"All right. Ready to mop."
Alex looked around, checking his preparations. The comforter was bunched up so that it didn't hang over the bed, the surge protector was sitting on his desk, and his laundry bag-cum-hamper was on the desk chair which in turn was out in the hallway. His cell phone was hanging off of his jeans, just in case Scott called with an update -- or a body count.
The X-Men's headline-whoring world tour had ended with a bang over a week ago, stopped in its tracks before they even left London. It had started in Scotland -- a multiple homicide at a research facility out past the Hebrides, followed by a wholesale slaughter at a McDonalds outside Aberdeen -- and gotten worse from there. Since then, the X-Men had been fighting all over Europe, chasing a mutant body-snatcher the media called Proteus. The true nature of this great menace -- that Proteus was in fact Xavier's own son -- was not public knowledge.
Since the week before the X-Men's arrival in London, Alex had been buying the much despised Guardian and Times as well as the usual Telegraph to keep up with events. He'd started buying the tabloids as well once Scotland hit. Scott had called three times in the eight days since Aberdeen and he expected another phone call soon -- Tuesday's Mirror had had photographs of what seemed to be the denouement: the sheet-draped body of STRIKE Agent Elisabeth Braddock, Proteus's final victim. 1
Alex looked around, spotting one corner of his bright yellow backpack poking out from beneath the pile of comforter and went over to yank it free. In the interior padded pocket was his Discman (the iPod of his dreams was another few months of savings away unless Scott was feeling exceptionally generous come Christmas) and in the Discman, where it had been in constant use, was the CD Piotr had given him.
Popping the disc out and carrying it to the laptop open on his desk, Alex fed it into the CD slot and turned away, trusting WinAmp to do its thing and play automatically. When nothing had happened by the time he had picked up the mop, he sighed in disgust.
"Come on, barf it up," he growled, leaning the mop handle against his closet door and muttering impolite things about Windows in general and XP and Autoplay in particular as he crossed the room. "I know you know what to do with a music CD. I taught you that already."
Alex hunched over his computer and squinted at the screen; he was beginning to suspect he needed glasses, a thought that distressed him.
"Mixed media? What are you talking about?" He wiped his hands on his jeans and hit the keys that would close the window. Opening up Explorer, he clicked on the D: drive and whistled when the list of contents was displayed.
Other files were listed after the music tracks -- a couple of PDFs, some pictures, a few documents, and what looked to be an Excel spreadsheet judging by the little icon next to the name.
The names of the files were disturbing; they obviously referred to the Savage Land and the Brotherhood and to Magneto. Alex took a deep breath, his heart suddenly about to burst from his chest and his fingertips tingling... but then the moment left as quickly as it came and there was nothing but calm. He exhaled slowly, frowning at the reaction and its cause. This was not the panicked recognition of an undergraduate during an exam; it was the adrenaline-fueled awareness of a Friends of Humanity lieutenant assessing a situation for potential. It was the acid drip of realization being digested into analysis, the blink of sheer terror where he could almost feel the dangerous information traveling from his eyes to his brain.
And there really shouldn't be any reason for Piotr to be setting off all those old alarms.
There was a text file called ReadMeFirst and he clicked on it:
In our first conversation, we spoke (rather, I spoke and you sulked) about the comfort of lies and the harder path of the truth.
I have learned... unpleasant truths. Or at least unpleasant things that I fear may be true. I cannot continue as an X-Man until I find out for sure and I won't endanger any of my teammates while I search. They don't know what I've done, so don't get angry at them for not being able to tell you anything. There's no way I could have warned even Scott without raising suspicion.
You, on the other hand, are above suspicion. Or, perhaps more accurately, you are constantly suspected. This time, though, you will actually be guilty of something: holding my secrets.
In this folder you will see not the whole story, but enough. There is more. Alex, I BEG of you: be careful and be circumspect. This is not something to rush into or react impulsively to. Throw your tantrum on your own; don't call Scott. Don't tell anyone. Lives may depend on it.
I will try to contact you as soon as I can. Don't bother with my cell phone; I won't be carrying it. -- Piotr
"What the fuck did you do, Piotr?"
