From Bic to Zip

(R, profanity and adult situations) Pre-X1, Bobby/John

He would later wonder what the hell had possessed him to buy John the damned thing in the first place, because the near-constant snap! click! fwoosh! would alternate between driving him nuts and being the one sound he was desperate to hear in the Mansion.

Notes: I checked... twice... John's Zippo in X1 was not the same as the one in X2.

For those not familiar with the American Automobile Association (or AAA), it is a national group that provides roadside assistance, travel services, and maps.

Information regarding New York state driver's permits from http://www.nydmv.state.ny.us/.

This has been difficult for a variety of reasons. An increased work schedule on my part didn't help, but neither did three different approaches to this story.

He would later wonder what the hell had possessed him to buy John the damned thing in the first place, because the near-constant snap! click! Fwoosh! would alternate between driving him nuts and being the one sound he was desperate to hear in the Mansion.

Yet in that moment, as Bobby passed by the display case at the BP gas station with two bottles of water and a mini-pack of Oreos, he knew he had found the perfect gift. They had exactly four days to agonize over what to get John for his birthday; the only reason they knew about it at all was because Scott had casually mentioned it the previous day.

The news had sent the four of them in a scramble, with Bobby and Jubilee arguing over who had the right to be more pissed off that John didn't trust either of them enough. It had been the whole "best friend vs. roommate" fight, but even though Bobby could have trumped Jubilee's "midnight walks in the gazebo, babe", he hadn't. What could he have shouted back? "Oh, yeah? Kitty Death Nightmare duty at 3 a.m. Hah!" That would have meant betraying John at his utmost, vulnerable moments and Bobby absolutely refused to do that.

He wasn't quite sure where he stood with John on the whole friendship thing. Sometimes, John would be reclusive and standoffish, like those first few weeks at the Mansion, yet at other times, especially late in the evenings when it was just the two of them, Bobby was able to elicit a genuine, appreciative smile out of him. It took some effort, but the grin was worth it, because at least John looked happy and at ease. Even when he said, "You're such a fucking moron, Bobby," Bobby didn't take offense; it was said good-naturedly and John now called him by his first name on a regular basis.

Bobby supposed he knew a few things about his roommate that Jubilee wouldn't know. John was kind of obsessive about their respective inventory of clothing and Bobby could swear that his roommate guarded the washers and dryers while doing laundry. The one time Bobby had ventured to question the practice, John had simply met his gaze with a steady one of his own and said tonelessly, "Habit." Bobby had looked away, embarrassed. John had then held out one of the comics he had been reading, perhaps as a peace offering.

"Robin?" Bobby had asked, reading the title as he had sat next to John. The only person in the Mansion who followed the Boy Wonder's adventures was Sam, and Sam was fanatical about who touched his comics.

"Guess Guthrie's doing research on being a sidekick," John had shrugged and gone back to reading. A few moments later, he had asked: "So, which one? Grayson, Todd, or Drake?"

And while it may have seemed inconsequential to know John's opinion on who made the best Robin, it was finally something in the realm of friendship that went beyond simply being a roommate. It went beyond Bobby knowing how to handle John's nightmares or John wordlessly handing him the bottle of Pepto Bismol those Sunday afternoons when he returned from visiting his parents. (Although he never talked about it, his mother's cooking always made him sick to his stomach.)

More important, however, had been how John's assessment of Jason Todd as Robin had given Bobby such stunning insight on his roommate. "Jason Todd absolutely sucked," John had declared, turning a page. "Noble death, my ass. I mean, his mom ditched him when he was a baby. So he finds her and she's doing the whole 'life of crime thing'. He fucking tells her he's Robin, and he actually fucking believes that she'll give all that shit up for him? He's a stupid fuck and deserved to have the shit kicked out him by the Joker."

It had been such a harsh assessment that Bobby had only nodded, only later to realize that John's sentiments probably echoed what he probably felt about his own mom. John had absolutely no inclination to find her. Whether or not Jubilee actually knew that, Bobby wasn't about to ask.

That particular train of thought brought him back to the present, in the BP station, where he was supposed to be paying for gas. He was out for his afternoon driving lesson with Scott and one of the rules had been that the students were responsible for the gas used. The Oreos were a peace offering to Scott, who hadn't completely lost his temper when Bobby had taken the graded curve too fast and too sharply. They hadn't gone off-road, but it had spooked Bobby enough for him to half-frost the windows. Scott had said stiffly, "Calm down, slow down, and pull over," and had flicked the defroster on high. At least Bobby hadn't frozen the steering wheel in place.

But the whole 'driving with Scott' made Bobby wonder what they were going to do about John. It was going to be John's sixteenth birthday after all, and one of the big things about turning sixteen was getting one's driver's license. Actually, it was a permit for the first six months before the full license was granted, and there were plenty of rules that went along with both types. Bobby remembered the ton of papers his parents had had to sign in order for him to get a permit to drive in New York state.

Just what the hell were they going to do about John? Maybe that was why he had avoided the whole birthday thing altogether: because of the Sweet Sixteen crap that went along with it. After all, Bobby had received a pewter snowflake key chain, a new wallet, and a CD of driving tunes from the students at the Mansion; Scott and Jean had even given him a pair of leather driving gloves. Warren had given him an AAA membership and a lawyer's business card, and Remy had sent him a slick pair of Ray Ban sunglasses that ended up in Jubilee's possession more often than he cared to think about.

Given that John was part of the Mansion elite (and Bobby was well aware of their places within the Mansion social hierarchy), big presents were expected for big birthdays. Special presents were expected. Significant presents, even, especially for the 'first birthday at the Mansion'.

Bobby sighed as he set the things on the counter and glanced at the case. No wonder getting a gift for John had been so difficult. They all wanted it to be something special but nothing had seemed right. They wanted it to be appropriate, but not to draw attention.

A fifteen-dollar Zippo from a gas station was perfect, but it was cheap. It screamed 'last minute', but John hadn't really given them time to come up with or to collect enough money for something good.

Slowly, he spun the four-sided display case around. Some had designs, including a Harley-Davidson, an American flag, a bald eagle, playing card suits, art deco, and a bull's eye. None of them struck him as being particularly 'John'. Sure, a Harley logo would be kind of cool, but John never expressed an interest in the bikes they worked on in Scott's shop class. John wasn't necessarily patriotic either, so the flag and eagle were out. The playing card one looked lame; Pete could design a better style than what was on that Zippo. Art deco? Nope. Bull's eye? Too cheesy.

"Bobby?" Scott called.

"Uh... sorry. Just thinking." He yanked out his wallet and pulled out his debit card. Gas plus water plus Oreos plus potential Zippo and accessories equaled an explanation to his father for the $55 expense at the gas station. It meant a nasty lecture about financial responsibility and Bobby lying. God, he hated lying, but how was he supposed to explain? 'My roommate's mutation requires a catalyst and we bought him one at the gas station?'

He felt the hand settle on his shoulder. Scott then asked, "Which one?"

Damn, maybe being around the Professor and Jean so long had caused Scott to develop his own form of telepathy? No, it was just that Scott noticed everything. Bobby only nodded toward the case. "The polished silver. It's the only one that's... well... him."

"You get the gas and the snacks," Scott said, "and I'll get this. We'll settle up later."

"Then... it's okay?" he asked, a question on two levels. The first was whether it was all right to buy the lighter in the first place since there was a rule about bringing incendiary devices on campus. Second, Bobby now had doubts that it was even an appropriate gift to give to John.

"I wouldn't have made the offer if it wasn't," came the reply, complete with a light laugh and clap on his shoulder.

Knowing he was now blushing a bit, he said quietly, "Have to get flints and fluid too. I don't think he has them."

"Probably not."

"Thanks, Scott," he said, making sure to meet his surrogate big brother's gaze. He wondered if the other kids ever bothered or if they even realized that that extra little effort sometimes meant the difference between a week's worth of additional chores and a two-minute 'think before you act' lecture.

