Chapter 33: “Buggered by the Biggest Stevedore in the Port”

“Stay right there; don’t move.”

John had to smile at the request. The man was naked; blond hair that had been gelled carefully into place the night before when they met in the bar was tumbling down his forehead in early morning disarray. Other than his bare skin (still fairly taut for 38), he wore his yuppie little half-frame glasses and the eager smile of a kid who had found a dirty magazine in the tool shed.

“Like this?” John stretched out on the bed, acutely aware the effect his nakedness was having on Taylor Kincaid.

“God, you’re beautiful. Turn over!”

John complied and the man began kissing his way down his vertebrae. John sucked in a deep breath and tried not to buck as the stubble tickled the small of his back. He knew where the man was going; he had spent enough time there last night. Soon a clever tongue was probing the edges of his hole and John pushed his ass up to signal his approval, his compliance, his total availability.

They had returned to Kincaid’s low-rise apartment building around 1:30 in the morning and John had maintained a modest silence in deference to Kincaid’s wary glances up and down the street. John was a dirty secret, just like Mystique had said. He had expected the sex to be hurried and clumsy, but the tenderness had surprised him. Kincaid had looked him in the eyes throughout (well, except when his face was buried between John’s ass cheeks) with so much sweetness and gratitude that John had been unexpectedly touched.

Now, with the fresh light of spring shining through the windows of the third floor walk-up, they again made love. This time John fucked Kincaid, who made little gasps of pleasure, and at one point laughed as if he couldn’t believe what was happening to him. John fucked him harder, as if to say, “Believe it. I’m here with you, one hundred percent.”

The life of a spy.

When John returned from the shower, still naked, Kincaid was sitting at the small desk in the bedroom in pin-striped boxers and a polo shirt, poking at his fancy black laptop. He smiled a bit nervously at John. “So, um, Allan, what are you up to today?”

John took a second to appreciate the name he had come up with for the mission: Allan Jarndyce. Not only a spoonerism of his own name, but a reference to his favorite Dickens novel. “I have to start looking for a place to live. I’ve been blowing all my money on that motel since I moved to D.C. last month. Shit,” he said, as if to himself. “I have to pay for another week tonight. I’m so unorganized.”

Kincaid closed the laptop and patted his already combed hair into place. “Oh, yeah, I see. But the thing is, I don’t have anything really important happening until around three… Nothing I can’t cancel, anyway. And the Cherry Blossom Festival is on now, if you haven’t already —”

John nodded with enthusiasm. “No, that would be awesome. I’ve been meaning to go.” He picked up a large soft towel, letting the sunlight show off his body as he dried his hair. He lowered the towel and gave Kincaid a concerned look. “But I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble at work. What did you say you do again?”

“Oh, just government stuff. Like everyone else in Washington.”

So they went down to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry trees. The early warmth of spring had meant that most of the flowers were already gone before the festival was half over, but John acted the part of the enthusiastic tourist anyway. They had lunch in a fancy patio restaurant, so expensive that John knew he shouldn’t even make a pretense of offering to pay. There he told Kincaid details of his manufactured biography, embellishing it with off-the-cuff details he would have to remember to write down for future reference. He talked about the boyfriend who had beaten him up and then stalked him until he had felt obliged to sneak away from New York in the middle of the night and make a new start here. He was hoping, he explained, to save up enough money to do his Masters in English lit.

Throughout, Kincaid listened with interest, his eyes moving across John’s features, sometimes on his lips, sometimes on his hair, always return with burning intensity to his eyes. After lunch, under a tree across from the Jefferson Memorial, John thanked Kincaid for lunch and for listening, and then leaned in and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Kincaid blushed and looked around, as if cameras might be anywhere.

“Sorry,” John mumbled.

“No, I’m sorry, Allan. That was… sweet.” He sat down on a bench and John joined him. “The thing is, I’m, uh, married. I have a wife back home in Idaho. And two daughters. This city thrives on rumors. If anyone knew what I was…” He looked across the water and John thought his face looked suddenly older.

John kept it cool. He recalled Magneto’s words when he had doubted his own suitability for the spy mission. “Oh, young Pyro, I think you always know the right thing to say. Not that you always say the right thing…” He told Kincaid. “I know. I saw the wedding ring in the medicine cabinet. I don’t mind, Taylor. Really. I mean, we all do what we have to, right? To survive?”

Kincaid gave him a look of pure, open gratitude. “That’s it exactly. You’re a smart guy. I started working for Congressman Kemper during the election. He’s one of my father’s best friends, and dad has worked with him on and off for 30 years. I busted my ass during the campaign, and he must have been impressed because he has me here on a special project for a few months. It could be a real stepping stone in my career.”

John acted cool, almost a little bored by the topic. “Oh yeah? What kind of project?”

“Sorry, can’t say. It’s… um, sensitive.” John watched Kincaid shutting down and jumped in with a question.

“So, I guess your dad is really proud of you. Making it to Washington like this!”

“Yeah, he is. He keeps saying that I could be the one to replace the Congressman when he retires, but, um, I don’t think that’s really me.”

John shot him a smile. A Bobby Drake kind of smile. “Still, the future Representative from Idaho shouldn’t be seen kissing random guys in front of the Jefferson Memorial.”

Taylor’s eyes held his like magnets. “You’re not just some random guy.” He cleared his throat. “Listen, Allan, I know this is kind of… and I don’t want you to feel in any way obliged…”

John held his breath. Was it going to work out this simply? Really?

Kincaid continued. “It’s dumb for you to pay for another week at that motel when I have lots of room at my place. Then you can take your time looking for an apartment and a job. And I’m going to be really busy in the next while. I’ll hardly be there!”

They drove to the motel, and it was awful enough to make Kincaid call the operation a “rescue.” On the way back to the Petworth apartment, John insisted they stop for groceries so he could cook his “rescuer” dinner. After they had sex, Kincaid was drifting off to sleep in the queen-sized bed. He looked up to find John running a finger along his sleek black laptop.

“You coming to bed, Allan?”

“Uh, I’m kind of wired. I thought I might write a little. Can I use your laptop?”

“No way, sorry. Many deep, dark government secrets!” He gave a sinister little laugh. “If I let you even turn that on, we would have to lock you in the dungeon for life.”

John pouted. “I just wanted to use Word, man.”

“There’s an old laptop at the office. How about if I bring it home for you tomorrow? Now, come to bed, okay?”

John bit his lip. This was the laptop he needed to get into. “Yeah, I’m just gonna go pee.” He sauntered into the bathroom casually, and once the door was closed, he pulled out the tiny texting device he had secreted in his palm. The little keyboard was awkward, but he only had to type a short message: “I’M IN.” He hit the send button.

 

***

 

Bobby knew it was going to be a bad day the minute his feet hit the floor, the last rung on a ladder out of a night of bad dreams. He felt that familiar tightness in the chest — the feeling that the next breath might just fail to arrive. He had first experienced it two years earlier when his parents were on the verge of divorce. It had continued in the early months of his mutant manifestation and his arrival at the school. Jean had assured him he wasn’t having a heart attack at 16. “Panic attacks,” she called them, and she’d taught him how to meditate and breathe his way out. But that method required him to get away from everyone which was, of course, impossible. Everyone depended on Bobby to be the stalwart, the rock, the guy you went to when you had problems. If he was falling apart, what chance did the rest of them have?