Alex stared at the list of files, as if the answer would manifest there. The file titles referenced Magneto and the Brotherhood... could Piotr have defected? He tried to remember any particular instance of Piotr sounding exceptionally disillusioned or despairing and failed; Piotr was a born skeptic and had always (as far as Alex had known him) looked at the X-Men with a mildly cocked eyebrow. The X-Men were not the best solution, but they were the best solution that was currently available. Piotr was also intensely private -- he could be happily extroverted, but the more he talked, the less he said about what he was truly thinking and feeling. Alex felt both hurt that Piotr had not said anything to him about any discomfort or dissatisfaction and chagrined that he'd never noticed that Piotr was that unhappy. If that were in fact the case. Which, being the X-Men, was no guarantee.
The question had to be asked: was Piotr's departure his doing or Xavier's? Alex knew about Scott's 'betrayal'; his fury at how his brother could continue to work with and respect a man who had telepathically manipulated him remained unabated. Piotr had been disturbed, too, but not to the same extent. He'd said something vague about pragmatism the one time Alex had tried to discuss it with him, and how ultimately it came down to the fact that Scott himself had forgiven Xavier. Alex had been unsatisfied with Piotr's dismissal just as he had been dubious of Scott's forgiveness.
Nevertheless, intuition said that Xavier would not try the same trick twice; Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch might not be leading the same efficient Brotherhood that their father had, but even they would be highly suspicious of a second convenient defection. There was a question of malleability, too -- or, rather, lack thereof. Scott had been susceptible because he hadn't believed Xavier would cross the line as he did, but while Piotr was a skeptic, he was a skeptic searching for something to believe in. And a mindfucker as brilliant as Xavier would know which strings to pull to elicit the proper reaction.
Of course, all of this was a poor fit against the simple fact that Alex couldn't believe that Piotr would leave his teammates shorthanded against Proteus. He'd cited their safety as a reason to leave (and that was a concern); it didn't make sense that he'd abandon them to a real danger in order to go hunting down a potential one.
But what if he hadn't?
He hadn't spoken to Piotr since before the whole Proteus mess had begun and Scott hadn't said anything about him in the times they had spoken since then... Neither had anyone else. Spinning around on the ball of one foot, Alex looked for where he had tossed the stack of newspapers when he had been preparing to clean.
The newspapers were not read for information, not with a more direct source available and not with the obvious biases of the media outlets. It was read to keep track of those precise biases, to note particular reporters' slants and semantics. The meta was more important than the actual, historiography and not history was the end.
"I can't believe I didn't make a connection," Alex muttered to himself angrily, turning over tabloids and rearranging sections of broadsheets until he was presented with several days' worth of coverage organized by date. It had not gone unnoticed that Piotr had not appeared in any of the photographs, but he had dismissed the absence as the photographers' catering to the prurient desires of the masses -- Jean and Ororo were the overwhelming leaders in terms of number of appearances -- rather than anything else.
"Way to go, dumbass," he chided himself as he verified what he'd been fairly sure he'd remembered accurately. "Too busy reading the subtext to see what's right in front of you."
To the amusement of his small cohort of friends and classmates, Alex read the newspapers with a red pen in hand, underlining especially offensive bits and scribbling sarcastic rejoinders in the margins. He skimmed those red-trimmed articles now, scanning for one simple word that did not appear: "Colossus". There was no mention of the big Russian, nor any particular comment on his absence. It was the latter that concerned him -- Piotr hadn't become so publicity-shy that any reporter familiar with the X-Men wouldn't have noticed a missing member. But how do you miss a giant steel man with the ability to throw cars like baseballs? Had Xavier done something with Piotr's help, disappeared him and then messed with the minds of the reporters? Even the Professor couldn't make all of them forget about the missing team member. Or could he?
Nearly tripping over the abandoned mop and bucket, he went back to his desk and the laptop and brought up his web browser. His initial reaction had been to do a search on various media outlets' websites for Piotr, find the last mention of him, but Alex's instinct was that it would be roughly coincidental with the last visit in London.
Alex conjured up and then dismissed a vision of a worldwide telepathic whitewashing, a universal tampering that erased someone from the consciousness of everyone the way they did in the sci-fi movies. Simply erasing Piotr the way Daffy Duck got erased in that cartoon. That he couldn't immediately say that it was impossible for Xavier to do...
