"So, ummm... Jean..." He spoke casually as he zapped a dangling piece of what had once been a neon sign. The piece fell harmlessly to the ground below, adding to the rubble before it could hurt someone.
"So, ummm... Scott..." She turned from where she stood amongst the wreckage of Inferno to face him.
"Do you realize where we are?"
He had that half-crocked grin, Jean noted. The one that usually accompanied gallows humor. And, well, there was no time like the present for that.
"A few blocks south of Central Park, it looks like."
"I'd say about Fifty-Seventh and Sixth," he nodded.
"And so we're probably standing at center stage of Carnegie Hall," he let the grin slide into a full-blown laugh, one more than slightly tinged with the madness that had infected their lives for the past hours.
"It's not Christmas. Although with everything that has gone on, the return of the Messiah would only be the topper. I mean, after all, many of our friends - and even some family - have already come back from the dead today. What's one more?"
Jean marveled at her own cynicism. She was kidding, of course, but she also wasn't. She was also too numb to care much right now whether she was dancing on the edge of blasphemy.
Scott climbed over the last mounds of rubble - he could have sworn he saw a red seat or two - and put his arms around Jean. She leaned back into the embrace and tried not to collapse. He couldn't even imagine what was going through her head right now. Dealing with Madelyne as the Goblin Queen had been bad enough for Jean before the memories of Dark Phoenix had been bored into her mind.
Jean had been horrified to learn about what had gone on while the Phoenix entity was masquerading as herself, even as she had been comforted, to an extent, by the abstractness of it all. Dark Phoenix had been someone else. But she was no longer an abstract, separate being. And Scott was terrified that it would be too much.
"I think my head is going to explode, Scott," Jean whispered.
"Let's sit down for a minute," he suggested, zapping away some rubble from atop the red seats he had seen before. They were partially intact, enough so that they could be used.
They sat silently for a while, Scott holding her hands as she wept. He wanted to hold her, but she wouldn't let him. "I have too many people in my head right now, Scott. I want to see you through my eyes. Not Madelyne's, not the Phoenix's..."
And so they sat.
"I ended up giving the tickets to Kurt and Amanda the first year," Scott spoke finally. "It was right after you... well, the Phoenix died. I couldn't even look at them. Storm told me over the phone that they had arrived at the mansion, but I told her to give them to someone else and I didn't even want to know who. Kurt and Amanda took them, I found out later. Of course, the night of the concert, Kitty ended up fighting off alien invaders and destroying the Mansion, but, well, what else is new, right?"
Jean was still crying, but the shuddering sobs had subsided to quiet tears. She looked up at him, so he continued.
"We had ordered them so long in advance, I hadn't even thought about them to get them cancelled..."
"I remember you telling me not to get them. That was me, right? Not Phoenix."
"That was you," Scott confirmed. "I didn't think it was a good idea to be making plans so far in advance. Especially considering how erratic our... work schedule... was. Or mine was, at any rate."
"You were right, I guess. X-Men really should only use pencils in their planners."
Scott nodded. "The next Christmas, I didn't go again. And I could never bring myself to go with Madelyne."
"I didn't think you were in New York much with Madelyne," Jean spoke quietly.
"We weren't. She wasn't a city person... I don't know if that was a conscious decision by Sinister or not. To keep me away from any place I had been with you..." he shook his head. It had been months since Jean's return and he still wasn't quite able to figure out whether he had honestly loved Madelyne or whether she was just a replacement for Jean. Of course, he had been wondering about that since he had first landed in Alaska that fateful afternoon, but the answer was no clearer now... "But there was a production by the local university's choral society. Madelyne was adamant about going, but I couldn't... I don't think she believed my headache story..."
"You're a terrible liar. I probably wouldn't have bought it, either," she tried to smile, but it ended up a demented smirk. Even after all this time, she wasn't sure how she felt about Scott talking about his wife, not even with echoes of Madelyne herself now banging around in her head.
"We weren't getting along very well at the time anyway," Scott shrugged.
They sat in silence once more, but this time a more companionable silence. And when Scott moved to bring Jean closer to him, she did not protest.
Finally, Wolverine approached. He nodded to the two of them and updated the situation. It was time to go.
"I wonder if they'll rebuild in time for Christmas," Scott murmured to himself, knowing that Jean heard him.
"So, ummm... Jean..." He sat at the kitchen table in the main house, enjoying a post-Danger Room coffee before heading back to get showered and changed.
"So, ummm... Scott..." Jean was rummaging through the kitchen cabinets, trying to find the marshmallow cereal. Scott wouldn't let the stuff into their home knowingly, so she had to count on the hidden caches of others.
"Do you think we should try and see if Nathan wants to join us?" He waved the letter that had come from the Carnegie Hall box office. "They offer the option of purchasing additional tickets."
The annual subscription had been a present from Alex for their first post-Inferno Christmas. It was a thoughtful gift, and Scott and Jean had been touched, but Scott had been wary of any sort of long-range commitment.
"It's not important whether you actually get to go or not," Havok had written in the card. "It's the idea that you two will have something normal, boring, and completely predictable in your lives. Or at least something you will enjoy, as opposed to the usual guarantees of evil mutants, monsters, and having to rebuild the mansion once a year."
