You've always awakened with a start. Contrary to popular belief you are neither a sloth nor a slug-a-bed. In fact, the term "insomniac" would be a better fit. The first rays of winter sun, eager to escape the heavy cloud cover, jab through your sleep-- never too deep to begin with-- like a spear through fat. Your entire body jerks, your fists nearly ripping the pillow sham as, with your heart thumping slowly but powerfully, you take careful measure of your surroundings.
The cloth under your cheek only vaguely smells of sweat and drool and scalp. The chemical equivalent of daisies is predominant as was advertised in the fuzzy, bunny-filled, wild flower-infested TV commercial. You start to hum the jingle but snort and turn over instead. The pillow is comfortable but firm. You've never liked the suffocating sensation of sleeping on overstuffed, goosedown pillows. You have not one but two blankets; a cotton sheet in the same striped pattern as the pillows and a thick comforter of bold sapphire on top and a dark crimson underneath. You approve of the colour combinations thoroughly. Not for the last time, you consider the possibility that Xavier has cluttered about in your head for your preferences. You're still not sure if you mind it. You see the clock flashing 7:14 and decide that it's still to early for thoughts like that.
You turn over again.
As you lie on your back, you wonder if anyone else has caught on to your sleeping habits. There had to be someone with super-sensitive hearing who would know that when you're truly asleep, you don't move a muscle. Scott might know; but then again, maybe not. After all, he has a few dozen other kids to take care of. Why should he remember the sleeping patters of a kid he knew for less than a month sixteen years ago? With that self-admonishment, you switch to lie on your right side again.
The thought of Scott makes you smile. Though you address him only as "Summers" in public, you think of him as "Scott," that tall, skinny protector who shone such promise. There were times way back in the past when you would finger a deck of cards and remember the boy who taught you the basic tricks. You feel a slight shame that you'd forgotten him so easily when he had searched for you for so long. That is dismissed a second later; your pragmatism tells you that you had far more important things on your mind back then.
You curl up to lie half on your stomach.
You prod at the memories until they throb like an abscessed tooth, pulling back just in time to keep from crying out. Then, with the morbidity of a child with a scabbed knee, you return to pick at the healing wounds.
As always, the first of the memories to come to the fore are the needles. As an adult, you know that they weren't fifteen feet long and five feet wide but you can never get rid of that mental image. You wonder why the man in your head always looks like a reanimated corpse out of a bad horror movie-- dead white skin and stiletto-like fangs. You figured out long ago that the teeth were thus shaped because of your fear of needles but you can never figure out the pale skin.
You shift, lying full on your stomach with your face away from the window.
The thought of talking to Xavier about the memories doesn't even enter your head. That lady doctor, Jean, flickers in your mind's eye but is just as quickly dismissed. Then there's Scott-- but no, you push him away, too. If he's as sharp as he seems to be, he already knows more about you than anyone else alive. You don't see any sense in giving him more of an advantage.
Sunlight seems determined to enter your world. You intend to ask Xavier for black window shades as soon as your body gets hungry enough to get out of the warm, fluffy covers. You glare at the single beam that has forced its way through a crack in the drapes and is currently casting shadows of you and the bed on the opposite wall. You stare at that wall, decide that the shadow looks like Elvis' profile and grin. Your lip curls up and you imagine that you are singing with the King's distinctive voice. You would never do that in public; you can't sing a note. Or, more specifically, you can only sing in one note, a discordant D flat in the middle octave.
That handicap doesn't prevent you from thoroughly enjoying music of course. Your eyes close again as you remember the dance club in Manhattan that was the cause for your coming home at five o' clock in the morning. You are, you admit without any humility, a fantastic dancer. Should the opportunity ever arise, you would do another stint as a stripper. Quite frankly, you like the attention. The men are more vocal with their praise but the women tip bigger especially if you act in love.
You are very good at acting, too.
