Acts of Contrition

1: A Walk in the Park

"Where is he?" Scott growled. He'd known all along this would happen. No plan ever went down the way it did on paper - 'the first casualty of war is the plan' - and Xavier's paper plans tended to be more cockeyed than most, a fact he'd only held as a private suspicion until his time in the Savage Land. Magneto had been a homicidal psycho, but at least he understood strategy. However, even the Professor's craziest scheme usually lasted intact until they had arrived on-scene. "He was supposed to be outside for his hour of rec time starting ten minutes ago."

"There are no heat signatures showing up," the Beast reported as he flipped switches and juggled monitors with a grace Scott could appreciate even out of his peripheral vision. "Infrared's got nothing."

The mission had been sold to the team as straightforward, at least as far as these things went. A rescue mission, like so many others they had performed, except this time at a prison. At least it was lower on the danger meter than a Times Square crawling with Sentinels. A fifteen-year-old pyrokinetic had been sentenced to die by lethal injection for killing the three men who had taunted him into manifesting his power for the first time. It had been an accident, a complete accident, but the kid was going to have his heart stopped by a chemical cocktail because people were scared.

"I'll do one more fly-by," he said into the headset speaker. "After that, either we're going to have to park and figure out how we're going to get inside or we're going to have to turn around and try it again another day."

Scott had been torn about the mission. Still was, to an extent. On one hand, the kid - Rusty - didn't deserve to die simply because he was a mutant. Scott was absolutely sure of that, just as he was sure that his opinions would be no different even if he hadn't been in a similar situation when his optic blasts had developed. Storm, too, empathized with the boy on that fundamental level - the unhappy kinship coming from having a power that manifested in deadly circumstances. And the others on the team had their own reasons for indignation. The Sentinels were gone, but that only meant that new and more creative - and creatively despicable - means of genetic cleansing were being developed.

"Aborting the mission is not an option," Xavier's voice sounded clearly in his ear. The Professor was monitoring them from Westchester, through radio rather than through Cerebro. Even months after Weapon X, he had to limit his usage lest he overdo it and develop another crippling migraine. "The Appellate Court will be delivering their verdict on Wednesday, at which point he will be transferred to a new facility."

Instead of sending the kid to Xavier or to someone else who could help him, the state prosecutor had instead tried him as an adult so as to ensure the death penalty. There had been very little protest. The ACLU had declined to champion the cause - they had worded it in a statement about guilt and innocence, dodging the matter of anti-mutant bias entirely. The bottom line was that only the radical fringe groups were putting up a fuss and that was worse than nobody protesting at all.

But while Scott had no doubts that letting the kid die was unconscionable, what about the ethics of breaking laws to ensure that didn't happen? What sort of precedent was set when mutants broke into a state penitentiary and busted out a prisoner who had not only been convicted, but had also had that conviction appealed and verified? If Rusty was innocent, what happened the next time when the mutant in question wasn't? Or if they couldn't tell? Or worse, if they had been deceived - Magneto was proof positive that yes, mutants could be just as evil and deceitful as regular people.

The Professor had countered any hesitation to comply with the mission with his usual line about post-human problems requiring post-human solutions, but Scott hadn't been appeased even as he had stopped appearing outwardly reluctant. Xavier was setting the X-Men - and himself - above the laws of the land, making himself final arbiter over a body whose permission had not been sought or granted. There was something wrong about that, but Scott hadn't been able to come up with an objection that sounded like it was worth costing Rusty his life.

"You already know what they're going to vote?" Bobby asked. He was in one of the 'jerk-off seats' (a Loganism that had stuck; one of the seats not near any of the stations and with no accompanying duties - "I got nothing to do but jerk off," had been the expression). Scott was thankful that Logan himself wasn't around; the Wolverine had gone off to do some favor for Nick Fury as a sort of payment for the rescue in Finland, return date unknown.

"It's why I'm using the radio instead of Cerebro," Xavier replied. "I spent all day with Cerebro listening in. It will be a unanimous decision to reject the appeal. Justice Sawmer is crafting the document as we speak."

"Shit," Ororo muttered from the jerk-off seat right behind Scott. Without turning around, he knew she'd be sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest. The plane's tight quarters wreaked havoc with her claustrophobia. Another little reminder of Weapon X - Ro had had a handle on her fears before two months spent trapped in a box twenty hours a day.

