FBI Agent Fred Duncan frowned as he drove up to the Xavier/Lensherr school. His superiors thought the X-Men were Fred’s greatest achievement. They had no idea how right they were. Certainly Fred hadn’t located the X-Men, nor had he trained them. The credit for that went to Charles and Magnus. No, Fred’s glory lay in his convincing the often justifiably paranoid mutants to work under government auspices and direction. And more difficult than that, in convincing by-the-book soldiers, agents, and officials to accept a motley team of children as comrades in arms. But after the events of two weeks past, which the FBI had only just caught wind of, that was all about to change.
A boy and girl, both covered in blue fur, played basketball in the front yard. “Agent Duncan!” the girl called, waving enthusiastically. “Dad and the Professor are in the Professor’s study.”
Fred tentatively returned the wave, then placed the voice as Meggan’s, despite being initially confused by the blue fur. “Thanks, kiddo. I know the way. Who’s winning?”
Meggan scrunched up her nose in amused frustration. “Kurt’s making me win.”
“You mean he’s letting you win?” asked Fred.
“No,” said Kurt, “I’m making her win. She likes to let the other person win because it makes them happy. I’m not happy unless she tries her best.”
Pretty mature for an eleven-year-old boy. But from the eager, mercurial way he and Meggan kept looking at each other when they thought the other wasn’t looking, even the most mature pre-teens were not immune to the pangs of puppy love. Children that age were so cute when they were in love, mostly because they knew about it from movies and books and went through the motions with naive melodrama completely devoid of sex and all its complications.
That thought reminded him of why he’d originally planned this visit, and why he had been forced to change his reason for coming at the last moment. “I’ll see you kids later.” He ignored Meggan’s worried look and hurried into the house.
Inside, he found Warren yelling, “Fight fair, damn it!” into thin air while Bobby shot huge sheets of ice and snow over the stairs, the windows, the chandelier.
In a whoosh of air, Bobby suddenly jerked forward as though hit from behind, smashing his cheek against the banister. “Come on, Pietro, this isn’t funny!” he yelled.
Fred shielded his head with one arm and bent to inspect Bobby. “You’re bleeding,” he said. “Get a band-aid and generate some ice for that eye before it swells up.”
“I don’t need your help!” yelled Bobby. He shoved Fred away and ran out of the room.
Warren glared at the blue streak flitting around the room, and his eyes glinted murderously. “Come on,” he snarled, stretching his wings forward in a combat-ready position, “Give me your best shot.”
Fred wisely chose to ignore the battle and instead climbed the stairs by pulling himself up the rungs of the banister, his feet unable to gain purchase on the ice. At the top of the stairs, a teenage brunette wept inconsolably and, from the bathroom, Fred could hear more choked female tears.
Further down the hall, from Xavier’s study, Fred heard angry, raised voices.
“I thought it was pretty clear,” said Scott from behind the closed door, “If we’re getting married and studying full time at the university, we can’t be on call for the team. We’re not leaving, we’re just taking a hiatus.”
“And who will lead the team if both of you are gone?” Xavier snapped, “Warren? Bobby? Neither of them has any real leadership abilities. I hope you’re not suggesting one of the new arrivals take over your position. Or perhaps you meant Meggan for the job. A ten-year-old is more than up to the challenge, I agree.”
“Charles, I think you’re overstating the case,” said Magnus. “Scott has been a good second-in-command, and it’s good to give the students practice in leadership roles, but you seem to forget that I’m team leader when we’re in the field. Whomever we decide is right for the lieutenant’s position will have plenty of space for an apprenticeship period. And it’s entirely possible that Warren will decide to go on to university as well in the fall, and that we’ll lose Bobby next year for the same reason--”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Magnus; we built this team from nothing, we poured everything we had into it, and now all our most experienced members are leaving! First Hank, now Scott and Jean … It’s all falling apart.”
“We’re not leaving forever,” said Jean, “Just temporarily. We’ll be back in four years, once we’ve gotten an education and had some time to enjoy being married.”
“Don’t lie to a telepath, Jean. I can see in your mind how much you want children, a career. Do you really think you have time for costumed adventuring on top of all that? And as a pregnant woman or a young mother, you’ll be less inclined to risk yourself in battle. No, Jean, I’m afraid you intend to leave for good, and take Scott with you. Warren and Bobby will leave as well; neither of them wants to be the leader, but neither of them wants to be passed over in favor of the newer additions to the team. Then Wanda and Pietro will leave the year after Bobby when they turn eighteen, if they even stay that long--”
“Charles, calm down. You’re raving.”
