Thanks as usual to Jedimom for brainstorming and beta help, to Red Sith for coming on as a beta and helping me clean up a lot of lazy writing, and to Laura for reassuring me that this was all right.
"William, Henry, time for bed."
I can't believe the idiots at the orphanage named them after the princes of England. The princes aren't even twins.
I scoop the four-year-old boys up and carry them off to the dormitory. They're melded, again. They do that whenever they're scared. When they were first born, the doctors thought they were Siamese twins, but the parts that were joined kept changing. Turns out, they can just meld together. Not much of an advantage, really. But not all mutations are.
We learned that the hard way when one hospital dumped a newborn on us who looked like a little octopus. She didn't live the night. Jean ran a whole battery of tests on her, but she was just too badly mutated to live. She didn't even have an entire brain, poor thing. I think Jean said she just had the stem, like a reptile. So even if she could have survived, no one would have ever been home. So she just clung to me for hours, and me and the professor sat vigil with her until the pain started, and then Jean made the pain go away. We buried her the next day in the professor's family plot. I don't ever want to do another deathwatch again, but at least we did better for her than any hospital would. At least we didn't let her suffer.
"Sarah's going to stay with you tonight," I tell the boys. "You'll be fine."
William looks up at me with huge eyes and in a really timid voice says, "We want you to stay again."
"Sarah's a very sweet woman. You two just need to give her a chance."
"Why can't you stay?"
"I already told you, I need to go back to my sister and my niece." Maybe it was a mistake to stay in the dormitory with them the first week they were here. Too late to change that now. They have to learn to trust the rest of the staff. That's what Doctor May says, anyway. And I trust her. So far, she's been right on every count, and besides, that playgroup she found for Hannah is great. Any woman who can make my niece that happy gets high marks in my book.
We hired a great bunch of people. The kids are really lucky. So far, the only children we have are William, Henry, and a six-year-old girl named Tanya who has the biggest eyes I've ever seen, as well as a set of fully-functional gills and webbing between her fingers and toes. Amazing night vision on that girl. She can sneak up on you in the dark like nobody's business, and unfortunately, that seems to be her favorite game. Tanya's pretty outgoing. She came to us from foster care, not an orphanage, and it was good foster care, so she's amazingly un-fucked-up. And she gets along with everybody, which is nice, especially compared to these two. I never feel guilty handing her off to someone else when it's time to go home.
And Hannah...she likes having other kids around, but she hates having to share my time with them. For as long as she can remember, she's had my undivided attention whenever I've been on these grounds, and she's not taking to the change without a fight. She's been pitching some pretty amazing fits lately. On the one hand, it might be good to spend more nights away, just to teach her that she can't have me all to herself forever. But on the other hand, I really don't want to upset her too badly. It tears me up inside when she's unhappy. Good thing I'm not her parent. I'd spoil her rotten.
"You two will be fine," I say as I try to coax them into separating enough for me to be able to get them into their pajamas. "You were fine with her last night."
Sarah walks in, and they meld tightly again. She and I exchange an exasperated look, then she comes over and tries talking to them, gently rubbing their backs. Poor kids.
Eventually, after they let go enough to get pajamas on, I say goodbye and leave them with Sarah. They'll be fine. They just need a little time to adjust. And from the sounds coming from the apartment, so does Hannah. I never realized how good her lungs were until this past week. Poor Agnes. I still remember when Hannah innocently asked Agnes what her special power was, and we had to explain to her that Agnes didn't have any. But I think we were wrong about that. Looks like she has the power to listen to Hannah scream without screaming right back. Now, the question is, do I do like Doctor May says I should and stay out here until the fit is over so she learns that her bad behavior will not be rewarded, or do I do what I really want to do and go in there to hopefully make the fit end? I hate this part. With the kids, it's an easy decision, but with Hannah...
//Mortimer, would you please come in my office?//
Guess that answers that.
I head back down the stairs to the professor's office, knock, and step in. He and Jean are waiting for me. "Do we have a new kid coming?" I ask.
"We have three coming in from the city, but not until next Monday," the professor says. "And we also have someone coming tomorrow from the city, but she's not a child. She's an adult."
"So she'll be spending time with your lot, then?"
Jean shakes her head. "Not exactly. I mean, yes, she will, but I think she'd be more comfortable with you around as well. From what we've been told, she's very visibly mutated. Covered with fur, to be specific. And she's been living on the streets ever since she was a teenager." She hesitates, then adds, "She's also addicted to heroin."
"I've got no experience with addiction," I say.
"No, but I think she'll be more comfortable with you than with any of us." She looks over at the professor, then back at me with an uncomfortable look on her face. "To be frank, we're overeducated, normal-looking, privileged mutants, and you're a mutant-looking, uneducated convict. We believe she'll be more likely to trust us if you're around."
Great. Now I'm not only their token adult freak, but their token adult criminal. How convenient for them. Right, they have no clue how condescending this sounds. They're just trying find a way to make things easy for a new person. Just deal with it. "I guess you have a point. You sure it's safe to have an addict here around all these children, though?"
"We did consider that," the professor says. "Rest assured, she will not be left alone until she is drug-free and has proven herself trustworthy. Logan and Scott will not be letting her out of sight. And from what we've been told by the hospital, she claims her drug addiction is directly tied to suppressing one of her mutations, so once we help her with that, we will work on helping her resist readdiction." He pauses, then gets that annoying superior look on his face and says, "Besides, if we're comfortable having a convicted murderer on our grounds..."
"Okay, I get the point," I snap. "What about my work with the kids?"
"We have more than enough staff to take care of them for a day," the professor says. "I know you love working with them, and I know you've been doing an excellent job, but I honestly think you'll be the best person to spend time with this woman. If I'm wrong, then I'll have the most obvious substitute take over for you immediately, once we determine who that is."
