It’s my fault, it’s on me, says Darwin. Darwin who is dead, seven years dead, and who is not dead anywhere but his eyes.
You’ve seen eyes like his on the other side of electrified barbed wire; on the other end of metal poles pushing slack bodies into devouring heat. You’ve seen them in the faces of a Vietnamese girl and an American GI left to die in the jungles, both of them mutants, both three-quarters dead when you brought them out, almost as dead as Darwin isn't anymore.
‘Not your fault, kid,’ says the man for whom you’ve been given no name. He asks Darwin, ‘How the hell were you supposed to know?’
Darwin says, ‘My body should’ve told me, that’s what it does,’ but Nameless snorts around his cigar and looks at you.
There’s no recognition in his eyes. No hint that he remembers anything at all, much less your face. You remember a bar in Connecticut.
You remember cigar smoke and stale whisky and, Go fuck yourself. You don’t remember intruded, unfamiliar metal but you’re not in a position to complain.
‘You have interesting bones,’ you say, and you don’t lift your hand. You don’t need to.
There wasn’t much to remember at the time and seven years have blunted what memory remains. A few hours in various cars spent discussing mutation and What You As A Mutant May Do For Your Country don’t constitute acquaintanceship, not with Charles Xavier controlling the conversation. Afterward there was no time for anything else.
As a consequence, there are six things about Armando Muñoz you recall with clarity.
You remember how he looked when Charles gave a bigot in a restaurant a mental suggestion involving certain words and sudden migraines. You remember how he sounded, laughing with Summers and Tempest over a beer Summers wasn’t, according to US law, entitled to. You remember standing in a field outside DC with a gun in your hand and his grin (Come on, man, do it, I can take it) in front of you. You haven’t forgotten the moment before the bullet ricocheted.
You can’t forget Summers on his knees, apologizing in profane gulps to empty air. You remember a smile you haven’t yet seen again.
‘Mr. Muñoz,’ you say. ‘How may the Brotherhood be of assistance?’
Muñoz says, ‘It’s just Darwin now,’ and he still doesn’t smile. He looks at the helmet and says, ‘Hank said you’re Magneto.’
You tell him to call you whatever he wishes. He says, ‘You won’t be saying that when I’m done.’
‘You aren’t giving me much choice,’ you tell him. ‘Get on with it.’
You remember a seventh thing you used to know about Armando Muñoz. When given a choice he didn’t equivocate.
He says, ‘Banshee’s dead and Havok’s in a coma.’ He says, ‘The professor’s gone.’
The first time Mystique walked into your room without knocking you told her to learn how.
I’m not your brother, you told her. I won’t take his place. She said, I don't remember asking you to, and left, slamming the door behind her. She hasn’t walked in on you again, until now.
She says, ‘You don’t get a free pass, but you do get to explain.’
You say, ‘One of us should stay.’ You say, ‘McCoy seems to think I’m necessary.’
She says, ‘Wrong explanation.’
She says, ‘Frost or Janos can handle things,’ and she says, ‘He’s a clueless jerk, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit on my hands waiting while you pull his ass out of the fire,’ and she says, ‘I’m going.’
Her face is turned away from you. You see the long blue line of her throat and her red, red hair but not her yellow eyes.
‘He’s my brother,’ she says, and you know it to be true, even now.
You say, ‘Have Frost and Azazel returned?’ She nods and you say, ‘Tell them we’re leaving inside of twenty minutes.’
Her jaw relaxes, showing you how tight she is everywhere else. She says, ‘You need to tell someone else you’re leaving. Remember what happened last time you didn’t?’
‘Localized personal thunderstorms are difficult to forget,’ you remind her.
She’s laughing as she goes, and she doesn’t slam the door. Neither does she close it.
‘Votre départ,’ Xi’an says before you can.
‘We will go with you this time,’ Ororo always says. Xi’an always tells her, ‘No,’ before you must, and Ororo always crosses her arms and says, ‘You always answer in this way.’
Xi’an looks at her, then you. ‘You will come back,’ she says this time and always.
You tell her, Je reviens toujours.
Their teleporter shows Frost where to go, who in turn shares the images with you and Azazel.
You say, ‘What happened to the school?’
Tobacco leaf crunches as Nameless grunts, ‘Gone.’
‘Azazel’, you say, and he tilts his head. His hands settle on your shoulder and on Frost’s. Darwin, Nameless and Mystique form their own cluster around the other teleporter.
She is small and blonde and delicate. Next to Mystique she looks as though a stiff breeze would blow her over, but Frost is showing you how she and her brother survived Siberia and some of the Kremlin’s best, only to nearly die at the hands of a fellow mutant. If not for Charles and his associates they would have.
Now she is one of Charles’ associates. That tells you what you need to know.
‘I know where we’re going,’ Mystique tells you. Her posture, the tilt of her chin says threat level acceptable.
You reply, ‘We’ll be an hour at most.’
She nods and Darwin looks through you. Nameless is scowling. It’s probably his default expression.
He’s Logan, Frost’s voice whispers in your head. That’s what Darwin thinks. I can’t read him.
You tell her, Neither could Charles, and then Nameless who might be named Logan scowls at you and says, ‘Where do you think you’re going, bub?’
‘Wherever I decide to,’ you tell him. You settle the helmet on your head and you say again, ‘Azazel.’
He says, ‘Yes,’ and takes you where you’re going.
Darwin is bone lines dividing cavities hollowed out under unhealthy pallor. He is animated sleep deprivation.
You say, ‘Where have you been,’ and he shoves his sharp-knuckled hands into his jeans pockets and looks past you.
He says, ‘Nowhere for a while.’ He says, ‘Later, everywhere.’
He turns, swallowing you with his burnt out eyes, and you wait because there is more. There’s always more.
‘He has two kid brothers,’ Darwin says.
Perhaps he says it to you. Perhaps not.
He says, ‘Alex, I mean. Did you know that?’
You say, ‘I know it when I must.’
Darwin says, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I figured.’
It’s sultry, stifling dawn in a house with no climate control, even with every window thrown open. You are swimming inside your clothes and helmet, but you doubt the sweat darkening MacTaggert’s hairline and the underarms of her white shirt is only from the heat.
She isn’t surprised to see you.
Her eyes flicker once, you to Frost to Azazel, before settling on you. ‘I’ve already spoken with Hank,’ she says.
‘And now,’ you tell her, ‘you will speak to me.’
Frost says, ‘How much does Karla love you, pet?’ She lays one white-gloved hand on the banister of a stair that seems to float midair and says, ‘Uncle Sam doesn’t pay his spooks enough for Georgetown townhouses.’
Trapped between you and Azazel in the middle of her own sitting room, MacTaggert looks as though she's wishing for your helmet and the return of her service weapon.
‘I’d forgotten,’ you say. ‘You ladies didn’t have time to become acquainted previously.’
‘No time like the present,’ MacTaggert grinds out.
She’s a field agent. By nature and training, her reactions are unpredictable. Her loyalties, on the other hand, are sickeningly static.
‘Charles doesn’t have time for this,’ you say, and her face quivers, eyes screwing up in their corners. You say, ‘Tell me how Banshee died. I like to know who I’m killing.’
She says, ‘Not this time.’
The dog tags you nearly strangled her with once are around her neck. They could save you a lot of potential trouble.
‘The Company pulled the trigger,’ she says before you can decide whether present convenience outweighs future complication. She looks you in the eye and says, ‘Charles was just the gun.’
Charles. Do you believe me now?
You say, ‘Will they use him again?’
‘Yes,’ she says without hesitation. ‘Not right away. They can’t control him yet. When Sean and the rest of them broke in, he killed almost everyone in the complex.’ And now she hesitates.
‘Yes?’ you say, and her mouth twists.
‘Stryker was there.’
You say, ‘Almost I am willing to concede the possibility of divinity. Continue.’
She speaks in military monotone, standing rigid in front of you like a subordinate up on charges. Giving her report in the kind of precise, brutal detail you need and won’t get from McCoy.
You say, ‘You’re certain they haven’t moved him again.’
She says, ‘Nothing’s certain until we’re dead, Lehnsherr.’ She crosses to the safe and opens it, withdrawing a stack of files.
She tosses them down on the low table between you and says, ‘That’s everything I’ve got.’
You say, ‘I thought you’d spoken with McCoy?’
Her gaze shifts, drifting from point to point around the room, touching on every hidden listening device you crushed before you entered the house.
‘They’re no longer a concern,’ you tell her. She grimaces.
‘Thanks for nothing. At least I knew where those were. It’ll take me a while to track down the new ones.’
‘A more worthwhile endeavor than tracking down mutants who’ve committed no crime other than being born and only wish to be left alone, don’t you agree? Frost?’
She’s flipping through the files. She glances briefly at MacTaggert before going back to them. ‘She’s telling the truth.’
‘I’m sure. Azazel.’ You start to turn and you see the look on MacTaggert’s face. Ah. Well, she has been… of use. ‘The blame wasn’t all yours,’ you tell her. ‘Most. Not all.’
Her laugh is short and harsh. ‘That, lady and gentlemen, is the sound of hell freezing over.’
You could let it go, but you’ve never been good at that and this is MacTaggert. You say, ‘When was the last time Charles allowed you on his grounds?’ and you wait.
It’s more a convulsion than a swallow. She says, ‘Fuck you.’ She sounds the same as she did after the last time you tried to kill her.
Frost is impassive, your helmet impenetrable; you think she’s quite unhappy with you. ‘Indeed,’ you say, and MacTaggert swallows again and looks at Frost.
‘The house has been in my family for a century,’ she says. ‘It’s my right to tell you to get out of it. Right now.’
You say, ‘As always, it’s been an unparalleled pleasure. Azazel, in your own time.’
In seven years, traveling with Azazel hasn’t once been comfortable. It isn’t now.
Disorientation aside, though, you doubt the long lines of bluffs outlined in dawn-brilliant sky are a vertiginous teleportational side effect. Neither is the man walking toward you, the pale lines of him obvious against his red backdrop.
Almost, he’s as much the Aryan ideal as the skin Mystique hasn’t worn in two thirds of a decade. He would be if not for the wings.
‘We’re expected,’ Frost murmurs.
‘No,’ she says, her eyes narrowed against the rising sun, ‘you really don’t. He was told to be here in this place at this exact time.’
‘And what does that mean for us?’
She shrugs. ‘We’ll find out soon enough. Here he comes.’ She nods at Worthington (you refuse to call him by Angel’s name) as he stops several yards away from you, arms crossed.
He says, ‘Are you coming or not?’ and the irony of the situation, in this place with these particular people, is nearly as obvious as Worthington’s wings and Azazel’s skin.
‘That is fairly ironic,’ Frost murmurs, and you hear Azazel’s rumbling laughter as he steps forward.
‘We are with you, comrade,’ he says, clapping Worthington on the shoulder. Worthington bristles, but he says, ‘It’s this way.’
He walks past you toward a sheer mesa, Azazel pacing him, saying something to him you can’t hear. You can only imagine that conversation. You’re best pleased not to be a part of it.
‘Now that,’ Frost says, ‘is a picture. I think the Bible Belt just had a collective heart attack.’
While you don’t disagree, you are decades tired of the subject matter. ‘Who’s Karla?’ you say.
