The stark, rugged landscape of Muir did not possess the same lush, verdant magic as his native Ireland; but Sean Cassidy nevertheless found the small island beautiful in it's isolated simplicity. Upon his first visit, he had thought it cold, lonely, and depressingly bare. Since then, he had learned to find pleasure in the clear patterns formed by the jutting cliffs, sparse vegetation, and rocky coastline. The loneliness had abated with time and the love of a good woman; and the cold - well, it was still cold; but now it was entirely dependent on the weather.
This morning was especially frigid, even for northern Scotland in March, causing Sean to wish he could have stayed in bed with Moira, warm and content under the covers, instead of forcing himself to run the six miles he traversed every dawn. At forty-four, his exercise regimen was absolutely necessary to keep him in the shape he wanted; and luckily his years as an Interpol agent, police officer, and superhero had given him the ability and discipline needed to stick with it. However, he doubted that all the training in the world could make this more enjoyable. It was freezing.
He slowed, breathing on his hands which were icy and numb even under his woolen gloves. The sun was making it's way slowly over the horizon, spreading rays of gold and pink through the steely gray sky; but it was still hours before there would be an appreciative difference in the temperature. He had reached the halfway mark of his journey, a large and jumbled pile of rocks that rested precariously at the edge of a cliff, and he stopped and faced the world as he did every morning. It gave him a sense of deep serenity to stand atop the rocks and look down at the roiling surf as it pounded the beach, to see the endless expanse of sea and sky, to feel the wind in his hair and against his face. It almost felt like he was flying, something he would always miss.
After several minutes, he turned from the ocean and climbed down to the ground, reinvigorated and refreshed, more than ready to face the three miles back to Moira and a hot breakfast. He wrapped his scarf more closely around his neck and had crouched down to tighten the laces on his sneakers when a low moan from the other side of the rocks, barely heard over the bitter wind, caught his attention. It sounded human, and in pain.
Concerned, he made his way quickly around the rocks, searching for the origin of the sound. In all likelihood it was simply a local drunk suffering from a hangover; but if someone was out in this weather and injured or sick he had to get them shelter and help as soon as possible. At first he didn't see anyone, then stopped in surprise. Lying half hidden in a little alcove formed by a large protruding rock was a young woman, naked and curled tightly into a ball, her face buried in her knees.
She moaned again, and Sean rushed to her, taking off his coat and covering her with it. As he tilted her head back he gasped in shock at the sight of her face, his heart jumping to his throat and seeming to skip a beat as he stared in utter disbelief. It couldn't be her. It was impossible. She was dead. Wasn't she?
"My God," he whispered when he was finally able to find his voice. "Jean?"
Dawn on Muir was evening in Anchorage, Alaska, something Scott Summers had been looking forward to all day. It wasn't that he didn't like working for North Star, he thought as he safely landed his last flight and headed for the management office. Quite the opposite in fact. He knew he was a good pilot, he took pride in his work, and he enjoyed every second of it. But the last few weeks had been so hectic that he hadn't had two minutes to himself; and while for most of his life that had been the kind of situation he had actively searched for, he had been taking a slightly different approach to things lately. No drastic, sudden changes; he had just realized, with much prodding, that life was short and if he occasionally took a little time for himself no one would mind.
To his surprise, the light
was on in the office when he arrived. "Hi, Krissy," he said
with a smile, "what are you still doing here? No hot date
"Me? Dateless? Never!" She tossed her head, blonde curls brushing her shoulders. "He's picking me up in five minutes, nosy." She sifted through the mess of papers on her desk and produced a short stack of envelopes wrapped in a rubberband.
"Here's your paycheck, and your mail," she said, as she handed it to him and grabbed her coat. "Care to walk me out, Mr. Summers?"
He acquiesced and took her arm as they walked out of the building, locking it behind them. The night air was brisk and chill, and they stamped their feet on the pavement to keep the blood moving as she breathlessly informed him of everything he had missed while away that she felt he should know. He never ceased to be amazed at the constant stream of chatter that came out of her mouth; and he did his best to keep up with it.
At twenty, Krissy Maclean was the youngest employee at North Star; but one of the most respected and upwardly mobile. She had started out making coffee and answering the telephone, and now she was in charge of the books for the entire company. To some, she came off as something of a ditz, unorganized and sloppy, preoccupied solely with parties and boys and clothes; but her gift for numbers was truly astounding and she had never once let anyone down.