"Nathan?" Jean asked around a mouthful of marshmallows and processed sugar-coated corn stars, eyebrows arched in disbelief. "As in your son?"
"He'd like it. He might consider it an especially cruel moment of irony brought on by the parents who continually harp about his messianic tendencies, but he'd stop pouting once the music began," Scott shrugged, then smirked as he looked up to see what his wife was eating. "That stuff's more dangerous than MacTaggert's coffee. At least Moira's brew is natural. In theory."
Jean stuck out a tongue that was dyed a rainbow of artificial colors.
"So what do you think?"
"I think Nathan is going to bark out a laugh and then go off to clean his gun," Jean answered back.
"You don't think he'll go for it?"
"I think the only chance you have of getting him to go for it is if you don't turn this into some kind of family bonding thing."
"But it is supposed to be some kind of family bonding thing."
"Scott, Nate isn't a bonding sort of guy," she sat down and stole a sip out of his coffee cup. "I think we had our chance in the future we and made the most of it. And if we threatened him enough, he'd probably admit that we did okay, too."
"I know, I know, it's just... Alex is gone, Dad is who-knows-where, and my son... well, he's Cable. I'd like to decrease the level of utterly ridiculous dysfunctionality of this family by just a little. I see the worst parts of myself in him, sometimes, Jean..."
"And I see some of the best parts as well. He'll be here for a while, Scott. We have time on our side, for once in our lives. And after enough of it passes, maybe we can work on the family thing. In the meanwhile, you have his respect, and that's a lot from Nate."
"So I'll just put us down for two tickets, huh? Unless you want an additional seat so that you can have a place to put your coat."
"Your seat usually works just fine," Jean shrugged. "And I always move it after you get back."
"Only after I beg and plead. Do we want the same spot we usually sit in?"
Scott filled out the form accordingly and made a mental note to write out a cheque that afternoon.
"I'm going to shower. If you see Betsy, tell her she left her printouts in the control room."
"Mgff," Jean answered through another mouthful of cereal, tongue flicking out to catch a marshmallow that had stuck to her lip.
Scott frowned in exasperation at his wife and then left the kitchen.
He checked the image inducer one last time before exiting the limousine. It had not failed him yet, so he chalked it up to yet another newfound neurosis. They seemed to accumulate with age.
"And the angel said unto them, Fear not..." he could hear from the lobby. Timing is everything, he mused.
The usher's eyes grew slightly when recognition set in. "Good evening, Mister Worthington. Are you not seated in the orchestra?"
"Not this evening," he smiled as his ticket was torn. "All the better, though. Fewer people will see me sneaking in late."
He was standing just outside the door to the hall removing his topcoat and scarf when she sensed him. Her eyes closed to better listen to the music, she did not need to open them to see who was sitting down next to her. Her telepathy had been honed by visiting the minds of her first teammates, so his aura was almost as familiar to her as her own.
He did not speak and she did not make any sign of recognizing his presence save to reach out her left hand and rest it atop his right one. He covered her hand in his, warm as he knew it would be, feeling the wedding band she still wore.
They sat without moving until the intermission, when she withdrew her hand so that she could applaud the performers. As the house lights came up, she finally turned to him.
"I'm glad it was you, Warren," she spoke quietly, barely audible over the fading ovation. "I left it for anyone, but I'm glad it was you who came."
He wanted to say something flip, something about how he was the only one stupid enough to brave the cold since he was already blue. He wanted to crack a joke about how he was supposed to be the cultured one, after all. It was an awkward situation and humor was how he dealt with moments like this.
But any joke he could think of died on his lips as he looked into Jean's eyes. How could anyone be anything less than serious when faced with such profound grief?
"I wanted to help," he sighed, breaking eye contact to look at the hands he once again held. He instead stared at the wedding band. "I've been so self-absorbed since Scott... I've been wallowing in my own memories of loss and I haven't known what to say to you. I hid rather than try and comfort you and fail... I wanted so much to be there for you, and now I'm here and I don't know what to say, I don't know what to do. I'm always running off with half of a plan..."
"But that's what I've always loved about you, Warren," Jean squeezed his hands. "You don't fuss and then do. You do and then fuss."
"I'm sorry, Jean. I'm sorry I wasn't there."
"But you're here now. And tonight's a good night..."
"This was your thing, wasn't it?" he asked, knowing too well the answer.
"When the planet wasn't under attack, or we weren't battling Magneto, or someone wasn't temporarily dead..." She choked on the last words.
"Do you ever wonder..."
"I pray for it every single day, Warren. Every single day when I wake up in the morning and the other side of the bed is still cold, every time something reminds me of him... which is all the time, I guess."
"Could he be? I mean, we've never found a body, and well, we really have pulled this stunt a few times before. Especially you and Scott."
