Yes, here it is, finally. My response to Mandy's GenX "Romance Outside the Classroom" Challenge. Perhaps now Frank will get off my back.
Thanks to Yona for beta-reading (the Tim Tams are in the mail), and to Harlequin, for being almost as persistent as Frank and not letting me forget about this.
Summary: Monet gets more than she bargained for when she answers a mysterious e-mail message.
Disclaimer: The characters (except for Kestrel) aren't mine. Never were, never will be. Tough bickies.
Rating: G, for once. No swearing, no sex, no drugs. Not even rock and roll.
Feedback: ([email protected]) One of these days I'll come up with a feedback request witty enough to keep using. Until then, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE GIVE ME FEEDBACK!!! (if you can't win by persuasion, go for volume, as Mitai once told me). If you have archiving permission already, go ahead. Just remind me where it is.
The rec cottage was strangely quiet as Monet St. Croix entered. She arched a perfect eyebrow, taking in the deserted room with her calm, detached gaze.
'Good,' she thought with satisfaction, 'Perhaps now I shall have some peace.' She took a seat at the table, and pulled her school text books and notepad from her bag. But just as she was about to begin, there was a beep, and a flat electronic voice said:
"You have mail."
Monet eyed the computer on the desk behind her position with some distaste. It was, she thought, an unforgivable concession on Ms. Frost's part to allow Angelo this indulgence. He had a computer in his room, so why did he require another? Of course, she knew the answer to that particular question- there was indeed precious little she didn't know. Ms Frost and Mr Cassidy were concerned by the amount of time Angelo spent alone in his room with his precious machine. Installing a computer with Net capabilities in the rec. cottage was their way of drawing him out. Even if he didn't talk to anyone, he was, at least, present in the same room as the rest of the team. Monet herself would be indifferent to the whole matter if it didn't mean the whole insufferable group weren't always at the computer playing "Quake" and making more noise than the Apocalypse.
"You have mail," the computer said again. Was it her imagination or did the monotone voice sound smug? Monet crossed over to the infernal machine, intending to switch it off, but as she reached for the power switch, her arm jostled the mouse, rousing the screen from self-induced blankness. The message on the screen (Angelo had left the mail program open), caught her eye.
"What is it to be happy?- K." it simply said. Automatically Monet looked for the pyramid selling gimmick, the get-rich-quick scheme, the R-rated site URL, but there was nothing else. Just the question.
Always sceptical, Monet telepathically scanned the area for signs of her team-mates. The whole situation smacked of a set-up, one of Jubilation's puerile practical jokes. But no, it appeared they were all, with the exception of Jono, engaged in teaching Gaia the intricacies of basketball in the gym. Jono was in his basement, playing at being the unlovable monster with the shattered heart again.
"What is it to be happy?" The enigmatic message hung on the screen, challenging her, taunting her despite her efforts to ignore or dismiss it. What did 'happiness' actually mean? Monet couldn't be sure. So much of her old life had been lost during her time as Penance, locked in that razor-sharp cage of her brother's fashioning. She couldn't really remember if back before then she had been truly happy with her life. And in the time since Gateway had liberated her, and the time spent with Generation X, had she been happy then? Was she happy now?
Somehow Monet found herself staring at that one sentence, taking stock of her life. Yes, she was beautiful, rich, intelligent beyond normal IQ tests, gifted with wondrous powers. But was she happy? She felt pride in her achievements, satisfaction in her position so far above her peers. But these things were hollow compared to the joy she saw sparkling in Jubilation's eyes as she spoke of her beloved "Wolvie", or Everett's quiet smile when he played with Artie and Leech. Or the love that illuminated Paige's face when she was on the phone making her weekly call home. Or even Gaia's childlike delight with each new experience.
"What is it to be happy?"
Angrily, Monet grabbed the mouse, intending to delete the annoying message and all the doubts it raised, but instead finding herself clicking on the "Reply" icon. "I don't know. Do any of us, really?" she typed as if mesmerised. She paused, wondering at what had possessed her to write such a thing. Common sense screamed at her to cancel the message, but a stronger impulse propelled her to send it. Before she fully realised what she had done, she had clicked on the "Send" icon and the message was on its way.
