They'll be safe. They'll be safe. They'll be safe.
Charles focused on the words – their shape and slant. Third person plural, future tense. Gender neutral; he had always wondered that, about English. No indication of age, or specific number in the group concerned. Group. It could be a group of as few as – two. "They" could be two people – two individuals like himself and – and ... the other, now gone off to Dallas and presumably getting ready to chop soldier after Free West soldier into mincemeat.
"You're going to have to fuck him when he gets back, you realize that?" Charles whispered. Then … he couldn't help it. He laughed. It rebounded off the lowest walls of the Hive; high-pitched and tinny.
"Really, Mr. Xavier. Control yourself."
Frost's voice cut like a blade through the electric hum of the Finder and the low static of the communication systems.
Shite. Shut up, Charles thought to himself, desperately. And: "I'm sorry," he mumbled.
Veil, for the love of all that’s holy. Sink the rest; sink everything deep …
Charles blinked away the sweat running into his eyes. He had been called to the Finder that morning, after what had felt like only the smallest moment of sleep. Perhaps it had been his … exertion, late the previous night, that had drained him so. Except, technically, the person who had been drained was – no, and he yanked his mind from that path, savagely. Don’t think about it. If Frost should find out ––
… What would happen, really?
Charles took a moment to consider. She might not think anything of it. She had certainly thought nothing of unleashing her precious prince on him after restoring the memories Charles had suppressed … had it been not even a month ago?
"A little month / or ere those shoes were old / with which she dragg'd me from my home –"
Sorry, he tried, but it came out as an inarticulate mumble. Charles squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn't help it. Stress brought out the strangest things in people: whether rearranged scraps of Hamlet – and really, one wouldn't use shoes to drag, Professor Xavier – or drooling gibberish, or thoughts about –
Charles stared at the reddened darkness of his own eyelids. Swallowed hard against the saliva pooling in his mouth; flashing to those eyes and the sharp line of jaw – hipbones jerking up against Charles' grip – the incoherent gasps as the other had come hard, heat pulsing against the back of Charles' throat. It would have been too much for anyone else, but Charles had been able to hold him down, control him and ride it out –
… What was he doing now? Those papers in their case, the map of Dallas tucked safely away … Charles let his eyes flicker open. How cold would it be, in what had been Texas, on November first of any given year? The man might have had to retrieve his coat and hat. Had they been in his compartment, near the storage area? Because if that were so, then the man had undoubtedly taken along those swords, and several crowbars, and daggers and knives and perhaps even a bucket of bolts –
A crackle from the Finder, and Charles arched his back, trying not to yelp. He quickly scanned the Hive – his hummingbird thrumming and electric, like everything else … Jean was not there. Thank God.
Jean had accompanied him, that morning; thus his worry. Charles had only just glimpsed a tech taking her by the hand before he had been strapped down on plastic, tied three times over on his shins, cuffed on his upper arms. He had not been able to move to get a good look – but out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the thin metal tiles of the lower level wall quiver and slide … and then they had clattered over and over, up and away, just like a train station timeboard …
The tiles had concealed what looked like a cold incarnation of one of Oxford's strategic planning areas. Memory had pricked at him like a knife. His students would always joke about the "war room" – a grand epithet for what had been nothing more than a seminar table piled with maps, wedged up against a chalkboard with different colored chalks, and a wireless and – in one corner – a squat water dispenser that someone had nicked on a visit to Cambridge.
In contrast, this war room – the EBS war room – possessed an ungodly amount of tech. Charles could hear it, could smell it even if he couldn't see it. He had glimpsed McCoy fiddling with an instrument, before the man with feathers had wrested his other arm to the plastic. Then McCoy had sidled up to Charles and squeezed his shoulder once, before going to answer someone's shouted question.
The war room was crammed with mutants, and even … Charles shivered. Even a human or two. Or three – no, he realized, blinking – more than that. He'd lost track of them – the Finder was slicing at the edges of his mind, like a paring knife at an apple –
"God," he gasped, and exhaled in a rattle as the crackle and buzz peaked, then abruptly faded.
"Five minutes." Frost's voice was sharp.
And everybody moved again – talking loudly, testing instruments, checking calibrations, arguing …
Nobody offered to untie him.
But, Charles considered, wearily … at least Jean wasn't there to see it.
Veil, he reminded himself. Veil … sink the rest, down into the dark of the deep …
A stranger had fetched him that morning. Blindfolded him, and marched him to the Hive with Jean. No sign of Angel or Alex; no flicker of anyone else he knew.
Except Frost, of course.
The blindfold had been taken off and Charles had been quickly directed to the Finder. Things had changed, it would appear … so even as he had catalogued the different sounds and smells – the changing layout, for God's sake … Charles had darted back into his own mind and taken emergency measures.
Raven had watched: perched on the golden chair, solemn and intent, staring as he had run between two of the tables. Where to put it – where to put it … It would not do to be too obvious. Nothing beneath the oculus, for example – right where another glorious beam of sunlight shone down into his thoughts. Nor in front of the main window … the chair was there already …
No. Instead, Charles had chosen a random spot between the tables. The carpet runner being somewhat threadbare – good – made it easier to call together the smallest of his aviary – diamond brooch, sparrow, hummingbird – and set them to unraveling the weave. He began from the other edge … and before Charles knew it, there were the flagstones, beneath the carpet.
He had pried one up.
Just like ice fishing, the briefest impression. Like in Banbury. The pond, and the bear there too …
Charles had not even had to look. For there was the water – a dark subterranean sea. And it was thus completely and utterly easy to picture his power … veils and veils, endless ells of silvery fabric … more and more, wafting through the reading room like air taking on semi-solid form … unspooling into the dark wet, dampening and drifting down until all were lost from sight.
The sensation had been odd. He did not feel weaker; certainly not. But he knew … that the Finder could only find a part of his power, now. Even if it demanded all of him. There was no way – "No way," he had told himself fiercely – that it could penetrate the reading room, invade the sanctum of his thoughts, find the correct location, unravel the carpet precisely … and …
Just for safekeeping, he had set a lock on the flagstone. Then another. Then – "Why bloody not?" – Charles had gestured over the stone and turned it into stained glass – a rondel of darkest green, edged with a white and red Greek key, with an indigo bird in the center.
"You've never looked more beautiful, darling," he had told his raven. It had clacked its beak at him. "And it's not as though anyone besides myself will ever see it. For this –" and the three smallest birds were weaving the carpet back together – "will hide it from even the best."
Coming back to himself, where he lay staring up at the ceiling of the Hive, Charles had to smile. Was 'the best' Frost? Perhaps; perhaps not. He knew he was better. Not in telepathic tricks, maybe – not yet … but in terms of raw power …
And now she would not know. Frost would only see one hapless Charles Xavier: a pretty little creek trickling into a pretty little pond. She would not glimpse the true extent of his abilities …
No: it would rest safely in the deep, locked in such a way that only he could access it. Even another telepath might have difficulty unraveling the carpet; tracing the Greek key correctly in order to open the three locks. And if some oaf like the man happened to bludgeon his way into his, Charles', mind … well. The aviary would led him a merry chase, pecking – and he would leave as blind as Oedipus, with the raven's screech sending him on his way –
"It is time."
Charles shivered at Frost's voice. It was cold, yes. But also … eager.
All of the Finder's energy had been channeled towards – roll call, Charles had thought to himself, almost giddy with adrenaline and fear – roll call, for hundreds of mutants and what felt like thousands of humans, and that had only been to start. And now the communication consoles had crackled into louder static, and Charles felt his eyes go wide as he heard:
- Roger that Foxtrot Whiskey George, checkin' in, let's hear it – and golf-one golf-two golf-three golf-four - and another fizz -
"I want that as intelligible as my own voice," Frost ordered. "And …" a cold laugh. "Great minds think alike, it would seem. Ballistics."
"Yes, ma'am –" and that was a mutant's voice, Charles instinctively knew – and it made his skin stand up in a thrill, because it – she? Jessie? – was somehow speaking … not just over the radio, but into it … through it ... on a similar frequency …
"Can that signal be boosted at all?"
A pause, and then, booming: -TROT WHISKEY ABE – GO – ALPHA-ONE ALPHA-TWO –
"Too loud," Frost snapped, and: "Sorry!" A squeal of electronics, and the list continued, softer but clear as crystal: alpha-ten, over –
– right all set – give me visual on Love Field – Foxtrot Whiskey Tom, report in –
"We hacked their communications last month," and Charles would have jumped, were he not strapped down, at McCoy's excited voice puffing right in his ear.
As it was, he restrained himself. "Obviously."
"Sorry, Mr. Xavier –"
"Hank," Charles exhaled, sharply. "Give me some room. I –" I want to hear, his mind whispered, but: "I need to concentrate," he said instead.
Because: "Black group?" Frost asked.
"In place and accounted for."
"White and Blue?"
