything else.

Vaguely, I wondered what time it was. My watch was elsewhere, and nobody ever bothered to place clocks in sequestered sections of medlab.

(*Close to three.*)

Jono's response startled me; I hadn't expected him to be awake.

(* 'adn't expected you t' be awake, either.*) Jono stood and ambled towards where I sat, holding some dark ambiguous shape out towards me like a peace offering. (*Take it,*) he instructed.

~??~ I shivered in some automatic response to the cold that still penetrated my very being. I drew the thin sheet closer around me in hopes to alleviate at least that part of my suffering.

< (*It'll 'elp yer,*) he explained, leaving the heavy gift on the flimsy cover that graced the medlab bed, draped over the lump that was my right leg. Gingerly, bleary-eyed, in so much inexplicable pain and freezing cold, I held a tentative hand out to the donation that weighed more than I'd have expected it to in relation to its size. As my fingers met its surface, I was greeted with the sensation of --

-- leather? His jacket?

With hands held instinctively close to my sides in reaction to the frigid temperature, I unfolded it. Yes. His jacket. I didn't -- I couldn't -- it was his jacket.

(*You're the one who's so cold,*) he said. (*Yer need it more'n I do right now.*)

It was like his second skin. I couldn't --

(*Don't be stupid.*)

Well, perhaps I could, but not without feeling extraordinarily guilty. I swung the jacket slowly behind me, to slide first one arm and then the other into the cool blackness, the soft lining brushing against my skin. It hung oddly on my shoulders; I gripped the softly broken-in collar, where the topmost coating was wearing off in patches, and pulled ever so gently downward to adjust the fit. The cuffs were not quite so worn as the collar and fell almost to the second row of knuckles on my hand. It was comfortable, more in the sense that it had gotten a lot of use than in the sense that I actually found comfort in it. I tugged at the collar again, pulling it closer around me and burying my face in the soft leather -- more in an effort to keep warm than anything else. The jacket carried its owner's scent: layers of ozone, like just after it rained, over an oddly earthy current and accented by touches of fog and a vague sense of something burning. It was just as beautiful as he was.

(*Don't give me that 'beautiful' rot, now.*)

/I wasn't asking you./ Wrapping the jacket tightly around me, I turned over again in the bed I seemed to call home now and had every intention of going back to sleep. /But you are beautiful,/ I added just before closing my eyes. Not only was I obligated to, but I was prepared to remind Jono of his inherent beauty every time he insisted on denying it.

I tried desperately to ignore the sharp pain that coursed through my jaw -- it hadn't simply left, as I'd wished it to. I wondered if there was some ibuprofin or something I could take to alleviate that, but doubted swallowing anything would be a good idea what with the soreness in my throat. I dealt with it. I'd had to deal with worse before. Trying to ignore my various afflictions -- which included the silently grumbling Jono who was simply overflowing with so much self-pity and angst, even now, that I feared it might rub off onto me, which was altogether likely, I listened to the rain fall outside. I wasn't even going to bother with the ceiling tiles again.

The rain soon cleared, though, leaving me with nothing left to listen to aside from my own breathing, which was just ridiculous. One couldn't listen to one's own breathing because one was in perfect control of one's own breathing. At that particular stray thought I received a wayward series of pained, piteous, emotional grumblings from Jono regarding breathing and his considerable lack of talent in that particular area. I certainly didn't want to talk to him now, but I didn't have much of a choice. It was perhaps nearing four and I was still far from sleep.

Jono's emotions now reeked of crabbiness. He'd been sulky before, but never actually crabby -- at least, not to my knowledge.

And I wanted to know what was up with that. ~??~ I was quite obviously concerned, as well, but that carried in more or less an undercurrent than anything else. ~dismissal~repulsion~ Beneath that notion came ~fear~, though, and that piqued my interest even further.

~??~concern~ I wasn't afraid to let my concern through this time.

~dismissal~ even louder than the tiny strain of ~disbelief~ that it carried. (*Leave me alone,*) he instructed. (*I let yer wear me jacket, wot more d'you wont?*) ~exasperation~ He didn't get it. /You didn't have to give me your jacket./

(*But I did. Ennit enough for yer?*)

~sigh~

(*If it's not, then wot d'you wont from me?*)

I tried desperately to block the images and thoughts that poured readily from my subconscious mind into the realm of awareness, to no avail. Most were harmless, like the memories of that day's tea, and other, safe images of something that could only be considered friendship. My mind had fallen prey to the raptor of the late hour, though, and those thoughts I wanted to curb were not only graphic but also impossible, given Jono's current situation. Others were downright mean, particularly to Paige.

~!!~

~sigh~apology~ and a fervent hope he hadn't read all that. Other than the initial shock, however, he gave no indication he had. Thankfully. /That's not what I want from you,/ I attempted to explain, trying to choose my words carefully. /I want -- what there was today. A friend. You helped me when I needed help. I want to be there to do the same for you. Those -- yes, I am attracted to you yet. That much hasn't changed. But the attraction is softening into a friendship that I hope will work./

(*Yer can't be stuck in someone's bloody head and stay "friends" for very long.*)

What the heck was I supposed to read into that?

(*Nothing. Take it for wot it is.*)

/At face value, then./

(*Don't rub it in.*)

Though I caught the pun, I hadn't intended to rub anything in. /I'm going to sleep now,/ I announced. /Goodnight./

Jono offered no response, simply lingered ... here. Turning onto my side, I shifted inside the warmth his donated jacket provided and pulled the pale bedsheet above my shoulders. A gentle sleep was finally beginning to invade my consciousness, allowing my subconscious mind to run rampant and produce more strange and unusual images. Fortunately these were nothing more than harmless dreams, with no embarrassing footage from the camcorder of my wishfully thinking mind.

(X)

I woke up feeling very ... cold, and for some reason, very miffed at a certain Mr. Drake. I couldn't really say why, but I had suspicions. Anyway, as soon as I got over the fact that I was cold, I realized that someone's red-socked feet were invading my personal corner. I followed the socks up the long grey legs that they belonged to only to discover that the said feet belonged to none other than Angelo, who was snoring happily halfway across the room. How wonderful.