No, he couldn’t get away. It was Saturday. There were games, excursions, study sessions, a drop-in discussion group. And his girlfriend. It was a busy time of year, with final papers due in all their courses, and all week he had been promising Rogue, “Saturday — we’ll have time together on Saturday.” Well, the big day had arrived and he couldn’t very well say that what he really needed was space to fucking meditate… to figure out why his life felt like it was snowboarding into a tree. No, it wouldn’t be fair to Rogue. But then he imagined a long walk with her through the grounds as she gushed about the landscape, her papers, trivial conversations with friends. Through the whole thing, she would be leaning against him, her gloved hand on his arm. Thinking about it made him wheeze.

“I’m going to hit the shower, Derek,” he told his roommate who was only barely conscious. “Don’t sleep through breakfast.”

The cold water poured down on him, offering some consolation to his endothermic physiology. He jacked off listlessly, but his thoughts were a swamp of unnamed, thrusting body parts, alive with sweat and hair and more demands than he could meet. The unexpected intensity of the orgasm left him light-headed a moment, on the verge of tears. He splashed the jism off the wall before shutting off the water and, grabbing his towel, he dried himself vigorously, though his chest had begun again to ache again.

“Keep going, asshole,” he whispered at himself through gritted teeth and his tone reminded him of the way John used to speak.

Christ, Drake, his former friend said in his head, You can even make the trip to the dining hall a major drama!

Bobby feigned sleepiness at breakfast so he wouldn’t have to talk, but afterwards he found himself cornered by lizard-faced Victor, who dragged him into an empty classroom and spent the next 30 minutes explaining why he had no friends and never would. Bobby issued a weak stream of sympathy and encouragement, though he was barely able to focus on the boy’s words. Rogue found him there through a strange kind of girlfriend radar she seemed to have developed. She asked him to help Clarice and Li-Pang switch rooms, and for the next hour, they moved furniture from one place to the next and tried out every room configuration the three girls could think of. He grunted his way through the work, saying nothing until Clarice dropped her end of a desk which caused him to smash his elbow into a doorframe.

“Jesus Christ! Will you fucking warn me next time?!” he snapped and the others stared.

Clarice blushed, a sickly pinking of her albino skin. “I’m sorry, Bobby. If you don’t want to do this —”

“No, I’m sorry. Hey, let’s try again,” he smiled mechanically, and an adamantium bar tightened across his chest that stopped all but the shallowest breaths.

Afterward, he lay on his back on Rogue’s bed, his arm over his face, turning the sunny day dark, as Rogue talked and talked.

“Honestly, I do not understand all this switching rooms the girls do. Personally, I like knowing where I am from one day to the next. I mean, even annoying things your roommate does grow on you, right? Terry leaving her sweaters around or whatever. You know what I’m saying; you’ve been in your room from the start, right?”

Shut up, please, he thought.

“I mean, at least I don’t have to wake up to find a rat on my bed like you do. Honestly, I think I’d scream louder than Terry!”

Shut up.

“You ever think about what it would be like to have your own apartment? Can I tell you something? I have this sort of fantasy thing. After we graduate? Like we have this little apartment. Small but really cute. And there’s a view of water. I love that. And it’s our nest, right? Where we can be safe and we don’t need anyone except each other. I want lots of green. Upholstery, curtains and rugs. Like an indoor forest, right?”

“WILL YOU SHUT UP ALREADY?!”

Rogue’s mouth dropped open and only then did he realize he’d said it out loud.

“Bobby?” she breathed in shock.

But he couldn’t stop himself now. The cork was out. “No, you’ve been going on and on about I-don’t-know-what and my head is fucking aching, okay?”

“You have a headache, sugar?”

“No! I’m just…” He found himself on his feet pacing from corner to corner. “Sometimes you just take up so much space, okay? I feel like I’m choking here!” He punched the wall and Rogue flinched back. He stared at her in surprise, like he wasn’t the one who’d made her mouth drop open.

Primo boyfriend material, John sneered.

“I-I’m sorry, Bobby. I never meant to…” She sat on her bed and stared down at the carpet. “I know I’m not as considerate as I should be. I mean, you work so hard and I just…” Her tears were falling now. He couldn’t deal with it. He moved quickly for the door and she called after him, “Where are you going? I’ll try to shut up more!”

But he was already running out the door, mouthing some lame half-excuses, practically gasping for breath, his heart pounding. He flew down two flights of stairs and knocked loudly on the door of Scott’s office. The teacher answered in a dirty t-shirt, unshaven, hair rumpled. He’d been sleeping in his office again, Bobby realized, instead of the suite he and Jean had shared. “What is it, Bobby?” he asked.

Bobby’s words were like a swarm of bees. “Those laptops — you still want me to pick them up at the shop? I could get them now for you, okay? Can I?”

Scott seemed to take this in slowly and Bobby shifted anxiously from foot to foot. “Well, if you don’t need the time for your homework, you could —”

“All done. Give me the keys and I’ll go right now. Be back super fast. Promise, okay?”

Scott vanished inside, returning a minute later with the keys and the repair contract. “Tell Sandra at the shop to bill the school.”

“Right.” Bobby turned and raced off down the hall.

Scott shouted after him, “And stay below the speed limit. And check your blind spots every time!”

Bobby ducked through the door to the garage before a group of approaching students had time to ask him for anything. A minute later, he was driving down Greymalkin Lane, wishing he could just keep going until he was far away. Florida maybe, or Mexico. He noticed he was pushing 65 and braked with a jerk, looking nervously in his mirror for police cars.

The farther he got from the school, the better he felt. He focused on his driving and not on his responsibilities to his fellow students, not on the future of mutantkind, not on Rogue’s tears. He was his usual charming self at the computer store and at the donut shop, where he bought himself a coffee and a lemon tart. Maybe he’d be okay now.

Maybe you’ll grow wings and blow fairy dust out your ass, said John’s voice in his head.

“Fuck you,” he muttered at the voice, as if it had cursed his restored equilibrium. And sure enough as he drove back towards the school, the symptoms of panic began to set in again. “FUCK!” he shouted in frustration, opening the window so that the cool morning air could blow in his face.

To his left was the deep green expanse of a municipal park. He turned impulsively at the entrance, cutting too close in front of a silver Lexus which honked loud and long at him. Rattled, Bobby swerved into the mostly-empty parking lot and parked badly on a diagonal, straddling the white line between two spaces. He threw open the door and jumped out, leaning against the car panting, trying to calm his racing heart.