Frost falls silent. She walks beside you without speaking and you’re certain she won’t answer. The doors in the rock have begun to open before she says, ‘No one. No one who matters.’
It’s not a true cave system, not in geological terms or even by design; more like a honeycomb of rooms leading in and out of one another with thin passages woven in between. It’s mutant designed, mutant built, and mutant occupied. You’ve never so much as heard of it, and you would very much like to know why.
‘The land belonged to Charles’ dad,’ says Mystique when she meets you inside the cavernous hanger. ‘The first lab was his. Charles brought me here once after Kurt died, but none of this was here then. He never talked about the place much.’
‘No,’ you say, ‘he did not.’
She glances at you, her mouth turned up at one corner. ‘What would you have done if you’d known?’
Before you can decide whether to answer her or drop the jet suspended overhead on her head, the hanger’s inner doors open. McCoy walks through them, flanked by Logan and a tall, slim woman you don’t recognize.
McCoy is dressed in trousers and a lab coat and little else; he appears to have mutated again, his fur sleeker, his features more feline. The change suits him, though he seems little more at home in his body now than he used to. He stutters to a stop, pushing his glasses into place and blinking at you. ‘Thank you for coming,’ he says. He may even mean it.
You say, ‘McCoy,’ and he blinks again and says, ‘Hello, Miss Frost.’
Frost raises her eyebrows, and then Mystique says, ‘I’ve got this,’ and McCoy settles under his lab coat, looking relieved. Mystique looks amused. She’s smirking as she says, ‘Logan you’ve met.’ She nods to the woman. ‘This is Destiny.’
Destiny lifts her face and looks through you with unblinking eyes, and you realize she’s blind.
‘Miss Adler,’ Frost says. ‘I never thought I’d see you choosing sides.’
‘I go where I must,’ Destiny says. ‘Necessity takes me places I myself would not choose to go.’
Logan mutters something under his breath. You say, ‘Would you care to repeat that?’ and then there’s a bang and something small and blue is clinging to Logan’s shoulders.
‘Jean says you’re being dis—rup—ting ‘gain,’ says the small blue creature. It leans down and snatches the cigar out of Logan’s mouth. ‘She says you’re s’posed to be at the rec. For train things.’
‘Damn it, Elf,’ Logan growls, and there’s another bang, and the creature is gone. So is Logan’s cigar.
It’s a pity Azazel decided tormenting Worthington was a better pastime than listening while you negotiated the terms of your truce with Charles’ children. If he hadn’t he’d have had the pleasure of seeing his offspring in action. The pleasure of watching Logan stalk out, still growling, is yours.
Yours and Frost’s. She’s almost smiling.
Out of the corner of your eye you see Mystique move, crossing her arms over her chest and taking a step closer to Destiny. The movement lacks her usual grace, but her voice is calm.
‘How long has that been going on?’
McCoy clears his throat. ‘A few months, I think? I’m not sure, though. He’s been more, er, active. Since Logan arrived.’
‘Fascinating,’ you say, ‘but I was under the impression that we were here for a different reason.’ You gesture to the doors, still open after Logan’s abrupt departure. ‘You have something to show us.’
Mystique goes, taking Destiny with her, but Frost accompanies you and McCoy down a silver-white corridor that feels like an amalgam of metal and plastic and into what could be either an office or a lab, judging by the contents: mostly an explosion of gutted electrical devices and paper.
Muttering to himself, McCoy digs around on what may or may not be a desk. The sheer volume of paper makes it difficult to tell. He straightens holding a helmet nothing like yours.
‘They aren’t completely impenetrable by telepathy,’ he says as he hands the thing to Frost. ‘Charles incapacitated thirty out of the fifty men wearing them before they reached him.’
'The men wearing them. How many otherwise?'
McCoy won't meet your eyes. 'Piotr says close to two hundred.'
'And where,' you say, 'were you?'
He looks up, chin and jaw firm, an obvious expression for such a complicated face. 'I was here,' he says. 'With Petra. Everyone else but Illyana and Piotr went north, and they had the children to get out. We didn't know.'
'He's telling the truth,' Frost says. 'Leave him alone and take a look at this.'
She holds the helmet extended from the tips of her gloved fingers; she looks prepared to drop it if you don't take it off her hands. You take your gloves off and turn it over in your hands. The alloy is familiar against your skin, yet somehow diluted.
The shape is military. The composition—
You hand it back to McCoy, saying, ‘Their process is incomplete.’
‘Yes, I’m aware,’ McCoy says, speaking to the helmet. ‘That’s why…’ He straightens and lifts his chin, and why are all of these children still so earnest, even now when they know the worst can and does and will happen. ‘You’re the only one who can enter the premises safely and bring him out without assistance,’ he says. He names neither Banshee nor Havok. Nor does he need to.
They are present in the beginning grey in his fur, and the white in your own hair.
‘I’ll need a Blackbird,’ you say, ‘and Cerebro for Frost.’ You hold a hand up before he can open his mouth. ‘I know you’ve rebuilt them both several times over. Don’t try to tell me otherwise.’
He says, ‘It’s not that,’ and then he corrects himself, ‘Well it is, partly. Both Blackbirds are ready to fly. Cerebro is… we were… working on something new.’ He swallows. ‘Charles and I were, before he, um. Left. To complete it I’d need a mature telepath. Jean isn’t very… that is, she’s very young, and still learning.’ He pushes his glasses into place and looks down at the helmet he still holds. ‘Possibly someone with metallurgy experience to consult.’
He clears his throat, still not looking at you.
‘You have a telepath who fits your specifications in this room,’ you remind him.
‘Does Miss Frost have a say in that?’ There’s a growl beneath the words and you want to laugh. Frost has left him a debilitated puddle of fur numerous times, but McCoy can’t help being who he is.
She drawls, ‘It’s sweet of you to care, but I’m a big girl,’ and smiles at him. It looks genuine.
McCoy turns an interesting shade of purple.
‘Why don’t you show me what you have so far?’ she says, and McCoy says, ‘Right, I’ve got—well I did have—’ and dives into a pile of paper. Frost follows, her amusement obvious, but when McCoy finds what he’s looking for and lays it out in front of her, amusement is replaced by interest.
Your thought closes the door after you. You doubt either of them notices you leaving.
You intend to go in search of Mystique and a jet, but someone says, ‘Hey, Erik,’ and you stop and turn.
Several yards down the corridor Darwin closes another door and walks toward you, a young man with odd, dark-lensed glasses trailing after him. Darwin pauses to let him catch up, setting a hand on his shoulder when he does. ‘Go on ahead,’ Darwin tells the kid. ‘I’ll meet you at the rec.’
The kid says, ‘Are you sure?’ He looks as though he believes a thin, inexperienced child qualifies as protection against you.
The corners of Darwin’s mouth twitch, but he says, ‘Yeah, I’m sure.’ He says, ‘I’ll see you in fifteen,’ and the boy gives you one last hard look before taking off down the corridor in the opposite direction.
‘Scott,’ Darwin says. ‘Alex’s brother.’
‘The glasses?’ you say.
Darwin nods. ‘You know how Alex did—does plasma bursts? Scott does the same thing, just with his eyes.’
‘Impressive,’ you say, and he shrugs.
‘Yeah. Not like that means much if you spend most of your adolescence blind because you’re terrified you’re gonna kill someone, but sure. Impressive.’
You find it interesting that though he prefers to be called Darwin, he’s chosen to call you Erik. He says, ‘I can go with you. I’m pretty sure I can adapt to anything now.’
Once, he would have laughed as he said it. You’re certain of that; memories, stimulated by faces and voices both familiar and not are pulling free of mental slag; you are beginning to fit what you knew of him with what you know now. Then, he would have tacked on a humorous side note and tried to reason you into sharing his point of view. Now he presents you with his facts and waits for your decision.
‘I think,’ you say, looking at the door he just came out of, ‘that you’re needed here.’
‘Sure,’ he agrees easily. ‘Don’t you know? I’m the one thing around here you can’t dispense with. Not even if you want to.’
‘They got Muñoz out,’ says MacTaggert firmly, as though saying it will make it so.
‘Certainly,’ you agree, ‘although I’m unclear as to why he was being tortured in a government facility in Canada at all.’
You watch her swallow and you can feel the iron moving through her blood. It would be simple, thought made action.
Not even that. You could think of anything. Ororo’s latest failed attempt at learning a musical instrument or Xi’an’s expression after an unplanned and unintended incursion into Toad’s head. Mystique on the training floor, laughing at Azazel as she ties his tail in a knot.
You could think about Nixon's zero tolerance mutant policy and how far he and his newly appointed administration will go to keep your actions out of the headlines.
You could think of nothing at all while you ripped the metal from her blood and it would be easy. It’s only become easier with the passing years. Charles was right about that, if nothing else.
‘It was his mother,’ MacTaggert says. ‘The Company left a number with the families. Muñoz showed up on her doorstep out of the blue. She panicked and called in.’
You tell her, ‘And you wonder why Charles took your memories. He hasn’t by any chance given the rest of them back?’
Her hand moves as though searching for the gun you discarded on the mantelpiece. You click your tongue. She really ought to know better.
You say, ‘Who told you where he was, MacTaggert? Who left a classified file where you could find it?’
She’s quick. Pity her mind is her only worthwhile quality. Pity she’s not a mutant. If even a quarter of your people had her quickness of thought, mutants would at this moment be at the top of the food chain.
‘They sacrificed Darwin for Charles,’ she tells you, ‘but they didn’t count on losing Project X.’
You say, ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Wolverine,’ she says. ‘That’s the codename. I’m not sure who or what it is, but there was a shakedown after the operation. The better part of two departments got canned.’
It explains the claws, at least.
McCoy catches you up at the Blackbird. He says, ‘Here,’ and you take the thing he holds out.
It lies on your open palm, small and silver and not at all innocuous. You don’t ask him if it’s necessary; if it wasn’t he wouldn’t have given it to you.
‘They have something like Cerebro, except it’s meant to contain him. He’s always… wearing it.’
McCoy’s large blue hands look like they want to clench but don’t know how. He says, ‘You should inject him. Before you remove it.’
‘And if I don’t?’
He blinks and his hand comes up. It pushes his glasses into place. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘That’s the difficulty, you see.’
‘I do,’ you say. You don’t give him the reassurance he’s looking for.
He says, ‘Please don’t,’ and cuts himself off.
You say, ‘You’re not quite as much of a fool as you were,’ and you levitate yourself up through the hatch.
The Blackbird’s flight is much quieter than you remember. McCoy’s innovations have progressed almost as quickly as Forge’s ability allows him to adapt his machines, and near silent flight, inside and out, is one of them.
It makes it easy to hear Mystique when she turns round in the pilot’s seat and says, ‘We’re three minutes out. Usual way?’
You say, ‘Is there another?’ and she grins and tosses something at you.
It’s metal. You stop it a foot from your face and keep it there, revolving midair. ‘Tracker,’ Mystique says. ‘When you’ve got him and he’s out, activate it. I’ll drop in.’
The deck vibrates under your feet. Stressed metal protests and you feel it when she opens the hatch. You put the tracker in your pocket and you hold yourself steady against gravity’s pull.
