"The professor tells me that you're in charge of the stables."
Almost jumping out of my skin, I swung around to face the newcomer, a curry brush brandished in front of me like a weapon. His eyebrows went up and he raised both hands in surrender. "Don't shoot, sheriff."
Warren Worthington. I'd forgotten how deep his voice was. And how big his wings were. They'd carry him places I could never hope to go, places where people like me served the meals and the booze and their bodies for entertainment. Mere animated meat, all thoughts, dreams and aspirations beaten out of them by the impossibility of escape.
It had been ten days since the events in New Hampshire, and a week since things at the mansion had truly calmed down enough for me to grow curious about the man I'd saved. So I'd spent an afternoon surfing the internet, reading old business reports and gossip columns about the Worthingtons, and Warren. He was an American prince. Even the professor's wealth was unimpressive compared to his.
And I'd seriously thought he might become my fellow student? My friend?
What a joke.
Now, I turned back to my horse and continued my work. I wondered what he was doing here at the mansion, less than a week from Christmas. Didn't he have family? "Yeah," I answered at last, remembering that he'd asked me a question. "I'm in charge of the stables. Sort of."
"How sort of?" He'd come closer, moving so that he could see my face, and the proximity of his voice startled me once more.
I covered it well. "It's not like I know a hell of a lot about horses," I explained. "But I like them. And the professor can't keep the place clean himself."
"Doesn't he have grooms for that?" Warren slouched elegantly against the edge of the stall, moving his wings out of the way. Those wings might be pretty, but they must be a royal pain in the ass, too.
"I guess I'm the groom," I replied.
"I thought you were a student?"
"That, too." I wondered why he was still hanging around talking to me.
"How old are you?"
It was nosey, but the fact that he'd asked at all surprised me enough that I answered before I thought about it. "I turned sixteen in October."
"Ah. A Libra - or a Scorpio? No, don't tell me. A Scorpio." He was grinning.
I stopped currying my gelding to glare. "I don't believe in that horoscope shit."
The smile widened. "Definitely a Scorpio."
Shaking my head, I returned to my work. December or not, the work made me hot and I pulled my sweatshirt over my head, tossing it on a stool. The t-shirt beneath stuck to my back and chest and I could feel his eyes move over my body. It made me uncomfortable. "Did you want something?" Irritation brought the question out sharply.
His eyes flicked up from my body to my face and he pushed his shoulder off the stall wall, walked over. "I have a horse. Well, two of them, actually, but I think I'll only bring one. The professor said I should speak with you about it." I must have been gaping like a fish, because he added, "He said that you'd know which stalls are empty, and where there's space in the tack room for my saddle, etcetera and so-forth."
So he was coming to school here after all? And the truth would out at last. With a prospective real student, I'd been relegated to hired help, and living here like I was, I didn't even have the right to tell him to take care of his own damn horse. So I turned back to mine - or rather, I turned back to the horse I was permitted to ride. "All four stalls at the end of the row behind us are empty. Mare or gelding?"
"Stallion, actually. That's part of the problem. I have a gelding, but I'd rather bring the stallion, and he'll require a box stall."
"Fucking great," I muttered. All I needed was his damn mouthy stallion trying to take a bite out of me every time I passed that stall door.
He must have overheard my comment because he added, "I could bring the gelding, but he was my first horse and he's old now. I think he's earned his quiet pasture days." He moved even closer, right up next to me and laid a hand on my horse's neck, patting him to keep him from spooking. "Also, Charles suggested that if I brought the stallion, he'd be willing to forgo stable charges in exchange for having El Sid breed his mares. He's pure Spanish Andalusian. I think poor Charles was drooling at the chance for some Andalusian crosses."
I didn't have a fucking clue what an 'Andalusian' was, but I'd have bet good money it was the Ferrari of the horse community. "Sounds peachy," I said now.
"Actually, he's a grey, not peach."
It took me a minute to recognize that he'd just tried to make a joke, bad as it was, then almost against my will, my lips tipped upward. He clapped his hands in apparent delight. "Splendid! I was starting to wonder if you knew how to smile at all! That's the first one I've seen on your face."
It was? But smiling wasn't something I'd had much cause to do, and my face didn't automatically twist into that expression. Most often, it showed no expression at all. I'd worked hard for that, and now turned away, tossing the brush onto the stool with my shirt so I could pick up a blanket to spread over my horse's back. Warren helped without being asked, then nodded to the horse. "What's his name?"
"The professor named him Thunder Major, but I don't like that." I shrugged, feeling guilty for the critique. "It seemed kind of silly for such a quiet horse. I just call him Lardbutt."
I wasn't prepared for Warren's reaction. He bent over, wings fluttering spasmodically as he laughed so hard he almost couldn't breathe. "Lardbutt! I love it! Priceless! Not one ounce of pretense at all!"
"Well, he's fat," I said, bemused. Granted, the name was funny and had been meant to be, but it wasn't worth busting a gut.
"Oh, oh." Finally, Warren managed to calm himself and unbend, wiping tears out of his eyes. "Oh, my. I named mine El Sid, and you named yours Lardbutt!" And he went off into another peal of laughter. But the humor didn't seem vicious; he was genuinely amused. Shaking his head finally, he ran a palm over his mouth. "In any case, do you think we can find a box stall for El Sid?"
'We'? What was with the 'we' shit? I knew damn well who'd be shoveling the manure. But I wiped dust off my hands and said, "Come on. The box stalls are on the other aisle." It wasn't like I had a real choice here, so I showed him the two stalls and he looked them both over for the solidity of the wood and any rough sections that might leave splinters in his precious horse's hide, then settled on the farther of the two and followed me to the tack room to decide where there was space for his equipment. We ended up having to store some of what was there, stuff that Warren said was so old it ought to be tossed. But what did I know? "You really are unfamiliar with stables, aren't you?"
"I'd never been on a horse in my life until I got here," I answered truthfully, but didn't elaborate.
"How did you wind up running the stable?"
"Like I said, Xavier can't do it. And I like horses. They're . . . sensible." Then I realized what I'd just said and grinned even as he caught the unintentional pun a beat behind.
"Horse sense!" he exclaimed.
"Yeah. Horse sense. Anyway, the old groom had to retire last year. It was before I came. There was another guy who'd been hired part time, but I don't know if he had too much to do, or was just lazy. Anyway, I realized he wasn't cleaning out the stalls all the way, especially back in the corners where Xavier couldn't see. Sometimes he'd just lay down new hay on the old. I found fungus in the frogs of my horse's hooves, so I started checking the others. It was really bad for some of them. We had to call a vet. When I told the professor what I'd found, he fired the guy." The shame of that came back and I felt it burn my ears and cheeks. "I wasn't trying to get him fired; I just wanted him to do his job better."
Warren had straddled a bench, his hands gripping the end while the tips of his white wings trailed in dirty hay. He studied me. "Scott, what you're describing is a serious oversight. You could have wound up with lamed horses. It wasn't just a matter of not doing his job. It was a matter of cruelty to animals who had no voice of their own. He deserved to be fired."
