The Race
by Indigo

Chapter 4

Sean and Betsy, wearing their most intimidating professional clothes, sat in the tiny cafetorium -- a room serving the dual purposes of cafeteria and auditorium. They would have an assembly called of the handful of students during the lunch break, and Betsy could surreptitiously identify the manifestation.

Bobby Drake had borrowed one of Sam Guthrie's old flannel shirts, and donned the most worn pair of jeans he owned. To his horror, the class was a lot smaller than he expected. Think fast, Iceman. Play it cool.

"My paperwork's held up a day back east," he explained to the teacher who asked him if he was sure he belonged here. "My uncle Hank is tryin' to get it straightened out. Please let me stay in class today? He'll have kittens if he finds out I started a day later than we hoped!"

[~Nice performance,~] a voice said sarcastically into his head.

Bobby slammed down his psionic defenses and straightened slightly, but otherwise gave no indication that anyone had discomfited him. However, in his thoughts, he was fighting down panic. You must chill! You MUST chill! he told himself. He gathered his wits and scanned the room briefly behind the Clark Kent hornrims. In such a small group Monet St. Croix stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. The shock of seeing her here was enough to snap his thoughts back into line. He felt calmness settle over him like a comforting snowfall. Well, that's one precinct heard from. Sean, if I know him, is probably around here somewhere.

Assembly -- if you could call forcing 100 13-17 year olds into one room an "assembly" -- was shortly after lunch.

Ah, Bobby thought. There's Sean.

Shite! Sean thought, eyes widening. There's Emma! She was sauntering in on the arm of the principal. In his distress, he missed Bobby, filing in with the rest of the reluctant, shuffling crowd. Monet, however, he spotted. Shite! She brought Monet as well. Chamber brought up the rear as Emma's bodyguard, and Sean's stream of thought became a bit more colorful. Betsy?

[~I see them, luv. What, would you have me do the psychic knife thing to them, then, in the middle of the audience?~] Betsy was not visible, though her thoughts were clear in Sean's head. She was using her shadow power to obscure herself in case a fight broke out; which possibility was seeming more likely with every passing moment. [~They're playing it straight, so far. Emma's not doing anything telepathic.~]

Bobby glanced around the room, seeing if he could spot the kid by eyesight. The obvious choice would be the kid with the blonde-and-black hair, since he was ... not as midwestern-wholesome-looking as every other kid, but Iceman knew better than anyone that you could not judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, the pocket pal Cerebro seems to have gone on strike. Great. He poked the thing once, twice, and was ready to give it a good whack.

"No hand-held video games on school grounds, Mr. Drake. I imagine you're new here, or you'd have known that." He found the pocket Cerebro plucked from his grasp.

"HEY!" Bobby looked up, annoyed, and found himself staring up an expanse of white-clad leg ... thigh ... hip ... smooth flat belly... Oh, shit. It's Emma.

[~Well, hello to you too, Drake.~]

Bobby gulped and grinned sheepishly. Okay. All players accounted for. Let the games begin! Despite the comedy he was using to whistle past the graveyard of his nerves, Bobby felt a little skip to his heartbeat upon laying eyes on the White Queen again. And his thoughts were almost wistful. Damn. Shame that she's gone back over to the Other Side.

Emma flashed him a brilliant white smile, and arched a brow as if to ask "what makes you so sure I have gone over to some 'other side'," then continued to the little stage at the front of the room. The White Queen smiled beside the principal, as Sean went on, stumbling uncomfortably every few sentences about "career day." This, she mused, Will be fun.

[~And hello to you too, Psylocke.~]


Sean dropped the handful of papers he was holding.

Oh, yes. This will definitely be fun.

Aiko had been feeling sort of strange and twitchy all morning. The feeling had intensified when the new girl arrived. It has nothing to do with her whatsoever, Aiko insisted to himself. Besides, even if it does, if she's anything like the rest of the kids in this stupid town, she will only want to drive her heel into my eye anyway. He shrugged it off. I'll get to burn this rush off after school when I get chased home.