‘We’re right over it,’ Mystique calls over the roar of displaced air. ‘How far down are you going?’
She snorts. ‘Do they really think digging a deeper ditch is going to keep us out?’
‘Redundancy is the defense of small minds. When I’m out, leave. Don’t come back until you hear otherwise.’ You step out into the air.
As long as there is metal in the world, metal lining your clothes, you will never truly fall. The earth won’t let you. You wrap its magnetic fields around you and fall without falling down to the building you immediately recognize without ever having seen it before.
Subterranean, MacTaggert said, two upper levels, six below. You could have guessed that for yourself. There’s a certain kind of mind that builds this way, usually military or some other governmental agency, and you’ve seen enough of this type of building to find your way in without trouble.
Without certain kinds of trouble. The trouble in this situation is inherent. The girders have peeled the building open for you. It's spread out below you like a despoiled fruit and the ants are already swarming.
The electromagnetic pulse disrupts them further. You have a minute before the backup generators activate and you don’t waste it. You go down, shields extended, punching through to the unique metal you felt even before you entered the building.
It’s familiar and not, as though someone’s created a device by assembling parts made of different amalgams in the hopes that one of them would work. The result is both fascinating and nauseating. Some metals don’t care to be joined and some prefer not to exist within several hundred miles of each other. Whoever put all of them together and stuck the end result on Charles’ head—
The closer you get to it, the more disturbing it feels. Stressed, or… distressed.
Level eight. The ants scatter, panicked and dying under their own rebounded bullets. Metal screams in your head and you push your shields out, blowing the three walls between you and it out before you, and there is a room and machines and—
You see them in flashes of emergency lighting. Humans. Scientists. Lab coats, white clusters, desperate. Too many in one place. Must’ve all come here hoping they could protect their worthless lives, use him against you, use—
The backup generator engages.
Sure we can’t shave your head, McCoy asked.
Charles said, Don’t touch my hair, and smirked at you.
Now his expression is a rictus, his eyes glassy and unseeing anything but whatever horror his brain is showing him. You doubt they asked before they shaved his head.
You don’t ask before you drive the wire frames of this one’s glasses into his eyes, or choke that one with the silver chain around her throat. You put a cutting instrument through another’s forehead and you’re holding the rest in place by belt buckles and watches and—
It doesn’t look anything like the Cerebro you remember, the only one you’ve ever seen. This is a sleek silver cap and it is—it’s clamped to his damned head. The metal has broken the skin; each area you can see is a red, open sore, and there are—
Heads, badly shaved, covered in infected cuts. A sea of them, and there is no end to them, no end but one.
Your hand is already out, mimicking what you want to do—reach out and physically pull the thing off, but it’s all but screwed into him, and you can’t—
You crook your fingers. Metal liquefies. It comes to you in pieces.
Even through the helmet, you feel it. The white lab coats are puddled on the floor in red-stained pools.
You taste it, red metal tickling the back of your throat, sliding down your face. Wiping the blood from your nose and upper lip does odd things to your vision. You see Charles as though through grey film and you throw out a hand to catch yourself, what's left of the wall jagged and rough through your glove. Your ears buzz like an angry swarm, but you push yourself away from the shattered wall and you—
(remember, you… forgot, did you)
You remember the tranquilizer. Then you use it.
Charles has stopped screaming. His face is slack, unconscious, and you’ve crushed the sound mechanisms in the surrounding machines. Aside from you and him, there is no iron flowing through living veins close enough for you to feel.
There is no sound but the building, falling to pieces around you.
You pick him up and leave the way you came in.
Mystique meets you five minutes after you activate the tracker. The Blackbird is fast, but not that fast. You should reprimand her, and you will. But not now.
She hovers the jet down, opening the hatch then closing it and throttling forward as soon as you’re aboard, trusting you to keep both yourself and Charles balanced. She turns once to look at Charles. She asks one question.
‘Are they dead?’
You tell her, ‘Yes,’ and she jerks her head and turns back around. You look at Charles, unconscious, wrapped in a lab coat and strapped down flat across two seats, and you pull your coat off.
You fold it, paying attention to the creases, and once it’s folded, you slide it under his head. He doesn’t react, but you didn’t expect him to. McCoy knows his business; the tranquilizer will be good for hours.
You settle back in your seat and close your eyes.
You would have killed all of them yourself. It’s as much a part of the image, the cliché, as the greatcoat that’s almost a cape and the helmet. You’ve never been ashamed to live up, or down as Charles would undoubtedly say, to your reputation.
For the most part, this body count wasn’t yours.
It doesn’t make them any less human or any less dead.
Before the door closes, over Frost’s shoulder you catch a glimpse of McCoy’s blue-tufted ears and lab coat and Charles, on his back on a bed surrounded by medical apparatus.
Then it’s closed and Frost is standing in front of you with her arms crossed. ‘Well?’ you say.
‘It’s a mess in there,’ she says. Her voice is calm but her eyes are bruises and her mouth is a dehydrated white line. And you know she can be trustworthy, that when inclined she can be worthy of trust, but it’s impossible for you to trust her.
‘Explain,’ you say.
She’s looking through you, head slightly tilted. As though she's listening to something you can’t hear. ‘Some of it’s the drugs. Until the blood tests come through we won’t know what he’s been given, and even then, we’re probably going to find that most of them are highly experimental and untested. The rest…’ She pauses. ‘He was trapped inside his own head for two weeks by a combination of drugs, metal and electroshock. His mind looks like a battleground after the battle. Then there’s the less overt damage.’
You don’t have to strain to feel the machines in the room behind her doing their work. If you concentrate, you can even hear them. ‘Meaning?’
‘Meaning,’ she says, ‘he’s missing large pieces of his memory.’
‘Which is not overt.’
‘In a way, no.’
‘In what way,’ you say carefully and without reaching for the numerous pieces of metal you keep on your person, ‘would that be?’
She must be tired. She’s not bothering to sound otherwise. ‘He excised them himself, Magnus,’ she says. ‘It’s not hard to parse his reasons.’
It isn’t, not for either of you. ‘Will he—’
‘Get it back?’ The movement of her shoulders is nearly imperceptible. ‘It’s possible. It’s possible he won’t. It’s possible he’ll make a partial recovery. It’s possible he’ll never wake up.’
It’s more than you expected to get from her; demands have their time and place, but this isn’t it. There’s nothing left here for you to accomplish. You nod once, curtly, and move past her.
‘Magnus,’ Frost says.
You pause and she says, ‘McCoy got Cerebro working while you were gone. I found them.’
Mystique is leaning against the wall outside McCoy’s office. She sees you coming and straightens.
You say, ‘Find Azazel. We’re going back to base,’ and then you push past her into the room, closing the door behind you, before she can ask why.
It doesn’t matter. Frost will have told her.
You don’t hear it coming over the cries of the souq. You don’t feel your wallet leave your pocket.
You do feel the bullet flattened into the rough shape of a coin moving away. A little farther down you feel… yes. You hold the delicate chain wrapped twice around the creature’s ankle immobile and it falls without a cry into sunburnt anonymity.
You let go just long enough for it to round the corner where there is Persian iron curling down through the empty spaces in much older stonework. You stroll past shrouded women and vendors and ubiquitous, fly-studded children crying for baksheesh into the alley and you see what your ancient trap has caught you.
She’s young, perhaps eleven or twelve; a girl but not quite a child anymore. Her eyes are blind, as white as her hair, and they see you. The air is ozone static in your mouth.
Your metal is her conductor and she is the medium of exchange, her wrists and ankles held tight in rusted bands. The clouds swirl overhead, pregnant with rain and electrical charge. You look down at her and you say, ‘تفعلين هذا,’ then, ‘You're doing this.’
She doesn’t move and doesn’t speak, but you see signs of comprehension in her face if not her blank white eyes, and you are… not here for this. You hold your hand out, though the gesture is no longer necessary for your focus. She needs something to focus on.
Magnus, Frost’s voice says. Are we done here?
You think, Get out of my head, and you cut her off the same way you’ve learnt to block Charles. You curl your fingers and the metal holding the girl in place wrenches free, crumpling itself into a heavy iron ball at her feet. She looks down at it. When she looks back up at you, her eyes are beginning to clear.
So is the sky.
You say, ‘Be more careful of your marks,’ and you walk away.
You left your wallet, Frost remarks.
You don’t answer her. Three streets later you feel familiar beaten copper following.
Xi’an’s suit has an x on it. Her hair is caught in a wide band that matches the yellow Charles has yet to eradicate from his students’ fighting uniforms, and you remember briefly how clumsy and uncomfortable the prototypes were for one blinding day in October.
‘Sway gave it to me,’ she says. She tucks half of her hair behind her ear, peering at you through the fall of the other half. Her mouth is a curious twist, almost open, not quite closed. She says, ‘Is it… all right?’
You say, ‘Would it matter if I said no?’
A dimple digs deeply in her cheek. ‘No.’
You say, ‘Good. Don’t ask idiotic questions.’ Under your hand her shoulder is warm and strong and square. She can accomplish anything she chooses to, and she will. ‘Get it done,’ you say when you’ve let go, ‘and come back.’
‘Toujours.’ She grins at you and ducks out, calling for Petra, for Sway, for Frost and Magik. For her team.
You listen until her voice and her steps fade and then you walk to the bed and sit. You said come back, not home. Neither of you has had one of those for a long time. Perhaps now she will have the chance to regain a piece of what she lost.
‘Petra's a good pilot,’ Mystique says from behind you, ‘She’s not going to crash them.’
‘Make your point,’ you say, not looking away from the vanishing speck that is the Blackbird. You can feel it better than you can see it. You could take it down gently and take care of this yourself.
‘They’re hers,’ Mystique says. ‘She needs to fight for them herself. Erik,’ she says, and you turn and look at her. ‘She would’ve gone eventually one way or the other. At least this way she’s got a good team backing her up.’
‘Yes,’ you say. It’s not agreement. ‘Where’s Ororo?’
She rolls her eyes. ‘It’s afternoon, where do you think? With the rest of the kids in the training center.’
Yes, training courtesy of Logan and Colossus. Exceptional. ‘Why are you here? The Baghdad operation—’
‘We got the girl out and razed half a city block,’ she interrupts, ‘and now I’m here to share and share alike. Come on,’ she says, and you aren’t sure why, but you follow her without protest.
Sometimes you envy Charles the smaller, less prominent niche he’s chosen to occupy. In seven years the Brotherhood has grown from six strong into a sprawling, still growing organization with fifteen active cells and numerous single operatives on every continent, if not in every country.
The amount of paperwork it generates is almost beyond your comprehension. For all the red tape involved in running a school, you doubt Charles has ever had to contend with the piles of intelligence that accumulate around you wherever you happen to be. There is, for the balance, something to be said for dealing with adults as opposed to teenagers, although some days you’re uncertain as to whether the Brotherhood has any adult members other than you and Frost.
On the whole you think Charles has the easier time of it. Your own habits are of little help. Your need to keep informed has always been… extreme. Even here in Charles’ stronghold, you’re still subject to the exigencies of being, as Mystique once said, a micromanaging control freak.
‘I feel like I’m feeding an addiction,’ she says as you follow her into the conference room. ‘You don’t need to deal with this. Janos and I can handle it.’
