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His Terrible Swift Sword

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Caliburn Falls, British Columbia, Canada, 2006

In theory, it would be possible to get central heat put in the cabin. It was in the far northern reaches of Saskatchewan, almost as far out of the way as it was possible to get, which was the idea. But the few people who chose to live here understandably put a high premium on heat. They told him -- when he couldn't avoid talking to them -- that there was some guy out of Roddington who'd make the drive in, anytime from March to October, and get him all set up. The guy charged through the nose, but when you're the only source of central heat in a 100-mile radius, that's your prerogative. Most people chose to pay it. All you had to do was pony up the cash, wait around for him to show up and, times being what they were and regulations getting stricter all the time, show some ID.

Logan used a wood stove.

He picked up another log, set it on the stump, and slashed downward. Kindling. He picked up yet another, kept going. Although his claws would have gone through the wood a lot faster, Logan used an ax. Even as far from the rest of humanity as he'd managed to get, there was no telling when somebody would come by and see the wrong thing. Sometimes he chopped extra, sold it. No shortage of a market for it around there, even so early in the year. It hadn't snowed yet -- but it would soon. Logan could smell it, coming in behind the frost.

The brown grass crunched beneath his feet, and he looked up into the distant mountains. Logan was too far away to see the Alkali Lake installation itself, but he was close enough to see the mountains that had bordered it.

Pretty much the last sight Jean would have seen, before she'd died.

Morbid, to come here and live by her grave. Even Logan knew that. But he'd only broken down and come here after it seemed a hell of a lot more morbid to stay at Xavier's side. Better to relive one death than watch dozens more, new ones, painful ones, all the time.

He knew a few of his neighbors -- if that word applied to people who lived 10 and 20 miles away -- wondered about him, asked questions behind his back. He'd picked this place because it was fairly far from Loughlin City, and therefore from anybody who might remember a cage-fighter called the Wolverine; still, sometimes he worried. But mostly Logan figured they took him for a draft-dodger, one of thousands who had relived the 1960s by trekking north, rather than fight a war they either didn't agree with or just didn't think they could win. Logan guessed, as far as that went, his neighbors were right.

Logan would have fought with the X-Men forever. But the X-Men had quit fighting, and Logan was damned if he'd just stand by and watch them die.

When the U. S. government clamped down, when the school had finally been destroyed, Logan had helped them get as far south as Florida. Then he'd left during the night, headed north without ever looking back. The Professor hadn't said anything to stop him, which Logan took as permission, even though the Professor wasn't exactly himself at the time.

Logan's only regret was that he hadn't said goodbye to Rogue. Sometimes he thought that was only because she would have talked him out of it. Sometimes he thought it was because she would have convinced him to let him come along with her. Either thought was good enough reason for him to have kept his silence. He figured Rogue understood without him explaining it, anyway.

Logan felt the breeze stirring again -- harsher this time, colder. Yeah, he thought, snow's coming. The river's gonna freeze over soon.

He thought about that river too much, about what lay down in those depths, about the fact that Jean drowned. Logan figured that was probably one of the few ways he might actually be able to die. He wondered what it was like, how Jean would describe it if she could.

Morbid, he thought, as matter-of-factly as he had thought about the snow, and the river. He picked up another log and kept chopping.


Havana, Cuba

Eight more days, Bobby thought.

He couldn't think about what was happening in eight days. He had to control his thoughts better than that. Bobby never knew he had that kind of discipline in him, to be able to control his every thought for -- man, it was almost six months now since he'd come up with his plan. In all that time, he'd never done or said or even thought anything to give himself away, which was something he planned on congratulating himself about, when he could think about it at leisure. At the moment, he could only keep those words in his mind, those words and no more. They formed a refrain as he ran his laps, around the hotel grounds, early in the morning, before it got too hot to run. (The only shade came from a few palm trees, which had long since ceased to look exotic, even to a guy from Boston.) Eight days eight days eight days eight days. The words had no meaning; they were just sounds, ways of marking time.