She and Scott had become friends during the last few months, slipping easily into an older brother, younger sister relationship both were comfortable with. Actually, Krissy was comfortable with just about anyone; but Scott had been surprised at how quickly he had begun to let his guard down around her. They weren't close enough to share any deep secrets; but they enjoyed each other's company and frequently spent time together both during and after work. He had even taken her with him to Japan for Logan's wedding, a huge step for him. If she had noticed anything strange about his friends and the proceedings she hadn't mentioned it to him, preferring instead to talk at length about Tokyo's night life and the elegance of the bride.
A motorcycle came roaring around the corner of the hanger and screeched to a halt in front of them. The driver, a dazed looking young man in his early twenties, nodded slackly at Scott as Krissy hopped on the back of the bike and waved to him as they pealed away, burning rubber. He chided himself briefly on not reminding her to wear a helmet, and then wandered off to find his car.
Half an hour later found him at Cilantro's, a friendly restaurant with good food within walking distance of his apartment. He settled into a booth, ordered a steak and a couple beers and took out his mail. An electric bill. A late notice from the library. A postcard from Lee. A letter from Kitty.
He set the bills to the side and read the postcard first. Lee was doing well, having put in a short stop in the Bahamas during an incredibly successful haul. She would be heading out to sea for the next two months straight, and just wanted to say 'hi' before she did. She passed along a few jokes she had heard since their last meeting and told him to smile more often.
He missed Lee, she had been so good for him; but they had both realized that a serious relationship between the two of them would never work, so they had parted amicably, agreeing to see other people and remain friends. His food arrived, steaming hot, as he wondered if Lee was seeing other people.
He opened Kitty's letter and slowly read the contents, relishing every word. Since he had moved to Alaska three months earlier, she had written him a biweekly letter updating him on everything that was going on in New York, be it little or small, with other members of the team adding postscripts and little notes, and he looked forward to them more than anything else. This letter told mostly of Logan and Mariko's return from their honeymoon, the attempt by Caliban to get Kitty to marry him and the subsequent fight with the Morlocks, the Professor's progress with helping Rogue learn to control her powers, Ororo and Peter's efforts at building a greenhouse on the mansion grounds, and the new New Mutant, Amara Juliana Olivians Aquilla, all detailed with Kitty's unique perspective. Her letters often made him laugh and cry and this one was no different.
Homesick, he finished the letter and replaced it in the envelope, thinking about his life in Westchester. He missed it. He missed his friends, his family. There was nothing keeping him here in Anchorage, and everything pulling him back to the only place he'd ever truly thought of as home and the people who made it so much more.
Ororo Munroe was pleased with herself. The tall, African beauty sat back on her heels and admired her handiwork; three rows of healthy plants successfully transferred from their pots into the raised bed, not a single one damaged. It had taken her the better part of the afternoon but she didn't mind, for she had accomplished something extremely important.
Months ago, during the X-Men's lengthy stay in space, she had felt her connection with Mother Earth weaken. She had been even more terrified upon arriving back on Earth and realizing that not only was the connection severely weakened; but frayed through in parts. She was in danger of losing an integral, central aspect of herself and that imminent loss had caused her to behave uncharacteristically, lashing out at those around her, making poor leadership choices, her command over her powers becoming less and less every day. She had felt as though she no longer even recognized herself.
Her identity crisis came to a head when, having led the X-Men to the Morlock tunnels to rescue Angel, she had agreed to fight Callisto to the death for Warren - an odd choice for a woman who was consecrated to the protection of all life, especially when there were so many other ways to resolve the situation. She had wounded Callisto badly; but refrained from striking a mortal blow, a decision that had saved her soul. Releasing Warren from his bonds, she had given leadership in both name and actuality back to Callisto, knowing that she could not lead the X-Men and the Morlocks without doing a disservice to them both.
The worst had been over with then; but in some ways her troubles were just beginning. She had to find her way back to herself, understand the reasons why she had changed, and slowly rediscover the Ororo that used to be. With the help of her friends, old and new, she had finally resolved her inner turmoil and was re-establishing her link with the Earth and those around her.
Peter, desperately homesick for his life as a farmer, had confided in her and together they had gone to the Professor who had given them a portion of the grounds to do with what they would. They had planned out a vegetable and flower garden to be completed when spring came; and also built a small greenhouse to start the seedlings and protect them in the colder weather since Ororo's attic was already filled. Things would have been easier and faster had she used her powers to their full advantage; but she found that the work was much more satisfying and fulfilling if she used only her natural skills while working with the plants. And that in turn had helped strengthen her burgeoning connection to the Earth.