The rush actually intensified when they were herded into the cafetorium. Whoa. If I didn't know better I'd say one of these 'clats slipped me something. But they couldn't have. His head swam, and the room was blurring around him. Maybe I should see about going to the nurse. He shrugged the thought off. Other than the semi-psychadelic moment he was currently experiencing, he felt fantastic.

But the awkward redheaded man on the stage was saying something about 'Career Day'. Aiko hadn't remembered anything like that being in the curriculum, but then again, he wasn't paying much close attention to anything but trying to survive each inexorably boring day. The names were being called. The other kids were being given little slips of paper and sent to sit down again.

Of course, I can't say that much for this particular day, he reminded himself, fidgeting in his chair.

"Aiko Carey."

Aiko blinked. Someone called his name.

It was the principal.

I didn't even do anything, Aiko sighed, but trudged toward the stage toward whatever punishment they planned to mete out to him.

"Here are your appointments to see our career counselors. They'll be here until Wednesday of next week."

Career Counselors? Sean's head snapped up, and he found Emma smiling serenely at him from the other side of the stage. You bloody devious, manipulative bint.

[~But of course, Sean.~]

Bobby waved to Sean on the stage.

Sean facepalmed.

[~Face front, Sean. The contact's on his way to the stage!~] Betsy's tone was clipped and had the an inflection that indicated she would brook no backtalk. From the shadows, she slid close to Sean and dropped the pocket Cerebro into his lap. It was glowing insistently, and getting brighter as the obvious misfit from the class approached.

The other kids had had their slips handed to them, and some few were still waiting for theirs. Sean's charade had demanded that he and Betsy see the other hundred or so kids to make their cover believable. But a simple telepathic suggestion to the principal made it possible for the right kid to end up in their presence.

"Everyone else is dismissed, now, until such time as your appointmentss with Miss Braddock and Mr. Cassidy. You'll find tests in your homerooms in the morning to fill out and take with you," the principal said, waiting for the kids to file out. The last class of the day had been used for it, and the kids were only too happy to take off.

Except Aiko -- whom Betsy gave a simple telepathic suggestion to linger curiously.

Aiko prided himself on being an observant kid. He should've been. His father, Roger, had been a reporter. His mother, Kaoru, had been a professional photographer. It was only natural that that combination would've produced a kid who didn't miss much.

At present though, he was busy being astonished that he had been singled out for the first career counseling session, while most of the other kids' seemed to be scheduled early next week. He was almost to the stage when something cold gently tapped his shoulder. He turned around and found himself looking into the face of a kid he didn't recognize.

"Hey, I'm new here. You wanna show me around instead of doing that boring career thing? Oh, by the way -- I'm Bobby." He extended a hand and smiled impishly.

Aiko regarded the hand with mingled hope and suspicion. If this guy's on the up-and-up, I may actually have a friend an an ally against the townies. Screw career counseling. I'm in 10th grade. I have two years before college to figure it out. "You're on."

He shoots! He scores! The Iceman Scores! Bobby resisted the strong urge to do a victory dance in the middle of the cafetorium. "Any decent place to get pizza around here? I'm starving."

"You have got to be kidding," Aiko laughed. "Have you seen how small this town is?"

[~Nice interception, Robert,~] Emma thought, amused. [~You've actually developed some talent for the devious.~]

Must be you rubbing off on me, Ems.

[~Indeed.~] Emma smiled after him. [~Monet. You know what to do.~]

[~Right away, Ms. Frost.~] Monet, lingering outside the girls bathroom with a vapid clique of teenagers who fawned over her hair and her makeup and her clothes, was only too thrilled to have a reason to leave them. She clutched her backpack. "Whoops. My pager's on vibrate. I've got to go. Excuse me, ladies. Another time." Over my dead body.

"Oooh, Monet has a pager...!" they choroused as she stalked off just short of running. Once out of sight of the main school building, she glanced around, and kicked into superspeed, the better to catch up with Iceman and Aiko.

"Wonderful," Sean sighed. "Bloody brilliant, that's what I am. Ex-interpol, even, and what do I do? Get stuck promising to evaluate a handful of kids, while the one lad I came for gets away with someone else!"

