Notes: As noted in Part II, Dani Elk River is the same person as Dani Moonstar (Mirage, of X-Force). I realize the name change may cause some folks' canon demons to squeal, but Marvel is extremely uncreative in their last names for native people: Proudstar, Moonstar, Lonestar . . . . As a native person myself, that's always bothered me. A lot. So I ditched Dani's comics name in favor of one that sounds more authentic. Roll with it. Storm's quip about Jean's 'real' mutant power comes from X-Factor #10, but was originally put in the mouth of Candy Southern. (Thanks Ken and Lelia.) Storm's claustrophobia is legendary. And Jack O'Diamonds, to whom Scott refers, was a part of his street background in the original comics. Incidently, the /i/ in Jamilah / Jilah is a long /i/, pronounced as an /ee/: Jeelah.
Images: Where'd I get the images of Dani? From the Children of the Atom site, Age of Apocalypse gallery and from To Asgard and Back
"Storm, pull over, she's starting to wake up." Probably a good thing. It wouldn't be too keen to carry an unconscious girl into my hotel room. True, wealth could cover a multitude of sins, but I'd rather the hotel help didn't think I was abducting people.
"Pull over where?" Ororo asked.
"Find a nice big, quiet, dark parking lot."
She glanced in the rearview mirror at me. "What are you going to do, Cyclops? Murder her and dump the body?"
"Don't get smart, girl, or I'll murder you both, and put you in the same shallow grave."
She laughed. "Just try, flyboy. I'll paddle your fanny with a lightning bolt."
It made me grin. Stupid adrenaline humor. No matter how many times your life gets interesting, there's still relief when 'interesting' is over. More or less. I had yet to explain to a girl high on Angel Dust why she was in the backseat of a Mercedes with complete strangers, one of whom had given her a bruised jaw.
Christ, Professor - tell me again why this is me and not Jean?
Because you need the practice, Cyclops.
The inner voice made me jump. It was an idle thought, sir, not a real question, I sent back.
Mental bubble of amusement. Of course. But sometimes your idle thoughts are more honest. And he disappeared again. In any case, the girl was coming around. Her eyelids fluttered, then she was - abruptly - awake.
"Wha'thehell!" And she slammed herself back against the rear door on the other side, hand flying to the handle to let herself out, but she missed her mark. Ro already had on the child protection system. She wasn't getting away that easily.
"Calm down," I said, my voice deliberately soft. "We're not going to hurt you. You're safe. I promise. Just listen to me, please. Give me five minutes."
She was shaking and still sweating. The headband around her brow was soaked, her hair damp, and her eyes completely dilated. Not good. Then again, she didn't have to be high to freak out at waking up in the backseat of a car with a man she'd never seen before. "I'm not going to hurt you," I said again, but before I could even finish, there was a knife out and shoved in my face. I dove sideways.
"Lemme outta this leather submarine, white man!" But her speech was so slurred, I could barely understand her.
"Hey, sister, listen to him, okay?"
"Shut up, you black bitch!" And the knife swung towards Ororo. I saw my chance, grabbed the arm and shoved it down, her wrist banging my knee so that her grip loosened. She dropped the knife. PCP made a user strong, but killed coordination. I slammed my foot down on the knife so that she couldn't get hold of it again. "It's kind of hard to put my thoughts together with a switchblade in my face," I told her. "I'm not going to hurt you, dammit! Listen to me!"
She glared back, but the effect was spoiled by her continued blinking as she tried to focus past the drug. "Just listen," I said again, softer, though I'd be damn lucky if she could concentrate long enough to understand what we were saying to her. "We honestly aren't trying to hurt you. We got you out of the riot."
"The one you caused," Ro put in. "With that illusion of the vice cops."
"What the hell you talking about!" the girl snapped and started to struggle at the door again.
"Ro - " I warned, even as I reached forward to make her stop. "Shhh. Listen to me." Did the girl not understand what she'd done? Maybe not. Her illusions weren't directly related to her body - like my eyeblasts - and up in the stratosphere like she was, maybe she didn't realize those illusions were different from the ones inside her skull. But how did I explain? The professor had said she'd freaked out the first time Ro had even mentioned mutant powers.
"There was a riot," I began, keeping my voice level, "at the club. People thought it was a vice raid, but it turned out to be an illusion, a mirage."
"Yeah? Like VR?" She appeared interested, in a vague way. If I could keep her concentrating, maybe I could keep her from going off into another rage where she might construct more illusions out of her own hallucinations. I really had no idea what she was capable of.
"Sort of like VR, except this wasn't a machine." I shifted and wet my lips. Here came the fun part. Feeling helpless, I glanced at Ro. She put a hand over mine where I'd been gripping the back of her headrest. "You've heard of mutants?" I asked, saw the girl's face turn immediately hard. Wrong approach. Dammit, where was Jean when I needed her? Maybe if I made it about us, instead of about her . . . ? "Ororo and I are both mutants. We have certain powers - "
But she seemed to have lost interest in what I was saying and leaned her head back on the glass of the window, patted her clothes absently. "Dammit, where's my jacket? I need my cigs."
"The jacket must have been left at the club," Ro said. "We had to get you out in a hurry."
The girl blinked. "Fuck it! That jacket had my good cigarettes!" Probably the laced ones. Superweed. "And my license. I need my fucking license!" She'd started to shake again and her hands moved about blindly, like she could make the jacket reappear out of thin air if she just wished hard enough. "Shit - what's wrong with my legs? They're a mile away, man."
"Huh?" Ro seemed wholly thrown by these conversational left-hand turns.