I moved the feet out of the way before sitting up, rubbing my eyes because I had fallen asleep with my contacts in and now my sight was all fuzzy. Across the room I could hear that someone else was waking up, but in the dim light I couldn't tell who it was.

"Mmf. What time is it?" Oh -- it was Everett. Of course. I glanced at the watch I had neglected to take off. It was exactly 7:36.

"Seven-thirty," I told him, not feeling the need to be exact. "Way too early."

We both groaned at the same time. This was followed by a joint, "Great." I could hear sounds coming from the other room -- it sounded like Jen must be up or something. I decided that she had had quite enough fun with Jono for one night, and that I was going to go in and see how she was, regardless of how she felt about that. I got up, noticing for the first time that it was raining. My stomach tightened involuntarily for a moment before I relaxed, realizing that there was no thunder. Good. Then I could remain a calm, collected person, and I wouldn't freak out. I padded over to the door of Jen's room, noticing as well that I had fallen asleep in my clothes. Ick. "Morning?" I more asked than stated as I pushed open the door. Jen was there, on the bed, wearing Jono's black leather jacket. How touching. Jono was just sitting there, regarding me quietly. He looked ... crabby? I had never actually imagined him as being crabby. "Hi," I tried, hoping someone would respond.

"Hey," Jen finally answered.

"It's seven-thirty," I told her. "How long do you think we're gonna be down here?"

"Mmf. Don't know."

I sighed. "Well, then ..." I just stood in the doorway uncomfortably, not really wanting to leave but feeling like I should.

Jono apparently sensed the tension and got up, explaining *I'll be ... back,* before going out the door. I had to admit, Jennifer looked the least bit pained at that.

"What's up? How's Everett?" she asked. She sounded as if she was trying to imply something.

"Eh ... still synched," I informed her. "I think he's the only other one up at this point. Angelo is most definitely not up, because he was snoring when I left. He has cool red socks, though...."

She merely raised an eyebrow at that, not even venturing to comment on it. "There's other people in there too, aren't there?" she asked. I nodded. "I can feel ... people. Sleeping."

"Yeah. Well, there's Ev and Bobby and Angelo, and I think I stepped over Jubes to get in here. Going with that, Monet and Paige are probably in there somewhere too."

"And somebody darker."

I just rolled my eyes and sighed; she was hopeless.

"No -- somebody else. I felt it before," she informed me.

This confused me -- who else could there be? "Um ... Penny?" I asked. "She's the only one left."

"I think so."

I noticed that Jen sounded very tired, and was basically really out of it. "Are you ... okay?" I asked. "You sound kind of out of it."

"I didn't sleep much last night. It was cold in here." She pulled the jacket closer. I felt like I was going to throw up.

"Yeah, well ... you were cold?! Who enlisted Bobby to wake me up last night, huh?"

"He offered!!"

I just grumbled in response to that. "Sure."

"My jaw hurts," she whined, changing the subject. Not that there had been a subject anyway, but changing it nonetheless.

"Oh, well ... sorry."

She just made a slight whimpering sound, as if to augment that statement and make me feel even sorrier for her. Not that I should be feeling sorry for her -- she had Jono, after all.

There were a few moments of awkward silence as I glanced around the room. It was dim in there, but not dark. I could still hear the rain, too; I wondered how long it had been raining.

"How close are you and Everett now?" she asked suddenly. That caught me totally off guard -- what was that?!

"Whoa! What?" This was unprecedented. At least, I thought so.

"Since your ... thing. How does it work? Are you guys ... like...?" she trailed off, looking at the floor.

"Um, no? It's just like ... well, getting annoying at this point, I guess. It's kind of like having this radio static in the back of your head, and then I just know what he's going to say even though I think it's my own thought. Or I'll do something thinking I meant to do it, but he meant to, or something ... like that. Yeah," I concluded. "It's not like ... you know. Jono."

She coughed, loudly. That was it -- that sent me into hysterical giggles on the floor.

"What??!!"

I just continued laughing. It was too funny, and I couldn't even say exactly why.

"What's so funny?" she wanted to know as I managed to begin recovering enough to end up in a cross-legged position on the floor, looking up at her sitting on the bed.

"You," I informed her. "You are quite amusing. At least, I think so."

"What?" she asked again. I just shook my head.

"I can't explain it. You're just funny, is all."

"Hmph. I still hurt."

"Pobrecita."

"Uh-huh. So ... what do you need to talk about with me?"

I bit my lip. I didn't even know if it was something I could talk about, anyway. I was me, after all. I wasn't like this!

"Well, you did come in here to talk about something."

Great -- she could tell. Or could she? I didn't even know how much she could tell, but since we had been so close for so long, anyway, I had a bad feeling she knew more than I wanted her to know in the first place.

"Um ... Jono?" I offered.

"What about him?" Whoa -- maybe we shouldn't talk about Jono -- she sounded mad. Or bitter. Or something ... not good.

"Well -- nevermind." I didn't want to talk about it now if she was going to get all weird and possessive on me. Especially since she was wearing his jacket.

"No -- what?"

"I don't even know what I want to say, really."

"Then just let the words out."

"Well ... it's like you like Jono and I like Jono and you have Jono and I'm me and I'm not supposed to be like this and I feel bad and this is all weird and it's not fair!"

"I don't have him."

"Yes, you do!! Look at -- you're wearing his jacket, for God's sake!!" She sighed and peeled the thing off, which just made me more exasperated. "Besides, he brought that tea down for you." I crossed my arms.

"Yeah, and he brought apples for Penny. I suppose you're going to get jealous of her, too?" she asked coldly. I sighed.

"No, but ... that's different."

"How's it different?" The jacket was thrown onto the floor. I wanted to pick it up, but didn't.

"It just is. You know that and I know that, so don't argue a moot point."

She sighed and got up to pick up the jacket and hang it on the bedpost before settling herself back in the small nest of sheets she'd made on the bed. I just studied the jacket.