He hated himself for being such a wreck, such a hypocrite to everyone, such an asshole to Rogue; but he couldn’t see a way out. Maybe he’d just go for a walk here, away from everything. He deserved it, didn’t he? He locked the car carefully (he could just imagine locking the keys inside on a day like this) and began hiking out across the grass. He made a wide swath around a group of four loud kids, three guys and a girl. They were around his age, smoking and acting like goofs. He didn’t want trouble; but then he caught a whiff of something on the air. He glanced back at them surreptitiously. Maybe…

Swallowing hard, he turned and moved their way, trying to get something resembling a cool lope into his stride, the way John would. The kids spotted him and shut up. Three of them kept glancing at the boy in the middle, and Bobby realized he was the leader. He alone smiled ironically at Bobby’s approach, and it was him who said, “Hey, man. What’s up?” He took a hit off the joint and passed it to the girl.

“Uh, nothing. Just saw you here and I thought…” He didn’t know how to go on. How did you broach the subject, anyway?

“You buying?” the leader asked.

Bobby licked his lips nervously. “Maybe.”

“Hey, Sandy, let him try.” The girl passed Bobby the joint and he took it carefully. They watched with interest as he sucked in the smoke. He was determined not to cough. He knew the weed wouldn’t affect him right away, but something about the act, the ritual calmed him immediately.

“It’s good,” he said, breathing out like a dragon. He made a calmer assessment of the kids. They tried to act street, but there was no one in this part of Westchester that didn’t come from money.

The leader said, “Loose joints are seven. Bag’ll set you back 60.” He showed the neatly folded sandwich bag filled with rich green peace.

Bobby thought despairingly of the meager contents of his wallet. “Um, could I get half a bag?” He cringed. He thought maybe he should try bargaining so he didn’t look like such a newbie. “For 25? Or something?”

The seller smiled his ironic smile again. More echoes of John. Why was god damned Allerdyce haunting Bobby’s head so bad today? The boy turned back to the picnic table and began emptying a smaller portion of the weed into another sandwich bag. With his back to Bobby, he asked, “So you from one of the private schools around here?”

“Uh, yeah. The School for Gifted Youngsters. On Greymalkin Lane.”

“Oh yeah, the big estate.” The boy turned back his way, holding the bag out. “You have any muties there?”

“A couple. They’re cool,” Bobby answered, reaching for the depressingly light bag, but the boy pulled his hand back, raising his eyebrows. Bobby blushed and pulled out his wallet, counting the bills as he pulled them out. “Oh, I have 30. You have change?”

The boy grinned and shook his head as if the question was funny. He fished a five from the front pocket of his jeans and handed it over with the dope. Then he reached into his backpack and pulled out a small package labeled “Blunt – Vanilla.”

“Here,” he said. “Have some rolling papers, too. On the house. Yeah, mutants can be cool, but you have to watch them. They’re tricky.”

Bobby just stared, unwilling to get into a mutant-rights debate with someone who had just sold him drugs. “Um, yeah, I guess,” he managed, looking around the park, suddenly anxious to get gone. “Anyway, I’m late. Thanks.” He stuffed the bag into his pants pocket and turned, walking quickly away. He heard the group laughing.

The seller called after him, “I’m here every Saturday, man!”

 

***

 

Well and truly buggered by the biggest stevedore in the port, Castle rose shakily to his feet. He pulled up his pants and tied his rope belt, wiping away his tears before turning to face the giant who was humming to himself contentedly, and licking the sweat from his lips. Castle said:

– I gave you what you asked for. Now bring me to Seralain.

– I am satisfied. Follow.

The giant lit a sputtering lantern and, ducking low, began to climb down the weathered wooden steps of the pier towards the water, leaving of trail of acrid smoke. They emerged from the labyrinth — the miles of docks grown year by year like barnacles on the ass of the city — in a moonlit cove where the wood of the battered boardwalk was worn almost silver. The stevedore said:

– I will go no further. Seralain is rash and pitiless, even to one as strong as I.

With these ominous words ringing in Castle’s ears, the man departed. Castle scanned the waves which lapped at the dock like a lazy ice cream day. The fin that broke the water was almost black, and the shape beneath the water, a nightmare vision of potency and destruction. When Seralain spoke, his three rows of teeth glinted white as a choir of virgins.

– Have you come here seeking death, landwalker?

– I seek information. I would know the fate of the landwalker woman, Trimally who crossed the cove and went to live on the passage islands some two moons past.

– Information is not free, landwalker. I hunger. I can tell you the fate of the one called Trimally, but the price will be your right arm.

“Hello? Allan? I thought you were making dinner.”

The voice cut through the red flesh of John’s fiction frenzy like a sharp knife, and as if he’d been cut, John cried out, “The fuck! Can’t you see I’m writing?!” He turned to find Taylor standing at the door of the den, fresh from the office, sweaty in his suit on this hot June day.

Fury blasted from John’s eyes, and Taylor stared back, bemused. “Excuse me? Am I addressing Allan Jarndyce or a wild animal?”

John pulled the reins back hard on his rage. He even managed to put an embarrassed smile on his face. “Oh, Jeez, Tay, I’m sorry,” he said with a little laugh. “Didn’t expect you home so soon.”

“I told you this morning! Meeting got cancelled.”

“Oh, shit!” John ran for the kitchen, pulling out the salmon steaks that were marinating in the fridge. Taylor watched him cook from a stool on the far side of the counter. The man wore a gentle smile, sipping white wine, visibly basking in the domesticity. And weirdly enough, John enjoyed it, too. He did the shopping, kept house, bought cheap prints and small plants with Taylor’s money, and generally made order. Putting everything in its place was a genuine pleasure after all the disorder of the last few years. He had been here for two months and his life had become as sweet as Taylor’s smile.

Being Allan was easy. John could spend hours like that; talking to Taylor about any trivial bullshit, keeping their apartment neat. It was like he was he had written a character for some bland romance and was living it out. It wasn’t bad at all. The man he was spying on was so desperate for the kind of love that “Allan” offered, that he rarely dumped his stress on John or made him feel anything less than loved and wanted.

There was even something kind of hot about being the secret lover of the government man, the kept boy, kept out of sight. They had gotten good at hiding, with late night walks, sunset picnics on the roof of the building and secret rendezvous in dark movie theatres. John liked to blow him while he talked to his wife.

One night, after Taylor had been feeling unusually forceful, John had found himself bleeding a bit. Despite his assurances that it was not a big deal, Taylor, guilty and panicked, had almost dragged John to the ER. Luckily the bleeding had stopped, and John had been able to calm him down.

“Don’t blow your career over nothing, baby,” he had cooed, relaxing his lover with kisses and caresses. Yes, it wasn’t a bad role to play.

In fact, the only time when John put Allan aside was when he was writing. Then he was pure Allerdyce. All the anger, the betrayal, the inspiration and fire splashed across the pages. He had spent six weeks now, hunched over the low-rent laptop Taylor had brought him, and the early ramblings had coalesced into a novel of passion and force. The brutal tale of Castle and his lost love Trimally had been born the night John had burned down Barrow’s diner. Since then, simmering somewhere deep inside him, the dark story had grown even fiercer, but somehow it had found a kinder heart — that is if you could bear to stand close to the flames long enough to see it.

