Ororo had found only two photographs in the safe deposit box, a snapshot of her father holding her as an infant, her face scrunched and ruddy, and a posed portrait of her mother, as elegant and refined as a sculpture, ivory hair falling in waves to her waist. She had been disappointed to find so few visual remembrances of her parents among their belongings, having expected her father's profession as a photojournalist to carry over into the realm of the familial.
The contents of the box had been largely mundane, including the deed to their house in Harlem, Social Security cards, birth certificates, a marriage license, $1500 in cash; but there were also items of a more personal nature - a beautiful embroidered gown her mother had worn as a young woman in Africa, the headpiece that had designated her rank as princess of the tribe, ornate bracelets, anklets, and earrings. Ororo hadn't been prepared to find such intimate objects; she had assumed her mother would have brought the treasures with her to Egypt, even though her father's assignment was to have lasted no longer than six months.
She still missed them so very much.
With a melancholy sigh she replaced the jewelry in its case and closed the lid, sliding it under her bed along with the rest of the things she had taken home from the bank.
"Ororo?" Jean appeared at the door, rolling a bottle of pearly white polish between her palms, her hair done up in curlers. "Do you have a minute?"
"Of course," she said, following her friend across the hall and seating herself on the edge of a chair laden with clothing. "I like this one," she continued, pointing out a long, diaphanous garment the same pale green as sea foam.
"So do I; but it just doesn't look right tonight. What do you think of that one?" she asked, motioning toward a simple bias-cut cocktail dress that lay on the bed.
"Try it on."
"Let me finish this first," she said, carefully applying polish to the nails on her right hand. "You're homesick."
"Yes," Ororo confirmed, taking the bottle and Jean's left hand in her own. "Even after all this time, I still do not feel that I truly belong here. This land....it does not speak to me as Africa does. It does not comfort me in the same way."
"Like a mother?"
"Like a mother." She recapped the bottle and blew lightly on the outstretched fingers to harden the enamel. "There. Now let me see the dress."
"Why don't you go back?" Jean asked, slipping out of her robe and into the dress, leaning forward to adjust the top and smoothing the silver georgette fabric over her legs, the hem hitting just below her knees. "Well?"
"You look celestial. I love the detail on the bodice." She handed her the panties and strappy silver heels that sat next to her on the chair. "I have too many responsibilities here. I'm needed."
"Thanks." She finished dressing and checked herself in the mirror. "Do you still enjoy it?"
"Mostly. Other times it begins to feel as though I am trapped."
Jean brushed a faint hint of blush onto her cheeks. "Do you ever hate it? Which lipstick?"
"The one in the middle." Ororo absently began folding the clothes that surrounded her. "It's a noble cause. I do not think I could hate it. I'm just growing tired."
"Rest. We all need a break from this life now and then, no matter how devoted we are." Jean finished her eyes and took the rollers from her hair, large copper curls cascading down about her shoulders. She brushed it lightly and twisted it up, securing it with an intricate clip. "I'm worried about you."
"I shall be fine. It's nothing that I cannot endure. What time is Scott picking you up?"
"A quarter after eight." She laughed shakily. "Can you believe I'm nervous?"
Ororo smiled. "I think it's wonderful."
"That I have butterflies in my stomach?"
"That Scott's still capable of giving you butterflies in your stomach. That your step still lightens when you see him, that your heart still beats faster when he moves to touch you." She paused for a long moment. "I never told you this, but I was no more pleased about your relationship with Scott than was Logan. I didn't think he was good for you, and I felt that he didn't understand you, or love you as he should have."
"Why would you think that?" Jean asked, turning from the mirror as she put her earrings on.
"It was his reaction when we thought that you and Hank had died in Antarctica. He didn't mourn you."
"He explained that to me. It hurt too badly. He couldn't--"
"It was more than that. He told me as much in the Savage Land," she said. "The important thing is that soon after he came to realize what he had in you, and when you did die, he mourned more deeply and honestly than I would have thought possible. I still do not believe he is everything you need, but I now respect him immensely, as a man as well as a leader, and if he makes you happy, that is enough for me."
