A Friend In Need

by Somogyi


Hi! This is a sequel to Blading, a short tale I wrote a while back that dealt with Jubilee's feelings after Wolverine left the team. In it, I touched on the growing bond between Jubilee and Jean. I wanted to explore their relationship further, and what you see below is the result.

Special thanks to Mirage for taking the time to read the beta copy and offering many great suggestions. She really helped me to smooth some rough edges, to fine-tune a number of scenes, and to get a better handle on the characters of Monet and Emma Frost. (Though if these two Ice Queens still don't read right, the blame is entirely mine.) Thanks, Mirage!

All comments and criticisms are welcomed at: [email protected] Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

Disclaimer: The X-Men and Generation X are property of Marvel Entertainment. Characters are used without permission and no profit is being made.


"Friendship is the comfort of knowing there is always a shoulder to lean on, a hand to reach out for, and a heart to welcome me home." --Unknown

Prologue

"This is one mission which I'm definitely glad is over," sighed Phoenix as the Blackbird came to a stop in the hanger bay. She was beyond exhaustion, more tired than she could ever remember feeling in her entire life. And yet, she did not mind, for her energy had been well-spent. The team had done the task to which they had devoted their existence-- they had saved lives. There had not been a single casualty. So, while she was proud of their performance, she was relieved that the mission was over and that they were home.

"Can't unnerstand why, chere," Gambit said, eyes shining, as he unbuckled his seatbelt. "Jus' cos you single-handedly contained de explosion after de bomb went off in dat building. . . ."

"Not t'mention keepin' the entire thing from collapsin' while we helped evacuate all'a those people," Rogue added as she got to her feet. "Sugah, you deserve a vacation."

"Didn't think you had that in you, Red," Wolverine said, lighting a cigarette.

"We all do what we have to," Jean replied simply, unfastening her own seatbelt.

"We're all proud of ya," Logan said, smiling.

"Yes, you did a remarkable job today, my friend," Storm agreed, turning around from her place in the pilot's seat. "I believe you pushed your powers to the limit and beyond. And you have a great deal to show for it."

"You mean my migraine?" Jean asked with a hint of a smile. "What I need is a nice, long hot soak in a tub, and then I think I'll sleep two or three days straight."

"That ain't such a bad idea," said Rogue. "Ah could use a li'l shut-eye mahself."

"If we be takin' a bath, too, Gambit'll bring de bubbles, neh?" Remy teased, sporting his usual devilish grin.

They all laughed. Stifling a yawn, Jean got up and took a few steps forward. She cried out as her leg accidentally touched against the side of one of the chairs on her way toward the ramp.

"Looks like your first stop is the medi-lab," Logan said, placing a steadying arm around her waist. "That's a nasty cut on your leg. Let's go get McCoy to stitch you up."

Too tired to protest, Jean allowed Logan and Ororo to walk with her to the medi-lab, where they found Dr. Henry McCoy awaiting their arrival, his white lab coat a stark contrast to his blue fur.

"Home are the heroes," he said with a grin that revealed especially long canines. "Not too worse for wear, I see."

"The usual assortment of bruises and scratches," Ororo said.

"'Cept for Jeanie's leg here," Logan said, helping her up onto the exam table.

"It's not as bad as it looks, Hank," she assured him. "I didn't even notice it until I got up just now."

"Let me be the judge of that," he replied, gently extending her left leg straight out in front of her and looking at the inch-long gash on her calf. "You are correct; it is not too serious. Nonetheless, it will require a couple of stitches." Picking up a pair of scissors, he carefully cut away the blood-stained fabric of her uniform around the injured area.

"Any word on Scott's team?" she asked as Hank began to clean her wound. Though she and her husband shared a psychic rapport, when they went on separate missions, she usually decreased the strength of the link to minimize the risk of distraction. She felt the warm comfort of his presence in the back of her mind, but she still wondered about the specifics of the mission.

"Nothing yet. We're on alert, in case they need reinforcements."

Jean nodded. "Feels like I haven't seen him in ages."

"I'm sure he misses you just as much," Hank replied with a smile as he began to stitch the wound. "So, what is this I hear about you single-handedly containing an explosion?"

Jean sighed. "It was nothing, Hank."

"She is too modest," Ororo said, walking closer. She proceeded to tell Hank the tale of their mission and the important part Jean played in it.

"What's that?" Jean asked, seeing Hank preparing a syringe.

"An antibiotic, to prevent infection," Hank replied. "If you would kindly roll up your sleeve?"

"I hate shots," Jean mumbled, but did as he asked. She turned her head away and winced at the tiny pin-prick in her arm.

"Would you like a lollipop?" Hank asked with a teasing smile.

"No, actually, what I need is a soft bed." *Even if Scott's not here to share it,* she finished silently.

Hank walked to a table and counted some tablets into a small vial. "Now, I want you to continue with the antibiotic orally. Take two a day for the next week," he told her, handing her the vial. "But since the shot was long-acting, you don't have to start them until tonight."

"Yes, Dr. McCoy, sir," Jean said with mock sternness. "Thanks, Hank," she added with a warm smile.

Placing his hands on her waist with a gentleness which seemed to defy his large, clawed hands, Hank helped her down from the table. Leaving Hank to tidy up the medi-lab, Jean and Ororo walked into the corridor, where they found Logan greeting Bobby. One did not have to be a telepath to sense that something was wrong.

When Bobby did not welcome them in his typical carefree manner with jokes and sarcastic remarks, they immediately knew something terrible had happened. His forehead was creased with worry, his face unusually pale. He seemed unable to find a place for his hands-- first he tried crossing them across his chest, then he let his arms fall and laced his fingers together, and finally he settled on shoving them into his pockets. He was intently studying the floor, as though refusing to meet their gaze.

"Robert, what is wrong?" asked Ororo. "Did something happen with the other team?"

"No, Scott and the others haven't touched base yet." He still did not look them in the eyes.

"Then what is it?" Logan asked.

Bobby swallowed hard. "Sean just called a little over ten minutes ago. A couple of the kids had a run in with Sebastian Shaw and Tessa. . . ."

Though she did not do a full psi-scan, Jean could sense the dread that filled Bobby. Paling, she suddenly felt as though her heart were in her throat. Swallowing hard, she pushed down the panic that was gripping her. From the corner of her eye, she could see Logan tense.

"Which of the children were involved?" Storm asked, voicing the question Jean found herself unable to ask.

Bobby had a pained expression on his face. "Synch and Jubilee."

"Oh, God," Jean muttered softly. She looked at Bobby. "How . . . how badly. . . ?"

"Everett wasn't hurt much-- some cuts and bruises, and an injured shoulder."

"And Jubilation?" Logan asked, pressing him.

Bobby hesitated. "She got the brunt of it. Broken bones, a severe concussion, internal injuries. Sean thinks there might have been some psychic damage as well."

Jean felt Ororo place a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"There's more. Out with it, Drake. Don't hold anything back from us," Logan growled. His initial frown had since been replaced with an irritated scowl.

Bobby hated being the bearer of such terrible news. "They're operating now. The doctors . . . they. . . ." He paused, his throat suddenly very dry. When he spoke again, the words were little more than a whisper. "They're hoping that she'll survive the surgery."

"No!" Jean cried, her hand flying to her mouth. Not Jubilee. Not sweet, innocent, young Jubilee. She felt the tears welling in her eyes, but she fought them back. It would not do any good to lose control. Her head was reeling. She fought past the exhaustion, the cloudiness in her mind, trying to think straight. Was it just a over a year ago that she had managed to get through to Jubilee-- to break through the hardened exterior the girl had erected around herself in order to spare herself the pain of losing another person she loved? They had grown quite close. Their relationship had stirred many feelings and emotions in Jean, including maternal ones. Now, learning that the girl was so seriously injured, she wanted nothing more than to go to her, to be with her, to help her fight through this so that Jubilee would come back to all of them.

Jean looked at Logan. The anger that had hardened his expression was betrayed only by the worry in his eyes. Their eyes locked, and he knew immediately what she was thinking, for he, too, had the same desire to go to her. He was the first of them to know Jubilee, when she saved him from the Reavers. Logan took the girl under his wing, and the two had been nearly inseparable for the longest time afterward. She was like a daughter to him. She had been through too much already in her young life-- far more than any person should have to endure. He was not going to see it end-- not now, not like this. She still had her whole life ahead of her. He refused to let that be taken from her.

"How long will it take to refuel the Blackbird?" Logan asked Storm.

"Fifteen minutes," Ororo replied.

"Rogue and Gambit are already doing it," Bobby replied. "I ran into them on the way here. It should be ready in under ten--"

"Cyke's team just called in," Hank announced as he bounded into the room on all fours. "They need reinforcements."

Jean looked at him, her feelings suddenly divided. She wanted to go to Jubilee, but she feared her husband and teammates might need her help.

Ororo regarded her friend, and could see the conflict on her face. "We shall help the others. You and Logan should go be with Jubilee."

"But--"

"No time for buts, Red," Logan told her. "Let's get moving."

Hesitating, Jean looked at Ororo. Then, slowly, she nodded. "Thank you," she said, taking her hand and giving it a brief squeeze.

"Be sure to tell Jubilee that our love and prayers are with her," Ororo said.

"I will," Jean told her, even as she levitated herself toward the door.

A moment later, Storm, Beast, and Iceman followed suit, hurrying toward the hanger bay.

Chapter 1

Jean and Logan walked briskly down the hospital corridor toward the Intensive Care Unit. They had both been uncharacteristically quiet for the entire plane trip to Massachusetts. Neither knew what to say. All they could do was think about the girl lying on an operating table, wondering why something like this would happen to her.

As they turned a corner, they spotted a small lounge area at a T-junction in the hallway. When they got closer, they saw two young women sitting on a couch. One, Paige Guthrie, sat sobbing, hugging her knees to her chest, as she stared blankly across the room. The blonde was shaking, apparently in shock. The other, Monet Saint Croix, sat beside her, hands folded in her lap. Despite the ordeal they had evidently been through, the young Algerian was, as usual, the picture of calm.

At the sound of their approach, Monet looked up at them. "Mr. Logan, Mrs. Summers, it is good to see you. I only wish it could be under more pleasant circumstances."

"Where's Sean, Monet?" Logan asked, his brusque tone making it perfectly evident he was in no mood for pleasantries.

"Mr. Cassidy is talking to the nurses over there," she indicated, pointing at the other end of the hallway.

"You go speak to him," Jean told Logan. "I'll stay here with the girls."

Nodding, Logan went to find Sean.

"How long has she been like this?" Jean asked, sitting down on the other side of Paige.

"Ever since we rescued them," Monet replied. "Mr. Cassidy and I found Everett, and Paige discovered Jubilee. She had been buried beneath some crates in a warehouse. Everett was on a different floor. We heard Paige screaming for help. When I located them, Paige was kneeling beside Jubilee's body, holding her head in her lap. There was blood everywhere. Paige had obviously never seen anything like that in her entire life, because she was just short of hysterical. We rushed Jubilee and Everett to the hospital, and while we were waiting for word, Paige disappeared. I found her huddled in a corner, crying, arms around her knees, rocking herself. I managed to get her to come over to the couch, but she will not speak to me. She has not managed to pull herself together and cannot seem to stop crying."

"Has a doctor taken a look at her?" Jean asked, placing a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder. Paige jumped. "It's all right, Paige. It's Jean. I won't hurt you."

"A nurse tried to coax her into an exam room, but Paige became agitated as soon as she came near. I thought it best to just sit with her. I'm sure Mr. Cassidy will do something as soon as he can. He's been busy trying to see them. They won't even let him go speak to Everett."

Nodding, Jean turned her attention to the other young woman. "Paige, sweetie, it's all right," Jean whispered, gently stroking her hair. "Everything's going to be okay."

At that moment, Logan returned along with Sean. To say that Sean Cassidy looked worried was an understatement. The Irishman took his duties as headmaster of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters very seriously. Educating these students in the use of their mutant powers was important, yes, but so was their health and livelihood. This was more than a job to him, though. He cared about these children; they were his family. Part of the reason he felt so strongly about them was likely due to the fact that he did not learn of the existence of his own daughter, Teresa, until she was nearly an adult. At least he now had the opportunity to play an important role in these children's upbringing. Today, however, he felt as though he had failed them. While his mind knew that there was no way he could have known, that there was nothing he could have done to prevent the kidnapping of Jubilation Lee and Everett Thomas, his heart told him that he should have been there to protect them. And now one of his young charges was lying at death's door, paying for his mistake.

"Hello there, Jean," he said quietly.

Jean quickly got to her feet. Without a moment's hesitation, she walked over to Sean and wrapped her arms around his waist in a reassuring hug. In that instant, he knew what she was trying to tell him: *It's not your fault.*

"Thank ye, lass," Sean said, taking her hands in his and giving them a squeeze.

"How are they?" Jean asked.

"Everett's doin' all right. His shoulder was dislocated, he had some broken ribs, an' he needed some stitches. They want to keep him a couple days for observation. They finally told me what room he's in. As for Jubilation . . . I'm afraid the news is not good. She's still in surgery," Sean replied, raking his fingers through his strawberry-blonde hair. "She's got broken bones, massive head trauma, not to mention some internal bleeding." Sean looked down at his feet, taking a deep breath. When he looked back up, there were tears in his eyes. "Goin' in, they . . . they only gave her a fifty-fifty chance of survivin' the operation," he said, his voice breaking. "I- I'm sorry. Excuse me a moment," he whispered, quickly turning away from them and bringing a shaking hand to his temple.

Everyone was silent, giving Sean the time he needed to collect himself. At first, Jean and Logan did not even notice as Paige slowly got to her feet. They looked on in surprise as she walked over to where Sean stood and softly placed a hand on his arm. Startled, Sean turned back around and looked at Paige, so pale and frightened. Paige managed a weak smile, and Sean could not help but to return the gesture. Then they embraced, teacher and student, and, together, quietly weeping, they shared their grief and pain for their friend.

Jean turned to look at Logan. "Do you know Everett's room number? I'd like to go see how he's doing."

"Yeah. I'll go with you. I'd like to hear how this all happened. Hey, Irish, you comin'?" he called to Sean.

Letting go of Paige, Sean took her by the shoulders. "We've all got t' be strong for Jubilee. Okay?"

Setting her jaw determinately, Paige nodded.

"Good lass. Now, why don't you and Monet go down t' the cafeteria and get some cocoa while we go speak t' Everett, okay?"

"Will we be able to see him, too?"

"A little later, Monet. Go on, now."

"Can we bring anyone back something?" she asked. "Something to drink, perhaps?"

"Perhaps some coffee," Sean suggested, reaching into his pocket to get his wallet.

"That's all right, Mr. Cassidy," Monet said. "I've got it taken care of. Ready, Paige?"

Nodding, Paige walked up to her teammate. The two had never been very close. They both now realized that in a time like this all they had was each other. Silently, Monet looked at Paige, regarding her for a moment. Her lips then curled in a slight smile. Paige seemed very surprised at first, but quickly returned the smile. Though not an incredibly affectionate overture, it said a great deal for Monet, who was usually so detached from her fellow students. Without a word being spoken, together they walked down the hallway.

Sean grinned, taking a little comfort in the knowledge that at least something positive was coming out of this horrible ordeal. Then he turned his attention to Jean and Logan and walked with them silently to Everett's room. Entering, they found him sitting up in bed. The young African-American was usually a pillar of strength for his friends and teammates, encouraging all with his inner strength and determination; today, however, he did not appear quite as strong as usual. He looked like he had been through hell and back. His left arm was in a sling, and there were several stitches on his temple. One eye was swollen shut, and there was a cut on his lip. Even with all of his injuries, Sean could see how worried he was. He knew that Everett was the one Jubilee was closest to at school; the two considered themselves best friends. This had to be tough on him.

"How are you feeling?" Jean asked.

"If you mean my arm, ma'am, it's nothing; they've got me pretty doped up," he replied. "I'm just worried about Jubilee."

"We all are, kid," Logan told him.

"Is there any word yet?"

"She's still in surgery," Sean replied.

"While we wait for the doctor, what say you tell us what went down?" Logan said, leaning against a wall, arms crossed, a scowl on his face.

Jean and Sean, meanwhile, sat in the pair of chairs at Everett's bedside.

"All- all right," Everett said. He seemed a little nervous at Wolverine's presence. Part of it was sheer fear. Not only did he know that Wolverine could be a fierce sparring partner, capable of killing or maiming, but he also knew how much the X-Man cared for Jubilee. She talked about him and their adventures more than any of the members of Generation X cared to hear. Everett knew Logan would want vengeance for her injuries, to pay back whoever did this to her. And the fact that he had been involved-- and unable to protect her from harm-- made him fear for his own safety a tiny bit. Sure, Wolverine was one of the good guys, but he was also subject to berserker rages, during which the bestial side of his nature took over. Lord help anyone-- friend or foe-- who got in his way when the bloodlust was upon him. Everett could think of nothing worse that would cause just such a rage than hurting someone Logan held near and dear to his heart.

"I don't even know where to begin," Everett said feebly.

"Why don't ye start with how ye met up with Shaw and Tessa?" Sean suggested.

Everett sighed, and they all watched as his mind wandered back to the previous night.

Chapter 2

Jubilee and I left the movie theater and walked into the cool Boston night. Smiling, she took my arm and walked closer to me for warmth. "So, what did you think?" she asked as we slowly walked down the street toward the bus stop.

"It was pretty good," I replied. "The special effects were awesome. Especially the space ship and the cloning tanks."

"Yeah, they were cool, but that's nothing compared to the UST! Or should I say RST. That kiss was over six years in coming! I tell ya, Ev, by the next movie, those two'll be doing the wild thing!"

I laughed. "Geez, who would've believed that Jubilation Lee was a romantic?"

"Hey, I've been a diehard 'shipper ever since the third season, when Jean and Rogue got me hooked on the show. I *knew* they were gonna get together. It was inevitable."

"Why do you say that? Nothing indicated that they thought of each other as anything more than partners. Just friends."

"Did that lip-lock say just friends' to you, Ev? They've been through hell and back together, with only each other to trust. They've always been there for one another, putting their lives on the line for each other, protecting each other. If that isn't love, I don't know what is."

"I'm not saying they don't care about each other. I just think it's possible for a man and a woman to work together and be close friends without being attracted to one another. A platonic relationship is perfectly--"

"Shh," she said suddenly, letting go of my arm.

"Hey, you had your say, it's my tur--"

She shushed me again, clamping her hand over my mouth. "Did you hear that?"

I cocked my head, listening intently. I could hear a soft whimpering. "Sounds like somebody crying. A kid maybe."

"I think it's coming from the alley over there," she said, pointing to the unlit area between two buildings. "Let's check it out."

"Hold it," I said, grabbing her arm. "We don't know who or what's in there."

"Ev, it's probably some poor kid-- lost, maybe hurt. We've gotta find out and help."

"Jubes, it's not safe. It's probably some stoned junkie, or a mugger."

"It's not as if we can't defend ourselves. C'mon, Thomas, the truth is out there, and I intend to find it, with or without your help." She turned from me and headed toward the alleyway.

Sighing, I shook my head. Stubborn, as usual. Well, I wasn't about to let her go in alone without somebody to watch her back. "Hey, Lee, wait up," I said, hurrying after her.

"I knew I could count on you," she said, holding up her index finger and creating colorful energy plasmoids to serve as a makeshift flashlight. I synched my aura to her powers, and created my own fireworks to add even more light.

We cautiously made out way to the source of the sobs.

"Sounds like it's coming from there," I whispered, pointing to some trash cans that were lined against a wall.

Together, we slowly approached the spot. There, we found a woman huddled behind the cans. We knelt down in front of her.

"Are you okay, miss? Are you hurt?" Jubilee asked, peering closer to get a better look.

Trembling, the woman shook her head. "Go away!" she muttered brusquely. "Leave me alone!"

"Can we help you?" I asked, moving my hand with its light source closer to get a better look at the woman.

"No!" she hissed, and scurried further behind the garbage cans, as though trying to hide her face in the darkness. From what little I could make out of her face, I figured she couldn't be much older than me. Something did not feel right, though. For some reason, I suddenly had the urge to grab Jubilee, get the hell out of there, and never look back.

"It's okay, miss," Jubilee said softly. "We're not going to hurt you. We want to help you. Please, let us help you." She reached out her hand to her.

At first, the young woman hesitated.

"Don't be scared. I won't bite. I promise."

The woman sat up then, and placed her hand in Jubilee's. As her face was revealed from the shadows, we caught sight of the malicious grin on her face. In the pit of my stomach, I suddenly realized that we had made a grievous mistake.

Before either of us had time to react, out minds were filled with a searing pain. I felt as though a white hot knife were piercing my skull right between the eyes. We screamed, and collapsed to the pavement.

Barely conscious, I saw the woman get to her feet. Several black-clad men emerged from the shadows. I was too woozy to resist as they placed something cold and smooth around my and Jubilee's necks.

*Inhibitor collars,* I realized. As I watched them restrain Jubilee's hands behind her back, panic filled my mind. I knew it was now or never. I tried to focus my thoughts, and sat up quickly, taking a swing at one of the goons. I was still too groggy for my punch to be effective, though, and my fist barely connected with the man's jaw. Before I could hit him again, I felt something strike the back of my head. Darkness consumed me.

****

When I awoke, my head felt like someone had been using it for a punching bag. I opened my eyes and blinked repeatedly as I tried to get them to focus. I was strung up, my limbs spread wide, arms bound by chains that connected to the ceiling, while the restraints on my legs led to the floor. I tested them, but I could barely move an inch. Looking around the enormous room, I saw piles of wooden crates and a forklift over on the far side. Must be some sort of warehouse, I realized.

Then I caught sight of Jubilee several yards across from me. She was strung up, like me, and her face hung down, her chin near her chest. She did not appear to be hurt.

"Jubilee," I called, my voice hoarse. "Can you hear me? Jubes!"

She moaned, and slowly lifted her head. "Did ya . . . get the license . . . for the truck . . . that hit us?" she asked.

"You okay?" I asked, hearing the concern in my voice. "Did they hurt you?"

She looked up at me and smiled. At the sight of her smile, I felt relief wash over me. "Aside from the Excedrin headache, I'm fine. But who brought us here?"

"That would be me," came a man's voice. The icy smoothness of his tone made my flesh crawl. A tall man strode toward us, his jet black hair slicked back, pencil-line scars crisscrossing all over his face. He was followed by the raven-haired woman we had tried to help, dressed in skin-tight black leather.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"My name, boy, is Sebastian Shaw. And I believe you two have already met Tessa."

A derisive sound came from Jubilee's throat.

Tessa's eyes narrowed, and she took a step toward Jubilee. Shaw caught her arm. "Not yet, my dear. All in due time."

Though she tried not to show it, I could see Jubilee's relief when Shaw held Tessa in check. Can't blame her. She knew as well as I did that a psi attack was not going to be fun.

"What do you want from us, scarface?" Jubilee asked, trying to muster her courage.

"Why'd you bring us here?" I added.

"Now, now, children, I don't think *you* are in a position to be making requests. *I* will be asking the questions. And, if you have any intention of leaving here in one piece, you will answer them. Or else Tessa might have to pay your minds another visit. Isn't that right, my dear?"

"It would be my pleasure, Sebastian," Tessa replied, her face erupting into that same devilish grin she had had in the alleyway.

"Now, as I was saying," Shaw began, hands clasped behind his back as he started to pace between us. "I require some information regarding Frost Enterprises."

"The White Queen's company?" Jubilee asked.

"Yes. It seems your headmistress-- my former colleague-- has a most intriguing undertaking called Project Acquisition." He issued the last two words with disgust, as though they left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. "What do you know about it?" he asked, stopping to look me in the eyes.

I shook my head. "I've no clue what you're talking about."

"Don't lie to me, boy!"

"I'm no--oof!" Before I could even register what was happening, I felt the force of Shaw's weight thrust at my gut through his fist. The air rushed out of my lungs, and I was left gasping for breath.

"I'll ask you again, Thomas," Shaw said from between clenched teeth. "What are the goals of Project Acquisition, and where is the file located?"

"I . . . told you, Shaw," I replied softly, keeping my eyes on Shaw as he turned his back to me and took a step away, "I've . . . never heard . . . of it."

"It's a shame you're making this difficult," Shaw said, turning on his heel and thrusting his fist right into my left eye. A sharp pain engulfed me. I could barely make out what Jubilee was saying.

"Ev!" she shrieked. "Stop it! Don't hurt him! He told you he doesn't know anything!"

I knew then that Shaw must be looking at her with that intense gaze of his. There was silence save for the heavy sound of my labored breathing. Then the room echoed with laughter-- a dark, foreboding sound that made me suddenly feel very cold inside.

I looked up, and through my hazy vision, I could see Shaw take Jubilee's face in his hand. She was trembling despite herself.

"Don't worry, my dear Jubilation," Shaw was saying, "you'll get your turn."

"Leave her alone, you bastard!" I shouted. "If you so much as touch her, I'll kill you with my bare hands!"

The only reaction from Shaw was a raised eyebrow. "Is that so?" He walked toward me again. "Forgive me if I don't find that threat very worrisome," he remarked snidely, running a finger along the smooth metal of the inhibitor collar I wore. "But, I assure you, Mr. Thomas, there is no need to worry. *I* would not dream of harming a hair on young Miss Lee's head." He smiled and made a signal to Tessa.

With a curt nod, Tessa approached Jubilee. "Tell me about Project Acquisition," she stated simply.

"Don't know nothing 'bout it," Jubilee replied.

"I'm giving you one last chance to tell me what you know about the file." Though her words said she was giving Jubilee the opportunity to save herself, Tessa's tone indicated that she hoped-- she wanted-- Jubilee to resist.

I knew that we did not have the answers they wanted. What would it take to convince them that we really knew nothing?

"For the last time, mind-witch, I haven't got the foggiest idea what that stupid file contains. Why don't you go ask Frost?"

"I was afraid you'd say that," Tessa said, eyes gleaming balefully.

I could see Jubilee try to physically and mentally brace herself as Tessa lashed out at her with her mind, stunning her with a psi-bolt. Jubilee screamed.

I closed my eyes, unable to watch the pained expression on his her face as Tessa attacked her. Despite Tessa's repeated questions regarding the file, Jubilee told her nothing-- but that was what I expected, because there was nothing for us to tell. After a few minutes, Tessa stepped back, leaving Jubilee panting for breath.

"Well, boy, have you changed your mind? Are you ready to tell me all you know about Acquisition?"

"Shaw, I swear to you, I know nothing about it."

"I see," Shaw said, crossing his arms and slowly nodding his head as he began to renew his pacing.

For a moment, I allowed myself the hope that Shaw would finally give up on this pointless interrogation and set us free. My foolhearty wish was short-lived.

"That's really too bad that you're protecting Emma this way. I never would have thought she would have garnered such intense loyalty from her students. I guess she's changed since our days in the Hellfire Club's Inner Circle. I'm sorry she's not here to see it herself." Shaw halted in his pacing. "Now, Thomas, I really suggest you tell me everything there is to know about this file. Or else, I'll be forced to give Tessa the order to take apart Jubilee's mind, piece by piece. A most unpleasant sensation, and quite painful-- or, so I've been told."

This was no bluff; Shaw was serious. He had every intention of destroying Jubilee's mind. But what could I do? God, if only I were not wearing this damned inhibitor collar, I could fight fire with fire. But I couldn't fight Shaw physically. And, in my position, obstinate words would mean nothing to him. There was no way I could offer Shaw any threat. What could I do?

I saw Shaw signaling to Tessa again.

"No," Jubilee moaned, eyes quickly filling with tears. "No more. Please. . . ."

Panic overwhelmed me. I had to say something-- anything-- to prevent Tessa from hurting Jubilee. I went through all the possible options in his mind. There was only one thing I could do.

"Shaw, don't hurt her," I pleaded. "I don't care what you do to me. Just don't harm her. Do anything you want to me, just please leave her alone."

"How noble of you to try to take this all upon yourself. Noble, or very foolish. But, while I admire your loyalty to your teammate, I'm afraid that was not the answer I was looking for." Shaw smirked, and punched me in the stomach for good measure. Then he turned to Tessa and nodded.

I shuddered as the sound of Jubilee's screams filled the room. From her shrieks of protest, and the way Jubilee started thrashing about, I figured Tessa must have made her relive some horrible memories. I fought against his restraints, trying to get at Shaw, to stop Tessa, but to no avail. I shouted at them to stop, but they ignored me. Though the chains wouldn't give, I kept on struggling against them, wanting desperately to help Jubilee, until I collapsed from exhaustion.

I simply hung there, forced to listen to the wailing of my friend. A chill ran up my spine as I shivered uncontrollably. I had never heard such a horrible sound, and I did not think I would be able to forget them. I had never felt so helpless in my entire life. My best friend was hurting, and there was not a damned thing I could do to stop it. I clamped my eyes shut tightly, unable to watch any longer, as though that would somehow drown out the tortured sounds of Jubilee screaming. Lord, it sounded as though her soul were being torn apart. As I felt the salty wetness stinging the cut on my cheek, I prayed that it would end soon.

When her screams finally subsided, I hesitated before opening my eyes. But I forced myself to look. Eyes closed, Jubilee's pale, tear-streaked face was hung low against her chest. Watching her a moment, I could make out the shallow rise and fall of her chest, and I sighed. She had passed out. I only hoped she had found some peace.

"Come, Tessa," Shaw said, heading for the door. He looked back at me, and I glared at his face hatefully. Shaw smiled, evidently not feeling threatened in the least. "This isn't over, boy."

Taking another look at Jubilee to ensure myself that she was still breathing, I closed my eyes and gave in to my exhaustion.

****

Hearing a soft voice whisper my name, I slowly opened my eyes. Jubilee was looking at me, concern on her weary face. "You okay, Ev?"

"Fine," I replied. "But what about you? Tessa--"

"I don't wanna talk about it," she replied, her eyes avoiding my gaze. "So, any ideas on how we're gonna get out of here?"

"You're the brains of this outfit. I'm just here because of my rugged good looks."

She laughed. But just as quickly as the smile appeared, it was replaced by a somber expression. "Ev, I- I'm scared."

"Me, too. But it's gonna be okay, Jubilee. We'll get out of this. Miss Frost and Mr. Cassidy'll find us, and we'll all give Shaw and Tessa what for."

"But they have no clue where we are. Heck, they probably don't even know we're missing."

"Paige and Monet knew we were going to the movies in Boston. When we don't get back to the school, they'll know something's up, and they'll all come looking for us. They'll find us, Jubes. I'm sure of it. We're gonna get out of here. Together."

I wished I could be as sure as I sounded. What worried me, though, was the fact that Jubilee was giving up hope. That was not like her at all. Usually, *she* was the one copping the major 'tude, the one who convinced the rest of Generation X that no matter how terrible the situation seemed, it was not as bad as it seemed. No matter how hopeless their predicament, she had survived a more horrible one, none the worse for wear. If I had a dollar for every time I heard her tell a story that began "When I was with the X-Men. . ." I would be loaded.

"So, does this bring back any memories about your time in the major leagues?" I asked her.

I saw her face brighten as she smirked. "Actually, there was this one time when I was with--"

"Ahh, so good to see you're both awake."

As the sound of Shaw's voice, we both stiffened. He walked over to us, Tessa beside him, and two henchmen on their heels. At the sight of Tessa, Jubilee tried to draw back as much as her restraints would allow. This movement did not go entirely unnoticed, and Tessa beamed in pleasure at the way her mere presence made Jubilee squirm in fear.

I steeled myself against what I was sure would come next. My eyes met Jubilee's, and I nodded at her. Taking a deep breath, she nodded in reply, and I saw her neck straighten as she increased her resolve. We would endure this. Together.

"So, Mr. Thomas, have you changed your mind? Are you ready to tell me all you know about the file?"

I set my jaw determinately. "Shaw, you listen to me, and you listen good, because this is the last time I'm gonna tell you." I paused, taking a breath to steady my nerves, but hoped it merely appeared to be for dramatic effect. I said each word slowly to punctuate my statement. "We-- don't-- know-- anything-- about-- that-- damned-- file!"

Slowly, Shaw shook his head. "That really is too bad. And I had so hoped that a little time alone to rest would refresh your memory. It appears I overestimated your abilities." He gestured toward the two men.

The henchmen, well over six feet tall and all muscle, stepped toward me. They took turns punching and kicking me-- in the face, the stomach, the chest. Through I was quickly engulfed by a red wave of pain, I could still hear Jubilee's voice, high pitched and agitated.

"Oh, God, please, stop! Stop it! You'll kill him!" I could hear the rattling as she pulled against her restraints, trying to get Shaw's attention. "Shaw, please, make them stop. I'll tell you what you want. Look at me, damn you!"

Slowly, Shaw turned his face toward her, and I could picture the pompous expression on his face, one dark eyebrow raised quizzically at Jubilee.

"You heard me, Shaw. Call off your goons, and I'll tell you what you want to know."

Shaw dismissed his men, and they left the room. Then he walked over to Jubilee, and stood several feet in front of her.

I looked up, barely able to see through the blood dripping down my face and into my eyes.

"Come closer," Jubilee said softly.

His patience beginning to tire, Shaw nonetheless did as she asked, stepping closer to her, his face just over a foot from hers. "Well?"

She looked up at him, eyes cold and hard as ice, as she met him in an unblinking gaze. She spat in his face. "Go to hell!"

