The coffee in the tall paper cup has long gone cold and I grimace as I down the last few mouthfuls. The drink leaves a bitter taste in my mouth but I had decided that perhaps caffeine and sugar was a bad combination. It's hard enough as it is to sit here and wait.
I glance at the clock in the centre of the dashboard and groan wearily. Sitting here waiting is exactly what I have been doing for the past four hours now. Except for the much needed pee break and the obligatory stop at the coffee shop in town, I've spent my entire morning here in this street. The local residents must be wary of me by now and a few have peered in at me in annoyance as they wandered past with their dogs. I wonder now if their pooches actually needed a walk or whether that was their excuse for checking out the stranger parked in the middle of their street.
Oh, this is stupid. I should have listened to the professor and not come out here. But since when do I listen to anyone? And I told myself – and Charles – that he would definitely be the last person I ever listened to again, if ever. But they were words spoken in anger and time has a funny way of eventually smoothing things over.
It did take a lot of time, though. It was six weeks before I stepped foot in the school again and that surprised none more than me. Whether I was disappointed in myself for not lasting longer or feeling guilty for having left at all, I was unsure. But it was a difficult moment when I wandered into the professor's office.
He didn't seem to have changed at all. His office was the same and he looked just as he had before all this happened. Or so I had first thought. When I stepped closer to him, I noted the weariness in his eyes and the sharp definition of his cheekbones beneath his pale skin. I don't think any of us will ever understand what he has been through. And perhaps that's how he wants it. I know there's now this new rule amongst us that there are absolutely no secrets but he needs to keep some sort of professional distance. He's a leader. I get that.
At one point, though, I did think that he might want to open up to me. It was a few days after my return and I had found him sitting at the far end of the garden, staring out over the graves of the friends we had lost. I forgot instantly what it was that was so important to seek him out for and I still can't remember now why I was looking for him. He was crying softly and I was struck by how helpless he seemed. And how very old.
"Such a waste." Charles had whispered huskily. "Such a fucking waste."
I don't think I'd ever heard Charles use an expletive before but it wasn't that which upset me. It was the anguish that laced his voice. And suddenly I did feel guilty. Guilty for leaving him to face his grief alone. He had lost his two closest confidants. Orora lay in the ground before us and Jean was gone. Out of reach in some undisclosed location.
I wanted to tell him how sorry I was for deserting him when he needed me most. I wanted to somehow explain why I had needed to go. But I could not find the words and so I simply placed my hand on his shoulder and somehow hoped that being there at that moment would be enough.
"I need you to help me rebuild all this." Charles had said after a moment and he reached up to place his hand over mine. "I need you to help me to let go of what this place … of what I used to be."
Again I was lost for words as he looked up at me with tear-filled eyes and I had simply nodded in agreement.
"We will be stronger." Charles had said firmly and he took a deep breath as he turned back to the graves. "There will have to be some changes and it's not going to be easy. But we'll get through this."
I lean back into the soft driver's seat and a frown pulls at my forehead as I remember back to that conversation a few months ago. Charles had not been wrong. The changes that needed to be made were hard but it was necessary. Hank had done a good job of somehow keeping the school running while the rest of us had either fled the coop or been in recovery. But the day after our brief talk in the garden, the professor had outlined what he wanted to adjust. One of the first things was to sit down with all the students and tell them the honest truth about all that had happened. They knew a few details here and there and had their own theories about certain events but we laid it out to them straight. And then the new lessons began. We taught them how to fight and how to win. We took them down into the lower levels and trained them on the use of the vast array of state-of-the-art equipment. For too long had we treated them as the children they appear to be and not the gifted individuals that they are.
I smile as I recall the varied reactions we received from the children. Some of them, like Bobby and Marie, had been ready for this for a long time but others had simply gazed at us in fear and confusion as we talked of battle strategies and war defences. I can't help but wonder what Orora would make of all this and somehow I think that, though she may have been loud in her protests, deep down she would have approved. We were seeking out the strengths within each student and finally putting them to good use.
"We are creating soldiers." Hank had argued one afternoon as we sat together in the conference room and planned the next week's lessons.
Sitting in that room was a painful reminder of what we had lost. The three of us seemed suddenly very alone amid the empty chairs.
"We are preparing them for the future, Hank." Charles had countered gently. "If the events of the past year tell us anything, it's that we were unprepared. The world has changed around us and the threat to us all is always growing. We have to be ready for whatever they throw at us next."
"They?" Hank had queried, "You have always maintained that a human-mutant divide does not and should not exist."
