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The Future Starts Slow

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It is impossible for the arrival of Tony Stark in any particular geographical area-- particularly when the young scientist, heir, and entrepreneur intends to take up residence-- to occur without significant chaos, fanfare, and/or uproar. Very often, it's all three. In the almost twelve years he's been living with his cousin, Charles has developed something of a script for it-- one which bears significant resemblance to the scene in The Day The Earth Stood Still where the UFO lands on the White House lawn. (The original version, of course, since both Tony and Charles are avowed film snobs.) During this period, the cousins have lived everywhere from California (Tony's fourth boarding school) to Colorado (the fifth); from Quebec (best not to ask) to Cambridge in the UK (private tutoring finally, thank G-d). Stain has always been willing to dedicate resources to 'protecting privacy', and seems to prefer the remaining Stark stay as far away from New York as possible. All the better to protect the board room, my dear. Boston is hardly the long-time trustee's ideal, but there wasn't much he could do once 'the boys' gained almost unheard of early admittance to MIT.

Tony himself had been over the moon, and Charles himself not far behind. Stark, however, had the additional determination to make the Boston domicile an actual home; something that was an expression of both himself and Xavier. They would, after all, likely spend more time here than anywhere else they'd temporarily alighted combined. Many would, perhaps, be surprised at such sentimentalism from the notorious playboy, but Charles knows better. Of the two of them, it is Tony who is blessed with an actual memory of home-- a conceptual structure around the seemingly mundane word. Though the climate was changeable and the circumstances not always ideal, Maria Stark had maintained a core of safety and sanctity at the New York mansion. In her absence, Tony absolutely refuses to darken the door of that Neo-Georgian pretender ever again, but it hasn't stopped him from yearning-- in a way that pierces up from the subconscious in spite of youthful bravado-- to recapture an ounce of that feeling.

 

It's Charles who is awkward about the notion of their own space, as opposed to dorm rooms, rented penthouses, and the glimmering spires of expensive hotels. He has his indulgences (plush beds, sumptuous blankets, well-roasted duck, the occasional good port), but will forego them without comment if the obtaining them renders others even the slightest bit of inconvenience. He remembers all too well the cavernous peril of the Xavier mansion, the sterile menace of the Upper East Side penthouse, and even the shadowy borderlands of the split-level foster home in which he spent so little time. Months passed before he began to unpack here in Boston. Every book left out or clock hung up seemed both threateningly prosaic, and an invitation to disaster. He is not a man who fills the drawers of hotel dressers, or hangs clothes in the closets of extended-stay suites. His toiletries stay neatly nestled in their little zippered travel case and, while books and papers are wont to spread forth in academic entropy, every bit of study material is always ready to recoil its chaotic profusion-- the Big Bang in reverse.

There are places that retain an alarming changeability even after years of steady occupancy or the lending of definite character, and it is this potentiality against which the young man must constantly be on guard. After all, he'd had a lovely time at the Imperial Gold Lotus, practically wanting to take up residence in the infinity pool overlooking the magical coruscations of Hong Kong city night. Then, insidiously, the subtle angle of the suite's ultra-modern white leather sofa began to remind him of something else. Another hotel, and a little "bonding trip" with dear ol' Stepdad. Similarly, the apartment in Quebec had been one of his favorites, until spring came and the neighbor's balcony chrysanthemums began to bloom. It wasn't their scent, but rather their too-cheerful colors that put him in mind of some dreadful bedspread he'd bitten into… in places far too unpleasant and numerous to put one's finger on.

He is aware that all-- or almost all-- of these impressions come from his own mind. Being rational in this regard would not be difficult even had he not made the psychology his primary field of study. Sensations of deja vu and other unclear triggers that bring him to the pit's lip of panic are caused by misconnections between short and long-term memory in the brain. The medial temporal lobe is the culprit, not any outside entity or force, dragging the hippocampus along for the ride, and it is a strange thing indeed to be aware of just how your mind is betraying you. Yet, long before he ever submitted to a peer-reviewed journal or sat down for a prison interview as part of his Abnormal Psych seminar, he had learned the truth of the consciousness which is mankind's unique curse. The human brain _is_ its own haunted house, done in the style of Shirley Jackson; rooms with open into rooms, leading through narrow corridors and libraries of bizarre and lavish appointment. The downward grade is subtly misleading. You might follow the knockings and moanings in the night, only to find yourself in subterranean caverns before you know it, and there's usually something which lumbers unseen behind you, eating up the crumbs that lead back. The press itself has described Charles Xavier as 'haunted', an adjective the student himself finds distasteful. (Though not as offensive as the terms 'victim', 'tragic' or-- thank you, Inside Star, 'sadly maimed'.)

When things do go sideways-- memories that whiz by like bullets, if you want to overextend the metaphor-- Charles never mentions his thoughts or impressions, struggling gamely onwards with his best cocktail party smile. ('Sensitive' is another one of those fun words with which he has too much acquaintance.)

 

No one is going to accuse this house of being haunted, that's for sure. The art-deco monstrosity clinging to the North Slope of Beacon Hill negates any such notion-- clean lines, California colors, and proportions that would make the most dedicated cubist cry. In some ways, it really does look like a UFO from Planet Stark landed on the edges of a tastefully historic district. The more the papers criticized the heir's little pet project, the more extravagant Tony became. 'Seriously, just one turret, please?' Tony had cajoled. Charles, who'd had enough pretentious architecture to last two lifetimes, reluctantly agreed… with conditions. The result is a cylindrical protrusion that looks like Buck Rogers is about to lift off.

