Still, as he stood in that classroom waiting for the first block of students to come in, he couldn’t help but feel optimistic. Having met a few of his fellow staff members, he found himself liking far more people than he disliked, and though there was a standardized test to teach to, and not one that impressed him very much, he’d been allowed relative freedom in how he prepared his classes. Someone had even given him a free set of sharpies, even as they warned him that the ones in the classroom would inevitably be out of ink. There was a general feeling of trust within the faculty, and he knew enough to not take that for granted.
The first day of school apparently wasn’t too traumatizing for the students either. Not that they looked that excited either, as they filtered in, mostly in small groups, but that didn’t bother him too much. He recognized tale tell signs of a handful of them being mutants as well; one boy had ears just a little too big and tufts of hair in an atypical place below them, one girl had hair of too dazzling a blue for it to be because of hair dye, and one boy who looked like a usual human to the casual observer nonetheless moved a little more fast and sharp than was quite natural. There were probably too many kids for an ideal class, but he could deal with it.
What bothered him more were the looks of the last three students, the ones who came in just before the second bell rung, two boys and one girl. One of the boys was a weird shade of light purple, and the other was obviously a mutant too; his eyes were too big. The girl gave off no signals of being a mutant, but he wouldn’t have been surprised. And all three of them walked in alone, drawn into themselves, and wary, sure signs of having been bullied, and while no one outright went after any of them as they sat down, he saw the girl meet the eyes of the girl seated in the adjoining desk, and flinch away far too hard.
At the time same he noticed there was a murmur passing through the students on the other side of the classroom, and after the bell they quieted far too quickly. He already had a feeling on why that was; it was too much to hope for in a class as big as this that no one would recognize him.
Sure enough, he had barely officially introduced himself as Mr. Summers, when without even raising her hand first, a girl in the front row demanded, “As in Cyclops Scott Summers?”
“Yes,” he started, “but-”
He shouldn’t have even tried to go on; he was interrupted by no less than five people. Their words all drowned each other’s out, but then a sixth student, the one with the blue hair, spoke a moment or so later, “What in the world are you doing here in Elmhurst?!”
“I have retired from the X-Men,” he explained; he’d decided already that was how he’d put it. “I decided to take the Cure for personal reasons,” another thing he’d decided to say, to try to minimize any statement he was making by having normal eyes now, “so I am no longer a mutant, but I am still a teacher, and that is why I am here today.” A little too speechlike for this crowd, maybe; he saw a few eyerolls. The kids at Xavier’s had been different like that; they had looked to their teachers for inspiration and more than one kind of guidance. Many of the students here had no use for him at all.
“Why did you retire?” asked a dull-faced blonde boy. “You’re not that old.”
“That is my private business,” said Scott. “Nor am I here, by the way, to spend all my time talking about the X-Men when I am supposed to be teaching you Algebra. No more talk; we have cards to fill out as well.”
Most of the kids looked really disappointed, and a few continued to asked questions. Scott let his voice get sharper, and they did quiet surprisingly quickly. He worried it might be because they were afraid of him, of someone who had been a mighty X-Man, even if he no longer had his power.
By the time the cards were filled out and passed up, however, the class was starting to feel normal, and thankfully he always found Algebra II a little easier to teach than Algebra I. By the time the bell rung he was feeling good; of the forty-odd students he thought a good twenty of them were generally interested in the subject, and none of the others seemed inclined to be too disruptive, though his instincts were a little wary of the purple boy, whose name was Neal Marray. Not unlike the students at Xavier’s, really, plenty of whom weren’t too interested in Algebra either.
But then, as the rest of the class hurried out, given way too little time, really, to get from one classroom to another, the girl who had come in last, a certain Qiu Xi who went by the name Michelle, instead approached his desk. Always ready to help a student out who needed it, Scott sat down, though it made her tower over him; he hadn’t realized how tall she was.
“Mr. Summers,” she asked, “Excuse me, but I would just like to ask, what do you think of minors needing to get parental permission to take the Cure?”
Was she going to ask him to help get around her parents? He couldn’t do that, and he would have to tell her that, but doing so first thing sounded like a bad idea. “I think it’s generally a good idea,” he said. “Though I actually don’t know the details of the law.”
