Chapter 25: Revenge of the Red Widow

“Oh man,” Mike groaned, his arms about to snap from the weight of two large monitor amps. “Do we really need to hump all this gear to every stop on the tour?”

Xeno, deftly balancing two mic stands, two guitar cases and a backpack full of pedals and cords, laughed through his panting as they climbed the mansion steps. “We can’t count on the venues having decent PAs, Mike. How would you like to arrive in Buttfuck, Idaho an hour before show time and find that they’re only prepared for the church’s favorite accordion soloist?”

Neal saw them as they stumbled through the hall. “Can I help, guys?”

“Yes!” Mike called with relief.

“Nope,” Xeno vetoed him. “We have to get used to this. Practicing set up is as important as practicing your songs.” Neal shrugged and wandered off.

Mike glared at the musician. “You missed your goddamn calling as a drill sergeant in the Marines, asshole.” They entered the gym, where the performance would be the next night.

“Well, where are the other members of our team? Oof!” Xeno grunted as he laid his burden down. “Mike, put those over by the stage area.”

“Yes, sir,” Mike muttered and then lost his balance, the monitors slipping from his grasp and crashing to the floor. The echo circled around them a few times.

Xeno looked up. “Shit, it’s pretty reverberant in here. Sound’s gonna be muddy as hell. Oh well, when you have sound problems, just play louder.”

Mike worriedly looked down at the upended monitors. “Did I break them?”

“Nah, rock and roll gear likes to get beaten up. Seriously, where’s Andi and Jubes? I mean, I’m not surprised the high priests of hip-hop are resting their precious bootys, but —”

“Andi’s on the phone with Charlotte, North Carolina and Jubilee…” He looked towards the door. “…should be here busting her butt with us. Seriously.” He turned the monitors right way up.

“We could use her. I mean, wow! She’s really built up some muscle since she got to mutant school.”

Mike sat on a speaker. “I know. She’s so serious about training. Actually, it’s kind of hot, but a bit…”

“Intimidating? Wait till she buys a strap-on, man.”

“Shut up.”

“Are your folks gonna make it to the show tomorrow night?”

“Yeah, they are. And you know what? It really means a lot to me. I finished school last year on the honor list with the whole Haddad clan chanting ‘med school…, med school…’ Now I’m a pierced punk with a ‘hawk, getting ready to cross the country for mutant rights.”

Xeno ran a finger down the line of his 10 earrings like he was playing a glissando on a xylophone. “I dunno, you look okay to me, man!”

“No doubt. Anyway, the fact that they’re coming all the way here makes me think they might be proud of me for this, too. Your mom decide whether she’s going to make the trip?”

“The jury’s still out. Do you think she’s agoraphobic? I think she’s agoraphobic.” He kicked the monitor Mike was sitting on. “Come on, let’s go break our backs some more. Rehearsal’s in 30 minutes.”

Mike rubbed his sore arms resentfully. “Jubilee!” he screamed at the air in frustration, and as if it were an incantation, she appeared, wandering into the gym looking distinctly distracted. He wandered over and kissed her. If anything, the kiss made her look even more uncomfortable. “Hey, where have you been?” he asked her.

“I had something to do, Okay?” she replied a bit testily.

“I don’t understand. You were supposed to be helping us with —”

Her face did a 180, flipping from doubt to excitement. “Hey, did you fucking hear?!” She grabbed him painfully by the arm.

“Ow! What? No.”

“Bobby and Rogue! They’re official. They’re a couple!”

Mike bit his lip. “Shit. Poor John. Do you think someone should…” His question fell on empty air as Jubilee turned and walked towards the door. “Hey! You’re supposed to be helping unload the gear.” She ground to a halt, her shoes squeaking on the shiny hardwood. “We have to get used to this for the tour, Jubes.” Something’s wrong, Mike thought.

She finally turned slowly to face him, but he could see she was sort of looking at his ear, not his eye. “Um, I have to go… and meet with Ms. Monroe. Can we talk about this after?”

“Talk about what?!”

“Mike! I just gotta…” She turned and ran out. Mike looked at Xeno in surprise but his friend just shrugged.

“Female thing? Gynecological or whatever?”

“Fuck, I hope so,” Mike answered and they headed out for the next load.

As they re-entered the mansion with more speakers and the sound board, Mike noticed Bobby standing at the base of the stairs, frozen like a statue. He jumped when Mike called out his name.

“What? Oh, hey, hi, Mike. How’s it going? You’re, uh, Xeno Evil, right? Welcome to the school! Is there anything you need?” The words spilled out of him in a rush, like tour guide vomit. His smile had a manic edge to it.

“You okay, Bobby?” Mike asked, taken aback.

“Yeah, totally. Listen, I know I should be helping you guys, but…” He glanced up the stairs and seemed to wince. “I just have to check on… uh…” He turned and began ascending the steps at a run, pausing at the landing to look up and wince again before continuing his ascent.

Mike looked at Xeno. “I swear, everyone’s not always a psycho around here.”

“Maybe it’s gynecological,” Xeno responded.

“Shut up.”

***

The walk to his room had never seemed so long to Bobby before. Every inch was a burden, each step set on a steeper incline. Climbing Mount Allerdyce. With his hand poised above the doorknob, Bobby took a final deep breath and entered. Darkness pushed against his eyes like a physical force. It was the middle of the day, but the blinds were drawn tight. The air was stale with the undiluted odor of teenage boy. And from somewhere in the darkness, the relentless clicking of insect feet, as if an army of beetles were traversing a corpse, climbing across the chitinous backs of their fellows, looking for a place at the trough of rot.

“John?” he dared into the darkness, and then, as his eyes adjusted, he realized there was a single point of light in the room: John’s computer, illuminating his roommate’s face with a ghostly radiance. The insects were, of course, John’s fingers flying across his keyboard with alarming speed and intensity. “What are you doing in the dark?”

“I fell asleep. Then I had this idea and I had to start…” his voice trailed off as he backspaced over misstep and began typing again with the same insectoid staccato. He seemed to have forgotten Bobby was even there. Bobby felt a moment of annoyance. He had been coming here prepared for recrimination, or a fight… or sex. He wasn’t ready to be ignored. He snapped on the overhead lights.