"The defense team made an error in bringing up 'cruel and unusual punishment' at all," Henry muttered from the navigation console. "Death by lethal injection can't possibly be construed as such, not after _Morgan v. Idaho_.  They should have focused solely on the ridiculousness of calling what Rusty did 'premeditated murder' instead of 'involuntary manslaughter'."

"Yeah, well," Jean agreed as she flipped off the infrared scanners as Scott banked the plane gently into a steep u-turn. She was co-piloting, which didn't mean much with him at the controls.

Scott was quite proud of how small his turning radius was with the plane; it had taken hours of simulation practice, especially after he had refused both Jean and the Professor's offer of a direct telepathic download of the knowledge. This was something he had wanted to master on his own, to feel within his bones and not have it sit on his skin, the way telepathically acquired knowledge always seemed to do. Neither of the house telepaths had understood his reluctance; maybe they didn't feel the difference the way a headblind person did. Either way, his father had flown fighter planes for the Air Force and while Scott was sure he had inherited his love of flying from him, he also wanted to be sure that he had inherited the ability.

"Turn on all detection devices," he told his crew. "Second pass coming up in five, four, three, two, one... Nothing. I've got nothing. Beast?"

"Not a thing, Cyke."

"Cyclops, we've got a 9-1-1 call from a residence near the prison reporting a suspicious aircraft," Piotr said calmly from his post on comm duty, monitoring all emergency service bands. It was a necessity for any mission in a populated area. "The caller didn't say it sounded like a helicopter, though, so the dispatcher didn't sound too worried."

 "Three cheers for indolence," Henry retorted. "Nearest landing spot is a half-mile from the front gate, but topological maps say it's a dead run uphill and in clear sights from the guard towers. Gatling is built on a plateau."

Scott cursed quietly to himself. For all of the sleekness and technological brilliance of the Blackbird, it imposed its own set of limitations. Finding a parking spot was bad enough, but negotiating transport to and from the plane was also becoming more and more of an issue, especially as Xavier aspired to working in more urban settings. They couldn't just park on the nearest roof.

"We're going to be taking fire on our way out," he said to both his team and the Professor. He slowed the plane down as gently as he could and prepared it for a final sweep that would leave them flying east, toward home. "I don't like the open ground and I don't like walking up to a well-armed prison and not knowing who or what is waiting for us. We can probably get through to the building itself without detection, but even assuming we get in and get out with our objective met and no exchanges of firepower, it's a long walk back out."

They had argued about this during the planning sessions. Scott had been somewhere between skeptical and incredulous when the Professor had announced the breakout and had only been mollified enough to listen by the promise that it would be a purely outdoor activity, that retrieving Rusty from his mandated recreation hour could be accomplished with half the team staying in reserve in the hovering Blackbird while the other half performed the snatch-and-grab.

"Too bad Kurt isn't here," Bobby mused.

"I disagree on the danger level of the mission," Xavier said, sounding mildly impatient to Scott's ears. "Jean's telepathy should facilitate both locating and extracting Rusty from..."

"From a Class 1 maximum security facility with perfect geography and a State Corrections Department that has the lowest prisoner-to-guard ratio in the entire country," Scott cut him off. "This isn't busting someone out of the county clink past a deputy who buttons his shirt wrong. Jean's going to have to control a couple of dozen minds just to get us past the welcome mat and she might have to do hundreds if we have to get him out of his cell."

The other concern, the one he hadn't voiced during the strategy sessions, was that this mission had the potential to bring up some very bad memories of Weapon X. All of the work they had done since their release had been, for them, routine. Pulling kids out of the clutches of lynch mobs, stopping mutant bad guys from robbing banks and blowing up munitions dumps, the usual sort of high-profile celebrity policing that Xavier seemed to favor as being most expeditious in proving the goodwill of the team. But breaking into a prison was Weapon X sort of work. And Scott wasn't sure how well any of them were prepared to face those demons yet.

"He's in solitary," Jean pointed out. "And I can do a room at once."

She sounded defensive and Scott sent a sort of mental apology to her. This wasn't about questioning her skills as a telepath; this was about not wanting her to have to simultaneously battle the psyches of everyone in Gatling Penitentiary and the memories of one Dr. Atul Pandya. Because once they got inside, the likelihood of Jean having to choose between saving a teammate and saving an opponent grew much higher. Especially because, just like in India, they would be facing opponents who were not enemies - the hacks and wardens of Gatling Pen would be fending off invaders, would be just doing their jobs and not anything malicious.

