After living in proximity to Xavier for over three years, I'd seen a lot of reserved expressions in his face, including nervousness, but never fear -- and he was fearful on that chartered flight to Cairo. If he had any opinion on the changed nature of my relationship with Jean, it clearly wasn't on his mind. He spent the trip in meditation, leaving the four of us to confer in the back of the jet in quiet voices. In fact, before we'd even left the hotel room in Kavalla, he'd sat each of us down to put telepathic blocks in our minds. 'This won't stop a full-scale assault, but it should cause anyone snooping to slide over you like slick shoes on ice," he'd explained.
"There's a telepath in Cairo?" Jean had asked, face pinched and white. Of us all, she best grasped the gravity of a situation that could alarm the professor enough to place protections in our heads.
"Indeed," was all Xavier had replied, adding, "I shall leave the four of you to find the young lady, while I deal with the telepath."
"Do you want me --?"
"No. I don't want you to use your telepathy at all, in fact, Jean, under any circumstances. The four of you will remain together and I will give you an idea of where this girl can be found, what she looks like, and something of her background -- but shall leave you to convince her to return to New York and then get her back to the plane. If I have not returned by sunrise, you're to depart for Westchester immediately. I've left further instructions for you there."
It was the most unsettling thing I'd ever heard from him, and even if he hadn't said so, I think all of us realized that if he hadn't returned by sunrise, it would be because he was dead -- or worse -- and the instructions waiting would be what to do in such an eventuality. That he'd prepared them even before leaving the States had only fueled my alarm.
But he'd looked at me gravely, and I'd understood that I was in charge. I'm not sure why, even then, it had been assumed that I -- the youngest -- would be the leader, and he gave no formal directive, 'Listen to Scott' or 'Follow Scott.' He'd just looked at me, and when we'd arrived in Cairo and the professor had departed for his confrontation after offering a handclasp to each of us -- me last -- they'd all looked at me, too, and Hank asked, "Where do you want to start?"
That was how I became leader of the X-Men, even if we weren't X-Men just yet.
We'd been told that the mutant girl was hiding out in the Khan al-Khalili marketplace, apparently making a living as a pickpocket, so we went directly there. The place was ancient, with narrow, crowded streets and tiny alley passages shaded by colorful cloth awnings and spilling over with vendors and buyers, both Egyptian and not. It smelled of spices, frankincense, perfume, sweat, and the ever-present bitterness of automobile exhaust. I was overwhelmed by the setting and noise, and when a merchant jumped in front of me, waving a tooled brass bowl and grinning, I actually flinched back. People got too close here and I was reminded even more than I had been in Greece that I preferred a large circle of personal space.
"You know, if she's wearing a veil, I don't know if we'll even recognize her," Jean commented. Many of the women we saw wore head-coverings, and several stands displayed collections of cotton scarves. At one, I ran my hand through the soft fabrics surreptitiously, half embarrassed by my simple pleasure in the sensual, as if it were evidence of some weakness. I'd always liked soft things, from the fur of cats and dogs to the polar fleece blanket on my bed to Jean's fine hair, and a part of me had feared it evidence of some intrinsic effeminacy that had made me a whore. My rational mind told me this was ridiculous, but I couldn't quite erase the feelings, and I jerked my hand away from the cotton scarves -- until I saw Jean reach out for them, too. "Aren't they wonderful?" she asked, as if she just assumed I would agree.
"Yeah," I replied.
She picked one up and rubbed it against her cheek -- then against mine. "I know we're supposed to be looking for the girl --"
"I'll buy it for you," I interrupted, wanting to please her.
"I can buy it for myself --"
"It's not going to break the bank for either of us," I said, taking the scarf out of her hand. "Let me."
There was no price on it, and I had no idea what such a thing would cost, so I paused in confusion; she must have guessed my question from the expression on my face because she said, "Offer about twenty dollars. That's a fair if low price. He'll ask for more, so go up a little, but not too much. You want to be generous, but not look a fool."
I started to ask how she knew all that, then remembered what she'd told me before -- that she knew a great deal more than she'd actually experienced. So I bartered for her scarf, and then laid it over her hair, and for a moment, it was just the two of us in that busy place, until someone -- Hank -- cleared his throat behind us. Blushing, I turned, but he wasn't annoyed or even unkindly amused. "That way or that way?" he asked, indicating two different alleys. Warren, I noticed, was standing out in the center of the roadway, his back to us.
"That way," I said, though I was just pointing at random. "If we keep making right turns, it'll help me keep my sense of direction."
"You assume there is some rhyme or reason to the Khan," Hank replied with humor. "But, I have" -- he reached into the breast pocked of his Cuban shirt and pulled out -- "a map. We're on Sikkit al-Badistan, not far from the old courtyard."
"I'm more worried about finding the girl in all this shit."
"Indeed," was all Hank said.
In fact, it took us only ten more minutes to find her -- because she tried to pick my pocket. Talk about choosing the wrong mark, but it was lucky for us, and dressed as I was in blue silk and good slacks, I looked exactly like what she took me for: a rich boy on holiday in the Mother of Cities.
When I felt a body brush up against me, I instinctively jerked away, and thus, sensed the feather-light fingers fishing in my back pocket (where my wallet wasn't, anyway). Twisting with street instincts, I grabbed her wrist and yanked her towards me -- found myself face to face with brown eyes in a brown face under what must be startlingly white hair under a veil.
She was pretty. And slight. And startled, clearly, to have been caught, twisting in my grasp, hoping that surprise would make me let her go. "You're not going anywhere," I snarled, annoyed that she'd tried to rob me.
She came back with a string of obscenities that put even my vocabulary to shame, ending with, "You cannot make any charge stick, American." And from her tone, it was clear the national label was the worst obscenity of all. Xavier had told us that she spoke English, but I hadn't expected it to be so colorful.
"How about the charge of being a mutant in a Muslim country?" I spat back.
She froze, but only to glare, lips tight with anger. Hank, Warren and Jean had crowded around the two of us, and some of the locals were watching -- and not in a friendly way. They might have suspected the girl had tried to rob me, but she was theirs . . . and we weren't.
