Chapter 20: “Friends Like These, Part 2”

Q.8. How many people know you are a mutant?

__ Nobody knows
__ 1–5 people
__ 6–25 people
__ More than 25 people
__ I don’t know how many

 

Q. 9. Have you faced anti-mutant discrimination, i.e., discrimination that has targeted you directly? (answer all that apply)

__ Yes, by members of my family
__ Yes, by peers
__ Yes, by school administration
__ Yes, by other authority (e.g., police, government agencies, institutions)
__ Yes, random acts of discrimination by strangers
__ No, I have not faced discrimination due to my mutant status

It was just before lunch at the School for Gifted Youngsters and Andi Murakami was seated in Professor Xavier’s office watching him stare at his monitor, scrolling through the questionnaire she had spent half the night perfecting. He looked up for a moment as a deep rumbling shook the building, followed by a shriek like a jet engine. The old leaded windows rattled as the boy from Kentucky (Sam? Was that his name?) flew past like a comet, doing laps around the school. Xavier returned to the questionnaire again, a frown deepening the creases of his face. Thinking about Sam? About her work?

She hated drafting questionnaires; she would constantly second-guess herself, trying to visualize how unnamed respondents would answer. She imagined each one as a judge, throwing back accusations: “I can’t answer this! It’s clearly biased!” — months of data collection rendered instantly useless.

“Good, yes,” The Professor murmured after a few minutes. He looked up and smiled. “Well done, Andi. I think it’s thorough and covers all the areas we discussed.”

She blinked and stared at him blankly before she remembered to say “Thank you.” She flipped through the printout in her lap. “You don’t think I’m making a lot of trouble for myself with the open-ends in question 15?”

“Oh, you will definitely have to make some categorization decisions and do a number of roll-ups, but that is part of the researcher’s job. When will you begin interviewing our students?”

“Soon! Today even, if you think it’s good to go.” She bit her lip. “It’s just…”

“What’s the matter, my dear?”

“The sample size! I need more than your twelve — and more than I get at the youth group meetings.” She tapped her fingers in frustration. “I have to reach mutants across America if I want it to paint a true picture of their lives.” She felt the cord of passion inside her and worried that maybe she wasn’t objective enough to be a researcher. She was always somewhat intimidated by her fellow students who seemed so clinically detached from their work. Maybe that was the mark of a true scientist. Maybe if you were too involved, you wouldn’t be able to make objective conclusions.

No! That’s bullshit, she told herself. How could you be less than passionate and be a good researcher? Right from the start, with her undergraduate work on children of divorce, she had followed her heart and she wasn’t about to stop now.

“This isn’t just about my PhD, Professor. A qualitative study is going to be of no use politically, even if the anecdotes are powerful. We need statistically significant, verifiable numbers to show how mutant youth are hurting.”

“You’re putting too much pressure on yourself, Andi. This is a new area and any contribution will be valuable.”

“No!” she said, raising her voice. Her eyes went wide with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I just — I want this research to help the kids. I want some ammunition to stop bigots like Senator Kelly. If we have some solid figures on our side, maybe we can stop his Mutant Registration Act nonsense!”

Xavier smiled and she could feel his pride in her. It was like being bathed in warm sunlight. Of course, she knew she was saying exactly what he wanted to hear, but that didn’t make his approval any less sweet.

“Then, Andi, we’ll just have to find a way for you to reach more mutants. Have you considered…” He paused and looked up at nothing. “Excuse me a moment. Come in!” Andi took a moment to realize that Charles was responding to a telepathic call rather than an actual knock. The door opened and Doug Ramsey was standing there shyly, hand on the doorknob. Andi smiled at him and was surprised to see him blush and look quickly back to Xavier.

“Professor, Neal and I were wondering which questions we were supposed to answer on the physics handout.”

From the hall came a voice with an Indian accent that Andi assumed must belong to Neal. “I’m not confused. We have been assigned only problems one through three. If you would read your —”

Arré, Neal!” Doug said, his voice rising an octave. “Chelo! Chelo! Um, is that right? Or are we supposed to do all the problems?”

“Neal is correct, Douglas. Just one through three this week. Feel free to work ahead if you wish.”

“Okay, thanks.” The boy continued to stand in the doorway nervously.

Xavier raised an eyebrow. “Is there anything else?”

Doug suddenly lurched forward and turned to Andi, speaking quickly in Japanese, “Ms. Murakami, I heard about your distinguished research efforts to investigate the lives of mutant youth and I wanted to say I would be honored to assist you in any way possible, if my assistance would be… um, useful.” He nodded his head in a brief, formal bow.

Andi sat up straight in surprise and bowed back. In Japanese less fluent than his, she responded, “Thank you, um, Doug. I have no need of help in giving the interviews but perhaps with the…” She didn’t know the vocabulary and switched to English. “With the data-entry and tabulations.”

Doug was sort of locked in the last of his bow, staring at her feet. “I learned Japanese yesterday to make you feel more comfortable.” He looked up cautiously and the room shook again as Sam came around for another lap.

