The way Jean tells the story, you'd think I'd been silently pining after her since I met her. Smitten at first sight, and following her around like a puppy dog, and she'd be glad when I just got the guts to up and ask her out.
She's my best friend, but honestly, sometimes her urge for melodrama gets to me. This isn't Dawson's Creek. And I don't think anyone in the world is actually that shy.
After I first arrived, skittish, stand-offish and even slightly surly, we circled each other nervously. We were the only two students of the Professor at that stage, and though we both had our reasons for wanting to be solitary, teenagers are by nature pack animals. So we slowly became friends, one tenuous strand of companionship at a time. After six months, she'd stopped starting at loud noises, I'd stopped flinching when she touched me, and the practise of both of us whiling away the midnight hours when one of us couldn't sleep was well-established. She taught me how to play backgammon, and I taught her how to play three different sorts of poker.
A tip for future reference: don't play poker with Jean. She cheats.
And that's how the story really starts. On one of those nights, pushing on towards the darkest, longest, slowest time of the night, lurking between three and four. We'd been playing since one, and it had been a messy, rambling, stupid game, even before she started telekinetically sneaking cards out of the discards, draw deck, and once even out of my hand. It was just getting silly now, with more laughter and tossed insults than actual card-playing. Thank God there's most of a wing between us and the Professor.
I was counting my chips, which I had in my pocket since a whole pile of tens had miraculously gone 'missing', when I saw the movement out of the corner of my eye. I'd made a dive half across the table, scattering little circles of plastic all over the floor, but slapping the errant ace of clubs down onto the table underneath my palm. Jean shrieked, and jumped a little. She'd been leaning forward, the card almost in her hand when I'd intercepted it.
We were both laughing in a second. And as the laughter stemmed, I found myself looking at her. Really looking at her, leaning forward across the table like I was. She was looking back, and I opened my mouth to ask what I'd been considering for a week or two; to ask her out to dinner and maybe a movie.
Then I didn't. I said: "Jean Grey, you're the worst cheat this side of Vegas."
In that instant, between opening my mouth and saying the words, so much had passed through my mind, but one thing above all.
I'd seen that a relationship with Jean would be too easy.
It was more than just her being a telepath, though that was a lot of it. She could dip right into my head, pull out everything I needed to make it all better. It could be perfect, like perhaps nothing else on earth could be. So perfect and so easy to slip into it, into her and me and happiness. Even without her gifts, it would be easy. Somehow I knew that. This might even be the relationship, the woman, I was born for.
I couldn't do it. Couldn't face that, embrace it, handle it. Didn't deserve it? It's more than that. She'd think that's what it was, if I told her all this, or let her see it. She'd get angry and rage at me and call me pig-headed and a hundred things more besides. I told you about her penchant for melodrama.
She'd still be wrong. I can't pin it down, can't put the problem into nice little words, pummel it into something solid and recognisable and easy to label. Most things aren't like that, you know. There isn't always a simple, easy answer, nor should there be.
I've been thinking about it a lot recently, though. Because I suspect I might have found the first thread of a long, complicated answer.
And she just went past, a sweep of white hair and a pair of cheery hellos - hers and Hank's. They're on their way out as I'm on my way back in, though judging by the picnic basket Hank's carrying under one arm, their errand is more relaxing than my morning's work with Wolverine.
"I thought we had a test on Monday," I say, turning to look after them.
Ororo waves a book, grinning over her shoulder. "We're gonna study."
That makes me grin. The pure fact of her smile, or the likelihood of that scenario, one of the two. "Sure you are."
Then they're gone, out the door, leaving me alone in the corridor.
So, the question: Am I over Ororo Munroe?
It's the little things that get you. There'll be an exchange like this, the two of them obviously off to have fun together, and I'd be fine. No irrational surges of jealousy, no desire to do terrible, eviscerating things to Hank. Just keep walking, down the corridor to the kitchen. It's blessedly empty, which means I can go rummaging through the usually untouched odds and ends cupboard in peace.
Then again, there are flashes. Like hearing her say something - even something like: "Do we have to watch this mind-numbing crap?" - and feeling something inside me resonate with her slightly deeper-than-average pitch.
Like seeing her stretching her neck after a Danger Room session, and remembering how her skin tasted, sweat-slick like that.
Like sitting in the kitchen one morning, seeing the sun slanting across her, sharply shadowed features and a glorious white nimbus of hair, practically a halo. Wanting to see her in the morning sun like that, lying beside me.
Mind you, I'd had flashes of wanting that while we were still together. Not that you could really call what we were 'together'. Not like she and Hank are together.
