To pass the time, he scanned the other seats for anyone he knew. There still weren’t that many people he’d met during his time in Elmhurst, but he spotted some of his students, and also Mr. Connors, his wife, and what looked like their kids on the far side of the tent. He tried to wave, but they didn’t seem to notice; he supposed the tent was too big.
Then, five minutes before the show was supposed to start, he saw another familiar face enter the tent. In came the blonde woman in white he had spotted from the bus on the day of his interview, whom he hadn’t seen since, though sometimes he’d tried to surreptitiously scan who was coming and going from the adjoining building; he didn’t even know why he was convinced she was associated with the Hellfire Club, he just was.
She was dressed all in white again, this time with a fashionable jacket and scarf and the same big pearls. There were two men with her, one a hard-faced man in a striking black suit that Scott was fairly certain he’d seen a photo of somewhere before, maybe in the X-Men’s databanks of people to be concerned about, and a larger man also dressed in black, with longish golden hair and a bushy golden beard. He watched as the three of them sat down together, one man on each side of the woman, and chatted amongst themselves. At one point something the blond man said made the woman throw back her head and laugh, and Scott found himself having trouble looking away. Maybe it was just how the lighting in the tent caught her eyes, but they were very bright, and there was something about her broad smile that drew him, even as it bothered him how hard a smile it was.
She was still smiling as she moved her face out of his view, and he wasn’t able to see it again before the lights went down. Still, it took him a long moment to put her out of his mind and focus on the show to come.
It was a good show. He was especially impressed with some of the acrobats, one of whom managed to do things with a pair of trapezes that he wouldn’t thought impossible for someone who didn’t have some sort of flying ability, which he supposed she might have had, except then she’d probably be doing even more incredible things. Kurt Wagner wasn’t the only obvious mutant in the show; there was a purple woman introduced as Violetta West who rode in on horseback sideways, and proceeded to juggle balls with her very long and flexible toes, showing a concentration that made clear her tricks required work as well as ability to be able to do. Though was it just his imagination, or was she getting less applause than all the other acts had so far?
Kurt finally appeared in the second half of the show. The applause for him was definitely very muted. But his act was something to see. He started with trapezes, doing difficult somersaults and teleporting from one trapeze to another right in the middle of them. Then he went on to teleporting himself from thin perch to thin perch, often standing on one foot the entire time. He also did the sillier tricks from Scott’s dream where he tossed things to catch them, but he made it more difficult by throwing them up to the top of the tent and catching them with his feet or upside down when they were halfway down. For the second half of his act, he teleported to the very top of the tent, and crawled and swung around on what looked like carefully placed hooks. This did get more than a few murmurs of admiration, and the applause when at last he finished and took his bows was a little bit louder.
Scott didn’t think Kurt had spotted him; he had clearly had to concentrate on what he was doing. But then when it came time for the finale, everyone in the circus came out for a final bow. Kurt came out with the others, and with some others in the audience already standing, Scott stood up as well, and then he saw the teleporter’s eyes fly wide while meeting his.
After the show he went to the back of the tent, where the first person he ran into was the purple woman. She immediately said to him, “Scott Summers? Kurt thought you might come looking to see him. Wait here.”
She came back about twenty minutes or so later with Kurt, now changed out of his costume into jeans and a white t-shirt that looked surprisingly loud on his blue body. He looked nervous as he said to Scott, “Hi. Would you like to take a walk with me around the field?”
They exchanged pleasantries as they walked, and Scott told Kurt about teaching in Elmhurst, though he carefully avoided talking about why he had taken the Cure and left the X-Men, and Kurt didn’t press him about it. Kurt talked about the return to circus life, and said “This is where I belong,” twice. It was actually in such a way that Scott thought there might be something he wasn’t telling him, but while in the past he would have pressed Kurt about it, now he almost felt like he didn’t have the right to, the same way he felt he felt he ought to limit how much he did about the Hellfire Club, because he wasn’t Cyclops anymore. So he let him ramble, and laughed at his stories about the prankster they’d been dealing with on the road.
They walked slowly around the tents and trucks and other structures, and even stopped to watch as the elephants were fed and watered-Scott didn’t know about abuse, but they certainly were being fed a lot, at least-but when they circled back around to the spot they’d started from it was clear their meeting was over. Kurt turned nervous again too, guilty, perhaps? Scott tried to be steady and kind as he said, “So, if we happen to run into each other again?”