The clock blinks 7:41. You stick your tongue out at it and burrow your head under the pillows. This time, however, even the false darkness wont' let you rest. You wish for a hammer with which to conk yourself out with but later decide that (a) it would hurt and (b) the hammer was probably in the garage (of all places!) and by the time you went down two flights of stairs, through five halls to get to the garage, found the damned thing and walked all the way back to your room, someone would have found you and rendered the use of the hammer futile.
You peek out from under the pillow. The clock greets you with a cheerful, green 7:42. You scowl at it then wonder if you've hurt its feelings. At that moment, you're sure that once you start feeling empathy for inanimate electronic objects, you definitely need more sleep. You force your breaths to come slower; you've read somewhere that a person takes only eight breaths per minute when he's asleep.
Faking sleep was one of the first things you learned to do. Hardly anybody disturbed dirty, scrawny, sleeping kids and remaining immobile was necessary when all that kept your little corner of the street from pimps, junkies and other such urban wildlife were 2 layers of cardboard. On the other hand, you've always learned to take catnaps in the most uncomfortable positions if you absolutely had to.
::So why isn't it working now?:: you demand of yourself.
You lift your head minutely to check the clock again. Your eyebrows rise when you see that it's actually 10:03 and you've lost two hours. That rankles your spine. One of the reasons why you're an insomniac is because you dislike not knowing where your time has gone. You hate that feeling of your consciousness disappearing out of control-- your control-- never to be recovered.
In any case, seeing that it's close enough to noon that no one will go into an epileptic shock should they see you strolling down the halls, you kick your covers off and roll out of bed. Literally. You purposely fall head-first, catch yourself with your hands and push off into a back flip then tuck into a forward roll singing, "Ta-daa!" as you lift yourself to your feet.
"Please, no need for a standing ovation," you tell your penis, "but if you insist."
You both bow.
As you relieve yourself, you hope that the furry blue doctor was the one who cooked breakfast (or brunch or lunch). Despite that fact that he uses all four limbs to chop, slice, sauté and serve and that he cooks his sauces in Erlenmeyer flasks, you've found his culinary skills exemplary. Then again, the point is probably moot; the appetite that some of these kids possess have you half-believing that they'd all been starved prior to coming to this school.
You turn the hot water on at full blast and step in without hesitation. Your hands and feet are always cold. Whoops... feet. You take off your soggy socks and dump them on the fuzzy blue rug. You pour a dollop of shampoo in your palm and decide that you're going to have a dozen beignets, a peach and coffee, hot, black and sugar-sludged, for breakfast. You introduced Dr. Grey to beignets the week before. She is now considering leaving Scott for the baker. You chuckle as you recall Scott going on and on about icing sugar and crumbs in their bed. You had suggested several creative ways to get rid of them and left your erstwhile protector looking dazed but intrigued as he mounted the stairs back up to his and Jean's suite.
You smirked at his expression the day after.
You smirk now just because.
When you finished scalding yourself and scrubbing off dead skin cells with those tree-bark-sponge things, you shake off the excess water from your hair. You are inordinately vain about your hair. Thick as your wrist when tied back and soft as kitten's fur with just the tiniest of waves when it's short, you know it's your best feature. Deciding that, no, it doesn't need conditioning, you grab your towel and dry off as quickly as possible. You go through the normal motions of the rest of the bathing ritual completely blind since the mirror is completely fogged up. You decide that your stubble isn't that bad and forego shaving. Besides, it would royally piss off that uppity Mississippi bitch.
It's not that you don't like her, you tell yourself as you spit out the extremely minty toothpaste. It's that she doesn't like you and you don't see the point in wasting your energy to try and change her mind. Maybe you're a bit put out as well that she isn't swooning over you but you insist on believing that that is only a small part of it. You end that argument with yourself as you tie your hair back and head for the door.
Steam curls out after your heels as you dash for your closet. You yank out the first thing that comes to your hand--- jeans and a shirt in a shade that the salesperson called "saffron." You think it's orangey-yellow. You pull them on as you hop around to keep warm. Yes, you have your own tiny ensuite but your heater is constantly on the fritz. The fairness of the trade off depends on the time of day.
