Acts of Contrition: Chapter Seven

"That's three in a row, Master Drake," Henry McCoy announced triumphantly as he put down the video game controller. "And now I claim my prize."

"Oh, no," Bobby sighed, flopping back heavily into the couch as his controller fell to his feet.

Scott looked up at the sudden movement in his peripheral vision. He was on the other couch, iPod resting on his belly and magazine in hand, with his socked feet up on pillows and his back to the giant television screen.

Sitting there while the guys staged what felt like the entire NFL season on the X-Box was a concession, a compromise between being accessible to his teammates and satisfying his desire to be alone. There was no true privacy in his life, not after Jean had threaded a psionic bond into the fabric of his mind, but he could still enjoy a believable illusion of it. And sometimes he just got... tired of being relied upon for answers or entertainment or guidance or attention and the need to keep the rest of the world at bay grew unbearable. But he wasn't able to indulge himself as often as he used to; not since Piotr had disappeared. He hadn't realized how central the big Siberian had been to the team's chemistry... no, that wasn't true. He had realized. Perhaps it was better to say that he hadn't acknowledged it -- or acknowledged how much he relied upon it.

"Three out of five?" Bobby asked, still not budging from his sprawl. The song currently playing had a long and quiet intro and Scott could hear him clearly, although the iPod wasn't set at a very high volume. If he'd put it up loud enough to drown out the video game and the taunting, he'd go deaf. Instead, it was at a volume that would blur Bobby's and Henry's words into incomprehensible sounds, a white noise that could get tuned out.

"I think not," Henry replied primly, clapping his hands together and rubbing them in anticipation. "Your options: you must either read Heart of Darkness or you have my next week of dish duty."

"Oh, man," Bobby sighed incredulously and Scott chuckled. Leave it to Henry to get done what the Professor couldn't. Bobby had gotten Jean to rent Apocalypse Now Redux and the entire group had watched it together. The discussion during the bonus material had gotten around to the story's source and Xavier had suggested that Bobby read the Conrad novel. Bobby, to nobody's surprise, had declined vehemently and with distaste.

"That's not a fair choice," he finally said, carefully propping himself up on his elbows and gesturing with his head toward the crutches leaning on the armrest nearest him. "I still can't stand for as long as it takes to do the dishes."

The hard casts had come off three weeks ago; Bobby got around with a walking cast on his right leg and a brace on his left knee. The rest of his injuries were more or less healed -- the ribs and shoulder were coming along nicely, the last exam had shown his lungs to be normal and the bruising that had turned him more purple than white had faded almost completely. There were scars, both inside and out, but Bobby was rebounding with astonishing resiliency and speed.

"I'm not up for another three weeks," Henry offered. "And I did spot you two touchdowns per game on account of your wrist. Although I must say, I am rather astounded at the lengths you'd go to avoid reading."

"I read," Bobby protested sourly. "Do you think I could get it as an eBook?"

Henry's undoubtedly put-upon response was drowned out by the swell of electric guitar and Scott went back to his magazine.

Bobby had been back with them for a month; the Drakes had initially refused to allow Bobby to return at all -- had, in fact, threatened to sue the Professor after their attempts to get him arrested on child endangerment charges had failed -- but had been persuaded to relent by a face-to-face meeting with a very humbled and contrite Charles Xavier. That meeting had taken much patience and negotiating; the Drakes had had police guards to keep the X-Men away back when Bobby had first been hurt and the Professor had been privately anxious about bringing Bobby back to the mansion and its advanced technology. It was that last, Scott suspected, that finally swayed the Drakes. They understood that Bobby would recover faster at the Mansion because of its facilities; that Bobby would be emotionally better off with his friends and mutant family had not entered the Drakes' minds. Bobby's eagerness to stay and his rapid improvement once he'd been brought back to the mansion seemed to validate whatever the Professor had done to convince the Drakes to change their minds and drop their lawsuit... the lawsuit that could have been very dangerous to all mutants and not just the X-Men. Again, it had been a matter of waiting for the Drakes to stop being angry and start seeing what their anger could do to their son.

"Naaaaargh!" Bobby howled and it was all Scott could do to not jump off the couch and reach for his glasses to whip them off. Henry was doing some dorky-looking dance while still seated and Scott realized that the video controller was being held by his feet. "You did not just do that!" Bobby cried out.

"Double or nothing, Master Drake?" Henry leaned back fairly glowing in self-satisfaction. Scott groaned and leaned back again.

The damage done by Proteus -- and by the X-Men fighting Proteus -- was extensive and multifaceted and only kept from reaching a fatal-to-the-team level by the fact that the general populace still didn't know that Proteus was really David Xavier. The mutants-chasing-mutant aspect had polarized the global reaction to homo superior; very few people anywhere were ambivalent or unconcerned about 'the mutant question' anymore. The Professor's proposals for a new world order incorporating mutants had become lightning rods, attracting extremists from both ends of the spectrum and generating tons of articles, journals, television specials, and a documentary that won three movie festival awards despite being produced in only two weeks and comprised almost exclusively of lies and innuendo. Alex, typically, had loved it; he'd downloaded a pirated version and burned a copy to CD and sent it to Westchester as an example of successful mass-media propaganda.

The team had its own recovery to engineer; the damage closer to home was not so clinically assessed or easily repaired. The Professor had been shattered by events; the obliteration of his ideological campaign, the gruesome and costly reminder of what mutants were capable of doing when unleashed, the public hammering the X-Men took for their supposed ineptitude at apprehending Proteus, the personal damage the team took... it had been too much for him. For weeks, the team did not train or go out on missions and Scott had tried to voice his own idea that they'd do best to return to both as quickly as possible, but Xavier had resisted his subtler efforts and Scott had not wanted to risk an open disagreement. Perhaps Jean was right and it was his own misplaced guilt speaking; the protracted chase of Proteus, the loss of Piotr, and the injury to Bobby weighed heavily on him and he hated being idle. A good leader does so by example, however, and it did none of the others any good to see Scott second-guessing either himself or the Professor while the Professor was still so visibly unable to forgive himself.

The Professor was looking for Piotr, too, and had been since they'd realized he'd disappeared. Xavier had immediately dispatched Scott and Jean to search after him, but they'd had two days before being recalled to fight Proteus and they'd come up with nothing beyond what STRIKE had told them -- Piotr had checked in at Heathrow for a flight to New York, but had never boarded. Airport security cameras picked up no trace of him and neither MI5 (who'd taken Piotr's disappearance as a threat to national security, although the team didn't know whether they considered Piotr or his possible abductors to be the threat) nor STRIKE had been able to provide any updates. They weren't even sure if Piotr had left the team voluntarily or not, although as time went by and days turned into weeks into months and there had been no sign of him, even SHIELD was starting to agree that a voluntary departure was looking less than likely. Scott himself had been sure from the start; no matter how miserable Piotr had been -- and, in hindsight, they'd all agreed that he'd been out-of-sorts in the days before his disappearance -- it was inconceivable that Piotr would choose to stay away from the team as they fought Proteus. He'd never willingly abandon them to such a danger like that, certainly never after Bobby had gotten hurt.

"If you keep this up, Bobby, you're going to end up doing my chores until you leave for college," Henry warned with a gleeful laugh. "That, or you'll be the best read young man in Westchester County."

Bobby made indeterminate noises of protest. "You're using your mutation," he groused, gesturing at Henry's hands. "You've got freaky reflexes. This is an unfair competition. I'm voiding all of it."

"That's patently untrue," Henry retorted with melodramatically bruised feelings.