Andi was suddenly overcome by the bizarreness of life at the mansion; she felt almost giddy. In such a place anything could happen. I could even be a real researcher! She smiled in a way she hoped was comforting and not too condescending. “That’s very sweet, Doug, but actually I only speak Japanese when I go home to visit my parents.”

Doug blushed and said nothing. The silence pooled thickly around them until the Professor came to Andi’s rescue. “Thank you, Mr. Ramsey. I’m sure Ms. Murakami appreciates the offer and will let you know when you can be of assistance. Now, if you will excuse us, we must resume our meeting.” Doug nodded and all but ran from the room, slamming the door behind him. “Oh dear, Andi. I’m afraid someone has a little crush on you.”

Andi straightened her jacket to cover her embarrassment. “Yeah, I got that. I’ve never had anyone learn a language for me.”

“Yes, well, If I recall correctly, Douglas has known Japanese for at least a year; but we’ll forgive him his little lie.” Xavier squinted at her mischievously. “We poor men do what we must in the name of love.”

 

***

 

“Do I understand you correctly, Ms. Sweeney?” Principal Matthews said with barely suppressed rage. “Are you suggesting that we actively encourage mutants to attend our Christmas dance? Mutants from God knows where?!”

Mike wanted to shout in triumph, cackle, guffaw as Matthews faced off against the District Diversity Officer, but he knew that he had to keep his cool, not make this a pissing match. So he kept his head down and drew omega signs in ballpoint on the thighs of his jeans while the suits battled it out.

They were cozily ensconced in Matthews’s office like a dysfunctional family in therapy: Mike, Catherine Sweeney, the Principal and Jubilee, who had pulled her chair back into the corner as if to say, “I’m not really part of this.” But she was here, Mike noted gratefully, and that was a long way from sparking his ass for even getting involved in mutant rights battles. Her fear of exposure was fading either due to the excitement of the battle or the heat of love. Maybe they were the same thing.

Ms. Sweeney was brilliant. She could be diplomatic while simultaneously asserting herself in the face of old-school thinking like the Principal’s. “Any mutant who attended — and I believe the number would be small — would be a registered high school student in the district, Mr. Matthews. I think it would be best if we simply saw it as a gesture of support and inclusion.”

“Including trouble is not high on my list of priorities.”

Mike couldn’t keep his head down for that one. “Mutants aren’t trouble, sir.”

“Is that so, Michael? Tell it to Christian Turcott, or to those grade eight students in Wyoming. A few hours playing with their little radioactive friend and now they’re all in hospital.”

Mike looked over at Jubilee and her eyes were flashing dangerously. He responded more angrily than he had meant to. “As soon as the authorities figured out what was happening, they removed the kid right away. He didn’t mean to do it. And now he’s locked up like a criminal and being denied due process under the law. What kind of —”

Ms. Sweeney raised a hand and he shut himself up. “If we’re going to bring up individual cases, Mr. Matthews, then you should know that the district is taking the suicide of Lisa Bukowski very seriously. The kind of bullying she received over her suspected mutant status was deplorable. A huge failure for us all. This dance will be exactly the right kind of gesture, and I am empowered by the Commissioner to insist on it. I hope you will see the wisdom and compassion of being on side with this decision.”

Matthews was silent, staring at the woman as if he might leap across his desk and strangle her. “And is the Commissioner going to pay for the additional security we’ll have to hire?”

The woman’s tone changed, as if to imply that they were all on the same page now and simply ironing out the pesky details. “If we make the school into an armed camp, it will send the wrong message. We think a few discreet security personnel will be sufficient… just to make sure that outside troublemakers don’t spoil anyone’s fun.”

Mike dropped his head again, this time to hide his grin. You rock, Ms. Sweeney!

“Fine,” Matthews answered her, but it was at Mike he staring. “We’ll go ahead. But if there’s any trouble, I’m shutting down the dance and sending everyone home. If you’re friends with any of these mutants, Mr. Haddad, I suggest you tell them to be on their best behavior.”

 

Both Sweeney and Matthews, with different motivations, told Mike and his X-gene Dance Committee (a small group of mutants and their supporters from different schools) not to over-hype the event. Ms. Sweeney said to think of it as a first step in the road to inclusion, but the kids were too buoyed by their success to keep it quiet. A first round of posters had gone up within two days of the announcement and the dance committee was replacing them as fast as they could be defaced or torn down.

One member of the committee worked for her school paper and interviewed Mike. When the edition came out, he was taken aback to find his words the lead in the article and to find himself described as a punk activist and the leader of this “revolutionary action for the rights of the oppressed.”

“I’m so glad my parents are out of town, Jubes. Can you imagine if they heard about this?”

They were working on a new poster (part two of their three-pronged publicity attack) in the school’s media room.

“It’s just a school paper; you’re safe,” she replied. “Hey, if they’re out of town, why are we doing this here instead of your place? I mean, not only do you have a good computer, but we could have some seriously excellent — and did I mention naked? — study breaks.”

