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His Terrible Swift Sword

by Yahtzee

[Story Headers]

Posted: Tuesday, August 26, 2003 7:32 PM

The following characters are the property of Marvel Comics, 20th Century Fox and various other corporate entities; they are used herein without permission, expectation of profit or intent of infringement. The following story is rated NC-17 for explicit sexual situations, both het and slash, and for references to violence.

This story follows X-Men canon for the movies, rather than for the comics. Where possible, I used the comics canon for background, but the more research I did, the more I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to do comics canon justice without having done the reading so many others have done. Also, in some points the movies and the comics are in clear conflict (Patrick Stewart's Xavier is obviously not from New York), so I went with the movies canon so that I would write what I understood. Spoilers for both X-Men and X2 are included; this story takes place approximately three years after the end of X2.

I owe a great debt of gratitude toward my betas: Starlet (who got me better acquainted with these people), Rheanna (who can plan a world war in about 30 minutes flat), Corinna (who warned me of errors, aardvarkian and otherwise), and most especially Shalott, who bought me dinner when I was flat broke and only asked for a fic in return. Here you go, hon. Hope the return is worth it. Thanks also to Rodney and Jesse, who gave me more information about the X-Men than Stan Lee could ever hope to know, and understand that they are not allowed to read the NC17 stuff, or at least never, ever, through word or deed, to hint that they have read the NC17 stuff.


Caliburn Falls, British Columbia, Canada, 2006

In theory, it would be possible to get central heat put in the cabin. It was in the far northern reaches of Saskatchewan, almost as far out of the way as it was possible to get, which was the idea. But the few people who chose to live here understandably put a high premium on heat. They told him -- when he couldn't avoid talking to them -- that there was some guy out of Roddington who'd make the drive in, anytime from March to October, and get him all set up. The guy charged through the nose, but when you're the only source of central heat in a 100-mile radius, that's your prerogative. Most people chose to pay it. All you had to do was pony up the cash, wait around for him to show up and, times being what they were and regulations getting stricter all the time, show some ID.

Logan used a wood stove.

He picked up another log, set it on the stump, and slashed downward. Kindling. He picked up yet another, kept going. Although his claws would have gone through the wood a lot faster, Logan used an ax. Even as far from the rest of humanity as he'd managed to get, there was no telling when somebody would come by and see the wrong thing. Sometimes he chopped extra, sold it. No shortage of a market for it around there, even so early in the year. It hadn't snowed yet -- but it would soon. Logan could smell it, coming in behind the frost.

The brown grass crunched beneath his feet, and he looked up into the distant mountains. Logan was too far away to see the Alkali Lake installation itself, but he was close enough to see the mountains that had bordered it.

Pretty much the last sight Jean would have seen, before she'd died.

Morbid, to come here and live by her grave. Even Logan knew that. But he'd only broken down and come here after it seemed a hell of a lot more morbid to stay at Xavier's side. Better to relive one death than watch dozens more, new ones, painful ones, all the time.

He knew a few of his neighbors -- if that word applied to people who lived 10 and 20 miles away -- wondered about him, asked questions behind his back. He'd picked this place because it was fairly far from Loughlin City, and therefore from anybody who might remember a cage-fighter called the Wolverine; still, sometimes he worried. But mostly Logan figured they took him for a draft-dodger, one of thousands who had relived the 1960s by trekking north, rather than fight a war they either didn't agree with or just didn't think they could win. Logan guessed, as far as that went, his neighbors were right.

Logan would have fought with the X-Men forever. But the X-Men had quit fighting, and Logan was damned if he'd just stand by and watch them die.

When the U. S. government clamped down, when the school had finally been destroyed, Logan had helped them get as far south as Florida. Then he'd left during the night, headed north without ever looking back. The Professor hadn't said anything to stop him, which Logan took as permission, even though the Professor wasn't exactly himself at the time.

Logan's only regret was that he hadn't said goodbye to Rogue. Sometimes he thought that was only because she would have talked him out of it. Sometimes he thought it was because she would have convinced him to let him come along with her. Either thought was good enough reason for him to have kept his silence. He figured Rogue understood without him explaining it, anyway.

Logan felt the breeze stirring again -- harsher this time, colder. Yeah, he thought, snow's coming. The river's gonna freeze over soon.

He thought about that river too much, about what lay down in those depths, about the fact that Jean drowned. Logan figured that was probably one of the few ways he might actually be able to die. He wondered what it was like, how Jean would describe it if she could.

Morbid, he thought, as matter-of-factly as he had thought about the snow, and the river. He picked up another log and kept chopping.

Havana, Cuba

Eight more days, Bobby thought.

He couldn't think about what was happening in eight days. He had to control his thoughts better than that. Bobby never knew he had that kind of discipline in him, to be able to control his every thought for -- man, it was almost six months now since he'd come up with his plan. In all that time, he'd never done or said or even thought anything to give himself away, which was something he planned on congratulating himself about, when he could think about it at leisure. At the moment, he could only keep those words in his mind, those words and no more. They formed a refrain as he ran his laps, around the hotel grounds, early in the morning, before it got too hot to run. (The only shade came from a few palm trees, which had long since ceased to look exotic, even to a guy from Boston.) Eight days eight days eight days eight days. The words had no meaning; they were just sounds, ways of marking time.

What was really amazing, Bobby thought, was that the others hadn't screwed up either. Bobby knew he wasn't some mental giant like the Professor, or even like Dr. Grey used to be when she was alive. But in the self-control department, he figured he was probably miles ahead of Cannonball or Shadowcat.

Then again, he had a good teacher.

For three years, he'd been with Rogue -- forever near, forever out of touch. The two of them had pretty much figured out the absolute boundaries of what you can do through clothes, which were a lot further than he'd ever figured before. Still, though -- Bobby was 20, and he'd wanted too much, for too long, not to have it go a little sour within him. The yearning wasn't as sharp anymore; there was a hollowness to it, more every day. As hard as he tried to keep that from Rogue, he was pretty sure she saw it, down deep. The energy he'd first loved about her, the feisty strength that he'd envied and tried to imitate, was tired now. Sapped out.

She tried so damn hard to keep him happy anyway -- finding pictures in old books to hang up in their crummy rooms, dusting up the scrollwork, making this place look a little less run-down, a little more like the luxury hotel it used to be. Rogue wanted this place to be a home for everyone, most of all for her and Bobby. He hated that she knew she'd failed. He wished there were some way he could tell her that it was his failure, not hers.

He used to dream that it could all change. That the Professor would find a way to fix everything. But Bobby didn't believe that anymore, and he was pretty sure Professor Xavier didn't either. Rogue -- Rogue still believed. That was just one more of the thousands of reasons to feel bad for her.

But in a few days, he thought, I'm gonna stop hiding. I'm gonna start fighting. And when I'm done fighting, when I've finally changed things around here, they'll understand. Rogue, the Professor, Colossus, everybody. They'll get it, later.

The sun rose a little higher in the sky, beating down mercilessly. Quickly, Bobby sent some cool jets of air flowing in front of him so he could run through them, feel a little less burnt and beat. How could this be October? he wondered. Why did people act like living in the tropics was such a great idea? Bobby was sick of it, sick of waking up drenched in sweat and having to chill his own room down to get back to sleep, sick of trying to learn Spanish, sick of Rogue saying how much she liked it here, sick of everybody still acting like the Professor had some answers he just hadn't mentioned yet. But those were all details; he knew none of that was what was really getting to him. Most of all, he was sick of watching the world consumed by a battle he wasn't even allowed to fight.

Yeah, Bobby thought, I can change this.

I've got to.

In eight more days. Eight days eight days eight days.

Rogue didn't think Cuba was that bad. No matter what Bobby said.

Sure, it was warm, she thought, as she wandered down by the beach. But the people who bitched and whined about it obviously grew up in cooler climates than Meridian, Mississippi; Rogue figured the temperatures were a couple degrees cooler there, but factor in the humidity, and it wasn't so different from Havana. And the hotel was all beat-up, sure, but what did you expect? It was 50 or 60 years old. At least the rooms were large, and most of the furniture was really nice, even if it was old, and it hadn't been kept up.

It beat the hell out of a 'detention camp" 200 feet underground, where your food came in packets dropped down an electrified chute, where nobody's powers could ever blast you out.

In Cuba, they didn't have to be scared of being treated like that -- didn't have to apologize for what they were, didn't have to hide their powers. The people there were glad they were mutants. Actually glad! Kids asked them to show off their powers in the streets -- Storm was a particular favorite with the little ones, who begged for snowflakes -- and Rogue had caught Bobby making ice roses for a few giggling girls with T-shirts tied above their lean, tan midriffs to show all that golden skin, skin somebody could actually touch.

The important thing, Rogue thought resolutely, is that we're all still together. Almost all of us, anyway.

Logan's departure would have hit her harder if it had been the first. Others had gone, too, even before the school was destroyed. Gambit had been one of the early ones; there had been an ugly scene in the stairwell, with Cyclops yelling, totally losing his temper, something Rogue had never heard before. The Professor finally had to make the others let Gambit go, even though he must have hated to do that. When Domino went, the arguments were shorter. And after the school was destroyed, nobody argued at all.

An older couple further down the beach were staring. Rogue didn't know what the tip-off was -- most likely it was the white streaks in her hair, always faithfully reproduced in the graffiti murals by the side of the road. Whatever it was, they recognized her and waved frantically. She waved back, hoping they wouldn't come and want a picture. Most of them knew better, by now, than to ask HER for a demonstration of her powers.

The older couple, satisfied, settled back into their beach chairs. Rogue breathed a sigh of relief

Even if nobody else did, Rogue understood why Logan couldn't stay. She'd heard Storm grumbling about it to Nightcrawler once, about how, when it came down to it, Wolverine just didn't care. You don't get it, she'd wanted to say. If Logan didn't care, he could stay here and fight with us. If he didn't care, it wouldn't matter that we're los -- that the fight is so hard. But he does care, and it hurts him every time something bad happens, and he's not used to the way that hurts.

As she stared out at the water, Rogue wished she hadn't gotten so good at bearing that pain herself. And by herself -- the days when she could lay all her burdens at Bobby's feet, talk about him with anything in the world, were long over. She didn't think he was cheating on her, but if her own sexual frustration was any gauge, she wasn't sure she would have been able to blame him if he did. It was worse by far that he kept his thoughts from her, forcing her to lock her own thoughts up inside her head.

Logan -- she could have talked to Logan. He wasn't much of a talker himself, but he was a better listener than most people gave him credit for.

Rogue smiled as she remembered talking with him while they worked on the cars; she'd pretended to know something about wrenches and carburetors and fan belts until, one day, to her surprise, she did. Years later, she realized that Logan had recognized her ignorance all along, had taught her without acting like he was teaching her. The first time she'd been able to repair one of Forge's special accelerators by herself -- it had been almost as good as the first time she'd been able to use her powers to help someone, instead of hurt them. Rogue had loved feeling so strong, so smart, so sure.

Sometimes she thought she'd give anything to feel like that again.

But Rogue understood, better than most people: There wasn't any point in wishing for what you couldn't have. Logan was gone, and so were so many of the others, and so was the school. Instead they had a safe place to live, a government that not only gave them rights but also privileges, and -- hey -- a view of the ocean.

She didn't think Cuba was that bad.

above Berlin, Germany

"Almost there," Mystique said, smiling brilliantly as she turned from the jet's controls. She was in her natural shape, sleek and sensual. The red and green lights of the plane's controls reflected off her sharklike skin, though not her dull red helmet.

Pyro hated the helmet. It was heavy, and it itched, and it made everybody who wore it -- yeah, Magneto too -- look like a total dork. And you had to wear it all the time; you were even supposed to sleep in it. Pyro didn't do that, but he waited until the last second to take it off. He knew that it was important, understood real well why they wore them.

Didn't mean he had to like it.

"Look at 'em run," Pyro said, more to himself than anyone else, but Mystique smiled, her white teeth brilliant in her blue face. Beneath the transport plane Condor, he could see long lines of cars attempting to flee the city, like rivers of light. Sorry, guys, he thought. The time for getting the hell out of Dodge was a few weeks ago. Now the borders are closed, and you guys are fucked.

He wished they hadn't waited until nighttime; the Condor was black and broad, and when you flew this low over the ground, you could see the shadow falling over the houses and cars, see the panic on people's faces as it swooped in. Pyro never got tired of seeing that.

"Well, well," Magneto said, leaning forward to behold the lines of cars. "Abandoning the Motherland. And here I always thought of Germans as being patriotic -- a slight virtue, but at least it was something. And it turns out they haven't even that."

"They all run," Screener said quietly. "You know they all run in the end."

Magneto glared backwards, where a dozen of the Brotherhood -- Pyro liked to think of them all as the elite -- were gathered, and specifically at Screener. Screener was NOT the elite, just useful, which he'd apparently just forgotten. What he'd said sounded too much like Screener was defending the humans, something he didn't like much and Magneto liked even less. But, for once, Magneto seemed to let it go. "Have you ever been to Germany before, boys?"

"Once, when I was little -- but, but I don't remember much," Screener said, fidgeting in his seat, the way he so often did when he talked to Magneto. Sometimes Pyro wanted to scorch the terror right out of that kid. Screener acted like he was a hostage, not a warrior of the Brotherhood.

"Never came here," Pyro said. "Never wanted to."

"Americans," Magneto said, his voice dry. "You should get to know this country. It's ours now."

"One of ours," Mystique added.

"Fly the plane." She responded to the command with a throaty chuckle, then returned to her work. Magneto leaned forward and said, quietly, "As it happens, this is my first trip to Germany as well." He seemed to find that funny, for some reason; the corners of his mouth tilted upward. But he didn't let Pyro in on the joke.

"I remember that the food was good," Screener offered, smiling shyly at Pyro. He wanted Pyro to like him, so obviously that it automatically made Pyro dislike him. True, Pyro didn't dislike him all the time; even he would admit that Screener had a cool set of powers. The kid was about 5'2" and scrawny, but he was strong as hell. Even better, he could fly. But the absolute best, most kick-ass power of all was Screener's ability to share. All Pyro (or any other mutant) had to do was grab onto his arm, get this Irish-whisky burn all over your body, and then, bam, you had his powers for a couple hours. The first time Pyro had flown, it had been better than vodka, better than sex, better than absolutely anything in the world besides fire. Screener could amp up something like 50 or 60 mutants before he got tired, which kicked ass, even if Screener didn't seem to know it.

Another factor in Pyro's favor: Screener was one of the few Brotherhood members younger than he was. Screener was the one they treated like a kid. After years of racking up demerits at Xavier's school for shit like being late to class, Pyro didn't ever need to be treated like a kid ever again.

But Screener didn't even mind it. Screener ACTED like a kid. One time Pyro asked him if he wouldn't be happier back at home with his mommy -- but then Screener locked himself in a room for four days. Magneto had to peel off the door hinges to get him out. That guy did NOT want to talk about his mom, or anything else about his home in Norway. But one thing was for sure: The kid was in no hurry to go back.

Pyro knew, sometimes, that he was angrier with Screener than he ought to be -- that the kid got under his skin too quickly, and for no real reason.

For the first time, as he watched Screener squirm, Pyro understood that at least some of his dislike was based in the fact that the kid looked a little like Bobby. Not so most people would notice; Rogue would probably tell him he was crazy. But they had that dark-blond hair, the same blue eyes. Bobby was taller, though, and he was solid where Screener was skinny. Probably even more filled-out now, Pyro figured.

Bobby was the only one Pyro had to tell himself he didn't miss. The first few months with the Brotherhood had been different; every now and then he'd think of a joke Rogue would like, or reminded himself that he ought to get those CDs he'd lent to Colossus back -- and then remembered he wasn't going to see those guys again, ever. Rogue would have to come up with her own jokes. Colossus racked up on the free CDs. But it had been a long time since he'd let any of that shit bother him.

Because he was with the Brotherhood now, and living the way mutants ought to live. Not hiding who they were or what they could do. Working together, doing everything they could to get stronger, do more.

Taking over the world.

Havana, Cuba

"Here is your tea, Professor." Nightcrawler smiled a little too brightly as he set the steaming cup of Darjeeling by the bedside. Among Nightcrawler's many virtues was a near-total sincerity; that, combined with his natural optimism, made his efforts to hide sadness heartbreaking to behold.

"Thank you, Kurt," Charles Xavier said. Nightcrawler flushed a slightly darker blue, which might have been gratitude, embarrassment or both. Xavier could not exert himself to discern which. "Tell me --" he cleared his throat, aware of how seldom he spoke at length anymore. "--how are the devotionals going?"

"Better," Nightcrawler said, and this time his smile was real. "El Presidente, he still disapproves, but he does not send anyone to watch or report anymore. So more people are coming. Humans and mutants together -- it is a fine thing to see." He paused, then said, "Will you not join us this Sunday? We are studying Ecclesiastes. A book of wisdom, surely of interest to such a man as yourself."

How could they still look to him for wisdom?

Moved, saddened, Xavier said only, "If -- if I feel up to it."

Nightcrawler's smile diminished only the smallest degree. Xavier was quite sure that the others understood, by now, that "If I feel up to it" was his way of saying no.

At first, he had meant it -- once he could mean anything, once he could speak aloud. He had been within Cerebro when the military jets fired into the heart of it; it was a miracle he had survived the initial blast, and only Scott's heroics had saved him from burning to death in the wreckage. Xavier remembered none of this himself, but he had gleaned it, in bits and pieces, from those around him. His recovery -- physical and psychic -- was still far from complete.

Storm told him his recovery was taking too long. She stopped herself from saying that it was because he didn't try hard enough. That much, Xavier already knew.

"Scott wanted to talk to you, if you were feeling well," Nightcrawler said as he finished tidying up the Professor's bedside. "Shall I tell him he can come up?"

Scott. The truest believer of them all. Let his hands be stained with the blood of the world, and Scott would still stand by his side.

"I'm tired, Kurt," Xavier said. "Tell Scott I'll speak to him later." His own sadness was nearly overpowering; he could not endure Scott's as well. Whatever strength in Scott had once found in Jean's memory had been sapped when the home the two had shared was destroyed, along with their shared dream.

Nightcrawler hesitated, clearly wanting to argue. But instead, he simply took the tray and went out, his tail dragging limply behind him.

Ecclesiastes. A time to be born, and a time to die. Xavier wondered if Nightcrawler understood how many of the people who flocked to his side now, human or mutant, did so not out of faith but from fear. Knowing Nightcrawler, he probably did, and he would have said it didn't matter. What was it he'd once said? Something like -- "Any path that leads to God is a good path." Something like that.

Xavier could have discerned this in an instant, if he'd so chosen. He could have reached out with his mind, pushed himself past the boundaries of his injury, sifted gently through the memories of those around him until he found the exact quote.

Instead he remained locked up within the prison of his own thoughts. He told himself that he was healing, that he was getting better, restoring himself to his full strength the better to help his X-Men. But in truth, Xavier fought his own recovery -- resisted the day he would lead them once more. His leadership had only brought his followers despair and death.

Scott had done better for them, if only they would see it. Scott was the one who had managed the evacuation of the school, even as so many died and panic reigned. Scott was the one who had taken the communiqu from Castro and realized that it wasn't a crackpot offer but a genuine opportunity. America and China were now unlikely but powerful allies, destroying mutants wherever they could be found. Europe fell deeper into Magneto's grip every day. But the Third World was hungrier, both literally and figuratively, than it had even been before. There, and there alone, were humans willing to take what power they could get to protect themselves in the midst of total war.

If that power was provided by mutants -- well, nations such as Cuba and Chile and Madagascar and Sri Lanka wouldn't argue too much about sources. And so, by the time Xavier had come to again, Scott had brought them halfway to Havana, to more safety and security than they'd ever known before. Even at his school.

He'd never felt old when he still had the school. But now --

Xavier tried to remember the young man he had been. The one who had known Erik Lensherr, trusted him, loved him. But he couldn't picture either of them through the innocent eyes of youth; instead, the only image he had was of the Negev Desert, stretching out before them, desolate and yet, in those years, full of promise.

Promises. He had promised safety to children in his school, who had died at the hands of the very people Xavier had told them to have faith in. Xavier had known them as runaways, huddled in alleys, crying on cots in shelters. A precious few of them had been brought to him by parents who loved their sons and daughters despite their differences, who wanted something better for them than they could ever provide themselves. He'd sworn to keep those children safe, and instead he'd been carried, unconscious, through hallways strewn with their dead bodies. Scott hadn't meant to show him that, but he had, all the same.

Xavier had believed, throughout his life, in the goodness at the heart of humanity, had held it up as a shield against Erik's attacks. That shield had, in time, become a wall, the foundation of Xavier's beliefs and the barrier that stood between him and Erik forever. He'd never been afraid of the risks he took, had never stopped searching for hope. And instead, he had found this: war, destruction, death and defeat.

His thoughts flowed -- as they so often did -- across the ocean. To the first man who had ever heard his thoughts, so long ago.

He knew that Erik could not hear. The pathways between them -- first in one way, then in another -- had been blocked for years, and would remain so forever. And yet Xavier's thoughts still reached out to him. Old habits.

Xavier thought only, You were right.

Berlin, Germany

Magneto wished that Xavier could see this. He tried to tell himself that he wanted Xavier to see it and be humbled, to know that his futile efforts to prop up the weakness of humanity had failed. But within him, he knew it was different -- he wished that Xavier could see it and exult as he did, that he could share in the triumph of mutantkind.

Surely Xavier, at least, would have understood why this city meant so much to him. Magneto brushed the feeling aside. He'd long since given up trying to be understood.

Mystique settled the jet onto the pad at Berlin-Tegel. How convenient, not to have to wait for other air traffic. There was none -- would be none, not for a long while. Magneto thought it best if the residents of Berlin spent some time at home, considering their new situation in some detail.

"Screener. Screener?". The boy did not respond. Magneto felt his temper sour. A little more loudly, he said, "Geir?"

Screener responded to his human name, realized what he'd done, then blanched even whiter. He was forever terrified of Magneto, Mystique and anyone else with one shred of authority. It went back to his parents -- sad story, that --and Magneto didn't consider it his problem to fix. "Screener," he repeated. "Please see to everyone on the plane. I believe the city is thoroughly under control, but if any last holdouts want to cause trouble, they'll try to attack at the airport."

Berlin. At last, he thought, Berlin is mine. Ours. With relatively little in the way of a standing military, with weaponry concentrated in the long-range, heavy-duty armaments that could do them no good against mutants, most European nations were falling quickly. Even more quickly than Magneto had ever dared hope.

The path was so simple, really. Magneto had begun by reaching out to the dissident groups within each nation -- and every nation, no matter how wealthy, no matter how peaceful, houses those who would gladly see it fall. He promised them weapons, money and the sweetest fruit of all, power. They began the process: Blowing up transportation routes, economic centers, power plants. Then a few mutants would go in and strike (at random, generally; Magneto liked to allow his troops a little liberty) to thicken the atmosphere of terror. With supplies and finances strained, and the people in increasing levels of panic -- to put it simply, Magneto generally found that by the time the Brotherhood came in, most of the work of conquest had been done for him. He came in promising order, and by the time he came, people were too exhausted or afraid to fight against it.

As they'd gained more and more territory, the time it took to work the populace into a terror got shorter and shorter. Germany had crumbled the fastest of all, a fact that tasted very sweet indeed.

"Hit me," Pyro said, holding his hand out to Screener and grinning. A far more successful protg, Magneto thought. He must make a point of thanking Xavier for him, someday.

Until recently, every bit of progress Magneto and his forces had made could have been undone by Xavier in an instant. Had Xavier only used his powers, he could have turned every one of Magneto's mutants into his own personal weapons for human defense. So he had done, a few years ago.

But then the American military -- ever so obliging -- had taken Xavier out of commission for a few months. A few months was all it took for Magneto to assemble the resources he needed. He'd made hundreds of helmets like his own, concentrating for hours on each, creating the complex layers of specialized alloys that were necessary to block out Xavier's telepathic power.

So it was that Xavier had awakened to find a world greatly changed, and Magneto's soldiers now beyond any telepath's control. They'd gained power in the Mediterranean first, Italy and Spain, and had worked their way upward. Now Berlin was theirs. Berlin! And soon --

Magneto smiled as he strode from the jet, head held high.

Eight more days, he thought.

Chapter 1

Tel Aviv, Israel, 1954

The city was almost too much to bear.

His mother and stepfather had moved him out of the city late in the war; so many people fled the bombing that nobody commented on it. He'd gone to small schools and private tutors, avoided town as much as possible. Even the ship hadn't been too bad, because he'd forced himself to sleep days and be awake nights, when only a few people were up. But now they were driving through a city, through streets where people were crowded together, alert and alive and thinking --

"Are you quite all right, Charles?" Dr. Avidan called, smiling at him from the seat of the jeep. Charles Xavier did not trust himself to reply aloud, but he forced himself to smile. He clutched his satchel closer to him, trying to concentrate on the feel of the leather in his hands, the weight of it on his lap. Dr. Avidan apparently took that for a yes and kept driving.

Yeshara Avidan was not at all what Charles had been expecting, and he supposed she wasn't what his mother had expected either. He had thought he would be put into the care of an old woman, gray and wizened, not someone who looked to be only ten or twelve years older than himself. He had confessed his darkest secrets and traveled halfway across the world on the power of this woman's words, on the hope he'd found in her letters. He wouldn't have minded if she'd been -- a little grayer. A little older. Somebody who knew more.

But then, who knew more about this?

"You must be tired," she said. Her voice was amused, if warm, when she added, "Hot, too."

"You're better dressed for this weather than I am," Charles said. He'd worn his best suit, gray flannel. Dr. Avidan, who wore a simple cotton dress and bare legs -- his mother would be horrified -- looked much more comfortable. He shifted his satchel awkwardly under one arm, tried to brush his damp black hair away from his sweaty brow. "But -- yes, I wouldn't mind freshening up."

Freshening up? That sounded like something his mother would say, and Charles flushed; fortunately, Dr. Avidan was likely to assume that was only from the heat. Charles wanted very much to seem like a grown man, a traveler, somebody worthy of joining a great experiment, rather than what he was -- a schoolboy who'd finished his A-levels just a few days before boarding the ship to Israel. He couldn't help reading her, of course, but he could sense only a light amusement and a strong concentration on the road; one of the reasons he'd come to Israel was to learn how to read more of a person's mind -- or less -- at will, instead of the random, powerful flashes that now ruled him.

Dr. Avidan just smiled as she kept maneuvering through the traffic, which seemed to operate on some wholly different scheme of speed and right-of-way. "Best take off your jacket. We have a long drive ahead, and it's only begun once we get out of town."

Town, she called it. Tel Aviv was as large a city as Charles had been exposed to since childhood, with the exception of the ghastly day he'd had to board the ship in Liverpool. Slowly, surely, Charles began to have the sensation that every choice he'd made -- not just since hearing from Dr. Avidan, but, quite possibly, in his entire life -- must have been in error, because they'd all conspired to bring him here.

But -- if he were ever to find answers, to find out what made him different, this was the place to start looking. Others, he thought. There are others like me.

Dr. Avidan kept making polite chit-chat as she steered him through the crowded streets of Tel Aviv in her battered jeep. Charles paid less attention to her words than he ought to have done; instead, he kept taking in this new city, trying to take the full measure of its difference. The brilliant sunlight, the whitewashed buildings, all of that was interesting in a travelogue sort of way. Yet there were other differences too, differences that flowed beneath the surface. Forcing himself into some calm, Charles tried to focus outward. They were moving too quickly, and people were too matter-of-fact, so Charles couldn't get a sense of any given individual. But of the group of them, all together: a fierceness, a pride, a pain that flowed deep. That much anyone might have guessed, Charles figured -- but he felt it. He knew he could tell Dr. Avidan that -- it would be new, just telling someone out loud what he was sensing -- but she knew that much about him already.

All in all, he was glad when they left Tel Aviv and made their way to Beir Sheva, and from there into the brilliant light and blessed quiet of the desert.

Finally, after a few hours that left Charles damp with sweat and his forehead prickling with incipient sunburn, they arrived at a white building, quite isolated and modern in the middle of sand dunes and stones. A few palm trees clung to life near the building, so some water had to be nearby; still, the tallest of them reached only about as high as the roof of the two-story structure. A placard on the front and lettering on the two other jeeps parked there read: BEN CANAAN PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL.

"Don't mind that," Dr. Avidan said, obviously watching his face as he read it. "That's just our cover."

Did they have to use that for cover? They couldn't have come up with another story? But as they came closer, Charles was distracted from his chagrin as he felt a spark inside the house: a flash of emotion, and behind that the silhouette of a consciousness. Charles tried to put words to what it was that mind felt --

Curiosity. Jealousy. Hope.

Two soldiers at the door (soldiers?) nodded as Dr. Avidan ushered him inside, taking him through cool corridors with mint-green linoleum on the floors. "These are the research labs where we'll all be working -- not that anybody's working at this time of the evening. If I know them, they'll be right in here." She pushed open a door that Charles saw led to a large dining hall, and called, "Come meet our latest arrival!"

"At last," said a deep voice. Charles turned to see a tall man, with gray-white hair that defied his unlined face, striding toward him. Behind his handsome face, Charles could sense a strong mind, a stronger will, a sense of deep focus. "Adael Ben-David. I wrote to your mother."

"She mentioned you," Charles said with a polite smile. "I think you must be very persuasive."

"Time for you to find that out for yourself. Ah -- here we go -- Charles Xavier, this is Hazim al-Bariq --" A Middle Eastern man, perhaps 40 years old, bowed his head cordially. "-- and Albinka Landau." A painfully thin girl was standing in the far doorway, as if unwilling to come any closer. Charles smiled politely. She smiled back, just for a moment, before her stare went blank again; he felt a kind of darkness closing back over her and knew the coolness of its shadow.

"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Xavier," Hazim said. "Perhaps now that you are here, we will make some progress."

Tension in the room -- nothing too thick, but enough for Charles to notice. He forced himself past it. "I hope that we shall, Mr. al-Bariq."

A chubby woman, all brown curls and bright eyes, came running from what must have been the kitchen, pushing her way past Albinka. "What? You brought him here before I had supper ready?" she said in a thick Italian accent, shaking a finger at Dr. Avidan. Then she flung her ample arms wide and wrapped Charles in an embrace. "You don't call me Miss Giordano. You call me Marcellina."

"Marcellina," Charles repeated faintly. He would have agreed to call her Queen Mary or Minnie Mouse, anything to escape the hug. But then he saw Albinka smiling again -- just a little -- and some of the darkness he'd sensed in the room lessened. When Marcellina gave him one last squeeze, he exaggerated his distress -- and heard a very tiny giggle from the doorway. Albinka covered her mouth with her hand, as though she was afraid she'd been heard, but Charles could still sense the flickering of happiness inside her.

Ben-David said, "And Erik Lensherr."

Charles looked behind him to see a boy -- no, a man, but not much older than himself. He was thinner than he ought to have been, and he had a shock of dark hair that stood out like Beethoven's. At once, Charles understood that this was the person he'd sensed before -- the one who was curious and jealous and hopeful, all about him.

He held out his hand as Erik came down the stairs. "Pleased to meet you."

Erik hesitated for a moment, then returned the handshake. "We're neighbors, you know. They've got us on the ground floor over in the north wing. The smallest and most cramped rooms in the whole place, aren't they, Hazim?"

"Again with the grumbling," Hazim said, shaking his head. "Always, this one is grumbling."

"Better us there than the ladies," Charles said.

"Wonderful," Erik said. "They've sent me a gentleman." He was smiling, but Charles had the distinct sense, both in words and emotions, that a test was being given -- and Charles wasn't passing it.

Of course, if he concentrated enough, he could MAKE Erik like him. However, Charles had long since learned, doing that rarely worked exactly the way he wanted it to.

"We must let Charles wash up," Dr. Avidan said. "From the smell of things, it won't be much longer until dinner."

"I suppose I've got to help you with your trunk," Erik said. Charles wished he hadn't put the port stickers on it -- they looked so sharp when you had ten or twenty or fifty, but three just looked stupid --

"One moment," Ben-David said. He held his hands out in a way that made it clear he meant to make a bit of a speech. Feeling more tired and shabby than ever, Charles tried to muster up some interest. "We finally have you all together. After years of research, we've found you. Erik and Albinka came to us first, but we knew they couldn't be the only ones born different."

Born different, Charles thought. That's one way to put it. On the stairs, he heard Erik shift, a physical sign of the impatience that thumped inside him like a drumbeat.

"All of you have been made to feel like strangers your whole lives. Like freaks, perhaps. But the state of Israel believes you have gifts that can work for the good of our country. Perhaps we can learn to recreate your talents, give them to soldiers and scientists who might use them. And in turn, perhaps now that science has unraveled DNA, we will be able to undo your mutations if you wish. We may be able to make you normal once again."

Charles frowned. All around him, he felt a sense of hope and longing --except from Erik. When he turned to glance over his shoulder, he saw Erik giving him a hard stare. Then he smiled, a short, bitter smile that Charles knew was more genuine than anything he'd said before.

The rest of Ben-David's speech was ordinary enough -- gratitude of the state, free to come or go, good of mankind, et cetera. Charles said nothing else until he and Erik were heading down the corridor to their rooms. Then he murmured, "You didn't like that either."

"Being made normal?" Erik said, scorn in his voice. For the first time, Charles realized Erik wasn't British; his accent was almost perfect, but there was a hint of something else, somewhere else. "Ben-David's a fool. He thinks everyone wants to be just like him."

"I've thought about it, sometimes," Charles confessed as they went through the door. "But I don't want the -- this -- it gone. I just want to know how to control it."

"How to use it," Erik prompted, tossing Charles' trunk on the table with astonishing ease. He was smiling now in earnest, and Charles got the sense that he didn't smile all that often.

"How to use it. Exactly." For the first time in too long, Charles felt something relax deep inside him. No need to hide anymore. No need to pretend.

"About time someone like you got here," Erik said, flopping across Charles' bed. He looked younger, then, like they really were the same age. "The others, they hate what they are. All of them. I can't make them see straight, not with Ben-David going on all the time about how he's going to fix them. As though they were broken clocks with bad springs."

"The older two count on Ben-David -- Hazim less so, I think, though I'll need more time to be sure. Albinka's more confused and uneasy, at least as far as I can tell," Charles said. When Erik stared at him, Charles explained, blushing a little at saying it out loud. "I can tell what people are feeling. Sometimes what they're thinking -- that comes and goes." He hesitated before saying the next; it was more frightening to his mother than anything else, and sometimes to Charles himself. But if anyone would understand -- "I can make them think what I want. Do what I want. Not all the time, but often enough. More often, as I get older."

There. It was out. And Erik wasn't backing across the room or running away. Instead he felt -- no denying it -- impressed. Charles suppressed the urge to smile.

Erik said only, "That's the best power you could possibly have."

Power. Charles hadn't even thought of it that way before, as a power. He filled with an unexpected pride, and suddenly the words were gushing out of him. "I felt it the first time during an air raid. We were in the basement, Mother and Father and the neighbors, and suddenly it wasn't just me being afraid. It was all the fear, everyone's, all put together. I made everyone calm down." He had been all of four years old at the time, and he'd done it by snuggling into his blankie, but there was no way in hell he was going to tell Erik that. "At first that's how it was; it only happened when I was really keyed up, me or everyone around me."

"Yes," Erik said. He was more remote now; Charles felt a current of deep melancholy go through Erik, formless and swift, before being pushed aside.

Uncertain, Charles said, "Was it like that for you? The first time you used -- your power?"

"Yes," Erik said. "It was something like that."

Paris, France, 2006

A new show about the Fauves had opened at the Centre Pompidou; Magneto thought it rather a pity that he would be unable to attend. He enjoyed art of many eras and schools, and had bored Mystique by dragging her through the Prado and the Uffizi after they'd secured those areas. She'd turned into a Brancusi statue for him once, which was splendid; pity she took so little interest in expanding upon the game.

He'd take her through the Louvre someday soon, he resolved. Perhaps the antiquities would prove a bit more inspiring for her.

"Any word from Mystique?" he asked Avalanche.

"The hostages are secure. All the cops and news crews are outside." Avalanche nodded as he looked down at his handheld unit. "Should be all over CNN by now."

"Excellent. Screener should be arriving here shortly, but I will take charge of him." Avalanche cast him a look, but he did not ask for explanations. Most of the Brotherhood understood that they would not be forthcoming, not before Magneto was ready. "After you finish up, you should go to the Centre and prepare for our guests' arrival."

Nodding, Avalanche returned to his work. Shock waves began rattling the city again, and Magneto suppressed a smile as he heard screams, glass breaking, the whine of car alarms. The Pompidou Centre trembled before them, its multicolored tubes quivering in the seismic rumble. Avalanche was a one-man earthquake, and his presence had been sufficient to strike fear in the heart of Paris. Of course, the damage he did was immense and indiscriminate; whatever Avalanche went after was frequently of little use afterward. That was why Magneto never used him for genuine first strikes. He meant to own the world, not a pile of ashes.

But to create an instant terror, sufficient to drag Xavier's X-Men across the ocean if the hostage crisis alone wouldn't do the trick? Avalanche was the man.

Havana, Cuba

"Do we really need to do this?" Rogue said.

Bobby felt every muscle in his body tense -- in his jaw, his back, his hands. The last thing any of them needed was Rogue asking questions. Anybody asking questions.

Bobby and Rogue -- along with everyone else -- were headed down the hotel's grand staircase. Cars were waiting to take them to the airfield, where their jets were being fueled up right now. Even with the Beast's and Forge's enhancements, they'd still be four hours getting to Paris. Most of the others were hoping they'd be in time to stop the Brotherhood's latest attack. As Bobby and a handful more knew, they were right on schedule.

"Seems like we might as well let him have the French," Bobby said. "If anybody deserves to sit through a Jerry Lewis film marathon, it's Magneto." The teasing sounded so natural. Like he really meant it.

Rogue believed it; she gave him the half-amused, half-irritated look that accompanied most of his jokes these days. "This isn't Magneto's usual style, though. Taking hostages at an art museum? I mean -- why?"

"Why does Magneto do anything he does? To scare the shit out of human beings, which I have to admit the guy's pretty good at. The point is, people are in trouble, and it looks like it's up to us to help."

"We can't show up every time Magneto moves anymore," she said quietly. "We have to save ourselves for when it counts."

It counts now, Bobby wished he could say. Magneto's followers are mostly with him out of fear, not loyalty. If they had other voices to listen to -- other choices, other options -- they might not stand by his side. Magneto can't be destroyed from the outside; that's why we're going to take him down from within. This counts more than anything else we've done since we lost the school.