Shaw immediately lost his composure. Enraged, he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head up and back as much as her restraints would allow before slapping her across the face with the back of his hand. "You're going to pay for your impertinence, you little bitch," he vowed, releasing her head roughly. "Tessa," he called, stepping back and removing a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his face.

"No," I protested in little more than a whisper. But my words, if heard at all, fell on deaf ears. Tessa entered Jubilee's mind, and the torture began anew. Mercifully, this time it was only a few minutes before Jubilee stopped screaming and her head dropped forward. I prayed that she were merely unconscious.

As Shaw and Tessa left us, and the blackness once again claimed me, I found myself wondering how much more of this torture Jubilee and I would be able to withstand.

****

Everett paused, resting his head in his hand, and shuddered.

He felt Sean's touch on his knee. "It's all right, Everett me boyo. We all know there was nothin' ye could do. There's no reasonin' with a man as warped as Shaw. Nothin' ye said could have prevented what he was plannin' to do."

Everett looked up, and his one unswollen eye glistened with tears. "The sick thing is, I think he knew all along that he wasn't going to get any information from us. It was as though he were doing it for the sheer enjoyment-- like he got off on it, or something. He left us alone for a little while. Jubilee just hung there in her restraints, head bowed, barely breathing. I started talking to her. I tried to be positive, to tell her that everything was going to be okay. I'm not even sure if she heard me. But I was so scared that Shaw was going to come back any minute and finish the job." He paused a moment, awkwardly looking away toward the window.

Jean sensed a sudden anxiety in Everett-- different from the apprehension she knew was the result of Logan's presence, and also not due to the teenager's feelings of failure. She was not quite sure what was the cause of his distress. She pushed away the thoughts as Everett concluded his story.

"I guess Shaw finally realized we weren't going to be able to take any more. For some reason, he decided to let us live-- just barely. They removed me from the restraints and punched me around a bit before tossing me down some stairs and into a pile of crates. I passed out. When I came to, Monet was standing above me. I guess they beat Jubilee some more as well, before tossing her body somewhere in the warehouse. That's all I know. I've no idea where they went after that. I couldn't even tell you where the warehouse was located."

"That's okay, Everett. Ye've told us plenty," Sean assured him. "And I'm sorry ye had to relive that horrible ordeal again. Ye never should'a been through it inna first place, son. I'm sorry."

"Jubilee was just trying to help someone in need-- like you've taught us."

"Lot of good it did her," Logan growled. "She's payin' for that act of kindness-- in spades."

"Would you expect any less?" Jean asked him. "You would have done the same, Logan, and you know it."

"Yeah, only difference is, I could'a hurt 'em back. Like I sill can. Cassidy, where was that warehouse you found 'em in located?"

Sean told him the address. "Why, Logan? Ye can't be meanin' to--?"

"I can, and I am. I don't like hospitals, and I'm not one for sittin' around, twiddlin' my thumbs, when there's somethin' else I can do. I'll be back, soon as I take care of some unfinished business." He headed out the door.

"Logan, wait!" Jean called, hurrying after him and following him into the hallway. "You can't be serious!"

"Jeanie, Shaw is out to get Emma, and he used her students to try to get to her. I've got to stop him, before he hurts any of the others. I'll be back soon. I promise. Just tell Jubilee that I'm gonna get the bastards that did this to her, and they're gonna pay."

"Why don't you call the mansion and get some backup?"

"'Cause, by then, the trail will be cold. I'm wastin' precious time as it is. I've gotta go."

Jean realized there would be no changing his mind. "Just be careful, okay? Jubilee's going to need you to help her get well. Hurry back."

"I will, Red. I will." With a reassuring smile, he walked away, leaving Jean standing alone in the hallway.

Sighing, she wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes. God, how she wished Scott were here. She could use his strength and his love right now. Wherever he was, she wished he were safe and well.

Times like these, she wondered why it was they did what they did-- why they were X-Men, devoting their lives to the fight for peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants-- when it seemed as though no one else cared whether they all lived or died. But then she thought about Jubilee and Everett and Paige and Monet-- the children. They did it so that these kids, and others like them, would have the chance to live in a world where they would not be feared and hated for being mutants, but accepted and loved for who they were. With Everett's story fresh in her mind, she could not help but wonder if the price was worth it.

Hearing her name called, she quickly turned around. "A nurse just came in an' told us Jubilee made it through the surgery," Sean said, approaching her. "The doctor will be out to speak to us in a few minutes."

Nodding, Jean walked with Sean back to the lounge. They sat down on the couch and waited. About ten minutes later, a middle-aged balding man wearing scrubs came to greet them. "I'm Dr. Knight," he told them, shaking their hands.

"Sean Cassidy, headmaster at Jubilee's school. This is Jean Summers, an associate and friend to Jubilee and meself."

Dr. Knight sat down in a chair across from them. "Have Jubilee's parents been notified?"

"She's an orphan," Jean told him.

"Who is her legal guardian then?"

"That'd be me," Sean said.

"I see."

"Please, Doctor, how is she?" Jean asked.

"Well, she made it through the surgery, which is a good sign. But we'll have to see how things go from here. Her head injuries were rather extensive, I must tell you. Our main concern at this point is to ensure that there isn't any swelling in her cranium."

"Will there be any permanent damage?" Jean questioned.

"It's hard to say at this point. There is the possibility of some impairment of motor functions, or some memory loss. We'll have to wait and see when she regains consciousness."

"What about her other injuries?" Sean asked.

"Her fractured wrist was attended to, as were her broken ribs. We were able to stop the internal bleeding. She needed a transfusion, and she'll be on antibiotics for a while. As I've said, the injuries were severe. Right now, she's hooked up to a respirator." He paused a moment before continuing.

"Dr. Knight?" Sean asked, prompting him. "There's somethin' else, isn't there?"

Slowly, he nodded. "She also sustained some minor damage to a lower vertebra in her back. There is a chance that this will result in loss of gross motor function or possibly even partial paralysis."

"Oh, God," Jean muttered, drawing a shaking hand to her mouth.

Silently, Sean placed a comforting hand on her back.

"We'll have to take this one day-- one hour-- at a time. We're going to monitor her very closely. But she's young. She's strong. I believe she has a good chance of coming out of this on top. I've had patients with similar injuries who've recovered completely."

"Can we see her?" Jean asked.

"Of course. Come with me."

Chapter 3

When she and Sean entered the Intensive Care Unit and caught sight of Jubilee, Jean felt her heart sink. It was worse than she imagined. The girl lay in the hospital bed, looking so small and frail, her face deathly pale. Her head was bandaged, her left hand and lower arm in a cast. A tube was placed in her nose to give her oxygen. There were countless tubes and wires-- for intra venous fluids, for antibiotics, for blood. The beeping of the heart monitor resounded in the room.

Jean stopped in mid-stride and stared at the girl. This girl, who was usually so full of life, so animated, so energetic. This girl, who now lay in a hospital bed, so still one could hardly tell she was breathing. Jean bit her bottom lip. She felt Sean's hand find hers, and he gave it a squeeze.

Together, they approached the bedside. Jean looked down at her. Shakily, she reached out and gently caressed Jubilee's cheek with the back of her hand. Then she sat down in the chair at the bedside and took Jubilee's hand in her own. Sean stood behind her.

"Jubilee," Jean began softly. "It's Jean. I'm here with Sean."

"Hi there, lass," Sean greeted her, his voice choked with emotion.

"We're here for you, sweetie," Jean continued, not letting go of her hand. "We're all thinking about you. Monet and Paige are here at the hospital. Logan came with me to Boston, too. Everett's fine. He's worried about you. We all are. Ororo and everyone in New York sends their love. Please come back to us, Jubilee. Please. We all love you so much." Her voice trailed off as the tears slowly streamed down her cheeks. "Come back to us, kiddo," she whispered. "Come back."

****

That night, Sean and Jean kept a silent vigil. Sean sent Paige and Monet home by taxi, ordering them to get some rest. He doubted they would. As for he and Jean, they sat with Jubilee for several hours. Jubilee had not woken, and that fact worried them. Eventually, at Sean's suggestion, Jean gladly agreed to walk into the corridor so that they might stretch their legs. The truth of the matter was, looking at Jubilee hooked up to all of those tubes, lying there so helplessly as the heart monitor hollowly beeped in the room, was beginning to get to both of them; it made Jean want to burst into tears, and she suspected Sean felt similarly. They got some coffee, and brought it to a more secluded lounge. The head nurse on duty that night said she would notify them the moment Jubilee regained consciousness. They prayed for that moment to arrive. For the most part, they did not speak. Jean sat on the couch, staring across the room, while Sean paced the floor. Neither knew what to say.

"Would ye like some more coffee?" he asked about four a.m.

"No, I'm fine, thanks."

Sean stopped pacing and looked at her. "D'ye think that maybe if ye probed her mind, ye might help her to awaken sooner?"

Sadly, Jean shook her head. "Judging from what Everett said, she received massive psychic damage. Right now, I'd say her mind's a mess, which could very well be one of the factors in her not waking up. But in her current physical state, I dare not risk entering her mind. That kind of trauma, in addition to what she's already received, could prove too much for her." Jean rubbed her throbbing temples, and came to a sudden realization, one that had not occurred to her earlier that night. "Sean, where the hell is Emma? These kids were hurt because of her, and she's not even here to see how they are. I certainly hope you're not going to give me some line about her staying at the school with the other students--"

"No, Jean, she's not at the school. Frankly, I've no idea where she is."

"What?!"

"She left a couple of days ago t' take care of some business in Europe. When this happened, I tried t' call her. I cannae reach her at the chateau, or in her limo's phone, or on her personal cellular. I've got one o' me old buddies in Interpol lookin' for her, but that's about all the time I've got t' be wastin' on her. Emma's a big girl; she can take care of herself."

"Sounds a little suspicious to me," Jean said. "If I find out she was in on this, she's going to have hell to pay. She won't have much of a mind left when I get done with her!"

"Easy, lass, easy," he said, sitting down beside her and putting a hand on her knee. "That's yer anger an' frustration talkin' right now. Emma would never do anythin' like that t' any of the kids. I'm tellin' ye, Jean, she's changed. She may not be a saint, but she's doin' a lot of good f'r these kids. She cares about her students. She might not show it-- she can be a real ice queen when she wants t' be-- but I know f'r a fact that she would never harm a hair on their heads. When she gets back, I think she'll help you in gettin' some licks in on Shaw an' Tessa. Emma never really did get along with Shaw. I guess he was still harboring some animosity toward her. But t' get revenge through innocent children-- that really makes me blood boil!"

"I just wish there was something-- anything-- I could do for Jubilee," Jean said. "All I want to do is take her in my arms and make all of the hurt and pain go away." She looked up at him, tears pouring from her eyes. "My God, Sean, she's just a child. What kind of person could have done that to a sweet, innocent child? What kind of monster?"

"An inhuman one, lass," he said, taking her trembling frame into his arms. As she clung to him, sobs wracking her body, Sean came to a sudden realization. He knew that Jean and Jubilee had been friends, but until now he did not realize quite how close they must have been for Jean to be in such a state. Neither she nor the girl really let on about the strength of their relationship. Sure, Jubilee was always talking about the time she spent with Wolverine, but she never once mentioned Jean's name. Strange, he realized. "Shh," he whispered, gently rocking her. "There, there, Jean. 'Tis okay. She's goin' t' be fine. Just fine." He wished he could believe his own words.

"You- you're right, Sean," she said quietly, letting go of him and drying her eyes with the back of her hands. "She's going to be just fine. But, I swear, if I get my hands on Shaw and Tessa, Wolverine's claws will seem like a walk in the park."

He saw then a fierceness in Jean's eyes that he had never seen there before-- a ferocity not unlike one found in a mother animal protecting her young. At that moment, Sean finally realized the depth of Jean's feelings for Jubilee, and he smiled inwardly at his newfound understanding. Those same feelings might just help to make the difference in Jubilee's recovery.

"I'll hold 'em down for ye."

Jean stifled a yawn. Looking at her, Sean saw that Jubilee was not the only one he should be worried about right now. Jean was exhausted, that much was obvious. Her skin was pallid, her loss of color made more obvious by the dark circles under her eyes.

"Jean, lass, don't take this the wrong way, but ye look ghastly. When was the last time ye got a decent night's rest?"

Jean almost laughed. "It's been a while, I admit. Logan and I had just gotten back from a mission when you called. We rushed over. Sleep wasn't much of a consideration at the time."

"Well, since we're doin' nothin' but waitin', why don't ye get some rest now?"

"I'm fine, Sean. And I'm not going anywhere."

"At least just lay down here an' close yer eyes a little while. I'll wake ye if there's any news. I promise."

She *was* feeling so very tired, and her headache was not relenting in the least. She might as well rest her eyes a little while. "All right," she conceded. "But just for a few minutes." He watched as she curled up on the couch. Less than five minutes later, her breathing was reduced to a slow, steady pace, and she was fast asleep. Smiling, Sean took his jacket from a nearby chair and gently laid it over her.

Tired of pacing, he decided to sit down in one of the chairs. At first, he sat with his arms crossed, looking across the room, alone with his own thoughts. After a few minutes, though, he found it increasingly difficult to focus his vision or his mind. His eyelids suddenly felt as though they were made of lead. He fought it-- unsuccessfully-- for about ten minutes. He ultimately gave in to his own exhaustion, and fell asleep.

****

"Mr. Cassidy?" Hearing a soft voice call his name, Sean slowly opened his eyes. As they came into focus, he saw the kind, round, rosy-cheeked face of a gray-haired nurse looking down at him as she gently shook his shoulder. "Oi'm sorry t' wake you, Mr. Cassidy, but you said you wanted t' be notified if there were any change in young Miss Lee's condition," she said, her British accent evident in her soft voice.

"That I did," Sean said, quickly sitting up.

"The doctor will meet you in the 'all," she said.

"Thank ye," Sean told her as she left. He glanced at his watch. It was just after seven a.m. He must have fallen asleep right after Jean had. He looked over at her, still sleeping on the couch beneath his jacket. "Jean," he called to her. "Jean!" he said louder, reaching over and touching her arm.

"Wha--?" Opening her eyes, Jean looked confused for a moment, as though she did not realize where she was. It lasted no more than a few seconds, however, and she quickly pulled herself into a sitting position, pushing her long red hair out of her eyes. "Sean, what's happened? Has she woken up?"

"I dinnae know. A nurse just told me the doctor wants t' see us."

Nodding, Jean got to her feet. "Come on, let's go see Dr. Knight."

Together, they hurried to meet the neurosurgeon. The older man was not smiling, and they realized immediately that Jubilee's change could not be for the better.

"Dr. Knight?" Sean asked. "How is she?"

"She's slipped into a coma, I'm afraid."

Jean gasped, feeling her eyes grow moist.

"This is not entirely uncommon with head injuries of the magnitude of the one she received. In all likelihood, she should come out of it-- hopefully in a few hours, or maybe a couple of days. It's really hard to say. The quicker, the better, though; the longer she's in the coma, the worse her chances of coming out of it."

"It's my understanding that people in comas can sense your presence, hear your voice," Jean said.

"Yes, I highly recommend that someone sit with her as much as possible. And you might try speaking with her, reminiscing about old times, playing music she likes. Anything that will seem familiar to her. I strongly believe it will help her to regain consciousness."

"Thank ye, Doctor," Sean said, shaking his hand.

"I only wish I could do more. I'll check on her again a little later. I'll see you then."

Sean turned to Jean and could see that she had already managed to compose herself. She seemed determined to see Jubilee through this ordeal. "Sean, it's silly for both of us to sit here, especially when the kids could really use you right now. I'm sure they want to know what's going on, and they'll need someone to talk to about their fears and concerns. Why don't you go back to the school to see them? It'll give you a chance to change clothes and have some food as well. I'll sit with her for a while."

"Are ye sure, Jean? I think ye could use the rest more than me."

"I'll be fine. Sean, it goes without saying that Jubilee is important, but we must be careful not to let our concern for her overshadow the others' needs as well. You can bring the kids to visit with Everett. I'm sure he could use the company as well."

"All right. And I'll have the cook whip up some sandwiches an' a thermos of coffee an' bring it back with me."

"Sounds great. Thanks, Sean," she said, embracing him.

"We're all going to make it through this, Jean. All of us."

Chapter 4

"Knock, knock." Everett looked up at the sound of the familiar voice. "Up for some company, amigo?" a gray-skinned young man asked, sticking his head in the door.

"Sure, Angelo. Come on in." Everett managed a smile at the sight of his friends and teammates as they came inside one by one.

Angelo Espinosa, who had six extra feet of skin that he could control, entered first. He was followed by Paige, who was a metamorph, able to remove her outer layer of skin to reveal a body made of some other substance below. After her came Mondo, a large Samoan able to mimic any substance that he touched. Then came Jonothon Starsmore, a psi who had inadvertently blown off the lower portion of his face and his upper chest the first time his energy-powers manifested; the young Brit wore a scarf wrapped around his face to mask his true appearance. Last was Monet, who had super-strength, invulnerability, could fly, and was as close to being Ms. Perfect, (as Jubilee often referred to her), as one could get. Together with Jubilee, Everett, and Penance-- who no doubt remained at the school because her razor-sharp skin and long taloned fingers made her rather conspicuous-- under the guidance of Sean and Emma, they made up the mutant team known as Generation X. They were more than a team, though; in the months they had been together since joining Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in order to learn better control over their powers, they had become a family. His family. And he certainly needed their love and support right now.

"These are for you, Ev," Paige said, handing him some flowers and sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"And these, as well," Mondo said, showing off the half-a-dozen "Get Better Soon" balloons he held.

"Artie'n'Leech made this for you," Angelo said, handing Everett a home-made greeting card with colorful crayon drawings decorating the cover.

<> Jonothon communicated psionically.

"I only wish it was worse, Jono," Everett said gravely.

"Does it hurt much?" Paige asked, trying to change the subject.

"Not too bad. They've got me on some painkillers."

"That must give you quite a trip, huh?" Angelo quipped.

They all chuckled. The laughter faded quickly, leaving only an uncomfortable silence.

"How's the food?" Mondo asked him.

"Terrible," Everett replied. "Not that I've felt much like eating."

Silence again. They all looked around at one another, none wanting to be the one to ask the question that was foremost in all of their minds.

As was often the case, Monet was the one to break the ice. "Any word on Jubilee's condition?"

Everett sighed. "I wish I knew. Nobody around here will tell me anything. I've been wanting to go see her since yesterday, but they won't let me. They keep reciting the rules about a minimum age requirement."

"That's ridiculous!" Paige said. "For God's sake, you've been through enough already. You should be allowed to see her."

"Tell me about it." *There's some stuff I really need to tell her. . . .* "Did Mr. Cassidy come with you?" Everett asked.

"Si. He went to go see la muchacha. Is it true that Phoenix is here? That redheaded babe?"

"Angelo! Will you keep your hormones in control, please?" Paige shouted, scowling at him. "We've got more important concerns right now, comprende?"

<<So why don't we just go see 'er? Who's t' stop us?>>

"Mr. Cassidy, for one," Paige said. "Mrs. Summers for another. The nurses. . . ."

<<Banshee an' Phoenix we can take care 'a, luv. If we time it right, the nurses won't be a problem, either.>>

"How?" Everett asked.

<<First thing we gotta do is get a wheelchair fer Ev. 'E's not gonna be able t' do much walkin'.>>

"Leave that to me and my sticky fingers," Angelo told him.

"And don't worry about the adults," Monet stated. "I know just the way to distract them for the time it'll take for everyone to get in to see Jubilee. If we don't stay too long, we can all be gone before they return."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Paige said. "As soon as Angelo gets the chair, Monet'll go distract Mr. Cassidy and Mrs. Summers, and we'll sneak past and into Jubilee's room."

"Thanks, guys," Everett told them. "I knew I could count on you."

****

"Any change?" Sean asked, walking into Jubilee's room and standing beside Jean's chair. He gently reached down to stroke her cheek.

Sadly, Jean shook her head. Gently returning Jubilee's hand to her side, she motioned for them to step outside. "I'll be right back, sweetie," she told the girl, bending to kiss her forehead.

As they stepped into the hallway, Jean sighed and placed her hands on her hips, arching her back as she stretched her tired muscles. "There's been no change. I've been talking and talking to her, but she hasn't stirred. Sean, I'm really starting to worry. What if the psychic damage is so severe it's preventing her from regaining consciousness?"

"Ye said yerself Jean that you didnae want t' risk enterin' her mind f'r fear you'd do more harm than good."

"Yes, and that is still a possibility. But you heard Dr. Knight: the longer she's in the coma, the worse her chances of recovering. I think that if there's still no change by tonight, I'm going to try a psi-scan. I'm afraid that if I don't try to repair some of the damage Tessa did, she'll never wake up."

Sean silently stroked his goatee. "If ye think it best, Jean, I'll support ye. Ye know better than me in matters like this. Now," he said, holding up a paper bag he held, "Cook made some nice turkey sandwiches, an' some of her special coffee t' go with it. What say we get some food into ye, hmm?"

"Thanks, Sean, but I'm really not hungry. And I don't want to leave Jubilee."

"I'll sit with her. Come, now, Jean. Ye've hardly slept, ye haven't eaten a thing. If ye don't put somethin' into your stomach, ye'll be the next t' wind up inna hospital. Ye've got t' keep your own strength up-- if only f'r Jubilee."

"All right, Sean. But only if you join me. I know you well, and I'm sure you never bothered to eat when you were back at the school."

"I had some coffee. . . ."

"Much as either of us are loathe to admit, coffee's not food. Besides, from the size of that bag, I'm sure there's more than enough for the two of us."

"Aye, knowing Cook, 'tis true. But someone should sit with Jubilee. . . ."

"I can," Monet said, walking over.

For a moment, Sean considered it. Of all his students, Monet was, by far, the most mature. She would be likely to be capable of handling the situation. Then again, he did not want to subject any of them to having to deal with circumstances like this if not absolutely necessary. Besides, he would never hear the end of it from the others if he allowed her, and not any of them, to see Jubilee.

"That's very kind of ye, lass, but I think it best if ye an' the others not visit Jubilee right now."

"But, sir, she's our teammate. Everyone is very worried about her."

"I know that, Monet. But she's also very sick. To be frank, lass, it's not a pretty sight. An' I'm not sure that any of ye are ready t' deal with this sort of thing yet."

"But--"

"I said no, Monet, an' I mean it. I'm the teacher here, and ye're t' follow me wishes. Now, why don't ye go back an' visit Everett with the others, an' I'll get a nurse t' sit with Jubilee f'r a little while until Jean an' I return."

"Yes, sir."

As he was about to leave, Sean put his hand tenderly on her shoulder. "It's not that I don't appreciate yer concern, Monet. An' I know Jubilee would, too. Once she gets outta intensive care, I'll let ye all go see her. I promise. Now, I'll see ye later." He and Jean walked down the corridor toward the nurse's station.

*_If_ she gets out of intensive care,* Monet thought gravely. *I could tell from your expressions before I arrived that her condition does not appear to be improving. And we have every right to see our friend-- if only to say good-bye. But it seems that you're not even considering the possibility that our presence could help her on the road to recovery.*

She saw a heavy-set nurse heading her way. *And now I've got more important things to deal with. This wasn't part of our plan, so I guess I'll just have to improvise.*

Just at the nurse walked past her, Monet screamed as if in great pain and doubled over. The nurse immediately rushed to her side.

"What is it, hon?" she asked.

"It's my side, it hurts. I-- *Aiee!*" Monet screamed, grasping her lower right abdomen.

"What kind of pain? Is it like a cramp, or--"

"It's a sharp, shooting pain. Oh, God, it hurts. It-- *eeargh!*"

"Sounds like you might have appendicitis. Come on, hon, lean on me, I'll get you to a doctor to be checked out. It's going to be all right." As she led Monet, moaning and groaning, down the hallway, the teenager placed one hand behind her back and made a thumbs-up sign to the others, who watched from around a corner.

"M should get an Oscar for her performance," Angelo said. "If I didn't know better, I'd say she was really hurting."

"Let's not waste the opening she gave us," Paige said. "C'mon."

With Mondo pushing Everett's wheelchair, they all quickly made their way to Jubilee's room. The moment they entered and got a look at her, however, they began to wonder if perhaps Mr. Cassidy had not wanted them to come with good reason.

"Dios Mio!" Angelo exclaimed, quickly crossing himself.

They expected her to look sick, a little worse than Everett had, but nothing could have prepared them for the sight of Jubilation Lee.

Silently, Everett took in the sight of his best friend. His eyes wandered from her chalk-white complexion to the gauze and bandages that covered her entire head. He looked first at the arm that was in a cast, then at the other one, swollen to at least twice its size from the intra venous fluids that were being administered. Despite the plastic tubes up her nose, giving her oxygen, he could see that her breathing appeared terribly shallow. The steady beeping of the heart monitor made him realize just how grave her condition must be.

"Sweet Lord!" Paige gasped, bursting into tears. Jono, the closest to her, silently took her in his arms. She was too upset to resist him, and she simply clung to him, burying her face in his shoulder, unable to look.

<<Easy, luv, easy,>> he told her, holding her close.

"She looks so still, so . . . lifeless," Angelo muttered.

"Shut up!" Everett snapped before continuing in a hushed tone. "She can hear us. Mondo, can you move me closer, over to the bedside, please?"

"Sure, Ev," he replied, doing as his friend asked.

Gulping, Everett reached for her hand with his free one, and found himself shaking. Taking a deep breath, he took her hand in his. He was surprised by how cold her fingers felt. Still, he held her hand tightly. "Hey there, Lee," he began softly. "It's me, Ev. Your buddy. We're all here, actually. Angelo. . . ."

"Buenos dias, chica."

". . . Mondo . . . "

"Hi there, Jubilation."

". . . Jono . . ."

<<Ey there.>>

". . . Paige . . ."

Jono gave her arm a gentle squeeze. "H-hi, Jubes," she said between sniffles, still not able to look at her, though.

". . . and Monet, she's--"

"Right here," Monet said, hurrying into the room, a little out of breath. "Hello, kiddo. Have I got a great story to tell you about my adventure with Nurse Atilla the Hun." They were all a little surprised at the ease with which Monet dealt with the sight of Jubilee, despite the fact that they were beginning to realize that nothing she did should surprise them anymore.

"We're all thinking about you, Jube," Everett continued.

"Yeah, Artie'n'Leech, too," Angelo added, walking up behind Everett and placing his hands on his shoulders.

<<The place just isn't the same without our resident firecracker,>> Jono told her.

"Yeah," Mondo agreed. "Much too quiet."

"Come to think of it, I even miss all your stories about when you were with the X-Men," Angelo joked. "Well, maybe. . . ." He walked over to her bedside and reached behind his head to undo the clasp to the chain that held a gold cross around his neck. He gently refastened it behind Jubilee's neck. "I think you can use this right now," he said softly.

"Could . . . could you give us a moment alone, guys?" Everett asked them.

"Sure," Angelo told him. "C'mon, amigos, let's go outside. We'll catch you later, Jubilee." They silently filed out of the room, leaving Everett alone with Jubilee.

"Jubes, I want you to know I'm okay," Everett told her. "My shoulder's a little stiff, but, other than that, I'm just fine. I only wish it were me that was lying here instead of you. I'd give anything for this never to have happened. I- I'm sorry I couldn't protect you. I tried to stop them from hurting you. I swear I tried. I'm sorry. So sorry. . . ."

Meanwhile, outside, the others were still trying to deal with the shock.

"Man o man o man," Angelo said, pacing the floor. "She looks bad. . . ."

<<No worse'n you or me, mate,>> Jono said, still holding Paige tightly as she wept. <<Least she don't 'ave a gapin' 'ole in 'er chest.>>

"It will take a long time for her to recuperate from such grievous injuries," Monet said. "She may never be the same, mentally or physically."

"So? We can help her," Mondo said. The idea seemed simple to the selfless young man.

"*If* she ever wakes up," Angelo muttered.

"Stop it!" Paige screamed suddenly, breaking away from Jono. She stared at them all, her face wet with tears. "Stop it, all of you! This is our friend you're talking about, not some vegetable. That is a person lying in there-- a person we all care about deeply-- a person we all love. At least, I know Ah do. Ah don't know 'bout the rest of you. . . ."

"It's funny, hearing that holier-than-thou attitude comin' from someone who couldn't even stand to look at her a couple'a minutes ago," Angelo spat.

<<'Ey, we all deal with grief in our own way,>> Jono said in her defense.

"That's okay, Jono, Ah can fight mah own battles," Paige said, the southern accent she usually tried so desperately to hide reemerging as her emotions got the best of her. "Unlike you, Angelo, it truly pains me to seem mah friend lying in there like that. Jubilation Lee is the most vibrant person Ah know. Always so full of life. She's got this energy about her, an' it's contagious. But t' see her reduced t' this, it's almost more than Ah can bear!"

"Hey, I'm upset, too, Paige! Just because I'm not bawling my eyes out doesn't mean that I don't care about Jubilee, too. Like Jono said, we all deal with this sort of thing differently. When you grow up in the barrio, seeing half of your friends gunned down, you get a little hardened, 'cause you know that if you let each one get to you, you'll break. Doesn't mean you still don't care-- that you don't feel it, right here," he said, putting an elongated finger on his chest.

"I- I'm sorry, Ang," Paige whispered, reaching for him.

"It's okay," he replied, embracing her. "We're all really upset right now, an' likely to say things we don't really mean."

"Look at Everett," Mondo said to no one in particular as he peaked through the window in the door to Jubilee's room. "He looks very upset."

They all looked to see the young man sitting, grasping Jubilee's hand in his own, his head hung low.

"He looks like he's about to cry."

<<This is 'itting 'im 'ardest,>> Jono stated. <<Poor bloke feels responsible, 'cause 'e couldn't do nothin' t' stop them from 'urtin' 'er.>>

"That, and the fact that he cares very deeply for Jubilation," Monet added.

"Sure, they're best buds, right?" Angelo said.

Monet was about to say more when they all heard an annoyed voice from behind them.

"Just what are you all doing here?" Jean asked them, hands on hips.

*Caramba!* "Would you believe we were takin' a tour, an' we got lost, Senora Summers?" Angelo asked feebly.

"I thought Sean asked you all not to come here."

"He did, ma'am, but Everett really wanted to see Jubilee, and so did all of us. We care about her, ma'am. She's our friend."

"I know that, Paige, but as you all no doubt realize by now, Sean had his reasons for asking you not to come."

<<Yeah, 'e was tryin' t' protect us. But 'e can't 'ave us livin' inna bubble forever. Funny 'ow 'e doesn't mind us battlin' all this evil an' prejudice, but 'e won't let us see our friend when she needs us.>>

"Sean's doing what he thinks best, and it is not your place to question his decisions."

"Nonetheless, his decisions are not necessarily the right ones," Monet said. "He is teaching us, trying to help us to mature. And yet, how can he expect us to become adults if he continues to treat us like children?"

"Do adults feign illness in a hospital?" Jean retorted. "Imagine the nurse's surprise, Monet, when she examined you, thinking your appendix was about to burst, only to find an old appendicitis scar. That doesn't sound very mature to me."

Angelo snickered, but quickly regretted his outburst. While the others looked down at their feet or away from Jean's gaze in guilt, Monet appeared unfazed. She crossed her arms and looked Jean in the eyes. "I did what I felt was necessary so that we could see our friend-- what I felt was in all of our best interests. And if that conflicts with what you and Mr. Cassidy think best, I'm sorry. But I don't regret my actions."

"If you want to deal with this in a mature way, as you all claim to want to do, then perhaps you should all discuss this with Sean later, rather than sneaking around behind his back. Can't you see how much he's going through? He's feeling incredibly guilty about Jubilee and Everett's injuries. So right now he's being overly protective of the rest of you. I know it may not make sense and it probably doesn't seem very fair, but believe me when I tell you that he really does have your best interest at heart. And judging from the look on all of your faces, by now you no doubt realize the reason for his decision. So maybe you can try to look at things from his perspective, and cut him some slack. Believe me, Sean would really appreciate it."

Now, even Monet looked a little remorseful. Jean realized that her words had cut to the quick, and while she hated to be so harsh with these children, she felt confident that by being up front with them, they now had a more well-rounded view of the situation, and would likely do their part and not act in any way that would add to Sean's worries.

She sighed, wondering how the professor had managed to always seem to know what to say and do. He made it seem so easy. But she was quickly learning how much was involved when dealing with teenagers. "Where is Everett?"

"In with Jubilee," Angelo replied.

"Could one of you please go get him?" Jean asked.

Mondo volunteered.

"Sean was on his way to see Everett and you kids," Jean told them. "He's going to be a little suspicious when he finds you gone. I suggest you all head back to Everett's room and tell him you took him for a walk around the hospital because he was going a little stir crazy in his room. He won't hear about this incident from me. And I'll try suggesting to him that he allow you all to come visit her-- but only under the condition that you won't try anything like this again. Do we have a deal?"

They all nodded as Mondo returned with Everett.

"Go on, then. I'll see you all later."

As she watched them leave, Jean could not help but smile. They reminded her a great deal of herself, Scott, Hank, Bobby, and Warren, back when they first joined the X-Men. She had no doubt that had one of them been injured, the others would have stopped at nothing-- including disobeying Professor Xavier's direct orders-- in order to see their injured teammate. She knew that these kids were more than teammates-- they were family, just as the five of them had been all those years ago. The fact that these kids were able to work together to get the job at hand done, without Sean or Emma's leadership, was a testament to the success of their teachers. These kids were learning, and they were growing up. Joining Generation X was the best decision Jubilee ever made. Jean just hoped it would not cost her her life.

