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(There is a proper way to tell a story.

Each night, she'd grasp his hand when he bent down to kiss her, pressing her own lips chapped from hours of outdoor play to his unshaven cheek. One, two, three! And then, very solemnly, "Story first, please."

 

At the end, once the fragile circle of protection for which he'd so labored has been pierced through to the heart, he finds himself standing in the remnants of a warehouse beside a god-demon he envies. He is, once more, a mere segment in an arsenal, as valued and as expendable as the three others who have fallen in line. They are all wheels wed now to rails, unmindful of their path, granted existence only by their function. The hand which intends to drive them is mighty, but it is not En Sabah Nur's power for which Erik Lehnsherr

(Now decidedly Erik Lehnsherr, for all that composed Henryck is gone, reawakened by the world's inherent darkness. He is burned into the solder of the tomb, the marker-less casket beneath forest dirt, a working of ores he yanked from the ground in his despair.)

lusts. To be powerful in a world of mutants is only a matter of degree. It is the creature's _emptiness_ Magneto chases, recruited on less than a promise. The golem of legend stands before him, all ancient armor and skin of andocite. The embodiment of a marvelous void which-- even as it heals and gilds the winged mutant with steel-- knows only that hunger to warp and rend. It-- he-- cannot conceive of of love, despite the frequently paternal turns of its speech, and is therefore impervious to grief. The bile of covetousness is the only thing diluting the despair Erik's own existence has become. 'Hayoh hayah pa'am…'; once there had been a boy staring at a crumpled form, a pile of flesh and clothing and bone lying on a well-polished wood floor, who similarly expected to expire from sheer misery. He had been, most deliberately, taught not to expect such mercy and so turned to vengeance instead. It will not be enough this time, and envy is only a drop in the ocean, but the promise of destruction is… a worthy task for the weapon Lehnsherr has always been.

('Kleiner Erik…' an unexpected visitant, but old and always hated. 'You were never a true being, and you were never strong enough. I tried to show you your purpose, that you might know it and embrace it, for a knife needs neither warmth or companionship.'

And more distant, meek and miserable as she'd been the first time she grasped the purpose of hunters in _her_ woods, 'No, I don't like this. Daddy, that's not how it goes!')

 

How long has it been since he's truly thought of Herr Doktor, been agonized enough to hear that wretched voice? Time is at an intersection, it is folding back on itself in hideous contortions. The men-- his neighbors, his coworkers, humans that had eaten at her table and been welcomed into their home-- at the factory were also the soldiers in Schmidt's office. He'd meant to crush their suspicious brains within their helmets has he had the first day he had killed, motherless boy becoming murderous man. En Sabah Nur robbed him of that satisfaction, rending them to pieces with a careless wave of his hand.

--only to grant you greater vengeance still, my son--

Sehr gut, yes, fine. He itches beneath his own reformed armor, longing to fit more firmly into what was once Magneto's chosen skin. A terror, a villain; doer of monstrous

('Can you tell me why?' she asks, so quietly. It is very nearly the beginning-- perhaps two weeks since this self-possessed woman found a stranger hiding in her tool shed. Magda never takes her eyes off him, seemingly calm as she cups her fingers over his panic-balled fists. Terrors come to him still, remnants of his time in captivity, and he will not be surprised to discover that every pot and pan in her kitchen shook and whirled as he unconsciously reached for what he feared wasn't there. There is nothing to be denied, then, but she only slides into bed beside him. One hand touches his left arm, which she skillfully bandaged herself, all while showing not a flicker of surprise at the old blasphemy written on skin. 'I think I know, but tell me anyway.'
She always looks him right in the eye.)

deeds. He is an animal on a chain. Impatient, tugging, with no mind for En Sabah Nur's other followers. Even the boy, so clearly wronged for his identity, goes almost wholly unnoticed-- and that would have enraged Erik, once. He cannot collect any more hurts now. It seems even his back has a weight under which it must snap and give. Did he really crush the camp-- or the warning fossil it had become-- beneath the fist of his metal sense when once, standing on the same ground, he had failed to move a single coin? Less than an hour ago, but also something done in dream. Like jumpy film, projections of an angry young man's vengeful fantasies, stale and not quite possessed of dimension. Yet how the dirt flew! Packed, rotten, even after decades likely sodden still with the ash of…

 

('Where are they now, Daddy?' Nina's dark eyes are so like his own mother's, but also like those of the doe she can coax so easily to her hand. 'Where are your parents?')