“If you’re still here when next the circus comes to town, of course,” said Kurt, and he managed a bit of the too-wide show grin he’d had on during his act as he added, “for you must always come and see The Incredible Nightcrawler!”
“I look forward to it,” said Scott, and he genuinely did; Kurt was worth watching.
He did feel a little unsatisfied as he went away, gazing back at the circus tents and trucks through the bus window until they were blocked from his sight. But he wasn’t sure what he could’ve done differently.
That wasn’t to say he heard no opinions. When he walked in before the bell on Monday, for one thing, it was to hear Valerie rant about how too many people went and they ought to be ashamed of themselves for supporting animal abuse, which maybe should’ve made him feel guiltier for going than he did. She emphasized how crowded the transit had gotten around the location in a clear attempt to encourage others to complain about that, at least, and one other girl who lived near the area did take the bait; from the way her mother had apparently gone through hell trying to buy groceries, she’d had good reason to anyway.
That was all of substance he heard from his students. In the staffroom there was a bit more talk. Plenty of the teachers disapproved of the use of the elephants as well, of course, though there weren’t as comfortable scolding their colleagues for going. Most of those who had gone said they’d been more impressed by Violetta West than The Incredible Nightcrawler, though Scott was sure some of them were lying through their teeth about that. Thankfully only one person asked him for his opinion about the latter, and he managed to ward him off with a noncommittal response.
He ended up staying late Friday evening, looking for some student assignments he’d managed to misplace. He still thought this school used far more paper than they needed to(and they didn’t recycle it half as much as they ought to), and it was days like this he was only all too aware how little he was used to that. He had managed to find half of them and put them away in his briefcase when there was a knock on his classroom door. “Mr. Summers,” he recognized the voice of one of his fellow teachers. “There’s a woman here named Emma Frost who wants to see you.”
The name rung a vague bell; had she also been in the X-Men’s database, the same way the Hellfire Club was? Scott thought it might have been. But he didn’t have long to wonder who she was, since when he opened the door it was to the same cold-faced blonde woman he’d seen on the street and at the circus. She was once again all in white, now wearing a business suit with her pearl earrings.
“Hello, Mr. Summers,” she said to him, and her voice was like the rest of her, cold and hard, but there was something about it that made him think...he didn’t know. Anyway, it didn’t make him think it enough that he wasn’t on his guard. “I would like if you would be so kind, when you’re done here, to come meet with me in my office in the building next to this one.”
Scott wasn’t so foolish to not assume that didn’t mean big trouble. Once upon a time he might have agreed to it anyway in the hopes of learning more about a threat, but those days were over for him. “I’m sorry,” he replied. “But I can’t. I have a lot of work to do tonight, and that’s if finding the rest of my student’s papers doesn’t take me another hour.”
“Mr. Summers, I am not making a request,” she told him, her voice turning still harder. “You should be aware that I have the ability to control minds and I can make you accompany me without difficulty. It might not be a very pleasant experience for you. I really would much rather you came with me willingly so that we could avoid all that fuss.”
Vague thoughts passed through Scott’s head about threatening to go to the police, but he had the feeling that might not end well for him. At the very least, he ought not to try it until he knew just what she could do. Perhaps he could contact Ororo about this; the X-Men might be interested in the information.
“I could stop you from telling them, you know,” she cut in; it seemed she was definitely telepathic. “I could even wipe your memory of our meeting, though honestly, I don’t think I will. Now are you coming with me or not?”
“Seems I don’t have a choice in the matter,” was all he could say. “Could you please not make it too long, though? I do have work to do.”
“I don’t think we’ll need you for long,” she shrugged. “We just want to ask a few questions, that’s all.”
Scott didn’t entirely believe that would be all, especially not with the way she hustled him out of the school and across the street. The man in the lobby didn’t say anything; apparently tenants of the building were not required to sign guests in. He was surprised when she pressed the button for the fourth floor instead of the fifth. Which she probably registered telepathically, because she then said, “You’re not getting back into our actual offices; there’s no need for that.” Her voice was now very harsh and hostile, a dropping of pretenses.
“Back?” Scott demanded as his first response. “For your information, I was never in them in the first place!”
He almost felt her slice through his mind, all ready to call him a liar. But instead she had to cry out in shock, “You’re telling the truth, aren’t you?”
The elevator doors slid open on the fourth floor as she pushed him out and recovered herself, asking, “Okay, then. Who did the breaking in for you?”
“Look, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, and whatever it is, I had nothing to do with it. I’m more or less out of the business anyway.”
