Disclaimer: Go find the last one and put it here. It's late and I'm too tired to write one.

Author's Note: This, folks, is chapter nine. Everyone enjoying themselves? Good. Remember to keep all objects and appendages inside the story at all times, and please, no flash photography.


Paige escorted Ember to the kitchen, feeling a little nervy. Not that the girl had actually *done* anything so far--in fact, Paige had been astonished to discover she was actually a little timid once she got to know her a little better--but still, escorting around an ex-Marauder was *not* what she had expected to be doing when she'd signed on to Generation X.

Why do Ah get the feelin' Momma would take ta this gal immediately? she wondered as she opened the door to the kitchen and ushered Ember in. Strangely, the girl was as non-threatening as a rabbit, and if it hadn't been for her background Paige wouldn't have credited her the gumption to scold a two-year-old, let alone take on the X-Men.

Or maybe she's just tryin' ta make sure we don't boot her out, the cynical part of her brain said. Paige responded by politely telling it to shut up.

"Now, let's see what we've got," she said briskly as she stuck her head into the refrigerator. "Cold pizza... molding hotdogs... sandwich fixings... hmmph. Do you mind leftover pot roast? Everything else appears to be breeding a new genus of mold."

"Pot roast's fine," Ember replied, wincing away as she got a closer look at the contents of the 'fridge. Paige didn't blame her--between random acts of violence and extra-dimensional vacations cleaning out the refrigerator seemed like such a little detail, and for the most part the team just left it be, breeding what it would.

Paige extracted said pot roast and put it in the microwave for a bit, getting out some silverware and a glass. Ember seemed disinclined to talk, but Paige supposed she hadn't had enough time to get back into the social groove to worry about small talk. Still, oppressive silence wasn't exactly the kind of surroundings Paige preferred, and she was *that* close to start yammering on about something just to break it.

The entrance of Jubilee, however, relieved her of that option. Paige saw her younger teammate's eyes take in the Marauder, who had been lounging in a rather battered wooden chair, and braced herself for the impact.

"Oh. It's you." Jubilee's expressive blue eyes immediately hardened, and she turned her back to them and began searching the cabinet for something. Paige winced; Jubilee wasn't exactly making Ember feel at home with behavior like that, and she had almost *never* seen the girl resort to such glacial cool as she did now. Usually she got mouthy rather than the opposite--this sullen silence shocked Paige.

This is worse'n Ah thought it would be, she thought, hurrying to extract the pot roast from the microwave. She put the steaming portion before Ember, inspecting her expression carefully. The girl's facial expression hadn't changed, but from the look in her eyes Paige could see she was feeling very uncomfortable at the moment.

As well she might...

"Orange juice or soda?" Paige inquired over her shoulder, getting out a glass. Ember started out of her brooding and blinked for a minute, then said, "Uh, juice please."

Paige nodded and busied herself with this, trying to figure out some way to get Jubilee to lighten up on the girl a little. By the time she turned around, however, Jubilee was closing the cabinet door and already on her way out of the kitchen, a dozen assorted brands of snack food in her arms. With a slight sigh, Paige set the juice down near Ember, who was picking at the pot roast as if it was something strange and alien to her.

Which it probably is, considering where she's been for the past three years.

"Um, here's your juice," Paige said lamely, at a loss for anything else to say.

"Thanks," Ember replied, taking the drink uncertainly. She took a small sip and sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. "I--I haven't had much besides water in years," she explained awkwardly. "It's--I... thanks, Husk."

"You're welcome," Paige smiled. She pulled up a chair and rested her head on her fist, wondering what would be appropriate to talk about. "You know," Paige said thoughtfully, "Jubilee doesn't really hate you."

Ember snorted. "How can you tell?" she asked glumly. "She acts like it."

Paige shrugged. "She's just upset because you hurt her friend Wolverine. She'll come around." I think...

Ember sighed, and cut another piece of the roast. "I just wish I knew if I deserve all this," she said softly, contemplating the meat on her dish. "It's been a while since I've been 'outside'--I'm afraid I've got an appalling amount of catching up to do. This isn't going to be easy, and after all I've done..."

Paige's lips twitched uncertainly. "Well, with luck we'll be able to help you," she said, taking out her glasses and polishing them nervously on the edge of her shirt. "Ms. Frost is pretty good at psionic therapy, from what my brother Sam told me..." Then Paige remembered how Sam had been injured in the fire at the Institute and trailed off, unsure of how Ember felt about the subject.

