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Homo Sacer

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The sacred man [homo sacer] is the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime. It is not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide; in the first tribunitian law, in fact, it is noted that "if someone kills the one who is sacred according to the plebiscite, it will not be considered homicide." This is why it is customary for a bad or impure man to be called sacred.
— Pompeius Festus, On the Significance of Words

Monday began with a body, sprawled across a lifeboat floating gently down the Hudson River like the opening scene of a tragicomic sketch. The dead man's face was slack, almost peaceful, but for the jagged chunk of wood protruding out of his chest. Erik took one look at the man's red skin and the tail hanging over the edge into the water, and swore loudly and colourfully — in several languages.

The pathologist working the crime scene glared at him.

"Without an autopsy I can't say for sure, but it looks like we have both the murder weapon and the cause of death here," he said to Erik's partner, pointedly turning away from Erik as he glanced at the piece of wood. "The guy went through a lot before he died — there's extensive bruising and he's missing two fingernails. He might've been trying to scratch his way out of somewhere, god knows. We'll send him over to the ME's office."

"Thanks," said Angel. Today she matched her habitual black slacks with a jaguar print top, which Erik privately felt took the escalation of hostilities against Mondays a step too far. "Alex getting this one?"

"Yeah. It's gonna drive him nuts — you know he hates doing autopsies on mutants."

"Damn. One more hour and it'd be Sean trying to sweet-talk him instead of Mr. Crankymagnet."

Erik glowered at her. The fearsome sight had driven many a rookie to give him wide berth, but Angel Salvadore was well-trained in the art of ignoring anything he didn't actually verbalise. Instead she marched off to take the statement of the jogger who called in the police, a sweet-faced young woman with frizzy black hair and an NYU sweatshirt.

He looked down at the dead man, wondering if his physical appearance was the only thing his mutation gifted him. Unlikely, though not impossible. The man carried no identification, no wallet — but his clothing looked tailor-made, fitting him perfectly. Erik peered closer, following the fine stitching on the lapel of the jacket. It had real silver buttons, large and showy, the surface etched with a stylised Chalcidian helmet.

"You should speak to the man who paid for those."

That was how Erik Lehnsherr met Charles Xavier for the first time: startled and off-balance, discombobulation slotting neatly into suspicion once the man's words registered fully in his mind. Charles was about half a head shorter than Erik, dressed in a black wool overcoat layered over a faded denim jacket. His threadbare shirt gaped open to reveal a pale, muscular neck. He was too clean to be one of the homeless, but his patchy stubble and generally unkempt condition looked like genuine neglect rather than a bohemian artifice.

The air around him hummed like a mistuned radio, setting Erik's teeth on edge. His blue eyes were intense, beautiful. Erik wasn't fooled for a second.

"Who the fuck are you?"

"Charles Xavier. Please, call me Charles." The man cocked an eyebrow. His accent was pure Received Pronunciation — incongruous this far off the tourist-slash-expat beat of New York, and Erik made a mental note to ask for his visa later. "And you're Detective Erik Lehnsherr. Hello. I didn't murder the poor man, but I did feel him die."

Involuntarily, Erik's skin puckered into gooseflesh. "You're, what? An empath? A telepath?"

"A telepath, I'm afraid."

"Then you know any statement you give as evidence is worthless in court." Erik knew he was being cruel, but god save him from well-meaning naïfs. "And it still doesn't mean you're off the suspect list."

Charles smiled, unconcerned. Erik found himself wishing that Charles would break past the police tape, to give Erik an excuse to arrest and interrogate him. Irritating asshole, if a handsome one. Charles must have heard him, despite prohibitions on telepathic scanning without consent, because he gave a soft laugh and turned to leave.

"I'd best be off, then."

Erik growled. "Wait—"

"Leave him alone, Lehnsherr. He's harmless." Angel ducked under tape and touched Charles on the shoulder. Her face looked strange to Erik's eyes, until he realised that what he saw there was affection, and an unfamiliar kindness. "How're you doing, Professor? You still shacked up with that ex-Marine?"

Charles shook his head. "He left. It's all right, though. Raven made me promise to stay where she put me."

