Phoenixes in the Night

August 04, 2018:

Rachel Summers reaches out to her mother-not-mother to broach a conversation and ask a few questions, but communication does not come easily between her and this world's Jean Grey.

Lake Kitchawan, New York

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Scott Summers, Nathan Summers, Hope Summers, Emma Frost, Tony Stark

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Just past midnight on a Friday. There's three broad categories of people in Westchester County: People who see this as a blessed time to finally sleep in after the weekdays, people who see this as an opportunity to finally cut loose and rage, and people with no sense of occasion who do pretty much what they always do. Working from home really revived that last category there.

No matter what kind of person Jean Grey might be, Rachel Summers (Grey-Summers?) evidently thinks she's awake and mobile at this hour. Jean gets a string of messages from her all at once. Is it weird for your alternate-universe daughter from the future to have your social media?

<phoenix_EX> hey, do you mind meeting me somewhere?
<phoenix_EX> i've been meaning to ask you some things
<phoenix_EX> [Open maps to view location info]
<phoenix_EX> i'm around here

'Around here' means somewhere south of the school, just east of the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, alongside a lake called Kitchawan. Lake Kitchawan is dotted by a smaller reservations and private spaces, with the gaps filled in immediately by tasteful mid-rich homes and — further out from the lake — some unfortunately gaudy mcmansions. The reserves may not be for commercial use, but that hasn't stopped them from being trimmed into with some footpaths so the locals can feel good about their home value during their morning walks.

Beaten paths do inevitably mean that something counts as off from them. Jean will probably notice this problem the second she looks at the location info that Rachel sent. She will either need to drive there through some neighborhoods, park in someone's cul-de-sac, and then tromp through some bushes to get to the water's edge, or she'll have to fly. Her call.

Rachel is sitting on a log with a bottle of gin by her feet, nestled into the mud for stability. Even out here, in this place intended to be a refuge for wild animals, the light pollution from nearby neighborhoods is enough that the lake is shrouded in a dim orange glow. A demure orb of fire floats just over Rachel's shoulder for more immediate illumination.

Her phone, resting atop a denim jacket spread over the log next to her, is playing something upbeat and dancey. Probaly a stream of some DJ set. Rachel is incongruously subdued, looking out over the water while dressed in the immensely sadgirl combination of winged eyeliner, matte red lipstick, a black camisole-style minidress, and a black ribbon choker. The dress has a bit of looseness in it to give some play to the dress' print design of wide-spaced little red dots. Her shoes would dress her down a bit — white-on-white sneakers — but there's somehow exactly zero mud or dirt on them and that's high maintenance to weird levels out here.

*

Checking in from category three is one Jean Grey, who has always found it very difficult to sleep, and who has developed various mechanisms to cope with the fact she's often awake at ungodly hours when no one else is up and about. Tonight that activity was last minute reviews on the new curricula for the fall, and Rachel's messages (odd as it is to be messaged by your 'daughter') were a very welcome distraction from that activity in particular.

Why?

<drjeangrey> Sure, it will be a nice break from trying to figure out how to fit Frost's oversized ego through the school doors in the fall

The unusual choice of location does not seem to surprise or phase Jean. She contemplates her options for getting out to lake, and ultimately decides on the sensible thing. Thus it is that, not too long after Jean's reply message, Rachel will feel a familiar presence entering her sphere of awareness from somewhere overhead. No actual sign of Jean up until she descends close enough for her figure to be picked out from amidst the backdrop of stars: for this particular jaunt, Jean clearly decided to leave off with the psionic fire contrails.

She settles not far away. Jean still, to this day, has some Difficulty with the fact she has several children and grandchildren running around despite her actual age (just past thirty). It's a bit easier with Nathan, given she and Scott went to the future to raise him for a while (long story), but with the others — who sort of Just Appeared One Day — it's still a little rough. Jean does what she usually does when off-balance, which is a more frequent occurrence than her serene exterior carriage would have anyone think:

"Just gin? How grim is our conversational topic tonight?" A little humor has always served Jean Grey well.

