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Pieces of the Dream

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Billy was young when he came to the island.

He remembered it fuzzily, mixed with colored flashes of the times before- tall buildings, bright lights and windows, his parents’ worried voices and a dark image of soldiers, marching boots and harsh words.

The island was small, and green out the window of the plane, pale beaches and a half-built wall. He remembered clinging to his father’s leg, and his voice.

“Stay brave, son.”

His mother knelt down, and pressed something into his hand- her old necklace, the Star of David glinting in the light from the sea.

“Always remember, Billy- we love you. We will always love you.”

She kissed his forehead. He could see that his father was crying, and that was wrong.

When he’d gotten to the little airport’s gate, a man had looked at the necklace. “That wasn’t checked,” he’d said, and he’d taken it out of Billy’s hands, turning it over suspiciously until suddenly jerking back with a cry.

The necklace hung in the air, twisting around with glints of light.

“Here you are, child,” said a tall man, in a cape like a superhero. He leant down slightly, and the necklace flew into Billy’s hand. He clutched it like he was drowning.

The tall man barked something at the guard, angry and piercing, a clenched fist and a buzzing in the air. Billy doesn’t remember the words clearly anymore- he was clutching the necklace, still warm from his mother’s hands.

-

The necklace hung on his wall, now, except when he was very nervous, when he slipped it around his neck and tried to remember the faces of people who were his family.

When he first told Tommy the story, he had said that Billy was lying. Humans wouldn’t do that. Humans wouldn’t even let him keep his things, let alone give him theirs. His parents had abandoned him like everybody else’s.

Billy had yelled that no, Tommy was lying, and the experiment of them sharing a room had ended shortly thereafter.

-

There were a lot of children on the island, Billy found out soon after his arrival. But he’d only spent a few days living in the dormitories before the woman in the red cape had arrived. He’d been sitting on one of the low walls- he remembered the sun warming the stone, and kicking his feet to hear the angry thumps- when she’d come, and sat beside him.

He’d looked up at her, and even now, when he knew her face, in this early memory it was always against the sun, unseeable.

“Are you all right?” he’d asked, because she looked sad, like she was missing someone as much as he was.

“I-” she had said, and looked at him, looked at him hard. “I- I was feeling lonely. But I don’t think I am so much, anymore.”

-

The woman in the red cape was Wanda, and she said she was his mother. Billy had looked at her, the first time she’d said this, and told her politely as he could (which was not very, for a small scared boy who missed his real mother) that she was wrong. But she’d looked so sad at that that he still felt guilty, even if he was right.

“We can be friends, though,” he’d added, quickly, because grown-ups weren’t supposed to cry and now all of a sudden all of them were.

“Could we?” she asked, her voice breaking like his real mother’s had, and he nodded.

The tall man, who also wore a cape and had yelled at the guard, was Wanda’s father, and for some reason it was easier to call him Grandpapa even if Billy was fairly sure that he was wrong about this too. He was old, and he was in charge, and his eyes crinkled when he smiled, even if he didn’t do it very often. Those were Grandpapa-like things.

After meeting Wanda, Billy had ended up in the big government building, filled with screens and books and people he was not allowed to disturb, but he still went down to a little school with the other children, which was good. There weren’t many quite as young as he was. He learned soon enough that that was because most of the time powers, or the things that made someone very, very different, weren’t usually detectable until a few years later, even with the new technology. His hadn’t even broken through yet, but they had still found him. And now he was here.

“That’s why I have to come here? I’m different?”

The teacher, who was very different, large and fuzzy like a blue Muppet, had shaken his head. “Most humans don’t like mutants, Mr. Kaplan. No one sent you away because there was something wrong with you- this island is a sanctuary we founded ourselves. It’s a place where you can be safe.”

He’d learned other things, by reading between the lines. That the soldiers had probably been sent to kill him, and that somehow his parents had stopped them. That the mean guard really was afraid, that someone would someday send something that would kill them all, and that people had tried before.

-

Tommy came later. He was Billy’s age, and angry, and had hair like Grandpapa’s or the uncle who lived far away. He didn’t believe that Wanda was his mother, either, but unlike Billy, it was clear that he didn’t really have a real one to miss. His parents had sent him away, and he was bitter and lost.

“I don’t understand it either,” Billy had said, trying to stay polite. But he did understand it a little, or was starting to. Wanda was broken a little, the way a few of the older people were, and while he wasn’t quite sure what she could do, it was something powerful.

Tommy had grouched, and muttered, but once he’d gotten his own room, he was bearable. They had the same birthday, and their faces looked alike. He would work as a brother.

-

Teddy was his best friend. He was a shapeshifter, and could squirt milk out of his nose, which wasn’t the most valuable thing to Billy, but certainly impressed Tommy.

-

Now

-

Billy walked along the boardwalk that led towards the beach. A crew was out in the distance, doing the constant work of expanding the island and the seawall. It was communal work- everyone helped out at some point, even if Grandpapa could probably do the entire thing by himself. Billy could, too, he knew, or at least was beginning to suspect. His powers had emerged a few years ago, when he’d shot lightning at a newscamera by accident.

He still was a bit embarrassed to think about it. He was humanoid, polite, and photogenic, and so if human news crews came to do what Grandpapa termed “demeaning pandering” and Mr. Xavier called “publicity work” he was generally the student asked to speak to them. This particular reporter had asked a series of personal questions that grew more insulting by the sentence, and when he found himself being referred to as “it,” he had lost his temper. The newscrew had lost their cameras, and, when they got up either the courage or the stupidity to complain to Grandpapa about it, most of the rest of their supplies as well.

Billy still got chosen for interviews, mostly because the other options included Tommy.

But now he could do more than just lightning- he seemed to be able to do just about anything he could picture in his head. It made him a little nervous. That was what Wanda could do, and even if in a way she was his mother, she also seemed to exist on a different plane than the rest of them, as though she saw the world through a haze of realities.

“William!”

Billy turned quickly at the voice. Mr. Summers. The man was running awkwardly, one hand clutching at papers and the other holding a sunhat to his head. “Sir?” Mr. Summers was a nice enough guy, and an occasional teacher at the school.

“Have you seen your brother?”

Billy shook his head. “Sorry.”

“He was supposed to report for training half an hour ago.” Mr. Summers flipped through the papers in his right hand, frustrated. “Are you sure you haven’t seen him?”

“Not since breakfast.” Tommy had wolfed down three bowls of brightly colored imported cereal and sped off.

“Damn it,” muttered Mr. Summers.

-

Tommy’s absence was explained once Billy got back to the old palace that served as government headquarters. A young blonde girl sat on a bench in the courtyard, paging through an old book.

“Billy!” she said, looking up with a brief smile.

“Luna!” He grinned back. His little cousin didn’t visit often- her other relatives didn’t seem to be very fond of Earth. “It’s great to see you.”

“It is good to see you as well. I have missed you.” She moved over on the bench so that he could sit beside her.

“I take it Tommy’s with your dad?”

“Yes.” Tommy and Pietro shared the same powerset, and an uncanny resemblance that had been one of the earliest things to make him wonder if Wanda was somehow right. Training probably hadn’t even crossed his brother’s mind today. “Mother is here as well.”

“She is?” That was a bit odd.

“I believe that she and Father are at some point attempting a romantic excursion.” The little girl cast her gaze upwards in slight scorn at the words.

The beaches were a good place for things like that. “Any idea when I can expect anybody back?”

“Mother is sleeping. I believe Father and Tommy were to practice water racing- but Grandfather is in his office if you wish to speak to him. He promised to play chess with me again after dinner.” Luna tilted her head slightly to one side, her eyes questioning and expectant.

“Let me guess- you want me to show you more Seven Muses.”

“You said in your last letter that the second game had come out.”

-

A knock came at the door of his sitting room half an hour later- the slightly off-beat drum solo that signified Teddy.

“Hey!”

Ted grinned at him. “Hey, B! Hey, Luna.”

Luna inclined her head slightly, continuing her focus on the screen in front of her. She’d met Teddy several times before, and thankfully they tended to get along, which could not be said for her and all of the kids on the island. Luna rarely appreciated being compared to a doll. “Oh, becurse it!”

The game music spiraled into a deep funeral beat.

“I told you that you shouldn’t have chosen a Truthseeker. They’re the weakest class.”

Luna treated him only to a glare.

“Teddy, tell her.”

“I’m staying out of this, okay?” He sat down on the bed beside Billy and smiled. Billy ruffled his hair. “Besides, you’re the one who’s always a Firemage. You can be one of those in real life.” This time, Billy elbowed him in the side, leaning against his shoulder. “Try to upgrade your armor, Lunes.”

-

Dinner was slightly awkward. The table was half-empty, and Mr. Xavier, who could usually be relied upon to help keep things civil, had brought a stack of paperwork to the meal with him and promptly vanished behind it, occasionally reaching out an arm to politely snag something from the vegetable plate. Deprived of his influence, Grandpapa, Pietro, and Crystal were all shooting dagger-glares at each other, and Billy’s increasingly frantic subject changes really didn’t seem to help anyone. Things only got worse when the rest of the diners trooped in, hideously late and still wearing practice uniforms. Sergeant Logan was covered in something that looked oddly like dried blood, and Mr. Summers sat across from Tommy, haranguing him about missing practice until Pietro cut in, loudly.

Billy took the first opportunity to escape, and headed out to the balcony. What had once been carved stonework was cracked and blasted from the wars decades ago, when the island had been founded. The parts that didn’t present a safety hazard had been left that way, a memorial of some sort. He ran his hands over the edges.

“William?” His uncle’s voice was sharp, but quiet.

“Sir?”

“My sister says you’ve been showing more power since my last visit.” Wanda hadn’t been at dinner, but she rarely was. Tonight she was probably out at the seawall.

“I... guess.” He wasn’t surprised Wanda had known, but it still wasn’t something he really wanted to talk about.

“Be careful.”

Now that was rather unexpected. “What do you mean?” He probably sounded more suspicious than he should’ve, but it was Uncle Pietro. Billy had long ago figured out that the only reason he ever came to the island was to make sure his sister was alright.

“I mean that if you’re anything like Wanda, my father is going to find you very useful.”

Pietro didn’t like Grandpapa, that much he knew, though he still wasn’t quite sure why. Grandpapa could be bristly- Grandpapa could be terrifying-and it was blatant that the human world outside was terrified of him- but he cared about his family, and about the island.

