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Adaptation Under Adverse Circumstances

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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. 

Twenty years.

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.

 That's great.

 


 

“Alex.”

“Darwin, don't-”

“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. 

“Sean?”

“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. 

“Hank?”

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. 

“Your brother.” 

She picks up the bottle again. “Oh God, I'm not drunk enough for this. He's probably dead? I hope he is, anyway.” 

“You hope?” 

“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.” 

“Thanks.” 

“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. 

“Very funny.” 

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.

 “Hey yourself.”

"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."

Chapter Text

 

Driving at night gives Raven a lot of opportunity to remember.

She has so many memories of Alex, and most of them aren't properly filed. Snatches of moments- a few weeks in 1963, a few words and a glance in a hot tent in Vietnam- and then five solid years of someone guarding your back.

Sitting around a campfire that's burned down to a smoulder, smoke stinging your eyes, and Alex saying it's fitting that they're the last ones left.

Why, she'd asked, and he'd said, because we're the killers. We're the bastards who'd do anything to survive.

She had to wake him up a lot, during her shifts on guard. He was always having nightmares. Some of them were about Vietnam, she knew, and the things that happened there that he'd never tell her about. Some of them were about the things that happened before they met. His brother. The guy he'd killed. Prison.

“Some of them were about you,” she tells Darwin, which is probably cruel but it's like she's got no filter between her brain and her mouth anymore. Some things pour out and some things stick in her throat and she's got no control over which are which.

She doesn't know how he reacts to that because her eyes are on the road and he's silent. Doesn't say a word.

The kids are asleep in the back, curled up together all sweet. She curled up with Alex like that sometimes, when the nights were too dark and the days were too empty, and they were both so tired it seemed impossible to keep running. Lying in tents or cellars or ditches they'd whisper words into each other's shoulders, things they'd never say face to face. Sometimes I think I'll just wake up and I'll be twelve again and I'll get a second chance to make things right, save Scott and Darwin and Angel and my buddies and those kids, God, Raven, why am I alive and all those kids are dead this can't be reality it's just too weird

or

for maybe five seconds I really honest to God thought I was in love with Erik Lensherr, that should make you feel better because there's no one in the world more stupid than me, I thought Mystique was something I was making for myself but it was all about him because everything's about him, Mystique was just another tool for him to use, and the stupid part is I still miss them, him and Charles both, even though I hate them I wish I was with them in some silly domestic fantasy somewhere and none of this mess and why didn't I tell Angel how I felt Alex why don't you hate me

When she'd lost him she'd actually felt relief. That was it. There was nothing more she could lose. She was free.

Until a ghost from her past dropped out of the sky.

She can't quite bring herself to hope that maybe she'll get the chance to tell him he was wrong. That sometimes the good people do make it.

“What do you think of the twins?” she asks.

Darwin thinks. “Peter's an ass,” he pronounces, “but he's okay. I can tell he cares about his family.”

“His real name's Pietro, you know.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, his mother anglicized their names when they came here.”

“Hah,” Darwin says. “I can understand that.”

“Yep.”

“Wanda's a sweet kid.”

“She's a lot more than that,” Raven warns him. “Don't underestimate her.”

“I'll keep that in mind.”

Mileposts flash by. The trees stay the same.

“So,” Raven starts.

“So.”

“So you really think you can trick the Sentinels into reading you as human?”

She doesn't see him shrug, but she hears it, the synthetic fiber of his jacket whispering as it slides across his shoulders. “I know I walked right past three of 'em and through a security scanner and there wasn't a beep. I don't know if my DNA actually changes itself or if my skin just turns lead or something so they can't scan me, but whatever the reason, it works.”

“You lucky son of a gun,” Raven says. “Man, we could have used you ten years ago.” She shakes her head. “We were unorganized, of course, but even then it seemed like we always had the most useless mutations. From the data I've stolen, it looks like kids are getting more useful ones now- less telepaths, more teleporters, more technopaths, more fliers.” Angel and Azazel flicker through her head and are gone. “It's possible the x-gene is somehow affected by the environment.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel. “My tricks are almost as useless now as Charles's were. I mean, the youth thing's nice, but my wrinkle-free skin isn't gonna count for jack against a Sentinel.”

“I dunno,” Darwin replies. “You look like you can handle yourself fine without any extra help. Do you really know how to use all those weapons in your little apocalypse bunker?”

“Most of em,” she says. “I've had a lot of practice.”

Something occurs to her. “Darwin.”

“Yeah?”

“We can never let the Sentinels get a hold of your DNA, okay?”

There's silence for a bit as the words sink in.

“Yeah, no way man,” Darwin says. “No way.”

 


 

At the next town Raven stops, pulls into the little parking lot at the back of the public library. “Shake Pete awake, will you?”

He's cranky, but perks up when she explains they're going to be breaking in to somewhere.