I really hate the thought of spending time away from those kids. I mean, hell, the advantage of having a convict under house arrest looking after them is that it means I'll always be there for them. I'm not going anywhere. Not for close to four years, if I'm lucky. But on the other hand, I can't imagine what it must be like to come into these walls with a messed-up past without already having allies here. I mean, I had Agnes and Hannah here when I got sentenced. This woman's not going to have anybody. And the professor's right. This lot isn't going to be able to put someone like her at ease. Logan, maybe, but that's not his style. You have to win him over. Well, unless you're my sister.
"Okay," I say. "I'll do it. What's her name?"
"Shariya Lahda," the professor says.
"I would assume so."
"When's she showing up?"
"Scott and I will be picking her up tomorrow morning," Jean says. "We should be back around noon."
"I'll spend the morning with the kids, then."
"Right, I'll call your wing when we're close to the grounds," she replies. "Thanks for doing this."
I shrug. "It's no problem."
It is so weird to have these people admit they need me for something.
I get back to the apartment, and all is quiet. Good, I hope. I step in to find a sniffling Hannah curled up on Agnes's lap, clutching her Kermit doll tightly. "Someone was missing you," Agnes says.
"I'm sorry, I had to go see the professor," I say, sitting down on the sofa next to them. "Someone is up past her bedtime."
Agnes looks down at Hannah, who is studiously avoiding looking at me, then says, "Someone appears to be mad at you."
"Well, someone will get over it," I reply as we head in to Hannah's bedroom to try and win her back by reading her a bedtime story together.
Great. Henry just tried to clock Hannah in the head with a toy truck. Lucky for Hannah, she saw it coming and jumped out of the way. Now she's sticking to the ceiling and refusing to come down, and Henry's screaming something about not wanting to share. Poor William just looks totally lost.
Can't turn my back on these kids for a second. Mike didn't catch it either. He's one of the day staff. Young guy, normal, just like the rest of them, if you don't count the freckles. Nice, though. Always wears striped shirts. I don't get that, but then again, I'm not exactly a snappy dresser myself, despite Mystique's attempts. She bought me all sorts of nice stuff, but unless she picked my clothes out for me in the morning, I'd always end up in the plainest, most comfortable thing I could find, plus a jacket. She threatened to throw all the plain stuff out, but I begged her not to. I mean, the nice stuff was fine when I was in disguise as a normal, but when I looked like me, it just felt wrong.
You know, I think this is the first time I've seen either of the twins react to something on his own instead of hiding with his brother. Technically speaking, this is probably a good step, but it sure as hell doesn't feel like one. We'll need to tell Doctor May about it and see if she agrees.
The phone rings. Shit, it's nearly noon. I head across the room to pick it up, and Hannah shadows me on the ceiling. Clamping my hand over my free ear to block out the yelling, I say, "Yeah?"
"It's Jean. We're almost at the gates." She pauses, then asks, "What's all that noise? Is everything all right in there?"
"It will be. I'll be at the front door in a minute."
"What? I can barely hear you."
"I'll be at the front door in a minute," I yell.
I hang up, then look up at Hannah. "Come on down."
"He's gonna hit me."
"No he won't."
"He just did!"
"That's my truck!"
"No it's not. It just looks like your truck. Your truck is back in the apartment."
Somehow, that satisfies her, and she crawls back down and into my arms. I give her a kiss, then say, "I have to go for a while. There's a new person here and I need to go meet her."
"No, you stay."
"I can't stay."
I brace myself for the approaching fit, but somehow today, I'm spared. I put her down, and she heads back over to the toy pile. Waving at Mike, who somehow has managed to get Henry to quiet down (although William looks like he's about to lose it now), I step out and jog down the halls until I get to the front door. Jean and Scott's timing is excellent. Classes are still in session. The older kids won't be running around the halls for a while, and that means Shariya can come in without being stared at.
Scott pulls up a few seconds after I get there, and I can see a gray shape in the back seat with Jean. It's like she's back there with a shadow. And then the shadow moves and gets out of the car, squinting up at the mansion nervously. Can't say I blame her. It's a pretty imposing place.
I don't think I've ever seen a mutant quite like her. All her exposed skin is covered with a short layer of gray fur. Kind of like a shorthaired cat. Actually, exactly like a shorthaired cat. She's even got a faint gray tabby pattern. And her baggy clothes are the same shade of gray. No wonder she looked like a shadow. I'll bet she disappears in the darkness. The hair on top of her head is longer, but has that same texture and color. And her body's got a hunch and a scary thinness that I'm guessing are from her situation, not her mutation. She looks terrible. But then again, that's to be expected. She's a homeless junkie, after all.
She slings a bag over her shoulder and heads towards the front door, Jean by her side. "Hey," I say, and she startles. Guess she hadn't noticed me. Gray eyes the same color as her fur widen. They're definitely human eyes, not cat eyes, and their color is just as flat as her fur's. And now that she's up close, I guess I can see the Indian features. I bet she'd be pretty if she were healthy. "Sorry. I'm Mortimer. I live here too."
She looks me up and down, then in a weary voice asks, "So, you're the guy they sent out to make me feel more at ease, right?"
"Yeah." May as well admit it. I'm not gonna lie. She pegged it right off.
"And because we both look like mutants, and those two don't, I'm supposed to naturally trust you."
"Yeah, that, and this," I say, hiking up my pants leg just enough to show off the monitoring anklet.
"Drugs?" she asks.
"I'll take what I can get," she sighs, wrapping her arms around herself tightly.
"Cold?" I ask, reaching to take off my jacket. I mostly wear it for the pockets anyway, although it's starting to get cold out. Fall ends early in these parts.