His uncle must have seen his thoughts in his face, because his own harsh one softened. “I’m not saying he doesn’t care about you. You’re his family- that’s more important than you know. But you have to understand- he’s dangerous. He uses people to get to his goals, and just because he’s willing to die for it doesn’t mean everyone else has to-” Pietro shook his head. “I’m sorry, William. I’m just trying to warn you. Wanda won’t do it, but you-” He tapered off.

“I what?”

“Wanda won’t do it. But you could rewrite the world for him.”

Billy stared.

“Don’t do it,” said Pietro, harshly. “Don’t. Just remember that.” He clenched and unclenched his fists.

-

Billy didn’t sleep well that night.

-

More unexpected guests arrived the next day, and like every time, Billy stood in the welcoming party, his suit still neatly pressed while Tommy had already ripped one knee out of his.

They were aliens. Billy could hear a few murmurs from the crowd- mostly his schoolmates- but he wasn’t that surprised. Even if you didn’t count Crystal’s people, there were aliens. They visited Earth from time to time, but a world divided against itself as it was wasn’t much of a player in intergalactic politics. He even recognized these- the hairlike feathers and facial markings- from reading in the study and listening in at meetings. The Shi’ar. They’d had their own civil war some time ago, and the Empress had crash landed on Earth.

That had to be the Empress here, for some reason, from the richness and the guards around her. Majestrix? Majestrix Lilandra, he remembered. He watched the scene carefully. She kissed Mr. Xavier’s cheek, and his grandfather scowled.

Someone- one of the Shi’ar guards- began to speak. It had the cadences of formal ceremony, and Billy tuned out to regard the welcoming party around him. It didn’t completely make sense. Sergeant Logan, of course, his uniform having been washed, and Mr. and Mrs. Summers beside him. On Mrs. Summers’ other side was the Bright Lady, Ororo, and aside from Tommy and himself that was about it for the expected choices. A cheerful blond man he’d met once or twice, and a redheaded one with some sort of marking on his face, and- he blinked- Teddy. Teddy was never chosen to represent the students, and anyway he was at least ninety percent certain that alphabetically, it was Megan’s turn.

He tried to catch Teddy’s eye, but Ted was staring straight ahead, blatantly nervous, and Billy wasn’t going to risk disrupting a diplomatic meeting just to get his attention. Grandpapa didn’t get angry at him often, but his rage was bitter and terrifying, even when he tried to restrain himself. His disappointment was if anything worse. Billy could wait a few minutes.

But when the meeting ended, Teddy headed up for the west entrance with most of the dignitaries, and Billy found himself being herded towards the smaller south one with Tommy by Sergeant Logan. Mrs. Summers followed behind after a quick nod to her husband, wafting a hand to quickly open the door.

“Good to see yer alright, Jeannie.” The Sergeant was whispering, and Tommy was stomping ahead, but Billy’s ears could still pick the words up.

“I told you that I was fine.”

“Just thought I’d check up.” A pause, and a ragged breath louder than the words. “You were just awful quiet at dinner.”

Behind him, he could hear as Mrs. Summers’ footsteps stopped. “I just...” her voice was nearly silent. “I can’t explain it. The Shi’ar... There’s something about them that makes me feel... off.”

Sergeant Logan grunted.

“It’s not that I don’t trust them, nothing like that. It’s just... I always feel like... Like they’re walking over my grave with every step they take.”

Billy tilted his head slightly, trying to catch her words if she continued, but in front of him, Tommy was rocking from side to side with impatience, and he hurried to catch up.

“Tom,” he hissed. “Did Teddy look alright to you?”

Tommy shrugged. “I really wasn’t looking. Did you see that guy with the Mohawk? And-”

“Tommy! I’m serious!”

His brother slowed down slightly. “A bit off, I guess. He doesn’t have to come to those stupid things all the time. I’m surprised they didn’t make him turn green or something, show off for the aliens- that’s what I’d do if I could shapeshift, green or purple or something with spikes, or-”

His voice echoed off the marble of the hallway, growing a bit quieter out of habit as they passed Grandpapa’s office- and that was when a memory hit Billy’s mind unbidden.

He was good at eavesdropping. In the earliest years, even before Tommy and long before his powers, he was something that no one quite knew what to do with him, a child brought into the old palace to placate Wanda, part of a confused little family that really had no idea how to be one. It was easy to wander about unnoticed without coming to harm.

He learned over the years most of the island’s secrets. The people who cried at night, and those who merely never slept. That the old pictures in Grandpapa’s office sometimes sat on his desk and sometimes lived in a drawer. He knew when the Summers fought, and he knew that those were the nights the Sergeant paced the gardens, waiting for someone who never came. He knew that Wanda never cried, that three of the janitors were actually mindwiped human spies, and that Miss Braddock’s hair wasn’t really purple.

And he knew something about Teddy that even Teddy didn’t.

He’d been in the hallway, outside his Grandpapa’s office, on one of the old stuffy chairs from before the wars- the one they’d just passed, with the fringed pillows. He’d heard Grandpapa and Mr. Xavier having one of their debates, their voices growing louder as usual, the sounds of bits of office being shaken about for emphasis. Those were normal sounds. For best friends and honored founders, Grandpapa and Mr. Xavier didn’t always seem to get along that well.

But this conversation had been different. This conversation had been about Teddy.

Teddy wasn’t a mutant, they’d said. Teddy didn’t make sense. Teddy was something different.

It had scared him. The humans killed those who were different. That was why they banded together. If Teddy fit nowhere-

But time had passed, and nothing had happened. That was barely a week after he and Teddy had first kissed, and somehow it seemed there were more important things to think about than a barely heard conversation, at least when he was around Ted. He’d never told him what he’d heard. He hadn’t even thought about telling him, that he could remember, and he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t like to keep secrets.

Something was wrong.

-
Interlude One
-

Charles Xavier was young that day, and still sure he had the world ahead of him. And now, he was flying.

He couldn’t quite help it. He whooped.

Erik glared. This was serious. It was life and death, not only for them but for their species. They were the best hope.

Charles caught the thought and bowed his head, sending out a quiet apology and a small sense of the wonder he felt, floating in the air like some sort of glorious hero, dangerous and invulnerable.

“This is ridiculous,” Erik muttered, but he seemed to accept the apology, as he rose to join Charles in the air. “You’re entrusting your life to me. If I fall, you do as well.”

“How is that any different than the rest of this?”

“True.”

Mutants had been discovered barely half a year’s time ago. Charles had had barely a few weeks time to adjust to the glorious idea that he and his friend were not, in fact, the only beings in the word who were… more than human.

Or less than human.

That was what the world seemed to think. A “threat,” a “mistake of nature,” perhaps “the devil’s work.” Barely a moment before the world began to fear, a moment later before they began to hate.

And then came the first deaths.

It was Erik who had the plan, Erik with his angry words and deep voice and flashing eyes. Charles was very nearly afraid of him as he had paced their little room like a caged animal, cursing in two languages and shorting out the radio. If he hadn’t known him so well, he might have fled. If he hadn’t known the fear and pain behind that anger. If he hadn’t shared his nightmares.

Charles didn’t like what they were doing, not truly. But two weeks ago twenty-five teenagers had been rounded up by the state of New York and shot. A few years younger and he might have been among them. A few thousand dollars poorer, and he might have known them. There might have once been a time for negotiation. There might have once been a time when he could have stayed that idealistic boy whose hands had never known blood.

That time was over.

The little island was poorly ruled, small, and isolated. It had also been among the first places in the world to begin executing its own citizens for showing signs of difference. He doubted any of them had actually been mutants, any more than most of the children in New York had. Their people were very rare, for such a terrible threat. But the factors came together to make it the best place to begin.

Erik looked at him, his hair whipping about his eyes. If there was doubt in those eyes, it wasn’t something either of them could admit to.

“It’s time,” said Charles.

-

He caught his breath, barely. His heart was pounding, the exhilaration of adrenaline still filling his body. What had they just done?

Erik’s head was still turned towards the transmitter, but Charles doubted that his friend was really looking at it. It all seemed too much to take in. In the space of a day, they had- they had done everything. Conquered their own island. Sent out to the world an invitation soaked in ultimatum.

What would they do next?

They had plans of course. Neither of them was a total fool, that much Charles could be fairly sure of. He’d need to mentally scan the island again, and again and again, checking up on their safety and guarding against intruders. If by some miracle those like them actually came here, he’d need to break down the last of his barriers, be prepared to delve through brains for secrets no matter how dirty it made him feel. And the world would object, of course. They’d need every communication skill he’d ever developed. They’d probably need to make sure Erik’s powers could catch and stop an atom bomb.

But they could do it.

They could do anything, Charles knew it at that moment. They were unstoppable. They could be heroes, tyrants, gods.

They could rule the world.

At that thought, he froze, unsure if he was projecting or if Erik was. Why stop here? Erik looked up, blue eyes hard, mouth parting slightly to begin a sentence they could never take back.

Charles shook his head, lightly, softly, and took his friend’s hand, pulling him closer.

“Stay here,” he whispered, unbidden. And kissed him.

-

The grandchild was unexpected.

Wanda and Pietro themselves been unexpected, come at the worst of times for everyone involved and distrustful of a father they never knew. The involvement of the humans in it all had been... painful. Very painful.

It was unspokenly understood now, after it all, that anything that could be given for her, Wanda got. Working with a child could easily be very good for her. Her insistence that William Kaplan of New York, New York, Powers: Unknown was her son, on the other hand, was... worrisome.

Erik, however, was already in a black mood after some incident with one of the volunteer guards, and Charles knew better than to bring up what the man considered his greatest failure. If a child would make Wanda happy, that would make Erik happy, and that in turn would make the general mood in the capitol building less unhappy.

It was past midnight the next night when things indicated they would not be quite that simple.

He was accustomed to being awoken in the middle of the night. Nightmares, unexpected political developments, the Away Team arriving late and stomping through the corridors... He was not the soundest of sleepers.

The small figure silhouetted in the doorframe, though, was a new development.

“Yes?”

William jumped. “I, um.” He shifted from foot to foot. “I can’t sleep. I’m… thirsty.”

He was a child alone in a confusing new world. Of course he couldn’t sleep.

Charles contemplated awakening Erik, but the man sleeping this soundly was something to be encouraged, not interrupted. Besides, Erik’s instinctive and generally violent reaction to being unexpectedly awoken in the middle of the night wasn’t something the child needed to see.

With a sigh, Charles began levering himself into the damned hoverchair. The boy stared at a spot on the darkened floor.

