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been wondering if your heart's still open (and if so, i want to know what time it shuts)

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i.
To say it's love at first sight would be wildly inaccurate.

It's nothing at first sight. Elsa drops him off smack dab in the middle of a school year already in full swing, and rather than trying to fight the upstream battle that is being the new kid, Cullen decides to lean into it. Everybody's already going to stare and sneer and make up rumours, there's no point in attempting to fit in. But he won't let them have the satisfaction of beating him down either — if he's going to keep to himself, he's going to do it openly and brazenly. It's why at the tender age of thirteen, on his first day in the Braddock dining commons, he collects his dinner and walks right out with his head held high, carries it back to the dormitories and eats alone.

After a few days he notices he has a shadow, the annoyingly quiet fat kid who follows after him a minute behind and closes himself up in his own room. He goes about it all wrong, of course, he ducks his head down and shuffles his feet and tries his hardest not to be noticed when he sneaks out. Cullen sort of wants to tell him that trying to stay hidden is the easiest way to be seen, but in the end he just doesn't care enough.

It takes two weeks for Captain Britain to instill a new rule: all meals are to be eaten in the commons, with the rest of the school, unless prior approval has been granted. To nobody's surprise, I haven't got any interest in socialising with those prats isn't a valid excuse.

That's how they end up seated at the same table, alone but together, both their noses in a book — Aiden's is some godawful pulp with a dragon on the cover, Cullen's is an illustrated encyclopaedia of weaponry. It takes another week for Aiden to raise his head, ask in a small voice if there's anything on Celtic axes in there.

Cullen stares at him from over his book, paused mid-chew, shocked this guy can speak at all. "I haven't been able to do much research," Aiden stammers. "Best I can tell, mine is from before the fourteenth century, but..."

He slowly puts the book down, leans back in his seat, arms folded over his chest. "You've got a battle axe?" The nerd gives a bashful shrug. "I've never seen you at sparring practise."

"You wouldn't recognise me if you did." He sticks out a tentative, sweaty hand. "I'm called Anachronism." At Cullen's derisive scoff, he cringes and amends, "Or at least that's the alias I want to use."

"Well, it's more imaginative than Kid Briton at any rate." And despite himself, Cullen shakes his hand. It's fine, he tells himself — if anything, aligning himself with the school outcast will only serve to make him less popular, so it's fine. There's no need for his own introduction, there was an entirely embarrassing class-meet-the-new-kid spiel on his first day. He flips open the book to the section on medieval combat and pushes it toward the middle of the table so they both can pore over it.

Aiden warms up over time, and Cullen finds it irritating that nobody else will give the guy half a chance — if they did, they'd learn that he's actually got quite a lot of interesting things to say, he cracks jokes and he's deeply invested in the ethics of being a proper hero. He's still mouse quiet in classes and large groups though, so nobody but Cullen gets to see the way his face lights up with fervent passion as he explains the various worlds of The Silmarillion or the significance of wulvers in Scottish mythology. But they're tossers then, that's their loss, isn't it? Being the only one who really knows Aiden is something of an honour.

It takes him the better part of three months to realise he's different from his classmates in yet another way — Aiden's the first real friend he's ever bothered to make, so he doesn't know much, but he's fairly certain that the way his stomach flutters and his fingers tingle as Aiden teaches him how to play Doom 3 isn't normal. Just about the only thing the irredeemable nerd talks about more than his MMORPG characters' stats is the current girl to catch his fancy. He's a good friend, he weathers Aiden's monologues of pining with his best poker face and tries his hand at giving advice (which Aiden never takes) but it sits with him late into the night, stewing in the back of his brain and keeping him up to nurse his frustration and disappointment alone. That can't be normal either. It doesn't make sense, he's got bad hair and spots and he wheezes until he pukes when Union Jack makes them run laps around the premises so that he doesn't have to actually teach. No, it definitely doesn't make a single bloody lick of sense, but his cheeks burn red-hot when Aiden claps him on the shoulder and calls him brilliant after he aces a marksmanship test, so maybe all that love is blind tripe rings true after all.

