A Diamond in the Rough

BY : DrunkenScotsman
Category: X-Men - Animated Series (all) > General
Dragon prints: 663
Disclaimer: I do not own X-Men, nor the characters from it. I do not make any money from the writing of this story.

A/N: Greetings, readers! Fear not - I haven't abandoned "A Full Life"; I just needed a change of pace from that story and its "tooth-rotting fluff" (to borrow a phrase from AO3). I plan to alternate between the two stories moving forward.

I've had the idea for this story bouncing around for awhile now (years, in fact). I decided to go ahead and start on it, since I'm in a headspace where I feel up to the challenge of what this story is going to be about. If you're a fan of my other works, be warned - this is probably going to go into some dark places, significantly darker than anything I've written. I've picked the Adult++ rating for safety, and the Other warning has been applied to for its stated purpose (covering anything the other warnings don't), but also preserve surprises; I'll add different warnings to specific chapters as needed.

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Chapter 1: White Moves First

 

Eighteen-year-old Emma Grace Frost strode down the hall, gliding through the crush of students scrambling to their classrooms on the first day of the fall term, barely dodging the occasional oblivious fool. At her old school, people would have stepped aside for her, knowing exactly who she was; but here, at Bernhardt College, a prestigious women’s college in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Frost family name didn’t carry quite as much weight. Thus, allowances must be made.

She refused the temptation to double-check her class schedule to ensure she had found the correct classroom. She wanted – needed – to get it right on the first try, and to be seen knowing what she was doing. Of course I know what I’m doing. I’m a Frost, and Frosts don’t make mistakes, she reminded herself.

As she slipped through openings between clusters of students, the young woman scanned each door for the number she sought for Psychology 101. Fortunately for her, at five-foot-ten (before heels), she stood a head taller than most of her peers Here and there on the walls, she noted posters from Yale, which advertised various dual-enrollment and “academic partnership” opportunities.

Around the crush of young women navigating the corridor, the Owens Building struck Emma as aggressively bland. From the neutral tones on the tiles to the ceiling’s beige paint job, everything read as “nondescript college building” as possible. Compared to the prep school she’d recently graduated – Snow Valley School for Girls, with its brick-and-ivy exterior, Hellenistic columns, and navy-blue carpeting – this building felt practically antiseptic.

Emma’s eyes alighted on the desired room number. Finally, she thought to herself as she threaded her way past one last clump of young women milling about the entrance of the lecture hall, which looked as though it could seat at least fifty students in its three semicircular rows. She’d arrived with a few minutes to spare, but not as early as she’d hoped – no front-row seats remained, so she had to settle for a seat at the end of the second row.

Emma hated being second. Father’s mantra, “A Frost who isn’t first is no Frost at all,” had served as the lodestar of her life for as long as she could remember. Mere excellence was unacceptable; only perfection was permitted. Even something as banal as having been born second felt, at times, like an intolerable insult to her, even if she and her older brother Christian had remained close while growing up.

An ugly thought bubbled to the surface: Not close enough to keep him from abandoning me. Christian had gone away to college a few years ago, somewhere on the West Coast. He hadn’t told Emma, and their parents refused to discuss it.

Emma fought not to frown. Frowning, as Mother often reminded her, would lead to unsightly wrinkles. Mother also pushed for perfection, in her own shallow way: “A woman without her beauty is nothing,” she frequently insisted.

Emma smoothed her navy pencil skirt and seethed inwardly. She hated Mother – Hazel Frost, former beauty queen and model, now trophy wife and stage mom par excellence – for her vanity and vapidity. On the other hand, she respected Father – Winston Frost, heir to one of the oldest fortunes in Massachusetts and CEO of Frost Enterprises, a sprawling megacorporation with a subsidiary in practically every business sector in existence – for his acumen and drive.

Emma knew she shared that same drive and acumen with Father. Mother was too shallow to see it; or maybe she saw it and resented Emma for it. Emma didn’t know and didn’t care.

Emma fought the urge to grind her teeth, as that would also lead to those dreaded “unsightly wrinkles” – or worse, damage her now-perfect teeth. She’d finally gotten her braces off this past summer, after graduation, after four long years of the damned things. She’d sworn to herself that, upon ascending to her destined place within Frost Enterprises, she would invest in developing more humane methods of orthodontia.

It had always irritated Emma how much Mother had complained about the costs of braces and headgear and adjustments. The Frost estate had one of the longest lineages in New England, predating the Revolution, on par with the Xaviers of New York in both longevity and value. Besides, Frost Enterprises stood as a pillar of the business and finance world, with hands in practically every industry imaginable. Only StarkTech and Worthington Industries – both Johnnies-come-lately by comparison, with Worthington founded at the turn of the twentieth century and Stark in the 1950’s – could rival her family’s company, and even then only within their specific (much more limited) portfolios.