"I'm not sure what to say, Cyclops," Xavier sighed. "This is a mission of paramount importance - a young boy's life is on the line. I wish you had more faith in your own tactical skills and in the skills of your teammates, but I can't force you to do something you don't want to do - or are afraid to do."

"Don't question my courage," Scott yelled into his mouthpiece, taking small satisfaction by the way everyone around him jumped slightly. Xavier couldn't fuck with his head from the inside, so he was going to do it from the outside, using the one thing they both knew would get Scott's goat - his insecurity about his command. Between the Wolverine engineering the rescue from Finland and his own manipulated flight from the team to Magneto, Scott was never sure of where he stood before his teammates. And Xavier was using that doubt shamelessly. "And we both know you damned well can make me do whatever the hell you want."

"Cyclops!" Xavier protested sharply, then softened his voice. "Scott..."

"This isn't about my courage or my faith in anyone," Scott went on unbowed, focusing all of his anger on the mind that couldn't hear him at this distance and not on the joystick in his hands. Next to him, he could see - and feel - Jean wince slightly, but he didn't apologize this time. "I know we can get in and get Rusty out. But I don't know if we can do it without a fight. We did only rudimentary prep work on the inside workings of the prison and that won't be enough to avoid casualties. How many people are you willing to sacrifice to get Rusty out? How many human guards equal a mutant life?"

"The X-Men don't kill, Cyclops."

The voice was more remote now, more aloof. The paternal tact had been tried and shelved, Scott observed dryly. Time now to be only the boss and not the mentor. Xavier had first called into question his ability to lead and then reinforced it with a public reminder that field command was as far as his authority went and even that was by allowance. But Scott had learned a lot about manipulation in Finland and wasn't going to let Xavier win so easily. The lessons taught by Weapon X had come at a grievous cost and at least one of them should get their money's worth out of the tutoring.

"Well, they're going to be shooting at us with lots of bullets, Professor. Are you willing to sacrifice one of us for Rusty?"

There was a silence then, one that was as cold as it was uncomfortable.

"Fifteen," Henry said quietly. "We'll have a minimum of fifteen guards to face before we can enter in the belly of the prison. Assuming we don't go in the front gate, we'll have to deal with the three in each of the two guard towers on the corners, plus two pairs of roving guards in the yards between the gates and the main building. Unless we want to open up a wall, there are two guards posted at the door and we'll have to clear at least three more to get into where they house the prisoners. There is a special guard detail for solitary and there's no info on what that's like."

Scott banked the plane for one more pass, taking a wider turn so as to fly over different ground and not attract any more suspicion.

"What's the escort going to be like for the Appellate Court hearing on Wednesday?" he asked. It was as close to a compromise as he could muster. Not an apology, which was probably what Xavier was waiting for. He could offer the compromise because part of him felt lousy for being so quick to abort the mission, but the rest of him was screaming for him to trust his instincts. Even if no psychological issues popped up at the wrong moment, their Weapon X training - which had done more for their ability to efficiently work together than anything Xavier had concocted - was only applicable to a point. Wraith had expected them to kill while Xavier expected them to take a bullet before resorting to killing in self-defense and that governed strategy more than Xavier was apparently willing to admit. "Can we grab him off the street or out of the prison bus or something a little less fortified than the prison?"

"Gatling State Penitentiary is guarded by four towers, each with two .50-caliber machine gun positions in addition to the guards' personal weapons," Henry read off. "Within the perimeter yards, they are authorized to shoot on sight. And they do."
 
"Broad daylight's harder," Jean said. "It's not like when we grabbed Alex. There will be people assigned to watch him; they're prepared for stuff like this. Especially with the Brotherhood threatening to blow up the courthouse if the verdict isn't overturned."

"Damn the twins," Scott muttered, feeling blindsided by a second wave of attack and foolish for not remembering that it was there all along. Pietro - and Scott knew it was Pietro behind the rash of bombings, not Wanda - was only interested in punishing the humans and not rescuing the mutant. "Fuck. It's now or never, isn't it."

