A number of things changed when the grim reaper disappeared from my immediate horizon, though none of them happened immediately. It was only in retrospect that I understood that fall and winter to be my fruition. I'd been like bread left in the dark and warmth to rise; Xavier's had become my sanctuary and I'd folded in on myself, admitting only those who'd insisted on entry, like Warren and Jean. I just wasn't much interested in the exterior world. I was too busy trying to rebuild the interior one.
But the court decision (far more than my 'miracle medical moment') had opened a window, been a confirmation that sometimes there is justice in the world. Defeating HIV had been an unlooked-for-quirk of my mutation, not the result of anything I'd done. Lady Luck had smiled on me. But the court case -- we'd fought for that, I'd fought for that, and in the end, they'd listened. The judge had asked me. I felt as if some power taken from me at eight had finally been returned, and with it came new responsibility.
So I learned to drive. Hank had been teaching me, but irregularly, and I just hadn't had much motivation. For one thing, I'd rarely ventured off the estate except at the insistence of someone else, who'd also provided transportation. The few times I had gone into New Salem alone, I'd called a cab. But I decided I wanted a license, so I took a driving course in order to get one before I turned eighteen. (New York is peculiar that way.) Xavier said that if I passed, I could have one of the cars in the garage for my own -- tag and title in my name. I chose an antique Corvette, mostly because it needed work. Xavier may have given me the car, but I bought all the parts to restore it myself.
That was the other new element in my life -- my orphan's benefits and parent's life insurance had been turned over to me. Xavier had been saving it since he'd taken temporary custody of me, and now it was mine. On a visit to New Haven, Warren and I sat down to discuss how to invest it. He swims through the stock market like a fish. Partly, it's what he was born to, but he's also plain good at it. He underestimates himself. Both of us can assemble pictures from small clues -- we just assemble different pictures. Economics makes sense to him in the same way that numbers and geometry make sense to me. I'd have handed him my finances in entirety, but he insisted on teaching me. "I want you to know what I'm doing and why, Scott. It's your money." So I suffered through it, more because he enjoyed the telling than because I wanted to learn.
Yet it's peculiar what a difference control of your own movement and your own income makes. Before, I'd been too old for my years, but childlike in my powerlessness. Even after I'd left the street, my life had been hemmed in by the will of others, mostly with my own acquiescence. I'd drifted, just beginning to understand I was allowed to have wishes and designs myself.
But after I got a license and a car, and a checking account, restlessness took over. Sometimes I drove the Westchester county roads just because they were there -- no destination. I was reverting to the behavior of a normal seventeen-year-old, and giving me back some power had given me back a little of the childhood that had been stolen from me. While hardly wild by most definitions, in light of how I'd been, I'd turned positively rebellious, wasting days doing nothing at all or leaving the mansion without saying where I was going or when I'd be back. It wasn't the same defiance I'd shown when I'd first arrived; that had arisen from distrust. This was a testing of boundaries, me trying to decide if I were ready to fly alone. Thankfully, Xavier didn't ride me too hard. If anything, he seemed amused.
I also developed an interest in other, smaller things I hadn't had the courage to try before. I sat down one day at the piano in the den, opened the cover, and tried picking out tunes by ear. My mother had played; I wanted to learn. Hank heard me and came to watch, sitting down beside me on the bench to point out middle-C and the notes in black and white -- my teacher once again. "You have a good ear, Scott." I wasn't the musician he was and never would be, but I learned to read music, and sometimes he played for me to sing.In this world there's a whole lot of trouble, baby, In this world there's a whole lot of pain, In this world there's a whole lot of trouble, but A whole lot of ground to gain. Why take when you could be giving, Why watch as the world goes by? It's a hard enough life to be living, Why walk when you can fly?
At Christmas, Warren came back to the mansion and we spent it together like the year before, just the two of us and the professor. They went to midnight Mass with me because I asked, and Warren wasn't drunk. I still didn't take the sacrament, but that wasn't why I'd gone. When we returned home in the wee hours of Christmas morning, Warren and I walked out onto the winter-dead lawn to see the lights. It was cold, but not unbearable, and Warren had those white wings spread, breaking the wind. "You want to go flying?" he asked abruptly.
"I'm not ready," I blurted, and wasn't sure if that was my fear speaking, or some instinctive wisdom not to push too fast. I glanced at Warren. "I know it's been a couple months --"
"You don't need to apologize." But I could tell he was disappointed anyway.
"You probably think I'm dragging my heels."
"No, I don't."
We were silent a while. I had my hands in my pockets, rummaging in my mind for something to say. Finally, I bowed my head. "This is so fucking frustrating! Let's just do it, okay?"
"Let's just do it. I am so sick and tired of being fucking afraid all the time."
It was firm, and I looked up at him, at the side of his face. He wasn't looking at me. "No," he said again. "You being mad at yourself isn't the time to do it. You'd force yourself to. I don't want that. I want you to have fun."
I smiled faintly. We went inside and had warm apple cider instead.
But one question continued to hang over my head -- was I going to college, or wasn't I? And if so, where? Xavier refrained from pushing, though Warren and Jean didn't. Even Hank prodded me a little, and being stubborn, I dug in heels and refused to discuss the matter because they were insisting. In truth, I was simply afraid. Getting into college meant the possibility of failure. I hadn't been in a formal classroom or received a grade since I was fourteen.
"I'm not sure I'm even ready for college," I admitted to Xavier in February around Valentine's Day when the first hint of spring warmed the air. We were sitting on the balcony to his private rooms.
"That depends on what you mean," he said, puffing on his pipe. "Academically? Most certainly you are. Essentially, you're doing college-level work now, and really should plan to take some AP tests, come May. But that doesn't mean you're ready in other respects. There is no rush." He smiled. "Whatever Warren would have you think."
"He wants a roommate. Like he thinks I can get into Yale!"
"He's lonely. But you have spent enough of your life predicated by the needs and desires of others. You bow to them unconsciously sometimes, even while resenting it." He was silent a moment, smoking, then said, "If you want to know what I think, I think you need to spend some time on your own -- and not necessarily at college."
I wasn't at all sure what he meant by that. Was he kicking me out already?
"Most certainly not." He had a habit of unconsciously answering my unspoken thoughts. I'd long ago realized that he wasn't reading them on purpose; it was just that sometimes I thought loudly and I wasn't sure he entirely realized I hadn't verbalized the thought. "Yet I wonder if you might not benefit from time on your own?"
"I've been on my own, professor," I pointed out.
"Yes -- too young. As a result, you wound up at the mercy of others. Perhaps it's time for you to return to Nebraska on your own terms. Or even Alaska."
Everything in me rebelled. "Do I have to?"