But he knew that if he told Rogue that, she wouldn't keep it to herself. She'd tell Cyclops or Storm, neither of whom would accept the risk. Bobby had already made up his mind that the risk was acceptable -- and others had, too. Too bad Rogue never would.

Cannonball, who was running downstairs just ahead of them, turned his head. "This might just be the beginning of an attack on Paris. If they get Paris, they'll get France. Once they've got that coast --"

"I know, I know," Rogue said. A lock of white hair fell across her face, as it so often did. Bobby felt the familiar pang of wanting to brush it back from her forehead and knowing that he couldn't. Although he'd known it was coming for months, the fact that he wouldn't see Rogue again -- not for months or years, and maybe not ever -- hit Bobby hard. For a moment, he saw her face in a way he hadn't lately: her full lips, her dark, heavy-lidded eyes. It had been so long since he'd let himself remember just how beautiful she was. "It's just -- we're going to lose people. Again."

"I can't believe you," Shadowcat said, tossing her hair as she came up beside Cannonball. "Rogue, excuse me for saying it, but it sounds like you've lost your nerve."

That was too much, even as cover. Rogue's chin snapped up, and her pace grew quicker as she started catching up to Shadowcat. "Kitty, you had better take that back right --"

"That's enough," Cyclops interjected. Bobby started; he hadn't even realized that Cyclops was coming up behind them. "Rogue's right about our resources. Magneto's changed his pattern. But that's all the more reason for us to figure out exactly why." He paused, then said loudly, his voice carrying through the crowded lobby, "Anybody who doesn't intend to go with us should let me know now, so I can figure what strength we've got going in."

Nobody wanted out. It was the first time in a long time that nobody had.

They went out into the sunshine, into the still-punishing heat. Rogue's form seemed to get swallowed up in the light, so bright it hurt Bobby's eyes.

Paris, France

The Centre Pompidou was not the usual museum -- instead of marble and arches, it was made of brilliant, multicolored metal tubes that framed odd spaces. Still had the boring paintings on the wall, though, so Pyro wasn't sorry he'd given it a miss. Instead, he landed jet duty, which was better, even if it wasn't as much fun when they weren't in combat. He set the Condor into standard holding pattern, circling above the city in a tight radius that made him feel just a little bit off balance. He didn't mind that. It was worth it to put all the humans in mind of vultures.

"I hate this holding pattern," Screener said. "It makes me airsick."

"Head on outside and hover, then," Pyro said. "You don't have to deal with it if you don't want to."

"Can't stay anyway," Screener said. He lifted his chin with a very unusual pride; the resemblance to Bobby was stronger, then.

Pyro frowned. "You can't? What, you just get to take off in the middle of an operation now?"

Screener shook his head. "I'm not taking off. Magneto has a special mission for me, he says."

Since when was Screener one of Magneto's chosen few? Pyro had always felt like he was one of those -- or at least as close to it as anyone besides Mystique ever got. Screener was just supposed to be the batteries. Come to think of it, Screener didn't look exactly thrilled about his promotion, but he was happier to be picked than to be left behind. Pyro didn't blame him.

"Special mission." Pyro refigured the autopilot so the plane would dip lower, so the quick opening and shutting of the door wouldn't create turbulence. "Yeah, good luck with that."

"Maybe I'll need it." Screener hesitated at the door. "You can go no lower?"

"Not without scraping off the top of the Eiffel Tower. Not that I'd mind." He took a couple minutes to enjoy the sight of the panicked crowds in the streets, the writhing of the multicolored throng. "They always lose it, when we show up. It's always the same. Always gonna be the same."

Screener earnestly said, "Nothing stays the same. Not really. You can't think like that, Pyro. If you think like that, you're letting the past do the thinking for you. Me, I think it is smarter to --"

"Stop stalling, okay?" Pyro didn't join the Brotherhood to just get more lectures, much less from kids. "Do you need me to land this thing for you?"

The taunt got Screener going, as Pyro had known it would. He said, "No. I can be my own transportation." Quickly he opened the door; before the air could rush about too wildly inside the plane, Screener flew out and shut it again. His figure streaked down through the twilight sky, getting lost in the slate roofs of the Left Bank.

Pyro felt a strange, coiled pressure inside him. Whatever was going on -- it wasn't business as usual. In other words, it wasn't what they'd been told.

He didn't like secrets, unless they were his own.

"I still don't see why they've chosen this place," Cyclops said. They all stood together on a smaller airstrip just outside the city; it was abandoned, Bobby realized, because nobody was taking short flights into Europe anymore. "The Brotherhood could get hostages anywhere, and there are dozens of more secure locations."

"Perhaps Magneto wishes something new for his wall," Nightcrawler said, flicking his tail in irritation. "And why Avalanche? This is all most strange."

"I don't like the sound of this," Storm said. "Something is not right here."

Bobby's heart seemed to freeze inside his chest. He forced himself not to look over at Shadowcat or Cannonball. Not now, he thought. We're so close.

In truth, he wasn't afraid so much of Storm or Cyclops figuring it out. He was afraid that any moment, he'd open his big mouth and say out loud what he'd tried so hard not to think the last six months. I've lied to you, I lied, I had my reasons but I lied. The little voice in his head kept saying, It's not too late. You can still turn back. This doesn't have to happen.

And then he thought about all the people that had died, all the people that would die if things kept going just the way they were, and he kept his mouth shut.

Cyclops looked doubtful -- at least, Bobby thought he did, it was always hard to tell with the visor -- but said, "Everyone look sharp. He's trying something new, and there's only one way we're going to find out what it is. Everyone who can move fast, take someone who can't. Rogue, stay with the jets."

She nodded. Bobby took one last look at her. He'd never stopped to realize how hard it would be, knowing that it was the last time. She wasn't even looking back, just scoping out her guard duty; somehow that made it worse.

Nightcrawler put his arms around Cyclops and BAMF! was atop a tall spire with him, then BAMF! again into the night. Bobby grabbed Shadowcat's arm and began creating a pathway of ice. As they slid upon it, gathering speed, Shadowcat whispered, "Should we -- Bobby, should we --"

"Too late," he said.

Caliburn Falls, British Columbia, Canada

"You might want to pick up another case," the old guy said. "Gonna have our first real storm of the season, next few days, it looks like. Might not be gettin' across those roads for a while."

"This is fine," Logan said. He forced himself to smile a little as he said it. Couldn't afford to be memorable for any reason, unfriendliness included. He stowed the beer in the back of the truck, hoped it wouldn't freeze on the way home. "This is just fine."

The old man's breath curled in the cold air like cigarette smoke. "Might as well have yourself a burger before you head back. On the house."

Damn. He'd overdone the friendly bit. Nothing for it now but to smile and follow the guy inside the bar. Logan told himself it could've been worse; at least he was getting a burger out of it.

Nobody paid him much mind as he sat at the bar; this place was the saloon/eatery/market for about 600 people, so when they came there they usually had business on their minds. Or they'd showed up to look at the only satellite television linkup in a wide radius; to judge by the football game that was on, that was probably the reason for the crowd. Logan ate the burger as fast as he could without drawing attention -- to tell the truth, it was a nice change from venison --

Just as he was taking his last bite, the TV screen changed from the Detroit Lions huddle to a screen that said SPECIAL REPORT.

"Shit," the old guy said. "War news. Hope to hell they ain't back in Canada."

Logan didn't have to ask who "they" were. He wanted to turn around and walk out of there, but then the screen changed from an anchorman to --

Scott. Jean's Scott. On top of some building in -- guess it was Paris, there was the Eiffel Tower in the background. Others were with him; even though the camera was at a distance, shaky from ground tremors, Logan knew them in an instant. He knew Scott from the brilliant red flash, Ororo from the lightning. From the other side, the earthquake probably meant Avalanche was there.

He caught himself looking for Rogue, tried to stop himself, then gave up and looked for her anyway. If she was with them, he couldn't see it. He didn't know whether that made him relieved or more afraid.

According to the anchorman, they were on top of an art museum. What the hell did Magneto want with an art museum?

Then the camera zoomed in a little closer, and when the image unblurred, Logan realized why the building looked so weird. Tubes. Metal tubes, in brilliant colors, all over the damn building. Magneto could weave that building into a net and trap them all, in an instant.

HOSTAGES INSIDE, said the graphic at the lower left of the screen.

You can't do a damn thing for 'em if Magneto traps you, Logan thought, staring at the blurred shapes of his former friends. Scott, get everybody out of there. Get outta there now.

Bobby's heart pounded in his chest so hard he thought the shell of ice around him would shatter. Why didn't they get it? Why didn't they see?

Be glad they don't, he told himself, and prepared for the last thing he'd ever do as an X-Man.

Meanwhile, he saw Storm, fighting Spiral as best she could, dodging each of the six knife-wielding hands and pulling down lightning from the sky so thick that the air crackled around them. Cyclops wasn't even working on getting the hostages out; he was just slicing up those tubes, one by one, trying to disarm the place. The guy honestly thought Magneto was going to show up and try to use it against them, and was wasting all his time and energy to prevent it.

Bobby tried to be glad for the distraction.

Rogue tried very, very hard not to lose her patience.

Guard the jets. Important job. Real important. Really amazingly boring, yet important. In the distance, she could see the searchlights sweeping across the Centre Pompidou, and every once in a while lightning would flash down. But that was all Rogue knew of the battle, and all she would know until the surviving -- until the X-Men returned to the jets.

She ended up with this role a lot, lately. Her power, while ideally suited to smaller-scale battles, was nearly useless in a confrontation like this one, where the warfare didn't involve much hand-to-hand combat. Also, her absorption power sometimes overwhelmed her for a few moments after touching; the last thing Cyclops needed was for her to have not only Mystique's ability, but also her motivations, in the heart of a critical fight.

So -- guard the jets. She'd probably be able to handle any one or two intruders easily enough. Rogue tried to tell herself how important it was, how critical. What little good they were able to do at containing Magneto these days depended in large part in their being able to move fast. The fastest of them couldn't cross the ocean in less than a couple of days. Very important job, guarding the jets.

But it was hard to feel important as Bobby came jogging up to her, clearly battered, frost clinging to his crumpled clothes. He had someone with him, a teenager or maybe just a boy -- one of the hostages? He looked more like Bobby's younger brother than his real brother did. Rogue forced herself to smile. "You okay? How's it going?"

"They're up to something," Bobby said. "Something is seriously not right."

The boy walked up to her alongside Bobby, and Rogue could see the terror in his eyes. She forced herself to smile as she went for her gloves -- with Bobby there, she had no reason to leave the skin exposed as a weapon. "It's okay," she said to the boy. "You're safe now."

"I'm sorry," the boy said; then he kicked her savagely in the gut.

Rogue gasped -- the kid was stronger than he looked. She dodged another blow that would have landed in the middle of her chest easily enough. "What are you doing?" she said, realizing as she did so that she was scolding him the way she would one of the younger X-Men. "Did you get away just to pick a fight? Bobby, ice him."

Bobby didn't ice him. Bobby just folded his arms and stared. His eyes looked just the same as they always did, but Rogue still recognized Mystique.

"Is this right?" the boy said. He was talking to Mystique, as if uncertain. "What is she going to do?"

"The same thing I'm going to do to your bitch friend in a second," Rogue said, letting the gloves drop. This stupid kid was in for a hell of a sting. She repeated his words back to him: "I'm sorry." Then she grabbed his hands.

Nothing was real, and everything was. Rogue recognized the ghastly tidal pull of her own power, but it was met, matched, superseded by something else, something that rushed toward her and into her like a tsunami. There was no now, no then, no him, no her. Just the pain they each felt, their skin twisting and charring with each other's touch --

Geir's mother, turning from the stove and throwing the scalding soup straight into his face --

Piano lessons, recital coming up, her pink-polished fingers picking out the theme to "Gone With The Wind" --

Bobby saying, It's working, as his face changed from pale to blue, his body from male to female --

Screaming from downstairs, Geir's baby sister, and the sick wet thump of flesh against the wall --

Telling Professor X what she could do, and seeing him smile, the first time anybody ever heard that she was a mutant and then smiled --

Falling from his treehouse and realizing, as simply as anything, that he didn't have to fall if he didn't want to, that he could just stop right there in midair if he chose, and he chose --

The outlines of the jets, changing shape, crumpling up like tin cans, one right after the other --

Logan pressing his dog tags into her hand, the edges of them sharp even through her black glove --

Magneto, smiling at him in proprietary pride, saying, "The name Screener will suit you quite well" --

Magneto, chaining her to the statue, apologizing for what he was about to do as though he were truly sorry --

Magneto, standing above them with Mystique by his side, as they shook and struggled and choked for air --

His death. A heart stopping. A mind shutting. Rogue had never felt that before, and she couldn't stop feeling it. She'd never stop feeling it, not ever, not ever --

She still couldn't focus her eyes; she couldn't stand. Sometime in the past few minutes, she'd fallen; her head and back throbbed with pain, and her muscles jerked wildly, as though repeatedly shocked. Convulsing on the concrete, Rogue struggled to look up at Magneto. Her fear of him mingled with Geir's terror, and she felt her body go cold with shock.

"I thought your powers and Screener's would make an interesting match," Magneto said dryly. "When projection meets absorption -- well. The effects appear to be quite overwhelming. Especially for our unfortunate Screener."

The jets, Rogue realized. The hostages -- they were just a decoy. He just wanted the jets. Thick oil smoke hung in the air, and she knew that not one of them could remain intact.

Magneto smiled, almost regretfully. "I hope the French are understanding about your refugee status. I've had some unfortunate experiences in that department, I'm sorry to say."

"I thought he'd live through it," Mystique said, nudging Geir's body with her toe. "I thought she'd be the one to go."

"As did I," Magneto said. "That's why we test hypotheses, after all."

They strolled off into the darkness. Rogue couldn't even turn her head to watch them go.

"Bobby, try and get below!" Cyclops yelled.

The hostages were all being set free, even as they spoke. Cyclops didn't know that. Bobby figured everyone would put that together later.

He held out his hands, took a deep breath and flashed ice across the roof of the Centre Pompidou, creating thick white walls that snaked over the tubes, went high, got strong. He twisted Cyclops within one, Storm within another --

"Bobby!" Nightcrawler went BAMF! right in front of him. "What are you doing? You cannot--"

Bobby clutched his ice-coated fists together and slammed them, hard, into Nightcrawler's temple. Nightcrawler's blue skin faded to gray for a moment, and then he fell sideways.

"Bobby!" Shadowcat pulled herself up through the roof. He could see the tracks of tears on her face. "Cannonball's got it under control down there -- we have to hurry, they're coming --"

Lightning streaked down, slammed into Storm's ice cocoon. It sizzled and sent up steam, but Bobby coated it again, sealing her in thick. That might buy them five minutes, seven if they were lucky. "Let's go," he said. Somehow he'd thought it would hurt worse, when it came right down to it. Instead, it felt like a relief. He'd figure out what that said about him later.

When the ice sheets folded over Ororo and Scott, Logan knew instantly what had happened.

He didn't know why Bobby had turned traitor, only knew that he had. For one instant, Logan wondered if Rogue had gone over with him, but the idea didn't stand up for even a second. She was fooled too. She was trapped too. Somewhere, on that TV screen -- between all the infographics and the weird camera angles -- Rogue was being betrayed. Put at risk. Maybe dying, right there with the rest of them, about 90% of the people who'd ever treated him decent in his whole life. And there wasn't jack shit he could do about it.

"I can't watch this," he said, only realizing as he spoke that he was saying it out loud.

The old guy nodded. "Don't blame ya. They make me sick."

Logan stumbled outside, his hastily eaten meal churning inside his stomach. The freezing air hit him hard, and he sucked in a deep breath, trying to steady himself.

He'd left so he wouldn't have to watch any of them die. Ran halfway across the world to make sure he wouldn't have to see it. But their deaths followed him all the same. The cold, sure knowledge of his own cowardice settled inside him with the winter chill. He hadn't been afraid to fight, not ever, not even when it got obvious they were losing every time. But he'd been afraid of facing what came after those fights, and the end result was the same: He ate a burger and drank a beer while Scott and Ororo and damn it all the hell Marie got themselves torn apart on television --

Then again, he probably couldn't have done a damn thing about it if he'd been there. There was no helping any of it, and that was the worst of all.

Feeling deader than he ever had before, Logan got into the pickup and sped off. If he smashed his truck on the ice, so much the better. Cut up his face, bruise some organs, take him out for a few hours or even a day. Definitely. He deserved it.

The door to Magneto's jet closed with a heavy clanking of metal, and Bobby knew it was finally, really over. He'd done it. They'd all done it.

We're going to turn the tide of this war, Bobby remind himself. We've tricked Magneto into taking us in, and we didn't cost the X-Men anything but some jets they can replace. We're going to take Magneto down, our way. That's worth a couple of chances, a couple of lies. We did what we had to do. We did the right thing.

He'd have to repeat that to Shadowcat and Cannonball and the others; every last one of them looked stricken, shaken, as they stood there, waiting for Magneto. But the first person to emerge from the front of the plane had a different face. A familiar face. "John?" he said.

John's jaw dropped, then he started to grin. "No way," he said. "No fuckin' way. Bobby Drake caught a clue?"

"Skip it, John" Bobby said shortly.

"It's Pyro, and let it go, okay? High time you showed up." John -- Pyro --was laughing as he came up to them. "You're never gonna regret it. Trust me on this."

"I trust you," Bobby said, and he meant it. "But Magneto --"

"Don't worry," Magneto said dryly as he emerged. "I won't take offense at your doubts. Only natural."

"Nobody died," Shadowcat cut in. "Right? That's what we agreed."

"Nobody died," Magneto agreed. "Well, none of your friends. I'm afraid Screener has left our company for good." None of the Brotherhood seemed to react much to that -- save Pyro, who smiled ruefully.

"And Rogue's okay," Bobby said. He'd hated her crucial role in all of this from the beginning, but there was no way to steer her from it, not without tipping off suspicions.

Magneto raised his eyebrows. "As it happens, Rogue is absolutely fine. Well, no doubt she's got a few new memories to contend with, but those always fade, don't they?"

For a moment Bobby imagined himself, no more to Rogue than a memory, fading along with all the ones she'd ever borrowed.

But Pyro was grinning at him again, and the others were relaxing, and Magneto seemed to believe their story completely. Bobby was more sure than ever --he'd done the right thing.

"Rogue? Rogue, sit up."

She opened her eyes and saw Storm. Terror lanced through her -- don't hurt me, no, don't hurt me -- and it didn't even matter that the fear wasn't her own. Rogue rolled onto her side, shielding her eyes and face from Storm, wincing at the pain in her back and sides against the hard pavement. "Don't. Go away."

"Magneto got the jets." That was Cyclops' voice -- oh, God, he was more frightening than Storm. He had power over her, and he could hurt her if he wanted, he could, and nobody would stop him, nobody would care --

No, she reminded herself. That's not me. That's him -- Geir. But Geir pulsed horribly within her, every moment of his short life outlined in sharp, shining edges of pain. She forced herself to say, "I'm sorry -- he sent this guy --this guy who could --"

"It is not your fault." Nightcrawler's voice was thick. He didn't terrify her the way Storm and Cyclops did, and Rogue could open her eyes to look at him. One of his eyes was swollen and an even darker shade of blue than his skin. "Magneto set his trap well. None of us saw it."

"How are we supposed to get out of here?" Colossus asked. "The police are going to be here soon, and the army after them, and nobody is going to decide we're the 'good' mutants."

"Shit," Polaris said. "Bobby got us good."

Bobby. The jets. The setup. His months of silence, the increasing distance between them. A handful of things he'd said and done, the way Magneto and Mystique had just walked straight up to her -- all of it snapped together, locking her in the framework of her own trap.

"Bobby," she choked out. "Oh, God. Oh, no."

"Rogue, hold on," Storm said, her voice sending chills of terror up Rogue's back. "You're not yourself. Nightcrawler can get you out of here -- the rest of us, if you can fly, grab some others and let's get out of Paris, take it from there --"

"No." Rogue stumbled to her feet. Dizziness swept over her, and for a moment she could taste blood on the back of her tongue. But she pulled away from Storm's steadying hand. "I'm not going."

"We cannot stay here," Nightcrawler said. "They will be here soon, Rogue."

"It's all for nothing," Rogue said. "All of it. Everything."

Nightcrawler stepped closer. "That, you must never believe."

"I do. I do believe it. I'm not going back. I can't. You can get home without me."

Cyclops -- oh, God, did he have to stand that close? -- said quietly, "What do you want us to tell the Professor?"

Professor X had power over them all. Only her exhaustion and nausea kept Rogue from screaming at the thought of him.

"Tell him I'm gone," she said. And then she drew Geir up within him, used the one power that ever gave him joy, and flew away.

She'd never see Professor X again. Never see Bobby again. At that moment, she never wanted to see anyone, ever. The world was nothing but her, and the cool night sky, and stars that were too far away to touch. They didn't have to be afraid.

Chapter 2

Ben Canaan Compound, Israel, 1954

"Show us what you can do, Albinka," Ben-David said.

Don't show them, Albinka, Erik thought. You're not a creature in his petting zoo. They were all taking their seats in one of the research rooms, the one that looked like a lecture hall. Erik couldn't help noticing that this building would hold far more people than inhabited it; Ben-David meant to show them off someday, much as he was urging Albinka to show off now.

In truth, Erik had little fear that Albinka would display her gift. She was frightened of it, which he didn't understand, and she had to truly feel the need, which he did understand. When they had first known each other, 11 years before, she'd felt the need far more often.

"She's shy," Marcellina said, smiling maternally at Albinka, who looked younger than her 16 years.

"That's not it," Charles said. Erik watched Charles' face -- so perfectly still, so controlled, save for the eyes. In Charles' eyes, Erik could see him absorbing some of what Albinka felt. He hoped beyond hope that Charles did not absorb too much of what Albinka knew.

When Charles looked at him a moment later, the expression made Erik turn his head away. He had no word for what he saw there except pity, and pity was beyond his endurance.

"You leave that girl alone," Marcellina said, shooing Ben-David away. "If we are showing Charles what we can do, I will go first." Ben-David didn't look as though he appreciated the interruption -- the blowhard never did -- but he did step away. In her way, Erik thought, Marcellina is a formidable woman.

She held out her hands; the sunlight sparkled on her many rings. The water in their drinking glasses began to move, then stir, then form funnels that rose slowly from the glasses.

"That's extraordinary," Charles said. Erik was surprised and heartened to see that Charles' reaction was pure enthusiasm. "What else can you do?"

"Only this," Marcellina said, her forehead wrinkled with concentration. "Some amazing talent, ah? The astonishing woman who can stir water without a spoon. Maybe I join the circus someday."

"You could do more with it," Erik said. He had no proof that this was so, save his own experience; still, it was worth suggesting. If only these people would TRY to develop their powers -- "If you learned better how to use your control over water -- if you possessed some discipline, some finesse --"

"Then what? I could stir more water?" Marcellina laughed a little. "Then again, it would be nice, to put this water back in the glasses."

"You can't?" Dr. Avidan frowned.

Marcellina sighed. "I can try. But, more likely, this carpet is going to be wet."

"Let me help," Hazim offered. Erik was surprised; Hazim was secretive by nature, and reluctant to display his ability. No doubt he distrusted the Israelis. Erik had never been absolutely certain of Hazim's motivations.

Perhaps Charles would help with that --

Stop pinning so many of your hopes on Charles, Erik reminded himself. He may be as bad as the others. He may be worse. You don't even know him.

But Erik had waited too long for someone, anyone, who might accept what they were. He had learned painfully how cruel false hope could be, and yet Erik could not completely drive hope out. Maybe Charles would be the latest in so many who had let him down. But maybe, just maybe, Charles would be the one.

Hazim moved the glasses -- without touching them -- so that they were more directly beneath the funnels of water. Marcellina let the funnels drop; water splashed on the tabletop and in his face, but only a few spatters.

Charles was grinning at Erik. "Show me what you can do with metal."

"I did show you last night," Erik said, trying not to feel pleased that Charles had asked him. "Do you honestly think I could have gotten that trunk down the hall so easily with just my hands? Hannibal had less baggage to cross the Alps."

The sneer did no good; Charles could tell his heart wasn't in it and just kept smiling at him. Erik wondered if Charles had ever been afraid of anything, whether he'd ever distrusted anyone. With a sigh, Erik held out his hand. A small demonstration, then -- something that wouldn't tip off Ben-David or Avidan to what he could really do --

Slowly he slipped the rings off Marcellina's fingers, pulling them toward him, twirling gold hoops. Marcellina laughed delightedly. "You want to borrow my jewelry, Erik? You will look funny in my earrings." He resisted the urge to tug them from her earlobes.

Truth be told, Marcellina's loudness wasn't annoying him as much as usual. Nor was Hazim's silence, nor the doctors' officiousness. Even Albinka could not move him to guilt. Erik realized that they were all enjoying showing off for Charles -- and perhaps Erik enjoyed it most of all. Charles had something about him that inspired liking and, even better, trust. As soon as Erik could figure out exactly what that quality was, he intended to develop it himself.

"My turn," Charles said, and the smile on his face made it clear he'd caught the room's good temper. Erik tried to imagine what Charles would do to display his mental talent. Would he reveal someone's darkest secret? Call up memories everyone wanted forgotten? Expose --

As one, they stood at attention and sang:

"Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Britons never never never Shall live as slaves!'

In perfect four-part harmony, no less.

Erik gasped as his control returned to him; the others gaped for a moment, then burst into laughter. "Marvelous!" Marcellina cried. "Simply marvelous!"

Of course, Erik thought. He'd choose something harmless, something funny. It's the only way he could have kept from terrifying them all. He also noticed that Charles had left one person out of the singing; Albinka had remained silent. Erik knew, without having to ask, that Charles had allowed her to keep her prized silence.

No use fighting it. Erik let himself smile too. Maybe his hopes about Charles and friendship and the possibilities of their powers were all false. Maybe they'd betray him in the end. But he couldn't prevent himself from hoping all the same. "Well done, Charles," he said. "But what an inane song."

"It's rubbish, isn't it?" Charles said. "And 'God Save The Queen' isn't much better. The Americans have better battle songs than we do. I'll choose one of theirs next time."

"We won't spend so much time showing off, in future," Ben-David said. Erik noted with distaste how Ben-David was eager to regain control over the room. "We'll be testing you all separately, finding out what changes your bodies go through as you do all this. Assuming, of course, that Albinka will ever show us what she can do."

"You know full well what she can do," Erik snapped. He owed Albinka this much defense, at least. "It was in the reports."

"Forgive me if I don't want to rely forever on the word of Dr. Mengele," Ben-David said. That name sent a chill through Erik; ashamed of his fear, he cast his eyes over to see if Charles had noticed.

But Charles was sitting down next to Albinka, who was trembling slightly. "It's all right," Charles said, and his voice was not that of a 17-year-old boy. He sounded kindly and wise, the way Erik used to wish Ben-David sounded. "You know -- if you want to yell, that's all right." Albinka blinked up at him, her dark eyes wide. "It doesn't have to mean that you want to hurt someone. If you want to yell because -- because you're angry, or you're frightened, or whatever reason -- that would be all right. Nobody would have to get hurt."

Ben-David and Dr. Avidan were glaring at Erik, obviously under the belief that he'd told Charles all. He had told Charles nothing. That moment, more than anything else, made Erik realize what Charles could really do.

Albinka didn't react for a few minutes. Then she turned away from Charles, and Erik thought the moment was over.

And then she screamed.

Oh, God, he remembered Albinka's scream -- high pitched, silvery, so loud you could almost see the sound waves --

As the sound waves hit the wall Albinka was facing, it turned from white to gray. The plaster seemed to shimmer silver for a moment, then went dark and thick as it turned into stone. When Albinka closed her mouth again, perhaps four square feet of the wall was stone, solid and cold. The wall creaked down in its framework, straining with the new weight.

"My God," Dr. Avidan whispered, brushing her hair away from her face.

"I told you she could," Erik muttered.

Charles smiled down at Albinka. If he was unnerved by what she'd done, he gave no sign. "That's quite a shriek," he said, in the same tone of voice he might have used to compliment her hair.

"Shriek," Albinka repeated.

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2006

The curbstones here were blue and red. Rogue kept going, walking faster, jamming her hands down into the pockets of the wrinkled old overcoat she'd fished out of a dustbin in Normandy.

In the three days since the attack on Paris -- since Geir's death -- Rogue had remained in shock. A thousand small marvels had failed to move her. She flew now, but without wonder or joy; it was a means of traveling, the only means available to her, no more. Her memories of Geir's life had remained far sharper and more durable than any she had absorbed before. Of the others she'd touched over the years (David Barksdale in Meridian, Logan at the Statue of Liberty, Bobby and John in Boston), she retained only a sense of their personalities and a few images that were without context or date, like old snapshots jumbled up in a shoebox. Geir, however, remained as real and vivid as he had when their hands touched. Sometimes she almost expected to hear him whispering in her ear.

And, most amazing of all, Rogue could touch others now without hurting them. She'd discovered this when a policeman shook her awake in Piccadilly Circus, where she'd slept on a bench, a few newspapers crumpled beneath her head. His hand had been on hers, causing him no pain and her no power, as he demanded to see her identification. Instead of screaming or cheering or crying, she'd had to run for it. Without any ID, her best hope was to end up in one of the countless refugee camps that clotted Britain's countryside, crammed in makeshift cabins with people who spoke German and French and Dutch, fighting for the increasingly rare Red Cross packages. More likely, some sharp-eyed operative would recognize her white locks of hair from an intel briefing and then she'd be buried in a detention camp, never to see the sky again.

The sky was above her now, and yet she didn't raise her head to look at it. Rogue kept her head down and prayed not to run into a security roadblock. If they asked her who she was, what would she say? She was no longer sure she had an answer to give.

For a few days now, she had been not herself, but someone else. Rogue was glad of that, so far as she could be glad of anything. Better to be anyone, even poor wretched Geir, than to have to live in her own skin, face what she now knew.

All a lie, it was all a lie, what Bobby said, what the Professor said, what I gave up my whole life to do, all of it --

Er det noen snille barn her? Geir's voice said, and instead she thought about Christmas pork and mutton, cookies shaped like diamonds.

After several more minutes of walking, she came to a street where the curbstones were painted orange, white and green. A mural nearby depicted a group of men, balaclava-clad, holding guns aloft beneath the red-lettered legend ONE NATION. More like it. Rogue held her head up and tried to focus on the moment, nothing more, nothing less. A few young men stumbled out of a pub, rowdy with drink but not insensibly intoxicated. Guessing wrong might cost her dearly, but she'd have to guess soon. Rogue had gone for three days without food, and even mutant strength would not carry her much farther. "Hey," she said. "You there."

The guys turned around, unsure whether they were being confronted or propositioned. "'Lo there, lovely," one of them said. "You looking for company?"

"You could say that," Rogue said. "I'm looking for the leader of a militia unit. I don't have to know his name. But I need to talk to him."

"What's that about?" Their faces were instantly closed-off, angry. The one who'd spoken continued, "What makes you think --"

She held her hands out and lifted off the ground by about three feet. Their jaws all dropped. One of them whispered, "Mutant."

"I need to talk to him," Rogue repeated, descending quickly to the ground. "Don't make me stand around out here."

When they turned to go, she understood that she was supposed to follow.

Half an hour later, she was sitting in a cozy little kitchen, teakettle whistling and Rich Tea biscuits on a plate in front of her. Rogue ate the cookies as slowly as she could bear to, hoping not to fill or upset her stomach before the promised meal was ready: egg, bacon, sausage, tomato and some kind of potato cake, all being fried up in the same skillet and yet somehow smelling absolutely terrific. A gray-haired woman in a mauve cardigan worried at the stove while the man whose name she couldn't know poured her tea, as thoughtfully as though she were in a restaurant.

"Mum's going to get you all set up," he said quietly. "Now, question is, are you going to get us all set up?"

"I can't stay here," Rogue said, which was the politest way of putting it. The mutants' classification as "terrorists" had made them some allies that Rogue, and others, would as soon have done without, but she doubted Professor Xavier would ever have consented to joining up with the Real IRA. "I need your help, and I'll earn it, but I'm not sticking around."

"Still work to do," he said, not disapprovingly. "Magneto got any messages for us?"

She lifted her teacup so that she could sip instead of sighing deeply in relief; her bet had paid off. Of course Magneto would be talking to them. He'd reach out to every group that felt itself disenfranchised, turned out, angry, and play to their sense of alienation. Their longing for power. For the first time, Rogue felt something approaching pity for this man; violent though he might be, he was just one more sucker getting played.

Just the way she had been.

"He says to be patient," Rogue lied. "Some things are going to be a little behind schedule for a while. What things he means, you probably know better than me. Apparently I don't need to know."

Her surly expression must have been convincing; the man nodded sagely, weaving her lie in smoothly with whatever lies Magneto would have told him. "Right, then. What do you need?"

"A change of clothes," she said. Fortunately, with the coat over her leather uniform, there was little chance he'd identify her as one of Xavier's; however, she wanted to be on the safe side. "Some money -- a few hundred Euros or dollars will do. And transportation."

"My guys said you were handling that side of it yourself," the man said, clearly referring to the flying that could conk out at any moment, any second. Rogue didn't trust it any more than she trusted anything else within herself right now.

"It's a long way," she said. "And it's hard not to be seen." He accepted that explanation and sipped his own tea.

A sense of her isolation and helplessness washed over her, and Rogue had to force herself to smile at the old lady who put the plate of food in front of her. She looked like such a sweet old lady -- silver-haired, wearing golf socks with little white pompoms at the heel, feeding and clothing terrorists in her spare time. Bobby laughing with Rogue as they competed on the Playstation just two weeks ago. Geir's mother, singing out loudly in church. You never knew.

"We've got some paperwork we'd like to get to Boston," the man said. "Pretty sure they're watching the mails on that end, if not this one too. But you ought to be able to tuck them into a notebook, get them through in a bag. Even now, they can't search everything, right? Plus a little money for a good cause."

She forced herself to smile. False passports and visas -- it could have been worse. What would she have done if he'd tried to get her to deal in weapons? Or, worse, hurt someone?

Then Rogue realized she didn't know the answer to that question anymore. Was anything Xavier had ever told her worth knowing, worth believing in? She'd been so sure that she knew the boundaries in her life: what she believed in, what she didn't, what she could do, what she couldn't. That was all shattered now, and the farther away she got from Geir's death, the more she was forced to face it. It was as if her entire past was gone, worthless, completely lost --

Her head snapped up as she considered that. Then, deliberately, she tucked into her dinner. She'd need her strength.

The man asked the question she'd only just realized the answer to: "Where are you headed?"


Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, Germany

Within the Oak Gallery, Magneto looked out upon his new recruits -- so young, so frightened, and yet so powerful. In their blue jeans and sweatshirts they seemed absurdly out of place in the grand surroundings, like a pack of sightseers who'd wandered off from the walking tour. Their adolescent forms were framed by rich, curving arcs of carved oak, intricate, ancient and baroque; a few of them started awkwardly at the walls, held their arms close to their bodies as if afraid of breaking something. My protgs, he thought. How quickly you'll learn.

Then he looked more carefully into the eyes of Pyro's old friend, the one called Iceman, and there he saw a kind of steel he couldn't manipulate. Not my protgs yet, he thought. They still belong to Charles, whether they know it or not. Ah, well. I'll have opportunity enough to change that.

It's not as if they have anyplace else to go.

"You should learn some basics of how we operate here," Magneto said, his voice echoing grandly from the marble. "We have no major initiatives taking place soon, so you'll have some time to absorb our procedures. Just as well. Once we strike, there is no room for error. The first order of business --"

"Wait," said Iceman. Apparently he was their leader. Magneto smiled as patiently as he could manage. Iceman said, "We're not just here to take orders. I mean -- we'll help. We want this war to end as quickly as you do, and we want mutants to win. But there's some things we have to get straight."

The young girl Shadowcat smiled, as if relieved; a few of the others nodded. So, Magneto thought, the brats have surrendered themselves to me, destroyed most of their old weapons, and now they wish to dictate their terms. I shall have no shortage of teaching to do with this lot. "And what is it you wish to --'get straight,' Iceman?"

"The way humans are treated, in the countries you -- we control. That's got to improve. Right now they live like second-class citizens in their own countries, their own homes, and that's not right." Iceman's voice got louder as he warmed to his subject.

"No," Magneto agreed gravely. "It's quite unfair. As I know far better than you, my boy."

His unexpected acquiescence clearly threw Iceman off-kilter. He hesitated, then plunged ahead: "Also, how much territory is enough? It seems like, after a certain point, you can stop and just put it to the countries still fighting us. Just tell them, if you let mutants be free, then the war doesn't have to go on."

Magneto realized how often Iceman was looking away from him, how much he was directing his speech to the Brotherhood mutants who lined the room. The lad was so eager to win hearts and minds; time for a lesson, then.

"What a charming picture you paint," Magneto said. "How simple. How rational. How just. Redolent of some school project. Did Xavier actually feature, among the countless trivial activities of his ill-fated academy, a Junior U.N. Club? I see from your expressions that he did. And our Iceman must have excelled, so able is he to solve the world's problems."

Iceman flushed, his face hot with anger. "I know not everything's that simple. But it seems like you could have tried some of this, and you haven't tried at all."

In the back of the room, Mystique rolled her eyes. Magneto debated showing the boy the rather severely defined limits of his patience, but decided that an explanation would do -- for now, at least.

He stepped down from the dais and walked across the floor, relishing the sharp click of his boots against the floor. Iceman didn't flinch as Magneto swept toward him -- good lad, whatever sense he lacked, he made up for in courage --but the others looked even smaller, even younger. "Let me be quite plain," Magneto said. "I do not bargain with humanity, because humanity does not keep its promises. Ask the Native Americans. Ask the Tibetans. Ask the pathetic Palestinians, if you doubt me. But I suspect you know this much already. You are not children. You know what human beings are, what they can do and what they have done, to people like us. The humans in my states do not wander where their whims take them. They do not blab their political ignorance in my hearing --and with so many willing ears, I hear quite well. They do not comfort themselves with the illusion of power by voting. But they are treated far better under my lash than we were under theirs. Many human rulers could not match me for mercy, dear boy. It's more than they deserve, and it's all they're going to get. Now, or ever."