So I don't know, you tell me. Am I over Ororo Munroe? Is anyone ever really 'over' anyone? People come along, they influence you, and they go on influencing you, even when they're long gone from your life.
How I'm going to spend the rest of my day is a perfect example of that.
Ah, there it is, behind the plumbing, where I left it last year. Carefully, I pull it out, dusting it off as the light strikes glints off the green, triangular bottle. Glenfiddich, the best scotch in the world, a full bottle, but the seal on the cap's broken. Yeah, maybe a kitchen cupboard, no matter how carefully hidden, isn't the best place to keep your top-shelf liquor, but there's a lot of reasons I don't want this in my room permanently. Besides, no one ever opens this cupboard. I close the door, and head up to my room, gripping the bottle by the neck.
I don't have many CDs. Didn't have a chance to collect before I came to the mansion, and haven't had the time since I've been here, really. I've got maybe a dozen, stacked together on a shelf beside my small, portable stereo.
And one other CD, on the shelf below, underneath a stack of books I don't read any more.
As I pull it out now, rub fingers over the faint opacities caused by time in the crystal case, I remember Ororo doing the same.
She'd been poking vaguely through the shelves one night, just browsing over the book titles and such, keeping up a running commentary. It had been post-sex, and she was stark naked. I'd asked her if she had any modesty at all, and she'd replied that I'd seen it all before, run my hands over most of it, and who else was going to walk into my room at two in the morning without at least knocking?
I'd had to admit she had a point, but it still made me faintly uncomfortable for reasons I wasn't entirely sure about. Make no mistake, I liked it. I liked it a lot. A beautiful woman was wandering around my room with only her hair for swirling, moon-glinting covering, and maybe if I squinted I could pretend she was going to come back to bed and stay there.
She got to the CDs in her survey, and started flicking through them. I was in bed, fighting off fatigue so I could savour this time, clutching at her smooth voice as my eyes slipped closed again and again.
"Rage, Soundgarden - Superunknown; great album - what's this... Faith No More? Old school." That had made me laugh faintly. There was a pause, and then she'd said: "Hey Scott, what's the Stabbing Westward doing down here?"
Not only weren't my eyes falling closed, I was sitting up in bed, wide awake now. I tried my best to sound nonchalant as I replied: "I just don't listen to it much any more."
I watched her fingers splay over the case as she turned it over, scanning the track listing quickly, then back to the front. "Is this an original '98 copy? It's in good condition. This one, Darkest Days, was their best, I think. But the self-titled one that came after it; God! What a heap of trite, cliche, pop crap. It all went downhill when they lost their guitarist and started trying to be cool. They totally sold out."
I could hear how much she wanted to ask; it vibrated through her voice. But we didn't ask each other many questions, and this once I was grateful. She continued ranting, moving on to talk about other artists, flippant as always. But she slipped the CD back under the books, where it had been, and didn't mention it again.
That night, I hadn't wanted to tell her, hadn't wanted to remember, but today's the day for remembering. So I slide the CD into the machine and hit play.
As the music starts, soft and slightly eerie, I settle back on the bed, sitting with my back against the wall. Twist the lid off the scotch, and set both lid and bottle on the bedside table, within easy reach. Tilt my head back against the wall and take a deep breath.
I brace myself, and as the first guitar riff kicks in, I close my eyes.
And I remember.
They called him Fitz. Strange name for a strange guy. He told me once that his mother had named him Fitzwilliam. She was a Jane Austen fan, apparently, but there's no excuse for doing that to an innocent kid. He wasn't a big guy, skinny and weedy, but clever. Maybe too clever. When I met him he'd just turned twenty-two, and I was fourteen, barely two weeks fled from the boys' home. I was tired, hungry and far too green for the streets, trying my one last shot. I'd always had good eyes, great aim, so I'd decided that maybe I could try pool to make the money I desperately needed.
Precocious? Try stupid. The two guys didn't care much for being made to look like idiots by some kid, and they dragged me out the back and proceeded to beat seven kinds of shit out of me. I was on the verge of unconsciousness when suddenly, it stopped. There were voices, and a final kick that sent me tumbling over the edge.
I woke up in a strange bed, bruises and cuts treated and bandaged. And that's how I met Fitz.
He took me in. One street brat looking after another, he said it was. He'd been taken in by someone when he was in my position, apparently, and when I still looked suspicious, he told me that the only payment he expected was for me, one day, to do the same for someone else. At the time, it still wasn't really enough, but I'd hit rock bottom. I had nowhere else to go, and was in no state to go there in any case.