I kicked at the wall absently. "That's why I said something in the first place -- the horses. It wasn't like they could complain. But the guy had some kids at home, y'know?"
Sighing, Warren looked away, out the door. "Responsibility is heavy," he muttered, but I wasn't sure he was talking to me. "Still, Scott -- people make their own beds and it's not your place to wash their sheets for them."
I just blinked at him in surprise. It wasn't what I'd expected out of him. "So you're going to do your own damn laundry while you're here, so I don't have to?"
Now it was his turn for bafflement at the sudden leap of topic. "Why would you do my laundry?"
I threw up my hands. "Well, who else is going to do it? The professor has a cook and a maid, but Hank and I do our own laundry and stuff, and I do Hank's when he's too busy with his rotations, so I guess I'll get yours, too, like I'm getting your freaking horse to take care of."
The white wings rose and fluttered with agitation like a bird's might, and Warren pulled in his chin to study me from under blond brows before saying, "Actually, considering the fact that you seem to be between grooms at the moment, I'd planned to suggest to Charles that I bring in one of my own -- who would take care of my horse and yours, too. Frankly, Scott, you don't have the experience for this job long term, even if you do have the conscientiousness. I doubt that Charles planned to saddle you with it permanently -- pun intended -- so I'd had no intention of asking you to take care of my horse. As for my laundry . . . I confess, I hadn't expected to do it myself, but if that's the way of things here, I'd like to think household appliances can't be that difficult, though the one time I tried to run a vacuum cleaner, it chewed up a corner of my mother's imported, top knot grade Bokhara Persian rug. Of course, I was six at the time. The maid wasn't happy, and neither was my mother. I wasn't permitted to 'help' again."
I wasn't sure if I should laugh at that or not, but he was grinning himself, so I grinned back. "What's a Bokhara Persian rug?"
"A type of pattern -- the classic type, in fact. It's what you think of when you think 'Persian rug.' Dull, if you asked me." He grew serious then. "Charles told me that you were to be my fellow student, not my servant. I have plenty of servants. I'm not interested in another. I am interested in a friend from whom I don't have to hide these." He fluttered the wings again, like anyone else might flutter fingers in emphasis. Big emphasis.
"I don't live in your world," I replied bluntly because I was so taken by surprise, I didn't have a chance to figure out a more politic answer. "I don't know how to play golf."
That made him laugh again, if not as hard as at the name I'd given my horse. "Good God! Golf! Well, if you'd really like to learn how to play, I'd be glad to teach you!"
And that was how I wound up learning golf from Warren Worthington, III.
That week before Christmas was one of the strangest I'd ever experienced. Warren and I spent ninety percent of our waking time together -- at lessons, around the mansion, and even out Christmas shopping in the city, ferried by his chauffeur. He seemed bound and determined to be my friend, attacking it with the same fervor some people decided to quit smoking. It might have annoyed, had his company been less enjoyable. But he got my backhanded jokes, and -- as I'd thought that very first morning after his rescue -- he was plain nice . . . the kind of guy who held the door for little old ladies and left out milk for stray cats. He defied stereotypes. We both did.
He still didn't know what I'd been before I'd come to Xavier's, but it was hard to camouflage the enormous discrepancy in our social backgrounds. I asked him once if he didn't worry what his friends would think -- his real friends, people from his own social class -- about him hanging out with me, not to mention his doing his own laundry. He'd shaken his head ruefully and measured Tide into the plastic scoop before dumping it into the washer bowl under my supervision. "What friends?" he'd replied. "There are two types of people who want my attention, Scott. Those who hope to get something from me -- money, reputation by association -- and those who hate my guts and want to bring me down. Then there's you. You have no idea how rare you are. You don't want a damn thing from me."
"Except the CDs you borrowed."
Warren grinned. "Yeah, yeah. I'll give them back this afternoon." I helped him load his clothes in the washer, then he shut the lid and turned to face me. "Look, I'm the one the rest of the sorry little wankers want to be seen with, not the other way around. I define cool." But his smile was as bitter as it was ironic. "They can think whatever the hell they want. I'll name you a friend if I want to." And we went up to the solar for another lesson in irons and golf balls.
For the next few days, I pondered what he'd said -- that he defined cool. He'd been joking of course, but it was something I hadn't considered before. When one occupied the top rung of the Social Ladder, it resulted in incredible pressure to stay there, but also a certain freedom to set one's own parameters -- all determined by a hair-trigger instinct for social Russian Roulette. And for whatever reason, Warren had decided to gamble on me. Maybe it was just for gratitude; I'd saved his life.
In any case, he dragged me out to a party on Christmas Eve after we'd opened presents at the mansion with the professor. Hank was off visiting his family in Deerfield, Illinois, so it was just the three of us. Warren had no reason to go home. His parents were in Bangkok and he didn't expect them back until after New Year's. So when the present-opening was over, he took me off to some party where he flirted with every girl in sight and got so smashed that I almost had to carry him back to the limousine. I hadn't understood his desperate need for oblivion in a bottle until I'd thought about how it must feel to have living parents who may as well have been dead. I was an orphan in truth. Warren was one in effect. 'You're eighteen now, Warren. You must have friends you'd rather spend Christmas with.' His father's words on the phone from Thailand. But what the man had meant was, 'I have more important places to be than home with you, and you're a semi-adult, so entertain yourself.'
He'd entertained himself by getting too drunk to see straight.
Maybe I'd have fought with my parents, too, if they'd lived, but death had preserved my pristine memory of them. I could dimly recall my last Christmas as a son, not an inconvenience. We'd gone to midnight mass, then home again, Mom and Dad singing carols in the front seat while Alex and I had fallen asleep in the back. Christmas morning had brought presents and candy-canes and ham for lunch, just the four of us, cocooned by snow in cramped base housing, but we hadn't cared. Alex and I had received a new sled, and that was all that had mattered to us -- a new sled, Pooh mittens, fresh Nebraska snow outside, and parents to cheer us on.
It's such small things that I remember.
I made Warren leave the party around midnight, and asked the driver to find a Catholic church nearby for mass. I didn't even know if Warren was Catholic. Probably not. And God knew, I hadn't been inside a church in years, but this was also the first Christmas in years that I'd felt like celebrating hope. So I splashed water on his face in the cathedral bathroom and we went in half way through mass to sit in the back. I didn't take the sacrament because I hadn't confessed. He didn't take it because he'd fallen asleep. When mass was over, I had his driver return us to the mansion while I sang carols in the back under my breath.
The first Noel the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay . . .
It was the wee hours of Christmas morning and I had a half-drunk angel zonked in my lap. What wonderful irony. He was asleep, so I slipped my hand beneath the collar of his shirt and touched the edge of bound wings. Soft feathers. Hope.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
"I've got the mother of all headaches."
It was about two in the afternoon on Christmas day. Hank was due back in an hour -- he actually had to work tomorrow -- and the professor had gone to pick him up from the airport. I'd decided to stick around so someone would be here when Warren woke. Now, he'd come into the den where I was lying on the floor, messing with the pieces of a new war game the professor had given me for Christmas. With presents opened on Christmas Eve -- apparently a Xavier family tradition -- there'd been no reason for us to rise early.
