Notes: The 'flying wing' concept used for the B2 Stealth Bomber (on which the Ultimate X-Men Blackbird is modeled) was developed by John Northrop all the way back before WW II. No jest. The 1966 Corvette poster in Ro's bedroom was Dee's idea, from her story, "Property." Thanks to Dee and her Kuwaiti friend for Ororo's salty Arabic. And does Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" really need an introduction? :-)
The son of a bitch fell asleep on me. That was my first thought. My second was that he was desperately tired, and shaken, and needed the rest. He clutched me tightly, his nose buried in my hair. I wondered how he could sleep in those goggles, and remembered how he'd looked without anything, blank-faced, eyes closed against the force of the blasts. Younger. More like a boy on the edge of manhood than the grown-up he appeared most of the time with that perpetual scowl and the shiny gold-red of the visor. He was pretty. Which would embarrass him terribly, or annoy him, depending.
Kissing the bare skin of his shoulder, I extricated myself from his grip and watched him roll over onto his belly, too far gone to notice that he was in the wet spot. Then grabbing robe, nightgown and panties, I hurried out to the other bedroom, to check on the girl. She was still sleeping, thank God, so I slipped into the bathroom and shut the door, turned on the light and cleaned myself up.
By everything that's holy, what had we just done?
Dumb question, Ororo. You've got the evidence on three soaking wet balls of toilet paper. And I still had to climb into the tub to wash semen out of my pubic hair. I'd forgotten how messy sex could be. Condoms had certain advantages over the pill.
The real question was, Did I regret what we'd done?
Simple answer to that. No, I didn't. Not for a minute. We probably shouldn't have done it, and there were a hundred good reasons why. We'd gotten carried away in the heat of the moment. It was hard to imagine Cyclops swept up in the heat of anything, but it had all been new for him, or as good as. And that had made it new to me, too. So we'd committed the classic error of letting our hormones run away with us.
And I still didn't regret it.
I couldn't wipe the silly grin off my face. Not the best sex -≠ his fingers had been a little too rough and we were going to have to work on that problem of premature ejaculation -≠ but here I stood, staring at myself in the mirror of an expensive hotel restroom and grinning like a schoolgirl who'd just been handed her heart's desire in the form of a prickly, moody boy a year younger than she was. Feeling punch-drunk, I leaned over the counter to press my lips against the mirror glass, as if the mouth reflected there were his. Silly, stupid, infatuated girl. I'd thought myself too old and cynical for this.
And it was right in the midst of this private jelly-belly ebullition that I felt the sudden, invasive burst of the professor's presence in my head. Storm!
Surprise and guilt made me jump, and bruise my hip on the edge of the counter. No telling what images my brain had projected in those three or four breaths it took me to calm myself, but there was a momentary pause on his end of the mental connection.
Shit. Had I just let the cat out of the bag before Scott and I could even decide just what, exactly, we had here? I stopped that thought almost before it was formed.
Yes, sir?, I sent, trying not to sound rattled.
The girl, he sent back. I laid down for a few hours, and when I woke, I found a sharp spike on Cerebro's monitor. Are you both all right? I tried to contact Cyclops, but he did not reply.
Scott's asleep, sir. He needs the rest. We had a little excitement.
Tell me. All business, but I could sense a slight mental ruffle as his mind tried to sift my recent memories, without giving himself away.
The sneaky bastard. And Scott wondered why I didn't entirely trust Xavier? I doubted I could keep the man out if he really wanted to know what had happened, but I could make damn sure he wasn't taking the knowledge on the sly. I clamped down. Hard. The girl ≠- her name's Dani Elk River -≠ passed out after we got back here. Sccott thought that odd, but I don't know enough about Angel Dust to judge.
Cyclops has some experience.
I know. He told me. Surprise from the professor at that bit of news. I wondered who else knew about Scott besides Xavier, and now me? Jean, probably. But Jean didn't know how his toes curled and his breath hitched when he was a heartbeat away from climax.
Bad thought. Did I want Xavier picking that up?
And?, Xavier prompted, sensing that I'd run off on a mental tangent.
And while she was asleep, I think she started hallucinating or something. Anyway, she got pretty restless. I'd laid down for a bit while Scott kept watch, but woke up to hear him shouting. I went to see what it was, and it turned out that she'd conjured an illusion of some guy named Jack.
A white wash of mental silence as that registered with the professor. What happened?, he snapped then, harsh enough to startle me.
We . . . got rid of the guy. Or Scott did. He kinda wished him away.
Show me. I must know exactly what happened, Storm. Xavier could sense my reluctance. Storm, I know all about Scott's past. You will not be revealing any secrets.
It wasn't Scott's secrets that I was worried about. It was my own ≠- and ours. Xavier hadn't been here; he didn't know what had happened and I didn't want him judging us. What we'd done, we'd sort out together later, but that was for us to do.
Yes, it is. The professor said into my mind. Storm, I'm not inclined to interfere, whatever you may think. Your shields simply aren't strong enough to hide the memory of such an emotionally-charged event as what happened between you and Cyclops. Normally, I would honor your sense of privacy, and your pride. But this is not the time. I must know exactly what our young friend is capable of.
So I let him see, and tried to keep myself from blushing. He examined the memory of Jack's appearance acutely, but didn't disturb what had happened after, beyond a quick check that Scott would be all right.
In fact, he seemed . . . phlegmatic about it. Almost as if he'd expected it.
And dammit, maybe he had.
He was the one who'd slapped us together in a car for a two day trip to Nashville when he could just as easily have bought us a pair of plane tickets on a commercial jet, if he really didn't want us to take the Blackbird. Undercover, my ass. We'd been nicely set up by a telepathic matchmaker, like a mutant version of Fiddler on the Roof. Was this Xavier's way of making sure that Scott didn't run off again? Was I a sop for the Fearless Leader, after he'd lost Jean to Logan? Or was Xavier trying to make sure that his least enthusiastic team-member (me) was irrevocably bound up to the field commander of the X-Men by the oldest tie in the book: love?
He'd done the same damn thing to Wolverine, too, now that I thought about it.
And it made me hopping mad.
You did this, didn't you? If it was possible for a mental thought to hiss, mine did. You paired us up like some bored, old village grandmother. Did you give us both a mental nudge, too, to make sure that we fell into bed together?
Startlement in the professor's thoughts, and a slightly sour edge, like distaste. He didn't answer me directly, which said plenty. You and Cyclops have a great deal in common, Storm. I simply wanted to give you both the opportunity to discover it ≠- away from the others.