****

Sean was walking out of Everett's room when he saw the kids returning. "I was just gettin' ready t' call hospital security," he said, his voice strained. "Where have ye been?"

"Ev needed some air," Angelo told him, "so we went for a walk."

"I see." Sean looked them over, one by one. His gaze lingered on Paige, whose eyes looked red and puffy. Everett seemed rather morose. Sean had a good idea of what they had been up to, but that could wait until later; right now, he had more pressing matters with which to deal. "Well, Ev here seems a little worn out by yer visit. I think it's time ye called it a day. Why don't ye all head back t' the school, an' I'll see him t' his room."

The kids said good-bye, Paige and Mondo each hugging Everett, Angelo gripping his hand in one of his street shakes, Jono clasping him on the shoulder, and Monet, surprising everyone, gave him a tender kiss on the cheek.

Sean silently wheeled Everett back into his room and helped him into bed. "I just got off the phone with yer folks," Sean told him as he adjusted the blanket. "I thought they should be notified about your injuries."

"What did they say?"

"They were quite upset at yer bein' hurt. A great deal of their anger was directed at me an' Emma, which is quite understandable. T' them, it seems like we're not doin' our jobs as yer teachers." Sean paused, clearing his throat. "They . . . they want t' withdraw ye from the school."

"What?! They can't do that!"

"Yes, lad, they can. Yer still a minor, and 'tis their decision. I tried me best t' explain that this is the best place for a young mutant like yerself, that with yer brains and skill, ye have a lot of potential, but they just didnae wanna listen. I guess that whole situation with Emplate possessin' ye was still fresh on their minds. I had t' do a lot of smooth talkin' then to convince them t' let ye stay. This time, I guess me tongue was not so skillful. I'm sorry, lad."

"They don't understand." He looked up at Sean, his uninjured eye glistening with tears. "You guys are more than my teammates and teachers-- you're my friends, a second family. And Jubilee, she . . . she's the closest friend I've ever had. I can't leave her. Not now. Not like this. She needs me."

Sean placed a consoling hand on Everett's shoulder. "Aye, lad, that she does."

"I- I'm going to call them. Try to talk them out of it."

"Good luck, Ev. Fair warning t' ye that they seemed adamant about the whole situation."

"Well, I'll just have to see if I can't change their minds. They're reasonable people, after all."

Chapter 5

Jean entered Jubilee's room. She found the kind old nurse sitting at the girl's bedside, an open book in her lap. Her soft voice with its soothing British accent resounded throughout the room.

"Bilbo 'ad escaped the goblins, but 'e did not know where 'e was. 'E 'ad lost 'ood, cloak, food, pony, 'is buttons and 'is friends. 'E wandered on an' on, till the sun began to sink westward. . . ."

Jean found herself smiling at the passage from Tolkein's novel, *The Hobbit*.

The nurse stopped reading and turned to look at Jean and smiled warmly.

"Oh, please don't stop."

"That's all right, luv," the nurse said, getting up. "Oi've got other patients Oi need t' check on. 'Tis just . . . this one, she seems a li'l lost, is all."

"Yes," Jean agreed, walking to the bedside and taking the nurse's place in the chair. "I just want her to find her way back home, to all of us."

She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder. "Oi can see by the way you look at 'er 'ow much you care about 'er. Is she your child?"

"No." Jean was silent a moment, a smile slowly creeping across her lips.

"Sometimes, it feels like it, though. We've gotten so close, and I care about her a great deal."

"Aye. That even a blind man could see. You just keep projectin' that love to 'er, an' she'll be back before you know it. Just 'ave faith."

As the nurse silently took her leave, she saw Sean heading for the room. Recognizing her as the kind woman who awoke him earlier that week, he smiled at her, and she did the same.

"I see someone's been readin' about the adventures of Mr. Bilbo Biggins," he said, indicating the book she held in her hand.

"Oi've found that reading t' the patients, 'specially the younger ones, 'elps them t' wake up that much sooner. An' this li'l 'obbit just 'appens t' be a favorite of mine."

"Thank ye for bein' there for Jubilee."

"My pleasure, Mr. Cassidy."

"Is Jean in with her now?"

The nurse nodded. "That woman is somethin' else. She's 'ardly left that girl's side. She's more devoted than most of me patients' parents 'ave been."

"Aye, that she is. Jean's got a heart bigger'n most. Thanks again."

"You take care of yerself, Mr. Cassidy. An' don't worry . . . she'll pull through this. With the support of so many people who care about 'er, 'ow can she do any less?"

As the nurse left, Sean could not help but smile. Entering Jubilee's room, he found Jean sitting at the bedside, the girl's hand grasped firmly in her own. Approaching them, he placed a tender hand on her shoulder. Jean looked up at him and managed a weary smile.

"Ye look exhausted," he said, taking the seat next to hers.

"I'm fine. How'd it go with Everett?"

Sean sighed. "Not good. He was upset. He called his parents, tried to tell them how much he wanted to stay, how much he felt like he belonged."

"They didn't go for it, huh?"

Sadly, Sean shook his head. "He managed to convince them to let him stay 'till there's word on Jubilee's condition. They're planning to come next week, once they can get a few days off work, to take him home. I feel as if I've let him down, Jean. He and Jubilee both."

"Sean, don't be absurd. I've told you once, and I'll tell you again-- this was in no way your fault. You're their teacher, their friend. That does not make you responsible for their injuries. I know you feel that you should have been there to somehow prevent this from happening, but you can't be with them all twenty-four, seven. There comes a time when we've got to start to let go and allow them to grow up."

"Seems to me they're being forced to do that a little too quickly."

"I know that feeling. But, with the way the world is, I see little alternative." She looked at Jubilee lovingly. "Sean, I've decided to enter her mind. I'm just going to observe, and to try to assess the damage."

"All right. I'll go with ye."

"No. My presence will be dangerous enough. We can't risk it."

"Are ye sure ye can handle this alone?"

Jean sighed. "I'll admit, I'm not up to speed. The past couple of days have been hell. But this is Jubilee's life we're talking about. I have to try."

Slowly, Sean nodded. "What can I do to help?"

"Just be here with us," she said, placing her hand on his.

"I will. Good luck, lass."

"Thanks." Once again taking Jubilee's hand, Jean breathed deeply. She calmed herself, focusing her mind to the task at hand. The headache she had had since before she and Logan left for Massachusetts had not ceased. She could not let that bother her now, though. She pushed past the pain, and reached out with her mind, contacting Jubilee's.

She immediately felt disoriented. Jubilee's mindscape had indeed been affected by Tessa's machinations. The surroundings felt as though they had been tossed topsy-turvy. Jean's astral form was negotiating a ground that seemed to be at a forty-five degree angle-- upside-down and inside-out, with the sky as the wall and the ground as the sky. It took her a few moments to acclimate herself. Once she had, she took note of her location. Judging by the palm trees and the license plates on the parked cars, it appeared to be a suburb in California. Seeing the huge houses lining the block, she guessed Beverly Hills. The place where Jubilee grew up.

As she looked on, a fifteen-year-old Jubilation Lee roller bladed down the block. Already Jean could see the inconsistencies. The cars present were the latest models, Jubilee was far older than she was when she lived here. Even the roller blades she was wearing had not been manufactured at the time this should have occurred. She followed the girl as she carefully made her way up the front stairs and onto the porch. Jubilee took off the blades and stepped into the house.

"Mom! Dad! I'm home!" she called, walking into the foyer. She stopped suddenly. Something did not feel right. Even Jean could sense the . . . wrongness. Jubilee slowly, carefully, made her way to the living room.

"Mom? Dad? Are you here?" Not finding them, she looked around the room. She walked into the dining room. Still no one. Scanning the room, her eyes stopped at the doorway across from her, more specifically at the carpeting. There were some crimson spots. Blood.

"Mom? Dad?" Jubilee followed the trail of blood down the corridor until she came to the closed door that led to the study. She reached for the doorknob and found her hand trembling.

Jean looked on, helpless, wishing she could do something besides watch. This was something Jubilee had to do on her own.

Opening the door, Jubilee cautiously stepped inside. The blood stains were a little heavier, and seemed to be leading to behind the huge mahogany desk her father used so often. Gathering her courage, she approached it. Peering behind it, she gasped in horror.

Laying sprawled on the floor in pools of blood were the bodies of her parents. Pieces of their intestines and the remains of various organs lay beside them.

Her hands flew to her mouth as she turned away in horror. Who or what could do such a thing?

This was not right, Jean realized. Jubilee's parents were killed-- murdered-- in a car accident. She looked on, feeling completely powerless, wanting more than anything to take Jubilee in her arms. She had a dreadful feeling she knew who was behind this savage attack.

"Hey there, chickie," came a hoarse voice from across the room. Jubilee spun around, and saw him perched on top of a bookcase. He held a half-eaten human heart in his hand, its blood dripping down his clawed hand and his sharp canines, onto his chin. He licked it from his lips and smacked them. "Mmm mmm. Mommy and Daddy sure do hit the spot."

"Monster!" Jubilee spat. "How could you?"

"Simple: they was there, and I was hungry. And you, sweetums, are dessert!" In an instant, he pounced. He was flying through the air, claws extended, fangs bared, reaching for her throat.

"Eat this!" Jubilee shouted, raising her own arms and blasting him with the colorful plasmoids that she produced from her fingertips.

Yelping in pain and momentarily blinded, Sabretooth fell to the floor, his hands covering his eyes. Not wasting the opportunity she had created for herself, Jubilee scrambled out the door, running down the hallway.

Suddenly, the location changed. She was no longer in her own home, but in the school in Massachusetts. She hurried to the stairs and took them two at a time, heading upstairs. Turning the corner, she collided with another figure and fell to the floor, the wind knocked out of her. She screamed.

"Easy, Jubes, it's just me."

She looked up to see Everett staring down at her, a warm smile on his face, and sighed.

"Ev? Buddy, am I glad to see you! Sabretooth's loose in the house!"

"Sabretooth? C'mon, we'd better get the others to help." He held out a hand to help her up.

Grateful, she reached up to him but stopped suddenly, drawing her hand back before she could touch him, shuddering in terror.

"Jubilee? What is it? We don't have much time."

In response, all she could do was stare at his hand. On his palm was a small mouth, lined with dozens of sharp fangs-- the mark of Emplate's possession, which he bore several months earlier when he had tried to kill his teammates. Jubilee had no doubt he would do the same now. And with his mutant power to synch himself to her own powers, she would be no match for him. She scampered backwards, hand over foot, trying to get away from him. Then she made a break for it, sprinting toward a bedroom. She ran inside, and slammed the door shut behind her, locking it. Then she shoved a dresser in front of it, hoping to keep Everett and Sabretooth out; unfortunately, it also meant trapping herself inside.

"Priveat, Jubilee."

At the sound of the voice, Jubilee jumped. She turned around, and saw a little blonde-haired girl in a nightgown sitting in the bed, grasping a stuffed doll that greatly resembled Nightcrawler.

"Illyana?"

"Da. Kock de la?"

"I've been better," Jubilee said, walking over to her. The little Russian threw her arms around Jubilee's neck, hugging her. "C'mon, kiddo, we've gotta get out of here." Taking her hand, Jubilee led her to the balcony.

"Bamf!" Illyana cried suddenly. Letting go of Jubilee's hand, she ran back to the bed and picked up the doll.

"C'mon, Yana, hurry! C'mere!"

Illyana turned to face Jubilee and, smiling widely, was about to run into her arms. Then, suddenly, the room erupted into crimson chaos, with everything happening so quickly. The girl screamed as something grabbed her ankle, its sharp talons digging into her skin and drawing blood. She cried out as she slammed face-down on the floor. Even as Jubilee lunged forward and tried to reach her, Illyana was dragged under the bed, kicking and screaming. Just as Jubilee landed on the spot where the girl had been standing, now occupied only by the stuffed animal, there was a sound of claws rending flesh and bone along with a scream that made Jubilee's blood turn ice cold. The girl's agonizing cries stopped abruptly as she was ripped open and her still-beating heart was torn from her chest and consumed hungrily. Blood spattered onto Jubilee's face.

Realizing she was about to meet a similar fate, Jubilee bolted for the balcony. She cried out as claws raked into the flesh of her back. She staggered forward, grasping onto the wrought-iron railing of the balcony. Without a moment's hesitation, she straddled the railing, preferring to take her chances with the leap to the ground than to remain and be mauled and eaten alive by the ferocious psychopathic killer.

"Not so fast, kid. We got a dinner date!" Sabretooth growled, reaching a clawed hand for her leg. His nails bit into the soft flesh of her calf even as she had cast herself backwards over the railing. She bit her lip in pain as he held her there, her head pointing toward the ground, arms flailing wildly. "You ain't gettin' away that easy, meat!" He began to haul her up.

She realized she had only one chance. Summoning her courage and her last reserve of strength, she pulled her torso half-up and raised her arms. She poured on the fireworks in a display of pyrotechnics brighter than she ever had before.

Sabretooth laughed. "Nice try, kid, but I ain't fallin' for that same trick twice. I closed my eyes this time."

"Who said I was aiming for you, Creed?" she retorted.

There was a creaking from above them. Sabretooth looked up just as the gutter and the section of the roof it had been attached to came crashing down on his head. Unfortunately, as it toppled him, crushing him beneath metal and concrete, his hold on her leg was lost. Jubilation Lee screamed as she plummeted to meet the cold, hard embrace of the ground below, realizing hers was a Pyhrric victory. As the blackness overwhelmed her, she took comfort in the thought that at least there would no longer be any pain. . . .

****

Jean cried out as her mind abruptly returned to her own body. She was breathing heavily, her body drenched in perspiration. It took a moment for her mind to register where she was. As she regained her bearings, she suddenly realized that something was terribly wrong. The room resounded with a loud ringing. It was Jubilee's heart monitor.

Jean got to her feet and Sean pulled her out of the way as nurses and a doctor entered along with a crash cart. "She's flatlined!" the doctor shouted as a nurse threw back the blanket. "Clear!" she shouted as she primed the paddles. She placed them on Jubilee's chest and her body jerked upward.

"Nothing," the nurse replied.

"Oh, God, no!" Jean cried, hands clasped over her mouth. "She can't die!"

Sean said nothing, but placed a firm arm around Jean's shoulders and held her close against him.

"Clear!" the doctor shouted, trying once again to make Jubilee's heart start beating.

Still there was the loud ringing.

"Again!" yelled the doctor, and her body jerked once more.

Suddenly, there was a faint beep, and they looked to see a small peak representing her heartbeat on the monitor's screen.

"Her pulse is thready, but there," the nurse told the doctor.

She began to prescribe several drugs for the nurse to administer by injection.

"Oh, thank goodness," Jean sighed.

"Saints preserve us!" Sean said with a smile, embracing Jean. "Come, let's got wait in the hall for the doctor to finish," he said, placing a guiding hand on her waist.

"I was so frightened," Jean said softly.

"Aye. Me, too, lass, me, too. But Jubilee's a fighter. She'll beat this, I'm sure." Sean paused a moment, trying to find the best way to broach the subject. "D'ye want to talk about what ye saw?" he whispered.

Jean closed her eyes, remembering, and involuntarily shuddered. <<It was so horrible,>> she told him via a psi-link as she wrapped her arms around herself. <<Her mindscape was greatly distorted. It wasn't limited to the physical landscape. She was reliving some memories, moments from her past, but they were all jumbled together, along with events which I could only guess are some of her worst nightmares. The psychic damage was greater than I feared.>>

<<Can ye do anythin' t' repair it?>>

<<When I entered her mind, it was as an observer. Next time, it will have to be as a participant. I'm going to have to help her face her demons, to fight them, and to beat them if she is to have any hope of recovering. But with this close call, I'm not so sure she's strong enough to-->>

"Mr. Cassidy, Mrs. Summers," Dr. Knight called, walking over to them. "Dr. Doan just paged me."

"That was great work she did," Sean told him. "She saved her life."

"We're not out of the woods yet, I'm afraid."

Sean and Jean looked at him fearfully.

"Her condition has become very serious. She has cerebral edema-- swelling in her cranium. Because of this, there is a great deal of pressure being exerted on her brain. This is a very dangerous state. We're going to have to operate in order to relieve the pressure."

"Is she strong enough for surgery?" Jean asked. "Shouldn't we give her some time to build up her strength?"

"Unfortunately, we don't have that time. We've got her stabilized; she should be all right. But if we don't alleviate the pressure soon, she'll die."

Slowly, Sean nodded. "We understand. Do whatever ye have to to save her life, Doctor."

"I'm going to go scrub for surgery now. If you could go to the nurse's station, there will be some papers to sign," Dr. Knight told him.

"I'll be right there," Sean said. He looked at Jean, who was extremely pale. Her bottom lip quivered and she had tears in her eyes. "It's not your fault, Jean. Dr. Knight already told us this was a possible complication. You were only trying to help."

Jean nodded but could not stop the tears that streamed down her cheeks. Sean quickly drew her into his warm embrace. "It's all right, Jean," he whispered, gently stroking her head.

"I can't lose her, Sean. I can't! She means too much to me. . . ."

"I know ye're worried. I know. But she's going to make it. She will."

"I wish Logan were here. . . ."

"Aye, me, too. Hearing his voice would help Jubilee, I'm sure. But, until he returns, we'll just have to be enough. Now, come, dry your eyes and walk with me to the nurse's station. Chin up, now. We must be strong for her."

Together, they walked to the station and the nurse got the forms for Sean to sign. While he was filling them out, the phone rang.

"Mr. Cassidy?" a nurse asked him.

"Yes?"

"There's a young woman-- Paige-- calling for you," she said, handing him the phone.

"Thank ye," Sean said, picking up the receiver. He looked at Jean, who nodded ever-so-slightly, indicting that she would mask his conversation from the ears of the nurses and other people in the hospital. "Paige? Is everything all right, lass?"

"Fine, Mr. Cassidy. I'm calling to let you know that a man just phoned the school asking for you. A Mr. Tyson."

"That'd be me ole Interpol buddy, the one who's lookin' f'r Emma. What'd he say?"

"Not good news, I'm afraid. He said that Ms. Frost's chateau had been blown to kingdom come. They found the remains of several bodies-- her servants. But there wasn't any sign of her."

"Lord have mercy!" Sean exclaimed.

"He said that he'd keep looking for her, but not to get your hopes up. Do you think we should go check it out, sir?"

"Normally, I'd say yes, but under the circumstances, I don't think a trip to France is an option. They're about to bring Jubilee in for more surgery, and I can't leave her now."

There was silence on the other end of the phone. "We could go without you, sir," she said finally.

"No! That is out of the question! We have reason to believe that Shaw and Tessa may be involved in Emma's disappearance. After what they did to Everett and Jubilee, I'm not putting anyone else at risk, especially not without me there."

"But Ms. Frost may need hel--"

"Emma's a big girl. She can take care of herself. None of you are to get involved in this. Do I make myself clear, Paige?"

"Crystal, sir."

"Good."

There was another pause, then, "When is her surgery?"

"They should be bringing her in in the next half hour or so."

"Would it be all right if Monet and I came down and waited with you there?"

Sean smiled. "That would be nice, Paige. Jean and I would appreciate the company."

"Can we bring anything?"

"Some decent coffee would be great."

"No problem, sir. We'll see you shortly."

"Good-bye." Sean handed the phone back to the nurse, thanking her.

<<Bad news?>> Jean asked him.

<<Emma has disappeared without a trace, and her house was blown up.>>

<<Shaw seems out for blood.>>

<<Aye. That's what worries me. I just hope Emma can handle him by herself.>>

<<She's a formidable telepath, and much more powerful than Tessa. She should be all right.>>

<<I hope so. I won't rest easy until she's home, safe and sound. Now, come, lass, let's go sit down. I think we've got another long night ahead of us.>>

Chapter 6

Sighing, Sean got to his feet and began to pace the room anew. Paige sat, leafing through a magazine. Monet stood by a window, watching the sun rise. Everett, who had been released from the hospital that evening, refused to go back to the school, and now sat in a chair dosing, still a little groggy from the pain medication. Sean looked at his watch for what must have been the tenth time in as many minutes. He gazed over at the door, but there was no sign of Jean.

"Could one of you ladies go check on Jean? It's been a while since she left, and, well, she was lookin' a little. . . ." His voice trailed off as he searched for the right word. Somehow "upset" and "worried" each seemed like an understatement. The girls, however, immediately understood his meaning.

"Sure," Paige said at the same moment Monet said "Of course." They looked at each other and smiled.

"Why don't ye both go," Sean suggested. "No use in all of us sittin' here, anyways."

Thankful for something to do aside from waiting, the girls quickly headed for the ladies' room.

"Mrs. Summers was looking rather distraught, wasn't she?" Paige whispered to Monet.

"No more so than Mr. Cassidy. Frankly, they both look like they're on the verge of getting sick themselves. Neither one has slept or eaten much, if at all, since Jubilee was injured. They're so worried about her, they're letting their own health deteriorate."

They entered the restroom, they found Jean standing by a sink. She had just popped a pill into her mouth and was cupping her hand to the running water in order to swallow it.

"Mrs. Summers?" Paige asked as they approached her. "Are you all right, ma'am?"

Jean nodded. "I'm fine, Paige. I'm just taking an antibiotic Hank prescribed for me-- I injured my leg during our last mission." Jean began to splash cold water on her face.

Both girls could see that her eyes were puffy and her nose quite red. "Are you sure?" Monet asked. "You look as though-- ow!" she cried out suddenly as Paige elbowed her in the ribs. She gave Paige a dirty look, but the Southerner merely glared back at her.

*For someone who claims to be super-smart, she sure can be dense sometimes,* Paige thought with a sigh. *And totally insensitive.*

"It's nothing. Really." Jean dried her face with a paper towel. Then she looked at them and smiled, but they still seemed unconvinced.

"Monet, could you go get Mrs. Summers some soup from the cafeteria?" Paige asked.

Eyes narrowed, Monet looked at her distrustfully. Paige, however, returned her gaze with an unblinking stare which said, *I'll handle this. Alone.*

At first, it seemed as though Monet were going to protest, but she ultimately conceded. "Sure. I'll meet you two back in the lounge," she said, leaving, albeit reluctantly.

"You should eat something," Paige told her simply. She paused a moment. "Mrs. Summers, I realize we hardly know one another, but if you feel like talking. . . ."

"That's very sweet of you, Paige, dear, but I'm fine. Really."

"You're feeling helpless, aren't you? And, for a few minutes, the despair really got to you, overwhelmed you. You began to lose faith, and then became angry with yourself for letting the doubt enter your mind. Which only made the sadness increase."

Jean looked at the young woman who stood before her in surprise. Slowly, she nodded her head. "You're quite perceptive for your years, Paige."

"We've all seen a lot more than most people twice our ages, I'm sure," she replied. "But I know how you feel. I was going through something similar after I saw Jubilee."

"Yes, I suppose you're right. I'm trying to be strong, positive. But, sometimes, it's so hard." Jean felt the tears returning.

"You don't have to be the strong one all of the time. That's why we're here-- to lean on one another." Paige took a step toward her, but then stopped, hesitating.

Jean immediately sensed the girl's intent to reach out to her, and slipped into her embrace gratefully. She held tightly to the girl as her tears slowly subsided. Paige handed her a tissue. Jean dried her eyes and blew her nose. "Thank you."

"I'm glad I could help. Now, are you ready to head back?"

Jean nodded, and they left the bathroom.

"Do you think she'll be out of surgery soon?" Paige asked.

Jean looked at her watch. "Hopefully. They should be finishing up pretty soo--" As they entered the lounge, Jean stopped in mid-sentence. Sean was sitting beside Emma Frost, who looked a little shaken up: her hear was unkempt, there was dirt and some dark red substance-- most likely blood-- smeared on her face and clothes. Standing across from them was Wolverine, whose torn clothing also showed signs of a fight, although his healing factor would have taken care of any injuries he may have received. Logan turned around at the sign of their entrance, and, seeing Jean, his eyes widened in concern.

"Hey there, Red," he said, walking closer. "You look like hell."

"Yeah, well, you don't look so good yourself," she replied with a wry grin. "I'm so glad you're back." Then, more quietly, she said, "I hope it was worth it, Logan. We really needed you here."

"Irish told us about the kid bein' in surgery. She'll make it through. She's a real trooper."

"Yeah, well, she learned from the best, right?" Jean said with a forced smile.

Paige, meanwhile, had walked over to her headmistress. "Ms. Frost, are you all right?" she asked.

"I've been better, Paige, dear, but it's nothing a little soap and water and some brandy won't remedy."

"What happened?" Jean asked as she sat down.

"On the way to my chateau, my limo was run off the road," Emma explained. "I never saw who did it. I managed to escape from the limo right before it tumbled down an embankment and crashed into a tree. Aside from a few scrapes and scratches, I was uninjured; the driver was not so lucky. I traveled back to my chateau by foot. I realized it was foolish to return there, but I needed supplies if I were to go anywhere else. I found that the housekeeper, the butler, the cook, and all the other workers had been killed. My personal assistant appeared to be brain-fried. I found the cook's young son, hidden in the pantry, and scanned his mind, where I found images of Sebastian Shaw and Tessa. They were sloppy in that they didn't detect and kill him as well."

"Maybe they wanted you to know who was responsible," Jean suggested.

Emma nodded. "That thought occurred to me as well. I took the boy with me to check the rest of the house. While in the communications room, Wolverine suddenly appeared."

"After I searched the warehouse, I had Gateway 'port me to her house," Logan replied, leaning with his back and foot against a wall, arms crossed.

"He told me what happened to Jubilee and Everett," Emma continued. "I was determined to discern Shaw's location and settle the score. I was downloading some files from my computer onto a disk while Logan searched other parts of the chateau. Then I sensed a sudden urgency in his thoughts. I psi-linked with him, and he told me there was a bomb. I grabbed the boy and ran. We escaped by the skin of our teeth. Needless to say I was quite upset; that made twice in one day that someone tried to kill me. My best limo and my chateau destroyed, and a dozen innocent workers slain. We brought the child to the proper authorities and began our hunt."

"It wasn't easy," Logan said, picking up the story. "But we tracked them down to a safe house in the French countryside, 'bout fifty miles away. Emma was able to mask our presence from their thoughts-- her psi powers are much more developed than Tessa's. I duked it out with Shaw while Emma and Tessa had a battle of wills on the psi-plane."

"Let's just say it was a short battle," Emma said smugly. "Tessa has improved over the years, but she still has a lot to learn. I then helped Wolverine confront Shaw. It seems that in his warped mind, he somehow blamed me for the destruction of his own business. Since we were once fellow members of the Hellfire Club's Inner Circle, he thought I somehow owed him my loyalty. Professional courtesy, I believed he called it. While my business maneuvers may have contributed to falls in his stock, the honor of ruination of Shaw Enterprises belongs solely to his son, Shinobi. And he felt the fact that I was now working with Xavier was like pouring salt on an open wound. He wanted me financially ruined, and destroyed. He did not expect to learn much, if anything by attacking the children-- if he was lucky, he thought he might get some sort of secrets he could use against me in the corporate realm. But, knowing that I care about their safety and personal welfare, he knew roughing them up a bit would greatly upset me."

"What is Project Acquisition?" Sean asked.

Emma sighed and shook her head. "An indiscretion on my part, I'm afraid," she replied softly. "Several months ago, I naively gave some orders to my top executives to attempt to acquire Shaw's company by less than amiable means. Needless to say, the plan backfired, and it would seem that Shaw found out."

"How did the fight end?" Paige asked.

"Shaw's men arrived, and we were overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers," Emma reluctantly admitted. "We were forced to retreat. Luckily, Gateway's portal appeared at that moment, allowing us to leave."

"Luck had nothin' to do with it, darlin'," Logan replied. "But we didn't leave before I told Tessa that if she were ever to come near Jubilee or any of the other kids again, she would regret it. And let's just say it was a lesson she won't forget anytime soon," he growled, popping one of the claws that extended out of his hand. "'Specially any time she looks in the mirror."

Jean winced and Sean shut his eyes, shaking his head sadly.

"You ask me, she got off easy," Everett said coldly. "She deserved that, and a whole lot more, for what she did to Jubilee."

"How's she doin'?" Logan asked.

Jean looked at Sean and sighed. She told Logan and Emma all that had transpired concerning the girl over the past few days. ". . . and now we're just waiting for the operation to end," Jean concluded.

"You say your attempts to scan her mind revealed a great deal of psychic damage?" Emma asked.

"Yes," Jean replied. "Once she recovers from surgery, I'm planning to try again, but this time to be a direct participant in events, and not just an observer."

"Perhaps if we combine our skills, we might be able to--"

"She's out of surgery," Monet announced as she entered the room, a cardboard container in hand. As she looked around the room, her eyes widened. "Ms. Frost, Mr. Logan, you're back."

"Yep," Logan said. "How's the kid doing?"

"The nurse said she made it through okay. Dr. Knight will be in shortly to speak to us."

Sighing, Jean looked at Paige and grinned. Everett sighed in relief. Emma placed a hand on Sean's knee and he smiled at her, the relief filling him. Paige ran over to Everett and hugged him.

"I'm going to go call the school, let the others know she made it through okay," Sean said, getting up. "Somebody come get me if Dr. Knight arrives while I'm gone."

"Hold on, Sean; I'll go with you," Jean called, also rising. "I should call New York and let Ororo and the others know what's going on."

Smiling, Sean put an arm around Jean's shoulder and walked with her out of the room.

Chapter 7

"So, what's the game plan?" Logan asked, turning a chair around so that the back faced the table and straddling it. Jean, Sean, and Emma were already seated at the table in the nearly-deserted hospital cafeteria. Nonetheless, to be on the safe side, the telepaths took precautions to ensure their conversation would not be overheard.

"I'm going to attempt to enter Jubilee's mind again," Jean said, taking a spoonful of the soup Monet had brought her.

"You said that last time you tried it, you found the mindscape highly distorted?" Emma asked, adding some sugar to her tea.

"Yes. Aside from the irregularity of the physical landscape, the memories were twisted, merged; different events in her life were pieced together, along with ones that have never occurred."

"And the scan ended with a traumatic event? Her own death?"

Gravely, Jean nodded.

"And then she flatlined," Logan said. He placed his hand on Jean's, letting her know he did not blame her.

"Do ye think the two events are related?" Sean asked after taking a sip of his coffee. "Dr. Knight did say there was a risk of pressure building in her skull. . . ."

"It seems too much of a coincidence for the events not to be related," Emma said. "But it seems more likely that it was the physical trauma-- the pressure on her brain-- that affected the events being played out in her mind. I highly doubt that Jean's presence triggered the arrest."

Jean looked at Emma, a little surprised. The last thing she expected was for the White Queen to support her. She still did not completely trust Emma Frost. But she knew that Emma truly cared about her students, including Jubilee. Perhaps this common bond among the four of them-- concern over the welfare of Jubilation Lee-- which drew them together here, also made Emma realize that assigning blame would not make the problem go away. Perhaps Emma, too, felt somewhat responsible since the children were accosted by her enemy to get information he could use against her. Whatever the reason, Jean was thankful she did not have to defend herself to Emma; she wanted to conserve her strength for the task at hand.

"What effect do you think a second psi-scan will have?" Sean asked of no one in particular.

Jean sighed. "It's hard to say. I think it has to be done quickly. A prolonged presence may only create more problems, or push her further into a coma. I think it will be necessary for me to become directly involved, to aid Jubilee in battling the evil presences in her mind. I believe that once she is able to conquer them and to get over her fears, the damage from Tessa will have been repaired, and she will be on the road to recovery."

"Sounds good to me," Logan said. "When do we go in?"

"*We* will be doing nothing," Jean said. "I'm going in alone."

"Don't be foolish; I will accompany you," Emma told her.

"Emma, I want to limit the stress on Jubilee's mind. It has already been taxed enough; too many unwelcome presences can only have a negative effect. Besides, from what I've observed already, she has a fear of people she thought she could trust turning on her. Frankly, I don't think having a former enemy of the X-Men present will sit well with her-- especially with the confusion of events."

Even as Emma coolly regarded Jean, the only indication that her mind was at all troubled was the paleness of her knuckles as her fist clenched tightly around the spoon she held. "And you think you can do any better? You tried once already, and nearly killed her." She smiled inwardly as she saw Jean flinch at the remark. "Besides," Emma continued, "*I* am her teacher-- not you. It is my responsibility to--"

"Emma, calm yerself," Sean said, placing a hand on her arm.

"I will not let this go, Sean. Ms. High-and-Mighty-X-Man thinks that she can waltz in here and tell me what to do when it concerns one of my students. I will not stand for it!"

"Where were you when Jubilee was injured, Emma?" Jean spat. "Where was her precious headmistress when she needed her?"

"Ladies, please!" Sean said, preparing to hold Emma back from Jean if necessary. "Bickering amongst ourselves in not going t' do Jubilee a bit of good."

"Irish is right. Fact is, Jeanie's been here from the start," Logan said. "She's been monitoring Jubilee the longest. If she thinks it's best to do this solo, that's how we're gonna do it. But she gets only one shot. If this don't work, then we consider other options. That fly with everybody?"

Crossing her arms, Emma nodded. "Provided the child survives this attempt."

"Emma!" Sean hissed.

"That's all right, Sean," Jean replied, getting to her feet. "I am quite confident in my abilities; I don't need Emma's approval to know that this is the best decision. Would you like to monitor the proceedings, Emma?"