“No way! My parents asked our housekeeper, Angelica to stay at the house while they’re away. She had to swear to report anything I do that I’m not supposed to, and that most definitely includes having you in my bedroom. Naked or otherwise.”

“Shit. Well at least it was good on the phone last night.”

Mike felt his face grow hot. “It was so wild… you know, hearing you.”

“Did you shout into your pillow when you did it? That’s what it sounded like.”

He blushed red. “Yeah, it was pretty dumb, huh? Maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore.” He suddenly looked around and lowered his voice. “Do you think we could, like, do something here?”

“Uh, no. Come on, Mike! If Matthews caught us, he’d have us suspended, and he’d find a way to close down the dance committee!”

“Shit, I know, you’re right. Listen, I know I said it’s dumb, but can we… uh, can we maybe do the phone thing again tonight anyway?”

“It’s a date,” she said and blew a strand of hair off her face. “You know how I feel whenever we do this?”

“Do what?”

She waved at the monitor. “This! The mutant rights stuff.”

“How do you feel?”

“Like you’re doing it for me. Because you love me. I know, I know, it’s not just for me. It’s Xeno and Rayen and all those kids in the news and everything, but I was your first mutant.”

Mike felt a stab a guilt. “Uh, actually… Listen, I never told you because I thought I should ask permission first —”

“What?! You knew another mutant?” She was staring daggers at him. “Who was she?”

“No! Not like that! Okay. Under the circumstances, I don’t think he’d mind if I told you. Did you hear about my friend Bobby Drake?”

“Oh yeah! The gay kid who left to go to that private school.”

“Yeah, well it’s not just an ordinary private school. It’s… Wait, what did you say? Bobby’s not gay!”

“Oh, sorry. Just something I heard from Rayen. Like, she got that impression.”

“Well, he’s not! What’s with you? Lincoln and now Bobby?” But what if he was? It suddenly seemed to Mike like something he had been looking at and not seeing. What about when Bobby stayed at the house last spring? Did he think we were going to…do something? Did he see me naked?!

Jubilee seemed taken aback by his response. She stroked his arm and said, “Sorry, right… at this school… They know he’s a mutant? It’s cool with them?”

Suddenly Mike didn’t want to talk about it. “Yeah, yeah. It sounds like a cool place. Hey, it’s late. We have to finish the poster before the committee meeting.”

 

***

 

“Where’s your roommate?” Terry wanted to know, standing in the door of the room.

Bobby’s mind was slow to pull away from the calculus problem that had him in its teeth. Absurdly, he looked towards John’s bed as if her question could be answered that easily. That’s when he realized he hadn’t seen John since two o’clock, when their history class had let out. Now, it was almost dinner.

“Uh, I dunno. Sometimes he goes for big walks when he wants to be alone. Why do you want him?”

“Because of his poem, dummy. Why do you think?”

“What poem?”

“Haven’t you checked email?”

Bobby quickly logged into the mansion webmail and scrutinized the “froms” and “subjects”:

- Reminder: No further extensions on physics problem set

- Missing cell phone. Great sentimental value, guys.

- Dude! I need your biology notes from Tuesday!!!!!

- Reminder: interviews tomorrow with Andi Murakami

- Read This or Whatever...

That was it! An email from John addressed to the complete student and staff mailing list:

“I wrote this poem and maybe you’ll like it. Don’t bother if poetry doesn’t float your boat. It’s not like I care or anything. But if you want to and you have nothing better to do, it’s pretty good, I think.”

The attached poem was one John had been working on for a week. He’d even tried out lines on Bobby which, frankly, was an act of desperation at best.

The day before, John had come to dinner after his private class with the Professor practically bouncing with excitement, telling Bobby that he finally wrote a good one. Finally! What was amazing was the act of bravado of sending it out like this. While it was true that John was now an accepted resident of the mansion, he still kept his cards close to his chest and really had only three or four people he considered friends. Of those, only Bobby saw the full range of his passionate friend’s emotions, a responsibility he wasn’t altogether comfortable with.

“I can’t believe he sent it everyone,” Bobby said, re-reading the poem which, as usual, confused him as much as it impressed him.

Terry came in and sat on the bed. “I know! He once read me one of his poems. I didn’t get something and he started swearing.”

“Just because you didn’t get it?”

“He wasn’t swearing at me. He was going, ‘Shit, fuck, never mind, it’s no good, I shouldn’t have shown you!’” They both laughed at her John impression, hands stuffed in pockets, shoulders hunched up, eyes set to kill.

“And now he goes completely public. No wonder he’s hiding somewhere.”

“I think it’s so beautiful. Did you see the part about climbing the mountain? Wait…” She got up to look over Bobby’s shoulder at the screen. “He is his own burning bush / Carving commandments on his chest with / A blunt flint sharpened / On loss and lust.” She sighed. “Wow, he has so many secrets.”