"If you think being a mutant would be enough to convict me of anything, you know nothing of the Brotherhood of Islam where even the jinn, spirits of air and fire, may hope for heaven!"
"Maybe, but you are not Muslim," Hank broke in, smiling at her.
Her reaction was so surprised that she didn't think to deny it. "How would you know?"
"We know quite a number things about you Ororo Munroe." He was still smiling, trying to look friendly, despite my grip on her arm. "We know your father, David, hailed from New York, a professional photojournalist, and your mother, N'Dare, was royalty from the Kikuyu tribe of the Bantu, in the central Kenyan highlands. They met in Nairobi, where you were born, and then moved to Cairo, where they died -- leaving you at the mercy of the Egyptian streets."
Her mouth had fallen open in shock, and Hank added quickly, "We aren't here to harm you. In fact, we came to protect you and take you back to New York -- help you find your father's family in the city, if you wish."
Lips thinning at that last, she tried to yank her wrist out of mine, but even if my grip had relaxed somewhat, I was still on guard. "Sorry," I told her while she twisted at the end of my arm like a fish on the line.
"If you really knew anything about me, you white sons of a bitches, you would know my father's family does not want anything to do with his African by-blow."
Hank didn't miss a beat. "Then we could help you to return to your mother's family in the Central Highlands."
She spat at his feet. "I am even worse to them, half American black. I was why my parents came to Cairo." Then she turned her angry face away.
That seemed to run Hank out of words, but I recognized her anger and fear, her distrust and the outright contempt for charity. No amount of fast talk in the middle of a city street was going to overcome it. She didn't trust us, and why should she? We'd done nothing to merit it.
Turning to the other three -- without letting go of the girl -- I said simply, "Let me talk to her." All three of them looked at me for a moment, looked at my hard grip on the girl's wrist, but then drew back without protest.
"We'll be down this alley," Hank said, pointing to one that boasted coppersmiths. And they left.
The girl Ororo seemed astonished by this interplay. "What the fuck was that about?"
"Talk to me for twenty minutes?" I asked. "I'll let you go, you give me twenty minutes, and if you're not convinced, you can leave. I won't chase you."
Her smiled turned sly. "You could not catch me, American."
"You might be surprised." And I held up the wrist I still held, to underscore the point. "And my name's Scott."
The dark eyes narrowed, then her chin came up. "All right. Twenty minutes. You buy me tea."
"Fine." I let her go. This was part of the test, but she stayed where she was, and I decided I might actually have an ice-cube's chance in hell with her.
I let her lead me to a caf called El-Fishawi tucked down a narrow street off al-Badistan. It obviously catered to tourists, with Turkish coffee, various treats, and the wonderful, cool mint tea preferred in North Africa from Morocco to Egypt. On the way, I told her a little about myself. "My father was in the air force; he and my mother were killed in a plane crash when I was eight." Her head whipped around at that. "So yeah, I'm an orphan, too -- I was shuffled around foster homes till I got fed up and took off." It was the Reader's Digest version, but I had limited time.
"Wait, don't tell me," she said then. "You are here to save my soul with your American Jesus."
I snorted at that. "Not hardly. Not here to save your soul at all -- just want to talk to you." Her glance was sharp, but our tea had arrived where we were seated at a small, rickety white table on the sidewalk. She sipped from the cup and closed her eyes in pleasure. Just as I had once, she'd learned to take delight in the small blessings between ugly necessities. A good book, a good cup of tea, a bit of chocolate cake . . . once, the possibility of such things had been all that had pulled me from moment to moment. "What Hank told you earlier is true," I said now. "We are here to take you to New York -- if you want to come. We have a safe house there for people like us."
"'People like us,' eh? What makes you think I am anything like you? And there is nothing free in this world, American." She raised her tea cup. "This for your twenty minutes. An exchange. So tell me what you really want from me."
"Nothing. It doesn't work that way. Charles Xavier, who runs the house, is a mutant, too, and he has money -- so he chooses to help other mutant kids who don't. It's that simple."
Yet even as I said it, I knew she'd just laugh at me, which she did. I would have laughed once, too. It had taken me more than three years to move from where I'd been to where I was now, and she certainly couldn't do it in twenty minutes. What on earth had I thought I might say to convince her in such limited time?
And suddenly, unexpectedly, I remembered the man in the silver jaguar -- Erik Lehnsherr. He'd come to me on the streets of Alphabet City one night, offering to buy me dinner if I'd listen to him. I couldn't even remember now what he'd said while I'd eaten. I'd been too focused on the food, and I'd gone with him to a hotel afterward because he'd asked. I'd assumed that part of the deal. He'd been gentle with me, and paid me well with extra just for me, so when I'd seen him again, standing by his silver jag on the same corner where we'd first met, I'd approached him. And so it had gone until he'd left New York, leaving me with an address that had taken me to Charles Xavier's door.
But that had taken five months, not twenty minutes, and my futile attempts with the Streetlight brochures should have taught me that no one changed his or her worldview overnight. People weren't usually ready to listen until at the end of their rope, and I remembered then, too, what Xavier had said to us in the Kavalla hotel. This girl was in danger of her life.
She didn't look it just now, sitting in the shade of an awning and sipping mint tea, watching people pass. But then, one rule of the street was never to show fear. Leaning across the table, I said softly. "Look, I don't know jack shit about you except that you're an orphaned runaway who makes a living as a thief. Maybe you like it, maybe you don't, but we were told you're in serious danger, and the way I see it, you have two choices. Stay here with the devil you know who might kill you, or try the devil you don't. I'm not asking you to trust us because I wouldn't trust us if I were you. I didn't trust the professor for months. Maybe not for years. I do now, but you'd be a lot stupider than I think you are if you took me at my word.
"I will tell you that he doesn't want you for his bed, and he doesn't want you to work the streets -- either thieving, fucking, or selling. He'll give you a room, and food, and an education. What does he want back? Some respect, an effort on schoolwork, and some help around the mansion. He doesn't need anything else from people like us that he couldn't buy already. Why should he give a shit in the first place? Because rich people are like that. They have this whole noblesse oblige thing going on. And he chooses to help mutants because he's a mutant. Like you. Like me. Like the other three you saw."
