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All Empires Laid Low

Chapter Text

Erik greets Merry sparingly when they reconvene in one of the Outpost's many garden-like piazzas. Despite the more Terran trend of the architecture in the scientific cloister, it is still primarily the product of Genoshan minds, a city growing outward from its original handful of buildings. There is an oddly sporadic nature to the arrangement of plants, a sort of biological staccato that could never have been conceived on Earth. It makes Merry's approach even easier to mark, his black Courier's uniform scarcely hidden by the thin trunks and semi-transparent foliage of what passes for Genosha's 'trees'. The place is a park, really, though Magneto's mind does not arrive at the term automatically. Nor does the seemingly innocuous word have entirely pleasant connotations for him when it does spring to mind.

 

For some time after that failed island battle

(Was it a fortress, prison, or laboratory at which they took their 'last stand'? A place of birds, Lehnsherr thinks for some reason, but memory fails.)

he lived in such places of public verdure, little dots of sylvan relief in a city whose bridge was made of gold. A warm land, given to mild nights which saw park benches quickly tenanted by those as equally hopeless (or more so) as the old man he had been. Without his powers, literally stripped to a raw and quivering humanity that made him loathe his own skin, Erik had been truly lost. Blind or disabled, as the veterans of human wars who begged by fountains or on street corners until the police moved them along. In some ways, it had been worse than his decade-long imprisonment for then, at least, the possibility of his metal-sense had still existed, even if there was nothing to see/feel. How to describe such loss to one born with only five senses? Even mutants with more physical adaptations might not understand the sense of stifling, of suffocation.

Charles would have known implicitly, having laid his own powers flush against Erik's, having reveled in their similarly alien perspectives and, on rare occasion, reached through Lehnsherr to exercise that magnetic sense himself. He might even have been ready, despite Magneto's latest suicide plunge, to empathize-- to lay his hand on Erik's age-thinned flesh and convey solidarity in a way that had little to do with psychic powers. That lambent force of compassion which so infused the professor, far more mysterious to the metal-bender than telepathy or pyrokinesis.

But Charles was dead, felled by the firebird Erik himself had intended to wield. Despite the ringing of the awful, final tone

(dead, Charles is dead-- oh, you finished what you started forty years ago on that beach, are you happy now? fallen mothers, lost children, and finally slain lover/brother; he continued so strongly in spite of you and now Charles is _dead_)

in his skull upon waking each morning, the thing which had been Magneto tried to feel some small relief. The Cure was a poison that salted the inner well of one's self, and it had seemed so omnipotent and inescapable at the time. Too powerful to be mere suppression, Erik had been sure the bitter concoction would have driven the professor mad. It was the difference between being trapped in the dark and having your eyes lingeringly peeled out of your skull. Erik's life, the fate of mutant kind (and really, he'd spent so long fighting that there seemed little difference between the two) appeared abruptly truncated. The next stage of evolution, canceled without notice and punctuated-- as all things seemed to be-- with a needle that was really only a bullet in disguise. Better that Charles had not lived to see his students flayed alive, robbed of personhood. Or so Erik had told himself as he lay waiting for sleep on those park benches, under overpasses, or at the feet of statues he could no longer rip down with a thought. A mercy, he'd told his internal judge and jury-- who were just as ruthless as the great Magneto had once been and, unmoved, found him guilty all over again.

 

That particular defeat had not been the great terminus he'd assumed, of course. For close to a year, Lehnsherr had worked odd jobs in those shadowy cracks which could be found in all cities-- those places of transience and blurring, where it was least likely his face would be recognized, never mind enduring any awkward questions. Menial jobs that paid cash, that further punished a body which could no longer quite keep up with his will, supplemented by tzedakah at from the nearest synagogue. A strange word to remember, of all the damned things, especially considering he cannot recall the name of his mother's people, or what distinguished their G-d or ways as objectionable in the first place. At the time, that charity had been the only kind he could bear, and that hardly with any grace. A hot meal or a donated shirt, which he forced himself to accept even if he could not force himself to meet his benefactors' eyes.

He had felt some shame then, yes, but not the kind Xavier might have classified as some sort of stirring change in perspective. Individual humans had been kind to Erik now and again, and Magda had employed as much acceptance towards his powers as love could possibly allow, but the mind of any crowd was a different thing entirely. He had always been astonished that one as powerful as Charles could not understand just how insidiously cancerous that 'group think' could be-- a telepath who could not see the forest for the trees. He had been old and hard, or had thought of himself as such within the lifetime he had expected. By the time he acknowledged that he had once considered himself human and part of another people, too much of him had calcified. Though awed or at least prudently respectful of his power and command, Magneto known for years that the young recruits to his Brotherhood considered him a fossil. They could no more conceive of the decades which had shaped him than he could be bothered to understand their generation. It mattered little. Whatever other impertinences he was forced to break them of, none ever dared to say such things to his face. He let them think as they pleased and-- unlike the beloved professor-- allowed his students to learn their lessons the hard way.

A fool, he, to have thought himself finished with his own schooling.

 

Presently, an enthusiastic chirp draws Erik from his morbid associations, and he sees Beast's little helper hurrying to keep up with the teleporter's stride. The girl-- Bishop-- seems to have taken her role as guide quite seriously, and she makes a ridiculous attempt at solemnity once she considers herself in the G-d Emperor's presence. A little ways to the east, Magneto can see where the path branches off towards a little plaza, complete with a fountain and stone tables for those long games of Devil's Tower or 'Watch Me' Genoshans so enjoy. It could, with enough imagination, be a particularly sedate and affluent city green on Earth, save that there is nothing green about it.