I glanced up and offered my bottle of spring water. "Drink. You'll feel better." He staggered over to take it. "And don't cry on my shoulder. You're the fucking idiot who got plastered last night. I have no pity."
"Fuck you." But he opened the bottle and drank. I didn't make any of the other remarks I could have, just returned to my game. He sat down beside me to watch.
"You wanna play?" I asked.
"Scott, I haven't got a goddamn clue what to do with all those little squares of cardboard."
"I'll show you."
He thought about it, then shrugged and said, "Okay. Why not?"
"Great. Now, look at the pieces. Here's the unit name, here's the size, here's the troop quality, and here's the movement allowance, normal and extended . . . . "
I'd barely done more than explain game rules and set up the board by the time Hank and the professor were back. Hank didn't get past the den; instead, he plopped down with us, delighted by my new toy. "Splendiferous! The Battle of Zama!"
Warren gave up his position immediately -- his eyes had been about to cross, in any case -- and Hank and I played. Hank was Scipio; I was Hannibal. I beat him around two in the morning, long after the professor had gone to bed. "I don't think history went that way," Warren remarked. He'd sat up with us through the whole game, needling Hank and half-watching VCR tapes of It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Was he hoping for his own Santa Claus to bring him a new existence?
Hank ignored him and said to me, "You have a definite knack for this," as he helped me put away the little colored squares in their Ziploc baggies. I just shrugged. The truth was he didn't have a knack for it. I doubted West Point would have any interest in my application.
"How was Christmas at home?" I asked, to change the subject.
His smile was warm. "Delightful. Cold, but delightful. You will have to come with me to visit some time. My mother would dote on you. Perhaps this summer. You can see how a farm runs." He glanced around to include Warren in the invitation. "Both of you can come."
"Oh, lovely." Warren snorted. "Will we get to milk the cows and feed the pigs?"
"Don't be a jackass," I said. What bug did Warren have up his butt? He'd been flat mean ever since Hank had gotten back, which didn't seem at all like the Warren I'd come to know this past week. Maybe it was just that Hank got along with his parents. On the way to our rooms later, I pulled him aside. "What was with you tonight? Are you mad because Hank got to go home and you didn't?"
Glancing away, he fluttered his wings, which told me he was nervous for some unaccountable reason. "I'm just tired."
He sighed. "Okay, maybe I am a bit jealous." A pause. "You seemed glad to have Hank back."
"I like him," I said simply. "He's a nice guy. So are you -- usually."
"Ooh. Ow. Slap on the wrist noted, Mr. Manners." But it wasn't said with heat, just his usual dry humor. Abruptly, he sighed again and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. The hallway lights had been dimmed for evening and they cast shadows on his face, drawing tired lines under his eyes. "It's been a shitty holiday."
That stark admission touched me for some reason. "I know," I told him, and felt guilty because, for me, this had been the best holiday I'd had in a long while. I wished I knew something to make him feel better, but I didn't, so we walked to our rooms in silence. When we reached my room, I turned to face him. "Can I ask something weird?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Can you?" Annoyed, I boxed his arm, and he grinned. "Sorry, couldn't resist. What'd you want to know?" His expression was serious and polite.
I blurted out the request fast before I lost my nerve. "Can I touch one of your wings?" I hadn't forgotten the furtive feel in the limousine the previous night -- and curiosity killed the cat.
He was studying me, caught between amusement and surprise. Then he flexed a wing and bent it around in silent invitation. Light poured through, pure and white, as if I were standing inside a cloud. Reaching out, I ran fingers along the feathers. They were as soft as I recalled up near the bone, but the pinions were stiffer. "Does it feel strange to have them touched?" I asked him.
He ran his own hand down the skin of my arm where I'd pushed up the sleeves of my sweater. "Does that feel strange?"
Actually, it did, and I flinched minutely. I didn't like to be touched. But aloud I said, "No."
"It feels the same for me. Or maybe more like this" -- and he moved his hand up to stroke my hair. That time, I couldn't conceal the flinch. He frowned. "What's wrong, Scott?"
"Nothing," I lied. "I'm just . . . a little funny about my hair."
I could see in his face that he didn't believe me, but he let it go. "The feathers insulate the skin -- like hair."
I ran a hand along the top again. "They're soft here." I regretted it as soon as I said it.
But he smiled and, reaching up, yanked out a fluffy covert feather from near the joint, then offered it to me. "Merry Christmas."
I took it. My own personal angel feather. "Thanks."
"To beginner's luck!" Warren said, and toasted me with the martini he was legally too young to buy but had ended up with anyway.
"Whatever," I muttered, embarrassed, and raised my own drink that I had even less business consuming. "Beginner's luck."
We were in the lounge of his country club, and I felt as out of place as mud on a lace hem. It was the first time we'd taken our golf lessons outside the mansion. Previously we'd worked on a hitting mat in Xavier's solar, where Warren had shown me how to hold a club, how to swing, and how to putt. Today, two days after Christmas while the weather was unseasonably warm, Warren had deemed me ready to try the covered driving range at his country club. No one had expected me to do well, least of all him, yet I'd shown some kind of knack for it. "Beginner's luck!" he'd dubbed it, genuinely pleased, then taken me into the clubhouse for a drink. I'd expected a coke, not a cocktail.
We weren't there long before Warren spotted some old guy he had to give regards to. "Sorry," he told me. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Cameron!" he called to one of the young men standing not far away. The guy turned. He was smaller than Warren, with fine bones and neat hands. Warren drew him over with an arm across his shoulders. "Scott, this if Cameron Hodge; originally his family's from Boston, but his father relocated to Manhattan and has worked for my father for years. We practically shared the same crib and bottle. Cam, this is Scott Summers, of Westchester. Please keep him company for a bit; I need to pay my respects to Max Southern. Scott's new here, but he's my friend." And he grinned at me. I remembered what he'd said, that he'd never had any real friends, just people who wanted to use or abuse him. Until me.
Jesus -- I had a friend, one besides Mariana. Two friends, actually, counting Hank. And they didn't even want to fuck me.
Warren then disappeared into the crowd. It still amazed me how he could strap down his wings, don a jacket, and blend right in. I didn't have any mutation and I still didn't blend. The other fellow -- Hodge -- could smell it. Smiling, he leaned against one of the artfully rough lodge-style columns in the clubhouse lounge, studying me over the rim of his own drink. He couldn't be much older than Warren. Didn't the authorities care about underage drinking here, or did the law only apply to mere mortals? "How long have you known Warren?" Hodge asked me.
"About a month," I replied -- stretching the truth, though any answer beyond 'forever' would've marked me. The mere fact I was a new face marked me.
Hodge was still smiling. It had a nasty edge. I'd seen that smile on the faces of johns who'd liked to make me guess. But then he smothered the smile and played at nonchalance. "Where are you from? Originally."
. . . . which told me right there he knew I wasn't from Westchester, whatever Warren had said. And how did I answer? I'd been an orphan shuffled around foster homes, and before that, a military brat. I'd lived everywhere from Alaska to Germany to Florida. I settled on the last place. "Nebraska -- Omaha."