The truth was, John needed Allan Jarndyce. If it wasn’t for the dopey romantic he played with Taylor, he would be forced to experience all the passions that were rising in him. He would have to confront his mother, his stepfather, Xavier, and Bobby. Better to let them rot and froth inside and come out on the page. Safer for sure.

John hadn’t exactly forgotten his mission, but there seemed to be no way into the impregnable laptop Taylor brought home at night, and his lover was reticent about his work, dropping only the slimmest of hints about “national security.” John dutifully sent off terse communiqués to Mystique, but he had little to report. And the more time he spent as Allan, the more the Brotherhood seemed like the fictional part of his life.

They had made love after dinner and were in bed watching CNN, John’s head resting on Taylor’s naked chest, Taylor gently stroking his soft hair. John was idly working through a plot puzzle in his head when a news story came on about an anti-mutant initiative in South Carolina. The lone mutant interviewed seemed cowed and shrill compared to the chorus of confident bigots interviewed for the story. Much as he was on her side, even John found it hard to sympathize with her.

He took the opportunity to push at Taylor’s walls a bit. “I know your boss must be all giddy about the initiative, but don’t you think it’s kind of harsh?”

Taylor had never said his work was about mutants, but every time John mentioned them, he got jumpy. John looked for signs of the man stiffening up or pulling away, but he was apparently too happy and relaxed from their evening together to be defensive. He bent over and kissed the top of John’s head. “Oh, you’re right, Kemper is certainly in support. He would call it ‘prudent,’ not ‘harsh.’ What you have to understand, Allan, is that the rights of individual mutants have to be weighed against the potential harm the whole group represents.”

John disengaged himself from Taylor’s arms and scooted up beside him. “But isn’t individual rights what all the laws in this country are about?”

Taylor looked into his eyes with affection. “You’re pretty sharp, kid. The answer is yes, but there are exceptions. In times of war, for instance —”

“Is this a war, Tay? Are we at war with the mutants?”

“Some people in the government think so.” Taylor turned his eyes back to the TV. “But even so, what if we give mutants all the rights they’re asking for, and then they turn on us?”

John could feel him growing uncomfortable. In a minute, he would shut down the conversation. John struggled to keep a foot in the door. “That lady seemed pretty harmless,” he said. “I mean her eyes were orange, but that’s not a crime.”

Taylor rose from the bed and walked towards the bathroom, and John watched his butt bouncing. The man was fitter than he had been when they met. John knew that having a young lover made him insecure enough to run to the gym at lunch. Taylor emerged with his toothbrush in hand. “Look, Allan, I hope you’re right. We don’t want to take away anyone’s rights if we can help it. But wouldn’t you expect your government to be prepared? In case we can’t afford to be so nice? Isn’t that what they’re elected to do?”

John’s eyes narrowed. A tinge of rot was souring his sweet life. “Is that what you do with Congressman Kemper? You prepare in case the mutants go bad?”

There was an awkward silence as the two men assessed each other, as if they were both seeing something they hadn’t noticed before. “Just don’t worry about it. We’ve got it under control,” Taylor said and stuck the toothbrush in his mouth, like he was locking the door on any more discussion.

John turned back to the television as if he didn’t care. Fuck. Why did this have to get complicated? Why couldn’t he just have a nice life for awhile? Finish his book, have his head stroked? Didn’t he deserve that much?

 

***

 

“The South Carolina initiative would ban mutants from civil service positions as well as any jobs where they would interact with children under 16. Proponents of the ban say it is a necessary step to protect public safety…”

Bobby was a spy! He was a ninja! He sneaked by the rec room where the headline kids were watching CNN. Mutant news — mutant bad news — was steadily increasing and that group was logging more hours in front of the big TV, analyzing and commenting. Bobby tried to join them a few times, but hearing all the slander and slurs made him too nervous. Sometimes he even found himself agreeing with some of the anti-mutant types, and that was even more disturbing, so he tended to just stay away.

He heard students coming towards him, so he ducked quickly down a side hall, and just in time, too!

“Hey,” came Rogue’s voice, and he could hear the annoyance below the honey. “Has anyone seen Bobby anywhere? At all?”

He headed out a fire door. Spraying the wheelchair ramp with a fine coat of ice, he slid down and broke into a run, racing for the tree line. A clean get-away!

Soon, Bobby was sitting out by the groundskeeper’s lean-to in the woods. A gentle breeze ruffled his curls as his fingers worked with calm precision. He had become proficient at rolling joints. It was a lot like making tuna wraps — it all fell apart if you used too much filling. He looked around his idyllic lair. This was where he and John had had a mid-winter, middle-of-the-night adventure. As the weed slowly floated him up above his sadness and worries, he found he could look at the memory objectively, with no sense of betrayal. Well, objectively if you discounted his hard on.

Being alone out in the woods, far away from everyone, he felt at peace for the first time in weeks. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the small stack of papers, folded over double. He took another long toke and held it as he unfolded the first, precious sheet.

Crusted loss, horses without reins
Pulping me as they run free
       ABANDON
          ecstasyinevitablecrashpleasure

He let out the smoke slowly, watching the cloud obscure the poem. It was a mystery to him how John could pull these words from his mind, put them down in a way that meant something… at least to their author. Bobby took another drag and moved to the next poem. Maybe there he’d find answers instead of more questions. He was really high now, and John’s words seemed to dance languidly on the page before settling down. Maybe they spent their time roaming free through the fibers of the paper until someone actually came around to read them.

Bobby went through the verse without the prejudgment or panic he usually felt when faced with poetry. Professor X wasn’t going to test him on this one.

Day blinks and it is night already
The dark hours
       watchful terror season of wince crouch stifled scream
but hey transformed by the hike
up golden mountain lion leg
To sleep in cave chest
       blue sky peeps through to say
“Day or night
hey hey haven is here.”

“ohwow,” Bobby breathed through the smoke haze, because he had for the first time in his life penetrated imagery to find the concrete meaning. And the meaning was him. It was a love poem. To him. He looked up through the trees to the bright sun, arcing high in the sky. Summer.

If only he could stay stoned and not worry about what came next or who he was supposed to be. This poem… Someone had cared enough about him to write it. He had been someone’s haven. Didn’t that mean he was worth something, somewhere? Just the way he was?

 

***

 

…begging, silently, to be allowed another day under the same sun.

John stared at the final sentence of his book. He had rewritten the last scene five times and he still wasn’t sure. Did he owe something more to his mythical readers? Or was he kissing their asses? Fuck it, it’s done.

He closed the laptop and released a slow breath. He stood and paced circles around the room, igniting a fire ball which he sent circling the other way. As he and the fireball passed each other, he looked at how messy he’d let the apartment become. He thought of the empty fridge, of the grocery runs he’d stopped making. Something had been shifting in him for weeks. And now, with his novel finished (FINISHED!) he was suddenly restless. His body itched with the desire to go.

He could just slip away; that would be best. But what about Taylor? Taylor loved him. He had started saying those serious words more and more often. The pronouncement didn’t freak John out. He knew it meant he was safe here. Did it bother him that he could never really love the guy back? Not much. But he was thankful for the man’s affection and he let him know it; that was enough.