This time, Scott flashed him a big smile. "Hey, that's what I'm here for."

*****((()))*****

St. John supposed that one day his appreciation of his roommate's near-obsessive awareness of his feelings would come back to bite him in the ass. However, following his total emotional breakdown in Scott Summers' office, St. John found that Bobby Drake in guardian mode was, oddly enough, quite comforting. Perhaps what was even more flattering was Bobby's determination to prove himself as a friend, because no guy had ever made such an effort before. His friendship with Jubilee was based on somewhat mutual experiences, his one with Pete based on mutual respect, and his one with Kitty... well... he had saved her life. The one he had with Bobby was something totally new. St. John had even discovered that sometimes, all he had to do was crack a smile and he would be rewarded with a brilliant one in return.

And those times when St. John had attempted to scare Bobby away with a detail about his past, his roommate was usually rendered speechless, but had never shied away. Sure, there was that awkward moment that followed the revelation, but St. John knew that all he had to do was offer Bobby a concession, some minute sign that it really was okay. And while the room would be close to fucking frigid and Bobby would be embarrassed for a variety of reasons, he always said the same thing - "You're my friend" - and damn if St. John didn't find himself courting those words more and more, although not at the expense of completely revealing his childhood.

That was the reason why when his roommate shuffled over to his bed at 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, thirty minutes before St. John would even consider getting out of bed on a school day, he didn't verbally take Bobby's head off for waking him up.

"Look, I know it's early and everything," Bobby said as he sat down, "but... well... your birthday is tomorrow."

That caused him to open his eyes and peer at the form beside his bed. Bobby turned to look at him, apparently ready for a vicious retaliation from him from the set of his shoulders, the dilation of his blue eyes despite the furrow of his brow to keep his power in check, and the tension along his jaw line. Sometimes it was frustrating how Bobby seemed at one moment to want to be his best friend, yet a split-second later to be ready for St. John to verbally or physically assault him.

"We're the only ones who know," Bobby told him quietly, and there was so much earnestness in his voice that it was almost painful to hear. "And the Powers, of course. I swear, we haven't told anyone else because, well, you didn't tell us." And yes, there was the hint of resentment floating in there somewhere, but Bobby was doing his best to hide it.

But of course St. John hadn't told them. He was afraid they would have made a big deal about it. Fussed over him. Ensured that he finally had a 'proper' birthday because, well, they all had probably guessed he'd had shitty ones in the past. However, Scott had pulled him aside five days ago and had brought the subject up. Surprisingly, his teacher hadn't been particularly delicate about it either: "Which is worse, St. John? Your friends making an earnest attempt to celebrate your birthday how you want to, or dealing with their anger a few months down the road when they realize that you never told them? Trust works both ways."

So, whacked on the head by the clue-by-four, St. John had conceded to the conventional wisdom of Scott Summers and had told him it was okay for him to say something to his friends. He was really quite surprised it had taken Bobby this long to bring it up. Even now, there wasn't the enthusiasm that St. John had expected.

Bobby faltered now, "And well... well... we don't know what you want to do."

The last word was said with a deliberate, direct emphasis. It wasn't said with challenge, just an even stress that St. John had come to recognize as a way of conveying that they weren't trying to offend him. They were only trying to figure out a way to approach him. It had to be the whole reason Bobby was nervous and downplaying this to the best of his ability.

St. John thought about what Bobby had said. What he wanted to do. It was a mind-blowing concept for him, but at the Mansion, such requests were met with consideration. He'd witnessed student birthday celebrations before, and they ranged from a low-key acknowledgement to a full-scale party, complete with paper hats. For Sam's birthday, he'd laughed his ass off when he had seen Xavier motoring around with a silver cone on his head; Pete had had the good sense to drag him out the front door before anyone had noticed.

However, there were no questions about how his birthdays had been spent before. 'Pre-Mansion Life' vs. 'Current Mansion Life' was understood just as well as 'Accidental' vs. 'Deliberate'. Bobby didn't ask and St. John certainly didn't volunteer, but the request on what he wanted for this one still remained.

"Don't know. Didn't think about it." A lie, of course, because while being around Bobby almost twenty-four/seven made him believe a little more in the Mansion Magic, he wasn't going to set himself up. However, if Tinkerbell or Jiminy Cricket were ever to show up at the Xavier estate, he knew that he would either pass out or torch them on the spot.

"Well..." Bobby's hesitant voice broke in, "We didn't think you would want a party or anything, but Pete and I do have our driver's licenses. Well, I mean, Pete has his license and I have a permit, but you know what I mean."

"Huh?" because at 6:30 a.m., he wasn't really awake enough to make Bobby-sized leaps of logic.

"We'll have to have an adult in the car because Pete's not eighteen yet, and there's that whole citizenship thing," his roommate rambled, "and I'm technically not supposed to drive after dark or something stupid like that, but if you want to go somewhere besides here... well... we could. Just an option, you know. We went to this really cool Indian restaurant for Neal's birthday last year. I couldn't handle the spinach stuff because it looked like baby puke, but the tandoori chicken was really good. Even though Ro drove, she was really cool about it, you know?"

In the early morning light seeping through the blinds, he could see Bobby's slightly fogged breath. Oh, his roommate was anxious, but the control he was exerting was impressive.

St. John thought about what had been said. The collective 'we' probably meant Lee-Lee wasn't sure how to handle it either and it had fallen to Bobby to find out. In their new approach in dealing with him, they usually sent Bobby to ask awkward questions because Bobby was there at oh-god-awful in the morning when St. John wasn't awake enough to be especially vicious. Or maybe Pete and Lee-Lee had figured out there were certain points he would concede if the request was made by Bobby.

Curious, St. John asked, "What do you think I would want?"

Bobby focused on him, slight surprise in his eyes. "Maybe a little something from the Powers. But from us? Not much. Something really quiet. If we made a big deal about it or sang to you during dinner, you'd probably make that flaming chicken of yours and fly it around the room."

"It's a phoenix, damn it," he said idly, with a yawn. It dawned on him that it was the first time they'd ever joked about that particular incident. Of course, Bobby would opt for humor in a tense situation. "And chickens don't fly."

There was a pause then a low exhale as if Bobby was surprised he'd gotten away with the light dig. His roommate shrugged. "Um... you know about the birthday cards, right?"

"Huh?" At 6:30 a.m., he really wasn't ready for a discussion of Mansion weirdness.

"Cards underneath the door, first thing in the morning on your birthday. Mansion tradition," and from the way Bobby rushed the words 'Mansion tradition', St. John knew that it was more like a Drake Family tradition that had been incorporated into the Mansion Collective. After all, he knew that the Guthrie tradition included picking the movie on the night of one's birthday and the Sharra tradition included a favorite meal, and both of those were now part of the 'Mansion tradition'. But now his roommate was blushing hard, his head tilted down, ready for the verbal attack.

Fuck. He was going to have to break Bobby of that habit eventually, but not right now. Instead, St. John said, "Yeah." It was yet another thing Scott had casually explained, although he hadn't included the part about it being something Bobby had contributed to the Collective. However, Bobby's involvement was the only reason why he didn't make a snide comment about it, but instead said, "I know about it."

"Oh."

"But no one's waiting on the other side, are they? So you get cards, but no other shit when you open the door. No silly string or hats or singing shit, right?"

"Of course not!" his roommate sighed with exasperation. "We're mutants, you idiot! You think anyone is stupid enough to spook someone like that in the morning?"

He snorted. In the early morning hours, he'd somehow forgotten. Jubilee sparked. Jamie duplicated. Neal could set the hallway on fire. And no one really wanted to think just what Dani was capable of. St. John rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Something quiet, then. Like you said." He pulled the covers back over his head. "You all know me."

The scariest thing was that he knew they did.