The atmosphere of the Four Seasons Hotel was posh and sophisticated, decadent without being overstated, and a place that usually made Charles feel at ease. Tonight, however, as he made his way through the lobby and into the bar, he was acutely aware of the apprehension he always felt whenever he wasn't in complete control of the situation. He reached his destination, a secluded corner table, and extended his hand as the young man rose to greet him. "Mr. Murdock, I presume?"
"It's an honor, Professor Xavier," Matt replied graciously, motioning for Charles to be seated. "May I offer you a drink?"
"No, thank you." He leaned back into the soft leather chair and silently appraised his companion, surprised to find in him the same physical qualities that were evident in his X-Men, a strength, stamina, and control that didn't surface often in lawyers. He was obviously more than he appeared to be. "We are both intelligent men, Mr. Murdock," Charles continued. "I propose that we dispense with the pleasantries and focus on why you called me here tonight."
"Certainly. I asked you to meet me because I wish to have a message relayed to the X-Men."
"And you would like to relay this message through me?"
Charles' tone was icy. "I know I am a frequent speaker on the topic of genetics and mutancy, as well as a visible advocate of mutant rights, but that does not necessitate an association with vigilantes."
"I never said it did," Matt assured him. "However, I do happen to know that you are on speaking terms with the X-Men. I'm not looking to cause them trouble, or you. I'm on your side."
A brief psi-scan showed Murdock was telling the truth. Charles lowered his voice. "I think I deserve to know who is informing you on these matters before I say anything else."
Images blurred across Charles' mind. "He's a friend of yours? A....compatriot?"
"You could say that." Matt tensed, on the defensive, his speculation that Charles Xavier was more than an associate of mutants rapidly becoming a certainty. "Professor, you are of course aware of the trial of William Stryker?" His guest's heart pounded, blood pressure skyrocketed, perspiration increased. He was afraid. Why?
"Yes, I am," Charles confirmed. "It's been the lead story for quite awhile now."
"Then you must also know of the desire of the prosecution to subpoena the testimony of the X-Men. My message for them is simple - they'll need legal counsel. It's not a matter of their best interests to do so, it's a necessity which I wish to provide." He slid his business card across the table.
After a silent moment, Charles picked it up. "Why?"
"I think the treatment of mutants in this country is loathsome," Matt answered honestly. "It makes my blood burn. I only want to see justice done."
For most of his life, Scott had viewed romantic love as an abstract concept, something found in books and vague memories of his parents, but nothing he had any hope of experiencing. His adolescence had been spent in an impenetrable private solitude as well as a boys only orphanage; and his experience during his stay on the streets of New York was limited to a bewildering, impersonal encounter with a determined waif named Holly, whose disconsolation had matched his own.
To say he had been wary of women when Jean had joined the X-Men was an understatement of immense proportions. He didn't know how to speak to her, how to act around her; the thought of being alone with her terrified him even as he was overwhelmed by a desire to be close to this strange, beautiful creature. She amazed him, he was blinded by her; and almost before he realized what was happening he began to reach out to another person for the first time since childhood.
It took him two
years before he gathered the courage to tell her how he felt, before he
poured out his heart to her in anguished, struggling tones, desperate to
love, even if only a little. That night she had become his savior, and
nothing would ever be the same for him again, even though it would take
him a very long time to absorb what she taught him, to learn to
appreciate all she had given him.
As she opened the door he presented her with the bouquet of wild white roses he held and she smiled with pleasure, melting his heart. "For you."
"Oh, Scott, they're lovely." She buried her nose in the petals, inhaling their sweet, delicate fragrance. "Come in," she said warmly, letting him into the foyer. "I'll just put these in some water."
He followed her to the kitchen. "You're breathtaking tonight."
"Why, thank you, kind sir," she replied, filling a vase at the sink. "You look quite dashing yourself."
He blushed, not used to compliments. "Shall we go?" he asked, helping her with her wrap.
"Yes," she said, picking up her clutch and taking his arm. "We shall."
