Work Header

The Approach of Splendor (Special 9)

Work Text:

Author's notes: Some discussion of unpleasant topics. ADULT.

The Approach of Splendor (Special 9)



The Approach of Splendor (Special 9)

by Minisinoo

It's a mystery to me, how the heart works. One minute, you feel nothing. The next, you feel everything; it boils up like magma, just seeking a crack in the surface.

Wednesday afternoon, June 22nd . . . the wind off Breakstone Lake brought the stink of fish and decaying cattails that choked the water's edge, their long leaves rasping in the wind. A red-winged blackbird exploded from the foliage, skimming the water's surface across to the other shore. The gnats swarmed and the deck wood burned the soles of my bare feet. I sat halfway down the pier with my knees up and arms around them, just looking out at the water. Sunlight scattered across the lake, glinting bright enough to make me squint even behind ruby quartz. But it was all red, not gold.

Everything was red. Hank said it wasn't the quartz. If it were just the quartz, my brain would have adjusted to filter it out, returning the world to normal shades. But all I saw now came in red and black and gray. Two weeks, and I so missed green and blue, yellow and white and simple brown. It had become an ache.

But you can see.

After weeks -- months -- of blindness, sight itself was a miracle, and it seemed ungrateful to resent that. If the cost was color, who was I to complain? When I felt pity for myself, I simply recalled where I'd been, only a year before, or that millions of people in the world still lived worse off than me. Would a starving man give up colors for certain knowledge that he'd have enough to eat? Or a lonely man, for the touch of a friend's hand?

I was lucky. I was insanely lucky, and to weep for lost colors seemed petty beyond bearing.

And yet, and yet . . . The losses kept piling up and I wondered if loss would become the stick by which I measured my life, or what was left of it. It had been two weeks since I'd regained my sight, and shouldn't I be thankful? But it was also exactly eight years since the day I'd lost my parents, and every year before on this day, I'd struggled to keep busy, not think, not remember, not be alone. Yet here I was, sitting on the boat dock down at the lake, doing nothing. The thing is, after a while, anniversaries sneak up on you. You never forget the day, the date. You know it better than your own birthday, and the first year, you wonder if you can even get through it at all, wish that week would just disappear off the calendar. The next year, you think, 'I did it before,' and that becomes your mantra to make it through again. The year after that, you dread it, but you figure you've already survived twice. And that's how the years pass until one year, it's that day, and you realize it just . . . arrived. And you forgot to worry. That happened to me for the first time two years ago. I was on the road at the time, running from Nebraska, from Boys' Town, and I woke up on June 22nd, realized what day it was, packed the few things I had with me, and just . . . kept going east. I didn't have time to dwell on it, so I didn't.

But today I have no place to be, nowhere to run, and it's snuck up on me again. Everyone is gone. Hank's at the hospital, Warren's on vacation with his parents somewhere in Europe, Jean's home visiting, and even the professor had business today in the city. He'd invited me along, but the glasses on my nose are too new -- I feel self-conscious -- so I'd said I'd rather stay here, and he hadn't pushed.

Now, I wish I'd gone after all, gotten out of that empty, echoing mansion full of Xavier family ghosts. They're not my family ghosts, you see. I came out to the lake because water draws me like a magnet, and I remember.

Not the crash. I have no memory of the crash, even if I'd wanted it; brain damage is like that. You lose things, bits and pieces. What I remember is small stuff.

My mother's hands. I can't recall her face anymore, and that frustrates me -- angers me. But her hands . . . I remember her hands so well. They were small and rather veined, and always looked older than her age, tough hands made rough by cleaning liquids, but she'd had nice nails, hard and perfectly oval with little pink moons at the quick. She'd never painted them. And I'd loved her hands because she was always touching me with them, petting and stroking me, but I hadn't wanted to admit that, at eight. I was too old for being petted, wasn't I -- a big boy ready for fourth grade? I suppose it was those hands, too, that had laced the jump vest on me and Alex, tied it tight, and then pushed us out of the plane hatch on June 22nd, 1986.

Strong hands. I wonder if I resisted. I don't remember.

I recall my father's face better (perhaps ironically) because I saw less of it. He'd had angular features with wide, high cheekbones, black eyes, black hair and a bushy mustache under a fleshy nose. But what I remember better than any of that is his voice; it had carried all over our small house. You could hear every word he said. I can't say if its pitch was high or low or in between, I only remember the quality of it, insistent, not to be denied. For me, it will always be the voice of command, and among the strangest experiences I've had in my life was once to hear myself on a good recording machine. I have my father's voice. A little lighter, younger, but his voice.

There are other things I remember, too -- fighting with my brother in the sunroom. Only one of many times, I'm sure, but that was Halloween (my birthday) and we were dressed in our costumes, swinging plastic pumpkins at each other. Dad had walked in to pick us up -- one under each arm -- and carry us out. I can't remember if I were screaming or laughing harder. I remember how he taught me to ride a bike, running along behind me and telling me to trust my balance. And I remember my mother sitting on my bed, patiently rubbing my back 100 times while I listened to the drone of her voice counting each pass and tried to fall asleep. I remember our dog, and the blackberry bushes along the fence at our last house in Bellevue. I remember following my father while exploring the gypsum dunes of Tularosa Basin at Holloman Air Force Base. They really are white. Blinding in the sun. So many small things, to make up a life.

Because we moved so often (military brat), I don't think I grew attached to any particular house, but there was a wide rock bed in the backyard we had at MacDill, in Tampa. The house itself had been a flat, ugly, Florida ranch-style with a single-car garage and a porch we never sat on because it was too damn hot most of the time. But in back, there were beds of bushes with river rocks. Most were white or gray or brown, but glittering flecks of quartz or mica had laced a few. I'd loved those rocks for some reason, and had painted animals on them. Child petroglyphs. My mother had saved some, kept them on the window ledge in her kitchen. They'd moved with us, when we left MacDill for Holloman, and then to Offutt. I have no idea what happened to them after the accident. Someone probably threw them out. Our caseworker had gone through the house, looking for personal items, but she hadn't saved my rocks.

And now, strangely, it was lost rocks that broke me apart. Worthless but cherished, and given pride of place on a kitchen windowsill. I felt the burn start behind my eyelids but the tears never fell. The goddamn beams blew them away before they could form, and, angry, I squeezed my eyes shut. This was the only way I could cry -- eyes shut.

So I did. Laid out on my side on the boat dock in the sun, I cried until I was dehydrated and my stomach hurt and my eyes were swollen. The orphaned child I'd been had cried for lost security, a lost future, the terror of the unknown, and a stolen brother. The orphaned adult cried for everything I'd never know about my parents, for the stories I could only dimly recall, for any sense of belonging or origin . . . and also, maybe just a little, for the child I should have been but had lost along the way.

