Magneto comes in through the door like a storm, crashing thunder as the metal doors are ripped apart one by one, the guards that dare face him dragged down the hallways by their dog tags, half-choking, before their own guns go up in the air and shoot them. While the rest of the Brotherhood spreads out, quickly scanning the rooms and floors of the complex, Magneto walks swiftly onwards, to the lowest floor, flanked by Mystique. The halls of the complex are shining white, illuminated by rows of blinding fluorescent lamps, but soon they are smeared with blood, strewn with debris and twisted metal doors.
The prisoners are kept in the lowest floor. A whole row of cells behind plastic doors, with a thick glass window to keep a steady eye on the mutants inside, nothing in the cells but a sleeping bunk and a washbasin. Their ages vary, but many of them are young, very young, some no older than thirteen. Magneto feels his blood boil, and he can't stop himself – wouldn't stop himself – and sticks a knife, swift and silent, into the throat of the first man he sees, a scientist in a lab coat who has just run out of a spacious lab beyond the cells.
He takes him by the neck and throws him back into the lab, where the man crashes against a table, falling among scattered notes and lab instruments. Inside the room, another man in a lab coat suddenly lunges at them with an emergency fire ax. Magneto easily overpowers him, sending the ax backwards. The man releases his hold on it a second too late, and flies a few meters back, falling heavily against a cabinet.
“Get the others. Throw down those plastic doors and get the mutants out,” he orders Mystique, still standing at his side. She nods and leaves quickly, no hesitation in her stride. She has become a completely different person from the soft teenager she had proved to be during her first missions. Magneto smiles, proud for a moment, before turning to regard the fallen scientists. The one who attacked them was stirring, groaning among the glass and debris of the floor. Magneto strides up to him calmly. His anger has turned to a simmering, cold hate, and he wants to take his time.
The man has opened his eyes. There's a wound on the side of his head, bleeding profusely. He coughs a little, and slowly, with obvious pain, takes off the ragged and twisted lab coat. Magneto stares down at him, amused smile in place, while the man shakily, slowly stands up, white-knuckled hand gripping the edge of the nearest table for support.
“Laugh if you want,” says the man in a rough whisper, “I'm going to die standing.”
He looks up then, head raised high and defiant, dark eyes flaring. It's something in that look that makes Magneto stop the ax in midair, inches from the man's throat. The man is no more than a decade older than himself, Magneto notes, with gray temples and deep lines around his forehead and eyes.
Unbidden, it comes to him: a memory of his father standing tall before a Nazi soldier, back in the ghetto, his arm tightly wound around eight-year-old Erik, staring at the soldier in defiance even though his hand was trembling against Erik's shoulder-blades.
He does not want to remember what happened afterwards.
“You had children in there”, he hisses at the scientist. “Mutant children to be experimented upon, used, like animals in cages-” Magneto cannot finish, he is sputtering in rage, barely managing to spit out the words.
The man looks away at that, a dark expression in his eyes, and for a second glances at his left forearm. Magneto follows the look and sees. He sees it and it brings up a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.
He grips the man's arm, bringing it sharply up to his eyes, ignoring his cry of pain. There they are, faded with time but still there: the numbers in black ink, just like the ones he has on his own left forearm.
What he feels then he cannot describe – it is still the rage, the pure fury against humanity and their inability to accept – but there's also uncertainty, confusion. He grips the man's arm even harder and steadies himself for a moment, clearing his thoughts.
“Why? Why this, after... after all they did, all those experiments, you survive and do this? Do not try to lie to me – I know very well what you were trying to achieve, in this little facility of yours, turning mutants inside out to figure out the best way to kill us, destroy us, wipe us out-”
The man looks up again at that, the defiance back in his eyes.
“Yes,” he says, voice still rough with pain. “And who are you to judge? You care about the children? Antonio there”, he moves his head towards the prone form of the other scientist, blood pooling slowly around him, “he had a wife and a son. I have children too. Two girls. Two very sweet girls. I... I think of them sometimes, when I'm working with the youngest subjects,” here he falters, lowers his eyes, frowns, “as far as I know they were taken from the streets, abandoned by social security... but I wasn't given their background information. If they have parents, parents who loved them even a fraction of how I love my daughters, they will be looking desperately for them...” his voice disappears in a whisper. He trembles, steadies himself against the table, takes a deep breath. The fire ax still hovers above him, waiting. He glances at it and grins without humor.
Magneto stares at him in silence, waiting.
“I'm not making excuses for myself. I know perfectly well what I'm doing,” the man continues after a pause, voice calm and emotionless. “I'm doing it for my daughters.”
Magneto snarls at those words, but the man stares back, unflinching. “I'd been rejecting offers to work in this project for years. I used to work in the labs, you know, back in- in the camp. I know what they did there better than most. I remember,” he says, voice full of emotion, his eyes still fixed on Magneto's.