Monet sat back in her chair, her hands trembling, wondering what on earth was wrong with her. To be answering anonymous e-mails, she must be mad. Considering some of the groups Angelo would subscribe to, any number of perverts could be reading that message right now. She picked up the thick Physics text- not that she _needed_ to study, but the four chapters were required reading for her homework, and Monet _always_ completed her assignments. Just another way to retain her standing over the other students. Before she had finished the second chapter, however, there was another beep, and that expressionless voice:
"You have mail."
Monet hesitated. In all probabilities, the message wasn't for her. It was Angelo's mail program, after all. But what if it wasn't? What if the mysterious "K" had responded? If Angelo saw that message, she would die with embarrassment. She opened the message.
"What is it you are so afraid of?- K."
"Afraid? Me? A St. Croix? How can I be afraid of anything?" Monet snorted. The message didn't respond, sitting silently on the screen, the cursor blinking.
"What is it you are so afraid of?"
"What makes you think it is I who am afraid, Mr. K?" Monet sneered, curling her lip. "I am afraid you are not as perceptive as you believed."
"What is it you are so afraid of."
"This is ridiculous. Here I am, arguing with a machine." Monet again reached for the mouse, determined to end this nonsense.
"What is it you are so afraid of?"
The sneer dropped from her face. "Nothing," she said again, but her voice was less sure.
"What is it you are so afraid of?"
Slowly she reached out and typed with one perfectly manicured finger: "Being alone." Without giving herself time to think, to reconsider, Monet attached her personal e-mail address to the message before sending it out into the ether, to where "K" was waiting. Then she deleted all signs of the previous messages and her replies, logged off, and returned to her room, and the privacy of her own computer.
There was another message waiting for her when she logged on.
"Don't be: we are all alone, in the end.- K."
"How very reassuring. Not," Monet murmured under her breath, not really aware she was doing so. "I think it's time I asked my own question." Her fingers flew over the keyboard: "Who are you?." She paused, thinking, before signing it "C."
Almost an hour passed, before Monet heard the small chime- she had very quickly disabled the obnoxious voice alert on her own computer. She had started to think her question had frightened him off, or worse, that it had all been some kind of cruel joke at her expense. There was no reason for her to have answered the messages in the first place, but she had, and with an honesty she hadn't thought she was capable of. All of her life she had been surrounded by games and masks and deceptions, little white lies and diplomatic omissions. Tutored by her father in the art of deception, of saying one thing whilst the heart and mind screamed another. So why now? And why to such a complete stranger? She opened the message, with a strangely quickening heart.
"My apologies, dear sir or lady, for my audacity. You may call me Kestrel in further correspondence, of which I hope there shall be considerably more. Your answers to my "messages to the void" were intriguing, if a tad unsettling, and I find my curiosity is piqued."
"You and I both, Mr. Kestrel," Monet chuckled, a rare sound coming from her.
"Now those niceties are behind us, the ball is in your court, mysterious Miss C. Or is that Mr.? Another question for you: who are _you_?- Kestrel."
After a moment or two's consideration, Monet applied her fingers to the keyboard:
"Kestrel: That would be Ms. C, but you may call me Calypso. I will be honest with you: I half-believe this to be an elaborate hoax of my school-mate's design, but as is said, "In for a penny, in for a pound". Who am I? Not even the great philosophers have been able to answer that particular quandary, but suffice to say, I seemed to be the person walking past at the moment your message beached itself.
"I still don't know why I replied, or why I replied in the manner I did. Let this be considered temporary insanity on my part, shall we?- Calypso."
The reply didn't take long. Just one line:
"Welcome to the asylum, Calypso- Kestrel."
Six weeks later.
"Have you guys noticed that Monet's actually looking _happy_ lately?" Jubilee said one morning over the breakfast table. Monet, obviously, was absent, having taken some toast and juice up to her room.