“If I’m raving, Magnus, it’s because you’ve been projecting your mental anguish about the new arrivals into my thoughts for the past two weeks without a moment’s rest. That level of intense emotion is enough to drive anyone mad.”
“You’re the one who wanted a mental bond.”
“Come in, Agent Duncan,” said Charles suddenly, “You can stop lurking at the door.”
Fred slowly opened the door. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“For once,” said Magnus, “I believe your intrusion is most timely and welcome.”
“I don’t think you’ll feel the same way once you’ve heard what I have to say.” Fred chose a chair and waited while Magnus and Charles made themselves comfortable and Scott and Jean seized the opportunity to escape. He then opened his briefcase and pulled out a manila folder, tossing it on the desk. “Because the X-Men are primarily attached to the FBI, they are cleared to investigate and arrest criminals within the United States, but can’t pursue cases outside our borders without special dispensation and invitation from the office of the President or the Joint Chiefs. According to this report, two weeks ago you and your team killed a mother and her teenage son in Germany and kidnapped her natural daughter and her three adopted children--”
“You can’t be serious!” snapped Magnus.
“The king of Latveria is calling himself the children’s rightful guardian and demands that the children be granted asylum by his nation. Otherwise,” Fred opened the folder and spread out the gruesome photographs, “He will show these photographs to the world at a UN session, and call for the United States to make a formal apology for this act before the UN.” Twenty large, color photographs from different angles showed a tree merged with part of a boy’s head, a corresponding, decomposing, headless body clearly dug out of the ground, and a second body of an older woman similarly decomposed, her face frozen in a rictus of pain and anger. In most of the pictures the silhouette of a church was visible through the trees.
“They’re my children!” said Magnus. “She stole them from me! And she stopped working for Doctor Doom; that’s why he wants them back. He has no case if he wishes to prosecute me for recovering my own flesh and blood.”
“Unfortunately, he does. A paternity test might prove you the father of one--”
“--Two of the children,” Fred continued, “But you have no claim on the other two. And those pictures aren’t going to build a good case for your parenting abilities. But that’s all beside the point. The US can’t afford the sort of scandal and drawn-out trial this would become, and they can’t afford to lose face in front of the UN. They asked me to come and ask you to hand over all four children to Doctor Doom quietly, otherwise they’ll denounce the X-Men as a civilian militia acting on their own, and throw you all on the mercy of the UN. And they’ll feel perfectly justified, since they had no idea you were going to pull this sort of stunt and jeopardize their position on the world stage. America can’t afford the sort of backlash and panic that will occur if other countries think we are using mutant strike forces to run covert operations within their borders.” He winced at their reactions. “Look, you know me. I didn’t know they were your kids when I came to deliver this message; I would never try to separate you from them. But the government might do just that to avoid a war unless we can work together to prove Doctor Doom is the villain here, not you.”
Just then Meggan pounded on the windows in her normal, blonde form. “Dad! Dad! It’s an emergency!”
It took only a moment for Magneto to fling open the windows and transform his summer suit into battle garb. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“They’re taking Kurt away!”
Magneto flew out the window, energy shield crackling, to find a delicate, middle-aged woman clinging to the arm of a muscular man with salt-and-pepper hair. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The woman, who wore large sunglasses, looked up at the sound of his voice, but didn’t seem at all frightened of him. The man held his ground as well. “My name is Ray Darkholme, and this is my wife Irene. We want our son back.”
“I have no son of yours,” said Magnus.
“His name is Kurt Wagner. We were not married at the time, so he took my name instead of his father’s. We lost him when he was only a baby,” Irene’s voice broke. She took off her glasses, revealing her milk-white eyes. “I may be blind, but I can see many things hidden to the human eye. Yet even I could find no trace of my son until last week, when it was suddenly clear to me that he was here.” She stretched out her hands to Kurt, who was trembling. “We have searched for you for so long…”
By now Charles and Fred had navigated the defrosting stairs and joined the group in the driveway. Their minds are closed to me, Charles thought at Magnus. Aloud, he said, “Do you have any proof that he is yours?”
The man’s form shifted and blurred. Suddenly he sported scarlet hair and blue skin, and his eyes turned golden. “Irene and I both survived a childhood in Polish camps. We knew what bigotry could do. And Irene nearly died giving birth to our son. When we saw he had no control over his form we were afraid his appearance would get us all killed, though he came by his looks honestly.” He bowed his head. “We are not proud of what we did, but I felt I could not protect both a baby and an invalid wife if we fell victim to a mob. We left Kurt in the care of a gypsy woman while I nursed Irene back to health but, when we went back for him, there was no trace of the gypsy and she was obscured from Irene’s sight.”