“When the stories started to come out, about the assassinations, the attacks carried out by mutant terrorists,” the man continues, “I wasn't too worried. But when I read the so-called “Mutant Manifest” of Magneto... Yeah, I was afraid. But mostly I was just furious. I knew that rhetoric. I heard it repeated time and time again, from the time I was a student. In the camp, it was all the soldiers talked about. We are superior. We are meant to rule you. You are nothing but scum... unevolved scum. And if you cannot accept that... oh, those final words, war will be unavoidable...,” he spits the last words in a rage, mouth contorting in a grimace.
“Do you understand now?” he says, raising his voice to a hoarse scream, “THIS IS WAR!”
The scientist breathes shallowly for a moment, composing himself a bit before carrying on, though his voice still shakes with rage, “When I read the “Mutant Manifest”, I understood, finally, they're not defending themselves, they're not demanding civil rights, no, they want to be in power, they would enslave us, make us second-class citizens, perhaps even – why not? - herd us into ghettos and take us to concentration camps and... who can say? That Magneto bastard is probably crazier than Hitler-”
At that Magneto can't contain himself anymore, forgets the ax still hanging in mid-air and grips the man by the neck, slamming him into the wall, lifting him up so the scientist has to stand on his toes. He is too furious for words, growling like a wolf, and even though the man is struggling for breath, his nails tearing against the gloved hand that's crushing his windpipe, his expression remains the familiar mix of rage and defiance.
He sees it again: The soldier lifting the rifle in a swift movement, smashing the butt against his father's face, hard, one, two, three times, until he falls beside Erik, who's too shocked to scream, and is instantly shoved aside by the soldier, who aims a vicious kick at his father's side, and keeps on kicking and kicking, groaning with the effort, until he finally gets tired-
The feeling pooling in his stomach is too much like despair. Magneto lets go of the scientist's neck and takes a step back.
The man bends over, breathing in long rasps of air. Magneto stands at his side, unmoving, until the man straightens up slowly, rubbing his neck. The rage in his eyes has all but disappeared, replaced by a grim calm.
“It's actually very simple,” he says with a steady voice, “I love my daughters and my wife. I don't want them to suffer the same things I did. So I made my decision. As long as the mutants consider us their enemy and wage their war against us – then I am their enemy, and I will fight back, this time. I will not bend my head to those who claim I am of a lesser race. Never. Again. And I'll do whatever it takes. Even, yes, using other people's children as test subjects. This is war, and wars are won by whatever means are necessary. I think you can understand that... Magneto.”
Magneto pauses for a long moment. And then, slowly, he pulls up the sleeve of his left arm, showing the numbers in his forearm.
“I understand you perfectly. Each and every word,” he says in a low voice.
The man stares at the numbers, transfixed. One part of Magneto wonders idly if he had the same look on his face minutes ago, when he caught a glimpse of the scientist's arm.
After a while, the man looks up at him again and lets out a hoarse, humorless laugh, which goes on for too long, while he bends over on his knees, forehead almost touching the floor. He finally controls himself and straightens up, his head is still down, and gasps out, “You motherfucking bastard.”
Magneto growls and pulls down his sleeve, just as the scientist lunges at him with a grunt. It takes him by surprise, and for a second, he can only stare as the man gets closer and closer, and there is rage and conviction in his eyes, and a long glass shard in his hand.
Without any conscious thought, his body's instincts kick in. The man is no soldier, his movements are clumsy and predictable, slowed down by his wounds. There is a flash of metal in the air, a stab of pain in his cheek – and the scientist falls in a heap at his feet, bloodied hand still clutching the glass shard, the ax, blunt as it was, buried deep in his throat.
Erik Lehnsherr blinks rapidly, staring in shock at the man at his feet, the blood quickly staining his boots, and for a long, terrible moment, he can only think of his father's blood in his hands, his arms, his knees, his shoes...
He crouches down in front of the man, and takes the man's wallet from his back pocket, pulling it by the coins inside it. He touches the man's face. It feels very warm, almost feverish, and sticky with sweat and blood. He closes the man's eyes, but he can't think of any prayer that wouldn't sound hollow.
And finally Magneto stands up, wipes the blood from his knees, and leaves the lab without looking back, still clutching the man's wallet in one hand.
The mission was a success. The mutant prisoners were free, the records of the facility were taken or destroyed, the place burnt and crushed, rendered unusable, and the few humans who survived were left to fend for themselves in the barely populated desert area. They had been planning it for weeks and it went rather well, even if the elusive Stryker had been nowhere to be found – his name hadn't even appeared in the records they took, although Magneto was more and more sure he was behind many of the research facilities they had uncovered.
