It sounded like a weird mission, yes. But Bobby had heard weirder.
"The important thing to remember," Scott said again – for the fifth time in five minutes, in fact – "is that Nori is in charge. Got that?"
"Got that." Bobby held up his hands. "Let the X-Baby do her thing, and only swoop in to save the day if it looks like things are about to end in tears."
"They're not X-Babies. They're X-Men. And if any of them catch you calling them 'X-Babies' they're going to kick your ass and I'm not going to stop them." Scott shrugged. "Look, they know that you're going to be evaluating them every step of the way because I told them that you would be evaluating them every step of the way. Especially Nori. So don't be too much of a jerk about having to take orders from the kids, all right? They're still the newbies, and you're still the veteran, and everything that you say about them is going to be annotated in the team rosters. You're ultimately in charge, even when you're not."
"I'll tell them that you called them kids," Bobby threatened.
"Unless you're expressing suppressed sexual urges, I think you might be using that term wrong."
Scott raised one eyebrow at Bobby.
"What?" Now it was Bobby's turn to shrug. "I'm allowed to have pet peeves, all right? Kids these days use that term wrong all the time."
"Bobby, I'm trying to be serious here."
"Does that ever work with me?"
"Here's what I need you to do," Scott said, refusing to be derailed. He handed Bobby a thumb drive. "Here's the team roster and the mission request that Nori submitted to me. I'm the one who told Nori that she wasn't going on any mission without three members from the veteran roster added to her team. I approved her picks but I didn't ask her the reasons behind her choices. That's your job. Push her during the pre-flight briefing and make sure that she has solid justification for choosing the team that she did. I want you to make sure that she's thinking strategically."
"Can do." Bobby held out his other hand expectantly. "Aaaaaaand?"
Bobby gestured with the fingers of his outstretched hand. "I'm flying the Blackbird, right?"
"Of course you are." Scott handed him the keys.
"Man," Bobby said, "All the Shi'ar technology in the world and we still start the Blackbird with keys."
"If it works, it's not a priority to upgrade," Scott said. He turned away from Bobby for a few moments, then seemed to realize that Bobby was still standing there. "All right, Bobby, what else do you need from me?"
"I'm just waiting for you to say 'Bobby, I can't guarantee that there won't be dinosaur people.' Or 'You should be on the lookout for intelligent mutated sharks.' Or 'The Professor thinks that there might be radioactive zombies in the area so be careful.' Just so that you can jinx it properly."
"Hey, it's better to set your team up to expect the worst, right?" Bobby pointed at Scott's chest. "That's leadership skills. I learned that from you."
Nori was doing a good job of hiding her nervousness. "It had to be me, Laura, Cess, and Vic," she said, "Because we're the ones that Mandy asked for help."
"The teleporter. She told us that her name was Mandy." Nori frowned and made another adjustment to her arm guards. "Didn't you read the brief that I submitted to Mr. Summers?"
Bobby had read the brief, but that didn't mean that he wasn't going to quiz Nori on the details of her own mission one last time. "And you're absolutely certain that she's, er, real?"
"Absolutely certain. Ms. Frost was with Cess the last time that Mandy appeared. She confirmed that Mandy was definitely a real person and not an illusion or a projection. But she's not a mutant."
"So you don't know how she can be teleporting herself across vast distances of space."
"Space and time," Nori corrected him. She opened up a pocket on her very discrete utility belt – they really were designing those things fitter and sleeker these days – and pulled out the folded sheet of Hello Kitty stationary that the mystery girl had frantically handed off to Cessily during her last appearance two weeks ago. On the note were written three lines in a young girl's too-careful, too-curly handwriting: My name is Mandy Altman. It's December 24th, 2010. They won't let me leave. Below them was a fourth line, It works like this, and then an arrow pointing to a hastily-scribbled triangle with two stars and a dot at its apexes.
Bobby had no idea what the triangle was referring to, but as far as he was concerned the note might as well have had T-R-A-P written in giant block letters all across the front of it. Not that that mattered much when Bobby saw the look in Nori's eyes as she unfolded the note.
The kids were convinced that this was their mission. Cessily, Noriko, Laura, and Victor insisted that because the girl had directly contacted each of them, they had to be included on the mission sent to rescue her. After all, she had asked them for help, not any of the senior team members. Bobby couldn't help but agree with this logic even though it was clear to everyone involved that the girl was barely in control of whatever method she was using to teleport, and that her encounters with the mutant students on Utopia had been a result of pure happenstance – four young mutants who had happened to be at the right place at the right time when the girl appeared – rather than a deliberate choice of saviors.
The girl had suddenly materialized - and seconds later just as suddenly vanished - in the middle of the kids' residential dorms on Utopia four times in the past several months. She had popped into existence one time right in front of Victor, one time right between Cess and Nori as they had been brushing their teeth in the morning, one time right in front of Laura (which had startled Laura so badly that the poor teleporter girl had ended up nearly decapitated), and one time in front of Cessily again. All four times the girl's message had been different. First it had been Is this Utopia? and then What day is today? and then You have to help me, they said that I couldn't leave and I don't know how to make myself stay here longer but I think this is the past and then finally I wrote down everything here please please PLEASE help me!
Four appearances spaced out over three months. In Nori's brief she had written that she suspected that Mandy Altman had been traveling from December 24th all four times. What had been a timespan of months in San Francisco could have been a span of mere minutes for the girl.
"We found a Melinda Altman in Bangor who reported her daughter missing in September," Nori said, adjusting her wrist guard again. "The daughter has to be our girl. She showed us photographs."
"And you're sure Mrs. Altman isn't secretly a Skrull, or involved in a devil-worshipping cult, or from the future in an alternative universe, or involved in any other business that would explain why her non-mutant daughter can time-travel?"
"No. I'm not sure," Nori said. "I guess any of those could be possibilities. But if any of that is true, then Mrs. Altman is an impressively good liar."
"Look, I just need to know that you're prepared for the worst and the weirdest," Bobby said. "That's why I'm here. To make sure that you don't do anything stupid."
"Isn't it a little late for that?" Nori held up her hands. "We're probably already walking right into a trap."
"Ah-ha. You think so too."
"It's too perfect," Nori said. "Cute and helpless little girl, seemingly no connection to Utopia or anybody on this island, suddenly starts teleporting in and out of here and begging for us to come save her from some vague and unstated menace… That, and Ms. Frost found her location too easily. Far too easily. Ms. Frost said that Mandy's psychic presence is being boosted somehow, like somebody wants us to find her. But her fear feels real. Or at least Ms. Frost thinks so."
"And you still intend to charge in there with guns blazing."
"The Xavier Institute has taught me well," Nori said, without a trace of irony in her voice.
Bobby knew that as far as Scott was concerned, the kids were already full-fledged X-Men, and therefore perfectly capable of foolishly rushing into an ill-prepared mission in order to save some helpless young mutant from the forces of Great Evil, as all young and stupid X-Men had the God-given right to do. But Scott Summers, after several decades of suffering through his youngest and stupidest X-Men consistently doing just exactly that, had at least this time insisted that the new squad members slow down and plan their mission more carefully.
Do it right. Add senior members to your team. And choose them strategically.
"Final question," Bobby said. "Alien technology or magic. Which do you think is the most likely explanation for how our non-mutant friend can be teleporting?"
"Personally, I'm leaning toward magic."
Bobby made a face. "I hate magic. Speaking of which, why didn't you request Illyana as one of the veterans on your team again?"
"Because…" Nori trailed off uncomfortably.
"Because she creeps the beejeezus out of you?" Bobby tried.
"I was going to say that it's because none of us like her," Nori admitted, "but somehow your way of putting it seems more polite."
"So we might be dealing with bad magic mojo, but you deliberately excluded our most powerful magician from your team roster because you don't like her," Bobby said. "And you can justify putting your personal tastes ahead of the safety of your team because…?"
"Because it's not about likes or dislikes," Nori said. "It's about trust. I have to trust everybody on this team with my life. And I don't trust her." Nori looked up at Bobby and said, "Don't tell Mr. Guthrie that I said that. He gets defensive about her."
"All of us get defensive about our friends," Bobby said. When he saw the look on Nori's face, however, he winked at her and said, "Don't worry, I won't tell him. No sense in stirring up high school-level drama right before we have to risk our lives."
"It's not— Oh," Nori said, cutting herself off as she glanced at something over Bobby's shoulder.
Bobby turned around. "Oh. Hey. I'll spare you the trouble of asking me 'Are you done grilling her yet?' because I totally just finished doing that."
Jean-Paul crossed his arms impatiently and said, "I was going to phrase it less delicately than that, but thank you. Guthrie already corralled the others. We're all waiting on you."
"I'm ready," Nori said. "Mr. Drake?"
"Go ahead. Us slowpokes will catch up with you in a second."
Nori was gone in the same instant that it took Jean-Paul to mouth "Slowpokes?" at Bobby.
"Okay, one thing," Bobby said, turning toward Jean-Paul. "I don't want you riding my back just because I'm riding the back of your favorite student, all right?"
Jean-Paul held up his hands. "I have no intention of stopping you on your admirable attempts to be a hard-ass. I merely came here to tell you to do so faster."
Bobby rolled his eyes. "Sorry that I can't keep up with you." Then he slapped his forehead. "Aw, dammit! I forgot to grill her on the one thing that Scott specifically told me to grill her on."
"I'm sure that there will be plenty of time to do that after we all come back alive from this mission as we surely are all about to do," Jean-Paul said, all but pushing Bobby in the direction that Nori had just gone.
"Is that sarcasm? Are you being sarcastic?"
"Drake, I would never."
"Okay, that was definitely sarcasm." Bobby tossed the Blackbird's keys in his hands thoughtfully as they walked. "Scott told me to ask Nori about the reasons why she chose you, me, and Sam as the three senior members that he required on the team."
"Is it not obvious?"
"Well, I know that Nori and Vic are like your little teacher's pets, but—"
"—But that only accounts for one-third of the roster. Which leaves the question of why you and Guthriewere requested for the team an utter mystery."
"It's because of my dashing good looks, isn't it?" Bobby said with a grin.
"I can't rule out that possibility."
"It's been a long time," Bobby said, settling into his seat and eagerly eyeing the control panel spread in front of him. "Too long."
"You're too old to still get excited about getting to fly the Blackbird," Jean-Paul said, taking his seat at the co-pilot's station.
"Nobody is ever too old to get excited about flying this jet," Bobby countered, unable to keep the stupid grin off his face. He remembered how once upon a time, he had had to fight long and hard just to get Scott and the Professor to even remotely consider possibly maybe someday teaching Bobby Drake how to pilot the Blackbird if they absolutely had to just because he refused to shut up about it. The thrill of holding the flight-stick in his hands was just as potent now as it had been the first time so many years ago. Bobby lightly rubbed his hand up and down the length of the flight-stick, appreciating the comforting feel of it.
Jean-Paul made a funny little strangled sound in his throat. "You're… You're not going to be doing that during the entire flight, are you?"
"Doing what?" Bobby turned toward his co-pilot. "If you don't like watching me have fun then you don't have to stay here." Why had Jean-Paul even been so insistent on overriding Sam for the role of Bobby's co-pilot, anyway? "Sam could-"
"I'm here to make sure that you don't do something stupid or get yourself killed," Jean-Paul said. "That is what a co-pilot does."
Bobby immediately felt his good mood turn sour. He knew that Jean-Paul wasn't so much talking about flying the Blackbird as he was the entirety of the mission looming in front of them. And Bobby most certainly did not appreciate the patronization in the other man's tone. "Hey, you know, I've been doing this superhero thing just as long as you have. I don't need you to—"
"You are right. And I'm sorry."
Bobby felt his jaw drop. "Whobuh the what now?"
"I said that you are correct, and I apologized for talking down to you."
Bobby turned away from Jean-Paul and made a dramatic show of squinting out of the cockpit of the Blackbird.
"What are you looking for?" Jean-Paul asked.
Jean-Paul actually chuckled at that. "I am surprised that you did not make a joke about Hell freezing over."
"That's a lot less funny once you managed to actually pull it off once. Or twice."
"Yes, I heard about that incident from Alli. Perhaps your secondary mutation is incredible powers of irony," Jean-Paul said. He was smiling. Bobby couldn't remember having seen him so happy and relaxed before. Maybe he was just glad to be back in action with the X-Men and some of his best students?
Bobby listened to the kids – no, no, he reminded himself, the newest members of the X-Men – talking and strapping themselves in behind him. Sam was at his shoulder in an instant. "We're strapped in and ready. Don't do the thing where you launch too fast, all right?"
"I'm not going to do that thing," Bobby said, listening to the engines of the Blackbird rumble to life. "We have to fly carefully tonight anyway. I don't want to hit any flying reindeer."
"Or fly straight into an obvious trap," Jean-Paul added.
"So we're all in agreement that this is a trap?" Sam asked, strapping himself in as the Blackbird launched into the air.