"And she's spending an awful lot of time in her room," Paige added, "More than Angelo."
"Maybe they're havin' an on-line romance," Jubilee giggled, ignoring the glares Angelo was giving her over his coffee. It was only his first cup, so glaring was about the most he could do before the caffeine kicked in.
"You don't wanna go there, Jubes," he warned. "Not unless ya want some serious bad news happenin' to ya."
Jubilee merely screwed up her nose at him: her mouth was full of cereal.
[Rainbow Brite does 'ave a point, though,] Jono unexpectedly chipped in. [Th' Princess 'as been pretty chipper lately. It isn't natural.]
Everett groaned. "I sense trouble coming on." he predicted.
"Since when have you had second sight, Everett?" asked Gaia in all seriousness.
"I don't, Gaia, but whenever someone in this team makes the observation that something isn't natural, inevitably someone will try to find out what's going on, and that usually results in trouble," Everett explained with a patient smile. Jubilee looked daggers at Gaia, muttering under her breath something about "thousand year old, two-bit, man-stealing airheads."
[Takes one t' know one, J,] teased Jono on a private link.
*Get bent, Sparky*
Upstairs, oblivious to the plotting, slander and general chicanery, Monet read Kestrel's latest message. Over the time they had been conversing, she had noticed certain quirks. Messages more than a few lines took considerably longer for him to compose, perhaps for the same reason he turned down- very politely- her suggestion they meet in a chat room. He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on-line, more so than Angelo during one of his sulks. He also steadfastly refused to be drawn into describing himself, despite all of Monet's hints, suggestions and outright questions. But despite these quirks, or maybe because of them, Monet found herself more and more drawn towards him.
Kestrel was unlike any other person she had ever known. He took time to think about things, had remarkable insight into any number of areas, and yet still came across as humble and somewhat shy. His manner was always courteous, almost chivalrous, and his opinions, while challenging, where never hurtfully or thoughtlessly put. Certain slips revealed he was slightly older than her: his e-mail address was care of the college in New York, and a philosophy class he had mentioned Monet had looked up on the faculty Web site to find it was one offered to second-year students. But while her best efforts at detective work failed to give him a face, he seemed perfect, as perfect as she had always striven to be.
And he was rubbing off on her. Monet found herself less inclined to look down on her team-mates, to bait the ever-annoying Jubilee. She had become quieter, less opinionated, and considered her words before speaking. She knew the change in her had been noted by both the teachers and students and that they were curious as to the cause, but there was still enough of the old Monet smugness to let them wonder for a bit longer yet.
"Isn't it strange," Kestrel had written today, "How we can be so honest whilst hiding behind the masks created by this means of communication? We can create a whole different persona for ourselves, become the person we have always secretly wished to be, and yet we tell each other things no-one else in our lives have ever heard. Things we would never dream of sharing with our friends, our families, our lovers. I find it frightening, but rather exhilarating too."
"Hey, M, whatchya doin'?" Jubilee asked, suddenly behind her. Monet had been so absorbed in Kestrel's mail she hadn't sensed the mall-rat's presence. And while the girl made a habit of _seeming_ loud and unsubtle, her years with Wolverine had given her an almost uncanny ability to move noiselessly, when she wished.
Like now, when she was sneaking up on Monet to find out what was so damn important.
"N-nothing," Monet stuttered uncharacteristically, sending the computer into its screen-saver with a nudge of the mouse. "What are you doing in here? Didn't your precious X-Men teach you how to knock?" she continued, quickly regaining her usual imperiousness.
Jubilee looked at her with a shrewd glint in her blue eyes. Something was definitely Up.
"I did, sorta. Guess you were too busy doin' whatever it is ya do up here all the time," she said casually, flicking through some magazines on the desk.
"Jubilation, was there a point to your visit, or were you overcome with an overwhelming urge to read 'Time' magazine?" asked Monet, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice.