"Let's go inside," Jean says, glancing over at me with what I'm guessing is concern. Hard to tell with her when she's trying to be all professional-like. "I want to introduce you to the professor and then give you a check-up."
We walk in silence. Shariya's clearly not happy to be here, and I'm not sure what the hell to say. I mean, yeah, I'm here to be the freak welcome wagon. She's right. I should at least try to make conversation, I guess. I look over at her and ask, "What convinced you to come here anyway?"
She turns weary gray eyes to me and says, "Because the hospital told me these guys might be able to help. I'm just so tired."
"Of the streets?" Jean asks.
I roll my eyes. She doesn't get it. How could she?
"No, just tired."
"Yeah," I say sympathetically. "I've been there."
She holds my gaze for a moment while Scott steps ahead of her to hold open the door to the professor's office. I hope she realizes that I'm not bullshitting her. But I can't read those flat gray eyes. All I see is exhaustion. She turns and looks into the office, then steps through the door.
The professor goes on at length about how she's welcome and safe here, blah blah blah. Nothing I haven't heard before, and from the look of it, she's heard this talk before too. Come on, professor. Get to something interesting or let this poor woman out of here. He finally rolls around to the part of his speech that actually applies to her. "We'd very much like to help you get clean, and we do have the resources here to make that less painful."
"Withdrawal is just painful. No way around that," she mutters.
I guess he says something in her mind, because suddenly she's sitting bolt upright. "Get out of my head," she hisses.
"That's the last time I'll go in uninvited," the professor replies. "But I wanted to give you a demonstration. I can make your withdrawal easier if you let me in your mind to ease some of your discomfort."
"He did that for me once when I was severely depressed," I say, thinking back to my trial. "It really was helpful." If it hadn't been for him, I probably wouldn't even have been able to stand up.
"The withdrawal will still hurt," the professor says. "I'm not that powerful. But I can make it hurt less."
She rubs her palms together anxiously and says, "I can't go clean. The light will come back."
"What light?" he asks.
She looks down at her palms, and I get a good look at them from my perch on the credenza. They're hairless, and there's a scorched-looking circle in the middle of each one. "It comes out of my hands," she says. "It hurts people, and it only goes away if I'm on narcotics."
Jean steps forward, asks, "May I?" and starts examining one of Shariya's palms more closely. "How did you discover that?"
"It first started when I was fourteen. Light just started pouring from my hands. I freaked out. The family doctor came out to see what was wrong, gave me valium to calm me down, and the light went out. Only thing that's kept it out is narcotics."
"We may be able to help you find another way," the professor says. "A way that doesn't involve drugs. Give us a chance."
She looks helplessly down at her palms, then flicks her gaze over at me. "I think you should give it a go," I say.
"What about the light?" she asks.
"Did you ever try any physical means to try and stop it?" Jean asks. Shariya shakes her head. Jean gestures over at Scott and says, "See those ruby lenses he's wearing? He's got a similar problem, and that's how we took care of it."
Scott adds, "If I take these off, the only way I can control the energy coming out of my eyes is by shutting them."
"Don't know if I can wear lenses on my hands," Shariya mutters, but she's starting to sound convinced.
"I agree," Jean says. "To start, I'll make up some fingerless gloves with lead-lined palms. We can see if that works. If not, I can prepare several other likely barriers. It shouldn't take long. And once we figure out how to stop the light, we can work on ways of controlling it instead."
"The methadone's going to start wearing off soon," Shariya says. "Two hours, tops."
"Is that a yes?" the professor asks.
She closes her eyes, sighs, and drops her head back. "Yeah. One last try."
Jean's giving Shariya a physical and fitting her for gloves, and Rogue's preparing a room for her that's on a mostly unused wing. If she gets through detox, they'll move her closer to everyone else, but Jean thought it would be a good idea to keep her away from everyone while she went through it. We have no idea how loud or ugly it's gonna be.
And I'm back with the kids for now, working with Tanya on her addition and subtraction. I have no idea if they're going to call me back. Shariya and I didn't exactly hit it off or anything. Hell, she saw right through them. I find myself smiling at the memory. She's sharp. I'll give her that. Good for her. She's gonna need that to keep from going all assimilationist in this damned place. Although for all I know, she wants to. Can't see someone looking like her feeling that way, but you never know. I've been surprised by mutants before.
"Good work," I tell Tanya, and she raises her hand and gives me a high-five. This kid's a hoot. Takes everything in stride. Her hands are really slippery, so she needs to put one of those "comfort grip" things on any pencil or crayon she uses to keep them from slipping right out of her fingers. And when she saw the rest of us playing on the monkey bars, she wasted no time in letting us know that she wanted to do that too without falling off, so we had some grippy mittens made for her. I don't think I've heard her complain once. She just tells us how it is and how we can make it better. Okay, there's a word for that. Uh, proactive. That's it. She's proactive. There, Agnes would be proud. Her crusade to expand my vocabulary is working.
"I think I'm done for today," Tanya declares.
"Yeah, you've done really well," I say. "You're getting much better at this."
And then Mike pops his head in and says Jean's here to talk to me.
"I have to go," I say.
Tanya waves the back of her hand at me. "Go do your adult business."
She cracks me up.
I head for the door, and Hannah decides to cling to my leg and sit on my foot as I pass her in the playroom. Me and my giggling passenger finish the trip to where Jean is waiting, and Jean looks down at Hannah with a smile. "Hey, I need to take your uncle away again if that's all right with him."
"What's up?" I ask, pretending to ignore Hannah. Always drives her nuts when I do that. And sure enough, she starts giggling louder and bouncing up and down on my foot.
"Shariya's asking for you. She wants to know if you'd be willing to keep her company. She'd understand if you said no."