Bobby nodded grimly. He steered the Blackbird toward their designated flight path, then commented loud enough so that the kids could hear him, "The question is who is behind this incredibly obvious trap and why they would kidnap a little girl and manipulate her into dangling a piece of Hello Kitty stationary in front of some teenage mutants just so that the famously gullible yet devastatingly good-looking do-gooder X-Men would rush off to save her?"
"The kidnappers are from the future and this is part of a convoluted ploy to change something about their past," Cessily suggested. "I mean, since we already know that there's time travel involved. Somehow."
"They're a Satanic cult and they need mutant sacrifices on Christmas Eve for some reason," Victor added.
"H.Y.D.R.A.," Nori said. "Maybe."
"Or this isn't a trap and we're giving far too much credit to the kidnappers, who are far from being evil masterminds," Laura added.
"Let's not assume that we're going to be that lucky," Sam said. "Because we're never that lucky."
Bobby listened to the kids bouncing around a few more ideas – each of which seemed even more unlikely than the last – then finally leaned over toward Jean-Paul and said in a voice quiet enough so that hopefully the rest of the team couldn't hear, "If my gut is telling me that this is a trap, then why can't we think of any likely perpetrators behind it?"
"Because it is likely a trap carefully calculated to be as opaque as possible and impressively masterminded by a hithero unknown enemy," Jean-Paul said. "An enemy with a particularly sadistic streak, as evidenced by their willingness to use a presumably innocent child for bait. And on a sacred holiday, of all days. Assuming that our dear Mandy is innocent, of course."
"Well aren't you just a bundle of Christmas cheer and optimism today." Bobby said.
Jean-Paul sighed. "Even if this all were a trap, would it change anything about what we are doing right now?"
"No," Bobby admitted.
"As you have said yourself: We are sometimes deliberately gullible."
"And devastatingly good-looking."
"And perfectly capable of narrowing down some possibilities ourselves. For example, I somehow doubt that HYDRA would resort to something as unfathomably silly as attempting to deceive their enemies with Hello Kitty stationary," Jean-Paul added. "That sounds more like something that… Well. Something that you might come up with."
"Are you saying that because I just did come up with it?"
"I was going to add 'if you were turned evil and then managed to get yourself extremely drunk' but thank you for stopping me before I could." Jean-Paul studied something on the control panel in front of him. "The point is that, believe it or not, I trust you of all people to be prepared for the worst. So we are going to save this little girl."
"Awwwww, you trust me. How sweet of you," Bobby said. "Now if you want to really convince me that you're a Skrull imposter, say something nice about Sam."
"I trust Guthrie's ability to blast through walls," Jean-Paul said with a shrug.
"Excellent use of a backhanded compliment. You must be the real Jean-Paul and not a Skrull after all." Bobby sighed with exaggerated relief. "And here I was starting to get worried for a second."
"What, I'm not allowed to compliment you without arousing suspicion?"
"No, it's just that your compliments make me feel allllll warm and fuzzy inside," Bobby said. "Keep it up, Mr. Charmer, and you might make me start to blush. And do you know what happens when I'm in my ice form and I get all hot and bothered?"
"My face melts."
"I'm serious!" Bobby protested, despite being as far from serious as he had been all day. "It's even more embarrassing than popping a boner, let me tell you."
"Point taken," Jean-Paul said. "From now on I shall be as mean to you as possible, so as to save you the embarrassment of a melted face."
"How considerate of you."
"Well, I do try."
"Wait," Bobby said. "That means that you're being nice to me again." He raised his hand to his cheek. "I'm blushing like a schoolgirl, aren't I?"
"More like a—"
"Would you two STOP flirting for five minutes? I'm trying to listen to Nori!" Laura shouted from the back of the jet.
"Okay. Listening to Nori," Bobby said, still keeping his eyes focused on the sky visible through the cockpit of the Blackbird.
"Laura," Bobby heard Noriko say, "You didn't have to… Okay, never mind." In an instant she was back to business. "So we're all agreed that none of us have any idea why she drew that triangle on her letter?"
"No idea," Victor confirmed.
"Great. Wonderful. That's definitely a mystery that we can look forward to being solved in what is likely to be the most painfully unexpected way possible," Nori said.
Bobby leaned over toward Jean-Paul and whispered again, "You know she's picking up that insufferable cynicism from you, right?"
"Drake, pay attention to the flight plan."
Bobby tried not to visibly pout. So much for Jean-Paul wanting to joke around with him anymore. Then Bobby realized why Jean-Paul had told him to pay attention. "Strap yourselves in, guys," Bobby announced as he gently began to bring the Blackbird down. "We're here."
The snow was ankle-deep, the wind was freezing cold, and the bright midday sun did little to warm the air but yet somehow managed to reflect off the snow harshly enough to be nearly blinding. Not the Bobby was bothered by (or even felt) the cold, but he knew that the kids were feeling it. Points to them for not whining about it, though. As for Bobby, he couldn't have been in better spirits. There was snow everywhere, which meant that there was ice everywhere, because that was what snow really was when you got right down to the technicalities.
For all intents and purposes, they were surrounded by a sea of frozen water. That was good. Bobby could work with that.
"Ten," Sam said. "There are ten of them outside. Five of them look like they're patrolling the perimeter, but the other five are running around looking for something."
"Or somebody." Bobby took the binoculars from Sam and peered through them. "Want to bet that our girl is hiding in one of those buildings?"
The Blackbird was parked over a mile away. They had snuck through forest and snow in stupid broad daylight in order to reach their current position, a snowy embankment overlooking a frozen pond and spacious farm estate. The entire team was currently hiding and watching the activity around what looked like the main homestead. Bobby figured that whatever this place actually was, on a normal day it probably did a pretty good job camouflaging itself as a picturesque old-money orchard estate. Bobby had a clear view of an enormous Colonial-style home, postcard-perfect red barn, neatly planted rows of what looked like peach trees, and then open fields stretching toward a fuzzy dark horizon where the forest reclaimed the land again. Bobby saw no sign that any livestock had ever set foot near the pond or in the fields, though. And he was willing to bet money that there were no furry animals inside of the barn, either.
The men in matching uniforms shouldering semi-automatic weapons and nervously patrolling the grounds of the estate were kind of a dead giveaway.
The question now was who exactly those men with the guns worked for.
Men and women, Bobby mentally corrected himself as he peered through the binoculars. Apparently minioning was an equal-opportunity field now. They were all fairly bundled-up against the cold, so Bobby hadn't been able to tell any genders from a distance.
Bobby didn't recognize their uniforms. He zoomed in the binoculars, trying to get a good look at the insignia that each of them was wearing on the left shoulder of their jackets. An uroboros? Uncreative, yes, but also not the insignia of any enemy that Bobby could name off the top of his head.
"Do we know any super-secret evil organization that has a snake eating its own tail as their official cuddly mascot?" Bobby asked Jean-Paul, passing along the binoculars.
"No," Jean-Paul said, looking through the binoculars, "and if these people are trying to start up a new group, then they couldn't have possibly picked a more clichéd symbol. How gauche."
"Doesn't HYDRA do the whole snake… thing?" Cessily asked.
"Yes and no. Theirs is different."
"Maybe they updated their logo."
"I hope not," Bobby said. Although he had to admit, supervillains did seem to care about appearances an awful lot…
Something in his gut was telling him that this wasn't HYDRA, though.
"This isn't HYDRA," Jean-Paul said.
"How do you know?"
That was when they heard the shouting begin.
Coming around the opposite side of the house, two uniformed were soldiers dragging one very unhappy little girl by her arms. The girl kicked and screamed, managing to kick up clouds of snow as she was dragged toward the barn, but still unable to squirm free of her captors. The poor thing wasn't wearing a jacket. She still had a pen clutched in one hand, though – probably the same pen that she had written her note on the Hello Kitty stationary with, what might have even been moments ago from her perspective – and was doing an impressive job trying to stab at her captors with the pen despite the fact that both of her arms were being held.
The other goons around the property rushed toward the barn when they saw the girl being dragged out of the house. In about twenty steps the two soldiers and the girl would be at the barn doors.
"Nori," Jean-Paul said.
Come on, Nori, make a decision! Bobby silently pleaded. Their first move at this point should have been obvious. Their priority was to rescue that little girl and they had a member on their team who could take out half of the goons and get the girl a safe distance away before the idiots could react fast enough to even think about using their guns. And as for the rest of them, well, they still had the element of surprise on their side. As for what was inside that barn or whether there were more enemies in the immediate area to worry about, those were questions that could be dealt with after the threats already in their sight were disarmed and immobilized.
"Okay," Nori said. "Okayokayokay." Bobby glanced toward her, saw her chew her lip almost too fast to notice, and could practically see the gears turning in her brain as she mentally sifted through their options. "Mr. Beaubier get the girl out of here and Mr. Drake you and Cess get their guns and Laura and Vic will take them out and Laura for the love of just don't kill any of them yet and Mr. Guthrie you and me are going in and out of that house real fast to make sure that nobody's left in there to start sniping at us and okay GO!"
Barn, Bobby thought. She has no contingency plan if somebody or something is inside that barn decides to come at us. "Nori—"
But she was already gone. So was Jean-Paul. And Bobby immediately caught a faceful of snow as Sam blasted off from right beside him.
"Mr. Drake!" Cessily shouted. She had already flowed half the distance toward the remaining soldiers – the six of them that were still left standing, that was – and was lashing out with tendrils of her liquid body, grabbing the rifles out of their hands as they struggled to form some sort of defense line. But Cessily had limited mass and couldn't take out all of them at once. Laura was already busy slashing at some of them and Victor had already managed to take out two on his own, but a third soldier had also already managed to un-shoulder her rifle, dodge beneath Cessily, and point the barrel of her gun straight at Victor's head.
How did I get so much slower than these kids? Bobby wondered to himself as he finished sliding down a graceful waterfall of ice toward the little problem that needed to be dealt with. I must be getting old. "What do you think you're doing, trying to shoot a kid in the face on Christmas?" Bobby asked indignantly as he turned the offending rifle into a popsicle with a touch.
"Shit shit shit!" the soldier swore, still trying to scratch at the rifle's trigger that was covered in a solid block of ice.
Bobby risked turning his attention back toward the barn, which at such a close distance seemed to loom somehow ominously over the otherwise picturesque farmyard. What had seemed like a cheerful apple-red color from far away now looked like a much darker blood-red color up close. How could that be, Bobby wondered – was it a trick of the sunlight? Still no movement from inside the barn, though. Bobby cracked his knuckles and then quickly covered the barn doors with a thick wall of ice to make sure that it would stay that way.
"Mr. Drake, I need your help," Cessily said again.
Bobby turned back toward her and saw that she had wrapped most of her liquid mass tightly around the only four soldiers who were still left conscious, but they were putting up a decent fight to break free of her. Victor had already started to drag one of the knocked-out soldiers back toward the direction of the house and was yelling at Laura, "No, you can't take them all out, we need some of them awake for questioning!"
"Laura, listen to Victor," Bobby said absent-mindedly as he helped Cessily by wrapping some very cold and unpleasant ice around the soldiers. "And help him."
"Fine, fine," Laura said, grabbing one of the unconscious soldiers by his hair and dragging him through the snow toward the side of the house, where she dumped him unceremoniously in a heap. She then turned around and grabbed another casualty.
A blur of kicked-up snow and Noriko was back, Sam gracefully sticking his landing beside her. "There's nobody left inside the house," Nori reported quickly. "It was—"
"Where did you take the girl?" One of the soldiers suddenly screamed at them.
"Somewhere safe," Cessily answered, making no effort to hide the anger in her voice. "She's with one of us now."
"And by the way, we're the ones who get to ask the questions now," Noriko said, managing to sound impressively intimidating as she glared at the four goons who were now neatly encased from the waist down in a cone of ice, stuck right in the middle of the yard between the barn and the house. "Starting with—"
"Are you saying that one of you is attempting to take the girl away from this place?" Another one of the soldiers asked. Then he laughed. "They won't get far."
Laura glared crossly at the soldiers. "And why is that?"
"Because she can't leave this place."
"Bullshit," Laura said. "She already did. Mandy Altman teleported herself to San Fransisco four times to ask for our help."
"We're the X-Men, by the way," Victor said. "Hi."
"You don't understand," the same goon said again. "No matter how many times she may try to leave, she always bounces back. You can't break her binding to this place."
Bobby rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah? Personally, I wouldn't bet against—"
"Ow," Sam said, his voice somewhat muffled due to the fact that he was suddenly lying face-down in the snow.
Jean-Paul quickly managed to climb off of Sam and stood up, dusting snow from his clothing. He reached down and helped the girl stand up, too. "How did we get back here?"
"I told you!" the girl said, pulling her hand indignantly free of Jean-Paul's grip. "I told you that if you took me too far away from here I would just teleport us both right back because I can't help it that's how the stupid magic works!"