Betsy tried not to laugh. "It isn't as though you've had much practice."

Sean closed his eyes and tried not to think of the last time he'd had to do first contact on a newly manifested mutant. My last failure cost Blink her life. I've no idea what this boy can do, even though I've a positive ID on him and can find him again easily in this buttonhole of a town. But I mean to find out. Bobby's obviously working for Charles -- that's acceptable, even if it's a little odd that Charles himself didn't come. But Frost's still here, and as long as she is, this lad's in deadly danger. Betsy, shadow them.

[~Oh, droll, Sean. Ever so droll.~]

Sean facepalmed again. Betsy was touchy. I hadn't expected her to get so defensive about Emma being here, he thought with a shake of his head as he nodded, shook hands with, and smiled at the students who filed out past him.

Betsy's grouchiness was due to more than Emma's presence, though... The kid shrugged off the telepathic suggestion like it was nothing. That's ... impressive. Troublesome, but impressive. She did as Sean asked, sliding into the shadows to follow the boy and his "schoolmate."

[~How goes it, Robert?~]

Bobby rolled his eyes as he and Aiko stood in line at the sole McDonald's in the entire town. There was one cashier and no drive through, and it looks like every kid over the age of ten all simultaneously had a Big Mac Attack! So naturally, Bobby mused, The Professor picks now to see how I'm doing. He paused and opened his thoughts. Fine, Professor. We're about to get burgers, fries, then go find someplace where we can talk privately.

[~Excellent. Keep me apprised of your progress.~]

Of course, Professor.

"Yo! Yo, Bobby, man, what you havin'?" Aiko gave Bobby a nudge, and shook him out of his 'reverie.'

"Oh, I got it, Ike." He grinned at the younger boy. "Two Big Macs, two large fries, two oreo McFlurries--" he paused with the bills in his hand. "You're not like, vegan, are you?"

Aiko grinned. "Is this the face of a guy who eats SOY?" When Bobby returned the smile, he laughed. "Thanks for asking, though. This town usually assumes I eat nothing but tofu and seafood, just because I came here from San Francisco." He shook his head. "Small town mentality. Somebody save me. Where you from, anyway?"

"New York." Bobby smiled widely as Aiko's eyes lit up. "I thought I'd go nuts here, but at least they have another coastal kid." He took the paper sack from the sole cashier, and headed for the door with Aiko.

"Yeah, but don't expect it to be easy. This small town doesn't much like people who shake up the status quo." Aiko jerked a thumb in the direction of the knot of teenage boys who were even now beginning to cluster behind them.

Bobby glanced over his shoulder, and did a double-take. "Zoinks! Gee, Scoob, we better hide." He made certain the sarcasm was audible in his voice. "We don't play this bully-the-new-kid crap where I'm from, Aiko. You willing to fight?"

Aiko's eyes widened, then lit up like someone had flipped a switch inside his skull. "Oh, yes, man. Especially now that I've got slightly better odds." He cracked his knuckles and set the paper bag into his backpack. "Haven't you guys got anything better to do? Cow-tipping? Hay-baling?"

"You're dead, Carey! Dead, you hear me?" Tad and Jimmy led the cluster of eight boys toward the two new boys. "And your punk Big City friend, too."

Bobby splayed his fingers over his heart. "Aw, man, and they told me Oklahoma was all friendly and welcoming like in the movies. Geez." He shook his head, mock-sadly.

[~I can run the little bastards off, Bobby.~]

No thanks, Betts. I've got it all under control. Besides, you'd give the little goobers hard-ons if you turned up doing the ninja babe thing. They're teenage boys, remember? He suppressed a chuckle. Bobby left his hands behind his back, and waited for Tad and Jimmy to advance with their little coterie behind them.

Tad swung first, and Aiko nimbly leaned backward. The punch swiped through empty air with a foot's distance before Aiko's face. "Swing and a miss!"