"It's ... how can I explain this?" she began. "It's like ... I can read everything from him now."

"That link thing? Like Jean and Scott?" I interrupted. She sighed.

"I don't know. He ... it's just not like that. Not for him. He stayed here because he felt obligated to; the jacket -- I don't know."

"Well, fine then."

"What?" she asked, sounding hurt. I shook my head.

"Nothing. Fine ... just forget the whole thing." I got up to leave, wondering where I would go, anyway.

"You leaving?" she asked, not coldly. Just asked.

"I guess. I just want to ... go back to bed. Or something. I don't know." My voice was suddenly cold.

"Would you take this back to him?" She took the jacket off the bedpost and offered it to me. Was this a peace offering, or did she just want to make me feel worse? Or was she just lazy and didn't want to get up?

"Um ... yeah. Sure." I took the jacket, wondering where it was that Jono had gone.

"He's just out there," she answered my unvoiced question. Well, she would know. But then again, she might have known anyway.

"Okay." I pushed the door open and went back out into the main room, my eyes adjusting to the brighter pallor of the room after a moment. I looked around to see that Jono had taken up refuge in my corner, and was still looking rather crabby. Whether he was looking at me or through me, I wasn't sure, but since I had his jacket I had to go over there and confront him. That George Jennifer, making me do this! Argh!

I stepped gingerly over first Jubilee and then Angelo -- all of him -- to make my way back to the corner where Jono was. As I approached him, I held out the jacket.

"Here." He reached out and took it, still not really looking at me. Did he look ... hurt? I sighed and, since he was in my corner, after all, sat down on the floor. That seemed to get his attention.

*Wot are you doing?* he asked, surprised.

"Well ... you're in my corner."

*Oh.* Despite my expectation that he would get up and leave, he made no move to do either. Instead he only put his jacket back on and continued sitting there, staring off to a point somewhere over my head.

"Are you ... okay?" I asked, not sure if he would answer me, and, if he did, what he would say. How much of that conversation between me and Jen had he "gotten"?

*Yeah. Fine.* He was obviously not fine. It reminded me of me, actually, and that made the whole thing more uncomfortable. I sighed. I knew that if it were me, I wouldn't want to talk about it. I looked around the room during the silence that followed, noting that Everett had gone back to sleep. Somehow the confirmation of that fact made me even more tired, and I suppressed a rather large yawn.

*Yer know, it's not fair,* he finally said. My head snapped up from the darkness that was beginning to engulf me -- had he actually spoken, or was that something out of one of those visions you get somewhere between awake and asleep?

"What's not?" I asked timidly, hoping that he had actually spoken.

*Yer know ... this link Jennifer set up. It's not fair.* Was he actually talking to me?! About his feelings?! Wow -- maybe she was starting to rub off on him ... which made it all the more unfair, I supposed.

"I guess ... you didn't have a say in it?" I asked. I actually hadn't really stopped to consider that -- I'd thought it was something they'd agreed on, or something like that. A mutual decision. But then I stopped, realizing that Jono probably wouldn't have agreed to something like that.

*Nope,* he said. *She just went right on ahead, not askin' ... you know, I don't exactly take well to people in me head.* I could agree with him there.

"Neither do I," I admitted. "But she just started this thing without asking you? That is unfair. In fact, that sucks. But then again, life sucks sometimes." I thought I detected a soft chuckle from him, but I wasn't sure. Maybe I just amused him by being a dork, like I amused everyone else. That was probably it. Either that or he was thinking about how much his life sucked, or at least how much he thought it did. I knew people who thought it didn't ...

*Yes, it does.*

"Yeah, well ... yours isn't the only life that sucks."

*Oh, I doubt that it is. It's just that ... some "suck" more'n others.*

"You'd be surprised." I brought my knees up to my chest, hugging them and rocking back and forth a bit. I was getting really tired -- which was probably Ev's fault -- but I didn't want to give in to sleep. Not if Jono was actually talking to me.

*Would I, now?* He eyed me, actually looking amused. Interested, maybe. *And how's that, gel?*

I sighed and shook my head. "You know yourself it's something you don't want to talk about. But we all have our problems. And just because you think yours are the worst doesn't mean that they are." Another silence, and I was afraid he'd gone off into space again when he finally spoke.

*Well, if yer want ter see it that way.*

I got the feeling that the conversation, as it was, was over, and finally buried my head back in my knees to allow sleep to reclaim me and take me away from this place where, right now, I felt like I was either a dork or that nobody liked me. Or both.

But sleep would not come, which made me both annoyed as well as made me feel like an even bigger dork. Was there no end to the infinity of dorkiness Jono made me feel? Argh! The guy was incorrigible even when he wasn't doing anything. I sighed heavily, and somehow he got the feeling that I was just feeling ... bad.

*Are you all right?* he asked, for the first time expressing concern about my feelings.

"I don't know," I sighed. "I just..." I trailed off, again not sure of how to tell him what I didn't know how to tell Jennifer. "I guess that I just don't know what to say because I never tell anyone how I feel, so why should I start now? Why shouldn't I just ignore everything and act like I should...?"

*Like yer ... should?*

Yes, like I should. I wasn't like this -- I wasn't mushy, and I didn't get crushes on people. I wasn't supposed to feel this way -- I didn't want to feel this way. Did I? I didn't even know anymore. I wanted to just go back to before, when I didn't feel like this. So confused. Because I was me. I didn't cry at movies, I didn't like guys or think they were "cute," and I most certainly did not get jealous. I didn't like mush or romance, didn't want a boyfriend, and was revolted by love stories and relationships. I wanted to go back to boyfic and football and ... I was supposed to just walk away. I was supposed to give up whatever feelings -- no, I did not have "feelings" for him, did I?! -- I had and stand back, because he was Jennifer's and Jennifer was his and it was better that way. It was normal that way. It was ... right that way.