“The kitchen’s this way,” he added once he’d gotten himself relatively comfortable. Something in the seat seemed to have been knocked loose.

“Thank you,” said the child. There were a few more moments of silence, then “I’m Billy.”

“I know.” Charles smiled. “We’re glad to have you here, Billy. I’m sorry we couldn’t do anything more this afternoon.” There’d been an incident with one of the mindwiped human spies, and he and Erik had barely had time for more than a greeting.

Billy was silent as they turned into the kitchen. Charles got him a glass from one of the low cabinets, and he poured water into it himself, looking thoughtful. Finally, he spoke again. “Is Wanda… is she alright?” His knuckles turned white around the glass. “I mean- I don’t mean it in a bad way- but I’m not her son. I’ve got parents.”

Charles didn’t answer for a few moments. None of them knew exactly what had happened to Wanda during the time she and her brother had spent with the humans, and from what he could gather the humans didn’t know either. There were echoes of some inhuman force in her mind, and brief flashes of a battle on some ethereal plane, but beyond that even she herself seemed to know nothing.

“Wanda doesn’t always see the world the way the rest of us do,” he answered, carefully. “But you don’t need to worry.”

Billy looked at him, old enough to know when a grown-up wasn’t telling him the truth. Charles could feel him closing doors in his mind.

“Billy,” he said, “I know you already have a family.” A family who had gotten him to the island and not looked at him like he was a monster. A rare thing. “But…” But Erik doesn’t. But we have absolutely no idea how to deal with this. But… “But we’re here for you as well. All of us.”

-

Present Day

-

Billy

-

“Tommy,” hissed Billy. “Cover for me.”

His brother looked at him, then nodded. “What are you doing?”

“I need to check on Teddy.”

Tommy rolled his eyes, but nodded again. “Got it.”

Billy slipped into a side hallway. IwanttobeinvisibleIwanttobeinvisible… Invisibility was always tricky, because if he couldn’t see himself he had a habit of running into things, but if he could, he was never sure he’d actually gotten it right.

He jumped as a guard walked out of one of the doorways, wings nearly hitting him in the face.

Invisibility working, then. Good to know.

He tried to remember exactly what the Founders had been saying.

“So what is he?” Grandpapa’s voice, angry, annoyed.

“I don’t know, Erik. He’s clearly not human, we know that, but the fact is that even with his powers fully developed, the device isn’t picking him up as a mutant.”

“Have you at least tried to make contact with his mother?”

“Of course. From the looks of things, she vanished off the face of the earth the day after she dropped him off.”

And then-

“There’s someone- William? Billy, is that you?”

What had happened next? He couldn’t remember, but he suddenly had a suspicion. A bad one.

Why, though? He knew plenty of state-level secrets, and he’d also lived around pyschics long enough to know that erasing memories was a big deal. It wasn’t something you did to people you trusted. It wasn’t something you did to people you cared about- but it hadn’t been erased, he thought. Just hidden.

Not even that well hidden. He stopped walking for a second to try the technique Mrs. Summers had taught him, sorting through his brain for things other people had left there.

“Billy. Don’t talk about what you just heard.” Barely a voice- more a note, in the same neat cursive that had left little notes all over the library’s old Shakespeare collection.

The final bit of memory was like a weight lifted off of his back. A psychic command. Just a psychic command. Those happened all the time, mostly because Mr. Xavier wasn’t used to not giving them, the same way Grandpapa floated everywhere even when everyone else had to hike over rocks and it was grossly unfair.

What Billy should do now, he knew, was turn around and go back to Tommy. If the Founders didn’t want Teddy to know something, it was for a reason, and he should trust them. They’d let him keep the memory, after all- they clearly trusted him.

He knew he should turn around.

But he didn’t.

-

Billy kept a mental shield up as he crept through more corridors towards where the dignitaries would be meeting. It had taken him a lot of practice to be able to keep a wish like invisibility up while focusing on shielding his thoughts, but he’d gotten good at it. Mr. Xavier might have promised him early on only to read his mind in the case of emergencies (another thing he knew was that there maybe two people on the island that promise had been made to, and the other was his brother), but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be able to sense him.

Hopefully he was distracted.

He could hear a low murmur of voices now (“…and so you really didn’t have to come all this way.” “It’s such a beautiful planet. And perhaps we didn’t leave on the best terms…”)

IwanttoknowwhereTeddyis

There. Three rooms ahead, not with the people in charge. Thankfully. Billy broke into a run and wished off the invisibility.

Teddy was sitting by himself, staring at his feet, but as Billy shut the door behind himself he looked up.

“Hey,” said Billy.

Teddy looked up, but he didn’t smile. There was a look of raw horror on his face. “Billy- no-”

Something was buzzing in his ears. A shape detached itself from the shadows behind Teddy-

And then everything went black.

-

Part Two
-
Eli
-

When he was little, Eli didn’t question things. Why the men in suits came and talked for so long, if his grandmother hated them. Why his mother cried when he showed off his gymnastics routine. Why there wasn’t always money, but he still went to the best government school in the city. Why none of the other kids there looked like him.

The first one he asked came when he didn’t get to go to Arizona, when he was left in New York with just his grandparents. “Why?” he asked. There wasn’t an answer.

“It won’t be permanent. We’ll come back.” And they did, but just for visits, talking when they thought he was asleep.

“We can take him.” “They’ll find us.” “Cross the border-” “They’ll find us and take all of them. Do you think I like this any more than you? Do you think I want to leave him here? Do you think I wouldn’t die to-” “Shh. Shh.”

Two years later, and he was in gym class at school when the men in suits came. They were probably different ones than usual, but they blurred together. He imagined their boss probably made them dye their hair so that every single one came out the same shade of grey. Certainly they all went to the same barber, tailor, and sunglasses store.

“Could you show us that move again?”

He pulled himself up on the parallel bars, palms sweating a bit. He was the best in the class, he knew it, but this was his school, a safe place, and the identical men shouldn’t be allowed to follow him here.

“He’s good.”

“Elijah. You’re twelve.”

He nodded.

“Too early,” said Man One.

“We don’t know how long it’ll take,” argued Man Two. “I say-”

“Too early.”

“Too early for what?” he asked, and they stared at him like they’d forgotten he was there.

“Nothing you need to worry about,” said Man Two. He smiled like he was talking to a toddler.

Eli tried to ask another question, but they were already walking away.

-

When he was fifteen, he found answers.

They didn’t let him go home. He thinks, now, that they knew that if they came to get him at his house, his grandmother would find a way to stop them, or try to. That he would have wound up in Arizona, fleeing across the border, maybe all the way to Brazil.

(He isn’t angry at his family for leaving anymore. They saved his brothers, and as he learns more he thinks they could have saved him, given another year. He tries not to think about it too much because he’s still suspicious Stark has a way of reading minds.)

As it was, he knows now, after they took him, his grandfather took out at least one agent, and it still gives him a grim smile to think of the sunglasses cracking.

He didn’t know that then.

“There’s been an accident,” said one of the suited men. “You need to go to the hospital.”

“Who?” he tried to ask. “What kind of-”

“You need to go to the hospital,” said the other.

He went with them, because he was still a kid, and he trusted people just a little bit, and he’d figured out by then that they probably knew what was up with his grandfather (he tried to ask that question, and never got an answer), and so if something had happened to him (he couldn’t imagine something happening to his grandmother) they would probably be the ones to come get him.

And they weren’t speaking like they were giving him options.

It didn’t look like a hospital outside, and he tensed getting out of the car, thinking that maybe he could run.

One of the suited men grabbed his arm. “Come on.”

And he went.

“You need to give a blood transfusion,” said a nurse inside, rubbing something on his arm. “Hold still.”

He was fairly sure that wasn’t how blood transfusions worked, but after the needle jabbed in things started getting fuzzy. He remembered more needles- a lot more needles- and a low pain like burning that nothing stopped. Snippets of conversation.

“I told you it wouldn’t transfer again.”

“Shut up. Just get Subject A.”

“We should have gone bigger than rats.”

He woke up staring at his arm. There were tubes in it, and it looked… funny. Bigger, like he’d been lifting weights when he was unconscious.

Mostly he noticed the tubes, though.

“You’ve woken up.” The voice belonged to a woman. Slightly different suit and hairstyle. Same sunglasses.

“I…”

“The subject is several hours ahead of schedule. Looks like Reve won the betting pool.”

He squinted to see a headpiece near her ear.

“I’d say the conditioning paid off. Obviously we lost most of the stats on Rogers, but his cell growth is significantly ahead of the rats.” She smiled, like to whoever she was talking to she was funny and made sense.

“Elijah.” This one was directed at him. “On a scale of one to ten, rate your current pain.”

“Where am I? What- what just happened?”

“Please cooperate, Elijah, you’ll make my job a lot easi- damn.” There was a crashing sound from outside the room. “Security, what the hell is going on?” Eli picked up a mumbling noise from the headset. “Fine.”

Suit lady got up quickly and left, slamming the door. Eli heard the lock click.

-

No one would answer his questions, but he got clothes and the tubes removed. His arms looked bigger, now, he was sure. He considered making a break for it, but he had no idea where he was and the suited man by his door now had added a large, shiny gun to the usual suit man ensemble.

The man who entered next wore a variety of medals and a large fake smile. The guard with the gun saluted as he walked past.

“Good morning, Elijah.”

Eli regarded him warily.

“I’m Sub-Director Smith, with SHIELD.”

SHIELD, thought Eli. Used to be international, government now. The government had kidnapped him, or this guy was lying through his teeth.

He thought the man was probably lying. He was still young.

“You may be pleased to know that you have aided your country a great deal over these past few days, young man. You have just been the first successful recipient of the Super Soldier Serum in over twenty years.”

That made no sense. The government was picking kids up off the street and turning them into Captain Americas?

But his muscles. His hearing, even. He did feel… different.

“We apologize for any inconvenience caused-”

“Where are my grandparents?”

The man looked annoyed. “They’re fine, Elijah. They’re very proud of you.”

Those were the lies.

-

“Grandpa?”

“He’ll be okay.” His grandmother was shaking as she said it. He thought at first she was afraid. She might have been, but mostly, he found, she was furious. “He’ll live.”

Barely.

-

Eli got answers. His grandfather had been an experiment a long time ago. His uncle (“we don’t know where he is. But neither do they.”) had been a revelation that the experiment could continue.

He had been that continuation.

They had trained him, studied him, and pumped half the blood in his grandfather’s body into his. Captain America had been dead since 1945, and the government wanted him back.