That verdant color-- emerald, mint, evergreen, even chartreuse-- is conspicuously rare on this planet. So ubiquitous on his own home world, Erik could never have imagined how the deficit would effect him, though it is not the maddening starvation he feels for a certain irreplaceable shade of blue. The entire first generation of mutant colonists had been impacted by this startling change in world pallet, so that green dye became a costly commodity. A preponderance of songs were composed lauding the 'green hills of Terra'; not, Erik thinks to himself cynically, that there were many of those left on Earth when it was abandoned. Even now, green is considered a color of preferment, worn by nobility and those who have enough money to compensate for lack of pedigree. Even the faint peridot hue of Merry's wild hair is catching a few eyes, though those glances stay riveted upon catching sight of Magneto. A few adults at their game tables studiously pretend disinterest, but the children on the open yellow moss are slowly withdrawing from their play to gape silently, much to their teacher's consternation.

 

These children-- all children, to be honest-- are as incongruous to Erik as he is to them. He had little exposure to his own progeny in their formative years, approaching them far better (though not entirely successfully) as adults. To say nothing of the willful iron blank he had made of his own childhood even in that first life. Thus, in his estimation, the minds of children move curiously; they are unpredictable creatures, possessed of an inward nature many of their caregivers seem to deny. Charles had no such ignorance, of course; an observation Lehnsherr always sneeringly disguised as an insult, usually drawing comparisons regarding youthful naiveté. 'Of course children seem rather insane to adults,' Xavier elaborated once during one of their many 'hostage' chess games. Magneto rather thought Charles was often flattered by being absconded with, though it did not spare his kidnapper recitations of duties being forfeited or quaint anecdotes about the students themselves. 'Adult values are radically different than those of youth. And,' he'd added, more quietly, skirting the edge of an argument. 'What you're willing to risk always reveals what you value.'

These children, who know of humanity only as a kind of fantastic monster of folklore, exercise their powers freely, granting one another monikers that often distinguish them more than their recycled names. Dawn-shaker, Pin Head, Clobber, Dovetail, Shade; as the teacher tries valiantly to round up her brood, Erik hears a little one call her 'Miss Sound Quake'. Had they been born in the death-throes of Earth That Was, many of these students whose gifts lacked military application would have been 'euthanized'. Others would have been collared, as Lehnsherr had been, enslaved to fight for their very exterminators. Treated worse than pigs or dogs, they were sometimes forced to breed as such. Though humans sought the eventual destruction of mutantkind, they were not above trying to make a better weapon via genetic match. If the result was dissatisfying, it was merely put down.
'No harm,' as one Stryker scientist informed Erik while taking a particularly unpleasant and intimate sample, 'no foul.'

How Erik himself had always envied those like Azazel and Mystique their visible badge of difference. Now the sheer variety and adaptation of the mutant form have reached a spectra of which even Xavier could only dream. All shapes, sizes, and color combinations; tails, claws, additional fingers, and epidermal morphologies like Emma's diamond form. House Frost seems to have lost that additional mutation all together-- though she posthumously had five daughters to spread such characteristics. Now what seemed like an odd genetic fluke, the sort of bizarre evolutionary off-shoots and niches Charles so loved to study, has taken on more ominous connotations. Other septs have more than made up for the 'standardization' (or total lack) of secondary mutations in the telepathic Houses; fur, jade, and even translucent flesh are just a few examples he can spot in the rambunctious class before him. Even Houses with more power-based manifestations, like Summers and Lee, often have visual indicators in apparatus that helps them regulate the fantastic amount of energy their bodies generate.

 

Upon hearing Bishop cough, Erik turns his gaze back on her. Though making an effort to stand at attention, she is still young enough to find true stillness impossible. She cannot be much younger than Magneto's fellow soldier on Callisto, who died without knowing how much she reminded him of Anya. And Bishop, a child of Genosha, has been found 'less than desirable', a virtual outcast from House Xavier. For a moment, the G-d Emperor almost asks if she is happy here, but the notion passes. One can only imagine what sort of response it would garner and besides, while she presents a solemn picture, Bishop's eyes are bright and Lehnsherr had heard the faint soprano monologue she'd been foisting on Merry as they approached. Instead, he inclines his head just once to acknowledge her, and motions the courier forward.

"Apologies, my Emperor, if you were kept waiting," the teleporter says, now sporting a greenish hue on his cheeks as well. A flush of potential embarrassment. How strange it is to see glimpses of the familiar within the random shuffling of the hereditary deck. Toad, who lacked shame in regards to almost all bodily functions, always had an odd propensity to blush from shyness, particularly around women. Amazing, in some ways, that he should have had heirs at all. But then, as a younger and much breezier Mystique used to say (usually with pointed look at Erik's helmet, and particularly when in the presence of Charles), 'There's a lid for every pot.'

"Indeed, no," Magneto says smoothly. Yet there is some impatience in him, a discomforting vibration in his very bones. His reputation as a taciturn ruler precedes him; both young mutants watch him as if patiently awaiting the will of some monolithic oracle. Beyond them, the now awed-to-silence cluster of children stare openly, trying to decide-- as their adult counterparts are-- just what Erik's presence might portend.

'More than you know, perhaps,' Lehnsherr thinks within the prison/fortress of his helmet. McCoy's words linger in the fore of his mind, oil coagulating unpleasantly on the surface of waters darker still. Rumors, only rumors. Yet, for the first time in innumerable decades, Erik can distinctly make out the cry of that boy-corpse left forever screaming within.

 

"There's no need to linger, however," he says, forcing the odd roughness in his voice to something more sharp and commanding. Turning, he makes the token gesture familiar to all couriers-- as men once offered their arms to women on Earth. "The fortress, if you please. With haste."

