X-Men fan fiction
part 1: Gifted Students
Chapter 1: Homecoming
Chapter 2: Recharge
Chapter 3: Regenerate
Chapter4: Xavier's Decision
Chapter 5: X-Men in Training
Chapter6: Mission Fatigue
Chapter 7: New and Improved
Chapter 8: Fear Itself
Chapter 9: Through the Glass
Chapter 10: Mourning Glories
Chapter 11: Ghost Stories
Chapter 12: The Devil and Despair
Chapter 13: Spuytin Dyvil Falls
Chapter 14: Evil Spirits
Chapter 15: Heart Stone
Chapter 16: The Rubble O'r Our Sins
Chapter 17: Shadow Boxing
Chapter 18: House Rules
part 1: Gifted Students
Warren Worthington III was perched on a rooftop corner overlooking the Xavier Institute grounds like an overgrown gargoyle, an angel not yet turned to stone by the early morning sunlight. As dawn broke he felt like he was standing at the edge of a precipice, unable to tell where his next leap was going to carry him. He had been thinking often recently of that day, three years ago, when the course of his life had changed.
“So, I’ll have to hide my wings.”
“From the rest of the world – until society is ready to see us for what we are, without fear – yes. I am afraid so,” Xavier had told him. “Shall I tell Agent Duncan you’ll be staying?”
“Do you really have to ask? Can’t you read my mind?”
A smile had crossed Xavier’s face. “I could, but I won’t.”
Warren had given an answering nod. He hadn’t been completely decided on whether or not he trusted Charles Xavier, but he would gladly see the back of Fred Duncan. A short time later he was walking along at Xavier’s side, off to meet another mutant whom Xavier had newly recruited.
The elevator door closed behind Warren, encircling him and Xavier in a round metal canister. Then they started dropping. For a split second Warren got a cold chill up his spine, and fear raised the hackles on the back of his neck. He couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been deceived by Xavier and was now headed toward one of the very shady experimental facilities he and Xavier had just spoken of, some shiny metal dungeon for mutants. But Xavier had taken them down to the basement, where the elevator door opened uneventfully to reveal only more metal walls and floors.
Warren’s wings rustled in an expression of discomfort as he stepped off the elevator. He disliked enclosed places; they made him feel too much like a bird in a cage.
“Allow me to introduce you to my new head of research.”
“The Avenging Angel.” Another man had come forward to meet them. “How unexpectedly intriguing to make your acquaintance,” he exclaimed, smiling happily. The man was dressed in a white lab coat, but aside from that he was about the furthest thing from a mad scientist that Warren could imagine. Padding barefoot on the metal floor, large strides carried by equally large feet, and a hand that nearly swallowed his whole when Warren reached to shake it. It seemed everything about the man was pleasantly oversized, including his cheerful demeanor.
“Warren Worthington III, I’d like you meet Henry McCoy.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Henry.”
“Please, call me Hank.”
“Hank has quite a talent for research into mutant genetics. He has also consented to serve as our school doctor and to teach students, when the time comes.”
“I’d call it more of a special interest,” Hank conceded, speaking about his research. “Fascinating topic, mutation. To be perfectly frank, when Charles told me we were expecting a visitor from Worthington Industries, I was hoping for one of those new Worthington Industries Research Endowments.”
Warren laughed at his directness, and responded in kind. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Warren had been on the ropes from the moment he’d arrived at the Institute: indecision at the prospect of giving up his vigilante ways, uncertainty at the thought of returning to a lifestyle where he’d have to hide his wings again. But Xavier’s argument about pursuing change had begun to slowly win him over. “It was very hard to change the world, as it was, in the present,” Xavier had persisted, “but with focused effort and hard work toward a worthwhile goal, they could change the future.” Warren had come to believe in that philosophy, and Xavier’s reassurance that he would not read Warren’s mind had tipped the scales.
He didn’t know why. Warren assumed Xavier could read him like a book if he chose to do so, and Warren would be none the wiser either way. But he believed Xavier, trusted him to do what he said he would do, and nothing more. The same was true for Hank.
Hank was jovial and earnest, with a passion for learning and an obvious vested interest in helping mutants. Warren also couldn’t deny seeing Hank as somewhat of a kindred spirit. Like himself, Hank’s mutation was partly a visible one. Both men understood what it meant to be rejected from society, forced to keep parts of your life and yourself hidden in the shadows in order to fit in, in order to survive.
Hank could do any damn thing he wanted with Warren’s blood and Warren would be none the wiser, but Warren trusted Hank to do what he said he would do, and nothing more.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” he must have asked Hank half a dozen times yesterday.
“Positive, my friend,” Hank had insisted each and every time. “I wouldn’t risk it otherwise.”
Those words were running on a loop through Warren’s mind today: “I wouldn’t risk it otherwise.” But it was a risk, and not just to Scott. What was safe today could easily become dangerous tomorrow. Warren feared there could be very costly and far-reaching unforeseen consequences in the wake of what they had accomplished here today.
Ororo accompanied Jean downstairs to the infirmary early on Thursday morning. She couldn’t help smiling at the new bounce in Jean’s step: a combination of nervous excitement and happiness. Both young women had spent all of yesterday here with Scott (as had Hank, Professor Xavier, and Warren), but today’s atmosphere of relief was worlds apart from yesterday’s atmosphere of tension and worry. Hank had administered the regenerative serum to Scott early Wednesday morning. Then Hank and Jean had spent most of the day watching Scott for any adverse reaction.
Jean had been especially vigilant, watching closely for signs of anaphylactic shock. Hank had reassured them repeatedly that there was a relatively low chance of such a reaction occurring, but he had still gone over the symptoms with Jean so that she could readily recognize them. Of course Scott had also heard the listing of symptoms. After that, he’d been quick to run through the list himself, each time telling her none were present. But he had done so almost playfully. He’d been so glad to finally get to this point that even Jean’s worried hovering hadn’t phased him.
It had been impossible not to respond to that contagious optimism. Ororo felt quite cheerful as the elevator opened onto the second sublevel basement, where she and Jean turned right to walk down the long hall toward the infirmary. Around every turn there were more silver-paneled walls with doors marked only by the Institute’s X insignia. Ororo was especially hopeful that after having spent all day yesterday indoors, Scott would be able to resume his outdoor treatments today.
It had taken a while to become accustomed to the maze-like layout of the huge Xavier Estate. That was especially true of the lower levels (there were three: basement, sub-basement, and sub-sub-basement), where there were no windows and the halls all looked the same. The building itself was even laid out in a X-structure, consisting of the main building flanked by two relatively smaller halls set to each side of the main building. The key word there being relatively: the rectangular east and west wings (each connected to the main building by smaller, square-shaped adjoining halls – thus providing the building’s X shape) were themselves large enough to provide separate boy’s and girl’s dormitories on just one of their upstairs floors.
Before Ororo and Jean reached the infirmary, the consultation room on the right caught their attentions. Scott, Hank, and Professor Xavier were gathered inside, all standing in front of a wide viewing area where Scott’s X-rays were currently displayed. Hank was pointing out the differences between Scott’s initial post-operative radiographs and the ones that were taken earlier today – and the differences were impressive. Even the untrained eye could easily discern the way new bone growth was rapidly filling in the gaps where Scott’s humerus had been surgically realigned.
“To the best of my estimates,” Hank offered, “Scott has experienced several weeks’ to an entire month’s worth of healing in the past twenty-four hours.”