"… Red One?"
And McCoy would take that moment to mumble another apology. Charles did not hear the tech's reply to Frost; instead, there was only the sound of McCoy's footsteps, retreating.
"Mark time," Frost's cold voice. "Enemy telepath has been inactive for four hours, twenty-five minutes thirty seconds and counting – mark. Marie –" and she sent a spike through the Finder – all the way up – all the way up to Denver oh God oh God because Charles was expecting it to hurt, as it had – on Wednesday – had it only been this past Wednesday? –
But he felt nothing. Nothing except the brief brush of Marie's mind … somehow like a void … he shivered. And not just at Frost's icy satisfaction: "Well done; stay in place. Do not let Proteus or Fade out of your sight."
Marie's exasperated sense of – obviously – came through loud and clear over the Finder. Charles caught the brief impression of Frost's eyes, narrowing; a flash of thought – the insolence – and – oh. Oh …
He gulped back a wave of nausea. It was starting again: the Finder, powering up, gnawing at his mind like a hungry rat. His thoughts were bumping up against Frost's … and hers were so cold that his froze and fractured.
Charles had to admit it. Her voice … her control … He bit down on his lower lip, hard. Frost's control was admirable. The Finder flared and crackled into action. The crown was glowing white-hot on her brow – but the calm of her voice did not waver, as she said:
"No sense in waiting any longer."
A pause, then:
And that had been completely anticlimactic, Charles thought.
He stared up at the ceiling. Drummed his fingers on the plastic. Tried to catch sight of Frost, from the corner of his eye.
A voice from the war room: "White, Blue and Red groups have reached Love Field."
A pause. Charles heard sounds over the radio – rattling, crackling and the occasional whoomph and shriek. What was happening? Perhaps ground rockets, or machine gun fire? Or, knowing mutants: actual fire? His mind flashed to John - so reckless, so aggressive … he would love it if he got to send a wave of fire at the enemy – be safe, John; be safe be safe –
"Red group has secured a bomber."
A long pause.
"And another bomber. Joanna is down – no, no: wait. She's back up."
Then the same tech's voice tensed. "And … Black group is in."
Charles blinked. Frost sounded … dreamy? Or somehow … removed.
He brushed her mind with a tendril of his own thoughts; felt his eyes widen …
For Charles saw, as though from a great distance: the figure of a woman. Small and slender, with her arms upraised, and standing in the center of … white.
White ice: cold and crystalline, spreading like frost on glass, spiderwebbing on the surface of the soft darkness and turning it into a snowflake writ large – larger and larger … and then more of them …
Charles drew back, shivering – just in time to hear a comm console explode in static:
– hot damn, reel 'em in – all groups all groups Love Field on my mark, fresh fish –
– cut the chatter alpha-two – close up formation George and Abe – cover all your ground units, keep it tight – Tom air units mark eleven o'clock prepare to fire –
"Black group is ready, ma'am."
"Stand by. Move out White and Blue."
The orders spiraled through the Finder, even as the woman – Jessie – repeated them into the radio. Charles felt his teeth beginning to chatter. All Frost's words, floating through the air like snowflakes – a dim echo in the war room, but present at Dallas, wafting over Love Field …
He sucked in a breath at a sudden dizzying flash: a bird's-eye view of a ragtag army. Two parts of it splitting off and starting to run. And the group left behind on Love Field, reforming in a rough square - there were mutants flying above them. Charles saw a flash that must have been Angel. She was flying next to the blue-orange reverberation of Sean - their light made his eyes water. Sean - he must have been given Archangel's blood. And Alex, too - where's Alex? Charles scanned the field below. There was Alex's white-red mind, next to one that felt vaguely familiar - had her name been Jubilation? The two were perched atop some structure, shooting plasma bolts. Protect them, you bastard, he thought at the man, furiously. It would never be heard over the battle's roar, but Charles repeated it anyway, casting the thought towards the deadly vortex in the field's center: Protect them -
White and Blue group were being protected, at least. Two bombers wobbled up off the ground and peeled round to guard the mutants sprinting off the field. Charles saw bursts of white-orange machine-gun fire
– shit they're mixing it up – orders, sir–
And a voice – Charles gasped. He recognized it from news reports, from when he was a boy. It was –
– Stand by –
"Dear God," he whispered. "It's MacMurphy."
MacMurphy, commander of the Pacific Theatre in World War Two.
Charles felt his jaw sag. It was one thing to see his own strategy implemented in real time, and on a battlefield bigger than he had ever seen on any Oxford news vid. Charles swallowed hard at the explosions he heard, echoing from the radios in the war room. It was a completely different thing … to have MacMurphy opposing him. Not some Cambridge don on the other side of a table in a room too small – MacMurphy …
Opposing him … and taking the bait.
– Abe and Tom, repeat: all Abe and Tom ground units follow. Flank to the right and left – I want the jeeps on their tail, damn it, and fast –
– fucking hell! – and – cut the damn chatter alpha t –
– fucking Magneto sir I've got visual –
A pause and crunch of static.
– repeat visual visual –
Even in the static and crackle lacing the room – even with the Finder beginning to hum, and Frost's power looming, rearing up like a frozen tidal wave – Charles blinked and frowned. Who –
And then shivered as he heard: - George units – attention all George units – all ground all air mark Love Field quadrant one right in the god damned front line fire at will – and – ice that motherfucker –
"Ice?" Frost's voice was even more distant. "… Well."
And – delicately, quietly ...
"If you insist."
Then the Finder pulled, and his mind inched closer to the vortex. No control there, Charles thought, and it would have all of me – all, with its sharp teeth. Veil, Charles told himself, shuddering – and he checked all the locks on his power reserve. In place. Well. Do what you will, my precious lady –
Only his aviary heard the venom in his voice. His sparrow gave an anxious cheep.
His mind was rappelling up the glacier – he could see, though just faintly, through Frost's eyes. There were her fine-boned hands, curling round the Finder's rail.
"Black group." The command ran through the Finder and hummed in the air. In … warmer air? In an enclosed space, Charles felt: a stuffy one. And there was a group of perhaps fifty mutants there … thirty of them clustered together behind a ragged front line of twenty. Twenty: scattered and breathing heavily. Charles tasted a copper tang of blood in the air, and – despite everything – felt a grin break over his face as he touched a familiar mind – Logan –
– shit X man that you? –
"Xavier," Frost snarled. "I will have no distractions from you. Watch and be silent –" and then she breathed out a harsh laugh, "watch and learn."
There was movement – a flurry in Dallas – underground, it's the old airport underground – a dim reverberation in the Finder. A tangle of blood-red vapor – and the number of individuals abruptly tripled. Almost tripled, his mind catalogued frantically, and: … humans. Not all mutants – humans – but one mutant that –
Charles had a sudden flash of memory: a man? a devil? but devils don't exist – Whatever this was, though – it had a mind that he almost couldn't pin down. It was somehow … Charles couldn't describe it. It contained the possibility of being in two different places at once.
Schrödinger's mutant, Charles thought – and laughed.
He would remember that laugh, later.
For Frost whispered: "Now. Now –"
– and, of all things … his smile was still stretched over his face when the Finder reached out electric claws and ripped into his mind.
Oh God it hurts –
The smile was stretched – his teeth were still bared in it as Charles had to arch his back again – he didn't scream, he wouldn't scream, but ropes of electricity tightened on his thoughts, drawing out power and funneling it to Frost – who was cold, so cold as she held out her arms and flexed all her fingers, and sent a whirlwind of ice flying from her mind …
The rest was flashes, really. Brief impressions. All filtered through Frost's eyes.
A veil of cold cascading onto the old airport – its image, and somehow its superstructure, its levels and tech, and all of the individuals in it snapping into focus crystal-clear in the Finder – but blurring with the falling ice, ice as fine-grained, thick and pervasive as sand –
Enough minds hesitating – wait was what that what's happening did you feel that? – for Frost to send a quiet suggestion – hold still – to all of the pilots – three hundred, just a suggestion, but still: three hundred … "How did she …" Charles whispered to his raven; his raven, who was huddled under his chin, feathers torn by the cold wind. He did not finish, because of the three hundred all were alive, but then a full third of them –
Charles did not cry out as he saw them killed. Their lives flickering out like tiny flames snuffed. It had not been the Finder, not Frost; nor, his raven croaked softly – nor had it been his own doing.