 

 

 

ii.
Elsa won't give it a name, not even when he tires of pretending there isn't something wrong with him and, in an act of spectacularly stupid defiance, removes the ring. She'll help take it down, she'll sit with him when he wakes up in the infirmary, she'll lecture him on never doing that again but she won't tell him what it's called. Darkness, that's all she'll say. He has to keep his darkness suppressed, she chides him, or that (the flattened Braddock courtyard, the pile of rubble where fountains and statues used to stand, the trees burnt down to ash) will happen again — or worse, much worse.

"It's ridiculous," he rages later that night as Aiden listens and nods along. "I'm expected to go through my entire life not knowing what I am?"

"Maybe she doesn't know either."

He throws Aiden his most withering look. "Elsa knows," he spits, "She just won't tell me."

"Might be that she's trying to protect you, mate—"

"Fat lot of good that's doing me! I'm lucky nobody was killed." It's not like he wants to shoot down everything his best friend says, he knows it's coming from a good place, he's trying to help — but he's frustrated enough with an already crap situation that going on an out of control rampage around the English countryside sounds preferable to this.

But Aiden isn't one to be deterred by his sulking. "Well, let's find out for ourselves then," he says matter-of-factly. Cullen watches as he pulls the laptop off his desk and joins him on the floor, setting it between them and pulling open a browser.

"Brilliant," Cullen breathes, the crease between his brows easing away, one corner of his mouth turning up. "Everything's on the internet, isn't it?"

Not really. It turns out no amount of creative googling, no combination of the words ‘green' and ‘lizard' and ‘monster' and ‘transformation' yield any helpful results. About the most useful thing that shows up is Godzilla, over and over again, and Cullen's half-laughing with madness when he shouts that there are no Godzillas in Klimtor! In fact, there's nothing about Klimtor at all on the internet — "It's an ancient alternate dimension with no living humans," Cullen scoffs, "Not like we can exactly look up holiday reviews."

"Suppose some things are too esoteric for Wikipedia articles," Aiden sighs. The two un-hunch away from the laptop, settle back against the foot of Aiden's bed and sit in silence. "There has to be something, though," he finally says, so quietly determined, and Cullen's chest seizes up with how much he loves him in that moment. Even faced with a dead end, Aiden doesn't give up.

 

 

 

iii.
The next year Elsa brings him home for the Easter holidays — it's the last time he'll see her until after Christmas, she's taking a leave of absence from teaching to restart Nextwave, no longer under H.A.T.E.'s direction. Something about a zombie uprising centered around the Vatican, something about bioterrorism executed exclusively through teabags, something about mutant citrus fruits — nothing he needs to worry about, she assures him. "So you'll be alright spending the summer at school, yeah?"

"Sure," he agrees sullenly, staring out the airplane window as London shrinks beneath them. If she isn't going to be around, then she doesn't need to know there's no way he's staying under Captain Britain's watchful eye for the entire holiday. The Gillespies already took him in last winter when Elsa was too busy fighting werewolf insurrection with her ex to plan for Christmas. He'd bet good money that they'll do the same this time around too.

 

 

Boston is in full springtime bloom, and they throw open all the windows to air the manor out. While the rest of the city is at Sunday mass, they're scrubbing dust off monster skulls to use as puppets and practising with the ancient weaponry they've unearthed. Cullen watches over the burly men they hire to fix up the gardens, mow down the overgrown lawn, trim back the trees, re-shape the topiary, and he wonders if he should eventually tell Elsa, if she'd care or if it would just be one more annoying thing about her disaster of a baby brother she'd have to deal with. At night they order pizza and eat it in the sitting room, feet kicked up on a coffee table from the 1400s made out of pure bone, watch an old VHS of Rocky Horror as dearly departed dad's portrait stares down. Spring cleaning a mansion packed with thousand-year-old artifacts is no small undertaking, but Cullen's grateful for it — if for no other reason, then because it leads him to an enormous trunk full of cryptozoology books.

He's a lone wolf weapons expert with some sort of demon inside him desperately trying to claw its way out, but his fingers still tremble as he flips through the pages, vision swimming with his father's careful penmanship and hand-drawn illustrations of every monster he'd come across. It's too much to do alone.

