Evan Sabahnur could hear the opening chords of Santa Baby drifting down the hall from someone else's room, as familiar as the scent of baking gingerbread and the sound of snow crunching beneath his feet. It'd been the same thing every year – three days after Thanksgiving, Pa would start playing his favorite Christmas songs on the old record player, with a special emphasis on Eartha Kitt, and Ma would start making gingerbread cookies. The little ceramic nativity scene would come down from the attic, with it's ox that had gotten one horn broken off when Evan had dropped it on the kitchen floor as a child. Then, on the first Saturday of December, the whole family would go out to cut down that year's Christmas tree. Sunday (after church) they would spend the whole afternoon decorating the tree with Ma's heirloom ornaments, complete with the angel dressed in hand stitched silk robes. Pa would spend the evenings reading aloud from A Christmas Carol while Ma knitted sweaters and scarves and mittens. On Christmas Eve, Evan would be allowed to open one present, then he'd be sent off to bed to await Christmas morning, when they would be an endless parade delicious food from Ma's kitchen, presents, and music.
Every year, like clockwork. The perfect Christmas – and none of it had ever really happened. Ma and Pa and the farm in Kansas had all been part of a computer simulation created by a man who was little more than a thug-for-hire. Evan didn't even know why Uncle Cluster had done any of it. Nothing made any sense, and Evan was going to spend his Christmas alone for the first time in his life.
Scratch that. He was going to be spending his first Christmas ever alone.
Out in the hall, Evan could hear Cessily singing along with the radio, missing words and slightly out of tune. The school had been oddly quiet the last few days – far from deserted, but enough people had left for the holidays that it was noticeable. Angel was in the south of France until January, Quentin had been dragged off by Wolverine for God only knew what reason, and the kids who still had families to spend the holiday with were long gone. There would be no fights, no trouble, and even the random Danger Room sessions had been dialed back. The Jean Grey School was positively peaceful.
Evan dragged his desk chair over to the window and stared out at snowy expanse of the school grounds, chin propped up on the palm of his hand, Krakoa had gone into hibernation with the first frost, and last night's fresh dusting remained unblemished in the early morning light.
A lone figure dressed in black trudged across the wintery expanse, drawing Evan's attention. Firelight glinted off the snow as Jonothon Starsmore unwound the scarf from where his face should have been, a thin lance of flaming energy melting the snow down to the bare, brown grass.
Evan sat up a little straighter, hand coming to rest on the windowsill as his fingers tapped out a restless tattoo. Quentin had made a point of telling Evan all about how the telepath was a descendant of Apocalypse, right before Ms. Pryde dragged him away, lecturing Quentin about respecting the privacy of others and leaving Evan with more questions than ever.
The files the school had on Apocalypse were little more than a list of factoids with huge gaps in the knowledge. Everything his fellow students knew was rumor and innuendo (Evan was starting to suspect that Quentin survived on rumor mongering and coffee alone), and getting a straight answer out of the teachers was like trying to pull hens teeth. It was maddeningly frustrating – but maybe Mr. Starsmore could provide some real insight. Technically, the man was an adviser to every student with obvious physical mutations, so it would be natural for Evan to talk to him.
Quentin would find a way to tease Evan about it, of course. Even if the telepath wasn't around at the moment, he'd find out, and he would be a complete jerk about it. That was just how Quentin was.
Mr. Starsmore was halfway through the third line of words before Evan realized most of what he was writing were swear words, big enough to be read from the air.
Jono could feel eyes on him, even though he knew he was alone out on the lawn. He stood back and made a show of admiring his handy work, sneaking a glance at the windows of Kitty's office. The headmistress wasn't supposed to be back for a few hours yet, but she might have returned early. It would be a shame if she came back before Jono had finished ruining her view. Covertly, he scanned the rest of the windows; it probably would have been easier to use his telepathy to find who had seen him, but that had always seemed an intrusive use of his power. He didn't go poking about in other people's heads; what he had in his own was bad enough. Besides, he had two perfectly good eyes, and he'd already spotted an all too familiar gray face staring out from one of the dormitory windows. Jono continued to pretend that he was inspecting his little poem, wheels turning in his head.
Jono had a horrible feeling that he wasn't going to be able to avoid Evan Sabahnur for much longer, as much as he'd like it.