"And I still do." Charles had agreed firmly. "But we must not take anything for granted. A new threat could come from anywhere, anyone. All we can depend on is each other."
I guess that's why I came out here to this quiet town in South Dakota. To see for myself that she really is no longer part of the team. And perhaps to try and persuade her to return.
It's a futile plan and I've already accepted that it will fail. I don't even know what I will say to her if I do see her. But I'm beginning to realise that my motives have changed. Gone is my resolve to bring her back into the fold and now I simply want to see her. Just to know that she is safe and perhaps even allow myself to accept that she is happier not being with us.
But the courage that it took to walk up to her door and ring the bell vanished without a trace when there was no answer and I don't think I can summon it again. I've been sitting here in the belief that she has to come home at some point but now even that seems unlikely. My mind is telling me that it's time to call it a day but for some reason I just can't. Now I can see myself spending the night here and that would really piss of the local neighbourhood watch.
I sigh loudly into the empty car and grab the key to turn the ignition. The dashboard lights flicker to life and I'm about to start the engine when a car appears in my rear view mirror and I hold my breath in anticipation.
The black SUV slows as it approaches me before then swinging across the road and rolling up onto the drive. I clutch my steering wheel tightly and can hardly breathe as I watch the driver's door open and she steps out of the vehicle.
She looks just the same. Somehow I thought she would have dyed her hair or at least had it cut but it hasn't changed and a smile pulls at my lips as I watch her. She hurries round to open the passenger door and leans into the jeep. I lower my window and warm summer air rushes into my car, bringing with it the sound of her gentle laughter. My smile grows as I listen to her happy banter and I watch in wonder as she lifts the small boy from the vehicle. He clutches at her sleepily and his head flops over her shoulder as she carries him up to the house.
My head is spinning as I watch her unlock her front door and she disappears into the house. I know I'll never come here again. If I don't go up to the house right now, I never will. I take a deep breath and climb out of my car.
I've made it up onto the drive and am walking past the open car when I then see the shopping on the back seat. I hear the handle of the front door turning and I freeze. Suddenly there's no time to prepare an opening line or get ready to meet her. Suddenly she's stepping from the house and walking towards me. My whole being is screaming at me to pretend to be a salesman and I'm quickly racking my brain for a suitable product when I then realise that she is smiling at me.
"I thought it was you." Anna nods in greeting.
"I … what?" I stammer in surprise.
Anna shrugs her shoulders and wanders up to me. "I saw your car this morning when I left." She nods past me and then smiles back up at me. "But when I came back at lunchtime you had gone."
I frown at her in confusion, "Coffee." I manage.
"Ah," Anna nods in understanding and then turns to lean into her jeep again. "Help me inside with these." She grins as she places a bag of groceries in my arms and then grabs the rest before locking the car and heading up the drive.
I follow her into the house in bewildered silence and gently kick the front door closed. Having placed the shopping where she indicated on the kitchen counter, I watch her unpacking the cold items into the fridge and am lost for words.
"More coffee?" Anna offers in amusement as she closes the fridge and steps past me to grab the kettle. "Or have you had enough already?"
"Sorry?" I frown.
"What's wrong with you? You can't be surprised to see me if you've been waiting outside my house all day!"
"Yeah … I guess."
"I've never known you so quiet!" Anna laughs, as she fills up the kettle with water. "I would have thought there would be a lot to tell me after all this time."
I close my eyes and let out a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry." I look back up at her and shrug my shoulders, a smile spreading across my mouth. "It's just so good to see you and you look so great. But …" I shake my head slowly, "As you say – it's been a while."
Anna nods in agreement and then chuckles softly. "Come here, you!" She suddenly crosses the kitchen and throws her arms around my waist. "God, it's good to see you!"
I wrap my arms around her shoulders and bury my face into her soft hair. She smells just as good as I remember and I breathe in her scent as I clutch her to me. We stay locked in each other's embrace for a long moment and then the kettle boils and Anna sighs as she steps back from me and makes us both a cup of coffee.
I follow Anna into the lounge and smile as I see the sleeping form of her son on one of the wide sofas.
"He always falls asleep in the car." Anna offers as she notices my reaction. "It works like a charm whenever he's unsettled. Of course, the neighbours tend to frown at me when I take him out in the car in my pyjamas at 3 am!"
I laugh gently and nod in understanding as I sit down on the sofa opposite her. "Surely you could just play a recording of an engine and rock him gently."
"Oh, believe me – I tried everything!" Anna chuckles, "But – nope! It has to be the real thing! He just loves cars!"