What was really amazing, Bobby thought, was that the others hadn't screwed up either. Bobby knew he wasn't some mental giant like the Professor, or even like Dr. Grey used to be when she was alive. But in the self-control department, he figured he was probably miles ahead of Cannonball or Shadowcat.

Then again, he had a good teacher.

For three years, he'd been with Rogue -- forever near, forever out of touch. The two of them had pretty much figured out the absolute boundaries of what you can do through clothes, which were a lot further than he'd ever figured before. Still, though -- Bobby was 20, and he'd wanted too much, for too long, not to have it go a little sour within him. The yearning wasn't as sharp anymore; there was a hollowness to it, more every day. As hard as he tried to keep that from Rogue, he was pretty sure she saw it, down deep. The energy he'd first loved about her, the feisty strength that he'd envied and tried to imitate, was tired now. Sapped out.

She tried so damn hard to keep him happy anyway -- finding pictures in old books to hang up in their crummy rooms, dusting up the scrollwork, making this place look a little less run-down, a little more like the luxury hotel it used to be. Rogue wanted this place to be a home for everyone, most of all for her and Bobby. He hated that she knew she'd failed. He wished there were some way he could tell her that it was his failure, not hers.

He used to dream that it could all change. That the Professor would find a way to fix everything. But Bobby didn't believe that anymore, and he was pretty sure Professor Xavier didn't either. Rogue -- Rogue still believed. That was just one more of the thousands of reasons to feel bad for her.

But in a few days, he thought, I'm gonna stop hiding. I'm gonna start fighting. And when I'm done fighting, when I've finally changed things around here, they'll understand. Rogue, the Professor, Colossus, everybody. They'll get it, later.

The sun rose a little higher in the sky, beating down mercilessly. Quickly, Bobby sent some cool jets of air flowing in front of him so he could run through them, feel a little less burnt and beat. How could this be October? he wondered. Why did people act like living in the tropics was such a great idea? Bobby was sick of it, sick of waking up drenched in sweat and having to chill his own room down to get back to sleep, sick of trying to learn Spanish, sick of Rogue saying how much she liked it here, sick of everybody still acting like the Professor had some answers he just hadn't mentioned yet. But those were all details; he knew none of that was what was really getting to him. Most of all, he was sick of watching the world consumed by a battle he wasn't even allowed to fight.

Yeah, Bobby thought, I can change this.

I've got to.

***

In eight more days. Eight days eight days eight days.


Rogue didn't think Cuba was that bad. No matter what Bobby said.

Sure, it was warm, she thought, as she wandered down by the beach. But the people who bitched and whined about it obviously grew up in cooler climates than Meridian, Mississippi; Rogue figured the temperatures were a couple degrees cooler there, but factor in the humidity, and it wasn't so different from Havana. And the hotel was all beat-up, sure, but what did you expect? It was 50 or 60 years old. At least the rooms were large, and most of the furniture was really nice, even if it was old, and it hadn't been kept up.

It beat the hell out of a 'detention camp" 200 feet underground, where your food came in packets dropped down an electrified chute, where nobody's powers could ever blast you out.

In Cuba, they didn't have to be scared of being treated like that -- didn't have to apologize for what they were, didn't have to hide their powers. The people there were glad they were mutants. Actually glad! Kids asked them to show off their powers in the streets -- Storm was a particular favorite with the little ones, who begged for snowflakes -- and Rogue had caught Bobby making ice roses for a few giggling girls with T-shirts tied above their lean, tan midriffs to show all that golden skin, skin somebody could actually touch.

The important thing, Rogue thought resolutely, is that we're all still together. Almost all of us, anyway.

Logan's departure would have hit her harder if it had been the first. Others had gone, too, even before the school was destroyed. Gambit had been one of the early ones; there had been an ugly scene in the stairwell, with Cyclops yelling, totally losing his temper, something Rogue had never heard before. The Professor finally had to make the others let Gambit go, even though he must have hated to do that. When Domino went, the arguments were shorter. And after the school was destroyed, nobody argued at all.