“John, I wanted to tell you before you heard from someone else —”

“You and Rogue are a couple,” John said flatly and stopped typing. He furrowed his brow at the words on the screen and then resumed writing.

Bobby was thrown. He stared at John for clues. Was he hurt? Angry? “Um, yeah, we are. But listen, I don’t want you to think this, uh, changes… I mean, we’re still friends and…” John smirked at the screen and Bobby lost his train of thought. “What are you writing anyway?”

“A novel. Listen, Drake, I got to get this out while it’s fresh in my head. Would you mind…?”

Bobby was suddenly really glad for the excuse to leave. In fact, it was all he could do not to run out of this stifling cave into the light and air. “Oh, yeah, sure,” he said. “I’ll just, uh… go.”

He opened the door, but just before he left, John said, “Oh, and Bobby? Before I forget…”

Bobby turned back to find John looking at him with a calm, even gaze. “I talked to Peter. I’m going to be moving in with him tomorrow.”

Bobby panicked. “What? But… you don’t have to move! Me and Rogue don’t… I mean, there’s no reason that —”

John shook his head. “Nah, I think it’s a good idea. Anyway, got to finish this. Turn out the lights before you leave, okay?” John leaned towards his screen, his lips moving as he reviewed a line. He gave a low, dirty chuckle and resumed typing.

Bobby stood in the hall, his back to the door. From behind it, the insects marched across the keyboard relentlessly.

***

“Charles, do you have a second?”

“Certainly, Scott. I’m just going over the numbers for Andi and Michael’s tour. In the last week alone, the lad has managed to squeeze almost $10,000 out of me for additional expenses.”

Scott laughed. “I admire that kid’s tenacity. We should have him fundraising for the school.”

“Don’t imagine the thought hasn’t crossed my mind.” He put his pen down and looked up at his protégé. “What can I do for you?”

“John Allerdyce has missed both his afternoon classes,” Scott replied. “I thought I’d speak to you before I call him to my office.”

Charles felt a pang of regret for his part in the boy’s truancy. John had taken the news that he couldn’t submit his poems badly, and he was not the type to let a hurt just roll off him. “Do you know what he’s been doing instead?”

“According to Bobby, he’s in his room writing a novel.”

“A novel?!” Charles exclaimed in surprise. He had been afraid the earlier disappointment would have driven the boy away from all things literary. And now a novel of all things. It seemed Michael wasn’t the only tenacious one. “Scott, I know the importance of full attendance, but I’d like to let the boy have his way this one time.”

“I don’t like to make exceptions, Charles. It sets a bad precedent.”

“I don’t want to lose John. The gains he has made this year are, I fear, fragile constructs at best. And perhaps he’s creating something extraordinary!” He couldn’t help the note of expectant glee that colored his words.

“Fine. He’s your special case and I’ll defer to your judgment. I just hope we don’t live to regret it.”

***

“Jubilee, where the fuck…?” Mike yelled above the sound of Xeno’s guitar feedback. “We got you the afternoon off to help, and you’re just showing up now?”

“Mike, don’t give me grief,” she shouted back. “Shit’s going down.” Her hair had fallen over her eyes and Mike felt like she was hiding from him.

Xeno yelled from the stage. “Turn down the 5k on the right front monitor, Haddad! You’re killing me!”

Mike’s last nerve was not doing well. “Jesus Christ, I’ve never even seen a sound board before today! Cut me some slack!” He bent over the board and made the adjustment before turning back to Jubilee. “What kind of ‘shit’? We’re going out on tour starting this weekend! With the freakin’ Dazzler! I don’t understand your attitude. Help me understand.”

She put her hands over her ears. “Can we get out of here for a minute? I can’t think! Fuck!”

Mike was suddenly worried. Something was wrong and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what it was. He flashed five fingers at Xeno who rolled his eyes, and followed Jubilee out into the quiet of the hall. An antique chair with carved legs and velvet cushions stood by the wall and she curled herself into it, drawing her feet up and dropping her head to her knees. She looked so lost that Mike forgot his frustration and kneeled in front of her, reaching up to tenderly push the hair away from her face. “What is it? You can tell me.”

“Did you hear about John?” she said quickly. “He’s locked in his dorm writing a novel! He won’t let anyone near him!”

“He’s hurting. That wasn’t good news he got today.” Mike touched her cheek softly. “But that isn’t what you wanted to talk about, Jubes.”

She gave a little moan “I swear, I didn’t intend this, Mike,” she said in embarrassment, but he could already see the steely resolution growing in her black eyes. She took an audible breath and said, “I’m not going on tour with you.”

He froze, at a loss for words. “Okay,” he said mechanically, already preparing to debate her out of whatever reasons she gave. She couldn’t really mean it, he thought. But there was all that resolve… “Why not? Is there something else —?”

“I have to train.” She looked into his eyes as if that was all she needed to say.

He felt himself panicking. This couldn’t be true. He needed her with him. “But you’ll be back by the middle of August. You can train then. Why… why is it so important that you —”

“Mr. Summers and Ororo asked me to stay behind after powers class the other day. They said they were really impressed with me. Not just with how I’m controlling my fireworks, but with, um, they said my leadership and my poise.” She looked at Mike and he knew she wanted him to share her excitement. He understood how much those words must have meant to her, but he couldn’t push past the sick dread that was growing in him. “They told me they want me to be part of the next group of X-Men.”

No! he thought. And the intensity of his unhappiness shocked him. He didn’t want that for her — no, not at all. He didn’t dare tell her this though, so he said, “But what does that have to do with the tour?”

“They said if I want to be an X-Man, I have to get really serious. I can’t take a summer off my training. Do you realize how much of an honor this is? I’m not even a level 3 mutant! My powers are nothing compared to Bobby’s or Peter’s.”

From beyond the gym door, Xeno’s music was starting to drive him crazy. “But who says you want to be X-Man?” His voice was rising, despite his desire to keep cool. “Why do they think they know what you want?!”