"Ah. Are you related to the Dodges? Or the Buffets?"
I just blinked. The Dodges? Who the hell were the Dodges? Then I remembered -- the main road through Omaha was Dodge street, and slowly the history pounded into me at Boy's Town came back. They'd been a military family who'd established themselves in Omaha in the 1800s. Rich. Not as rich as Warren Buffet though, and even I knew who he was.
"No," I replied. "I'm related to the Summerses."
That took him a minute, then he grinned. "Touch." And he sipped his martini. "What's a Midwestern boy like you doing in New York?"
"Going to school." And that was the truth -- it just wasn't why I'd come here to begin with.
His eyebrows rose. "School in Westchester? Scholarship?"
Oh, yes, he'd nailed me as a poor relation, all right. He'd probably done that inside sixty seconds. And I wasn't sure how to answer the question -- decided to go for the literal. "No." And said nothing else. The less information given, the less they had to crucify you with.
He nodded and seemed to run out of things to say, and I'd never been good at small talk, so we stood there, all awkward. He was studying me. After an uncomfortably long stretch, he said, "I see War hasn't lost his taste for blue eyes."
"What?" I should have seen it coming. I should have known. But safety had lulled me, dulled my wits.
Hodge's thin lips tipped upward, and he dropped his eyes to his cocktail glass. "Oh, everyone knows how much Warren likes boys with baby blues. He must have been hot for you from the minute he set eyes on you. He's got the seduction down to an art." The eyes finally rose. Blue like mine. "Has he given you a wing feather yet?"
He knew about Warren's wings?
"It's usually nonstop attention," he added, "parties, dinners, a feather . . . sex."
Being shot must feel like this -- a hard punch that ripped through without immediate pain, followed by the sharp burn that made one gasp. Or maybe that was just the effect of half a martini finished in a single swallow. I set the glass down on a dark wood end table and walked out.
I didn't think, just walked. Fortunately, the clubhouse wasn't far from the country club entrance, and this was New York, urban wonderland. Passing through the gates, I exited the private privilege of greenery into the real world. Noisy and concrete dun, loud splashes of color, signs and cars and too many people. I crossed the four-lane road to a large convenience store whose name didn't even register and ducked inside, glanced around for a men's room, then made a bee-line for it down the store aisle. Opening the door, I was met by a heady perfume of old piss and fresh disinfectant. There was no one in there, thank God, and I let the door fall closed behind me, then just stood there, arms wrapped about myself. The fluorescent light illuminated all the dirty corners, and brown paper towels had been dropped in the bottom of one of the urinals, plugging it up. It stank. There was a used Band-Aid on the floor, a button, and a movie ticket stub. The place was cleaner than I was used to, but still recognizable in its plebeian efficiency. No dark wood paneling and elegant lamps on lemon-oiled lowboys with scented soap at the washbasin. This was a john, plain and simple. Nondescript and common, like me.
I started to shake and barely made it into one of the stalls before I threw up in the toilet. The former contents of my stomach left an orange mess in the bowl, and the smell was metallic-sweet, making me gag again.
Push it all out. Rid my body of it. Hope had no place in my life. I'd been deluding myself, shamming. I was a lie right down to the blue Shetland wool sweater and the button down shirt on my back. Pulling the sweater over my head, I wiped my mouth with it, then dropped it on the dirty bathroom floor. Flushing the toilet, I went out again but wasn't ready to face the world, so I went into another stall -- the handicapped stall with more space and aluminum railings -- shut and locked the door, then collapsed on the cold tile, knees drawn up and arms around them.
I don't know how long I sat there. A few guys came to use the urinals, but no one needed a stall, and no one noticed me. After a while, I quit shaking and my mind cleared a bit. I pulled out my wallet to see how much money I had, and how far it would take me. It didn't occur to me to return to the mansion. Even after living there since September, I couldn't fathom Xavier's generosity towards me. It made no sense in my world. People didn't just do things for you, and I'd kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now, it had. The professor belonged to the same social class as Warren -- and I was just a whore. I might look better, dolled up in pretty clothes and trained to play golf, but I had no illusions about where I fell in the larger scheme of things. Xavier might not have wanted me for himself, and Hank's proclivities didn't run in that direction, but I didn't doubt the professor would overlook Warren's pursuit of me if that's what it took to keep a real student at his school.
How funny. Four months ago, I'd have been grateful for such an arrangement. Now, the prospect of it set me on edge to flee. Had I changed so much?
I had only fifty-seven dollars and some odd change. It didn't seem like much, and I realized how spoiled I'd become. But I still remembered how to make it last. First, I'd have to ditch these clothes. Nice slacks and a button-down gave all the wrong signals. That meant a visit to a coin laundry to steal a few things. Where I'd go after that, I had no idea, but I couldn't stay in the city. Even if I could have eluded Xavier, I doubted I could elude Jack Winters for long. Or rather, the places I could hide from Xavier were the same places where Jack had found me in the first place. I wondered, briefly, if Mariana were still in town. Maybe we could leave together -- start a new life. She could work in a supermarket checkout and I'd bag groceries. At least I had a valid picture ID now, thanks to Xavier, and I was sixteen. I didn't have to be in school if I didn't want to be.
My mind was racing over all these things as I was checking the money in my wallet, and I almost didn't notice the slip of paper that fluttered to the floor. Instinct made me snag it and glance at the writing. A phone number I remembered Hank giving to me. His cell phone. Almost, I crumpled it up and threw it in the toilet, but some scrap of that horse sense I so prized stopped me.
Hank wasn't Xavier. And he sure as hell wasn't Warren. He was a farmboy from Illinois with big feet and a bigger brain. And he'd never shafted me. Never. He'd never lied to me, either, that I knew of.
Don't, some part of me whispered. You can't trust anyone.
But I'd just been thinking about trusting Mariana. I looked down at the number again, fingered the paper. I had a cell phone of my own, but it was in Warren's car. I did have a little change, and there was usually a pay phone around places like this. I left the john to go look for it, found it outside where the noise of traffic made it hard to hear.
Why are you doing this? I asked myself as I dropped in the coins and placed the call. Hank would try to talk me out of running, I was sure. Was that what I wanted? But I had only fifty-seven dollars, and traveling cost money. I couldn't stay in the city with a pissed pimp looking for me. Hank might at least give me some cash. I didn't have to take his advice along with it.
The phone rang several times. I'd almost decided to hang up when he answered. "Henry McCoy."
"Hank, it's Scott. I -- "
"Scott! Where are you! My God, man, you have Warren and the professor so panicked they've called the police!"
Oh, shit. Just great. How long had it been since I'd left Warren at the clubhouse anyway? A couple hours? It couldn't be more than a couple hours.
"Scott? Are you there?"
"Where are you? And what happened?"
He sounded so genuinely worried, it threw me. "I don't . . . . I need some money, Hank. I need to split town. Can you give me some money and not tell Xavier?"
Dead silence for three beats, then he said, "Why are you running away?"
"I've just decided to leave."
"I am not a fool, Scott Summers. Neither are you. Talk to me."
"I thought you were on-call? Don't you have patients?" That diversion tactic begged the question of why I'd called him in the first place, of course.
