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Minisinoo



Smile Back
Part 2

Warning: There are several sexual references, and discussion of controversial topics. But this is a story, not a political soapbox. Stories are meant to make people think by grounding abstract discussion in the context of personal histories. People's decisions never take place in a theoretical world.

Notes: This story may lose you if you haven't read LOER. Likewise, reading Ult-X issues #7-8 is recommended. Action here begins with the close of issue #7, and runs to the end of issue #8. Regarding Scott's bracelet, there is one on his right wrist in #8; it might be a watch or communicator, but I had some fun with it. And yes, I know, I LIKE to play on the theme of Scott-as-Crazy-Horse. I see parallels. It seems that the attack on the mansion came the same day as Bobby's arrival, but Storm's outfit changes (dramatically) from one scene to the next. I tried to explain that. "Resist," belongs to Melissa Ethridge off Yes I Am, and my subtitles are scene titles from Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Thanks to Pax for invaluable comments, Naomi as always, and to Rob at Strange Days for pretty pictures while my scanner is down.

Dedication: To those who had to choose, whatever choice they made.



SHADOWS AND DUST
Cyclops:
 

It began with a debate about Jack Kevorkian, his suicide machine, and the right-to-die movement. From there, discussion raced through Living Wills and organ donors, skidded around the curve of fetal tissue used in Alzheimers research, and is headed now into a backstretch of bitterness on the ethics of abortion.

I have the questionable luck of overhearing it all, even if I'm not involved in it. The argument rages in the kitchen while I try to watch my new Gladiator DVD - Jean's birthday present to me - in the den. But their bickering is drowning out even the augmented shouts of a Colosseum crowd, ripping me from the world of ancient Rome.

When she's mad, Jean's pitch goes strident, and Peter's voice carries anyway. Henry tries to pontificate over the top of them both with a vocabulary that sounds like a dictionary crossbred with a thesaurus. "Would you guys keep it down?" I call.

There's a pause. Then Jean calls back, "What do you care? It's not like you've never seen that movie before! How many times did you watch it in the theater alone?"

"He told me seven!" Bobby's voice. His parents returned him to us about half an hour ago.

"Yeah, he thinks he's Russell Crowe!" Peter adds, laughing.

"I do not!" I yell back, which just gets more laughter and whistles. "And you're still too loud," I add. "I can't hear the dialogue."

"Cyclops," Jean replies, "you can recite the whole damn script with the actors! Deal, boy-o."

Crossing my arms, I sink down into the couch and turn up the volume with the remote. I don't want to be Russell Crowe; he's an egotistical jerk. It's the character of Maximus with whom I identify. Even after eighteen viewings, I still have to fast-forward through the scene where he loses his family and his home. It makes my chest hurt. I remember what that feels like. I remember a plane in flames.

But they don't pipe down in the kitchen, and finally, I mutter "Shit," and shut off the TV, get up to wander in and lean against the kitchen door-jamb. If you can't beat them, join them. The most amusing thing about the whole debate - from my perspective - is that none of them qualifies as a right-wing conservative. It's just a matter of degree as to where they fit on the radical left, with Jean at one end and, perhaps oddly, Peter at the other.

To say that Jean's a bleeding-heart liberal doesn't begin to cover it. Jean's a bleeding-heart liberal with bells on, Green Party bumper stickers, red AIDS ribbons, a subscription to Mother Jones, and a collection of faded ERA buttons from the 1970s. That doesn't bother me. I'm more often than not inclined to agree with her - I am the guy who reads The Nation cover-to-cover. But Jean in full Righteous Mode can be a bit much, even for me. I just agree with her and keep my nose down until she runs out of steam and relaxes, then we can have a conversation instead of Pronouncements from the Soapbox . . . whatever soapbox she's currently favoring. Right now, it's a woman's right to choose.

But I think it comes as a surprise to everyone (me, not least) when Ororo - who's been almost completely silent up to this point - speaks into one of Jean's rare pauses. "It's not a simple matter of choice, Jean. It's a life."