“But I do want it, Mike! I have to do this. I watch the news with you every morning, I talk to refugee kids, I see what’s going on, and I can’t stand back. I want to fight!” She uncurled from the chair and rose to her feet, restless energy pushing her to pace up and down the hall.

“But, Jubes,” he said, following at her heels as she paced. “We are fighting! This whole tour is about bringing mutants together so they can stand up and demand their rights! That’s how we’re fighting back!”

She stopped and turned to him. “No! That’s how you’re fighting. I’m not you! I want to stand on the front line when someone wants to hurt us. I want to be like Storm!”

He shook his head, like he could make her words go away. “No, you’re not a violent person, Jubilee. You’re smart and caring —”

“Michael, my life has been full of violence! My parents were murdered, you were attacked… Look at my friends! John, Clarice… they’ve all been hurt by assholes. And when I see that, I just want to kick back! I want to stop those evil bastards who would hurt such beautiful… Such…” She threw her arms around him. “Don’t look at me like that, Mike. I love you! I believe in what you’re doing!”

He couldn’t curb the bitterness in his voice. “But you want to train.”

“I have to train.” He turned away from her. He didn’t know where to put his feelings, his sense of betrayal. He was ashamed for her to see that. He felt her hand on his lower back. “Baby, when the Friends of Humanity were going to kill you, I saved you. Right?”

“Yeah,” he admitted and now he felt ashamed for his weakness — that his girlfriend had to come to his rescue.

“That was one of the worst days of my life, Mike. But you know what? It was also one of the best.”

He scrunched up his face. “How can you say that?”

“Because I saved you,” she answered. “Because I was brave and strong and I made a difference. I want to feel that way again.”

Mike let out a long shuddering breath. “But I want you with me,” he said hopelessly. He pulled her back into his arms and held her tight, like she was drowning and he was saving her from the waves. “I keep imagining us traveling together, meeting all those mutant kids, sleeping together in strange houses, or on the bus… I want to share this summer with you.”

Jubilee started to cry. “I know, I wanted it, too.”

Or was it him drowning? Was he clinging to her? He stroked her hair. “I don’t want you in danger like that. They have no right to push you —”

“They didn’t. It’s my decision and I’m the one making it. But it means I have to make sacrifices.”

He pulled back to stare into her eyes. “Like me. Our relationship is a sacrifice.” He knew he was being an asshole, but he couldn’t help it. It wasn’t fair.

She wiped her eyes and leaned in to kiss his cheek. Her voice was calm now. Resolute. “Michael, I love you! But I can’t be with you this summer.”

And he couldn’t be mature about it; he just couldn’t it. He turned from her and began walking back to the gym. “Fine, good luck. I have to go fucking tweak the 5k or some fucking shit. You… you go kick a bag or whatever turns you on.” Shut up! he told himself, but out loud he said, “I don’t give a shit.”

***

As day wound into evening, excitement about the next day’s concert rose higher. The mansion would occasionally shake with a sound check that got out of hand, and Mike and Xeno would appear from time to time, looking wired or doomed, to grab some food and drink. Sam piped in music by the Dazzler to serenade the cafeteria during dinner and Derek flew into a jealous rage, lambasting everyone for being into the “sell out” instead of the true independent spirits like him and Tonio.

Rogue tried to bring a tray up to John in his writer’s hermitage, but Jubilee cannily volunteered to be the courier in her stead. When she returned, she reported to Doug how John had summarily dismissed her after she lay the tray down outside the door.

“I wonder what he’s writing,” Doug said, pushing his fish around his plate. “I bet it’s awesome.”

Bobby watched the excitement with a distracted smile on his face, answering “You bet!” and “Sure!” to anything Rogue said, though frankly, his mind was a blind weatherman, trying to predict what conditions would be like in his room when he returned. He finally dared enter around 11. Things were much the same as they had been earlier, except that the funk had deepened and John looked much the worse for wear. His eyes were red and his brow sweaty, but still he typed on. Bobby’s concern for himself switched over to worry about John.

He crossed the room and opened the window, letting the fresh night air flow into the room. He got a bottle of orange juice out of the fridge and brought it to John who mumbled “thanks” and took it, drinking deeply without taking his eyes off the screen. He burped and handed the bottle back to Bobby.

“John, why don’t you go to bed? You’ve been writing all day.”

“What? No, it’s going really well. I have the whole thing in my head now. I can finish it.”

Bobby felt his heart sink. John was just doing all this because of him and Rogue. But why was he making such a big deal of it? He wasn’t really going to move out, was he? That was just grandstanding. Bobby wanted to uncoil this mess. He wanted things back the way they were. “Come to my bed, then,” he said. “I’ll help you relax. I’ll make you feel good.”

John looked away from the screen for the first time, giving Bobby a startled look of annoyance. “What? No! Leave me alone.”

The rebuke felt like a slap. Bobby shoved the orange juice in the fridge and slammed the door. He picked up John’s tray of dirty dishes from the floor and dropped it on his dresser with a bang. “Are you doing this to piss me off, Allerdyce?”

“I’m just trying to write, Bobby. Go to sleep.”

“What are you writing, anyway? Is it about me?”

John didn’t answer. The keys clattered under his fingers and Bobby stared at his back. From time to time, John laughed with hoarse glee.

***

The next day was a circus, an explosion of incident and wonder. The teachers were endeavoring to remind the students that there were still two weeks of school left, during which important assignments and quizzes were still to be completed. (Xavier did not believe in the artificial pressure of final exams, or that cramming was an effective learning tool.) But their words had little effect on the population of the mansion.

First of all, a pretty young woman in her early twenties entered with Andi during breakfast, and it took only a few seconds before everyone knew that this was the Dazzler.

She was soon mobbed, but she handled the incident with humility and aplomb. “Great to meet you, Sam. My name’s Alison, actually; not Dazzler. No, Dani, it’s totally an honor to meet you guys. I can’t believe there’s actually a mutant high school. If I could have gone here, I wouldn’t have waited so long to come out as a mutant.”