Mother never needed braces, nor did Christian, Emma reminded herself. Only perfection is permitted from a Frost. 

Unbidden, her thoughts drifted to a half-forgotten memory: bringing home her report card in first grade. She had a B in Social Studies after struggling to spell all the French names in the Revolution unit. Father had spanked her himself, with his belt.

When she had dared ask why, he’d replied in cool disregard for her tears: “Imperfection is weakness. Any weakness, any flaw, will be exploited, to the shame of the Frost family. I will not tolerate having shame on my name, Emma. That is both warning and promise.”

After that, Emma had made damned sure she never earned less than an A – not in a class, not on a test, not on even the most minor piece of homework. Even stricken with the flu, or migraines, or horrendous cramps, she’d never missed class to ensure she never missed any information that might appear on a test or quiz. Incidentally, in the process, she’d earned the Perfect Attendance award every year.

Graduating as valedictorian had never been in question or in doubt. Even without the weight of her family’s name and fortune, her flawless grades ensured her admission to any institution of her choice. Something about Bernhardt’s campus had appealed to Emma, to say nothing of its prestigious list of alumnae. She remembered a brief flicker of surprise in Father’s eyes when she’d suggested it as an option, but her happiness that he’d agreed overrode her curiosity.

Christian had tried to coast purely on name and fortune and reputation, never really applying himself to much of anything, as far as Emma could recall. After Christian left, Father hadn’t told Emma the details, but he made clear that the position of heir apparent within the Frost family now belonged to her. She’d taken the lesson to heart.

The passage of a presence on her left, headed towards the front of the classroom, pulled Emma from that particular train of thought. A brunette clad in a smart hunter-green pantsuit took her place behind the lectern. Emma sat up a little straighter, masking her shock at the visible streaks of gray in the woman’s hair, especially in the bun.

Mother would never dream of appearing in public with visible gray in her hair.

“Good morning, class. I’m Dr. Breckenridge, and this is Psychology 101.” The professor scanned the room with steely grey eyes. “If you’re in the right place, welcome. If you’re in the wrong place, get the hell out of here.”

Emma’s eyes narrowed fractionally. The teachers at Snow Valley would never have sworn in front of students. How unprofessional.

A nervous chuckle rippled across the room from the other students as a few in Emma’s peripheral vision stood to leave. Emma noted the professor’s thin smile, clad in a striking, mature shade of maroon – nothing like Mother’s too-girlish palette of bubblegum-pinks. “Never fails; someone didn’t read her schedule,” the professor remarked, eliciting a few more chuckles from the class.

Dr. Breckenridge’s gaze swept the class again. This time, unlike before, her eyes didn’t stop two-thirds of the way to the edge. Before Emma could avert her sight, she met the professor’s eyes –

seems like a responsive bunch, nice and loose for the first day, except maybe this uptight blonde in the second row, looks like a real go-getter or grade-grubbing pain in the ass

Emma stopped the intrusion of the professor’s thoughts into her own mind by diverting her eyes fractionally, focusing instead on the older woman’s gold earrings. As the professor began passing out copies of the course syllabus, Emma fought down her anxiety at the unwelcome reminder of who, or what, she truly was, despite any pretense to the contrary.

A mutant.

A freak.

Imperfect.

Emma breathed slowly, mastering herself. No one knows, she reminded herself. Your case of this curse is imperceptible. People assume you avoid eye contact because you’re “stuck-up” or you “have an attitude.” They don’t think you’re reading minds; they just think of it as “good at reading people” or “a lucky guess.”

Emma’s neighbor passed a stapled copy of the course documents, which Emma took without even turning her head. Putting her moment – of inexcusable weakness, she chided herself – behind her, she read over the crucial information: professor contact information and office hours, required texts (already bought), assignment values, course objectives, classroom expectations, late and missing work policies (not that I’ll need those), academic support services information (those either), and academic dishonesty procedures (only the lazy or inept stoop to cheating). Appended to that, another sheet of paper provided the entire semester’s worth of reading assignments and due dates, with a “subject to change” disclaimer.

Emma couldn’t help but admire the efficiency.

Dr. Breckenridge’s voice brought Emma’s attention to the front of the room: “Unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not going to read the whole syllabus to you. I refuse to insult your intelligence and reading comprehension skills like that.”

Chuckles briefly permeated the classroom once again, and the professor continued: “Besides, we’ve got too much to cover for me to spare the time. So, open your Throckmorton and Westinghouse – seventh edition, for anyone who bought one used – to Chapter One.”

A few nervous whispers told Emma that some of her classmates had the wrong textbook, likely a now-outdated sixth edition. A restrained smirk tugged at the corner of Emma’s mouth as she opened her pristine new book to the appropriate page. You get what you pay for, ladies, she snarked. If you can’t afford the textbook, you should’ve gone somewhere befitting your budget. Community college, perhaps?