After wiping her hands on her dress, she tucked her long hair behind her ears and stood, feeling the multitude of surrounding life forces move through her. Everything was so alive, and once again she was a part of it.
Alive. She was alive. At first she hadn't been sure, for when she had opened her eyes all she saw was white, seemingly endless and enveloping. Slowly, she had become aware of the reality of her body, the beating of her heart, the rhythmic sound of her breathing. Her senses had come into sharper focus; and the white had transformed into a ceiling, not nearly as vast as she had first imagined it.
A steady, dull throb was coming from the crook of her right arm and she savored it even as she reached over with her left hand and pulled the IV free, not because she enjoyed the pain; but because it was sensation. And any sensation, no matter how unpleasant, was welcomed after so much nothingness.
Sitting took a great deal of effort and several minutes; but once she was upright, the dizziness passed as though it had never existed and she reached her arms out in front of her face, gazing at them in cautious amazement, as if she expected them to disappear. Tentatively, she touched one arm to the other, then pushed the blankets down to see the rest of her body, running her hands lightly over her breasts, belly, and legs.
Bolder now, she slid out of the bed, noticing the how cool and hard the floor was beneath her bare feet, and made her way to the adjoining bathroom and the mirror she knew would be in there. She tugged loose the gown she was wearing, and it fell unnoticed to her ankles as she studied her reflection, the intensity of her scrutiny mellowed only by the sense of awe she was feeling. Eyes, nose, mouth, ears, fingers, toes, belly button - everything appeared to be as it should. She breathed a sigh of relief and ran a hand through her flame colored hair, which was unruly and longer than she remembered. At least that was a mistake that could be easily fixed.
"I'm alive." She spoke to herself quietly, testing her voice, her hearing. "I'm alive."
A small thrill went through her mind, warm and satisfying. Her telepathy had become active, although it was being greatly dampened by an outside source. She turned toward the door and grinned. "Moira, I'm alive."
"So I see." The Scotswoman crossed the room and handed Jean a robe which she put on somewhat reluctantly, as if by covering up she would somehow cease to exist. "Checking to see if everything was there, were you? Well, you can relax. You're as good as new, inside and out. Now get yourself back into bed; I have to talk to you, and I'm not going to do it while you stand here catching your death of cold."
"Moira, I feel fine. Wonderful even. I --"
"Lass, I said LIE DOWN."
Jean opened her mouth to protest, thought the better of it, and sat back down on the bed, tucking her legs under her and pulling the blankets over her lap before Moira could tell her to do so. The older woman drew up a chair and looked at her intently.
"How do you feel, Jean?" she asked.
"I told you - very, very good. You don't seem surprised to see me."
"Well, I've had three days to get used to the idea, child. What surprises me more than the fact that you seem to have ressurected yourself is that you survived your rebirth. If Sean hadn't found you when he did you'd be dead, this time of hypothermia." She crossed her arms and gave Jean a look that made her wish she could disappear. "What were you thinking, coming to a place as cold as Muir without protection from the elements, especially in such a weakened state? If you're going to come back to life and then pass out from exhaustion, completely defenseless, pick a more hospitable climate to do it in."
Jean swallowed hard. "I'll keep that in mind for next time," she said sarcastically. "I missed you too."
Moira's face softened. "Oh, Jean, I didn't mean to be so harsh. I was upset that we almost lost you. Again." She reached out and took her hand in her own. "I did miss you," she said quietly. "You were - are - like a daughter to me, and your death devastated me. Don't think for a moment that it didn't."
"I know. I'm sorry too, I shouldn't have snapped at you. I guess I'm a bit out of practice dealing with people." She smiled faintly. "So how did everyone else handle my death?"
"They coped. Some better than others. Jean, how long do you think you were gone for?" Moira asked, hoping the answer wasn't what she thought it would be.
"I'm not sure," she replied, puzzled. "I think a few weeks; but somehow it feels longer. Maybe a couple months?"
Moira sighed. "It's been almost a year and a half now. I'm sorry."
"Oh." She was stunned by the news; trying to wrap her mind around it as she got out of bed and walked to the window, looking out at the wind whipping across the barren landscape.