"Your legs are right here," I said, laying a palm on her knee. "Can you feel my hand?"
"No. Yeah." Absently, she ran a hand into her hair, mussing it badly around the headband. "I feel all spongy."
"It'll pass. Just concentrate on my voice, okay?" Wack wasn't LSD; I couldn't talk her down from a bad trip, but if I could keep her concentrating, I could keep her from going off into her own mind and freaking out again. "Can we talk to you some more?"
"Like I said, Ro and I are mutants. We each have unique powers, special things we can do. Ro can control the weather, and I have these eye blasts. Mutants are born with a special gene that usually manifests itself at puberty - "
I'd lost her again. She was clawing uselessly at the handle. "Heard enough about the freak show. Lemme outta here." Her agitation was increasing. "I said, lemme outta here! Now, dammit!"
"Please - wait." I made calming motions but it did no good; she just clawed harder at the handle and started kicking me. "Man, just listen please!" I said.
"No, you fuck off! Neve'nęhesheve! I don't want no part of you, got that? Keep away from me, you and your chocolate bunny girlfriend."
"Fine!" Ro said, eyes white. The 'chocolate bunny' line hadn't gone over well. "Just get out of the car and wander off down the street, high as a kite!"
"Ro, don't yell at her." We didn't want to upset her. Her brain wasn't working normally, right now. Peace and dark was what she needed. "Keep your voice down."
"Shut up, Cyclops. You had your turn, now it's mine." She lunged over the backseat to grab the girl by the wrist and yank her forward until they were almost eye-to-eye. "You'll be lucky if nobody mugs you, sister. Or rapes you. And the sad thing is, you're so out of it, you probably wouldn't even remember."
She ignored me. "But then, you don't want to remember, do you? If you remember, then you'll have to admit you're as much a mutant as we are. You are the one who made the mirage at the club. And it's not the first time, I bet." The other girl was twisting, trying to get away, but Ororo is a strong woman. Even so, she couldn't do more than hang on. I weighed my options: leap in and hold down the girl, or stay out of it and hope Ro didn't push her into a real PCP rage.
"How long have you been on the run?" Ro asked, voice quieter. "How many places have you trashed with your mirages? How many people did you scare out of their wits? Maybe you haven't killed anybody - yet - but if you don't learn to control your power, girlfriend, you're going to. I almost murdered a whole playground full of kids because I didn't know how to master what I could do. I almost killed them? You get that? We're dangerous, sister."
"I don't mean to be!" the girl was yelling. "I don't wanna hurt nobody!" She still twisted like a cat and was trying to bite Ro. I was afraid she was going to hurt herself, or Ororo. I had to put a stop to this.
Leaning forward, I grabbed her arms. "None of us mean to be dangerous," I said.
"I'm not a witch!" the girl was screaming, trying wildly to slap me and bucking to get free. "I'm not a witch! I'm not cursing anyone! I'm not trying to hurt anyone!"
"I know!" I said, getting hold of both her wrists finally in one of mine and pushing her back with my body against the seat. I put my free hand on her forehead, to hold her head still. Even so, I could barely contain her. PCP does that, pumps a person up to twice her normal strength. "You're not a witch. You're not a bad person. You're not a freak. You're just a mutant. Like us. I know you don't want to hurt anyone, but you're going to, if you don't get some help."
We were playing this good cop, bad cop, but it was working. She'd quit fighting me, though she still sobbed a little. "I'm not a witch!"
"No, you're not." I glanced around at Ororo, who nodded to me, a little smile on her face. We'd gotten past the denial phase, at least. "You're gifted. Special. We can help you learn to control that, so you don't hurt anyone by accident ever again. Will you trust us?"
She shivered hard all over, but nodded, and I let her go. "I'm Scott Summers. That's Ororo Munroe. What's your name?"
"Dani. Danielle Elk River."
I smiled a little. "Welcome to the ranks of homo superior, Dani. Ro, take us back to the hotel."
By the time we reached the Heritage, Dani had sunk back into the PCP zombie-zone. "God, I am so hot!" she kept saying and once tried to peel her little red tank right off. Holy Christ. I gripped her wrists and yanked the top back down before Ro could get the car into the Heritage drive. No free show for the valets tonight.
"I know you're hot," I said, "but keep your shirt on! When you get up to our room, you can take a cold shower."
Getting Dani upstairs was an adventure. I was glad I'd tipped these people well the first time. Nobody said anything about the obviously high girl whom Ororo and I were half carrying up to our suite. She was dressed like a hooker, and I could guess what the hotel help thought we were going to do with her. When we were in the room, I let Ro take her. "Get her into the shower and cool her down. Do you have some clothes that will fit her?"
"I don't know," Ro said, studying Dani's figure. She's got bigger hips than me, and I'm taller, but I can probably find something.
"Make sure it's cool, or she'll try to take it off again."
She gave me a little, dimpled grin. "And you'd have a heart attack."
"I'm not used to naked women running around my hotel room, okay?"
"Ooooo, Scott. Where do you take your girlfriends, then?"
I glared at her as she retreated into the smaller bedroom with Dani in tow, then I collapsed onto the couch. Man, I was tired. Mission accomplished, Professor, I sent in my head, but got no response. He must already have closed the link. Long term telepathic monitoring at this distance was a strain even for him. Removing my visor, I put back on my glasses. I needed something to drink, and food. Calling room service, I ordered cheese and fruit and lots of juice, and coffee for me. I'd eaten half the cheese before Ro re-emerged, alone. "I just put her to bed," she said. "She was asleep on her feet."