"I'm just ... not like this. You wouldn't understand. I don't understand." I just wanted to disappear into the floor and go away forever. I was suddenly cold, and I suddenly wanted someone to hold me. I didn't care who -- just someone. Anyone. Why...? "I'm so pathetic..." I whispered to myself.

*Wot's that?* I just buried my head in my knees, refusing to answer. Why couldn't this just end now? This was heck, and I wanted out. *Gel...* he began, but he didn't have the chance to continue -- thank God -- because at that moment, Sean appeared in the doorway.

"Ach, I'm sorry ye all had to spend the night down here, but Ms. Frost apparently had some ... business to take care of. At any rate, ye can all come up now." I gratefully stood, trying to ignore Jono, who didn't quite know what to do. I felt horrible, because I wanted him to talk to me, but I just couldn't talk to him. He couldn't talk to me. That would mess everything up, and it made me feel even worse. And he was actually going to talk to me, too!! How could this be happening? What had I gotten myself into? I wanted out. Now. But how? How does one escape oneself? It's like the Matchbox 20 song : "It's me, I'm here all the time, and I won't go away..." That was how I felt. How could I go away?

(X)

Alison left me alone in the dim room. It wasn't quite dark enough to see my own aura, and I was bored. Experimenting with my powers would only result in augmenting my already pounding headache, and my throat still hurt, the ache still running through my jaw. And it was getting cold in here again. Jono still fed a steady stream of emotion into my brain; perhaps that was what was intensifying the headache. I reasoned he was talking with someone because of the constant fluctuation between different emotions. I hoped it was Alison he was talking to; she'd been guilt-tripping me about supposedly "having" Jono while she didn't. It was hard for her to admit she liked him, and I admired her for finally coming to terms with her feelings.

Still, I couldn't deny that I was very much attracted to him, and having inadvertently established this link certainly put me ahead of her. I couldn't blame her for resenting me. I didn't -- I didn't want this to be a competition, though. It was useless to fight over all of this. Alison and I were good friends, and always had been, and maybe this seems odd, but we didn't really fight much. I certainly didn't want to taint this record over something as trivial as a guy -- even if it was Jono. Besides, he didn't want a relationship with anyone right now.

At least, that's what I figured from his constant depression. At any rate, this whole blasted thing was going around in too many circles. Maybe it would just be better to let Alison "have" him. She wasn't the romantic, type, though ...

... but neither was Jono. I was so confused. This was so petty. So trite. From what I understood, Paige still thought she "had" him, though Jono was no longer interested in her for reasons I was yet unsure of. On top of that, though, he wasn't interested in me or Alison or anyone else, either. I wished everything would just fall into place, very neatly, like at the end of a cheesy sitcom.

Not that I wanted to live in a cheesy sitcom.

A light knock tapped on my door ... at least, I supposed it was now "my" door, now, considering I'd spent the good part of yesterday in here. "Come in," I called as best I could, pained.

The door opened and Monet stepped in, a mission on her mind but also very cloudy, perhaps because she'd just woken up as well. "How are you?" she asked. "Mr. Cassidy suggests you come out if you are feeling better."

Um. Well. "Better" was certainly a relative term. Jono was broadcasting a deflated shade of ~disappointment~ mixed with a quiet ~resent~ and I didn't know why. Given his recent mood, though, it was nothing I would touch with a ten-foot pole. That wasn't what Monet meant, though. "My throat hurts," I informed her, my voice not as crackly as I would've imagined given the pain.

She regarded me with a level gaze, perhaps with what might have been called distaste, like if I hurt why the heck was I telling her? Of course Princess Monet never got sick.

Initially I would return with sarcasm, but I had to choose my words carefully with her. Almost anything I said could and would be used against me. "I might be contagious," I continued, leaving her emotions out of the conversation. I had to deal with her as subjectively as she believed she dealt with everyone else. "You would not like to come out, then, because you think you will infect others."

Would I, though? What was I in here for, anyway? If it <i>was</i> because I was contagious, why were they even letting other people in here with me? Jono I could understand; he couldn't very well catch a cold or whatever it was I had. Even if it was simply a cold, though, what reason was there to lock me up in medlab? Princess Monet instantly transformed into Nurse St. Croix, taking decisive strides across the room and placing a palm on my forehead, then turning her hand over. I felt silly.

"You do not have a fever," she informed me. "Come." She turned my single scrawny blanket down and took my wrist, leading me out of the little room. I felt even sillier. Outside, Jono was sitting in the back corner, again wearing his leather jacket; Alison wasn't far off, cross-legged on the floor emitting a soft ~confusion~. Mr. Cassidy stood near the door, his large frame effectively blocking any form of escape. He simply sparkled the radiance of command and control. His audience, however, was less than attentive. Everett was only barely awake, and the red-socked Angelo whose feet were halfway across the room from the rest of him was only pretending to be awake, having propped himself against a wall. Jubilee hadn't had the audacity for duplicity; she was happily curled up within an old sleeping bag, hugging some tattered stuffed creature close. Paige was nowhere to be found. That same dark presence which could only be Penance still graced medlab, though she was not in sight.

"Good mornin'," Cassidy greeted cheerily. "Again, I'm sorry for havin' te lock ye all down here overnight. If it were up to me ye'd've all remained in yuir rooms."

I imagined the decision had been Emma's.

"Mr. Cassidy, if I may?" Monet offered.

At the instant she dropped my wrist, I immediately sat on the floor in that very spot in which I stood.

"Jubilation and Angelo are still asleep, and Paige is absent," Monet explained.

Thank God for that. At the mention of Paige's name, however, I caught a flash of ~resent~ from Jono. Resent? Why --?

"Wouldn't it be preferable to have everyone awake as well as present?" Monet continued.

"Aye," Mr. Cassidy agreed, "but it doesnae matter. Ms. Frost has finished her business, and ye can all go back upstairs now." The suggestion was easily an order, I was sure. At it, Alison reluctantly rose, followed by Everett. A quiet ~disdain~ seeped from Monet, but she did as told, leaving medlab. Jono didn't move but made no effort to contact me. What was wrong with him? Not that not speaking to me necessarily meant something was wrong, but he was just so ... upset ... over something or another, and he didn't want to talk about it. Perhaps he'd discussed it with Alison. I hoped he just at least got it off his mind, whatever it was.

