Chapter 1: Master of the Universe
Kitty Pryde saved her report-in-progress and put her folders aside. The agency had switched to electronic record keeping a few months prior, but she somehow continued to have the exact same amount of paperwork piled haphazardly across her desk. The clock read 10:59 and Ororo Munroe was always exactly on time. Since Kitty was planning on making a completely unfair request, she felt she should at least be polite about it.
Kitty had visited the boy in the hospital this morning.
"How do you feel today, Erik?"
"What do you hate?"
Social workers were used to making compromises. The field was dedicated to achieving the best outcomes for people with what was there. Not what should be there, not what you needed or wanted to be there, but what was actually available, like it or not. In an ideal world, Kitty would have waited until Ororo volunteered to take on a new child. In an ideal world, Ororo would have all the time she needed to recuperate after what happened with her last case. In an ideal world, Kitty would have had a pool of a dozen houseparents lined up who were each just as good as Ororo, but she didn't.
Ororo had a reputation for being able to work miracles, a reputation that was not entirely undeserved. She was initially licensed only for short-term care – kids whose extended family needed a few days before they were ready to assume custody or kids who were just treading water until a bed opened up in a psychiatric facility. Then a boy named James wandered into town, a literally feral boy, a young adolescent who had clearly be separated from civilization for some time. The media dubbed him the Wild Boy of Western New York and speculation was rampant about where he came from and what his prognosis would be. After acute hospitalization, he was placed with Ororo Munroe.
Within two weeks, she had him playing bass guitar in a Black Sabbath cover band. ("The songs are easy, they don't care how he smells, and they need a fourth.") Within two months, she had him using silverware. After ninety days, they moved him to a long-term placement, where he immediately deteriorated – he picked a fight with a neighbor's German shepherd – so they returned him to Ororo's custody and got her provisionally licensed for long-term care. By his eighteenth birthday, James had stopped punching people long enough to successfully enlist in the military where he was still serving honorably.
Thus, Kitty slid a photograph across the desk to Ororo. "His name is Erik Lensherr. 12-year-old, Caucasian male, refugee from Syria by way of Lebanon."
"How's his English?"
"Excellent. I think his father was American."
"Where are his parents now?"
"Both deceased. Only he and his mother made it out of Syria. They applied for asylum from Lebanon; she died before it was granted."
The boy twisted from side to side in his chair, hood up, face down. "It's nice," he said, "to meet somebody here like me."
Kitty tipped her head to the side. "What do you mean, someone like you?"
Without looking up, the boy raised a finger and pointed to Kitty's Star of David necklace.
"So he came to the US alone. What's known about the conditions in Syria?"
"They must have been bad enough for asylum to be granted, but other than that we have pretty much no information. We don't even know how his mother died."
"And he's not talking."
"Exactly." Kitty paused, took a sip of her coffee. "Ororo, you really don't have to take this case. I don't want you to feel obligated."
"But..." said Ororo with a knowing smile. Kitty wouldn't have invited her here if she hadn't hoped.
"But he's..." This was when Kitty usually said, 'he's a good kid'. "He's young. They want him off the ward. He's violent, manipulative, likes to get the other patients to fight each other, pick at everyone else's scabs."
Erik walked across the day room and sat next to a teenage girl who was working on a jigsaw puzzle. He said something and she froze, holding a puzzle piece in midair. After a moment, she stood and walked out of the dayroom. There was yelling and commotion in the hall. Erik's expression remained impassive. He put a piece in jigsaw puzzle.
"Is he a psychopath?" Trust Ororo to be direct.
"You know I hate putting that label on a kid so young," replied Kitty. "He's really nothing like Nathaniel." She felt bad enough even asking Ororo to take this case, let alone on false pretenses, so she added, "But he really doesn't seem to have any remorse, for anything he does wrong."
"And the doctors recommended a home placement for him?" Ororo sounded surprised.
"The doctors don't have any sort of firm diagnosis. He's been playing different games with each staff member and lying through his teeth on questionnaires. One of the psychologists told me this morning that if they took the boy at his word, they would diagnose him with Tourette's syndrome, anorexia nervosa, and hysterical pregnancy." Kitty paused. "They think he belongs in a secure setting. As in lockdown. As in delinquents."
Ororo sipped her tea. They both knew that, not surprisingly, forcing a group of conduct disordered youth to interact only with one another tended to make them worse, not better.
"I know I can convince them to go with home placement if it's you," said Kitty, "but again, I don't want you to feel obligated." She added, almost as an afterthought, "And oh, he's psychotic."
"I thought you said the doctors really didn't know what was wrong with him."
"He hears voices. If he's faking, he deserves an Emmy, because he apparently chats back and forth with the voice – he calls it 'Charles' – most of the day."
"How do they know it's not just an imaginary friend?"
"I asked the same question. He's twelve, and new to the country-" Ever since befriending Piotr Rasputin so many years ago, Kitty had developed a pretty solid understanding of the challenges faced by immigrants. "-but the psychs had a pretty good answer. Imaginary friends offer companionship, support, sometimes a way to externalize a feeling or two, but they're under the kid's control. In contrast, Erik apparently fights with his 'imaginary friend'. He loses fights with his imaginary friend. His imaginary friend recently gave him the silent treatment for almost three days."
"Move it to d6." Pause. "Yeah well, you're an asshole and your mother's a whore." Pause. "Fuck, okay, pawn to e8." Pause. "That's not funny." Pause. "That's NOT funny." Pause. "THAT'S NOT FUNNY, YOU SONOFABITCH!" Erik leapt up from his bed and began punching the air.
"He's got some other quirks too. He refuses to go any further north or west of the hospital. I was originally looking at a placement with Carris Children's Home, but he got incredibly agitated when he found out where it was."
"It was my impression that the child wasn't given much of a say in the matter."
Kitty sighed. "Carris wouldn't take him anyhow, not at this point. I think he's deteriorated on the ward. He hates...doctors, I think? Could be needles, could be stethoscopes, could be white coats, we're not sure exactly what the phobia is. He still hasn't had an actual physical, so I suppose we're out of compliance with the law."
"Does he tolerate nurses?" Ororo was a registered nurse. It was one of the features that made her so valuable as a houseparent: she could have a lot more latitude than most in administering as-needed medications or intramuscular injections.
"As long as they're not trying to do medical sorts of things, he doesn't seem to hate them as people. I don't think they've ever gotten his real resting vitals, because to get a blood pressure cuff on him, they've either got to wrestle him down or sedate him."
"Erik," said Nurse Mills, "we've talked about what a vaccine does. There's a law that says everyone who stays in a place like this has to get-"
And he was up and bolting and two orderlies grabbed him, one on each arm. It wasn't like they didn't expect this. They dragged him back to his bed, but he was kicking and twisting too wildly for an injection to be administered safely.
"LET ME GO!" he screamed. "LET ME GO!"
Two more orderlies grabbed his legs.
"I'm really sorry about this, Erik," said Nurse Mills, "but it's the law for everyone's safety." She was genuinely sorry; no one liked to see a child restrained like that, but it was the law for a reason. She cleaned a spot on his arm with rubbing alcohol.
Erik pounded his head, the only remaining free part of his body, against his bed over and over again. "YOU'LL NEVER DEFEAT ME!" he cried, eyes wild and face taut. "I'M THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE!"
Chapter 2: (Can't Get My) Head Around You
Wow! Thank you to everyone for the enthusiastic first-chapter response. I hope this lives up to expectations.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Houseparents were required to maintain detailed records regarding medication administration, use of restraint or seclusion, dates and times of medical, legal, and mental health appointments, and the like. Psychiatrists and behavior therapists often encouraged further record-keeping so they could determine whether the current intervention was having an effect.
Ororo Munroe had no difficulty keeping up with all of the paperwork. She was an organized person by nature. She kept her own notes as well, writing down the details she thought were important. It helped her see patterns, it helped her decide where to focus, and it helped her maintain a balance between warmth and objectivity, between emotion and reason. It gave her a way to celebrate her sons' small successes and to simply enjoy them as people.
It was in the latter spirit that she had kept a log of what each boy (thus far, they had all been boys) said when he first entered her home.
James Logan (originally James Howlett, but changed for privacy's sake) had been so confused, his language so limited, that all he said was, "Lightlightlight lightlightlight light." In the initial days, he loved light switches – maybe it was the ability to get light so easily, maybe it was the predictable cause-and-effect. Nonetheless, she and James had worked well together and he had lost most of his uncivilized habits, with the exception of an odd hairstyle and a penchant for sniffing things. He had found a home in the Marine Corps, where he'd earned one commendation after another for valor. They'd even finally decided to let him wear his hair how he liked.
Alex Summers was a considerably more typical story. He was an angry teenager, raised in foster care, who liked to play with fire, an activity which crossed the line from 'bad idea' to 'tragedy' when he was fourteen years old and one of his fires spread out of control, razing two houses and killing an elderly woman. He was sentenced to twenty-four months in juvenile detention and sent to live with Ororo upon his release. Fresh out of juvie, he was busy playing the blasé, devil-may-care tough guy so he had greeted his new home in free society by saying, "Something smells like tacos. Not good like tacos, though – no offense – something smells bad like tacos." Of all the boys she had taken in, Alex was the most traditionally successful: he now had a college degree, a job, an apartment, and a girlfriend.
Ororo thought of Jamie Braddock as a success story, too, though he had never attained all the trappings of independence that Alex had. Jamie was an early onset schizophrenic who had entered her home and immediately begun to knock lightly on walls and tables, saying, "I gotta find the Noisemakers. They're in here. Just want 'em to go away." After three years of working with psychiatrists to gradually adjust his medications, Jamie had finally been able to graduate to an assisted living complex, though his thinking was still too confused for him to hold down a job. He was more independent, though, than anyone had ever thought he would be.
After Jamie's eighteenth birthday, Kitty had suggested an unusual case, one she thought would leave Ororo time to keep tabs on Jamie: a fifteen-year-old prodigy whose father was just sentenced to prison for securities fraud. Anthony Stark already had a bachelor's degree from MIT and was insisting he didn't need a guardian. When the court disagreed, Tony had requested that he be assigned in a guardian in Rochester, NY. It seemed that the University of Rochester had the nation's top optics program and Tony Stark wanted to play with lasers. It was supposed to be an easy case.
The first thing Tony said upon entering the house was, "Where's your fuse box? It's going to be important very soon." Things just got worse from there. Ororo had little success in addressing his substance abuse (she had never met a fifteen-year-old alcoholic before) or his never ending irresponsible, reckless behavior. In fact, the only victory Ororo had in Tony's case was when she convinced him after three arduous weeks to stop moonwalking everywhere, and realistically speaking, that was not a high-priority clinical target. The ordeal had ended when Tony, then age seventeen, had run off with a much older man named Steve.
And after Tony came Nathaniel Essex. The first thing Nathaniel said upon entering her home was, "Your photographs are lovely." He was quiet and polite for two weeks, then he shut Ororo in a closet and set her house on fire. She would have died, she knew, if Hank McCoy hadn't dropped by and – in an act of stupid bravery – run charging into the house. She had made a full recovery, but Hank was badly burned across his face and shoulder. Ororo's house was burned to the ground and all of her notes, her careful, detailed notes, were destroyed. Nathaniel was never caught.
So it was a new house that Erik entered, and Ororo was prepared to start a new book of notes.
"May I please be alone now?"
She smiled serenely and showed him to his room. "I'll let you know when dinner's ready."
Erik sat across the table from Ororo, carefully cutting his pizza into tiny, equal pieces. At least she would give him a table knife to cut with. On the ward, they weren't even allowed plastic butter knives even though you couldn't possibly do any real damage with one.
"As you are no doubt aware, Erik, there law requires you to have a physical exam. Now-"
Erik was on his feet, brandishing his chair like a lion tamer keeping the beast at bay. "I won't see any doctors! I'll kill you! I'll kill myself! I'll kill the doctor!"
Ororo continued to eat her dinner sedately. "In the future, Erik, I would recommend that you allow me to finish before you react. I was going to inform you that I have an idea which will fulfill the legal mandate without requiring you to be directly examined by a physician."
"I'm listening." Erik was still holding his chair.
"How old are you, Erik?"
"Oh." His tone was shockingly sympathetic. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"You're apparently illiterate and thus unable to read my file. It's a tragic thing."
"I was led to believe that everything you told the psych team on the ward was a lie."
"Not everything. If you always lie, then people can find out the truth by just asking you yes-no questions and writing down the opposite of what you say." Erik gripped his seatbelt with his left hand. "Sometimes I had Charles flip a coin. If it came up heads, I would tell the truth. If it came up tails, I would lie."
"So Charles has been helping you out."
"Don't talk about Charles like you believe he's real. It's condescending. And don't give me any of that 'I believe he's real for you' crap either."
"That's a very reasonable request. I may want to find out a little more about your beliefs about Charles at a later time."
"I may want a pony, but I probably won't get one."
Ororo smiled calmly. "You should understand that they wanted to put you in a secure setting, Erik. Do you know what that means? It's essentially prison."
"Really?" asked Erik. "And here I thought it was the first tier in a system based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. As in, first you go to the secure setting, then you go to the achievement setting, and then you go to the self-actualization setting." A pause. "See Charles, I told you no one else was going to think that joke was funny."
If Erik was a patient who did not want to be seen by doctors, Hank McCoy was a doctor who did not want to be seen by patients. He was disfigured and self-conscious about it so he had shifted from clinical practice to research in the time since his injury, but he was still a licensed physician and that was all the law required. He was also Ororo's longtime friend.
"Greetings and salutations!" he cried grandly when she opened the door.
"It's good to see you," she replied, "and thank you for making time for this. I understand they're keeping you very busy at the university." She tried not to notice the way he flinched when she mentioned seeing him.
"Happy to help." Hank held out a leather doctor's bag. "This should be everything the shy youngster needs."
Ororo walked up the stairs. She had promised Erik that the doctor wouldn't even be on the same floor of the house as him, that with the exception of a quick dash to hand off the doctor's supplies, Erik wouldn't even have to unlock his door.
By the time she walked back down the stairs, Hank was already chattering away on his phone. "Excellent, now position the otoscope in your right ear and take another photograph."
"Charles," Erik hissed. "Charles, wake up."
What is it? Over.
"You don't have to say 'over'. This isn't CB radio."
"Ha ha. Guess what? They put me in a regular house."
Weren't they going to lock you up so you couldn't corrupt good and decent people?
Erik laughed. "It was so easy to play them. Once I knew they were thinking about getting me off the ward, I made sure to get all sniffly-sad in group because Mommy died." Erik shifted into a mocking tone for the last two words. "And when I met with that stupid social worker, all I had to do was play the religion card."
You're the man, Erik.
"Damn straight." Erik cocked his head to the side. "What the hell are you listening to?"
"Why don't you just write 'I like penis' on your forehead and be done with it?"
It's a catchy song.
"Well, it's pissing me off. Pause it or something."
Is she nice?
"Is who nice?"
Your new...I don't know what to call her...foster mom?
"I don't see how that's relevant."
Just asking, man. You're the one who decided to harass me in the middle of the night to chat. I'm chatting.
"Fine then, how's things at your house?"
Bite me. Over.
"I hate you, Charles."
(Can't Get My) Head Around You – The Offspring: Splinter (2003).
Chapter 3: Du Hast
Du Hast – Rammstein: Sehnsucht (1997).
The German words hast (have) and hasst (hate) are homophones. The entire song is really built around that wordplay.
The chapter titles are all going to be songs relevant to the chapters; in some cases, the song was actually in the chapter (e.g., here, Erik is listening to Du Hast ). I really like linking music to fiction, but I find traditional songfic (where the lyrics are interspersed with the text) distracting, so I think this is a good compromise.
"Wow. A psychiatrist named Dr. Strange." Erik slouched into an oversized chair. "That's just asking for it."
Stephen Strange raised an eyebrow. "I'm getting advice on nomenclature from a Syrian Jew named Erik?"
"My dad was American. He liked the name."
"Was your mother an expatriate too?"
"Sure, she emigrated from Syria to Lebanon. Which you already know, because children can't legally file their own asylum papers."
"Indeed. I would like to ask you a few questions about Charles."
"I can't really stop you. Yet."
"When you hear Charles' voice, where does it come from? Behind your head? Inside your head? To the left? To the right?"
"It doesn't come from anywhere. It just is."
"And Charles himself is the same way? He doesn't have a location, he just is?"
"No, he lives in downstate New York. But I'm not going to give you his address."
"You're a psychiatrist named Dr. Strange. If this were a horror movie, the audience would have been screaming, 'Don't go in there!' as soon as your office door opened."
"Does Charles recognize you as the Master of the Universe?"
"We're both the Masters. That's why we're friends."
"What about you makes you Masters?" To his credit, Dr. Strange pronounced Master with a capital M.
"Again, I'm not going to just give that information out to someone who looks like a B-list mini-boss in Quentin Tarantino movie."
"You've been watching Tarantino?"
"I'm from Syria, not Mars."
"How do you sleep, Erik?"
"Lay down, close my eyes. It's not complicated."
"Do you find you have a lot of worries or fears?"
Dr. Strange looked down at the chessboard. "So it is." He slid his king to the right, but the game was already over.
"I would like to inquire about your mood, Erik."
Erik repositioned his knight and stood. "Checkmate."
"Sit down. Our time here isn't finished yet."
Erik sighed, tipped over Strange's king, and sat back down.
"I would like to know why you and your mother left Syria."
"I don't really understand it much...there were some bad guys and stuff exploded and-"
"Don't play dumb. It doesn't suit you."
"Okay, there was heightened anti-Semitic sentiment in response to settlement building in the West Bank."
"What sorts of things were occurring?"
"Vandalism, harassment, small-scale explosive ordinances, usually motion-triggered: urban landmines for those too lazy to be martyrs."
"How long did it take you to get from your hometown to the Lebanon border?"
"I don't know. A couple of weeks? I wasn't really keeping track of the calendar."
"Was it a difficult journey? A dangerous one?"
"Stop asking stupid questions."
"Do you feel better, safer in the United States?"
Erik shrugged. "I'm safer, I suppose, but I won't feel better until I go back there."
"Why do you want to do that?"
"I'm going to bomb that whole fucking desert into glass."
"How do you plan to do that?"
"That's a secret."
In the car, driving home. There was never any real traffic, one of the benefits Rochester could lord over larger cities.
"What did you think of Dr. Strange?" Ororo liked him because he did counseling and medication management; most psychiatrists did fifteen minute appointments and left talk therapy to the counselors.
"He's acceptable." Erik stared out the window.
"Yes, when I rule this world, he will be given a favorable job in the mines."
It was often very difficult to tell whether Erik was joking.
"Did he write me a prescription?" asked Erik.
"Yes, but he said you would probably refuse to take it."
"What's it for?"
"That's an antipsychotic. I'm not psychotic."
"Well, I suppose that's why he thought you would refuse to take it."
"He's a smart man."
Erik lay flat on his back, under his bed. Better to be underneath something. That way, if the ceiling collapsed-
"Charles? Charles? C'mon, I know you're there."
I don't want to talk right now.
"What's your problem?"
Shut up, Erik. Go away.
"I won't tease you about your music this time, promise."
They were fighting again. Charles sounded like a whisper. My mom got hurt.
"I don't see why you don't just kill him."
I can't do that.
"Sure you can't. Just wait until he's asleep and slit his throat. Or poison his food. Or mess up the brakes on his car. Syringe full of bleach. C'mon, there's lots of ways."
That's not what I...Just leave me alone, Erik.
Ororo had given him headphones. Probably that social worker's idea.
They weren't allowed headphones on the ward, anything with a cord or a cable, really. It didn't matter that suicidality was the one symptom Erik had very conscientiously never displayed. If some kids got cords, the reasoning went, the suicidal ones could get their hands on them.
Erik put the headphones on, plugged them into his phone where all his music files were.
This was much better. He felt better with his music. On the ward, he was only allowed to play music if the staff okayed it since he had to play it out loud for everyone and they disapproved of just about everything that wasn't Frank Sinatra or Disney Singalong, so the sort of music he liked to listen to was rejected out of hand. An orderly named Paul had nixed Rammstein without even finding out what the lyrics translated to. (To be fair, the translations probably would not have helped his case.)
Erik had gotten back at him. A day later, Paul got called in for questioning by his boss and a pair of FBI agents. Seriously, who was stupid enough to look up child pornography at work? Or, more accurately, who was stupid enough to type in their logon where Erik could see it?
Erik held out his hands, ringing them around the nail he had pried up from the floorboards. It was easier with the music. He hadn't been able to do it in the hospital because they took his music.
"Move," he hissed, "move."
The nail remained defiantly motionless.
He had to be really angry. The music reminded him of being angry, but it wasn't the same as being in the moment.
Why wasn't Charles answering? And that stupid clock. With it's stupid little red light. Erik really hated that clock. It looked like and there was dust everywhere and you can't see anything. Move you stupid little nail. I'm the Master of the Universe. I'm the Master of the Universe and now that I have my music back I can make you move and I am stronger now and I can rule this place and where the hell is Charles?
Ororo stood a few yards behind Erik, who was pacing in the street. "I woke up," she said, "and I didn't know where you were."
"I left you a note."
"There's a treadmill in the basement, for when you feel like you have to move around."
"It must have been difficult," she said, "to answer Dr. Strange's questions."
Erik walked past her, back into the house. "I'm going to run on the treadmill."
Chapter 4: Jeremy
Jeremy – Pearl Jam: Ten (1991)
OMAKE FILES #1: Characters I considered, but ultimately rejected, to play the role of Erik's psychiatrist
Emma Frost (she's a counselor in the comics...sort of)
"Good morning, Erik."
"Lady, you're gonna have to put some more clothes on or I'm calling Chris Hansen."
Dr. Bruce Banner
"HULK REPORT ADVERSE MEDICATION INTERACTION TO FDA! PRETTY SECRETARY LADY TAKE MEMO!"
Dr. Otto Octavius (Dr. Octopus)
Erik looked doubtful and disdainful. "Look," he said, "first off, I don't know where Spider Man is and second, how the hell did you get to be a doctor?"
"Good morning, Erik."
"I'm making eggs. Do you want some?"
"Thank you; that would be lovely." She smiled and hid her surprise. It seemed Erik had a civilized side.
Erik went back to the fridge to get more eggs. "How long do I have to stay here?"
"Hm. I'm not sure how to answer the question. I suppose it depends on where you want to go."
"I can't tell you that." He fiddled with the stove. "Do you want toast?"
"No thank you." She paused. "As long as you don't commit any crimes, you'll be free to go wherever you like when you turn eighteen. Without more information, I'm afraid I don't have any other answer."
Erik shrugged and continued cooking.
Kitty settled into Ororo's living room. Nothing in it was very expensive. The furniture was Ikea, sometimes Goodwill or Amvets, but it all looked elegant, somehow. There wasn't much on the walls. Before the fire, it had mostly been Ororo's own photography and pictures of her foster sons, but so much of that had been destroyed.
Ororo poured the tea. "He's working with the itinerant teacher right now," she said.
"School work is going okay?"
"Fine for now. Do you think the school district will try to take him off of home instruction?"
Kitty shook her head. "After all the problems in the hospital, I think they're perfectly happy to keep him out of the building." She rolled her eyes. "Until the next budget meeting when they decide it's more cost-effective to put him in an emotionally-disturbed class. But you're probably safe for a few months at least."
"I've learned to never plan too far ahead with these kids. Perhaps in a few months, he'll be ready for a classroom placement."
"How's he doing, besides school?"
"Reasonably calm, thus far. He spends a lot of time talking to Charles. He also seems to be giving commands to objects, like 'move' or 'break'."
"Some kind of delusion that he is...hm, what's it called...telekinetic?"
"Possibly," said Ororo, "though with regard to psychosis, I should note that his thinking is very sharp, very linear, nothing like Jamie."
"Oh, hey," Kitty reached into her backpack and pulled out a manila file folder. "We finally got some paperwork on him from immigration. It's not much, but here's your copy."
"Thanks." Ororo put the folder aside to review later.
Kitty scanned down her checklist. "He's not refusing to eat? Trying to kill himself? Torture animals? Set fires? Carry a weapon? Aberrant sexual behavior? Using street drugs?"