Despite the building's uneven outward appearance, there isn't a square foot of the place that isn't handicapped accessible. Charles can see Agent McTaggert visibly, though subtly, restraining herself from craning her neck to look about as they follow the upward-slanting hallway towards his study. Beyond the tasteful (if ultra-modern) foyer and sitting room, the house ambles off in two directions. The upstairs, accessible by elevator, is Tony County-- a land of seemingly endless computer screens, gadgets (some of which literally have a mind of their own), classic rock posters, and sleek leather. The ground level gives way to the cooler hues Xavier favors, along with endless books, paintings ranging from the classical to the surreal, and every convenience one could possibly dream of for a paraplegic. Tools that help him maintain his health and autonomy are one thing Charles has never felt guilty about spending his parent's money on. Besides, if he doesn't grab the latest and greatest off the equipment market, then Tony will. This hawk-like solicitude is hidden under a thick layer of casual opulence, and Charles is forever trying to balance the weird sense of guilt and sorrowful awareness-of-guilt which has been simmering, tactfully ignored by both cousins, since the accident.

 

"Here we are," Xavier says gently, pushing the mahogany door open and gesturing for the analyst to precede him. He wheels in behind her, watching the slim woman instinctively gravitate towards the ponderous cherrywood desk which, sitting as it does before the somewhat heavily curtained window, serves as the room's centerpiece. He has four screens going, thanks to the desk's stubby 'U' shape, but maintains enough clear space to write or gaze across at any visitor in the chair opposite. McTaggert, unsurprisingly, does not take the bait. She props herself up against the bulky piece of furniture with a learned, almost architectural elegance. Hands folded demurely over her knee-length pencil skirt, ankles crossed above blunt-tipped, low-heeled pumps. She is an ambassador from the land of strictly sensible shoes, but deviates from her white-shirted companions with a blouse of deep plum. It suits her, and she always was very pretty. Put-together, too, from what Charles remembers of the trial.

Nodding in concession, the young man does not attempt to wheel around her-- and blocking him was Moira's intent all along. If she'd let him get behind the desk, then he would be in charge; if she sat, they'd be on equal footing. Standing is too obvious a tactic when your foe is in a wheelchair, so she has compromised-- hence her current pose. Smiling slightly, cynically, uncaring if she sees, Charles positions himself by the plush sofa's end table, idly drawing a finger over the bumps and curves on his custom globe of Mars.

"Again, I apologize for my cousin," the scholar says, after an acceptable pause. No rushing, but he must also avoid any uncomfortable silence that might give her the upper hand. "Tony is very protective. He'll cooperate, though-- I promise."

McTaggert raises one carefully sculpted eyebrow, as if to say they both know Tony will do whatever he damn well pleases. Fair enough, the younger cousin acknowledges, but he has made the first volley. A pause manifests again as Moira studies the room; dark blue-green ('storm' green, Charles calls it privately) where the walls aren't overwhelmed by bookshelves, the stained glass lamps that remind him of the colored marbles he and Erik used to collect, the large framed poster of the Milky Way galaxy with its helpful arrow and legend of 'YOU ARE HERE'.

Finally, she says, "It's been a long time, Charles."

'Ah,' Xavier thinks, 'so that's how its going to be.' Aloud, he replies, "Yes it has, Agent McTaggert."

"Moira, please." Something in her face does soften, but Charles isn't sure it will do him any good. It is compassion, pity, or confusion as to how he's managed to keep going all these years? Likely an unpredictable cocktail of all three.

"How are you holding up?" she asks, giving something of an answer to his unvoiced question.

 

'She remembers this case,' a little voice advises him. Or perhaps not precisely a voice, for Charles has no idea what Erik sounds like after all these years. And yes, here it is-- the last of Xavier's ghosts. Most carefully guarded and most beloved, the shade which makes all other nightmare visitants bearable, and the one to whom all such monstrosities must bow in submission.

If the others must be endured, stirring in dungeons and trying to peer over high barbicans, scurrying up the walls like some grotesque pre-Hollywood Dracula, then so be it. Charles can outlast them, can play the psychological Van Helsing with garlic loaded bullets and arrows dipped in holy water. If terror manifests as fact, then fight it with empiricism. 'Catalogue it to death!' Tony often cries, convinced this is his cousin's superpower. But this is one phantom-- Erik, who became a newspaper boogeyman after being tortured by the real thing!-- is welcome.
Charles will never close the door in his friend's face.

"I've read most of your papers," McTaggert continues conversationally. "You're incredibly well-published, for your age."

"Not really," the graduate student replies with no false modesty. "They're not _my_ papers, by any stretch. The credit I'm given-- appropriately-- is that of an RA. I do a lot of data analysis and organization, but I'm nowhere near top billing." Except for that last one, which Charles submitted to a very prominent journal under pressure from a professor and the (incorrect) assumption on his own part that it couldn't possibly be accepted. A self-deprecating smile plays about his lips, "That's a great deal of very dry reading in only thirty-six hours."

"Charles," the woman says, looking for a moment painfully young and rather like someone exhausted by continual efforts to communicate by shouting across a waterfall. "I read them when they were published."

 

Charles smiles, more charmingly this time, and thinks that if any sentiment even remotely approaching 'triumph in the face of adversity' is expressed in regards to his person, he may not be able to retain his serenity. Such internal chiding serves exactly the purpose it was meant to-- it reenforces the lacquer through which he views the world. He has a reputation for being calm and unflappable, the perfect straight-man cum wrangler for his bombastic cousin. Zeppo Marx-- he of comely looks, gentle voice, and comparatively sane mien-- wouldn't be better casting. Or so Xavier thinks in some of his more morose moments. The comparison is unfair; to Tony, to himself, and to the dynamic between them.

