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there are questions i can’t ask

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“No,” Erik says.  “You’re still holding back too much.”

Armando sort of hates these sparring matches, but he understands the point of them — Armando might be able to survive anything Shaw’s people throw at him, but he has to be able to match them in terms of technique in order to have even a prayer of taking them down.

But damn if he doesn’t hate them.

He hates, in particular, the look in Erik’s eyes when they fight; he can tell Erik’s seen some shit, and Armando knows that Shaw killed Erik’s mother in front of him, though Erik hasn’t really divulged anything specific beyond that, and the look in Erik’s eyes makes Armando think that maybe, just maybe, Erik is always fighting Shaw, in his head.

“Man, my hands are stone right now,” Armando points out, but he punches harder anyway.

“Still. You need to treat this seriously. I know you know what Shaw can do, even to you.”

They trade blows; Erik dodges most of Armando’s punches, landing a couple of his own so hard that Armando’s ears ring. It’s impressive, frankly.

“Imagine what he could do to the others,” Erik says, his voice low, dangerous. “What he would do to Alex, if he had her.”

That’s fucking low, and Armando’s eyes narrow, a surge of dread mixing with hot, fresh hatred for Shaw in Armando’s guts, and he manages to double, triple the speed of his punches, his arms feeling like they’re weighted in order increase his power, even though he knows they’re not.

In this exchange of blows, he knocks Erik on his ass, mostly on accident.

“Shit, sorry,” he says, disengaging, to give Erik space to move.

"No, that's good.  Hold onto that rage, going into the fight," Erik says, standing easily. "You have something worth protecting, and that anger will serve you well when the time comes."

Armando exhales. "Don't know how you figured me out so easy."

"I loved a woman, once," Erik admits, not meeting Armando's eyes.  "I know what it does."

His tone is unsettling, so Armando just nods.  "And you lost her." He shouldn't push, but… "Was it Shaw?"

"No.  As far as I know, she's still alive.  She left me."

Armando's got the feeling that that's all Erik's willing to say, so he doesn't press him on it any further.  "Alright, then. So you get it, how I feel about Alex."

Erik nods.  "If you want to protect her, you're going to have to fight like you have something to lose."

Then, he starts another round.

 


 

"I'm exhausted," Alex says, almost petulantly.  "I can't shoot straight, Charles is running me ragged. "

Armando, sitting under a tree by the lake, laughs and puts his book down.  "Erik's got me pretty tired out, too," he says, patting the grass beside him.  "C'mon, sit down."

She lets out a gusty sigh and drops like a puppet with her strings cut.  She sits, then tips over, her head landing in his lap, her wig just a tiny bit askew.  "This is better," she murmurs, and he can't help but agree.

"Sure is."  When they're alone together, they can push certain boundaries.

"What do you think they think's gonna happen?"

Armando hums a little.  "It's gonna be Cuba, probably.  Things’re tense, and that's a good boiling point."

She nods a little.  "Do you think we'll be okay, if it goes bad?"

"You and I will, probably," he tells her, running his fingers through a lock of her hair.  "Since you just absorb radiation, and survival's what I do. The others probably won't, though."

She closes her eyes.  “We can’t let that happen,” she murmurs.  “Everything else aside, we can’t let that happen.”

He nods.  “Yeah. Yeah.”

Alex bites her lip.  “I...I dreamed about Virginia, last night.”

Armando swallows.  “Yeah? You okay?”

He has those nightmares, too.  

She nods, looking up at him.  “You died, though, in the dream.”

“You die in mine,” Armando murmurs, his fingers tracing her sharp cheekbone.  “He goes after you instead of me, and all I can do is watch.”

She swallows.  “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”  He exhales. “We’re just gonna have to live with what happened, and what might’ve.”

She sits up, leaning on his shoulder.  “Yeah,” she agrees. “...At least we’re still here.”

He takes her hand.  “Yeah,” he murmurs back.  “At least we have that.”

He just hopes it’s enough.

 


 

“You’ve been quiet, lately,” Charles says, in the library, a few days later.  “Is something the matter?”

Armando shakes his head.  “No, it’s just...a lot’s riding on the eight of us.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what’s going to happen, when it all goes down.”

“Thinking and reading,” Charles comments.

“Yeah.  Been a bit since I was in school, last.  Figure I should brush up.”

Charles nods.  “I’ve been doing the same.  Admittedly, most military strategy isn’t exactly applicable, except in philosophy.”

“Yeah.”  Armando exhales.  “Erik’s been running me through a lot of hand-to-hand stuff,” he says, though he’s sure Charles already knows about it.  “And he said something about rage.”

Charles’ face shutters a little.  “I’m not sure I want to hear about that.”

“Just that I’d need it, when the time comes.”

“Erik is certain that this won’t end with Shaw,” Charles says, and it’s clear from his tone that this is something he’s been thinking a lot about.  

Armando, privately, thinks Erik will prove right about that.

He rolls his shoulders.  “People like Shaw aren’t as singular as you think,” he says.  “They just usually can’t do things as bad as he can.”

Charles looks away, glancing at the chessboard in the corner.  “I don’t think it’s useful to think too much about that, yet.”

He understands that, on some level.  The current existential threat is bad enough; why double up by anticipating the next one?  “Maybe not yet,” Armando concedes. “But it’s going to come up. And his answer to it’s always gonna be the same.”

“I know,” Charles says, softly, sadly.  Then, his expression turns a litle sharp.  “Is Alex like that? When you’re alone with her?”

Armando forgets, sometimes, that Charles isn’t that much older.  Twenty-seven to his twenty-one, with Hank and Raven somewhere in between.  

“Alex doesn’t want to hurt anyone,” Armando says, his own tone getting a little bit warning.  “But she knows she’ll have to, before this is over.”

Charles exhales, some of the fight going out of him.  “I wish she didn’t.”

“Me too.”  But Charles is the one who got them all into this to begin with, and Armando wonders, a little, if that makes a difference.

“What would you do, if she wanted to fight?”

Armando thinks about that for a moment, about Alex with fire in her eyes, and thinks he could love that in her just as much.

“What difference would it make?”

His choices would still be the same.

 


 

Armando can't quite get to sleep a few nights later, no matter how hard he tries.  So he gives up and gets up, heading down to the kitchen.

He isn't expecting to see Alex already there, a cup of coffee in her hand.

"That sure isn't gonna help you sleep," he teases quietly.

She gives him a rueful little smile.  “It’s decaf, don’t worry.” She shifts toward the coffee pot.  “You want some?”

He shakes his head.  “No, I’m good.”

Sometimes, just seeing her is enough to soothe his troubled mind.  He moves toward her, wanting to touch her, to take her in his arms, but he knows he shouldn’t.  

They both know they shouldn’t.  

She hangs in his space, though.  “You couldn’t sleep either, huh?”  

“Yeah,” he agrees.  “Happens, sometimes.”  More, since Virginia, but he’s had this problem a long time.  “Same for you?”

“Yeah.”  Her eyes are soft and sad.  

He reaches out, tucks a lock of hair behind her ear.  “We’re gonna win this,” he tries to assure her. “Whatever happens when it gets ugly, we’re going to win this.”

She gives him a little smile, still sad.  “I know,” she murmurs back. “I just...I can’t help but worry.”

God, he wants to kiss her.

He won’t, though.  He just, carefully, brushing his thumb across her cheekbone.  “I know. Just reminding you.”

That makes her smile.

For the moment, that’s enough.

It has to be.