"Jennifer?"

Eep. "Hm? What?" I snapped to attention at Mr. Cassidy's mention of my name, knowing all too well I'd been staring at Jono again.

"How are ye feelin'?"

I dismissed his question with a non-commital "Fine," knowing full well that I wasn't fine, even though the term was a relative one. Physically, I was better than I had been, though there was still a trace of pain in my throat, but it wasn't anything to be worried about. Besides, Monet had already proven that I wasn't contagious -- and Monet knew everything, right? "Um, I'm going to go ... upstairs ... now." Before another word could be uttered, I exited medlab, sure everything would be relatively okay.

Relatively.

Once I returned to the room that had become "mine", I dragged out a clean pair of jeans and my fake Tori Amos T-shirt (made with a scanned image of the "Little Earthquakes" CD and an iron-on transfer). I carried these to the bathroom.

I turned the shower as hot as I could possibly stand it, letting the steam rise from the cold porcelain of the tub. That, I reasoned, was probably good for the vestigial sting in my throat. And desperately hot showers were generally good for my mind, too. Hot water was cleansing like music -- and made me feel so much better after apparent sickness, like I could wash the illness from my system so it might never return.

Like I could wash him from my system so he might never return.

(X)

I was hungry, but not terribly so, and those things that needed to be said had to be said. I'd made up my mind. I breezed past the kitchen though I hadn't eaten, past those people in there before anyone could bother me to clean my room or say goodbye to Bobby, who would be departing in an hour or so.

A shower was not enough to wash him from my system. If I wanted to end this, I had to end this -- because it was obviously going nowhere, and he obviously didn't want me around, no matter how much I wanted ...

I was going to do this before I lost my nerve. I strode forward like a woman possessed, plunging through doors and hallways, following the empathic link to where I felt Jono to be.

The hallways were growing more unfamiliar but it didn't matter; I was getting closer. I pushed open another door and was faced with a darkened stairwell. I ran down, hoping I wouldn't step on anything but knowing if I fell I wouldn't care.

The room was dark, perhaps the darkest I'd been in at the Academy, black as the darkest night in its darkest hour. A deep indigo glow that bordered on purple glimmered faintly around my hands and before my face, but it certainly couldn't serve as any sort of illumination, simply annoyance. I stood in one spot -- he was in here. And I could feel him; I could point directly at him and I knew I would be right. But I couldn't see him. I couldn't see a bloody thing in here.

I stepped forward --

-- and ran head-on into a closed door. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I chastised myself. I felt for the knob and turned it. The heavy door creaked open so slowly -- and revealed, inch by inch, the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

Fire.

I'm no pyromaniac, though; I hate to be too close to the stuff, but the dancing flame of a candle is simply mesmerizing. This blaze was like a bonfire, though purer -- more white than orange or red; blindingly brilliant at its core rather than blue like any conventional flame would be. But this was no conventional flame -- this was Jono. This beautiful fire was him, much more so than the black-clad shell he hung on to. This was his essence, contained within the framework of the man he used to be.

The raw power cascading all around him -- the power that he was -- was more than enough to make me feel inconceivably insignificant. I could no longer say whatever it was I'd come down here for, whatever it was I so urgently needed to tell him.

He'd known I was there before, but only now turned brown eyes to stare directly at me, lit eerily from beneath by that beautiful chaotic fire. His hair was blown back by his own force; gently, silently pushing mine away from my face as well. The heat generated was not as much as I'd expect, given the intensity of the flame, but still so hot nonetheless.

"Oh my God," I breathed, unable to say anything more. Nothing more could truly suffice.

*So me head wasn't enough.* Jono's psionic voice exploded in my brain, colored every shade of angry, but not yelling. Nowhere near yelling ... *Yer had to come invade me room, too.*

I was too afraid to speak, to stammer, to even think, anything.

*Are yer 'appy now? This is wot yer wanted to see, ennit?*

I thought maybe I was going to cry. I didn't know. I wasn't sure. I was so scared I thought he'd kill me, I thought I would die right then and there but I was frozen in place and that scared me, too, because I just wanted to leave and get out of this situation I'd buried myself in --

-- but I was stuck. Prey. So scared. I wanted to close my eyes; he was getting so much brighter as he became angrier. I couldn't even say so much as the apology I knew wouldn't solve anything.

He grew bolder and brighter and hotter and he shone like the sun. Contradictory -- he was so beautiful but that very power that made him beautiful was exactly what threatened to kill me at that very moment. The emotions that rolled off of him were not the confusion or even the fear I was used to; it was like he was no longer human -- like he had no emotions at all, except that terrible vengeance I couldn't -- I didn't know where such a passion came from. It was loud and it hurt my ears. It hurt my head; it hurt my heart. Everything hurt -- hotter, hotter, brighter ...

(X)

I had been searching for the duct tape for almost an hour before I actually found it. Man, if there was ever any place someone needed to hide something ... I found it in a bucket underneath a stack of home improvement magazines addressed to Sean beneath an old train set table in the back corner of the basement. I figured Jono's room must be around here somewhere -- there was only so much basement, after all. I hoped to God I wouldn't stumble across it -- or him. God, I never wanted to see him again, but that wasn't like me! I shouldn't care about this -- why was I being so petty and stupid? Why couldn't I just accept the fact that the guy didn't like me -- he felt sorry for me, maybe, or just looked down on me like the stupid kid I was -- but he didn't like me. He couldn't. It just wouldn't work out that way. No one ever liked me like that. Especially not Jono. I had put it behind me. It was over. Well, there had never been anything in the first place, but if there had been, it was over.

That was why I was down here, looking for the duct tape. Because nothing was going on, and I needed something normal to do. Well, normal for me, anyhow. I was ready to go upstairs with the duct tape to fix my sandal (because duct tape fixes everything, of course!) when I heard it. It sounded like a scream, and on top of that it sounded like a Jennifer scream. Oh great -- she was down here, and screaming nonetheless. Well, there was only one way to find out. I raced towards the sound, tripping in the dark.