Not that the tiny library is much of a challenge. It's eerie, sitting there in the silence, the blue light of the big computer flickering in her face, ruining her night vision, and the quiet hum in the background. There are deep shadows among the shelves.

Computers. They're still a bit like magic to her. The technology appeared so quickly, pushed by government funding and wartime priorities.

The boy wonder stays on guard while she finds the administrator password and downloads a few programs. Then it's time to use all the tricks a little girl showed her a few years ago in Vancouver. Xi'an's a good memory. She's one of the ones who survived. Clever and quick. Raven thinks about her, and her fingers skim over the keyboard.

“Time to go,” she calls to Pietro fifteen minutes later. She doesn't say anything else until they're back on the highway.

“Good news or bad?” Darwin says at last.

She glances in the mirror and sees both the kids awake and listening in the back. She sighs.

“I'm not sure yet.”

Darwin lets out a breath.

“Alex was transferred five months ago to Los Angeles. No reason given.”

“Damn,” Pietro whistles. “That's a lot more driving.”

“Right,” Raven agrees. “A lot. And every extra mile means more danger. On the other hand, LA is huge, and pretty disorganized. It'd probably be easier to spring him from there.”

“Are we doing it?” Wanda asks.

She can feel Darwin's gaze boring into the side of her face, but she doesn't look over.

“Yes,” she decides. “We are doing it. So get comfortable, children. This is going to be quite the roadtrip.”

 


 


It takes much longer than it ought to, because she's driving rather circuitously to keep them out of known Sentinel paths. They see a lot of trees, and coast, and rain. They take turns sleeping during the days, and eat junk from convenience stores. Raven is careful, stays pink, not blue. It makes her skin itch.

Fifty miles north of San Francisco, she drives down onto the beach. It's a bit rocky, but the stars are clear and bright overhead, and the moon lights a shimmering path on the dark water.

“We need to stretch our legs and get some fresh air,” she explains. “I don't want us all zonked during the mission.”

She finds a sandy part of the beach and starts doing stretches. There's a clatter, and she looks up to see her three passengers throwing the large flat rocks on the beach at each other. Wanda giggles as the rocks bounce off Darwin's suddenly hard skin and Pietro always, always catches the projectiles.

They gang up on her but it's even more useless. The stones inevitably fall short, or are tossed aside by a freak burst of wind, or just sail smoothly past her ear.

Raven shouldn't let them do this, but everyone needs some fun now and again, and there's no one here to see.

“So how come you can bust these things up when they're designed to adapt to anything?” Darwin asks Wanda, aiming a stone at her head. It falls before it's even halfway to her.

Wanda laughs. “I'm unpredictable,” she says. “They've got no time to adapt. I never hit 'em with the same thing twice. I'm a force of chaos.”

“Anyone would know that if they saw your room,” Pietro tells her. She throws her own rock and it dings him on the shoulder. “Ouch!”

The air has a faint smell of eucalyptus mixed with seaweed. The files flutter out of their appropriate mental cabinet, drift onto the rocks before she can stuff them away again. Raven spent a decent amount of time in San Francisco and Marin Head, back in the sixties, back in that single year. Erik liked San Francisco. They all liked it. Janos would hang out at the pier, watching the waves and tides and flirting with tourists. Azazel sipped fancy drinks on the curb in the Haight and no one gave him a third glance among all the weirdness there. Emma probably took Erik clubbing, Raven was always too afraid to ask what they did at night. And Angel walked with Raven in Golden Gate Park, wandering through the Conservatory of Flowers. They marveled at all the strange and beautiful adaptations the plants came up with to survive in different climates. It was nice to have time to themselves, away from the pressure of living up to Erik's increasingly militant ideologies. 

The waves lap at the shore and Raven breathes deep, in and out.

 


 

 Five hundred miles and two days later, they're breaking into Los Angeles City Hall. Or rather, Pietro is, and Raven is waiting on 9th and Maple, pretending to browse a fabric stall, safely out of range of the Sentinels clustered around Union Station and Civic Center.

“Got one,” Pietro says breathlessly over her shoulder, and Raven spins. He materializes, holding out a wallet. “Sergeant Hugo Williams. Currently drugged and stuffed in a locker. Should take them at least twelve hours to find him.”

She glares at him. “Someone could have seen you appear like that.”

He shakes his head with a lazy grin. “Nah, I looked around first. Shop lady's at the cashier with the only other customer, and you're pretty well hidden from the street here. I'm not an amateur, y'know.”

“Only too well,” she mutters, and takes the wallet.

 


 

The Los Angeles Mutant Detention Center is in the hills, and it's hot as hell in mid July. Darwin parks their own car on a side road, then joins back up with them right before the gate. Raven's driven an armored vehicle before, though it takes a bit of concentration to do that while maintaining a guise. Sergeant Williams is scheduled to make an inspection today, and she has all the appropriate identification. The gate guard peers behind her. “We were only told about you,” he says.