Ember obviously remembered it as well. "I'm sorry about that, too, by the way," she said after a slight pause, eyes downcast. "He wasn't badly hurt, was he?"

Paige shook her head hastily. "No, no he wasn't," she assured her. "He healed up pretty fast, too. He's just fine."

"I'm glad," Ember said, chewing on her lip. "I really *didn't* want to hurt anyone. I just got nervous, and my powers were... over-stimulated."

"Oh." Paige suffered a fleeting memory of trying to kiss Jonothon, and the havoc that had ensued. "Well, that I can understand."

Ember fiddled with her silverware. Paige noticed the girl had a fair amount of nervous habits--not the least of which was the inability to keep her hands still.

The younger girl finally shook her head. "I feel kind of stupid," she admitted at last, meeting Paige's gaze. "This place... everything seems so surreal to me, like a dream. I'm afraid I'll wake up, or go insane, or something else will go wrong. I feel like I *should* be in chains down in your basement or something, but your teachers are allowing me a certain amount of freedom instead. Why?"

The question *seemed* simple enough, but Paige could tell the answer might have an enormous effect on Ember's behavior towards their team. "Well..." Paige began hesitantly, "this is just speculation, but I guess it's because Mr. Cassidy is kind of soft-hearted to begin with. Ms. Frost probably scanned you early on, to divine your intentions. I'd suppose she didn't see any real reason to keep you locked up, and she told Mr. Cassidy so. He most likely decided it would be better if you could relax around us--get used to our company--so he put you in the Girls' Dorm. He's got a daughter too; I think you might remind him of her. I'm assuming, anyway."

She watched Ember carefully, wondering if she had said too much. However, she saw no cold, calculating looks flashing through their guest's eyes, no snarl of disgust twisting her lips. Ember was honestly considering the worth and meaning of Paige's words, and doing so with fierce and serious concentration. Paige was finding it increasingly difficult to believe Ember had been a Marauder, and this just added to the already large stack of evidence.

"He... seems nice," Ember finally said. "Mr. Cassidy, I mean."

"Oh, he is," Paige agreed. "Maybe too nice, sometimes, but he tries his best."

Ember finished her meal in a thoughtful silence, and rose to deposit her dishes in the dishwasher. She turned back to Paige and said, "Um, should I go back to my room? I can't think of anything else to do right now..."

"Sure," Paige nodded. Ember turned around--and walked right into Angelo's chest as he came in through the open door.

"Oh, uh..." Ember stammered, at a loss. Her eyes barely came up to Angelo's nose, and she had to look up to meet his gaze. Paige nearly laughed out loud as she saw the look on Angelo's face--it was much akin to one who had been slapped with a wet fish.

"Uh..." he said intelligently, drawing hastily away from Ember, and ended up backing into the door frame. "Uh..."

"Ah... sorry," Ember finally managed, hastily edging her way around the dazed Angelo. As she scurried off, Angelo rubbed his head and looked at Paige as if he hadn't even realized she was there.

"Impressive vocabulary, City Mouse," Paige snickered as she moved past him and after a swiftly retreating Ember, leaving her teammate gaping after them both.

Yes, this'll be plenty interesting... she decided as she followed the girl across the lawn, think of the expression on Angelo's face. Plenty interesting indeed...

"So," Emma said, "what would you like to begin with, Ember?"

Ember shifted around uncomfortably in the large leather easy-chair, obviously nervous. She wasn't quite sure what the point of this session was, but they had to start *somewhere*...

"Maybe... the effects of Sinister's conditioning?" she suggested tentatively. "I'd like to be rid of that first, if I can..."

Emma pushed an errant lock of hair behind her ear and straightened her white jacket, settling into her own chair. They were seated across from each other in Emma's own, huge office, the decor antique and elegant. In fact, Ember had half expected it to echo when she had entered, and was still surprised it hadn't.

But then, I guess this inch-thick carpeting would muffle sound very well...

"We can try that," Emma nodded, "if you're willing to let me into your mind of your own free will."

"Let me guess," Ember said, furrowing her brow, "I've got some kind of shields?"

"Yes. Probably placed there by Sinister."

Ember sighed. "You need my help, don't you?" she inquired, eyes closed. "You've got to take the inhibitor off, too. Am I right?"

Emma nodded. "Yes. I can't breach the shields to your innermost thoughts; I can only touch the surface of your mind. I need you to take me into your mind, and hold me there. Are you willing to do that?"