The Captain shows up on the morning Cullen's slated to fly back to England alone, crowing through a whiskey-soaked haze that he thought the gang was reuniting today, Ellie darling, not tomorrow, time is so very relative when you're pissing blood on some unconscious Russian mobster in an alleyway, oh speaking of did he mention he met Hawkeye? That guy is total shit. "So you've been doing well for yourself then," she smirks and kisses his gaunt, stubble-scratchy cheek.

"Never better," Captain slurs and waves to Cullen over her shoulder. "Hullo, baby Bloodstone, grown into your baby stones yet?" He catches one of Ulysses' Azande throwing knives in the shoulder for his efforts.

"Oh, you deserved that," Elsa shrugs as their uninvited guest slumps, blood trailing along the wall. "Excellent aim, little brother."

If she notices the extra suitcase he tosses into the car, she doesn't ask.

 

 

They have to be careful with the books — there are over a dozen, and the oldest have faded and mottled ink, pages that begin to disintegrate if you touch them for too long. It appears that Ulysses continued keeping records of monsters right up until the day he died — the most recent book cuts off mid-entry, as if he got up from writing it for a short break and never returned. He may very well have. In a way, it's nice (if a little creepy). Although he's still holding onto his fair share of resentment for being abandoned in a place designed to kill him, Cullen does miss his father, and this is the closest he can get to hearing from the man again.

They gingerly paw through seven whole tomes before Aiden pauses, one hand darting out to keep Cullen from turning the page too soon. "That's it," he breathes. "That's you."

"Are you quite sure about that?" After all, it's not like Cullen has ever seen himself in his monster form — he can't remember anything about either time he's transformed, he has no way of knowing.

"Dead certain," Aiden nods fervently. "Nothing else like it."

They both read the entry in silence: Glartrox are parasites native to the Black Realm of Klimtor. While relatively harmless in the wild, they should still be hunted on sight, seeing as they operate by bonding to their host's soul and slowly overtaking the body. The Glartrox feed on their host's emotions — fear being the most potent energy source. Anger, sadness, irritation, stress all make them stronger. The more negativity the host supplies, the more control the Glartrox gains. Because of this, Ulysses writes, their power knows no limits. A constant source of terror and hatred could easily make the already formidable Glartrox into an unstoppable, indestructible killing machine.

Cullen doesn't realize he's curled his hands into tight fists and stopped breathing until Aiden whacks him between the shoulder blades. He wheezes out a long breath, eyes shot wide open. "That's me," Cullen agrees absently, voice sounding terribly far away to his own ears.

"Alright there, mate?"

"No," he snaps. "That thing is me, so no, I'm not alright."

Aiden winces away and picks at the fraying corner of the page. "Fair enough," he says, "But at least you know now, yeah? Look." He traces one chubby finger along the text. "The Glartrox feed on their host's emotions. So it's only as strong as you let it be."

It's a nice thought. It really is. And for anybody else, it'd probably be true — just not for Cullen. He sighs miserably and pulls his knees up to his chest, cups his chin in one hand. "If that's the case, then it had at least a year to get settled in, probably closer to two. And I was at my wit's end. I can't even remember the better part of my time in Klimtor, I was so frightened — I've already given it enough fear to last it a lifetime."

"Maybe," Aiden shrugs. "And maybe not." Cullen looks at him sideways — his bright blue eyes filled with hope, his shy grin, these are the things that carry over to his warlord form and make Cullen's stomach knot right up. "You don't know. What if you don't give it any more negativity? Could be that'd weaken it."

"And how exactly d'you suggest I do that?" he mumbles into the palm half-covering his mouth, fingers drumming against his cheek.

"Anger management. Stress reduction. Yoga?" Cullen laughs despite himself, no, those are daft ideas and you know it. "I dunno, Cullen. Concentrate on the things you like, rather than what rankles you. What makes you happy?"

He isn't going to say it. He is not going to say it, because it's pathetic beyond compare, it's so lame and embarrassing the mere idea makes him want to curl up and die. But it's there, it's his first thought, his automatic answer: you. He keeps it trapped under his tongue and stares around the room, silent for so long that Aiden eventually rephrases his question, "Fine, what do you not hate?"

"Target practise," Cullen answers with a tight smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Dessert. Weapons class. Kicking your arse at Goldeneye."