"Asleep?" Going to the doorway, I glanced in. The girl was out cold. I wondered for how long. That wasn't the usual Angel Dust reaction, but a mutant mind was different from a normal one, and PCP acted a bit differently on everyone anyway. Turning back, I found Ro scarfing down strawberries. It made me smile. I'd ordered those because I know how she likes them. She'd ditched the black lycra dress for something simple and loose in a shade that might have been pale violet. She wears a lot of it. "You going to leave some for me?" I asked.
"You can have the cheese. The strawberries are mine. Rrrroww!" And she flopped onto the couch, head back, arms and wet hair spread out on the cushions. She looked as tired as I felt. But really, she'd done more work. I took a seat across from her. "You did good tonight."
Dropping her chin, she raised both eyebrows. "Oh, my! Praise from the fearless leader! I'm so flattered!"
I frowned down at a square of Swiss cheese in my fingers. "Am I usually that bad?"
"No. You aren't." I heard her get up and then she was kneeling down in front of me. She bit the cheese right out of my fingers and quirked her lips up. "You even complimented the Wolverine once. I heard you, so don't deny it." And she swallowed.
"He earned it."
She dropped back on the dun-dull carpet, hands behind her for support, and glanced off at the flowered curtains. Overhead track lights glowed on her pale hair. "Are you glad he's gone? I know he helped us, in the end, but I still don't trust the son of a bitch. He made my skin crawl."
And how did I reply to that? As Scott, or as Cyclops? "I don't like him, either. But I'm not sure that I don't trust him. The professor trusts him. And Jean. They're the telepaths. I'm the idiot who ran off to Magneto. Maybe you should ask if you trust me?"
Her eyes narrowed and she swung her face back to consider me. "Sometimes you piss me off, and sometimes you make stupid mistakes. But I trust you. I trust you more than I trust Professor X. And as for Magneto" - she overran my attempt to protest her distrust of the professor - "I was so mad at you at first, I couldn't see straight. I called you every rotten name I could think of, and then started over. We were all pissed, except for Jean. She asked if we really thought you could fire on us as enemies when you'd led and trained us as teammates? She said you'd rather die than betray someone who trusted you. So we talked about it afer she left, and decided that the day you really betrayed someone, was the day the universe would end."
That touched me, on two accounts. First, that they did trust me that much. And second, that Jean had defended me. Given how she'd been acting towards me since my return, I'd never have guessed it. "Jean defended me?" I asked, just to be sure. "And she was right. The first thing I told Magneto was that I wasn't fighting the X-Men. I'd help him, but I'd never go into battle against you."
She grinned. "It's nice when some things in life are predictable." Then she flopped back on the carpet, arms out to the side. "I'm bush-whacked."
"Why don't you go to bed, then?"
"Why don't you?"
"Because one of us has to stay up and keep an eye on the new girl, and I had coffee. I'm too keyed up to sleep." I always was, after a mission. And I was still thinking about what she'd said a minute ago. "Jean defended me?" I asked again.
She twisted on the floor and cracked an eye open. "Yeah, she did. Pretty vehemently, too."
I could tell Ro was amused. "You think I'm a fool, don't you?"
"Yeah, right. So why are you laughing at me?"
"I'm not. I'm amused, but I'm not laughing at you, and I don't think you're a fool. I do think you're barking up the wrong tree, though."
"And that's not being a fool?"
"No. We can't always control who we get crushes on."
I stared off at the track lights over the window behind the couch, let it fuzz my vision as I thought about Jean - and Wolverine. Was that just a crush? "Crushes are something you get over. I haven't gotten over Jean for a year and a half."
"Some people are too stubborn to let go."
"Why do you think I'm barking up the wrong tree? You're on the outside of this little triangle. What do you see?"
I didn't answer immediately. Did I want her honest opinion? Storm could be ruthless. But she was also perceptive. And maybe it was time I heard the truth. "Yeah, honestly."
"All right then. Jean's mutant power isn't TK, it's getting the guys to fall at her feet."
I dropped my gaze to look at her. "That sounds like jealousy to me, not honesty."
"I'm not jealous." It was said with real seriousness, a slight frown on her face, which inclined me to believe her. In the bedroom, I could hear the other girl stirring in her bed. "I'd have to want what Jean has, to be jealous, and I don't. Sometimes I'm resentful, but not jealous. They're not the same thing. I want her to wake up and appreciate what she's got. She doesn't know what it feels like to be really hungry for days on end, or to run from the drug dealers, or to be spat on and called a nigger, or a thieving whore, or an Arab bitch - take your pick. It makes her cocky. She assumes everything's going to work out for the best, because - for her - it always has. And she strings people along on charm and the assumption that they'll love her. She's got that white girl sense of entitlement and it drives me fucking crazy."
"I'm white, too, Ro," I said, and ground my teeth together.
"Yeah, you're white. But you don't have it. You drive me crazy for different reasons."
I might have said more, except at that moment, Dani called out from the bedroom and we both jumped up to see what was wrong. Nothing, as it turned out. "She's dreaming," Ro said.
"Or hallucinating," I added.
"As long as she doesn't start hallucinating where we can see it, we're fine."
"I just don't want her to leap out a window because she thinks she can fly like you."
"Yeah, well, the only windows are out here." We returned to our seats, but Ro took a spot on the couch so that she could see through the doorway into the bedroom. "It's not the being white," she went on now. "I had plenty of white friends on the street. It's the entitlement crap that pisses me off. And that's why you're barking up the wrong tree, Scott. She's got you wrapped around her little finger and knows it. She doesn't have to do a damn thing but throw you an occasional bit of attention and you lap it up, follow her around like a lovesick puppy."
