As per usual, many many thanks to Jedimom, who has been my partner in crime on this project from day one.
"You're sure about this?"
"You don't have to do it."
"I want to."
"I can do this alone."
"I wanna go with you."
"Right. Sit down." I pat the bench and Hannah and I sit down together in the sun in front of the mansion. Tucking my leg up and rubbing the spot where my anklet used to be, I say, "This isn't going to be easy."
"People are going to say awful things to both of us. But remember, they're not true."
I put my hands on her shoulders and say, "This could be a lot worse than you're used to. It's not like when that new kid at church freaked out, 'cause if someone gets nasty here, there won't be anyone but us to tell them what they're doing is wrong. Just don't let it get to you, okay? No matter what they say, don't believe them."
"And if it's too much and you want to come back, just say so."
"I'm not gonna let them scare me off!"
That's my girl. "And no tongue, no jumping, and no sticking to things. Don't even let anyone know how strong you are. That'll just make it tougher."
"If they don't like it, that's too bad!"
"Save it for next time."
"Oh, all right," she grumbles.
"Right." I stand up and hold out my hand. "Ready?"
She stands next to me and takes my hand. "Ready!"
For the first time in five years, I walk out the gates of the professor's mansion.
I turn and look back, giving Agnes a wave as she watches from the apartment window. She didn't want us to go out alone. She wanted to be with us, and bring Logan along just in case things got ugly, but I wouldn't have it. I want to walk to the park, buy an ice cream cone, and walk back, without a normal person by my side. Just my green self.
And then Hannah heard what I wanted to do and insisted she come along.
So here we are, walking down the empty country road together, under the blazing August sun. No skulking about in the shadows. No bulky clothes. I'm in a t-shirt and cargo pants, Hannah's in a tank top and shorts, and there's not a cloud in the sky. You'd have to be colorblind not to know we were mutants.
No matter how bad things get today, I won't let anyone goad me into violating parole and getting into a fight. Not after five years trapped in that mansion. I've spent too much of my life behind other people's walls. I'm not doing that ever again.
Feels funny not having the anklet on.
"So, you looking forward to going to England next month?" I ask.
"I don't want to see Gramma and Grampa."
"Don't tell me you're still mad at them."
"They put you in an orphanage because you were green!"
"I told you, I've forgiven them. And they're sorry."
"I don't care."
"Look, it's my job to be mad at them for that, not yours. And I'm not. Never have been."
"Well if you won't do it, then I'll do it for you."
"And I hate my dad too."
"Well, I'm not gonna talk you out of that."
"How come it's okay for me to hate him, and not my grandparents? What they did was worse!"
"But they've made up for it. And things were really different back then."
"No they weren't! All the kids at the school had the exact same thing happen to them."
"Yes, but back then there weren't any places like the Institute where we could go to be with other kids like us. Mutants just hid."
"We still hide. It sucks."
"Well, not today. And watch your language."
"Logan says that all the time."
"Logan says a lot of things, but he's not seven years old."
"So, if my dad tries to make up for leaving me, do I have to forgive him?"
"No, that's your decision to make."
"Okay. I don't need him anyway. I've got you, and Logan for a backup."
"Backup? Like if I get a flat or something?"
"Mortimer!" Good, I've got her laughing again.
"So, you at least looking forward to seeing England?"
"Yeah! And the airplane!"
With any luck, she'll forget her grudge once we get there. I wish she hadn't found out about that at all, but it was important for me to tell the kids at the school about it so they'd know I really did understand what they were going through. I didn't tell them what my orphanage experience was like, though. No need to go into that with them. Hell, my own parents don't even know that, and I'm pretty sure I haven't told Agnes the whole story either. No point, really. She knows enough.
Only three or four people really know the whole story: Jean, Doctor Shapiro, Shariya, maybe the professor, and in retrospect, I really wish none of them did. I didn't even tell Magento or Mystique everything. I'm not a fan of pity. Besides, that was over half my life ago. No point in bringing it up anymore. It doesn't change anything.
I can see the end of Graymalkin Lane. This is it. Here's where the tough part begins. "Get ready, Hannah. Here comes the main road."
Her hand grips mine tighter. "I'm ready."