“Incredible,” Xavier breathed. “Truly groundbreaking work, Hank.”
As Ororo and Jean entered the room they also noticed that Hank had removed the bandages from Scott’s upper arm (leaving a support brace in place for his shoulder, and a sling to help immobilize his lower arm). There was only very slight skin discoloration showing under his shirt sleeve: faint scarring, left to betray any evidence of the initial wound or the surgical site. Even that scarring would likely fade from sight given another day of this accelerated healing.
Scott turned to see Ororo and Jean, and quickly registered that Jean was carrying her oversized sunhat.
“So, do I still need to be here?” Scott turned back to question Hank.
Hank grinned, noting the uncharacteristic restlessness in Scott’s normally calm voice, then glanced at his watch. “Time for his bi-daily dose of Vitamin D,” Hank jokingly noted of Jean’s and Ororo’s arrival. They each nodded. “I still want to monitor you closely today. Checkups hourly, Scott,” Hank admonished Scott, who nodded in return. “Otherwise, you’re released on your own reconnaissance.”
Scott nearly bounded for the door, with Jean and Ororo right behind him, just as happy as he was.
“Aside from scheduled outings, keep it indoors,” Hank called as the trio left.
“Got it, Hank,” he heard Jean call back.
Hank smiled at Charles. “Ah, ‘To be young is all there is in the world’ - Wallace Stephens.”
Xavier smiled as well, but his thoughts were suddenly heavy. Young. But far from carefree.
Scott threw open the door, eager to be outside. For the past week he had felt cooped up all the time, inside or outside, but his mood was much improved from earlier in the week. He was healing. He even chose to ignore the arbitrary time limits still placed on his sun exposure. At the rate he was progressing, soon all of these silly restrictions would be a thing of the past. Scott took a deep breath, letting his gaze roam across the massive patio and gardens that expanded outward from the mansion’s back door.
The patio consisted of several decorative pools, all surrounded by lush flowers and greenery, before finally giving way to banks of tall trees on each side and a courtyard in the distance. The calm pools and green canopy created a garden atmosphere which could be enjoyed from benches in the sun or in the shade, but they were still very much in the shadow of the mansion.
Scott led the way down one of the matching sets of stairs that descended from either side of the patio, out onto the grounds. He preferred the rustic paths that wound through several large gardens adjacent to the patio. From there, unless you turned to look directly up at the mansion (which, from this point of view, seemed to rise up from the climbing ivy clinging to its stone walls), it was easy to forget you weren’t actually out in middle of nowhere.
“I take it this accelerated healing doesn’t extend to the recharging of your optic blasts,” Ororo ventured as they walked, remembering Hank’s admonishment as they had left the infirmary.
“Apparently not,” Scott responded, “but it’s hard to know exactly what to expect out of this acclimation process; it’s all new to me too.”
Ororo and Jean exchanged curious looks as they followed Scott out into the sun, curious but no longer worried. Scott obviously felt much better and was acting more like himself as a result. Gone was the arguing and the evasiveness over his condition. Ororo noted that Jean was also acting more like herself. She had backed off considerably, content to give Scott space instead of hovering worriedly. Both she and Ororo were content to walk alongside him and keep him company.
Scott sat down on a bench in the sunshine and Jean sat beside him, slipping on her sunhat as she settled in, giving a measuring glance overhead. The sky was filled with fluffy white clouds that drifted by slowly, but the morning was already pleasantly warm. Ororo chose to sit in the shade facing them, and Scott shrugged thoughtfully as he returned his attention to her question.
“My powers recharging, the energy conversion, it’s not something I’m usually aware of anyway, but this is completely different,” he admitted. “I mean, Hank has talked from time to time about testing it – seeing how much I’m capable of and what my recovery rate is – but until now it was just a curiosity to him. We never got around to finding a way to test it, and I’ve never depleted so much energy on my own before. I’ve never had to use my optic blasts to the extent I did against Winters,” Scott amended.
Jean shuddered at that unwelcome memory, the way they had thrown everything they had at Jack Winters. But, in his mutated form, he had been practically impervious to attack. They could barely even slow him down; he’d just kept coming... until Hank’s invention had finally destroyed him. They hadn’t spoken about the events of that night since it had happened.
“Plus, I was out of the sun completely for three straight days after that,” Scott finished his thought, seemingly unaffected by the unpleasant topic of dangerous, homicidal mutants... but Jean didn’t really buy that. Scott was good at keeping a cool front, but she heard the change in his voice when Scott said the name. She knew Scott was not unaffected by anything involving Jack Winters.
There were a few moments of silence before Ororo asked, “Do you think that Professor Xavier has made his decision?”
Scott and Jean each knew what she was asking. They had all been unconsciously waiting for that decision. Jean swallowed hard. It was Scott who answered.
“I think that he’s already decided. He’s just waiting for the appropriate time to tell us.” Professor Xavier had already made it clear that they would not discuss the matter further until Scott’s injuries were on the mend. “But I don’t know which way he’ll go,” Scott conceded.
Charles Xavier held strongly to his convictions: he believed that they had a responsibility to work toward making this world a place where mutants could safely and openly coexist with the rest of human society. But when Xavier had established this school as a way to further that purpose, he had also chosen to create a place where young mutants could be educated and protected. Unfortunately, Xavier’s two great convictions seemed at odds in this instance, making the decision a difficult and complicated one.
Ororo nodded thoughtfully. She knew that she and Scott were in agreement. They each felt very strongly that using their mutant powers to protect others and to safeguard mutant anonymity was the right thing to do, especially when faced with threats like the one presented by Jack Winters.
“What will you do if the professor’s answer is no?” she asked curiously of Scott.
Scott thought for a moment. “For now, stick to the plan: enroll in college this fall, and keep helping the professor, Hank, and Warren to build up the Institute so that Professor Xavier can recruit more students.” He paused. “Truthfully? I think that even if he folds now, decides this is too risky, too dangerous for us, he’ll have to reconsider it again later.
“Maybe, in a few years,” Scott conceded, “he won’t see us so much as kids who still need protecting, and his decision might be different then. We all know Winters won’t be the only mutant out there willing to use those powers for the wrong reasons. Those kinds of mutants have to be stopped before they can hurt people, before they can endanger us all. Fred Duncan will need help again, or someone else will – help they can’t get from the proper authorities. That leaves us.”
Ororo fell quiet after that. Scott’s thought about them filling a need the proper authorities could not started her thinking about Warren and his past... and noting his absence from the infirmary earlier today. A few minutes later Ororo decided to excuse herself.
“There’s a project in the mansion that I should get back to,” she explained.
“Now?” Scott asked.
Jean glanced at her watch. Only a short allotment of Scott’s time to be spent outdoors had already passed as Ororo drifted back inside, leaving Scott and Jean alone.
Scott was puzzled too. “I thought she’d just started converting those rooms on the third floor into study hall space.”
“She did,” Jean answered. “We’re supposed to be helping– once Hank clears you to work,” she quickly amended.
“That’s strange,” Scott offered, ignoring Jean’s admonition. “She’s volunteering to clean and clear inside instead of being outside? What did I miss?”
Jean shrugged. “I get the feeling there’s more to it than that too, but she’s not telling. Guess we’ll just have to see for ourselves–”
“Once Hank clears me, I know,” Scott finished for her.