“Found this bunch in a cellar in Pasadena,” Raven says. “Thought it'd be best to bring them here 'til they can be processed. And then when I get to LA, City Hall calls and tells me there's been a transfer request and I'm to bring one of yours over to the base.”

The guard rubs his head. “God, what a headache,” he says. His fingers tap on an unseen keyboard, and Raven knows he's sending the message: one car, one homo sapiens, three mutants. And that's what the Sentinels' eyes will see. “All right, go on through.”

The gate makes a loud shrieking sound as the car passes under it. The guard hurriedly switches something off and stands indecisively. “Don't be an idiot, man,” Raven admonishes. “Of course the damn detector's going to go off, I've got the freaks in the car, haven't I?”

“Right, right,” the guard says. Lax, Raven thinks. It's been a year since the last U.S. escape, and they've gotten complacent. They think the Sentinels are all the security they need. That will change, if she succeeds today.

Raven watches the kids as they're herded off towards a barbed wire fence and tries to believe she's going to see them again.

 She feels less jittery than she was expecting. Maybe she just doesn't care anymore. Maybe her brain is just telling itself some nice lies.

Just get Alex and get out. Simple. Quick.

 


 

“Ah,” the secretary says nervously, and Raven feels her blood pressure ratchet up a notch. “What was the name again?”

“Alex Summers,” Raven repeats, letting Williams's borrowed voice fill with irritation. “Is there some kind of problem?”

“Maybe,” the secretary says, chewing on her pen. “We've got two Summers's here. S. Summers and A. Summers. A was transferred to R&D a month ago, though. Priority Three wouldn't be high enough for an offsite transfer.”

Ever since the summer day when she had a gun on Bolivar Trask for three minutes before firing, Raven's worked on learning the useful skill of fast thinking.

“Must have been a goddamn clerical error,” she grumbles. “Can you believe the incompetence... Obviously the request's intended for the first one.”

The secretary's brow creases, and it looks like she's about to argue. Raven can't stand for that.

“Ms Green!” she snaps. “I do not have all day to stand around in this overheated office!”

“Ah, yes, yes,” she fumbles, “well, I suppose if it's Priority Three we can't exactly wait for confirmation from D.C. Here you are.” She hands Raven another piece of paper and a shiny card. “According to my data the subject is in sector four."

Raven walks out of the office with her head buzzing. S. Summers. It has to be Scott, it's too much of a coincidence otherwise. But what on earth is she supposed to do about it?

Darwin meets her outside, face grim. “Pete got me a passcard,” he tells her quietly, “and he says he changed the records so my thumbprint will match the director's. It doesn't look like they keep the DNA of the wardens on file, it's just scanned each time to make sure you're human. He and Wanda say they're ready to go whenever.” He touches her arm. “Raven, these people...”

“I know,” she says, Williams's voice emotionless. “We have to stay focused. We're just here for Alex.”

“So where is he?”

“Uh,” Raven says. “The Research and Development building. And there may be some problems getting in. I didn't anticipate this.”

“I saw the building,” Darwin says. “It's low and black. I think most of it might be underground. We  have to go through the main area to get there.”

The Los Angeles mutant prison is not really supervised by human eyes. Ten Sentinels stand guard, but Raven knows they're only programmed to act if a mutant tries to escape or makes physical contact with a human. As they walk down the dirt road, Darwin maintains a healthy distance from Raven to avoid any accidental touches. This also makes conversation impossible. Raven's grateful for that. She doesn't want to tell Darwin that Alex is not likely to be in any condition to escape, not if he's been “researched” for a month.

The mutants are visible here and there, lying in the meager shade under the buildings. They're not exactly starving, but the food riots in LA are only a year gone and feeding mutants is not high on the priority list. Some have visible injuries, mostly ones with highly visible mutations. They're all badly sunburned. Raven doesn't look at the faces, at the letter carved into their foreheads, made of thick scar tissue.

She wipes sweat from her forehead before it can drip into her eyes. 

“Raven!”

She freezes, bones turned to lead and blood to ice.

One of the mutants is pushing herself to her feet with the assistance of a battered cane. She moves slowly, carefully towards Raven, though her body language is screaming her excitement. She keeps her cane in front of her, and Raven realizes she must be blind. A few seconds and she's close enough that Raven can see the cloudiness in her eyes. Her hand settles on Raven's arm and Raven is still too shocked to move.

The Sentinels do not stir. One mutant has laid a hand on another. It is not of concern.

“At last,” the woman says, smiling at a point over Raven's shoulder. “I was starting to worry you weren't going to come after all.”

Raven blinks, and takes stock of her accoster. Tall and narrow, a delicate nose, sad mouth, and strong chin. Young, in her early twenties maybe. Pale pockmarked skin burned a flaky lobster red, long dark hair put back in a bun. There's scar across one of her eyes, thinner and lighter than the one on her forehead. She's in as bad shape as the rest of the prisoners, but unlike the rest, she's still full of energy.

“I'm sorry,” Raven says, cautiously, “Do I know you?”