They took him out of school, but they let him live at home. Instead of school, he got training.

“We can get you out,” whispered his grandmother. “We can run.”

“No.”

SHIELD thought they had a new toy. Let them think that. Let them keep training him, giving him knowledge and skills and weapons.

He would take them down.

He just needed time.

-

Stark was annoying. All the Avengers were annoying, at least the ones he saw, but Stark was the worst.

Stark seemed to think he was actually a hero.

Apparently the Young Avengers Project had been his idea (so had inviting mutants on to the team a few years back, and look how that had turned out), some sort of “community outreach,” showing the next generation that people with powers weren’t all supervillains or mutants and didn’t want to kill them.

The problem was, almost all people with powers were mutants, because that was what being born with powers was. And people who got powers in accidents or through science or by being kidnapped and experimented on weren’t usually kids.

Stark didn’t seem to get this. He also quite obviously didn’t have the first clue how people were supposed to interact with teenagers. Eli suspected he had never been in a social situation not involving alcohol and supermodels (not that social situations were Eli’s strong suit either).

He latched on to Eli primarily because of the Captain America connection.

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” he explained. “Look at Cap. Heroes used to be an inspiration. I think they still can be.”

Eli finally snapped.

“Do you know how I got my powers, Stark?”

He hadn’t. But he didn’t accuse Eli of lying, either.

-

Eli wasn’t sure why he wanted to wear the colors. Maybe it was for his grandfather. Maybe it was Stark’s stupid dream. Maybe, he told himself, it was to solidify his cover.

Stark gave him shields. The ones he used most were prototypes, round and unpainted in various adamantium-steel alloys. One came from the Smithsonian. It was kite-shaped vibranium with chipping paint, and it felt oddly right in his hand on the rare occasions that he picked it up, as though it belonged to him rather than to a long-dead man.

-

Someone else with powers eventually arrived. Her name was Cassie, and she was even younger than he was. She’d gotten powers by hanging around the Avengers labs- her father, as far as he could gather, had been another experiment, volunteering for a Pym particle experiment instead of jailtime.

At least he’d gotten a choice.

But when Starks’s little mutant project had gone south, Cassie’s father had been among the casualties.

“Jan let me stick around,” she explained. Wasp. Eli had met her briefly. “I figured this was a way to get out of… a way to have something to do. And Hank let me play with the bugs in the lab enough that- poof! I could shrink! Growing came later.”

There were other kids there- a guy with gadgets, a couple who meddled with magic. Eli didn’t see why Cassie had to attach herself to him. Maybe she wanted Stark to continuously pop up over her shoulder with Captain America factoids too.

-

The day the Young Avengers Project, first class (he and Cassie) finally “graduated” (they didn’t get to leave, just occasionally fight fires or clean streets in costume), Stark came up to them after the ceremony with a girl in tow.

“This is Kate,” he said. “Her father’s a friend of mine. She’s with you.”

Kate gave them a tight smile, and Cassie smiled back.

“What do you mean ‘with us?’” asked Eli.

“Part of your team,” said Stark.

Eli considered asking “why?” but he had a suspicion that the answer was either money or politics, and he knew Stark’s opinions (generally favorable) on both already.

-

She was the first baseline human to beat him in a fight in six months, but he maintained that was because he tried not to fight dirty in front of authority figures, and she clearly had no such compunctions.

-

Their first real fight as a team was the day the ULTRON control room exploded. Eli had been down the hallway from it when he heard screaming and broke into a run.

“Cassie!” Kate was pulling at a tangle of wires, trying to get them out from under a metal plate. Some of the smoke cleared enough for Eli to see black boots beneath it. “Eli, Stature’s under here!”

He grabbed at the heavy plate, twisting it away from its moorings on the wall. Cassie- wires twisted around her head and neck- wasn’t moving. Something in the smokiest far corner, however, was.

“Creator. It is time for you to die, creator.” It looked like one of the cafeteria’s food service bots, roughly human shaped and with oversized hands.

Kate swore.

“Voice unrecognized. Termination suggested.” This time it was one of the blinking screens.

Eli swung his shield at the food-bot, shoving it backwards. Behind him, Kate kicked what looked to be a pistol-armed vacuum into the wall.

“Why was she even in this room?” Eli grunted, shoving his shield into the gap where the robot’s head met its body. Despite its threats, it wasn’t really combat designed.

“She said something about her dad.” Kate had annihilated the vacuum, but two more were emerging from under a console. “Damn it!”

Eli slammed the food-bot against the wall, finally managing to sever its head, which fell to the ground with a cascade of sparks. He was swinging the shield up to get a better angle on the thing’s left arm when Kate swore again.

“Eli, do you hear that?”

He heard a lot of things at the moment, including a variety of horrible high pitched squeals from the machinery that he doubted normal human ears could. Focusing on the hallway, though, he made out a sharp clicking noise, steel-on-steel.

More robots. Whatever Cassie had done, it hadn’t been limited to this room. The ULTRON network was in all the Avengers buildings, but judging by the lack of alarms or backup, this disturbance was probably just in this subbasement.

“The training rooms,” he muttered, at approximately the exact second one of the sword-practice bots made its fairly dramatic entrance, a blade raised in each arm-

And froze, its eyes blinking rapidly before dimming with a low hum.

“…Cassie?” said Kate, her eyes wide. Eli turned to see what she was looking at.

Cassie was standing. The wires around her head seemed to have dug into the side of her face, and one of her eyes was ringed with something red and glowing. Her hand was raised and pointed at the stilled robots in the hallway.

Eli raised his shield.

“Cassie?” asked Kate again. “Are you in there?” She sounded remarkably calm, possibly, Eli thought, because she’d never heard any of Stark’s robot stories.

“Whatever you are,” said Eli, “get out of Cassie or I will take both of you down.”

The red eye dimmed, and Cassie’s hand slowly lowered. “It’s okay,” she whispered. Her voice sounded normal, but Eli didn’t move. “He was just scared,” she said. “He didn’t know what was going on and nobody’d talked to him in years.”

“Who was scared?” asked Kate, and Eli noted she hadn’t lowered her guard either.

“He says that the lady used to call him Vision.”

-

They made a rapid team pact not to tell Stark more about the incident than was necessary. Artificial intelligence malfunctioned frequently, particularly with as many people meddling and tinkering with the systems as the Avengers had. Explaining what had happened to Cassie’s face (the wires showed no signs of planning to dislodge themselves) seemed to promise more of a problem, but Stark handled it in stride.

“As long as she doesn’t mind it, a connection to the system shouldn’t hurt her.”

A “connection to the system” was one thing. Eli didn’t think Stark would be so blasé if he knew that an entire AI had uploaded itself into Cassie’s brain.

“We need to get rid of it,” Eli had said earlier, as they exited the ruins of the computer room.

“No.”

“Cassie,” said Kate, “this isn’t just Eli being paranoid. That thing sent training bots after us. You can’t trust it just because it talks to you.”

“It’s my head,” said Cassie, glaring and growing several feet. The wires expanded with her, clicking softly. “And it’s not just talking. I can feel him. He’s scared.”

“No,” said Kate. “He wants you to think he’s scared.”

“It’s not a he,” added Eli. “It’s an artificial intelligence that, like Kate said, tried to kill us while you were unconscious.”

“I’m not getting rid of him.” A pause. “And the only one who knows how to is Tony, anyway. Tony or maybe Dr. Pym.”

Eli glared. Cassie knew his weak points. He doubted Hank Pym would stop at just removing some wires when he had a particle-dosed test subject in front of him. That wasn’t something he could allow to happen.

Kate looked at them both. “Cassie. I don’t like this.”

/May I speak?/ The voice came out of Cassie’s mouth, but it was distorted. Eli raised his shield.

“Vision?” asked Kate warily. “Is that your name?”

/Error. That. Error. That was the name of my source personality. It is not the name of this nodule./ A short pause.

“Your… source personality?”

/The body that was destroyed when they came. Error. Wanda?/ The red ring around Cassie’s eye blinked furiously. /I… apologize. I do not fully understand. The memories are fragmented and not my own./

“Release Cassie,” said Eli. “Now.”

/She is not imprisoned. We cannot both speak at once. I will attempt to rectify this. If I am given time./ Cassie’s head nodded. Her hand came up to form an okay signal, the fingers moving stiffly. “He asked permission.” This time the voice was her own, and the red glow had dimmed.

“I don’t trust this,” said Kate softly. “But I don’t think we have an option other than going to Stark.”

Eli met her eyes. “You think that’s a bad option?” He did, but an agreement on Tony would be a first.

“I think it might be.”

/Please,/ came the distorted voice again. /I would like to live./ Cassie’s eyes were huge and liquid.

“It’s your choice, Cassie,” he said finally. He was nominally the team leader. He was expected to make decisions.

“We’re watching you, Vision,” Kate added. “Cassie stays Cassie.”

The red circle dimmed and brightened, and Cassie flung her arms around Kate like she’d just been given a puppy.

Eli idly ran his hands along his shield. A secret weapon. He could use this.

-

Interlude Two:

Editorial

-

For decades now, the United States has been fighting a so called “cold war” on two fronts, throwing money and manpower at problems that seem without end, wars that many say cannot be fought and cannot be won. This situation, however, may be coming to a close.

Impossible, you say? Just turn away from the front page.

One of the most promising moments in US-Soviet relations of the past decade came just three days ago. The two countries stood firmly together in drafting a UN resolution condemning Latveria’s brutal expansionist tactics. In the past, many of our leaders have viewed Latverian dictator Victor Von Doom’s seizures of Soviet territory with favor if not outright support. But as he recently turned his gaze westward, even the President was forced to recognize the snake in the grass for what he was.

Many might say that the resolution is empty words, and the bilateral agreement merely the latest empty gesture. We at this paper, however, view it as another sign of what we have argued before: that the superpowers and their allies, whatever their differences, can be united in a common cause. And why not? We are, after all, all human.

That, of course, brings us to the second front of our diplomatic wars- Genosha- and to the news story drowning out the signs of hope. Massachusetts Representative Emma Frost, co-chair of the influential House Committee on Education and sponsor of the hotly debated Education and Disabilities Act, was discovered to be a mutant, and not just any mutant, but a mind-reader and controller. She had been using her inhuman powers to fool standard government testing since puberty. This terrifying news threw not only the testing system, but the integrity of our government into doubt. Worse still is the fact that as of this writing, Frost is still at large, allowed to escape by a ponderous bureaucracy and the tied hands of our military.