"Of course not. Merely something to think about."
I sank down in my balcony chair and changed the subject.
My problem was that I resisted change instinctively. In the past, it had rarely been good and the possibilities that were opening in front of me were more frightening than exciting. I didn't want my life to change, even while I knew change inevitable. We were all facing it, except Warren. I was finishing high school, Jean was finishing college, and Hank was finishing his residency. It was a pregnant time. Yet Jean and Hank looked forward to it while I resisted. I hadn't even taken the required standardized tests, and it was already too late to do so if I wanted to meet application deadlines for the better colleges and universities. Rather than make a conscious choice, I'd let ennui choose for me.
Late that same February, while visiting B. Dalton's in Yorktown, I wandered into the study guide aisle. The SAT prep texts stared back at me, accusatorially. I couldn't resist taking a peek; no one was around to see. I found myself surprised.
If the sample tests were any indication of what the real test was like, it wasn't half as hard as I'd thought -- and I was reminded of my experience at Columbia. Out of the study guide's vocabulary list, I came up with only 19 words I couldn't define at least partially. Being a bookworm had certain benefits. Closing the book at last, I returned it to the shelf, left and drove back to the mansion. The professor was working in his office, his door open. I knocked on the jamb, though I was sure he knew I was there. "Yes, Scott?" he said without looking up.
"How do I sign up for an SAT test?"
His smile was faint, but definite. "The next available date falls in the last week of March. Regular registration is past, but we can still make the late deadline." He turned to me then. "The tests are given on Saturdays in the cafeteria at New Salem High."
I nodded. He'd obviously already done the homework, just been waiting for me to indicate that I wanted to try. "I guess I can see how I do," I said.
"I guess you can."
So I took the SAT I on a sunny and mild Saturday morning in late March, and filled out the appropriate score sheet oval that, yes, I did want to hear from colleges. How odd to mark that, and even more so to be taking this test beside others my age. I felt so much older than most of them. A few stared when I sat down at one of the long cafeteria tables and didn't remove my 'sunglasses,' but I ignored the looks to lay out my number-two pencils by my travel mug full of coffee. Nonetheless, my hands shook as I accepted a test form.
Put it out of your mind, I thought. At least the first section was quantitative. I whipped through, finished early, then began checking answers while I waited for time to be called. We had a brief break and I put my head down on the tabletop, arms stretched across it to grip the edge.
"You nervous?" asked a girl beside me, or rather, two seats over to give the requisite testing space.
I looked up. "Just tired," I lied.
"Where do you go to school? Not here."
"A private school nearby." Well, more or less.
"You a junior, too?"
"You taking the test again, then?"
She seemed baffled by my replies, but the examiners were telling us it was time for the second section. I avoided looking at her after that, though I was fairly sure she tried to catch my eye once or twice. I preferred my own company.
By the time the exam was over, I was mentally exhausted in a way I hadn't been in a long time. Shoulder's slumped, I walked out to my car and lit a smoke. I needed it to calm down. "Hey," I heard behind me, and jumped, startled.
It was the girl. I hadn't really looked at her before, not to notice details, but now I did. She had pinched aristocratic features, a perky nose, and hair that was not-quite-blonde, though with my glasses, it was hard to be sure of the color. She was pretty, I supposed, but not beautiful like Jean with her clean lines of face. She gestured to my car. "That yours?"
"Wow. Did your dad buy it for you?"
Something, something .... The lowered eyes, a slight flush to the cheeks. I put the cigarette to my mouth and drew hard, pulling it away abruptly to blow out. She was flirting with me.
"My dad is dead," I said, and her eyes got wide, her mouth opening slightly. "It was a long time ago," I went on, "so don't offer pity." That was rude and I knew it, but I didn't want her to flirt with me. I pulled out my keys to open the Corvette's door.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Scott," I replied, annoyed. I didn't ask her for hers. She gave it anyway.
I glanced around. It was just past noon and the spring sun fell on her skin as fair as porcelain "That's a name?"
Her smile was dimpled and probably made the boys in her school light-headed. "Well, my real name's Julia, but I never get called that."
"I like Julia better."
"So what school do you go to?"
"Never heard of it."
"Ah." She watched me expectantly, one hand gripping her purse strap on her shoulder. She had barrettes in her hair and her shoes were neat and without scuff marks. I'm not sure why I noticed these things. I started to get into the car. "You want to go get something to eat?" she asked.
I looked over again. Her face was positively flaming now and I doubted she'd ever asked out a boy in her life -- had probably never needed to -- and for a long moment, I considered her proposition. Xavier wouldn't mind, and it'd be a chance for me to try on being normal.
But that was just the problem, wasn't it? I'd only be trying. "Thanks," I told her, "But I've got somewhere else I need to be." And I shut the door.
Yet I thought about her on the drive back home and for most of the rest of the day. "So how'd it go?" Jean asked before supper. She'd caught me in the main hall downstairs.
"The test, dingbat!"
"Fine. It went fine. Pretty easy, really. I met a girl."
Just like that, I spit it out. Jean whipped her head around. "A girl?"
"What do you mean 'kinda'?" She was laughing, but lightly.
"I talked to this girl who sat nearby, and she followed me out to my car afterwards, asked if I wanted to go get something to eat."
Jean's jaw dropped, then she practically squealed in excitement. "Did you go?"
"Well, no. Why would I? I didn't know her."
"Scott! Was she pretty?"
"I guess." I didn't add my private thought -- not as pretty as you. "I didn't know anything about her, Jean, except that her name's Julia but she gets called Lady -- which is kind of stupid, if you asked me."
"You turned down lunch with a pretty girl because you didn't know her?"
"Yeah, so? Why would she be interested anyway?"
"Uh!" It was a wordless noise of disgust. "Think about it! Maybe she wanted to get to know you. Some good-looking, mysterious boy shows up at her school to take the SAT test --"
"And what? I'm fresh meat?"
She blinked. "You don't have to put it so crudely. You're a fresh face -- tall, dark and handsome."
"Fuck," I muttered and left her standing in the hallway, calling back, "I'm not tall!" I didn't bother to correct the rest. It'd be a lie.
After supper, she tracked me down again in the billiards room. "What made you so mad earlier?"
I finished the shot I'd been lining up, taking out my frustration on the cue ball, then walked over to where she stood under a Tiffany lamp. "Before" -- it was how I spoke of my time on the street -- "nobody wanted me. They wanted a fantasy. Half the time, they didn't even ask my name. At least this chick asked my name. But I don't like being beefcake."
Her face had crumpled into pain. "I'm sorry."