It's not too late to take Angel and Barnell up on their offer, he thought. Just run off to New York until the next term, ignore the kid until he goes away.
Because running away had worked out so well for Jono in the past.
He didn't sigh, but he did slouch. He'd successfully avoided anything to do with his family for years; even the run in with Freddie Slade barely counted, as far as Jono was concerned. But now there was a gray faced boy who looked at him with so much expectation... it didn't take telepathy to know what he wanted.
Jono shook himself, focusing on his little project for the time being. He was an adult, and it was damn well time he acted the part. He couldn't avoid Evan forever... and anyway, he couldn't be half as bad as his cousins.
He'd talk to the boy... just as soon as he was done with his little ode to Emma Frost.
Technically, students weren't supposed to go into the corridors that housed the teaching staff, but Evan figured that since Mr. Starsmore wasn't keeping regular office hours, he would be forgiven this minor transgression. The hall was even quieter than the dormitory, except for the muffled sounds of music. On one side of the hall, someone was blasting cheerful Christmas music; on the other was something instrumental, heavy on the guitars. If Evan had to guess, he'd pick the room with the wailing guitar... but he didn't have the guess. Each room bore a neat little name plate on the door.
Evan fretted restlessly outside the door that read J. Starsmore, hand raised to knock.
Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe he was better off not knowing. What he didn't know couldn't hurt him, right?”
Or... it could. Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Also true of history class. Evan squared his shoulders and rapped his knuckles on the door. He could hear someone moving around on the other side, pushing something across the floor before the music got turned down. More shuffling followed, then the door opened as Mr. Starsmore tugged a faded t-shirt over the bandages wrapped around his chest. For a moment, they just stared at each other. Evan had never gotten this close to Mr. Starsmore before – beneath the large jackets he usually wore, the man was almost cadaverously thin, with knobby elbows and skin almost as pale as Evan's. His face was dominated by a narrow, beaky nose that reminded Evan of nothing so much as a bird of prey. Thick eyebrows hung over dark brown eyes that gave nothing away.
Evan. There was a hollowness to Mr. Starsmore's voice that was more than a little unnerving.
“Mr. Starsmore.” Evan refused to fidget or look away. It kind of felt like was being tested, and if Evan flinched now he might not get a second chance. “I was hoping I could talk to you?”
's what I'm here for, Mr. Starsmore drawled, leaning against the door frame.
“About anything, right?” Evan went on, watching the older mutant's eyes narrow slightly.
Evan half expected Mr. Starsmore to flinch, or possibly slam the door in his face. Instead, he stood back and gestured for Evan to come inside. This isn't a conversation you wanna have in the hall.
The room wasn't much bigger than one of the student rooms, and it seemed smaller thanks to all the stuff that filled it. Stacks of milk crates served as makeshift shelves, and they'd been filled to bursting with vinyl records, CDs, and battered paperbacks while discarded clothes made a second carpet on the floor. A combination CD player/radio sat on the desk next to an actual record player, the needle working it's way towards the center. A TV took up most of the wall next to the door, wired up to a battered VCR, old tapes stacked around it like a monument to technology past. The only things in the room that didn't show signs of wear and tear were a laptop that didn't look like it had ever been used and an acoustic guitar that looked like it had been lovingly maintained resting on the bed.
Mr. Starsmore stepped over a pile of dirty laundry to turn off the record player, then tucked the guitar into a case before sitting on the bed while Evan perched on the desk chair, turning it to face him. Mr. Starsmore's hands dangled between his legs, long fingers twitching as he watched Evan expectantly. Evan imagined he could see the flames trying to lick their way out from beneath the black bandages where his face should have been. “Can you actually tell me about him? Everything I've been told is – it's just-”
I can't promise what I know is any better. Mr. Starsmore looked up at the ceiling for a moment. Only ever met him once, and that was for all of a minute.
“But you know stuff about him that's-- it's different from what everyone else here knows,” Evan pressed, scooting the chair closer. “His history-”
Mr. Starsmore held up a hand to halt Evan. What I know is as much myth as history. He was their god; religion's got a way of twisting things up till they can't be recognized.