Ororo shook her head at each item.
"Hmm, how about this one. Is he medication compliant?"
"No, though I haven't pushed the issue. Dr. Strange felt it might be helpful, but not immediately vital." She sipped her tea. "He recognized the name of the medication immediately. Have they tried Geodon before?"
"I don't think so, but he used to read all of the medication package inserts when he was on the ward. Said there wasn't any better literature available."
"Who thought giving him those was a good idea?"
Kitty shrugged. "There's one attached to every single bottle of pills. Besides, when he was reading, he wasn't causing trouble."
Ororo mixed a laugh and a sigh. She would hardly begrudge the hospital staff their moment's peace. "How is Piotr? I haven't seen him in ages."
"Mopey. He just broke up with Jean Paul." Kitty leaned forward conspiratorially. "Thank God. I couldn't stand the little twerp!" She sat back. "He'll be fine. He has a show in about a month and a half and a few technical illustration jobs."
"You'll never guess who called me this morning."
"That's...you're right, I wouldn't have guessed that."
"He's apparently invented something to modify – oh, something about lasers; I didn't really follow – and the optics people at the University of Rochester want to see it in action." Ororo sipped her tea. "He was calling because he wanted to drop by and say hello while he was in town."
"That doesn't sound like him."
"I would agree, but as my Tony-English / English-Tony dictionary is unavailable, I thought I might take him at face value."
Kitty raised her eyebrows skeptically. "You want to take some crazy kid with delusions of grandeur who thinks he's the master of the universe and introduce him to Erik Lehnsherr?"
"That was a good one."
"Thanks." Kitty grinned broadly. "I enjoyed saying it."
"Hey," said Erik. "You there?"
"Have you seen the royt oygn again?"
No, not lately. They just talk about him. That's what they were fighting about.
"Is your mom okay?"
"Look, I think you should carry a weapon, just to be safe. It might be a long time before I can get down there."
I wonder what you look like.
"Yeah," echoed Erik, "you're probably some leprous bubble boy."
I bet you've got balls growing out of your nose.
"At least I've got some."
Erik stood on the lowest step and eyed their new guest carefully. "I recognize you," he said. "You're Tony Stark."
"In the flesh," Tony replied, with his best autograph-signing grin.
In response, Erik leapt suddenly from the staircase, punching wildly and roaring incoherently. He picked up a lamp and smacked Tony across the face, cracking the wooden base in two. "I'll kill you!" he cried. "I'll kill you, and then I'll dig you up and I'll kill your corpse and then I'll-"
Ororo calmly removed the now-empty syringe from Erik's thigh as the boy slumped to the ground. "Help me move him to the couch," she addressed Tony, "and then we'll get you some ice for that eye."
"So," Ororo handed Tony a baggie full of ice, "I do apologize for that."
"You could've warned me he was totally crazy."
"If I recall, Tony, you and I had very different ideas about what constitutes 'crazy'."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, whatever." Tony looked around the room. He never seemed to turn his head in a smooth curve; instead, his head jerked rapidly in one direction at a time. He spoke quickly, dashing from one idea to the next. "So this is your new house, huh? Nice place, nice place, but I was sorry to hear about the fire. What happened to the rabbits? Did the rabbits make it?" Before Ororo could respond, Tony answered his own question. "No, they didn't make it, did they?"
"No, I'm afraid not." Almost a decade ago, Ororo had given James had raised a pair of baby rabbits to raise in hopes that the exercise would teach him empathy, calm, and self-control. To her surprise, all of the boys had loved them; even Alex, who had sworn to the contrary, asked the fate of the rabbits after the fire. "Where are you living these days, Tony?"
"Manhattan. Great place. Huge workroom. I've been mostly focused on miniaturization, also variable-payload cluster munitions, also a sort of portable electroencephalograph so I can command machines with my mind."
Despite what Ororo had heard about the much-vaunted thin line between genius and madness, it was generally quite easy to tell the difference between Tony's visionary ideas and his crazy ones.
Visionary: "Okay, so the idea is that it releases an inhalable low-grade radioactive gas and then tracks the particles as they decay. Later, precision military drones can take out only the targets with the radioactive tags."
Crazy: "It's a guitar that shoots bullets!"
Visionary: "By mapping the reflections of a system of high energy pulses, I can determine the salt content of underground aquifers."
Crazy: "I'm going to install the internet into my brain. I need a power drill."
There were, rarely, ideas that blurred the line, like the time just after Tony's sixteenth birthday, when he had detached the sensory nerve bundle leading from his left pinkie toe and reattached it to a tiny electronic watch in an effort to give himself a perfect innate sense of time.
"And Steve?" In their few phone conversations since Tony had run off, Ororo had been frank regarding her opinion of the situation. Tony, predictably, had either been oblivious or unconcerned.
"Yeah, Steve. Well, Steve, he's uh... He's... Well, he's a bit mad at me at the moment, but that's just temporary, that's not going to last. He's got an apartment out in Brooklyn and I guess he's there, although maybe not right now because he's probably at work."
"I see. And what is Steve angry about?"
"Well, you know, it's all a difference of opinion. He says, 'Now see here, Tin Man, and-"
"It's a jab, just when he's pissed. You know," Tony tapped his chest, "Tin Man has no heart."
Erik stirred and murmured softly. "Dorothy had a heart. Tin Man had an axe. Whole movie could have been a lot shorter."
"Well," said Tony, "that may be the creepiest thing I've heard in months."
Chapter 5: Diamonds and Guns
So I know this has been a little directionless thus far. Please try to bear with me a little longer and a nice clear plot will emerge.
Diamonds and Guns – The Transplants: Transplants (2002).
"Erik," said Ororo, "you have a choice right now. You can stay here and behave nonviolently in your words and your actions, or you can go relax in your room. Either choice is fine, but you must choose."
"You're not going to make me apologize?"
Ororo half-smiled. "I suspect you're quite skilled enough at lying." She could be sharp at times.
Erik turned and swung his knees over the armrest at the end of the couch. He still looked drowsy. "So you're Tony Stark," he said, slurring slightly, still affected by the sedative. "I'm Erik Lehnsherr."
Tony waved with his left hand. He was using the right to ice his eye.
"Tony's an engineer, Erik. He's here to test out a new invention."
Erik yawned mightily. "What is it?"
"Let's see...do you know what a laser is?"
Erik turned to look at Ororo. "Are you sure I can't kill him just a little bit?"
"No," said Tony, "not 'have you seen lasers in movies', but do you know what they really are?"
"Light waves, right?"
"Light waves that have been amplified and synchronized. Have you ever heard of a maser?"
Erik shook his head.
"That's an older device, and it uses lower-energy waves, moving down the electromagnetic spectrum. It's between microwave and radio. So what this is, is the same idea, an –aser, but moving up the EM hierarchy. It's designed to sych up waves around 90 nanometers, which is approaching X-rays."
"What is the purpose of this device? Does it have military applications?"
Tony shrugged. "Anything can have military applications if you really want it to. Wasn't that long ago you found some military applications for a lamp. But it's not designed for military use. Impractical, draws too much power." He grinned, apropos of nothing. "That's why the test isn't scheduled until 3am. We'd overload the powergrid otherwise."
"How hot will it get?"
"Oh, somewhere around 12,000 Kelvin. If it hit the air, it'd burn purple." Tony apparently thought this was a selling point.
Erik yawned again and rested his head on his knees.
"Lehnsherr..." said Tony, "I know I've heard that name somewhere."
"Yes, from me, a few minutes ago. Try to keep up," Erik murmured, eyes half-shut.
"Kadia Lehnsherr! That's it. Famous mathematician. Is she related to you?"
Erik lifted his head and looked directly at Tony. His eyes weren't wide like surprise, but they were firmly open and he seemed not to blink. "Kadia Lehnsherr's my mother."
Tony laughed. "Well isn't that something! Her work linking the Incompleteness theorem to quantum dynamics formed the theoretical basis for repulsor technology. Without her math, repulsors would have just been a happy accident. You tell her that if she ever wants out of academia, there's always a job for her at Stark Industries."
"She's dead." Erik fixed Tony in his gaze for several moments. "She's been dead for months."
"How did she die?"
"She was shot," said Erik," in the back of the head." He calmly stood and turned toward the stairs. "I think I will go to my room."
Tony looked at Ororo then back to Erik. Someone really should warn him about things like this. "Hey," he said, "wait, I'm sorry." Erik paused and Tony offered the only legal-for-kids consolation he could think of, "Do you want to go melt things with lasers?"
Erik crouched in the corner of his room, hands cupped around the loose nail. "Move," he whispered, "move."
"I should not have agreed to this," said Ororo. "This is madness." It was the middle of the night and she was standing in a university basement watching her current and former foster sons use lasers to burn holes in action figures.
"Madness?" asked Tony, with the wild-eyed look that only improbable and dangerous technology could elicit. "Madness? Or Sparta?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand," said Ororo.
Erik shifted from one leg to the other, trying to stay awake. "It's an attempt at humor by reciting lines from movies outside of clear context."
Tony looked back at Erik. "Are you trying to be annoying?"
Erik pulled his sweatshirt hood up and over his head. "Do or do not," he muttered, "there is no try."
"Hand me the half-inch hex wrench," said Tony open palm reaching backwards, "and Optimus Prime."
The invention demonstration itself was dull to watch, just a whirring sound, then everyone looked at printouts and started slapping Tony on the back. Erik slept through it. Some of the engineers were night owls by nature, but even they cleared out after an hour or so.
Tony settled into a chair next to Ororo. He still looked as excited and energized as he had ten hours prior.
She smiled weakly. "I don't suppose you're still taking your medication."
"Nah, don't need it. I don't like the way it makes me feel. Makes my brain slow down, not as smart."
"You know, you'd like Steve if you got to know him. He thought I should take the medication too."
Ororo privately doubted that the first sentence was true. She had a low opinion of middle-aged men who slept with teenagers. She had tried to explain this to Tony when he was living with her, asking if Steve was such a great guy, why was he unable to find a romantic partner his own age? (To which Tony had responded, "Why would he want someone his own age when he's got me? I'm brilliant, wealthy, and hot.") Responding to the second question, she asked, "Is that what you were fighting about?"
"Ah, no, no, that's a really old argument. Right now, he's just a little worked up because we have different definitions of monogamy."
"That seems like a rather important thing to agree on in a monogamous relationship."
"Yeah, well," Tony shifted uncomfortably. "Hey, if you're ever in Manhattan, you should drop by for a visit. I'll show you some great restaurants and I could show him," Tony pointed to Erik, "the foundry. Foundries are cool. Everyone likes foundries."
"Good afternoon, Erik."
"Good afternoon, Dr. Strange."
"How was your week?"
"Last week I asked you about the voice that you hear, Charles."
"Congratulations, you don't have anterograde amnesia."
Dr. Strange tapped his legal pad. "When you hear Charles, is it a man's voice?"
"Boy's voice. Charles is my age. Actually, he hasn't had his birthday yet, so he's eleven."
"Does Charles ever give you commands, orders to do things?"
"What sorts of commands?"
"Like to stop bothering him if he's busy or he doesn't want to talk."
"Does he ever bother you when you want him to be quiet?"
"Yeah, I think he likes being annoying sometimes."
"What makes you think that?"
"Because one time, for no good reason, he spent a week just randomly all of a sudden singing 'My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,' – you know that song? – over and over, just to annoy me."
"I see. You should know that if you take the medication, it will help him to be quiet, less annoying."
Erik looked offended. "He's my friend. I'm not going to get rid of him just because he irritates me sometimes."
"Why are you friends with Charles?"
"We watch each other's backs. We have a common enemy."
"Who is your enemy?"
"You don't know him. He doesn't bother with normal people."
"But you and Charles are both special?"
"What does your enemy want to do?"
"I don't know. I just know it's bad."
"Have you ever met your enemy?"
"Don't ask me that question." Erik appeared calm, his face blank, but there was a tremor in his right arm.
Dr. Strange took a moment to write a few notes and give his patient a chance to breathe. Normally, he would reinforce the boy for keeping his temper in check, but Erik responded poorly to praise. Strange decided to pursue a different subject.
"I understand you met one of Ms. Munroe's prior foster sons this week."
"How do you feel that went?"
"I tried to kill him."
"Why did you do that?"
"Don't ask stupid questions."
"Do you feel sorry you tried to kill him?"
"I'm sorry I didn't succeed."
Chapter 6: Asche zu Asche
Asche zu Asche – Rammstein: Herzeleid (1995).
The song's title translates to "Ashes to Ashes."
Syria is regarded as having one of the worst human rights situations in the world today from a governmental standpoint. Censorship, restriction of individual freedoms, and violent repression (including "disappearances") are commonplace.
Syria, about one year ago
Erik is cradling his new cell phone as if it were made of gold. "Thank you thank you thank you!" He hugs both parents at once, one with each arm.
His father looks back to make sure that Erik's little sister is still engrossed in her coloring book, then he turns to Erik and says, "It's for fun, of course, but it's also…you keep it with you all the time, keep it charged. Always."
Erik's mother frowns. "Don't scare him."
"He knows. People disappear." And the Lehnsherr family was doubly targeted: they were academics and Jews. "Better for him to be scared and ready than to bury our heads in the sand."
Erik chimes in, mostly because he doesn't want this conversation to somehow end with him not getting to keep his new phone. "I read the newspaper. I already know about this stuff." He doesn't mention that the kids at school and the kids in the neighborhood talk about it, too. Or that he listens in on adults whenever they talk about it, whenever he can. "I'll keep it with me all the time," he promises and puts on what he hopes is an earnest smile.
His mother kisses his forehead.
United States, the present
Erik awoke with a start, sweaty, muscles tensed. He couldn't remember his dream. He listened in his head for Charles but heard nothing. It was the middle of the night; Charles would be asleep. He looked around his room as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was a small dresser, painted blue. He had new clothes now. Well, mostly they were from consignment places, but they fit better than whatever miscellany the hospital had dug up for him, and Ororo had forced him to take his time and find clothes he was happy with. He had been annoyed with that at the time, but he appreciated it now, now that he had a dresser full of hooded sweatshirts and pants that were loose enough that he could move freely but not so loose that there was any risk of them falling down. They had bought some winter clothes, too, a thick coat and gloves and a hat. She apparently expected him to stay through winter.
Next to the dresser was a small pile of library books – history, mostly, but fiction too.
And next to the books was his cell phone, charging on the floor.
Syria, one year ago
The first time Erik sees it, really sees it, he's walking home from school and they have to go around, take a different route because everything is ruined and it's dangerous. A bomb attached to somebody's car in their driveway, and now there's glass everywhere and little sharp pieces of metal and bodies – Erik knows they're bodies – covered up with a tarp.
He would explain it to his sister if she asked, but she doesn't ask.
It's two weeks later when he hears his mother and father discussing, arguing really, whether they should keep going to work. It takes a lot of listening before Erik figures out what happened – somebody from the university must have been disappeared. Erik's mother points out that work has always been dangerous for her, but she still goes. "What kind of example are we setting," she asks, "and what kind of message are we sending if we allow ourselves to be intimidated?"
United States, the present
"Charles?" whispered Erik. "Come on, you there?"
Erik twisted about so his head was at the foot of the bed.
"Charles, quit being a moron and answer me."
Syria, about one year ago
Erik keeps his phone with him all the time now, always keeps it charged. More people disappear. His sister is starting to catch on. There's executions on the TV and the kids aren't supposed to watch but it doesn't matter. They still know.
It's no secret that the universities are being targeted, because that's where the people who oppose the government are. Erik's mother begins to stay at the university during the week, because travel back and forth is dangerous, especially for a woman. Erik and his family say a prayer for one of his dad's work friends who was disappeared. Erik's mother prays that the man will return safely. Erik prays that the man will die quickly.
Windows get broken. Israeli flags get burned.
Students march for freedom of the press and they're gunned down too.
One night, Erik hears his father grumble that there are too many people angry about too many things and if they're going to be killed, he would at least like to know what particular irrational hatred was the motive. It's gallows humor. Erik's mother is not amused.
It is during the week and Erik's mother is at the university and Erik is doing his homework when he hears the footsteps, loud and heavy, and they're pounding on the door and Erik's father grabs him and says, "Take your sister. Run."
But Erik hesitates, he can't think of what to argue, but he feels he must.
"I love you," says Erik's father, "I love you both." He kisses Erik's forehead and there are tears in his eyes.
Erik is frozen, immobile.
So Erik's father lies. "I'll call you. Keep your phone. I'll call you, but you have to run now. Take your sister and run."
United States, the present
Something wasn't right. It wasn't just that Charles wasn't answering him – that happened pretty often, when Charles was asleep or distracted or ticked off at Erik. It was like he couldn't feel Charles in his head at all, like the difference between silence in a phone call and getting a dial tone. He tried to reach around with his brain the way Charles talked about. It had never worked for Erik, but he had to try something.
"Charles!" he hissed, as loudly as he dared. "This isn't funny! Wake the fuck up and talk to me!"
Syria, about one year ago
Erik is running and there are guns and he can hear them but he's carrying his sister and he has his phone with him and his father will call him and his sister is heavy but if he puts her down they're going to be slow and there's more sounds, loud sounds, maybe explosions or buildings getting knocked down and they need to find someplace to hide.
They need to steal some clothes for his sister. She was wearing her pajamas when they left and her pajamas have short sleeves and it makes them conspicuous.
Erik checks his phone. It's 8:39. Stores will be closing soon.
He tells his sister to just keep her mouth shut and they make their way through yards and alleys until they're neat a central street. Erik doesn't know which one it is, but that's okay, he can figure that out tomorrow. They've just got to hide and run and get to the university and find Mom.
When they get to a big store, one that will have a lot of different things, Erik puts his sister down – his arms really hurt – and grabs a piece of a brick from the rubble in the alleys and starts hacking at what he hopes is a power cable and what he hopes can't hurt him as long as he only touches it with the brick, not his skin. Some of the lights in the store go out and some don't. That's fine. A distraction was all he needed.
Erik grabs his sister and they sneak inside and hide in the bathroom, in the ladies room because Erik bets that if anyone comes in to clean it, it will be a woman and they'll have a better shot against a woman than a man. His sister has wet herself and she's looking all sniffly, but at least she's staying quiet.
United States, the present
Erik was starting to panic now. Why couldn't he feel Charles? They hadn't fought lately, and if Charles was going someplace, he always told Erik ahead of time.
It was the royt oygn, the enemy. It had to be. The royt oygn got Charles.
Syria, about one year ago
Moving through the city is difficult, is dangerous. If they're in a crowd, anybody in the crowd could have a bomb strapped to them, or just a regular gun. If they're alone, they stick out, they could be spotted and Erik doesn't even know who's spotting them, but somebody could, somebody will. This pocket of the city is mostly Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses, but dissenters are cropping up everywhere and this part of the city also has a lot of intellectuals. Then there's the mines. Erik thinks of them as landmines even though they technically aren't. They look a little like smoke detectors and they don't go off until people get close. Erik doesn't even know who's placing them – the government, the militia, the students, the Islamicists.
He doesn't have a charger for his phone, so he keeps it off most of the time, just turns it on once an hour to check for messages. He knows there's not going to be a message from his father, though that doesn't stop him from hoping, but they could still find their mother. They're heading toward the university. At least Erik thinks that's where they're heading.
His sister is too scared to cry much, so at least she's quiet, that's good. When she sees a foot with no leg, she just clings to Erik and buries her face in his shoulder. She's getting so heavy to carry.
Erik's ears hurt. His eyes hurt. Everything is dust and he's thirsty.
He can't touch anything, he can't go inside anyplace, because he doesn't know what might blow up. All he can do is try to keep a hold on his sister and try to make his way across the city. It's hard to tell where he is; a lot of street signs are missing or vandalized.
He's hungry. His sister is hungry. He swipes whatever leftovers are closest from a streetside café, but it's got hummus and she hates hummus and she won't eat it.
He picks her up and tries not to draw any attention as he sidles into an alley to check his phone. Maybe his mother called, he thinks. Maybe his father called. He sets her down next to the trashcan and then he sees it, round and beige with that little blinking red light and the little English logo and there's a quiet, harmless little whir, like the sound a hard drive makes when a computer turns on and-
United States, the present day
Erik slid out of bed. Quickly, but not too much noise. He knew how to move fast and keep his head. He shed his nightclothes and dressed in layers – better to be prepared for the weather, not sure how long this would take. He found his nail, the only real weapon he'd managed to stash; he'd gotten complacent here. He wouldn't make that mistake again. His phone, his charger, his headphones. Winter hat and gloves wouldn't be a bad idea. Ororo had to have some basic tools downstairs: hammer, screwdriver, knife. Erik didn't know what he would need those things for, but he always believed it was better to have more options than fewer.
He split his cash – he had saved ever cent of his allowance – between his shoe and his pocket. He threw tape and twine into his knapsack, along with a jar of peanut butter and a box of Wheat Thins. It was hardly complete nutrition, but enough to last him a while. A water bottle. It was empty – he didn't want to risk waking Ororo by running the faucet – but that was fine, Americans had clean water at every turn.
Had he forgotten anything? He tried to imagine problems that might arise, or rather, problems that might arise that could be solved by common household items.
He would find Charles. He would free him from the royt oygn.
Syria, about one year ago
The first thing Erik does when he regains consciousness is vomit. It runs down the right side of his face, so that direction is down. He's surrounded by a cocoon of rebar and wires and pipes. He reaches for his sister and pulls her close. There's a lot of blood. He loses consciousness again.
Syria, about one year ago
Sometimes Erik is awake. He tries to reach his phone to turn it on. His father will call him.
Sometimes Erik's head hurts so badly he vomits again. At least his sister is quiet.
Sometimes Erik is thirsty. He forgets which way is down and he can't spit to find out.
Syria, about one year ago
There are hands and voices. "You have to let go of her," they say. They are opening Erik's hands, pulling back the fingers. It's easy; Erik is weak. "You have to let go of her."
There's a man's voice. It's not Erik's father, but it could be. It's a nice voice. "We can come back for her body, I promise, but we have to get you out of here."
Syria, about one year ago
Erik's mother wraps her arms around him, wraps her hair and her breath and her voice around him. "Erik, Erik," she whispers, "O thank you, Lord for sparing my boy."
Erik trembles. He has no words.
"Erik," says his mother, "where is your sister? Where is-"
United States, present day
Erik pounded on Ororo's bedroom door. "Wake up! Wake up!" He could hear her murmuring a half-awake response, so he threw open the door and walked inside. "Look," he said, "I was gonna just go."
Ororo reached for the lamp on her nightstand as she sat up to see Erik, dressed for cold, holding a knapsack in one hand.
"I was going to just sneak off," he repeated, "but you really have been pretty nice to me about stuff, so I didn't think it was fair to just walk off without saying anything."
"Where do you want to go?"
"I have to go rescue Charles," said Erik, as honest and fervent as Ororo had ever seen him. "He's been worried for a while and now he's in terrible danger. I can't reach him. I can't hear him in my head. He's missing." Erik formed his hands into fists and then relaxed them. "I'm going no matter what, but if you believe me," he turned his head to the right, "if you believe me, I want you to come with me."
"Erik," said Ororo as she turned to sit at the foot of the bed. She motioned for him to sit next to her, but he shook his head. "I believe you are a very brave young man who wants to protect people who are in danger, but I am worried about this plan, because I think you or someone else could be very badly hurt if you run away to try to save Charles."
"Because you don't believe in Charles," said Erik.
"I believe that…" Ororo looked down. "A few days ago, Ms. Pryde brought over your file from immigration. It had everything your mother reported in your application for asylum. I was not going to discuss it with you until you were more prepared."
Erik glared at her. He needed allies, not memories.
"Erik," said Ororo softly, "what was your sister's name?"
"We're getting off track! He's in danger right now! We need to go!"
"What was her name, Erik?"
"STOP ASKING QUESTIONS WHEN YOU ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWERS!"
"I'd like to hear you say it. What was her name, Erik?"
Erik looked down and whispered so softly one could hardly be certain he had spoken at all. "Her name was Charlotte."
Chapter 7: Magic Man
Magic Man – Heart: Dreamboat Annie (1976).
I wasn't sure where to fit this chapter in. Here seemed like as good a place as any. Next chapter will continue where Erik and Ororo left off.