Mostly though, I just cried, and once uncorked, a hundred other things squeezed out, too -- loss, yes, but also fear, and rage at the fundamental injustice of life. It came in waves, peeling away from me like layers of old paint. I'd weep, recover, catch my breath, remember and weep again. I wondered if I'd ever make it down to bare wood.

Finally it was over and the sun was going down. I was almost too weak to move, yet felt clean -- pellucid and hollow, like blown glass. My knees shook when I stood, and I stumbled over to the boathouse door, let myself in and grabbed a glass in the kitchen, filling it with water from the tap. I drank it all, then two more glasses after. Finally, I just sat down on the linoleum floor of the little kitchen and tried to catch my breath. I wasn't sure what had just happened to me, but something had. I felt newborn.

As it turned out, 'newborn' was right. It was just the beginning of a long process.

"Good heavens, what is that? A jigsaw puzzle motorbike?"

I looked up from the book in which I had my nose buried. Jean had entered the garage, and now stood staring at the disassembled 1968 Suzuki T500 spread out on the floor. "It's got a cracked cylinder head and one of the main seals is leaking," I explained.

"So you reduced the whole thing to its component parts in revenge?" But she was laughing.

My lips thinned in a mixture of annoyance and amusement. "Hank's been busy. I told him I'd start taking care of the vehicles out here."

"Since when do you know anything about cars?"

"Since now." I held up the book I was looking at, then pointed to a stack of them spread out on the worktable. Library books, mostly, about cars and motorbike repair. She went over to thumb through them. "You're going to learn to fix cars by reading books?"

I shrugged. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, though, looking at the motorcycle pieces spread out around me, I wasn't so sure. Still, how hard could it be? It was like a puzzle in 3D. I really hadn't needed to take it apart, but I'd wanted to. Vehicular vivisection. Still grinning, she came over to plop down next to me on the garage floor. She was wearing jeans and a tank top in a shade I couldn't discern. It had horizontal stripes. "Can I . . . uh . . . hold something?" she asked.

"Not right now," I said, running fingers over the unseated valve I was studying. "I can't do anything until I take this to a shop and get them to replace the seat. I think. Look at it."

She dutifully looked, then raised an eyebrow at me. "And?"

"And it's a mess, totally loose. Seat height's screwed and the spring pressure's just gone."

"Scott . . . you're yattering. What's seat height and spring pressure? Do you even know? Really?"

I grinned at her. She had me. "Well, I sorta know. I know enough to tell it's fucked up."

She rolled her eyes, then made an all-encompassing gesture with one long hand, taking in the scattered bits of greasy motorcycle on the concrete floor. "Do you actually like this, or are you just trying to prove something?"

My eyes narrowed. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Turning into a grease monkey doesn't make you any more of a man --"

"Well, no, I didn't think it would. And yes, I like it." I turned back to the book.


"Yes, really!" Looking up, I glared at her, then leaned closer until we were nose to nose. "What? You think that because I took it up the ass, I'm too much of a pansy to get my goddamn hands dirty? Maybe it's you who don't think I'm a man."

"Scott! That wasn't what --"

"Yes, it was. You're the one who made that crack about being 'more of a man.'"

"I didn't mean --"

"Then what did you mean?"

"Shit!" She pulled at her hair, and her shouted obscenity stopped me, mostly because she rarely used such words. "When are you going to forgive yourself? When? You just did what you had to do to survive! I didn't want you to think you had to prove something to the rest of us, that we'd think less of you, or . . . or . . ." She stopped, as if realizing that she was just digging herself deeper. I watched, feeling strangely removed. I had long practice at going cold inside when upset.

The silence stretched. Getting up, she walked among the bike parts, swaying almost, head down, shoulders slumped. "You really like it?" she asked finally, as if unable to let go of that question.

"What? Mechanics? Yeah, I think I do."

She paused somewhere between the oil tank and the muffler, looking back at me to size me up. But it was visual purely; I felt no tell-tale touch on my mind indicating that she was checking my thoughts. "Okay. I just --"

"I know. Drop it."

She sighed and walked back to where I sat on the cold concrete floor, kneeling beside me. "I can't drop it."

"Why not?"

"I'm your friend."

"If you were my friend, you'd drop it!"

"No." Reaching out -- slowly -- she ran a hand through my hair. "We've been tiptoing all around it ever since that night. First, it was the blindness; you had enough on your mind. Then, it was figuring out the glasses. Now, it's just a habit. We haven't talked about what you did out there before you came to live here."

Annoyed, I pulled away from her fingers. "So what do you want? The nasty details? A lecture on how to give good head?"

She rolled her eyes and let out her breath explosively. One of the things that most irks, and most intrigues me about Jean is how she runs roughshod over my wiseass comebacks, refusing to get offended. Impatient, yes. Offended, no. When I once made a (snide) comment about that, she'd replied with, "I'm a telepath," which both did and didn't explain it.

"I want to know if you can forgive yourself," she said now, plopping down on her ass right in front of me and crossing her ankles. And although it was a repeat of something she'd screamed only a moment before, it caught me off-guard.

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. You can't just run away from it, y'know."

"The hell I can't!" My turn to explode to my feet and stalk away. I circled the area restlessly. "Jesus Crippled Christ! Can't I move on? Do I have to be a freakin' sob story forever? I just want to get past it, dammit!"

"But you can't until you deal with it. You've had so much happen to you, Scott --"

"-- so you're setting yourself up as my fucking head-shrink?"

"No," she shook her head, "no. I'm not qualified. It's just that ever since . . . that night --"

"-- you mean ever since I blasted a hole through Jack Winters and two other dickheads."

"Fine." The word was very precise, enunciated with the click of thinning patience. "Then ever since the night the mansion was invaded and we defended ourselves, you have run from one project to another. First, it was the glasses, which I could understand. Next, it was cleaning up the boathouse. Then it was repairing some barn stalls. After that, it was sorting boxes in the attic. And now, you've taken up car repair. Scott, when are you going to let yourself feel?"

"You don't know what I let myself feel," I snapped with the same kind of clear enunciation she'd used a minute before. Jean hadn't been on the boat dock the day I'd come apart for a couple hours. Ever since (and even before, if I were honest with myself), the feelings hadn't been far from the surface. I kept them at bay by dint of distraction. "There are days I don't think about it at all, what I did -- that I was whore. Let's use the right terms, shall we? And other days, I can't think of anything else. And none of that is your goddamn business."