Shaking his head to rid himself of the last vestiges of Telepath-Inspired Nightmare #5, he minimized the browser window and was faced once again with the Explorer list of files.
Randomly clicking on a file, Alex watched as his video player started. It was a clip of an elegantly-attired man speaking earnestly and passionately about mutant rights, his deep voice almost seductive as he explained the wonders of evolution and nature's gifts to humanity. There was something familiar about him, but it wasn't until the camera panned back to the richly appointed sitting room that it clicked. "Fuck. It's Magneto."
Back when he had been with the Friends of Humanity, Alex had done endless hours of research on the various mutant threats. He knew all about Erik Lehnsherr, son of Holocaust survivors who had turned their laundry service into a multi-billion dollar dry cleaning empire, and the grand utopian schemes that he had funded and supervised. The connection had been hard to draw -- Lehnsherr had disappeared years ago and his family had seemed disinclined to look for him; Magneto was a relatively new phenomenon and had arrived spouting very different rhetoric than Lehnsherr had.
It was generally assumed that Erik Lehnsherr was dead, killed on some wacky voyage taken with his then-partner Charles Xavier. Xavier, the rare time he was asked about Lehnsherr in interviews, did not dispute the assumption. Nobody asked about the children. Lehnsherr had taken pains to keep the young Wanda and Pietro out of the spotlight, beyond the obvious mentioning that they were mutants, and time had seemingly erased what little traces he had failed to obscure.2
Thinking of the children who had grown up to be the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver made Alex remember that he still wasn't sure that Piotr hadn't gone over to join the Brotherhood on his own volition and without prompting from Xavier. He logged in to the web interface of his 'clean' email address, the one he kept secret from Xavier and the rest of the clan at the mansion except for Piotr, who had his own similar account. If Piotr had sent him a message through that account, he would have gotten it already, but just in case it had gotten caught up in the server's overeager spam filters, it didn't hurt to check.
"Nothing," Alex muttered, taking the opportunity to delete the three messages offering to enlarge certain cherished parts of his anatomy. "Next brilliant idea?"
The next idea, of course, was to call his brother.
The ringing of church bells for the top of the hour in the not-so-great distance reminded Alex of other pressing matters -- the pile of belongings currently sitting in the hallway and the full bucket of soapy water on his floor. While mopping the admittedly dirty floor and straightening a room that hadn't been presentable since before his Early Literature exam were absolutely less important than finding out what had happened to Piotr, getting the housekeeping done before most of his neighbors returned from classes had also been a very well-conceived plan.
Besides, there was nothing to be done that a half-hour delay would affect; Piotr had been gone long enough that if the X-Men knew where he was, they would have made a move by now. And, Alex hoped, Scott would have said something. But that was a hope that had started out an expectation and Alex wasn't sure what to think about that.
It would be hypocritical to be offended that Scott hadn't told him that Piotr was missing during any of their conversations. Scott was the field commander of a paramilitary group - if he wasn't keeping secrets to protect his team, he wasn't doing his job. And it was something closer to foolish to assume that just because Scott was generally open and honest -- too much so for Alex's comfort on many occasions -- that it was a natural consequence for Scott to be incapable of guile or subterfuge. Alex had always considered himself the slyer of the two, but that was a measure of attitude and not ability and perhaps he had forgotten that a bit.
He was nonetheless annoyed that Scott had chosen this particular moment to be commander and not brother. Piotr was his friend, more so than anyone else in that would-be apostolic brat-pack, and Scott knew that he cared a lot more about what happened to Piotr than how fast the Wolverine recovered from being hit by a truck.
It was closer to an hour before Alex moved his belongings-laden chair back into his now-clean room and closed the door. The space still smelled heavily of detergent, but the windows were open -- his mutation making him oblivious to the chilly air rushing in -- and it would dissipate soon enough. Sitting down on the "day bed" (a joke made legitimate by the purchase of some throw pillows; his nominal roommate lived in town with his girlfriend and didn't even carry keys to the room), Alex took one last look over the newspapers piled next to him and opened up his phone.
"Hey," Scott answered his phone, sounding as if he were intentionally keeping his voice down. "I was gonna call you later."
"And tell me where Piotr is?"
A sigh, also hushed. Scott wouldn't have answered the phone if he had been in a place where he couldn't or shouldn't have been speaking, but where would he be that he'd have to keep his voice down? "If I knew where he was, I'd tell you."