"The—" Mandy suddenly clapped her hands over her mouth, her eyes widening in horror. "Oh no," she gasped.
" 'Oh no' what?" Sam asked, having already picked himself up out of the snow and returned to a standing position.
The ground beneath them began to shake.
"Oh no, I made her angry," Mandy unhelpfully clarified.
The shaking stopped almost as quickly as it had started. Still, Bobby knew that inexplicable seismic tremors were almost always followed by something very very bad happening. Bobby risked a glance up at the goons that were still trapped in ice, and saw that they suddenly looked terrified.
Well, that was worrying.
At this point, their priority was the little girl again, Bobby realized. Something dangerous was coming and they had a helpless civilian right in the thick of it. Somebody had to get her out of there, and fast. Protecting a civilian meant having a handicap against whatever it was that had just caused the ground to shake.
Thankfully, Nori was smart enough to already be worrying about that. "Cannonball, your turn," Nori said quickly. "Get Mandy as far away from here as you can!"
"Wait!" Mandy shouted. "I don't think we—"
But Sam had already scooped her up into his arms and blasted off. Bobby was barely paying attention to them at that point, however. His attention was focused on the blood-red barn, trying to encase as much of it in ice as he could. The ground shook again.
Bobby stumbled, caught off-guard. He'd been concentrating so much on keeping whatever was inside the barn good and trapped inside the barn that he hadn't been prepared for the ground beneath his feet to suddenly and inconveniently start moving.
Fortunately, Jean-Paul was by Bobby's side faster than Bobby could fall, catching him and steadying him. "Thanks," Bobby said.
"So what did I miss, and what exactly is going on right now?" Jean-Paul asked.
"I have no idea what exactly is going on right now," Bobby confessed.
"I'll tell you what's going on right now," one of the idiots still encased in ice shouted. "Haven't any of you ever seen the movie Tremors?"
"Ohmygod," Cessily said. "We have to get off the ground—"
"No we don't and don't listen to them," Bobby shouted. "They're trying to play with your heads. This ground is frozen solid for at least three feet beneath us and there's no way that a giant worm could come up from underneath us. Well, I mean, not unless it could breathe fire or—"
"Drake," Jean-Paul said.
"Yeah yeah yeah okay shutting up now," Bobby said, just to prevent Jean-Paul from being able to tell him to do so. But it was also a lie, as he had absolutely no intention of shutting up. Did he ever? "Listen, Nori, I think what we really need to be worried about right now is what's inside that b—"
So having a grown man and a little girl fall right on top of you really does hurt a lot, Bobby suddenly realized. Even though he was in his ice form, it still hurt like hell. "Ow," Bobby said, hisvoice somewhat muffled due to the fact that he was suddenly lying face-down in the snow.
"Eeek! Cold!" the girl gasped.
For a moment Bobby could actually feel the little girl's bare skin touching his back – the poor thing wasn't even wearing long sleeves, let alone a jacket or gloves or anything to protect her head from the cold. She was scrambling to climb off him, her bare hands slipping all over his icy shoulders. Somehow, however, she did manage to get off of him, because an instant later her weight was gone.
Sam was a bit slower. "What just happened?" He shifted his weight, as if suddenly realizing that he was lying on top of a man made of ice, but still didn't get up. "Jesus, Bobby, are you all right?"
Bobby managed to lift his head out of the snow. "Sam, it is taking every ounce of my willpower and often vastly underestimated maturity to not make a joke about your weight right now but if you don't get offa me this instant I can't be held responsible for the devastatingly witty barb that's about to come out of my mouth!"
The ground shook again, and that seemed to snap Sam out of his teleport-related stupor moreso than Bobby's words did. "I'm up, I'm up," he said, and then a moment later he finally was.
"Okay, new plan," Bobby heard Nori say as he finally picked himself up off the ground. "Iceman, it's your turn to take Mandy now."
"But that's not going to work!" the girl wailed. "I can't leave! And if I try to run away again then it's just going to make her angrier—"
"You're not leaving," Nori said. She was kneeling down in front of the little girl now, at eye level with her. "I'm sorry that we didn't listen to you, Mandy. So now that we know that you can't leave yet, we're not going to try to take you away again. You're going to stay right here and Iceman is going to protect you, okay? He's going to keep you safe while we deal with the bad thing that's keeping you here."
Great, Bobby thought. He didn't for one second like the idea of essentially being taken out of the fight against whatever it was that was busily trying to get at them from inside of that barn. But Nori was right, now that they were stuck with a civilian in the middle of their battle, somebody had to be focused completely on protecting her. But wait, wouldn't Cessily have been a better choice for that role? In these weather conditions Bobby's powers were going to be of a lot more use offensively then defensively. Okay, okay, so Scott was going to get on Bobby's case when he heard later that Bobby overrode one of Nori's decisions in the middle of the mission, but Bobby could deal with Scott later. "Nori—" Bobby started to say.
Nori was completely focused on talking to the girl, however, and doing an excellent job of pretending not to hear Bobby. "Listen to me, Mandy," Nori said. "You need to tell us the reason that you can't leave this place. And what we need to do to fix that. You need to tell us now."
The ground shook again.
Mandy Altman was shivering, rubbing at her bare arms for warmth, her teeth chattering. At least her legs were covered – she was wearing jeans, after all – but Bobby noticed that she had sneakers on her feet, not proper boots, which meant that her shoes and socks were probably already soaked through by the wetness of the ankle-deep snow that she was standing in. "Y-Y-You have to kill her," Mandy managed through her chattering teeth. "A-As long as shuh-shuh-she's alive wuh-we can't be suh-suh-separated."
"Kill who, Mandy?" Nori said, somehow managing to display an admirable aura of patient calmness.
Mandy jerked her head toward the barn.
The ground shook again, this time an angry trembling that lasted for several seconds longer than the previous tremors. Bobby could feel the frozen ground cracking beneath them even though the snow covering the surface of the ground remained deceptively smooth. A second ago Bobby had been thinking about ordering Cessily to take the little girl back inside the house to keep her safe (and more importantly to warm her up), but he now realized that inside a house was probably the least safe place to be, given that the ground was about to give out beneath them.
We're out of time.
Nori looked up and met Bobby's eyes. He could see that she thought so, too. There were more questions that she wanted to ask the girl,Bobby could see that there were more questions that she wanted to ask the girl, hell even he had a lot of questions that he really, really wanted little miss Mandy Altman to be answering right at the moment. But it was time to make a move, and as long as they had barely enough information to act on, that was good enough.
Kill the thing inside of the barn, and their problems would be fixed.
As for what the thing inside of the barn was, there was hardly any point in wasting time asking Mandy that question when they were about to find out anyway.
"Iceman, take her over there," Nori said, pointing more or less in the direction of the hill on the other side of the frozen pond. "We'll deal with this."
"Got it," Bobby said, dropping his ice form as he bent down to scoop the girl up in his arms. He held her as tightly as he could without being creepy about it, trying to warm her up at least slightly.
"I-I'm suh-sorry," the girl said as she shivered in Bobby's arms. "Shuh-she's r-r-real angry nuh-now…"
"Don't worry," Bobby said, trying to jog backwards towards the snow-covered hill where their team had previously hidden while scoping out the strange enemy stronghold, so that he could watch Nori shouting orders and forming the rest of the team into a strategic offensive formation. "We're X-Men," he said. "We deal with big angry big bads all the time."
" 'M cold," she said. Her lips were turning blue.
Bobby silently cursed whatever momentary state of fashion-consciousness had caused him to go back to wearing a costume without a jacket. If he'd had a jacket at least he would have had a spare article of clothing to wrap the girl in. He didn't want to risk going back inside the house to get something for her to wear – not with the ground shaking the way that it was – but maybe he could borrow one of those nice fluffy coats from one of the goons that the kids had knocked out earlier…
Bobby changed direction in mid-step, running toward the house. "Hey, I've got an awesome idea. Let's steal you a coat," he said.
The ground suddenly shook violently, and Bobby stumbled, almost losing his balance again. Fortunately, he managed to catch himself on a block of ice; a second later and there was solid track of elevated ice arching gracefully across the yard toward the side of the house. "Can't trust the ground anymore," Bobby murmured to himself as he ran across the ice.
"Neat," Mandy said.
"Why thank you. It's nice to be appreciated."
"Duh-don't thank me," Mandy said. "I shuh-shuh-should've tuh-told you. She'll come s-s-straight at muh-me, n-n-not thuh-them."
Bobby refused to stop running even as his brain struggled to parse her stuttered speech. "Wait, what?"
"'Sokay, though," Mandy went on. "I can puh-puh-protect you n-now. If shuh-she at-t-ttacks us I can muh-make us dissapuh-pear."
That was when the ground erupted right in front of Bobby. He managed to grind himself to a halt just in time to stop himself from running straight into an explosion of snow and dirt and ice. Bobby thought he caught a glimpse of green scales, but then his entire field of vision was suddenly filled with enormous, sharp teeth.
"I've got you!" Mandy practically screamed, a rush of adrenaline temporarily overcoming her shiver-induced stuttering, squeezing her arms around Bobby's body almost hard enough to hurt. "Hold on!"
Teeth parted. Spittle flew at Bobby's face. Behind the teeth, nothing but a gaping maw of red and black.
And then everything went white.
So being the grown man who fell on top of another grown man also hurt a hell of a lot too, Bobby realized. Having a girl in his arms who added her weight to the fall didn't help, either.
Three thoughts screamed through Bobby's brain at once: First, he had landed on top of somebody. Second, everything felt warm. Too warm. The sudden absence of all that cold and ice that had been surrounding him was noticeable. Third, he felt as though he had just fallen from a great height with a little girl in his arms and oh my god was she hurt?
That was when Bobby felt Mandy scrambling out of his arms. "Yesssss!" he heard her shout. "I did it!"
So not hurt, then.
"Ow," said the person beneath Bobby again. And suddenly Bobby realized that that was his own voice.
He scrambled off of the person beneath him – himself, that was himself, he had just fallen right on top of his own stupid past self – and stood up, wasting a precious second of cognitive processing to get his bearings. He recognized where he was instantly. This was the Danger Room, not the oldest version but one of the oldest versions, the one in the basement of the mansion that once upon a time Charles Xavier had built in upstate New York. And there was a group of five frighteningly young-looking mutants in bright black and yellow uniforms staring right at Bobby.
There was also a very befuddled-looking Tyrannosaurus Rex.
"Stop the simulation!" Bobby shouted at the Professor – it was the Professor who had been in charge this time, he was remembering this day now – as he bent down and tried to help his past self stand up. "Sorry about that."
The dinosaur faded away as Past-Bobby slowly stood up, rubbing his head. "What just happened?" He finally seemed to see Bobby at that moment, and he froze, staring with wide eyes. "Holy— Are you me?"
"Hi," Bobby said. "So I guess I'm you from the future."
"I DID IT!" Mandy exclaimed again, practically jumping up and down with glee.
"Oh just great," Sam – a decades-younger Sam who spoke with a much thicker accent – said. "Now there's two of 'em. Just what we needed."
"Who is this little girl?" Rahne asked.
"Is this a trick?" Robert – the one that Bobby had always thought rather uncharitably of as 'the other Robert,' not that he would ever tell Sam about that nuh-uh no way – said, frowning with distaste. "This had better not be the Professor using the Danger Room to mess with us again."
"I wouldn't put it past him," Dani said, crossing her arms. Xi'an didn't say anything, but communicated everything that she needed to communicate with the suspicious glare that she was giving Bobby.
"This is not a trick, and certainly not a planned event on my part," the Professor said, wheeling himself into the danger room. "Hello, Robert. Forgive me for reading your mind, but you seem just as surprised to be here as we are to see you." The Professor glanced from Bobby toward Mandy, who had returned to Bobby's side and was holding his hand now. "And you would be the one who brought him here?"
"Yep," Mandy said.
"Well, that's very impressive." The Professor was clearly taking this with the same calm detachment with which Bobby remembered him often bringing to bear against the insanity that tended to swirl around his school.
"I totally saved his life," Mandy went on, shamelessly bragging. "He would've been eaten by a giant snake if I hadn't gotten him out of there."
"Oh boy, this just gets better and better," Past-Bobby muttered, glaring at his future self.
Bobby couldn't blame his past self for his mood, though. He remembered this particular day all too well. He was supposed to have been on spring break, his first glorious week-long spring break in sunny California after a hellish week of midterms was finally behind him, back during that time in his life when he had still been feverishly convinced that he would be perfectly happy crunching numbers for the rest of his life and living like a normal person was supposed to live, getting burnt by the California sun and drunk with his friends and making out with cute girls and never having to worry that someday his penis was going to turn into a popsicle and then never be able to turn back to flesh again because dammit he was never going to turn to ice again if he could damn well help it. But then the Professor had called him on the phone: Got some new recruits, they really look up to you, they would love to meet you, I think you might connect with them better than scary hairy Logan can, Hank and Warren are in town and it can be just like old times again, it will just be for a few days, and they really could use the training from you. And Bobby had finally agreed to take the Professor up on his offer, because he had been shamelessly lured by the idea of the newbies looking up to him like some sort of big damn hero, because maybe he was tired of always being the student and wanted to try his hand at being the teacher for just a few days, and because maybe he couldn't exactly afford to spend his entire spring break partying on the beach every day (and because he was maybe a little bit loathe to ask his parents for money to help with that).
