CONTINUITY: X2 didn't happen, okay?
NOTES: This is based on a Challenge in a Can from http/ Jean/bittersweet/jewelry. Tremendous thanks are due to Domenika, Naomi K., and Victoria P., all of whom provided assistance on New York commuter trains to this Washington-area commuter. This story was written in October 2002, but abandoned nearly completed. Minisinoo and Ozchick tried to convince me to finish and post in February 2004. Thanks to both of them for helpful suggestions I'm sure they've forgotten about!
The hiss of the rattling heaters almost drowned out the other sounds of the train, but Jean could faintly hear the clickety-clack of wheels and it soothed her. As she stared out the window, half her mind watched the passing scenery: industrial parks, gray and dreary; aluminum-sided houses, almost painfully neat in their identical rows; rows of trees, planted to beautify the train tracks.
Around her, people heading out of New York City into upstate napped, read, chattered on cell phones, and looked out the window. It was the usual assortment for a commuter train off-peak, commuters in suits and ties rummaging through briefcases, and occasional tourists or one-timers using the train to get in and out of the city without driving. The tourists clutched their paper tickets, while commuters tucked their monthly passes away.
The train whistle blew several long blasts and Jean glanced down at the papers in her lap. She'd brought the seniors' biology exams along on her trip, intending to grade them, but she was distracted by the world outside the window and the press of her own thoughts. Her meeting with other doctors working with mutants had gone well, and that's where her mind drifted.
"Did your husband give that to you?"
Jean looked up, startled by the words from the stranger next to her. "Excuse me?"
The Metro North train was surprisingly full for mid-afternoon, so Jean could hardly have complained when an elderly woman sat in the aisle seat of the three-seater. Now, the woman smiled at the confusion on Jean's face. "Sorry to interrupt your thinking, dear. The necklace is so lovely, though, I was just wondering if your husband gave it to you."
Jean looked down at the charm on a silver chain with which she'd been fiddling and let it slide through her fingers. A bird caught in flight, wings outstretched, it was a piece of jewelry she loved, but rarely wore. Why had she put it on this morning? "Yes, my husband did give it to me. Several years ago, before we married."
"You were thinking about him." It wasn't a question.
Jean reached out with her mind, paranoia making her wonder if this was a telepath, a trap of some sort, hidden in the guise of an old woman in a tidy green polyester pantsuit.
Apparently unaware of Jean's test, the woman continued. "I'm sure that's just how I look when I think about my husband Arthur, God rest his soul."
"I'm sorry," Jean murmured automatically. The woman didn't seem to be a telepath, just perceptive.
"Thank you, dear. He died five years ago, so I've had some time to get over it." But the woman blinked a few times, pushing back tears before smiling at Jean again. "But I do still miss him."
"I hope you were thinking good thoughts about your husband. So many unhappy marriages these days, I find it upsetting."
Jean picked the charm off her chest and looked at it again. "I wouldn't say we have an unhappy marriage, it's just...difficult. We both have so many responsibilities."
The woman patted her hairsprayed coiffure and leaned her head to one side as she regarded Jean. "Responsibilities."
Jean felt her face flush. Why did she feel a need to justify herself to this stranger? She frowned and glanced back at the papers in her lap.
The woman seemed once again to sense her thoughts. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrogate you. You just looked as if you were worrying about something, and it might help to talk."
Sighing, Jean relaxed. Not everything is a threat, she told herself, and not everyone you meet is a supervillain. "You're right, I suppose I was worrying a bit."
"If you'd like to talk about it, I've 'been around the block a few times,' as my son says. Perhaps I could give you some advice."
"It's a complicated situation."
"Aren't situations involving other people always complicated?"
"I suppose so." Jean laughed, and leaned back in her seat, freed somehow by the anonymity of the train. Outside, the air was chill and damp, and numerous mutant problems awaited her, but for now, she was just a woman on a train with marriage problems and someone willing to listen. It was almost as if they were outside of time and space.
"So what is the trouble, then?"
"Too many things to do, not enough hours in the day." Jean held the bird charm in her hand, sliding it back and forth, reminded of the day Scott gave it to her. "I feel as though we're moving apart."
"It doesn't take a great deal of time to keep your marriage alive." Jean looked up at the woman, who was looking at her diamond ring with a fond smile. "Arthur and I ate breakfast together every morning for 42 years. Sometimes that breakfast consisted solely of a piece of toast and some juice, but we only missed breakfast if he was out of town."