"Oh? And you don't flirt with anything that has a dick hanging between his legs?"
She blinked and I was immediately embarrassed for the crudity - I usually kept my less-than-polite thoughts to myself - but then she grinned. "Oh, I admit I flirt shamelessly. But I don't assume men owe me anything. If they open a door for me, great. If they don't, I can open it for myself. And I never lead them on. If a guy really likes me, but the feeling isn't mutual, I keep it casual. Like with Hank. I don't feel what he feels. Maybe that'll change, but maybe it won't. I keep a little distance so he doesn't get false hopes. I refuse to be cruel."
"What about Colossus? Is what you do to him any different from Jean and I?"
She burst out laughing. "Peter? Scott, open your eyes! Peter's the last guy at the mansion who'd be interested in me. You need to worry more about Peter than I do!"
"Oh." Now I felt stupid. From the bedroom, Dani cried out again and I sat up a little but Ro just glanced in the door and shook her head. Maybe Ro's laughter had disturbed her. "We need to keep it down," I said. "Bright lights, loud noises - If she's already restless, it might set her off."
She was studying my face. "How do you know so much about drugs, anyway?"
"Because I was addicted to heroin before the professor found me."
"Oh." Her turn to be taken by surprise. Normally, I wouldn't have confessed that, but of all the students at the mansion, Ro was probably the one least likely to hold it against me. Even so, she didn't say anything for a full minute, then, "That's why Xavier sent you here, isn't it?"
"Yes. He had a feeling it might be a drug issue. So now you know a secret about me, and I know one about you, with the reading."
"Keeping tabs, Cyclops?"
"Not really." Well maybe I was a little, but not in the way she meant.
But she'd nodded, accepting my reply, and returned her attention to our previous conversation. "If you want to get the attention of a girl like Jean, Scott, you have to play hard to get. Like Wolverine. Why do you think she fell into his bed? The big mystery? Because he's an older man? No way, José. It was because he didn't make it easy for her. He let her know he was interested, but kept her guessing how much. Real cool cat. You were too easy a catch."
I snorted. "I thought she turned to him because he dared to tell her how he felt, and I didn't."
"Maybe that's what she tells herself."
"Quit pandering to her. Be her friend if you want - I think she genuinely likes you, as a person - but quit bowing to her like she was your personal Mecca."
I laced my hands together behind my head and leaned back against them, stared at the ceiling while I pondered what she'd said. Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have been interested in hearing. Now? I really wasn't sure what I felt for Jean any more. I'd loved her for so long, it had become another addiction. Which wasn't love, was it? "I'll think about it," I said.
"Good, you do that." Ro got up off the couch. "I'm going to take your advice and go to bed. Wake me in a few hours and I'll take my turn watching." She paused beside the chair I was sitting in and ran the back of her hand up my scratchy cheek, a gesture more of familiarity and friendship than of flirting. "Go grab a shower yourself. You earned it, Fearless Leader. It'll take me a few minutes to brush my teeth and get ready, anyway; I can keep an eye on her that long." And she dropped a kiss on the top of my hair - for all the world like she was my mother - and went in to bed.
Sighing, I let my hands fall and rose to do as she'd suggested, thought more about her advice as hot water beat over my head and shoulders. Maybe she was right. I had to quit pining after Jean; I was wasting my time. Jean didn't want me. Getting out, I dried off blind and fumbled for my glasses. The mirror was all steamed up. I took one of the towels and wiped it clear, stared at my naked reflection. How many times had I done this in the Savage Land, wondering what was wrong with me that Jean had chosen Logan? Worrying that my experiences on the street had marked me, like Cain. I wasn't man enough for her. What kind of game was I playing anyway, running around in black leather? Did I think it made me tough? Even a little twit like Toad knew better. I'd heard what he'd told me, in Croatia: "Whoever said that tight, little t-shirt doesn't make you look like the team pansy was lying." Not that he knew who I'd been, but he wouldn't have said that to Wolverine. Or even Peter.
And man, wasn't that a joke? The 'team pansy' was the guy who turned into organic steel. But this wasn't about truth; it was about perceptions. I tried to be tough because I knew I wasn't. Peter didn't have to try. And maybe that's why he made me uncomfortable. Around him, I still felt like the skinny shrimp I'd been at fourteen when Jack had first found me hustling pool.
Shit. Don't think about Jack.
I leaned knuckles into the bathroom counter and turned my face away. Jack was dead. He was never going to fuck with my head, or anything else, again. I grabbed underwear and flannel sleep shorts, put them on and went out. I'd wound up in the main bedroom after all because it had the single bed. I shoved my dirty clothes into a plastic bag to keep the stink off my clean stuff. The shirt had been torn a little from climbing out through the hole in the bathroom wall at the club, and I wondered if I could fix it, or if I'd have to ditch it. I liked that shirt.
"Neat as always, aren't you?"
My heart spasmed in my chest and I swung around, reached for the trigger on the visor I wasn't wearing and almost knocked my glasses off. Shutting my eyes reflexively for an instant, I fumbled with them as I stepped back against the far well. "What the hell are you doing here!" I shouted. "You're dead, dammit!"
"Well, you certainly tried to make that so, but I assure you, rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
I finally got my glasses straight and dared to open my eyes. I was hyperventilating but couldn't stop, couldn't think past the panic. My vision tunneled as my whole will focused on the figure occupying the hotel bed. Jack Winters. He sat perfectly at ease, filing his goddamn nails like he'd used to do when he wanted to appear bored. He was half-dressed, chest bared to reveal his knife scars and the skull-and-crossbones tattoo. Street pirate. My own personal Blackbeard.