"As if you need to ask," Emma said, also rising.

"Then it's settled," Sean said as the four of them began to walk toward the elevator. "Let's do it."

****

"You comfortable, Jeanie?"

"Fine, Logan," Jean said, leaning back in her chair at Jubilee's bedside.

Emma, Sean, and Logan stood in various spots in the room, watching her. Picking up Jubilee's hand, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm ready," she told them.

"Good luck, lass," she heard Sean say as she entered Jubilee's mind.

This time she was prepared, knowing what to expect in the landscape, and she did not feel quite so disoriented. Things were still upside-down and twisted, but Jean was able to compensate. This time, the location was not a Beverly Hills residential area, but the Australian Outback, the former headquarters of the X-Men, and the place where Jubilee met Wolverine.

Jean decided to begin by observing, as she had last time. She would have to let Jubilee duke it out for a while by herself. This time, however, if serious trouble reared its ugly head, leaving Jubilee hopelessly outmatched, Jean would become involved, join a fight if necessary, and help Jubilee to conquer her own personal demons. But in order to do this, she must first locate Jubilee.

Shielding her eyes from the brutal sun with her hand, she scanned the barren terrain. The old abandoned buildings appeared to be completely deserted-- there was no sign of any of the X-Men. She was about to go pay them closer inspection when she saw a figure moving in the distance. It was Jubilee, a few years younger than she was now-- the age she was when she joined the X-Men.

*Well, at least her age fits the setting,* Jean thought. *Perhaps the correlation is a sign that her mind is beginning to heal. . . .*

Looking at Jubilee, Jean could not help but smile. She was wearing pieces of the other X-Women's old costumes: Dazzler's body suit, Rogue's boots, Storm's leather vest. It appeared that even back then, Jubilee had atrocious fashion taste when it came to color schemes. That would explain the taxi yellow coat and bright red, blue, and green costume she would later use. Jean vowed that if-- no, *when* she corrected herself-- Jubilee made it out of this, she would take the teenager on a shopping spree and get her some clothing that was not quite so blinding.

Jean could see Jubilee looking around her warily, checking to see if she were being watched, before she entering a hole in the wall of one of the compound's buildings.

*Well, here goes,* Jean thought as she gave chase.

As she entered what she thought would be the X-Men's former Australian compound, Jean realized that, contrary to her first impression, the events and Jubilee's appearance were not in accord. She found herself in the sub-basement of the X-Mansion. She followed Jubilee to the Rec Room, and watched as the girl began to play a video game. This Jubilee corresponded in age and dress to the one who joined the X-Men. Her shades were lowered, and on their surface Jean could see the reflection of colorful blasts of light as the aliens on the video screen were blown to kingdom come.

"Yes! Eat plasma, ya sleazoids!" Jubilee shouted, fingers skillfully flying over half a dozen buttons to control her space ship and its weapons.

Seeing the happiness on the girl's face, Jean felt a lump in her throat.

She wondered if Jubilee would ever be able to be this carefree again.

Suddenly, the lights went out in the room and the screen went black.

"Hey, what gives?!" Jubilee shouted. She peered around the room. "Great. Somebody blows a fuse just when I was about to beat my personal record. I'll bet it was ole Gumbo who--" She broke off abruptly, and stood perfectly still, listening. She would have sworn that she had heard something-- the whirring of something mechanical. She looked across the room and nearly screamed. Three pairs of green eyes glowed in the darkness about three feet from the floor. She heard a low rumbling, like a growling, coming from the same general area.

She raised her right arm in the air as though holding a torch and emitted several of her energy plasmoids, momentarily illuminating the room in a pinkish glow. In those few seconds, she could see the owners of those hideous eyes-- they were robotic guard dogs, created by the cybernetic Donald Pierce and his Reavers, used to guard the basements in the Australian compound the X-Men commandeered. The instant Jubilee saw them, she knew she had only seconds to react before the dogs would strike and rend her limb from limb. The only problem was that they stood between her and the only exit.

She had been in the Rec Room dozens of times, and knew its layout like the back of her hand. At least, she hoped she did. Taking mental note of her position, she ran toward the center of the room, where the pool table was located, and leapt above it in order to grab the green shade of the light that hung down on top of the table. As she swung forward, she brought her legs together and straight out in front of her, her feet connecting with the snout of one of the dogs as it leapt toward her. With a whelp, it was knocked to the floor. Using her forward momentum, she grabbed her knees to her chest and did a somersault in midair, landing on the floor about ten feet from the door. She silently thanked her mom for making her take all of those gymnastics lessons when she was a little kid.

She was about to make a run for it when a gut feeling told her not to.

*Behind you!* a voice seemed to say in her head.

She quickly spun around, spreading her hands and letting loose with her fireworks. The dog that had been about to attack her from behind staggered, momentarily blinded. Now was her chance. She poured on the speed and headed for the door. Just as she reached it and began to turn the doorknob, she felt a sharp pain in her ankle as sharp canines dug into the flesh, accompanied by the cracking sound of bones breaking. She screamed in agony as she fell to the floor. She reached back at the dog and cascaded him with fireworks; still, he did not let go. In that moment, however, she saw that there were half a dozen pool sticks scattered on the floor. On her belly, she reached to the side, trying to grab one. It was less than an inch from her extended fingers. She stretched, and her fingers tightened around the wooden stick. She quickly twisted her body and sat up, pounding the dog in the face and chest with the makeshift club until he let her go. Adrenaline rushing into her veins, she shouted as she continued to beat him, and finally gave him a tremendous whack, sending him sprawling across the room and into one of the legs of the pool table.

Dropping the stick, she scurried to her feet and was out the door in an instant, quickly closing it behind her. She used her powers to slag the doorknob, thereby trapping the dogs inside. Going as fast as her injured ankle would allow, she limped down the hallway, in search of the elevator that would take her to the main floor and, she prayed, help.

While Jean expected the path Jubilee took to reveal the ground floor of the X-Men's current headquarters, she found them instead in the living room of the school in Massachusetts. She, along with Jubilee, stared in horror at the carnage that lay before them. Jubilee's fellow students were strewn about the room. There was blood everywhere. Jubilee walked slowly across the room, looking at each body in turn.

Mondo lay in the middle of the room, intestine strewn out of of the gaping hole in his great belly. Paige half-lay on the couch. One hand clutched a shredded patch of skin that was still attached to her cheek; she had evidently been trying to husk into a more powerful form when she met her demise. She, too, was gutted. Seeing a gray hand on the floor, Jubilee followed the extended arm to behind a chair, where Angelo lay in a heap, surrounded by a pool of blood. Her gaze returned to the corner of the room, and she found Monet beneath an overturned bookcase, her hand with its stiffened fingers reaching out vainly from underneath.

As she continued on her trek, Jubilee tripped over something. Looking down at her feet, she gasped. There was a rush of bile to the back of her throat, and she swallowed hard. It was a dismembered arm in the sleeve of a leather jacket. *Jono,* she realized sadly. She did not want to find out what had happened to the rest of him. But something was not right. There was still someone missing. Where was--

She heard a soft moaning coming from somewhere nearby. That was when she noticed the blood stains on the carpet. It looked like someone had managed to drag himself out of the room. She followed the trail to the foyer, where she found him, slumped against the wall. His right hand clung to his abdomen, and she could see from the tissue that escaped from between his blood-soaked fingers that he was holding his viscera in as best he could. She looked at him for a moment from a distance. Then she spoke his name. "Everett."

He looked up at her, and she could see the hope light his face. "Jubilee. . . ?"

She hurried to him and knelt beside him. "Oh, Ev, look at you!"

"I'm a real mess, huh?" He began to cough, and a bloody froth escaped from the corner of his mouth. "The others?"

Closing her eyes, Jubilee shook her head.

"You've gotta get out of here, Jube."

"Not without you, bud."

"No," he said, and another spasm of coughing wracked his body. "I'll slow you down. Besides, I'm not gonna make it anyway."

"Don't talk that way; 'course you are." She tried to smile as the tears spilled onto her cheeks.

"Don't . . . cry, Jubes," he said, his voice growing weaker, as he shakily reached for her. His fingers softly touched her cheek, and she placed her hand over his and closed her eyes. She rested her forehead on his. "I'll miss you. . ."

"Me, too. We had some rockin' times, Ev. You're the best bud I've ever had."

"You, too . . . now, go. Before he--" His voice stopped abruptly. A gasping sound escaped his lips, and then he was silent. His hand fell from her cheek.

"Oh, God, Ev. Don't leave me! Please don't leave me!"

"Yer not alone, kid."

Jubilee cried out at the familiar gruff voice. She turned to make sure it was really him. Seeing it was, she felt relief fill her. Everything would be all right now that he was here. He always made everything all right. He would protect her, keep her safe. And he would find whoever had done this to her friends, and make him pay.

"Oh, Wolvie!" she sobbed, running right into his arms and holding his waist tightly.

"Shh, kiddo. Everything's okay. Yer safe. I'm here."

As she managed to get herself under control, she slowly pulled away and wiped her cheeks with the back of her hands. "I've never been so glad to see anyone."

"Yeah, well, we've gotta get moving. We're sitting ducks. What's the fastest way out of this place?"

"This way. C'mon." She turned around with her back to him and began to lead the way. Then, suddenly, she heard the familiar *snikt* of his claws being protracted. She stopped suddenly and turned around, hoping against hope that this was not happening. "W-Wolvie. . . ?"

"Sorry, darlin'," he said, raising his claws over her head. "Sayonarah." She could see that his claws were covered with blood-- and she was sure it was more than his own. Too petrified and shocked to run away, she simply fell to her knees. She did not even attempt to use her powers. She could not believe that this man would do anything to harm her. This man, who she trusted with her life. This man, who had been like a father to her. This man, who was about to gut her like a fish.

As Wolverine lunged for Jubilee, he found that his claws instead struck some unforeseen object. The impact put him off-balance and he staggered backwards.

Jean, who had remained in the shadows, biding her time, realized that now was the moment to act. She hurried to Jubilee's side and knelt before her, wrapping her arms protectively around her. Jubilee began to cry again.

"Leave this child alone!" Jean said to Wolverine. Growling, he got to his feet and lunged toward them both. Jubilee winced, and she felt Jean's grip tighten more securely around her. Again, Wolverine met the unforeseen barrier. "Don't worry, Jubilee, I won't let him hurt you," Jean told her.

"W-why?" Jubilee asked. "Why d-did W-Wolvie d-do this?"

"It's not Wolverine," Jean said simply. She glanced at him intently, and suddenly he flew away from them and across the room, slamming against the far wall, several feet off of the floor. Snarling, he tried to break free. "Don't bother trying to struggle," Jean told him as she got to her feet. She walked closer, leading Jubilee, her arm still protectively wrapped around the girl's shoulder. "I've got you in a telekinetic choke-hold. Now, would you care to reveal who you really are and why you've slaughtered all of these innocent children?"

"Because I told him to," came a feminine voice from behind them.

Jean could feel Jubilee shudder in her arms. She tightened her hold and reinforced the shield that surrounded them as they turned to face their opponent.

"Tessa," Jean said. "I should have known."

"I see the need for my ruse is up," Tessa said, and gestured toward "Wolverine". The image dissipated, leaving Sabretooth in his stead.

Jean herself repressed a shudder at the sight of the cold-blooded killer. Tessa must have really played hard-ball, she realized. The psychic damage must be severe for Jubilee's mind to have created such a horrific scene. The appearance of Tessa herself could mean the end to all of this. This was a projection of the source of the damage. If Jubilee could face her, and defeat her here, in her own mind, then she would certainly recover from the psychic injury Tessa had incurred.

Jean could feel Jubilee shaking; the girl was terrified. On one side was Sabretooth, snarling and growling. On the other, Tessa, the woman who tortured her mind, revealing untold horrors Jubilee did not know could exist there. Tessa gestured, and the school transformed to the barren desert landscape of the Australian outback. About twenty feet away, she could see a giant wooden X, on which Wolverine was pinned. Pierce and several of his Reavers stood before him. Pierce was taunting him, and, suddenly, he drove a knife into Wolverine's side, drawing blood. Wolverine howled in pain. The same distance away in the opposite direction they could see Omega Red standing with the young Illyana in the grasp of his tendrils. She screamed as he began to absorb her life energy, and suddenly went limp in his grasp. Sebastian Shaw walked over to Tessa, carrying Everett over his shoulder. He dropped him to the ground, and Everett fell onto his back. He lay there, unmoving.

"No," Jubilee muttered, grabbing her head and closing her eyes. "No more. I can't take any more."

"You've got to fight her, Jubilee," Jean told her.

"N-no . . . I c-can't . . . I'm no telepath."

"I'll be here with you, sweetie. But this is something *you* have to do."

"I . . . I'm scared. What if she hurts me like she did before? This is nothing compared to what she showed me then."

"I won't let her hurt you. Be strong, sweetie. I know you can do this." Jean gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

"O-okay," Jubilee said, summoning up her courage. She set her shoulders resolutely. "This isn't real. None of this is real."

She looked toward Wolverine and the Reavers. "That isn't Wolvie. I saved him from the Reavers, and now they and Pierce are dead."

Logan and the Reavers vanished.

She looked at Omega Red and Illyana's still form. "Yana's dead. Let her rest in peace."

They went away as well.

She moved toward Shaw and looked down at Everett. It looked so much like him. She found her courage beginning to waver. "Oh, God, look what he did to Ev. He wouldn't stop hitting him. . . ."

"Don't give in to her, Jubilee," Jean said. "You can beat her."

Slowly, Jubilee nodded, and looked away from Everett and up at Shaw. "Bite me, creep!" she spat, and bombarded him with fireworks.

Both he and Everett slowly faded away.

Now all that was left was the source. Tessa backed away, looking nervous. She gestured in the distance, and suddenly the ground began to rumble. A large Sentinel began to appear over the horizon. It raised its hand, and a concussive beam flew toward them. Somehow, it managed to get through Jean's shield, and struck her. Crying out, she crumpled to the ground.

"No!" Jubilee screamed. She turned to face Tessa. "You've hurt everyone that's ever meant anything to me," she said, walking closer. "But this is all pretend. This is all just in my mind. It's not real. And neither are you!" Balling her right hand into a fist, she struck Tessa square in the jaw. Tessa fell backward and onto the ground. "Take a hike, bitch!" she screamed, letting lose with her plasma powers.

Tessa seemed to melt away. As she did, the landscape was transformed from the barren desert to the lush grounds of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters on a sunny summer afternoon. Jubilee sighed. Turning around, she saw Jean laying on the ground. She hurried to her side. "Jean. . . ?"

Jean's eyes opened, and she slowly sat up. She looked around and smiled. "You did it, Jubilee! I knew you could."

"I couldn't've done it without your help," Jubilee replied, holding out a hand to help Jean to her feet. "I saw the Sentinel blast you, and then I got so mad at Tessa. . . . She used me, played with my emotions, twisted my memories. And I wanted it to stop." She embraced Jean. "Thank you for your help."

"My pleasure, kiddo," Jean said, holding her close.

"Now what?" Jubilee asked her.

"Now, it's time to go home." Jean held out her hand. "You ready?"

Jubilee grinned. "Am I ever."

Together, they headed for the school.

****

Jean's eyes snapped open. She was back in her body in Jubilee's hospital room. Sean and Emma were looking at her. Jubilee still lay in bed, unmoving.

"What happened?" Sean asked.

"I- I think it was successful," Jean told him. "She managed to banish Tessa from her mind."

"Then the psychic damage is healed?" Emma asked.

"Yes. I see no reason why she shouldn't regain consciousness." Still holding Jubilee's hand, she gently stroked her cheek.

"I'll go get the doctor," Sean said. Before he left, he stopped and put a hand on Jean's shoulder. "Good job, lass."

Jean smiled and closed her eyes in weariness.

"You okay, Jeanie?"

"Just tired, Logan. I'll be fine."

"Congratulations, Jean. It appears you accomplished what you set out to do." Emma almost sounded disappointed. There was a hint of jealousy in her tone.

"I just want what we all do," Jean told her. "For Jubilee to wake up and be all ri--" She stopped abruptly.

"What is it?" Emma asked, walking closer. "Jean?"

Jean's face broke into an enormous grin. "Jubilee-- she just squeezed my hand. It wasn't very strong, but I felt it!"

At that moment, Sean returned with Dr. Knight.

"She just squeezed my hand," Jean told them happily.

The doctor proceeded to examine his patient. "She's out of the coma," he told them several minutes later. "She appears to be merely sleeping. I suspect she'll be awake by morning."

"Thank the saints!" Sean cried. Smiling, Emma took his hands in her own.

"I'll check back on her later," Dr. Knight said before leaving.

"Can I get ye anything, Jean?" Sean asked. "Ye must be exhausted."

"I am tired," Jean told him. "I think I'll go stretch my legs and give them a call back home," she said, getting to her feet.

"Good idea," Sean said. "I'll go give the kids a call, too."

"Logan, could you and Emma sit with her?" Jean asked. "I think it'd be best if she woke up to a familiar face."

"Of course," she replied, taking a seat.

"Go get some food, Jeanie," Logan said. "You look like you could a hot cup of java."

Sean held open the door and they walked into the hallway. She sighed with relief. These had been some extremely tense several days. She knew Jubilee was not completely out of the woods yet, but this was a major step in the right direction. Hopefully, Jubilee would be awake and speaking with them by the next day.

Chapter 8

The haziness and confusion in her mind had finally subsided. She was glad. All of those mixed-up memories, intertwined like pieces of string, were finally unknotted and separated. Now, as the fog lifted, Jubilation Lee found herself recalling a true memory, not one of the false ones implanted by that horrible woman. She found herself remembering a morning months ago, back when she still lived in New York with the X-Men, back before Generation X, back when Wolverine had left the team to lick his wounds after Magneto had removed the adamantium from his body. It had been a confusing time for her. She had felt lonely, abandoned, unloved. And she refused to talk about it. Needless to say, at least one person cared enough to made sure that those feelings did not stay buried inside, festering and eating at her. And in the process, a new understanding was come to, a new bond formed. . . .

****

". . . l . . . lo . . . love . . . you . . . wolv . . . ster. . . ." The words came out of her lips as the faintest whisper.

To Wolverine, however, whose senses were superhumanly sensitive, they were loud and clear and music to his ears. He turned from the window, out of which he had been looking, and walked over to her bedside. "Jubilee? Kiddo, can you hear me?"

" . . . nnn. . . ." Her eyes slowly fluttered and she opened them partway. She stared at him, trying to get her vision to focus. ". . . didn' . . . know . . . you had . . . a twin . . . ." she quipped. With some effort, she was able to make the two Logans she saw merge into one, and she managed to recognize the huge grin on his face as he looked down at her. ". . . musta tak'n . . . big'r . . . spill . . . 'n I . . . thought. . . ."

"Wasn't no bladin' accident, darlin'. But don't you worry. Everythin's gonna be fine."

"What . . . 'r . . . you . . . doin' back. . .?" she asked, her words slurring.

"Back? What do you mean, darlin'?"

"You . . . booked . . . af'r Mags . . . 'rt you. . . . Didn' think . . . I'd be . . . seein' you . . . f'r while."

He looked at her, confused. "Jubilee, I've been back for months. You know that--"

At that moment, Emma burst into the room. "I sensed that she had awakened. I sent Sean to wake Jean. Jubilee, how are you feeling?" she asked, walking over to the bed.

Jubilee stared at her, eyes wide in surprise and fear. "Wolvie! It's . . . the Whi' Queen! . . . Watch out!"

"Emma, she's confused. She thinks I'm still supposed to be gone from the team, that she's still with the X-Men."

Emma walked over to Logan's side and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I believe amnesia is not uncommon following head injuries. . . ." She gently patted Jubilee's hand. "Don't worry, dear. Everything will be fine."

Jubilee managed to pull her hand away. "Get 'way . . . fr'm me . . . you min'-witch! . . . Wolvie, don' let'er . . . 'rt me!" When she saw that Wolverine was doing nothing to restrain the White Queen, Jubilee was filled with apprehension. ". . . She mus' . . . have you . . . unner min'-control. . . . Where're . . . other . . . tel'paths? . . . Where's the prof? . . . Where's Jean?"

"I'm right here, sweetie," Jean said, entering the room with Sean. She hurried to the bed and put a reassuring hand on Jubilee's arm. "You're safe, Jubilee. I won't let anyone hurt you."

"But the Whi' Queen--!" Jubilee was becoming highly agitated and feeling extremely helpless. She was beginning to have difficulty catching her breath.

"Emma, I think it would be best if you left the room," Jean told her.

"But I don't see why--"

"Emma, the lass is upset," Sean said. "C'mon," he said, taking her by the shoulders and leading her away from the bed. "We'll be outside."

"Jus' get'er . . . 'way . . . fr'm m--" Jubilee had been trying to sit up and pull away from Emma, but was having a great deal of difficulty, no doubt from her injuries and general weakness. Now, though, Jean sensed outright panic from her mind.

"Jubilee?"

Jubilee looked up at her, face ashen. She opened her mouth to speak, but found that she could not. Tears welled in her eyes. "I- I can' . . . I can'. . . ." She fought to make the words come out. "M' legs. . . . I can' . . . move m' legs. . . ."

Jean heard Logan utter a curse under his breath. She took Jubilee firmly by the shoulders. "Are you sure, sweetie? They're not just stiff?"

Jubilee looked down at her legs, concentrating. "No . . . I can' . . . e'en feel 'em." She looked up at Jean, tears spilling from her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. "Why can' . . . I move . . . m' legs? . . . 'M I . . . gonna be . . . crippl'?"

"Shh," Jean said, sitting down on the bed beside her and gently lifting Jubilee's upper body in order to take her into her arms. "Relax, sweetie," Jean said softly, using her powers to help calm Jubilee's mind. "Everything's going to be all right. You just need to calm down, okay? Relax," she whispered, gently rocking Jubilee in her arms and rubbing her back. She looked up at Logan and they exchanged a worried look. <<Logan, can you go get Dr. Knight, please? I think we need to speak to him.>>

He nodded. "I'll be back soon, darlin'. Jeanie here'll stay with you." He walked out of the room.

Jean helped Jubilee to lay back. "Shh," Jean whispered, wiping the tears away. "I know you're frightened, sweetie. But I want you to stay calm. I'm here with you. Logan went to get the doctor. We're going to do everything we can to help you. I promise." She continued issuing soothing words and gently stroking Jubilee's forehead as she projected calming thoughts into her mind. Several minutes later, Jubilee, utterly exhausted, had drifted off to sleep. Jean quietly left the room and walked into the hallway.

On her way to the nurse's station, she found Emma and Sean. He looked at her pale face and knew immediately that there was something terribly wrong. "Jean, lass. . . ?"

"I felt the panic emanating from her mind," Emma said. "What's happened?"

Jean looked at them, tears in her eyes. "Jubilee, she . . . she can't feel her legs. She's paralyzed."

"No!" Sean cried. "Ye're sure?"

Jean nodded. "I managed to calm her enough to get to sleep, but she's really frightened."

"Did you scan her mind completely?" Emma asked. "To see if this isn't some residual effect of Tessa's tampering? No, I doubt it. I'll go do it myself. . . ." Emma began to walk back toward the room.

Jean grabbed her arm. "No, Emma. She's obviously a little confused right now. Your presence only seemed to upset her. I think it best if you don't see her for a while, at least until her memory unfogs."

"She is *my* student, Jean. Not yours." Emma raised an accusing finger and pointed it at Jean. "I gave in to your selfish desires once already, but that was it. From now on, this is *my* game and we play by *my* rules."

"Emma, stop it," Sean said, touching her arm.

Emma immediately shrugged him off. "This is not the X-Men, Jean. Xavier and Scott aren't here to make sure you get your way. If there are to be any more visits to Jubilee's mindscape or any other sort of therapy to be conducted to restore her memory, it will be conducted by *me*. She is *my* student and this is *my* school."

It was not often that Jean lost her temper, but she was exhausted and emotionally drained and she had a great deal on her mind. Needless to say, she was not in the mood for Emma's jealous outburst. When Jean's fuse was lit, most people knew enough to get the hell out of her way before she blew. Emma Frost, however, found herself standing directly in the line of fire.

"In case you've forgotten, Emma," she began in a perfectly calm tone-- one that Sean realized must be taking a great deal of restraint to maintain-- "it was because of you that Everett and Jubilee were kidnapped and tortured in the first place. I'm not saying that you had a direct role in their attack, but the fact remains that Shaw chose them precisely because they were *your* students. And while we did not necessarily expect you to be here to protect them, you weren't here when they needed you-- when Jubilee was lying in a coma, teetering on death's door. When Everett was blaming himself. When all of the other students were scared and confused because reality gave them a cold slap in the face. You were not the one who sat with her, holding her hand, talking to her, telling her that everything was going to be all right, guiding her home. If I hadn't gone into her mind, she never would have woken up. It was because she trusted me that she was able to beat Tessa.

"Deep down, she still harbors some fear and mistrust toward you. We couldn't risk your presence doing any more damage to her already shattered psyche. I'm sorry if this doesn't follow with your obsessive need to be in perfect control of everything and everyone, but I think we can all agree that we have Jubilee's best interest at heart.

"Frankly, I don't give a damn about your selfish concerns right now," Jean said. "The fact that she cannot remember that she is a member of Generation X and that she subsequently has no recollection that you and Sean are her teachers is beyond my control. I can understand that this fact bothers you, but I would think you would be a big enough person to respect Jubilee's feelings of animosity toward you, and keep your distance until the rest of us can work with her to restore her memories. After all, you do want *your* student to recover completely, don't you?"

Emma's eyes were wide and her mouth opened in surprise. "How-- dare-- you!" She drew out each word venomously. "Just because you're Xavier's little pet, you think you can come here and dictate terms to me about how and when to see my students? I can have hospital security prevent you from even seeing her--"

"But ye won't do that, will ye, Emma?" Sean's words were more of a statement than a question.

Emma looked at him as though she were about to attack him next and gouge out his eyes with her fingernails.

"Jean is here because she truly cares for Jubilee. An' the girl feels comforted by her presence. We cannae deny Jubilee that."

"Sean, she comes waltzing in here, looking down her nose at us, expecting us to yield to her demands and grant her every wish."

"She has done no such thing, Emma, and ye know it. Jean rushed here the moment she heard Jubilee was ill. She has stayed at her bedside practically every moment, not even leavin' the hospital. She's not doin' this to show you one up, Emma. She couldnae give a damn what you think. She's doin' it because she loves Jubilee. Plain and simple as that. Ye're the one actin' like a spoiled brat used t' always gettin' her way. If ye ask me, Jean has already proven her true intentions through her actions: she honestly cares about Jubilee. For you, it is a matter of maintainin' control. Don't make me choose between the two of ye on this Emma, because I tell ye right now, ye'll lose."

She looked at him now, obviously taken off-guard by his words. Looking into her eyes, Sean saw at first what looked like pain quickly replaced by seething anger. But then Emma bit her lip and closed her eyes a moment, evidently collecting herself. When she opened them again, she was once more in control of her emotions, at least outwardly. Ignoring Sean, she turned to Jean. "All right. You win. For now. I'll go. After all, someone has to attend to the needs of the other children. Not all of us play favorites to Xavier's former students." Her jeering glance at Sean made it perfectly obvious that this comment was directed toward him. Then she looked back at Jean. "But, believe me, this is far from over." That said, she raised her chin high and strode confidently down the corridor toward the elevator.

Once she had left, Jean let out an audible sigh.

"I know how ye feel, Jean," Sean said. "Emma tends t' have that effect on a lot of people at times, meself included. Nails on chalkboard kind of feelin'."

"The last thing I need to deal with right now is Emma's petty jealousy. I-- we-- have got more important things to worry about." Jean raked her fingers through her hair, pushing it out of her face. "Where on earth is Logan?"

"I'll go check on him."

"Thanks, Sean." She looked at him gratefully.

He smiled before heading toward the nurse's station.

Wrapping her arms around herself, Jean stood for a moment and closed her eyes, trying to collect her thoughts. There was so much happening all at once, and her head was reeling. These past few days were more than she cared to deal with alone. She had been handling it reasonably well up until a short while ago, she knew, but now, with Jubilee's condition, and her confrontation with Emma, she could see that the situation was about to skyrocket out of control. What she really needed was someone to talk to, someone who could offer advice, and maybe even take control and let her relax her defenses, at least for a little while.

"Jean?" She felt the presence in her mind a moment before she heard her name spoken aloud. She turned around and found herself staring into her husband's face. A smile immediately brightened her countenance and she stepped into his arms.

"Oh, Scott," she sighed, burying her face in his shoulder. "Lord, I've missed you."

"I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner. We got delayed in San Francisco, and we only just got back a little bit ago."

"As long as you're here now, that's all that matters," she whispered, still holding him.

Scott realized that Jean must be spent-- both emotionally and physically-- to be clinging to him like this. "How is Jubilee?"

"She woke up from the coma about a half hour ago," Jean told him. "She doesn't remember the past couple of years. And she . . . she. . . ." Her voice became choked with sobs. "Oh, Scott, she can't move her legs!" Weeping, she clung to him tightly. He held her close, gently stroking her head. He slowly guided her to a nearby chair, and they sat down. He took her hands in his own. Getting his first good look at her face and the dark circles under her eyes, he immediately began to worry. "Tell me."

She replayed all that had happened since she had arrived through their psychic rapport, including her confrontation with Emma Frost. In those moments, he shared all of the worry and sadness she had felt over Jubilee's condition, he understood the love and joy she experienced upon the girl's awakening, the fright and panic that filled her when Jubilee said she was paralyzed, and he became aware of the complete and utter weariness that still filled his wife, body and mind.

"She's going to be all right," he told her. "She's awake, and that's what important right now. We'll see her through this."

"Well, what have we here? More visitors from the Big Apple, I see," Sean said as he and Logan came walking down the hallway. "Good t' see ye, Scotty."

"You, too, Sean," he replied, getting up to take Sean's outstretched hand and shaking it. "Although the circumstances could be better. Logan," he said, nodding in his direction.

"Cyke."

"Any word from Dr. Knight?" Jean asked them.

"He wasn't on duty," Logan replied. "Nurse paged him. He should be here within the hour. Sean told me bout yer tussle with Emma. Sounds like you handled her just fine. How's the kid?"

"Sleeping. I think the shock of the whole situation took what little strength she had. She should be out for a while."

Scott looked at his watch, which read just after nine p.m., and then up at the three weary faces. "You guys look like you could all use a pick-me-up. It seems we're going to have a bit of a wait anyway, so what say we all go down to the cafeteria and get some coffee, on me. We can have the nurse page us when the doctor arrives, or if Jubilee wakes up."

"Sounds good t' me," Sean said.

Logan nodded.

"I'm all for it," Jean replied.

Scott put an arm around her shoulder and they all walked toward the elevator.

End Note: For more on the scene mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, read my first story, Blading.

Chapter 9

An hour-and-a-half later, the four of them sat in the lounge, eyes fixed on Dr. Knight. He had arrived and examined Jubilee, and was now giving them his prognosis while a nurse sat with her.

"Let me start by saying that her awakening is a great leap forward in her recovery. I am very pleased about that," he told them. "There appears to be no major damage to her mental faculties. A you know, she is, however, experiencing some short-term memory loss-- for what appears to be the past couple of years. This is not uncommon with concussion victims."

"Is that going t' be permanent?" Sean asked.

"In most cases, it is not. It should return with time. She is going to need counseling to deal with the trauma she's been through-- both the attack, and dealing with the injuries she's sustained. This should also help her to regain her memories. That, and being around familiar surroundings should do the trick. Just give it time, and don't push her."

"What about her legs?" Jean asked. She felt Scott's grip on her hand tighten.

"I've done a thorough examination, and while she is unable to move her legs completely, she does have sensation in her toes and feet. Again, this is not unheard of in such cases. There appears to be no permanent nerve damage. She will, however, have to relearn how to control her motor functions-- particularly the fine control-- and hopefully bring them back to normal or near-normal levels. And she will, of course, require a great deal of physical therapy. Which brings me to another matter."

All eyes were once again on him. He cleared his throat, obviously a little uncomfortable with what he had to say. "I have been contacted by a member of social services. It seems that since Jubilation is an orphan, they have taken a special interest in her case, and have asked me to keep them apprised of her condition. Now, due to recent developments, I am placed in a very awkward position. While I expect a full recovery, the fact remains that Jubilation is quite ill. She will require a lengthy convalescence, both in and especially out of the hospital. She will need months of therapy, both to help her to regain full use of her legs, and in order for her memory to return and for her to deal with the trauma she has faced. All of this will require a great deal of care, and countless hours of patient attention." He stopped to clear his throat again.

Sean did not like the way this was headed. "Just what are ye sayin', Doctor?"

"What I'm saying, Mr. Cassidy, is that right now, Jubilation is not fit to attend a private boarding school. She needs to be somewhere where she can receive around-the-clock attention. Attention that I'm afraid she will not be able to receive from you or her other instructor."

"Of course she will. We give each an' every one of our students the care they need. We will make the time t' ensure that Jubilee gets the necessary--"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Cassidy, but with over half-a-dozen other students, Jubilation will not receive the care she requires in order to make a complete recovery. There are special long-term care facilities for people with similar injuries, where she can be attended to."

"She's not goin' to a blasted group home! We're her family!" Sean's face was turning crimson. Jean reached up to place a reassuring hand on his arm.