The woman is smiling like Raven is the universe and it's unsettling beyond belief. “You do now,” she says. “Come on, I'll bring you to Scott.”

Raven makes it a point to thoroughly examine the teeth of all gift horses, but at the moment she's got no option but to trust a stranger. And mutants are a weird bunch at the best of times, anyway. This one's probably harmless, maybe even helpful. Darwin's raising his eyebrows at her. She shrugs, and they follow the woman behind a concrete building.

All thoughts of the woman go out of her head when she sees the man she knows instantly is Scott Summers. Not because he looks like a young Alex, although he does, and it makes her heart tighten; because he has no eyes, just cruel lumps of scar tissue in the hollows under his brows, and Raven's always been way too quick at putting two and two together, and Alex told her Scott's power, years ago in a cold house in New York.

“Scott!” Raven's guide shouts happily. His head jerks up and he smiles, small and soft. “Scott,” she stage-whispers when they get a bit closer, “I brought Raven!”

“At last,” Scott says. “-where is she?”

“On my right,” the woman tells him.

He holds out a hand in Raven's general direction. After a moment, she takes it. He shakes Hugo Williams's big gnarly hand. “It's an honor to finally meet you, Raven,” he says. His voice is soft and careful and Raven is so confused at this point.

“Can I get an explanation?” Darwin asks, coming close but still being very observant of where he walks.

“Darwin,” Scott says. “You've come here to rescue my brother.”

“But you're going to take us too,” the sunburned woman informs them, smiling beatifically.

Raven opens her mouth. Closes it.

“Look,” Scott says, “that secretary you talked to sent a querying message to DC, and in fifteen minutes they'll get a reply saying your transfer request doesn't exist. You're in trouble. But my friend can get you out of this.”

Raven searches for words, but all that she can come up with is “How?”

“It's my mutation,” the other prisoner explains. “I can see the future. In a very specialized way, that is. I know exactly what is going to happen and what path we must take to escape.”

Time is clearly of the essence, but Raven still takes a moment to ponder the implications of this. “You see us all getting out? With Alex?”

“If we all do what we are supposed to,” the woman says, “yes. So I need you to trust me."

“You've got me at a bit of a disadvantage,” Raven points out.

“Very true,” the woman says. “My name is Irene. And I have been waiting for you for a very, very long time.”

Chapter Text

The darkness never lasts long enough. He comes back to himself slowly, unwillingly. The world is vague through the gauze of sedation. He's grateful for that. It muffles any fear or pain.

One of the white coats helps him to his feet, and holds him up as he stumbles down a corridor. He fades in and out for a bit. He sees his feet walking, but for a while he thinks he's back in prison, or at the army training camp.

He's led into the large blastproof room. He lies down on the low table and tries to stay still while the white coat fastens the straps. There's a crack in the ceiling. He stares at it for a minute, or an hour. Probably a minute, that makes more sense. There's a bright light in his eyes now. Three white coats here, that he can see anyway. One of them starts the usual blood drawing and tissue sample. He can barely even register the needle going in which would be sort of concerning if he had any reason to think about the future.

He doesn't. Have any reason. The future is dark and short.

Then again, the present's not too hot either, and the past is very unsafe territory. So he lets himself drift, and doesn't think of anything.

Alex blinks. The white coats are leaving, retreating to the safety of the observation window. He bends his neck until his chin touches his collarbone and he can see that there are familiar paddles attached to his chest. Today is for more electric shocks. Even through the drugs, he feels his body start to shake. The shocks are his least favorite. The pain makes him involuntarily throw out loops of energy like a cornered animal, and the result is really not fun.

Alex learned a lot of card games in the army. Games were a good way to seem like part of the group when you didn't really feel like talking most days and you wouldn't volunteer any information on girls back home and you didn't have any crude jokes to contribute. He'd also learned to be pretty good at solitaire; it calmed his nerves, kept his power dormant. He's about to start another game in his head when something happens. There's a flash of light, and his eyes flick up.

Something's going on in the observation window. There's another flash, and he can't hear a thing in here but he'd bet it was a gunshot.

He's getting dizzy, so he relaxes his neck, lets his head thump on the table. He stares up at that crack in the ceiling and tries to collect his thoughts.

After a while the door slides open. He keeps his eyes on the ceiling while the straps are unfastened by hands clumsy with haste. A face appears above him, and with effort he recognizes one of the white coats. “Alex,” the face hisses. Then for three seconds the eyes above him burn golden.

“Oh,” Alex thinks he says. “Hello, Raven.”

“We need to leave,” she says in her own voice, incongruous emerging from her current body.

He hears someone laughing, a hoarse dry laugh, and realizes it's probably him. “You took your sweet time,” he tells her. “I was expecting to go crazy weeks ago.”

“Oh, Alex,” she says. She sounds angry. “Just come with me, all right?”

She helps him sit up, drapes his arm around her shoulders and lifts him to his feet.

