Acts of Contrition: Chapter Three

It was a lazy afternoon tucked in between a busy morning and a long night. They had had a brief training exercise in the morning, more just to warm up their muscles than accomplish anything, and a two-hour meeting during which Xavier had outlined the mission scheduled for this evening. It wasn't their first mission since Gatling, but it was the first one large enough in scope and scale to require the Blackbird and a week's worth of drilling on the finer points of evading gunfire. Currently, Xavier was off with Jean and Henry to an interview that would be televised on a cable news channel, Bobby was doing his homework, and Ororo was watching television. Piotr had brought his book out to the back porch where he knew Scott would be sunning himself.

"How would you define Xavier's dream?"

Scott hadn't been facing Piotr when the question had been asked, had instead been lying supine on the stairs, propped up on his elbows, head tilted back, as he soaked up the sun's rays that were so necessary to his powers. Head back, neck exposed, and arms akimbo as they braced him, it was a recumbent post, almost like a porn star except for the edge of tension that coursed through his frame, one that managed to display both his litheness as well as his strength. Scott was a beautiful young man, all the more so because he was both aware of his looks and even more aware that they could only take him so far.

"The integration of the species," he said without moving, sounding very much like he did when Scott was Cyclops and giving a public statement. "A world where humans and mutants can live without fear of each other."

Scott hated giving public statements and was more than willing to foist off any and all PR duties on whoever else was at hand. Piotr had been his favorite understudy, but in the wake of Weapon X and Piotr's self-induced camera shyness, it had usually been Ororo or Jean until Xavier and his book-related publicity needs had made Scott's hunt for a willing victim unnecessary. However, there were times when it couldn't just be any X-Man doing the talking, even Xavier, when it had to be Cyclops in his role as field leader, and Scott would brood for hours leading up to those. Not possessing Alex's rhetorical skills, Scott was much happier letting his actions be eloquent for him and could easily be flustered by a change in verbal tactics. Alex had tried to coach him, to make him see interviews like combat and learn to anticipate and defend and attack. But Scott was reluctant for some reason Piotr couldn't parse out and yet was sure was something far deeper than merely having to take advice from his younger brother.

"How far do you think the Professor would go to achieve that dream?"

It was a loaded question and Piotr knew it. There was no way Scott could answer that with the same sort of public relations pabulum he'd give to a reporter asking that question.

"As far as it takes," Scott finally said, sounding not at all like he found the question troubling. But Piotr knew differently and waited the three beats for Scott to raise his head and turn toward him, mouth pursed in a look of wry distaste. "But you're asking about specifics, aren't you?"

Piotr could only sigh. He had been waffling back and forth on whether to tell Scott about Magneto, even before he had been approached by the twins. The disc Wanda had handed him was full of damning information - if it were all genuine. It containted scanned copies of letters, old notebook pages, maps and blueprints of what the Savage Land's utopia should have been, a ten minute interview Erik Lehnsherr had done for a public television show almost ten years ago, the text of two of Xavier's first articles on genetic mutation, and photographs. Including one of teenaged Pietro and Wanda standing on either side of Erik (and, in civilian garb and with a smile on his face, it was most definitely Erik) mugging for the camera.1

He did wonder about the motives of Magneto's children. The twins claimed to be separatists, not out to cleanse the world of non-mutants but not willing to live among them, either. They sought to rebuild the Savage Land as a true sanctuary for mutants, not as a base from which to launch genocidal attacks. And yet there had been another incident the previous week. The palatial home of the head of the public worker's union had been torched a day after the Parisian city government had voted to require gene testing for civil service job candidates and the union had supported it.

Despite all this - or perhaps because of it - Piotr found himself wanting to believe the twins almost desperately, with a passion that he knew did not currently infuse his work for the X-Men. It was as if he were seeking confirmation of his faith in... in what? In his own instincts? In his ability to judge evidence impartially, irrespective of provenance? There had to be more to it than simple perversity that had him so eager to look for deception from his benefactor and to take the words of two terrorists over those of a man pledged to nonviolence. Still, the skeptic in him, the suspicious part of him that had been manipulated too many times and vowed never to let it happen again, was wondering if Wanda and Pietro were counting on just that reaction, if perhaps he were not jumping from one puppet-master to another.

"What is it?" Scott's voice was touched by a very slight impatience, as if he had already tried to draw Piotr's attention and failed.

When they had been first gathered together as a team, it hadn't taken long to see around Scott's glasses. His expressions were easily readable once you stopped focusing on the fact that you couldn't see his eyes. But Scott made sure that it worked both ways - he was startlingly observant and his head would swivel at tiny movements that nobody else's peripheral vision could pick up. He was a careful face watcher as well, and he read body language easily. Not that the rest of the team proved much in the way of ciphers. In a house with two telepaths, it was easy to forget that they were not the only ones who could see beyond the surface.

"How far would you go for Xavier's dream?" Piotr asked before Scott could repeat the question.

A sigh of resignation as Scott sat up fully, back ramrod straight even as he rested his forearms on his thighs. "It's my dream, too. And that's not what you're asking. Or, not what you really want to ask."

Scott was a lot smarter than people gave him credit for. Especially the Professor. He was not especially suited to Xavier's pedagogical methods and tastes - he liked linear progress, direct narratives, logic, and anything that could be broken down into an equation and solved. He didn't like philosophy and grew frustrated with his inability to follow some of what Xavier's book called 'post-human approaches to learning processes'. And he had been both hurt and furious when Xavier's article had made public that inability.

"Machiavelli."

An almost-whimper this time. "You know, sometimes I really hate it that you talk to Alex so much. You're starting to sound like him. I was hoping it would go the other way."

Piotr chuckled; it was a frequent complaint and from more than just Scott. Alex got along with relative degrees of stiffness and formality with all of the X-Men and could only claim any sort of friendship with Piotr, a fact that made Scott not a little envious, especially when he was fighting with his brother.

"Means versus ends," he elaborated as Scott waited expectantly.

"I figured that part out," Scott replied sourly as he dusted off his elbows and wiped his hands on his jeans in a belated bout of his usual fastidiousness. "Not quite sure why it's coming up now, unless this is you deciding that Cesare Borgia holds the key to you getting out of going to that Youth Day thing with the Professor next week."

Piotr tried to smile at the joke, but knew it wasn't convincing.

"Is this a general crisis of faith or are you freaking about something in particular?" Scott asked, tilting his head and looking at him closely. "More importantly, is whatever this is something that I'm going to have to factor into whatever we end up doing once we get on the plane tonight? Because I gotta tell you: I am having enough problems building up confidence in the plan we've cooked up without worrying if the only guy I don't have to worry about isn't happy."

Piotr nodded, mindful of how tense the morning meeting had been. In the time since the X-Men had been together, Scott had gotten less and less inhibited about pointing out flaws in Xavier's plans for missions and Xavier always seemed torn between pride in his own selection of a field commander and resentment of the competence that justified that choice. Gatling had brought that silent combat to a head, with both sides willing to use the prison debacle - Xavier's failure to conceptualize, Scott's failure to actualize - to prove their point. "It can wait."

A grunt of acknowledgement from Scott. "I'm sure we'll have plenty of time in Europe to talk," he said with a levity that didn't quite cover up the sourness. Scott was not happy about the X-Men trailing along on Xavier's upcoming book tour, chance to see his brother notwithstanding. Piotr wasn't overly thrilled himself, nor was Bobby, but Scott seemed the most out of sorts.

Piotr understood Scott's unease as well as his own. The book tour meant eight weeks in the spotlight, eight weeks of running gauntlets of protesters, eight weeks of intense media scrutiny, eight weeks of doing nothing but serving as Xavier's backing band - part showgirls and part barnstormers, there to wow the crowds and pack the house for Xavier's proselytizing, an old-time revival with post-modern ideas. Ideas that Piotr found himself increasingly questioning and even disagreeing with; he felt himself a false prophet, a missionary mouthing empty words.

"I'm sure we'll have time," he agreed vaguely. Scott looked at him again, but said nothing and leaned back, shifting over to the other side of the steps to catch the sunshine that had moved on without him.

