After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
Magneto stared at the missive in his hand. He glanced back to where Rogue was standing at attention, back ramrod straight. In the low light of the tent, and with her helmet firmly in place, it was impossible to make out the twin white stripes that ran through the front of her hair. Magneto returned his attention to the slip of paper in his hand.
"Is this accurate?" he asked. Rogue had just returned from headquarters. If anyone knew, it was her. He still suspected this was someone's idea of a joke.
"Yes, Sir," she said.
Magneto didn't have an answer for that. He gestured her at ease, her posture making him tense. Immediately she moved to the side of his desk, the slow slink of her hips no doubt meant to draw his gaze. Magneto frowned; eyed her sideways as she perched on the edge of the desk, crossing her legs to angle her body into his space.
"Fighting with Gambit again, are we?" He wasn't interested in her particular brand of flirting today, and he certainly wasn't interested in playing the role of stand-in in her tumultuous relationship.
"He wouldn't know a good thang if it bit him on the ass," she said. "And believe me, I've tried." Magneto crooked a finger. Rogue smiled, smug and just a little bit teasing, and then leaned towards him. He met her halfway.
"Out," he said, a breathless whisper. Her expression turned thunderous.
"Man, you ain't no fun," she said, but she quirked a smile as she slid from his desk, hips still slow and seductive as she crossed the tent and then vanished outside. A gust of wind caught the canvas door. It billowed out, muted light filling the space before it fluttered shut, the tent once again shrouded in shadows.
Magneto felt a tension headache coming on.
The helmet wasn't helping, but taking it off wasn't an option. "More damned telepaths," he said, glancing to the slip of paper still clutched in his hand. He stood from his desk, crossed to the tent's heater and set the paper against an element. It was quick to catch, sparks fanning and then bursting into flames. He let it burn down to almost nothing, dropping the charred remains to the floor and crushing them with the heel of his boot lest they set fire to the rugs. All that remained was cinder and ash.
He wouldn't be the only one getting these orders today. Summoning his cape by its metal clasp, Magneto draped it around his shoulders and strode from the tent.
Outside his protective canvas walls, the heavy scent of overcooked meat combined with the pungent aroma of overused latrines. Magneto swallowed against it, momentarily transported to a different camp; a different life. He shook the thought aside, glanced up at low, rolling grey clouds, and then went in search of Cyclops.
He found Wolverine instead.
"You got an explanation for this?" Wolverine asked, thrusting a sheet of paper into Magneto's chest. The heavy density of Wolverine's adamantium beckoned. Magneto ignored it.
"Orders from Genosha, telling us to expect a VIP, I'd say," Magneto said, letting sarcasm bleed into his tone. He had no idea why Wolverine thought he'd have any additional information. Genosha didn't like him anymore than they did Logan, or any of the other mutants stationed on the front lines. They kept their golden children close; or at least, they used to.
"Genosha's sending us a goddamned telepath, here, in the middle of this shit storm and we're just supposed to smile and take it?"
Magneto hated to admit it, but Wolverine had a good point. Genosha didn't risk telepaths. They had an entire citadel built to keep them safe. Sending one to the front lines was unthinkable.
"Who'd this guy piss off? That's what I want to know," Wolverine was saying, spitting as he finished, like the idea was personally offensive.
"I'll guess we'll find out when he gets here."
Magneto didn't wait for Wolverine's retort, still intent on seeing Cyclops. His scowl deepened when Wolverine fell into step at his side. The man didn't bathe nearly enough and was starting to smell like wet dog. The latrine-smell was preferable. Magneto did his best to ignore him, concentrating instead on navigating the camp.
Days of perpetual downpour had left the ground slick with mud, some of it so thick they'd stopped getting vehicles through. They ought to move, Magneto thought, not for the first time. They were exposed here, out in the open, reclaimed farmland as far as the eye could see. The few houses that dotted the landscape were grey, rotting and abysmal.
All of it was disturbingly familiar.
"It does have that same, je ne sais quoi, doesn't it?"
There was always the chance that Wolverine had spoken, however out of character, but when Magneto glanced over the man was puffing contentedly on a cigar, ignoring Magneto completely. Magneto let his jaw clench and stared straight ahead, ignoring the new arrival. Schmidt was the last person he wanted to deal with today.
He focused instead on wading through the muck. Schmidt tutted and then attached himself firmly to Magneto's side, gliding across the ground while Magneto struggled to get through the quick-sand-like mud. By the time they reached Cyclops' tent, his mood had soured considerably.