But most importantly, he had accepted the Professor's offer because he had been so damn pleased that the Professor was finally treating him like an adult. Finally.
Unfortunately, the past few days hadn't exactly gone as Bobby had imagined. The X-Babies didn't always laugh at his jokes and sometimes seemed to regard both him and the Professor with a strange, guarded suspicion. They stuck to themselves and never spoke to Bobby outside of training. The mansion felt strangely empty without a Hank to joke with, a Scott to prank, or a Jean to laugh with. Bobby could tell that the new mutants respected him, but they didn't seem to like him, at least not in the same way that they liked each other, and every day that Bobby watched them together it was more and more driving home the point that he really had left this superhero thing behind him, so maybe it was time to finally move on for good. If the people that he really cared about weren't in the spandex business with him anymore, then what was the point?
Why couldn't he get that stupid blonde kid from Kentucky to laugh at any of his jokes? Why did he have to take everything so seriously? It was just like watching Scott all over again, watching him freak out about the whole leadership thing, watching him continuously stuff his goody-two-shoes Boy Scout head so far up his own ass that—
"So how bad is the future that you came to warn us about?" Robert asked, loudly enough to snap Bobby out of his reminiscence. "That's why you're here, right? To change the past?"
"Oh no no no," Bobby said quickly. "No no no no no no. The future that I come from is pretty great, actually." Except for the part about mutantkind going extinct. But Bobby felt that it would be wise not to mention that. "We have smartphones, and Netflix, and Scott finally installs one of those navi systems on the Blackbird where you can change the computer's voice so that it talks like Yoda. My future is pretty awesome."
"Wait," Past-Bobby said. He stared at Bobby's costume. "You're still an X-Man in the future?"
"Oh my God yes my stupid stupid past self I mean did you really think that your destiny was to be an accountant? Really?" Suddenly Bobby couldn't help himself, he reached out toward his own stupid stupid past self and grabbed him by his stupid stupid shoulders, shaking him. "Listen, I know that you're thinking right now that you would rather have spent your spring break binge drinking and contracting veneral diseases because you think that's what normal people do and you're still stupid enough to think that you want to be normal right now, but you're not normal, you're the goddamn Robert Drake, and in ten years you're going to be punching out dinosaurs and visiting alien worlds and making out with hot mutant chicks and you're going to realize how much of an idiot you were for ever wanting to give any of that up! Also, do NOT get your hair cut to look like Sonny Crockett – I don't care how good of an idea you think that is right now, you're going to regret it for decades, Hank is going to keep pictures just to blackmail you with – and parachute pants are never going to be cool and you are going to deeply regret ever telling anybody that 'Ice Ice Baby' is your theme song and—" Bobby took a deep breath. "And stop freaking out about how the newbies don't like you, of course they like you, let me tell you that four generations of X-Men later everybody loves The Bobby, even Wolverine's hot gay friend that you thought didn't like you actually really liked you all along, and in the future you and Sam are going to be best friends – really, truly, the best of friends – but right now he's the student and you're the teacher so you can't have that type of friendship until you're both standing on equal ground but it's not going to be long before these guys are full-fledged X-Men anyway so you don't have that long to wait and it's just going to take time, okay?"
Bobby's past self stared at his future self with the same horrified, disbelieving expression that Hank had given him the day that he had revealed the haircut that he had just warned his past self about.
Finally, Roberto broke the silence. "You lost me at 'Wolverine's hot gay friend'," he said.
"Wolverine has friends?" Sam added.
"Robert," the Professor said, "I think—"
"Don't worry, we're out of time, so we'll be going now," Mandy suddenly said. She looked up at Bobby. "Let go of him and give me your hand. Hold on tight."
"What now?" Bobby sighed, doing as she said.
"Now we're going to bounce back. I told you, we always bounce back." She squeezed Bobby's hand tightly, then used her free hand to wave at everybody else in the Danger Room. " 'Bye, Iceman's past! I'll see you guys in the future!"
Rahne, at least, was polite enough to wave back. "Goodbye!"
Then the floor opened up and swallowed Bobby.
There was no thump the time. Only gray, and the queasy sensation of floating.
At least they weren't falling.
Bobby watched a flock of seagulls flying noisily through a washed-out mass of gray fog. "Mandy," Bobby asked, with as much calm as he could muster given the circumstances, "where are we and why are we flying?"
"We're not flying, we're floating," Mandy said. "Just don't let go of my hand."
"So where are we? I thought you said we were bouncing back to the present."
"I don't know where we are, because we're still in your past," Mandy said. "And we are going back to the present, we just have to make two more stops before we get there."
"Because that's how the triangle works. You have to visit all three points on the triangle before you can go home."
Bobby reached out with his free hand and rubbed at his eyes. "Mandy," he said. "Mandy. There are so many things in that sentence that you need to explain to me that I don't even know where to begin asking you questions."
"I think maybe we should get down," Mandy said, "before I start answering any questions." She sounded a bit frightened.
Bobby looked down and saw black ocean that seemed to be very, very far beneath them. Well, that settled that, then. Black ocean and depressing gray clouds of fog?
"We're in San Fransisco," Bobby said. He swam down through the sky, pulling Mandy along with him. "Let's see if we're in the recent enough past for Scott's island to be out here. If not, we'll head back to shore, okay?"
"Okay. Okay. Just… I think we need to be on solid ground. For this part to work," Mandy said.
"So talk to me," Bobby said as they swam through the sky, searching for an island utopia. "As long as we're up here, you might as well explain what's going on."
"Okay," Mandy said again. "So there's three ways jump through time – the star, the circle, and the triangle. Right now we're in the triangle, which is—"
"Nuh-uh, kiddo, you lost me again." Bobby forced himself to be patient with her. There was no use in snapping at her. "And I'm not very good with magic mumbo-jumbo – always been more of a math person, myself – so you're going to have to start from way back and explain everything in the smallest words that you can use, all right?"
"Got it," Mandy said. "Okay. Let me try again." She took a deep breath. "My grandmother was a witch."
"Now this, I can follow."
"She died last year."
"I'm sorry," Bobby said, giving Mandy's hand a reassuring squeeze.
"In her will, my grandma gave me a bunch of stuff. But my mom said that I wasn't supposed to touch it because I wasn't ready yet. So she locked it up in a safe deposit box in a bank."
"Go on," Bobby said, scanning the horizon for any signs of an island and dodging another flying seagull.
"So one day, I was walking home from school alone, and this van pulled up next to the sidewalk, and I wasn't really paying attention so I wasn't as scared as I should have been. And the men with the guns reached out of the van and grabbed me. They pulled me inside before I could even scream." Mandy took a deep breath. "The snake woman was inside the van."
"I don't like to say her name," Mandy said. "It's gross. Just saying her name makes me feel like I can taste the place that she came from."
"Limbo?" Bobby hazarded a guess.
"Maybe. I don't know. But it has to be a bad place."
"You haven't been to Limbo, have you?" Bobby asked.
"No. Never. Not yet anyway."
"Good," Bobby said. "Don't ever go. It's a terrible place. Lousy air, lousy food, boring tourist attractions."
"I don't plan to," Mandy said. "I'm going to be a good witch, like my grandma. Not a bad witch like the snake woman." She struggled to swim through the air and keep up with Bobby. "So the snake woman was inside the van. She told me that she wasn't going to hurt me, she just wanted the gifts that my grandma had left me. She already knew where the gifts were and how to get to them. But for some reason she wasn't allowed to touch them. Only I could touch them. So she told me that if I could take the gifts out of the safe deposit box in the bank and give them to her, then she would let me live. But if I didn't help her, she would cut off my hands and use them to take the gifts out of the box anyway. She said that she was only offering to be nice to me in the first place because there were too few witches left in the world to justify killing one without a good reason. So she told me not to give her a good reason."
At this point, Bobby figured that he should be worried about the idea of another crazy witch running around with possible connections to Limbo (or an even worse hell dimension, if such a thing was possible) and a reason to surround herself with uniformed, gun-toting goons. But he was too busy worrying about the much more immediate fact that he was stuck in the sky with a little girl and he didn't exactly understand what force was preventing either of them from plummeting down to the ocean below. Also, he had finally spotted a distant coastline and the island of Utopia jutting out of the ocean a short distance closer to them. "So she took you to the bank," Bobby prompted Mandy.
"Uh-huh. And nobody tried to stop her when she walked right into the back, right into the vault. She didn't even need a key to open up my mom's box. Inside the box there were only a few things. There was a clock, and some pretty watches, and a necklace with three jewels on it. There was a triangle, a circle, and a star. So I reached inside the box to take those things out to give them to the snake woman, but as soon as I touched them, they disappeared. The snake woman got really mad. She said that those things had been absorbed in my body and now she had to take me with her until she could figure out how to get them out."
"Clocks and watches, huh," Bobby said, pulling Mandy down toward the artificial island still far below them. Things to do with time. "Come on now, stay close to me. Somebody down there is going to see us any moment now, and I hope they're not stupid enough to shoot first and ask questions later."
"Nobody down there can see us," Mandy said. "We're at the second point on the triangle right now. This is the point where nobody can see us and nobody can hear us. We can't affect the past this time, we can only watch. Like ghosts. I think that's why we're floating right now. We're kind of ghosts."
"You lost me again."
"Ooooooooo we're scary ghosts!" she tried again.
"Was I this annoying when I was your age?" Bobby wondered aloud.
Bobby laughed. "I like you. You're funny, when you're not completely terrified or dying of hypothermia."
"I was never terrified!" Mandy protested indignantly.
"So back to the story of how you were totally never terrified?" Bobby prompted her.
"Oh yeah. That. Okay, so they took me to that house. Don't laugh, but I think that's where the snake woman actually lives when she's in this world. There used to be ducks in that pond, too, but then one day she ate them all. She mostly made me stay in my room, but sometimes I could sneak out and hide around the house until the people with the guns found me. Or until I touched one of her weird things and it burned me and I would go back to my room. She has a lot of weird things in that house. And the people with the guns were always coming and going. Sometimes they brought other people to the house, and I would watch from the window of my room when they dragged those people back into the barn and…"
Mandy chewed on her lip and refused to finish her sentence.
"Hey," Bobby said. "Just stick to the important parts. You totally weren't afraid, remember?"
"Totally not afraid," Mandy repeated.
Down through the gray clouds they swam. "So the things that my grandma gave me had become a part of me," Mandy went on. "The snake woman kept trying to separate me from them. I don't… I kind of don't remember a whole lot of what happened during that time, because there was a lot of magic going on, and it kind of messes with your head. But I knew that she couldn't kill me or else she would lose the necklace forever. And she really, really wanted my grandma's necklace."
"How did you know that?" Bobby asked, not about to let any potentially important detail slip by on his watch.
"Because my grandma told me. I started hearing her voice, and it was because of the necklace that I had absorbed. She told me all about how it works. She said that the star is for a short leap forward, that the circle is for a short leap backward, and that the triangle is the most special one of all, but also the most difficult to use correctly, because it allows you to change the past." Mandy looked down at Bobby. "Grandma told me that I had to use the circle to ask for help. At first I was afraid to try it. But then I tried it, and it worked! And I got it to work five more times before the snake woman caught me."
"So that was when you asked Noriko and the others for help." Bobby grinned at Mandy. "That was smart, by the way. Writing down your name and location in time for us."
"Thank you. I thought so too."
"Almost too smart," Bobby said. "You made things so easy for us that we thought we were walking right into a trap."
"Yeah, I've kind of noticed that you guys are a little bit dumber than I would have hoped," Mandy said. "I mean I had to tell you guys three times that taking me away from that house wasn't going to work—"
"Ouch, Mandy. Ouch. My wounded ego."
"I'm sure your ego will survive."
"So are you actually like some weird ten-year-old girl version of Jean-Paul, or what?"
"I'm twelve years old, thank you very much, and who?"
" 'Wolverine's hot gay friend.'"
"Oh that guy."
"Why do I always end up with the snarky ones?" Bobby asked the universe.
"Karma?" Mandy suggested.
"No, she's on Sam's team."
"That's not what I— Hey, you distracted me from my story again!" Mandy glared at him. "Okay, so, long story short. The snake woman told me today that if she couldn't take the necklace out of me, then she was just going to have to eat me. That was the only way that she could have the necklace. So that's when I panicked and wrote down the note and used the circle for the last time. I was hoping that you guys would make it in time. I'm glad that you did."