"Nope, just came up ta let ya know Frosty's away for the week, so Mr C. is takin' our training." Her attention divided between her unwelcome guest and her interrupted reading, Monet didn't notice the scrap of paper that slipped out from between the magazines. But Jubilee did, and with reflexes honed by her time on the street, and her years with Wolvie and Gambit, she palmed the paper, gave Monet a cheerful grin, and left, saying:
"I'll see ya later. I'll just wait 'til my 'Time' subscription comes!"
As Monet watched her beat a hasty retreat, she couldn't help the niggling thought that Jubilee was on to something.
"Hayseed, ya just gotta read this!" Jubilee burst into the room she shared with Paige like a natural disaster. But she stopped dead at the sight of Gaia sitting on the floor, her back against the closet, poring over a fat text book with Paige.
"What now, Jubilee? We've got to finish reading this for tomorrow," Paige sighed, laying the book down. "It had better not be more dirty jokes from that newsgroup Angelo's subscribed to."
"What's _she_ doin' here?" Jubilee blurted, not caring how rude she sounded. Gaia looked embarrassed.
"Gaia asked me to help with some homework. Stop acting like a jerk," Paige scolded. "What did you want me to read?" Jubilee glowered at the interloper a bit more, but her sense of mischief overwhelmed the slight.
"I've just found out why Miss Perfect's been actin' like a pod-person," Jubilee smirked, "She's in love."
"In love? Monet? It's not possible, the world hasn't ended," Paige laughed.
"Then read this and prepare for Armageddon." Jubilee passed over the crumpled note.
"Is it possible to love someone you've never seen, only met through electronic impulses carried through telephone lines? If I had been presented with this as an abstract hypothetical, I would have said no. Yet somehow I find myself living that very situation. And yes, it is more than possible, it is entirely achievable. You may feel this is presumptuous, but it is the way I feel."
"_Monet_ wrote that?" Gaia asked, disbelievingly.
"More 'n' that, she actually _sent_ it," Jubilee grinned. "See? There's an answer further down."
"Calypso, for once you find me lost for words. Your declaration fulfils my deepest wishes and heightens my worst fears- Kestrel."
"Is this guy for real or what?" Jubilee giggled. "He writes like Beast talks."
"I think it's romantic," sighed Paige. "But imagine, Monet having an on-line romance! Who'd have thought?"
"Well, at least we know why she's been actin' like a real human being lately," Jubilee snorted. "An' what sort of name is 'Calypso', anyway?"
"It's from Greek mythology. Calypso was a powerful and beautiful sorceress who lived on an island all alone. It wasn't until she fell in love and lost him that she learned she wasn't perfect," Gaia said quietly. Both Paige and Jubilee stared at her, open-mouthed, and the pink-haired girl blushed. "What? Just because I spent a thousand years chained to a rock I don't know anything? What do you expect with a name like Gaia? Of course I know Greek mythology!"
"Well, looks like our Calypso has met her man. Not exactly a good omen, calling herself that. I wonder if they've met yet, in person?" Paige said dreamily. Despite her own romantic woes (or maybe because of them), the idea of love tended to turn her usually sharp mind into mush.
"Hmm, now _there's_ a thought," Jubilee said slowly, thinking. Before Paige or Gaia could say anything, the scheming firecracker was out of the room and down the stairs, headed for the boys' dorm.
"Chica, I'm not so sure this is a good idea," Angelo said as Jubilee pushed him towards his computer.
"C'mon Ange! It'll be a riot! Besides, it's the perfect way to torq off Miss High 'n' Mighty." Jubilee pouted, and then changed tactics. "Y'know, if ya can't do it, just say so, an' I'll find someone else. I hear Jeremy's a real hot shot hacker, _and_ he thinks I'm cute," she said, naming one of the "Space Invaders", as Angelo had dubbed the 'ordinary' human students who now swarmed over the campus.
"I never said that I couldn't, I was jus' questioning the ethics of it, that's all," Angelo retorted. "An' I'm as good a hacker as any rich Mama's boy. What d'ya want done?"