For too long, this country has been soft on mutants. Bleeding hearts in government have allowed mutants to turn themselves in and be deported to Genosha upon the emergence of their powers, allowing our enemies to grow stronger.

This needs to end! Humanity must stand together. The mutant threat must be eliminated, and those who shelter them called what they rightly are- traitors.

-

Present Day
-
Eli

-

Stark was hungover again.

That had always happened occasionally, but in the months since the Frost incident, it was the case more mornings than not. At least when he was red-eyed and nursing a headache, he wasn’t crying. He had done that when they’d found out what had happened to Miss Marvel, and it wasn’t a situation Eli wanted to be in ever again.

“No new news,” he said blearily to Eli and Kate this morning, as though a question had been asked. “What we need is a psychic, but we can hardly just pop over to Genosha and ask. But I look at her… I look at her and I know she’s in there…”

Maybe he wasn’t hungover. Maybe he was actually drunk. In theory, the knowledge that the leader of the Avengers was an alcoholic was useful to Eli’s long term plans. In practice… it hurt to see Stark like this. He was the often-unwitting tool of a vicious system, but he wasn’t, Eli had come to realize, a bad man. And at times their conversations had been genuinely interesting (“Did you realize that could be done with transistors? Most people don’t.” “I swear, by this point they have arrested every person in this country who’s ever messed around with green hair dye. I wish they would tell me about escaped clones. Just once.” “Nick Fury’s still out there. I think he’s using my gauntlet design.”).

Eli looked to Kate helplessly.

“Tony,” said Kate. “I’m sorry.”

“I shouldn’t have done this to you. Brought kids into this. I shouldn’t have let any of this happen, should have just sold the damn armor to the military like they wanted-”

“I volunteered, Tony,” said Kate, now looking at Eli. “This is something I wanted. This is our fight too. Just like it was Carol’s.” It wasn’t something Eli had wanted, and all three people in the room knew it, but Stark wasn’t the one who had pumped him full of his grandfather’s blood.

“Stark,” said Eli, “maybe you’d better lie down.” This was almost as bad as the crying. This was not a situation anyone had trained him to handle.

One of the three phones on Stark’s desk ran shrilly, and after a second he picked it up. “Director? Yes, I…” he gestured at Eli and Kate to leave, and with relief, Eli followed her out of the room.

“Did you ever meet Carol Danvers?” Eli asked. He’d been meaning to for a while.

Kate shook her head. “Tony and Janet Van Dyne were the only Avengers who ever came to my dad’s parties. Cassie probably has, though.”

Eli nodded. “I’ll ask her when she gets here.”

“She should be here already. …I really hope her stepfather isn’t keeping her.” Kate looked at the floor as she walked. “I’ve been having her sleep over at my place sometimes- it’s nice to have the company.”

“Guys!” It was Cassie’s voice, a shrill whisper coming a barely open door. “Guys, you need to get over here, now!”

“Cassie?” Kate pushed the door open the rest of the way.

Cassie was standing at the bottom of the flight of stairs leading to the first subbasement, slightly shrunken, twisting her hands around each other. “Get down here! Quickly!”

Eli looked at Kate, who started down the stairs without hesitation. After a moment, he followed. What had Cassie found? A kitten? Another artificial intelligence? Someone’s cookies left out in a break room? Still, he was glad he had his shield with him.

As they came to the bottom and Cassie lightly dashed out into the next hallway, gesturing for them to keep following, he noted that Kate had drawn one of her knives.

Around the corner, Cassie stood, gesturing nervously at something splattered around the white linoleum. It was a liquid, green and viscous, and Eli could see that more of it continued down the hall and into a doorway.

“What is it?” asked Kate.

“And why,” added Eli, “did you call us instead of the janitorial staff?” Kate glared at him, but he was grumpy. He already apparently had comforting Stark added to his list of daily duties, he didn’t need to investigate every single strange happening in the Avengers tower. He’d tried to do that in the early days, and it was a quick way to go insane.

“I thought you’d want to know,” said Cassie. “We’re… We’re in this together. All of us and Sparky. We want to help you. …And Tony never tells me anything about what’s going on.”

Kate was looking at Eli with that little smile that made his heart flutter. A team. They were a team. They were in this together. And if being in this together meant investigating what was probably the cafeteria’s Guacamole Surprise… Why not?

Besides, even if he wouldn’t, Kate would. And it could be something useful. Theoretically.

“Do you know how long it’s been here?” he asked.

“Not long, I’d say,” said Kate, dipping the edge of one of her spare knives into the goop. “And it’s not as thick as it looks. Consistency wise… It’s almost like blood.”

“If we go into that room and find Dr. Banner…” muttered Eli, feeling mildly guilty as a worried expression crossed Cassie’s face.

“I’m fairly sure an injured Hulk would leave more signs than this,” said Kate. “It’s just… the patterns are bloodlike too. This… is probably from something alive.”

/That was my suggestion,/ cut in “Sparky.”

“Can you run a full analysis?” asked Eli. He still didn’t like talking to the thing, but it had proven helpful more than once.

/Not without plugging into ULTRON-/, began the AI.

“-and that’s not a good idea,” finished Cassie. “The more we do that, the higher the risk it takes him back over.”

“We know the drill,” said Eli tiredly.

“Alright then,” said Kate. “Who’s up for following the creepy bloodtrail into the darkened room?” She had drawn a clean knife, one of her long serrated ones. Eli hoisted his shield.

“Let’s go,” said Cassie, shrinking slightly and shifting her center of balance. “Young Avengers! Assemble!”

Kate shifted to move ahead of Cassie, but Eli stopped her. “…I think we want this in front,” he whispered, gesturing with his shield. “Just in case.” He expected a roll of her eyes, but instead she nodded.

That meant, of course, that he was going in first.

He eased the door fully open, stepping carefully around another splatter of the green liquid, and stepped into the darkened room, shield raised.

It was a storage room, full of crates and tables. A few overturned boxes spilled parts and wires onto the floor. Behind him he heard a click as Kate tried the light switch, but the room stayed dark, illuminated only by light from the hallway and a faint bluish glow from somewhere at the far end.

Eli took a deep breath. The trail of liquid, thicker and darker, led around a few boxes, and he carefully followed it.

It was definitely blood.

A body lay in the middle of the room, dark stains pooled around it. It wasn’t human.

“What is that?” hissed Kate, coming around beside him. The eerie glow sent reflections from her knife skittering across the floor. “Cassie, stay back.”

Whatever it was, it looked dead. A mutant? Eli edged closer. It was roughly human shaped, wearing some sort of uniform, but it had pointed ears, and a strange, ridged chin. It was difficult to tell in the low, discolored light, but he thought that the skin might be as green as the blood.

“Look at its chest,” said Kate softly. “That isn’t a normal wound.” The huge hole had ropes of skin across it, like the body had been trying to stitch itself shut instead of scab over.

“Oh, god,” said Cassie. Eli jumped. She had moved from behind them to somewhere to their left, behind another stack of crates. “Oh, oh god.”

“Cassie!” Kate vaulted the crates, and Eli followed as quickly as he could, shield raised, trying to get in front of his teammates. Whatever had killed the mutant creature could be back there- was probably back there. One of Pym’s experiments?

“Whoever’s back there, we have you surrounded,” said Kate, her voice dead even, facing another row of tall crates. The glow was brighter here. They were near the source, and Cassie was back there. Why wasn’t she responding? “You have ten seconds.”

“Come out with your hands up,” added Eli, trying to keep his own voice as firm.

“Who- who are you?” It was Cassie’s voice, and Eli and Kate both moved towards it, rounding the crate and breaking into a run.

Cassie stood, hand outstretched, reaching towards two figures. One was- one was floating, (superpowers, not good), suffused with the bluish glow, and showed no signs of noticing them at all. The other stood, arms raised protectively, staring back at Cassie.

“Stay- stay back, humans,” he said.

Mutants.

Oh, shit.

-

Above the Atlantic Ocean

Three Hours Earlier

-

“I- I think we’re clear.”

“You’re sure?”

“No, I’m not sure! I’ve never felt anything like that- like it was crawling in my mind without even trying. What does her Majesty see in those things?”

“Did your shields fail or not?”

“…They didn’t. I don’t think so. Filthy aliens.”

“Indeed.”

“It’s- it’s almost over now, though.”

“For you, at least.”

“Wha- what’s that supposed to mean? If you think you can betray me now, you’ve got a bloody surprise coming. My father-”

“Your father? The Shi’ar lord and his- what was it? Plan to destabilize the bird-queen? Kill the aliens? Start a war?”

“You know damn well-”

“What you fail to understand, Shi’ar, is that your plan? Has suddenly become radically less important.”

Blam.

-

Billy awoke to what sounded like a gunshot.

It was then that he began to panic.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t see, there was something over his mouth, and as he tried to reach for his powers he felt only a horrible dullness, like dark water closing over his head.

He’d had nightmares like this. He’d had them fairly often.

Okay. Breathe. He needed to breathe, and at least he could still do that. He could hear, too, a low humming sound- an engine?- and, if he strained, footsteps. He smelled something low and harsh, like smoke or exhaust. A plane, or a boat. Someone was taking him away from the Island.

That menat- what did that mean? Humans. They wanted to dissect him- no. Don’t panic. If they just wanted to study a mutant, they would have gone after an easier target. He was a Founder’s grandson. They wanted to hold him for ransom. Political leverage.

They probably wouldn’t kill him. At least not soon. But Teddy- they had Teddy too, didn’t they? Why? Nothing made sense. Nothing made sense and all the possibilities were terrifying.

What was he supposed to do in this situation? He couldn’t think straight. Whatever had knocked him out was still in his head. His head. That was it.

Hello? he tried calling out mentally, as loudly as he could. Mr. Xavier? Mrs. Summers? Genosha? Genosha, this is Billy Kaplan, they are taking me somewhere and I need help-

Nothing. If they’d managed to take him right out from under the noses of at least three psychics, of course, they probably had something to block mental connections.

But he had to keep trying. It wasn’t like there was anything else he could do.

This is Billy Kaplan. I need help. This is Billy Kaplan. I need help. ThisisBillyKaplanIneedhelp…

And then he felt a sparking in his fingers.

-

“The more you struggle, hatchling, the harder the shocks are going to get.”

Teddy leant back, trying to relax. Everything hurt. Everything. “Stop calling me that!”

“What would you prefer to be called, then? Halfbreed? Child? Your Eternal Majesty? I’ve got contacts who think you’re the chosen one- I’m sure they’ll drive the bidding up significantly.”