"Yes, I'm on-call, but nothing's critical in the ER right at the moment, and this is important." A beat. "You're my friend. Talk to me."
And what did I say? Leaning up against the half-opaque side of the phone booth, I twisted and untwisted the phone cord around my wrist. I needed a cigarette. "I have to go. There's no place for me in their world, except doing what I did before. Maybe I don't want to do that anymore."
I could hear him breathe a minute, then he said, "Did something happen with Warren, Scott? Did he try to touch you -- ?"
"He didn't do a damn thing! I just got my eyes opened, that's all! Now are you going to help me or not? I've got to get out of town."
"Of course, I'll help. But I want you to come to the hospital, Scott."
"I don't -- "
"You come here, and I'll help. You said you wanted money, anyway. How did you expect me to get it to you? Carrier pigeon?"
That made me laugh for no good reason. "All right." I'd trusted him enough to call him, so I'd trust him enough to see him in person. "You're not going to phone the cops or Xavier and have them waiting for me?"
"No," he said. "I give you my word. You come here and let's talk. No cops. No professor." I twisted and untwisted the cord a few more times and thought about it. "Scott -- ?"
"I'm still here. Okay. Fine. I'll come to the hospital to see you. But you betray me and I'll gut you, Monkey Toes."
"I'd never do that to you, Scott. Not ever. I'll see you soon."
It took me less than forty-five minutes to reach Columbia, but it took me almost two hours to get up the nerve to go inside. I watched the ER doors for a while, like I was casing the joint, then walked all around the building. Finally, I went in through the front doors, not the ER entrance, in order to approach from an unexpected direction. I'd see if he'd kept his word.
Apparently he had. I didn't see Xavier anywhere near the ER, and I looked in all the waiting rooms and even the johns. And there were no cop-types beyond the usual security guard. I finally made my presence known to one of the nurses and was pointed in Hank's direction. I've never seen anyone look so relieved as he did. "Thank God!" he said, gripping both my shoulders and shaking me a little. "I was afraid you'd changed your mind!"
He'd really been worried. That just blew my mind. Hank was no actor, or if he was, he'd been acting since the day we'd met and that defied even my paranoid reasoning. His relief had to be genuine. "I'm here now," I said simply, because I didn't want to let myself care about the fact that he'd been worried.
He was looking around. "I don't see Daphne -- she's the resident in charge. I'm still on duty but just finished with a patient, and it's time for my break. Your timing was fortunate. Come on," and still gripping my shoulder as if he feared I'd disappear into thin air, he steered me out of the ER, back into the hospital proper and down to a bank of vending machines. Seeing them, my stomach growled loudly. I was starving and hadn't even thought about it.
He heard, and eyed me. "When was the last time you ate?"
"Breakfast?" But I'd thrown up most of that in the convenience store bathroom, and it was now late afternoon.
"Let's go to the canteen," he said. "Whatever you decide, you should do it on a full stomach."
I couldn't help but wonder if he'd get into deep shit for this, taking off while he was on duty, but I wouldn't turn down dinner. My stomach seconded the notion by growling again, and he shook his head. "Let's go, Scott."
After we'd gotten food and he'd paid, he took me to a table over in a corner of the big room. So far, he'd kept his word. No cops, no Xavier -- and I'd kept my eyes open, too, just in case. Thus, when he asked, "Now what happened?" I decided to risk trusting him a little further. I told him everything, from my first conversation with Warren in the stable to the illuminating chat with Cameron Hodge in the clubhouse. "I've been an idiot, Hank," I concluded. "How could I have missed it?" It really did seem as plain as the nose on my face now. I'd been a hustler for a year and a half, but I'd overlooked a guy putting the moves on me?
Then again, as a hustler, the only moves made had been an exchange of cash. I wasn't used to being wined and dined, so to speak.
Hank had frowned his way through my entire tale. When I was done, he sighed and pushed away his now-empty salad plate. "This sounds . . . very odd, Scott. I barely know Warren, but I do know the professor. If he'd thought Warren might attempt to coerce you sexually, he'd have put an instant stop to it."
"Hank, they're from the same social class -- "
"No, listen to me." He raised a hand. "Listen to me. You've had very little cause in your life to trust anyone, but please. Trust me on this. Charles Xavier is a man of his word, an ethical human being. He'd sooner slit his own throat than see you abused under his roof. Perhaps he had no idea what Warren had in mind, but I find that hard to believe."
So did I. Xavier was a telepath.
"I can only conclude," Hank said, "that Charles believes Warren to be harmless. The true snake in the grass seems to me to be this Cameron fellow. What makes you think he wasn't lying to you?"
It was a good question. But I'd known he wasn't. Well, not about most of it. Hustler instinct -- the same that had kept me alive on the streets. Yet I wasn't sure how to explain that to Hank so I just shook my head and shrugged with one shoulder. "I just know." I looked off, studied the people coming and going -- visitors, nurses, doctors, indefinable others. "He had blue eyes, too."
"And this proves . . . ?"
"I think he was involved with Warren. He knew about the wings."
"And if he was? Scott, did jealousy as a motivating factor never occur to you?"
Of course it had occurred to me. I had no doubt that jealousy had been Hodge's motivation, but -- "That doesn't make what he said not true."
Sighing, Hank removed his little glasses to rub at his eyes. "Something can be true and still be twisted. Whatever this fellow said, I can tell you this much. When Warren discovered that you had left, he ran out immediately to track you down, but couldn't. You're adept at disappearing; you've had to be, I suppose, but I doubt Warren had any idea of how or where to look. He drove all around the neighborhood for over an hour, Scott. Then he parked the car and flew. In broad daylight when he could be -- and no doubt was -- seen. Not finding you, he flew all the way back to Westchester, because it was faster, then he and the professor called the police. There was not, of course, anything the police could do beyond take information. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the depth of their concern. I cannot say what Warren's intentions are towards you, but I can say that his panic struck me -- and more importantly, struck the professor -- as most genuine."
I didn't know what to think about that, just sat back and chewed on it for a while.
"Scott, will you at least talk to Xavier? He means you no harm. And should I be wrong about that, unlikely though I find it, I will help protect you from him myself. I give you my word."
I studied his face and mulled over his offer. No one would really call Hank a handsome man, but he had an aura of honesty that made him attractive. Betrayal wasn't a skill he'd ever learned, smart as he was. "Okay. I'll talk to him. But I'm not going back to the mansion."
"Fine -- you can stay here at the hospital. Let me call him; I'm sure he'd be willing to come here."
"Tell him not to bring Warren."
So it was arranged. Hank called Xavier and then took me back to the ER floor, showing me where I could wait in a private family room. He didn't lock the door, but I checked, to be sure, then went over to stretch out on the couch. I was all shaky again, like I needed nicotine, but I didn't think they'd let me smoke in here. My world was spinning out of control and I didn't know what to do or who to believe.
When the door opened at last to admit Hank and the professor, I almost jumped out of my skin, then stood up fast. I'd been stupid to agree to this. Xavier was in the doorway. I couldn't get past him to flee. I was caught.
