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The Building of the House

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1.

There are four bones in the human leg, the tibia, fibula, femur, and patella, and twenty-six bones in the human foot, well, fifty-two for both feet, two of each bone, which means there are really eight bones in the leg if you count both legs, but right now we're considering the bones of the foot, and the bones of the feet are the proximal, middle, and distal phalanges, the metatarsals, the navicular and the cuboid bones, and, oh, man, the cuneiform bones, medial, middle, and lateral, which, how weird is that, bones in your feet named after ancient writing, like, even if cuneiform is really, really boring and mostly got used to write down supermarket receipts and shit, which really makes you wonder, like, when Reagan just fucking nukes everyone into oblivion, which, don’t think that Charles Xavier and his psychic tentacle helmet, or En Sabah Nur or whoever, can stop him for long, and the whole world goes radioactive with giant cockroaches running around, probably eating our Ding Dongs because they’ve all got, like, opposable thumbs now, because they’ve mutated, which maybe kind of makes them cousins in an all-mutants-are-cousins solidarity kind of way, but the cockroaches don’t care, because the human mutants are hasta la vista, so the cockroaches are just running around and they’re digging up the ruins of civilization, you’ve got cockroach archaeologists, Indiana Cockroach Jones with his antennas poking out from under his hat, waving around his little whip, what if he’s just digging up our old Albertsons receipts, because that would be really depressing, man, as a record of our whole civilization, like Hawaiian Punch and a handle of Seagrams and a box of Cap’n Crunch for the kids, TP and porn mags and renting a copy of Rocky III, so maybe it’s a good thing that everything’s made out of paper now, like maybe it’ll just all go kaplooey in the apocalypse, and we won’t be like the ancient whateverians, the ancient Meeps of Moop with the cuneiform in museums, the only cuneiform we’ll have is cuneiform bones, medial, middle, and lateral, which is a lot of cuneiform bones, six total, three in each foot, because there are a lot of bones in the foot, is what Peter is saying, so really it’s a good thing that if he was going to get whammied by a psycho supermutant in Egypt no matter what, he got psycho-supermutant-whammied in the leg.

Not that it’s a great thing, because it slooooooooooooooooooooooooooows him doooooooooooooooooooooown having to limp everywhere at super speed, and something something something his body’s glucose level while healing, so he keeps crashing, like not literally crashing, are you fucking kidding, he’s Quicksilver (because he’s decided he’s called Quicksilver, that’s his real name now, his mutant name, not that he thinks mutants have to have mutant names, and some of them definitely shouldn’t be allowed to choose their own names, not naming any names of people with names that might have ended up also being his name if things had worked out a little different about twenty-six years ago, and he still doesn’t have the whole story on that, but at least the mutant name thing resolves that issue, right, because mutants never seem to have last names) and Quicksilver doesn’t crash, Quicksilver rolls like lightning, although maybe that’s a bad example, because mostly thunder rolls, not lightning, which kind of does totally crash, but the point is that Quicksilver slides away, even if Quicksilver also takes a lot of unintentional naps these days because his leg bones are healing, the tibia and fibula bones, which both got broken, and also it takes a lot more energy to limp or to (sometimes, not always, even though he’s supposed to always) use crutches, so he can’t always eat enough to stay awake, and also Hank says “Other things can wear you out too; the thing about bodies is, they’re complicated” which is a very Hanktastic way of saying “You’re fucked in the head, my man,” which Peter can figure out because he’s been hanging out with Hank for two weeks. Well— hanging out, camping out in the ruins of Castle Xavieria while the place gets put back together piece by piece, starting with the kitchen and not, like, something comfy like a bedroom, even though you can totally get all your daily nutrients from prepackaged food, and it turns out that it’s much harder to build a house than Peter ever imagined, not that he ever imagined building a house, which would take, ugh, forever, and aren’t there enough houses in the world, and also children starving in Ethiopia, so like, fuck the system, man! And don’t build houses! But with Xavier’s it’s maybe okay, because it’s symbolic and shit, and really old, like Xavier keeps talking about how his grandad and his great-grandad lived there and how they did this or that wacky old-timey thing, which is wild to Peter, because his grandparents, his Mom’s parents, were from like Moldavia or Czechoslovakia or something, and they died when he was about three years old, so whatever old-timey shit they got up to, he’ll never know anything about it, and anyway it probably would’ve been all goats and fur hats and balalaikas, or best case scenario potato vodka and slivovitz, and what’s even wilder, and probably why he’s thinking about all this to be honest, is that now that he knows, knows the thing, he knows that when it comes to his other grandparents, there’s just zilch, nada, a big old fat blank space, because it turns out they were dead before he was even born, and probably— not for sure, but odds are good, right— almost everyone who ever knew them is dead, which is pretty— it’s pretty— well, anyway, so when Xavier’s like “my Great Ancestor Lord Gilbert Humpelty-Dink personally sanded each of these floorboards with his eyebrows” Peter just nods and smacks his gum while his skin feels kind of weird on the inside, like his body is wishing it could run away from him, but fortunately there’s a lot to keep him distracted in: re: the Fortress of Xaviertude, like there’s still a lot of plumbing to do, and then also the wiring, which is way complicated, and support beams and plaster and bricks and more plaster and then more bricks and then realizing that they were looking at the blueprint upside down, and one time Hank throws a two by four at a Canada goose, which seems way unchill and not at all like Hank, and Peter says, “Wow, we really should start calling you Beast when you’re like this,” and Hank says, “Yeah, well, you’re like that all the time, so maybe we should start calling you—“ and then can’t think of anything to say, and Peter laughs so hard that he pukes up a Pop Tart.

The other reason the whole thing is taking so long is that all the people they really need are out of commish, like Peter, for one, Peter is pretty fucking useful, but not so much when his leg is all locked up in a cast, and also Jean, Ginger Jean, Jean the Teen Queen, Jean the Lean Mean Destructo-Machine, who everyone seems to think is a delicate flower even though, um, Peter totally saw her explode into a giant flaming bird-monster and basically nuke En Sabah Nur with her mind? But, whatever, Xavier is all “Jean, would you like a sip of water? Jean, would you like to lie down and have a little nap? O! Jean! You mustn’t work too hard, my darling!” which coming from Xavier is pretty rich, because dude is wrecked, like he looks bad, and he pretty much spent the first week back in Westchester sleeping, and if you even breathed too loud near him, Hank would come do his little angry dance with the paws and the claws and the blue tufties, and lecture you on how One Man Suffered So That All Men Might Live, which was always such a drag that Peter tuned out halfway through it and raided the kitchen cabinets to make fluffernutters or, if he was feeling really antsy, which he usually was, hit up the North Salem Newsprint Mart for comic books before limping back to nod thoughtfully when Hank got the part about He Has Sacrificed So Much and Is It Too Much To Ask For and How Old Are You Again, which, like Peter’s the one who doesn’t act his age, when he’s pretty sure Hank has been sixty-five since he was twelve years old, and also, sure, Xavier’s had a rough time, but mostly he’s so fucking saintly with his big sad eyes and his quivering lips and his naked head, not to mention the wheelchair (and wow, none of that had been a thing ten years ago, when Xavier had been more like an angry hungover Jesus, if Jesus kept forgetting to wash his hair and reeked of Lucky Strike cigarettes and creme de menthe) that it’s easier to talk about how awesome he is and gather around and adore him than to deal with the reason that Peter’s stuck doing the plumbing, which is the dude who should be doing the plumbing, the mass murderer who doesn’t do the plumbing and instead spends most of his time catatonic or wandering around in ripped-up old Genesis shirt, pretending he doesn’t speak English when anyone asks him questions, which they pretty much don’t, either because of the Genesis shirt or because of the mass murdering or just because of the kind of dude he is.

So far, Peter’s had six conversations with The Dude Formerly Known As Magneto, who maybe isn’t actually formerly known as Magneto in the permanent sense, but who’s definitely taking a break from being known as Magneto, because when Xavier woke up from his week of marathon naps, it was all “Where’s Erik?” and “I want to talk to Erik” and when they did talk it was all Erik this and Erik that, and TDFKAM didn’t say anything about it, just sat there holding Xavier’s hand and staring at him really creepily, like it was the last scene of the melodrama and St. Freaking Xavier was going to snuff it and TDFKAM was going to scream and wail and hurl himself onto the deathbed, and after a while TDFKAM did sort of hurl himself onto the deathbed, except that it wasn’t a deathbed, because Xavier was fine, and TDFKAM didn’t so much hurl himself as lie down next to him like a wall collapsing in slow motion— not that Peter was spying on this very personal and private moment, you understand, he just happened to be zapping past on his way to get his Walkman from Kurt, who despite being some kind of hardcore underground European turned out never to have heard of Sisters of Mercy, and what, like Peter was just supposed to let that happen? Mutant solidarity, man, he’s got an obligation, he can’t just let his brothers and sisters suffer like that, so he had to let the little German weirdo have a listen, and that’s why he accidentally was sort of loitering outside Xavier’s bedroom in the not-quite-as-absofuckinglutely-obliterated part of the house, maybe in less of a “loitering” way and more of an “invisibly hovering around,” but, whatever, and in his defense he did leave when TDFKAM started crying against Xavier’s shoulder, not that he was really crying, but something sort of crying-related that Peter had never seen somebody do before, a kind of weird strangled hiccupy dry heave, because it wasn’t even so much that he knew he wasn’t supposed to see that as he knew it was something he’d never be able to unsee, not like when you walk in on your mom sucking face with someone and have to scream and run to soak your entire brain in bleach (not that that had happened, la la la can’t hear you), but like seeing it had done something to his actual body, like suddenly he was twice as big on the inside, and his skin was tight and hot and painful, and he didn’t know where he was going to find space to put all that extra inside-stuff. After that he had to strap on his goggles and get out of there for a while, all the way over to the Hudson, where he fed Twinkies to the ducks and chucked rocks into the river, pissing off some goggle-eyed fish, and thought about what would happen if you were a mutant with fish powers, like would you have to stay underwater your whole life, and could a mutant even be born like that? Don’t babies have gills before they’re born? He thought he’d read that somewhere, that babies had gills and were born knowing how to swim, so maybe there could be a fish mutant, but they’d be shit out of luck in real life, not like Peter wasn’t, always running at the wrong speed, not running running, but, you know, running, because when he was running running it was always at the right speed, the perfect speed, the click click click of pins falling into place in a world-sized tumbler lock to which he had the key, even limping back to Salem later that night with his leg hurting, it was still like coming up for air after drowning or, if you’re a fish mutant, going down under water, plunging back into the only place you can breathe.

But the rest of the time, when he’s not running, that’s when the sync is just off, like, the six conversations he’s had so far with TDFKAM have gone something like this:

  

 

i.

EXT. XAVIERGHAST CASTLE - DAY

Peter: (to TDFKAM, who is standing barefoot in the middle of the lawn, staring at nothing) Hey, man, you hungry? I thought you might be hungry. I was hungry, so I made some PB&Js, but I made a ton, so I’ve got extra, if you want some. You want some?

TDFKAM: (to Peter, after a very long pause) PB and… J.

Peter: Peanut butter and jelly. You know, peanut butter and jelly? Oh, man. You don’t know peanut butter and jelly?

TDFKAM: I’m… familiar with the concept.

A long pause. TDFKAM stares at the sandwiches.

TDFKAM: I’m not hungry.

 

ii.

EXT. CASTLE XAVIERSKULL - DAY

Peter: (to TDFKAM, who is sitting on a big chunk of ex-mansion with his legs crossed, doing some kind of weird dharma bum pose) Whatcha doing? You meditating? You gonna levitate the Pentagon? Seems like if you could levitate the Pentagon, you’d already have done it.

TDFKAM: (to Peter, opening his eyes and staring) I don’t understand what you’re saying.

Peter: What. Are. You. Do. Ing.

TDFKAM: I’m communicating with the electromagnetic fields around us.

Peter: That’s cool. How does that work? Do you, like, have a little conversation with them? “Hey, man, what’s up, just checking in, making sure you’re cool, you need anything? You good? Right on.”

TDFKAM: I don’t have a conversation with them.

Peter: Huh. Okay. So could you still rip out the core of the earth if you felt like it?

TDFKAM: No.

Peter: That must be weird.

TDFKAM: Why are we still talking?

 

iii.

INT. XAVIERNADU - DAY

TDFKAM: (is asleep on a couch in the library, or what used to be the library, which is about half of a library now, with the other half sort of scorched and ripped open and full of little deep-fried papery bits of books, which probably is why TDFKAM is asleep there, honestly, because he only ever seems to show up in the blown-up parts of the mansion, like maybe it’s some kind of penance thing, since it was sort of maybe a little bit his fault that the whole house got blown up in the first place, or maybe he just only ever wants to be burnt-up places, because it kind of seems like that’s what’s going on here, like he can only really breathe or rest if everything around him has been totally fucking demolished, which Peter doesn’t want to touch with a ten-foot psycho-head-shrinking pole, or even think about, except that he kind of has to at the moment, because the remaining pipes in Xavierella Castle are currently rattling in the walls and everyone’s spare change is stuck to the mostly-intact library door, which is kind of cool, and also it’s hilarious how angry Hank is about it, because apparently he was saving about twenty thousand spare quarters for the laundromat, but at the same time it’s the opposite of cool and not hilarious at all, because it’s pretty clear that whatever TDFKAM is dreaming about, it’s some really intense and seriously fucked-up shit.)

Peter: (zaps up and pokes him with a crutch) Hey. Wake up. Hey. Hey.