‘I’m sure he can.’ At your suggestion, the chair nearest her slides out from under the table in invitation. ‘As can you.’
She groans, but she also sits. You pass her a stack and get to work on your own.
The piles she brought with her today aren’t the worst you’ve seen, but neither are they easily dealt with, even with both of you to work through them. You don’t know what time it is when the last document is read, the last piece of intel signed off on. You do know the Blackbird hasn’t returned. You know Frost hasn’t contacted you.
Mystique left some time ago—you vaguely remember her going, saying she’d be back later—but you don’t recall exactly, and she hasn’t returned.
You rub a hand over your eyes and think about coffee. Even the dreck McCoy brews in his office would suffice.
The door slides open and Darwin puts his head in. ‘Man, there you are, I’ve been looking all over for you. Come on, you need to see this.’
‘I doubt it,’ you say, but you’re already on your feet, following him out.
The dining room is one of the largest in the complex for good reason. It serves as eating place, meeting place, study hall, and viewing room. There’s always someone there, no matter the time of day, slumped next to a cup of cooling coffee or cramming for an exam. Sometimes both.
You’ve never seen it filled to capacity, though, not until now. The room is mostly dark and the screen on the far wall has been pulled down. On it, a creature in a bulky suit bounces over pockmarked earth in a bad imitation of weightlessness.
The room is utterly quiet. Strange. There’s nothing exciting enough on the screen to shut twenty-odd children and teenagers up, not that you can see.
‘Well,’ you say impatiently, ‘what am I looking at, aside from poor filming?’
Darwin blinks at you, his eyes widening. He says, ‘Erik, man… that’s real.’ He nods toward the screen, then looks back at you. ‘That’s man, humanity, out there taking a stroll on the moon.’
Someone touches your arm and you look down. Ororo leaves her hand where it is, warm and dry against your skin. ‘He is telling the truth,’ she says. ‘Dr. McCoy says the signal came from NASA.’
McCoy diverting signals from government agencies. Humans leaving strangely shaped boot marks in moon dust. You look up at the screen, at the man bounding across rough, uneven ground. There’s no sound to accompany the film; it only adds to the surreal, isolated quality of the visual.
How isolated they look, out there in their white suits. Isolated from each other within their suits and within themselves. Apart from everything and everyone.
And yet, you can see them. If McCoy turned the sound on possibly you’d hear them.
You can feel Darwin and Ororo to either side of you, the metal in their veins familiar and welcome and mutant. The hand that touches your shoulder is equally familiar. You turn your head and meet Mystique’s eyes.
She says, ‘He woke up, Erik. He’s awake.’
McCoy is standing beside the bed when you walk through the door. He glances at you, then he says, ‘I’ll be right back,’ to Charles, and ducks past you out of the room.
Charles is sitting up on the bed. He looks thin and small in overlarge white pajamas and his head is scabbed over in various places. There’s an IV in his arm and wires attached to him everywhere else except for his head. His hands clench and unclench in the sheets as he looks up at you and smiles.
‘You’re Erik,’ he says, then he looks over your shoulder and his smile is more open than you’ve ever seen it, even when you first knew him. ‘Raven,’ he says, and Mystique says, ‘Charles,’ and drops down next to him on the bed.
And now he’s smiling at you over her shoulder. You say, ‘What do you remember?’ and Mystique turns round and glares at you. Charles doesn’t seem distressed by the question, only confused.
His eyes lose their focus. He says, ‘I…’ and he doesn’t finish, and Mystique leans forward and rests her fingertips on his arm just below the IV.
‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘You didn't give them anything.’
He looks at her, his hands moving without direction over the sheet, and he says, ‘I don’t see how I could have, even if I knew who they were and what they wanted. I don’t—I—’ his fingers curl into the fabric, ‘I know you’re Raven.’ He looks at you. ‘I know you’re Erik. But I don’t…’ something about the turn of his head seems helpless and so far removed from being Charles Xavier as to be grotesque. He says, ‘I know you, I know that you—we—are… different. But I don’t know how I know that.’
She puts her hand on his cheek. His skin looks paper thin and dead against the rich blue of her skin. ‘It’s all right,’ she tells him. ‘You will.’
Magnus, Frost’s voice whispers through your unguarded skull, and you are already reaching out, feeling for familiar metal, and—yes. Close.
We’re about five minutes out, she tells you.
And we have them, she says, but her twin forced her to kill him. He wouldn’t let the other kids go.
Distantly, you hear Charles crying out. You hear Mystique’s calm questions turn frantic as his distress turns to pain—his and Xi’an’s, surely.
‘Erik!’ Mystique’s hands are on your arms. She’s shaking you. ‘Snap out of it, you’re hurting him!’
The room feels like molten metal. The machines surrounding Charles are dripping onto the floor. Charles is unconscious again and Mystique is pushing you toward the door.
‘Get out,’ she says. ‘Don’t come back until you can control yourself.’ The door slides back and she shoves you through, yelling, ‘Hank, get down here!’ before pulling back into the room.
The door closes in your face. You stare at it, but it doesn’t open again. You could open it yourself, but—
McCoy skids to a stop beside you, nearly knocking you down. He says, ‘What happened,’ and doesn’t wait for an answer. The door opens and closes again. You put your hands in your pockets and start walking.
You can’t feel Frost in your head anymore. The inner doors to the hanger are sealed, but no door is ever closed to you. The hanger is as good a place to wait as any.
Eventually you’ll bring Ororo to see him and she will stare.
At the machines surrounding Charles, at the wheelchair in the corner, at the smooth pale curve of his head.
His eyes will go vague and then distant, then (you’ll see him, him looking at her) sharply fascinated. Ororo will look back, just as fascinated, if for different reasons.
‘You’re a weather manipulator,’ he’ll say. When she nods cautiously, his smile will damn near break his face in half. ‘Oh, that’s marvelous,’ he’ll tell her, and you’ll think: This is how it starts.
He’ll smile even wider at her and she’ll frown at him, still trying to decide how to categorize him. You could tell her that Charles defies labels, but she’ll find that out for herself soon enough. Charles may be a bit scrambled these days, but he’s still Charles.
You won’t hear what he says to her in her head. You will see her eyes widen until they look like big blue saucers.
Charles will be laughing again. He’ll say, ‘Not a bad trick, if I say it myself,’ and she’ll make a disdainful noise and say, ‘Xi’an can do better.’
He’ll say, ‘I don't doubt it—or, well, I don't doubt her ability is as wonderful as yours, but I'd love to experience it in person. She’s… your sister?’
Ororo will say, fiercely, ‘She is my friend,’ and you will remember why you brought her here.
You’ll look at her, at ease with Charles as she so rarely is with any adult; you’ll tug automatically at the copper of her armband, and she’ll turn, narrowing her eyes at you. ‘What do you believe he will do to me?’ she’ll say.
She’ll nod when you can give her no immediate answer. ‘You may leave, Erik,’ she’ll say.
(Years later, learning she comes of royal stock will come as no surprise to you.)
‘Please,’ Charles will say, 'I'll behave myself, I promise.' He’ll smile and you'll think that one day he will look at you as he’s looking now and you will finally become the cripple he’s never allowed himself to be.
You’ll leave. It’s what you intended to do when you brought her here. You intended to find Azazel and go back to the responsibilities you will have let fall this past week, but outside Charles’ room you’ll hesitate.
She’s on the observation platform, Frost will say in your mind, and you’ll turn yourself in that direction.
You’ll pass few people on the way there. Class is in session and the halls are empty. The hydroponic gardens the observation platform juts out over will contain five people. Hank McCoy, Jean Grey, Robert Drake, and Leong and Nga Coy Manh.
McCoy will be lecturing. Behind his back, Drake will be shooting ice pellets alternately at Jean and a stand of corn, making, ‘P-chew, p-chew!’ noises. Jean will be ignoring him, the pellets all falling short of her, and talking to Leong and Nga, who will be looking up at her with awe on their faces.
Xi’an will be standing, leaning against the platform's railing, watching them. She'll be wearing the suit. She’ll look up when you step onto the platform and her face will be tight with anger and grief, a young face made old before its time.
You’ll think that it’s something like looking into a mirror into the past.
She’ll say, ‘Ils sont humains,’ throwing it at you, a challenge you have no intention of picking up.
You’ll stay silent, letting her anger break against you. You’ll stand beside her when she grips the railing so tightly her hands, not only her knuckles, turn unnaturally white. You’ll listen when she says, ‘He would not give. He wouldn’t let me help him. He—’
She has too much give in her. She would be better off with Charles, even now. When she leans against you, buries her face in your shoulder, you will curl your bare hand around the back of her neck and hold her there.
You don’t know why they choose to stay. Probably you never will.
You offered them Charles the way you always do, both adults and children. The adults mostly leave without taking either your offer or his. The children have all gone to Charles. All but these two.
You tried everything you could think of to make them leave you, threats, promises, and everything in between. By turns they seemed bored and disappointed by your attempted intimidation; bribery served only to amuse, them and everyone else.
Eventually Tempest told you to lay off. Then she took Ororo away with her for a week; they came back looking smug and after that the weather was never the same. Mystique laughed and told you to learn how to French braid. Azazel shrugged and Frost narrowed her eyes at Xi’an and said, ‘It’s just as well. She’s going to have problems Xavier isn’t going to have the first clue how to handle.’
You said, ‘And we are?’
She said, ‘Oh no, Magnus, we aren’t. But I am.’
She wasn’t wrong, precisely, but neither was she right.
They always come back to you. If you knew why—
But you don't.
Some days the sky is clear and blue and the sun boils the earth and everything on it. You see yourself in mirrors and glass and polished metal, and all you see is your face.
Charles looks at you, stern but gentle, his mouth infuriating in its forgiveness. ‘Erik,’ he says, his voice sagging under the graded weight of his disapproval, and you want to drop to your knees and beg for some unquantifiable thing you can’t name.
Before you can, his face softens around the suddenly welcoming curve of his mouth. Confusion clouds his eyes, but he still remembers enough to say, ‘Erik, hello.’
You say, ‘Hello, Charles,’ and you feel your reprieve fall into the hole the words leave behind them. It always does.
You stay. You always do, even when you’re certain you’re not going to. Sometimes your luck is out and you’re forced to see his expression when you eventually tell him you have to leave. Other times—this time—he falls asleep before you have to.
You get up slowly; he sleeps restlessly now, and you’ve no wish to wake him. And you wouldn’t, you’d lift yourself up off the floor, take the silent coward’s way out, but… his head is at an odd angle. If you leave him as he is, the strain will move down his neck into his back, leaving him with muscle spasms and possible cramps in his legs that he won’t be able to feel.
For the last seven years Charles’ wheelchairs have been made of everything but metal. This one is almost wholly of your creation; very little of it isn’t metal. It’s easy, then, to curve this bit and that, to manipulate a neck rest into existence.
The door opens on a quiet whoosh while you’re resettling him. Mystique says, ‘Still not growing back.’
‘As you see.’
His skull is still as smooth as it was when you removed the bastardized Cerebro from him. There’s not even the sand-paper roughness that would indicate new growth. Mystique slides one of her hands behind his neck, easing him gently into place before she looks at you. ‘Your good deed for the day?’