Piotr watched Scott re-settle. He had been content to serve his penance for his crimes in service to the mutant cause, but something had changed and Piotr was sure that the roiling in his stomach every time the Professor spoke so passionately about one of his more extreme ideas was not indigestion. He wondered if instead it were a sign that his act of contrition was not acceptable because it was not sincere, that he had slipped from actively working for a better world to passively accepting the world as it was and then, perhaps, on to something closer to willful ignorance of the evils he had the power to correct.




Piotr stirred at the sound of a keycard sliding through the lock in the door, then went back to his book. It took Bobby four more tries to get into the room they were sharing, which was quicker than his average. They had been in London for five days and while Bobby had managed to adjust to turning his head the other way to look for cars when crossing the street, the hotel room door lock was proving a more persistent challenge.

"Have fun?" he asked without looking up. He had two more paragraphs before the end of the chapter and he wanted to get them finished before dedicating his attention to Bobby, who would be seeking it.

Bobby was in constant need of attention, to the alternating amusement and irritation of his teammates. Piotr was more amused than irritated most of the time - Bobby was an only child and was used to the constant affections of his doting and occasionally overbearing parents and there was something comforting in feeding a need like that, one born of love and not of anything more sinister or pathological.

The sound of Bobby's deceptively heavy sneakers being kicked off and bouncing off of the bottom of the dresser as they hit the floor and plastic keycard being slapped down on the over-finished wood top echoed around the surprisingly stark room. Piotr had stayed in hotels before, but they had been cheap ones, meant for providing a roof and a bed and not much else and usually offering a per-hour rate. It amused him to know that the "real" hotels were just cleaner versions, not necessarily even more sturdy ones; the towels were not any thicker and there was no sense of even a temporary home among the too-shiny, too plastic-y accoutrements. It was a big step down from the mansion.

"Aaaaugggghh!" Bobby half-wailed as he threw himself backwards onto the foot of Piotr's bed.

The last words of the chapter shook as the mattress shifted and Piotr closed the book, adjusting the bookmark so that it didn't stick out too far before placing the book on the nightstand. "What is the matter?" he asked in Russian. He was peripherally aware that his 'big brother mode' had Russian as its default language, but Bobby had never made an issue out of it - seemed to like it, actually.

Bobby was lying with his arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose, the fingers of his right hand almost touching Piotr's bare toes. "Aaaaugghh," he said again, this time sounding more pathetic and less frustrated.

Piotr tapped his foot against Bobby's hand. "I do not speak 'plaintive wail of teenaged angst'," he said, failing to keep the smile out of his voice. "Your choices are English, Russian, or French if you want to get anything useful in the way of pity out of me."

A loud sigh. "Can you believe our assignment?"

Piotr grimaced, but evened out his features quickly. While he might agree, it didn't do for Bobby to see his displeasure, if for no other reason than it would save the inevitable "Piotr thinks it's stupid, too" from getting back to Xavier. The Professor had been almost hyperaware of their actions since they had touched down at Heathrow on Friday morning, monitoring them constantly with eyes and mind as if he were sure that his pupils would somehow embarrass him if left unsupervised. There had been daily reminders for the team to act like one, especially in public - a united front, although Xavier had put it in less polarizing terms. And both Bobby and Piotr knew that griping about missions that would be rather publicly undertaken was not going to be tolerated with the usual patience.

"I can believe," Piotr replied as he realized Bobby had been waiting for some sort of confirmation that he could safely broach the topic. "It will be interesting, I think. A challenge."

"Interesting," Bobby repeated with obvious disdain, rolling on to his side to face him with the limpness of a corpse. "It'll be a challenge to not break up laughing."

Yesterday morning, over breakfast, the Professor had announced what would be the team's first action since arriving. Split into pairs, with one trio being necessitated by the Sunday afternoon arrival of Logan, tonight they would be set loose upon London after dark and given until dawn to "effect positive change and emphasize post-human themes through constructive actions". The winner would be decided by the Professor at breakfast tomorrow morning.

The reactions had been varied. Scott, who had been edgy at the thought of the team falling out of combat-ready conditioning over the entire eight-week tour, was relieved if not necessarily pleased - it was obviously a "better than nothing" situation for him. Bobby had made his displeasure known, saying something rash about rescuing cats out of trees when they could be chasing the Brotherhood. The outburst had earned them all a lecture from Xavier on how if they could not put their hearts into this philosophy of post-human proactivism, then how could they expect anyone else to do so? Henry, Logan, and Jean had seemed excited by the possibilities and, as they were each one part of the divided units, that buoyancy seemed to carry the day. Ororo had said nothing and Piotr, slightly uneasy at how Xavier's pep talk had so echoed so closely the twins ' description of the X-Men as Xavier's twisted apostles, had kept his reaction to himself.

"If you really find the assignment so unpleasant, then perhaps the Professor was right and you should consider whether or not you really want to do this," Piotr said as he put the book on the nightstand between the beds. In truth, the assignment was not very different than their activities back in New York, made so public by Xavier's article, except that there was an element of quantification - doing good deeds regularly for their own sake versus doing them on a time limit to accrue "points". It felt a little cheap to Piotr, a too-obvious pandering to the masses and, combined with the already circus-like atmosphere of their arrival, like they were the freak show in a traveling carnival.

"You think he was right?" Bobby sat up sharply, making the bed shake. He looked betrayed, his voice breaking on the last syllable. "That I should quit?"

"I think he was right about you having to decide whether this is what you want to do with your life," Piotr clarified, returning his thoughts to the immediate present and not missing Bobby's wide-eyed look soften into something closer to surprise and hurt. "You have choices now that you didn' t have before; going home is now one of them. The Sentinels have been decommissioned and you can certainly pass as human."

He neither qualified the 'human' - the team had been conditioned to respond to such word usage by reminding the speaker that mutants were human, too -nor did he add what should have been obvious supporting evidence of safety: that Magneto was dead and the Brotherhood no actively recruited. Because while he was not prepared to tell Bobby the truth, he was similarly unprepared to lie to him.

"But..."

"But what?" Piotr asked, eyebrows raised in silent challenge. Whether it was a challenge to Bobby or to himself, he wasn't sure. But he did know that one reason he had not left the X-Men, no matter how frustrating or embarrassing it became, was that he worried about Bobby, who was simply too young to appreciate what was going on around him and simply too eager to be used if it meant that he would be accepted. "You already know how to control your powers; fine-tuning is a matter of practice. You can go home, go back to high school, find yourself a nice girlfriend, and live a good life until you are older and Commander Fury makes good on his threat to make us all join the Ultimates when we finished with the Professor's school.2 Or maybe you can put this entire life behind you and go on to do whatever you'd like - maybe you can be an astronaut or an accountant. Why do you want to stay here with him if you don't believe in what he is doing?"

Bobby's shoulders slumped, not in defeat but in the realization that Piotr was taking the conversation seriously; Piotr was very glad that it would never have crossed Bobby's mind that he was the only doubter in the room. "Because I do believe... in most of it, anyway." He had been looking down at his socks, but now he looked up and met Piotr's gaze. "I want to make a difference and I want to show everyone that mutants belong here like everyone else."

"Showing everyone means more than saving the President or fighting bad guys," Piotr said gently, but firmly. Bobby was excited by the attention and publicity. The Professor had tried to shelter him from the spotlight earlier on, arguing that he was too young to be subject to that sort of scrutiny, but that had changed over the years and now Iceman was getting his due share of fan mail and threats.

"Showing everyone means doing for others when it's not 'cool' or exciting or even very pleasant. It means putting yourself in a position to be embarrassed or hurt or worse and not making it look like it's a burden. We cannot only do that which will get us a write-up in Teen People."

Bobby frowned at him, pursing his lips as if he was about to say that he knew those things already, but he must have seen something in Piotr's expression that made him change his mind and instead he just nodded.

"That's what the Professor said, kinda," he admitted. "But not as nicely."

Piotr chuckled and Bobby frowned more deeply. "You already got a talking-to?"