Jean couldn't help but smile. "That's what I keep trying to think about. I don't feel him anymore," she put a hand to her temple. "And even if that, too, has happened before, it scares me because I can't see him, either. It scares me so much. I hold out hope that this is just another cruel joke. That he'll appear out of a bubble in the harbor or he'll pop out of a portal from another dimension... I'll wait forever, Warren. And I'd gladly feel this lousy and miserable for as long as is necessary if I knew he'd come back."
The house lights flickered as the last of the audience filled in.
They did not speak again until after the concert, when they were outdoors in the night air. Warren heard the murmurs about the beautiful couple he and Jean made, heard the comments and hated everyone who made them for misinterpreting things. How could anyone see Jean and not see her grief? And if they could, how could they think that he could come in and prey upon it?
"Don't seethe, Warren," Jean smiled at him. "People see what they want to see. Besides, it's actually somewhat refreshing to not feel people's pity."
"But... I'm sorry," he smirked. "For pitying you."
"Do you? Do think I'm standing firmly in denial because I still hold out hope that Scott isn't dead?"
"No! I'm the one who brought it up that resurrection is a honed trait of the X-Men."
"Then don't apologize. I don't want to be treated like a fragile figurine, Warren. I'm not teetering on the edge of insanity... And I don't want to take out my frustrations on you. I'll stop now."
"Don't," Warren shook his head as they walked along Central Park South. "Let it out. And the more I overhear, the more I can repeat back to the others when they corner me and ask me how I think you are. Use the grape vine for your own benefit."
Jean nodded, but her moment of anger had passed and they walked along. "Let's go into the park," she turned to him, looping her arm around his elbow.
"At this hour?" No sane person ventured into Central Park this late at night, certainly not in winter.
"We're superheroes, trained to fight evil in any dimension. Who's going to hurt us? A mugger?"
He couldn't really argue with that logic, so they went into the park at the next entrance. They passed young couples groping before audiences of drunks and homeless before everyone seemed to disappear and they were left wandering down paths between snow-covered grass.
"Once upon a time, I was so jealous of Scott," Warren began. "I could see how much you cared for him and how oblivious he was to that and I was so convinced that if given half a chance, I could do so much better with my opportunity."
"You did pretty well for yourself in creating chances," Jean smiled, remembering offers of dinner and car trips and all sorts of treats.
"I did. And even when Scott wasn't there to screw them up for me, I didn't get anywhere. And then eventually, Scott stopped being denser than was previously thought humanly possible and the two of you... clicked." He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
"And it didn't even get down to me using a baseball bat," she nodded.
"And then I had to decide whether you really just liked the lost puppy sort, in which case there was obviously no hope for me," he grinned self-mockingly. "Or else I had to come face-to-face with the fact that everyone's favorite wall flower had more to him than meets the eye. After all, why else would you pick him over me?"
She smiled at his almost perfect attempt to keep a straight face. "And what did you decide?"
"I took comfort in the idea that you had really bad taste in men for a while, but then, well after I started dating Candy, I sort of admitted to myself that maybe you just were a much better judge of character than the rest of us. Especially after I stopped being resentful long enough to realize that Scott actually is... was... is a person worth getting to know."
"I prefer to attribute it to stubbornness and persistence, but I'll take the compliment and run with it," she smiled, noting his choice in tense.
"So what do you do now," he asked after a moment.
"Wait for the day I don't cry myself to sleep, I think," she answered after a similarly long pause. "I want to live again, Warren. I want to laugh and not feel guilty for doing so."
"Scott wouldn't want you to be miserable, but you know that and it doesn't matter."
"Pretty much. But do you know what else I want? I want to be able to walk into a room in the mansion and not have everyone fall silent. I've become a humor vacuum. Everyone thinks that they can't be happy around me because I'll hate them for being disrespectful to Scott's memory. Make them stop doing that, Warren, will you?"
"I'll do my best, but I really think that's going to be Bobby's domain. I'm partially humor-impaired, remember?"
They had come to a fork in the road. Warren looked around and then turned to Jean. "We're around Seventy-Second Street. I can either take you down to the train, or you can stay with me... or I can take you home."
Her eyes lit up just enough at the last choice so that even if she had opted for another, Warren knew he would push her until she agreed.
"It's been a while since I've flown anywhere," she nodded. One of the many reasons she missed her telekinesis.
"Betsy's still up, no doubt, and I know she's got enough extra clothing at my place. We'll go back to my apartment, get changed, and I'll fly you up the Hudson."
Forty-five minutes later, they were en route. "Betsy hates this route," Warren admitted. "And now that she can fly, we never go this way. She has a thing about traveling over water. Bizarre quirk for someone born and raised on an island."
"Scott hates wheat," Jean nodded. "I always suspected that was his secret reason for leaving Nebraska."
"Do you ever wonder if regular people - non-mutants - are as neurotic as we are? Or is this yet another identifying feature of homo superior?"
"I don't wonder. I know."
A while later, they landed at the Xavier estate. Warren set down his cargo gently.
Jean took his hands. "Thank you, Warren. For this evening, for letting me vent..."
He nodded and smiled self-consciously. "Thank you for letting me be your second choice tonight."
"And you won't mind if I tell you that I really hope we don't do this again?" She looked up at him.
"Jeannie, I'll be hoping right behind you."