*****((()))*****

"Well, while someone was out playing with his crank shaft," Jubilee snapped as the sparks danced from the tips of her fingers, "the rest of us were trying to come up with a decent gift and how to get it here on time."

They had exactly thirty minutes to confer while John had his weekly meeting with the Professor. Gathered in Pete's room, and the bickering between Bobby and Jubilee had erupted from almost the moment the door had closed. The other three where still without a solid idea for a gift; they had wanted something special yet low key, and definitely not generic. The problem was that all the ideas were typical birthday gifts.

CDs? John downloaded his own music nowadays. DVDs? The Mansion's film library was quite extensive and even included imported anime and kung-fu flicks. Video/computer games? John would play them, but never really expressed an interest in them. Clothing? That certainly sucked as a birthday gift because it was a gift parents and grandparents gave. Nothing could be car-related because even if it was John's sixteenth birthday, there was no guarantee he was going to get his permit.

Bobby lifted his chin, hurt by Jubilee's 'crank shaft' comment because a) it wasn't his fault that he still had two more lessons to complete before he 'graduated' the Driver's Ed class and b) she would make an obvious masturbation reference in front of Kitty. A quick glance to Kitty revealed that either she missed the snipe all together or she'd gotten to the point where she could handle cracks like that without blushing. Bobby wasn't sure.

Yet now, facing down an obviously angry Jubilee, a part of him didn't want to share since it was technically his gift, damn it. He knew for an absolute fact that John would smile upon opening the box and he selfishly wanted that attention all to himself. He'd worked his ass off trying to win John's trust and... well....

"I thought you were his roommate," Jubilee taunted.

He knew that she was merely directing her anger at him because he was a convenient target. (At least that was the usual explanation from Jean and the Professor.) He knew that she was goading him deliberately, because when she was angry, she loved to argue. It didn't stop Bobby's own temper from flaring; he yanked out the box with the clear plastic lid from his back pocket.

"I am, chica," he shot back and then held the Zippo up where she could see. Her jaw dropped open. He smirked. "Bow to the superior wisdom of the Ice God, babe."

She reached out and fingered the edge of the box and damn, if he didn't feel like he was holding the Holy Grail. "Where the hell did you get it?"

"The BP. Had to pay for gas, you know." He glanced over and saw Kitty's and Pete's respective awed stares. They both moved off of the bed and approached. "The lighter was fifteen total." He wasn't about to tell them about the accessories unless they specifically asked. "I guess that makes it about three and a quarter each. Scott actually paid for it, so it's okay and everything."

"Oh, Bobby...." Kitty said as she touched the box as well. "It's awesome. It's so totally... John."

Jubilee, at least, had the grace to blush. Not only did he score the perfect gift, he had gotten The Powers That Be approval on it. "Damn, Bobby."

"You all in?" he asked, although he knew that none of them would turn down the opportunity. For once, he held the power.

"Da," Pete said as he clasped Bobby on the shoulder. "Good job, Frosty."


(***((()))***)

His usual time with Xavier was on Thursdays. St. John would sit in Xavier's private office, stare at the corner of the mahogany desk the entire time, and not say a word. Perhaps the whole silent treatment had been a battle wills at first, but as the weeks had passed, it had morphed into something else. After his emotional breakdown, he had expected Xavier to pass him off to Scott, but the old man hadn't. The message was clear, bright and in primary colors that if he wanted to talk to Scott, he could. Scott was open to it. However, Xavier wasn't going to give him up unless, well, St. John asked.

He never had.

St. John reluctantly admitted to himself it had become the fact that an authority figure had made time for him on a consistent basis that made him stay for the entire thirty minutes. It made him wait for Xavier's measured, "Our time for today has ended, St. John" because the old man always called him by his formal name in the privacy of his office. These people had never conveniently passed him off.

Oh sure, he was just one more fucked up student to be taken care of, but they paid attention to him. To him. St. John Allerdyce.

He wasn't going to give up that precious thirty minutes until they forced him to.

Today, however, was different. He walked in the Professor's office and sat in his customary chair, but watched as the Professor slid a manila envelope towards him. The Professor then explained the concept of guardianship in relation to obtaining his driver's license and how if he wished to obtain a driver's license that he would have to choose one of the faculty unless he wanted to wait until he was seventeen.

"I realize this is an important decision for you and there is no reason to rush into it. In the meantime, Scott has volunteered to be your driving instructor." St. John almost shot back that he'd been driving since he was twelve when his dad had been too drunk to even put the key into the ignition, but the Professor simply said dryly, "The lessons, of course, are strictly for legal and insurance purposes and to show the State that we are, after all, responsible for our charges. As long as you maintain your grades and follow the rules, you will have driving privileges. You may be asked, on occasion, to run errands for the staff, but that is requested of all students who drive."

He could only nod dumbly. It had been something that he wanted, something so simplistically stupid that the other kids probably took for granted. He had just figured he had to wait until he was seventeen to pull it off. He hadn't expected someone to help him get something that he wanted.

St. John opened the folder and glanced at all the paperwork contained therein. He managed to get out, "Thank you, sir."

"You're most welcome." It wasn't said with any smugness, just the Professor's usual kind tone.

He blinked hard twice, unable to lift his gaze from the papers, and whispered, "I mean it, sir."

Because he did and there were things he wanted to say, things that he should say, but he didn't know how to say them. He did the manners thing for the Professor not purely because it was expected, but out of respect. And although he was still considered by the Mansion populace to be the Bad Kid, he did follow the rules (somewhat) because, well, he had a choice.

"I know," came the spoken response, and that more than anything, made him want to do the 'sir' thing a little more. Since the morning after the Kitchen Incident, Xavier had only telepathically communicated with him once, and that had been the day St. John had become unglued in Summers' office.

St. John wasn't sure how long he sat there, staring at the stark white pages in front of him, but he did. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Professor then gesture toward the corner of his desk, which until that day, had been one of St. John's spots to stare at.

A leather-bound notebook with a silver pen was on the corner and his breath caught in his throat. It was a gift -- he was sure -- from all of The Powers That Be. St. John's usual Thursday session was probably the only time that they could give him the gift without it being too obvious, and if he left Xavier's office looking as if he had bawled his eyes out, not one of the kids would say jack shit about it.

Not that he would ever bawl his eyes out in Xavier's office or anything, although he would have sworn the same thing about Scott's office until his body betrayed him.

St. John didn't have to touch the journal or the pen to know that they were expensive, because he'd realized on his second day that here at the Mansion, that while the students and the faculty accepted mediocrity, the Professor had very distinct tastes. The paper wasn't a discarded matchbook cover or brown shopping bag or a greasy wrapper from Burger King. It was a journal with gold-leaf along the edges, not especially flashy but worth something. He bet that the pages were rich parchment, the kind of paper that made that distinct 'turning page' sound from the movies.

The pen wasn't a chewed-on, dried-out Papermate or a stubby graphite pencil or the last inch of eyeliner. It was probably a cartridge pen, the kind that would feel good in his hand and the tip would glide smoothly across the page. It wasn't especially fancy, but it had value.

"You have a talent with words, St. John."

The praise hit him hard and he bit his lips to keep from making a sound. It was an intensely personal gift because St. John had never admitted to anyone that he liked to write. He never preened when Munroe handed back his history essays with positive comments on them although there was more than one occasion when he wanted to. He certainly never bragged when the Professor wrote such phrases as 'excellent explanation of the author's conundrum in dealing with his inner turmoil' because not one of his friends had ever earned such effulgent praise from The Powers That Be over their own writing.

He could feel the moisture pooling in the corners of his eyes; he blinked them back desperately. There was no way in hell he was going to shed tears in Xavier's office. No fucking way.

"Gifts are not limited to our mutant abilities," the Professor continued softly and oh-so-delicately. Just how many fragile male egos had the man endured? A fuckload probably. He remembered Bobby's comment about how the Professor had learned patience for property damage. At least St. John's abilities didn't flair out of control like Bobby's or like the one time that Neal fell down half a flight of stairs and exploded the banister. No, St. John had torched the kitchen and almost killed Kitty, yet he was still here and The Powers That Be were giving him a damned present. "We only wish to encourage you to use them."