Mike, who had met Alison Blaire a few weeks earlier in New York, stood back and watched the excited buzzing. He hoped it was a harbinger of things to come on the tour. Alison’s positive attitude was exactly what they needed. She had told him she was excited to interact with kids across the country, not just hit the stage and then hide in the dressing room. The funniest thing was watching Derek and Tonio sulking in the corner until Andi called them forward to meet the center of attention, at which point they instantly transformed into gushing fanboys.

Despite the delight in the room, Mike’s mood was soured by Jubilee’s announcement. Suddenly everything felt different, the tour a long slog without reward, tonight’s concert a joyless responsibility. He wished he could just take off and let someone else take over. But the tour had been his idea and he wasn’t one to run from responsibility, no matter how painful. He knew he should have spent last night in one of the spare dorms with his girlfriend, but the fight stood between them like a stone barricade. And he knew he was the one who had built it. Soon he’d be gone, and when the tour was over, he’d move back in Boston. She would remain here, with her people, training to become something he couldn’t relate to. He didn’t understand why life had to be like this… soured just when it was at its sweetest.

He heard Rogue telling Allison, “I can’t wait for you to meet my boyfriend. He’s a big fan of yours.” She was looking around the cafeteria for Bobby who had still not come down. Mike wondered if there had been a bad fight in the dorm last night. Certainly no one had needed to call the fire department or break down an iced-over door with an axe. Just then, Bobby entered, his eyes red, his hair uncharacteristically disheveled, yawning extravagantly. He stood beside Mike, taking in the spectacle of the group around the singer, but not showing much reaction.

“Rough night?” Mike ventured, sympathetically.

Bobby raised his fingers up into two witch-like, typing claws. “Clatta-clatta-clatta-clatta!” he said and then repeated the motion, cackling like a fiend.

“The guy’s driven! Do you think he’s okay?”

“Why wouldn’t he be?” Bobby snapped and instantly put on a smile and returned Rogue’s wave, moving towards the huddle as if he was genuinely enthusiastic.

The circus’s next act was the arrival of families, friends and associates of the school, a process which began after breakfast and continued all day. It didn’t take Scott long to realize that whatever else he hoped to accomplish that day would be swallowed up by his duties as host. He still didn’t like the social role that was part of his job description as assistant headmaster, but he knew he had improved in it since his awkward beginnings back in September.

“Mr. and Mrs. Haddad, nice to have you back here,” he said with a smile and firm handshake.

Mr. Haddad smiled brightly, looking around. “Is Michael around?”

“Sorry to say it, but I doubt you’ll get more than three seconds of his time between now and the show. I’m impressed by the boy’s energy.” Mr. Haddad laughed, but his wife looked distinctly put out. “However, Professor Xavier is looking forward to lunching with you,” Scott added in as conciliatory a tone as he could.

When lunchtime came, Xavier was occupied and Scott was annoyed to find himself stuck at a table making small talk with the assembled guests; but then an ominous shadow fell across the table. All eyes turned upwards and the convivial chatter evaporated. The man was a behemoth in silver goggles, close to eight feet tall and he must have weighed in at more than 400 pounds. The fancy suit he was wearing didn’t hide the fact that the weight was all muscle. “Hello, Scott,” the man said in a deep voice with a New Jersey accent.

“Hey, Guido. Nice threads.”

“It’s Armani. Custom, of course.”

“You’ll excuse me, folks? Mr. Carosella and I have some business to discuss.”

Guido gave the group a toothy grin, which seemed to frighten them even more.

Scott led him to the gym where the preparations were still under way. Peter was on his hands and knees, working on an illustrated banner that would fly above the stage throughout the tour. Sam and Neal were setting lights. Scott called to Mike and Xeno who joined them, their jaws dropping when Guido Carosella stepped in from the hall.

“You can call me ‘Strong Guy,’” he told them and they just nodded.

Scott was enjoying the effect of the giant mutant was having. It wasn’t often he had this much fun. “I told you I’d get you security for the tour, didn’t I?”

Xeno recovered faster than Mike and stuck out (up!) a hand for the big mutant to shake. “Hope you like good music, Strong Guy.”

“I sure do. I’m especially partial to Sinatra, k.d. lang and Tchaikovsky.”

The chaos tipped into madness just before lunch when everyone in the mansion received an email with the subject: “The Revenge of the Red Widow.” It contained, of course, John’s novel. Novella would have been more accurate, as it barely topped 50,000 words. It was full of explosive hilarity, badly in need of proofreading and utterly, gleefully pornographic. It didn’t take long before everyone was reading it, taking it on their laptops and handhelds from class to class, and disrupting the flow of the day reciting it to each other.

“‘—But can your Mississippi belle offer you riches to compare to these? — Ivy tore asunder her décolletage and her bosom heaved loose, like twin Arabians breaking from the start line in a blur of alabaster foam.’” Kitty’s voiced crested and swooped like a B-grade Scarlet O’Hara.

In fact, the whole student body seemed to have been transformed into a summer stock production of “Showboat.” Before math class, Sam stood on a bench in the hall, surrounded by a small audience, declaiming, “‘The buttons of his pants were of the finest copper, polished daily by a buxom serving girl with energetic strokes of her chamois cloth!’ Yeah, I’ll bet. Ahem. ‘Now, under the turgid forces of irrepressible lust, they popped off one by one, showering Lucy-Belle’s boudoir floor like so many scattered sovereigns. She looked up from her bed, where she lay spread open and fertile as the Mississippi Delta, and moaned — Do not make a beggar of me, dear Beauregard. My love is yours, gratis.’”

The students howled appreciatively, but Bobby stood away from the pack, embarrassed and angry. How could John have done this to him? Of course, he knew that no one really understood what they were reading — a thinly veiled reference to John, Rogue and himself — but John could have hurt Rogue’s feelings with all this fake Southern bullshit! Didn’t he think of that? Bobby sat down by the wall and opened the copy on his laptop. He reminded himself that Rogue had already declared the work silly but hilarious. She’d even been flattered by whatever uncalled for attention the story brought her. She thought John was altogether the most interesting guy at the mansion, though she assured Bobby that only he had her heart.