Dear God no -
No: it had been those in the group, the fighters – was that Yuriko's presence, lightning-quick and deadly at Logan's side? Humans and mutants in the EBS, descending in one vicious swoop upon hangars the size of vast warehouses … full of aircraft, full of pilots held immobile in a dreamy daze before dying. And then the pilot's places in the aircraft taken, by humans - seventy-five, and mutants – my people will fly twenty-five more…
Charles could only dimly remember the man's intonation: my people – my people will fly … Could only vaguely use his own senses. He was still lying on plastic, he was gripping the conducting rods with all of his might, he was tasting copper and bile – because the Finder was ravaging his mind, and Frost was pulling power out of him – pulling as much as she could find, clawing. The deer, Charles' mind whispered: a deer, and two opossums, a rabbit, and a skunk – he had shot and killed them all, with Logan, and he had had to pull out their viscera, bloody ropes that had steamed in the cold, and this was what it must have felt like …
"But at least they were dead," he slurred. Wave after electric wave – and God … The rest of the Free West pilots … Their minds were caught by the White Queen's power. Almost two hundred humans, kneeling before her throne of ice. She was freezing them, molding them to do her bidding … but to Charles …
To Charles, their minds felt like the needle-scratch of mouse claws. He had once held a small mouse. It had been warm and grey – and it had been dying, trying to crawl out of his hands. Charles had only bitten his lip once, looking, before he had said the cat was just doing his job, Raven, and had snapped the mouse's neck, brittle as a straw.
Another image wavered into his mind, from Frost's mind, through the Finder. Vivid: one hangar, two, then three: pilots in uniform silent and vacant-eyed; humans and mutants with no uniform whatsoever calling out to each other as glass and plastic panels slammed shut. The rattle and hum of engines, the stench of gasoline … the bright red blood in pools on the hangar floors …
"Wait," Frost said, cold. A particularly focused swipe of the Finder's claws: and Charles saw information. A jumble of spoken words superimposed on a schematic, dragged from a frozen mind – and then Frost lit upon a mutant mind and dumped everything into it … And – it's a girl, younger – she can taste things with her fingertips; how interesting – the mutant's mind was a rush of oh it's me she picked me – and Charles felt his own mind starting to fracture.
It was too much to hold. The individual level – the girl had run to what felt like a control room, and was jabbing at buttons – they taste like fear … and a level up: the two hundred pilots, all frozen and waiting; all of Black group, tense and coiled – there's Logan again, and he's next to Bobby – oh hello Bobby you're safe – good – and one last level up: the battle in its entirety – mutants and humans racing to Glen Rose; mutants and humans and blood and sheer chaos raging on Love Field –
Too much …
"I need more from you, Xavier!"
"I –" Charles gasped. He could only see white, threaded with crimson. The locks. Power down, sunk deep in the sea; it's locked – should I – should I – but he couldn't let Frost find out, so: "I don't know if I – oh God –" he let the cry rattle out from his throat at a yank from the Finder –
"Jean." Frost's voice was level again. She spoke rapidly to a tech. "We've run up against the limit – fetch Jean. Quickly."
It was on the tip of his tongue, to shout: Wait! and to give the order to his raven – his raven, who had swooped to the concealing carpet in his reading room, and who was now hopping up and down, ready to tear through the threads. Ready to open the locks and let the entirety of his power rise from the sea …
But I only just hid it …
His raven screeched at him.
"No," Charles mumbled, "she can't find out, she – can't –"
He sensed Jean being rushed to the other plastic sheet. Charles blinked woozily. All the details of the battle at Dallas were being forced into his mind like cloves into an orange, and he still sensed Jean taking the needle, touching the tech's fingers whey they rested gently on the bow in her hair – and taking a deep breath, sliding the needle into her own scalp –
A sudden image: the phoenix, fiery and terrible, crying out – but Jean's voice was separate from it, and she was saying: I'm going to help you, Mr. Xavier!
"All – all right?"
Charles felt drunk. He didn't know what to think. Except to know: the phoenix was furious – and how strange, his raven was raging as well, shrieking at him – but did it matter? For the Finder stayed battening on his mind, but then it sank its greedy teeth into Jean, too – and –
– he gasped.
And Charles could breathe again.
"There." Frost exhaled. "And just in time –"
Static from a console, then a voice: Dan group Frank group Ben group all units up and go: enemy force hauling ass down 67 south – deploy deploy do you copy –
A flare from the Finder; and from the console crackled a voice that Charles knew was controlled by Frost: Roger that – stand by –
And with Jean helping … Charles blinked up at the ceiling. It was far up – distant, metallic … but everything else was coming back into focus. He could taste blood in his mouth; he could hear the thundering of his own heart. No fear of an aneurysm now, though, for with Jean helping …
… it was almost easy.
The mutant girl in Dallas pressed buttons – Charles' mind felt the rumble and shake through the Finder, as vast hidden panels rolled back. Fuckin' A, Logan breathed, and Bobby whooped, but there was no time to listen, because all of the planes were taking off and flying.
– Dan Frank Ben – loosen up formation, you're tighter than the White Queen's ass -
"I am going to kill you for that –" Frost's voice, soft and dreamlike.
Charles, immobile on the table and staring blindly into the Finder's maw, saw every crystal spike in her thoughts and whirl together into a vast radiating star of snow … And with his power, now joined to Jean's as well, it was easy to keep hold of all two hundred pilots, and to wheel them round in the sky …
– Dan Frank Ben check your bearings – south by south west what the fuck are you –
Then MacMurphy's voice, tightly controlled: Dan group delta-one delta-one – Commander Burke, what's your operating number –
"Dear me …" Frost sounded half-asleep.
– delta-one, give it now –
"… poor Burke is dead …"
– now Burke – do you copy –
– sir they're heading towards the city –
– Roger that – MacMurphy's voice was still calm. How could he be calm? Charles wondered … Calm … calm …
Especially when Frost flexed her fingers …
– Roger that, it's a trap – a trap - George Abe Tom – Dan Frank and Ben are hostile –
… and whispered: "… now."
– shoot on sight – shoot on sight – George Abe Tom do you copy –
… and the air around Dallas exploded in fire.
Crying out, Charles flung an arm in front of his face. He had to shield his eyes –
"God!" His armor had flashed iridescent in the light of the blaze. "Jean – be careful, Jean! it's dangerous –"
It's all right, Mr. Xavier.
"No, Jean – no –" a cry from his throat – he couldn't find the words, until he finally said, ragged: "It is not 'all right.' This is as far from 'all right' as one can possibly get … my God …"
For the defenses around Dallas were burning. All of them …
Burning burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest / burning – and, "of all the times for poetry, Professor," Charles told himself – but his voice cracked halfway through, and his laughter turned into – oh ... He could hardly hear over the roar of the flames; he was crying, and it wasn't just from the smoke. The smoke that was billowing up around him, and around Jean too …
Where they both watched the battle. From the clouds.
Charles wiped at his face with his fingers of his free hand. The armor scraped against his skin. "God …" He wasn't a particularly religious person; never had been, but at some times all that could be said was: "God … my God …"
Oh – it's Jean. Don't frighten her. He fought back his tears, squared his shoulders, and turned to face Jean. "About what, dear?"
She stared at him, so pale that her red hair was as dark as dried blood. You're about to fall.
Charles looked down. And blinked. Sure enough, they were both standing on a cloud – ice crystals, his mind noted – and he was indeed too close to the edge. And even though he knew he could fly, in a projection … "Right," he managed. Stepped back. "Thank you."
You're welcome. And don't worry. In her white robe, even with the fierce phoenix embroidered on its front, Jean looked very young and small. The first time I saw this, I was scared too.
Charles laughed a bitter laugh. "Saw a city catch fire?"
No. Saw – things happen. From the sky. Lady Frost says it helps her concentrate –
"Lady Frost," he blurted. "Is she – is this –" Charles shook his head, trying to overcome the barrage of sensory input from the fire. "Is she doing this?"
With the Finder. This is her projection. Jean looked round, eyes wide. I mean … I think it is. It's never been this big.
It was big, Charles realized, struggling to comprehend. It was immense, yet amazingly detailed. He peered down. On closer inspection he saw how things were not quite arranged to scale, as they would have been in a landscape painting. Instead, scenes overlapped. It looked as though a dozen panoramas had fought for supremacy, and then decided to declare an armistice and share the stage.
Even from this distance, he could see the aircraft whirling round a strangely flat projection of Dallas. The gouts of flame from anti-aircraft guns. Bridges collapsing into smoke and rubble. Wavering black spots, then fire crackling up the city walls like spikes of orange-red frost ... The overall effect was dizzying and disorienting: sensory impressions from the Finder laid onto a map, and the viewpoints of all touched by Frost's mind superimposed onto that … and …
Charles felt his eyes almost cross. "Jean?"
"Is Frost … is Lady Frost still using our power?"
Yes. At least, I think so. She must know we're here – maybe she feels us. If she's using our power, maybe it's O.K. that we watch.
"Teamwork," Charles snorted. "How kind of her."
It is. Normally she'd be really mad.
Because we're in her projection. And, Jean's voice was careful, we didn't ask.
"It's not like she asks anyone – those pilots. Angel," he seethed. "Or even you –"
But she's in charge.
"Indeed she is." He could almost taste the bitterness in his own voice, as he watched the walls catch further fire. "My lady does seem to love her authority."