If Merry is surprised at being asked to eschew the Outpost's public platform, he's smart enough not to show it. Such props serve only to organize the 'flight paths' of a world with thousands of teleporters. It's good to know that-- unlike Haller-- some people still take Erik's merest spoken word as law. With a most unobtrusive and decorous hand, the young courier anchors himself on Lehnsherr's arm. His particular acrid scent reaches the Emperor for the briefest of moments before it, and all else, give way to absence.

*

"Is it even in you to lay down your sword, Erik?" Charles asked once. They had been drowsing together in some foreign bed-- one snatched tryst or another-- aware of all the little places where their bodies touched and warmed. Always, at such times, a languorous tension enveloped them following the initial satiation, as though their union were both a delicious drug and an incendiary force. An incongruous idea, but the best description Lehnsherr had for the way time seemed to stretch around them, bowing and transforming under its own weight like the flow of honey or sap. Slow, slow, but ultimately careening away as each drop separated and became lost. Every moment of peaceful companionship was a stolen thing, an intermission. It _had_ to be; for surely it could not be the reverse, with their lives as leaders and pioneers for their species being nightmares which interrupted the privacy of feeling creatures? Not icons, not larger than life after all, but men of dimension with whom both clean-cut professor and garish anarchist could not simultaneously exist.

When the doors of cabins or borrowed penthouses or questionable hotel rooms slammed shut, the world took on a new texture for Erik. What of it? He had no need for color or vibrancy outside Charles' presence; no need for tactile delights or warmth if they could not be shared with the scant few he loved. His wife-- lovely, stubborn, passionately practical-- had been long gone by this time, leaving Charles alone to prevent Erik from being swallowed up by Magneto. His grief stirred whenever he had Xavier to himself, and it was two-fold. Both for the pain he had caused so gentle and treasured a man, and in the odd fear of betrayal that dogs a widower's heels.

'You are allowed to be happy,' Charles had whispered that first time, two years and several military assaults after that devastating loss. Snarling, Erik had taken that sympathetic mouth in kiss of violence and possession he would have pressed on no other. Unable to bear the professor's compassion, unable to live without it, and knowing as always that Charles could handle his combative response. Could give back in kind.

Their days of combative foreplay had mostly passed by then, however. Anger mulled to resentful longing and regret while aging bones shed calcium and shoulders protested far too often under chosen loads. How luxurious it was, then, bound up in that glow of sated limbs and freckles Erik-- despite the many years-- still had not quite successfully mapped. A cold wind howled without-- their haven had been a cabin, most likely. He'd indulged Xavier's love of blankets and delighted the other man by heating the fire-poker to set with hearth blazing without moving an inch from their embrace. Though the mahogany hair was long gone, the shape of Charles' skull was still beautiful in the firelight. Lehnsherr had paused in stroking it, and perhaps the professor had spoken of metaphorical swords and their abandonment only because he thought his lover asleep.

It was not a new or novel concept, Charles' doubt that Erik-- or Magneto, at least-- might not be able to exist without some foe. During one of their shouting matches, such a question would have resulted in mutinous silence from the metal-bender, or accusations about Charles' own inability to deal with conflict. Yet Xavier had voiced it so quietly, without the expectation of response, that Erik had found an answer springing readily to his lips.

"I don't fight because I enjoy it, liebling," he'd said, hand resuming its sweeping motion against the professor's head. All the way down now, along neck and back, stopping just short of a certain vertebrae. He knew exactly the topography of the kingdom he'd scorched bare. "I am made to survive the world as it is, not as you want it to be."

Potential responses to that were varied, made all the more volatile by tone, intimacy, and the perpetual tinderbox in which they made love. Charles had chosen to draw Erik closer still, tucking his own head under the taller man's chin and sighing there, as if having reached some sanctuary. An observer-- not that Lehnsherr would have tolerated such a possibility-- would have laughed. There had never been anything safe or sheltering about Magneto. All but the most mercenary of his followers joined expecting to fight and die, and even those not in pursuit of 'glory' acknowledged that eventually their luck-- or money, or both-- would run out. A part of Erik wanted to laugh as well, at this precious communion, though not in derision. There was a facet of selfish joy for, since no one would believe it, this part of Charles was rendered Erik's alone. He was always clutching at what pieces of this beloved he might claim.

The rest, of course, was the type of hysterical gale smothered by all save those wishing to bid sanity farewell.

 

"When, then, will you ever have rest?" that cultured voice had murmured, imprinting the words against Lehnsherr's pulse. As if the telepath had somehow drawn a line down the years and centuries through which Erik would outpace him, oppressed by solitude and his own refusal to surrender. Whether precognition or simple extrapolation, Charles' lips touched his lover's vitality as one might soothe a wound… or absorb it. The gentle cadences might still have blazed their way to a battleground, if not for those accompanying actions. Or perhaps even then, since one of the peculiarities of their relationship had always involved oblique intuitions and assumptions regarding all ceasefires. Instead, Lehnsherr had luxuriated in their snatched tranquility, feeling no small amount of pride as well. To have pleased Charles to a degree of aurulent melting at which he did _not_ phrase the question as bait was an accomplishment in and of itself.
Or so Erik had thought at the time, not considering the morbid lethargy resignation can bring.