"Since when did you join the side of the clinic bombers, Miss The-Morning-After-Pill-is-the-best-thing-since-sliced-bread?"

Ororo's mouth thins. "Don't assume you know what I think. And babies don't suddenly become people the day they're born."

"Look" - Jean jabs a finger at the bar counter - "I'm not advocating third trimester abortions here, but the choice has to stay with the woman. If it doesn't, then we start down a slippery slope - like censorship. If you start drawing lines, who decides where the lines are? The Moral so-called Majority?"

"In principle, I agree. But these are children, not banned books."

"Oh, please!" Jean throws up her hands. "Don't start tossing out bumper sticker sound bites. 'It's a child, not a choice.'" Her voice is sarcastic and disrespectful. I know that tone and she's about to start snapping at ankles. Jean at her best is a savvy, sympathetic advocate, and I can't think of anyone I'd rather have at my back. But Jean at her worst is an angry terrier.

"At six weeks," Jean's saying, "It is not a child, it's a collection of cell tissue called an embryo. It barely has a spinal cord, much less a brain, and looks more like a salamander than a human being." She and Ororo have faced off across the bar counter. "Do you want a bunch of Fundamentalist preachers and old guys in Washington telling you what to do with your body, Storm? If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."

Ororo presses her palms to either side of her temples. Her eyes are white, and I can see that she's struggling fiercely for control. Outside, the rain comes down harder and lightning flashes. "Have you ever been inside an abortion clinic? Walked through the picket lines and had garbage thrown at you? Sat in the office and waited to hear if you were pregnant while you tried to think how you could afford either an abortion or a baby? I've done all those things with friends. And never were my friends spouting political slogans or asking if the baby had a brain yet, or if old men in Washington owned their uteruses. Those are not the questions they ask!" She bites it off harsh, and her accent has become more pronounced than usual. "The questions are, Can I kill a life inside me? Is that murder? But if I don't, who will help me? How will I survive?"

A little subdued, Jean sits back down, as if she realizes at last that her theoretical debate has become personal for Ororo. She loves to argue, but she's not callous. Usually. "Storm, I - "

"Shut up and listen! I knew girls who meant to give up their children, then changed their minds in the hospital delivery room. One was fifteen years old, with a baby she couldn't afford and didn't have the patience to handle. One night, she shook her baby to death because the baby had colic and had been screaming for hours, every day for a month, and Carley couldn't take it any more, and didn't have anyone to call to help her. She lost her temper and broke her baby's neck. They arrested her for manslaughter but nothing they did to her, nothing - " Ro stops, takes a drink of tea. Tears streak her face and Henry lays a hand on her back. I wish it could be my hand. "Nothing they did to Carley was worse than holding the baby she'd killed. Her baby. So she killed herself before she ever went to trial."

"Ororo," Jean says, voice gentle, "that's a bit different from what we're talking about here . . . . "

"No, it's not! It's killing. Abortion is killing. Sometimes you have to. Sometimes you don't have a choice because the alternatives are worse. Maybe it's better for a baby never to be born than to be shaken to death by its own mother. But to choose . . . ." She wipes her eyes. "You're killing something. You're killing something alive inside you." And saying that, she gets up and stalks out right past me, still standing in the doorway.

"Wow," Peter says when she's gone. "Think we touched a nerve?"

"Just a little," Jean agrees, but neither of them is laughing, and Bobby just looks stunned. Jean glances at Hank. "Aren't you going to follow her?"

"Right now? No way; she'll zap me. I'll let her cool down first." He looks up at me, still leaning into the doorjamb, watching him. "What?"

"Nothing." And I push away, leave them there to head up to Ororo's haven in the attic and knock on the door.

"Go away, Henry!"

"Ro, it's me." No answer to that. "Jilah. Open the freakin' door."

It takes a minute, but then the door is jerked open. I get nothing more than a brief glance at her puffy face before she turns away again, back to the French windows that open out on the widow's walk. Rain drums on square panes of lead glass. Old and gravity warped, they distort the reflection of her face. She stands with her back to me, arms crossed in front of her. "What do you want?"