And if ‘interesting’ were the only label he had for John, and if his own supposed feckless promiscuity weren’t being spread across the pages of the book, he might have been more forgiving. He scrolled through the pages with disgust and all the words for “penis” jumped out at him: “love scepter,” “the blacksmith’s hammer.” It made him want to scream. Suddenly, he stopped scrolling and his eyes fell across a passage he hadn’t seen yet:

— Save your protestations of love, Beauregard — Ivy Lerre de Poison declared. — I told you when we met. Love means nothing to me.

He looked her up and down incredulously, still moved by the round form in the red satin sheath. — If love means nothing, then the terrible revenge you have exacted from my Lucy-Belle is meaningless. What but love could have driven you so?

In my actions you see the sad truth. — the widow confessed. — Love is a rotten fruit that poisons all. — She held a pale hand to her breast as if the very heart within threatened to leap out, alien and terrible. — I never demanded your love, sir, only your loyalty. But that you could not give.

Bobby felt like he’d been sucker-punched. He slowly closed his laptop. The Red Widow’s speech was the same thing John had said to him the week he came to the mansion: “I don’t care about love; it’s all just words. I want you to promise that you won’t betray me.”

I didn’t betray you! I saved you! Bobby protested. I got you into the mansion, I introduced you to the Professor. I never promised I’d be your… your whatever. It’s not wrong that I want to be with Rogue! It’s normal, it’s the simplest thing in the world. Why do you have to make up all this drama over… over…

“Hey, Bobby,” Doug said, standing above him. “Wake up, time for class.”

He tried to smile in response, but he was too confused. He wasn’t sure where he was or how he’d gotten there. That feeling was becoming all too familiar.

 

At first, Charles had missed the single, crucial fact that John had mailed his… work… to the whole of the school. Thinking he was the only one reading it, Charles had found the strange novella simply a baffling miscalculation on the boy’s part, a joke he thought his mentor would appreciate. But no, it was a statement. John had hijacked the whole school on this important day with a puerile stunt. Charles could only see it as a deliberate slap in his face. His legendary calm was all too easily undermined when it came to this boy.

The young author sat across from him in rumpled jeans and a stained t-shirt, hair disheveled, eyes red from lack of sleep, a mask of smug self-satisfaction painted across his features. Does he think he can get away with anything? Charles wondered. He had to clear his throat twice before he could speak. “For the last two days, I have protected your time so you could write. I have explained to your frustrated instructors that you were on the verge of some breakthrough. I put my integrity on the line based on my faith in you.” He paused. Looking down, he noticed how he was tapping his pen nervously. He grabbed the instrument in a tight fist.

“Is this where I say ‘thank you,’ John asked. “Or does that come later?”

“This is where you explain to me what you mean by this nonsense, St. John!”

John twisted like a pretzel in his chair, but his eyes and their challenge never wavered. “Hey, you should be proud, Professor. I wrote my first novel!”

“I know you better than that. I know that you understand the triviality of what you have written. After we have worked together so hard this year, should I consider this your final exam effort?”

“You don’t believe in final exams,” he replied. Charles could feel the boy’s anger growing like a wave. He could feel the palpable urge to reach for the lighter in his pocket. To use how? Against whom?

“St. John, you are a writer! Why are you making a laughing-stock of yourself?”

“If everyone’s laughing it’s because I wrote it that way. If I wanted them to cry, they’d be crying. It’s just a game, Professor. It’s all meaningless.”

Xavier felt his rational mind fail him. He sputtered, “It’s not! It’s a gift and you can be a great artist if you so choose! But not if you —”

The boy sprang to his feet and marched forward, leaning on the desk with rigid arms, his face close enough that Charles could smell the unbrushed teeth. “Maybe it’s not me that wants to be great. Maybe it’s you that wants to live through me!”

“I am your teacher, John,” Charles said, his temper hanging by a thread. “It is my job to help you succeed.”

“You’re a failed writer, Charles! And you’ve been using me to get your kicks, relive the dream of being young and boner-hard talented. Well, I’m not going to play your game. It means nothing to me!”

Charles’ mind flew into a storm of protest. What was the boy saying? His chest felt tight. He needed room to think. He wanted the boy out of his face. “You are in this school because of your writing,” he said. “Do not jeopardize —”

John cut him off. “That may be why you took me in the first place, but I’ve proven myself! I have high marks, I work hard in powers class. I could be an X-Man!” The boy’s spit flew as he shouted, hitting his teacher’s face. “I don’t need to be your pet project to deserve my place in this mutant circus!”

Charles reached out with his mind before he could stop himself. John gave a squeak of surprise as he found himself jerked upright, arms pinned to his side, legs locked. Charles could feel John’s shock. He let go immediately, cursing himself for his loss of control. “John, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

He watched as fear and humiliation turned to raw fury. Charles prepared himself to control John again if he should move to attack him, but John jumped back with a growl. “You don’t get to live through me anymore, old man! I’m St. John Allerdyce and I’m no one’s fucking PUPPET!”

“John, please,” Charles began. “We both lost ourselves, let’s calm down and —”

John ran for the door, turning as he opened it. “You want to calm down? Go make yourself some Earl Grey, old man and shove it up your ass!” He ran out the door, slamming it behind him.

Charles put his hands to his head, mortified, feeling the sweat on his brow. How? How did I allow this to happen? The boy’s charge was preposterous; everything they had done had been for St. John’s benefit! But what if the boy was right? Maybe he had glommed onto John’s talent to satisfy his own ego. Was he such a narcissist? Did he use up his prize students one by one? Manipulate them into the shapes he wanted them? Scott? Ororo? Look what he was doing with Jean! What if Erik was right about her? He found himself breathing hard, clutching the pen like he wanted to snap it in two.

Two short knocks and the door opened. Scott, of course. “Charles, what the hell was that?!”