"I know it's a big thing to hear, Jean; and I wish I didn't have to be the one to tell you. Don't worry though, in no time at all you'll be a part of things again."
"I guess." She turned, her eyes betraying her sudden confusion at her situation. "Moira, can you please turn off the power dampener? I feel like I'm suffocating."
"Of course." She stood and went quickly to the door. "I only had it turned on because I didn't know what frame of mind you'd be in when you awoke, and I didn't want to take the chance that you'd panic and accidentally hurt yourself or someone else," she explained, entering a code into the computerized control panel.
"Accidentally?" Jean smiled sadly. "You didn't think I'd still be evil, and put everyone in danger?"
"Jean, you committed evil acts; but you were never, ever evil," Moira responded firmly. "And if I thought you posed any danger to anyone at all I'd have you in a containment room. I've run enough preliminary tests while you were unconscious to know what you're capable of; and my instincts count for something too." She pressed the final button, there was a whir and a click, and the dampener shut down.
To Jean, it felt as though a dam burst in her head, sending a flood of thoughts feelings emotions images crashing through her mind like a tidal wave. She had been alone for so long that shielding was no longer an automatic reflex; she had forgotten the magnitude of psionic energy on Earth and the precautions a psi of her caliber must take. The sudden influx of information into her psyche made her sick to her stomach and she retched as she tried to limit the flow. It gradually slowed to a trickle; and she opened her eyes, attempting to get her breathing under control now that her mind was her own again.
Moira knelt by her side, stroking her hair. "It's all right," she murmured. "I'm sorry, I should have known that would happen. I'll leave the dampener off, your mind will acclimate itself while you sleep."
"But I'm not sleepy," Jean began, only to discover that she felt completely drained. She allowed Moira to lead her back over to the bed and tuck her in. "Moira?"
"What did you want to talk to me about?" She stifled a yawn.
"Nothing that cannot wait until morning."
"Professor? Are you all right?"
"Huh?" Charles snapped back to awareness with a jerk. Peter and Rogue were staring at him, concern evident on their faces.
"I'm sorry, children. I thought I....felt something. It took me by surprise is all." He sat down at his desk. "You may proceed, if you're ready."
They sat in in the center
of the room, their chairs facing each other, Xavier on their left side.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Petey?" Rogue asked
nervously. "It ain't too late to back out, you know."
The Russian boy nodded. "I am not afraid, Rogue. I know you can do it." His smile was so trusting and dopey that Rogue felt herself relax despite herself. After all, what could go wrong with the Professor right there? And she had been practicing every day for months. Of course she could do this.
Confidence restored, she removed her gloves, took a deep breath, and reached out, taking Peter's bare hands in her own. Nothing happened. Her heart soared; but she managed to keep her emotions in check as she carefully activated her power, using it at it's lowest level. Time ticked past. Slowly, she absorbed Peter's power, feeling herself grow stronger, bigger, more....metallic. When she had aquired his power, she began to feed it back to him.
When the transfer was completed she released his hands and sat back in her chair, a look of satisfaction on her face. "Well, how'd I do, Prof?"
He was silent as he probed Peter's mind. She began to worry that she had done something wrong, something horrible, that she had damaged Peter for life; and she anxiously awaited the verdict.
"Congratulations, Rogue, you have control over your powers again."
To her surprise, and embarrassment, she burst into tears, causing Peter to become extremely perplexed. "What is the matter, Rogue?" he questioned. "Isn't this what you've wanted?"
"Of course it is, you big oaf!" Her tears turned to laughter as she threw herself at him, hugging him with such strength that she knocked the wind from his lungs. She could hardly believe it - after all these months her life could finally go back to normal; and all because of a man she had once considered an enemy.
She turned to Charles Xavier, speechless. She could think of no words adequate enough to thank this man who had taken her, a known terrorist, into his home against the wishes of his closest friends, and healed her. If asked, he would say that it was she that had healed herself, since her problem had been psychological in nature; but she knew that without him, she never would have been able to help herself.
Hesitantly, she offered him her hand. "Thank you, sir. I am forever in your debt."
He shook her hand, his grasp firm and strong. "Don't feel indebted to me, child. I merely helped you realize the way to help yourself."
"I knew you were going to say that," she grinned. "Well, there's no reason for me to hang around here any more; I'd best be on my way. If you or the X-Men ever need a favor, anything at all, just ask. I'm at your disposal. And don't be worried about my telling secrets about you to Mystique and the Brotherhood. I'd never do that, same as I wouldn't help you against them."