"You mean, stay with her while she..." I drop my voice to a whisper, "...goes through withdrawal?"
"The professor will be easing it for her," she says apologetically. "I know it's asking a lot."
"No, I'll do it," I say. Can't imagine what she's going to be going through, but if I can help her, I will. I'm actually kinda flattered that she asked for me. Guess earlier wasn't a total disaster. "What do you need me to do?"
"Just keep her company. The professor will be calming and monitoring her from his office, and I'll be right by his side. If anything goes wrong, he'll let me know. And Logan's going to be standing watch outside her room tonight."
"Isn't that a little extreme?"
"We don't know what her 'lights' can do, so if they come back on and you need backup, he's the best person for the job."
"Oh yeah, what with his healing abilities and all," I say. Shoulda thought of that myself. I get down on my unoccupied knee and look Hannah in the eye. "Hey, I'm gonna have to go again, but I promise I will be back tonight to read you a bedtime story and tuck you in. Okay?"
"I want you home for dinner too," she pouts.
"I can't do that, but I will read you a bedtime story. Look, I'm setting my watch." I've never used this blasted alarm before, but shouldn't be too hard to figure out. I'm good with machines. There, got it. "7:30. I'll be there."
"Okay," she sighs.
She gives me a smooch on the lips before letting go of my leg, and I wave at her as I head out with Jean. I have no idea what I'm getting into here, but I'm gonna give it a go anyway. Heroin withdrawal. Seen movies about it, but I've never seen it first-hand. If it's anything like it is in the movies, she's going to be in some serious pain. I have no idea how helpful I'll be.
"Thank you for doing this," Jean says. "I really appreciate it. I know this is all very patronizing."
Whoa. Wasn't expecting to hear that. "You actually figured that out?"
She winces. "I've known it from the start. And I'm sorry. Look, I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I hate what you did with Magneto, but I love what you do here. You're really good with the kids, and you've got this incredible sense of dignity in the face of adversity. I honestly think you're the right person to make Shariya comfortable."
I don't think I've ever been accused of having dignity before. I have no idea what to say. Dignity? Me? She must be thinking of some other green guy.
As we approach the room, I see Logan leaning against the wall by her door. He catches my eye and straightens up. "Hey."
He jerks his head towards the door. "She's in there. All quiet, so far."
I take a deep breath, steeling myself for whatever's in there, and knock. "It's me, Mortimer."
I hear a muffled, "Come in," and turn back to Jean and Logan. She's got this little smile on her face, and he just gives me a tight-lipped nod. Guess that's their own ways of showing reassurance. So I open the door and step through.
"Hey. You wanted to see me?" I ask.
She's on the bed, curled up against the wall, wearing a set of Institute sweats and a pair of gray fingerless gloves. Guess Jean was right when she said it wouldn't take long to make 'em.
Shariya doesn't look tired anymore. Wired's more like it. "Um, remember earlier how I accused them thinking we'd get along because we're both freaks?" she asks.
"Well, I think they're right." I think she's trying to smile, but it looks like a wince. "I don't want to be alone, but I don't want to be with any of them."
"Logan's not bad," I say as I grab a chair, turn it around, and straddle it.
"He's not too chatty, though," she replies, tightening her arms around herself.
"I'm not exactly Mister Chatty myself," I say with a shrug.
"That's okay." This time, it's definitely a smile, although it quickly becomes pained.
"Hey, how are you doing?"
She closes her eyes and sighs, "I've been better. But this isn't as bad as the other times. That professor of yours is helping." She opens her eyes again, pushes a hank of hair out of her face, and says, "You know, I've never actually seen someone who was as visibly mutated as me before."
"Really. I've, you know, seen street people with mild mutations, or regular human disfigurements, but no one quite like me before. That's why I jumped when I first saw you. I'm sorry."
"Oh, don't be. It's no big deal." I'm used to it. Used to a lot worse, actually, but I'm sure I don't have to tell her that.
"So, what is it that you do?"
Excellent. I love talking about this. "I work with the little kids at the school. We're getting visibly mutated kids out of orphanages and raising them here. There's just the three of them now, but we're getting three more soon, and we're still looking for more. We're nowhere near capacity yet."
"No, I meant what are your mutant abilities, other than being green?"
"Oh. They're, um...they're kinda weird." And embarrassing.
"I can handle weird," she shrugs. "But if you don't want to tell me..."
"No, that's okay." I take a deep breath, then say, "I can stick to walls, jump really high, and kick really hard. Plus, um, I spit slime and have a really long tongue." I said that last bit pretty fast. Hope she caught it and doesn't need it repeated, because I'm not so sure I can say it twice. It's one thing to show off your abilities in a fight. It's another to just blurt them out at someone you're trying to get to know.
"Huh." Her hair slides back in her face, and she just leaves it there this time. "Most of that sounds pretty cool, actually."
She tucks her knees up tighter against her chest and says, "The slime part's a little weird. The tongue sounds interesting, though. How long?"
"'Bout twelve feet, but it stretches."
"Can you do stuff with it?"
"Oh yeah. I can grab things, hang by it, move things around. It's pretty strong."
"Well, you've got me beat in the mutations department. I've just got the fur and the light."
"You disappear well into shadows, I'll bet."
She grins and jerks her head back to flip the hair out of her eyes. "You noticed the gray clothes?"
"It's really handy on the streets."
"You weren't on them all your life, though. Family doctor, you said. You don't get those on the streets."
"I lived at home until I was fifteen. How about you? How long did you last at home?"
"I didn't. I was raised in an orphanage." I'm shrugging a lot, aren't I?
She winces. "Sorry."
"It's okay. It's over. I actually found my parents a few years ago. They're good people."