"I don't want someone who just wants a pretty face and body." And abruptly, I thought of the girls I looked at sometimes -- nameless and cut out from any identifying context. I only wanted their faces and bodies, too.
I was a hypocrite.
Angry and confused, I stalked over to shove the pool cue back into the rack. "I'm going to bed."
I ignored her. But I couldn't stay in my room, either. It was early by my standards. After an hour and a half, I came back downstairs. I should find Jean and apologize, so I paced down the dim hallway, illumined irregularly with low-wattage wall lamps throwing umbrellas of light on oriental runners. Jean was nowhere to be found, not in the den, the dining room, the kitchens, the billiard room, the arboretum. I'd given up and was headed back to bed, moving quietly up the grand staircase, when the door to Xavier's office opened and Jean emerged. I halted, my mouth open to speak, but the words just collected on my tongue and froze there. "Thanks, Charles," she was saying, having paused in the doorway. "Sometimes I just don't know what to do. Everything I tell him seems to come out wrong."
"Patience, my dear." The voice was barely audible. "Healing is a process, and when he strikes out, he's not necessarily striking out at you."
"I know. It's just frustrating! I wish I knew what to answer."
"You do very well. And your presence may matter more than your words."
She sighed. It was explosive in the shadows. I held very still, almost afraid to breathe. They were talking about me. I was sure of it. "Is it normal to want to wring his neck sometimes?"
A chuckle came from inside the office. "Perfectly. Healing is difficult work. So is being around the survivor. We all need to vent, Jean."
She turned and moved out into the hall, and now what did I do? Conflicting desires rose up in me -- to flee, or to confront her.
In the end, the choice was taken out of my hands. I must have made some sound, for she glanced up. "Scott?"
A pregnant pause. She was probably blushing but I couldn't tell. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough. Come up." I finished climbing the stairs. There was a sitting room on the second floor that had been a solar once. I turned on the light inside and stood at the room's center, facing the door. She came through it with a tentative step. "You could've talked to me, you know," I said.
"Scott, I --"
"Why didn't you talk to me!" I was suddenly furious. "I thought we were friends?"
"We are," she said softly, flinching.
"So you run around talking about me behind my back?"
"Mostly I talk about me." She was looking down at the floor, but sideways so I could see her profile. Her short hair fell soft, half obscuring it. "You're not always easy to deal with, you know. Maybe I need some help." She sighed out. "Sometimes I don't know what to say. I want to say the right thing."
"Say what you want to say! I don't want you to lie!"
"It's not lying. I've never lied to you. I promise."
That mollified me a little. "So what do you mean, wanting to say the right thing?"
She was rubbing her hands together. "I have no idea what you're going through. I don't want to blunder around in the metaphorical dark and hurt you."
I understood, but I still felt mildly betrayed. "Why didn't you tell me you were talking to him?"
"I didn't want you to worry. Sometimes I need to talk to Charles to get my own head together." I watched her a moment as she pushed hair behind her ears and glanced at me, then glanced away.
"Knowing that helps," I told her.
"Yeah." I continued to watch her. "Sometimes you seem so . . . I don't know. Perfect."
She burst out laughing, but it was dark and had an edge of hysteria. "God, no! I'm always terrified I'm going to screw up and make you hate me!"
"I won't hate you. And I'm not going to crack. You can talk to me, too. If you're pissed off at me, say so. "
"But sometimes you need to be pissed off and not worry about it."
"Being mean to my friends isn't what I want, okay? I'm mean because . . ." I trailed off and stared at my reflection in a gilded mirror over the fireplace mantel. "Fuck. I have no idea why."
"I understand, Scott --"
"Would you stop it! Just stop!" The words made her flinch again. "That's what I mean! I don't need a martyr. I need a friend." And yet, I wondered. I might need friends, but I didn't really know how to be one. It had taken Jean -- and Warren and Hank -- pushing their way into my life before I made room for them. And it occurred to me now that maybe they'd had help in figuring out that they needed to push. All of them must have been talking to Xavier about how to handle me, and that hurt.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked her finally, and began pacing, gesturing a little wildly as I spoke. "I don't understand. You, Warren, Hank. I beat up on you verbally and you just keep coming back for more. Why? It's not like I have anything to offer really, and you never ask me for anything, either. I just don't get it. So why? Does he pay you -- the Professor? But even Xavier -- I don't understand why any of you put up with me! What good am I?"
Jean had wrapped her arms around herself and was weeping quietly. "God, Scott. Can't you hear yourself?"
"Of course I hear myself!"
"How can you really think those things?
"How can I not?"
And something switched in her expression, her sorrow transforming into truculent rage. "You are so stupid sometimes! We tell you and we tell you and you just don't listen! You have some idiotic idea that you're not worth anything! It makes me so damn mad, I just want to hit you! You are worth something, you stubborn son of a bitch!"
Picking up a heavy glass bookend shaped like a horse's head, she hurled it at me, and I ducked instinctively as it crashed into the paneling behind, cracking the wood. Her hands had gone up to her mouth and her eyes were huge. "Oh, god, Oh, god, Oh, god. I'm so sorry. That was . . . Oh, god, Scott. Are you okay?"
I just blinked, unsure what I felt. Astonished, certainly. But another part of me was plain amused, and I realized I wasn't scared of her. She could've brained me with the thing, and for a moment, I'd been scared of that . . . but not scared of her. The distinction was enormously important to me. Nonetheless, I did feel relief to have my skull intact, and started laughing. She just continued to stare. "It's okay," I told her. "Well, maybe not. I think you broke the wall" -- which sent me into gales of laughter -- an emotional release. After a minute, a little of her horror bled away and she began to giggle, too.
"I did, didn't I?" But then she sobered. "I am sorry. I could've really hurt you."
"Yeah," I managed, between spurts of giggles. "But you didn't." Finally I calmed down and slumped into a chair, head back, forearms resting on the sides, legs akimbo. "You looked as pissed as a wet cat."
She sat down, too, in the chair opposite mine. "I was." And a hardness returned to her eyes, a pinching at the corners in anger and a narrowing of her nostrils. "I don't like people insulting my friends -- and you were insulting you."
My lips tipped up more. "I still don't see why you like me."
"Because you're funny; you've got this wicked sense of humor that cracks me up. And because you've got a brain and aren't afraid to use it. You're incredibly smart, but you've got common sense. I know a lot of smart people, but not many are pragmatic. You notice things most people don't, too -- it's like you know the real value of things. Sometimes you drive me up a wall, but usually it's because you won't take yourself seriously, or you put yourself down. Scott -- you're unique. You really are."
I'd blushed and turned my head away. I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing.
"I'm not sure there's really a reason why I like you -- I just do. But those are some of the things about you that I like."
