Charles felt much better in the morning. Even Frost's usual telepathic jab did not unsettle him. Perhaps it had been the medicine McCoy had given him; perhaps it had been a good night’s sleep. Perhaps it was due to his success: he had dared the lion’s den and lived to tell the tale. Well, the door of the den, technically. And not so much “dared,” as “skipped down the hall whilst high as a kite.” Charles smiled to himself, sipping his tea. Best of all: he hadn’t had any dreams. Angel had needed to knock twice that morning to wake him.
They had run out of coffee, so John was sulking. Sean was humming at a strangely high pitch. Bobby and Ororo were both watching Jean. And Jean … Charles bit his lip, feeling a stab of conscience. Jean looked as badly as he had felt over the last few days.
“Jean, dear," he said. “Have you ever had tea, to drink?”
Jean looked up at him, her grey eyes dull and flat, deep sunken in her face.
“She’s …” Ororo swallowed hard. “I’ve always said that she’s too young.”
“For caffeinated beverages, perhaps.” Charles rose and walked to the jar containing those hideous what-had-been-American-style tea bags, picking up the hot water on his way. “What John and I have been drinking is, by its taste and smell, chamomile. It's completely herbal.” He kept up the soothing flow of words as he poured out a cup. “Matricaria recutita, or chamomilla of the same genus. German chamomile, not to be confused with the Roman type – brewed through human history, to help with insomnia, anxiety, and headaches. And you –” Charles held out the cup to Jean, “are having your first taste of it, today.”
Bobby half-smiled. “Walking, talking encyclopedia; that’s Professor X.”
Charles felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle. “Professor?” he asked, lightly. “Why call me that?”
“Um.” Bobby made a show of getting up and clattering his dishes in the sink. “You just sounded like a teacher or something, kind of. So, Jean, you like your drink?”
Jean had closed her eyes, breathing in the steam from the hot tea. “Blow on it,” Charles advised, “wait for it cool down a bit.”
“Yeah, Jean, blow on it,” John mocked, and: “John, that is inappropriate!” Ororo thwacked him with the flat of her hand. “She’s six years old!”
“Who cares?” John stomped to the sink beside Bobby, poured out the tea in his mug, and let it drop. He looked as though he wanted it to break; he glared when it didn’t.
Charles dismissed John’s mood as caffeine deprivation, moving his eyes back to Jean. She was staring into the depths of her cup, as though trying to read the future in it.
“Drink it,” He sat back down, took a sip of his own, and reached out to touch her hand. “It will help.”
She drank. Sighed. And gave Charles a picture, a wash of miserable grey and painful orange – but grey and orange slowly being edged with cool green, and – Thank you.
“Thanks, Mr. Xavier.” Ororo’s eyes were dark and serious.
“No trouble at all.”
Silence stretched, punctuated only by the sounds of Bobby and John washing dishes, until Sean left off humming and eyed Jean’s cup, wistfully. “Mr. Xavier?”
“Can I have some tea too?”
Sean had only just finished quaffing his cup – “Ew, weird,” – when Angel came in. She gave Charles a bright smile. “Same routine, everyone,” she said, clapping her hands. “Except: two new things. First: it’s the first of the week after fall quarter day, so you get to start collecting firewood for your rooms. Half an hour before dinner. And John, they’ve decided that you can help with the fires this year, O.K.?”
“All right,” Sean crowed. Bobby quirked a smile; Ororo clapped. John looked oddly divided between keeping up his bad mood and swelling with pride.
“So. Logan’ll meet you all when you’re done with your afternoon training. Right outside the double doors. O.K. Second: starting tonight, there’ll be random nightly checks of all you guys. Just to make sure you’re staying put.”
The children fell absolutely silent. Then, one by one, they all turned to look at Charles.
He met their stares, evenly, and drummed his fingernails against his tea mug, clink-clink-clink-clink. He pitched his voice at a reasonable tone. “Might one ask why?”
“Nope.” Angel gave him a good-natured shove to the shoulder. “Just stay in your room, like a good little student. Because you are all good little students. Right, Mr. Xavier?”
“Right,” he sighed, and: wrong, his mind corrected, coolly. But there was no need to tell Angel that. And – Charles made a careful note to himself – there was no need to get her in trouble again. He would devise a way to circumvent the new surveillance, and he would do so while finishing his dull-as-ditchwater typing for McCoy that morning.
The typing was, in fact, so dull, that Charles had come up with a plan after approximately ten minutes and four single-spaced pages.
He wasn’t surprised to see Logan back; Angel had all but announced his return that morning, after all. What did surprise Charles, though, was the smile that spread over his own face as he clomped inside McCoy’s workroom. McCoy hastily moved a pile of blueprints out of Logan’s way; Logan himself tossed a battered leather dossier on a table and sat down with a creak on one of the table’s benches.
Charles blinked at the dossier. “Well. This is new.”
“Why thank you, Mr. X – I’m fine. Yeah, bit of travel. Nope; nothing interesting. How are you?”
“I’m getting out of the habit of asking questions, Logan,” Charles said in a dry voice. “I would have thought you’d be pleased.”
“There’s questions and there’s common courtesy, X –”
“Courtesy? Doesn’t that have one too many syllables, for you?”
“Well, we are feeling better today, aren’t we?” Logan grinned. He pulled a cigar from a pocket of his leather jacket, and lit it, ignoring McCoy’s reproachful cough. “I heard you’d been sick, but I don’t see it. I’m almost tempted to make you run the steeplechase, Xavier, but –” he exhaled smoke and flipped open the dossier, "I’ve got somethin’ new for you instead.”
“What is it?”
“Strategy, Mr. X. With maps. You do know what maps are, don’t you?” Logan pulled out a thick stack of paper, folded over and over. He focused on unfolding them, smoothing the sheets out – Charles was relieved, because that meant Logan had missed his guilty twitch.
“Mind if I keep working?" McCoy indicated the blueprints.