"When does one ever stop fighting?" he'd grumbled, finding the question a bit ridiculous no matter how seemingly sleepy or idle its tone. He preferred, also, to debate Xavier when they had an audience of followers rather than a waste of these precious hours outside recorded time. In these blanks, gaps in a narrative that would become history and degrade into legend, Charles was entirely his-- and Erik had never appreciated sharing the telepath with the humans so undeserving of Xavier's defense. To emphasize this point, he'd pulled Charles closer, leaning in to make their resting embrace also something of a subtle cage.
"Really, Charles," he'd whispered in his most pedantic drawl. If he was insufferable enough, the professor might easily decide to give his sardonic mouth a more absorbing assignment. "When the enemy is gone."

The professor only sighed, his kiss soothing rather than incendiary, and said nothing more.

It had been a very tired sound.

*

Though the status of G-d Emperor should be sufficient to excuse him from such trials, Magneto has never the less found himself subjected to Beast's lectures on the mechanics of teleportation on numerous occasions. According to the scientist (who is never shy about crediting Charles' contributions, likely part of a misguided effort to make Erik flinch), teleporters harness at will what other beings possess only as a vanishingly small probability. Their electron waves-- which are, themselves, composed only of probability-- extend far beyond their bodies in the same manner as all other creatures. Yet teleporters can extend this invisible corona by conscious effort, maintaining an association between scattered electrons via united vibration, thus keeping track of 'themselves' as they move their atoms from the central hub of the wave to its farthest reach.

It all gives Lehnsherr a profound headache, not the least of which because one hardly wants to think of such minutia when relying on teleporters as a primary method of transportation. It is one thing for a courier to risk scrambling their own essential pattern, and another matter entirely to know that you are also dependent on what is essentially an instinctive flex of 'muscle'. (Though Azazel would, of course, have taken great exception to diminishing his powers to such a paltry metaphor.) The study of mutations by mutants themselves is still a source of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for all Guardians save Beast, whose restless curiosity remains as youthful as his appearance. As with so many subjects, Hank hardly needs encouragement to go on about electrons being anywhere-- or worse still, anywhen-- simultaneously. It's a terrifying concept, and one that visits Lehnsherr rather violently as he and his 'transportation' suddenly rematerialize not on New Muir's courier platform, but on the ebony piazza below Magneto's own mountain fortress. At the foot of the cascading steps, to be precise-- at least the boy knows well enough not to dump the G-d Emperor on his own front doorstep. Almost as startling as the unexpected scenery is the musical laughter than rings through the arctic air.

 

"Bludiehel!" Merry cries, looking perhaps all of twelve in his unbridled delight. "I got it all in one go!" Though Erik's sharp green glance stems from surprise rather than censure, the courier quickly subdues himself, his own gaze on the preternaturally smooth valley floor as his cheeks darken with shame. His whisper of, "Your pardon, G-d Emperor" is so soft as to be nearly unintelligible.

Lehnsherr waves a gloved hand dismissively. It has been so long since someone has expressed genuine, uncalculated emotion in his presence that he might secretly find it somewhat endearing.
If not for the strange word that came with it.

"What did you say?" he asks, voice void of inflection.

"I--" the young man stumbles, "-- that is, the furthest I can usually 'port is--"

"Before that."

"Bludiehel?" it's an almost desperate question, and the care taken with the pronunciation does little to savage syllables so clearly unfamiliar to the speaker. It's not a Genoshan word, though the planet's language is such a amalgamation of Earth tongues that even McCoy has lost track. Erik himself was multilingual in his first life and can sometimes identify related words, but he has forgotten much-- including the name of the standard speech to which Charles' was native.

 

Bludiehel; bloody hell.
Words repeated too often to carry the flavor of any particular occasion, and expressed in a cavalcade of tones. Irritation, yes, but also laughing disbelief, honest incredulity, and a teacher's playful reversion to days as a student.

('Bloody hell, Erik, what were you thinking?!'

So quiet, too, in later years, like a child whispering to avoid rebuke. So weighty, the mantle of a paragon of virtue. Ignoring the chains of his own operatic 'villain'-hood, Magneto would smirk and ask the telepath if Charles was expecting to receive detention.)

Despite Merry's celebratory usage, and gross phonemic mangling, the association is strong enough to stir memories already lying restless in their supposed slumber. Lehnsherr is beset by ghosts today, by jagged details so mundane they seem shocking when they prick along his mental fingers. Of all the phrases to resurface light-years from its last place of utterance…

 

Not bothering to affect idleness after his initial reaction, Erik fixes the other mutant with a penetrating stare. "Where did you hear that expression?"

"The Recovery Project?" the courier says tentatively, referring to yet another of the Cloister's 'pet' endeavors. It is not enough to merely pry bulky databases from derelicts-- they must bring this dangerous driftwood home, pry at them as though the void of space has ever cast anything fortuitous on sentient shores. "They published two novels from Old Earth recently. Years of translation work, my cousin said. It's a slang phrase apparently and… Well, I'm not much inclined towards reading, but the it's all the rage now with city youth. It means--"

"I know what it means," Magneto returns, moderating his tone to scholarly finality rather than impatience. Barely, barely. "Likely better than you do."

"Yes, my Lord."

 

Erik turns away, leaving the boy to shift uncomfortably in a silence broken only by the mountain winds. A dreadful sense of synchronicity crawls against his spine, sympathetic wounds which-- even if carried a thousand years-- can never truly be absolved. Penance is such a paltry thing, and he would not be shed of these chains. It's the persistence of vision he fears, as though some mazel 'ra was laid upon his forehead as an infant, in a forgotten town on a forfeit planet, so potent it has followed him through lives and lightyears and rejuvenated cells to this precise spot. The memory of Charles

('When, then, will you ever have rest?')

cannot actually be something that occurred in that other-space through which teleporters and their passengers move-- there simply wasn't enough time. Yet it felt so very vivid and immediate; not the condensed recollection of an event, but a phantom re-experiencing.