*

Rachel isn't actively scanning the sky. On the other hand, perhaps the best proof of her origin is that she is a unwieldly-strong psychic to the point that one or both of the two redheads would have to work to ensure that they didn't passively detect each other.

Rachel tilts her head up to watch Jean land. When she chooses some distance, Rachel takes the time to reach down for her phone and turn off her music. She flips it screen-down when she replaces it on her jacket.

"It's already half tonic," says Rachel. The bottle floats up to her outstretched hand, leaving the mud wholly on the ground and the glass pristine. Rachel turns the label around to face her. "Sorry. I had a drink earlier with someone and I didn't feel like stopping."

Rachel hesitates a moment. The fire flickers across her face, casting the contours in sharp relief. Apart from the strange stripe tattoos, the resemblance only grows more uncanny when abstracted like this. She glances over to Jean for a scant moment, and then returns her attention to the bottle.

"So Frost is really coming to teach, huh? Who decided to let the Hellfire Club in?"

*

Jean shakes her head as she crosses over to Rachel, in a dismissal of the apology. Her gaze falls on Rachel's features, and then just as quickly slides away slightly in order to look at the hovering flame instead. It's always a little eerie, looking at a doppelganger of yourself… especially under such lighting conditions, which tend to erase the small details that distinguish one woman from the other.

At the least, there is no hesitation in Jean when she comes to sit beside Rachel on that log. The age gap between them makes them feel more like sisters than mother and daughter, and for most interactions Jean finds it comfortable enough to occupy that nebulous 'elder sister' area in lieu of wrapping her brain around alternate universes and far-flung futures.

Unbidden, she thinks of Hope, telling her of the legend she became years from now. It should be inspiring, but mostly what the thought actually does is seat a slight pressure behind Jean's eyes. She blinks it away.

Rachel's first question meets silence, at first, though before long Jean lifts her right hand and gestures for the bottle. "Give it here if that's going to be the first topic," she says, her voice wry.

A sigh escapes her, after. "Scott invited her. I have not asked him why, though I've spoken to Frost to get a read on her and if she's… ready." A pause. Her voice is harder when she adds, "And to make some things very clear to her. Did this come up with Stark?"

*

There's another clear spot to sit on the side of Rachel that isn't occupied by her jacket. It's a big log. Very picturesque. Probably why it hasn't been cleared yet. Or maybe someone put it here on purpose for a photo op. Rachel thought about this earlier and decided that was the more depressing theory.

"Ha," Rachel pronounces. Her amusement seems genuine enough even if that was the minimum amount of effort one could put into laughing. She passes the bottle over. As promised, there's some fizz to it — having the tonic already dumped in makes it a much easier drink.

"No," says Rachel. She reaches up to rub her cheek. And her marks, incidentally. "Have you considered asking for veto power over Scott's decisions?"

Rachel drops her hand, leaning forward to rest her forearms on her knees. The water is a good thing to stare at so she doesn't have to figure out what kind of expression she should wear around Jean.

"Well, it kind of came up. I asked him about his relation because I wanted to know if he was… with her, or just with her. I don't like having the Hellfire Club at the school. I feel like it'll turn bad sooner or later."

Rachel sneaks a sidelong glance at Jean. "But the school seems… fractured, about this stuff, anyway."

*

Have you considered asking for veto power over Scott's decisions?

Jean drinks. It seems like the time for it.

"If I wanted to veto him I wouldn't need to 'ask' for the power to do so," she observes, lowering the bottle and regarding its label. "Not as relates to the school, anyway. He would have heard from me if I didn't intend to allow it. Frost has been in… let's call it a rehabilitation program for some time, now. My conversation with her was simply me taking over 'a shift' of that program. The point of rehabilitation is that eventually you ease a person back into things. Give them another chance. But I will be watching her."