Alex made a noise that sounded closer to 'irritated' than the 'frustrated' he was hoping for. "And when were you going to tell me that he was gone in the first place? Why did I have to guess? Do you even know if he's still alive?"
"Alex!" Sharply, loudly, and he could almost see Scott wince at raising his voice. "We've been a little busy..."
"I'm taking your defensiveness to mean that if you don't know where he went, you at least know why," Alex broke in ruthlessly. "Piotr wouldn't disappear while his friends were in danger, which means he's been gone since before this crap with Proteus began. What's going on, Scott? What happened that you didn't tell me the three times we spoke since Piotr's been gone?"
"Would you let me get a goddamned word in edgewise?" Scott growled. There was an odd pause before he continued and Alex realized that Jean must be listening in; it was possible to carry on telepathic and spoken conversations at once, but most people couldn't and the brief-but-random silences were dead giveaways. "Yes, Piotr's been gone since before Proteus. No, we don't know where and no, we don't know why. He checked out of the hotel in London in the middle of the night and took a cab to the airport. After that, we don't know."
Alex frowned more from the realization that Jean was listening in than from what Scott said or how he said it -- Scott sounded more defeated than concerned. Any chance of his having a serious discussion with his brother about Piotr's motives was gone; Scott wouldn't say anything to Xavier, but Alex was sure Jean had no such compunctions. Jean's loyalty to the Professor bordered on the fanatical, he thought, and while Scott and even Piotr thought that he was being unfair and not a little paranoid, Alex had never seen proof to his liking that Jean would ever think Charles Xavier wrong about anything. It was another something that disappointed him about Jean, a person he was sure he'd like if she had more reasonable politics and none of the ethical fluidity of a telepath.
Telepathy seemed to bring with it an elitism, an awareness of power, that disgusted him more than impressed him. Even while Xavier was helping him to build mental shields, Alex had been constantly aware that they didn't actually keep a telepath out. He'd done his best to try to change the locks on his mental doors once he'd left Xavier's school, but he had no illusions that any telepath could come and go through his thoughts at will. That Scott had gone and allowed Jean to hardwire a connection into his consciousness, to take away any and all pretexts of privacy, even after Xavier had screwed around, had practically raped him mentally he didn't get it. Not at all. And that, almost more than any philosophical differences, forced him to keep Scott at a greater distance than either brother might like. Scott wasn't just Scott anymore - he was an open wiretap to Jean and from her to Xavier. If Alex wanted Xavier to know what he was saying, he'd call him directly.
"How did you find out about Piotr?" Scott asked when Alex said nothing in reply. "It's not in the papers, is it?"
Alex glanced down at the pile of papers by his right calf and frowned.
"No, which is really sort of odd, don't you think? Piotr's very hard to miss." Lying to Scott was a more daunting task now that he was linked to a telepath - it was two people to convince, not just one, and he wasn't quite sure how the link worked in terms of what Jean 'heard'. He did, however, suspect that once her telepathy was no longer in play, Jean had absolutely no ability to read people. "There was a picture in the paper of all of you guys - except for Bobby, of course - and Piotr wasn't there. I got suspicious and backread. He wasn't mentioned in any of the articles on your adventures."
"Adventures," Scott repeated sourly. Alex held his breath, waiting to see if his reasoning was accepted. "And we'd better come up with a story if all it took was you poring over the papers What did they say?"
"Usual crap," Alex replied, careful not to show any relief at his story being sold and bought. Scott's estimation of his 'obsessive' traits gave him leeway; his brother would conveniently forget that Alex had committed several violent felonies, but he was almost proud of how that time had focused Alex's intellectual skills. "Calls for mutant registration, mutant genocide, mutant rights, a mutant nation where they could keep an eye on everyone. And then there was the society stuff -- you got a peer's daughter killed and Xavier used to be married to a Scottish peeress. Of course, that last bit's not news to us, but it was to the press."3
"You knew already?" Scott almost squeaked.
"You didn't?" He was surprised and yet he wasn't. Scott had been the one to tell him that Proteus was David Xavier, but Alex had assumed that Scott had known all along. Suddenly, Piotr's seemingly extreme reaction to whatever he found - which must be related to Xavier and Magneto - seemed less outrageous. They knew nothing. They were going along, risking their lives, for a man they barely knew. "Just how much -- or how little -- do you know about Xavier?"