He could stay, but the lure of freedom was strong. Freedom from this domesticity which, for all the security, was getting a bit tired; freedom from promises to Magneto; freedom from mutant/human wars. Maybe he’d have to go far away to be really safe from Mystique’s wrath (because she was the one you had to worry about), but that could be cool. John Barrow had said if you could flip a burger, you could work anywhere. Australia! He could go there, search for his father’s family... What was the government doing about mutants down under? Could it be worse than the growing paranoia in America?

He absorbed his fireball and returned, as if summoned, to the novel. He opened the laptop and the book glowed in the dim light of the curtained room. Even finished, the damn thing was demanding. But what could he do with it? He could just put it on a keychain drive and take off. But anything might happen to him, and if he lost his creation… The thought was beyond horrific. Stupid panic seized him. He began to think that maybe the novel was alive: a telepathic mutant desperate to live, sucking at his brains until he had to submit.

Enough! He had to take care of it before Taylor got home. He minimized the open document (so it would stop fucking staring at him!) and opened a browser window. Nervous and dubious, he typed into the search field: JANUS DOG NODE, and hit “enter.”

He waited, chewing on his cuticle, feeling like a dork. Suddenly the screen reversed colors. A desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape appeared. Various world-famous buildings, smashed to rubble, crowded together in the background. From the tinny speakers, the “clunk, clunk” of something heavy and metal could be heard. Then, stepping out from behind the crumpled Eiffel Tower, came a robot, straight out of the Terminator, except that it had two heads: Doug and Jones.

“Hey, John!” Jones’ head said enthusiastically.

John couldn’t help but smirk and reply, “Hi.”

Doug’s head told him, “The mansion’s been really boring without you.”

The heads regarded each other, and Jones asked, “Why doesn’t he answer?”

“He doesn’t have a mic,” Doug answered and turned back front. “God, where did you get the lame machine, John? Here, you can talk us with this.”

A text window appeared at the bottom of the screen and John typed: >You guys are such nerds.

“Are you coming back soon?” Jones asked.

>As if they’d let me.

Doug shook his head. “No, I think you could. I mean you haven’t done anything really bad yet, have you? People miss you, you know. I mean, Sam wants to kill you, but…”

What about Bobby? John almost typed, but caught himself in time.

>No, I can’t. I probably have to go away soon.

“Magneto sending you on some badass mission?” Jones asked.

>Something like that. Look, can I ask you guys a favor?

Doug nodded seriously. “Sure, shoot.”

>I have a file, and I can’t leave it on this computer. I need you to put it someplace safe. You have your own little Internet, right?

Jones said, “Sure. No one can trace it there. What is it?”

>It’s personal. Nothing to do with Magneto. No one else cares about it but me. I’ll get it from you sometime. Okay?

There was a pause and then a window appeared where he could browse to his novel and upload it. As he pressed “enter,” a sadness filled him. It felt like being forced to leave yet another home. He knew there was no camera on the laptop, so he let himself cry.

“We got it,” Doug said. “John? Don’t do anything dumb. If you kill anyone for Magneto, you’ll have to live with that forever.”

>Forever’s never as long as we hope, kid.

Doug looked like he was going to cry himself. “I’m serious. Okay, we’ll keep the file safe for you.”

>Don’t look at it, John typed hastily.

“Come on, Jones,” Doug said, no longer looking into the camera.

“Wait,” Jones replied. “Can’t we show him the exit sequence? It’s totally cool, John.”

“No,” Doug said and suddenly the screen went blank, returning to the empty browser page with shocking finality. John watched the nothingness until his tears stopped. When he tried to maximize his novel, he found it was gone. It had been erased from the hard drive in the uploading process.

He lay down on the couch and didn’t move as the sun set beyond the curtains. He heard the rain begin, like the sky was taking over his crying for him. Taylor arrived at nine with a warm bag of takeout Thai. Not realizing John’s eyes were open in the dark, he said, “Wake up sleepy head,” and bent to kiss John’s cheek. His coat was damp, his hair smelled of summer rain.

John sat up slowly as Taylor turned on the lights and then went to the bedroom to change. John looked around the apartment — their apartment — and he knew what he had to do. He stood and walked into the bedroom where Taylor stood, shirt off, already bent over his open laptop. “Tay?” John said. “We gotta talk.”

John was worried his tone was too foreboding, but Taylor didn’t seem to notice anything. “Okay, Allan,” he said and looked up with a smile. “After dinner? Is that okay?”

John nodded. There was no reason this had to be unpleasant. Just two people moving on. “Can I get you a drink?” he asked.

“Yeah, a gin and tonic would be great.”

“I-I haven’t bought any more limes, sorry.”

Taylor undid his pants. “That’s okay, sweetie. I’m gonna hit the shower. Just bring it in.”

John hurried from the bedroom, feeling more anxious by the second. Maybe they’d be able to stay friends. Probably not; the guy didn’t even know who he really was. The intercom sounded and John jumped. “Shit,” he murmured. He walked to the door and hit the talk button. “Yeah?”

“Courier,” came a deep voice from the unit.

“Tay? You expecting a courier?” he called, but the shower was already running. He pushed the button again. “Okay, third floor, last door on the left.” He hit the entry buzzer and headed for the kitchen to make Taylor’s drink. He was just realizing that they were also out of tonic when he heard the knock on the door. “Fuck.”

The courier was a tall, black guy with a moustache straight out of the 70s. His body was strong and his legs looked fine in his brown shorts. John couldn’t help flirting. “Hmm, you got a nice package for me, Mr. Courier?”

The man chuckled low and handed John a small padded envelope. He put a clipboard in front of him. “Sign here.”

“On which line?”

“Oh,” said the man, grabbing John suddenly by the arm and the waistband of his pants and lifting him off the ground. “How about here!” John sailed through the air and crashed painfully against the bar. In panic, he rolled and came up to standing to confront his attacker.

Mystique stood in front of him, her furious yellow eyes locked on his. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Pyro?! We sent you on this mission three months ago. Three months! And you have nothing to show for it.”

John was somewhere between panic and rage. “I-I’m getting closer! I fucking told you. His laptop is totally high security and everything.” His hand was in his pocket, fishing for his lighter. If he was fast enough, maybe…

Mystique laughed. “Are you thinking of attacking me, little boy?” She launched herself into a gravity-defying flip and landed with her foot on his instep, her bent elbow coming down hard on his wrist. John crumpled to the floor. “I haven’t got time for any more bullshit, Pyro. Where’s the laptop?”

John was kneeling on the floor, gritting his teeth against the pain. Nothing was broken, but he knew she could snap his neck with her bare legs in two seconds flat if she wanted. “It’s in there, but, but—”

The shower stopped and Taylor called from the bedroom. “Allan? You have my drink?”

Mystique’s eyes went wide. She hadn’t known Kincaid was home. She turned a stern countenance towards John and mouthed, “shhh.”

