Scott Summers kept his eyes on the road. The music -- initially a country music station, now Tejano, selected for the pure novelty of it -- competed with the air conditioning, effectively drowning out any possibility of conversation. Which, Scott thought on reflection, might not be such a bad thing; he and Jean had run out of things to say somewhere in Oklahoma. She'd taken to staring out the window, leaning her head against the car door, while Scott drove, both hands on the steering wheel at the ten and two o'clock positions.
Now, Scott glanced at Jean Grey, who sat quietly in the passenger seat next to him. She was staring at a map of Texas, her index finger tracing Interstate 35 down from Dallas to Austin. Aware of Scott's attention, Jean raised her head to look at him, her lips turning up slightly shyly.
"How are you doing?" Scott asked.
"Fine. You? Want me to drive?"
"No, I'm fine."
She tipped her head to the side, looking at him pensively. "Only twenty miles to Waco. Less than two hours to Austin."
Jean folded up the map. "Aren't you hot? It's got to be at least 100 degrees out." She sighed. "It's like my face is getting seared off and the heat is pushing me down into the ground."
"It is August, Jean. Texas this time of the year is damn hot. You know that."
"Knowing and *experiencing* are two very different things." And from her response, he knew she was complaining just to do so, just for a chance at making some conversation. After three days cooped up in the U-Haul, they were both a little cranky; and soon, all too soon, Scott thought, they would be going their separate ways.
Jean leaned forward to fiddle with the radio. The U-Haul came equipped with a basic radio, no tape or CD player. Scott had pointed out at least the shocks, brakes and suspension systems were all in good working order. After all, it was a hell of a long drive from New York to Texas. And in today's current political climate, the last thing Scott wanted was to break down in some godforsaken back roads community.
"This is home for you now," Scott said. He didn't look at Jean. The road ahead of him shimmered. "Though why Texas, I still don't understand."
"I told you."
"Well, tell me again." He didn't mean to sound snappish, but lately, where Jean was concerned, that was how things came out. On edge, indecisive, irritable; Lee said it was understandable, but even so, it bothered him.
Jean crossed her arms against her chest. "I need to get away, Scott. You know that." She lowered her voice, gentling her tone. "It's something I had to do for myself. It has nothing to do with you or --"
He glanced at her now. "Or what?"
She bit her lip, lifted her chin and then said, "I know you don't believe me, but this move has nothing to do with you and Lee."
His grip on the steering wheel tightened. "I can't help but take it personally, Jean."
"I already explained to you I'm not running away."
"You could have found a medical practice in New York. Even New Jersey or Pennsylvania if it's physical distance you wanted." It was a tired argument, one they'd had in the last two months since he'd found out she'd accepted an internist position at a hospital in Austin.
"I want to learn to be me," she said softly, reaching out to rest her hand gently on his thigh. "Since I was a child, I've always had someone to tell me what to do, how to deal with my powers." She took a deep breath. "First the Professor, and then you."
"You can't learn to be you in New York?"
"No." Jean turned to look out the window again. The passing scenery was flat, brown, barren, dismal -- so radically different from the verdant surroundings of Westchester County. "I know you're upset with me, Scott."
"No, Jean." He reached over to turn the music off; after a while, the eternal peppiness of Tejano music grated on the nerves. "I'm not upset with you." He quirked a smile. "I suppose I'm luckier than most men. We got a second chance." He was stretching the truth here. Yes, Jean had been assumed dead at Alkali Lake, and he had spent an emotional year grieving for her. Never had he imagined he'd see her again.
"A *different* kind of second chance," Jean said softly. "Lee is good for you, Scott."
He didn't know how to respond to that comment. Jean leaned her head against the window again.
"Fifteen miles to Waco," she announced. She pointed to a ramshackle gas station with old fashioned gasoline pumps out front. A white freezer with ICE written in dark blue letters sat outside the wood-frame convenience store. Black bars covered not only the doors, but also the windows. A late-model red truck that had seen better days was parked up front. "Can we pull over there right now? I need a break."
Scott eyed the building with trepidation but nodded as he pulled off the Interstate and into the parking lot. The U-Haul crunched down on the gravel and he narrowly missed a giant pot hole. "I'll wait here in the truck," he said.
Jean looked at him curiously. "You haven't had a break since Dallas, Scott. You should get out, stretch a little or something." Her expression turned more plaintive. "Come inside with me, Scott. Please."
"Go on," he said firmly. "I'll be fine."
"I know. I'll keep the AC on."
Jean eyed him and then nodded. "Five minutes," she said, holding up a hand.