Cyclops' tent was military precise and yet completely unsuited to the weather. He'd chosen form over function, its appearance more important than its practicality. Magneto ducked inside, a steady stream of water dripping in its interior, Cyclops' rugs soaked through with rain. Wolverine barked a laugh.
"You're gonna need to trade in that desk of yours for a boat," he said.
Magneto ignored their interplay, stepping aside to avoid the stream of water dripping above his head. Schmidt stepped in to claim the space. The dripping didn't seem to faze him, but then, nothing ever did. The benefit, Magneto supposed, of being the figment of someone's imagination.
"Let me guess, you two are here for this." Cyclops held up the same missive Magneto had burned; the same missive Wolverine had trust into his chest. He carried it with him across the tent, setting it on the strategy table that occupied the tent's centre, the only space free from dripping. His pallet in the corner was soaked through, Cyclops having chosen to sleep in damp rather than ruin campaign plans. Magneto felt a grudging surge of respect.
"Genosha didn't send you anything else?" Magneto asked, stepping forward until he too was leaning over the table. Wolverine followed suit. Together they stared down at Cyclops' plans of the Walled City.
If they could get into that city, they could pull the White Queen and her Shadow King from their throne and the war would be over. Magneto could only assume that was why they were sending the telepath.
Cyclops scowled--as much as a man wearing a wide visor could scowl. He reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a second sheet of paper, setting it on the table.
Magneto didn't begrudge him the additional information. Too many eyes, was Genosha's philosophy, and one Magneto tended to agree with. It wasn't Cyclops' fault Genosha trusted him above Magneto. They knew he was only here because it was either fight for Genosha or crawl in the mud starving with what was left of humanity. Magneto had spent enough of his life crawling in the mud. It was not an experience he wished to repeat.
He glanced down at the missive. A single name stood out in sharp black ink. Magneto blinked, and then exhaled slowly through his teeth. Cyclops glanced up sharply.
"Do you know him?"
"Doesn't everyone?" Magneto asked, because as far as Genosha's telepaths went, there were few who ranked above Charles Xavier.
Cyclops shook his head. "I meant do you know him personally?"
Magneto knew where this was going even before he answered. Even Wolverine was staring at him now, while Schmidt was leaned against the side of the table, wide grin twisting his features into something straight from Magneto's nightmares. Magneto grit his teeth.
"I met him briefly at headquarters, two years ago, just after they recruited me. I spoke to him for less than an hour. I barely remember him, and I'm certain he doesn't remember me."
He was not going to get stuck with this. He outright refused.
Cyclops didn't say anything further, but he inclined his head, looking thoughtful. Magneto pushed back from the table, ignoring Cyclops and Wolverine both--would that he could ignore Schmidt--dismissing himself before his presence sent Cyclops' thoughts running in the wrong direction.
Schmidt followed him from the tent.
"Tsk, Tsk," he said, appearing at Magneto's shoulder, moist breath caressing his neck. Magneto recoiled.
"We're not doing this anymore," he said, which was probably the exact wrong thing to say, because it rather disproved the point he was trying to make.
Schmidt dissolved into laughter.
"Oh, my little Erik Lehnsherr," he said. Magneto flinched upon hearing the name. "You are such a beautiful liar."
"It's not a lie," Magneto said. "You're dead. I put a coin through your head, so you can go haunt someone else. I'm not interested."
The rain had started up again; fat drops that beat against his helmet, water gathering on the ridge above his eyes, spilling over to obscure his vision. The edge of his cape was soiled, the purple spotted with dirt and debris. It dragged at his shoulders, the silk heavy with damp. Schmidt practically skipped at his side. Impatient, Magneto gathered the material over his arm and folded it into the crook of his elbow, his steps marginally lighter now that he wasn't being dragged back. By the time he slipped into his tent, he felt like a drowned rat.
What a ridiculous waste of a morning, he thought, scrapping the mud off his boots, not wanting to track it across his rugs. He took his cape off and tossed it into a corner, where it landed on the floor in wet, sodden mess. It was beyond shaking out and hanging to dry anyway.
"That's not what I meant, pet," Schmidt said, coming into the tent, still stuck on their previous conversation. There were many a time when Magneto was convinced ghosts lived outside the normal laws of time.
He didn't immediately clarify, crossing the tent to throw himself onto Magneto's pallet. He patted the bedding at his side, as if Magneto would ever willingly crawl into bed with the man, dead or otherwise.