('Erik, darling. I'm right here.')

 

"You are _not_," Magneto says, lost words wrenched so painfully from his gut they carry almost no discernible feeling. They're spoken softly enough, but the wind betrays him. Merry's rote interrogative of 'my Lord?' sounds close to petrified, but the G-d Emperor's face must be impassive enough when he turns for the boy shows no increased alarm.

"You are not needed further today," Lehnsherr says with a polite nod. "I would appreciate it if you refrain from taking other assignments, at the moment. I will contact your Guild Master and see that your pay is more… commensurate with your new obligations. Return here in two days time."

More agreement and bowing, which Erik does not bother to wait out. He begins climbing the steps, veins jamming with restless energy and that psychological poison they once referred to as deja vu. (Non-existent G-d help them should _that_ word resurface on Genosha, for to name a thing is to give it substance.) Even taking flight, brief though it might be, will not remedy this agitation.

There is a faint, almost inaudible 'pop' behind him, but the howling whistle of winding crevasses erases any lingering scent.

 

 

Erik has no idea if he will actually need the courier in two days time but, given the number of variables in granting an audience to Haller-- to say nothing of his fellow Guardians' new propensity for meeting behind his back-- it is best to be prepared. How had Hank put it? 'Not active deception, but a misalignment of timing and optics?' Beast is the only one amongst the Tetrarchy with any true political experience, and his acumen is only more irritating for so often being correct. His point is well taken; with the exception of Mystique, the movements of a Guardian are, by definition, high-profile. In light of new developments, they will need eyes and ears within the Court, persons whose words and deeds will not draw the glare of microscopic attention. There's every chance, of course, that Mortimer of House Wagner was somehow chosen by Haller or Emma-Leigh as a clever and seemingly innocuous plant, but the strategist in Lehnsherr finds it unlikely. Haller has little concern for underlings and, given the embarrassment and loss of political capital he forced on Emma-Leigh, it is unlikely the blond telepath will go much out of her way voluntarily.

And that's another problem, isn't it? Magneto has been too lax, while Haller has amassed an arsenal of fear-- a veritable library of secrets and vulnerabilities with which to motivate others. The obsequious little poseur has played tin god in his citadel too long, especially if the darkest whispers are true.

("There is no learning--"
it burns, he's strapped down and its only metal but he can't, he can't move it and his skin is on _fire_. but the doctor's words are cool and pedantic.
"--without pain.")

 

Magneto smiles mirthlessly. Ah, the monster of his childhood, so disremembered and yet somehow animate still. A thing roused from the grave, held together by rotting sinew and that truly despicable ichor which passed for its 'soul'. Yet sometimes, the truth is still the truth even when spoken by a devil. Gaining the high entryway at last, Lehnsherr's grim remembrances and subterranean anger find an unwelcome target for their fermenting pressures. While on the steps, he had sensed a weight on the balcony near his threshold but had, since it was utterly unmoving, assumed it something left by one of his all-too-frequent petitioners. To Erik's irritation-- and the being's great misfortune-- he can see now that it is a living thing. His body is tensed for ambush before he even climbs the last step, but another moment and a second glance show this creatures presence is a result of another type of foolishness entirely. In a way, it's a pity-- a false alarm priming adrenaline which now buzzes uselessly in his veins. The fight with the boar-lynx came too early yesterday. It would be a marvelous physical outlet now.

The figure he's been presented with will not be a source of threat or aggression. Hunched into a crevasse between mountain wall and balustrade, it is curled up so tightly it might well be only a lump of discarded fabric-- if such things snored softly and sought shelter from the wind.

"Gene," Lehnsherr prompts firmly, coming to stand over the young man. The other mutant is wrapped tightly in on himself, teeth chattering a little even in his doze. Magento is not sure which is more discouraging; that he was able to sneak up on a telepath, or that the boy is fool enough to have waited out here in the cold like a desperate waif. The former, of course, is not precisely the boy's fault-- one more facet of the horrible mosaic taking shape. Erik's mood darkens further; his helmet may block psychic gifts, but Charles was only the first of many to tell him that the ubiquitous 'crown' renders its wearer a 'void' which, in its own way, is discernible to those with extra-sensory perception. How this interacts with Gene's 'handicap' is anyone's guess.

 

"Gene!" he says again, finally nudging the other mutant with his boot. Gene of House Xavier starts violently, perpetually gloved hands thrusting out in unconscious self-defense. Shaking himself, he peers up at Erik from the deep sapphire hood of his cloak, looking mortified, resigned, and more than a little bit frustrated with himself. Heat flares beneath the cinnamon dusting on his high cheekbones. Freckles are rare on Genosha and, coupled with the just-off-shade of blue eyes, make Magneto eager for the boy to push back his cowl to reveal both the close-cropped black hair and the fallacy of any supposed resemblance to someone… else. Only a fool-- a desperate fool, with bad eyesight and hands groping in a too-dark room-- would even make the comparison to begin with. Even as he chastises himself, Lehnsherr does put a hand out to steady the boy as he leaps to his feet.

"My Lord," says the erstwhile liaison, still rapidly blinking away the remnants of sleep. "My deepest apologies. You are too kind to your servant."

Magneto does nothing to hide the roll of his eyes, though the rest of his face remains impassive. "What are you doing out here, Gene?"

Lehnsherr can guess, of course, but in this case he hopes he's in error. He'd hate to have spent the small, atypical kindness of a literal helping hand for nothing. He's reasonably tolerant of Gene-- when he trusts himself to be, that is-- which is about as close an approximation of preference as he can reach with his alien subjects. Taking the young man to task for Haller's disrespectful persistence would be an unpleasant ending to a day whose wretchedness has already been rather noteworthy. Never the less, he will mete out punishment fear greater than Emma-Leigh's should it prove necessary.