She loves snow. Jean pointed. See?
Charles squinted. And there, above the projection of the city … there was an immense cumulus cloud, white and puffy. Strange, because the snow falling would normally come from a cloud slate-grey – unless, Charles told himself, sour: unless one were as vain as a peacock, and concerned about the image one had while sending shock and fear and pain wafting down from heaven onto the people on earth … so gently …
"Oh, Jean." He heard the misery in his own voice. "I wish you would close your eyes."
"People are dying, dear."
Not our people.
"Well." Charles scrubbed at his face with his fingertips; tightened his grip on his shield. "We'll have to talk about that later. Remind me, when this is over. All right?"
All right, Mr. Xavier. Jean's voice was small. Then she brightened. Look!
Charles followed her pointing finger.
And his breath caught.
He could see Love Field, even from their present distance …
Charles shivered, once. But all over his body – the armor-clad projection of his body, even trammeled round by the Finder as it was … every inch of his skin prickled –
"What is wrong with you?" he whispered to himself.
Why should he be staring at – at that familiar cloud of metal, dark and seething as it was? It was alone in front, placed squarely in the center of the field. Other mutants behind it, and flanking … And even from this distance, the cloud whirled with flashes of silvery steel, unrelenting and deadly –
"What are you …" he began. Then he shook his head, hard.
Why should he, Charles, want to move closer?
Why should he want to see?
"All it would be is – is fighting." He shrugged, determinedly moved his eyes away. "The biggest bully on the playground." More flames crawled up the projection of the city fortifications; Charles felt his mouth twist, bitter. "What a pretty picture."
He watched for another long moment. The anti-aircraft guns were destroyed; most of the other defenses had been pulverized. The pilots' minds were still a distant mouse-claw scratch against his own; much more of a presence in Frost's, perhaps, but she did not seem to care. Or … Charles frowned. Or perhaps she did. The snow had stopped, and the white cloud formation was rapidly moving towards them. He checked his sword – it lay sheathed at his side. Sword and shield, and his armor was strong …
Jean was smoothing her small hands down the front of her white robe. Then she patted her hair into place.
"Really, Jean," Charles sighed. "You look fine. Just as fine as – ah, my lady!" He made his tones deliberately plummy and swept a mocking bow. "Thank you for your warm welcome."
"Why, Mr. Xavier …"
And Charles pressed his lips tight. In the projection, with the full strength of the Finder, Frost's voice hit every frequency audible to the human ear – and some not – and vibrated with power. Cold as winter – yet … amused. Laughing, perhaps. His stomach twisted. Laughing at him, for:
"What a noble knight you make," she said, softly.
Frost stepped off her cloud onto theirs. Ice solidified beneath her diamond slippers. She pulled up the trailing sleeves of her crystal dress, let their folds caress her fingers. At least, Charles thought she did. He could not keep his eyes on her for very long stretches: she blazed with the glory of the evening star.
And: "Jean," Frost said gently, bending her head. The crown upon it glittered at Charles, so brightly that he had to squeeze his eyes shut. "Are you feeling all right?"
Jean nodded solemnly.
"Thank you for your help, sweet." A white hand – nails tinted blue – brushed one lock of Jean's hair behind her ear. "How glad I am that you were here to rescue Mr. Xavier."
And the look she shot Charles was sly. He stared back, indignant – manipulative bitch – and then caught Jean looking up at him too, with a tremulous smile, and LOVE clocking him on the head as heavy as Guernica framed in gold.
"Damn it," he hissed, but smiled back at Jean. Shot daggers at Frost with his eyes. She merely flicked her diamond glance between them both, her face sleek and smug, and turned to watch the battle.
"It proceeds well."
"Well indeed," Charles sighed. "If this sort of thing is to your taste."
"To my taste … ah, Mr. Xavier." Frost tilted her head, let her pale lips curl up at their corners. "Such a wine is perhaps all the better for its age."
Charles rolled his eyes; Frost saw him do it, and her laugh cut the air, sharp as glass. "It will be over soon."
He chose not to answer her. Instead, he gazed down at the city. "I thought the civilians were meant to be untouched?"
"Jean," Frost ignored Charles, inclining her head again. "Why don't you fly home now?"
Can't I keep helping you? Jean sent, her face upturned.
"Of course. But I need someone to watch Jessie, and Hank, and everyone outside. I can't have anything go wrong, now, and since I'm here, and Mr. Xavier is here .... This is something special, just for you to do. Do you think you can? Even while still you're helping, outside?"
Charles clenched his teeth as he saw Jean square her shoulders. Yes! I can.
"You are so dear to me." Frost swooped, low, and - Charles blinked - bestowed a gentle kiss on Jean's round cheek.
He thought he heard something ... creak.
Or perhaps he just felt colder.
Frost withdrew. Jean scrubbed at her cheek with the back of one hand.
"Now, that's just rude." The White Queen tsked - then laughed. "Fly away home, Jean. We'll be there soon."
'Bye, Mr. Xavier -
"Soon, yes," Charles tried to keep his teeth from chattering - fly away home fly away - "Be well, dear." Don't watch what happens. "I - oh!"
For Jean had floated up in the air, slightly - just above the cloud - and then had vanished in the blink of an eye. "How ..."
"She's a very talented little girl," said Frost. "Isn't she?"
"To stay wired up to this war, and to monitor all your worker bees, simultaneously? So very talented."
"Now, Charles. No backtalk. Not when we're so close."
The battle beneath him shuddered back into focus; some kaleidoscope of jagged glass, ice - shards slicing through fire, and people dying. "The civilians. In my strategy - I -" He shook his head. "I made it so that they could ... stay untouched. These feints were outside the walls."
"Mm. Really - they were all told to find shelter." Frost's smile was unchanged. "There are so many there. Bomb shelters – left over, you understand, from the war. And still in pristine condition. Dallas only just missed being a nuclear target due to weather patterns."
"I believe the strategic understanding was that a simple firestorm would leave the state just as incinerated as any bomb. It had been an exceptionally dry winter."
Winter, Charles thought, dully. The exchanges between the Soviets and Americans had come to a head in early December of 1950 … almost twenty years ago, now. Nineteenth anniversary, he thought. Mum and Dad and his rabbit: nineteen years dead … But – the bombs; yes, they had fallen on so many cities … But not Dallas. Interesting. I wonder how –
His brain caught up with Frost's words.
Charles turned to stare at her. "'Strategic understanding' … How do you," he swallowed, hard. "How do you know this?"
Frost's face was motionless as she stared down at the battlefield. Then she turned just slightly, and met his eyes with her glittering diamond gaze. "I remember it well. So much happened in a mere five years, in Russia that was. My prince was brought to me in 1945. One war ended, and I taught him to speak again. Cold peace reigned, and I taught him to read … I watched over him as he grew, and as he was prepared for his destiny.
"And he watched with me, as another war began."
After a long moment, she shrugged. "It was quite some time ago."
"You're from Russia, and the Soviets were the ones to –" Charles spoke rapidly, to keep ahead of his nausea, "are you telling me that the EBS was involved in –"
"Do not speak of what you do not understand. And no." Frost's lips drew back from her perfect white teeth as she turned back to watch another section of the walls crumble. "The Brethren and the Sistren will never use nuclear weapons; simply because of what we have seen done. How we have suffered, Charles."
The dissonance vibrating through his teeth could have been her words or the artillery below. "Suffered –" Charles spat, but,
"Yes. We were invited to this land – to New York State that was – by an indigenous mutant resistance group, in 1955. We agreed, and we settled; we had wanted to live in peace. But alas, it was not to be."
"Not to be?"
"Not on terms that would leave any of us alive; no. And my dear friend Stryker saw fit to ask us to leave … with nuclear weapons. Low-grade, but sufficient to make our first winter here unpleasant in the extreme."
Charles was silent.
"Fortunately," Frost concluded, "we neutralized his remaining nuclear stockpile in early 1956. And then, in some happy coincidence, the headquarters of his precious CIA was destroyed. My First Quarter Gift to him, that same year."
She leaned forward slightly - Charles realized: for a better view.
"He never did send a thank-you note."
No reply would come to him; Charles choked on his words. Why bother? He shuddered and turned where he stood, casting eyes half blind over the immense landscape below and behind them –
Then he blinked.
Frost was still watching Love Field. "Pardon?"
"That." Charles indicated the black stain behind them. Southwest, his mind offered. Far southwest. Spreading across the ground like ink. "Do you see?"
Irritation flickered across her face as she turned to look.
"Coming up on Glen Rose," Charles said, blankly. "From the other side."
A hiss of breath from Frost was the only warning he had –
– before the projection shattered like a mirror – exploding into shards of color and light as other sounds cut in: voices and the crackle of the radio –
And Charles gasped, back arching on the plastic, straining at his bonds and only just wresting his head round to look at the Finder.
Frost had gone ramrod-straight from where she had been leaning against the rail. Her face was drained of all color. "Report."