Do you have the information you need?, I asked, coldly.
Yes. And I fear that Cyclops is correct. This girl should be brought to Westchester immediately. I shall send Jean and Hank in the Blackbird; they should arrive within a few hours and meet you there at the hotel.
Fine. We'll be waiting. And professor ≠- stay out of my head. No more nudges, no more pairing me up to poor, love-lorn mutant boys. I will pick my own bed partners, thank you! And I slammed my mind shut, or did what I hoped would feel like that to him.
Spoiled. It was all spoiled. Everything I'd been feeling, all the bubble-bright magic -≠ curdled like old sour cream. How could I know that anything I felt for Cyclops was real? Xavier had thrown us at each other and we'd each been too desperate for love, in our own ways, to see what he'd done. I sat down on the bathroom floor and just cried.
It was Dani who found me there, an hour or two later. I heard her moving around in the room beyond, and knew that I should get up off the bathroom floor but couldn't quite manage. She opened the door and blinked down at me. I'd quit the hard bawling, but sniffled still and knew my eyes must be all white and my nose a mess. There was a huge storm brewing outside; I could hear rain beating on the window glass of the main suite. I still couldn't control the effect of my moods on the weather, and it bugged me. Maybe that was another thing that attracted me to Cyclops. He was a master of control. Usually.
Dani didn't seem in good shape herself, unsteady on her feet, black hair dull and stringy, and so skinny that elbows, wrist- and cheekbones stuck out. But at least her eyes appeared normal now. I waited to see what she'd say to the woman who'd decked her into next week, then yelled at her in the car. The moment of truth.
"Hi," was what she said. "You look terrible."
"So do you."
"But I know what my excuse is. What's yours?"
I had no idea what to say, so I just rested my chin my arms over my drawn up knees, and shook my head. Everything was so big and complicated all of a sudden.
She settled down on the carpet in front of me, toe-to-toe, shaky still, but at least she had her coordination back. And with the effects of the drug faded, she no longer appeared hostile. Just wary. "You and your boyfriend have a fight?" she asked.
"No. He's asleep. And he's not really my boyfriend."
She wiped a copper-brown hand over her face. "So what is he?"
"A teammate. A friend." A mistake?
She looked hard at me. "Teammate?"
I told her about the X-Men, and Xavier's Institute, while she washed her face and tried to put herself in order before Hank and Jean got here. She listened without interruption, and I found myself rambling. I was waiting for her to ask questions, while she was waiting for me to shut up long enough to let her do so. But I realized that only later ≠- one of those funny culture-clashes. I knew I should go wake up Scott, but couldn't face him right now. I used chattering to Dani about life in New York as an excuse, and when she finally retreated into the shower, I puttered about getting dressed, and chose my uniform out of an instinctive need to feel more official, to create a little distance between myself and the man in the other bedroom. I wanted us to be Storm and Cyclops just now.
Henry and Jean arrived before I expected them, since it was the wee hours of dawn. But Xavier must have bundled them into the plane half-asleep, even as he was talking to me. God knew where they'd left the Blackbird, maybe on the roof. Dani had just gotten out of the shower and was putting on some of my spare clothing when a knock came at the suite door. I let in Jean and Hank while I pulled on the boots of my uniform. Still not in tip-top shape, Hank collapsed on the couch immediately and I gave him a big welcome hug that hiked both his eyebrows and made him grin. But I was just inexpressibly glad to see a friendly face ≠- one which didn't involve a freight of complications. Meanwhile, Jean was introducing herself to Dani Elk River, who received her with that same impassive politeness that she'd worn since waking dazed-but-sober, as if she were reserving her opinion about us all until she saw more.
It was in the midst of these greetings and introductions that Scott came out of the main bedroom, probably woken by our noisy chatter. He was out of sorts, and in a mild state of dishabille, and his entry made everything awkward. I couldn't look at him, and Jean and Hank couldn't stop looking at him, bare-chested, hair a mess, but with his visor on. Dani simply watched. Rather than be overwhelmed by this suddenly doubled number of strangers, it seemed to relax her, as if she were used to crowded rooms and jumbled conversations even at four in the morning -≠ which, she told me later, she was, on the reservation. It sounded a bit like my childhood in Morocco, when my parents had frequently entertained until the wee hours. No one in the Mediterranean ever started to eat supper until ten o'clock, anyway.
"So how did the professor know to send you?" Scott was asking Jean, who, for the first time since his return, hovered at his right elbow as she'd used to do.
She nodded to me. "He talked to Storm about what happened." She was trying to catch his eyes behind the visor but he'd turned to look at me instead, and disconcerted, I looked away, asked Henry if Bobby had already left to visit his parents. I wanted to tell Scott what Xavier knew, and what he'd said -≠ and that the old man had played us against each other like chess pieces -≠ but not here in front of the others. Whereas just a moment ago, I'd been afraid to confront him, now all I wanted was five minutes alone with him. And we weren't going to get it.
Jean seemed in a hurry to move us along. She asked me if I was packed -≠ yes, I was ≠- and then floated myy luggage out of the smaller bedroom under the consternated stare of Dani. Jean likes to show off. Cyclops, she said, would have to close accounts at the hotel in the morning and drive the car home alone. I knew damn well that the car would probably fit in the Blackbird, and we could check out automatically from our room, but it was clear that Jean wanted to separate us. Despite what the professor had told me earlier, that he wouldn't interfere, had he decided we'd gone too far? Scott kept glancing at me, taking in my uniform and the way my eyes avoided his face, and I knew he was reaching conclusions that he didn't like any more than he liked being ordered around by Jean. He grew more brittle by the moment, until I thought his back might turn stiffer than Peter's at its steeliest.
Five minutes. All I needed was five minutes. But Hank was hauling himself to his feet and saying something witty and charming to Dani as he ushered her out the door. Jean elevated my luggage after, turned to me. "Ready? We need to get her back as soon as we can."
Scott just stood there. He still didn't look like he was entirely awake, but I suspected that was an act. For a limited number of roles, Scott is a consummate actor.
I left my purse. In a calculatingly flustered rush to get on my jacket, I surreptitiously left my purse sitting on the suite couch. Two hallways away, I 'noticed' in a stream of curses and told them I'd join them at the plane, sprinted back for the suite. I doubt I really fooled anyone, but it was just good enough to leave them unsure.