Magnus’s fists tightened at that, and he lowered himself to earth. He had his own nightmares of defending wife and child from an angry mob. But though he should feel complete sympathy for this couple, he couldn’t shake a feeling of suspicion. He suddenly punched Ray in the nose.
Ray stumbled back in shock, his form wavering. Now he was female instead of male, and the scarlet hair reached to his waist.
“I knew you were hiding something,” said Magneto.
By now a crowd of X-Men had gathered, and Ray looked at them uncertainly. “Perhaps we adults can talk in private,” she said.
Magnus turned back to the gaggle of children. “Scott, take the others to the Danger Room. The newcomers should get better acquainted with its capabilities.”
“Oh, come on, Pop! You can’t expect us to leave after a shocker like that!” Bobby protested.
You heard Magnus, Charles ordered, Go. That’s an order. Kurt was the last to leave, looking over his shoulder at his prospective parents the whole time.
*You don’t trust them either,* Magneto thought at Charles, *You don’t want them in the house.*
Something seems false about Ray’s grief, said Charles. After my long partnership with you, I know what grief and anger and obsession can do over the course of a long and fruitless search for a child. Ray shows no sign of that; it’s almost like s/he’s following a script.
Fred clenched his jaw and Charles smiled. It’s all right, Agent Duncan. Relax and think normally, and I’ll forward your thoughts to Magnus. We were already discussing the matter.
*I don’t care how Kurt was conceived, or what the story is between those two,* Fred thought, *But if those two are his natural parents, then three of the four kids were kidnapped by this woman, and we can make a case for the fourth as being abused or something. I can do a background check, make sure these guys aren’t front-women for some independent outfit, and tell Doctor Doom that we plan to release our story before he can release his. That should be enough leverage to make him back down, and if not, we might be able to ask these two to help you apply an entirely different type of leverage.*
The problem is that we don’t trust them, said Charles.
*Necessity makes strange bedfellows,* said Fred. *As long as they don’t have any powerful backers, we can always turn on them when we’re done if they try to double-cross us. Just let me do the background check.*
“When I said everyone go back to the house, I meant you too, Agent Duncan. This doesn’t concern you,” said Charles coldly.
Fred shot Charles and Magnus a convincingly angry look, then went into the house and left the four mutants alone. “Shall we continue this at the boathouse?” Charles asked.
The boathouse, while it did indeed house a boat, also served as a guest cottage with a small bedroom and a spacious living room equipped with an array of computers that would impress anyone who hadn’t seen the technology available within the mansion’s walls. The four adults seated themselves around a large, low coffee table.
“My real name is Raven,” said the blue-skinned woman. “We were afraid that if you knew we were both women, you wouldn’t allow us to keep Kurt.”
“Then you are Kurt’s real mother?” asked Charles.
“No, as we said, Irene is Kurt’s mother. I’m Kurt’s father. The shape-changing goes more than skin deep.”
Charles steepled his fingers on the table. “This gypsy you spoke of also stole Magnus’s children, and misled him as to their whereabouts and identities, so I hope you can understand our skepticism of your story. Would you mind if I touched your thoughts, not too deeply, but enough to verify that what you say is true?”
“It wouldn’t do you any good.” said Raven. “As I said, the shape-changing runs more than skin deep. It’s made my mind a sort of kaleidoscope, a shifting view of splintered colors. You wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything.”
Charles leaned forward, a grim smile Magnus had rarely seen on his lips. “I’m sure I can manage.”
Raven laughed nervously. “After the camps, I really can’t abide any sort of invasion of my person.”
Irene sat up and set her glasses aside. “Dearheart, now is not the time.” She turned in the direction of Charles’s voice. “Search as deeply as you like.”
“Irene!” said Raven.
“He won’t hurt us,” said Irene. “But sir, if you test me, I must insist that you open your mind to me in return. You cannot ask for my trust, for the secrets of my very soul, without revealing your own heart, your own intentions.”
“You said yourself, I have no intentions to harm you,” said Charles.
“I can see glimpses of the future,” said Irene, “not the labyrinth of the human heart. And the future is always in flux. I would like my glimpses confirmed.”
Charles closed his eyes, clearly at work. Magnus watched Raven while their respective partners sat entranced, and she glared back with narrowed eyes.
Thankfully, the strange couple’s arrival had the effect of shocking the children into good behavior. Fred decided that since he was the only adult in a house of nine kids, it fell to him make himself useful by sorting everyone out. “You must be Pietro,” he said, recognizing the silver-haired mutant from the morning’s dossier. “How about you tell me what started the fight?”