I sip at my coffee and try to think how to approach what I need to ask her. It's clear she knows me but what her memory of me really is I don't know. Asking her outright whether she knows who I am or remembers the school might not be the right tactic.
"So." Anna leans forward and places her coffee on the table between us. "What brought you out here today?"
"I'm not sure." I answer honestly.
"It's been, what … six months?" Anna frowns in thought.
"About that, yeah." I nod in agreement and shrug my shoulders slightly. "Sorry."
"Oh, it's just as much my fault!" Anna laughs and waves off my concern with her hand. "I could easily have picked up the phone!"
I watch her for a moment and wonder whether she would have been able to contact me. I don't know what Jean planned for. There was no chance to ask her what, if anything, she had placed in Anna's memory. She was long gone when Hank had finally released me from the confines of the infirmary.
And so was Logan. I was furious at first. Hurt and disappointed. And so sure that they had eloped together. But then Charles explained about the task he had given to Logan. It seemed that Charles' notion of utilising the full potential of all those living at the school had begun with Logan. And suddenly I was jealous of him. He had something to distract him from all that had happened and, when I spoke to him myself during one of his regular updates, I could hear that he was almost happy. He was hunting. And he was useful.
I spent a few days moping around the school. Tired and numb. Unable to come to terms with all that had happened. And still weak from surgery.
Hank said it was normal to feel so confused. He said it would take time to adjust to the fact that I now had someone else's heart beating in my chest. And he was right. I still haven't accepted the transplant. My body has willingly taken to the new organ but something in me still can't deal with the notion that my heart is not my own. In truth, it never was. It belonged to Jean from the moment I first saw her. And that fact alone sends an almost physical pain through my entire being. Did she leave because I was no longer there?
I look up and see Anna frowning at me in concern. She stands and steps round the table to sit beside me, my heart racing as she places her hand on my arm. Well, the thing inside my chest is racing.
"What is it?" Anna urges softly, stroking her hand down my arm to grasp my fingers in hers. "Has something happened?"
You could say that, I want to reply. Instead I just shake my head and force a smile to my face. "I was just thinking." I shrug and then an idea springs to my mind. "D'you remember when we first met?"
Anna watches me in concern for a moment and then takes a deep breath. "Not really." She sighs and her frown then fades as she regards me fondly, "It just feels like you've always been a part of my life." Anna chuckles and shrugs her shoulders slightly. "Why?"
"No reason." I smile thinly.
"What is it, Scott? Tell me."
I look down into her sincere face and it would be so easy to pour out my worries to her but I can't risk it. Jean altered Anna's memory for a reason. She is so much safer not knowing the truth. And there's also the fact that she wanted this. Logan said she had begged Jean to make her forget. Forget the nightmares that are so very real. Forget the pain of so many bad memories. Forget us.
"Scott, you're scaring me." Anna husks quietly and reaches up to touch the frown that sits above my glasses. Her fingers then slowly trace the edges of the red lenses and she sighs loudly. "You've been my friend for so long. We used to tell each other everything. I know that me moving out here has put distance between us … but it was what I had to do. I needed to be near my parents." She lets her hand rest on my cheek and shakes her head slowly. "We said that this would never change us."
I look into her dark eyes and am again lost for words. I don't know the life that she remembers. I don't know the person that she thinks I am.
"Is it Max?" Anna asks suddenly and frowns up at me in concern. "Have I changed since he came along?"
"I don't know." I answer honestly, suddenly wishing that I had listened to Charles and not travelled up here.
"Only this morning, mom was telling me how responsible and mature I've become." Anna laughs suddenly, "Can you imagine it? Me – all growed up?" She grimaces at the thought and then smiles up at me. "Remember in college how we vowed never to grow up?"
No, I want to tell her. I don't know anything of the life you remember. But I simply smile and nod slightly.
My replacement heart slams into my chest and I stare at Anna in wonder.
"I haven't heard from her since she came to visit the day after Max was born." Anna wonders aloud and then seems to suddenly realise what it might be that is troubling me. "Oh god … are you guys …?"
"We broke up." I shrug, deciding to play along.
"Oh no …" Anna groans in dismay. "Oh, Scott … I'm so sorry." She edges closer to me and rests her head against my shoulder. "That's crappy." She sighs, "But it explains a lot, I guess." Anna offers softly, "Why didn't you call me?"
"You had enough to deal with. What with the move and then the baby."
"Yeah. But I've always got time for you – you know that."
I nod in silence.
"Is it for good?" Anna asks after a moment. She looks up at me and sees the pain that must be etched on my face. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"She left a few months ago." I offer carefully, glad to be able to tell the truth to her at last. And relieved to finally be able to talk to someone about this. "I decided to go and stay with friends. I couldn't stand being in our home, constantly surrounded by her presence."