"You would be able to visit her, of course. Perhaps even a foster family might--"

"No one would take her," Scott said plainly. There was bitter sadness in his voice. "Not if she's been injured." He had grown up in an orphanage, and was passed over time and again for adoption because of the brain injuries he had received. He knew that no couple would want to shoulder the responsibility of a "damaged" child, especially one as old as Jubilee.

"You don't understand, bub," Logan said, his voice low and guttural, his dark eyes seemingly looking right through Dr. Knight. "The kid lost her parents a couple of years ago. She don't have no blood relatives. We're all she's got. You can't expect us to hand her over to some strangers or into some kind of orphanage. We're the only family she's got."

"I'm sorry, really I am. I know how much you all care about her. But I think this is in the best interest of the child. I will call social services tomorrow morning to give them my recommendation. In the meantime, I suggest you all go home and get some rest. This has been a very draining day, not just for for Jubilee, but for you as well. She'll be moved to a regular room in pediatrics tomorrow. Regular visiting hours start at ten a.m. I will be in tomorrow to check on her. Good-night." He hastily retreated from the lounge.

"I don't believe this shit!" Logan growled. "I'd like to give that doctor a piece of my mind," he said, protracting his claws.

"I can't believe he wants them t' take Jubilee away, lock her up somewhere, away from us, away from her friends," Sean said. "She was finally thrivin'-- able t' trust, able t' love. An' he wants t' take it all away! What right does he have t' judge what's in her best interest!"

"Because he's a well-respected doctor, that's why," Scott said. "They don't care that we know her best, that attending the school was the best thing that ever happened to her. They just see two teachers, ten students, and think that there's no way she can receive the necessary attention."

"Then I'll leave the teachin' t' Emma, an' I'll take care of her," Sean said.

"Don't be ridiculous, Sean," Scott said. "You've made a commitment to your students-- all of them. It wouldn't be fair to them if you abandoned them. What kind of message would that send?"

"It's better'n them seein' us just givin' up an' lettin' her go. If she goes into one of those homes, she's just gonna slip through the cracks. She'll be miserable. Plus the fact, she'll probably have no desire to do her therapy."

"To say nothing of the fact that she won't be trained in the use of her mutant powers," Scott added.

"Screw the trainin', Cyke; she won't get the love she so desperately needs," Logan said.

"Believe me, Logan, I know that. Better than any of you."

Jean reached up to Scott and took his hand.

"You've been awfully quiet during all of this, Jeanie," Logan said. "An' somethin' tells me there's gotta be a reason."

Jean nodded. "There's something strange going on here. I don't know if any of you noticed it, but the doctor was quite on edge."

"Yeah," Logan agreed. "I could smell the fear on em."

"I did a psi-scan," Jean said. "He was definitely afraid. I noticed his fear was strongest when he mentioned the person from social services."

"Do you think the person threatened him?" Scott asked. "He seemed awfully uncomfortable with this entire situation-- almost as if his hand were being forced to recommend Jubilee be taken from Sean's custody."

"Are ye suggestin' blackmail?" Sean asked incredulously. "Why would anyone want t' force Jubilee into an orphanage?"

"I can think of a good one-- the same reason they'd want to hurt her and Everett in the first place," Logan said. "To get back at Emma."

"You can't be serious," Scott said. "Do you mean to suggest that Shaw is behind this?"

"I wouldn't put it past him," Jean stated. "He was once a powerful businessman. I'm sure he still has connections. Why not take his revenge one step further? Already, Everett's leaving. Now, by getting rid of Jubilee, another one of her students would be removed. He's slowly whittling down the school."

"An' t' hell with the child's life he's ruinin'. . . ." Sean muttered. "I swear, if I ever get me hands on that sonuva--"

"There's got to be something we can do to stop this," Logan said.

"Maybe Emma knows of some people," Sean suggested. "If Shaw's got connections, she could, too. I just wish there were a better way. . . ."

"Listen, we're not getting very far now," Scott said. "It's late. We're all tired. Jean here is dead on her feet, and can barely keep her eyes open. Why don't we all get some sleep, and tomorrow morning, we'll talk it over and see what else we can come up with?"

"Aye, Scott. Always the voice of reason, eh? Come back t' the school. We've got a guest cottage f'r ye and Jean, an' another f'r Logan."

Chapter 10

Having seen his guests to their cottages, Sean returned to his own. He was quite surprised to find Everett waiting for him inside.

"Ev? Lad, what are ye doin'--"

"Is it true?" Everett asked,walking right in front of Sean, nearly standing in his face.

"Is what true?"

"That she doesn't remember what happened? That she doesn't even remember Generation X?"

Sean sighed. "Aye, lad, I'm afraid so." He placed a gentle hand on Everett's shoulder, preparing to lead him into the living room. "Let's go sit--"

"I don't want to sit down," Everett said, his voice rising. He stepped out of Sean's grasp. "So she doesn't know who any of us are?" Despite the anger in his voice, Sean could see past it, at the hurt and pain in his eyes.

"No, lad, I'm sorry t' say that she doesnae recall the past couple of years. She still thinks she's a member of the X-Men. In fact, she was quite afraid of Emma-- still believed her t' be an enemy."

"Is it permanent?"

"The doctor seems to think that her memory will return eventually."

"He thinks? Doesn't he know?"

"He feels it likely that, with time, the memories will come back t' her."

"Did he have anything positive to say about her being crippled?"

"Who told ye that?!" Sean shouted, his anger flaring, as he grabbed Everett's uninjured arm.

"Ms. Frost said she was paralyzed," he replied, trying to pull away.

"She did, did she?" Sean was fuming. Emma accused him of neglecting the students, and then she gave them misinformation, leaving them to worry unnecessarily. "Well, Jubilee's not paralyzed," Sean replied, letting him go. "She's already got feeling back in her legs."

Everett looked at least somewhat relieved.

"What else has Emma been telling ye?"

"Why, what else is there we should know?"

"Nothin'." But Sean hesitated for the briefest moment. That moment was enough.

"You're lying." Everett glared at him. "I'm tired of being coddled. Damn it, Mr. Cassidy-- my best friend is lying in a hospital bed, and she can't even remember me! I want to help her-- more than anything, I want to make it all right-- but if she saw me, I would be a stranger."

*Damn it, Cassidy. Ye've been so wrapped up in Jubilee's condition, ye've been neglectin' Everett, an' all that he's goin' through. Scott was right: Ye can't put her before all the others. Ye made a commitment t' yer students-- all of them.*

"Yer right, Ev, we haven't been totally up front with ye, an' we were wrong. We were tryin' t' protect ye from bein' hurt, an' in the process, we only caused ye more pain. F'r that, I'm truly sorry. Now, come on in t' the other room, an' I'll explain everythin'. I, f'r one, need t' rest me weary bones."

*If Emma gets wind of this-- which she most likely will-- she's gonna kill me f'r tellin' him before I tell her. . . .*

Everett silently followed Sean into the living room, and sat down in a chair across from the couch.

"Now, ye've just got t' promise not t' say anythin' t' the other kids. At least, not until I can speak t' Emma."

"All right. Please, Mr. Cassidy, just tell me. . . ."

Sean sighed. He stared at his hands, which were clasped between his knees. "Dr. Knight told us tonight that social services wants t' put Jubilee inna home f'r orphans who require special attention. They don't think she can get proper care here at the school."

Everett's eyes widened. "That's ridiculous! Of course she can get good care. We're the ones who care about her-- we're her friends. Her family."

"I know, son. I couldnae agree with ye more. Unfortunately, the government doesnae see it that way."

"Well, then, we'll have to make them see. How do they expect her to get her memory back if she's not even in familiar surroundings? She needs to be here if she's going to get better."

"If worse comes t' worse, I only hope that her memory will return before she has t' leave."

"You sound like you're going to just let her go."

"If it comes t' it, I don't have much choice. Jean, Scott, Logan an' I are workin' on it. But I'm afraid that, ultimately, we're not goin' t' be able t' stop them."

"We can fight them! We can tell them-- prove to them-- that she belongs here, at the school."

"I wish we could. But I think we've got a lot goin' against us. An' we think the doctor's hand is being forced."

"Forced? By who--?" Everett stopped suddenly. As the answer suddenly dawned on him-- it was perfectly obvious, once he thought about it-- his expression hardened. "Shaw," he muttered contemptuously, clenching his hand into a fist. "It's not bad enough that he nearly killed her. Now he's got to take her away?"

"I know how ye feel, lad. But I promise ye, we'll do everythin' in our power t' keep her here."

"Damn my parents for making me leave now. Jubilee needs me here, to help her remember. . . ."

"I know, lad, I know. But you should be grateful that you have parents who love you an' want t' care for you."

Gravely, Everett nodded. "I don't want to go. I feel like I'm abandoning her. It's bad enough I couldn't protect her from Tessa--"

"Ev, that wasnae yer fault. You two were outmatched."

"I should have fought harder. There had to be something I could have done."

"Ev, I know how dreadful 'tis t' be in a position where you're helpless t' aid a friend. 'Tis a horrible feelin'. But you cannae blame yourself."

"I know," Everett whispered, looking down at his lap. "But it doesn't make it hurt any less. And now, my having to leave the school. . . ." He shook his head. "I don't want to leave her. I care about her. A lot. She needs me, now more than ever. She needs me. . . ."

Sean looked at him sympathetically, and placed a hand on his knee. He was beginning to see that when Everett spoke of Jubilee, he spoke of more than friendship. His feelings went deeper than any of them had realized. "Well, maybe things will work out all right, and you'll both be back here next semester." He smiled, trying to look hopeful.

Everett looked less than convinced. "Yeah. Right. Sure. Maybe." *If hell freezes over,* he finished silently.

"C'mon, lad. I'll walk ye back t' the dormitory," Sean said, getting to his feet. *An' then I'll go see Emma an' give her a piece of me mind. . . .*

****

Sean plodded determinedly toward Emma's cottage. Before he could even raise his hand to rap loudly on the door, he heard her voice in his head.

<<Come on in, Sean. The door's unlocked.>>

He opened the door and stepped inside. It was completely dark in the entrance way. He could see a faint glow coming from a room at the end of a narrow corridor.

<<I'm in the bedroom.>>

Annoyance adding to his anger, he walked into her bedroom. The light came from a small fire that crackled in the fireplace. Emma lay on her side on the bed, a glass of brandy cradled in one hand. She was dressed in her typical fashion-- scantily and seductively-- in a low-cut silk nightgown which hugged her figure tightly, revealing every sensuous curve. One long leg peeked out from the slit that extended nearly to her hip. Sean was too upset to make his typical comment about the impropriety of her clothing. In fact, he hardly noticed it at all, and did not give it a second thought.

"How dare ye, Emma!"

"What, you don't like it?" she asked, indicating her outfit. "I thought you would appreciate--"

He ignored her sorry attempt at flirtation. "How dare ye go behind me back an' tell the kids that Jubilee was paralyzed!"

"I hardly went behind your back, Sean. You were at the hospital, and I was here at the school. The children asked me about her condition, and I told them. It's as simple as that."

"But it ain't even the truth! She's got feelin' back, an' she'll be walkin' soon enough!"

"Sean, when I left, she could not feel her legs. She could not walk. And you neglected to inform me that she had improved--"

"Don't ye dare try t' pin this on me, Emma!" he spat, raising an accusing finger. "Ye could have been a little more sensitive t' their feelin's. Why, Everett was blamin' himself f'r her injuries, wishing that he didnae have t' withdraw. . . ."

"And don't *you* dare take that holier than thou attitude with me, Sean Cassidy! If anyone has a right to be upset, it's me! How dare you second-guess me in front of Jean like that! I thought we were supposed to be partners in this."

"We are, Emma. But *I* am Jubilee's legal guardian, an' tis me responsibility t' see t' what's best f'r her. I made me decision with her personal welfare in mind. I'm sorry if me words were harsh, Emma, but it seemed the only way t' make ye listen."

Emma sighed, realizing that this was the closest he would ever come to an apology. "I spoke to Everett's parents this evening," she said, indicating that the subject was closed.

"Any changin' their minds?"

Sadly, she shook her head. "They'll be here at the end of the week to take him home."

"Damn it!" He ran his fingers through his hair. "We're losin' them. One by one, we're losin' them."

"Well, at least Jubilee is still with us."

He looked at her sheepishly. "Not f'r long, if social services gets their way."

"What do you mean?" she asked, quickly sitting up.

He walked over to the bed. "Emma, there's something I need t' tell ye." She gestured to the bed, and he sat down beside her. He could smell the liquor on her breath, mingling with the sweet scent of her perfume. "Lord, Emma, how many o' those have ye had?"

"Something tells me not enough," she replied, taking another large sip from the glass. "Tell me, Sean."

Slowly, he related to her what the doctor had told them that evening, and their suspicion that Shaw was behind it.

"I don't believe this!" she seethed, getting to her feet. "He tried to kill me. He blew up my home and murdered my workers. He kidnapped and tortured my students. Innocent children! Everett's already leaving because of his interference. And now he wants to have her sent away? She's been punished enough. How could he take her away? How?!" Channeling all of her frustration into one quick movement, she threw the glass across the room. It crashed into the fireplace, and the flames flared up as the alcohol caught afire. She looked at Sean, and he saw that same fury lighting her eyes. "I know why he's doing it. He knows that my students are important to me, that I feel responsible for their welfare. He thinks that by getting rid of them, he's taking away a piece of me. And he's right," she whispered, turning from him. She paused a moment. When she spoke again, her low voice revealed no emotion. "It's just like with the Hellions. I couldn't save them. And now I'm going to lose Everett and Jubilee."

"This isnae like the Hellions. Jubilee an' Everett are alive. They may have t' leave the school, but they're alive an' well."

"But it's still my fault."

He shook his head. "No, it's not. 'Tis nae yer fault that they were hurt. Ye're nae t' blame f'r their leavin'. Just like it wasnae yer fault about the Hellions. Ye've got t' let that go."

"I can't," she whispered, voice tinged with regret. "I'll always have their blood on my hands. 'Till the day I die."

"Oh, Em." He reached for her, but stopped, his fingers inches from her back. Remembering how she had rejected his comfort earlier at the hospital, he silently returned his arm to his side. Still, he could not let this go. Though she did not outwardly express it, he knew she must be hurting inside. "Ye mustnae blame yerself, Emma. 'Tis water under the bridge now. Beatin' yerself up about it will nae bring them back. Ye've got t' let it go."

She did not reply, but merely wrapped her arms around herself.

"We've got to concentrate our attention on these kids. Aye, we must try t' stop them from takin' Jubilee. But we've also got t' make sure the others are all right as well. I realized tonight, when I was talkin' t' Ev, that I'm neglectin' the others. They've got t' be hurt an' confused by all o' this. I've got t' speak t' them, t' help see them through this. An' I need yer help, Em. Can I count on ye? Can ye help me be strong f'r them?" he asked, gently touching her shoulder.

She turned to face him and silently nodded her head.

"Good. That's a lass." He regarded her silently, smiling to show his encouragement.

Emma stared back, gazing into his eyes. How did he do it? How did he manage to always be so considerate? Why did he now show her such compassion, when a moment earlier she had exploded at him in anger? It was his love and devotion for the kids that fueled him, she knew. But that in no way obligated him to offer her a few kind words. And yet, they did not have a patronizing undertone, but were instead uttered with complete sincerity. Sean Cassidy was a truly amazing man. One she was glad she had the opportunity to know.

She reached up to touch his cheek. She drew her face toward his, and gently brushed his lips with her own.

He said nothing, but simply looked down at her and took her hand in his own, giving it a gentle squeeze. That small gesture sent a delicious shiver up her spine.

"It's late," she said, walking away. "I'm sure you must be tired."

For a moment, he said nothing, and simply looked at her. But then Sean seemed to return to reality. "Aye, ye're right, 'tis late. I'll be leavin' now." He began to walk to the door.

"Sean," she called after him.

"Aye?" He looked back.

"Thank you."

He smiled. "I'll see ye tomorrow mornin', at breakfast, t' discuss our options."

She returned the smile. "See you then."

Chapter 11

Jean leaned heavily on Scott as they made their way into the bedroom of the guest cottage. He led her straight to the bed, where she promptly sat down and laid back.

"Why don't you get undressed and I'll draw you a bath?" Scott suggested. "While you soak, I'll scrounge up something to eat."

"That sounds wonderful," she replied. "A nice, hot bath is just what I need." After laying there a few minutes, she slowly forced herself to sit up. She suddenly realized how tired she was. Her body ached, and her head throbbed. While he busied himself in the bathroom, Jean slowly slipped out of her clothes. She twisted her hair up, tucking the end into the bun. Then she walked into the bathroom.

"All ready," Scott said, helping her into the tub. It was then that he saw the stitched wound on her calf. "What happened to your leg?"

"Hm? Oh, that. It's nothing. A little scratch from our scuffle with the Sentinels. Hank sewed me up, gave me some antibiotics. I'm fine."

"You're sure?"

"Positive," she said, reaching up to touch his face. "But thanks for asking."

"I worry about you, you know that. Now, just relax. I'll come check on you in a little while."

"Thanks, sweetheart."

"My pleasure." He bent down to kiss her forehead before leaving, shutting the door behind him.

Leaning back against the back of the tub, Jean let out a slow sigh. The warm water felt marvelous on her skin. Already, she felt her tight muscles begin to loosen and relax. She closed her eyes, willing her mind to do the same. If only it were not filled with so much.

She was so relieved that Jubilee had awoke from the coma, but it had been an unending roller coaster ride since then-- actually, since she had arrived. Her first visit to the girl's mind, the second surgery, her confrontation with Emma, the battle to have Jubilee's mind repaired. Then, learning she had amnesia and temporary paralysis. And now, the idea that after coming this far, they might lose her to an orphanage. The thought was almost more than she could bear. Hot tears stung her eyes.

She had grown so close to this girl. True, it was tragedy that seemed to bring them closer together. The first time was following Illyana's death. Then there was that day Jubilee went blading, when Jean helped her deal with her feelings toward Logan's leaving. She had managed to get through to the girl both times, to help her on the road to healing. And it felt good to be able to help her that way-- to see her through her problems, to offer a shoulder to lean on, or an ear to listen. And Jubilee seemed to take her advice to heart. Jean knew that she had done a world of good for the girl. And she would do it again, without hesitation.

There was a part of her that wanted-- needed-- to reach out and embrace, to nurture. It were as though by doing so she felt more complete, more whole. It was not unlike how she felt when she had spent time with young Nate, teaching him how to control his powers, and how to love rather than to hate. And yet, it was different. Perhaps because Jubilee was a girl. There was a different, special bond between two women. And now, if Jubilee were taken away, that bond would be severed.

She suddenly shivered, feeling cold. She quickly got out of the tub, and dried herself with a towel. Wrapping it around herself, she walked back into the bedroom and sat down on the bed just as Scott returned, a tray in hand.

"Done already? There wasn't much in the fridge, I'm afraid. I found some--" He stopped and looked at her. "Jean, honey, what is it? What's wrong?" he asked, putting down the tray. She was trembling.

She did not reply, but simply looked at him. Shaking, she seemed on the verge of tears.

He silently sat down beside her.

"Hold me," she whispered. "Just hold me."

He wrapped her in his arms and pulled her close. She clung to him, closing her eyes, unable to prevent the tears from escaping. "I don't want to lose her, Scott."

"You won't," he replied, gently stroking her back. "I swear to you, Jean, we'll do everything in our power to stop them from taking her. I promise."

She looked up at him and smiled through her tears. "I know," she said softly, reaching up to stroke his cheek. She moved closer, and kissed him. She reached for him, encircling his neck with her arms, and pressed herself against him. She clung to him strongly, her kisses fervent, almost frantic. She felt a need to be with him, a desperate desire to be loved. And, that night, for the first time in what felt like a very long time, she did not feel alone.

****

Scott lay in bed, Jean nestled in his arms, thinking. She lay with her face on his chest, eyes closed. He simply watched her sleeping, and smiled contentedly, the sight filling his heart with peace. It had been a while since they had been together, and he wanted to keep her in arm's reach for a while. Her desire to be with him that night had been strong-- almost overpowering through their rapport. He found himself a little surprised at the intensity of her thoughts and then, later, her actions. He had missed being with her as well, but he never expected such an ardent welcome. He chalked it all up to the emotional drain these past several days had been, and her need to find release.

It must have been a hell of a week. She had looked utterly exhausted when he found her in the hospital hallway earlier that night. Since the moment he saw her, all he had wanted to do was take her in his arms and protect her, to make all of the anguish and pain go away.

Had it been some sort of evil mutant they were facing-- Magneto or the Sentinels-- he would be able to do something, strike out at them. But now, he felt rather helpless. All he could do was sit back and let the doctors do what they had to do. Unfortunately, he did not agree with this latest decision, which had little to do with medicine, but rather with Jubilee's supposed "best interests". State home and best interest were anything but equivalent in his mind.

After he and his brother Alex had been apparently orphaned in a plane crash from which they parachuted, they had been sent to a state home. Alex was quickly adopted, but Scott was always passed up. He had received a concussion in the fall-- he later learned the only permanent damage was to the part of his brain that controlled his optic blasts-- and no one wanted a "damaged" child. So they had separated him from Alex, the only family he had left. He grew up in the orphanage, introverted, withdrawn, and feeling decidedly unloved. Then he met Professor Xavier, and joined the X-Men. For the first time, he felt like part of a family.

He knew that Jubilee felt much the same way. She had no one until she met Wolverine. And when Logan rejoined the rest of the X-Men, her family expanded. Even now, with Generation X, she had found new friends, other mutant kids to whom she could relate. If they took that away from her, she would be crushed. She would withdraw into herself. Hell, she might never regain the memories she lost. She might run away again. That is, provided she progressed enough with her physical therapy to be able to do so. That would be hard enough with those she cared about encouraging her; without that, what motivation would she have to recover? No, she could not go to an orphanage.

He had already called Professor Xavier, who said he would contact the proper agencies in the morning, see if he had any sort of pull. Xavier doubted it would do any good, but he would try nonetheless. Scott doubted it, too. It was not as though they could admit that Jubilee was a mutant, and that they were really members of the X-Men, able to teach her how to control her powers. That would just make a bad situation worse. But there had to be a solution-- a way to play by their rules, and yet still keep custody of Jubilee. He knew one thing, though: he would not let them put her in an orphanage. He was not prepared to sit idly by and watch them ruin the girl's chance of growing up in a loving environment.

He knew that Jean felt the same way. And yet, there was something more. There was another reason she was so concerned about the entire situation. He knew that his wife was a compassionate woman. Had any of the X-Men been harmed, she would most surely be there to lend her support. But this was somehow different. She had rushed to the hospital as soon as she heard Jubilee was hurt, and had scarcely left her side since her arrival. Surely, this was above and beyond the call of duty for a concerned teammate. He knew that the two had grown close-- they had developed some sort of relationship following the tragic death of Illyana-- but he did not realize until now how deep that bond was. There was something different about Jean when she was with Jubilee; it were as though something were added to her, making her seem more complete. It reminded him of how she was with Nate, during the time they spent raising him in the future. She had cared for that boy as though he were her own, giving him more love than any child could hope for. And now, he realized, she treated Jubilee the same way. Like a daughter.

Scott thought back to the times Jean had spent with Jubilee. He remembered the look in her eyes on one occasion as she told him about a day they had spent together shopping. She was incredibly happy-- happier than he had seen her in a long time. Lately, she had not been quite herself. There was a hidden sadness that he could sense through their rapport-- carefully guarded and masked, but not entirely hidden. And he had a good suspicion that he was the cause. He recalled the night of a particular discussion they had about the possibility of starting a family. He had told her he did not feel quite ready to take that next step, and she agreed, albeit reluctantly. That decision had no doubt been the cause of her subsequent melancholy.

Thinking about Jean and Jubilee, he realized that his wife had latched on to the girl because Jubilee was the closest thing she had to a child. Their relationship must be helping to fulfill some of those maternal yearnings she had told him about that night. And now, she was equating the prospect of losing Jubilee with the idea of losing a child. No wonder she was so upset.

"Scott?"

The sound of Jean's voice brought him out of his reverie. "I thought you were asleep."

"I can't sleep," she said, propping herself up on her elbow. "I've got too much on my mind."

"Me, too. I've been trying to find some way around this, but I haven't had any luck."

"I think I have an idea. It just suddenly came to me-- I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner-- and I've been going over it in my mind while I lay here."

"What is it?"

"I know this is going to sound a little outrageous, but hear me out, okay?"

"All right."

"Scott, what do you think about us taking her in?"

"Us? As in you and me?"

"Yes. We could apply to be her legal guardians. It's the perfect solution, Scott. She could stay with the X-Men, her family. We'd be able to help her with her therapy: three telepaths to council her and help her regain her memories. Hank, a doctor to supervise her physical therapy. And, at the same time, we would ensure that she was still learning how to control her powers. Eventually, when she's strong enough, we could choose to re-enroll her in the school."

Sitting up, he turned on the light. "You're talking like she's just coming back to live at the mansion again, Jean. But it's not that simple. In the beginning, she won't even be able to walk without assistance. She's going to need supervision every minute of the day. And that's to say nothing of her having to deal with the trauma of the torture she went through. You can't expect her to be passed around from one X-Man to another. If we were to become her guardians, we'd be shouldering the primary responsibility for her recuperation. You and me. Anything else the others would be willing to do would be additional. She'd have to come live with us at the lake house so that we could take care of her."

"I'm aware of all of this, Scott. But this is Jubilee we're talking about, not some stranger. She's an X-Man, and therefore part of our family. And the thought of her being sent to an orphanage or some kind of special care facility breaks my heart."

"I know, sweetheart," he said, taking her hand. "I've been through that, and I would never wish it on anybody."

"Then surely, Scott, you can understand better than anyone why I want to do this. I know how unhappy, how lonely, your childhood was. And I want to spare Jubilee that kind of pain. I want her to grow up happy and loved. We can give her that love, Scott."

Scott sighed, his head suddenly reeling. She had just given him a lot to think about. "How do we know Jubilee would even go for the idea?"

"Given the circumstances and the alternative, I don't think she would argue. I know you aren't as close to her as I am, Scott, and I know it would be a little awkward at first, but I'm sure we could make it work."

"When we discussed starting a family, this isn't exactly how I expected it to begin," he said with a sigh. He glanced over at Jean, and she returned his gaze, tears in her eyes.

"I know we decided to wait to start our own family, Scott. You said you weren't ready yet, and even though I wanted to try to have a baby, I respected your feelings. Now, I'm asking you to look at things from my perspective. I can't just sit back and let them take her away." She looked down at her hands, her bottom lip trembling. "I've been spending a lot of time with Jubilee these past few days, a lot of time thinking about her, and how I feel about her." She looked him in the face. "She's like a daughter to me. I love her, and I want to protect her, and help make her whole again. Please, Scott, help me do this."

He gently reached over and wiped the tears from her cheeks. This was important to her; therefore, it was important to him. Slowly, he nodded. "All right. If you really want to do this, I'm with you on this one."

"Thank you," she whispered, embracing him. "I knew you'd understand."

Chapter 12

The next morning, Jean sat down on the front stoop of the school. With a small sigh, she gazed out at the grounds. The leaves were beginning to change on the trees-- already there was a hint of reds and golds. In a few weeks, it would be a breathtaking sight.

It reminded her a great deal of the Xavier Institute, back in New York. She thought about the first autumn she had spent there-- her first few months after joining the X-Men. Those were some good times, back when she was learning not only how to control her powers, but also about life and love. They had had to grow up fast-- more quickly than the average teenagers. Much like these kids, the members of Generation X, were being forced to do. Sometimes it was hard to believe that there was already another generation of X-Men.

It still seemed like just yesterday she had first put on that yellow and blue uniform under the codename Marvel Girl. But she was a girl no longer, and the woman who was Phoenix had been through much in her young life. She had died, come back to life, faced clones and impersonating energy-creatures, as well as meeting children from alternate future timelines. And somehow, miraculously, she was still sane and none the worse for wear. Truthfully, she had never felt better-- mentally, physically, emotionally, she was well-adjusted and happy with her life. But she still felt unsatisfied. There was something missing in her life.

When she was a girl and dreamed about what her life would be like as an adult, she never thought her existence would be focused around the fact that she was a mutant, or that she would be a member of an outlaw group of super heroes. Never in her wildest dreams did she think that one day she would visit the far reaches of space, that she would travel millennia into the future or decades into the past.

She had managed to fall in love with an incredibly wonderful man who made her happier than she ever deemed possible. Now that they were married, their love seemed only stronger, their relationship closer. She had friends who cared for her, a family who loved her. She even had the quaint little house she always wanted-- sans the white-picket fence, but hers, all the same. There was only one thing missing. She wanted to hear the pitter-patter of little feet. But that one vital thing was something Scott was not willing to give her-- at least, not yet.

Now, however, there was the prospect of taking in Jubilee. It was not as though they were looking to adopt her, but they were willing to take responsibility for her care and upbringing during her convalescence. The idea excited Jean. They would be doing something important, preventing the teenager from being lost in the system, and thereby allow her to still see her friends, attend the school where she was learning how to cope with being a mutant, and remain with her adopted family, the X-Men.

And doing so would also help alleviate the ache Jean felt inside every time she watched a young mother pushing a stroller down the street or a smiling couple walking hand-in-hand with their child. It would let her be a mother, if only for several months. Was she being selfish, wanting to do this? She did care for Jubilee; she loved her, as a mother loved a daughter-- of that, she was certain. And a mother's natural instinct was to protect her child. So why was she beginning to have doubts as to whether she had made the right decision?

She did not hear him approach. He was much too quiet to make any noise as he walked. Instead, she sensed his presence as he neared the bottom of the steps.

"'Mornin', Red," Logan said, puffing on a cigarette.

"Hi, Logan."

"Mind if I join you?"

"Please."

"Thanks." Stubbing out the end of the cigarette, he sat down next to her. "You look much more rested this mornin'."

Jean smiled, and flushed slightly. She looked down at her lap to avoid his gaze as she remembered the previous night. When she had not been worrying about Jubilee, she had actually found a few moments to relax.

"What'cha doin' now?"

"Just thinking," she replied, hugging her knees to her chest. "Scott and Sean were going to try to contact the professor again before breakfast, so, in the meantime, I thought I'd get a little air."

Silently, he nodded. He followed her gaze out to the trees in the distance. The cool breeze was rustling through the leaves, creating a soothing sound.

"What's on your mind, Logan?" she asked.

"Same that's on yours, I'm sure: the kid." He leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. "The last thing Jubilation needs is to go to some orphanage. She's already lost too much of her family. This could be enough to crush her."

Jean nodded in agreement.

"They're not gonna let Cassidy and Frost keep custody because, in their minds, takin' care of her would be neglectin' the other students, and vice versa. Seems to me the only solution is for one of the X-Men to become her guardian in Cassidy's place."

"Funny you should say that, Logan. Scott and I were discussing that very same idea last night."

"Well, great minds think alike, eh, Jeanie? So, I figure when we go to the hospital later, I'll tell that doctor that I want to fill out the necessary paperwork. . . ."

"You?" Jean looked at him, nonplused. "*You* want to become her legal guardian?"

"Yeah. Why do you sound so surprised? I'm the one who first met the kid. She's hung around with me, trusted me, more than anyone else. We've got a special bond. And I care about her. I'd do anything not to see her sent away."

"Are you sure you're the best choice, Logan?" Jean asked. "Do you really think they'd give you custody? A single man, with little or no record of his past?"

"I figure Chuck's as good a reference as any. But why're you soundin' so negative about this, Jeanie? Who were you thinkin' should be her guardian?"

She hesitated a moment, looking at a leaf blowing in the wind. She turned to face him and met his gaze. "Actually, Scott and I discussed the possibility of us applying to be her legal guardians."

"You two?" Logan stared at her. "Jeanie, I know you and Jube have gotten close, 'specially in the time I left the team, but she and Scott. . . . Hell, she'd sooner see the Cajun or ole Chuck as a father-figure."

"What, and you'd make a better father to her?"

He snorted. "Not to blow my own horn, but yeah. Like I said, she trusts me. She looks up to me. She cares about me. And I think of her as my own."

"Logan, there's more to parenting than loving a child. If you think that's all it takes, then you're in for a rude awakening."

"Jeanie, I don't understand where this is coming from. I figured Frost and Cyke and maybe even Cassidy would object, but I was sure you'd be helpin' me argue my case. Why are you making this sound like such a terrible idea?"

"I'm thinking about what's in Jubilee's best interest, Logan-- both what social services will see as proper guardians, and what we know will benefit her the most. Realistically, if they're going to accept anyone as her guardians, Scott and I have the best chance as a married couple in the employ of the Xavier Institute, with records of our past and our family histories.

"As for her best interest-- she needs someone who's going to be there for her, unconditionally. She's going to have to undergo rehabilitation to regain full use of her legs. She's going to need therapy to recover her missing memories. She's going to need someone to help clothe her, to feed her, to wipe away the tears when she wakes up from nightmares, to encourage her when she feels like giving up. Someone to pick her up when she falls, someone to hug her when she succeeds. Someone who will be there for her always, come what may, no matter what. And, frankly, I don't think you're that kind of person. I've lost count of how many times you've snuck off in the middle of the night, going on one trip or another."

"I can change my lifestyle, Jeanie. If that's what it takes, I'd do it for Jubilee."