Damn, if there wasn't a subtle emphasis on 'we' in that phrase.

There were tons of questions he could probably ask. St. John supposed that the Professor would answer most of them. The biggest one was, of course, "Why me?" but there were some answers St. John preferred his own creative answers to than stark reality or a telepath's interpretation of what he wanted to hear.

St. John stared at the gifts, noting that they were unwrapped of course, so he could tuck it away with his normal collection of books and no one would notice. Very carefully, he moved his gaze from the corner of the desk to meet the Professor's eyes. Deliberately, not caring what emotion was showing on his face because he was sure he was 'projecting his emotions' or some such shit just fine, he said, "Thank you, sir."

It wasn't meant sarcastically. It was meant with respect. Deference, really, if St. John wanted to get technical about it, but respect all the same. The 'you' was plural so to acknowledge that he knew that the journal and pen had come from the four teachers, and 'sir' to acknowledge that he understood fully that it had been Xavier's call to takehim in, not just some random 'he's a mutie therefore he's a viable candidate' thing. After all, the kids at the Mansion sported a variety of potent and powerful mutant abilities, not lame-assed shit like being able to glow in the dark or looking like a fish.

"Happy Birthday, St. John. We hope it is a good one for you."

*****((()))*****

Jubilee said, "Strawberry."

Bobby let out an explosive sigh. "No. Bittersweet chocolate."

It was after dinner and John had wandered off with the unspoken (yet well understood) message that he wanted to be alone. The four of them had pounced upon the opportunity to figure out the kind of cake that Kitty should make because they all agreed John should have one. Yet when they had entered the kitchen, the argument between Bobby and Jubilee had erupted the moment the door had swung shut.

"Strawberry," she repeated, popping her gum for emphasis.

"Strawberries, as in the actual berries? Yes. Strawberry, as in cake? No way. He won't eat it because it tastes too fake. The one Ro had for her birthday? John had two bites and gave the rest to Pete."

"Your preferences, Drake. Not his. Johnny likes strawberries. The ones he scores from the buffet? He'll give Kit-Kat and me some, but he eats most of them." Jubilee rocked back on her feet slightly and adjusted the sunglasses that she was currently using as a fashionable headband. They were his Ray Bans and it pissed him off that she had snagged them again. "John don't eat chocolate. No Hershey's. No Crunch bars. Not even M&Ms."

"He'll eat bittersweet chocolate cake," he clarified, emphasizing the last word, "but only the way that Kat makes it. Dani's birthday last month? He went back for seconds, first time ever he's done that, and not just because Kat said that she made it. When she made the one for Sam? John only had half a slice."

"Because it was chocolate, stupid." She said it with just the right amount of derision to make him ball his fists in anger. "No offense, Kit-Kat, but Johnny only ate it because of the manners-thing. Both times." Kitty, who was standing between them at the table, simply shook her head. Jubilee continued, leaning close enough to poke Bobby on the arm. "Both those cakes? Chocolate. Johnny don't like chocolate."

"Sam's cake was Death by Chocolate," Bobby countered and then dramatically ticked off the ingredients by holding up a finger for each one. "Dutch-processed cocoa. Belgium chocolate chips. Semi-sweet chocolate frosting with dark chocolate glace and chocolate shavings on top. Way too sweet for him." He met Jubilee's gaze. "Dani's cake wasn't like that. It didn't have frosting. It only had a little of the glace because she's got to watch her sugar. Therefore, bittersweet chocolate." .He lifted his chin because he knew he was right on this. He tacked on the final proof: "That night? Snack raid at midnight. He was mad because there was none left."

She glowered at him, fingertips glowing menacingly. "Strawberry."

"Bittersweet chocolate."

They glared at each other for a few seconds before they shouted in unison, "Piotr?"

There was a muffled groan from the corner of the kitchen where Pete had retreated. Slowly, in a flat tone that meant he didn't want to be part of the argument, their de facto mediator said, "Yes, John eats strawberries. Yes, he does not normally eat chocolate things. Yes, he had half a slice of cake at Sam's party. Yes, he had two slices of cake at Dani's party. Yes, midnight snack raid and no cake left made John unhappy." He waved toward the fridge. "The milk is on the second shelf."

"Huh?" Bobby blurted out as he stared at Pete in confusion, "What does milk have to do with anything?" Kitty sighed again and he turned his attention back to the two girls.

That was when he noted the crimson of Jubilee's cheeks and realized that their Russian friend had scored an unexpected insult that only she got, but the coloring only lasted a few seconds before she rallied. "Frosting then."

"What?" It took a few seconds before it kicked in that she had given up on the type of cake and had moved on to the decorations. Still he rolled his eyes, because clearly she just didn't get it. "No frosting."

"Frosting," she repeated, edgier and with a quick glance in Piotr's direction. Bobby snuck a peek over as well and saw their friend pinching the bridge of his nose like Scott did to ward off a headache.

"He scrapes it off and gives it to me because I'm the sugar freak," he shot back. "Ever single time."

"Birthday cakes have to have frosting," she insisted. She was angry with him; he could tell by the set of her jaw and the glint in her eyes. It was the first time, however, that he ever heard her sound almost petulant. Her fingertips glowed a bit brighter. "It's the rule."

He ignored the tone, figuring she was just trying to play upon a weakness of his. "What part of 'he doesn't eat frosting' do you not understand? What? Will you understand it in Russian? Piotr, how do you say 'John doesn't eat frosting'?"

"Don't answer that, Petey." She flipped Bobby off. "You're such a dork, Drake."

"Takes one to know one," he fired back and he realized that the argument had dissolved into a grade school, playground fight. He didn't care. "Like I said, he doesn't eat frosting."

She paused and then narrowed her eyes. "Jackie Chan flicks."

"Nope," he grinned triumphantly at her because this was one he knew he couldn't get wrong. He even used the correct pronunciation as he declared, "Classic Gojira."

"Jackie Chan," she said harshly.

"He only watched one of the Chan films that one weekend TNT played a bunch of them back to back," he told her and crossed his arms. "When SciFi ran that Godzilla marathon on Saturday mornings? He watched every single one. Therefore, Classic Gojira. Hah!"

She twitched, her mouth curving into a sneer she usually reserved for Alison. "Cantonese."

"Huh? Cantonese? You want me to say it in Cantonese?"

"No, Snow Brains...." She gave him a threatening look. "Dinner. Cantonese."

And before he considered the wisdom of his next words, he spat out, "That stuff you made that one time? He barely touched it. Pete poached most of it when you weren't looking. If you actually listened to John, you would know that he likes Thai food, extra spicy, over any kind of Chinese. It doesn't matter if it's Cantonese, Sichuan, or Hunan. Or don't you remember what he said during Battle Pork Belly two months ago?"

There was a sharp gasp, which could have been from Kitty but he suddenly realized it was from Jubilee. It was her turn to cross her arms now, the sparks dancing down her sleeves. There should have been more viciousness in her tone, but there wasn't. She was challenging him, but almost seemed to be nervous. "Oh, you're the expert now, huh?"

"I'm his roommate."

"I'm his best friend, Popsicle," she growled, and the use of the nickname momentarily stunned him because it was one that was never used at the Mansion. The way she had said it meant that she'd gleaned that information from John, proof that she did have some insider information.

It fired him up. It egged him on. It hurt him because God only knew what else John had told her. Bobby supposed the crackle-zap should have unnerved him more than it did, but he held his ground. She had left an opening, a gaping one for the normally tough-as-nails, no-chink-in-her-armor Jubilee. Bobby ground out the final insult, "Which one of us scored the gift, Sparky?"