I sat back then and spoke normally. "So pick your devil."
She eyed me for long minutes. "You may have been on the street, but you are not like most street kids."
"And you are?"
I had her there, hoisted on her own pride, and she snorted delicately. "My mother was a princess; she should have married a king."
"You resent her for marrying an American."
The bitter smile again. "I don't like Americans."
"I don't like princesses."
She laughed. "You know, I may not like Americans, but I think I could like you." Then the smile fell off her face. "Unfortunately, I cannot take your offer. The devil I know is devil enough to find me, even if I fled to the States."
I thought of Jack O'Diamonds, and didn't try to deny that, but, "I think we can protect you. We have resources besides just cold cash and contacts."
She dropped her eyes, speaking softly, "He also has 'cold cash' and contacts, and is a mutant. He does not release anyone from his service, ever. He owns the Khan al-Khalili, and everyone here, to one degree or another. They call him the Shadow King. Nothing happens in this city without his knowledge and consent. Even now, I am certain that he knows I am talking to a stranger, and I shall pay for it later." Her lips quirked up and she touched the tea. "But I think it may be more useful than dangerous. I can prove my loyalty to him by refusing you." She stood. "Good-bye, American. I thank you for the tea."
No way was I giving up that easily. Standing, too, I said, "Wait." She let me approach her close enough to whisper. "Is he a telepath?" I remembered what the professor had said, and this must be the same man.
Her eyes were somber. "Yes."
"My professor's a telepath, too. That's how we knew those things about you."
"So you belong to him."
"No. He doesn't control me."
"How could you know?" she asked, genuinely curious.
"Because he lets me disagree with him."
"Perhaps he does so only that you might think yourself free?"
It was a suitably Byzantine rational but Machiavellian logic cut through it like a Gordion knot. "It's possible, but there's no motive. It wouldn't gain him anything."
"Gain need not always be concrete, American. What of the sheer pleasure in controlling? Power is its own reason."
"My name is Scott, not American," I snapped, because she had me. I'd been thinking like a Westerner -- but this wasn't the West. Nonetheless, "Power may be its own reason, but it's also an addiction -- and like any addiction, it creates tolerance. You have to have more, and pretty soon, the addiction becomes obvious to everybody. I know about addictions, and I think after living with the professor for three years, I can say he's not addicted to anything except his pipe and Earl Grey." Bending closer, I added, "And if there's anybody who can beat your Shadow King, it's Charles Xavier."
For just a moment, hope twisted her features, then she shook her head. "He only thinks so because he has not met Amahl Farouk."
"Or maybe Amahl Farouk thinks he's tough shit because he hasn't met the professor."
She laughed. "American arrogance."
"It's a crap shoot, Ororo. Charles Xavier, Amahl Farouk -- one is going to win. And sometimes you have to gamble everything to be free, it you want freedom strongly enough. Die free or live a slave. I know what I'd choose."
"You have always chosen thus?"
She was mocking me and I clenched my jaw. "No -- but if I had it to do over again, I'd rather die than go back."
"But it is my life, not yours, at risk for my freedom."
"It might be both our lives." And I realized that, if the professor failed, it really might be. Mine and Jean's and Hank's and Warren's. "We'd do our best to protect you. I sure as hell won't give you up, if Farouk comes knocking." I recalled a rainy night in the spring, three years ago, and the men with guns who'd broken into the mansion. "They didn't give up on me, once."
She seemed intrigued by that. "Who came looking for you?"
"The man who'd owned me, on the street." I saw no reason to go into detail. "The others fought him, and then they covered for me when he was dead."
Staring off across the sun-drenched roadway, she considered her options. Accept our offer, or turn us down, return to this Farouk, and hope her loyalty saved her life for whatever fatal sin she'd committed. Finally, she turned her dark eyes back to me said simply, "No." But she'd also taken a pen out of her slacks and was scribbling on a paper napkin. "The Shadow King is my master," she went on. "I shall remain his loyal servant." Then she walked away.
I waited a moment before glancing down at the napkin. On it, she'd written: 2 hours, 2 blocks west, leather stand with blue awning.
Using the napkin to wipe my mouth, I shoved it in a pocket to eliminate the evidence, then headed back to find the other three. As promised, they were down the coppersmith's alley and when I joined them, Jean asked, "No luck?"
I just handed over the napkin. "She's being watched," I said softly. "They'll be following her there, too, so I shouldn't try to meet her again. Jean, why don't you put that scarf over your head and meet her instead? We'll get a taxi and be ready to leave in a hurry, to get back to plane."
Jean nodded, and we meandered about until the designated time, then Jean slipped off while Warren, Hank and I made our way to the edge of the Khan, hailing one of the ever-present cabs to wait. Fifteen minutes later, Jean arrived with the girl Ororo in tow. No one appeared to be following them, or even to notice as they climbed into our cab, though I was sure it was all marked. I just hoped this 'Shadow King' was preoccupied enough with the professor to keep him from interfering with our cab driver, as we were at the man's mercy to return us to the airport. All of us were tense, Ororo most of all. She had only a small bag with her and when she'd tumbled into the cab rear, Hank had asked, "That's all you have?"
"That is all that I need," she'd replied.
So we headed back to the airport, stopping on the way to pick up some food since we had no idea how long of a wait we'd have. We made sure to get some for the pilots, as well. Xavier hadn't taken the plane that Hank fondly called the "X-jet." It was a bit too conspicuous. Instead he'd borrowed Warren's family jet. Jean was distracted in the car, as if not fully aware of what was going on around her, which worried me, but she didn't say anything, so I wasn't sure if I should ask.
It was early evening by the time we'd returned to the plane; we ate, then sat waiting. Hank, Warren and Ororo played cards along with one of the pilots. I stayed in back with Jean, but we didn't talk. I'm not sure at what point I made the decision to go back for the professor -- perhaps I'd made it as soon as he'd told us to leave him -- but the longer we waited, the more certain I became that he needed me. Finally, I asked, "Jean, what's going on?"