When they get out of the room his ears are assailed by the loud wailing of an alarm. “This way,” Raven says. He sets his body going, and then his mind drifts away again.

 


 

A vision of the white coat's face, hands on his face, shaking his head, Raven's voice shouting, “Stay with me, Alex, you bastard!”

He tries, for her, but it's just too hard, and he's gone again.

 


 

He comes back to himself to see part of the concrete wall peel away and transform into a ghost. Strong arms around him. “I like this hallucination,” he mumbles into Darwin's shoulder.

“You look like crap, man,” Darwin says.

An enormous noise and a bullet ricochets around the corner, burying itself in the concrete wall. Darwin slams Alex against the wall, scraping his bare skin along the rough concrete. Alex has his arms around Darwin's chest, and he can feel Darwin's back growing hard overlapping scales. A small part of his mind registers Raven's footsteps as she sprints back in the direction of the gunshot. But Alex isn't really there any more, he's in Vietnam, crashing through jungle undergrowth, shots behind him playing percussion in his ears.

“Okay, I'm just gonna pick you up and carry you,” Darwin says. “I'm sorry, dude, but we need to go fast.”

 


 

The sunlight, when it appears, is very unreal. “Where's Raven?” he asks.

“She'll be fine,” Darwin says.

 


  

He's telling the truth, because the next time Alex opens his eyes he sees Raven arguing with Scott and Irene in front of a fence. He starts to feel upset. If this is his fantasy, then Scott should have his eyes back. Alex wants a refund.

A guy with bad hair appears out of nowhere, sweaty and nervous. “They're heading for the Sentinels. This is really not good. What are we going to do?”

Irene is pale and grim and more focused than he's ever seen her. She says, “We are going to run.”

“Fuck that!”

Raven shifts, white lab coat becoming blue scales. She kicks at something angrily. “Alex needs to get away from here,” she says. “No, Pete, you can't take him, he's injured and I don't want to stress his body even more. You two know you can't take him. So I have to get him out of here.”

“I'm not leaving my sister,” Pete shouts.

“You think I want to leave them?” Raven shouts back. “But we need to make a decision now-”

 


 

Fragments. Running, Raven pulling at his hand. Heat. A Sentinel actually exploding over their heads, shards of metal stabbing into the ground around them. More gunshots.

The sedatives are wearing off and he's starting to feel a horrible fear that this might be real, and he hears himself screaming for Scott, and he's not holding Raven's hand anymore. His bare feet hurt. The running's pulled his stitches and he's bleeding onto barren ground.

“Down,” Darwin commands, and pushes him into a shallow depression in the ground. Dirt grinds into Alex's opened stitches and his world is filled with pain. Pain and memory and panic.

“Darwin no don't, stop, get out of here-” He's incoherent. He's wandered into one of his nightmares, one of the bad ones that puts Darwin and Sentinels together and it's still his fault and he still can't do anything but watch it happen, uselessly frozen. His hands scrabble down Darwin's shirt, trying to find purchase, to push him away, to do something.

Darwin grabs his hands and pulls Alex close, chest to chest and knees to knees in the hollow. He feels real.

And then everything is light and heat beyond imagination or tolerance.

And then it's over, and somehow he's still alive.

Darwin rolls off him. The hard plated scales are shifting back to soft skin. Alex looks up. The Sentinel is a hundred feet away, and it's swaying. There's a woman with thick chestnut curls between them and the Sentinel and she's... making dramatic hand gestures at it? Whatever she's doing, it's effective. Alex stares in astonishment as the Sentinel starts gently smoking and then crashes to the ground. The woman hops out of the way and turns to them, grinning.

Alex twists the other way. He stares at Darwin. He reaches up a wavering hand and places it on Darwin's warm, dry, dust-covered face.

“This is real?” he asks.

“I'm pretty sure, yeah,” Darwin says.

“I don't understand.”

“That's okay,” Darwin says. “Things are going to be okay.”

They don't say anything else. Darwin pushes to his feet and pulls Alex up after him, and Alex lets Darwin hold him up, since he's really not sure of his balance right now.

He frowns down at himself. “I'm not wearing a shirt.”

“Hey,” someone calls, and Alex sees Raven sprinting towards them, blue as ever. She glares at Darwin and the dramatic hand gestures woman in turn. “I can't believe you just did that.”

“It worked out,” the woman says, the grin fading. “A bunch of the people in there ran for it, I think they can make it if they've gotten to the hills.”

Bang.

The human soldiers were intimidated by the defeat of the Sentinels, Alex guesses, but it didn't hold them back for long. They're coming up the hill, and the mutants at the top are easy targets.

Another bang and Raven cries out. There's a long cut down her cheek, but the shooter missed. Nervous, or poorly trained maybe. It's been a long time since humans had to go up against mutants directly, without giant robots to do their dirty work for them.

The shooter's not going to get the chance to try again.