"I was 'exhorted to consider this time abroad as a positive experience and an opportunity to learn as much about other cultures as others would learn about me'," Bobby quoted in a fair approximation of Xavier's patrician tones, then grinned almost wickedly. "He gave me the 'we're here to clean up Magneto's mess' speech again, which I really didn't need because I think we all have it memorized by now."

Piotr only smiled to indicate his agreement. Scott had grumbled something about Xavier not trusting their toilet-training, since he kept reminding them not to pee on the carpet, but Piotr wasn't going to bring it up -Bobby would pick it up and repeat it over and over until he used it at the wrong time because that is what he did with turns of phrase he found especially appealing.

There was a knock on the door and before Piotr could ask Bobby if he was expecting anyone and to be careful- hotel security had been on full alert and approached the task with diligence if not enthusiasm, but a handful of anti-mutant demonstrators had found them at dinner the other night regardless - he could hear Logan calling both of their names. Bobby let him in and followed behind, flopping on his own bed as Logan sat at the foot of Piotr's and greeted him with a nod and a mumbled 'hey'.

Logan had been fairly subdued since rejoining the team, but Piotr had no idea as to the cause. It wasn't the sight of Jean and Scott together -everyone knew that Logan still carried a torch for Jean, just as they knew that she hadn't forgiven him for misleading them - but that really didn't narrow the field down much.

Unlike the rest of them, Logan made no pretenses of being a student and he came and went as he pleased, disappearing for days, weeks, and occasionally months on end and then returning without either explanation or stories to tell. He seemed to have some sort of agreement with the Professor, however, and the rest of the team took both his absences as well as his presence with a growing equanimity.

"I got a lead on some dealers," Logan began without preamble, wiping invisible dirt off of his jeans. There was no dress code for the book tour beyond 'not exposing any body parts normally unavailable for suntanning in North America', but Piotr idly wondered if Logan would have acceded to a more rigorous standard. "Pushing E and crystal meth on kids younger'n Junior here."

"Hey," Bobby cried out indignantly, then realized that Logan was looking at his Cookie Monster t-shirt. Logan waited until Bobby met his gaze and then winked at him and Bobby smiled. The more irascible the personality, the easier a time Bobby had of making friends - first Logan and then Alex, a feat nobody else on the team save Piotr had managed to any serious degree.

"It's not the kinda Moonie stuff Chuck'll be handin' out prizes for," Logan went on, looking back at Piotr and shrugging, "but it'll do some good and I think we can handle it."

"I'm all for not doing the Moonie thing," Bobby announced. "Even if I don't know what that is. Anything that's not singing 'Kumbaya' on a street corner linked arm-and-arm with those anti-mutant dudes throwing tomatoes outside, I'm in."

"I'm not the one getting a grade on this thing," Logan told Bobby, fighting a chuckle. "So why don't we leave it up to the big fella, huh?"

Piotr looked up, knowing that the spotlight had fallen on him.

Leave it to Logan, so free of conflict with Xavier, to devise the perfect means of defying him without trying to do so. Logan was not looking to cause conflict with the Professor by intentionally not following the spirit (although embracing the letter) of the assignment; a straightforward policing was simply what he did best. Logan did not make speeches and he did not put himself up as any sort of example to follow; he knew that he wasn't capable of the former and couldn't deceive anyone on the latter. It made Piotr a little uncomfortable with his own hypocrisy, playing the good soldier by hiding his bloody past behind him. Especially because Logan, a man bred to violence, was so much more of a believer in Xavier's program than Piotr himself was turning out to be.

"It won't be anything too crazy," Logan said when Piotr didn't answer immediately. "Don't plan on screwing up Charlie's gig by creatin' an international incident. And if it does get hairy, we'll pull back. No point in getting hurt doin' someone else's job."

Piotr's instincts told him that no matter how essentially Logan the plan was, Xavier would know that this would have proceeded only with his approval and that Logan would not have embarked on this course of action if Piotr had refused. And perhaps the Professor would see it as a passive-aggressive reaction to finding out about Magneto, which in turn would raise the level of scrutiny just when Piotr didn't want his wavering faith exposed. Logan would think no less of him for saying no; the two of them had had enough half-conversations in the pre-dawn hours after returning from their patrols that Piotr knew where he stood with the older man.

"So what are we doing tonight, Brain?" Bobby asked, hope shining bright in his eyes.

All of his instincts said that he should go on playing the good soldier, flying under the radar until he had sorted out his feelings about what he had gotten involved with. Piotr looked past Logan's shoulder, as if the blank television screen would produce an answer. Next to the television was the CD Piotr had left out so that he would remember to give it to Alex tomorrow and he could almost hear Alex's derisive laughter that would come when Scott would explain their presence in all of tomorrow's tabloid headlines. He could certainly hear Alex asking that if his brainwashed brother didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain, what was Piotr 's excuse.

"Same thing we do every night, Pinky," Piotr told Bobby with a straight face. "Try to take over the world."




"...get a goalie. If they do, they'll be unbeatable. Who's gonna stop them? Detroit?"

Scott couldn't hear Piotr's answer, but Alex's voice carried clearly as he walked toward the bench where they had been sitting ever since picking up lunch at some hole-in-the-wall Indian joint. Alex apparently didn't think much about Switzerland's ability to produce goaltenders.

It was a beautiful afternoon, the fourth in a row, and Scott was beginning to wonder about London's reputation for rain. But Ororo was extremely testy if you even looked like you were about to ask her if the sunshine was her doing - a question that every single reporter covering the book tour seemed required to pose - and so Scott had just taken the balmy weather as a good omen. Persistent rain might have kept the number of hecklers down, though.

"But they never do anything! It's like St. Louis - all shiny in the regular season and whoops, there goes the playoffs again. Except they lose to Toronto every year and where's the self-respect in that?"

Alex and Piotr seemed content to argue hockey by themselves, so he took the opportunity to look around the park. Kensington Palace was on the other end; Scott had some vague notion that Princess Diana might have lived there, but he wasn't sure and didn't care enough to have asked Alex. As with Central Park back in New York, the gardens were surrounded by city life, but inside the gates there were trees and flowers and pretty children chasing balls and birds and in the sunshine nobody looked twice at the casually dressed young man in sunglasses. It was a feeling of both bliss and despair - there was no reason he should have to feel so good about not being the focus of attention and, invariably, hate.

They had been in London for almost a week and he'd had barely a minute to himself. Press conferences, interviews with print and electronic media, appearances at everything from bookstores to schools to a pub down in Chelsea where he'd had to put Piotr on Bobby Patrol because the team's youngest member seemed disinclined to turn down the offers by well-wishers of amber liquids in pint glasses.

And that was just the public side of things. Away from the spotlight - an increasingly difficult place to find - Scott was equally busy as well. He was conferring with the Professor about the team's activities both public and not-so-public, trying to play mediator between an anxious Xavier worried about a public relations mishap and a cabin-feverish team dying to cut loose away from the ever-present eyes (Xavier's desire to control every aspect of their public face had Scott wondering when he'd finally lose his patience and tell the Professor to just make life easy and control them all telepathically; otherwise they butted heads about Scott's wish to get some training time in and Xavier's desire to downplay the paramilitary aspects of the X-Men), and then, when he wasn't trying to keep everyone from killing each other in public, there was Jean.

It wasn't as if Jean were especially high-maintenance. She wasn't, at least in the traditional sense and, with her telepathy, she was usually pretty good about knowing when to move in and when to step back. Except this week, when she had developed an uncanny habit of turning up just when Scott had managed to fend off all of his other obligations. There was a neediness in her pursuit of him, he had realized, and he had been giving in to her demands rather than try to fight her off as well. Not that there was much self-sacrifice in that; Jean's neediness was almost purely physical in its manifestation and he really wasn't that much of a boy scout to deny her advances, despite the nagging voice in the back of his mind (that did not sound like Xavier) telling him that he shouldn't be getting his rocks off while on what qualified as an eight-week mission.