"I'm not sure," she said slowly. "Some kind of . . . battle. I can feel it, or the echoes of it, like you'd feel waves from a disturbance in the water. I'm not reaching, but it's so powerful, I can't help but sense it."
"Yes. And this other telepath, I'm sure."
"How long has it been going on?"
"Hours. Although it became really intense at sunset."
Nodding, I rose to pace. It was dark now, and I had no idea what the marketplace would be like after the sun went down. There were parts of New York one didn't enter after dark -- and I'd worked some of them -- but Europe wasn't as dangerous, at least, not Greece. I didn't know about Cairo, but I knew who did.
"I'm going after my professor. I need to know what you can tell me about this Shadow King, and where he can be found."
Hank, Warren and Jean all stared, but none seemed either surprised or inclined to argue. Only Ororo replied, "You are quite mad."
"Probably. Tell me how to find him."
So she did.
If they hadn't argued with my decision to go back, they all argued to go with me -- except for Ororo, who had more sense, and no reason to play hero. I had more sense, too, but I wasn't leaving the professor out there alone. "No," I told them, "I'm going alone. It's quickest, and has the best chance for success."
"You may need me," Jean said. "This Shadow King's a telepath."
"One way out of your league."
"You can't try to protect me, Scott, just because --"
"I'm not," I interrupted. "But they're more likely to need you here." I studied her face a minute. "You'll know if he dies, won't you?" It sounded harsh, but I was thinking in practical terms. She nodded, face anxious. "Good. Then if that happens, get the hell out of Dodge. I'll find a way to get home by another route." Not before I killed the Shadow King, however. But I didn't say that.
"The professor specifically told us not to follow him," Hank interjected, "and to go back to New York if he didn't return by sunrise."
"And you really thought I'd do that?"
Hank's smile was brief. "Not really. But I do think he expected me to make sure that you did."
"And are you going to try?"
It wasn't, quite, belligerent, but we held gazes a moment. Finally, he said, "No," and dropped his gaze. "Be careful."
"Absolutely." Grabbing my visor from the bottom of my backpack, I headed out.
Ororo had said that the Shadow King could be found in the Bein al-Qasreen on the northern edge of the Khan. He owned a palatial, three-story, medieval brick building with fancy scalloped roof, arched windows, and palm trees framing the entry. I cased the place for a while, as anonymously as a white man could after dark in old Cairo, and was leaning up against the side of a building further down the street, when I felt a touch on my shoulder, and spun. Then my jaw dropped. It was Ororo. She was the last person I'd have expected to follow me.
"What are you doing here?"
"Where are the others?"
"I assume back at your plane." My baffled look must have asked my question for me, because she elaborated, "I told them that while I appreciated the concern, I had decided not to accept your offer of sanctuary after all, and left."
"They didn't try to stop you?" I was astonished.
"Well, yes, they did try to talk me out of it, but as you yourself stressed, it is my choice."
I could figure out the rest on my own. She must have told them she was refusing our help so they wouldn't try to follow her and wind up with all five of us back in the shark's mouth. Clever. "But why?" I asked. "You told me I was crazy."
"You are." Then she paused a moment before continuing, "But you need me."
Pride pricked, I snapped, "I can take care of myself."
"Yes, I think that you can. As can I. Nonetheless, together we have a better chance than either of us would alone."
Which was true, but it still didn't answer why she was risking herself in the first place when she didn't have to. "I thought you didn't trust the professor? Why come with me to rescue him?"
She considered that, though she was watching the building, not me. After several minutes, she said only, "Because he lets you disobey. You said that he lets you argue with him, which might be a ploy, but he lets you disobey. No one disobeys the Shadow King and lives. So I have made my choice."
I nodded. She'd just told me quite a lot in four sentences, and I suddenly understood why Xavier had flown halfway around the world for this girl's sake when there were others closer to home who needed help, too. Needing help didn't necessarily mean that would take it, as I'd discovered for myself in Alphabet City. But this girl was a survivor -- like me. More than that, she felt compassion enough to help her helper, but without being a fool about it. As much as I loved Jean, Warren, Hank, and the professor, none of them was like me. Ororo was. And almost from the beginning we've understood one another with a glance and a minimum of words; she knows what I'm thinking, and why, and it's allowed us to work together seamlessly for seven years. In the field, it's Ororo who reads my mind, not Jean, and it began that night in Old Cairo.
"So you still think they're on the third floor?" I nodded to the building.
"Yes. The ground floor has a tea room, reception room, the front desk, and a banquet hall. Most of the employees will have left for the night, but there is much security, and as I warned you, we should avoid entering on that floor at all."
"The fire escape."
"Around back, yes, on the east. The second floor contains offices mostly, and there are electronic alarms, but I can neutralize those. That is why I came. I am the best thief in Cairo." It was a statement, not a boast, and I didn't doubt it for a minute. "There is an elevator, but we should not use it. There are two sets of stairs, east and west, and both will be guarded." I just nodded. "The third floor is entirely given over to his living quarters. There is a master kitchen, a dining room, a study, a diwan, the servants' quarters, and his bedchambers. I suspect he will be in the diwan."
"What's a diwan?"
"Barbarian." But she smiled in the dark. "It is a room to entertain guests, of course."
I snorted. "I wouldn't think he'd consider the professor a guest."
"Tsk, tsk. Hospitality, American. Even for the enemy."
"You people are so strange."
"And you are brutish and blunt."
"I thought you liked me blunt?"
"I find you refreshing. But you are still a barbarian."
I just laughed. "I'll take care of the guards."
She eyed me. "How?"
I tapped the side of my face near my visor. "I wear the headgear for a reason. My mutation is an optic blast. I could level this whole city block inside five minutes." She raised an eyebrow, but didn't question me. "So I'm not worried about the guards, but I am worried about Farouk. The professor put blocks in my head so Farouk can't sense me coming unless he's looking for me in particular --"
"He cannot read my mind, at all" she interrupted, and her smile was bitter. "That is why he will not let me go. He will never let me go because he cannot control me as he can the rest."