“Yeah, no prob." Logan flattened the topmost map with one sweep of a burly forearm. "This is for Xavier. So, X man. Scenario number one.
“Here’s the good news: you’re in command of a decent sized group; say three brigades, and some artillery support. Only two fighter jets though. Your target city's here,” he stabbed a finger at the map, “and here’s the bad news: that city has entrenched defenses, anti-aircraft guns, two divisions of your enemy’s army, and – rumor has it – a nuke all ready and rarin’ to go. And – here’s the really bad news – you’ve confirmed the rumor. Hello, nuke; goodbye your entire army and then some. Ayoille et câlice de crisse ..”
French – no, Québecois. Charles mind quickly filed the tidbit away; he kept an expression of polite attention on his face.
Logan’s dark eyes narrowed as he peered down. “Other points of interest: the city has two airports – one big-ass one here to the northwest, mostly defunct; another one, a military one, here – also to the northwest, but closer – still operational. Got a river running through the whole shebang; it forks a few times. Oh, and there’s a nuclear power plant sixty miles to the southwest.”
“Hmm.” Charles narrowed his own eyes; then got up to pace round the table and sit on its other side, next to Logan. He nudged him; with a huff, Logan moved over. Charles rested his elbows on the metal tabletop. He thought.
“What are my objectives?”
“Good question.” Logan took a puff on his cigar. “Objective one: secure the city and keep it as functional as possible for your own use. It’s an industrial powerhouse. Objective two: even if it's only a pathetic little bit of uranium, you find that nuke and secure it for yourself – before, repeat before they light it – hey,” he glared at Charles’ snort, “you wouldn’t believe what some of the kids assume about shit like this. ‘Why would they use a nuc-ular bomb, Mr. Logan?’” he whined. “‘Nuc-ular bombs are bad.’ And so on.”
Charles breathed out a laugh. “The innocence of youth.”
“I know, right? So. Objective three: grab your enemy’s aircraft before said enemy can retreat with ‘em. And just to let you know, there’s some good shit there – and the more of that shit you get, the less they get to use on you, so grab, grab, grab. Objective four –” he frowned. “Aren’t you gonna write these down?”
“No.” Charles smiled absent-mindedly, looking at the map. “I’m listening.”
“Ri-ight. O.K. Objective four: rumor has it the commander of your enemy’s whole army – not just the two divisions, the whole army, is in town. You happen to know that the rumor is true. And since he’s there and within your reach, he needs to bite it.” Logan slapped the table. “So, X. What’re you thinking?”
Charles zeroed in on the map; his eyes ran over contour lines, colors and codes, making a careful record all the while. Most of the names were blacked out, but he saw one – an italicized name, which could perhaps explain how it had been missed. Love Field USA, so: Dallas, Texas, his mind concluded, cool and focused. What a coincidence.
He looked up at Logan. “I’m thinking I have few more questions.”
“Hit me.” Another puff on the cigar.
“First: intelligence. Do I have any agents in the city? Do I have any plants in my enemy’s army? Do I have any taps on the commander’s communications? And – most importantly – if I do have any, or all, of these … how reliable are they?”
“Good questions. Assume you have all three. You have sympathetic civs, and some of ‘em are networked under five good agents, loyal ones. You have approximately ten saboteurs in the army, three of which are with the artillery – all ready and awaiting orders. And – and this is the peach – the commander’s head secretary is your operative, and one of your best.”
Charles whistled, but: “Wait,” Logan drawled. “There’s a catch. Assume that the enemy is gonna have its military telepath cranked up to full power when shit starts going down. So your agents have only a few moves, if they’re gonna be using their abilities. And even if they don’t, you still have to –”
“No, you wait.” Charles knew that his jaw had dropped; he closed it with a snap, and then spoke: “Military telepath?”
Logan paused, dark eyes intent on Charles’ face. “They do that, you know.”
“Do what?” He felt faint.
“The Free West. Let’s just use them as a hypothetical, O.K.? Say we’re talking about the Free West. They got a pretty decent telepath – he’s wired into some gizmo that lets him focus in on what everyone’s doing, within a certain area. All the time. Everyone. And we assume that the gizmo’s rigged to pick up mutant activity double-quick. Now we’re trying to build something similar, but we’re working at a big fucking disadvantage … since I am not about to suggest that Frost shave her head, stick needles through her skull and get a cable drilled up her -”
McCoy cleared his throat. Charles blinked in surprise; he had forgotten McCoy was there.
"Spine. Spine. Why, what did you think I was going to say?" Logan grinned. “Couldn't happen to a nicer -”
“Logan,” McCoy snapped, and twirled one finger in the air.
“What?” Charles asked.
“Recordings!” Logan boomed. “Recordings, Xavier. As the commander of your army, you’ve done some flybys, you’ve done some spying. You have recordings of strategic planning sessions! This commander’s been in the field for upwards of twenty years – mostly the Pacific Theatre in World War II. So you know him, and you know his game.”
“Surely nobody is that predictable.”
“Well, this guy’s pretty dumb. And by ‘pretty dumb,’ I mean: your operative is leading him around by his dick.”
Charles did a double take. “What?”
“You heard me. She’s good.”
“All … right. Well, then she might be able to get the nuke’s location out of him.” Charles raised an eyebrow.
Logan’s grin was narrower, this time. “Very good, Xavier. Assume that she already has.”
“So I know where it is – that’s good. That saves me considerable time.”
“All well and good, maybe, Mr. X – but what do you do when things start to get crazy and Commander Dumbass decides to light it?”
“Oh, no.” Charles smiled. “I should have it well in hand, by then.”
“Is that some Brit speak, like: you’ll have things under control? Or: you’ll actually have the nuke? Wrapped up with a bow on it, just for you because you’ve been such a good little boy, ho ho ho?”
Logan crossed his arms, one hand brandishing the cigar. “Tell me how.”
Charles felt his smile widen. He hadn’t done this in years. Oxford had pulled him off his tactical team and put him into the field as the more senior officers – those who had been active before the mandatory iodine and inoculation régime – had succumbed to radiation poisoning or the plague. So: he was rusty. But he still remembered some of his favorite shortcuts.