"Then it's settled." Aiden marks the Glartrox page with a piece of scratch paper and shuts the book, pushing it away. The Nintendo he smuggled in after his last trip home is out in a flash, and he grins over his shoulder as he hooks it up, "We'll do that. Keep you focused on the positives, yeah? It may not entirely help, but it can't hurt."

Easier said than done, he's sure of that, but — "Thanks, mate," Cullen says. "Really— thank you." He can't possibly mean it enough.

 

 

 

iv.
Of all the many things that make him feel terribly disgusting, how much he fancies Aiden as Anachronism sickens him the most.

It feels like an entirely separate crush, which is probably the result of some impressive mental gymnastics on his part. He loves Aiden for how kind and loyal he is, for his attention to details most everyone would overlook, for how sincerely he wants to be a hero. That's the crush that sits well with Cullen; sure, it doesn't make him any less of a freak and it'll still never be requited, but he can feel proud of himself because his type clearly is good, wholesome blokes. The kind you'd take home to mum, if you had a mum to take guys home to.

That is, until the next time somebody gets under Aiden's skin and prods at his fragile self-worth until he collapses to the ground, shaking apart as a muscle-bound fury machine takes his place. That makes his blood boil just under his skin, that's what he thinks about late into the night. Not his sweet-faced best friend — whom he still loves, absolutely, desperately — but the guy who flies off the handle and attacks their schoolmates. He's dead fit and bloodthirsty and no, no, his type isn't nice guys at all. He knows he should hate it, and in truth he does hate what it does to Aiden, but it doesn't change the fact that he is insanely attracted to Anachronism.

He wonders if anyone can tell from the way he hangs back and observes for a few seconds too long every time before jumping into the fray.

His transformations have been getting increasingly unstable lately. It used to be that he'd switch off with some sort of regularity, have extended periods of time in his old body — but now it's more frequent, more erratic, sometimes every day, multiple times a day. Generally the longer he's Anachronism, the more he's in control — but these flash transformations leave him horrified by what the warlord part of his brain made him do.

Case in point: During a routine sparring session, Brian and Katy make one snide comment about Aiden sitting on the sidelines too many because they think it's funny, how having a laugh at his expense pisses him off so much that he can't keep a lid on his powers. Of course, they're also strong enough fighters to hold their own against Anachronism, but some of their classmates aren't so lucky, and Kid Copper gets in the way and gets his arm broken in three places. Cullen mentally catalogues the way Anachronism nearly takes Apex's head off before firing a warning shot from the gun he'd been practising with. They've figured out that if they can keep him distracted from his original targets for long enough, the fury will wear off and he'll revert. It has to do with locking him on to somebody who doesn't actually provoke his ire, somebody quick and strong enough to give him a good run for his money — so naturally that duty falls to Cullen.

And frankly, he can't say he entirely minds.

It's the whole ordeal that occurs afterward that makes him feel dirty deep down to his parasite-ridden soul. When the light clears and Aiden's back, gasping and choking on the ground, he takes one look at the crowd gathered around Kid Copper, the unnatural angle of his arm and the blood pooling beneath him and immediately bolts back into the school.

"Bloodstone," Captain Britain barks at him, "Be a lad and deal with that while we clean up this mess."

"Deal with that? He's a person, not a rabid dog," Cullen snarls back. Nobody cares enough to argue with him, and it doesn't matter anyway, there's no world where he wouldn't follow after his best friend.

He finds Aiden in one of the washrooms, cowering against the wall, face buried in the crook of his elbow and shoulders heaving. "I didn't want to hurt Robert," he hiccups. "I don't want to hurt anyone. It's him, he's absolutely mental, nobody gets it—"

"Excuse me?" Cullen stands in front of him, gun slung over one shoulder and foot tapping. "Who here nearly chewed up and ate his sister last time his out of control counterpart got the best of him?"

"I meant the rest of them, not you," Aiden says miserably, huge tears rolling down his ruddy cheeks as he looks up from his place on the floor. "I know you understand. But— Cap's already said if it keeps up they'll have to toss me out, they can't have me— him— trying to kill everyone all the time—" His rant chokes off and he starts to bawl again.