"You're a telepath, too?" Xavier hadn't told us what her mutant gift actually was.
"No. I cannot say why he cannot read me, but I am no telepath." She spat on the sidewalk.
"But you are a mutant?" She nodded. "What do you do?" In answer, she pointed up, and baffled, I followed the direction of her finger to the night sky overhead. "So?"
"Do you see the clouds?"
"Yeah?" Then it hit me. Clouds in Egypt were hardly common. "Oh."
"I have drawn them here slowly, so it is not so obvious. But I might have need of the lightning."
"Like Zeus, huh?"
"They called me a goddess in Kenya." Her smile was impish, then it fell away. "Or a witch, and stoned me."
"How about 'Storm Queen,' your highness?"
She laughed at that. "As you will, American." Then she asked, "Are you ready?"
She led me down alleys to the building's rear and we made our way up the fire escape like cats. On the second-floor landing, she pulled a set of lock-picks from a secret pocket somewhere and opened a window to let us in, then neutralized the alarms as promised. I was as impressed as hell; I'd never seen anyone work that fast. With the overcast, it was very dark, and I was grateful for the infrared that Hank had installed in my visor. We padded down a long hall decorated by fine, tooled brass lamps and tile mosaics. The offices were all dark and silent, but there was a light coming from somewhere around a corner, and we stopped at the edge. I could see her outline, and the tilt of her head in that direction, telling me that the guards would be there.
Low to the ground, I peered around the corner. Two men dressed in dark linen suits stood on either side of a door. It had to be the stairwell, but I couldn't read the Arabic sign. The guards had that look I'd seen before -- the fish-cold eyes of men without a conscience. Or perhaps I just needed justification for what I was about to do in the name of necessity. I'd killed before, but accidentally. Now, I might have to kill intentionally.
I got off two shots before either even knew I was there, red beams slamming into each. They went down with barely a grunt. "Are they dead?" Ororo asked behind me, voice curious more than disapproving.
"I don't know," I answered. "I wasn't trying to kill, but I'm not an expert yet at the finer points." And I realized that I really didn't want to know if I'd killed them. Uncertainty was better.
She snorted and stepped out past me, approaching to peer at the downed men. Neither moved. "There will be more above," she warned.
Opening the door, she led me upstairs.
Farouk's personal quarters were ostentatious to the point of gaudiness. Elaborate tapestries and thick carpets muffled sound while gilded lamps cast a low light on fine glass and ivory carvings. No one was about, but voices echoed in the distance along with a clatter of pots. Ororo led me down a short hall and paused at a corner, using sign language to indicate that there would be more guards beyond. I nodded. We'd been as quiet as mice, but so close to the heart of the Shadow King's lair, I couldn't be sure he wasn't aware of us. We sat and listened for a while, but nothing untoward happened, and finally we made our move. These guards went the way of the first two, but there was no door on this 'diwan,' just an arched opening, and no hiding our presence now. We paced forward like a pair of lions, ready to attack.
Inside were just the two men, the professor in his wheelchair opposite Amahl Farouk. Overhead fans stirred the torpid night air, and the Egyptian was seated in what looked to be an iron-reinforced washtub more than a divan.
He was the fattest man I'd ever seen.
Focused entirely on each other, neither turned at our entrance -- but they were aware of us. I could feel the professor's mind like a palpable thing, yet he diverted no attention from Farouk. Of the titanic battle that Jean had said was occurring, there was no outward sign. The two might have been a pair of cats involved in a staring contest. Surreal.
Then Farouk spoke. "So this is your pup, Charles? And my lovely Ororo with him. Quite the pair they make -- so fierce, like desert hawks. I wonder what kind of children they would produce? I shall enjoy mating them."
The threat might have been comical, like something out of a bad science-fiction movie, except for the cold dispassion in the voice that told me we were no more than livestock to a man like Farouk. I raised my hand to the trigger on my visor. "Die, you fat son of a bitch."
But my hand froze hard and I couldn't move a muscle. Xavier's blocks shattered like fragile glass and the Shadow King gripped my mind with a brute force I'd never imagined. I had no defense at all as he ripped me open. Deluded child, he whispered inside my skull. This is the man you consider your father? The man you would die for? See him for who he really is --
And Farouk forced me to look at things I hadn't wanted to know, had spent three years avoiding, in fact.
Yet I had no chance to react because two things happened simultaneously. In the instant of Farouk's divided attention, Charles Xavier struck. I'd known he was a powerful telepath, but only because Hank, and later Jean, had said so. My confidence in his ability to defeat Farouk had been blind faith, and my presence here proof that my faith wasn't perfect. Yet now, still gripped by Farouk's brutal mind, I felt the stunning shock of Xavier's power fall on him like a two-handed telepathic claymore. Farouk barely had time for surprise before he simply ceased to exist.
At the same time, I heard the blast of a gunshot, and my eyes -- which were still open -- saw Farouk's head explode and his fat body slump. Rich red and pale, spongy brain matter stained white linen robes and the wealth of cushions padding his chair.
Released, I collapsed to my knees. My ears were ringing, but I wasn't sure if that were from the gunshot or the residue of Farouk's mental grip. The gun fell to the floor beside me, right out of Ororo's nerveless fingers. "I killed him," she said, sounding almost surprised.
"No," Xavier said softly. "I did. You need not bear the weight of that, Miss Munroe."
"He's right," I gasped out. "Farouk was dead already."
"Scott --" Xavier said.
"Don't talk to me!" Farouk might be dead, but his poison remained, deep in my blood and stopping my heart. I looked up at the professor, and he could see that I knew. "You're no better than he was."
I got to my feet then, turned on my heel, and left the room. I didn't care what I met with below; I was too shocked to care about anything. In fact, I met no one at all. The entire building had been emptied, and in the street outside, Ororo's rain was still falling, but no one took notice of me. Xavier's handiwork, no doubt, but as long as I wasn't stopped, it didn't matter why. So I exited the building into the rain and the night, and just kept walking.