“Coming, baby,” she called in John’s voice, and suddenly John was very afraid. He watched her pull a small, strange gun from her courier’s bag. She adjusted a dial on the gun and began moving towards the bedroom, transforming into John.

“No!” John cried.

“What’s wrong,” Taylor called. “I forget the dipping sauce again?”

Mystique turned the strange gun in John’s direction and he found himself curling like a slug and raising his hands in surrender. “Nothing,” she said in his voice, in his body, and entered the bedroom.

John wanted to puke, he dropped to the floor, breathing heavily. She was about to kill Taylor and he couldn’t do anything. Nothing. The man who loved him was about to be the latest victim of this insane war. He thought he had walked away from it all. Let Xavier and Magneto have their little circle jerk! I’m gone! But it wasn’t that easy, Johnny, was it?

He tried to formulate a plan — run in with fire blazing, screaming defiance — but instead he just held himself and swayed miserably. He was a traitor, just like they must think of him in Westchester. Anybody he got close to got fucked up. There was a thud in the bedroom and he couldn’t stay still. He ran in and found Mystique back in her true form standing over Taylor’s inert body. The man lay on the floor wearing only a towel around his waist, the front gaping so the edge of his blond-furred scrotum was showing. John dropped to the floor beside him, moaning miserably.

Mystique sneered. “Relax, Pyro, it’s just a tranq gun. You know, like his government friends used at your mansion last year.”

There were tears in his eyes again and he squeezed them tightly shut. “Fuck you, bitch.”

“Impressive! You are a poet, aren’t you?” She walked away from him. “So, is this the famous top-secret computer?”

John looked up and saw her sitting in front of the open laptop. His face grew hot with embarrassment. It was true; over the last month, Taylor had grown more and more lax about hiding his work. But John had never thought to take advantage. He hadn’t cared about his mission. Only his book. Only his own future.

He got shakily to his feet. The defiant tone he had hoped for came out as a pusillanimous whine: “I quit. You got what you want. Now I quit. This is bullshit. He didn’t deserve this. I quit.”

Mystique ignored his announcement as she began working her way through the files. “Bring me the package I brought,” she called over her shoulder. “It’s on the table by the front door.”

John’s chin quivered. He wanted to kill her; but he went out and returned with the item. He watched her tear open the package and plug the enclosed device into the laptop. It seemed to be a USB hard drive. He recognized the small purple logo on the otherwise featureless case. It was Forge’s work.

“Did you hear me, Mystique?” he said with more conviction. “I quit your bullshit brotherhood! Taylor Kincaid is a good man. He doesn’t deserve this crap.”

He watched her open a file with strange, intriguing illustrations. After a moment, she said, “Fascinating. Take a look at this.” His curiosity overcame his anger and he leaned over her shoulder for a closer look. Mystique’s hand flew up and gave him a resounding slap to the side of the head. He yelped in pain and surprise, pulling himself away, his ear ringing. “Sorry,” she said, turning and giving him a cruel smile. “Couldn’t resist. Now come here and look. I won’t hit you.”

Holding his face, pouting with resentment, he leaned forward cautiously. “What the fuck is that?” he asked. “It looks like some bullshit Hollywood sci-fi soldier.”

“The brief calls it a Mark I Sentinel. Looks to me like your ‘good man’ was part of a plot to create mutant-hunting robots. I have to give them credit. We knew they were up to something, but this is actually sophisticated.” She popped out Forge’s external drive and walked to the door, calling out, “You stay in there. I have to make a call.” She closed the bedroom door on him. He looked towards the window, but he knew there was no way to jump from there; it was a straight drop down three stories. He looked back at Taylor’s unconscious body and then, despite himself, sat down in the desk chair. He read a few sickening paragraphs about the Sentinel program, and then returned to the directory, choosing files at random from the folder called “Mutant Defense Initiative.”

Targeted sterilization, segregation camps, power dampening protocols, genetic tagging. There were briefs on all of these. Kemper’s committee was concocting a hundred ways to imprison, neuter, and kill mutants; it was all there in black and white. And Taylor was part of it. John wanted to scream. There was no one he could trust. Not Mystique and Magneto with their casual cruelty and lust for power, not the surface kindness of people like Taylor Kincaid. He stood shakily and moved to look down at his lover of three months. He addressed the unconscious body.

“No wonder you wanted to keep me out of your business, Tay. You’re another fucking bigoted creep! What is it with all the guys in my life? You all act like fucking angels with your little blond dimples and shy boners. But you’re all the same! You didn’t really care about me! You’re just like fucking Drake! You’re just the perfect little man as long as you don’t have to be HONEST! Fuck you! Fuck!”

He landed a kick in Kincaid’s side. The body lurched and the man’s head lolled sideways like a broken doll, drooling on the hardwood floor. John dropped to his knees and grabbed the head, lifting it off the ground, fingers laced through the blond hair, still damp from the shower. He held the head with every intention of banging it against the floor until Taylor Kincaid was dead. But the face… It was the same fucking face that had smiled at him with so much love, the same lips that had kissed him and made his hard life seem easy for a little while. “Shit!” he yelled and let the head fall again with a thud.

“You could break his nose,” Mystique said from the doorway. “That would be a nice souvenir. Or cut off the dick that fucked you every night while he was actually hard for our extermination.”

“Shut up,” John murmured, not wanting to look up, not wanting her to see the tears that had started again.

“We have what we need, Pyro. Let’s go. I can’t wait to hear you explain yourself to Magneto.”

He stood, keeping his back to her. “Just let me get a couple of things. Some clothes, my laptop.”

“No, leave the computer. It’s government-issue. Could be traced.”

“Okay, but I left my jacket in the kitchen,” he said, sliding past her out of the room. He walked towards the kitchen, but then suddenly turned on his heel and bolted for the apartment door. He could hear Mystique scream his name as he raced for the stairs. He knew he had only moments before she caught up to him, but he knew the building better than she did. He exited at the second floor and tore around the corner. With any luck, she was already heading for street level. At the end of the hall was a window that let out onto the fire escape. He pushed it up and climbed over the ledge, his feet sliding a bit on the wet metal. He climbed as quickly and carefully as he could, staying low to the stairs, checking his footsteps so the fire escape wouldn’t clang.

He reached the roof, five floors up, and dropped quickly onto the gravel, his ass immediately soaking through in a small puddle that had formed. The rain began to fall harder and he strained his ears for the sound of the blue woman’s approach. He wasn’t safe here. He had to move. He got to his feet and, crouching low, ran across the roof. He looked over at the next building, a mere six feet away and one floor shorter. It would be an easy jump. Tuck and roll, John, said Jubilee in his head. But he never got that far. He was no sooner up on the ledge when his feet lost their purchase on the slick concrete and he found himself tumbling into space.

His scream was stupidly short, and with instincts he didn’t know he possessed, he managed to grab at the branches of a tree. But he was falling too fast, and his scrabbling did little but slow him down. He fell through the rain, through the foliage and hit the ground hard, his arm exploding in pain.