Fitz lived in two small rooms in a crowded and ramshackle building. The 'bed' was a tattered mattress on three cardboard boxes, and a second one across the room had no boxes, just lay on the floor. The water out of the taps was brown, cloudy, or both, and the bathroom was down the hall, and had no hot water. But under the window in the main room was a battered portable CD player, and Fitz had a huge collection of CDs, carried around in folders with him.
He called himself an 'odd-job man'. He organised things, ran errands. Arranged what you needed. For a price. He had a lot of connections, and through those connections, a bit of clout. He did business in a string of pool halls that he moved from one day to the next like some sort of strange urban nomad. I tagged along, and after Fitz gave me a few pointers, he turned a hand to arranging some of my own hustling. Once he was convinced I had the knack, he stepped back, let me work alone.
He was always there when the 'customers' got disgruntled, though. He wasn't big, but he was clever, and he could talk his way out of anything.
Fitz was my first true friend. I stayed with him for most of a year. And what a year. A year of firsts. My first friend, and the first time I'd lived anywhere that truly felt like home. Well, that I remembered, at least. Fitz gave me my first taste of alcohol, and offered water and sympathy the first time I emptied my stomach in a gutter after one beer too many. And when I turned fifteen, he arranged a meeting with a hooker called Missy, a friend of his he assured me was clean. She was also friendly, and sympathetic, and she had a sense of humour that almost scandalised me. I'd never even considered the thought that sex could be amusing. That not only could it be good, but it could be fun. That was the first time, for me. Until Ororo, it was the last and only time as well. In any real sense.
A year of firsts.
It was also the year I manifested.
I'd been having headaches for weeks, getting steadily worse. We'd stopped trying medication after the third packet of painkillers that had no effect. Some days were better than others, and I could go to work like usual. One such day, the migraine hit with a vengeance late in the afternoon. And when Fitz was helping me home that evening, staggering through thankfully deserted streets, I opened my eyes, and obliterated a chunk of sidewalk.
That was it. It was quickly established that it was no longer safe for me to open my eyes. At all. So I kept them closed. I stayed in our room, with a blindfold wrapped around my head to remind me. It was hard. So hard to keep them closed all the time, even when I heard noises, even when I woke in the middle of the night to a gunshot somewhere out in the city, or when I stubbed my toe, which happened a lot. So hard, but I did it. And Fitz would tell me how great it was that I managed it. I clung to his voice. It was all I had of him now.
"What's wrong with me?" I remember asking him.
"You're a mutant," he told me, and with none of the hatred I later came to associated with that phrase.
"Shouldn't I be able to control it?" No answer to that. "Fitz? What's wrong with me?"
A hand on my forehead, but I kept my eyes closed. "I'm going to find out, Scott. I promise you."
He tried. He really did. He was calling in all his favours, wringing all his contacts, spending a lot of his money and, I found out later, that of other people. And that's where it all came crashing down. Because Fitz could talk himself out of anything, but he couldn't talk himself out of twenty grand of debt to the guy they called Jack O'Diamonds.
Everyone knew Jack. He liked big deals, nice rackets, and causing pain to others. He didn't like people who owed him money. Street rumour made him big and bad as the damn devil.
I'm not so sure it's inaccurate.
Fitz came home early one day. Really early, even for him. He remembered to call out to me before opening the door, let me know it was him, but once he came in I could tell just by listening that he was agitated. Quick-time pacing across the floor, no rhythm.
"Everything all right, Fitz?"
"Yeah, Scott. It's good. It's all good." But too quick, too fast, the voice I'd heard him reassure customers with. The rasp of aluminium on glass - a bottle opening. No pouring, but a slosh. Swigging straight from the bottle.
"Are you sure?" I asked again.
"Course I'm fucking sure." Irritation and agitation and now I was getting nervous, sitting up a bit straight on the bed and wishing - over and over, like a mantra, like I always did - that I could look and see. Two steps, the click of a button, and the CD player started up. Quiet intro, building up. Stabbing Westwards; Darkest Days. One of his favourites. "Hah." A bark of a laugh. "How fucking appropriate."
"Shut up, Scott. I gotta think." I could hear the footsteps over the music, just barely, back and forth, out of the room, back in. Couldn't hear anything else, what his hands were doing. What he was doing. Didn't want to move, because when I moved I just fell over things and caused more trouble.
I was always causing trouble.
He stopped walking, sat down. On the mattress on the floor, I guesstimated. In the quiet between songs I heard the slosh of the bottle again, and something else, small noises, something I didn't recognise.
"It's not all good, is it?"
"No," he stated. A sharp intake of breath, and then: "No, Scott. I think I fucked up big time."