"Bet you she said not to go around wandering outside your head, too." Angel frowned at Charles, but benevolently, as if indulging a favourite grandparent. "We'll check out your lead, but Prof — be careful, okay? I'm not making you swear to stop with this stuff, but you aren't helping anybody if you get killed or they put on you on drugs again."

Charles curled a hand around Angel's fingers and placed his other hand atop hers, squeezing warmly. "All right. Take care, my dear. By the way, I think your man's name is Azazel."

"Who is he?" Erik said, once Charles trundled off past the gawping spectators and the journalists circling the scene.

"I keep forgetting you're kinda new here. Charles is—" Angel paused. "He's a street magician. Does shows for tourists."

"He's a telepath, Salvadore. What the fuck is he doing making beans disappear under paper cups?"

She gave him a sidelong look. The dragonfly wings on her back shivered under her skin. "He used to be an actual professor — tutored me in college. Anyway, that's history. You just understand this: don't hassle him."

Erik's eyebrows rose. "I doubt he's the one in need of protection, in such an event."

"That's the thing." Angel watched as the body was carted away. "He won't fight back. Not for himself. So we look out for him, and he looks out for us."

*****

Erik was curious enough to start digging immediately. By lunchtime he'd amassed a few more chunks of information about Charles Xavier, courtesy of Oliver Black, Sean Cassidy's partner and fount of institutional memory. Black was hailed for his steady hand and unending patience for newly-minted Detectives, which meant he was the natural choice to make sure that Cassidy survived to enjoy his next pay grade.

"We have an agreement with Dr. Xavier." Black looked conflicted. "It was Lt. MacTaggert who laid it down. Verbally, no paper trail. We can't use his testimony in court, so we treat it like a phoned-in lead from 'a concerned member of the public'." He made quotation marks with his fingers. "And we damn well do the work, dot our Is and cross our Ts — no one's ever been convicted with evidence obtained directly from Xavier."

"That's bullshit semantics," Erik said.

"You know it, I know it." Black didn't look entirely sorry, though. "Xavier only pokes his nose in when the victim's a mutant or — sometimes — when it's a young woman. Says they remind him of his sister."

Erik looped a chain of paperclips around the handle of his coffee mug, then carefully unattached each clip while keeping all of them suspended in air, for the fun of it. He used to do this at the academy when bored, and the habit stuck.

"It doesn't explain why he is what he is now."

Black sighed. "I never heard the entire story. Salvadore won't say a word. Best that you ask him yourself — you're a mutant, he's probably more willing to talk to you." Erik stood up, making the other man blink. "You're asking him now?"

"No. I have a lunchtime appointment."

*****

Erik took the train to 47th Street and walked to the restaurant, dodging diplomatic staff and harried-looking interns with UN passes still clipped to their jackets. Ororo had chosen a Japanese restaurant for their lunch, which he had a feeling was motivated as much from the desire to play sly joke on him as from her genuine enjoyment of the cuisine. He eyeballed the kimono-clad usher at the door, who calmly gave him a once-over, did a silent calculation in her head, and asked, "May I help you, sir?"

"I have reservations under the name Ororo Munroe."

She consulted her clipboard. "This way, please."

He moved to New York for Ororo, but between his job and her travelling, a simple lunch between two friends sometimes took weeks of advanced scheduling. Seeing her again after months of little to no contact was always a shock to his system, plunging into a world of unintelligible acronyms, where terms like "operationalisation" were used without irony. Ororo herself was entirely unlike his colleagues in the force. She was physically striking — tall and graceful, with smooth dark skin and a luxurious head of white hair — but even without the visible marker of her mutation she could easily fill any room with a serene, open-hearted strength of will.

Erik and Ororo met at university, where they dominated the Mutant Students' Association with arguments (debates, Ororo would say) that once nearly caused the other students to take up a petition barring them from interacting for an entire term. Erik ran with the Homo Superior group, Ororo coordinated solidarity actions with activists — mutant and non-mutant alike. He ended up joining the police force and she became a human rights advocate who regularly butted heads with governments, which probably said more about how they influenced each other than they were comfortable admitting.

"Erik! Hello, old friend." Ororo kissed him on the cheek in greeting, accompanied by a waft of jasmine and sandalwood. It smelled a little like a homecoming. "How are you?"