“Terrorist groups,” he said, crisply. “Which ones feature, in this city?”
“Wait.” Cigar smoke, exhaled in a cloud – it almost looked as though it had puffed from Logan’s ears. “How do you know –”
“Oh come, you’re not that naïve, Logan, surely? Every country has them; and usually one to several cells in major cities. Which groups, in my target city?”
“Um.” Logan scratched his head. “You’ve got some drug cartels –”
“Not interested. They may have similar tactics, but I’m looking for a group with an ideology – preferably an eschatological one.”
“Aiming for the conclusion of human civilization, usually coincident with the glorious appearing of any number of deities.”
“Translation: major hard-on for the end of the world?”
“O.K., uh … try Washed in the Blood. Not quite as big as the Heirs of Aztlán, in your city, but they’ve got an agenda and they love sharing it. Usually with explosives, but they’ve recently branched out into assassination. They’re really big on the suicides. And they’re pretty pissed their brand of Jesus didn’t come back when the bombs dropped, so they’re all for ringing up the world’s curtain. Again.”
“I see. So you must see how simple it is.”
“Damn it, Xavier.” Logan glared. “What am I seeing that’s simple?”
“Staging the theft of the nuclear device by Washed in the Blood. If my city agents are any good, they’ll have their fingers on the local cell’s pulse – where the meetings take place, how often, with whom. My agents will take the device, leave WB literature or an appropriately deranged ransom note, and – this is critical – they’ll either hold important WB operatives hostage and feed them lines to give to the enemy’s commander in turn … or they’ll replace them outright.”
“Replace them outright? You’re talking about infiltrating a terrorist group at the highest level in the space of one month –”
“Am I?” Charles blinked innocently. “I thought this was all hypothetical.”
Logan’s glare intensified.
“And you said ‘abilities,’ earlier. I assumed that my agents are all … well … mutants.”
A hard drag on the cigar. “You assume correctly.”
“Then since this would initially be interpreted as a terrorist operation and not a military one, it is quite possible that the enemy’s military telepath would not be deployed in time to catch them. Especially if he were otherwise occupied – an attack on another city as a diversion, perhaps. And you yourself told me, in the infirmary, that you have a shapeshifter in St. Louis. Why can’t I get him or her?” Charles gave Logan a sleek smile. “You must admit, it would make infiltration quite easy.”
“Well, he’s six, Xavier. He can only come up with so much on the fly.”
“I’m not asking that he replace the enemy commander. I’m asking that he replace a terrorist only a few people know – one with a rhetoric drawing off known source material. A rhetoric that can be memorized beforehand.”
Logan sighed, deeply. Stared at the map.
Then he shook his head. “Table that one. And with few more shapeshifters, it might be possible, but – yeah. Table it. We’ll think about it.”
“You mean I’ll think about it.” Charles trailed his fingers over the map. “I quite like this sort of thing - strategizing. I miss doing it.”
“Well, today is your lucky goddamn day, Mr. X, 'cause you’re getting this for homework. What are your objectives again?”
“One: secure the city, keeping it functional if possible; two: find and secure the nuke; three: capture the enemy’s aircraft; and four: assassinate the enemy commander.”
Logan gave him slow, mocking applause. “You can take that map back with you tonight; hang onto it this week. We’ll talk this scenario again later. I got a few other ones –” he indicated the pile of papers – “and we’ll hit ‘em now. Any more questions, before we move on?”
“Questions – oh,” Charles grinned, self-conscious. “I had several. I suppose I got sidetracked on the intelligence one … Well. Most importantly, and perhaps relevant in future as well: military casualties, civilian casualties.” He flicked a scrap of paper off the map. “What are my parameters?”
There was a pause.
Charles saw McCoy lift his head from the blueprints and look in their direction.
With a strange twist to his mouth, Logan took a final puff on his cigar. “Always relevant, Mr. Xavier, and always the same. Try to keep civilian casualties as low as possible. It’s good propaganda – you want ‘em on your side, and you want the world to know you have ‘em. That, and you don’t have much time for clean-up. And we really can’t spare the lime, these days.”
Skin prickling, Charles waited. Then he prompted Logan: “And … the military?”
“Military?” Logan’s smile was cold. His voice was colder. “Here are your parameters, Xavier: no quarter, no prisoners, no hostages, no negotiations. You kill them. You kill as many of them as you can, because you want to wipe the fuckers out. Clear?”
Charles could have heard a pin drop, in the workroom.
Logan’s eyes were dark. “Clear?”
He tried to shrug, tried to fold up the map. His hands, suddenly, were trembling. “It’s strange to hear you put it that way. I remember my mother … She was a diplomat. She had high hopes for the ratification of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
“Well.” Logan ground out his cigar on the metal tabletop. “I don’t know if you got the memo, X man, but Geneva? Got nuked.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Charles saw McCoy look back down at his blueprints.
“Here now.” Charles jerked his attention back – Logan had pulled out another map, one mostly blue. “Scenario number two. Your enemy’s got an island. You’ve only got a boat. But here’s the good news: it’s a really big motherfucking boat.”
He walked out with Logan to meet the students as the sun was setting. The other students, Charles reminded himself with a grimace; no need to get above his station. Let them keep underestimating you. In fact … he touched the folded map, where it rested in a pocket of his jeans. Perhaps it would not do to show too much intelligence about strategy. Well. It was probably too late, now. And he did enjoy mental exercise – it had been in short supply, recently. He didn’t count his incursion into Alex’s and Angel’s minds – the former had lasted all of ten seconds, and the latter had felt more like adventure than exertion.
“All right, everybody line up!” Logan’s voice carried. Charles grinned as he saw the children pelting out the double doors – no, Bobby and John out the doors. Ororo and Sean were running from around another corner of the manor house.
“Line up!” Logan bellowed again, and then, in an undertone: “that includes you, Xavier.”