“Scott, not now —”

“No! I am sick of that boy thinking he runs the show around here. A teenager losing his temper is one thing, but telling you to shove it? I’m sorry, that crosses so many lines —”

Charles’s voice was louder than he meant it to be. “You don’t understand! St. John and I, we have a difficult relationship. Maybe… maybe I’ve done it all wrong. I don’t know anymore. I wanted to nurture his gift, to give him confidence.”

“There is a difference between confidence and lack of respect. For himself, for his fellow students, for Bobby, for his teachers…” Scott pounded on the wall with a fist and Charles recoiled from the noise, dropping his head into hands.

“Sit down, I beg you. I don’t think I can take another pitched battle. Not now, not with you.”

Scott sat. “All right, I’m sorry. You know John best. Tell me what you think his problem is and what you think we should do.”

Charles took a moment to breathe. He finally put the pen down, aligning it beside the plastic desk cover. “We need to listen to him. He might be right. I might have…” He stopped. A mental ripple. A wave coming, white-capped and terrible… He spun his chair around, looking out the window in horror. “St. John! NO!”

John Allerdyce stood on the gravel driveway. At his feet was a pile of papers. Charles could feel through the boy’s mind the particular identity of every sheet, every scrap. Years of work, torn from him in bloody operations, shifting nervously in the late afternoon breeze. In John’s hand, the lighter. Scott was on his feet, running from the room to intercept him. And Charles… couldn’t he stop him? Couldn’t he?

“I’m nobody’s puppet!” John screamed. “I’m not a fucking WHORE!” click. skritch. fwoosh. The flame leaped free and then crashed at his feet, devouring the poetry in its hungry jaws. Charles could feel the exhilaration through John’s mind. He could feel the elemental beauty of the fire as the boy felt it, the joy of the pure, consuming force. The inferno rose into a tower to engulf the pyrokinetic. The last thing the teacher felt before he pulled himself from the student’s mind was the angelic kiss of the flame on his skin. Charles opened his eyes and watched through the window as John stepped calmly, unscathed from the shrinking column of flame and began to walk away around the school, leaving his creations to twist and blacken, their final proclamations not in carefully wrought words, but in smoke.

 

Three minutes earlier, Bobby had been wandering the halls again, trying to get up the nerve to go and talk to John when he looked up and saw him barreling down the stairs, clutching an unruly nest of papers to his chest, sheets escaping and flying into the air as he ran. There was something wrong in his eyes. “John…?” But there was no stopping John’s momentum which carried him out the front door. To his left, the sound of more running feet. Bobby looked down the hall and there was Scott, racing towards him. Two and two together, Bobby suddenly realized, without knowing exactly why, that he had to get to John — preferably before Scott.

“I’m not a fucking whore!”

Bobby froze as the flames rose into the sky, engulfing John. Move! Move! But then John was free of the inferno, walking away unharmed. Oh my god it’s his poems and Bobby ran down the steps, spraying ice at the blaze just as Scott ran down the steps to join him.

“I got it,” Bobby yelled to him. “There, it’s out.” They both looked down at the sodden, black mess. In the twisted debris, Bobby recognized the remains of John’s old leather folder, the one he had been carrying the day they met. He felt sick.

“John! John Allerdyce, you stop right there!” Scott yelled beside him and Bobby looked up to see John rounding the corner of the school and disappearing. Months of training had honed Bobby’s instincts. Sometimes in combat class, he would make a move without consciously planning it, and that’s what he did now. He lowered himself and jumped to the right, blocking Scott just as his teacher began his sprint to catch John. Scott hit him hard and they both went down on the gravel walk. Bobby felt the stones scrape his arm.

They were both on their feet in a second. Bobby grabbed Scott by the arms. “Let him go, please!”

“Out of my way, Bobby!”

“Please! He’s gone through enough… Just…” Scott jerked his hands loose and Bobby grabbed them again. He realized how far he was pushing it, but there was no choice. He looked desperately into Scott’s face, struggling to convey his unformed feelings. “Just let him go and he’ll calm down. Then… then I’ll talk to him. Please?”

Scott pulled his arms away again and crossed them on his chest. He turned a scowling face to the mansion and Bobby looked up to see Professor Xavier at the window, his face a mask of tension. Bobby realized that the two of them were speaking telepathically. He saw that the scene had drawn a crowd. From the front door, from the windows, students, teachers and guests were watching. Bobby looked back at the sodden remains of John’s poetry. John wasn’t out of control, he thought. He lit the fire where it couldn’t damage anything else. Does Scott see that?

“Fine,” Scott spat, his conversation with the Professor clearly over. “I wash my hands. Obviously I’m the only one who doesn’t understand John Allerdyce.” He brushed gravel off his black shirt. “I have to go see to our guests. Excuse me.” He turned and walked back up the steps.

Bobby looked towards the Professor, hoping the old man would speak in his mind, reassure him. But Xavier’s face disappeared from the window. Bobby returned to the mansion, finding loose scraps of poetry in the bushes and on the stairs. He folded them and stuffed them deep into his pants pocket. He would keep them. Secretly.

He waited half an hour before he went to their room. The first thing he saw when he opened the door was the void where John’s life had been. The bed, the dresser, the walls — all had been emptied. Bobby felt again the pang he had felt when Lance left. Like someone had died.

“Hi,” came the voice and it was only then that Bobby stepped inside and looked at his own half of the room. John was on his (Bobby’s) bed, wrapped in a sheet. Before Bobby could speak a surprised greeting, the sheet fell, revealing his friend’s aroused nakedness.

John had once asked him, “If you had to write a poem about something, what would it be?” Bobby had answered, “Your dick,” before going down on that very subject. He thought now that it hadn’t just been a glib remark. It was a beautiful penis. Hard, it arced a bit to the left. The head was most of the way out of the hood of foreskin, red and ripe as a plum. Bobby was somehow moved by this vision in a way no words could have captured.

“I thought… you had gone,” he managed, suddenly bashful.

“To Pete’s room or like gone gone?”

“I don’t know. John, what happened outside…”

John’s eyes seemed to gleam with a strange intensity that was both scary and unbearably hot. “Shh, don’t talk about that, Bobby. Get undressed. Come here.”