I pondered her phrasing. "But I give you hell."
"Sometimes. And you've been through hell. I understand."
"Don't play the martyr, Jean. I want you to tell me when I'm being a son of a bitch. Just . . . don't toss bookends at my head again, okay?"
She went red once more. "I really shouldn't have done that. You've had people abuse you --"
"Stop it. I'm not scared of you. You were really pissed off, and maybe it helps a little for me to see you really pissed off. You get mad at me, but most of the time, you're so understanding I want to puke. I know that sounds ungrateful, but . . . I dunno." I stopped and sighed, rubbing at my eyes under my glasses. I spoke haltingly, trying to articulate a frustration I was only beginning to recognize. "It's always one-way. I guess that's it. You don't let me do anything for you. That's why I feel like your project. Friends do things for each other, but you're always doing for me. It's like you don't need anything from me."
She seemed quite taken aback, as if this were a new concept for her. "But you shouldn't have to do anything for me. I wasn't the one who suffered -- "
"It's not about that, dammit! You're not my fucking counselor!"
"I'm not trying to be -- "
"Yes, you are! Maybe not consciously, but that's what you're trying to be!" I got up and began pacing again. "You worry about saying the right thing, doing the right thing, being the right thing. Even the professor doesn't do that to me! He lets me do stuff." They were often small things, in the grand scheme, true, but they were still requests. 'Scott, would you fetch me some tea from the kitchen?' 'Scott, would you put out food for the cats?' 'Scott, would you bring me socks from my room? Wool, please.' The normal give-and-take of living in the same house. I kept him company and he trusted me to take care of him sometimes. It made me proud. Yet Jean let me to do nothing for her, and that kept me dependent.
Now, she said, "I just didn't want to put anything more on you. You've got so much to deal with as it is . . . "
I almost threw up my hands. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Didn't it ever occur to you that I might like to focus on somebody other than me? That it might help? All this self-involved navel-gazing crap is crap! I want to feel like I have some goddamn purpose besides being an object for pity. If I'm your friend, then let me act like one, please!"
She was still staring. "I didn't . . . I didn't . . ." She seemed at a complete loss for words. "I didn't want you to . . . to have to . . . carry me, I guess. Or worry about me. Or -- "
"You've said that three or four times now. Shut up already." But my words came without heat, and surprised, she shut up. "Stand up." She was looking at me as if I'd lost my mind, but did as I ordered. Walking over to her, I bent quickly to sweep her feet out from under her with one arm and then catch her as she fell back against my other arm.
"Whoa!" She grabbed for my neck, and I shifted her a little to get a firmer grip but didn't let her fall, balancing her in my arms.
"There. I'm strong enough to carry you." Or at least strong enough to pick her up. I doubted I could carry her far. She was taller than me. But my point was proved. I set her back on her feet. "Let me, okay?"
She was almost laughing. "Okay," she agreed.
"It makes it easier for me to tell you stuff if you tell me stuff," I explained, more seriously. "When we first met, you did that. But for the last year -- since you found out the truth about me -- you've stopped. I need to feel like you need me."
She studied me a moment with a somewhat perplexed smile, brows drawn together a bit, but then she agreed again, "Okay."
It was around the same time that my status with regard to HIV came up again. I'd been off the drug cocktails since late November, but whatever their tests had said then, there was still the possibility they had been wrong. As Hank had explained, HIV was a tricky virus and I might never be completely free of it, though Hank remained convinced that I'd never get AIDS itself because my body would kill any free virus before it could infect new cells. Nonetheless, it was now time to test his theory and give me another battery of tests. He figured that four months would be long enough for any residual viral repression from the drugs to have cleared. If I still showed no active virus in my blood, then his theories about my mutation were correct. I was killing it. But if the virus had reappeared . . . .
So it wasn't a pleasant Saturday for me. I didn't share Hank's optimism; I'd been broadsided too often by life and spent most of that morning in front of the television, trying to distract myself. Xavier had joined me and was rather unsuccessfully attempting to elicit my opinion regarding the purchase of a new horse for the stables. Unfortunately, I didn't feel knowledgeable enough about horseflesh, or able to focus long enough, to have an opinion. I wished vaguely for Jean's presence but Jean wasn't at the mansion that weekend. In her final semester at Columbia with graduation a little over a month away, she had projects and papers due. Yet she'd made me promise to call as soon as I found out the results.
Sometime shortly after noon, Hank emerged from his downstairs dungeon to bound into the den and announce, "Our theories were correct! No sign of the virus, Scott, or at least, not in your blood."
My relief was so strong it felt like a physical drop in my gut as muscles relaxed that I hadn't even realized were tensed. "But it's still there," I said. "The virus."
"Yes, HIV infects some cells that have a very long half life, the resting memory T cells."
"Okay. But what exactly does that mean, Hank? Pragmatically."
"It means you're a carrier, but any cell-free virus is rapidly destroyed -- prevented from becoming active -- by your body's UV conversion process."
"So I could still infect others?"
Hank frowned at that. "Unlikely, but yes, still possible. I wouldn't advise giving blood, nor engaging in unprotected intercourse, but I do think your risk factor is low enough to dispense with special precautions for normal bio-hazard trash. Throw your tissues away, of course, but I see no reason to put it in baggies under normal circumstances. When you're out where others might come into unexpected contact with it, then perhaps more discretion is in order."
The warning not to give blood I'd expected, but Hank's casual inclusion of sex threw me, and my back stiffened. Xavier -- who'd been listening with quiet interest -- noticed of course, and unlocked his chair's wheels, setting it in motion. "I can't say I'm surprised by the news, but I am relieved. I do, however, have a conference call at three, so I'll leave the two of you to discuss the details." I watched him go, wondering whether he really had the conference call or if Hank had mentally asked him to leave. Or perhaps he'd just decided I might discuss private matters more easily one-on-one. Truth was, I didn't want to discuss private matters at all, or not beyond what to do with used Q-Tips, Kleenex and Band-Aids.
"Thanks," I said now to Hank, and stood up. "It was the bio-hazard stuff I was worried about. The other two . . . ." I trailed off and shrugged. "Not something to worry about. Don't plan to give blood or have sex." And on that note, I turned to leave.
"The former is hardly a human universal," I heard behind me, spoken quietly, "but the latter falls into rather a different class. We never know what the future will hold, Scott."
Turning back, I glared, though the effect was lost behind my glasses. "I had enough sex in my past to last a lifetime of futures, thanks."
He didn't reply immediately, just rose himself and shuffled the papers he'd brought but hadn't actually shown me, a clear 'buy some time to think' action, or perhaps simple hesitation at stepping into the breach. "I do believe," he said finally, "that there's a world of difference between what you suffered on the street and what you might one day enjoy if you fall in love."