Bobby was perhaps taking Piotr's disappearance hardest of all. At first, he'd been furious and spiteful, convinced that Piotr had run away from the team and abandoned him, and hadn't even wanted to hear Piotr's name spoken. But that had been early on, when he'd been so angry and frustrated at his own life -- his injuries, his parents' protectiveness and desire to keep him from the X-Men, the angry headlines and news broadcasts -- and once those issues had settled down, so had his ire. The hatred had transformed into fear for Piotr's safety and then some sort of guilt, as if there had been some way he himself might have saved Piotr from whatever fate he'd met. Bobby had cried piteously after STRIKE had come to interview him; he'd been unable to tell them much of anything about Piotr's actions that evening and the agent had expressed his frustration.

"I'm appealing to our Fearless Leader here" Henry pointed a ugly-yet-elegant foot toward him.

"Your fearless leader doesn't care," Scott muttered loud enough to be heard, annoyed at having to give up the pretense of not hearing them bicker.

Once upon a time, it would have been Piotr who would have calmed Bobby's fears and frustration, but Piotr wasn't there and was in fact the source of the trouble. And the rest of the team was at a loss for what to do. None of them had hung out with Bobby -- that had been Piotr and, to a lesser extent, Logan -- and none of them had any insight into his torment.

Finally, it had been Henry who had stepped into the breach, tackling Bobby's not-so-unreasonable fear that Piotr had been taken by a Weapon X-type group and been experimented upon. Henry never explained what he'd said in those long talks with Bobby and Bobby would go so far as to deny their existence, but the end result was a newborn friendship between the two, Henry becoming the surrogate brother that Piotr had been and giving Bobby someone to confide in again. Ororo hadn't seemed to mind -- she still found Bobby largely annoying, but she and Henry were past the phase of their relationship where they needed to constantly be in each other's presence and if Henry wanted to spend time with Bobby, then she didn't have to be there all the time, too. And Henry did seem to want to spend time with Bobby; the two were developing a much less formal sibling-like relationship than Bobby had had with Piotr, whom Bobby had never successfully gotten to regularly play video games or watch baseball.

"Bobby, was this your idea or Henry's?"

"To play or to bet?"

"Either." Nobody in the room doubted that both had been Bobby's suggestions.

"Henry wouldn't bet money," Bobby replied after a pause spent trying to get out from under the inevitable logic of where the conversation was heading. "I had no other collateral."

"Well, then you're just screwed, aren't you?" Scott asked, picking up his magazine again and ostentatiously fiddling with the play list on his iPod.

"No fair," Bobby muttered. "Double or nothing? One last time?"

"You've run out of time," Ororo announced from behind the couch. She was wearing her dress -- a deep blue silk shift that made her look older and more voluptuous than her everyday clothes -- and her makeup was already applied, although her hair was still wrapped in a towel. She leaned forward to twist her fingers around an errant lock of Henry's hair. "Why aren't you three hoodlums getting dressed? We have to go in an hour."

The invitation had come hand-delivered: Professor Charles Xavier and his students were cordially invited to an evening's entertainment at the New York Chapter of the Hellfire Club.

"We're guys," Bobby informed her with an impatient sigh. "We don't take three hours to get ready."

Why they had been invited -- why anyone would want to be seen in the company of the Professor and his mutant pupils not a half-year after Proteus had scorched his way through Western Europe -- was unknown. But Professor Xavier, far from being suspicious, was almost giddy with anticipation, a pleasure the others had found infectious, save Scott. The Hellfire Club was old money and older power and with its support, tacit or explicit, anything was possible.

Ororo sniffed and ignored him. "Hank, you should go get into the shower at least. Two hairdryers and you're still going to be complaining about wet fur."

Henry frowned agreement and untucked his leg. Scott had initially been surprised at Henry's enthusiasm for the soiree; he'd seen Henry's despondency and self-consciousness -- the latter of which had only dimmed, but not faded -- and hoped that this newfound zest for life was genuine and not a ploy to get concerned teammates to leave him alone.

"But we're not done with the game!" Bobby squeaked in protest.

"Duck-boy, you are so far in hock we're gonna have to mortgage your first-born to get you out of debt." Ororo shook her head in amusement. "Your next community service project's going to be at Gambler's Anonymous."

Henry put the controller down on the floor and stood up, rolling his neck as he did so. Scott pulled his headphones off and turned off the iPod and swung his feet off the couch. They had more than an hour even if they weren't aiming for 'fashionably late'; Ororo had a phobia about being late and never appreciated that the time listed on a party's invitation was a suggested guideline and not the absolute deadline by which one must arrive.

Bobby sighed dramatically and reached for his crutches. "We're gonna end up sitting around in those monkey suits for an hour while the girls get ready," he groused. He batted the controller by his ankle away with the rubber foot of his left crutch and took his first steps toward the door behind Scott.

"The back elevator," Scott said, holding out a hand to stop Bobby's progress. The front elevator was closest to where they were now and where Bobby's room was on the third floor, but the walk to the further elevator was exercise and Bobby was still limited in what he could do down in the basement. He half-expected Bobby to protest, but apart from a muted whine there was nothing and Bobby executed a graceful turn on his good foot and headed toward the front staircase.

Ororo and Henry were already on their way out of the room. "Cripple coming through," he announced as he aimed himself toward them. "Make way, make way."

~If I'd known you were going to stick to the wall all night,~ Jean murmured in his head, amusement dripping like water, ~I'd have brought a spatula.~

Scott rolled his eyes and hoped that the reaction carried over the psionic bond. The ballroom was full of people and warmly lit by chandeliers with real candles in them; his spot by one of the open French doors was one of the few comfortable temperature zones in the massive room. He sipped his scotch and listened to the muted sounds of Manhattan streets play their counterpoint to the musicians in the far corner. Every once in a while, a silver tray with canapés was paused in front of him so that he could select from exquisite delicacies that all tasted good and could only be occasionally identified.

~I've done the press agent thing already,~ he said after Jean's mental touch didn't diminish. ~Answered everyone's stupid questions, placated everyone's asinine fears, and did my best to assure the rich and powerful that we're more than happy to be the little poodles sitting on their laps getting scratched behind the ears.~

~Jesus, Scott.~ Jean sounded offended. ~Project much?~

He didn't say anything in return, knowing that Jean was annoyed with him and he'd probably only make it worse. She had very much looked forward to this evening and they'd already had chilly moments when he'd been accused of 'sucking all the fun out of her life' by being unable to muster any complementary enthusiasm.

Instead, he looked out on to the street. East 64th was the primest of prime real estate for the upper crust of New York Society, smack dab in the middle of the part of the Upper East Side where residences were inherited, domestic servants omnipresent, and everyone dressed like they were straight out of the fashion magazines even when they were just going to the Starbucks on the corner. The street was empty now except the occasional cab speeding down the empty street; what noise there was came from Madison Avenue on the next corner. The doors of the ballroom opened on to tiny faux balconies, the railings covered in ivy and effectively hiding the room from view from below.

They'd been fetched from the mansion by limousine, awkwardly settling themselves inside the big car, careful and stiff in their unfamiliar finery. They'd ridden in limos before, in London, but that had been as a convenience and they'd been in uniform, not dolled up and pretending that they were entitled to such frippery. Henry had made a joke about reliving his senior prom, but it had fallen flat as he was the only one who had ever been to one.