"Take your time." He pulled the U-Haul to the side of the gas station, making sure to stay out of sight. From a distance, his glasses looked like sunglasses; it was only on closer inspection one could note the ruby quartz. Outdoors, he felt safe enough, but indoors, he received more than his fair share of stares. And in the current political environment, at best he felt uneasy in strange places. Scott turned the radio back on, spinning the dial through an endless array of country and Tejano stations and the occasional Christian or rap station. Finally, he switched to the AM frequency and settled on a computer program on KLBJ talk radio.
"Water?" Jean got back into the truck and handed him a cold bottle. "I don't want you to get dehydrated."
"I got some snacks too." She held up a bag of Cheetos -- her weakness -- and Pringles -- his favorite. Another thing that hadn't changed between Alkali Lake and now -- Jean's penchant for junk food.
"Good idea." They had stopped for lunch a few hours previously in Plano, just outside of Dallas, but the heat had sapped most of Scott's hunger and he'd been unable to finish his sandwich. Jean, however, had had quite the appetite, and she'd helped herself to what was left of his ham and cheese sandwich. It had been a natural and intimate action, almost as if they were dating again, as if once again engaged to be married. Now, Scott shifted the truck into drive and headed slowly back on the access road towards I-35 South.
"I'm glad we did this," Jean said after a few minutes of silence. She wiped her orange-stained fingers on her jeans. "I mean, you, me, driving down here. Together."
"I mean it, Scott." She inhaled sharply. "I know you're not happy about this move, but it means a lot to me. It really does."
"I couldn't let you come down here alone."
"I know that." She smiled at him, that same smile that still had the ability to send his heart straight down to his knees. "A lot of things have changed since I've been --" she paused. It was difficult to describe exactly where Jean had been for the 14 months between the time she'd 'died' at Alkali Lake and when Magneto had discovered her -- still alive, but in coma -- just a few months previously. "Since I've been gone," Jean said finally, "it's different now and I know some of that is my fault." She bit her lip. "But you, you are, in so many ways, exactly the man whom I fell in love with."
Scott stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on the red Toyota Camry in front of him. An orange sticker with white lettering on the car's rear bumper read "My son and my money go to UT."
Jean ran a hand over her hair, smoothening the red strands down. Only a few weeks before Alkali Lake, she'd cut her hair and colored it a deeper, richer shade of red. Now, post-resurrection (Scott couldn't think of a better word to describe Jean's reappearance in his life), she'd let it grow out past her shoulders again, the hue darker and more inline with her natural hair color.
"What are you thinking?" Jean asked.
"You're quiet again. Is something the matter?"
"Sorry." He felt a gentle mental nudge and he was both thrilled by the familiarity and comfort of the sensation and a little off-kilter at the same time. The mental link he shared with Jean had been severed so cleanly when the waters of Alkali Lake had swallowed her up. During the days of rehabilitation -- after the X-Men had rescued her from Magneto -- Jean had somehow re-established the link. Scott had fallen to the ground the first time she'd tried to contact him through it; in her absence, Jean had grown profoundly powerful and she had no idea how to control her newly developed strength. For that reason alone, Scott had been stunned when the Professor had agreed with Jean that, just six short months after her rebirth, moving to Texas to join a medical practice in an Austin-based hospital was a good idea.
"You want to talk to me about it?" Jean asked. "Whatever's on your mind, that is?"
He shrugged. "The usual. No need to rehash."
"That's not very helpful, Scott. Are you trying to be difficult on purpose?"
"No. I just didn't see the point in repeating conversations we've had a million times already. There's a point when you reach an impasse and on certain subjects, I think we have." He reached over and turned off the radio. "But I am realizing just how grateful I am you can 'pass' so easily." He bit his lip. "Jean, I'm concerned about what happens if someone finds out about you."
"Finds out I'm a mutant?" she sounded amused.
"You're not a registered mutant."
"You don't agree with that Act any more than I do." Jean folded her hands primly on her lap.
"I never said I agreed with it. I registered because I had to, because of the school. We're lucky we're still able to keep the doors open, allow children to attend so we can *help* them. Not registering meant we'd lose our school and that was a chance Ororo, the Professor, Logan and I felt we couldn't afford risking."
"I understand all that." She was silent for a moment. "I need to do this without definition, Scott. If I register, then I'm automatically defining myself as a mutant and to be honest, being a telepath and telekinetic is only a part of who Jean Grey really is. I have to do this on my own as *me*. When I'm ready, I'll register."
"I really do want you to find whatever it is you're looking for," Scott said earnestly. He checked his rearview mirror and then moved into the left lane to overtake the red Toyota Camry. "I'm just concerned about the moment when you're found out and then what happens when they find out you're not a card-carrying mutant." His lips twitched involuntarily. "Especially when they find out you're a *death-defying* mutant."
Jean grinned, her lips parting to reveal teeth. "I can take care of myself. Isn't that the whole point of the exercise?"