TDFKAM:  (snaps awake and grabs Peter’s wrist, which kind of hurts, to be honest) So jest— ma ho lekh— vas— (closes his eyes and looks really angry and shoves Peter away) Don’t touch me.

Peter: You gotta chill out, man. You’re hamburgling everyone’s pockets. 

TDFKAM: (frowns) Ah.

Clinkclinkclinkclinkclinkclinkclink. That’s all the coins falling off the door into little piles of money, which Peter’ll laugh at later because they make it look like TDFKAM’s some kind of cartoon dragon lairing it up with an actual hoard, like all he needs is a tiara and a couple of golden chalices.

TDFKAM: Please tell them I’m sorry for the inconvenience.

Peter: No problem. You— uh— do you— uh— need anything?

TDFKAM: Why would I need something from you?

 

iv.

EXT. THE RUINS OF XAVIERLOT - NIGHT

Peter: (to TDFKAM, who is soaking wet, seeing as a giganto thunderstorm is currently rocking Westchester County, and TDFKAM is standing out on the lawn in the middle of it, not even wearing shoes, just chilling outdoors at midnight, as you do, in the middle of a thunderstorm) Hey, uh, do you maybe want to come inside? It’s kind of rough out here, and it’d suck if you got struck by lightning, or caught, like, double pneumonia or something.

TDFKAM: (not really to Peter, more like a weird zoned-out general statement) I can feel it.

Peter: What, the storm? The lightning? Oh, that’s like, charged particles, right? I kind of failed high school physics. I kind of failed high school, period. I should probably warn you about that. So what does it feel like?

TDFKAM: Obliteration.

Peter: … Right, see, that doesn’t really sound very healthy, not that I can talk, because, hello, gas station snack food, get inside me, but obliteration, man, that’s really dramatic, like maybe we should just—

TDFKAM: Did Charles send you?

Peter: Nope. Nobody sent me. Just me. Here on my lonesome.

TDFKAM:  You should go back inside.

Peter: Kinda think I shouldn’t. I can outrun lightning. I know, right, it’s awesome. Swear to God. You, on the other hand, I mean, I don’t know what would happen, maybe it would just be the old irresistible-force-immovable-object, but extra crispy would not look good on you, dude, plus it would smell really bad, so, you know—

TDFKAM: It smells like meat.

Peter: Uh, what?

TDFKAM: Human bodies. Burning.

A reeeeeeeeeeeeally long pause, because holy shit, what do you say to that? Holy shit.

Peter: Come on, man. Just come back inside. Get some sleep. Come on. Come on. Come on, man. Just—

TDFKAM: (super annoyed) If it’ll stop you talking.

ZAP CUT TO:

INT. THE GREAT HALL, BECAUSE PETER MAXIMOFF LIVES IN THE KIND OF PLACE THAT HAS A GREAT HALL NOW

TDFKAM: (trying not to barf) A little warning, next time?

Peter: Do you not have any shoes? Why don’t you have any shoes? Are you in a cult? Oh, shit, are you starting a cult?

Charles Xavier: Erik, is that you? What on earth are you doing?

Peter: He’s starting a cult.

TDFKAM: I’m not starting a cult.

Charles Xavier: Peter, aren’t you supposed to be in bed?

Peter: I’m not sixteen anymore, you know.

Charles Xavier: Goodnight, Peter.

 

v.

INT. THE HAUNTED MANSION - THE NEXT MORNING

Peter: (to TDFKAM, who is sitting at the freaking enormous dining room table, reading the newspaper like that’s a real thing people do) Sup? You get any sleep last night?

TDFKAM: Must you sneak up on people?

Peter: (zaps to the kitchen)

Peter: (zaps back from the kitchen)

Peter: (mouth full of toast) I don’t know, man, it’s just easier if they don’t see me coming.

TDFKAM: Yes. I can see how that would be the case.

Long pause.

Peter: I’m not, like, stalking you. Just in case you were worried. Not even a little bit. I don’t even care if you get hit by lightning. I mean, sure, it’d be sad and all… I guess… but I actually just happened to look out my window and see some total freaking lunatic in the middle of a rainstorm. I didn’t even know it was you. I swear.

TDFKAM: (nods like this is a totally normal, reasonable explanation and not THE BIGGEST MOST OBVIOUS LIE, DUDE.)

TDFKAM: It’s easier to feel the metal.

Peter: Huh?

TDFKAM: Without shoes. It’s easier to feel the metal.

Peter: Right.

TDFKAM: Charles tells me I’m supposed to ask how your leg is.

Peter: Oh. It’s— fine; it’s a pain in my ass, but it’s fine. It’s no big deal.

TDFKAM: Good. That’s… good.

Long pause.

TDFKAM: I have to go.

TDFKAM: (stands up and walks off, totally as though he has somewhere to be, even though, hello, all he’s done for the last thirteen days is sleep and cry and weird Buddhist stuff and stare at the grass like a giganto freak, so it’s safe to say his dayplanner is not exactly bursting with appointments, and before that it was like “Oh, 9 AM? Must be time for WORLD DESTRUCTION,” followed by “2 PM? Can’t forget my meeting with WORLD DESTRUCTION,” not to mention a late-night rendezvous with WORLD DESTRUCTION to top things off, which means he’s avoiding Peter, which is not cool at all, except that thinking about what TDFKAM got up to before means Peter has to think about the fact that probably two weeks ago his schedule was like “9 AM work a normal job” followed by “5 PM go home; hug wife and kid,” which no one wants to talk about, but everyone still seems to know, like it’s been written in giant letters over TDFKAM’s head, a big fucking neon sign, and there’s that little pause when someone sees him, and you can tell, all right, you can fucking tell when it’s the pause of “Oh, right, you’re the one who tried to kill us!” and when it’s the other, way weirder, worse, awful, pitying, insidious, peeling-your-own-skin-off kind of pause.

Maybe Peter notices the difference because the less-than-half-a-second in that second kind of pause is the less-than-half-a-second when he has to think about his sister, not his sister who’s still alive, but his could-have-been sister, his sister who will always have been dead, like his grandparents and, who knows, aunts, uncles, cousins, ghosts that aren’t even ghosts because they have no faces, just bodies with some chemical connection to his body, not even bodies, just dirt and trees and ash and bones in a country where he’s never been, which is all—

Stupid. Because no one he ever loved has died, which is actually pretty amazing when you think about the shit he gets up to, so he’s got no right to complain about it.)

 

vi.

EXT. CASTLE XAVIERHAWK - DAY

Peter: (overseeing some serious barnraising going on, in the sense that he’s literally so over seeing it, because Hank and Xavier and Jean have been trying to put some support beams up for like ten minutes, which Peter thought was going to be cool and exciting but instead he got bored with it and ended up reading the last ten issues of New Mutants, which, ugh, you’d think Marvel would get an actual mutant to fact-check their stupid comics, like, hello, Peter is unemployed and right here, but no, they keep going with this idea about mutant reject science experiments living in sewers, so, yeah, he got bored pretty quickly with that too and ate some Pop Tarts and then went back to watching the barnraising and it’s pretty funny because no one knows what the fuck they’re doing and Xavier keeps freaking out every time Jean breathes, and Jean is clearly getting mega annoyed, which Peter can tell because she’s actually stopped looking like one of those alien-headed medieval saints, and then the beam she was holding up starts wobbling around and kicks over a whole half-built stone wall, and well, the thing is, Peter can totally fix that, right? Even with his leg in a cast, he can totally fix that, even though it involves having to race… limp… racelimp up the side of the wall, which might not have done if he wasn’t soooooooo booooooooooooored but, well, the thing is, he is, so he goes for it, even though Hank is going to be pissed later and give him another lecture about how Hurting Is Fast But Healing Is Slow and Why Must You Refuse To Listen To Me, A Doctor and How Fast Do You Think You’ll Be When You Have a Peg Leg, Like a Pirate (answer: Peter is pretty sure that even with a peg leg he’d still be really, really fast) because sometimes you just have to DO SOMETHING, so he’s up the wall in a jumpin’ jack flash, shoving the stones back into place, when suddenly—)

Peter: Ooooookay, not feeling so hot, just gonna slow down here— (and then it’s all white squigglies and cold hands and his face getting hot and he kind of just kind of falls, thinking, okay, well, at least he’s just going to hit the grass, which is really nice grass, actually, come to think of it, probably rich people use a special kind of grass, or maybe Xavier’s great-great-great-grandfather grew it out of his fingernail clippings or something, wouldn’t surprise Peter at all, but the weird thing is that he doesn’t hit the grass, instead something warm and wide and smooth and metallic braces him up and eases him slowly down to earth, and then he’s lying there and TDFKAM is standing over him all stare-y eyed and unshaven and confused as usual.)

Long pause.

TDFKAM: (stares at Peter) What’s wrong with you?

Peter: What’s wrong with you? I’m just chilling.

TDFKAM: You don’t look like you’re “chilling.”

Peter: It’s cool. It’s hypoglycemia. I keep forgetting it takes more caloric energy for me to do stuff when my leg’s like this. It’ll be fine. Did you catch me?

Long pause.

TDFKAM: Yes.

Peter: Cool. Thanks, man.

Hank: Peter! Are you all right? What were you doing?

Hank: (sees TDFKAM)

Hank: Erik, you look terrible, as usual. Thank you for helping Peter.

TDFKAM: (staring down at his hands) I didn’t intend to do that.

TDFKAM: (walks away)

Hank: Don’t take it personally. He’s kind of a dick.

But later Peter figured out that when TDFKAM said he hadn’t intended to do that, he wasn’t really talking about saving Peter so much as doing the whole metal thing, because TDFKAM had pulled a giant sheet of scrap metal out of a debris pile and warped it to fit Peter’s body, and nobody had seen him do anything like that since he came to Westchester; in fact, nobody had seen him move so much as a spoon or a salt shaker, except for the whole falling asleep and flipping out thing, which you couldn’t really count, so clearly something was going on there that Peter didn’t understand, except he thought it was probably pretty strange to go from Supreme Commander of the Earth’s Magnetic Forces to just a regular mutant dude, and also almost definitely even more strange to go from casually wiping thousands of people out under the influence of a twenty-thousand-year-old blue warlord, which, was human civilization even around twenty thousand years ago? not that Peter’s great at history, because, hi, high school dropout, but he’s pretty sure that twenty thousand years ago people were still living in caves, but, anyway, the point is, going from that whole ripping-the-earth-apart lifestyle to, you know, not doing that anymore and having to live inside your own skin had to be pretty intense, and for some reason he can’t help thinking about TDFKAM’s bare feet the night of the rainstorm, dug about a quarter-inch down in the wet ground, with little flecks of grass all over them, and then later, in the Great Hall, still smeared with dirt and kind of speckled, and at the time those bare feet had looked sad and a little bit crazy, and it was hard to believe the guy those feet belonged to had killed so many people, but after TDFKAM talked about feeling the metal, whatever that meant, Peter imagined him pushing his weird mutant senses out through his phalanges, metatarsals, navicular, cuboid, cuneiform bones, out through the skin of the soles of his feet, through the layers and layers of dirt, searching for the stuff underneath and inside and all around it that he had some kind of connection with, and then it seemed less crazy and sadder, TDFKAM in the middle of that rainstorm; in the Great Hall, later, walking away from Peter, towards Xavier, leaving wet dark footprints on the Oriental carpet.

So none of those conversations has really been what you would call promising when it comes to TDFKAM-and-Peter, not that there is such a thing as TDFKAM-and-Peter, because there clearly isn’t, they’re just two mutant ships passing in the mutant night, two little pinballs rattling around in life’s pinball machine, whacking into each other occasionally, but on the other hand, stuff in general has started to change since that last encounter, like suddenly TDFKAM doesn’t spend absolutely all his time skulking around like a zombie-ghost-hermit or sleeping in half-exploded rooms or doing his weird meditating— he turns up once in a while when they’re working on the house, and looks at the blueprints, and moves a piece of rebar here and there, and Xavier says, “Erik, I’m so glad you decided to join us today,” in a way that doesn’t sound at all sarcastic, even though it really should, which just goes to show that Xavier is such a saint it’s barf-inducing.

Anyway, give or take a few wary visits from the cops to accuse The Kids, collectively, of shoplifting, which if you ask Peter is just straight-up shitty anti-mutant prejudice, like, when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me, right, and also, he was the one doing the shoplifting, but, as he explains to Xavier later, it was for The Kids, because their house got blown up and their parent-teacher-guardian figure almost turned into an evil ancient overlord, and also there was the threat of global annihilation, so they need a little something to cheer them up now and then, even if it’s just baseball cards and Air Force 1s and fruit roll-ups, and if there were an equitable distribution of goods and income maybe he wouldn’t have to steal them, which is why we need a revolution, man, and at this point in his explanation Xavier gets a constipated look and says, “You are so like your—“ although even he won’t actually say it, and it wasn’t like Peter didn’t know he knew, because, hello, telepath, but it’s still kind of a weird moment, and he realizes he’s hunching over like he thinks he’s about to get punched in the stomach, even though, what a stupid-ass reaction, that makes no sense— anyway, aside from all that, that’s about where things stand on the bright and early July morning when Peter wakes up in his fucking yurt and grabs a crutch and hobbles off to Daddy Xavierbucks’s mansion to see that someone has spraypainted the doors with a big ol’ lime green MURDERERS and nailed a dead cat to the front of them.


 

2.