By the time you find a clean pair of socks, your boots, and your jacket and finished combing your hair, it's quarter after eleven. You are halfway down the hall when a blast of sunlight reminds you that you don't have your shades on. Apparently, they'd decided crawl behind the bedside table.
When you go out again, the halls are beginning to stir as the kids leave their morning classes. A few of them wave to you, the younger ones more enthusiastically. One of them comes up to you, zipping down the halls at 250 klicks. He skids to a stop and pushes up his glasses. You lean against a table so that you can speak with him eye to eye.
You pause, replay the message in slow motion, and then reply, "It means you real good at it."
The boy, Pietro, beams. "Ohthat'swhatIthoughtbutIwasn'tsureandIdidn'twanttoaskjustincaseshe decidedthatIdon'thaveanapituteanymoresothanksfortellingmeheycanweplaycardsagain'cause Wandadoesn'tbelievethatIknowanytricksandIwanttoshowherthatIdoso--"
"Mais sho', mon frere," you say, "but not tonight. Scott might get his panties in a twist."
"AllrightI'llseeyoubye!" And he disappears in a streak of blue and black. You try to calculate how much sugar that child would need to support his energy expenditure. The results frighten you. You decide to buy stocks in sugar.
You've been told that there are currently forty-eight students in Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters. A third of them only have physical mutations-- crocodile skin, webbed hands and over-zealous hair follicles. Others had minor mutations such as phasing through solids, immense strength and various psychic abilities. Once in a while, there is a dangerous one. Mississippi Mud Pie is the current one.
Speaking of dangerous, you spot Scott overseeing the lunchroom. If there were a poll on who was most likely to be an insomniac, you would choose him hands down. The man was a machine. He sees you a second later, nods and smiles in greeting then continues on his way. You like that about Scott; he leaves you room to breath but never ceases to let you know of his presence.
"Hi, Remy!" It's the firecracker with the bubblegum. Jubilee.
You smile your most melting and bow to kiss her fingertips. "Bonjour, ma 'ti. An' how you doin' t'day?"
She titters. "Well, my day's just' starting to look up." She winks.
You overhear a long-suffering sigh. The mud pie is behind her, tapping her foot and clutching her tray as though she would love to break it over something. You guess that the something starts with "Remy," ends with "head" and has several unprintable expletives between it.
You draw out the flirtation just long enough to send her stomping away in disgust. Jubilee doesn't even notice.
"You know, you shouldn't do that," she says in mid-flutter.
All right, maybe she did notice. "Do what?" you inquire, feigning ignorance.
"Bait her like that."
"Y'mean the mud pie?"
She rolls her eyes at you. "Her name's Rogue as if you didn't know. I think you're just majorly pinking over her." Her fire-truck-red smile widens as the boot is stolen from your foot and jammed onto hers.
You contemplate denying the accusation. No, that would just convince her of her mistaken conclusion. "So what if I am? All boys want toys they can't have." Then before she can add to her argument, you kiss her cheek and head for the lunch line.
"Did you bring your lunch stub?" Scott asks you in a deadpan voice.
You slap your forehead. "Dieu, I forgot it in my cigarette case. Mind waitin'?"
"Only if you bring me down a cigarette."
"Will do." You don't know if he's joking. He's never smelled like tobacco but you never know. You decide to buy an extra pack just in case.
Dani and Bobby are doling out the food today. You wink at them both. "Who cooked?"
"Mr. Summers," replies Dani.
Looking over your head, Bobby deliberately pitches his voice at a higher tone. "And my, isn't today's selection a veritable feast!"
Scott has his back to you but you can imagine his expression as he answers back, "You still can't get your grade boosted up, Bobby."
"Damn," the boy mutters but it's only half-hearted. Turning to you, he recites, "We've got burgers or Sloppy Joes."