Taken, he'd said, and then assured her no such thing would happen to him. He had lied to her, his own daughter, his rybko. It had not been the first time, but eight years could not dim the stab he still felt in his heart, like one of Mama's sewing needles, each time he succumbed to comforting falsehoods. Foolishly, he'd seen it as some sort of revelation; that he finally knew why his mother's last words had been so blatantly untrue. Alles gut. You said these things, when you were a parent. You checked under beds and in closets, as though monsters did not stalk abroad in the day, and gently removed splinters as if you had not once killed six men with a spare nail. You turned off the angry voices on the radio and promised that Daddy would never, ever leave.

('You knew better,' Schmidt again, tones as though from a throat decayed. Has tearing apart that tin regnant's kingdom stirred the monster-maker from his tomb? Lehnsherr vaguely remembers promising himself he would dance on that grave, once. 'You knew the fate of freaks, of the _other_, and still you lied.')

 

He had wanted a better world for her, his Nina. The kind of world he'd once talked of building whilst on long drives, in interchangeable hotel rooms, and in a library thick with a certain scholar's personality. If there is a name Henryck buried more deeply than that of

("Erik.")

his previous self, it is that of his own soul's brother. Curse him, damn him, that gentle professor of compromise. Always 'no, Erik', 'stop, Erik', 'let them live…'

("Erik.")

 

Lehnsherr thinks, for a moment, that his grieving mind has only turned the dagger further inward, conjuring more pain. But no, it is too vivd for that; a touch of recognition and affinity that mere memory could never reproduce. The instinct to greet, to commingle with that brilliant force is entirely upon him, but he succumbs for less than a heartbeat. Determination, as resolute as the steel which soothed his senses day after ordinary day, smothers it. He cannot deny that reciprocal heat, choosing to starve the blue fire of oxygen. He himself deserves nothing-- no man who fails so utterly should claim even an ounce of comfort or reprieve.
And he will not betray Magda, who gifted him with such treasure, so callously. Even for an instant.

 

('Thank you,' he says roughly, squeezing her hand when at last the midwife gives him leave to enter. He's holding Nina in the crook of his arm; the infant still damp and settling from her exposure to that strange new element, air. The robust cries with which she'd greeted the world show a healthy set of lungs, but she seems far too small, wrapped in her yellow blanket. Later, he'll be told that eight pounds is a fine weight for a baby, but he'll never quite stop feeling as though he is a giant trespassing in her world. At present he can cradle her head in one palm, and fears setting her down. Blessings so easy to conceal, to fold close to one's heart, can also all too readily disappear.

'You silly man,' Magda says, bemused-- not understanding when he presses his lips to her wrist in fervent gratitude. '_We_ did this. Together.' But he has watched her grow and swell in the past months. Something only half-noted and seemingly mundane in other women became a thing of awe, and he'd smiled tolerantly when coworkers clapped him on the back and wished him a son.

He can only shake his head in answer to his wife's questioning gaze, eyes blurring even as he examines the perfect little nails and ears and button nose of his baby girl.)

 

The texture of Charles' psychic touch changes quickly-- from something like the pleased cry of Erik's name in that long ago Langley office to a quiet, mournful shock.

('I know what this means to you…' Words so powerful they linger behind the present, as if they will never quite stop echoing through layers of time.)

But that is so far gone. Another life. A name and memories he'd buried, perhaps with too much reverence, in the mausoleum that passes for his soul. What I have loved, I forfeited from cruelty; it is done, and I am a slave-soldier freed in a foreign land. I disremember all paths, dash to the four winds all breadcrumbs leading home.

