Appropriate greetings of the season! (Pick your favorite!)
It's been a heck of a long time, but here at last is another Neon Hearts chapter.
Plus, it's my intention to have the next one out before 1997 comes around (with
any kind of luck, barring bad). Keep your fingers crossed for me, please. (I
can't cross 'em and type at the same time, you see....)
Part 36--Past Tensions, Future Trials
The path which paralleled the shore opened onto a small beach. Rogue and Joseph stepped out of the shaded woods, blinking for a moment in the glare of the late afternoon sunlight. "Looks like th' sand lasted anotha winter," observed Rogue.
"Did you expect it not to?" Joseph inquired, prepared to be amused if his guide were making a joke.
"This ain't a natural sand beach," she explained, digging the toe of her sneaker into the ground to reveal the soil beneath the sandy top-dressing. "Ever' few years, the professor has somebody bring a new load in a barge. We spread it, then little by little th' water takes it away agin."
"So why do it at all?"
"It's our li'l getaway," Rogue said, looking over the circle of flat sand with a strange wistful expression. "We come down here t'have a cookout an' swim an' jus' kick back for an evenin'. Pretend we're like normal folks."
Joseph eyed her, but didn't remark on her comment. He moved closer to the water's edge, enjoying the comfortable squeak of the wet, hard-packed sand under his worn boots. The bay spread before him, the open arms of land that allowed the river its passage only faint, hazy sketches on the far horizon. Following a boyish impulse, he bent to select a stone from the ground.
Reaching into it with his special sense, he sought in a way that no language had a word for; the answer he received was partly a feeling, partly a pure sound within his mind like a musician might pluck from a well-tuned string instrument. The stone, like most, had some ferrous content. Joseph drew his arm back and flung the rock, adding a push with his powers. It sailed away and was quickly lost to sight, sending back a faint splash only audible due to the near-silence surrounding them.
"Not bad, sugah," Rogue allowed, stepping up to stand beside him. She too had picked up a stone. "Folks tell me AH throw like a girl." Without apparent effort, she lobbed hers. It shot away as though blasted out of a rifle-cannon, whistling a faint shriek that trailed away behind it. Not unexpectedly, no splashdown was heard.
Squelching his surprise, Joseph nodded with gentlemanly aplomb, which made Rogue grin. He could see now why SHE was not afraid of his powers, or of being alone with him.
After a bit, they strolled away from the waterline, heading for the short stone wall that had obviously been constructed to hold back the encroaching woods. There was a large barbecue grill built into the center of it, with a stone table in front. Joseph wondered idly who had made it as they sat at its far end to enjoy the last of the sun, now beginning to sink into the trees in the west.
"I can see why you all stay here," he said at last. "So wonderfully peaceful. A sanctuary from the human world." Joseph sighed minutely. "I have been traveling so long--an outcast among strangers. Humans." He spread his long-fingered hands over the sun-warmed rock of the table top. "I don't know if you can comprehend how it feels to suddenly know you are safe, and among your own kind."
He glanced across at Rogue, but her face was unreadable. Something he had just said seemed to have disturbed her. Not wishing to upset her further, he sought a natural change of subject. "ARE their any other...non-mutants here besides Cassie?"
"No," she almost snapped, and he realized he had instead charged the conversation with yet more fuel for contention. "And Ah happen to LIKE th' gal, so--"
Joseph held up both hands in capitulation. "I meant nothing derogatory, I assure you." Rogue eyed him narrowly, then nodded, accepting his statement. "She seems like a pleasant and well-meaning individual...if a bit naive."
"Maybe it IS naive, t'think that if ya love somebody enough, y'can work out any problems, no matter how big they seem." Rogue was speaking to him, but clearly thinking of something else entirely. "But wouldn' that be...kinda nice, if it was true?"
"Yes, I suppose it would." He had no memories to base his opinion on, but found he seemed to lean more to Rogue's worldview than Cassie's. Love alone could not solve problems.
"What is this about a publisher?" he asked, trying a second time to find a less emotion-ridden subject.