I wandered down street after street in the Khan until I collapsed at a table outside a closed caf -- maybe the same one where I'd had tea with Ororo earlier that day. My head was reeling and my heart beat too fast. The rain clouds had disappeared, but I was still soaking wet and shivering in the cold, desert night air. I wanted a cigarette, yet had none. Pulling up my feet on the edge of the seat, I wrapped arms around them and rested my chin on my knees. Now that I'd had an hour, I wasn't quite as panicked, but I still had no idea what to do next, so I just sat there, stunned.
Xavier found me, of course. When I heard the whine of his chair, I considered running, but then just sat and watched him motor around items in the alley as if it were an obstacle course. Once, I'd have leapt up to clear his path, but this time, I decided if he wanted to talk to me that badly, I'd let him find his own way. Of course, looking back, I realize those were probably the most difficult fifty feet he ever traversed -- and not due to what blocked his way. It would have been so much easier to have sent a proxy -- Jean, or Warren, or even Hank -- yet in the end, he was the one I needed to talk to, not them. We had to have this out between the two of us alone.
When he'd gotten within ten feet of me, he stopped and waited. He offered no excuses, no explanations, just waited. There was no one else around and the empty alleyway felt eerie. Overhead, the sky glowed with the reflected light of the Mother of Cities.
After the weight of waiting had grown too heavy, I finally asked only, "Why?" There were a hundred other things I might have said, but in the end, it all boiled down to that one question that made all the difference in the world. "Why did you let him do it?"
Xavier knew I wasn't talking about Amahl Farouk. "Because I didn't know," he replied.
"You had to know," I spat back. "You're a goddamn telepath!"
He sighed. It was a small sound in the dark, and then he dropped his eyes to frown at his hands folded loosely in his lap. "I loved him," he said simply. "I didn't want to think he could do such a thing, so I refused to admit my own suspicions." He looked up again and light from a distant lamp glittered off the dampness in his eyes. "I'm sorry."
I wanted to believe him, I wanted to believe that he honestly hadn't known, but the poison injected by Farouk was too venomous, and my own past too bitter. It was easier to believe in betrayal. "You were lovers. You never told me that. You never even told me you were a goddamn fag. After everything that happened to me, why didn't you fucking tell me?" The words fell out of my mouth like stones -- hard and murderous. I stoned him verbally. "You were his lover and he was fucking me and you fucking let him do it. You said you'd protect me against anyone who touched me -- except for him. You didn't protect me from him because you loved him more. But I trusted you!"
The wetness in his eyes spilled over, sliding down his cheeks. "I didn't know, Scott. Yes, I ought to have known, but I didn't, and you have every right to be angry. And yes, I did love him more than you -- then. I didn't know you yet.
"For you, this is simpler. For you, he was only 'the man in the silver Jaguar,' and for all he was kind in some respects, fundamentally, he used you -- and you've healed enough now to recognize that. Once, you didn't, you know -- but now, you do, and that's a good thing. Your anger is justified. I'm not trying to excuse what he did; in fact, I'm not sure I'll ever really understand it. But to me, he was Erik -- my friend and partner. That he could do such a thing -- that he would do such a thing . . . I'd not have credited it, and didn't want to believe it, even when the evidence mounted. But Scott, did you never ask yourself why Erik left New York?"
I pulled in my chin, but had to shake my head.
"He left because I ordered him to. I'd like to say it was entirely over you, but it wasn't. You were, nonetheless, the catalyst. I did find out, Scott. And when I found out, I confronted him about it. Erik claimed to have reasons for what he did. I didn't -- and don't -- agree with them, but like you, he was wounded as a boy. He lived through the Holocaust, and it marked him. He believed that he knew what it would take to get through to you, and that I, raised in privilege, couldn't know. He accused me of navet, of believing too much in human goodness, and said that I refused to do what was truly necessary for the greater good. I told him that if there are no good means, there can be no good end -- but Erik believes the ends justify the means, or at least might excuse them.
"None of this was a new argument. We'd argued it for years, yet our disagreements were always ideological with nothing concrete to break us, nothing on which we couldn't compromise -- until you. As I said, you were the catalyst. I told him I couldn't live with a man who would use a child in the belief it could save him. Erik said I wasn't willing to do what was it took when that was ugly." The professor drew a shaky breath. "Perhaps he's right, but there are lines I will not cross." He drew another breath, then his shoulders sagged. "So. I should have recognized sooner what he was doing, but I didn't, because I loved him."
I'd listened silently through the whole thing, still wanting to believe, but suspicious. Yet deep down, I'd known it all along -- or at least suspected it. Just as he had with Erik, I hadn't wanted to see the truth, so I'd remained stubbornly blind to the big pink elephant in the mansion. Once or twice, Jon Bennett had tried to broach the matter with me, but I'd resisted because I'd needed a hero, needed one person in my life to be pure, to always know and do the right thing. It was the need of a child, the child I hadn't been able to be from the age of eight on.
I wasn't eight anymore. And Xavier wasn't perfect. And inside me, something collapsed, thundering into rubble, like a temple or an ideal. The professor wasn't a god.
"Why didn't you tell me all this at the beginning?"
He sighed for a third time. "You weren't ready to hear it, Scott. Had I told you that Erik Lehnsherr and I had lived together and shared a bed for thirty-five years, you might never have trusted me enough to stay. And you needed a safe place, and someone to trust. Think back to how you reacted when you discovered how Warren felt about you?"
"But I learned to accept it," I pointed out.
He nodded. "Yes, you did. But Warren wasn't the one you depended on to be your protector. I was. You had to feel that your boundaries would be respected absolutely. Counselors don't tell their patients all about themselves, Scott. It's inappropriate; the therapy isn't about us. But later . . ." He shook his head. "Later, you'd stopped being my patient, or even my student. You'd become my son." He looked up finally to meet my eyes. "I was afraid of losing you. I think I knew you'd find out the truth eventually, from sheer logic if nothing else, but a larger part of me hoped you never did."