An older couple further down the beach were staring. Rogue didn't know what the tip-off was -- most likely it was the white streaks in her hair, always faithfully reproduced in the graffiti murals by the side of the road. Whatever it was, they recognized her and waved frantically. She waved back, hoping they wouldn't come and want a picture. Most of them knew better, by now, than to ask HER for a demonstration of her powers.

The older couple, satisfied, settled back into their beach chairs. Rogue breathed a sigh of relief

Even if nobody else did, Rogue understood why Logan couldn't stay. She'd heard Storm grumbling about it to Nightcrawler once, about how, when it came down to it, Wolverine just didn't care. You don't get it, she'd wanted to say. If Logan didn't care, he could stay here and fight with us. If he didn't care, it wouldn't matter that we're los -- that the fight is so hard. But he does care, and it hurts him every time something bad happens, and he's not used to the way that hurts.

As she stared out at the water, Rogue wished she hadn't gotten so good at bearing that pain herself. And by herself -- the days when she could lay all her burdens at Bobby's feet, talk about him with anything in the world, were long over. She didn't think he was cheating on her, but if her own sexual frustration was any gauge, she wasn't sure she would have been able to blame him if he did. It was worse by far that he kept his thoughts from her, forcing her to lock her own thoughts up inside her head.

Logan -- she could have talked to Logan. He wasn't much of a talker himself, but he was a better listener than most people gave him credit for.

Rogue smiled as she remembered talking with him while they worked on the cars; she'd pretended to know something about wrenches and carburetors and fan belts until, one day, to her surprise, she did. Years later, she realized that Logan had recognized her ignorance all along, had taught her without acting like he was teaching her. The first time she'd been able to repair one of Forge's special accelerators by herself -- it had been almost as good as the first time she'd been able to use her powers to help someone, instead of hurt them. Rogue had loved feeling so strong, so smart, so sure.

Sometimes she thought she'd give anything to feel like that again.

But Rogue understood, better than most people: There wasn't any point in wishing for what you couldn't have. Logan was gone, and so were so many of the others, and so was the school. Instead they had a safe place to live, a government that not only gave them rights but also privileges, and -- hey -- a view of the ocean.

She didn't think Cuba was that bad.


above Berlin, Germany

"Almost there," Mystique said, smiling brilliantly as she turned from the jet's controls. She was in her natural shape, sleek and sensual. The red and green lights of the plane's controls reflected off her sharklike skin, though not her dull red helmet.

Pyro hated the helmet. It was heavy, and it itched, and it made everybody who wore it -- yeah, Magneto too -- look like a total dork. And you had to wear it all the time; you were even supposed to sleep in it. Pyro didn't do that, but he waited until the last second to take it off. He knew that it was important, understood real well why they wore them.

Didn't mean he had to like it.

"Look at 'em run," Pyro said, more to himself than anyone else, but Mystique smiled, her white teeth brilliant in her blue face. Beneath the transport plane Condor, he could see long lines of cars attempting to flee the city, like rivers of light. Sorry, guys, he thought. The time for getting the hell out of Dodge was a few weeks ago. Now the borders are closed, and you guys are fucked.

He wished they hadn't waited until nighttime; the Condor was black and broad, and when you flew this low over the ground, you could see the shadow falling over the houses and cars, see the panic on people's faces as it swooped in. Pyro never got tired of seeing that.

"Well, well," Magneto said, leaning forward to behold the lines of cars. "Abandoning the Motherland. And here I always thought of Germans as being patriotic -- a slight virtue, but at least it was something. And it turns out they haven't even that."

"They all run," Screener said quietly. "You know they all run in the end."

Magneto glared backwards, where a dozen of the Brotherhood -- Pyro liked to think of them all as the elite -- were gathered, and specifically at Screener. Screener was NOT the elite, just useful, which he'd apparently just forgotten. What he'd said sounded too much like Screener was defending the humans, something he didn't like much and Magneto liked even less. But, for once, Magneto seemed to let it go. "Have you ever been to Germany before, boys?"