I met Scott in the hallway. He'd seen the purse and come to bring it to me -≠ either because he was the only one who'd thought I'd really left it by accident, or because he'd needed to see me one more time. I turned a corner and ran right into him. "Ro!" He grabbed me to keep me from falling, but didn't let go when I'd caught my balance. "Jilah?" He whispered it soft, and his hand came up to brush my cheek.
But right now, the familiarity bothered me and I stepped away ≠- unconscious answer to his half-voiced question. He moved back as well. "Your purse," he said, and held it out.
This is it, Ororo, I told myself. The five minutes I'd wanted. And I didn't have any idea where to begin. Or maybe I did, with the most important thing, and it wasn't the sex. "I didn't call Xavier behind your back, Scott. He read a spike in Cerebro and contacted me. He tried to contact you first, but you were asleep. He took the whole thing right out of my head, said he needed to know what she was capable of ≠- said he already knew about your past. I didn't tell him."
"He did know." Scott looked away to run a hand through his hair. He'd put on a t-shirt which advertized some Mexican restaurant. It was black, of course. If it was the last thing I did, I'd get that man into something that wasn't grey or black.
"He knows the rest, too," I said, soft.
"Man!" he dropped the hand. "That's why they're taking you back without even giving me a chance to get my head together! We are in deep shit."
"It's not -≠ " I broke off, sighing. "Maybe I should go." Part of me would be relieved to escape him because I was so confused about what had happened, but part of me wanted to stay right here, go back to bed and wake in his arms. "Xavier's not mad. At least, that's what he told me. He did this on purpose, Scott. Think about it. He put us in a car alone together for two days, when we could have flown. He didn't even deny it. I called him on it, and all he said was, 'You and Cyclops have a great deal in common, Storm.'" I enunciated it in the professor's cultured, New England tones, then got to the heart of it, the part that had upset me so much. "How much of what happened was us, and how much was him? It wouldn't surprise me if he knew damn well that girl would push one of us to a breaking point. I don't want him arranging my love life!"
Scott seemed a little stunned, but only for a moment. For all his distaste of game-playing, wheels within wheels are something his strategist's mind comprehends. He hates to be manipulated even more than I do, and after witnessing the mirage of Jack tonight, I understood why. That bastard had twisted Scott into one emotional contortion after another.
"So what you're saying," Scott asked now, "is that you don't really feel anything for me? It was just the professor?"
Oh, shit! Of course he'd take it that way; he always doubts himself. "No!" I practically shouted. "That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that I want to figure it out for myself. I can't . . . trust what happened here. I can't trust that it was real."
"You don't trust me. My feelings."
"No! God!" How could a man so smart be so dense? I felt like stamping my foot in frustration, as if I were four years old, and outside, thunder rolled again. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on controlling myself, ignoring the sick little knot that had been lying in the pit of my stomach ever since I'd realized that the professor had set us up. "I don't trust the situation. Would you please think about it? I just -≠ We need to get some distance from each other for a day or two, see what this is." If it was real, it would still be there when he got back. "It's better if I go with them."
For the first time I saw a real expression cross his face -≠ pain -≠ and I reached out to touch him, to sooften the words, convince him that I wasn't rejecting him, just needed to think. But he backed away. The cool mask had slipped down into place again. He was Cyclops. "Fuck you," he snapped, and turning, stalked away down the hall.
"Scott! Scott!" He didn't stop, and I blew out in frustration. Was I being unreasonable, or was he just being dense? "Tabban! La asta-tee' fahm alrijal!" I'd never understand men.
"Are you coming? Or maybe you'd rather chase after him like a lovesick school girl?"
Turning, I found Jean Grey leaning up against a wall, arms and ankles crossed in a posture very reminiscent of Scott, and my frustration with him swung easily to her. "Stay out of this. It's none of your business, Marvel Girl." I turned her code name into the jest it sounded like and probably was, knowing Jean's quirky sense of humor.
"None of my business, huh?" She pushed away from the wall with her shoulder. "It looked to me like a little lovers' spat between the leader of the X-Men and a fellow team-member. I'd say it's my business if it affects the team."
I brushed past her. "It won't." I should have left it at that, but couldn't resist a little tit-for-tat. There was too much anger in me and nowhere productive for it to go. "At least we didn't trash a very expensive hotel room," I said over my shoulder. "We have a little more control than that."
So I'd known it wouldn't win me any brownie points with her, but I never expected her to grab my arm and swing me into a wall. She could have done it telekinetically, but I think she enjoyed the physical release the same as I'd enjoyed baiting her.
We really do not bring out the best in each other.
"Look," she said, "I don't know what happened between you two, but I haven't felt Scott this upset in ages. Whatever you did to him, be sure -≠ I'm going to pay you back for it, bittch."
Furious, I knocked her hand away. "I didn't do anything to him." Well, that certainly wasn't true. I'd fucked his brains out less than four hours ago. "He is upset, and for some very good reasons, but I didn't cause it. Our new recruit did. Got that? And I think Xavier knew she was going to, so if you want to blame anyone, blame the professor. And anyway, you have no right to play protectress for Cyclops. You're the one who drove him off to the Savage Land in the first place. If you hadn't jumped into bed with the Wolverine -≠ "
Stepping forward, she got right in my face even though she was shorter by several inches. "Listen well, Storm. Scott is my best friend and has been for almost two years. Nothing will change that. Not Wolverine. And not some two-bit interloper like you. Wolverine isn't even in the picture any more. If I never see his face again, it'll be too soon. Scott and I -≠ We'll talk about what happened. But I'm not going to let you wriggle your way between us like a poison desert snake. What I saw back there was Scott hurting because of you, not for something the new girl did."
And maybe it was true, but I was hurting, too, because of him, because I wanted to think he might really love me, and I might really love him, but I couldn't be sure -≠ and that pissed me off even more than her insinuations about my motives. "You weren't there," I said. "You have no idea what happened unless you steal it out of my head. Or his. It's our business. But I'll tell you this -≠ it had nothing to do with you, except maybe that I was there and you weren't because you made your choice three weeks ago. You threw him away for Logan, and if it didn't work out with the Wolverine, well, that's your problem, isn't it? Maybe you picked the wrong guy. Your loss, my gain, girlfriend." I stalked away.
It didn't look like your gain to me, she said into my mind. I
didn't reply. The hell of it was, she was right.