Her face darkened, then scrunched up as if she was trying to prevent something, then said, “You don’t think me an idiot, do you? You at Xavier’s are legal guardian to a lot of your students, right? There’s no way you don’t know all the ins and outs of the new law; New York’s law at the very least and probably all the other state’s laws too. You’ve probably consulted with lawyers over it, haven’t you?”
Ororo, Scott thought, probably did and had. But by the time lawmakers had gotten around to dealing with the issue, he’d already heard Jean and left. “I’m sure they’ve done that work at Xavier’s,” he tried to explain. “And if you want, I could even try to contact them. They should be willing to help you.” They would help, he thought. If a young mutant needed their help surely Ororo would never turn her back. They might help even more than he felt he ethically could, which gave him another kind of dilemma.
“LIAR!” she yelled, then hastily clamped her hands up over her ears, but even so, a puff of smoke escaped the right one. Almost automatically and without breaking her gaze at her she lunged to the side and grabbed the window. He moved to help her open it.
“I’m not lying,” he said to her. “I didn’t get a chance to deal with the law before I left.”
“But you expect me to just be a sucker and say ‘okay’ when you fob me off on them?” she insisted. “Have you read what your new principal has been saying to the media?”
Scott hadn’t been as much as she probably thought he had been, but he knew the gist of it. He supposed she had a point, but even so he protested, “Ms. Munroe will never deny help to a young mutant who really needs it.”
“She won’t think I will,” sighed Michelle. “Noone does. You don’t, do you?”
“I don’t know your situation well enough.”
“All right then,” she leaned in, and Scott fought the temptation to stand up; he was not there to intimidate her. Besides, he wasn’t completely sure she still wouldn’t be taller than him. “I’ll tell you about my situation. Every time I get upset I blow smoke out of my ears. Occasionally it sets off the fire alarm, and then often I get punished even though I can’t help it, and all the kids call me Fire Drill and harass me and try to provoke the smoke so they can get out of class. In middle school it was so big a problem I had to be the perfect student and never be caught so much as running in the halls, even when I had two classes in a row on opposite sides of the building and only four minutes to get between them, because the faculty were just looking for a chance to expel me, because they didn’t want to have to deal with my condition. My parents seem to think the only acceptable solution is to learn ‘emotional control’,” she raised her hands and made quotes gestures and said the phrase in a sarcastically high pitch, “with this psychologist who drives me crazy, and think I don’t need to do anything else because I do less of it now than I used to, but there’s still a lot of times it happens and I can’t stop it and everyone hates me because of it and still tries to use me to get out of class.” She had to stop to take a very deep breath; there was a small amount of smoke now leaking out of both her ears, though with the window open the chance of it setting the alarm off wasn’t too high.
Scott could understand why this teenager might think she was in Hell; arguably she even was. But at her age, there was much risk that taking the Cure simply would not be a rational decision for her; especially when it was a permanent solution to problems that probably wouldn’t last forever; he understood why her parents weren’t letting her. Then again, the way she was going, she probably wouldn’t feel differently at 18 anyway, when they couldn’t stop her anymore.
But until then, before she could start again, he interjected, “There are ways you can make things easier without resorting to the Cure. See if you can have your parents talk to the school about accommodations; they might find some way of reducing the fire alarms, like maybe having you always sit next to a window you can open if need be. In fact, I’ll insist you have a seat by one in my class, if you want.”
“We tried that in middle school.” She shook her head. “They weren’t willing to lift a finger to help me.”
“That doesn’t mean the people here wouldn’t be now,” Scott persisted. “Listen, the faculty here are good people. Even if the people who ran your middle school didn’t want to help you, they will. And if your psychologist is actually worsening the problem, for god’s sake, find another.” He understood the frustrations of that, though; they’d never been able to keep a good psychologist at Xavier’s, though they’d tried more than once.
“You really think so?” she asked it as if she wanted to believe it.
“At least give it a try,” he said. “And choose a window and I’ll insist everyone let you have the desk next to it.”
“I’ll still stand out,” she sighed, almost to herself. “But then again, I do anyway...” Another pause, and she said, “Thanks. I gotta run.”
Having the second period off before his third period class gave Scott a chance to further think on the matter. How many of his mutant students wanted to take the Cure, but their parents wouldn’t allow it? He supposed he ought to have an opinion on it, especially because he doubted Michelle Xi would be the last student to ask him about it or even come to him for help. It was an issue where he could see both sides of it, especially since there were probably parents who forbade it for the wrong reasons, and even more might instead force their children to take the Cure, and how that could entirely be eradicated he had no idea.