Kurt had chosen to go for coffee with Natalie instead of out to dinner with Scott and Jean because he felt it was a more comfortable, casual, and appropriate setting. Life dictated that he and Amanda spend long periods of time apart, and so neither angered if the other involved him or herself in harmless flirtation to ease the loneliness, but because he was finding himself unduly attracted to this woman he saw no reason for further temptation.
He wondered why he was so attracted. She was smart and pretty, with shiny dark hair and an athletic figure, but he was often surrounded by extraordinary women without a problem. She had a husky voice that sounded drenched in sorrow as she told him of her failed marriage and her cross country move from San Francisco; but she laughed easily and often, and she had told him he looked like a young Errol Flynn. On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with his relationship with Amanda, they were having no problems that he knew of, and he had loved her deeply since childhood.
He finished his cappuccino and leaned forward across the table. "That's fascinating," he remarked as Natalie related the way in which she had come into possession of the Book Nook. "So it's always been your dream to have a bookstore?"
"Ever since I was a little girl." She wiped biscotti crumbs on her napkin. "What's your dream? What do you want more than anything in the world?"
"To be accepted for who I am."
"And who are you?"
"Why do you want to know?" he asked, guarded but still outwardly warm. There was something vaguely wrong, something he couldn't put his finger on.
"I like you," she said coyly. "I want to know all about you."
"I thought you weren't looking for a relationship."
"I'm looking for a friend, but if something else comes from it...." She brushed her fingertips against the back of his hand, ever so lightly.
"I'm sorry, Natalie," he said. "I'm very much in love with my girlfriend."
"All the good ones are taken," she sighed, visibly disappointed. "Well, I should be getting home. I have to feed my fish."
He suddenly felt terrible. "I'd like to be friends, as long as that's all it is."
"That would be nice." More than nice, she thought to herself. Perfect.
They went to Rick's, a well hidden blues club just outside of Tarrytown that Jean had heard of in college, but had never had a chance to visit. To her delight it still matched the description she had been given, with an amazingly colorful atmosphere and simply sublime music, the band playing everything from Billie Holliday to Luther Allison to Stevie Ray Vaughan. It had been too long since she had had a night out.
"What can I get you folks?" The bartender was a huge man with a deep and jovial voice. He placed a bowl of nuts in front of them and polished the already sparkling counter.
"I'll have a Toasted Almond," Jean said. She turned on the stool and crossed her legs, her elbows behind her on the bar as she surveyed the crowded dance floor and the tables beyond.
"And you, sir?"
"A Rob Roy, please." Scott turned to his date, noticing how exquisite she looked, and he smiled because he knew she was perfectly aware of the many eyes on her. Jean had never felt she should hide her beauty, or deny it - it was a fact of life, something wonderful to be enjoyed, just like her powers. "I like it," he said, beginning to relax.
"I thought you would." She leaned toward him, taking a sip of the creamy, sweet drink that had been set before her. "It reminds me of this little place in Milan....the decor was similar. Very eclectic."
"When were you in Milan?"
"Remember when I had that modeling job in Venice?"
"Right after Hank went to work for the Brand Corporation?" The alcohol burned his throat, an almost pleasant sensation.
She nodded. "The shoot wrapped early, so some of the other girls and I skipped over to Milan. It's not as beautiful as Venice, but it has its own charm. And fabulous omelets."
"Did you know Venice is sinking twice as fast as they thought it was?" he asked, feeling like a complete geek as soon as the words left his mouth.
She looked fascinated. "Really? That's terrible - I just read in Archaeology that they were coming up with a way to extend the foundation poles to reach the firmer sediment in the channels. Of course, if the seas rise any further that'll only solve half the problem."
God, he loved this woman.
He decided not to remind her that the article she thought current was nearly two years old. "Well, the instability of the older buildings is much worse than they thought; they've decided that just repairing the supports won't be enough." He took her hand in his, kissed the knuckles. "Would you like to dance?"
"I'd love to." She allowed him to lead her to the floor and slipped gracefully into his arms, her hands on his shoulders as his grasped her waist lightly; and after a moment she lay her head on his chest, content, the feel of his suit and the warmth beneath it against her cheek.