It had been a success. And yet he couldn't sleep. He had killed many people in his life – former Nazis, soldiers, guards, villagers, secretaries, scientists – why should he lose sleep over one more? The man's wallet lay atop his desk the whole morning, until he couldn't bear to look at it anymore and placed it in a drawer.
I am upset, he told himself, because it was an unfortunate coincidence. After all he survived, to have died in such a way... it was unfortunate.
But he had been right. This was a war – a quiet war, unknown to the majority of the population, but a war nonetheless. He had to protect his people by whatever means possible. The man's death had been unfortunate casualty. This is war. This is how it works. He could do nothing else but forget the incident. Stop thinking about it. He had more important things to concentrate on.
Maybe if he repeated it often enough, it would feel true.
This is war. I will do whatever it takes.
He was my enemy. He said so himself. He died trying to kill me, he thought, brushing his hand against the scabbed graze in his cheek.
This is how it is.
Eventually, he would have succeeded. Doubt is a useless, even dangerous thing for a soldier to keep. All he needed was a few more days, perhaps a few weeks, another facility, another incident, another mutant murdered by a fearful crowd. He would have put the man's defiant face out of his mind, the man's wallet would have been left, dusty and ignored, in a corner of a desk drawer. He would keep waging his war, as fierce and determined as ever.
But on the afternoon of the next day, he saw Charles Xavier.
They had an informal agreement of sorts. It was merely a practical concern: the Brotherhood's many hideouts, most of them dark and damp and with little enough space for the existing members, did not have such accommodating facilities for children and teenagers as Charles' school, which had big bright rooms, large open grounds, other mutant children, a comfortable and safe atmosphere, and good doctors with the latest medical equipment. They had taken rescued young mutants to the mansion in Westchester before, with little enough conflict. So on the way back to their current hideout, Magneto had told Emma Frost to contact Xavier, and let him know they'd be dropping in the next day.
“He wants to know how many of them will be coming,” said Emma, gaze still unfocused.
Magneto looked at Mystique, who ran the numbers in her head, quickly. “Five, six, perhaps seven, we still have to talk with them, see who wants to stay of the older mutants,” she said.
Magneto nodded as Emma relayed the information telepathically. After less than a minute, she blinked a couple of times and relaxed back in her seat.
“He'll have enough rooms ready. Also...” here she paused, looking at Magneto hesitantly before telling him, “he kindly requests your presence tomorrow.”
Magneto raised an eyebrow at that but said nothing. He always left the task of dropping in mutants to Azazel and Emma, preferring to avoid contact with Xavier whenever possible. He did not think that Xavier wanted a pleasant catch-up talk and a game of chess. He wondered what Xavier was planning to talk him out of, this time, and however he had found out.
The next day, as Mystique gathered the rescued mutants at the entrance of their mountain complex, Magneto was seriously considering ignoring Charles' request and staying in his office. His attempts at persuasion and occasional threats would not change his mind, if the plan was already set and in motion, and would only irritate him further. After what happened at the facility, he did not feel up to another sparring session with his one-time friend. But then again, it wouldn't be the first time Charles had come to him for help, after their parting. It would be rare but not impossible. Perhaps Charles really did need him this time. And if he didn't, well, he'd just ignore him and be on his way.
In the end, they took eight young mutants to the mansion. Three had decided to stay – one of them barely sixteen – and the rest had accepted the offer of being dropped off in a nearby city with enough money for a bus to wherever they chose to go. Mystique took those people first, driving them in one of their “borrowed” vans. The new recruits were taken by Angel to start their training, and the rest filed out of the hidden entrance of the cave, took hands and were transported by Azazel with a snap and the smell of sulfur.
For a moment they were disoriented. The sun was shining bright above the roiling expanses of green around them, and though it was not much warmer, the cold wind of the mountains was here a cool breeze. On the steps to the mansion, Charles Xavier was waiting for them, smiling politely, flanked by a growling Beast and a short Asian woman Magneto didn't recognize.
Some of the children looked at the imposing figure of Beast with obvious fear, and the rest were wary, so Emma and Azazel practically had to push them towards the mansion. Once they were up the stairs, Charles made the introductions, smiling warmly and shaking each kid's hand for a long moment – no doubt taking a good long look at their minds in the process, Magneto thought.
“This is Hank McCoy, one of the teachers here and our resident scientist, don't let his looks scare you, he's really nice, and this is Clara Min, our doctor, she's taking you to your rooms and giving you a very brief medical check-up - I believe a couple of you have a nasty cold?” Charles was telling the children, animatedly, and perhaps it was his warm and trusting smile, or a telepathic push, but the kids relaxed visibly in his presence and shortly after followed Clara into the mansion and up the stairs to the students' rooms.
Magneto stayed where he was, arms crossed, face stony, until Charles turned to look at him.
“Erik. Thank you for coming.” he greeted him, with that mild smile that never reached his eyes anymore.