Jean and the Professor had been the only ones not visibly uncomfortable, looking pleased and content as the limo sped down I-95 toward the Triborough Bridge. The Professor was not born to such wealth; his ease was acquired through experience and exposure. But Jean was. The Grey family had had money long before Jean's father had made his own fortune through some confluence of academia and popular culture; Jean had had a nanny and a closet full of fancy dresses that each cost more than the stipend Scott's foster parents got to purchase his clothes for the year. She didn't know how to cook because there had always been one in her parents' employ; when Scott had first arrived, Jean was still mastering such tasks as vacuuming and laundry. She'd been embarrassed, telling him that the chores were effective tools by which to hone her telekinesis, but Jean was a terrible liar -- not to mention a disastrous cook and mildly incompetent laundress.

~I'm sorry you feel uncomfortable,~ Jean said gently, almost as if she were talking a crazed man off a ledge, although it was really probably that she had decided he was frustrated and self-conscious and not being contrary just to piss her off. ~We are who we are, Scott. But that doesn't mean we can't change. Look at 'Ro -- ~ the mental image for where to look filled his mind's eye; he turned his head to see Ororo was standing at the apex of a semi-circle of Hellfire Club members, laughing easily at someone's joke. She held a champagne flute in her right hand, pinky extended, and looked every inch the African princess instead of the car thief who'd spent the five years before Xavier's roaming around the Bible Belt living on Cheetos and McNuggets.

~That's not what I want to adapt into.~ He closed his eyes and turned back toward the open window and the gentle breeze. ~I don't want to be a part of all this. I don't want to fawn and simper and...~

~And make connections that will ensure the future of our school,~ Jean finished. He was oversimplifying and he knew it and she was calling him on it. ~We're not here to make fishing buddies. We're here to be seen and make polite conversation and accept their acquaintanceships as the rewards due us. We are directly responsible for saving the lives of pretty much everyone in this room, Fearless Leader. This shindig? This is them admitting it. This is them allowing us entry into their world as something other than servants and faceless soldiers. And you're our commander. You're an officer and a gentleman now.~

He snorted in disbelief. He was an officer only in the loosest sense -- field command of the X-Men was not a ranked commission and carried very little in the way of either perquisites or respect from his nominal subordinates. And as well-mannered as he thought he was, tonight's elegance had proven that he was no gentleman and could never pass as one. Nor that anyone in the room would even indulge the pretense should he try. ~I refuse to believe that Harry Leland sees me as anything other than a puppet in a freak show. A disposable puppet at that.~

Leland, tall and barrel-chested and possessing a booming voice, had commandeered him for almost the entire first half-hour of cocktails. The big man had spent a few minutes blasting him with questions, nodding at the answers he approved of and pursing his lips at the ones he didn't, and then brought him around to various groupings, introducing him around without letting Scott say much of anything at all except to answer questions. Before he lost his patience at being led around like a trained monkey, Scott had finally been handed a scotch, turned loose, and ignored ever since. Which suited him just fine.

~Oh, Scott,~ Jean sighed, wistful and sad. ~I wish you could see yourself the way everyone else does. You deserve to be here as much as anyone else in this room. There's no reason to feel as if any of this is beyond your reach.~

A waiter came by, holding out a tray half-filled with empty glasses. Scott downed the last bit of amber liquid and added his own, the uniformed man giving a quick bow and then departing.

~Apart from birth, breeding, and bank account?~ This is why he loved Jean. For all of her own privilege, she was enough of a dreamer to honestly believe in the ideal of advancement on merit. And she believed he had some.

~Birth is accidental and the rest can be either faked or gotten,~ Jean replied with a laugh, pleased at having gotten him out of his funk. ~And now it's time to be seated for dinner. What table number did you get?~

Scott reached into the pocket of his tuxedo jacket to dig out the little card.

~Holy shit!!!~ Jean fairly yelled into his mind and Scott, watching a lissome blonde standing nearby blandly turn away what was obviously a prospective suitor, winced.

~What? What is it?~ Scott stood up and looked for where Jean was standing. He re-imagined the angle from which she'd sent him that view of Ororo and refracted back along that line of sight. Jean was standing with two gray-haired gentlemen and a tall woman of advanced years across the room, near a large plant. She was not facing Scott and what he could see was partially hidden, but he would know the graceful line of her back anywhere and remembered the rear half of her upswept hair from the fifteen times she'd asked him if any of the pins were showing.

~Near the table with the cheese,~ she said with some urgency.

~I didn't get any cheese,~ he retorted.

~Ten o'clock to Henry's noon.~

Henry was easy to spot, a big blue pile of gregariousness surrounded by a wide circle of audience. Slightly to the left were one bank of banquet tables and Scott scanned faces there. Many were recognizable and several more had been introduced to him earlier by Harry Leland and Scott tried to imagine whose presence could have set Jean off like that... Oh.

~What's Dr. McTaggart doing here?~ The doctor stood steady and formidable despite her crutches, looking every bit the Scottish nobility that she was.

~I know she's probably a member of the London branch, but...~ Jean replied, sounding mystified. ~But I can't imagine her being here tonight is any sort of accident.~

Dr. McTaggart was actually rather tall for a woman and her head was inclined to talk to an unseen party, but at that angle her conversation partner was either extremely short or seated... "Oh, no," he murmured aloud. "That can't possibly be good."

The last time the Professor had seen his ex-wife, it had been at the funeral for Elisabeth Braddock. They hadn't said a word, had stood next to each other at the gravesite of one of their son's victims and ignored each other even though it was the first time they'd seen each other since Proteus had run rampant through Europe, since David Xavier had died. Since Scott had killed him.

~Should I go over or should I hide? ~ he asked. ~Does the Professor want us over there?~

~I don't know,~ Jean admitted, a little panicked. ~I can't hear him. He's blocking me out completely.~

The murmur had changed to a bustle as the crowd began to make their way out of the ballroom and toward the dining room. Scott looked around for his teammates. Ororo had her arm looped around the elbow of a much-older man whose name Scott couldn't recall, but was from a very old New York family -- Astors kind of old. Henry was laughing loudly at someone else's joke, his arm extended out to where Bobby was hobbling toward him. The two came together and Henry bowed down a little to whisper something into Bobby's ear and Bobby grinned broadly.

The Professor was visible now, the crowd by the buffet tables thinning out. He looked agitated, leaning slightly forward in his chair, hands gripping the armrests tightly, almost as if he were poised to rise. Scott put aside his own concern for whether Moira McTaggart would be upset to see her son's killer and walked toward them. Jean met him halfway there and they approached together; in the corner of his vision, he could see the others hovering at the rear of the exiting crowd.

"... and here are the prize turnips now," Dr. McTaggart was saying as they came within earshot, turning her head to give them a scathing look before turning back. "Will ye look at them differently now, Charlie? Not as your prized pupils, but instead for what they are? Of course ye won't. That'd mean giving up your own illusions, Professor."

She laughed, a bitter, sharp, ugly noise that distorted her face for a moment before it returned to its look of genteel politeness. "Enjoy your meal, children," she said pleasantly as she walked past them, the rubber tips of her elegant wood crutches making no noise on the parquet floor.

"Professor?" Scott asked carefully, watching Xavier watch Dr. McTaggart join the exiting crowd. He looked distant, the way he did when he was using his telepathy, and Scott looked over at Jean. Her head was cocked slightly, as if she was listening for something, but she turned to face him and smiled ruefully.

"What's going on?" he asked her.

Jean shrugged. "Moi-- Dr. McTaggart must have said something."

"Obviously." Scott rolled his eyes.

"Come," Professor Xavier said in a normal voice, wheeling himself forward. "Let's not hold up the dinner."