"Ow!!" I exclaimed into the dark basement air, not expecting a response. There was none but the throbbing of my knee where I had landed on it on the hard concrete floor. That was going to bruise. I finally reached a door and, hearing Jennifer's voice coming from behind it, rudely and stupidly pushed it open.

"What? What happened?" It was dark, but I could see ... light. Beautiful light, if light could be beautiful. And this light was -- it was colored white and orange and red and yellow and ... it danced a delicate dance in the corner of the room, swirling and playing all around ... Jono? The light was ... Jono.

"Oh ... wow... " My breath caught in my throat. I had never seen him like this -- not in person. It was amazing enough seeing any of them "in person," but this -- this was ... awesome. And not in the slang sense. I was totally awestruck. God, he was beautiful. I could just slap myself for that, but he was.

"I -- I don't know -- I ..." Jen was saying, as I stared at Jono. There was a tension in the air ... it was extremely uncomfortable, and I wanted out. Now. But I couldn't -- I was mesmerized by Jono's essence, and there was no escaping now. Oh, why weren't my legs responding?! George them!

*Get out,* he said. It was terrifying and crushing at the same time, to hear him so ... there was such loathing in his voice, although loathing for what I did not know. My legs began to register in my brain again, and I managed to begin propelling myself towards the door.

"But -- I --" Jennifer seemed to be pleading. I was pleading myself -- pleading with my stupid brain not to feel, not to think, to forget this all and just go away forever.

"I'm just ... gonna go," I somehow said as I neared the door, which was somehow a million miles away.

"No --!" That took me by surprise. Jen's voice had been commanding, and somehow I found my legs stopping, even though I was crying out for them to keep moving, to get me out of that room.

"What? He wants us out." I was scared by Jono now, not because of his appearance but because of his attitude, because of his (psionic) tone of voice. That had frightened me to my very core, and if he wanted me out, I wasn't about to argue. In the dim light, I could see Jen was biting her lip.

"But --"

*But nothing. Get out. Leave me alone.*

Oh, stop it! That tone -- it was ... terrifying. I suddenly couldn't recall ever being more scared in my entire life. He began wrapping himself up again, slowly plunging the room back into darkness as he covered up his inner fire. Jen, however, didn't seem scared at all as she stood resolutely in the center of the room. When her voice came out, it was proud and confident. How could she not be ... my stomach was threatening to tear itself up out of fear and apprehension and humility.

"No. I'm not leaving," she announced into the now fully darkened room. I stood by the door, still trying to get my legs to respond. "We have to talk." It sounded more like a command than anything else. She wanted to talk?! Of course she wanted to talk -- she could talk! I, on the other hand, could never admit anything, not even to myself much less out loud. Never.

*There's nothing to talk about.*

Exactly. Thank you! Dear God, I did not want to talk! Subject me to Hanson, cut of my head or drown me slowly, just don't make me talk! I can't, I won't, I can't....

Jen sighed in exasperation. "There is an issue here." An issue?! AN ISSUE?!! NO! There was not an issue, if only I could get my Georging legs to get me out of that room! I would just sit in my room, alone forever, and never get tangled up in anything ever again and then all of this would be all better and no one could get mad at me. Why did I feel like a little kid who was about to get yelled at for doing something stupid? Because I was, that's why -- that was what my mind repeated over and over, not stopping and never letting up. I was imposing on something I should never have gotten involved with, and if I left now maybe everything would get better.

"An issue?" Had I just said that?! Ugh!

"An issue," Jennifer repeated. "Scared as I am right now ... and no, it is not because I'm afraid of the way you look, but because ... well, just ... because."

Well then. Because. And that was a reason? "Wonderful reason. You know, I really should go." Please legs, please respond, please, I'm begging you...

"You're just as much a part of this as the rest of us." No, I wasn't. I wasn't a part of anything, and I wasn't ever going to be a part of anything. Ever. I saw that, because if I ever was, it would just ruin my life and existence like it was now... I was not involved, I didn't want to talk, and I did not want to be there. He didn't want me there, she couldn't possibly want me there -- even I didn't want me there!

*Rest of us??*

Yes. There was no "rest of us." Nope, no way, no how. Just him and her, and that was it. "I'm not a part of this. I don't want to talk. There's nothing to talk about." There. Short and sweet. Could I go now?

"Yes, there is. And you're just as afraid as I am. As you are." Oh God, I was scared stiff. I was scared out of my mind. I was just waiting for the fear to stop my heart -- maybe then it would all be over. I was just glad there wasn't any light in there, because I was shaking so hard it was all I could do to keep my grip on the stupid duct tape that I had to come down there for in the stupid first place. Why was I shaking?

"I just feel stupid." Was that the understatement of the millennia.

*I'm not afraid!* he insisted. No -- why would he be? Why would I be? My shaking hand almost dropped the tape, but I recovered and grabbed it before it hit the floor.

"Both of you. All of us. This is silly." No! Don't involve me in this! I'm not involved!

"Yes, it is!" I agreed. Maybe if I agreed I could get out of there. Anything to get out of there.

"And we need to stop going around in circles and decide something." She had the air of a teacher who thought she was stating the obvious. We were not going around in circles. There was them, and there was me. I was going around in circles -- they couldn't be. They were fine. It was me that was the problem. Why was I always the problem? Why did I feel this way? Stop it, Alison! Stop it! Stop it! Arrggghhh!

"Decide something?" She wanted to decide something?! I had already decided -- I wasn't a part of this! So why the George was I still in there?! Legs, please!!

"Yes. Decide something. This is silly. This is dumb. Petty, trivial ..." You're telling me?! Yes!!! I agree!! Wholeheartedly!!