'You persist in your efforts to be fair,' his internal version of Erik murmurs, almost affectionately despairing. Not exactly the way Lehnsherr would have phrased it when they were children, but the sentiment is the same. His old friend has never been a frozen memory; always Charles has imagined Erik growing beside him, three years his senior and tall as lanky youth had promised. It occurs to him, with the regularity of a man who leaves the confessional knowing he will return with the same mea cupola, how shocked Tony would be if he knew of this phantom advisor. Xavier, whose first language was silence even before homicide freed him from Marko's tender auspices, has obviously never spoken of this to anyone. Not even in the drunkest stupor, of which he has had his fair share. No one--ubiquitous, multi-eyed 'no one' of the crowd-- would understand; fine, yes, its as obvious as it is irrelevant. Tony would not understand either, but mostly for the same reasons that make him a wonderful cousin and friend.

Though he only glanced at the mugshot for a few moments, Xavier now has the updated image of Erik firmly carved into his retina, as settlers once labored over hand-chiseled headstones. He is both unsurprised and deeply disturbed to find how well he conjured Lehnsherr's face when imagination was his only guide; the man hidden within the boy. Most people would turn the metaphor around, focusing on the child-self rattling about within all matured humans. There's some truth it that, Charles is willing to acknowledge, but it also negates the constant in potentia state of which childhood itself is comprised. How the papers had thrilled, titillating each other in one big circle-jerk over their real life 'bad seed'. It was Erik's disposition that determined the end of his short life as a free being, they not-so-subtly implied. As if the core of who Erik was made him deserving of depredation, rather than giving him the strength to survive trauma which would have broken others. Xavier has never been under any delusions-- if their positions had been reversed, if he had suffered as Shaw's toy, he would have died. Ignoble, ignored, written-off and paid-off as some freak accident. The end might even have been by his own hand. Studies have shown how rare suicidal ideation can be in children, he can also recall-- the old semi-reliable 'anecdata'-- that thoughts of slipping from the balcony railing or walking out into traffic crossed his mind more than once before he met Erik. Certainly, he would not have had the strength to turn on his captor, whatever moral judgements you wanted to hand down about the events that followed.

 

"I was particularly interested in your paper on the persistence of Puritanism as seen in the Satanist panic of the 1980's," Moira says, earning points for specificity in her trade. Filling the silence, and making a comment many men would find flattering. The article she's mentioned is the same one Dr. Octavius encouraged-- nearly badgered-- Charles into submitting. It had, the tenured professor said, a lot of feeling behind the deep analytical insight-- an empathy that threw facts into a stark light rather than overwhelming them or turning the whole piece into a sermon. Such confidence from one of his mentors-- who are usually more than a little put-off by his youth-- was invigorating enough for Xavier to cave despite feeling he hadn't produced anything particularly extraordinary in the article.

"We all bring subconscious expectations to any narrative," the scholar says, now wishing that particular piece of graduate literature hadn't seen the light of day. He doesn't feel naked, not precisely. Having been stripped to quivering vulnerability at such a young age required inurement if he was to survive past predation. Telling the story repeatedly, as if trapped in some fun-house confessional, made it solidify, and Charles solidified with it. He is a hybrid wearing his bones on the outside, exoskeletal because he has spent so much of his life being widely known in certain circles for having been most intimately violated. People see that and assume they know everything, never wise enough to suspect you might still be hiding something precious on the inside. Based on what he'd heard from other survivors, those ritualized revelations of the already known, he suspects many of them feel the same way. For good or ill, he'd stopped going once the State had been satisfied.
Whether they meant to or not, everyone-- doctors, counselors, fellow patients-- always ended up focusing on Erik. As though he was the traumatic event.

"My goal," he continues, "was to dissect some of the cultural influences brought into play by the adults." After a beat, he cannot help but add, "And the psychological pressure they brought to bear while 'aiding' those children."

 

Of course, like the self-appointed daycare witch hunters, there are those who have never been satisfied no matter how many time Charles repeats the story. Every three years or so, one of the ever-multiplying crime channels runs a special on the quadruple slaying, a pastiche of original news coverage, 'expert' commentary, and interviews anyone even tangentially related to case. It's the kind of pantomime Charles associates with tawdry 'mentalists' and greasepaint, or road-side attractions boasting alien bodies that look suspiciously like malformed vegetables. The most recent 'docudrama' scored a two hour time block and the infamous (not to mention ironically named) Charity Werner as narrator. The center-ring attraction had been Dr. William Stryker of Woodhaven Psychiatric, who has been treating Erik in the three years since he'd been transferred to an adult facility. Charles' constant, low-burning ire at the second and third hand exploitation

('No!' said so many of the high-powered executives and politicos pulled into the courtroom by Erik's defense attorneys. 'I've never touched a child! They're only pictures. I didn't take them, I don't even know where most of them came from!')

had been pitched to almost nuclear fission by Stryker's clear intent to concoct a lucrative tell-all book, in addition to the boost treating such a young sociopath had given his career.

 

The helpful article on Marie's phone reported three bodies in the wake of Erik's escape, with Dr. Stryker chief among them. To mark Charles as unsurprised by the fatality is banal; he'd been certain of it even before he'd reached the paragraph identifying the victim by name. The Xavier heir has never spoken to Stryker, even during the man's persistent-- teetering dangerously close to bullying-- requests for an interview with the 'lone survivor of the tragedy'. He wouldn't have given the man the time of day, even if the psychiatrist hadn't arched towards Charity Werner and her camera like the anticipatory carrion eater pretending to strut rather than slink in when the true apex predators are through. The whole affair ended in one of those rare moments that made Charles feel oddly indebted to Stain and his semi-demoniacal clutch of public relations lawyers. Stryker already has

(had, Charles reminds himself ruthlessly, forcing himself to recognize that a human life was taken)

one book to his name; a monograph detailing the psychology of an early school shooter, which lingered lovingly over the violent acts while barely mentioning the victim's names. To say nothing of the innumerable scholarly articles expected of one in his position. Of the latter, Charles has waded-- emerging thankfully unscathed-- through precisely one. It's not an experience he's eager to repeat, though his impassioned critique earned him an 'A' in Medical Literature and Criticism.