“Charles,” Erik drawled, hiding his grimace.
“Come on in,” he said, and moved his chair into the front hall. Hank trailed behind them, his eyes narrowed.
He led them to the study, now more of a headmaster's office. There were even a couple of wooden benches outside, where the problematic students would doubtless sit waiting for their turn at explaining themselves to the headmaster. Charles as headmaster – what a thought.
Pausing in the doorway, Charles turned his head briefly at Hank: “Do you mind...?” he said, perhaps relaying the rest of the message telepathically, because the blue scientist, imposing but somehow still awkward, nodded curtly and stood beside the door. Emma and Azazel, getting the hint, settled down on the seats on the other side, while Erik followed Charles inside.
“Please sit down,” Charles said, rolling his chair towards the window beside his desk. Erik remained standing, and when Charles turned around to meet his eyes, he returned the look impassively.
“How long has it been, already? Nearly a decade, hasn't it?” Charles said, his tone soft and casual.
Almost nine years, thought Erik, reluctant to say it out loud.
“Sometimes it seems hard to believe. Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday...” Charles said, quietly.
“But it wasn't. And we have changed. We are different men, you and I,” said Erik, taking a good look at Charles.
As he did so, he couldn't help the thought that he himself hadn't changed as much as Charles had. Not only physically, although that fact was the most obvious, and seeing Charles in the wheelchair always brought a sting of pain and guilt, even after all these years.
No - the real change was a subtler one, still visible for anyone who cared to look. Charles' arms, chest and shoulders had broadened, the effect of almost a decade of being in a wheelchair. Perhaps as a result of this, Charles' posture was different as well. He sat with his back perfectly straight, his head slightly raised, as if to compensate his low height on the wheelchair.
And his face... Charles had grown quiet and was looking at him, and the expression on his face was unsettling Erik. He wasn't smiling – he didn't smile much anymore, at least not in Erik's presence. His forehead was creased in a slight frown, and he looked both determined and... somber. His newly-shaved head accentuated his solemn appearance. The old Charles wouldn't have given up his hair for the world, thought Erik.
“What is it you wanted to talk to me about, Charles?” prompted Erik, suddenly restless.
Charles sighed, passed a hand through his now shaved head.
“I suppose you wouldn't believe me if I told you I only wanted to see how you were doing...” he said, looking up at Erik and giving him a little wry smile. “Perhaps I wouldn't believe it myself.” His not-quite-smile disappeared as he said, “Those research facilities you have been... visiting. You wouldn't happen to know if they're run by a man called Stryker?”
Erik paused, surprised despite himself. “How do you even know about that?” he asked.
Charles gave him another of his wry smiles, this time with more cheerfulness. “I have my ways,” he said.
Erik paused for a moment to consider that. “So you finally managed to build a replica of Cerebro? In here?”
Charles beamed, and pointed to his shaved head. “After many attempts, yes. We finally have an improved, safe version. I shouldn't tell you anything, but it's amazing, what it can do, the range and the precision. I wish I could show you...” and just like that, the old tone of voice, the old look on his eyes, was there, affection and passion, and it almost hurt Erik physically to see it turn back into that familiar frown. He recalled that was one of the reasons why he avoided Charles whenever possible.
A part of his mind was coldly calculating the measures he would have to take from now on, knowing that Charles' telepathic range and abilities were incredibly amplified. Another part continued the conversation in a calm, emotionless tone.
“And why are you so interested in Stryker?”
“Oh, Erik. I'm sure you know. The two boys you sent here, fourteen months ago? They had very horrifying things in their memories – and both recalled a man called Stryker who went to see them once. I'm sure I'll find similar memories in these children's minds, as well – when they're ready and willing to share, of course,” he added at the dark look on Erik's face.
“And my sources point to... well, I still haven't found good solid evidence of anything, but I get the feeling Stryker's up to something... something nasty.”
“And what precisely are you asking me to do?” asked Erik, braced for what he suspected would come.
Charles smiled slyly, the look oddly frightening for a second, before answering, “I'm not asking you anything. I'm... offering.”
“Offering what, then?” said Erik, interest piqued against his will.
“A collaboration. My resources, coupled with yours... We could have Stryker's plans in our laps within a few months. He's proven to be an extremely cautious and intelligent man. Even with all the possibilities of Cerebro, we still need people on the field. Infiltrators. Informants. Experienced people for rescue missions, perhaps. This is a school, and in spite of the progress we've made with our little team, we don't have as many people suited for fieldwork as you have.”
“That is only because you refuse to bring your students to the fight,” said Erik, knowing what he was about to start, and not quite able to stop himself.
“Yes, I do. And I will continue to do so. It is not my intention to use children as soldiers. I train them and teach them to use and control their powers – whether they join the X-Force afterwards is their own choice.”