And Christ, that nailfile. I remembered only too well what he could do with that nailfile, and rubbed the underside of my arms where the scars were, only some of them from needle tracks. "Get the fuck out of here," I snarled, "Before I call hotel security and have you removed. Or maybe the police. There's probably a warrant for your arrest in Tennessee, too."
"Call," he said, and reached out to lift the phone handle, offer it to me. Cool, cool, completely cool. He'd always been so fucking cool. "You can tell them all about the space-case girl in the other bedroom, and how she's not a hooker for the night. And why I'm in here with my shirt off and you're even less dressed. Hmmm. I'm sure that would sound convincing, eh?"
He looked up at me finally and I just froze, the little rat caught in the stare of a cobra. It had been two years but he could still immobilize me with no more than a glance. My breathing grew even more irregular and I couldn't take in air fast enough. It felt as if metal bands were crushing my chest. "Get away from me, you son of a bitch. Get out of this room! Now!"
"Oh really, Scott. You've got to learn to improve your threats. I'm just quaking in my boots." And he got up off the bed, came towards me. The nailfile was in his hand and he had that nasty smile that told me he was in a mood to see me bleed. I was already pressed up against the wall, couldn't go through it. I didn't have the strength to run, or the will. I never had. To this day, I couldn't believe that I'd found the strength to kill him.
"Get away from me." But it sounded more like a plea than an order. "Get away from me!" My eyes dropped to the nailfile, which he was turning, almost idly, in his hands.
"Where should we start? Behind the knees? Or inside the elbows? I owe you a great deal, boy. Weeks of recovery in a hospital. Over a year in jail and now a goddamn parole officer sniffing up my ass. Oh, yes. I owe you a lot." He raised the file right up to my eye level.
But something he'd said clicked through my panic-fogged brain. Recovery. In a hospital. "I saw you die," I whispered. "I saw your fucking head explode." My voice was getting louder. "You can't recover from that! You couldn't have recovered. You can't be alive! You can't be!
"What on earth is going on in here?"
A new voice from the doorway. My eyes shot in that direction - Ro, in a robe drawn hastily over pale silk, her white hair mussed. "And who are you?" she asked Jack.
"Jack O'Diamonds, ducky." And he glanced back at me "Pretty little piece of cunt, Scott. Does she fuck well, or just give good head? Or maybe you give it to her? You had a lot of practice, didn't you? Oh, but I guess it was all with the wrong gender. That's why you're sleeping alone."
"Scott," Ro said in that soft voice that told me someone was about to get zapped, "who is this jackass? And what is he doing in our hotel suite?"
"He's . . . dead," I whispered. My voice had faded almost to nothing, like my courage, like everything I'd built since I'd escaped Jack. All smashed into rubble. "He's dead."
Ro blinked. "He looks pretty alive to me."
"Oh, I assure you, I am." Turning, Jack headed for her, nailfile out. "I'll be happy to introduce myself at more length, after I get a little taste of what Scott's been keeping for himself since he got away from me. Come to papa, pretty, pretty girlie."
I tried to move, but couldn't. I was still pressed back against the wall, my palms splayed out on rough wallpaper as I watched Jack Winters approach Ororo. Her expression was wary, but not worried, and her eyes had gone white. "I'm going to give you to the count of three," she said, "to stop what you're doing, put that nailfile away, and get the fuck out of this suite. One."
"Oooo, I love a woman with fire."
"Get away from her, Jack." It was my own voice, though how I'd found it again, I wasn't sure. I didn't sound very threatening. I sounded like a scared kid. "Get away from her, or so help me god, I'll spray your fucking brains all over the fucking wall again, you sick bastard."
"Scott, what did you just say?" Ororo had been backing up to give herself more fighting room, lightning starting to flicker over her form, but now she paused to frown at me. "Did I hear you say you sprayed his brains on a wall? And before, you said he was dead."
"I - " Jack had almost reached her. "Get away, Ro! Run!" I started to pull my glasses off.
"Scott, don't! Focus on my voice! What happened?"
"I killed him! Two years ago, I killed him!"
"This is just an illusion! It's not really happening, like at the club! Scott, look!"
I blinked rapidly, made myself focus on her. She stood, hands to the side, completely defenseless . . . and Jack Winters was passing right through her.
"It's an illusion from Dani. I heard you shouting; it woke me up. She was tossing around in the bed, but I figured I'd better come see what was making you shout."
I stared - gawked really - as the much-faded image of Jack tried to stab Ro. "Make it go away, Scott," she said.
"How? I don't know how."
"Keep telling yourself the truth. You killed him. He's dead. He can't hurt you any more."
I whispered it to myself. She kept her eyes on mine. No judgement in them, no disgust. "He's dead," I said a little louder. "He's dead."
"He's dead," she repeated.
And then he was gone, winked out of my life for a second time. But everything wasn't all better. I'd started to shake with bone-deep chills. My teeth were chattering, and I still couldn't breathe well. My back skidded down the wall and I wrapped my arms around my knees. Ro hurried over to drop down beside me, grip my upper arms. "Scott, listen to me. You're okay. Just breathe. You're having an anxiety attack. Look at me and breathe with me. Now in, now out. Now in, now out." I did as she said and she kept up the litany until I finally had some kind of control again, but I was so shaky, I doubted I could stand up.
Christ, this hadn't happened in almost two years. "Go check on the girl," I whispered. "If she's hallucinating, she might hurt herself while we're in here." Why she'd be hallucinating my personal demons, I didn't know, but it was the same as at the club. Maybe she'd tapped into me again because she had once before. Except this time, she hadn't lifted out a casual fear. She'd honed in on the one person, dead or alive, who could still take me apart at the seams.