“Right; sorry.” Charles jogged over to join the children, feeling a flush on the back of his neck. They underestimate you. Everyone can be deceived. “Where’s Jean?” he asked Ororo, and she replied: “She went to bed early. Still sick.” Charles began to reply, but Logan’s voice steamrolled all competition.
“All right, everyone – I know you, you know me, and you know what you hafta do here. But there are rules! What are these rules? In summary: no stupid-ass shit; but specifically … Rule number one – no running away! Rule number two – no hitting each other with sticks! And rule number three – the most important rule of all, for when you get back inside, is … is …” Logan grinned his madcap grin. “What is it? Rule number three –”
The children shouted, in ragged chorus: “Don’t set the place on fire!”
“What was that?”
“Don’t set the place on fire!!” – Sean was laughing; even John was grinning ear to ear. Charles smiled despite himself.
“Exactly! For the love of fuck, children,” Logan boomed, “do not set the place on fire! If you set the place on fire, I will be sad. And when I get sad, I cry. And when I cry, it makes me want to kill things. So don’t set the place on fire – and who am I lookin’ at?”
“John!” the children yelled, and: “Me!” John shrieked, gleefully.
“John, John, Johnny boy.” Logan strolled over to him, thumped him on the back. “Do not –” “I know –” “– set the place –” “– I know –” “– on fire!” “Okay, Mr. Logan, I get it.”
“Good, good. All right.” And Logan squinted skyward. “You got thirty minutes. Three-two-one go!”
The children ran for the woods, whooping. Charles stared after them. Then he stared at Logan. “Um.”
“What, exactly, am I doing?”
“Collecting firewood, Xavier. When it starts getting this cold, you get a fire at night – you only burn what you collect, though.”
“I thought as much.” Charles smiled, and strolled toward the wood.
“Hey,” Logan called after him, but: “I know.” Charles waved a hand over his shoulder, not turning. “No escaping. I promise.”
“You keep that promise, Xavier. Monsters in the woods, remember?”
Charles bit the inside of his mouth. His amusement at the children’s antics faded with the darkness of his memories. A hand on his neck, fingers in his hair, and later – rage want – The fever-dreams of his illness, the nightmares ...
“Firewood,” he whispered, picking up the pace. And perhaps a candidate for a nice, sharp stake.
Even though the evening was quite cold in the light of the setting sun, Charles stripped off his sweatshirt early on. He did so to carry back extra wood – for he wasn’t sure what the rules were, but if nobody else thought of it, Jean would have no fire. It turned out the other children were ready to contribute a few sticks each – they did so after dinner. All were happy, though, that Charles had managed much more than they could have alone.
Charles assembled a standard log cabin fire in Jean’s fireplace, since, according to Angel, they had, “Ten extra minutes before bunking, people, build ‘em fast!” It wouldn’t have the best convection, but it would be less vulnerable to collapse. He tried sending Jean an image of her fireplace, and how warm the room would be … and felt nothing in return but the hard conch shell. Charles sighed and went to look for a match, for a lighter, for – He frowned. How the hell were they all going to light these things, anyway?
He heard a knock at his own door and poked his head out of Jean’s.
“Hey, Mr. Xavier.” John turned to look at him. “Are your sticks ready?”
Charles blinked. “Not quite. I built a fire for Jean, though. Are you on match duty or – what are you doing, exactly?”
John padded into the room, took a lighter from his pocket, and grinned up at Charles. “Check this out.”
A click and spark, and there was a tiny flame. And – Charles felt his eyes almost bulge out of his head. John held the fire in his hand, flicked his fingers –
His jaw dropped at the flames that had leaped up in the fireplace, burning away full tilt in a hungry blaze – in less than five seconds.
“Oh.” Charles blinked away his disbelief. “That’s – that’s quite a talent you have there, John.”
“Thanks.” John’s grin widened. “I don’t usually get to use it in this part of the house. Well, sometimes to light the stove – but I need a match, or this,” he brandished the lighter, “or something. I can only control it. I can’t create it.”
“‘Only’ … there’s no ‘only’ about it. My god, John, how do you –”
“Don’t worry,” and John rolled his eyes. “I won’t set the stupid place on fire; geez.”
“Hm.” Charles smiled. “I believe you, you know.”
John swallowed. Then he looked away and shrugged. “Whatever.” Charles could feel his emotions close back up. “So, am I lighting anything for you, or what?”
“Oh – yes please. If you wouldn't mind.” Four steps and a swoop down, and Charles was rapidly building a tipi fire in his own room. It did not take him long before he heard John whistle, tossing the lighter back and forth between his hands. “You’re pretty good at that, Mr. Xavier.”
“Thank you, John. I only wish my colleagues and I had had you along on some of our rounds. Remind me to tell you about how we were called, once, to drive a polar bear out of Banbury.”
“The Banbury Bear?” John set the fire to burning with a flick of the lighter and a twist of his hand. “Sounds cool.”
“Too cool, really. Cold.” Charles stared into the flames. “Very cold.”
He listened to the fire’s comfortable snap and pop for a long minute. Then he smiled up at John. “In that case – as in so many – I think that a little fire at hand would have gone a very long way. Thank you for this one.”
He heard John give the lighter back, whining, “Do I have to?” and Angel’s dry, “C’mon, hand it over. Idiot.” A thwack. “But anyway: good job, kid. Go to bed.” Then: “Night, everybody!” she yelled.
Charles heard her footsteps click down the hallway. He stared into his fire, and thought.
Individual heat: an excellent change. Random checks: not so excellent a change. He sighed. Whether or not it had anything to do with his note of the previous night … well. Charles would be willing to bet that so-called ‘random’ checks would be a check, singular, and would happen on the earlier side of the night rather than the later, since the monitors had to sleep as well.
And he had a plan, formed that morning. Carefully, Charles called forth his power and set a thought spinning into flame with his fingers – he thought of John and smiled. Then he placed the thought-fire in the middle of the hallway outside his door. As soon as anyone walked through it, the flash would be enough to wake him from sleep.