“Soon they might not have a choice, Charles. If you are aware of even half of what they were doing in those facilities-” said Erik.
“Which is precisely why I'm offering this, Erik. If we can stop Stryker and his people before they do something really terrible-
“And how would you stop him exactly, Charles? What will you do once you know what he's up to? Will you do what needs to be done... or whatever appeases your misguided morality?” he infused his last words with as much scorn as he could.
“You know very well what I think”, replied Charles with a measured tone. “It's always best to avoid killing – if only because killing gives them further reason to see us as a threat. Killing Stryker and his men will only make others convinced that whatever they were doing was right all along. There are other options- ”
“No there aren't, not really, not for those who would kill every single mutant on the planet. Why is it you refuse to see that in the end, it's going to be us against them?”
“Because I WON'T!” And now Charles was raising his voice, gesturing wildly with his hand. “Because for me 'us against them' is not an option! Not everybody is like Stryker, or those fringe groups who go around hunting mutants! Most people just want to live in peace, most people are able, even willing, to accept us as part of their society – and given enough time and a push in that direction, they will.”
“Time? We don't have time!” Erik screamed back, finally furious. “Right now, there are more of those so-called research facilities around the country, and god knows how many around the world, where mutants are being used, tortured, torn apart, in an effort to find how to neutralize us, to destroy us – and you sit here in your little mansion and preach about peace, of all things, doing nothing to stop-
“Doing nothing, you say? You are always so quick to accuse me of passivity. Here I am, willing to work with you, giving you purely pragmatic reasons for not killing, and yet you still cannot think of me as anything other than Charles, the innocent, naïve fool-”
“Because you haven't proven to be otherwise!” snarled Erik. “Because it seems every move I make, you're there to counter it, meddling and setting your team against mine, putting mutant lives at risk for the ridiculous hope that humans will somehow learn to live with people as different, as powerful as us without resisting-”
“You know, sometimes I think that's what you really want,” Charles interrupted him, and his tone was mild, almost casual, but there was something dark in his eyes, and Erik tensed instinctively.
“It's war you really want,” continued Charles, his eyes glittering with some unnameable emotion, “war, and power – and you haven't really spared a thought for the consequences of your actions, of your ambition- you kill and destroy in the hopes that humans will strike back and justify your hate-”
“Thoughtless, am I now, Charles? How can you even suggest-”
“How many people did you kill in this last place, Erik? How many did you massacre out of spite, or for the pleasure of it, without thinking that alive, they could be much more useful to us? That they could have had some crucial information about Stryker and his plans, that they might be talked into revealing to the public what is being done to mutants in those facilities – that they could act as witnesses in a trial against Stryker?” Charles asked, sharply.
Erik was frozen, speechless. There was a rattle around the room, and it took Erik a moment to process the fact that it was the metal, shaking uncontrollably with his every breath. That hadn't happened in a long while, but he was too angry to give it much thought.
Before he knew what he was doing, he had launched himself at the man in the wheelchair and had his hands around his neck, squeezing viciously.
Charles was taken completely by surprise by the attack and for a few seconds all he could do was grasp the hands gripping his neck in a blind panic. He looked up, eyes wide with shock and betrayal and sadness, and wasn't that painfully familiar? And then he was frowning, mouth curling in defiance, and that was also so familiar – even though he'd never seen that look on Charles' face before – that Erik let go of him and took a step back in shock, a split second before Beast came crashing through the door and pummeled him to the ground.
Numbly, Erik could hear sounds of a scuffle taking place outside the room – reinforcements had come, although they would be no good against Emma and Azazel – while Beast kept him pinned to the floor with his weight, growling fiercely.
“STOP, EVERYBODY! STOP!” that was Charles' voice, hoarse and cracking but still powerful, and combined with a similar telepathic command, since all movement stopped immediately.
“Professor, what happened? Are you all right?” Beast asked, shaken but still without moving an inch from his position.
“I'm fine, Hank. You can let go of him now,” said Charles, and Erik could just sense him, rubbing his neck and moving his chair back.
Beast obeyed gingerly, never once taking his eyes off Erik as he stood up and straightened his clothes.
“I'm afraid Magneto has overstayed his welcome. I would appreciate it if you left immediately and without further aggressions,” said Charles, voice hoarse and terribly cold.
Erik could hardly bear to look him in the eye – but he did, and whatever he was feeling must have shown on his face because Charles looked away. With a couple of blinks and a deep breath, Magneto turned and walked from the room with a cold composure he didn't feel. Outside, Emma and Azazel were waiting for him. Emma was in her diamond form, warily watching Havok and a teen with red glasses – one of the newest additions to the X-Force - and Azazel was sporting a dark bruise in the side of his head. They were getting better, Magneto thought.
All he said was, “Let's go” and he held Azazel's hand, letting the world around him twist and turn in a cloud of sulfur.
