Continued directly from 21a ....
WARNING: contains some X2 spoilers
Snow geese had moved south, caribou had shed their antler velvet, and
Arctic char had migrated upriver. The beluga whales and seals were
leaving for warmer water, the whitefish and lake trout had spawned
and the caribou were mating. The crash of males at battle echoed
through pine and spruce and cedar. Tourists went home and the snows
came. Late fall had howled into Chisasibi off the eastern shore of
James Bay, and the green man whom locals called a wendigo was seen
less and less. Charles Xavier thought it was time. He called his
elder students together and gave them marching orders. "North," he
told them, and handed over the clipping that Erik Lehnsherr had sent
to him. He didn't tell them how long he'd had it.
So an astonished Scott, Ororo, Jean and Hank put on black leather,
climbed into the Blackbird, and off they went. "It might take more
than a few hours," Xavier had warned them, so they'd packed street
clothing, too, and jackets.
Chisasibi was a small town of only three-and-a-half thousand. In
summer, it was busy with tourists and residents came and went, by car
or on foot, while children played in the streets. In winter, though,
everyone fled indoors, making it less likely that the Blackbird would
be stumbled over by accident, but they hid it anyway under a white
tarp, then wandered around through the snow on the northeast side of
town beyond the river that gave the town its name. Farmland in
summer, this area made a white plain in winter, but their random
searching brought them no closer to finding anything big and green
besides the few clumps of trees, and the cold paralyzed even the
limited skin their uniforms exposed. Scott quickly gave it up as
pointless. Calling his team back to the plane, he had them change
into civilian clothes and head into town. Henry stayed behind; if
the locals thought Bruce was a wendigo, there was no telling what
they would make of a big, furry blue man. Even so, the other three
stood out like sore thumbs. Tourists were mostly gone and the brown
Cree locals stared at them. Scott led them into a diner called
GooGoom's Kitchen. It was late afternoon, but a little early for
dinner. The waitress/counter help grinned and popped her gum. "*Wat
chia.* You guys lost?"
"Just passing through," Scott said.
Her eyebrows went up at that. In winter, the James Bay Highway saw
virtually no traffic, so Jean hastened to add, "We came up to
photograph the Northern Lights. For a calendar company."
The woman's mood altered instantly and she called out to a pair of
old men sitting in a corner booth. "Rodney, Joe! These guys are
photographers! They come to get pictures of the Lights. Think your
son could show 'em around Joe?"
*Great, Jean,* Scott sent. *We don't even have an automatic camera
in the plane, never mind a real one. Usually, the less said, the
Jean pursed her lips, irritated. *Well she didn't look ready to buy
your story, Austin Powers.*
He ignored her to tell the woman, "Ah -- actually, we're headed
further north. We just stopped in for the night."
So they ordered an early dinner and the woman -- who turned out to be
the owner -- seemed happy to sit and chat, in part so she could push
her town as a summer vacation resort. She sounded like an
infomercial, and as a result, whenever any of them tried to steer her
obliquely towards 'local gossip' (and big green men), she remained
"Well, that was utterly useless," Scott said when they finally got
away. He thought they all needed a crash course in detective work
beyond reruns of "Homicide: Life on the Street." It was already
dark, and they pulled up their heavy jackets against the cold.
"Let's see if we can find a grocery and get something for Hank.
We'll sleep on the plane and try again tomorrow."
As it turned out, the grocery was fifteen minutes from closing
(nothing stayed open very long after dark in winter) and they
collected deli sandwiches. Scott fished out his Canadian money as
they approached the cashier, who was chatting with another employee.
The language was neither English nor French. As she rang up their
purchases -- barcode scanners having reached even here, he noted --
another shopper approached to check out as well, and Scott was
relieved they weren't the only ones holding up evening cleaning.
Then he heard Jean's little gasp of, "BRUCE!"
The man jerked his head up, mouth open in surprise, and for just an
instant, Scott wasn't sure if he'd stay put or make a break for it.
He was, indeed, Bruce Banner, recognizable even with different
glasses and half buried inside a khaki-colored parka with wool
lining. Scott tensed to give chase if he ran, but he just sighed and
-- conscious of the watchful eye of the counter help -- said, "Let's
check out, okay?" Jean had thrown her arms around his neck and was
hugging him, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet in her
excitement, as if she were eleven, not thirty-one. Scott finished
paying, then waited for Bruce to do the same.
Outside finally, the wind snatched their breath and the night had
grown even darker. "What are you doing up here, Jean?" Bruce asked,
two bags of groceries in hand.