Ro started to protest, but then nodded and rose to do as I'd bid. She must have realized that I needed a few minutes to pull my shit together. I considered reaching out to the professor's mind, but didn't. He must be fast asleep, even more exhausted than Ro had been. I could deal with this myself. I was a big boy now.
Yeah, right. I was sure acting like a big boy - all huddled up on the floor like a freakin' mouse.
I made myself uncurl from a fetal position and leaned my back against the wall, eyes closed, to concentrate on breathing, contain the sick feeling in my stomach. I wasn't going to lose it again. I heard Ro when she came back, and opened my eyes. She was carrying a glass of milk. "Sorry, it's not chocolate," she said, and handed it to me. I would've laughed but didn't have the strength for that, either. "Drink it. You'll feel better." I did as she said and tried not to think about what she'd just witnessed, what she now knew about me. This was a lot more incriminating than an addiction to heroin. The leader of the X-Men was an ex-prostitute and certified wimp. She'd never be able to take an order from me again with a straight face.
But there was no laughter in her expression now. "Are you okay?" Then she whacked herself on the forehead. "Jesus! What a stupid question! Sorry."
"I'll be okay," I said, answering what she'd meant. "And since when does a Muslim use the Christian God to swear by?"
"I grew up speaking English, Scott. Why would I swear in Arabic? Besides, I'm not a Muslim. My parents were." She plopped down next to me. "Allah and I have some issues."
Discussion of the incidental to avoid looking at the big white elephant in the room.
"How's the girl?" I asked.
"Sleeping now. I think she's really under this time."
"That's too weird," I said, rubbing my forehead as I tried to piece together what this meant. "PCP shouldn't knock her out, but maybe that's why she took it. I should call the professor, have him send Hank and Jean down here in the Blackbird. We need another psi to contain her. She's stronger than anyone thought - more than we can handle."
"Call them in the morning. She's out now, and you need to sleep, Scott. You're just - "
" - a fucking mess, I know. Take a good look, Storm. This is the true face of your 'fearless leader.' I can't even get my legs under me and I think I pissed my pants."
"You beat him," she said simply.
"No, you did. You figured out what was going on. I didn't do a damn thing but cower against the wall like I was fourteen years old again."
She didn't reply immediately, instead did the unexpected - reached out to pull me to her, hug me tight. "You didn't piss your pants," she said. "Or I'd smell it. And Scott, how old were you when he picked you up? Fourteen, I bet? Some things are just . . . past reason. You want to know another secret about me? I'm claustrophobic as all hell. Lock me in a closet and I just freak. Can't think, can't breathe, can't do anything but scream my lungs out. At least you beat him - two years ago, and again just now. That's brave."
"Shut up, Cyclops. You're brave. I said so; it's a pronouncement. Now quit arguing with me." She pushed me back to glare, but not very seriously. There was a smile hiding behind it.
"How can you smile at me?" I asked, dazed. "Don't you despise me?" Normally, I'd have been too proud to ask, but just now, I had no pride left.
"Scott, you are such a dimwit sometimes. Why would I despise you? Just because for a minute there, you needed some help to get a reality check? I told you, lock me in a closet and I'm just as bad. I understand. Besides, I thought we were the X-Men? Not Cyclops and the X-men. Or do you think I'm just your cheap backup singer?"
It made me smile. "You're definitely not that. You saved my ass tonight. Twice."
"Yeah, I did. And I probably will again sometime, and you'll save mine. Keeping tabs, Cyclops?"
"Not really." My smile widened, remembering our earlier exchange.
"Good. I'd have to hurt you, if you were. Now, are you going to let me help you to bed?"
"I guess." I handed her the empty glass of milk and she levered me to my feet. I was feeling better, but still extremely shaky. She got me to the bed and I collapsed on it. "What I asked, a minute ago, if you despised me - " I paused, then blurted it out. "I didn't mean for panicking. I meant . . . for what he said about me."
Maybe I was just picking at scabs, but I had to know.
Frowning, she sat down on the bed edge. The light was on and it made the slick fabric of her nightgown glisten. It was a pale color, probably more of the lavender she loved. I wished I could see it against her skin. I wished I could see anything that wasn't red. Even her hair - I knew it was white, I thought of it as white, but it would forever be pink to my sight. Almost absently, I reached out to touch it, ran a strand through my fingers, and she didn't start or pull back. "I'm not sure what you mean." she said instead. "He was trying to get my goat - and yours, too. Why would I despise you for his stupid insinuations?"
She didn't know. She hadn't understood. I let go of the hair and rolled away onto my side. My glasses slipped a little and I pushed them back up. I needed to change into my night goggles. "Never mind," I said.
"No. Tell me."
"Dammit!" She grabbed my shoulder and yanked me back over where she could see my face. "You are such a pain in the ass sometimes, Cyclops! Talk to me! Why should I despise you for what he said?"
I didn't know where to begin, so I stared at the ceiling instead of meeting her eyes. "The bit about having a lot of practice. At, um, sex." I swallowed, couldn't go on.
"Yeah, so? I have a little practice, myself."
"Not like mine!" I tried to make it light but it just fell flat. "I don't want to talk about this."
But I'd said enough; I could see her mind whirring. She has a good memory, as I'd observed, and now she pulled up the words which she'd obviously dismissed at the time as meaningless taunting. "With the wrong gender," she said now. "He said you had practice with the wrong gender. So what? You're gay? So's Peter. He's my best friend. You think I care?"
"I'm not gay."