That sense of disquiet did not extend to Logan, at least not most of the time. Somewhere along the line, Scott had realized that there was very little he could do about the whole situation. He couldn't tell Logan to stop wanting Jean (although he could, and did, tell Logan to stop trying to get Jean) and he couldn't not let Jean know how he felt about her. They had a psi-link, something that Scott felt spoke volumes about the stability of their relationship, and Jean couldn't help but know. Also, and more practically because he was pragmatic even here, if one day, heaven forbid, Jean decided that she wanted to go back to Logan, there would be nothing he could do about it. There would be nothing he could say that would change her mind because she could already see what was going on in his head. Freed from trying to control their relationship, Scott had found himself free from worrying about it. His occasionally immature reactions to Logan's attempts to put a third wheel on the bicycle were something else entirely.

Scott was wearing regularly-shaped sunglasses and the light coming in the sides where the visor usually wrapped around still surprised him; the changes in his peripheral vision made him uneasy for reasons he couldn't express, not even to Jean through their link, and he turned around so that the sun would be behind him.

He hadn't walked so far that he couldn't see Alex and Piotr slouched on the bench where he had left them, Alex gesturing animatedly and Piotr with a pose that carried his usual patient bemusement. It was hard to put that gentle personality with what little he knew of Piotr's life prior to the X-Men. Scott knew that Piotr had committed some awesomely brutal acts, he had seen Boris and knew from his own experiences what men like that expected of their employees, but Piotr was such a moral man that it seemed impossible that he'd either have let himself be put in such a position or, having found himself in such, wouldn't have come up with a way to get out of it. But Piotr wasn't one to volunteer that sort of information and Scott, having made a point of keeping his own background shrouded in secrecy, wasn't in a position to press. However, he was in a position to wonder whether anyone else on the team, including the Professor, knew how much Piotr was hiding from them. Piotr was annoyingly content to let people assume that he was around only for his size, especially since they had returned from Weapon X, and the truth couldn't be any further from that. Scott was sure that Piotr was the wisest of all of them - Henry might have the book-smarts, but Piotr had everything else. It's what made his burgeoning friendship with Alex both natural and slightly disturbing. The two of them put together could probably take over the world.

Alex looked good, much happier than he had seemed when they had last seen each other over the summer. He was making the most of his second chance and Scott was both proud and relieved - it was certainly not beyond Alex to be spiteful enough to screw this up, too, just because. But he hadn't, far from it. For the first time since Scott had met him, Alex looked comfortable in his skin - and for more reasons than that he had taken out his eyebrow piercing (the nose ring, unfortunately, was still there and Alex now had two tattoos).

It seemed that the shock of discovering his mutation had largely worn off and if Alex was having any problems with maintaining his cover story (Xavier had had to produce a false birth certificate as well as doctored academic transcripts; Alex's identification had him as two years older than he was), he hadn't said anything to him. Of course, that didn't mean anything because Alex still didn't tell him a lot of things. But apparently he hadn't said anything to Piotr, either, and Scott trusted Piotr to report if Alex did.

Scott was more wistful than jealous. Piotr and Alex could talk politics and sports while he and Alex were still trying to find common ground beyond their DNA and their mutations. But they were emailing regularly and speaking on the phone often enough and there hadn't been any long silences since they had gotten pissed at each other arguing over the Florida recount. And that was a far cry from the first few months Alex had been at Oxford where there had been long silences and Scott had had to initiate everything.

Alex had been extremely resentful back then, perfectly happy to blame Scott for having turned his life upside down, as if Scott had caused his mutation to manifest when and how it did. The Professor had done his best to try to explain away Alex's rage but Scott hadn't been appeased. There was so very little with which he could help his brother - Alex was so much smarter than he was, had so much more potential than he did, and Scott would never be able to do as much for him as he could have right then, when Alex was so scared and confused. But Alex had kept him at a distance, pushing him further away the harder Scott tried to close in. And there had been precious little sympathy within the house for his situation - neither Jean nor Ororo could understand why he was "wasting his time" trying to communicate with Alex, whom both of them regarded as akin to Hitler.

But then Weapon X had happened and things had changed. The very real possibility that Alex had lost his brother a second time, this time for good, had thawed the relationship. Alex hadn't hidden his relief when Scott had called him upon returning to New York and Scott had taken full advantage of that to the point that he had traveled to Ireland during one of Alex's intersessions (Alex having decided to go to school all year round) and the two of them had spent five days driving around and trying to get to know each other. It had been a mixed success, but that was better than a failure or maintaining the status quo.

That had been four months ago and Alex had changed even further since then. He was eighteen now and Scott could see in him the shape of the man he was becoming. Alex was already taller than he was and probably would be broader as well if he maintained to sort of physical regimen Scott did. The tightly wound tension that he had seen in Ireland was gone, although that could have been because it wasn't just the two of them here. Alex looked like a university student now, complete with reading glasses (apparently Scott's sharp distance vision was at least partly irrespective of his mutation; Alex was farsighted). He was interested in geology, of all things, and Scott knew better than to ask why that instead of the political science Alex had already mastered. They really didn't talk much about schooling and Scott knew why; he was envious of his brother and Alex was too perceptive not to realize it.

In Ireland, they had fought over whether Scott should try to take classes at one of the many colleges and universities in Westchester. Technically, Scott was still in high school - he had never received any sort of acknowledgement of graduation from the Professor and had not taken the GED exam. Alex had been furious with him for his seeming lack of interest in pursuing either one; he had declared it ridiculous that the Professor should not want his team leader to be as educated as possible. They had gotten sidetracked after that, although Scott had managed to convey that he himself didn't feel like the Professor was holding him back. Alex had taken the news that Scott didn't consider himself college material no better and it had been a long car trip to the next castle that afternoon. For all of his refusal to have anything to do with the X-Men, Alex had plenty of opinions about the Professor and his ideas and methods, despite the fact that Xavier was still paying for the portion of Alex's tuition that wasn't covered by grants or loans.

The truth of it was, at least in Scott's mind, that college really served no purpose for him right now. He was never going to be able to make a civilian life for himself - if pressed, he'd admit to seeing himself in the Ultimates a few years from now - and that made getting a degree less of a priority. He needed command experience, he needed field training, and he needed to acquire the skills that could turn his mutation into an effective tool. ("You're more than just a walking weapon," Alex had yelled at him. "You don't even have any fucking hobbies!") If he was lucky, he and Jean could eventually set themselves up a life together and for that he'd probably need to brush up on his social skills, but Jean seemed inclined to work around that and he was more than inclined to let her. Higher education, at least in subject areas that had no practical use seemed if not frivolous, then at least a little luxurious at a moment in time when Scott couldn't afford to be sidetracked.

"You're doing a lame job of making a break for it."

Scott turned around to find Alex watching him, a sardonic smile on his face. "I wasn't trying to ditch you two," he replied. "I was just... thinking."

"Uh-huh."

The smirk was still on Alex's face and Scott frowned at it, turning to look at a large flower that was growing on a vine that ran along a metal trellis next to them. "It's been crazy all week. I just needed a minute of quiet."

"Dog and pony show is running 24/7?" Alex asked, not making it sound like a question.

Scott nodded and braced himself for another of his brother's harangues on the Professor's ideas and methods, but nothing followed, so he found himself looking closely at the flower. It was horn-shaped, like where sound came out of an old gramophone, with scalloped tips and surrounded by big leaves.

"It's a pretty bilious pink," Alex said quietly and Scott looked up, then realized that his brother was talking about the flower he had been looking at. "Like sunburned Pepto-Bismol."

"It's got a nice shape," Scott replied. He had known the flower was pink, but the brightness of the sun made it hard to tell the shade. "Where's Piotr?"

"He went to find a trash can to dump our stuff and then to find a water fountain," Alex replied, looking around. "I told him I'd keep you from wandering off and he could come get us."

Scott nodded again and looked at his watch. They had a few hours before he and Piotr had to return to the hotel to get ready for the evening's assignment. He took off his sunglasses with one hand, squeezing his eyes closed tight, and rubbed at his face with the other. The sunglasses were pleasantly light, especially compared to the visor, but the constant pressure on the bridge of his nose assured that he could still feel them. The skin at the two points of contact was much smoother than it was on the rest of his face and much more sensitive and he pressed until he could feel the veins throbbing beneath the pads of his fingertips.