We turn the corner. So far, so good. The roads to the park are pretty empty. It's all residential out here, and it's the middle of the school day, so there aren't a lot of people walking about. I'll try going somewhere with more people later. One step at a time. And I'm not trying it disguised either. I'm never doing that again. What with my being on parole, I may not be able to fight physically anymore, so I'll just fight by being myself in public.
A car passes, and the driver leans his head out the window and yells, "Freaks!"
"You're a freak!" Hannah yells back, then grumbles, "I don't think he heard me."
"No, he yelled from a car because he's too much of a coward to say it to our faces. He didn't want to hear anything we had to say back at him."
"Normal people are so stupid."
"Not all of them. Your mother's a normal person. The people at church are normal people."
"Okay, most normal people are stupid."
"A lot of them are, yeah. But a lot aren't. We just need to figure out how to educate the ones that need it."
"Like Elizabeth Blackthorne does."
"Yeah, like that. And like your grandmother does in England."
"I don't want to talk about her anymore!"
"Or like Genosha!" she says excitedly. "I wish we could go to Genosha. A whole country, just for us!"
Ah, Genosha. The reason why mutant rights were endangered in the States for nearly a year. Luckily, Magneto ended up being a benevolent ruler, but still, he had a lot of people scared when he blackmailed the U.N. into letting him rule that island. "We can't go there, Hannah. I'm sorry. Remember? Magneto's mad at me."
"Still? But he said all mutants could live there!"
"I don't think he means me."
"Well, maybe he'll change his mind about you some day," she says.
"I doubt it." Not his style, really. Besides, even though he's doing good things for Genosha, I still wouldn't put it past him to try to get back at me by grabbing Hannah. And if he wouldn't, Sabretooth sure as hell would. She doesn't need to know this yet, though. It's enough that Agnes understands. Don't think we need to worry about Hannah running off to Africa on her own at her age.
"Okay, time to cross the street," I say. "Let's look both ways."
She carefully looks one way, then the other. Crossing the street is actually a novelty for this kid, but hopefully not for much longer. "All clear!"
"Right, let's go." And here's the park. Okay, from what Kitty tells me, the ice cream stand is off to the left. "This way, Hannah."
"Hey look! Those monkey bars are huge!" Hannah gushes, pointing at a playground just inside the park. "Can we go play on them?"
She's right. They are huge. I don't think I've ever seen such a cool set. Wonder if I could bring the rest of the kids out here eventually? I think they'd really love them. Especially Danny. "Sure. There's a kid already on them, so be ready for him to say something, okay? He might not, but just be prepared."
"Why isn't he in school?" she asks.
"I dunno. Why aren't you in school?"
"Well, you said I could take the afternoon off to go out with you."
"He might have the same deal going with his mom."
As we head over, the kid's mom takes one look at us, calls her kid down, and takes off.
"They're so stupid," Hannah grumbles.
"Yeah, they are. But you're not gonna let that stop you, are you?" I ask.
Okay, there's no way in hell I'm letting anyone scare me away from this park, because these monkey bars are way too much fun. Hell, I'd come here even without Hannah, but that'd be cutting out half of what makes them so much fun. I mean, not only is this thing huge, but it's got ladders all over the place, some ropes and bars, a few slides, and these horizontal ladders you can go hand over hand across. It's like it was built specifically for the two of us. Kinda like the Danger Room, minus the danger. I'd love to get a setup like this at the mansion. Maybe even something bigger. I'll have to ask the professor about it once we get back.
Oh great, they're coming back with a cop. I figured this might happen. Right, we've done nothing wrong. I'll just talk to him nice and calmly. Besides, local law enforcement knows all about me. Let's see if that works in my favor.
"Oh man!" Hannah whines as she hangs by her knees from the highest horizontal ladder. "This is so stupid."
"Just keep calm and let me handle it, okay?"
"Fine," she grumbles, pulling herself up to a sitting position on top of the ladder and resting her head in her hands. I head back down to the ground and wait for the cop to arrive.
He looks over at the two of us and asks, "Mister Toynbee, what seems to be the problem here?"
"There's no problem, officer," I say. "My niece just wanted to play on the monkey bars."
"These people here say you chased them away."
"No, we didn't. They left on their own."