So that’s a trip, like, literally Peter’s mouth is hanging open, because he can’t believe that someone would have the fucking chutzpah to come here, just for starters, because seriously? Magneto and the kid with the badass mohawk who, he doesn’t know her human name because she insists on calling herself Storm, but she and Magneto kind of leveled Cairo? And Mystique the World-Renowned Assassin, and also Jean, Jean-Jean the String Bean, Jean Who Lights ‘Em Up Like Kerosene? Plus, he and Hank broke someone out of the Pentagon once, with, okay, a little help from Xavier, but not much, because he was in his pre-saintliness phase then, when his main interests seemed to be driving erratically, singing along to bad pop music, ditching Hank so he could smoke sneaky cigarettes, and offering long, rambling, really uncomfortably personal warnings about “Erik” and all the terrible, horrible, awful, no-good things that “Erik” would do. But anyway, the point is, look at the balls on these humans, but also, who the fuck kills a cat, you sickos, and relatedly, murderers? Like (1) hypocritical, given the cat, and also, (2), extra hypocritical, given the totality of, you know, world history, which Peter mostly remembers from high school as being one really long boring story about humans murdering other humans over and over again, and also, just an addendum, like (P.S.) mutants probably stopped a lot of murdering just by Xavier slash En Sabah Nur pitching all those nukes into space, so even the most evil, weirdest, old-and-grossest mutant saved a lot of human lives, right, so how do you like them apples, and also (P.P.S.) Peter’s never killed anyone, that he knows about at least, so on top of everything else: inaccurate.

Peter’s pretty pissed, and he doesn’t want the kids to see it, but he kind of also doesn’t want to touch the dead cat, so he’s trying to figure out how to get the thing down without having to get too close, and that’s when he turns around and sees TDFKAM standing behind him, and man, TDFKAM is— well, he’s not really pissed, it’s more like someone cracked him like a hard-boiled egg and peeled the shell off, and what’s left underneath is all this nakedness, and also what a human being looks like boiled in the shell, which is to say, he looks really, really, really bad, and Peter’s suddenly afraid that if he even breathes the wrong way TDFKAM is going to start crying, and that’s just— no, no, no, no, no, no, no, that is a bad situation, and if it happens, Peter’s going to have to run away from it.

“I’ll get rid of it,” Peter says quickly, not like he ever says anything not quickly, but like especially quickly. “It’s probably just some douchebag local kids, but if Tabby sees this shit she’s gonna cry and blow things up, and seeing her cry sets Ric off, and an earthquake’s the last thing we need, and—“

“We have to bury it,” TDFKAM says— which is so not what Peter was expecting, he kind of thought if anything TDFKAM would be all about the revenge trip, like, sad and stabby seem to go together more often than not in his book, and he’s still sort of in the detox phase of Not Killing People Rehab, so really it’s kind of surprising that he’s not halfway to North Salem, ready to nail a bunch of humans to their own doors, but even leaving aside the fact of TDFKAM’s general TDFKAM-ness, “we have to bury it” would not be Peter’s first reaction, so he just kind freezes up and stares and then he says:

“Uh— okay, why,” because, hello, it’s a cat, and he wouldn’t have pegged TDFKAM as having a soft spot, and TDFKAM just kind of looks at him not even like the answer’s obvious, more like he doesn’t even understand what Peter’s asking him, and then he steps forward and Peter just kind of stands there like a lame-o while TDFKAM reaches out for the cat with his bare hands, and the nail clinks to the ground and melts into a puddle of whatever-nails-are-made-of, and then there’s just TDFKAM cradling this dead cat, blood getting on the ripped-up Genesis shirt that Peter kind of suspects used to belong to Xavier, who seems like the type of guy who’d be into Genesis, and Xavier’s definitely not going to want that shirt back now that TDFKAM’s been wearing it for two weeks solid, and now that it’s got dead cat on it, and the whole thing should be really ridiculous or really gross—the Pentagon’s #1 prisoner, Magneto, the guy who snaps bridges with a thought and levitates stadiums, the guy who’s basically a superpowered terrorist, just standing there in a bad t-shirt with this cat, looking like his heart is broken— but it’s not, it’s not at all, for some reason, it’s really not, it’s so fucking sad, and Peter kind of lurches off at top speed and goes rooting around for a shovel in the wheelbarrow full of spiky implements that they keep by the repair site, and he hangs out there for a second, thinking in total and utter panic, Shit, what the fuck is happening here, shit, shit, shit, before he grabs the shovel and goes lurching back just as fast.

TDFKAM looks at him when Peter holds out the shovel.

“For the,” Peter says.

He does not want to be a part of this whole thing, because, again, what if TDFKAM starts crying, or what if things get weird, like is there going to be a little tombstone, are there going to be flowers, is there going to be a graveside service for this cat, and if so, will it be a Jewish graveside service, is that allowed, would the cat have to be Jewish, can a cat be Jewish (Peter doesn’t know all that much about Jewishness; he checked a book out from the library when his mom first told him, but he’s not great at reading— too much sitting around, he gets antsy, he has to go do stuff, hit up the arcade, play a couple rounds of Galaga to get all the ants out, and then he forgets whatever it was he was reading and has to read it all again— and it felt weird, like it was all nothing to do with him, and it was a lot about God, and he’s not sure he believes in God, and he’s not sure if it’s easier or harder or crazier or more logical to believe in God if you’re a mutant, or just in general now that there’s the mutant thing), and what if it’s like the time he had to bury Wendy’s hamster, and she got so upset she burst into tears and then turned around and started punching him in the kidneys with her tiny but amazingly painful seven-year-old fists?

But TDFKAM nods, like thanks, and doesn’t take the shovel, and starts walking towards the treeline like he just expects Peter to follow him, so Peter sort of has to follow, holding the shovel and hobbling along on one crutch until they reach a spot just inside the woods where the air smells nice and pine-y and there aren’t so many trees around that it’d be impossible to dig, just enough that everything feels shady and peaceful, and there’s sort of a thick bristly carpet of wood… stuff… like maybe last year’s needles and leaves, or whatever mossy shit grows in forests, and that’s where TDFKAM stops and looks at Peter, and clearly they’ve got this whole unspoken communication going on, right, they totally get each other, they’re working in sync, so Peter nods and puts down his crutch and goes into doubletime, getting down to work, and he digs an awesome little grave in about three seconds flat, and even takes the time to square off the edges and shit, so it looks really good, not just like a hole in the ground, actually something respectable and decent.

TDFKAM kneels down and lays the cat in the grave, and just stays there for a minute, stroking its fur, and it’s kind of like Peter’s not even there, and then TDFKAM says something not in English like “Pzhay prazham kohanye,” and suddenly it’s not just that Peter’s not there, it’s like TDFKAM’s not even in a wood in Westchester County, it’s like the three feet between him and Peter have turned into millions of miles and he’s on the other side of the world, burying this cat in the same Polish dirt where everything and everyone else is buried, and meanwhile Peter is back in Westchester, standing around like some idiot, Peter is so completely outside this whole thing, like he can feel the force of it pushing him backwards, and it takes him a while to notice that TDFKAM is waiting for him to fill the grave in, because that’s how far away he is.

But then he does fill it in, and pushes the dirt flat on top, and TDFKAM finds a smooth round stone to put on it.

“Thank you,” TDFKAM says.

And Peter says, “No problem,” even though his voice comes out all weird and wrong.

And TDFKAM kind of pauses for a second and says, “I had a child; she talked to animals; that was her…”

And Peter says, “Oh,” not really making the sound but just mouthing the word.

And then neither of them says anything for a while, and then TDFKAM clears his throat and gestures, and Peter follows him back down towards the school.

“Listen,” Peter says when they’re partway there, “I’m gonna clean up that graffiti, if you want to— I mean, maybe you want to be alone for a while, I get it, it’s cool, and probably some of the kids have already seen it, which sucks, but I thought, if you wanted—“

“I’ll help,” TDFKAM says, sounding a little more like his normal savagely-biting-the-ends-off-his-words-and-chewing self, but just enough not back to normal that Peter says, “Is there, uh, is there something I can call you?”

—And TDFKAM says, “Erik.” 


 

3.

Turns out some of the kids have seen the graffiti, but the really little ones don’t know how to read words that big, and the older ones are old enough to get angry about it, which seems healthy, although Peter’s never really been big into anger, which, go suck on that, Xavier, “you are so like your—,” ha, he’s pretty willing to bet most people would be astonished that Erik spawned such an un-angry kid, but Peter just doesn’t have the patience for anger; he’s always amazed that other people hold onto shit for so long; he himself is 100% absofuckinglutely de novo, no old grudges hanging off of him, nothing old about him at all, no old man, no old music, no old clothes, not a fucking clue about the old country, no old history cluttering up his head, and it all just seems to work out great, really, it does, like, just look at him, he’s such a chill person, even with the whole Erik thing, which, let’s face it, would make most people mad, but not Peter, he’s just like, Okay, that’s a thing now— and sometimes he thinks about that time in the Pentagon kitchen when Xavier straight-up sucker-punched Erik, which at the time was like Holy shit, because Peter had never seen someone that angry before, like it was actually impressive, and Peter kind of wonders what it would feel like to be that angry, to have that much to be angry about, and he thinks that probably the closest he’s ever come was one split-second in the middle of the whole En Sabah Nur showdown, when he’d felt this vicious fucking surge of Fuck you, how dare you take him away, which doesn’t even make sense, but it’d run through his whole body, like the one time he’d tried bennies and his skin had felt hot and tingly and he’d almost had a panic attack because he felt like some kind of animal was inside him trying to crawl its way out, and he hadn’t liked the bennies, and he didn’t like being angry either; he doesn’t know how Erik can stand being angry all the time, but at least with the kids at the school it’s a smaller kind of anger, like Jubilee sets a bush on fire with a sparkler after she sees the doors, but Jean calms her down pretty quick.

Peter grabs some paint thinner and a couple of sponges and plonks them down on the steps and goes to work on the M while Erik tackles the S, with some of the kids watching at first before they straggle off to breakfast, and they scrub in silence mostly, Peter working twice as fast as Erik given the whole, you know, super speed, so that by the time Erik’s got the S and R off Peter’s already on the second E, and he probably could’ve done the whole thing himself, but he’s kind of glad Erik’s here, that he’s not doing this alone, and after a while he says, just to have something to say, “Are you gonna tell Xavier about this?”

Erik says, “I’m sure Charles already knows.”

“Right, telepath. So is he, you know,” and Peter wiggles his fingers in the direction of Erik’s head, like what he imagines brainwaves look like, and Erik stares at him like he’s trying to understand what the fuck Peter’s doing or what the fuck kind of creature Peter is, before he says, “I’ve asked him not to.”

“And you really think that’s gonna keep him out?”

“Charles is an honorable man,” Erik says. “He can afford to be honorable.”

And maybe he only said that because he knew Xavier was close by, because just as they’re scraping the last of the letters off, Xavier opens the doors with a creepily neutral expression on his face, like he just knows that they were talking about him, and rolls out onto the step and says, “Peter; Erik,” and Peter feels like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing, even though that’s totally not the case, so he kind of makes a face at Xavier, like, Fuck-you-it’s-not-my-fault, and Xavier raises an eyebrow at him and then turns to Erik and says, “It seems we have a security problem,” and Erik says, “For there to be a security problem, you’d first have to have security,” and then they go back and forth for a while about militarization, and shows of good faith, and Erik is like, “Is good faith something you’re happy for your children to die for,” and Xavier is like, “No one’s killing anyone, Erik,” which, Peter doesn’t even need to be a telepath to twig to the fact that Erik’s reaction to that is not good, and Xavier pretty hastily moves on from it, all “I want this to be a place of peace, not war,” which Peter thinks is pretty fucking dubious given the kind of paramilitary shit he saw in the basement when he got people out during the explosion, but okay, whatever, dude, and Erik is like, “Well, let’s keep it that way,” and eventually Xavier gives in and admits that, yes, it makes sense to have an alarmed security fence, and says that Erik can rig one up if he wants, “If you feel up to it, my friend,” which might be a dig at Erik, something that would at least prove Xavier isn’t a saint, but Peter thinks that actually probably Xavier just means it, but what Erik does is shoot a look at Peter and say shortly, “He can help me,” in a way that kind of makes Peter think that Erik might have forgotten his name, and Xavier frowns, like, Hmm, not sure if good idea or not, but eventually nods, and Erik goes stalking off in the direction of nowhere, or maybe a hardware store— holy shit, is he going to hold up a hardware store? can Peter help him hold up a hardware store?— because apparently he’s decided the conversation is over.

Then Xavier says, all casual and shit, “Thank you for cleaning the paint off the doors, Peter,” like there’s nothing else going on here, and Peter has to be like, “No problem,” and he doesn’t say anything at all about the cat, which maybe Xavier knows about and maybe he doesn’t, maybe he’s seeing it right now inside Peter’s head, and for the first time Peter is really pissed off by the idea of Xavier reading his mind, like normally he just says whatever he’s thinking about anyway, pretty much, so no biggie, but now it’s like, this is private, this is his, and it’s not quite anger, what he’s feeling but he’s pretty sure that whatever it is, Xavier sees it on his face, because then Xavier’s face totally changes, and he doesn’t look so saintly, more like a tired and getting-too-old-for-this-shit dude, and he says, “Please be sure you know what you’re doing.”

And Peter is like, “It’s not like— I wasn’t—“ and he kind of limps away for a second and punches a tree a couple of times, because he hates this conversation so much, and when he limps back Xavier doesn’t say anything about the sudden marks on his hand, and Peter says, “Don’t you think you have bigger problems, like whatever dumbass kids tagged your Barbie Dream House?”