Scott scurried to catch up and took the handlebars of the wheelchair. Hands freed, Xavier pulled his seating card out of his breast pocket and Scott looked around for some indication of which table was which. The Professor's table was toward the rear in the middle and Scott was not surprised to see Harry Leland, Winston Frost, Sebastian Shaw and the other big names already seated there. He steered the wheelchair to an empty place left without a chair that had been marked for Xavier's use, nodded to the others, and went back to where he'd seen his own table. The seating arrangement seemed to be such that none of them were seated together and he could hear Jean's concern vaguely in the back of his mind. It wasn't at the seating arrangements per se, but at the growing sense -- nothing more than a hunch -- that something was not quite right. The spreading out of the team throughout the diners was ostensibly for socialization purposes, but could just as easily be to divide and conquer.

~It's only for dinner,~ he pointed out for his own benefit as much as Jean's, none too thrilled himself about sitting by himself at a table full of strangers when his hackles were raised.

~You're not alone,~ Jean replied with a mental caress. ~I'll keep my eyes peeled, too.~

~I don't want...~ Scott bridled, irritated at the thought that he needed his hand held. ~We're so used to seeing conspiracies everywhere. I don't want to start seeing them where they aren't.~

There was only one empty seat at his table, so Scott headed straight for it. He'd half-expected a seat at some Hellfire Club version of the kiddie table, but it was quite the opposite. Robert Parkman was there, along with Brooks Dobson and several others Leland had deemed it important for him to meet. He exchanged pleasantries with his neighbors and nodded greeting to Dobson, who was seated almost directly across the large table.

~What's your brother always telling you?~ Jean asked ascerbicly. ~'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you'? Something's going on here tonight. Something we're not supposed to know about.~

~You're not making any sense.~ A virtual army of waitstaff bringing in the first course kept him from either looking at her or looking for the others. ~If we weren't supposed to know, why would we be here where we could accidentally figure it out? They know you're a telepath and they probably suspect the Professor.~

~What if we're the focus? There are psi-shielded rooms here.~

Scott kept himself from frowning and politely answered Mrs. Parkman's questions about the school's curriculum. She was pleased to know that Latin was being taught, although Scott was not going to tell her that only Piotr had ever tried to learn it. ~You mean like us being the butt of some elaborate joke?~

~Moira McTaggart called us prize turnips,~ Jean reminded him.

~Moira McTaggart is the Professor's very embittered ex-wife,~ Scott retorted. ~She was resentful and angry before all the crap went down with Proteus.~

Waiters came by to open and pour the wine bottles set up in an intricate centerpiece and Scott was surprised to see the first glass poured not for Parkman or Dobson, but instead for a man who couldn't have been much older that himself. ~Who is that?~

~Shinobi Shaw,~ Jean answered, accepting the change in topic for what it was. ~Son and heir of Sebastian Shaw. You've got Shaw Junior, Dobson, Parkman, and Holmeier? They put you at the power-players table, Fearless Leader. I'm stuck here with catamites and dowagers. Be proud. And don't eat your salad with your dessert fork.~

Scott looked down at the table service and nearly choked. Three forks, three wine glasses, and he was only positive that he could discern between the teaspoon and the knife. He felt Jean's amusement.

~Outside fork first, babe,~ she said soothingly. ~And the big wine glass is for water.~

Dinner passed uneventfully and without either a flatware crisis or any more nervous comments from Jean. Scott found himself discussing American isolationism with Arthur Holmeier, who only happened to be a retired ambassador, and siding with Shinobi Shaw in a gentle debate over mutant rights in the workplace. Jean periodically checked in with him, reporting on the doings of their scattered teammates and that there seemed to be no current of thought of anything that might be an ambush.

Coffee and tea were served at the tables and, according to the card that had listed the evening's menu, cognac and cordials would be served in the ballroom. Scott nearly dropped his teacup after a sharp spike of surprise came down the telepathic link.

~What is it?~ he asked, setting his cup down gently in its saucer. The tea service was so delicate as to be almost translucent in his hands and he cringed in anticipation of breaking it with his thick-fingered clumsiness.

~You might want to get ready to leave,~~ Jean warned. ~The Professor is having it out with Sebastian Shaw.~~

He bit into a cookie and looked over toward where Xavier was sitting. The Professor seemed to be engaged in a conversation with Winston Frost and Shaw was across the room staring angrily at the floor while someone Scott didn't recognized was talking to him ~You can hear them?~

~Any telepath in the room can hear them,~she replied.

~Are there any? Besides you?~ It was something he should have been more mindful of; Alex always made such a point of emphasizing how diverse the ranks of the Friends of Humanity and other such groups actually were, how many members of societies like the Hellfire Club were covert -- or not so covert -- sponsors of anti-mutant factions. But there was also a flip side and at least a few of the people here had to be mutants and, in turn, psionic mutations weren't rare.

There was a pause and Scott could feel a distance on their link, a separation that quickly closed. ~One, I think, maybe two psis. At least one is an empath, but I can't get a read on who. Either their shields are really good or they're very weak... Oh, Jesus.~

~What?~ Scott asked in anxious frustration. ~Can't you patch me in to the conversation through the link?~

He could almost feel Jean's effort.

~... and I refuse to accept that your funding was nothing more than a charade, a cover for your traitorous acts.~

Scott rubbed his ear out of instinct as the Professor's angry voice was so loud in his mind.

~Accept or don't accept, Charles. Don't let your hubris blind you to the truth now that you have sought it out. Your school wasn't the goal of our project to start with and our focus has not shifted; your activities are still necessary, but don't think that you exist for any other purpose than diversionary.~

Shaw's mental voice was harsh and ill-modulated; it took time to cultivate a sophisticated tone once a 'headblind' person learned to speak telepathically.

~We are not your circus clowns, Shaw.~

~Dear man, that is precisely what you are. Dancing bears, chorus girls, whatever your euphemism of choice -- that is what you are. That is all that you are. You are paid to keep the world's attention on you through your antics, no matter what you tell yourself and your precious pupils. The Hellfire Club is not interested in your ideas for reshaping the world in anyone's image. We are the most powerful men on Earth, Charles, and the world is already in our image.~

Scott heard a faint buzz and it wasn't coming from the telepathic link. There seemed to be a collective gasp of pain in the room and, suddenly, people started standing up. Shinobi Shaw stood, as did most of those seated at Xavier's table. Looking around the room, several others were standing as well. Those seated were looking... dazed, as if they'd been drugged. (~Telepathically induced hypnotic suggestion,~ Jean whispered along the link. ~They can't hear or see a thing and they won't notice anything when they wake up.~)

~These are the faces of the future, Shaw,~ Xavier's voice was cold with fury. ~These are the Hellfire Club's greatest treasure and greatest secret. How many of these mutants have gone public with their powers?~

Scott looked around again. Both Shaws were mutants? Harry Leland as well? He met Ororo's curious stare from a few tables away and gestured for her to stay where she was.

~Don't you dare threaten me, Xavier,~ Shaw growled. ~I will personally destroy you and everything you stand for.~

~And destroy yourself in the process?~ Xavier sounded confident and almost smug.

~You weren't listening,~ Shaw replied with a sneer. ~We are the most powerful men on Earth, not just the most powerful mutants. We don't need a new world order so that we can accede to the fore. We already have control. We can survive anything.~

~We shall see,~" the Professor murmured as he pulled his wheelchair back from the table. Scott felt something like a snap in his head, like a door closing, and realized that that last comment hadn't been for Shaw's consumption -- or for his own.