She places the bottle back down between them. "As for her and Stark, if they carry on in private, it's their business until it begins to interfere with mine." Jean certainly has no complaint about anything that would keep Frost away from Scott. "Most things have the chance of turning bad, but that should not be a bar to shooting for the good outcome. If it does turn bad, Frost is out again, and any further chances with me will not be easy to come by."

But the school seems fractured about this stuff anyway.

Jean slants a searching look at Rachel. "You don't just mean about this particular 'stuff.'" It's both a question and not.

*

Rachel knows how to listen quietly with minimum fuss. She isn't looking at Jean for the duration, but she is quiet and still as the other woman talks through the situation. A vague feeling makes her want to look back, so she decides to risk another look from the corner of her eyes just in time to find Jean looking back at her.

For a moment, Rachel freezes.

Then, she leans forward and stands up, taking a few wandering steps away from the log. It's a balmy 70-ish degrees even near the conjured flame, so her jacket remains behind.

"I don't know," says Rachel. Her voice is raised because her back is now to Jean, but she keeps her flat tone. "I've spent the past two years trying to help with the school, with the team, and I can't get it to work. I feel things when I'm there. Emotions on the winds. People are scared and they're running off in different directions."

Rachel stops at the water's edge. She reaches her hands up to run them through her hair, stopping halfway to hold her head. "It was easier when I was Phoenix. I'm sorry — I don't know if you want to hear that, but it's true. Sometimes people need someone to rally behind, and the lady with the big fire wings is an easy pick."

*

It is difficult for Jean Grey to look at Rachel. But she still clearly has an easier time than Rachel herself does.

Perhaps it is awareness of that which brings Jean to look at her 'daughter' so often: helping Rachel acclimate to the awkwardness, by showing little of her own discomfort. She has gotten in the habit of being strong for other people… especially after years of being so uncertain of oneself — where she herself began and ended — that concentrating on the emotions of others was easier than trying to untangle her own. Story of Jean Grey's life.

She doesn't try to stop or pull Rachel back when the other woman retreats. She merely turns her gaze away, also knowing when too much is too much.

"The atmosphere isn't helping," Jean admits. "In times like this, people always polarize in how they think we should respond. I've felt the same tension around the school, within the team. Everyone still wears the same uniform, but there are lies in their hearts. I have not pried because everyone must make their own choices, and whether to tell me or not is in and of itself one of those choices."

She glances at Rachel's turned back. "What do you want to do?"

Rachel knows what is easier to do. And it's Jean's turn to freeze when she says that name.

A knot of emotion works its way through the woman, strong enough it can be felt, though disguised enough that the exact contours of it are not discernible. "In that case," she says softly, "it is the power people are rallying behind, and not the person. I know which I prefer."

*

Rachel abruptly turns around, spreading her arms wide. The glow of flame plays fully across her figure, burning away the shadows.

"It is the person!" says Rachel. "No one decides who gets power and who doesn't! No one decides who lives or dies!"

On some level, of course, someone does. Those decisions are made every day. On another level — a view from senses broad enough — it is all too frighteningly random. Few people know this, really know this, down to the core of their being.

Rachel doesn't speak for a long, potent moment. She exhales, and with that breath she seems to realize how open her eyes are, how loud her voice was. She glances away, sheepishly lowering her arms to her side.

"Sometimes…" she begins, her voice quiet and steady. "All you can do is grab a good thing and try to hold on for as long as you can, and hope that you end up somewhere better when it's gone. People are like that. If you never find that chance to do something, the next best thing is holding onto someone who can."

*

Jean does not respond, at first, to the outburst. The firelight plays along her hair, glow licking along the strands where they curl — just slightly — at their ends. Her head tilts briefly, as if listening warily for something that does not ultimately come.

"Sometimes it is the person," Jean says eventually, very low. "Sometimes… who knows? I am glad your experience was clear-cut."

Her presence locks like a vault. For a long few moments more, she does not speak, but her memories transparently take her light-years away.