"My lady?" Jessie at the comm station: her voice was confused. "The anti-aircraft guns are down; we're starting on the last wall –"
"I know that we are starting on the last wall – I am directing the jets bombing it." Her voice was like ice. "Send the aircraft not controlled by me away from the city, south south-west, mark –"
Another voice: "But Lady Frost, Red group is holding –"
And the voice was cut off as – as the Finder reached out and snapped its teeth – Charles fought back the urge to vomit, for there, so close, a mind had folded in on itself into unconsciousness, like a table with its legs chopped off.
"All he did was disagree," Charles began, but: "Enemy force to the southwest of Glen Rose," Frost snarled. "Send all available aircraft. Alert White and Blue –"
Charles heard the clack of buttons; the beep of machines. Then a high-pitched alarm, like a teakettle rising into a shriek –
"Pan, put a cork in it. My lady," Jessie said: "we confirm visual: enemy force numbering – oh shit, visual estimates two divisions, proceeding around Glen Rose –"
"White group, Blue group – abort," Frost said. She had found a calm voice again. "Abort, abort; retreat to Love Field and join Red group –"
A crackle from the comm:
– Abe and Tom ground units, the cat's out say again the cat's out. Hold your positions. Abe and Tom air, leave off defense and support ground –
– Sir, the walls –
MacMurphy's voice: the walls are gone – we'll build em back tomorrow - George group concentrate your fire –
– Reinforcements have passed Glen Rose – going up 67 sir I have visual –
"Report: White and Blue will be surrounded in ten minutes and counting, my Lady –" a gasp from the war room, "what are your orders?"
Frost paused. Her eyes had fallen shut. Charles only heard the slightest echo through the Finder, a whisper in the room.
… force southwest my prince …
His mind flew away from the thought of the other – in the middle of the field –
And then: "We will not have this chance again. We cannot retreat," Frost whispered. Her eyes were diamonds, staring. "This close … this close, but we cannot retreat – to teleport so many at once –"
Charles saw the map, suddenly. The map he had drawn on with Logan, scribbling and thinking, talking and laughing – his mind flew from Dallas to -
"Fort Worth," Charles gasped. "All of them can fall back on Fort Worth – hide in the ruins –"there is still a plentitude of wrecked buildings there, to conceal weapons, supplies, soldiers – his own words, he remembered.
"Yes," Frost hissed: "All groups – all groups retreat to Fort Worth. Draw a perimeter; once all have reached it, set the perimeter line on fire and open a chasm –"
The war room burst into noise and action; orders given and confirmed, machines rattling and radios buzzing. Charles stared at the ceiling – so tired, he was so tired … And there was no relenting, as Frost flew all the blank and staring pilots in their planes over to the Free West reinforcements …
"White and Blue are retreating –"
– shit shit visual on bogey Dan Frank and Ben I have visual from 67 south –
– shoot them down –
– enemy forces are now moving north –
– god damn it –
"Black group has left the old airport. Red group is –" a hitch, "Red group is –"
– George increase your god damned fire I want that motherfucker's head on a pike –
"Red group is surrounded!" Jessie yelped, and: "No," Frost gasped, "no – break it –"
"And …" The air in the war room crackled with tension; Charles could smell sour sweat. "Joanna has broken enemy lines; Victor too – and – and there," Jessie breathed out, "Red group is going through; the flank is holding –"
"Save some for an endguard," Charles croaked.
Frost whirled on him. "My prince is the endguard. Kill them," she breathed out to empty air, eyes blazing, "my son, my sword: kill them all."
And … judging from what little could be heard from the radio, over the noise of the war room - the shouts and the screams …
… the man did.
Charles stared up at the ceiling, dully. Perhaps it would be over soon. Once everyone had reached Fort Worth. Once the EBS had set up a defensive line and, presumably, set it on fire. Maybe Logan will do that, he thought, and: ha.
His head hurt. He heard someone crying; he hoped it wasn't Jean.
"May I –" he swallowed. "May I have some water, please?"
Nobody was listening.
"Please," Charles groaned, "please let me up. Make it –" he tried to move; couldn't, "make it stop …"
"Black group has prepared the perimeter –"
Of course, Charles thought: that group had had the teleporters. The aircraft under Frost's control were relentless against the Free West reinforcements. Charles had caught a brief glimpse of those new soldiers' thoughts, through the fading of the Finder – his mind was starting to close down. Fear, and pain, and, he realized: … speaking Spanish. "Oh," he whispered. "From Mexico. They must have driven all the way –"
"Red group is five minutes out; White and Blue group ten –"
Ten minutes. Charles closed his eyes. Opened them. He did not want to be awake for ten more minutes. Not a minute more –
And Frost screamed in pain.
"Red One is down!" Jessie shouted; and: "No, no – he can't –" Frost gasped – "I've lost contact – Xavier –" she wheeled on him: "Xavier, I need you –"
"I can't," he croaked.
It was the Finder that he felt, but Frost as well – ice running through him, spearing him and making him fight not to faint. Charles squeezed his eyes shut. In his reading room, he saw his books growing white fuzz – frost – ice crackling over the floor and freezing the table legs to carpet – She had frozen over the hidden rondel, thank God, but his birds were flying in frenzied circles, screaming –
"No," he cried out, and there was the White Queen in his mind – in my mind, she's in my mind, "stop – please stop –"
In his mind, she blazed. Her hair crackled around her shoulders; her fingers were tipped with diamonds, curled into claws. Her crown shone brighter than the sun, blinding him. "Your power, Xavier. Give it to me."
"Only the smallest – ah." And Frost smiled, teeth glittering – all of her glittering, like diamonds, as she caught at the air in his mind, and – she had fastened her diamond fingers on his bird, the brooch of a bird – no, Charles howled to himself – no no –
"This will do well." She held the bird in one palm, raised it up high.
Charles watched in disbelief, as the tiny jewel refracted and changed into a hawk. Or an eagle – a huge bird of prey, made of diamonds and propelling itself from Frost's hands into the sky with a shriek that could tear minds in half.
"What did you –" he gasped, at Frost's side in the projection, "what did you do –"
"What I have done," Frost whispered, exultant, "I will undo. Later. And only if you obey me."
"I – I –"
It was the worst feeling in the world: his own power, his own creation – wrested from his control and flying with all the White Queen's might. Forced to see the battle's end with her eyes.
The diamond hawk plunged down from the sky, swooped round the familiar presence: metal, a dark cloud – but dull now, and throbbing with pain –
– and Charles could see it clear as day. The man was on his back. His hands, holding their swords, were clotted with blood; his hair was matted to his scalp with blood; his face was a mask of blood. Red, Charles thought, mind going blank with shock: red … "Red One," he whispered, but: my prince my prince – the hawk was crying out with Frost's voice –
Eyes opened, stark white and green against red. My lady… a thought, a whisper, but it rang through the Finder like a bell.
Charles, on the table, squeezed his eyes shut and bit down hard on his tongue. Veil, he told himself. What he had just felt; his reaction - no -
We take the city another day – arise, arise –
Those eyes were empty. I …
Will send you help. I will send you help, my prince – look to the west –
Charles saw, through the Finder, a storm cloud on the western horizon. It grew rapidly, started flashing with lightning, until there was ... there was someone flying, bringing the thunder and the rain.
But the man was speaking, through the Finder … and into the sooty air on a field between Dallas and Fort Worth. Rasping, through what sounded like blood in his throat:
She flies to you! Rise up, my prince – she will guard your retreat –
You must retreat: we take the city tomorrow. Do as I command today. Now.
"But not," the man choked, "Not her … I promised …"
Charles felt Frost's sudden confusion. And – "oh, shite," he muttered to himself, as his mind confirmed it through the Finder.
The flying mutant, the one bringing the storm, was Ororo.
Frost was making the hawk scream orders at the man … from a slight distance. Perhaps she did not wish to dirty the diamonds with his blood. The thunder and lightning were very loud. So it was easy enough for Charles to send his raven flying beneath Frost's notice, darting in black and invisible – smaller than an eight-ball you can't see me – to croak in the man's ear:
"You promised to keep her safe."
Through the Finder, Charles heard the man's breath catch.
He whispered it aloud, made his raven say it too: "So keep her safe. Follow her. Catch her if she falls. Get up."
My prince my prince arise – to Fort Worth, go –
But the man was staring into space. Listening for him, Charles knew instinctively. He hissed in a breath and made his raven press close to the man's ear. Blood caught in its feathers.
"Go," Charles croaked. "Do as I say, you absolute idiot –"
And those eyes widened, white and blue-green against the crimson splashed on the man's face, as he rolled to one side – oh and just in time – was that a grenade? – and took off running.
On a broken ankle, Charles observed through the Finder.
No: on two.
Serves him right.