A very complicated-sounding sigh. "Not as much as we thought," Scott finally replied in a tone of voice that made it very clear that he didn't want to get into the topic.
"Why didn't you tell me about Piotr when you spoke to me during the week?" Alex asked, obliging the unspoken command to change the subject. If he pushed too hard, either Scott or Jean was going to remember that he was former FoH and then any chance of getting information would be foiled as the conversation slid unstoppably down the slippery slope of actions taken in support of ideals. "I could have emailed him. Called his folks or something."
"Since when do you speak Russian?" Scott asked with a snort, accepting Alex's agreement with obvious relief. "We tried his cell phone. It's been turned off since he left. We tried his family in Siberia, but they haven't heard from him and we didn't want to scare them unnecessarily."
"What were we supposed to say?" Scott asked testily. "'I'm sorry, Mrs. Rasputin, but we think your son has either gotten himself killed or worse'? There are no good scenarios for this. Piotr's strong and smart. Either he's in a whole lot of trouble or..."
"Or he's dead?" Alex was genuinely bitter -- if Piotr was dead, it would be as much the fault of Xavier as whatever Piotr himself got into. For all of their talk and their training, the X-Men wouldn't have been able to multitask well enough to even begin to look for Piotr while they were fighting Proteus -- a weakness that was a matter of strategy and not shorthandedness. Most of the team was only a liability against a body-snatcher like the late David Xavier, but neither Xavier nor Scott-as-Cyclops would have considered dividing the team's energies. It was inefficient at best and, at worst, it smacked of Xavier putting his personal agenda before that of the team... or of Xavier letting Piotr go.
"He's not dead," Scott replied firmly. "He might wish he was..."
"Rather than face the wrath of the X-Men for deserting?" Alex asked sourly at what sounded like a weak attempt at gallows humor. "What did Xavier say?"
"Rather than end up in Weapon X's clutches again," Scott returned angrily. "Or someone like them. We'd be fools to think that they were the only ones to be doing crap like that. And the Professor's just as worried as the rest of us. We know you don't like him, 'Lex, but he really does care about us."
Alex frowned at the "we". Jean was no longer a passive observer in this conversation -- if she ever had been. "What does Jean think? And why can't Xavier find him with that mutant locator doohickey?"
"Jean's as concerned as the rest of us," Scott answered irritatedly. He must be getting if from both sides, Alex mused. Him on the phone and Jean in his head, both mistrusting the other openly while Scott was stuck in the middle. "And the Professor hasn't been able to locate him on Cerebro."
"Doesn't that mean he's dead?" Alex had had Cerebro explained to him. More than once. He still didn't quite understand how it worked, still didn't truly understand its limitations -- or, rather, he didn't accept the vagueness with which the explanations had been couched. The machine was so very precise and the telepaths who used it so powerful on their own, it seemed a little ridiculous that it had any limitations.
"Not necessarily," Scott replied firmly, his confidence buoyed again by being back on surer ground. He had accepted the explanations offered to him. "It could mean that he's in a place that's got psi-shielding."
"And this is a good thing how?" Alex sat up, mind racing through possibilities. "Isn't that just bad guys and the government?"
"Mostly," Scott agreed. "But there are lots of natural psi shields. Some metals block psionic energy -- remember that helmet Magneto wore? There are whole countries that Cerebro can't see. If Piotr wanted to not be found, he'd know where to go."
"That's a relief and it isn't," Alex admitted honestly as he looked over to where his laptop was still open on his desk, Explorer still displaying the list of files. If Piotr were doing something with or about the Brotherhood, then it stood to reason that they were based somewhere beyond the mental reach of Xavier.
"Tell me about it," Scott sighed, sounding exhausted for the first time in the conversation. "But if Piotr is hiding from us... I'd like to know why."
Well, that solves that question, Alex thought sourly. Scott sounded too hurt to be lying about that. "Was he acting weird or anything before he left?"
A noise that sounded like what would accompany a shrug were they face-to-face. "He'd been quiet the last few days in London. You saw him," Scott reminded him. "The Professor had had some sharp words for him at breakfast; he wasn't happy with how he and Logan had carried out their assignment... Of course, it wasn't Piotr who ended up getting Bobby hurt."