Steve Rogers was pretty sure he was going to hell.
No, not because of the gay thing. He had made peace with the discrepancy between his religious beliefs and his sexual orientation a long time ago. Some guys never did. Steve had dated one of them, a guy named Simon he had met at church.
Simon had been thin and wiry, with reddish-brown hair. He would cry after they made love and pray with an intensity that was frankly uncomfortable to watch. Simon had broken up with Steve after only six months in favor of yet another round of therapy meant to turn him straight.
And in a sense – although Steve always took responsibility for his own actions – his breakup with Simon had a lot to do with his present situation because Tony was everything that Simon wasn't. Simon was ashamed of what he was as a human being; Tony appeared incapable of shame. Simon was hesitant about anything to do with sex; Tony wanted to try the whole Kama Sutra upside down. Simon drove himself to misery with the thought that God was going to punish him; Tony thought that he himself was god.
Okay, so that last one wasn't really a selling point, per se, but it was all part of the contrast and, in retrospect, part of the reason Steve was in this mess.
No, the reason Steve Rogers was going to hell was that he was lying flat on his back, atop silk bed sheets in a Manhattan penthouse, straddled by a naked eighteen-year-old named Tony Stark.
In Steve's defense, he hadn't meant for things to happen this way. He wasn't some internet predator who intentionally sought out and seduced teenagers. He was a nice normal guy with nice normal friends (friends his own age, thank you very much!) and a nice normal job. And he had tried, really tried, to make sure that his relationship with Tony wasn't exploitative, was in fact beneficial. He had insisted on taking things very, very slowly, even when Tony claimed he had done something before. (Steve had learned to take Tony's claims about his sexual experiences with a grain of salt.) He went with Tony to an anonymous clinic so they could both get tested. Steve knew he was clean, but he thought it was a good precedent to set for Tony – on matters this important, you trust but verify. He dragged Tony to cardiology appointments he had been ducking for years. He tried to encourage in Tony something akin to a regular schedule of eating and sleeping, though there his success was limited to say the least.
Steve had even tried dragging Tony along to church. He wasn't trying to convert him – Steve was neither that religious nor that naïve – he just thought it was nice for couples to show a little interest in the things that were important to each other. The whole thing was a disaster. First, there were about thirty minutes of whispered sarcastic commentary: "Lord and word do not rhyme! What is wrong with the people who write these stupid hymns? Here are some words that that actually rhyme with Lord: fjord… accord… bored… Gerald Ford." Then came the sermon. It was pretty straightforward, on the topic of hope. The pastor had said that light could always defeat darkness and no amount of darkness could ever extinguish the light, at which point Tony raised his hand and said, "Um, yeah, so, what about black holes? I mean, that's pretty much exactly what they do." And thus ended the Tony-church experiment.
The really tricky part was that there was a problem with their relationship, and that the problem wasn't really with Steve, it was with Tony. See, if Steve were the problem, he would have just been the bad guy and that would have been pretty straightforward. But instead, Tony was, well, he didn't have enough in-between, Steve thought, he was too much at one end or the other.
Sometimes Tony was going along at full speed and he'd flip over from smart to crazy. He'd stop eating, stop sleeping. Normally Tony was a fast talker, but when he got in full-speed mode, it was barely comprehensible. Sometimes it seemed like his brain was going so fast, his mouth couldn't keep up and he would start a second sentence before he finished his first. And he would get impulsive. He'd go to these parties, the kind where everyone was drinking and most people were doing drugs, and he'd come home at 4 am, laughing his ass off, pawing at Steve, as if Steve really wanted to have sex with him when he smelled like other people's…fluids.
There was a time when Steve would yell at Tony when he came home like that. "Where's your self-respect, huh?" And Tony would apologize and swear it wouldn't happen again, but of course it would and Steve had started to wonder about his own self-respect, staying with a guy who cheated on him.
Then there was the flipside, when Tony would crash and everything seemed to grind to a halt. Tony would complain that he didn't have any ideas, or that all his ideas were garbage. He wouldn't move very much or talk very much and he spent most of his time staring into space.
This would all be a pitiable condition, if it wasn't for the fact that there was medicine for it, medicine Tony refused to take, for reasons that made no sense to Steve. Refused to take the medicine, refused to go see a doctor, refused to anything, really, to keep it from happening again, even though it meant he was taking a never-ending string of stupid risks, things that could kill him, especially given his heart condition. Steve had seen people risk their lives for very worthy causes; he had no appetite for watching Tony risk his life for no particular reason.
If it were any other guy, Steve would have broken up with him a long time ago, would have had to, really.
So why hadn't he? Well, first off, he really liked Tony, liked him a lot. All the usual reasons he might like a fella: smart, funny, good conversation, easy on the eyes – Steve might've been a nice guy, but he was still a guy – plus, there was something addicting about Tony, something about all that crazy that was exciting instead of just infuriating.
Second, though, and more important, the age difference made things complicated. (Steve hated complicated.) He felt responsible for Tony, found himself equating breaking up with the kid to tossing him out on the streets, even though Tony made more money in a month than Steve would in a decade. Break-ups were different when you were young; everything was so raw and overly dramatic. When you were older, life smoothed out and you knew it wasn't the end of the world. He felt bad about letting things go on for so long when he should have been the responsible one, should have known that it couldn't last.
And that was what it really came down to: Steve felt guilty. Steve wasn't used to feeling guilty; he hardly ever did anything that merited guilt. So even though he was a firm believer that people in holes should stop digging, he found himself yet again in Tony Stark's Manhattan penthouse.
And that was why Steve Rogers was pretty damn sure he was going to hell.
Chapter 8: Dream On
Dream On – Depeche Mode: Exciter (2001).
Frequently Asked Questions:
(1) So where do the chapter song titles come from? Some of them are carefully thought-out metaphors or puns (i.e., "Pinball Wizard" for a chapter about Alex Summers). Sometimes its whatever I was listening to when I wrote it. 60-80% of the time, I just hit shuffle on every song I have and just keep hitting fast forward until I find something marginally acceptable. In rare cases, I choose something inappropriate and pretend I did so for artistic reasons. I would like to claim that I use the time saved to get started on the next chapter, but it's far more likely I browsed pictures of cats with poor written language skills.
(2) Can I get extra cheese on that? Probably, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Erik gritted his teeth and balled his hands into fists. "I thought you were going to help me," he said softly.
"I will help you, Erik." This was true, though they might disagree about what course of action would be most helpful.
"But you won't help Charles. You don't think Charles is real. You think I'm crazy." Erik sank to the floor at the foot of the bed, putting himself just outside of Ororo's line of sight. He sat cross-legged on the hardwood.
Ororo shut her eyes and breathed deeply. "I think that, in many ways, you are more aware of reality than most anyone I know." She paused, then added, "Metaphors are their own kind of truth."
"It's not a metaphor. It's real. Literally real. Charles talks to me in my head because that's his power. Him and me both have magic powers and that's why Charles in danger."
This was new, or at least, new for Erik to talk about. "What are your powers? Would you show me?"
"It only works sometimes. When it has to work. When I'm really angry or I'm going to die."
Ororo waited. There was a hint of pride in Erik's voice. She could tell he wanted to say more.
"I can make things move, metal things, just by wanting to. I call it ferrokinesis." Erik took the corner of the bedspread in his left hand and rubbed the fabric between his thumb and forefinger. "When my sister, when she…I was closer to the bomb than she was, but all the metal things, they leapt up to protect me."
The obvious interpretation was survivor's guilt – why did I live when another died? – but Ororo reserved judgment. She was nothing if not patient.
"So that's how I know I was special," concluded Erik, "like Charles."
"Is it a good thing, being special?" asked Ororo.
"It's…I don't know. It's important to be strong, but then the royt oygn only goes after people like me and Charles."
"What is the…roy-?" She struggled to replicate his pronunciation.
"Royt oygn. I met him first, so I named him. It just means 'red eyes'. We also call him the Enemy."
"What is the Enemy, then?"
"He's a person, or at least very similar to one." Erik's tone was pensive, then gradually more intense. "He has red eyes and he can control your thoughts and he can take on any disguise, a perfect disguise so you'd never even suspect anything. And he can make you do things." Erik suddenly spun around so he was kneeling at the foot of the bed, facing Ororo, looking her in the eye. "Okay, so I explained it to you." He looked expectant.
"I'm honored that you've chosen to share these things with me." What else could she say? Erik wasn't mad in the sense of schizophrenia, certainly, but these thoughts were delusions and Erik was too aggressive and dangerous for her to play along, especially given that Erik believed this "Enemy" could look like anyone. She still didn't even know why Erik attacked Tony.
"You're not going to…" Erik spun back around and dropped his head. "Charles is real," he said sadly, desperately. "He's real."
The rest of the day passed slowly, and because the day began at 4am, it dragged on.
Erik was sad, quiet. He only spoke when the itinerant teacher came over and then, only in monosyllables. He finished his schoolwork quickly, carelessly, with no effort. Normally she would have insisted he take pride in his work, do his best, but she tolerated his hastily scrawled half-answers – he just lost his best friend, really his only friend and the fact that the friend was imaginary made the grief no less real. Perhaps worse, because "Charles" had been invented to serve a purpose, to fill a need in Erik's mind. This was why Ororo hadn't planned on bringing up Charlotte until more time had passed, because Erik needed Charles. She would need to help Erik find something else to fill the void, but not yet. For now, just grief. It was an occupation all its own.
Ororo could see that Erik really wasn't hearing Charles' voice. He didn't whisper comments to the air or mutter half a conversation. Nor did he suddenly smirk or laugh or grimace derisively in apparent reaction to Charles' remarks.
He spent most of the day sitting on the floor of the living room, head resting on both hands. A book lay on the floor in front of him, a hardcover about the history of forensic medicine, but Ororo could tell he wasn't really reading it; she knew how quickly he could read and he turned the pages far too rarely. In the afternoon he switched from half-hearted reading to half-heartedly trying to solve chess puzzles from a worn library book.
There were so many things Ororo wanted to say. She wanted to reassure him that he wouldn't always feel this terrible, that things would improve, that he lived when his sister died through freak chance, that he didn't need to be magical to merit his survival. She wanted to ask him how he felt, how she could help. She wanted to ask him how his mother died. But she said none of these things because grief was an occupation all its own and Erik needed time.
When dinner was over, Erik said, "I'm tired. I think I just want to go to bed."
Ororo Munroe was an early riser by nature, but she had missed a few hours of sleep the night before and she had taken advantage of Erik's decision to turn in early to email updates on Erik's condition to Kitty Pryde and Dr. Strange. All of this explained why Ororo was still in bed at 7:32 am when her phone began to ring.
She flipped it open and murmured a sleepy, "Hello?"
"Hey Ororo, it's Tony. I think I have something that belongs to you."
"What?" Tony never got up this early. Unless he never went to bed.
"I'll give you a hint. It's five feet tall and it keeps demanding to know where the munitions locker is. You get three guesses and the first two don't count."
Chapter 9: Bugman
Bugman – Blur:13 (1999).
Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed. I appreciate all your feedback. Attention from the internet is disturbingly addictive.
"Erik is in New York City?" This was not how Ororo wanted to begin her day.
"Don't worry, I'm not gonna call the police. And the guard who caught him has worked here for ages, won't make a deal of it if I don't make a report to the military security folks."
"I appreciate that, I-"
Tony kept talking. "Now I'm more than happy to put him on a plane back to Rochester, but it occurs to me that between him speaking Arabic and him being a smartass, I'm thinking there might be some TSA issues."
Ororo rubbed the bridge of her nose. She thought it was more likely that Erik would simply run away again. "Is he all right?"
"Pissed off, but he looks fine. We got him zip tied to a chair in the lobby." A pause. "No, just kidding, no zip ties, I swear. He's just in an office with a pair of guards, giving them a detailed evaluation of their ancestry, hygiene, intellect, personal habits, and so on. He gave one of the guards a bloody nose, but no major damage."
At least he was safe right now. At least he hadn't done any major harm to anyone as of yet. Ororo was tenacious in defense of her sons, but she knew also that there was sometimes wisdom in surrender, valor in retreat. Perhaps Erik really could not be managed in free society. "I think the best plan is for me to escort him back to Rochester myself." She would go to Manhattan and see him for herself, hear his explanation, and then decide what sort of setting she was bringing him back to.
"Fine by me. This place is more secure than Fort Knox…not that I know all the security measures at Fort Knox, really, I don't, but it's very secure. He's not going anywhere. Hey, I can get you a good price on airfare if you want, we've had a couple of aerospace contracts, let me…" Tony's voice trailed off and was replaced by rapid tapping at a keyboard.
Ororo took the opportunity to breathe deeply and center her thoughts. How on earth did he even get to Manhattan on his own? How did he get there so quickly? How long had he been planning this? Erik's intellect made him that much more dangerous.
"Ok, you've got a spot on an 8:55 flight. Nice little prop plane, surprisingly maneuverable for a commuter vehicle."
"This is very kind of you, Tony."
"Well, I kind of owe you, don't I? Anyways, don't worry about the kid, we can keep him from blowing up cats or whatever his problem is until you get here. You should probably get going, it's about 36 minutes from your house to the airport with no traffic and you might be catching the beginning of rush hour."
Ororo Munroe was not one for self-pity, but she couldn't help but feel a little put upon when her flight was delayed and delayed again. It was almost to the point when it would have been faster to just drive. Of course, if she had driven, she would have had to drive through tunnels and she was surprised to discover that the mere thought made her heart seize.
She shook off the thought. She had more pressing concerns.
She had no doubt that if she ceded Erik back to the state, he would end up adjudicated and the prison system was a terrible place for the mentally ill. It could be a travesty of justice at times. Like Jamie, poor Jamie without a mean bone in his body, Jamie who never meant harm to anyone. (Ororo made a point of never pitying her sons, but she found herself tempted at times.) When Jamie was fourteen, his family was just beginning to stabilize him, but it was a tenuous peace. They took him to a basketball game, not realizing that the noise and the chaos were the last thing he needed. When he went to buy a snack, he was acting so strangely that someone called security, and when he was approached by armed, yelling men, his paranoia and confusion demanded he flee. As he ran, he pushed past a guard; he was charged with assault.
By the time Ororo met Jamie in the detention center, he had completely deteriorated. He had received no medication at all for three days, then he was given the wrong medicine because they only stocked the older, cheaper antipsychotics. He was considered "noncompliant" because he failed to quickly follow orders, but no one considered the fact that he had to sort out the guards' voices from his hallucinations before he could even begin to make sense of what they were saying. They placed him in solitary, which made his hallucinations worse. It was a terrible spiral and it was difficult to see how he would have escaped it had Kitty not intervened and diverted him to the therapeutic foster care program.
If she decided that Erik needed a locked setting, would the same thing happen to him? Would he just get worse and worse? Because if he did, no one would step in and save him. He would have already failed an outside placement, but moreover, he wasn't as…likable as Jamie. Jamie was so clearly lost, tormented by his own brain. Erik had weakness, vulnerability within him, but it was surrounded by such callousness toward others, an unprovoked viciousness that would discourage anyone who might take an interest.
But then there was the flipside. Alex Summers hadn't been half as angry as Erik was, but his anger had led to a woman's death. Ororo knew that Alex wished every day that someone had stopped him before it got that far. And the woman, his victim, she had rights as well. It was hard to argue that she wouldn't have been better off if Alex had been kept off the streets. She would still be alive.
There was no point in thinking about any of this yet. Ororo went back to her crossword puzzle.
Ororo retrieved her purse from the taxi and turned to see a tall, muscular blonde man waving in her direction. Behind him spanned the Stark Industries tower.
"Are you Ororo Munroe?" he asked.
"I'm sorry…you are?"
"Steve Rogers," the man held out his hand and Ororo briefly shook it. So this was Steve. She did not want to meet Steve. He continued, "Tony sent me down here to let you into the building. Security's pretty elaborate after 5:00."
Ororo glanced at her watch. 6:24. She hadn't realized it was so late. She looked back at Steve, who looked quite surprised – then the door clicked open. Oh, he must have widened his eyes for an optical scanner of some sort.
He held the door for her. "After you." As he walked to the central elevators, he tipped his head to the side. 'Sheepish' was an odd look on such a powerfully built man. He tapped in a code on a number pad and pressed his thumb to another scanner. "Tony lives on the top two floors. He took Erik up there when security changed shifts so he wouldn't have to explain things to so many people."
Steve leaned against the back of the elevator. "So Tony tells me you, ah, specialize in foster care for very…challenging cases."
"Yes." There was nothing to be gained by rudeness, so she responded to his attempt at polite conversation. "And what do you do for a living?"
"Oh, I have a ridiculous title, I never remember it. The job is basically to work with neighborhoods and housing complexes to reduce their vulnerability to crime."
"What does that entail?"
"It's ninety percent telling them where they need to install street lights. Although lately, it's been a lot of explaining to Tony that no, PS 221 does not need laser guided death robots."
Ororo laughed despite herself. "What is that sound?"
"Either Guns N Roses took on a deaf housecat for their new lead singer or Tony's playing Rock Band." Steve smiled helplessly as the elevator doors opened.
Tony's living room was cluttered, but clean. There was a huge flat screen TV connected to half a dozen video game systems, most of which were partially disassembled. There were long couches and expansive windows. There was a framed photograph of a very young Tony building a sandcastle with his mother and father. There was Tony, shouting into a plastic microphone. There was Erik, curled miserably in the corner, glaring.
Erik was sitting on the floor, across from Ororo. He kept his gaze down, at least managing to look a little guilty.
"How did you even get here?"
"Amtrak. I memorized the schedule back in the hospital. Sneaking on was really easy."
"Why did you come here?"
"Because I had to catch the late night train which is direct which means Manhattan is the closest stop to where I need to go. And then I was thinking that he can't be killed by normal means so I'd better get some weapons. And where better than the purveyors of death, Stark Industries?"
Tony popped up from where he was reclining on the couch. "Hey! Wait a minute! Is that why you were trying to kill me? You do realize that it's not my company, right? And that any weapons you've ever seen in the field were probably invented when I was, like, twelve?"
"If you died, your father would be unhappy. That's good enough for me."
Tony shook his head. "That's messed up."
Tony suggested they stay the night, pointing out that no one could get in or out of his penthouse without setting off a dozen alarms. Ororo agreed, if only because it allowed her to put off making a decision about Erik just a bit longer.
They were eating dinner – Erik sitting alone on the steps, the three adults sitting around the kitchen table.
It really was impossible to not talk about it, so when Steve had finished his first piece of pizza, he said, "I fully understand that you disapprove. If our situations were reversed, I would feel the same way."
Ororo chewed her pizza slowly and listened.
"You should know," said Steve, "that I didn't know he was so young. We started talking online. After a couple of months, I asked his name and he told me 'Tony Stark'. I didn't believe him! I thought he just picked a celebrity name at random. I asked him for a picture, he sent me a magazine cover. And then one day I come home from work and there's this kid sitting on my sofa telling me that for someone who works in security, my locks aren't very good and that I should change my shirt because we have dinner reservations."
Ororo found herself suppressing a grin. She had no intention of liking Steve Rogers.
"But I swear to you, I had no idea he was a teenager. He didn't type like a kid. You know, they're always spelling things funny and they've got all those emotifaces."
"Emoticons, Cap," interrupted Tony.
"Cap?" asked Ororo.
"See," said Tony, "that's something you didn't know that's good about him. It's short for Captain, because he's a veteran. And he's an Eagle Scout! And he goes to church every Sunday! And he's got a dick the size of a ruler!"
Erik chose this moment to begin humming One of These Things is Not Like the Others from the staircase.
Steve chose this moment to cover his face with his hands.
"Hey, explain to me why Howard Stark, the brilliant American inventor, contacts you via snail mail." Erik held a stack of envelopes aloft.
"Those are mine!" Tony snatched them back.
"Hmph." Erik grimaced. "They're not even opened."
"I'm sorry," said Erik. "that you felt you had to come all the way out here." His index finger perched on his lips for a moment. "I could say that you didn't have to come here, that you should have just let me go, but then you would say, well, I can't do that. Right?"
"That's true." Ororo nodded.
"You have to understand," said Erik, "that I can't just let Charles go. He's my friend. He's counting on me. And I have to find the Enemy, and stop him."
"You're saying that we each have a goal that the other person doesn't quite understand."
Erik nodded slowly. "I'm sorry I…deceived you." If it was an act, it was a good one.
It was 4am.
Why the hell was her phone ringing at 4am?
Ororo glanced into the living room; Erik was asleep on the couch, right where he was supposed to be. She flipped open her phone.
"Hello hello. Hi. Ororo?"
She recognized the voice. "Jamie?"
"I don't know where I am."
Communicating with Jamie could be difficult under the best of circumstances. "What happened?"
"I don't know. I don't know where I am what happened. I was also."
"Are you inside or outside?"
"I'm inside a parking lot."
"How did you get there?"
"I had to. I had to get there."
"Why did you have to?"
"Why did you have to? Because the, I had to. I had to once he looked at me. Very strange. He looked at also."
"Who is 'he'?"
"I don't know. I don't know where I am. I had to follow the man with red eyes."
Chapter 10: Do You Sleep
Do You Sleep? – Lisa Loeb: Tails (1995).
When most people hear the term 'schizophrenia', they think of hallucinations and delusions. These are called the "
positive symptoms" because they involve the addition of something unhealthy that isn't present in a normal mind. As the scientific understanding of the disorder progressed, clinicians became increasingly aware of "negative symptoms" – factors that are present in healthy people which are diminished or taken away in schizophrenia. For example, many people with schizophrenia don't do or say very much and have few goals or interests. (Contrary to the media stereotype of the violent crazy person, many people with schizophrenia are actually quite inert and they are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.) Although positive symptoms are more dramatic and obviously remarkable, negative symptoms seem to have a bigger impact on quality of life. In addition to positive and negative symptoms, there are also cognitive symptoms, which include difficulties with planning, abstract thinking, and organizing thoughts into logical strings (a problem called "thought disorder"). Thought disorder can be seen when the person says things that make no sense like, "Did you bring your lunch or is it not raining on Tuesday?" (In contrast, when people talk about delusions, they say sensible things that are simply wrong like, "I'm worried I'll be kidnapped because the CIA is out to get me." That sentence is clearly delusional, but it makes logical sense.)
There are actually several subtypes of schizophrenia. The most common subtype, which is the one you're probably most familiar with, is paranoid schizophrenia, in which the individual is affected by paranoid delusions and sometimes auditory hallucinations, but relatively unaffected by negative and cognitive symptoms. In this story, Jamie Braddock has a less common subtype – disorganized schizophrenia – in which cognitive symptoms are severe and predominate the clinical picture, though positive and negative symptoms are present as well.
Incidentally, antipsychotic medications can be very effective in reducing hallucinations and decently effective in reducing delusions, but they are generally much less effective in treating negative and cognitive symptoms.
And now you know. And knowing is half the battle.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This is Erik's dream. This is the dream he has most often. He has other dreams sometimes – some worse than this one, some not so bad – but this is the dream that he has over and over again.
In his dream, he is sitting on a bench outside of the library, sitting on the back part you lean on, actually, so he is head and shoulders above the other people waiting around. From his vantage point, he can see it coming, though he doesn't know what it is. It's huge, though, and he can tell it's dangerous, but there's nothing he can do about it. It will crush them, consume them, destroy them along with everything in its path.
If he tries to shout a warning, no air comes through and his mouth seals up. If he just tries to point at the thing, his arm, his hand disintegrate, sand that blows away in the wind. If he tries to run, his legs can't get traction and they wear away to nothing. If he tries to take a closer look, he can't see. If he tries to shove someone out of the way, he turns ghostly, he can't touch them.
This continues until either he wakes up or there is nothing left of him – a mind without a body.
"What do you think she should do with the kid?" asked Tony.
Steve folded his pants neatly and lay them on the floor beside his shoes. "That's not my place to say."
"Doesn't mean you don't have an opinion."
"I suppose…I've seen child soldiers before, fought – well, I hate to say against them, but…" Steve ran his hands through his hair. "I'm the first to say that they should be treated with special," he searched for the word, "mercy, but that doesn't mean they're not dangerous. So I suppose the only opinion I have is that, when that boy was talking about killing you, he meant it."
