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I've not been reading the X-Men for a while, so I thought best to describe my story as being set in an alternate timeline. Historians out there, don't flame me! And hey, I love mail! E-mail your comments to: catharsis@mindless.com.
This story's a relationship piece on Iceman & the White Queen plus smaller parts for other characters.

Part 10
by Min

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

(Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost)

"Em - you okay?"

Emma jerked, her eyes automatically going to the clock. It registered 4.30 am. She must have fallen asleep somewhere along the way. She tried to sit up, muscles protesting against the cold and the long-maintained posture. The whole place was deathly quiet, a silence that was broken only by the passing of an occasional car. Even the City of Lovers had to sleep at some point of time.

"Em - are you okay?"

Emma swerved her head towards the voice. And paled as she saw Bobby Drake ease himself off the bed slowly. A shiver ran through her. She was not ready to face the ordeal again; she could not look into that face and see those eyes stare back at her. It was not an admission; it was the truth.

The apparition got up with painful movements and finally came to rest when it sat by the edge of the bed, facing her. Those pair of eyes, when it looked up at her, were heavily shadowed.

"It's me. Bobby." It said simply.

Emma just stared in her shock.

"He's bluffing, you really nailed him down bad. I couldn't have wrestled control from him if you didn't," the apparition shrugged, in Bobby-like fashion, "for a little while, at least. But I want to know," it was that earnest look now, "are you alright?"

"Bobby?" She frowned, her first expression. She was not ready to believe in miracles, just yet.

"I tried to stop him, I really did, but he was just too strong. The feeling's passed but I felt goddamn weak and groggy just now," an expression of perplexed frustration, "I felt so, so - spread out. Then I tried to talk to you mentally, didn't know if you heard."

It was Bobby. Everything was subsumed in whorls of confusion; she did not know if she wanted to punch him or to hug him. Part of her felt as if a concentrated weight was hoisted off her shoulders - the relief at knowing he was all right threatened to overwhelm. The other part raged at him and simply wanted to throw itself at him for being the source of this whole mess, the ordeal, all those nightmares that never faded, that came crashing back on her.

The former won out. Emma smiled warmly and offered her hand, bracing herself against the instinctive jerk she knew the contact would give her. He took it and to her surprise, did not let go. Her gesture was not meant to be any sort of test but all of a sudden his reaction became an answer to her unspoken anxiety. Bobby would not know but the friendly human contact comforted her infinitely. His callused hands warmed her chilled one even as he sat at the edge of the bed to hold it more comfortably.

It was hard but she made the offer. "Bobby, do you - want me to try it again?" She was referring to the disastrous attempt to free him from Mountjoy. Emma saw the visible wince on his face. "Not tonight." And then afraid that she would mistake that for ungratefulness, "I mean, I really appreciate it but we need to recuperate, don't you think?"

Guilty relief was the first thing that sprung into her mind when Bobby declined. Now, she saw clearly the traces of dried blood around his ears and realised that he must have underwent the same agony as Mountjoy. Emma remembered how she had increased the pressure, not wanting to check her strength; simply wishing that by chance, the strain would be enough to kill.

"Did it hurt a lot?" She asked, knowing full well it did. But she never apologised and she was not ready to start now; the whole thing was still too fresh on her mind.

"Nothing I can't take." She frowned at his false bravado but he ploughed on. "Listen, you've got to hear me out. I don't have much time. I don't know what the hell he's going to do next and I'm not worth the wait finding out. I want you to leave this goddamn place, get back to the X-Men and tell them where I am, okay?"

Emma tried to take her hand back but Bobby held on to it. She tried instead to muster all the control she could in her voice, "I don’t think you're in any position to command me."

"Listen to me, dammit!" He held her attention by his grip on her hand as much as the intense look in his eyes, "The fucking bastard's a total nutcase, he acts on every impulse that crosses his mind. Hell, it's not even his mind he's acting on. Those bloody voices - they don't ever stop. It's like some sort of revenge thing, to get him to act and then see what pushes him off the edge. God, I actually pity him! I guess it's my fault too, but that's not the point. You've got to get out of here before it happens aga-"

"What are you talking about? What is your fault?"

Bobby lifted his head to look at her. "Nothing…"

For once, his hollow-eyed look was enough to stop her from questioning him further. Or maybe it was the fact that Emma needed very little prompting to drop the topic of her experience altogether.