Bobby tossed his soft drink cup to the side, and casually sauntered past Tad, to pat Jimmy on the shoulder. "Hey, why can't we all just get along?" he asked. He turned and walked back to Aiko, smiling conspiratorily. A moment later, Jimmy screamed, and began frantically clawing at the back of his shirt. "You ... you punk! You put ice cubes down my back!"

Aiko laughed, and then dove to the ground, avoiding another punch from Tad. "You can do better than that."

[~Clearly the boy knows martial arts.~]

That sets him apart from most starting-level students, Bobby agreed, watching the boy lead the eight teenagers around the small parking lot.

And now that nobody's watching...


Bobby was eating his Big Mac when the entire group of nine kids stopped yelling taunts and posing. Sam, the biggest boy in the group, was standing in the middle of the group with a snowball melting on his face and sliding down the side of his head. He was looking thoroughly perplexed by this odd happenstance.

The shock only lasted a few seconds, though, before Tommy stepped around Tad and kicked Aiko in the knee.

Aiko yelped and went down.

[~Oh, yes, looks like everything's under control,~] came Betsy's sardonic commentary from the shadows.

A moment later, Aiko was on his feet again, and his eyes and hands were beginning to glow. It wasn't enough that the normal kids noticed it, but the two X-Men present spotted it at once.

Bobby chose to take the better part of valor. Producing snowballs out of nowhere, he pelted the clutch of boys mercilessly until they fled in bewilderment, screaming that they'd return with friends and big brothers to settle this later.

Aiko, covered in dust, but grinning and still glowing faintly, turned expectantly to look at Bobby. "So, you're a mutant. Cool."

[~That was unexpected.~]

To you, maybe, Bobby responded coolly. The boy's from San Francisco, Betts. Hello! Social acceptance capital of the WORLD!

"That why you're here?" Aiko scooped up the bag and began scarfing fries like they were going out of style. "Too much noise in New York for mutant kids?"

Bobby grinned back. "There's noise and static all right, but most of us New York types thrive on it. Besides, with all the other super-types: Avengers, New Warriors, Fantastic Four ... you can't swing a dead bigot without running into somebody with powers. Mutants are just a little more local color."

"You don't seem too freaked out that I figured you out," Aiko pointed out, slurping at his melted McFlurry, as they walked toward the single park in town.

Bobby shrugged and shook his head, then frowned as he spotted Monet sitting on a park bench filing her nails. "I'm not," he confirmed. "See, you're the reason I'm here."

Aiko paused, gave Bobby's last comment a moment's thought, then raised a disbelieving brow at him. "You're saying..." he paused again, and lowered his voice to an incredulous whisper. "You're saying you're here to see me? What for, man? It's not like I'm a straight A student in anything but English and Creative Writing..."

Bobby merely smiled silently. "You're a bright kid, Aiko. Think about it for a minute," he said after a moment. Betsy remained silent, making no further comments from wherever she had hidden herself.

Aiko thought about it, as Bobby suggested. What he came up with, he didn't believe right away, and said so. "It can't be what I think it is."

"Oh, but it can, young man." Betsy Braddock stepped out of the shadows behind the nearest tree. "I'm Elizabeth Braddock, and I too represent a group interested in continuing your education."

Aiko raised both brows. "Wait, this is a mutant recruitment drive? Are the Avengers gonna show up? The T-Bolts?" He hopped to crouch on the back of the bench and regard the pair with frank curiosity.

"No, merely us. Mutants are turning up at a faster rate every day," said a new voice. "But we have not yet found ourselves in favour with the public." Monet St. Croix got up from her park bench and joined the conversation uninvited.

"Wait," Aiko repeated, and allowed himself to drop to a normal sitting position. "You people are saying that I am a mutant...?"

Bobby nodded. "Yup."

Betsy smiled. "That's right, Mr. Carey." She blinked and the violet butterfly effect of her telepathy was visible. "I'm a telepath. That's how we're able to have this conversation in public and remain relatively undisturbed."

Monet extended a hand. "As are each of us."

Aiko shook hands with Monet, then looked back at Bobby. "Okay, fine, suppose I buy this 'you're a mutant, I'm a mutant' thing. Why did you guys wait until I was in West Hucklebuck before coming to look me up?"