 

"Psychological pressure that caused wild stories to be repeated, and then accepted, as reality?" the agent inquires, with an almost laughably light tone. Charles isn't certain which he should feel more grateful for-- his poker face, or his ability to reenter conversations he has mentally exited without skipping a beat.

"Your own agency confirmed that in the Lanning Report. I wasn't presenting anything ground-breaking in that regard," Xavier reminds her, no doubt unnecessarily. "I think everyone can agree that-- whether they genuinely believed they were helping or not-- the psychologists, parents, and social workers involved ended up harming and exploiting those children."

"Exploitation like that which Dr. Stryker had planned?" And there's the hook, much like an inversion of that carefully sculpted eyebrow.

He doesn't hesitate, "As a matter of fact, yes. Dr. Stryker was trying to weasel his way around legislation designed to protect the exploited from compounded violation. He had no business trying to profit from the hazy memories of victims-- be it Erik, who has has his penalty from the justice system and didn't need further censure before he escaped, or myself." Charles cannot stop the narrowing of his eyes or the setting of his jaw. "But then, you already knew that."

"That he'd contacted you?" Moria asks, not objecting to the classification of Erik as a victim. She is, almost certainly, filing it away though. "Yes."

It takes a herculean effort, but the scholar refrains from any inquiry about the book. He can only hope that not a single vitriolic word of Stryker's manuscript makes it off whatever unfortunate hard drive it blights. It won't hurt to bolster that hope with the services of lawyers who, by virtue of equally questionable ethics, know exactly what sort of loopholes any executor of the doctor's estate might use.

 

'Will you tell me that I should not have killed him, Myschka?' Erik's conjured voice inquires.

'Yes,' Charles thinks back in a hiss, and surely enough vehemence will make that true. Should that fail, he might do with some dedicated rereading of and meditation on material from last quarters "Ethics and the Justice System" seminar. Morality and legality do not always dovetail. Erik was tried by a jury of his peers-- never mind that, though there were victims in exponential excess, no court would ever appoint a jury composed solely of those who'd suffered similarly to himself and his best friend. All balance is imperfect, and the blindness of marble-tiered Justice is as much a bane as a boon. Xavier reminds himself that he is not in a position to condemn William Stryker in any court save that of his own opinion, no matter what sort of subcutaneous crawling sensations the other man's words inspired. All those letters, emails, phone calls to numbers that should have been private, coyly hinting at telling 'his side of the story' and 'speaking up for other victims' invoked the same visceral recognition of the hunger Charles glimpsed in the psychiatrists televised interview. There are, after all, those who linger over descriptions of feasts only because they lack the stomach to come to the table themselves.

'I don't _know_ that,' the young man argues, unsure if he is reasoning with himself or the internalized version of his friend. 'You can't convict someone based on feeling--'

But Erik wouldn't be interested philosophical architecture, or the flawed by necessary social contracts that keep the whole sad world turning 'round. He's down in the mud of trenches with the mustard gas and dysentery-- with the rats that will eat you alive if you sit still too long. How many times has Charles wondered, sudden and nauseous in the middle of some mundane task, how many further depredations Erik may have suffered during his confinement? Even the institution for minors to which Lehnsherr had initially been sentenced was only a prison under its thin hospital veneer, and it did not take an adult intellect to imagine how the hierarchy would work therein. Cain had zealously terrified his young stepbrother with tales of military school and this, combined with the curious dichotomy of privilege and penalty under which both Charles and Erik functioned, inspired any number of nightmare scenarios in the mind of the one left behind. Xavier's imagination had been perhaps even more boundless than those of other children his age, and in his guilt it shied from nothing, finding always some fresh grotesque detail in the news, or in the action movies Tony loved, to heighten the horror. The hulking monster of his childhood had been felled, but the price had been staggering. Erik might as well have been

(dead, like Mother, like Cain-- who, in retrospect, was likely also a victim until he aged beyond his father's tastes)

hauled off to another planet. A prison world which, unlike Charles' clever little Martian globe, never succumbed to inertia or released any from its crushing gravity. At least, until now. Like Joshua, Erik has triumphed over the walls, roaming free now to…

'If he came and slit my throat,' the scholar considers once more, mental tone dull despite the hot-cold ball of the day's anxiety pressing in on his chest, throbbing in time with the resurgent migraine, 'Would a true jury-- the mythical kind which is fair and wise and all-knowing-- really find his actions unfair?' He resists the urge to set the pink-brown orb, with its powdered-sugar dustings of icecaps, twirling with his finger. It might seem too flippant in present company.

 

"Commentary on my work aside," he says instead, "I think you understand exactly why I declined any involvement with Dr. Stryker. Do you honestly believe he was able to gain any true insight into Lehnsherr?"

"Of course not," Moira smiles tolerantly, but it fades quickly enough. "But I do think there's a reason our suspect killed him, especially given that Lehnsherr only wounded or incapacitated almost everyone else he encountered during the escape."

"All save two others," Charles points out, mostly so she won't. His private reply, laced with far more disdain than is safe, is a half-growled, 'Of _course_ there's a reason. Erik is not a brute.' McTaggert wants to draw him out, make him say that which is impulsive or ill-considered. In lieu of that, she'll accept a journeyman's take on victimology. The latter would have been so much easier if she'd just asked in the first place. Impossible, of course, but the returning anguish in his temples is making Xavier very impatient with this verbal dance.