"You're not gonna last another seven weeks, are you?"

Scott sighed and shrugged. "I don't really have a choice. The alternative is to tell the Professor that I'm tired, cranky, and really want to go home and I'll catch up with him later. And I can't do that because how is he supposed to get any support from the public when his own people aren't there for him."

"Yeah, but..." Alex sounded like he was winding up and Scott shook his head to head him off.

"It's just a matter of getting acclimated," he assured, wondering whom exactly he was trying to convince. "We have to figure out how we're going to operate, how we're going to handle the protesters and the media and all of the attention and the security folks are going to start figuring out how to handle all that, too."

That was a gross oversimplification. The security detail in London, made up of plainclothes agents as well as soldiers, was ill prepared for the crush of competing protest groups and the sheer number of spectators. There had been breaches at the hotel and at two of the venues in the first three days and Scott had taken one of the important-looking people aside and warned that if it became necessary, the team would defend itself and the Professor and they could not be responsible for whatever damage that might cause.

Xavier had not been happy with Scott's proactive measures, but there had been only two more incidents since then, both minor, and Scott would rather bear the Professor's displeasure than face the alternative. The team was on edge enough as it was, both from without - no matter how bad things might have seemed in their individual backgrounds, none of them had been prepared for the waves of sheer loathing that were crashing down upon them - and from within. Xavier's pressure for perfect behavior, Logan's amazing ability to casually disrupt everyone's routine without trying, and being constantly in each other's presence was adding to the strain.

Alex made a disgusted noise. "And how many death threats are you getting a day?"

"A dozen or so," Scott replied with a shrug of indifference and smiled. "Those are actually the simplest to deal with. Hand the letter over to the police and let them worry about it."

"It's everything else, really," he went on after a moment's pause. "The insults, the signs, the crap they throw at you, the stuff they say... We're here to take that crap so that nobody else has to, I know that, but... It's hard. Because you can't tune it out. It's one voice louder than anyone else, one sign that draws your eye when you scan the crowd... and it's always the loudest voice saying the worst things, the brightest sign that's got the cruelest slogan..."

"It's intentional, bro," Alex retorted and Scott remembered that Alex used to be on the other side, organizing just these sorts of protests. That seemed like a lifetime ago. "Placement is more important than manpower -quality over quantity. You put the guy with the megaphone off to the side, not in the thick of the crowd where he'll have to shout over people. You put the guys with the smoke bombs and the paint-filled balloons in the middle of the group so nobody'll see them throwing anything."

Scott looked at him blandly. Alex obviously wasn't proud of that phase of his life, but he didn't shy away from making reference to it when it was appropriate. But only when it was on his terms. The Professor had once suggested that Alex use his experience with the Friends of Humanity to spearhead a pro-mutant movement at Oxford or its environs and Alex had just stared at him with a look so glacial that Bobby would have been envious and quietly said that he didn't think that that would be a good idea.

A woman pushing a carriage - a "pram", Scott mentally corrected himself -passed by them, the baby inside crying fitfully.

"Do you have someone planted in the crowd?" Alex asked thoughtfully after they passed. "Someone who looks like they fit in?"

Scott shook his head. "I don't know. I'm not supposed to get too involved in that stuff. I'm the principal this time, not the protector. That, and they won't tell me anything and the Professor won't make them."

Alex snorted derisively. "Figures."

"Jean scans the crowd, I know that," Scott offered, then frowned when Alex' s scowl deepened.

"She doesn't know what to look for," Alex said dismissively. He ran his fingers through his spiky hair. "I'm not even sure you do."

"So tell me."

Alex looked at him as if he doubted Scott was taking him seriously, but whatever he saw satisfied him and he nodded quickly. "Protests like this always fall into patterns. The first step is to send someone out to watch and listen and find out what it's going to be. There are competing groups within each side, the antis and the pros, and sometimes they're more interested in defeating their competition within their own side than they are with anything else. And sometimes they're not and they're focused on the other side. And sometimes they're just focused on the object of the protest and don't care who else is there, but that's pretty rare."

Alex wasn't looking directly at him, Scott realized, more over his shoulder and down the pathway toward one of the special gardens.

"When I was running things for the FoH," Alex went on, "I always had to make sure to keep my people from getting distracted, keep them on mission, so to speak. If there were need for a rumble with the Human Supremacy League or one of the other groups, I'd send out a separate goon squad, the idiots who weren't good for anything but cracking heads and making a mess, so my people could concentrate on doing what they were supposed to be doing."

Scott felt a shiver of something cold and knew it had less to do with the calm way Alex was explaining how to best manipulate hate and violence and more to do with the way these elements could be handled. It was so much more comforting to believe that such darkness was spontaneous and unplanned, developing at random like a mini Big Bang of malevolence, and not cultivated and birthed according to a plan.

"You have to remember that most of the ones out doing foot-soldiering at protests aren't high up in the food chain within whatever organization they 're in," Alex continued. He had one hand pulling on the back of his neck and the other at his side, hanging loosely but for the thumb looped into the corner of his jeans pocket. It was an oddly casual pose considering what he was saying. "They're either prone to violence or they're just not too bright or they're zealots. Zealots are the worst because you can dumb down instructions enough for the stupid ones and find constructive tasks for the thugs, but you can't effectively plan around zealots because they get distracted easily and start foaming at the mouth and then they're good for nothing but being a warm body to throw to the right lion. Cannon fodder."

Piotr appeared at the corner of Scott's peripheral vision and he turned toward him. Piotr waved.

"What you have to look for," Alex said once Scott had turned back to him, "are the ones in charge. Cannon fodder is cannon fodder and the local law enforcement can handle the hooligans and the martyrs. You want to keep an eye on whoever is issuing orders or whoever has the authority to change orders; they are the ones planning on everyone getting distracted by the fighting and the cursing and the singing because that's when they're going to make their move. They won't be alone; they'll have their strike force with them, usually a half-dozen people capable of independent thought and action in case something unexpected goes wrong."

"You're assuming that there's a plan to do something," Scott objected. "Isn 't just disturbing the peace ever the end goal?"

"The X-Men showing up in London is an event," Alex replied with a shrug, accepting a bottle of water from Piotr. Scott took one as well. "Things happen at events because they are, ipso facto, high profile. If you guys were here all the time then, yeah, the odds of something going down would be less. But this is a huge opportunity - the FoH and their brethren aren't here to make sure you know that they hate you. They're here to make a statement to everyone else and you're supposed to be the object lesson."

"What would you do if you were still with them?" Scott asked. He was half in Cyclops mode already, trying to map what Alex was telling him over his memories of the past week, hoping to see it all with a new perspective so that he could be better prepared for the next time.

"Make you defeat yourselves," Alex answered quickly. He opened up his water bottle and took a long draught. "The anti-mutant movement is predicated on the fact that mutants aren't human, that they're not people. They'll want to show that you're really animals after all. Couple that with the totally justified fear of a quasi-vigilante mutant paramilitary force, which is what the X-Men are, and they'll want to show that not only are you animals, but that you're violent animals who could go off at any time and are thus a danger to everyone."

It did not escape Scott's notice that Alex used "they" when referring to mutants, not "we". Whether that was because he was thinking like he was back in the FoH or whether it was a sign of something deeper, Scott didn't know. He didn't remember noticing it before, but how often had he and Alex discussed the mutant question?

"They'll make it look like we attacked first?" Piotr asked.

Alex shook his head. "It almost doesn't matter about who fires first. Half of the pro-mutant crowd out there is pro-mutant on principle, not as the result of any practice. They've never met a mutant, at least an out one. Saying that all mutants should be treated the same as everyone else and then seeing mutants in action... You all have some pretty scary powers. The minute any of them get used in front of witnesses, you're gonna lose support, even if it's self-defense."