"I guess I'll have to be careful then," said Tony in a voice that failed to exude any degree of caution as he leaned forward to kiss Steve's collarbone.
"Do you really think this is a good idea?" Steve grabbed Tony's hands and pushed them gently back.
"I always think this is a good idea."
"You want me to get along with your friend Ororo. I'm pretty sure that having sex when she's in the next room is going to work against that goal."
"We just have to keep it quiet."
"Tony, you're never quiet. Ever." Steve wrapped an arm around the smaller man. "We'll make up for lost time tomorrow."
Tony lay still for a few moments before squirming back out of bed. "I'm not tired. Want to race me down twenty-seven flights of stairs?"
"It's not a race if I win every time."
"Come on," said Tony in a tone that suggested he thought this was a persuasive argument.
"I have work tomorrow, Tony. I need rest even if you think you don't." Steve sat up and kissed Tony's chest. "If you're not going to bed, do something quiet, something relaxing. Maybe you'll get some sleep."
"What are you doing up?"
Erik's face was unreadable as he turned back to look at Tony. "I don't sleep much." After a beat, he asked, "What are you doing up?"
Tony's voice carried only a hint of schoolyard teasing as he echoed, "I don't sleep much."
Erik returned to his work, which appeared to be building an elaborate structure out of video game cases. It looked a bit like a house of cards.
Tony had been planning on playing Katamari Damacy (with the sound turned down, that was quiet, right?), but he could see the case playing a key structural role in whatever Erik had built. "What are you doing?"
"At the moment, I'm trying to think of a reason not to kill you."
"Yeah, you're still on about that, huh? You're not the first person to get all pissy at me about something my Dad did. When I was at college, I used to get it all the time, usually from chicks in corduroy skirts or guys who wore duct tape shoes. Although one time there was this really hot girl who was blaming me for deforestation or something equally ridiculous and-" Tony stopped short because he had just met Erik's eyes and he could see the look Steve had described, the one that was serious and deadly. He took a step backward, then leaned against a chair so it all looked natural. "Where are you from, anyway?"
"Look, I'm sorry if someone you cared about got caught in the crossfire, but Syria's a rogue state and-"
Erik stiffened. "Syria is not a rogue state." He flung his arm through his construction, knocking it down. "Fucking Americans!" He spat. "Learn some fucking geography!"
"If you were a species, I would applaud your extinction."
Okay, so this was going badly given that the kid was now threatening to wipe out his entire genome and Tony still wasn't playing Katamari. He decided to fall back on his eternal plan B: impress them with fancy gadgets. "You came here looking for weapons, right?"
Erik's facial expression immediately shifted from deepest hate to cautious optimism. He nodded.
"Well, given your repeated threats to kill me, I can't show you any weapons, but I can show you some other stuff. Want to see an infrared motion detector?"
After laboriously walking Jamie through the process of determining his own location (he was in the Kodak chemical plant parking lot), she had woken Kitty and asked her to go pick him up. Kitty had readily agreed, which meant she probably made Piotr do it, which was just as well.
Problem solved, crisis averted. This was just the sort of trouble Jamie couldn't manage on his own. He could handle things like cooking meals or even following a budget, but throw him a curveball and he was completely stymied. Ororo wondered how long it had taken him to think of calling her. She wondered how he had gotten to the plant. If she was picturing the map correctly, it was a solid five miles from the assisted living center, so he could have walked there, but it would have taken some time.
And of course, why had he gone there? Because of the man with the red eyes? Erik's "Enemy"? But that was ridiculous in so many ways. And yet, Erik might be a deceitful when it suited his purposes, but Jamie wasn't. Ororo wished it weren't such an uninviting hour so she could discuss the situation with someone else. Although she preferred to keep her own counsel at times, she believed it was wise to seek many perspectives on difficult problems.
Ororo didn't feel at all like going back to sleep. She padded into the kitchen, with the vague thought of making herself a cup of tea, only to see Tony perched on a coffee table, energetically leaning from one side to the other as he controlled what appeared to be a glob of small mammals. There was Erik lying motionless on the carpet, curled on his side with a video game controller lying just past his fingertips.
The game paused and Tony turned around. "Hey, um, good morning?" He gingerly stepped down from the coffee table, avoiding the sleeping form below, and skittered over to the kitchen counter.
And Ororo found herself telling the story to Tony. Not the whole story; her need for perspective had to be weighed against Erik's legitimate desire for privacy. She left out Erik's sister's name and how she died, just vaguely explained that he came to the United States fleeing persecution in Syria. But she explained that Erik believed he was in telepathic communication with another boy the same age, and that they were all in danger from this man with red eyes who could control people's actions, and that Jamie had just called her, claiming to have been controlled by a man with red eyes.
"So he's crazy, huh?" Tony aimed a thumb backward to point at Erik.
"No, no, he's just…"
Tony shook his head. "Let me get this straight. He thinks he's being stalked by Cylons or something and you don't believe him, which you shouldn't, but then a guy who's totally nuts claims the same thing and that makes it believable all of a sudden?"
Ororo furrowed her brow. "Please don't refer to Jamie that way."
"Hey, I liked Jamie. I thought he was a nice guy." In fact, during his time living with Ororo, Tony had designed and built an electronic pillbox that used a combination of pressure sensors and voice alarms to help Jamie keep up with his complicated medication regimen. It was one of the few things Ororo had ever seen Tony do that could truly be described as altruistic. "He was a nice guy, but his head was pretty far from reality. You can't take him saying he saw something as really solid evidence."
"But he's never had visual hallucinations, ever. And he hasn't had any contact with Erik at all. What are the odds that they would both come up with the same, bizarre story?"
"Low," allowed Tony, "but still higher than the odds of magic glowy-eyed monsters." As Ororo failed to acquiesce to his superior math, Tony began rummaging through one of several plastic bins filled with electronic miscellany. After a moment, he found what he was looking for and pulled it out along with a nine volt battery. "There," he said, with a sense of finality.
"What is that?"
"It's an integrated delay-lock fuse," he said as he fiddled with wires and hooked the battery up to the object's leads. "Stark Industries uses these in all of our non-aerial delayed-blast munitions."
"Delayed," said Ororo, "like a bomb?"
"Well, the official Starktech is mainly applied to situation-control devices, like flash grenades, but a reasonable amateur could repurpose it. There, finished." He held it up. Two red diodes glowed in the center. "See? Red eyes." Tony looked back at the kid sleeping on the floor and was surprised to find he felt a little bad that the mystery was solved so easily, that this was just mental illness, not a valiant struggle against the demons of the night. "I'm sorry, Ororo, but he's just a messed up little kid."
"Ah," said Ororo tenuously. "A messed up kid." She ran her fingers over the marble countertop. "And what does that make you?"
"Hey," said Tony, raising his glass, "I'm an adult. Got the legal papers and everything."
Ororo gave a short, indulgent laugh. "And yet you seem to want to hold onto many of the trappings of childhood. Your midnight snack is chocolate milk."
"Uh, point of interest," Tony took a sip, "this is Kahlua."
The pillbox story is based vaguely on something that happened in the comics, though I can't find the citation for the life of me.
Chapter 11: Engel
Engel – Rammstein: Sehnsucht (1997).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In Erik's experience, most people were idiots.
It was sort of mind-boggling to him that they managed to live long enough to breed. Like the morons at the Amtrak station. He was a twelve-year-old kid with no supervision and no ticket, but he got on the train by picking a random woman (who didn't even look a damn thing like him!) and following her on board.
Ororo wasn't too bright either, he felt. She was nice, she really had been nice to him, but she wasn't doing a very good job of pursuing her goals – unless of course she had additional, hidden goals, though that seemed unlikely. If she really didn't want him to run, the first thing she should have done when she arrived in Manhattan was take away his shirt and his shoes. No shirt, no shoes, no service, right? Moreover, it made him conspicuous. He could get away with a lot by blending in, and he wouldn't be able to do that if he was walking around shirtless. Sure, he could steal a shirt, but that would actually be pretty difficult. Stealing was all about sneaking and it was hard to sneak when you attracted stares.
And she had yet to pick up on one of his most useful tricks: pretending to sleep. He had actually been asleep for a little while, but he awoke while she was chatting with Tony Stark about how one of her other foster kids had seen the man with red eyes. It took all of Erik's self-control to keep still. The guy's name was Jamie and Tony seemed to think he was crazy. Not the best witness, then, but still. It added weight to his argument. Either the names – Charles and Charlotte – were a coincidence and the royt oygn was real, or Erik and Jamie shared a hallucination by coincidence, and the connection between the names was exactly what Ororo thought it was. Not an infallible argument, but a stronger one.
The bigger question was how had the Enemy found this Jamie Braddock? And why had he sought him out? Charles could tell who was special, who had the right predisposition for what the Enemy wanted. Did this mean that Charles was working with the Enemy now? No, they had sworn to each other that they would work to stop him. But what if the Enemy was making Charles help him? What if he was torturing Charles, or controlling him?
Erik swallowed hard. It was strange and lonely in his head, without Charles there to keep him company. And all these stupid assholes didn't seem to care, weren't concerned that a child had been kidnapped, was being used, mistreated.
He had to get out of here. He had to go rescue Charles.
And the one standing in his way, he realized, wasn't Ororo. It was Tony Stark. Erik realized now that he had gravely miscalculated when he came to Stark Industries looking for armaments. He had assumed that he would have to sneak past or deceive some idiots because that's what most people were, but Tony Stark wasn't an idiot, which meant that if he wanted to move forward, he would have to put some effort into winning Stark over.
They were still talking, Ororo and Tony. Erik risked opening a single eyelid. Stark was showing Ororo some kind of electronic widget. It glowed with two tiny points of red. Erik felt his muscles tighten, his belly seize. He closed his eye.
If Erik wanted to go about gaining the support of Tony Stark, he would have to admit that repeatedly threatening to kill him was probably a tactical error. So now he had to make up for lost time.
But how to go about it? Thus far, Stark had seemed as though he were trying to impress Erik, though Erik couldn't rule out the possibility that Stark was so used to everyone bowing down before him that he was simply stymied by someone who failed to kiss his ass. He had seemed genuinely impressed with Erik's mother, though, and guilty that he had addressed the topic so flippantly. If he had been in a foster placement following his father's incarceration, Stark's mother must have been dead or otherwise out of the picture, so perhaps it was a sensitive spot. That could be a starting point.
Erik put on his sweatshirt. It was a little too big for him, which made him look smaller, weaker, more pitiable. He reached down into his pants pockets grabbed a few short hairs – he didn't have very many, but he would make use of what he had – and pulled hard. Tears came to his eyes. Perfect. He rubbed his eyes roughly so they would be red, then made sure to brush the tears themselves away. The goal wasn't to walk up to Stark crying. Erik had always loathed the kids in the hospital who felt the need to broadcast every little thing they felt. No, the goal was to approach Stark as if he had just finished crying and he was trying to hide that fact. Nothing more pathetic than that, and Stark clearly was the sort of guy who got off on being better and more powerful. Erik pulled his hair again. Good, now his nose was a little runny too.
"Hey, um," Erik tipped his head to the side and bit lightly on the left side of his lower lip. That looked embarrassed, right? "Hey, I'm…uh…I'm sorry about all the…" He shifted from one leg to the other awkwardly.
Tony didn't look up from what he was doing, an impenetrable task which seemed to involve manipulating components on a three-dimensional holographic circuit board. He just waved his free left hand in Erik's general direction and said, "It's all good. Just say no to homicide. And that's my public service announcement for the day. I should keep a running tally of these in case I ever get sentenced to community service. Time served and all that."
Erik sniffled and made that faint whistling sound produced by sucking air between teeth and lips. Not trying to sound like he was crying, trying to sound like he was trying not to cry. "Um, so I was wondering if, um, maybe…" Erik looked down and hunched his shoulders together. Was he laying it on too thick? "I never really understood what my mom was working on. She, she always said she would explain it to me when I was older." He raised his head and met Stark's eyes for just the briefest of moments before turning his gaze to the side. "And you…it sounds like you understand it. And I was wondering if maybe, maybe you would explain it to me?" Flattery plus the chance to take pity on a pathetic little orphan. If this didn't work, Erik was going to have to admit he didn't understand human nature at all.
Steve woke with his alarm at 6:05am. He first felt around blindly to his right in an effort to find his cell phone and silence the buzzing, then he felt blindly to his left. No Tony. Apparently Tony never went to bed at all last night.
"Jarvis," said Steve, "where's Tony?"
"Young Master Stark is in the living room."
Well, that was better than the alternatives, thought Steve. At least he wasn't down in his workshop doing dangerous experiments while half-awake, or doing body shots off of Turkish twins. "Are his guests still here?"
"Can you tell me when they plan to leave?"
Jarvis's voice changed. "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
Steve sighed. The audio clip was apparently imported directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Why did Tony program you to say that?"
"I'm afraid I do not know why Master Stark does the things he does."
"Yeah, that makes two of us. Thanks, Jarvis. Put yourself on standby."
"As you wish, sir."
Normally, Steve started his day with calisthenics, then breakfast, then a shower, but he wasn't about to go walking around the apartment in his pajama bottoms when there was a lady present. No reason to make this more awkward than it already was. He suspected he hadn't come across very well, even before Tony had decided to interrupt with unbelievably embarrassing (and yes, exaggerated) anatomical commentary. And he never really got to say what he wanted to say, which was simply to thank Ororo Munroe for looking after Tony, because Steve genuinely liked the kid and he was genuinely glad he had made it to seventeen alive and basically intact.
Steve stripped and stepped into the shower and marveled at what his life had become.
"Okay," said Tony, "so imagine you have an iPod with infinite memory. It has every sound in existence stored on it, so can it play every sound? No, because some of those sounds will resonate perfectly with a component of the device and break it, like an opera singer breaking a glass. So there's no such thing as an iPod that can play every sound. And in the same vein, you can never have a system of rules that doesn't eventually contradict itself. That's the layman's version of the Incompleteness theorem."
Erik nodded. "But what's that got to do with those qua…quantum tunnel thingies?" Erik was still playing dumb and pathetic, at least a little bit.
"Well, that was the genius of your mother's work." Tony glanced over at him. "You might not realize this, but she was famous. Scholarly journals are going to print obituaries about her."
Erik felt uncomfortable. He had a vague sense that his mother had been an extraordinary mathematician, but it was odd to think that strangers would be mourning her death.
"At any rate, remember what I said about quantum entanglements? That you can have twin particles and they can apparently transmit information faster than the speed of light."
"And it doesn't violate relativity because it's information, not mass or energy," said Erik, showing that he remembered his lessons. There was nothing teachers liked more than feeling useful and effective.
"Right, so what your mom's landmark paper showed was that Incompleteness, the fact that you can never really fully define a system, was what allows these entanglements to exist. But the real genius was in the later papers, when she showed that by manipulating incompleteness, you could theoretically manipulate the entanglements. Which is the basis for the repulsors. They're non-Newtonian devices that take advantage of Incompleteness in macrophysical laws."
Erik nodded as if Stark were fascinating. "That entanglement thing, you said it can send information, right?"
"Uh-huh." Tony was scanning through his files for a good diagram of a repulsor.
"I wonder if people would ever be able to control it. I mean, brains are made of atoms, right?" This was the key, but Erik couldn't allow himself to look tense. It had to sound like just another question.
Tony stopped and looked at Erik. "Yeah, you can believe whatever you like. Some people get into this mystical crap and act like the Lehnsherr Interpretation means that anything is possible, but it's not magic."
Erik tugged on his short hairs again. A few tears would help this conversation along. "Yeah, yeah, I know," he said sadly.
"Ugh, don't cry. Don't…for the love of god, don't start crying, kid. That's not…look, there's…" Tony grimaced. "Hey, how about this, why don't I search for your friend in some government databases – birth records, school records. All right? Okay? Just don't…" Erik let out one more sniffle. "Just stop crying, okay?"
"See, there's no Charles Xavier born in New York state in the past 20 years."
"Come on, Erik," Ororo held out her hand. "We have a train to catch."
Erik followed in silence. No one had thought to search his backpack. They were all idiots.
Steve looked up from his cereal. "What is it?"
"I knew there was something odd about the birth record interface."
"The what? That's not a public database, Tony."
"Forget that. Come here," he beckoned with a jerk of his head as both hands continued typing. "Look, this is the database as I accessed it today. And this-" he switched screens, "is the database as it was one year ago. It's got an extra name." Tony stopped typing long enough to point. "There it is. The voice in Erik's head. Charles Francis Xavier."
Tony's explanation of Gӧdel's Incompleteness theorem is a modified version of the explanation presented in Douglas Hofstadter's classic Gӧdel, Escher, Bach .
Chapter 12: Richard Cory
Sorry I haven't written this in a while. Between work and other work and other other work, I've been pretty drained and snappy little tidbits like The History of Music just take less energy than a fic like this with half a dozen subplots. But, I didn't want you guys to think I've forgotten you. I absolutely haven't and this story will again proceed at a reasonable pace. I suspect this chapter isn't going to be terribly satisfying given the cliffhanger from last chapter, but it's important to the story and alas the sorrows of reading serial fiction.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Brooklyn, Six Months Ago
Steve Rogers gets home from work to see that the lock has been picked. A few months ago, he didn't know what a picked lock looks like, but now he can identify the signs, even though Tony has a key to his place.
He briefly considers not going inside. He could go to the pub at the end of the block and have dinner and a beer and watch the game. He's still pissed off at Tony, still very pissed, and he has a strong suspicion that Tony didn't come over and break into his apartment to apologize. Well, it's his apartment, thinks Steve, and if they can't coexist there happily, it's Tony who's leaving, not him.
Steve opens the door to see Tony sitting on the floor next to Steve's old record player, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. His hair looks greasy and his clothes look dirty. Tony has apparently attached some kind of little spring-loaded apparatus to the record player arm, because when it gets to the end of the song, it lifts itself up and puts itself back down. The same song starts playing again. It's an old Simon and Garfunkel record, a forgettable tune called Richard Cory. Steve realizes that he's never really listened to the lyrics before; the song is about a wealthy playboy who kills himself. Teenage dramatics.
Teenage dramatics, yes, but Steve can see that something might be really wrong. They trained him when he was in the army to keep an eye on the mental health of the men and women under his command and he knows that behaviors like this can't be ignored. And to his surprise, Steve is just annoyed. He would have expected to feel worry or pity – that's what he felt when one of his soldiers admitted they were hearing voices or having flashbacks.
But he looks at Tony, and he's annoyed because it appears as though Tony has found a way to avoid the consequences of his behavior yet again. How can they have a fair argument when he's like this? So Steve has to put aside his (very legitimate!) complaints. And Steve can't even be mad about that, because it's not as if Tony engineered this on purpose – at least, Steve is pretty sure he didn't – but the whole situation meshes poorly with Steve's sense of fairness and order.
"Hey." Tony looks up at him and waves half-heartedly. "I'm sorry, I-" He trailed off.
Tony doesn't even say what he's apologizing for, but it's good enough for Steve. He puts down his briefcase and takes off his coat and sits down on the floor next to Tony. From this angle, he looks… Oh, there's the worry and the pity. Well, good to know they're still in working order.
"Can I have some?" Steve holds out his hands toward the whiskey bottle. When Tony passes it over, Steve takes a swig and puts it down on his side farther from Tony. He'll lecture the kid about drinking some other time.
The needle lifts up and the song starts over again.
"That's clever, what you did with the record player."
"I'll undo it," says Tony. "I didn't break your machine."
"I know you didn't."
They say nothing as the song plays twice more.
"Why'd you pick this song?" asks Steve.
Tony shrugs. "I dunno."
Tony looks younger like this. Steve wonders if he feels younger, too. "Have you been thinking about killing yourself?"
"Yeah," says Tony, "but I'm not going to do it. Just thoughts."
This would be more reassuring to Steve if Tony weren't drunk, impulsive, and in possession of some of the most advanced weapons on the planet. He remembers his army training, thinks about different risk factors. "Have you ever tried to do it?"
"I guess that depends on what you mean by 'try'."
"Tell me what happened."
Tony tips his hand as if he's trying to take another drink but the bottle isn't there. "When I was fifteen, the SEC was gathering all this information about my dad and everybody – or at least everybody but him – knew how it was going to go down. I sort of got to thinking that it was the last time I was ever going to get to be at home with one of my parents as a kid. I wanted to take some time off school and go home and, I don't know, help out, I guess. But because I was a minor, I had to get a parent or guardian to sign the forms and he wouldn't sign them. Didn't want me underfoot, you know. So I just forged his signature and left Cambridge and went home.
"When I was home, I just started to feel like…not sad, really, more like everything was so much effort. I would stand at the bottom of a flight of stairs and think about going up, but it would seem like too much work. And it was the first time this had ever happened to me and I don't know, I guess I just figured that's how I was going to feel for the rest of my life. Stupid, huh?
"Anyways, I got an extension cord and rigged it up like a noose in one of the spare workrooms because it had a higher ceiling and based on my math…" Tony stares at his hand for a moment. "So my plan was just to keep drinking until I knew I wouldn't chicken out and then I would do it. But while I was drinking, Obi walked in. Obi never knocks."
"Who's Obi?" asks Steve.
"He's my dad's friend. I've known him since I was a little kid. He was at the house all the time, trying to help my dad find papers or something."
Steve nods. "So then what happened?"
"Obi looks at the cord and he looks at me and he says. 'You shouldn't leave your projects lying around like this. People might get the wrong idea.' He took the extension cord and told me to get out of the workroom and go watch some TV. I could see him and my dad arguing, but I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could see Obi showing my dad the cord, still tied up like a noose." Tony shrugged. "The next day, a social worker showed up to talk to me about where I was going to live for the next couple of years. I would have gotten emancipated otherwise. I'm sure of it."
"Did your dad ever say anything to you about it?"
"The day before I moved upstate, I was playing Shadow of the Colossus and he walked into the room and said, 'You have a lot of work left to do,' and then he walked back out again. Does that count?"
Manhattan – Present Day
They were taking a cab to the train station. Erik suspected this was because Ororo worried about keeping him contained on public transportation. He didn't stare out the windows. He certainly wasn't wowed by the sheer human density and while he might generally believe in always gathering information, he just didn't feel like it at the moment.
Erik paused at those words, because he was not one to simply do what he felt like. He did what needed to be done.
Except maybe there was no Charles.
Erik looked up at Ororo. She was still a little taller than him. "Are they going to lock me up?" he asked.
She looked sad. "I don't know the answer to that question."
And because he knew that she had some respect for the strength of his convictions, Erik added, "It all seems so real."
Ororo placed a hand very tentatively on Erik's shoulder, for he had never sought comfort before. "There are many kinds of real," she said.
Erik didn't lean into her touch, but neither did he stiffen or turn away. He simply sat in silence and stared at the cola-stained seat back in front of him.
Ororo's phone rang. Why was Tony Stark calling?
Richard Cory – Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence (1966).
Chapter 13: Sunny Came Home
Sorry for the long delay. I got derailed and distracted and possibly dysentery.
Ororo tented her fingers against the bridge of her nose. They were back in Tony's apartment, a decision which might not have seemed so wildly irresponsible if she had been twenty-five years old and responsible only for herself, but was certainly questionable for a middle-aged woman charged with the care of a probably-delusional child.
Tony was flipping rapidly between screens on one of his many computers. "Well, basically what I'm saying is that someone with the name Charles Xavier was born in New York State and he's been erased from the birth records. It's hard to think of an innocent reason for someone to do that."
"How can you tell he was born there if the record was erased?" Ororo asked, cautiously.
"I accessed a cached version of it on a Google deepwebs server that scanned the data a year ago. Thank God for Google, right? Hey, that would make a good t-shirt. I wonder if I wrote them a detailed letter explaining all the flaws in their security systems, maybe they would offer me a job."
"Focus, Anthony," said Ororo. "If someone wanted to delete a birth record, how would they go about it?"
Tony shrugged. "They would either have to be an incredible computer genius like myself or they'd have to physically break into the department of records and change it centrally."
"Which would be really easy to do for someone who can change his form and control people's minds," huffed Erik, voice brimming with impatience and derision.
"Hey, I said I think there really is something fishy going on here," said Tony. "That doesn't mean I believe in some magic glowy-eyed dude."