"Looking for you," she half-shouted back.
His lips thinned. "That's what I was afraid of." And he turned his
back on them, shuffling down the sidewalk through snow tossed up by
plows. Scott, Jean and Ororo traded glances, then hurried to follow,
hoping that's what he'd intended. They reached his car, a small,
run-down Dodge Neon that barely fit all four of them inside with
their heavy coats. Jean sat in front with Bruce and he used his
rearview mirror to study the two wedged in his backseat. "Scott, I
recognize from pictures, and Aurora, I think we've met at least
"Yes, sir," she replied. "At Jean's defense party. And it's Ororo."
"Ah. Ororo. My apologies." He started his car and headed out of
town. The night was clear and away from the town's lights, they
could see the brilliant, eerie, oscillating display across the black
of heaven, like a billowing sheet. Jean, Ro and Scott all sucked in
breath. "The Aurora Borealis," Bruce said, sounding strangely dull,
as if bored by the sight. The Lights cast the landscape in a
spectral glow that Scott found oddly appropriate, as they were
traveling down the road, speaking with a dead man.
"How did you escape?" he asked into the silence.
The shadow that was Bruce's head lifted and Scott could feel more
than see him looking in the rearview mirror again. "How about if you
hold your questions till we get back to my place?"
"Hank's along," Jean said. "That's why we were buying food. Can we
swing by where we landed and pick him up?"
"Where you *landed*?" Bruce asked, but then shook his head. "I
would, but he won't fit in the car with the rest of you. He'd take
up the whole backseat -- and yes, I know what happened to him. I'll
take your friends to my place, then we'll go get him."
So Bruce dropped off Scott and Ororo, then headed off with Jean.
Scott hoped they could find the plane. Jean and directions were
shaky at best, but she'd seemed reluctant to let Bruce out of her
sight, now that she'd found him. (And Scott was more than a bit
jealous of that.) "Come," Ro said, her hand on his arm. They
entered the small cabin set off among the pines. It was barely more
than a single room with a main floor and a loft area above, furnished
sparsely, though Bruce had his share of electronic toys -- a
microwave, a computer, a fax machine, a printer, and what looked to
be cheap lab equipment, but not, Scott was amused to note, a
television or radio.
The two of them put away Bruce's food as best they could (the kitchen
was so small, it wasn't hard to guess where things went), then sat
down on the couch to wait. The cabin itself was chilly, and though
they doffed their heavy jackets, they left on their mittens and
mufflers. Neither said much, though once she asked, "Did you expect
to find him?"
"Not like this," Scott admitted.
Finally, they heard the car coming back, and when Banner entered, he
pointed to the fireplace. "Why didn't you start a fire?"
"Uh -- I wasn't sure if I should?" Scott answered.
Rolling his eyes, Bruce peeled off his own jacket and bent to do so
as Hank and Jean came in behind him. Ro had stood to fetch Hank's
dinner, and he sat down on the rug near the fire to eat, avoiding the
flimsy, cheap, two-chair dinette set. Jean stood yet by the door,
hands clasped, her coat still on. She watched Bruce like the
proverbial hawk and Scott rose to pull her jacket off. It was
cramped in the cabin with the four of them plus Bruce. "Are you
going to tell us now?" Jean asked finally when Scott had seated her
on the couch.
"Yes, yes, wait a minute. I haven't eaten dinner myself." And he
rose from stirring the fire to go fix something in the small kitchen,
returning with a bowl of soup, some bread, and a glass of golden
fluid that Scott suspected was whiskey. Plopping down in a wing
chair, he pulled around a TV table and ate half the soup before
looking up at them again. The cabin had gone very quiet.
"What are you four doing here?" he asked again. "Yeah, yeah, looking
for me. Why?"
"Charles Xavier received a . . . hint . . . that you might still be
alive," Hank told him. He was already done with the first deli
sandwich and well into the second. "He sent us to investigate."
Banner shook his head. "Good God. I don't guess it occurred to him
-- or you -- that I didn't want to be found?"
"Bruce, we thought you were dead!" Jean exclaimed. "Betty and Brian
"-- know where I am, thank you."
"How long -- ?"
"As soon as I trusted myself enough to contact them. They're in
Cincinnati, with Betty's family."
"Have you been to see them --?"
"No. And I won't go until I conquer this." He softened a little.
"I talk to them on the phone and by email. It's almost like the time
Betty and I were working at two different schools. They understand."