Speaking of the illusion of power -- Magneto stepped back, held his arms open in a gesture of surrender. "Those are my terms. I have always been clear about them. I will never change them. We have but two roles to play in this world: hunters or prey. I have chosen not to be prey. I took it that you had chosen this as well. If instead you have only come to convert me to Xavier's milquetoast brand of humanism, you have come in vain. Now that you understand, if you wish to go, you may go. Neither I nor any of the Brotherhood will prevent you."

They would have killed themselves en masse before facing Xavier's disappointment at that moment, Magneto knew. His gamble paid off; none of them moved, and no doubt all of them believed they'd chosen of their own free will, rather than of their own shame and desperation.

"Very well, then," Magneto said. He gestured toward Mystique, who opened the containers with the greatest weapons of his army. "First of all, you'll receive your helmets. You wear them at all times. They are the only way of shielding your minds and wills from Xavier's telepathy."

One of the students -- Sunspot, he thought was the name -- snorted, and Magneto stared. Iceman spoke again, shaking his head. "You can shield yourself from him, if you try. All of us did for six months; Xavier never knew what we were planning in Paris. We just controlled ourselves and our thoughts. Why can't we keep on like that?"

Xavier was awake, then. He'd recovered more from the blast at the school that Magneto's early information had suggested was likely, or even possible. Xavier was still with them.

Until that moment, Magneto had not realized that Xavier was actually conscious -- it seemed impossible that he could be, with the X-Men so weak and lost. Half the reason he'd accepted these young ones' offer to join him was so that he could discover just how close to death Xavier really was. But now that Magneto understood that Xavier was not dying but broken, the thought of it touched something within him that had been numb for many years.

"You foolish child," Magneto said softly. "He's injured. He's lost hope. He's not himself. Do you seriously think that you could ever stop Xavier at his full strength?" As the young ones gaped at him, he added, "If so, more fool you."

Those bastards are going to pay for all of it, he promised the Charles who could not hear, the Charles who had been. They're going to pay for what they did to all of us. For what they did to you.

Havana, Cuba

The government had provided a nurse to stay behind with Xavier. She spoke no English, though to a telepath this was a small inconvenience. In some ways, it was a blessing, not being asked to talk, to explain.

But Xavier did make a point of watching television, to see how the journey to Paris had fared. He watched it all on CNN: the ruse, the betrayal, everything. A message snaked its way through the underground to reach him a few days later, telling of Rogue's absence, the loss of the jets. Xavier had listened in utter silence, and only nodded to tell the courier that he'd heard and understood it all. Without the jets, the others had only their powers to rely upon for the return home -- and even the fastest of them had limits. Nightcrawler might have made it back in just a couple of days, Xavier thought, but he would never leave the others behind.

That was for the best. He needed time to absorb what had happened, what they would all say, what he would have to do next.

It took them three weeks to get home.

For much of the first week, he knew that Erik had been right all along, and that he was only living out a fatal delusion by refusing to admit it. Bobby Drake had seen it; so had Kitty Pryde. No doubt the others recognized it too. They remained with him, fighting the fight he had defined for them, only out of a loyalty he had too long abused.

Xavier had always wanted to believe in humanity. Magneto had never had the luxury of doing so. Xavier had always thought that Magneto's viewpoint was the natural, regrettable product of a childhood that was, at the least, a grotesque aberration. Now, he wondered -- what if it was his life that was the aberration?

Humanity's cruelty had never been a secret to Xavier. One of his first memories was of a neighbor's house reduced to smoking rubble after a bombing raid. Her foot, and only her foot, lay on the sidewalk; in his babyish mind, he'd thought she'd left it out there, the way he sometimes forgot to bring in his toys. His stepfather's worst impulses had not been directed at Xavier himself, but he'd seen his mother's split lips, his stepbrother's black eyes. Most importantly of all, as a telepath, Xavier could experience the suffering of others more deeply than they knew. When Erik had finally talked to him about Auschwitz (and it took him months, even though they worked together all day and slept next door to each other at night, to even start talking about it), Xavier hadn't just heard the words. He'd felt the hunger and the cold, breathed in the ashes, known Erik's despair in all its depth.

But then the American government had raided his school.

It had happened before, of course. Stryker's team had done their damage, left marks on the wall that lasted, scars in the children's minds. But Stryker had been one madman; even the government that so many mutants feared had not authorized what he'd done. Xavier had experience enough in accepting the rage of madmen.

The second raid was different. The army came in full-force -- not just a strike team "borrowed" from its regular duty. Before, the soldiers used tranquilizer darts; they wouldn't have known that they'd actually killed mutant children until later, after Striker's plan had killed them all. But these soldiers had been ready to kill every child they saw.

Magneto was fighting those people. Why was Xavier fighting him? What did methods matter, against such people?

For much of the second week, Xavier was immobilized, mentally and physically, by despair. He couldn't bear introspection any longer, and so his thoughts were mundane. He wondered if he would need to order Scott and Ororo to finally take over in name as well as deed; he decided that, for Scott's sake, he probably would. He wondered if it would be necessary to tell them that they should join Magneto; he decided that they'd probably make that determination for themselves, soon enough. Xavier knew he wouldn't go with them, wondered how long the Cuban government would pay for a nurse. He watched the old ceiling fan above his head, circling shakily to stir the warm air in his room, its black paint chipped with age.

Early in the third week, Nightcrawler returned, alone.

"They are coming, Professor, as quickly as they can," he said, bustling about Xavier's room, tsk-tsking as he saw undusted shelves and a half-empty water tumbler. "But it is a long way, and it is hard to carry people so far. Ach, I took Colossus as far as Morocco. My back, it will never recover."

'Kurt," Xavier said slowly, "why are you here without them?"

"To see that you are well," Nightcrawler said, in much the same voice he would have employed to tell a child asking after the color of the sky that it was blue.

"It doesn't matter how I am."

"It matters to us," Nightcrawler said. "Whether or not it matters to you, it matters to us."

Kind words, and perhaps Xavier should have accepted them with a smile and a nod. But his anger at himself ran too deep for that. He straightened up as best he could in bed and said, "It shouldn't matter to you enough to endanger the others. By now it should be obvious, Kurt -- I am a part of the X-Men's past. I have very little to do with their future."

Nightcrawler cocked his head; in a BAMF, he went from the far side of the room to Xavier's bedside. But it was in gentleness, rather than anger, that he spoke: "You think you know the way of the world to come? Then you are not so wise a man as I thought you. None may know the future, Professor. None but God, and this he does not tell, even to those who love and follow Him best."

A tremor of exasperation rippled through Xavier. Was this how Magneto felt when they tried to speak? Was Xavier himself ever so sealed in by the blank white walls of faith? "We can make certain logical deductions, Kurt. And logically, I have forfeited whatever right I have to carry the X-Men forward."

"Forfeit," Nightcrawler said. "This is an English word I do not know. What does it mean?"

Xavier was quite sure that Nightcrawler knew it meant to give up. Instead of answering, he said, "You are right that nobody can know the future. I thought I knew. I was wrong. And my mistakes led us here."

Blessedly, Nightcrawler did not argue this point. He sat in silence by Xavier's bedside for a few moments, and Xavier began to hope the interview was over. But instead, Nightcrawler said, "The future, Professor -- by this, what do you mean?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Do you mean next month? Or two years from now, perhaps? Three? Ten?" Nightcrawler rose at last, collecting an empty teacup and a few tissues as he did so. "In catechism, they taught that only God is infinite. But I am wicked. I think to myself, two things are infinite. God is not the only one. The future --this, too, is infinite." He went to the door, nodded once. "Guten abend, Professor."

By then, Nightcrawler must have known Xavier would not sleep.

Five days later, the X-Men got back in the dead of night. Xavier could feel their exhaustion, but he still asked for Ororo and Scott to report to him immediately. When they appeared -- sweaty and dirty and worn-out, Xavier was ready for them: dressed, in day clothes, rather than the pajamas and robe he'd lived in for months. But they appeared to be too tired to notice the change.

Scott said, "Professor, I'm sorry. I should have known that --"

"No, Scott," Xavier said. "You did your job. Both of you. All of you. The failure here was my own."

"Professor, no," Scott began. But Ororo's head tilted to one side, and her night-dulled eyes sparked with new interest.

Xavier continued, "Had I resumed my physical therapy when I ought to have done, I'd have been in a position to use my powers long ago. Had I used my powers, I would certainly have known what Bobby and Kitty and the others felt compelled to do."

"You're not yourself," Scott said. Still making excuses. But Xavier could feel the prickling of doubt with Ororo's mind.

"No, I'm not,' Xavier said. "Because I've chosen not to be. I decided that we were beaten -- that I was beaten -- and I've done my best to ensure that my prophecy would be self-fulfilling. One way or another, that has to stop. Here and now."

"How do you suggest we do that?" Ororo was challenging him, her chin lifted. Xavier could sense the anger she'd pushed down for so long rising to the surface. "We lost our planes, a lot of our best people. Magneto's got Europe in his back pocket. It's a little late to show up to the party, Professor. Stop staring at me like that, Scott! The Professor -- he knows how much we all --"

"Believe in me," Xavier finished. "Of late, I haven't deserved that belief. But if you'll stand with me, I will try to deserve it again."

Scott sat heavily in the chair beside Xavier's bed. "What can we do differently?" he said. "What can we possibly change?"

"The future," Xavier said. "Perhaps we can't defeat Magneto. But what Magneto doesn't understand is -- mutants cannot lose this war. No matter what humans do, no matter how angry they become, what horrors they inflict. They could kill us all, and still lose."

"Professor?" Ororo was staring at him now.

"Mutation. The next step in human evolution. When Erik -- Magneto and I were young, there were perhaps two or three hundred mutants on all of planet Earth. The number now is close to half a million. You taught mathematics, Scott; surely you understand the nature of such an exponential leap."

Scott responded slowly. "You mean -- someday -- there won't be any humans left. Every child born will have a mutation."

"We don't know that," Ororo said. "Even if it is true, that's hundreds of years away."

"Nonetheless, it will happen," Xavier replied. "If not every child, nearly every. Maybe it will be a long time before mutants are the majority. Even centuries, until that's true. But those centuries will pass, whether we will them or not. And at the end of them, what world will those mutant children inherit? One where powers are to be used at an individual's whim, where the rights and dignity of those less powerful count for nothing? Or one where mercy is a virtue, and where power has a purpose?"

Ororo's pale eyes were tear-rimmed now. Roughly, she said, "We only get to make that world if we win."

"I'm not so sure of that," Xavier said. "But I know we can't make that world if we stop trying. And that means continuing the fight against our mutant fellows who refuse to see the world in this light. Magneto's methods are undoubtedly effective, but his ends can be justified by no means. He demands an obedience too absolute, from his followers and from the unfortunate humans who have found themselves his subjects. By that same token, however, I won't demand that any of you substitute my judgment for your own."

"You want to mobilize against him," Scott said. "Full scale."

"The nations that work with us are poor, but they do have armaments, money, people. We can put all those to better use than we previously have done. I also intend to dedicate myself as completely as possible to my own recovery. In the past I have -- tempered my abilities against Magneto, but he will find me less obliging in future. If we are to be defeated," Xavier said, "we should by God go down fighting, don't you think?"

A poor prize to offer them, Xavier knew. But the flash of Ororo's eyes told him that it was enough.

Caliburn Falls, British Columbia, Canada

The owl awoke; Logan couldn't see its eyes open, but he heard it shift slightly on the branch. He remained still and silent, his face pressed against the bark. It wasn't quite dark yet, so maybe if it didn't smell him, then --

With a flutter of wide, powerful wings, the owl swooped away into the deeper woods. Logan sighed and began working his way back down to the ground. By this time, he was skilled enough at deerstalking that he could almost always touch their flanks before being detected; the challenge was gone. Birds of prey were a lot more difficult, even if he did come equipped with his own grappling hooks for tree-climbing.

He gratefully retracted his claws and felt the cold cramp of them leave his knuckles. Injured skin prickled with healing for a moment, then smoothed over completely. As he walked home, he heard the crunch and crack of ice and twigs beneath his boots. Ice made it difficult to hunt, and he'd have to hunt for real, soon, instead of just to practice his skills. The freezer was almost empty, and Logan was in no hurry to return to town.

The television set, and the images he'd seen, flickered in his mind again --full of static. Bad reception. Jesus.

At least he hadn't had to see Jean die. He'd known she was down there -- so close; if the plane doors had been open he could have run to her in two minutes flat. Logan had had to see that terrible wall of water, had had to hear Jean tell Scott farewell in Professor X's voice. But he hadn't had to watch. No idea if that made it better or worse.

As Logan got closer to his cabin, he caught a scent in the air: human. Not far away. He thought little of this, at first; his cabin was closer to the road than he would have liked, and even in this weather, people sometimes passed by.

But the closer he got, the stronger the scent became. This wasn't somebody in a vehicle passing by. This was somebody right at the cabin. Hell, maybe at the door.

Sure enough, as he drew closer, he could just make out a faint outline. Somebody was peering in his window, trying to see shadows or movement through the thin curtains.

Logan breathed in sharply, preparing himself for battle. The deeper breath hit him in a way the others hadn't, and in a flash he knew.

"Marie?" he called, then corrected himself. "Rogue?"

She turned, the long white streaks in her hair brilliant in the twilight. As he made his way into the clearing, Rogue smiled uncertainly. Her face was as pale and unsteady as it had been when they first met, but she looked so much more than four years older.

"Logan," she said. "Hey."

He tried to figure why she would be here, then felt his stomach muscles clench. "It's the Professor," he said. "He's not --"

"No, no!" Rogue held out her hands. Strange -- she wasn't wearing gloves. "He's fine, least as far as I know."

Logan hadn't even realized the thought of the Professor dying could shake him up so bad. Roughly, he said, "How the hell did you find me?"

One of her dark eyebrows arched. "I went to the coldest, toughest, least hospitable place on earth, and I followed the trail of beer cans from there."

His mouth twisted, and he realized how long it had been since he'd smiled. "What are you doing here, Rogue? You okay?"

"Am I okay?" She looked up at the night sky, and her eyes were bright. "I can't answer that. Some ways, I'm better than I've ever been. But some ways, I'm -- it's like I'm --"

Rogue wavered on her feet, and for the first time, Logan realized that she was weak, almost faint. He grabbed her elbows to steady her. "Hey. Let's get you inside, okay? You look like you could use something to eat." Basics first.

She didn't seem to have heard him. "I knew where you would be. I knew you'd want to be where -- where it happened. Because of those times we touched. I knew."

"It's okay," he said. "I'm glad you found me." He only meant it because he wasn't sure how much further she could have gone before finding a place to stop and someone to look after her. For himself, seeing Rogue again -- it hurt more than he'd thought it would, and he'd thought it would hurt a lot.

As he started trying to steer her toward the door, she put out her hand --for balance, he thought at first. But then her bare hand made contact with his cheek, and Logan fought not to flinch.

Okay, he thought, she needs to heal, I'll let her heal. This is gonna hurt, but if she's in trouble, then I can take it -- and this ain't hurting. At all.

Logan stared at her. Rogue smiled weakly.

"Some ways," she repeated, "I'm better than I've ever been."

Chapter 3

Ben Canaan Compound, Israel, 1955

After his first year in Israel, Charles had learned a number of things, from the very trivial to the very important.

The very trivial: How to dress. He now wore olive or khaki pants and loose white shirts instead of the stuffy suits he'd arrived with, and had even learned to wear shorts from time to time without feeling as though he belonged back in prep school. How to improve his side kick. Football matches of students, scientists and soldiers in the compound's lot, a grassy area between the two residential wings, had honed his skills. To judge by the number of times Hazim's team won, Charles suspected Hazim also had improved his abilities, mutant and otherwise.

In the middle: How to judge everyone's temperaments and get along accordingly. Marcellina's temper was as generous as her spirit, and her moods fluctuated wildly, with little warning. Hazim was quiet and intense, powerfully unhappy to be working with the Israeli military but too desperate to be rid of his mutation to consider leaving. Dr. Avidan was usually gentle and good-humored, unless and until you interrupted one of her experiments, in which case it was best to run. How he dealt with being a man on his own, rather than a boy in his mother's house. After a lifetime spent avoiding strangers and new contact, it was a surprise and a relief to know that he could get along well with others, better than with his family.

The very important: How to better control his power. Charles was, thus far, better at filtering his telepathy -- blocking it, even, if he chose -- than at enhancing what he was capable of feeling. He reasoned that he had to learn to achieve mental silence before he could ever hope to listen carefully to just one mind. How Ben-David meant for this institution to run. The mutant studies were meant, first and foremost, to create a defense for Israel. All well and good, Charles supposed, but increasingly he felt as though the five mutants there were no more significant in Ben-David's mind than guinea pigs in a lab. There was no malice, but it had been many months since anybody but Dr. Avidan had offered to take them to Tel Aviv, or even as far as Beir Sheva.

What he had not learned: The first thing about understanding Erik Lensherr.

At the moment, however, his friend was easy enough to read: Erik's curiosity was even brighter than his smile. "Ready, then?"

Charles nodded. He was still uneasy -- the basement of the compound was as close as they could come to privacy, and nobody had found their equipment yet --but he remained fearful of being discovered. Nothing for it, though; they had to try. Carefully he sat back so that his head rested between the two tanks of solution. Erik said, "And -- go."

He heard Erik flipping the switch that sent electrical current coursing through the tanks. And in a flash he could see --

Hazim in the kitchen, pouring himself some water.

Ben-David walking toward a door, papers in his hand.

Marcellina in her bathtub, scrubbing herself vigorously. (Charles blushed.)

Albinka at the top of the stairs, peering down at them, thinking herself unseen.

And Dr. Avidan -- at a distance away, driving back from Beir Sheva. Maybe half a mile away! The wind was blowing through her curly hair. And there were other shapes, too -- less distinct and unknown to him, but definitely human.

Charles sat bolt upright. He knew he was grinning insanely; the expression was mirrored on Erik's face. "Well? Did it work?"

"Perfectly," Charles said. "Erik, I could even see Dr. Avidan."

"But she's not in the compound." When Charles nodded, he felt a thrill of anticipation sweep through Erik. "That's amazing."

"There's more." Charles ran through his memory to be absolutely certain before he spoke, then said, "The mutants -- we looked different than the humans. I can't say how, exactly. But different. I'd have known Hazim was a mutant even if I'd never been told."

Erik's face went pale. "Do you realize what we've got here?"

"A way to find others like us," Charles said. "We'll need more range, though. Right now, we'd have to hope that other mutants happened to take a stroll through our section of the Negev Desert -- OR hide at the top of the stairs."

Albinka giggled, poking her head around the corner so they could see her. Charles smiled back; at that moment, he felt a jolt of something unpleasant run through Erik. He wheeled around, afraid something had gone wrong with the generator -- but Erik was still sitting right there, smiling as smoothly as before. "We can experiment with different amounts of current," Erik said, as though his thoughts had not turned from the machine. "Different fluctuations, perhaps."

Charles forcibly kept himself from prying into Erik's mind. It was easy enough to concentrate on the machine instead. "Not much fun for you, then. Having to joggle the switch every which way."

"No, not much fun for me." Erik could sound so dry, when he chose. "But we could rig up some sort of mechanism."

"Maybe Dr. Avidan could get her hands on one of those electronic brains," Charles said. "Like the ones IBM built for the U.S. government. Do you think we could figure out how to --" What was the word? "How to program one to try different combinations?"

Erik did not trouble to hide his dismay at that. "You know she'll tell Ben-David, if we ask her." Charles made no reply. They'd never discussed their growing mutual distrust of Ben-David, but they hadn't had to. Dr. Avidan's genuine concern for their well-being was clear, but Ben-David's lack of that same concern wasn't clear to her; her willingness to report to Ben-David was the only way in which they did not trust her.

For almost a year, they'd all lived together, the mutants undergoing tests and refining their abilities. Marcellina and Hazim, who still hoped for normalcy, didn't practice nearly enough. But Erik could do astonishing things now --pick locks, shift gears in the jeep. Precision, they'd all learned, was far more elusive than simple force. Albinka could direct her voice with more accuracy. By modifying the pitch and tone of her screams, she was becoming able to choose what to turn into stone: a single pane of glass in a large window, or once, to Erik's great annoyance, just one of the shoes in his closet. And by now Charles understood that all that kept him outside the minds of others was his own control. Some of his limits would remain forever a mystery -- there were tricks of the mind that Charles refused to practice.

If Ben-David really understood that, what would he do? Charles wasn't at all sure he knew.

"They'll know about the experiments eventually," Charles told Erik. "But I won't tell for now. You won't either, will you, Albinka?"

"Shriek," she corrected him, taking the steps down two at a time. She had a tremendous fondness for the nickname Charles had unwittingly given her. "I won't tell."

"That's my girl," Charles said. Again she smiled; again, a strange, unsettling rush of feeling from Erik. Disconcerted, Charles said, "Don't suppose you'd get us some Kels from the refrigerator?"

"It's early for beer," she said, crossing her arms. But Albinka -- Shriek --did not look so much forbidding or motherly as she did like a little girl playing house, scolding her dolls for some make-believe infraction. Although she was 17 years old, Shriek was still short and slight, almost entirely without womanly curves; also, something in her mind had never aged into adulthood. The others worried about her. Charles sensed that this was her best protection against memories she couldn't bear, and accepted it.

But they were Erik's memories too. How did Erik bear them? Charles still didn't know.

For his part, Erik was shaking his head at Shriek. "This is for a celebration," he said. "Celebrations are different."

"Okay," she said, and she bounded back up the steps, her long, ash-brown hair swinging behind her.

"So, our new toy here," Erik said, a touch too heartily, as though he thought he would have to force Charles to pay attention. "How far do you think it could go? Do you think you could find a mutant -- ten miles away? A hundred miles away?"

"No saying," Charles said, running his finger along the side of one of the tanks. The bluish liquid within rippled with the vibration from his touch. "We'll have to test different settings with the equipment. And I -- perhaps I can learn better how to use the extra ability it gives me. If I enhance my own skills, I guess there's no telling what this might do."

"Maybe you could use it to talk to people, as well," Erik said. "You've come close to getting through to me. I've felt it."

"If it boosted that, too? That would be outstanding." Charles grinned at Erik; he felt his friend relax. There had been an odd tension between them lately. He was determined not to question it -- Erik frequently went through spells of melancholy or temper that he was best left to work out on his own -- but it piqued his curiosity. A year ago, when he had come to Israel, Charles would have known the cause quickly enough. Back then, he hadn't had the control to shield against other people's thoughts. Now he could and did most of the time; it seemed more polite. But at moments like this, he regretted his own resolution.

"Maybe you could talk to people thousands of miles away," Erik said. He was daydreaming aloud, and Charles knew it. "Maybe you could talk to the dead."

"Good Lord. Let's hope not. I'd never get any quiet."

Erik laughed.

"We hold the keys to the underworld," Erik intoned. "You and me -- and Shriek. The three-headed beast guarding the door." Charles laughed at his mock solemnity, and so was surprised to hear Erik actually being serious as he continued: "Shriek's fond of you, you know."

"Of course I know," Charles said. "What of it?"

Erik shrugged, deliberately casual. "I suppose I was wondering if you were ever going to do anything about it."

"Oh. You mean FOND of me. You've got that all wrong."

"Have I?" Erik wasn't being sarcastic; he knew by now to trust Charles' perceptions. "But the way she follows you around --"

"I make her feel safe," Charles said. Erik did not make Shriek feel safe; often he frightened her, without any apparent cause. Long ago, Charles had chalked that up to the memories they shared, and had pried no further into the matter. "God knows why, but I do. Shriek's not -- Erik, you know she doesn't feel things the way an adult would. That goes for love, too."

"I should think you'd be a bit more curious." Erik was oddly persistent. "The only girl within 100 kilometers, unless you count Marcellina and Dr. Avidan, and they've got 15 years on us."

"Have you turned into my mother? I'm not exactly in a rush to get married."

Erik's eyebrow arched, an elegant black slash against his aristocratic face. "Who was talking about marriage?"

Charles frowned. Only at that moment did he realize that he'd never much imagined dating girls; his image of the future was cloudy except for the idea of a houseful of children. He hadn't given much thought to his love life besides thinking that he'd first have to find a mother for them. Never had he imagined being with a woman before standing beside her at an altar.

They were quiet for a while as they carefully disassembled the machine, unpacking it and preparing to stash it back in the closet they'd claimed for their own. As they began draining the solution into a few old milk bottles, Erik said quietly, "So, you'd know, then."

"Know what?"

"If Shriek were, ah, interested in you."

"If I chose to know," Charles said. "I don't push inside your minds if I don't have to. We couldn't live together, if I did."

"Of course," Erik said distantly, winding up some cable without touching it.

For some reason, Charles realized, his heart was beating especially fast.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, Germany, 2006

Two weeks in, and Bobby was pretty sure he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.

It wasn't that he'd misunderstood the Brotherhood. They didn't share a set of ideals, unless "mutants should crush humanity" counted as an ideal. They didn't like each other much; there were a few partnerships, but Bobby didn't think any of them counted as friends. (Except, he'd admit, for Magneto and Mystique, though he wasn't at all sure that "friends" was the right word for that relationship.) They all followed Magneto's orders, and instantly, but for reasons that, as far as Bobby could tell, were as different as their powers. Some of them idolized Magneto, almost worshipped him. Others hated him, but hated humanity more. Some of them were too scared to do anything else. Pyro just seemed to think it was pretty damn cool.

But one and all, when Bobby or one of the other X-Men -- well, ex-X-Men --tried to talk to them about going against Magneto, they refused to think about it.

Bobby had been subtle, at first. Careful. Just asking them if they were ever unhappy. What the downside was. What names they called the boss. He made it a joke, the way he once tried to get in with coworkers on the first day of his summer job at Baskin-Robbins.

A lizard-looking girl named Chameleon flushed a deeper olive than the brocade wallpaper: "I'm lucky to be here. Lucky. Have you heard what they do to mutants in America? Compared to that, what's the downside to being here?"

The silvery-blue fighter named Spiral regarded him with amused contempt. "Let me get this straight," she said, taking a drag on her cigarette with one hand while cracking the knuckles of two others, twirling her dark hair between the fingers of yet another. "You've been here for two weeks and you're already bitching?"

Avalanche didn't even answer. Neither Bobby nor any of the others dared ask Mystique.

And so, two weeks into his big plan to change the course of the war by subverting Magneto's forces from within, Bobby realized he still hadn't done anything smarter than getting the X-Men's jets crushed.

He lay on his bed in his new room: Magneto had split up the former X-Men as much as possible, and only Bobby was staying at the main headquarters, the palace itself. Sometimes he just had to stare at it -- 20 foot ceilings, tapestries on the wall, this enormous carved wooden bed with a velvet canopy. Sure, the bed was only just long enough for his feet not to hang off the end, but still -- it was amazing.

As he traced along the carvings on the headboard (a stag, in relief, ran from hunters who stretched into the distance), Bobby heard footsteps in the doorway. He didn't have to look up. "I was wondering when you'd finally drop by," Bobby said.

Pyro laughed. "Were you? I didn't think you were in such a big hurry to see me." Bobby kept running his fingers along the stag's carved horns; he didn't know why he didn't want to turn around, but he didn't. He could hear Pyro flicking his lighter, smell the faint tang of butane in the air. "I know what you're up to. What you were up to, anyway."

Bobby wanted to respond in anger, but almost to his own surprise, he felt a smile spreading across his face. "You're KIDDING. I think you're the last one to catch on. No, wait, there might be some Bedouin in the Sahara who still doesn't know."

"And they say I'm not subtle." The bed shifted with Pyro's weight, and Bobby did look over then to see his old friend stretching across the foot, as comfortable and at-home as a blanket. Pyro seemed to expect Bobby to object or to run, but Bobby didn't. At this point, he just wanted to talk to somebody -- and he'd forgotten how much he used to enjoy talking to Pyro. "Listen, don't worry about it. Nobody cares why you came here. Every single member of the Brotherhood came here for different reasons. The point is, we all stay here for the same reason."

"And what reason is that?"

Pyro smiled, lazy and catlike. "We get what we need here. Power."

"Power," Bobby said, the word ashen in his mouth. "What's the point of having power for its own sake? I liked the way I lived better back before I had any powers. I mean, power."

"Freudian slip," Pyro said. "See, I didn't cut all of Dr. Grey's psych classes. I know enough to know what you mean. You still don't like being a mutant, do you, Bobby?"

"I like it fine," Bobby said. "It's what I am. I don't have a choice, and I don't need one."

Pyro said, "If you start singing 'It's Not Easy Being Green,' I WILL fry you." Bobby started to laugh, cackling so that it almost sounded crazy. When Pyro started laughing too, Bobby had to laugh harder. Oh, God, how long had it been? Since he'd laughed like this, so that tears welled up in his eyes, so that his stomach muscles hurt. Pyro managed to say, "I'm serious. You gotta stop trying to accept what you are. You have to start LOVING it. And I'm gonna show you how."

"How are you going to do that?" Bobby said, still gasping with laughter. He didn't care what Pyro said in response. For the moment, he wanted to stop worrying, stop tearing himself up for all his mistakes. He just wanted to listen to Pyro again. Be his friend again. Maybe that was the only place to start.

Pyro grinned. "Trust me."

Caliburn Falls, British Columbia, Canada

Rogue ate her steak hungrily; she was far too famished to worry about the fact that it was venison instead of beef, or to have even the faintest memories of "Bambi."

Logan's cabin -- well, he wasn't neat at the best of times, and this wasn't the best of times. Anything that could be used as an ashtray had been, and he hadn't emptied them in a while. No TV, no DVD, no video games. A number of books lay about, though, and to her abashed surprise, they looked like tough going: Japanese philosophy, mostly, with some military histories thrown in. Rogue understood that Logan was smarter than most people (Cyclops in particular) thought, but she was still taken aback by the hard evidence. Apparently canned beer was winning out over bottled beer by a ratio of about two to one, based on the many empties on windowsills and the beat-up side table. She'd deal with the nightmare of the bathtub tomorrow. When she'd changed out of her own grubby clothes and put on oversized sweatpants and a T-shirt that smelled comfortingly masculine, she had opportunity to see that the bedroom at least was clean. Then again, to judge by the ratty yellow blanket and lumpy pillow on the sofa, that was probably just because Logan never used the bedroom.

She looked up from her meal and saw Logan in the corner of the cabin that functioned as a kitchen. His coat and flannel shirt were discarded; now he was wearing a gray T-shirt that outlined his broad chest and shoulders. He gave her that half-smile of his, wry but warm, the one she'd daydreamed about when she was younger. For a moment, Rogue felt her uncertainties rise up anew; they'd been neck-high already, and now she felt as though they would drag her under, and she'd drown.

Then Geir flashed within her again -- young and lonely and desperate, forever denied -- and she steeled herself.

Best to just say it flat-out: "I couldn't go back."

"You couldn't stand looking at it anymore either, huh?"

"Wasn't that." Rogue got up from the card table and deck chair that served as Logan's dining set and sat cross-legged on the sofa. As she'd hoped, Logan came and sat beside her. "I mean, I knew we'd lost. I'd known for a really long time. Bobby didn't think I understood that, but I did. I just wanted to be with everyone as long as I could."

They were quiet for a moment. Logan said heavily, "Rogue -- you know why I left."

"Yeah, I know," she said, then plunged ahead. "It was Geir, the mutant I absorbed and killed -- he's what keeps me from going back."

"Why? You think you might side with Magneto too?"

Rogue shuddered. "God, no. Geir was terrified of Magneto. Not just because he's, you know, a card-carrying psychopath. Because he had power." She remembered Geir's mother, a pale white hand striking him so hard that the pain lanced through his whole body, through all those years of time, into Rogue herself. She could see the front room of the house in Oslo -- the heavy walnut grandfather clock, the beige sofas, the abstract painting on the wall. As a little boy, Geir liked to count the triangles in the painting. "When Magneto got Scandinavia and swept for mutants, he found Geir. Geir went with him because he couldn't imagine anything being worse than home. Honestly, I'm not sure he had a choice. And he was so scared of Magneto, always. He was right to be. In the end, following Magneto's orders killed him."

"So what you're saying is, after you soaked up Geir, you were afraid of the people who had power over you."

Rogue nodded. Professor X. Storm. Cyclops. The thought of their faces made her stomach clench with fear, even now. She wondered if she would feel that way forever. Geir's powers, she knew, couldn't last but another few days. Maybe only another few hours. His terror, she thought, would live forever.

They were quiet for another moment. Then Logan asked, "So, how does this work again? You having his powers and not yours?"

"One of Geir's powers was the ability to project his other abilities onto anyone he touched. He did that to me. I think the combination of him projecting and me absorbing made it a LOT stronger than usual."

"The projecting or the absorbing?"

"Both. Normally the effects of having touched somebody would have worn off completely by now. But they've only started to settle. I still have Geir's powers instead of mine. I have my own personality back, more or less, but the rest is just -- hanging on."

"Right." Logan was staring at her, frankly appraising. Rogue knew he was simply looking for change in her, but all the same, his gaze made her flush with warmth. "So you can project these powers now?"

"I don't know," she answered. "I haven't tried. I think right now I'm absorbing and projecting both -- like, maybe, the two powers cancel each other out. Anyway, I've touched people a couple of times. Didn't bother them or me."

Disappointingly, Logan showed no particular reaction to this. "What else can you do?"

"I can fly."

"Damn." Logan grinned. "Is that how you got here?"

"No. Oh, no. I don't have any idea how long any of this is going to last. I couldn't just fly over the Atlantic, not knowing."

"Good point."

"So I boarded a plane with fake ID. Used it to get a train ticket out here." He didn't ask where she got the ID, just nodded. At the moment, Rogue felt more like the teenager she'd been in Loughlin City four years ago than she did like herself. "I'm stronger than I was before. I have a little telekinesis. Not like Jea -- I mean, not much. But that's all."

He didn't react to her slip. "Absolutely all?"

Rogue considered this for a minute. "I can speak Norwegian."

"That's gonna come in real handy." Logan smiled again, then finished his own beer and sank back into the sofa. "So why'd you come here?"

"You don't sound very happy to see me." Even to her, the words fell flat and accusing.

"Hey. You know I missed you, right? More than anybody else." The matter-of-fact way he said it warmed her, made her more bold. He rubbed his forehead tiredly. "But like you said, coldest, least hospitable place on earth. I know I ain't the only friend you've got in the world who's not with Xavier, and I figure most of your other friends make better company."

"I needed to talk to you," she said. "Everything that mattered to me -- I lost it all. You're the only other person I know who had that happen to him. And you keep going."

Logan looked at the ceiling. "If this counts as keeping going."

"It counts," she said. "I wanted to see how to start over."

"You could learn from somebody better. Trust me on this, kid."

The "kid" lashed her, but Rogue kept on. She'd crossed the ocean and half a continent -- no point in chickening out now. "More than that --"


Thank God he'd only turned on one lamp, so the light was already kind of low. Thank God he was looking at her like that, gentle and questioning, like she could say anything to him. Thank God she'd gotten here in time.

"Rogue?" Logan's voice was quieter. "You okay?"

She gathered up her courage, quickly leaned forward and kissed him.

Their lips touched for only a few moments; Rogue wasn't used to kissing any longer than that. When Logan didn't immediately react, she kissed him again --a little slower this time, a little firmer. His whiskers brushed against her cheek, and the scent of him was so close, so rich. She took his hands, and oh, God, it felt so good just to hold his hands.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Logan said, pulling back from her slightly. He looked startled; she decided she couldn't blame him.

"I don't know how long this is going to last," she said in a rush. "Logan, this is the only time in years I've been able to touch somebody else, and it might be the last time ever. I just -- I don't want to waste the chance." Rogue squeezed his hands more tightly, felt the hard resistance of metal beneath his flesh. "You and me, when we met -- I guess you thought I was just a kid, and maybe I was, but you know how I used to feel about you. I mean, I wore your dog tags around my neck for three months; guess that kinda tipped you off. And we still -- you and me -- we mean a lot to each other, don't we?"

"I -- yeah."

"So I wanted it to be you."

Logan's eyes were wide. "You came here to -"

"That's not why I came here. But -- as long as I am here -- well --" Thank God the talking's over, she thought, and she breathed out a deep sigh of relief.

But as Rogue looked at Logan's face, she saw neither understanding nor desire. He was closed off, his eyes dull, his lips pressed in a thin line. "Marie, this time last month, you were in love with Bobby Drake."

Instantly, tears were stinging her eyes. "If Bobby'd stuck around, I wouldn't have come to you," she said, knowing it was true. But somehow it was hard to imagine; despite all the fevered daydreaming she'd done in the past, all the fantasies in which she and Bobby could touch, Rogue couldn't call the images to mind anymore. Come to think of it, it had been a long time since she'd indulged that in particular dream. "Turns out he had other plans."

"I got that. All I'm saying is, you're upset, and you're not exactly yourself."

"And you think I don't know what I want." Rogue pushed away from him and walked across the room. Newspaper crumpled under her feet. "You just expect me to sit around and waste my one chance."

Logan retorted, "You just expect me to perform on demand."

Rogue winced and glared over her shoulder. "Excuse me for asking you to do something so horrible."

"Marie -- that's not what I --"

"Skip it," she said tightly. "I figured I might be embarrassed tonight. But I didn't think I'd be humiliated." Before he could say anything else, Rogue hurried into the bedroom and slammed the door behind her with her mind. At least the telekinesis was good for something.

For a few minutes, Logan just sat there, feeling like he'd been hit by a Mack truck.

(July 2, 1991 -- he had basis for comparison. Yeah, this was what it felt like.)

With a groan, he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, trying to wrap his mind around everything he'd heard that night, everything he'd done. In some ways, it still didn't seem real that Rogue could even be here, much less that she could be in his bedroom, from the sound of it crying, and least of all that she could have just asked him to make love.

He could still feel the warmth of her hands on his. Imagine, touching Rogue's hands. It had been a long time since he'd touched anyone else, as his body was now reminding him; if just brushing lips with Rogue twice was enough to throw him, after a year's isolation, what must that have been like for Rogue? He'd thought of her loneliness often enough, seen the way she looked enviously at couples who held hands. And here she was with a chance to touch and be touched, at least for now.

I should have done it, Logan thought. I ought to have gone to bed with her. I ought to go to her right now.

But something in him still resisted.

It wasn't that he thought of Rogue as a kid, even though she had been just a girl when he first found her. He'd noticed every change in her during the years they worked together: her increased confidence, her darkening temper, her greater insight into the others, especially him. And, yeah, he'd noticed as her face and figure changed, too. Skin-tight, black leather uniforms don't hide much.