"Jubilee, are you _sure_ Monet will like this? Remember, she is the one with the super-strength," Paige cautioned as Jubilee put the phone down, having just finished arranging for the team to pay the X-Men a visit. After a brief detour, of course. "If she doesn't she's gonna kill you."
"It'll be worth it!" Jubilee protested. "C'mon, Hayseed, it's all for a good cause. The pursuit of true love, an' all that other Hallmark stuff?"
"Ye-es," Paige said doubtfully, "But how are we going to find this Kestrel of hers? And how are we going to explain to Mr Cassidy why we need to go to New York?"
"We don't. I've already told him we're goin' ta the X-Mansion, ta introduce Gaia ta the X-Dudes," Jubilee explained. "Besides, he's so stressed with Frosty out of town, he doesn't know which end is up. I told him we'd make it a team bonding weekend, and he couldn't say yes fast enough. He seems ta think it'll 'resolve tensions'. An' as for Romeo, I've already e-mailed him. Ange tracked him down for me."
"You've really planned this out, haven't you?" Paige said thoughtfully. Jubilee grinned, and snapped her gum loudly.
"Learned from the best."
"So why do I get a bad feeling about this?"
"Would there be a particular reason why we're headed in the opposite direction to Westchester?" asked Everett as Angelo took another right.
"Thought we'd take a field trip on the way," Jubilee replied from the front passenger seat- she'd called shotgun at breakfast that morning. "There's some stuff at the college library I wanna see."
"The college?" Monet asked with an odd catch in her voice. She quickly recovered herself. "What could possibly interest you at a library, Jubilation? It's hardly a mall."
"Hey, I read too, ya know!" Jubilee protested half-heartedly: she was having too much fun to make more than a token rise to Monet's barbs.
"I doubt the college library will have the latest issue of that inane comic book you're forever reading," Monet retorted, an uneasy feeling growing in her gut.
"Then maybe there's someone I wanna see," Jubilee smirked as they entered the college campus. Angelo found a parking space, and they piled out of the van with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
[Jubilee, wot th' soddin' 'ell are we doin' 'ere?] Jono grumbled, not liking the memories the place stirred up. College campuses were the same the world over, and Jono's own university career had been abruptly halted by his "accident". It was still a sore subject.
"Absorbin' the culture, Sparky," Jubilee grinned, and headed off towards the main library. The others followed, motivated by a mixture of curiosity, annoyance, and a desire not to look stupid hanging around in the car park waiting for the others to return.
"Just _who_ is this person you're going to see?" Monet demanded of Jubilee, dropping all pretence of calm. A surge of wild, impossible hope rose in her, to be countered by an equal surge of anger that Jubilee had indeed done what Monet thought she had done.
"Just someone I met, cruisin' on the Net," Jubilee replied airily, an unholy glee in her eyes. Just as they reached the small forecourt in front of the library, she added, "I thought I could set the two of ya up. You'd be great together, all poetry and romance."
"Jubilee," Paige said warningly. This had gone beyond arranging for a meeting between the two lovebirds. This was personal.
"Actually, he doesn't know you're here either. I sent him an e-mail telling him I was a classmate an' wanted some help with studyin'," Jubilee went on, ignoring Paige's voice of reason. "He should be here any minute."
"Who, Jubes?" asked Everett, not liking the look on Jubilee's face, or the mixture of anger and pain he was getting from Monet's aura.
"Monet here's been livin' a double life," Jubilee smirked, "Or should I call you Calypso?"
"Jubilation, if you have done what I think you've done, not even your precious Wolverine will be able to save you." Monet breathed.
[Will someone tell me an' Ev jus' wot th' 'ell is goin' on 'ere?] Jono demanded testily.
"Monet's been havin' on on-line romance with some guy from this college. Calls himself Kestrel."
"Kestrel? Here?" Monet's voice squeaked in a most undignified way.
She was answered by a reluctant voice said from behind them, almost too soft to be heard: "C-C-Calypso?"