Jean laughed, encouraged by Scott’s good spirits. Truthfully, she was beginning to pick up on some not-so-subtle hints, making her suspect that Ororo might be acting on purpose more often than not when she was leaving Scott and Jean alone together. Scott, thankfully, remained blissfully ignorant to that possibility. It was odd though, despite the fact that Scott was usually observant to everything happening around him, he seemed never to read anything more than friendship into interactions between the two of them.
Scott seemed perfectly willing to attribute Jean’s near-constant presence in the infirmary to her interest in his case. She guessed she could understand how he would jump to that conclusion, considering his condition was usually the topic of conversation. It was a safe topic, most of the time. Jean still felt guilty over the role she had played in his injury... but she was certain Scott was going to see through that eventually and realize exactly why this bothered her so much. What she felt for him, it was more than guilt, more than interest, more than friendship. How much more she didn’t really know, and that scared her. This was dangerous new territory for a multitude of reasons.
Scott watched her curiously for a couple of moments before bringing the conversation back to its previous subject.
“So, where do you stand on all this, the professor’s decision?”
Jean looked away, thinking over a response. “I just want to stick to the plan. If I had my choice, I’d keep things as normal as possible: college, med school, volunteering at the Institute. After that...” she trailed off, hoping for more normal things in the even more distant future. Then she looked back to Scott with a sigh. “But I understand that what I want is not entirely realistic, not for me, not anymore. And I understand your and Ororo’s determination to do more than just build normal lives for yourselves, or even for kids at the Institute....” Jean trailed off again.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting what you want,” Scott said softly. “I think there are just, some situations,” he breathed, “where we can’t afford inaction.”
She thought of Winters and nodded in agreement. But Jean also remembered everything that had gone wrong in that mission.
“I know, but I’d be surprised if the professor’s decision really is yes, at least now. After the way everything happened with Winters, I don’t know if we’re ready,” she admitted cautiously.
Unexpectedly, Scott nodded in agreement. “I’ve thought that too. That was why I didn’t want the professor to make his decision right away, not while all that was still fresh and I was injured. We may not be ready, and I wouldn’t blame him for saying so, but that can easily change.” He grinned. “Here we are, less than a week later. I’m healing. You’re not even hovering.”
Jean was grinning back at him. “Glad to hear you no longer find my company so intrusive.”
“No worried glances discreetly monitoring my condition,” Scott kidded her in response. “It’s nice to be treated like a friend again instead of a just a case.”
She raised one eyebrow in warning. “You were never just a case.”
He chuckled agreeably. “It felt that way for a while there.”
“I was really worried about you for a while there,” she countered stubbornly.
Scott smiled. “Fair enough,” he conceded.
Most of the school had already been finished prior to the arrival of its first three students: classrooms and lab spaces dominated the mansion’s second floor, there was also space allotted there for a student’s and a teacher’s lounge (even though neither got much use at the present time). In addition to outdoor fields to support baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, and a swimming pool, there was an indoor pool and gymnasium located in the first subbasement. The basement kitchen and laundry facilities were still being upgraded to accommodate a larger student body, and there were parts of the subbasements that were still being converted into use.
The first floor housed the dining room and a common living area, along with a library, game room, and the professor’s office. The third floor was entirely devoted to living quarters, but they were still in the process of converting the east and west wings into boys’ and girls’ dormitories. Most recently the idea had come up to convert the south end of each dorm into study hall space, a project that Scott, Ororo, and Jean planned to work on this summer.
But that tedious task was definitely not the project Ororo had in mind for this morning. There was nothing about cleaning and clearing rooms (which had stood empty for years, if not decades) that she could possibly look forward to – not enough to give up the chance to enjoy this beautiful morning. Ororo bypassed the study hall rooms that had already been cleared on the third floor and made her way over to a small hatchway of the sort that usually led to an attic.
When she had come upon that hatchway the other day she had assumed that it would lead to an attic, but she did find it strange. Nearly every bit of usable space in the mansion had been converted to somehow accommodate Professor Xavier’s wheelchair; she hadn’t thought there was any place in the mansion that he could not get to. Ororo had pulled the hatch open just to see what was there and she found a huge, open loft that stretched over the newly cleared rooms in the west wing. Only a few small panels of light from overhead skylights currently illuminated the room, but that illumination was enough to show that this space had been used for more than storage.
As she’d walked from one side of the loft to the other, Ororo had found a door (and another hatch) in the south-west corner of the loft. She had investigated the door first, which opened into another loft. There hadn’t been enough light to see much of its interior as she walked underneath sharply sloped ceilings; this loft had the long, narrow, and slightly cramped appearance more typical of attic space. She walked under another hatch before coming to a door on the east end of the attic loft. Again she’d opened the door first, pausing only long enough this time to see that there was indeed another loft here. The design and layout of the east wing rooms were identical to those on the west wing. This loft looked very much like the first room she’d found, except that the interior here looked considerably dustier; it had not been used as recently.
Instead of investigating the east loft further she’d decided to try the hatch. Dim light streamed into a small stairwell as soon as she’d opened the hatch. After climbing a few stairs Ororo had found herself standing in what looked like an empty greenhouse: lots of open space, surrounded by tall, opaque walls which slanted inward from the mansion’s exterior. She’d smiled appreciatively as the mystery deepened; that would explain why all this wasn’t visible from the ground outside. She’d slowly walked the length of the greenhouse, guessing that its multiple segments easily extended across the entire length of the roof spanning the mansion’s east and west wings. She’d ignored the large double doors facing out from the center of the greenhouse; that would be a nice touch, to let in some direct sunlight, but what she’d really wanted was to get a second look at that loft above the west wing now that she knew opening the hatchway would let in more light.
She’d pulled the hatchway open from the outside and climbed down the short stairwell. She wasn’t disappointed. This room looked like it had been lived in – with a garden – she loved that idea! Ororo had never felt able to ask anything more of her living space. After all, the school was quite extravagant, and the professor had been incredibly generous in providing for all of her material needs since she had come here. Then there were so many beautiful gardens, forests, orchards, a lake, and mountains, all part of the Institute’s grounds. It was more beautiful than anything she could dream of, aside from her home.... But at night, especially, she felt the separation from the land she loved, and she missed that connection to nature’s life and beauty just beyond her walls.
A combination of curiosity and wistfulness filled Ororo this morning as she explored the west wing loft and its greenhouse for the second time. Since she found this place, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it– or, more accurately, imagining what it would look like once the west loft and its greenhouse had been converted to their former glory. Finally she came to a pause in front of the large double doors that framed the center portion of the greenhouse. With hardly a second thought, Ororo threw them open, eager to let in the beautiful morning sunshine.
What she hadn’t expected was that the doors opened onto a sizable rooftop expanse. There was room enough out there for a rooftop garden to run the entire length of the greenhouse. Ororo smiled. Just when she was certain she couldn’t be any more surprised by her discoveries, she stepped out onto the rooftop... and saw that she wasn’t alone up here.
Jean watched the sun skirt behind the clouds and was secretly grateful; now they had more time to spend outside and she had less worry of their time together being rudely interrupted by the process of Scott’s acclimation.
“Scott,” Jean said cautiously, “can I ask you something?”
He looked toward her. “Yeah?”
“About Winters,” she clarified, “I was wondering about something that happened that night.”
Jean had a lot of questions about Jack Winters, actually. Most of them she kept to herself because she didn’t want to pry into Scott’s past when he obviously didn’t like talking about it. But she knew there was a lot more to this story.