Sleep … With a fire like this in his room, it would be unpardonable to pass up on the chance to wallow in warmth. Charles sank back onto his bed, smiling, and closed his eyes – and reflected, before falling asleep, on how for the first time in a very long time, he felt the tiniest bit of happiness.
His mood got a boost when the thought-fire performed perfectly. In his sleep, Charles vaguely sensed Alex walking down the hall, noisily, but felt a warning spark in his mind as soon as Alex set off the alarm. He opened his own eyes – stared at the ceiling and started to wait the monitor out. It did not take long. Only a few loud, clomping footsteps, and Alex disappeared down the stairs.
Charles sighed. Now – what did he want to do? He was awake, so he might as well … do something.
He rolled over in bed, stared down. There, lying just between the frame and the wardrobe, was the thin children’s book he had thrown at the wall, days ago. Freedom Rising! The Story of the Free West. Charles grimaced as he picked it up. He wasn’t going to read it, no, but … Like called to like, perhaps. He plucked the map of Dallas from the pocket of his jeans, and placed it in the book for safekeeping.
Then he stared at the book for another moment – without seeing it. He had thrown it at the wall and stormed off to the library … the library, where the man had taken his watch ...
My watch …
Charles sighed at the ceiling, setting the book down. Nothing had happened the previous evening – unless one counted this ensuing ‘random check’ business, he thought, frowning to himself. Which – if he were going to place another note – because he could, I can and they’re underestimating me … he should probably try it tonight. First, Alex was on duty, so Angel would not be punished if he were caught – and he wouldn’t be, really, because he knew now – “Don’t touch any metal,” he whispered. Secondly, the checks would probably be at their most haphazard in the very beginning. So when, really, would be a better time to start … than the present?
Besides, the fire had given him courage.
Charles carefully tore another page out of a book – a dusty yellow scrap, from the back matter of Crime and Punishment. He slipped his pencil out from where he had tucked it away in the thick spine of the Shakespeare. And he wrote:
I would like my watch back, please.
Folding the paper up, he slipped it into a pocket of his jeans, picked the lock on his door before he could think twice. The pick was on its last bend, he thought to himself, frowning – the metal was considerably warped, and –
Charles swallowed hard. Metal. He deliberately placed the pick in a crack between two flagstones, outside his door. He checked his sweatshirt – nothing – and then his jeans – the rivets; damn … Shivering, he ducked back inside his room and exchanged the jeans for sweatpants, transferring the note to another pocket. No metal. He checked his shirt – two metal buttons at the collar; fuck – took off his top layers, and tossed on a clean T-shirt and his lucky blue sweater instead.
Charles bit his lip. Not lucky, actually. Not consistently. Certainly it had been lucky last night, when nothing had happened to him … but he had been wearing it when the man had beaten him, strangled him, almost killed him ….
Really, he had only just gotten the bloodstains out.
He slipped the ragged cuffs over his hands, and stared into the small, dusty mirror set inside the wardrobe door. Normally, at night and with only a candle, he could see nothing. Now, with a fire, he saw his own pale face, the dark blue line of the sweater and the lighter blue of his eyes, wide and staring. And …
Charles saw his eyes widen in consternation. He tilted up his chin, then swallowed, hard. The weal from where the chain had throttled him was still there – less pronounced, but visible. It even rippled with the muscles of his throat as he swallowed again, as he clenched his jaw. He didn’t think it would scar, but … people could see it, if they knew to look. McCoy might have been looking at it; Logan too. He saw the blue of his eyes shimmer; he bit his lip again, harder. His mouth was very red.
His knew his own blood was red – it had looked black, though, that night in the library. From the bird’s eye view of his own near death.
But – Charles narrowed his eyes. He had gone to the library the night before, and had won. His sweater was not the luckiest, perhaps … but its dark blue reminded him of Raven.
His sister would not have been afraid of anything. And neither was he. Before he could lose his nerve, Charles shut the wardrobe, slipped off his shoes – nails in the soles; so sorry to spoil your fun, you bastard – and headed off for the library door.
He called the thought-fire to him and sent it flaming down the hallway to the West Wing, into the library and through it, cascading into individual flickers and casting their light as far as he could reach. Alex had gone, yes, but just in case, Charles left tiny flames burning at regular intervals behind him, down the dark and narrow hallway.
He stared at the door, then knelt quickly and shoved the note under it. “Do svidaniya, Comrade Dostoyevsky. You go to a better place.” Then he half-smiled, and added: “No, not really. Lying. Sorry.”
He paused. “… And I’m talking to a page – from a book.”
Charles sighed. It was not as though he had the excuse of powerful painkillers this time. Perhaps, though, flippancy was the better part of valor: a show of courage in a prison as dark, cold and draconian as this one. Or a show of defiance. Defiance. Deliberately, he reached out a finger on each hand and traced the wood – oak – between the iron decorations. Because I can. Perhaps he could –
The tiny flame furthest from him, at the very end of the hallway, ignited in warning.
Something moving and Charles whirled where he stood, with a gasp -
Something small, moving. He blinked. What on earth?
At the end of the hallway, he saw what looked like spark – but what must have been a lit candle. Halfway up the wall, flickering in the shadows.
Charles tipped his head to one side, his mind racing. He would have remembered a torch, certainly. Even though this light was considerably smaller – it cast a new circle of light - it was almost … floating? “How –” he heard himself whisper, and that’s very interesting, his mind said, cautiously. He felt one side of his mouth quirk. It wasn't enough that this was a prison – was it haunted as well?
And why was the light getting brighter?
Then realization hit him like a wave of ice water. The light was getting brighter, because it was coming towards him. Floating towards him.
In … and he knew it, instinctively. Even though he couldn’t see it.
In its metal holder.
Charles felt his breath coming faster, panting. No – no … If the metal were moving by itself – and setting off flame after tiny flame of alarm, advancing at a slow and steady speed towards him – that meant that the person manipulating the metal was surely nearby, and –
Where to hide? With a strangled gasp, he grabbed for the door handle to the library – and stopped, his fingers inches from the worked metal.