The professor pulled a sheet from her manila folder. “Before we get into the text, though, I should probably find out who’s actually here. As I call each of your names,” she instructed, “raise your hand. If you’d prefer to be called something else – a nickname or whatever – just say so, and I’ll mark it down.” She smiled again, in a manner that felt to Emma like the professor was in on a joke that nobody else in the room understood. “Identity formation is an important psychological process, covered in Chapter Four.”

Emma dutifully raised her hand when her name occurred, fourth on the roster alphabetically. She hadn’t seen the first three raise their hands, nor heard any corrections. She assumed they were all sitting behind her. Not that anyone else in this room could possibly be as important as I am.

Dr. Breckenridge paused before the next name, catching Emma’s undivided attention. Even I didn’t warrant that, she groused silently. Who could deserve such awed hesitation more?

Dr. Breckenridge looked up from her roster, and Emma followed her gaze. Across the semicircle from her, a classmate with long, straight red hair sat, wearing a long-sleeved lavender shirt, her lower half obscured by the table and other students. Upon receiving the entire room’s attention, the redhead plastered on a thin a smile, one which Emma could identify, even across the room, as purely for show. 

Emma’s eyes narrowed fractionally. She looks vaguely familiar…

“Jean Grey,” the professor pronounced, and palpable excitement pulsed throughout the room.

With the utterance of the name, two memories clicked into place in Emma’s mind.

First: About a year and a half ago, a giant robot had erupted from a secret government laboratory in New York, apparently targeting a group of costumed teenagers. Subsequent news reports labeled them “mutants,” those with random genetic mutations which granted one of any number of superhuman abilities. One outlet labeled this group the “X-Men” since the group consisted of students all attending the Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters, and the name had stuck. Amongst that group had been a redhead with some form of telekinesis.

The federal government had launched a massive investigation into the school and its inhabitants, accusing them of terrorism and putting out warrants for their arrest. Ultimately, they’d managed to exonerate themselves – Emma had never heard the specifics. The “mutant problem” had become quite the hot topic of conversation, of gossip, and of malicious slander at Emma’s old school.

Second: About eight months later, these so-called X-Men had made the news again, this time cooperating with some international peacekeeping force under UN auspices to stop a rampaging mutant named Apocalypse. During the battle, the coverage had been interrupted, so that much of what occurred remained shrouded in mystery. The official story was that solar flares had knocked out all the satellites, but Father had always claimed that that story was a smokescreen. Emma had, naturally, agreed.

In the aftermath, “the mutant problem” became “the mutant question” – a step up, at least – thanks to the X-Men’s heroics. Emma still kept her curse to herself, especially since her abilities had so far proven more of a nuisance than anything. For every nugget of useful information she gleaned from people’s thoughts, there was a hundred times more useless, banal drivel. Of course, simply having such an affliction left Emma unable to relax; for, if Father ever found out, discovery would become disaster.

Returning her focus to the present, Emma eyed the redhead across the room. She’d never met another mutant before – as far as she knew, anyway. The thought of being in class with someone who shared her affliction filled Emma with a swirl of strange emotions.

Envy presented itself first.

Envy of the redhead’s fame, having had her face and name all over the national news, hailing her as a hero for her part in thwarting that mad mutant.

Envy at her obvious power, having survived such challenges – before the coverage interruption, Emma remembered watching Apocalypse annihilate tanks with a flick of his wrist.

Envy at the ability to live openly as a mutant, instead of hiding it.

Emma’s eyes narrowed. Quiet fury rose to supplant, or supplement, envy. It’s only the first day of classes, she seethed, but her mere presence has rendered me the second-most important person on campus.

Beneath that, though, an undercurrent of curiosity undermined those other emotions. After all, she reasoned, I don’t know any other mutants, and I’d rather know just what my rival is capable of: Can she, like that madman Magneto, only move metal? What are the limits of her abilities – how far, how heavy, how many? One of the news reports showed her flying – how fast can she go?

Despite herself, Emma felt a thrill of excitement surge through her. She wanted this Jean Grey to look towards her; for the first time since her curse had manifested, she wanted to make eye contact. Look this way, she silently, futilely demanded, and show me who you truly are.

The redhead turned slightly, her brow furrowing. Emma swallowed in anticipation.

The two mutants’ eyes met across the room. Emma’s mind reached out…

From all around the redhead, an inferno leapt forth, unlike anything Emma had ever seen. The flames swirled and formed themselves into a gigantic shape, like a giant raptor, wings outstretched. Soon, the bird burned too bright for Emma to bear, so hot she could feel the blaze licking around her, burning their way into her brain.

The young telepath’s vision whited out.

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