He'd also noticed the way she gazed up at him and paid attention to him --asking his opinion about anything and everything, showing off her outfits, sometimes bringing him a beer at the end of a long evening. He hadn't exactly encouraged it, but he knew full well he hadn't discouraged it either. Truth was, he'd done the same sometimes -- taking her off for rides in the car or on the motorcycle, letting her watch her corny old movies on TV even when the game was on, blowing off steam to her whenever Xavier or Scott was giving him shit. It had been easy. Nice, even. Logan figured that any man who believed he was immune to being admired was just lying to himself. But he'd never once considered taking advantage of that admiration; he'd never looked on Bobby Drake as a rival, but a relief. Insurance that things wouldn't get too complicated, that she wouldn't get her feelings hurt. Rogue been someone he could talk to and look out for, no more -- but definitely no less.

So, they weren't crazy in love. It was still more than he'd felt for most women he'd slept with. Rogue was beautiful, even sensual. She'd come to him when she could've had anybody for the asking. Even now, he could feel the warmth of her touch on his body, and it had been a damn long time since he'd been with a woman, and so why the hell wasn't he breaking down her door right now?

Because I never thought I could touch her, Logan realized. That's why I could get close to her, let her get close to me. Because I didn't ever have to worry about getting too close.

For one night, you fucking coward. You can take that girl's puppy love to prop up your ego, but you can't give her one night?

Logan found himself recalling the one time he'd kissed Jean. She was real to him again, in that instant: red hair, high cheekbones, that proud, piercing gaze. Then he forced the images away. Wasn't like he could betray the memory of a woman who had never been his to begin with. And if her ghost was all that was standing between him and Rogue, then he was just going to have to let it go. For one night.

Logan took a deep breath, got up and went to the bedroom door.

He rapped once. No response. He tried it again, then opened the door without waiting for an answer. Rogue was sitting up in bed; the lights were out, but thanks to his sharp vision, he could still see her just fine. Her hair was down around her face, thick and dark, and she was still wearing his T-shirt, though his sweatpants were crumpled on the floor.

She sniffled once, then said, "What?"

"I'm a jackass."

That got him a small laugh. "Well, yeah. That's not exactly news, you know."

"I know." He sat down carefully on the foot of the bed. Rogue scooted a few inches farther away from him, hugging her arms around herself.

"Don't," she said.

"If you've changed your mind, I'll go." He realized that he'd be more disappointed than relieved. A lot more. Something about the way she looked right now -- dark eyes, darker hair, the ivory of her skin soft in the dim light --

She brushed her hair back from her face. "It's just -- Logan, if you're only here because you feel sorry for me, then you should leave. I don't want you here because you're trying to make something up to me."

"I don't feel sorry for you," he said. Which wasn't exactly true, but it wasn't why he was in there, either. "But you're lonely. And, well -- you're not the only one."

Rogue still seemed doubtful; after the ass he'd been, Logan couldn't exactly blame her. For a few moments, they sat there in silence, not speaking, not moving.

Maybe it's better if she says no, he thought. Nothing hurts worse than knowing exactly what you can't have. But he couldn't stop looking at her -- the long lines of her bare legs, her slim hands, her full lower lip. Rogue was studying him, too. Considering. Deciding.

Finally she said, "It has to be what you want." He could read her fear plainly; she wasn't frightened of going to bed with him, but his rejection still stung. She didn't believe that he genuinely wanted her. Logan was realizing for the first time that he did.

"You want to know I want?" How was he going to get through to her? What words would reassure her, tell her that tonight was different? Logan hoped she could see his eyes as he leaned in a little closer and whispered, "I want you to touch me."

She breathed in sharply. For a moment they remained there, motionless, and Logan waited for her to kiss him. Instead, she hesitantly held out her hands until her fingertips cradled his face. Rogue's skin was so soft -- all those years of wearing gloves, he figured.

Slowly, she brushed her fingers up to his cheekbones, tracing them with the faintest touch. She smoothed her palms across his forehead, ran her thumb along the bridge of his nose, then down over his lips. Logan kissed her fingertip and saw her shiver, but she kept on, moving her hands down to his throat. As she paused to feel his pulse at the jugular, he was amazed to see her eyes glowing, her lips turning up slightly in a smile.

Of course, Logan thought. It's been so long since she was able to touch anyone, in any way. She wants to feel everything she can. He knew she must feel how hard and fast his heartbeat was going; this slow exploration was having the same effect on him as it apparently was on her. He could feel himself getting hot, getting hard. Even so, he forced himself to keep breathing slowly, to remain still and let her keep taking the lead.

Rogue ran her hands down his chest, pressing against his collarbone, his heart. His stomach muscles tightened in anticipation of her touch, but instead she brushed out across his shoulders, squeezing his biceps, dipping her fingers into the crook of his arm. Finally she took his hands in her own. When she lifted them, Logan expected her to guide him to where she wanted to be touched, and he was open to suggestions.

Then she lifted them to her face and kissed him across the knuckles, right where his claws came out. The place that she, and only she, knew hurt like hell.

He made a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh, took her face in his hands and kissed her.

Went better this time. Rogue started to pull away after a few moments --habit, he figured -- but Logan brought her closer, pushed his tongue between her lips. She responded uncertainly at first -- damn, she hadn't even done this before -- but then more surely, moving the way he moved, thrusting her tongue slowly into his mouth, then pulling back slightly to trace the corners of his lips.

Rogue's voice was shaky as she whispered into his mouth, "Am I a good kisser?"

"Uh-huh." He kissed her again, harder this time. "Fast learner."

As he'd hoped, that made her smile. "We'll have to see about that," she said, tilting her head so that a few strands of white hair fell across her face. From the wicked gleam in her eyes, Logan knew she realized just how sexy she looked when she did that.

They kissed again, and Logan felt her hands tugging at the band of his T-shirt. He forced himself to let go of her and held his hands up so that she could tug the shirt up and off. Once again he followed her lead, lifting her shirt and tossing it aside. For the first time, he saw her body -- full breasts, slim waist, curved hips covered only with pale-blue underwear. Rogue's cheeks flushed with warmth (had Bobby ever seen her like this? No way to ask, no way to know), but he didn't intend for her to spend one more second of this night feeling embarrassed. Logan pulled her against him, ready to kiss her past the point of caring about anything else.

But she gasped in delight even before he could touch her lips. "Oh," she sighed. "Oh, that feels good."

"Tell me what I'm doing right," Logan said, "so I can do it some more."

"Just this." She moved sinuously against him, brushing her breasts, her belly, against him. Her soft hands pressed against his back, bringing him closer. "Skin against skin."

Damn, he thought. Not being able to touch anybody in so long has turned every inch of this girl into an erogenous zone.

"It gets better than this," Logan murmured, kissing his way down her throat as he lowered her back onto the bed. And he set out to prove it.

He'd never been with a woman so nakedly responsive, so turned-on by every kiss, every touch. When he kissed his way from her ankle to her thigh, Rogue cried out without shame. When he took her breasts in his hands, her nipple in his mouth, she arched up toward him, using her body to beg him for more. He found himself testing every inch of her -- the small of her back. Her knees. Her ears. No matter where he kissed or licked or bit, the sensation was new to her, and she seemed to revel in every moment of it.

She wanted to touch him, too -- she wanted to give him the same kind of pleasure she was getting, which Logan wasn't sure was even possible. But she had amazing hands, so strong and so soft -- he had to fight for control as she ran her nails along his back, cupped his ass, stroked his cock. He kept looking at her full lips and wondering what she could really do when she set her mind to it. But he wasn't going to rush her; maybe they only had one night, but they had all night. When he finally stripped off her underwear and slid his fingers between her legs, he expected her to lose it completely. And God, she was so wet for him already, but he forced himself to keep going slow, to brush his fingers up, push in gently, start massaging her just so --

But as he looked into her face, watching for a sign that he ought to go faster or slower or harder or whatever, instead he saw her biting her lip. Rogue didn't look as much turned-on as she did uncomfortable. "Hey," he whispered. "We going too fast here?" He pulled his hand back to her thigh.

"No, no," Rogue said quickly. Her dark hair was fanned out around her on the pillow, those few white streaks brighter than ever. "I don't want you to stop. But -- well --"

"What?" Logan smiled a little. "We're kinda past the point of bein' shy, you know."

In a rush, she blurted out, "It's just -- I can do THAT myself."

Logan couldn't help laughing, but he hugged her close as he did it. "Got it," he said, kissing the curve of her neck and relishing her shiver. "I think I can come up with something you haven't had before."

"Promise?" she said, breathless.


He kissed his way down her breastbone, dipped his tongue into her navel, then pushed her thighs wider apart as he knelt at the foot of the bed. Rogue tensed, her muscles taut beneath his hands, then sighed and slowly relaxed, giving him permission. Logan bowed his head between her legs and slipped his tongue inside her. God, she tasted good -- heat and salt and something else that just belonged to her.

Rogue gasped, and she arched her hips just so, offering herself to him. He slid upwards, finding the right place, swirling his tongue around her, working with the heartbeat he could feel drumming against his palms, against his lips. As she began rocking in tempo, he moved with her, going a little faster, a little faster again.

One hand clutched his shoulder; the other wound in his hair, not guiding him, but feeling the way he moved. Logan pressed his tongue against her harder, breathed in the warm, wet musk of her as he felt her get closer --

She cried out, her fingernails cutting into his shoulder as she came. Logan kept it up until the last tremors seemed to be fading from her; then he kissed his way back up her belly to lie alongside her. Rogue's arms slid around him, as though she couldn't get him near enough. He knew how she felt.

"I imagined what that would feel like," she murmured against his chest. "So many times. I never even got close."

Logan kissed her hair, wound the white strands through his fingers. "We can do that again, if you want. We can do that all night."

Her eyes were bright and eager when she turned her face up to his, and he thought she'd ask for exactly that -- at least for a while. They kissed, and her hands kept moving all over his body -- tracing his stomach muscles, stroking his thighs, tangling in the hair on his chest. As soon as their mouths parted, she whispered, "I want you inside me."

They kissed again, then again. Her mouth was open, her body pliant against his, and Logan didn't think he could wait any longer.

He rolled her onto her back and gently pushed her knees up. Rogue's eyes were wide, but she spread her thighs willingly. Logan said, "This might --"

"Hurt. I know. I don't care." Rogue put her hands on either side of his face again, just the way she had when they first began to touch. "Do you know how long I've waited to feel this? All of this? Even the hurting. I want all of it, Logan."

Logan took a deep breath, lowered himself onto her and, with one sharp thrust, pushed inside.

Oh, God --

Rogue cried out; he could hear the pain in her voice, and for a moment, his arousal and his resolve faltered. But then she gasped in another breath, and slowly, slowly relaxed.

Every cell in Logan's body was telling him to thrust, hard, right now, but he forced himself to be still, every muscle tense with the effort. "You okay?" he said.

"Yeah," she said shakily. "Just -- just give me a second."

Sweat was beading up all over his skin, and his cock was thick and hard inside her, and she was locked around him, just right -- but she needed a second, so Logan kept himself still. He squeezed his eyes shut, let his forehead fall against her shoulder. "You feel so good."

He said it without thinking -- he couldn't do anything even close to "thinking" right then -- but it affected Rogue. She hugged him closer, moved so that he slid deeper into her, bringing his control right to the brink. "I do?"

Logan looked down at her; her cheeks and eyes were flushed with more than sensual excitement. He recognized pride and realized that, for a girl who'd spent her entire sexual life cut off from bodily contact, knowing her own desirability was maybe the most important thing of all. "God, yeah."

"Tell me," she whispered. "Tell me how it feels."

She wanted him to think of words at a time like this? But she shifted beneath him, just a little, and the movement made him dizzy with wanting her. "Hot. It's -- hotter than burning, but it feels -- so good. Like you don't want to stop burning."

"Hot." Rogue's hands brushed along the length of their bodies, feeling how his body fit between her open legs.

"And you're so tight -- all around me. You're holding on to me as tight as you can."

Rogue smiled. "I am." Her voice was breathy, as though she could barely manage to speak. "I'm holding you inside me."

Damn if this talking wasn't turning him on. "I can feel how wet you are, so it's slick inside, and when I move --" He pushed into her just a little bit, and saw with a rush of heat that she let her head fall back in delight. "-- then it's just -- smooth, easy -- like --"

Logan began to thrust, taking it slowly at first. Every sensation seemed to be getting stronger by the moment: her thighs against his sides, her hands on his back, the warmth of her all around him. He looked into her eyes and held her gaze as he pushed inside her.

Rogue moved with him, finding the rhythm, taking him in even deeper than before. Logan swore beneath his breath, struggled for control. Her eyes blazed with something that was both arousal and victory. Logan realized -- she wanted to see him lose control. To see that she had the power to do that to him. She whispered, "Do you want to know how you feel?"

Still moving. Still thrusting. Going at one deliberate pace, no faster, no slower. "Tell me."

"It burns, but it doesn't hurt anymore. Good burning." She was open beneath him, open and wet where he was inside her, where they were burning in each other's heat. "And -- it's like my body's stretching out around you. So we fit together just right. Just like this." Rogue began swiveling her hips in the slightest spiral -- just a little change, purely by instinct, but it drove out Logan's last shred of self-control.

He gave up trying to go slow. Logan moved faster, and faster, taking her as hard as she could bear, so hard, and when he felt his release start to boil inside him, he didn't slow down. He came in one hard jolt, an electric pulse that blacked out light, drowned out noise in the rush of his own pulse. Rogue clutched him to her, wrapping her arms and legs around him, as though she couldn't get him close enough.

When he could speak again, he said, "You okay?"

Rogue nodded. Her hands were shaky as she cradled his face and kissed him again. "Like I told you. Some ways, I'm better than ever."

Logan was usually the type to roll over and go to sleep after. But that night he embraced her tightly, tangled her legs up with his own, so that she could feel every inch of him on her skin, all night long.

Chapter 4

Ben Canaan Compound, Israel, 1956

Erik felt the warning pressure of Charles' hand on his shoulder, and so he kept his mouth shut -- for the moment.

Nobody had warned Marcellina. "What is this you are telling us?" she demanded of Ben David. "Two years of our lives are gone, gone! And still nothing? You have NOTHING?"

Ben David drew himself up, tall and imperious, and even in his disgust Erik could see the power Ben David projected throughout the office. He envied it. "We've had this conversation before, Marcellina. I just told you that we were making progress. We're always making progress. We're able to pinpoint the chromosomes involved in some of your mutations. That's a huge leap forward toward reproducing those mutations in others."

"I am not here to make more soldiers for the Israeli army," Hazim said quietly. Despite the fact that his voice was low and his body still, Erik could tell Hazim was far angrier even than Marcellina. "I have been here for two years so that I could be made a normal man again. And this is what you say you cannot do."

Ben David's eyes were cool and remote. "I didn't say we couldn't ever do it. But we don't have any idea what mechanisms would work. Dr. Avidan's original ideas about genetic manipulation turn out to be finer theories than practice." Dr. Avidan's cheeks flushed, perhaps with anger, perhaps with shame, perhaps just with the damnable heat.

"So, one more theory doesn't work," Marcellina said, shrugging theatrically. "For two years, we have had this theory and that theory. So many. And none of them work? Not one of your great ideas?"

"At this time, no," Ben David replied. Marcellina flinched at the sound of it. Hazim's shoulders sagged, very slightly. In the corner, Shriek was sitting on the edge of a desk, kicking her legs back and forth, rocking her head in time to a tune only she could hear. Erik felt only a profound sense of relief; what the others might have chosen, he had feared of having forced upon him. Glancing over his shoulder, though, he saw Charles looking at Marcellina sympathetically. Damned Charles -- so soft-hearted in some ways, so shut-off in others, his hand on Erik's shoulder but his mind a thousand miles away. Erik forced himself to pay attention as Ben-David said, "Rest assured that we'll keep you informed of every new development."

"You will write us," Hazim said slowly. "Perhaps you will send a telegram, if you have reason to suspect a breakthrough."

Ben David's face became even more remote. "For the time being, we'd encourage you to stay."

"Why? Why stay?" Marcellina ran her hands through her curly hair. "When you say you are worse than useless -- why stay here?"

"We have work to do here," Ben David said. "We don't have the resources to arrange your transport back to the city at this time."

Hazim's head reeled back as though he'd been struck, and Marcellina went pale. They understood -- as Erik did -- that Ben-David meant they were not free to leave. After two years of increasingly restricted travel, Ben-David meant to finally seal them off, permanently. Surrounded as they now were by miles of the Negev Desert in every direction, without phone lines, their isolation was profound. They did not understand -- as Erik did -- that if the mutants truly chose to defy those orders, Ben-David and the pitifully few soldiers stationed in their compound to "protect" them would stand no chance whatsoever.

Dr. Avidan walked forward, her jaw set. "Adael, this isn't right."

"You and I can talk about this at another time," Ben-David snapped. "Everyone else would do well to call it a day."

He stalked out, and Marcellina burst into tears as she fled through the side door. Hazim put his head down on one of the tables. Dr. Avidan made a show of comforting Shriek, but as Shriek was clearly completely unaffected by the announcement, this was probably Dr. Avidan's way of hiding her own dismay.

As they quietly walked from the room, Erik whispered to Charles, "The day will come when we'll have to teach Ben-David a lesson."

"Perhaps," Charles said. "I think he'll catch on when he wakes up to find us gone some day soon."

"Soon?" Erik shook his head at Charles. Sometimes he found himself looking up to Charles as if he were the elder -- he liked imagining the world Charles saw, even tried to make himself believe in it. But moments like these reminded him how young Charles was, how much he hadn't seen. "I'd think tomorrow." He also thought Ben-David deserved rather more tangible reminders of his foolish attempt at imprisonment.

"The others won't be ready that quickly," Charles murmured. "Hazim's so angry right now, he'd rather stay here and fight it out with Ben-David. And Marcellina -- Erik, she's very upset. Someone should go to her."

"Upset." Erik spat out the word; when Charles stared at him, he muttered, "Upset that she has powers normal humans could only dream of. Upset that if she chose, she could turn this desert into a sea. I'm afraid I really don't see the problem."

"She doesn't want what you want," Charles said softly. "She never has done."

"I grasp that. But forgive me if I think the proper response isn't a cup of a tea and a sympathetic ear. That woman needs to have some sense shaken into her. Think Hazim would oblige?"

Charles' face darkened with anger. Only after he registered his own shock did Erik realize how seldom, in the past two years, he'd actually seen Charles get angry. He braced himself for a diatribe about all the good and noble virtues of normalcy.

Instead, Charles only said, "I don't know you as well as I thought I did."

Erik couldn't say anything in reply. He would never have imagined that those words could have hurt him, and yet they did.

Charles seemed to want him to say something; they stared at each other for a while in the shadowy hallway, their arms folded across their chests. Erik couldn't put words to how he was feeling, and he halfway wished Charles would explain it to him. The one thing he could think of to say was an apology, and that was the one thing he would never say.

At last, Charles said, "I'm going to Marcellina." He turned without waiting for any reply. Erik was left alone, feeling foolish.

Then he thought -- No time for that. If Ben-David's trying to exert his influence, then we should make sure we know how to exert ours.

He started down the corridor toward a storage room he and Charles had appropriated long before. Originally intended to house the equipment a wildly successful Ben David would purchase with a grateful government's money, the room had remained officially vacant ever since they'd come to the Negev months before. Unofficially, it stored his and Charles' secret projects, most notably the machine they'd dubbed Cerberus.

Immersing himself in science -- in rational matters like cause and effect --often calmed Erik, and he could feel himself focusing better already. They were testing different materials for the Cerberus headpiece; Erik could create alloys previously undreamt-of, and he was determined to find the exact mix that would best enhance Charles' psychic abilities. Must do better than that last try, he thought. Couldn't do much worse, seemed to shut Charles down completely --

"Erik?" He wheeled around to see Dr. Avidan standing at the end of the corridor. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." Then, realizing that her next question might involve his presence in this out-of-the-way corridor, he put on a bit of a sigh. "I just wanted a few minutes by myself. To think about what Ben-David said."

"I thought you were with Charles."

"Charles is trying to talk some sense into Marcellina, for all the good it will do. Shouldn't you be talking to Ben-David? I'm sure he keeps you posted on all the details here; must be a lot to discuss."

Dr. Avidan leaned against one wall. She always seemed so tired. "You shouldn't be so harsh with Marcellina. I also wish she'd look at the positive side of her talents, but she's lost a lot because of being different. Her husband left her for being 'demonic' -- did you know that? And it goes even deeper than that. That's hard for some people to accept, being set apart forever."

"It's hard for people who aren't different to accept," Erik said. "They create fear and hatred. We can't give in to that."

"I'm just saying -- be patient. Sometimes it takes time for people to surrender their ideas of what their lives are supposed to be like. We take our visions of the way we're supposed to live from those around us. Only over time can most of us create a new path for ourselves." Dr. Avidan smiled again. "Be patient with Marcellina. And be patient with Charles."

"Charles?" Erik was taken aback; he gave Dr. Avidan credit for more perception. "He's not like Marcellina. He's accepted his powers. He's glad of them."

"That's not what I meant." Dr. Avidan opened her mouth to continue, then shook her head. "It's not my place to--"

Charles' voice: Erik! Erik, help me!

Erik wheeled around, looking for Charles. He'd heard him, crying out desperately for him, but he wasn't -- he wasn't --

Again: Erik! I need you here.

Charles' voice was inside his mind. He'd done it. He'd broken through. And he was in trouble.

Erik turned and ran from Dr. Avidan, ignoring her startled questioning, then the sound of her footsteps echoing behind his. He didn't know how he knew where to go, but he did -- was that Charles' mind too? He'd ask later. All that mattered now was getting to Charles, as fast as possible, getting to Charles in Marcellina's room.

He ran through the doorway, noticing as he did so that the lock looked broken -- as though someone had kicked it in. Charles was standing near Marcellina's bed, his hands clutching the footboard. Marcellina was perfectly still. "Charles?" Erik gasped. "I heard you. What's -- why --" Then he realized just how still Marcellina was. "No."

Charles did not turn to face him, but he grabbed Erik's hand and clutched it as tightly as a climber would his ropes. "I thought she was better," he said dully. "I was talking to her through the door, and she was so wretched, Erik. You would have pitied her, I know you would have. But then it seemed to me that she was a little better. A little stronger. She asked for some quiet, and I gave it to her. But she felt better only because she'd decided to die."

"Dead?" Dr. Avidan said from the doorway. "Oh, please, no." Behind her, Hazim appeared, apparently drawn by the commotion; he grimaced in anger and disgust.

Erik's mind seemed to be looking for facts to deal with rather than the truth. "How did she do it? I don't see any blood -- surely no drugs could have worked so quickly."

Charles gestured at the rain-spattered windows. Then Erik blinked; they didn't get much rain in the Negev. There were water trails on the tabletops, from her washbasin, on the floor leading from the bathroom. Charles whispered, "She pulled every drop of water she could reach into her own lungs. She drowned herself."

His hand clamped onto Erik's even more tightly, and Erik couldn't even react to the pain. He could only hold on.

"Poor Marcellina." Dr. Avidan's voice was thick with grief as she went to Marcellina's side and lifted her hand. The many rings glittered in the lamp's light. "Ben-David must answer for this."

It was Hazim who spoke. "He will."

Caliburn Falls, British Columbia, Canada, 2006

Logan woke up alone.

He sat up, frowning, and for a split second he wondered if he'd dreamed the whole thing -- Rogue showing up, all if it. Then he realized he was in his bed instead of on the couch, so he knew it was for real.

The sound of water running filtered in from the front room, and Logan breathed out a sigh of relief: Rogue was still there. He tugged on his jeans and went out. The front room looked weird; it took Logan a few seconds to realize a bunch of stuff had been moved around. Books were piled on the table, the ashtrays were empty, and the beer cans were missing. "Rogue?"

"Oh, hi. Over here." Her voice was high, a little too casual. Logan wandered to the kitchen area to see her wearing his sweatpants and one of his flannel shirts, peering into the sink with an unhappy expression. "The cleaning up isn't a criticism, okay?"

"Whatever," he said. And this seemed like a good time to say something about last night, except Logan wasn't at all sure what he was supposed to say. "Uh -- are you hungry?"

"Getting there," she said, scrubbing the faucet vigorously. "But I figure I have to wash the dishes before we can cook, and I have to clear out the sink before I can wash the dishes."

Some of those dishes looked perfectly reusable to Logan, but he'd learned that women were generally fussy about that kind of thing. "If I'd known you were coming, I'd have taken care of that."

"Guess I surprised you." At that, Rogue ducked her head, obviously resisting a smile. But then she caught sight of something in the sink and grimaced. "Ugh -- Logan, is that a SOCK?"

"Maybe." Logan figured this was probably his cue to offer to drive into town and get some food she might actually want to eat. But his curiosity got the better of him. "Just trying to clear this up -- are we pretending last night didn't happen?" Rogue froze, still not looking at him. "We can do that, if that's what you want, but I don't quite get why."

Rogue finally turned from the sink to look at him, and her well-scrubbed face, her crooked smile, brought back sharp memories of the night before. "I don't want that. It's just -- I don't know what to say."

"'Good morning' usually works fine." Logan reached out to brush her hair away from her face, but she flinched. "Sorry."

She shook her head quickly. "Last night -- after -- Logan, I had a dream. I was back to myself. I had my old powers, and I was hurting you, just by lying there." Rogue closed her eyes against the memory. "I could feel you dying, but I couldn't move away."

"Hey," he said, understanding at last. "Just a dream."

"For now. But I don't know when it's going to change back, and neither do you. When I woke up, I was scared of what I could have done to you. So I got out of bed, and once I got out of bed it was stupid to just stay in the bedroom. So I came out here, and then I felt awkward just sitting around waiting for you to wake up, so --" Rogue gestured around the kitchen. "I got busy."

"Okay. You could've woken me up, though. If you needed to talk."

Rogue quirked her mouth. "Waking you up hasn't always gone so well for me."

"Guess not." The longer they stayed there -- talking normally, a couple feet apart, more or less dressed -- the weirder Logan felt. Part of him resisted acting like they were just two old friends, but then, what else were they? Just for one night, he'd told himself, and that night was done with. And Rogue was right; her touch could become deadly again at any time, and they'd probably taken a bigger risk last night than they should have. He took a deep breath, let it go. "I should pick you up something to eat. Trust me, if you didn't like the sink, you're not gonna be real happy with the pantry."

She grimaced. "I'm NOT opening that door."

So he drove into town and got her some stuff, fresh bread and fruit and all the junk that went in and on salads, plus some of those kiddie cereals she pretended not to be hooked on. Stood to reason they didn't have tons of Apple Jacks in Havana. When Rogue lifted the box out of the grocery bag and beamed, he knew he'd guessed right.

They talked about the food, and they talked about the cabin, and they talked about Cuba and Canada and Storm and Forge and everybody else besides. When they ran out of news to give each other, they settled into a comfortable silence; he took a turn cleaning up some, since she was funny about that stuff, and she dug into one of his books on Shinto. Once in a while, she'd talk -- about Geir, mostly, but sometimes about Bobby, too. A year apart, and it didn't seem to make any difference in the way she confided in him. He liked that.

The only subject that seemed off-limits was the night before, and Logan wasn't going to bring it up again.

When night came and she started yawning, Rogue went into the bedroom and shut the door, assuming, rightly, that he'd be taking the couch. As he settled his head into the pillow, it occurred to him that he ought to feel relieved. Happy, even. He'd been able to give Rogue what she'd wanted -- and have a damn fine time himself in the bargain -- without it getting too complicated. They were still going to be friends, and she had a safe place to get her head together, and to his surprise he didn't mind the company. Their one night as lovers was just going to be a nice memory. A great memory. A memory that, if he thought about it too long, was going to prevent him from ever getting to sleep.

By the third day, he'd figured out that there was a second forbidden subject: the question of how long she would stay. Logan found himself hoping it would be for a while. She gave him his space when he wanted it, and though he'd thought he was well out of the habit of talking to other people, it came back fast. Rogue seemed to be -- well, 'enjoying herself' was probably too strong, since she was obviously still in mourning for Geir, Bobby, the X-Men, all of it. But he thought she felt safe, and he thought she was glad to be near him.

Yet she never brought up the question of either staying or going, and Logan couldn't think of a way to ask without it sounding like he was giving her a hint to go.

By the fifth day, the roads were clear, and he started teaching her how to drive a stick. Country roads -- you could go a few days without seeing another car, so the only things endangered were the trees and his truck's bumpers. Rogue kept translating everything he said into Norwegian, which was mildly amusing in the morning and, for some reason, hysterically funny by nightfall.

"What's that squeaking sound?" she giggled as she took them downhill.

"The brake lining --"


"-- which you have completely destroyed, along with half the rest of my --what's it again? Lastebil?"

Rogue laughed, far too pleased with herself. "Yes! Now you speak Norwegian too." She concentrated as she shifted gears again; the truck groaned in protest, but it was close enough. "How am I doing?"

"You are a long way from getting your driver's license. Do not even tell me what 'driver's license' is in Norwegian."

She shook her head and clucked her tongue at him. "You'll never be fluent at this rate."

Logan couldn't stop grinning. "Fine, tell me."

"Forerkort." Rogue looked so self-satisfied that he had to shake his head and look away.

Later that evening, as they prepared their dinner, she was laughing and her hair was loose, and Logan realized that he still wanted her. That he was going to keep on wanting her.

That night, as he tossed and turned on the sofa, he could only think how careful he'd been, back at the school. As long as those lines had been in place --a student, Bobby's girlfriend, not to be touched, not Jean -- he'd had no trouble sticking to them. His mind didn't wander any more than his hands. But now all of that was blown away.

Rogue still remembered Geir's language, and she had brought in some firewood with the telekinesis, and she was walking around with bare hands. She could still be touched. If he went to the door right now, knocked, stepped inside, knelt on the bed next to her --

He slammed down on the fantasy, hard. It was good because they hadn't made it complicated. Best to leave it that way.

On the eighth day, despite having a headache, she rode into town with him to check out the store for herself. As she browsed through the few aisles, the grocer (always the same red-haired woman) gave him a knowing smile. "So that's the one."

"Excuse me? The one who -- what?"

"You never used to buy salad dressing," the grocer said.

"You this nosy with all your customers?" Logan was smiling when he said it, though he would have preferred a different answer:

"Honey, what else have I got to do?"

Logan kept grinning until he'd turned away. He sauntered up to Rogue's side (she had Comet and Windex already, like you'd ever need both) and murmured, "Try not to stand out. That lady means well, but if the wrong person ever asks her questions --"

"I should've told you to get me some hair color," Rogue said, frowning. "People always remember the white. Oh, God, my head -- do they have Extra Strength Tylenol?"

"Not sure. The medical stuff's never on my shopping list." Had the red-haired lady noticed that? He should have thought of that before -- bought some Band-Aids or cough syrup or something to fit in.

"Logan?" Rogue was pale.

"You okay?" He wheeled around, half-expecting troops at the doorway.

"Fine. It's just -- I was going to tell you the Norwegian words for some of this stuff. And now I can't think of them." She held a hand out experimentally, and Logan knew she meant to try and move some items on the shelves through telekinesis. He would have tackled her to stop her if he hadn't suspected that the effort would be useless.

Nothing moved. It looked only as if she couldn't decide which can of soup to buy.

Carefully, she set down her purchases and reached into her pockets; Logan hadn't realized that she'd had her gloves with her the whole time. She slid them on, her face resolute. When she spoke, she said, "The headache's gone."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that." Rogue's eyes flickered up to meet his own, and he realized that she was fighting the urge to cry. But when he leaned forward to -- what? he didn't know -- she shook her head. "I'm okay. I knew it would go back to the way it used to be. The way it's always gonna be."

"I'm sorry, kid." He put one hand on her shoulder.

"I knew it wasn't going to change." She shrugged, doing a poor job of acting casual. "Where's the cereal?"

As she walked away from him, blinking away her own tears, looking for the Apple Jacks, it hit Logan all at once.

He'd lost his last chance.

Berlin, Germany

Pyro spread his arms out, showing Bobby the city. Giving it to him. Just one more of the many prizes that had always been Bobby's for the taking.

Iceman, he reminded himself. Iceman. Bobby was some kid who wore school sweatshirts and tennis shoes, who helped a kid named John cut class. Iceman was the guy walking down the street now, older and leaner. His jaw had a harder edge to it, even if the smile was still the same.

"This used to be the heart of the red-light district," Pyro said. "Back in the '30s. You ever see that old movie? Cabaret? They had all those kind of clubs down here -- still do. You are going to LOVE this."

"John," Iceman said. "I was wondering -- I wanted to ask you something."

Didn't sound good. But Pyro shrugged as they kept walking down the streets and said only, "Start by calling me Pyro."

"What are you doing here?" Iceman said. He wasn't making an accusation.

"You mean, with Magneto. Instead of Xavier." Pyro wanted to snap at Iceman --but it was Iceman, and he'd waited too long for his old friend's return to go biting his head off the first time he asked questions. Besides, he had a good memory: The first couple months with the Brotherhood usually involved a lot of questions. "Living life from the top down instead of the bottom up. Making the rules instead of breaking them. You ever think there'd be something I liked better than breaking rules?"

"No." Iceman smiled; when Pyro laughed, Iceman laughed with him, their voices echoing off the buildings and the cobblestone street. Behind a few curtains, Pyro could see movement -- furtive, uneasy. The humans in these buildings knew only mutants or their lackeys would be out after curfew. He wondered if their laughter was frightening, and decided with another grin that it was.

"We're safe, Iceman." He wouldn't have admitted that he cared about this, not when he was still at the school. These days, he felt more than three years older. "That's something Xavier never gave us. Never could."

"What about the regular people who live here?" Iceman demanded. "They're not safe."

Pyro shrugged. "Most of them are as alive and well as they were before the Brotherhood got here."

Iceman shook his head. "They aren't free."

"Nope. Before that, WE weren't free. You've got to hang up on that dream world of Professor X's where everybody's free and accepting and dancing around in the Age of Aquarius or whatever. That's not happening, at least not anytime soon. And if only one group of people gets to be free, I'm glad it's finally mine." Pyro clicked his lighter and sent a plume of fire into the sky, orange in the darkness. No reason.

"And that's all there is to it?" From the absent sound of his voice, Pyro figured Iceman was mostly talking to himself. "Survival of the fittest. Nothing more, nothing less."

It seemed surprisingly natural, when it came right down to it, to slide his arm across Iceman's shoulders. "Doesn't sound so bad, once you figure out you're the fittest." Iceman just hung his head, and Pyro forced himself to stop reveling in his good mood. "Iceman -- if you're going to have a problem with the way things are, figure it out sooner rather than later." When Iceman turned toward him -- his face had changed so much, and not at all -- Pyro continued, "And do me a favor by not telling me anything about it."

"Magneto doesn't appreciate it when people take off," Iceman concluded. His body was weirdly stiff, all of a sudden. "You know, he's not the only one."

Pyro realized that he was either going to have to apologize for three years before, or he was going to have to change the subject. So he let go of Iceman, half-danced a few steps ahead and clicked his lighter again, just for the sound. "You really oughta see this club, you know."

When Iceman's footsteps paused, Pyro glanced over his shoulder. His old friend had his coat pulled around him, and he was staring up at the sky -- still faintly pink on the horizon, this late in the year. "This isn't the way I thought it would be," Iceman said. "I thought when we came here, things would change."

"Nothing ever changes," Pyro said, glad to be back on safe ground. When he kept walking toward the club, Iceman came with him.

Der Katzerkeller was raucous as ever; the laughter and music poured out of the knee-level windows, blared from the door even before they'd gone down the steps and gone inside. Pyro saw a few of the whores turn their head and recognize him; their faces registered first fear, then a weak facsimile of glee.

He didn't care if they were faking it. He kinda liked the fact that they hated him, but they'd make him welcome anyway. Him and Bobby both.

"Pyro," one of them purred. Renate? The one with the black curly hair. Whatever. He couldn't keep their names straight. "Liebchen. You have a friend brought."

"Meet Iceman," Pyro said with a grin. "This guy needs a lot of cheering up, girls. You gonna help me out?"

They laughed and applauded and started pulling off Iceman's coat. Iceman looked so horrified that Pyro started to laugh like crazy. "Pyro -- this is a whorehouse?"

"A nightclub," Pyro said. "So, maybe some of the entertainment happens offstage." When he saw Iceman's rigid face, he said, "Get off it, will you? After three years with a girl you can't touch -- you can't tell me you aren't ready. You have got to be just about to pop." He hoped so, anyway. Iceman flushed, but said nothing. Pyro asked, "So what do you need?"

"Right now? I need a drink." The bartender understood that in English and cocked his head. Iceman sighed and said, "I bet you don't have Coors."

"American beer and chastity: two of your bad habits we're gonna break tonight." Pyro clapped his hands and spoke to the bartender. "Bring us some brandy."

Iceman frowned. "Brandy?"

"Just one of the finer things Magneto taught me to appreciate," Pyro said. "Tonight is about widening your horizons, right?"

"Right," Iceman said. Pyro really, really hoped he was telling the truth.

Some of the girls got up and did a little song and dance; Pyro didn't speak nearly enough German to follow, but the gestures were more or less universal. The human men forgot their terror of the mutants; they only had eyes for the girls, after a while. Renate wasn't one of the singers; she came and draped herself over Iceman, stroking his cheek right at the border of the helmet. Iceman didn't respond, but he didn't push her away, either -- just kept gulping down the brandy, even though he clearly hated it, trying to get drunk. He finished one, then another, then another.

Was he going to get drunk enough? Pyro realized he probably was -- but that he wouldn't be any damn use by that point. His disappointment was minor; after all, time was on his side. He reached over and brushed a stray drop of brandy from Iceman's lips. Iceman stared at him, and Pyro said, "You aren't enjoying the floor show? Maybe we need a different kinda show, huh? Renate there looks ready."

Iceman glanced over at Renate, who gave him a full-lipped smile. Then he sighed heavily. "Let's just -- let's get this done, okay?"

"Now you're talking." Pyro glanced around the room, at all the girls he could choose from. They charged different rates, but they serviced Magneto's people for free. They knew better than to refuse. Which one of them hated him the most? That one. With the long blonde hair. What was her name again? "Andrea?" Her eyes widened, but she forced herself to smile. "Upstairs."

She understood that. Stiffly, she walked to his side, and he pulled her to his side tightly, cupping his hand around one breast. Renate took the hint and pulled Iceman to his feet. Iceman said, "Two rooms."

"Nah," Pyro said. "One room." Iceman stared, and Pyro laughed. "Get over it! Besides, I have an idea."