~Come, my students,~ Xavier said in a voice that was so at odds to the tone he'd taken with Shaw that Scott could only blink and stare. The Professor obviously didn't want the rest of the team to be aware of what had just transpired and Scott assumed that he would explain everything to everyone later. ~Our time here is done.~

Scott stood and walked around his table, past Shinobi Shaw, who did not move more than his head to follow Scott's progress. Scott wondered if any of the standing realized what was going on, if they could figure out that they were all mutants together. A few feet from where Bobby was waiting for him to catch up, a pretty blonde woman about Henry's age stood watching him pass with frank curiosity. He returned the gaze, albeit through his dark red glasses, and was relieved to see the lack of fear there. At least until he saw that it wasn't just a lack of fear -- it was calculation and a disturbing coldness.

They were quiet until they'd retrieved their coats and stepped outside.

"Is it safe to ask what happened yet?" Ororo asked, looking at Scott.

"Our entry into polite society would seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot," Henry mused, undoing his bowtie. "Which would be a shame. Up until the Great Staring Match, I was having quite a good time."

"Dude, you were a mega-babe-magnet," Bobby said approvingly. "Of course, the babes were all older than my mom..."

Scott was about to ask the Professor about what had gone on, but before he could speak, he heard Xavier's voice in his head.

~Not now, Scott. Not here. Let them distract themselves; there's no need to concern the others over what occurred. As far as I'm concerned, this changes nothing for us. The Hellfire Club's folly shall be our gain. They have bought a revolution, no matter what they think.~

Alison Blair, singer, traveler, mutant, and thief, walked down the block with the artlessly casual gait of a pretty girl who doesn't care who watches. The artlessness wasn't completely disingenuous and her motions had a softness and grace that couldn't be faked -- one did not spent as much time as she did in the spotlight up on stage and not know what every little gesture looked like and how it could be interpreted. Alison was a performer and this was but another role on a bigger stage. The best front men only let you see what they wanted you to see, sleight of hand done in plain sight, magicians of a much subtler art than rabbits out of hats, and Alison felt the buzz that accompanied the start of a successful trick nobody would unravel.

She went in to the Wendy's on the corner and got a milkshake that she was fairly sure had only a passing relationship with any dairy product. She sucked on the straw thoughtfully as she moved on toward the Abercrombie & Fitch window, stopping next to the "No Food Allowed" sign, periodically shaking the cup to judge how much was left. Finally she saw the sky-blue van waiting at the light on the next corner. Walking over to the garbage pail to throw out the cup, she paused, looking thoughtfully at the bank right in front of her, as if she wasn't sure she had enough money to go shopping.

With the cup still in her hand she went toward the bank, smiling brightly at the woman who held the door open for her. Once inside, she could see that the sliding glass inner doors that separated the bank proper from the ATM vestibule were fully opened. The glass panels were probably bulletproof, but it didn't matter if they were made of adamantium if they were going to be reduced to decoration; they were too far apart for even a long-armed man to close them quickly. Just to be sure, however, she knelt next to one of them as if she were retying her shoelaces and, using her body to shield her actions from witnesses, held her hand over the bottom corner of the door. Focusing her light generating abilities hard enough to produce a high-heat blast was not as difficult as it used to be and, without having to worry about accuracy, she could easily melt the metal cornice enough for it to ooze toward the metal tracking on the floor. In a few minutes, the door would be unmovable.

Standing up, she arranged her clothes with her free hand, making sure to look relieved to see another garbage pail right next to her. She dumped her cup into the pail and then, as if remembering, opened up her purse and pulled out a Dunkin' Donuts bag and put it in the trash, too. Inside the white paper bag was a repeater so that the signal from the van would be amplified and Doug could work his magic.

It still boggled her that until the Sentinels had come, Doug Ramsay had only ever thought that he'd been gifted, exceptionally talented with mathematics and positively amazing with languages. A decorated CIA field agent, it had been a routine physical that had revealed the truth and he'd gone to ground after his station chief had called him back to get a follow-up test. That had been ten years ago. Alison had met him five years ago in a club in Amsterdam where he had been deejaying; she'd never seen a crowd so in tune with the mood and she'd never felt the music so purely in her life. And Doug's mutation was why.

On stage, he called himself DJ Cypher, as apt a description as any Alison had for his gifts. There wasn't a language he couldn't understand, a pattern he couldn't discern. He could perfectly transcribe any piece of music and translate any language. Mathematics and music had a long history together and so did psychology and music. Combining it all was easy if you were a universal translator and Doug, brilliant Doug, had become the master of that intersection. The DJ controlled the crowd in any hall, but Doug's control was one of mathematical precision and it was absolute. He could bring a rave to a near-frenzy, dangle them off the edge until they couldn't take it anymore, then bring them back safely over and over again and none the worse for wear except for the exhaustion. It had only been a matter of time before Doug, ever curious, decided to see who else it would work on.

Alison had been his first knowing test subject, a willing volunteer as always. She'd been unsurprised when he'd clapped headphones on her ears and she'd found herself whirled from anger to despair to the horniest she'd ever been in her life. What had been surprising was the almost hypnotic control he'd had over her in a later test, a gentle, passive mind control that didn't feel forced but instead removed any real urge to defy the command. Once that had been perfected, there wasn't a thing in the world that was beyond their imagination.

Once Doug had worked out a system of repeaters and amplifiers, straightforward robbery of stores was almost too easy. Banks, however, had the right amount of danger and excitement. Technology had made banks lazy -- panic buttons for tellers, video cameras, and ATMs had all but eliminated the on-site guards and banks were content to recoup the losses afterward rather than fight the robbery at the instant it occured. Overcome the technology -- and where Doug's intellectual brilliance found its limit, Alison's own more literal kind carried the balance -- and the money was practically a gift.

Alison liked gifts. Gifts she received and gifts she gave and the ones that had no provenance beyond fate such as her own powers and Doug's and the happy confluence of those powers that allowed the two of them a life dedicated to the best kind of hedonism, a life where generosity and pleasure were unfettered by mundane necessity. With Doug she traveled extensively and performed often and lived comfortably while doing both, turning her contentment into pleasure for others just as she converted sound into light. It was a good life, a happy life, and the occasional bank heist was both fuel and flavor.

This bank had been chosen for no other reason than that it was close to their route from St. Louis to Philadelphia, an unremarkable branch of a nation-wide bank that wasn't too far from an unremarkable exit off I-70. Their first visit to Richmond, Indiana's newest branch of Bank of America had confirmed a layout that was geared toward projecting a feeling of airiness and openness than actual security: large windows, counter glass that barely came up to shoulder level, and no security doors. It made for a branch that was friendly, clean, well-lit, and utterly defenseless.

Alison pulled out her iPod and opened up the little case for her headphones as she walked slowly toward the end of the queue for the tellers. Bette Midler was singing on the bank's stereo and, while Ali had much respect for The Divine Ms. M, there was a greater purpose in putting in the earbuds and calling up Doug's Stander Gang playlist.

Ever since her mutation had manifested, Alison had been acutely aware of sound and nothing, not Sentinels and not the death of rock on the radio, scared her as much as silence did. She liked being around noise -- living in cities, hanging in clubs, floating through life on a current of decibels. Here in this town, with its polite drivers and perimeter of farms and warehouses, was most definitely an ebb tide and Alison itched for a plane overhead, a kid with a boombox, a bar full of patrons yelling at the football team playing on the television. Doug hated noise when he worked and she'd been unable to get her fix by either turning up the van's stereo or playing her iPod too loudly.

She could turn in up as loudly as she wanted here and she did, feeling the noise seep into her system like a drug she'd been craving.