She folded her hands in her lap and stared down at them a moment, then pursed her lips and tipped her head to the side, not looking at me. "I don't see much evidence of your feelings, Scott -- besides anger when I try to talk about it -- and it worries me. What I do see is this . . . manic need to do. As if you're trying to prove yourself, or keep too busy to think -- or both. I want to know if you can forgive yourself, not prove yourself."

"Forgive myself for what?" I yelled, frustrated.

"For doing the best you could do, even if it meant selling your body so you could eat. Yes, you were a 'whore.' But you were also a child alone, and didn't have a choice."

"Holy, fucking . . ." I slammed the book I still held down on a work table. "Good God! Is that how you see it? You think this is some Lifetime Special and I'll be all pretty and pitiable if I get a good cry and you shine a little dirt off? That's not how it works! I sucked cock for money, Jean! I stole stuff and hocked it! I ran cons at pool! I smoked pot to get through a day! I was an ugly, smelly, shit-mouthed street rat, and I haven't really changed!"

She ignored all that to ask, "Did you want to become a prostitute?"

"No --"

"Did you ask to become an orphan?"

"No, but --"

"Did you choose to get shunted around foster homes until you didn't trust anybody?"

"No, but --"

"But what, Scott?"

"Didn't you hear a word I just said? I'm not some saint!"

She smiled. "Definitely not. You're just a person. So am I. You made the best choices you could at the time you made them. But you survived, okay? You survived." She peered up at me from where she'd remained sitting. "I just want you to forgive yourself for doing what you had to do, to survive. And you have changed. You've started hoping, trying, caring. And you're allowed to be mad about what happened to you out there -- feel sad, feel cheated. God knows, I would. You amaze me, y'know. You're like steel inside. I wish I could be more like you."

Without the last sentence, it would have been just another pep talk, a bit of psychobabble none too different from things the professor had said to me at one time or another, but that last remark caught me by surprise and dropped my mouth open. I couldn't imagine that anyone like her would want to be someone like me. She grinned at my expression and rose, coming over to push my chin shut with a finger. "You're catching flies, Summers. And you really are tough where it counts -- in your spirit. Nothing stops you. I want to be tough like that."

Which meant more to me than anything she'd said about my past, or forgiveness. I didn't wish to be pitied, but even more, I needed to be thought well of for something, and the idea that she might think I was strong or tough . . . It surprised and pleased me at once. I thought I might even be blushing (which was yet more embarrassing). She just smiled. "So you really like being a grease monkey?"

"Yeah, I really do."

"Okay." Abruptly, she laughed. "Mechanics, war games, math . . . . You know, Scott, you really are a guy."

"Well, yeah, last time I checked. Dick, balls, no tits -- I guess that makes me a guy."

She rolled her eyes again. "You do that on purpose sometimes, don't you?"

"Be rude, crude and socially unacceptable? I try."

Swatting me on the head -- lightly -- she walked off. "Boys and their toys . . . Play with your hotrods, Summers. I'll go find a chick flick on Lifetime."

Chuckling, I scratched my cheek and returned to the panhead.

Death had been on my mind quite a bit of late, and not just because I'd likely be dead before thirty, but because Mariana already was dead, and because I'd killed. Even if killing those men had been accidental, I'd killed. Three people were gone from this earth because of me, and if I suddenly needed to know that death wasn't the end, I think it had more to do with killing than dying.

"Do you believe we have a soul? That any part of us goes on after we die?"

Xavier and I were sitting at the puzzle table in his suite after dinner, working on a new project, this one a 3D representation of the Taj Mahal. Lately, I'd noticed that our choice of puzzle material didn't require color discernment. I picked up shoes and straightened rugs in the path of his wheelchair, and he chose puzzles that I didn't have to see colors to solve. It was through such small courtesies that we had built our mutual affection.

Now, he didn't answer immediately. Instead, he went through seven pieces, looking over each for the one he was after. Finally, he said, "Yes, I do."

"Do you know? I mean, by being a telepath? Can you see if we have souls?"

"No, Scott. I sense minds -- consciousness. I cannot sense someone brain dead, nor a mind too deeply unconscious. If I knew a mind well and was looking specifically for it, I might find it even if the person were sedated. But casually? No. It relates to the amount of brain activity. Sleeping minds are working minds, and in REM sleep may even be rather noisy -- mentally speaking. But the less brain activity occurring, the less there is for me to sense."

He stopped and studied me a minute. "I can't say that I know we have a soul, but I do believe we have one. There are many things in this universe that exist beyond the realm of the senses . . . even mutant senses." He smiled. "In that respect, I am neither a Stoic nor an Epicurean. I do not subscribe to Sensism."

I rolled my eyes, but had to laugh. Nothing was safe from school lessons. We'd been reading ancient philosophy lately, and although it was now mid-July and technically my 'summer vacation,' I'd discovered that I liked learning and saw little reason to stop doing what I liked just because some calendar said so -- not to mention that I'd been unable to do anything much while blind. These days, both my schedule and my schooling had passed so far beyond anything that resembled traditional education that the only way I was still sure I was in school was that the professor made me study things I didn't really want to.

"In any case," Xavier continued now, "knowledge is empirical, but belief existential. No experiments will confirm it, no proofs will convince. Only experience."

"Then how can you believe if you haven't died?" I asked, frustrated.

He smiled. "Fair enough. Unfortunately, your question has no easy answer, since it's not a single event or experience that convinced me, but a lifetime of them. Yes, the telepathy does figure into that equation, but not as . . . psionic proof. In the end, it's the sum of what I've seen that tells me, yes, we are more than complicated bio-chemical reactions and a random firing of synapses."

Reaching out, he tapped my forehead gently with his forefinger. "There is a 'you' in there who has been shaped by your body and brain, yet remains more than the physical. When the physical is gone, that 'you' will still be."

He looked away again and went back to the puzzle pieces. "But that is what I believe. What you believe is a journey for you to walk."

Getting up, I strolled over to stand in front of the dark fireplace, hands in my pockets. Outside, I could hear a rumble of thunder from heat lightning, and the professor continued to work at the puzzle, not interrupting while I mulled over what he'd said. If he hadn't convinced me, he had . . . calmed me. It helped just to know that he believed, and that Jean believed, too. The professor might not subscribe to Sensism, but I suppose I did. I believed only what I could verify with my eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and sense of touch. And yet, and yet . . . was that entirely true? There were elements of trust in my world now. After I'd regained my sight but lost colors, Warren had helped me go through my closet to reorganize it, so I didn't wind up wearing a Dutch blue button-down with olive green slacks, and it had never occurred to me that War would have a joke at my expense, or lie about colors. That wasn't Warren; I trusted him to look out for me. Just like I trusted Jean, and the professor, to stay out of my head uninvited.