Scott seriously didn't think 'exercise' was the right vocabulary word to use to describe a cross-continent move and a career change, but decided to let the semantic noodling go. At least Jean was able to keep her sense of humor about her and he figured, as long as she could still find the laughter in her – their – situation, she would do fine. Still, he knew, no matter what, he would always feel overly anxious when it came to Jean Grey. "As long as this move has nothing to do with me or with Lee."
Jean reached over and squeezed his knee. "Trust me, Scott, no." She tipped her head to the side to look at him. "I want you to be fair to Lee, Scott. Whatever happens, you need to do right by her."
"Is this your way of letting me off the hook?" Scott noted the road sign which said they were entering the Waco city limits. After the comparatively barren and flat landscape of the past few miles, it was good to see signs of civilization again.
"You didn't expect me to come back. How could you?" Jean said. "You moved on. There was nothing wrong in that."
"Except now I have to be fair to Lee." Scott squirmed a little in his seat; despite the air conditioning, his legs were sweaty and sticky, uncomfortable on the vinyl seat. It occurred to him now that maybe he should have gotten out at the rest stop with Jean earlier to stretch out. "It's easier said than done."
"I know you care for her. You'll do the right thing." Jean smiled. "If there's one thing you can be counted on for, Scott, it's for doing the right thing."
"To some women, maybe," Jean said. She stared at him pensively for a few seconds. "But not me. Never me."
They arrived in Austin just after three o'clock in the afternoon. Scott guided the U-Haul into the driveway of the three-bedroom house Jean had rented. The real estate agent who had located the home had raved about the wooded lot, the quiet established nature of the neighborhood, and its proximity to various conveniences such as the grocery store, post office and an exclusive shopping center. More importantly, it was only about ten minutes to the hospital where Jean's new medical practice would be located.
"After we finish unpacking we can drive around and locate the grocery store, the gas station, things like that, if you want to," Scott said as he got out of the truck.
Jean nodded. "Sounds like a good idea to me."
She led the way to the front door and then fumbled with the key. Scott took a look around. The exterior of the house was white brick with the trim done in brown. The small yard of St. Augustine grass was patchy, some spots burned yellow by the sun. The shrubbery flanking the front patio was overgrown and in some areas, dead with absolutely no hope of resurrection. Long cracks marred the cement slab driveway, weeds sticking up where they could find purchase.
"How old is this house again?" Scott asked as Jean pushed the door open.
"About twenty years or so. Does it matter?"
"No, just asking." He followed Jean into the house. Inside, it smelled musty, which fit with Jean's information that the owners had left town the previous year after both husband and wife had been laid off from their jobs at a tech company. Since the house had been sitting vacant for nearly nine months with only a neighbor looking in once a week, Jean had been able to get a very reasonable rent on the place. In addition, it satisfied Jean's need for privacy. Apartment-living would be too close quarters, she had thought, and Scott was inclined to agree with her. Objects still had a way of shifting themselves when Jean was nearby and occasionally, she projected her thoughts a little too 'loudly'; if Jean was going to attempt to 'pass' as a non-mutant, she needed all the space she could possibly get.
The house was about 1,500 square feet with a large master-bedroom with an adjoining nook that could be used as an office. The living room contained a large hearth-style fireplace and for a moment, Scott allowed himself a moment of indulgence, remembering a ski vacation to Stowe he and Jean had taken several years before. After a day on the slope, they had cuddled in front of the fireplace, just lying there wrapped in each other's arms. It had been a blissfully uncomplicated lifetime.
Thinking back now, Scott realized perhaps, he hadn't appreciated the moment enough.
The two extra bedrooms were on the small side and both had windows looking out onto the fenced backyard. All throughout, the carpet was brown and the walls beige; European-style lace curtains hung at all windows.
"It's nice," Scott said in response to Jean's inquiring look. She nodded as she closed the door to the linen closet.
"There's more than enough space. Perhaps more than I need. Maybe I should have gotten an apartment." Jean bit her lip.
"It's fine, Jean." He caught her by the wrist. "Remember why you did this."
Jean shook free of his grip and walked by him into the kitchen. She methodically began opening and closing cupboards and examining the appliances. She had brought a microwave, coffee maker and toaster, but the house came equipped with the big appliances like a refrigerator, oven and dishwasher.
"So you're okay with this?" Jean asked finally. She leaned against the counter, crossing her arms against her chest. Scott shrugged.
"The house is fine," he said.
"No. I mean, with me. Being here."
"You're right. You have to make your own choices. You got a second chance." Scott suddenly became very interested in the beige and white linoleum floor. "You need to do what you need to do."
"I don't need you to protect me."
The words stung at him but Scott nodded. "I know," he said. He took a step towards her. "I'm going to miss you, Jean." He worked hard to keep his voice from cracking, to keep that extra note of emotion from doing him in.