She frowned. "Then what?" But all of a sudden, I could see the truth hit her. "Oh. You, um . . . . You - ?" She looked like she couldn't quite believe it - the same expression as Jean's face had worn when I'd thrown the truth at her before I'd left. And Christ, could I blame Jean for not wanting to talk to me now? I was kidding myself if I thought she could ever love me.
"I was a hustler, yeah," I told Ororo. "Among other things."
Her expression didn't change, didn't transform into disgust. "I was a thief," she said.
"It's a little different."
"Oh, really? Some people wouldn't think so. What other things?"
"You said, 'among other things.' What other things?"
"I was a thief, too."
Her lips tipped up. "That all?"
"I hustled some pool. That's how Jack found me. I was good at it. Unnaturally good, due to my mutation - even before it manifested. Anyway, he and some friends caught me one night after I left a pool hall, took me back to his place to work me over for conning them." I stopped as my brain went white. I couldn't remember that night or I'd lose any shred of control I'd pulled about myself. I started to shiver and Ro slipped down next to me on the bed to wrap her arms around me. Finally, I calmed enough to say, "After that, he put me to work. I was in his stable for about a year and a half. He gave me heroin, to keep me happy. If I tried to run, he cut me." I raised an arm and turned it to show her the faint scars on the underside from that nailfile, and the needles. "When my powers manifested, he decided I might be good for more than giving head. He taped my eyes shut and locked me in a closet, then took me out like some freakin' tool when he wanted to crash a drug runner's hideout. He'd make me blast our way in, then kill them. With my eyes." I began shaking again. She was rubbing her hands up and down my arms and had dragged up the sheets over us both. "God knows how many people I wasted, Ro. Too many. I finally got up the nerve to kill the son of a bitch." I paused. Her hands felt good and blindly, like a pup, I turned towards her. She held me. "The professor found me the same night I did it. I was wandering around the streets, blind. He took me in and de-toxed me, taught me how to use my power for something besides killing things. I never want to kill again."
"Why were you on the street? A run-away?"
"Yeah, from an orphanage. My parents died when I was about eight. That accident I told you about, the one that damaged my brain? It was a plane crash. Everyone died but me. I barely remember anything before that - can't even recall my mother's face." I started crying and she ran her hands through my hair.
"Shhh. I've got you; you're okay. I've got you." For a long time, she didn't say anything else, just stroked my hair. My eyes were closed against the tears, but also because my glasses wouldn't stay on my face. She took them away and I could hear the click as she set them on the bedside table. Then she started to speak. "I remember my mother's face. I remember holding her hand, where we were caught under a ton of cement rubble. I remember when her hand let mine go, too. I remember staring at her dead face for almost a day before the emergency workers dug us out."
"I'm sorry," I whispered. I'd wound my hands in her hair, wrapped it all about my fingers. She had such beautiful hair. Why wouldn't Jean grow out her hair like this?
"That's why I'm claustrophobic," Ro went on.
"How old were you?"
"Nine. It was six months after we immigrated - the night of the LA riots after the Rodney King trial. They spilled over to other cities. Our restaurant was trashed and they killed my father. I heard the gun go off; he screamed. My mother and I were hiding in the back, off the kitchen. Somebody ran a car into the rear wall - collapsed half of it on top of us. I was too small to move the blocks. She held my hand for a long time, but bled out before the rescue teams got in."
Holy fucking Christ. What would it be like to watch your own mother die in front of you, and be unable to stop it? At least I'd been spared that. I pulled her a little closer, fitted her head on my shoulder and stroked her back. Two street kids who'd lived through hell. Kissing her forehead, I whispered, "I'll make sure no one ever locks you up."
Her grip on me tightened. "And I won't tell anyone what Jack did to you. I still think you're brave."
"So are you."
She moved her head up, mouth seeking. I couldn't see, but I could feel it as her lips brushed my chin and I tilted my head down until my mouth touched hers.
This - one part of my brain said - was a really bad idea. We were both vulnerable right now, both needing reassurance from touch, needing love of the unconditional kind. It was inevitable that we'd look to each other. That didn't make it a wise choice. It also didn't stop us.
For a long time, we did nothing but kiss, tongue-tip to tongue-tip; it was a revelation to me. Only a month shy of nineteen, yet I'd never kissed a woman like this. I'd barely kissed a man, and that only because it had been forced on me, hard and rough. But now, she stroked the skin of my back and arms with butterfly fingers as her tongue pressed lightly against mine. Sometimes she pulled away to mouth me, or suck thoughtfully at my lower lip. Languid. She never used her teeth. Who would have thought that simple kissing could set my body was on fire this way? I wasn't thinking of Jean at all. Only Ororo. Jamilah. Jilah. I whispered it to her at one point, her Arabic name, and she made a little murmur of consent. I had her wrapped up in my arms, and she had me wrapped up in her hair. And we weren't doing anything but kissing. Amazing.
I have no idea how long that went on, but she finally got impatient and found my arm, my wrist, pulled my hand up to her breast, all squishy under silk. I hadn't thought breasts squishy - the texture isn't self-evident - and it startled me. She'd moved her thigh between my legs to rock against me. Her breath was getting heavy; so was mine. I could die right now a happy man, with my hand full of breast and her thigh against my groin. I was so hot, and my clothes constricted. I wanted out of them, and to get her out of hers, so I dropped my hands to untie her robe by feel, blind without my glasses. Her fingers came around to help, but we just got in each other's way, which made her laugh a little. "Off, off, off," she said, and pulled the belt tie free, shimmied out of the sleeves and then wrapped her arms back around my neck to kiss me some more. I kept riding her thigh. "I need you," she was whispering. "I need you so much, Scott. Jean's an idiot."