She recoiled. A plasma arc sailed from her left hand and to the counter that had the baking items Kitty had already set out. The condensed energy landed on the bag of powdered sugar. The fine white powder exploded upward and outwards, effectively coating both Jubilee and Bobby. He didn't care. He didn't move. Neither did she.

"Stop it! Both of you!" Kitty demanded in a sharp parental tone. He blinked and then stared at Kitty. Partially-phased so the sugar hadn't landed on her, she had one hand on her hip and then she pointed to the door. She was as mad as he'd ever seen her, lips set in a thin line and determination in her eyes that meant she was going to have her way. "Bobby, go to your room!"

His mind blanked for a second. "What?!?"

Kitty stomped her foot. "Go to your room now!"

"You can't make me!" which was childish, he knew, but he was not about to retreat just because a girl who was younger than he was told him to. He loved Kitty like a sister but it was the rules of being a big brother that gave him to excuse not to obey her. Bobby then felt a strong hand on the back of his neck, and damned if Piotr didn't grab him by the shirt collar and turn him towards the door.

Jubilee stuck her tongue out at him.

In a last, desperate attempt at something, he wasn't sure what, he spat out, "But she has my sunglasses!"

Piotr made a frustrated sound before reaching over, plucking the Ray Bans off of Jubilee's head, slapped them against Bobby's chest, and then pushed him bodily through the door. As they walked down the corridor, Piotr said with that same parental edge that Kitty had just moments before, "One word from you and I will make you sit in the corner as well."

And while he wanted to say, "But she started it" because Jubilee had, he shut up and hung his head because Kitty had sent him to his room and Piotr was enforcing it. Knowing his luck, Piotr was actually frustrated enough to go through with his threat about making Bobby sit in the corner. At least no one was in the hallways as he was escorted upstairs. Since when had Kitty and Piotr become his parents or The Powers That Be? He pouted because, well, it was so damned humiliating. Piotr opened the door to his room and he was pushed in. The door closed behind them.

Of course, John was sitting on his bed and stared at the two of them before asking, "What in the fuck happened to you?"

Bobby suddenly blushed hard, because the last person he wanted to explain to about why he was covered in powdered sugar was his roommate.

"Katya send Frosty to his room because he was being bad in the kitchen," Piotr explained.

"Hey!" Bobby protested. "Was anything frozen? No. Was there any ice? No. My powers were controlled, man. Jubilee started it. She was the one who zapped the powdered sugar, not me."

Piotr waved him silent. "You stay up here the rest of the night. No going downstairs, else Katya will make you clean the Kitchen when she is done."

"Whoa... Miss Mayor gave the Mascot a time out?" John let out a snort of amusement and then burst out laughing. Bobby glanced up, stunned, because it was the first time he'd ever heard his roommate erupt in laughter. "And the Tin Man's playing the cop?"

"Frosty was fighting like a girl." That burn was unexpected, especially from Piotr, but it made John laugh even harder.

"Hey! I had to bring it down to her level, man," Bobby retorted in his defense. "And Kitty was there so it wasn't as if I could say anything good." He crossed his arms gave Piotr a look. "And what the hell was that crack about the milk being in the fridge?"

The loud thunk drew Bobby's attention back over to John. His roommate was now on the floor, laughing so hard that tears were in his eyes. It annoyed the hell out of Bobby that everyone else got the joke but he didn't. He was too mad to humiliate himself further, so he pursed his lips together and glowered. John looked up and then let out into another peal of laughter.

"As I said, you were fighting like a girl," Piotr told Bobby although a smile was twitching at his lips. "The only thing you did not do was stomp your foot."

"At least I'm not channeling The Powers That Be like you are, Pete! I still can't believe Kitty sent me to my room and you went along with it! Whatever happened to guys sticking up for guys?" he spat back, which earned a howl from John.

"Katya was merely minimizing property damage, Frosty."

"It's not fair."

John made an odd sound, somewhere between a hoot and a gasp for air, and then he began hitting the floor with his fist.

Bobby crossed his arms even tighter across his chest. "I was right. You know I was right. Just wait. You'll see that I'm right."

"Of course you were, Frosty." Piotr patted his head as if he were a six year old. Bobby watched as another round of hiccupped laughs escaped from John. He really hated being the butt of the joke.

But his roommate was literally rolling around on the floor, laughing his ass off. Something that Bobby swore up and down would never, ever happen, without a lot of Piotr's vodka and a damned funny joke. It was all at Bobby's expense, but the humiliation he was feeling eased just a bit when he caught the flash of Piotr's smile. He had recognized the situation as well, and whatever frustration the Russian had felt because he had been forced to referee a fight between Bobby and Jubilee had disappeared.

Bobby sighed. The things he would endure in order to win a smile (or howling laughter, in this case) from John. It was worth it.

*****((()))*****

In his months at the Mansion, St. John had seen a variety of weird things. With such a high concentration of mutants, comedic situations happened on a regular basis. Usually, it was in relation to a brief loss of control or the one phrase St. John supposed The Powers That Be dreaded to hear: "I was experimenting with my powers when...."

So far, his particular group had been spared the totally embarrassing moments. He had wondered if they were immune from suchthings given that they were the Mansion elite. Yet when Bobby had been pushed into their bedroom, St. John knew that even the highest of high-up students were subject to Fate's wicked sense of humor.

A petulant, powder-coated Bobby had been ushered in by Piotr. Piotr had been in full parent-mode and had then explained that Kitty had sent Bobby to his room. The ensuing discussion had sent St. John into a fit of laughter, which he knew was much better than a fit of puking and crying. Maybe like last time, his body had been searching for some type of emotional release and his subconscious had chosen that particular incident to allow him to let loose.

He supposed there were very few teenaged guys who could pull off an effective pout that made him resist launching into bevy of insults, those bruising smacks to the ego which would probably have made Bobby cry. St. John had refrained because he had been too busy laughing and falling on the floor to really do so.

Bobby had taken three showers last night because he had sworn he could still feel the sugar in his hair. Upon returning from the showers that final time, he had complained only once about not being to wash his clothes because he wasn't allowed downstairs. It had sent St. John into another fit of giggles, and he wasn't the giggling type. But instead of glaring or punching him or dropping the room temp, which should have been the automatic reaction to being laughed at, Bobby had only shrugged and had continue to mope for the rest of the evening. His roommate sulking had been... well... cute. The Mascot could pull off charmingly dorky, and it was probably why most of the girls at the Mansion had crushes on Bobby.

It hadn't been until after lights out that St. John had been able to coax an explanation out of Bobby regarding the fight. "It was just the four of us," Bobby had said quietly. "Jubilee and I... we were just... debating on what you would want."

And St. John had backed off because of swell of emotion that hadhit him in the chest. No one had ever fought over him like that before in his entire life. He must have made some kind of sound, because Bobby had immediately sat up and started the litany of apologies, "No one else heard. I swear. We wouldn't do that to you. We wouldn't embarrass you. I swear."

"I know," he had replied. Then, he used the one phrased guaranteed to ease Bobby's fears: "You're my friends."

Bobby had then given him a brilliant grin, one that could have potentially rivaled Scott's. St. John had retreated to his side of the room and had buried himself under the covers. He had wanted to hold on to that image in his head and he had known if anything else had been said, the spell would have been broken.

St. John had slept well that night and for the first time since he could remember, he had woken up actually looking forward to his birthday. It was 5:46 a.m. now, and he began wondering just when those mystical birthday cards would appear under the door. He wondered just how many he would get, if each of The Powers That Be would give him one or if it would be a group card. He wondered if each of his friends would give him one or if that would be a group card as well.

No. He knew that each of his friends would give him a card because Bobby and Lee-Lee had been fighting over him and probably couldn't agree on the type of card to give him. Pete would probably design his own because that's what their artist did for everyone's birthday. Maybe he would also do one for the group because he sometimes did that as well. Kitty's card would probably be on the mushy side, because she was very good at mushy things. Lee-Lee's would be half mushy and half obnoxious. No matter what the Mansion populace believed, they weren't dating although neither had actively tried to squelch the rumors, because the illusion sheltered them from the more vicious whispers.