Scott took a deep breath. “Okay.”
“What happened, with Winters, before we all left the nuclear facility... that wasn’t just about Winters, was it?” she asked.
Scott’s initial reaction to Jack Winters’ appearance on their radar, his reappearance in Scott’s life, had always troubled Jean, and the way Scott had reacted when Winters was destroyed did nothing to set her mind at ease. There had been no emotion in it: not pain, or anger, or even relief. Just grim resolution. From start to finish, she got the feeling that the whole thing was something Scott only wanted to put behind him. Something painful and confusing, so much so that Scott wished he could avoid it altogether. But he had done just the opposite; he’d chosen to confront Winters, insisting that Winters’ plan had to be stopped. Jean had been turning all of those facts over in her mind ever since the night they had faced Jack Winters, and she still felt unable to make sense of it all.
“No,” Scott finally answered her after a long pause, “it wasn’t.”
She saw that same pain and confusion cloud his features, and that made her regret asking. “I’m sorry, Scott. You don’t have to answer.”
“No,” he said again, “it’s alright. It’s just– not easy to explain.”
Jean had been with him for the entire confrontation with Winters. Jack had fought against them all when they had tried to stop him from carrying out his diabolical plan. But once Jack Winters had succeeded in mutating himself into Jack O’Diamonds he had threatened Scott personally, feeling that there was an old score to be settled between the two of them. Scott didn’t doubt that Jack would have made good on those threats, given the chance. Jean had risked herself to stand and fight alongside him at that point. For that reason alone, Scott felt he owed her an explanation... but he also wanted Jean to understand why it had come to that.
“I guess you might call it poetic justice,” he finally decided. “Jack Winters transforms himself into solid diamond only to have his body scavenged by unknowing grave robbers... it was an end worthy of his own ruthless greed.”
Scott felt no pity and no regret over Jack’s fate. Jack Winters had been an unscrupulous, greedy, arrogant, ruthless man. He could be charming or he could be brutal, whichever worked for his purposes at the time. Jack played by his own rules, and he had chosen his own fate. Scott had never set out to try to save Jack Winters from himself, only to stop him from hurting others.
Scott had known Jack well enough to know that Jack would fight them; stopping Jack Winters meant stopping him by force. But Scott had never wanted the man dead. After that, his feelings only became more jumbled. He still felt some measure of affection for Winters, undeserved though it was, confusing and painful. There had been a time when Scott truly believed that Jack had helped him. Scott had always been clear that that help came with a price tag; it was an act of greed not of kindness, but the help had still been real and Scott had been grateful for it.
Jack had used Scott as a helpful tool in his con game, but working with Jack had made survival a little more certain for Scott. For someone who had never had anyone to rely on, gaining a sense of partnership (even if it was an unequal partnership) had created a very real (though not necessarily healthy) sense of coexistence in Scott’s life. Even now, even given the new perspective Scott had gained over the last few years, he still felt the weight of that old connection to Jack Winters.
All of that had been swirling around in Scott’s head when Hank’s harmonic device had succeeded in stopping Jack, in destroying him. And Scott remembered his thoughts very clearly as he had looked on the scene: a room strewn with fine diamond debris. He knew Jean’s question focused on that moment. Scott had imagined what would happen when whoever came to investigate unexpectedly stumbled over a roomful of diamonds, and Scott had found the thought unexpectedly repulsive.
“But I couldn’t leave it at that. First, it was just the right and decent thing to do,” Scott decided. They were a man’s remains, and Scott believed that deserved some inherent measure of dignity, regardless of the man. “But you’re right. It wasn’t just him. It was me, trying to finally lay that chapter in my life to rest, hoping to make amends for the mistakes I made and the things I did wrong back then.”
Scott had run from the scene to protect himself once before, as had Winters, after the Bogarts’ deaths. This time Scott had wanted to be better than that. He had hoped that by taking a moment to lay Winters’ remains to rest, he might somehow gain a little closure from the storm of grief and guilt he still experienced every time he thought of the Bogarts. He took a deep, shuddering breath, failing miserably at keeping his composure. There was no way to explain Jack Winters’ fate without explaining the Bogarts’ fate. And the string that tied the two of them together was Scott.
Warren’s gaze turned toward the sound of glass doors protesting their rusted hinges. The surprise in his expression indicated that he hadn’t gotten here in the same way Ororo had. His wings rustled restlessly as she walked toward him, betraying how he had arrived or perhaps his desire to be gone – she didn’t know which. But she had noticed that nervous habit of his before. Perhaps the sound or the motion was calming to him, reminding him that he was in control over his presence in these surroundings and not the other way around. Ororo watched the morning sunlight filter its thin rays through the clouds and she chose to bypass the obvious question of why Warren was standing out here on the rooftop.
“I thought I knew almost everything about this place, but no one told me about this. It looks like there used to be a rooftop garden, and greenhouses.”
Warren also seemed eager to make idle conversation. “Yes. I believe Xavier’s mother was responsible for the greenhouses. I asked about it once, and I gathered – in not so many words – that after her death the greenhouses went unattended and eventually had been closed. Perhaps it was too painful for the family to revisit it after her loss.”
Ororo nodded in understanding. And she realized that, though the Xavier Estate’s history was a common topic (there was a small parlor just off the main entrance devoted entirely to the story of the mansion’s construction and the family history of the Xaviers), Professor Xavier spoke very little of his immediate family. Now that she racked her memory, Ororo was reminded that Xavier’s father had been a prominent scientist. After his untimely death, Xavier’s mother had remarried and returned to the mansion with her newly extended family. She had died while her son was still in his early teens.
“But someone has used one of the loft rooms more recently,” Ororo prompted curiously.
Warren nodded. “I believe it served briefly as living quarters for one of my predecessors, one of Charles’s early collaborators in the school. That was before my time here, so I can’t be certain.”
Something made Ororo believe he was editing those thoughts, just the same.
“After she left, Charles closed it down again. Actually, I’m surprised you got up here from the inside.”
“I found a flight of stairs that he must have missed,” Ororo admitted with a smile. Warren obviously had glided up. He flexed his wings in an expression of restlessness now. “I’ve never heard tell of her,” Ororo continued, drawing the conversation back to the school’s history.
“I’m sure you’ve heard Charles speak of Moira MacTaggert. She’s an expert in the field of genetic study. She and Charles went to graduate school together at Oxford, they’ve been friends for a long time.”
“And she was one of the founders of the school?”
“For a time. Apparently Charles and the original founders parted ways over the school’s direction. That was why Charles recruited Hank and I. That’s all I know.” He paused for a moment, studying Ororo curiously. “So what’s your interest in all this?”
Ororo sighed. “It started as a project to clear some of the rooms on the third floor so we could convert them to study halls. Then I stumbled across the loft and the greenhouse.” She looked back over her shoulder wistfully. “I’m afraid I’ve grown rather attached to the idea of preparing the greenhouse for summer planting... but it seems my plans make a greater imposition than I realized,” she worried out loud. “If I’d known the loft and greenhouse were off limits– ”
“I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. I don’t think Charles is particularly adverse to having the space used. I think he simply prefers to have it lived in rather than maintained.”
A smile played at Ororo’s lip. “Do you think if I asked him....”
“I think you should do that,” Warren concluded, offering his encouragement.