The part about lust worried Bobby. He wondered how it might implicate him, but he nodded meaningfully anyway. “What does everyone think of the poem?”

“Kitty and Pete both say he’s a genius. Neal is totally pissed. Heh, big surprise.”

“Why is he pissed? What’s his fucking problem with John?”

“He says he knows John’s ‘type’. His dad was, like, the Chief of Police in Calcutta and he thinks John is part of a ‘criminal class’ and can never be ‘truly redeemed.’”

The words rolled through Bobby’s head like storm surge. “You don’t think it’s true, do you?” he asked hesitantly.

Terry’s eyes went wide. “Bobby! How can you even say that? John is our friend. I don’t know what he went through before he got here, but it doesn’t matter. He’s not a criminal!” She got up and went for the door, turning back to look at him quizzically. “You’re so weird sometimes.”

 

John was the topic of much discussion at dinner, especially since he appeared to have vanished off the face of the Earth. Bobby got himself in trouble, claiming to be privy to John’s creative process, even hinting that he had made a few small suggestions on the way to the final masterpiece. But when Pete asked some pointed questions about the imagery, Bobby murmured something inaudible and backed off in embarrassment, making no further contributions to the conversation.

Bobby was growing worried; it wasn’t like John to miss a meal. Despite his rail-thin body, he had a voracious appetite, especially on days when he used his powers a lot. It was with trepidation that Bobby approached the teachers’ table just after announcements.

“Mr. Summers, John’s been gone for about five hours. You don’t think…” Bobby actually felt a twinge of panic as he framed the question. “You don’t think he, uh, ran away, do you?”

Scott’s jaw jutted forward tensely and he paused for a few seconds before turning to Xavier. “Professor?”

Xavier’s eyes grew unfocused. “No, John’s on the school grounds. He’s conscious and unhurt.”

“Should someone go and collect him?” Ororo asked.

The Professor put a hand on hers. “No, no. I think he’s just feeling a little exposed now. He’ll come in when he’s ready.”

“As long as that’s before curfew,” Scott said. “He put himself in the spotlight; he should deal responsibly with the consequences.”

Bobby knitted his brow and looked back to Xavier who smiled kindly and said, “Don’t worry, Robert. St. John has faced bigger challenges than the squirrels in the spruce grove.”

Tempted as he was to go looking for the wayward poet, Bobby decided it was better to let him return in his own time. Also, he was worried what would happen if John came in after curfew now that Bobby had stupidly gone and exposed him to the staff. Well, to Scott in particular who already seemed to have it in for John. He told himself not to worry. It wasn’t like anything terrible would happen to the guy out there. He was tough and smart. Bobby realized that what had really scared him was the possibility that John had left. Had left him without saying goodbye, like he didn’t matter or anything. Like they weren’t best friends.

It was nearly 11:00 — almost an hour after dorm curfew — when John appeared, standing in the door of their room as if he needed permission to enter.

Bobby jumped up and ran to him. “Hey! I was getting, uh, worried.” He kind of danced around John, looking for an angle into a possible hug but he couldn’t seem to make it work.

John pushed past him and headed for his bed. “Shit, Bobby, I just went for a fucking walk.”

“Yeah, I figured. I just…” He followed John to the bed and snuck in a quick kiss to the top of his somewhat greasy head. “I’m just glad you’re back. You must be starving… or did you kill and roast a bear?”

“Ha fucking ha. No, I’m dying. You got any chips or anything?”

“Come on, we can do better than that.”

Bobby snuck them down the back staircase where a hundred years earlier, the Xaviers’ servants had scuttled with trays of tea and buckets of hot water. The kitchen was far enough from the offices that you could usually get away with a night-time raid even if Scott or Jean were burning the midnight oil. There, he sat the bemused John down and made a big show of preparing a Bobby-special sandwich which contained a layer of every leftover in the fridge.

John dug in hungrily while Bobby treated himself to a big bowl of caramel ripple ice cream.

John made a frankly sexual moan of satisfaction as he finished off his late dinner. “So,” he asked. “Did I make a total fool of myself?”

“No way! Everyone thought it was really cool, especially after Pete declared it a masterpiece.”

“Goddamn,” John said. “Why does everyone always need a critic to tell them if they like something or not?”

“Why did you do it? You never show people your stuff. Most of them didn’t know you even wrote poems.”

“I show people. I showed you. I gave you a poem the first day I met you.”

Bobby felt a little thrill. “Yeah, you did. But I thought you didn’t need anyone’s approval; you’re big, independent John Allerdyce.”

“I’m a writer. I need an audience.” He sprang up from his chair and started pacing the tile floor. “I wasn’t planning it or anything. I just… After last period, I was sending a final draft to the Professor; it was my homework for him. Anyway, I started typing ‘Xavier’ into the address field and the full ‘Xavier-Academy’ list popped up.” He stopped pacing, wiping a spot of mustard off his pouty lower lip. Bobby had, in fact, been fighting the urge for the last minute to lick it off. “I don’t know… I just thought, ‘Do it!’ So I wrote that lame message and —”

“And you hit ‘send.’ Wow.” Bobby got up and pulled John into his arms. John yielded to the show of affection, arching his back and pressing his crotch forward against Bobby’s.