Magneto remained where he was, standing inside the entranceway. Schmidt made a clicking sound with his tongue.
"Very well, be that way. But you did lie. You know perfectly well who Charles Xavier is. You remember him exactly."
Magneto had no intentions of hearing the rest of that statement, so he turned on his heel and strode from the tent. The rain was worse now, and without his cape he was soon soaked through. Not that it mattered. He got all of three feet out the door before he ran head-first into Schmidt.
"Get out of my head," he tried. If it weren't for the helmet--and he slept in the damned thing--he'd suspect Schmidt was the work of a telepath. Sometimes he thought he was anyway.
"Those pretty blue eyes. Those lush red lips. Oh, you remember him quite well. He quite captured your attention, if I recall. Did it distress you, knowing you would never see him again? That he would remain safe and secure inside his palace while they sent you out to fight in the mud? We learned that the last time, you and I. War is nothing more than little boys, dying in the mud, while the real men of rule, men like Charles Xavier, sit on their thrones and play games of chess with our lives."
Schmidt had learned nothing of the sort. He'd had his throne, or at least the post of his choosing. The White Queen had been more than happy to give him his mutants; to let him oversee their training.
Magneto wondered what would happen if he picked up the nearest jeep and lobbed it at Schmidt's head. It wouldn't accomplish anything, but it might make him feel better. Clearly, he should have made the man suffer more before his death.
"It's our time, Erik. We should be the ones sitting in that palace, not stuck out here with the boys, playing their war games. What harm has the Walled City ever done, aside from trying to cement their rule? Are they any different? Think of the power they would hand you if you offered them victory."
It was easy to ignore Schmidt when he started talking like this: the nonsense of a madman Magneto had almost thought a mercy to put out of his misery. He walked steadily towards the mess hall. If he had to wait on Xavier's arrival, at least he could do it on a full stomach. He'd still rather be fighting, but with the King and Queen locked inside their tower, the battles were few and far between these days. They'd been locked in stalemate for weeks.
"He would give you anything you desired," Schmidt said, slithering like a snake to Magneto's side. Aside from shifting so that their shoulders no longer brushed, Magneto ignored him. There was no need to ask who he was. As far as Schmidt was concerned Emma Frost didn't exist. There was only the Shadow King.
"He would give you Charles Xavier, bound and broken at your feet, yours to do with what you pleased."
Magneto froze. Schmidt had, at various points in his life, frightened him, terrified him, repulsed him, filled him with rage, broken him, and put him back together again. Schmidt had made Magneto what he was, but until this moment Magneto had never truly hated the man. He had despised him, certainly, but he understood Schmidt, had recognized the enormity of what Schmidt had created, and so could never bring himself to label any of the myriad of emotions the man inspired as hate.
There was no other word for the surge of emotion that whited his vision now. Magneto snarled even as he turned to Schmidt. He reached out and caught Schmidt around his neck. It was only mildly satisfying to hear the gurgle of spit and air that escaped Schmidt's throat as Magneto crushed his trachea. It was even more satisfying to watch the brief flash of fear in Schmidt's eyes as Magneto lifted him, tossing him into the side of a barrack tent like he was little more than a ragdoll.
When he lowered his hand, Schmidt was gone and two sergeants were staring at him with wide eyes.
"Back to your posts," he barked, the men jumping to do his bidding, hastily saluting as they scrambled to escape his sight.
Undoubtedly the entire incident would be all over the camp before nightfall. Good, Magneto thought, let them think you're insane. At least then they will give you a wide berth.
He continued his quest for breakfast blissfully alone.
"This is a terrible idea."
"Yes," Charles acknowledged.
"You're going to get yourself killed."
"And I'm what? Just supposed to stand by and allow that?"
Charles sighed. He loved Raven dearly, he did, but as guardians went she was more than a little over-protective.
"I'll have you there, won't I?"
Raven spun on her heel, effectively bringing their walk to a halt. She stood, looking entirely too fierce, framed by one of the archways that lined the upper veranda, as still as the marble pillars at either of her sides. Beyond the Citadel, the city was just waking, the sun glinting off green-slate rooftops and white-washed stucco houses.
"You're asking me to allow you to walk into the heat of battle, into a place where it would be impossible--impossible, Charles--for me to protect you and you think there is something you can say in this argument that will sway me?"
"I..." Charles tried, because really, they'd had this conversation three times now.