Hank tried to talk to me a few times from the co-pilot's seat on the trip back, but the attempt at friendliness fell flat in the icy atmosphere that existed now between Jean and I. The Indian girl had curled up on a rear bench and fallen asleep; she'd been out even before we'd returned. When we arrived at Westchester, Jean shut off the engines and unstrapped herself, said to Hank, "Would you please take care of shut-down, Henry? I need to get the girl to Charles."
"I should go with her," I said. "She trusts me." Well, more or less.
"We don't need you," Jean replied without even looking at me. "You'll just be in the way." A pause, a deliberate attempt to soften her voice. "Why don't you go get some sleep? This will be a long, telepathic ordeal." And she roused Dani, got her off the plane. I collapsed on the back bench that Dani had just occupied, elbows on my knees, and sighed.
As soon as she was gone, Hank left off checking dials and switches to settle down on the bench beside me. "You wanna talk about it?"
I did want to talk -≠ but not to him. To talk would mean telling Hank things which were Cyclops' private business, and other things which would simply hurt him. I studied his patient face. He was handsome enough, if one ignored the hairiness and the crouch. His features had fine angles, and occasionally turned up a wonderful smile. His life hadn't been peachy, either, but he always had a smile for me. So I found a smile for him and patted his hand. "Thanks, Hank, but right now, I think I just want to sleep. I've managed to piss off our fearless leader and his little deputy both inside ten minutes. I think that's a new record even for me."
Chuckling, Hank turned his hand up to grip mine. "That's you, Ro. Always stirring up trouble." Then his face turned serious. "I know you and Jean don't get along any too well, and you and Cyclops are even worse, if possible, but they're good people. Cyke just isn't adept at expressing himself unless it has to do with tactics or engines." He grinned. "You know enough about the latter, you guys ought to get along famously." God, if he only knew. "As for you and Jean, you're just too different -≠ and too much alike in all the wrong ways."
Sighing, I knocked my head against the interior metal wall. He was simply trying to be helpful, but his advice was next to useless and I was too unsure of what I felt to explain. "Thanks, Henry." I stood up. "Good night. I'll see you in time for dinner maybe." And I looked around for my suitcases, glad the big one had wheels. Strong Hank might be, but right now, I didn't want him straining himself, so I adamantly refused his help and lugged them down the stairs.
"Hey, Ro!" he called after me before I could go three steps. I looked back to where he sat on the top stair. "If you think you can get up in time, maybe we could, um, go into town for dinner. I mean, if you'd like to get out of the mansion, maybe -≠ not be around Jean. Ah hell!" He pulled off his little glasses and rubbed his eyes, then looked at me again without them on. He had such bright blue eyes. "I'd like to take you to dinner, if you'd let me."
I blinked. Had he just asked me for a date?
Yes, he had. Henry McCoy had finally asked me for a date. He was sitting there, waiting to see what I'd say -≠ expecting me to turn him down. One of his hands was clenching and unclenching, and without the glasses, I could see those bright eyes, and they were scared.
God, this wasn't freaking fair. I couldn't turn away two men in two hours. First Scott, now Hank. Hank's right fist still opened and closed convulsively and I couldn't stand here like an idiot. The longer I waited, the more rigid his expression became. So I smiled and blew hair off my nose, flung the rest over a shoulder. "I'd like that, Hank. Dinner would be nice." It was just dinner, I told myself, not a marriage proposal. And I've never seen a man smile wider. Except maybe for Scott, when I'd lain under him and said that I loved him.
Dammit, girl, don't think about that.
After all, Hank had a glorious smile, too -≠ and he shared it with me a lot more often. It helped that the professor wasn't shoving him down my throat, either. "Shall we leave about seven?" he asked.
"I'll see you at seven."
It was Peter, of course, who spelled out my idiocy in no uncertain terms the very next morning. "Let me get this straight. You're in love with Cyclops -≠ "
"Maybe in love," I stressed.
"Maybe nothing. You're in love with Cyclops, but you went out to dinner last night with Beast? Are you nuts?"
"God! Probably." I flung myself down on my bed and stared off at the poster of my corvette. The curtains beside the open window blew a little in the spring breeze and morning sunlight fell on my face in butter-rich squares, dazzling me. "It was just dinner," I said.
"Yeah, and he's going to ask you out to dinner again, and then what'll you say?" Peter returned his attention to changing the strings on his classical guitar. Why he feels compelled to do guitar maintenance in my bedroom, I have no idea, but I'm always stepping on bits of nylon from trimmed strings, or finding paper towels damp with lemon oil from his shining it. Very annoying.
"I'll probably say yes," I replied.
"And how do you intend to explain that to Scott?"
"I don't think Scott's going to be talking to me, when he gets back."
"Well, I sure wouldn't, if I came home to find my lover going out with another guy. Hell, if Cyclops had hopped into my bed, I'd be figuring out ways to tie him up there permanently, not going out to dinner with Beast."
That made me laugh. Peter would never say things like that to anyone but me. However -≠ "He's not my lover, Peter."
"Okay. What do you call the man you have sex with?"
"Had sex with. Past tense. And it was only once. We got carried away."
He just looked at me. "There's a first time for everything. I'd say it's 'had sex with' and 'will have sex with again,' as soon as you quit jumping at shadows and figure out how to let Henry down gracefully." Then he unrolled another string. "Y'know, I think Professor X has a point. You and Cyclops do have a lot in common -≠ "
"God! Not you, too!" I rolled off my bed to stalk out and leave him there. I wound up in the hanger bay, where Henry was working on the plane. Climbing up the ladder onto the wing, I made my way over to join him where he was working on a panel. Seeing me, his face cracked into a wide grin. "Good morning, sunshine."
I settled down next to him on the skin of the plane. "Good morning yourself. What are you tinkering with now?"
"Just checking the air breaks, flaps and lift-dumpers. Routine maintenance."
"How'd you get up here, anyway? I thought Jean told you to lay off too much climbing around."
He craned his neck left, then right, even peered inside his Hawaiian shirt. "Don't see Jean hiding anywhere." And with a smirk, he pushed his glasses up his nose and went back to work. "The plane has to be kept up. Jean flies it, but hates to work on it. Scott isn't here. That leaves me."
"Teach me; I'll help."
He blinked in surprise. "You're serious?"