"Um - a set of seat covers for my car, the new Barenaked Ladies CD, and someone to mow the lawn next Saturday so I can sleep in?"

That earns a few seconds of startled silence, then she starts laughing, helplessly, one hand hiding her face. I shut the door and approach her. I shouldn't be here. But when she's hurting like this, I can't ignore her, not any more than Jean says she can ignore me. Reaching out, I grip her bare upper arms, chafe the skin. She feels cold. "What was that about, in the kitchen?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing my ass."

"Hey - can't a girl get pissed at theoretical posturing?"

"Ororo - "

"What do you want? You've been avoiding me for two weeks, but then I get in a fight with your lady love and you're up here to reprimand me under cover of being 'concerned.'"

I turn her to face me; she's a mess from crying. I wipe hair off her face. "You're trying to yank my chain, hoping I'll go away. Don't play that game with me, Jilah. I play it too well myself. And I think we both know who my lady love is."

She stares at me a long minute. "There are things about me you don't know, Scott. You might find out that the woman you think you're in love with isn't who you thought she was."

I'm amused by this. "Secrets? You? Remember who you're talking to. You know quite a few of mine. Now tell me what in hell that was about in the kitchen."

I can feel her relax in my grip, and she drops her eyes. "I don't like it when people get up on some high horse about something they've never been through."

"The idea of Ororo the Pro-Lifer strikes me as odd."

"Really? Then what about Jamilah al-Maliji, the Muslim girl? Islam doesn't condone abortion, you know. Well, the conservative elements don't. It's illegal in Morocco. 'Kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you, truly the killing of them is a great sin.' It's right there in the Qur`an."

"You've told me yourself you're not Muslim any more."

"But it's still part of me." Pulling out of my grip, she goes to sit down on the edge of her futon bed. Her posture is closed again, shoulders slumped in, arms re-crossed under her breasts and knees tightly together. "I'm not a pro-lifer. But it's . . . complicated."

I have a feeling that I know what's coming.

"I had an abortion, Scott. I was fourteen." She looks up at me. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever had to do. There was a baby alive in me, and I went to a doctor and paid money and then it wasn't alive any more. It's . . . .    I can't explain what that feels like. It'd be one thing if it had just died. But I did it. I made that decision. I killed it. Allah forgive me." She turns her eyes from my face to the French doors behind me. She's crying again. "Don't tell me you're surprised."

"I'd thought it might be something like that," I admit, but keep my distance. I'm not sure she's ready to let me approach. "Tell me what happened."

"I was young, stupid, and unlucky. I got pregnant. It happens all the time."

"Who was the father?"

"A guy I was living with. He gave me a place to sleep, if I slept with him. He didn't want to wear a condom, didn't like the feel, and we were in a state where I couldn't get birth control pills easily without parental consent. I tried counting instead, found out how reliable that is. He gave me half the money for an abortion, and then kicked me out - told me I could come back when it was taken care of. At least he gave me some money."

There weren't sufficient words for what I felt at that moment. Outrage, mostly, at the thought of a fourteen-year-old girl dumped on the street pregnant, with half the cash she needed and no-where to go. I was embarrassed, as well, to share the same gender with the jackass who'd done it - and maybe a little proud of what I'd told her after Nashville:  that I wouldn't leave her hanging, if she had a bun in the oven. I wasn't above counting my Brownie points. I couldn't help it; I loved her. "What'd you do?"

"Oh, there are crisis hotlines for pregnant women." She wipes her eyes, sniffs, and shakes her hair back. "I called one, went in to talk. They told me about all the options I had, laid them out in excruciating detail - what an abortion involved, and what it might do to my body if something went wrong. Or, if I didn't want or couldn't afford an abortion, they told me about programs, government and private, to pay for OB check-ups, help me do the paperwork for adoption, even foot my hospital bill when I gave birth. Lots of nice programs. But then we run into problems." She raises three fingers and ticks them off. "First, under my real identity, I'm an illegal alien with an expired Visa, and second, I was an underage orphan. Third, if I'd used my fake ID, I had a few outstanding warrants for my arrest. The minute I tried to register for any programs, I'd either be thrown in jail, or expatriated back to Morocco. Neither was high on my list, so I said, 'Thanks but no thanks,' and left."