The last time he had tried to hide in the library; he had failed. The man had sensed the metal on him and had found him, and tried to kill him. The man had sensed the chess piece falling, the candelabrum moving – he had fused the lock shut: and all from a distance. So if Charles were to touch the door’s metal handle –
“He’d know I was here,” he mumbled to himself, and “oh god...”
I don’t want to die. I really don’t want to die. “Not when I just got my room warm enough,” he whispered, and choked back a laugh. Something was stinging in his eyes – and it wasn’t the light from the candle –
The candle, Charles realized, which was floating a foot away from him, in mid-air.
Then it drifted to the flagstones of the hallway floor. The wrought-iron holder settled, with a scrape and clink.
Charles held his breath. Had that been – a footstep?
He listened more carefully. There was another. And another – and: yes. It was. Someone was coming. He knew who was coming.
Closing his eyes, Charles stepped away from the door – standing perpendicular to it, his back to the stone wall, melting back into the shadows. He had checked … he wasn’t wearing any metal, which meant that the man could not sense him, as long as he shielded himself from view …
Desperately, he reeled back in all of his power – flickers of fire from everywhere. Then he closed his eyes and pictured a veil – veil veil veil - but a real one this time, not just for his mind. A veil in the real world – a shroud – draping over him and obscuring him from even the sharpest gaze.
God, I hope this works, Charles thought bleakly – and then he had no more time to think, because he was looking just slightly to his right, and there, stepping into the dim circle of candlelight on the floor, was the man who had tried to kill him.
Tried and failed, Charles told himself. You're alive.
And it was, perhaps, the most horrible thing in the world … to be a foot away from someone who had tried to kill you, and to be trying, the entire time – agonizingly … trying not to breathe.
Don’t let him sense you, Charles’ mind whispered. Be still. Be silent; be still.
But what was he doing?
Charles could only watch. He stared at the man’s profile. This close, he could trace the lines of a strong forehead, nose and chin, a taut jaw – like a coin, he thought, he belongs on a coin – and: you thought that the last time you saw him, his mind screamed, and: you’re going to die – do you realize that?
Carefully, Charles turned his head completely to the side, and breathed out through a completely open mouth. Then he breathed back in, and shut his lips tight. Even that, it seemed the man could sense – there had been the flick of those eyes to the left, and a slow tilt of the head …
Charles wished, more than anything, for his own hand to be at his mouth. That way he could at least bite down on a finger in order not to scream.
But the man had stopped. He hadn’t seen him – he hasn’t he hasn’t seen me …
Instead, he was leaning forward and sniffing at the door. Why the bloody fuck – oh –
Charles’ skin crawled as he realized: the man was sniffing where his fingers, Charles’ fingers, had traced between the whorls of iron, over wood. The man’s bony jawline tilted, and then those long-fingered hands came up and flexed against the door – and Charles bit down on his tongue to keep from gasping, as the metal tracery came to life.
My god …
It would have been beautiful, had he not been so terrified. The man pressed his hands against the door and tilted up that stark line of chin and jaw – almost as though he were greeting the metal. And the metal replied – vibrating, almost purring and twisting down and around the man’s fingers.
Charles heard a scrick-ck, from down the hallway.
And he choked back another gasp as the man whipped round and threw a handful of metal down the hall in a molten flash.
His fingers had almost brushed Charles’ face.
Then, distantly, Charles heard the squeak of a mouse, and the tiny scratching sounds of it running away.
It seemed that the man had heard it too, for Charles – fascinated – saw a corner of that thin mouth quirk up. Then the man closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids. Rolled his shoulders, dropped his hands, tilted his head back, swallowed. He bent his head from side to side – Charles stared at it …
The line of his throat was very elegant. So: monsters had to relax. Could it be true?
No, obviously, his mind gibbered, not true. Look now - see? The man had turned round again and was glowering at the door. The metal thrown down the hallway had floated back to him - he let it undulate down his hand, like a ribbon, and then trailed a finger along one of the door’s iron bands – and the metal flowed back into place with a faint quiver, as though it had come home.
Then the man turned on one heel, and began to look round, slowly, in a complete circle. His eyes rested on Charles for a second or two – and Charles held his breath, bit his tongue, and tried not to think about how – from this close – he could see shades of grey, blue, and green in those eyes …
The man’s gaze passed over him. Charles closed his own eyes; turned his head completely to the side. Breathed out. Then breathed back in.
Then he turned his head back, opened his eyes again -
And almost screamed, as he saw the man’s eyes staring directly into his own. Only inches away.
This close, Charles could see individual striations of grey in the irises. In the dim candlelight, though, green was dominant. Especially given that the man’s hair was a coppery color, though brown as well – the slight red undertone in his eyebrows made the green stand out –
His mind clicked away, cataloguing, as adrenaline poured into his system, leaving him giddy. It was as though he himself were a cobra, unable to take his gaze away from a snake charmer – or perhaps a milksnake, Charles thought. In fact, the man might be a cobra, but he, Charles, was an innocuous milksnake. Milksnakes were picture-perfect reflections of poisonous coral snakes, though … And he had his own defenses. Didn’t he?
Charles tightened all of his mental veils – and the new thing, the real veil. Look away – nothing to see here –
Was it working?
… oh my god. Yes. Yes, it’s working, because the man had flicked his eyes to the left, frowning – looking away – and Charles could turn his own head to the right and exhale silently; inhale again and then again because he had been so short on air …
But then Charles froze, as the man took a one casual step forward.
His breath was hot against Charles’ jaw. Charles didn’t dare move.
For, if he moved his head a fraction of an inch back to where it had been, he would actually … his mind stuttered. His lips would meet the man’s mouth and then oh god not going to think about that and want and the fact that the man was so damn close.