“I don’t know. We have to go down to dinner soon and —”

“No, come on, you need it. It’s been a bad day.”

And yes it had been and there was John, like a comfort Bobby kept hidden in a drawer, something that felt good in this hard life. And was it so wrong? Didn’t he deserve that much? So he took off his clothes, and he was hard, too, and there was so much pleasure to be had and he wanted it so bad. And John was whispering in his ear and jacking him with aching slowness.

“Here,” Bobby breathed. “Let me —”

“No, shh, Bobby, just let me do the work.”

Bobby let himself be pushed down on the bed, his legs moved apart. And John’s tongue was on his hole, and it felt so perfect and so dirty and made him open up all the parts of himself that no one would ever see. Not Scott or even Rogue… just John.

“I’m gonna put a finger in you, don’t worry, just breathe.” Bobby couldn’t find the words to object, and he didn’t search for them. John’s hand was strong around him, squeezing and relaxing on his dick as the finger slid inside. ahhhhhhhhhh strange. He felt suspended somewhere above the world as the finger moved in him, touched new places. He found himself moving onto all fours to let it go deeper. And there was something cold there now, slippery. And a second finger. It was like a game. How much can you take?

“The world,” Bobby answered himself and John said, “No one’s here but me, Bobby.” And what else did he need, rocking and moaning, the fingers taking him somewhere new?

John was so close to him, he might have been some dark shadow of Bobby’s soul. “I’m going to fuck you now,” the John shadow said and Bobby pulled away a little. But the John shadow cooed and caressed in a language of hands and moans so the Bobby just let it happen. He heard the latex swish of the condom, felt the round pressure of the head and then the John was inside for real and for good. Penetrated. Better than telepathy, but worse, too. Something revealed that could never again be concealed, and this was being fucked. And he was glad.

“Is it good, Bobby? Tell me it’s good.”

“Shh, shh, Don’t say anything… Fuck me,” Bobby said and the voice was one he had never heard, but recognized all the same. “Don’t say my name. Just fuck me.”

And there was no doubting; this was as physical as it got. This was no romance novel. It was sweat and smell and slap and groan. Bobby’s dick was jerking without being touched, John’s hands digging into his hips. And he was cumming, just like that and the voice saying, “No, no, oh no,” was his own as John gave a choking gasp and pushed in hard, holding still, his whole body spasming against Bobby, inside Bobby.

They fell sideways on the bed, breathing hard, finding the way back to Earth and John was pulling out and Bobby thought, No, no stay with me. But John wasn’t with him. Bobby felt the sudden absence like a blow. He turned to find John pulled back to the furthest corner of the bed, staring at him with unfathomable fury. “Johnny…” Bobby began in confusion.

John’s words were carved in ice, hard, jagged, conscious. “That’s it, Drake. Last time. Like it? Too bad, there’s no more.”

Bobby couldn’t move. His brain tried to change John’s words into a possible joke. The alchemy was beyond him.

“Go!” John’s voice rose to a higher octave, dressing itself in faux-Mississippi drag. “Be with your Marie, sugah!” And John kicked at him, legs flailing until Bobby had to retreat to the floor, looking up in shock. “I’m not your secret anymore, Drake! I’m not your secret whore!” John stood up on the bed and jumped right over Bobby, heading for his clothes, draped over the desk chair.

Bobby’s mouthed worked as John pulled on his pants, trying to form words. “John, no! There has to be a way. It can be like before —”

“No! No it can’t! I declare it over!” He pushed his feet into his shoes, pulled his t-shirt on over his sweating torso. “Finished. I take nothing with me but your secrets. And you have mine. You have them inside you.” He opened the door, and his final words were a dark whisper, a hiss, a curse. “You’re fucked, Drake.” He slammed the door.

He was gone.

Bobby was shaking. He didn’t dare feel. One feeling and he would be lost in a pit from which there was no escape. He focused on a spot on the floor, on a knot in the hardwood that the wood grain had to circle around. An impediment. A scar. He became aware of the sounds of the mansion: the slam of a door, a peal of laughter, a blast of music. He looked up and saw the time on his bedside clock. 5:30. A special dinner had been arranged, with white linen on tables out on the back lawn. The tour launch party. Guests, speeches. He wanted to stay here on the floor forever, become a knot in the woodwork and let the world flow around him. But that wasn’t the way it played. Bobby Drake had a place at that dinner with a smile on his face. Yes, he knew his part in the show.

He rose stiffly and picked up a towel, mechanically searching his torso for cum. I’m still here, he thought rather obviously as he felt his body. His ass hurt a bit, but that wasn’t surprising. He dropped the towel into his hamper, pulled on shorts and headed to the bathroom with his toilet kit. Under the water, he let the day wash off him. Maybe more than the day… Maybe all the hidden fingerprints of the winter and spring… Maybe all the evidence.

Back in his room, he put in just the right amount of gel in his hair, dressed with care, and took a step back to assess himself in the mirror. He looked like Bobby Drake again. No one would ever know. He was quite certain that John would not be around that evening; he’d be hiding in some remote corner of the grounds. Or gone completely? Doubtful. By the time he had to face him again, Bobby felt certain he would be ready — armored, sure of his course. He found his smile in a drawer, with Peter Pan’s shadow. He stuck it in place with soap and went downstairs.

***

“Good Evening, Westchester!” she called into the microphone and 30 students, teachers and guests erupted in cheers that had been building in them for two days. “My name is Kitty Pryde and I welcome you to the kick off concert of the first ever Mutant Youth Unity Tour!”

Mike bumped her level a bit. Xeno was right: it seemed loud enough in sound check, but with an audience in the room, with the excitement in the air, you needed just that little bit extra.

“The amazing musicians you are going to see tonight have dedicated this show to the mutants of America. It seems appropriate as we wind up the first year at the School for Gifted Youngsters that we send them off to continue the work Professor Xavier and the other teachers have done here. On behalf of young mutants everywhere, let’s give them a Westchester cheer!” The audience responded on cue, Kitty egging them on with a waving hand. She screamed over their noise, “And now, put your hands together for Derek and Tonio!”