"Oh finally, was that a hint of a 'thank you' that I detected?" Bobby asked as they landed on top of the roof of one of the tallest towers in Utopia. Bobby couldn't tell if his feet were actually resting on the surface of the roof or not – he still felt as if he were floating, just like a ghost – but at least his feet weren't sinking through the roof, so there was that to be grateful for. "But why did you ask us for help?"
"Why wouldn't I ask the X-Men for help?" Mandy countered, landing beside Bobby.
"I officially like you again," Bobby said. Then he turned and shouted back toward the direction of the coast, "Did you hear that? In your face, Captain America! HA!"
"Oh, I tried the Avengers," Mandy said. "I managed to bounce one time to their New York headquarters, but I ended up in an empty room and I wasn't able to find anybody to talk to before I had to bounce back." She shrugged. "I tried Utopia next because I figured that there were so many mutants all crowded on this tiny island that it would be impossible for me not to run into somebody, no matter how short my bounce was."
"Ego, Mandy," Bobby said, placing his hand dramatically over his heart. "My poor ego!"
"Oh, poor you. Sorry, but," Mandy held up her free hand solemnly, "A good witch is only supposed to tell the truth."
"So tell me how I can get solid again, because this being-a-scary-ghost thing is starting to freak me out," Bobby said, holding up his all-too-light hands. He couldn't smell anything, couldn't taste the air, and definitely couldn't feel even a hint of the moisture that should have been completely surrounding him in all of this fog. So no ice powers. "What do we need to do, here? Should I clap my hands three times and say 'I do believe in mutants, I do believe in mutants, I do believe in mutants'?"
"No," said Mandy. "We have to find where the other two are in this past. They're going to be together, because this is the second point on the triangle."
"And we're back to the sentences that make no sense," Bobby said. "Who are we looking for, again?"
"Your two friends. The other ones who tried to help me escape even though I told them that it wasn't going to work." Mandy rolled her eyes at the remembered stupidity of her would-be rescuers. "I touched both of them before I touched you. So those two are the other two points on your triangle."
"Okay, so I have a deeply repressed nerdy side that totally loves geometry, and I still didn't understand half of that." Bobby buried his face in his hands. "This is why I hate magic!" he moaned. "It ruins everything, even awesome things like math! And Christmas. I think this officially counts as a ruined Christmas at this point. In fact, this is the—" Bobby counted on his fingers. "The sixth worst Christmas that I've ever had. The sixth!"
"YES I am counting this as worse than that one with the fungus aliens because time travel is waaaaay worse than fungus aliens and so that is officially now bumped down to being the seventh worst Christmas ever and—"
"Your Christmas is ruined?" Mandy cut Bobby off. "Excuse me, but I was about to be eaten alive by a giant snake!"
"Okay, okay, you win."
"Listen, it works like this." Mandy held up her fingers to form a triangle. "There are three points on the triangle. The first point is shame, the second point is suspicion, and the third point is regret. You only have the chance to change the past during the first and the third point, which is why you become a ghost during the second point, because you aren't allowed to change anything here. That's also because the second point is the only point that isn't your memory. Stop giving me that look, I know it doesn't make sense when I say it like that, so just wait until I've explained the whole thing, okay?" She took a deep breath, then went on. "I need to use three people to activate the triangle. Whoever the last person is that the triangle chooses, that's the person who dives with me into the past. The first point on the triangle is a memory that both you and that other guy – Cannonball, come on Mandy, you know their names, he's Cannonball – that was a memory that both you and Cannonball share. A memory that you're ashamed of, because the first point is shame."
"I'm definitely ashamed of every haircut I ever had in the eighties," Bobby admitted.
"The third point on the triangle is going to be a memory that you share with Wolverine's hot gay friend—"
"Nuh-uh, no more, that joke is officially old now, can we please stop calling him that—"
"—and it will be your regret," Mandy said. "The second point, where we are now, is a memory shared by the other two but not by you. This point is your suspicion. Something that you think may be true about the past of the other two, some secret that they shared but that you don't know about for sure, because you weren't there at the time."
"But we're here now."
"And we can't move on to the third point until you find out whether the thing that you think is true about their past is actually true or not."
"Oh, awesome. So now you're telling me to spy on my friends." Bobby gave her his best suspicious glare. "Are you sure that you're a good witch?"
"Very sure," she said. "Although this is the first time that I've gotten the triangle to work."
"Great. Just great. This keeps getting more and more awesome by the minute. So if you've never done this before, then how do you know all this stuff about how it's supposed to work?" Then Bobby held up his hand to silence her. "Wait, don't tell me. Let me guess. Your dead granny told you."
"You're not guessing, I already told you," Mandy pointed out, a bit impatiently. "My grandma's voice taught me how to use all of the parts of the necklace. Although I wasn't actually planning on using the triangle today."
"I thought that if things got bad I could just use the circle to bounce out of there for a minute," Mandy said, tapping her ghostly, insubstantial foot thoughtfully. "But then I felt the triangle just sort of start to… Um. I don't know what the right word for it would be. Activate, I guess. Or react. It started reacting as soon as you picked me up." She chewed on her lip, frowning, still trying to work through her thoughts out loud. "I think the triangle responded to you because all of the conditions were right. You had two friends there that you shared memories with, and you had shame, suspicion, and regret in your past. I think maybe the triangle ch—"
"Don't say it." Bobby held up his hand again. "Don't you dare say that your magic necklace chose me."
"But a good witch has to tell the truth."
"Great. Awesome. Wonderful. I got chosen by Dead Granny's magical necklace to have all the painful crap in my past relived in front of a total stranger. Whoo-hoo, hooray for me, Merry freakin' Christmas, Robert Drake, and here's to a happy New Year!" Bobby tried to raise a champagne glass of ice to mockingly toast himself with, but then remembered that in his ghostly form he still had no ice powers.
"I'm not a total stranger," Mandy protested.
"No, not anymore, but I hope you can appreciate how awkward this is for me to have you tagging along while we revisit parts of my past your magical necklace has chosen specifically because they sucked."
"But this is a gift," Mandy insisted. "The triangle gives you the chance to change a part of your past."
"Okay, see, I've messed with time travel enough times before to know that trying to change the past never works," Bobby said. "And even if I could change the past, why would I want to waste that power on changing something about my life? Not if I could change something like, say, preventing my friends from dying, or stopping Wanda from causing the extinction of mutantkind, or God I don't know even stopping 9/11 or killing Hitler or preventing the Kennedy or Lincoln assassinations or—"
"But I can't help you do any of that," Mandy said. "A good witch's magic isn't supposed to work that way. You're only allowed to change your shame and your regret, and I don't think it's going to work if you really try to make big changes that will affect anybody else's life." She looked away from Bobby. "When you say things like that, about wanting to change the whole world, you sound like the snake woman. I think she wants my grandma's necklace and all of my grandma's things because she wants to use that magic to re-shape the whole world the way that she wants it to be."
"Sorry," Bobby said. "I didn't mean to sound like a wicked witch. But so far your whole 'good witch' shtick is turning out to be an awful lot of petty magical mucking."
"It's not my fault that you wasted your first chance to change the past on telling yourself not to get a haircut."
Bobby rubbed at his temples. "Why is this happening to me?" he asked, more rhetorically than not.
"Karma?" Mandy suggested again. "Maybe the triangle chose you because you deserve a reward for rescuing me. A good witch's magic is supposed to balance out the universe like that."
"I haven't even rescued you yet!" Bobby said. "And this isn't even, like, my thing! This rescue thing is not my thing, it's supposed to be Nori's thing! Your stupid triangle didn't even give the right thing to the right person whose thing is this thing!"
"And you accused me of not making sense."
"Sorry, but speaking of rescues that haven't even happened yet—" Bobby reached out and grabbed at Mandy's ghostly hand. At least she still felt solid to him. "We have to get back."
"So we have to find your friends." Mandy looked up at him. "Any idea where they would be?"
"A few, but…" Bobby shaded his eyes, peering out over the island, watching the mutants coming and going from his vantage point on top of the tallest of the towers. "Let me try to figure exactly when we are first." And then he found his clue. "Well hello, handsome."
A past version of Robert Drake was standing on a pedestrian pathway several levels below them, leaning against a railing, his head turned toward Scott Summers, talking and gesturing animatedly. Scott was listening with his arms crossed and his usual constipated expression on his face.
"What are you doing down there?" Mandy asked.
"Trying to make Scott laugh, because I never learn," Bobby answered. "Okay, I remember this day. I'm going to meet up with Sam later, which means that right now he's getting a drink with Other-Bobby." Bobby stepped off the roof that he had been standing on, and floated through the air, pulling Mandy along with him. "Don't tell your mom about this, but I'm going to take you to a bar now."
They floated down to the ground together. Bobby tried walking a few steps with Mandy in tow. Ghost or not, at least he could walk. It was rather disconcerting, however, that he could manage to walk across ground the felt more or less solid, and yet somehow he still ended up walking right through a few people that stepped right into his path.
"Cool," Mandy said, passing her arm right through another mutant. "They really can't see us or hear us or anything."
"Yeah. Sure. Cool." Bobby pulled her along impatiently until he found the place that he was looking for. He was more disconcerted than pleased to discover a moment later that he could apparently walk through doors, too.
The interior of the bar was more brightly-lit than most of its kind, but Bobby had always figured that was because there were so many other parts of the island that were already dimly-lit and depressing that perhaps everybody had felt a sort of unspoken need to make this place as cheerful as possible. It was often crowded, too, and today was no exception. For a moment, Bobby was relieved to hear the sounds of laughter and babble of voices that usually greeted him when he walked through those doors, but a moment later Bobby realized that the comforting smell of beer was gone, and he remembered that he was a ghost again.
Mandy's head was turning this way and that, her eyes wide, drinking in the sights of all of the mutants surrounding her. "Wow," she said.
"Yeah, you should see this place when—"
"I know these guys," Mandy said. She pointed excitedly. "That's Angel! Oh my gosh oh my gosh and there's Wolverine! And Nightcrawler! And oh my God there's Rogue!"
Bobby let go of her hand. "Good gravy. You're a fangirl."
"Um, duh." Mandy turned her head and pointed. "Found him."
Bobby turned his head to follow the direction of Mandy's pointing. Jean-Paul was sitting alone at one of the tables. And Bobby could see Sam Guthrie walking across the room toward him.
"This is the memory of the two of them share," Mandy explained. "A memory without you."
"Ah-ha. This triangle thing is actually starting to make sense now." Bobby took her hand again, then walked over toward where a memory that was not his was about to take place. They stopped a few feet away from where Jean-Paul was sitting. Bobby felt awkward, standing right next to the table and blatantly staring at what was about to happen, but then he realized that there was really no way to make the situation any less awkward. As long as nobody could see him standing there, what did it matter?
"Hey, Mr. Beaubier," Sam called from across the room, still strolling toward Jean-Paul's table.
Jean-Paul shot the other man an icy glare. He was clearly busy, as should have been obvious to any idiot due to the large stack of papers in front of him, and he had clearly chosen to sit alone for a reason.
But Bobby knew that Samuel Guthrie was long past the point where he was intimidated by any other X-Man's glower. He walked toward Jean-Paul with quick and purposeful steps, the stride of a man not approaching for casual socialization but because he had an important matter to discuss. He had two beers in his hand and a look on his face that Bobby instantly recognized as his damned-if-anybody's-going-to-stop-me-from-having-my-say look.
Sam sat down across from Jean-Paul, slid one of the beers over toward him, glanced at the stack of papers on the table, and asked, "Grading?"
"Yes, and quite busy doing so." Jean-Paul turned up his glower several notches. "Listen, Guthrie, I do not have the time to—"
"I'll be fast," Sam said. "This is about Bobby."
Instantly every muscle in Jean-Paul's body seemed to tense. Bobby watched him slowly put down some poor student's French final that he had been grading and focus on Sam with a curiously guarded expression on his face. "Excuse me?"
"It's just that you and Bobby have been going on an awful lot of missions together lately," Sam said. "I've been working with Scott on annotating the team rosters, and he even wrote that you two should be assigned together as much as possible because—"
"—Because we work well together," Jean-Paul said, still with that guarded look on his face.
"Exactly. You two do work well together in the field. Which is funny because you don't normally work well with anybody."
Jean-Paul shrugged. "There are very few mutants who can keep up with me in the field. Robert Drake can. Your point, Guthrie?"
"You asked Scott to be assigned to Bobby's team back during that thing in the Savage Land," Sam said, "and you haven't made a request since then because Scott keeps assigning you together."
"Summers is an admittedly perceptive leader," Jean-Paul said. "You would do well to take a lesson from him, Guthrie."
"I think I have," Sam said. "Because I can't help but perceive how differently you act toward Bobby compared to how you act around everybody else. It's like you have a whole different energy when you're around him."
"A 'whole different energy'? Good God, Guthrie, you're starting to sound like a daytime talk show."