"Well, that's not how they tell it."
"They took one look at us and ran!" Hannah says. "They're just scared of us because of what we look like."
"Hannah," I say, holding my hand up to try and get her to stop talking. "I'm taking care of this."
"So, you didn't do or say anything to make these people feel unwelcome," the cop says.
"No sir, we didn't. We just walked over, and they walked away."
The cop turns to the woman and says, "I don't see anything illegal going on here."
"But they...they're..." she stammers, eyes wide.
"Mutants?" Hannah adds with a sweet smile. Thatta girl. Direct, but not confrontational. There'll be plenty of time for that when you're older.
"Last time I checked, it wasn't illegal for mutants to play on the monkey bars," the cop replies.
She turns bright red and storms off, her son in tow. The boy turns and looks over his shoulder at us as she drags him off, and I see Hannah waving at him out of the corner of my eye. Kid looks confused. Good. That means his mom hasn't totally filled his head with lies yet. Maybe we actually did some good for someone else by coming out here today.
"Thanks," I say, getting close enough to read his badge. Officer Hirsch. I'm gonna remember him. "I appreciate what you said."
"Well, it's the truth. Are you planning on bringing the rest of the kids from the school down here?"
"Eventually, I hope."
"Just let us know in advance and we'll make sure there's a plainclothes officer around, just in case."
"Thanks. That's very generous."
"And it'll probably be best if you bring them during school hours. Less people around to harass them."
"Yeah, I figured."
"That's no fair!" Hannah yells from above us.
"No, but it's realistic," I reply.
"We should be able to go out any time we want!"
"And how do you think Jamal will take it if someone makes fun of him?"
That got her.
"Is he dangerous?" Officer Hirsch asks.
"No, none of the kids are dangerous." Okay, so this is a lie, but we've taught them all how not to be. Especially Hannah. She's small, but she's strong enough to break someone's bones with a kick. I'm not telling him that, though. "Jamal was just very badly abused before we got him. He's doing a lot better, but he gets upset really easily."
"Oh. Well, if any of them become dangerous..."
"They won't. They're just kids," I say. Okay, now is not the time to start ranting about how the mutant registration law never passed, or how normal kids can be plenty dangerous on their own, or how he doesn't get to pick and choose which kids he gets to be tolerant of. This is my first day of parole. Hell, it's still my first hour of parole. I'm not screwing it up by getting into an argument with a cop in the park.
Right, he's looking dubious. Time to pass this off to someone else so I can get this stupid discussion over with. "Look," I say, "if you're at all worried, why don't you have someone from the precinct talk to Professor Xavier? He runs the school. He'd be happy to talk to you guys about the kids." There. The professor's not on parole, and he's not green, plus he's a blindingly rich member of the community. His tax dollars alone should make him trustworthy enough.
"Yeah, we'll do that," Officer Hirsch replies. Good. That's over. I think he realizes that I'm not exactly in the best position to be having an argument with a cop right now, and I appreciate that.
I look up and ask, "Hannah, do you want to stay here any longer?"
"No, let's get ice cream now. I don't feel like playing anymore."
"Okay, come on down."
She jumps and lands right next to me, and the cop looks a little startled by her being able to jump from so high, but he doesn't say anything. He can't, really. Not after that little speech he gave a minute ago to those phobes. Besides, I'm sure all my abilities are listed in the file they have on me, so he's gotta figure that Hannah has them all too, which blows my argument about the kids not being dangerous, but tough. There may not be a mutant registration law, but the moment you get arrested, they can legally build up a profile on you. No different from any other criminal, though, so I guess I can't complain. For once, I'm getting equal treatment.
Hannah just smiles sweetly again as we head off. Nice trick. Who can argue with a smiling little girl? And if he was worrying about her being dangerous, that probably just wiped it back out of his head. "Thanks again, officer," I say.
She waits until he's out of earshot to say, "I can't believe he doesn't want us to play when other people are there."
"Well, you saw that lady. We scare some people. The police don't like it when people are scared."
"I don't care if they're scared. They should be scared. We're stronger than them."
"Not all of us are and you know it."
"Well, we have powers and stuff."
"Most of us do, yeah, but a lot of the kids at the school don't have any yet, and some of them might never get any. Besides, wouldn't you rather play with other kids than scare them?"