She says it quietly, but Charles stirs, head turning, a line appearing down the center of his forehead.
You jerk your head and she touches his cheek, once, and follows you to the corner of the room. ‘Why are you here? You should be—’
‘I know,’ she interrupts you. ‘That’s part of why I’m here.’ She glances at Charles, then back up at you. ‘Wyngarde’s starting to ask questions.’
Her grin is very white. ‘Not if you don't mind looking at what's left of his face.’ She says, ‘He's not really the point. I've got a handle on everyone on base, but I can't be everywhere else at the same time. I doubt I'm the only one he's been whining to.’
It would be Wyngarde. ‘You aren't and you won't be. I don't recall that he's ever stopped whining.’
She looks at you steadily, unblinking. ‘You need to make a decision, Erik,’ she says. ‘Pretty soon it’s not going to be just Wyngarde being Wyngarde.’
You leave her there with him, the blue of her stark next to the white curve of his skull. Her stare is hot as breath on the back of your neck.
Frost meets you in the corridor on your way out. She steps into your direct path and you stand still and let her look; denial isn’t worth the trouble.
‘Why does it matter so much?’ she asks you. ‘The two of you have almost killed each other more than a dozen times.’
You say, ‘That’s my concern,’ and walk around her.
She says without raising her voice, ‘I haven’t seen that ridiculous helmet in two weeks.’
You stop walking, though you don’t turn. ‘That doesn’t please you?’
‘This isn’t about me,’ she says.
Helmet or not, you’ve acquired enough defenses to sting a telepath who’s prying into matters that don’t concern them. You turn in time to see her mouth flatten, shoving your hands into your pockets just to have the wire mesh there against your skin. ‘You are, as usual, correct. It’s not about you, and it isn’t your concern. Don’t you have businesses to run?’
‘Yes. You should be glad I also have intelligent, capable people to step in when I’m not there. The issue’s not going to go away if you ignore it.’
Between Mystique and Frost, there’s enough psychological babble floating around to start a practice. You say, ‘Which issue? You?’
‘No.’ She tilts her head toward Charles’ door. ‘Him.’
Why is she still here? If she’s been influencing you—
Her mouth tightens again. ‘For the record,’ she says, ‘I haven’t. Although I’m not sure you wouldn’t deserve it. I’m here because I choose to be. When that changes, I’ll leave.’
She brushes an invisible piece of lint from her white halter dress, her fingers leaving slight dents in the fabric. She frowns at them and says, ‘We've worked together for a while, Magnus. Do you think I would have let him push the button?’
She has stopped making sense entirely. ‘Who?
‘Shaw,’ she says, and your chest is... empty. You appear to have misplaced your throat.
Frost appears not to notice. ‘Azazel and Janos were mine before they were his,’ she says. ‘So was the club. If you and Xavier hadn't put in an appearance, I would have cleaned things up on my own schedule.’
There are words. In your mouth. ‘He was in your mind.’ Her smile glitters, tight-lipped blue.
‘Diamonds reflect, darling. They refract. Xavier never has been that good at thinking in facets.’ She tilts her head to one side. ‘For a while, I was worried I'd have to do something about you. Before Da Nang.’
She's closer than she was; you can't feel her. Your mind feels like your own, but that's what makes a telepath so... difficult. You would never know.
The heels of her boots put her closer to your height than you'd prefer. ‘I like you much better when you're pulling mutants out of bad places,’ she murmurs near your ear. ‘Keep doing that, we won't have a problem.’
She wears metal. Not much, but she doesn't avoid it. The zips on her boots and her dress. The underwire of her brassiere.
Her mouth quirks and she steps back. You throw up a wall of adamantium around existing steel.
She says, ‘You want to know why I'm here. I’m not the one you should be asking that question, and I think you know it.’
Inside the honeycomb, the desert’s intolerable days are filtered by McCoy’s competent systems, heat and sunlight reduced to livable levels. At night, once the heat no longer rises with every step taken, you run.
Sometimes with Mystique when she’s around, more often alone. Sometimes McCoy joins you, following you down the narrow dirt path from the bluffs to the canyon floor. Keeping pace beside you no matter how long you stay out. It surprised you the first time it happened but now you welcome his company, silent and steady among shifting sand and inevitable erosion.
You don’t carry water with you. It’s your gauge. You don’t go in until want becomes need.
But sometimes you slow. To a jog and then a walk. Sometimes you walk with the cold smell of the desert in your nostrils and the dust of your passage in the back of your throat and McCoy pacing next to you.
‘Those lights,’ you say.
‘The fires, you mean?’
‘Yes. They’re not always out here?’
His voice is a quiet rumble; he’s nowhere close to winded. ‘Different groups,’ he says. ‘Some religious, some not. They come here for the isolation and the rock formations. A lot of them believe there’s some sort of, ah, concentration of positive energies here.’
‘You’ve had no trouble.’
He shakes his head. ‘Most of them are just confused children. I don’t know that they know why they’re here, much less how to find what they’re looking for.’
‘An apt description.’ Of many. Once, you would have said it of him. Now you say, ‘How likely is he to regain what he lost?’
He stops walking and tilts his head back, looking skyward. ‘Best guess? Honestly? I don’t know. Emma would know better than I do. You should ask her.’
You say, ‘I already have.’ Then, ‘Emma?’
He coughs. ‘If she can’t give you a sure answer or a time frame, there’s no way I can.’
You start walking again. McCoy falls back into step after you’ve gone a few. ‘And if he doesn’t?’ you say.
It’s what you’ve all been thinking, though you’re probably the first to say it. McCoy sighs and pulls his glasses off, folding them up and pocketing them slowly, as though he’s weary enough that even that slight action is too much to be borne.
‘Sometimes I think it’s all falling to pieces, what he wanted,’ he says. ‘When I think that, I want him to remember, now. Then I think about Sean.’ You hear him move in the dark beside you and when you turn you see the yellow flash of his eyes in strained light. ‘And I hope he never has to remember.’
‘She has command,’ you tell them. ‘She’ll still report to me, but all command decisions are hers to make, and her orders are to be followed without question.’
Mastermind's fingers and hands are still; his eyes haven't stopped moving since he entered the room. ‘And where will you be, when we’re all following Mystique’s lovely person into the dark night of our future?’
You say, ‘That’s my concern. If you have a problem with that, you’re welcome to leave.’ To leave, yes. What happens after he leaves is something else. ‘Show them out, Mystique, if you would.’
She pushes away from the wall and bares her teeth at them, and they disperse quickly and without further complaint, even Wyngarde, filing out one at a time until only Forge is left, still seated. Mystique grins at you before the door closes behind her; she’s enjoying this too much for your comfort.
Forge stands slowly, the leg he created for himself sluggish when left idle too long. You wait for him to speak. It takes some time. His hands move without hesitation over the machines he understands, but he prefers time to prepare his thoughts and words before presenting them.
‘In the jungle,’ he says, ‘you lose yourself in pieces. I used to tell myself. If I got out with enough left of me that I could still remember who I was, in the future I would fight no one’s battles but my own.’
‘And this one is not.’
‘No.’ His fingers—some flesh, some mechanized—graze the table. ‘Mystique is a good commander. She’s a good soldier. I am only a tired one.’
‘You didn’t take Xavier’s offer of asylum.’
He says, ‘You offered me work, not battle.’ He flexes his mechanical hand. ‘Creation, not destruction. Now I think you have something new to offer?’
‘In a way,’ you say. ‘How does independent engineering consultant strike you as a job description?’
In almost two years’ time, it’s the first you’ve seen him smile.
She’ll come for him, Destiny will say.
Who, you’ll ask.
She’ll say, From the stars. He knows.
Her blind eyes will look through you and you’ll want to grab her by the iron in her veins and shake her until she tells you what she knows, what somewhere within the wreckage of himself Charles knows, what you must know.
You’ll say, Who, damn you. Don’t give me any more of your riddles.
She’ll say, She’ll heal him, or they will not. Perhaps it will be better if they don’t.
You’ll ask again—all your mouth will do is punctuate your ignorance—but she will tell you nothing else. Not today.
At first you think the sharp crack is Kurt, going where he ought not once again, but when the smoke clears it’s Azazel standing before your borrowed desk, a stack of file folders held in the crook of his arm.
That in itself is odd enough to draw your attention. Where there’s paperwork, usually the most of Azazel there is to be seen is a flash of tail and a wisp of smoke. You raise your eyebrow and he smirks.
‘Not mine,’ he says. ‘With MacTaggert’s compliments.’ He sets them on the desk in front of you, while you try to remember the last time something surprised you. It’s somehow fitting that MacTaggert is on the other end of your surprise.
‘Why?’ you ask.
‘She contacted Frost, not McCoy. Frost sent me.’
You lift the cover of the top folder; the sheet inside is covered in chemical formulae that mean nothing to you, which isn’t a concern; you’re sure McCoy won’t have the same problem. You say, unable to keep your disbelief out of your voice, ‘And MacTaggert sent these to me.’
Azazel’s astonishing and rather alarming grin makes an appearance. ‘She said, ‘Tell Lehnsherr it’s his decision.’ Lehnsherr sounds very different to McCoy, yes? Very unique, unable to mistake.’ He continues before you can answer, ‘She says to me, before I go, ‘I really like your tail. It looks convenient as hell.’’ His grin widens. ‘I told her hell was not convenient at all, but I thought a tail would look good on her. She laughed.’
‘You…’ Like her? ‘Trust her?’ You say it tentatively. Giving offense could, in these surroundings, have disastrous results.
Azazel shifts his weight from one foot to the other and says, ‘She has honor. And she is interesting. For a human.’
‘She is... honorable,’ you say, then, ‘You’re still here.’
He shrugs. ‘My son is here.’ The grin reappears. ‘And Worthington is almost a worthy opponent. He learns. Slowly, but he is now more… proficient.’ He bows with great mockery, and then there is the expected smoke and nothing else. You shut the door without moving and pull the folders toward you by their metal bindings.
An hour later you turn the last page of the last folder and sit back in your chair, staring at the page. It’s not blank. Not completely.
There’s a telephone code, Israeli if you’re not mistaken. You know that you're not.
You curl your fingers into a fist. The chair on the other side of the desk collapses in on itself.
You pick the receiver up and put it down, then you repeat the process. It’s late when you finally dial. Even later where she is. The phone rings twice before she picks up.
She doesn’t speak, but you can hear her breathing, slow and even.
‘Why?’ you ask.
‘Because the blame wasn’t all yours, either,’ she says. You wonder if the words are as bitter in her mouth as they were in yours.
‘Where are you?’ you say. ‘I’m sending someone for you.’
She says, ‘No, Erik’, in a worn, quiet voice and hangs up.
You sit staring at the phone until the receiver buzzes, reminding you to cradle it. MacTaggert hasn’t called you Erik in years. You think of Angel.
She says, ‘Psylocke’s putting together a team.’
The newspaper headline on the desk between you says Malcolm X was shot last week in Manhattan.
You say, ‘If someone’s giving you trouble, tell me.’
She shrugs and says, ‘It’s not like that, man. I just need to move on. And no offense, Erik, but if I’m gonna take orders, I’d rather it was someone like Braddock giving them. Girl knows what’s what.’