She only seems to return when Rachel speaks again. Her head lifts, and with an effort she pushes away whatever thoughts circulated in her head. "That is our purpose at the Institute. To be that good thing that shelters us, for long as we need it to," she says, her customary gentleness back in her tone. "The X-Men are an ideology, a dream… but the Institute itself was meant first and foremost as a place of safety, for our kind to discover themselves without fear. I will ensure it continues to be that as long as possible."

She looks at the bottle, but does not reach for it. "People may disagree on all else, but that core purpose I will never allow to be compromised."

*

Silence. Rachel doesn't speak first. She stands across the clearing from Jean, watching, studying, comprehending. They are less than a dozen feet apart but there are worlds and worlds between them.

The astral winds still and grow cold. When Jean withdraws, Rachel does — reflexively, at first, but then with sincere recoil when Jean says 'clear cut.' The floating flame flickers but does not die. Rachel reaches across her front to hold onto her elbow, a compromise between wanting and not wanting to cross her arms. There are long gaps between reply and reply.

"Okay," says Rachel, eventually. She lowers her gaze to the dark mud between her and where she once sat.

"I won't violate that."

Rachel presses her lips thin. She briefly glances up to the fire, then back to the ground. Her eyes narrow fractionally.

"Do you mind taking a bit of advice before you write me off?"

*

Jean is equally silent. Her gaze is aimed upwards, at the stars winking through the canopy of the trees.

Fragments of memories and their associated emotions cross her mind, barriered from perception but palpable: the way one can feel a flame through a veil, without seeing the actual shape of the flames. Solar wind through her hair. The crackle of deep-space radiation against her skin. The sound a species makes when it all screams at once. The way it feels to drink the life of a star, and not care.

She sighs out a breath, and takes her eyes off the whorling expanse of the sky.

"If you allow me to apologize first, Rachel," she says, without any tone to her voice that suggests she expects a ready acceptance. "One day you will tell me your story, and I will tell you mine."

She lowers her gaze fully to the earth, her long hair slipping over one shoulder. "Tell me your advice."

*

Rachel isn't trying to reach out, but she can't always decide whether or not she does. Jean keeps her mind behind a wall. This is the fabled scenario: both women working not to feel the other.

The flames. On the sides of her face. She can feel her marks burn.

Rachel squeezes her eyes shut. That's not enough, and so she reaches up to press two fingers into the space between her eyebrows. She cycles a breath.

"You don't need to apologize," she says, dropping her hand and waving dismissively, though not with irritation. "I get it. This wasn't the time to bring it up."

Rachel extends her arm. Her phone and then her jacket float swiftly through the air to her, though they swap mid-flight so that Rachel takes her jacket first. She slips it on while her phone floats patiently.

"Even if Frost is reformed, it doesn't mean she's safe. What she wants might not matter if someone with leverage on her wants something else. I doubt the Hellfire Club in this timeline is a kinder place."

*

Many people think of Jean Grey as a paragon of kindness and patience. In many ways, she is… and in many ways, she is not. When her bitternesses come, they cut all the more deeply for their long repression… and for someone so outwardly good at working with the emotions of others, she keeps herself on a strict sort of lockdown. It is reflex for Jean to work at not feeling others. For years, before she learned to control her 'gift' enough to consistently filter the noise, it was the only way to stay sane.

That instinctive wall only lessens when Jean looks over to see her daughter pressing her fingers to her head. Something — basic compassion, a mother's instinct, both combined — brings her to soften visibly. To regret words spoken in judgment, from a sharp and raw place that still has not fully healed even all these years later. How can one truly heal from the knowledge of what one did, even while under the influence of some cosmic power? A power which she sometimes fears was not as completely in the driver's seat as she pretends?

Is it the power, or is it the person, indeed?

Rachel dismisses the apology, but Jean looks quietly adamant. "Someday," Jean says, "I want there to be a time to bring it up." Her expression briefly looks bleak. "Who else can we really speak to about it if not one another?"