He looked over the locater cards, and as he did, he found himself making a mark on the cards for the mutant students; if they were more likely than their peers to need advice or help from him, it would be a good idea to keep careful track of who they were. He would make duplicates, he decided, and keep a separate file. Quietly; certainly the last thing they needed was to be singled out anywhere other than in his head.
Still, he decided, it was his first day. Surely it was fine if he took a nap first. He lay down on the weird purple couch he’d gotten at a furniture sale-he’d tried to buy everything as cheaply as possible, since he hadn’t known how long he’d need to make Ororo’s money last-and closed his eyes.
He was so ready to dream of Jean still he thought he almost felt her with him before he was completely asleep. Certainly she was there as soon as he was, as she had been most nights since he’s originally thought he’d lost her.
In fact, when he’d thought about it while awake, Scott had started to think there was something off about the dream Jean who not only was almost there almost the instant the dream started, but stayed the entire time, and never vanished, or turned into someone else, or anything else people in dreams tended to do. She was an extremely concrete and vivid presence too; he never failed to feel skin or cloth when he touched her(none of the dreams had been sexual yet, so he didn’t know how that would go). But most of the time he didn’t care about that any more than if he cared about whether this was healthy. He’d rather have a dream Jean at night than any other woman in real life, and that was all there was to that.
That night there were on the motorbike, and he was aware it was a dream, even though he could feel the heat and weight of her body against his back. He didn’t recognize the terrain they were driving through, though it looked like it could be any part of upstate New York in the autumn. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “We’re not going to Alkali Lake.”
“Good,” said Scott. He’d gone there way too much in the dreams he’d had before she’d come back mad and called him back there. “But then where are we going?”
“We won’t get there tonight,” she replied. “But you’re in no hurry to get there anyway, though you’ll have to eventually, of course.” That seemed like a good enough answer, to know they were just gliding along the road, which he didn’t think would have any confusing forks or turns anyway, and have Jean warm and loving against his back.
Nor did they have any trouble hearing each other over the motorcycle’s roar, as they talked about his day, about Michelle Xi and the other mutant students. She seemed to already know the basics but not the details, but it was a dream; there probably wasn’t a rational explanation for that. Jean asked him if the girl reminded him of Rogue, and with a little bit of shock Scott realized she did; their powers weren’t really comparable, and they didn’t really look or sound that alike. “There’s something in their demeanor that’s similar,” he said. “This anger mixed with this resignation at the world.”
“Well Rogue doesn’t have it anymore,” noted Jean, “since she took the Cure, but that was after you left.” She did that sometimes, gave him updates on the X-Men. So far nothing he could’ve verified in the news, so he had no idea how accurate they were. Though he supposed Rogue taking the Cure, at least, made sense; he knew how much she’d not wanted her mutation.
It was a little weirder, he admitted, when she added, “Erik is in New York too, now. He finally got tired of staying in Chicago. He hasn’t found a job yet, though. When he has the money he might become your neighbor, though the Jews around here can be a little orthodox for him.”
“I have nothing to say to him,” said Scott coldly. He supposed it was easier for him to say that than it would’ve been for the other oldest X-Men; he had only been taken in by the Professor after his longtime partner had left. But he didn’t think he would’ve felt differently about if he’d had any attachment to him first, only more betrayed, probably.
“You think of things in straight lines,” sighed Jean, but she snuggled closer and didn’t really sound like she was that interested in arguing the point.
They came to a large pond, not like Alkali Lake, one broad and still and peaceful, surrounded by trees bearing deep and subtle autumn hues, while the setting sun reflected across the water. Scott stopped just to let the subtle colors wash through him, the kind that would’ve blurred together into brown before.
“You should take a weekend out and go to Bear Mountain next month, when the leaves will be at their best,” said Jean. “Remember how Ororo always went there on the 20th or so and took any students who were interesting in going with her? Go to the top of one the mountains there, and then you’ll see the colors of autumn.”
Scott remembered then Ororo had done that annual trip, and very often the younger students had shown interest in going with her, though she complained that on the day they often bailed out. “Thanks,” he said. “I think I will.”