She found herself remembering the first time they had danced and the subtle transformation he had undergone, becoming more self-assured, less nervous; she had realized at that moment that this was love, that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with this man and die in his arms. Later that night he had told her how he felt, and she knew it was right; without hesitation she had taken him into her heart and her bed and had never looked back.
He was wondrous to her.
"I've got popcorn," Kitty announced. She placed the bowl on the floor and stepped over Illyana to sit next to Peter on the couch. "Doug, can you turn the movie on, please?"
"Sure." He flopped back down on the rug next to Illyana, and she grinned at him. "What?"
He blushed violently. "Am not."
"You like Kitty."
"Shhhh! She'll hear you," Doug whispered, nudging her with his elbow.
She dug hers in between his ribs so hard he gasped. "She's not hearing much of anything," Illyana said, flicking her hair out of her face and motioning behind her.
To Doug's dismay Kitty and Peter were snuggling. And kissing. He buried his face in his arms.
Illyana threw a piece of popcorn at his head.
They danced until they couldn't any more, until they were dizzy from the music and the lights and each other. Hungry and eager to talk, they found an intimate table away from the bar, complete with candles and a small vase of tiger lilies. Jean spent a good fifteen minutes looking over the menu before deciding on the salad of mixed greens and grilled shrimp with feta and lime, while Scott opted for a heartier meal of cayenne crab cakes and filet mignon. The food was marvelous, the wine heavenly. The club began to settle down as they finished dinner, so they ordered dessert and lingered there in the fading candle light.
"Try this," Jean offered, holding out a spoonful of lemon mousse. "It's divine."
Scott smiled as he licked it off. "Delicious. Want to try some of my cake?"
"I shouldn't. It looks terribly rich and I'm getting sleepy."
He intertwined his fingers with hers. "I'm very glad we did this."
"So am I. You're still not settled though, are you?"
"Not entirely. We were so flawed in some ways....."
beautiful too, or have you forgotten already?"
"I haven't forgotten," he said. "I could never forget. Loving you is unlike anything in the world; and I'd be a fool if I let you slip through my fingers. Will you promise me something?"
"That you'll trust me. That if you're ever in trouble, you'll let me know. That you'll come to me for help."
"You don't know what you're asking," she said sadly. "You don't understand."
"I understand better than you think."
"I can promise to try." She squeezed his hand. "It's all I'm able to give right now."
"Then it's all I can ask for."
This was bloody fascinating.
Pete Wisdom adjusted the controls on his binoculars and crawled forward through the storm drain until he reached the end. Curled in the shadows and perfectly still, he could observe the clandestine community he had discovered without fear of immediate detection.
From his current vantage point he could see eight individuals, including a young child and an elderly woman, who were sitting off to the side of his line of vision, their backs against the wall of the sewer channel. They were talking, heads bent together, and more than once he heard the child giggle, as if the old crone were telling him a funny story. The other adults, bathed in the dim light that came from their fire, appeared to be performing some strange ritual.....witchcraft perhaps....no, wait.....they were just preparing a meal. He shuddered as the woman who had been skinning the rat she held added its meat to the pot.
He didn't wonder why they were living down here, in the sewers - one look at several of their misshapen faces and bodies told him they'd never be accepted anywhere else; and so they would probably be highly hostile to outsiders, making his job that much more difficult.
He would have to find a way to infiltrate them.
Scott walked her to the door and waited until she unlocked it before drawing her to him. Their lips met in an utterly romantic way, somewhere between love and lust, a slow, tender, passionate embrace. When they finally broke it she smiled up at him, eyes sparkling. "I had a lovely evening," she said softly. "Thank you."
He was dizzy. "It was my pleasure."
She leaned against him again, her glossy curls brushing against his cheek as her lips kissed his earlobe. "I'd invite you up," she whispered, "but it is our first date."
"You're wicked," he laughed, and kissed her again.
"But isn't that why you love me?" she asked innocently. She didn't give him a chance to respond but pressed her mouth to his for a long, breathless moment, and then she turned and disappeared into the dark house.
He walked back to his car, a spring in his step, because no matter what had happened in the past or would in the future, at this moment all was right with the world.
Other Stories By Sequoia