"An idea?" They were stumbling up the stairs now to their room. Renate was giggling; either she really liked Iceman or she was just glad not to have Pyro again. In the past, he'd tried out a few his more creative ideas on her; apparently she hadn't liked it. He'd have to make sure to come back and get even more creative with her someday soon.

"Yeah," Pyro said. They went into the room, girls laughing too brightly. Pyro started taking off his clothes; the girls didn't, but he frankly didn't care. "A race."

"A race?" Iceman was following Pyro's lead, not the girls'. He pulled his shirt off sloppily, letting it fall to the floor. Quite a six-pack Iceman had there. One hell of an ass, too, Pyro thought, as the jeans dropped to the floor.

Andrea began stripping off her flimsy top as Pyro said, "Well, the girls are gonna race. You and me, we're going to have -- whatever the reverse of a race is."

"What are you talking about?" Iceman said. "Are you sure -- two rooms, we could --"

"The girls are going to have a little competition," Pyro said. He was talking to the girls now, too, as he grabbed Bobby's arm and towed them both over toward the one bed. They each sat on the side, just a couple feet apart. "We're gonna see who's better at giving a blow job -- Renate, or Andrea? Let's see if they understand -- uns blasen?" The girls nodded; that was probably the first English they'd ever learned. "Ein Rennen? Got it? Good. And you and me, Bobby -- we are gonna see who can hold out the longest. First one to come owes the other one a drink."

"Pyro --" Iceman struggled for words, then just said, "Shit." And Pyro realized, with a thrill, that beneath his confusion and drunkenness and shame, Iceman was getting turned on.

"You're gonna lose," Pyro said. Then he gave Andrea his best, most scornful smile; she was smiling up at him, but he could feel her hate, radiating from her like heat. That just made it better as she opened her crimson-lined mouth and took his cock inside.

He glanced over, got a good hard look at Iceman before Renate got her mouth on him. Iceman saw him staring, but as soon as Renate closed her lips, the guy was lost. He shut his eyes, tilted his head back, started making sounds that Pyro had never dreamed he'd hear.

Andrea's tongue was stroking him, working him good, as she started sucking hard. Pyro thought, So, she doesn't want this to take too long. Too bad, bitch. I know Dodgers scores that go back almost a hundred years. Home-run averages. RBIs. His cock was getting harder and thicker, and it felt better and better, but his orgasm was still a long way away. Perfect. Just perfect.

Iceman, though -- he wasn't gonna last that long. Poor stupid bastard; three years of jerking off while thinking about Rogue clearly hadn't done it for him. He was pumping into Renate's open mouth, clutching her hair while he moved her head back and forth. His abdominal muscles were working with every single thrust, his skin glistening with a faint sheen of sweat. God, it looked good --seeing Iceman just going for it like that, just taking what he wanted.

Baseball scores weren't cutting it anymore. Andrea's mouth felt a whole hell of a lot better. She had blonde hair and blue eyes, just like Iceman. Just like Bobby. Pyro gasped, "Hold on, man."

"I -- I can't," Iceman said. "I don't want to."

"Then I win," Pyro said. "You just gonna -- let me win?"

Iceman nodded. "Fuck. Yeah. I just want to --"

Pyro grabbed Iceman's hand, hard. It was cold, so fucking cold that it slashed through his body. It was like that time Renata'd blown him with ice cubes in her mouth. No, better. As Pyro started radiating heat back, their hands began to smoke, sending up thin vapor trails, like dry ice.

"Yeah," Iceman whispered.

The girls' heads were working faster, and the wet suction on his cock felt better and better, and Pyro could feel Iceman's hand in his. He squeezed tighter, and Iceman's eyes opened. They stared at each other as the whores kept going, as the orgasm started spiraling up inside his body, at the exact same time he could see it building up in Bobby. Pyro held onto it as long as he could --but then Iceman was shouting out, thrusting deep between Renate's lips, and Pyro couldn't hold it any longer, coming right then, coming hard, feeling his come filling up Andrea's mouth. He never looked away from Iceman. Iceman never looked away from him. Their eyes locked the whole time.

When the last wave of it was gone, Pyro flopped back onto the bed, Iceman beside him. He could hear Andrea spitting into the hem of the bedspread. He'd get back to her about that, someday. Right now, all that mattered was the fact that he and Iceman were lying there, hands still clasped together. Dry-ice vapor rose from their hands and clouded the air so that Pyro could barely see him, but he still didn't look away.

Havana, Cuba

Xavier decided he liked the hotel. He hadn't ever seen much of it besides his own bedroom, but once he was up and around more, now being wheeled through by Scott, he could get a proper view of the place through his own eyes.

"Professor, Forge wants to know if we can get any more planes from the Argentinians; there's something about the engines of those models he thinks he can really work with." Ororo frowned over her checklist, exasperated with someone, though Xavier couldn't quite make out whether it was Forge, the Argentineans or himself. Most likely all three, he decided.

"I'll send out the communiqu, and we'll see," Xavier replied. "They've been unusually forthcoming, so it couldn't hurt to ask."

Ororo continued down her list. "We have secured safe passage in several East African nations, but still none on the West Coast will allow us harbor privileges."

"Most of what we'd need, we could fly over." Xavier said.

"And the rest?" Ororo snapped. She was at the point of exhaustion, but Xavier was glad to see it. The energy in the hotel, even the anger and impatience, now was far, far better than the depressed malaise he'd sensed before now. The X-Men felt a purpose again, and Xavier knew his challenge was to make sure they felt that way with good reason. "What about our other materials? Are we going to try and get a ship around the Cape of Good Hope? That's going to take months."

"The other options are going by the Pacific, which would take even longer, or the Mediterranean, and that would last about five minutes before Magneto realized we were there." Xavier said calmly. "I needn't explain what he would do then."

Her doubt and anger were far from quieted, but she continued on, businesslike as ever. "The Egyptian president has asked if we wouldn't rather be in Cairo," Ororo said, moving her finger down the checklist. "The better to keep an eye on us, I'm sure."

"Thank him graciously, then tell him the Sinai Peninsula is tactically important for reasons I can't yet share with him. Which means, of course, that I'd prefer for him not to be keeping an eye on us." Xavier ran one hand over his scalp; no wonder they complained about the heat. Well past time to rethink black leather uniforms.

"Professor --" Ororo hesitated, then met his eyes. Xavier realized how long it had been since she'd done that -- just looked him square in the face, no polite lies between them, no hidden resentment or pain. She said only, "Is this really going to change anything?"

"I think it's going to change quite a great deal," Xavier replied. "I have several plans. Some of the best -- well, they may not come to pass. They rely on too many variables. But I believe that we can get in position to make a major strike at Magneto's forces, one that will hurt his effectiveness and gain attention in the anti-mutant nations."

Ororo didn't look very satisfied with this answer. "And that's President Kendall's cue to made another worldwide broadcast about the mutant menace. I like it when he compares the battles to gang warfare."

He ignored the bitter joke. "I believe that, this time, President Kendall --and his compatriots in America, and in China, and in Australia -- will be suitably impressed by what we've sacrificed for humanity's sake."

"Professor --" Ororo was visibly trying to control her temper. "I hate to repeat the obvious, but they haven't been very grateful in the past."

Xavier folded his arms and looked very hard at each of them in turn. "This time," he said, enunciating clearly, "they'll be suitably impressed."

Ororo's mouth twisted in a poorly hidden smile. Her shock ran deeper, and truer, as Xavier understood well. "You've always said you'd never --"

"Their minds will remain their own," Xavier said. "They will make their own decisions about how to proceed afterward. I will not take that from them; if I did, I should have fallen farther than Magneto ever has. But I can, and will, ensure that they see what we do next in the proper light. They will know our efforts to help them for what they are. Beyond that -- we'll have to see."

"Magneto will know what you've done to their minds." Ororo still couldn't accept the idea.

"He'll know what I haven't done, as well," Xavier said. He smiled ruefully as he added, "And that's the part he'll hate me for."

Ororo nodded, perhaps pacified at last. For the first time, Xavier realized how deep her distrust had been-- how profound her bitterness. How close had he come to losing her? Would she have been the next to go? He realized that she would have been -- that he had been just in the nick of time to keep her here. His gratitude to her for lasting so long at his side, feeling the way she felt, overwhelmed him, and he took her hand -- a simple gesture, yet one they hadn't shared in far too long.

Her face softened into a smile -- one of her gentler smiles, one that lit up her entire face. But just as she was about to speak, her comm began beeping. She squeezed his hand again before the answered it, then said, "There's a vidcom call coming in from Israel."

The moment seemed to freeze, as though he'd stopped time -- Ororo's silver-white hair brushing against his scalp, the shadows of some of the children at the far end of the hallway on their way to help Forge, the afternoon light filtering through the dusty glass of the old chandeliers. Carefully, he said, "Israel?"

"Yeah. Who figured they'd answer?" Ororo shrugged. "I thought they were enjoying being a neutral nation for a change."

"It's unfinished business," Xavier said. That was all the explanation he could give until he knew for certain. "Get me to a station."

"Professor -- what's going on?"

"Remember what I said about variables?" Xavier replied. "It appears that some of them are about to resolve in our favor."

Once he was in front of a station, he tapped the screen on. Before him stood an elderly woman, her frizzy white hair pulled up in a bun, a long scar visible along the length of her cheekbone. Xavier felt all the years of his age on him as he quietly said, "Dr. Avidan."

"Charles Xavier." She tilted her head, her gaze almost fond. "I had thought you would call upon me long ago, or never again."

"I hadn't thought I would need to endanger you in this way," he said. "I had hoped not. But now -- I need everything you still have. Which is how much, exactly?"

Dr. Avidan shook her head at him. "And you call yourself a scientist," she said. "How much would you have kept in my place?"

He could feel his heart pounding with anticipation. "Everything."

She held out her hands. "Waiting here for you to come and claim it -- which the Israeli government welcomes you to do."

Behind him, Ororo muttered, "We just got lucky, didn't we?"

"Yes," Xavier said, as the smile spread across his face. "Oh, yes."

Chapter 5

Ben Canaan Compound, Israel, 1956

Erik? Erik, can you hear me?

Charles had gotten through to him before -- he KNEW he had -- but Erik's mind was farther away now. No matter. He'd just keep calling. Keep looking. Keep trying to go through his jumbled emotions: Was it his anger or Hazim's? His grief or Dr. Avidan's? Charles couldn't tell, and the confusion added to his misery. Just when he would gain a few moments of equilibrium, another wave of emotion would hit him; he was off-balance, overwhelmed. And the terrible weight of Marcellina's final despair still hung over him, gray and shroud-like.

Charles stayed in Marcellina's room until two of the guards came to take her out. Ben David didn't come.

When they carried her away (wrapped up in a rubber bag), Charles left Dr. Avidan to her weeping and went into the hallway. Dully, he realized Erik was no longer with him; his bitter fury was still so close that Charles had somehow believed that Erik was still standing at his side. He tried to summon the energy he'd used earlier, when he first realized the truth and kicked down her door -- when he'd managed, finally, to speak to Erik with his mind.

The energy was gone, sapped from him. And yet, having once gone through that doorway, he could find it once more: Erik?

Erik didn't respond in words, but his pain coalesced within Charles' mind, drawing him as surely as though Charles had been made of metal. He began to hurry down the hallway; he did not know whether he wanted to comfort Erik or be comforted by him. All Charles knew was that he had to find him.

Yet as he turned one corner, he stopped. There, balled up in one corner, her hands clamped over her mouth, was Shriek.

Forcing himself to be patient, Charles knelt by her side. "Shriek? Are you all right?"

She shook her head slowly from side to side. Her hands were pressed so tightly over her lips that her knuckles were white, and Charles understood the many layers of her fear.

"Shriek, I want you to try something. Right now, you can't scream with your voice. But do you think -- do you understand what I mean when I say, 'scream with your mind'?" So vague. He tried again. "Imagine yourself screaming. Take the deep breath and tighten your muscles and do everything else you would do. But scream with your mind instead."

Though she made no movement of any kind, Charles realized that she understood, and felt the one thing that held her back. He steadied himself and said, "I'll hear you."

Slowly, she inhaled, and then --

Charles gasped in a breath of air -- blessedly warm desert air -- as Shriek's mental scream trailed away. For a moment he couldn't do anything but stare at her and think, numbly, that he knew how it must feel to turn to stone.

Shriek let her hands fall from her face. She whispered, "Marcellina's dead."

"I'm sorry, Shriek. She is."

In that entire shocking night, nothing stunned Charles so much as what Shriek asked next: "Did Erik kill her?"

"What? No! No, of course not. Why would you even -- no, he didn't." Charles realized only as he continued talking that the real answer wasn't much more comforting. "Marcellina did it herself. She -- I suppose you'd have to say she was sad." He didn't know how much more Shriek was capable of understanding.

"Everyone's upset."

"Yes, they are. We all are, and I expect we will be for some time." Charles considered Ben David's arrogance, Dr. Avidan's grief and Hazim's temper. He thought about the soldiers downstairs, and then he shook his head. "Listen to me. For a little while -- until everyone's not upset anymore -- try to stay out of the way. Keep your distance from people as much as you can. Just until things calm down. If you're frightened and you want to talk to someone, come find me."

"And you'll keep me safe," she said simply.

He felt another wave of sadness wash over him as he patted her hair. "I'll try. I promise you, I'll try."

Shriek got up without another word and hurried down the corridor; Charles was free at last to go into Erik's room.

Erik was sitting on his bed, still dressed. The light from the small lamp beside his bed outlined his face, created deep shadows. He had not been crying; Charles almost wished he had been. He'd have known what to do then, though he could not touch a despair so deep and acute. "Erik," he said. "I'm so sorry."

"She didn't have to die," Erik said. "Like a test rat in a cage. If I'd made her believe in what she was -- convinced her of what she could do -- she wouldn't have just ended up turning her powers on herself."

"It's not your fault," Charles said.

"No, it's that bastard Ben-David's fault. But all the same -- I might have changed it, and I didn't. I decided that I couldn't change her mind, and so I never tried. The self-fulfilling prophecy." Erik ran one hand through his wild, dark hair. "I could have done something."

"I'm the one who could see inside her heart," Charles said. "I knew her sorrow. I felt it. And I still didn't understand what she was going to do."

That drew Erik's attention in a way nothing else had. He reached out and took Charles' hand in his own. "You did your best for her, more than any of the rest of us. I won't have Ben-David destroying you from within too."

Charles turned Erik's hand over in his own. Everything else about this night seemed so surreal, so unfathomable, but Erik's hand was so comfortingly real. He didn't let go. Erik didn't pull away.

"Earlier tonight," Erik said. "I heard you. I heard you inside my mind."

Erik smiled at little as he said it. At any other time, their breakthrough would have been cause for celebration. But now, that link between their minds --

And then he could think of nothing but Shriek's mental scream, the coldness of it, and what she had said --

"Charles? Are you all right?" Erik's hand tightened around his own.

Best to go ahead and ask. "I ran into Shriek in the hall. She knew what had happened to Marcellina. And she -- Erik, she had the strangest idea --"

"Shriek thought I did it," Erik said flatly. Then his face twisted in something too terrible for tears, and he pulled his hand away. "You want to know why she thought that? You must have known for years how she fears me."

Charles felt even worse than he had before. "I suspected that she associated you with -- you don't have to explain anything to me."

"She's right to be afraid of me," Erik said. "I've killed people. I killed them right in front of her."

The words hung in the room, still and heavy. Charles looked down at Erik --proud, strong Erik -- and saw him hunched over, burdened with the weight he carried. When Charles spoke again, he knew his voice sounded strange. "During the war?" Erik nodded. "Were you -- were you trying to escape?"

Horribly, Erik began to laugh, a broken, wretched sound. "How noble that would be. How brave and pure. If I had tried to escape from Auschwitz, and to take little helpless Albinka with me. But I didn't, Charles. I never tried to escape. Though I could have bent the barbed wire to tinsel, and sent every bullet flying backwards through the guns to kill the shooters, I never tried."

"You don't have that kind of control -- you wouldn't have had anything even close back then."

"Nor did I try to gain it." Erik was twisting his hands together, looking at the floor or the ceiling, anywhere but at Charles. "I was scared to. I was scared of what I would become."

Charles could think of nothing helpful to do, nothing good to say. Some of what he had done for Shriek before came to him, so he sat carefully on the floor in front of Erik and spoke the only words he had: "Tell me."

Erik finally met his eyes, and Charles could not look away.

"My powers manifested the day they brought me to Auschwitz. When they separated me from my parents -- when they sent them to be gassed -- I knew what was happening. We'd all heard the rumors by then. I tried to get to them. Tried to go right through the gate, and tore it to pieces before they finally knocked me out. By then they knew I wasn't ordinary. They knew Dr. Mengele would want to see me.

"To my surprise, Dr. Mengele had others like me. Other mutants, though he had no such name to call us. Some of the Nazis thought we were manifestations of some Jewish magic, some occult power that might be wielded against them. So they killed the few adults they found, kept the children. Most of them didn't live long -- the experiments he did on us weren't any less twisted than those on the others, the ones you've read about. More, perhaps, because he wanted to see how we were different from normal children. Normal Jewish children, I mean. But two of us survived. Albinka and I."

Erik's hands were still now. The entire room was so utterly still.

"Anytime we would try to use our powers against one of the guards, they'd kill someone. They made sure we saw it, too. Sometimes they brought them right into the lab. There would be blood from the beatings on the floor and the walls and our faces, before it was all done. After the first few times, we never tried again. Never, Charles. In the middle of that hell, I didn't dare let one life to be lost, even to save hundreds or thousands of others. I had no sense of perspective. I only saw pain and knew that I had caused it."

"You didn't --"

"Don't. Don't say anything. If you stop me, I shall never say it, and it has to be said." Erik took a deep breath and continued. "It was just Albinka and I, locked up in there, night and day. Sometimes they left us alone. Especially at night. We'd be strapped down. And she'd beg me -- Charles, she begged and begged and begged me to use my power to open the door. Or at least just to loosen the straps -- I could have used the metal buckles and loosened them. Shown her that much mercy. But I didn't, because I was too scared."

Charles could feel the fear now -- it was coalescing, becoming distinct from the misery that surrounded them in the Ben Canaan compound. He knew the pain of the straps, the cold of the room, and young Erik's depthless terror. He closed his eyes, letting the sensations take him, as Erik continued to speak.

"After a time, they wanted to know if our wicked Jewish magic could kill. They thought it only reasonable that other Jews should suffer the agonies no doubt intended for the soldiers of the Fatherland. They would bring them in --women, mostly, I don't know why women, but -- they would bring them in to me, and hold iron bars in front of their necks, or their chests, right above the heart. The soldiers told me -- 'Mach's noch fester. Mach's noch fester.' And I would wrap it around their throats until they strangled. Or collapse their chests until they drowned in their own blood. I wasn't very skilled then, Charles. It -- it took me a long time, sometimes."

Charles controlled his terrible urge to be sick, for Erik's sake, and somehow managed to look again into Erik's eyes.

"And Albinka would cry. I would listen to her crying -- it was easier than listening to those poor wretched women plead for their lives, or struggle for their last breaths. You see, they only tried to make Albinka kill someone once, and the result of that was a Nazi with a stone hand. Then they never tried with her again -- thought she couldn't control it well enough, that it wasn't worth the risk. It was true, so far as it went. So she thought it was that easy. Stopping them. She never understood why I didn't. And I didn't understand either. I still don't. I never will."

Erik fell silent again, his revelation ended. They were quiet together for a few moments, until Charles' tears had subsided and they were both breathing more normally. Then Erik said, "So. Now you know what I am."

"How could you --" His voice cracked at the wrong moment, and Charles had to feel the lash of renewed pain from Erik for the instant before he could speak again. "How could you think I'd ever -- ever -- blame you for that?"

"Can't you?" Erik was the one near tears now. "I blame myself."

"You mustn't. Erik, please. Those men -- they did that to you."

"Because I let them. Because I was afraid."

"You were afraid because you were a little boy in horrible danger and pain. Of course you were afraid. Anyone would have been." Charles would use every power in his possession to make Erik stop blaming himself if he had to, but he prayed that he would be able to get through to him some other way. Using his powers on Erik felt too much like forcing him -- which echoed too strongly what he'd just heard about the horrors Erik had endured.

Erik shook his head. "All you're really telling me is that anyone can be a savage murderer, as long as enough fear is involved."

"That's not who you are," Charles said.

"You can say that? After what I've just told you?" Erik was trying to be skeptical, to strike out at Charles through words. But Charles felt his dawning comprehension, his inexpressible relief at being understood, even now. "How --how can you say that?"

"Because I know you," Charles said. "I KNOW you." Then -- he didn't plan it an instant ahead of time, but at that moment he couldn't have done anything else -- he took Erik into his arms and embraced him tightly.

Erik returned the hug, tentatively at first, then with a kind of desperate release. His tear-damp face was against Charles' neck. Charles ran his hands through that wild, dark hair, unable to believe he'd gone two years without doing so. As he rose to sit beside Erik on the bed, he could hear himself whispering vague shushing noises, the kinds of murmurs people instinctively make for babies, and didn't know when or how he'd begun.

His voice muffled, his breath warm against Charles' throat, Erik whispered, "You don't really know everything, Charles. Not even now. You don't know what's inside me, or you wouldn't -- hold me -- like this."

After all Charles had seen and heard that day, the idea that this -- what Erik was now speaking of -- could repel him seemed almost laughable. "I know what's inside you," he said. Then he admitted it for the first time, both to Erik and to himself. "I know because it's inside me, too."

And Charles kissed him.

Erik embraced him even more tightly as they kept on kissing, getting lost in the physical sensation of it for as long as they could. Finally, their mouths parted, and Erik slumped against Charles' chest. Charles kept stroking Erik's hair, making the shushing noises, trying to ignore the thumping of his heart. They'd figure out what to do about the -- well, the kissing -- some other day. Tonight, all that mattered was being near one another, bringing some sense of peace to Erik's troubled soul.

A rifle shot cracked in the night. Charles and Erik stared at each other. Then they heard another shot, then another. For a moment the building shook, as if its very foundation were loose.

"What's going on?" Erik said. "What do you think --"

Charles felt his body go cold. "It's Hazim."

Chapter 6

Ben Caanan Compound, Israel, 1956

"Hazim?" Erik's mind -- already weary and dazed -- couldn't process this for a moment. "What's Hazim doing?"

Charles was frozen, his arms rigid around Erik's body. His eyes were focused and sharp, but he was looking inward. "He's out for revenge."

Revenge. The building shook again, and Erik felt anger bubble back up within him, hot and deadly as magma, enveloping everything else. "We have to get out there, now."

They moved as one person, running through the door, down the hallway. Erik found he knew as well as Charles did where they were going; Charles had given him the knowledge, perhaps without realizing it. The one sliver of his heart that remained his own marveled at the fact that they could be like this, two parts of one whole.

But then he thought of wretched Marcellina, waterlogged and gray on her bed. Of Ben-david's pathetic arrogance at daring to try and hold them here. Of his own weakness at failing to take action long, long ago. Love and wonder slipped away, replaced only with rage.

The guns fired again, and Erik no longer needed Charles' guidance. They were close now -- near the back, the open yard where they played football, even proud Ben-david with his clumsy footwork --

As they turned the corner into the hallway that faced the courtyard, the windows began to splinter, obscuring their view. For an instant, Erik was bewildered -- it looked like frost feathering across the glass, frost here in the heart of the Negev.

"Erik! Get down!" Charles tackled him to the floor one moment before the windows exploded. Erik ducked the flying shards, which clinked and clattered against the floor -- but only a few. He peered upward and realized that the glass had flown not inward, toward them, but outward into the yard. On purpose or not? Only Hazim would know.

The rifles fired again, but from the lack of any shouts of pain or victory, Erik knew they were still warning shots. They still had time.

"We should get out there," he said under his breath to Charles, who was still lying on the floor beside him. "Hazim's not in control." Just like Hazim, to spend years ignoring his powers as much as possible, then try to use them in a full-fledged attack. He wouldn't be able to succeed without their help.

But even as Erik pushed himself up on his knees, Charles grabbed his arm, preventing him from moving further. "Wait," he said. "It's dangerous to run out there."

"What, are you afraid?" Of course Charles was afraid; hadn't Erik just confessed how he'd failed to protect Shriek and so many others? He held out his hands, feeling anew the strength in them. "I can stop them. I know I can."

Charles shook his head, not fearfully, but in impatience and what looked like annoyance. "I can stop them too," he said, pushing himself up slowly. "And my way's less dangerous." Then Charles' eyes widened with apparent shock, and Erik whirled to see what had horrified Charles so.

Through the windowframes he saw Ben-david, grabbing and kicking and clutching at thin air as his body rose, slowly, far above the ground.

Dr. Avidan's voice rang out, "Hazim! What are you doing?" Erik could see her at the far edge of the courtyard, staring upwards in horror.

Hazim did not answer her, but the guards. "Shoot me now. Shoot me and watch him fall to his death."

"I've got to stop him," Charles said, hurrying toward the door. At that instant, Erik wondered exactly what Charles was talking about -- Ben-david was far above the ground now, helpless, and therefore had been stopped.

But then Charles stepped into the courtyard, and even as he held up his hands to prove his friendliness, one of the soldiers smashed his rifle into the side of Charles' head. Charles tumbled to his knees, clutching his temple, and Erik could see blood begin to trickle between his fingers.

The world went red. Erik's hands balled into fists. Around him, the metal frames of the shattered windows squealed as they twisted up in knots. Not this time, he thought. I'm not standing by this time.

He pushed out with his power, feeling the metal of the guns "catch," then tugging them away from the guards. In his heart, he longed to turn them on their former owners and pull the triggers, but he knew himself well enough to realize that he was too angry for that kind of precision. Instead he flung them with all his might -- out, out farther, into the desert. He heard swearing in Hebrew -- the few words in the language he'd troubled to learn, as it happened --and one of the soldiers ran in the direction that the guns had flown, into the desert and the dark.

Hazim laughed as Erik stepped forward and knelt by Charles' side. "You see? You are a fool, Ben-David. A fool ever to try and stop us."

Ben-David retched, no doubt nauseated by his jerky tumbling some thirty feet above the ground. It took the vomit a few seconds to hit the ground, which made Erik wince. He whispered, "Charles, you're all right?"

"This is nothing," Charles said, pulling his hand away from a bloody cut that conflicted with his words. He took Erik's arm to stand and called, "Hazim! You -- you mustn't do this."

"What are you talking about?" Erik didn't give Hazim a chance to respond. "Hazim's GOT to do this."

"Ben-david should never have tried to keep us here against our wills," Charles said. "But I never would have let him do that. Neither would any of you. We're justified in walking out of here. And we have the power to do so. That's all there is to it."

"And Marcellina?" Hazim demanded. "On whose hands is her blood?"

Charles was quiet as he answered, but his voice nonetheless carried throughout the courtyard. "On all of ours. It's enough blood shed for one night."

"How can you say this?" Erik felt that sense of strangeness he so often knew with Charles -- the feeling that everything he knew could be turned upside down at a moment's notice. "Think of what Ben-David's done!"

"He's lied," Charles answered evenly. His own bloody handprint outlined his right eye, like some pagan ceremonial mark. "He's been dishonest -- mostly with himself -- about wanting to help us. But he did it because he wanted to create our mutations in others, to make them stronger. He did it to make soldiers to protect his people. To protect people, Erik, not to harm them."

To protect people. To do what he, Erik, had failed to do. For the first time, he saw Ben-David (still twisting unhappily in the air) as an example of what he should have been -- what he was going to become. Erik felt a grim kind of satisfaction; at last he could see it all laid out, costs and consequences. Marcellina's death was part of a greater goal, in Ben-David's eyes a greater good. If Ben-David did not define "his people" the way Erik did -- the spirit was the same.

And Erik had thought Charles was too soft to recognize this. He smiled at his own folly, his own misunderstanding of his friend. Charles was showing him the simple truth: Ben-david wasn't to be condemned. He had done only what Erik should have done himself.

Ben-David was irrelevant now. The guns were gone, the way was clear. Erik's gaze was on Charles the entire time he spoke to Hazim, clearly and loudly, "Put him down, Hazim. He doesn't matter. We only need to get away from this place."

"He's right," Dr. Avidan said, her voice so close that Erik started. She'd slipped carefully along the edges of the courtyard to stand nearby. Her appearance was almost as wretched as Charles', with one of her eyes swollen and definitely turning purple. He wondered what Hazim had done at the beginning of the attack. "I was getting the jeep ready anyway -- to get you out tonight. I've got some money, some supplies. All we have to do is get everyone and go." More gently, she added, "You don't want his blood on your hands, do you?"

Charles slowly drew in a breath, and Erik realized: She'd said the wrong thing.

"He kept me a prisoner," Hazim growled. Ben-David cried out wordlessly as his body began to tumble more violently in the air. "A prisoner. All for the good of the Israeli army? What blood do you think that army has on its hands?"

"Hazim, no," Charles said. Erik saw Charles' forehead furrow with concentration, the creases darker with blood, and realized that -- unless Charles was too dazed from his injury to continue -- Hazim's mind would not long remain his own.

Shouting rang out from just beyond the rim of the courtyard's light; Erik could not see the soldiers, but he heard the clicking of rifles being readied to fire. Many rifles.

He flung his hands and his power outward at the very last possible moment --the bullets streaked toward them, then slowed. When one struck his chest, it hurt no more than stumbling against the doorjamb. Dr. Avidan cried out as another bullet skidded along her cheekbone, not shattering her face but slicing the skin.

"You want to fight me?" Hazim cried. "Then we will fight!" Erik could hear the shout of one soldier, fading into the distance with unnatural speed. The soldier nearest them followed suit, tugged across the courtyard as he scrabbled for purchase, just above the ground.

Another volley of rifle fire -- this time, Erik realized, he wasn't catching quite all the bullets. Damn it all to hell, he should have practiced this before, so many individual objects to grab at high speed -- he could almost get it, or not quite -- "Inside," he gasped, as one bullet cracked into the nearby wall at top speed. "Get inside now."

There was no more helping Hazim. All he could do now was keep Charles safe.

The three of them went on their hands and knees in the hallway, scurrying toward some measure of safety. Outside, banging, thumping and gunfire kept sounding; apparently Hazim was holding his own. Dr. Avidan whispered, "We'll get Shriek and go. It's only about two hours into Beir Sheva."

"Where we'll be arrested," Erik muttered.

She harrumphed as she held her hand to her bleeding cheek. "They won't have the chance. I've got your paperwork together, the passports, the visas. You can get passage on a ship out of Tel Aviv within a day. Everything's in the jeep but Shriek."

"I underestimated you," he said, and he meant it. Of course, their experimental machine was still in the closet, but there was nothing for it. He and Charles would just have to create another someday.

"Let's just hurry," Charles said. But when they finally reached Shriek's room, she was nowhere to be seen.

"Where has that girl gotten to?" Erik said, irritated. He could imagine her hiding in a closet, or under Charles' bed.

Charles leaned against the wall, pale and weak, and at first Erik thought his head injury was affecting him. As he grabbed Charles for support, though, Charles whispered, "Oh, no. Erik -- she's gone."

Then he realized -- Shriek's windows were open. A soft desert breeze, dry and warm, drifted through the room.

Dr. Avidan went to the window and leaned out. "I can see footprints," she said, gesturing to the sand below. "She's just wandered off out there. Why on earth would she walk out into the desert? We've told her it's dangerous."

"Because I told her to." Charles was grimacing with grief. "I told her to stay away from people for a while -- I just meant, stay in her room, but she didn't understand -- I should have realized she wouldn't understand."

They heard her scream, then the answering cry of a man in pain -- one of the soldiers Hazim had flung into the desert. He'd sent them right to Shriek --

A gun fired, and the screaming stopped. Dr. Avidan clutched the windowsill, as if to hold herself up. Erik felt's Charles' hand slide into his; which one of them was it meant to comfort. He remembered the little girl Shriek had been, the cold rooms, the long nights of her begging to be free. She'd known that hell, two years in the desert, and then nothing.

Once again, the entire building shook. Dr. Avidan took a deep breath, then said, "We have to go. We have to get you both out of here."

They ran back out, back downstairs -- but froze as they heard the soldiers shouting to each other, beginning to search the building. Erik realized that the shaking walls had been responding, perhaps, to Hazim's death throes. He muttered, "Can you call them off?"

Charles was gray, his eyes dull, and he swayed on his feet as though he were being buffeted by the wind. "Too many. And my head hurts -- maybe, before I got hit -- but not now. I'm sorry."

"Damn." Dr. Avidan held out her bloodied fingers. "One of you, give me your shirt."

Charles did what she asked, stripping down immediately. As Erik stared at them, Dr. Avidan said, "I need it to wrap around my hand."

"Well, that explains everything," Erik said.

Charles, now in his undershirt, winced and held the side of his head. "She's going to create a disturbance," Charles said. "While we get away."

"Breaking the windows on the second floor ought to do it, don't you think?" Dr. Avidan gave them a grim smile. "Wait until you hear them run up toward me. Then get in the jeep and go. Don't stop or slow down until you're far from here."

Erik -- against all of his worst instincts and most of his best -- hesitated. "What's going to happen to you?"

"Nothing," she said. "I'm not what they're after. You are. So do what I say."

That was her only leave-taking. She ran back up the steps and out of sight.

He got Charles' arm across his shoulders and supported him as they withdrew. Charles was unsteady on his feet, and Erik saw again, in his mind's eye, the way he'd crumpled to the ground when the soldier struck him. Too bad he couldn't risk sticking around to see to that one, at least.

Glass broke. Soldiers yelled. Heavy footsteps pounded on the stairs, moving upward. Erik fought back a flash of unpleasant memory: the Krakow ghetto, cold and wet, overtook him for a moment and was gone. Once the hallway was clear, they ran for the jeep; Dr. Avidan had, fortunately, left the keys in the ignition.

"I told Shriek to get away from us for a while. I've killed her," Charles said, over and over. Erik wished he could disagree. Instead, as dawn began to break over the horizon, he turned the jeep back west, toward civilization, so at least some mutants would make it out of Ben-David's compound alive.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, Germany, 2006

The others had wanted to meet in the dead of night, but Bobby knew that was madness. No way somebody wouldn't be awake and listening, maybe somebody very good at hiding in the dark. And what possible excuse could you have, at 4 a.m., for nine people to have a meeting? Nine people who hadn't been with Magneto very long?

No way, Bobby had said, and so instead they were all going about their business in the thick of a busy afternoon, subtly doing their best to see that the day was busier than usual. As 3 p.m. came around -- and Magneto gathered his top lieutenants as he made some kind of weird public address -- everybody was taking a quick break, or going to talk to somebody else, or headed out to one of the balconies for a smoke. If their paths happened to cross near the Porcelain Room -- hey. Coincidence.

Okay, maybe they wouldn't buy it, but it was their best shot.

The Porcelain Room was Bobby's least favorite in the castle; its walls were bright red and covered, floor to ceiling, with thousands upon thousands of ancient Chinese and Japanese porcelains. Just being near it made him certain he was going to break something, and Magneto -- whose strategy for invading France probably involved peeling the Eiffel Tower like a banana -- was particular about not breaking things once they belonged to him.

But there was no furniture. Only porcelain, covering everything, and Mystique could never turn into something that small. So, the Porcelain Room.

Bobby said, "Okay, everybody. Log in." One by one, they all repeated the code words that meant they weren't Mystique, each chosen almost at random: shaggy, cerulean, gundark, Birmingham, Ahura Mazda, cacciatore. When it was his turn, he said, "Videotape," and the meeting could start.

Shadowcat was the first to speak, "Did we just screw up our whole lives, and probably Professor X's and Storm's and Cyclops' too, just -- for nothing?"

And Rogue's, Bobby thought. Instead, he said, "The way I see it, we've got three options. I think we have to figure out how likely we are to pull each of them off, and go with whatever seems most possible. Because, I don't know about you guys, but -- I can't keep going like this." Although John was, of course, nowhere near this meeting, Bobby felt as though that was the person he was speaking to.

But it was Sunspot who answered him, and he didn't look happy. "Seems like you've been going along just fine. You and Pyro and your nights on the town."

"Skip it," Bobby said. He wasn't even ready to ask himself what their nights at Der Katzenkeller meant, much less try to explain it to anybody else. "That all changed last night. When we had to -- fighting humans -- I'm sorry. I just can't. Not even as part of a plan, and especially not if that plan's not even working."

Of course, he could fight humans. Kill them. After last night, he knew that, would have to know it all his life. What Bobby meant was that he couldn't afford to get used to it.

Cannonball said, "I'm with you. Everybody else?" At the nods and murmurings, he continued, "Something's up, too. Something out of the ordinary. They were all talking about France yesterday, but now there's this weird public address -- I don't even know what about."

"About what happened last night, maybe?" Shadowcat looked as tired and confused as Bobby felt. What had she done for Magneto's side? Bobby wondered. Whom had she killed? Then memories threatened to overcome him, and he pushed them aside.

"We'll deal with that when we get to it," Bobby said. "Let's go through the options, okay? Option 1, obviously, is getting the hell out of here and back to Cuba. Cyclops and Storm would give us all kinds of shit, which we've got coming, but I think they'd take us back. I think." Privately, Bobby thought they might have some trouble with Storm, at least. But between an angry Storm and an angry Mystique, Bobby would take Storm. "Option 2 is getting the hell out of here and going someplace new. There are other countries who'd kill to have a mutant team for their own protection. I remember Nightcrawler talking about some offers they got in Southeast Asia."

"That's kind of close to China," Sunspot said uncertainly. "You know what they do to mutants in China."

Cannonball snorted. "Yeah, and we were so far from the U.S. while we were in Cuba."

"The downside is that we have to start from scratch somewhere, deal with the government, get money and equipment, everything," Bobby continued. "It wasn't easy for Cyclops and Storm, and it's going to be harder for us, because we're the ones who switched sides on international satellite feed. And if we choose that, we don't see the others again for a long time, maybe ever." He'd thought he'd already seen Rogue for the last time. Maybe he'd been wrong.

"I figured those were the only two options," Shadowcat said, frowning. "What's Option 3?"

Bobby squared his shoulders. "We take over here."

Everyone else stared. Bobby could only think, if Pyro could hear this, he'd be so proud of me. I'm not sure that's a good thing. But he would be.

"Take over," Shadowcat repeated. "From Magneto?"