It wasn't a question. The whole point of attempting the rescue at Gatling was that Furnald, the facility Rusty would be moved to once he was irrevocably on Death Row, was a state-of-the-art complex that was practically impenetrable. It was an experimental facility supported by five states' resources where nothing took place outdoors - the prisoners exercised inside - and the schematics were so well-guarded that not even the Professor had been able to find an in.

"I'm sorry, Cyclops," the Professor said, sounding like he meant it. "It wasn't my intention to put you in a position where there was no choice."

Scott bit his lip and grunted something like an acknowledgement.

"All right, boys and girls, we're going in."


"... four guards remain in critical condition. It was announced today that renowned geneticist Nathaniel Essex will be consulted during the investigation. Essex's research was cited by the prosecution in the murder trial as evidence that a mutant does not posses implicit control of their power, a theory that was seemingly proven last night as witnesses say that the fire burned out of control almost from the outset, before Rusty himself was shot and killed. Governor Anne Ridgely Moss spoke to reporters earlier:"

"It has been a long day for everyone involved with Gatling Penitentiary. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the corrections officers wounded in the incident and we would like to assure the citizens of Jackson County that there have been no compromises in the security of the facility, nor will there be any causes for concern during the balance of the investigative and repair phases."

"Governor! Governor! Is it true that charges will be filed against the guards? There were reports that three of the guards are members of Friends of Humanity and that this was a premeditated attack on Rusty..."

"The FBI is investigating the incident and that's all I'll say on the matter. I will add, however, that I feel it is of utmost importance to..."

CLICK

"...Sources tell NBC News that there are conflicting reports of the events of Monday night and that the final inferno may have in fact been a cover for a botched rescue effort. The FBI, however, has refused comment on whether there is any evidence to support claims of external activity. The Brotherhood of Mutants, which had previously threatened to take action if the conviction was not overturned, has not claimed any involvement or responsibility.

"The death of the mutant known only as Rusty ends the latest chapter in the continuing saga of assimilating mutants into the population and whether our laws can, in fact, be applied to them... When we return, your tax dollars at work or going to seed? How the Department of Housing and Urban Development is spending millions on gardening supplies."


Friday morning in Central Park was almost as busy as a weekend. There were joggers, dog-walkers, tourists, uneven parades of Montessori classes in their matching pinafores and neat trousers, mothers with strollers, and business types ranting into cell phones as if all of Manhattan needed to overhear their conversations. A colorfully-dressed man roller-bladed by holding an old-school boombox blasting rap music, swaying to the beat.

Nobody knew that one of the planet's most dangerous men moved among them in disguise, as oblivious to his own true nature as they were.

It had been two weeks since Xavier had brought Piotr here to see Magneto, to show Piotr that he wasn't dead, was instead enduring a punishment he'd probably consider worse than death were he to understand what had happened. Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants and openly dismissive of homo sapiens' right to exist, was now a mirror image of what he'd once been. He now believed himself to be Erik, human since birth and a man whose only unusual ability seemed to be the sort of unending patience and goodwill that was required to care for disabled children. Disabled human children.

Never say Xavier was not completely bereft of irony or a sense of humor, however perverse.

It had been two weeks, but it felt like much longer. Piotr'd been deeply shaken by the brief interaction with Erik, an unease that had lasted until it had been shunted aside in favor of everything that had happened before, during, and after the botched rescue of Rusty. And now almost a week after they'd flown back from Colorado, defeated and dejected, Piotr was now revisiting the scene of an earlier crime.

He didn't know how much of his troubled thoughts were visible to anyone back at the mansion, up to and including Jean and Xavier. They had all been out of sorts after Gatling's disaster and if either of the house telepaths could sense that that wasn't all that was bothering him, they hadn't said anything to him. There'd been team meetings and mandatory team meals, as if Xavier was trying to get them to bond in some other way beyond shared failure. But it hadn't worked; instead of dissipating the dark cloud that hung over them, it let them pool their resources and sustain it. And the rest of the time? It was as it always was, at least of late - the two couples pairing off and leaving him to tend to Bobby, who didn't need as much cosseting as he once had but still needed to hear that there was nothing he could've done, repeated until he believed it. Especially because the natural counterbalance of fire and ice meant that Bobby believed that he should have been able to stop it all by himself.