"The Debutant Committee has sent me with this year's draft of the invitation list," the young telepath says, completely oblivious to his brief brush with peril. Smiling wanly, he reaches deftly within his voluminous mantle to produce a palm-sized case of data cubes.

 

Erik's exhale takes the place of derisive chuckles; not at the boy, but at the petty, vapid concerns of the Court when such divisive political currents are at play. It's no different from any previous iteration of his cycle-- the quiet expulsions from jobs and universities, five minutes of newscast on this or that socio-economic crisis, a carefully edited clip of the fighting on Callisto and then, ah! On to the meat of matters-- the latest starlet's divorce, insider tips from the zero-G rugby player, which colors are an absolute 'no' this season. Clearly, (and he is too weary for even sarcasm to maintain its insulating sting) the opportunity to invite or snub representatives of House nobility for a three day festival of gluttony and sexual cattle-call is absolutely paramount.

"It's that soon, is it?" Magneto asks, cursing this second false alarm. One never feels so tired as after a fight has been thwarted.

"This month is almost gone," Gene shrugs, a gesture thankfully quite unlike that of his House's namesake. "After that, the committee will only have the month of the Short Cat in which to plan."

 

Another idiosyncrasy of Genoshan time-keeping; months are identified by the constellation rising at First Dawn. These asterisms include nothing which could be identified on Earth, though a few of the same stars are visible. There are fourteen major constellations, if Erik remembers correctly, with a minor addition to keep the year 'even'. With no moon to provide additional demarkation and two rather disjointed suns, Genoshans have merely tacked on a set of 18 days-- that self-same 'Short Cat'-- as though time is a white blank page. It's just another aspect of this new life in which, despite the exposure, the G-d Emperor has little interest in. Emma-Leigh once provided him with a bothersome little device for keeping track of such things which he promptly and very purposefully lost.

"Then come and make use of my seal, so we may have done with it," Erik says, peeling the great stone door away with a ripple of magnetism. And then, nonsensically; 'Fi, fie, fo, fum! Into the giant's castle, lad, to receive spoils you'll soon regret.' The associated story escapes Erik utterly, if indeed he ever knew it in full. He merely remembers teasing Charles for one reason of another-- in his youth, the professor looked all too much the knight-errant, ready to negotiate with dragons and sit down to tea with giants. Whatever Gene expected during his long, cold wait outside, it won't be what Lehnsherr shall entrust him with very shortly. He waits a beat, to see if Charles-- or that self-destructive portion of his mind bent on aping Charles-- has some objection to saddling this many-greats grandson or nephew with such a burden.
No reprimand is forthcoming. It's hard to tell if that's self-serving or not.

 

While he has lived in his fortress perhaps longer than anywhere he put down shallow roots on Earth, there is always a little bit of unreality in entering his own home. Lehnsherr typically puts it down to the lighting. When nature makes her own phosphorescence, it tends to be more ambient-- a texture quite unlike that of the harsh fluorescents in spaceship galleys and prison barracks, or the clinical chemlight of military outposts. Today it combines with the already cloying sense of hyper-realism to produce the impression of a stage-setting in the world of some abstractionist G-d. The feeling is even more unwelcome when Gene, now safely out of the wind, draws back his hood. The amber lambency of the floxglow stones is too kind to that already mercurial face. Another day, perhaps, and Erik might feel some pity for the boy. Cursed, as all Genoshans, with names that will never be his alone and, worse still, one that encourages his Emperor to see him only as a function. Gene; genes. A continuance-- a rare resurgence-- of some of Charles' positive traits. But only some; all that eagerness to compromise, and not an ounce of the Professor's backbone.

The somewhat flattering play of light and shadow-- and Magneto's lonely imagination-- does not extend to the ornament about the boy's neck. Lehnsherr has never approved of such things

 

("You realize, of course, why your objections seem somewhat hypocritical?" Hank had asked, young man's scientific certitude forged and sharpened by decades of diplomatic choreography. Being less than confrontation only drove the knife in more deeply.

"To hell with 'seems'," Wolverine growled, perhaps more unchanging than any of his fellow Guardians. "It _is_ hypocritical. You've got some nerve, pal. If the Prof--"

"Think very carefully before you finish that sentence," Erik cautioned with deadly calm, only to be overridden by Mystique's brusk command.

"Enough!" she said, "I don't like it any more than you do, but the helmet sets a precedent, and we've never had a community of telepaths this large. They're the ones making the request. We know the need is genuine. So swallow your damned pride--"

Logan muttered, "That'd be a neat trick."

"--and sign off on it. Besides," she'd shot a well-mulled but still baleful look at McCoy, "It's better than an injection.")

 

How long ago had that been? Shortly after the establishment of the colony, that was certain. Without the reproductive limitations enforced by their desperate flight across space, mutantkind had experienced a population explosion. Magneto is sure Beast has exact dates and figures but, while he himself has a profound strategic capacity, Erik's own record-keeping-- such as it is-- is more of the impressionistic sort. A symptom, Charles might opined, of the artist nigh-on smothered within the soldier. Lehnsherr finds himself staring at the telepath's collar even as he indicates the boy should proceed him into the audience chamber. The particular example Gene wears is of two hinged continuous sections, carved painstakingly from a dense unearthly substance too brittle when heated to allow for any type of forging. Avoxium they call it-- not metal, not even an alloy as exotic as the G-d Emperor's 'crown'. The closest visual comparison is nacre. The piece is clasped by more mundane steel but, while the pretty argent surface may lead the eye astray, Lehnsherr's mutant senses register the thing as an uncomfortable chameleon. Ultimately dead and cloyingly unresponsive, like plastic. From the blaze of red surfacing under those freckles, it seems Gene is aware of scrutiny, if not the precise reason for it. The boy says nothing, does not even tilt his chin in question, and the only sound in the large room is the echo of their footsteps cast back by the high vaulted ceilings.