He shrugged. "The usual. And you?"

"I was glad to say goodbye to Geneva — this research has been delayed for too long, and I have put off other commitments to give it my fullest attention." She tilted her head at him, one hand arrested in motion. "Something has happened to you today."

"I hate how well you know me."

"The sentiment is returned in kind."

Erik poured out the tea. On impulse, he asked, "Do you know a Dr. Charles Xavier?"

Her eyes widened. "Yes, but how did you—"

"He's what happened to me today." Erik looked down at the menu. "Ororo, how the hell are you even able to afford this lunch?"

"Yukio is paying. As you know, she has had a very successful solo exhibition." Her smile was all feline satisfaction and silent laughter. "She sends her apologies for her absence. After all, she was very much looking forward to lunch and listening to your discourse on how a flatscan human will bring me to ruin."

He moved Yukio to the back of his mental queue — for now — and homed in on a far more important question, "Who's Charles Xavier and why haven't I heard of him?"

Ororo picked up her tea cup and sipped at it, brows puckering. "I first met him when I joined HRW's Mutant Rights Program. You were already in Israel at that point. I thought of contacting you over the Psi Bill, as a matter of fact, but it seemed... heartless, to cut into your time with Edie."

Their server interrupted them to take their orders, but Erik was glad for the momentary distraction. Remembering his mother still made him ache with rage and grief — that she died too soon; that his last memory couldn't have been them listening to Otis Redding exulting all you gotta do is try, try a little tenderness in her hospital room, rather than the wail of a life support machine and her gaunt, sunken face. He'd taken leave from the force and his relationship with Anna Marie, ignoring everything that didn't have to do with his mother. In the end, he came home to a world that had turned strange and alien around him, a void yawning bloodily between himself and his former life.

Anna Marie broke up with him two months after his mother's death. She thought it was the only way to get through the carapace that had built up around his heart, but nothing moved him them, not even her tears and the dents left behind where she punched the wall. What did the trick was time, and careening from one spectacular fuck-up to another in his private life, culminating in the entire mess with Magda.

"Xavier was a public opponent of the bill," Ororo said, once they were alone at their table. "Mutants were split on the issue: no one wanted to be the latest casualty of the war on terror, but few were unperturbed by the idea of telepaths reading their thoughts with impunity. It was a terrible mess, Erik."

"Where did you stand on it?"

"I thought, and I still do, that we don't need a law giving the authorities wide-ranging regulatory and surveillance powers over psionic mutants. With very few checks and balances. Specific, precise amendments to criminal laws at the state level would be far better in addressing actual concerns." She sighed. "Unfortunately, the timing of the bill coincided with the Revanche case. Public sentiment is difficult to battle."

Erik winced. "You can't argue the Psi Act had much of an impact," he said, partly to be contrary. "The only way to tell for certain if a telepath scanned someone's head without consent is still when he admits to it, or if another telepath catches him."

"You're underestimating its indirect consequences," Ororo said, slowly, as if she was feeling her way through. "It is fair to tell a telepath not to invade another person's mind. It is unfair to then not give her the means to learn how to, but nonetheless expect her to adhere to the boundaries we set for her. For every Emma Frost, who had the access and money for extensive psi training, there's a telepath getting by with inhibitor drugs."

"What happened to Xavier?"

"Charles resigned from his position after the university discovered he was training a group of young mutants in the use of their abilities. He disappeared completely. I write to him once in a while to tell him when I've changed addresses — he sends me New Year cards."

The server returned with their lunch. Erik stared down at the exquisite arrangement of lacquered bowls, and said, struck by a sudden thought, "I suspect my partner was one of his trainees."

"He never divulged their names," she said. "I've met two — I cannot tell you who they are, so don't think of asking — and neither was willing to share overmuch about the training. Detective Salvadore is unlikely to be any more forthcoming."

Erik's phone buzzed. "Speak of the devil," he muttered, and took the call. "Lehnsherr speaking."

"Sorry to interrupt your hot lunch date, but the DA's office called us in for a meeting. The homicide this morning."

"Shit. Can you pick me up at 47th Street? Near Lexington."

"Text me the address." Angel hung up.