His mind was receding from the projection. The diamond eagle was flying through the air, screaming. All the aircraft pinwheeling through the sky –she'd better find someplace to land them, and – not my problem – smoke and flame and explosions, and he lost track of time.
Heard only: "Everybody's in." Jessie.
"Set fire to the perimeter." Frost.
And: Mr. Xavier – Mr. Xavier can you hear me? Mr. Xavier?!
– before his raven spiraled back to him and took him flying: up and up, further away, until everything they saw faded to white.
Charles woke to the feeling of coolness dabbing at his forehead.
He blinked, shifted – and immediately winced. Everything ached.
A plop and trickle from one side, combined with an astringent smell … someone was bathing his temples in water and vinegar. He knew it well; he had done it himself, in the field, on the Oxford missions. Just to cool the injured, to bring down a fever. Something soothing.
"Who –" he croaked. "… Hello?"
Charles stiffened where he lay. On a cot, his mind told him: not his room, but in a different place.
The cloth returned, and a quiet, "Hello."
And the person dabbing at his brow was Frost, and thus he had no intention of –
"Do relax, Charles." She sounded amused. "I won't hurt you."
"Not – anymore," he hissed.
"You're tired." Water plashed from the cloth being wrung out over a bowl. "I didn't hurt you before. Not so badly. Did I?"
Charles couldn't find the words. How to describe someone who had just orchestrated a massive battle, mind-controlled hundreds of innocent people, ordered death and destruction and - and mentally flayed one of her subordinates?
"Hush, now." The cloth was back at his temples. And there was - he shivered - a breath, warm on the chill dampness of his skin, sliding warmer into his ear as Frost whispered, "Save your imprecations for someone who cares."
Then he heard a shuffling sound, and a clink, and Charles felt porcelain at his lips. He took a grateful drink of water before remembering that it was Frost – and he narrowed his eyes, got ready to spit it back out –
"Thank you, Jean."
Charles held out a hand. He felt Jean's small fingers grip his, hard. "Hello," he whispered to her, and: I'm glad you're all right, Mr. Xavier …
Not all right, he thought to himself. Pretty damn far from 'all right.'
"Language, Mr. Xavier."
And Charles swallowed hard. Bit his lip, concentrated, and drew a wavering veil back up over his thoughts. Iridescent and thin, but there.
"That's better," Frost murmured. "Jean? You take this water away, now."
A long sigh covered the sound of Jean's footsteps shuffling away. "Why she would speak to me in that way, I have no -"
"How much did she see?" Charles croaked.
There was silence from Frost. Then: "Not too much."
"How much -"
"Nothing, after she left. When my prince began his best work."
The man. A metal maelstrom turning soldiers into pulp of flesh and blood; if Jean had seen that - felt that, in the Finder - how she would let him read a storybook to her -
" - and so, she cries, and I can't have that." The cloth smoothed over his brow again. "Surely, you understand?"
"I didn't catch - I don't understand." Charles tried to focus, swallowing against the bitterness at the back of his throat. "I feel sick."
"I'm not surprised. At the end, you were sending me enough power to compensate for Jean's leaving, and then some."
Part of Charles was relieved that Jean had been taken away. Another part of him was ... He wasn't sure.
Some combination: hollow, and terrified.
He fumbled in his mind; winced away from flashes of pain; checked the Greek key. Carpet; key; seals: all intact. Thank God.
"And so, we'll have to work on your control."
"My ... control?"
It was dark in the room; he couldn't quite see Frost's features. But he heard her smile as she continued.
"To increase your utility with the Finder. Although: you must understand … I still do not entirely trust you. Even though your actions today were exemplary in their attention to detail – and even though your little bird is completely charming."
Little bird – the diamond brooch. Mum, Charles remembered, with a dull wrench of sadness.
Cautiously, he looked in his reading room. And he shivered. There was the huge diamond hawk, staring at him with blank sapphire eyes.
None of his other birds could be seen.
"I've returned it to you. Do you see?"
Charles bit his lip harder. Then he decided – and he couldn't say why, later. Only that some instinct made him growl: "Keep it."
Another pause. Then Frost's voice, delicate: "I beg your pardon?"
"That bird – keep it." He felt so tired, and sick to his stomach. "I don't want it anymore." Not like it is now.
"Really ... What a shame." Frost was almost purring in the darkness. "But if you insist ..."
Charles called his raven. Silent and dark, it winged its way out of nothingness and flew towards the diamond hawk in a rush.
"You may send it back to me. I promise it shall have an excellent home. So useful, and –"
Get out, Charles hissed, and Raven flapped its black feathers at the hawk.
The diamond bird chirped, strangely small for its hulking body, and flew out of his mind, straight into Frost's. And the surprise impact made her shut up – which, he thought bitterly, was one advantage to the gesture.
"Ah, Xavier." She sounded breathless. "What a lovely creature."
"Are we done?" He knew he sounded exhausted; he didn't care. "Will you go now, please?"
A pause, then: "Very well."
"Wait, I want – I mean," Charles gulped. "Can Jean come back?"
He heard Frost tsk. "Certainly not, Xavier. She needs as much rest as you do. I will alternate you in the Finder, in the time to come - but I will be asking more of you. It would not do to have a repeat of the rest of today's events. You had lost consciousness, you understand. You have to build up your stamina."
"Events … what happened?" He pushed himself up from the cot with one elbow. "Is it over? How did it all end?"
Frost had risen; her voice came from above him. "We have regrouped at Fort Worth – but the Free West reinforcements reached Dallas before we could stop them. Two divisions," she sighed, "joining the division and a half remaining to them. We had managed to destroy half of one on the battlefield today. And our relative numbers of aircraft have quite reversed, which is excellent. But …"
How many in a division, again? Charles shut down the thought, dully. Rather more than in a platoon, that was certain.
"But," he said, instead. "… but. It's not over. Is it?"
"Oh, my dear Mr. Xavier …"
And for one nightmare moment, Charles thought he saw a diamond smile glitter in the dark.
"It has only just begun."
And that, Charles thought later, turned out more true than he would have thought possible.
The battle that began the campaign marked a high-energy point of sorts. From there, EBS forces in Fort Worth set up camp and consolidated for a few days. And that gave the Free West time to rebuild some of Dallas' walls, working for seventy-two hours straight. When groups Red and Black, White and Blue took the field again, two divisions of Free West troops met them. And that, Charles reflected, as he watched through the Finder, was far more of grinding, number-telling battle than the previous had been. Without surprise or surprising tactics, it appeared that the EBS was at a significant disadvantage.
Charles wondered very much, then, why the Free West kept making foolish mistakes. Walking straight into ambushes, making ill-advised night sorties, allowing their supply lines to be cut … For the last indeed happened quite early on, and with the EBS' newfound air force putting paid to any food drops, the campaign became – after only one week – a classic siege.
Perhaps it was the dullness of such a siege, Charles thought, that led the Free West into such error.
Then he observed Frost leading a skirmish, with Jean hooked into the Finder … observed Red group being deployed, and heard the howls from the radio: there there kill him all units fire –
Oh. Charles had blinked, listening. It appeared that the man was being used … as bait. Practically every other day.
They must truly hate him, Charles thought, removed from any emotion. The Free West, that is. Although, considering the point academically, it was interesting to wonder which the Free West would run out of first. Hatred - and bullets - or food?
When he was not being used in the Finder, Charles stayed occupied with mundane tasks. A different tech came to wake him every day. It made sense; Angel and Alex were at Dallas. A week and a half into November, a bottle of cod liver oil had appeared on the kitchen table. The implication had been clear enough. Charles dosed himself methodically, once every morning – reserving his energies for persuading, cajoling, and finally bribing Jean to take her daily sip. Not with his food – she had the most of that anyway. Instead, he told her stories. Each morning, after a spoonful of the oil, Jean would drink her hot water and eat her bread, listening to Charles' voice, watching his hands weave patterns in the air.
Each day Charles began a story at breakfast. A tech would blindfold them and take them to the Hive. There, they would work – well, Charles would work. He insisted on Jean's being used as little as possible – to refine that control you mentioned, he lied to Frost, and she only smirked at him knowingly. But she did as he asked. He would rest, strapped down on the plastic, waiting for Frost's orders as she contacted each command center, each force group – and on red-letter days, each mutant member of the army in turn. The strictly human portions she only briefly greeted before moving on to others.
"It's disconcerting," McCoy had explained. "The cold feeling. You know?"
"Human groups …" Charles had stared at the war room's table, with its carefully labeled forces in play. Same sorties, same exchanges … very little progress in the second week of November.
"Yeah. Most of the Midwest militias – we even have the Iron Brigade, from Michigan before. They came all the way from Sault Sainte Marie. Some of the Dakota tribes, and a big group from Québec. Most of the Maritimers are with the ship –"
"No – what I mean is … Why would they fight for – for … Why not fight for the Free West?"
McCoy had shrugged. "Different groups, different reasons."