That mouth. It was almost resting on the hinge of Charles’ jaw. Why? oh god no – Charles tightened the veil, the real one you can’t see me go away –
But then a slight movement out of the corner of his eye, and it appeared the man had leaned closer, because – and Charles’ heart gave one thump, and stilled. His mouth was dry as a bone. Because somehow … the man’s lips were pressed in the hollow of his cheekbone, and Charles thought wildly that someone must have shaved him in the infirmary, because those lips didn’t catch on anything besides the mildest stubble – except then they paused and moved – because the man was speaking.
Well. Whispering, really. And what he was whispering was:
“… Professor ....”
The s left a sibilant trail of heat across his cheek. Charles bit back a scream – he wasn’t going to move, no, because the man couldn't see him, and –
“Charles Xavier …”
Then strong hands traced down the stone wall, before pressing against his shoulders, fingers digging in, and Charles knew the game was up.
“Charles Xavier,” the man said, quietly, “you have a metal filling on the left side of your mouth. Upper jaw, back penultimate molar. Here.”
Those lips pressed against his cheek, moving with the words, felt different from - was that a flick of tongue on his skin? Yes. Yes it was, because there it was again. The man was having a taste. And had that been a rumble in his chest? Oh my god –
“Right. Here. Did you not remember?”
Charles closed his eyes. Opened them.
Charles couldn’t find any words.
A hot exhale against his cheek. “Answer me.”
“No …” His own voice sounded like sandpaper. “No. I didn’t remember.”
“Hm.” Strong fingers flexed into his shoulders, and Charles bit down hard on his tongue, tasting blood.
“Please,” he gasped. “Please don’t …” Please don’t hurt me, his mind finished. He wasn’t sure if he had said it out loud.
But he must have, for the man made a soft sound in the back of his throat.
“If you hadn’t wanted to be hurt, Professor … perhaps you should not have gone wandering by night.”
“I …” It was impossible for Charles to speak – his throat was completely dry.
The man stood there for what felt like an endless moment – just breathing against Charles – strong hands on his shoulders, warm lips in the hollow of his cheekbone.
And then those same hands grabbed and shoved, and Charles choked back a scream – he was not going to scream – as his back hit the library door, and as metal jumped eagerly to his ankles and wrists, his arms and legs, twining around his hips and his torso and – his neck …
“Hush,” the man whispered. His voice – clotted with darkness. “You’ll wake the children.”
For Charles had been trying to breathe, trying, but it was loud and difficult – somehow caught in his chest, but if he could only get enough air he would cry out and wake everyone, see if he didn’t –
Frantically, Charles pulled against the metal. The tendrils writhed like snakes around his wrists and arms. He saw the man’s eyebrows fly up and those green eyes spark – and Charles’ panicking thoughts flashed back to the memory of a spike through his mind – want –
He froze. Again. Don’t move. Stop. Stay still.
Even immobile, though, he could keep his eyes locked on the man’s face. Charles heard his thoughts cataloguing away, thrumming with adrenaline. He felt metal twisted round all of his limbs – one particular strand coiling around his throat – god – don’t panic – He saw the golden light from the candle, forgotten at their feet. He observed the man’s clothes – dark and ordinary, making his spare frame look like a shadow stepped from the blackness of the hallway …
And those eyes, glittering at him.
Charles deliberately looked away. He thought he heard a sound – hissed out between teeth? He couldn’t tell; couldn’t place it. But the man was speaking.
“So. I have been told that you are a telepath, Professor Xavier.”
Ridiculous, not to have thought of it before – Charles kept his face blank, turned away, as his mind rapidly cycled through possibilities: soar like he had into Angel’s mind, and change the man’s thoughts; slice like he had into Alex’s, and change the man’s memory; punch like he so desperately wanted to with Frost’s –
Frost. Shite. Try something and she might not just wake – she might see, know exactly what he could do, and any hope of escape would vanish. Unless he were to strike her first, and could you? With practice, it might be possible …
He called up his hummingbird, slowed it to such an extent that its wings flapped like a vulture’s. The hummingbird glided to the man’s thoughts – just a quick pass …
And Charles flinched. The bird had flown straight into a sharp-edged maelstrom of metal – shards, nails, spikes – which whirled at it like an angry circle saw. A flash and an agonized chirp, and the hummingbird was flailing back to Charles’ mind, bleeding.
“Well …” And the voice was still so quiet. “Well ... I felt that. You’d do wisely to stay out of my head, Professor.”
Charles could hardly breathe; horror had sent a wave of nausea roiling straight up from his gut to his mouth. He swallowed against the foul taste. The man was smiling, just slightly – his teeth white and even and somehow – Charles stared, feeling his flesh crawl. Those teeth. There seemed to be quite a lot of them, glinting in the candlelight.
“What did you see?”
Then: “Nothing,” Charles choked, “nothing – I didn’t, there was –” For he could sense something edged with red, or blood, welling up at the edges of the silence. Oh god I don’t want to die –
A tendril of metal nudged at his chin, and Charles had to tip his head back to keep its edge away from his throat. He caught a flash of sharp amusement, crackling along the silence – but then he sensed those eyes caught by something, snapping to the line of … fixing on –
Oh no. No ... There was that – want – drifting from the other man’s mind like a dark mist. And then there was one finger, warm, trailing over the weal on Charles’ throat.
“Professor …” And warm breath on his throat. “What do you see now?”
“I don’t –” he said, rapidly, “I can’t see a thing. It’s too dark.”
“Not with your eyes. What do you see in my mind?”
But Charles didn’t want to look. The want was thickening in the air, like a haze of chlorine gas.
“You told me to stay out of your head.”
“And you always do as you’re told?”
Charles gritted his teeth. “Do you torture all the children this way?”
A pause. Then that voice, low and mocking: “Do you consider yourself a child?”
No, Charles thought, wildly; he must have shaken his head by instinct, because there was a pause, and then he felt a warm puff of breath against his throat. “No. I thought not.”
Then the metal was gone from his chin, and Charles could let his head fall forward – could breathe, could clench his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, could avoid the man’s eyes.
But not his voice.