*And wot exactly do you propose to do?* That was a good question -- what exactly did she think would fix all of this? I knew what I thought -- knew -- would fix all of this. If only I could leave that room, then somehow everything would be all right. If only ... I wanted OUT. I had never wanted out more in my life. There was a silence, during which I could have just dropped dead, and I thought they might have actually rejoiced. I knew they couldn't want me there. I finally mustered up my courage and my voice, swearing to my legs that if they did not work when I needed them to when I was done that I would most definitely amputate them.

My voice was eerily level and calm. "I'm not a part of this. Just ignore me. Pretend I never had a part of this, even though I didn't. I'm just going to go take my duct tape and fix my sandal and forget about all of this."

I heard the door slam behind me, and I watched the halls of the dorm fly by me as if in a dream or a movie. I found myself back in my room, found myself slumped on the floor with my back to the door ... sobbing????!!!! WHAT????!!!!! No. I was not sobbing. This was not me. I was fine. I was walking away, like I should. It was over. That was it. It was over. Over.

(X)

I heard someone screaming inside my head and the detached voice only registered as my own when a foreign voice responded from behind me ... so far behind ...

"What? What happened?"

Voice -- whose voice? Alison? Had she come to save me?

~awe!~ Awe? Why the hell --?

"I -- I don't know -- I ..." Words managed to escape my lips, though they, like the scream, were somehow inhuman. Somehow wrong, like I was speaking some foreign language, as foreign as every sound that rang in these hollow ears of mine. As foreign as this wet mask I wore, hoping the light didn't reflect the saltwater I tasted on my face. It tasted like the lip I'd bit so many times in confusion and error, the lip I still bit now -- only now it was out of fear instead of any error.

*Get out.*

Out --

Alison decided this was a good idea; in the dimness of the room I saw her sneaking quietly towards the door, radiating an awful ~fear~. But no -- she couldn't go. Not when she'd just gotten here. I was so sick of her simply abandoning me and couldn't deal with it anymore.

"But -- I --" But I was still here! Why couldn't I force the words out? Why couldn't I say those things I had to say?

"I'm just ... gonna go," Alison informed me.

"No --!" The single syllable left my mouth like a bullet from a gun, and froze Alison in her place only inches from the door -- from her departure and her ticket away from this mess.

"What? He wants us out." It was so easy for her. She could still speak; she could still move. She would leave because she could, and she would put all of this behind her as though it had never happened. She could do that -- she was like that.

"But --" Again my protest fell short and silent. Again I floundered helplessly.

*But nothing. Get out. Leave me alone,* Jono commanded. Every emotion, though, that barreled towards me, spoke volumes of contradiction. Why would he say something he so obviously didn't mean? Was he that insistent in his stubborn solitude?

Yes -- yes, he was. As if to demonstrate that fact, he began to wrap his bandages, building another wall between himself and the outside world and containing the beauty he'd resolved to turn a blind eye to. What he didn't realize was I could be just as stubborn as he could: I would show his worth to him if I had to pound it into his thick skull. And I would do it now -- if I could simply conquer my fear! "No. I'm not leaving. We have to talk."

A wave of ~disbelief~ hit me squarely in the head, but Alison was silent. Nervously silent, in fact -- I hoped I could gather enough courage to say the phrases forming in my head.

Before those phrases could escape, however, they were effectively drowned.

*There's nothing to talk about.*

Alison shone of ~gratitude~ in response to Jono's statement, though the emotion mixed with images of ... Hanson and Duncan MacLeod? I shook my head and sighed. This was not about torture -- this was an issue.

I informed them of such. "There is an issue here."

"An issue?" Alison echoed.

"An issue," I reiterated. "Scared as I am right now ..." Scared and frightened, fearful I was choosing the wrong words, and afraid that they weren't the words I really wanted to say, and afraid that I would sound stupid ... I felt the need to emphasize that but I sounded more like I was babbling as I addressed Jono. "... and no, it is not because I'm afraid of the way you look, but because ... well, just ... because." Because? I was afraid simply because?

"Wonderful reason." Wasn't it, though? "You know, I really should go."

But Jono didn't want her to go -- yes, sure, let's blame this on him, shall we? Let's blame all of this on him.... I was the one who didn't want her to go. Why couldn't I just leave with her? "You're just as much a part of this as the rest of us," I found myself saying.

*Rest of us?* Jono echoed.

Oh, Light, I'd used the wrong words ... that wasn't what I'd meant to say!

"I'm not a part of this," Alison insisted. "I don't want to talk. There's nothing to talk about." Wonderful. Simply wonderful -- three obstinate people tangled in a sick sort of relationship, and nobody wanted to admit anything, but nobody would leave until anything was admitted. And the problem was, not only were we all so stubborn, we were all scared out of our minds.

"Yes, there is. And you're just as afraid as I am," I explained. Fear -- yes, the room was thick with fear from all of us. "As you are," I continued, turning to Jono. "I just feel stupid," Alison said. So she would deny the fear that was threatening to rip her apart?

Similarly, Jono insisted, *I'm not afraid!*

"Both of you," I explained, no -- "All of us. This is silly." It was silly. It was ridiculous how stubborn we all were!

"Yes, it is!" Alison agreed. Thank you, thank you! For once we agreed on something. I had no idea if Jono agreed but at this point two out of three wasn't bad.

"And we need to stop going around in circles and decide something," I continued, before I let this go. I was on a roll and the words simply flowed from me -- I could not stop now. This was good, perhaps this way we could end this ridiculous farce and be done with it.

"Decide something?" Alison echoed as though I were speaking some foreign language.

"Yes. Decide something. This is silly. This is dumb. Petty, trivial ..." I could have rattled off a whole list of adjectives to describe this circus, but was cut off by Jono's question.

*And wot exactly do you propose to do?*

I stopped short -- what did I propose to do about this? I'd already told them how I felt, or was certain that they already knew how I felt, but I wanted to know what was going through either of their minds. Alison and Jono, however, being the people that they were, were probably not going to talk, and I suddenly realized the error of this hole I'd dug them both into. I did not have the ladder necessary to get out of that deep, dark, and frightening hole, much as they might have believed I did.