"So we're fucked either way," Scott grumbled. He gestured for the three to begin walking toward the exit to the park. They had a few hours left before he and Piotr had to report back to the hotel and this would be their only chance to do any sort of touristing without a police escort or a press entourage.

"No, you're just going to have to focus more resources on making sure it doesn't get to that point," Alex replied, taking another sip from his water bottle. "Which probably means that your oh-so-subtle nighttime adventures should be curtailed. The tabloids are everywhere and you've been here long enough that they've got you in their sights. It's all peachy that Xavier wants you to make headlines in the newspapers, but if the Sun or the Mirror catch Jean levitating a Cooper Mini over a cowering car thief, it 's lights out. We know she'd be doing it just to scare the guy, but that's not how it's going to play in the papers."

Scott sighed and exchanged a glance with Piotr. The nighttime assignments were unpopular with the team - especially as he and Henry had won both of the two already completed - and he really didn't need another reason to feel uneasy about them. But Alex, who had had plenty to say after the first one, had provided one anyway.

Scott watched Piotr dig for what he assumed would be the ever-present roll of Mentos out of the inside pocket of his leather jacket. But instead of the candy, his large hand withdrew a slim CD jewel case.

"Oh," Piotr said, sounding vaguely surprised. "I had forgotten that I had brought this. Here." He handed it to Alex.

"Dude!" Alex cried out happily as he looked at the CD's label. "You were holding out on me! You absolute bastard!"

"I was not holding out on you," Piotr replied primly as he dug his Mentos out of the pocket on the other side of the jacket. "I didn't find it until right before we were leaving for London and I never bothered to email you and tell you that I had found it."

"What is it?" Scott asked, gesturing with his chin at the CD Alex was clutching like a precious gem.

"Hephaestus's Anvil," Alex answered. "I've only been looking for a bootleg for forever. They haven't come to Britain since I've been here."

"And they are...?"

"Trance-industrial," Alex replied, "They sample classical music in with their beats, which would totally rock on their own, but..."

Scott's curiosity dimmed somewhat. He and Alex had found out in Ireland that they really didn't share much in the way of musical tastes, except for classic rock. "Like Enigma?"

"Oh, so much, much cooler than Enigma," Alex fairly cooed. "I might just ditch you both so I can go home and listen to this."

"If I had known that that would be all it would take to get rid of you," Piotr began wryly and Alex made a face back at him.

"Thanks," he said, putting the case into his backpack. "My neighbors may hate you, but they need to get out more anyway and maybe this will be the impetus they need."

Threats to the X-Men forgotten, for the moment, the trio exited the park and made their way to St. Paul's chapel.




(Every other morning, it has been the traditional English breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausages, fried bread, tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans all washed down with a cup of coffee. Mutant metabolism and his body size allow for the indulgence. This morning it is eggs and a scone with marmalade and the coffee is already making his stomach upset.)

"Well, class. That's your forty-eight hour deadline expired. Should we take a look at the morning papers and see how your exploits were reported in the national press?"

(The clothes were not washed. They were bundled into plastic bags and given to Logan, who took them to the incinerator in the hotel's basement. They did not speak, not even Bobby, who seemed to be taking the events much better than he was.)

"Storm and I took down a terrorist cell based in Tottenham Court Road, Professor Xavier: Britain's biggest-selling paper, pages one, two and three."

"Me and the guys busted an international drug ring stretching from Miami to Romania, Professor: Britain's second-biggest paper, pages three, four, and five."

"Cyclops and I made short work of an ugly gang of muggers, sir. It never actually made the papers, but I did manage the Times crossword puzzle in something close to record time."

(Henry is falsely nonchalant. He cares about finishing first in the assignment, cares far more than any of them do. There is a neediness to him that lurks shallowly below the almost arrogant surface. Being with 'Ro has not fed that need and, in the end, Piotr is sure that that will be the cause of the relationship's demise.)

"Is that it? Are you really going up against us with a story about how you beat up some muggers? Boys, you might have been sitting pretty at the top of the class three times in a row, but something tells me my associate and I have just stolen your bright and sparkly crown."

(The message had been waiting for him when he had come down for breakfast. A pretty card with a pre-Raphaelite painting on the front and a dangerous note inside: "If you think Doubting Thomas fared better than Judas Iscariot, you've only read one version of the story. The big clock at the witching hour shall bring another." Unnecessarily vague, he thought. But he had not decided whether he'd be at Big Ben at midnight.)

"Not necessarily, Storm. Ordinarily, yes, your position in the morning paper is an excellent indication of your actual grade, but I'm afraid that today boasts exceptional circumstances. Scott Summers and Henry McCoy come first yet again, my friends. The rest of you will have your papers returned telepathically."

(They had all read the papers before eating; nobody should have been surprised. The shocked cries of indignation should have ceased after the first assignment, when it became obvious that they had the choice to either play by the Professor's rules or lose.)

"What? Not that I actually care about the grade or anything, but since when does kicking a few punks around beat busting a multi-million dollar heroin operation?"

"Since you maimed, killed or disfigured over twenty human beings in a blaze of adamantium fury, Wolverine. The exercise was to go out there and save lives, not act like Charles Bronson's Canadian Cousin."

"So what did Henry and Scott do that was so amazing? Spend two days teaching those muggers the error of their ways and find them all sweet little jobs?"

(Ororo is being stubborn in defeat, but Piotr doesn't mind. It allows him to see sparks of the old 'Ro, the spunky car thief who'd rather hijack V-8 engines than learn fractions, the one who had no problems asking aloud what sort of a nuthouse they had all walked into.)

"Well, except for the two guys we checked into rehab, of course, but the Professor's contacts in the intelligence services promised them a post the minute they get out."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me. Tell me this isn't what the new term's all about, Professor, because I didn't drop out of regular school to become a freaking social worker, man."

(Bobby is too young to understand that the Professor is not out to save the world, that their assignments have not been about heroics but instead about public relations. And Piotr feels remiss for not explaining to him that they are propaganda here, not protectors, even as it always felt like to do so would be too cynical, too much like telling a child that there is no Father Christmas.)

"And I didn't form this school to train an army of thugs, Iceman. How can I tour the world asking for change when my students are clinging to the politics of the ape-man? I don't like prisons, I don't like capital punishment, and I don't like mutants dropping car-size hailstones on unsuspecting Irishmen..." (c) Marvel Comics

(A jumble of images. Xavier giving his eight millionth iteration of how they were supposed to behave so that he could best further the mutant cause. Pietro and Wanda pitying him for not understanding. Alex talking about floating cars over thieves. Erik Lehnsherr sitting on a park bench and not sounding at all like a lobotomized megalomaniacal killer. Scott looking pained when he asked him about Machiavelli.)

"Those Irishmen were planning to blow up a shopping mall in central London, Professor."

"And they also happened to be members of a species we're trying very hard to ingratiate ourselves with, Storm."

"Gaining the trust of Homo Sapiens is integral to our agenda, my X-Men. Phase Three was designed to promote pacifist alternatives to traditional human problems."

(Xavier is watching him. He is chastising all of them, but focusing on him. And part of him feels like an apostate being called before the altar and part of him feels like he is struggling to climb out of Plato's cave. He is here to repent for the life of cruelty and violence that he regrets in his heart and yet nonetheless keeps returning to, like an addict to his drug. But his violence is not wanton, it is not out of his control by anyone's scale except the Professor's. Is it possible that his recreancy is relative and not absolute, his sense of guilt a benefit for someone other than him? Did he think of Magneto just now on his own, or was it a telepathic warning that yes, Xavier can find nonviolent solutions to violent problems?)

"Don't give them any new excuses to hate us yet."3




The ride back to the hotel was in silence.

Scott watched Jean play absently with his left hand; he was aware of her probing questioningly along their telepathic link, but he ignored the gentle feelers, firming his shields as much as he could although he could sense her psionic energy sliding around them like a rising tide past a single sandbag. He wasn't trying to keep her out because he was angry with her; he wasn't. Rather it was that he wanted the silence, wanted to be alone in his head even - or perhaps especially - as he could not be so otherwise.