"We wait until the next big battle," Bobby said. "We see if we get an opening. We've all been tiptoeing around Magneto like he was Professor X, but he's NOT. He doesn't know what we're thinking or what we're planning. If somebody was in the right place at the right time --"

Cannonball said flatly, "You want to kill him."

Kill. Bobby caught a sight of his own reflection, silhouetted in the quickly fading afternoon sunlight, shifting a hundred times over in the blue-and-white surfaces of the porcelains. "Magneto started this. He ought to be the first life we take, not the last."

Everyone was silent for a few moments, and Bobby understood why. Had the person he'd named been Mystique or Avalanche or Spiral, there would have been quick, if grim, agreement.

But Professor X had told them about Magneto, about the kid he had been long ago, and some of why he was the way that he was. You couldn't blame the guy for fearing humans, even for hating them. Sometimes, when Bobby thought about it like that, he hated them too. What had happened to Magneto for being Jewish could have happened to any of them for being mutants, and still might. No, you couldn't blame Magneto for being afraid.

You could blame him for starting a war. For doing and being the very thing he'd hated. But Professor X had taught them all how to pity, and he'd taught them well.

As if she'd heard his thoughts, Shadowcat said, "The Professor would be so angry."

"He'd understand why." For some reason, Bobby was absolutely sure of that.

"The Professor doesn't impale people when he's angry," Cannonball said. "Mystique? That's another story."

"A lot of the Brotherhood hate Mystique as much as they do us," Bobby said. "Or more. I'm not saying it wouldn't get dangerous. But I don't think there's another group of ten mutants in the whole Brotherhood that you could count on to work together once all hell broke loose. They won't come over to our side, but they won't be able to stay on the same side, not without Magneto."

He had expected that to fire the gang up, but instead they were frowning at him. It was Shadowcat who said, "Bobby -- you said ten. There's only nine of us."

Only then did he realize that he'd been counting on Pyro to work with them, when push came to shove. Bobby opened his mouth to take it back, then considered it for a moment.

Power, Pyro had said. The love of it surrounded Pyro, radiated from him like the electric tang of the brandy they drank together in the clubs, late at night. Pyro loved power, not Magneto, not this war. Taking over from Magneto, knocking down the one authority he had to answer to -- oh, Pyro would do it. Pyro would enjoy it. Bobby realized he might enjoy it himself.

"Yeah," he said. "Ten."

Caliburn Falls, British Columbia, Canada

Rogue didn't say anything during the entire drive, and Logan didn't either. Trips into town terrified her now, and Logan had nearly refused to allow her to come. Only after she'd begged for a long time was she able to make him bring her along.

"Better for them to get one of us than both of us," he'd said.

"So let me go. I can drive the truck now. Just let me go."

"No way in hell. If they're taking one of us, they're taking me."

"And where does that leave me?" she'd said. She hated the fear in her voice, longed for the sense of power she'd known after they made love. But that had only been an illusion; reality was powerlessness, and terror, and inevitable loss. So Rogue pleaded with Logan without any shame. "Waiting here for you to come home. And waiting, and waiting -- and I'd never know what happened to you -- Logan, don't do that to me. Don't."

So now they were headed into town, both of them silent and drawn and angry --though not at one another. At the prison they feared, and the prison they'd made for one another.

They were trapped, but not dead. Capable of taking care of themselves and each other, but helpless to prevent what would finally overtake them.

Rogue gave him a sideways look, studied his profile as he glared at the gravel road.

Together, but not together.

She had always understood that the currents of feeling she had for Logan ran deep. They never faded away, even when she was so in love with Bobby Drake that she couldn't see straight, that she got turned on just opening the freezer door and feeling a sweetly familiar chill. Logan was still the first one she'd found, the first one who had ever tried to understand. When she'd confessed her abilities to him, her profound loneliness at being trapped within her own poisonous skin, she had given him a piece of herself. Rogue had no name for what it was, but she knew that you could only give it away once, that you never got it back.

The night they'd spent together had touched that place inside her -- but it was the fact that he'd asked her to stay, even knowing that they'd be caught sooner rather than later, that had changed Logan for her. Or had changed her for him. Both, maybe? She couldn't bring herself to ask him because she didn't know what would be worse: if he said it hadn't been the same for him, or if he said it had.

Rogue sighed and leaned back, her head lolling with the truck's jolting and rattling over the uneven road. As she breathed in, she could smell cigar smoke and pine needles, pure Logan. She figured she could tell him, or not. If and when she felt like it. It wasn't going to change anything, not really; they'd stay together, side by side, never touching, always waiting for the end.

If nothing ever changes, Rogue thought, no matter what we do -- then it doesn't matter what we do.

The truck's gears did their usual shudder as they came to a stop in front of the store/saloon. How did you walk into a store casually? Rogue was pretty sure that the technique started with not wondering if you were walking right. "Go on and get your stuff," Logan said, gesturing over to the aisles where items obviously foreign to him (conditioner, Pepto Bismol, Brillo pads) were kept. "I'll grab the beer."

She gave an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Thank GOD. I was so scared you'd forget it."

"Don't start." He was still smiling as they parted ways.

Rogue got her conditioner, her Apple Jacks, some Worcestershire sauce that might jazz up the venison a bit. As she deposited her armload of items on the counter, she saw the local paper stacked high -- and froze.

Magneto's picture was on the front page, his arms spread wide. The headline read: CRYPTIC MESSAGE FROM MUTANT DICTATOR SPARKS FEAR.

As Logan came up beside her, she heard him draw in a breath. She put her hand over the photo, her green-gloved hand blocking Magneto's face. The red-haired grocer came up and gave them a smile; she was clearly curious. Too curious. "You two ready to check out?"

Logan set the beer heavily on the counter. Rogue said, as easily as she could manage, "You want a copy of the paper?"

Their eyes met. She knew that Logan understood what she was really asking: Does it matter? Do we still care? If this story tells us something that might call on us to act, are we going to do it?

Just as casually, he said, "Yeah, grab one. I want to check the classifieds."

She realized she'd been holding her breath. Carefully, almost reverently, she folded up the paper. Its crumpling seemed unnaturally loud. "You two looking for a bigger place?" the red-haired grocer asked, casting her eyes in the direction of Rogue's waistline.

Rogue had to struggle not to laugh -- she'd been terrified this woman thought she was a mutant, and all she was wondering was whether or not Logan had knocked Rogue up. (He hadn't. Rogue had discovered that three weeks before. She had been more relieved than not; she'd never really wanted children, and chances were her womb would have killed a baby before he or she could ever be born. Still, she'd been a little sad when she saw the red streak in her panties --when you only had one chance, it was hard to just watch it go.)

"Not a bigger place -- a bigger truck," Logan pretended to correct the grocer. "Maybe a camper. Used to have one; kinda miss it."

The grocer kept looking after them the entire time they went out to the truck. As Logan piled their bags and the beer in the back, Rogue murmured, "That lady freaks me out."

"At least she's just as bad with the humans," Logan said under his breath. "What's Magneto got to say?"

As Logan shifted the truck into reverse, then pulled them back onto the road, Rogue fumbled with the paper, letting the inner sections tumble onto the floor of Logan's truck along with the cigar butts. She read aloud: "'World reaction was confused and dismayed on Tuesday when Magneto, dictator of the Brotherhood of Mutants, made an unusual public address that raised more questions than it answered. Military analysts have made no official comment, but sources reveal that many governments think this speech may signify an imminent mutant attack. However, there are no definite signals as to when or where.' Shit, Logan, he's on the move."

"Keep reading." Logan kept staring at the road, but she could tell how focused he was on her words. She brought the paper closer to her face, the better to read despite the dimming afternoon light.

"'Those who have followed me, both here in force and elsewhere in spirit, know that the Brotherhood of Mutants seek only a land and a destiny to call our own,' the mutant leader said. Then, in the passage that has alarmed and confused listeners worldwide, he said, 'We follow our own star, all together, each one of us with the power of nine.'" Rogue's temples throbbed once, painfully; a headache was coming on. fast and hard. "'Though this may be only mutant rhetoric, designed to rally Magneto's mutant troops, some analysts suspect these words are part of a kind of code.'"

"Sounds a bit fancy for Magneto," Logan said. "Guy usually just says what's on his mind. Or what he wants you to think is on his mind."

Rogue wished the Excedrin wasn't in the bags in the truck's flatbed. "Yeah. It's a little -- flowery."

Logan accelerated slightly, causing the truck to bounce even more, her head to ache even more sharply. "They got any idea what that's supposed to mean?"

She scanned the paragraphs, gripping the paper so tightly that it crumpled around her fingers. "Doesn't look like it. Confusion, yadda yadda -- the Prime Minister telling people not to panic -- Pentagon setting alert status to red." Her head pounded so badly that the newsprint blurred for a moment. "Something about the stock markets going down --"

Follow our own star.

Rogue's headache vanished in an instant. At once, understanding flooded in, and she cried out so loudly that Logan started. "Marie? Are you okay?"

"Israel!" she said. "Logan, that's what it means. 'Follow our own star' --that's code for Israel. Magneto's going to attack Israel on the ninth!"

"It's already the twentieth," Logan said. "Besides, the guy's been obsessed with Europe, not --"

"No, it's Israel. On the ninth of next month. In December. That's what it means."

Logan looked away from the road for a moment to gape at her. "How do you know this?"

Twenty-three triangles in the painting, all of them in red and gold and green. "It's Geir," Rogue said. "His knowledge -- it's still inside me. It's still here. I couldn't get to it before, but now I can. Reading the code -- that's what set it off. Every country had a code, something that's pretty obvious, but not so obvious that you'd automatically guess. Like, for Great Britain, the speech was going to include the phrase 'not my cup of tea.' That kind of thing. So Magneto could go on CNN or whatever and say something that wouldn't tip off the military to exactly what he was going to do. All the Brotherhood mutants know the code. So anybody he's got around the world -- and he's got mutants all over, Logan, they're everywhere -- now they know what he's going to do. They know to get to Israel, and fast."

As they pulled up to the cabin, Logan swore under his breath as he set the truck in park with a squeal of gears. "We gotta let Professor X know about this. Or Cyclops, or Storm. Whoever."

"Yeah," she said. "We do. I don't think we can place a call through without getting traced. Same for e-mail."

Logan didn't hesitate. "Not from Canada, or the U.S. But another country --"

"Israel. You mean Israel, don't you?"

"If trouble's coming, we ought to make sure somebody's there to screw up Magneto's plan. We can't take the Brotherhood down alone, obviously, but we can at least try and warn people. Stall them, maybe. And talk to the authorities, see if they'll let the X-Men in." Logan tugged back his keys and dropped him in his pocket; for some reason, the gesture reminded her of the way he used to straighten his leather suit before they set out on a mission. "We ought to get there as fast as we can."

As scared and overwhelmed as she was, Rogue couldn't help feeling a deep tide of relief. "How fast is that?"

"We gotta get fake IDs, first -- the one I've got works okay for the Mounties, but it won't get through international checkpoints."

Rogue remembered the smell of frying eggs and tomatoes, and a little old lady with pom-pom socks. "I have the fake IDs. Created by the Real IRA; they should be as good as authentic. And more than enough money."

Logan grinned, impressed with either her or providence. "Then we can get to the regional airport in the morning, fly out to Toronto by afternoon. Take it from there. We'll probably have to catch a ship overseas -- takes a week or so, but there's not as many checkpoints."

"We've got that much time," Rogue said. She could feel Geir inside her again, and she was surprised to realize she'd missed him -- as though he were a friend who'd gone away for too long. Even from the grave, he had the ability to strike back at Magneto; Rogue was glad to be able to give it to him. "I thought Geir's powers were gone. But they're still inside me. Do you think -- maybe --I absorbed them for good?"

"No way to know. Or -- maybe -- " Logan cocked his head. "What's the Norwegian word for airplane?"

"Fly," she said instantly. "Just that. Fly." His mouth twitched, and in an instant they were laughing. Rogue wondered if the joy she felt was her own or Geir's -- at his continued life within her life, at his chance for revenge. Or maybe that was her own happiness, knowing at last that she had the power to act.

Logan's smile faded, and he stared at her intently. Rogue began to ask why --then stilled as his hand wrapped around her wrist. He brushed his fingers down across her palm. Then he caught the tips of her glove's fingers and slowly, carefully, began pulling it off, exposing her skin.

Rogue held her breath as he took her hand in his. It felt so good to touch him again, even if it could only be for a moment.

But he wasn't reacting. His hand wasn't being striped with black, corroded lines. She didn't feel the usual whirling influx of energy, didn't feel his powers supplanting her own. Instead they were just holding hands, without any pain, without any danger at all.

"Logan," she whispered, "I can change. I can go back and forth. I can have my powers OR his. I can fly. I can touch --"

He kissed her, hard, pulling her close.

Oh, God, Rogue thought, as her lips parted and his tongue pushed inside. She pushed back, exploring his mouth even more eagerly. Logan's arms were tight around her, blocking out breath, thought, movement. He kept kissing her, devouring her, making her go dizzy and crazy and mad.

She put her hands -- one gloved, one not -- on either side of his face, angling him just the way she wanted him, the better to kiss him even more deeply. How had she ever thought she could live without this? How could she have told herself just once would be enough?

Logan pulled her undershirt out of her jeans, and she felt his fingers tracing lines across her belly, up her back, felt his palms cup her breasts, warm through the thin satin of her bra. Desire rippled through her, blurring past and present, logic and reason, leaving only the need to be closer to Logan. Now.

I ought to slow this down for a second, she thought dazedly. I ought to ask what's going on here, what this means for us, ask if he has a condom. That's what I should do.

Of course, she realized, it would have been better if she'd done that before sliding her leg over his to straddle him in the driver's seat. Now his body was pressed against hers, and she could feel a warm, delicious pressure between her legs, and when they kissed again, she leaned back against the wheel. The horn blared out into the woods, no doubt startling a few deer and owls.

"Oh, Jesus," Logan said when their lips parted. "We gotta get inside."

"Inside," Rogue agreed in a whisper. "In bed."

He groaned into her mouth, and for a few moments they couldn't move, couldn't stop kissing each other long enough to even reach for the handle. She ground herself against him, one long, slow spiral, and she felt a surge of delight as he gripped her around her waist, as though he was going to take her right there, right then.

But instead he opened the door and tipped her out into the snow. She stumbled, clumsy with desire, and began staggering toward the cabin, walking backwards, never looking away from him. Rogue bit the fingers of the one glove she still had on and slowly drew her hand out of it. As Logan walked intently toward her, she saw her move ignite even more wanting inside him. Oh, God, she could turn him on, make him as crazy as he made her. In a lifetime that had taught her to fight and fly and move things with her mind, Rogue had never felt more beautiful, more strong.

She laughed in dazed jubilation. Logan said, his voice husky and deep, "What?"

Rogue pushed open the door to the cabin, braced her arms against each side of the doorframe. "I was just thinking," she whispered, feeling a sly grin spread across her face. "I don't have to be gentle with you this time."

"Jesus." Logan caught her up in his arms, laughing with her even as they kissed again, and he kicked the door shut behind them. Snow fell from their boots to the floor, and a few flakes turned to dew in his hair as she ran her hands through it. He murmured into her neck -- oh, his mouth felt so good against her neck, his breath -- "You do anything you want with me."

"Anything?" She unbuttoned his flannel shirt as quickly as she could, pausing only to let him pull her sweater and undershirt over her head.

"Yeah." Logan tugged her bra straps down and ran his tongue along the curve of her shoulder, making her knees so weak she slumped against him. "I promise -- I won't break."

Rogue let herself fall to her knees, pressing her lips against the long, hard outline she could see beneath his jeans. Logan bucked up against her, then --when she lay on her back, right there on the floor -- lowered himself atop her, kissing her deeply. She wrapped her legs around him and moaned softly as they began to move, a gentle recollection of the way they'd moved together before. As she arched her back, Logan took the hint and tugged the cups of her bra down, exposing her breasts to the cool air -- then, to his warm, wet mouth. How could that feel so good? Just his tongue against her nipple? But it did; each circle of his tongue seemed to draw a line through her, a bright line of light and energy and heat that speared the very center of her.

"Off," she whispered, tugging at the waist of his jeans. "I want these off."

He sucked her once more, hard, before rolling over to one side and getting out of his jeans. Rogue shimmied out of her own, pulling her panties off with them. Last time, she'd been so uncertain, so bashful -- now she couldn't wait to be naked with Logan, to have him inside her once again.

She pushed herself up on her knees and looked down at Logan, who caught a glimpse of her expression and deliberately relaxed, sprawling out beneath her for her examination. They'd been too caught up last time for her to do this -- to just stop everything and stare at him. Logan looked just the way she'd always dreamed he would look. Powerful muscles that didn't overwhelm his long, lean frame. Thick hair across his chest. And his hard cock -- hard for her --arched up over his belly. Rogue didn't have much basis for comparison, but she suspected Logan didn't have anything to be ashamed of in that department. He folded his arms behind his head, mock-casual, smiling lightly. "Anything you want," he repeated, the grinding in his voice giving his act away.

Last time, she'd been so eager to be touched that she hadn't let herself really explore touching him in turn. Rogue decided to change that. She traced along his feet with one fingertip -- toe to ankle -- taking her time. Logan swore under his breath, then said, "How do you do that?"

"Do what?" Calves, now. She could feel the muscles beneath his skin, the divisions between them, as she massaged him.

"Make everything a turn-on." Logan groaned as she spread her hands over his thighs and straddled his legs. "Every single touch."

Rogue whispered, "Every touch IS a turn-on." Her hands were on his pelvic bones now, her face dipping, closer to his cock. She could see it flushing darker as her lips got lower. "You've just forgotten."

Logan tilted himself up slightly to meet her, so that his cock brushed against her chin. "Remind me."

She took him into her mouth; she'd never done this before, but she'd dreamed about it, and she was going to put those dreams to use. The head was softer than she'd thought, the shaft harder, and she'd never imagined that he would taste so good. Knowing him in such an intimate way stoked her need for him even more, and she began sucking at him gently, not worrying whether she was doing it right or wrong. If it tasted good to her, it had to feel good to him -- and he moved beneath her, thrusting ever so slightly inside her mouth. Greatly daring, she took him in deeper, curling her lips around her teeth so that he'd only feel softness and wetness and warmth. Logan's fingers wound themselves into her hair, and she reveled in the fact that his hands were shaking.

"Wait," he gasped. "Wait for me."

Rogue let his cock slip out of her mouth, licked her lips to taste the warm salt of him again. "Wait for you to what?" she murmured.

He pushed her to the side just long enough to slide down, then brought her knee over so that his face was between her legs. "To get even," he said, before stroking upward with his tongue.

Oh, God, oh, Jesus, he was going down on her again, and she had made herself remember every single second of it, while it was happening and every time she'd gotten herself off since, the way his lips felt against hers, the way his tongue felt when it turned into one hard arc of pressure, but she hadn't remembered. Not the way her whole body went hot and cold, or the sounds she started making, like some animal that had been uncaged. Or the way she started moving against him, like she'd had this a thousand times, like she was a woman instead of an inexperienced girl, listening only to her own body and to his -- to his tongue, massaging against her in circle after circle after circle.

Rogue cried out as she came, a wash of dizziness and heat flooding all the way through her, toes to fingertips to the top of her head. She arched her body so hard that she would have fallen, if Logan's hands hadn't been so tightly around her waist. Her whole body loose, she let her head loll back. Her hair brushed against her shoulder blades, and she felt Logan catch the very tips of it between his fingers. "You're beautiful when you do that," he whispered. His breath was cool against the wet folds between her legs.

"When I come?" Rogue felt drunk, dazed, awhirl. Logan nodded. She said softly, "Let's make you beautiful, too."

"Beautiful," he said, half-scoffing, but when she was kneeling above his cock, stroking him with her hands, his smirk faded away. He pushed her hands away with one of his, angled himself and, oh, God, he was inside her.

Rogue winced in pleasure and pain, stretching around his cock as she took him in. It felt like so many things at once -- a kind of burning, right at the surface -- then, deeper inside, heat and pressure, filling her up, pushing all these delicious sensations deep inside her body out to her skin.

Logan thrust upward, getting in even deeper, and for a moment her inexperience burst, unwelcome, into her mind: How did you move, when you were on top of a man? What was the right way to go -- up and down, or -- or what? Then, remembering what she'd done last time, Rogue forced herself to relax. She moved the way her body wanted to move, back and forth, twisting her hips slightly as she went. And from the shivers of pleasure that went through her, and the guttural sound Logan made as he began thrusting harder, she knew this was exactly right.

His hands guided her for a moment longer, then slid upward to her breasts, which shook each time he thrust. Logan cupped her in his palms, brushed his thumbs slowly back and forth across her nipples, in time with the way he moved inside her. Rogue felt the soft aftershocks of her orgasm ripple through her, and she whispered his name, as they moved faster, and faster, and faster.

Then Logan arched up in one last, deep thrust; he shouted as his hands tightened on her breasts, and she felt a rush of warmth at the center of her. She watched his face twist in pleasure, and felt another surge of pride. Rogue lowered herself across him and kissed him, over and over, savoring every instant that he was still inside her.

Finally, Rogue let herself slide over to one side and propped up on an elbow, the better to look into his eyes. It all seemed so surreal -- an hour ago, she had believed that nothing would ever change, than everything stayed the same, forever and ever, no matter what she did. Now she was lying naked on the floor with Logan, her (oh wow new word) lover, with the knowledge that might help Professor X strike back against Magneto. Silently, she thanked Geir, who'd understood before she did. Nothing has to stay the same; nothing ever can. If you think differently, you're not looking at reality anymore.

She said only, "I'm glad I found you."

"Same here." That was the end of the love chat; she could tell, even though his hand stroked along the length of her side. "Are you still scared? I mean, of the Professor and Cyclops and them. If things go according to plan, you'll be with them in a couple of days."

Rogue searched within herself; Geir's fear was there, but it was muted now --comforted, perhaps, by the discovery of her deeper strength. That felt almost as miraculous and wonderful as everything else that had happened that night -- that she'd been able to finally, at long last, make Geir not be afraid.

"No," she said. "I'm not scared of anything. Not anymore."

Chapter 7

The Negev Desert, Israel, 1956

Charles had never felt so tired in his life.

"I should have known this could happen," he said, again and again. "I should've done something."

"Stop," Erik would reply with an unfamiliar gentleness. "You couldn't have known. Even you can't see the future."

Which was true. Charles didn't know whether that fact was the tragedy of his life, or the only thing that made it bearable.

When they had gotten far enough from the Ben Canaan compound, and the sun was getting higher in the sky, Erik pulled over and tended to the painful cut on Charles' temple. The first-aid kit was one thing Dr. Avidan wouldn't have had to pack; it had been in under the driver's seat as long as Charles could recall, but this was the first time they'd ever had to use it. As Erik moved from washing the blood off Charles' face to cleaning out the gash itself, Charles winced and pulled away slightly.

"Hold still," Erik said gently. As Charles obediently sat still, and Erik dabbed alcohol on the wound with a surgeon's precision, a memory floated up into Charles' consciousness. He had kissed Erik. It felt like a thousand years ago, but it was just hours since -- since --

He tried not to meet Erik's eyes -- difficult, as they now sat right next to each other, and Erik had Charles' jaw in one hand, holding his face still for doctoring. He knew that Erik, at least, was thinking only of the cut's seriousness; the only emotions Charles sensed were deep tiredness and concern. The confusion and arousal were his own.

Not the time, he told himself once more. It's not the time to think about it. Later, when we -- later.

"Can you sleep?" Erik said, though he was almost as tired as Charles. "Get some rest. I can drive."

As they rolled further into the desert, the morning sun already blazing, Charles would've sworn that he could never sleep, not in the bumping jeep, out in the light and heat. But no sooner had he slumped back against the seat and shut his eyes than he felt sleep rise up to meet him; he gave into it gratefully.

Though they reached Beir Sheva before noon (Erik woke him to get some soup, wash up, change into a clean T-shirt), they agreed to keep going. There was no saying when the soldiers would come looking for them, but this was undoubtedly one of the places they'd begin. The closest port was Tel Aviv, but the soldiers would look there too. Together, they decided their chances of avoiding detection would be better in Haifa, which they could reach by nightfall.

Forever after, when Charles remembered that day, it seemed so much longer --like months, or even years, when he and Erik fled together through the desert. He slept, when he could sleep; during the afternoon, he finally convinced Erik to give him a turn behind the wheel, allowing Erik his own chance to doze. But Erik slept restlessly, preferring instead to dig around inside the files Dr. Avidan had packed. Her theories of gene mutation were there, spelled out in language above their heads. So, too, were other kinds of records.

"A Japanese girl who could counteract gravity," Erik said, holding the papers down where they threatened to flutter free of the manila folder. "A Canadian man with the ability to heal from any wound -- he was a secret agent for the Allies, during the war. Reports of a woman in Peru who could never age. Charles, do you realize what this means?"

"We're not alone."

Erik was exhilarated by the idea, so much so that it overcame his exhaustion and became the main emotion Charles could sense. "There might be hundreds of us. Hundreds." Then a darkness passed through him. "Good thing Ben-David only got his hands on five."

"Let it go," Charles said shortly. Already, Adael Ben-David seemed like a figure from a history test he'd taken years before. Unimportant. Forgotten.

They reached Haifa near sunset. Though Dr. Avidan had put money in with their paperwork -- a surprising amount of it, in Charles' opinion -- he was reluctant to stay anyplace expensive. Then Erik pointed out, with a logic that was both very convenient and very convincing, that if anyone was looking for them, that was where they'd begin: dingy little seaside places, usually reserved for sailors. On the other hand, it was unlikely anybody would seek two young fugitives at the palatial Dan Hotel Haifa.

"We still shouldn't waste money," Charles said automatically, so that he could almost hear his mother's voice.

"It's not OUR money." Erik shrugged.

From the moment he stepped inside, Charles felt as though he'd left the real world for something more distant, ephemeral and beautiful. Their dusty shoes left no tracks on the marble floors. The air was blessedly cool, and the breezes from the harbor wafted through the hallways. Men wore the kind of suits Charles had brought to Israel in ignorance; they looked like tourists, which they were, though it was strange to Charles to think of them that way.

After two years in stark quarters in the Negev, Charles was almost taken aback by the sheer size of their room. Two full beds. A window that stretched along like a full wall of glass, revealing the harbor outlined in lights. Just enough sun remained for Charles to make out the Hanging Gardens in the distance. When he got in the shower, it was powerfully strong, with jets of water that stung his sunburned arms and cheeks. For a while, he just leaned against the shower wall and watched the fine desert sand swirl away down the drain.

All in all, he felt like another man entirely -- older, if not wiser, and no longer a stranger in a strange land -- as he walked out of the bathroom, toweling robe around him. Erik had laid a spread out upon the table: sandwiches, cakes and coffee. Charles breathed out a sigh. "Room service." The long-lost treasure of a dead civilization. "You're brilliant."

"No denying it," Erik said through a mouthful of sandwich. He licked his thumb and forefinger before rising from the table. "I'm going to wash up now. If you'd stayed in there any longer, I would've come in and gotten you."

Well. That was an -- interesting -- mental image. Charles wasn't sure if it was Erik's or his own, which made it all the more intriguing. Erik rather quickly ducked into the bathroom, leaving Charles to eat his dinner in an uneasy solitude.

Erik was naked in there, right now. Thinking about Charles, just as Charles was thinking about him. And in a few minutes, he'd come out into the room where they were both going to spend the night. Two days ago, it would have meant nothing. But tonight --

He wasn't sorry he'd kissed Erik -- anything but sorry. Charles only marveled that he'd gone so long with the ability to see into the hearts of others but had done such a poor job of looking into his own. Ever since the day they'd met, Erik had owned more of Charles' thoughts and heart than anyone else ever had. But only last night, when their lips had met, had Charles really understood why.

Thanks to his abilities, Charles had known since childhood that some men preferred other men, just as some women preferred other women; he had further understood that, despite playground whispers and oblique parental comments to the contrary, the people who felt that way were fundamentally no different than anyone else.

They were more secretive, though, and Charles supposed for good reason. This meant that, as badly as Charles wanted to kiss Erik again, he didn't have a damned clue what was supposed to happen after that. A combination of school talk, cinema trips and Flaubert had given him some vague idea about what he might do with a woman, but with a man?

And all of that assumed that Erik wanted to do anything. He knew Erik's desire as sharply as he did his own -- could breathe it in, even now, like the soap-scented steam that floated out around the cracks of the door. But Erik, usually so much more confident and sure than Charles himself, was far more uneasy about their attraction.

Maybe, Charles thought, as he's not psychic, he didn't even know men felt this way about each other. Or he didn't find out until he was older, and he wishes he were different. But Erik never wishes to be different, never. He accepts what he is. Then why does he feel so strange?

At last he resolved to follow Erik's lead. If Erik knew what to do -- well, then, he'd do it, wouldn't he? Charles felt a surge of warmth at even the formless idea of Erik taking charge of him, knowing what to do. He imagined Erik's hands peeling away his robe, pressing his shoulders down onto the bed, and then -- please, he thought, please let Erik know what to do after that.

But if Erik wasn't ready, or didn't want to at all, then they'd just go to sleep. No point in pressing the issue, driving Erik away too soon.

A perfectly sensible plan. One that could lead to him sleeping alone in his own bed, still as ignorant of what to do as he had ever been. Dammit.

Erik came out, robe-wrapped, his usually wild hair wet and slicked back. It made him look even older, even more like a man instead of a boy. Charles wanted to say something, couldn't think of anything, and ended up just pouring himself some more coffee.

"I called down to the desk while you were washing," Erik said. Why did he even bother pretending to be calm? Charles could feel his impatience and uncertainty. Erik had to know he felt it. If he was pretending, it was because he wanted Charles to pretend too.

Disappointed, Charles said, "I know. For supper."

"Besides this. Turns out there are some ships that take passengers to Cyprus; one of them leaves in the morning. We should probably be on it."

"Cyprus." Hang Cyprus. "As good a place to start as anywhere else."

"It gets going around six in the morning." Erik ran one hand through his wet hair, which rumpled into a damp approximation of its usual craziness. "So we'll need to get up early."

Charles suppressed a sigh. "And we should get to sleep." Shouldn't have had all that coffee. Now he'd just have to lie nearby all night, knowing Erik was in the next bed, too close and not close enough.

"Right," Erik said. He slapped his hands against his thigh. "Well -- get the lights, will you? Might as well --"

"Of course." As Erik piled a few of the plates atop each other, Charles went to the light switch and flipped it off, bathing them both in darkness. He turned back to go to his bed, which he'd assumed would be the one by the window, for no particular reason. Then he bumped into Erik, shoulder to shoulder, right at the bedside. "Oh, sorry."

"No, no," Erik said, too quickly. He started to move away, and the back of his hand brushed against Charles'.

It seemed to happen of its own accord -- their hands clasping each other, their arms slipping around one another, their bodies meeting in the dark. Erik's lips missed their mark, brushing first against his cheek. Charles turned his face, and their mouths met this time, again, and then again. They were breathing too hard to kiss for very long. Charles just kept kissing him, willing the spell not to end.

Even though the room was dark, he closed his eyes. He just wanted to feel --Erik's arms around him, his hand against the side of Charles' face. The thin terrycloth robe was warm and damp from Erik's shower-slick body. Arousal clouded everything, enfolded them in something even deeper than the darkness; Erik wanted him, wanted him so badly that it almost drowned out Charles' own desire.

Whatever uncertainty he'd felt seemed to have fallen away into the past, along with so much else. Charles slid his arms across Erik's abdomen, began unknotting Erik's bathrobe.

"Are you sure?" Erik said, his voice cracking. Charles would have teased him about it, if he wasn't so sure Erik could feel his heart pounding ridiculously fast.

"I'm sure," Charles said. Then he hesitated, his old self again for a moment. "I haven't done this before."

Slowly, Erik's hands moved to his shoulders, his thumbs pressing deeply into tired muscles, sending energy rippling all the way down. "With a man?"

"With anybody." Charles laughed at himself for a moment as they kissed again. He hadn't known you could do that -- kiss somebody while you smiled, feel them smiling in return. "You?"

Erik kissed him -- again, Charles thought, again. As though even one kiss would have been too much to ever hope for. When Charles first felt Erik's tongue brush against his, he felt a thick wave of desire -- Erik's and his own, mingled together.

When they stopped to gasp for breath, Erik whispered, "Not with a man."

Well, there was another hope gone. Charles forced himself to try and think rationally -- so difficult to do, with Erik wrapped around him, the long, hard line of his erection pressed against Charles' hipbone. "So then we'll -- we'll make it up as we go."

Erik laughed softly. The sound of that laughter, gentle, strong and sane, washed away the last of Charles' restraint. He kissed Erik back, quick and hard, then tugged Erik's robe away. At his own waist, Erik's hands fumbled, trying to get rid of Charles' robe too.

Then they were naked together. Erik's body was long and lean, muscled despite his thinness. Even in the darkness of the room, he could see the numbers tattooed on Erik's arm. The reminder that people had hurt Erik -- the knowledge that anyone could hurt him, that anyone could have looked at the boy Erik had been and shown him only horror -- lit a kind of rage within Charles that only stoked his desire further.

Slowly, reverently, Erik placed his hands on Charles' chest. When they kissed again, their bodies slid together, and Charles felt his own cock press against Erik's, get even harder.

Maybe it was that moment -- the first overtly sexual touch of his life --that did it. Maybe it was the way he felt about Erik, spirit finally melded with body, the truth coming out at last. But it was then that Charles unconsciously -- and therefore totally -- dropped the mental shields that separated his mind from others'.

Erik's desire had been palpable before; now it was overwhelming. It was inside him, his own desire as much as Erik's, the pleasure he gave in his touch redoubled in his own body. When Erik's hand tentatively brushed down Charles' chest, down past his navel, he felt Erik's uncertainty and longing, felt the slick, hard head of his own cock in Erik's palm.

It was almost like an insanity that took him over -- pushing Erik into the bed, kissing him harder, touching Erik everywhere, knowing what felt good, feeling it as surely as if it was happening to him. And then it would happen to him -- Erik followed his lead, kissing here, stroking there. When their mouths met again, the kiss was long and hungry and desperate, the kiss of two men who had been apart for years, not by each other's side all the while.

But he has been gone, Charles thought drunkenly, rolling over onto his back so that Erik could fall atop him, press their bodies together, capturing their erections between their sweat-damp bodies. I've never been with Erik before now. I've never known him before this moment.

Charles gently bit Erik, right at the curve between shoulder and neck. Erik cried out in something that was far more than pain, then gasped out, "I thought -- you said -- you hadn't done this -- before."

"I haven't." Charles rolled him over onto his side so they could kiss once more. Their lips met in shallow kisses, all the more arousing for being brief, leaving them wanting more.

"So how is it," Erik whispered, between kisses, "that you know exactly what to do?"

He took one of Erik's hands and brought it up so that his fingers touched Charles' temple. "I know what you like. That's all I need to know."

"Of course." Erik smiled a little, and Charles could feel emotions rippling through him, envy and wonder and relief and pride in his lover, all woven together into one tapestry. Erik's hand was warm against the side of his face. "Are you going to tell me what you like?"

Charles kept on kissing him. "All of it. Everything."

When Erik brought his hand down to Charles' cock, it felt so good -- being gripped in his fist, feeling every ridge and fold of Erik's palm all around him -- that he immediately did the same to Erik. It felt just as good to Erik, good enough to make him groan, to make him start stroking Charles slow and hard. Charles thrust into Erik's fist, wanting it even tighter, and began stroking Erik in return, matching his rhythm so that they were moving together, so slow, so maddeningly slow. How was it that Erik's hand could feel so much better than his own?

He realized that his palm was now slick, that Erik's was too, that they were getting so close --

Erik said, "Wait. Wait." He pulled his hand away from Charles, a loss of sensation so sudden and unwelcome that Charles swore. Erik laughed once, as he pulled Charles' hand away too. "I just want to try --"

With one deft move, he tucked Charles's cock between his thighs and brought his legs together tightly, enclosing Charles warmly, tightly. Charles moved once, and the friction of skin on skin hit him like a shot of whisky, numbing his mind, spreading fire throughout his body.

Quickly, Charles did the same for Erik. They were face to face now, on their sides, bodies pressed against each other as they started to move. And this was better than anything else, because the same thrust that slid him more deeply between Erik's legs also did the same for Erik, and their cocks were touching each other, one's pleasure the same as the other's, flowing into and out of each other in a perfect Mobius strip, the separation between their bodies and minds gone, completely gone.

Charles gasped, feeling the electric shift in his body that told him he would come -- no, no, that was Erik, Erik's body so close to the brink, but just knowing Erik's pleasure made him --

Blood rushed to his head, to his hands, to the head of his cock as he came, shouting out as he grabbed Erik, dug his fingers into Erik's arm. Erik said nothing, but his body went stiff, and his eyes screwed shut, and Charles felt an answering rush of wet heat against his thighs.

They lay in silence for a while, bodies still entangled and slick with each other's come. Charles tried to sort out which was his own mind again. It took him a few minutes. Until then, he was content to lie there in his lover's arms.

When he knew himself once more, Charles kissed Erik for a very long time. Erik whispered, against his cheek, "You know that I love you."

Silly question. "Of course I know," Charles said. "Psychic, remember?" Then he realized what Erik was really saying, and shook his head at his own stupidity. "I love you too."

Erik's wet hair was rumpled, his forehead bright with a sheen of sweat. He raised an eyebrow, as skeptical and humorous as he'd ever been. "Are you quite sure?"

"Absolutely," Charles said, kissing him again. "Always."


Charlottenberg Palace, Berlin, Germany, 2006

"If we are to crush Xavier and his forces," Magneto said, "we must act immediately. Regardless of the other consequences."

Mystique gave him her best sideways, heavy-lidded glare. "Even knowing that if we leave Germany --"

"We won't hold it," Magneto said. Berlin, his city -- oh, yes, the thought of losing it stung. But he didn't let himself dwell on it, look down the long marble hallways, or out the windows at the gardens. "The most that will happen in two weeks is that a few of the refugees will stagger back, bundles over their shoulders and grievances that should paralyze whatever provisional government might have come into being. We can take the country back in less time than we will have been gone."

She shrugged. "You're the one who was so set on Germany. If you don't care, I don't see why the rest of us should." Only Mystique was allowed to speak so disrespectfully. Only Mystique's loyalty was beyond doubt.

But the others would come with him, to be paid in the only coin they cared anything for any longer: Power. It was the only reward anyone could ever keep, the one that ensured everything else you could ever desire.

Xavier had never understood that, and Magneto had long since given up hoping he would learn.

