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death is a secret (a condition of peace remix)

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Armando stumbles home, because he knows, no matter what happens (and he has no idea what happened), he'll never lose his way there.

When his momma opens the door, her eyes go big and then narrow.

"They told me you were dead," she says, as flat as the pack of cigarettes she taps against her palm to shake one loose.

"Dead?" Armando asks, watching her fish her lighter out of her pocket.

"You ought to be." Armando watches the wick ignite and watches her take one long drag. "You ain't welcome here."

"Mom—"

"And I'm not your momma."

She shoves him back, off the stoop. As he's re-correcting his balance, she slams the door in his face.

~*~

"Armando?"

Mr. Pratchett looks him up and down, staring with the same disbelief everyone else has greeted Armando with.

"Boy, we thought you was dead."

"No, sir," Armando says. "Just—" But Armando's got no excuse, so he shakes his head and asks for his job back.

That's when he finds out he's been missing for a month and a half.

~*~

"Darwin."

Armando turns but doesn't see someone he recognizes, certainly not someone who'd say his name like that, personal and breathless. There's just this white, square-looking guy standing next to his cab, and Armando knows for damn sure that he hasn't sucked any white dick these past few months. He's stayed away from everything — drugs, sex, even the hint of violence, so he could get back on track. Since he came back, things have been weird enough for him as is. The last thing he needs is more crazy in his life.

"Do I know you?" he asks, smooth and casual, and hopes he doesn't have to shift right here on the streets to avoid a knife, or worse, a bullet.

"Oh," the guy says, and blinks. "You don't remember me, do you? You don't"—The man's eyes go slightly narrow as he lifts a hand to his temple—"remember anything."

"Look," Armando says, raising his hands.

"It's all right, Darwin." The guy smiles. It's nice, friendly. Armando's hoping it's not some act to get at his wallet. Then the guy says, I'm just like you. Except — holy shit — his mouth doesn't move.

~*~

Armando tries to visit his momma before he goes. He sees her sweep back the curtains. She gives him a narrowed, pinched look through the window.

"You ain't no son of mine," she shouts through the window. "Now, get on!"

When Armando returns to the car, Charles squeezes his shoulder. "In time," he says.

Armando grins. "Time, yeah. I dig. It's time to get this show started."

~*~

The drive is a straight up trip.

"There are others," Charles says. But he does more than that. He shows Armando. In his head. Then tells him, "We need your help."

"No prob," Armando says, still breathless, wide-eyed, and grinning from the experience.

~*~

Charles opens the door, and Armando sees … a whole lot of white faces. For a second, he thinks he's maybe gotten into something he doesn't want to be in. Ever. But then the girl — dark blonde, cute face — jumps up saying his name. She flings her arms around him, and he rocks back on his heels and looks to the professor.

That's Raven, Charles says in his head.

Armando looks around the room. They all look shocked, hopeful, and they're staring like— Is there something I should know? he asks Charles.

"It seems," Charles says aloud, and looks down at the floor, "the trauma of the experience has led to a mild form of amnesia."

"So," the redhead in the corner says. "He doesn't remember us?"

"I'm afraid not."

It's true, but Armando doesn't see why that leads to all the long faces. "Hey," he says, squeezing Raven back. "That just means we get a second chance, right?"

~*~

There's one more member of the crew: Erik. Or, as Raven says, Magneto. It's kind of hard to use the nicknames, because they wear so new on everyone, even Mystique, as fondly as she says hers.

Armando doesn't meet Erik 'til the next day, by accident in the hall while he's headed to his room, still amazed by how big the house is, how big everything is here.

"I had heard … ," are the first words Erik says, and he circles around Armando, looking him up and down.

"Erik, right?" he asks, just to establish something of a greeting. When Erik nods, he grins and makes his own sweep over the guy. "Everyone told me you'd be the tall, intense dude."

Erik arches an eyebrow. It's like a statement all its own, so Armando isn't surprised when he moves the conversation along and says, "Your mutation is nothing short of miraculous."

He answers with a shrug. "It comes through in a pinch."

"Erik." Armando turns and the smile that flits across Charles' face is— Interesting. Erik's silence is what draws Armando's attention back, and he knows, immediately, that Erik and Charles are chatting it up. There's sort of this … thick silence when Charles chooses to talk in people's heads. "Darwin has returned."

"Yes, Charles. I have eyes." Eyes which land on Armando again. "We're fortunate to have you with us again."

"Yeah." Armando offers up a grin. "I get that feeling."

He knows there's a lot Charles isn't telling him, and it's all in everyone's reaction to him, more than disbelief but open shock like Armando's some kind of miracle. Well, Erik had pretty much laid it out there. Miraculous.

The gap in Armando's memory doesn't feel wrong, though. It's there and a part of him like everything else about him.