Ororo nodded in silent agreement before she returned a serious gaze to Warren. Warren had been her first contact with the Institute. He’d saved her life in route to changing it. The mentorship between them over past two years had been effortless, and she’d rarely seen Warren troubled except when he was concerned for one of them. Ororo was concerned for him now. She had hoped earlier that she might run into him in the mansion; his uncharacteristic absence from the infirmary this morning had worried her. But finding him alone out on the rooftop was not exactly reassuring behavior.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why are you here?”
Warren shrugged his shoulders. “I thought, between you and Jean, Scott probably had all the friendly concern he could handle this morning.”
Ororo laughed softly. It was a deflection, but the statement wasn’t false.
“So,” Warren prompted a moment later, “how come you aren’t with Jean, helping her monitor Scott’s recovery?”
In her own way, Ororo was every bit as protective over Scott as Jean was, and they all knew it. Scott, Ororo, and Jean had spent the past two years steadily learning what they were capable of as mutants. Exploring together how to properly use their mutant abilities. Professor Xavier, Hank, and Warren were always there to help them, as teachers and as mentors, but Scott, Ororo, and Jean had become each other’s first line of defense. Any time one of them had trouble, of any sort, the other two immediately closed ranks. Given that dynamic, Warren probably was genuinely surprised to find Ororo here.
Ororo smiled wistfully. “Oh, I can feel the changing currents, the energy in the air when the two of them are together.” She shrugged. “Scott and Jean are dear friends to me, the dearest I have ever known. I want to give them the chance to discover for themselves what my senses already tell me.”
A genuine smile broke through Warren’s troubled expression. “As stubborn as the two of them are,” he paused to glance up at the sun, still hiding behind its wispy cloud cover, “it might take more than your subtle hints for them to catch on.”
Ororo laughed her soft laugh in total agreement. “You may be right at that.”
The two of them were incredibly stubborn; that was only one of many things that seemed to make her two friends perfectly suited for each other. Ororo had no doubt Jean was already on the path, but it would be harder for Scott. Scott’s background hadn’t prepared him for anything like this. Ororo still remembered the surprise and caution that had constantly colored Scott’s reactions to Jean and herself in the beginning.
The way he had related to them as the three were becoming friends had struck Ororo and Jean both. Everything had been very new to Scott, even the most basic things: friendship, home, family. Simply having a place to belong to. In the beginning he didn’t trust any of it at face value, or expect it to last. Ororo and Jean had made it an unspoken mission to override his inherent caution. They had liked Scott and had wanted him not just to fit into their new surroundings but to really belong here.
That also had been something new for Scott. He hadn’t entirely trusted that anyone would seek out his company for unselfish reasons, and for a while there he had been constantly trying to figure it out, to see the angle behind it. It took him a while to get used to there being no strings attached. But thanks to the combined persistence of his friends and wise guidance of his mentors, Scott had eventually accepted the change in his circumstances. That acceptance hadn’t come easily; even now Scott found it difficult to let down his guard and openly express his emotions. But over the past two years Scott had responded to their friendship with a tremendous depth of friendship and loyalty of his own. Accepting friendship, however, was very different from accepting love....
While, like Scott, Ororo had grown up without a family (in the strictest sense of word), this was not Ororo’s first experience at creating family nor looking out for an adopted family. Scott had more or less always been on his own, never had anyone he could trust, much less anyone who cared deeply for him. Ororo wasn’t sure how he would react to something as life-altering as having Jean love him. That went far beyond the bounds of what he was comfortable with. It was a risk. But all of life was risk. Yes, sometimes that meant pain, but Ororo knew it was worth the risk. Love was always worth the risk.
When Professor Xavier had found Scott two years ago, Scott was still running. He was running away from what he had done and from what he could do. Guilt over his history with Jack Winters and guilt over the Bogarts.
“I could have done the right thing and sent Jack to jail, any one of a thousand times. Instead, I helped him take advantage of innocent people. That’s what a con artist does,” Scott said quietly before Jean could object to that characterization. “Sure, I tried not to hurt anybody in the process. I had a bunch of rules in my head, a bunch of excuses I used to try to tell myself: what I was doing wasn’t really so bad. Sure, I tried to keep Jack in line, I tried to limit his damage, and I told myself it was a good thing I was there to do that. But the thing is: I could have stopped Jack, and I didn’t.
“I chose not to, because helping Jack helped me to survive. It took a terrible turn, it took people losing their lives to make me realize how wrong-headed my thinking was, how wrong my own actions had been... but by then it already was too late.” Scott lifted his gaze to meet Jean’s. “My actions played a part in creating that monster, Jack O’Diamonds. That’s why I felt so strongly, it was down to me to stop him.” But Scott knew he could never have done that alone....
The night Professor Xavier had found Scott, he told Scott family was something that could be built. He had been right; Scott had learned that repeatedly over the past two years. Ororo and Jean were his best friends, closer than any sisters. Hank and Warren were like older brothers, and the professor easily filled in the role of patriarch. Supportive and protective, Xavier provided for his students, he believed in them, he took personal interest in their lives, but his responsibility to them often exceeded any warm feelings that he might have harbored for them. Given that void, he couldn’t really be called fatherly. But that was fine; Scott, Ororo, and Jean mirrored that relationship with him in return. They offered him respect, gratitude, and the comradery shared by those who wished to pursue the same goals in life. They very much wanted to do him proud, to live up to his high expectations for them, and those things seamlessly took the place of any warmer flow of emotion.
The Bogarts had been different though. Scott hadn’t been asked to make any leap of faith with them, it hadn’t taken any work, there had been nothing for him to build. For some reason, from the moment he had walked through their door, they had treated him like part of their family. It hadn’t made sense to him at the time. Never in his life had Scott been given something for nothing, and their kindness had been completely foreign to him. For that one week he had been almost normal. And Scott didn’t believe in normal.
He had always known that what was normal for other people: home, family, all the idle pursuits of happiness (childish fun, teenage rebellion, young adult career, love, marriage, kids); those were fine things that other people either aspired toward or fell effortlessly into, but they were not meant for him. Since he had awoken from the coma as a child, Scott had spent most of his life fighting against the knowledge that he was damaged, and refusing to let that reality define him. He usually made an effort not to dwell on things he couldn’t change, but there were times – especially in his early days at the Institute – when he’d understood: he was as far removed from normal as he could possibly be. He was a mutant. And his mutation made him a danger to everyone around him. Normal had always been something beyond his reach, and the times when he had come close enough to touch it... well, that was exactly when everything collapsed in front of him like a house of cards. Case in point: the Bogarts.
“They were good, decent people. The Bogarts,” he finally decided quietly. “The difference between them and Jack was like night and day. They honestly cared, no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda; they wanted to help me because it was obvious to them, I needed help. And there was no on else–” Scott broke off and took a breath, refocusing. “I– stayed– longer than I should have,” he gradually found his voice, continuing his story. “They had already done what they told me they would do, taken me in long enough to sort out my headaches. I had the glasses, and as long as I wore them the headaches went away. But I was hoping....”
Jean heard it again, that twinge in his voice. Oddly, it reminded her of his impatience and intolerance from earlier in the week, how much he had hated to be still, sidelined, damaged. While he had clung gratefully to the Bogarts’ kindness, he had hoped there might be more. He’d seen himself as little more than a problem that those kind people had been trying to solve, but he had wanted to be someone they cared about – cared enough to keep.