Details, details. Funny, how it's the details that trip us up. "So then what?"

She wiggles her fingers. "A little light theft, a visit to a pawn shop, and I had the rest of the cash. And a few questions to a few friends gave me the name of a doctor who'd do it after hours and not ask my mommy to sign on the dotted line." She shakes her head. "She wasn't a bad woman. It sounds that way, but she wasn't. She helped out girls in a jam - like me. The price, besides the cash, was a long lecture about the virtues of birth control and a year's prescription for the pill. She did it because the alternative would have been a wire coat-hanger in a back room. She offered an office with sterilized equipment instead."

She wraps her arms under her breasts once more - over her womb, I realize belatedly. "I went three times before I could do it. The doctor was very patient, didn't force me or anything. I slept on the street for a week and thought about ways to raise my baby. I was so scared. I was just fourteen, and it was only a few months after my friend had committed suicide."

"The one who killed her baby?"

"Yes. I went round and round and round with it. I talked to people, but everywhere I looked, there was a money hurdle or a legal hurdle. How could I have cared for a baby and gotten a job? So I asked around for a sitter, even checked out daycare centers." I felt my eyebrows go up at that. It seemed unusually farsighted for a fourteen-year-old girl. But Ororo was always the pragmatic one. "I asked them about prices and found out that most had a waiting list like you wouldn't believe for infants. And they had application fees, registration fees, and a monthly rate that would've taken half a minimum-wage income. The only ones I could afford - those subsidized by WIC or similar - had paperwork I couldn't do. I faced the same problem with food stamps and Medicaid."

"You couldn't read."

"Well, that, yes, but I couldn't apply because all those support programs require qualification ID checks and I couldn't let anyone look into my history that closely. I was completely on my own."

I shift and lean into the French doors, ask the question I hope she won't resent me for. "What about going home? I mean, did you ever think about it? Going back to your family in Morocco?"

She just blinks at me for several minutes. "You're kidding, right?"

"No. Is it that bad in Morocco? That's an honest question - I don't know."

"It's bad if you're an unmarried pregnant girl, Scott. It's a Muslim country. I'd been in America too long. I couldn't have gone back there and been happy. Someday, yeah, I wouldn't mind going back to see my family - but just to visit. And if I'd been sent back then, it would've been a disaster for me."

"Okay, fair enough."

She sighs and runs a hand through her white hair. "It was just too big. After a week, I realized that it was all just too big for one person to do alone with no resources or support programs. It seemed impossible at the time, and I realize now that I didn't even know the half of it - how much it would really have cost.

"There are diapers, baby clothes, baby supplies, a crib, formula - all that stuff to buy. If you don't have easy access to a washing machine, you need disposable diapers and they're expensive. For such a little thing, babies take a lot of stuff. I couldn't have breastfed if I was working all day, so I'd have had to use formula - and it's expensive. Plus, daycare centers have only daytime hours, so I would've been limited in jobs. And that doesn't even begin to cover what actually having the baby in a hospital would've cost, or doctor appointments before the baby was born. Later, I'd have needed insurance for my baby, and well-baby check-ups and inoculations. And we won't even talk about 'extras' like, say, toys."

I listen to this litany in a kind of dim shock. I hadn't had any idea just how much was involved in caring for an infant. And the fact that she must have kept thinking about it even after, worrying at it like a sore tooth, strikes me hard. "What about giving it up for adoption?" I ask.

"Oh, I considered that. Forego any kind of medical checkups while pregnant, then just show up at a hospital as an indigent when I went into labor, drop the kid, and sneak out when the nurses weren't looking. It's been done before." She shook her head. "So yeah, I considered it. Maybe, if I'd known the baby would be adopted by good parents, I might have. But how could I decide to give a baby life - a half-African, half-Hispanic baby - and then just abandon it to Fate? I wasn't exactly leaving some blond-haired, blue-eyed kid on a doorstep. Some kids are hard to place. Bi-racial kids, kids with medical problems . . . . "

I felt my breath go out. She had no idea how well I knew that.