"They put you in an orphanage," she says, a shocked look on her face. It's kinda interesting to see the shifting patterns of fur on her face when she gets expressive. The faint tabby pattern really makes her expressions pop.
"They were just scared. Can't blame 'em, really. One of my sisters lives here now. And my niece, Hannah. She, ah, she looks just like me."
"Same powers and everything?" she asks quietly.
"Yeah," I nod. "She's just three. She's too young to understand that it makes her different. I mean, she knows that she and I are the only green folks around, but she hasn't really figured out that most people are the same and only a few of us are different." I'm really not looking forward to that day. Actually, there are a lot of days in her future that I'm not looking forward to. Explaining to her why it is that I'm sentenced here is one of them. It's not that I have many regrets about what got me here, it's that I don't think she'll understand, having been raised here and all. I'm really afraid she's gonna end up hating me. But I've given it up for her. I made a promise to Agnes. My terrorist days are over. Hopefully that'll satisfy Hannah when it comes up.
"So, you're British?" Shariya asks. "I caught the accent."
"Yeah, from York. Okay, your turn."
"You ask me a question, you have to answer it too." She shoots me a nasty look. "Hey, you want me to keep you distracted, right? Twenty questions should do it."
"It'll take more than twenty," she says, dropping her head down to her knees. She's shaking.
"You okay? Anything I can do?" I ask. "I've never...I mean, I have no experience, um..."
"I'll live," she croaks. "It's only going to get worse. There's nothing anyone can do." She looks up at me through her hair, her gray eyes bloodshot and pained. "You know what it's like?"
"No idea," I murmur.
"Imagine you have a really bad flu. You have a high fever, massive headache, chills, muscle aches, you're nauseous, and you can barely breathe because you're so stuffed up. And you know it's only going to get worse. You'll start coughing, you'll throw up, maybe get diarrhea. You're in agony. Are you picturing that?"
"Now someone tells you there's a pill that'll make it all go away. Only they also tell you you can't take it. They tell you you have to suffer. But you know if you can just get that pill, you'll feel better in minutes." Her eyes feel like they're burning holes through me, they're so intense. "So what do you do?"
"That's a tough question," I sigh, then take a minute to think it through. "But if I knew that once I was done with that flu, I'd never have the flu again, but if I took the pill, I'd have to take it for the rest of my life until it either killed me, or I stopped and got the flu..."
She snorts. "Yeah, that's the catch. But when you're in the middle of the flu, you don't exactly think clearly."
I've never been one to get really sick, but I think back to how I felt right after Storm nailed me with that lightning bolt. If I'd been offered that pill then, I probably would have taken it. "Yeah."
She lies down on her side, still curled up tightly, and sighs, "You were supposed to distract me."
"You were supposed to tell me where you were from."
"That's one of the New England states, right?"
The look she shoots me is priceless. "Your geography sucks."
I shrug and smile. "I'm British. Bet you couldn't find Hadrian's Wall on a map."
"Touché." She suddenly looks very vulnerable. "Can you come over here and sit with me? Please?"
"Yeah, sure," I say with what I hope is a reassuring smile, but frankly, I'm terrified. I want to do something more than distract her, but I don't know what. Right, just suck it up and look calm. Last thing she needs is to worry about someone else's feelings right now. Hers have to be scary enough. Besides, if she were in trouble, the professor would send Jean up, right? Settling down at her feet, I say, "So tell me about Brattleboro. I've never been up there."
"Neither have I, really."
I wrinkle my nose and say, "Didn't get out much, eh?"
"How'd you guess?"
I grin and shrug. "Just a hunch. But, you never tried sneaking out at night?"
"All the time."
"Weren't you afraid of what people would say?"
"I already knew what they would say. Didn't matter. I needed to get out of the orphanage, and I knew lots of good places to hide."
"They were awful to you there, weren't they?" she asks.
"How'd you guess?"
"Just from watching your face."
I just shrug, again, start to sit cross-legged on the bed, then realize I shouldn't be putting my feet on someone else's blankets and put them back on the floor. Gah. Sometimes I don't think. Things were so much simpler back before Mystique and Agnes started teaching me manners. "Sorry."
"No, it's okay," she says. "Put 'em back up. I've been living on the streets for the past year. Clean boots on my bed are no big deal."
I look at each sole to make sure they're actually clean, then sit cross-legged. I like sitting with my spine curled a little. It feels good. I'm not built for sitting up straight. "Thanks."
"No problem." She rubs her forehead, pushes her hair out of her face, and asks, "Um, what were we talking about?"
"Oh yeah. Well, my parents and brother were really nice to me," she says, "so I didn't need to run away. Besides, I'd never been off our property, so I didn't really know how to run away."
"Until you were fifteen," I say. "What happened then?"
"They noticed how much valium I was taking," she says, closing her eyes. "I have an addictive personality, apparently. I can't do anything mind-altering without doing it to excess. The doctor tried to wean me off of the drug, the lights came back, and I burned my brother pretty badly with them. I still remember my parents arguing as they ran around getting ready to bring him to the hospital." Shariya says something in a language I don't understand, then opens her eyes and goes, "That's Gujarati. It means, 'We're going to have to get someone to take her away. She's too dangerous to keep at home.' So I ran away."
"An Indian language. It's what my parents grew up speaking. They were born in the States, but their parents were from India so that's what they spoke at home. They never taught it to us, but my brother and I picked it up from listening to them."
"If you'd never been outside before, how'd you manage?"
"Oh, I'd been outside. We lived pretty far outside of town where the houses are really far apart, so I could go out on our property without the neighbors seeing me. And I'd been on the Internet. My parents taught me a lot about computers because they figured I'd be able to make a living doing computer work by telecommuting. So I found the hidden valium stash in the house, packed a bag with some clothes, and took off to the home of someone I knew from the net in Brattleboro."