He couldn't sleep that night either. He felt tired, exhausted in a way that wasn't merely physical, but he was too shaken to sleep. After a few hours of moving restlessly beneath the covers, he finally gave up and got out of bed. He wanted something to drink – a stiff drink preferably. Didn't he have a bottle of something in his office somewhere? And yes, there it was, in the bottom drawer of his metal desk, a small bottle of tequila that Azazel and Angel had brought him, warning him not to drink it all in one go or it would leave him blind. He supposed he could take the risk tonight.
He took a sip, and felt the liquid burning all the way to his stomach, and his head felt heavy suddenly, so he sat down in the chair and looked at the maps, the records, the documents. He couldn't focus properly on any of them. He took another sip of the vile liquid and slowly, with shaking hands, he gave in and opened another drawer in the desk, retrieving the dark leather wallet. It looked expensive, but simple and worn. One side of it was dark with blood.
Inside, he found some spare change, a couple ten-dollar bills, a driver's license, an ID from the research facility. And a small collection of pocket photographs. Two girls, gap-toothed and dark-haired, smiling. A woman with an elegant haircut and a sweet smile. And two older photos in black and white, worn around the edges but carefully preserved. A young man with bushy eyebrows and a cap. A plump woman with a discreet smile.
He took the ID and read the man's name. Suddenly, it struck him, that this man he had killed had a name. A home. A wife, and daughters, and lost family members whose memory he kept close. He had had a name, and a life of his own.
When he woke, hours later, with a headache pumping behind his eyes and a crick in his neck, the name was still there, jumping out at him between the scattered photos.
In the afternoon, Mystique returned from her shift at keeping watch on the destroyed facility with the news that the army had arrived and were retrieving the bodies and looking around. Stryker had not been seen, and even though there was a poor chance of the man showing up in person, Magneto commanded they keep a tighter watch on the movements around the place – as discretely as possible.
When they finished organizing the new shifts, he took Mystique apart for a moment.
“I have a little research mission for you,” he told her, and put the man's ID and driver's license in her hand. “It's not a priority, but I would like to have something as soon as you can.”
Mystique nodded and glanced briefly at the man's photo. If she recognized him, she did not let it show on her face. “I'll have something for you in a few days,” she promised. She did not ask any questions about the relevance of the man's history. Such an implicit trust, reflected Magneto. A soldier following orders.
He spent the rest of the week mostly locked up in his small office, poring over the cyphered documents they had gathered in the facility, looking at the map he had hung in the wall, dotted with tacks and marks to indicate the places they had found, the suspected locations of other facilities for “mutant research”. Pacing around the closed space like a caged lion, feeling himself grow increasingly desperate.
It was a relief when Mystique finally entered his office with a preliminary report on her research subject. She had gathered mostly basic information: place of residence, known family members, previous employment, education, and also some copied documents from the immigration office, and a few press clippings on a Holocaust remembrance event that took place a few years ago.
Mystique looked at him as he skimmed the documents, and finally he met her gaze, asking, “Yes?”
The look on her face was hesitant, the insecurity in her features reminding him of the girl she had been, just a few years ago. Finally she seemed to make up her mind and handed him a handwritten note, in her hurried scribble – a date, a time and the address of a cemetery in New York City.
“What is this?”
“They told me when I asked about him in the university. It's the time and place for the funeral service.”
Mystique looked like she wanted to say something else. Magneto made his voice low and warm, and spoke first, “Well done, Mystique. I think I can say you're my best investigator now.”
She was startled by the admission for a moment, but then she beamed. “Thanks to you,” she said.
Magneto averted his eyes and broke the moment. “Please leave me now,” he said, quietly. Mystique's smile faltered, but she obeyed, walking out of the room with one last worried glance at him.
He left with only a moment's notice, surprising everyone except perhaps Mystique. No one questioned him, despite their obvious confusion. Azazel merely nodded, took him where he asked, and left immediately afterwards.
He had been left in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city. They had been here before on a couple of occasions and it was useful enough. From there it was easy enough, if not particularly fast, to get by public transport to the cemetery on the other side of the city. The small Jewish cemetery was surrounded by maple trees, leaves bright red and shaking in the autumn breeze. It was a pleasant, quiet place, and Erik walked around for a few minutes, looking at the headstones and at the trees around him.
Very soon he heard the sounds of crunching footsteps on the leaf-covered sidewalk, and the low murmur of the mourners entering the cemetery, four men carrying the coffin. He followed them from a distance, until the group came to a halt in front of an open grave in a shaded corner of the cemetery. As the eulogies started, he inched forward. The mourners paid him little attention. They were a larger group than he had expected, more than friends and family, many of them probably fellow scientists.
He watched the proceedings from the edges of the group. The prayers sounded familiar but the words were indistinct, meaningless. Echoes from a past life. He caught sight of two teenage girls at the front, older than they were in the photo but recognizable. The middle-aged woman silently weeping at their side must be the widow, then.