"No," she was saying, "I decided that I was either going to be that baby's mother, or I wasn't going to have it. It was my responsibility. So the third time I went to the doctor's office, I had the abortion. It took me three hours of crying in the waiting room, but I went in and had it done. I killed my baby because I couldn't be the mother it needed. I'm no better than Carley. I killed my baby."

She's crying all over again - silent tears, tracking out of red-rimmed white eyes - and I can see how she trembles all over, as if she's holding back an explosion of all the grief and pain and self-hatred inside her. "It's not the same as for your friend, Ro. You couldn't have been that far along. You said it was only a week or so after you found out. Terminating a two- or three-month pregnancy isn't the same as shaking to death a two- or three-month-old infant."

"It's not the length of time, Scott. It's how real the baby is, how many dreams you build, or hopes. And when you spend day after day thinking about how you can raise it and what names you could give it, you have plenty of time to build dreams. My baby made me tired, made me throw up my dinner, and changed my body. You feel it. It was real to me, real inside me." She touches her abdomen for emphasis. "A life. I don't care if it looked like a salamander or not. The baby was real to me, and I killed it, and then I cried and cried and cried for months after."

I don't know what to do or say. I'm all out of words, and can't begin to guess what it feels like. Parenthood isn't something I've considered much, mostly tried not to consider. I can't think of much worse than to inflict myself as a parent on an infant. I realize that I have my arms crossed over my chest in an echo of her own, and deliberately uncross them, take a few steps towards her. When she doesn't react, I decide that maybe she'll let me approach finally, and I come over to sit beside her, put an arm around her, all awkward with my confusion. I don't know what she needs, but this must be okay because she turns and buries her face against my neck. I relax a little and hold her more easily, just let her cry. I could tell her that there will be plenty of time for her to be a mother, but the thought seems cruel, just now.

She cries until she's hiccuping, then asks, "You won't tell anyone?"

"Of course not. You didn't tell anyone about me."

She smiles against my skin and her arms have tightened around me. It's incredibly pleasant, sends a shudder through me, and I feel guilt for taking delight when she's hurting. "We have some serious blackmail material on each other, don't we?" she asks.

"Ro, nobody here would condemn your choice. You were fourteen. Jean'd be the first in the mansion to back you up."

She pushes away to look me in the eyes. "Real life is a little different from the theoretical, Scott. I'm sure everyone here would agree on the evils of childhood prostitution and how awful it is for the kids stuck in it. But I don't see you rushing off to tell them that would include you." She had a point; I swallowed. "People might support the right to choose in theory, but when you stand up and say, 'I chose,' they get uncomfortable."

"It's not always because they disapprove, Ro. Sometimes . . . we just don't know what the fuck to say." My exasperation with myself finally leaks out, and she cups my cheek, rubs her thumb up and down - gentle. But her hands aren't pampered penthouse soft. They have calluses. Like mine.

"You didn't need to say anything," she tells me. "You listened and you hugged me. Caring isn't rocket science. You're better at it than you think, Scott Summers."

Despite everything, that makes me smile and blush. "With you, I don't have to try very hard to care." Then, I make myself add, "You could tell Peter, you know. Or Jean, or Henry."

Standing abruptly, she walks away. Her arms are crossed again. "God, no. Please don't tell them, Scott. Please don't tell them - "

"I said I wouldn't. I won't." Rising, I come up behind her to wrap my arms around her shoulders. "Calm down. I keep my word. I just think you should."

"I can't tell them. Well, maybe I could tell Peter. But not Jean, and definitely not Hank. He idolizes me. The other day, at the park, he just . . . .    You know what he told me? He thought my going out with him was some kind of sick joke that the rest of you put me up to."

