The human body is a pretty complicated thing. It takes him quite a while to remember how to breathe and touch and feel. He works it out eventually, though, and takes a big, gasping breath, sudden cold dirt beneath him, harsh, glittering air filling his lungs.
“Oh my God,” someone says, above him, and he feels his lips stretch into a grin because he's alive. “Darwin?”
Raven helps him to his feet. He still can't see very well, eyeballs trying to remember how they work, but he gets an impression of trees, lots of them, and a long low building. Gray sky. Raven keeps her arm around his waist, holding him up. “I like this blue look,” he says. “It's groovy.”
“Shut up,” she says, but fondly. It confuses him a bit- he likes her, they get on, sure, but they aren't close friends or anything. Hasn't been time for that.
She pulls him close in a sort of hug. “You asshole,” she says, “we thought you were dead.”
“I hurt too much to be dead.”
She leads him inside, sets him down in a ratty old armchair, and disappears through a doorway. He sits there, glad to be still. His vision is finally sharpening, and the headache is subsiding. He can make out the wood floor and plaster walls. He can see small windows, drab curtains pulled slightly back to allow a low level of light. Somewhat more disturbingly, he can see a wall lined with racks and racks of what looks like very varied and deadly weaponry. He's never seen so many guns in his life before.
Raven comes back in with gross apple-flavored tea in a thick ceramic mug. He accepts it gratefully, drinking it all down to whet his dried throat and fill his empty stomach. Ever since puberty, he's never had to wait for tea to cool down.
“Hey, Raven,” he says, putting the mug down on a small metal table, “-sorry, Mystique-”
“Raven's fine,” she says, cross-legged on the floor. She's not smiling, and most of the fondness has gone from her body language.
“Um, okay,” he says. “Could you fill me in on a few things? Like where the hell we are?”
“Canada,” she says. Her voice is flat. Just like that, like her gentleness from a minute ago was a dream.
“Right,” he says, slowly. “And what are we doing in Canada?”
She sighs, and leans backwards slowly until her upper body is resting on the floor. “I'm hiding,” she tells him. “You, I have no idea.”
“Right,” he says again. “That was very informative.”
“What's the last thing you remember?”
He's been trying not to think about that, actually, but. “Shaw sticking a fireball down my throat. Kind of hard to forget, that.”
She's looking at the ceiling, not at him, when she says, “Sorry, Darwin, but I'm not good at breaking things gently any more. As far as I know, you've been gone for twenty years.”
His head is blank.
He hears his mouth say, “Wait a second, am I naked?”
“Hell yes,” she says, and her lips curve in a smile with no warmth behind it.
“Twenty years,” he says.
“Yeah.” She's not looking at anything, now, eyes closed, relaxed like she's smoking a joint.
“You don't look forty,” he points out.
“Eternal youth,” she says lazily. “Part of my package deal.”
This is weird as fuck.
He sits there, and she lies there, and he doesn't know what to ask first. What to think about first.
He's naked, but then so is she, so that's... okay? Maybe?
“You want some beer?” she asks.
It won't do anything for him, but he says sure. She flips herself upright. There's a bone-deep tiredness to her, but it doesn't show in her speed, in the acrobatic grace of her muscles. He knew a laughing blond girl with expensive clothes and easy good humor. This woman isn't her.
He listens to her open a cooler, somewhere out of sight, and he remembers why he died. “Was Angel okay?”
There's a silence, and the sound of a bottle breaking on the floor, a sad, almost musical sound, sloshy around the edges.
More silence, and then she's back, tossing a lukewarm Heineken at him. “Help yourself to whatever,” she says. “I'm sorry but I need to take a walk.”
The door slams as she leaves.
Darwin's glad he pulled himself back together during the summertime. It's kind of chilly even after he finds a bag of assorted clothing thrown in one corner. He wonders why Raven needs an enormous men's Hawaiian t-shirt, or a fancy cocktail dress. There are enough things close-ish to his size, and he feels a lot more human when he's dressed. It's still cold. He pulls back the curtains and lets sunlight stream in through the dirty glass.