“You’re not a child, Xavier. You’re a teacher, you’re a strategist, and you’re a mildly competent telepath. Or so I’m told. You have tested off the intelligence charts, such as they are. And yet …” and there was a finger at his chin, inexorably tipping his face up. “And yet, you disobey. Why?”
“Because,” Charles met the man’s eyes as bravely as he could. “I would like my watch back, please.”
Those teeth flashed in a smile. “Yes, I’m sure you would. But I took it, Xavier, to punish you. And since I can’t take it twice …” The green eyes glittered. “How shall I punish you now?"
Here it comes. Charles bit down hard on the wild rush of despair fury I’m sorry Raven – and let his eyes fall shut.
A soft tsk. “Look at me.”
He kept his eyes closed. And hardly needed to use any power to feel the roil of anger anticipation want coil in on itself and knot into rage.
“Disobedient.” The voice was still calm; the contrast with the seethe of emotions beneath the surface was enough to make Charles light-headed with fear. “Too dark to see, you say, and now you won’t open your eyes …”
- what -
Something had brushed over his eyelids. Not a finger, though – a wire, or wires – thin lines of metal rustling along his cheekbones and over his eyebrows.
“… And so I must conclude – that you don’t really need them.”
One of the wires jabbed. Charles gasped and opened his eyes wide, staring at the man’s own – blue-green-grey – so close to his, so sharp and merciless. “No –” he heard his own voice, strangled and desperate, “no – don’t –”
“Why not?” The man crossed his arms over his chest. “Give me one good reason not to take your eyes. And give it to me now.”
Charles felt his thoughts race; another jab made him open his mouth, heedless, and gasp: “I need them to read, I need them to help the children. I need them to – to look at maps, help McCoy with his work – for my work here – I –”
The man said nothing; merely stared, a slow smile curling the corners of his mouth.
Charles felt his thoughts drifting away, like a bird – Raven – fluttering to the massive door’s lintel. The raven saw the knots of rage tightening around the other man and drawing him closer to Charles – and then heard more words, frantic and fast: “It would be traumatic for the children – the infirmary might not be able to spare medical supplies presently – and, and it would be rather inefficient, wouldn’t it? when I can accomplish more with them – with – please, I need them – don’t –”
In the midst of his babbling, the raven left its perch. It flew silent and swift to the man and perched invisibly on his shoulder. It was dark enough – invisible, veiled – to look calmly into the lethal blur of metal and see:
- an image: Charles’ eyes, thin metal coils and loops spiraling over the line of his cheekbones, pooling in the sockets and caressing his eyebrows. The metal – iron – dark and dull, and his skin white from fear … and his eyes: so blue. Blue, wide and staring – and there, there, vibrating from metal and running hot and urgent through the man’s mind: want …
Charles hardly recognized his own voice … as the stammering words tumbling out of his mouth trailed off into a soft, “Oh …”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Yes?”
The fear left Charles light-headed, but: try. “A good reason.” He swallowed. “I have one.”
A pause. Then: “Yes?”
“My eyes.” Try it. Charles breathed in, out, carefully. Do it. “I’d hate to lose them. Because – I’ve been told … they’re very beautiful.”
Charles held his breath. The other man was staring at him, eyes glinting green. Charles tried to look away, but could not. Trapped, with a monster staring at him - eyes pale green jewels in the dark. Like those of a dragon - not, Charles told himself, that dragons existed, of course, but -
The man bared his teeth - and with that horrible gleam, the illusion was complete.
Charles didn’t need his powers to sense the same want pouring off the man like steam, coiling around him tighter than metal ever could. But the raven fluttered to the high and darkened ceiling anyway, watching as the man smacked a palm against the door and made the metal fly off Charles and snap back flat against the oak. Charles had no time to catch his breath as the other grabbed his upper arm and dragged him, stumbling, down the hallway, into the darkness. He could hardly keep up – his mind was racing, because he didn’t know what was going to happen, and some of the possibilities turned the sweat on his neck freezing cold.
Before he knew it, Charles’ back was pressed against the door of his room. The man was glaring at him, he could tell – the raven, gliding, saw want twisted with rage into a hideous tangle. Of course, Charles himself couldn’t see a thing in the darkness. He only felt harsh and hot breaths, gusting over his face.
Then a strange, tiny scraping sound. Then a hiss, and a strong hand clamped over his mouth –
– and Charles screamed against the hand as something sharp twisted into his left thumbnail, and corkscrewed red-hot down into the nailbed – it was excruciating and he squeezed his eyes shut against tears – then, instinctively, he bit down hard on the hand and heard the man snarl a curse, felt him let go.
He couldn’t speak, he could hardly breathe – even though he wasn’t being strangled – it felt as though he had had the thumbscrew in Oxford Prison – and it was worse, then, as whatever-it-was ripped its way out of his thumbnail, god, and coiled around the knuckle, flexed and tightened –
“Du. You do as you are told from now on, Xavier –” the man hissed. “And never, ever touch my mind again, or your eyes will only be the first thing that I take from you. Do you understand me?”
Yes, Charles wanted to say, hyperventilating. But he didn’t have a chance to say anything, before the man ripped open the door of his room and shoved Charles inside. Then there was the sound of the door locking, faster than seemed possible in a raging scrape and crunch of metal.
The fire was still burning. Charles staggered over to the hearth, fell to his knees and stared at his door, through the door as his raven sensed the man storming back to the West Wing, raging, wanting –
His hand, his hand – what had been done to it? His palm was red, in the firelight. He squinted – his left thumbnail was shredded; blood coated the digit, and Charles could not see what had happened … Frantically, he sucked the blood off, but his teeth caught on something. Something metal.
Charles yanked his mouth away, stared at his thumb. And he felt his jaw sag.
His improvised lockpick – carefully left outside his door. On its last bend, he had thought, earlier. But then, he hadn’t thought it could be bent into anything more.
Certainly not into the ring now twisted around the base of his thumb. A metal ring: silver in the firelight, red with his own blood.