"Kestrel?" Monet immediately turned, and encountered nothing but empty air. Then she glanced down, to encounter a pair of warm brown eyes in a face as twisted and contorted as the body constrained by the electric wheelchair. Blond hair fell into his face, and he pushed it back wit a knotted hand. Monet started, a look of horror flashing briefly across her face. "But you. you're. You can't be."
"C-Calypso." The name was almost spat out forcefully between his clenched jaws. "I. thought. I _said_ not to m-meet."
"It wasn't my fault," Monet said hesitantly, "My class-mates."
"T-thought. it would. be a g-great j-joke," Kestrel managed to say, his body fighting his every effort.
"That's not true," Monet managed, trying to hide the disappointment in her voice. "Kestrel, I didn't _know_."
"Why. should you? Didn't say. Knew you. couldn't l-love. a spastic." Kestrel looked up at her with those clear, intelligent brown eyes, and easily read her distaste at his appearance. "I was right." He jerked his hand towards the joystick of the chair, and turned back the way he had come.
There was a long moment of awkward silence, and then Paige reached out a sympathetic hand to Monet.
"M? Are ya okay?" The Algerian girl took a long breath, and looked at Paige.
"No, Paige, I'm not okay. And I doubt I will ever be so again." With that, she launched herself into the sky, so no-one would see her cry.
A week later.
"Sean, what on earth have you done to the children while I've been gone?" Emma asked one evening as the two head teachers shared an unusual quiet moment.
"What d'ye mean? They're fine, aren't they?"
"I have never seen such a subdued group of teenagers, even under mind-control." Emma allowed herself a small smile.
"Now I can t' think o' it," Sean mused, "They _do_ seem rather quiet. D'ye think they're up t' somethin'?
"Not now, they're not. But they have been doing something they houldn't. The guilt vibrations are so strong I'm almost surprised _you _ haven't noticed."
"Guilt? From this rabble? What in th' name o' th' saints would make them feel guilty?"
"More than just the plan to TP your office, I'll wager," Emma said.
"I'm getting worried about her," Paige said to the sombre huddle of students in the rec cottage. "She hasn't spoken to anyone all week."
"Which one? Monet or Jubilee?" asked Everett with a humourless snort. "They're both hiding."
"They both feel badly," Gaia ventured, "Maybe we should do something?"
"Probably not a good idea," Angelo said gloomily. "Considerin' how much we screwed things up in the first place."
['Ow you an' Jubilee screwed things up, mate] chimed in Jono. [Wot possessed yer t' go along with this?]
"Don't start." Everett cut off Angelo's retort. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is. What matters now is what we're going to do to fix things."
[T'riffic. Just 'ow we gunna do that, Wonder Lad?]
"I have no idea."
Jubilee muttered a string of Wolvie's more imaginative curses and let a trail of pafs erupt from her finger-tips. She hated feeling guilty. She hated it when Monet was right. To be feeling guilty because Monet was in the right and she was in the wrong was The Worst.
"How was I to know?" she grumbled to herself, but the effort to justify her actions rang hollow. As a prank, this little effort had to rate well below the time Bobby had set off rotten egg gas during dinner at the X-Mansion on the night Hank had brought Trish Trilby to meet them.
There was a quiet knock on the door.
"Ev, if that's you again, you're my best bud, but leave me 'lone, 'kay?" Jubilee called without looking up. "I'm not ready ta face 'em yet."
"You can't hide forever," said an altogether different voice than the one Jubilee expected. Her head jerked up.
"What do _you_ want?" Gaia looked untroubled by the dislike in Jubilee's tone.
"I thought you should talk about what's happened. It's not good for you to keep sulking up here. Everyone's worried about you."
"Sure they are. I'm the bad guy, remember? And who said I was sulking?"
"You _are_ sulking. You feel bad about what happened with Monet, but you feel even worse admitting it, so you're hiding up here."
"Well aren't you the perceptive little Jean Grey wanna-be?" Gaia twisted a lock of pink hair around her finger.
"It's obvious, really, what you need to do."
"An' who gave you the right ta come in here and start tellin' me how ta live my life?" Jubilee spat, "Frosty, I s'pose."