"She's a writer--romance books."
Joseph gave a laugh that was half a groan. "That fits." So much for his tentative plans to make Cassie a resource, should he ever come up with ideas involving the publishing industry.
"And jus' whad'ya mean by that?"
Not wanting to fight, even verbally, with one of his hosts, Joseph kept his voice even. "She means us no harm, but has no conception of how to help. She admitted this to me herself."
"Oh." Rogue considered this, then said warily, "Help what?"
"Mutants." His thoughts, never far from this subject, took it up. "Our kind are in danger, a danger that grows greater every day. Surely, even though you live in this sheltered haven, you realize that."
Those green eyes flashed in annoyance. "Ah know plenty about it, thank y'kindly."
"I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter, then," Joseph said smoothly, which took some of the heat from her expression. "While I am here, I hope to talk to everyone. Find out what IS being done at this time for the protection of mutants."
"That kinda interests ya, huh?" Again he came up against some shield, something she knew which he did not that made her guard her words.
"I think it must interest every mutant, don't you?"
"I just want to learn what is already being done, so I can find the place I can be of the most use." She said nothing, but looked out towards the bay. "I...read in my magazine, about Xavier's dream of peaceful coexistence. He must have a plan on how to bring that about?"
"Guess y'gonna hafta discuss that with him." But after another brief hesitation she added, "Ah know he goes to a lotta meetin's with bigwigs from all around th' world. Some of 'em are boun' t'be about gettin' humans an' mutants t'live t'gether in peace."
"Humans don't even live in peace with each other, as far as I can tell," Joseph said, shaking his head a fraction at the folly of it all.
"Nope," Rogue agreed morosely. "And WE'RE 'sposed t'be fer peace, but seems like all we end up doin' is gettin' called out t'fight somebody ever' other minute. Not that mostly the somebodies haven't NEEDED takin' down a peg 'r two...." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Some days Ah don' know WHAT t'think."
"Perhaps it's like the sand here," Joseph suggested. "You do the same things again and again, because the quality of life would be less if you did not."
That made her smile. "Y'know, you c'n be a real nice fella some--"
She broke off sharply, looking guilty for some reason.
A suspicion Joseph had been only vaguely aware of sharpened to almost-knowledge. "Rogue...did you know me...before?"
She froze, then slowly nodded. "But please, don' ask me fer any details. Ask th' professor--if y'hafta."
"You sound like you think I should not."
"Y'got a chance t'start fresh here--not many people ever get that. Maybe y'should take it."
"If Ah thought it would help, Ah might." There was a world of pain in her gem-green eyes. "If Ah din't think Ah'd cause harm all over again...it'd be heaven, not t'remember some things." Abruptly, she arose. "Y'know, there's not much more t'see down thisaway. Maybe we oughta head back."
There was no other word for the communal evening meal but awkward. The conversation ran in fits and starts, with polite remarks addressed to him sandwiched in between the fragments of genuine talk. The terrible forced informality made Joseph wonder what secret was being so strenuously squelched.
It was clear to him that his presence was preventing them from attaining a normal conversational rhythm. That COULD be all it was--a stranger throwing them off their stride. Except for the covert glances he kept noticing. And the young blond man across the table and over two seats who stared so steadfastly down at his plate--was he trying to avoid EVERYONE'S eyes, or just his?
Rogue had admitted she knew him. Was it somehow possible EVERYONE here?--no, surely that would be the most outrageous of coincidences!
Joseph gave up on the riddle and the stumbling discussions to concentrate on the food. Fresh, top-quality salad vegetables weren't something he'd seen much of in the cheap cafes and grocery store delis and homeless shelters that had fed him during his journey. And there was also an abundant supply of assorted breads and cheeses filling out the meal. It was not difficult to let the pleasure of eating well take his mind off this feeling of somehow intruding.
"Could you pass the rolls, please?" Cassie asked him. He did so with a smile, which she returned without hesitation as she thanked him. Hank gazed upon this interaction with benign approval. Joseph wondered what silent message that expression was intended to convey, and to whom.