The Professor was curiously quiet. Usually after a public appearance he was chatty - almost hyper - with enthusiasm over the potential good they had done.

But there was no silver lining to be found with this dark cloud.

Protected by his glasses, Scott looked around at his teammates. Bobby's posture screamed of dejection; Piotr, who would have been trying to gently prop Bobby up in normal circumstances, had a distant look in his eyes and a firm set to his jaw - his mind obviously elsewhere; Ororo had her eyes closed and was half-leaning her head against Henry's shoulder; Henry was looking out the tinted window with the sort of determination that went with looking for something; Logan and the Professor couldn't be seen unless Scott leaned forward and he didn't want to do that.

The lecture had not been so bad; Xavier had spoken elegantly and briefly, the questions had been rather par for the course. The audience had been mostly sympathetic - even more so than usual, Scott thought. Usually they had a good thirty percent of the crowd who was hostile. But this time it had seemed less and while they had been grateful for the relative calm of the scheduled event, that calm had been thoroughly shattered by the unscheduled ones.

"We should all remember that we have made progress," the Professor said quietly but firmly, only sounding a little like a man who had to convince himself as much as the rest of them. "Not only tonight, but this week. We shall continue to make progress and we shall not let the stubborn few dim our ambitions to find commonality with the many."

The protest outside before the talk had been expected, just not on such a scale. The usual pre-event crowd ranged from about a hundred to maybe three hundred, depending on the time of day and the weather and the venue. Scott had been starting to recognize faces, but whether they were Alex's strike forces or his rabid zealots, he couldn't tell. Tonight, there had been five hundred easily. Maybe more - it had been hard to see in the quick press from limousine to walkway to entrance to auditorium. There had been thrown bottles, some empty, some full of alcohol, some full of piss. There had been eggs and a couple of rocks, all of which, like the bottles, bounced off of Jean's telekinetic shield. But Jean's shield could do nothing to either mask the horrible things being shouted at them from all sides or keep them from seeing the carefully created signs.

"Didn't feel like it tonight," Bobby said sullenly.

The worst part was that there were so many children present among the protesters, mouths curled in disgust as they shouted very adult things. Adults were expected, but it hurt to see the children. They were supposed to be the future, the moldable ones who could still be influenced positively, the ones who were supposed to be the demographic the X-Men were supposed to be able to reach. They weren't supposed to be holding up posters with pictures of fetuses with captions about how if they had been a mutant, they would have hoped their mommies had aborted them. They weren't supposed to be hurling eggs and insults and sounding like if they were the future, the future involved genetic cleansing.

"Not every victory will be easy or immediate," Xavier replied more confidently than before, sounding as if he had found his resolve. "Have faith, young Master Drake. Would we really want the world if we didn't have to conquer it first?"

Scott didn't miss Piotr turning his head sharply toward Xavier, but if the Professor noticed, he didn't react. And, a moment later, Piotr was looking down, stretching his neck by turning his head this way and that. Perhaps it had been nothing but a twinge.

"Overstayed our welcome," Logan muttered.

"Why would you say that?" Jean asked bitterly and Scott squeezed the hand she had been playing with to hopefully signal to her that this was not the time or the place. "We're not houseguests. It's our planet, too. That's what we're here to prove!"

Jean usually did not treat Logan well, a fact that only occasionally bothered Scott. She was often terse and cold to him, but there was just enough flirtation in her interactions with him that Logan noticed - and so did he. To what purpose she this flirtation aimed, he didn't know - to tempt Logan into thinking he still had a chance, to prove to him that he didn't, to keep Scott from getting complacent or some other reason that only telepaths or women understood.

"London's not our town," Logan replied, looking up at Jean. If he had been ruffled by her tone of voice, it didn't show. "And we've been marchin' up and down the streets for more than a week demandin' that everyone stop and look at us and pay attention. Damned straight we're houseguests. Rude ones, too. Makin' everyone listen to what Chuck's gotta say, askin' for people to change the way they think and act. Even the nicest folks can only take so much of that."

"Since when are you the expert on the human condition?" Ororo asked, cutting off what surely would have been Jean's angry rejoinder. Scott tried to tug on their telepathic link, tried to draw her attention away from Logan and on to him. They didn't need to be fighting now, they couldn't lose cohesion just because things were going badly. Jean ignored him. "All you're good at is ending it. You think you know better than the Prof..."

"Enough."

Scott wasn't sure if Xavier had said it aloud or all in their heads telepathically, but the effect was the same: total silence except for the thin noise trickling in from the outside.

"I will not have this ugliness belching forth," the Professor continued sternly, leaning forward to make eye contact with all of them as best he could. "We are a team and a family and it speaks poorly both of us as a group and of me as the paterfamilias that at our first obstacle, we turn on each other."

A meaningful pause and another sweep of the audience with what could be a very unsettling glare. If Scott had learned nothing else since they had been in London, it was that the Professor was a brilliant public speaker and could hold an audience in thrall without any reliance on his telepathy.

"Logan is not incorrect," he went on, letting the admission sink in. "Although perhaps I might prefer to agree to a less strong variation on his theme. We have indeed been very demanding guests of the city of London in particular and Great Britain as a whole and even, yes, the world at large. But Jean is also correct - we are here to change that perception. And just because we are sure in our righteousness does not mean that we can begrudge homo sapiens their slowness to adapt. We are asking them to change their worldview, to give up beliefs that they had never even thought to question. They have every right to be angry."

"Galileo died without having convinced the world," Henry said quietly, almost primly.

Bobby looked over at him, a mixture of annoyance and confusion on his face. "And that's going to help us how?"

"Bobby," Piotr said sharply and Bobby threw himself back against his seat.

"I have perhaps, in my eagerness, stretched us all beyond the breaking point," the Professor said as the limousine slowed to a stop. Scott could see the particular gas lamps that stood outside of their hotel. "We have no commitments tomorrow. I think it would be best if we delayed our arrival in Paris by a few hours and spent the day... at rest. We shall meet for breakfast promptly at nine, but this evening and the rest of the day tomorrow shall be your own to do as you would."

With that, Logan opened the door he was closest to, startling the driver who had come around to open it. They all exited, Jean using her telekinesis to help the Professor out and into his chair. Scott hovered, just in case, but it proved unnecessary. As he watched Jean settle the Professor's blanket over his lap with her hands, he could hear Ororo and Henry murmuring, presumably making plans. Logan had already walked off and Piotr was waiting with Bobby.

There were the usual stares, whispers, and surreptitious glances as they crossed the lobby. They were all still in uniform and there was no mistaking who and what they were. The elevator was empty and Scott was thankful - three times he had seen someone exit when they had not intended to rather than share an elevator with him.

Their rooms were in different parts of the hotel - the publisher, unaware that the X-Men would be joining him, had booked only for the Professor for London and Xavier had had to make subsequent arrangements for the team. As such, his was a suite in the penthouse and required a separate elevator, so bid them a warm goodnight and an equally warm exhortation to be careful and headed off. The girls' room and Bobby and Piotr's room were on the fourth, but neither Jean nor Ororo made any move to depart, so only Bobby and Piotr exited, the former with a muffled farewell and Piotr with something as brief and unmemorable.

"So, who's swapping rooms?" Ororo asked once the doors had closed. "Jean and I don't care."

Henry looked amused and Scott could feel Jean's satisfaction with the plan, but he knew that he did not look pleased. It had been the Professor's decision to not room the two couples together; he had never said anything to the group, but to Scott he had expressed concern about public perception - it was bad enough that they were mutants, but that they were also mutants with questionably loose morals was something else. The Professor had put it in more flowery speech, of course, but Scott had gotten the gist of it and explained it to Henry and Jean as such. That had been Scott's justification for not agreeing to Jean's plans to swap rooms with Henry on the first night; his giving in to Jean's demands for clandestine couplings and rushing off to dark, unseen places had been his compromise.

"Oh, come on, Scott," Jean sighed. "It's our last night and the Professor all but said that he didn't care what we did. Did you not get that part about 'the rest of the evening is our own'?"