"Duty calls," he said to Ororo, shoveling food into his mouth as quickly as he could. She very kindly did not comment on his manners, and even keyed in the address of the restaurant into his phone to send to Angel.

*****

Erik knew as soon as he walked into the meeting room that he and Angel were well and truly fucked: Bernadette Rosenthal, the Chief Assistant DA, didn't get involved in run-of-the-mill homicide cases. He was already half-expecting to see Blake Tower from the Trial Division, but the presence of Armando Muñoz — who led the Investigation Division — was another surprise, further cementing his pessimism.

Rosenthal was rumoured to be running for District Attorney after Foggy Nelson's retirement, and if she won Muñoz would almost certainly be appointed Chief Assistant DA. Muñoz was a mutant, a polymath, and gloved a sharp legal mind with the deceptive velvet of affability. He was marked for greatness and ambition early on, and for his sins was once named one of New York's most eligible bachelors. His marriage to one Dr. Alex Summers, former juvenile delinquent turned intemperate medical examiner, was one of those talked-about society events Erik became thoroughly sick of. Wedding photos made Erik prickly.

"Detectives," Rosenthal said. "Please take a seat."

Erik would've preferred to stand, but Angel readily slid into a plush office chair, crossing her legs and staring at the other three with a look that all but said, bring it. He sat next to her, fixing his gaze on a spot just above and behind Tower's left ear. Sure enough, Tower soon started fidgeting, trying his hardest not to turn around. Erik buried his smirk.

"Thanks for coming in, Detectives. We appreciate it," said Muñoz.

"Why are we here?" Erik said. "We haven't even identified the body yet."

"The man you retrieved from the Hudson this morning is of special interest to us: he's Ilya Volkov, also known as Azazel, Sebastian Shaw's right-hand man. He's a teleporter."

Angel's shoulders tensed into a hard line, the visible veins of her wings bulging out slightly through the skin of her arms. Erik wondered at the reaction, even as he sifted through his memory for what he knew of Sebastian Shaw. Mutant, manifesting as slowed aging. Former Senator, of the generation before Metahuman Abilities Education was instituted. Owner of a number of businesses, including a private military company. Made a policy of hiring mutants.

Muñoz probably wasn't happy that he was the designated storyteller to two lowly detectives, but if so, his smile didn't give anything away. "We've been cooperating with the NYPD OCCB and the FBI for almost a year now, investigating Shaw's business dealings. We were tipped on possible money-laundering — turns out Shaw was involved in a hell of a lot more."

He flipped open a brown folder. Photos spilled out onto the table: Shaw and Volkov, Shaw talking to a woman Erik recognised as a mutant informant, Shaw and a handsome, dark-haired young man. A blue-skinned woman talking to Shaw outside a bar, gesticulating at the sign. Suspected crime lords. Shots at parties alongside various politicians and businesspeople with drinks in their hands, doing their best to appear important. And, finally, a gallery of death: men and women killed execution-style, charred bones photographed in blackened ruins, bodies splayed out on concrete pavements in halos of blood.

Rosenthal reached across and tapped the last set of photographs with the tips of her fingernails. "The apparent suicides were largely telepaths and empaths," she said. "Suicide rates among them are unusually high even without a nudge from Shaw, so no one made the connection at first."

Muñoz made a soft sound in his throat. Rosenthal glanced at him and smiled wryly.

"Except for Muñoz, but there was no evidence to pursue that line of inquiry. Then one of the victims — Astrid Bloom — lodged a police report before she died, complaining about being harassed by two men: a red-skinned mutant who spoke with a Russian accent and a white man wearing a strange helmet. The first is obviously Volkov, but the second is unknown to us."

"What does Shaw want with them?" Angel said. She picked up a photo of Volkov, making circles on the shiny surface with a finger.

Muñoz spread his hands. His eyes, when they looked at Angel, were unexpectedly kind. "Your guess is as good as ours. He was a senator when the Psi Act was passed — but he was the only one who abstained."

*****

Angel would not be prodded into talking, despite the effort Erik managed to dredge up, huddling into herself all through the walk to their car. She handed the keys to him and said, "You drive. Dr Summers says he wants to see us when we're done here."