And he nodded, as if that settled it, but Scott could feel the twist
of hurt in Jean, that Bruce hadn't seen fit to contact her. He
patted her knee, and realized that his mittens were still on.
Removing them, he took her hand and squeezed.
"So if you don't mind, professor -- what happened?" he asked. "We
saw you in the park the night after the explosion at the Hammer
Building. And we saw you jump off that cliff and get shot."
"I'm not a professor anymore, Scott. Call me Bruce." Then he sighed
and pushed away the mostly empty bowl of soup. "Unfortunately, I
can't answer most of your questions because I don't remember myself.
When I'm . . . in my other form . . . I have the mental comprehension
of a dim four-year-old, and about the same memory capacity. The one
advantage of that form is that it appears to be remarkably difficult
And from the tone in which he'd said that, Scott suspected that
Banner had tried.
"In any case, the story's fairly simple, or what I know of it. I
fell in the river and was carried out to sea, then flung back on the
rocks by the tide. When I woke, I ran from people. I don't know how
the wounds healed, but the creature's skin is very thick so I doubt
the bullets did much damage." Banner continued to speak of his
mutated form in the third person. "It took several weeks before *I*
reemerged, even for brief periods. The creature is triggered by any
strong feeling, especially negative ones -- anger, fear, sorrow. It
wasn't until I was well away from people and safe for several days in
a row that I returned to myself. Even then, I couldn't seem to hold
it for more than a few hours.
"It took some time before I figured out what was going on, because I
couldn't remember much. I didn't know where I was, or what really
happened when the creature took over, or even what date or month it
was." And he reduced what must have been quite a tale to, "I kept
heading north and this is where I ended up."
"Why didn't you contact us?" Jean asked, her shock and hurt finally
transforming into anger. "Didn't you think we'd help?"
"I'm damn dangerous, Jean!" Banner all but shouted, then shook his
head and shivered hard all over. He pushed the little table away and
got up, walking around as if to calm himself. "You shouldn't even be
in here with me. I still don't have that *thing* under control. I'm
not sure I ever will."
"Perhaps we could help?" Henry offered.
"Absolutely not! I'm won't risk either of you again! Didn't I hurt
you enough?" Banner was shaking worse, and abruptly, he raced for
the door, tearing his shirt off as he went. "Don't follow me!" And
he pelted away through the snow.
The four of them stared after him and Jean tried to rise, but Scott
held her back. "Do what he says."
"I concur," Hank said softly. Jean glared at them both, but
Though it wasn't terribly late, with nothing to do in the cabin, and
no sign of Bruce, the four of them talked a little before bed, then
fell asleep wherever they could find a comfortable spot. By morning,
the fire was out, the cabin freezing, and despite his exhaustion,
Scott rose before the sun to lay fresh logs in the hearth and start
it again. Hank hadn't stirred, but Jean and Ro were both curled in
tight balls despite the throws that covered them, and Scott's hands
were so stiff, he had to try four times to light a match. For once,
he found himself regretting that his optic blasts *didn't* ignite
things on contact. Finally, with the fire going, he thawed out a bit
and went back to his piece of the rug.
The next time he woke, it was because the front door had opened,
letting in a draft. They all sat up and stared as Bruce came back
in; he was wearing nothing but the equivalent of a Speedo and the
women turned away in embarrassment. "Bruce?" Hank asked.
"Let me put on some clothes," he said and disappeared up the ladder
to the small loft overhead. They could hear him rummaging around.
The rest of them roused slowly and took turns in the bathroom. By
the time Bruce returned, dressed, they were all rumpled but awake.
"That's why I can't dare to be around anyone," he told them. "When I
. . . change . . . I get violent easily. Out here, I can get away
and no one's endangered, but anywhere near a city, I don't have the
space to do that."
"You would at the mansion . . ." Jean started.
"No, no, and for a third time, no. I realize you mean well, but the
answer is no. I'm staying out here until I can find some way either
to reverse this, or contain it. I built that damn machine; I'll find
a way to . . . undo it."
"At the mansion, you'd have our lab -- "
"Jean!" Hank and Bruce said at the same time, then Hank turned to
Bruce. "But she does have a point, you know. We could work on this,
too. Three heads are better than one."
Bruce glared a moment, then sighed. And thus it was decided. He,
Hank and Jean spent the rest of the morning assembling the data that
he'd acquired since he'd been able to think clearly enough, then he
sent them on their way after lunch with printouts and several DNA
Back on the plane, they redonned their uniforms and prepared to
leave. None of them spoke much. Despite the outcome, Jean and Hank
remained troubled, unsure if Bruce had ever intended to contact them.