As for Bobby... God only knew what his roommate would come up with.

There was a sound by the door, thesoft yet heavy thump of footsteps outside of the bedroom door. It made perfect sense that Scott would be the one who delivered the cards in the boys' dorm. After all, Bobby had said that no one was stupid enough to spook someone in the morning, and Dr. Grey or Ms. Munroe prowling the hallways at Oh-God-Awful in the morning could definitely qualify as 'spooking'.

St. John watched in utter fascination as nine items were slid between the door and the hardwood floor. He found his emotions shifting to a weird, almost weightlessness. It wasn't like that first time, when his body had decided the shock of realization should involve him puking his guts up and passing out on Scott. It wasn't like last night when he had dissolved into uncontrollable fits of laughter. This time... it was an odd feeling. Sitting up in his bed, nestled in clean sheets and blankets, and staring his birthday cards, St. John thought about all that had happened since he had first arrived at the Mansion and just where he was in his life.

He was sixteen. He was alive and living in a mutant utopia. Things were downright good, odd and uncomfortable sometimes, but that was to be expected considering a) he was a teenaged male, b) he finally had somewhat of a stable home life complete with authority figures who actually had clues about things, and c) he was a mutant living in a Mansion of Mutants. He had a home and he wasn't afraid to call it that now.

He had friends, the real kind that in his old life had always been with other people. He had Kitty. He had Pete. He had his Lee-Lee who had probably argued ferociously on his behalf to ensure that he got what she believed was "what he wanted". He wondered what it had specifically been about because Bobby had been so adamant about being right and as much as St. John cared for Lee-Lee, he knew that Bobby knew his preferences in an almost creepy, obsessive way.

That sandwich on that day St. John had emotionally fallen apart was proof of that. It was proof of Bobby'sdogged pursuit of winning St. John's trust and friendship. No one had ever made that type of effort, not even his Lee-Lee. Then again, Bobby had the advantage of sharing a room with him.

Bobby was the only reason perhaps he hadn't bolted from the Mansion those nights when he had woken up, terrified out of his mind, and desperate for some kind of attention. It was a different type of understanding than he had with Lee-Lee. Bobby had seen him at his barest of bare moments and had never once betrayed him. He was the only reason St. John's knee-jerk reaction to receiving birthday cards was not to burn them just because.

He got out of bed and padded over to the pile of cards.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually received birthday cards.

But that was his old life. That old life didn't matter any more.

This life did.


(***((()))***)

By the end of breakfast the next morning, things between Bobby and Jubilee had been somewhat smoothed out. He had even given her an ice rosette - actually it was more of a ridged lump-ette than anything really recognizable - as part of his apology. She hadn't thrown it at him, which was a good thing because Jubilee knew how to pitch; she was always picked among the first when there was a softball game because of her aim.

However, Jubilee had been the one who made the raisin bread toast and sausage patty sandwich for John because he was late coming down to the Dining Hall. She had been the one who flung her arm around John's shoulders as they had walked to each of their classes. While Bobby tried not to be jealous, he realized that maybe those rumors about John and Jubilee dating were true after all. Maybe "late night walks in the gazebo" really did mean "we make out like mad minks when no one can catch us".

Pete had only said, "Allow her this, Frosty," so he did, although he wasn't sure where the hell all his jealousy was coming from. Well, he did have somewhat of a clue, but he wasn't willing to really explore it all that much.

Bobby had left John alone to deal with the birthday cards this morning, and John hadn't come down the stairs looking as if he had been crying or anything. He just acted like his normal, as if it wasn't his sixteenth birthday or anything; Bobby found himself not only envying Jubilee for being the main occupier of John's personal time and space, but also John for his ability to act like things were just the same as they always were.

He wondered if his roommate liked his cards.

After lunch, Kitty pulled him aside and asked, "Candle or no candle?" and he wondered if she had asked Jubilee first.

"He's been making his flaming chicken and lighting the tips of cattails for the past week," Bobby replied and tried like hell not to scowl when Jubilee playfully kissed John on the cheek as they went into Jean's classroom. "I thought he was just showing off, but now it kinda makes sense."

"You think he'll create the chicken to light the candle?"

"Yeah. But you'd better call it a phoenix or he'll get twitchy."

She laughed a little. "Wow. That will be so neat. I hope he does it," she said almost wistfully and then she turned serious again. "What about when we give him the gift? Jubes said we should just put in on his bed after dinner and leave him alone, like you did this morning with the cards."

He kicked at the floor. He wanted to be there to see the expression on John's face when his roommate opened the present. Whether it was pleasure (which he hoped for) or anger (which he doubted), he wanted to be there. However, the whole thing had been about what John had wanted to do, not what they had wanted to do for him. He sighed. "She's right."

She touched his sleeve. "Oh, Bobby, I know you're trying so hard on this. So is Jubes. We're supposed to help each other, right? She just wants him to be as happy as you do."

"I know, Kat," he told her earnestly. "It's just that it feels like this whole thing is a test. And if we screw this up, then he's gonna do something stupid... like leave or something."

"He's not going to leave, Bobby," she whispered to him. "Not over something like this. Sure, he's testing us and I know how much you hate tests, but... well... if we mess up, he's not going too angry. I mean, if we got it perfect, Piotr says that it might really upset him because... well... we know too much. John is pretty secretive about stuff, you know."

"Yeah. I know." He braced his forearm against the paneling. "Just call me 'Annie Wilkes' and be done with it."

"Who?"

"The woman from Misery? It was a movie based on a Stephen King novel," he explained because he knew that she wouldn't get the reference. "Kathy Bates played her. She was that obsessed fan who kidnapped her favorite author... uh... well... Jeez. Sorry. Ah. Well. .... "

"I don't want to know about it, do I?" She winced as she looked up at him.

"Uh. No. Not really. Bad reference on my part. Not that I would do any of that stuff...."

"Of course not, Bobby." Kitty playfully swatted at him. "He's your roommate."

"Yeah. And I never had one before so this is... well... a big deal."

"I know." She smiled at him. "When Jubes' birthday comes around, I'll probably be fighting with John over what she wants."

"Nah, he won't argue with you." He met her shy gaze. "He won't. He'll send me or Pete to tell you that you're wrong but no, he's not gonna fight you outright."

"You really do know him, don't you?"

"The Professor said the best way to understand someone is to observe."

"He said the same thing to me about Jubilee," she confessed and then met his surprised stare with an embarrassed one of her own. "The Professor... he really likes them. So do Jean and Ro and Scott, but I think... I think they know they won't stay unless, well, we make the effort."

"It's why I can't screw this up, Kat."

"I swear, Bobby, you won't," she told him. "Scott said the Zippo was okay, right? And Scott would have made sure with the Professor that it was okay. You know that. So the gift thing has to be okay and everything, else they would have said something."

"I know."

"Then, please, just let the rest of it be. No matter if it's right or wrong, John will understand. You did say he was testing us, right?"

"Yeah. It feels that way."

"Then if we get it one-hundred percent right, he's going to think... well, I don't know what he'll think but he'll probably be weirded out," she explained. "And that's not what we want, right? So, well... tonight, we'll just play it by ear."

He thought about it for a few seconds and then nodded. "You're the best, Kat."

"So are you, Bobby." She favored him with a shy grin. "So when Jubes' birthday comes around, you're going to help me out, right? Although I don't think I'll be exploding anything in the kitchen."

He grinned at her tease. "Doubtful. He still doesn't like going into the kitchen. I'm really sorry about that, you know."

"And I'm sorry for going all Big Sister on you, although Piotr did say it made John laugh."

"Howl hysterically is better description," he corrected. "I've never seen him laugh like that so... well... it was a good thing. Embarrassing as heck but... well... you know."