Pietro glared at him. “I don’t take orders, especially not from humans.” he said. He turned to Warren. “And as for you, if you even look at my sister again, you overgrown chicken, I’ll break your neck before you know what’s happened to you!” With that, he sped off.
The girl who had been weeping on the staircase touched Fred’s arm. “I’m sorry about my brother. Sometimes he thinks being faster than everyone else means he’s better than everyone else. I’m Wanda.”
“I’m Fred,” he said, “You speak English remarkably well.”
“Herr Professor Xavier taught us all telepathically,” she said. She turned to Warren. “Can you forgive me?”
Warren smiled with all the charm of his native class. “You’re not responsible for your brother. Come on, I’ll show you the library.” She followed him, but kept looking down the corridor where Pietro had disappeared.
“As for you, Bobby,” said Fred, “it’s good that you stood up for Warren, but you really need to find ways to solve your problems without fighting. Even Charles and Magnus can’t afford to rebuild this house every week.”
“But Pietro started it! He attacked Warren, didn’t even warn him before he started beating Warren up!”
“And I’ll get to him, believe me. But like I said, you need to learn to negotiate. If you can convince someone to stop fighting, you save your own energy and prevent a lot of property damage. I want you to write an essay on all the ways you could have solved the problem without violence.”
“You’re not my teacher!” Bobby protested.
“You’re right. But this is much more fair than the punishment Charles would give you for fighting in the house.” Fred didn’t mention Magnus, but he had a feeling Magnus would have ripped Bobby and Warren apart for touching his kids. “If you write the essay and hand it in, you’ll head off a worse punishment later.”
Bobby grudgingly accepted the logic of that and went off to his room. Three down, six to go. Five, if Fred couldn’t catch up with Pietro long enough to smack some sense into him. He turned to Scott and Jean next.
Before he could open his mouth, though, Jean smiled and said, “Oh, we’re fine. We just need to stand our ground until the Professor realizes he’s wrong. Thanks anyway, Fred.”
And Meggan touched Fred’s arm and projected feelings of reassurance, then tugged Kurt out to the gardens. She was clearly sure she could handle Kurt’s feelings about the two strangers.
That left Fred alone with Amanda. She was a lovely girl, a strawberry blonde with a slender body which, though unattractive by Eastern European standards, would probably win her a modeling career if she was so inclined. But her face was closed off, full of unspoken pain. “I’m sorry about your mother and your brother,” he offered, taking her into a little study off the main hall.
She sat on the very edge of a brocaded armchair across from him. “Thank you. You’re the first person who’s said that to me.”
“It must be hard for you. Wanda and Pietro have a father here, Kurt has Meggan to make him feel welcome, but it didn’t look to me like anyone here has taken you under their wing.”
Amanda pulled her knees up to her chest. “I know my mother did bad things, but she’s still my mother. And she loved us very much. One time a boy’s father beat him for playing with Kurt, and Kurt lost his only friend. It was my mother who comforted him after that. And she’s the one who taught Wanda and me that the accidents we caused when we first came into our gifts were just that: accidents. Not proof that we were monstrous. Everyone is acting like it’s good that she’s dead, but she took care of us! She loved us!”
Fred put out his arms and Amanda ran to him, weeping against his chest as though her heart was breaking. “Adults are complicated creatures,” he said. “All of us are a mixture of good and bad intentions. We all just try the best we can, and do what we think is most important. I think your mother tried very hard to keep you all safe and give you a better life. But she didn’t always know the best way to do that.” He rocked Amanda in his arms and let her cry herself out. With his upcoming nuptials, which he had yet to tell Magnus and Charles about, Fred had worried that he wouldn’t make a good father. After today, though, Fred felt ready for anything.
Finally she looked up at him and bit her lip. “She encouraged my brother to sacrifice young women to raise power, and rape and torture them to increase the amount of power he could harvest. And she was training me to be her successor, as her only natural daughter. I’m afraid sometimes that if I love her, it will make me evil.”
Fred fought down a shudder at her factual tone of voice. But the fact that she had confided this to him meant she no longer felt she had to defend her mother’s honor against all comers. She could stop carrying that burden. “Amanda, I think the fact that you’re asking this question and analyzing your actions will keep you from becoming evil. But it’s a big burden for a girl your age to carry. Ask Charles if you can see any psychiatrist friends of his. It’ll do you some good to talk to a stranger, someone who didn’t fight your mother and doesn’t have an opinion of her.” He didn’t want her seeing Charles; Charles’s incompetence as a therapist was one of the few points on which he and Magnus agreed. Perhaps because of his telepathy, Charles had a tendency to over-identify with patients and become too involved and controlling.