“They cared about me, and before that, nobody really cared about me. Of course I stayed,” he repeated very softly, “even after I knew I should have gone.”
The unspoken condemnation remained in his voice: he had always been damaged and unwanted, and it had been foolish of him to think that might change. Foolish to think that by some miracle, the small measure of good fortune that had found him might actually last... that the Bogarts would actually want him to stay with them. Even now, he didn’t let down his guard – make himself vulnerable enough – to honestly express that hope. It just seemed like a foolish thought he had had at the time... but that didn’t mean he had wanted it any less.
“Naturally, Jack found me. Naturally, he figured I was working the Bogarts. When I refused to go along with his assumption, his plan–” Scott shrugged, avoiding the ugly truth for a moment before doggedly continuing. “He– beat the tar out of me,” Scott admitted.
Jean winced in a combination of anger, pain, and shock, but mostly anger.
Scott registered her shock, he even appreciated the anger that showed on her face; it confirmed her belief that no one, and especially not someone who was her friend, deserved to be treated that way. That said something about both her character and the strength of her friendship. Scott knew that what she felt was a mix of outrage and compassion. Sympathy, but not pity, and that made it tolerable for him.
Hearing the truth didn’t make Jean breathe any easier, nor did finally understanding the real nature of the so-called partnership between Scott and Jack Winters. Even though she had suspected as much, Scott said it with far too much acceptance. It really was no big deal to him. As far as Scott was concerned, being beaten by Winters was only a minor detail in the larger story, no different than any other difficulty he’d had to work his way through. And while Jean admired his toughness and his determination, she hated that sense of acceptance. That attitude made it impossible for her to believe that what Scott described had been an unusual occurrence, and that infuriated her at Jack Winters all over again.
Actually, knowing Jean the way he did, Scott was a little surprised that she managed to keep the anger in check. But after seeing that no emotional outburst was forthcoming, he offered a little shrug of contrition before going ahead with the story. He wanted to get this over with now, before he lost his nerve.
“After that, the whole thing was like a bad dream. The Bogarts– they didn’t know the danger they were in. I did. And I tried– I knew if I could just get them clear, let Jack think he was getting what he wanted, then I could undo the damage I had done. I could get Jack Winters out of their lives forever. But they wouldn’t leave,” he whispered with a bitter shake of his head. “They wouldn’t leave me.”
“I don’t believe I have gotten an answer to my question.”
“That’s funny,” Warren persisted, “I thought I’d already given one.”
“You told me why you weren’t in the infirmary this morning,” Ororo pointed out, “but not why you’re up here now.”
“I guess not,” he conceded. Warren remained calm and collected. His voice, just a shade on the cool side, gave the only indication that something was bothering him – that, and the fact that he was standing atop a roof for no apparent reason.
Ororo decided to try a different approach. “I’ve often wondered, where would a man who can fly go to get away from his troubles?”
That made him smile. “As you can see, nowhere too extravagant. I tend to stick to rooftops. That way I can always pretend to be a suicidal jumper,” he added with a touch of dark humor.
This dark and evasive mood of his further worried Ororo. Warren had been absent from the infirmary this morning, but yesterday there had been several tense conferences in Hank’s lab.
“I imagine you have been concerned about how Hank’s experiment would turn out.”
Warren remained silent. Again, Ororo’s keen intuition was on target. In the wake of his initial decision, Warren had been troubled over his contribution to Hank’s experiment. Wondering if it could work, fearing that it might not, worrying that it would.
“It’s officially a success now. That should make you proud,” she decided calmly.
“It’s Hank who did the work, not me,” Warren countered. “All I did was allow him the opportunity to test his theory.”
“Work he could not have done without your cooperation,” Ororo persisted.
“I couldn’t stand in the way of something that could help Scott, or any of you,” Warren amended.
And Hank’s theory had worked; Scott was now healing rapidly. But once that first set of fears had been removed from the equation, another set had been quick to take its place. What happened now that Hank’s experiment had proven successful? Those fears were much farther reaching.
“Just makes me uncomfortable,” he murmured, and his wings rustled again, restlessly. “I don’t like the thought of that information being on file, my blood and all its mutant properties.”
Ororo understood his dilemma. He was glad for the positive result, for Scott’s sake. But, for himself, Warren wished he could strike the records.
“Hank–” she started to suggest.
“I know,” Warren quietly cut short Ororo’s reassurance. “Hank is probably the most scrupulous person I’ve ever met, and I trust him implicitly.” Warren laughed wearily. “There’s something I never thought I’d hear myself say of anyone.” Then he shook his head. Warren was proud of what Hank had accomplished and grateful for the results. None-the-less, he couldn’t help feeling, “It’s just, if that information ever fell into the wrong hands....”
Ororo thought about that for a moment. “If you told Hank of your concerns, asked him to destroy his documentation, he would do that.”
“I know,” Warren confessed. “How selfish is that?”
Ororo shrugged. “He would understand. Self-preservation, anonymity, is a large part of why we are all here. For your safety, we all would understand.”
“I wouldn’t,” Warren said softly. Self-preservation and mutant anonymity were essential parts of the school’s mission, but Warren hadn’t come here as a student in need of protection. He’d landed on Xavier’s doorstep with a mission to change the world for mutants. He was comfortable risking himself toward that end. But like it or not, this decision was about far more than his own risk.
“If I asked Hank, he would destroy all of his hard work in order to put my mind at ease. And the next time someone is seriously hurt– what? Do nothing, or expect Hank to start over from scratch while one of our lives could hang in the balance? That’s the epitome of selfishness. This is a medical breakthrough, a great scientific discovery,” he said words almost bitterly, even though Warren knew it wasn’t about those things for Hank. Hank measured success in the same terms Warren did: this would help Scott. It would spare him months of pain and suffering. Warren still bristled at the thought.
“I set this into motion; I can’t take it back,” Warren breathed certainly. “I just can’t help feeling this is going to come back to haunt me.”
Only yesterday, Warren had been standing on the edge of this unknown precipice. Today he had already stepped off into the maelstrom of unforeseen consequences, where shadowy and far-reaching implications arose like dangerous cliffs all around him.
Jean shuddered at the bitterness in Scott’s voice, not directed where it should have gone – toward Winters – but toward himself. She didn’t understand how Scott could believe so certainly that he hadn’t been worth the Bogarts’ effort, not even their basic concern for his safety or well-being. But the answers were right in front of her: that Home hadn’t helped him, Winters hadn’t helped him. Scott hadn’t had anyone in his life to show him what it looked like when people cared about each other. And he hadn’t believed in himself because no one had ever believed in him, not until the professor had taken him in. Before he’d come here, Scott hadn’t known what it meant to be part of a family.
Now that Scott was really thinking about the Bogarts, it felt like a floodgate had opened: so many memories he had been trying to repress. He vividly remembered how much it hurt, and not just the part that should have hurt – the part where he had somehow managed to wreck everything, and they had lost their lives in the fall out – but the part before that, where he had begun to hope for something he knew he couldn’t have. He had begun to want that impossible reality: family.
He had a very vivid memory of lying in a safe, warm bed, staring at the pictures Trisha had somehow found for him: the only images he had that were sharp and reliable. He had memorized every feature. And even now, years after the pictures had been lost, he still remembered the way his grandfather had looked in those old pictures, the way his mother and father had looked, perhaps at his age or just a few years older.
It was Jean who broke the silence. “You don’t have any memory of your parents or your brother, do you?” she asked him, very softly.