"I know." Then she poked him. "Oh, you'd better stop scowling though. Everyone will think that you have a crush on Jubilee."

"I do not. If anything, she has a crush on me. Why else would she always steal my sunglasses?"

"Because you let her, silly. C'mon, we're going to be late for class."

*****((()))*****

The box itself was relatively small, about the same size of a wallet. It was wrapped in burnt orange iridescent paper, which St. John knew had to be expensive just from the color alone. The mound of curled ribbons on top featured five distinct colors - navy, dark gold, scarlet, silver and black - and he immediately knew the meaning. After all, Kitty and Pete were the Queen and King of Symbolism. Five colors. Five friends. He just wondered why Kitty had chosen to represent herself as black instead of purple because purple seemed to suit her better.

St. John edged closer to his bed. The fact that the others weren't even there for him to open the gift with was unnerving; especially given the thought they had taken in wrapping the damned thing. He found himself staring at the box, unwilling to pick it up. Whatever it was, they weren't sure how he was going to take it and had left him alone so as not to embarrass him or whatever.

He sat on the edge of his bed, pulled his knees to his chest, and simply stared at the orange box. It was totally stupid, totally lame, to be so freaked out over something as simple as a birthday gift. Then again, he had a massive meltdown over green ink but managed to hold it together over birthday cards.

Theoretically, he had no reason to be upset. St. John had a home that he had chosen, one where he didn't have to thank God, praise Jesus, or necessarily been the Good Kid in order to have a hot meal, clean clothes that fit, and a bed to himself unless Bobby crawled into it to ward off the after-effects of a nightmare. The Powers That Be allowed him to be himself and allowed him to mature and adjust at his own pace.

He had family in the odd sense of family that was probably unique only to mutants. The other kids didn't have to give a rat's ass about him, but they did. Guthrie didn't have to share his comics, but he lent Robin, all four Batman titles, and Green Arrow to St. John. Sharra didn't always have to pick him second or third for the football and soccer games, but he always did. Dani certainly didn't have to put up with him, but she did; he respected the hell out of her and she knew it and it wasn't because of her mutant ability. She was like Jubilee in that she understood how things operated in the real world.

He had friends. Peers who put up with his shit and he put up with theirs, all without question and all without judgment. Piotr... Kitty... He had a best friend, Lee-Lee.

He had Bobby.

It was why tears suddenly burned his eyes. St. John had done a lot alone in his life, some by choice and most by necessity. No matter what his friends had chosen to give him, he knew that he didn't want to open the gift alone.

For once in his life, he didn't have to.

He thought about the cards -- one from each of his friends, one from each of The Powers That Be, and two 'group' cards -- and how they had made him feel. Admittedly, he had been expecting generic birthday wishes, but the messages had been very specific and very... well... him, which was proof positive that not only did his friends know him, but The Powers That Be had a clue about him as well. They weren't especially mushy either, although Kitty and Lee-Lee had the right solely by gender.

St. John's attention was drawn back to the box on his pillow, his second gift of his birthday; the first had been from The Powers That Be. Now, whatever it was that his friends had given him....

He knew they hadn't left him alone out of cruelty; his friends were so fucking hyper-aware of moods and sensitivities that it was goddamned creepy in a way. It made him wonder if they all didn't have some latent telepathic ability because they were always adjusting and adapting to each other.

Yet, this whole thing was something bigger. This was a birthday and from what little about his pre-Mansion life that he had disclosed to Lee-Lee and Bobby, both knew it had the potential to be a really big fucking deal for him. What was he supposed to say? It was the first gift his friends had ever given him? Gifts from adults, while very rare, were one thing. Gifts from St. John's peers bordered on something else entirely.

He recalled what Scott had said to him: "They'll try their best. It just takes time and some patience." He remembered what Bobby had said as well: "I thought you were okay with the whole Cold thing." Hyperawareness of certain things also lead to certain assumptions. The reason they had left him alone to open the gift was because it was what had worked in the past. It was what Bobby had done that morning, after the alarm had gone off, so that St. John could read the birthday cards in private.

They were probably waiting in Pete's room, which was only two doors down. He wondered just how cold it was, because Bobby was still working on the control thing. He wondered what kind of lightshow they were getting because no matter how much she denied it, his Lee-Lee had a bit of a control problem as well. Pete was probably doing his damnedest not to metal up around a nervous Jubilee; he briefly wondered if her plasma sparks were strong enough to weld Pete's organic metal together and that would be a complete bitch because Pete maybe wouldn't be able to shift back and damn! was his dick metal as well?

Poor Kitty was probably watching the whole scene unfold and completely unsure of just how to react.

St. John wanted them to be there with him. He needed them to be there with him. He was tired of being alone, so fucking tired of it that it no longer scared him as much as it used to. He was sure that all he had to do was open the door and maybe just appear in the hallway. Kitty would have probably been put in charge of occasionally ghosting through the door and checking so no one would hear it open and shut and wonder what the hell they were doing.

Maybe, just maybe Bobby would come charging him, using the 'right of roommate' excuse to check on him. St. John felt the tear slip down his cheek.

He didn't know how to do this. Didn't know how to do it at all.

"Shit, man," he heard Bobby mutter as the sound of the door opening, closing, and locking in what seemed like one swift motion hit his senses. Then he heard the chair being slid underneath it. His roommate was foolishly na´ve about privacy sometimes, as if a lock could stop Jubilee (who could pick it in seconds), a door could stop Kitty (who could ghost through it), or a door with a chair propped underneath it could stop Pete (who could easily bench press 300 pounds and therefore break through said door). Maybe it was the whole ritual was more of a reassurance than anything else. He felt Bobby carefully sit on the edge of the bed.

And of course, on cue, his body betrayed him just like it always seemed to do now when he had to deal with a huge emotional situation. He fucking sniffled in front of Bobby.

Bobby rushed the apology of, "We didn't know what to do, okay? We're trying. I know it sounds lame and everything but...."

"Just shut the fuck up, Bobby," he snapped without harshness and motherfucking hell if he didn't hiccup out a sob. He then felt the brush of cotton next to his hand. Only Bobby would actually have a cloth hankie on hand. He grabbed it, wiped his eyes, blew his nose, and knew he didn't have to make the threat if Bobby dared to mention this how he would retaliate.

"Shit..." Bobby blurted out again and St. John knew the mental litany that was going through Bobby's head now: his roommate believed that they had totally screwed up on this.

Despite the emotional turmoil he was in, he knew that it was his responsibility to save the situation. His friends had tried. Fuck, they tried so fucking hard that it had made him shed tears for fuck's sake. They had sacrificed Bobby front and center for this, and while he understood why they had done it (calculating bitches, all of them, even Pete in this case), he knew that Bobby would shoulder the entire blame for the whole birthday thing not going right.

After all, that had to be what Jubilee and Bobby had fought about. Why else had Bobby told Piotr last night that they knew that he was right? They had fought viciously enough to make Kitty lose her temper and Piotr to go into parent mode. And Bobby was so dead set on making the birthday thing perfect, John was sure, that the slightest slip up with constitute as a phenomenal failure. "Near-obsessive awareness of his feelings" was what John had labeled it earlier. No one had ever made such an effort on his behalf.

Ever.

So, St. John jutted his chin towards the gift and asked, "This from all of you?"

"Yeah. Well... I... uh... We... um... shit."

He almost smiled, because his corruption of Bobby's language was getting better with each week, although he'd have to coax a new curse word out of him now, because 'shit' was definitely getting old. Instead, he leaned back slightly and closed his eyes when he felt Bobby's hand steadying his shoulder. A hug would have been nicer but he took what friendly physical affection he could get without complaining. "They all down in Pete's room?"

"Yeah."

He took a deep breath, because this was difficult for him, asking for things and such. Slowly, he said, "I don't want to do this alone," with a subtle yet deliberate emphasis on the word 'want.'