She busied herself texting to someone, fingers moving so rapidly on her phone that Erik felt old just looking at her. He let the silence sit uneasily between them as he drove, feeling unreasonably annoyed.

"I gotta check on Charles," Angel said suddenly. "You okay with getting back on your own after we see Summers?"

"He's a grown man, Salvadore. He can wait a few hours until your shift's over," he growled. "Even if he can't, I'm your fucking partner. I'm fine with sitting in the car while you see to it that no one's drowning him in the bath."

"Yeah, well. Thanks," she muttered.

Erik wondered if Charles was the reason Angel joined the police force. Assuming his suspicion was correct, that Angel had been one of the mutants Charles personally trained and not just another undergraduate in his lectures. Charles Xavier must have been very charismatic, once upon a time — he was still an attractive man, Erik thought uncomfortably, and his troubling lack of boundaries only perversely added to his charms. In a different world, he would be sitting pretty in an intelligence agency somewhere outside the USA, a telepathic James Bond clothed in professorial tweeds.

Mutants made up a disproportionate percentage of personnel in law enforcement agencies and emergency services, Erik knew. They were the first employers to embrace mutants whole-heartedly, even actively competing for recruits with desirable abilities. Growing up, Erik listened to interviews of mutant police officers and firefighters talking about the joys of usefulness, and had sneered at them. He'd known the truth even then: these were the few jobs that let mutants be mutant and normal at the same time, where the ability to set shit on fire with a thought could be passed off as just another day in the office.

They should never have settled for normalcy, for integrationist education and a token mutant kid on Sesame Street. Erik had liked his MAE classes in school. Most mutants he knew did. It was school-sanctioned playtime, and you only had to turn in a paper if your ability couldn't be used in a self-designed project. Or if your control was so poor, the only thing you could be trained in was how to not use your ability.

Then you went out into the real world and realised how very different it was from a classroom with a comfortingly sympathetic teacher. MAE taught the basics of control, how to minimise accidental and casual usage of one's ability so as not to afflict the comfortable. It dressed up the lessons in aspirations to the American Dream. You, young mutant, could be anything, if only you did it right. Then you ended up shivering in a thermal blanket at the back of an ambulance while a stranger stared at the twisted wreckage of your family home and said, damn, kid, if you failed MAE you should've asked for inhibitor drugs, and felt anything shrivel into nothing even as you wanted to say: but I aced every fucking test.

Erik went into law enforcement because mutants deserved better than to be policed by flatscan humans. Ororo had been quietly thoughtful when he told her, and only said, later, "You will find, my friend, that many non-mutants too were failed by those who should have served them better."

*****

Dr. Alex Summers was, in the estimation of most media junkies lacking actual contact with him, a kind of anti-hero and redemption narrative rolled into one leather-wearing ME. Tragic all-American orphan, juvie at 15, difficulty controlling his mutant ability, Summers turned out to be a better fighter outside the glass-littered car lots of his adolescence. He made it into medical school, to a chorus of shocked disbelief, and then again surprised everyone by specialising in forensic pathology, all while cultivating a series of tattoos, rousing battles against The Man, and unfortunate relationship choices. And, to cap it all off, he married a fast-rising legal star after a very public courtship. He even had the requisite adopted baby girl.

The men and women of the NYPD knew him as the meanest asshole in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Summers had an unerring ability to zero in on emotional weak spots and hot buttons, no matter how experienced the officer. Veterans still spoke darkly of The Great Meltdown and the subsequent plot to punch him repeatedly in the face. Sadly for their sinister plans, aside from having Muñoz as his lawfully-wedded spouse, Summers's older brother happened to be Scott Summers, bodyguard and valued consigliere of Emma Frost, hive queen of the Frost Group. Alex Summers was a lot of bark before a sharp bite, but Summers the Elder would cut you down without so much as a giveaway twitch in his appealingly sculptural jawline.

Erik hated Alex Summers.

"What's up with all the hating? Alex doesn't give a shit about you either way," Angel said to him once, after a particularly snippy encounter.

"I know," Erik said in return, glowering. "That makes it worse, Salvadore."