That was belief, wasn't it? Belief in my perceptions of what others would do? Yes, those beliefs were based on previous evidence, but the evidence had come from experience -- that existential life of which the professor had spoken -- and those beliefs governed what I thought would happen, not just what I knew had happened.

In truth, I'd been trusting my perceptions for a long time -- that hustler intuition that had let me survive the streets long enough to escape them. But rather to my surprise, I now found myself trusting others -- Warren, Jean, Hank, the professor . . . I'd come to believe that they wouldn't betray or hurt me. For eight years, 'me' was all I'd had to rely on unconditionally, yet now I belonged to these people, not by obligation, but by choice. Whatever I could give, I would give it without hesitation. It was more than gratitude for a debt owed beyond what I could repay. It had become loyalty, kinship, love -- all those deep, deep words I'd been so terrified of since June 22nd, 1986. I belonged to them, and -- astonishingly, miraculously, marvelously -- they belonged to me.

Going back finally, I retook my seat at the table and returned to studying the pieces we'd organized so carefully. "You believe for me," I said to Xavier.

I doubted that really made much sense but he just nodded. "I shall, Scott. I shall believe for you . . . and believe in you, even when you can't."

After his tour of Europe, Warren returned to the mansion for a couple of weeks before leaving for New Haven, Connecticut. He was a college boy now, and like every other male member of his family, destined for Yale. But he wasn't sanguine about the future. If Worthington money and telepathic intervention from the professor had quieted rumors, gossip could always erupt again. I also knew he wasn't happy to be leaving me, and not just because he (still) carried a torch. I'd become his best friend, a point he'd stressed often enough that I believed him.

"You'll come visit, right?" he asked one afternoon as we were sorting his laundry three days before he was to leave. He'd gotten quite adept at using the washing machine, a small point of pride for him that he wasn't helpless any longer when it came to household appliances.

"Who me?" I asked. "At Yale?" But it was only half serious. After spending time at Columbia with Jean, I'd gotten over my fear of college, even an Ivy League college. Nonetheless, Yale was Yale. But Warren was Warren, and my friend. "I'll come if you want."

"Absolutely, I want," he replied, grabbing his pile of silk boxers and shoving them into a drawer.

Later after supper, he went out with me onto the front porch while I had a pipe. Here in mid-August, the sun set by eight-thirty and it was right on the horizon now. I wasn't feeling well today -- nauseous. The drug cocktails that Hank gave me periodically to delay the onset of AIDS were toxic, like chemo, with a cumulative effect, and if I'd had jujube-citrus tea earlier, I still felt off. Overhead, the first star was visible. Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight . . .

"Would you like to go flying?" he asked me abruptly.

I glanced over at him, thinking he meant in his plane. Warren had a pilot's license, which I found amusing, given his mutation. He also had his own private jet, and had recently gained enough hours to qualify for night flying. I'd never been up with him. I tended to avoid planes, at least in the air. On the ground, I found them fascinating and had spent no little amount of time going over the one in the lower levels. But more to the point -- "I thought you drove up?"

"I did. And I didn't mean flying in the Jetstar." His wings rippled, to underscore it.

For a moment, I simply stared. While it was true that I avoided getting into planes that got off the ground, it was also true that I rather envied Warren his mutation. To have one's own wings . . . .

I looked down at the pavement and turned the pipe in my fingers. "I don't know," I confessed. I'd been flying once before with Warren, of necessity, and had mostly kept my eyes closed.

"We could go up a little ways, and if you didn't like it, I'd put you right back down."

I thought about it. He didn't rush me. It was a rare thing he was offering. So far as I knew, he'd never offered it to anyone else at the mansion, not even Jean. I wasn't entirely sure why he was offering it to me. Friendship, certainly. Maybe just for an excuse to get his arms around me, but I doubted it. "Why?" I asked him.

He didn't reply at first. When he did, it was one word. "Freedom."

The answer said more about Warren than it said about me. Flying was the only time he was free of the strictures of being Warren Worthington, III. But maybe it did also say a little about me. Warren knew perfectly well that I hated flying.

Bending over a little, I tapped out the pipe ash against the concrete of the porch, then pocketed the pipe and turned to him. "Okay. Let's do it." He smiled a little and stood, offering me a hand up. We walked out onto the lawn beyond the drive. Nighthawks flitted between trees. "What do I need to do?" I asked him.

"Nothing. Just relax." And he moved up behind me, not too close, setting hands lightly on my shoulders. "I'm going to pick you up this way from behind, my arms over your chest, so you can see where we're going. Is that all right?"

A deceptively casual question. I didn't like people getting very close, not in front, and definitely not from behind. He'd have to grip me pretty tightly, too, body to body. I wasn't worried about his ability to hold on. Warren is strong -- a part of his mutation, just as an improved sight is part of mine. Not only could Warren pick me up with ease, he could pick up Hank with ease, and probably the professor in his wheelchair.

So he wasn't likely to drop me, but it would be awkward, and intimate, and maybe that's why he hadn't offered this to anyone else.

"All right," I said now, tensing a little as I felt him move closer, slipping his arms around my chest and crossing them upwards so he could grip my shoulders, holding me tight like a vise. I could feel the warmth of his front all along my back, the contours of him, my shoulder blades against his flat chest, my ass pressed to his groin, the backs of my thighs to the front of his. Involuntarily, my breath sped up and my eyes squeezed shut. I couldn't take such overwhelming touch.

He must have sensed something because he let me go, stepping away. "Sorry," he said, giving my back an awkward pat. "Sorry. Maybe it was a bad idea."

That made all the difference, and brought me back to the now. "I thought I could do it," I said, suddenly very angry at myself.

Why did this have to keep coming up? As I'd told Jean, I just wanted to get over it. We stood without speaking for a few minutes, me still facing away from him. Yet when he asked, "Do you want to try again?" my reply was quick.

"No." Then more slowly: "Not right now. I'll take a rain check, okay? But I do want to try again." I'd be damned if I'd let this beat me.

"Okay," he said, then walked away, towards the main mansion entrance. He didn't look back at me and I didn't stop him. When I saw him at breakfast the next morning, his face was a little sad, but he smiled at me. We didn't discuss what had happened, and when he left two days after that, I let him hug me goodbye, even hugged him back and didn't flinch. I thought that a small victory.

If I'd come to think more about death of late, I'd been struggling not to think about sex. That a sixteen-almost-seventeen-year-old male could manage not to think about sex might seem improbable at best, but I'd been managing quite well for almost a year. As I'd told Xavier, I'd believed that part of me dead, yet my tearing rebirth on the boathouse dock had resurrected even my sex drive. It came slowly, and mostly when I wasn't looking. Sex for me had always been about control. Even when I'd been kneeling on the floor of a dirty john, the fact that I'd remained unmoved had given me control, or at least the illusion of it. There were the ones desired, and the ones who desired. Hadn't men paid for my mouth and hands? I was reluctant to give up the power that perspective implied because giving it up would mean I'd just been used.