~*~

Armando has a handle on everyone but Alex. He's re-connecting with Raven and Sean, chats it up with Charles, trains endlessly with Erik. But Alex. It's hard to pin the brother down when the dude bolts like the pigs are on his ass, guilt-ridden expression included. What's not hard to see is Alex giving him the side-eye, like now, after Sean's left and it's just the two of them in the room.

Armando stretches out, offering up a grin when Alex looks his way. Alex begins staring at the floor, shoulders hunched, carrying tension like an ugly set of threads.

"Are you really going to bed?" Armando asks, just to get a dialogue going between them, get past the introduction phase that they seem to be stuck in.

"Been a long day," Alex says, and Armando tries not to laugh at that.

"How old are you?"

Alex looks surprised by the question, so maybe Armando's supposed to know the answer to that already.

"Twenty. About to be twenty-one soon."

Armando grins. "We'll throw you a surprise party." Raven would probably be down for it. Sean, too. They could go in together for a gag gift.

Alex shakes his head, though, looks grim and tense again. "I don't like surprises."

It's vague answers like those that has Armando thinking he and Alex were close and that Armando's memory loss is steadily becoming this big thing between them. Bigger than it should be.

So he asks, "What about when I came back?" Like it's code for: what is it I'm missing?

Alex looks up, and Armando can't read him. He's not given much of a chance 'cause Alex rushes out the door.

~*~

When Armando catches Alex in the kitchen, he figures: now or never type of deal. If Alex isn't interested in starting fresh between them, he'll back off, move on, back to business as usual.

The smear of jelly is damn near too convenient, and there's no mistaking the intense look in Alex's eyes when Armando sucks it off his own finger.

"So. Are you waiting for an invitation? 'Cause this is it."

Alex kisses like a drowning man. Armando would know. He was the only kid on the block who could swim 'cause he was the only kid on the block not afraid of drowning. Hard to be when you can grow gills just from sticking your head in the water.

Alex leads with a lot of tongue and enthusiasm, grip so tight that Armando wonders why the dude waited this long if they'd done this before. Folks have hang ups, though, and Armando's the last person to judge. He's got Alex's lips on his and the possibility of getting down in the kitchen when — no surprise — Erik's voice breaks them apart.

It's not hard to see pretty quickly, though, that Erik doesn't care that two men were making out in the kitchen. Armando thinks the manor, meeting Charles on the street, is one of the best thing that's happened in his life. He can be who he is here: no worries, no shame.

That doesn't stop Alex from cutting out the moment Erik turns his back.

"You're not the type to play fair," Armando laughs, peeling apart the orange.

Erik straightens, and Armando's never seen anyone close a refrigerator door with such finality. "You should always be aware of your surroundings."

Armando pops an orange wedge into his mouth and grins, taking his time to chew and swallow while he and Erik do the staring match thing. And man, Sean wasn't kidding when he said intense. Erik's got it down. "I think my mutation," Armando finally says, "always makes sure that I am."

~*~

No surprise, Erik wants to test it. It's no big deal to Armando. He knows he's here to train, that there's a bigger game and bigger stakes. Shaw's trying to start a war. So while Armando's having a pretty good time chilling out and navigating this thing between him and Alex, he never forgets there's something bigger and more important that he's meant to be a part of.

And Erik is really damn good at keeping Armando on his toes. The knives come from all different directions. Erik even grabs the zipper on Armando's pants to tug him off balance. There are metal parts on Armando's clothes that he didn't even know he had, and he's taken to the ground again and laughs.

"Laughing in the face of your enemies?" Erik asks, towering over him.

All Armando can do is lift his head and answer with a bigger grin. "If we're enemies, I think I've got bigger problems."

He's not sure he can call it a deflection, because he doesn't bat the knife away. He's not even aware of the thing coming at him until his body shifts and it bounces off. Erik stops it in mid-air and makes it twirl.

Armando nods at it and flicks a glance Erik's way. "You wanna call this a draw?"

Erik releases his hold on Armando's buttons. "We'll call it an exercise."

Which means start over, Armando thinks as he watches Erik walk away and the knives fly into his hand.

Armando barely gets to his feet before those knives are coming straight at him again.

"Man, Erik, you never give a brother a chan—"

After all this training, Armando knows his mutation has got his back. It's Alex — sprinting forward from out of nowhere — that he's worried about. The dude tries to tackle Erik to the ground, but Erik has got moves. Armando was pretty sure everyone knew that, but there's Alex, getting his ass kicked, because— Who the hell even knows.

It's not until Armando's got Alex in the house that he has an idea. The staring, the kiss — it all adds together.

"The two of us," he says, "did we … ?"

"Did we what?"

"You and me."

Searching Alex's face, Armando sees it even before Alex says, "We had a thing."