"Because," said Emma Frost, walking up with Sean Cassidy beside her, "Until this morning, Mister Carey, your mutant abilities hadn't manifested." [~And don't think I missed him shaking off Psylocke's suggestion, Sean. I daresay that indicates he has significant natural psionic shielding.~]

Sean blinked, then frowned at Betsy. You didn't mention that. He then glanced at Emma. [~No attempts to sway the boy yourself, then?~]

[~Pointless, if he could shake Psylocke off. Besides, I am showing you in good faith that I am far from the pernicious witch you would prefer to believe me, Sean. That said, I still have every intention to return to New York with Mister Carey on the plane with me.~]

Over my dead body, Frost.

Emma merely smiled as though Sean were a favourite nephew she was indulging a bit.

"Manifested?" Aiko repeated. "Whoa. This is some heavy stuff, you guys." He closed his eyes and let his chin fall to his chest. "Me. A mutant." He looked up. "You guys are -- like, the good guys, right? If you were the bad guys, we wouldn't be standing around talking. You'd have kidnapped me and forced me, right?"

"An excellent point, young Mr. Carey," Emma said smoothly, inclining her head at Sean.

Aiko's face slowly relaxed. "And you haven't started fighting or hurling beams at each other, either."

[~Well, it is a small town,~] Jono pointed out, leaning against a tree. [~But we do like to keep the profile low. No point in making a huge scene, right?~]

"Aye, young Starsmore's right," Sean Cassidy conceded almost in spite of himself. "Mutants have a hard enough time discoverin' themselves in a big city like New York, or a small town like Cumberland, Kentucky, or even a suburb of Chicago. This town, small as it is, might be understandin' about one of their own being a mutant ... they might not. It's better we not risk it." He gave Bobby a pointed look.

Aiko waved a hand dismissively. "One of their own, I'm not, Mr. Cassidy.

I just live here since my folks died." A wave of pain passed through his expression like a ripple through a video image. "So, what can I do?" If it gets me out of here, I don't care if I can hock acidic, explosive loogies.

Emma stepped forward, and sat beside Aiko. "We're not certain yet. We got some preliminary readings that brought us here to meet you, but beyond that we'd need to bring you back east to our facilities where we could measure your ability and strength."

"You're all from different 'facilities' though, right?" Aiko looked from face to face. "And the choice is up to me who I go with, right?"

Bobby nodded. "Totally up to you."

Emma nodded as well. "The choice is entirely yours. I would like the chance to show you what you could expect with us, first, before you make a final decision."

"As would we," Betsy added.

"Same here," Bobby said, glancing toward Emma, with his head tilted inquisitively. No mindgames? No tricks? Who are you, and what've you done with the real White Queen?

[~I assure you, Bobby, despite your mentor's best efforts, I am the true White Queen,~] Emma replied coolly.

Whaddaya mean 'despite my mentor's best efforts'? Bobby wanted to know.

[~She's just trying to rattle you, Bobby,~] Betsy said, moving protectively toward her fellow X-Man.

[~Am I?~] Emma asked. She turned her attention toward Aiko. "My headquarters is in New York, but the school I run for other gifted youths such as yourself is in Florida, and populated with students your age."

Emma turned her eyes to Psylocke, who was staring accusingly at her. [~It would be, of course, easier to believe that. Safer to rationalize that I am up to something as an explanation. Is it so impossible to believe, then, that I genuinely mean the boy no harm? But if you don't believe me -- probe the boy. See if I, or Monet, have tampered with his thoughts in the slightest.]

Aiko looked expectantly at Sean.

"Ours is in Massachusetts. Small town called Snow Valley. The kids're about your age there as well." Sean held out a brochure. "Weather's nice, it's fairly exclusive."

"And we're in Westchester," Bobby finished on cue. "And we've probably got the longest track record of training young mutants to understand their powers and use them safely -- as heroes or as normal people."