Eventually, though, Peter could feel his own resources drain toward empty. He'd put himself down on the 'not in for dinner' list. Xavier's only comment was to tell him to be careful and to take a hotel room in the city instead of trying to return to Westchester.

Piotr hadn't needed a room. On his second stop of the night, a small club in Chelsea that hadn't yet hit the big time, he had met a beautiful Polish boy who had an apartment nearby and a roommate that was out of town. Krzysztof wasn't his usual type - too slender, too fem - but that had been part of the reason he'd said yes in the first place, why instead of looking for someone strong enough to take him he had gone looking for someone who could withstand being taken. And Krzysztof had been that, yet too wrapped up in his own pleasure to be anything more. Nor should he have been.

While it had been a good night, the release had been only temporary, only physical. Piotr had woken up this morning bothered not only by the disorientation of waking up in a stranger's bed, but also by the knowledge that he had done nothing to solve his problems. The sex had been a distraction, an avoidance. The miasma he had run from had not dissipated; it was just another day older and thicker.

And so he had gently turned down Krzysztof's offer of a breakfast in bed and instead showered and left, picking up a bagel and coffee at a Greek diner on 23rd and walking north. He'd stayed on Ninth to avoid Times Square, pretending he didn't know where he was headed but not believing the lie. Even once he was in Central Park, where the closed system of paths meant that there were only so many places he could go and not find himself headed back to the world outside.  Nonetheless, he hadn't even realized he was back by the Sheep Meadow until he saw a Frisbee fly by. It had been a blue one, not the red one that Magneto had been playing with, but it had been enough. He had found the first unoccupied bench facing the lawn and sat down, accepting that this is where he had been going to all along.

That had been an hour ago and Piotr had not moved since then except to shoo away some aggressive pigeons interested in staking a claim on the remainder of his bagel.

Why had Xavier brought him to see Magneto? Had it been a show of trust or merely a display of power? What could Piotr do with the information and what did Xavier think he would do with it? Xavier was not a lawyer, but he operated in the same fashion and never asked a question he didn't already know the answer to. As they had all witnessed in the plane over Gatling.

Piotr knew that Xavier had known that he could do nothing about Magneto. Magneto was a tiger by the tail and you could not let him go - there was nothing in Magneto's attitudes or desires that had been 'fixed' by Xavier's mental meddling. There had been no morality readjustment that would produce a Magneto not bent on dominating the human race. Erik Lehnsherr was harmless now only because he didn't know he was Magneto. Magneto couldn't be harmless. The most Piotr could do would be to tell his teammates and, perhaps, that was the test. Maybe Xavier took all of them to see Erik separately, then waited to see how each of them reacted and who was the first to share the secret.

Once upon a time, Piotr wouldn't have wondered about something like that. But Weapon X - and especially the weeks afterward - had stripped away a lot of Piotr's assumptions and comfortable truths and left him uneasy in his own skin in a way that he wasn't used to. Xavier was at the root of it, but Piotr had been unable to narrow down the precise nature of why. Or, perhaps more accurately, why then and not at any earlier point. It was not as if he hadn't been carrying around doubts since the first time he had poured himself into the black latex outfit and answered to Colossus.

Xavier's mission was slowly changing on them and Piotr wasn't sure he wanted to stay on whatever course Xavier was planning, hadn't been sure since even before Weapon X. His doubts were less based in motive than in scale - it wasn't like he wasn't used to acting contrary to his own belief system or following orders he didn't agree with. But the stakes were much higher now than they'd been when he was just mafiya muscle.

As long as the X-Men had been about saving lives, the grand scale of Xavier's plans hadn't bothered him. Hell, he'd embraced it. A chance to do good for so many after doing so much bad for so long. He'd never denied the seductive element redemption had for him, just as he'd also never denied the probability that he could never even the scales after what he'd done.

But the X-Men's focus wasn't totally about saving lives anymore. Now, when they weren't sublimating the established social order, they were seeking fame and status as celebrities and serving as missionaries in Xavier's new religion of separate-but-equal species. And Piotr wasn't sure how he felt about that.

There was something very mercenary about performing good deeds with the expectation of getting something in return and Piotr was very ambivalent about continuing his career as a mercenary, even as one employed by angels. They should be heroes because they could, not because of some reward.

(And how could he find redemption if he gave nothing of himself without compensation?)