"How'd you find her?"
"I printed out a map, put on some gray clothes, and rode my bike."
"You must have been terrified."
"It was less scary than the thought of being taken away." She closes her eyes again, brow furrowed, and grunts, "You talk."
She's looking worse. "Do you need anything? Some food? Water?"
"Water would be nice," she whispers.
I trot off to the bathroom and fill up the plastic cup they've left in there for her. When I come back, she's struggling to sit up. "Here, let me help," I say, reaching out my hand.
She jerks back, thudding against the wall, and shakes her head. "Don't touch me."
"I'm not going to hurt you."
"That's not..." She shudders visibly. "I just can't be touched right now, okay?"
I silently hold the cup out for her, and she takes a few sips before handing it back. "Thanks," she whispers as she lies back down.
"Do you need me to get Jean up here?" I ask as I set the cup down. I'm really worried about her right now.
"She can't do anything. Just need to get through this," she says through gritted teeth.
"Okay." I sit back down at the foot of the bed and look over at her. "So, what'd you want me to talk about?"
"Tell me about York."
So I do.
"You worked for a woman named Crazy Mary?" I ask incredulously.
"Yeah," she murmurs as she struggles to find a comfortable position on the bed. She's starting to get chatty again. For about an hour, she just lay there while I talked, looking like she was in a lot of pain. She's definitely looking calmer now, but she's moving around a lot, and I'm not sure what that means.
"What kind of a name is that?"
"She was homeless for decades, and then she won the lottery. Crazy Mary's what folks called her in her street days, and it just stuck. She used her lottery money to take in strays, and I was one of them. She got me into a methadone program too."
"Did it help?"
"Until the great state of New York decided I needed to wean myself from it and get clean." She snorts, kicking the blanket off of her. "Four years of productive living down the drain. I was back on heroin a week later and back on the streets."
My wrist starts beeping, and we both jump.
"Shit, I forgot," I sigh as I try to figure out how to shut off the alarm. There. "I promised Hannah I'd read her a bedtime story. I'll have Logan come in and stay with you until I get back, okay?"
She looks at me through her hair for a long moment, and I can't really tell what she's thinking. She looks kind of sad, actually. "You really love that girl, don't you?" she asks.
"More than anything."
Another odd grin shoots across her face. "That's really great. Yeah, go ahead. I'll be okay until you get back."
I try reaching out again, and this time, she doesn't twist out of the way. Giving her fingers a gentle squeeze, I say, "I shouldn't be too long. Want me to bring you back something to eat?"
She shakes her head. "I can't eat. I'd just throw it right back up."
"Want to borrow one of Hannah's barrettes?" I ask. "They're all pretty flashy, but they'll keep the hair out of your eyes."
This time, her smile looks a little more genuine. "That would be great."
"Okay. I'll be back as soon as I can. I promise."
"You're sure you want to go back?" Agnes says as she sets down a bowl of soup in front of me. It feels funny having her serve me dinner, but she insisted.
"Yeah, I do." I finish picking fur off my hand and start eating. The little nubs on my palm picked up fur when I touched Shariya's hand. Easy enough to pick off, though. Yeah, it's exactly like cat fur. I've only ever had this happen when I've tried to pet a cat.
"Hey, slow down. You'll give yourself hiccups."
"I just want to get back soon," I say between slurps.
She sighs and leans back in her chair. "They're taking advantage of you, you realize."
"You work at the school all day, now you've got this all night? How long do they expect you to baby sit her?"
I shrug. "I volunteered."
"Well they shouldn't have asked you."
"No, I'm glad they did. Really."
"Mortimer," she sighs. "You're too nice for your own good."
I nearly choke on my soup. "Me? Nice? Agnes, did you notice the monitoring anklet?"
"Look, you can't be the savior to everyone who looks like a mutant. You need some time for yourself."
I finish my soup and ask, "To do what? I mean, Hannah's asleep, and once this is over, you'll be spending time with Logan again. It's not like I have anything else to do at night."
"I don't need to spend every night with him," she says. Oh shit. She looks guilty.
"You should." I get up and put my bowl in the sink. "He makes you happy. You should spend as much time with him as you can."
She sighs and drops her head in her hands. "There you go again. You're being too nice. What about you?"
I move her hands away from her face and say, "I like keeping busy, okay? Keeps me from sitting around in a funk. Look, I really need to be getting back."
"You're sure you want to do this?" she asks.
"Positive. 'Sides, she's nice."
She shoots me a sad grin. "Hell, maybe you'll finally have an adult here that you can talk to."
"I've got you."
"I'm your sister. I don't count."
I kiss her on the forehead. "Sure you do. Thanks for the soup."
I knock on the door and hear Logan say, "Hold still, okay?" then louder, "Come in."
"I've got that barrette...oh." Logan's sitting on the chair, holding Shariya's shining hands in his. White light is pouring from her palms in a fairly focused beam, and she's staring at it with huge eyes. But at least she's looking calm. "Wow, it's already back."
"Yeah, and it doesn't hurt," Logan says, passing one hand through the light. "C'mere and see for yourself."
Shariya looks a little alarmed. "Are you sure it won't hurt him? I mean, maybe it's not hurting you because of your healing powers."
"They don't work that way. I get hurt the same as everybody else. I just recover quicker."
Just in case she's right, I put the barrette and comb in my left hand and extend my right, seeing as how I'm a leftie and all. If I'm gonna fuck up a hand, it'll be the less useful one. Before I get to the light, one of Logan's thumbs goes into a beam, and he jerks it back with a wince. I freeze.
"Shit, I knew it," she hisses, clamping her hands tightly together and blocking out the beams.