"That coming from your vast experience?"
It was a cruel thing to say. I knew -- I knew -- that Hank could probably count his lovers on one hand, if he could count any at all. Warren and his wings were exotic, me and my glasses might be considered tragic, but Hank was just your garden-variety freak with oversized hands and feet and a slightly hirsute appearance with no fineness of feature to offset it. He was the kind of guy one called "beautiful on the inside," and maybe someday a woman would notice, if he ever bothered to come out of his lab long enough to get a social life. That hadn't happened yet though, and his shocked face showed me just how good my verbal aim had been. Without saying a word, he picked up the papers he'd been shuffling and walked past me out of the den.
"Dammit," I muttered and fell back against the door jamb. "You son of a mangy bitch." I didn't mean Hank.
When I walked out myself, I headed for Xavier's office, but he really was on the phone, so I went upstairs, spent five minutes in my room, each one weighing more heavily on me, and finally, gave up. Leaving again, I approached Hank's door and knocked. I figured he was back down in the lab, but unexpectedly, the door opened. "I'm sorry," I blurted without preamble. "I'm a jerk."
Hank didn't reply immediately, and I turned to go. "Scott, wait." He breathed out heavily. "I know that sex isn't a subject you want to discuss, and for valid reasons. I pushed too hard."
"Yeah, you did. But I'm still a jerk."
"Sometimes, indeed you are." His smile was faint, but real, and his straightforward response differed from Jean's excuses and apologies (however heartfelt), and thus, his forgiveness was easier for me to accept.
But I'd been raised Catholic, and real forgiveness included penance, or at least restitution, so I found myself asking, "Hank, do you like being a guy?" I'd made him vulnerable, and so I offered my own vulnerability in return.
The question caught him off guard. I could see his surprise and confusion, but he swallowed it and opened his door wider, indicating that I could come in. I accepted. His room was messy but comfortable, full of books and magazines and knickknacks. There was a chair beside the dresser and he dumped dirty clothes off of it so I could sit down while he sat on the bed, hands between his knees. We looked at each other a moment, then he said, "I never really thought about it. I've asked myself more than once if I like being a mutant, or like having an IQ they can't measure properly." He snorted. "But being male? Quite honestly, it never occurred to me to ask whether or not I liked it. I can't imagine being female, so I suppose that I do --"
"So you think being male is better than being female?" My question cut sharply into his reply, and I'd leaned back into the chair; this was almost like one of our usual debates except my belly churned with a vague hostility that wasn't a normal part of our intellectual ping-pong.
He must have sensed as much, for he eyed me curiously. "I didn't say that, did I? I said I find it hard to imagine myself as a woman. I fear I would make a rather unattractive one." His smile was sardonic. Then all humor fell away. "I think it's simply that I have other hypothetical 'what ifs' on which I focus my attention, starting with, 'What if I'd been born normal?'"
Conscience pricked a bit, I yielded ground. "Okay, fair enough. But doesn't it bother you, what some men do? As men, I mean. Rape -- that kind of thing?"
"Of course it does. But I suspect some women are bothered by what other women do, as well. It's not about gender, Scott -- it's about personal ethics."
"You don't think lust drives some men to -- "
"No. I don't." His turn to interrupt me. "I think that's an excuse, and not even a very good one." His face was utterly serious. "While it's true that testosterone is a powerful hormone, and our penises may occasionally seem to have a life of their own, our most important sex organ remains our mind. We can convince ourselves of all manner of things, be trained like Pavlov's dogs to develop the most peculiar fetishes, to accept pain as pleasure, even to compartmentalize our sexuality or attempt to erase it."
I was suddenly too hot to move or speak or even to breathe, and I held very still, as if my immobility might cause his words to pass over me, like the frozen mouse is overlooked by a stalking cat.
"I believe the mind -- not the body -- rules us," he continued. "A chemical imbalance in the body may make us ill or give us a craving, but a chemical imbalance in the brain can alter our entire behavior patterns. Mostly, though, we choose, Scott. We have the capacity to choose."
"What if you don't?" The words burst out of me and I wanted to swallow my tongue, but it just ran away with me like a horse who had the bit caught in its teeth. "What if it's forced on you? You mentioned Pavlov's dogs, but nobody asked the dogs. It screws you up. Really screws you up, and there's no choice, Hank, and I can't not think about it. When I start to feel . . . that . . . I can't not remember."
His face had quieted. "What we've been trained to can also be unlearned and substituted for something more positive."
"Easier said than done."
"Oh, most certainly. But you've already accomplished the impossible." A smiled played with his mouth. "You beat HIV."
"That wasn't through anything I did!" The humor angered me. "It was just chance."
His smile fled. "Perhaps so. Yet there is still much that you did accomplish yourself -- or we wouldn't be sitting here having this discussion. I think the key is to take each step as it comes, not look so far ahead that you're daunted. Anything positive that you achieve is still an achievement, and in all areas of life, not simply your sexuality. Give yourself time."
I wasn't sure whether or not that constituted a cop-out. "Okay," I said, rising to head for the door, but I paused with my hand on the knob. "Can I ask you another question?" I couldn't look him in the face. "It's a little personal and you don't have to answer if you'd rather not."
"Do you masturbate?"
A very long silence followed that question, and although too ashamed to lift my eyes, I could imagine the consternation on his face. "Never mind," I said at the same moment that he replied, "Yes, I do."
A three-beat silence.
"Sexuality is still a powerful drive," he continued, "though unlike hunger, failing to satisfy it won't cause us to die, whatever it may feel like. And we can choose how to satisfy it, whether in healthy or unhealthy ways. Masturbation is perfectly normal and healthy. I'm sure you've heard the old joke that 99% of all men masturbate, and the other one percent is lying."
"But I don't masturbate. And I'm not lying." My words weren't heated -- they were mostly tired, in fact.
He didn't answer at first and I glanced up finally. His brows were drawn down, lips pursed, as if he couldn't decide whether to lecture me or philosophize. Finally, he settled on a question. "Why?"
I'd expected a lot of responses, but that wasn't among them. "Why would I want to?" I countered.
"The normal drives --"
"I told you -- every time I think about . . . touching myself, it makes me sick to my damn stomach! It's disgusting." And my tongue ran away with me again. "The sex thing is just disgusting. I've seen what it makes men do. They act like fucking animals. And it's ridiculous. I mean, think about it, Hank. The whole goddamn sex act is fucking ridiculous. If you forget lust for a minute and look at it objectively, it's just nature's big-ass joke and I'd rather be left out of the punch line, okay? I don't need it. I'm not a slave to my goddamn body and I don't want to be."