"I don't think so, Logan. Look at this past week. We were not here an hour, and you ran off to try to find Shaw and Tessa. Jubilee was lying on death's door. She slipped into a coma, we nearly lost her. . . ." Feeling the rush of tears, Jean quickly pushed them back, focusing on the anger that filled her. "And where were you? Traipsing across the French countryside with Emma Frost. Dammit, Logan, she needed you here! *I* needed you here! Sean was dividing his time between the school and the hospital, and he was still acting like more of a father to both the other students and Jubilee than you were.

"You're a loner, Logan. Always have been, always will be. Let's say you become Jubilee's guardian. You'll be there for her for a few weeks, maybe even a couple of months. But what happens when something else comes up? An old friend resurfaces needing your assistance, or there's a mission where your skills are sorely needed. You'd be gone in a heartbeat. And where does that leave Jubilee?"

"And you think Xavier's little soldier wouldn't be the same way?" Logan asked angrily. "If Alex or Cable called, you don't think Scott'd drop everything and everyone and go running?"

"Frankly, no. Let me tell you a little story, Logan. Back during our honeymoon, when we spent years in the future raising Nate, Scott was faced with just such a situation. We were supposed to accompany some of the rebels on a raid of one of Apocalypse's strongholds. But Nate's techno-organic virus was out of remission. He was in a coma, not unlike Jubilee's. We weren't sure if he was going to live or die. Scott was desperately needed for that raid-- his leadership, his combat skills. But he refused to leave Nate's side. At that moment, he knew what was more important. He thought with his heart. I have no doubt he would make the same sacrifice for Jubilee, even though she is not his child. A parent always puts his child's interests ahead of his own, no matter what the cost.

"The fact is, Logan, Scott is a better father than you could ever hope to be. You may know about loyalty and love, but you have a lot to learn about parenting."

For a long time, he was silent. He got up and walked down the steps, staring off at the trees. He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. Finally, he spoke, though he did not turn to face her.

"I guess you're right, Jeanie. Kid's better with two stable parents than with one loose cannon any day. It was a silly idea anyways."

"No, Logan, it wasn't," Jean said, walking over to him and gently touching his arm. "It was a very noble gesture, and one made purely out of love. We're not looking to replace you, Logan. Hell, we're not even looking to become her parents per se. I don't think that's what she wants anyway. We're looking to take responsibility for her, to help her through these next few months. They're going to be tough on her, no doubt about it. And I don't think we can do it alone. I know both Jubilee and we would appreciate it if you could help out. I'm sure it would mean a lot to her. What do you say?"

He smiled. "Sure. Contrary to what you may think because I booked this week, I do care about her, and I want to see her get well."

"That's what we all want," she said, embracing him. "We're all going to need to work together on this one, okay?"

"Yeah."

She smiled at him. Suddenly, her eyes got a faraway look-- an expression he had seen before, when she communicated with someone telepathically. For a moment her face brightened, looking hopeful. Just as quickly, it was gone, and her expression darkened. "Scott said they just got off the phone with the professor."

"Any luck?" he asked, though he already knew the answer.

Sadly, she shook her head.

"C'mon, let's go get some chow before we head back the hospital," he said, placing an arm around her shoulders as they headed back up the stairs. "I s'pose you're gonna run your idea past Emma and Sean."

"Yes. Can we count on your support?"

"Always," he told her. "I know Irish'll take to the idea, but, 'specially after your little confrontation yesterday, Frost's liable to bust a gut with her protests. Just leave her to me. No claws, of course," he amended with a grin as he opened the front door.

"I might be willing to make an exception on that one," Jean said with a smirk. "Thanks, Logan."

Chapter 13

Jean walked down the hospital corridor between Scott and Logan as they headed for Jubilee's room. Sean had left them several minutes earlier to have one of the nurses page Dr. Knight. At first Jean had insisted that Sean be present, but he refused. He felt that since Jubilee did not even remember his being her teacher-- he remarked offhandedly that he would be lucky if she knew his name-- it would be much easier if he were not present when they told her about the situation. Reluctantly, Jean conceded that just having Scott, and Logan, and herself present would probably be best. Besides, she was simply relieved that Emma had agreed-- albeit reluctantly-- to their idea. In fact, she was still surprised that Emma had barely protested when they announced their plans. At least she had not objected verbally.

When Jean announced what she and Scott planned to do during breakfast earlier that morning, Emma's countenance had immediately hardened, and she prepared to voice her objections-- loudly. Jean had seen the look that was then exchanged between Emma and Sean; after the years in which she and Scott had shared a psychic rapport, it was easy to see when a telepathic communication was occurring. Sean's sidelong glare and whatever silent words accompanied it had stopped Emma's response before she could even utter it. Evidently, they must have had a talk the previous evening in which he made it perfectly clear to her that he was not going to stand any more outbursts from her.

Emma had quickly gotten control of herself and then calmly asked for more details. After Jean and Scott supplied them, she silently nodded her head. She asked Sean what he felt about the matter. Rubbing his goatee in a thoughtful fashion, Sean, too, slowly nodded. He said that while he was reluctant to give up custody of Jubilee-- for he still felt the best place for her was at the school-- he had to admit that it was the best suggestion they had heard thus far, and just might be good enough to work.

Emma agreed that it was an clever idea, and one which would greatly benefit Jubilee if successful. With those words of approval, she even went so far as to offer to pay any legal expenses that might arise to file the necessary paperwork. Then, assuring them that she would refrain from visiting Jubilee from the hospital in order not to upset her, she took her leave. Jean stared at the others in baffled silence. Scott shrugged. Sean sighed. Logan grunted and took another helping of eggs. And Jean had to wonder if she had judged Emma Frost too harshly.

Now, as they neared Jubilee's room, Jean found herself increasingly agitated. Why should she be so nervous? They were simply here to explain to Jubilee the dire situation she were in, and their best solution. Surely, she would agree to it. Without any protest. In fact, she would probably welcome the idea. Maybe. Perhaps. But what if she did not want to come live with them? What if she would rather take her chances at--

*Stop it,* she chided herself. *Don't be ridiculous. Of course Jubilee will agree.* She would not want to be separated from these people she had come to know and love-- the people who were now her family. So why was Jean suddenly so fearful? Could it be she was frightened . . . of rejection?

She quickly pushed the thoughts aside. She felt Scott's hand grasp hers firmly. Giving it a squeeze, she looked at him and smiled. He returned the gesture and nodded at her reassuringly.

"Well, here it is," Logan said as they stopped in front of the room. "Guess money talks, huh?" Emma had pulled a full strings-- including loosening those on her purse-- to get Jubilee a private room. "You two ready?"

Taking a deep breath, Jean nodded. She still held tightly to Scott's hand.

Logan knocked.

"Come in."

Logan held open the door and they all entered the room.

Jubilee was sitting up in bed. Though still a little pale, there was much more color in her cheeks than there had been the previous week. Her head was still bandaged, and the cast was still on her arm, but all of the wires and tubes were noticeably absent. A tray with juice, tea, and a slice of barely-touched toast sat on a table at her bedside. She still looked tired and weak, and Jean realized how thin she had become. Jubilee had been watching television, but when she saw them come in, she used the remote to shut it off; her motor control of her arm and hand seemed perfectly normal, Jean noted with relief.

"Hi, guys," Jubilee greeted, her voice soft and weak.

"Hey there, darlin'," Logan said. "How ya doin'?"

"Not bad . . . W-Wolvie," she said, forming the words much slower than normal. "You?"

"Good, now that you're awake."

"How are you feeling?" Jean asked her, walking up to the bedside.

"All right. Thanks to those lovely little pills . . . my headache's down . . . to a dull throb. I'm still tired, though. . . . And my . . . my voi . . . my voice. . . ." She looked at them in frustration. Her mind knew what she wanted to say, but her mouth just would not listen. Hot tears stung her eyes.

"Easy," Jean said, placing a gentle hand on her arm. "I know it's hard right now. But the words will come with time."

Blinking, Jubilee nodded, thankful for her understanding.

"How about your legs?" Logan asked.

Jubilee smiled. "I'm able to move my . . . my lay--" She paused, shaking her head. Seeing Jean nodding in encouragement, she took a deep breath and tried again. "I can move 'em a little better. . . . The doc said it'll still be a while . . . before I'm able to walk normally again. . . . He said . . . it'll be a lot of work . . . 'fore I'll be running any m-marathons."

"These are for you, Jubilee," Scott said, handing her a colorful bouquet of flowers.

Jubilee looked a little taken aback. She took them and smelled them. "They're b-beau . . . really pretty. Thanks, Cyke."

"Would you like me to put them in some water?" Jean asked.

"Yeah, thanks," Jubilee said, handing them to her.

"I brought you some of your things," Jean said, indicating a bag she had put down on a chair. As she put the flowers in a pitcher of water, she levitated the bag onto the bed. Jubilee opened it and pulled out a faded nightshirt in the style of a football jersey with the number four on it.

"My favorite nightshirt?" Jubilee reached for it. "H-How'd you know?"

"Paige told me."

"Who?"

That one simple word gave Jean pause. "Paige Guthrie is your roommate, and a fellow student."

"Student? What, there're more X-Men now?"

"Paige isn't an X-Man. She, like you, and several other mutant teenagers, is a member of Generation X."

Jubilee smirked. "What, a cool version of the New Mutants?"

"You could say that."

"Paige . . . does she have blonde hair and blue eyes?"

"Yes," Jean said, hopes rising. "Do you remember her?"

"Nope. Just figured if her name's Guthrie . . . she must be Sam's kid sister, and so she p-prob-prob'ly looks like him."

It was sound logic, Jean realized. Nonetheless, she could not help but feel a sudden onrush of disappointment and sadness.

"If she's my roomie . . . is she, like, my best bud or something?"

"That'd be Everett. Everett Thomas," Logan told her. "Ring any bells?"

"A guy, huh?" Jubilee thought a moment, then slowly shook her head.

"It's all right," Jean whispered, sitting down on the edge of the bed and touching Jubilee's leg. "It'll all come back to you eventually."

"I guess." Jubilee paused before continuing. She swallowed hard. "I've been w-won-wondering. . . . How- how did I get hurt?"

"You don't remember anything about it?" Scott asked.

She shook her head. "L-Last thing I 'member was bladin' out on Graymalkin Lane. . . .Must've hit a rock or major crack, 'cause I took a nasty spill an' everything went dark. . . . Next thing I know, I woke up in the hospital." She looked at each of them in turn. "So, what happened?"

Jean was the first to speak. "You and Everett were in Boston one night when a woman you were trying to help psi-blasted you. Some goons put restraining collars on you and kidnapped you. Sebastian Shaw and Tessa, of the Hellfire Club, turned out to be behind it. They interrogated you. Everett was beaten severely, and Tessa attacked your mind. Then they dumped you both, leaving you for dead."

Jubilee sat quietly, taking it all in. She had no recollection of any of those events-- it were as though she was hearing a story about someone else. "Is he okay?" she asked finally.

"Yes, he's fine," Jean assured her. "He was released from the hospital several days ago. He's been worried sick about you, though. He really wants to come and visit you-- all the kids do-- but they wanted to give you some time first to come to terms with everything."

"How bad was I hurt? I mean, aside from my legs, I know my wrist is busted, like some of my ribs are . . . and I've got, like, the mother of all Excedrin headaches . . . but how bad was it?"

"You sustained a concussion, and were in a coma for a few days."

"How'd I come out of it?"

When Jean said nothing, it was Logan who replied. "Yer mindscape was runnin' all helter-skelter. Jeanie here went into your mind, riskin' her own life, in order to help you fix the damage created by Tessa's meddlin' and exorcise yer demons. A little while later, you woke up. From what I hear, there was some pretty bad stuff floatin' 'round in yer noggin', the result of Tessa's tamperin'. If it weren't for Jeanie here, you wouldn't be talkin' to us right now."

"You . . . you did that for me?" she asked Jean.

"It was nothing, really," Jean said modestly. "You were the one who did all the hard work-- defeating the astral image of Tessa. I was just there for moral support."

"Thanks, all the same."

"Anytime, kiddo. Anytime."

The room then lapsed into silence. Jean sat down in the chair at the beside, and Scott walked up behind her. Wolverine walked over to the window and looked at Jubilee, arms crossed.

"What's going on?" she asked. "What's with the sourpusses? Cyke I'm used to, and even the Wolvster can get moody . . . but not you, Jean."

"Jubilee, there's something we need to discuss with you," Jean began, searching for the right words.

"What is it? Sounds serious."

"It is."

"It's about me, isn't it? What is it? Am I gonna be crippled forever? Is my memory not gonna come back?" She felt herself beginning to panic.

"No, no, sweetie, it's nothing like that," Jean said. "You're legs are getting better, and your memory should return soon."

Feeling Jean's hand on hers, Jubilee began to relax a little. "What, then?"

"There's no easy way of putting this. . . . Social services have contacted your doctor. Together, they've come to the decision that the school is not the best place for you now."

"The school, meaning the X-Mansion?"

"No." Jean sighed, realizing that she needed to fill Jubilee in about all of the major changes that had occurred during the time that she could not recall. "Almost two years ago, Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters was relocated to Massachusetts. It's now headed by Sean Cassidy and Emma Frost. The other students are teenaged mutants like yourself, and together you make up Generation X."

"Then what happened to the mansion?"

"It's still there," Scott said. "Only now, it's the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning."

"Oh. Guess that makes more sense, since most of the X-Men look a little old to be youngsters. . . . 'Cept maybe for Drake," she muttered with a smirk.

Jean could not help but smile. *At least she hasn't lost her sense of humor.* "When you decided to join the school, Professor Xavier thought it would be better if Sean was named your legal guardian in his place. But now they want to remove you from his custody."

Jubilee looked at her, mouth agape. "Take me away? And what, put me in another foster home?"

"Not exactly. You've been seriously hurt and you're going to need a lot of care during your rehabilitation. They feel you would not be able to receive the necessary attention at the school. They want to put you in a special care facility."

Jubilee's mouth instantly snapped shut. "In other words, an orphanage for invalids. Sounds like loads of fun." She sighed. "So, why doesn't the prof just ask for me back?"

"It's not that simple, sweetie. Things have happened with the professor since you left. . . ." Jean paused. How could she begin to explain Onslaught and the ensuing months of hell left in his wake? She did not think it wise to even try. "Besides, they're hardly going to see the professor capable of seeing to your convalescence."

"In other words, how is one cripple s'posed to help another, right?"

Scott opened his mouth to chastise her, but quickly thought better of it. Jubilee had a right to be angry. She had been through hell already, and she had just learned that it was far from over. He would be upset, too, if he found out that he was going to be removed from the closest thing to a family he had. "That's only a part of it," he told her. "We think there's something else at work here-- someone pulling some strings, trying to get you removed from the school. And, quite frankly, we think social services would object to the professor as being the best foster parent for you."

"We've realized that our best chance is to find someone else to be yer legal guardian," Logan continued. "Someone who they can't find anything to object to." He looked at Jean and nodded his head.

Feeling decidedly nervous, Jean took a deep breath. Feeling Scott's hands on her shoulders, she drew on his strength. "Jubilee," she began, taking her hand in her own, "Scott and I would like to be your legal guardians. That is, if you'll have us."

Jubilee looked at Jean, eyes wide in surprise. Then she looked up at Scott. "You guys? You two want to be my foster parents?"

Smiling, Jean nodded. "I realize it might sound a little strange, but I think it would work out all right."

"But. . . ." Jubilee struggled for the words, feeling hot tears fill her eyes. She looked at Logan, eyes pleading. "But I thought. . . ."

"Kiddo, it wouldn't work. I've barely got a past. They'd never give me custody."

"Oh. I . . . I understand." Jubilee looked away, staring out the window. She blinked, and a tear slid down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away. "You don't want the responsibility of taking care of a crippled, brain-damaged kid. You . . . you don't want me." The last words came out as a barely audible whisper.

In a few short strides, he was at her bedside, kneeling down beside her so that he could look her in the eyes. "Darlin', that ain't true. I want to take you in . . . more'n anythin'. I'd do it in a heartbeat." He gently cupped her cheek in his hand, wiping away a tear with his thumb. "But you heard what Jeanie said-- these guys are playing hard-ball. They'd use any kind of dirt to prevent someone from bein' granted custody. I ain't exactly got a clean record. Of any of us, Scott and Jeanie have got the best chance. Fer starters, they're a married couple-- that's a major point in our favor. Besides," he said, and his eyes met Jean's, "they'd would make much better parents to you than I ever could."

"Sez you," Jubilee muttered.

"Jubilee, I know how close you and Logan are," Scott said. "I want to make it clear that I-- we--" he gave Jean's shoulder a gentle squeeze-- "are not looking to replace him. I won't lie to you; this situation is very serious. There is a good chance that they won't even grant us custody-- in which case, this entire conversation is moot. We all discussed this-- Jean, Logan, Sean, Emma, the professor. We think this is our best chance of preventing you from being put in an orphanage. That's the last thing we want to see happen; I'm sure you'll agree. You've become very special to all of us. You'll always be an X-Man-- you'll always be a member of our family. What Jean and I want to do is ensure that you get to stay with your family. In the process, we'll help you with your convalescence-- physical therapy, psychic therapy as well. You'll be in a familiar environment, surrounded by people who care about you and want to see you well."

Jubilee looked at him and Jean, then to Logan.

"You've known me long enough to know that I would never lie to you. It's our best shot, kiddo," he told her. "But it's up to you to decide."

Jubilee looked back to Scott and Jean. "I don't have to call you Mom and Dad, do I?"

They all laughed. That tension-breaker helped them all begin to relax.

"No, sweetie," Jean said, still smiling. "We're not looking to replace your parents. Yes, we'll be helping to take care of you. But so will everyone else-- Logan, Hank, Ororo, the professor. Everyone wants to see you back on your feet."

Jubilee considered. It did not sound all that terrible. She would be living in the only real home she had known since her parents' death several years earlier, with the best friends she had ever had-- her family, as Scott had said. Having Jean as a foster mother would definitely not be so bad-- kind of cool, actually. Jean had already been looking after her, helping her through some tough times, like a real mother would. Scott, on the other hand. . . . Well, they had never been close. He would not be her first choice as a foster father. Hell, he probably would not be on her list at all. He was too uptight for her tastes. Sure, he could be nice and all, but all she really saw him as was a leader. There were a million reasons for her to object to him. He did not smile enough, that was for starters. But, hey, maybe this would be her opportunity to help change that. And yet, he loved Jean deeply, of that much she was certain; so it was not as if his heart were made of stone. Yeah, he probably would not be so bad once she got to know him better. What the hell. Besides, she did not seem to have much choice.

"All right," she told them. "Sounds okay to me."

"Really?" Jean asked. "You're sure?"

"Uh huh. Hey, Cable turned out all right . . . so you guys can't be too bad as far as parental units go. I could do a lot worse."

"I'm so glad!" Jean said with a smile as she reached to embrace Jubilee.

*Whoa,* Jubilee thought as she hugged Jean back. *She seems really hyped about this. Didn't think I was such a hot commodity . . . .*

"I'm actually kind of excited about it," Jean admitted. "I've missed you since you went away to school. This will give us a chance to catch up, spend some time together."

"Yeah, that sounds great." Looking at Jean's face, which nearly beamed with excitement, Jubilee's brow furrowed. Were those tears in her eyes?

"Now, why don't you try to finish some of your breakfast," Jean said, pulling the tray in front of Jubilee.

"Geez, I no sooner agree to this, and already you're actin' like a mom."

There came a knock at the door.

"More visitors? Geez, I didn't know I was so popular. Come in!"

Sean walked inside. "Hey there, lass. How are ye feelin' this mornin'?"

"Much better, Mr. Cassidy. Thanks for asking."

"That's good t' hear."

"Did you have a chance to speak to Dr. Knight?" Scott asked.

"Aye. As a matter of fact, the representative from social services just called him from her cell-phone. She should be here in about ten minutes. He wants us t' meet with them in his office."

Nodding, Jean got to her feet. She and Scott followed Sean to the door. Seeing that Logan had not done the same, they turned to face him.

"You three go ahead," Logan said. "I'll stay with the kid."

"Are you sure?" Jean asked him.

"Yeah. She could use the company, I'm sure," he said, grinning at her. "'Sides, this don't really concern me."

"Of course it does," Jean told him. She could see, though, that his mind was made up. <<I'll psi-link us, so you can hear all that goes on.>>

<<Much obliged, darlin'.>>

With a nod, Jean followed the others out of the room.

"So, how did it go with Jubilee?" Sean asked as they walked toward the elevator.

Scott and Jean exchanged a glance. "Good," she told Sean. "She seems all right with the idea."

Sean smiled. "That's a relief. One less thing t' worry about."

"Now, if only the doctor and social services can be as easily convinced," Scott remarked.

"Aye, Scotty. Let's just be sure to keep our fingers crossed."

Chapter 14

Twenty minutes later the trio was sitting in the considerably large office of Dr. Knight, waiting for the neurosurgeon and the social worker to arrive. His administrative assistant had shown them in, and told them to make themselves comfortable; Dr. Knight had gone to meet the social worker and would be with them shortly. Jean sat on the leather couch next to Scott, clasping his hand tightly. Sean, tired of pacing, was now looking at the numerous certificates and diplomas that decorated the walls.

"This boyo's done pretty well for himself," Sean said, reading the Harvard Medical School diploma.

"Guess that explains why this room is the size of a small house," Scott commented.

"Well, at least we know Jubilee's been getting the best possible care," Jean pointed out.

Sean looked at her. "Whether or not that continues, remains t' be se--" He stopped as the door opened. The middle-aged doctor entered the room along with a tall, thin blonde woman dressed in a suit and carrying a small brief case.

"Good morning, Dr. Knight," Sean said, walking over.

"Good morning, Mr. Cassidy. I'd like you to meet Anita Rubins, from the department of social services," he said, introducing her.

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Rubins," Sean said, shaking her hand.

"My pleasure, Mr. Cassidy. You are the headmaster of Jubilation's school?"

"Aye. And these are two of me colleagues, Jean and Scott Summers."

Rising, Jean and Scott each shook Ms. Rubins and the doctor's hands in turn.

"Please, let's all sit down," Dr. Knight said, gesturing to the couch and some chairs. He sounded much more calm than he had the previous night.

Jean and Scott resumed their position on the couch, along with Sean, while Dr. Knight and Ms. Rubins each sat in matching chairs that were separated from the couch by a coffee table.

Placing her brief case on the table in front of her, Ms. Rubins opened it and removed a file. She began to leaf through the sheets it contained. "Jubilation Lee, aged fifteen, born in Beverly Hills, California. Orphaned at age eleven when her parents were killed in a car accident."

"They were murdered," Sean corrected her.

One eyebrow raised, she scribbled into a notebook. "No blood relatives. She lived on the streets for several months after running away from a foster home. She then resurfaced in New York, where she came under the guardianship of one Charles Xavier, and she enrolled in his School for Gifted Youngsters. Nearly two years ago, when the school was relocated to Massachusetts, Mr. Cassidy became her legal guardian. Is this all correct?"

"Aye."

"Now, a week ago, Jubilation and one of her fellow students were kidnapped and beaten. She sustained a concussion, a fractured wrist and ribs, along with numerous contusions. She was in a coma for several days. When she regained consciousness, she suffered temporary paralysis of the legs, as well as short-term memory loss."

"But she's already movin' her legs, an' Dr. Knight feels her memories should be comin' back soon, too."

Ms. Rubins simply nodded, not looking up from her file. "How many students do you currently have at your school, Mr. Cassidy?"

"Countin' Jubilee, eleven-- no, actually ten now," he quickly corrected himself.

"Everett Thomas-- the other student who was injured-- recently withdrew, did he not?"

"His parents wanted him t' take a semester off, t' give him time t' recover from his injuries."

"I see. And aside from you, there is only one other teacher?"

"Aside from the occasional guest lecturer, aye, there's just me an' Emma Frost."

"And where is Ms. Frost now?"

"At the school, seein' t' the needs of the children. Classes are bein' held today."

"Thank you, Mr. Cassidy," Ms. Rubins said, writing down some notes. She then turned her attention to the neurosurgeon. "Dr. Knight, what kind of convalescence will Jubilation require?"

"Well, the injuries she received were quite serious. Due to her paralysis, her motor control has been impaired. She essentially need to relearn how to walk and control her legs. Likewise, once her cast comes off, she will need physical therapy to recover full use of her hand. I also suggest counseling sessions; she had been through a very traumatic incident. In order to cope, both with her newfound condition, and the incident itself when and if her memories return, she will need the aid of a therapist."

"And do you believe that she can receive the necessary care from Mr. Cassidy at the school?"

"No. Caring for Jubilation is going to be a full-time job. If he were to continue his duties as headmaster, there is no way that he could give Jubilation the attention she requires."

"Likewise, if he were to care for her, the other students would no doubt be neglected?" Ms. Rubins supposed.

"I . . . I really could not say," Dr. Knight said, absently tugging at his shirt cuff.

"What would you suggest is the best way for Jubilation to receive the necessary care?"

"Well, there are special facilities with trained professionals who--"

"Excuse me," Sean said, cutting off the doctor. "Ms. Rubins, I realize that I meself am not capable of caring f'r Jubilee an' runnin' the school at the same time. However, I do not think that sendin' her t' some sort of 'special facility' is in her best interest either. You see, Ms. Rubins, Jubilee's been through a great deal in her young life. She lost her parents at an early age-- in quite a violent manner, I might add. After that, she was shuffled from one foster home t' another. She felt neither loved nor that she belonged. So she ran away. It wasn't until she came t' Xavier's that she was able t' feel like a person again. She found acceptance, she found love. The people there care f'r her. They became her family. An' she learned t' reach out, t' accept the friendship that was offered her.

"What ye propose t' do is t' take all that away from her. Ye want t' separate her from her friends, her family. We're all that she's got. If ye put her in some special facility or an orphanage, I've no doubt that she'll withdraw into herself again. Only this time, the damage might be irreparable. An', odds are, once she gets strong enough, she'd run away again. Lord only knows what will happen t' her then."

Ms. Rubins looked at him. "That was a very lovely speech, Mr. Cassidy. But, as you said, you are currently unable to care for her. So, unless you plan to resign your job as headmaster, I don't see how--"

"That's where me friends here come in," Sean said, indicating the couple beside him. "Jean an' Scott here would like t' apply f'r custody of Jubilee."

Ms. Rubins' eyebrows rose. She exchanged a brief glance with Dr. Knight, who appeared greatly bewildered. She cleared her throat before turning her attention to Scott and Jean. "May I ask what your relationship is to Jubilee?"

"We've known her for most of the time she attended the school in New York," Jean told her. "In that time, I've come to know Jubilee quite well. She is an extraordinary young woman. She's bright, she's outgoing, she has a thirst for life. Anyone who knows her can tell you that she has a spark about her. I care about her a great deal; she's been like a daughter to me. And I'd like to take care of her." She looked at Scott, who smiled his encouragement. "We both would. If she were to be taken away from those of us who care about her-- the only family she has right now-- I know that it would be harmful for her. After the horrible trauma Jubilee's been through, she needs the support of her loved ones. She needs our help in order to get through this."

"And what makes you think that you and your husband are qualified to give her that care?"

"We both work at the Xavier Institute. I'm a psychologist, and therefore qualified to help Jubilee with the therapy to aid her in regaining her memories and to deal with the incident. We have a doctor on staff who will be able to supervise her rehabilitation and oversee her physical therapy. And there a number of people-- including Charles Xavier himself-- who are qualified to see to her education, so that she does not fall behind in her studies. More importantly, Jubilee knows us all, and trusts us. We all care about her and want to help see her get well. Surely, it is in her best interest to be in familiar surroundings and among people who love her, rather than in the cold uncaring setting of a hospital or a special home, in order to ensure a full recovery. My husband grew up in an orphanage, and he can attest to the fact that living at the Xavier Institute among friends, colleagues, and family-- both blood and adopted-- is preferable to the alternative. At a time like this, Jubilee needs to be surrounded by her loved ones. Wouldn't you agree, Dr. Knight?"

All eyes turned to the neurosurgeon. He removed a handkerchief from his pocket, which he used to wipe beads of sweat from the top of his balding head. He cleared his throat. "A valid point. I suppose the . . . ah . . . alternative . . . you propose sounds reasonable and should be . . . er . . . considered." He glanced at Ms. Rubins, who looked quite upset, her lips pressed to pencil-line thinness.

"I will take your request into consideration," she said, making a few last scribbles into her notebook before closing it and replacing it in her brief case. "In the meantime, I would like to speak to Jubilation herself, and get her opinion on the matter. Dr. Knight, when can I see her?"

"Right now, if you'd like," he replied. "I can show you to her room."

"Thank you," she said, gathering her things and rising. The others stood as well. "It was nice to meet you all," she told them politely, shaking each one's hand in turn. They all headed for the door. "After speaking with Jubilation, I will come to a decision and file a report. I will notify Dr. Knight at that time."

"An' how long would ye expect that t' be?" Sean asked.

"In the next couple of days. Doctor, are you ready?"

Dr. Knight nodded.

"Good day," she said curtly before walking with him down the hallway.

As soon as they were out of sight, Sean turned to Scott and Jean. "Lord Almighty! She makes Emma look like Mother Teresa!"

Jean could only shake her head. "I think I'm more worried now than I was before we spoke to her."

"Don't be silly," Scott said. "You two were great. If your words don't convince her, nothing will."

"Did ye notice how nervous the doc was? He was sweatin' like a pig."

"Yes," Jean agreed. "At first, he seemed much more in control than the last time we spoke. But I think we really threw both of them for a loop with our proposal. They weren't expecting this. Hopefully, they won't be able to come up with a strong enough reason to object to our petition."

"Did ye get anythin' from that Rubins woman, Jean?"

She shook her head. "No, she was very difficult to read. I could only sense the most basic emotions-- such as her utter surprise at our suggestion, and then anger at Dr. Knight for not condemning it outright. It's almost as though her thoughts were being hidden from me-- shielded, somehow."

"Could Tessa do that?"

"Not alone. She would need some sort of assistance-- either mechanical, or psychic."

"Well, with Shaw's resources, I wouldn't put it past them," Scott said.

"What now?" Jean asked.

Sean was stroking his goatee in a gesture Jean knew meant he was thinking deeply.

"Sean?"

"I think I've got an idea of how we can help ensure Ms. Rubins rules in our favor. I've gotta go speak t' someone. How about I meet ye two by Jubilee's room in fifteen minutes?"

"All right," Jean said. "Sean, is everything okay?"

"Fine, lass, just fine. Hopefully, this may just turn the tides in our favor. I'll explain meself soon." He quickly headed for the elevator.

"What was that all about?" Scott asked.

Jean shrugged her shoulders. "I haven't the foggiest."

Chapter 15

"Wolvie, do you think I'll be able to go home soon?"

"Probably by the end of the week, darlin'. Doctors want to make sure you're okay before they spring ya."

"I guess it's just a matter of where 'home' is gonna be, huh?"

He did not reply. Instead, he walked over to the bed and placed his hand over hers. "I ain't gonna let them take you away, darlin'. Nobody's gonna hurt you again."

She looked up at him and managed a brave smile.

"That's a girl. Now, why don't you--" He stopped abruptly.

"Wolvie?"

His brow suddenly furrowed. His expression hardened, his eyes narrowing.

"Wolvie, what is it?"

"Message from Jeanie. They just finished their meeting."

"How'd it go?"

"Better than expected, not as great as they hoped. Their little suggestion took both the doc and the social worker by surprise. But it seems she wants to come and speak to you herself."

"To me?"

"Yeah. Guess she wants to hear your opinion on the matter. Now, don't go volunteerin' any information unless she specifically asks fer it. Just be honest with her, kiddo. Tell her where you want to live and why. Hopefully, if we're lucky, she'll take yer wishes into consideration."

Jubilee nodded, swallowing at the sudden dryness in her mouth. There came a knock at the door. She looked up at Logan, who gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she called for the visitor to come in.

As soon as Dr. Knight and Ms. Rubins entered the room, the teenager noticed an immediate change in Logan. He seemed on edge, and ready to pop his claws and make hamburger out of them at the slightest provocation. The doctor, too, seemed to sense Logan's uneasiness, and was himself behaving as though slightly nervous.

The woman, however, was all-business. She did not seem particularly friendly-- a notion that struck Jubilee as quite odd. All of the social workers she had dealt with in the past had exuded friendliness from every pore. They usually went out of their way to be nice. It had been sickening at times. They pretended to care, but did not take into account the fact that she had not been happy in any of her foster homes. At least this woman made no pretenses. Nonetheless, there was something about her that was almost . . . frightening. Jubilee suppressed a shudder as a chill ran down her spine. She was beginning to miss those sugary-sweet old ladies. . . .

"Jubilation, my name is Ms. Rubins. I'm from social services. I'd like to ask you a few questions." She looked at Logan. "In private, if you don't mind."

He glared at her. "Givin' all that she's been through, I prefer not to leave her alone."

"I will stay with her," Dr. Knight told him.

"If you don't mind, Doc, I'd rather--"

At that moment, the elderly nurse walked into the room, carrying a small tray with a small and large cup. "Good afternoon. Please excuse the interruption, but 'tis time f'r Miss Jubilee's medication. "'Ow are you feelin' this afternoon, luv?"

"Fine, Peachy," Jubilee replied, already reaching for the cup that contained her pills. Then she took the cup with water to wash it all down.