Yet I noticed pretty girls now, and bared skin, and my libido played peek-a-boo with the erotic. Subtlety turned me on. The more obvious the gambit, the less it caught my eye. Anonymity mattered, too; I only looked at nameless girls I passed on the street, saw in magazines, or in television commercials. If the girl had a name, she became real, and God forbid that I push my nasty little fantasies onto another person. I never masturbated, and if wet dreams still plagued me, I considered that a point of personal weakness. It was all about control, you see.

The anniversary of my arrival at the mansion came in September, passing with little fanfare beyond a special dinner with Xavier and Hank. I think they were trying to mark it, but wanted to avoid embarrassing me, or reminding me too much. After dinner, the three of us sat up in the den, playing chess or reading, and I thought about how I'd changed in only a year. I doubted that a cursory glance at a picture of me then and a picture of me now would be recognizably the same person, though a cynical voice whispered that I hadn't changed in more than the superficial. I was and always would be a two-bit whore.

The next day was a Saturday, and Jean showed up to lure me off to the Westchester Mall, a suitably ritzy place with white walls, brass fittings and brown marble floors accenting upscale shops that catered to the lawyers and doctors and financiers who kept multimillion-dollar homes in Westchester County. I was dragged through three stories, clothes shopping. Clothes for her, that is. I bought mine out of a catalogue -- subdued earth tones in dull-preppy styling -- but as we passed Club Monaco, I spotted a shirt hanging on a sale rack out in the walkway, dye-washed silk like an aurora borealis, though I couldn't tell the shade. Pausing to run my fingers over the cool fabric, I asked her, "What's the color?"

She smiled. "Blue. It'd match your eyes."

"Would have matched."

She ignored that to pluck the shirt off the rack and hold it up to me. "I think it's a bit big." And it was, an extra-large when I still wore mediums -- a thin, lanky teen. "But it'd look good on you."

I shrugged and put it back. I didn't want to look good. I didn't want anyone to pay that much attention to me. She watched, a bit sadly, but didn't say anything. We walked on. A few people glanced at me twice. The glasses -- at least in Westchester -- drew notice. Later, I'd come to realize that most people took me for blind, or a celebrity sneaking out incognito, but at the time, I just knew that they were looking.

Jean finally left me sitting on a bench while she went to run 'quick errands,' which I translated as 'I want to dither over earrings at a jewelry kiosk without Mr. Morose looking at his watch every few minutes.' I'm not sure how long I sat. My brain had switched into idle in that way I'd learned on the street -- not pondering much, just staring until my eyes went a little out of focus and my thoughts slipped into a fogged blend of real and imagined.

Gradually, I became aware of what I was staring at.

Sitting across from a Gap store, my attention had been caught by the larger-than-life window ads of exotically pretty people dressed in expensive grunge, and I'd been staring at one in particular -- a girl in a tight tank under a loose shirt, and hip-hugger khakis. The photo had cut off her head above the chin, and her legs below the thighs. Her arms were thrown wide, the shirt blown open. The tank ended just above a pierced navel, showing lots of tanned skin made shiny for the camera by oil. She had a slender throat above a sharp jut of clavicles like the wings of a bird, shapely shallow breasts hinting at nipples beneath pale fabric, and a sweeping curve from ribs down to hips, accentuated by the twist of her long torso.

I was mesmerized, all the more so with no face, no identity to get in the way of my visceral, below-the-belt response. Pure body. It jerked me back to reality even as I heard Jean's voice say, "Hey! I'm done."

I turned; she had a new package to add to the pile I'd been babysitting, but that wasn't what riveted my attention.

Her body did.

She had the same body type as the girl in the window. The cut of her tank was different, with a scarf instead of a shirt, but suddenly -- and shockingly -- I understood why I'd been so held. This was the form that had entranced me. The small breasts and swan neck, the long abdomen and slender arms -- they were the same. If the skin glowed paler, that didn't matter. I became choked by new awareness, a terrible humiliation, and painful arousal.

She frowned and asked, "You okay?"

"No, I --" I jerked to my feet and hurried off. "I need to go to the bathroom." Twenty feet away, I turned to call, "I'll meet you by the main entrance outside Nordstrom's in forty-five minutes." I didn't give her a chance to respond before jogging away down the walk. She remained stock still with bags all around her ankles.

I wound up in the food court on level four, and being a Saturday, it was packed with families, flocks of teens, and young singles. I fit right in, and sat down at a two-person table near a wall. On an overcast fall day, the skylight above glowed dim, like my thoughts.

I didn't want to think about what had just occurred. I couldn't be interested in Jean, not sexually. She was only a friend. That she was also a pretty woman had been abstract for me until now. I was in control, wasn't I? I wasn't like other men, led around by my dick. I didn't want to be like that, yet I feared being weak, effeminate -- just as Jean had accused me. I did need to prove I was a guy . . . even as I didn't want to be one.

That recognition took me by surprise, yet I had to admit the truth of it. I hated my own gender. Men made victims of others -- physically, sexually, financially. To be male rendered me a pariah in my own eyes. Yet to be like a woman implied weakness, victimization, and I didn't want to be a victim, even as I didn't want to be the victimizer. Ironically, a snippet of Scripture circled through my head, a legacy of forced Sunday chapel at Boy's Town: *"For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."*

Not that I had plans either to castrate myself or go into a monastery, but I didn't want to be a man like other men.

While I'd been pondering, I'd slouched back in my chair, sprawled casually, knees spread, staring out at the people passing. I was dressed less preppy than usual, just khaki slacks and a dark, tight turtleneck. It had never occurred to me that a mall like Westchester might be a point of bathroom trade, and maybe it wasn't normally, but even rich guys picked up hustlers, and perhaps bored little rich boys made extra cash in the fancy stalls of the food-court john. All I knew was that a stranger had suddenly seated himself at my table with a tray of congealed Mall Chinese Surprise. He'd probably been watching me a while. "Hi," he said. I didn't even start, just eyed him from behind my glasses, only then realizing the small signals I'd adopted without thinking. He was nicely, if casually dressed in expensive duds with neatly graying hair -- old enough to be my father, and passers-by would probably make that assumption. He acted nervous, but not as if he didn't know the routine. More as if he feared being caught. I wondered if he'd come to the mall looking for a pickup or had spotted me and acted impulsively?