“Then what were you doing with Kurt Wagner at the circus?” she demanded. “We know he didn’t really leave the X-Men when he claimed to go back to the circus life, and we also know he was present when two episodes happened that I won’t get into, though one of them happened while you were still with the X-Men, and after the second one he was spotted on the streets even when the circus had left town the previous day!”
This was all news to Scott, but forced himself not to feel any emotional reaction as he responded, “Can I not want to see an old acquaintance again, especially when I’ve spent the past weeks enduring my students accusing him of being the criminal I know very well he’s not? That’s honestly all that was.”
He must not have suppressed his surprise entirely, though, because he felt a little bit of pressure still on his mind. He was half-expecting her to just wipe his memory at this point, whatever she’d said earlier; since she clearly had to just be realizing he wasn’t involved, and it made sense for her to want to keep it that way. But she didn’t; instead she backed off, both physically and mentally, and sighed, “I’m going to keep an eye on you, Mr. Summers. Remember we’re right next door.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, and pressed the button to summon the down elevator. Much to his relief, it came immediately, and she made no attempt to follow him as he hurried in. Still he practically held his breath until he had crossed through the lobby without being stopped, and even then he didn’t really relax fully until he was on his normal bus home.
The minute he was in his apartment, which intellectually he suspected was not any safer a place than the bus was but it still made him feel safer, he sat down and started the email to Ororo. He supposed the Hellfire Club would probably find out about his contacting her sooner or later, and he wasn’t sure what they’d do to him in response, but he had never been a man to shy away from fighting the good fight on those kinds of grounds and he never would be, even if he wasn’t involved in the good fight anymore for other reasons.
Until then, he told himself not to think about it. It wasn’t much use, though. He felt a little twitchy the entire night, the way he had once felt when he had watched the news in the mansion and afterwards been able to smell the next mission coming. For the first time, he even seriously considered his decision to walk away, on the grounds that he might not be happy not being an X-Man anymore. It didn’t help matters when the local news talked about a shoot-out that had happened in the northern part of the state(nothing to do with any mutants, though), and talked in general about how the crime rate had really grown over the summer and seemed to have remained high since.
He half-expected to have another bad dream. But instead he dreamed of Jean again. The two of them were continuing a long trek through New York State, which he thought might be getting larger than it was in real life, and the leaves were starting to go from red and gold to brown, a chill creep into the air, though then again, that might have been because they were more or less going north as well. He was starting to hope the dreams would just make New York State grow bigger and bigger, and keep them from ever coming anywhere near Alkali Lake.
It almost made him refuse when she asked if they could stop and go tree climbing; he was afraid of the view they might end up with. But when she started wheedling him he knew better than to bother with a battle he was going to lose anyway.
He’d never know Jean to go climbing trees. Sure, X-Man training included some climbing lessons, so they both knew how to do it no problem, but it wasn’t something they’d ever had interest in outside of that. But now, as he parked the bike next to a promising-looking old tree with knots and contours on its trunk and thick low branches, Jean was already scrambling upward, fast enough he had to hasten himself just to get on the tree before she went out of sight. Still he didn’t have to worry about keeping track of her, since she helpfully kept calling down to him.
More than one memory came back to him as he climbed, of not only their training and the climbing wall, but also from his childhood, when he and Alex had spent autumn afternoons often sitting or playing under the pair of trees in their family’s yard that had been just of this type; he wondered if that type was common in actual upstate New York. It made him feel sad again, as thinking about the years before he’d literally blown the roof off the senior prom always had; not having his mutation anymore was never going to change that either. Nor even was abdicating his responsibilities and burdens as an X-Man, which he sometimes felt was what had made him even more different from that light-hearted boy under those trees.
“Here’s the top! Come on, you’re almost there.” Jean’s voice broke through his thoughts, and he looked up to see the sky easily visible and his hands almost at her feet; he watched them shift around as she tried to get the best perch. He resumed climbing, and ten seconds later his head broke the treetops, the top of them bobbed above a sea of red and brown, leaves glinting in the light breeze and low-lying sun.
After a moment’s pause he forced himself to look around. Thankfully Alkali Lake was not visible, nor was anything he would even associate with that part of North America. Instead the tree carpet led into the Catskills, which he thought might be the destination his dreams took them to first, though they seemed taller and a bit barer than he knew them to be in real life. But more striking was actually the view behind. The landscape that way stretched off an unnatural distance, until not only could he see New York City, even when it was so clearly very far away, but he almost seemed able to distinguish Westchester apart from its surroundings.