But she seems content to let it drop for now, herself. Even with such brave words spoken, such a thing will take… emotional girding. She stands, herself, as Rachel fetches her things, and her head turns to the remark about Frost.

"None of us are really safe," Jean says. "But all of us deserve second chances. She is a conniving, grasping, and manipulative woman… but I believe her when she says she would destroy anything that would harm children under her care." A pause. "I have doubts about her ability to prevent such a situation from arising, so she will be watched. A preemptive dig into her particular connections to the Hellfire Club and its nature would not go amiss, either."

*

Rachel knows how to become quiet and still. That includes her mind. Whatever thoughts she has on the Phoenix, they are buried deep. Even sensing the small things that escape her barriers — the purview of a powerful psychic is perhaps that they always find something — only provides brief flashes of shame being systematically destroyed by some harsh internal discipline.

It was easier to see Rachel's relationship with the Phoenix from the outside. Excalibur wasn't a secret team, though they had no public relations either. Whatever the Phoenix means to the X-Men — to the rest of the universe — in the UK it was the name of a woman who became a bizarre counterculture icon, the wickedly-dressed fatale never without an attitude and an answer. For years, the wings. Pictures and video everywhere. Finding them is as easy as typing Rachel's name into a search engine.

But it's gone now. The woman standing in front of Jean is a lot of her look, a little of Scott's height, and only a little bit on fire. Sometimes.

"Alright. Someday," Rachel agrees. Her voice is quiet, but nothing in the vague edges of her empathic resonance feels like she's insincere. "Someone else should know… and it should probably be you."

Rachel plucks her phone out of the air, only to shove it into her jacket pocket. The bottle is left abandoned by the log for now. She looks at the other woman with a newly-centered demeanor, as if she was starting the encounter over again.

"In my time, they had another psychic… he was the problem. I don't know if he's here. Maybe he wasn't from there at all. Maybe I'm being paranoid for nothing."

Rachel shoves her hands into her jacket pockets and takes one last look out across the lake. "I should try to sleep before I stay up all night again. Thanks for coming out. I guess I didn't get as far down my list of questions as I thought I would."

*

Jean's awareness of the doings of Excalibur does not extend past the surface level. Rachel had wanted space, and she got it, even if the price was her mother having only that superficial read of her daughter's time with the Phoenix — a time which seemed, on the outside, so much more manageable than her own.

Those years Rachel spent in the UK were quiet years, stateside, for Jean. By necessity, after her harrowing few years as the host of the Phoenix in the empty depths of space. She studied and got her degrees. She mentored at the Institute. She raised Nathan with Scott, when the chance came. Eventually, she felt stable enough to start rejoining the team once in a while again. She remembered what it was to be a human.

But she never forgot. And sometimes when the reminders come, they cut more deeply than even she anticipates, and come from vectors she does not want to hurt with her many lingering issues.

Someday, Rachel agrees. Someone should know, and it should be you. "Yes," Jean says, a broad agreement and reciprocation both. "Because it is still out there."

She rises. The bottle is glanced at, but after a moment she too leaves it where it lies. "The paranoia in and of itself is not unwise," Jean shakes her head. "But as with most things… it must be balanced. With a little faith, in this instance."

She inclines her head. "Get some sleep, Rachel. There will always be time for more questions." Something about her aspect seems to lean forward a little, as if thinking of trying to draw physically nearer… but ultimately she hangs back. They're both not quite ready. "You know where I am."

*

Rachel stays planted where she stands. That peculiar hyper-attentiveness, the one that comes with the still and quiet, returns when Jean hesitates. Her body tenses. The air holds a potential that never takes a shape.

Rachel turns her head. She holds her hand out to the flame, which floats across the gap to take a new place above her palm. The fire curls and leaps around itself, and Rachel watches with constricted pupils.

Balance.

"Yeah," she murmurs. "I know."

And then Rachel closes her hand and snuffs the flame, and leaving only the gentle glow of wooded suburbia spreading out across the dark, dark water.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License