"Once, when I was little -- but, but I don't remember much," Screener said, fidgeting in his seat, the way he so often did when he talked to Magneto. Sometimes Pyro wanted to scorch the terror right out of that kid. Screener acted like he was a hostage, not a warrior of the Brotherhood.

"Never came here," Pyro said. "Never wanted to."

"Americans," Magneto said, his voice dry. "You should get to know this country. It's ours now."

"One of ours," Mystique added.

"Fly the plane." She responded to the command with a throaty chuckle, then returned to her work. Magneto leaned forward and said, quietly, "As it happens, this is my first trip to Germany as well." He seemed to find that funny, for some reason; the corners of his mouth tilted upward. But he didn't let Pyro in on the joke.

"I remember that the food was good," Screener offered, smiling shyly at Pyro. He wanted Pyro to like him, so obviously that it automatically made Pyro dislike him. True, Pyro didn't dislike him all the time; even he would admit that Screener had a cool set of powers. The kid was about 5'2" and scrawny, but he was strong as hell. Even better, he could fly. But the absolute best, most kick-ass power of all was Screener's ability to share. All Pyro (or any other mutant) had to do was grab onto his arm, get this Irish-whisky burn all over your body, and then, bam, you had his powers for a couple hours. The first time Pyro had flown, it had been better than vodka, better than sex, better than absolutely anything in the world besides fire. Screener could amp up something like 50 or 60 mutants before he got tired, which kicked ass, even if Screener didn't seem to know it.

Another factor in Pyro's favor: Screener was one of the few Brotherhood members younger than he was. Screener was the one they treated like a kid. After years of racking up demerits at Xavier's school for shit like being late to class, Pyro didn't ever need to be treated like a kid ever again.

But Screener didn't even mind it. Screener ACTED like a kid. One time Pyro asked him if he wouldn't be happier back at home with his mommy -- but then Screener locked himself in a room for four days. Magneto had to peel off the door hinges to get him out. That guy did NOT want to talk about his mom, or anything else about his home in Norway. But one thing was for sure: The kid was in no hurry to go back.

Pyro knew, sometimes, that he was angrier with Screener than he ought to be -- that the kid got under his skin too quickly, and for no real reason.

For the first time, as he watched Screener squirm, Pyro understood that at least some of his dislike was based in the fact that the kid looked a little like Bobby. Not so most people would notice; Rogue would probably tell him he was crazy. But they had that dark-blond hair, the same blue eyes. Bobby was taller, though, and he was solid where Screener was skinny. Probably even more filled-out now, Pyro figured.

Bobby was the only one Pyro had to tell himself he didn't miss. The first few months with the Brotherhood had been different; every now and then he'd think of a joke Rogue would like, or reminded himself that he ought to get those CDs he'd lent to Colossus back -- and then remembered he wasn't going to see those guys again, ever. Rogue would have to come up with her own jokes. Colossus racked up on the free CDs. But it had been a long time since he'd let any of that shit bother him.

Because he was with the Brotherhood now, and living the way mutants ought to live. Not hiding who they were or what they could do. Working together, doing everything they could to get stronger, do more.

Taking over the world.


Havana, Cuba

"Here is your tea, Professor." Nightcrawler smiled a little too brightly as he set the steaming cup of Darjeeling by the bedside. Among Nightcrawler's many virtues was a near-total sincerity; that, combined with his natural optimism, made his efforts to hide sadness heartbreaking to behold.

"Thank you, Kurt," Charles Xavier said. Nightcrawler flushed a slightly darker blue, which might have been gratitude, embarrassment or both. Xavier could not exert himself to discern which. "Tell me --" he cleared his throat, aware of how seldom he spoke at length anymore. "--how are the devotionals going?"