They sat by the lake for the rest of the dream, in each other’s arms, not even doing anything else, just being there with each other. Scott woke up with a smile on his face, but a feeling of deep loneliness welling within him, and an uneasy feeling that even leaving his previous life behind completely wouldn't save him from drowning in his grief, because he could never leave Jean behind, no matter what he did.
He kept himself busy the rest of the evening. He cooked, he cleaned, he read some news websites-there was nothing in their headlines besides ordinary headlines of the world struggling and people killing each other in countries not as fortunate at the one he lived in, nothing about mutants or ex-mutants. He reviewed his planned upcoming lessons. He read about Ancient Greece. It kept him calm, if it didn’t actually make him feel better.
He didn’t dream of Jean again when he properly went to bed, which left him disappointed when he woke the next morning.
Then one morning he walked in to find half the class, including all the mutant students except Michelle, who was sitting by her open window, leaning over the desk of Tom Wu. Looking up as they came in, one of them asked, “Mr. Summers, is it true you met The Incredible Nightcrawler?”
“It is,” said Scott, “but I don’t know if the two of us really spoke to each other much.” His most vivid memory of Kurt Wagner was in fact of him praying at what they had thought had been Jean’s death, which meant he still could not be thought of without pain almost too extreme to bear. “He was only with us for a few days.” He also vaguely remembered how surprised everyone had been when he hadn’t chosen to stay after Jean’s funeral. Ororo had seemed especially sad.
“Well, he’s coming to town with the Ringling Brothers,” said Tom. “They’ll be in New York next month, starting on the 15th. I’ve got the list of performers.”
“Just another reason to boycott them,” said a disgusted Valerie Penderson from where she was sitting and looking disdainfully at the group. “It seems they think more of a man who tried to kill the President and probably sent mutant rights back a decade than they think of the animals they abuse.”
“Wasn’t he under mental control?” pointed out Neal Marray.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” scoffed Valerie.
“I know for a fact it is true,” Scott said, more harshly than he meant to. But how could he bring himself to explain to these kids that he knew just what had happened with Kurt Wagner, because he himself had experienced the same thing? The questions would be insistent and impossible to escape. He’d end up having to talk about it the entire class period, probably including how they’d escaped from Styker’s base, and there was no way he was ever going to be able to keep his composure, the way a good teacher always needed to, while talking about that.
Though while he felt a little guilt for making Valerie quail, she did at least seemed to believe him, because she said, “Well, you still should boycott them anyway, Nightcrawler or no Nightcrawler.”
Scott was sympathetic to her point of view on this, but as the students went back to their desks and he went to his to begin class, he found himself thinking he might go. Maybe not, if he wasn’t up to see a man so strongly associated with the loss of Jean, but he thought by the time the circus came in he might be. Maybe just get a chance to meet with the guy and see how he was doing; despite the associations, he was still a little curious about that.
He put it out of his mind then, going to the welcome straightforwardness of algebra equations, where the variable never meant more than just another number and there was no debate, ultimately, as to what it stood for. The class seemed to be making normal progress and thankfully most of the students had done their homework this time, and when he called on students to do in class equations only one of them in back struggled with it, and even he figured out the answer when guided.
When the class filed out, however, Scott took his new laptop, a recent purchase he’d made to reward himself for success at his new job, and opened up the Ringling Brothers website. It didn’t really tell him much about The Incredible Nightcrawler he found that interesting; they didn’t even mention his real name. Next he googled the teleporter himself and learned he’d signed with the Ringling Brothers a couple of months after parting ways with the X-Men, that he had never even been arrested was a cause of anger on many right-wing websites with some even attempting to ally themselves with normal boycotters of the circus(those did not really make for comfortable bedfellows), and he had been asked for an interview by every news outlet in existence and turned them all down, releasing only a single public statement explaining he’d been mind-controlled and now wanted to get on with his life. It raised the question in Scott’s head of whether Kurt would even want to see him, if he really was trying to forget what had happened; that would be very understandable.
He didn’t think about it again that much until the evening, when he couldn’t nap anymore because he had too much homework to grade. Now he often turned on the news when cooking, since it was an efficient way to hear the main headlines, and at some point he had stopped wanting to know about every last thing that happened in the world, because it wasn’t healthy any more to dwell on the world’s the way he once had, back when he had regularly been going out to do something about them. He was watching the local show, and towards the end of the program they did a piece on the circus and its detractors. He watched, listening through all the points about animal abuse he really did think were good points but had heard before, waiting to see if any of the concerned citizens they interviewed objected to their hiring an officially unwilling White House invader.