Bobby squeezed his shoulder once and then retreated. In the moments that it took Bobby to get the door open and make whatever signal down the hall, St. John moved to sit with his back against the headboard and the gift in his lap, willing his hands not to tremble too badly.

He glanced up to watch as Pete ushered the girls in and closed the door behind him. Bobby and Jubilee were on either side of Kitty, who was holding a plate with an unfrosted chocolate cake on it, complete with an unlit candle. Well, that certainly explained the powdered sugar covered Bobby. He wondered which point his roommate had argued.

Pete was behind the trio. St. John knew it wasn't a conventional gift just by the room temp and the fact that Bobby's eyes had that bugged out expression St. John supposed that he had whenever Jubilee forgot that her power exited through her hands and she unintentionally sparked him.

He peeled off paper and slowly lifted the lid. The glint of silver was the first thing that caught his attention, and then as he lifted the box top, he saw the shine and the gleam and he felt the rush as he realized just what they were giving him.

A Zippo.

Such a minor thing, but for a kid with such a transient life, it meant the world. Up until that fateful day in which a guy with red shades had sat next to him on that bench and a hottie with red hair had offered him a sandwich, St. John Allerdyce had fully believed he was a piece of shit just waiting to be flushed. Up until that day in which a guy with red shades had caught him by the shoulders as he had fallen, had spoken those soothing words as he had puked, and had shepherded him through those awful hours of hell, St. John Allerdyce had fully believed that he was a piece of shit that they had just forgotten to flush.

Now... Earlier with Xavier and the other Powers That Be... This evening....

Bobby. Lee-Lee. Kat. Pete.

A Zippo... well, hell....

He was worth something. Why else would Xavier had had all that shit drawn up so that he could legally obtain his driver's license? It wasn't just so The Powers That Be could have another errand boy; it was because these people were practical and knew that he would be driving anyway, so they had figured out a way for him. Xavier had put off the whole guardianship thing until he was ready to accept it, but it was still his choice on what he wanted to do.

He wasn't disposable, not to these people. Zippos required maintenance, and that was exactly what his friends and The Powers That Be did for him constantly. Even in those darkest moments, when he was so goddamned scared and falling apart, they never once had abandoned him. He wasn't thrown away. They weren't going to pass him off when it was convenient.

Pete, Bobby and Kitty didn't have to take him in just because Jubilee forced his company upon them that second day at the Mansion. They didn't have to make the effort to be his friend but they did constantly. They adapted to him. He adapted to them. They protected him. He protected them. They maintained each other. It sounded stupid, perhaps, but it was the truth. St. John Allerdyce had never been in one place long enough for that kind of thing to matter.

A Zippo. Permanent, not disposable. Valuable, not cheap.

"Thanks," he breathed out, staring at the metal and instinctively knowing that Bobby must have picked it out because, well, it was silver, and Bobby had a penchant for silver things. He pried it out of the box, flipped back the lid, and rolled the wheel.

Click! Click! Click! Damn, it was trickier than a Bic. No cheap, instant flame. Click... Fwoosh! And the rush flowing through his body was unlike anything he'd really felt before. It was a low thrum, on the edge of arousal because it was constant and low and so fucking tangible....

No Powers in the Mansion, his mind dutifully informed him, but the accent wasn't British and the voice wasn't female, so he knew it was his own conscious reminding him. He could tell they were waiting for him to do something. Maybe Bobby had described his precision lighting of the cattails along the lake shoreline.

He looked at the cake that Kitty was holding. No frills. No frosting. Good, because he hated frosting but how could they have known that? Oh right. These people watched what he ate. He didn't make the connection until now that dinner had a Thai theme. He remembered the odd debate he'd had with Jubilee two months ago during Iron Chef, when he had told her that Cantonese cuisine was just fine and dandy, but Thai food didn't taste, well, so damned generic.

The Sharra Tradition, he realized. He glanced up at Pete, because he knew he'd get a straight answer without a change in the room temp. "What's tonight's movie?"

"Classic Gojira," Pete offered a genuine smile. "There is only one Godzilla and it is in black and white."

The Guthrie Tradition, he thought and he wondered just how the hell they had pulled that one off because, well, B-movie Japanese monster flicks was not something tossed in the hat for the weekend movie.

"Scott has all the Godzilla movies on tape," Bobby explained with a shrug, "and Jean's making the popcorn." St. John knew the Mansion populace would agree to watch C-SPAN for two hours if it meant that Jean Grey would make popcorn. She hated the microwave kind, preferring the stovetop method, yet how she made it was a Mansion mystery. Dr. Grey's popcorn was this side of divine for the melt-in-the-mouth, sheer buttery flavor of it all. The first time St. John had tasted it, he had stared at her for a good two minutes wondering how the fuck one woman could make popcorn taste that damned good.

He heard Kitty squeak and realized that he had a ball of fire at his command (first time he'd ever forgotten that... must have been because the thrum had been so constant) and a candle on his birthday cake to light. Bobby and Jubilee had moved away, leaving him a wide berth for which to manipulate his flames.

"I'll never hurt you." St. John knew he sounded like a moron as he wondered where the hell his 'self-edit' mode had gone. Maybe Bobby had borrowed it for the evening. Bastard.

"We know," and that comment came from Bobby not Kitty, but the others nodded accordingly.

He shaped the flame into a phoenix and carefully, oh so carefully, maneuvered it until the claw of his fiery bird touched the wick of the candle just long enough for it to be lit. There was a collective 'ooh' from his friends and he tried his best not to grin like an idiot because he was damn fucking proud of his control.

"Happy birthday," his friends said in hushed unison, which erased his cockiness almost immediately.

He drew the flame back into himself and snapped the lid shut. He then deliberately met Pete's gaze, then Jubilee's, then Kitty's, and finally Bobby's. Ever so quietly, he told them, "Thank you," because, well... shit... they had 'gone above and beyond the call of duty' when it came to friendship. "For everything."

Pete's smile was wide, a little stiff probably because Lee-Lee had grabbed his hand, but it was still genuine. Jubilee had the same, near-triumphant smirk she always had, but she was proud of him and happy for him all the same. Kitty... damn... she was blushing and smiling and doing all those girl things that made boys pay rapt attention. And his Bobby... and where the hell had that particular qualifier come from? Bobby, My Roommate With Lots of Issues, he mentally corrected, Who Gets Your Pathetic Ass Through Shitty Nightmares was added in. There was that slow wink, as if to say 'I've got your back, man,' and he knew that Bobby did because, well, that was Bobby.

Fucking hell, his roommate actually, truly understood him. Strength in numbers, camaraderie among gender; brother because he was a mutant, potential lover because, well...John did like boys, after all.

"Always," Bobby said.

Jubilee then grinned mischievously. "Wanna go try it out?"

Practicing powers on his birthday. Well, that certainly held promise. held promise. And John's birthday had definitely lived up to its promise. Even if he was woken up tonight by a nightmare, the possibility of having Bobby in his bed again could make up for a lot.

"He has to make a wish first," Kitty whispered and she stepped forward with the cake and the still burning candle.

St. John smirked. He couldn't help it. He stood up, sauntered over, playfully winked at Kitty, and then blew out the candle.

He didn't have to wish for anything. He already had what he wanted.

Hugs and Kisses to....

mitchpell for insightful comments on Version 1. Your dead-on comments addressed precisely what was wrong with the story. To laniew1for perspective on Version 2. Despite my whining about 'why' it should be, ultimately the points that you brought up were valid. You both were absolutely, 100% correct. To mikhale, for enduring all three versions, for the direction to get the story back on track, and for the push on those 'possible scenes' that I wouldn't trade now for the world. To taral, for a fantastic and thorough beta read of the final version. Any mistakes that are left are mine.

Finally, to runefallstar, red_cactus, tol_morwen, and the 'non-journaling X fan' for comment regarding the John/Kitty approach (version 2). For all my rambling justifications on why I should take that arc, in the end, it just didn't work out the way I wanted it too.



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