Jean rested her head against his shoulder, her arms wrapped around him. Scott closed his eyes, pressing his lips to her hair. After all they had been through, it amazed him still just how well they fit together. Many things had changed for them, but still, some remained and even *felt* the same. Finally, he let Jean go.
"We'd better unload the truck," he said. "We don't have much time."
"I wish you'd chosen to stay a few days longer," Jean said. "Then there would have been no rush."
"The Professor needs me back at the school." It was an excuse and they both knew it. Scott had deliberately booked his air ticket back to New York on the first flight out of Austin the next morning. He was determined to stick to his initial action plan -- drive Jean and her belongings to Austin and help her get situated and then leave. He hated to admit it, but where Jean was concerned, he simply didn't trust himself. And to complicate matters, there was Lee -- wonderful, uncomplicated Lee, who was dealing with the 'rebirth' of Scott's fiancée with aplomb. In fact, it had been Lee who had suggested Scott drive Jean, rather than having movers take Jean's stuff down to Austin.
"You two could probably use the time to talk," Lee had said, as she'd very proprietarily traced circles with her index finger on Scott's bare skin. "Get stuff out in the open, figure out where you stand. You guys need to know that or you'll never be able to move past it."
It had seemed odd -- even cold -- at the time to refer to the past he had shared with Jean as 'it', but as he thought about Lee's comment now, he knew 'it' had been an appropriate word choice.
"All right," Jean said. She nodded towards the door. "Let's get started. I guess we can unload into the garage and then move furniture in through there."
"Sounds good to me." Scott ran his finger along the edge of a cabinet, his finger coming away dusty. "On second thought, should we clean the place first? Vacuum? Dust? That kind of thing?"
Jean wrinkled her nose. "You probably have a point."
"I'll get the vacuum, you take care of the other things," Scott said. He was glad to escape out of the house and back into the blazing sunlight. He took a moment to walk to the edge of the driveway. Across the street, an elderly man was weeding his garden and just down the street, he could hear children laughing.
"Are you new here?"
Scott turned, startled.
"I'm Jack Tanner." The speaker was man in his early forties, dark-haired, tall, and dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. "I live next door."
"I saw your truck, thought I'd welcome you to Austin."
Jean came out that moment, dustpan and broom in hand. "Scott?"
He turned to look at her. "Hey. Come meet your neighbor."
Jean approached cautiously. Scott could feel a familiar mental tickle and knew Jean had picked up on his discomfort.
"Jean Grey," she said. "I'm sorry, my hands are a little dirty--"
"It's all right," Jack said. "So, where you folks from?"
"New York," Scott said.
"Ah. You come down here for work?"
"She did." Scott jabbed a finger in Jean's direction. "She's a doctor."
"Ah. Then we have something in common. I'm a professor. At UT."
"Really? What subject?" Jean asked.
"History. Specialization in Plantagenet and Tudor England."
An awkward moment passed as they all stared at each other. Scott got the feeling Jack was checking him out carefully and waited impatiently for the moment when Jack would make a comment about his glasses.
"Well, I'd better go," Jack said. He pointed to the red brick house next door. "I live over there. If you two need anything, feel free to stop by."
"Thanks for the offer," Scott said.
They watched Jack walk away.
"He suspects about you, but he doesn't know for sure," Jean said softly. Scott looked at her in surprise.
"You probed him?" he asked. "Without permission?"
"I didn't mean to. It just happened." Jean turned away, jamming her hands in her pockets. "I hope he didn't notice."
"I'm worried about you, Jean. If he suspects I'm a mutant, then perhaps he'll think the same about you."
"If you haven't noticed, Scott, I *am* a mutant."
He sighed, not about to go down this path with her again. Some arguments he'd had with Jean a dozen times and they invariably got him -- no, them -- nowhere. Not for the first time, he wondered if they had been this bad at communication *before* Alkali Lake. He certainly didn't remember fighting this much or feeling this kind of tension around Jean, but then again, in the past 18 months, he had developed a rose-colored perspective when it came to Jean. As the person she had been faded hard and fast from memory, he had created someone new in his mind, a mental paragon of who he thought Jean was. He could see now he was wrong, that perhaps he had always been using his strong personality and decisiveness to impose his vision of Jean on Jean. As he grabbed the vacuum from the back of the U-Haul, he figured it was no mystery *why* Jean had chosen to run all the way to Texas to find her new identity.
He attacked the vacuuming with a vengeance, pressing hard down against the carpet, letting the roar of the machine fill his ears. He moved mechanically but methodically from room to room. He was aware of Jean in a peripheral way, noting that her path occasionally crossed his as she attacked crown molding and cabinets with Endust. Occasionally he could feel her watching him. He tried to imagine what she was thinking, knowing that there were times when their positions were reversed and he would watch her.