"Plus two more at a truck stop in Vermont," Mc Taggart reminds him. "A total of five, as your cousin so kindly pointed out."

 

"Two at the truck stop," he echoes, in time with his heart's cadences of 'Oh, Erik. Oh, deaf and heedless G-d… _Erik_.' He doesn't steel himself-- it's one thing he's never learned to do without some small physical tell. "The victims at Woodhaven will have been male nurses or attendants. Ones who've had significant disciplinary records themselves. The complaints won't necessarily involve Erik, or even other inmates, but you'll find these individuals wielded their authority quickly, easily, and with enough enjoyment that it made their coworkers uncomfortable." Deep breath now, "They may have been stabbed multiple times, but everything will be post-mortem save the killing blow-- and that blow will be unhesitatingly precise."

"Dr. Stryker had multiple post-mortem wounds," McTaggert admits, having assumed an expression uncannily like that of Gabrielle yesterday in the student union. See the amazing Xavier do wheelchair donuts in his petri dish. This version has an extra helping of suspicion: 'how does he do it?' "All three died of deep throat lacerations. Rapid decrease in blood pressure and loss of consciousness-- slaughtered, in the most literal sense of the term." Charles' own blood is draining from his face, and he turns away slightly on the pretext of turning the table lamp on to its lowest setting. Outside, the (dying) setting sun is doing up the sky in appropriate shades of autumn-- copper, gold, warm sable, and… well, there are all sorts of words for red. "They were dead within minutes. You seemed to indicate all three killings were personal, yet this was true only in Stryker's case."

"Personal and functional," the scholar elaborates. His head is still pounding, pressure and bile traveling swiftly to join it while his stomach plummets in the opposite direction. "The aides made Lehnsherr feel victimized at some point, but he may not have sought them out purposefully-- not the same way as the one he considered the primary offender. Check Stryker's files-- if he was heavy-handed trying to obtain my cooperation, G-d only knows what he felt free to do in his own office. He also thought himself untouchable, so you will find something. He strikes me as a man with Nixon's disease."

Moira's lips part to question the term, before she quickly makes the connection and huffs humorlessly. "You were very specific about how their throats were cut."

He flutters a hand, which ends up rubbing at his temple rather than back in his lap where he intended it. "Shaw was an avid hunter, in addition to his other… proclivities." He does hate masking the man's monstrosities with formality, but neither is he eager to give that specter power by naming crimes in detail each time. It becomes a litany, if one is not careful-- invoking fear rather than dispelling. "He took Erik with him, making him participate in more than just fetch and carry. If Erik failed to make good aim and only wounded an animal, Shaw would make him track it down and finish the job." Despite the black dots congregating at the edge of his vision, Charles makes a point of looking into the agent's eyes. "He learned to do it quickly. He hated the sounds."

"Shaw and Marko," McTaggert muses, "a veritable bloodbath and another case of multiple stab wounds. But Cain and--"

 

"My mother," Charles murmurs quietly, thinking-- as he always does-- of her lipstick. Another chain of memory associations and, in many ways, a symbol of her poise. Each time she conjured compact to her hand or leaned towards a mirror, there was an absence both to the motion and in her expression. Not inattention, but rather the kind of flawless execution of a pianist who no longer has to think about the keys. He remembers, too, the shape of her underneath the white sheet as the coroner wheeled her away. Blood had seeped through the blank cloth, creating a large crescent-- a bizarre, cartoon kind of smile. A crayon-lipstick grin, as when he drew clumsy pictures of her in preschool. At the time he'd thought, with childish lunacy, 'too bright, it doesn't go with her complexion'. She always swore she looked best in spring or summer shades. He had cried for her then-- or rather shed tears in excess of those already pouring down his face as he screamed, begged, pleaded for someone to tell him where Erik was.
No, his best friend had never been a brute, but he was not a saint-- or mensch-- either. And what, then, does that make Charles?

His gaze shifts automatically to a photo on the opposite wall, thus drawing McTaggert's attention to the dated, frozen image in the frame. Involuntary, telling, but it may do him some credit-- the agent's expression regains some compassion as she too looks on Charles' mother at age sixteen. Sharon Gilcrist, she was then, perched on a pier in The Hamptons with her sister. Maria is as pale and dark as Sharon is golden, and they wear daisy lace swim suits in white and black respectively, as if playing off their natural contrasts. The sweet, open smile on Aunt Maria's face is obvious, but Sharon's seems (and here comes our old friend 'perception' again) a bit haughtier, perhaps a little knowing.

"Yes," Moira agrees. "Functional killings, as opposed to those with a vendetta behind them. But why perpetrate those last two, in the string of original murders? You're saying he's a revenge killer--"

"Not revenge-- or not only revenge. Recompense," Xavier says, more to the photo than to his present company. It's tempting to cast his mother as a villain, and he has given into the impulse on more than one occasion. Yet always he reminds himself, the way one is reminded by the reopened wounds of religious self-flagellation, that everything he has came at a heavy cost-- to everyone but himself. "Lehnsherr has high standards by which he is measuring everyone, himself included. These 'ethics' may not be easily understood, and they are heavily warped towards a survival-based morality, but they are there." And, with too much effort to add a gilding of casual tone, "You won't find him if you don't recognize that."

He holds his shoulders square while the agent looks at him, no matter how much he wants to hunch over against the pain pounding through every portion of his body still capable of registering such. McTaggert's lips purse-- she is an autumn and winter pallet, herself-- and the question is coming. It twists suspended like the Oracle at Delphi, a shrouded thing in mists of court records, police reports, and grand jury testimony. Perhaps not now though, he thinks as the silence gathers in with the dusk. It is actually Moira who looks away first, glancing down at her cell-phone with a practiced twist of the wrist. Habit, affectation, or a genuine message from her team?