"Yeah, I'm serious." I started to say that I'd asked Scott to teach me to fly, but decided I wasn't going to open that can of worms. I suspected any flying lessons, or reading lessons, were out of the question now, and I ran a palm over textured black titanium. A Northrop B2 Stealth Bomber. Not something a small-time car thief could expect to lay hands on every day, much less get her hands into the guts of. "She's so elegant."
Henry was still watching me. Then he shook his head and laughed a little. "It's the electronics I get excited over, but you drool at the design."
"Yeah, I know. I'm a girl for forms. Something like this . . . . " I sighed. "Can you imagine being able to say, 'I designed that plane; she's mine'?"
"John Northrop can. The whole 'flying wing' idea is his; he called it the greatest achievement of his life. Too bad he died before he saw more than the early stages of the prototype for this baby." But he was smiling. "Come on. I'll show you what's involved in her upkeep. Scott'll be thrilled to have another pair of hands to help out."
We got so involved that I didn't even realize Scott had gotten back until we both went upstairs to clean off the grease. Not that I actually saw Scott. He'd gotten home, dragged in his bags, and been sent upstairs almost immediately to a little-used section of the mansion to finish detoxing the girl Dani, and do drug rehab in the process. It was funny to think of Cyclops counseling anyone, but he'd been through this himself, even if coming down off heroin wasn't the same as dusting off PCP. Jean would be monitoring them now and then, and Xavier had placed psychic barriers on Dani's mind to prevent her from lashing out if she had a flashback, and similar barriers in Scott's, to prevent him from being using as hallucination-fodder again. But the professor still gave explicit instructions to the rest of us to stay away from that area, and away from the two of them if we saw them out on the grounds. He didn't want anyone near Dani Elk River who wasn't a telepath, Scott excepted. Of us all, Scott was best equipped to deal with her, both for his personal experience, and also his physical strength. He could tackle her if he needed to. And a few times, he probably needed to. We all heard her screaming one night until about five in the morning.
Normally, they'd have put her into a professional detox unit, but given her mutation, that was too dangerous ≠- and Xavier had an advanced degree in psychology along with certification to practice in the State of New York. They weren't flying blind. The fewer people involved in this case, the better. It would take some time, too. Xavier said the body stored PCP metabolites longer than the metabolites of any other drug. They were trying to flush out her system as quickly as possible -≠ lots of water, lots of complex carbs, and lots of exercise -≠ but even so, we didn't see them except at a distance for 12 days. And that was just to get her body mostly clean.
In the meantime, Henry and I niggled around with the plane and spent a lot of time together, while Peter watched in annoyance. I knew he thought I was making a mistake, and maybe I was. I'd told Scott that I didn't lead men on, and I hadn't been lying. I'd always despised girls who used boys, or engaged in pity dating. But what was I doing now, if not that very thing? Sometimes life got complicated, and the best of intentions didn't always yield the best results. Maybe I hadn't intended to date Henry, but I was dating him now, and I did genuinely like him ≠- cared about him. I was going to give him a chance. If nothing else, I'd learned to be less judgmental about how people might find themselves lying in the beds they'd made.
During those twelve days, only one event of any significance occurred. On the fourth day after I'd gotten back, the professor called me into the library. "Have a seat, Ororo." Then he puttered about, making me wait to see why he'd called me in there and thus reminding me of my place, and of the debt I owed him. I recognized the tactic, even as it worked on me. By the time he'd quit doing whatever it was, I'd begun to fidget. "I'm well aware that you are less than pleased over the outcome of the Nashville mission," he said.
I didn't feel like playing his games. "I'm pleased that we found Dani. That was the mission, as I understood it, professor. As for the rest -≠ can you blame me? I don't like being manipulated. I'm here to learn to control my powers, not be handed off as a consolation prize to the teacher's pet, to keep him tame and malleable. That's not fair to either of us."
He just eyed me while I studied the bookless walls and complex, blinking machinery of Cerebro. "You are," he began, "a woman who prides herself on blunt speaking, so I shall be blunt. Yes, I sent you and Scott by car to Nashville in the hopes that the two of you would become better friends. At the mansion, you were getting on one another's nerves, yet I also knew how much you shared, both in your temperaments, and your previous experiences. You simply needed to be removed from prior friendships and habitual escapes, to deal with each other afresh. However . . . ." And here he paused. I turned to look at him. His eyes were blue, like Hank's or Peter's, or even Bobby's, and it struck me suddenly that all the men in this house had blue eyes, except Scott. What a trivial thing to notice at the moment.
"However," I finished, "you didn't expect us to become quite such good friends? Is that it?"
"You should make up your mind, Ororo. Do you think that I wanted you together, or that I want you apart?"
It's so damn annoying when someone else catches you in your own inconsistences.
"Whatever you think," he went on, "I had no particular expectations in that regard. You are both over the age of consent and I was not playing matchmaker. I simply had a hunch that if given half a chance, the two of you would get along famously, to use a cliche. I'm sorry if you perceived my intentions as more comprehensive than they were, but I assure you, I had no ulterior motives." He looked off. "Nor did I have any idea of what Dani Elk River was capable, or I would have sent Jean with Scott."
The professor rarely erred so badly; I was sure it annoyed him when he did. Yet, and whatever denial he made of ulterior motives, I still didn't trust the son of a bitch. "Why me?" I asked. "Aside from trying to get Scott and I to spend some quality time together, you must have had another reason. You sent him because he knew about drugs. So why me?"
"Come, Ororo, you're a bright girl. Why do you think?"
"Because I'm Berber. Black. You wanted to show her that we're a politically correct little multi-cultural family here."
He smiled faintly. "I won't say that the color of your skin had no impact on my choice, but had your and Jean's life experiences been reversed, I'd have sent Jean without a second thought."
"You picked me because I'm a street kid?"
"Precisely. Always choose the best tool for the job at hand. You may go, Ororo."
Ticked again, I rose to leave. "Oh, Ororo," he said, before I could get out of the room. "Talk to Scott when he becomes available once more. He's very confused right now."
"He's not the only one," I said, and slammed the door.
You and I both know how deeply you care for him, the professor sent. But he doesn't.
Damn the man. Stay out of my head!, I mind-shouted back.
Late in the afternoon of the twelfth day since Scott had gotten back, he and Dani Elk River finally emerged from their detox isolation. Three of us were hanging out in the den. I was pretending to read the newspaper classifieds while Henry brushed my hair and Peter played his guitar. Or really, I was reading as much as I could. I'd been practicing, but it was hard to practice with no one to correct my mistakes. Classifieds were easy; I could often guess what something was supposed to be, even if I couldn't read the word. We heard a noise at the door and all looked up to find Scott standing there with the new girl. "This is the den," he told her. "Along with three of the couch monkeys who live here."