In panic, head spinning, he scrambled to his feet. His arm hung uselessly, like a movie prop. Stupid! He wanted to smack his broken limb for being such an idiot. He had to control himself. He managed the four blocks to the ER of the local hospital without throwing up or fainting. He must have looked pretty bad, because it wasn’t long before a nurse and an intern were around him, asking him questions, poking and prodding him.

Name?

“John Allerdyce, A-L-L-E-R…”

Address?

Without thinking, he repeated Taylor’s address.

Insurance provider?

John laughed. No. None. Nothing. A wave of nausea washed through him.

He closed his eyes and let them care for him. NPR played quietly from the radio. A nurse was taking his history, pushing a thermometer into his mouth. What am I gonna do? John wondered in misery. He needed to plan. He had to get treated and get away before Taylor woke up or someone found him unconscious in their apartment. The news was on now — a story about a police stand off with at trio of mutant bank robbers. Something about music and brainwashing.

“This can’t be right,” the nurse said with a strange, nervous laugh. John’s eyes snapped open. He knew he was fucked even before he even saw the thermometer’s digital readout. 106.3F. Now it was Jean Grey in his head, warning him not to get his temperature taken or they’d know right away he was a…

“A mutant. You’re a mutant,” the nurse said, her eyes full of fear.

And maybe it would have been okay, maybe they weren’t bigots or anything, but he couldn’t take the chance. No more chances today. He reached for his lighter. He was on his feet, a fireball already growing in his good hand. There was oxygen in a tank to his right, and in a second, he was flanked by undulating waves of flame and everyone was screaming, running from the room. He was moving down the hall, his flames scorching the walls as he passed, screaming hoarsely, “Get out! Get your patients out! NOW! I’m Pyro, the Fire Mutant! I’m not fucking around!” He was all alertness now. The pain in his arm was distant, beside the point. He was master of his flames and he kept them on a tight leash; flanking him, they snapped and growled.

He wanted to let the fire loose, to have its way with building, twist it into a screaming inferno that drank air and lives to feed its hungry heart. That’s what they all deserved — every Mystique, every Taylor. They all deserved the torture of the flames. But then something inside him said, It’s a hospital, asswipe. You’ll kill people. He returned in that second to sanity. And with that return, the pain in his arm returned as well. The fire pulled at him, trying to get away and satisfy its hunger, and he suddenly felt too weak to control it.

Chaos spun around him, alarms, sprinklers, evacuation protocols, panicked people, guards with guns. If he didn’t pull it together now, he never would. Sweat pouring from his brow, he dropped to his knees, screaming as his broken arm twisted the wrong way.

“Nooooooooooooo!” He grabbed the flame by its throat, yanking it to him, choking it off.

Pyro victorious.

He was on the floor, dizzy and panting, and a stampede was happening all around him. A young nurse — Ethiopian, he guessed, like a girl he used to play with when he was 10 — bent to help him to his feet. To her, he was just another patient in trouble. She clearly didn’t know he was the one who had caused all the madness.

“Get up, quickly. The exit is that way. You’ll be okay.”

And she was gone before he could even say thank you. He saw the exit. He ran.

He was blocks away, retching in a doorway, shivering from shock when the black car pulled up. Mystique was at the wheel. She leaned across and threw open the passenger door. “Get in, you stupid piece of shit!”

 

***

 

“And you were planning to tell me about this when?!” Rogue shouted.

“Please, honey,” Bobby answered, looking around to see who might have heard. “It’s not a big deal.” Bobby had taken her out to the gazebo to break the news, but somehow, he hadn’t been able to say anything until they were actually re-entering the mansion through one of the back doors.

She stopped and stared at him, mouth open. “Not a big deal? Did you think I wouldn’t care? Didn’t you realize this affects me too?!”

She was staring at him in a way that suggested he should say something. He tried several openings: “It’s just that…,” “I meant to tell you before…,” and “I guess I’m allowed to have some…” but it was like throwing handfuls of sand into the wind. They kept coming back to slap him in the face.

“I don’t know why it should surprise me. This shows just what you think of me.” She turned on her heel and began to walk away from him.

He paused in shock a few seconds, taking in this insult to his finely honed integrity, before running after her. “That’s not fair, Rogue! Sam invited me.”

“Oh, well then, it wouldn’t have been polite to refuse,” said Rogue’s back as it accelerated away from him.

“It wasn’t about polite! It’s about… everything! Why don’t you understa —” But Rogue had vanished through the door of the rec room, disappearing into a fog of noise that told Bobby what he’d see before he even got there. The room was packed with students, in various knots of individual hubbub. The headline club was parked in front of the TV which was turned up loud to overpower the cheers of the foosball tournament playing itself out across the room.

“The group calling itself Humans First took responsibility for the blast which ripped through the Mutant Resource Center in Oakland. While there were no fatalities, three workers at the center as well as several passersby were injured in the blast…”

“I read they’re a splinter group of Friends of Humanity,” Kitty called above the din. David Alleyne (the headline club’s self-appointed wielder of the remote) turned the news up louder.

“Heard it where?” Doug asked, his high voice arcing higher still.

“Omega Revolt.”

Clarice snorted. “Those omega jerks think everything’s a conspiracy.”

“Get tattooed!” called Jubilee, in grunting imitation of Omega Revolt’s motto. “Get tattooed and then bitch to each other on the Internet!”

“Meanwhile, the so-called singing bandits appear to have struck again, this time in Iowa. The bank robbers, one of whom is certainly a mutant with sonic abilities, have robbed three institutions in the past month. Each attack was preceded by what those on the scene called a “hypnotic chanting” that paralyzed them until the robbery was finished. For more, we go now to the scene of this latest…”

More mutant news than ever. When Bobby had first arrived at the school, he’d hid hidden behind the walls of Xavier’s school, pretending the rising tide of anti-mutant hatred didn’t exist. But since Stryker’s attack, the walls had become battlements that they huddled behind for safety. The hatred was right out there, trying to get to him. He looked around for Rogue, but he couldn’t see her. Did she slip out the other door while he wasn’t looking?

“SCORE!!” screamed Sam Guthrie as his team surged toward foosball glory. David turned the TV up. There was a kind of manic desperation in the air as the school year ended, and everyone was hyper and competitive. Next week, some would leave for homes where they were still welcome. Many would remain in Westchester because there was nowhere else for them to go. A refuge could also be a prison. Wild rumors circulated about the possible closing of the school, about Xavier’s imminent arrest. One dumb tale had Scott Summers leaving the school, heading to Peru to become a monk.

Terry and Pixie marched in arm in arm, sharing the headphones of Pixie’s iPod, singing the Dazzler’s new power anthem at the top of their lungs: “BETTER LOVE ME FOR WHO I AM!”

That’s when he saw Rogue. She was sitting in a far corner of the room, in a bay window, arms wrapped around herself. He began moving towards  her, but Terry and Pixie spotted her first, descending on her with concern. Bobby stopped, half hiding himself behind a bookshelf as Rogue spilled out her misery to her friends. His stomach twisted.