"Like a … ?" Armando wants to know: a passing fling thing or a for real thing.

"Like my mouth around your cock kind of thing."

And that? Is the funniest answer Armando's ever heard. It's not a great deflection, but it all makes sense now, so the invitation is easy to extend. They had a thing. An intimate thing, and maybe it's weird because Armando's also got the memory loss thing. There's no reason that any of that should hold them up, though.

~*~

Armando jogs back outside, where Erik, the show off, is juggling the knives with a flex and curl of his fingers. It's pretty rad to watch, but—

"You could take it easy on the guy," he says.

Erik stares at Armando, the whole weight of his gaze nearly physical. "Easy," he says, cool as ever, "benefits neither of us."

Armando huffs a laugh and raises his hands to ward off Erik's look. "Hey, I think out of all of us, except for you and maybe Charles, I know that more than any of us."

"Charles"—He glances back at the manor, but Armando can tell he's not looking for Charles in the windows—"lives in the lap of luxury."

"Yeah, I dig, but he also lives in people's heads. Can you imagine some of the stuff he picks up?"

Erik's eyes dart back to Armando's face, damn near electric when he answers with a dry, "I can imagine."

And damn. "Sorry," Armando says immediately. "I was just saying—" He hadn't meant to trip like that.

"I understand the point you're trying to make, Darwin, but our very existence is at stake. Shaw and the humans aren't going to 'take it easy.'"

Armando nods, because that's the only appropriate response here. But he quirks a grin anyway and reaches forward, plucking one of the knives out of the air, the rock-hard armor that forms over his skin protecting his hand from the blade.

"Yeah, but it never hurts to ask."

~*~

Which is why Armando asks Alex to lay it out for him. "Tell me what I'm missing."

And Alex—

The dude tries, but he's clearly struggling, working for each word and flicking glances at the door like he's expecting someone to bust it down.

Nothing's that serious. But even after they move past the awkward silence and get to kissing and finally go all the way, Alex flops onto his back and has still got the furrow between his eyebrows, all pinched up like he's thinking too hard. No one should look like that after an orgasm, so Armando drapes an arm across Alex's waist, hopes he stays however long he wants to, and drops lazy, uncoordinated kisses over Alex's shoulder and neck.

~*~

Even though they've reignited their thing and Armando thinks everything's cool, Alex doesn't act it. He's got this tension locked up in him, burning as hot and wild as his own mutation, and maybe that's the problem. Armando doesn't know, though, 'cause no one's telling him anything, but they keep looking at him like he should know, and it's really damn frustrating.

All he knows is that when they're wondering what else he can adapt to, Alex never steps up. Alex always gives a furious no, and Armando is always left staring after him or chasing after him, wondering what the hell had gone so wrong and why Alex won't, at least, talk about it.

It's Charles who says, "Alex," and steps forward like he can stop Alex from storming off.

"Charles," Erik smoothly interrupts, "keeping the knowledge from him benefits no one." Then Erik looks at Armando and tells him, "You were brave," and what that bravery cost him.

Armando's death seems like something he should remember, but then— His ability is to adapt. So maybe … If he adapted to forget, then survival, baby. All he knows is that his body was dust, and he reconstructed himself. There wasn't anything more groovy or badass than that.

"Thanks, Erik," he says, and normally, Armando would follow that up with a hug, but Erik's got more boundaries than anyone in the house. In respect of those, Armando claps a hand against Erik's shoulder, grins, and sprints into the house to find Alex.

He lays it all out. "You can't hurt me."

Alex turns away, but it all comes back to Armando's memory.

"There are bigger things happening here, man. Way bigger than my memory, you dig?"

"Yeah," Alex says. "Like Shaw."

Armando nods and wraps Alex in a hug, lets Alex know in as many ways as he can that he's alive and that he's not going anywhere, not if he can do the impossible and come back from the dead. "So we cool? You gonna stop flipping out?"

Alex looks away but says, "We're cool."

It's close enough. Neither one of them needs the stress, so Armando kisses Alex slow and fucks him sweet to help the dude unwind.

~*~

Hank's lab is — damn — a disaster. It looks like the joint got busted and raided.

"What the hell happened here?" Erik asks, and Armando has to agree.

"Is Hank okay?" he asks, peering around.

Charles holds up the note. "Yes, I believe so. Now the crate … ," he says, weaving through the mess.

They peer inside.

"Do we really have to wear these?" Alex asks.

"As none of us have acquired Darwin's ability to endure extreme G-force or being riddled by bullets, I suggest we suit up."

"Does that mean I get a pass on the threads?" Armando can't help but ask, jabbing Alex in the ribs with an elbow and shooting him a grin.

Erik's look says no, but it's Charles who voices it. "I'm afraid not."