Surprised, but feeling responsible for her welcome, I smiled and rose. "Come on in. We won't bite, and Beast had his rabies shots last week anyway." Hank thwacked me lightly as Dani came down the steps into the room, looking about herself at the vaulted ceiling, decorator plants, and great arched windows in stark contrast to the dartboard, crumb-messy couch, empty pop cans, and Nintendo controllers abandoned the floor. She wasn't so thin now, and there was a little muscle as well as meat on her bones.
"You're Ororo," she said, turning back to me. "I remember you from Nashville." She glanced then at Hank. "And you were there, too, with Jean."
Hank pushed himself up to offer a hand. "Indeed, I was. Henry McCoy at your service, known also as Hank, but whom the rest of these lugs insist on insulting with the moniker 'Beast.' They let me play with their fancy electronics, though, so I forgive them."
"More like you abuse the fancy electronics," Peter said, setting aside his guitar to come forward, too. "I'm Peter Rasputin. They call me Colossus."
She blinked up at him, then grinned. "I guess so. You're even bigger than some of those Sioux boys on the res."
"Come sit down," Henry invited, "we were just getting ready to watch Monty Python's Life of Bryan. Peter's going to make us popcorn."
"Peter is doing no such thing," Peter replied. "You want popcorn? Make it yourself. I'm not hungry."
"What? Our Colossus not hungry? Has the world come to an end already? And here I didn't even get to Tahiti. How depressing."
"Shut up, Beastie, or I'll find a Boy Band for you to head up. Or oops, sorry, I guess you belong in Blues Traveler. Right next to Joe Popper and his harmonica."
"So he can't model for Hugo Bass. At least he can play, instead of plunk around all day performing Ancient Chinese Tuning Melody."
While the guys teased each other trying to put Dani at ease, she'd glanced back to Scott. I might have been jealous except it wasn't that kind of look. He nodded to her, once, encouragingly, and she sat down between Henry and Peter. Scott turned his attention to me. Even behind the visor, you can feel the intensity of his gaze; he doesn't need mutant power to nail a person. He'd come a step or two inside the room but remained at the top of the stairs as I walked up to join him, attracted like iron shavings to a magnet. "How are you?" he asked.
Well, at least he was speaking to me. But it wasn't a casual question. I had no idea how to reply, especially here in public company. It seemed easier to fall back on the formalities of our mission. "I'm fine. I was tired for a few days after we first got back -≠ must have slept fourteen hours straight ≠- but I'm fine now. You look beat, Cyclops." I used his code name deliberately.
He understood exactly why, turned away to study his charge on the couch. "It wasn't exactly an easy two weeks."
"No, I don't imagine it was. Why'd she take something as harsh as Angel Dust, anyway? Was it an accident that night?"
"No. She's been taking it, off and on, for months." He leaned into the wall and crossed arms and ankles, stuffing his feelings inside the details so they wouldn't show. "PCP isn't like anything else out there. It's a hallucinogen, depressant, and stimulant. It does crazy things to the metabolism and the brain -≠ completely unpredictable -≠ which is why most users stay the hell away from it. But in her case, the very fact it's unique worked to short-circuit her power, shut it down -≠ at least temporarily. As long as she maintained her high, she could keep the power off."
"But you can't stay high indefinitely."
"Exactly. As soon as the toxicity in her body dropped below a certain level, the power came back like a tidal wave."
"The professor blocked it off, like he did once with Jean's telepathy until she could control it. Dani will have to stay here for a while, to learn to manage her power, and for rehab purposes, too. She's not ready to go back out there. She'd fall off the wagon so fast it'd make her head spin."
"And everyone else's in her vicinity."
A grim smile was his only answer.
"Go get some sleep, Scott," I told him. "We'll keep her entertained for a while, show her around the mansion. You look like something the cat dragged in."
"Gee, thanks." But he pushed away from the wall and started to leave, hesitated and glanced back at me, then past me to the guys on the couch, with Dani between. "Jean said you're going out with Beast now." It wasn't really a question, more a plea for me to deny it. And damn Jean, but of course she'd tell him -≠ and put the worst spin on it she could.
"Henry asked me to dinner," I said. "I couldn't turn him down, so we went to dinner."
His jaw was tight, and when he spoke, it was very low but very hard. "Well, since you told me that you never lead men on, then I guess you couldn't turn him down because you decided you liked him better than me."
I didn't want to have this conversation right here, right now. "Scott -≠ don't. Just don't. It's not that simpple. We can talk about it later."
"Talk? What's to discuss? It seems fucking simple to me. What happened in Nashville was your little mistake, a blip in your good sense. So you ran to Hank to escape the beast. End of story." And he stalked out of the den.
Sighing, I turned away to find Henry watching me from his spot on the couch down below, a worried expression on his face. I wondered how good his ears were, but his worry seemed more for me, than about me. Dani was watching, too, but with a gaze more knowing. Of course, she'd seen Scott and I in Nashville, although it was hard to tell how much of that she remembered. Going over to the couch, I seated myself on the floor by Hank's feet, let him wind his fingers affectionately into my hair while I returned to my perusal of the classifieds.
And five entries down, I saw what I could scarcely credit, until I remembered it was spring, and tax time. Somebody needed some fast cash. Grinning like a maniac, I ripped out the ad -≠ to the consternation of Hank and Peter, who leaned over to stare at me -≠ then shoved the torn bit under Hank's nose. "Tell me I'm reading that figure right." It was a trick I'd learned long ago, to help me verify something I wasn't sure of, in a way that made no one suspicious of my illiteracy.
He took the paper from me. "1969 Mustang Fastback for eight grand? Is this a joke? I'm sure the damn thing doesn't run. Oh, here's the catch. It's got almost two-hundred thousand miles on it. Not that it matters. The professor isn't going to give you eight grand for an old car, Ro."
"It's not for me," I said and pushed myself up off the carpet, practically ran out the door.
I caught up to Scott down in the gym. He hadn't gone to bed, like I'd suggested. He'd gone to take out his frustrations on the punching bag. God, it wasn't fair. I shouldn't have to talk to him with his shirt off, and all sweaty like that. But I burst in, ran over to stop the bag from swinging and shove the bit of newspaper in his face. "You told me you have some money saved." He was very proud of that, in fact, I knew. "Look at this!"