“Can't be any worse than what I've already heard,” Evan murmured. The answer seemed to satisfy Mr. Starsmore; he sat up straighter, spidery hands resting on his knees.
This is the story, as it was told to me, as it was told to my people, enduring longer than any earthly empire. Long ago, when the world was young and gods still walked amongst the mortals, En Sabah Nur was born-
The stories flowed out with surprising ease, like they'd just been waiting for Jono to find the write audience. He started with the oldest stories, the ones Grandfather Jack had insisted on growling at everyone during the holidays, when everyone was trapped with no real escape. Slowly, he began peppering in the stories Aunt Minnie had favored, the lighter tales she'd trotted out to entertain whoever wanted to listen. Jono had been her most frequent listener.
Evan was an attentive audience, and it had been a long time since Jono had had one of those.
Unfortunately, all good things had to come to an end.
Kitty came bursting through the door, not even bothering to knock before she phased through, her expression thunderous. “Jono!”
Angelo had once compared Jono's upbringing to being raised Catholic, during one of the rare moments when he'd been able to bring himself to talk about it. There were some things that were just too ingrained to every be free of, and first and foremost was you do not talk about the family in front of outsiders.
It had taken years for Jono to share even a little bit with Angelo. Kitty had yet to earn even a fraction of that trust. He stopped talking, turning a cold stare on the woman who was ostensibly his boss. Evan looked as startled as if someone had thrown cold water on him.
Kitty, at least, didn't start tearing into him with Evan there.
We'll pick up this up tomorrow, Evan, Jono reassured him gently. Evan scrambled off the chair, recognizing a dismissal when he heard one.
“Yes, Mr. Starsmore.” Evan edged his way past Kitty, opening the door just enough to get out. Evan would have done well in the family; he understood the need for discretion.
Unfortunately, Jono was no stuck alone with a very angry Kitty Pryde.
“What was that about?” Kitty asked, her tone just short of a demand.
I'm a counselor, Jono replied, his tone just short of insolent. I was counseling. Something I can do for you, Pryde?
“How about we start with you not writing paeans of praise to Emma frost on the lawn?” Kitty suggested with false brightness. “Barring that, maybe you can elaborate on what's going on with Evan? We don't keep secrets here, especially not when it comes to the students.”
Especially the ones cloned from super villains? Jono flopped back on his bed. Heaven forbid he be allowed any privacy. Relax – he's just a lonely kid looking for someone to talk to. He reached for his guitar case, scooting so his back was up against the wall. Anything else?
The way Kitty smiled probably should have worried him more.
Evan was waiting for the butter on his grits to finish melting when Mr. Starsmore dropped into the chair across from him. You're up early.
Evan prodded the pat of butter with his spoon. The cafeteria was mostly empty in the pre-dawn hours, which was fine with him. It was peaceful. “I'm used to being up early. Had to be up before the sun on the farm, Mr. Starsmore.”
The older mutant folded his arms on the table. I think you can get away with using my first name, Evan.
“Let me guess,” Evan quipped, remembering the old joke, “Mr. Starsmore was your father.”
Something flashed across Jonothon's face, almost too fast to see. Something like that. He drummed his fingers on the table. What're your plans for the day?
Evan lifted his shoulders in a brief shrug, using his spoon to slice the last of the unmelted butter into slivers. “There's homework, I guess.”
Ms. Pryde has me running errands, thought I'd turn it into an all day thing. Thought we could pick up with the stories.
Evan grabbed the syrup, adding a dollop to his grits. “What'd you do to get her so mad?”
Jonothon spread his hands, shaking his head. Long story, but she started it. I'm leaving in an hour, you in?
Jono was telling the story of Clan Akkaba and the Second Exodus, the move from Rome to London, when Evan finally started asking questions.
At the time, London was the heart of an empire that spanned the globe, Jono explained, feeling like an actual teacher. The Clan maintained outposts across the world, and Apocalypse himself remained based in Egypt, but the leaders of the clan have always remained close to centers of power. All the better to serve their god.
Evan quietly stared out the window for a few minutes. “Do they still worship him?”
That one's... a bit complex, actually, Jono admitted. Party line with the Starsmores is no, but I've wondered sometimes... I'd guess Slade and his lot do, maybe some of the other remnants. He watched Evan out of the corner of his eye as the boy shifted in his seat. I get it's not the answer you're looking for.