There's a telephone on the table, and it works like the ones he's used to even if it looks kind of different. It takes him a while to figure out how to call an American number. His momma picks up on the third ring and Darwin wants to cry. He should have called her every day. Her voice is scratchier, but it's her. “Sophia Muñoz, how can I help you?”
He deepens his voice, hopes it's unrecognizable. “Hi, actually I'm looking for Renata, is she there?”
“Hang on.” He hears her shout, “Rey, it's for you! It better not be one of your boyfriends!”
He hangs up and sits there for a bit, hugging his knees to his chest until the shaking stops and he can wipe the tears from his face.
He cleans up the shards of glass on the kitchen floor, for lack of anything better to do, and he thinks.
The house is more of a cabin, really, but there's electricity, water and what looks like heating. A lot of guns. And knives. And things he doesn't even recognize, holy mother, what is Raven even doing with these? There's another room with a bed and a ton of filing cabinets. There's something that looks like a garage, but it's locked.
There's a mirror in the tiny bathroom, and Darwin stares at his face, the same face that greeted him in the bathroom at the CIA place yesterday morning, and doesn't know whether to be relieved or unsettled that he still looks twenty-three. Like no time's passed at all.
Raven turns up about an hour after she left, eyes red and puffy. She takes his untouched beer and chugs it like water.
“So,” Darwin says.
So, the world's apparently a hellhole now.
“Come on, Raven.”
She opens another bottle with her teeth, then seems to change her mind and puts it on the floor. “I tried to save him, Darwin. Honestly I did. I just. I tracked him down three years ago to a camp in northern Washington. But... that was years ago, and... a lot of things can happen to someone in one of those places.”
A cold, hollow feeling is creeping into Darwin's stomach.
“Dead, back in '63.”
He was alive a day ago. The whitest kid Darwin's ever met, ginger as a tabby cat, smelling of marijuana and bubblegum. Darwin liked Sean. He filled his head with nothing so he couldn't hurt the world and the world couldn't hurt him.
Darwin hopes he didn't suffer, and wow that is a messed up thing to think.
She shakes her head. “He was one of the first we lost to the Sentinels. '74.”
He casts around for something to say. “Did he ever learn to love those feet?”
A smile flits across her face like a butterfly, delicate and brief. “Oh, yeah. You should have seen him. He went all blue and furry. It was awesome.”
“I'm sorry I missed that.”
Go easy on him, he'd said to Alex; he hadn't understood what it was about the awkward kid in the glasses that dug under Alex's skin, made him go from normal Alex, cynical and quiet, to a sharp, hard Alex, someone sort of cruel.
He still doesn't understand. He probably never will.
She picks up the bottle again. “Oh God, I'm not drunk enough for this. He's probably dead? I hope he is, anyway.”
“When Trask Industries figured out his powers he went right to the top of their priority list. If he'd wanted to he could have destroyed America in a day, you know? But he was powerless against the Sentinels. Couldn't even run away. I guess you missed out on that- he was injured, that day when- he lost the use of his legs. I heard rumors that Stryker wanted him alive, so they could, you know, dissect him.”
“Raven,” Darwin says, horrified. He puts his hand on her arm, but she brushes him off, pushes his hand away.
“Like I said. I hope that bastard didn't get what he wanted.”
Darwin goes through the names in his head again. “Erik?”
She rewards that with a horrible short bark of a laugh. “Fuck Erik. He must be so happy right now. Validated at last. But this whole thing is his fault.” Her face went dark. “His and mine.”
“Aw, girl,” Darwin says. “Come on, come over here.”
She flips him off, so he gets up and goes over to her instead, sits down next to her, both of them leaning against a gap in the wall of guns. He puts an arm around her scaly blue shoulder, and she curls into his side with a sob. It's weird, 'cause she's a middle-aged woman now. But from what she's said, sounds like she's spent the last two years all alone in the middle of Nowhere, British Columbia, and she's overdue a little human contact.