You say, ‘As I do not,’ and her laughter says you didn’t quite keep the irony out of it.
She says again, ‘No offense. You’ve killed a lot of people but you want to know something weird? Sometimes I think you’re more clueless than the Prof. And wow,’ she laughs, ‘that’s really saying something.’
She goes, then, and you push the Times aside and reach for the Parisian papers. Your hand falls short of Nouvel Observateur.
Erik, she called you. They call you, she and Mystique and the girls. To Frost you are Magnus or Lehnsherr, depending on the time of day and her inclination. Mein herr is Wyngarde's preference when he's feeling particularly suicidal. Toad calls you guv, and Forge—you can’t recall that he’s ever called you anything. Janos speaks as little as possible.
Azazel called you Magneto last week, you think.
You think. You can’t remember.
You pass the lab reports (results of experiments performed on mutants) and chemical formulae (possible counteractives directed toward specific mutations and general ‘cures’ for the mutant gene) on to McCoy. The rest of the intel goes to Mystique.
She looks from the folders to you and back again, and her mouth starts to open. Her eyes flicker brown blue yellow green yellow and she lays her hand flat on the folders and closes her mouth. Her fingers trace the seal on the top cover, tap once against it, and curl in. Eventually her fist relaxes. She says, ‘Thanks. This is going level the playing field and then some.’
She leaves not long after that, folders tucked under her arm, Azazel taking her back to... you aren't sure where. The base will have moved by now; possibly they're back in the States. You'll have to ask her next time.
She didn't see Charles this time. Granted, you called her here for a specific purpose, but not very long ago she wouldn't have gone without at least acknowledging him. Not long ago you would have done as she did today.
You don't wonder when that began to change; you know, though you weren't aware of it at the time. The process was gradual enough that the part of you that would have protested, would have crushed those changes, reduced them to the same rubble you've left dozens of complexes and facilities and military bases in, didn't have the opportunity to protest.
It protests now. Tells you Azazel will have returned, that you should find him and interrogate him. That you should take back what you've given Mystique, take control of the board again.
(With Charles as he is... well. It's a thought unworthy of you. It's far too easy to think it.)
You stand and your hand falls to the table, empty, feeling for something that isn't there. Your helmet isn't in the room. Neither is the coat. Your shirt is short-sleeved and your trousers appear not to have been pressed before you put them on.
Your appearance is no doubt shameful, but you can't bring yourself to care; you're not due in a classroom today, and with no students to cow you have no one to please but yourself. The door opens as you approach it and you wander out into the corridor, no class to teach, no set destination in mind.
Certainly you don't intend to visit Charles. You don't think of Charles other than at those specific times you've set aside for him. You don't ignore his presence, but neither do you seek him out. There's no reason for you to be standing in front of his door, hand raised to knock, but you're there, your feet having carried you without your express permission.
‘Come in, Erik,’ he calls, and you could go. You could leave now.
You could open the door and step through it.
He's in his chair beside the bed, which seems to be doing duty as a desk. It's covered in newspapers.
Charles follows the direction of your gaze. He laughs. ‘It seems I've missed a great deal.’ He looks back up at you, still smiling, eyes bright. ‘Have you seen it?’
‘Seen it?’ you repeat stupidly.
‘The moon walk. I've not yet, but Hank has promised to show me. Even this way, reading about it,’ he gestures to the pile of newspapers, ‘it's truly awe inspiring. We live in an amazing era, my friend. We're lucky to be alive right now.’
He doesn't know. Can't know. He's brilliant with enthusiasm, the same Charles who dove into uncertain water to save a man he didn't know, and it's only because he doesn't know.
He hasn't seen everything. He hasn't seen you.
‘Erik?’ He's looking up at you, his head tilted. He is a question.
‘I think you must be right,’ you tell him, and he's there but not there, himself and not, unbearably bright and hurtful.
He says, ‘I knew you'd agree. I feel... we've been friends a long time, yes?’
‘Yes,’ you say. ‘Friends.’
He says, ‘Then as my friend, I deputize you to, er... be in charge of organization?’ He looks from the pile of newspapers to you, and you do know what hope looks like.
You say, ‘I build things, Charles, I don't clean up after scatterbrained intellectuals.’
‘Well,’ he says, ‘at least you didn't threaten to burn the lot. I think Logan shouldn't be allowed to smoke within confined spaces, don't you agree?’
The sound is out of your throat and in the air and Charles is smiling at you and you remember. You remember how he looked the last time you laughed at him.
If the coin had lifted.
If Magda had been there on the other side of the fence.
If the sub had ruptured. If you had.
If Darwin had let Tempest go, if Shaw had gone to Russia, if MacTaggert had stayed behind in DC.
If you’d let the helmet fall instead of Charles.
If Charles hadn’t opened his well-meaning but ignorant mouth. If the bullet’s trajectory had been even an inch different.
If you’d used the injector before you pulled the damned thing off of him—
Was it deliberate? Did some part of you want to loose him on his tormentors without his self restraint intact? Did you want to watch him kill them?
Even out of his head in agony, he was magnificent. He is always—
McCoy and Forge communicate via schematic. There are no words wasted between them so it falls to you to say, ‘Can we do this?’
They look at you with identical startled expressions. Petra laughs. ‘I think that’s the best answer you’re going to get, Professor Lehnsherr,’ she says.
‘Will I get a better one from you?’
She grins. ‘I’m ready when these guys are.’ She tilts her head toward Forge and McCoy and shrugs. ‘I’m just the muscle, I move what they tell me to move.’
‘Likewise,’ you say. ‘Well, gentlemen? If the young lady and I are to create this chamber, we'll need some idea of how to go about it.’
McCoy and Forge share another look. ‘Um, certainly,’ McCoy says. ‘It’s going to be slightly more difficult than we anticipated—and quite different from the stasis room you built for Charles. You see, Emma and I have been running some tests, and—’
‘I’m sure you have,’ you interrupt. ‘The point, McCoy, sometime today.’
A smothered sound issues from Petra’s position. McCoy clears his throat. ‘Yes, right. Well, to, uh, put it in layman’s terms,’ and you can see that it pains him to do so, ‘to maximize the psionic i/o we’re going to need a spherical shape—a geodesic sphere—made almost entirely out of a metal alloy that, um, isn’t supposed to exist.’
You fail to see the problem and you tell him in so many words.
‘Well,’ McCoy begins, at which point Forge—possibly as tired of McCoy’s indecisiveness as you are—says, ‘We’re going to want materials it’s difficult to get hold of, Lehnsherr. The government will be watching who buys the types of things we’ll need in the quantities we’ll need. It won’t be easy.’
It's oddly satisfying, feeling your mouth stretching unaccustomed muscles into a grin. ‘I’d be interested to learn precisely when we’ve ever taken the easy route. Petra?’
‘Suit up. We’ll take one of the jets—and McCoy? Inform Logan he’ll be accompanying us if I must drag him by his spinal cord the entire way.’
If his state of mind wasn’t a foregone conclusion, the surly angle of his cigar would be a clear indication of Logan’s displeasure. From his slouch against the Blackbird’s undercarriage he looks you up and down and says, ‘Nice cape,’ in the same tone he once used to tell you to go fuck yourself.
‘I think it’s a coat,’ Petra offers as she goes past him. She grabs the middle rung of the ladder and climbs, disappearing upward through the open hatch. The sound Logan makes is ambiguous: it could mean anything, as long as that anything included some sort of insult.
‘None of my business if he wants to walk around looking like an asshole,’ he mutters.
‘Sorry I’m late.’ Darwin ambles toward you from the other side of the hanger. ‘Beast had about twenty laundry lists for me to memorize and then the chem lab caught fire.’
Petra sticks her head back down. ‘Do I even want to know?’
‘You really don’t,’ Darwin tells her, and she grins.
‘Then I really won’t ask.’
‘We going or standing around here scratching our asses all day?’ Logan drawls.
You say, ‘After you.’
‘Screw you, too.’ But he drops his cigar, grinding it out beneath the toe of his boot. He doesn’t use the ladder; he jumps, catching the edge of the hatch and pulling himself up and in.
‘He’s always like that,’ Darwin offers. ‘It’s not you.’
‘I don’t doubt the former, but I find the latter difficult to credit.’
He doesn’t smile, but before he goes up the ladder, you hear something that could be counted amusement. You count it a win.
‘Spooky,’ is Petra’s assessment.
‘A government complex built in the middle of nowhere for dubious purposes and then abandoned should disturb you.’ Through the windshield you see nothing but trees; concentrated metal, both familiar and foreign, calls to you from beneath the ground. ‘Take us down.’
Darwin is frowning over his readouts. ‘You sure about the abandoned thing?’ he says. ‘Because I’m getting life signs from inside.’
‘Animals?’ Petra suggests.
‘Maybe.’ He sounds dubious.
‘Let's find out,’ you tell them. ‘Set us down there if you would, my dear.’
‘Roger that,’ Petra says.
Logan doesn’t speak; he hasn’t said anything since you boarded, but you feel him watching you. You don't hold it against him. You’re doing the same.
You wait until he’s exited the jet before you do.
‘Three of them,’ Logan says. ‘That way.’ He nods left where the corridor branches out in different directions, then he spins and he’s in your face. His claws spring out, hovering in front of your throat. ‘Mind tellin’ us what they’re doing here?’
You feel the metal in Petra’s suit moving back toward you. Darwin says, ‘Logan.’ You wave him off.
‘I’m unclear as to some of your reasoning,’ you say, dividing your attention between Logan’s snarling face and the slick metal slide inside of him, ‘but we’ve had part of this conversation before.’ You flex your fingers. You’re close enough to hear the grind of his teeth as his claws retract, not gently.
‘Your blue girl,’ he says through gritted teeth. ‘She’s down here. I can smell her.’
Logan resists you; you’d be surprised if he didn’t. He strains at your hold, teeth bared, growling, ‘You gonna tell us why you brought your own people in?’
‘Assuming I knew anything, I don’t owe you explanations. I suggest you ask them why they're here.’ You drag him out of the way by his skeleton, releasing him as you walk past. Petra and Darwin are a shuffling pace behind you. You hear him curse, but you also feel him follow.
They’re waiting for you on the prison level in the former guardroom, their blood the only organic metal you can feel. Around them, behind them, down cramped corridors, unlocked gates move with the minute shifts of the earth, barred steel latices with nothing left to bar. Shielded cells gape, left open to the elements and without occupants.
Mystique is wearing clothes for once—leather trousers and a jacket. Cold comes early in the north and she’s not completely impervious. She’s standing in the middle of destruction that looks too old for her to have caused, Avalanche and Blindspot on either side of her.
Predictably, Logan growls. You feel his claws come out. ‘Stand down,’ you say, and Mystique stiffens.
She says, ‘Is that an order?’ and you realize what you’ve done.
You say, ‘A suggestion. Logan.’
He says, ‘You’re not the hand on the other end of my chain, bub,’ but you feel the claws draw back in.
You reach out for the metal in Darwin's and Petra's suits and stop them moving. Avalanche shifts uneasily. You don't hold him the way you're holding Petra and Darwin but you do look at him until he stops moving of his own accord and looks away. You say, ‘I think explanations are in order.’