"I was nine years old when I kneeled at your feet and pledged my life to yours. It is not just my job to keep you safe. It is my duty."
"And it is my duty to keep this world safe, something I can no longer do trapped inside these walls. We are losing this war, Raven, and when that happens, how safe do you think any of us will be?"
His head was starting to hurt from having this argument; not just with Raven, but with the council and the Oracle. His plan was sound. Even the council had seen that; had agreed to send him. He'd thought all of this was behind him. For God's sake they were scheduled to depart in a few hours.
But Raven still looked set to protest, so Charles pressed on. "Our armies cannot defeat the Shadow King. It is impossible. But there is a good chance I can, but first we have to get past those shields. You speak of duty, Raven, but is my duty any less than yours?"
Raven shifted, so that the sun now hallowed her head. It highlighted the red of her hair, casting the rest of her into shadow, her skin becoming the colour of midnight. She looked ethereal, and so very beautiful. She had been his sole companion since he was eight. He wanted both her support and her approval.
"Your duty is not my concern. It is your life I am sworn to protect," she said, turning then, moving away from the window, the image shattering, her skin returning to its natural cobalt, her hair becoming its ordinary red.
She fell into walking again, expecting Charles to match her pace. Where she led, he followed. Duty. It was no wonder she was having such a difficult time agreeing to follow him anywhere, let alone into battle. Charles reached out with his telepathy; brushed fingertips against the surface of her thoughts. She was angry--so very angry--but more than that, she was afraid. Terrified, even, and that Charles could understand; he was terrified, too. But he'd been terrified for years now, since the war's tide had turned, since it seemed more and more likely they were set to lose. He could no longer sit idle, not when his influence might stem the tide.
Raven led them off the veranda, back into the antechamber of one of the Citadel's smaller libraries. She navigated elaborately carved tables, their legs fantastical beasts and birds that historians claimed once existed. She took them past wide, wingback chairs, upholstered in soft leathers, Charles having passed many a long hour curled inside their embrace. He eyed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that circled the entire length of the room, longing to snoop amongst their shelves. Raven was not the only one reluctant to leave the security and comforts of the Citadel.
Charles squared his shoulders and followed Raven from the room.
The wide halls of the Citadel stretched in an arc around each floor, joined in the middle by sweeping staircases that led to the assembly hall. Charles knew this route well, though he still allowed Raven to lead, her boots ringing against the polished ceramic tiles. The second floor's north floors were decorated in golds and blacks, tiny dragon motifs inlaid at ever juncture, caught again in the tapestries that hung from the walls.
Raven did not seem to notice them. She led them swiftly to the staircase, and then down into the assembly hall, where a delegation was already awaiting their arrival. Her skin fluttered, Raven no doubt shifting the lines of her face, making herself appear fiercer than she already did. Charles slid neatly to her side.
"Charles Xavier," the Oracle intoned, voice echoing throughout the vast chamber. Charles came to a stop before her, inclining his head first to her, and then to her acolytes. He returned his gaze to her face, staring into the whites of her eyes.
"Destiny," he said.
He'd spoken quietly, with reverence and respect, and yet his voice carried just as hers had. It fluttered about the room, crossing rows of empty benches to reach the open rafters, catching in the spaces where sunlight no longer pierced. Charles had never been inside this room without Genosha's council. It felt oddly hollow.
"Have you made your preparations?" Destiny asked. Charles nodded. They were awaiting Charles' orders, but Charles was still awaiting Raven's permission. He did not want to do this alone.
"And your guardian, will she accompany you?"
He wanted to look to Raven, who stood now just to his left, poised and ready for combat even here, even now. The decision was hers, but Charles had to voice it, and she had yet to consent.
Don't be an idiot, her voice echoed inside his head. Tension Charles hadn't realized he'd been carrying dissipated.
"She will," he said, the words bringing the ceremony to its end.
Destiny and her delegation turned in unison. They swept a path across polished mosaic floors, the rise of the first mutants battling on a field of green, burnished yellow sun setting on the horizon. Charles followed in their wake, Raven now his shadow, though from her thoughts it gulled her to have to walk a pace behind. She hated these formalities as much as Charles did.
The party swept from the council chambers, through a set of wide oak doors, lead lined, the only austere design in the entire room, their plainness misplaced against the rest of the Citadel's splendor. They were a painful reminder of the need for defense. Today they sat open to admit the morning sun; on the other side, the council's private terrace where a caravan, a great, glittering sky ship, sat ready for launch.