The silence that followed this time was even longer than the first, and I wasn't sure if he'd answer at all, but finally, he spoke. "You are, of course, quite right, about the sex act appearing -- in the cold light of reason -- a rather peculiar thing to do with select parts of the anatomy. Hardly dignified. And yet, you spoke of it as nature's 'joke.' I prefer to think of it nature's reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, perhaps even nature's way of teaching us trust and intimacy."
My eyebrow went up at that, and he smiled at my reaction. "Humor me for a moment, Scott. You can find me unimaginably quaint, if you wish, but at least hear me out."
I crossed my arms, but nodded once. "All right -- shoot." I was afraid to appear too interested, but felt, in fact, quite curious.
There's an old story about two travelers approaching a village. The one taking the south road ran into a farmer traveling away from the village, and asked him what sort of people lived in the town up the road. The farmer replied that they were the worst sort in the world, always gossiping about others, cold and indifferent and inhospitable to strangers. The traveler took this in but went on to the village anyway, and found it just as the farmer had said. Meanwhile another traveler was approaching from the north, and he, too, ran into a farmer traveling away from the village. He asked that farmer the same question -- what sort of people lived in the town down the road -- and the farmer said they were delightful, friendly, and full of life. This traveler also went on to the village, and found it just as the farmer had said."
My arms were still crossed but I felt one corner of my mouth quirk up. "And the point of this little tale is . . . ?" I had a good idea, but wasn't inclined to make it easy for him.
"We get out of an experience what we expect -- and perhaps what our previous experiences have prepared us for. The very same act or event can be looked at by two different people in completely different ways -- whether as revolting or arousing, humiliating or empowering."
"Yeah, so?" He was pretty much stating the obvious.
"There may come a time in your life when you see sex as a desired opportunity, not a situation to be avoided."
"If you fall in love -- "
"Hank! Be realistic. Who in their right mind would be interested in me?"
"Warren, for one."
That stopped me cold, and Hank barreled on while my jaw was still hanging open. "Yes, I know you're not interested, but that doesn't change the fact that he is, and that he cares for you very deeply, as a friend. What if Warren were female, Scott?"
My jaw shut with a snap. "He's not. And even if he was, I'm just . . . I'm not ready."
"I know. But there may come a day when you are ready -- not for Warren, but for someone. Don't sell yourself short. None of us knows what the future will bring, and I have always been intrigued by the fact this act that brings us such great bodily pleasure also requires us to be physically naked and subject to vulnerable positions."
My reply was a snort. "You can have sex with your clothes on, Hank, and shoving your dick down somebody's throat isn't exactly vulnerable."
"Ah, but it is. The mouth into which one shoves does, after all, have teeth."
I'd expected neither the frankness nor the humor -- though there had been times I'd considered using the afore-mentioned teeth. I hadn't because I'd feared for life and limb. "That only works if you know you can get away with it."
"Quite true, but my point still stands. An apparently 'dominant' position can, when looked at from a different angle, be a very vulnerable one. Does one approach the village from the north or the south? Is sex an act of taking or giving? Of subjugation and humiliation, or of wonder uncovered and trust shared?"
And I had absolutely no idea how to respond to that. It seemed very far away from and irrelevant to me. My doubt must have shown on my face, as he pressed on.
"Orgasm is an amazing physical function, you know -- one that makes us healthier."
"Quite true. Even if one doesn't count the emotional benefits of mutuality and shared physical closeness, or if one has only autoeroticism as an outlet, regular orgasms are still advantageous as they release physical tension in the body and affect the brain and limbic system -- your emotional 'brain,' if you will. Among the other things that go on during arousal, the hypothalamus tells another part of your brain to release hormones into your blood: oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, plus estrogen and testosterone. Endorphins are a natural morphine that our brain secretes when we exercise, have sex, or simply remain in the company of someone we love -- causing a feeling of well being and contentment. Dopamine and norepinephrine induce that giddy love high you experience, and dopamine stimulates production of oxytocin, which brings about emotional attachment. Orgasm itself causes rhythmic muscular contractions in the pelvic region and elevated oxytocin levels that sensitize our nerves. In short, we feel good, and if we share the experience with another, we may develop great attachment to them. Women require oxytocin to achieve arousal and orgasm, and men experience it particularly afterwards. So there is, in fact, a biological truth to the fact that women need love for sex, and men need sex for love."
I'd become accustomed to Hank's lectures and should probably have been alarmed by the fact I'd followed about eighty percent of what he'd just said. But it was the last line that lodged in my brain. "So you're saying men need sex to fall in love?"
"Well, no, of course not, but I am saying that sexual activity resulting in orgasm with a partner does result in increased attachment to that partner, yes. My real point, however, is that sexual activity and orgasm is good for you, Scott, and on a number of levels from the emotional to the purely physical. It's even good for improved sleeping patterns." His smile was faint, and none of this was anything I'd heard before, either as a good Catholic boy or a hustler. Yet I'd known kids on the street who'd said the only useful thing they got out of sex (besides the cash) was orgasm. Myself, I'd always been too stubborn to give in unless I had to, to get paid.
So I left Hank's room without saying anything more, but didn't go back to mine and try his advice at giving myself a handjob. I wasn't prepared to accept entirely what he'd said. But as usual, he'd gotten me to think, and to think about sex in a way that wasn't largely negative for the first time in years.
What I did do was call Jean to give her the news about the test results. She squealed over the phone, though she immediately followed the ear-splitting noise with, "But I knew that's what the results would be." The juxtaposition of enthusiasm and assurance amused me.
"I'm still dangerous," I told her.
I could almost see her shrug. "Not that much. I mean, yeah, Hank's right, you're still a carrier, but the chances of you passing it on casually are extremely small, Scott."
"How's the studying going?" I didn't want to talk about HIV.
She let me change the subject and we discussed schoolwork. But before she hung up, she asked, "So what are you going to do this summer?"
I'd grown so used to Jean, or Warren, asking what I was doing next year -- with the implication I should be focusing on college -- that this question about the short term took me by surprise. "I don't know. Same thing I did last summer?"
"Last summer you were catching up for losing two months of school. You're graduating, Scott. I think you've earned a summer vacation."
And the way she put that stopped my breath. I was graduating from high school, something I'd never expected to do, even if it didn't include Pomp and Circumstance and cheap black robes but an HSED exam for high school equivalency. I was still getting a pigskin with my name on it (because Xavier was having one made) and a documented transcript -- something I'd never actually seen until that very month. I had been getting grades all along; Xavier just hadn't been showing them to me. "School is about an education," he'd explained, "not alphabet soup." And lest anyone assume he'd favored me, not all those grades were As.