And then came Jean’s voice behind him, soft and low, “I couldn’t stop thinking of home, at least when I was still completely in my own head. I thought of you there. Teaching the children, flying the plane, spending your free time out on your motorcycle. You should’ve used it more.”
“I know,” he said, and he did know, somehow. Maybe deep down he’d known even then, when he’d instead been wallowing in his grief. He wished he could do that time over now. Maybe he even would’ve still taken the Cure and gone into his current retirement from the X-Men, if he’d still been convinced he couldn’t handle returning to the mansion after going to meet with Jean at Alkali Lake, but he could’ve handled the time before that better.
He was still looking back, towards Westchester and trying to discern the school, when Jean reached out, turned him by the shoulders, and gently kissed him. It was the first time she’d done so in his dreams, but that she was kissing him now, in that moment, didn’t seem that remarkable to him. Just perfect, and he tried to get close enough to really embrace her. But it proved impossible up in the branches, when the wind seemed to be getting steadily stronger too, until it felt like it was moving them both around with big invisible hands, coming between them and not wanting them to get too close. He was really struggling against it when he woke up.
It took him a moment longer than usual to comprehend he was back in his new apartment, that Jean was gone in a way that there in the darkness made him still want to cry, even with how long it had been. Maybe even more now, when with each month he’d felt the truth settle in more, solid and unavoidable. He wanted to both tell her he was sorry for behaving how he had immediately after losing her, and ask her if it was ever going to at least hurt less than it still did. But that was all ridiculous, because the Jean he saw still might very well come from nowhere but his own mind. The truth was she was dead, undisputedly, and it was no use crying over what he couldn’t change.
Even if he still did so while showering that morning.
The moment he stepped out of his apartment building, however, he immediately felt eyes on him. When he looked around there was nobody there, and he wasn’t sure he wasn’t imagining it, but it didn’t feel right. Uneasily he wondered if Emma Frost had invisibility as a second mutation, or if she had a friend with that power. He wondered if it might be worth it to try to lose any unseen observers by getting on the subway, maybe to Central Park.
“I can’t live like this,” he muttered to himself. “And how much can I really run away? I’ve done enough of that for one lifetime recently.”
Still, the idea of Central Park appealed to him, if only because all the trees gathered together and shedding their leaves would now make him think of Jean, and at the moment he was in the mood to. Not that it was necessarily a good idea, he knew, but all the same, when he started walking, without his head quite giving the conscious command for it his feet went in the direction of the station. When he found himself there he gave in, and boarded the train for Manhattan. As he’d hoped, in the crowded car, the feeling of being watched dissipated.
Central Park was exactly as he’d hoped. He let his feet move on their own again once in, though he had a vague idea of maybe going to the fountain. But then he found himself standing at the entrance to the Ramble. He recalled a story Professor Xavier had told him, Jean, and Ororo once, when they’d still been fairly young, about how he and Erik had once met with another man they’d believed to be a mutant, and he had always refused to meet with them anywhere but in the Ramble. It was one of those stories where they’d only started to fully understand it much later in life.
Of course the place wasn’t like it was that afternoon. If the secret homosexual assignations that had once run rampant in the place ever still happened, Scott doubted it would be during the day, and secret meetings between superheroes, supervillains, or superanyones seemed highly unlikely as well. Still, he turned in, and began his trek amid the wild growth, taking his time to examine all the diverse kinds of the plant life cultivated for the pleasure of the more innocent parkgoers.
When he first heard the voices, about half an hour in, he didn’t think anything of it. But they seemed vaguely familiar, and as they grew louder, he suddenly realized with a shock that one of them was Emma Frost’s. He froze in place when he recognized it, his mind racing. Had she been controlling his mind the entire time, guiding him here? Was she really that powerful? She would’ve had to have been as powerful as the Professor had been for that.
In any case he was going to listen in on this conversation, and he was going to report it back to Ororo if he got back to his apartment with his memory of it intact. Unless this was all a big coincidence and they weren’t talking about anything important.
It wasn’t. When he got close enough to discern their words if he strained but not close enough to make it obvious he could hear them, he heard her companion, the golden-maned man she’d attended the circus with, finish, “…and talk with Lehnsherr again.”
“We don’t need him,” was her reply. “We don’t need any of this. I still don’t see how it’s even our problem.”
“You talk as if a problem is all it could be,” he laughed. “That’s not like you, Emma.”
“You think so, Harry? Unlike some of you, I have basic sense.”