“It’s certainly a very serious problem,” Xavier says, and, “I’m sure you and Erik will do an excellent job of fortification. Please don’t allow him to go overboard,” and then he says, “Peter, I only want to make sure— with you and Erik, I mean— that neither of you gets—“

—And that’s it, Peter is out of there, he’s gone, like on-the-other-side-of-the-county gone, even with his cast and his crutch, because that is so uncool, man, trying to bring emotions all into the discussion, without even any warning, just one minute logistics and the next minute bam, let’s talk about what everyone’s feeling, what the fuck, like Peter even knows what he’s feeling, like he has to be feeling anything at all, like Erik is feeling anything except like absolute shit, like anyone in the whole of Xavier’s fucking Shangri-La-La Land should be feeling anything except happy to be alive, like isn’t alive enough of a feeling for anyone, and suddenly he’s, like, halfway to Poughkeepsie and stops to watch some harness-racing, and gets hungry and has to swipe a couple of egg-and-cheese sandwiches from a diner ten miles on, and eats them too fast and feels pretty sick, and ends up hanging out at Peach Lake around lunchtime, stealing beer and soda out of some dude’s unguarded cooler, watching kids throw balls into the water for their dumb floppy-haired golden retrievers to catch, and thinking about how bonkers it is that all these people are alive, they’re alive and probably their whole families are alive, and two-and-a-half weeks ago Peter almost died, like that weird glowy sword was supposed to go straight through his neck, and you’d think that coming so close to kicking it would buy him Eternal Wisdom, like all kinds of Profound Life Insight and all that near-death shit, but it didn’t, he just felt like a mark on a chalkboard that someone was coming for with a big eraser in their hand, and when he was gone there’d be nothing, just a smear of dust left behind, and when it didn’t happen, there he was, here he is, Peach Lake, drinking some frat boy’s shitty Pabst Blue Ribbon, like, hooray, he’s a survivor, good for him.


 

4.

Eventually Peter skedaddles back to Salem Center and sleeps straight through dinner because he’s fucking exhausted from running so much, even though his body doesn’t get tired like other bodies, it just seems to work different, like things that are hard for other people aren’t hard for him at all, and he’s never really bothered to figure out why, because, well, he’s a mutant, it’s just the way he is, so he kind of crawls out of his yurt feeling all gross-mouthed and a little bit hungover and raids the kitchen at midnight and wolfs down like twelve Little Debbie zebra cakes in three seconds flat, and grabs a pint of Frusen Glädjé, which, he can definitely tell Hank’s been doing the grocery shopping, probably while wearing an old-man cardigan and oxford shoes, and sits out on the front steps and eats it super slowly, like practically almost normal speed, batting the junebugs and moths away from him, watching fireflies beam on and off over the stumps of the topiary bushes, and it’s really peaceful, and he’s definitely not keeping an eye out for any douchebag humans who might come creeping up where there used to be stairs, he’s not getting kind of twitchy over tree-limb shadows, and he’s totally not spoiling for a fight, because he is so not a fighter, have you met him, he’s a runner, that’s his whole deal, he is the flight part of fight or flight, but he does pass out against one of the stone pillars and sleep like that for hours and wake up with his ice cream spoon still in his fist to find Erik prodding him in the shin with one booted foot.

“Hey, man,” Peter says. “You got shoes.”

He zaps to the kitchen to ditch the ice cream spoon and the carton (now full of ants, which, gross, but also Peter has kind of weak spot for the suckers, they just seems so happy scurrying along doing their ant thing, way too small for the world they live in, but if you look at it from their perspective, what do you know, it turns out the wrong-sized one is you) and downs two cups of coffee with a couple mouthfuls of Cheerios and is back before Erik can even say, “I didn’t—“

Erik stops, because he is totally weirded out by Peter’s power, even if he never admits this is true, and Peter says, “You’re totally weirded out by my power, aren’t you,” and Erik says, “No,” and Peter says, “Come on, you’re totally weirded out,” and Erik says, “I can see how it would be useful for disorienting someone who’s wary of a potential enemy attack,” which, man, paranoid much, and Peter says, “I’m not your enemy, though,” and Erik says, “So far,” which is pretty fucking bleak and kind of shuts Peter up.

Then Erik kind of sighs and rubs his head and doesn’t apologize but just says, “I’m not ‘weirded out.’ Our gifts aren’t ‘weird.’ It should be useful for this project.”

“Right, okay,” Peter says, even though the truth is that he feels pretty goddamn weird most of the time, not that it bothers him, but he just does, and he’s willing to bet Erik feels pretty goddamn weird too, even if maybe not because of his gift, because weird is just, like, when no one around you has the slightest fucking idea what’s going on inside your head, and that makes Erik probably the weirdest person of all time.

But anyways, Erik says, “So, shall we?” and just kind of gestures to where he’s got a wheelbarrow waiting, full of coils of wire and metal boxes and shovels and radio transmitters and a lot of other stuff that Peter doesn’t even recognize, which, where did that stuff even come from, not that he’s going to ask, not that he even cares, because obviously private property is theft, duh, and he doesn’t really think Erik would, like, kill anyone while living here in the Magic Mutant Kingdom, but does he think that Erik would kill someone for radio transmitters more generally, like if he was just a ham radio enthusiast, or, no, maybe that’s not really fair, but like if a classroom of mutant kids was crying and the only way to make them happy was by broadcasting Magneto singing the mutant version of the Internationale, then would he kill a human for radio transmitters, and really the answer to that is that Peter doesn’t know for sure, but he thinks it’s possible, which is a pretty complicated thing to think, and he thinks about it while they’re hiking out to the gate that runs around the school, Erik floating the wheelbarrow in front of them, Peter struggling with his crutch and the weirdness of moving so slowly, his thoughts hydroplaning and rear-ending each other inside his head, trying not to say something stupid or, like, ask Erik if he’d kill a dude for radio transmitters.

Erik is wearing a different stupid t-shirt today, this one gray and advertising PBS, which probably means it’s Hank’s, because only Hank would own that stupid of a t-shirt, and also, only Hank would admit he liked PBS, even though Peter did use to get stoned and watch Doctor Who, but that wasn’t really PBS PBS, so it didn’t count, and the point is, Erik probably doesn’t even know what PBS is, and how fucked-up is it that he doesn’t own any clothes, apparently, and Peter keeps stealing looks at him, like, who is this person who doesn’t own any clothes and would probably kill someone for radio transmitters, and also he can see the numbers on Erik’s arm, kind of crooked and squiggly, like someone jotted down a telephone number in ballpoint pen, but it’s not a telephone number, and it’s not going to wash off, and Peter wonders if Erik maybe sometimes wishes it would, if he wants it gone sometimes, if he gets tired of looking at it and wants his own skin back, even though supposedly the whole human body regrows itself every seven years, which blew Peter’s mind when he heard that, like, totally trippy, and also, how do tattoos work, then, at what point is your body like, Okay, yeah, this is a part of me now, forever, even though it doesn’t do that with other things, like in a week or so Peter’ll get his cast off and his leg will go back to normal, with maybe a little mark on the tibia and fibula bones (he got really bored in the X-ray place, so sue him, he learned a lot) where a crazy blue caveman mutant snapped them in half, and he’s so ready for that to happen, but like, he just wonders that about Erik, especially given the whole—

“If you want to ask something,” Erik says, “ask,” so he’s clearly noticed Peter looking, like, one thing Peter’s never been is subtle, but Peter can’t say any of the shit he’s thinking about, like he doesn’t even know how he would get the words out of his head, so instead he kind of screws up his face and blurts out, “Would you kill a dude for radio transmitters?” like, nice going, Peter, you asshole—

But Erik just gives him a look of total disbelief and almost smiles, which Peter didn’t think he physically had the muscles to do, and says, “Probably; I am, as you know, the Big Bad Wolf,” so at least he has a sense of humor about it, always important to have a sense of humor about murder, and Peter says, “Yeah, but—“ and Erik says, “Don’t worry, you’re not an accessory to murder; I didn’t kill anyone for these,” which isn’t really what Peter was asking, but, you know, whatever, at least it’s reassuring to know he’s not an accessory to murder, and by then they’re almost at the fence, so Peter just asks, “What are we doing here, exactly?”

Erik says, “Creating a trip-wire. If anyone crosses the perimeter, it’ll relay a signal to the school.”

“So you’re not going to rig it up to machine-gun intruders or anything,” Peter says, just to make sure, because, you know, Magneto, and Erik kind of curls his lip and says, “You spend too much time listening to Charles,” to which Peter feels obliged to say, “Not really, I don’t even really know him; it was kind of an accident that I got involved in this whole thing,” which makes Erik look at him sideways, but Erik doesn’t say anything, he just starts moving wire and stuff out of the wheelbarrow by waving his hand, and after a while he explains to Peter what they’re going to do with the wire and stuff, which is that Peter is going to dig little holes in the ground and Erik is going to implant sensors and they’re going to wire up transmitters to the actual fence, and it seems pretty easy, and Peter won’t have to run around too much, so Hank won’t get mad at him about his leg, so all in all it’s a pretty good deal, and Peter’s feeling cheerful as he grabs a shovel out of the wheelbarrow and gets to work.

But the thing about digging holes is that it’s BO-RING, and it only gets boringer, and even though it’s kind of interesting at first watching Erik float things through the air and uncoil wires, that gets boring really quickly too, and this is kind of a one-person job, really, and Peter suspects that Erik wanted Xavier not to worry that he was, in fact, rigging the fence to machine-gun intruders, and that’s pretty much the only reason Peter’s there, which is a drag, so Peter starts heaving huge bored sighs and twirling his shovel around, trying to do color guard tricks, and gets out a felt-tip pen and writes some Bauhaus lyrics on the top of his cast, and draws some little stick figures shooting lightning out of their fingertips, and then draws a little stick man with claws and makes him look like Logan, which, where was that dude during this whole thing? Peter would’ve thought he’d be around, and he seemed kind of cool, even if he was old, like maybe the cool uncle who smoked up with you and took you to Alice Cooper concerts, definitely much cooler than Xavier or Hank, even though: really not hard, and it’s a mystery to Peter how so many mutants can be so square, like is it some kind of whatever it is those frogs do in the rainforest, some kind of actual biological thing that they’re not aware of, and he gets kind of carried away thinking about that, drawing stick man Logan’s awesome hair, so he’s really surprised when Erik clears his throat and says, “Am I boring you?” and Peter shoves the pen back in his pocket kind of guiltily.

“It’s nothing personal,” he says. “Everything’s boring to me. That’s why I don’t have a job and I live in my mom’s basement, or I guess I live here now, sort of,” and he should really call his mom, even though she hung up on him last time, after he tried to very reasonably explain why he’d been in Egypt fighting Evil Fred Flintstone, and also kind of fighting Magneto, sort of, but not really, and how he’d gotten his leg broken, and what the whole deal with Xavier and his school was, and she’d been crying, and Peter had been like, I’m not a kid anymore, Mom, I’m an adult, I make my own choices, which was kind of unfair because he mostly didn’t act like an adult, and the thing was that she didn’t really understand, because she wasn’t a mutant, and Peter had probably yelled at his mom about how she didn’t understand thirty thousand times since he learned to talk, but that had mostly been about stuff that she actually did understand, like needing to stay up late to watch Twilight Zone reruns or where all the comic books (slash records slash TVs slash etc) had come from, and why it wasn’t fair to make Peter take them back, and he’d kind of known that she understood and just been more of an asshole about it, but the mutant thing she actually didn’t understand, and that was why he’d never said it to her about it, because it was true, and he wouldn’t ever be able to take it back.

And Erik says, “There are worse places to live,” which, about-face much, buddy, and then he says, “I used to live here, once, a long time ago, before Charles and I fell out,” and that, from what Peter’s heard, is a massive understatement, like weren’t there actual nuclear missiles involved, not that it doesn’t seem like it would take nuclear missiles to get through to Xavier sometimes, but still, not what he would call falling out, exactly, but he thinks it would probably not be a great idea to say any of this, so instead he says, “You gonna stick around this time?”

Erik says, “I haven’t decided. Charles and I still disagree on most points.”

“Right,” Peter says, “you want to kill all the humans, and he doesn’t want to kill all the humans. Well,” he adds when Erik looks really irritated and kind of huffs, “isn’t that your whole deal?”

And Erik says, “That is not my ‘whole deal;’ I don’t have a ‘whole deal;’ I want us to be safe; I want—“ but he doesn’t say what he wants, he just jams a sensor box into the ground really hard, and Peter thinks, shit, what am I doing poking this dude, not because he’s scared that Erik is going to turn back into Magneto and suddenly throw a car at him or burn Salem Center down, but because the man has been through some bad shit lately, and his family wasn’t safe, and Kurt wasn’t safe, and Tabby wasn’t safe from her asshole parents, and when the Army threw him in a fucking prison Peter didn’t feel very safe, and forty years ago Erik wasn’t safe when he was a fucking child, and Peter starts to feel that panicky anger like he did in Egypt, like someone’s trying to take Erik— Kurt— Tabby— all of them away, like they already took away so many people, Peter’s people, and now he’ll never see or meet or even know about them, and he has to squash that feeling down at the bottom of his stomach like a weird and really lumpy beanbag chair, so before Erik can say anything, Peter says really fast and nervously to him, “Sorry,” and then, “You wanna take a break? Let’s take a break. I need a Creamsicle. I should get us a box of Orange Creamsicles,” and again before Erik can say anything, he goes limping off to the house and raids the kitchen and offers Erik the box of Orange Creamsicles when he zap-limps back, and Erik stares at it, and then takes a Creamsicle like he’s never even heard of such a wild and exotic food before, and carefully peels the plastic wrapper off of it, and Peter toasts him with his own Creamsicle, and they sit in the sun at the side of the road with their Creamsicles slowly melting onto their t-shirts, and Peter thinks that if Erik’s going to stick around, he needs to buy some new clothing, because he’s not going to be able to wear Hank’s stupid PBS shirt again.