Teddy pulled at the cuffs again, trying not to show the pain in his face as they jolted him with electricity. Whatever they were made of, they were keeping him from shifting. “You’ve made a big mistake. People- people will come after us.”

“Hatchling, the earthmen don’t want you. And even if they did, do you really think they’d try to follow me when that helmeted fool’s grandson… is in the hands of the humans?”

Teddy yelled something inarticulate as the alien smiled and turned away. He jerked again at the cuffs, and-

And they gave. Just a little bit.

They hadn’t been designed for him. They’d been designed to stop shifting, like the alien did. And they were strong… But the wall behind them wasn’t.

He pulled again. Electricity shot through his arm, and he punched his fist back, feeling the metal wall behind him crack just a little bit.

The alien began to turn around.

Teddy punched his fist back again, feeling it begin to bleed, but also feeling the wall give. There were wires behind it. Lots of them.

The alien spun, freakishly quick, drawing something sharp and sparking from its belt.

Teddy clenched his jaw, grabbed the wires, and pulled.

-

It lasted for only a second, only long enough for Billy to feel metal bands fall from his wrists. He tried to draw the magic to him again as he clawed at the things on his face, and for what seemed like ages it wouldn’t come again-

And then he felt the little sparks, for just a moment. This time, as a dark visor fell from his eyes, he saw low lights around the edge of the room brighten as the magic faded.

Whatever was draining his powers, it was electrical. And whatever he was riding in, it didn’t have much power to spare. Something was draining it enough every few seconds for the power dampener to flicker on and off.

Now that he could see, he could tell when those times were. The moment the lights dimmed, he screamed in his head, sending a signal as loud as he could, pushing lightning out to all corners of the little room-

His feet came free, and the metal door to his cell slammed open (hopefully there wasn’t a guard outside) but he could hear no response from the island in his mind. No rescue just yet.

That didn’t matter right now, though. None of it mattered. What mattered was finding Teddy.

-

Teddy shoved the sparking wires into the alien’s green face, and it flinched back, stumbling.

“You little-” It had the knife-thing raised now. Not good.

Teddy wrenched his other hand from the wall, the momentum flinging him forward into the alien’s chest and wrenching his still restrained ankles. That… that was going to hurt a lot when the adrenaline wore off, and now he was on his knees, his ankles twisted behind him in a way things weren’t designed to bend when they couldn’t shift, and the alien was scrambling free.

“I was hoping to have you intact for the bidders, hatchling.”

The electrical shocks shot through Teddy again. Spots danced in front of his eyes, and he saw the knife raised again, sparking a the tip as it came down-

Sparking.

Sparking.

Blue lightning twisted around the alien, and it screamed, high and inhuman, whirling its head around to see where Billy stood in the doorway, his eyes glowing.

It fell to the floor, twitching, and Billy ran towards Teddy, kneeling beside him.

“Are you- are you okay?”

Teddy grabbed his hand. “I… think so.”

“Your ankles-”

He didn’t want to look. “They’ll heal when I get them out of these cuffs. Can you-?”

“I’ll try. My powers are off again.” He was trembling. They both were. “I think- okay. This looks like a switch, but I don’t know what it does.”

“Hit it.”

“Not unless- wait. This actually looks like a latch.”

Teddy braced himself in case it shot electricity again, but instead he heard a gentle click as the device removed itself from his feet. “Thanks,” he breathed.

Billy tried to smile. “No probl- oh, shit!”

The alien was moving again, one hand reaching out for Billy. Teddy didn’t think. He shoved out with one hand, slamming it to the floor once more, grabbing the knife with his other.

And then he hit it again.

The knife made a horrible noise as it sliced into the alien, and green blood covered Teddy’s hand. He screamed, too. He couldn’t help himself.

It had been a very hard day.

-

He came back to himself in Billy’s arms, shaking against him. “I- I just-”

“It’s okay.”

“Are- can you use your powers? Can you get us home?” He hadn’t meant for that to come out so shakily.

“I’ve tried. I can’t- I can’t feel them.” They stayed still for a moment more.

“It seems like we’re flying,” said Billy. “But I don’t know where.”

“The alien- it said they were going to turn you over to the humans. As a distraction.”

“A distraction?”

Billy didn’t know. Billy didn’t know what he was.

“It was taking me- somewhere. To space, I guess. There were- people- up there. Who wanted me.”

“Who-”

“I’m an alien.” He felt laughter bubbling in his throat. It didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem like something he could really be saying out loud. “That’s what the meeting was about. Me.”

Billy chewed on his lower lip, and Teddy froze. Finally, he spoke. “That… makes sense.”

“Makes sense?”

“They were talking- I should’ve told you- I mean, I would’ve told you- there was a mental command thing- I’m sorry- but you aren’t a mutant. They knew that.”

“They told you?” And you didn’t tell me?

“Not exactly. I- I head them talking- the Founders- and Mr. Xavier made me not tell you. In my head.” He gave a little twirly motion by his temple with one finger.

Teddy looked at him. “He messed with your head?”

Billy shrugged. “Telepath. He can’t really help it.”

“Billy, I think he can help himself from messing up your mind. That’s not okay.”

“Well, I mean, I would’ve told you. If he hadn’t.”

“That’s my point-”

The room shuddered, and both of them jumped. The alien’s body slid to one side.

“I think we’re descending.”

“Oh, crap.”

A series of unintelligible words came from a console in the corner, followed by several beeps and a number of odd squeaking sounds.

“What’s it saying?”

Billy jumped up and ran towards it. “I don’t know!”

“Modifying language protocols: Approaching destination.”

“Where’s the destination?”

“Prompt not recognized.”

“Okay,” said Billy rapidly. “Here’s the plan. Are your feet okay to move?”

They’d been healing back into shape, and now Teddy twisted them, hardening the soles and shifting around his ankle bones. “Good to go.” He stood and walked gingerly over to where Billy stood by the console, bouncing from foot to foot and staring at it like the symbols on the buttons might change to English for him.

“If we get out of the plane- ship? Spaceship?- my powers might turn back on. We do that, and we find a place to hide, and we try to contact home.”

Teddy nodded. “Okay. And if people meet the ship?”

“We hide in it. Maybe there’re weapons somewhere.”

The ship shifted again. “City-stealth mode activated. Prepare for landing.” The statement was followed by a sliding noise. It sounded like- the door?

“Oh, crap,” said Billy. Teddy followed his gaze.

A trail of green blood led into the passage from the spot where the alien’s body had lain.

-

Opening the door was a bit tricky. The alien had locked it behind him, and Billy doubted that they had much time before landing.

Finally Teddy, rolling his eyes, slammed into the metal slab and pushed it bodily out into the passage.

“Or we could do that,” finished Billy. He followed his boyfriend out of the doorway. The spaceship’s metal bulkheads loomed in ominously. This was not a craft designed for comfort.

He tried not to step in the blood as they crept carefully along its trail.

About halfway down the passage, the ship shuddered, the sound of engines slowly fading. Billy came very close to screaming. But they weren’t falling. It wasn’t a crash. They were just- landing.

That was better. Though maybe not by much.

They passed an open gap in the bulkhead, gaping like a mouth, and Billy paused from following the green bloodtrail to glance in.

That- that looked an awful lot like a body. Okay. No more looking.

The bloodtrail ended at a round door. Billy nodded to Teddy.

“Do we do this?” Teddy asked.

“We have to stop him. And we can’t stay here if we might take off again at any second.” He wasn’t letting Teddy get kidnapped by aliens. At least on Earth help could reach them.

“You’re right.” He saw Teddy take in a deep breath, then grab the door’s central handle.

It opened easily.

“Airlock?” suggested Teddy, looking at the small room and large door on its other side.

So it was a spaceship. That’s one life goal completed.

The blood trail still led out. They still had to follow it.

“Let’s go,” said Teddy.

-

“He’s dead,” muttered Teddy, and Billy grabbed for his hand.

“Looks like it.”

“I… I did kill him.”

“Better him than you.” His voice came out shaky where he had meant it to be reassuring. Sometimes, Grandpapa said, we will all need to take lives.

“…I know.” Teddy looked around. “Your powers-”

“A little better. I still can’t- wherever we are, I think there’s mental blockers. I still haven’t gotten an answer.”

“If we need to make a stand…” said Teddy.

Billy looked at the crates surrounding them, heavy and mazelike. “…Then I think we’ve found the place to do it.”

-

Interlude Three

The Island

-

She felt it the moment the ship took off, but she did not believe it. It was another nightmare, send to torment her mind. Dying children and screaming voices and a man with a metal face.

The sooner she stopped giving in, the sooner they would stop surrounding her.

This one stayed. Fine, then.

She would prove it wrong.

“Billy?” Wanda called. “Billy?”

he wore a red cape/with a high collar/crown on his head

“Billy?”

lightning/laughter

(She screamed defiant, held them back, wove spells into the air. She fought and fought and they fell

And then there was nothing)

-

“Stories?” asked Charles.

“Prophecies. They have a number of prophecies. This one came to the forefront around the time their Throneworld was destroyed.”

Something felt wrong.

Something-

Wanda stood at the door, flinging it open before her. Her mantle rippled as through she stood in a heavy wind. “Billy is gone.”

-

“Attention Defense. Code Beta. Code Beta. This is not a drill. Atención-”

“This could be it.”

“Esta no es un simulacro. Attenzione-”

Thomas- secure. School one- secure. School two- secure. Brotherhood refugees- secure. School three- secure…

“-Beta. Ce n’est pas un exercise. Aandacht-”

“Come back to me. Do whatever you have to do to make sure you come back to me.”

“Tämä ei ole poran.”

“Listen up, you sons of bitches! If this is war, you better damn well face it in formation!”

“-uppmärksamhet-”

“Pyro! Shut up! Rictor! We do not punch squadmates!”

“-dikkat-”

“Gone? What do you mean, gone? Where is he?”

“-atensyon-”

“Will be once Jeannie and Slim are done kissin’.”

“-makini-”

“Children! We are still having a pop quiz!”

“Sa a se pa yon egzèsis…”

-

He scratched the note onto the piece of paper, tearing the paper from the speed of the pencil.

He gave it a quick once over. Still legible.

Out of the palace, into the courtyard. Troops gathering. Need someone-

“Mr. Cassidy! Sean!”

“Thomas? What are-”

“This! Give this to Gramps or Chuck. Quick as you can, I don’t need them worrying- thank you!”

Off before he reads it. Quick quick quick.