"Do you think Piotr know that Bobby's hurt?" Alex asked, ignoring Scott's presumed bout of self-flagellation.
"I can't imagine he would," Scott answered. "We've kept it out of the papers. I mean, I suppose he could, but..."
It was a sudden thought; the injuries to Iceman had made the papers because they were so spectacular -- a car had landed on him. Bobby and Piotr were close in a fashion, Bobby serving as a sort of surrogate younger brother for the siblings Piotr had left behind. If Piotr knew, he'd be very deeply upset; he wouldn't have left after it happened and he might even have tried to return.
"Could he have been to see Bobby when you guys weren't around?"
A bitter laugh. "Not likely. The only reason we're here now is that Jean's making sure the guards don't see us. The Drakes are eighteen shades of Really Fucking Pissed; they've got protection orders out against all of us and a flock of lawyers out to nail the Professor to a cross."4
"What's Xavier doing about it?" Alex got up to close the window facing east; there was a lawn frequently used as a rugby pitch in that direction and the shouts and grunts were distracting.
"I don't know. He was talking about dismantling the school and stuff. He took Bobby getting hurt really badly..."
"He should," Alex cut in. "There was no reason for Bobby to be out there. He couldn't do anything but get hurt against Proteus."
"You sound like Fury," Scott said ruefully. The SHIELD guy, Alex mentally supplied. "But mostly the Professor blames himself for putting us in this situation in the first place. 'Child Crusaders' he called us. That's why he's talking about closing the school."
Alex rolled his eyes. Leave it to Xavier to start feeling remorse after the fact instead of properly assessing the situation beforehand. That, or this was a public plea for sympathy for in what was a very anti-mutant climate. "He's right. At least about the part where you all are too damned young to be saving the world."
"Don't start, 'Lex," Scott begged. "Please don't start with that now. I know how you feel about this. And you know how I feel. And none of that matters a goddamn bit right now."
"Fine," Alex said quickly. It frustrated him immensely that Scott didn't actually disagree with him, that instead Scott was close to agreeing, at least as far as the average age of the X-Men went. But instead of Scott standing up for himself and his teammates and demanding the right to whatever parts of their childhoods had been taken from them, Scott was willing to sacrifice his happiness and theirs at the altar of mutant rights. No matter how many times Alex reminded him that the Ultimates could both save the world and represent the genetic freaks of the planet, Scott clung to the differences: the Ultimates were consciously and intentionally a mutant-free team. [Alex had his theories regarding Janet Pym, but there was no way SHIELD was going to confess that.]5 And even if the X-Men shouldn't be doing what they did, there were no better candidates and thus their obligation stood. It was faulty logic based on unsteady premises, but Alex knew that no good would come from pointing that out here and now. "Where are you? In Paris?"
"New York," Scott answered, sounding relieved. "We flew back right away. We'll be in England over the weekend for Elisabeth Braddock's funeral."
"You gonna have any free time?"
"I'll try to make some." There was another of those 'telepathic conversation pauses' and then Scott spoke again. "Listen, we gotta get out of here. They're doing grand rounds now. I'll try to call you later or tomorrow."
They said their goodbyes and hung up. Alex left the phone on the day bed and got up to stretch. Too much to think about. He looked at the clock, the laptop, and then out the still-open window. Enough time to get a run in and then shower before heading over for his Topics in Earth Sciences seminar; running helped him focus his thoughts and if he didn't come to some sort of satisfactory decision before class, he'd be sitting there thinking about Piotr's files instead of the isotopes of oxygen in meteorites.
The Ultimate storyline follows the Uncanny one closely enough -- Proteus slaughters large numbers of Scots, wreaks havoc by possessing the various X-types, and is ultimately killed by Colossus. The key change in Ult-X is that Proteus is killed while in the body of STRIKE (the British SHIELD) agent Elisabeth Braddock -- aka core-canon's Psylocke. [Don't worry, Psylocke fans, the word "Kwannon" does appear in later issues, hint hint.]
The change from the Ult-X story to this one is simple: Piotr Rasputin was not present at the final confrontation and the X-Men defeated Proteus through other means. Bobby Drake's injuries are from the books -- he is crushed by a thrown automobile.