She whispers, “You didn't ask me about Angel.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yeah,” she says, quiet. “Someone should know. Someone should remember. She called herself Tempest. Pretty, right? It was her and me and Azazel and Janos and Emma and Erik, and then a year later it was just me and Erik.” Her fingers dig into his shirt. Which is really her shirt. “We broke a lot of things. We killed people. It was probably wrong, but I can't tell what's wrong or right any more. Whatever, I was happy.” Her head rests on his chest. “Sometimes I think maybe I loved her. I don't know. It's hard to tell.”
“It's hard to imagine you killing anyone.” That's a lie though. This stranger, he believes she's a killer. And yet somehow, she's still his friend.
“Charles never understood,” she says. “He lived so deep in denial. Believed up to the very end that his sweet little kid sister could never hurt a fly.” She wipes her face with a blue hand. “Well, I sure proved him wrong.”
He almost thinks she's fallen asleep, and then she murmurs, “They cut off one of her wings and stuck it in a display case. Was I supposed to just let that go? No. Not then, not ever. She deserved justice. We all deserved justice.”
“I know,” he says, helplessly, fingers tracing the whorls of scales on her shoulder. “I know, I know, I know.”
"Maybe that's the explanation."
"What? Explanation for what?"
"You did your disappearing act in a room with eight other people. Maybe you made some kind of connection with us. The only one we know for sure is still alive... is me. Maybe that's why you turned up on my doorstep."
Darwin almost hates her, sometimes. "Alex isn't dead."
Her silence is worse than any words.
"You really blame yourself for all of this?"
She runs a hand through her oily crimson hair. "I made a choice. I shot a man. And this happened."
He catches her hand as it swings downward. "I don't think that's how it works," he says. "We all make choices. We're all responsible for our own actions. The people who set up those camps, the people who run them now, they're to blame for what they do. Not you."
"That's one way of looking at it," she says caustically, but her hand grips his, tightly, like she's drowning.
Raven says they're running low on food. There's a town ten miles down a pockmarked dirt road, a tiny collection of houses too small to have visits from Sentinels. Raven shows him a very professional-looking big-tired bike behind the locked garage. She picks up a battered blue helmet and says, “Guess you don't need this.”
“Nope,” he says. “I'll be back soon.”
“No rush,” she tells him.
She looks small, disappearing into the trees behind him.
The almost-town is kind of nice, in a quaint, woodsy way, although it's way too white for him to really feel comfortable. There's a church that looks like it's made of clapboard, and white plastic letters spell out a message on a large black board, telling Darwin that today's sermon is on 'the mutant threat'. He walks by quickly. He's familiar with this feeling- if it's not one thing, it's another- but that doesn't make it enjoyable, and in some ways being singled out for the invisible code in his cells is worse than skin color or an un-American name or a tendency to fuck guys. It makes Darwin feel like his skin's gone transparent and everyone's staring at his organs and gooey bits.
Past the church there's a little thrift store, and he buys a change of clothes with Raven's crumpled Canadian twenty dollar bills. There's a newspaper rack at the tiny grocery store. He grabs the one that looks the least local, and reads it back at the cabin, in the kitchen, with Raven drinking coffee across from him, bare feet up on the table.
There's a wall across the Mexican border. The Cold War is apparently over, what the hell. Something called “home computing” is really big now. There was a war in Vietnam?
“Hey,” he says, “what's 'Category Two' mean?”
She crosses her legs. He lowers the newspaper slowly. He's still trying to get used to the fact that apparently she goes around naked all the time now.
“Three categories,” she says, crossing them off on her fingers. “Category one, you're genuine homo sapiens, congratulations, ye shall inherit the earth. Category two, you're sapiens all right, but you've got the recessive x-gene, so your kids will be abominations. Enjoy your free sterilization!”
“That'll be my mom and sister.” Darwin folds the paper carefully. “Damn it.” If it's not one thing, it's another. There's always a reason to treat us like shit.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Well,” he says, “I guess it could be worse. They're alive, and okay. That's what's important.”
“Yeah,” she says, “nice to have family,” and then she winces. “Did that come out bitter?”