Amanda got off his lap. “Thank you for listening.”
“Any time. Amanda?”
“Yes?” She stopped halfway to the door.
“There’s something I think you need to know. Doctor Doom is bringing charges of kidnapping against Magnus and Charles. Pietro and Wanda are safe, and if these people really are Kurt’s parents then he’s going with them. The only one up in the air is you. A lot may rest on what you say and feel. You’re going to need to decide if you want to stay here or go with Doctor Doom.”
Amanda bit her lip again. “I don’t know that they want me here. I’m my mother’s only remaining true child and everyone’s kind of avoiding me.”
“Look, Amanda, this place was made to be a refuge for kids like you. It’s just the grown-ups have a lot on their minds, with nine kids pulling in different directions at the same time. If you tell Magnus and Charles how you feel, I’m sure they’ll apologize and pay more attention to you.”
She shook her head. “Some things are worthless if you have to ask for them.”
“Okay then, I’ll tell you what. Try living here a bit longer, see if things are better when everyone settles down. If it doesn’t get better, though, I’d be proud to call you my daughter. I’m about to get married, and I’m sure Marsha will love you.”
“Are you sure?” asked Amanda.
“You’re a smart, sensitive kid, and if Charles and Magnus are too stupid to see that, I don’t see why you should suffer.”
“Don’t you want to have your own kids, though? I’ll be in the way.”
“Marsha always wanted lots of kids. You won’t be in the way. You’ll be the oldest, the big sister.”
She hugged him. “Danke,” she whispered, and ran out of the room.
Fred couldn’t help grinning. The house had been in chaos when he’d arrived, and now the halls were silent and peaceful--
Just then there was a crash from the library. That would teach him to be smug.
They sat on the garden bench for a long time without speaking. On some level, Meggan found it a relief.
“It was strange,” said Kurt, “to see people who looked like me.”
Meggan nodded. “I know how you feel.”
The play on words wasn’t lost on him. “What did you feel from them?”
Meggan paused, sorting out her thoughts. “The blind one, Irene, she felt so gentle and sad. People are always feeling things all around me, sometimes it feels like I’m swept away in a river. She felt like an anchor.”
Meggan bit her lip. But he had to know. “Inside it’s like snakes biting each other in a frenzy.”
Kurt hugged his knees to his chest.
Fred started towards the library, then thought better of it. It was clear nothing he could say would get those boys to settle down, and he lacked the power to punish them. If he tried to break it up again, the fight would start back up the minute he turned his back. And he had some digging to do.
He walked down the hall to the main information net and palmed the lock. The information net was retinal-voiceprint, geared to give each individual the access they were cleared for. Despite all the time he’d worked with them, all the risks he’d taken, Fred was cleared for little more than use of the phone and modem to make outside calls.
That was all he really needed at the moment, but it stung to think they still didn’t trust him. No, Magnus didn’t trust him. Charles, being a telepath, maintained the fiction of trust without really risking anything.
He had to get through a dozen government security programs and half a dozen sly lackeys who tried to misdirect his calls and play dumb before he found what he wanted. What he found shocked him to the core.
Oh yes, the government had heard of Ray and Irene Darkholme. There was a project in the works, Ray’s proposal, to head a team of mutant criminals, releasing them from prison in return for working as a mutant covert ops team , doing jobs the government wanted official deniability for. They would be the whispered threat that made senators cave in, and when they’d outlived their usefulness they would be dangerous mutants, a menace to society sent back to prison in the hopes that it would reform them.
Fred knew how these covert ops gigs worked. The government would consider Kurt the icing on the cake if they found out about him: they could revoke Ray’s parental rights or simply kidnap Kurt any time Ray refused to obey orders. But the team Ray was assembling, the sort of person she’d have to be to control them, reminded Fred of an agent he’d once served with who had killed a hostage rather than give the terrorist any leverage in the conversation. Kurt wouldn’t last five minutes with that viper. Fred sent out a mental scream to Charles.
Within moments Magnus flew in the window. “Charles told the Darkholmes that you needed help managing the children. What have you found?”
“Ray and Irene are really Kurt’s parents, as far as I can figure. They’re also cold-blooded killers, or at least Ray is. He, she whatever, is assembling a team of mutants to kidnap useful mutants, steal secrets, and kill inconvenient officials under the auspices of one of the darker branches of government. Everything we were trying to keep your kids out of in the first place. Someone with a sick sense of humor decided to call it “Freedom Force”. If Kurt goes with them, he’ll have no choice but to join their team.”