The beat dropped hard, infinitely tighter and more compelling than their impromptu show at the Betrayers protests, thanks to their musical director and DJ, Xeno Evil, who stood backlit on a riser with laptop and guitar. The boys hit the stage like the stars they knew they were, hands pumping.

Born red as fire
In desire’s kitchen
Bitchin’ ‘bout a world where justice is a liar
Born in a hood
Where the good are laughed at
Where half a chance is a luxury 

Manifest mutant, a student I became
Of the game of hatred
Of the world of blame
Is it a shame? I’m not crying
I’m trying to explain
To get into your brain that we’re all the same! 

DAYS OF BECOMING!
Will you fight or fail?
DAYS OF BECOMING!
Break out of your jail
DAYS OF BECOMING!
Can you hear the drumming?
We’ve known war before.
Will we open that door?
Or can we find the time to
Release
Peace?

Not that anyone would have guessed it, but Scott was something of a hip-hop fan, though he betrayed little with the minimal rocking of his head during the set. Jean stood behind him, her arms around his middle, her head nuzzling into his neck. He was worried about her. She had been nervous and out of sorts since Liberty Island, clinging to him in a way that was pleasurable, but not her norm. Charles had said not to worry, but Scott could always tell when the two of them had their telepaths’ secrets. He didn’t like it.

Can we find the time release peace? An excellent question posed by the rhymes. He knew the words were John’s and they were good. If the kid had this much talent, why did he have to squander it with violence and disrespect? Scott despised waste.

Xeno’s set was a different beast altogether. He was joined by a girl drummer with yellow hair which, on closer inspection was really myriad tentacles that writhed and danced as she played. Xeno threw a barrage of noise and fury at the audience, his guitar laying down grinding rumbles of chord over the beat, while screaming creatures of light emerged from the nodes on his arm to circle the room with a blistering counterpoint.

Your hate will seal your fate
Mister!
Oops, too fucking late
Mister!

Everyone was on their feet, sweating and jumping to the powerful sound. In the front row was the unlikely sight of his biggest fan: his mother, a painfully shy and awkward woman transformed into a screaming groupie. Xeno broke character from time to time to smile at her with genuine affection.

Mike was sweating, too, sitting at the sound board, trying to remember all the details that Xeno wanted him to catch in his sound mix. He knew he wasn’t going to be perfect for a while — maybe never — but he tried to focus on the show as a whole, not on his imperfect, amateur part in it. He was all about focus, because thinking outside his responsibilities was painful. And then Jubilee was there, sliding shyly into his space behind the board, beside the reverbs and compressors.

Nothing gonna cut me down!
No one gonna hold me down!
Nowhere to go but up from here!
Don’t think I can’t kick your butt from here!

He didn’t have time or concentration to decide how to react to her presence. He had to reset three different things before the next song… and his hand had to touch her as it reached over to change a preset… and as the drummer counted it in fast and hard, he was pulling her to him, putting her in his lap, kissing her neck. He gave up on perfection. He brushed away her tears before adjusting the delay on the vocal mike. He kissed her mouth as the angry guitar broke over the crowd — the anger that can only be the shadow cast by love’s brilliant light.

When the Dazzler entered for her set, the crowd cheered long and hard before she sang a note. She acknowledged them with quiet confidence and began singing over a loop as deep and sparse as the bottom of the sea. She pulled notes like bells from her guitar. She needed no spotlight; the multicolored, shifting lights emanated from the sound waves around her. She manipulated them with mutant art, every bit as affecting as the sounds and words. The audience was utterly, utterly in her spell.

I carry hope in a locket
In a secret fold in my pocket
I open it up
On the floor of the ocean
A deep sea diver
The only survivor

Rogue felt like she was breathing for the first time, gosh, since Liberty Island, or maybe since she’d left home five months ago. She found herself thinking of Logan, of the kindness and loyalty that hid under the gruff mask of the violent outsider. She reminded herself that it was hardly right to be thinking of another man as she leaned against her boyfriend, his long arm around her shoulders.

And hope is weighty
But it makes me buoyant
Makes me rise like a giant
To float across your day

Little golden spotlights flew off the strings of the Dazzler’s guitar and seemed to reach out and find them all, touch them intimately. Rogue felt her tears come and turned to bury her face in Bobby’s chest. He leaned down to comfort her and she automatically raised a gloved hand to prevent him from accidentally touching her skin. She smiled up at the gallant boy and let her lips brush again his hair. At least she could kiss those golden curls. She thought that she had never smelled anything as sweet as Bobby Drake’s hair.

But when I bring you my dream
You tell me you can’t see it
I try hard not to scream
For it’s hard enough to be it
To hold the doubts at bay
To wonder and to cope.

Tell me, lover…
Did I break your hope?

Charles had slipped out discreetly during the first two sets; the sound was louder and more ferocious than he could abide. But he had returned for Alison Blaire’s performance, drawn as much by the complex timbres of the music as by the rich psychic reactions of the crowd. He closed his eyes and let his mind dance across the collective mental sigh. Music, he had found, had the remarkable effect of unifying the psychic rhythms of a crowd until they functioned, fundamentally, as a group consciousness. To his telepathic senses, it sounded like a choir in perfect harmony.

He felt an absence in the chorus, a missing note in the harmony, and regret soured the perfection of the experience. He reached out his mind and found St. John. Hurt, anger, terrible loneliness. To delve deeper would have been self-serving and, frankly, obscene. He owed the boy his privacy, and pulled away. Instead, he looked at his own cowardice, his arrogance. I’m sorry, John.

Am I giving all my love to you
Or just giving you enough rope?
Tell me lover,
Did I break your hope?

St. John could hear the music drifting out through the windows. The summer was upon them all, humid and demanding. Life roared in the bushes around him and in the pond on whose banks he lay, too abject to move. He had no part in the music of life; he was a dead man who had no mourners but himself. He reached out a hand that wanted to touch Bobby’s cool skin and found only mud. He wept bitterly into the grass for the end of foolish dreams.

 

END OF BOOK 3

Chapter 26

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