“As black coffee,” he says. “It's okay. I'm guessing Category Three is us?”
“Ding ding ding,” she says, putting her feet down one at a time. “We have won the genetic lottery, and our prize is internment from age thirteen. Ain't it great to be Homo Superior?”
It's odd. So much of her mannerisms are still those of a twenty-year-old kid. And then there'll be moments when she's approximately a thousand. It makes sense. She's had one weird growing up experience.
“Rey was three the last time I saw her,” he says. “Now we're the same age. How the hell am I gonna get used to this?”
“It may not be a problem,” she replies. “You probably don't have much time left to worry about it.”
She asks him what he wants to do with his second chance at life. “You could head south, try to make it to Mexico,” she says. “There's ways to do it, and you're passably competent, you'd have a good chance.”
“You're welcome. So yeah. Plenty of mutant brothers and sisters there. They've even got a couple of Sentinels fighting for them. I don't recommend it though. La nation de libertad isn't as good as it sounds.”
He winces exaggeratedly, puts his hands over his ears. “Please never speak Spanish again,” he begs.
When he thinks about it, the answer's right there. Maybe he decided this days ago. “I want to rescue Alex,” he says.
She gives him a look. “You really care that much?”
It's a fair question. He's known the guy for what, two weeks at the outside. And that guy that he knows is twenty years gone. He'll be going after a different Alex, a man sixteen years older than him with God knows what trauma. It's been two weeks. It's not like it's true love or anything.
But he keeps closing his eyes and seeing the expression on Alex's face, the second before Darwin crumbled into dust, tattooed on the backs of his eyeballs. He can tell that if he doesn't sort this out he's gonna be seeing it for the rest of his life.
He just needs to make sure Alex is safe and knows that Darwin's okay. That what happened wasn't his fault. That would be enough.
“I guess I do,” he replies.
“That's unfortunate,” she says. “Because what you're asking for is fucking impossible.”
“Nothing's impossible,” he says. Blatant lies again. He's turned into a liar. His momma would be disappointed. But some lies need to be said. Need to be heard.
“Look, Darwin, it's not going to happen. Used to be feasible, but now? Getting in would be easy, but there's no way out. And even if he's still alive, even if you could get him out of there, what would be the point? In a few years they'll come out with the next Sentinel model and we'll all be dead.”
This is going to be hard.
“The Raven I knew would have never given up, no matter what."
She narrows her yellow eyes at him. “You don't understand. I tried, at first. I tried so hard. I rescued a lot of our people. Kids, mostly. But they didn't know how to make it on their own. They were back in the camps within weeks, if they were lucky.”
“You couldn't send them to Lehnsherr?”
She snorts. “What, so they could be conscripted into his little army? Have their powers used to kill as many humans as possible before they got killed themselves? I've heard what's going on in Mexico, and it doesn't sound much better than here. I know you remember Erik the way he used to be, but something broke in him. During those nine years in solitary maybe. He's wrong in the head. I'm not giving anyone to him, not ever.”
He looks at her levelly. “So you do still think there are things worth fighting for.”
She stands up. “You don't know shit, Armando,” she says, and pushes past him to the door.
He lets her go.
She's not there in the morning. He understands. If he lived out in the wilderness for two years he'd forget how to deal with interpersonal conflict, too.
She leaves the garage open. From the dust pattern it looks like there was a car in there. She must have taken it. Darwin pokes around. There's some more weapons, and some radios that he doesn't know how to use, and an enormous pile of books. He grabs one when he sees the author's name- Charles Xavier, Ph. D.
The filing cabinets in her room are unlocked, too. There's a yellowing, well-worn folder in the top drawer. Darwin opens it, and is greeted by the dead faces of his friends. Clinical autopsy notes. Angel looks so fragile in death. She was always so strong, her jacket pulled tight and her smile disinterested, the hardest of armor. In the picture she has blood on her face. Darwin closes the folder. It feels heavy with the weight of so much ancient sadness. He wishes he hadn't pushed Raven. At least she's surviving. At least she wakes up every day to this empty house full of ghosts and somehow finds the energy to get out of bed.