Mystique has been staring over your shoulder; at Logan, you think. Now she looks at you and barks a laugh with no humor in it. ‘You’re the one who gave me those lists. Are you saying you expected me to not follow up?’
You say, ‘I expect you to act. I expect you not to question my actions.’ You say, ‘I’m here on Charles’ business, not my own,’ and she isn’t looking at you, she’s crossing her arms over her chest, tucking her hands around her sides. And you aren't Charles, you can't read beneath her surface, but you know her. You have seven years' worth of knowing her and now you think she is… very angry. With both of you.
She blows out a short breath and steps back. ‘Okay,’ she says. ‘All right, sure, Charles. I can work with that.’ She turns her head and looks at her people (they are hers now), jerking her chin toward the door.
They go without complaint, but Blindspot pauses next to Mystique, her voice low and questioning. Her eyes flicker toward you and Mystique shakes her head. Blindspot shrugs and follows Avalanche through the door.
Mystique looks at you again before she leaves. She says, ‘Next time that’s not going to be enough, Erik,’ and then she turns her back on you. The dark on the other side of the doorway swallows her.
‘Take a walk,’ you say. Logan snorts but he goes without asking pointless questions. That, more than anything else, is why you brought him. He doesn’t ask why. He knows.
‘Professor?’ Petra says hesitantly. You turn to look at her and Darwin.
‘You know what we’re looking for,’ you tell them. ‘Find it.’
They glance at each other and then they scatter, separating at the door and moving off in different directions.
You stay where you are. You spread your awareness out through the complex, through every piece of metal you find, turning each one over in your mind, feeling out the separate resonances until you’ve found what you want. The clamor of it is almost enough to drown out everything else.
‘That’s the last of it?’ Forge asks.
You lower the heavy sheets to rest against the hanger wall before you say, ‘Yes.’
He looks the fruits of your labor over and makes an amused sound. ‘I didn’t think you’d find anything.’
‘Being able to predict the actions of a person or group of persons implies knowledge of whom and what you’re dealing with,’ you tell him. ‘These places are built to contain mutants. They require specialized shielding.’
The remnants of humor are gone from his face. ‘There are more of them.’ It’s not a question. You answer it anyway.
‘Three at least, abandoned. More still in use.’
‘I’ll do what’s necessary.’
‘I know,’ he says. He does something then that he hasn’t before; something no one but Charles ever has. He lays his hand on your shoulder, squeezes once, and then he leaves you be. The metal stacked against the wall is probably more interesting to him than you are anyway, whatever his reasons for going.
Logan. Back again, possibly looking for the fight you’re inclined to give him. You’ve used up your allotment of patience for the day and he makes a habit of being a target, although he’s keeping his distance. Perversely, his lack of aggression annoys you.
‘What,’ you snap, and that same perverse streak takes pleasure in watching him restrain himself.
‘Look,’ he says, ‘I don’t know you from Adam. Hell, I don’t know from anyone, not even me. All I know is, that kid and these people are the reason I ain’t still rotting in that hole they stuck me in.’
‘This is, I take it, where you unwisely threaten me.’
There's no metal in his teeth. You don't feel their grind, but you can hear it, organic and grating in your ears. You feel the metal in his hands vibrating with his need to act, and you feel him push his impulse away with the metal; it buzzes in your sinuses, coats the back of your throat, this is how much he wants to let go. You taste the decision he makes: the right one, a better one than you would have made. Watching you sideways, he pulls a mangled cigar from his flannel over-shirt pocket. He sticks it in his mouth, biting down with a clear crunch, and any other time you'd be grateful for his silence.
He would choose now to be quiet, now when you are all but crawling out of your skin with the need to be free of lower life forms.
You say, ‘No?’
‘No.’ Grudging, but given. He’s reaching for his lighter. You find it in his right rear jeans pocket and float it out and around to him, and he grabs it out of the air, scowling at it as though it offends him. ‘Thanks.’
Gratitude has never sounded more like an invitation to violence. You say, ‘Don’t mention it,’ and you mean it.
Somewhere overhead there’s a muffled pop. Logan says, ‘Jesus Christ.’ He drops the lighter and leaps straight upward, landing a moment later, crouched, Kurt dangling from his hand by one blue ankle. Raising the kid until they’re eye to eye, Kurt still upside down, he says, ‘What’d I say about doing that?’
Kurt scrunches his nose. ‘Um… not to?’
‘Right,’ Logan says. ‘Remember why?’
‘’Cause next time maybe you won’t catch me. But I’d just ‘port away then.’
‘Kid, you need like crazy to find yourself some self-preservation instincts.’ He stands, tossing Kurt over his shoulder. The kid is laughing like it’s the most fun he’s ever had. He grins at you as Logan carries him off, and you can’t think why it looks familiar, why you’re sure you’ve seen that expression on someone else’s face. You don't remember until later and Charles’ room and Charles asking you where Raven is, he hasn’t seen her in so long.
‘Gone,’ you tell him. You tell him the truth. Mystique is all you have to offer him.
It’s not a matter of not wanting to, or not believing in. Wanting to and believing in the necessity of will never end.
But there are other things to believe in and acknowledge the necessity of. Beliefs incompatible with and irreconcilable to other older beliefs and necessities.
It’s a matter of degree. Of wanting to and choosing not to, moment to moment, for yourself.
For everything else, there will always be the Brotherhood.
Magneto, you say.
The girl on the bed wets cracked lips. Her throat moves in a careful swallow and you find it in you to be sorry for the necessity of this conversation. The tube came out of her throat yesterday. It obviously hurts her to say, ‘That is not a name.’
‘Call it a choice,’ you say. ‘Would you like one?’
It’s some seconds before she says, ‘A choice?’ Then, ‘Why do you wear that?’
‘This?’ You run your fingertips over the helmet’s rim. ‘It keeps out those things I don’t choose to let in.’
She swallows again.
‘You have an impressive ability,’ you tell her. ‘Mystique was surprised to find herself not where she should have been. Don’t,’ you say as what little healthy color she has drains away. ‘You’re not alone.’
Charles’ words taste subtly wrong in your mouth, but the metal… metal will never be wrong. Her eyes widen as the bed frame warps around her.
You do only enough for show. The sidebars waver, twisting free of the frame and writhing briefly upward before resuming their normal shape.
Her hand lifts slowly, IV line dangling. She touches the pads of her fingers to the metal rail. She touches as though she expects it to snap at her; when it doesn’t she drops her hand and looks back up at you.
‘I am looking for my family,’ she says, in English rather than the French you’ve been speaking. Her French held the echos of her native language. Her English vowels are blurred by France; her clauses are thick with odd emphasis. She says, ‘Will you help me?’
You say, ‘If I can’t, there is someone else who can.’
She frowns, her eyes intent on your face. ‘But will you?’
You hear yourself say, ‘Yes.’
One day you go home and it is home. Charles is in his chair in the atrium along with what appears to be half of the world’s current pre-pubescent mutant population (and two who are not).
They’re fanned out around him, an incongruous whirl of color and motion, and he is their center although they’re not paying him any mind. They’re in their own worlds with their own friends; Charles is merely there, an adult fact of their lives, as they no doubt believe he always will be. His eyes are closed, his head tipped back, face upturned to the uncovered skylights. There’s been sun this week after days of monsoon, and he’s sitting in a puddle of it, smiling.
‘Erik,’ he says, and opens his eyes, and this smile is for you. You go to him without being asked, setting the helmet on the ground beside the chair. You kneel down in front of him, your hand on his armrest, and you say, ‘Forgive me. I’d forgot.’
He cocks his head to one side. His smile lingers in the corners of his mouth. ‘Haven’t I always?’ he says. There is enough uncertainty in his voice to puncture you somewhere necessary, spilling something out of you you’re not sure you can afford to lose.
‘Sometimes,’ you say when you can, when you are breathing again.
‘Hmn,’ he murmurs, ‘I must be quite the idiot then, sometimes.’
‘All the time,’ you say, and he laughs and you lean into him. You rest your forehead against his knee.
‘And you, my friend?’ he says. ‘Have you forgiven me?’ His fingers are gentle in your hair, careful on your face.
You tell him, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ and you close your eyes.
His fingers linger in odd places. The stretch of skin between your ear and jaw. The lids of your eyes. His thumb brushes the corners of your mouth, traces your right temple a circumference. ‘It’s very quiet here, Erik,’ he tells you, and even with the children as a backdrop, he’s right.
The movement of his fingers through your hair is repetitive and slow. You say, ‘Is that good?’ and it doesn’t bother you that you sound half asleep. You think about asking him why that is, but he says, ‘Yes. Yes, Erik, it is,’ and you forget what and why you wanted to ask.
‘That’s good,’ you tell him. You raise your head, listening. There’s a noise coming from somewhere close, repetitive as his hands and electronic in nature. ‘What is that?’ you ask. Charles doesn’t answer.
You can’t feel his hand or his knee anymore, so you open your eyes and you see steel walls and medical equipment. You see Charles looking up at you from the bed. You remember why he’s there.
You remember the failed session with Frost, and Charles, thrashing between McCoy and Colossus even as McCoy pressed the needle into his arm.
His scream was twofold, in your ears and your mind. You saw him doubled, then, here and ago, in his chair and on the beach, all of him pain.
‘I didn’t want to wake you,’ he says, ‘but you were dreaming rather loudly about… not very pleasant things, so—’
He looks away, and you--he shouldn't--
But when has that ever mattered to him? ‘So you nudged me out of them?’ you say, and his face looks hot and slightly red and you think you're glad of it.
‘Um, yes,’ he says, looking back up at you. ‘I’m very sorry, I know you don’t—’
‘Don’t what?’ you prompt, when he appears prepared to stare at you indefinitely. He starts.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says again, ‘I just… remembered that you don’t care to have me rummaging about in your head.’ The wince is slight but there at the corners of his eyes and mouth. ‘I am sorry, Erik, truly I didn’t mean to intrude,’ he says, and it’s you who flinches.
Because once Charles would have said that with a sly look in his eye, a curve to his mouth, and not a repentant thought in his head. He wouldn’t have looked like a child about to be punished; a child who’s certain he deserves whatever he gets.
‘No,’ you say, because you can’t stay here with him looking at you that way. ‘It’s all right,’ you tell him, and you mean it, even if you only mean it this once.
Charles’ smile comes back. He says, ‘Thank you. It’s not, really, but thank you.’
You close your mouth on harsh words he wouldn’t understand. Telling him he owes you nothing would only confuse him, and he has enough confusion in his life at present.
‘Erik,’ he says, sounding as tired as you feel, ‘It’s very quiet in here. I can’t hear anyone but you.’
‘Yes,’ you say, ‘I know.’ You say, ‘Go back to sleep, Charles,’ and your eyes are closed, but it’s not long before you hear his breathing grow even again.
Inside four walls of metal and stone, no one within them but you and Charles, you hear everything.
The whisky will be a simulation, along with the chairs, the table, the chessboard and everything else in the library excluding the real room beneath the illusion. Designed by McCoy and Forge with some extraterrestrial assistance, and built mostly by you, it will still be Charles’ invention, Charles’ brainchild. There’s some question, though, as to whether or not Charles will ever utilize the end result of his flight of fancy, and however much you might wish otherwise it will be McCoy seated on the white side of the board, not Charles.