"To get rid of Sinister's influence, yes," Ember said adamantly. "I don't have any deep-dark secrets anyway, so what does it matter?"

Emma simply nodded once more and put a hand to her temple. A brief flare of psionic energy resulted, and the thin, wiry inhibitor fell into Ember's lap.

"Psionically keyed," Emma explained. "Forge constructed it for me. Now," she said, assuming a pose of meditation, "take me in."

Ember took a moment to readjust from the long-absent "background noise" of the thoughts of others, then reached out and encompassed Emma's psyche with her own. She drew the telepath inwards, deep into her own mind, wrestling against the shields Sinister had imposed on her as she did. It was mostly guess-work--she had never really done this before, but she was adept enough with her telepathy to finesse her way into the general groove of it. Sooner than she expected, she was "standing" next to Emma in the confines of her mind, drawing her astral form up to its full height in preparation for anything.

What she saw, however, made her blanch. Emma and Ember floated in an endless white abyss, peppered with memory crystals scattered above, below, and on all sides. This, so far as Ember knew, was normal enough, but what she was certain *wasn't* normal were the murky black streams of evil that ran through the whiteness. These "streams" had Sinister written all over them, had his unique resonance humming through the "water." These streaks of blackness marred her otherwise serene psyche, their very existence tainting Ember's mind. The Marauder shuddered--she had never actually seen the inside of her mind before, butthis whole scene felt *wrong*. Something, deep inside, told her that there *should not* be empty space here, just as it told her that those streams of darkness did not belong.

:Oh my.:

That seemed to be all Emma could contribute at the moment.

:What is all this?: Ember demanded. :What are those... those *things* in my mind?:

Emma shook her head. :Ah. Those... "things," as you call them, represent Sinister's influence. He's sunken his hooks into you quite deeply, it seems. I believe I'll be able to repair the damage he's done with them, but look--:

Emma waved a hand, indicating the nothingness around them. :This,: she sent, :*should* be a physical representation of what you consider "home." Your house, a relative's, a favorite place, whatever. There *should* be *some* kind of landscape to go along with all this. But there isn't.:

:Why?: Ember asked, biting her lip. :Why isn't there anything here?:

:Well,: Emma said, taking measuring looks at their surroundings, or lack thereof, :I would venture to say Sinister has been trying to turn your mind into a blank slate of sorts. Rebuilding your psyche from scratch, so to speak. By destroying the base of your sense of self, he makes you all the more vulnerable to his psychic manipulations. In other words, Ember, you are lost, mentally and spiritually. You're wandering about astrally without a platform, and it's nothing short of amazing that you haven't been corrupted by now.:

:Then... what has he been waiting for?: Ember inquired, swallowing hard at the concept. :Why hasn't he subverted me by now?:

:Perhaps,: Emma replied, :because he wants no harm to come to your child. If you should be hit psychically, your baby would almost certainly detect it. You share a telepathic bond as well as a physical--you're each tied together, and unless you're careful, your child will feel what you feel. I'm assuming you already know this?:

:Yeah,: Ember nodded. :That's how I convinced her to hold you all when we first met. I just showed her what was going on, and she reacted accordingly.:

:I suspected as much. But in any case, it would be logical to assume that your child would not only be aware that something had happened to you, but could--and would--fight to have you back. By doing this she could injure herself seriously, crippling her powers. I'm sure this is the last thing Sinister wants, and so he had taken steps to prevent it.:

:How very lovely,: Ember sighed. :My child is possibly the only thing that has allowed me to retain my--self. What happens when she's born?:

:Then...: Emma hesitated, :then I would venture to say Sinister will come for you, destroy your mind, and rebuild it from scratch.:

:And I, as I am now, would cease to exist.:


Ember's blood ran cold.

:I think I've had enough of this today,: she said abruptly, pulling them both out of her mind. :I'm going back to my room, to rest. And think.: She dropped Emma's mind back into her body and stood up to go. Emma made as if to stop her, but Ember shook her head.

"I need to think about this," she said, trying to keep the quaver of fear out of her voice. "Please, Ms. Frost."

"Very well," Emma said reluctantly, taking her seat once more. "Do you wish to work on this again tomorrow?"

"Yes," Ember nodded, moving to the oak-panel door. "Please. And... thank you." She opened to door and departed, bare feet making not so much as a thud on the wooden floors of the hallway.

And neither of them noticed the discarded inhibitor collar lying on the floor where it had fallen.

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