Magnus considered it. “As his parents, they have rights, and the government will have its own reasons for backing their legal claim. But we can argue that the boy is traumatized and needs psychiatric treatment here, or that since he can teleport here whenever he likes, parental rights mean little.”
“That assumes he’ll choose us over the Darkholmes or Doctor Doom.”
“Well of course he will. It’s the only reasonable option--”
There was a groaning of boards and a terrible sound like a stampede. It sounded like one of the enormous floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the library had been overturned.
“What in God’s name was that?” Magnus demanded, staring down the hall.
“Just a guess, but that was probably Pietro beating Warren to a pulp. Look, they’ve been at it all day, it’s going to take forever to solve, and we need to finish talking about Kurt before the Darkholmes get suspicious and take him away.”
“This is more important,” said Magnus, turning to go.
Fred made the mistake of grabbing Magnus’s hand, which had the effect of making the mutant pull away and glare at him for a moment before continuing down the hallway.
“Damn it, I think I’ve earned--”
“’Earned’? It’s not about ‘earned’,” said Magnus. “If things get as bad for mutants as it got for Jews, if you die or go to a concentration camp to save us, then we’ll talk ‘earned’. Until then, your actions fall into two categories: social niceties and helping your own career.”
Fred hurried to get in front of Magnus and block his path. “I was planning to come here today before the government dropped this bombshell in my lap. Do you know why? I’m getting married. I wanted to invite you to my wedding. Because I thought we were friends. This whole time I’ve been busting my ass for you and these kids, and you never trusted me! You never thanked me! You never even treated me like a human being!”
“You’re wrong, Agent Duncan. I always treated you like a human being.” The term curdled in his mouth.
“I just spent two hours cleaning up the mess you’ve made of these kids, so if you know what’s good for you you’ll shut up and listen to me for once. You just met your children. You expected them to know you and love you straight off, and instead you’re strangers. Okay, I understand how that upsets you. But you’ve also got five kids who’ve been here all along, who also have problems, and two more orphans terrified that they’re going to be blamed because their mother was a horrible person. For years everyone in this house has judged themselves by whether or not they’re one of the special ones, one of your little family circle. And now you’re telling them they can all go to hell because you have your real family back.”
Magnus’s scowl sagged. “Every time I look at that boy, I remember arriving in Margali’s camp, wondering if that ball of blue fur was my child. Every time I look at him I think how she must have been laughing at me, playing me for a fool while she took my children. I know he’s not to blame. But I can’t get rid of the anger.” He shook his head. “There are nine children in this house, four of whom are mine, four of whom are new arrivals with enough pain to fill ten freight cars. I am trying. But it is a lot to keep up with.”
“No one’s asking you to keep up with all nine. No one’s asking you to be a father to all nine, either. Just let them know you don’t think they’re worthless. I talked with Amanda, I still need to talk with my fiancee, but I think we may adopt her. She seems like a great kid, but life with her mother sounded pretty crazy. I think a quiet suburban family would be better for her than this madhouse. Scott and Jean just want to know that they’re still part of the family if they choose to be civilians. Charles can take care of Bobby and Warren’s problems, as always. That leaves you with Meggan, Pietro, Wanda, and Kurt.”
“Charles should take care of Kurt as well. I lack objectivity. And that would give us each three children to tend to; a far easier proposition.”
Fred shook his head. “The kid’s been orphaned twice. He needs a dad, not a teacher, and you and I both know Charles could never deliver that. Even the kids who don’t need you as a father because they’ve got parents of their own call you ‘Pop’. Kurt can’t be the only exception. He’ll curl up and die.”
Magnus’s jaw worked. “I’ll talk with him. Explain that what I feel isn’t his fault. But it may be a while before I can feel honest affection for him.” He looked Fred in the eyes. “He’s not the only one.” There was a long pause. “In the camps families would rip each other apart for a half a bread ration. I didn’t just learn to mistrust anyone who wasn’t my kind; I learned that friendship was all well and good when all parties were safe and well-fed, but not to be trusted until life and death were on the line, and then it was too late. Better not to trust, so betrayal costs you nothing. I apologize for how I’ve treated you.”
“If you live your life that closed off, you’re dead anyway. Worry about life or death situations when you come to them.”
Magnus smiled bitterly. Too late, Fred remembered that this was not a man who had suffered one disaster. This was a man who had lost everything, over and over. Then the bitterness slid beneath the surface once more. “Am I still invited to the wedding, Agent Duncan?”
“I think we can squeeze you in somewhere.”
The sounds from the library were getting ugly, and both men decided a mad dash for the library door was more important than a hug.