This is exactly why Cullen can't handle the way he feels about Anachronism, because it's all well and good and hot and bothered in the moment, but it ends like this, with his best friend so hopeless and distressed and scared of what he is. Cullen sighs, tosses his gun aside and crouches next to Aiden, hand on his shoulder. "Mate, c'mon," he murmurs. "Pull it together. Braddock talks big game but he'd never really throw a kid out. For starters, the Avengers would have his head." That draws a weak, sniffling laugh out of Aiden. "Remember, we thought you might be the ancient ginger Hulk? If Cap gives you the boot, I'll have Elsa call Dr. Banner and it'll become a civil rights case." Now he's really laughing, hands swiping at his eyes.

"I just don't understand." Aiden tips his head back, blinks up at the ceiling a few times and draws a deep, shuddering breath. "I thought I had a handle on it. It was never pleasant being him, but we were... copacetic before. Why's he doing this now?"

Cullen purses his lips, unsure if this is a card he should play or not, but— well, if not now, then when? "Cos you let them get to you." Aiden's neck cracks with how fast he turns to look at him, more offended than he has any right to be. "Don't give me that face, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know."

"It's not my fault," Aiden insists, brows drawn down, tears forgotten fast. "Are you really about to blame me for our schoolmates being pricks?"

"Not what I'm saying," Cullen says, tone flat. "Mate, they take the piss out of me just as much as they do you — you just care too much about what they think."

Aiden shoves away from him then, heaving himself onto his feet. "I'm sorry, are you really telling me I should be more like you?" Sure, Aiden is sweet and good-natured, but he's also a poorly socialised super-geek. Challenge his views and get ready for a five paragraph essay about exactly why you're wrong. He's also quite the jerk when he wants to be. "Great plan, mate. I'll get right on that. Shut everyone out so you can pretend it doesn't sting when they give you shit, that's step one, isn't it?"

Resistance, he expected — what he didn't see coming was that. Now it's Cullen's turn to blink up at his best friend, too shocked to respond. "I didn't mean that," Aiden immediately mutters, hands over his face. "That was— I went too far."

"A bit."

"Sorry."

Cullen raises his eyebrows, expression still blank. "Thanks. You quite done?" Aiden nods. "Great. Anyway. I'm not telling you to be like me. I don't even like being like me. What I'm telling you is to take a bloody breath when they start in on you. Count to ten. Walk away." He flashes Aiden the ghost of a smile, still pissed off about the dig but more focused on getting his point across. "If you don't let yourself feel so shite about it, he doesn't get a chance to come out."

"You make it sound easy," Aiden sighs and gives the wall a weak kick.

"And if he does," Cullen soldiers right along, "You're still in there, aren't you? Can see what you're doing, can't you?" He's quiet for a moment before muttering an affirmative, and Cullen takes that as impetus to stand, brush off his trousers, pick up his gun again and head for the door. "Then you've got that advantage over me. You get to fight back. Now can we please get out of the toilets?"

"Yeah, alright. I'll give that a go." Aiden follows after him, rolls his shoulders back, does his best to steel himself for the scene he'll have to face — everybody who will think him mental, the long talk he'll inevitably have in Captain Britain's office, Robert flinching away from him in the halls. It's no light cross to bear, Cullen knows that well enough. "I really will try," Aiden promises before they reach the doors to the courtyard. And Cullen believes him. That's the best thing about Aiden, he's nowhere near as weak-willed as everyone thinks he is. Cullen bites his tongue to keep from saying something terribly trite — if anybody can do it, it's absolutely you — and simply nods, throat tight, before giving him that push he needs through the door.

 

 

 

v.
"What makes you think I know any more than you do, Cullen?"

"God, come off it, Ellie." It's good of her to show up, really, give a few lectures to inch ever closer to her tenure before taking off again. "Dad taught you everything. You know, you've always known, and I'm not a child."

That nets him a high, haughty laugh and a lecture on why he is absolutely still a child as she furiously reorganises the multitude of weaponry in the classroom between lessons. He sits on her desk and swings his legs, nowhere near done with this conversation. "I had to look it up myself," he points out, knuckles white against the edge of the desk as she whirls around to give him an incredulous look. "Dad's books," he clarifies. "I knicked them last year, Aiden and I sifted through them until we found it. Glartrox, right? So don't pretend you don't know anything about it."