Jean's name pulled me up from the edge, and I disengaged. I couldn't see. I suddenly needed to see, so I could think. "Where are my goggles?"
"My sleeping goggles. I left them on the bedside table."
There was a pause and I could feel her twist in my arms, then her fingers on my face, my head, and the elastic and plastic of the goggles. I opened my eyes. Her face was flushed. Even behind rose quartz, I could tell, and her pupils were very dilated. Desire. For me. She wanted me, had said she needed me. I'd meant to stop this, but now seeing her face, couldn't. Here lay someone who wanted me. And I wanted her, too. I wanted white hair and brown skin and an arched Arabic nose. I wanted Jilah, not Jean. I wanted Ororo. I was free. No more addictions. This was my choice - a woman who understood my past and didn't turn away from me.
"I want you," I said, soft against her mouth. I wasn't sure she understood the full significance of that, but maybe she did. She pushed my lips open with her tongue and I rolled her onto her back, moved my hand up to her breast again, my knee between her thighs. Her hands were all over me, a dragging tickle of nails, but she never scratched or dug in. She was so very gentle, like I was precious, like I might break. Maybe another time, I would want her to be rougher, but right now, I nearly cried to have someone be that gentle with me.
I had no idea what to do next, beyond the theoretical, but she'd pulled my ass out of the fire twice already tonight. Maybe she could help me with this, too. I trusted her to help me with this, and not laugh that I didn't already know. "Show me what to do," I said, pulling away enough to speak. So she took my hand in hers and slipped it under the hem of her little nightgown, inside the elastic band of very damp underwear, through coarse pubic hair to the cleft and folds, the skin there so warm. And slick. She let my fingers explore, guided them a bit and drew in sharp breath when I found the magic spot. "Right there," she said. "Right there! Oh, God!" Her hips bucked against my hand as my fingers pressed on her nub of engorged flesh. Women got erections, too. How funny. But it also turned me on enormously and I wasn't sure if I was in heaven or hell as I dry humped her thigh through plaid flannel night shorts in the same rhythm my hand was using on her clitoris. My mouth had moved down her swan neck, past her collarbone to her right breast under silk. I didn't want the cloth in the way, but didn't want to stop, either, to get it off. She was moving like the tide beneath me, rhythmic and strong but still not rough, and she whispered my name, over and over. I took my mouth away to whisper hers. "Jilah." It was my name for her now. "Jamilah." Love me, want me, fuck me - only me. Make me whole again. I'd love her forever, if she could make me whole.
Suddenly she was pulling her underwear off, knees up, hands working quickly. "I want you inside me. Now."
She didn't have to tell me twice. She helped me get out of my night clothes and undershorts and I peeled off her nightgown, fastened my mouth on her breast again - bitter dark chocolate nipple on mocha cream. I teased it hard with my tongue. Christ, she was so sweet. "Inside," she hissed, hands fumbling between my legs. She got hold of me and pumped hard with one hand as she drew light fingers with the other around the sensitive glans edge. I almost exploded right then.
"Dammit, not yet!" I had to count to ten - backwards - to get hold of myself. "Don't touch me yet, unless you want me to come too soon."
I went back to sucking at her breasts, first one, then the other, flattened by gravity against her chest. Her legs were spread, knees bent, and she positioned me between them. Funny-awkward as this was, it felt right. Her hand slid down over my abdomen again to get a hold of my erection and angle it until the head touched the folded, slick skin of her hidden entry. "Right there," she said. "That's where it has to go. Push forward." Mouth releasing her breast, I did as she said.
Oh, Holy Christ.
Maybe I said it aloud, I don't know, but she laughed a little even as she was panting. "Don't move! Hold still. It's been a while. I have to adjust to you."
She wasn't the only one. I did multiplication tables in my head, just to keep from ejaculating on the instant. I was completely and totally enveloped. My hand could never be anything like this. Warm and wet and all around me. She was wiggling a little, to reposition herself and I gasped. "Sorry," she said. "You can move now."
Move? Just her wiggling had almost set me off. But my body knew what to do and I rocked in and out. Sweet, sweet, wet friction. Three strokes and it was all over. I thought I was bursting apart like a star gone supernova. Everything in my head and belly and groin exploded outward, and I made some kind of noise even as her legs closed over my hips, moving with me, driving me. "Don't stop!" she hissed, but I was past doing anything beyond what my body told me to do, lost in the grip of ancient instinct. I shoved her down into the bed and she writhed against me, thighs gripping my hips and her teeth closed on my shoulder. It hurt, but God, it felt so good. She was keening and pushing still, her fingers gripping my shoulders. The vise of her hips was tight, tight, and I could feel the walls of her vagina contracting around me as she came. This was everything I'd ever wanted. Perfect. I was normal. My body was normal and it could give me this.
"I love you, I love you, I love you," she murmured, as I pressed my face against her neck, breathed her skin. Her arms were locked around my back, legs still about my hips. She was laughing a little, or maybe crying. Flaccid now and wet, my penis slipped out of her.
"I love you, too," I said, trying to put the whole of what I felt in four words. Relief, gratitude, affection, devotion. We rolled so that I wasn't crushing her, but didn't let go of each other. I was so tired, and so elated, and so relaxed, that I slid right down into sleep, gripping her naked body like a life-sized teddy bear, a private fetish to ward off the nightmares. I was hers now; she'd claimed me body and soul. "Jilah," I whispered.
Again, I am a shameless feedback slut.
Tell me you love me if you want me to write more; it's the only pay I