Everyday white noise was a low-grade fix, a steady, gentle supply of energy that could be converted without ending up as the glowing girl shooting sparklers. It was like food and water, easily digested and processed by her body for whatever purpose it was needed. But jacking in like this, loud music as her only source, was a much sharper spike, like the rush of harsh whiskey on an empty stomach, a warm fire spreading in its wake and making her burn. It was impossible to keep still, so hard to keep the energy building inside actually inside, and Alison knew she was swaying slightly to the rhythm of the beat, coming a little more alive with each measure as the world got more vivid around her and she became so much more aware.

There were five people ahead of her on the line for the tellers, two men and three women and one of them had a baby carriage. None of them were looking at her directly, but all of them were aware of the exception to the placid stillness of the properly patient queue. The woman with the baby carriage looked over quickly and sharply, as if she were assessing the danger of a fidgety young woman to her precious child. Alison gave her a friendly smile, aware that it looked a little more blissed than benign and doubting that the mother with her Wal-Mart clothes and exhausted slouch remembered the difference if she'd ever known it.

Two tellers were at the counter, bored plastic smiles and eyebrows raised in helpful interest, with two more working in that open area on the other side of the low frosted glass and wood paneling. There was one bank manager, chatting amiably with the tellers in the rear, and the Personal Investment Advisor was not in today. There was nothing in their postures and expressions that spoke of alertness to or awareness of the possibilities of danger. The two women and one man in the rear laughed as they worked, gossip breaking up the monotony if not the efficiency.

There were four video cameras with views into the room -- one above the inner entry doors that swept from the manager's office to the gated door to the safe deposit box rooms and covered the queue and the counter from the right; one above that gated door that swept from the entry doors in a 90-degree arc that included most of the counter and all of the queue; and two on the other side of the counter, one to observe the tellers at the counter from behind and one to sweep over the doings at the stations against the far wall where money-counting and other accounting took place. The two that swept over the queue could be taken out at once and the one that covered the tellers from behind would follow.

Taking out the cameras was all just for precautionary reasons, of course. Alison had been able to create mirages for a year now and from there the ability to create and maintain a small, controlled one about her person had shortly followed. What had been hard, however, was to learn to 'pitch' her light so that she was rendered invisible to the cameras while maintaining a mirage that gently blurred her features to the naked eyes of witnesses.

Checking her watch, Alison hit the pause button on her music, closing her eyes to ease the transition. Over the bank's stereo, Bette Midler was no more and Rick Astley was now crooning and Alison pulled out her cell phone as it started to vibrate. '1 Astley or 2 PSisters + #queued?' the text message asked. She text-messaged back the reply, waited for his response ("cool"), and then put the phone away -- she wouldn't need it until she was at the front of the line -- and un-paused the iPod.

The play list was full of familiar music, high energy tracks that were among the ones she sang to on stage in the clubs alternating with old favorites, all encoded with confidence-boosting audio tracks that Doug had made just for her. She didn't need the aural hand-holding as much as she used to and Doug, ever cautious, was pushing for her to use them less. She did need the energy from the music, however, for the mirage, to take out the cameras and melt the door -- building an intense heat from light drew heavily on her stores, and to block out Doug's transmission once it started playing the encoded tracks over the bank's stereo system.

Not every song could be easily encoded. Dance tracks were better because the additional sounds were harder to notice, ballads and torch songs were next to impossible; she and Doug had spent months pulling together a play list of usable tracks to broadcast. It was heavily tilted towards eighties pop songs with their synthesizer accompaniments and seventies disco, upbeat music whose familiarity helped listeners relax enough to receive the subliminal boost.

Three people were left on line when she again hit pause to listen. Katrina and the Waves were walking on sunshine and Alison smiled in anticipation, still swaying to her own rhythm. This was the first of the encoded tracks, containing a milder suggestion than what would follow so that the change would not be too abrupt (Doug had given her that look when she'd called it "a laxative"). Quickly going back to her own music, Alison closed her eyes and took a deep breath and focused on Paul Rodgers's voice.

It was five minutes until there was only one person left in front of her and Alison, feeling sated on her noisy high, pulled out her cell phone and dialed, letting it ring once before hanging up. The next song would start the process for real and it would be none too soon. Her fingers seemed to flex and ball on their own as she looked around, eager for something to distract her from the wait that now seemed interminable.

The manager had gone back to her office and the male teller in the rear was hunched his desk while the female teller was standing in front of the bill counting machine with her back to the counter and the customers. The two tellers at the counter were, on the surface, unchanged, but Alison, with her hyper-keen eyes and knowledge of what was happening, could see the differences. When she'd come in, they'd both been bright-eyed and chipper and projecting an aura of eagerness with all the force they could bring to muster. Now, however, they shared a mellower countenance, still smiling but less perkily and vivaciously so and, if anything, it made for a more genuine expression. They'd be feeling good, a pleasant buzz not unlike after sex, but without the fatigue. Compliance was more easily encouraged than forced.

When the last customer before her was called, she turned around and gestured vaguely toward both cameras. The sun shone brightly through the tall windows and glared off of the tile floor and with nobody else on line behind her and the tellers busy, if anyone noticed the orbs of light, they said nothing. By now, they were all used to her fidgeting and movement, visual white noise like the music in the background -- and equally hidden behind innocuous facades. Turning back and facing front, she smiled brightly at the clerk who summoned her forward.

Alison pulled out a passbook with a withdrawal slip. The slip was printed out by Doug and it was for $25,000 in cash. As the teller examined the passbook, which reported that the account had $37,342.82 as of the first of the month, Alison leaned forward. "You don't need to check the computer," she said helpfully and stifled a smile. She'd be incapable of looking anything but hungry right now if she allowed herself a grin.

Obi-Wan Kenobi couldn't have gotten a better response.

"No," the teller agreed slowly. The encoded music achieved malleability by creating a fogginess in the mind and Alison knew patience and gentleness were required. Sharp voices or other stresses could thin the fog or, in certain cases, break the fugue entirely. "I don't."

"Put it in this," she suggested to the teller as she handed over a folded-up dark green nylon duffel bag.

The teller took it, looking at it curiously as though she'd never seen such a thing before, and nodded. "It will take a minute or two," she warned, waiting for Alison to nod acceptance before turning away. Alison took the opportunity to knock out the remaining camera. The expenditure of light felt very good, the way using her powers usually did, and allowed her to bleed off some of the eagerness building within. She'd tweaked the mirage once she'd been called to the counter and maintaining it was enough of an effort to soothe the pressure of being an overcharged battery, but she was still full and still wired and maintaining her outward serenity was making her frustrated. Thankfully, the teller wouldn't be gone long; this close to noon and the cash would be ready and waiting in the locked holding area that was easier to access than the vault.

According to Doug, who always seemed to know such things, there were precisely two times a month that a bank branch in a mid-sized town could be expected to have so much ready cash and both times were paydays. In a small city where daily life was not expensive enough to really require credit cards and people still paid cash at restaurants and supermarkets, the banks had to be prepared. And Doug, a hacker of extraordinary deftness, knew precisely how much was to be delivered to this branch in anticipation of today's exchanges. Once they'd eyeballed the site, it had simply been a matter of showing up before lunch.

The teller returned carrying the now-full duffel and had to stand on her toes to reach over the frosted glass above the counter to hand over the bag.

"Thank you," Alison told her, accepting the bag and waiting for the teller to update the passbook. The duffel was heavy, but not unreasonably so. Nonetheless, she was careful to hold it in such a fashion that she could shrug her purse further on to her shoulder without jostling the earphone cord. "Have a good weekend."

Alison couldn't hear if the teller made a reply, turning away from the teller window and walked at a reasonable pace toward the door, measuring her stride in counts of One Mississippi, Two Mississippi to keep her paces unhurried and relaxed. Outside, Doug sat in the open side doorway of the idling minivan, eating a hamburger and it was all she could do not to run to him and scream in glee.