To my surprise, Alison's voice rang almost cooly through the dark room as though disembodied. "I'm not a part of this. Just ignore me. Pretend I never had a part of this, even though I didn't. I'm just going to go take my duct tape and fix my sandal and forget about all of this."

Not a part of --

Of "this" ... ?

This.

What the bloody hell was this?

I wanted to stop her, to prevent her from disappearing again because with her here Jono might actually offer some sort of solution or suggestion, but she was already gone. Granted, it was a farfetched notion, but she was my sanity. With her here I wouldn't say anything that might embarrass me ...

Why would I be embarrassed? There was nobody here to be embarrassed in front of. There was Jono.

Light, there was Jono. And me.

In the dark.

I suddenly felt oddly ill, but not like I would throw up -- more like I was as disembodied as Alison's voice sounded. I didn't want to leave, because that would mean I gave up -- that would mean I gave in, and he won. I couldn't let him win. That would force me to admit defeat.

*You wanted to talk. So talk. Or get out.*

So he was back to ordering me out? Back to square one -- back to the beginning, but with one change: at least now he was willing to listen to whatever it was I had to say. Whatever that was. What had I originally come down here for, anyway? I bit my lip.

"I --" I spluttered, if only to signify that I intended to stay and talk, not run away from it like Alison had. What was it I'd told her? Just get the words out? "I want to know what you think," I blurted.

*About wot?*

Just get the words out. "About everything." Perhaps not everything, but with a blanket inquiry such as that, he would certainly explain to me what he thought about me and the link and Alison and this disgusting mess. "I -- I need to sort this all out. I need to know --"

*Wot I think of you?*

The nail ... the nail, he'd hit it on the head.... "Yes."

Time seemed to pass like months or even years but I knew it couldn't have been. I tasted blood and salt on my lip and I had to force myself to refrain from biting the dead skin off. Or the live skin, for that matter ... that was what hurt. My own sedate brand of masochism.... Finally, finally Jono started to explain things -- calmly, rationally, calculated and scientific, like analyzing something so logically.

*I don't appreciate what you did,* he began. Understood -- how could anyone appreciate that?

"I didn't mean --"

*Let me finish.*

I was quiet.

*I don't appreciate it,* he repeated. *And I don't like it. I know you don't quite know wot you're doing just yet, though, so I'll grant you that.* He paused again, as though the words he'd initially chosen didn't exactly fit whatever it was he really wanted to say. *Your music -- that's nice.*

I recalled that, I'd "impressed" him.

*But you're emotional,* he explained. *And you're ... not afraid of that. It helps your music but it's ... *

Intimidating. I knew that, I'd known that for so long. I frightened people off, and that was why any relationships I'd tried to sustain had ended so abruptly: because I was too emotional and I came across as psycho. Or perhaps my reputation as the psycho had preceded me and had scared anyone off before I could even start a relationship. That, when mixed with my tendency to develop infatuations, did not paint a pretty picture.

* ... it's unnerving.*

Oh.

*I can't do this. Yer know that. I don't "go out". Not --*

"I don't go out either ... not like that ..." This was different, though. I wasn't asking for a date to some cheesy high school dance. I wasn't asking for a lifetime commitment. Light -- I didn't even know what I was asking for anymore. Maybe it would just be better if I walked away from the whole thing. I couldn't forget like Alison could, though -- I wouldn't be able to look back. But I could walk away ...

No! I couldn't! This was sick, we were both too stubborn! Even with Alison out of the picture -- and that was all she'd done, was run away to erase herself from the picture -- even with her out, Jono and I were still at this impasse. Just get the words out -- "Do you want me here?"

Right, that was it -- just ask and it didn't matter if I sounded stupid. Just move forward with this instead of around and around.

*Wot?*

"You know what I mean. Just give me a straight answer."

*Wot was the question?*

"Do you want me here?"

*As opposed to somewhere else?*

Was the man truly this dumb or was he simply playing games to avoid the issue? Light -- he was a guy, that was the answer, wasn't it?

"Do you want this?"

*Want wot? This bloody link? Hell, no.*

"Fine, fine, I'll ..." I wasn't sure what I'd do. Have Emma sever it, probably, because I certainly couldn't sever it myself, and if he didn't want it as adamantly as he proclaimed, then he would have taken care of it already if he could have. But that wasn't what I was talking about! "But that's not what I'm talking about."

*Wot are yer talking about, then? Wot else is there?*

"This!"

*There's no this.*

So that was it. That was it, then. If he didn't know what I was talking about now, then he never would. "Okay," I said in a voice no more than a whisper, my eyes hot and blood just beneath the surface of my lip. "Okay. I understand. I'll ... "

I still wasn't sure what I'd do. Leave? The moment I walked out that door I was out of his life forever. I didn't want to leave.

~guilt~

Guilt? Guilt?

~guilt~, stronger, as if to confirm my suspicions. And ~regret~. *I didn't mean -- *

Of course he "meant." Guys always "meant."

*I don't want you mad at me, okay?*

"Then what do you want me to feel? Emotions aren't programmable, you know."

*Wot do you want me to feel?*

He had a point. And a good one.

*I'm not gonna love you right away. I don't understand why you say you "love" me, anyway. These --*

"I never said that!" Never had I told him that, as often as I might have believed it alone. Never.

* -- these emotions you feed me aren't love.*

"I never said that!" I repeated, so indignant I might scream again. Click -- what he said registered. The emotions I fed him. That link -- damn it anyhow! "Jono -- I -- you're not a monster, you're beautiful. I say that because it's true, not because of any false love I might feel for you. Infatuated? A crush? Perhaps. Yes! Initially! Initially! Feel whatever you feel. Love what you love. You're beautiful. Accept that. I want you to accept that. That's what I want from you." I swallowed. "If anything else happens to come of that, great. I'd love that. But if not ... so be it. It doesn't matter anymore."

It didn't matter anymore.

"It's time for me to go," I said. "Goodbye."

I didn't look back as I went upstairs.

*Jen -- *

I didn't look back.

The End


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