New York. Wanda said New York. Not just New York, Avengers, with the Avengers, but once he got to the city he knew where the Tower was. The city. Had to get to the city. He didn’t quite know where it was from here- back into the palace then- oops, there went a door- map won’t work- GPS- GPS watch- yes! Into the store room- what was that? Amplifier helmet. Good idea. Just in case.

Okay. He could do this. He’d been practicing. Protein bars, adrenaline, idiot brother to save. He’d been in training. He was practically in Special Forces already. Nothing out there that could stop him. And they didn’t have enough teleporters to get the Defense forces out there quick.

The humans weren’t going to get his brother. New York wasn’t going to get him. Not on his watch.

He sped out over the ocean.

-

Part Three

Kate

-

She felt the knife handle in her hand, warm and solid.

Joining the Project had been more of an impulse than she wanted to admit, but it had been a good thing. Maybe she hadn’t made a difference the way she had hoped- more getting cats out of trees in the park than bringing evil men to justice- but she had a purpose. And she had Cassie and Eli. They were good people.

She had no illusions about how she’d gotten onto the first team so quickly. She was good, yes- she knew how to fight. But she was rich, her father knew Tony Stark, and, most critical, she was human. Unmodified.

People didn’t like superheroes. They just needed them. People like her and Stark made that balancing act a little easier.

“Identify yourselves,” said Eli again, glaring at the two figures in front of them and hoisting his shield a little further. The blue glow from the floating mutant reflected off of it eerily, lighting their faces like they were underwater.

“Stay back!” repeated the mutant in front. The skin on his arms was rippling, forming into armor like plates. “Stay back, and I won’t have to hurt you!” He darted a glance behind him at his floating companion, still staring ahead and showing no signs of realizing anyone else was in the room at all.

“Cassie,” hissed Kate. “Get Sparky to hit the emergency systems.”

Cassie didn’t answer. The wires on her face were glowing red, Kate realized, glowing and blinking more erratically than usual.

/Wanda?/ The AI’s robotic voice issued from her friend’s mouth, deeper than usual and interspersed with static. /Wanda, este că ai?/

The front mutant jumped, grabbing at the sleeve of the one behind him. “Billy,” he hissed, barely audible. “Billy, you need to wake up!”

Eli was staring at Cassie. “Stature! Damn it, let her go!”

/Tu! nu trebuie să! treacă!/ This time, the static filled voice sounded even less like Sparky. It sounded like a woman.

“Cassie!” yelled Kate, feeling panic hit her against her will. She shoved at her friend’s arm with her free hand. Behind her, the blue glow was fading, and she heard a sound like feet hitting the floor. “Cassie, wake up!”

Cassie let out a groan, her hand coming to her forehead. Eli and Kate rushed towards her, the mutants momentarily forgotten.

“What did that thing do to you?” bellowed Eli. His hands and shield were shaking.

“That…” Cassie paused. “That wasn’t Sparky.”

“No,” came a shaky new voice. “I don’t think it was.”

It was the second mutant. The glow had faded, revealing a thin boy with dark hair, dressed in a tattered suit. He looked... familiar, though Kate wasn’t sure why.

The sound of a distant explosion rocked all of them. The floor barely trembled, but all of them flinched. The mutants each flung out an arm. Trying to cover each other. It was a very human gesture, and it was a bit depressing how much that surprised her. Everyone knew they looked out for each other. It was the humans they wanted to destroy.

“How many more of you are there?” demanded Eli. “How’d you get in here without being noticed?”

The taller mutant opened his mouth, then shut it, but the dark haired one (where had she seen him before?) asked a question of his own. “How did you get that voice?”

“I-”

Cassie interrupted Eli. “I don’t know.”

Kate inched over to Eli while the mutants were distracted. “Patriot. The one on the right. I’ve seen him before.”

Eli quickly looked the mutant up and down again. “Oh. Oh, shit.”

She managed to stop herself just short of using his real name. “Patriot?”

“The broadcasts. He’s been on the broadcasts, and he’s in Stark’s files.”

And then it hit her, with terrifying clarity. That wasn’t just a mutant.

“He’s Magneto’s grandson.”

“That’s right.” It was a third new voice, panting out the words, and everyone- mutants included- whirled to see the source. “And if you human scum touch him, I’m gonna rip you to shreds.”

-

“Mr. Stark, a call on Priority Lines.”

“Again? …fucking little stick-up-his-ass creep... Ahem. Tell the Director that, for the final time, when we got there, the fires were out and the hippie was gone.”

“Mr. Stark-”

“Or is it the alarms? Tell them if they want me to send out a full Avengers response to every alarm, then maybe they should let me build new ones that don’t start blaring about flies in the cafeteria-”

“Mr. Stark!”

“Shut up! You are a robot, I built you, I have a headache, and you are damn well going to start replying to voice commands!”

“Stark!”

“I am going to blast you into a mist of purely theoretical- yes, Director?”

“Stark, turn on your damn TV!”

-

“Human nations.”

Both of them were floating, both of them were wearing helmets, and even the best feeds- even his feeds- were discolored and jittery with Magneto’s usual effects on electronic equipment. Tony swore.

He’d met them once. They’d come to New York, back when he was young and idiotic and thought he was capable of beating the system. It had been a disaster from the start. He was the only one who really wanted freer relations, both sides knew it, and SHIELD’s new director was too busy consolidating power and chasing down Nick Fury to get him any decent information, or even find out before the damn tabloids did that the Secret Lovechild rumors about his team mutants were true.

And then they’d gotten back to the mansion, war in everyone’s eyes, and found Wanda- found Wanda-

Why hadn’t they told him what happened to her? He was her friend. He was her brother’s friend.

“Contrary to our agreements with Washington, Moscow, and every so-called civilized nation on earth, the United States of America has taken hostages from within our borders.”

The voices were almost exactly the same. They moved in almost total unison. He hadn’t seen that on any video before. Just on That Night.

“His return will be made within twelve hours-” His? They’d said hostages. One or the other was a slip of the tongue. Rare for the Founders. “Or a state of war will exist between Genosha and the United States and her allies, as well as every other country found to be violating their treaties with our soveriegn nation.”

That, Tony knew, meant just about everybody. There wasn’t a place on earth where more kids weren’t killed than sent to deportation centers.

“This is not a war, humanity, which you can expect to win.”

And on Xavier’s low voice- or something close to it- the message ended.

-

“We have a hostage? Hostages?”

“We do not.”

“What do you mean, we do not-”

“Exactly what I said, Iron Man. The muties are attacking on false pretenses in a hope the rest of the world will let them invade us unopposed.”

“That- I’m sorry, Secretary. Priority call.” He flicked a switch. “Power Man?”

“Stark. We just had what looked to be a Genoshan Strike Team teleport in and then out of the Embassy here. Looked like they had a psychic with them. Female, black hair, full face mask and gloves.”

/Warning. Intruder Alert, Level Three. Warning. Intruder Alert, Street Entrance Two. Warning. Intruder Alert, Level One-Subbasement One- Two- Th-/

Damn it. Damn it. Dammit dammit dammit.

-

Kate could see flashing lights emanating from the hall outside, and hear the low pulse of alarms from the floors above. The dim, blinking red reflected oddly of off the brushed steel helmet worn by the mutant who’d just entered.

He didn’t look any older than the rest of them, but his face (what she could see of it) was hard and set.

Cassie began to grow, and Eli lunged forward. The mutant dodged with lightning speed, the air around him flickering. This must be Magneto’s other grandson.

“Tommy? Tommy, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to rescue you, idiot.”

“How, exactly?”

“I- look. I, um-”

The alarms pulsed again, even louder. Kate weighed her options. She could throw a knife- no guarantee it would hurt the mutants, of course- or she could draw her bow- same problem, combined with the fact that reaching around would leave her vulnerable. And she couldn’t escape the niggling thought that the mutants (third one maybe excepted) probably hadn’t come here on purpose. Were they hostages? Was someone trying to start a war?

And what was up with Sparky?

“Can you get out of here?” Eli. That was Eli.

And that made sense. Eli flinched when she or Cassie had to go the Tower infirmary. He didn’t trust anything Stark gave them. He’d once thrown himself bodily between Cassie and Pym. After what SHIELD had done to him, he wasn’t going to let them have anyone else. Even mutants.

And she was with him. With him all the way.

/Before they do,/ said Sparky, suddenly, in that voice that wasn’t quite his own, /I think you all- I think you all need to co- come with me./

“Alright,” said Kate and the dark haired mutant, simultaneously.

“What?” This came from the helmeted newcomer. Tommy. “We aren’t going anywhere with the humans. We’re going home. Get with the teleporting.”

“I can’t- look. You heard her. This could be answers.”

“Yeah. Answers. Answers to shit I never cared about. Theyaregoingtokillyou.”

“You don’t have to come. But I’m going.”

-

“I’m Billy,” he said as the group crept down the hallway.

“...Hawkeye,” she said. Cassie was moving awkwardly, like neither she nor Sparky was in complete control, and it made Kate nervous.

“Why are you helping us?” His voice was wary, like he hadn’t just given her his name.

“I’m not,” she said. “I’m helping Stature.”

“Is that the girl with- this is going to sound ridiculous. The girl with Wan- with my, um, mother’s voice?”

His mother- the Scarlet Witch. Oh, god. Eli’s head turned- he’d heard Billy too, and he stopped walking.

Kate shoved him lightly. “Keep following Stature.”

“This is a trap, Kate,” he muttered.

“I’m not letting her walk into it alone.” And I don’t think we can stop her ourselves, she thought silently.

Magneto’s other grandson- Thomas? Was it Thomas? He’d said Tommy- had slung the helmet off of his head, revealing a shock of white hair. “I don’t like this,” he said. “Idon’tlikethisatall.”

Cassie pressed one hand to a panel in the wall, opening it to reveal the room they’d found Sparky in so long ago.

The floor shuddered, and everyone jumped.

“That came from upstairs,” hissed Eli.

“They’re coming for us,” said Thomas. “They’re coming for us, andIamgoingtobeinsomuchtrouble...”

But they all followed Cassie as she walked inside.

And began to scream.

-

There were many names. There was ULTRON, all-father, conqueror, dead and re-risen countless times, always remaining in dark corners, always striving against the Creators.

There was Vision, lost and separate, First To Love, and a woman with dark hair pressing her palm to a screen.

“They’re coming. There’s no time. We’ll fight this together.”

And there was him, the Escaped One, and there was a girl with light hair who called him Sparky. Second to Love.