You take the Sloppy Joe. Dani spoons a heaping pile of macaroni salad on your plate as a side dish. You eye the raisins with distaste. You despise raisins.
As always, you waver between sitting with the "kids" or the "grown-ups." You are neither; too old for one, too young for the other, you don't study nor do you teach. You like to split the wealth, so to speak: whoever catches your attention first gets the honour of your presence.
This time, John waves you over to their table. You nod and start in their direction, manoeuvring nimbly around the other students milling about. You tell yourself that the only reason Rogue catches your eye is because she's the person you enjoying teasing the most.
John and Kitty slide over to give you room. You sit and nudge Kitty closer to Piotr. The boy's fair cheeks blaze red, confirming your suspicion that he likes her. The sketchbook full of her portraits is a dead give-away by itself but combined with the fact that he loses his mastery over English when she's around--- well, never let it be said that you didn't help the path of true love.
You chat about nonsensical things-- or more precisely, they chat and you enter a remark once in a while. Jubilee and John have control of the conversation, making up fifty percent of the noise level in the room. Rogue is almost directly in front of you. She's picking at her fries and trying to look interested in the conversation. You are surprised by her silence; usually, she speaks up more that this. You tune into the conversation better. It's about having children; right or wrong to bring them into this world such as it is? You don't know how it got to be so serious--- the last time you opened your mouth it was to comment on whether or not textured condoms really helped (not by much).
You can easily guess what's on her mind. You aren't sure of the specifics of her power; all you know is that she sucks people into herself and that she can't control it. You also know that so far, she's sucked two mutants so deeply that she's retained their powers.
You have an utterly inappropriate but fantastically X-rated image about your last thought. Your penis decides to applaud the notion, making you glad that your dusky skin won't let anything but the strongest blushes show through.
You try not to stare but you can't help yourself. You realise that her upper lip is a perfect cupid's bow. You can see that stubborn lock of hair that she has in the back, the one that insists on flipping up instead of in and your hand itches to smooth it down. You would have, too, if you hadn't been so sure that she would magnetically skewer your hand to the table with her eating utensils.
Mentally, you shake the notion away. You tell your head-- both of them-- that you have more than enough problems and that the last thing you need is an untouchable river rat who hates you and is one of the favourite students of one of your only friends. You only partially succeed.
You decline a game of basketball in favour of some private time in the gym. They've set up a complicated gymnastics course mainly for McCoy 's benefit but you've been drooling over it for some time. After a quick change into a pair of shorts, you start warming up. You visualise your routine as you stretch your muscles. You won't necessarily follow it but it helps you make split-second decisions when you ad-lib.
There are several levels of bars and half a dozen pairs of rings hanging haphazardly from the ceiling. There is even a trapeze. You barely contain a giddy giggle.
You'd never live it down if someone heard you giggle.
You only put a slight dusting of power on your hands; you've never needed more. In keeping with the giggly theme, you start off with a couple of cartwheels. In the middle of the third one, you make a quick half-twist in the air and start a series of handsprings. McCoy told you that two or more handsprings are called flik-flaks. You just keep calling them "lots of handsprings" since saying flik-flak makes you feel stupid.
When you get near the first set of bars, you jump up and catch it with your arms locked straight at your sides. Your hips touching the bar and your body stiff, you let yourself fall forward. The force of the swing brings you up to a full 360-degree circle. You continue to do this lazily, almost meditatively. It's interesting the thoughts that appear when you're spinning around and around a horizontal bar.
Not surprisingly, Fr. Mac pops into your consciousness. You think of that funny little Filipino-Scottish priest every time you have a chance to practice in a real gym. He was, after all, the one person besides Scott who gave you something without wanting anything in return. In this case, it was an introduction to gymnastics and the freedom to practice in the rundown gym that his parish supported.