"I can't help but notice," Sam blurted out, "that you honestly seem to be flirting with him."
"Whether you realize it or not," Sam added.
And then, slowly, Jean-Paul reached for the beer that Sam had offered him. He popped off the bottlecap with his fingers, took a long swig from the bottle, then turned his attention back toward Sam and said, "Well, at least somebody finally noticed." Then the epic glare returned. "Do you have a problem with that?"
Wait, what? Bobby thought.
"Hold up a second," Sam said, leaning in close toward Jean-Paul. "I know what you think of me, and I know what you think I think about you, because you're a judgmental prick about people like me and you assume that we're all going to be all judgmental and bigoted about you." Sam took a swig from his beer. "But I ain't like that, so would you just cut the bullshit and listen to me for a second? I came here to help you."
"Help me with what?" Jean-Paul's glower was back. Bobby recognized that look. He had seen it on missions before, though never directed at himself. Jean-Paul didn't like being offered help from those he still considered somewhat inferior.
"Bobby," Sam said. "Look: You can flirt and flirt with him until the end of time and he's not going to get it until you make a move. I'm saying this to you as Bobby's friend: You have to make a move. Just do it. Tell him how you feel or this is never going to end."
Jean-Paul was silent again, nursing his bottle of beer without drinking it. Finally he looked up at Sam and asked, "All right, Guthrie. Let me ask you this, as you are Bobby's friend: Since you are so eager for this to 'end,' in your own words, how do you think it is likely to end? Because I fear that Robert will not—"
"See, I'm not so sure about that," Sam said. "I know that Bobby's never glanced twice at another man romantically, but I also happen to know that he's not opposed to the idea, either. We may have gotten drunk and played the 'which guy would you do' game before. His answer is Sonny Crockett every time, by the way."
Jean-Paul's face twisted with disgust. "Ugh. Really?"
"Not a fan?" Sam asked.
"Not my type."
Mandy tugged at Bobby's hand. "Who's Sonny Crockett?" she asked.
And then it hit Bobby's brain like a ton of bricks. Mandy was still here with him. Right next to him. Listening to all of this. This thing that was happening right in front of him. This thing that his brain understood perfectly clearly yet refused to process. This thing that he had no idea how to feel about. This thing that seemed to have completely short-circuited his cognitive processing. This thing that he didn't know how to react to. This thing that—
"Why do you look so surprised?" Mandy asked. "The second point on the triangle is your suspicion. This is supposed to be something that you already thought was true but didn't know for sure."
Bobby's mouth opened and closed, but no words would come out. For the first time in a long time, he was utterly speechless.
And right in front of him, the memory that was not his was still happening. "Anyway, the point is that I can't say anything for certain, but I'm pretty sure that it's not an impossibility," Sam was saying. "You and Bobby, I mean. I wouldn't be here telling you to make a move if I didn't think that you had an honest chance with him. He likes you a lot, you know. Dunno if that liking is going to translate into romance, but it's something." Sam shrugged. "What's the worst-case scenario? That he says 'no thank you' and life moves on?"
"The worst-case scenario," Jean-Paul said, "is that he ends up completely disgusted by the idea of us together and then is unwilling to ever work with me as a friend or teammate again."
"Aw, Bobby ain't like that," Sam said. "You know he ain't like that. And besides, that's not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that you end up flirting and pining away for him forever and never move on. That's why you gotta make a move. Either you end up with him, or you end up without him and then you can move on with your life."
"Surprisingly wise words from a yokel," Jean-Paul said. "And you are unfortunately correct. Perhaps I have been living the worst-case scenario for far too long now."
Sam was silent for a moment. Then he asked, "How long?"
Jean-Paul took another swig of his beer before answering. "A long time," he said. "A very long time. I have convinced myself that I have moved on plenty of times before, but for some reason every time that I see him the feelings come back."
"Wow," Sam said. "So what I'm getting from all of that is that you really need to make a move. It sounds like you're long overdue to make one."
Jean-Paul reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose, as if warding off a headache. "Why did I just tell any of that to you," he muttered.
"Because you needed to get it off your chest?" Sam took another drink of his beer. "Which again proves my point that you need to make a move."
"All right, Guthrie. You win." Jean-Paul put down his beer. "I will make a move. I promise."
"Thank you," Sam said. "And good luck."
"Luck has nothing to do with—"
And then the ground opened up beneath Bobby and swallowed him.
Oh no, Bobby thought. No no no no no, I'm not ready for this yet—
He had fallen on top of himself again.
"Oof!" Mandy fell through the air and landed ungracefully on her rump a few feet away from Bobby.
Bobby looked up, toward the source of that all-too-familiar voice. It was Annie.
Oh no, he thought again.
Annie stared down at him. "I asked you to take off your shirt, not clone yourself."
"Whatever this is, I didn't do it!" Past-Bobby protested from underneath Bobby. Then he reached up and groped at Bobby's face. "Oh, wow. You are me! Well, hello handsome." Past-Bobby stared at Bobby's face. "Alternate reality, or apocalyptic future?"
"Awesome future, here by accident," Bobby explained quickly.
Bobby saw the wave of emotion pass over his past self's face despite his past self's amazingly quick ability to hide his reaction and compose himself. Of course his past self was going to be relieved. Bobby remembered the terror of being unable to change his chest from ice back to flesh. And yet here he was, pinned beneath a version of himself from the future whose every visible inch of exposed skin was still warm and soft and peach-colored. Of course seeing that would have been a tremendous relief to his past self.
"Ow, my butt," Mandy said. Then Bobby heard her say, "Oh, hello. You must be Mr. Beaubier."
"Do I know you, and can you explain why there are two Robert Drakes on the floor right now?" Jean-Paul's voice answered.
"You don't know me yet because we're going to meet in the future," Mandy answered. "I brought Iceman from the future back here. Sorry. Is this a hospital? Are you hurt? You look terrible."
"Well, thank goodness that in the future little girls are still taught proper manners," Jean-Paul answered.
Bobby scrambled to get off his past self and stand up. He reached out and grabbed Mandy by the shoulders, pulling her away from the side of Jean-Paul's hospital bed. "Sorry, sorry, sorry about that, don't mind us, we'll probably only be here for a few seconds, just passing through—"
"Oh no you don't," Past-Bobby said, having finally picked himself up off the floor. "My future self did not just fall through the ceiling and nearly break my spine just so that he could disappear a few seconds later." Past-Bobby pointed one finger accusatorily at his future self. "This is the most awesome thing that has happened to me all day and you are not leaving until you can tell us something useful about the future. So tell me: When are the Yankees going to win the World Series again?"
"Are you mad?" Annie gasped. "You can't ask him questions about the future! What if you cause a time paradox?"
"I really don't think that my future self telling my past self the outcome of a future World Series championship is going to cause a time paradox," Past-Bobby said. "Annie, please. You're hanging out with the X-Men now. You'd better get used to this time travel stuff because it happens, like, every Tuesday around here."
"And given the opportunity to ask yourself questions about the future," Jean-Paul said, "you would waste your time discussing something as trivial as baseball?"
Bobby glanced around the room, taking in Annie's worried face, the sight of a very pale-looking Jean-Paul in a hospital bed, and his own past self, his own stupid past self, hiding the ice in his chest and all of his fears behind that idiotic veneer of calculated douchiness and still trying so hard to pretend that he didn't actually care about anything that was really important.
Bobby began to see red.
"Oh, shut up, Mapleleaf," Past-Bobby said, waving his hand dismissively at Jean-Paul. "I don't know if you can tell from the lack of moose in the streets, or the noticeable absence of anybody who gives a shit about hockey, or the fact that nowhere in this country is it legal for a human to marry a bear, but you're not in Canada anymore, and out here in the real world baseball is a matter of life and death, and also expensive bets between me and Warren, so—"
That was when Bobby felt something inside himself snap.
He watched his own fist arcing in slow motion toward his past self's face and ponderously realized, Huh, I guess I still have a whole lot of unresolved issues with deeply repressed self-loathing that I still have to work through after all.
Oh well. Might as well not waste this opportunity.
Knuckles that had transformed into solid ice connected soft flesh, cartilage, and bone.
"Guh!" Bobby's past self stumbled backwards, blood spurting from his nose.
Annie stared with wide eyes, her jaw hanging open. Bobby didn't even bother to turn his head to see the reaction on Jean-Paul's face. The other man's stunned silence and noticeable lack of a snarky comeback was all the reaction that Bobby needed to hear.
"Really?" Bobby shouted at his past self. "Really? You're going to be an asshole to him of all people? And after what he's just been through? Robert Drake, you mouthbreathing, peanut-brained idiot! You icicle-dicked moron!" A small part of Bobby wondered if he perhaps shouldn't be using such sexual language in front of Mandy, but the rest of him was too far gone in the red angry place to care. "You're so wrapped up in your own drama and your head is stuck so far up your own ass that you can't see that there are people right in front of you who are trying to reach out to you but all you do is keep pushing them away! You're trying so hard to be an asshole to everybody that you've forgotten that you're supposed to be a part of a team with them! Jean-Paul and Kurt and Alex and everybody else that you're stupid enough to think aren't good enough for your special snowflake little X-Men clique could be your really awesome friends right now, and in the future they will be your really awesome friends, but right now you're so determined to feel miserable all the time that you keep cutting yourself off from anybody or anything that could be making you happy! And you're going to really feel like an asshole for being so awful to Jean-Paul when he's dead and you—"
Bobby clamped his mouth shut as soon as he realized what he had just said. Oh shit.
He turned and saw the look on Jean-Paul's face. Ohhhhhhhh shit shit shit!
"Oh no no no, I know what you're thinking, but it's going to be okay," Bobby said quickly, "I mean, uh, you are going to die, I didn't mean to tell you that but, yeah, that kind of... happens. But! Uh, but, you come back and get better later so it's all good, I mean, it's not like you stay dead for that long and to be perfectly honest the way that you die isn't that bad because at least it happens real fast and you don't have to suff—"
"Bobby, shut up," Annie said.
Bobby closed his mouth, turned, and looked at her. She had her hand around his past self's shoulders. Bobby's past self was staring at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. Neither of them seemed to notice or care about the blood dripping from Past-Bobby's nose and splattering on the floor.
Bobby flexed and unflexed his fist. He forced his icy knuckles to turn back to flesh. "I'm sorry," he said, speaking to Jean-Paul without being able to bring himself to turn his head and look directly into the other man's eyes. "But it will be okay. Logan and Rogue will go through hell and back to save you. You have good friends who won't give up on you, so it will be okay." He turned his gaze back toward Past-Bobby. "I just wish I could have been one of those friends for you, too." He couldn't stop his shoulders from shaking, whether from rage or disgust, he didn't know. "2009, by the way."
Annie blinked at him. "What?"
"The Yankees with the pennant in 2009." Bobby turned and reached for Mandy's hand. "Can we go now?"
"I don't think we can go back," Mandy said, "until you've faced your regret."
"I just punched my regret in the face," Bobby said. "Is that good enough for your triangle?"
When the floor suddenly opened up to swallow him again, Bobby had his answer.
There was nobody beneath Bobby this time. Only snow. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful frozen water in thick fluffy layers of perfectly-formed tiny snowflakes.
Bobby fell face-down into the snow and for a long moment never, ever wanted to get up again.
Then he remembered the giant snake and the enormous teeth and the gaping maw of red and black. He jumped up, shifting into his ice form as he did so, every nerve on edge, adrenaline rushing through his veins, ready for battle.
But it was dark. Too dark.
No more sun. Only the moon and the stars high above, and moonlight reflecting off the white snow.
Uh-oh, Bobby thought. It had been the middle of the day when he and Mandy had left.
Mandy was suddenly by Bobby's side again, dusting the snow off her jeans, and starting to shiver. "Where are we?" she asked.
Bobby looked around. The moonlight was more than bright enough to illuminate what looked like the snake woman's house and what was left of her barn, visible some distance away. He and Mandy were standing in one of the fields on the other side of the house.
The barn looked completely wrecked, although parts of its frame were still standing. And Bobby could see lights near the house. He could hear distant voices shouting, too.
Shouting his and Mandy's names.
"Come on," Bobby said, dropping his ice form as he reached for Mandy's hand. "They're looking for us."
They trudged through the snow for a few minutes, but then Bobby could see that Mandy's shivering was getting the better of her, so he reached down and scooped her up into his arms, holding her close to him for warmth.
"Thank you," Mandy said, leaning her head against his shoulder.
"Listen," Bobby said as he continued walking toward the house in the distance, "all of that stuff that you saw in my past…"
"I'll never tell anybody about anything that I saw," Mandy said. "I promise."
"Cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye?"
"Yeah," Mandy said. "I promise. I promise that I'll never tell anybody that you called your past self a peanut-brained idiot, or that you punched your past self in the face, or that you called yourself an 'icicle-dicked moron.'"
"Thank you," Bobby said.