"Thank you, Henry," Xavier said, and motored in until he was well away from the door. It shut behind Hank. "Scott, the path to the door is clear. You could get out before I could reach you. But won't you sit back down on the couch instead, so we can talk?"
"Okay." And I sat down. He motored closer, but not too close. I knew he was reading my fear right out of my head, but since it meant he was keeping his distance, I didn't complain.
"Hank has told me some of what happened, and I talked with Warren before I came. Talked quite frankly with him, Scott." He leaned forward in his chair and studied me. "Warren knows nothing of your past. Nor have I told him. He has no idea why you reacted as you did today -- he fears that you hate him now, that he disgusts you."
And how could I answer that? I couldn't say the idea of sex with Warren didn't disgust me. Then again, the idea of sex with anyone made me a bit sick to my stomach. "All I wanted was a friend," I said. "I just wanted a goddamn friend." My voice sounded small and pathetic even to my own ears.
Xavier sighed and spoke almost sadly, "I know, Scott -- I know. Do you recall your very first day at my house, when I said that if anyone made unwanted sexual advances to you, you should come to me and I would deal with it?" Reluctantly, I nodded. "That hasn't changed."
"Then why didn't you do something about Warren! He wants in my pants!"
"Has he made any advances to you?"
"No. But you can read his mind! You know what he wants!"
"I usually try to avoid invading my students' mental privacy, yet I am well aware that Warren feels sexual attraction to you. We cannot, however, control what we feel. We can control how we act. Has he acted in a way that has made you uncomfortable?"
Angry, but constrained to be honest, I said, "No, he hasn't done anything."
Xavier nodded. "So I'd thought, but needed to be sure. What is intended and how it is perceived is not, always, the same, and I wanted to ascertain that he hadn't acted in a way that made you uncomfortable, however unintentionally."
I nodded, cautiously. "Okay."
"That means your flight this afternoon was entirely a result of what Cameron Hodge said?"
When put that way, it sounded harsh. "But Hodge was right -- you admitted as much yourself!"
"You are confusing two different things, Scott -- genuine affection that includes sexual interest, and pure lust. If I understand what Hank told me -- and feel free to correct me if I do not -- this Cameron Hodge implied that Warren intended merely to seduce you. A notch on his bedpost."
He didn't go further, just stopped to let me chew on that. "And you're saying that's not true?" I asked. "But Warren gave me a feather, just like Hodge said!"
Xavier smiled faintly. "Oh, Warren may have his bag of tricks. I don't doubt that. But no, what Hodge implied is not true. Warren likes you very much. Anything else is in addition to that." He caught my eyes and held them. "As difficult as it may be for you to believe, someone can be attracted to you sexually and still care about you as a person, like you, enjoy your company, even want to be your friend. Should you not give him a chance to explain his own feelings instead of accepting the assessment of a boy driven by probable jealousy?"
Feeling cornered, I didn't reply, just turned my face to the wall. Xavier's eyes slipped half-closed, then he said, "You doubt that you could trust anything Warren says, and wonder if you can trust anything I say. You fear being used. You fear that you matter only for your body. Deep down, you feel worthless, inadequate, isolated. Vulnerable."
All true. All too terrifyingly accurate. I felt myself move back, almost unconsciously, pressing against the rear of the couch -- putting space between us. "I thought you respected your students' mental privacy?" I spat.
His eyes opened again. "I do, under normal circumstances. These are hardly normal. First, you are so upset, Scott, you are broadcasting loudly. I could hardly help but hear you." He bent his chin down and regarded me thoughtfully a moment. "Second, I want to understand -- but not to influence. Your thoughts and decision are entirely your own. Since your arrival at my home, have you ever had cause to believe it otherwise?"
In fact, I hadn't. "Okay. But don't tell me what I feel. It pisses me off!"
"Fine -- then you tell me. When you refuse to talk, how can I understand?
"I don't always know what the hell to say!"
A sharp nod. "Fair enough. And I'm sorry. If you don't know what to say, then can we at least agree that you'll tell me as much? Perhaps, together, we can figure out how to express what you feel. I would far prefer it if you could tell me, not have me tell you."
An odd pact, but I nodded. "That sounds okay."
"Good. Now, back to Warren and your doubts regarding his motives. Has he told you yet about the 'Avenging Angel'?"
"No." But I remembered Xavier making a reference to that the morning we'd rescued him. Now, the professor was pulling several newspaper clippings out of a little pocket on the side of his wheelchair to hold them out. Clearly, he was going to let me approach him instead of the reverse. Still cautious, I rose to do so, taking the clippings and retreating to the couch to unfold them, look them over. Four articles, all about a mysterious winged figure effecting rescues up in New Hampshire -- everything from scaring off a black bear from attacking hunters, to foiling a minor robbery. 'He told me he's an avenging angel,' one of those rescued explained to the paper. I almost laughed. "Who does he think he is? Batman?"
Xavier grinned faintly. "Bats don't have white wings, last I checked."
I waved one clipping. "Is this why you wanted us to rescue him in the first place?"
"No. I wanted us to rescue him for the same reasons he helped those people -- because he could. Because we could."
I folded up the news articles again and gave them back to Xavier. "Do you think Cameron Hodge would have done what Warren did," Xavier asked me as he took them, "if it meant potential exposure? Or if there was nothing in it for him?"
That was easy. "No." But this new revelation about Warren left me more confused than ever. It did sound like the Warren I'd come to know -- and to like. But the fact he was attracted to me still bugged the hell out of me. "I'm not . . . like that," I said finally, because I didn't know how else to explain. "I don't like guys. I don't like anybody. I just -- " I stopped and took a breath. "That part of me is dead, professor. I don't think I can feel that way. I don't even want to." I hadn't masturbated in well over a year and the only way I had an orgasm anymore was unwittingly, in my sleep. I wished I were a store mannequin, smooth and featureless down there. No ugly, funny, demanding penis; no hormones; no sex drive. Just blank.
The professor's eyes were sad. "I'm certainly not suggesting that you should feel for Warren what he feels for you, Scott. But wounds do heal, and I hope a day comes when you find that part of you is not dead. Yet even if you were 'like that,' you wouldn't be ready for a relationship right now. Unfortunately, Warren has no way of knowing that -- much less of knowing why."
I blinked at him dumbly for a moment before my brain caught up with what he was suggesting. "You think I should tell him what I was? No fucking way!"
He waved a hand. "Whether you tell him all of it is up to you. But Warren deserves to know something. You could tell him that you're simply not ready for a relationship of any kind, with anyone. He respects you, and likes you as a person. He said to me before I left that all he wants is your friendship. I don't believe he actually expected anything else, Scott, even if he might have hoped for it." He paused, then asked, "Will you talk to him?"
I thought about it. "He's going to stay at the school?"
"I'm not going to ask him to leave, no."
I sighed. "Then I guess I'll have to." It wasn't like I had anywhere else to go myself.