"But you can fix it, right?" Fitz could always fix it.
A faint laugh, and he sounded weird. Something was bubbling up in my throat. Panic or bile; they tasted the same. "I'm going to do my best. But I don't think it's good enough." My fingers were digging into the blanket, the thin mattress beneath, making holes, and music covered his silences, left me blinder than ever.
"I'm sorry, Scott. I'm sorry I couldn't help you."
The thunk of heavy glass hitting floor, and that was it. I crawled forward, too fast, found the edge of the bed by falling over it and hitting the floor hard, outstretched wrist jarring and I slumped in a heap, rolled over awkwardly. Disoriented; which way had he been? Flailing blindly, finally connect with a foot that wasn't mine. Almost leapt towards him, and there was liquid slick under my knees, but it was only alcohol, whiskey by smell. My hand found the bottle next, familiar triangle of Fitz's favourite Glenfiddich. I pushed it aside, reached for the hand that dropped the bottle.
Follow the hand up the arm. The needle was still in the fucking vein.
Rip it out, throw it away, screaming, wailing, incoherent and not even thinking as I gathered him up, pulled him to me, shoulders and body and arms without impetus and head lolling on neck.
I thought I heard him whisper again - "I'm sorry" - but it was hard to tell above the music and my sobs, tears making the blindfold stick to my face.
I held him, and cried, and eventually the CD finished, and my tears ran out, and then there was silence. Just a boy holding his friend, gripping him so tight that maybe he couldn't leave, death couldn't take him.
And that's how Jack found me, coming in later, whenever, who cared, with flunkies and the smell of cigars.
Jesus hell, I hate cigars.
Quiet steps on the floor, one, two. Not even a comment on what I held cradled against my chest, just: "So... this is the kid, eh? The one Fitz mentioned?"
"That's him, boss." One of the flunkies. "Saw 'im about before."
A creak of floorboards, faint crack of joints. Jack squatting before me, I could feel his breath on my face, smoke blown and making me cough weakly. "Interesting. Bring him with us."
But I think everyone would feel better if I didn't talk about Jack.
I open my eyes in the here and now like waking from the dead. The CD's long finished, silence lying heavy across the room like the late-afternoon sunlight filtering through the window. My cheeks are stiff with salt. My jaw aches. And my hands are clenched, white-knuckled, around the bottle of Glenfiddich. I prize them away, carefully set the bottle back on the bedside table. Take the CD out of the machine, put it back in its place. Head into the bathroom and wash my face.
It's all ritual. Right down to putting the cap back on the bottle, taking it back to its hiding place in the kitchen. Just in time, too. Jean sticks her head in as I'm straightening up, waving the phone and rattling off something about Chinese take-out for dinner.
"Fine." It's a huge effort to say it, to pull normalcy out while I'm still trying to put myself back together. She disappears again, and I sit down at the kitchen table, hold my head up with my hands.
Why do I do it? Sit down every year with a bottle of alcohol that I intend to drink and never do, and break myself. It's not pretty, and I hate it. But once a year, I do it.
That's another one of those questions that there aren't any easy answers to.
Here's another one: Why did Fitz do it? Did he think it might help? Was it an attempt to mollify Jack? Or was he just shit-scared? Trapped in a tiny box with no way out and the walls caving in.
I seem to recall being angry last year. But now I just feel drained. I'm not sure I can even remember why I do it. Not sure I can care about why he did it. Not sure I want answers. They're all easy, choose a solution and don't think about it any more.
Life isn't an equation. You can't solve it. You have to keep working, or you stop.
You choose the girl, and never face up to things.
You choose the needle, and end it all.
You choose to keep rehashing old events, old decisions, reopening old wounds, and never get on with your life.
It's all just giving up. The path of least resistance runs downwards, have you noticed that? It's the quickest route straight to the bottom.
The Professor and Jean come in with steaming take-out cartons, bustle around me getting things ready. Jean tosses me a pair of chopsticks, and I manage a smile for her. It's not as much of an effort as I thought it might be. We turn our attention to rice and soy sauce.
You know, as soon as I finish this meal, I'm going to go upstairs and listen to that CD again. Without the bottle, and without my eyes closed.
Then I think I'll break it.
Easy Answers by dee
All stories are works of fan-fiction by Dee. "Fan-fiction" means that she does not own any of the core creative concepts and characters, but she does heap adulation, appreciation and awe upon those people who do hold the intellectual property rights to those concepts and characters. Further, any instances of real people are fictional, and the author does not wish to suggest any truth should be attached to the actions, emotions and words attributed to them in these fictional stories.