Involuntarily, my arms tighten around her.

"Another girl did that to him once," she adds. "Asked him out and took him to the movies where there were other students waiting to laugh at him. I felt so badly for him, and so guilty. I can't break up with him now - not immediately." She leans her head back against my shoulder. "I keep thinking that maybe I can learn to love him, but then you walk in a room and all I want is to stand with you like this. This is where I belong. It sounds really corny, I know, but I fit you. And not just physically. You understand me. You're the only one I could tell about my baby. I knew you'd understand. You don't drool on me or worship the ground I walk on, or wonder why I might want to kiss you - "

I laugh at that, interrupting her. "Well, yeah, actually, sometimes I do. I wouldn't want to kiss me."

I've made her smile, and she swings a hand behind her, smacks my shoulder lightly. "Don't be a dope. You know what I mean. I'm real to you. Not a fashion mannequin."

Leaning in, I push my face into the back of her hair. God, I've wanted to do this again for weeks. I'm like a cat with catnip; the smell of her intoxicates me. "Yes, I know what you mean."

She turns in my arms and she's almost my height. I like that. Our faces are so close, I can feel her breath, the brush of her chin and nose, and her body is pressed - breast, hip, and knee - to mine, her arms around my shoulders. Her eyes are solid white. We don't kiss so much as press open mouth to open mouth in a kind of languid distraction. Her breath smells like mint tea, and salt from tears. Reaching out with her tongue, she licks my upper lip. I lick her back, then touch the tip of my tongue to hers. It's strangely erotic, and all the blood in my body has gone south, deserting my brain. I can feel her fingers light on the hair at the nape of my neck. "I think that maybe I love you," she whispers after a minute, breath puffing against my lips. "I wasn't sure. I'm still not sure. But I think that maybe I do."

My eyes close behind my visor. I know I'm shaking and I know she can feel it. "I've loved you since Nashville." Her fingers still rest light on the back of my neck, and my skin is on fire everywhere. "Tell me," I whisper, "how you can say you love me but stay with Hank? How is that right - to him, or to me?"

"Because I love him, too." My eyes open at that, and I stare at her. She's watching me. Like Jean, like the professor, she's learned how to look me in the eye despite the ruby quartz, and it means a great deal. "I don't love him the same way as you," she adds. "But I do love him, and if I break up with him right now, he will think it was a joke. He'll think I was using him, or making fun of him, and it'll be a hundred times worse if I turn around and hop right into your bed."

"We wouldn't have to - "

"Right! Tell me just how long you think we could stay away from each other? We can't even do it now! We wouldn't last twenty-four hours before we were fucking like bunnies."

The crudity startles me, and I pull away a bit - not because I've never heard her use obscenity, but it cheapens what I feel. "I'm not a bunny."

"Neither am I, but I have less self-control than one when you're this close. I can't even think straight, dammit." She slides a hand from my shoulder down my body until she finds the bulge in my pants, presses hard and firm enough to make me breathe out and close my eyes, bucking instinctively. Blood roars in my ears and it feels fiercely good - a hot, sweet pain. I think I might come right there, standing up. I can barely concentrate on her words. "Be honest, Scott. Which head are you thinking with right now? The cool one of Cyclops, or the hard one under my hand?"

"Well, you're not exactly helping," I manage to get out.

She lets me go completely and takes three steps back. Her chin is up and her eyes have gone back to their normal gold. The abrupt lack of her touch makes me bend forward a little, stunned. She was caressing me less than a minute, and through two layers of cloth, yet I ache as if from a blow to my groin. "Get out of here before I throw you on my bed, rip your clothes off and hide them so you can't run away until I'm through with you," she says.

I take her advice. Otherwise, I think I might get down on my knees and beg. The sound of the attic door shutting behind me is a little too final. I can see out the window at the hall end that the clouds have finally started to clear. Stars twinkle. When I get back downstairs to the kitchen, I find Jean setting Chinese take-out on the table. She glances up at me. "How is she?"