But Xavier's reasons for why they must, in fact, make saving the world a quid pro quo were too well-constructed for Piotr to knock down. He wasn't very educated, wasn't very worldly, and so when Xavier said that had to ask for rewards on behalf of those who couldn't and that they had to force change until it was freely given, Piotr didn't have the words to say why he didn't agree.

Instead, he found himself performing as one of Xavier's dancing bears. Worse, he found himself enjoying it. Celebrity was far more addictive than he'd imagined. To go from being constantly reminded that he was there to do what he was told and not to think all the way to people - strangers! - being eager to hear what he had to say… how could he not enjoy it? Get carried away by it, even, surrounded by so much beauty and sunlight and happiness.

He hadn't thought about redemption when he'd been surrounded by the glamorous and the pretty. He'd started to consider it a reward due to him for his accomplishments, completely forgetting that he really hadn't had any.

Weapon X had been a harsh reminder of where he really stood and what he really was. He'd dropped off the celebrity radar entirely since then, granting no interviews and putting in no appearances at the trendy nightspots he'd once frequented. Going out last night had been the first time since Weapon X and he'd intentionally chosen places where nobody would recognize him. Xavier had asked him to resume his public relations work but Piotr had demurred, making vague promises he had no intention of following through on and using his lingering revulsion from the events in Gatling to delay even further. Especially after he had seen a draft copy of one of Xavier's chapters in his forthcoming book.

The book. They had all known about the book; Xavier had been working on it even as the X-Men had just been beginning. They had thought it some kind of pro-mutant platform, some kind of homo superior-friendly treatise that Henry had said would make Xavier out to be like a latter day Frederick Douglass and Alex had said would probably come out closer to Thomas Muntzer or the Unabomber. They had even expected some of Xavier's weirder ideas - 'post-human rebaptism' - to be included. But they hadn't, at least Piotr hadn't, expected what they had gotten: it was part demagoguery and part New Age philosophy and part Mein Kampf. The table of contents had chapters on economics and education and law enforcement and nutrition. It wasn't a demand for mutants to be treated as humans, which had been Xavier's rallying cry against Magneto and the Brotherhood. It had been a founding of a new world order and it had seemed, at least in draft form, to require a faith that Piotr knew he wouldn't be able to muster. He couldn't construct a god who would forgive him for his own crimes; it was too much to ask for him to worship an idol of someone else's making.

These had been among the thoughts that had occupied him during the long hours of his incarceration in Finland, when he wasn't being run through tests in the lab or trying to keep Bobby's fragile hope alive. They hadn't known what had become of Xavier, if he had been taken or if he had been left behind in the rubble. They knew he hadn't been killed, though. And with the certainty of his survival came questions - how would this change things?

The answer turned out to be that it wouldn't. Xavier seemed not to be changed at all, not in mission and not in ambition, despite proof positive that the world wasn't ready to be told how to reorganize itself to better accommodate mutants.

They had been rescued and dropped off at a mansion that had been rebuilt in their absence and there had been no discussions beyond the SHIELD debriefings. There had been no therapy, either, no offers to talk to a shrink (either Xavier or not), no crisis counselors or other trappings of contemporary society's reaction to bad things happening. Life was to return to the status quo ante. After three days mostly spent re-organizing things toppled over in the raid and replacing lost clothing and lost breakfast cereals and reassuring (or lying to) concerned relatives, Xavier had had them back in the VR room to train. It hadn't mattered that Bobby was still having nightmares or that Henry was angry and drowning in self-hatred and self-pity and that he was blue. Post-human reactions to trauma must be different, apparently, because there was nothing humane about what had happened or how they had dealt with the aftereffects.

They had gone back to what passed for normal and Xavier had gone back to his book, Jean bringing his laptop into the medical lab. And the longer the 'normal' went on, the more suspicious Piotr had gotten. Because he had changed in Finland. Or, rather, he had realized that he had not changed at all. He had been willing to kill his captors and just because he had been stopped from doing so didn't mean much in the end. As the days turned into weeks and all of the surface damage was erased - with the exception of Henry - Piotr had realized how desperately he wanted someone to call him on it, to make an issue out of his recidivism. But nobody did. And the discomfit had continued, festering and untouched and seemingly unnoticed, until two weeks ago. That was when Xavier had taken him here, to Central Park, and shown him the post-human response to dissenters with a tendency toward violence.