"Better," Nightcrawler said, and this time his smile was real. "El Presidente, he still disapproves, but he does not send anyone to watch or report anymore. So more people are coming. Humans and mutants together -- it is a fine thing to see." He paused, then said, "Will you not join us this Sunday? We are studying Ecclesiastes. A book of wisdom, surely of interest to such a man as yourself."

How could they still look to him for wisdom?

Moved, saddened, Xavier said only, "If -- if I feel up to it."

Nightcrawler's smile diminished only the smallest degree. Xavier was quite sure that the others understood, by now, that "If I feel up to it" was his way of saying no.

At first, he had meant it -- once he could mean anything, once he could speak aloud. He had been within Cerebro when the military jets fired into the heart of it; it was a miracle he had survived the initial blast, and only Scott's heroics had saved him from burning to death in the wreckage. Xavier remembered none of this himself, but he had gleaned it, in bits and pieces, from those around him. His recovery -- physical and psychic -- was still far from complete.

Storm told him his recovery was taking too long. She stopped herself from saying that it was because he didn't try hard enough. That much, Xavier already knew.

"Scott wanted to talk to you, if you were feeling well," Nightcrawler said as he finished tidying up the Professor's bedside. "Shall I tell him he can come up?"

Scott. The truest believer of them all. Let his hands be stained with the blood of the world, and Scott would still stand by his side.

"I'm tired, Kurt," Xavier said. "Tell Scott I'll speak to him later." His own sadness was nearly overpowering; he could not endure Scott's as well. Whatever strength in Scott had once found in Jean's memory had been sapped when the home the two had shared was destroyed, along with their shared dream.

Nightcrawler hesitated, clearly wanting to argue. But instead, he simply took the tray and went out, his tail dragging limply behind him.

Ecclesiastes. A time to be born, and a time to die. Xavier wondered if Nightcrawler understood how many of the people who flocked to his side now, human or mutant, did so not out of faith but from fear. Knowing Nightcrawler, he probably did, and he would have said it didn't matter. What was it he'd once said? Something like -- "Any path that leads to God is a good path." Something like that.

Xavier could have discerned this in an instant, if he'd so chosen. He could have reached out with his mind, pushed himself past the boundaries of his injury, sifted gently through the memories of those around him until he found the exact quote.

Instead he remained locked up within the prison of his own thoughts. He told himself that he was healing, that he was getting better, restoring himself to his full strength the better to help his X-Men. But in truth, Xavier fought his own recovery -- resisted the day he would lead them once more. His leadership had only brought his followers despair and death.

Scott had done better for them, if only they would see it. Scott was the one who had managed the evacuation of the school, even as so many died and panic reigned. Scott was the one who had taken the communiqué from Castro and realized that it wasn't a crackpot offer but a genuine opportunity. America and China were now unlikely but powerful allies, destroying mutants wherever they could be found. Europe fell deeper into Magneto's grip every day. But the Third World was hungrier, both literally and figuratively, than it had even been before. There, and there alone, were humans willing to take what power they could get to protect themselves in the midst of total war.

If that power was provided by mutants -- well, nations such as Cuba and Chile and Madagascar and Sri Lanka wouldn't argue too much about sources. And so, by the time Xavier had come to again, Scott had brought them halfway to Havana, to more safety and security than they'd ever known before. Even at his school.

He'd never felt old when he still had the school. But now --

Xavier tried to remember the young man he had been. The one who had known Erik Lensherr, trusted him, loved him. But he couldn't picture either of them through the innocent eyes of youth; instead, the only image he had was of the Negev Desert, stretching out before them, desolate and yet, in those years, full of promise.

Promises. He had promised safety to children in his school, who had died at the hands of the very people Xavier had told them to have faith in. Xavier had known them as runaways, huddled in alleys, crying on cots in shelters. A precious few of them had been brought to him by parents who loved their sons and daughters despite their differences, who wanted something better for them than they could ever provide themselves. He'd sworn to keep those children safe, and instead he'd been carried, unconscious, through hallways strewn with their dead bodies. Scott hadn't meant to show him that, but he had, all the same.