Finally, he finished vacuuming. Unplugging the machine, he stuck it in the hall closet; Jean could put it somewhere else more convenient to her later.
"Should we unload now?" he asked, walking into the master bathroom where Jean was hard at work scrubbing at the tub.
Jean had stripped down to a red spaghetti-strap tank top and changed into denim cut-offs. The red stretch material of her top curled up just above the belt, revealing an inch or two of skin. She'd pulled her hair into a ponytail, accentuating her cheekbones and eyes. She stood up slowly, somehow making the movement graceful and sensual all at once.
"My muscles just don't work the way they did before I died," she said. "And yes, I think we can get started on unloading now." She cast a disdainful look at the tub and then wiggled her wrinkled fingers at Scott. "I've had about all the cleaning I can stand for one night."
Scott led the way out into the driveway. As he opened the truck door, he noticed Jack Tanner watering his lawn. Still feeling discomfited, he turned his attention back to the U-Haul.
Jean didn't have a lot of possessions. Most everything in the back of the 14-foot truck had been scrounged up from various rooms at Xavier's. Personal items were minimal. Three months after Alkali Lake, Scott had started going through Jean's things, methodically separating her belongings into three piles: to keep, to give to her family and to give to Goodwill. The majority of her clothes, shoes, and knick-knacks ended up in the donation pile. Items she'd had from childhood or that had been dear gifts to her from her family had gone back to the Greys. Over time, the pile Scott had chosen to keep for himself had grown smaller as he'd discovered he no longer need the comfort of objects.
"We're going to have to make it look like we're actually carrying these things," Scott said, pointing to the sofa. The sofa, along with the dining room table and computer desk would be the heaviest and most awkward objects. "So try to tone down the telekinesis, okay?"
Jean flashed a smile in his direction. "In other words, try not to float the bed over Jack Tanner's head?"
"Something like that."
Thanks to Jean's telekinetic abilities, they were able to move the furniture into the house pretty quickly. Even so, with the heat, they were both dripping with sweat when they finished. Scott pulled off his t-shirt and slumped on the sofa, currently placed in front of the fireplace. Jean sat next to him, her long legs extended across the length of the sofa, her feet in his lap.
"So, what about dinner?" she asked, tipping her head to the side.
"We're in Texas, there's really only one option."
"You don't want that?"
"I was thinking about finding a grocery store and maybe having a picnic right here." She pointed to the fireplace. "We could light it up."
"Jean, it's 100 degrees out."
"We could turn the AC up."
He grinned. Without thinking, he had started to massage the soles of her feet, his hands gradually moving up her calves. Jean leaned her head back, her eyes closed, and damp strands of hair sticking to her sweaty skin. Scott shifted his position, so that he was nearly hovering over Jean. She opened her eyes, her lips turning up in a shy smile.
"Hi," she said softly, reaching up to cup his face with her hands.
He kissed her then.
In that moment, he didn't think of Alkali Lake and the things that had come before and after, and he didn't think of Lee. Instead, his hand was on Jean's stomach, pushing up the clingy material of her tank top.
"Better," she whispered. In a sudden motion, she pushed him onto the floor and straddled him. For a moment, they stared at each other. She wiggled a few fingers beneath the belt of his shorts, snapping the button open expertly. Then came the zipper and he knew he had to stop her.
"Jean," he said. His voice was raspy.
Her eyes went wide, almost as if she had suddenly realized what was happening. Slowly, she eased herself off him, instead choosing to lie next to him, her arm wrapped around him, their legs intertwined.
"Maybe it's a good idea you're leaving tomorrow," she said. Scott pressed his lips to her forehead and held her tighter.
Jean drove him to the airport in the rental car they'd picked up that morning after dropping off the U-Haul. He had packed lightly -- just a duffle bag -- and his ticket was electronic, so he figured there was no need to rush to the airport. Still, there had been silence since the previous night. Their occasional conversations were simply rehashes of ones they'd already had, and Scott knew Jean had been as infuriated and frustrated as he was. How in the world had they ended up like this? More importantly, what were they going to do about it?
"Just drop me off at the curb. Don't worry about paying for parking," he said as Jean eyed the overhead signs to decide where to go.
"It's two dollars."
"Still. You'll be wasting your time. And hourly, that's more than two dollars, more like six."
"I'm not just going to leave you, Scott."
"You have things to do. You need to get settled into your new place. You need to finish unpacking." He tried to smile. "You could use the time to start finding Jean Grey."
"It can wait two hours."
"I'm serious, Jean."
"Don't lie to a telepath." She glanced at him sideways. "I know you want me to stay."