He took the paper from my hand. "What?"
I pointed to the appropriate ad, since I'd ripped out three in my excitement. "There. Right there. It's even black, Scott. Fate. It's meant to be yours. Only eight grand."
He stared at it a minute, then at me, and returned the paper. "Who said I want a car, Storm?" The question ≠- and the use of my code name even here in private -≠ brought me up short. "If I want to go somewhere, I can drive the Mercedes. Or take the bike."
"But this would be yours."
"Nothing's mine. I don't own a damn thing, not even the clothes on my back." He hit the bag, very hard, and let it swing.
"This would be."
He didn't look at me, just returned to beating the life out of the bag. Punch, punch, punch. He spoke in short bursts. "I don't have that kind of money" -≠ punch -≠ "even if I wanted the freakin' car." Punch, punch, punch. "You're the one" -≠ punch ≠- "with the goddamn" -≠ punch ≠- "race car fixation." On the balls of his feet, he danced back from the bag, let it swing to a stop. "You're just using me to find a legal way to get your hands on it."
My instinctive reaction to that was white rage, but I clamped down on it before I could upset the local weather patterns, and pausing for control gave me time to look at this from his perspective. "That's not how I meant it," I said calmly. "I just saw the ad and remembered our conversation. At the Village Inn."
"I remember that conversation just fine. I remember a lot of things." And boy, that had layers and layers of meaning. His jaw was set hard. "Like I said, I don't have the money." He punched at the bag again, but only half-heartedly, left his arm extended, fist in contact with gray vinyl. "What I do have is for an emergency, Ororo. Life is unpredictable. I'm not going to spend all my savings on a freakin' car that I don't need -≠ even if I had that much. Which I don''t."
And I was once again reminded of the great difference between us: Scott tends to cling, and I, to let go. We've neither ever had much, but it makes him desperate to keep what's in his grasp, not waste it on 'frivolous expenses.' But to me, life is all transitory, to be enjoyed while available but not to be counted on.
And wasn't that the problem here? Not just over a car-for-sale, but our entire relationship? Had I really run away in Nashville because I was mad at the professor? Or because I didn't trust that Scott would stay, and it was easier to run like a thief, and blame someone else?
"Sometimes," I said quietly, "you have to enjoy what's in your hands at the moment, not wait for something that'll likely never happen. If you're always waiting, you go through life joyless."
"Maybe. But are you talking about the car? Or sex with you?"
"Both. I don't regret what happened in Nashville, Scott. Not for a minute. I was mad at the professor ≠- not at you."
"Well maybe I do regret it and maybe I am mad at you." He still stood with arm extended, like a Greek statue. But I could see that the arm had begun to tremble, either from the strain of holding it up, or in an effort to contain more volatile emotions.
"Will you let me tell you what happened?" I asked now -≠ as levelly and honestly as I could, not a whine or a plea for forgiveness. "And will you listen?" He thought that through. Scott won't agree just to agree. Finally, he nodded. "Let's go sit down," I suggested, and gestured to the weight benches shoved out of the way along one wall.
He followed me over and straddled one; I straddled the other backwards, so that we were facing each other. Casually, he rested his forearms on the black metal weight bar. It was his own rack. Three hundred twenty pounds for bench press. Not much compared to Peter, or even to Hank, but it was respectable for a man of normal strength.
Looking down at my brown hands resting on red vinyl, I didn't have to look at him -≠ either his bare chest like body sculpture, or his face and the pain it might show. And I told him what had happened from the time he'd gone to sleep that night in Nashville, until my conversation with the professor a few days after I'd gotten back. I cried a little, but not to get his sympathy; I cried because I was sad, simply. And I ended with, "I never intended things to get this confused. But I don't regret what happened with you." I wiped the tears off my chin quickly, and still didn't look at him; he'd been completely silent throughout my explanation. "I'm glad you trusted me that much, Scott. And," I added quickly, "I'm glad I decided to trust you that much," because Scott hates to be beholden to anyone. "Whatever happens, that memory will be very special to me." Then I rubbed at my eyes. "God, that sounds like a 'Dear John' let-him-down-easy speech." I almost laughed, because it was so awful. "It's not. I mean it; I don't know what's going to happen next, with Hank. It might not last. But I like him, and I have to give him a chance."
"Yes, you do," he said, speaking for the first time. I looked up finally. His face was completely unreadable. "And it has to be an honest chance. I'm not going to compete with Hank for you. He's my friend. As far as I'm concerned, you're off limits while you're seeing him. Although," and he frowned, "we didn't, um, use any protection. I only thought of that later. So if anything should happen, I want you to know I'll be there. I wouldn't duck out on you, if you're pregnant."
I smiled because I'd have expected nothing less from Cyclops. "I know you wouldn't. But I'm on the pill." And I reached out to grip his arm, rub a thumb over the skin because I just couldn't keep my hands off of him any more. His muscles tensed under my touch. "I don't expect you to wait on me. If you decide to go out with Jean, I'll totally understand."
"Don't bring Jean into this, to yank my chain." It was harsh and cold, and he pulled away from me. I should've known better. Those two will always defend each other to any outside party, no matter how mad they might be at one another. They were, I thought with sudden insight, a lot more like siblings than potential lovers.
Now, he gripped the weight bar and leaned back, studying me from behind his visor. It struck me suddenly that he wore his visor a lot more than he really needed to, but the visor covered more of his face, let him hide his emotions more effectively. "It might be better," he said "if I stayed away from women under my command, anyway. When it doesn't work out" -≠ I noticed that he didn't say 'if' -≠ "things get messy."
"I don't expect you to treat me any differently, in the field." I spoke quickly.
"Good. Because I'm not going to." And he pushed to his feet, swung his leg over the bench and walked away.
"I wouldn't expect it," I called after, "whatever was going on between us. And Scott, I still don't regret it!" I saw his step hitch, just slightly. "It was the best night of my life."
"Man!" He spun to face me again and held out empty hands. "Great fucking fantastic! Trying to flatter my male pride, now?"
"No, dammit. I didn't say it was the best sex; I said it was the best night, because you trusted me." I hesitated, then pulled out the words that had been hiding underneath all the rest, handed them over to him, covered in my pride's blood. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I am so very sorry. That was the last thing I wanted to do, Scott."