 

To call the great hall anything save a throne room is the height of foolishness, and would ignore Erik's very obvious intentions when he bent his will to carving the space. At the time, it amused him to fashion over-hangs and seemingly endless columns like an all-too-geometrical forest, herding the petitioner towards the raised dais and its hulking hematite cathedra. Quite medieval, for all the little relevance the word retains for Lehnsherr-- but he associated the architectural props of legitimacy with Charles and so was pleased to pull inspiration from them. Certainly, no Genoshan has a frame of reference for the oppressive of gargoyles and balustrades which Erik has deliberately left in uncomfortable states of suggestion, but they seem universally intimidated all the same. It only occurred to Magneto much later that he-- so accustomed through his many lives to imprisonment-- had created for himself what might also be taken for a dungeon.

It is also a greatly disused place, truth be told. Erik holds open audience in New Muir when the 'social season' forces him to, but he has become more and more particular as to whom he allows to trespass in his personal territory.
How distant must a demiurge be, to remain oblivious to those industriously chipping away at his feet of flay-- and does he deserve the fall that comes with it?

 

"We none of us thought we'd end up here," Hank had said, no more than a handful of hours prior. Erik had bristled at that, and then more so when the hairy scientist added, "With only rumors to go on, I hesitated to bring this up before the group."

'Content to confine it to your pillow-talk with Mystique,' Magneto had thought but not said. McCoy had only to speak her name, say that he'd seen her, for Lehnsherr to know just what type of 'discussion' had taken place. No tenuous civility amidst stacks of books, specimen tanks, and lab equipment-- oh no! Somewhere in the lofty eyries of that miniature colosseum, Beast kept a bed for those times when the needs of his body usurped scientific zeal. There the old first-time lovers would have met, political concerns temporarily eclipsed by nostalgic hunger for familiar flesh. Magneto's jealousy had not been-- or is it now-- specific to either of the pair, any more than his occasional notice of Gene is a sign of actual temptation. What physical connection he'd had with his second in command was dust in history obliterated, and even then it had been predicated on a usury no woman (especially one as intelligent as Mystique) would tolerate for long. He'd always made do with stealing from Charles if he could not have the man himself. What sparks this ugly feeling-- at once paltry and profound-- is the image of two persons as driftwood on the sea of time, so fortunately cast up together on the same shore. An 'old friend', as it were.

('He wouldn't call you that even now,' whispers that knowing voice from the depths of Erik's own mind. 'You abandoned him more times than could be counted and, when your attempt to use him as a weapon failed…'
Charles, screaming until all the Phoenix left behind were black and blistering shards. Ash; always ash.)

Then, as now, the perfect void of Magneto's envy made the G-d Emperor wish to bare his teeth in a snarl, though Beast's will always be far more impressive.

 

"The same procedure as last year, your grace?" Gene asks, thankfully turning around too slowly to catch his regnant's humorless grin. Lehnsherr stalks past the boy and the throne without preamble, retrieving a device from one of the locked compartments in the rudimentary communications console beyond. Those ill-shaded eyes watch the older mutant closely-- not narrowed, but with the expression of someone perpetually expecting a strike and hoping against hope to be disproven.

"Add those nobles who have been excluded back to the list as my guests," Lehnsherr confirms. "Do your best to determine a seating arrangement with the least likelihood of blood-letting."

"Just like Foundation Day back home," the boy murmurs in a rare attempt at humor. The self-deprecation in the joke might summon certain vague similarities but, in Gene's case, it is the only humor he knows. Magneto shoots the boy a sharp look, wondering-- not for the first time-- if the boy knows why his father gave him this position.

The G-d Emperor holds out his hand, accepting the neat tray of data cubes while Gene, scrupulous as ever despite the gloves, avoids direct contact. That Scott the Red granted such a prestigious position to the least powerful of his offspring is highly irregular.

 

Official histories vary as to the portrayal of Magneto's relationship with the venerable Professor X-- as with all recollection, it depends on the agenda of the one who wields the pen. That he and Charles were friends early in the emergence of mutations and continued to collaborate occasionally through decades of general opposition is universally acknowledged. Beyond that, however… the mutant heirs either want their telepathic patriarch to be as pure as driven snow, or they want to paw through nightstand drawers looking for the shocking, the salacious. Certainly, not a single soul in the intervening generations has dared to question the Emperor in this regard, and Lehnsherr himself remains utterly silent. It's none of their damn business, and he has no reason to curb his possessiveness of the gentle scholar-- especially since there is very little of even Charles' ghost to go around.

In less bitter moods, Lehnsherr is aware of the deep paranoia in such thoughts, and that the simple motivation of baiting a man's lusts can easily suffice as explanation. It is known that the G-d Emperor does not take lovers, but his icy demeanor and determination to avoid the compromised willingness of a partner have not deterred those who thing their charms enough to earn the ruler's pillow-talk ear. He has never known the exact details of his liaison's 'peculiarity', but he is suddenly willing to bet-- collar or no-- that the boy would be able to read him if bare hands were laid on bare skin.