 

('That is not how you do it!' Nina says, looking disappointed as her fingers restlessly trace the geometric animals Madga stitched into her quilt. He's in a hurry, some inane chore or another needs seeing to, and she has been up too late already. So he begins the story impatiently, skipping the ritual opening, and woe betide his firecracker's wrath. Bas-yekhide-- he spoils her, but not rotten. Her stubbornness is merely his own reflected back at him; there is no inward preoccupation in those deep eyes or petulance around that rosebud mouth. She is solemn and sometimes secretive, often distressingly clever when it comes to bending the rules. ('The tree is on the path. So _up_ the tree is also on the path.') There is a sweetness to her-- at once simple and complex-- he fears for even when she won't eat her peas or pits her will to his during a rare time-out.
'Tell it the right way,' she says, arms folded in her voluminous nightgown. 'Like you say, the right way or not at all.'
)

 

"Oh, Erik," Charles murmurs, the voice of the past intruding on the present. Do the living prickle in uncomfortable deja vu only because they have been caressed by a ghost? "I am so sorry." Trite words, but from him they are meaningful, infused with earnesty and the pain Charles always seems to feel when Erik bleeds.

A shudder. Lehnsherr realizes he has used the present tense, and that cannot be allowed. He'd lived in the moment, with Magda and Nina, and now time itself is over. All the clocks have stopped.

"Charles," he whispers, and waits to be struck down for the wonder in his tone.

En Sabah Nur is turning, empty eyes narrowing as if he can hear the legions of memory called forth by Xavier's presence, not decayed at all but beautiful and whole as they surface gracefully from the waters of Erik's mind. Flat, uncaring interest flickers in the not-quite-human face. It is a visage of unharmorized shapes, for all the seemingly classical profile. If a sculptor were, in madness, to do his work in a slab of meat then the result would be much the same. All aspects of expression are present, but some vital animation still lacks. 'Ah,' the mirthless mouth implies, 'and how may this be of use to me?'
Erik considers the golem once more, and shudders in spite of himself.

 

('Dawno, dawno temu, za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma lasami…')

You could tell it that way, if you wanted to. Like a page from Charles' finely bound copy of The Once and Future King; the scholarly prince who longed for a family, a chimera disguised as the ubiquitous gold-haired maiden. A boy-solider with vengeance in his heart and on his tongue, coaxed to a round table of misfits who needed only self-mastery to know how strong they truly were. Nina has little patience for princesses, but she loves a good quest, and decreed all Zana of her mother's tales give gifts which were-- though she did not quite know it-- really mutations she yearned to see.

"Erik," Charles murmurs, low and unbearably immediate. Comforting, as the hand that strokes up to the curve of neck and shoulder with no intent save to soothe. How tempting he is, though almost a decade lies between them, and one misstep always leads to another. Xavier's gravity is undeniable, the mind's eye portrait of him Erik carries too powerful to bear the light of day. From the first time he took Madga to bed, Lehnsherr saw the truth of his own personal physics. Like matter and anti-matter, the concepts of Charles and Magda must never touch. Both essential elements, dark energy (which the professor rhapsodized over numerous times) balancing out the whole visible universe from sand grain to star, but destructive if not held in constant tension. As opposite ends of a magnet must repel.

"You can still stop this, my friend," the telepath continues, the next note in a melody which has not skipped a beat. "I can feel your grief, your pain."

So he can, pretty sage. Blue-eyed boy in the water, enduring impromptu interrogation from an Erik Lehnsherr who did not understand how young he himself truly was. Both of them innocent of so many things, on a quest for their own race, their own kind. Conquest for one, and compromise for the other.

 

(His heart stops the day he enters Nina's room to find a crow perched at the foot of her crib. While not of particularly unusual size, it seems monstrous to a man who intended only to wake his baby girl from an unusually peaceful nap. For a moment, the unhesitating assassin simply stares, paralyzed by sharp beak and claws so close to her defenseless flesh. Yet there is not even a flutter of wing as the crow blinks calmly, an omen undisturbed by lack of welcome.