When she looks up, it's to say, "You're not feeling well, are you?"

"No," Charles says honestly, too far into the pit to be tempted to a more sarcastic response. He turns off the lamp despite her continued presence, leaving only the ambient light from the hallway and gloaming between the curtains. Amazing what a few constricted blood vessels can do, and amazing that they should cause and propagate the agony when the brain itself is once more at fault. But then, that tricky little bit of organic clockwork isn't capable of physical suffering. If he's trembling, it's the migraine. They don't have Erik-- they haven't caught him. If the manhunt were over, McTaggert would give some small tell, and would have no longer have a reason to withhold information in any case.

"I'm afraid migraines are rather a health hazard of late," he elaborates. With one break off, he pivots the wheelchair, now facing the lush furniture monstrosity Tony is forever teasing him about ('You'll sink, be eaten by the couch and I'll never find you!' his cousin bemoans). Right now, it looks like paradise in dark blue, even if it is a little difficult to get situated in. Once he's settled, though, the support for his head, neck, and back is nothing short of miraculous.

"Stress related?"

He huffs lightly, "If only it were so simple." To say these cranial agonies are a problem 'of late' is code-- Xavier will do any number of verbal contortions to avoid saying 'since the accident'. In this, he may be more dedicated to obfuscation than his cousin, and Tony's guilt is as heavy as it is unwarranted.

"I'll let you rest, then," Moira says, now apparently the soul of discretion and largesse. As she crosses to the door, she makes a brief move as if towards Charles-- perhaps to put a hand on his shoulder?-- but seems to think better of it. Xavier, busy lowering the of his wheelchair so he can transfer, hides a faint smile. "My colleagues and I will be heading back to our temporary HQ, but we've assigned a discrete police presence-- uniformed and otherwise-- to monitor the house."

"Very well." Having affected the transfer, Charles now sinks gratefully into the plush cushions and pile. It reminds him of blanket forts, the kind he once built with more than the boogeyman in mind.

The agent is still lingering in the threshold, letting in too much light from the hall. He wonders, vaguely, if she knows he sees auras at times like these-- any number of optical illusions that gather colors and flashing lights to outline the bodies of those around him. "Should I get Mr. Stark?" She has a vague russet corona. It clashes with her blouse.

"Please-- just go." Tony will find him if need be, and refuse to wake him for anything short of World War III. Another one of those lovely psychological paradoxes dictates that, in defiance of logic, no amount of reassurance can soothe his cousin-- especially if it comes from Charles. He did suffer these attacks as a child; less frequently, though it was still enough for Cain to deem him a 'delicate little fag'. Tony wasn't with Charles then, when he would hide in the closet or lay in the dark bathroom against the blessedly cool empty tub. On a handful of occasions-- just once or twice, really-- that little boy had another companion besides the deep spider's legs of pain lodged in his skull. Exasperated, a little frustrated at their interrupted play, but never the less concerned.

('Wha-- what're you do'n?'
'Drawing on your back. I'm bored. I'll do letters, you guess.'
'… kay.' The touch is light, making shivers that drive back the pain for blissful seconds. 'No Hebrew, though. That's cheating.')

 

The door clicks shut, leaving Xavier in a darkness that has evaluated him far too many times to still have interest. In this house he owns jointly with his cousin, in this room that belongs to him, it is Charles' concern alone if he wishes to drowse and imagine some respite. A form beside his own, innocent of all intent save comfort and affection.

It is solely his business, too, if the shoulders of that ether-body should now be broader, the hand stronger and fully capable of swallowing his own.


[* * * * * *]

From the unpublished manuscript of Evil's Infancy: The Psychopathy of Erik Lehnsherr, Child Murderer by William Stryker, MD, PhD.:

It has been said that, in our modern era, the concept of Evil has been replaced with that of evil-- lower case 'e' very much evident. We see the hellish perpetuation of cycles like child abuse, gang violence, and the deterioration of our educational system as complex performances, carried out by actors who themselves one played the role of victim. I, too, succumbed to this fallacy during my graduate and post graduate studies in Abnormal Psychology. I will ask you, the reader, to put aside pre-programmed sympathies and allow me to set forth the entirety of my experience with the patient who impacted some of my most fundamental beliefs. After more than a decade of working with violent, ill-adjusted, and often psychotic offenders, I must confess myself entirely unprepared for the young murderer who would-- in far less time-- consume my career. My liberal education, well-tried treatment methods, and even the documentation of this patient's previous history left me ill-armed, and I was not so arrogant that I did not recognize it immediately. For the moment I looked into the dead green eyes of Erik Lehnsherr, I knew that I was gazing on Evil in its purest form.

[* * * * * *]


Down in the leaf-strewn gully, on the banks of a now mostly dry and arthritic stream, Erik and Charles lie together like a pair of antique spoons safe in a drawer, down and out of the way from everyone else. This is a good hiding spot, far into one of the pockets of human absence scattered sparsely across the park. If someone does come, there's a great drainage tunnel which cuts, shored up by cement, into the nearby hill, and Erik and Charles hide in the shadows until the people go away. Erik has laboriously moved several large rocks into the tunnel, so Charles can sit without getting his uniform muddy and damp (and himself in trouble, later). For his part, the younger boy brought a cookie tin from one of his mother's many catered affairs, and the two friends use it as a hiding place for treasures they cannot safely keep at home. Cain loves to smash Charles' things, and Shaw is fond of hostage-taking. Erik won't even tell his friend some of the things he's had to do to ransom possessions or 'privileges' back.