Alex stumbles out of Darwin's grip, staggers the few steps to the top of the hill. There's maybe ten people below, and a veritable forest of weaponry.

Alex has only once used his power with intent to kill another person, but it's not the sort of thing you forget. Even exhausted, shaking, chest burning after endless tests of his power, it's absurdly easy to fall into that deep, endless pit of anger and let it take control until all his nerves are fizzing with it.

The blast kills one of the wardens outright. Others scream at burning or mangled limbs. The flames meet the dry hill grass and devour it hungrily, consuming and spreading all down the line of Alex's attack.

He folds to his knees and watches the flames, vision growing dark.

“Oh, hell,” he thinks he hears bad hair guy say. “Why can nobody ever wait just two seconds until I get there? I could have sorted this shit out easy. Really, just look at this mess.”

There's a broad hand on his shoulder, and Scott's voice in his ear, urgent: “Alex? Alex, are you okay?”

He nods twice, and then he thinks he passes out.

 


  

Next thing he knows, he's lying on the back seats of a moving car, his head and shoulders on somebody's knees. He doesn't know whose. He keeps his eyes closed. People are talking above him.

“Do you see those stitches? Someone opened him up like he was a frog on the dissection table. I'm glad you killed those bastards in the lab.”

“Yeah.” Raven's voice coming from the driver's seat, low and dull.

“I hope we cleaned those stitches in time.”

“He'll get sick.” Irene. “But he'll recover.”

“You couldn't have told us that earlier?”

“No. I don't see mid-range things that clearly. They get too muddled by people's impulsive decisions.”

Alex opens his eyes. “Scott,” he says.

“He's fine,” Raven says reassuringly. He wishes he could see her face. “We just didn't have enough room for everyone in our car, so Pietro stole another one and he's driving your brother and Wanda up a slightly different way so we're less likely to all get caught.”

“I don't know who Pietro and Wanda are,” Alex says, “but okay.” The motion of the car is gentle. Soothing. He realizes that while he's still not wearing a shirt, there are wide bandages wrapped around his torso, which is better than nothing.

He remembers more. The words get caught in his mouth for a while before they come out. “I thought... I thought Darwin was there.”

A warm hand takes his. “Sure was, man,” says the most wonderfully solid hallucination Alex has ever encountered, right above his left ear.

Alex blinks.

“Oh,” he says eloquently. “How?”

“Finally put myself back together.” His hand is squeezed. “Alex, I'm sorry it took me so long.”

Alex doesn't say anything more, just curls his fingers around Darwin's and holds on.

“We're all okay, Alex,” Raven says. “You can relax now.”

He closes his eyes. The motion of the car lulls him to sleep.

 


  

“Okay but what is the point of even talking to you if you already know whatever I'm about to say.”

“I don't. It doesn't work like that. People don't decide their exact words until right before they say them. If you were composing a particular speech all day then yes, I could probably see that. I mean, not see, I don't actually see things, I'm blind. But I'd know.”

“That's creepy.”

“And you are rude.”

“Wow, who just rescued who again?”

Alex wakes up to find the car swerving a bit alarmingly. “Whoa, Raven, calm down,” Darwin says.

“I am perfectly calm,” Raven claims. “I am absolutely composed. I am not getting even the slightest bit upset.”

Irene giggles.

Darwin sighs, and smiles wryly at Alex.

“Don't laugh at me. I hate you.”

“No you don't.”

In the darkness, Alex feels his own lips curl up at the edges. He's rusty at smiling. He's going to need some practice.

“Go east,” Irene suddenly says, the teasing gone from her tone. “A Sentinel's going to be sweeping the coast for two hours.”

Raven swears and hauls the car to the right, up a different freeway ramp.

Alex shivers and grabs Darwin's sleeve.

“Hey, it's okay,” Darwin says. “He may not have an Irene, but he has a Wanda and a Pietro and trust me, those kids could make a dozen giant robots run home crying.”

Darwin hasn't lost his knack for hearing the words in Alex's silences. Twenty years, two wars, and he can just appear out of thin air and hear the things Alex struggles to say. It's really unfair.

 


 

The second time he wakes up, he remembers the people he killed on the hill. He pushes himself upright. “I kind of need to pee,” he says.

Raven obligingly pulls into the next rest stop, and Alex throws up into a toilet, and hopes that's the last of the drugs leaving his system. He stands in front of the dirty mirror for longer than he should, elbows on the edges of the sink, staring at the scar on his forehead.

He doesn't feel like someone who's nearly forty, but that kind of makes sense because the last ten years don't even feel like they're real. The memories are there, rather too close to hand, but he forgets sometimes that they happened to him, that he's not a nineteen year old watching a movie reel of someone else's life.

His fingers grip the sink till they're nearly as white as the porcelain. The years happened. His life is more than half over and he's spent most of it in an angry self-hating fog. It all seems fairly pathetic.

Scott and Raven and Darwin are alive, so things are actually a lot better than they could be.