Doug looked up at her; a speaker rested next to him and Alison knew that if she took out her earphones, she'd hear music that would nauseate her. It was to keep people away and it worked like a charm; Doug himself had to wear earplugs or he'd vomit after five minutes. Alison smiled in answer to Doug's questioning look and she watched him get up, reach into the van's interior and turn off the music, put the speaker inside, and take out his earplugs. He turned back to face her and took the duffel from her, tossing it into the back without concern, then reached out to cup her face, knocking her earphones loose with the back of his hands.

The sudden deprivation of the loud sound and the encoded music was shocking to her system, like jumping in to cold water but less pleasant, and she closed her eyes and forced herself to focus on how the sudden quiet really wasn't -- there was the idling of the van's engine, the sound of a car's tires as it drove past them, the distant laughter of a pedestrian somewhere down the block, the whisper of Doug's breath against her face as he leaned down to kiss her forehead, her own heartbeat as it slowed down from the adrenaline high.

"Any trouble?" Standing so close, Doug's voice was a low rumble she felt more than heard and she shivered. She was tired, so very tired, even though she knew her store of energy was replete. It was psychological, she told herself, only in her mind, and that's why Doug wanted her to stop using the encoded music. Maybe she'd listen to him next time.

"Of course not," she replied, opening her eyes. Doug was watching her with something less than wariness and more than just casual interest. She smiled her brightest at him, knowing that he wasn't fooled but really not in the mood to hear his lecture on extended exposure to mood-altering sounds. "I'm really hungry, though."

Doug smiled indulgently, although his eyes showed his continued concern. He opened up the passenger-side door to the minivan, and Alison got in. He closed the door behind her then the side sliding door, taking another fast-food bag out out before he did and putting it in the garbage can. The second repeater, it would allow them to continue broadcasting the encoded music until they were more than a half-mile away.

Three hours, a lunch break, and a state line later, Doug's cell phone rang. The call was not unexpected and he answered it before it rang again.

"... Of course not... Because we are not amateurs... No, I don't think so. We will be in Europe for the next six weeks... Berlin would be better... That will be fine.... I doubt it, but you're welcome to make the attempt... Goodbye, Miss Lehnsherr."

"Ist das alles, Herr Moran?"

Alex Summers smiled pleasantly and nodded at the clerk, who had been more than helpful after having been dragged away from whatever she did when she wasn't required to handle requests by people who spoke not a shred of Slovakian and had to make do with a combination of English, French, German, and hand-waving. "Ja. Vielen Dank."

He had planned to go to Bratislava for months, at least in theory, but a field trip to Hungary for his Geologic Mapping seminar had given him both opportunity and cover story. After a successful three days of work, unseasonably heavy rain had washed out their
site and they'd been given the fourth day to themselves. Alex had ridden back to Györ with the group, going with them as far as the train station. He had told the trio going to Vienna that he was going with the rest of the gang to Budapest, then told the Budapest-bound group that he'd changed his mind and was going to Vienna after all. They'd given him grief -- typical Alex with his head elsewhere -- and he'd taken it with the good humor that they'd intended. And then he'd booked round-trip passage to Bratislava's Hlavná stanica. The trip, including border crossing, was ninety minutes and he had had time to pull out his notes and work.

"Es kostet fünf euros für die Dokumente." The clerk gave him the papers in a plain brown envelope.

Alex handed over the correct change; he was now the proud owner of reproductions of the incorporation papers of one Magdanya Imports. He smiled, put the rest of the money back into his pocket, put the identification card that said he was Irish citizen Darragh Moran into his breast pocket, took out his sunglasses, and left the office, following the Byzantine hallways with their identical beige painted walls and flickering fluorescent lights. While much of Bratislava's government complex was old and beautiful -- much more than he'd thought would be the case -- there were exceptions and those exceptions were notable. The building had the boxy, sturdy look of something the communists had put up when they were running out of money and power and the Slovaks had not bothered to replace because it kept the rain out and they had more important things to do.

The heavy steel doors at the entrance were wedged open to allow fresh air in -- or at least what would be fresh air if there weren't a dozen Slovak civil servants standing right outside and smoking like chimneys. Alex moved past them, crossed the street and headed back toward the open-air market he had passed after he'd gotten off the shuttle bus. It was early afternoon and he hadn't eaten since the pastry and coffee at barely after dawn. There were pubs and cafés all along the street leading to the market and he stopped in one of the former, getting a pint of local brew and a plate groaning with sausages, cabbage, and potato dumplings for less than a bottle of milk cost back in Oxford. He ate heartily and hungrily and, sated, he pushed the plate aside and pulled out the folder into which he'd tucked the envelope. It was a thick folder, crammed with printouts, photographs, and notes taken during his months of research.

It had taken Alex the better part of six weeks to completely parse the files on the CD Piotr had left him almost a year ago, to compile a list of names, places, companies, dates, and other data. It had taken him nearly six months to make anything in the way of headway toward understanding what he'd been given.

The short answer seemed to be "everything", but the more precise answer was that Alex was in possession of a lot of specifics, most of which were out-dated and very little of which could be considered either revelatory or damning. Most of the information could be constructed into the form of a narrative, the story of how expatriate academic Charles Xavier had met and, at least intellectually, been seduced by wealthy eccentric Erik Lehnsherr, who was now dead. It didn't matter, in the grand scheme of things, that Erik Lehnsherr had been Magneto. Mutant terrorist or oil baron, Lehnsherr was dead and that left very little in the way of usefulness on the CD.

Long before the Savage Lands had become a reality, Erik Lehnsherr had created a vast and largely untraceable network of holding companies, bank accounts, and other means of asset management ideally suited for illicit activities. On the CD there had been an early draft of a speech by Xavier, never given as far as Alex could tell, advocating the establishment of support cells in each city and country, ready to protect, defend, and if need be spirit away mutants from danger. But if the files on the disc were the groundwork for a mutant Amnesty International; they were also the elements of a far darker purpose. Among the items on Piotr's CD, there were PDF files of legal documents, bank passbooks, and birth certificates, images of signatures that could be forged, and a file of what Alex assumed were account numbers, names, and (in cipher) the names and locations of the banks. There were deeds to warehouses, commercial buildings, homes, and at least one plane.

But what troubled Alex was not that the network existed -- it would have surprised him more if it hadn't; even homicidal maniacs needed to pay for goods and services -- it was instead that what was on the CD Piotr had given him had all of the markings of being collected by a relatively low-level member of the Brotherhood hierarchy and not someone in a true position of knowledge. Alex had spent six months chasing down names and had come to no stopping point; Zeno's paradox had nothing on this elaborate setup that seemed to fold over on itself while simultaneously spreading to almost every country with a bank that insured deposits and a few that didn't, but would forget your name for a few extra euros.

Alex suspected the trail that had led him to Bratislava had been laid long before there was a European Union and long before there was an independent Slovakia. When he'd asked the clerk where the deed for the home of Magdanya Imports was located, she had told him it was in an old and expensive part of town, one that had been the commercial area for the communist bigwigs while everyone else went without. Erik Lehnsherr, son of Holocaust survivors, had divested from Austria after Kurt Waldheim came to power, but Bratislava was right over the border and he certainly had had the cash to grease the right palms before 1989.

The waitress, a slightly plump bottle blonde with too much eye shadow and the wrong shade of lipstick gestured toward the empty beer mug. "Wurde Sie mögen andere?"