Mystique tilted her head, and Magneto knew that she had followed the train of his thoughts. She asked, very simply, "Can you kill him?"

"Yes," Magneto said. "I shall hate myself for it. I shall hate you for being party to it, for weeks or even months to come. But it is still what we must do, and the day will come when I'll thank you."

"Am I allowed to remind you that you said that?"

Magneto imagined her repeating all of that to him. He imagined Xavier's body, broken and lifeless, lying at his feet. He imagined shrapnel shredding through Mystique's body, crimson blood streaking up through the blue. "Best not."

She nodded, accepting it like any other order. "I'll start mobilizing the others. We can have them ready to leave anytime after a day or two." He gestured his agreement, and she went to summon the Brotherhood for what he already knew would be their greatest battle.

Soon, he thought. Soon, I shall have to see you dead, Charles. But the world that set us against each other -- I promise you, Charles, when I am done, it will be broken down to dust and washed away. There will be nothing left. Nothing left.

Ben Canaan Compound, Israel

"Are you sure this is going to work against Magneto's forces?" Scott asked, frowning at the white panels that encased them. "I would be a hell of a lot more comfortable if we had a test."

"As would I, Scott." Xavier rolled his chair deeper into the room, getting the sense of it. "If you would be willing to use it first, I would be quite grateful."

Scott looked at him darkly; nobody else would have known, not with the visor in the way, but Xavier felt Scott's prickly black humor and smiled. It had been too long since he'd felt humor of any sort from his student, and even gallows jokes were preferable to the gray silence of Scott's soul these past few years.

The room wasn't as big as he would have preferred; the machine's power was as blunt as it was strong. After decades with Cerebro, Xavier wasn't exactly sure how to wield this new tool -- he thought it was rather like becoming a championship fencer, then being told you could only defend yourself with a broadsword.

But what a sword.

"Years, it took us, to decipher just what you and Erik were up to," Dr. Avidan said. Though her tiny frame was bent, her face lost in a sea of wrinkles, her step was still quick and sure. "We tried to adapt the technology for a human's use."

"That's impossible," Ororo said, staring.

"Not impossible," Dr. Avidan corrected. "Though we could never find nor develop anyone with the mental discipline to consistently operate it. It turns out your greatest gift isn't your mutation, Charles."

Scott raised an eyebrow at the "Charles," which Xavier ignored. "And so you have a machine so powerful it can even read the intent of a human mind," Xavier said. "This is impressive, Yeshara."

"The work was yours, and his," she said. "I still have the old notebooks, you know. If you want to see them someday."

The memory flashed before him, blocking out the white room, his X-Men, everything but the image of a 21-year-old Erik, sprawled on the floor, scribbling formulae frantically into one of his battered black notebooks. That wild, dark hair falling into his eyes. "Someday," Xavier repeated. "I can't get over how much you preserved."

"More, even, than you think," Dr. Avidan said. She smiled, and he felt the surprise she'd been trying to keep -- not the secret itself, but the fact of it, bright and pretty in her mind like a gaily-wrapped gift.

He resisted the impulse to pull away the paper himself. "What else did you find in our rooms?"

"Not in the rooms," Dr. Avidan said. "In the military clinic, the day after you two escaped." When Xavier raised an eyebrow, she grinned widely -- her elderly face rendered young in that moment -- and said, "Turns out soldiers don't shoot very well in the dark."

Xavier felt her before he saw her: a tiny, scurrying presence, just outside the door, timid but excited, as she'd ever been. He opened his mind further and knew for certain. In wonder, he whispered, "Shriek?"

He heard only giggling. Dr. Avidan crossed her arms and said, "You've been so excited to see Charles again. You shouldn't be hiding!" She sounded like a mother, scolding but fond.

Shriek crept around the open door, holding onto the edge as though she might fall without it. Hair that had been ash-brown was now gray; once-youthful skin was deeply lined. But her dark eyes were the same, as was her uncertain smile.

Turning quickly to Dr. Avidan, he said, "She was only wounded?"

"Not even that seriously, thank God. With Ben-David and the other mutants dead and missing, the government had little recourse but to turn the whole project, including Shriek, over to me." Dr. Avidan held out a hand, wordlessly urging Shriek forward the way someone might a toddler. "I never made her do anything she didn't want to do, Charles. We learned together when we could, developed her powers as when and how she wanted. She's wonderfully precise now, when she wants to be. But mostly -- I just gave her a home. She never changed much."

"So I see." Xavier held out his own hand, and Shriek came forward at last. Recognition flowed between them, and he knew her sense of wonder and puzzlement. He braced himself for her first words, the first moment between them in so many years, after having endured so much together.

At last, Shriek said, "Charles?"

"Yes, Shriek," he whispered, awed and moved by the sound of her voice. "It's really me."

She cocked her head. "Where did your hair go?"

So much for profundity. Xavier laughed out loud. "I haven't any idea." He glanced at Ororo and Scott, who were staring unabashedly. "Albinka Landau, allow me to introduce my friends, Scott Summers and Ororo Munroe. Scott, Ororo, this is Albinka Landau, also called Shriek."

"ALWAYS called Shriek," Shriek said, stamping one foot.

"Always called Shriek. She was one of the very first mutants I ever knew."

"You're here to keep us safe again," Shriek said confidently. It felt good to have her trust again, to feel that he could do a better job of fulfilling it this time.

"We may be in more danger than ever," Xavier said. "But we're doing a good thing, for the right reasons." He suspected Shriek could understand that much.

Ororo's voice forced Xavier back into the present. "I'm enjoying the introductions as much as anybody. But this machine -- surely you can do something with this thing before we actually end up in battle," she said. Her silver-white hair blended into the shimmering panels that lined the walls; the scowl on her face showed her distrust -- not of Xavier himself, not any longer, but of Dr. Avidan, the machine and quite possibly the world at large.

"A test does seem in order," he agreed. "To see if Dr. Avidan has truly followed in our footsteps."

Slowly, he lifted the metal headpiece; instantly, Ororo's and Scott's faces fell, their daring overcome by worry. "Professor," Scott said, "no disrespect to Dr. Avidan, but this machine -- it's not Cerebro."

"No, it's not," Xavier said, closing his eyes. "I was thinking of calling it Cerebra. How does that sound?"

"There's no guarantee they won't hear," Ororo said. "If they hear, our whole timetable gets thrown off."

"The danger of Magneto's forces hearing me is less important than the benefits of having the others hear me," Xavier said. "I think it's worth the risk, don't you?"

Without waiting for an answer, he drew the smallest fraction of the machine's power into himself, forced his own power outward, and was one with the life, the energy, the light. Faces and bodies swirled around him, insubstantial as smoke, eternal as fire, drawing closer, and closer.

At every port in Israel, agents wait to bring you to our side. Do not alert the main authorities. The agents will find you. Come to us if you can.

This world is still worth fighting for. --

In London, Brian Braddock stopped short in Piccadilly Circus. When people around him stared, he forced himself to look up at the statue of Eros, as though he were a gawping tourist, not a man in shock.

In Bangkok, a casino dealer turned over the three of diamonds, giving Remy Lebeau twenty-one and the right to a fortune in chips that would have fed some villages in Thailand for a month. The dealer wondered why Lebeau hardly seemed to notice.

In Colorado, two hundred feet beneath the ground, Allison Blaire froze in the lunchline of her detention camp; when the silver food packet tumbled from the autodispenser into her hands, she started to laugh. All around her, other mutants started laughing too, cheering, swearing, arguing, yelling -- for the first time in far too long, they all came alive.

In a palace bedroom in Berlin, the man who'd been known as St. John Allerdyce had only just laid his helmet on a pillow, for a couple of moments without the damn thing. "Shit," Pyro said, then slammed a fist into the wall in frustration. Ten to one Magneto would still give him hell for breaking the rules, even if it was the kind of thing they really, really needed to know.

In the shower of a small passenger cabin aboard a freighter in the Mediterranean, Logan and Rogue stood together, no longer paying any attention to the water or each other, staring up at the ceiling, as though another message might issue from an invisible speaker there. The water had been cold for a couple of minutes before Logan noticed and shut it off. "Well, THAT killed the mood," he said.

"Thank God," Rogue said. "They already know. They're already there."

She threw him a towel before absently draping one around herself, more for warmth than out of any embarrassment, Logan figured. At this point, "shy" was a distant memory for Rogue. "Good to know it," he said. "I wasn't real big on the idea of us trying to defend Israel all by our lonesome."

Rogue breathed out slowly. "Me either. But now -- Logan, we'll see them tomorrow afternoon."

"You worried about what they're gonna say?" Logan reached out to take her shoulder, then hesitated. "Still in safe mode, right?"

She nodded absently, and he pulled her close, holding her just for comfort's sake. Rogue said, "If they're mad at me, I'm going to tell them to go to hell. They didn't have Geir in their heads. They don't know what it was like."

"They're not gonna be mad at you."

"If they're all hurt and wounded, I'm not going to put up with that either. They're adults. I'm an adult. It was my choice to make."

"You bet," Logan said, kissing the top of her head. "That's not what you're worried about, though."

Rogue squinted up at him suspiciously. "Okay, Professor X, what am I worried about?"

"You're worried that they're not gonna be mad or hurt. You're worried that they're going to act like nothing ever happened."

She stiffened slightly, and Logan -- by now used to the ebb and flow of her moods -- let her go and went to sit on his bed in their dingy little cabin, something designed for two merchant marines, not a man and a woman traveling together. In some ways, this was better; between his bad dreams and her tendency to shift powers during the night, they definitely needed separate beds -- at least for sleeping. Rogue tugged on jeans and a T-shirt, and he followed suit, letting her decide when to speak again.

The freighter had been a lucky strike: cheap, as international travel went these days. Their fake ID had held up just fine; as far as anybody on the ship knew, she was Vickie Collins and he was Seamus O'Malley. Rogue had insisted on calling him that until he'd spanked her, though it turned out she liked that too much for it to be a deterrent. Which, of course, he'd suspected all along.

His T-shirt was halfway over his head when she said, "It's creepy when you read my mind like that."

"I'm not Professor X," he said. "I just know you."

"I don't want things to be like they were before. They can't be. Too much has changed."

"I know. They're gonna know it too."

Rogue smiled, somewhat comforted, and began wriggling into her jeans. Logan let himself watch her, kept his own worries to himself.

In another day, they'd be back with Xavier and his crew, who were a hell of a lot more likely to be mad at him than at Rogue. Logan didn't give a shit about that, but he also knew -- from then on, everything was going to change between him and Rogue. They'd built a little world for each other, the past two months; as bleak and primitive as their life had been in the cabin, Logan also knew that those were the best two months he could remember. Something in him still wanted to grab her, take her back to Canada, tuck her into the bed where they'd first made love, wrap blankets around them both so that they'd be bound together, sheltered forever from the world outside.

But Rogue didn't work that way. And, when push came to shove, turned out he didn't either.

Rogue's head snapped up, a new idea blazing in her eyes. "We ought to get there faster, Logan. Tomorrow afternoon -- that might be too late. What if somebody on Magneto's team heard him too?"

"Good point," Logan said. "How should we suggest it to the captain?" He wasn't being sarcastic; if the situation called for it, he wasn't above putting claws to the right throat.

"We don't have to." She smiled brilliantly. "I can fly, remember?"

Logan stared. "Fly? All the way to Israel?" When Rogue nodded, he took a deep breath. "Are you -- absolutely -- sure about this?"

She grinned, so happy and so beautiful that it made his breath catch in his throat when she said, "I can fly forever."

Amid the crowd, Bobby grabbed Pyro's arm, ignored the raised eyebrow Pyro gave him as they skidded to a stop at the top of the stairs. "What's going on?" Bobby said. "Why the hell are we --"

"Didn't hear it, did you?" Pyro said. "Leave it to you, Iceman. You hate Magneto's guts, but you're still such a good soldier you'd never even take your helmet off."

The Brotherhood mutants continued running, flying or teleporting downstairs toward the transport planes. Bobby knew that, in order to avoid suspicion, he ought to be at the head of the pack. The first and the fastest. But -- if this was it, their big chance -- he needed to know why they were deploying to Israel a solid week ahead of schedule.

Then he realized what Pyro had said about his helmet, the implications of it. "You mean -- Professor X? He did something? Said something?"

"The guy's in Israel, which we knew, and he just issued a worldwide psychic invitation for people to join him, which was a surprise." Pyro shrugged as he started down the stairs, forcing Bobby to follow. "Guess this is our RSVP."

The Professor was up and around again. Bobby had never imagined it was possible for Professor X to get back to himself, as strong as ever, ready to fight once more.

We've got our shot, Bobby thought. Option 1. We're going to go right to him, and if we play our cards right -- we can deliver Magneto right into his hands.

A few steps below, Pyro swung himself up and over the last stretch of banister. His laughter echoed in the marble hall.

That's what I want to do, Bobby reminded himself. To help Professor X. That's what I want.

Xavier had expected the first responses to come in a few days; international travel wasn't easy these days, even for the gifted. Perhaps -- if someone were very fortunate, very focused -- more mutants would join their side the next day. He said as much, confidently, to Ororo and Scott and Kurt, as they all sat in the old dining hall, eating food that, sadly, did not live up to Marcellina's fine tradition. He was even careful to say that one day might be too short a time; he didn't want their hopes up.

He had not expected that, within two hours of his announcement, Dr. Avidan would come back in, obviously bewildered. "Mossad agents have your first two volunteers."

"You're kidding," Ororo said. Scott's jaw dropped.

Kurt brightened. "More teleporters?"

Xavier reached out with his mind, sensed the personalities drawing closer to him -- only a few feet away down the hall, now -- and smiled. "How extraordinary." Then, as they walked through the dining-hall door, he added, "Logan. Rogue. How good it is to see you."

Logan was much the same -- angry in ways that had little to do with Xavier, steady in ways that fortunately concerned him more. Something else was there too -- something both more centered and more frightened -- but Xavier felt no need to probe deeper, only to nod at the wary smile Logan gave him. Rogue, however -- she seemed years older, rather than a few months. She was terrified of his disapproval, but even that couldn't hold sway over a deep, abounding sense of joy. "Hey, Professor," she said. "Storm -- Cyclops -- Nightcrawler, and --"

"Allow me to introduce some old friends of mine," Xavier said. "This is Dr. Yeshara Avidan, a researcher into mutant powers, and a fellow mutant, Shriek." Dr. Avidan smiled politely. Shriek stepped a little closer and squinted at Logan's hair. Logan regarded her warily, but he managed to smile.

Fortunately, Scott was thinking tactically. "How did you guys get here so quickly?" he said. "Where were you hiding out? Jordan? Egypt?"

"Canada," Logan said. "What can I say? I'm predictable." Scott made a sound that was slightly rude, which Logan uncharacteristically ignored. "You want the scoop on why we were already on our way to Israel when you called, you're gonna have to talk to the lady."

"Magneto's speech," Rogue said. "He used their code for Israel. The Brotherhood's going to attack Israel on December 9th."

Scott's jaw tightened. "Damn. He already knows we're here." Xavier sensed Scott's red-shielded glare upon Dr. Avidan and ever so slightly shook his head. Whatever betrayal had occurred had sprung from another source.

"We knew he would find out eventually," Xavier said calmly. "We still have a week to prepare, and that should be sufficient for those of our number who wish to rejoin us."

The others responded to that well, taking it in, getting used to the idea of the battle's proximity. Kurt cocked his head and asked Rogue, "But how did you get Magneto's codes?"

Although Xavier had begun to sense some of the answer, he listened to Rogue's explanation about Geir, the uncanny cohesion of their abilities, and the permanent transfer of his memories and powers into Rogue's body. Finally, he understood some of the deep joy within her when she held out her hands -- ungloved -- and said, "Professor, could I, well, maybe --"

Nobody ever thinks they need to finish their sentences with a telepath, Xavier thought. Of course, they were right. "Please do," he said, holding out his arms. Rogue rushed into them and hugged him with all her newly considerable strength; her happiness overflowed into him and made him laugh out loud. When she pulled away, ducking her head, he caught her hand and squeezed it. "Thank you."

"For the hug?" Rogue said. Her shyness made her seem young again for a moment, more like the girl she'd been when he met her than she had been in a long time. "Or for coming back?"

"Both," he replied firmly. She relaxed, a confident woman again.

"So, I guess you're done hanging out on the sidelines," Scott said to Logan.

Logan glared. "Now that you guys are done banging your heads against a brick wall."

For those two, that was fairly civil; Xavier felt encouraged. He wanted to have his own talk with Logan about why he had left, and why he had returned, but he understood Logan's innate loyalty: tarnished silver, but still pure. "Right, then," Xavier said. "We have a lot of work to do in one week. We should get the two of you settled in -- Rogue, perhaps you could have a room next to Ororo, and Logan can --"

A mental image rippled in Xavier's mind, of the sort that had embarrassed him terribly as a younger man but he now accepted as a matter of course; it was now quite clear that two bedrooms would be one too many. He added, "Or perhaps you should share. I warn you now, take a room on the upper level. You get a better breeze."

Rogue bit her lip, as mortified as the young Charles Xavier had ever been by the revelation. Logan was only content, no doubt relieved he wouldn't have to sneak through corridors. But there was another emotion in the room -- anger, getting stronger.

"Wait a minute," Scott said. "You -- and you." When Rogue nodded, he tightened his lips, pressing them together in a pale, forbidding line.

"Scott?" Kurt was staring at him, as were the others.

Logan was quickly getting into a mood to do more than stare. "You got a problem, Cyclops?"

"When did you start caring if I had a problem?" Scott said.

"Some time before right now."

"No yelling," Shriek pleaded. Neither of the men appeared to hear her.

"You never cared if I liked the way you acted before," Scott replied. "You'd be better off not caring, trust me."

"You don't like me being with Rogue?" Logan's temper, rarely steady, was quickly stoking into rage. Xavier considered stepping in at this point, elected not to. "What's the matter, Cyclops? You got a thing for her yourself?"

"I don't date girls half my age." Scott was openly angry now, even sneering, something Xavier had never felt from him before. "Come to think of it, she might be less than that for you, right, Logan?"

"I'm not a kid!" Rogue said, eyes blazing. "I made up my own mind."

"This isn't about you, Rogue!" Scott shouted.

"Not about me?" Her cheeks were flushed, and Xavier was heartened to see that her embarrassment distracted Logan from his rage. He put a hand on her shoulder as she demanded, "How is it not about me?"

Scott opened his mouth as if to reply to her, then glared at Logan as though the gloves -- or the visor -- might come off at any moment. But then he turned on his heel and stalked out of the kitchen without another word to anyone.

Logan gestured at Scott's back as he went. "What the hell was that all about?"

"That's not like him," Ororo said. "Not like him at all. I'll try and find out what's going on."

"Actually," Xavier interjected, "it would be better if Logan went after him."

At that, Logan turned and stared. "You have GOT to be kidding me."

"I'm quite serious." Nearby, Xavier could feel the shift in the tenor of Scott's mood; if he hadn't understood before, he did now. "You should hurry."

Logan shook his head, shrugged and headed out the way Scott had gone.

Of all the goddamned nerve --

Logan didn't give a shit about Scott's approval, which was a good thing, considering that he'd never had it and wasn't going to get it. But yelling about Rogue like that, right in front of her -- it had embarrassed her, upset her, and that was something Logan didn't take lightly. He didn't really think Scott had been jonesing for her himself. More likely he'd just wanted another excuse to chew Logan out. Logan decided that Xavier had well and truly lost it this time, as he followed Scott's scent through the halls to play counselor.

At last he got to the end of a corridor and found Scott leaning against one wall, his arms folded across his chest. He didn't turn toward Logan, but his posture shifted slightly, acknowledging his presence. Logan waited for the lecture to resume, but it didn't.

After a few moments, Scott said, "Tell Rogue I'm sorry."

"You can tell her yourself," Logan said, matter-of-factly. "We're gonna be living in close quarters again, so I figure you'll have the opportunity."

Scott just shrugged. Logan's curiosity began to get the better of his anger. He asked what he had asked before, but quietly: "What's your problem?"

"You," Scott said.

"And what did I do this time?"

To Logan's astonishment, Scott smiled, then laughed tiredly. "You did the one thing I always wanted you to do when Jean was alive," he said. "You forgot about her."

Jean's name hit him like a punch to the gut. Logan leaned against the wall, too, understanding for the first time why Scott was doing the same; it was because you felt like you couldn't stand up anymore, like grief could drag you right down to the floor, if you let it.

Scott continued, "You tried to take her from me, and I hated you for that. After she died, you walked around like you'd lost as much as I had, and I hated you for that. But -- maybe -- the last couple years, none of that mattered as much. What mattered was knowing that there was somebody else out there who knew what Jean was. How much she deserved to be loved. And now that's gone too. It's one more thing about Jean that's just -- disappeared."

Logan waited for a long time before he answered, and his voice was strange to himself when he spoke. "I'm never gonna forget Jean. Not ever. Not -- the stuff she believed in, or the way she used to smile -- just one corner of her mouth, like she didn't want you to know -- or the way her hair looked when she pulled it back -- am I pissing you off yet?"

"You're getting there."

"Good." Logan gave Scott a hard look; angry was better than crying any day, in his book, which meant that Scott looked better. "I'm not gonna forget Jean. But I didn't die when she did."

Scott said only, "Sometimes I wish I had."

Logan didn't have anything to say to that, but he stayed there, standing nearby for a while. At last, Scott said, "Rogue -- she IS a lot younger than you, you know."

His tone wasn't warning so much as teasing, so Logan responded in kind as they each started walking back toward the others. "Everybody I could date's a lot younger than me, unless Grandma Moses is available."

"Grandma Moses is dead."

"See, this is my point." Scott actually laughed at that, and for about half a second, Logan could see how somebody might kinda like the guy.

He heard the whistling sound first -- long and drawn out, both a high-pitched squealing and a low rumble. Then --

The end of the corridor exploded in fire and fumes. A shock wave of superheated air slammed into Logan, throwing him and Scott into the air and at least a dozen feet back. Smoke rolled over them, choking off air and obscuring light. "What the hell?" Logan coughed.

Scott said, "It's Magneto. They're already here."

Chapter 8

"What are they doing here?" Rogue yelled. The building was still rattling in the aftershock of the explosion, and she could smell the faint acrid tinge of smoke. "The code -- it meant December 9th, Professor, I know it did!" Then fear hit her with paralyzing intensity: "Oh, God, Logan -- he's closer to where that thing hit --"

"Logan and Scott both survived the attack," Professor X said. He began turning his wheelchair to the door. "Your perception of the code was undoubtedly correct, Rogue, but someone in the Brotherhood must have been without his helmet at that time and heard my message. They've moved up their timetable accordingly." He sighed. "You tried to warn me, Ororo."

"We can take them," Storm said, which seemed wildly unrealistic to Rogue, but nobody else was arguing. Only that old woman huddled in the corner, the one the Professor had called Shriek, seemed to be frightened or worried at all. The others were all steady, even though it was oh-holy-shit-Magneto-himself coming down on them with God only knew how many Brotherhood mutants at his side. The last time she'd seen Magneto --

Geir's terror of Magneto, his agony in death, echoed through Rogue, as deep and as awful as it had been the moment it happened. As her knees went watery, she began to give in to her fear -- it would be so much easier to drop to the ground, crawl away, pull her arms over her head like poor terrified Shriek.

Then she felt something else -- anger.

Her own rage at Magneto she knew well; she'd made its acquaintance years ago, at the Statue of Liberty, and she knew how it tasted, metallic and vile in her mouth. But this anger wasn't her own; it was Geir's. Magneto had forced Geir to help them fight, to help them kill. He had used Geir in an experiment that cost the boy his life. He preferred to call Geir Screener, the name Geir hated so much. It was Geir who was angry at Magneto right now, and with good reason.

But it was Rogue who was going to get revenge.

"We can take him?" she said, squaring her shoulders. "Show me how."

"Leave that to me," the Professor said. "Dr. Avidan and Shriek will help me to Cerebra."

"And we shall make sure you have all the time you need," Nightcrawler said. "Rogue, shall I take you?"

Rogue shook her head and drew Geir's power up within her, bringing herself off the ground to hover by Storm's side. "I'm my own transportation."

As they streaked toward the outside, Nightcrawler BAMFing his way alongside them, Rogue thought: So much for staying behind with the jets.

Erik had been a boy of 20. Charles had looked up to him as someone so worldly and intelligent, expected him to have all the answers. A boy of 20 -- the same age that Rogue was now.

What could I have been thinking? Xavier thought. To put such a burden on one already burdened almost past the telling of it?

Dr. Avidan pushed him into the elevator; Shriek leaped in quickly, as if afraid the doors would shut on her. She looked down at Xavier, her eyes still childlike behind her thready gray hair. "Erik's coming. He's angry."

"Yes," Xavier said. "Don't worry, Shriek. We'll stop him, and maybe we won't have to hurt anyone."

"Please no hurting," Shriek said.

Xavier closed his eyes, thought of Erik as a boy in his arms. He said the best thing he could say and still tell the truth: "I'll try."

Pyro's eyes narrowed as he slid into the seat of the Condor. The biggest battle they'd had in a long time, and he had control of the plane, and what was he supposed to do? Keep it in a holding pattern. Again. The adrenaline thrills just never stop, he thought.

"Don't pout," Magneto said congenially. "When you disobey orders, you must expect consequences." His attention was drawn by Avalanche and Mystique, each preparing to leave the jet. He called to them: "Remember what I said -- leave Xavier to me. Remind our more bloodthirsty brethren."

"You know we can't guarantee that," Mystique said. "But, if it makes you feel better, we'll remind the others." She dropped from the plane in a long blue blur of motion; Avalanche jumped after her, and the resounding thud of his feet on the ground sent shockwaves rippling through the desert. Pyro stared, fascinated, as a long wave of sand billowed up and washed away from them, spreading out toward the horizon.

Magneto followed Mystique without another word, leaving Pyro to sit out while the show got started. Irritated, he fired up the jet and lifted off, preparing to circle more or less out of harm's way nearby. He let his thumb wander over the missile-launch button -- smooth red plastic, glistening in the bright light -- but even that was only slightly tempting. Firing a missile was just like using his powers, only a little less fun. But sometimes he got so damn tired of scorching plane after plane, house after house; it felt less like fighting than it did like playing some sub-par video game from the dark ages or something. Blasting little SimCity apartment-boxes all in a row. Though even that beat just sitting and watching --

"Pyro?" He turned and saw Iceman standing behind him, already sheathed in ice, looking invitingly cold and wet in the middle of the desert. Moisture beaded slightly along every inch of his hard-chiseled frame. He asked a question he should have known the answer to -- that he probably did know the answer to. "You just keeping the jet out of the way?"

"No, I'm leading the charge. This is an amazing optical illusion. This is M. C. freakin' Escher, blowing your mind." Pyro scowled as he set the jet on autopilot, which was so symbolic he couldn't even pretend to ignore it. "Listen, I'm stuck here. You aren't. So why aren't you out kicking ass?" Two possibilities flickered in his mind, one of them very interesting. "You too chicken to face down Cyclops and Storm again? Or are you just here to keep me company?"

"Sorry, neither." Iceman knelt by his side and let the ice sheath go; white became blue, became clear, then shimmered and was gone. Now Pyro could see Iceman's face, his jaw set, his eyes bright. "Pyro -- Magneto's got his plan for how this is all going to go down. But I've got my own plan, and the others are behind me. Are you?"

Opportunity flashed through Pyro's mind, leaving a warm red glow of feeling in its wake. Slowly, carefully, he let himself smile. "Depends on the plan."

"But you're with me, right?" Iceman smiled back, as relieved as Pyro was himself. They'd known each other for years, Pyro thought, and there was always some lie standing between them. We're all X-Men together, or he loves Rogue, or I don't care anymore, or he's only here to do some good. All lies, all gone. It was just him and Iceman now, circling slowly above the desert; all the people who'd stood between them now lay beneath them, ready to be crushed.

"I'm with you," Pyro said. He breathed out slowly, crossing that boundary inside his head, glad that Iceman was finally ready to follow -- or maybe even lead. "I'm guessing you're smart enough to have figured out that if you're not going to follow Magneto's orders, you'd better be planning to kill him."

Iceman nodded. "I don't like it. But I think it's got to be done."

He'd like it fine once he had done it, Pyro figured. He drummed his hands on the jet's controls, more pumped all the time. "You want to take Magneto out. Take them ALL out down there, head back and take it for ourselves."

"I -- I've been thinking about it -- controlling all of Europe -- it's not going to work."

"No shit. We've all been watching Magneto stretch it too thin. But that doesn't mean we can't take one place and hold it. I admit, I kinda like Berlin. I think you do, too."

"Berlin's -- well, it's something." Iceman smiled ruefully. "Hanging out with you in the clubs -- it gets kind of crazy."

"But you love it. And you know you love it. I'm just glad you finally stopped lying to yourself about it." Pyro grinned. "Iceman, I gotta hand it to you --this is priceless."

"Yeah," Iceman said. "I love it." But he said it strangely, like he was reading it off a cue card.

"Better act fast." Pyro took the missile control into his hand, gripping it hard. "Who am I not supposed to kill? No guarantees, this high up, but we're gonna need somebody to play guard duty while we're having fun."

"We're not going to -- I mean -- no." Iceman straightened up, now standing above Pyro, his eyes as bright and impenetrable as they had been when he was sheathed in ice. "I don't want to just do what Magneto's done."

"What do you want to do? What's this brilliant innovation? Fill me in.:"

"I want to help Professor X and the others."

Pyro stared. "You're kidding."

Iceman shook his head. "No. That's what I really want." He breathed out heavily, as if he couldn't believe his own words, as if he were as surprised to be saying them as Pyro was to hear them. "We can take Magneto down and then help the X-Men out. That's the only way to stop this war."

For some reason, he was picturing Der Katzenkeller, but it was empty. No partiers, no girls, no Iceman. Just Pyro standing there by himself. Whatever new hopes had filled him turned to ash. "You know -- Bobby -- some of us kinda like this war."

Iceman brightened at that, like all he'd heard was his human name. "You don't like the war. You like feeling important." That was so true it felt like a slap in the face. When Iceman lay his hand atop Pyro's arm, it was so cold it stung. "They'll take us back, and it'll be different this time. You'll see."

"I'll see," Pyro said. He grabbed his lighter, flicked it and flashed a pure, red-hot torrent of flame and rage at Iceman, who cried out in pain as he was slammed across the length of the jet. "We'll be different breeds of lapdogs," Pyro said. "Thanks but no thanks." He rose from his seat and met Iceman's blank stare. Even as he watched, Iceman coated himself in ice once more -- but he was weak, and the sheath wasn't thick. Pyro could still see the red-charred skin beneath, could still see Iceman give him a faint smile.

"Sorry it's ending like this," Iceman said, weakly holding out his hands. A wall of ice began to form between them, not fast enough, not thick enough. Beneath the plane, the shifting landscape revealed the compound, the desert, the compound again, lit here and there by lightning or fire.

"I'm sorry it's ending at all," Pyro said, and he meant it, because killing Iceman was going to hurt, but that was what he was just about to do.

He heard the suction before he felt it -- the air rushing through the plane, the creak of metal strained past endurance. And then the plane's door pulled open -- no, pulled off -- and wind blew in a thousand directions, tugging them both slightly toward the door. "What the hell?" Pyro yelled.

A dark shape flew inside and dropped easily to her feet. Pyro stared at the black boots, the blue jeans, the black T-shirt, the long, dark hair with one white streak whipping in the furious wind. He knew the face as well as anyone's, and yet it seemed to take him forever to say, "Rogue."

She said, "Hey, guys. Slight change of plan."

"Can you breathe?" Logan said, squinting through the black haze that stung his eyes as they crawled out of the smoldering remains of the bombed corridor. Scott could probably see through this shit, Logan figured, unless the guy was dying of smoke inhalation.

"Breathe, yeah. Walking, I'm not so sure about." Scott coughed thickly, giving the lie to his first statement. "My ankle feels broken."

Logan pulled one of Scott's arms over his shoulder and pulled them both up. "Fine. I'll do the walking, you'll do the seeing, and let's get the hell out of here and help Professor X."

"The way we came won't work," Scott said as he peered through the almost impenetrable gloom. "Go left and maybe --" he paused to cough again, "-- maybe we can get into that courtyard, cut across."

The fires licked closer; the smoke got thicker. For one moment, Logan let himself wonder where Rogue was, what was happening to her, then pushed it aside. She could take care of herself, and it was time for him to do the same. "Left we go," he said, pulling Scott along with him. Sure enough, after a couple seconds he could see the faint outline of a doorway --

Logan shot backwards, propelled at unnatural speed, pulling Scott with him. They hit the far wall, searing-hot in itself, so hard it knocked the breath out of Logan. Next to him, he heard Scott retch, then gasp.

"Well, well," Magneto's voice said through the gloom. "I would've thought Xavier would have his best lieutenants at his side. Not so, it seems." Then, more sharply: "Xavier is NOT in this area, I take it?"

Logan gave Magneto his best, most thoughtful response. "Fuck you."

"A charming suggestion, but perhaps later," Magneto said. Through the smoke, Logan could hear female giggling.

"No, no," Mystique said, calling to Logan. "That's my job. Among others." Her words grew closer as she spoke, and he could see her, blue-on-black, golden eyes flashing like the sparks that filled the air.

"Not you," Scott growled, and Logan heard the visor click. Mystique dodged the blast easily, losing herself in the smoke. Then Scott yelled out in pain as the metal visor was ripped from his face, skidding away into the fire and the dark.

"Attend to this," Magneto said, already sounding more distant. "Enjoy yourself."

"Oh, I will," Mystique said. Her voice was different somehow, though Logan cared less about that than the fact that he felt the grip on his adamantium skeleton weaken, then vanish. He jumped to his feet, determined to face Mystique head on, soon as he could see her.

But Scott whispered, "That voice."

Logan frowned. "What voice do you --"

He trailed off as she stepped forward, out of the smoke. Pale skin, flashing eyes, red hair soft and loose, her body sleek in black leather.

Jean Grey's face smiled at Logan. Her lips whispered, "I'm going to enjoy this a lot."

Rogue stood in the middle of the plane, wind whipping around her, the floor tilting wildly as the autopilot tried to compensate for the pressures caused by the missing door. Bits of metal and paper tossed around them all, blurring the scene: Bobby sprawled out, obviously hurt, and John standing next to her, fury and suspicion battling in his face.

Geir's telekinesis steadied her as the plane shifted. Geir's memories of the plane told her where she needed to go. And her own knowledge of John and of Bobby told her what had happened here, what she should do next.

"I'm taking this plane, John," Rogue said, as calmly as she would have told him, a few years ago, that she'd save him a seat at the movies.

"Rogue -- how did you --" Bobby's gaze was unfocused, maybe from confusion, maybe from pain.

"Flew," Rogue said. But she stared at John as she spoke, raising her voice as the din in the airplane increased. "Just like Geir. Remember Geir? Or maybe I should call him Screener. Would you remember him then? He really, really hated that name, you know. About as much as you hate being called John." No grief clouded John's suspicious eyes; Geir knew he hadn't been missed or mourned, and the pain twisted up into a hot, sharp dart behind Rogue's eyes. She added, "He looked up to you, you know. Admired you. God knows why."

John said only, "Who are you here to kill first? Me or your boyfriend?"

It didn't occur to her to correct John about the "boyfriend" part. "Bobby was fighting you," she said. "That means he's on the right side when it counts --and you aren't."

"Might makes right," John said with a grin. "Magneto tells us that all the damn time. You oughta know that by now."

Even in the rushing wind, she heard the lighter flick, the faint click of metal on metal. Rogue flung her hands out even as the fire exploded into being and arced toward her; she sent a telekinetic wave out in a chevron, praying it would work. The fire split in two, streaking on either side of her so closely that she could feel the heat on her face. Then Rogue squinted, focused her mind's energy on the lighter and gave it a sharp tug. She heard John swearing as it hit her palm with a satisfying smack.

"Geir gave you his powers," John growled. "He's supposed to be dead."

"He gave them to me permanently," Rogue said, all sweetness. "They're my powers now. If might makes right, John, then I'm right. Got it?"

Bobby had pulled himself to his feet, unsteady with the plane's whirling. He de-iced himself, and for the first time she could see his burns. Pain lashed through her as though it were her own skin, red and twisted. "We've got to get this plane down," Bobby said.

"To help the others," Rogue said.

"That, too, but mostly I was thinking about not crashing," Bobby said. "I'm in favor of not crashing."

Despite everything, Rogue laughed. "Okay, good plan." John made a sudden move and she held her hand out, ready to throw him telekinetically into the wall as hard as necessary. "Don't even."

"What's going on?" another voice shouted. Rogue turned to see another mutant -- somebody she didn't know, Brotherhood most likely, clinging to the open doorway. She looked sort of lizardy, and Rogue knew she wasn't supposed to judge mutations, but, still, gross. "Pyro? Iceman? Do you need help?"

"They're working for Xavier!" John yelled.

Flash-fast, Rogue pulled her energies inside-out, ignored the powerful vise of pain in her head, found her old powers again and grabbed John's arm. He cried out in pain, his skin blistering black; then Rogue turned toward the lizard woman zooming toward her and flicked the lighter. The fireball blossomed through the plane, making Bobby duck back, but scalding the lizard woman into shrieks of pain. "Sorry," Rogue said, meaning it.

"Jesus, Rogue," Bobby said. "What CAN'T you do?"

The ground kept wobbling beneath them, and Rogue realized their altitude was -- slowly, but definitely -- getting lower. "Well, for instance, I can't land a plane."

Damn Dr. Avidan for rebuilding here, in this same compound.

Magneto found himself assaulted by memory at every turn: the courtyard where Hazim made his last stand, the kitchen where Marcellina tried to coax them all into a love of garlic.

And everywhere Charles -- a man even at 17, wise eyes in a young face, strong shoulders, strong legs, his English skin becoming brown over time. In this corridor they had run from the soldiers. Magneto had to fight the urge to turn to his left, to go to their old quarters, to stand in the room where Charles had kissed him for the first time. It seemed to him as though those two boys would still be in there, as though they were other people, better, happier.

Then he realized: In the basement closets, we kept our experiments. Cool, dark, quiet. The best place, really, for anything sensitive.

Can you kill him? Mystique had asked, and Magneto had never been surer of his answer than at this moment, when he realized where Xavier would be and quickened his steps. The sooner done, the better.

"It's so good to see you again, Logan," Jean Grey's voice purred.