"Look!" Magda exclaims from behind him, on the heels of her own horrified gasp. Hand trembling a little where she grips his sleeve, she laughs faintly in disbelief. As well she might-- for there they are. Two sparrows and a lark, fluttering through the open window to alight beside the dark bird in an orderly row. To Erik's anxious surprise, they are followed by a black-tailed kite, a predator with eyes like brilliant red marbles upon which a child might choke. This, at least, stays on the windowsill in deference to its size. Through it all, Nina chortles her delight to the world, answering chirps with baby pidgin of her own. Her father clenches his fist, suddenly aware that he's holding every safety pin on the changing table warped to sharp points, twirling the way he'd once held missiles at bay. Magda recovers first, releasing only a few little noises of astonishment as she rushes past him to embrace her brilliant child. The birds startle, to Nina's grousing, but the baby is pleased enough to see her mother that their departure is not mourned.

Erik makes himself move forward, wanting the solidity of embracing both his girls even as his mind says a name
-Charles-
and he wonders if the crow has not, after all, brought a curse.)

 

'Birds were her favorites,' he thinks dully, staring at the young man whose wings have been reformed with blades instead of feathers. Sometimes-- secretly, secretly, while Magda ran an errand or did chores-- he'd lift Nina into his arms and hover a few feet off the ground. All the while she would clutch him, little heart thudding like a rabbit's, and giggle conspiratorially. He knew how badly she wanted to fly.

He had taught her to hide, his daughter, dressing it up in the same manner for which he once mocked Charles. He called it 'safety', and told himself he wanted only to ensure that his own sins were not visited upon a blameless child. What good had that done? Even before his foolishly altruistic misstep, Nina herself had been living on borrowed time. Magda, having lived her whole life in the village, was accepted as part of the scenery. Her husband, passed off as a distant cousin, was appreciated for his hard work and lack of inquiry into the lives of others-- the latter being a particularly treasured virtue, given the political climate. But Nina, though solemnly charming and friendly after initial shyness, had been stamped as 'different' within three days of entering the village school. There has always been a watchfulness to her, which Erik understands, further exacerbated by the fact human motives sometimes elude her.

The companions her gift called had simple needs, and did not know evil. There existed for them only instinct and, while Nina has never been above imposing her own sense of right and wrong, she understood with a child's intuition that her friends did not make a conscious choice to harm. Even when they preyed upon each other outside her presence, they did not do so from frivolous want. Just last spring, the foreman's dog-- a frequently beaten and ill-tempered shepherd's mutt-- had been put down with a bullet after biting a neighbor's child. His little girl had cried for it, of course, but she had also conceived her first spark of outrage towards the dog's owner… and the bitten boy. In town, they talked of Nina's soft-heartedness and her 'way' with animals, but Erik saw only tears of anger just before she hid her face in his jacket.

"Kundel was only scared, Daddy!" she'd said, "Cyryl teased him so!" And, when her mother expressed some surprise at this judgement, "And then he put his hand up over instead of letting Kundel see, so the only thing to do was bite!" Later still, he'd seen her stridently and uselessly lecturing a marten about the mice she was sheltering with her skirt. Seeing that flush in her cheeks, he'd heard a voice from the past clear as day.

('Not if we stop a war!'

'Is it naiveté or is it arrogance?')

The question only seems to have grown murkier with two decades' time.

 

"What happened to your family was wrong--"

Well, at least the professor is wise enough not to presume upon their names. It is his own fault, Erik knows-- his girls were made to pay for who he had been before he'd met his wife, before his daughter was even born. Now he wonders, seeing the angry-eyed girl with her shock of white hair and the boy so recently maimed to uselessness, if he had only been setting them up to fail all along. It is a father's conceit, he knows, but Nina is

(Oh, G-d, was-- the poison of the past subjunctive!)

not like other children. Toys and dolls failed to interest her-- it was a clutch of acorns, the birth of a neighbor's calf, the sight of some rare bird, that often pleased her more than a new dress or a treat in town. Candy remained a decided favorite, but even that paled a little when she discovered she could not share it with her friends. She was not shunned by anyone in the community, but neither was she accepted and, when Henryck fought with his wife at all, it was mostly in regards to this. Toe to toe with him, eyes like oxidized copper, Magda never let occasional intimations about her daughter's place amongst 'her own kind' go unanswered.