"I guess. But we didn't do anything! They didn't need to be scared. They were just scared of what we looked like."
"They were also probably scared of what you might be able to do."
"That's just stupid."
"Well, the more we come out here, the more people will get used to us and realize we're not going to hurt them, and the less afraid they'll be."
"How long'll that take?"
"I don't know. It could take a while."
"That's stupid. We should be able to go out whenever we want!"
"I know, it's not fair."
"So why don't you do anything about it?"
"I'm doing something about it right now. We both are. Coming out like this and talking to people is a way of helping change things."
"No, I mean why don't you fight like you used to?"
"I can't anymore. I told you that."
"But why not?"
"Because if I do, I'll go to jail, and I don't want to do that. I'd rather live with you and work with the kids."
"But if you fought again, then maybe things would be better for all of us."
"Maybe. Maybe not. I didn't help much last time." Actually, I did help when I just worked with Mystique. Every plan Magneto came up with just made things worse. Took me a while to realize that. Hell, if it weren't for him, I never would have gotten arrested. Then again, if it weren't for him, I'd probably be living under a bridge in York. Or dead.
"You could do it differently this time! Not hurt people! And if people get angry, you could go into hiding. You don't need to go to jail."
"I'd never see you again if that happened."
"Sure you could! You could sneak in and visit..."
"Don't you think the X-Men might have a problem with that?"
"They like you."
"They didn't like me when I was doing stuff like that."
"Hannah, I gave all that up for you. I'm not going to start over and lose you."
"But who's gonna fight for us?"
"Don't you think Elizabeth Blackthorne's going a good job?"
"Yeah, but she's not enough. I wish I could help her."
"You're too young. When you're older, you can make that decision for yourself, but not now. It's too dangerous." Hell, it's even dangerous for mutant kids who look normal to go to peaceful rallies. The phobes show up, take pictures, figure out what schools they go to, then send leaflets to all the parents outing the mutant kid. If it's that dangerous for the normal-looking kids, then there's no way kids like Hannah can be safe at 'em.
"Can't I do anything?" she asks.
"Well...you could write a letter to the president. Explain to her how you have to hide most of the time because of how you look. And you could also write to the governor, and all your senators..."
"How many letters is that?"
I knew Scott's civics lessons would pay off eventually. "Let's count. One for the president, one for the governor, two for the senators, one for the representative. How many is that?"
"That's not so many letters, is it?"
"That's a lot of writing."
"And you think joining Elizabeth's group would be easier? Activism's not easy. If it were, everyone would do it."
"Can I just write it once on the computer and print five copies?"
"It would mean more if you wrote it by hand, but sure." Maybe we could get all the other kids from the school to write in too. 'Course, we'd need to mail them in without a return address. Last thing we need is to send the federal government a list of mutant kids and where to find 'em. If Clinton gets voted out of office, who knows what her successor would do with that information? I mean, I know the state of New York has all the information on the kids on file, but New York's a lot more liberal than most of the rest of the country. Hmm. I'll ask the professor what he thinks. Maybe I'm just being paranoid.
Okay, why is that guy following us?
"How far to the ice cream stand?" Hannah whines.
"Don't tell me you're tired already?"
"No, I just want ice cream."
"I didn't think it was this far. Maybe we missed a turn." I look behind me, and the guy's not there anymore.
Shit. This is not good. He was definitely tailing us. I know how that works.
But there is a path back there that might have been where we needed to turn. Actually, yeah, it's definitely where we needed to turn. There's a man and a woman walking together down it, carrying ice cream cones.
Where the hell did that guy go?
"What's wrong?" Hannah asks.
"Nothing. We need to go that way," I say, pointing across the grass. We can just cut through. And if that guy shows up, I'll just try and talk my way out of a fight. Besides, I don't think it violates parole so long as I don't swing the first punch, but I don't really want to test it. But I'm not going to let anyone scare me out of getting my damned ice cream. And I don't want Hannah to be scared either. Not unless there's a good reason to be.
As we head across the grass, I see another couple of guys with ice cream cones walking hand-in-hand down the path together just a little ways behind that other couple, but there's still no sign of the guy who was following us. Whoever he is, he's good.