The eulogies were bland and sentimental, he thought. They talked about the man's participation in important medical research at the university, his dedication to his work and his family, the impressive courage he had to face life after what he'd been through. The sadness with which they now said goodbye. Erik wasn't sure what he had wanted to hear. An explanation, perhaps, or an accusation against this foolish man who would do to others the terrible things that had been done to him.
What had he been expecting? A sense of closure, perhaps. To be able to acknowledge the harm done and walk away with a clear mind. To forgive – but forgive whom?
As the prayers finished, and the mourners went forward one by one, to pour earth on the grave, he realized that he'd attended very few funerals in his life. His family had been incinerated, along with so many others. He wondered if he would ever attend Charles' funeral. The crowd nudged him forward, and having no other choice, he picked a handful of dirt and threw it into the grave of the man he had killed.
Turning around to move away quickly, he found himself facing the widow, who looked up at him with a weak smile.
“I do not know you,” she said. “Are you from the university?”
“No,” Erik replied, guarded.
The woman looked at him intently for a moment.
“Are you from the military, then? You look like a soldier,” she said, clear hostility creeping into her voice.
“I'm not with the military,” he said, the disdain obvious in his face, startling the woman. She hesitated, unsure of what to say.
“I'm...” Erik started to speak and fell silent. Then he simply lifted his sleeve and showed her the numbers etched on his skin.
“Oh! I see,” she said, her expression changing immediately, and Erik had to clamp down on the sudden anger he felt at seeing the pity on her face.
“I'm sorry,” she was saying, “it's been a nightmare with them, trying to retrieve the body... They wouldn't even tell us how... Well. I'm sorry if I offended you.”
Erik shrugged. After a second, she started speaking, looking at the gravediggers filling the grave, quickly and silently.
“I asked him not to take up their offer. I told him nothing good ever comes from messing around with the military. That's what he used to say. But once he got an idea into his head... And he was so angry. I couldn't understand. I still don't. I begged him to stay with us. And that's... We didn't even see much of him for over a year, and now...” her voice broke then, and Erik stood rooted to the spot, watching the woman's shoulders shaking for a moment before she composed herself and wiped her eyes quickly.
He was filled with the sudden need to be away from there, and tried to think of some words to excuse himself. Surely there were ritual words one said to a person in mourning. He could not recall any of them.
“Sorry,” she said, again with that weak smile. “I'm Margaret, by the way. You are...?” she held out her hand. It looked very pale and thin.
“Magnus Eisenhardt,” he answered, and shook her hand stiffly. He saw the teenage girls edging their way through the group towards them.
“Thank you for coming, Magnus,” she said, and sounded sincere.
“Margaret. I'm sorry,” he told her, quietly, the words dragging through his mouth.
With a curt nod, he turned away from the woman just as the girls reached her. He walked away from the embracing women towards the nearest exit. A few heads turned to see him go, but he did not pay them any attention.
He walked out of the cemetery and kept walking, on and on, for a long time. When he finally stopped walking, he was thirsty and sweaty, surrounded by unknown streets, and he had decided there was only one thing he could do in the present circumstance.
“To be honest, I wasn't expecting to see you again so soon,” said Charles, after a long awkward silence.
Erik said nothing. He couldn't really blame them, especially after what had happened last week, but his arrival at the Westchester school had been unwelcome, to say the least. Charles had only accepted to let him in because he wasn't wearing the helmet.
Thankfully, he had not taken them to his office, but to the drawing room where they used to play chess in the evenings, years ago. He let himself remember, allowing the momentary pang of nostalgia.
Seated across from him, Charles – sensing Erik needed some time to collect himself before speaking – poured himself a shot of scotch and took a long sip.
Finally, Erik drew a long breath and started talking. “I attended a funeral in New York City today.”
Charles raised an eyebrow, waiting for Erik to continue.
“His name was Benjamin Sokolsky. He was an Auschwitz survivor - Jewish. We met last week in Stryker's facility. He was one of the lead scientists in the mutant research carried out there.”
Charles' voice was soft and wary. “Did you...”
Charles looked away at that, unable to disguise the disgust and sorrow that crossed his face.
“I didn't mean to. It just... It was... I can't... Oh, for- Just look, Charles. I don't have the words to explain.”
Charles looked taken aback by this, but after a few seconds, Erik felt him in his head. After so long, he had forgotten the feeling, a sharp and curious consciousness among his own thoughts, a distinct signature, like a smell, a subtle presence that quickly located the memory, already on the forefront of his mind, and dissected it quickly. Along the way, unbidden, it caught other memories, feelings and thoughts too closely related to separate: the man's bloodied wallet, the crinkled photographs, Erik's father on the ground, Margaret's face as she thanked him - and a recurring image, intensely painful, Charles' defiant eyes, curled mouth -
With a gasp, Charles withdrew, that strange and not unpleasant feeling in his head disappearing as suddenly as it had appeared. Charles was bent over, hands on his face.