I wanted to say that he'd lost me now for sure, except he hadn't. I was angry, hurt, disillusioned, but I still loved him -- and I thought this might be how he'd felt when he'd found out Erik hadn't just been talking to me, down in Alphabet City. I also realized that my greatest anger wasn't that he'd trusted Erik. It was that he hadn't trusted me enough.
"I could have handled it," I insisted now. "Maybe not at first, not in the first weeks, or months, but yeah, I could have handled it. It would've been easier coming from you. Now . . . " I trailed off. "Now I don't know what I feel about it."
He nodded. "You need time, and space, I think. Your home is still your home, Scott. None of that has changed, nor will it. I chose you to be my heir, and if I haven't done entirely right by you, I'll hardly penalize you for that --"
"Let me finish. You can go back to Greece with Jean, Hank and Warren, continue your vacation, or you can come home, whichever you prefer. I do need to take back Miss Munroe, but if you come with us, I'll certainly respect your need for distance, while you sort out how you feel --"
He droned on but I'd stopped listening. My anger was building again, born of frustration. And I wasn't at all sure why. He was trying to reassure me, give me space, do all the right things . . .
And then I understood why I was mad.
"Would you shut the fuck up for a minute?" I snapped.
Stunned, he closed his mouth and I just glared, saying finally, "Yeah, I'm pissed off! And I don't know what all I feel. But if I'm your son, then stop talking to me like I'm your freakin' patient!" He didn't reply, and after a moment, I went on, "Thank you." And strangely, I felt better for taking charge. "I don't know what I want to do about vacation. I'll talk to Jean. But I'd like to come back and help with Ororo. I understand her, I think." And unlike Lehnsherr, I believed I could reach her without taking advantage of her in the process.
I stood up, no longer feeling so much at a loss. It would take a while for me to sort it all out, and I did need space, and time, but I wasn't running like I had once from Warren. If I felt confused and angry, I didn't feel scared. "I told you I could handle it," I said. "I'm not a little boy any more, professor."
"I know," he said solemnly. "You have become a very special young man."
I smirked at his use of 'special.' I wasn't special, just a man -- and I thought that maybe I could learn to accept that Xavier was, too.
Jean and I did return to Greece for a week, though Hank went back to New York with Xavier and Ororo, and Warren elected to meet some friends in Istanbul. I think he welcomed the opportunity to withdraw gracefully while Jean and I found our footing as a couple.
I talked to Jean a lot that week. She'd known Erik Lehnsherr, too. What she hadn't known was the role Lehnsherr had played in bringing me to the mansion, or that I hadn't realized he and Xavier had been a couple. I hadn't shared all the details of my past with her, even if she knew the gist of everything. Now her surprise -- and sorrow and anger -- gave me some perspective on Xavier's reaction. Jean and Erik had been close, and part of the reason she hadn't come to the mansion the fall I'd arrived wasn't just due to the demands of biochemistry class. Like a child of divorce, she'd been grieving over the split between her mentors.
So we both had a lot of anger to work through, and needed the week alone together to do it. We also needed the week to get used to one another, and I discovered a few things. First, sex really did improve with practice, and there were times I didn't flake out at all. But at other times, 'secondary impotence' was a problem. Jean was always patient, content to hold and be held, but I felt guilty. I was broken, and she could do better than me, but when I said as much, she flew into a towering rage just as she had the morning after our first encounter. "What gives you the right to decide what I 'deserve,' Scott Summers!"
Second, I discovered that I wasn't ready yet to share the same room with someone, day after day. I might crave companionship, but paradoxically, I also craved space. So when we returned to Westchester, we maintained our separate rooms, and if I did eventually move in with her -- or she moved in with me -- by then, I had an office that was mine alone. I'll probably always need space like that, and she understands. Sometimes I think the fact we're still not married after so many years is a factor of the same need. New York doesn't recognize it, or we'd be common law by now. It's not that I don't love her, or can't make a commitment, it's just the label married. It feels trammeling. In every way that matters, I belong to her, and she knows it. The kids even call her "Mrs. Summers" in jest -- which annoys her. When we do marry, she won't take my name, and I don't expect her to. I like it that she won't. We're partners, not possessions.
In any case, one morning not long after our return, Jean had a long conversation with Xavier. After that, matters were all right between them, but I wasn't ready yet to talk to him, and she didn't force me to. Instead, I had a long conversation with Jon Bennett, who pointed out a few things.
"You're angry he's gay, aren't you?"
"I don't know," I replied. "I never really thought about it."
"Guy's sixty and never married, and you never thought about it?"
"He's in a wheelchair."
"Oh, come on! Don't shit with me. I've asked about it, your case worker asked about it -- don't tell me it never crossed your mind."
We were silent a minute, then I asked, "Why is it that everybody around me turns out to be fucking gay? First Warren, now the professor. Am I some kind of fag magnet?"
"I thought Warren was bi-?"
"What's the freakin' difference?"
"That he likes girls and guys both?" I snorted in reply to that, but Jon pressed on. "Hank gay?"
"Of course not!"
"Colleen? Your three dormmates at Yale?"
"So of what, eight people you deal with on a fairly regular basis, one's bi and one's gay? That's a little higher than the statistical average, but not by much."
I crossed my arms over my chest, irritated with him for being reasonable. "Some of the guys who bought me on the street weren't much younger than Xavier."
"Ah. Now we're getting down to it. You worry it's something about you. You called yourself a fag magnet."
I glared at him. "Well what the hell would you think if you were me? First, I get pulled into the life, then as soon as I get out, both my best friend and the man who considers me his son turn out to like dick! Wouldn't that make you freakin' wonder?"
He leaned forward like a setter at point. "Wonder what?"
I was silent a good while, clawing at the seam of my jeans, then playing with the rubber sole of my tennis shoe. Finally I said, "I wonder why I'm more attractive to men than to women."
"You worry that makes you less of a man."
"You afraid of being a woman?"
"No, it's not that." And it wasn't. "It's not being more like a woman -- it's being less of a man."
"But before, you seemed to want that."
I shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. "I don't know that I wanted it -- I just felt like it."