“I know: ‘wow’. And then I totally panicked and took off. I’ve been wandering around the woods wearing out flints since then. What does that make me: idiot or wimp?”

“You’re brave. Manly.” He bent forward and brought their lips together. The gentle, exploratory phase of the kiss was quickly abandoned in favor of a war of tongues and roaming hands, their conjoined crotches suddenly meatier than before.

John pulled back and looked at Bobby hungrily. “You know what I wish? I wish there was a mailing list for the whole fucking world and I just fucking hit SEND TO ALL!”

Bobby felt a thrill, like he was suddenly part of something big. “Yeah? You want that? Everyone reading the works of St. John Allerdyce?”

John’s eyes were ablaze. “Yeah! Everyone! All the fuckers at the base of the mountain, waiting for me to bring down the WORD!”

A strange, familiar voice spoke out of the darkness of the hall. “I bet that’s possible.”

Bobby and John swung around and there was Jones standing in the door of the kitchen. They jumped apart and Bobby found himself manically straightening his sweater, running his fingers through his mussed curls.

“Hey, kid,” John said, either calmly or with the pretense of calm; Bobby couldn’t tell. “Why are you ghosting around at this time of night?”

“I don’t have curfew anymore. I don’t need sleep.”

“How…” Bobby had to control a stutter. “How long have you been standing there?”

Jones’s eyes seemed far away. “Yeah, there must be a network out there… Can you see it? A database of everyone and everything. They could all get John’s poem or anything we wanted.” He turned and walked away down the hall still talking to himself. “Yeah, the ultimate network…”

John and Bobby stared at each other, saying nothing for a long minute.

 

***

 

“No, I’m not a mutant but sometimes I wish I was.”

“Michael,” the reporter asked. “Do you find a lot of anti-mutant prejudice among your fellow students?”

“Not really. I mean, kids call each other ‘mutie’ and make dumb jokes but if you really present the issues to them, they see that it makes no sense to discriminate. The real problem comes from hate-mongers like Friends of Humanity or from opportunistic politicians like Senator Kelly. They’re just trying to boost their own power by attacking a new minority.”

“And what do you hope your dance will accomplishment in the larger fight for mutant rights?”

“Hey, I just want all the students to have a really great party! Everyone is going to be totally sick of exams by then. Mutant or no.”

“So, despite the concerns of parents and amid bitter infighting at the District school board, this dance is going ahead, thanks in no small part to the drive of one committed student. This is Adrienne Durost, WBNC News.”

“Ororo, please stop watching videos; we need to get down to business,” Scott said. He often felt like a bag of marbles had been emptied into his life. His job was to retrieve them or, at least, keep them from tripping anyone up.

The school staff along with Forge, the “maker” were seated around a large board table, each chair in front of an individual video monitor. Jean and the Professor were deeply embroiled in a debate about her research, while from Ororo’s station the quiet but insistent voice of broadcast news could be heard.

“Sorry, Scott. I check for mutant-related news every day on this YouTube channel and there hasn’t been a second to do so until now. There’s a high school student in Boston who’s fighting to get mutants included at the school’s Christmas dance. What a brave young man!”

“That’s good to know, but we have a lot to get through and I need 100 percent of your attention.”

“I think you’ll find 70 percent more than adequate,” she replied as she muted her workstation, extracted an earpiece from its housing and resumed her viewing.

Scott bit back a response that would have escalated the tension. His relationship with Ororo had lately developed something of a competitive edge. Sometimes, he reflected, you need to let the marbles roll a bit. “Hank? Can you hear okay?”

Hank McCoy’s video image was being beamed through from Washington in a small window on their displays. “You are coming through crisply, clearly and impatiently, Scott.”

“All right, I propose that we put off the budget discussion until next meeting when we’ll have the final figures on the hangar construction.”

“Can we talk about the new uniforms?” Jean asked, looking around the room for support. “I like the red design better than the black.”

“It’s actually more of a cayenne,” Hank corrected. “It doesn’t exactly scream subtlety, Jean.”

She shook her head. “Look, we’re going to be noticed using powers; we might as well be bold about it. ‘They’re cayenne, they’re your friends, they’re the X-Men!’”

Without looking up from her screen, Ororo added, “I still think we should each wear whatever makes us comfortable. We’re individuals.”

“Who are part of a team!” Jean insisted.

Scott wondered why they could never follow a simple agenda. Why did he even bother drafting them and mailing them out? “I think the black design is by far the most practical,” he said. “It gives us stealth advantage and the material is a lot tougher than our… costumes were. But this discussion is supposed to happen next week. I’d like to get back on schedule and talk about The Blackbird. Forge?”

“Should be ready for launch in a week. Would it be possible for me to have a couple of students to help?”