Anna leans back from me and then smiles thinly. "It must be so hard. You guys were always the certainty. Ever since college."
I swallow back the lump in my throat and manage a slight shrug of my shoulders. "There was never anyone but Jean." I agree huskily. Until I met you, I suddenly want to add.
Anna again reaches up and strokes my hair back from my forehead. "You still should have called me." She smiles.
She gently slides her hand behind my neck and I close my eyes as I let her pull me towards her. Anna wraps her arms around me and hugs me tightly. "Well, you're here now." She offers softly, "That's all that matters."
I clutch at her as I feel the tears forming and it would be so easy to let go. But I'm suddenly wary of the danger I may be placing her in just by being here. I lean back from her and take a deep breath, shaking my head slightly to collect my thoughts.
"What's wrong?" Anna asks carefully.
"Nothing." I wave dismissively and stand quickly from the sofa. "I shouldn't have come here." I sigh and begin towards the lounge door. If I use the comm. in my car, I can contact Charles quickly and tell him what I've done. He can send Hank out here to watch over Anna and make sure no one followed me here.
"Scott?" Anna gasps worriedly as she hurries after me and we both then jump in fright as suddenly the front door bell rings. She groans in annoyance and grabs my arm, pulling me back from the lounge door. "I'll just quickly see who that is. You stay here." She orders and wanders from the room.
I want to stop her. I want to hold her back but what can I say that won't freak her out? I still don't know how much she knows about me. Stupid, Summers, I chide myself. Real fucking stupid.
I wander out into the hall as Anna answers the door and adrenaline surges through me as she greets the man cheerily. Reaching up to grasp the arm of my glasses, I watch every move of the elderly man and my whole body tenses in apprehension. I don't know if Anna has any memory of why I wear my glasses but if the old guy makes any sudden moves I'll soon show them both. I relax a little as I watch the man chatting with Anna. He seems familiar and I frown as I see the dog that is eagerly jumping up to greet Anna. Now I remember that he was one of the nosy neighbours that was keeping an eye on the strange man that had been sitting in the car all morning. I'm soon wishing that I had Logan's sense of smell to tell if this who I think it is. Perhaps Logan will show up at any moment and slice Mystique to pieces. He is hunting her, after all.
Anna bids her neighbour a pleasant evening and waves as he retreats down the drive. She closes the front door and shrugs in confusion as she turns back to me.
"What did he want?"
Anna holds up the small letter in her hand and shakes her head. "He said he was told to look out for someone visiting me in a blue sports car with New York plates. He said she told him that if he ever saw the car then he should deliver this to me." She laughs in bewilderment and continues down the hall towards me. "It's for you."
My mind is screaming at me to call Charles right away. This doesn't seem at all right. But I look down at the envelope and gasp as I recognise the handwriting.
"Weird." Anna chuckles slightly.
"Yeah." I manage and timidly reach out to take the letter from her. My fingers are trembling as I turn the envelope over and begin to tear open the seal. Pulling the letter free, I see the signature on the last page and I close my eyes. "Jean …" I groan.
"Jean?" Anna urges softly. "But why send it here?"
"She didn't know where I had gone." I reply quietly and manage a thin smile as I look up at Anna. "But she knew I would come to see you."
Anna watches me in concern for a moment and then nods in understanding. She wanders through to the lounge and soon returns with a still sound asleep Max in her arms. "I'll be upstairs." Anna offers softly.
This could still be some sort of trap, I remind myself, as I walk slowly into the lounge and sit back down on the sofa. I'll have Hank analyse the paper and the handwriting and they might be able to get prints or perhaps a DNA sample from the licked seal. I slowly open the folded paper and tears blur my vision as I begin to read the undated letter. The script is uneven and almost illegible, a typical doctor's hand.
If you're reading this now then you have done exactly what you were warned not to do. And I am glad that you have. By now you may or may not have realised that I have broken the promise that I made to Anna. I couldn't do it, Scott. I could not do what she asked. I removed the memories that were tearing her apart but I could not take it all. If she should ever realise the truth then I hope she can forgive me. I wish I had the courage to face her myself. She knows who you are and I shared some of my memories from college with her. She will remember the school and the unique nature of the students but I took away all memory of the x-men. I know how much her role tortured her and why she wanted to forget but I get the feeling that she will need all your support as Max starts to grow. She has a new life now. A family that love her and a chance to be someone. I envy her that. I wish that I could erase all that has happened and start over. The frightening thing is that I probably could. I've known for a while now that my power was growing beyond what any of us could have imagined. I've hidden things from you and from Charles and for that I'm truly sorry. The last thing I meant to do was hurt you. And that is why I had to leave. I don't know where I'll go or if I'll ever return. I need to find some answers and I need to look for them alone. I know that this must be hard for you right now but I hope that one day you'll understand. I wish I could be there to help you through the difficult days to come. It hurts me to leave you like this. But you are not alone. Anna needs you. Which is why I could not take that from her. I know that your love for me has never changed and please believe me when I tell you that I love you more than I could ever explain. But you must let go now. As I have done.