He wasn't the Bruce they remembered -- whether due to depression, or
from a need to maintain emotional equilibrium in order to hold his
human form, it didn't change the fact. Jean's shoulders sagged and
her mouth was pinched. "He blames himself," she said to Scott. "He
was always such a careful man and to have this happen . . . I wish
he'd let us help him more."
Scott hesitated before replying. In all honesty, he didn't want
Banner in a mansion full of kids. The man clearly believed in his
own menace, and Scott was inclined to take him at his word. "He's
trying to protect you."
She gave a sad smile. "I guess."
They'd left on a Saturday to avoid interfering with school, and
returned late on Sunday, not bothering to remove their uniforms as
they trudged upstairs to report to the professor what they'd
discovered. He was waiting for them in the game room, where several
of the students were entertaining themselves watching television.
Bobby glanced around as they trooped in and then nudged St. John,
whom he'd taken under his wing since the other boy's arrival. "Hey,"
he said. "The X-Men are back."
Scott, Ro, Jean and Hank all stopped dead in their tracks to stare,
and both Xavier's eyebrows went up. "The *what*-men?" Scott asked.
Bobby flushed beet ripe. "Um, the X-Men? Professor X's men? I
mean, what are we supposed to call you?"
"Your teachers," Hank replied.
"And I am a *woman*, in case you did not notice," Ororo added.
Someone muttered, sotto voce, "We kinda noticed." Scott thought it
might have been Julio Rictor, but otherwise, no one came to Bobby's
rescue and he was forced to fumble on alone.
"Well, I mean, yeah, I know you're our teachers, but like, when you,
um, go off and do the mission stuff. Like getting Johnny. Or me.
That stuff. You sorta need a name, don't you? I mean, you can't be
'Those guys in black leather from the Xavier Institute.'"
"We can't?" Ororo asked as Jean muttered, "'X-Men' sounds like a
Hank's voice was wistful. "I always wanted to be a superhero."
Scott glanced at him, then at the professor who, he thought, appeared
to be struggling very hard not to smile. "X-Men," Scott said, as if
trying on the name for size. "Oh, hell, why not?" Then he
straightened his shoulders and pulled in his chin, aiming for hauteur
but winding up with mere pomposity. "To me, my X-Men!"
The whole den burst out laughing.
"Then again," Scott said, though his voice could barely be heard
above the noise, "maybe not."
"Scott, we're going to miss the ball dropping." They'd fled the
noisy mansion den and Dick Clark's "Rockin' New Year's Eve," and now
Scott led Jean down a meandering path and through an iron gate
outside the mansion walls.
"How many times have you seen that? You can miss one year."
"But it's a tradition. I won't feel like it's 2002 if I don't see
the ball come down."
Scott paused to stare at her, as if he found that assertion quite
astonishing, and she shrugged. "It's not that I mind a walk with
you" -- she squeezed his hand where it gripped hers -- "it's just
that it's cold out, and it's almost midnight and . . . well, if you
wanted to be alone, we could've gone to our room."
"You're just looking for an excuse to get my clothes off."
Her cheeks went hot, but she forced herself to quip, "Fringe
benefits." Why she still blushed when he said such things more than
six months after she'd begun sleeping with him, she wasn't sure.
Conditioning, perhaps. She didn't want him to think her a slut,
though she suspected he was vain enough to be more flattered.
Nonetheless, innuendo was as far as they typically went, and their
few forays into something more candid had been spurred by exigency.
They didn't say much as they headed towards the lake, and she could
sense a tension in him, though he did his best to hide it. She
wondered what he couldn't say in the mansion that he had to drag her
out into the cold night? It had snowed the week before, but only
crusts remained on the edges of rocks and tree roots and the bank
above the lakeshore. He held her hand tightly, to keep her from
slipping as she skittered down after him in a shower of pebbles and
dirt. He caught her at the bottom and they stared at one another a
moment. "What is it?" she asked him.
A flash of alarm crossed his face; he clearly hadn't intended her to
read his anxiety. "Nothing," he lied.
And now she was as anxious as he was. It lodged in her throat as her
mind flashed over the past two months. She hadn't thought anything
was wrong, but now realized he'd been a bit distant of late. Her
second year residency in internal medicine had kept her so busy, she
hadn't noticed, and perhaps therein lay the problem. She wondered if
he were feeling neglected? Yet she couldn't imagine Scott being so
cruel as to stage a breakup on New Year's Eve.