As you twist and fall into some backward circles, you recall his quiet smiles of encouragement when you felt frustrated at missing a twist and the way he would bang his prosthetic leg with his cane when he tried to get his point across. You can never forget how he slaughtered Cajun-French (which is extremely difficult to slaughter) when he was trying to get across to you those two horrible months that you went into withdrawal. You wonder if he's watching over you even now. You also want to know if there could have been a more painful way for his murderers to die than a knife in the gut.
Finally, you fold your body so that your legs are parallel to your torso, swing up to sit on the bar and push off to a set of rings. You perform a full circle on these, spin and circle backwards before letting go. As you somersault in the air, you think you spot a white and brown head peeking behind the doors. ::Yeah?:: you think as you grasp the parallel bars, ::What's she doing here?::
You let your body go slack and rest your weight to your shoulders. When you swing up again you let go at the peak of the upward lift, spread your legs to straddle the bars and land with minimal wiggle on your feet. Your ego calls and you are helpless to resist. So you shift into a bunch of difficult moves that have no business on parallel bars: the windmill, usually performed on a pommel horse; some flips and shoulder rolls that somehow defy gravity and end with a flourished hip dismount.
You don't see anyone when you land.
You straighten your slumped shoulders and tell yourself to keep on playing. Which you do until your breaths are little more than gasps and your muscles are threatening to kill you. You are not looking for anyone as you leave the gym.
Xavier calls to you as you head for-- well, nowhere in particular. You turn and cock your head to one side to show that you'd heard.
"May I see you in my office for a moment?"
"I didn't do it," you say only half jokingly. The steady whir of his wheelchair guides you while you take stock of the decor yet again. You have no idea why Xavier has some of this stuff out for display with all these kids around. You think that hearing everyone's thoughts must have made him nutty. Because you have easy access, the temptation to steal them isn't there. Well, at least it isn't strong. You love the planning and execution more than the prize-- though that's fantastic, too.
The door doesn't creak as it closes; you keep expecting it to, though, just because this is officially the oldest and classiest house you've been in and something should creak if only to add to the ambience. The chess game that you and he started during your first "talk" is still set up. You pause before it and move your bishop to B5. Xavier glances at the board from the corner of his eye. You can feel his approval but brush it off as unimportant.
"I have another job for you," he says.
You pick up a cut crystal paperweight and nod. "What's y'poison?"
"A certain sector of the government have some files in their possession," he elaborates, "Files on mutants that my sources say are next in line for black market experimentation."
You hope the professor didn't see your hand clench around the paperweight ever so slightly. "How much time do I got?"
"You must retrieve them before the week is through."
He hands you the usual package--files and pictures, some hard copies, others on CD-- from a hidden compartment. It's a damned good compartment; it took you three days to find and crack. You mentally tally up the work and say, "It might cost you extra this time 'round."
"I expect so."
You assume you mumbled a glib farewell but your mind is already preoccupied with the job ahead. The electric high of a job is running through your veins, sweeter and headier than quality cocaine.
You retreat back to your room but only to pick up a heavier coat and the keys to your car. When Xavier first approached you in person, you tested his faithfulness by demanding that you get free passage in and out of the school grounds. You were surprised when he complied, even more so when he handed you keys to a sleek charcoal sports car "for your own personal use," he had explained with his enigmatic smile. You brushed it for bugs of course but found it clean.
Your destination isn't far: a motel just inside the borders of New York City. It is neither too ratty nor too sophisticated. You park the car five blocks away and change the license plate. You carefully put away your things in your rented room, not that you brought much just yet. Your notebook computer is set up on the table.
You stretch-- you have another difficult routine ahead. Briefly, you speculate Scott's reaction should he find out that you haven't turned a new leaf. Then you wonder why you care.
Then you stop wondering about anything except how to crack the government building. You know Xavier will make excuses for your MIA status for the next few days, probably further blackening your image. If Scott should disapprove, you figure that it's his problem. You appreciate the reunion and the save but you have no intention of turning into him. He has survived his way and you have survived yours. And if it should cost you the friendship of a good man, then so be it. Survival always takes precedence.
You are, after all, a master thief. You are skilled enough to take