His chest hurts and his mouth tastes of bile, but at least he knows where he is. Not the CIA base and not Vietnam and not Los Angeles. Just a shitty rest stop somewhere in the northwest.

Alex walks out of the restroom and Darwin's there, leaning against the wall, practically disappearing into the shadows but Alex always knows when Darwin's there. He stops. He has no idea what to say. He was never the kind to think up posthumous apologies; he'd never seen the point. Now Darwin is in front of him, and “sorry” is kind of absurdly inadequate.

“Alex,” Darwin says. “I want to apologize to you.”

Alex doesn't know how he expected this to go but it definitely wasn't like this. “What?” he manages to say, short and strangled.

Darwin's gaze is direct, and his eyes are beautiful and sad. “I'm sorry,” he says. “I knew you didn't want me to start shit with Shaw, I knew how uncomfortable you felt about your powers and I forced you into a terrible situation.”

This is not how it was supposed to go and Alex's default reaction to confusing things is anger but he knows that by now and he just stands there and waits for things to make sense again.

“What happened,” Darwin says so softly. “That was the worst shit I could have pulled on you, right? It was exactly what you were scared of happening and I know you, Alex, and I saw your face when I... when it happened and I know you beat yourself up over it.”

“That's a bit of an understatement,” Alex says.

The memories are coming back now. He told Darwin how he felt about his mutation by the pinball machine, early in the morning when the other kids were still asleep. Darwin listened, and then he came up behind Alex and put his hands on Alex's hips and if anyone else did that they would get fried but somehow Darwin could touch Alex and he'd just lean his head back onto Darwin's shoulder and let the other kid pull him close. Darwin was a very tactile person, kind of like the exact opposite of Alex but Darwin got in his space and let his arm drag across Alex's chest and laughed and grinned so widely at him and Alex felt actually really happy, even if he wasn't sure how to show it.

“Alex,” Darwin says.

He can't stop it; the anger surges up and boils over. “Why the fuck,” he says, “are you apologizing to me,” and his throat closes up and he can't do anything but swallow for a few seconds. Darwin puts a hand on his shoulder and he shrugs it off with force. “I killed you. You died because- because you relied on me even though you knew I wasn't good for anything but breaking things.”

There's a second of silence that stretches between them like an abyss and then Darwin's arms are around his neck, he's being drawn in for a tight hug. “Get off me,” Alex mutters, and then he cries into Darwin's thin cotton t-shirt. He lets himself sink into the contact. Everything is Darwin at this moment and that's how it should be.

“The only one who hurt me was Shaw,” Darwin says. “And he couldn't even keep me down for long.”

“Long enough,” Alex tells him.

“I know you've been through unbelievable amounts of shit,” Darwin says. “But I just want you to know that I'm here. However you want me.”

Alex lets go and steps back, tries to read Darwin's expression, but for someone who can be so animated he can also show an infuriatingly blank face. “It's been twenty years,” he says. “We can't just pick up where we left off.”

“Why not?” Darwin counters. “The world's gone to shit. Why shouldn't we do whatever feels right? But I'm not trying to put anything on you before you've gotten a chance to recover and sort things out. I just want you to know that I'm here, and-” is he actually blushing? Impossible to tell in the dark- “you haven't changed so much that you're not still the guy I click with best, you know? When I met you, it was like- like everyone else I've met was just practice for meeting you. That sounds dumb, but it's true. Whenever I thought anything, I wanted to tell you about it. I can't explain why you were different from everyone else, maybe because you were a mutant too I don't know, Alex, I'm always going to like you, I'd like you if you were a thousand year old sea slug, that's just the way it is."

They stare at each other in the dark.

“Hey!” Raven's voice rings out from across the parking lot. “What's the holdup?”

“That was really romantic," Alex says.

"Don't you dare laugh."

"You're still such a dork,” Alex says, and shoves him.

“Asshole,” Darwin says with a smile and shoves back.

Alex stumbles and falls. Darwin's hands are pulling him up before he can hit the ground.

“Dude, you okay?”

“I don't know,” Alex mumbles. “Head aches.”

Darwin's palm is cool on Alex's forehead. “I think you've got a low fever,” he says. “Let's get you back to the car. We've got Tylenol stashed in the glove compartment.”

Alex shakes his head. “Not unless it gets bad,” he says, trying to remember what he'd done when Raven got sick four years ago. “Let it fight whatever the hell's attacking.” He glanced up at Darwin. “Have you ever even been sick?”

“Nah,” Darwin says smugly. “Not so much as a sniffle. No allergies, either.”

“I really, really hate you,” Alex tells him.

 


  

It takes them twenty-five hours to get to wherever the heck Irene's leading them, which turns out to be a cabin by a lake in Canada. “Not another one,” Darwin complains. Alex is still dizzy and shaky, so he lets Raven help him out of the car. The air is fresh and the trees are very green.