Jean knew he had been a kid, seven years old, at the time of the plane crash. His parents and his younger brother had died in the crash; Scott had been the only one to survive, and the injuries he had sustained had been severe enough to keep him in a coma for a year after that. Because of his brain injury Scott had very little memory of anything before the crash. He had never actually told anyone that. Maybe it was an illogical reaction, but admitting such a concrete indication of brain damage went against every survival instinct he possessed. It was dangerous to show weakness. Scott tended to overcompensate, trying to show no weakness, and as little emotion as he could manage.
He could feel Jean watching him, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Her question had caught him by surprise. He had been expecting something more along the lines of a reassurance, and they hadn’t even been talking about his family. Somehow his reaction to everything that had happened with Winters and the Bogarts had put her on that train of thought. It made him feel completely transparent, and Scott hated that feeling.
Jean asked questions he didn’t want to answer, about things he didn’t even want to remember, much less discuss. He’d spent most of his life learning not to show what he was thinking or feeling; that was his chosen form of self-defense. How was it that she saw right through him anyway, and he couldn’t avoid that? If it was anyone else he would avoid; he’d redirect, or he’d push back in self-defense. But he couldn’t push Jean back. No matter how hard she pushed, somehow he still felt that she deserved the honest truth, as best he could tell it.
Scott didn’t make any move to respond to her question, and that wasn’t like Scott. Sure, Scott was quiet, guarded, restrained, but he was also charming and polite to a fault. Jean suspected that each of those divergent sides of his personality were learned behavior. She began watching his reaction more carefully. With Scott, you had to look for the little things. You couldn’t see the expression in his eyes but you could see the set of his jaw, and the little lines that furrowed against his forehead just between his eyebrows. The average observer wouldn’t look closely enough to recognize the little signs of strain. Otherwise, all that was visible was a still expression, a cool, emotionless front. Only someone very close to Scott would see the difference. Jean could see that it was incredibly difficult for him to be having this conversation. She didn’t press him any further, she just gave him time.
Finally Scott swallowed, then shook his head.
Jean placed her hand over his and whispered that she was sorry. She was sorry for so many things in that moment that she couldn’t begin to put them all into words. She was sorry that he had been orphaned, sorry that he didn’t have even pleasant memories of the time before that to make the painful times that had followed a little easier, sorry that the closest thing he’d ever had to a loving family had been total strangers who had been uncommonly kind to him for a very short period of time. But mostly she was sorry for the way he reacted to all of that. Despite the fact that he was trying very hard not to let the pain show through, she could see just how deeply it all wounded him.
She had the most irrational longing just to throw her arms around him and hug him as tightly as she could. Jean knew that wouldn’t work. Common sense reminded her that she’d just end up hurting his injured arm, or jostling his glasses with her sudden (and completely unexpected) motion. But those more practical concerns were all but irrelevant next to the one that was not so easily explained. She knew that sitting beside him and holding his hand, that small bit of comfort was all the comforting that Scott could take, and all he would permit. Her fingers tightened against his hand, hating that. She had to remind herself to breathe.
Finally he did look at her, but neither of them knew what to say anymore. She gave him a cautious smile in return, then averted her own gaze before her attention on him could make him uncomfortable. But a little shiver pulsed down her spine at something that had briefly crossed his face.
That speechless moment reminded her of an earlier thought.... Extraordinarily observant to everything going on around him was another of Scott’s personality traits. But even at their most awkward moments of attraction, he never seemed to read anything more than friendship into interactions between the two of them. Jean had wondered how he could not see that her feelings were more than that, they were different, they were changing. What she had just seen in his face made her wonder if his obliviousness was purposeful, if he was choosing not to look any deeper into an already uncomfortable moment of truth.
“Guess that paranoid streak comes from my father,” Warren admitted, “and a lifetime of covering up the truth,” he added distastefully. “Spending the better part of my formative years in a simmering state of rebellion left me with lingering distrust for most sources of authority.”
“Your father?” Ororo asked. “Didn’t you tell me he wanted for you to take up the family business?” Warren had told her that bit of the story once before. His father had wanted Warren to follow in his footsteps, but Warren had pursued his own path instead, wanting to use his mutant abilities for the good of others. For a time, Warren had done so as a vigilante, before professor Xavier had recruited him to help in establishing this school.
Warren nodded. “My father has always been obsessed with keeping appearances and upholding the family name, the ‘sterling Worthington reputation,’ as he calls it. When my condition, as he so delicately termed it, came to light early in adolescence, he had a steady stream of doctors called in, all well-paid for their silence. Those who couldn’t help me to my father’s liking quickly disappeared. I like to think they were well-paid enough to retire to some Caribbean island, but I wouldn’t rule out retirement to a shallow grave either. My father can be ruthless when it comes to keeping what is his. In that respect, there’s nothing I would think him incapable of.
“When he found a surgeon who said he could correct my unfortunate condition, my father was elated. But my mother fought against it. She refused to put me through the procedure. Eventually she took me and left. My father didn’t protest the separation as long as she didn’t attempt to make it public knowledge; he could make whatever excuses he liked to explain away our absence. Of course that also meant there was no legal record of the separation, so he didn’t have to support her financially. After a month he cut her off. He thought he could starve us into returning, but my mom was a tough lady. I learned the value of independence from her.
“She found ways to make ends meet, working night and day at whatever menial jobs she could find. Despite finding herself in those circumstances, she was happy. I didn’t understand it at the time, how she could be so happy having given up everything that she’d given up. But looking back, I think it was probably the only time in her life she had ever been independent. And she was enormously proud that she had been able to make a reasonably comfortable life for the two of us out of absolutely nothing.
“She resisted going back for as long as she could, even after she got sick,” he added quietly. “Her last words to me were an apology for the fact that she’d had to bring me back into his house. She loved me unconditionally and never forgave my father for his unwillingness to do the same. But by that time I was older, better able to fend for myself. I knew my father’s weaknesses. If he wanted me to stay quiet and be discrete, play the good son, then he had to at least pretend to accept me as I was.
“It’s an uneasy truce that has existed between us to this day,” Warren explained, calm and collected. He was good at keeping his cool. Only a handful of things really pushed his buttons. His father was one of them. The absolute intolerance that he had seen firsthand from his father was another. That made him all the more passionate about protecting their students from that kind of prejudice; he knew from painful experience how difficult life could become for mutant kids if the truth ever became known by the wrong people.
“It is a difficult burden to bear,” Ororo admitted, “being rejected because of what you are, and especially by those close to you.”
“Yes. You know that better than I,” Warren responded easily.
Prejudice and intolerance were things Ororo was familiar with. With her combination of features, she didn’t fit anywhere; that part had been worse in Cairo. In the city, where everyone was already scrapping to get by, any kind of difference – even if it was only skin deep – was enough to spark hatred. Add to that Ororo’s young age and her enormous talents, and jealousy had run rampant among her peers.
But luckily Ororo had fallen in with a group of street kids and the local merchant who had looked out for them. They had accepted her as one of their own, and Ororo had used her talents not only to assure her survival, but to assure theirs. That had been all she had known of family throughout most of her childhood, and it had been a good family.
Despite the hardships inherent in street life, she had remained in Cairo until her family situation had changed. After the death of their father-figure, the other street kids were rounded up by the local authorities. Ororo had begrudgingly accepted that they would be safe. She knew, however, that she couldn’t live that way: structured, trapped. So, at the age of twelve, she had fled the city in search of her mother’s people in Africa.