Elsa squints at him for a long while before returning her attention to loading fresh rounds into her guns. "You should really put those back, they're collectors' items."

"Don't change the subject!" Cullen cries, a lot more shrill than he'd like to be. But she's flat-out ignoring him, so he rails on, "I want to know how to control it! I want to know how somebody can defeat it if I go mental. I want to understand this utter bullshit Dad saddled me with—"

"That wasn't Dad's fault and you know it," she seethes. "He never meant for that to happen to you, he wouldn't ever have left you—"

He's shouting over her the whole time, "But it's more important to you to keep me in the dark— not just me, Ellie, everyone, because I'm not the only one who's at risk if I'm out of control, not that you care—"

"Forgive me if I didn't want to tell you that the only way is certain death!" Elsa slams shut a trap the size of Cullen's entire upper body a little too forcefully and glares at him. "Still want to hear it?"

He nods, furiously mute, scoots over for her to take a seat next to him on the desk. "The only way to kill a Glartrox is to kill its host," she says. "I knew that when I found you. And I knew it wasn't an option. So," she picks up his ring hand and waves it in his face, "I figured out this. No small feat on my part." Elsa squeezes his hand and stares at him, no less angry than before but quieter, trying her best to get him to understand. "If you take the ring off, and if it's lost? If it's destroyed? That's it. Bloodstone gems don't exactly grow on trees, Cullen."

She drops his hand back into his lap and goes through a few false starts, huffs a frustrated little groan before putting an arm over his shoulders. "You're the only family I've got, kiddo," Elsa says, voice carefully measured, the edges still there but somewhat softened. "I don't want you to die too."

Cullen doesn't quite know what to do with that honesty or with the tight knot it forms in his throat, so he leans against her side in silence for a minute before piping up, "Well, you could always give me your choker."

"Little prat!" She dumps him unceremoniously onto the ground and hops off the desk, stepping over him to continue arranging her collection. "Now be a love and check the safety on the rocket launcher."

"Shouldn't you leave it unloaded when you're teaching the first years," Cullen grumbles as he picks himself up, but she only gives him a half-mad laugh: where's the fun in that?

 

 

"I want it to be you."

Aiden gapes at him, absolutely horrified, the Goldeneye pause music looping. "No," he says, "No, Cullen, that's not happening."

"Not asking," Cullen murmurs, eyes forward. "It's a choice I'm making. If something happens, if the ring is— gone, for whatever reason. If things go pear-shaped, and I'm out of control and hurting people, I have to die. Elsa said it's the only way—" Only then does he look over, and he didn't think this conversation could possibly go any worse than he imagined, but Aiden's crushed face seals the deal. This is clearly the lowest of lows. "It's a worst case scenario," he assures him. "Can't say I think it'll ever happen. I just want to be sure if it does..."

"Why me?"

Despite the intense situation, Cullen starts to laugh, dropping the controller to run both hands over his hair. "Because I'd ask Kid Briton, but I don't want him to have the glory?" That's not funny, Cullen. "Look," he sighs. "It's an indestructible monster, right? You're the only person here who could go up against it and come out alive. So if you could promise me that, that'd be ace."

"You want me to promise to kill you," Aiden cries. "You're mental, you know that?" Cullen shrugs, yeah, he's well aware, thanks. "I mean... Jesus, Cullen. If It means that much to you..."

It's not like promising to keep in touch over the holidays or save a corner piece of lasagna from lunch. It's no small matter, he knows that, it's quite literally life or death, and if the question were turned on him Cullen would be just as wary. If it actually came down to it, it'd be the hardest choice he'd have to make, but Aiden still said yes. Cullen grins through the dim light of the game, already hopelessly in love before Aiden counters, "One condition. You promise me you'll look into getting a backup Bloodstone gem, yeah?"

It's a bloody miracle he resists the urge to kiss him right then and there.

 

 

Five days later, Brian beats the piss out of him, something snaps, and Aiden says goodbye to his mortal form forever. Realistically, Cullen knows it's got nothing to do with him, with the promise, but privately he allows himself to think it might.