Jean looked around the table. “What do we think? Is it time to tell the students about our new toy?”

“We might as well tell them during announcements after dinner,” Xavier said. “I’m frankly relieved by our new policy of openness.”

Scott saw that Ororo was absorbed in her news feed and a sudden teacherly impulse made him try and catch her in a moment of inattention. “Storm? What do you think?”

She didn’t raise her head but spoke up without hesitation. “Certainly, although we’ll have to create protocols about clearing the basketball court when we need to launch in an emergency.”

Scott found himself smiling wryly. Truth be told, he was enjoying this competition. “See something interesting? Anything you want to share?”

“Mutant Registration Act. Senator Kelly is gathering support with surprising speed.” Scott was caught off-guard by the gravity of the report and a wave of anger moved through him. Looking around the table, he saw that the news had an equally jarring effect on his colleagues.

Xavier spoke up first. “Hank, we all saw the official reply from the Department of Mutant Affairs when Kelly first made his proposal. Your words of censure seem to be falling on deaf ears. Are you planning any more aggressive responses?”

“It’s a delicate situation, Charles. The Director feels that we have to guard against becoming shrill in tone. That means a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, a process I find almost unbearable.”

Ororo smiled. “You’re more the bare-knuckle type, aren’t you Hank?”

“And bare-foot, my dear.”

“The agenda, people!” Scott said and the room sighed. “Forge, you can continue to use Bobby and Kitty. Roberto’s into airplanes. He’d enjoy the work, too.” He looked at a calendar display. “We only have you for a few more weeks; will you get through all the projects?”

“Security system is up. Danger Room is almost online as soon as I can finish calibrating the projectors.”

Jean spoke up. “And what about the communications manual?”

“On it.”

“The retinal scanner on the weapons locker misreads half the time,” Ororo complained.

“Building a replacement.”

“And perhaps you could help me with some fine-tuning on Cerebro,” Charles said. “I am still unable to get a fix on Magneto and his people. It’s most frustrating.”

“Oh, that’s because they’re masked,” Forge replied casually.

The room skipped a beat. Xavier broke the tense silence. “That is what we surmised… How is it you are so certain?”

The maker responded with his usual candor. “’Cause I built the psi-masking tech for him.”

Scott’s impulse was to reach over, grab Forge by the collar and slam him into the table. However, having deadly beams of energy constantly trying to escape his eyes had made him an expert at impulse control. “Are you saying that you are providing a terrorist with strategic weaponry?”

Jean looked wounded. “Why, Forge? Why would you help him?”

“He asked me; same as you.”

There was a growl under Hank’s words: “Magneto is not the same as us.”

“He’s a murderer,” Ororo said, raising her voice. “If you had seen what he did to Christian Turcott —”

“Please, Hank, Ororo,” Charles said, raising a calming hand. “Forge, everything we at the Institute believe runs contrary to Erik Lensherr’s doctrine of violent confrontation. I do not understand why you can’t see that.”

“Look, Charles, I know all about you and Magneto, and I know you don’t see eye-to-eye. I like you guys; you’re doing great stuff here and helping mutant kids; but Magneto’s out to help mutants, too, and frankly, I can’t say who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong.”

For Scott, there was no question of how to respond to the situation. “Professor, under the circumstances, I don’t see how we can trust Forge under our roof.”

Forge stood quickly. Hurt and anger colored his words. “Fine, I’ll just pack my bags and go. You can finish the work yourselves.”

“Wait, please,” Xavier said. “Forge, I won’t pretend this news isn’t shocking, but I understand what you are saying. I assume you will not share the secret of the psi-masking technology with us, correct?”

“Nope, and I won’t tell Magneto how anything works here at the mansion, either.”

Scott couldn’t look at the mutant engineer. He could only stare at Charles in silent disbelief as his mentor sighed and responded. “Then please; finish the work you have begun here. We are grateful for your contributions and we have faith in your integrity. Scott, is there anything else we need to say to Forge at this meeting?”

“I have nothing to say to him. Nothing at all.”

The dig seemed to roll off Forge who smiled again. “Great, then I’ll get back to the hangar. Later, guys.” He left the room.

Scott clamped his arms across his chest and dug his fingers deep into his biceps. His jaw was tight enough to crush hazelnuts.

“Scott,” Xavier began carefully. “I don’t see as we had a choice. If Forge were to leave now —”

“So instead we get to live with a major security breach for the foreseeable future. Great.”

Jean tried to console him. “I’m sure we can trust Forge’s integrity. I didn’t sense any deceit in him. He’s just not political.”

“Political!” Scott spat with a cold laugh. “Our fundamental beliefs are just politics now?”

“Everything is politics, Scott,” Hank offered sadly.

“Uh-oh,” Ororo said, her eyes flickering with the reflected light from her video screen.

“What now?!” Scott almost shouted.

She looked up at them, pulling the earpiece free. “Where is John Allerdyce?”