"No. Ms Frost is staying out of this mess. It was my idea."
"Knew I shoulda locked the door."
"You did. I warp reality, remember?"
Jubilee glared at Gaia, wishing that she had Cyclops' optic blasts for just an instant. Hell, even Omega Red's death spores would be useful.
"So what's your grand solution?" she growled at last. Gaia smiled innocently.
"You apologise to Monet, of course."
"Are you out of your teeny tiny mind? Ya got senile after spendin' a thousand years on that rock? I can't apologise to M. It'd ruin my rep. Besides, the minute I show my face, she'll frickin' well kill me!" Fireworks danced around the room.
"Then you might as well get your door bricked up, because you'll never leave this room otherwise," Gaia said simply. "If only because you'll never be able to look your friends in the face again." With that, Gaia left. Jubilee slammed the door shut behind her with a particularly large firework.
"Maybe Candy-Floss-Head is right. I oughta apologise," Jubilee muttered darkly, and shuddered. "Ugh, both of them right an' me wrong? It ain't natural." Her glance fell on the computer on Paige's desk. "Maybe I can make it up to her instead."
He wouldn't talk to her. Monet barely restrained the urge to hurl her computer into orbit as yet another of her messages went unanswered. All her apologies, her explanations, her impassioned pleas and declarations might as well be sent to the furthest reaches of space, for all the good they did. And it didn't matter how much she told herself she didn't really care what he thought, the bitter truth was that she did. She cared very much indeed.
It had been such a shock, that was all, she told herself. But deep down she knew it was more than that. The image she had built in her head of Kestrel had been shattered by the reality, and her devotion to perfection with it. She'd been a fool, thinking perfection was possible, or that it even mattered. No, what mattered was the ache in her heart when she thought of the companionship she had lost. The tears slid down her face again, splattering on the keyboard.
When the van pulled up outside, Monet registered it, but paid no real attention until she felt a thought pattern that was familiar without her having ever sensed it before.
"Kestrel? Here? But how?" she murmured to herself.
"I did it." Monet looked up to see Jubilee standing in the doorway. The younger girl looked- unsure? "I wanted ta fix things 'tween you an' Lover-Boy after I screwed up so bad, so I went back ta New York, did a Wolvie an' tracked him down, talked ta him."
"_You_ did that?" Monet couldn't keep the incredulity out of her voice. "For me?"
"For both of you. I got so into the whole prank thing, I kinda forgot there were people's feelings involved." Jubilee made a face. "Kestrel's anyway. Locked up in the school, just us, kinda makes you forget normals are _real_, y'know?"
Monet nodded. "I know." Then she frowned. "But I don't understand why he is here, now."
"'Cause he wants ta talk ta ya. Face ta face, without the masks, or something like that. He's a regular McCoy, this Kestrel of yours." Jubilee grinned, and her old 'tude came back. "I can always tell him ta go, if ya don't wanna see him."
"Do that and I'll sell you to Sinister as a lab rat," Monet growled, getting off the bed. "Jubilation?"
"Do anything like this again, and I will personally break every bone in your body with my bear hands, starting with your jaw."
Jubilee laughed uneasily, and left Monet to go downstairs.
"Yer young man's in there," Sean said, coming out of Emma's office. "I'll leave the two o' ye in peace, shall I?"
Monet acknowledged him with a brief nod, her mouth suddenly dry. The thought patterns coming from the office were as confused and nervous as her own. What if he had come here just to reject her again? Taking a shaky breath, Monet opened the door.
Kestrel was sitting by the window, his back to her. The mid-afternoon sun turned his hair to gold, and somehow softened the twisted lines of his body. When he turned at the sound of the door, Monet was struck by a sudden thought that even with his disability, Kestrel was. attractive.
"Hello," she said softly, closing the door behind her and resting her back against it.
"H-hello," he replied. "It's. strange. seeing you. l-like this." His face contorted as he tried to get the next words out. "I came. I wanted.. t-to say." He growled in frustration as the words stuck in his straining throat. "Damn!" Monet quietly crossed the gap between them and crouched down next to him.