Numb now with more than the cold, she followed him along the shore of
Breakstone Lake to the boat dock pier, then out to the T at the end
where there were built-in wooden benches. She could hear little
waves lapping at the support struts and somewhere out in the lake, a
fish jumped. With the black shadow of pines encircling the water,
the star-speckled sky seemed to be caught at the bottom of a wide
bowl. She could see the patterns of Taurus and Orion overhead. He
hadn't let go of her hand since they'd left the mansion and now sat
her down, though he remained standing, his fingers still twined in
hers. He didn't say anything at first, just kept staring at her, his
eyes glowing red behind the glasses. Scott's eyes *did* mirror his
feelings, just not in the way of most. The more strongly he felt,
the brighter they grew. "Scott, what *is* it?"
He moved finally, but not to sit beside her. Instead, he knelt at
her feet, his grip almost painful.
It took her a good ten seconds to process what he'd just said. Then,
stupidly, she asked, "What?"
She watched him swallow, his Adam's apple bobbing above the collar of
his jacket. His thumb brushed the back of her hand compulsively. In
a voice that cracked, he said, "Jean Grey, will you marry me?"
She threw herself off the bench at him, knocking him over on his ass,
her arms wrapped about his shoulders. Her joy (and relief) bubbled
out of her in laughter. "Yes, yes, yes, yes . . . !" Then he was
laughing, too, and dropped back against the cold wooden dock,
bringing her after him, half propped on his chest so he could kiss
her. Her hair fell around both their faces.
After a minute, they got to their feet. It was just too cold outside
to be lying on anything for any length of time. He fished in the
pocket of his slacks. "Don't laugh at this," he warned, taking her
left hand and pushing a ring onto it.
It wasn't a diamond. It wasn't even a real ring, unless one were
five years old and playing dress up -- all gold-painted aluminum with
a big white plastic gemstone. He must have bought it at a party shop
or toy store, and she was too astonished to be offended. "What on
"Well, I wanted to have *some*thing, but I figured you'd better come
with me to pick out the real thing or I'll walk out with a ruby and
think I had a diamond." He grinned a little, then confessed,
"Actually, I've been to every jeweler in Westchester County, and a
few in Manhattan, but all I could decide was that I wanted your
She held up the silly plastic thing as if admiring it and said with a
straight face, "Well, I like this one." And for just an instant, she
had him. His mouth dropped open as if he thought she were serious --
then he made a hissing noise and leapt to tickle her till she was
screaming with laughter and slapping at him. "*Stop! Stop!*" He
relented, and she collapsed on the seat again, breathing heavily.
"Thanks," she said.
She smiled up at him. "No. Thanks for wanting my opinion."
Leaning over, hands resting on her shoulders, he kissed her brow.
And that, Jean thought, was why she was marrying Scott Summers.
But only two years later, fate would intervene yet again. Styling
himself now as Magneto, Erik Lehnsherr redesigned Bruce Banner's
machine not just to trigger latent X-genes, but to *create* them in
normal humans. It didn't work as it should have, and the artificial
mutations proved unstable. And fatal. Fortunately, thanks to the
X-Men, there was only one death instead of hundreds, or even
millions. Yet the machine would, in fact, claim two lives -- one
The first time, Jean had escaped the full force of the transforming
wave because Henry McCoy had knocked her out of the way and taken the
brunt of it. The residue that washed over her had been only enough
to reopen her suppressed telepathy, not to trigger a full
transformation. But the second time, she wasn't so lucky, and her
mutation leapt forward in a way that nature had never quite intended.
It didn't kill her, but it caused a power spiral that terrified her
because this time, the effect was much more profound. She'd barely
survived the first evolution sane, and was afraid of what the second
would do. Enough of her life had been thrown into turmoil that she
didn't need her powers to rebel as well. So she hid it, or tried.
Naturally, it was what she'd feared most that, in the end, proved
salvatory. Fate had a way of upending expectations.
When the dam of Alkali Lake had crumbled and the torrent had borne
down on the trapped X-Men, snapping pines and sweeping away
everything in its path, it was Jean's augmented power that had saved
the lives of her friends and students -- and of the man who'd
preserved her sanity, the man who'd taught her to love, and a third
who'd challenged her equilibrium, but would end up cementing her
She'd made herself a hero at last because she'd been able to help,
and hadn't been afraid to do so.
Unfortunately, the cost was her life. Or so everyone thought.
Notes: Yes, I consider the film universe of X-Men and Spider-Man to
be consanguineous (although obviously, not that of The Hulk)
Concluded in the Epilogue.
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