In spite of this, there was a smaller concentric circle within the family sphere-- as innocent as it was unintentional, and just as impossible to change. 'Daddy-and-Nina', his little girl sometimes said, particularly when shifting between the way her friends thought and how one spoke aloud. Daddy, who knew so many wonderful tricks, who told stories of girls who changed shape and men who could 'poof!' from here to there (and never, ever about men who saw into the minds of people the way Nina saw so easily into her companions). And Nina, at times student as well as daughter, listening carefully to her father's injunctions and carefully concealing the fact she had been teased because she did not like to see her mother upset.

 

"I tried it your way, Charles," Erik returns, words so vitriolic he is unsurprised by the resulting flinch. Perversely, he is glad of it, thinking of Xavier's precious school. The professor's children are safe even now. Hiding, idyllic in their parenthetical community, where they can share

(Sean, screeching in delight as he swooped down from the satellite; Raven's playful mimicry of everyone in the household. Alex, sheepishly accepting effusive praise for _not_ setting every target mannequin alight. And through it all, Charles-- sometimes infuriatingly pedantic, but always encouraging and earnestly pleased. Those blue eyes, dangerously narrowed despite the comity of words, when he said Erik wasn't really challenging himself. How he'd reached in with mental touch warmer even than the hand on Erik's shoulder, and pulled forth a precious shard of happiness that had been lost in the ash.)

what they are without sidelong glances or grandames whispering, 'Well, her mother _is_ Romani.' Watchful humans with their quick judgement, their eagerness to stratify and relegate. To pierce lungs through for the simple crime of breathing and he could not… he could not even separate his girls, the arrow had stuck so true, instead laying them on their sides before sealing them carefully away. But then, Nina was at least in her mother's arms and perhaps that…

 

"I am finished with your 'tolerance'," he thinks instead, almost mentally shouting. He will show them, the humans, what it is to be the lowest of the low. All crimes must be paid for.

--All in this life must be paid for. Blood is the oldest form of currency. To whom do you speak, child?--

Charles' presence recoils sharply, almost wildly, at this sudden intrusion, but his intimacy with Erik's psyche only deepens. Even at its most deliberately platonic, there is a siren quality to Xavier's touch; an undisguised yearning for more, always more. Now it flares to something fiercely protective. It seems time has not dulled the professor's tendency to view this particular mind as one would something both priceless and precious. In any other cataclysm, there might be enough irony left in Magneto to laugh hollowly at this unfathomable persistence, but he is beyond that now. En Sabah Nur's communication is not exactly mental

--I have set my sign and seal upon you--

but Erik is not sure he could bear it and live if it were. He meets the god-demon's eyes, void-stone things that now hold a truly unholy rapaciousness, and feels a cold scorching him beyond anything he's ever known. There's no impetus, no control or command, just the devastation embodied in En Sabah Nur like a man-shaped hole cut into the world. Even his perversity, his lust for power, and appetite for destruction are plagued by non-feeling. It's like a cancer, refusing to infect Erik despite fatal irradiation.

 

"You don't want this," Xavier says, always rallying when he should retreat. "I can feel your agony--"

"That's your problem, Charles," Erik snaps back. "You can feel, but that doesn't mean you _understand_." Eight years of living, of growth of personality which confused the father as much as it delighted him, for it there seemed to him no way that a child of his could achieve such goodness. Magda, of course, had so many lovely qualities to endow but, though she was knit together and born from her mother's womb, Nina was always Erik's little girl. Charles may be able to feel the pure veins of silver in what was once fallow ground, but he cannot see the slow layers by which it formed. The professor must feel also how Erik loved his wife, as different and equal as rich soil is to fire. He must know how Henryck held her and depended on her, and never let any desire to himself be sheltered or matched by equal strength surface in the dark corners of the night. How easy, how _unfair_, to see such vulnerabilities when the telepath cannot grasp the daily choices by which Erik loved, honored, and obeyed.

--I see.-- En Sabah Nur intones, projecting through Magneto as electricity surges through copper wire. --I have known many powers, but none such as this.-- So avid Erik's stomach twists despite his rage. He is discovering, too, that he cannot coexist with his past, with the very shards of brightness that allowed him to cultivate Henryck to begin with. It _hurts_ to be cursed with some meaning when all meaning itself must be gone.