"And how do you feel now?"
I frowned and shifted again.
"How do you feel since Jean, Scott?"
"Like a man." She made me feel very much like a man, and I wasn't sure I should like feeling that way as much as I did.
But he only nodded. "What women want, and what men think women want, aren't always the same, and our pissing contests are usually for us, not them." He paused, then added, "I think you're more of the alpha male than you realize." Surprised, I jerked my head up, and he continued, "You don't back down, and you don't like to lose. You're tenacious and aggressive. Those are all alpha-male characteristics. You just had the bad luck to be born pretty."
Which made me laugh, because it was true.
Later, Bennett circled around to an even more tender point: "You know, the fact that in three and a half years, you never asked about the connection between Xavier and Lehnsherr ought to tell you something."
"Like maybe you weren't ready yet to ask about it."
"So you think Xavier was right not to tell me?"
"I think those decisions are rarely either-or. I think maybe he wasn't sure himself exactly what role he had with regard to you -- therapist, teacher, or foster father -- but even as a foster father, parents don't tell their kids everything, nor should they. Yet sometimes they do need to tell them difficult truths -- it's just a matter of figuring out when. It's like talking to kids about sex. You ever heard the old joke about the kid who came home and asked his mom where he came from?"
Sensing the opportunity for a story, Bennett crossed his ankle over his knee and leaned back in his chair. "Okay, so -- this first-grader comes home from school, and he says, 'Hey Mom, where'd I come from?' So Mom runs to get her A Doctor talks to 5-8 Year Olds book and starts explaining the birds and the bees. Kid listens, all quiet-like, then when she's done, he says, 'Yeah, okay -- but I just wanted to know where I came from. I mean, Lucy comes from Chicago and Bobby comes from St. Louis. So where'd I come from?'"
I had to laugh, despite the seriousness of the conversation.
"Sometimes the best measuring stick for what kids are ready to hear is what questions they ask. You didn't ask, Scott. And maybe you weren't ready to hear the answer, you know? Sometimes we put off asking too long, but sometimes we're just not ready yet to hear. I can't tell you which of those it was for you, but it's a fair question to ask yourself. Healing is a process, just like growing up, and we can't expect to run before we walk."
So I spent the rest of the summer thinking about what I'd been ready to hear. Meanwhile, the professor and I had spoken maybe 100 words to each other since I'd gotten back, and most of those had been about Ororo.
She was settling in faster than I had, perhaps because I was there, or perhaps she was just less wounded than I'd been. But watching her learn to trust us gave me some perspective on what I'd been like -- and why the professor might have made the decisions he had. I sure didn't dump my past on her. We did talk about the night I'd accidentally killed Jack O'Diamonds, because she was struggling with the fact she'd been willing to kill Amahl Farouk, even if she hadn't actually done so. But I didn't tell her about my time on the street; she didn't need to deal with my shit and hers, too.
I'd healed enough at last to become the healer -- and surprised myself to find I was good at it, at least with her. She knew I'd tell her exactly how I saw it. There have been kids since who came to the mansion needing more gentleness, and now Ororo is the one who gives it, or Jean. But other kids need me, and I've become, as an adult, the protector I once needed as a child. Maybe it sprang originally from a desire to rescue my 'younger self,' but these days, it's not about me. And when new kids come to the mansion, I'm the one who takes them on a tour, and we always walk past the English-style hedge maze, and I tell them about the gazebo at its heart where they can go and not be seen from the mansion, just as Xavier once confided that fact to me. Trust begins by being trusted, and if a few abuse my trust -- most don't.
It was a memory of trust that led me finally to seek out the professor one afternoon just before it was time for me to go back to New Haven. He was in his rooms, sitting by the fireplace, and the door was open, as were the windows. The air was crisp with the smell of early fall, though it was only late August, and I knocked on the wooden lintel. He glanced up, surprise washing his face. "Scott? Come in, come in." And he put down the book he'd been reading -- John Irving's The Cider House Rules. It had been my birthday present to him earlier that spring, a story about an orphaned boy raised by the orphanage's physician -- how the boy had left to find himself, then come back to become physician in his own turn. Ironic, to find him reading that book, right now.
Entering, I took my old chair and pulled out my pipe to fill it. He had his already, and for a while, we didn't speak, just smoked together. But finally, I said, "I wasn't ready to hear. I thought I was, but I wasn't. So maybe it's just as well it happened like it did."
He didn't reply for a long minute, then admitted, "I should have told you sooner. I considered it last summer, before you left for college, but it seemed you had enough to deal with."
And I nodded. Hell Summer wouldn't have been a good time, no question.
"Christmas holiday didn't seem right, either," he added.
"And I was away for most of it. Then I took off to Greece right after the spring semester was over." And then Cairo had happened.
We were silent again then, and when I'd finished my pipe, we settled down over his puzzle table, discussing small things -- the trail rental business, which had picked up that summer, my fall schedule at Yale, and Ororo's education. The girl could barely read. Of course, she'd never had the opportunity to learn, but bookworm that I was, I couldn't imagine reaching almost sixteen -- the same age I'd been when I'd first arrived -- without learning to read. Reading had been my salvation, but we all have our own coping mechanisms. Book were mine. Plants are hers. The woman can grow anything, I think.
Midway through the evening, I finally got around to asking, "How did you meet -- you and Erik Lehnsherr?"
He hesitated, and I wasn't sure if he wanted to tell me, but then he began, "I was seventeen, and touring Europe with my mother -- our last vacation together before I was drafted into the service for the Korean War . . ."
Notes: Yes, the title references a prominent line in The Cider House Rules. Many thanks to Elouisa for her assistance with information about Cairo, and to Naomi and Heatherly, as always.
Story XVIII is "In These Hallowed Halls"
Please post a comment on this story.
Title: Princes of Maine, Kings of New England (Special 17)
Series Name: SPECIAL: the Genesis of Cyclops
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | 56k | 01/15/05
Characters: Scott, Ororo, Xavier, ensemble
Summary: The cared-for becomes the care-taker.
Notes: This entire series is ADULT
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