 

5.

They don’t finish the trip-wire fence because Jean needs help with some rebar, so they end up having to call it a day, and Erik and Jean rebuild most of the east wing of the mansion before Erik seems to notice what he’s doing and stalks off, muttering something about having a headache, and Peter think maybe he’s the one Hank should be talking to about how bodies are complicated, but he can also imagine that conversation not going so great, so he stays out of it and instead he and Mystique— who’s mysteriously appeared out of nowhere, because she keeps doing that, just sneaking out and showing back up, and if you ask her what she’s doing she just says, “Things,” and she makes long phone calls in, like, Thai and Finnish and Swahili, and Peter has a feeling she might actually be the mutant James Bond, but even though whenever she’s here she’s always telling Xavier, “I don’t do babysitting,” she’s like a scary older sister who could kill you with her feet— end up teaching Kurt and Storm and Jubilee how to play poker, and Peter takes them for about a hundred peanut M&Ms before he gets bored because he promised not to cheat, which is just, you know, boring, and he wanders into the kitchen to bug Hank while he’s trying to cook dinner, which, cooking dinner for like ten adults and fifty children was never going to be easy, but Hank definitely makes it harder by trying to cook all this weird-ass fancy stuff, like beef bourguignon and blackened trout and chicken marsala, or salads with unpronounceable vinaigrettes, and tonight he’s doing some kind of pasta primavera, and Peter wants to be, like, Just make spaghetti, man, because his mom worked, so he ate a lot of spaghetti, even before Wendy was born and his mom had to feed two kids, and he turned out all right, right, but he keeps his mouth shut, because the last thing he wants is blue hair in his noodles, gross, so he just hums really loudly and asks Hank about a million times when he can get his cast off (“Not yet,” according to Hank), and steals a taste of the pasta sauce and decides it’s disgusting and zaps himself a pizza roll instead, and snarfs it down before Hank can get offended, and he’s licking the last of the grease off his fingers when Hank says, “So, I hear you and Erik are in charge of security now.”

“Yeah,” Peter says, and, “No, we’re just making a motion detector thing, to catch whoever it was that did that graffiti,” and Hank says, “Right,” and Peter says, “That was pretty uncool,” and Hank says, “You kind of can’t blame them, though,” and Peter is just, like, what, and Yes you can, and also, are you fucking kidding me, and he tries to say all those things at once and mostly ends up with “Ywhaan, are you kidding me?”

“We are sheltering actual murderers,” Hank says. “I admit that they’re not bad people, at least most of the time, and I know Erik is taking a break before he comes up with yet another horrible plan that’s going to kill a thousand people or possibly involve assassinating the president, but you can see why people don’t give us the benefit of the doubt.”

He says this totally casually, like it’s not even controversial, like he’s just saying what everybody thinks, and then he says, “I know the Professor wants Erik here, but you have to admit it would be easier if—“

And then his face goes kind of blank, and he looks off into the distance, and his eyes snap back to Peter, and he says, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” which is just the wrong thing to say, because, like Peter needs to be protected and also, Xavier’s fingerprints are all over that; it’s pretty obvious what was going on there, talk about eavesdropping, and what exactly did Xavier tell him, and there’s the prickly spine of that anger, poking Peter in the throat, like he’s swallowed a whole fish skeleton and he can’t barf it up now because it’s inside him, part of him, and he just says, “Whatever, man,” and tears out of the kitchen, and he kind of wants to talk to Mystique, who knows everything, who knows the most important thing, and who wouldn’t definitely wouldn’t protect him, but who might laugh at him, or just look at him like he was a weird little insect, but also who Erik shot once, so she’s hardly unbiased, and he thinks they also used to do it, which is just— no! no!— even though he knows she’s older than she usually looks, which she can’t really help, because of her mutation, even though if that was his mutation he’d always try to look older, because everyone treats him like a little kid, which, to be fair, is maybe because he acts like a kid, but what is he supposed to do, go sell shoes at the mall, or get a job at Morgan Stanley, and everyone at the mall or Morgan Stanley or wherever is just going to ignore how he can do everything in two seconds flat, or how his brain is like a clown on a unicycle doing cartwheels off a trampoline, like, his mom wanted him to go to college and be an accountant, and last time he checked she was still hinting that someday he’d have to grow up, like all of this was just going to stop and he’d turn into a human, which, he kind of sucks for thinking that’s what she really wishes she had, a normal human son, because he knows she loves him and probably doesn’t actually wish that, and also he loves her, they can’t afford not to love each other, because they’re pretty much each other’s only family, except for Wendy, but it was just the two of them before she was around, and now it’s kind of sort of a relief that Wendy’s there, and she’s going to go to college, and she’s going to be awesome, and Peter doesn’t have to get his shit together, and he doesn’t have to think about how the real problem with his shit is that he gets it together but pieces are missing, and other pieces don’t seem to fit, like a fucked-up Lego set that you got from a garage sale, except he knows it’s going to build something, he just doesn’t know what yet, so— anyways— Mystique, who is a real person, like a real adult person, would almost definitely just pat him on the head, because she’s got real problems, James Bond problems.

So instead he hides in the library, which is basically rebuilt now, except that the whole things still smells like burnt books, and he stares at the indentation on the couch where someone’s been sleeping and the half-played chess game laid out on the board and the watery gold millimeter of whiskey left in a tumbler next to the phone, and then he picks up the phone and listens to the dial tone, and after a while he finds himself calling home, and his mom picks up, and their conversation goes like this:

Mom: Hello?

Peter: Hey, Mom. Can I ask you something? Where were Baba and Tata from?

Mom: Peter?

Peter: Yeah, it’s me. Please don’t, like, get emotional or something.

Mom: (huge sigh) Well, at least you’re alive.

Peter: I’m alive, I’m totally fine, I even ate a vegetable today. I knew you’d be proud.

Mom: Why are you asking about Baba and Tata? Does this have something to do with him?

Peter: No. I just realized I never knew.

Mom: You were never interested in that stuff before.

Peter: Yeah, well, now I am.

Mom: They were from Bessarabia, but that was before the war. Now I think it doesn’t exist, or it’s the Soviet Union now, but they weren’t Russians, so if someone’s giving you a hard time…

Peter: No, the government thing wasn’t about that. You’re sure they’re not, like, surveilling you, by the way, right? Unmarked vans? Weird clicking noises on your phone? Men in trenchcoats?

Mom: Peter, no one is surveilling us. You are not the man from U.N.C.L.E .

Peter: Just keep an eye out. Please.

Mom: Fine, okay, okay.

Peter: So if they weren’t Russians, what were they?

Mom: Well… (sounds of spoons clattering) They always spoke Romanian when I was growing up, but your Tata I’m pretty sure was actually a Gypsy, but, you know, he would never have admitted it, but his family died during the war, and some people came to our house much later and told us, and they didn’t speak Romanian, and your Baba said they were Gypsies, and I was never supposed to ask about it. Her family I don’t know anything about; I think they died when she was a little girl. An awful lot of bad stuff was happening then. That’s why they came here.

Peter: Do you still have any of their old stuff?

Mom: Old stuff, like what do you mean old stuff? I’ve got Baba’s nice china, but I’m giving that to Wendy when she gets married. God knows what you’d do with it; you eat like a garbage can.

Peter: No, I don’t know, old stuff. Like from before.

Mom: Peter, what is this about?

Peter: It’s not about anything! Really. Ugh. Forget I asked. I’m sorry I bothered you. I gotta get off the phone now. Everyone’s having dinner. I’ll call you back. Tell Wendy I said hi. Love you.

But that’s a total lie, because he doesn’t go to dinner, because he’s not hungry at all, and instead he goes into North Salem and hits up the Mobil station for a pack of cigarettes, and mopes around the arcade and the Newsprint Mart doing nothing at all except maybe kind of slightly busting one of the arcade games, which isn’t his fault, because they don’t tell you the games have speed limits, they just assume everybody knows, or that everybody goes the same speed, so he sneaks out of there and literally kicks a can down the street, like, could he be any sadder, right, and he gets back to the House of Not Actually That Much Mystery just as the sun is starting to set, when all the squirts are running haywire on the lawn, shooting each other with water guns and shrieking and laughing and sometimes wagging their tails or breathing out big shiny bubbles or tasting the air with long forked tongues, and Jubilee is setting off fireworks over by the remains of the west stairs, which, not that her fireworks are great, because they remind Peter of dish soap, kind of lopsided and drippy, but they’re pink and gold and summery looking, especially now that the air’s getting dark, and Peter watches them pop-pop-pop quietly in the sky for a while before he sits on a piece of rubble and taps a cigarette out even though he normally doesn’t smoke, because he just thinks, basically, what the hell, and he lights it, and he breathes in like he’s some kind of badass, and he imagines murdering anybody who showed up and threatened the kids on this lawn, but that doesn’t make him feel like a badass at all; it just makes him feel like his stomach’s gaping open and anyone could reach in and pull out his insides, and he wonders if his mom felt like that when he was a little kid, when she would freak out because she couldn’t keep up with him, so he’d pretty much vanish every time she turned her back, and one time she cried for like an hour in the parking garage at the mall, just sitting in the car, and he couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but maybe now he knows, and, okay, maybe he was kind of an asshole as a kid, and he’s probably still kind of an asshole, and why do people have families, even, you’d think that they’d have figured out by now that it’s just such a fucking bad rap all around—

And then he almost jumps out of his skin when Xavier says from somewhere behind him, like a fucking vampire in the night launching some kind of sneak attack, “Don’t let Hank see you out here. He disapproves of smoking.”

Like Peter could forget Hank’s wrinkly-nosed constipated face whenever Xavier would stagger back into the room in his stupid sunglasses, smelling like an ashtray, and he says, “Yeah, I remember.”

Xavier says, “I didn’t tell him. By the way. Not that I think there’s any reason to keep it a secret,” and it takes Peter a second to remember that pause in the kitchen, Hank’s horrible politeness, and he says, “It’s just complicated,” and Xavier looks at him with his creepy saintly eyes, like he doesn’t even have to look to know what’s going on in Peter’s head, and he says, “I merely suggested to him that his behavior was inappropriate. It’s hard for him, too, you know; in many ways he and Erik have similar goals. Or I suppose I say goals, but I really mean fears.”

He rests his hands on the arms of his wheelchair and leans back, like he’s contemplating the stars or some shit, and Peter remembers all of a sudden that the last time they had one of these casual chats, he kind of bailed while Xavier was talking and didn’t stop till he was like twenty miles away, so he says, “Whatever, Hank’s a douchebag; he should keep that a secret,” and then, “Sorry that I, you know, whatever.”

But Xavier just smiles at him and says, “As an end to an argument, it’s surprisingly effective. Believe me when I say that I’ve had worse,” and he doesn’t say the thing that he and Peter are both definitely thinking, because he doesn’t have to, because they’re both definitely thinking it, but it’s kind of funny, and weird that it’s funny and almost nice to be thinking the same thing, and Peter is just getting comfortable with the idea that this conversation might not totally suck, settling into the silence, when Xavier has to fuck it up and say:

“I’ve known Erik for a long time, you know,” like— okay, maybe, sure, but Peter was there in 1973, but whatever, let’s just get into it, and Peter rolls his eyes and says:

“I know,” and Xavier says:

“He’s suffered a great deal,” like this is some great revelation, and then Peter says:

“Yeah, I know,” and then Xavier says:

“He’s lost a great deal,” and Peter says: “I know,” but Xavier says:

“Probably more than you can imagine,” and—

“I know!” Peter says, or shouts, kind of, maybe a little, because the volume of his voice definitely jerks up, and wow, wow, what was that about not getting angry, because he’s totally getting angry, and he doesn’t even know why, but this is it, this is the part where he can’t take it anymore, and he says, “I get it, I totally get it, you don’t have to tell me!” and he’d probably be gone by now if (a) his leg didn’t hurt from too much running around, and (b) Xavier hadn’t built this whole thing, like not the house that, anyways, is still about a quarter un-re-built, even though Erik and Jean have stuck a roof on it, but the kids on the lawn with their tails and tongues and bubbles, and Jubilee’s dish soap fireworks, and Jean and Scott probably making out on the terrace, and Mystique stalking around on her scary feet that she can kill you with, making plans to, like, overthrow a dictator or found an island nation, and Erik, somewhere, who’s a murderer and probably shouldn’t be here, who walks around barefoot, who cared enough to bury a dead cat, who probably doesn’t want another kid, because, Jesus Christ, why would he, like, Peter gets it, he really gets it, so it’s all just really— like—

So he doesn’t run away, and he doesn’t even yell at Xavier, he just stubs his cigarette out on the rock, kind of really hoping that it’s some rock that was chiseled with Xavier’s great-great-grandfather’s bones, and he yanks off his goggles and shoves his head in his hands, and after a while Xavier says, “Peter, I’m sorry,” and Peter just kind of says, “Uh huh,” and Xavier must figure out that he really doesn’t want to talk about it, like, wow, what an amazing telepath, because he creaks off into the darkness, which is pretty dark by now, and the kids have all gone in, and there are just worn-out fireworks dripping out of the sky, probably confusing the hell out of the lightning bugs, and on a weird impulse Peter bends down to take off his kick-ass silver shoe (singular, since Egypt, thanks a lot for that) and peels his sock off and shoves his foot down into the dirt, trying to feel anything at all in it except wet stones and sometimes worms, but he should have known better, right, and he wonders if it’d work if he tried it with two feet, but he already guesses the answer, that there’s nothing down there for him, that in the end it’s just no good. 