"Or maybe I want you to come back to Salem Center with me. Where it's safe."
"I'll be fine here."
By now, Jean had pulled into the covered short-term parking. She turned the key in the ignition, cutting off the engine. She still gripped the steering wheel tightly.
"Just be careful. Promise me that. And you'll let me or the Professor know if anything happens?"
"Nothing is going to happen, Scott." Jean got out of the car, slamming the door loudly. He sighed and followed her as she stalked towards the walkway leading to the airport. Inside, they meandered through the Barbara Jordan terminal, stopping at one small cafe to enjoy Krispy Kreme donuts and Starbucks coffee. There was a vending machine nearby where flowers were available for sale and Scott briefly toyed with the idea of buying a dozen red roses for Jean. He knew she could use the touch of warmth and beauty in her rather Spartan digs, but then the same instinct which had caused him to pull away from her the night before stopped him from buying the roses.
"Summer vacation will be over when you get back, right?" Jean asked. She cupped her hands around the brown and green Styrofoam cup. "The kids will be back?"
"They should be."
"You'll let me know they're doing?"
Jean shook her head. "Can't believe I won't be there." A wistful expression crossed her face. "Autumn was always my favorite time of the year. Remember when we went up to Vermont to see the leaves?"
Scott looked at her. "Not too late to change your mind. You could get on the plane with me right now."
"Tempting as that sounds--"
"I know. You need to find yourself. I got it."
Jean bit her lip. "Scott, don't take this wrong way--"
"You don't know. You can't possibly know what it's like. To be me, that is. To have done the things I did."
He reached over and covered her hand with his. "It wasn't your fault. Magneto took advantage of you."
Jean closed her eyes. In that moment, she opened her mind to Scott's, letting him feel the full force of despair and desolation she truly felt. He cringed, hunching slightly over the table, from the sheer physical and emotional pain Jean directed at him. He held up a hand.
She was staring at him, her face gone pale.
"Don't," he said softly, "try not to relive what happened. You were under Magneto's control. You weren't responsible."
"I should have been stronger. I should have resisted." She stared at a spot somewhere beyond him. Scott shifted so he was staring at her directly again. "What's the point of *this*, of what and who we *are*, if we can't help others? But I didn't and people *died* because of me. I'm responsible for that and now I've got to live with it." She bit her lip. "When I think about what I did, I can't help but think perhaps the Mutant Registration Act is a good thing. I don't know."
"It wasn't your fault." Scott squeezed her hand tightly. "But I'm glad you're talking about it now. I was worried before because you didn't seem to want to. So was the Professor."
"The laundry list of what's wrong with me is quite long, isn't it?" Jean shook her head ruefully. "Times like this, it's really tempting to just get on that plane with you and go back to Westchester. But I need to prove to myself, Scott, that I can deal with this and I can be strong. Without you. Without the Professor. I need that. You guys can't keep rescuing me." Slowly, she pulled her hand away from his. "I've got to do it for myself. Even if I'm not quite sure what I'm doing or why." She smiled. "I thought once I made the decision to accept the job offer here in Austin, it would be all right. I would be fine with the decision and I wouldn't second-guess it. Don't make me rethink what I'm doing, Scott."
Scott swallowed hard. "You're going to do fine, Jean."
"You too." She pulled her hand away from his. "And you don't need me to complicate your life, Scott."
"You are never a complication, Jean."
"You might have felt that eighteen months ago. Before you watched me die. Before I came back to life and into yours." She eyed him pensively. "It's only been six months, Scott. Not enough time to figure things out. Not enough time for you, for me, for *us*."
Scott nodded, wondering at the brief note of energy which had slipped into Jean's voice at the end. "This shouldn't be as hard as it is."
"No." She averted her eyes. "It shouldn't be. But you know, I looked at Barnes and Noble, and I assure you, there are no self-help books on how to deal with fiancées who come back from the dead. Or how to adjust to life when everyone thinks you're dead."
"When we figure it out, we should write it then."
Jean smiled, a wide smile that reached up to the corners of her eyes. He reached out, gently touching her jaw with the tips of his fingers.
He glanced at his watch. "I'd better get going." He nodded towards the security gates. "The line is pretty long." He reached for their trash, gathering up napkins and stuffing them into the cups. Jean picked up her purse and waited while Scott headed for the garbage. When he returned, Jean clutched at his arm, drawing him closer. "Hey," he said softly, "you said it yourself, it's going to be all right."
She nodded sadly. "Have a safe trip back. Is someone meeting you at the airport?"
"Lee, maybe. If not, I'll take a bus." He gazed at her for long time. "Think about coming to New York for Thanksgiving."
He hugged her. "Good-bye, Jean." He looked at her longingly. "I love you." The words slipped out unintentionally and Jean blinked. Scott took a deep breath. "I mean it," he said. "No matter what else happens, that will never change."