Pietro had a terrible secret, one he lived in terror of anyone discovering. The speed at which he moved, spoke, and thought alienated him from others, certainly, but the speed covered his lack of intelligence so well that no one guessed how much he appreciated having endless relative time to catch up to everyone else’s thoughts. He was terrified of being alone, making his own decisions, because he never made good ones.
The only person who neither bored him with their relative slowness or saw through his veneer of confidence and laughed, was Wanda. With her the world was never too fast or too slow. But his twin was leaving. The only person he cared about, the only one who mattered to him, and she was abandoning him for that snob Warren. An overgrown chicken who could give Wanda a better life, complete with all the luxuries Pietro could never give her.
He found them in the library, leaning over an art history book filled with colorful paintings. And the snob was right behind her, touching her shoulder so lightly you’d think she wouldn’t have noticed, but she looked up and smiled and blushed, her fingers gently sweeping her hair out of her face.
Pietro went crazy, punching Warren’s face as fast and hard as he could, until Wanda’s hex powers made Warren’s wings swat Pietro all the way across the room to separate them.
Pietro turned, sped up and slammed into Warren, but Warren was ready for him this time, catching and redirecting Pietro, smashing him into a bookcase.
“What in God’s name is going in here?” Magnus bellowed.
Wanda and Pietro froze at that voice, but Warren, the little suck-up, automatically came to attention. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t start it.”
“I told him to keep his hands off my sister!” Pietro snapped. He’d be damned if he was going to apologize for this, not to Warren and certainly not to Magnus. His father might look intimidating, two meters tall and covered with muscles, but Margali had tricked Magnus. However impressive he looked, it was his stupidity, his weakness, that Magnus had passed to his son, and Pietro couldn’t forgive that.
Warren held up his hands as though to prove they were nowhere near Wanda. “Pop, I was a perfect gentleman. You know me.”
Magnus’s glare indicated he was about to say something scathing, but a glance from the man next to him -- Agent Duncan? -- changed the remark to a mild “We’ll talk about this later, Warren.”
No wonder Pietro had so much trouble. Even a powerless human could bend Magnus to his will, so what chance did his son have? Pietro hated his father more with every passing second.
“As for you,” Magneto started into Pietro, but they were interrupted by the entrance of Professor Xavier and the Darkholmes.
“It’s getting late, and we’ve a long trip ahead of us,” said Ray. “I’d like to get my son. Where is he?”
“It would be better to keep all the children together until we have neutralized Doctor Doom’s threat,” said Magnus.
“If there is a chance Doom might try to take our son, that’s all the more reason we should spend as much time with him as possible. We will take him now.
“Professor Xavier,” Irene murmured, “Kurt is ours. You know this. Yes, you can tie this up for months with court cases, but you cannot call yourself a good man and keep a boy from his parents, not unless you proclaim yourself as evil as the woman you rescued him from.”
Magnus held up a hand and smiled. “It’s all right. If Kurt wishes to go with you, we won’t stop him. Fred, do you know where Kurt is?”
“He should still be in the garden with Meggan.”
They all trooped outside, and somehow the other children heard what was happening and came downstairs as well. Pietro wondered at it until he remembered how many telepaths and empaths lived in this house. One person’s business was everyone’s business, apparently. No privacy. Pietro wished he were the one the Darkholmes had come to claim.
Kurt and Meggan had been talking and holding each other, but they looked up when the group approached. “What’s going on?” asked Kurt.
“The Darkholmes wish to take you home,” said Magnus, “But no one is going to force you to go anywhere against your will. Am I right?” He smiled at the Darkholmes, and Pietro realized this was just a public show of compliance. Magnus had something up his sleeve.
The Darkholmes nodded their compliance, though neither looked happy about it. They couldn’t argue with Magnus without looking like they were kidnapping Kurt whether he wanted to go or not.
Kurt looked at his feet, the giant front toes flexing in the grass. “I guess I’m going with them.”
“What?” cried Magnus. The flicker of respect Pietro had felt for his father died stillborn. Whatever trick Magnus had up his sleeve had backfired, and now he was bound by the same constraints he had tried to place on the Darkholmes.
“Kurt, you can’t,” said Meggan.
“We’ve never been separated,” said Amanda. “We promised the four of us would always look out for each other.”
Magnus knelt beside the boy, pitching his voice too low for eavesdroppers. “Kurt, these may be your parents, but we have reason to believe they’re also dangerous people. If you go with them, you could get hurt.”