"I said his eyes were red. I didn't say they glowed."
"Real people don't have red eyes!"
"What about albinos?" It was Steve's first contribution to the conversation. "Albinos have red eyes."
"That's so not the point, Cap." Tony rolled his eyes.
Steve put down his coffee mug. "If we believe a child is in danger, shouldn't we notify the authorities?"
"And tell them what?" Erik's face was blank and his eyes were cold. "A mentally ill twelve-year-old has been hearing voices which he believes are the telepathic communications of the missing boy. We confirmed this when an unstable, substance abusing teenager committed multiple felonies. The only suspect is a shapechanging superhuman of unknown origin and motive. Put out an APB!"
"Hey, speaking of crimes," Tony shoved Erik lightly, "give me my stuff back."
Erik said nothing and his face remained blank.
"You think I'm going to buy the dumb kid act now? Give me back my letters, give me back my soldering iron, and I don't know why you decided to take a tuning fork, but give me back that too."
Erik remained stubbornly silent, but he reached into his backpack and retrieved the stolen items.
"You opened my letters!"
"Just some of them. You hacked into governmental databases. I didn't think you were a big fan of privacy." Erik smirked. "If it helps, I don't want to kill you anymore."
Tony did the math faster than the two adults. Erik had wanted to kill Tony on the belief that doing so would hurt Tony's father. Erik read Tony's letters from his father and changed his mind because… "You evil, soulless little ba-"
Steve put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Keep your cool," he whispered under his breath. "He's just trying to get under your skin. You got your things back, let's move on." His hand worked toward the base of Tony's neck, fingers spreading up through his hair.
Tony looked sullen, but held his tongue.
"I would suggest," said Ororo, "that we go visit the boy's home, where perhaps we will find him safe and sound, but if we do not, hopefully the next step will present itself." She nodded at Steve. "I understand you have work, of course."
Steve shook his head. "It's my business; I can take a day off. I think I ought to come with you guys. I have a good relationship with the police and, uh, if there's any," he paused, "trouble, I'm the only person in this room who, er…weighs more than 130 pounds."
"Yes, yes, we get it," said Erik. He spoke to Ororo while he waved his hand at Steve and Tony impatiently. "I'm not going to listen to the military-industrial complex circle jerk over there all day. I'm going to go find Charles. You can help me or you can get out of my way."
"No, you're not."
"Why?" whined Tony, hopping up and down on the balls of his feet.
"You've broken enough laws already today."
"You're no fun."
Steve smiled indulgently, but kept a firm grasp on the keys.
Erik stared out the window. He was finally going to New Salem. Even better, he was starting feel the metal of the car, sense it like a faint ringing in his ears. All these other people were coming too, which wasn't ideal, but he might be able to think of uses for them. Tony was easy enough to manipulate, so was Ororo. He wasn't sure about Steve, but only because he hadn't yet tried. If an upright army captain with a homosexual teenaged lover wasn't ripe for blackmail, who was?
As he watched the endless ebb and flow of traffic, Erik realized that he was uncomfortable with the emptiness in his head. He had grown used to Charles' company. He had forgotten how to entertain himself. If Charlotte were here, he would have taught her things – the colors of the cars, the best and the worst among the street vendors – or told her elaborate stories about the people they passed. That man, you see him? He is actually an alien, a spacefarer. He is only in disguise today so he can visit earth and pick up supplies. And Charlotte would gape at him with the open, unabashed hero-worship that came so easily to preschool children.
For some reason, this thought made Erik feel sick, and he resigned himself to gazing blankly at the odometer as it ticked the miles toward Greymalkin Lane.
"I understand you have a son in the military?" asked Steve, casting a quick glance at the passenger's seat. The whole situation was awkward beyond belief, and conversational prowess, particularly with women, had never been Steve's strong suit, but there was no reason for him to be rude.
"Ah, yes, my son James is a marine."
"You must be very proud."
"I am. Worried, often. But also proud."
"Where is he stationed now?"
"I don't know. He's somewhere dangerous, being incredibly reckless. In or near Afghanistan, I think, but he can't tell me the specifics." She sighed and cracked a sly smile. "I just wish they would stop awarding him Purple Hearts. It only encourages him."
"Wait," said Steve, "your son wouldn't be named James Logan, would he?"
"How did you know?" She sounded honestly amazed. "I thought you were in the army."
"I've never met him personally, but he's a bit of a legend. There's an unofficial record for the servicemember with the most Purple Hearts who survived his wounds, and James Logan is the leader by a pretty astonishing margin." Steve's smile stiffened slightly. "I don't mean to make light of his injuries. He's obviously a very brave individual."
"He's…I suppose resilient would be the right word." Or feral, she added silently. Ororo had realized long ago that she could never really change these boys, only help them to be a better version of who they already were. At least, that approach had worked with James, and with Alex and with Jamie. It hadn't been nearly as successful with Tony or Nathaniel. Erik remained to be seen, a fact which was reinforced by the bits of chatter she could overhear from the backseat.
"When I find him, I will defeat him," said Erik.
"Seriously, man," said Tony, "do you realize how fucked up you sounds? This isn't some video game or something. What are you going to do with your life after you 'defeat' your crazy magic zombie whatever?" Ororo felt it was unfortunate that Tony never seemed to apply that level of introspection to his own life.
"After that, there are many other people that I need to…deal with."
"God, you are so creepy." Tony spoke from the corner of his mouth. "A sociopath who thinks he's magic. It's like Harry Potter and A Clockwork Orange had a kid."
"Have you always been this irritating or were you just bitten by a radioactive douchebag?"
Ororo sighed and returned her attention to Steve. "So you retired from the military recently?" Ororo did in fact consider herself skilled in polite chit-chat, but the circumstances were trying to say the least.
"Yeah," he nodded, "just a few years ago."
"Was it-" She stopped herself before completing the question, though not before beginning it. It would be sad, really, if he had been discharged for being gay only months before Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed, but it was certainly none of her business.
"No, not that." Steve shook his head. "I kept things private and that was good enough for my superiors. It was just..." he paused, then gestured to himself. "Guys my size don't get pushed around. But there were other soldiers, ones like me but not as big. They were getting pushed around and nobody seemed to think it was a problem. I've been willing to make certain compromises, but that just…I couldn't stand for it." He shrugged. "I offered the soldiers who were being mistreated honorable discharges and then I resigned."
Ororo felt her lips press forward. She was not going to like or admire or think well of Steve Rogers. Perhaps he had done some good things in life, but he was currently maintaining a relationship with a boy less than half his age. Of course, she was currently allowing the child in her care to continue chasing after what was almost certainly a delusion, in a manner which was certainly in violation of the statutes which governed her conduct as a foster parent and would most likely involve additional law-breaking besides. A weakly amused smile found its way to her face. Who ever would have thought she would be nostalgic for the good old days of convincing James not to chew the furniture or Alex not to smoke pot in the living room?
It was well over an hour before the entered Westchester County; Tony loudly and repeatedly blamed this fact on Steve's frustratingly law-abiding driving habits.
Ororo waited until Erik looked her in the eye before repeating that they were simply going to determine whether or not Charles Xavier was missing. That was it. Erik pressed his chin to his chest, sullen, but he promised to keep his hands to himself. Of course, he had promised many other things during their short time together.
"Erik," she said softly, "do you want me to trust you?"
"Trust must be earned. I need to see that you can keep your promises."
Erik's face was unreadable.
Tony and Steve waited in the car, on the theory that a woman and a child would be the least threatening combination of people to randomly appear on one's doorstep and because ringing the doorbell was elected as a course of action above Erik's suggestion that he steal a ladder and smash a second-story window.
Erik rang the doorbell. Ororo had agreed that he could be the one to speak if he would refrain from making threats. He held his arms behind his back, bent 90 degrees at the elbows, so each hand could grip the opposite wrist.
The door opened to show a pale woman in an elegant linen dress. "Hello?"
"Where is Charles?" said Erik, flatly. Ororo held her tongue – he was more brusque than she would have been, but he hadn't broken their agreement.
"Um, well he's…" The woman's head tipped to the side and her brow was drawn. "Who are you?"
"I want to know where Charles is."
"My son is attending an exclusive private boarding school in-"
"Charles pities your weakness," interrupted Erik. "I don't. My mother was small, but she wasn't weak. She risked her life many times to get me to safety, but you- you just let him take your son. Isn't that right?"
"Who are you?"
"I'm the master of the universe," said Erik, "and I'm the person who is going to fix your mistake. Now where is Charles?"
The woman stood in the doorway, her hand perched over her open mouth. Her face was frightened, stunned. Erik stared back, as unreadable and determined as ever. The woman reached behind the doorframe to withdraw a pen and a takeout menu. She pressed the menu against the wall and wrote quickly. "My husband worked with an itinerant scientist, a man named Nathan Marbury. He said he was going to teach Charles, train him. This is the only address we ever had for him." As she handed the paper over she said softly, "I'm sor-"
"Don't apologize to me. I'm not the son you sold out." Erik snatched the paper and looked at it, memorizing the address. Before he folded it and stuffed it in his pocket, he tore off a corner. "Call this number if you find any other information."
Tony watched Erik do his freaky-ass Children of the Corn routine for the missing kid's mom. "He wasn't wrong, you know," said Tony, turning to look at Steve, "about my Dad. That he wouldn't be…you know, if I died."
"I don't know if that's true – I've never met him – but if so, it's his loss." Steve kissed Tony's hand gallantly.
They both watched as Erik turned back to the driveway, jaw tightly clenched. He walked, if not calmly, then at least steadily and without violence. Then suddenly, as he reached the car, he let out a sound halfway between hyperventilation and screaming while he attacked the trunk with a flurry of punches and kicks.
"Hey!" yelped Tony. "What the fuck, man?"
Steve put his hand on Tony's shoulder. "It's a step up. Better to attack cars than people, right?"
"You don't even like this car. And besides, how many cars have you wrecked in the past year?"
"Define 'wrecked'." A smirk.
His anger spent, Erik dropped to the ground on his hands and knees, gasping for air.
"I'm very proud of you, Erik." Ororo knelt next to him. "Now let's go find your friend."
Chapter 14: Look Down
So I feel a little weird continuing this story given the recent outbreaks of government violence in Syria. Like I said before, I am not an expert on the current geopolitical situation in that area, and the story I made up for Erik and his family was simply meant to be plausible, not a fully realistic narrative of the actual human rights situation there. Anyways, in a brief, guilty bout of consciousness-raising, I encourage you to go to some kind of reputable news site and become more aware of what's happening to real people in the real Syria.
Look Down is from Les Miserables, of course.
Erik clambered slowly back into the car, still trembling with rage. He held out the paper he had received from Charles' mother. "This is the address they had for him. It's in Oak Ridge, Tennessee."
"Oak Ridge?" burst out Tony. "For real? Fuck, this guy's probably some kind of terrorist. Oak Ridge is full of experimental nuclear power plants and decommissioned reactors and eerily flat-looking aerial photographs."
"We have to go there now," said Erik. "We have to go find Charles. We've wasted enough time already."
"Are you even listening to me?" asked Tony. "This is fucking serious. This isn't some stupid game. We should be reporting this to the NSA or something."
Erik bared his teeth, nostrils flaring and eyes narrowed. "You think I'm not taking this seriously? You think I don't know what this man is capable of?"
"Okay," said Steve, turning the ignition and dropping a hand back between Erik and Tony. "Here's what we're going to do. I am going to find us a diner someplace nearby and we are going to stop there for breakfast. When we do, we're going to put our heads together and calmly figure out what to do next. Until we get there, we're all just going to keep quiet and try to get our heads on straight. Understood?"
"What would you like ma'am?"
"Just tea, thank you." Ororo dipped her head politely.
The waitress looked expectantly at Tony.
"Three cups of coffee. Large cups of coffee. Maybe four. You know what? Forget that, just give me a pot of coffee and a mug. No, a bowl!" Tony was suddenly aware that Steve was staring him down, eyebrows raised in mild disapproval. "Um, forget that. Just a cup of coffee. One. That's plenty of coffee."
The waitress held back a sigh, clearly hoping that crazy plus well-dressed would equal generous tips. "And you, young man?"
Erik's expression and voice were flat. "Toast, please. Plain toast. Nothing on it."
"And for you?"
"Hmm," said Steve, "I think I'd like a piece of apple pie. Thanks."
As the waitress turned to leave, Erik echoed, "Apple pie?" with a hint of his more mischievous self. "You've got to be fucking kidding me." He snorted. "I swear to god if we get hot dogs and a baseball game next I'm going to throw a rock at a bald eagle just to even the score."
"So let's start at the beginning," said Steve, and Ororo wondered when and how he had taken charge of the situation. "You first met this guy in Syria?"
"No, in Lebanon. My mother and I left Syria and we were hiding in Lebanon while we were trying to apply for asylum."
"What was he doing there, anyways?" asked Tony. "I mean, if he's after the kid of some guy he works with, that's one thing, but why would be on the other side of the world, looking for you? It's not like you're famous or something."
Erik seemed to freeze momentarily, and his eyes became quite wide. Then it passed and he spoke. "How the hell should I know? He was a doctor there, was posing as a doctor there. You have to see a doctor to apply for asylum and my mom's contacts sent her to him. Of course the contacts might have been him, in disguise. He can take any form."
Ororo sipped her tea. Well that was one mystery solved, at least: Erik's famous fear of doctors.
Steve nodded, apparently content to at least hear out Erik's report at face value. "All right, so you go and see this guy. What name was he using?"
"Windsor. Dr. Robert Windsor. He looked normal unless you looked really close at him. Then you could kind of see his eyes, or at least I could. I don't know if other people could too. And he looked at me and put his soul in me and made the Master of the Universe."
"His soul?" Tony snorted. "Okay, apart from the fact that there's no such thing as souls, if there were such a thing as souls, I would assume people would want to hang onto theirs. Come on, man. What really happened?"
Erik simply looked sad. "I don't want to talk about this," he said, softly.
"Oh, wait, hey," said Tony, sympathetic, curious, and – as always – the first one to put the pieces together, "was he the guy who shot your mom?"
"I said I don't want to talk about it," hissed Erik. His eyes were steely and the flatware on their table began to rattle. Erik slowly and deliberately shut his eyes. He breathed deeply and the utensils stilled.
Ororo watched him, proud that he had successfully calmed himself, had handled his rage without violence. "Perhaps we should move on. Erik, could you explain how Charles fits into this story?"
"The enemy worked with Charles' step-dad at the Indian Point power plant. His name was Nathan Marbury there. He did the same thing to Charles that he did to me. He made him a Master of the Universe. We compared the dates and I think I was first. Charles has different powers than me. He can read minds, so he knew that the enemy was trying to get his mom and his step-dad to give him to them." Erik paused and took a tiny bite of his toast. He chewed it slowly. "His step-dad is worthless. He didn't like Charles and he beat up Charles' mom, which I don't care but it made Charles unhappy. I don't know what the enemy offered them. They pretend to think that he took Charles to a school or something, but they know, really, that's not true, but his step-dad doesn't really care and his mom's just…dust."
"Why did he want Charles?" asked Steve.
"I don't know. Maybe he wants to keep all the Masters close."
"Did he try to keep you with him, in Lebanon?" Steve had begun to wonder if this was all some sort of elaborate metaphor for pedophilia.
"No. I don't think he realized what he had done. He controls people with his eyes all the time, but I don't think he ever met someone like me before, somebody special. I think it was the first time he made someone a Master." Erik tipped his head to the side. "I bet Charles can tell who's special. He can tell pretty much anything about a person. Maybe that's why the enemy wants him, so he can find more special people and make an army of Masters."
"And this guy's some sort of nuclear technician? I still think we should alert the government." Tony was keeping his voice even, perhaps out of guilt at his previous comment.
"And tell them what?" said Steve, echoing Erik's earlier argument. "I can't think of any way to describe this without sounding insane."
"I would suggest," said Ororo, "that, as before, we go and investigate ourselves before deciding whether or not to involve the authorities, as we have no credible evidence at all that this man is involved in any wrongdoing."
"Except for kidnapping this Charles kid," pointed out Tony.
"Taking him with his parents' consent is not kidnapping, no matter how morally distasteful the whole matter might be. They might be guilty of neglect, but he may have committed no crime." Ororo was sadly familiar with the laws surrounding children's supervision and custody, thanks to her long friendship with Kitty Pryde.
"Then we go to Oak Ridge and investigate," said Erik, voice firm and determined once more. He looked at Tony. "Don't you have a private plane?"
"No, Stark Industries has a private plane. For business use. And we can't sneak it right now because the S.E.C. is on our asses like-"
Steve interrupted before Tony could finish the metaphor. "Okay, Stark plane is not an option. What are we going to do instead?"
"I can get us regular plane tickets really fast," said Tony with a disappointed shrug. This was hardly the Batman-esque application of his incredible wealth that he liked to fantasize about in his spare moments.
Steve inserted a CD in an apparent effort to discourage further conversation. After a few minutes of listening to the original cast recording of Les Miserables, Erik said, "Seriously? You're a gay guy who likes showtunes? I'm gonna start calling you Captain Stereotype."
Ororo raised a finger to silence the muffled laughter and dialed Erik's itinerant teacher. "Yes, hello Melanie. You're well? Oh, good. I'm afraid Erik is having a difficult morning. Perhaps…yes, perhaps that would be best. I'm sure we can make it up later…Of course…yes, thank you…good bye."
If this was all real, thought Ororo, than Jamie might be in danger as well. She texted Kitty and Piotr. Jamie is not feeling well. Please don't let him out of your sight. If you need to, call Hank. A few minutes later, she received their responses: ok is ther a problm? and Da. respectively. She looked at Erik via the rearview mirror. His body seemed tight, muscles tense, as if he were a predatory cat ready to pounce at any moment. She blinked and looked at him again. Though she was certain he hadn't moved, he now looked tired and weak and defeated.
Ororo had thought that airport security with Erik would be a nightmare. However much the TSA liked to pretend that they didn't profile, a strange, squirrelly, Arabic-speaking boy would surely draw their attention. But Erik was focused on his goal, and he remained quiet and polite.
Tony and Steve, as it turned out, were not so simple. When Steve removed his shoes, Ororo first noticed that he had a prosthetic foot. "Yeah," he said with good humor, "I don't get along too well with metal detectors these days."
"It's titanium, Steve," said Tony, "non-magnetic." He grinned proudly. "You wouldn't believe the crap they had him walking on. Unconscionably old-school. I completely redesigned it."
"The screws and the baseplate are still steel," said Steve as he walked forward in the line. Even knowing what to look for, Ororo was hard-pressed to detect any oddities in his gait.
"Only because you wouldn't let me replace them."
"You're right, I'm not letting you do surgery on my leg."
"You're not a surgeon."
"You use that excuse for everything."
"I…" Steve paused. "I think the better question is why you try to do surgery so often."
The security agents sheepishly pulled Steve aside to be scanned with a handheld device, but allowed him to pass without too much difficulty.
Tony was considerably slower. He produced a flurry of paperwork to justify his set of lockpicks, soldering gear, and miscellaneous bits of wire until the security table looked as though a Radio Shack had vomited there.
They were early, of course, which meant they had time to kill in the terminal. Through long experience raising trouble-prone adolescent boys, Ororo knew that waiting was rarely their strong suit, so she purchased a handheld electronic chess game at one of the dozen or so newsstands that dotted this wing of the airport. Erik thanked her politely and settled to the ground, grateful apparently to have something else to focus on.
Tony, conversely, had been energized by his victory over airport security and was now hopping over empty chairs and talking at Steve a mile a minute. "Ok, so before, it was like I only understood maybe 70% or 80% of French, but now I understand 100% of it forever and ever, amen." He got out of his chair and switched to the empty seat on the other side of Steve. "And now, I think I can think in French, and hear in French too." He stood again, and bounced from one foot to the other, uncertain where to sit. "I can also think in binary. And hexadecimal. And-"
"Tony." Steve held up a hand, palm out, in the 'stop' gesture. "I really need you to calm down. We're doing something important and we can't waste time getting into trouble."
"And what if I don't?" asked Tony, his voice a strange mix of playful and surly.
"Well," said Steve, "I suppose I'd be cross with you."
"Cross?" Tony sighed. "Seriously, Steve, nobody says they're cross."
"What's wrong with 'cross'? It's a perfectly good word."
"Yeah, but nobody says that anymore. You say 'pissed off'."
"You can say whatever you like, mister, but I'm going to keep my language clean while there are women and children present."
"God, you're ridiculous," said Tony, but he sounded fond.
"C'mon," Steve patted the seat next to him, "you can explain to me the differences between all of these airplanes. They look the same to me."
"The same? You couldn't be more wrong!" announced Tony grandly before launching into a detailed explanation of engine types and wind shear. Steve grinned fondly; Tony was almost comically easy to manipulate when you knew the right buttons to push.
Erik touched the thick glass oval that comprised the plane's window. He'd only ever been on a plane once before – well, four different planes in a row, technically – when he was coming to the United States from Lebanon. Alone.
As the captain announced they were beginning their descent to the Knoxville airport, Erik felt about with his mind for Charles' presence, more by reflex than any conscious decision.
Erik? It was weak, but it was there. Erik! I don't know where I am, but it's dark and it hurts.
Chapter 15: Until It Sleeps
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"We're going to find you," whispered Erik. "We're going to destroy the enemy and set you free."
"Erik?" asked Ororo softly. She had been on edge through the entire flight, not because she was afraid of flying, per se, but because the plane was small and crowded. "Who are you talking to?"
He silently cast his eyes from side to side as if considering the pros and cons of truthfulness. "Charles," he whispered at last. "I can hear him again."
Tell her I'm sorry for all the trouble.
"I'm not telling her that. Quit being stupid." Erik grinned.
It wasn't raining in Tennessee, but it was cold windy and the clouds were thick. Erik pointed to a newsstand and asked Ororo for money for an umbrella. She smiled serenely and handed him a ten-dollar bill. As far as she was aware, Erik didn't particularly mind being wet, but she knew a security blanket when she saw one. It felt better to do something than to do nothing, to take some precaution than to wait idly. Sure enough, when Erik returned to the bench, he was clutching a dark green umbrella tightly with both hands. He peered around the side of the handle to watch Steve fill out paperwork at the rental car counter.
And then they were in the car, heading to the Oak Ridge address Erik had gotten from Charles' mother, using Tony's cell phone as a GPS.
Erik was still gripping his umbrella tightly. "Can you see anything? Any clues?"
It's dark. He turned the lights out when he left. I couldn't see outside before that either.
Are you disappointed? Because I'm glad.
"What do you hear? Or smell?"
I can hear wind. And I can hear little…like little feet, like rats or mice. Sometimes I can feel them on me. Charles paused. My head hurts really bad.
"Don't be scared," said Erik. "Just think about how we're going to kill him."
I'm afraid I don't find that as comforting as you do.
"The GPS says to turn right up here."
"I don't care, he's definitely the other way. I can feel it. Turn left."
Steve stared through the windshield. To the left, there were battered brick buildings and enormous dented metal cylinders, like silos but more squat and menacing. He glanced back at Erik. He turned left.
"Can you tell which one?" asked Steve, slowing as they reached the parking lot. There were three large buildings and two small ones, interspersed among the gigantic cylinders.
They were in the middle of nowhere. If the Enemy was gone, there was no reason to be subtle. "Scream," whispered Erik. "At the top of your lungs." They all heard Charles' response, a moan coming from the west, a weaker sound than they had hoped for. It was followed by a coughing fit.
Sorry, whispered Charles, talking hurts.
The double doors at the front of the building were heavily bolted. Steve was apparently a fan of the direct route, because he picked up a stray block of concrete from the ground and smashed open a first-floor window. Erik sprinted forward, but Steve blocked him. "Wait," he said. "There's no need for you to get hurt." Steve took off his coat and his sweatshirt, then put his coat back on. He lay the sweatshirt over the jagged window opening. He offered a hand to Erik. "Need a boost?"