She had eventually found her way to her ancestral homeland in Kenya and carved out a place for herself there... though it had taken time for them to accept her, to trust her. She had been disappointed that, even there, she had been different. Her skin color was the same but no one else, not even her great aunts, shared her hair or eye color. Those features had been handed down exclusively from her grandmother and mother to Ororo. It made the others cautious, like they expected something from her that was both desired and feared. Her mutant abilities had begun to emerge as Ororo had traveled through the African wilderness, as though the land itself had been awakening her to her true identity, revealing her authentic connection to the land: like it was mother and father, and its many inhabitants brother and sister to her. And she loved it in return.
Ororo had remained among her mother’s people in Kenya until she was sixteen. By then her abilities had begun to grow steadily stronger. She felt connected to the wilderness, the living beauty and power of nature, in a way that she had never felt connected to anything or anyone. When the Earth went dry with thirst or the landscape was ravaged by storms, she felt it like a physical hurt, and she felt a longing to heal those hurts.
Her great aunts told her the old legends – stories of priestesses who wielded god-like power over the land and the sky, and commanded all the elements of nature – stories which foretold things she might one day be capable of, and Ororo began trying to use those powers. She had some successes in small things, but the massive drought that had begun in her fifteenth summer tested her limits and eventually proved beyond her capabilities. That was when the professor located her and sent Warren to deliver her.
When the people had seen the winged man descend from the heavens they’d thought him a god. Warren had come to rest between Ororo and the angry spears and torches of the warriors who had been ready to drive her from their village for the blight she had become upon them.
“What are you?” Ororo had asked him at a stunned whisper, but she had not been afraid of him. The winged man had ignored the warriors amassed behind him as though they were inconsequential, his attention solely on Ororo.
“I’m someone like you; I am a mutant,” he had answered, “and I’m here to help you.” Then he had extended a hand to her. “Hold on to my arm. I’ll take you to safety.”
She had nodded numbly. Warren hadn’t allowed the warriors time to recover from their shock before the two of them were gone. The tribesmen were still kneeling in fear and awe when Warren took flight again, this time with Ororo safely in his grasp.
Once they were a safe distance away, Warren had landed. He’d spoken to her at length about the existence of mutants, the Institute, Charles Xavier, and Xavier’s goal to teach young mutants to use their abilities – safely and for the good of others. After hearing him out, Ororo had chosen to return with Warren and to enroll in Xavier’s institute for gifted students.
“We cannot afford to fear the judgement of others. That only blinds us to the truth of what we are capable of. You saved me,” she repeated, “because you chose to use your abilities for good, not to lock them away.”
Warren laughed under his breath. She was right. “Wisely said,” he concluded. He wished he could take credit for having taught her at least some of that, but Ororo continuously amazed him by retaining her own unique brand of hope, wisdom, and unflinching strength.
“It was my fault they died. The Bogarts.” Scott had never said those words out loud to another human being, even though he must have thought them a million times.
“Scott– That’s not true,” Jean insisted.
“And after it happened, I ran,” he whispered, “like a coward, running from what I didn’t understand.”
Jean shook her head wordlessly. She wanted to tell him he was farther from a coward than anyone she knew. She wanted to tell him none of that had been his fault. More than anything, she wanted some way to alleviate the pain those memories still caused him, to lift the weight of guilt and blame he unfairly placed upon himself. But there was nothing she could say, nothing she could do. The past couldn’t be changed, and old pains left scars that weren’t easily erased by fresh logic or new truth. Jean hated that she couldn’t fix this; it made her angry that all she could do now was sit beside him, holding his hand, both of them feeling helpless.
Scott gave a little shake of his head. “It’s okay. I’m not the same person I was then. Facing Jack again, standing up to him – and stopping him this time. I needed to do that for myself, but I couldn’t have done it without all of you. That’s the part I’ll always remember, the part where you stood beside me and refused to back down from him. And that’s why I don’t hold anything else that happened against you, Jean. So what if you overreacted and made a mistake? You risked your life to stand beside me when I needed you.”
Jean only smiled. “What else would I do? We’re family.”
Scott smiled back gratefully.
During his early days at the Institute, Scott had thought more than once that maybe being left alone was the best thing for him. Except that he wasn’t alone here. Hank and the professor never gave up on him in those early days. Then Warren, and Ororo, and Jean. It wasn’t normal, this family they had built out of necessity; it was better than that. This was the place where he belonged. It was the only place he had ever belonged.
“From the moment I put on these glasses and opened my eyes again, I promised myself I was going to face this head-on. What I am. What my life is now. From here on out, I deal with it on my own terms,” Scott decided.
Jean nodded, appreciating (and even envying a little) the calm certainty in his voice. But before she could react any further, Scott winced. Jean let go of his hand and jumped to her feet in alarm, first glancing at her watch, then staring up in betrayal and disbelief at the bright blue, sun-filled sky overhead.
“I’m so sorry, Scott! I completely lost track of the time,” she apologized, stifling an angry curse. “And after I promised Hank–” She was absolutely appalled at her oversight.
“Jean– don’t.” Scott got to his feet more slowly. “It’s okay,” he reassured her. “I knew my time in the sun was almost up. I could feel it coming on, more gradually, this time.”
Jean shook her head at him. “You what?”
“My eyes have been smarting for the last couple of minutes. “It’s not as bad as it was before–” he hurriedly explained. “My tolerance for sunlight must be getting stronger. I’m probably getting close enough to normal – well, normal for me – that it’s not such a strain anymore.”
Jean looked as though she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be worried, curious, or just plain furious with him. He smiled, deliberately ignoring her coming protest.
“But I wanted to finish this,” he added quietly.
She paused, looking uncertain and regretful. “I still hate seeing you hurt.”
He had a nagging feeling she meant more than just his acclimation or his injured arm... and he deliberately steered the conversation away from that possibility.
“Careful,” he warned her. “I see myself slipping from the ‘friend’ back into the ‘case’ category.”
She overlooked her annoyance with his joking about his condition and met him on his own terms, renewing the running joke.
“Scott,” she reminded him (impatiently, which made him grin), “you are not just a case.”
Scott laughed quietly and walked along at her side as they made their way back indoors. He was already wondering aloud if they should go check on how Ororo’s project was coming. Jean didn’t mind allowing him the deflection. She would let him keep his pride and guard his privacy. She had no desire to risk the trust he’d already shown her, or give him reason to regret what he’d chosen to share.
Ororo turned back toward the greenhouse doors. She had left them open earlier, and she could hear Jean and Scott calling to her from downstairs.
“Will you be all right?” she paused to ask Warren.
He nodded. “I’m feeling much better about things. Thanks. Now, you should go tell them you’re up here before Jean realizes exactly where you are,” he offered in warning. “You’ll give her a heart attack.”
Ororo nodded in concession. It hadn’t escaped her notice that Warren didn’t include himself in those plans. He would likely be leaving here in the same manner he had come. But she felt better about that. At least he was leaving here in good spirits.
She called down to Jean and Scott from the loft stairwell, and they climbed up to meet her, just as surprised as Ororo had been to find a massive loft (and then a greenhouse) over their heads instead of an attic. She continued telling them all about her discovery, but by the time the three of them made it back out onto the rooftop Ororo wasn’t surprised to find Warren already gone.
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