“It's okay,” Evan mumbled even as his face betrayed the truth. Somehow, his skin had managed to go even whiter, and his lips were pressed into a thin line. He looked away abruptly, wrapping his arms around himself. Jono wished he had some way of relieving the boy of his horror, but he knew there weren't really any words that could make things better. Sometimes, the best thing you could do was let the kid think it out for himself. Jono would find a way to make it up to him later.
They drove the rest of the way to the tree lot in silence. In the summer, it was a flea market during the day and a drive in movie theater at night, but for the season it had been given over to ranks of pine trees to be picked over by families eager to have a 'real Christmas Tree'. Someone had cleared the snow from the gravel, and there were boxes of fairy lights for sale at the front of the lot.
Bloody hell. Why can't Kitty just get one of those prefab numbers?
It wasn't the same.
All the trees in the lot had already been cut, and whatever the owners were doing wasn't really enough to keep the trees from wilting. Jonothon wandered amongst them, consulting a slip of paper and psychically muttering about giant messes and possible squirrel infestations. The trees didn't even smell right, and the two men working the lot kept eying Jonothon and Evan suspiciously.
“My family used to cut down our own Christmas tree.” Evan's hand brushed a tree as he passed, sending a shower of needles onto the gravel.
You miss them.
Evan scooted past another tree, eyes on the brown pine needles under his feet. “They weren't even real,” he muttered bitterly.
Doesn't mean you can't miss 'em.
“Do you miss your family?”
No, Jonothon answered flatly, circling a particularly large tree. I've got no interest in any of them, and they've got no interest in me, and that's just how I like it.
Evan found himself studying Jonothon with the same kind of intent that Jonothon was devoting to the tree. “Are they really that bad?”
Nobody calls my father Mr. Starsmore. They call him 'That Evil Bastard', including my mother... when she wasn't drinking herself into a stupor. My cousins were distant at best, murderous at worst, and all ruled over by a mad old man. The only reason some of them aren't super villains is because they're all too busy fighting with each other, like the family means a damn thing. Jonothon stuffed the paper he'd been consulting into his pocket. This one should do.
Evan wrapped his arms around himself, feeling a chill that wasn't wholly physical. Jonothon had made no effort to disguise his loathing for his family, and there was something about that which was just chilling. Evan's whole world had centered around his family; he couldn't imagine having that kind of scorn for Ma and Pa, no matter what they might have done.
Only... he understood. Just thinking of Uncle Cluster and what he'd done, how he'd lied to him his whole life, could fill him with the same kind of unforgiving rage he'd felt from Jonothon.
He hadn't meant to blow up like that; it'd just come out. Decades of pent up frustration had just come bubbling out, exploding in front of Evan. More than anything, it was embarrassing; the boy was a near stranger, even if he was a gray face. The Starsmore family drama had nothing to do with him, and nothing to do with Jono anymore.
Evan had stopped asking questions, and Jono could feel the quiet misery rolling off him, twisting in what remained of Jono's gut.
That wasn't exactly true. About me not missing my family.
Evan had been staring out the window again, occasionally trying to pick pine needles out of his coat. Jono pulled into a pancake house parking lot and parked, leaning back in the driver's seat as much as he could.
I had an aunt, Minnie. She was my father's sister, and possibly the only person who could stand being around him. She would-- Jono didn't – couldn't – sigh. It would have made for a welcome release. She would come by all the time and make sure we hadn't killed each other, or driven off all the staff, or set something on fire. In spite of everything, Minnie was like a ball of sunshine, and she always believed that we didn't have to be... Starsmores.
Evan folded his hands in his lap, lower lip caught between his teeth. “Why don't you talk to her?” he asked hesitantly. “You love her, right, and you miss her.”
She died a few years before I left home. It was an accident.
Somehow, that had made it worse. Maybe if he'd had someone to blame, losing Aunt Minnie would have been easier. Instead, it was just some stupid thing that could have happened to anyone. It had been a crushing blow to whatever belief in the far reaching power of his family that Jono might have harbored; how important could they be, if one of their own could die such a stupid, meaningless death? In the end, we're only human. Even when we're not.
Jono waved a hand. Nothing to be sorry for.