Logan and I look at his thumb, and there's no doubt about it. It's burned. But not for long. It's healing as I watch. "Okay, what happened there?" he asks.
"I told you they were dangerous," she snaps.
"But they weren't at first," he says.
"Aren't you hurting yourself?" I ask, staring at her tightly clasped hands.
"They can't hurt me. I don't know why. You'll both have to leave so I can put the gloves back on without accidentally aiming at either of you."
"Hang on," I say. I've suddenly got a hunch. I don't get many of those, so I figure I'd better open my mouth before I chicken out and it goes away. "The beams didn't hurt Logan at first, but as soon as I started moving towards them, they did. Something changed."
"Maybe they're just getting stronger as the drugs leave my system," she says. "That would make sense."
"No, it happened too fast. Maybe they only hurt people when you're upset," I reply.
"Hunh," Logan says. "Yeah, that would make sense."
Shariya just looks at us both warily, hands clasped tightly together.
"Think you can relax?" I ask. "It's worth a shot."
"I don't want to hurt him again," she whispers.
He holds up his thumb. "Look, I'm already better."
"But it hurt."
"I've hurt worse. Look." He extends the claws on one of his hands. "That hurts a lot worse, and I did it deliberately. I don't mind a little burn."
"I...I don't know if I can relax." Right now, she looks anything but. Curled up on the bed like she is, she looks like a cornered animal. With good reason, too.
"Hang on," I say, plunking the barrette and comb down on the dresser, and head out to grab the hall phone. I call the professor's office and Jean picks up. "Hey, I need a favor from the professor."
"He's pretty tapped out right now," she says. "This has been really difficult for him."
"Just a quick one. Look, Shariya's lights came back, and we need to test a theory. I think they're only dangerous when she's upset, and right now, she's upset. Is there any way the professor could temporarily calm her down?"
"Hang on." If I were calling anyone else, I'd be hearing a muffled conversation right now, but these two are sodding mindreaders. Nothing but silence on the other end of the line. Jean comes back and says, "He can do it for about a minute, but that'll shorten the time he can help her with her withdrawal."
"I think it's worth a shot."
"Okay. He'll do it in a moment. Call back and let me know if it works."
"Sure thing. Thanks."
I hang up and head back in. "The professor's gonna calm you in a sec. Just let us know when..." Her face suddenly loses the tension it was carrying. "Okay, I guess that would be now."
Logan gently pries her hands apart and puts his hand over the light. "You're right," he says to me. "Here, you try."
This time, I move more quickly--don't want to tap the professor out too badly--and stick the tips of my fingers into the beam. "Wow, it feels...it's really nice," I say, stupid grin plastered across my face. It's all warm and tingly. Makes me wonder how it would feel...whoa, don't go there, Mortimer.
"I had no idea," Shariya murmurs. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Logan says. "You didn't know."
Logan helps her slide back into her gloves as I head back for the phone in the hall. "Thanks. It worked," I say.
"That's great news. I'll test her more thoroughly when she's well," Jean says. "And that was good thinking on your part. Okay, I'm coming up there to give her a quick examination and let the professor know if she can go it alone yet so he can get some rest."
Logan steps back into the hall as I walk back in. "So, how are you feeling now?" I ask.
"A hell of a lot better," she sighs. "I had no idea I had any control over this."
"That's great. So..." I pick the barrette and comb back up. "The biggest one I could find had a blue butterfly on it. Hannah's not exactly a fan of plain things. Still want it?"
"Sure." She reaches out for it, but her hands are shaking.
"No, I'll do it," I say, sitting next to her on the bed.
"You know how to do hair?" she asks, dropping her hands back into her lap. "Are you sure you're a guy?"
"I've spent the past three and a half years doing Hannah's. I think I can handle yours." As gently as I can, I comb the snags out of the hair near her face, which isn't easy, seeing as how it keeps getting caught in the nubs on my fingertips. I hope I'm not hurting her. Can't tell. She's just sitting there quietly while I do it. I pin her hair back with the barrette and say, "There. The butterfly looks nice, actually. It's a good color on you."
The awkward silence gets broken by a knock at the door. "Must be Jean," I say, jumping up and heading for the door. Good timing.
"I'm impressed," Jean says as she stands up and starts tucking her instruments back in her medical bag. "Your body's metabolizing very quickly. Tomorrow I want to test to see if you have control over your own metabolism. That would be an enviable mutant ability."
"I'm sure I don't," Shariya mumbles. She looks exhausted. "I just go through withdrawal pretty quickly, and I was already halfway there by the time I got here. They didn't give me that much methadone."
Jean smiles down at her and says, "Well, you're looking pretty good for someone in your condition, so I think it's time to let the professor get some rest."
Shariya looks over at me with pained eyes, then closes them and says, "Yeah, give the poor guy a break."
I take Jean by the arm, lead her a few feet away, and whisper, "Any way either of you could help her fall asleep?"
Jean looks over at Shariya, furrows her brow, and whispers back, "I'm not sure it'll take in her condition."
"It's worth a shot though, isn't it?"
She nods, and we head back over to the bed. "Do you mind if we telepathically try to help you sleep?"
"I'd really love that," she sighs.
Jean rests a hand on Shariya's forehead, closes her own eyes, and concentrates. Oh thank god. It worked. I lean down and tuck Shariya in, then mouth "thank you" at Jean as we both step away.
"Look, you don't need to stay the night," she whispers. "Logan's right out side the door, and we can get someone else to watch her while she sleeps."
"No, I'll stay," I whisper back. "Don't worry."
She smiles, gives my arm a little squeeze, picks up her bag, and heads out. I may not spend time with her, but I like her. Jean's a good person. She actually seems to care. Besides, she's great with the kids. Nothing like a telepath to put a scared and hurt kid at ease. Okay, so I wish she wasn't a bloody X-Man, but still.