If they did, none of them brought it up. He was just debating whether to feel relieved or disappointed when they cut back to the news anchor, who said, “Also featured in the Ringling Brothers show is Kurt Wagner, going by the stage name of The Incredible Nightcrawler, but now more commonly known as the mutant that infiltrated the White House and scared the living daylights out of the president just before the Stryker Incident.” At least the commonly used name for those events appointed blame to the proper person, even if her next words were, “An ambiguous figure, who claims Stryker mind-controlled him and sent him to the White House to obtain presidential authorization for his activities, but the question remains how many people really believe that.”
Then she went onto the weather, which Scott supposed he should pay attention to because it could be important, but he didn’t really. With the news over he turned the TV off, pressing the buttons of the remote much harder than necessary.
It was still hard when he ran into this, this everyday automatic suspicion of mutants, often for less reason than this, just out of an assumption that something in their DNA that made them so powerful also made them untrustworthy. He’d had it directed towards him too, even as an ex-mutant. It was enough to make him want to buy the circus tickets just as a general statement of support towards an unfairly maligned person, as well as a fellow victim of Stryker’s mental abuse.
He ended up stewing about it all through dinner before throwing himself into his work, which so far had worked pretty well for him as a distraction at home when he needed it. Although he tried not to favor any of his students too much over the others, even in his thoughts, he allowed himself a bit of pleasure when he saw how much Michelle Anderson’s work had improved. And thankfully everybody had actually done all the equations this time; earlier that week four students had all skipped the last five. He wasn’t sure if there’d been a misunderstanding or if they’d all gotten together to play with his mind. Which of course they might have done because of who he was, though it also might have just been them being mischievous kids and had nothing to do with him in particular.
Still Kurt and the circus lingered at the back of his head, and when he went to sleep, he fully expected to spend his dreams discussing the matter with Jean, the way they’d sometimes talked over his classes already. But she did not appear in his dream at all that night.
Instead he dreamed he was at the circus, in the front row, watching Kurt perform, using his teleporting ability to perform cheap gags like tossing a hoop across the big top, then moving to the other side to catch it. At first with each trick the crowd was an incomprehensible mass of being this side of too loud, giving Scott the urge to rub his ears. But slowly he became aware that while the general sound was of cheering, he could hear the words mutie and bluehead coming from more than one mouth, though they were yelling things like Way to go, mutie! which somehow made their use of the word feel worse.
Then suddenly the man next to him, who was much bigger and stronger than Scott had noticed at the beginning of the dream, grabbed him by the shoulders, moved to push him forward, and said, “You want to join him, mutie? Go perform tricks for us? Juggle balls and blast them with your eyes?” And as he spoke, Scott felt the heat swell behind his eyes, and realized he needed to put on glasses, but he knew he’d left them at home. He turned his head to face the man, to tell him he needed to stop or he’d blow the whole tent up, but the man started laughing and yelling “Do it, do it!” He woke up yelling “Stop! Stop!”
He looked at the alarm clock; it was close to six, too early to get up and too late to get back to sleep. He closed his eyes and tried not to think, but that was of no use. He thought further about Kurt, wondering if he was fitting in at his new circus, if they were kind to him there, if any of the people he saw every day refused to believe he’d been under mind control. How much the audience yelled slurs at him, because he was pretty sure it had to happen sometimes. If he ever thought about the X-Men and regretted saying no, especially when he’d really seemed to be building something with Ororo, or at least it had seemed that way to Scott from some of the remarks he’d heard from the others after he’d left.
In the adjoining apartment someone started to yell. With pauses, so probably over the phone. Scott couldn’t make out all her words, but it sounded generally like she was having an argument over her child, presumably with his father. Still he couldn’t quite make out the reason for it, until her tone abruptly turned very anxious as he heard, way too clear, “A mutant? What signs has he shown of it?”
Suddenly really not wanting to hear the rest of it, Scott leapt out of bed and fled for the shower. Then he lingered there, still able to hear her voice but thankfully faint and wordless, until it stopped and he felt safe to turn off the water, which by then had run cold.
He continued to think about it as he made himself breakfast, but by the time he sat down and had the first bite, he had decided animal abuse or no animal abuse, he was going to the circus.