"Although it doesn't matter what I do or don't say," Mandy said, "if your friend Jean-Paul remembers any of that happening."
Bobby froze in midstep.
"Which he will, if we actually succeeded in changing the past," Mandy added.
Bobby's mouth opened and closed, but no noise came out.
"Also, he likes you," Mandy added. "Although it kind of sounded like everybody knew that except for you. So what are you going to do about that?" she went on. "I think you should make out with him."
"There they are!" Sam's voice carried clearly all the way across the frozen field.
Well, Bobby thought, now that they had been spotted, there was no more point in delaying the inevitable. It was time for him to face the present. Which may or may not have been changed by his actions in the past. Maybe.
"Oh yeah, The Bobby is back," Bobby said, propelling himself on a jet of ice toward the dorky mutants who had clearly been searching for him. "I can tell that you all missed me." He handed Mandy off to Cessily, who wrapped the little girl in a coat, then turned toward Sam with a grin. "So let me guess. You guys were able to win this thing without me to help you? And here I thought I was— oh hello hey wow chunks of gigantic dead snake everywhere."
The the moonlight was strong enough to illuminate the leftover carnage in stark detail. Most of the snow around the house had been stained dark black, and there were quite a few sliced up sections of dead snake scattered all over the yard. White bones and gooey black gore gleamed in the moonlight. Well, Laura obviously went to town here, Bobby thought. The snake woman's henchmen were gone, and the Blackbird had at some point been moved so that it was now parked on the snowy hill overlooking the still-frozen pond.
Bobby wondered what time it was. The moon was still low in the sky and slightly bloated, so it couldn't have been that late in the night. Was it still Christmas Eve?
"Is she dead?" Mandy was asking. "Is it over?" She clung to Cessily's legs, waiting for her answer.
Cessily wrapped one arm around the little girl's shoulders. "It's over," she said.
"And the men with the guns?" Mandy asked.
"We handed them over to the human police," Nori said, looking directly at Bobby even as she answered Mandy's question. Ah-ha, Bobby realized. This was a briefing to catch up the missing member of the team. "After we took care of the, uh, the snake, most of them seemed to suddenly forget why they were here or who they had been working for. The consensus is that they were likely being controlled, but standard procedure in these cases is to involve the local authorities, so I made the call. Meanwhile, the rest of us were running around in a complete panic looking for you two."
"Where were you?" Sam and Jean-Paul asked in almost perfect unison.
Bobby would have found that funny in nearly any other circumstances, but right now he was still too nervous about the idea that something about his present had been changed by all the mucking about that he and Mandy had just done in the past. Maybe. Possibly. "I was in the past," Bobby answered honestly. And then it hit him. "Wait. You guys should already know that. You should remember it happening!"
"Remember what happening?" Sam asked.
"We can all hear about Iceman's fabulous adventures later," Victor cut in. "Right now we have something more important to do." He jerked his head toward the Blackbird.
"Come on, Mandy," Cessily said, gently turning the girl toward the Blackbird. "Your mom is waiting for you. She promised us pumpkin pie if we could bring you home before midnight. But Bangor is already four hours ahead of us, so we have to hurry."
Mandy's eyes suddenly teared up. "You mean I can go home now?" she said, her breath hitching.
"Yes," Cessily said. "And no more bouncing back this time."
"Thank you," Mandy sniffled, rubbing at her eyes.
Melinda Altman lived in a beautiful old colonial home separated from State Route 178 by a long private drive and a yard just large enough to land the Blackbird in. As soon as they landed Mrs. Altman was running through the snow toward them. Moments later there were tears, and hugs, and a breathless invitation to come inside for pumpkin pie and eggnog, because it was Christmas Eve and the absolute least that she could do, no really, she insisted.
Inside the house there was tinsel and pine everywhere, and the air was saturated with the scents of vanilla and cinnamon. Mandy clung to her mother and refused to let go even as her mother was cutting and serving the pie.
Bobby stood near the Altman's Christmas tree and watched the kids joking and laughing and digging into their pie – even Laura was smiling, but such was the power of pumpkin pie, Bobby figured – and wished that he could stop feeling so uneasy. The mission was over. There was no reason for his stomach to still be tied in knots.
Except for all of the time travel stuff that had just happened.
"They did good, didn't they," Sam said, stepping up beside Bobby.
"Good enough," Jean-Paul said, stepping around to Bobby's other side. "Even though Nori made some critical mistakes."
"I know," Bobby said, still watching the kids. "She was too hesitant when she needed to make decisions in the heat of the moment."
"She also took you out of the fight prematurely," Jean-Paul pointed out, "when she told you to retreat and protect the girl. Cessily would have been a better choice."
"Yeah, but then Cessily would have had the joy of experiencing all of the magical crap that Mandy put me through," Bobby said, "and I would never wish that much embarrassment upon a teenage girl."
"Okay, so, speaking of that," Sam said, "Where did you go?"
Bobby took a deep breath, then let out a long sigh. "Sam," he said, "do you remember, like, way back when you first joined the Institute, that day that my future self crashed one of your Danger Room sessions and warned my past self not to get the Sonny Crockett haircut?"
Sam blinked at Bobby. Then he stared. Then he blinked again. "What?"
"So you don't remember that happening."
"No," Sam said. "And I really think I would remember something like that if it had actually happened."
Bobby turned toward Jean-Paul. "So, hey, do you remember—"
"Oh, this is going to be good," Jean-Paul said.
Bobby chose to ignore his barb. "Do you remember that time that my future self visited you and my past self, like, the in past? And I got in a fight with my past self, and punched my past self in the face, and then kinda-sorta accidentally told you about your death in the future?"
"Wow," Jean-Paul said. And then, "No. I don't remember anything of the sort. Although if it involved you punching your past self in the face, then I am sorry that I missed it."
"Are you sure you don't remember?" Bobby pressed him. "I mean, at the time you were kind of injured and you might have been high on painkillers, so—"
"I certainly think I would remember if something like that had occurred at any point in my past," Jean-Paul said. "Since something as unusual as Robert Drake getting into fisticuffs with a time-traveling clone of himself is one of the very few things in the universe that I can honestly say does not happen to me every day."
"Why are you asking us about this?" Sam asked.
"Because now I know that it didn't work," Bobby said. "Mandy and I didn't change the past." He stepped away from both of them. "I need pie," he said.
Bobby wandered over toward where the kids were sitting. "Is there any pie left for an old man?" he asked.
"Plenty," Nori answered.
"I vote that every mission should end with pie from now on," Victor declared.
Laura laughed, and Bobby silently wondered if he had ever heard her laugh before. Then he wondered if Mrs. Altman hadn't perhaps spiked the eggnog.
Bobby glanced around, saw that Mrs. Altman was now talking to Sam and Jean-Paul over by the Christmas tree, then saw that Mandy had finally separated herself from her mother and was staring out a frost-covered window. He took his slice of pie with him and walked over toward her. "Hey," he said.
She looked up at him and smiled. "Hey."
"Don't get mad," Bobby said, "but I came to tell you that your triangle thing didn't work. I was talking to Sam and Jean-Paul, and I figured out that nothing changed in our past."
Mandy shrugged. "I kind of thought that it wouldn't work," she confessed, "after what you said to your friend in the last point on the triangle. I told you that you can't try to prevent another person's death. I know that you weren't actually trying to do that, but when you told him about his death anyway, it might have caused a big enough ripple in the time stream to cause it to split." She gestured with her hands, sliding one hand away from the other. "Like that."
"You mean I spawned an alternate reality where those changes actually took place."
"Um, I think so?"
"See, I told you so," Bobby said, waving the fork that he was supposed to using for his pie at her. "I told you that changing the past never works. Listen, kid, I've dealt with time travel before, and it almost always ends up this way: Every time that you try to change the past, you'll just end up spawning an alternate reality instead. Trust me on this one. It's happened to me, like, three times. Four if I count today, which I guess I should." Bobby sighed. "Now let's just hope that we didn't end up causing a ripple in reality bad enough to get the M'Kraan Crystal all hot and bothered, or Scott's going to have my head on a platter."
"The what?" Mandy asked.
"Okay. So you're messing around with the timestream but you've never heard of the Nexus of All Realities before. That's worrying." Bobby knelt down until he was at eye-level with Mandy. "So if you're a fangirl, you've at least heard of Dr. Strange before, right?"
"I want you to give him a call as soon as you can. As in, tomorrow if possible. Sorry that I don't have his card with me but you can totally find most of his contact information on the internet anyway. You've still got some powerful mojo in that necklace that you absorbed, and I don't like the idea of running around with only your dead grandmother's voice teaching you how to use it. All right?"
"I think Dr. Strange has bigger things to worry about than me," Mandy said.
"But if he can't help you, then he'll know somebody who can," Bobby insisted. "And I heard that the Avengers Academy might possibly have an opening for a good witch right now, although I can't make any promises."
Mandy's eyes went wide. "Really?"
"I said I can't make promises. It's just a possibility." He took a bite of his pie and chewed thoughtfully. "Just promise me that you won't do any more time-traveling until you have more of a clue what you're doing next time, okay?"
"Hey, I told you, I knew perfectly well what I was doing. You're the one who screwed up the triangle when you told your friend that he was going to die."
"I'm not hearing a promise," Bobby said around a mouthful of pie.
"Okay, okay." Mandy held her hand over her heart. "I promise. Witch's honor."
Bobby still felt tense and uneasy as he flew the Blackbird back toward the west coast, but he convinced himself that this was because he was worried about hitting a certain reindeer-drawn flying sleigh during their return flight. It totally didn't have anything to do with anything that he might have seen or heard during his jaunt to the past with Mandy Altman. Nope. Certainly not.
"Relax," Jean-Paul said, halfway through the flight. "You're making me tense just looking at you."
"I can't relax," Bobby said through gritted teeth. "You try flying a supersonic jet across an entire continent on Christmas Eve."
"I am doing that," Jean-Paul pointed out. "With you. Right now. That is what a co-pilot does." He laughed. "You are not going to kill Saint Nicholas. Stop worrying."
"Laugh it up, Mapleleaf," Bobby said, "But I still remember the year that Scott did manage to hit Santa Claus with the Blackbird. Even though the dude is all magic and didn't actually get hurt, we made fun of Scott about that for years."
"So you are worried about being made fun of," Jean-Paul said.
"Yes," Bobby lied.
"Even after you spent the evening babbling to Guthrie and I about how you traveled back in time only to punch your past self in the face and fail to prevent yourself from cutting your hair to look like Sonny Crockett. You are more worried about being made fun of because of a hypothetical incident in which you run over Saint Nicholas with an airplane."
"Yes," Bobby lied again. "That is precisely the exact thing that I am freaking out about right now."
"You are such a terrible liar."
Bobby bit his lip and said nothing during the rest of the flight.
Back on the ground, back in the hangar bay, back in Utopia. Midnight had not yet reached the west coast, so it was technically still Christmas Eve, but it was already late enough so that the hangar bay was completely deserted when Nori and her team climbed out of the jet. Bobby had never actually seen the hangar bay so deserted before, not even this late at night. Perhaps because it was Christmas Eve, everybody in the island was either in church, in bed, or out partying?
"Good night, kids," Bobby said, waving at Nori, Vic, Cessily, and Laura as they walked across the hangar bay away from him. "Nori, I'll send you a copy of your eval after I file it with Scott tomorrow, okay?"
"Thank you," Nori said, waving back to Bobby. "Merry Christmas!"
Bobby watched the kids walk across the hangar bay, talking excitedly to each other. They clearly had no intention of getting to bed any time soon. Well, Bobby wasn't yet too old to stay up a little bit later himself, right? He turned to Sam and asked, "Victory drink with me?"
Sam glanced meaningfully over Bobby's shoulder, then shook his head. "Nah. I'm beat. And Mom expects me to be Skyping home at seven a.m. tomorrow morning when the kids are opening their presents. I'd better turn in."
"You're such a Boy Scout," Bobby sighed.
Sam didn't bother to deny this. Instead he shrugged and said, "You and Jean-Paul can go have a drink without me."
Real subtle, Sam, Bobby thought. But before he could let himself think too hard about it, he turned toward Jean-Paul and asked again, "Victory drink with me?"
Okay, Bobby thought.
Okay, he convinced himself again.
Okay okay okay okay okay. Robert Drake, Mister Icicle-Dicked Moron – your own words, pal – didn't you JUST cross the spacetime continuum specifically so that you could punch your past self in the face because you were pissed at him for freaking out every time somebody tried to get close to him?
Stop it, Bobby. Stop being afraid. You like this guy, he's pretty hot, he's got that sexy accent, and since you've already had all of those wet dreams about Sonny Crockett anyway it's far too late for you to be clinging to the 'devoutly heterosexual' label anymore so you might as well—
"Drake, are you okay?" Jean-Paul asked.
"Yeah. I'm fine." Bobby shook his head. "Sorry. I was just thinking about all of the stupid crap in my past that I had to relive today. It wasn't fun."