 

John and Jones made an odd pair as they sat staring up at him, still sweating from the workout they had been called out of. John’s face was set in a careful mask of boredom and disdain; Jones was looking around at the office curiously as if nothing could possibly be wrong. Scott sat behind the desk in Xavier’s office, trying to bring the full weight of his intimidating, hidden glare down on them. The Professor sat watchfully behind Scott.

“What’s the big mystery, Mr. Summers?” John said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“Actually, John, I was wondering if the two of you had something to tell me.”

John rearranged his face into a show of annoyed confusion. “Like what?”

Scott could tell this wasn’t his first trip to a principal’s office. He turned to the younger boy. “Jones, what about you?”

An antique barometer on the wall had caught Jones’s attention and he was staring at it with his mouth open. “No,” he said without turning.

“Why don’t you take a look at this, then,” Scott said and turned his computer monitor around to face them. A news report began onscreen, showing the hacking of a giant video display over Times Square. On it, the scrolling headlines and cola ads had been replaced by John’s new poem, thirty feet tall, its lines beaming down on the tourists and touts of the most famous corner in the world:

He is naked of all
But the thinnest skin of pride
And his knees bleed from wasted hours
Bent in the sordid luxury of prayer

Scott watched the boys’ reactions. Jones showed no more interest than if it were footage of pigeons pecking in the gutter. John, on the other hand, looked six steps beyond amazed. “Holy shit,” he breathed and, when he saw his own name scroll into view, “Holy SHIT! How long was it up there? How many people saw…?”

He turned to the Professor, panic slowly building on his face, but Scott pulled the attention back his way. “Technicians at the network are speculating that the sabotage might have been perpetrated by a mutant. Any thoughts on that theory?”

John lost his cool altogether. “I-I don’t know. I have no clue how… I didn’t know anything about it! Honestly!”

Jones looked peeved. “That’s dumb! You can hack a network without being a mutant!”

“But it might be easier for someone, say, with your powers.”

Jones nodded. “Oh yeah, for sure.” He looked at Scott without fear or challenge as if they were merely discussing a point of academic interest. Scott began tapping the desk with aggressive fingertips.

“I think you both understand how serious this is. Someone has given the government reason to come looking for us, or to go after other mutants. And John’s name is attached to it, large as life.”

John began chewing a fingernail. “This is bad. I’m a fucking runaway! My mom… She’ll call the police and tell them!” He turned to Xavier. “Please, you won’t turn me in, right? I didn’t fucking do this!”

The Professor spoke for the first time. “Please watch your language, John. We’re not turning anyone in, I promise.”

Scott jumped in. “But if we find out either of you had anything to do with this…” he let the words hang. In point of fact, he had no idea how to finish the sentence and hoped the implied threat would do some good. After a few more tense seconds, he dismissed the boys and John all but dragged Jones out of the room. When they’d left, Scott turned to Xavier. “Well? Did they do it?”

“It came as a complete surprise to St. John.”

“That’s what I thought. But what about Jones? Did you get anything off him?”

“I can’t read his mind, Scott.”

“Oh, come on, Charles! I understand your ethical convictions, but in a case like this —”

“No,” Xavier replied with evident frustration. “I’ve tried! I mean I cannot read the boy! I can penetrate his mind with no difficulty, of course… but his thoughts! They aren’t shaped like any I’ve ever encountered. I can make no sense of them. It would be like you receiving his signed confession in Swahili. I’m afraid I have no way of knowing if he was responsible or not. We can only hope that we impressed upon him the danger in which he has put John and the rest of us.”

“If it was him.”

“As you say.”

“We’re getting in deeper, Charles. We’re harboring a runaway and hiding him from the authorities.”

“Not to mention providing sanctuary to Fred Dukes who was undoubtedly identified on surveillance cameras at the Turcott Clinic and is now a wanted criminal. And I’m afraid it’s not going to end there. If more mutant children come to us as refugees —”

Scott sighed. “Then we’ll have to help them. It’s funny. After I left the streets and came to live with you, I swore my days on the wrong side of the law were behind me.”

“Sometimes the law slips away from us, Scott, like a receding tide. And before we know it, we’re standing high and dry on the shores of circumstance, wondering how we got there.”

Scott felt a headache building and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Charles, no offense — it’s a swell metaphor and all — but give it a rest, okay? This day has been literary enough.”

 

***

 

Mike had never meant to be in the spotlight, but he kept finding himself there. First at the SpiderHole and now as the de facto head of the dance committee, a position he had never sought. He had been on his way into school one morning late in November when the camera crew cornered him. He had recognized the reporter from the local news, but before he could figure out what was happening, he was being interviewed, the camera’s insectoid eye staring him down with dumb hunger.

His protests had met only with unctuous promises of brevity, but soon he had found himself speaking with a fluency that surprised him about the importance of including mutant members of the student body, of the suicide of the bullied girl, of being an example for all of America. He was asked about his own mutant status and had heard himself say: “No, I’m not a mutant but sometimes I wish I was.”

“You were awesome,” Jubilee told him on the phone that night after she saw the broadcast. “You looked so calm and serious.”