Another car pulls in behind them and Alex lets go of Raven to stumble over to his little brother, who's scowling in the good old Summers way. "Hey," he says, "it's me," and then he doesn't say anything else, just bumps shoulders with him. Scott doesn't say anything either. He was a talkative kid, but he's quiet now. Alex wants to fill in that twenty-five year gap but he doesn't know how to bridge such a large distance. He hates looking at Scott's face but he makes himself look straight on; he'll have to teach himself to see just Scott and not his own anger at the people who hurt him.

The twins introduce themselves to him excitedly. They're kind of cute. Very enthusiastic, which you don't see much these days.

Irene gathers everyone together. Raven hovers around her, frowning. Alex feels like smiling again. 

They walk up to the cabin and Irene knocks on the front door. Then they wait for two minutes. The door is opened with an accompanying cloud of cigarette smoke, and a guy with scary facial hair stares at them. He takes in the small crowd, and his eyebrows draw together. "Aw, hell no," he says.

"Whoah," Pietro mutters behind Alex. "No way."

Irene says, "Hello, Logan. It's Irene. We met a few years ago."

"Yeah," Logan says, "and it wasn't exactly teatime in the park, as I recall. What the fuck are you doing here, and who are all these assholes? Lost ducklings? Go away."

"I'm not moving," Irene says with the sweetest smile.

Logan stares at her. "Aw, hell," he says, and angrily bites through his cigarette.

"You won't regret this," Irene promises.

"I'm already regrettin' it," he says.

 


 

 

The lake is very peaceful in the mornings. Alex sits on a rock and watches the birds.

"Never figured you for a bird watcher," Darwin comments.

"I didn't hear you there."

"I can be quiet when I want."

So they're quiet. The sun glimmers in the lake. The birds squabble over food. Alex sits next to Darwin and thinks of nothing.

"Is this a private event or can we join in?" Raven asks.

Alex looks up. Irene's with her. They're not holding hands now but he suspects they were a minute ago. He shrugs. Irene sits on a log and Raven sits cross-legged on the leaf-strewn ground.

Raven's not as good at silence. "So what's the plan?" she asks. "Do we have a plan?"

"I think you do," Irene says, "even if you haven't told yourself about it yet."

"Okay," Raven drawls, "what the hell are you talking about."

"You're a natural leader," Irene says, "and you're not passive, don't lie to yourself and say you're not. You are passionate about your own personal causes. That passion will inspire others. You know that, deep down. You'll never be content with hiding, not really. You're going to fight back, and I'll be at your side. Wanda and Pietro will be too."

Raven seems at a loss for words, just staring at her wide-eyed.

"Alex and Darwin, I don't know about. And Scott isn't and shouldn't be a fighter. I'll tell you this though." She turns to address Alex specifically. There really are good things in your future. Bad things too, of course. That's just how life is." She smiles at him and turns to Darwin. "Will you walk with me? We haven't gotten much of a chance to talk."

Alex looks at his shoes as he listens to them leave. Borrowed sneakers from Logan, too big for his feet. He is extremely aware of Raven's presence next to him. It's the first time they've been alone since the escape. He picks up a twig and starts peeling off strips of bark.

"So you and Irene."

"Shut up," she replies instantly, but there's a shy happiness in her voice that he hasn't heard in far too long. Some of her heavy sadness has been lifted. Alex will owe Irene forever for that.

"...you and Armando?"

"I don't know. We'll see. I hope so."

He can't think of anything else to say, so they sit. The breeze stirs the lake and ruffles the leaves above them. He picks up another stick.

Raven clears her throat.

"Alex," she says, "you know you're my best friend, right?"

He freezes.

"Uh," he says.

"I just wanted to make sure you knew," she says. "That's all."

Alex isn't one for physical gestures, but sometimes the situation calls for it. He reaches over and takes her hand.

"I know," he says. So much weight to the words. The weight of the years and the memories of seeing a person at their worst and best too. "Was Irene right? Are you going to fight again?"

She huffs a bit. "Irene thinks she knows everything. She's young and arrogant. And I guess sometimes observant." She sighs. "I don't know. Maybe? But if I do, I won't ask you to join me." There's an unexpected fierceness to her voice as she adds, "I never want you to have to fight again."

The sun rises over the trees and shimmers in the water.

"Thanks for coming to get me," Alex says. "Thanks for everything."

"Shut up," she whispers. "Idiot."

He hasn't felt this happy since he was nineteen, since the time he first beat Darwin at pinball.

He's who he is, and the world is what it is. Maybe it's time to stop wishing things were different, and focus on adapting to the situation as it is.

The sun is rising. It's going to be a warm day.

In his head there is fire and needles and shells, and on his head there's a scar that he'll never be rid of, but those things can take care of themselves for a little while. And he has friends, who understand and want to help, and a little brother for him to help too. They'll figure it out.

Alex Summers watches the birds, and thinks that for now, things are, more or less, okay.

There's a future ahead full of good things and bad things, and it's uncertain as hell but it's theirs and that's enough.