"But..." He sighed as the elevator dinged to announce that it had arrived at the floor where he and Henry had their room.

"Our reputation is pretty much the last thing we have to worry about," Ororo said sourly. "If we got caught, it'd just be one more reason for people to hate us. I think the Professor is wrong about that anyway. I think they'd really like to know that we are just like everyone else."

The moment the elevator doors opened, Scott fled the three expectant faces watching him. Henry caught up to him first as he strode toward their room.

"Scott, it's just one night," he said easily as they arrived at their room door. "And it's going to be a long seven weeks to work on our abstinence skills. But it's been a very long week and we do have the night off... Besides, not all of us are dating telepaths. Some of us have to resort to more conventional means."

Scott was about to say something about how nothing he and Jean had done required telepathy, but Henry looked at him knowingly before he got a word out and Scott accepted that he'd never win this argument. So he leaned forward and let his forehead hit the door with a dull thud and the click of the top of his visor hitting wood.

"The girls have the room near the elevator, so I should perhaps go there," Henry went on, pleased in victory. "It will be much less of a gauntlet to run than this long hallway."

Scott pulled out his keycard and opened the door and Henry followed him in, already starting to pull off the straps and ties that crossed over his uniform shirt. Scott undid his neatly, as much to allow Henry the chance to change and shower first as for its own sake. Carelessness weakened the fibers and he didn't want to lose his utility pouches on the first hard tug in the field.

When neither Jean nor Ororo appeared in the doorway, Scott looked out, but didn't see them. Figuring Jean had gone down to her room to fetch her things and Ro had gone with her, he closed the door and stripped off his shirt.

"We should see what everyone else is up to," Scott said as he sat down on his bed. Henry had been rummaging through his toiletries bag for something, but looked up at him oddly.

"I do believe the Professor has exhorted us to stay as far away from each other as possible," he replied. "That does imply 'no group events'."

"I know that," Scott sighed, letting himself fall back on the bed. He closed his eyes and pushed his visor on to his forehead. "But... I don't like how we always assume that Piotr's going to keep Bobby entertained. What if he wants to go out?"

"Bobby is more than old enough to amuse himself," Henry answered, his voice echoing in the smallish bathroom. The shower started. "Nobody asks Piotr to have his over-heightened sense of responsibility."

"Bobby amusing himself is exactly what I'm worried about," Scott called back, raising his voice to be heard over the rushing water. And while Henry was right - Bobby was going to be seventeen in a few months and could function unsupervised - Scott also felt guilty because he had had to think about it to remember. None of them treated Bobby like anything approaching a grown-up; he remained fixed in their minds as the fifteen-year-old kid who loved his X-Box, loved his Mets, had a secret crush on Michelle Branch and a not-so-secret crush on Ro. None of them hung out with him - Piotr let him trail behind him around the house, certainly, but none of the rest of them really went beyond letting him tag along for a ride into Salem Center. And as soon as he turned seventeen, Bobby wouldn't need them to drive him anywhere and Scott wondered if anyone would make time to see Bobby at all outside of training sessions or meals.

He could feel Jean's presence along their telepathic link before he heard her using her telekinesis to jimmy open the door to the room. It startled him and he wondered if he had dozed off; the water was no longer running in the shower and Henry took the longest showers of anyone on the team. "Lucy, I'm hooome," she called out as she opened the door.

Scott raised himself up on his elbows and jerked his head forward so that his visor would slide back into place. Jean, freshly showered and changed, was standing there watching him and he started to get up.

"Oh, don't move," she purred, eyes dancing wickedly as she approached until she stood between his knees looking down. He could feel the slight shift of the bed as her thighs made contact with the mattress. "I like you just as you are."

"Hey now," Henry cried out in mock horror as he emerged from the bathroom swathed in towels. "Wait until my departure before you start engaging in your debauchery. I don't want you bruising my sensibilities."

"Uh-huh," Jean snorted indelicately, not moving. "As if Ro doesn't brag."

Scott turned his head enough to see Henry grin before disappearing back into the bathroom with his clothes. Turning back to Jean, he found her looking down at him again, a deceptively mild expression on her face considering the emotions he could feel on their link.

"I'll wait," she said primly, folding her hands in front of her chest as if in prayer. "His prudishness is pretend, but your priggishness is real."

"Hey!"

Henry was not long in changing and took no care in tossing his uniform into its bag and the bag into his suitcase. "Au revoir!" he called out and waved expansively before heading out the door.

"So then," Jean said as the door closed behind him. She leaned forward, resting her hands on the bed on either side of his waist and Scott let himself fall back against the bed so that she didn't inadvertently bang her forehead against his visor; bleeding head wounds were a guaranteed mood-killer. His shoulders ached slightly from having supported his upper-body weight, but it didn't really matter with Jean leaning over him like she was, smelling like the apple shampoo she used and breasts visible through the open collar of her shirt. "Where were we? Oh, that's right. Debauchery."




"He's what?" Ororo stared at Bobby, clearly irritated as if it had been Bobby's fault.

They had met, as per tradition, at 8:45 in the foyer of the Professor's suite. Scott and Jean had arrived first, then Henry and Ororo - holding hands and sleepily happy in that 'we just spent the night doing everything but sleeping' way - and then Logan. Bobby had shown up alone, looked around and then brought everything to a halt with two simple syllables: "Uh-oh."

"Gone," Jean confirmed, eyes clearing from where they'd been vague a moment before. "According to reception, Colossus checked out at 3AM and took a cab to the airport with an unknown male and female."

She paused, suddenly looking uncertain. "You don't think he might have, you know, gone over to the other side or anything, do you?"

Scott knew what she was thinking of - Finland, where she had had to telepathically keep Piotr from destroying the entrance to the Weapon X facility, a move that would have effectively killing all who had been still inside.

"Not a chance, Jeannie," Logan assured. He had shown up, dropped into the Princess Anne chair by the elevator, and not budged since. If Piotr's disappearance bothered him, it was not enough to disrupt the utter casualness of his body language. "Believe me, I know his good from bad and Piotr Rasputin ain't the type to do the dirty on his pals."

Logan had finished by tilting up his cowboy hat and looking straight at him and Scott felt the anger boiling up and the words spilling out before he could stop them.

"I don't like the way you were looking at me when you said that, Wolverine."

"What do you think, Professor?" Henry asked quickly. He and Ororo were sitting on the pair steps leading down to the drawing room that the Professor could not use because there was no wheelchair access. "Colossus had been unusually quiet these last couple of weeks. Do you think he's just walked out on the team or is this something more nefarious?"

There was no answer and they all turned to face Xavier, who had been sitting apart from them, presumably to better use his telepathy to find Piotr. At least that was what they had thought.

"Professor?"4




on to the next chapter || back to the index



  1. Erik Lehnsherr, in this universe, is from Texas oil money. He comes from a well-known and wealthy family, which he has spurned, and was in the public eye before Magneto and the Brotherhood ever existed.


  2. While the X-Men's involvement in the rest of the Ultimate Marvelverse doesn't really become explicit until Ult-X #33, Nicholas Fury's 'threat' can be extrapolated from a similar one made to teenaged Peter Parker in Ultimate Spiderman. The Ultimates, while mostly Avengers, are probably closer to X-Factor than any other core-universe group in that they are a federally funded and controlled paramilitary operation serving under the auspices of SHIELD. The founding Ultimates: Giant Man (Hank Pym), Wasp (Janet Pym), Iron Man (Tony Stark), Thor (errr... Thor), and Captain America (Steve Rogers). Dr. Bruce Banner (Hulk), Black Widow (Natasha Romanova), and Hawkeye (Clint Barton) are also around in various capacities. Nick Fury is in charge.


  3. Dialogue taken directly from Ult-X #16, pp 15-16.


  4. Dialogue taken directly from Ult-X #16, pp 21-22. This happens to be the scene that started this story - Piotr leaving the X-Men in mysterious company. I'm fairly sure where he goes from here will be slightly more entertaining than where Mark Millar had him going. And, for the record, the mysterious man and woman are never identified in the comics.