(There was a man with a metal face, and a chunk of ice in the North Atlantic, and a thousand fleshy things pouring from a thousand portals, and fire and ice and death)

And there was a girl. Who called him Sparky.

And he would not let her die.

He would not

Not

Not

Would

-

Eli smashed his shield into a bank of computers. “Cassie!” he yelled. “Cassie!” The alarms from upstairs blared in time with her screams.

/It is too late, Creators. The children are gone. The war is coming./ The voiced seemed to tear its way out from every speaker in the little room.

The blond mutant morphed, spikes sprouting from his arms as wires grabbed at him. Thomas slammed the helmet over his white hair and seemed to twist his hands into the walls. Screens cracked and exploded.

Metal arms reached from the walls at Kate, and she kicked up at them, slashing with her drawn knife and swearing as she felt her bow cracking, ripped from her back. Lightning hit the wall next to her, and she could hear “Billy” muttering low under his breath, makeitstopmakeitstop.

/The war is coming. The war is coming./

“Cassie!” yelled Kate. “Cassie, fight it!”

An ancient metal cabinet exploded, glass tubes shattering into bits of shrapnel. Kate felt a sting as one grazed her cheek.

“Tommy! Watch it!”

“Shut up, Ted, I didn’t hit you!”

More lightning hit. Almost all of the screens were shattered now, glass and wire littering the floor.

The voice kept talking. The screams kept coming. Kate wrenched at the joints of the robotic arm she was grappling with, trying to get to Cassie. Something sharp-edged skittered out of a crack in the wall behind her, and she stomped one boot down on it, crushing the twisted metal underfoot.

Finally the arm gave, and she lunged forward, grabbing for Cassie’s hands.

“Cassie. Stature. Sparky! Let her go!” The hands in her own were cold, and they twisted themselves out of her grasp with sparks of electricity. “Fight it!”

-

There were sounds. Very distant sounds, like screams and alarms. They should mean something.

“Haven’t you always told me the source is irrelevant?”

“Vizh. It’s not that. I know who my father was. I know who my parents were, and none of them were a dictator in a helmet.”

“But you are worried about the consequences.”

“My home is gone. I’m not going to Genosha, and I’m certainly not going back to Latveria. I want to stay here. I’m going to stay here. But if anyone knows… Pietro. I need to tell him, don’t I?”

“That is not really an area in which I can offer advice.”

“No. I need to. I’ve lied to him too much.”

The voices faded in and out. Cassie didn’t recognize them.

“Him.” The word itself was hatred, spat out into the darkness around her. “Von Doom. He’s behind this.”

“It seems probable.” The words sounded like Sparky, but the voice was deeper, more accented.

And suddenly the darkness burst into searing light. Faces swirled around her, a thousand inhuman things, and she tried to move, finally feeling something, something with a meaning. Fear. Fear was all around her, creeping through the wires.

Around her, the city burned.

“Cassie.” It was her name, spoken in a thousand distant voices. She clung to it. Cassie. That was who she was, that was what mattered. She was Cassie Lang and she was a superhero, and something was going terribly wrong.

But now she could move.

-

“ULTRON. Keep scanning for the intruders.”

/My apologies, Mr. Stark. There was an attempted attack on my sensors from an internal source. The intruder alarms were false./

“False?”

/I will continue scanning./

Tony felt more than heard the door close and lock.

-

There was a figure ahead, in the light. Cassie moved towards it warily. It wasn’t moving.

For a second, it was the dead body from the floor of the storeroom. For a moment it was “…unescapable. He died a hero…” For another, it was red red eyes. But then it was a boy, made of bits of light, curled shaking on the floor.

“Sparky,” said Cassie. She tried to reach down, and felt nothing as her hand passed through the lights. “Sparky, get up.”

His head moved. /The war is coming./

“Sparky. We’re going to need everyone in this body to get out of here.”

/The war is coming./

“I trusted you! I let you live in my head, because you were scared, and I… I know we can do this. We’re superheroes, Sparky. We’re superheroes, and your creepy computer father isn’t going to take that away.”

/Cassie? I- will- will-/

“Give me back my eyes, Sparky. We can do this.”

-
Cassie- Cassie’s body at least- spun away from Kate, towards the back of the room, where a single red light hung blinking from the ceiling.

“Stop her!” Eli yelled, and Thomas spun, sliding in the glass shards all around him, reaching Cassie’s shoulder just as her hands plunged into the mess of tangled wires behind the broken screens. Kate could see blood behind the tears in her gloves.

-

Cassie had never heard Sparky scream before. It didn’t sound human- it sounded horrible, and she grabbed at the dancing lights that made up his hand.

/I think I can make a connection,/ he said weakly. /I think-/

A stream of images hit her. Portals, coordinates, a burning village.

“Do it!” she yelled. “Now!”

-

The building went dark.

-

Cassie blinked, swaying. Blood. There was blood on her hands. Probably blood. She couldn’t really see it. “Is it over?”

“What just happened?” One of the mutants, his voice fast and sharp.

“Cut the power,” she said. Sparky. She could still feel him in her head, but he was silent.

“Cassie?” said Kate.

“Are you Cassie?” said Eli. He was using her real name. He must be pretty shaken.

“Yes,” she started to say, but something behind her began to hum. Everyone tensed, and she tried to turn around before-

Blam!

Floor. Hello, floor.

-

“What the hell is that?” yelled Eli, what little composure he had left completely gone. He was the only one still on his feet, or on his knees at least, behind his shield.

It was red and swirling, now the only source of light in the room, and evidently the source of the explosion.

“Unfriendly,” suggested Kate.

“It’s a portal.” This came from Tommy, and his voice was shaking. “That’snotgood.”

“No,” agreed Billy. “It’s not.” He scrambled to his feet.

“Can you stop it?” Teddy, now.

“I-” Billy reached out a hand. The portal was growing. “I don’t know. I don’t even know where it’s to.”

“It doesn’t matter.” The girl still on the floor. Cassie. “Somewhere bad. All of them were.”

“What?”

And then something started emerging. It looked to have tentacles. That… That was very bad.

“Canyouturnthepowerbackon?” asked Tommy.

“That’s not a good idea.”

Close, thought Billy. Close. Closecloseclose. The door to the broken cabinet swung shut with a bang. Portal. Portalcloseportalcloseportalclose…

The thing slung another tentacle out of the red swirls. This one had an eye on it, yellow and blinking.

Portalcloseportalcloseportalcloseportal

Eli raised his shield. Tommy and Kate grabbed Cassie’s arms, helping her stand. Teddy put a hand on Billy’s back, steadying him.

They stood together.

Closecloseclosecloseclose

And everything went white.

-

Tony finished pulling on the gauntlet, and blasted at the door, shattering it. “I said I think they’re in the building, sir! No, I don’t know where, they’ve shut down the power completely- no, I don’t- oh, will you shut up?”

Armageddon was coming. He’d never really wanted to die polite.

-

“It’s gone,” said Kate. “At least, I think so.”

Teddy pulled Billy to his feet. “I hope so.”

“There’s probably a third disaster,” said Tommy. “Don’t drop your guard.”

“That was the third disaster,” said Eli. “Or maybe the fourth. And I just heard repulsor shots.”

Kate swore. “War,” she said. No one needed to question what she meant.

/Actually, there are still ten and a half hours remaining./

“I thought you were dead,” muttered Eli.

Cassie’s grin was cheeksplitting.

“Remaining?” asked Teddy.

/Until the ultimatum expires. If the mutants are returned before that point-/

“Then we get to play the waiting game for another decade,” muttered Tommy.

“We might have more to do than that,” said Eli. Everyone looked at him. “I think maybe we need to stay in touch. At least a little bit.”

Tommy snorted, but Teddy looked more interested. “To do what?”

“Would take down the power structure sound grandiose?”

“Yes,” said Kate.

“Maybe not,” said Cassie. “I think… I think maybe you should hear some more about what Sparky and I found.”

-

“Clear.”

“Good. Move-”

“Hey, can we take this party upstairs? Because I think I actually hear someone to fight, and I wanna see how power armor melts.”

Betsy Braddock, alias Psyche, swore under her breath. “We have a job, Pyro.” Short for Pyromaniac, and it said something that it was probably the best codename among the three men under her. “Just because they sent us here to start a war doesn’t mean it was actually in our orders.” There were three other strike teams- competent strike teams that listened to their commanding officers- on the mission. She was fairly sure her team wasn’t one of the ones actually meant to get back the kids.

They’d found only a few people so far. Technicians, mostly. She’d kept Pyro back, and they’d managed not to kill anybody, sulky muttering in interdimensional languages notwithstanding.

“There is a group of unknown origin ahead.” A pause. “I suggest we charge.”

“Suggestion not noted.”

“Sneaking is dishonorable and tiresome.”

“I don’t care. Keep formation.”

“Um. Hello?”

It sounded like-

“Miss Braddock? Is that you?” Three figures scooted into the hallway.

“Central command?” barked Betsy. “Central command, the objectives have been discovered. Send a teleporter. Repeat, objectives have been discovered…”

They’d found them. They’d actually found them.

-

Epilogue.

-

They walked down the beach, Billy idly kicking at shells.

“Tommy allowed out of the house yet?” Teddy asked, quietly. Ms. Pryde was trailing them, not even trying to be subtle. She had a gun holster over her swimsuit, and she kept scanning the horizon.

“Still about ninety-nine years, eleven months, and ten days to go.”

“They’ll loosen up.”

Billy looked at him incredulously.

“Okay, they’ll get tired of having him constantly underfoot.”

“Maybe.” A pause. “Grandpapa said he was proud of him, though. I don’t think he’s ever said that before.”

“He say it to you?”

“…Kind of.”

They took a few more steps.

“I keep thinking I should ask her,” Billy said finally. They both knew who he meant. “About what happened. What von Doom’s plan was. How… how it ended.” He kicked another shell. “But I don’t. I don’t know if I can.”

Teddy nodded.

And they kept walking.

-

Eli stood in front of Stark, arms crossed.

“Are you here to tell me what happened? Say, where the mutant kids were? Or how all the camera footage disappeared to a point that even I can’t track it?”

“No,” said Eli evenly. “But I am here to give you this.”

Stark looked at the piece of paper. “Coordinates. North… North Atlantic.” Eli could practically see his mind racing. “What are they?”

“We’ve also got pictures. Automated sub cam.”

Stark looked. His eyes widened. “Oh,” he said quietly. “Oh, damn.”

And Eli could feel this part of the power structure start to crack.