She sniffed and then nodded. "I'll see you later, Scott. Good-bye."
As he headed through the security checkpoints, Scott kept looking back at Jean. She stood off to the side, clutching her purse under her arm nervously. He waved at her just moments before presenting not only his driver's license but also his Mutant Registration Card to the security guard, who scowled at him, but didn't give him any trouble before allowing him through.
//Looks like I'm a low-risk mutant// he sent to Jean. He warmed at the mental laughter came back to him. He turned just once more to wave good-bye. And then, he walked to his gate resolutely, ignoring the suspicious looks from other passengers.
Lee was waiting for him at Westchester County Airport. He saw her immediately as he descended the stairs to the baggage claim.
"Hi!" she exclaimed, waving at him excitedly.
"Hi yourself." He gave her an awkward hug, not bothering to drop the duffle bag weighing down his shoulder. "Thanks for coming to get me."
"No problem. I had the day off from work anyway and I figured it was easier for me to come down than to have the Professor send someone," Lee said. She glanced over at the baggage claim. "Got anything else?"
He patted the black duffle bag. "This is it."
"Then let's go. I'm parked in short-term." Lee started walking at a brisk pace. Scott had to speed up to match her. Lee Forrester, a photographer by trade and a sailor by hobby, was a New Yorker through and through. She tended to live life quickly and it was that particular quality Scott had been attracted to when he first met Lee at an art exhibit at the New York Historical Society about eight months previously. Nor had she been fazed by the fact he was a mutant. And even though it felt disloyal -- Jean had been dead less than a year -- Scott had asked Lee out for a drink. One thing led to another and here they were, not quite in a committed relationship, but in something deeper than friendship.
Outside, the air was cool, a strong wind blowing through. Quite the change from Texas, Scott thought, where it seemed as if there was absolutely no air movement at all, where the heat had pressed down on him ruthlessly.
"So, how was it?" Lee asked as she opened the trunk of her 1999 Honda Civic. Scott tossed his duffle bag, using the moment to gather his thoughts. He had anticipated this question from the moment he'd boarded the airplane in Austin, but the answers he'd rehearsed all seemed to slip away in the face of the actual asking.
"I never expected to say good-bye to Jean again," he said quietly.
Lee glanced at him with sympathy before slamming the trunk shut. "Did you guys talk?"
"It's a long trip for just 'some' talking," Lee pointed out. She fumbled in her denim pocketbook for her keys. "Surely you guys did more than that.
"Actually no. There were a lot of silences. And the same old arguments." He didn't elaborate; Lee had already heard most of the arguments *against* Jean's going to Austin. There was no need to rehash them with her.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Lee said as she unlocked the car doors. "I was hoping you guys would get some stuff out in the open. Road trips are great therapy, though occasionally, motivation for homicide as well."
Scott opened the passenger side door. "As I said, we did talk some."
As Lee backed the car out, she said, "So how is Jean settling into Austin? Does she like it?"
"I guess so. It's hard to say, she's only been there a few days. She said she'll email once she gets her computer setup and let us know how she's doing." Scott reached for his wallet, but Lee waved him away.
"It's five dollars," she said as she handed the money to the cashier, "no biggy."
"It's two in Austin," Scott couldn't help saying.
"Cost of living is higher here," Lee pointed out as she took the exit out to I-684 South.
Lee glanced at him with a concerned expression. "So the drive down was fine? I thought about calling you but figured I didn't want to intrude."
"It was good, yes." Scott managed to quirk a smile. "Long though."
"No problems with the U-Haul? Those can be sketchy sometimes."
"No, nothing. All in all, a good trip."
Lee regarded Scott skeptically. "Are you holding back on me?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You and Jean. Did something happen? You can tell me."
"Nothing happened. I swear."
"Look, Scott," Lee said, as she deftly maneuvered into traffic. "You promised to be square with me. And I'm a big girl. I can handle it. So don't be afraid to be truthful with me."
"So nothing happened? You sure?"
She lifted her hand off the steering wheel, waving his comment off. "Sorry. You know, it's not every girl who has to deal with her boyfriend's fiancée coming back from the dead. So maybe I *am* a little nervous."
"Just a little. We said it from the very beginning, Scott, didn't we? That no promises, no attachments, no nothing. That was the deal and it still is." Lee's tone was light, casual, and when they'd first started dating, Scott had been mystified by Lee's laissez-faire attitude. He hadn't been in any mood to make a commitment at the time anyway, but Lee's nonchalance over the state of their relationship had absolutely floored him. She had told him several times she didn't want to be tied down by commitment and that she wanted to be free to sail around the world at a moment's notice if that's what she decided to do. That attitude was a complete 180-degree turn from Scott's; he was nothing if not loyal and completely committed to whatever he put his mind to. Of course, after Jean had been discovered in Magneto's custody six months previously, Scott had been relieved by the way Lee had taken Jean Grey's 'rebirth' – the term the Professor used – in stride.