"Are you sure you have to go, Rogue?" Charles made a motion for Peter to leave and close the door, which he did. Rogue got the feeling that he knew what was going to be said anyway. "I have been giving this much thought recently, and have discussed it with the team as well. We would like to extend you an offer of membership to the X-Men."
Rogue was floored. This was something she certainly hadn't expected. Although she had been living in the mansion for the last several months, she had never felt completely accepted, even after the events in Japan. There was a distance between her and the other inhabitants, a distrust. Things had been getting friendlier between her and several of them recently; but she couldn't imagine that these people who had been so begrudging when merely giving her help would now offer her the chance to be their equal. Their friend.
"I...I don't know what to say. I'm honored, Professor."
His face fell slightly. "But you're not going to accept, are you?"
"No. I can't."
"Do you mind my asking why?" He leaned against the edge of his desk. "I would really like to know."
She felt guilty under his gaze. "I just can't. I came here for help, not to change allegiances. I'm not saying that I'm going to go back to being an evil mutant, because I don't think I am. My experiences here have changed me, for the better. But I don't belong here any more than I do with the Brotherhood. I want to belong here; but I can't say that I believe in your dream, as fine as it is, enough to fight for it, and maybe die for it. Maybe someday I will; but not now. Right now, I just want to go home to my mama. I want to tell her the good news about what Charles Xavier did for her daughter. I hope you can understand."
"Adam? Adam, where are you?"
To ten year old Adam Essex, the sights and sounds of New York City were much more interesting than his father's insistant calls, which echoed faintly in his ears. Unlike most small children, Adam had never been afraid of the dark, or unknown places, or strangers, so being alone at night in an unfamiliar metropolis was an exciting adventure for him. Provided his father wasn't too far behind, of course. Besides, his father caught brief glimpses of him, so it was more like a game of tag, something he rarely got to play at home, since his parents frowned upon that kind of physical exertion. He had a weak constitution they said, he had to conserve his energy.
As he crossed the street and headed for the subway, he began to think that maybe his parents were right. He was out of breath. And he had to go to the bathroom. He turned and looked back across the street to where his father was waiting for the light to change, and waved, signalling that his game was over, he wouldn't run anymore. But he still had to pee; and the light didn't look like it was going to change anytime soon, so he made his way down into the subway.
He paid the fare from the spending money he had been given, and tromped down to the restrooms, groaning in dispair as he saw the 'Out of Order' sign slapped up on the men's room door.
He hopped up and down as he debated what to do. The sign was probably up there for a good reason. It could be really yucky in there. On the other hand, he knew he wouldn't be able to hold it until he found another bathroom, and he wouldn't use the ladies room. Only baby boys went into the ladies room.
The decision made by his bladder and pride, he held his nose and tenatively opened to door to the men's room, stepping inside. It was dark and smelly, the floor covered in slimey wetness that squished under his sneakers. He reached for the light switch and was unable to find it; but his eyes began to grow accustomed to the lack of light. He cautiously made his way over to where the urinals should be, being careful not to slip on the floor, although he probably could have gone right where he stood, and no one would have known the difference.
He relieved himself, thanked the Lord that he had not wet his pants, and had turned to leave when a rustling noise came from behind him. It's just a rat, he tried to reassure himself, just a big, old, smelly rat who's more afraid of you than you are of him. Just get out into the light, and you'll be fine. He heard a louder noise, a shuffling this time, and what sounded like a match lighting. Against his better judgement, he turned around to see who was there and shrieked.
Standing about three yards in front of him, illuminated only by the flickering light of a single match was something straight out of a nightmare. The man, if it was a man, was grotesquely disfigured, with a rotting face that appeared to have been eaten away by leprosy and a gnarled hand that had sharp claws for fingers. Adam froze as the thing stepped towards him.
"Does the pretty, pretty boy have something to eat?" At the sound of the rasping, skeletal voice Adam screamed and spun around, frantically trying to get to the door, imagining he could feel the thing's talons grasping hold of his jeans and tearing at them.
He was reaching out to grab the door handle when his shoes hit a particularly slick spot and he fell, striking his head against the floor and cracking his skull. Adam Essex's last thought was that all his friends had been right. There were monsters in the dark.
Other Stories By Sequoia