I thought of a dozen things to say, but said none of them, just waited to see what he'd do next. He glanced up at me, smiled faintly, anxiously, then pretended to eat but mostly pushed around the unidentifiable fried meat in neon orange sauce. I didn't move a muscle. After a decent time when anyone who might have noticed him sit down had quit watching, he pulled out his wallet and flipped it open, extracting bills and slipping them under the edge of the white Styrofoam plate. Twenties. Five of them. He didn't move them towards me but glanced up, as if asking if that were enough, and tapped his lips.

Long practice alone kept me from reacting. The jackass had just laid out my former grocery bill for two weeks, all for a five-minute blow job. It was twice the going rate for tearoom trade, but this was Westchester. The kid I'd been was tempted. It would be my cash, not charity from Xavier, and no pimp to cut eighty percent off the top.

But the man I was becoming recoiled at the thought of doing it again, dropping my jaw for some stranger's cock. Now that I'd walked away, I wondered if any amount of money would ever be enough to lure me back to that place.

I took a deep breath, then leaned over the table to spit in his dinner. "I'm not for sale, motherfucker." Getting up, I walked away. Strolled, really. A free man ran from no one.

The paranoid part of me screamed that he might follow, try to avenge the insult, but the shrewder part said he wouldn't. He'd been too nervous, and the more I thought about it, the more I figured he hadn't intended to pick up trade at all, just reacted to what he thought was an opportunity.

Stopping before a decorative brass plaque outside a random shop, I stared at the distorted reflection. You can take the boy out of Alphabet City, but not Alphabet City out of the boy. So what if I'd walked away? He'd seen what I'd been, and I loathed myself for it. Any victory seemed hollow.

To make all of it worse, there was still Jean to face. I arrived early at our rendezvous point, but she was already there, waiting, hands clasped between her knees, bags beside her. Seeing her, my stride slowed, and she must have sensed me because she turned to look right at me, but didn't stand or attempt to approach. I might have bolted, and I think she knew it. She waited for me as if I were a wild animal. I paused, but then came forward and sat down beside her on the lip of a fountain with bronze horses, a good foot between us. "You're early," I said.

"So are you." A pause. "You want to talk about it?"

"No." Lying to Jean was pointless. If I'd said there was nothing to talk about, she'd have scoffed and pushed. Telling her the truth worked much better. Usually.

"You looked pretty upset earlier, Scott. You still do, in fact."

"I got spooked," I admitted. And I had. "But I don't want to talk about it." My eyes were roaming the crowd of shoppers, half-afraid that I'd spot the man who'd propositioned me upstairs, but he must have been long gone.

"What if you wrote me about it instead?"

"Huh?" Taken by surprise, I turned to stare at her. She wasn't looking my way.

"Scott, your face upstairs . . . You were looking at me like you hated my guts. I don't know what I did, but if you could tell me, maybe I could avoid doing it again."

And I was as amused as I was unnerved. I wanted to say, 'Can you stop being a woman?' but didn't. She couldn't stop being a woman any more than I could stop being a man . . . and that was the fundamental problem, wasn't it? I wasn't a eunuch, and I was sitting beside a beautiful woman who I'd just realized -- at a gut level -- was beautiful. But I didn't want that realization. She was Aphrodite to my Hephaestus, and like the forge god, I was ugly and maimed -- crippled in my soul. She'd never love me, and I didn't even want her to. I might get soot on her. My past wasn't going to go away.

"You didn't do anything," I said now. She hadn't, either, unless one counted just being.

"And you're not going to tell me about the rest?"

"I don't know how to, Jean."

We didn't say anything after that, both prisoners of our insecurities.

My birthday fell on October 31st, Halloween. I can't recall whether I'd liked that as a child, but as an adult -- and a mutant -- I found it ironic at best. Fortunately (to my mind) the mansion was far enough off the beaten track of trick-or-treaters that the professor didn't make much of the holiday. But he did make much of my birthday. I had a cake, balloons, even an unexpected guest -- Warren drove over from New Haven. Technically, my birthday fell on a Monday, but they chose to celebrate it the weekend before so Warren could be there. I hadn't had a birthday like it since the foster home in Kearney, and found myself smiling all through the meal.

Hank had (predictably) bought me books, including the Riverside Shakespeare. Warren, who'd embarked on a crusade to lure me to Yale the next fall, had come armed with Bulldog paraphernalia. I just laughed at him. I'd kept my promise to visit, but still found absurd the idea of squandering a five-digit yearly tuition on a kid with a viral death sentence -- even if I had a prayer of getting into Yale in the first place, with my record.

Jean's gift, however, took me by surprise, though it probably shouldn't have. She'd bought me that blue silk shirt from the mall, and a few others besides, none the sort of clothes I wore now -- but not the kind I'd worn before, either. I tried to hide my ambivalence, going into the kitchen to doff my button-down and try it on for her. It was too large, as I'd known it would be, but felt wonderful against my skin, soft and cool -- maybe a little too cool for that time of year with short sleeves, but I ran a hand down the front anyway, indulgently. It had been the feel of it that had drawn me in the first place. When I came back out into the dining hall, she smiled, saying, "I told you it'd look good on you." And all I had to do was glance at Warren's face to know she was right. That upset me, and I just wanted to get it off, but if I took it off, I'd hurt her feelings. Torn, I stood halfway between the kitchen and the table, unable to move in either direction.

She thought you didn't buy it because of the price, Scott.

The professor's voice, inside my head. And I understood then, but the price had nothing to do with it. It was on sale, I sent back. I didn't know what else to say, how to explain.

He must have understood anyway. It is a chilly day, he offered. A graceful escape.

Aloud to Jean, I said, "Thanks. But I'm, uh, a little cold." I turned around in place once, obediently modeling, then escaped back into the kitchen to redress in simple cotton. It would be two years before Jean's shirt fit me, either in size or display.

My most significant birthday present, though, came on the day after I turned seventeen, in Yonkers Family Court.

Normally, the assignment of my wardship would have been completed within six months, but the fact I'd come from Nebraska complicated matters, turning my case into a battle between states, though I wasn't sure if both were trying to exert their control by claiming me, or by forcing the other to take me to get out of dealing with a brain-damaged, HIV positive, mutant juvenile delinquent. I was a caseworker's placement nightmare. But the fact that I was the ward of one state while the petition for my guardianship was being made in another meant two court systems and two state child protection services with different criteria had to talk to one another and come to an agreement. Twice, the professor himself had gone to Nebraska to expedite matters. He hadn't taken me with him. Until these last few months, I really hadn't been up to dealing with the legal snarls and frustrations, but now I'd taken an interest. It was my life, after all.