"I don't know," I said again now. "I haven't thought about it."
"Well, think then."
But it wasn't summer vacation I pondered over the next few days, it was the fact that we'd reached the end of March, and a year ago, Jack Winters had attacked the mansion on the 29th. I'd killed three people that night when my power had manifested. Yet another anniversary for me to add to my list of "days to sleep in."
A week later on Sunday morning, I received a nearly incomprehensible phone call from Jean. She was sobbing so hard, I couldn't make out a thing she said except something about Morocco. Baffled, I told her to stay put at her apartment and drove into the city. New York traffic always set me on edge, and already concerned, I was quite strung up by the time I arrived. Misty Knight let me in, then disappeared, leaving me with a sobbing Jean sitting on the floor in front of the couch, a box of tissues on one side and a little pile of discarded white on the other. Walking over, I knelt in front of her and raised her chin. Her eyes were swollen and tears leaked out to dribble down her cheeks.
"Almost twenty-two-years-old, and I'm still not old enough to take a vacation on my own!" she spat. "It's a goddamn wonder they even let me live somewhere other than under their roof!"
"My parents! They won't let me go overseas with Misty this summer!"
Overseas? "I didn't even know you were planning a trip."
"Well, it just came up this weekend. Misty wanted to go to Egypt and Morocco. And it got shot down within 48 hours, too."
Oh. That made me feel less out of the loop. "Don't they trust you?"
Sighing, she rested her chin on her drawn up knees. "It's not about trust. Or not like you mean. It's, you know, the whole 'she was in a sanitarium' thing." She made a vague, fluttery gesture with her fingers, and sensing that she was calming down finally, I shifted off my own knees to sit on the floor in front of her.
"What's the sanitarium got to do with it?"
Her lips thinned into something that might have been either a smile or grimace, I couldn't tell, and the spring sun fell through the window to sketch a filigree halo around her hair. "Mom and Dad worry that I'm sheltered and fragile and can't handle life if they don't throw down a red carpet in front of me and smooth out all the wrinkles before I step on it. That's why I'm living with Misty, you know. She's supposed to take care of me, keep me out of trouble. She's the future cop, after all. Not that they ever said that to me, but that's the deal."
I folded my hands together. "How do you know that, if they never said it to you?"
"I am a telepath, remember?" And it struck me that this was the first time in a long time that she'd revealed either sorrow or frustration in front of me. Well, except for the night I'd called her on keeping it to herself, and maybe that little discussion had made an impression. Picking up the box of Kleenex, I resettled myself next to her, back against the couch and looped an arm over her shoulders, pulling her against my side. That I felt so easy doing this struck me only later.
"You're not fragile," I told her. "Sheltered, yeah. Fragile, no."
She eyed me with a certain tolerant amusement. "Sheltered? Scott, I've been in hundreds of people's heads. I'm not sheltered."
I had to smile at that. "Yes, you are. Being in someone's head isn't the same thing as living it." She seemed almost offended, but I met her eyes calmly and she didn't say anything. "Yeah, you've seen stuff, but you knew how the story ended. Sorta. The person was still around to remember it. When you're living it, you don't know how it'll turn out."
"When you're living it with someone, you don't know either, Scott. I experience all the same emotions."
I frowned. "There's a difference." It wasn't a very good answer, and I felt as if I were blundering around in the dark. What I wanted to say was very important for her to understand, but I didn't know if I had the right words. "It changes you. Things that happen to you change you. And fuck, I don't know, I guess even learning that something bad can happen changes you, too -- takes your innocence -- but it's head knowledge. When it happens to you . . ." I trailed off. "Everything changes." I tapped my chest with my free hand. "You feel it. It's inside you. It doesn't go away, and it just sits there and rots." I stopped again; my voice wouldn't work and I realized abruptly that I was shaking. Jean had realized it, too, and leaned across to hug me tightly. I hugged her back, and she held on for a long time, but I hadn't meant to make this about me. "It's okay," I said after a space.
"No, it's not," she whispered back, and I could hear in her voice that she was weeping a little. "It was arrogant of me, to talk like I knew what it was like for you, just because I'm a telepath."
And that really wasn't what I'd been aiming for. It also made me realize that I'd leapt to some conclusions myself. "Jean, stop." I pushed her away a little so I could see her face. "And I don't really know what it's like to be a telepath -- to have to deal with everybody else's thoughts in my head without me asking for them, or wanting them. To have all my crap to deal with and theirs, too." I glanced away. "Maybe I should be the one apologizing. I mean, maybe you do know all that stuff."
She watched my face. "No, I think you're right. There is a difference." She settled back down beside me, her head resting on my shoulder companionably. "When the telepathy first came, I didn't know what was happening. I'd be walking down the street and all of a sudden, I was seeing things and hearing things that weren't there. It was like people were shouting but their mouths were shut and I wasn't even sure where it was coming from. Imagine minding your own business and all of a sudden you've got this furious wife in your head, cataloguing all the things she pissed at her husband about, and all the rage she's feeling, too. It was like jumping in the middle of a movie . . . or really, like standing in the middle of an electronics store and all the TVs are set to a different channel."
I held very still and listened intently, my arm still around her shoulders. She'd never actually told me what telepathy felt like for her. At first, that silence had been a result of the nature of our exchanges -- always so intellectual. We'd talked about ideas, but we hadn't talked about ourselves. Then she'd found out about my past, but not through my telling her, and we'd never discussed that, either. This was a gift, now, that she was laying in my hands. I held it carefully.
"I learned that the only way to shut off the other channels was to focus on one. I realize now that I was going into somebody else's mind and living whatever they were, though I didn't understand it at the time. I started reacting to things that weren't there, and sometimes I'd just go catatonic. It completely freaked out my family. I couldn't concentrate on being me. I just . . . wasn't there. I wound up diagnosed as severely schizophrenic, which just meant they didn't have a clue what was wrong with me. I acted like different people, but didn't react to the outer world as those personalities -- I was living in another world entirely. I wasn't 'Jean' any more. I didn't know who I was, and neither did anyone else.
"And yet, experiencing it telepathically wasn't the same as being there. I couldn't affect events. I've always been a receptive telepath more than an assertive one -- meaning it's easier for me to hear others than to impose my thoughts or desires on them. So it really was like watching a TV show. I was just an observer, but felt things along with whomever was living it. Scary, really."
I nodded; it must have been. Maybe scarier, in its own way, than living it physically, because I'd had some control over what had happened to me, however minimal or transient.
"After a while, I figured out how to withdraw a little, so I wasn't feeling as much, and it was like reading a book, or seeing a movie -- or a bit of both because I could see what was happening, but got all the internal thoughts, too. And if something turned too bad, too overwhelming, I'd just leave that 'story,' go on to something else. Mental channel surfing, I guess." She smiled and I echoed it.