I stiffen. "What makes you think - "

"Oh, Slim, please. I know you. Hank may be too shy of her to beard the lioness in her den, but you are the Fearless Leader." She grins at the nickname they've all hung on me.

"She's fine," I lie, going to the fridge to get out the tea and then fetching down some glasses.

"Charles is coming down, too," she says when she sees I have only two glasses. I get a third. Then she adds, "You're not going to tell me why she was upset, are you?"

"It's none of your business, Jean." But it's not said with anger.

She shakes her head at me and grins. "You protect us in a lot of ways, don't you?"

"It's my job."

"No, I think it's your vocation." And she tosses chopsticks on the table.
 

 



DEATH SMILES AT US ALL
Storm:
 

I take a shower before I trust myself to come out again. My face was a mess from crying, and I'd needed to change clothes or Hank - whose senses are almost as keen as Logan's - would've smelled the arousal on me from being with Scott. I put on something pretty, that leather mini-skirt he likes so well, and find him hanging out in the den, watching Scott's movie and trying to appear unconcerned. But he jumps up as soon as I enter and comes over to put an arm around me, leading me to the couch. "You okay?"

"I'm fine."

I can tell he doesn't believe me, but he lets it slide for the moment as we settle down, his arm still around my shoulders. But I'm raw yet from what almost happened in my bedroom with Scott, and hold myself a bit stiff, try to concentrate on the movie. I'd never much considered why Scott is so fixated on this film, but thinking about what Peter had said earlier - that Scott wants to be Russell Crowe - it suddenly makes sense. Scott sees himself as the beleaguered but faithful general, prisoner of duty and fate, who really just wants to go home and be your average joe. But he doesn't have a clue how to be normal, not any more than I do. Like the character in the movie, he commands without trying. It's his nature.

When the power goes out suddenly, shutting down lights, TV and DVD player, Henry and I both sit up in confusion. From the kitchen, we can hear Scott scream, "Hit the floor!" But before I can even think to respond, the den windows blow out behind Henry and I, and I'm sailing through the air to land hard on what used to be the coffee table-top. It stuns me and my ears ring from the echo of the explosion, but I can't afford to let myself black out.

What the hell is going on?

I should probably be afraid. But mostly, I'm furious with that instinctive indignation of the assaulted and start to pick myself up. Turning my head to the side, I see black boots approach. Black boots are going to pay. An electric tingle races through my body as my powers respond to my rage. "Well, well, well," says a voice above and to my side, a gravelly voice. "Look who's trying to show the world what a dangerous little girl she is."

I don't bother to reply, just let the lightning crackle from my eyes and race along my fingers. I start to lift a hand when I feel something slam hard into my head. "Don't even think about it, honey."

I can't black out, I can't black out, I can't black out . . . .   I say it over and over as the world tunnels, spins, and takes a nose-dive. As if from a distance, I hear Henry bellow, "Get away from her!"

"What's the matter monkey-man?" says the same gravelly voice. "This lucky lady your girlfriend or something?" There's an awful sound, like meat slapped onto a cutting board, and then a grunt and the noise of a body collapsing.

I try to blink my eyes open to see what's happened, see who was hurt, and how badly, but I don't have the strength. It's all I can do to stay conscious. My head is pounding.

Above me, Gravel Voice says, "Well, she's our girlfriend now, fatso."

For the first time, I feel real fear, and then there are hands on me, rolling me over and feeling up my chest. I want to jerk away, but don't dare. I can't let them know I'm still awake. "Our girlfriend now," the voice repeats and the hand slides under my mini-skirt, between my legs. I clench as tight as I can while trying to pretend to be out, but rough fingers with sharp nails wiggle their way between my thighs and poke up into my vagina.

Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. It hurts. This can't be happening to me. Shock, fury, and fear all mix together and hold me immobile.

"Leave her," says another voice. "You'll get your fun soon enough, Sabretooth. You know Wraith wants us to find Wolverine."

With a curse, the fingers retreat, and then so do several pairs of feet. My relief is overwhelming. If I can just crawl off somewhere, maybe I can get to Scott. I can hear him in the kitchen shouting obscenities at our attackers over the sound of rifle gunshot and his own optic blasts.