“Really? I was a nervous wreck. I still am. I had to concoct a lame excuse to get Angelica away from the TV when the news was on. I had to beg her for one of her special fruit smoothies. ‘Now!’ I told her. ‘I need it now!’”

 “Did you mean it?” Jubilee asked, her voice growing more serious. “Do you really wish you were a mutant?”

“I don’t know. Sure. It doesn’t matter, that’s the whole point! The only thing that does matter is thank God my parents are still out of town. Oh, and, God, if you’re listening, please make sure that Dr. Aziz and everyone in the Lebanese community was watching another channel.”

He was walking home from school the next day, approaching his driveway as the late afternoon sun was coloring the stark grey branches of the maple tree on their front lawn. Bad Religion was blasting through his headphones and all in all, he was feeling pretty good. It was bizarre how television made you into an instant celebrity. After seeing him on the news (and in the instant YouTube rebroadcast), a lot of kids were suddenly his best friend, acting like they’d always been fighting for mutant rights and couldn’t wait for the dance.

On the one hand, this unearned acclaim was annoying, but he had to admit, it was a lot easier than being part of a tiny fraction of a minority. He began to believe the dance was going to be a stellar success.

He had noticed the car about five minutes earlier, driving slowly along Park Road, and he was surprised to see it again. A dark blue sedan with three men in it. Now it was parked across the road from his house and the men, he noticed with a start, were watching him.

He decided to act cool; ignore them and try to get a better view from the living room window. He turned off his music and began climbing the driveway, feeling their eyes in his back. His heart had started beating faster, though he wasn’t sure why.

The sound of a window sliding down. “Hey, Mike!” Familiar, friendly. Maybe he knew them somehow. Some business associate of his dad’s? He turned slowly. The front passenger window was down and a red-haired man in his forties was looking out, one elbow casually through the window as if he were enjoying a Sunday ride down a country lane. “Mind if we talk a minute?”

Mike stayed where he was. “Sorry, do I know you?”

The man smiled broadly. “Not yet, but I hope we can be friends. Come here.” Despite the smile, Mike felt like it was an order. He looked at the other two men. They weren’t smiling. He walked down to the foot of the driveway and addressed the man from across the road.

“What do you want?”

“Name’s Dennison. Ryan Dennison. I saw you on the news last night. You’re a good speaker; very natural on camera.”

Mike resisted the urge to say “thanks”.

The man ran his fingers through his hair, which was done up in a kind of greasy Elvis pompadour, but red. “Is it true what you told the reporter? You’re not a mutant?”

Something was very wrong here. Mike looked up at his house and it seemed really far away. He turned back and stared the man in the eye. “Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. What’s it to you?”

The man laughed as if Mike’s words were clever. “No, you’re not, are you? I can tell.” He turned to his cohorts in the car. “He’s no mutant.” He looked back at Mike and some of the humor was gone from his face. “You’re making a mistake, son. You’re just young and confused. It seems like a good cause, I’ll bet. Like you’re walking in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement. But this is different, Mike. This is a battle for the future of our world.”

“You’re from Friends of Humanity, aren’t you?” Mike asked. His fear was suddenly replaced by revulsion. “I’m not interested in what you’re selling. See you.” He turned and began walking up the driveway.

“You will retract your school’s invitation to the mutants, Mike. You will tell your principal that it was a mistake. I know he’ll be happy to hear that.”

He turned back despite himself. “And why would I do that, Mr. Dennison?”

“You will do it because we aren’t afraid to fight for human rights — human rights, Michael Haddad — while they still exist. Before Magneto and his armies burn down our houses and make us their slaves.”

“Go away, Mr. Dennison. I don’t talk to bigots.”

“You’ve been tricked, Mike. They know how to get humans on their side when they need them.”

“Get off of my street!”

“If it’s a fight you’re hungry for, join us. We’ll give you something real to fight for!”

“I’m going to call the police.”

“If mutants come to your dance, you will regret it.”

Mike sang in public for the first time since he was a little boy, when he had to sing “Joy to the World” up on the pulpit at church. But now he wasn’t a kid and he knew what he was saying and why. He planted his feet and screamed hardcore defiance at the men:

Yeah! I am just an atom in an ectoplasmic sea
Without direction or a reason to exist!
The anechoic nebula rotating in my brain
Is persuading me, contritely, to persist!

Dennison looked angry for the first time. “You think this is a game?! You think I’m fooling around here?!”

Mike pulled out his cell phone and held it up, his finger on the keypad. Dennison turned and spoke to the driver and the car pulled away with a screech of tires as Mike chanted after them: “Delirium of Disorder! Delirium of Disorder!”

He spat out something bitter onto the pavement and walked up to the house.

“You don’t fucking scare me,” he murmured and slammed the heavy front door, the brass knocker high kicking into the last of the sunshine.

Notes: Mike is singing “Delirium of Disorder” by Bad Religion in the last scene.

Chapter 21

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