Right, Shariya's looking okay. She's sleeping soundly. Doesn't look like she's in any pain. The gloves are doing the trick, and now that she realizes she actually does have some control over her power, she seems to be feeling better about it. Nothing to do now but let her sleep and make sure she can't sneak out. There's no windows in here. The door's the only way out. So I gently take the barrette out of her hair so she won't hurt herself on it in her sleep, turn off the lights, grab one of the extra pillows, lean it up against the door, then lie back against it and wait to fall asleep.
My eyes snap open, and I blink up to see a furry face hovering over me. "Shit, I'm sorry," I mumble, squinting at my watch. It's nearly ten in the morning. "Can't believe I slept so late." I'm used to having Hannah wake me. "How are you doing?"
"Did you sleep there all night?" she asks, squatting down next to me. She's looking better. Still haggard, but not desperate. And she's combed her hair and put the butterfly back in.
"Yeah. Are you okay?"
"You didn't need to do that. Doesn't your back hurt?"
I take her hands in mine and say, "You're avoiding the question. How do you feel?"
"Guilty that you slept on the floor all night." I roll my eyes. "And hungry. And like I could use a shower. And stir-crazy."
I stand up, guiding her up with me. "I can solve all that. Get a change of clothes. You're coming back to my place and I'm fixing breakfast." Finally, I can actually be useful.
"What about your sister and niece? Shouldn't you ask them first? I mean, don't you think they'd mind you bringing someone like me by unexpectedly?"
I tap my watch. "They're gone for the morning. It's Thursday. Hannah's got playgroup. And besides, if they don't mind me, they shouldn't mind you."
A small grin creeps across her face. "Well, what's for breakfast?"
"What do you want?"
Her grin gets vaguely guilty. "I haven't had pancakes in a long time."
I grin back. "I can make those."
"You wouldn't happen to have real Vermont maple syrup, would you?"
"Not unless it comes in an Aunt Jemima bottle."
She sighs and rolls her eyes, but her grin's getting even wider. "It'll do."
Shariya's off with Jean, and I'm in the shower. She polished off a huge stack of pancakes this morning. I really hope her appetite at breakfast wasn't just a fluke. Poor girl needs the weight. We barely talked. I didn't want to distract her from eating. She looked a lot better after the shower, too, although now we're almost out of shampoo and conditioner. It's almost time for another grocery delivery anyway. I'll just stick that on the list.
I wonder what Shariya's like off drugs? Totally off them, I mean. I know she'll be out of sorts for a few days, but after that, what's she gonna be like?
Guess I'll find out if she stays.
I hope she still likes me when she's clean.
"Hey." I've been waiting outside the lab for Shariya's exam to come to an end.
"I was hoping you'd be here," she says with a pained grin. "I need to, um...I dunno. Do something."
"Sure. What do you want to do?"
"What do you do for fun around here?"
"Spend time with the kids. Wanna meet 'em?"
"No," she snaps, and I flinch. "Sorry, I didn't mean for it to come out like that," she says with an apologetic grin. "I'm not a kid person."
"But they're mutants. You'll like them."
"No, I won't." She sighs and leans against the wall. "I don't know how to act around kids. They make me twitchy."
"You're already twitchy," I point out. Great. Way to be helpful.
"Yeah, and I don't want to get twitchier. Look, I have no experience with kids. I really don't know what to do around them. I just get really uncomfortable and say stupid things, and then they get scared of me, and it's just awful."
Damn. Maybe she won't be staying then. I was kinda hoping I could convince her to work at the school. Maybe once she's feeling better, I can try again. Don't know what else she could do here. Damn. I shrug helplessly and say, "Well, that's what I do for fun."
I suddenly hear the sound of thundering feet over my head. Classes must have just let out. Shariya looks up and her eyes go very very wide, and she starts backing along the wall. "Hey, are you okay?" I ask, stepping towards her and putting a hand on her shoulder to keep her from backing any farther away.
"I just...I hate crowds of people," she whispers, shifting her gaze to me. "Never got used to them."
"How did you stand New York City?" I ask.
"I was stoned and I hid." The thundering subsides, and she relaxes. "Shit, I'm a mess," she sighs.
Suddenly, I've got an idea. "Feeling strong enough to hang on for a piggyback ride?" I ask, eyeing her bulky sweater. Yeah, this'll work.
She shoots me a dubious look. "Um, yeah, I guess."
"Afraid of heights?"
I take her hand and say, "Come with me."
"Hang on tight," I say as I make sure she's in a good position on my back. Good thing she's short like me. It makes this easier.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Just hang on."
And then I jump above the first floor windows, cling to the side of the mansion, and start to climb.
"Oh my god!" she shrieks, tightening her arms and legs around me. I'm about to ask her if she's okay, but then she starts laughing. Yeah, she's fine.
She laughs all the way up, and I'm tempted to climb slower so she can enjoy it longer, but I have no idea how long she'll be able to hang on. Maybe when she's feeling better, we can do this again and take it slowly. Heh. I like that idea a lot. Doing this again. Maybe Agnes was right. Maybe I do need another adult to hang out with.
When we get to the top, I set her down and say, "Welcome to the roof."
She clings to my arm and stares open-mouthed at the view. "It's beautiful up here."
"Isn't it? And there's still some leaves on the trees, although you missed the peak by a couple weeks."
"So, is this something else you do for fun?"
"No, it's what I do to get away from that lot," I say, nodding my head toward the sounds of the teenagers playing out back.
"This is great! Thanks for showing me this." I haven't seen her smile like this the entire time she's been here.
"Come on," I say. "There's an unused chimney that's a great place to sit if you want to see the town."
Arms tightly linked, we make our way across the roof together.
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