 

They don't talk about that stuff here, though. It's a rule. Sometimes, they pretend that all the rest of the world is dead and gone away, with just the two of them left. They could get up and wander wherever they pleased; eat food off the shelves at the bodega, play on all the playgrounds, and never go back to the penthouses they refer to when they use the word 'home'. Erik would find them someplace better to live, with a big bed (because he knows Charles loves jumping on them) and lots of lights, and maybe even a dog.

Because of the dog, Erik says it would have to be a plague, or maybe a comet that just vaporizes all the people stupid enough to stand around and watch it. He wanted it to be a zombie apocalypse, so he could smash and batter all the monsters, but Charles is afraid of zombies, so he changed it.

It's a nice game, but they're not playing it now. Right now, they're both tired; Shaw was in a mood last night and, while Charles was spared his stepfather's attentions, the Markos had a loud party that carried on into the wee hours. The Xavier boy was too tense to sleep, not knowing if Marko would tell someone to 'help themselves', and spent the night huddled under his bed. School dragged on forever, but they both know falling asleep there only results in lectures from teachers, and sometimes a note or phone call home. Once, before Erik came to live at his building, Charles was silly enough to try and tell the school nurse where all his bruises really came from. This resulted in the first-- but not the last-- time the boy ended up peeing blood. Erik says Charles is book-smart and people-stupid, but the mistake was understandable because Charles was kindergarten (a whole year ago) and didn't know any better. The older boy made a similar mistake himself once, when he tried to tell a social worker about Shaw.

Once upon a time, Erik had a real mother, and she said that sometimes you could only learn by making mistakes. She sounds very nice; Erik says she never made him kneel on rice or sesame seeds if he didn't get all 'A's. This was back before the fire that burned away Erik's old life; when he lived with his parents in a smaller but happier apartment, and was allowed to play soccer, and went to Hebrew School. Plus Temple, on Saturdays. Charles' family doesn't go to church, and neither does Shaw.
Erik says that's not important anyway, because G-d is either really mean, or really deaf.

Now both boys go to Essex Academy (which Marko refers to as 'Expensive Academy'), but they don't see each other much because Erik is in third grade and Charles is only in first. Right now, they're using their scratchy uniform jackets for pillows, while they lie next to one another in the matted leaves and grass. They'll have to be sure to shake them out before they go home, or Charles' au pair. will have a fit.

 

According to Erik, Charles should be in his class, because his friend is a lot smarter than the other third-graders he currently has to put up with. It's not fair that Mrs. Marko makes her son stay back to 'assimilate with his age group'. The kids in Charles' class are just as stupid as all the other kids at Essex Academy. In fact, Erik says, they're all nudniks-- which is worse than being stupid.

It's not that Erik hasn't learned anything from Charles or doesn't listen to him-- but he is older, and that usually makes him in charge. Charles did teach him the right forks to use so Shaw wouldn't get (more) angry, and that scientific names for plants and dinosaurs are a lot cooler than the English ones. Charles is also how they found out that Erik likes to draw-- they'd had a good time making use of Xavier's Crayola paints and crayons before Cain came in and started tearing things up. Now Erik saves his lunch money to buy pencils of all colors at the art store on the corner, and takes printer paper from school when the teacher isn't looking. He eats all the vegetables his classmates would throw away and sometimes part of Charles' lunch, if there's enough. (Charles brings lunches packed by the housekeeper, because his mother says he's gluten intolerant and allergic to everything, though he's fine when he eats from the street stands with Erik and the au pair.)

 

The cookie tin is open on the ground nearby, and Charles can see Erik's pencils sticking out, carefully wrapped in an old sandwich bag. Right now, the older boy is more interested in the three knight figurines they keep hidden there as well. He's galloping his favorite one (with the axe and the purple tunic) up and down Charles' arm, which kind of tickles. The yellow one is the Bad Guy and Charles has the Blue Knight, who mostly races against Erik's knight and doesn't thwack the Bad Guy all the time.

 

"I will destroy you!" Erik's knight says to the yellow one in a deep, important voice. "You will leave my lands now, or I will cut off your head and play basketball with it!"

"Heads don't bounce," Charles stage-whispers. Erik grunts, unimpressed, so he makes his own Blue Knight say, "Leave now, villain, and we can avoid total chaos!"

"We should kill him anyway," his friend says.

"Erik…" the younger boy protests. On Excalibur Tales, King Arthur never kills anyone who peacefully surrenders.

"Join me, Blue Knight," the purple one 'says', while Erik moves it over to stand on the same hand with which Charles is holding his toy. "We can unite our kingdoms and send the enemy away for good. I will kill him and bring you his head!"

Somewhat exasperated, the younger boy huffs, "Always heads."

"Still-beating heart?" That's from a samurai movie Cain was watching last week.

"Messy," Charles shakes his head. After a thoughtful pause, "All his horses and elephants and a catapult?"

"Done!" Erik declares. Then in proper character voice, "Join me, my friend."

"Will you protect me?" Charles asks, forgetting to use the right pitch.

"For always and always," is the whispered reply. The older boy rubs their noses together-- what his Mama called an 'Eskimo kiss'-- and then smashes the already abused Yellow Knight repeatedly on a nearby rock. He throws the figurine into the bushes, causing Charles to roll his eyes. Now they'll have to hunt for it later.

 

Setting his own avatar aside, Erik pulls Charles a little closer, tucking the younger boy under his chin. Cain calls Charles a runt, but Erik says he's just the right size. With the warmth of his friend's body, Charles realizes he was shivering a little before. The brightness of the afternoon is fading, making the shade cooler. They'll have to go back before the sun starts to set. When he shivers again, it isn't from the chill, but Erik starts rubbing his arms helpfully anyway.