Gene is a marvelous receiver-- hence the Avoxium collar-- and a tactile empath on top of that. Yet aside from being too open to the pressure of both psychic and mundane minds around him, the liaison possesses a 'flaw' more damning still. He cannot send even the simplest thought or telepathic impulse, making him (for want of a better term) 'mute' in the eyes of his clansmen.

 

The collar would be far less conspicuous without that. Such accessories are usually given to young children having difficulty with the sudden onset of or spike in psionic power, or to inexperienced telepaths venturing into the sprawling capital. Easy enough to remove, and even taken as a point of pride by some. Those with the strongest raw talent, after all, needed the most rigorous training to go amongst the undisciplined mundane minds beyond their Citadels.

A symbol, all the more venerated yet desperately unacknowledged by a class of mutants whom-- without the sapphire capes of House Xavier, Phoenix embroidery of Grey, or peerless uniform white of Frost-- often looked very… human. Genoshans are not so divorced from their persecution that they have forgotten or ceased to resent the concept of 'passing'.

'But it doesn't mean there same thing for you, does it?' he thinks at Gene. 'Maybe not for more of your clansmen than we know. In a community of shared minds, of 'unparalleled openness', they want to make sure an unpredictable talent like yours doesn't overhear anything they're not supposed to.' Magneto fights down the urge to laugh bitterly, perhaps endlessly, at himself even as he presses the tip of of the device against the first of the pure silica data cubes. It's only a little thicker than a stylus, and the femtosecond laser heartlessly burns a light mirror image onto the smooth surface. In mere moments, the Magneto's seal both marks his approval visually and makes the data stored there incorruptible. The image itself is the old, stylized 'M' of the Brotherhood

('M' for Mutant, had been the intention.
'M' for Magneto, the older X-Men once liked to sneer.)

given the mouth and tail of some ferocious sea-beast. Or the idea of such a behemoth, at any rate. Erik may have forgotten the creatures' names (including that to which he was so often compared), but he knows they had nothing like this on Earth.

Repeating the process quickly with each cube, Erik never the less experiences a paltry yet uncomfortable parallel with the process of branding. His left arm forearm itches, psychosomatic as ever, reminding him of the way those numbers warped and decayed with the aging skin of his first life. Lurid yellow cloth; the terrible convergence of angles worn proudly by those who claimed 'death before dishonor' and then swore they were not even present for the crime. Lehnsherr remembers these things, if not always their exact meaning or context, and the intervening centuries do not prevent them from stirring the remnants of the terrified child within. Surely that creature should have passed from bone to fossil, and then to dust by now.

 

Context. 'Context is everything,' Charles liked to say, always granting too much leeway. The benefit of the doubt. 'Tread carefully, my friend,' with a warm hand on Erik's shoulder or arm, or-- when giving more intimate advice-- oddly anchoring at the small of Lehnsherr's back. And so they shall fred carefully for, little though Magneto may like it, Hank's hesitation in the subject of the rumors surrounding Haller and insistence that they not take action is absolutely correct. After all, what did Mystique really learn, as she wandered in her many guises? Far less than she would have in other circumstances. Changing her outward appearance only fools low-level or collared telepaths, and even then only if their suspicions have not been aroused. She can confirm an increased emphasis on psi-rating, and a preoccupation with the failure to produce a single omega-class telepath since planet-fall. There are whispers that-- while no unions have been dissolved-- couples producing 'weak' children are being encouraged into a sort of procreative concubinage that might 'yield better results'. Coupled with the known fact that secondary and non-psionic mutations in Houses Xavier, Grey, and Frost had dropped dramatically in the past few decades, and you had a recipe for a philosophy McCoy hesitated to name.

 

Eugenics. Magneto had not been shy about throwing the term in Hank's face. Even as McCoy cautioned with the history of misappropriated ideas and pointed out how easily Haller's plans might stir resentment in other Houses and start a witch hunt disastrous for all, their eyes had met. How long has it been since any immortal Guardian has felt truly daunted by anything? Neither Beast nor his half-adversarial guest had been foolish enough to give the concept voice, but it didn't take a telepath to guess what they were both thinking.
'If only Charles were here.'

With a faint, sardonic smile, Lehnsherr holds the tray of cubes out towards Gene, taking yet another silica square from his own pocket. He seals it as well, setting it gently atop the others while the liaison stares at him questioningly.
A moratorium on overt action does not preclude any action at all.

"That is for Lord Haller," the G-d Emperor says with deadly placidity. "I must insist you deliver it personally."

"My Emperor!" Gene stutters, and his panic banishes all traces of any ghost. "I am not auth-- that is, surely one of my sisters, or Emma-Leigh, is more worthy…"

"Emma-Leigh has lost what little favor she had with me." Solemn, final. "And, if you are worthy enough to be in my service, then surely Haller can admit you into his presence."

"… Yes, your Grace." A deep bow, while the collar and data cubes flash. Such strange things, the latter, like a child's blocks or… there had been a game, on Earth, in which tiles were tipped.

 

They will see then, what falls and who scatters in the wake of this tiny pressure. Haller's reaction-- to both message and messenger-- and that of the desperately political Scott the Red will be only the tip of the iceberg. Two snakes, two heads; but how many others in waiting? Like calls unto like, and Erik will do whatever it takes-- exercise or invent any authority-- to move the weight-bearing tile

(coin)

before this starts all over again.

 

("You can't _make_ people be good," the worn echo of Xavier's voice, close and tangible in the dark.

"I've told you, we already are the better men," Erik's own tones, arguing lazily. Fires banked, for a time, by an intimacy only shadowed in their physical union. 'And you're the telepath, so I rather think that's my line.'

"I said 'people', not 'humans'.")

 

.