"That's me girl," Peachy said, taking it from her. She smiled warmly at her. Although Jubilee did not remember the times the kind old nurse spent reading to her, she had taken an immediately liking to her upon her revival. The doting grandmotherly nature of the nurse inspired instant trust. Since then, Peachy had done everything she could to ensure that Jubilee was comfortable and on her way to a complete recovery.

"How about her?" Ms. Rubins asked Logan, impatience creeping into her voice.

He looked the nurse over. He had seen her before, knew that she had only Jubilee's best interests at heart. "Fine by me, if she agrees."

Brows knitting, the nurse looked at them quizzically.

"Nurse--?"

"Peach. Rachel Peach. But folks tend to call me Peachy, Dr. Knight."

"Nurse Peach, this is Ms. Rubins from social services. She'd like to ask Jubilation a few questions, but Mr. Logan refuses to leave her unaccompanied. If you're not too busy, could you please stay for a few minutes?"

"Oi'd be more'n 'appy t' stay."

"Thanks, Peachy," Logan said. "C'mon, Doc, let's leave the ladies to chat." The two men walked toward the door, Logan turning to wink at Jubilee before leaving.

As Peachy busied herself adjusting the curtains, Ms. Rubins sat down in a chair, pulling a notebook and pen from her brief case.

"How are you feeling, Jubilation?" If Jubilee had not known better, she would have almost thought that the woman was sincere. Almost.

She shrugged. "O-okay I guess," she said, trying to steady the tremor in her voice.

"Now, there's no need to be nervous, Jubilation," Ms. Rubins said, her low voice sweet as honey. "I'm just here to ask you a few simple questions. I'm just trying to learn all I can about your situation so I can make the best recommendation to my superiors. I want to come to an arrangement that all concerned are happy with-- most especially you. So, if you have any questions at any time, please let me know. All right?"

"Okay."

"Good. I'm going to start with a few background questions. How old are you, Jubilation?"

"Four-- I mean, fifteen." Blushing, she looked at her sheepishly. "Last I remember, I was fourteen, but Jean'n everyone said I can't remember a year, so I guess I'm fifteen now."

"You were born in California?"

"Yeah."

"And your parents died when you were eleven?"

"Uh huh."

"At that time, you were placed in foster care, from which you soon ran away?"

"Yeah. They didn't care 'bout me, so I figured why stay. I booked."

"And you went to live at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in New York when you were thirteen, where Charles Xavier became your legal guardian. How did you come to live there?"

"Well, a few weeks before that, I met up with Wol-- uhm," she paused, pretending to clear her throat, "with Logan. He took me in, watched over me. I traveled around with him a while, and then went with him when he returned to work at Xavier's. Lived there ever since. Well, at least, for as long as my memories go. After that, I'm told I moved to Massachusetts when the school relocated."

"And, in the process, Mr. Cassidy became your legal guardian."

"I guess. That's what they told me."

"So, you remember nothing about your time at the new school?"

"Nope."

"Does that include your headmaster, Mr. Cassidy?"

"Oh, I remember him from when he worked in New York. He was always very nice to me. A real cool guy."

"And what about your other instructor, Miss Frost?"

Jubilee paused, considering. Logan said not to lie. But he also said not to volunteer any unnecessary information. . . . "I really don't remember that much about her. I guess I didn't get to know her until after I moved to Massachusetts."

"I understand that before you attended her school, you had some . . . how shall I say . . . conflicts?"

Jubilee felt a shiver run up her spine. Ms. Rubins' ice-blue eyes seemed to be staring right through her. *She's acting like she knows about the White Queen. But how can she? Unless--*

Realization suddenly hit Jubilee. This woman was not merely a member of social services who had her supposed best interest at heart. The government was not the only one signing her pay checks. She had another agenda, and she wanted Jubilee to give her reason not to be returned to Xavier's. *Well, I've never been one to conform to people's expectations. That'd be so un-me.*

She returned Ms. Rubins' glare. "Like I said, I don't remember attending school in Massachusetts, or Ms. Frost as a prof. Knowing me, though, I must have given her hell."

"Oh?" She raised an eyebrow. "Why is that?"

Jubilee gave her a knowing smile. "Y'see, I've always had this problem with authority figures-- 'specially ones who pretend to be something they're not."

Ms. Rubins pursed her lips. Her eyes seemed to say, *Don't threaten me, little girl.*

"After my folks died, I was tossed from one foster home to another. People who didn't take the time to get to know me, to understand where I was comin' from. They didn't give a damn if I came home at night or not. So, one day, I didn't. I ran away. I was your typical mall rat, y'know? So I figured, like, what better place to live than a mall? Livin' for a good time, takin' what I needed. I didn't let myself think about it at the time, but it was all an act. One of those, whaddaya call 'em--"

"Defense mechanisms?" suggested Peachy, who was listening intently from where she stood by the window.

"Yeah, that's it. I didn't want to deal with the fact that my parents were gone, that I was, like, all alone in the world. I couldn't let anyone see that I was hurtin'. So I hid myself beneath this major 'tude of mine. An' people thought I was some maladjusted kid from the wrong side of the tracks, and so they didn't gave a damn. Not even all those social workers. All they could see was a bitter little girl who needed a home, where she could be sheltered from all the big bad stuff goin' down in the world.

"It was different at Xavier's. The people there, they understood my anger, my pain. A lot of them had been through similar situations. Most importantly, they didn't treat me like a little kid. Which is not to say they let me do anything I wanted, 'cause Xavier sure had this thing 'bout rules. What I'm sayin' is that for the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. These people became my family. We took care of each other, watched out for one another, offered a helping hand whenever we could. I was really happy."

"What was your relationship with Mrs. Summers like?"

Jubilee smiled. "At first, I didn't particularly like her. See seemed so . . . I don't know, perfect? Like there was nothing she couldn't do. She was always so confident, so sure of what she wanted. And so beautiful. Everyone liked her. But Jean didn't let that all go to her head. She honestly cared about everyone, me included. She tried reaching out to me. But I was too jealous to let her. Maybe because, deep down, I wished I could be like that. Jean didn't try to push it.

"But then, after a friend of mine died, I was really down. I guess it was because I was so upset that I let her get close. Anyways, Jean was there for me. If it weren't for her, I don't think I would have gotten through those times. I'm glad I got the chance to know her. We've had some pretty cool times. She's always been there when I needed her. I even remember when she was gettin' ready for her wedding with Scott, she took the time to talk with me, to make sure I was doin' okay. If I had to choose one person to help me get back up to speed, it'd be her."

"What about her husband? You just mentioned him in passing. How do you get along with him?"

Jubilee shrugged. "Scott's not quite as . . . open as Jean when it comes to feelings. Not that there's anything wrong with him, he's just a little bit more straight-laced than most people. Like I told you, I've got this thing 'bout authority figures, and he fits the bill. But just 'coz he's serious doesn't mean he doesn't care. The people at Xavier's have become his family, and he'd do anything to help us out. He's helped me out before, and I'm sure he'd be there for me now. He wouldn't let me get away with wimpin' out of any exercises or anything, y'know? He acts the way he does because he cares. Did ya know he was an orphan, like me? He's put these walls up around himself 'coz he was afraid of gettin' hurt. In that respect, I guess you could say we're a lot alike. An' Jean has helped him learn to let people in. I s'pose you could say she helps bring out the best in people.

"So, yeah, I'd like Jean and Scott to be my foster parents. I'd like to go back home to Xavier's."

"Well, thank you for your time, Jubilation," Ms. Rubins said, closing her notebook and replacing it in her brief case.

"So, do I get to go home with them?"

"Well, I'll take that under advisement when coming to my decision."

"What? You mean after all I told you, you haven't decided yet?"

"Well, there are many factors to take into consideration in a matter such as this. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must be going." She turned to leave.

Jubilee looked after her helplessly. What else could she say to convince her that Xavier's was where she belonged? Fearing that all was suddenly lost, she felt panic gripping her heart.

"It's goin' t' be awl right, luv," Peachy whispered to Jubilee, a warm encouraging smile lighting her round, rosy-cheeked face as she gently patted her hand. "Just leave 'er t' me." Taking a step away from the bed, Peachy called after her. "Excuse me, Ms. Rubins, but may Oi 'ave a word with you?"

At the sound of the the elderly nurse's voice, the social worker turned around. "What is it?" she asked impatiently.

"Oi don't mean t' butt in, dearie, but Oi feel the need t' intervene f'r the benefit of Miss Jubilation 'ere," Peachy said, approaching her. "Oi've been a pediatric nurse f'r over thirty years now, an' Oi've seen a lot in me days. We've gotten plenty of runaways, both orphans an' those with parents, though you couldn't necessarily call some of them that. Oi've seen children beaten beyond recognition, an' Oi've seen them kill themselves with drugs because there was no one at 'ome who gave a damn if they lived or died. That's the reason kids like Jubilation run away.

"Now, if you send 'er t' some orphanage or group 'ome or whatever it is yer callin' them these days, you'll be making a terrible mistake. Oi've seen far too many kids lost in the system because social workers like you thought you were doin' what's best f'r them. This child just poured her 'eart out t' you, admittin' things Oi'm sure she never told anyone, because she knows 'ow desperate her situation is. She knows that much as we try t' do what's best f'r children like 'er, they're the ones who end up getting 'urt.

"Believe me, dealin' with injuries like 'ers can put a lot of stress on a family. It takes a great deal of time an' sacrifice. Yer right t' be worried about what such efforts would do t' the other students. Whoever cares f'r Jubilation needs t' be able t' concentrate on 'er. But if you'd listened t' what she just said, you'd realize that so much 'ad t' 'appen 'fore she was willin' t' open up t' anyone. It takes time t' build trust, an' that is a luxury we don't 'ave right now. If Jubilation is to 'ave a complete recovery, she has to start rehabilitation immediately. An' I know f'r a fact that the most effective therapy is a result of the encouragement an' support of yer loved ones."

As she spoke, Peachy slowly walked toward Ms. Rubins, who backed up at the approach. "Why don't you look at the evidence that's starin' you right in the face? Jubilation has found a family that truly cares about 'er, that loves 'er, an' is willing t' see 'er through the difficult struggle that lies ahead. From the moment this girl came out of surgery, Jean Summers 'as been at 'er side. She 'as done everythin' in 'er power t' see this girl recover. I have no doubt that it was 'er presence an' love that gave Jubilation the strength an' courage t' fight an' come out of 'er coma. An' now Jean wants t' 'elp the girl through the next part of her ordeal. It will be a difficult journey, but she's determined t' stand by Jubilation through it. Can't you see 'ow much she loves this girl? In 'er 'eart, she's already 'er mother. A couple of signatures on a piece of paper won't change that. So why not make it official?

"You have the opportunity to ensure that Jubilation gets a second chance at the family she deserves. Can you in all good conscience sit back and deny 'er that? Because if that's what you're intending to do, Oi warn you, you'll be sorry," Peachy said, hands on hips.

Ms. Rubins, looking threatened for the first time that day, was now standing pressed against the wall with the nurse looming over her.

"Me niece works f'r social services-- she's a director in Concord-- an' Oi've no compunctions about reportin' you t' ensure that Jubilee doesn't pay f'r yer mistakes," Peachy informed her. "So, if you value yer job, Oi suggest you make the decision that will benefit all involved. Do I make meself clear, luv?"

****

"Why is it taking so long?" Jean asked, glancing again toward the door to Jubilee's room from where she stood down the hallway.

"Relax, sweetheart," Scott said, placing a hand on her back. "I'm sure Ms. Rubins has got plenty of questions for her. She's got to do a thorough job."

"I just hope Jubilee convinces her that this is what she wants."

"The kid's a natural. She'll know just what to say. Everythin's gonna be fine."

"Aye, Logan's right. Don't worry yer pretty li'l head, Jean," Sean assured her. "I can almost guarantee ye that this is in the bag."

They all looked at him, wondering how he could be so confident. They knew it had something to do with where he had disappeared to before meeting them, but he had yet to reveal his whereabouts to them.

"You gonna let the rest of us in on how it is you can be so sure, Irish?"

"All in good time, Logan. All in good time."

"Here she comes," Jean informed them, her glance directed toward the door to Jubilee's room. A moment later, Ms. Rubins emerged. Pausing to straighten her blazer and smooth her hair, she looked anything but happy. The quartet quickly walked over to her.

"How did yer interview go?" Sean asked her. He was barely able to prevent a smug, knowing grin from spreading across his face.

"Quite well," she told them, putting on an apathetic facade. "I think I have enough information to make my decision. I will notify Dr. Knight in several days once the proper paperwork has been filed. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to make a phone call. Good day." Without so much as a second glance, she strode down the corridor and disappeared behind a corner.

"What was that all about?" Scott wondered aloud.

"I'm not sure," Jean replied, "but, contrary to how she appeared, she was quite shaken up."

"I could smell the fear," Logan added. "But it was being overpowered by anger. I wouldn't wanna be on the receiving end when she lets loose."

"C'mon, let's go check on Jubilee," Sean said, opening the door.

They found Peachy tucking the covers in around Jubilee. The girl looked perfectly calm, and smiled as they entered. "Hi, guys. What's up?"

"How'd it go, darlin'?"

"Okay. I did exactly what you told me to, Logan: I answered Ms. Rubins' questions, an' explained to her why I wanted to go live at Xavier's with Jean and Scott. I could tell she wasn't one to be impressed by sob stories, so I tried a different approach: I put her off guard by 'coppin' my usual 'tude. But then, when that didn't work, I was really honest with her, and told her how much livin' at Xavier's means to me."

"Did it work?" Scott asked.

"Not really. It's like my words went in one ear and out the other. I started to panic. If bearing my soul wasn't going to do the trick, I didn't know what would. Luckily, Peachy here is a master of intimidation."

"What?" Scott, Jean, and Logan all looked in confusion at the sweet old nurse. Sean beamed at her.

"It was nothin', really," the nurse said, the blush making her round face glow.

"Peachy here sure gave Ms. Rubins what for. She told her how livin' with you guys would be the best decision for me, an' how she could tell that Jean really cared about me."

"I don't understand," Jean said, looking at Peachy.

"Anyone who saw the way you've been actin' toward Jubilation could see 'ow much love is in yer heart. Oi simply told Ms. Rubins as much."

"That's our Jeanie," Logan grinned. "Looks like you've got another fan, Red."

"Yeah, an' then Peachy threatened to report the ole witch for not actin' in my best interest. I hope she brings that news back to Shaw and stuffs it down his throat!"

"Pish posh. Oi saw a family in need, an' just did what li'l Oi could t' ensure that you all can be together. Nothin' any decent, 'onest person wouldn't do."

"Well, it means a great deal to me-- to all of us," Jean told her, tears in her eyes. "Thank you." She reached to embrace Peachy.

"Oi'm just glad t' 'elp, luv," the nurse replied, returning the hug. Then she whispered, so only Jean could hear, "Yer gonna make quite a mother."

"Did you arrange this?" Scott asked Sean.

"Who, me?" Sean replied, looking around innocently.

"Good job, Irish. Yer more resourceful'n I ever gave you credit for."

"Surely, Logan, ye know by now that I'd do anythin' f'r me students."

"Well, Oi really must be goin' now t' check on me other patients," Peachy told them. "Oi'll check back on you later, luv," she said to Jubilee.

"I've gotta go take care of somethin'," Logan said, also heading for the door. "I'll be back in a little while."

"What was that all about?" Sean asked after Logan had left.

"I don't know," Scott replied. "But something tells me I really don't want to know."

"So, does this mean that everything's set?" Jubilee asked.

"Let's not get out hopes up just yet," Jean said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "But I'm pretty confident everything is going to work out all right."

Chapter 16

"You blasted fool!" Ms. Rubins shouted as she stormed into Dr. Knight's office, past his secretary, slamming the door behind her. She strode over to where he sat behind his desk.

"Anita, what is the meaning of this?"

"You've rescinded on your part of the deal, and now we're both going to have hell to pay!"

"What are you talking about? I've done as I've been told."

"Is that what you call your sorry attempts at supporting the idea of sending that little brat to an orphanage? I've seen worms with more of a backbone than you!"

"Anita, please, I'm a neurosurgeon, not an actor."

"Well, we'll just have to see how good a performance you put on once the hospital board learns about your involvement with one of your nurses. Not to mention what your wife would say if she found out. . . ."

"What?! We had a deal! I help you by recommending that Jubilee not return to the care of Cassidy and Frost, and no one is to find out about my little indiscretion."

"Ah, but thanks to that old cow, she's going to return New York under the guardianship of that Summers couple. You were the one who suggested she be there during the interview!"

"What, that harmless old nurse? What difference could her presence make?"

"Well, Mr. Smartass, she threatened to have me fired if I didn't decide in favor of Jubilee going to the Summerses. It seems her niece has some pull in social services."

Dr. Knight smirked. "Well, welcome to the wonderful world of blackmail, my dear. Not very comfortable being stuck between a rock and a hard place, is it?"

"This is *your* fault!"

"Oh, no. You're not blaming this on me. I backed you up, like I was supposed to."

"Then why the hell didn't you protest that couple taking her in?"

"First and foremost, I am a doctor. As such, I have to make recommendations that are in the best interests of my patient. Jubilation's returning to school was not, but I see no reason that she shouldn't go live with this couple. They seem genuinely concerned--"

"You fool! It doesn't matter if they're her real parents, back from the dead. Our orders were to send her to an orphanage."

"Correction, Anita: *your* orders. I held up my end of the bargain. And now, I wash my hands of the deal. He's *your* boss, not mine. This isn't my problem anymore. Now, if you'd kindly leave my office, I have work to do," he said, picking up his pen.

"Bastard! You're going to regret this. You and that nurse are both going to pay for crossing me!"

"Don't make me have to call security, Anita," he said, not looking up from his file. "Good day."

Without another word, she turned on her heel and strode out of his office. Steaming, she headed to the elevator and made her way down to the parking garage. Her scheming mind was already at work, figuring out how to blame this unforeseen turn of events on Dr. Knight's incompetence.

With a bing, the elevator came to a stop. The doors opened, and she stepped into the garage. She stopped a few feet in front of the elevator to sift through her bag in search of her car keys. She had just fished them out when she felt a large rough hand clamp over her mouth and another grab her around the waist. The keys clinked to the pavement as she was slammed against a wall. One hand remained over her mouth, and the other arm pinned her shoulders to the cold brick.

She found herself staring into the face of a short, stocky man. In the dim light of the garage, she could see his dark eyes glowering at her. He snarled, and for a moment she feared she were about to be mauled by a wild animal.

Suddenly, she gasped in recognition. It was the man who had been in Jubilee's room-- Logan, the girl had called him.

She tried to struggle against him, but his grip was like a vise.

"Quit yer movin'," he growled, his voice low and guttural. "I ain't gonna hurt ya-- least, not yet." Slowly, he removed his hand from her mouth.

She searched for her voice. "Wh-what do you w-want?"

"Consider this a warnin', darlin'. I know you're workin' for Shaw. I know he's payin' you to recommend sendin' Jubilee to an orphanage. An' I know he threatened the doc-- he's got somethin' to hold over his head to ensure you get his cooperation."

"I don't know what you're talk--"

"Shut up an' listen!"

She closed her mouth, and he continued.

"I also know that old nurse said some things to you, some stuff that is making you realize you have no choice but to give Jean and Scott guardianship of Jubilee. An' that isn't gonna make Shaw too happy. Not part of his plan, I'm sure. But I'm here to tell you that if anything happens to Dr. Knight or Nurse Peach, it's you I'm comin' after."

"I'm not afraid of you."

He laughed. "You should be, darlin'. Shaw tell you what happened to his lady friend, Tessa? She used to be quite a looker." Logan popped a claw out of his forearm. She jumped, staring at it wide-eyed as he moved it closer to her, gently caressing her cheek with its side. "Let's just say she won't be winnin' no more beauty contests." Trembling, she closed her eyes, a tear slowly sliding down her cheek. "So, you go tell Shaw that this round belongs to us. The doctor and nurse are off-limits. Or else, I use you as a pin cushion. We got ourselves a deal?"

Swallowing, she slowly nodded her head.

"Good," he said, retracting his claw and taking a step back. He handed her they keys she had dropped. "We look forward to your decision. Stop by any time with the forms to sign."

Keeping her eyes on him at all times, she slowly slid along the wall and then began to walk backwards into the parking lot. Her heel caught on a speed bump, and she stumbled. After she regained her balance, she looked up and saw that he was gone, having disappeared back into the shadows from which he had emerged.

She looked warily around. There was no sign of him. Grabbing her brief case tightly, she hurried to her car. It took her trembling fingers three attempts to open the lock. She got into the car quickly, and sped away, nearly running down a security guard on her way out of the garage.

Chapter 17

Everett tossed the Xavier's School sweatshirt onto the top of the piles of clothes in the open suitcase. *Well, that takes care of the dresser,* he thought, and began to close the drawer. He stopped in mid-motion when he caught sight of something in the back corner. Reaching for it, he removed a strip of four small photographs. Of him and Jubilee.

He gazed down at the smiling faces. They and the other students had gone to an amusement park for a Saturday afternoon. On their way to the bumper cars, they had passed one of those photo booths, and Jubilee had dragged him inside. The first photo was of him pouting and Jubilee putting two fingers up behind his head. The second was of him holding her in a headlock. The third showed them both making faces at the camera. The fourth was of her resting her head on his shoulder and both of them grinning merrily.

Laughing, they had no sooner emerged from the booth and retrieved their photos when Jubilee spotted the section of the park with all of the game booths. She immediately started gawking at all of the prizes, and asked him if he thought he would be able to win her a stuffed animal. Of course, he saw this as a challenge, and pompously promised to get her a great big white tiger. To win it, he only had to knock down a pyramid of six bottles.

"You'll never be able to knock down more'n three, Ev. These things are rigged."

"Three?" He laughed. "I'm telling you, Lee, I can knock down all six."

"Yeah, like, maybe if you had about twenty million tries."

"I can do it within three tosses."

"Care to put your money where your mouth is, Mr. Hot Shot?"

"You bet."

"Okay. If you don't get more'n half of 'em, I get to pick the next three rides, and you're payin' for 'em."

Everett swallowed. He knew she had been eying the coaster that had just opened a few months earlier. The riders were suspended by shoulder harnesses, their feet dangling free, and the tracks contained four three hundred-sixty degree turns. He hated going upside down. But he could not back down from this challenge. It was his pride at stake, after all.

"All right," he conceded. "But if I get more than half of the bottles, I get to pick the next three rides. Plus, I get the photos we just took."

"Why should you get the photos, too?" she asked, crossing her arms across her chest.

"'Cause no matter what, so long as I knock down some bottles-- which, of course, I will-- you're gonna get the prize. So you, Lee, are in a no-lose situation."

"Well, when you put it that way. . . . Okay. It's a deal," she said, offering her hand.

The shook, and Everett approached the booth. Needless to say, despite all of his bravado, three balls later, he had only managed to topple five of the six bottles. And so Jubilee received not a four-foot high white tiger, but a six-inch small brown rabbit with floppy ears and a cotton tail. To his surprise, she made no snide remarks as the man handed it to her. Instead, she nuzzled it against her cheek, and smiled.

"He's so soft-- like velvet," she told him.

"I can't believe that last bottle didn't fall. It was shaking, but--"

"Forget about it, Ev. Here, these are yours now," she said, handing him the photos. "Besides, I like Mr. Bun here much better than that big ole tiger. He's much cuter, and easier to carry around."

"Mr. Bun?" Everett asked with a smirk.

She chose to ignore his remark, and instead took his arm. "Now, c'mon, the Twister and its four loop-de-loops awaits!"

Miraculously, he managed to not lose his lunch. Or the cotton candy, popcorn, and ice cream he had consumed earlier that afternoon. Jubilee, proving herself to be a good sport, was easy on him, and chose the ferris wheel and the log flume for the other two rides. So, despite getting a little wet, losing the bet was not so bad. She still had Mr. Bun on her bed, and he still had the photos.

That was one of his fondest memories of the time spent with his friends at the school. Not that he had seen much of the others, except around lunchtime. He and Jubilee, on the other hand, had been inseparable the entire day, and had gone on nearly all of the rides together.

He looked down at the bottom photo, gazed at the smile on Jubilee's face as she lay her cheek on his shoulder. They had been so happy. That was the day he realized that she was the best friend he had ever had. And now. . . . Now, she did not even know who he was, might never remember him. And his parents were taking him away from the school, from her. Didn't they understand that he wanted-- he needed-- to be there for her, to lend his support, his love? He could not just abandon her when she needed him most. She had been alone for so long. What kind of friend would he be if he were not there to help her after such serious injuries? Injuries that were his fault. Because he had not insisted on avoiding the alley. Because he did not save her from Shaw and Tessa. Because he was not strong enough to protect--

The sound of a knock at the door cut short his musings. "Hey, Ev, it's Paige. Can I come in?"

With a sigh, Everett placed the photos into the pocket of the suitcase. "Sure, Paige," he called, closing the lid and zipping it shut.

Opening the door, the young blonde walked into the room. She took a look around at the bare walls and the half-filled suitcases and boxes that littered the floor. "How's the packing going?" she asked, sitting down on his bed and tucking her legs beneath her.

"Going," he replied wearily, walking over to his desk. He began to rifle through some papers.

"So, when are your folks coming?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"Oh. Well, I guess you'll be glad to see them and your sister."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Do you need any help with the packing? With your shoulder and all, I figured an extra pair of hands might be helpful."

"Thanks, Paige, but no," he said, turning to face her. "This is something I need to do myself."

She nodded, looking up at him. His eye had healed a great deal, and was now open, though still a little bruised. His backwards Cardinals cap covered up the stitches on his forehead. He still wore the sling, which greatly hindered his movement, but he was taking it easy because of his injured ribs. While these physical injuries would heal in time, she knew that the pain and the guilt he harbored over Jubilee being hurt and losing her memory would not be banished so easily, if at all. And the fact that he was being taken away from the school, from his friends and teammates, from Jubilee, would not help the emotional healing to happen any sooner. Though his parents were doing what they thought appropriate, she knew that the best place for him right now would be at the school.

"Maybe they'll let you come back next semester, after you've rested up."

"Yeah, maybe," he said with a shrug, and turned back to face the desk.

"I'm sure they will. And maybe by then, Jubes'll be back, too. Mr. Cassidy said she's been getting more and more feeling back in her legs every day, and that she'll be walking again in no time."

She saw him stiffen at the sound of the name, and clench his fist. He bowed his head, and was silent. Paige got up and walked over to him, placing a gentle hand on his uninjured shoulder. "Ev, it's not your fault. You've got to stop beating yourself up about this. You did everything you could."

Sadly, he shook his head. "No, I didn't. If I had, she wouldn't have been hurt."

"Ev, listen to me," Paige said, turning him around to face her. "That could have been any of us. And the same thing would have happened. Even Monet would have been caught in that ambush. Heck, Tessa could have just as easily stunned Mr. Cassidy as she did you and Jubilee."

"But he would never have fallen into a trap like that in the first place."

"Maybe. Maybe not. I don't think he would have walked away, though, knowing that someone was there, possibly hurt. Ev, you and Jubilee tried to help someone you thought was in need. Shaw knew that you would not be able to ignore a cry for help, and he exploited your compassion. That is nothing to be ashamed of."

"A lot of good my compassion did Jubilee."

"Ev, you got your share of licks. You were hurt, too."

"But she nearly died! As it is, she can't walk, and she lost her memory!"

"She's going to relearn how to walk, and it wasn't her entire memory. Just the past couple of years."

"Yeah, nothing important. Just all her time with Gen X."

"Ev, I know it hurts that she doesn't remember us. She's my friend, too. My roomie. You think my heart doesn't break at the thought that she can't remember all the times we've shared-- the laughter, the tears? That when she looks at my face, all she sees is a stranger? Just because she was closest to you doesn't mean you're the only one who's upset. You don't own the rights to caring about Jubilee. You're not the only one who's feeling hurt and angry. Damn it, Ev, she's my friend, too! And I'm just as scared to lose her."

She looked up at him, the anger in her eyes changing to grief. "I never allowed myself to get that close to her. She was never that intimate a person, but even when she tried to reach out to me, I always kept her at arm's distance, never let her get to know me. And that night, the last time I saw her, before . . . before she was hurt, we had a fight. I yelled at her, called her a pain in the ass and a snot-nosed brat. And now, I'm afraid. . . ." Paige's voice broke as a sob escaped her lips. She paused a moment, taking a quivering breath as the tears welled in her eyes. "And now, Ah'm so afraid that she'll never know how much she meant to me." The last words were little more than a whisper, and she turned from him quickly, bringing a trembling hand to her mouth as the tears streamed down her cheeks.

*Ah can't believe Ah just lost it like that,* she silently berated herself. *Damn it, Guthrie, how can you expect to be a leader if you can't even keep your own emotions under control? It's just-- Ah still can't believe this is happening to Jubilee. My Lord, it could just as easily have been me or Angelo or any one of us. When Sam's powers manifested, an' he became an X-Man, Ah thought that was what Ah wanted, more'n anything. Still do, Ah guess. Now, Ah just have to realize the price Ah may haveta pay to try to reach that goal. An' poor Jubilee might just be scarred-- emotionally and physically-- for the rest of her life. Is it worth it?*

She stood there a few moments, quietly sobbing. Then she felt his hand on her back. She turned to face him, and saw tears in his eyes. He opened his arm, and she gladly accepted his embrace. And so they clung to one another, weeping for the friend they feared they might lose.

****

"Hey, Ev, you in there, amigo?" Angelo asked, rapping on the half-open door and peering inside.

"Come on in, Ang," Everett called from across the room. He stood by his bookcase, handing some textbooks to Paige, who was placing them into a carton.

"What's up?" Paige asked from her perch on the floor.

"Not much. We ordered some pizza-- should be here any minute. You guys want in?"

"Sounds great," Paige said. "Pepperoni?"

"Si, and sausage, and peppers, and onions, and olives and--"

"Anchovies?" Everett asked warily.

Angelo made a face. "Not in this lifetime." He looked up at he bookcase. "You missed one," he said, pointing toward the top shelf. "I'll get it," he offered. He extended his arm several extra feet, retrieving a calculus book that had fallen over onto its side. A piece of paper fell out as he stretched his arm a couple more feet to hand it to Paige.

"Thanks," she said, putting it in the carton with the others before standing up. "I'll go get some money from my room. You gonna come, Ev?"

"Yeah, I'll be down in a few minutes," he said, unfolding the sheet of loose leaf.

"Okay." Paige paused a moment, cocking her head as she looked at him. "You okay?"

He looked up at her, and nodded. "I'm fine. Thanks, Paige. For everything."

She smiled at him. "That's what friends are for, Ev. I'll see you soon." She followed Angelo out of the room.

"You need some help findin' your cash?" Everett heard Angelo asking Paige as they began to walk down the corridor.

"No, Angelo, you and your sticky fingers are not getting anywhere near my underwear drawer. . . ." As their voices faded out of earshot, Everett found himself chuckling. He was definitely going to miss these guys. He had never felt a deeper sense of belonging before or since coming to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and joining Generation X. His parents were going to take a lot of convincing, but he was going to make sure that they would let him return. This really was the best place for him.

He turned his attention back to the piece of paper that had fallen out of the book. It contained some of his old calculus notes. In the margins, however, were little sketches-- caricatures of the other students and their teachers. Not his handiwork. Hers. She had borrowed the notes before their last exam, and had returned them with the added illustrations. "Math's a bore, Ev. Gotta add something to make it, like, at least a little interesting, so I don't snooze when I look at all those integrals." Smiling, Everett put the paper in the carton and headed downstairs to join his friends.

When he got to the first floor, he stopped abruptly and looked around. He had been sure that they would have all been gathered in the living room, with the television on or the stereo system blasting. Instead, it was dark as night and perfectly quiet. Strange. Maybe they decided to eat in the kitchen. He was about to cross the room when the lights suddenly came on and a group of shouting voices reverberated through the air.

"Surprise!"

He looked around at the room, which was decorated with colorful streamers and balloons and a "Bon Voyage!" sign. The other students emerged from behind the couches and chairs and quickly walked over to him.

"What's all this?" Ev asked, still in shock.

"We couldn't very well let you leave without a proper good-bye party," Paige said, hugging him.

"But I'm not going on a cruise," Ev said, pointing to the banner.

<<Blame Angelo.>>

"Not my fault, Jono. That's all they had at the store. It was either that, or 'It's a boy!' I think I made the better choice."

"It's fine, Ang. Thank you, guys. But you didn't have to."

"Of course we did," Mondo said, pulling Everett into a great big bear hug. "We're going to miss you, my friend."

"Me, too, Mondo," Ev said, trying to catch a breath. "Hey, easy on the shoulder, okay?"

"Sorry," he said, releasing Everett. As he readjusted his sling, Everett felt a tug on his shirt. He looked down to see two young boys staring up at him.

The first, a mute pink-skinned boy in a pair of overalls, projected an image of himself hugging Everett.

The second, green-skinned boy wearing a cap that matched Everett's, translated: "Artie says he's gonna miss Ev. Leech miss Ev, too."

"I know, guys," Everett said, bending down to embrace them. "I'll miss you, too. But I'll write, and call, and hopefully I'll be back soon."

The doorbell rang, and Angelo went to answer it.

"Hey, how about some music?" Paige asked, turning on the stereo.

"The food has arrived!" Angelo announced, returning with several pizza boxes. "Let's chow down!"

****

"Anybody for ice cream?" Monet asked, heading for the kitchen.