"Do you want your jacket back?" the older boy asks. Charles shakes his head silently, pressing his nose into the divit between the high knobby bones near Erik's collar. He knows from his real (and very dead) dad's anatomy textbooks that this is called a suprasternal notch, between the clavicles. The scratchy uniform shirt and undone tie make a little cave for him, and help soak up the stray tears.

"Charles?" Erik asks, and holds on more tightly. "Hey, hey…" He doesn't make the other boy show his face, but he does pepper kisses over Charles' hair and visible cheek. Kisses are fine-- good, even. They're nice, so of course neither Marko nor Shaw ever have any use for them, and they're nothing like the nasty, hurtful things the adults make both boys do. Charles scrunches his eyes closed and doesn't say anything about how horrible or overwhelming his stepfather is, or how he sometimes wishes he could close his eyes and just never wake up again. Aside from the Rule, Erik doesn't like it when Charles talks about going away. It's only other people his friend wants to drop off the face of the earth. The Xavier boy doesn't want anyone to get hurt, himself, but he does wish it would all just stop.

"Charles," Erik whispers again. And then, "Myschka, my poor little myschka." This is Charles' very special and secret name, which of course prompts him to ask-- in a rather wet and cloggy voice-- for the story.

 

"Myschka was a little white mouse," Erik begins. "The most beautiful white, and so clever he could run mazes and outsmart traps." The story is actually from a book, with pictures, but Charles has never seen it. In Erik's old life, it was one of his favorite bed-time stories, and his Mama read it to him with her finger pointing out the practice words. It is called Little Myschka Goes to the Moon. When Erik first saw his friend-- then all one big black eye and a significant limp-- in the hallway of their building and then in the schoolyard, he says he knew that they were different in the same way.

In the story, Myschka is the only white mouse in a land full of brown ones.

"Brown mouses-- mice," Erik narrates, pretending to correct himself.

"Meeces," Charles pipes in, recognizing his cue. The boys share a ritual snicker, before the elder returns to Myschka's predicament.

Because he is small and smart and different, the brown mice make fun of him and refuse to be his friends. ("That's always the way," Erik annotates wisely.) Myschka is sad, but he works hard on his mazes and other puzzles, and eventually the scientists who own all the mice choose him especially to go on their rocket ship. Whoosh! They head off to the moon!

 

The first time Erik told him the story, Charles informed him very importantly that the moon is airless and barren and no place for a mouse or his subsequent adventures. Erik didn't speak to him for two whole days. Finally, the younger boy apologized, and his friend explained that an important part of make-believe is sometimes ignoring the obvious. Like how Lois Lane never figures out that Clark Kent is just Superman with glasses. Charles understands a little better now; it is a very nice story, and one Erik's Mama told him, so it's nice to believe in it. Even if only for a little while.

Aside from being smart, Myschka is very brave, so he isn't afraid to sneak away from the spaceship and explore the moon by himself. It is, of course, hollow and made from green cheese-- which requires a considerable amount of restraint on Charles' part. The little white mouse soon meets up with tiny green moon-men, who don't take a liking to him because he doesn't look like them, either. Poor, unlucky Myschka may have to go back to Earth, where the other mice will laugh at him and call him a liar.

"Won't they maybe be impressed?" Charles asked once. "They might want to be his friends, then." Erik had conceded that this was possible, but added that they might only pretend to be kind, the way Marko and Shaw acted like happy dads in public. Unfortunately, it makes sense, and Myschka himself must have thought of it, because he doesn't go back to the ship. Instead, he wanders through many lonely cheese tunnels (nibbling occasionally), until he meets another tiny moon-man. This one, however, is blue.

"The blue moon-man has been made to live all by his lonesome far from the others, because he's not the same color and he has many sharp teeth." Erik is especially fond of that part. Now he looks at Charles expectantly.

"Both Myschka and the blue moon-man both know what its like to be different and alone. Every though they are very different from each other, they're really the same. They're brothers," the younger boy finishes, because this is his part. "They want the same thing."

"So they are, and they do," Erik says with satisfaction. "Ve'hem ẖayu be'osher va'osher ad etzem hayom hazeh." That last bit is how Erik's Mama ended every story, and therefore it is the best type of ending. It's still a little like 'happily ever after', though, which annoys Erik sometimes-- he says its like someone trying to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

"We should get going," the younger boy says reluctantly. His mom and stepdad might not notice if he's gone when they come home from work, but Shaw expects Erik to be there with dinner on the table.

"In a minute," Lehnsherr murmurs, clearly aware that Charles is still trembling. Xavier (for he has been allowed to keep his name) knowns he shouldn't be a baby about this-- it's not going to stop unless his Mom divorces Marko. Fat chance, as they say, and anyway what if the next one is worse? The dads on TV don't do anything like Charles and Erik experience, but television and movies are often just another form of 'let's pretend'. At any rate, Erik has it much worse then he does. Shaw doesn't have to worry about making excuses to a wife, and the government people are usually easy to threaten or pay off.

Erik makes little shushing noises and even hums a little, until at last Charles is calm enough to help him find the Yellow Knight, and put the cookie tin back in its stash spot. Erik never says, 'it will be okay' or 'someday it will stop'. They both wish it fervently, but neither boy knows if this is truly possible, and Lehnsherr definitely doesn't believe in lying to your friends.

Instead, he helps Charles climb the embankment, and they dust each other off on the shady sidewalk. After a careful check for adults, Erik squeezes his young friend's hand.

He just says, "My Myschka."
And kisses Charles' cheek.

 

.