--Then let there be no meaning at all. Give him to me.--

 

In spite of everything, Erik feels the hot sun of a beach and the weight of a helmet long gone, and balks. Old protectiveness curls ghostly fingers around the familiar touch in his mind; to possess and to be possessed. He loathes himself for it; counts himself as an adulterer among every other noxious failing.

"Erik, please-- it doesn't have to end like this," Charles says, though he knows not truly of which he speaks. He knows only the alien presence in his friend's mind, and the natural fallout of all Erik's devotion. That last is a subcutaneous insight even En Sabah Nur cannot reach. The presumption infuriates Magneto further, makes him long to tear himself apart.

--But it _can_. It can all be over,-- the god-demon says, seeing only his general's hesitation. --Your capacity for love was great.-- In this, there is a faint repulsion and idle notation of some anomaly. --Even my little goddess of justice is not so… zealous as you. But by that virtue, your capacity for destruction may yet be greater still.--

Even hatred and vengeance-- and the self-cannibalizing satisfaction in those things-- are too much to feel right now. Yet Magneto is becoming aware of a curious thing. It is, in itself, anti-sensation; like laying, sunburnt and suffocating, freezing to death on Mars. A lunar sterility, in which life never was because it never could be.

--Give him to me.-- Cool, patient, thick in eternity. --This one last loved thing. Surely, if you loved them then this is a small thing to ask. Let go of it, sacrifice it, and all the pain will stop.--

He actually sucks in a quick, startled breath. The lunatic sanity of the proposition is so perfect that he is actually awestruck. The world can be radically altered, artificial order born from the absolute forfeit of rationality. The chill associated with En Sabah Nur becomes something more familiar, and Erik recalls winters in the camps when he wished his form would turn to metal or stone-- anything impervious. Solid throughout, and free from the danger of working parts.

 

Magneto can feel Charles still-- fumbling, finally ready to flee in self-preservation as he should have been all along. Even when the animate portion of that psyche withdraws entirely, there will still be something left behind. A piece of Charles that remains with Erik the way coral grows and subsumes strange artifacts in a reef. No matter; all debts will be paid, all scales balanced. Even he knows one cannot repent without first giving up the fruits of one's sins. The calcification in Magneto's veins is as much a sedative as it is a rush of power. He can feel all ferric pivots of the world, ready to be crushed beneath his fingertips.

'Serenity,' he considers in calm hysteria, no longer certain if Charles can hear his thoughts. They'll be speaking face to face soon enough. En Sabah Nur's hand is on his general's shoulder, ancient powers manifesting to wrap space and bring them to their goal.

 

('No,' Nina pleads, pressing close to his side. She's just out of her highchair and makes much of being a big girl, but he can read her distress in the way that little thumb is scooting towards her mouth. As he lifts her-- quilts and all-- into his lap, he realizes he's frightened her accidentally. All with the tale of a miracle child whose vitality lay trapped in a jewel. 'Don't let the pharaoh's wife steal it. Daddy, start it over…'

'It comes out all right in the end,' he promises, stroking her hair even as he curses himself. So many tales for children are filled with alarming grotesqueries, if you think about it long enough. 'There's only a little danger now.'

'Nuh,' the thumb is all the way in, but he's conversant enough it decipher the rest without thinking about it. 'Tell me a different story…')

 

'I can't, rybka,' he thinks and, while it caries some agony, he knows now that can be borne-- if only because the conclusion is a tidal wave at his heels. 'I'm sorry, but all the stories are finished. The Book of Life has closed.'

--Bind it, as the scrolls are bound and shut away when all is said and done. Give me the telepath, the last thing holding you to this world, and we will reign down plagues to shake apart the whole of Creation.--

Magneto forms a picture in his mind, whole and perfect, as though he looked on the place only yesterday and not almost twenty years ago. The winding drive, the gates, the seemingly endless chambers hiding something equally expansive beneath. Westchester. She would have thought it a castle, and then not wanted to come in for love of the grounds. Reality shudders around him as they vanish from the warehouse, granting a brief teasing taste of nothing.

 

'Close your eyes, maideleh. It's almost over now.'

 

.