Xavier had believed, throughout his life, in the goodness at the heart of humanity, had held it up as a shield against Erik's attacks. That shield had, in time, become a wall, the foundation of Xavier's beliefs and the barrier that stood between him and Erik forever. He'd never been afraid of the risks he took, had never stopped searching for hope. And instead, he had found this: war, destruction, death and defeat.

His thoughts flowed -- as they so often did -- across the ocean. To the first man who had ever heard his thoughts, so long ago.

He knew that Erik could not hear. The pathways between them -- first in one way, then in another -- had been blocked for years, and would remain so forever. And yet Xavier's thoughts still reached out to him. Old habits.

Xavier thought only, You were right.


Berlin, Germany

Magneto wished that Xavier could see this. He tried to tell himself that he wanted Xavier to see it and be humbled, to know that his futile efforts to prop up the weakness of humanity had failed. But within him, he knew it was different -- he wished that Xavier could see it and exult as he did, that he could share in the triumph of mutantkind.

Surely Xavier, at least, would have understood why this city meant so much to him. Magneto brushed the feeling aside. He'd long since given up trying to be understood.

Mystique settled the jet onto the pad at Berlin-Tegel. How convenient, not to have to wait for other air traffic. There was none -- would be none, not for a long while. Magneto thought it best if the residents of Berlin spent some time at home, considering their new situation in some detail.

"Screener. Screener?". The boy did not respond. Magneto felt his temper sour. A little more loudly, he said, "Geir?"

Screener responded to his human name, realized what he'd done, then blanched even whiter. He was forever terrified of Magneto, Mystique and anyone else with one shred of authority. It went back to his parents -- sad story, that -- and Magneto didn't consider it his problem to fix. "Screener," he repeated. "Please see to everyone on the plane. I believe the city is thoroughly under control, but if any last holdouts want to cause trouble, they'll try to attack at the airport."

Berlin. At last, he thought, Berlin is mine. Ours. With relatively little in the way of a standing military, with weaponry concentrated in the long-range, heavy-duty armaments that could do them no good against mutants, most European nations were falling quickly. Even more quickly than Magneto had ever dared hope.

The path was so simple, really. Magneto had begun by reaching out to the dissident groups within each nation -- and every nation, no matter how wealthy, no matter how peaceful, houses those who would gladly see it fall. He promised them weapons, money and the sweetest fruit of all, power. They began the process: Blowing up transportation routes, economic centers, power plants. Then a few mutants would go in and strike (at random, generally; Magneto liked to allow his troops a little liberty) to thicken the atmosphere of terror. With supplies and finances strained, and the people in increasing levels of panic -- to put it simply, Magneto generally found that by the time the Brotherhood came in, most of the work of conquest had been done for him. He came in promising order, and by the time he came, people were too exhausted or afraid to fight against it.

As they'd gained more and more territory, the time it took to work the populace into a terror got shorter and shorter. Germany had crumbled the fastest of all, a fact that tasted very sweet indeed.

"Hit me," Pyro said, holding his hand out to Screener and grinning. A far more successful protégé, Magneto thought. He must make a point of thanking Xavier for him, someday.

Until recently, every bit of progress Magneto and his forces had made could have been undone by Xavier in an instant. Had Xavier only used his powers, he could have turned every one of Magneto's mutants into his own personal weapons for human defense. So he had done, a few years ago.

But then the American military -- ever so obliging -- had taken Xavier out of commission for a few months. A few months was all it took for Magneto to assemble the resources he needed. He'd made hundreds of helmets like his own, concentrating for hours on each, creating the complex layers of specialized alloys that were necessary to block out Xavier's telepathic power.

So it was that Xavier had awakened to find a world greatly changed, and Magneto's soldiers now beyond any telepath's control. They'd gained power in the Mediterranean first, Italy and Spain, and had worked their way upward. Now Berlin was theirs. Berlin! And soon --

Magneto smiled as he strode from the jet, head held high.

Eight more days, he thought.