There are other files, full of hastily xeroxed copies. Lots of faces, some dead, some fiercely alive. So many names he doesn't know. Typed reports, with powers and abilities and bits of histories circled, highlighted, underlined and crossed out. He remembers how he felt when his fare meter flipped and took his world with it. Seven people like him seemed like a whole new world. And now thousands die every day. It's impossible to comprehend.
He bikes back down into the village and sits at the bus stop skimming Xavier's book. The bus shows up three hours later, and by that time he's already got a crazy idea percolating in his mind. “Do you go all the way to Vancouver?” he asks.
It's probably a good thing that he's never been to Vancouver before. There's no memory to compare this rushing madness to. As the bus pulls into the station he jams his hands in his pockets and talks to his body. Adapt to survive. Adapt to survive.
He thinks of camouflaging himself against pink flowery wallpaper. He thinks of that one freaky time when the cops were raiding the house next door and he stood in the shadows on the edge of the street and actually saw his skin turn milky pale.
Blend in. Blend in. I am in mortal danger, I am going to fucking die if you can't get this right. I'm counting on you, clever little cells.
Vancouver is city-summer-hot, light and heat reflecting from glass and steel. He walks down the street between soaring buildings, asking people for directions, and sometimes he even gets answers. There's a faint aura of fear here. The smiles are too bright and fake, the frowns too violent. At last Darwin comes to the main civic center and stops dead, staring. It's one thing to hear Raven's stories, and another to stand in the shadow of ten colossal killer robots with shapes on the far creepy side of humanoid.
Too late to back out now, he thinks, and forces his legs to carry him briskly across the street to the towering white structure of City Hall.
There's a blinking arch separating the lobby from the main building. “Metal things go in the box,” a bored security officer drones. Darwin drops forty cents and a two-dollar watch into the container, and the guard pushes it past the arch. “Go on through,” he says.
Don't sweat, he tells his body. You've got more important things to do than sweating.
He walks through the arch.
“Hey,” Raven says, two weeks later, back at the cabin.
"I thought about what you said," she tells him. Her cat's eyes are sharp and vividly alive. "And if there's any chance that he's- if Alex is- that's worth fighting for. Maybe not everything has to be lost."
She opens the door of a banged up blue Ford. Two people clamber out into the bright morning. Similar-looking pale kids clinging to each other. Kind of European-looking. The boy has the stupidest hair Darwin's ever seen.
He looks at Raven, who's grinning wider than he's ever seen her do since he got to this strange new world. “Remember when I said most of the kids I rescued couldn't make it on their own?” She waves a proud hand at the two of them. “Well, some of them could. Darwin, meet Peter and Wanda.”
“Nice to meet you,” Darwin says weakly.
"We're going to help you rescue your boyfriend," the girl chirps.
Darwin's head whips around to face Raven again. "What?"
"What?" She shrugs. "We're going to need their help."
"Look, Raven, I appreciate it, I really do, but these are kids."
"Oh, dude, shut up," the boy says. "I bet we're older than you."
He's never seen Raven this intense before, and her sharp eyes are burning, and it's like she's looking down at him even though he's five inches taller than her. "They've been fighting for their lives since high school. They haven't been children in a long time."
The girl with the curly red-brown hair says, "Raven got our sister out of New York. We owe her, but it's more than that. We want to help someone else the way she helped Lorna. We're both twenty-six. We aren't minors and we know what we're doing."
"You're twenty-six?" Darwin says. "Really?"
"I know," Raven says, "they have such babyfaces." She pinches the boy's cheek. He rolls his eyes. "Hard to believe they're so secretly badass. Tell the nice man what you can do, Peter."
The boy grins. "I can outrun a Sentinel," he says. "Wanda can rip one apart from the inside out. What about you, old man? What can you do?"
Darwin feels like laughing out of pure joy. "Speaking of things that are unbelievable," he says, "you are absolutely not going to believe what I just found out I can do."