 6.

Peter passes out at like one in the morning in an actual bedroom, feeling creeped out by having a roof over his head, which, is that going to keep happening, has he been psychologically damaged by having to live on Xavier’s lawn, because he should be able to enjoy this bedroom, with its weird thick silent carpet and its ten-thousand-year-old-looking furniture, even though it’s not really his bedroom, just a bedroom that they’ve finished rebuilding, and actually Xavier hasn’t asked him yet if he wants to stay, which seems like a pretty big omission, unless Xavier is just assuming he’ll stay, but Xavier doesn’t seem like that kind of guy, but Peter had kind of assumed he’d get the offer, what with the whole Egypt thing, but maybe Xavier thinks that if Erik goes he’ll go, or maybe Xavier thinks he doesn’t want to stay, or maybe Xavier doesn’t want him to stay and he’s misread this whole deal, so it’s all just really up in the air, and the next morning Peter drags himself down to the kitchen feeling like he hasn’t had any sleep, and he glugs down like half a pot of coffee and most of a box of Cocoa Puffs before he slows down enough to see Erik staring at him across the room.

“That’s disgusting,” Erik says. “Like watching wolves strip a carcass.”

“Whatever, man,” Peter says, and: “Hey, is there bacon?”

“No bacon,” Erik says, and turns away, and Peter feels really stupid, and he says, “Oh, right, sorry,” but Erik just pretty much ignores him, except to say, “Are you going to vomit all that up if you have to work after eating?” and Peter says, “Uh, duh, no, I have like the world’s strongest stomach,” which is kind of maybe a little bit of a lie, like he gets the spins if he drinks more than a couple beers, which Hank thinks has to do with his vestibular system, so mutant physiology gets a big old F on that one, but he’s pretty sure he’s not going to barf up his Cocoa Puffs, so, whatever, he lets Erik get the wheelbarrow and they hike back out to the fence to work, the same old same old, except Peter feels really surly, and he doesn’t totally understand why; he just finds himself slamming the shovel into the ground really hard, which doesn’t even really do much for him, maybe because he’s not the kind of guy who likes punching people, and what he really needs to do is run about a hundred miles, but with the cast on fifty is his absolute max, but at least Erik doesn’t say anything, just raises his eyebrows, which, you know, is a good choice on his part, because Peter totally could make at least thirty cracks about today’s shirt, which is advertising the Westchester County Children’s Hospital 5K Family Fun Walk, and God knows where it came from, because Peter sure doesn’t know anyone around here who has a family, and definitely not the kind of family who does fun walks, and when Peter tries to imagine Erik at a family fun walk, it’s like his brain kind of short circuits and blows a fuse box, because it’s so so so ridiculous but really really sad, and he can feel his face doing something he doesn’t want it to do, so instead he just speeds up his digging and accidentally digs a four-foot hole and has to fill most of it back in.

They take a break for lunch and Peter makes a ton of sandwiches in the kitchen and dashes them out to the fence and offers them to Erik, which feels kind of like an apology for being an asshole, except that half of them are fluffernutters and one of them is kind of a s’more, and the rest are peanut butter and jelly, because Peter doesn’t really cook, like his forte is ordering pizza, and he doesn’t want to accidentally make something that isn’t kosher, since he’s a little unclear on how the whole kosher thing actually works, and Erik takes a look at the sandwiches, which are kind of oozing peanut buttery goodness, and pokes at the s’more one with a finger and says, “How on earth did you people ever establish an empire,” and Peter says, “Hey!” —mostly at the you people, because he isn’t really, even though he guesses he also sort of is?— and: “Peanut butter is totally good for you, it’s got protein. What do you eat, tofu or something?” and Erik says, “I eat what I can get,” which is a stupid answer, because obviously everyone is going to eat what they can get if they’re hungry, and, like, we get it already, man, you’re totally hardcore, so Peter says, “Yeah, but if you had a choice, what would you eat,” and Erik frowns at him, maybe because Peter is cramming a sandwich into his mouth while talking, but then he says, “Black bread and butter,” which is at least an answer, but Peter groans and makes a buzzer noise, and says, “Wrong answer! Dude, that is the most boring answer; this is why you need fluffernutters in your life,” and he makes Erik eat half of a fluffernutter, which Erik makes a big drama out of, grimacing with every bite, and Erik says, “When I was a child, we would have killed someone for this much sugar,” which is kind of a really uncomfortable thing to say, seeing as how it’s almost definitely true, but Erik says it like a joke, so he’s at least partly joking, so Peter doesn’t feel too guilty and weird about it.

They’re sitting at the side of the road, the shade of the trees stretching over their shoulders, sunlight glinting off the fancypants sign that welcomes people to XAVIER’S SCHOOL FOR GIFTED YOUNGSTERS, like, seriously, “gifted youngsters,” what is up with Xavier; Peter would straight-up refuse to even go to a place named that if he was a youngster, so thank God he’s something else now, whatever the hell he even is, and he tips his head back against the fence and contemplates that for a minute, shoving another sandwich in his mouth and peeling the crust off a PB&J to feed to some birds that are getting really fucking ballsy, and laughs at them when they get in a little super-intense cheepy war.

“In Polish,” Erik says, “they’re called vrubli,” or that’s what it sounds like he says, at least; he points at one: “Vrubel,” then two: “Vrubli. Like the sound they make.”

“Oh, yeah?” Peter says, trying to play it casual, even though he feels like maybe he ought to be walking on tiptoes here. “What are they called in German?”

And Erik frowns, but not a bad frown, just like he’s thinking about it, and he says, “I think shperlinga, but sometimes, I’m not sure of the difference, you would also say shpatsen,” and Peter says:

Shpatsen,” testing it out, and Erik says, pointing to one bird, “Shpats. It’s like what— what you would call a child in German, mein shpats,” and Peter doesn’t miss the pause there, which could be about so many things, most of them just, like, unrelentingly painful, and even without the pause it would’ve been— like— so he says pretty quickly, “So how many languages do you speak, anyway?”

And Erik’s about to answer, probably by saying, “As many as I need to,” or some other unnecessarily cryptic bullshit, when a car revs its engine somewhere down the road, and there’s a squeal of rubber, which normally Peter would think was awesome, because something in him just totally, like, stands up and applauds at even the most super-obnoxious hint of speed, except that even if Erik hadn’t tensed up in a way that reminded him that oh, yeah, his life wasn’t normal anymore, not that it had ever really been normal, but now he has like enemies and shit, he thinks his Bad Shit Radar would still’ve been tingling, because he’s pretty good at sensing things like that, almost like his brain speeds up so much that time flips inside out and he sees what’s going to happen even though it hasn’t happened yet, and probably the smart thing would’ve been to kick into gear right then, but he waits a second because they’re on a two-lane road in Westchester, and the sun is shining and he’s got peanut butter on his fingers and there are fat little birds making their vrubel noises, bobbing around his feet for crumbs, and maybe he is just a fucking kid, like everyone treats him, if he believes that any of that makes a difference, like he’s screwing his eyes shut and wishing really hard, but he believes it for long enough that by the time he does finally speed up, the car is screeching past them, and a flat wide arc of bright red paint is zlinging through the air, and Peter thinks maybe the douchebags in the car were originally aiming for the XAVIER’S SCHOOL sign, or maybe they saw him and Erik and thought, hey, two shpatsen with one stone, and went for it, but  either way, there’s this paint, pretty much the color of blood before it starts drying, and there’s this shitty black Camaro with a missing hubcap, and there are the two dumbasses, maybe twenty-one years old, inside, and at this point he can’t really do much about the paint, because it’s gonna land somewhere, and he thinks for a second about aiming the car at a tree, which almost definitely wouldn’t kill the assholes, just trash their ride and give them whiplash, but it would also definitely trash the tree, and maybe start a fire, and just— he also just doesn’t want to do it, even though he kind of does want to do it, it’s a really complicated feeling, so while he’s thinking about it, he moves Erik out of the way of the paint, and also all the birds, one by one, even though birds are fast little suckers, and probably they’d be in the air before they could get hit, and he’s surprised when he picks the first bird up because he can feel its heart beating, slowed down an awful lot, of course, but still there, a weird little vibration against his fingers, and it freaks him out a little, because he’s got this living thing in his hand, when normally everything at his own speed is an object, just something to play with until the rest of the world catches up again, and when he puts it down a couple feet away he says, “Sorry, sorry,” even though it’s not like the bird can hear him at this speed, and he ends up saying the same thing to all the birds, “Sorry, little dude,” because it’s not their fault, they don’t know what’s going on, they’re just birds, they don’t understand.

And then the paint is splashing the sign and the car is burning tracks into the asphalt and then it’s already gone, leaving a cloud of noxious smoke behind, and Erik is blinking, looking confused, and the birds are cheep-cheep-cheeping, and the the paint starts pooling in thick red puddles on the grass, and Peter can see the second Erik twigs to what’s going on, because he looks at the sign and he looks at where the car vanished down the road, and he lifts his hand, and he doesn’t even look angry, especially, it’s just like his face goes all blank, and Peter knows that look, and it’s not even the look of property damage, it’s the look of For Lo, The Lord Hath Decreed That Thou Art Fucked, so he reaches out and grabs Erik’s arm and says, “Stop, Erik, stop, you gotta let ‘em go, man,” and Erik wrestles out of his grip and says, “What?”

And Peter says, “They didn’t hurt anybody; come on; it’s not going to fix anything,” and Erik kind of stares at him, still with that blank look, and doesn’t say anything, so Peter says, “They’re just kids being dumb, a couple of douchebags. I saw their faces; we can file a police report or whatever,” and he thinks Erik’s actually paying attention, and everything’s going to be okay, because so far there’s no screaming of people or metal and no one has had a car thrown at them, but then Erik laughs and Peter knows that he’s totally off the mark somehow.

I’m going to file a police report,” Erik says. “Me? I’m going to file a police report?” and yeah, okay, that’s true, but Peter says, “Or I can file it, whatever. Or probably Hank can file it,” because Peter might possibly, maybe, slightly have some shoplifting charges against him, and Erik says in a really terribly way, “I see. Thank you. I’m sure that will solve everything,” and then he turns away from Peter for a minute, and then he slams his hand against the fence, and all the metal bars groan like they kind of want to twist themselves up into hard knots, which would suck, if they had to rebuild the fence on top of everything else, and Peter thinks of pointing out that if that happens, Erik’s doing it alone, but really he wouldn’t dare, because Erik’s face is still icy and empty, and after a couple of minutes of really really charged silence, Erik says:

“Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, davno is how they say it in Polish, es var einmal is what they say in German, there was a country that was full of just kids. Some of them were men, and some of them were women, but they were always just having some fun when they threw paint on your doors, when they broke your windows, when they spat at you and called you names in the street. But what could you do? There was nothing you could do, and they didn’t hurt anybody, and they were just having some fun. And then the kids grew up. They grew up, and they burned your house down, and they threw stones at you when you ran out into the street, and if they didn’t burn your house down, they shot you and they starved you, and if that didn’t work, they put you on trains, so they wouldn’t have to see you anymore, so they wouldn’t have to bother throwing paint at you, because— who knows? Maybe it had just stopped being fun. And still— still— when they were putting you on trains, there was some old man who lived down the street, who’d say, What matters is proving to them that we’re good people, what matters is doing what they want, because if we can do that then we’ll prove to them—“

“I get it,” Peter says, mostly to stop Erik talking, because he doesn’t think he can stand to listen to any more, because Erik is just saying it in an ordinary voice, not that Peter knows exactly what kind of voice he should be saying it in, but that makes it worse, and Peter knows it’s not really about him or what he said, or even about the two assholes in the Camaro and their can full of red paint, that really it’s about Xavier, probably, or not even about anybody in particular, just about Erik himself, and about a school full of children, and the way Peter’s mom had once cried in her car, and she’d said, I can’t do this again, Peter, do you understand me? and he hadn’t understood, really, and she’d said, I thought I’d lost you forever, I thought you were gone, my baby, and he’d thought that when she said she couldn’t do it again that she meant she’d punish him, take away his TV for a month, but what she’d meant was that she couldn’t physically do it, that she’d just stop working as a person, that thinking about losing him made something inside her start to splinter—

And then Erik says, “No. You don’t ‘get it,’” like Peter is so, so stupid, like Erik can’t believe how stupid he is.

And Peter says, “That’s not what I meant.”

And Erik says, “By all means, enlighten me, then.”

And Peter says, “I mean, I know what you’re saying, is all.”

And Erik says, “No. You think you know, but you’re just another callow American. Look at you, you’re a child, you act like a child, everything is a game to you—“

And that, weirdly, kind of suckerpunches Peter in the stomach, even though, really, he ought to be used to it, and it’s true, of course, but he still kind of has to swallow before he gets his voice back, and then he says, “Right,” and, “I’m twenty-six, actually, not that it matters,” which it doesn’t, of course, but it’s something to say, because otherwise he feels like he might get crushed by the weight of the shit Erik’s heaping on top of him.

And Erik laughs in a really condescending way and says, “Twenty-six.”