Our court appearance today marked the final step in the process. The professor and I were to appear before the Honorable Janice DiFore sometime around 11am for her ruling as to whether or not he'd become my legal guardian permanently, instead of just temporarily. The professor wasn't nervous but I was a basket case. Everything rode on this decision. If she ruled against us, I didn't care what anyone said, I'd be gone before they could catch me. There was no way in hell I'd go back to Nebraska, even for a year. Xavier kept telling me that the odds were all on our side, and even if she said 'no,' it'd only be a year. I could make it for one year, then I'd be an adult and could return to New York with no opposition. But he'd never been a ward of the state. A year was a hell of a long time, and I didn't have so many of them left to waste one in purgatory.

I'd asked -- once -- if he'd mess with the judge's head for me, and he'd just looked at me in that way he has, saying, 'I'm disappointed in you,' without a word being spoken. I never asked again, though (many years later) he did admit that he'd have done whatever it took because he'd also been well aware that I'd planned to run again, if forced to return. 'But it's better not to circumvent the law, unless given no choice. I didn't want you to view mutant gifts as an excuse to become a law unto one's self, Scott.' Later, I understood that it would also have robbed me of my victory, made it cheap. I had my day in court, and it meant something.

Carol Morrison, my caseworker, met the two of us outside the courthouse. Xavier wore one of his ubiquitous suits and I'd dressed well, but not formally. Hank had helped me choose: a sport jacket over an oxford, no tie. He'd offered to come, too, as had Jean, but I'd wanted to do this without an audience, in case it went against us. Now, Carol gave me an encouraging smile when she took my hand in greeting, but I didn't react (from nerves), and she asked to speak to me alone.

Oh, joy. Here we go again, I thought.

She took me to an anonymous private room inside the courthouse and sat me down in a hard wood chair at a battered, institutional table, got me weak coffee in Styrofoam but didn't offer an ashtray until I asked for one. She doesn't approve of my bad habits but knows better than to bother fighting them. I lit a cigarette and politely blew the smoke away from her. I still turned to Camels at times for convenience, though preparing a pipe would probably have been more calming for me right then. But I didn't want people to think Xavier had influenced me that much.

She sat across from me and watched a moment. "You're absolutely sure you want to go through with this? After today, it'll be a lot harder to undo."

"Goddammit." But it came out more tired than angry. "How many times do I have to fucking say this? I know what I'm doing. You think there's some weird voodoo shit going on, but there's not."

"Scott, this is the strangest case I've ever seen. Fifty-something multi-millionaires don't offer to become foster fathers for --"

"-- ex-whores?"

"I didn't say that. I've never used that term."

"Yeah, I know. But you can cut the PC crap. It's what I am."

"That and a good dozen other things." She sighed. "You're almost as unique as your situation, and I thought we were past your attempts to shock me for effect. But the fact remains that you're a very pretty young man, and he's old, unmarried . . . red flags go up all over the place."

I took a drag and this time, blew smoke right at her along with my words. "You think I'm his house boy. You still think that, no matter what I say. Fuck. Why in hell are we even having this conversation? I know you're going to tell the judge to turn me down." My belly had shriveled and it was all I could do not to bolt from the room and leave the courthouse altogether.

"The judge makes her own decision. Background and medical checks have been run, your own statements are on record, along with others . . . everything turns up roses. But Scott -- I worry."

"Yeah? Save it for somebody who needs it." I held the cigarette up and watched the smoke curl, lazy and aimless, in the room's still air. It kept me from looking at her. I wasn't sure why I was so mean to her. I'd had bad caseworkers before and Carol didn't qualify, but ever since she'd been assigned to my case, she'd been pushing and prodding about Xavier's interest in me. Naturally, given my history, she'd feared it involved sexual favors, and if she hadn't been concerned, she'd have been irresponsible. I knew that. She was just doing her job. But it had become a thorn in my side.

"Look, like you said, everything's been cleared. You have my medical reports and you have his medical reports. He's a paraplegic, dammit." I was being disingenuous and we both knew it. "You've had the Department of Probation, ACS," (Administration for Children's Services), "and the State Registry," (the State Central Registry of Child Abuse and Maltreatment), "all over this case, and they haven't found a single goddamn thing against him. Plus I've told you . . . how many times now? . . . that he doesn't want sex from me. I think I'd know, okay? I'm not being coerced, forced, or fucking blackmailed. He's an advocate of mutant rights. I'm a mutant. You don't have to look any further than that."

She was smiling ever so faintly. "You weren't a mutant last year, Scott. How did he know?"

She's not a dumb woman. and she smelled a rat. It was just the wrong rat. "Chance," I lied.

"You're hiding something."

"No, I'm not!" It was a little too vehement, a little too self-righteous, but even former con artists and ex-hustlers have off-days. Her face told me that she wasn't buying it and I sighed. "Look, you think there's something more here. There's not -- not like you mean." I fell back on honesty when all else failed. "So this is the weirdest case you've ever seen. Big deal. Is it really so hard to believe there are good people out there?" The question tasted strange on my own cynical tongue. "If so, why are you doing this shit yourself? It's not like you get any decent pay for it."

Finally, I'd struck true. She blinked. I barreled on before she could say anything. "He's a good person, okay? So he happens to be filthy rich, so the fuck what? It's a crying shame how others assume rich people are just out for themselves. Envy." I thought of Warren as well as Xavier. "The professor treats me like I'm a person, not a side of beef, or a pity project, or a fucking problem. He talks to me and he listens to me. He thinks I might have something to say and a brain in my head. Isn't that good enough?"

I wasn't sure where this was coming from, but my irritation had unleashed my tongue and I couldn't shut up, even if I were digging my own grave. Xavier had believed in me when I'd needed it. I'd defend him now.

"Okay, fine. You want an ulterior motive? Well, try this one. He doesn't have any kids. He'll never have any kids. I don't have a dad any more. Did it ever occur to you that it might be as simple as that?" It was as close as my pride would let me get to, He's become my father. Don't orphan me twice.

Carol had actually teared up, and now wiped at her eyes. She freely expressed all the feelings I couldn't anymore, and maybe I'd finally found the right alchemy of words to convince her because she said, "All right. But I had to be sure, Scott. This is a one-in-a-million case."

"Too good to be true. Yeah, I know." And whatever I'd just said about Xavier, a part of me was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I could hardly blame Carol for it. I leaned back in my seat. "Will the judge rule for us?" I'm sure she could read a lot of things in my face, including my fear, hope, and suspicion.

"I think she probably will. But I'll be honest with you, the best argument in your favor isn't your hard-to-place status, or the fact you're a mutant. It's how you speak, Scott -- at least when you're being yourself. You're an exceptionally intelligent, articulate young man. Special. It makes the fact that you wound up in a special situation a little easier to believe."