Jesus, Scott, don't get yourself hit.

But as long as I can hear him, I believe we have a chance. I lift myself up on my hands but get barely a foot before another pair of shiny black boots enters my field of vision, followed by a rifle barrel pointed at my nose. "Forget it, mutie bitch." The barrel disappears for a second, then I feel it hit the side of my head.

I wake again as I'm being carried outside - thrown across someone's shoulder like a bag of rice. But I'm not really aware of much. Everything's fuzzy and my head pulses. I think I'm going to be sick. All I can see, from upside down, is two men in front of us, carrying a body.

Scott's body. There's blood on the side of his head.

Oh, no. Oh, please, no.

I pass out again.

The next time I wake, I'm in a vehicle and it's moving. I feel as if my head might explode at any minute, and don't dare move. Everything is dark and my hands and feet are taped. I can smell iron from blood, and the ripe acid scent of bodies too close together. I'm surrounded by bodies, flung on top of them in our small captivity. Almost, claustrophobia swamps me, but my head hurts too much for me to panic, and I practice breathing until I no longer feel ready to throw-up, or to scream. Someone is lying under me. A man. Against my cheek, I feel chest hair and warm skin through the rips in his shirt. His heartbeat sounds strong beneath my ear. A broad chest. Peter? Henry? But his body isn't big enough for Peter or Henry.

It's Scott. I'm lying on Scott. It has to be. Oh, praise Allah. Scott's alive.

"Scott?" I whisper. There's no reply, and I have to call his name twice more before I get any response. "Scott, wake up!"

Finally, he murmurs, "Ororo?"

"It's me," I reply, very softly, in case any of our captors are listening in.

"How badly are you hurt?"

"Just whacked on the head, but I'm nauseous from it. How about you? They were shooting at you."

"They got the professor and Jean, but nothing hit me. Well, not bullets. Something stole my visor and then brained me."

I think of the rain of bullets all around him, and of Dani's bracelet. Maybe there was something to her visions. "Do you know what happened?" I ask.

"You mean aside from the obvious - that we were attacked? No."

"Do you know who's still alive? Beside you and I? I saw them knock out Hank; I don't think they killed him."

"Jean and the professor are alive, too - the gunners weren't shooting to kill. And I can feel Peter on my other side; he's warm, so he's alive. The rest, I can't say, but I don't think they were trying to kill any of us, Ororo. They want us alive."

"Who's 'they'?"

"That's what I'd like to know. Did anyone get away that you saw?"

"If Peter's beside you, everyone's accounted for except Bobby."

He thinks about that. "Wolverine is still free."

"Are you sure?"

"Not positive, but he'd already left the mansion. Even the professor wasn't sure where he was going. I'd bet he's still out there."

That knowledge should relieve me, but it doesn't. The fear rushes back on me instead. "What are we going to do?" I try not to let panic invade my voice, but I know he can hear it anyway. "What if they try to kill us?" Or do worse things, but I don't tell him what Gravel Voice said - 'She's our girlfriend now' - or what he did with his fingers.

I feel Scott shift just a little, then his lips are warm against my forehead. A kiss to reassure. "Don't be afraid. Death smiles at every man," he says, "and every woman. You just smile back."

It takes me a minute to remember why that sounds familiar.

He's quoting his movie, the very one I'd been watching when our world had shattered, and the whole, awful reality of it crashes down on me like the rubble of the ruined mansion, burying hope. "They blew it all up," I say, sick with the knowledge. "They blew everything up."

"And they'll pay. We're going to kick their collective ass."

It should sound like so much impotent wind. Here we are, trussed up like chickens in the back of a van, being taken God knows where by people we barely saw, for purposes unrevealed. But it's Scott who's saying it. Cyclops. And I believe him. As long as Cyclops is alive, we'll get out of this.

I don't dare believe anything else.

"Whatever you say, General."

He kisses my forehead again. "That's my girl."
 

 



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