And for whatever reason, that really pisses Peter off, maybe because it’s hypocritical as shit, given what he knows about Erik’s life, and also, it’s just, like, he can’t help being twenty-six, and he knows he’s an idiot, he knows he’s really immature, he knows he’s supposed to be wearing a suit or whatever, getting a job, buying a car, that everybody wishes he would just grow up, but he’s trying, and it’s hard, and he’s starting from nothing, like trying to build the top part of a house without the ground floor, or balance the thing all on one flimsy brick wall, when there were supposed to be foundations and shit, and he doesn’t even know what to say, but he opens his mouth, and his voice comes out shaky, and he says, “Okay, well, let me tell you a story. Sorry that it’s a stupid American story; it even starts in a stupid American way, I guess: A man walks into a bar, and the bartender says, What can I get you, and the man says, Help, and it turns out he’s got, like, twenty pieces of glass in his leg, because he’s a stupid asshole and jumped through a window when the feds were chasing him, but the bartender is a really nice guy, right, so he calls his girlfriend, who’s a nurse, because the stupid asshole won’t go to a hospital, because of the whole feds thing, and the bartender’s girlfriend comes and stitches him up and says he can stay at her place till he can walk, but by the time that happens, she’s not the bartender’s girlfriend anymore, and the stupid asshole’s fed her a story about how he’s this amazing Nazi hunter, and the feds are after him because he’s going to take down Operation Paperclip, which is kind of a funny name, Operation Paperclip, given what he’s already showed her he can do to other kinds of paperclips, and the bartender’s ex-girlfriend thinks this is the coolest thing ever, and maybe she thinks they’re going to run off to Israel or something, God, who knows, because she fucks him, which was a big mistake, because a couple weeks later it’s like, Whoops! Hot on the trail of Nazis! Got to go! and that’s the end of that, except not, because it turns out she’s pregnant, and for some reason she decides to keep the kid, which is probably a bad call, because it turns out he’s a mutant, too, and her parents die three years later, and then she’s got no family, because everyone else is in Europe and they died in the war, so she’s got to raise this mutant anklebiter all on her own, and he’s so juvenile, right, he’s always stealing shit and dropping out of high school and breaking into the Pentagon, but what do you expect, right, when he’s half stupid asshole—

And that’s where he kind of runs out of steam, because this is, like, the most words he’s ever said at once, and he’s talking way too fast, even for him, because most of this he’s never said out loud before, and it feels weird saying it out loud, the story of his life, like saying it out loud somehow makes it really real, and he hasn’t been able to look Erik in the face, and he thinks about just running off, but that would be more immature, and anyway, where would he go, like, back to his mom’s basement, and hide there like a vampire forever, because he can’t avoid Erik at the school, so he’s just got to man the fuck up and take a deep breath and look, and Erik is just… like… staring at him, looking like he did that one time in Xavier’s bedroom, looking like he did when he saw the cat, like Peter has taken a knife and cut through the fragile air around them and shoved the knife straight into Erik’s chest.

“Sorry,” Peter says. “That wasn’t how I was going to tell you.”

“You said… you were there for family,” Erik says.

“Yeah,” Peter says.

“Family,” Erik says.

“Yeah,” Peter says.

Erik keeps staring at him, and then all of a sudden he reaches out a hand and really gently touches Peter’s face, like just kind of holding it and looking at it like he’s never seen it, which should be sort of weird, and maybe is a little weird, but Peter also doesn’t mind, but he says nervously, “I don’t really look like you, I guess, but I don’t really look like Mom either, but I don’t remember her parents at all, so I kind of don’t know who I look like,” which is the most trivial shit to be talking about, but it’s like he can’t stop himself; he doesn’t know what to say now that he’s told Erik the thing, and since he can’t run he has to keep blabbering on, and anyways, Erik doesn’t seem to care, he’s just still staring with that kind of super-intense super-wounded gaze, and Peter says, “You don’t have to, uh, I mean, I know you probably don’t want to— Look, I don’t expect anything, man, I just, I wanted to make sure you weren’t dead, mostly, and then I thought maybe you’d want to know, and, I don’t know, I wasn’t planning to stick around, but shit kept happening, and just, if you don’t want to do this, it’s totally fine, it’s cool, I understand.”

And he half-expects Erik to take the opening and say he needs time or something, and, like, just walk away, seeing as how that’s kind of been his whole modus operandi this past almost-month, with the silence and the hiding and the meditating, and Jesus, Peter really couldn’t begrudge the guy a little breathing space, with all the shit that’s happened to him, but he also knows that if Erik says he needs time, Peter’s going to run for the hills, or at least as far as he can get with his stupid cast, which is probably not actually the hills, given that he’s in Westchester, more like the Hudson, and maybe he could actually commandeer a boat, and become a pirate, or at the very least a hermit, even if he couldn’t figure out how to make the boat go fast, even then, he’d still run, because patience is not his strong point, as anybody who’s ever met him can tell you, and just this once in his life, just this once, he needs someone else to be going the speed he’s going, not just to try to meet him halfway, and there’s no way that’s going to be Erik, that in-sync person, like, realistically, but the thing is that Erik doesn’t say he needs time, or anything like that; he just puts his other hand on the other side of Peter’s face, and then pulls Peter’s head to his shoulder and wraps his arms around him, like really strong arms, not even a hug, but like he plans to hang on until the end of the world, and he’s kind of shaking a little, in a way that reminds Peter of the slowed-down heartbeat he felt in the birds, a weird vibration that scared him and made him want to be careful, but here he already knows exactly how careful to be, so he just shuts his eyes and breathes against the side of Erik’s neck, all his wild thinking collapsing down into Dad, Dad, Dad.


 

7.

They talk.

Like, for a while they don’t talk, because Erik just hangs on to him, and part of the reason for that might be that he doesn’t want Peter to see him cry, because Peter’s pretty sure that he’s actually crying in a choked-up silent kind of way, because when he finally pulls away his eyes are all red and damp, but Peter doesn’t say anything about it, and Erik doesn’t say anything about Peter sniffling, even though that’s totally not the same thing as crying, but whatever, and even then Erik kind of won’t let go of him, and keeps touching Peter’s shoulder, or his hair, or his elbow, with this blurry confused look, like, How did this happen, which, Peter could explain the mechanics, but he’s pretty sure that’s not the question Erik’s asking, so he just says, “I’m sorry I called you a stupid asshole,” and Erik says, “I was a stupid asshole. Sorry to disappoint you, but I still am,” and Peter says, “That’s okay, I kind of knew that,” and they both sort of but not quite laugh, and then Erik says, “I’m sorry for— everything,” and Peter says, “I think I turned out pretty okay, except for the stealing, and the part where I still live in Mom’s basement, and also probably the busting you out of the Pentagon, even though that was awesome, and ended up being a good thing, sort of,” and Erik says, “You turned out fine,” and then he has to look away really quickly because he’s definitely crying, so Peter pretends not to see and fiddles with his goggles, and then says, “Oh, hey, we should go inside, because (a) I kind of want to sit down, the whole broken-leg thing is a drag, and (b) don’t be pissed off, but Hank is totally going to want to file a police report about the sign, and I think it kind of has to be him because I might or might not have an outstanding warrant for my arrest, even though not in New York, so I don’t know if that matters, and before you freak out, not that you were going to freak out, it was like three and half years ago, and also property is theft,” and then Erik’s crying and almost-laughing at the same time, so it’s hard to tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it seems like mostly a good thing, so they walk down to the house, and Peter unloads all the info about his mom, and how awesome a mom she was, and how she totally treated him like any other dirtbag teenager, not like a freak at all, and also about Wendy, and Wendy’s dad, who was in the picture for a while, and mostly he’s just talking to keep talking, and to give Erik a chance to get his shit together a little, which must work, because when they get back and tell Hank and Xavier about the sign, Erik doesn’t fly off the handle again, which is so crazy unexpected that Hank keeps looking at Erik like he thinks maybe someone zinged him with a tranquilizer dart or something, or like Erik is faking to cover up for some evil plan, but Peter thinks Xavier knows what’s going on, just from the way he looks at Peter and then at Erik and then distracts Hank with the prospect of writing a letter to the local paper, which does make Erik twitch in a dangerously pre-car-flinging way, but then Xavier and Hank are gone and it’s just Peter and Erik sitting in the burnt-book-smelling library, and Erik’s face goes all smashed-open and strange and distracted.

“Look at you,” he says, and touches Peter’s face again, like he’s still not sure that Peter’s actually there, and Peter says, “Yeah,” because he doesn’t really know what to say, and then he says, “Can I ask you something really fucked-up, or, I mean, it’s not fucked-up, but it might make you…” but he doesn’t know what exactly it might make Erik: sad, or angry, or something else that Peter can’t imagine, so he just leaves it there, and Erik says, “Of course,” and Peter says, “Do I— I kind of don’t have any family, because Mom’s parents died, and they were from some place I’ve never heard of, and she was an only child, and I always wondered if there was, you know, anybody else out there,” and he can tell that does make Erik feel that something else, because his face goes even more smashed-open and he says:

“No,” and his hand drifts down to Peter’s shoulder and gets really heavy there, and he says, “No, there’s no one left, I thought there was no one,” and then he says again, “I thought there was no one,” and when he says it that time, Peter really gets it, like down in his gut he gets it, that no matter what Mystique said in Cairo, on some level he is it, the only person left on earth that Erik’s related to, which, sure, you can argue that bodies don’t matter, and that’s kind of true, like adopted kids are the same as regular kids, and Wendy’s his sister even though she’s his half-sister, but it’s also not true, and it matters that part of his body is sort of Erik’s body, and sort of also Erik’s parents’ bodies, like they put something inside him for safekeeping, something they hoped would survive, which was probably a really dumb thing to do, like, it’s scary to think he’s some sort of repository of something, which (a) he definitely never agreed to be, and (b) what if he fucks it up, what if he’s terrible at being, like, the only other living Lehnsherr, because the truth is that he’s really terrible at a lot of things, like he can’t even cook, and he didn’t finish reading the book about being Jewish, and does he also have to be a Gypsy, because of his mom’s dad, and can you even be both of those things at the same time, and does he even count as Jewish, and he just has so many questions, okay, but then Erik says:

“I don’t have anything to give you. There’s no one; there’s nothing. Only death and suffering. I don’t know why you would want that.”

And first Peter says, “That’s not true,” and then he says, “You’re my dad,” because he thinks that Erik maybe doesn’t get that, that he doesn’t get how for most of Peter’s life there was nothing, just a big blank space question mark nothingness, like Peter was a book with half the pages ripped out, and then Erik says:

“They killed my daughter. Because I was her father. That’s what I have to give you.”

So that shuts Peter up for a second, like Erik tends to come out with these holy shit statements, just kind of casually disemboweling you, so that you’re so busy trying to hold your guts in that you don’t have time to come up with a counter-argument, but then he realizes that what seems to be happening here is that Erik is trying to talk Peter out of being his son, like, who even does that, and also, like Peter’s going to let that happen, and so he says, “Are you seriously trying to talk me out of being your son?” and then he says, “Because you totally don’t get to do that; it’s not your call; and also, you’re alive, so you’re so full of shit, because that counts for something, and you don’t get to say it doesn’t, and even if everything else is super grim, it’s still mine, and you don’t get to tell me I can’t have it; that’s just— like— bullshit, man.”

Which he knows sounds stupid, because he’s really fucking bad at saying what he means, especially when it’s serious stuff, but it must kind of work, because Erik doesn’t drop any more bombs, and in fact he looks like for once Peter’s the one doing the disemboweling, like maybe Erik had never really thought before that it mattered that he was alive, which, obviously it matters, except that Peter remembers that glowy-sword instant when he was absolutely, definitely going to die, and how when he didn’t die it was just like, Oh, okay, cool, but now he thinks it matters that he didn’t die, even if he didn’t get any Eternal Wisdom out of the deal, because he had so much more to do that he hadn’t even imagined, like get hugged by his dad and build a house and play poker with Mystique and babysit a bunch of rugrats and learn the German and Polish words for birds, and it had all turned out pretty good, and it’s probably different for Erik, like way different, with all the shit he’s been through, but still, still, Peter wants to tell him, being alive matters, it matters more than anything, and he must be able to psychically communicate some of this, even though that’s not his mutant power at all, like normally he’s really bad at trying to signal stuff to people, but this time it works, because Erik goes all soft-looking where he had been looking closed off and scary, and Peter says lamely, “So, uh, yeah,” and Erik says, “I want to protect you,” and Peter says, “You know, I can take care of myself; I was in Egypt, and also I broke you out of the Pentagon, and I’ve never actually been arrested, even though I’ve stolen, like, a ton of stuff, andalso— I’m going to stay here and have Mystique train me to be a badass,” which he maybe didn’t know he was going to do until he actually said it, but now it sounds pretty awesome, and it’s definitely, absolutely a better life plan than selling shoes at the mall or working for Morgan Stanley, even if he has to lie about it to his mom, which, he has a feeling he might have to, but maybe he can say he’s a P.E. teacher, which sort of makes sense, and that would be fine with her.

“It’s not a bad idea,” Erik says. “Mystique is a capable person.”

But he ducks his head down and turns away a little bit, so something’s up, not that Peter’s great at reading facial expressions, or that Erik is an expressive dude, but it’s amazing how much you can see if you slow down time and pay attention, not that Peter spends all his time creeping on people and studying their faces, or at least it was just for about a month in high school, but this is important, right, this is like key don’t-fuck-it-up time, so maybe he speeds up a little and goes and stands in front of Erik so he can take a long, long, long look, the look he’s been wanting and not taking for weeks and weeks now, just outright staring at this dude who’s his fucking dad, how crazy is that, pretty crazy, and Erik looks so worn-out, wearing that stupid Fun Walk t-shirt, and he’s sort of closed his eyes like he’s steeling himself against something, like he’s about to walk over hot coals or hold his breath or cut his hand off, and—

“You’re not sticking around,” Peter says.

And Erik doesn’t say anything.

And Peter says, “Go on, go ahead, say it.”