It plainly spoke volumes to Cassie, who turned fully to Hank, basking in his approval like a flower in the sun. Something about the way she looked at him made Joseph obscurely sad, as though it reminded him of some memory lost to him forever.
Xavier chose this moment to speak. "Hank, did you get in touch with Moira? She phoned this afternoon, and told me she needed to consult with you."
"Yes, I returned her call shortly before we came down to dinner--but thank you for the reminder." Joseph thought the blue-furred mutant's reply carried a hint of testiness under the calm words.
"She told me she needed some help, if you were free."
"And am I?" Hank's tone sounded even enough; why did several heads start to turn towards this conversation, then look away rapidly?
"If it suits your schedule," Xavier replied. Joseph was by now nearly certain a very civilized confrontation was taking place. The faintly confused look on Cassie's face would have told him that, if nothing else did. But he couldn't detect any hints it had anything to do with him.
"Fortunately, I CAN make the time. I know Moira wouldn't have asked if it wasn't some kind of emergency."
"I agree. Have you decided when you'll go?"
"Cassie and I will go tomorrow, as soon as I can load up the Blackbird with whatever spare computer modules we have on hand."
Xavier opened his mouth, then closed it again for an instant. When he spoke again, all he said was, "Anything we have that Moira might need, she is of course welcome to."
This seemed to finish the conversation to both men's satisfaction, or at least satisfy the bare minimum. Joseph wondered who this Moira was, and what had happened to make her call for assistance. He suspected others at the table did too, but were for some reason disinclined to enquire at the moment. Probably his presence was inhibiting this also. He shrugged and turned himself to his private thoughts as he finished his meal.
As dinner drew to a close, the various people in attendance drifted away. Joseph waited to see whether someone would take up the task of shepherding him around again, but no one stepped forth to volunteer. From a distance, he followed several individuals into the kitchen, but his offer of assistance was gracefully declined. So instead he stepped out the back door into the night.
He could hear murmuring voices heading down the path to the lake, but not clearly enough for him to feel he was eavesdropping. The night was remarkably peaceful, and he strolled in the opposite direction from the walkers, actually slightly glad to be alone for a bit.
Now that he was alone, Joseph became aware of a mild melancholy troubling his soul. He knew it was partly because he had reached his journey's end, and apart from the startling response to his arrival, it had begun to seem somehow anticlimactic. What were you expecting? he mentally chided himself. That they would be so impressed with your powers they'd immediately beg you to join their group?
He did know better, truly. But what then WOULD he do with his future? He had hoped to find answers here, as well as assistance, but Rogue's warning made him wonder if he was wise to seek them. Could it be he WOULD regret learning about his past? But turning aside from that mystery seemed to paint his future in bleak shades of grey. Might not his ignorance be a trap waiting to sabotage any plans he instigated?
I cannot NOT ask, he finally admitted to himself. Sooner or later, the knowledge that someone held the key to the missing part of his life would force him to give into his curiosity. He knew that much about himself, at any rate. So perhaps it was as well to ask now, rather than later.
Nodding to himself, he turned back to the mansion, to go in search of Professor Xavier.
Joseph knocked on the door of the office he had been in earlier that afternoon. From within, he heard Xavier say, "Come." He entered without bothering to look around at the artifacts of culture and privilege with which the room was replete. Xavier's face was solemn as he indicated a chair, but not unwelcoming.
"I have decided I want to know my past--whatever you can tell me."
"I thought you would," Xavier said, with a fractional nod, followed by a strangely cheerless smile. "I have never known you to back off from the most difficult challenge."
"You knew me, before...?" Joseph almost added 'as well', but refrained at the last minute, not wishing to make trouble for Rogue.
Xavier moved a tall stack of thick binders across the polished desktop, putting them between him and Joseph. His fingers toyed at straightening the edges of their covers as he spoke, although the assortment seemed to be neatly aligned already. "You were once my closest friend." In the silence that followed this startling statement, he paused, then added in a low voice, "And no one has filled that place since."