Oh shit. He's not the one I need to worry about. The guy from that first couple's glaring at us, and he looks pissed. Shit. He's handing his girlfriend his ice cream cone and is heading right for us. Damn, he's big. "Darryl! Darryl, leave them alone!" she's yelling, but he's not slowing down.
I lean over, point to the tall oak we just passed, and murmur, "Hannah, go back and start climbing that tree. If things get bad, I want you to climb as high as you can."
"No arguing." I let go of her hand and walk forward to meet the asshole, watching out of the corner of my eye as she scrambles halfway up the tree. I want some distance between me and Hannah so he can't get to her without going through me, which I guarantee won't happen, because I'll violate my parole before I let her get hurt. But if he's stronger than he looks and he does make it through me, Hannah's quick enough to be able to climb out of his reach, no matter how good he is at climbing trees. I haven't helped her develop her abilities just for the hell of it. I knew some day she'd need them to defend herself. I just hope she doesn't need to today.
"What the fuck are you doing in our park?" Darryl barks once he gets within swinging range. "Get the hell out!"
For once in my life, I'm glad all my t-shirts are too tight. I very deliberately stick my chest out and tighten up the muscles in my arms. Yeah, even though I'm shorter than him, I'm a lot bulkier, and from the look in his eyes, he just noticed that. In a low, steady voice, I say, "It's a public park, and last time I checked, we count as part of the public."
"Well, we don't like your kind around here," Darryl says, but the bravado's left his voice.
I suddenly see that guy who was following us out of the corner of my eye. Shit, don't tell me he's this guy's partner... Wait, he looks like he's on my side, but he's hanging back, out of sight from Darryl. Right, I get it.
"Well if you don't like it, then maybe you should leave," I say. He's thinking about it. I'll help him make up his mind by crossing my arms across my chest. That's good for making my biceps look huge. Jesus, if I keep this up any longer, I'm gonna rip my sleeves.
Nope, that did it. He's backing off. No final words. He turns, walks over to his girlfriend, grabs her by the wrist, and storms off. Chickenshit.
And I didn't even have to break parole.
I look over at my helper and quietly say, "Thanks Mystique, but I don't need a babysitter."
She shrugs. "I was worried something like this might happen and didn't want you to have to violate parole if things got ugly."
"Hey, who are you?" Hannah yells.
Mystique stays in character. "Just someone who wanted to make sure there wasn't a fight."
"Oh, that's nice! Can I come down now?" Hannah asks.
I nod. "Yeah. No jumping. It's too high."
She starts climbing back down, saying, "That was close! I thought he was gonna hit you!"
"Sometimes you can talk your way out of a fight," I reply. "Not always, but sometimes." Mind you, I would have really liked to wipe the pavement with that asshole. But I'm not going back to jail, dammit. And since I couldn't make things better through violence before, I'll give nonviolence a shot and see if it works any better.
"Well," Mystique says, "I'll let you two get on your way." She lowers her voice to a whisper and asks, "Freedom looks good on you. See you tonight to celebrate?"
"Definitely," I reply, and she shoots me a grin and heads off. She'll probably keep tailing us, but I suspect she'll be careful not to let me see her again.
Hannah runs over to my side, points to the path and says, "Why were those two men smiling when you puffed yourself up?"
I look where she's pointing, and the couple wave at me and smile. I wave back, take Hannah's hand, and head their way. "They're gay, Hannah."
"I know that! But why did they like you when you got all puffy?"
"I guess they like muscles."
"You'll figure it out when you get older."
"That's a stupid answer," she grumbles.
As we approach, they start clapping. Oh great, now I'm blushing. "Thank you," I say. Hannah stops and bows, and I can't help it, I burst out laughing. That kid's hysterical sometimes.
"Good for you for standing up to that bully," the shorter guy says. "And good for you both for having the guts to go out in public."
"Thanks. We were actually looking for the ice cream stand. Is it that way?" I ask, pointing down the path.
"You're out for ice cream?" the taller one asks. "After that performance, we're buying."
"That's really nice, but this is the first time I've been out in a long time, and I really want to buy it myself."
The taller one nods. "I understand. I hope to see you both again. Don't let jerks like that scare you off."