A warning or just a coincidence? Piotr hadn't asked then because Xavier never divulged anything by accident and if it had been just a coincidence, then he didn't want to draw Xavier's concern. If Xavier simply thought that Piotr was just suffering from remorse for wanting to kill Wraith, then it was best to let him continue to think thusly until it becomes necessary to do otherwise.

"You are without your friend today," a voice said from Piotr's right and he turned his head, followed immediately by his stomach. Magneto - Erik Lehnsherr - was standing almost over him, squinting in the sunlight and holding a cup from Starbucks, and it was all Piotr could do not to squirm. "Do you mind if I join you?"

Piotr, dumb with surprise, couldn't even form words. Instead, he just gestured toward the bench. It was an odd kind of thrill, he realized, to sit so close to an enemy such as Magneto. Like sitting next to a sleeping lion you knew wouldn't awaken.

"I wonder if perhaps your friend looked familiar to me because you looked familiar to me," Magneto (Erik, Piotr mentally corrected himself) said conversationally, sipping at his coffee and crossing his outstretched legs at the ankles. He was dressed as he had been before, clean and casual. Attractive, but Piotr didn't let himself wander down that path - that kind of thrill was too much. "You are taller and broader than the average person, dare I point out the obvious, and while I am terrible with names and faces, I seem to be able to remember size. I remember nobody's face. Sometimes, when I see someone I think is familiar, I am sure I am only guessing. But your friend..."

Piotr wasn't sure which part disturbed him more - the casual talk with a man who had killed so many or the fact that he kept referring to Xavier, the man who had reduced him to this ironic shell of an existence, as Piotr's friend.

"The Professor has been on television a few times," he finally replied. "Maybe you saw him there."

A man walked by talking loudly on his cell phone and they both frowned in distaste.

"Maybe," Erik agreed, taking another sip.

They sat in silence, then, watching the joggers and walkers and tourists who crossed in front of them. It was an effort, Piotr realized, to will the tension from his supposedly relaxed posture and keep his stomach from rebelling. A great effort to remember that this was Erik, not Magneto, and that Xavier was really too good at playing with people's minds for Piotr to have much of a concern that the mental blocks would suddenly slip and the Master of Magnetism would return between sips of coffee. Because Xavier was that good. Xavier was that good and Magneto had known so - he had worn the helmet precisely because there was no other way to keep Xavier from having open access.

If it had been any other villain, Piotr wondered, would he still be so nervous? If it had been Colonel Wraith or Boris or even one of the other members of the Brotherhood sitting there brainwashed next to him, would he be so on guard? Was it the mind he feared or the powers? Magneto was one of the few opponents against whom turning into his steel form would actually present a greater disadvantage. Or could it be the fact that Magneto had once been Xavier's ally, that the man sitting next to him sipping coffee and blissfully ignorant of the mindwipe that had erased his most treasured memories and his identity was the object lesson that Xavier didn't take being crossed well. Erik Lehnsherr had been a friend.

"Forgive me if I am stepping over some imaginary boundary here," Erik began, looking over at Piotr. "But I am not a native New Yorker and you are certainly not a native New Yorker and so speaking to you at all does not violate that personal space that the people here seem to feel stretches to all five senses... Is there something the matter? You look terribly concerned."

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Piotr sighed instead. He had thought about this since the last time he had been here. If he should have deposited Xavier in the waiting limousine and run back into the park and told Erik that that was not his life, that he was actually a mutant terrorist and that his children were in fact still wandering around in the museum not five minutes away. Or at least done something, because even if this were the only way to keep Magneto from causing problems, the means bothered him on such a profound level that they couldn't possibly be justified by their noble ends. He himself had lived too long under someone else's yoke, had grown up in a country reeling in confusion after having just broken free, had just escaped from a place where he had been half zoo animal and half disposable weapon and returned to the 'home' where their nominal host felt no hesitation to play with their minds to get them to do his bidding...

"It is a... philosophical question," Piotr found himself saying. He felt like he was balancing on a high wire; negotiate this conversation or fall down to the ground. And yet there was the edge of something in his mind - not telepathy - that was edging him forward despite the risks, something that assured him that if he got across this high wire, then there would be some reward, some answer. "Free will versus the good of the state."