And Erik says, “Not permanently. I can’t.”

And Peter says, “Why?”

And Erik says, “You know why.”

And Peter is tempted to say that of course he doesn’t know why, he’s just a stupid kid, right, he’s just another American who always acts like a stupid kid, so maybe the great Magneto could explain his profound fucking reasoning here, but the problem is that Peter does know why; he remembers what Hank said, and he remembers the lime-green MURDERERS streaked across the front doors, and Erik holding the dead cat like maybe he’d held his daughter’s body, and maybe that’s not even really the reason, maybe Erik just wants to start riots and blow shit up, maybe he’s just a terrorist who wants to save the mutant race, and all he cares about is figuring out how to protect them, like he has to hold onto them the way he sometimes looks like he’s holding onto something when he starts to move metal, the way he shapes his hands around something that no one else can see, something about as thin as an eggshell that keeps threatening to escape, and Erik is trying not to lose it, trying not to break it, and maybe that is all that’s going on here, but Peter doesn’t think so, and anyway, how different is that, really, from the way Erik’s whole body had started shaking when he’d grabbed onto Peter, from the way he’d touched Peter’s face, because it doesn’t seem that different, and it doesn’t seem any more or less scary, that anger-that's-not-really-anger, that heartbeat thing, and Peter doesn’t want to let himself know, but he does, so he says, “Yeah,” and then he says, “I could go with you,” and Erik says, “You’re safer here,” and Peter wants to say Fuck safe, but this is what being an adult is like, isn’t it, having to understand things you don’t want to understand, so he lets out his breath all at once and he just says, “Yeah.”

“I won’t leave you,” Erik says, which seems pretty bonkers, right, like a straight-up contradiction, all things considered, but again Peter gets what he actually means, and Peter says, “Yeah, I know,” even though he doesn’t know, really, but he kind of believes it’s true, that already Erik would do just about anything to not leave Peter behind again.

So this is the story of how Peter finds and loses his father, sort of. And after that they go in to dinner like nothing is different, like this day is just the same as any other day, and Hank has cooked some kind of godawful flatbread with pesto, and Peter makes fake barfing noises and still ends up shoving about seventeen pieces in his mouth, and Mystique says he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, and that way maybe he could raise money for the school, and Xavier says, “Please don’t encourage him,” and Peter drums out the opening bass line of Pink Floyd’s “Money” using his fork and his plate and his plastic water glass, and then he says, “You know, I should totally start a band, that’s how we can raise money,” and Hank says, “You are not starting a band,” and Peter says, “You’re not the boss of me, man,” and then, “I would totally shred, it’d be awesome,” and Hank says, “If we need to raise money, we’re having a bake sale,” and Peter says, “Wow, could you be any more suburban dad,” and the conversation goes downhill from there, but mostly in the way where no one ends up hating each other or getting hurt, except for Hank’s ego, which maybe gets hurt a little, and halfway through Peter looks across the table to see Erik just sort of watching him, and at first he thinks, Oh, man, he thinks I’m a fucking idiot, because, let’s be real, he’s kind of being a fucking idiot and he knows it, but the look on Erik’s face isn’t like that, it’s sort of like something about Peter is totally amazing to him, not just like he still doesn’t know how Peter happened, although that’s maybe some of it, but like Peter knows how to do something he doesn’t know how to do, like he’s watching Peter do a magic trick, and he wants to learn how to do it, and he thinks if he watches Peter long enough, he might figure the basics out, and Peter wishes he could explain that it’s not that hard, it’s not like a mutant power, he’s not some kind of special genius, and even though he doesn’t know what it is really, he feels like Erik already has it in him, even if he thinks he doesn’t or thinks he doesn’t anymore, but Peter can still try to show him, and they have plenty of time to practice, even if Erik goes away, because he’ll come back again, he has to come back, because they still have a lot of stuff to do together, is the thing, right. They have a lot of safekeeping to do.


Epilogue.

The day that the Magical Mystery Mansion is finished, like really finished, like really really finished, with all rooms finally complete and accounted for, and also all sub-basements, fucking danger rooms, security fences, and paramilitary jets, and no wet paint that people stick their hands in no matter how many signs you put up, or weird gaps in the floorboards, or broken windows that birds get in through so that you have to chase them around the Northwest Dormitory for a half a day, shaking a broomstick at them and yelling, “Hey! Hey, dumbass!” (not that Peter’s speaking from experience here), or also hot water heaters that break because it turns out that Erik’s not nearly as good a plumber as he is a terrorist, which, if you think about it, is really saying a lot— after all that, the school throws a lawn party that rages on till about two in the morning, with Xavier wearing a party hat and Hank doing his best to completely fuck up something as simple and All-American as barbecue, and Storm cooking green gloop in a deep fat fryer and claiming it’s some kind of Egyptian specialty, and also there’s, like, a ton of ice cream and Tab soda, and Mystique shaking martinis for the grown-ups, and a lot of really bad dancing to The Human League, and everyone making about thirty thousand toasts to the house, and at least a few toasts to the fact that Peter’s got his cast off, and will now be at least 20% less of a pain in the ass, and then some of the kids fuck around and accidentally re-invent cherries jubilee, except cherries jubilee a la mutant, which you make by breathing fire at brandied cherries, except that the cherries aren’t the only thing that catch fire in the end, and Peter has to make about seventeen trips with a bucket to put the flaming topiary out, and after that everything smells like a cross between burning cherries and bonfires, and also kind of like Kentucky bourbon, though Peter thinks that last is because they’ve finally collectively driven Hank to drink, so, way to go, kids, what a fun party, and he actually means that with 100% sincerity, and also he gets the last of the cherries jubilee for playing fire brigade, so that’s not bad.

Erik left about a week back, looking super-cleaned-up, like, he was wearing a suit and he’d gotten a haircut, and he’d actually shaved, so that was good, right, that he’d stopped living like a hobo, except that All New Erik looked a lot more like Magneto, only instead of fuchsia it was all charcoal shades, and weirdly he also looked like a real adult, too, the kind of dude who might have a retirement portfolio, or play golf on the weekends, or think about buying a luxury sedan, and Peter was kind of glad he was a terrorist, and that he therefore probably, surely (right?) wouldn’t do any of those things, since they didn’t seem like the type of things terrorists were into, at least from what Peter knew about terrorists, and definitely they didn’t seem like the type of things that Erik was into, seeing as how he’d gone more than a month without owning clothes, and also had spent like ten years in prison once, and had been perfectly happy living in Soviet Poland, which, from what he’d told Peter, was not big into the decadent capitalist goods, so maybe Peter has nothing to worry about, right, no matter how slick Erik’s clothes are, and it’s crazy for him to feel like he’s losing something, because Erik’s coming back, like, he’d told Peter, “I’m coming back,” even though he couldn’t really promise that, especially since he was probably going off to do a bunch of crazy illegal stuff, and he’d also given Peter a bunch of complicated codes and numbers that had to do with a Swiss bank, “just in case,” like what the fuck did that mean, just in case, like, I’m coming back, but just in case I get arrested or blown up, or Caveman Smurf the Second shows up and I gotta go destroy the world with him, and also, so when he’d said he had nothing to give, he’d obviously meant, like apart from money, but Peter can kind of dig that, because he just steals whatever he wants, so money’s not really a problem, it’s just the other stuff that’s a problem, like the standing on the terrace watching Erik drive off stuff, which made Peter feel about ten years old, or also the stuff before that, when Erik did one of his weird not-really-a-hug hugs, the kind that made Peter feel like he was Erik’s flotation cushion after an Indian Ocean plane crash, and that was when Erik had said, “I’m coming back,” and Peter had said, “Okay,” just okay, because he was a lame-o, and then they had stared at each other for a while like stupid assholes, and then Erik was gone.

It’s not like it’s a big deal, though, because Peter’s totally busy, so it’s not like he’s sitting around sulking about the fact that Erik left, because he’s training with Mystique now, which is a fucking nightmare, but also kind of really fun, and sometimes they hang out afterwards and she tells him embarrassing stories about Erik from the years when they were on the run, like the time they were trying to help a mutant who could tell you the history of any object escape from her abusive home, and she brought her twin five-year-old daughters with her, and Erik had to babysit them, and they tied him to a chair with a feather boa, and put lipstick and glitter on him, and he couldn’t escape because there were no scissors or knives in the room, which is just, frankly, an amazing story, and sometimes Mystique also tells him serious stories, like she’s trying to explain something important about Erik, something she’s afraid Peter’s doesn’t see, even though he’s pretty sure he gets it, but he likes hearing the stories, and he likes hanging out with Mystique, and in the rest of his free time, he’s working on the garden, which is the one part of Xaviertopia that hasn’t been fixed yet, seeing as how the priority was the house, but it was pretty much trashed when most of the house landed on it, and even though Peter has, like, the furthest thing from a green thumb, and therefore is staying far away from the actual garden, now that his cast is off he’s working on building a garden wall, a good one, one that’ll look like it’s been there forever, not like the old one got blown up and this one is brand new. He’s taking his time, finding the right stones from all over, some of them picked out from the leftover pieces of rubble, and some of them from the woods around the house, and some of them from rivers and lakes all over Westchester County, so that they’re a really good size and nice and smooth, and little bit by little bit, the wall keeps growing.

This morning, a flat brown envelope came in the mail for him, with a foreign postmark and no return address, and when he opened it, there was just one piece of paper inside: a black-and-white Xerox of a really old photo of a man and a woman and a little boy. They were posed on a bench in some kind of garden, and the boy’s legs were too short to touch the ground, and the woman’s hair was curled and pinned up in some complicated 1930s fashion, and her smile was not quite a smile, more a hint of smile, like she was stopping herself smiling, maybe biting her lip, and after the photo was taken, then she would really smile, and the man was wearing a crazy old-time hat tilted over one ear and his tie was knotted up really tight, and he looked proud of himself, kind of like a bird puffing out its chest, and he had a soft upturned chin and a shapeless face that probably everyone told him wasn’t going to age very well, which is the same thing Wendy says to Peter when she’s being super-bitchy, pointing at his own copy of that same chin and face (“You’re going to go all jowly, like a sad Rottweiler!”) and when Peter turned the sheet of paper over, the handwriting on the back said Jakob, Erik, and Edie Lehnsherr, 1938, Yad Vashem Archives, and he turned the paper back over and looked at it again, at the little boy frozen in the act of kicking his legs forward, like he was about to take flight into the air, like if he could run fast enough he’d run all the way into the future, and Peter covered the whole photograph with his hands, pushing against it like there was something to absorb, something he could soak up through his skin, like if he moved his hands fast enough he could vibrate right through the paper, just like he’d done with the glass on top of Erik’s prison cell, when he hadn’t even known that it was his dad standing there, waiting on the other side, just like that, even though this time there was nothing but paper, he still put his hands there and imagined it for a minute, still— still—

Now, kind of tipsy after drinking one-and-a-half of Mystique’s martinis, curse his mutant physiology, and feeling kind of bizarrely sentimental about the whole landscape of Xavierland, the United States of Xavier, the Xavierian Republic, not only the house but all those acres of trees and grass, but also the house, because he’d helped to rebuild that house, like, with his own hands, which he’d never done before, he’d never helped to build something, and it’s weird how you feel like you own part of something after you do that, even though he still thinks about Xavier’s great-grandfather’s trees and furniture and china and feels weird about it, not so much angry as just weird, kind of short of breath and achey, now he thinks it’s not so bad, because the new house is new and it belongs to lots of people, it belongs to mutants, it belongs to Erik and him— so now Peter wanders out from under the shadow of the new house to where the garden is looking pretty fucking ragged, with all the rubble still lying in it, and his half-built wall just kind of cutting off at one point, and all kinds of crazy-ass weeds that have grown about three feet tall because no one’s been bothering to cut them back, and he thinks it’s amazing that with all the work they’ve done there’s still so fucking much work to do, but he’s way too drunk to worry about it right now, so he just makes his way out to his wall, and he feels in his pocket for the stone Jean gave him, something she found when she and Scott went to the Catskills for a picnic, and it’s a good stone, sort of sturdy and fist-shaped, and Peter finds a spot where it fits and he slots it in there, and then he stands there looking at it, thinking that he should ask Erik to bring him back stones from other countries, because that would be cool, to have stones from some other place, like maybe even stones from Poland and Germany and Moldavia and Ukraine, because he’s finally looked up Bessarabia in the World Book Encyclopedia, and that’s what it is now, the Moldavian and Ukrainian Republics, and he just thinks it would be good to have something from there, because he’s from there, partly, and, like, he always thought of his missing family as some kind of blank space, like they’d just been erased and he’d never know anything about them, but now he thinks he was wrong, because he’s here, isn’t he, with his weird dark eyes and his grandfather’s face and his girly-looking mouth and his pale skin, with his freckles this summer from being outdoors too much, which Mystique made fun of because she said he looked like he was about fifteen years old, and all that stuff comes from somewhere, doesn’t it, right, so all the people he never knew are still a part of him, not just ash and dirt in other countries, but here, alive, almost like ghosts, but not the scary kind, just a presence he’s aware of as he checks the wall, making sure none of the stones are wobbly and everything fits, and maybe some of those people would think he’s a whiny kid, and a dumbass, and maybe they’d be like, “What the fuck are you wearing,” which they’d be totally wrong about, by the way, because his clothes are awesome, awesome and silver, like Quicksilver, but it’s something he can imagine old people complaining about, but in fact he thinks they’d probably still be pretty proud of him, he thinks they’d be happy, because in spite of everything that’s happened, Peter Maximoff is here. He’s here, and he’s going to be okay.