Reasons. Charles would stare at the ceiling when the Finder was not using his mind. He would consider what those reasons might be. On most days he would then plan the conclusion of Jean's story, to be told in the evening. Other days he would imagine his own history of the present events. For example: On the Monday of the Fourth Week of November – he began inscribing in his imagination – C. XAVIER, in the largest, most ornate capitals … Did Stare at the Ceiling, and Nearly Expire from Boredom. Again.
But Frost did not use his power much, that day. She waited until the night, and a surprise attack on the Free West flank that reduced a good twenty of their tanks to twisted heaps of metal. And then Charles was secured in a room off one of the Hive's many hallways. He disliked it intensely: its sterile smell, its blank white walls, and the fact that it had an electronic lock.
"Not that you've been trying to escape recently, anyway," he whispered to himself, staring at the smooth white door. Then Charles had to consider: should he escape? He knew that he could. But would Jean be safe, with winter's cold descending in full force? With the Finder active every day, would his veils be sufficient to hide them both? And once they reached Albany, what then?
… And if Charles ran away, would the man go back on his word?
"You could jet back from Oxford and shag him silly on alternate weekends," Charles mumbled to his pillow. "Dirty, dirty weekends." Then he sighed. "Or, you could get some sleep and think about it tomorrow."
For at least the Hive was heated. Perhaps that was worth the electronic lock.
Despite the sour taste in his mouth from that last thought, Charles had slept soundly. And the next day, Tuesday the 25th, he was let out of the white room and sent to the mess hall with all the techs. He had accepted a bowl of watery oatmeal, held it out to have some cinnamon sprinkled on it. He sat across from Jean, and carefully passed her the apple he had been given: piece by dry piece.
"I wonder," he murmured to her, "whether or not they have more food in Dallas."
I think so. Jean chewed with a pensive look on her face. Otherwise they would get too tired to fight.
"Mm. Did you sleep well, Jean?"
Yes. It's warm here. She paused. But I missed having a fire.
"I did too." Firewood gathering had been haphazard at best, during November so far – the techs supervising could not be bothered to stay out too long. Escape, Charles' mind nagged him: the opportunities were multiplying by the day – why don't you escape? –
He shoved the thoughts aside. Even though he had slept well, he was strangely irritable. No matter. "What shall we have for our story today?"
… I liked the opera one, from last week.
"Ah." Charles had told her the tale of Turandot, falling back on fairy tales for the portions he could not remember. But now, "Let's see … here. 'The Magic Flute' – Die Zauberflöte. It has a handsome prince and a princess held captive; a kind magician and a wicked witch. And," he said with mock import, "a man who thinks he's a bird. On some days."
"Really. On other days, he's a bird who thinks he's a man."
Jean had curled her fern smile at him from around her mouthful of apple. Charles had tried to smile back.
Only later in the day had he realized the reason for his odd mood. Charles had been pacing round the lowest level of the Hive, flicking glances at the quiescent Finder. Frost had left at noon; she hadn't told him why. Perhaps a diplomatic dinner, Charles thought, nastily – and his mind had presented him with image after luscious image of feasts … until he had paused, frowning, as he heard … music.
Idly, he had walked towards the sound. One of the few doors on the lowest level was open. The music was coming from – Charles leaned against the door with one shoulder, and looked inside. He saw an old vid screen. It was cracked in one corner.
A few mutants – and one human – were sitting quietly on chairs. A news program was playing. From – Charles concentrated. It was in French, so it must be a broadcast out of United Europe. Brussels had escaped major bombing, if not the fallout from winds east out of London … so the United Nations had reconsolidated, and reconstituted, with the U.E. as a result.
… et ce triste anniversaire est également un jour d'espoir, puisque l'on peut espérer que la guerre finira, et que ce que furent les États-Unis trouveront la paix –
"Bit late for that, mec," Charles had muttered, but: "Shh …" One of the mutants had hushed him.
And Charles had listened to the music pouring forth from the broadcast, and had folded his arms across his chest. Had stared at the floor, at his scuffed shoes. His leather shoes from Oxford … one run away from being worn completely through. You'd need different shoes, for an escape. Charles shook his head and focused on the music.
For it was truly beautiful. He had sung a choir at Oxford as a young boy with a clear soprano – and then in the one post-war choir as an alto. When his voice had finally settled into an unremarkable low tenor, Charles had bid a carefree farewell to all choral obligations. Except the few efforts each year, that required all faculty and students to participate.
One of which was the Great Litany sung in procession, during the long service for peace. Every year, on 25 November, commemorating the beginning of the Third World War. Rote and repetitive, himself in line with his fellows, inching around the cathedral and breathing in the cloying incense and candle smoke.
From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine, / Good Lord, deliver us.
From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, / Good Lord, deliver us.
And then the long roll of the saints. If he were singing now, Charles knew that they all would have shuffled back to the nave and taken their places in choir. He would be kneeling, wedged between Fletcher and Davis. The boys on the decani side would have been singing solemnly, Hear our prayer in response to different founders: St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius. But then the priest would intone: St. Francis Xavier, and Charles would be blinded by a dozen gap-toothed grins.
The children thought it was the best joke imaginable. Every time they sang it. Especially if they sang out of tune.
This music was very tuneful, though. Charles felt his eyes sting as he listened. His mind searched and presented him with the information. Fauré … a beautiful requiem, quiet and melancholy. Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine. "Let eternal light shine upon them, O Lord," he muttered, and: "Damn it, Professor –" He dragged a sleeve across his eyes.
One of the mutants pressed a square of cloth into his hand.
Charles didn't like the techs, much – they treated him with such reserve, and they had watched Jean tortured at Frost's discretion before he, Charles, had stepped in. But he took the handkerchief anyway. Wiped his face.
"Thanks," he said, gruffly. And handed it back.
"No problem," the tech said, staring at the screen. "And cheer up. Thanksgiving's in two days - we'll watch Stryker's speech. It's a hell of a lot funnier than this."
Which, Charles noted, was not at all true.
Stryker's speech began in a patriotic fever and rapidly devolved into spittle-flecked imprecations and ringing endorsements of genocide. No – what was funny about the speech was the drinking game associated with it. At least … the people drinking seemed to be enjoying themselves.
– to combat their Socialism and their Fascism, their atheism and their idolatry, the filth of their degenerate acts -
"Drink!" howled the mutants in ragged chorus, and the room's lights glinted off upended tumblers. Then glass clacked back down to the floor, and groans succeeded gulps.
"I am so drunk," one of the younger girls announced, importantly. Despite himself, Charles felt his lips twitch. He remembered that stage.
"Oh man," the brown-haired woman - a tech, wasn't she? - slurred, staring down at a sheet of paper in front of her, "I'm not just so drunk, I am so damn close. Come on, Stryker baby. Give me 'our Free West shall triumph.' Gimme gimme gimme –"
Enough alcohol there to pickle her liver. Charles peered over her shoulder. On the paper was scrawled something that looked like … a Bingo card. Old United States style, though – in a square. Not a British one.
Stryker was practically shrieking into the microphone. Detached, Charles watched him shake his fist. The transmission was full of static, flawed – and the leader had obviously been made up for the camera … but still. Charles raised an eyebrow. Compared to his image in the children's book, the President of the Free West was not aging well.
– and our Free West – shall triumph! –
The tech in front of him crowed aloud. "Victory! Victory! Full glasses – everybody chug, chug!"
There were groans of protest, but the rest obediently drank. "I am so drunk," the same girl giggled, leaning crazily against the wall, and: "Yes, we've gathered that," Charles sniped.
He left the room and the frenzied speech behind, considering as he departed – that if worst came to worst, he could drink everyone in the EBS under the table, and make his escape while they were still busy watching the ceiling spin.
Pathetic, Charles thought. And did not stop to consider: whether he meant President Stryker, the mutants … or himself.
November wore into December. The siege dragged on. Charles helped power the Finder in the morning – roll call – and watched sorties and skirmishes in the evening and at night. Finish it, he found himself mumbling, staring at the ceiling each day. "Finish it. Let this all end …"
But it did not.
He had a constant headache. The nights he was not chained in his dormitory room, ever colder, he was left hooked to the Finder or locked in one of the Hive's holding cells. Since the pipes in the dormitory had frozen, Charles hardly had a chance to bathe. The other techs seemed to be using the showers in the Hive whenever he was unchained. He most often brushed his teeth in the mess hall, under guard. Thus, he only occasionally caught a glimpse of his own reflection. His eyes looked almost eerily wide and blue in the hollows of his face. And his hair hung in a curtain, ragged and brown – one behind which he had no hope of hiding.
No hope, no escape … The unrelenting pain from the Finder's razor edge, opening old wounds every day. Frost, looking more and more disturbingly serene as December progressed. Day after day after day.
Charles was only let outside once a day at most, to gather firewood. The nights were getting longer; dusk fell four hours into the afternoon. Even if he could evade the Finder, he thought, escape would be a problem. Little light, and it was so cold ...