Jean chuckled at the thought of her and Scott facing each other over a breakfast table, surrounded by arguing children and teachers discussing lesson plans. "That sounds lovely, but it's not entirely practical for us. By the time I get to breakfast, Scott is already...," shooting robots in the Danger Room, "exercising. And then our teaching schedules and other duties keep us separate."
"It doesn't have to be as formal as breakfast. When was the last time you told him you loved him?"
Jean had to think about it. Of course, Scott could feel her emotions to some extent through their psilink, but she couldn't say that, and she suspected that wasn't quite the same thing.
"You'd be surprised how helpful it is to look him in the eye and say you love him. Men need constant reminders of these things."
"I'll try that." Jean looked down at the bird again. "I know I like it when he says it."
She could see Scott's hands holding the necklace and wearing a cockeyed grin. "I'm not sure why," the Scott in her memory said, "but the bird reminds me of you, so I had to buy it. I love you, Jean."
Two blasts on the train whistle reminded her where she was; the memory faded and Jean let the bird drop back onto her chest.
"It's important," the woman said, leaning forward in her seat. "You never know how long you'll keep your husband, so be certain that if the Lord takes him, you're ready."
Jean had a sudden vision of Magneto pinning Scott to the wall inside the Statue of Liberty. "It could happen at any time."
"Life is dangerous."
"And considering that we're school teachers, ours are considerably more dangerous than one might expect." Jean managed a smile.
A few seats ahead of them, a mother and child argued over a piece of candy, both obviously exhausted from a day of sightseeing. Jean was tall enough to see the look on the woman's face as she tried to explain the necessity of dinner before dessert.
"Do you have children?"
Jean looked back. She'd momentarily forgotten the old woman, who was regarding her now with some amusement.
"No, not yet. Well, unless you count our students. The school is residential, so we're in loco parentis for some very...troubled students." Jean sighed, reminded that the matter of Rogue's mutation still had yet to be solved, and she'd promised to do some extra tutoring for Jubilee, who was having trouble in chemistry. Not to mention the necessity to keep Angelo and Jono busy and out of trouble. So much to do and so little energy.
"That's difficult work, working with troubled youngsters. I was lucky enough to be blessed with wonderful children. Although," she smiled a mischievous smile, "my youngest could be quite a handful. The mouth he had on him!"
"We have a few of those as well." Jean chuckled, reminded of the time she caught Logan and Bobby having an awkward conversation about why Logan could use certain words, and Bobby couldn't.
"It sounds as though the students are very important to you."
"Oh, they are. No matter how difficult they can be, our jobs are so important. It wasn't what I planned to do, perhaps, but now I couldn't leave. And Scott feels the same, I know."
"But is it more important than your marriage?"
"They're not comparable." Jean frowned.
"But they do compete."
"I suppose so. And Scott wants me to avoid certain..." she paused, searching for safe words, "activities. He worries so much, that sometimes he tries to coddle me."
"Because he loves you."
"Yes, but...when I left this morning we fought over it. He says I'm being too stubborn, doing things I don't have to just to prove something."
"Is he right?"
"Sometimes." Jean managed a wan smile. "But not all the time. I do what's necessary to get the job done. He's just taken so much on himself, he feels responsible for the whole world and it maddens me to see him like that. So we fight."
"But you're wearing the necklace he gave you," the woman said, pointing.
Jean realized her hand had crept up to hold it again. "Yes," she said slowly, "I suppose I was thinking about how happy we were when he gave it to me."
"Your school is residential, you said?"
"Then perhaps you haven't considered that you owe it to your students to work on your marriage." The woman smiled.
"I'm not following you."
"As teachers, you're role models to your students, and it's your responsibility to give them the best model for their future life that you can. Show them that work is more important than a spouse and that is the lesson they will take with them."
Jean stared down at her hands. "I never thought of it that way."
"Mamaroneck," the conductor called over the loudspeaker.
The woman glanced out the window. "This is my stop."
There was a squeal and a shiver as the train slowed down and made its way along the outdoor platform.
The woman stood up in her seat, but didn't enter the aisle. She turned back long enough to say, "Good luck, Dr. Grey."
Jean froze. "How..."
"My grandson and I saw you on television last year when you testified before that congressional committee. My grandson loves C-SPAN."
Jean was speechless.
The woman looked past Jean, her expression worlds away. "I remember when blacks went to separate schools. I was born not long before Hitler killed the Jews. You do very important work, Dr. Grey. But remember what I said: Your marriage is as important as that job."
The train shuddered to a stop and the woman made her way out of the train onto the platform, late afternoon sunlight slanting across the tracks. Still dazed, Jean watched the woman--whose name she'd never learned--walk down the platform. With a slight jerk, the train pulled away, taking her back home, back to her husband.