"Bobby, he's been using PCP. That's why you felt like you did."

Bobby drew a shuddering breath and said with a surprising amount of calmness, "Guess I'm a goner now."

A worried frown. "You're not about to give up now, are you?"

He thought for a while before turning to her, "No way I can convince you to leave?"

"That- is simply one of the most stupid ideas I've ever heard. Even Mondo can do better. We're not even on the American continent; our passage into this country was bargained by my powers. Besides," her frown returned, "he refuses to say what he needs you for. And I can't shake off the bad feeling I've about this."

"I know what he wants," Bobby said quietly. "He can't keep his thoughts from me; he doesn't have the discipline and I've since learned to shut up and listen."

"What does he want?"

Bobby laughed, the bitterness in his voice plain. "He needs my ice powers to create hard reflective surfaces, surfaces strong enough to withstand laser beams. He wants to create this overlapping matrix of light paths, filtered through a prototype crystal light reflector found in the vaults of the National Bank! Hear this -- He believes that if he activates the device at the correct place, a gateway will open, leading to his Promised Land! Which salesman sold him that hooky idea? Where the hell did he get the idea I can create ice to withstand such temperatures? And you know what's worse; it's useless telling the asshole he's absolutely mad because he's already absolutely mad!"

Emma could find no words for him.

Finally she ventured, "Don't give up to that, Bobby."

She saw the shadow of a smile crossed his lips.

"It's too stupid a cause to die for. Even I know that. I'm not that helpless; I can mess him up from within - plant suggestions in his head. I just need to know which are the correct ones. And when's the right time. " He concentrated on playing with her hand. "Glad that you're alright though. I - really wanted to kill him just now."

She wasn't all right. Now that he mentioned it again, she finally had a chance to evaluate it for herself. A thin partition existed between part of her that was sitting calmly, apparently offering some measure of comfort to Bobby and the part that was still recoiling from the experience, kept only at bay by his presence. The irony almost made her laughed, if she could laugh in the first place. But Emma saw his bent head and the earnest homage he paid to her fingers and - she had to smile.

"Thank you, Bobby."

He guffawed. "Gotta be careful, y'know. Or we'd find we can actually get along."

He had meant it to be funny but the effect came out the opposite.

They sat in silence for a long time. A soft, almost imperceptible glow began to fill the room. The surrounding air took on an invigorating tinge; dawn was breaking. Bobby looked at the window and turned to her fearfully.

"I've got to go, before he wakes up," he looked around confusedly, words meaning one thing, body refusing to move. Finally, "Jeez, you're doing better than I am but I've got to say this: take care, okay?" He gave her hand one last squeeze and with more than a backward glance, clambered back on the bed.

Shut me down, Emma. There's no way I can do this myself, his last thought came to her. She did as he asked, letting Mountjoy take control over his body again. Emma watched as Bobby's face morphed into Mountjoy's once again.

She steepled her fingers in front of her, elbows resting on the armrest as she tried to memorise every line off that face. That face, those eyes that glittered, the cracked and peeling lips, dehydrated because of the drug - everything came back to her again. This time she forced herself to stare at his face, to imprint that image in her mind so that even when she closed her eyes, she could see his face in front of her. Emma felt her hate of him surge again. She would not rest until she wiped that image, real and imagined, off the face of this earth.

But she had to face up to something more. Maybe Bobby did not know or maybe Bobby was still reeling from the shock, Emma just knew she felt infinite relief over the fact that he did not bring it up. Back there - she could not deny the fact that she had enjoyed what was being done to her body. The garish light of retrospection magnified every aspect of the whole incident, baring everything she did, driving away every shadow and every excuse she could come up with. She judged herself, a judgement made more harsh because of the baggage of past experience, of the common but mistaken belief that certain things could have been prevented if only she had tried. If only she had tried, she told herself. The years in-between did very little to lessen that accusation. And tonight - it was as if all those years were compressed, rolled up into a ball the way she did to Mountjoy's mind, a circle that came back to the starting point again, telling her what it had told her years ago - it happened because she asked for it.