"I have no intention of letting them do that," I say. And I know they understand. Hell, they're taking almost as much of a risk holding hands in the park as Hannah and I are just being in it. I'm surprised that Darryl character didn't try to beat them up too.
Hannah tugs on my arm. "Now that we know where it is, let's go!"
"My niece has spoken. I must obey," I deadpan, then grin. "Good to meet you."
"Good to meet you too."
"I see it!" Hannah yells, pointing down the path. "See?"
"Yeah, I see it too."
"Hey! That's Eduardo and Marisol from the church!"
Guess she means the father and daughter sitting down on a bench next to the ice cream stand with their cones. Well, I'm guessing father and daughter. People'd probably assume that about me and Hannah, and they'd be wrong. Sometimes, I wonder what it'd be like to live in a world where I could have kids without worrying how people would treat 'em if they came out looking like me. Dunno what kind of a father I'd be, though, especially if my kids came out looking normal. Hell, if I had normal-looking kids and found out they were picking on other kids, I'd probably have to kill 'em.
Eduardo looks up and shoots us a big smile. "Hannah! I didn't expect to see you here. Good for you! And you must be Mortimer. Good to meet you."
"It's good to meet you too," I say. "I'm really happy with the way you all have welcomed Hannah into your congregation."
"Well, now that you can leave the Institute, we'd love it if you joined her." Doctor Shapiro tried petitioning the state to let me go while under house arrest, but they didn't buy it, since I hadn't been religious before. "Hannah's told us so much about you."
I look down at her with my eyebrows raised. "You've been telling them about me?" She shrugs.
"All flattering," Eduardo insists. "I personally find it very inspiring that you were able to go from your previous life to being a teacher for young orphaned mutants. It's a wonderful story. You should write a book about it, you know."
"No," I mutter. "It's really no big deal. I mean, I only did it because I was caught." Besides, any book I wrote would have to leave out so much information. For instance, if I revealed all the crimes I committed, I'd end up in jail, and I'd put Mystique and Magneto at risk of jail again too. And there's all the stuff about my childhood that I don't want my family knowing about. Plus I'm not exactly good with words. Still, he's right. It'd probably make an interesting read if it weren't all true. But it is, so I'm not telling it.
Hunh, I never thought of my life that way before.
Eduardo tightens his arm around his daughter and says, "It doesn't matter why. It only matters that you did it. Lots of people don't try to change their lives until a crisis forces them to."
Somehow, I don't think society considers being convicted of manslaughter a "crisis." No need to tell him that, though. I have no idea just how much he knows, and I'm not going to scare off a potential ally by opening my mouth.
Marisol starts coughing hard. "Are you okay?" Hannah asks her. She shakes her head and looks up at her father.
"Oh, Marisol has a very sore throat," he explains. "That's why she's not in school today. I was hoping a little ice cream and sunshine might help."
"That's exactly what we're after too."
"Well then, we won't stop you."
"It was good talking to you."
The lady working the ice cream stand doesn't look too excited to see us, but after watching us talk to Eduardo and Marisol, she knows she can't exactly say anything. We've clearly got friends sitting a few feet away. "What flavor do you want, Hannah?"
"Okay, we'll have two medium cones. One chocolate, one swirl."
There. I've done it. I've walked to the park and bought an ice cream cone. All I have to do is successfully finish walking back and I'll have done everything I set out to do this afternoon. Simple little plan, really, but it's a start.
I don't care how bad things get. I'm never hiding again. I'm not letting other people limit how I get to live my life. I won't be locked up, or disguised, or told that I don't belong somewhere, and I won't let any of the kids go through that either. No matter what other people might say, I'm a human being, and I have rights, just like all other human beings. I'm never going to live like a freak again. Never.
This is my second chance. I'm not wasting it.
"What are you thinking?" Hannah asks as we turn back onto Graymalkin Lane.
"Oh, just what a beautiful day it is."
She looks up at me and grins, mouth smeared with chocolate ice cream. "Yeah, it is."
Yeah, it really is.
And that's the end of the "Beneath the Harrow" series. Thanks to everyone who's stuck it out for the whole ride. There may be a print zine version of this eventually, so check this space every so often for news on that, or join my fanfic notification list and you'll be automatically informed.
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