“Don’t let Mr. Shaw hear you say that,” he said. The name Shaw was vaguely familiar to Scott; he thought it might have been connected to the photo he’d seen; Shaw might have been the other man with them at the circus.
But meanwhile she was continuing to speak, too loudly, obviously making sure he could hear her, “He thinks we can become the ones who can control them, I know that. If they weren’t the Sentinels, I might even think it a risk worth taking. Or if we really thought they were still going to kill all mutants; then we might even have to join the X-Men and play the public heroes out of self-preservation. But the government will never go that far, not anymore, especially not now when it’s only a matter of weeks now before the first recipients of the Cure feel it start to wear off. But as it is, the Sentinels are too dangerous and too well controlled for anyone but a fool to try to wrest control away from their handlers. I was hoping you’d have the sense to see that.”
Had she really, Scott, thought, or had he just been the one she could lure here to stage this conversation with? That was obviously what she was doing here. Also, why was she going to this elaborate a setup, when she could’ve just visited him at the school and mind-whammied anyone who saw her or could have otherwise complicated whatever her plan was?
Also, the Cure was only temporary?
Scott couldn’t let himself think about that last part yet; he wouldn’t hear another word of this conversation if he did. Fortunately in his moment of distraction he hadn’t missed much; Harry had spent some time laughing. “This really isn’t like you, Emma! Look, I came out here with you because I thought you were going to agree we shouldn’t trust Lehnsherr; they may say he’s not as idealist as he once was but I still don’t think he’d approve of our goals, and sooner or later he’d probably find them out, and once he tracked down that helmet of his you couldn’t do anything about it either.”
“Well I do agree with you about that,” she shrugged. “And if you want me to help you try to keep him from getting too involved, I’m all for that, if only because there seems to be nothing else we can do. Unless you think maybe Shaw doesn’t have his mind set on this?”
“Hey,” he said, “you’re the physic one. You should have a better idea on that than me.”
“He does, from what I can tell. Come on, we’ve probably stood here a little too long; we should keep walking.”
Walk they did, and Scott tried to follow them, but suddenly it became hard. He started feeling dizzy and distracted, and even found himself walking the other way without initially realizing he was doing so. Clearly she did not want him following.
He tried anyway for a few minutes, forcing himself to walk the right away, repeating it’s this way, it’s this way, it’s this way multiple times in his head whenever he started to feel the confusion set in. That he was able to think his own thoughts to the extent he did, he supposed, stood as proof positive Emma Frost was not as powerful as the Professor had been.
But she was powerful enough; it got harder to concentrate, and they were getting too far ahead, or he was convinced of that. Which was probably just her telling him that, but he wasn’t sure; when he forced himself to listen hard to his surroundings he still couldn’t hear a thing.
Finally he gave up. As far as he could tell she was not doing anything that would stop him from going home and emailing Ororo about this, so he might as well do that.
This trip home gave him time also to think about the fact that the Cure was apparently only temporary. She’d said the first recipients would feel it ware off within a few more weeks, and since she’d been talking about when the public found out, he assumed she meant the first people to receive the Cure in Alcatraz, rather than the first testings behind closed doors. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been injected after those people, but he didn’t think it had been a month. Soon it would wear off for him too.
Of course, he could just get himself injected again, he supposed. Unless for some reason that didn’t work; whether he could was something he supposed he would find out soon enough.
Except he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Things were different now, when he had a few months away from the world of mutants and X-Men and everything that had reminded him of Jean. Except he still hadn’t left her behind, given how much he was dreaming of her, but at least, somewhere in there, he’d nonetheless started to feel like he could dream about her at night but still live without her during the day, and not even be afraid that he was going to break at any moment. If he could hold her memory and still be able to function, he supposed his mutant power being around wouldn’t devastate him.
There was even the possibility, when it came to that, that he could go rejoin the X-Men. Though that he wasn’t sure he was ready to do. At the very least, he had his commitment to the school, and ought to teach the year out, for the sake of his students. He honestly had no idea how he’d feel the following summer anymore; perhaps he would take it into consideration then.
He half-expected to suddenly not be able to remember details when he sat down in front of his computer, but no, he remembered every word clearly, and wrote them all down without trouble. He then paused, knowing where her thoughts would go on hearing that the Cure was temporary, at least with regards to him.
After considering that, he wrote, I think if the Cure does indeed ware off I may not take it again, though I make no promises, and certainly I have no immediate plans to come back to you; I have new commitments I must honor. But if you need any help, and I’m the only one who can give it for any reason, you only have to contact me.