It was not cold inside the Hive, late in December when he was shaken awake well past midnight. And escorted to the Finder. "Of course," Charles slurred to himself, exhausted. "For a good night's work …"
He had stepped into Frost's projection, half expecting to help fling round confusion or fear in an EBS surprise attack. But instead Charles was the one surprised, as he gazed into the peace and quiet of a Texas night.
Frost had even projected the sound of the bloody crickets. Their cheeping echoed across the plain – a great stretch of prairie grass in front of Dallas. Charles inhaled the fresh air, and listened more carefully. Crickets … and footsteps –
"There you are."
And there she was, gliding towards him. Charles firmed his shoulders; fought the urge to bow. A month and a half of toiling for the White Queen, and one would think that kowtowing would become instinct. For others, perhaps. Charles lifted his chin and stared her down. Not for him.
Frost halted a short distance away. Charles could see where her diamond slippers had left tracks of ice.
"Isn't it a lovely evening?"
His skin started to creep. Perhaps it was the pleasant cadence of her voice – such a tone, he had learned, heralded nothing but pain. "Mmm," he replied. Noncommittal. Safe.
… cowardly, his mind whispered, but Charles told it to shut up.
Frost was smiling at him. Her skin was pale and perfect in the cold light of the moon; her lips looked almost blue. "Walk with me."
Charles fell into step beside her. In the Finder, he saw mutants' minds illuminating their bodies, creating the glowing silhouettes that surrounded the two of them. The human minds glowed as well, but not as brightly. All were sleeping, it appeared. Well. Most. Charles felt the thoughts of a few mutants standing watch as Frost led him out of the army encampment. He recognized no one.
They walked farther, until the camp behind them became one glow – like a bank of candles shining in the night. Then they reached a strange sight: marked with death and destruction in the Finder – the emotional bleed from earlier – a hollow that might once have been a parking lot. It was full of wreckage: cars standing on end, warped remnants of tanks – and even … had that been a bomber? Probably, Charles thought to himself, sighing. The twisted metal almost felt alive. It was purring, or oddly warm, in the Finder – making the entire lot seem like nothing more than a dragon's treasure trove …
And Charles froze as they turned a corner. For there, lying beneath the plane's twisted wing, was the man.
Or at least: his presence. Charles saw the tangle of metal shards, quiescent; even a hint of the silver-steel blueprint. The metallic patterns seemed to be struggling to overcome the darkness of fear rage – but: "… No," Charles sighed. He didn't want to hear those thoughts. He didn't want to touch the other, now soaked through with blood ten hundred times or more.
He blinked, and the Finder presented him with the man's image. Or what Charles thought was his image. It was almost too dark to see. The plane's wing cast a shadow; the lean form was curled on itself, tucked up next to the wrecked fuselage. Charles could not see to touch –
He shook his head, hard; drew his gauntleted hand back from where it had reached.
Just as well. It wouldn't do to wake the man, anyway.
Frost seemed to agree. For she had walked to the man and gestured above him – a light dusting of snow and ice settled on his form, and …
Charles saw the other begin to shiver.
"Ah, there …" The White Queen's voice was quiet, coldly caressing. "Dream – dream, and wake to war … Oh," She had turned, and was smiling up at the night sky. "There she is."
"Jean." Frost gathered her dress and walked away from the plane. "Come along, Mr. Xavier."
Charles stayed still, biting his lower lip. Cautiously, he reached out with his thoughts. The blueprint had vanished; the metal shards were growing sharper and more deadly in sleep, writhing together in their dark tangle …
Without thinking twice about it, Charles summoned the dove. "You're brave," he whispered to it. "Go on."
The dove warbled at him, fearful.
"Go on," he breathed. "Just a touch. I'll be right here – you can fly right back." His throat was tight; he couldn't say why. The dark metal was coiling in on itself, threaded through with crimson lines of blood – "Quickly," he told the dove.
Then added, "Please?"
With a warble, the dove fluffed its feathers in Charles' hands. Then it flew softly over to the plane, landed on the ground. It hopped once, twice … fluttered up, and then landed gently, above where the man's hands were tightly clenched together. The dove rested on his sternum, over his heart.
Or where it would be, if he had a heart. Charles very much doubted it.
Still, he waited until a touch showed the blueprint unrolling, covering the metal cloud and letting its patterns drift and sway with the night breeze. "There." Charles crooked a finger at the dove – it sprang up and flew back to him as fast as it could. "Was that so terrible?"
He held the dove beneath his chin. It was trembling. Yes, it seemed to say.
"Hush now." He stroked its white feathers. "Go to sleep. Go back to sleep – if I need you, I'll call you back here –"
"Here, Xavier." Frost's voice, from a distance, sounded irritated. "Do hurry."
"Sorry." Charles ran to catch up with her; managed it in two minutes. "I just – I was lost back there. Those cars and tanks – everything tangled up." He shivered. "Rather like a labyrinth."
"Quite." Her reply was disinterested; she had focused on the sky. Charles followed her gaze.
"Is that …"
"Jean." Frost smiled. "Yes, it is."
"What –" Consternation gripped him. "It's not safe for her to be flying like that – not in front of every single Free West observer on the ramparts. Their telepath must be active – what if it sees her?"
"Oh, Mr. Xavier …"
Frost turned to look at him – and in the moonlight, she was every inch the White Queen.
"The whole point is that they see her."
Charles blinked. "… Why?"
"You'll find out." That perfect smile. "Tomorrow."
His pulse was beginning to bang in his ears. "If you won't tell me, my lady," he spat, "then why the bloody hell did you bring me in here in the first place?"
"A walk by the light of the moon, of course." A cold and satisfied laugh. "As one last test. For if you have not guessed how this battle will end, Mr. Xavier, I know they never will."
When he was taken out of the Finder, for the first time since the campaign had started, Charles fought the techs. He landed three good punches – even breaking some teeth – before he was subdued and locked in the now-familiar holding cell.
So he was not there to witness Jean calling the roll with Frost.
He was not there to see Frost dress her in a white robe.
And he was not there to see the fiendish-looking teleporter take Jean away.
Shouting had done no good, nor had pounding on the door. Charles had cursed, and slammed his hands against the wall, calling for someone, anyone to hear him. But none of it had helped.
Finally, he could only slump in a corner of the room, head in his hands.
It had been his idea. I'd set up the rumor of another telepath, to lure MacMurphy to the remote location of its capture. Another telepath, he had said – so casually – proposing himself as the bait, as a joke, a joke –
And now Jean was the bait.
The next twenty-four hours were among the longest of his life.
Charles deployed flickers of his power to the hallways, then up and out of the West Wing to the dormitory. He placed a thought-fire on the threshold of Jean's room, so he would know the instant she returned.
And when four techs came to escort him to the Finder – came with what looked like those stun guns from the stable … Charles went with them without a struggle.
He let himself be tied down and hooked in. He did not meet Frost's eyes.
Instead, he watched with her, as the mass of flickering light – mutants and humans, allies all – surrounding Dallas … clustered at one point, right next to the city walls. Intensified …
– and then the projection stopped.
"Done," Frost whispered. "It is done."
Charles could hardly hear her, over the shouts and shrieks that had broken out through the war room. The radio was crackling – but with EBS signals, EBS voices. Charles did not hear MacMurphy.
But then … somehow, he knew the commander wasn't at Dallas anymore.
The din in the Hive was deafening. Charles allowed himself to be untied; got to his feet, and staggered away from it all. He looked for a place to have some quiet. Found the one unlocked door on the lower level; opened it.
There were empty chairs, and the old vid screen, blank. Charles stared at it.
His reflection stared back at him – gaunt, hollow-cheeked. Pale as parchment, with dark circles beneath the luminous, staring blue eyes. He saw the image bite its lower lip, and bring shaking hands up to brush its hair away from its face.
Then Charles turned on the vid screen.
Another United Europe broadcast – the French low and quiet. Somber. And – somehow, the U.E. had a vid crew making a recording. Or perhaps a Dallas civilian was providing it. Or maybe …
Charles let his thoughts die away.
Except one: the thought-fire which flared in the dormitory – and he breathed out in a ragged rush. Jean was back. He touched her mind, lightly – back and unhurt – only slightly sleepy.
"Sleep well," he whispered to her. And Charles drew the cuffs of his sweater over his hands, and daubed at the tears on his face. The yarn was still unraveling. He would have to do something about that.
Perhaps when he could see again, though. Perhaps when he was not weeping. But, he told himself: it was out of relief – relief that Jean was safe.
Certainly not from watching one flag taken down from a building's spire. And another raised in its place. That was merely history, and he would not weep for it.
No. Charles kept his eyes dry, and his thoughts controlled – as, on that cold 20th of December, he watched the surrender of Dallas.
Frost's triumph. Battle's end.