Erik half-chuffed a laugh of understanding, the kind that said that he understood the impossibility of the question yet at the same time thought it completely abstract. For what would a teacher of disabled children and a young man of no obvious importance have to do with settling matters of state? "It depends on the will, I suppose. How dangerous is it to everyone else? The mayor here, he would have it that nobody smokes even in their own homes. Now, does he have the right to do that by saying that anyone who smokes in spite of the risks doesn't deserve to make their own decisions? If a smoker is on Medicare and the government will have to pay for their treatment once they get emphysema or lung cancer, does he have the right to force that person to quit smoking?"

Piotr found himself smiling ruefully at Erik's open expression. Was that what he had been like before it all, back when it was Erik and Charles and their dreams for a safe haven where mutants could live freely? Before the idealism had hardened into dogmatism, before aspirations had become violent actions? Was the Erik Lehnsherr sitting next to him really what he could have become if something hadn't happened to turn him into Magneto - or was that even a logical question?

"The behavior is bad," Piotr admitted as the pause grew and Erik's thoughtful air turned into one of expectation. "It is very bad. And it is dangerous and many people will get hurt from it. But the alternative is not to incarcerate the person or to give them a ticket. The punishment for that behavior is to destroy everything that person is, the good and the bad."

"No, it is not like smoking, then," Erik said, pursing his lips in rueful agreement. A trio of small children followed by their parents came running by and Piotr winced at the squeals of laughter. "On the one hand, it would be easy to say that one life in exchange for many is a fair trade. On the other... The Sentinels. How many innocents were killed by those machines in the name of protection? How many of the mutants who died were never going to cause any harm, were never going to misuse their gifts? What if we have killed the one who could have lived to cure cancer? What if we have killed the next Mozart?"

Piotr knew that Xavier wouldn't have left Erik to be a human without sincere pro-mutant feelings. The Professor didn't play that fairly.

"If anything, the Sentinels proved that Machiavelli was wrong," Erik continued sourly. "There is a point at which the ends do not justify the means."

The sun broke through a cloud and suddenly illuminated Piotr's face and it was all he could do not to laugh helplessly at the aptness of it all. Instead, he reached for the sunglasses that were in his jacket pocket. "It all depends on where you decide that point is, then."

"Mmm," Erik agreed vaguely. "An obvious answer, yet an unsatisfactory one. We are poor actors in our Socratic dialogue, my friend. We have not come up with the answer, just a new question."

Piotr kept his disagreement to himself. He had come up with an answer. He had felt conflicted about being uncomfortable with the mental blocks placed in Magneto's head, the ones that made him Erik (and not even the 'old' Erik). Means versus ends, a debate that he hadn't been able to resolve because he hadn't been able to come up with an example of suitable magnitude. He never would have considered it in the context of the Sentinels - he couldn't think of it in the context of the Sentinels because he simply couldn't wrap his mind around the notion of them being a good thing. But Erik could because Erik thought he was human and the Sentinels were ostensibly for his protection.

"Erik, Erik!" A boy came running up to them, arms waving as if the shouted name wouldn't have drawn attention. He was obviously one of Erik's charges and he was followed by a quartet more, accompanied by two chaperones.

Erik greeted the children warmly and instructed them to set up for their soccer game on the grass across from the bench. He pushed off the back of the bench, leaning forward and putting the lid on what remained of his coffee. "A little philosophy is a good thing in the morning. I thank you. I'd thank you by name if I knew it."

Piotr smiled wryly and extended his hand. "Pete," he said, a last-moment instinct kicking in and reminding him that this was still dangerous territory.

"Erik," was the reply that accompanied the handshake and Piotr made sure that he didn't say "I know."

The children called out for their teacher and Erik stood up. "Perhaps you would like to join us for a little while? This way, we can have an even number and I won't have to play and referee at the same time."

"I'm expected somewhere," Piotr said, looking at his watch, even as the dismay in his voice was genuine. He wondered what Xavier would think. "But maybe another time?"

"We'll be here," Erik told him cheerfully. "And I hope that your... philosophical question resolves itself. Have a good day."

With that, he tossed his coffee in the garbage pail and ran off to the impatiently waiting children. Piotr watched him examine the orange pylons that made up the goals and then stood up himself, making sure he had everything with him before heading back in the direction he had come. For the first time in what felt like a long time, where he was going suddenly seemed clear.




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