Logan didn't even see her move, just felt the crack of her foot into his ribs. He stumbled back, gasped in a painful breath and punched Jean -- Mystique --hard in the jaw. Weird, how he could know it wasn't Jean, yet it could still hurt to see her head snap back, to see the spray of blood from the corner of her mouth. "Scott!" he shouted. "Get out of here!"

"As soon as I can walk or see, you're on," Scott said, which of course meant he wasn't going anywhere. Behind him, Logan could hear Scott crawling across the floor, searching for his visor. Logan would've liked to help him -- some laser vision could come in real handy right around now -- but even he couldn't see through this thick, oily smoke, through the falling orange sparks. He couldn't make out anything farther away than Jean's beautiful face, looking at him sadly, as if she couldn't understand why he was so angry.

Then, of course, she punched him again, squarely in his nose so that he could smell blood, then taste it thick down the back of his throat. Logan showed his claws, ignoring the razor cuts within his hands, on his knuckles, as he slashed toward her. The black leather tore, not the skin, and yet it bled -- of course, the black leather was her skin too --

She spun up over him, leaping in pure defiance of gravity, her red hair fluttering behind her. Logan wheeled around to face her again, but not fast enough; her hands grabbed his shoulders and her knee slammed into his spine with a sickening crack.

Pain rushed upward, waist to shoulders to head, so searing that Logan thought for a moment he'd caught fire. But then he realized he felt nothing beneath the waist, that he was tilting and falling.

As he hit the floor, Logan muttered, "Shit." Hell of a time to have a broken back.

"We heard you left," Jean's voice said, musical with humor and curiosity. Then she kicked him in the middle of the chest, hard enough that he nearly vomited with pain. "Why did you come back? Just to die here? Seems like a shame."

"We -- don't agree -- about what somebody oughta be ashamed of," Logan began to feel the first twinges of sensation below his waist: a kind of bone-deep ache, the groan of injured nerves.

"We don't agree about what's worth dying for," she said. The heel of her boot slammed into his jaw, cutting through his skin, and once again he swallowed blood. "Your friends outside are dying for a patch of sand they're going to lose anyway. For a man who sells you lies about the way the world should be."

"Yeah, and Magneto would never steer you wrong." Logan said. He could feel his legs now, but when he tried to move them, his muscles tensed for only a moment. Best to wait until he was himself again, to make her think the healing was taking longer.

But Jean's face was near again, just out of his claws' reach, her smile bright in the boiling darkness. She held out her hands -- slim and white, just as he remembered them against his arms -- and slowly extended claws just like his own. "You're not getting up again," she said. "But aren't you glad you got to see Jean one last time?"

Scott said, "I know I am."

Logan heard the visor click into place one instant before the room erupted in brilliant red light. The point of the beam caught her in the shoulder, pinwheeling her back into the smoke. It was still Jean's voice screaming, but then he heard a thud, and the scream stopped short.

Groaning, he sat up; Scott had crawled to his side, visor again in place. "Good timing," Logan said.

"Maybe," Scott said. "Can you walk?"

Logan bent his knees once, ignored the twinges of pain. "Don't ask me to run."

"Walking's fine, as long as we're walking out of here now."

Pulling Scott's arm around his shoulders again, Logan struggled to his feet and began steering them out. On the ground, through the smoke, he could see Mystique's outline on the ground, and though he could tell no more, he could still see her red hair.

Xavier slid Cerebra's metal helmet onto his head, ignoring the shock of cold against his scalp. Dr. Avidan shook her head. "What you're trying -- using this at full strength --"

"-- is our best option," Xavier said quietly. "I am aware of the risks, Yeshara."

"You said no hurting," Shriek said. "That means you too."

He smiled at her and took her small hands in his. Somehow the age of her hands was more shocking than anything else; each vein could be traced beneath her fragile skin, each bone. "I'm not afraid to try," he said. That seemed to satisfy her, and with her fear abating, Xavier could at last focus.

Slowly, carefully, he began opening his mind to Cerebra's power, and he felt the minds of the mutants all around him. Some of them were clear and distinct: Scott leaning against Logan as they stumbled into the sun of the courtyard, free from smoke. Kurt's ferocity -- always surprising, yet undeniable -- as he battled Spiral, vanishing before any of her many knife-wielding arms could slash him.

Others, however, were faint, almost beyond his ability to perceive. He knew John's anger and pain, Kitty's confusion and hope, Magneto's avid curiosity --but they were shielded from him, no more than emotions, their locations unknown.

Time, Xavier thought, to wield this sword.

He dropped the last of his mental shields, letting in all Cerebra's power --so much power it could have been felt by a human, so much that it shocked him down to the core of his mind, so much power that it hurt to hold it. As though the sword were still hot from the forge, burning his skin, his mind, his soul.

Xavier forced himself to focus. He could see them now, each of the Brotherhood mutants -- the helmets that had held his power back for so long were nothing now. Scraps of metal.

Heat was flowing up through his hands, into his veins, into his head, pulsing with white-hot pain.

Quickly, he sent his message:

He felt the helmets going, one after another, exposing the minds within them in even brighter relief. At once he knew Kitty and Bobby and Sam's guilt and remorse, the fact that they had been trying to help him in this fight, not Magneto, and rejoiced in their return. He knew the blank compliance of Spiral and Avalanche, incapable of questioning why they did what they did. But they obeyed. At last, they obeyed the will of his mind.

The pain began to reverberate within him then, stronger and stronger, like a physical force in itself. Xavier cried out, and then the world went black.

Bobby fumbled with the controls, wishing for the eleven-thousandth time in the past five minutes that he'd insisted on Cyclops teaching him how to fly sometime. They weren't going down fast, but they were going down, a few feet lower with every spiral they made over the compound. "Okay, attitude control. What the hell is attitude control? Rogue, maybe you should just use the new powers and fly us out of here."

Beside him, Rogue was squinting uncertainly at the panel in front of her. "If I do that, the plane crashes on top of our friends. No good. Come on -- last time we did this, I just guessed, and it turned out okay, right?"

The plane spun more violently, tilting them sharply to one side; Bobby had to hang onto his seat to keep from falling into Rogue and then the far wall. "This would be a good time to start guessing," he said.

It was Pyro who answered him. "How about you guess what I'm going to do?" Bobby and Rogue turned to see Pyro, who had held up -- another lighter. Pyro grinned. "You think I'd ever be caught with just one?"

Bobby automatically complied, pulling off his helmet, then concentrating ice on it until it froze to the point of shattering. Pyro quickly set about melting his, and in the back of the plane, Bobby could hear Chameleon weakly trying to crumple hers beyond wearability. Simultaneously, all three of them said to Rogue, "I surrender."

For her part, Rogue stared at them. It occurred to Bobby what a weird thing he'd actually done, and then he grinned. "Professor X -- he can get through the helmets now. He's got everybody under control!"

Pyro and Chameleon didn't seem to react to that; Bobby guessed that Professor X was keeping a grip on their minds, and thank God. Unfortunately, Rogue didn't seem to share in his delight. She was instead staring fixedly on the ground below --

"No time to learn to fly this thing," Rogue said, holding out her hands. She closed her eyes and pressed her lips together until they turned white. Slowly, the plane's circling stopped; they were still moving toward the ground, though, and too quickly for his comfort.

"Looks like we need more than one telekinetic mutant," he said.

To his surprise, Rogue smiled. "You're right," she said. "We need two."

She grabbed his arm, and instead of the expected agony, he felt a jolt of pure power, lancing up through him, making the pain from his burns and the panic in his heart go away. Bobby stared at Rogue, who held her arms back out toward the ground. "Do this," she commanded, "and just kinda -- push back. Use what I gave you and push. That's all you have to do."

Bobby pushed. To his amazement, he felt the plane slowing, slowing further, leveling off. They hit the ground with a thud that tossed them both into the windshield, but nothing more. "Rogue, you did it," he said. "We did it." She rubbed her nose and smiled.

"What was that?" Pyro said, suddenly alert again.

Bobby answered him. "That was power."

Xavier could hear the world again before he could see it. "Charles?" Shriek called.

"The machine -- you've overloaded it," Dr. Avidan said.

He wanted to suggest that, perhaps, the machine had overloaded him rather than the reverse, but that would have involved talking, and therefore moving, and his body seemed disinclined to do either.

"Charles!" Dr. Avidan called again. He managed to open his eyes and see her kneeling over him, her wrinkled face furrowed even more with worry. "You need a doctor."

"I don't think -- no," Xavier said. No doctor on earth would have been able to help him, save perhaps Jean. Whatever psychic injury he had suffered was, he sensed, temporary -- but the fact remained that, for the moment, he was not only unable to influence the battle but even to sense any of the minds around him. For a few moments, for the first time since early childhood, Xavier was completely mind-blind. It was disconcerting, and yet so blessedly quiet. He said only, "This won't last. Let me rest a moment, and perhaps I can do some good again."

"I'm afraid I can't allow that," Magneto said.

Xavier turned his head to see Magneto standing in the doorway, his helmet gone -- he, too, had been forced to obey -- his face sorrowful. But he held out his hand and made the room's metal begin to shiver uncontrollably all around them.

There was nothing to do. Nothing to say.

In the courtyard, Logan handed Scott off to Kurt, which he figured suited each one of the three better. "So, the Professor got something to do with this?" he said, gesturing at the many Brotherhood mutants standing next to crumpled, charred or split helmets. Most stood still, as if wiped blank -- but a handful of young ones looked relieved, worried or bewildered. Shadowcat stood before Storm, whose eyes were flashing gray. The sky seethed above them, clouds rolling in from God knew where to cover the desert. Nearby, one of Magneto's jets was spinning toward the ground in a slow, not-quite-graceful arc. "Please, Storm, we were going to help you guys out," Shadowcat insisted. "That's been the plan all along!"

"Helping me out," Storm said. "Leaving me shut up in a cocoon of ice so small I couldn't move my arms, stranding me in a hostile country with no way home. Great plan."

Shadowcat winced, but she kept pleading. "Lock us up if you have to, but you have to know the truth. That's all we want, for you to know the truth."

Quickly, Logan looked at Shadowcat and Cannonball and Sunspot -- all of them free to do what they wanted, standing their ground to deal with the X-Men. The Brotherhood mutants, meanwhile, stood rigid, as if frozen into statues. "Professor X knows the truth," he said. "And he let these guys go free."

Storm shot him an angry glare, and Logan hoped he wasn't about to get struck by lightning. (March 15, 1995 -- absolutely god-awful.) "And YOU'RE the one we ought to talk to about loyalty?"

"Maybe," Logan said, lifting his chin. "Because it's not always about doing exactly what you're told."

The jet whined even louder, then landed hard in a cloud of sand. Thunder rumbled, but Storm seemed done with arguing, at least for the moment. "Help us restrain these guys," Storm said to Shadowcat, who breathed out a deep, shaky sigh. "No telling how long the Professor will hold them."

"Not long," Avalanche said, whirling around, free again. He lifted his foot to stomp it down, and Logan wondered whether he ought to drop to the ground right away and get it over with --

Scott's visor clicked. A beam of red-gold light slammed into Avalanche's chest; he fell, and though the thud of his body shook them all, nobody fell. But other Brotherhood mutants were shaking off their stupor now. "Battle's back on," Logan said.

"The Professor's in trouble," Storm said. She turned to Kurt and held out her arms. "Take me to him. Scott --"

"I can stand if I have to," he said, letting Kurt go. In an instant, Kurt and Storm had BAMFed away, leaving only blue smoke behind.

"Do me a favor," Logan said to Scott, sliding his claws out again as he prepared to charge. "Take out the big guys first."

Magneto gathered the metal together, combining atoms, recombining, forming his missiles. He wanted them straight, sharp and true. He wanted death to be instantaneous.

The old woman he could hardly recognize as Dr. Avidan continued to cradle Xavier's head in her lap. Magneto said quietly, "I owe few humans anything in this world. You are one of them. If you wish to leave, Dr. Avidan, I won't stop you."

"That's the best return you can give me for saving your life?" Dr. Avidan said.

"I couldn't care less about what you did or didn't do on my behalf," Magneto replied. "But you saved Charles' life, at a time when that mattered very much to me. And because you did that, you have three minutes to run."

"Do I really have to run from you, Erik?" she said. So transparent, thinking to win him over.

It was Xavier who answered her. "I'm afraid you should run, Yeshara," he said weakly. "This man is not the Erik we knew."

Magneto forced himself to continue concentrating on the metal -- needles, now, fine enough at the tip to pierce a single cell. "Am I the one who changed?" he said, keeping his voice steady. "I rather thought it was you."

"Both of us," Xavier said. His face was sad and almost calm, as though he had expected to die like this all along, as though he were relieved to be reading his lines at last. "Those boys we once were, when we were together here --they're gone now. Lost forever."

"Nothing is lost forever," Magneto said. "It only changes shape." He believed that, needed to believe it as he poised the needles, positioned them to drive into Xavier's heart, into his brain, to silence that mind for once and for all.

"Erik?" A girl's voice. No, an old woman's, but somehow like a girl's.

Magneto looked over his shoulder and saw her: bent and stooped with age, her shoulders hunched from osteoporosis, her gray hair thin and lank. But her dark eyes were clear, the tilt of her face as she stared at him, curious and frightened all at once, was familiar. He'd learned to shut himself off from the past when he looked at Charles -- but when he saw her, those defenses fell away. He was a boy again, in this compound. In Auschwitz. Cold and frightened and helpless. Slowly, he whispered, "Shriek?"

"Don't hurt Charles," she said.

"You don't understand," Magneto said. "You never did."

He couldn't look at her anymore. She made him remember, and he couldn't bear to remember. Not any longer. And above all not now.

Quickly, he shoved her away as hard as he could, ignoring her whimper of pain as she fell with enough force to crack old bones. He couldn't be in her range, lest she decide to --

Shriek screamed, her voice like metal on concrete, silvery and solid at once. Magneto realized, though, that something was different; the harmonics within her scream were complex, where they had been simple -- as much as song as a scream.

And then his eyes widened as he saw his metal needles turn to stone and drop to the ground, shattering into gravel. Felt the metal bolts in the wall turn to stone. The wheels of Xavier's chair. His own belt buckle, suddenly cold and heavy. All the metal in the room was turning to stone -- and only the metal. Magneto realized, at once, that he was powerless; in a room without metal, he was like any other man.

But, as he well knew, any man could kill.

Hundreds of thousands had died in his war. He'd left Xavier to die at Alkali Lake, chained Rogue up to a machine that would suck her life-force away, pulled iron from the bloodstream of a prison guard and watched in delight as his skin turned to pulp. Magneto had no fear of killing. But not once, in all his years, had he murdered another human being with his hands.

And it was Xavier -- Charles -- that it fell to him to kill this way.

Mystique's voice echoed in his memory: Can you kill him?

Yes, he realized. If I must -- then I will.

Magneto stepped forward and grabbed the first thing that came to hand: a bar that had been metal and affixed to the wall, but was now stone and on the floor. Its heft strained his arm, but he could lift it up high if he had to, bring it down hard. He tried to imagine splitting Xavier's head open, destroying that unique mind, casting out every shared memory into a ruin of blood.

He walked toward Xavier quickly, determined not to think about it, just to do it --

The air in front of him rushed back, pushed aside, and in a BAMF of blue, was replaced with the forms of Nightcrawler and Storm. Storm's eyes flashed gray as she held out her hand; the air crackled, sharp with the tang of ozone. "It's over," Storm said.

More than anything at that moment -- which was saying a lot -- Magneto hated seeing Xavier's eyes, and seeing not triumph, but pity.

Then Storm's fist slammed into his skull, and he didn't have to see anything any longer.

Rogue knew John was free again, knew he was going for the lighter, and just had time to draw her telekinesis up again and push out at him. The flame licked up toward the roof of the plane instead, and John tumbled backward. She prepared to fight again, but instead, he rolled toward the door and tumbled out onto the ground. The lizard girl hissed at them once and followed suit.

"Where do they think they're going in the desert?" she yelled, sort of to Bobby but really just in general. She plopped back down in the pilot's seat, determined to at least figure out the missile controls.

"Rogue, don't," Bobby said. "You'll hit one of the X-Men."

She hated it when Bobby was right. "Then I guess we'd better get out there and fight with our powers," she said. Then she looked closer at Bobby, how much pain he was in now that the immediate crisis, and the endorphin rush, were fading. "No -- you stay here. Keep them from getting back in this thing. I don't think it can take off, not after that, but I bet the missiles would still fire."

He nodded, then glanced back out the windshield. "Wait -- no. Don't go."

"I have to," she said, then realized what he was looking at. Though a few mutant battles were still taking place, most of the Brotherhood mutants had either fallen or were running or flying for it. "You're right," she said. "Main thing for us to do now is guard the plane." Rogue thought about what had happened, thought about it again, and tried to make the words in her mind make sense. They wouldn't, so she spoke them aloud: "We won."

Bobby laughed. "Looks like it." He grew more serious as he rose carefully to stand with her. "Rogue, you were amazing."

"We won," she said again. Exactly what that would mean, she wasn't sure, but the joy of it began to bubble up inside her. "Bobby, we won! We beat Magneto!"

Rogue started laughing, weak with happiness and the sudden absence of fear. Jubilant, she threw her arms around Bobby; she could do that now, and nobody could stop her.

Bobby's hands -- still cool, despite the burns, despite the desert air --cupped her face, and Rogue scarcely had a moment to realize what was happening before he kissed her. Cool lips, cool tongue, like a sweet gulp of icewater on the hottest day of her life. The pleasure of it mingled with her happiness for what seemed like forever -- then shattered as memory took its place. "Wait," she gasped. Bobby looked down at her, his face still so close, his arms around her. "We shouldn't."

She heard the footsteps at the plane's door and whirled, ready to blast anybody who was trying to take over this plane. Instead, Rogue saw Logan, who was staring at her and Bobby like he'd just been punched in the gut. Even as she opened her mouth to explain, though, Logan said only, "You guys are okay. We gotta make sure the Professor and his crew are out of there."

"Logan," Rogue said, hurrying to him. She could see bruises on his face, cuts that hadn't yet healed, and she knew that was a sign of how seriously he'd been injured before. Her fear for him outweighed her fear of what he thought of her, and she put her hand on his cheek. "Are you okay?"

She thought he might yell at her, push her away. What he did was both better and worse; Logan just smiled at her and said, "I'm gonna be fine."

Pyro could not even believe this.

The X-Men were celebrating, shouting about Magneto being a prisoner -- how the hell did they pull that off? -- and the battle being over. The soldiers he could see -- some kind of Israeli secret police, he figured -- were helping the X-Men round the Brotherhood up. Everybody with the powers to do so had gotten away; people who weren't quite as strong had gotten left behind. He could see Spiral struggling with her three sets of handcuffs even as his own arms were yanked behind his back by a swarthy trooper.

This is what you call better? he asked the Iceman who couldn't hear. We could've ruled Berlin. Or Rome. The two of us. Instead, you're back on Xavier's leash, and I'm getting dragged off by this asshole. Then the trooper gave him a malevolent stare, and his eyes flashed a familiar yellow.

Pryo managed not to smile until the trooper had pulled him into a jeep.

Mystique's voice was weak, which sounded funny coming from the trooper's mustached lips. "I'm hurt. I'm not going to be able to drive far."

"Just get us out of sight," Pyro said as she started up the engine. "I'll take it from there."

"We can get Erik back," Mystique said. "I know we can."

What is it with people wanting masters? Pyro thought. But Mystique was the one driving him away from prison, so he said only, "You're right. We can."

After a while, the fire was out (thanks to some well-placed rainstorms, courtesy of Ororo); everybody who needed to be dragged off in chains had been, and everybody who needed medical attention was getting it. Logan could see Scott wincing slightly as he tried to walk with one makeshift crutch and a splint around his broken ankle.

Rogue wasn't around, and Logan was pretty sure she was back with Bobby.

He wasn't going to rage or sulk or demand explanations. Logan figured if Scott could handle some competition without cracking, he could too. He'd tell Scott that, if Scott wouldn't enjoy his problem so damn much.

All along, Logan hadn't been sure whether their world of the previous two months could be a reality, whether what they'd been together could survive when they were part of the outside world again. Seeing Rogue with Bobby again had hit him hard; weird, really, considering how many times he'd seen her with Bobby and not thought anything about it. But at the same time, Scott's words and Mystique's tricks had brought Jean's memory back into focus once more, fine-edged and fragile.

The past three years, he'd lived with Jean's memory as a kind of beacon; Logan still couldn't put words to exactly what she'd meant to him, but he knew how much she'd mattered. Had he done what Scott had said? Had he forgotten her? Jean didn't deserve the most of the bad cards she'd been dealt, and she didn't deserve to be forgotten, either.

Logan made his way through the various groups of mutants, some of whom were attending to each other's injuries. Others were telling tales of the battle they'd just fought, individual feats of heroism getting bolder with each go-round. Logan could've joined any of the groups -- a number of them gave him encouraging smiles, showing that as far as they were concerned, bygones were bygones. But that would mean talking about fighting Mystique as Jean, which was not something he was in a big hurry to talk about, and so he kept walking.

Logan finally made his way into the undamaged part of the building, where some of the more seriously injured people were set up. On one makeshift cot, he saw Professor X, propped up with pillows to watch the small TV, clearly still weak. "Hey," Logan said, walking to his side. "How are you?"

"As well as can be expected," Professor X replied, then held the side of his temple in a way that gave the lie to his words.

"Cerebra sounds like a bad idea," Logan said. "Good thing you don't have to use it again -- and you're gonna use it again, aren't you?"

"Not in its current form. However, Forge is gathering together the surviving component parts for us to take back to Cuba. We should be able to assemble a version that will work more or less the same way Cerebro did."

The TV showed images of parties in Berlin, Rome, Paris. People held up makeshift signs, hugged and kissed. A small, papier-mch effigy of Magneto burned as it dangled from a stick. Logan watched Professor X's face carefully, but he showed no reaction. The Professor said only, "Many world governments took a while to make up their minds about what we'd done here. But now they understand that we helped them."

"So, is this gonna be that big ticker-tape parade I've been waiting on?"

"I doubt it sincerely. But we have safe passage back to Cuba, and after that -- I suspect we'll have a few new chances to talk. What happens after that, we'll have to see."

Just speaking for that long seemed to have tired the Professor out. Logan said, "You want us to move you someplace quieter? You look like you could use sleep more than anything else."

"No doubt," Professor X said with a faint smile. "But the kind of quiet I need is of minds, not sounds, and there's no chance of that anytime soon."

"Never thought of that."

Professor X shrugged. "No matter. I wouldn't want to sleep through this. It's good to have everyone with us again." His hand patted Logan's arm, and for a moment Logan dreaded a personal welcome-home. But the Professor said something a lot worse: "You realize that Rogue is very much younger than you."

Logan raised an eyebrow. "Is this the whole you're-an-adult, she's-a-kid speech? Where I get warned off breaking her heart?"

"That doesn't worry me in the slightest," Professor X said. "As a telepath, I learn all sorts of things that don't concern me, including how deeply you have come to care for Rogue."

"You don't have to get embarrassing about it," Logan muttered.

Professor X just smiled, but the light didn't quite reach his eyes. "However, she's not done -- I want to say growing up, but that would be untrue. Rogue is a grown woman now, but she is not yet the woman that she'll finally become. What she wants, who she is -- all of that will change for her in the future, far more than it will change for you."

It occurred to Logan that the Professor could look inside Rogue's mind too. And Bobby's. And his own. He asked, "Are you telling me to walk away?"

"Anything but. And you'd never listen to such fool advice in the first place." Professor X pushed himself up on his elbows, the better to look Logan squarely in the eyes. "I'm just reminding you that love -- changes shape. Takes different forms and paths over time." He smiled sadly. "Even love isn't always enough. If it were -- history might be very different."

Logan nodded, disconcerted by the Professor's words but unwilling to show it, even though he understood that the Professor knew. He forced himself to smile. "You gonna cheat and tell me what's going on inside Rogue's head?"

Professor X laughed. "There, Logan, you are on your own."

"You -- and Logan," Bobby said, trying to wrap his mind around the concept. He got a mental picture, then pushed that aside as quickly as he could.

On the floor of the plane they'd sort-of landed earlier that day, Rogue sat in front of him, hugging her knees to her chest. Night was falling, and the main illumination in the plane was the green and gold lighting of the various dashboard panels. It was still enough light to see her face as she blinked hard and shrugged. "Yeah."

For all her obvious discomfort, there was a kind of energy about her he hadn't seen before -- no, he realized, he had seen it before. When Logan came back after those three months at Alkali Lake, those three months she'd spent sleeping with Logan's dog tags wrapped around her wrist. But he hadn't seen it since then. It had never been for him. "You two," he said, trying to be worldly about it. "There always was something going on between you two. Even when --always."

"Bobby, listen to me," Rogue said, her Southern accent stronger, the way it got when she was emotional. "I spent years in love with you. Not with Logan. What happened between you and me -- that was real. I don't want you to think any different."

A handful of stolen kisses. Nights of wonderful frustration, hands felt through cotton or silk, faces turned away from each other so they'd be sure not to touch. Everything he'd told her about his parents, his brother, John. "I know that," he said, then repeated more strongly, "I know it was real."

He sat on the floor of the plane beside her. Rogue smiled at him warmly, but her next words were hard: "You should have told me what you were planning with Magneto."

"You would've said it was stupid and told us not to do it."


Bobby sighed. "Okay. You won that one."

"It's not about winning," Rogue said. "I just meant -- if things had been right between us, you WOULD have told me. But they hadn't been right, not for a long time."

"I know." Storm was, as he had anticipated, giving them one hell of a hard time -- but everybody was letting them back in the group. Weirdly, the reason why seemed to have more to do with Logan than with Professor X. It felt weird to have to owe Logan anything, especially now.

Rogue said, "What are you thinking?"

He weighed the merits and flaws of telling the truth, then figured that they were at a point where nothing but the truth would do. "I used to think that the reason we were growing apart -- that it was the not-touching. That I was just tired of wanting so much more." Rogue winced, but he kept going. "Now I think that's why we stayed together. Because we could be with somebody but still not have to be too close. You were holding something back, because of Logan. And I was too." He wasn't ready to name what it was that had held him back, not even to himself.

She breathed in sharply, considering that. To his relief, after a moment she nodded. "It wasn't just Logan. I never thought anybody else would want me, not if they couldn't touch me. I didn't want to find out."

"Guess you didn't have to."

He'd tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but apparently he hadn't succeeded. Rogue touched his hand -- a soft, warm touch, without pain, without need -- before she said, "I know it's not fair."

"I'm the one who went over to Magneto. It's fair enough." Bobby tried to remember if he'd ever had that kind of fire, the light that was illuminating Rogue from the inside out. And then he remembered a night on the town in Berlin, Pyro's laughter, a fingertip that brushed across his lips to catch the numbing glow of whisky. "I've got plenty to figure out on my own, anyway."

"You mean I didn't break your heart?" Rogue gave him a sideways glance, and he could see the play mingled with the concern.

He kicked at her feet. "Not for lack of trying, you -- shameless hussy." Bobby heard her start laughing and laughed with her, and the day felt a little bit better already.

"You don't have to leave tomorrow," Dr. Avidan said. "The government's gratitude will last longer than that. In fact, you probably should stay a while just to meet up with all the mutants who are going to answer your call. Just in the last hour, we've heard from -- what were the names -- James Proudstar, Betsy Braddock and -- is Jubilation Lee a real name?"

"They'll leave with us tomorrow," Xavier said as he allowed Kurt to help him into a standard hospital wheelchair. "Send the others after us. We need to begin rebuilding, as soon as possible. How long should it take us to get everyone to the ship in the morning?"

"A few hours, perhaps," Kurt said. "Time enough for everyone to rest." The emphasis on "everyone" would have made it clear, even to a non-telepath, that this specifically referred to one Professor Charles Xavier.

"Soon," Xavier promised. "After this."

Kurt scowled; for someone who didn't scowl often, Kurt was remarkably good at it. But it would have taken far more than Kurt's worst to deter Xavier from what he meant to do. He said easily, "We'll have to leave the wheelchair many yards from the door. Can you carry me inside, wait for me until I call?"

Resigned, Kurt said, "As you wish it, Professor." Then he brightened and smiled politely. "If, of course, there is nothing I should be doing for the fraulein."

Xavier had felt Shriek coming closer; now he turned and held out his hands to her, holding them close again. Fraulein, Kurt had called her, despite the hard years that showed on her frail body; Kurt, as usual, had seen deeper than most around him, through to the truth. "I never thanked you," he said. "For saving my life."

Shriek smiled, and for a moment the brightness in her eyes made all the years fall away. "I never could save them, before," she said. "This time I did." She lifted her chin with a child's pride, and Xavier realized that the shadows he'd always sensed in her were gone. Whether rescuing him had healed something in her, or whether time had finally done its work in erasing hard memory --Xavier didn't know, and it didn't matter. Shriek was finally free of her past. Her childlike happiness would be her cocoon and her playground, from now until the end of her days, and for that he was grateful.

His buoyant spirits lasted until Kurt took him out of the wheelchair, when the reality of what he was about to do sank in again. That, and he could feel Magneto's presence, furious and miserable and, of course, fully expecting him. "Don't come in if you -- if you just hear shouting, perhaps," Xavier said as Kurt adjusted him in his strong blue arms.

"With Magneto, what else would I expect to hear?" Kurt said, in a tone that suggested there was very little that would surprise him. "I shall leave the both of you alone until you call, Professor. You must take your time. Do not worry for me." Xavier realized that somebody (Ororo, most likely) had shared a few key facts about the past with Kurt -- who was only concerned about Xavier's heart.

One of the most difficult parts of being a telepath was not being able to thank people for those moments -- those small flashes of generosity, of beauty. If only Erik could have seen them.

As soon as they entered the corridor, Magneto's bright eyes met his, watching his progress down the hall as a predator might watch its prey. But he said nothing, not while Kurt settled Xavier into the stone chair, not until after Kurt left them alone. Then, he said lightly, "Come to gloat?"

"You know better."

"Never stopped me before." Magneto gestured around his cell, with walls and ceiling and floor and bars of stone. Only a thin cotton pad and pillow shone white amid the gray. "I take it I have Shriek to thank for my accommodations?"

"They'll put you someplace more comfortable as soon as they can build it," Xavier said. "But Shriek was able to improvise on short notice."

Magneto cocked his head. "'They?' Are you not to be my gaoler? I had some interesting thoughts about that possibility."

Damn him. "I don't have the resources to imprison you in Cuba, and we cannot stay here. Israel is one of the very few nations on Earth that will want to hold you prisoner instead of execute you. This is the best place for you."

"Half a world away from you," Magneto said. "And you will finally be free at last. No more chess games, no more painfully guilty visits."

Xavier remembered those chess games, the elegance of Magneto's hand poised over the black bishop, the elegance of that mind revealed in every move, every victory, every loss. "I never came to you out of guilt or pity. You should understand that at least." But then, Magneto would have to understand so much more about the world, about humanity, to understand even those visits. And by now, Xavier realized that Magneto would never understand.

"You think that this will change things," Magneto said, gesturing vaguely with one hand and somehow encompassing the entire compound and the battle they'd fought. "You think humanity will be so grateful to the 'good' mutants for locking up the 'bad' mutants that they'll hold out their hands in friendship. Perhaps you'll get an honor escort back to New York."

"I've never been as naive as you'd like to think," Xavier said.

Unexpectedly, Magneto laughed. "Never, Charles? Not when you were a boy with your steamer trunk and three port stickers? The world traveler." He did not speak from cruelty. It would have hurt Xavier less if he had. But the laughter was gone as he continued, "You're forever chained to this future you believe in. This future that's never going to come to pass."

"Perhaps I'll shape the future," Xavier said. "Perhaps I won't. But if I am chained to the future, you are chained to the past. And that you'll never be able to change, Erik. No matter how hard you try."

Magneto sighed. "You never read Faulkner, did you? The past isn't dead. It's not even the past."

"I have read Faulkner," Xavier said. "And mankind will not only endure, but prevail."

They said no more after that. After a few minutes, Xavier put his hand on the stone bars -- not explicitly asking Magneto to touch him, but making it possible. Magneto did not move, did not even acknowledge the motion. But after Kurt had been called, once he was being borne away in Kurt's arms, Xavier glanced back and saw Magneto rest his hand where his had been.

Storm told them all to get some sleep, and Rogue was exhausted enough to want to do as she was told, for once. Just as soon as she found Logan.

But that was turning out to be hard to do.

He didn't take off again, did he? Rogue thought, half-annoyed, half-panicked, as she walked out of the compound to try another search outside. He wouldn't do that. He might want to do that, but he wouldn't do it. Not without telling me goodbye.

Goodbye. Was that he wanted? What she wanted? Rogue shook her head and told herself it would all get a lot easier once she FOUND him. So she kept walking, not calling for him but circling the compound in wider circles. The farther she went, the more she found herself appreciating the surroundings: the palm trees next to the white stucco building, the soft, fine sand, the brilliant array of stars unmasked by city lights or clouds. Her face tilted up toward the sky more and more as she went, as though she would find Logan in the constellations, instead of on the ground.

Which was why, when she circled around an outcropping of rock, she was surprised to actually find him. He sat with his back against the rocks, his knees up so that he could rest his forearms on them. If Logan was equally surprised to see her, he didn't let on; he just raised an eyebrow and said, "You're still up."

"Looking for you," she said, plopping down to sit Indian-style beside him in the sand. "How come you're out here?"

"Wanted some time to think," he said.

"What about?" Rogue said, as casually as she could manage.

Logan shot her a look. "Pretty much the same thing you're thinking about." He breathed out, not quite a sigh. "What do you want?"

Rogue wanted to ask him what it was he wanted and why. Then she wanted to kiss him and make all her fears go away by getting close to him, letting their bodies take them over. But what Logan had said cut to the heart of it, and she forced herself to concentrate. To be honest, with him and with herself. What did she want?

Slowly, she said, "I want to go back to Cuba with Professor X and the others. They're really fighting again, and maybe what happened here will make a difference. Even if it doesn't -- I can't hide out anymore. The last two months --I needed that time with you so bad, and I can't ever be sorry. Not ever. But that's not how I want to live anymore."

Logan nodded, then said, "I guess Bobby's going back to Cuba."

"I guess he is," Rogue said. "But that's not why I'm going."

"I know."

"And I'm not going to be with Bobby anymore," she said. "That was over way before he went to Magneto. We just hadn't admitted it."

Logan said, "Scott said some stuff to me about Jean. Made me remember -- I don't know what. Just remember."

The name Jean struck her like a slap, and Rogue wanted to snap at him; she'd never understood Logan's preoccupation with Jean Grey. They'd known each other for, what, three months? And she'd been with Cyclops the whole time, so whatever Logan felt had to be half something he'd dreamed up.

Then she saw the expression on his face as he looked toward the horizon, recognized his sorrow, and kept her silence. Whatever Logan felt for Jean Grey was real to him, and that meant it was real, period. Accepting him meant accepting that. She'd never realized that could be part of caring about someone --allowing him his own past, the history that didn't include her. "Did what Scott said change your mind?"

"About you? No. You and me -- Rogue, we --" He breathed out, almost a snort. "In case I hadn't mentioned it, I hate this kind of talk."

"I'm not real big on it either. We'll make it fast, okay?" Rogue leaned forward. "I'm going to Cuba, Logan. If you're not coming with me, then -- well, it was great. Better than great. But it's over. But -- well, if you WERE coming to Cuba with me --"

"Do you want me to?" Logan said.

"Yeah," Rogue said. "I do. But only if -- it has to be what you want. If you'd just be coming because of me, then you shouldn't." More quietly, she added, "I hope you do."

Logan studied her for a few moments, his face unreadable in the dim moonlight. Then he said, lazily, "You know, they've got great cigars in Cuba."

"Cigars?" Rogue stared at him.

"Romeo y Guilettas, Cohibas, you name it." Logan was grinning now. "You think I'm gonna pass up the chance to get some Havanas cheap?"

Rogue realized she was laughing. "You never admit anything if you don't have to, do you?"

"Just this once," Logan said, catching her chin in his hand. "I love you." And he kissed her too quickly for her to tell him she loved him too, for her to do anything but kiss him back.

Haifa, Israel, 1956

Erik leaned against the rail of the ship, close enough that his arm brushed against Charles', not so close that any of the other passengers would notice. Charles noticed, though, and gave Erik a bashful smile. He hadn't been so bashful last night, Erik thought, with a carnal thrill that was all the better for knowing Charles could feel it too.

Charles took a deep breath and stared resolutely out at the harbor, receding rapidly in the distance. "Say goodbye to Israel," he said.

"Good riddance, more like," Erik said.

"Do you really mean that?"

Erik nodded. "The only thing I found there worth having is leaving with me."

Charles met his eyes then, so tenderly that Erik found himself hoping they weren't being observed very closely. But he said only, "We also have Dr. Avidan's notes, at least the memory of what we learned to do with the machine. And the knowledge that there are hundreds of mutants out there. Maybe thousands."

"All information we'll put to good use," Erik said. "Do you really think we can rebuild the machine? Start over from scratch?"

"What else can we do?" Charles said, with a carefree shrug that revealed how easy he thought it would all be. Erik loved that about him -- the way he trusted the world, like a tightrope walker who almost seems to think the very air will hold him up. As long as Charles was there, looking at him with that light in his eyes, Erik could almost trust the world too.

"You really expect to keep me as your manservant while you're at Cambridge?" Erik said, nudging a little closer so that their shoulders touched. "I should warn you, I'm far too lazy. My uses around the house are quite limited."

Charles said, a little sternly, "I expect you to pass the entrance exams yourself. And then we can be very respectable roommates."

If only they knew, Erik thought; as he'd hoped, Charles laughed as though he'd spoken. The sunlight laughed with them on the water, frothy from the ship's motor, and the sea breeze caught Charles' dark curls, ruffling them the way Erik longed to do. Charles caught the mood and whispered, "By the way, everyone on this ship just became acutely interested in the view off the port bow."

Erik kissed Charles quickly, enjoying the taste of his mouth, the fact that it was familiar. They'd been lovers for one day, and it already felt like forever. Charles brushed one hand through Erik's hair, then leaned back on the railing, no doubt releasing the passengers from their violent need to examine a different corner of the horizon.

"I love you," Erik said. "Never leave me."

Charles said, "I never will."


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Fandom:  X-Men
Title:  His Terrible Swift Sword
Author:  Yahtzee   [email]   [website]
Details:  Standalone  |  NC-17  |  *slash*  |  366k  |  02/11/04

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