A heavy metal lever turned on old track lighting, with many bulbs broken or burned out, but enough remained to illuminate the scene. Roaches scattered. It was some kind of abandoned workroom or laboratory, with Formica tables and bell jars lining the walls, covered with dirt and debris. The floor was wet and filthy. Underneath one of the working lights, Tony could see tiny animal footprints, though he had no idea what kind. The center of the room held enormous depressions that cut through the floor and into the earth – in the dim light, it was impossible to gauge the depth. On the far side of the room, there was another Formica workstation, but this one was clear of natural detritus and instead held a small stack of scientific journals, papers, and notebooks alongside a small desklamp.
And beside the desk was a boy. He looked much younger than Erik; whereas Erik was lanky, lean and angular, this boy still had a bit of baby fat, not overweight, but soft and rounded at the edges. He was dressed in corduroys and sneakers, a winter jacket and a knit cap. As they got closer, they could see that there were manacles around his feet and a thick chain binding him to a support pillar. A few feet away from the boy, within his reach, were bottles of water and little bits of prepackaged food, peanuts and crackers. The area around him stank of vomit. He was hunched, with his elbows drawn back, each hand worrying the other.
"Charles!" cried Erik, and he dashed across the laboratory. He knelt beside his friend, taking both of Charles' hands into both of his own.
Ororo, Tony, and Steve followed close behind, shocked by the scene in front of them. It was one thing for all of the clues to point toward this missing boy, it was another thing entirely to see him in the flesh.
"What happened to your eyebrows?" blurted Tony, in an apparent failure to prioritize.
The boy, Charles, looked up at his rescuers round-eyed, and brought a hand to his face. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out.
Steve had seen this before, in defunct Soviet states. He stepped forward and removed the boy's hat, clumps of hair falling out as he did. Charles was nearly bald save for a few irregular patches, and there were tiny flecks of red and purple dotting his scalp. "This place must be leaking radiation. We need to get you to a hospital."
"What are we going to tell the hospital?" asked Tony. "They're going to have a few questions about a kid coming in radiation poisoning."
"I should be able to control their minds," said Charles softly. His voice was much higher than Erik's, quieter, younger.
"Good god, you're multiplying!" yelped Tony. "You're like gremlins! Did someone feed you after midnight?"
Charles looked at Ororo, his head cocked to one side. "Ever since that boy set your house on fire, you've been afraid of closets, even though you think it's sort of silly to be scared like that." He turned to Steve. "The saddest you've ever been in your whole life was when you were in Kuwait and they couldn't get you back to the United States before your mother died." He furrowed his brow at Tony. "The number you're thinking of is the natural logarithm of 4,278 divided by pi, and you're a bit of a jerk for thinking of an irrational number."
They all stared, with the exception of Erik, who continued to cradle Charles' hands.
It was Steve who shook off the shock first. "We can worry about all that later. Right now, we've got to get this kid out of here. Tony, can you pick the lock on those chains?"
Tony tipped his head to the side. "Oh yeah, these aren't bad. A little tougher in this light, and because it's rusty. Usually under 6 minutes, but…" He began pulling out his tools and moved to kneel on the floor before whining, "Agh, the floor's nasty." A beat. "But, um, no problem," he added, and they could hear his calves squelching into the muck. "All right, somebody time me," he announced as he began to manipulate his tools.
Ororo bent down to get closer to the boy. "Charles," she addressed him, "my name is Ororo Munroe. I know your friend Erik. You're safe now."
Charles nodded silently.
"Are those," she pointed to the clean table, "do those papers belong to the man who brought you here?"
"Yes, ma'am. He left a few hours ago. He said he'd be back tomorrow. I don't know where he went."
"We should take them with us," said Ororo, gesturing to the paperwork and looking back at Steve. "There may be…clues." She stumbled over the last word because it sounded like fiction, like something that would only happen in stories and not to her.
Steve's lips pursed. "Good thinking." He began to gather the books and journals. "I'll take these out to the car and try to get the door open so we don't have to lift the boy through the window."
Ororo nodded to him then looked back at Tony who was lost in concentration with his tiny, pointed tools before turning her gaze to the two young boys huddled together on the floor. They were alternately looking at each other and glancing away, down or to the side, their faces cycling through different expressions, looking for all the world as though they were having a conversation, though neither boy made a sound.
They were back in the car, Ororo in the back seat next to Charles and Erik. Tony was in the passenger's seat, looking through the Enemy's papers.
"A large hospital is going to have better facilities for treating this than a small one," said Steve. "Can you do your, um…talent on a large number of people?"
"Bigger is actually easier," said Charles. "I can make everybody think that someone else has it covered." The last word was mixed with a hiccough. "I think I'm going to throw up again," he said, sounding weak.
Without ever looking up from the photocopied article he was skimming, Tony took a soft drink cup, dumped the contents out the window, and passed it backward.
"Tha-" said Charles, and true to his prediction, he began to retch before he could even finish the word, but nothing came up. "It's been hard to eat," he said, apologetically.
Erik wrapped a possessive arm around his friend and Ororo realized that he hadn't said a word since recognizing Charles upon entering the workshop.
"Holy shit!" yelled Tony. "There's notes on me in here." He held up a hardbound journal with pressed wildflowers on the cover. "Seriously, like, it's saying stuff like 'Anthony is still noncompliant with Dr. Strange's recommendations' and 'Tony called at 4am needing a ride home and I suspect…'" Tony trailed off and flipped backward in the journal. "And hey, here it's talking about Jamie. Wow, this Enemy guy is-"
"Give it to me." Ororo's voice was not loud, but it was commanding. "Give it to me, now." She held out her hand. She only needed to examine the journal briefly before her suspicions were confirmed. "This is my writing. These are my notes. These were destroyed in the fire. Nothing paper was salvaged. How could he possibly…" She brought her hand to her mouth. Something very dangerous was happening. She was suddenly afraid and she knew there was wisdom in emotions. They could be irrational, yes, but they could also be prescient. She was afraid, now, because there was danger to her herself and her sons, even if she did not yet know its form.
"A lot of these articles are by Kadia Lehnsherr," said Tony, breaking the silence that had fallen over the car. "And remember, before, we were trying to figure out why he would go looking for Erik? I don't think he was. I think he was looking for Erik's mom. I mean, math famous isn't the same as real famous, but still, this guy totally knew who she was."
No one said anything for almost a minute, then Ororo turned to look at Erik. "I wanted to give you all the time you needed, but…" She traced the corners of the journal with her thumb and forefinger. "But now, I need to know if this man is a murderer. Did he kill your mother?"
Erik drew his shoulders closer together and wrapped his other arm around Charles as well. Charles hugged him back and said, "Don't ask that. It's too sad."
"I don't want to ask a question that causes your friend so much pain," replied Ororo, "but if my sons may be in danger, then I need to understand the threat."
Charles and Erik looked one another in the eye and seemed to be having another silent conversation.
"I can answer for him," said Charles, and then he changed. His consonants became sharper, the sibilants had the slightest hiss on top, the R's became broader and deeper. It was still Charles' voice, but with Erik's speech patterns overlain on top.
"He doesn't want to get caught," said Erik-as-Charles, "so he doesn't leave evidence. He looks at me. It will be my fingerprints, not his. My muscles don't do what I want. I'm holding a gun. My words aren't mine. I tell her to kneel. I want to look away. I want to close my eyes but I can't." Charles and Erik flinched in unison, as if startled by a loud sound. "I really wish I could close my eyes."
Erik wrenched away. He looked like he was screaming, but no sound came out. The whole car shook terribly, until Charles wrapped his arms around Erik once more and the boys clung tightly to one another again.
"You think he's going to be okay?"
Steve sat on the bed to untie his shoes. "I'm pretty sure you know a lot more about radiation sickness than I do, but he didn't seem to have any of the most severe signs. I seem to recall that if it's mild and you get treatment quickly, it's very survivable."
"I was actually talking about Erik."
"Oh." Steve rubbed his temples with the palms of his hands. "It's…it's a hell of a thing for a kid to go through." Steve could feel Tony's hand on his back, rubbing in circles that were getting lower and lower. Steve's first impulse to was to snap at him – how could he be thinking out sex at a time like this? But it would be a pointless question as Steve had long since accepted that no good would come from attempting to apply logic to Tony's sex drive. Besides, sex could be a legitimate means of comfort, or at least a distraction, and sometimes distraction wasn't such a bad choice. So Steve turned, guiding Tony further back onto the bed, kissing down his chest to the waistband of his jeans.
"No," said Tony.
Steve froze, partially because he was a good man who believed that good men stopped when they heard that word, and partially because he was fairly certain Tony had never before turned down a blow job in his life.
"I want to take care of you," said Tony.
And that was a need too, wasn't it? So Tony knelt on the carpet while Steve sat on the bed, legs spread wide, but Steve couldn't seem to get more than half-hard. "I'm still a little worked up over what's happened to those kids," he said, drawing Tony's head back. "It's tough to really get into it. But it felt nice, though. I always love your mouth. Thank you." Steve glanced down at Tony and wondered if he should offer to reciprocate, but no, Tony wasn't really hard either, so he took Tony's hand and guided him up to the bed. "I'd just like to hold you, if that's all right."
Tony made a soft, unintelligible sound that was probably agreement and let Steve wrap his arms around him. After a few minutes, he spoke. "Is it weird if…if I want to call my dad?"
Steve gave a smiling sort of sigh. "No, it's not weird. You just heard about a kid losing his only parent and you want to check in with yours." Steve held Tony's hands in his own. "You just need to be prepared though, that he might not be ready to say the kind of things you need to hear."
"I just want to make sure he's okay, Steve. People get hurt in prison. People get killed."
"You're his next of kin," said Steve, reasonably. "If something happened to him, they'd notify you."
"I think he might have listed Obi as his next of kin."
"Then if something happened, Obi would tell you." Steve shifted back so that his hand rested on Tony's side. "If you want to call, go ahead and call."
Tony rolled slowly off the side of the bed, grabbing his cell from the nightstand. He tapped a few buttons – of course he had the number programmed in there – then he was shuffling into the hallway with the phone. Steve lay back and turned on the TV, unsure whether he was hoping that Tony would get to talk to his dad or hoping that he wouldn't.
After a few minutes, Tony wandered back into the room. "It's not a time when, you know, they're allowed to talk on the phone. The thing said I can call back tomorrow at 10am if I want," he added, but they both knew he wouldn't.
Steve nodded vaguely, having nothing else to say.
Tony began to unwork his jeans. "Fuck me," he said, sounding plaintive and looking Steve right in the eye.
How was Steve supposed so say no to that?
Which is how he ended up braced against the headboard, rutting into Tony, both of them sweating and gasping until they were spent, sticky and boneless.
"I knew there was a reason why I love you," murmured Tony, half asleep.
Steve knew that Tony would be awake again in two hours, trying to unscramble the hotel porn channel or playing Warcraft on his laptop and those were the good options. Less good, but still entirely plausible would be Tony wandering down to the hotel bar to try and find a stranger to sleep with or score a hit of some godforsaken neurotoxin. So when Tony said, 'I love you', Steve could only chastely kiss his forehead and answer, "Good night."
Erik still hadn't spoken. He hadn't said a word when they parted from Charles in the Emergency room. He hadn't said a word when Ororo walked him to the K-Mart across the street to buy fresh clothes and insisted that they shower and change. (It had been a long time since nursing school, but Ororo still remembered a bit about decontamination.) He hadn't said a word when they returned to the hospital and found Charles in the pediatric ICU, hooked up to an IV and a transfusion of blood.
He simply took off his shoes. Ororo could see what he wanted and he was clean, so she adjusted the wires and sensors and tubes that could be moved to allow Erik room to safely crawl onto the right side of the bed. He looked her in the eye and tipped his head forward, in a gesture she chose to interpret as gratitude, then he slipped under the thin hospital blanket, one arm pressed to his side, the other slung over Charles protectively.
Hair loss associated with radiation sickness is usually a delayed event, not an immediate symptom, but I was too enamored of the idea as a way to make Charles bald. A wizard did it. Deal.
Chapter 16: Who Needs Sleep
Ororo watched the boys sleep as she thumbed through her recently recovered journals. A week ago, she would have said they were invaluable, and that she would have given most anything to get them back, but under these circumstances, she would have preferred they had been burnt.
"Excuse me, Miss Munro?" breathed Charles softly. "I'm thirsty. Could I have some ice chips?" The hospital staff weren't letting Charles eat or drink yet, and Ororo assumed that the plastic cup of ice they had left next to his bed was melted.
"Of course, dear," she smiled warmly, before padding down the hall to where she guessed the ice would be. Hospital wards were all different, of course, but there was a certain pattern to them that showed up with remarkable consistency.
When she returned, Charles whispered, "Thank you," before tipping his head to the side. "You're thinking I'm brave, but I'm not, actually. I was scared of course, but I knew that Erik would come for me."
"How did you know that?"
"It's the same as the way he and I met in the first place. I was looking for other minds, farther and farther away. It's like this terrain I move on, and Erik is like gravity. I think I'm gravity for him too, except different." He gave an embarrassed smile. "I suppose I'm not explaining myself well. I don't think there are really words for what I want to say."
"I appreciate the attempt," said Ororo. She looked down at the journals. "Charles, do you know where he got these?"
"It's hard to read his mind. Maybe because he's the one who gave me my powers, or maybe because he's got mind powers too, but I did get some information. He picked them up from a desk and he put them in a backpack, a bright yellow one, like the color joggers wear so they don't get hit by cars. I think he was smaller, his hands were a little smaller." He shrugged apologetically. "That's all I know."
The Day-Glo backpack – there couldn't be many backpacks in the world that were such a jarring color. That confirmed it. She had held out, but there had really only been one possibility, because there had only been one person besides her in the house when the blaze started, and she had written in her journal only an hour before. Nathaniel Essex, polite and quiet foster child, was the Enemy, just another one of his aliases. She remembered the tape looping around her wrists and ankles. She remembered the grin he wore, like a cat with a bird in its mouth. She remembered the heat and the smoke. This was the Enemy. No wonder Erik feared he was indestructible.
"That's very helpful, Charles." She paused. "Do you know why…why he does these things? What is his goal?"
Charles' brow furrowed and he looked at Erik sleeping next to him. He yawned. "I don't really know. I think before Erik, he didn't know he could give people powers. He wants only special people to have powers, but he wants to make a lot of us. It's like…you know how some people have kids because they want to live forever? I think it's the same idea." He yawned again, his tongue flicking up and down as he did so, reminding Ororo of an old house dog.
"Thank you," she said, "I should let you sleep."
"Okay," he murmured, eyes fluttering shut, "okay."
Steve stirred an hour or two after they had gone to sleep, gradually awakened by the sound of Tony grunting and gasping in the bathroom. He looked drowsily around the room and saw no signs that anyone else had entered, nor did he hear any non-Tony sounds coming from the bathroom. So Tony was just jerking off, that wasn't so bad. Using the bathroom was actually surprisingly considerate, given the circumstances.
Steve rolled onto his other side and went back to sleep.
Steve woke next to the sound of the room telephone ringing. Seriously? Had Tony actually put in a prank wake-up call? Even Tony was usually more mature than that. Steve groaned and groped for the receiver in the darkness.
"Excuse me, Mr. Rogers?" It was a woman's voice, young and polite.
Steve sighed internally at the address. He always used to say that he went into the military so he wouldn't be called Mr. Rogers. "Yes?" he forced out, still no more than half-awake.
"Your…um, guest is down in the lobby and I would appreciate if you would escort him back to your room. I wouldn't want to have to call security." The last sentence was frosty, though he suspected the night manager was trying unsuccessfully for a blend of congenial and firm.
"Of course, yes, thank you for letting me know. I'll be down in a moment." Steve hung up the phone and groaned loudly. He could complain when no one was listening and still be stoic, right? Goddamn it, Tony. Damn it, damn it, damn it.
He rolled out of bed and put on some pants and a sweatshirt. He wasn't going to make this situation worse by stumbling downstairs half-dressed.
There was Tony in the lobby, surrounded by a lattice of what appeared to be tightly rolled newspaper sheets. There was the night manager – god, she looked young, almost as young as Tony.
"I'm so sorry for this," said Steve. "Thank you for calling me."
She shook her head, "It's no problem. I have a cousin who's like…" She gestured vaguely in Tony's direction. "I just…he asked me for the old newspapers and they're outdated so I gave them to him, but I really need him out of the lobby because he's freaking the other guests out."
Freaking out, thought Steve, was probably not the technical term for Tony's behavior, but it was close enough. He nodded, relieved that the lady wasn't freaked out herself and a little disappointed in himself for caring so much about a stranger's opinion. He knelt down next to Tony who was carefully rolling sheets of newsprint, sealing them into cylinders with saliva, and connecting them into a network of triangles and hexagons.
"What're you doing here, Tony?" Steve knew from experience that it was better to start with a question than a command when Tony got like this.
"Oh, hey, Steve!" There was no trace of the sadness or disappointment that had colored Tony's voice before they went to bed. Instead, he spoke quickly, brightly. "I've got this great idea, I mean, it's really brilliant. It's gonna be worth millions or maybe billions. No, what am I saying, of course it'll be worth billions. I called Obi to tell him all about it but he hung up on me and now he's not answering his phone."
"That's because it's four in the morning."
"It's 3:52," answered Tony, just a bit petulant.
"You know it creeps me out when you do that." Tony might have been proud of his attempt at surgically altering his own nervous system, but it made Steve more than a little queasy.
"Okay, but also, see over here, there's, I needed more space if I was, I had to, to make it work." Tony was gesturing wildly from one end of the construction to the other. "This is just a wiring map, of course."
"Of course," echoed Steve. So now Tony wasn't speaking in complete sentences. That usually signaled the worst of his manic phases, a time which had in the past been accompanied by Tony having indiscriminate, often unprotected sex with strangers and doing a million other stupid things that very well could have killed him if others – first Ororo, then Steve – hadn't been looking out for him. It also signaled that when Tony crashed, which he inevitably would, it was going to be particularly bad. He never went from high to normal, and the higher his mania, the lower his depression.
Steve sighed. This was so…inconvenient. They were trying to do something important, to solve a life-and-death mystery and here was Tony, basically useless. Worse than that, really, because Steve was going to have to waste time managing him, keeping him from going off the rails. Steve understood that people got sick and mental was no different from respiratory illness or renal illness, but he also suspected that, deep down, Tony liked it, that he wouldn't take the pills because he liked being saved. So he was going to take care of Tony, like he always did, but he couldn't help feeling just a little bit resentful about it.
"Come back to the room with me," said Steve. "I'll draw a prototype for you."
"I don't need a prototype, I've got it, got it perfect. My mind is, I have it."
"Well," Steve stood and offered a hand to Tony, "this sounds fascinating. I want you to tell me all about it when we get back to the room." Steve crossed his fingers on his other hand, hoping this would work. Tony loved to talk.
"Oh," said Tony, popping to his feet, arms twitching with excess energy. He began walking backwards toward the elevator. "It sends a pulse of light through that over the thing and then there's a series of daisy chained resistors which-"
Tony kept talking and Steve kept nodding at appropriate intervals until they were safely back in the room. For some odd reason, Steve felt compelled to apply the chain lock, as if that would keep Tony from wandering back out. "So wait," said Steve, "what does it actually do, for the consumer I mean?"
Tony shrugged, unconcerned. "That's a marketing problem."
They returned to the hospital in the morning. It would have been easier to leave Tony in the car, or back at the hotel, but that virtually guaranteed he would go and do something stupid, or at least something that would attract unwanted attention, so Steve simply tried his best to contain Tony's directionless energy and suggestive comments and random passers-by until they made their way to Charles' curtained alcove.
Ororo was sitting by the door. She waved at them, looking tired. Erik crouched on a chair by the bed. He showed no sign that he was aware of their presence and instead focused on systematically tearing tiny slivers off of a bagel and chewing them slowly. If the crumbs bothered Charles, he gave no sign. The younger boy looked more vital, stronger than he had the day before, although huge flakes of skin were now falling from his scalp like centimeter-wide dandruff, and he was now completely bald.
"No one else will listen to us," said Charles with confidence. "We can speak privately." He reached to his temple, brandishing his fingernails as if to scratch, but Erik reached out and tapped the back of Charles' wrist. Charles reversed and sat on his hands instead.
Erik stopped chewing and looked directly at Charles.
"Erik says we need to make a plan, to hunt down the Enemy and- Erik, I'm not saying that." He paused. "Say it yourself if it's that important. I think they have the general idea."
Steve furrowed his brow. Just because all the evidence pointed toward these little kids having super powers didn't mean it wasn't creepy as all get out to see them in action. He looked toward Charles. "Do you know why this man wanted you?" To an onlooker, it would seem like an absurd question to ask a kidnapped child, but the kid was apparently clairvoyant or psychic or something.
"So I could find more people who are special, people who he can give powers to."
"How do you know who's special?" asked Steve.
"I guess it's like there's a hole in their minds in the shape of powers, but that's really not a good way to put it." Charles shrugged. "You're not special." He turned to Tony. "And neither are you."
"Hey," snapped Tony, arms flapping at his sides, "I'm special. I'm downright abnormal!"
Steve bit back a patronizing comment and instead asked Charles, "Do you think he's coming back? Do you have any idea when?"
"He said he was coming back and I don't think he was lying, and he's got that workshop here, so I think he's definitely coming back, but I don't know when."
"I think we should leave this place," said Ororo.
"Erik says he doesn't want to run away." Charles had shifted almost imperceptibly, but his hand was now resting on Erik's neck.
Ororo addressed Erik directly. "Charles still needs to recover. His body is still very weak. If we stay here, he could be in danger."
"Where else would we go?" asked Charles, and they all fell silent. The Enemy apparently was familiar with both Rochester and downstate New York.
"And," added Ororo, "given these" she indicated the journals, "I'm worried about the safety of my other sons as well." She ran her fingers through her hair. "I don't think it is wise to go back to Rochester, but…" She trailed off. Warning Jamie really wouldn't do anything to help maintain his safety, and he certainly couldn't travel alone – she remembered the months of effort that went into teaching him to follow a pre-planned bus route to the video store and back.
"Hey," said Tony, with a tone that signified a brilliant solution, "do you have that peely effect all over your body? Is it itchy? It looks itchy. It-"
"Focus, Tony." Steve took a step back. "Is there anywhere you have access to that we could take Charles to recuperate?"
"Oooh, there's Malibu. We have a beach house there. Well, not really a beach house, because it's on more of a cliff then a beach, but there are beaches nearby and you can go surfing and catch crabs. I mean catch sand crabs, not pubic crabs, although you can get that too on a beach if you know what I mean." He flashed his eyebrows. "That's what she said," he added unnecessarily.
Steve had volunteered to go to the K-mart down the road and buy them all toiletries and a few changes of clothes. Apart from the practical (read: olfactory) benefits, they would look conspicuous if they traveled across the country with no luggage. Ororo had asked Tony to stay behind and keep her company – she had seen Tony in this state before and she knew he could be exhausting. She imagined that a break, even if only twenty minutes, would be sorely appreciated.
Tony was trying to use a scalpel handle he had probably palmed from another area of the hospital to unscrew the back of one of the monitoring machines connected to Charles. He suddenly stopped and pointed the unbladed scalpel at Charles. "Can he even go on an airplane? They're like, germ city with all the recirculated air and chairs that a million people have touched and so on. I've been trying to develop a new airplane which would have searing hot plates that the air would pass through and it would sterilize it but I keep running into problems with burning the passengers and if you're not going to burn people, you're doing it wrong which is what I always used to say when I was your age. Ha ha, I was never your age. Not calling you old, I'm not. That would be rude and I am super polite. Like a superpower. Politeness Man. Fast as a speeding building, more knowledgeable in etiquette than the geisha Ann Landers, taller than a-"
"Would you shut up?" It was the first thing Erik had said aloud since the night before.
"Charles' blood counts have already improved considerably and they've loaded him up with antibiotics. He should still wear a mask, I imagine." Ororo knew better than to draw attention to Erik's speaking.
"Oh yeah," said Tony, as if this were all perfectly normal. "Everyone'll just think he's got cancer." He glanced back at Charles. "Can you look like you have Stage 2 leukemia? Just sort of try to…I don't know, what does it look like when your blastocysts are-" He stopped as if interrupted. "What, come on, you were thinking the- Oh, right, Steve's not here."
Ororo ignored that little speech. "Tony, would it be all right with you if Alex came to visit us in Malibu? He lives in southern California now."