~*~

When Armando sees the jet, first he's wondering how loaded Charles is and then he's wondering how many more cool toys they're going to get.

Then they find out that Hank is furry, blue, and pissed off.

Maybe that's a sign of what lies ahead.

~*~

"Darwin," the sister with the wings says. "You're alive."

Armando can't ask Alex who she is or how she knows him. He can't ask anything, 'cause he has to dodge the fireball she shoots out of her mouth right after she says, "I'm sorry."

It wouldn't be the first time someone he knew tried to kill him.

Or the first time that the nickname Darwin fit him so perfectly.

He takes the brunt of the fall, but Alex still rolls out of his arms. Everything's happening all at once, but Armando can see it. All of it. The woman shooting another fireball, Alex ripping off the ring that he doesn't need anyway, and a guy spinning tornadoes in his hands. It's not hard to identify that as the immediate threat, and speed is the next mutation Armando acquires. He doesn't know how and doesn't have time to examine it as he dives forward to cover Alex's body just as the winds whip over them.

Armando does what he does, and they both come out of it alive. Winning should have been sweeter.

It's not.

Not when there's a hundred missiles flying at them, even though they did the right thing. They stopped Shaw. Armando can't talk about Erik's methods, the way he hoisted the guy out from the submarine and floated behind him, but he could see Erik's face — mission accomplished — and he could follow the direction of Erik's hand toward the battleships.

Armando will survive, but that's not his aim. He doesn't know how to protect everyone else from a hundred missiles, and not just Alex and his team but Azazel, Angel, and Riptide, too. None of them deserve to get taken out like this, and Armando can't control something that reacts to its environment. But those missiles — that's the environment Erik was talking about, the fear of not just the unknown but of change. Armando knows it 'cause outside of Charles' mansion, he lives it. This moment right here brings it all back home.

It's why, when Erik looks at all of them and gives them a choice, that he almost goes. Then he looks back at everyone else: Sean, Hank, Charles. He looks at Alex, and Alex isn't going anywhere. Alex has already mourned Armando once, and—

Armando's got his momma, and he loves her too much to see Erik destroy everything that's human. It's not right, and someone's gotta stick around. Someone's gotta be the bridge or help build the one that Charles has been trying to make.

So Armando watches Erik and Raven vanish in a thin curl of red smoke.

"I can't feel my legs," Charles says, and Armando wonders why he didn't say something sooner, why he didn't tell Erik and Raven before they left. Then again, would it have changed anything?

~*~

He's lucky they even let him into Charles' room. Moira talked about national security and dropped a few big words like imperative and authorization.

"You keep a lot of secrets," Armando says, staring out the window at all the white faces enjoying the park.

"We all have our secrets," Charles says, and it's an answer for a question Armando never asked.

They're silent a long time, Armando dropping into the only available chair in the room and staring at his hands for so long that they begin to blur out. "Are you going to tell them?"

Charles averts his eyes, his mouth squeezing together in a brief frown like he's thinking about lying. "No," he finally says, almost too soft to hear.

Armando covers Charles' hand. It's cooler than his, dryer. "I dig."

~*~

I thought you should know, Armando writes.

"What are you doing?" Alex asks, curling his hands around Armando's shoulders, squeezing like he's making sure Armando's gonna stick around.

Armando takes a break to focus on that, to appreciate what he's got right now — his arms looped around Alex's neck, lips pressed to Alex's chin. "Letting them know … ."

He ends the letter with, We miss you guys. Be safe.

There's no way to find them, though. No way to get them the message.

Armando circles the mansion with Charles, the letter folded and tucked in a pocket.

"Weather's nice," he says.

"It is."

They stop for a while to watch the birds and the clouds, sometimes to practice. It's how they figure out Armando can withstand a telepathic attack, even though Charles isn't really going all out.

It's not 'til a week later that Charles acts on that ripple of something Armando can always feel, thrumming right in his chest, but can never figure out.

"May I?" Charles asks, motioning to Armando's pocket.

Armando smiles and hands it over along with a pen that he just happens to have handy. When Charles hands the letter back, it has an address and his signature scrawled under Armando's.

"I think a school will serve us well," Charles says, staring ahead, hands folded in his lap. He glances at Armando, wearing a slimmer version of his old smile. "Will you help me, Darwin?"

"For training?" Armando asks, softly laughing as he folds the letter and tucks it back into his pocket. He knows he's pretty much guaranteed to survive any kid's mutation. It makes him perfect to help train them.

"For building. I've asked Hank, Alex, and Sean to stay on as well."

"What about Moira?"

Charles looks down, scarecrow lines forming around his eyes. "She won't be able to help us."

"Hey." Armando covers Charles' hands. "You got me, Charles. There's a lot of us out there, huh?"

Charles nods, lifting his head and staring out at the whole wide world in front of them. "A great many, my friend."