I blinked behind my glasses. How strange to hear her call me the same thing the man in the silver jag had, over a year ago. Erik Lehnsherr. I knew his name, now.

"Go in there," Carol said, "and when the judge asks you questions, speak like yourself. Don't play games or try to hide your brains. Maybe you're the son Dr. Xavier never had, but he didn't pick you randomly. Like calls to like. However you came to his attention" -- her smile was wry and I knew she didn't believe the story Xavier had spun a year ago -- "you kept his attention because you're you. And that's the best argument you've got for convincing the judge that he's the right guardian to assign. We do want to do what's best for each child, Scott."

I chewed on that a moment. Xavier had fought this battle, jumped through legal hoops, because it was me, and he was laying claim to me in some symbolic way that maybe even he didn't fully recognize. "Okay," I said finally.

Carol escorted me back to where Xavier waited patiently in the hallway near the courtroom. The place smelled of varnish and recycled air, and he gave me a faint smile when we returned. He didn't have to ask what the eleventh-hour consultation had been about. I take it you've soothed her concerns yet again?

Yeah. She's like a damn terrier.

She has every reason to be suspicious, Scott. In fact, I admire her for her tenacity.

Carol had seated herself and was thumbing through my folder. I stood near Xavier's chair. We were, of course, late getting in, and called forward even later. Far from my first time in family court, I'd wisely brought a book to keep myself occupied -- tried not to think. Xavier just sat quietly, eyes shut, meditating. Finally our turn came and Carol led us forward, presenting the petition. The judge, a woman in her mid-fifties, thin and neat with beauty-parlor permed hair, listened, and when Carol was finished, crooked a finger at me to approach the bench. Surprised, I hesitated, but Carol pushed me forward. I went. The judge studied me a moment, then asked, "This is what you want?" Yet the simplicity was deceptive. There was nothing perfunctory here, and for the first time since I'd woken in Omaha's Children's Hospital after the plane crash, I felt as if what I thought actually mattered. She'd read the reports, heard the petition, but she wanted my opinion.

"Yes, ma'am, this is what I want."

She couldn't see my eyes behind the glasses, but I felt as if she knew right where they were. She held them a full minute, and I didn't look away. "You can change your mind, even now."

"I know. I don't want to."

Nodding once, she picked up her gavel. "I hereby approve the petition of Charles Francis Xavier, residing at 1407 Greymalkin Lane, Westchester, New York, to become the guardian of the person and property of Michael Scott Summers." And she brought her gavel down. That echo is lodged forever in my mind. Freedom for me sounds like the crack of wood-on-wood.

There was a little party at the mansion afterwards and I got tipsy on champagne. The fact that my newly appointed guardian would give his underage ward two glasses of bubbly might have raised the judge's eyebrows -- but I doubt it. I fell asleep by ten (early for me) and slept the clock round; I'd needed it. When I woke in the morning, the professor was already in his office and had been for a while. He called for me after my shower. There was another man there, too, who I'd never seen before. "Scott, this is one of my attorneys, James Davidson. Jim, Scott Summers." The man rose to shake my hand. "Have a seat, Scott."

I got all tense. What was happening now? Was this the other shoe dropping? Had I been a fool, after all? Sensing my alarm, Xavier actually motored his chair out from behind his desk and up beside the one I occupied, laying a hand on mine. Relax. Just a few more legalities.

Bemused -- hadn't the court clerk taken care of everything yesterday? -- I accepted the documents that Davidson offered me and looked down.

It was a will . . . the professor's will. Davidson droned on, explaining the complicated legalese that converted Xavier's family estate into a trust fund. I'd been named as a signatory -- my presence had been required so Davidson could get my signature -- but I'd also been listed first and foremost as inheritor. The estate would retain Xavier's name, but would pass to me upon the professor's death.

Put simply, I'd just been designated Xavier's heir.

I was very glad of the glasses, and of the fact I couldn't cry with my eyes open. I signed all Davidson's papers so he'd go away and leave us alone. "How long have you been planning this?" I asked when the man departed.

"Well, I've intended for some time to convert the estate into a trust. At my age, I have to start thinking of such things, and it will simplify matters considerably when I die."

"Professor," I interrupted, hating to state the obvious, hating to be that cold, but I felt the point needed to be made, "you know you'll probably outlive me."

His glance was sharp. "No, we don't know that."

"But it's likely --"

"-- we don't know that, Scott. You're young and perfectly healthy right now."

Yeah, but for how long? I asked in my own mind, quite sure he could overhear. But he didn't say anything -- more upset by the thought than I was -- and it suddenly struck me that, somewhere in the last ten months, I'd come to some kind of terms with my impending death. It no longer scared me. We all live with mortality but don't let ourselves think about it. I hadn't had a choice, and now, I spoke of dying with an ease that disconcerted the rest of them, even Xavier. It left me unsure what to say, and my own need to drag in reality seemed . . . ungracious. "Thank you," I told him finally. "You didn't have to do this."

"Of course I did. I hardly like to think of this place dismembered by distant relatives and sold to developers . . . and that's precisely what would occur." He looked up. "I am not, I fear, doing you a favor. This will almost certainly be contested, by my stepfather and stepbrother if by no one else. Mr. Davidson is well aware of that, and we've armed you as best we can to withstand the siege. But you can expect an argument."

"Yes, sir." Somehow, I felt better knowing that. He had personal reasons of his own for making this choice. "I'll keep the estate in one piece for you."

He smiled. "I'm quite sure you will. Now, go get yourself some breakfast."

Nodding, I stood, then said, "I'd rather nobody knew about this just yet, sir."

"As you wish, Scott."


Maybe it was guilt that sealed my lips, or a fear that too much good fortune would make even the gods jealous, but I kept my mouth shut for some time -- years, actually.

Yet I did go out that morning to sit on the front step with a breakfast of cold bagel and hot coffee, looking across the land that would one day be mine. The November wind was biting and fresh, whipping up fallen leaves into little zephyrs and scattering them again into new patterns.

Notes: Lovingly dedicated to my grease-monkey brother, who learned to fix cars by reading library books. The Scriptural quote is from the Gospel of Matthew, RSV. The name of Scott's caseworker is a nod to Lelia (though it's not the same person).

Story X is "Vita dalla morte"







Fandom:  X-Men
Title:  The Approach of Splendor (Special 9)
Series Name:  SPECIAL: The Genesis of Cyclops
Author:  Minisinoo   [email]   [website]
Details:  Series  |  61k  |  10/12/04
Characters:  Scott, Xavier, Jean
Summary:  Mundane grace is underrated.
Notes:  Some discussion of unpleasant topics. ADULT.