Most of the Slovaks here, at least those in service positions, spoke German at least passably and he'd heard it more than once on the street. The Austrians must love it here, Alex mused. With the differing economies, it must be like the New Yorkers who went to Jersey on the weekends to shop to get away from the taxes and the higher prices.

"Kein danke," he replied, shaking his head. It was good beer and a pleasant place to sit, but he had no idea where else his wild goose chase would take him and he had to be back in Hungary tonight.

She handed him the check and he pulled out his pocketful of change and the map of Bratislava he had bought in the train station. He asked her to show him where on the map the street Magdanya Imports was located on would be and she pointed to a spot that was a couple of kilometers away. It was on the other side of what looked to be an old part of the city, judging by the number of little pinkish rectangles that indicated noteworthy or historical sites.

It took an hour's walk to get there, mostly because the map could not predict Bratislava's public works department blocking off alleyways and pulling up cobblestones in some ambitious project that involved laying new sewer pipes. Back in New York, the Transit Museum had been not far from where he'd lived with his foster family and he remembered the photographs of when that city's subway was being built; a century later, the same haphazard feats of civil engineering were once again being employed to prop up façades as the streets were being gutted. The buildings were old, centuries old in some cases, and if one ignored the changes in fashion and the foremen screaming into cell phones, it could almost have been the same scene.

At one point, feeling hopelessly lost, Alex gave up the pretense of knowing where he was going and asked for direction. An elderly man walking with a stoop and leaning heavily on a cane waved dismissively at the map Alex offered him and, instead, gestured toward a tallish tower a what looked to be a few blocks away.

The tower was not very tall from up close -- or at least not to Alex's jaundiced view after having grown up in a city of skyscrapers. It had a base of maybe six stories, then it narrowed into a hexagon that went up for one or two more. There were windows in the base, but not enough to tell whether they were for a staircase or for rooms. What was notable about the tower was that it was in the middle of the cobblestone street with an arch cut into its bottom, a smooth vault cutting away most of the first story that was wide enough for a car or even a bus to pass through. Sort of an Enlightenment version of the apartment buildings over the entrance to the GW Bridge back home in New York. There was no rush hour traffic backed up here, though. While he supposed that emergency vehicles could get through, it was a strictly pedestrian path that just happened to be wide enough for two-way auto traffic.

Once through the arch and out from under the tower, Alex looked around. It felt like he was in a canyon of buildings, unbroken stretches of four stories of apartments over street-level storefronts, each old and with beautiful moldings around each window. To his right, the buildings were painted a hideous canary yellow and to his left, the more typical whitewash darkened by aging a country that had taken part in the Industrial Revolution but hadn't quite gotten into the pollution phobia that gripped Western Europe and America.

The sign for Magdayna Imports was large and easily seen, light-colored copperplate on a brass-framed black backround. It was between a pub and a tailor and the door was open.

"Hallo?" Alex called quietly as he stepped inside. He took off his sunglasses and smoothed his oxford. He'd dyed his hair brown the day before they'd left Oxford, ostensibly to woo a girl on the trip (his mates had found it amusing) and he'd taken out his nose ring on the train while his tattoos were not visible with him wearing a long-sleeve shirt. He was betting on the changes in appearance, plus the likelihood that most Slovaks couldn't tell a weak Irish accent from a good one, being enough to keep it from being immediately obvious that it was Alex Summers (or Alex Blandings, depending on who was asking) poking around.

A woman in her sixties scurried out from the back room. She was stocky, like many Slovaks of middle age were, and had striking Slavic eyes that had probably been her best feature even before her face had filled out from years and carbohydrates. She smiled warmly at him.

"Wie kann ich Ihnen helfen?"

Alex grinned. Nobody yet today had spoken to him first in Slovakian. "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" he asked hopefully. His German really wasn't good enough to be doing all of this without recourse to another language. He understood more than he could say and most of what he could say came via circumlocution; he'd taken a few semesters' worth at Balliol and while his tutor was a far more demanding instructor than he'd have managed at an American university, his French was still better.

"A little bit," she answered apologetically, shrugging artlessly.

"I'm looking for this man," Alex began, pulling his backpack around on his shoulder and pulling out a picture of Erik Lehnsherr. It was an old photo, perhaps as much as fifteen years old, and Lehnsherr was shown relaxed and happy, sitting in a Queen Anne chair with books behind him. "I was told that he owned this store."

The woman took the photo hesitantly and Alex watched her face closely. Her brow furrowed slightly as she looked at the photo. "My husband owned this store. He is... tot. I own it now," she said as she held the photo out to him.

"I just..." Alex trailed off, hoping he looked crestfallen. He ran his fingers through his hair as if in distress. "This man, he is my grandfather -- mein Großvater. I've never met him. I don't think he knows I exist. My mother... sie ist krank. I wanted to tell him... This was my only lead... "

She looked at him sharply, waiting to see what he said.

"Ich hatte gehofft..." he sighed, genuinely flustered at his lack of progress and the expectant look on her face, as if at any moment he'd start making more sense. His German classes had been geared toward reading comprehension, with less emphasis on speaking and listening, and today had been nothing but illustrative in how that was a shortfall.

"This was my only idea of where he could be.... Ich weiß nicht wo sonst... " he broke off and looked at her pleadingly.

There was a long pause and he waited, breath held, until the woman withdrew her hand and looked at the photo again, lips pursed sourly. "What is his name?"

"His name is Jacob Steinman," Alex answered, exhaling audibly and with obvious relief. "But I don't think he used it here. He had... viele Namen."

"Alle sie tun das," she muttered. "Rickard Vietsch. He owns this place. This... Gebäude. I have not seen him in many years."

She handed the photograph back, looking at him critically. "You have his nose," she said thoughtfully and Alex wondered if she was deciding whether to help the pathetic Jewish boy or not. He didn't have remotely the same nose as Erik Lehnsherr, but neither of them had very small noses.

"Do you have an address?" he asked instead.

"It is another company, not a person," she warned as she turned back toward the counter. Walking behind, she went to an old ledger tucked into a niche in the wall. The store, all dark wood polished to a gleaming shine, had no cash register. "It is in Bonn."

"That's okay," he replied quickly. Bonn was easy. Bonn had online phone directories and German efficiency when it came to getting information and he'd probably not even have to go there to get the next relay point. Because whatever was in Bonn would not be the answer to his questions, either.

The woman returned with a piece of paper upon which an address was written in large, flowing handwriting. "Good luck," she said as she handed it to him.

"Thank you very much." He put the paper and the photograph back into the folder in his bag. "I appreciate it a lot."

Alex looked at his watch as he exited the shop. He had six hours left before he had to be on a train back to Györ. More than enough time to do some actual sightseeing, although the temptation was strong to find a pub and plan his next step or an internet café and see if he couldn't discover the next leap after Bonn -- if there was a lead in Vienna, say, that would be possible to work on today rather than waiting for a long weekend or a recess.

On the way back toward the old city, right near the Municipal Museum, there was a protest. Alex had to laugh as it became obvious what it was about; as part of the blatant attempts to woo EU interest, Slovakia had started legislating in favor of mutant rights. The response was quick and remarkably well organized -- both the Friends of Humanity and the Human Supremacy League had set up outposts in Bratislava, among other Eastern European cities. Alex had still been with FoH when they had put together the 'diplomatic mission'; he'd have gone if it had been during summer vacation and not mid-semester. The protest, largely by students and only some of them obviously mutants, was a demonstration against the FoH storefront. Most of the signs were in Slovakian, a few in German, and some in English.

"Mutants Are Welcome in Slovakia" one of the signs said. And Alex, feeling for his backpack over his shoulder, laughed sardonically. If they only knew.

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