"Sounds good," Paige said, getting up to help her. "Who wants some?" She quickly took a head count, but noticed that someone was missing. "Hey, where'd Ev go?"

<<He was by the window last time I looked,>> Jono replied, looking around.

"I saw him go out onto the porch a few minutes ago," Mondo told them.

"Well, we can't have a party without the guest of honor," Angelo said, heading for the front door. He stepped outside, and found Everett leaning against the front banister, staring up at the stars.

"Hey, amigo, we missed you inside."

Everett shrugged, still looking up at the clear night sky. The full moon illuminated his face, revealing the sorrow in his eyes.

"I know this is tough, Ev, but everything's gonna work out okay. You'll see."

"She should be here, Angelo. She loves a good party, more than any of us."

"Yeah, it has been awfully quiet without her." He walked over to Everett and leaned his back against the railing beside him. "She's gonna get her memory back, Ev. She's tough. A fighter. She's made it this far. It's just a matter of time."

Closing his eyes, Everett nodded.

"The girls went to get some ice cream. You up for some?"

Everett sighed. "No, I think I'm gonna go finish my packing, then turn in early." With another look up at the moon, Everett headed for the door.

"Wait," Angelo called, stretching his arm out to block his path. "I've got a better idea-- the perfect way to cheer you up. C'mon, let's go get the others."

****

<<You sure this is a good idea, Ang?>>

"Do I have any other kind, Jono?"

"The ice cream is melting!"

"I told you to put lots of ice in the cooler, but did you listen to me?"

"Shut up, M."

"I will not!"

"Shh!" Angelo snapped, stopping at the end of a corridor and extending his arm to ensure that the group was flush against the wall. Well, as flush as you could get with someone of Mondo's girth. "Everybody in position?" he asked in a hushed tone. "Paige?"

"Here."

"Monet?"

"Present."

"Jono?"

<<Right behind you, mate.>>

"Mondo?"

"I am here, with Artie and Leech," he said, indicating the boys he held in his arms.

"Penny?"

"She's with me," Paige said, looking back and smiling at the hooded figure that stood behind her.

"Ev?"

"Right here, Angelo. But I still don't think we should be here. It's late, and--"

"Hey, it's your last night with the team. We can't let you leave without one last caper."

"I see you don't remember what happened the last time we got caught."

"Guthrie, you wanna lead the X-Men one day, you gotta learn to take risks. Now, remember the plan, amigos. I'll go first, make sure the coast is clear. When you see my signal, you follow in pairs. Just be sure to watch out for opposition. Move fast, but quiet. Okay people, here I go."

Angelo peered around the corner. No one was in sight. He walked purposefully across the clearing, to the other side, where he hid in the shadows. He looked in both directions again to ensure it was still clear. Then he extended a hand with a thumbs-up sign.

<<There's the signal. C'mon, Penny, let's move,>> Jono said, placing a hand on her back and ushering her across the hallway.

When they had joined Angelo, Mondo hustled across the floor, Artie and Leech in tow.

"They're across," Paige whispered to Everett. She looked at him and smiled. "Well, it's not the Sentinels, but it's still kind of fun doing all this cloak and dagger stuff. C'mon," she said, taking his arm and hurrying across the corridor.

"All right!" Angelo said in a loud whisper. "We all made it. Now, on to phase B."

<<Will you just open the bloody door 'fore this ice creams melts all over me boots!>>

"Sheesh! Everybody's a critic." With a sigh, Angelo peered through the vertical window on the wooden door. "The eagle is in the nest. And watching the tube, from the looks of it. Paige, you're on!"

Paige moved over to the door, stepping in front of Angelo. She paused a moment, taking a deep breath.

"Good luck, chica. May the force be with you."

With a curt nod, Paige entered the room. "Hi," she said with a sheepish smile. "You probably don't remember me, but--"

"Paige, right? Of course I remember you. Jean introduced us the other day. You were-- are-- my roommate, right?"

"Uh huh, that's right. How are you feeling?"

"Better, thanks," Jubilee replied, clicking off the television with the remote. "Kind of bored, actually. Would you like to sit, to stay and talk for a while? I've got tons of questions. . . ."

"Actually," Paige began, her grin broadening, "I've kind of brought some people with me."

"Some people?" Jubilee repeated, her brow furrowing.

"Yeah, the other students. You see, we were having a good-bye party for Ev, and, well, we got to missing you, and, well, we, uh, thought we'd bring the party to you. That is, if you don't mind."

"Mind? Heck, I live for parties. Parties. Shopping. Blading. Those are the three essentials, y'know. Sure, bring 'em on in."

"Great!" Smiling, Paige hurried back to the door and swung it open. "C'mon in, guys!"

Jubilee watched in amazement as the group piled inside her room. Her eyes widened at the sight of them all. They were definitely an eclectic group, to say the least. But after all the time she had spent with the X-Men, not much surprised her any more.

"Hi, guys!" she said, waving a friendly greeting.

"Well, since you don't remember us, I guess I should introduce everyone," Paige said. "This is--"

"No," Jubilee said, cutting her off. "Jean and Wolvie and Mr. Cassidy told me about all of you. I want to see if I can tell who everyone is." She took a good look at them all, studying their features. "Well, Paige I've met. Lemme see. . . . Big guy's gotta be Mondo. And the two handsome dudes with him must be Leech and Artie," she said, pointing to each one in turn.

Smiling broadly, all three nodded at her, even as Artie projected an image of a happy face.

"Okay, the guy in the leather jacket is probably Jono."

<<Right as rain.>>

"And you must be Angelo," she said, smiling at Skin, who returned the gesture. "Who's that?" she asked, pointing to the hooded figure.

She walked forward, and lowered the hood, revealing her razor-sharp red skin and long, taloned fingers.

"P- Pen. . . ." Jubilee paused a moment, brow furrowed in concentration. "Penance! Is that right?"

The girl nodded.

"Good to see you, Penny." She turned her attention to the well-poised brunette. "That picture of cultivation has got to be Monet."

M smiled smugly, either ignoring or not noticing the tinge of sarcasm in Jubilee's voice. The others, however, could not help but to smirk or chuckle.

"Now, wait a minute. I know I'm missing someone. . . ." Jubilee surveyed the crowd. There was a tall, dark-skinned teen in a baseball cap standing behind all the others. Their eyes met, and a huge smile lit Jubilee's face. "You must be Everett."

The others stepped aside, allowing Everett a clear path to Jubilee's bedside. He hesitated. Angelo reached an arm behind him, and gently nudged him forward. "Uh, yeah, the one and only," Everett said, approaching her.

Jubilee reached her hand out to him. Slowly, Everett took it.

"I'm glad to finally put a face with the name," she said warmly, giving his hand a squeeze.

Everett felt as though his heart were about to break. He swallowed, trying to tamp down the aching feeling in his heart. Instead, he forced himself to smile in return.

<<So, who's fer ice cream?>> Jono asked.

Everett released her hand and took a step back.

"You got any mint chocolate chip?" Jubilee asked.

<<What, you think we'd come fer a visit an' not bring yer favorite?>>

"Here, I'll get the spoons and bowls," Paige offered as the others began to pull over some chairs.

"Artie, Leech, come sit on the bed with me," Jubilee offered, patting the covers beside her.

"Here you go, chica, first bowl for you," Angelo said, handing Jubilee some ice cream.

"Thanks, Ang," she said, taking it from him. "Sure beats the grub they try to pass as food here." She took a spoonful into her mouth. "Mmm mmm. Scrumptious."

"So, how're you feeling?" Mondo asked.

"Better. My head doesn't hurt so much any more. This cast itches like all get out, though."

"How are your legs?" Monet queried, perching on the arm of a chair with a bowl of rocky road.

Everyone looked at her in surprise, a few with a look of distaste.

*I take it Monet's not one to beat around the bush,* Jubilee thought. "They're much better, thanks. Getting stronger every day, in fact. The docs want me to take it easy for a while because of my head and all. But as soon as I go home, I'm gonna start physical therapy."

"Home?" Angelo asked. "I thought you weren't returning to the school."

Jubilee blushed. "Oh. Sorry. I meant Westchester. I'm gonna stay with Jean and Scott for a while, at least till I'm back on my feet. They're gonna be my legal guardians." She looked around at all of the downcast faces. "But everyone's hopeful that I'll be back up to speed in no time," she added. "So, it shouldn't be long 'till I'm back at school."

"Well, we all can't wait for that," Paige said, placing her hand on Jubilee's.

Jubilee looked at her thoughtfully for a minute. "So, you're Sam's little sister?"

Paige nodded. "Uh huh."

"Then how come you don't sound anything like him? I'd've thought you'd have a drawl, just like him'n Rogue."

This time it was Paige who flushed. "Well, that's . . . um . . . because I--"

Angelo smirked. "'Coz she don't wanna sound like an uneducated hillbilly."

"Hey, just 'cause Sammy's got an accent don't mean he's uneducated. An' just 'cause we're from Kentucky don't mean mah family or Ah am hillbillies! You don't see me callin' you a hood, do ya, Angelo?"

"But I *am* a hood, chica," he retorted with a devilish grin. He cupped his hand to Jubilee's ear. "All you gotta do is get her hackles up, an' she reverts to her true self," he whispered, just loud enough so the others could hear. They all laughed; even Paige could not help but smile.

"Hey, guys, a tiger is approaching the nest!" Mondo shouted.

"Tiger?" Jubilee asked quizzically. "Mondo, what the heck are you--?"

<<That's Espinosa's code fer a nurse comin' t' the room,>> Jono explained. <<Ev'rybody, be still! Jubilee, pretend yer sleepin'.>>

Monet closed her eyes in concentration. The nurse walked into the room and approached Jubilee's bedside. Seeing the girl sleeping, she gently touched her wrist to check her pulse before silently taking her leave. As soon as the door closed behind her, the group let out an audible sigh.

"What just happened?" Jubilee asked. "Why didn't she notice you guys?"

"Because of me," Monet stated plainly. "I psionically masked our presence. It was not difficult. Quite simple, in fact. Now, if you will excuse me a moment, I must use the ladies' room." She turned on her heel and strode out of the room.

As soon as Monet left, Jubilee rolled her eyes and smirked. "She's quite full of herself, isn't she?"

The others began to chuckle.

"Well, Ms. Perfect, I bow in your all-powerful presence," Jubilee said mockingly toward the doorway, making a flourishing gesture with her hand.

Angelo laughed so hard, he fell off of the side of the bed.

"You okay, Ang?" Everett asked, looking down at him.

"I don't freakin' believe it!" he said in between guffaws. "They've been reacquainted barely ten minutes, an' already Jubes has got M pegged!"

"Was it something I said?" Jubilee asked.

"You sure you don't remember M, Jubes?" Paige asked her. "You were the one to nickname her 'Ms. Perfect'."

Jubilee shook her head. "Nope. Just . . . seemed to fit."

<<Can't argue there.>>

"How do you guys put up with her?"

Wiping his eyes, Angelo shrugged. "You usually keep us entertained with your commentary."

"She's not so bad all the time," Mondo said in Monet's defense.

"Yeah, hard to look down your nose at people when you lapse into a catatonic trance," Angelo said. "It's the only time anybody can get a word in edgewise."

<<Unless, of course, the ole sparkster is 'round,>> Jono amended.

"Guess I didn't grow out of my motormouth stage," Jubilee said with a feeble smile.

"That's okay, Jubes. It's one of your more endearing qualities," Paige said somberly.

"You, Hayseed, are a horrible liar," Jubilee told her with a shake of the head.

Paige's mouth opened in shock.

<<Ain't that the truth. Close yer mouth, Guthrie, or you'll catch flies.>>

"D-Did you guys c-catch that?" Paige stuttered.

"Catch what?" Everett asked.

"Jubes-- sh-she called me 'Hayseed'. Jubilee, you called me 'Hayseed'!" Paige said, grasping her arm excitedly.

Jubilee's eyes furrowed. "Yeah. So what?"

"You always used to call me Hayseed whenever you kidded around with me. Do you remember?"

Jubilee closed her eyes a moment in concentration. Then, sadly, she shook her head. "Nope. Sorry, Paige, it just kind of . . . popped into my head. I don't even know why I said it."

"Maybe it means your memory's comin' back," Angelo suggested.

"What's going on?" Monet asked, returning to the room.

"Jubilee called you 'Ms. Perfect' and Paige 'Hayseed'," Mondo explained.

"Oh, geez, have a little tact, big guy!" Jubilee moaned, clasping her hand over her eyes.

"Recalling those two nicknames is no indication that her memory is returning," Monet pointed out. "Our actions could have caused her to spontaneously generate those names without any prior knowledge."

"Or she could have remembered them," Paige pointed out.

"I suppose," Monet conceded. "But that is still no indication that she is recalling all of her memories. That process is likely to be a gradual one, occurring over weeks or months, if not--"

"Who the hell asked you, Monet?" Everett snapped, getting to his feet.

Everyone fell silent.

Monet actually looked taken aback. "I was just pointing out--"

"Did you ever think that maybe nobody gives a damn about your opinion? You're not her doctor, so just *shut up*!" Without looking back, he quickly bolted out the door.

"Ev!" Paige shouted. She got to her feet and went over to M. "Great going, Monet. Real sensitive. I'd better go after him."

"No, let met," Angelo said. "You stay here. I'll catch up with him." With a scornful glance at Monet, he hurried out the door after his friend.

He found Everett standing down the hallway, forehead and fist leaning against the wall. Angelo stood several feet away, looking at him. "You okay, Ev?" he asked.

"I- I knew this was going to be a bad idea. I don't know why I bothered to come."

"It was my idea, Ev. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for you to get hurt. I just thought you'd want Jubilee to be around on your last night here."

Everett turned to look at him, and Angelo saw the sadness written all over his face. "I thought so, too. I hoped that somehow, it would feel like old times. But, sitting in there, talking with her-- it's like she's a different person. She doesn't remember us, the times we've all shared. I kept looking at her face, hoping for some sign that she would remember. But it was like looking into the face of a stranger. I know she was trying to be friendly, but I could tell . . . she was nervous, uncomfortable. Jubilee and I, we used to be able to talk about anything. I could tell what she was thinking about by just looking in her eyes. And now. . . . Now, just to be in the same room with her, knowing that she can't remember our friendship, it . . . it just hurts too much."

"I'm sorry," Angelo said, clasping his shoulder. "But Monet's opinion aside, I'm sure her memory will return. Soon. And she'll remember her best bud, and all the times you've shared."

"No, it's probably better this way. I'm leaving the school anyway, so it's just as well she forget me, and get on with her life."

"Now you're talking loco, Ev. How can you say that? You're an important part of her life. Of course she should remember you. Geez, it's not like you're never going to see her again."

"Angelo, my folks were adamant about my not returning to the school. As much as we all are trying to think otherwise, it's just not going to happen. I'm leaving for good."

"Ev, I know they're your folks and all, but that doesn't mean they own you. You get to a certain age, you can make your own decisions, with or without their approval."

"But by then, it'll be too late. Even if her memory comes back, she'll get on with her life, and not give me a second thought."

"Hey, it's not like she doesn't have room in her heart for more than one friend, right? If so, next to you, me and the others'd be gettin' the cold shoulder, even worse'n Monet is now."

Everett opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind, quickly turning away and walking down the corridor.

Watching Everett walk to a small lounge and sit down in a chair, Angelo regarded his friend, trying to surmise what was bothering him. Something was making Everett hurt badly, deep down, in his heart and soul. His heart. . . . Angelo's eyes widened as realization dawned on him. *Dios mio! Espinosa, you are a complete idiot! * He slapped himself on the forehead. *How did you not see it sooner? Oh, geez, no wonder he's been so down in the dumps!*

Angelo walked over to where Everett sat with his face resting in his hand. He quietly sat down across from him. "Ev, you care about her, don't you? I mean, really care about her. More'n as a friend."

Everett looked up at him in astonishment. Then, as the shock faded, he slowly nodded. "When we were being held captive, and tortured by Shaw and Tessa, I was afraid that they were going to kill us. We both were. At one point, after Tessa attacked Jubilee's mind, and Shaw's goons beat on me, they left the two of us alone. Jubilee hung across from me, unconscious, barely breathing. I could tell from how quickly Jubilee fainted that she wasn't going to last much longer from Tessa's treatments. And I was feeling pretty bad myself-- everything ached, there was a sharp pain in my chest every time I tried to draw a breath. I- I thought that it might be our last time alone together before . . . before they finished us off. I don't even know if she heard me. Probably not, she was so out of it. But I couldn't go to my grave without telling her how I felt.

"I told her how she was the closest friend I'd ever had. How nobody ever knew me as well as she did. How there was nobody I had ever felt I could confide in like her. And how, lately, these past few months, I realized what I had been feeling was more than friendship. Much more. I told her . . . I told her that I loved her."

Slowly, Angelo nodded. It was one thing to feel concern for an injured friend. Yet the way Everett blamed himself seemed well beyond reason for one friend for another-- even if they were best friends. But knowing that he was secretly in love with that best friend, the anger, the guilt, the pain-- it all made sense now. Thinking it was their last moments on earth, Everett had taken a chance, he had bared his soul. And now Jubilee did not remember him-- as a friend, let alone as someone more. While the former had to be painful enough-- Angelo knew about that, for that was what they all were feeling-- he could not even begin to imagine the latter. To tell a girl that you loved her, to almost lose her, and then to learn you were now a stranger to her. Every time Everett looked at her and saw the friend he once knew, he was faced with the might-have-beens. . . .

"You gotta tell her, man. Tell her how you feel about her."

"I can't!" Everett looked into his face. "Can't you see, Angelo? It's difficult for her to try to remember us as teammates and friends. If I were to tell her that I thought about her as more than a friend. . . . Think about it from Jubilee's standpoint. It's hard enough for her to cope right now. I don't need to give her that added pressure. Besides, it would be so . . . awkward. Right now, in her eyes, I'm little more than an acquaintance. If I were to tell her, I might push her away, lose her friendship entirely. And I'm not prepared to do that."

Slowly, Angelo nodded his head. "I guess you're right. But why are you giving up on her friendship already? You're cutting yourself off from her, even before she gets the chance to know you again."

Everett searched for the words to try to explain what he was feeling-- all of the conflicted emotions roiling around inside of him. "I- I look into her eyes, and I . . . I just don't know her anymore. She's as much a stranger to me as I am to her. I just can't face her, Angelo. I can't."

Angelo did not know what to say. He wanted to reach out to his friend, to tell him he understood his pain, that it would be all right, that everything would work out eventually. But the truth was, he was not so sure himself.

"Right now, it's just too painful-- the wound is still too raw. I'm not gonna be here anyway. If I've gotta go back home with my parents, I- I might as well make a clean break of it. Try to move on. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll get over her." With a sigh, Everett got slowly to his feet. "I- I've got to get out of here. I need to be alone right now."

Angelo nodded. "Ev, I want you to know, I'm here for you, man. I'll always be here for you. Just a phone call away, comprendes?"

Everett managed a small smile. "Thanks," he whispered, holding out his hand.

Getting up, Angelo clasped his hand.

"Listen, can you do me a favor, Angelo?"

"Sure, amigo. Anything."

Everett reached up and took off his cap. "Can you give this to her for me?"

Angelo looked at him quizzically, but accepted the hat. "Okay."

"Thanks. I'll see you later."

Angelo watched until Everett got on the elevator, and the doors closed behind him. Then he stared down at the red cap in his hand, and the 'St. L' stitched on the front. With a sigh, he headed back to Jubilee's room.

"What happened?" asked Paige. "Where's Ev?"

"He was really tired, and decided to go back to the school to finish packing," Angelo explained.

"Is he leaving tomorrow?" Jubilee asked.

"Yeah, his folks are coming in the morning." Angelo walked over to the bed. "Jubilee, he asked me to give this to you," he said, handing her the hat.

Her brow furrowed. "His Cardinals cap? Why would he want me to have it?"

"No se."

"Well, be sure to thank him for me."

"No problem."

"Angelo, I've got something to return to you."

"To me?"

"Yeah." Jubilee pulled the gold chain and cross from her neck gently placed it in Angelo's hand, closing his fingers around it. She looked into his eyes. "Thank you for your faith."

With a smile, Angelo nodded. "De nada."

"You know, we probably should get going," Paige suggested. "Jubilee needs her rest."

<<M, why don't we go see if we can catch up with Ev, so we an all head back together?>> Jono suggested.

With a nod, Monet said good night to Jubilee and hurried out the door. Jono, wishing Jubilee well, exited right behind her.

"When are you heading back to New York?" Paige asked as she and they others began to gather up the dirty dishes to throw away.

"The doctors want to make sure I'm okay before they release me, so I don't get sprung for another couple of days."

"Well, at least that'll give us some more time to visit with you. That is, if you want us to."

Jubilee looked at Paige and smiled. "Of course I do. I know my amnesia is tough on you all, just like it is for me. We've been teammates and friends for a while now, I guess. And it must hurt that I can't remember it. I know I'd feel bad if one of the X-Men didn't remember me. Anyways, I just want to say I'm sorry."

"Sorry? You don't have anything to be sorry for," Paige told her.

"Yeah," Angelo agreed. "This wasn't your fault, Jubes. Don't go blaming yourself." *There's already enough guilt floating around to last a lifetime,* he thought bitterly.

Jubilee nodded. "Anyways, I want to thank you guys for stopping by. I really enjoyed spending time with all of you, getting to know you all over again."

"You just rest up, and concentrate on getting well, you hear?" Paige said with mock sternness, bending to hug Jubilee.

"I will. Hey, Angelo?"

"Si?"

"Will you say good-bye to Ev for me?"

"Sure. No problem."

Jubilee said good night to the others, and sighed as she was left once again alone in the room. She looked down at the cap that sat in her lap, and gently turned it over in her hands. With a sigh, she placed it on her bedside table, and shut the light. Closing her eyes, she let her mind wander. Soon, a particular image flitted into her mind as sleep began to overcome her. She was in a classroom, sitting at a desk. Paige was on her left, Monet on the right. Angelo was saying something behind her. Sitting in front of her was Everett. His back was to her, but she could see the logo on his backwards-turned Cardinals cap. He turned around, flashed her a grin, and wished her good luck. She remembered the butterflies in her stomach as Mr. Cassidy placed the calculus midterm on her desk. As he continued to distribute the exams, he stopped in front of Everett's desk and asked him to remove his cap. Everett politely declined. When Mr. Cassidy asked why, he explained his reasoning. With a smile and a pat on the back, Sean had conceded, and let him continue to wear the hat.

Her eyes suddenly snapped open and she sat up as realization dawned on her. "Oh, my God, I remember!" she exclaimed aloud. It was not much, just a brief moment from her past-- she did not even know how long ago. But, the fact remained, she could recall a small scene from her time at the school.

She quickly reached toward the nightstand, groping for the familiar object. She brought the hat to her chest and hugged it close, even as the tears pooled in her eyes and slowly streamed down her cheeks.

It was his lucky hat.

Chapter 18

"You just about ready, sweetie?" Jean asked, walking into Jubilee's room.

"Yeah, I think I've had my fill of hospitals," Jubilee said. Wearing garnet-colored sweats, she was now struggling to tie the shoelaces of her sneakers. As it were, her legs were still not doing everything she willed them to, and her sore ribs made it painful to lean forward for long periods of time.

"Here, let me," Jean offered, sitting beside Jubilee on the bed and helping her with the laces.

"God, I feel like a three-year-old!"

Jean looked at Jubilee's face, and saw the frustrated tears that were welling in her eyes. "Sweetie, it's going to take time. Your injuries are going to need a while to heal. Besides, I'm sure as soon as the cast comes off, things will be a little easier.

"You know, when I was eight, I broke my arm when I fell off my bike. I had to wear a cast for eight weeks. I was lucky it was my left arm, but it still made it incredibly difficult to do little things, like tie my shoelaces. My sister, Sara, and my parents did all they could to help me, but it was frustrating-- I wanted to be able to do things by myself.

"I remember, one Saturday afternoon, some friends called me to go with them to the park. I tried to tie my hair back in a ponytail, so it wouldn't get in the way when we played ball. But with the cast, I just didn't have the dexterity to do it. I remember standing in front of that mirror for nearly an hour, trying to put my hair up. I finally gave up, threw down the brush in frustration, and burst into tears. That's when Sara came in. She had been watching me for a while, but didn't say anything, because she knew I had to try to do it myself. She came in, and gently stroked my head. I looked at her, and asked her for help. She smiled, and did my hair for me. Then she dried my tears and told me to go have fun."

Jean's voice became thick with emotion as she thought about her dead sister. Jubilee's own heart ached for Jean's loss, and her own, as it made her think of her parents. "I realized that there comes a time when you have to swallow your pride, and accept the help that you're offered. They only loved me, and wanted to help me." She placed her hand on Jubilee's. "We'll get through this, Jubilee. Together."

Sniffling, Jubilee nodded.

There was a knock on the door, and they looked up as Sean and Paige entered the room.

"How ya doin', lass?"

"All right."

"Yer bags are all loaded in the car."

"I helped Jean pack the stuff I thought you'd need," Paige told her. She walked over to the bed. "I thought you might like to have this with you-- for the ride." She held out a small velveteen rabbit.

"Mr. Bun? Thanks, Hayseed." She took the toy.

Paige's eyes widened. "You know his name?"

Jubilee shrugged. "Sure. He *is* my favorite stuffed animal, isn't he?"

"Yeah, but. . . ." Paige looked from Jubilee to Jean to Sean. "You only got him about a year ago. Ev won him for you at a carnival."

Jubilee looked down at the toy in her lap, and gently reached for it, her hand trembling. She looked up at Paige, smiling through the tears in her eyes.

"Looks like yer memories're comin' back, one piece at a time," Sean said, face beaming.

Jean got to her feet. "I'm going to go make sure all the forms are in order for your release."

"I'll go with ye, Jean." Sean held the door for her, and walked with her to the nurse's station.

Paige looked at Jubilee and shrugged. "So, I guess this is good-bye."

"I guess so."

"Don't forget this," Paige said, picking up the hat from the bedside table.

"Yeah, I'll be needing it 'till my hair grows back," Jubilee said, placing the cap on her head backwards. "So much for letting it grow. So, how does it look?"

Paige looked at her in surprise.

"What, that bad?" Then Jubilee realized what she had just said. "My hair was short when I was with the X-Men," she said simply.

Paige nodded happily.

"Well, if this keeps up, my memory should be back in no time."

"I hope so."

They sat in silence, neither one knowing what to say.

"Listen, Paige, I realize that right now, for me, it's like we've just met, but for you, we've known one another for a while." She sighed in frustration. "This isn't coming out like I want it to."

Paige sat down beside her. "Take your time."

"What I'm trying to say is, I know I'm not the easiest person to get along with. And, being my roommate, I'm sure you've had to put up with a lot of crap from me."

Paige smirked, remembering the countless times Jubilee complained to her about the husked pieces of skin she left lying around their room. "Well, I'm not the perfect roomie, either. But we did all right, I think."

"Anyways, I just want to let you know that I appreciate how nice you've been to me these past few days. From the time we've spent together, I can tell you're one of those toe-the-line, straight-laced types. And I remember enough to know that me and goody-two-shoes-- just like me and authority figures-- tend to not get on so well. So, I thought we might, like, forget about any differences we may have had. I'm hoping we can, like, start over or something. Clean slate and all that. You're all right, Paige. I'm glad to have you for a friend. Thanks for everything."

Paige simply stared at Jubilee in disbelief. Never in a million years would she have expected to hear such heart-felt words from Jubilation Lee. At least, not the Jubilee who had been her roommate. This near-death experience must have had a greater affect on her than she first realized. This new sincerity was going to take some getting used to.

"I- I can't. . . . I don't. . . ." She took a shaky breath, feeling the tears threatening to fall. "I'm gonna miss you, Lee," Paige said finally, embracing her.

"Yeah, me, too, Guthrie. Me, too."

They clung to each other, quietly weeping for the joy of the closeness they felt toward one another, and the sorrow of being separated after renewing that friendship.

Slowly, Paige pulled away, drying her eyes with her sleeve. "I'll call you, okay?"

"You'd better," Jubilee told her, drying her own cheeks. "You'll say good-bye to everyone for me?"

"Of course."

"So, how's me favorite patient doin'?"

Jubilee looked up to see the sweet old nurse wheeling an empty wheelchair into the room, Jean and Sean behind her. "Hiya, Peachy. I'm doing pretty good, I think. Glad to be leaving, but sorry to say good-bye."

"Oi'm sure you'll be happy t' get home."

"Thanks for taking such good care of me, Peachy," Jubilee said, hugging her.

"My pleasure, luv. The road ahead's goin' t' be tough, but you've come so far already. With such wonderful people standin' by you, lovin' an' supportin' you, Oi know you'll make it through this."

Jubilee looked up at Jean. "Yeah, I think so, too."

"You ready, luv?"

"As I'll ever be. Let's do it."

Peachy and Sean helped her into the chair. Paige handed Mr. Bun to Jean, and she took it with a smile.

"So, Logan flew home already?" Jubilee asked as Peachy wheeled her down the hallway and toward the elevator.

"Yes, he went on ahead to get things in order," Jean replied. "That way, your room will be all set by the time we get back."

"How long a drive do you think it'll be?"

"Depending on traffic, four, maybe five hours."

"Ye'll probably sleep the whole way," Sean said with a teasing smile.

"We thought a drive would be easier on you," Jean explained. "And Dr. Knight agreed that flying would not be such a good idea after your concussion and the surgery."

They came to the hospital lobby, and found Scott waiting for them. He walked over and put an arm around Jean's waist. "I've got the car parked out front. Whenever you're ready, Jubilee."

"You'll be in me prayers, luv," Peachy said, giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze before stepping back to give Jubilee some time to say good-bye.

Jubilee looked up at Paige. "Try not to miss me too much, Hayseed."

"Can't make any promises there," she replied, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. "If you ever need to talk, or anything--"

"I know. Thanks."

Paige stepped back, allowing Sean to approach. He knelt down in front of Jubilee. "You rest up, lass. I expect t' see ye back here by this time next year."

Jubilee looked into his kind, gentle face, and felt the tears threatening again. "Thanks for everything, Mr. Cassidy," she whispered, circling his neck with her arms.

He held her tightly in his arms, offering a silent prayer that this wonderful young woman was granted a second chance. And even though a part of him knew he was losing her, he felt confident that one day soon, she would be back. Slowly, he released her, and stood up. "You take care and be well, Jubilee."

"You, too."

"Are you ready, sweetie?" Jean asked.

Silently, Jubilee nodded.

Scott bent down in front of her, and she wrapped her arms around his neck as he gently lifted her in his arms. He was surprised at how light and fragile she felt. It made him think about his son, Nate, and how weak he had been when the techno-organic virus came out of remission and ravaged the young boy's body. He suddenly felt an overwhelming need to protect the girl in his arms, to ensure she was kept safe and warm and loved. At that moment, he knew that Jean and he had made the right decision when they decided to take her in-- to their home, and their hearts.

He gently carried her out to the car and placed her in the back seat. Then Jean began to help her get settled, making sure she was comfortable.

Scott walked over to Sean and Paige. They heard Jean ask Jubilee if she was warm enough, and watched as she tucked a blanket around the protesting girl.

"I see she's fussin' over her already," Sean remarked with a grin.

"Well, I'm sure Jubilee will enjoy being mothered for a while."

"All set," Jean said, walking over to them.

"Well, take care of yourself, Sean," Scott said, shaking his hand.

"Ye, too. She's gonna be quite a handful, ye know."

Scott smiled. "We've handled Sentinels, evil mutants, and would-be world conquerors. How difficult could one teenaged girl be?"

"She'll be fine, Sean," Jean said, embracing him. "And don't hesitate to call and check on her as often as you want."

"I will, lass. Thank ye, f'r all that ye've done. I don't think I could've made it through this past week if not f'r yer support."

"Cuts both ways, Sean," she replied with a smile. "Send our regards to Emma."

"Will do."

Jean turned to Paige. "You going to be okay, sweetie?"

The girl nodded.

Before Jean could take a step closer, Paige launched herself into Jean's arms. "Thank you, Paige," she whispered, gently stroking her head. "You helped get me through this. I won't forget how you reached out to me."

Paige said nothing, but simply nodded.

Jean pulled back, and took her by the shoulders. "She won't be gone forever. Before you know it, you'll have a roommate to annoy you again."

"I can't wait," Paige said with a smile.

"That's better. Now, you take care. And be strong. There are people who'll need that shoulder of yours," Jean said, turning her gaze to Sean.

"Ready?" Scott asked.

Jean nodded, and walked with him back to the car.

"How ye holdin' up, lass?" Sean asked, standing beside Paige.

"I'm doing all right," she replied, looking up at his face. It was no longer marred by the worry that had filled it since they found Jubilee and Everett that terrible night in the warehouse. And though she could still see the sadness in his eyes, she knew that he was going to be okay. "You?"

"I'm fine."

They watched as the car began to pull away. Jubilee peered out through the window and waved to them.

Smiling, they waved back, watching as the car pulled out of the parking lot and disappeared from sight down the street. They stood several minutes longer, gazing out into the distance.

Sean felt her place her hand in his.

"She's gonna be all right, isn't she, Mr. Cassidy." It was not a question.

Sean looked down at the young woman, saw the faith lighting her eyes, her face, her very bearing. "Aye, that she is," he replied, feeling her confidence wash over his mind and heart, and fill his soul. "C'mon," he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders, "let's go home."

The End


Jennifer Sorowitz 98'
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