"It can be addictive, living like that. It's very . . . vivid. Life is vivid. I was seeing things, doing things I'd never dreamed of. And it wasn't all bad. Most were just experiences I hadn't had yet, and maybe never would have. But I had them in my head, and that was safe. I wasn't physically threatened, and I'd figured that out at some level. Not consciously, but subconsciously, yeah. I'd go back to certain types of experiences -- I'd learned how to look for them, pick them out. And I'd figured out how to avoid others, too. I became an adrenaline junkie, and I didn't even have to be in danger to get that high."
She finally glanced over at me. "The things that drew me weren't necessarily what you'd think. I mean, I wasn't even a teenager yet. Sex and all that --" She flittered her fingers again as she had when speaking of the sanitarium, and wrinkled her pretty nose. I simply nodded, understanding perfectly. When I'd first been forced into prostitution, puberty had barely hit for me. I'd been a skinny, very pretty, slow-to-mature fourteen-year-old boy, sex something I'd only dimly wondered about ... very nebulous. Then I'd been thrown in over my head and I hadn't been ready to know what I'd learned. So it didn't surprise me at all if Jean had shied away from sexual encounters.
She continued now, "It was adventure that caught my fancy. I'd float around mentally until I found someone doing something interesting, then I'd tag along for the ride. Sometimes it backfired." She shivered once. "I got shot. Well, the cop whose head I was in got shot." She shivered again and I hugged her tighter. "But that was the kind of thing that attracted me. I wanted to be an action film star!" She laughed. "Imagine! Jean Grey, Wonder Woman!" And the idea of Jean dressed up in a red, white, and blue leotard made me smile.
"But the thing is, I never stuck around for the rest of it. I just wanted the action, not the work or training, and not the consequences. I understand that now. It wasn't really me. Meanwhile, my parents had contacted the professor, who came and taught me how to shield, how to get back into my body, and told me what was going on."
She paused, thinking, and I waited. "So I can see what you mean -- where you're coming from. I may have the memories -- sort of -- and the feelings, but my body doesn't react. I may know how to fire a police-issue Glock semiautomatic, but I doubt I could actually hit a target. I don't have that skill . . . it's more than in your head. I mean, some of it is, but some of it's in your hands."
I found myself nodding vigorously. That's what I'd been trying to express; she had it exactly. I just hadn't been able to hang the correct words on it. "It's like riding a bike," I said now. "People can tell you and tell you, but until you practice, you can't do it." I eyed her. "It must be weird -- and frustrating -- to know things and not know them."
And now it was her turn to nod vigorously. "More than I can possibly explain."
Neither of us spoke then, but I felt as if we'd broken to the surface of something profound. I understood her in a way I never had before. She possessed knowledge but none of the experience to go with it, while I had experiences I barely understood, and very little knowledge. Maybe that's why we'd been so drawn to each other, like two puzzle pieces that completed each other.
"The thing is," she went on now, "I'm not half as naive as I probably seem. I know a lot of things -- more than most people learn in their whole lives. I've just never done them before. I've been to Morocco, and Egypt, and most of Europe. Just not in this body. I know what could happen."
"But would you know how to watch for it?"
She looked at me funny. "Watch for it?"
"Yeah. It's a kind of . . . body knowledge, I guess. And having had all those experiences mentally -- but not being in physical danger -- probably just makes it worse. Jean, you move like you think nothing could ever happen to you. You've got this . . . confidence. Sometimes almost blindness." I rubbed at my upper lip. "That's something you lose, you know? That confidence. But you learn to be watchful, too, and I think that's why I'd be nervous for you. Maybe that's also what your parents are nervous about. Have you thought about doing something that's, I don't know, less . . . exotic? Maybe go to England? Or California? Or Hawaii?"
She sighed out in a gust of exasperation. "I've been to those places. Well, not California, but I want to go someplace really different. See things I've never seen. I could speak Arabic, you know, in Morocco, and Coptic, in Egypt."
I blinked behind my glasses. "You can speak Arabic?"
"Sure. As long as I'm around somebody who can speak it, I can speak it. That goes for any language, really. I might have trouble with something tonal, like Mandarin, but yeah, I can usually do a little telepathic language lift. To really learn a language, though, I've got to spend some time immersed in it. Language is a skill, too. I do know German and French well enough that I don't have to read minds to use them. Oh, and Italian. Italian's easy."
I found myself laughing. "You're like one of those pocket translation programs."
Her smile turned impish. "Except I can pick up all the slang and swear words."
I shook my head at her. "What if I came with you?"
"To Morocco. What if I tagged along with you and Misty?" Not that I really wanted to spend any more time in Misty Knight's company than I had to -- we'd never hit it off even though I'd been to Jean's place quite a lot since that first visit -- yet for Jean, I'd put up with Misty for however many weeks. "How long are you thinking about anyway? And you did tell me I should do something this summer."
For a moment, her face wore an expression of both surprise and hope, then it faded and she shook her head. "I'll ask, but I doubt it'll make a difference."
"Why not? If they're worried about you --"
"You're younger than I am," Jean interrupted.
"So?" It burst out of my mouth before I even considered, then I added, "Technically, yeah." I left the corollary to that unspoken.
She shook her head again, but kept her eyes on the carpet in front of her. "They don't know about your past, Scott. They don't know anything about you except that you're another student of the professor's, you're a mutant, you're a friend of Warren's, and you're finishing high school. Oh, and that your dad was in the air force."
Frowning, I pursed my lips and stared off at a window, finding myself unexpectedly torn. Mostly, I was grateful that she hadn't told her parents anything about my past, but for the first time, the fact that I wasn't just another squeaky-clean, upper class spoiled brat might actually be valuable, and that was a new experience for me. "Ask them anyway."
"Okay. Just don't get your hopes up."
I smiled. "It's not my hopes I'm worried about."
I stuck around to eat dinner in the city, and Jean called her parents -- who made the very objection she'd expected them to make. I didn't mind, felt worse for Jean, but I also felt as if we'd gotten something vital out of this, in terms of mutual understanding, if not an overseas trip.
And I began to think more concretely about how I planned to spend my summer.
Notes: The song lyrics come from Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Why Walk When You Can Fly?"
Story XII is A capella
Please post a comment on this story.
Title: Shadows on the Cave Wall (Special 11)
Series Name: SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author: Minisinoo [email] [website]
Details: Series | 62k | 10/15/04
Characters: Scott, Jean, Hank
Summary: The shape of things to come.
Notes: This entire series is ADULT.
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