Kurt’s eyes filled with tears. He looked at the Darkholmes. His own mother and brother had been dangerous people, but they’d also loved him when no one else would. He turned to Magnus, who had helped kill the only mother he had ever known, and who had reviled him ever since he’d come to this house. “There’s nowhere else for me to go,” he managed. He stood, hugged Meggan, then turned to hug Amanda and Wanda. “I’ll write, I promise.” Pietro had never cared one way or another for Kurt, but the look of fear on Kurt’s face rivaled any reaction Margali had ever gotten from him.
The little blue hand grasped the adult blue hand, and all three Darkholmes walked out of the garden without further fanfare.
Dinner that night was a somber affair. Everyone just picked at their food. After dinner, Magnus went upstairs and went about a task he hadn’t had time or energy for since they’d faced Margali: tucking everyone in for the night. For years, he’d used it as a way to make himself available to his children and charges, hiding safely behind the armor of bedtime stories and orders to clean rooms.
He chose Warren first. Warren was expecting him. “I didn’t touch her,” Warren repeated. “I touched her shoulder, but you know what I mean. I’m always a gentleman around women.”
“I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of Wanda and Pietro,” said Magnus. “But I think we both know your real motives in courting Wanda, and I think it would be wise of you to treat her as you treat Meggan: like a little sister.”
“Wanda’s only two years younger than me, I don’t see what the prob--”
“This has nothing to do with Wanda and you know it,” said Magnus. “This has to do with Scott and Jean leaving, and you being next in line for head student. I know you, Warren. You don’t want to be left behind with the babies, you have neither the talent nor the inclination to be team leader, but you have no interests to pursue outside of being a superhero and you don’t want to give it all up and be a pointless playboy again, just another scion of the Worthington estate. You’re feeling very small and lost right now and Wanda seems even smaller and more confused, and you thought you could see yourself reflected in her eyes as something grander than you were. I won’t let you play on her vulnerabilities that way. And I’d be remiss in my responsibilities to you if I let you cower in that way.”
Warren looked crestfallen. “You’re right, Pop. I don’t want to leave and I can’t stay. I can’t let one of the kids be promoted over me.”
“Why does anyone have to be promoted? I’m team leader, and while it was easier when I had a second in command, it wasn’t necessary. It’ll be years before any of the children is ready for command anyway. Tell Bobby, as well: I promise none of the others will be promoted until you are both either ready to leave or no longer sensitive about the issue. You might want to talk to Hank, though. He was the oldest of you, and through football he was used to being a team leader of a different sort, but he was never uncomfortable with Scott’s authority.”
Warren grinned. “No offense, but the day I take advice from Hank is the day hell freezes over.”
“Just a suggestion.”
“I’m all right, Pop. Really. I just need to figure out what I want to do with my life, and I haven’t got any answers. Between money and my powers, even the sky’s not the limit, but I just don’t feel passionate about anything. That’s why I started crime-fighting; I thought it would be intense enough to get through to me. The work’s intense, but I’m not.” He forced a smile. “It’s late. I got a lot of thinking to do.”
“See you in the morning, then.”
With that, Magnus smiled and left the room.
Scott’s room was locked, and from the sounds inside, he and Jean preferred their privacy at the moment. Just as well. Magnus was still caught between congratulating Scott on his healthy and happy life and yelling at him for becoming such an easy target for disaster. And only time and fate would tell which sentiment was in order.
When he opened the door to Pietro’s room, however, he was greeted by the sight of his son sneaking out the window. He magnetically grabbed the boy. “Where are you going at this time of night?” A glance out the window revealed Meggan, Amanda and Wanda already on the ground.
“None of your business!” said Pietro.
“As your father, the co-owner of this house and the man who is currently preventing your escape, I’d say it’s my business. What’s going on?”
“You let them take Kurt! Meggan says they’re horrible people. And we’re not going to leave him with them just because you’re too weak to stand up for him.”
“Yes, I suppose you’d see it that way,” said Magnus. “But it’s not a question of brute force or a contest of wills. They can bring pressures to bear on all of us, and if Kurt doesn’t want to be here we would lose much and gain nothing by fighting for him. But when he is ready, and we are ready, we will make it clear that there is a place here for him if he wants it. We can do nothing more for him right now.”
“You’re wrong! You only think that because you’re weak! Everyone pushes you around. I wish you weren’t my father!”
“As your history has shown you, quite a few people wish I wasn’t your father. If it helps any, I’m not one of them.” Magnus lowered the boy to the floor and released him. “I’m not perfect. I never pretended to be. But weak … from what you have seen of me, I can understand that, though I believe few in this house would agree with you. But the story isn’t over yet. I may still surprise you, if you’ll let me.”