“I'm sorry I did it,” Erik told him, and it was somehow a relief to say the words. “I'm sorry. Do you think I had a choice? He chose to become my enemy – they all did. I did what I had to do. I know you understand this, Charles. If it's our survival on the line, we must do whatever it takes.”
“I do understand your reasoning. I do not share your idea that war is our only option. And I certainly do not think there's any cause that justifies murder. But you know this already. So why...” and here Charles looked a little lost, pained and small in his chair, “why are you here, telling me all this?”
“You... because... Charles, you know this. I do not want to be your enemy. I never wanted to be your enemy. This... this thing between us, your meddling, and yes, my meddling, it's turning into a war. It's only a matter of time. And war... I know how far I'm willing to go, and it scares me, more than you can imagine, the thought that someday I'll... I'll face you and...”
Charles was looking at him with pain in his bright eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was low.
“Do you think it has never crossed my mind? How I could just take it from you, the anger, the fear, your desire for control – every time you take lives, or hurt one of my people, I think about it, and of course it horrifies me, and I have never once considered it, but... what if one day you leave me no other choice? If I have to choose between you and thousands of people, perhaps one day I will do it, and I will never forgive myself.”
Erik felt a sharp stab of pure fear at those words, at the quiet certainty in the voice of his old friend, and for a few seconds all he could think of was: the helmet, why didn't I bring the helmet?
“I don't want to be your enemy, either,” said Charles, softly, making a soothing gesture with his hands. “Which was one of the reasons for my offer, last week.”
“Do you really think we can work together again? After almost ten years, and everything that's happened? How long could we last?”
“I'm not saying it's going to be easy. We're going to have to make compromises. All of us. I'm no longer sure if we want the same thing, in the end. But as you said, you don't want to be my enemy. I don't want to be yours. We both want that, so why not start from there? I think another way is possible, one that doesn't involve any war. Don't you think it's worth trying it out?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I'm suggesting... a test run. This thing with Stryker. Let's try to work together, find the best way to deal with him. See how our teams get along. See how we get along. And then we can decide if it's worth it to try again. And keep trying.”
It sounded... logical. Compelling. Erik allowed himself, for the first time in years, to feel slightly hopeful.
“And what if it doesn't work?”
“Then... I don't know,” said Charles, his voice faltering, and he looked so terribly fragile in that moment that something inside of Erik shattered, and he strode up to Charles' chair and knelt in front of him, taking his hands between his own.
“Charles. Look at me. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for everything I've done to you, last week, and... I never- I don't want to hurt you, Charles. But I don't know if I can change.”
“Of course you can. You've always been much more than a weapon. You just have to let yourself believe it,” Charles told him, with a soft smile.
“You're too optimistic, as always.”
“Perhaps. But I know this: a weapon does not doubt. The fact that you do proves you're something more than that.”
Charles moved his hand up, towards Erik's face, but stopped short, fingers retracting. Erik took it and gave it a light squeeze. He felt his lips tugging up into a smile.
“Very well. I will need to make a call,” Erik said, all business again, standing up in one swift motion.
“Um. Sure. You can use the phone in my office. Does this mean...?” Charles looked up at him, bewildered by the sudden change in attitude.
“Yes.” Erik replied, voice confident.
“Good. That's good,” said Charles, with a soft voice and a small smile. Awkwardly, they both realized they were still holding hands, and let go at the same time. There was an uncertain pause, but it was no longer tense as it had been less than an hour ago.
“Actually...” said Erik.
“I think the call can wait. They're probably having some kind of party anyway.” Erik told him, with a wry smile.
“Really? They party while you're away? That's...”
“Unexpected? Well, I guess even they deserve to have some fun, once in a while.”
“I was going to say terrible. Not inviting you, I mean.”
“I don't think they'd be comfortable drinking and dancing with me around. They think I don't know they do it, but really... I come back after a couple of days away and find the rooms recently cleaned and everybody not sleeping has a headache and a guilty look... they're not very discreet.”
Charles chuckled at that. “One time I came back from a conference and the games room in the west wing was completely trashed. They told me it was an accident with someone's powers, but they were all trying very hard not to think about beer and vodka and truth or dare...”
They both laughed, quietly, but gladly. When it died down, moments afterwards, they were still looking at each other with a smile.
“So,” said Erik, “what about a game of chess? It's been ages since I played with a decent opponent.”
“I'm going to crush you, then. I've been playing with Hank, and he's not half bad.”
Erik smiled at Charles, while they retrieved the chess set and put it on the table between them. “Who knows?” he said. “I might still surprise you.”