He dropped his arms and turned his face away -≠ to hide whatever
emotion he couldn't keep off of it this time. "You know,
Ororo, out of this whole freaking conversation, that's the one thing I
needed you to say, the one thing I was waiting for. Not
explanations, not philosophy, not rationales. Just a plain
apology. Too bad you ended there instead of starting there."
Spinning around, he jerked the door open, left me sitting alone. I
cried for a long time, in the silence.
Oddly, it was Dani Elk River who approached me later with the first hint that there might be forgiveness to be found somewhere in this mess. I was working in my little garden, the place to which I retreat when I need to get my head together by getting my hands in solid dirt. I heard her approach and squat down beside me, balancing easily on the balls of her feet. The wind off the hills blew black hair around her face. It fell past her waist in ragged wisps, and I wondered if she'd ever cut it. There was a feather braided into the back, and she wore a bone-bead choker and a black t-shirt advertizing some band called Indigenous. She took a cigarette out of her pack, but instead of lighting it, she split it open absently with her nail to free the tobacco into her palm. Saying something in her own tongue, she scattered the tobacco over the dirt. "What are you doing?" I asked. I didn't like cigarettes and didn't want that crap in my garden.
"Blessing the ground," she told me. "Tobacco for the spirits of the earth. Don't forget to thank them, for what grows here for you."
Demon worshiper, part of my mind thought, the part that had been raised secure in the one true faith of Islam -≠ the part that had died under rubble along with my mother. Where had Allah been, that night?
Dani had knelt again to finger the dirt. "It's good earth, strong and black. Lots of moisture." Her voice was low for a woman, and had a lilting quality. "Can you hear my land speak to you, matana 'exanÍstse? Milk Eyes? Scott said that you command the spirits of earth and air. Do you hear our mother speak?"
"Sometimes," I replied, "maybe I do. Maybe your spirits gave me my power."
"The Creator gave you your power. Everything comes from the Creator, for good or ill."
And thus the 'demon worshiper' reminded the Muslim girl that there is no god but God. But was Muhammad his only prophet?
"Do you still have that ad, about the car?" Dani asked.
"Scott's been talking about it. I thought maybe, if I left it where he could find it, he might call."
I returned to weeding while she watched. "I didn't think he wanted a car."
Dani didn't reply for a long time, didn't seem to feel a need to talk incessantly. Finally, she said, "He wants something that's his. He can't have you. So he'll take the car you like."
She was as blunt as I was, but I found myself grinning. It was so much easier when people said what they thought, not what they thought you wanted to hear. Scott was like that, too, most of the time. "He should buy the car if he wants it. Not because he thinks I want it."
"Oh, he wants it. It's testosterone on wheels, ain't it?" She grinned, wicked. "He just don't think he can afford it. I talked to the professor. He says he will figure out how to make Scott take a loan, so he can buy it. Or give him the money in a way that isn't completely transparent."
"If the guy hasn't sold it already."
"Yeah. But if it's still there, I will go with Scott, to see if I can talk down the price some more. We Indians barter well." The wicked grin again. "Besides, I would like to do something nice for him." She didn't explain why, didn't need to.
I sat back and dusted off my hands. "Lets go get that ad, then." And we stood, walked back together. I could get used to having another woman around, one who didn't strike sparks off me like Jean did. "So are you going to join the team?" I asked her.
She shook her head. "Not right now. I need to go back to the res, finish business, mend some fences, spend time with my family. I'll leave in a few weeks."
"Isn't that a little soon, to have a handle on your power?" I remembered what Scott had said, about her falling off the wagon.
She eyed me with amusement. She had a broad face, stretched wide across high cheekbones, her ink-black hair was coarse like mine, no blue sheen to it. "I will be fine, Milk Eyes. Xavier put this block in my head, to keep me from hurting anyone. That's why I took the drugs, not for the usual reasons. If I got no power, then I got no reason for drugs." She turned her face up, closed her own eyes a moment. "When I get my shit together in Montana, I'll be back."
I smiled. "Good. There's too much male posturing around this place. We need more women to whip the guys into line."
I'd set the ad on my dresser the night before, so I wouldn't lose it. Just in case. Dani took it, and the very next day, at supper, Hank told me, "Scott wants me to go look at a car with him tomorrow. A 1969 Fastback. Funny. Didn't you find an ad in the paper for just such a car, at a ridiculously good price?" He was half laughing at me
"Yeah, I seem to recall that I did. Now how did Scott get that ad?" Hank just grinned wider and I sidled a little closer, watched him put three kinds of mustard on his hotdog bun. Here we were, living in a fancy mansion with teakwood paneling and what did we eat for supper? Microwaved hotdogs. "I don't suppose I could go along?"
He shrugged. "I don't see why not. Dani's going, too, and Peter. We may as well make it a mission, at this rate."
"Jean's not going?"
Raising an eyebrow, he pushed up his glasses. "Don't start, Ro. And no, Jean's not going."
"Then count me in."
So the next afternoon, we all piled into the bed of a truck that Hank had borrowed from the ground-keeper's shed -≠ even Jean, in the end. Dani had insisted that we not take any of the expensive vehicles, or she'd never get the price bartered down.
The Mustang was thirty miles away, up the Hudson River on an old, run-down farm amid the new construction for expensive weekend homes of wealthy New Yorkers. Hank, Scott, and I crawled all over it, inspecting it nose to tail. It would need some serious work to the tune of several hundred dollars, starting with a new battery. But it was beautiful, all sleek and black with that distinctive, sloped rear-end and new chrome. Scott was in lust from the moment we arrived. For that matter, so was I. And I found it much easier to talk to him when we had something external on which to focus.
Dani bartered down the owner to seven grand, and Scott got his Mustang. We had to push-start it down a hill. Thank God for stick-shifts. I didn't ask how he'd scraped up the rest of the cash, since he'd refused (politely) the professor's offer of a loan. But it would be his name on the title. Peter had mentioned something that morning about Scott and pool and unnatural talent, and I had a pretty good idea. Once a thief, always a thief; once a con artist, always a con artist. Scott let me sit shotgun on the way back to the mansion, said it was because I'd been the one to find the ad for him. But I don't think that was his real reason. He'd brought the fuzz-buster and pushed a hundred and ten along an empty stretch of highway -- too fast to think, careening headlong through a green tunnel of cedar pine with blue sky arcing above. The road opened out in front of us and Lynyrd Skynnyrd was playing on the radio. "Freebird."
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