Warren was nowhere to be seen when we got back. Maybe Xavier had sent him off somewhere on purpose, or maybe he'd just disappeared on his own. In any case, and grateful for the reprieve, I retreated to my room to change, donning the blue pullover Mariana had given me. Comfort clothes. Then I wandered down to the kitchen to ransack the fridge. Hank had fed me at the hospital, but that had been hours ago -- late afternoon -- and I was hungry again. The cook was gone for the night. Xavier entered as I was eating at the little kitchen table, motoring over to join me. He didn't say anything, just looked at me. "What?" I asked, though I knew perfectly well what he wanted.
Sighing, I put down the sandwich. "I don't know where he is. I haven't seen him." Of course, I also hadn't looked.
Xavier's smile was wry and patient; the one he gave me when he still found me amusing, but was about to stop finding me so. "He's on the roof," he told me.
"Oh. Gee, thanks."
"Can I finish my sandwich?"
"Of course." And he motored out again. Sighing, I glanced down at the bread -- good healthy wheat at Hank's insistence -- but didn't pick it back up. I wasn't hungry now. Tension had lodged in my gut like dead dough, all the yeast killed, but the idea of simply throwing away food still bothered me. Taking it out back, I gave the ham to the cats and left the bread for the birds. Then I took off upstairs to grab a jacket and find Warren. No damn sense in putting it off.
Hank had showed me a path onto the roof that even I could manage, out through an attic window that was near enough one of the pitched gables to scramble up and sit on the peak. Warren, of course, wasn't restricted by bipedal limitations. I didn't spot him immediately, then saw him perched on the cross gables dead at the middle of the mansion roof, like a shadow of some great, granite gargoyle. The night wind fluttered his wings. He'd stretched them out, maybe for balance, maybe just to relax the muscles. He must have seen me trying to scramble over the slate shingles towards him because he rose up in the air like Gabriel at the Annunciation, flying to where I was and landing as gracefully as he'd risen. "Sit down before you fall, idiot." And he helped me back to a secure perch on the gable near the attic window, then settled beside me, wings still half extended. They fanned me, lifting my hair lightly. My stomach spun and dipped, and I wasn't sure if that was for his proximity, or the altitude. In any case, we sat together in silence for a while; I couldn't meet his eyes. Somewhere far off, I could hear a truck honk. Now that I was up here, I had no idea what to say, and he didn't, either. Despite how unseasonably warm the day had been, it was cold at night, and I wrapped my jacket more tightly around myself, pulling my cigarettes out of a pocket to light one.
"Care to share?" he asked, and I extended him the pack so he could take one, then handed over my lighter. He's a chipper, not a serious smoker, and never bought his own, just bummed them off me, complaining about the fact I smoked Camels when I could have imported French Gitanes. I told him if he wanted imports, he could buy them himself.
When his cigarette was lit, he said, "What, exactly, did Cameron say to you?"
I wondered how much the professor had told him. "How do you know that he said anything?"
"Because I know that bitch. I wasn't thinking, or I wouldn't have stuck you with him." His smile was self-derogatory. "Bad Worthington."
Shaking my head, I rolled the end of my cigarette carefully on slate to make a cone of ash. Very precise. "What did the professor tell you?"
"Nothing, Scott. Or nothing about what happened. He said I should talk to you, but I didn't think you wanted to talk, so I came up here."
I nodded, answering honestly, "I don't want to talk. But I guess we need to, if we're going to be living under the same roof."
Though his face stayed cool, his wings had started to flutter. I understood now they were shaking in the same way a person's hand might, when nervous or afraid. I focused on the shaking wings, not his serene face. "Do you really like boys with blue eyes?"
Dead silence for three beats, then, "I like blue eyes period, on boys or girls. I like pistachio ice cream, too, but I'll eat anything you give me as long as it's ice cream. It's not the flavor. It's the ice cream."
"So you're what? Omni-sexual? You'll take anything for a lay?"
He burst out laughing and swore vividly at the same time, then wiped his face with the hand holding the cigarette. The dim red glow reflected in wet tracks running down his face. Good God. He was crying. "I meant I'd like you no matter what color your eyes are. It's the you I like, not your eyes. Though I admit, they're pretty spectacular eyes."
"Oh." The tears moved me as thoroughly as the shaking wings. Looking down at the slate between my thighs, I finished my cigarette and thought hard. Maybe the best thing was just to be honest and frank. I flicked the butt away like my inhibitions. "Warren, look, I don't -- "
"You don't have to say anything. I know you're not."
"Shut the fuck up and let me finish." I glared at him, but he stayed quiet. The wings were really shaking now. "And no, I'm not." I looked off across the dark shadow of forest. "But even if I were, the answer would still be 'no.' I don't want a relationship with anyone. It doesn't have to do with you, or whether you like cunt or dick or both." I don't know why I had to make it sound so crass, but I wanted it ugly. I could see his wings flinch. "I'm just not interested in that, and I wouldn't be even if you were a Gabrielle instead of a Gabriel."
A long, long silence. Finally, he said, "So it doesn't bother you?"
"Not like you mean." I half turned back, but kept my eyes lowered. "It's nothing religious or anything. I'm pretty much a lapsed Catholic. If you have a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend, it's cool -- as long as it's not me."
He pondered that a while. I still didn't look at him. The cold was really starting to get to me and I'd begun shaking as well, a bone-deep tremor. I could hear my own teeth chatter. Abruptly his wings raised and arched forward, cocooning me in white without actually touching. It was surprisingly warm, and startled, I glanced up at him. His face was still, but not with the fragile, hold-onto-dignity stiffness that it had been earlier. He seemed . . . sad. "Thanks," I said, tipping my head sideways to indicate the wing windbreaker.
More silence. The wings insulated against more than the wind. They dimmed sound, made the night safe, and I couldn't resist. I had to ask. "Do you always give wing feathers to people you want to sleep with?"
"No. Never. I only give them to friends."
"But Cameron said -- "
"Cameron used to be my friend, Scott. Then he was my lover. Now, he hates my guts."
He shrugged, and the wings shrugged with his shoulders. "His father worked for mine. He couldn't own me. I had wings and he didn't. I have money and he doesn't, or not as much. None of the above. All of the above. I don't know. I'm not sure people like Cam need a reason, or they have so many reasons, none of them count. I should've thought of it, when I asked him to keep you company, but I just honest-to-God didn't figure he'd try anything. Or that you'd take anything he said seriously."
"Why wouldn't I? He didn't lie. I can tell a lie. Most of the time."
"Oh, Cam doesn't lie. He's too good at twisting the truth. But I thought you knew me better."
"Warren, I've known you all of a week."
He cocked his head to regard me, sharply, like a bird of prey, and in that moment, he didn't look quite human. "You know me better after one week than most people know me after ten years. I tell you things I just don't tell."
Astonished, I could only manage, "Why?"
"Because I trust you."
"Do you always make stupid-ass knee-jerk decisions like that?"
"I could rob you blind and you'd never catch me doing it."
"Probably. But you wouldn't. I could leave my wallet on top of my dresser and you'd walk right past because it's not yours. You're honest to a fault, and you're proud. I can trust that."
Oh, I was proud all right. Proud as a whore. He had no idea what I'd do to survive. Steal, con, sell my body . . . . I didn't have a shred of dignity that I could lay genuine claim to. The only reason I wouldn't steal from him now was because I didn't need to. "You have some really funny ideas about me, Warren."