"It doesn't sound like it was fun," Jean-Paul agreed. "And you sound like you really could use a drink. Did you have some place in mind?"
"Nah," Bobby said. "You lead, I'll follow. If you want to get off the island, I'm cool with that."
"Good, because I was thinking of an amazing place in downtown Oakland that's always open on Christmas." Jean-Paul turned and started to walk across the hangar bay. Bobby followed him. But three steps later, Jean-Paul suddenly stopped. "Wait, I have a better idea," he said.
"I admit, right now I am completely open to a better idea than getting smashed on Christmas Eve," Bobby said, "because the deeply repressed former church choir boy within me still feels that it might be somewhat inappropriate."
Jean-Paul was silent for a moment, regarding Bobby with a carefully guarded lack of expression on his face. Then he said, "Come with me. There's a place that I want to show you."
Bobby's heart most certainly did not just skip a beat. "Sure. Why not?"
Jean-Paul turned and began to stride purposefully back toward the Blackbird. "It's just a short flight, so—"
"Wait, we're taking the jet again?" Bobby jogged a few steps to catch up with Jean-Paul. "Do you normally have to commandeer our for-important-missions-only supersonic jet to get to this place that you want to show me?"
"No. Normally I just fly myself there, but you—"
"Stop right there, Monsieur Beaubier, you are not going to make a crack about my weight. A gentleman should be more sensitive about such things."
Jean-Paul stared at Bobby. "I wasn't going to… Drake, are you proposing that you want me to—"
"We're not going to get away with taking the Blackbird again – not unless you want to spend your Christmas Day being chewed out by Scott Summers – and I don't see any reindeer-drawn sleigh anywhere around here, so yes, I am proposing." Before Jean-Paul could protest again, Bobby threw his arms around the other man's neck and said coyly, "I mean, come on. I almost never get to fly for reals!" Which was true, except for the time that Bobby had spent earlier that very day floating through the Bay Area fog with Mandy. But that hadn't exactly been fun so in Bobby's mind it didn't count.
Bobby could feel Jean-Paul tensing up. "It will be freezing cold up there," he said. "Particularly at this time of night."
"Cold? Really? Do you know who I am?"
Again, that unreadable expression. Then, "Fine. Hold on tight."
"You don't need to tell me to— hey!"
Suddenly Bobby realized what it felt like to be swept off his feet. Literally.
They were floating high above the hangar bay in an instant, Jean-Paul holding Bobby with one arm circled around Bobby's shoulders and the other holding up Bobby's dangling legs. Bobby tightened his grip around Jean-Paul's neck and tried not to act startled. Stay cool, Bobby.
"Comfortable?" Jean-Paul asked.
Bobby laughed. "Now this is flying!" Bobby knew that his ability to slide through the air on soaring ice bridges of his own making as the envy of many a mutant, but it was still not quite the same as real flying. Bobby had no problem admitting to himself that he had always been slightly jealous of Jean and Warren's abilities to fly through the air, ever since his earliest days as Professor Xavier's student.
Bobby leaned his head against Jean-Paul's chest as they floated up through the still-open roof of the hangar bay. "Er… I'm not too heavy, am I?"
"You asked me not to comment on your weight. Stop tempting me." Bobby felt Jean-Paul shift his arms slightly around Bobby's body. "I've carried heavier idiots farther distances before. At least you don't have an adamantium skeleton."
"Wait, what?" Bobby blinked rapidly as the cold night wind began to whip at his face. "This was a thing? That actually happened?"
"How about later," Jean-Paul said as they sped through the air, "when I'm not concentrating on making sure that we're not both about to be run over by reindeer? Or a low-flying airplane."
Bobby glanced down at the scenery speeding below them and instinctively tightened his grip around Jean-Paul's neck. Now this is flying, he reminded himself. No different from being inside a jet flying at supersonic speeds, right? Just with more wind. A lot more wind. And Bobby could tell that they were flying low, too – likely a courtesy on Jean-Paul's part to make sure that they didn't reach an altitude where it would have been difficult for Bobby to breathe. How considerate of him. Bobby squinted his eyes against the wind and tried not to think about what was happening to his hair.
He didn't feel cold, though.
And the mountains beneath were beautiful.
Bobby listened to the roar of the wind in his ears and realized that he didn't even feel like saying anything to break the silence. Green forest and white snow below him, occasional glimpses of the black ocean streaked silver with reflected moonlight, and not a cloud in the clear night sky. The mountains on this coast were so much more rugged and dramatic than the ancient, rounded hills that Bobby had grown up around.
Bobby wasn't sure how long they were in the air, but he noticed that it was long enough for the moon to have moved across the sky. And there was less and less green visible beneath them, as the landscape grew increasingly covered in white.
Finally they seemed to be slowing down. Bobby felt that he did a fairly good job of pretending that he didn't feel his stomach suddenly leap into his throat as Jean-Paul brought them down fast.
"Drake… You can let go now."
"Right. I knew that." Feet back on solid ground, Bobby stretched out his arms, then took a moment to take stock of his surroundings. He was standing in thigh-deep snow, on top of a high rocky cliff, black ocean crashing against rocks far below, a blanket of white spreading along the coastline as far as Bobby's eyes could see. There were too many stars in the sky, which meant that they were far from the lights of human civilization, and Bobby couldn't hear any cars, not even in the distance.
"This way," Jean-Paul said, his feet crunching through the snow as he began to climb down what was apparently a path down the side of the cliff.
"Oh, that looks safe."
Jean-Paul turned and gave Bobby an incredulous look. "Yes, well, it's covered in ice. Which I would not expect would be a problem for you of all people."
"You're right. Sorry. Sarcastic instinct." Bobby made his way down the slippery, snow-covered path a few steps behind Jean-Paul. They rounded a large boulder, and then Bobby froze for a moment when he saw the sight that suddenly unfolded in front of him.
"Wow," Bobby breathed. "That's pretty cool."
The cliff opened up into what appeared to be a fairly deep cave. The roof and sides of the mouth of the cave were lined with graceful, delicately-formed waterfalls of pure ice – ice which had the peculiar blue-green tint of a permanent frost formation, a coloring Bobby could see clearly even in the moonlight. Bobby suddenly wondered just exactly how far north they had flown.
Bobby scrambled down the rest of the path toward the cave so that he could admire the ice flows up close. The surfaces of the ice were rippled by wind erosion and a bit by a pattern indicative of slight seasonal melting, but other than that they were obviously thick and solid. And old. Bobby touched the side of one frozen waterfall, feeling for the moisture trapped deep inside of it. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules that might have been trapped frozen there for hundreds of years, for all he knew. It was kind of a freaky thought. "Wow," Bobby said again. "This is awesome."
"It gets better," Jean-Paul said. He sat down in the snow piled beside one of the ice flows, and gestured for Bobby to sit beside him.
Bobby did so, and took a moment to enjoy the breathtaking view of the ocean spread out in front of them. Then he noticed that Jean-Paul was digging something out of the snow.
"You didn't," Bobby said.
"I did." He dusted snow off a bottle of Bacardi 151.
"Do I even want to look at the label on that bottle?" Bobby asked. He had his suspicions about how high the alcohol content in that liquor had to be in order for it to not have frozen in these temperatures.
"It's only seventy-five percent alcohol."
"Good for making you forget the pains of your past," Jean-Paul said.
"Well, in that case…" Bobby formed a pair of very, very tiny shot glasses out of ice. "Cheers."
Jean-Paul poured, and Bobby downed his shot in one gulp. "Mmm. Burning."
"Feel better now?"
"Yeah. Actually, I do." Bobby traced his finger around the rim of his icy glass. "So, handsome, do you come here often?"
"Only when I need to clear my head," Jean-Paul said.
"Well… Thank you," Bobby said. "For sharing this place with me. I did need to get my head cleared tonight."
"I could tell."
Bobby laughed. "You know me too well."
"You are often an open book, Drake. I cannot help but know you well."
Jean-Paul blinked at him. "What?"
"Call me Bobby. Because you and I both know why you brought me out here and, well, if you're serious about this, then I want you to call me Bobby."
For a moment, Bobby let himself relish the hilarious sight of Jean-Paul staring at him with his jaw hanging open. Then Bobby folded his hands in his lap, turned expectantly toward Jean-Paul, and said, "All right, so… Let's do this. Before I give into the temptation to drink some more of that magic juice. I want to have a clear head for this part."
"The part where you make your move."
"Bobby, you're not—"
"It's just that I could really use a good kiss right about now and I—"
Lips pressed against his, warm and soft. Bobby opened his mouth and breathed in, tasting the other man, exploring with his tongue.
Jean-Paul really knew what he was doing with his tongue.
Bobby braced himself with his hands in the snow, his shoulders trembling. Even though he wasn't in his ice form he was suddenly afraid that he was melting.
Jean-Paul broke the kiss first. "Too much?"
"No." Bobby licked his lips, tasting Jean-Paul again. "Just right. But… Just let me catch my breath for a minute."
Jean-Paul laughed and wrapped one arm around Bobby's waist, pulling him close. Bobby responding by entwining his arm around Jean-Paul's waist and resting his head against the other man's shoulder.
They were still for a moment, relishing each other's warmth. Bobby knew that because of their mutant abilities neither of them were bothered by the cold of the snow that they were sitting in, but that didn't mean that they still couldn't enjoy feeling the heat of each other.
"Bobby," Jean-Paul finally said.
"Earlier today, when you just disappeared like that, I…"
"Don't tell me," Bobby said. "You completely freaked out."
"I was ready to run to the ends of the earth and back searching for you," Jean-Paul said. "But Guthrie convinced me to stay put. He said that you were coming back to that place no matter what. He had nothing but blind faith to go on, and I may have been a fool for listening to him. But then you came back." Jean-Paul squeezed his arm tightly around Bobby.
"Is this the part where you ask me never to leave you like that again?" Bobby said.
"Given our line of work, I know better than to ask that of you." Jean-Paul shook his head. "Although I want to."
"Aw." Bobby lifted his head off Jean-Paul's shoulder, leaned over, and kissed the other man lightly on his cheek. "That's the sweetest love confession that I've ever heard. Also completely unnecessary considering that your tongue did a perfectly good job of conveying your feelings a few seconds ago."
"No, listen, I'm actually being serious about the tongue thing," Bobby said. "I have a lot of things that I think I should probably be saying to you right now, and a lot of really crazy emotional stuff going on that I don't really know how to put into words yet. But the one thing I do know for sure is that you make me feel like I'm not afraid of this anymore. Also that I really, really want to make out with your face right now. Okay, so two th—"
Jean-Paul silenced him with another kiss. Longer and deeper this time.
Bobby broke the kiss this time, his cheeks burning. "Uh," he said, for lack of anything more coherent that he could say.
Jean-Paul pressed his finger against Bobby's lips. "And now I have finally discovered the only surefire way to get Robert Drake to shut up."
"Yay," Bobby said.
"Really, Bobby? That's your best comeback?"
"That's my honest comeback," Bobby said, leaning in close to the other man. " 'Yay' and 'More, please.'"
Another kiss, and this time Bobby closed his eyes. He felt himself being pushed down into the snow, hands entwined with Jean-Paul's hands, searing heat on every inch of his body that Jean-Paul touched mixed with burning cold from the snow all around him. For a brief moment, something approaching a string of coherent thought flashed across Bobby's brain – he still had to write Nori's evaluation, he still had to get back in time to call his parents on Christmas morning, he probably shouldn't have his hand pressed against that flow of ice because he felt so hot right now that he was sure he was going to melt the poor thing. But then Bobby realized that he was making a somewhat embarrassing breathy moan in the back of his throat, and that only seemed to drive Jean-Paul wilder, and then Bobby was aware of only the other man's lips and tongue and all-too-talented fingers, unable to think of or process anything else.
But he wasn't afraid.
This was total and complete surrender on his part, and he wasn't afraid.
Traveling back in time to punch himself in the face was the best lesson that he had ever taught himself, Bobby realized.
Then he gasped. "Wait!"
Jean-Paul paused in the middle of ravishing Bobby's neck with kisses. "Hmm?"
"I take it back. I didn't mean it! This is definitely NOT one of my worst Christmasses ever."
"I mean, uh, I want you to talk dirty to me in French." Then Bobby reconsidered. "But you have to use super-easy French because I'm not actually very good at French."
"Joyeux Noël," Jean-Paul whispered, nibbling on Bobby's ear.
"Oh come on, that's not even dirty." Bobby rolled his eyes. "You're doing that thing again. That thing when you act like a patronizing dick."
"And you're doing that thing where you pretend to act like far more of an idiotic buffoon than you actually are," Jean-Paul countered.
"That turns you on and you know it."
Jean-Paul frowned. "Toute vérité n'est pas bonne à dire."
"What is that supposed to m—?"
Bobby was silenced with another kiss.
Oh well, Bobby thought, feeling himself melting again. He could get used to this.