"But...how can that be?" Joseph asked, truly confused. "I'm...you're...." He sought for a polite phrase to explain himself. "We are nowhere near contemporaries."
"You are, in fact, a few years older than I am," Xavier told him. "Your current appearance was, I must admit, a surprise, a mystery I would be interested in exploring at some time in the future." He visibly collected himself. "The last time I saw you, you looked your true age."
Something in the controlled set of Xavier's face warned Joseph again to consider heeding Rogue's advice before it was too late. "Go on," was all he said.
"It is ironic in the extreme that someone sent you to me for help," said Xavier. "I am the one responsible for your amnesia."
"YOU?" Joseph stood up, disbelief fighting a fierce battle with sudden outrage. Xavier did not move, did not allow his face to change expression, and Joseph slowly sat down again. "Why?" he asked, not bothering to hide his bitter astonishment. "How could you say you were once my friend, and yet have done such a thing to me?"
"I hope some of that question will be answered as you read these reports," Xavier said, and pushed the heavy stack a few inches forward. "This is a compilation of all our history with you, all our...encounters." Joseph frowned, but did not move to take them. The only sign of the anger he was suppressing was his clenched hands clinging to the arms of the chair in which he sat. "As for my personal reply to you--" Now Xavier leaned back in his hoverchair, as if this confrontation had already exhausted him. "It was a crisis situation. You posed a terrible danger--to certain individuals, and to the world at large."
"The WORLD?" Joseph snorted his disbelief. "I am THAT powerful?"
"Yes," Xavier answered calmly. "You are one of the most powerful mutants on the planet."
"Then why did you risk letting me live?" Joseph bent his will to removing all emotion from his face, his voice, matching that of the man sitting behind the desk. The tower of incriminating papers was like a wall between them. "Why did you condemn me instead to this life I have been living?"
Xavier hesitated, and for the first time, a look of regret came to his face. "I started out just wanting to convince you to change your intentions. I am a telepath--I confronted you mind to mind. And that is something I have seldom done in my life--use my power to try to sway another person from his convictions. As we struggled, you started to attack one of my X-men...." Now Xavier bowed his head. "And...I lost control." He stared down at his folded hands as he finished his confession. "I remember thinking...it had just been too long. Too many years, fighting each other again and again--it was time for it to END!"
"You did this to me in anger, then?" Joseph said quietly.
"Yes." Xavier raised his head again, and looked his former foe, his former friend, in the eye, waiting for his judgement.
"Good. Doing it in cold blood, THAT I would find unforgivable." Joseph rose from his chair and reached out to take the pile of binders from Xavier's desk, the recitation of unknown deeds that had turned his former friend into his enemy. "I will read this. I'll be back with questions."
He moved to the doorway, then turned back for a moment. Xavier was looking after him with a searching expression that yet gave no real clue as to his thoughts. Joseph found he could not, in honesty, say 'thank you', so he merely nodded. Xavier returned it with equal solemnity.
As Joseph neared the room he had been given, the blond youth who had refused to look at him during dinner came out of a door. He looked at the papers Joseph carried with deep suspicion, but did not speak. His eyes were full of questions, though, which prompted Joseph to say, "Xavier gave these to me. I've decided I have had enough of being a man without a past."
The boy pursed his lips, then said, "Ya may not like what ya find."
"I know. Rogue and the professor both warned me." He shrugged fatalistically. "Yet, I must know."
"Well, Ah guess Ah can understand that." The youth made as if to pass by, then paused. "Ah should tell ya...."
"Yes?" Joseph said, when nothing further came forth.
"When Ah knew ya, Ah had a lotta respect for ya." He half-smiled, though it didn't take the cloud of doubt from his eyes. "Ah b'leeve ther'll be some good stuff about ya in there somewhere." He indicated the numerous reports with his chin.
"Thank you," Joseph replied, strangely moved.
As the boy walked away, Joseph entered his loaned quarters. He laid the incriminating papers on the desk, considering whether to take this one last chance at the bliss of ignorance. Then he squared his shoulders, sat down, opened the first folder and began to read.
Continued in Part 37.