Take care, Scott.
I close my eyes and fold the letter back up between my fingers. My mind is racing but my body is numb and after a moment I have to remind myself to breathe. When I do, it passes my lips with a groan and I cover my mouth with my hand.
"Oh, honey …"
I look up and see Anna waiting by the open door to the lounge. I manage a thin smile and then look back down at the letter in my hands, tears escaping under my glasses and dripping onto my knees.
Anna slowly makes her way over to me and timidly reaches out to place her hand on my shoulder. "I know how it feels …" She offers quietly.
I again close my eyes as she gently strokes my back, her hands then moving up over the collar of my shirt and into my hair. I can't help the slight moan that escapes my tight throat and I lean my head towards her touch.
Anna sees my response and steps closer, gently pulling my head against her abdomen and continuing to stroke her fingers through my hair. "I'm so sorry." She whispers.
I rest against her and let the tears flow. I knew that Jean was gone for good. Charles has spoken little of that last confrontation but he has told us enough. He is just as lost as I am without her and I know he thinks he failed her but those are his demons to deal with. I have enough of my own to worry about. And now suddenly they seem to know that my defences are down and they are all rising to the surface.
"Hey …" Anna steps back from me and leans down to place a kiss on the top of my head. She sinks to her knees and lifts my head to face her. "Oh, baby …" She sighs and wipes the tears from my cheeks with her thumbs. "You'll get through this." Anna offers quietly, "You will."
I nod slowly and manage a thin smile. "Yeah." I husk.
Anna moves forward and slips her arms about my waist. She hugs me tightly and sighs as she rests her face against my chest. I know there's every chance this isn't her. I know this could be Mystique. But right now I don't care. It feels too good to be held by this woman and so comforting to have her close. I have needed this moment and I ignore the warning in the back of my mind as I feel her steady breaths warming my shirt. I wish I didn't have these doubts. I wish I could simply exist in this world, blissfully unaware of the danger around us. There was a time when I had so wished that Jean had erased my memory but that would have been too easy. I have responsibilities, people that need me and I have to be strong. It's been difficult to try and adjust to all that has happened and it's going to be hard to be without Jean in my life. But suddenly it doesn't seem so bad as I wrap my arms around Anna's shoulders and pull her close to me.
"You hungry?" Anna suddenly enquires.
"Um … yeah. I guess." I reply quietly.
"You sound like you're hungry!" Anna chuckles and leans back to smile up at me cheekily.
I'm now aware of the rumbling from somewhere inside me and I blush slightly.
"Come on." Anna clambers to her feet and takes my hand to pull me up from the sofa. "It's a good job I've just been shopping – I remember what your appetite is like."
"Hey!" I defend with a chuckle and follow her obediently into the hall. "Wait." I pull back from her and glance at the front door. "Would it be okay to move my car onto your drive?"
"Sure!" Anna smiles, apparently delighted at the idea that this might mean I'm staying for a while. Her smile then changes into an amused grin and she sighs slightly. "We wouldn't want it to get scratched or anything."
I glare at her playfully and head for the front door. The afternoon sunshine is warm on my face as I jog across the street and climb into my car. I turn on the ignition and then notice the comm. device on the dashboard is flashing urgently. Pulling the handset out from it's housing, I can hear that the connection is not active and I frown in concern. I press one of the buttons on the device and wait for the slight hissing of the open connection.
"Ah, Scott. We were just trying to contact you." Hank's voice suddenly fills the car through the stereo speakers. "Where are you?"
"I went for a drive." I reply carefully, well aware that Hank can see my exact location from the tracer on the car. "Is everything okay?"
"Indeed it is." Hank confirms and I can hear that he is smiling. "Logan has just informed us that he has Mystique in custody."
I close my eyes and sigh in relief.
"I thought you would want to know." Hank continues softly. "Are you alright?" Hank urges, concerned when I make no reply.
"Yeah." I turn to look over at the house and take a deep breath. "I'm fine."