Emma drew a shuddering breath and sank deeper into the armchair. She felt inexpressibly soiled. And there was nobody to blame because she was the one responsible. A sense of tiredness suddenly overwhelmed her; her anger for Mountjoy subsided and vanished. She must grow to accept the fact that this was simply like one of those dreams she had, the only difference was that this one was more realistic than usual. Rituals were things she could handle.

She stared at the form in the bed with abject soberness as one thought after another winked out of existence in her head. What was left, was a hole that echoed blankness in its depths. But it did not work; the blankness failed to reassure. There was a feeling somewhere that the whiteout she had made in her mind confused her more than ever over the direction her life was taking.

Mountjoy's lips moved; a series of gesticulations that took Emma some time to notice. After a while, she realised that he was talking in his sleep. She sat up slowly, instinctive curiosity took over as she wondering idly what the mad dream about.

"…Don't forget that slice of lemon…he'll shoot your head off. Over-ripe fruit all over the table, big, really big, black and fat, fat ants all over it…Dali. Did that once… hung a man over a tree… Say your Hail Mary, darling or I'll dunk your head into the anthill…fire-ants, burn like hell. No, I'm not coming home to dinner tonight…the bites inject this poison and dissolve flesh…your head will do just fine, darling, broil it for me, okay? Burns like hell. Like Hell…please, if there is anyone out there, please tell my family…hell…hell…go away, damn all of you…leave me alone…fuck the voices, tell them to stop...tell them to stop, stop! I'd do anything; ask for forgiveness…in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…

"Fire-ants crawling over his face…didn't have one left later…carry on, my child… I have rights! Can't deny me my rights! Please, somebody help me, my little girl's waiting at home for me…they pull his head out…jelly eyeballs…sickly sweet… Father, I've sinned…burns like…fires…excellent poison! What head, damn it, what head…what must I do to get away…falls off when they untie him…peace, I only want a little peace…idiots! Should burn them…burn…god, it's been so long, I only want to rest, rest…hell! Like that word a lot…hell…hell…oh god…oh god… …", his voice died into a whimper, "…ma per ciò… che giammai di…di… questo fondo… non tornò vivo alcun, s' i' odo il vero… senza tema d'…infamia ti rispondo… …pleas - …"

Emma was shocked to see Mountjoy's face crumple into a landscape of despair.

But as no one has ever returned alive from the gulf… if what I hear is true… I can answer you with no fear of infamy… She recognised the last few lines from 13th century Italian poet, Dante's Inferno. The gulf referred to, was hell. The speaker, a coward who refuses to confess his crimes even after he was committed to infernal fires.

The personalities could only come to the front at night, she realised. Caught in a half-death where their bodies were assimilated, leaving only their disembodied voices, they believe they were still living, plagued with concerns and grievances they had left unfulfilled in life. Each one unaware of their real plights and of another's misery. And above all this: the host, a mutant who stole life-essence to survive, whose mind never found a moment of peace because the voices do not cease; a brief respite could only be bought at the expense of the occasional drug-induced haze.

Emma looked at Mountjoy for a long time. It gradually dawned upon her; the reason she hated him did not lie in the fact that he had been responsible for the Hellions' deaths or that Bobby was in his clutches, or even because of what he had tried to do to her. It was not that simple.

She had not been able to draw from Bobby's psyche these past few nights. And now she sat upright in the armchair, afraid of going to sleep, not so much because she wanted to keep a watch on Mountjoy, but because - yes, she had to admit it now - she was afraid of the dreams. They came every night, leaving her drenched in sweat as she relived her helplessness in them. And she was breaking down under the pressure, she could no longer do it alone. Just as Mountjoy needed his victims to survive, she had become a psychic vampire, drawing from Bobby's reservoir of mental wellbeing for life-support.

She hated Mountjoy because she saw too much of herself in him.

We are such despicable creatures. Living on others, taking what is theirs for our own while we moan over the fact that nobody would trust us. If this is hell, we made it. We build our own burning walls with cowardice; we use others to survive. We stoke our own hell-fires with the skeletons from our closets.

Unconsciously, she cradled the hand Bobby had held, close to herself. A deep intake of breath. She was afraid of losing the warmth he had given to her. Suddenly, she yearned again for that open laughter of his and the simplicity his presence gave to everything. She needed him to dispel the shadows she had gathered around herself.

Outside, the winter sun rose higher and higher.

continued >>

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