"I thought I he lived in Seattle." Tony had resumed attempting to dismantle the hospital's equipment.
"He did, but then he broke up with Lorna." Lorna Dane, Alex's first love, had been in Ororo's opinion awfully catty for someone with green hair. She had held her tongue while they were dating, but was glad when they separated. "He moved to Corona to take a job as some sort of assistant curator."
"Yeah, he can do what he likes as long as he stays out of my stuff. Why not ask Hank to bring Jamie to Malibu. Then we'd have a doctor to keep an eye on the Head & Shoulders "before" model over here and somebody would be looking after Jamie."
Ororo had actually already considered that plan. She hadn't entirely rejected it; she had just put it aside. She wasn't technically supposed to take Erik out of the state, which was one reason she had avoided telling Kitty Pryde anything at all about their adventure – if Kitty knew, her job would require her to report on it, and possibly to remove Erik from Ororo's custody. The problem with asking Hank was considerably stickier. Ororo had known for some time that Hank had a bit of a crush on her, but things had been awkward since the fire. Hank would do anything she asked without hesitation, which was why she tried to avoid asking him for favors. Asking him to perform Erik's physical was one thing; asking him to travel across the country as part of a quasi-legal game of magical mind-controlling cat and mouse was another. But it would do more than any other plan to help ensure Jamie's safety. And then if Alex could meet drive there, that would be all of them – all except James, of course, but he was on the other side of the world in an undisclosed location. Besides, Ororo was confident that if there was anyone on this earth who could best this Enemy in a fight, it was James.
She sighed softly and pulled her cell phone out from her purse.
Doesn't it bother you about your mom and your step-dad? It was so easy to talk to Charles. Erik didn't even have to open his mouth.
I guess, a little. I've gotten used to the idea that people do things and they don't really know why, or the reason they say isn't the real reason. It's how everybody does things.
Yeah, but it's not just anybody, it's your mom.
I know. Charles paused for a moment. She's not as brave as your mom was.
I think it sucks how all the good people end up dead and the useless people stay alive.
Airport security was less of a fiasco this time. Ororo suspected Charles had something to do with it, whether by using some sort of psychic influence or simply by engendering the ambient pity that comes with looking like a childhood cancer victim. She assigned Tony the task of pulling up a television show on his tablet that would entertain the boys and settled into a faux leather terminal chair across from Steve, who was still slowly eating pretzel bites.
"Thank you for shopping this morning."
"Oh, uh," Steve looked uncomfortable. "I don't know anything about women's fashion, so I hope it was okay. We can exchange them for something different when we get to California, if you want." He still felt terribly nervous around her. Because he was a middle aged man who was having sex with her teenaged ward, which Steve felt was a perfectly logical reason for nervousness.
"I don't want to seem like I'm trying to get rid of you," said Ororo, surprised to find that she mostly meant it, "but you don't have to come with us to California. Don't you have a business to run?"
"It was Sam's business to begin with, actually. He was a social worker who worked with ex-cons and he decided he wanted to focus more on prevention, but he had a hard time getting the police and everybody to take him seriously. We met, I was looking for a job, and we partnered up." Steve shrugged. "After a month, he sold me the business because he just doesn't have a head for accounting – he's an 'act first, itemize later' sort of guy. I make sure he always makes one dollar more than I do anyways, just as a respect thing."
"And this business, you put up street lights?" Ororo still wasn't exactly clear on the nature of Steve's work.
"Anything, really, that makes communities safer. Like this one place that hired us, it was a tenement really. A high rise apartment building that was just an unbelievable rats' nest. One of the problems was that there were these staircase landings where these guys would congregate. They'd play dice, deal drugs and the people living there were scared to walk past them. We weren't going to fix all that, but we could try to get them out of the building. So we fixed all the landings up as little indoor playgrounds and made them as unmanly as we possibly could. I was painting glitter sunflowers and prancing unicorns on all the walls and Sam got these plastic kiddie playsets and bolted them to the floor. Then we guarded them until moms started bringing their kids to play and I think even then, we bribed them by giving the kids stickers that they could put all over the walls and the floor." Steve rubbed his forehead. "It's not like those guys aren't still dealing drugs, but at least they're not doing it in somebody's home."
"Ah." Ororo was thoroughly annoyed. She did not want to approve of Steve Rogers, even if he was a gentleman, a disabled veteran, and apparently also a creative humanitarian. "Would you mind watching the children while I find a restroom?"
"Yeah, no problem." Steve smiled.
How can you like this show? Erik rolled his eyes.
And funny. See, look, there's a space pig. It's funny, because pigs don't go in space.
God, you're the worst comedian ever.
PIIIIIIIIGS IIIIIIN SPAAAAACE! Charles thought the phrase with the same cavernous echo used in the old Muppets sketches.
I hate you.
Steve had been seeing the signs of an oncoming episode since before this whole runaway-preteen-foster child business started – Tony had been sleeping even less than usual, had been going out to parties and being reckless – and with the excitement of this strange fiction that had taken over their lives, a full blown mania was all but inevitable.
Inevitable, but still very inconvenient.
Having fulfilled his bootleg broadcasting duties, Tony was now standing next to Steve, rubbing up against him in a completely inappropriate fashion. "Let's find a little corner," said Tony, "and I'll suck you off."
"Get off of me," Steve tried to turn away. "We're in public. Show some decency, huh?"
Tony continued undulating in a manner which he presumably thought was sexy and began to grope at Steve's ass. Steve grabbed Tony's left hand in his right and vice versa, then pulled down, causing Tony to spin 180 degrees and be pinned by his now-crossed arms, facing away from Steve.
"Now listen," Steve hissed, voice quick and harsh and serious, "you're embarrassing yourself. You may not care about that, but I do. You are out of control and it needs to stop. In one minute, I am going to let you go, then I'm going to give you some sleeping pills and you are going to lie down and take a fucking nap. You need sleep if you're going to be remotely useful in the next 48 hours. Do you understand?"
"Yes," whispered Tony. He sounded chastised. Steve released his hands and he remained still, looking unhappy.
Steve softened slightly. "Do you want my jacket for a blanket?"
"Yeah," Tony nodded, either mollified or unable to feel shame for more than 30 seconds, "it smells like you."
Ororo waited until Tony was asleep, arrayed in a line by the runway windows, before approaching Steve.
"What was that?" she asked, pinning him down with a stare.
"Um, well, it's a standard non-combatant takedown and-" He caught her eye and fell silent.
"And do you use military restraint holds on my son often?"
"No, I…I just, only one other time, he was drunk and he wanted to do something with an arc welder and it wasn't safe and he wouldn't listen to reason and I-"
"What were those pills? I thought he wasn't taking medicine for the bipolar."
"They're sleeping pills. The less he sleeps, the worse he gets."
That had certainly been Ororo's observation as well, but Dr. Strange had resisted prescribing them in hopes that Tony would come to see the necessity of a mood stabilizer. "He sees a psychiatrist?"
"No, I've tried to get him to go, first to the hospital and then just to a doctor, but he said his picture would get out and it would embarrass the company." Steve shook his head. "My last boyfriend was HIV+, so I knew this anonymous clinic – no names at all, they just give you a code number. We went…" He trailed off and tried to decipher the look on Ororo's face. "I'm negative," he blurted, guessing at her concern. "Two tests, six months apart. I swear it. Tony's too young for that sort of risk."
Ororo looked briefly embarrassed at having her intrusive curiosity laid bare, even if it was rather justified. "So he went to this clinic, told them he wouldn't take a mood stabilizer, and they gave him sleeping pills."
Steve shrugged. "I'm not an expert, but it seems like it's better than nothing."
"Why are the pills in your bag and not his?"
"Would you let him hold on to them?"
"Ah, of course." Ororo looked to the side and took a deep breath. "I owe you an apology, Captain Rogers." She pursed her lips. "I still don't think this…relationship is a good idea, but you are not what I thought you were, and I am sorry for misjudging you."
I still hate planes, thought Erik as he settled into his seat. They just seemed so improbable. He opened a pack of alcohol wipes and swabbed the armrests and tray table on the middle seat before settling next to the window.
I don't mind them, replied Charles, the only thing that bugs me is boats. I get sea sick. He sat down in between Erik and Ororo, looking small and sickly with his mask and gloves.
Once we get you better, we'll hunt him down.
I think he'll find us. He's persistent.
Then we'll be ready for him.
Chapter 17: I Don't Owe You Anything
Ororo felt more relieved than she was willing to admit when they arrived at the Starks' Malibu house and Tony began activating its various security features. She felt relieved when Alex picked up the phone, when he took her seriously and managed to restrain his oppositional side long enough to fill a backpack and get on his motorcycle. She felt still more relieved when Hank arrived, with Jamie safely beside him.
Despite all that relief, she still found herself fully tensed, as if her body expected a fight no matter how much her brain insisted that she would accomplish nothing that way.
They couldn't run from this man forever and Tony's vacation home wasn't exactly the witness protection program – the Stark Industries logo was painted on the roof, for starters. Steve was contributing meaningfully, setting them up in the most defensible rooms and monitoring the security systems when Tony lost interest and wandered off to play Guitar Hero (an activity which involved choosing the highest difficulty setting for every song, then cancelling each selection after 30 seconds of mostly-for-show headbanging and arm-flailing).
Steve also offered her a gun. "It's a pretty old model, very stable, but it has some kind of inertial absorption, which means it doesn't have as much recoil. Handy, since I'm guessing you don't have much experience with firearms."
"No experience, actually."
"I can give you some pointers, but what it really comes down to is try not to panic and make sure you aren't shooting allies. Hitting the enemy is secondary."
"Why are there guns here?"
"I think they use them as templates for new weapon designs, strength testing for new armor." He shrugged. "If you're not comfortable with guns and you don't think you can fire it in a crisis, carrying one won't help anyone."
"How can you be so calm?"
"It's my job. Dr. McCoy is doing his," Steve gestured to the side room where Hank was tending to Charles. "And you've got yours, which is to try and keep these kids from doing anything rash until this mess is over."
"At which point they can act as rashly as they please?"
"I like to keep my goals realistic."
This is not progress, though Erik. I liked it better when it was just me and you and Ororo.
You said we were going to need an army to defeat him. Why can't this be our army?
This isn't an army, Charles. This is two crazies, an ex-con who works in a museum, a pedophile, and the Phantom of the Opera.
I'm hearing five more people than we had before.
Your optimism could give cancer to lab rats.
"Hey, Tony!" said Alex, raising his voice to be heard over the X-Box. "Not that I don't appreciate the sudden vacation, but a little more detail would be ni-"
The boos from the television became overwhelming as Tony failed out on Guitar Hero. "Motherfucker!" he shouted, throwing down his guitar.
"Hey, language!" hissed Alex, pointing to Erik, who was reading quietly in the corner. "There's a kid here."
Tony stared at him as if he had suddenly grown mushrooms in place of hair. "What happened to you?"
"I grew up. Seriously, man."
"Is this because that Lorna chick dumped you? Because she had a great rack."
"I have a new girlfriend, Annie. She's got a kid. So I have to be mature. It's part of life. Maybe one day you'll know the joy of exiting puberty."
"Maybe one day, you'll suck my balls," quipped Tony in a voice that suggested he thought this was a terribly clever comeback.
"Maybe instead of dicking around," said Erik, "we could be thinking of a way to destroy the Enemy. I'm telling you, he can't be killed by normal means."
"And I'm telling you," said Tony, "that all you know is that he can't be killed by anything you've tried. There is more weaponry on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio." Tony stuck out his tongue. "Because your philosophy sucks."
Erik's fists curled tightened. "I hate you so much that if I had can of soda for every death I have wished upon you, I would fill up a swimming pool with them and drown you in it."
Alex raised an eyebrow. "You need to cool it with the elaborate death threats, bro. Street cred's not going to help you at all here."
Erik turned to the newcomer with a brief, disdainful glare, before returning his attention to Tony and repeating, "He can't be killed by normal means, so we'd better spend this time coming up with an alternate plan."
"Well," said Tony, perceiving the timely generation of plans as some sort of challenge to his intelligence, "he's made of flesh, right? Not like a robot or a ghost or, ironically, a flesh light? Then he can be incinerated and I've got the highest powered laser ever invented. And seriously, human hands cannot play this thing! Fuck! You can't hit that many notes at once!"
"Hi, Ororo, hi. This is…" Jamie trailed off, then shook his head and his eyes refocused. "This is a nice place, but I don't think I have any superpowers. Just schizophrenia."
"You have a very kind heart. Never doubt how remarkable that is."
"I don't think the guy, there's a guy…I think if the eyes weren't so, why not?"
"He's dangerous, Jamie, do you understand that?"
"Yeah, of course. I could tell he was like a villain, like a villain right from the start of the movie, like 'Don't split up!' or 'Don't go in there!'"
"Jamie, has anything…changed since he looked at you?"
"Yeah, I'm in California, but I still take all my medicine."
"And I can hear all of the things. If it wasn't."
"Thank you for your assistance, Dr. McCoy," said Charles, with polite formality.
"You're quite welcome, Charles. It seems we're in the middle of quite the adventure over here," said Hank as he carefully swabbed and bandaged the boy's sores. "I'm sorry I can't give you something for the itching; those medicines slow down your immune system and you can't afford that right now."
"She doesn't mind, you know?"
"Who doesn-?" Hank paused. "Ah, you're the one who can read minds. I'm not sure I would want that ability."
"She really doesn't mind. She's just, she's sad that you're unhappy about it but she doesn't want you to feel like you have to act like it doesn't matter for her sake, but she wants…" He trailed off, then smiled. "You're wondering if it bothers me, the way you look. It really does not."
Hank furrowed his brow momentarily before resuming his usual blithe grin. "No, what I am wondering is whether you are going to keep those Fruit-Roll-Ups all to yourself. I admit to an occasional craving for Berry Blue Blast."
Erik wasn't hard to locate, even in the Starks' enormous Malibu home. Ororo simply headed toward the sound of glass breaking to find the boy crouched by a bathroom sink, looking alternately fierce and despondent.
When he heard her footsteps approaching, Erik looked up, his face as close an approximation of guilt as she had ever seen. "Sometimes," he said, voice absent of any inflection, "you can't stop your brain from thinking stupid things."
Ororo glanced at the ground to see if the mirror had spread out into the hallway before settling cross-legged on the floor. "What sorts of things?" she asked.
"I guess," said Erik, expression morphing slowly from sadness to anger, "I guess I thought, I thought if I found Charles, I wouldn't feel like this anymore. I thought if I found Charles, everything would be better." Erik punched the wall. "I don't feel any better!" He punched the wall again; this time, splinters could be seen. "I thought I wouldn't have to feel like this forever!"
"Erik," said Ororo, her voice just above a whisper, "may I hold your hands?"
He turned his head to the side and held his hands out into the hallway. Ororo clasped each of his hands in one of hers and rubbed the palms gently with her thumbs. There were no serious breaks or lacerations, though there were a few scrapes and she had no way of ruling out hairline fractures. He was in no immediate danger; the goal now was simply to calm him, to help him weather this storm as best she could.
"You've suffered a terrible loss, Erik. You've lost your family and your country. Having a friend will ease your pain. Time will ease your pain. But there is nothing that can erase it."
"I'm not going back to Syria, am I?"
Ororo couldn't tell whether he was relieved or disappointed by this revelation; before this moment, she hadn't even known it was a concern. "Once you're an adult, you may have that option, but before then, no."
His breathing was slower, but it caught every few breaths. "I wish Charles couldn't read my mind. Because I always feel like this and he always wants to help me, but he can't help, and I want to take care of him, too."
"You care deeply for one another."
Erik twisted his hands gently and Ororo released them. "Can I get some Band-aids or something before I go back and see Charles? If they're worried about him getting sick, I probably shouldn't bleed on him."
When night fell, they retired to their various rooms. Charles and Erik slept in the same room, though not in the same bed, at the insistence of Dr. McCoy. Jamie sought quiet and went to his room to work on a jigsaw puzzle Steve had found for him in a closet. Ororo took the opportunity to catch up with Alex and press him for details about his new girlfriend. Once Alex took his leave, Ororo was left alone with Hank.
"Thank you," she said. "I know that this is…well, it's insane, really and I know you-" She stopped herself from saying 'I know you don't like to go out in public.' and trailed off instead.
"It was my pleasure," said Hank, bowing grandly. "I live to serve, milady."
"The scenery here is truly breathtaking. I wish I had brought my camera."
"You'll have to return under more fortuitous circumstances."
"Perhaps we both shall." Ororo smiled.
Steve and Tony took the master bedroom, once Steve managed to drag Tony up from his workspace in the basement where he had been busily attempting to hack into the scaled-back AI which ran Obie's home so he could bombard him with his new project ideas, each more brilliant than the last. Once alone with Steve however, Tony lost all interest in engineering and certainly could not be engaged in a conversation about how to find and contain the Enemy.
When he was manic, Tony was insatiable, an adjective which usually had a positive connotation, but was truly dreadful when taken to its literal conclusion.
Steve wasn't exactly in the mood; he was more concerned about their mission, but good relationships were built on compromise and he could see this was something Tony needed, so they had sex, albeit missionary and pleasant, not adventurous and ecstatic. Then Tony wanted to go again, but even if Steve had been willing to oblige, he was too old to get hard again so soon, so he went down on Tony and brought him off that way.
The third and fourth times were joyless and compulsive, Tony fisting himself artlessly as he leaned back into Steve's chest. Steve tried to help, with kisses and nibbles and murmured phrases, and the third time passed relatively quickly, but the fourth dragged on.
Tony moaned, sounding more frustrated than pleasured.
There were words that would always get Tony off. Worked every time. But they made Steve feel so dirty, so he always tried to find another way and he almost always found one.
Tony curved on his side and grunted unhappily.
"I'm so proud of you," whispered Steve. "You're a good boy."
Chapter 18: Paranoid
Getting very close to the end. Sorry for all the delays with this fic. Work has been kicking my ass lately. In other news, be sure to check out Marvel Fans for Safe Schools, recently retweeted by Clark Gregg (Phil Coulson).
Steve awoke around 2 in the morning with a full bladder. The bed was empty, of course, but that was no surprise.
Ororo woke up at 1:55am, her beeping cell phone reminding her to add another dose of antibiotics to Charles’ IV. The child was sleeping peacefully, but there was no one else in the room.
After relieving himself, Steve padded down the back stairs. He would just check on Tony, then go back to bed.
Ororo could hear the hisses and clanks that accompanied Tony’s inventive impulses. She walked to the top of the staircase which lead down to his workshop, then paused. There were two voices.
“So you really think we can burn him up with a laser?” asked Erik.
“Staser,” corrected Tony.
“I’m not calling it that.”
“But that’s what it is. It’s like Tesla coils. Tesla invented a giant lightning gun back in the 1800s. And he surrounded his house with a force field of electricity. I love that man, I really do. I love him with all my heart and soul and mind and other body parts that I’m not supposed to discuss with twelve-year-olds, but in all seriousness, if you’re going to have a necrophiliac hard-on for somebody, it really ought to be Nikola Tesla. The only choice.”
Erik snorted. “You’re like a walking advertisement for tranquilizers. Or forced sterilization.”
“Whatever, hand me that wrench,” said Tony, now intermittently humming When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again for reasons unknown. “No, not that one. The other one. Yeah, that one. And the first one too, why not?”
There was a loud thud and then the humming resumed, interspersed with the whine of bending metal.
“Where’s your mom?” asked Erik, apropos of nothing.
“If you lived with Ororo, your mom must’ve, something must have happened.”
“Oh. Yeah. She passed away a few years ago. She had, um, do you know what multiple sclerosis is?”
There was no response. Erik must have shaken his head.
“It’s this thing where your immune system attacks your nervous system, so the medicines to treat it, they turn down your immune system. Well, not all of them do, but the ones my mom needed to take, that’s how they worked. So she ended up getting this infection in her brain and she died.”
“But you got to say goodbye to her.”
“Well, sort of. They didn’t tell me what was happening or bring me home from school until she was already in a coma and she never woke up. So I mean, yeah, but not really.”
After his mother’s death was when Tony had, in his own words, started to ‘party like a rock star’. Steve couldn’t really be sure, since he wasn’t there and Tony’s recollection changed with every retelling, but it seemed to him that Tony’s behavior at the time hadn’t yet been driven by mania, just grief and poor judgment. Very poor judgment. It took several months before Tony would admit that his experiences with men prior to Steve, rather than being uninhibited conquests, had been much older frat boys who had gotten Tony extremely drunk, who spent little time preparing him and ignored him when he slurred for them to slow down. (Though even when he admitted this to Steve, Tony had continued to insist that he knew what he was in for when he accepted one drink after another.)
“Does it hurt?” asked Erik.
“Does what hurt?” There was a hiss as a blowtorch was ignited.
“That brain disease. Does it hurt?”
“Oh, no, it doesn’t. You don’t have any sensory nerve endings in your brain. In fact, brain surgeons sometimes operate on people with just a local anesthetic and keep them awake the whole time. I’ve tried to get into a hospital and see them doing it but thus far, no dice.”
“So if someone got shot in the head, would it hurt?”
Ororo held her breath. Tony wasn’t intuitive about people on the best of days; in his current state, it was doubtful he would pick up on the obvious significance of the question.
“Dunno. It depends on the angle and stuff. I mean, if you shoot somebody’s jaw off, they’re gonna feel it. Have you ever seen Jaws? That’s a great movie. But I mean there’s other places you can hit and the person will lose consciousness right away. Because one time I was going to try self-trepanation and I had to find out about stuff that would knock me out, but then I decided that it would be better to wait until the software was more advanced before trying the hardware modifications.”
“This is gonna work,” said Tony. “Your monster is gonna be, like, blown to dust, man.”
“Do you miss her?”
“What? Um, yeah. Yeah. I mean, maybe not every day anymore. Now it’s more like on Christmas and her birthday and Mother’s day and stuff. But yeah, I still miss her.” There was a heavy rattle followed by a clank. “You miss your mom?”
“I miss the other Erik, I think. The one who could scream.”
“You’ve got a pretty good set of lungs on you already.”
“Yeah,” said Erik. There was a long pause. Then, “We’re gonna kill this guy, right?”
Ororo furrowed her brow in the darkness and was struck by the odd thought that she made the right decision in agreeing to foster Erik.
They came together to plan in the morning.
“I thought we were going to hunt him down and destroy him!” Erik’s voice took on a bit of a whine; he was obviously over-tired.
Steve set down his coffee and tried to sound patient. This wasn’t a cadet that he could just bowl over with a I’m-the-Captain-that’s-why spiel. “Look,” he said, “this is something I know a lot about. Attacking is much harder than defending. We have to have a strategy. It’s better if we know the terrain.”
“Also,” added Tony, “the Staser isn’t exactly portable.”
Across the table, Alex mouthed the word ‘staser’ twice before shaking his head and giving it up as a lost cause and adding, “So if this guy’s got crazy mind control powers, how are we supposed to fight him anyway? I’ve got nothing against throwing a punch, mind you.”
“He can only control you if he looks into your eyes,” said Charles softly. He still looked drawn, but his skin was at least beginning to scab over and heal.
“Great,” said Alex dripping with sarcasm, “so we’re going to fight him with blindfolds on?”
Steve nodded authoritatively. “Agreed. I think that’s the best solution.” He had either missed or ignored Alex’s tone. “And it’s all the more reason to fight on familiar terrain. We can leave ourselves guideposts.”
Hank raised his hand, a gesture Ororo would have found endearing if not for the seriousness of their circumstances. “This mind control power, it requires eye contact, yes? Would it still work through a lens or a mirror?”
Erik’s face twisted into a snarl. “This isn’t Harry-fucking-Potter. He’s not a basilisk. He is the Enemy and we can’t afford to take risks.”
“Erik,” said Ororo. She placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I want to fight him. Now.”
“It was my understanding that you wanted to win against him. I hardly see the point in fighting if you lose.” She squeezed his shoulder lightly.
Erik looked to Charles. They seemed to be having another one of their silent conversations. Then Charles spoke. “It shouldn’t be hard to lure him here. He wants me back, and he’s overconfident.”
“The Staser should be stationary!” announced Tony before chanting, “Staser, stationary, Staser, stationary,” a few times to himself.