That won an unexpected grin. "I may have a few funny ideas, but I think the rest of them are pretty on-target. If I've learned nothing else about you in the last week, Summers, I've learned that you don't give yourself half enough credit."
Instead of pleasing me, that just annoyed me. "What would you know," I snarled back, "about the credit I give myself? You know nothing about me."
Instantly, the wings flicked away and the sudden return of night wind was chilling -- his expression equally so. "Sometimes I don't get you. And the really sad thing is -- I think you want it that way." We just glared at each other. "I may have told you things I don't tell, but you're right -- I know hardly anything about you. You hide it, don't trust anyone, just take and take. You're a damn clam. It's selfish. Friendship has to go both ways, Scott."
Now, my shaking was from rage, not cold. "You have no right to judge me! You've had everything handed to you on a silver platter."
"Oh, sure. Like being rich makes life okay."
"Would you give it up?"
He threw up his hands. "Some days -- yes! If it meant I could be normal. If it meant I didn't have to hide these damn things." The wings arched and beat for emphasis. "If I could have friends, a lover, a family. Sure. I'd be the son of a goddamn welder if it meant I had a father who gave a shit. I'd be anything at all if it just freakin' meant people didn't hate me!"
The tears were back, but his wings were out and beating hard, half lifting him off his feet. He really did look like an avenging angel, and I knew, instinctively, that he was leveling with me. It was too plebeian and uncreative to be a lie.
But I turned my head down. "I don't know how." I wanted to level with him in return, even as I didn't want to. Sitting on the roof gable with Warren beating the air right in front of me, scared by the sheer possibility of trust, I pulled up my knees and wrapped my arms around them, burying my face against them. "I don't know how!" I screamed. "I don't know how to be your friend!"
He settled back down and the wings stopped. He just held them out as he had before, for balance -- maybe emotional as much as literal. He talked with them as much as he talked with words. "Try," was all he said, then knelt down in front of me. "Try."
I raised my face. "It's hard. To trust. It's so damn hard." And that bared me even more than if I'd stripped naked for him. I'd been naked plenty.
"I don't want to hurt you," he said.
"You want to fuck me," I replied.
He shook his head. "No. I might want to make love to you, if you were interested. But you're not." He shrugged, shoulder and wing. "Fine. I don't know why it scares you. And I can see that it does." He reached out to touch my hair, too fast for me to anticipate and control my reaction. I flinched. "Just like that scares you. I thought maybe it was a religious thing since you're Catholic -- but you said it's not, and I believe that. People recoil in disgust. They don't flinch like they think you're going to hit them." I could see the pieces snapping together in his head -- like one of my damn puzzles -- even as he was speaking. "Can you tell me what happened to you? So I can understand. I won't touch you, Scott. I won't ever touch you without your permission, unless it's an emergency or something. But please, tell me what happened. Why are you so scared to be touched?"
I didn't even realize I was crying until I tasted the salt in my mouth. It was like my first day at the mansion when the professor had confided to me how to hide from him. This, I thought, was the measure of friendship. Giving up what one wanted for what the other needed. A desire to feel with, be with, move the gut -- not just with pity, but with solidarity in pain. Compassion with skin on. Who had taught him to do that?
More, if he could reach beyond betrayals -- could I?
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven . . . We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.
A real, live angel. And it had nothing to do with the wings.
So I trusted. I leapt off the roof of my fears, telling him the one thing for which I most expected to be rejected, and most needed to have accepted.
"I was a hustler. Before I came here. I was a hustler on the street."
He didn't reply immediately. I think shock had stolen his voice. He'd probably had suspicions of child abuse, incest, sexual assault, violent rape . . . but not the bold, bald, nasty fact that I'd made a living sucking cock and taking it up the ass. Nothing tragic about that -- no socially-titillating expos. I was just your common, garden-variety catamite. In the face of that, he was silent. And into the silence, my nervous words tumbled out like a prayer, disjointed in desperation.
"I ran away, from Boy's Town in Omaha. I hopped a bus to New York. My parents died when I was eight. Plane crash. My brother and I survived. He got adopted. I didn't. I was in a coma for a while. They put me in five foster homes after that."
I stopped and just shook for a minute. "Some were okay." I stopped again. The wings had come back around me, white feathers hiding me, shielding me. "Some weren't. I stabbed a guy. I had to. I had to stab him. He kept . . . bothering her. He kept touching her. He shouldn't have touched her like that. She was only six. So I stabbed him. They told me he lived. But then they put me in Boy's Town. I was a troublemaker. Nobody wants a troublemaker.
"Boy's Town is mostly an okay place. But one of the boys in our house -- he used to cut me. All five of us. He made us bleed, and promised to kill us if we told. It was stupid, but I believed him. So I didn't tell. I ran away, instead -- took a bus to New York. I played pool pretty well, but when you're little, it's not a good idea to run cons. You need muscle to con. I was fast instead. Sometimes I was fast enough to get away; sometimes I got caught." I stopped again and rubbed my nose, forgetting for a minute it was mucus, not blood. I stared at my hand, surprised to find it wasn't red. "Jack caught me one night. Told me he'd let me live if I worked for him. So I worked for him." I wiped off the dampness.
"How -- " He choked. "How long?"
"A year and a half, or really, a year and four months." One year, four months and thirteen days. "I had a john who knew about Xavier and he sent me here. The professor thinks I'm a mutant." I wiped my face again. "Funny mutant with no special powers."
"Scott. Look at me." I obeyed. He had one hand held out. "I said I wouldn't touch you without your permission." He didn't move the hand, just held it there. "*I triumphed and I saddened with all weather / Heaven and I wept together / And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine / Against the red throb of its sunset-heart / I laid my own to beat / And share commingling heat . . . And now my heart is as a broken fount / Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever / From the dank thoughts that shiver / Upon the sighful branches of my mind / Such is, what is to be? / The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind? . . . Now of that long pursuit / Comes on at hand the bruit / That Voice is round me like a bursting sea . . . 'All which thy child's mistake / Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home / Rise, clasp My hand, and come!'*"
"God," I muttered, "You're as bad as Hank."
But slowly, I put my hand in his and our fingers clasped tightly. He smiled at me, a human man with angel wings. A star in December. A stable in Bethlehem.
Endnotes: It's so easy to make Warren simplistic in fanfic, but like Scott, he's complex and easily misunderstood. And like Scott, he does have a deep-seated sense of right and wrong. Warren was the Avenging Angel before he was an X-Man. I owe Lelia for some insights into Warren. Cameron Hodge should be familiar to readers of X-Factor. The lyrics are from "The First Noel," and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The poem Warren quotes is "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson, though yes, I know, I took the words out of context. Thanks as always to Naomi for her patient editing.
Story VI is Primary Colors.
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Title: Bethlehem (Special 5)
Series Name: SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | 65k | 10/03/04
Characters: Scott, Warren, Xavier
Summary: Warren comes back to the mansion. What does he want from Scott?
Notes: ADULT - deals with very unpleasant topics. I refuse to glorify prostitution or the scars it leaves.
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