"Kestrel, I'm not sure if Jubilation told you this, but I'm a mutant. One of my powers is telepathy. If you would consent, I can establish a link between our minds that would allow you to communicate without speaking." Monet bit her lip, hoping her offer hadn't offended him. The situation was such a minefield, and for once she didn't know what to do.
Kestrel looked at her and nodded. Monet took a seat across from him and reached out with her mind, finding his bright and shining like gold. 'Such a waste', her mind whispered before she banished the thought.
"There. It's done."
*Calypso?* Monet winced at the volume.
"You don't need to project your thoughts at me. Just think them, like having a conversation in your head with yourself. I can pick that up easily," she suggested gently.
*But the rest. you won't read my other thoughts?*
"Never without your consent." Monet sensed the relief that surged up in him.
*You never said you were a mutant.*
"You never said much about yourself either." Monet said it without thinking, and then looked at him, stricken. To her surprise, there was a lopsided grin on his face.
*Touche* he 'said', his telepathic voice coloured with amusement. Then he sobered. *That's one of the reasons why I cam here today. I wanted to apologise for deceiving you.*
"Apologise? To me? Kestrel, if anyone should apologise."
*Not Kestrel. Chris. My real name is Chris Hawking.*
Monet couldn't help the smile. "Hawking as in kestrels?" He grinned again. "Chris, that's a dreadful pun."
*Made you smile 'though, didn't it?* He moved the chair forward and with obvious effort, reached out with his twisted right hand to touch hers, lying in her lap. *You're beautiful when you smile, Calypso.*
Monet found herself doing it again. "Monet. Monet St. Croix." Chris nodded.
*I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss St. Croix.* He pulled his hand away. *Your friend, Jubilee, she's very persistent.*
"She's not my." Monet stopped herself. "Yes, she is, isn't she?"
*She spent three hours talking me into coming here. I missed all my afternoon classes. But I'm glad she did, now, because I was miserable.*
"Me too." Monet's dark brown eyes shone with tears for a moment. "I'm sorry I was such a fool. It was only after you were gone that I realised how much I wanted, how much I needed you."
*That's the truth?* Chris' tone was urgent. *You really mean that? Because if you don't, Monet, I don't think I can deal with it. Not again.* Monet nodded, and leaned forward to take his hand in her own.
"Yes, I do mean it. I've never meant anything more seriously."
*Monet, I need to tell you something.* Chris took a breath, *My condition. what I have. it can't be cured. It's cerebral palsy. I was born like this, and I'll die like this, probably sooner rather than later. I'll never walk, feed or dress myself. I can barely talk. I have only enough control of my right hand to type- very slowly- and other simple tasks. It won't be easy, being with me.* He pulled his hand away and laid it briefly against her cheek. *I'll understand if you'd rather not see me again.*
Monet's only response was to take Chris' hand again and rest her lips against it. *Is that answer enough for you?* she whispered in his mind.
"Yes," Chris replied out loud, his smile lighting up his face. "It. is."
Outside Emma's office, the rest of GenX fought to peek through the keyhole.
"Let me see!"
"What're they saying?"
"It's awful quiet in there."
[Yer gotta admire the bloke. He's got guts, takin' on 'er Royal Smugness.]
"Shouldn't we give them some privacy?"
"_You_ give 'em privacy, Country Mouse. I wanna know what happens."
Suddenly, the door was opened, and those crowded around the keyhole fell into the room in a tangle of arms and legs and bodies.
"Er, hi, Monet," Paige said from the top of the pile, blushing scarlet, "Ah, that is, we, were just."
"Eavesdropping?" Monet chuckled. "I'll let it pass this time, but in future, when Chris is here, I hope you are a bit more sensitive to our feelings." Her team-mates exchanged bewildered looks.
"That's it, now I _know_ she's a pod-person." Everett muttered.
"Yes, Chris." Monet beckoned him forward, and stood behind his chair, her hand resting on his shoulder. "Everyone, this is Chris. My boyfriend."