Alex rolled his eyes. “Stark, seriously. Grownups are talking.”
“He’s right,” said Steve. “If we’re blindfolded, we shouldn’t have a moveable ranged weapon. Far too likely we’ll shoot one of our own. We should have a marked-off spot where the weapon is aimed. We can drag him in front of it and fire.”
“Does anyone else think this sounds insane?” asked Alex.
Jamie spoke up. It was easy to forget he was there. “Sometimes insane is, sometimes insane…it’s real too, not so bad.” He shrugged with an apologetic smile.
“If you’re blindfolded and you are restraining the, ah, enemy combatant, how will you know where the Staser is?” Hank was apparently willing to accede to Tony’s naming rights on the weapon.
“Oh man, so we could install these sonar things into your ears and then once your brain adapted and-“
“Tony,” said Steve, “we don’t have that kind of time. No surgical solutions.”
Tony pouted momentarily, then straightened. “Jamie, wasn’t there a blind guy in your group home? How’d he know where stuff was?”
“Um, there were Braille signs on things and stuff. And sort of bumps on the floor, like lines but tall.”
“That’s exactly what we need,” said Steve, nodding. “A tactile cue.” He stopped, as if interrupted. “Someone else will have to restrain him. Preferably two people.”
“Wait,” said Alex, “you’re not going to do it? I thought you were, like, Rambo or something?”
“I have no feeling in my left foot,” said Steve, as if this were a common enough malady, “and I would need both feet to make sure I was at the right angle.”
“I’ll do it!” Tony raised his hand in the air like an excited schoolchild. “I’ll tackle the guy. I’ve got ninja skills. I took karate for almost three months.”
“No,” said Steve and Ororo simultaneously.
“I can help,” said Alex. “I know a little something about fighting.”
“I would like to help as well,” said Hank. The others looked back at him in surprise.
“Because he tried to kill her,” said Charles softly. Ororo looked away, a blush creeping up her neck.
“He’s probably killed a lot of people,” said Erik with an air of finality. “And we’re going to stop him.”
Steve settled into the couch across from Ororo. “You’re not comfortable with this plan,” he said without preamble.
“I…no.” She breathed deeply. “What you’re proposing is murder.”
“What I’m proposing is justice,” replied Steve. “If there was a way to safely contain this man, to lock him up so he can’t get free, then the situation would be different.”
“It’s a line we should not cross heedlessly.”
“There’s a difference between being decisive and being heedless,” said Steve, standing back up. “You have to make your own decision, but I would appreciate if you tell me what you’re thinking. It’s not safe for anyone if someone suddenly changes the plan.”
Ororo nodded. She suddenly felt very tired.
Chapter 19: You're Gonna Go Far, Kid
The next few days were tense. Steve worked with Hank and Alex to teach them the basics of hand-to-hand combat and drilled with them until they could successfully frog-march him through the house while blindfolded.
Erik wouldn't admit to being afraid, but he took to carrying his umbrella with him around the house and reverted to the more blatantly aggressive behaviors he had displayed on the psychiatric ward. He was cruel for no reason. He called Hank McCoy 'hideous' and he yelled at Jamie for being an 'idiot'. He was clearly in a destructive mood. He climbed down to the beach and caught sand crabs, only to smash them moments later. Erik got Tony's attention – and things had been going well between those two – and whispered something to him. Ororo didn't know what Erik said, but Tony had skulked off miserably and stayed in his room for hours. In between these outbursts, Erik rarely left Charles' side. They never spoke aloud to one another, just clasped hands and shared thoughts.
Charles' smooth recovery was derailed by a blistering infection along his left thigh and buttock. The skin there had been damaged by the radioactive muck and had slowly sloughed away, leaving the underlying flesh vulnerable to common pathogens. Dr. McCoy was treating it with oral and topical antibiotics, of course, but he repeatedly warned that further complications were possible and that the child really needed to be in a hospital.
(The first time he said this, a knife began floating ominously toward him. Ororo had caught it out of the air, Erik had denied all involvement, and it had never happened again.)
Tony meanwhile worked obsessively on his laser, making one modification after another, whenever his distractible side wasn't getting the best of him – otherwise he would chatter rapidly at anyone who would listen and engage in ill-advised sexual innuendoes.
("Get out of my room, Stark!" Alex had shouted, unamused.
"It's my house, it's my room, technically. Because if you-"
"I DON'T WANT TO SEE YOUR DICK!")
Those with jobs and obligations made periodic cell phone calls to offer increasingly contrived excuses.
And the rest was just killing time.
On the fifth day of waiting, Steve woke up to find that Tony in bed with him, and that was definitely a bad sign. When Tony came to bed in the middle of the night, he almost always woke Steve up. Even on the rare occasions when he wasn't looking for sex, he was always looking for attention. And Tony was wearing flannel pajama pants with a plain t-shirt. If he worked himself to exhaustion, he would have just flopped into bed in whatever he was wearing. Otherwise, he would normally sleep naked. Tony was curled on his side, facing away from Steve, perfectly still, but not asleep – Steve could tell by the breathing.
Well, shit, thought Steve. Tony depressed was a whole different mess of trouble than Tony manic, but the staser was still having operating problems. It would have been best if Tony were able to tinker with it some more, or at least be the one to operate it.
Maybe he wasn't depressed. Maybe he had gone from high to normal. That happened to some people, right?
Steve ran his fingers gently along Tony's collarbone and kissed him lightly. "Good morning," he said softly as he propped himself up on an elbow.
"Good morning," answered Tony, his voice flat.
"How are things going with the staser?" Normally, Tony would have gotten a kick out of Steve using the eponym.
Tony shrugged. "I don't know how to finish it. It's not… I don't really… I can't think of what to do next."
Steve felt a little wince of annoyance, but he held it back. He couldn't make Tony be brilliant, just encourage him and hope that would buoy his mood enough that they could make it through the next few days. "You're the smartest guy I've ever met. I know you'll think of something."
"Yeah," said Tony, motionless and without enthusiasm.
"His fever is climbing," said Dr. McCoy. "There's a lot of dead tissue in that leg that needs to be debrided and I can't do it here."
"How much longer can we wait?" asked Ororo.
"There's no way to know. The longer we wait, the more likely mortality becomes. He could also lose the leg – there's a level of tissue degradation beyond which the remainder cannot be salvaged."
Erik watched them in silence. Charles, can you hear me?
Yeah, I can, but it's so hot in here. I don't feel good.
We just have to kill the Enemy. Once he's dead, you can go to a hospital and be safe.
Yeah, I can, but it's so hot in here.
You're repeating yourself.
Oh, yeah, well, it's so hot in here.
"He's here," said Jamie. "I can hear his place."
"Who is?" asked Steve. Tony was still in the bedroom, ostensibly sleeping.
"Someone else. Not us. I can hear him, his breaths and his heartbeat are so noisy."
"You can, huh?" Well, that can't be any weirder than metal-bending or mind-reading, Steve thought. He glanced back at Ororo. "Go down in the back room and wait, okay?"
"Everything is never if it slow," answered Jamie before he turned and padded down the stairs.
Steve crept forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of the intruder on the monitors. The Starks' Malibu home was isolated, so there was no reason for anyone to be in the neighborhood. The monitors showed nothing and none of the sensors had been tripped. There was no one there. Apparently Jamie didn't have superpowers; apparently he was just crazy.
Steve rocked back onto his heels and began to wonder whether he should alert the others anyway, when he heard the door click.
Erik stepped inside, looking thin and wan and wearing only a pair of basketball shorts. "You better stay away from Charles," he said. "I don't trust you."
This was not an unexpected sentiment from Erik, but Steve was at a loss for what might've prompted its expression. He could hold his own against tanks and snipers, but crazy children still unnerved him. He furrowed his brow and squinted at Erik.
Steve suddenly straightened, jaw hanging just slightly open. His eyes were open wide. He was still and silent, held in thrall by a pair of red eyes.
Hank frowned at the thermometer. "We can't wait much longer," he told Ororo. "His fever's not falling. He's at risk of becoming septic, if he hasn't already."
Ororo breathed deeply, taking a moment to consider. Charles was wavering between sleep and delirium, sweaty, pale, batting away at unseen targets.
"Here's how I see it," said Hank. "By keeping him here, we're protecting him from this possible threat. We're not sure…there's good evidence, but we're not sure. But at this point he's in definite danger from the radiation poisoning. I would take possible harm over definite harm."
Ororo nodded. Hank was right, of course. What was she even doing, racing around the country chasing some kind of supernatural menace? But then, the monster was real, wasn't he? That made all the difference.
"If you want, I can take him. Then you won't get caught up in any questions about why he's in your custody and you can stay behind with young Mr. Erik."
"That's…very kind of you, Hank."
Tony rolled over in the bed. Now he was looking at the other wall. They basically looked the same.
Where was Steve? He had probably ruined things with Steve, hadn't he? If there was one thing Steve valued, it was doing your job or doing what you had to do or something. Tony's brain felt so slow; he couldn't come up with a better way to describe it. Maybe duty or responsibility. Whatever. There was a problem to be solved and Tony had been a liability, not an asset. Steve must have hated that.
Tony tried to roll onto his back, as the first step of sitting up, but his arms and legs felt heavy, dense, resistant to movement, as if he were made of a mixture of tar and depleted uranium. He wondered very briefly what happened when you mixed tar and depleted uranium, before he realized that he didn't care.
He tried again to sit up and discovered that he had a motion-sensitive headache. Was he hungover? No, no he wasn't drinking last night. He had been working on the staser, but it had gotten harder and harder to focus, harder and harder to care about the stupid design that wasn't going to work anyway, harder and harder just to pick up his damn tools.
Somebody was opening the door. Oh, that's what that sound was: somebody had been knocking…god, his brain was so fucking slow.
"Tony," whispered Ororo urgently. "Tony, I need your help!"
Alex looked at his text messages. Ororo apparently had a job for him. He shrugged affably and began pulling on his jeans. He liked to think of himself as a versatile kind of guy.
As he walked out into the main room, he saw Ororo and Jamie binding an apparently unconscious Steve's hands and knees with duct tape before they dragged him into a cupboard that already contained a similarly restrained Dr. McCoy. Well, shit just kept getting weirder and weirder.
Tony looked at the cars. This wasn't hard to do, he just couldn't think of the right way to do it. God, he was so stupid sometimes.
"Which one?" asked Alex.
Tony blinked a few times, trying to process the question. After almost a minute, he pointed to the jeep.
"Man, are you like, drugged or something? Good thing that you're probably the only person I trust to do mechanical engineering while high as a kite. You got a lot of practice, right?" Alex smirked, then clambered into the trunk.
Blindfolds weren't workable now, not if the confrontation was going to take place outside of the house. Ororo grimaced as she looked out the window; they couldn't have asked for a sunnier, clearer day.
She turned back to Erik. "I know you can do this."
He shook his head. "It's too big, I can't."
"Your will is very strong. It can be a bad thing, sometimes, can make you stubborn, but it can be a good thing too."
"You must. And you will."
Charles moaned softly as the man loaded him into the jeep.
"Don't worry," he said, "I'm taking you to a hospital."
Charles' mind raced with images: his own thoughts and those of others intermingled with fevered hallucinations. He tried to focus. Sweat dripped into his eyes, but he ignored it. He couldn't hear much, but he knew something was wrong. He couldn't think what he ought to say and somehow Erik's words sprang to his lips more easily than his own. "I hate…" He paused for a labored breath. "Every molecule in every cell in your body."
The man snorted derisively and started the car.
It had a full tank of gas, which was a nice touch, but he still planned to ditch it as soon as possible. He would buy a cheap used car with cash and then make his way to a larger city, where – yes – he did plan to get the boy some medical attention. He had no desire to see his prize die so soon.
He turned onto the main road. It was deserted, as expected. The clear sky was rapidly filling with fog and lingering mist from the sea. The jeep would probably rust out in a month if he drove it continuously through weather like this, but it was no concern at all for his immediate goals.
There was a heavy thump, and the man looked at the road behind him to see what he had hit, but he couldn't see any road behind him through the thick fog. He tried to pick up speed again, but found the accelerator was completely unresponsive. The vehicle slowed to a stop.
Ororo wasn't sure how the weather had changed so quickly, but it certainly worked in their favor. With such heavy cover, would it really be so difficult for Alex to pull Charles from the car and take him a few steps to safety? There was only one way to go down the road, so Alex had simply memorized which way lead to the cliffs and which way did not.
Or had he?
Jamie shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. "He sounds wrong," said Jamie. "I like, if Alex. He's all…he went…wrong."
Was Alex going toward the cliffs? They were steep and jagged; a healthy man could easily fall to his death and even a minor injury could prove fatal for Charles, weakened as he was. She wished there was some way to raise a sign, an alert, a signal.
This kid was light. Alex was using two arms to carry him, just to be on the safe side, but it was hardly necessary. He wished he could see where he was going, though. He could see the ground underneath his feet, but his view was blocked by the boy and without any landmarks in the distance, he was pretty sure he would start walking in circles. He didn't have to go far, though, just get the kid away from the car so they could nuke the bad guy.
Everything was bright and still. Alex spun around too late to see the indistinct lightning back the way he came, but he couldn't miss the enormous thunderclap.
There had been clouds over the city, not over the sea that morning.
He began walking back the other way.
Erik stared at the staser. It was enormous, at least by his standards. He had lifted screws and nails, bent wires and rebar and piping, but this thing had to be at least a ton, probably more.
But they had to get it close. Tony said it's range wasn't more than 20 yards, a little less if they wanted to be safe. And the royt oygn had gotten into Steve and Hank, so they couldn't be trusted to help.
So Erik had to do it.
He paused for a moment to listen to Charles' thoughts in his head. They were strange and indistinct. He looked at Ororo, then back at the machine.
Erik's eyes narrowed and he breathed in. He could feel his hair standing on end, a terrible pressure behind his eyes, behind his hands, behind his whole self. He could see his mother on her knees with a gun pressed to her head and he could see Charles and Ororo and Tony. He could he hear screaming and blood and breakfast and lasers and stupid, stupid music.
He breathed out, and the staser began to move.
It followed the arc of the garage and the driveway with Erik walking quickly behind. Ororo and Jamie fell in line behind him.
"I can hear Alex and Charles and is there." Jamie pointed to the east.
The staser rose above the road, moving more quickly, more steadily.
"Where is he, Jamie?" asked Ororo. "The man with the red eyes?"
Jamie pointed straight ahead.
The hardest part was supposed to be activating it. The power lines from the house fed a rotor which spun steel rings at incredible speeds, the power from which was both used directly as kinetic energy and indirectly to generate the electromagnetic waves which formed the beam itself.
This time, Erik didn't hesitate. He could feel the metal in the device. He could imagine the royt oygn, who had lived so many lives, who had taken so many lives, realizing that his death was upon him. The staser began to whir and spark – it wasn't finished, after all, and it wasn't designed to be moved – but Erik shut his eyes and threw his arms wide, as if gathering the magnetic fields from the air. The whir became a whine and peaked with a blinding burst of light.
The fog dissipated.
The Enemy was dead.
Chapter 20: The Kids Aren't Alright
It would be easy to say that they lived happily ever after, but they were the same people after the Enemy was slain as they were before.
Charles was the first priority, of course. He was too weak to cloud any minds, so Hank took him to the hospital, claiming to be his father. They were the same race and between Hank's disfigurement and Charles' baldness, no one would be able to draw a conclusion about any further resemblance.
Steve and Tony shepherded Jamie back to Rochester on their way back to New York City, while Alex returned to his girlfriend and her kid and tried to figure out what he was going to tell her about what he'd been doing the past few days.
Which left Erik and Ororo in the Stark family's big, empty Malibu house.
Erik sat cross-legged in the garage, rolling a pair of steel washers in thin, jangling spirals along the concrete floor. With the Enemy dead, he hadn't fought the decision to take Charles to a hospital or even the decision that he should stay behind – maintaining the ruse of Charles' identity would be easier with fewer people present. In fact, since the Enemy's death, he'd barely spoken at all, just grunted an acknowledgement when the others gradually bade him goodbye.
Ororo sat down on the bottom step, present but not intruding. "I have never taken a life before," she said. "My eldest son, James, has taken many and I admit have never been comfortable with that. I always imagined it would feel very powerful, almost frighteningly so, but instead I find I feel very weak, very helpless because I know that this cannot give back what was taken from you."
Erik hadn't moved or looked over at Ororo while she spoke. The washers were still rolling slowly on the floor.
They were both silent for many minutes before finally, Erik spoke. "I don't know if you have a choice anymore, but when we go back to New York, I'd like to still live with you.
Steve waited almost a month before saying anything. There was no good time for it, not really, but he would wait until Tony had emerged from the nadir of his depression, at least.
Steve gazed across the room at Tony. He couldn't think of an easy way to bring up the topic, which is why he blurted out, "Your father was right," after several minutes of mental fumbling.
Tony looked up from his doodling. "That's never a good way to begin a conversation."
"He was right to send you to live with Ororo. You needed a parent. You needed something that he couldn't give you. And he was going to make sure you had what you needed even if it wasn't what you wanted."
"This is really not a good way to begin a conversation."
"I can't be…you're still looking for parents, Tony. You still need a parent. You…"
"Are you breaking up with me?" When Steve didn't answer immediately, Tony blurted, "Why? I'm sorry about the, well, the everything. I'm sorry, I can do better. I can control it."
"See, that's the catch-22. If you can control it, then why didn't you all those times? And if you can't control it, then you need help and you won't accept it."
Tony's hands curled into fists. "So you're breaking up with me?" There was a little creak in his voice.
"Yeah, I am."
"We can still fuck, right?"
"No, Tony," Steve sighed, "you're not getting this whole 'breaking-up' concept."
"Well, I've never done it before!"
Steve closed his eyes. Damned if that wasn't a punch to the gut.
"You're saying I need a parent. If I need somebody to look out for me, why not you?"
Steve took a long breath between girded teeth. "Because I can't be a father figure who fucks you. I just can't. It's not right. It's not healthy for you. It's not…I just can't."
"But…but…" Tony suddenly shifted from wretched to angry. He bared his teeth, furrowed his brow, and readied a fist as if he was planning to punch a hole in the wall. "You can't do this! You can't!"
"You're pissed. And you're scared. You remember that time you decided to try heroin?"
Tony worried his lip. It was probably the worst fight they had ever had. Tony went out partying the night before and hooked up with some junkies who followed him home so they could shoot up out of the rain. Steve woke up that morning to find Tony lying in the middle of a pile of crashed, red-eyed users, needle still in hand. Steve had angrily chased the kids away before turning on Tony. He hadn't laid a finger on Tony, just yelled at him for three solid hours, but Tony remembered the fight as the only time he had ever really been afraid of Steve, the only time he had really seen with his own eyes that his lover was capable of rage.
"Heroin isn't pot!" he'd screamed. "Heroin can kill you! Do you get that? Do you want to die?" He'd gotten really close to Tony's face at that point, and blocked him when he tried to turn away. "Do you want to die?" he'd asked again, whispering suddenly.
So yeah, Tony remembered that. He remembered it real well. He nodded.
"What you're feeling right now, is what I was feeling then," said Steve. "You're so desperate, you're hoping you can force me to see things your way. But see, I want the same thing now that I did then. I don't want…" He exhaled all at once. "I can't just sit here and watch you kill yourself, Tony." Steve sat down on the couch. "Please, come sit with me." He patted the cushion next to him.
Tony stood stubbornly for almost a minute before shuffling miserably to the couch where he sat stiffly for another minute before curling on his side with his head on Steve's lap. God, he looked so young. He was just a kid, really, no matter how smart he was.
"Tony, listen, I'm going to make you a deal, okay? Here's the plan. You take good care of yourself for a year, twelve months. That means you eat and sleep on a reasonable schedule, means you don't do street pills or needle drugs, you don't drink yourself sick, you use your best judgment on these things. Your real best judgment – you're wiser than people give you credit for. And you see a doctor about the bipolar or whatever they think it is. And you follow their advice. You take the medicine, you talk to a therapist, whatever you need to do. You really do all of that for a whole year and I promise you, you're going to find somebody your own age, but if you're still looking a year from now, I'll be waiting."
"I can't take the meds. I can't."
"Why not?" Steve had asked this question before, but the answer always changed.
"Because they make me stupid! I took them for a while when I was living with Ororo and I went from having all these brilliant ideas to just being…stupid."
"I could tell you that a stupid Tony Stark is still leagues smarter than pretty much anybody I know. I could tell you that maybe you were manic when you started taking the pills and you didn't get stupider, you just stopped having an unrealistic sense of how brilliant you are. I could tell you that I would still love you if you were dumb as dirt, and if your dad doesn't feel the same way, then he's the real moron. I could tell you all those things, but none of it really matters, does it? Because what it comes down to is you need the medicine. Maybe there are some people who have what you have and can get along without it, but you're not one of them."
Tony said nothing.
"I'm going to stay here until you fall asleep," said Steve, "and then when you wake up, I'll be gone." He lifted Tony's limp hand and kissed it. "I care about you very much. I'm going to miss you."
Tony still said nothing, but he shifted, nestled closer to Steve, and after a long time, he fell asleep.
Ororo and Erik returned to Rochester. So did Charles and Hank. Ororo could lose her license if she took on a long-term guest, so Charles moved in with Hank. He needed medical monitoring anyways, and maybe Hank needed the company. The arrangement kept Charles under the radar until his telepathy reached a level which would allow him to convince the outside world that he was a member of the family who had always resided in upstate New York.
Kitty Pryde was a pragmatist at heart so she was willing to ignore Ororo's strange month-long disappearance. She asked to be kept in the dark and Ororo was happy to oblige.
There was no revelation, no burst of insight that came to Erik and suddenly helped him cope. It was just that the worst parts began to fade a little, even if he couldn't say how or why. One day he found he could go a whole hour without thinking about death. On another day he realized that he could now occasionally just remember his father the way he was, instead of only ruminating on how and why he died. And after several months, Charles said to him, "I'm just impressed that we've been at the mall for almost 45 minutes and you haven't threatened anyone."
Tony didn't leave his apartment for a week. He barely got up off the sofa.
He didn't cry or even drink, he just stared at the walls and the ceiling and the floor.
He looked at his phone. He knew it could tell him exactly how many times he had called Steve, listlessly dangling the earpiece over his face on the off chance that he would hear the buzzing ring turn into the call-connected click.
Maybe it was time to try a different number. What was Rhodey's cell? Was he even in the country? Tony had neglected Rhodey since he had started dating steve. He found the contact info and dialed. What the hell, maybe Rhodey would pick up. Maybe he would actually feel like talking to Rhodey. Maybe he would actually have something to say.
"Stark? That you? I haven't heard from you in months, man."
"Hey, Rhodey." Great, now his voice sounded like he'd been crying his eyes out. Tony realized that he hadn't spoken for almost a week, since he'd stopped leaving voice messages for Steve.
"There a problem, Tony?"
"No, just I-"
"Look, I have to get to training prep. I'm going to be late. Can I call you tonight?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'd like that."
"No prob, man. Talk to you then."
And then the call clicked and Tony was shaking and he didn't know why.
"JARVIS?" asked Tony.
Suddenly, Tony missed the real Jarvis, the one who used to sneak him a bite of cookie dough and chastise him for jumping on the furniture.
"Remember that doctor we found, the psychiatrist who makes housecalls?"
"Indeed, sir. Dr. Leonard Samson."
"Can you, um, can you give him a call and make me an appointment?"
Erik wasn't becoming a different person. When the district decided he could be educated at the school, he behaved himself for less than two weeks before his short-tempered, vindictive nature won out. When a teacher chastised him for failing to bring his books to class, he took off his shoe and threw it at her. (Luckily, she seemed unaware just how grave an insult that was in Erik's culture.) When another boy pushed past Erik in the halls, he broke into the kid's locker and urinated on his belongings. When a group of girls giggled at Charles' baldness, a fire alarm pulled itself, squirting purple identifier dye on the ringleader.
And yet, when the school counselor asked him about these incidents, he swore at her in Urdu instead of English so she was never privy to his cruelty. And no one was really hurt, or even threatened. And when he went back to Ororo's house after school, he told her the truth about his day. He wasn't becoming a different person, just a better Erik.