Emma smiled politely, and kept her response to telepathic -- and for Bobby's mind only: [~Ahem. Rogue. Ahem. Cyclops. Ahem. Sabretooth. Ahem. Mystique. Ahem. Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Nightcrawler.~] She turned her gaze meaningfully on the silent Chamber, who stood dressed in white as her bodyguard. She then turned her eyes to Cassidy, and continued, [~Angelo Espinoza...~]

All right, all right, I freakin' get it, Emma! Bobby's eyes flashed in anger, but he did not amend his statement to Aiko.

Psylocke glared daggers at Emma, who seemed to neither mind nor truly to notice.

Bobby, on the other hand, had been given food for thought. Emma's being a little catty, a little provocative -- but she's not acting in the way the old, "evil" White Queen would have been expected to behave. If she's putting on an act, it's a damned good one. Psylocke hasn't determined any duplicity. Not that that's saying much, since Emma is far more powerful a telepath; but ... I guess, deep down inside I want to trust her. We shared something no one else but us has a hope of understanding, and I guess because of that connection I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. He took a deep breath, and shrugged. "Ike, man, it's all your decision."

Sean blinked at Bobby, but glanced almost reluctantly at Emma and nodded. "Aye, 'tis your life, and your choice. But we hope you'll give each of us the chance to get t'know you and share our experiences with you."

"Are you kidding?" Aiko laughed. "This is the best thing that's ever happened to me." He paused, sobering. "I just wish my parents were still alive to see it. They'd have flipped." He glanced skyward.

"They're watching and they're proud," Emma said softly, squeezing the boy's shoulder. "A parent's love endures far beyond something so mundane as death."

Sean blinked at that; the Emma he'd known had been that gentle and sensitive to the Generation X kids on occasion. Paige had told him once of how Emma had shared some of her painful past with the female students over Christmas vacation two years back. He had thought that part of her either an act -- or something she could not be bothered to show except when convenient.

Aiko smiled up at Emma. "Thanks. Ms. Frost, right? Thanks, that's ... nice of you." He smiled. "Look, this is all a lot to take in in one day. How long are you all going to be here, before I have to make up my mind?"

"Until Wednesday," Sean said quietly. "We do have the career day consultations for the mundane students. If you have not made up your mind until then--" he paused, glanced at Psylocke, shrugged, and continued. "You will have the opportunity to visit each of our institutions, tour our campuses, and meet the other students -- hopefully that will facilitate your choice." If Iceman's willin' to trust Emma a little, I can do no less.

"Really?" Aiko was off the bench in a leap that took him ten feet further than he intended to go. He blinked, dumbfounded, then grinned. "I think I'm gonna like this being a mutant," he decided, then returned. "If I can't decide by Wednesday, I get free trips to New York, Massachusetts, and Florida? I don't know what I did to deserve this, but -- yatta ne!"

Bobby laughed. "And if you join us, you get far more than that." He clapped Aiko over the shoulder.

Aiko was practically a blur, he was so full of eager energy. "Tell me about it over dinner?"

"Actually, Aiko, m'man, I'd leap at the chance, but give a guy a raincheck?" Bobby squeezed the young mutant's shoulder, but his eyes were on Emma. "Sean and Betsy there can take you out to dinner."

"Oklahoma City all right, Aiko?" Betsy asked. "Or, if your guardian has no objection, we could do something more -- elaborate."

"Now, now," Sean chided, "No flyin' the lad off to Rome for pizza, Betsy. We're all keepin' the playin' field level here, are we not?"

"Of course, Sean," Betsy chuckled, pulling the bun free so her purple hair could cascade down her shoulders. "But no one said I couldn't have a certain pilot friend fly us out some Thai from my favourite restaurant back in New York."

They began walking Aiko home, each talking of their favourite foods, and what they would do for Aiko Carey in the interests of recruiting him.

Bobby Drake took up the rear, catching Emma Frost's elbow before she caught up with the others.

"Dinner?" he asked.

"I don't think I'm dressed appropriately," Emma smiled playfully at him.

"Aw, C'mon, Emma. I have better than this packed."

"Then I believe I might be persuaded. Shall we say seven thirty?"

Six forty five! "Seven thirty, then." Bobby grinned, and bid the others good evening, returning to his tiny motel room.

continued >>

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