"You're right," Scott said. He shrugged. Lee glanced at him curiously.
"Are you saying you want something more?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know what I'm saying." Scott ran a hand through his hair. "I thought this road trip would make things more clear to me, but that wasn't the case. Maybe Jean is right. Maybe this is what we need. Time and distance to figure out what is we want."
"Not to mention *who*," Lee said.
Scott scowled. Lee's cavalier attitude about the situation irked him on occasion. There had been times, even post-Jean's return, when Scott had thought he could see a future with Lee if only she'd demonstrated that she felt the same. But, he mused now, perhaps this was Lee's way of giving him space and not asserting her claim to him too tenaciously. After all, she too had ever reason to believe he'd go back to Jean; he'd made no bones of the fact, when he'd first met Lee, Jean Grey was the definitive love of his life.
"How about some music?" Lee asked brightly.
"I discovered this great jazz station while you were gone. They play the best of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, you know the truly great greats--"
Scott leaned his head against the window, tuning Lee out. He had never quite appreciated trees as much as he did at this very moment.
"Scott?" Lee turned off the radio.
"Sorry. Just admiring the greenery. Somehow, live oak in Texas just doesn't match the magnificence of these." Scott pointed.
"Hmm. So what do you feel like?" Lee asked. "Want to go straight back to school? It's obvious you're tired. We can make plans for another time."
Scott considered. He knew the Professor and Ororo both needed him to be at the school to handle the initial prep work which was required before the new term began next week. In addition, there would be more paperwork to process; the MRA required that all students and regular residents at Xavier's School for Gifted Children be registered with the government upon formal attendance. Jean Grey, despite being a resident at the school, had neatly avoided the initial registration crackdown by the mere fact of her 'death'. Even now, Jean Grey was still believed to be dead. Scott couldn't help but feel slightly envious. He had accepted the inevitable of the MRA and had been determined to present a calm and intelligent attitude toward it. But when he was with the other teachers and no students were around, he too railed at the unfairness of it.
But there was time enough for paperwork, students and the MRA in the days to come.
"Let's go to your place," he said. He reached over and squeezed her knee gently. "I missed you, Lee."
She glanced at him sideways. "I wish I could believe that."
Where Scott was almost compulsively neat, Lee Forrester was messy. Clothes draped the chairs, the bed, every flat surface had some object on it. Stepping through her door alone was the first gauntlet to overcome; shoes littered the entryway, some with stockings or socks still stuffed in them. The apartment itself smelled musty, possibly from the dirty dishes covering every inch of the kitchen counter, with some in the sink as well. Most of the time, Scott would just pick Lee up and they would go out to eat. Since she had never exhibited any discomfort at coming to Xavier's either, she'd occasionally come to the school to spend the night. But not recently, not since Jean's return. Even though Scott insisted Jean was fine with the idea of Lee as his girlfriend, Lee didn't feel comfortable with the notion. As a result, Scott ended up spending a night or two every week in Lee's apartment in Grant Corner. Even so, he still brought a night bag with him; he absolutely refused to leave any of his items there even though Lee had offered him a drawer in her dresser and space in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom.
"Welcome back," she whispered as she pulled him down on to the bed with her.
He didn't answer.
Just checking in to see how you are. It's been a week since I got back from Austin and I'm settling back into the routine here. Since tomorrow is your first day at work, I thought you could use an email from a friend. Let me know how you're doing, but I understand if you are too busy to respond right away.
Things here are fine. The students are starting to trickle back and there's not a moment's peace here. We have some new students too, so we'll be busy for the orientation. I'm not looking forward to having to explain the MRA to them. You know how it is. Most of them just discovered their latent mutant powers and then to be told they have to tell Uncle Sam or else?
The Professor has made a decision to turn over most of the day-to-day running of the school over to me. He would like to spend more time fighting the MRA. He's found a lawyer who is willing to take up the mutants' cause (how do you like the sound of *that*?) pro bono. The lawyer thinks we can get the Act declared unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. I'm not holding out too much hope; it's obvious people have wanted this kind of registry in place for a long time. Still, I support the Professor in his efforts. I will probably accompany him to Albany when the lawyer files our first motions with the courts.
Is the house set-up? Have you found a place for everything yet? I guess you're glad I'm not there to nag you into getting it done. I'm sure by now you've found your way around Austin and you're doing fine.
The Professor, Logan and Storm all say hi. Let me know how you are and if you need anything from any of us. We miss you.
To be continued...
Feedback always welcome.
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