It could be worse. It could be Logan. McCoy is, at least, tolerable, his fur a pleasant blue contrast to the prevailing brown and rust color scheme.
Perhaps that last will be the actual liquor you drank before coming in here speaking. Charles will at that time be long gone off to his stars, and if Destiny ever knew if and when he’ll be coming back, she won’t have taken the time to inform you before disappearing herself. Your daily portion by then will be children and frustration and uncertainty and to make up for it, you’ll have had more whisky than you ought.
‘I have children,’ you’ll say, pushing the words out before you can swallow them back down. The scotch you’ll chase them with won’t taste nearly as harsh as you’ll sound.
McCoy will move his knight, taking your rook. If you aren’t careful, he’ll soon have you in check. His plays don’t begin to match the mercurial brilliance of Charles’ game, but in his slow, thoughtful way he is capable of surprising you.
He will answer you once his move is made, saying, ‘We all do, Magnus. Every one of them here now and every one of them still out there. That’s why as long as I live, so will the school, in some fashion.’
You’ll say, ‘You misunderstand me. Xi’an and Ororo are mine. Not ours or Charles’ or even mutantkind’s. They are mine and this—living like this, the way I’ve lived… this is not what I want for them.’
McCoy will say, ‘That’s good to hear, if a little surprising.’
He’ll say, ‘It’s your move.’
The walls are thick, but they’re also metal. They give you what you ask for. They tell you what you need to know. They give you Darwin and the pound of his running footsteps before the door slams open and then the man himself is standing in the doorway, looking past you to Charles, who is awake and looking back.
They look at each other, and you look from one of them to the other, and maybe it's because you haven't seen them together this way that you haven't noticed. You needed to isolate them to see what they are, not what you expect them to be.
Charles' scalp is still bare, but the open sores are gone. Red scar tissue is in the process of fading to white.
Darwin is still thin, but you no longer see the Shoah in his eyes.
‘Alex,’ he says. ‘Alex is awake.’ And he smiles.
You go back.
Not to any beginning of your own. You’ve had too many of them to choose from and none of them has ended well. You go back to one of Charles’ beginnings instead.
The house is a wreck, fire-gutted and unstable, the last remnant of it perched awkwardly over the destruction hidden underneath. McCoy is a fool for making this attempt, but if Azazel is willing to teleport him in and out of danger you suppose that’s their business.
It’s your business to finish this.
You hear the usual crack and they appear next to you, both of them covered in ash. Azazel looks bored. Behind smeared lenses, McCoy's eyes swim.
‘No?’ you ask. He hesitates before shaking his head. You nod toward what’s left of the house. ‘If you’re certain.’
He says, ‘It’s what.’ He says, ‘Charles.’ He pulls his glasses off to polish them on his dirty lab coat, and he sighs and says, ‘Yes.’
You say, ‘Good.’ You wrap your mind around the metal underpinnings and pull.
You stay until the rumbling has died away and the dust has mostly settled, then you say, ‘Azazel, if you would.’ He holds his hands out to you and to McCoy.
McCoy stares at the air over the pit, still hazy with dust. He takes Azazel’s hand without hesitation, though this may be the last he sees of his first true home. It may be the last any of you sees of this place. You’d make that assumption; you’d say it will be the last, but there is Charles.
This wouldn't be the first time he's risen from his own ashes.
Azazel notwithstanding, thanks to McCoy’s dithering you’re late getting back. You stop by Charles’ room first and are unsurprised to find it empty.
I’m in the dining room.
It’s terrifying. Perfectly horrible and horribly perfect to hear him in your head again. His thought voice is attenuated, not as immediate as it used to be. Collateral damage? Or is he being careful on purpose? If it's the second, you ought to note down the date. This may be the first and last time this particular unicorn makes an appearance.
You dig your nails out of your palms and let the corridor wall take your weight. Your range has improved.
I know, isn’t it fantastic? I kept Emma out today, too.
After which you naturally decided the loudest room in this complex was the best place for your recovery, hmn?
His laughter is a suggestion, endorphins felt but not experienced. Wanting to laugh when you don’t feel like laughing is just one more reason to get him out of your head as quickly as possible, but he’s babbling again.
Today went much better than last time, really. I’m fine, I’m keeping the kids out without trouble, and anyway, you were late.
Either he’s ignoring your discomfort or he sends better than he receives these days. You push away from the wall and start walking again. It was unavoidable.
When isn’t it? Never mind, I’ve survived your absence admirably. I’ve taken Ororo on in your stead. She’s a refreshing change. Very direct.
It’s worth a smile. I can only imagine.
Of course, if my usual opponent was to put in an appearance…
Illyana smiles briefly as she goes past you. You nod, noting the suit in passing. Just come in, or is a team going out? Nearly there, you tell Charles, and you move to one side as Drake and Summers the younger burst from the room, Summers yelling, ‘Get back here now!’ while Drake hoots derisively. You say dryly, The natives seem restless.
Apparently Bobby was responsible for the flooding in the north quarter. Scott took exception.
Aloud, you say, ‘This is where I say I told you so, Charles. This was your idea.’ Across the room, he looks up from the board. He leans back in his chair and smiles at you, watches you thread your way through half-full tables toward him.
‘Was it really? My idea, I mean,’ he says when you stop next to him, resting your hand on the back of his chair.
‘Yes and I look forward to the day you remember that.’
‘I’m sure you do,’ he says, grinning. You rap your knuckles on the table, dislodging a black knight from its square.
‘I thought you'd lured Ororo into your trap.’
‘I had done, but Jean and Kitty appeared and bore her off to—’ he frowns. ‘You know, I’ve no idea. Probably just as well. Game?’ He turns the board around, his fingers moving among the pieces, returning them to their original positions.
‘Not here. I don’t know how you managed with that hellish racket.’
He cranes himself round, looking over his shoulder at the table currently colonized by Darwin, Sway, Petra and Logan. They’ve appropriated a good deal of beer and a portable radio (which unfortunately receives, thanks to McCoy's infernal meddling) from god knows where and now Darwin and Petra are singing along with that idiot from Liverpool, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, while Logan grins into his beer and Sway laughs into hers.
You close your fingers around the white king and you clench them, you tighten them and tighten them again until he's more than an imprint on your skin and you feel something give. ‘Mawkish drivel.’
Charles cocks his head, half a smile teasing one corner of his mouth. ‘Don’t you think it’s time someone did?’
You set the cracked king down beside his pristine queen. ‘Give peace a chance.’
‘Well… yes.’ He’s fiddling a rook back and forth, that half smile still dragging his mouth upward.
You sit down across from him and lean forward. ‘Who did you have in mind?’ you ask, and he frowns.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You said it was time someone did.’ You sit back, shaping the seat to fit your body as you do. ‘I was wondering who you believe would best fill the role.’
‘Well, someone will have to begin, I suppose,’ he says, still frowning slightly, ‘I think the idea is for something like a cumulative effect. Leading by example.’
‘Precisely,’ you say. ‘Someone has to begin. Someone has to roll over before anyone else does, Charles. I’m damned if it’s going to be anyone here. And before you answer, look around you, then tell me they deserve to martyr themselves for a hypothetical peace they’ll never see because someone should.’
There’s more. A fountain of words welling up from your gut into your mouth. You can’t seem to stop them, you’re not even sure you want to, and then you look at him and the dam is built in the space of a moment. His eyes are wide and uncomprehending and you—
‘Erik,’ he says. ‘I—’ His mouth works and his throat strains and you cannot do this. You won’t.
Charles’ hands tighten around his chair's armrests. They relax and he says, his voice soft, ‘Erik, my friend. What must I have done to you to make you feel you must react in this way.’
‘You’ve done nothing. Don’t apologize,’ you add when it looks as though he will.
You stand abruptly and Charles looks up at you, stubborn determination in his eyes and confusion spilling from his mind into yours. The room behind you is silent save for the music still spilling from the radio. They’re all watching you and Charles. The back of your neck is prickling but you tighten your jaw and close your hand on the seat back, on the metal bars holding it in place. You don’t look away from him.
‘I do apologize,’ Charles says. ‘Whatever I said, I didn’t mean—’
‘I said don’t.’ You push it out through the knot in your closed throat. ‘You owe me no apologies.’ And you aren’t prepared to give him one here and now. ‘Let’s go somewhere else. There are at least five boards in this place, surely there’s one in an unoccupied room.’
‘Yes—mine, actually, if…’ He is being so careful of you. You want to shout at him, tear down the walls, bring this place down on top of both of you. Want to. You don't believe you will, but you do wonder when certain kinds of collateral damage ceased to be an option.
‘If you don’t mind?’ Charles finishes.
You say, ‘Of course I don’t mind, don't be more of an idiot than usual,’ and his mouth twitches as though he wants to smile but is unsure if he should.
‘Have you always been this good at rearranging statements into insults?’ You loathe the fact of his uncertainty as much as you do his confusion. ‘At least... well. Doesn't matter. Push me? I think I may have overdone things today. A bit.’
‘Yes,’ you agree. ‘Just that.’
The song on the radio has changed again. Someone with a voice like a rusty saw blade is singing about everybody knowing this is nowhere. ‘Please, Erik,’ Charles says, and you pull his chair toward you. You put your hand on his shoulder and you feel the tension go out of him.
You leave your hand there all the way to his room. You push his chair with your mind and you give him your listening silence, and he wheels himself over to a shelf and pulls a boxed chess set down from a stack of books. He says, ‘Best of three?’
You used to hate the way, the intensity with which he’s always hoped. You still do. You don’t tell him no.
On a clear afternoon in a different summer, and in a much cooler part of the world, Mystique will tell you she’s leaving the Brotherhood. She’ll say Destiny, and you'll think, Of course.
She’ll ask you if you’re coming, and you’ll consider it. You’ll remember what it was like in those first years, the six of you, mutant together and brutally proud with it.
You’ll look out through the windows of Charles’ office and you’ll see Azazel and Xi’an out on the lawn with the newest group of kids. You’ll think of Darwin and Logan and Ororo, gone as of this morning to investigate a rumor of mutants being used as slave labor. You’ll feel the quiet question in the back of your mind that is Charles finally come home, the more distant inquiry that’s Frost, and you’ll say, ‘No.’
You’ll say it without regret, and Mystique will say, ‘She said you'd say that, but I wanted you to know the offer was there.’ She’ll say, ‘I’m going to see Kurt, just… don’t tell Charles until I’m gone, okay? Tell him I love him. Tell him tomorrow.’
The thought of keeping things from Charles will be as laughable as the thought of listening while McCoy stumbles through extraneous syllables on his way to asking whether or not you think Frost would agree to have dinner with him somewhere that doesn’t involve children.
It will be precisely as appealing as having Frost say in your head: Tell him yes, Magnus, and don’t snap. He’s nervous enough as it is.
You’ll ask Mystique, ‘Do you really think he won’t know?’
She’ll smile, all primary colors, perfect as she’s always been, and she’ll say, ‘Still can't keep his mind to himself. I'll be seeing you. Tell him that.’
You will. He won't listen.