Erik had to give Summers this, though: for all the disparaging bullshit he liked to spew against anyone with a badge, Dr Summers was good with victims' families — he took the time to break things down into a layperson's language, even if he wasn't particularly gentle or empathetic. No one had ever witnessed him treating the bodies he autopsied with anything less than respect. He never lost his shit over difficult cases. He didn't take shortcuts with documentation. Once upon a time someone had clearly taught him the value of meticulousness and precision, and the lesson stuck in incongruity with a stubbornly unpolished facade.

He was finishing up another autopsy when they arrived, so they waited in the chilly corridors outside the mortuary, Angel pacing up and down on the scuffed tiles. Erik watched the steady tip-tapping of her sensible pumps and wondered what else she was hiding from him, whether he'd have to watch his back.

"Hey, doc," she said to Summers once he finally emerged, looking washed out under the fluorescent lighting. "I thought you were gonna quit your job."

"Armando says he won't pay for my student loans," Summers said, with a grin that just showed his teeth. "Raising a kid is expensive."

For reasons he never cared to explain, Summers treated Angel better than anyone else in the NYPD. It was likely because she could spit acid into his face, Erik thought. Certainly it had nothing to do with both of them being mutants — Summers only seemed to tolerate Erik by his proximity to Angel, and was even less gracious to others of his kind in the force.

"Your vic this morning," Summers said, "there's not much to say until the lab's done with the tests. He died from a stab wound to the chest — that piece of wood went almost straight through."

"Could he have fallen onto it?" Erik said.

"Maybe, but I doubt it. Not with his other injuries." Summers hesitated. "Some of the bruises on his body were large and irregular, others looked like they were caused by something long and tubular. Not fists. We're not talking a couple of bruises here and there — he's covered with them. The injuries to his hands? Probably self-defense. He couldn't have moved very far if he wanted to, by the time he died."

"He's supposed to be a teleporter," Angel said. "What's been done to him that he can't get out of the way?"

"His murderer could be telekinetic," said Erik. "Or he could've been drugged."

Summers shrugged. "Like I said, wait till toxicology's done. He was otherwise healthy, I can tell you that much. Could've done with less drinking."

"Thanks, Summers," Erik said, dressing up his vowels with bland courtesy.

Deliberately, Summers nodded at Angel, a smile of satisfied malice on his face. "See, told you he can be trained."

The steel pin holding Summers's ID rattled against his chest. Angel looked to be seriously considering smacking him and Erik upside the head.

*****

Angel's face all but telegraphed that she expected Erik to object to their detour when she told him where Charles lived. He would've, on any other day, but Erik was sick of feeling as if he'd been parachuted into the middle of a le Carre novel and told to put together obscure clues. So he let Angel drive them to Queens and kept his counsel, staring out at the urban landscape from the passenger seat.

Charles Xavier lived in one of the smaller co-ops in Jackson Heights, on a street lined with hybrid cars. Erik idled away his wait by people-watching and reading the newspaper, while Angel presumably made sure that Charles hadn't been gruesomely murdered. The front page of the Daily Bugle was taken up by a breathless headline on an alleged vigilante prowling the streets of New York, watching over the working girls and the homeless. The article, written by a Kat Farrell, was far more measured than its subeditor-assigned headline. A bland quote by MacTaggert took up a few lines. Erik imagined her strained poker face, and felt a stab of unwilling sympathy. Charles Xavier was probably the least of her worries.

From a professor and mutant lobbyist to a living ghost lobbing enigmatic clues at the police — it was a far fall. Ororo could probably tell him more about the man, if he asked. He was curious and Charles was damnably arresting, but Erik's not sure the effort was worth it. Charles was an exile from the world Erik lived in, a momentary blip who could've been a history-maker but failed to leave anything lasting.

"He's not crazy," Angel said abruptly later, as they pulled away from the building.

Erik glanced at her. "I never said he was."

"I'm not an idiot, Lehnsherr. You were thinking it. And no, he didn't tell me that." Angel negotiated a street corner with perhaps a little more fierceness than warranted. "He's just— not well."

"I heard about him and the Psi Act."

She barked out a harsh laugh. "That's all anyone knows about him now. You should've known him back then. Arrogant son of a bitch, and the best damn teacher I ever had."