“…debate about so-called ‘special status’ for mutant citizens…” intoned the TV, and Bobby couldn’t stand it anymore. He crossed to the group of girls with the gentlest face he could put on.

“Rogue, come on,” he said softly, getting his face close enough that she could hear him over the noise. “Let’s go somewhere and discuss this.”

“I don’t want to go anywhere with you,” she replied, louder than he wished. He could see heads turning their way. Keep cool, keep cool, he told himself.

“Just give me a chance to explain why —”

“We take you now to the nation’s capital where a mysterious fire in a hospital ER might be the latest incident of mutant terror…”

“Are you my boyfriend or aren’t you?!” Rogue screamed, her face red with anger. He’d never seen her like that.

The room grew suddenly, shockingly silent. David lowered the TV’s volume until it was only a news mosquito, buzzing bad news to the nerve endings.

“Rogue, honey, please,” he hissed, looking around the room nervously. “Of course I am, let’s go discuss this outside.”

“No! You’ll just confuse me again!” Her voice was low and threatening as a thundercloud. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going home with Sam?!”

Bobby was squirming like a fish on a hook. “It’s just for a couple of weeks. And I did just tell you,” he assured Rogue and the room. He tried to smile, as if to show everyone she had it all wrong. His chest began to ache.

“The day before you’re leaving! Gee, thanks. And it’s not a couple of weeks; it’s a whole month!” Rogue walked away from him, turning back when she reached the exact center of the room. “Am I that repulsive to you?” Terry and Pixie came and put their arms around her, shooting Bobby dirty looks.

“Rogue, I just need to get away, that’s all.”

“From me! You seem to do anything to get away from me lately.”

Bobby looked around for something. Damage assessment? Allies? Among all the eyes turned his way, Jubilee’s burned the hottest. He silently pleaded for her understanding, but she had no mercy for him. With her non-existent telepathy, she told him, It’s not Rogue you want, it’s John! You had him, you dumb shit, and you pushed him away. His chest tightened another notch. He needed weed sooooo badly…

“I’m sorry about this everyone,” he told the room as casually as he could. “Rogue, come on, we’ll go discuss this outside in the —”

“Leave her alone, Bobby,” Terry said with a nasty edge in her voice. “She’ll come and find you if she wants to. Which I doubt.”

“Bobby, give it up,” Sam said, ushering him from the room. “When girls close ranks, you’re finished.” Bobby let himself be led away. Rogue will forgive me, he told himself. The others, too. He was Bobby Drake, after all. Everyone loved Bobby. In a month, they’d forget. Ow. His chest hurt like a motherfucker.

 

***

 

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuckkkk!!!” John screamed, struggling against the leather restraints. The wave of agony was centered in his broken arm, but it moved through his whole body and flooded his senses for a timeless eternity. It finally subsided, only to be replaced by a wave of nausea. The healer’s assistant (with the bedside manners of a gorilla) helped him sit half up and aimed his head at the bucket where he vomited long and hard. The healer watched impassively.

“Jesus Christ at Disneyland,” John moaned, his mouth foul and bitter. “You’re supposed to be fixing me! Why does it have to hurt so much?”

The healer, a man of indeterminate age with leathery purple skin, pulled his gloves back on. “You will return tomorrow morning for your next healing. The final session will be the following afternoon. Take him back to his room.”

The assistant (he dubbed her Sister Gorilla of Our Lady of Perpetual Torture) dragged and carried him back to his bunk where he fell into a sleep of contorted dreams. In waking moments, he thought with dread about the next healing session, and with deeper dread about being hauled in front of Magneto when he was better. He was back underground, back in prison. It wasn’t fair. He writhed his way back into fevered slumber.

The days of healing seemed endless, but when he finally rose shakily from the table after the third agonizing treatment, he found his arm to be in working order. He flexed his fingers and turned the limb in every direction. It was almost worth the misery. He was ordered to the dining room where he was surprised to find himself ravenous. His fellow Brotherhood members chided and threatened as he wolfed down his food, telling him how Magneto was going to tear him to pieces, impale him with metal spikes. But the more they tried to frighten him, the calmer he got, and the angrier.

He was, in fact, royally sick of being everyone’s puppet. He was sick of being pushed down a path he hadn’t chosen and then punished for the bends that road took. When he was brought into the great meeting hall by two large, intimidating mutants to face Magneto, he didn’t even contemplate cowering. The huge chamber, carved from a great underground cavern, was somewhere between a gladiator arena and a throne room. Shining metal sculptures, classical and modern, were placed around the room, like it was an imperial court.

Flanked by rows of decorative swords, Magneto sat on his steel throne wearing his helmet, something he never did indoors. Was he trying to seem intimidating? John just thought he looked like a pussy suburban bike rider. Magneto’s rich voice echoed off the walls like God in some cheesy Hollywood Bible epic. “Your actions, Pyro, have been at best desperately incompetent, and at worse, treasonous. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Pyro shook off the thugs holding his arms and walked a few steps closer to the dais. “Before you even sent me on that bullshit mission, I told you I wasn’t a spy. Here’s some more advice: I bake lousy soufflés. Better not ask me for one of those either.” Various Brotherhood members were there, loitering against the walls, bored, ready for some entertainment. They laughed at John’s audacity, and their eyes turned expectantly towards their leader, awaiting his wrath with wet mouths.

Magneto’s voice boomed through the cold, stone room. “My soldiers do not get to choose their own assignments! They go where I order them.”

“Then order me to fight! I’m a Class Four fire manipulator. I’m ready to mix it up.”

Mystique, standing by the back wall of the chamber, said. “You will fight when I tell Magneto you are ready to fight. You are far from ready.”

“Bullshit!” John screamed at her. He turned to Magneto. “She’s just scared that I’ll be too good, that you’ll like me more than you like her.” He heard Mystique hiss in anger behind him and he felt fear for the first time. But Magneto raised a hand to stop her.

“Confidence is admirable, boy,” he said. “But beware of arrogance.” John’s eyes narrowed. They were the same words Xavier had said to him a year before. More Brotherhood members were appearing at the door, sniffing out that something was up.

John gritted his teeth. They had taken his lighter from him before bringing him here, but the chamber was lit, with dramatic overkill, by two burning gas jets high on the wall. “You want proof, old man?” he snarled. “I’ll give you proof!” He raised his hands and pulled flames from the fixtures to him, forming two giant fireballs. He didn’t think; he just let the flame lust move through him, his eyes fixed on Magneto’s as he began to march step by step across the floor.

Growls and amazed laughter from the assembled mutants. John threw up a ring of fire around the center of the floor, isolating him and Magneto whom he continued to approach. A sly smile crossed the lips of the Master of Magnetism. Pyro’s heart beat faster.

Spinning like she was lighter than air, Mystique flipped in over the top of his flame wall and landed with terrifying grace between him and Magneto. John put one of his fireballs between them and readied himself to strike.

“No, Mystique, this is between the boy and me,” Magneto called and Mystique almost lost her balance as the section of metal floor she was standing on levitated, carrying her up and back over the wall of flame. The floor was all metal, the furnishings, too. John saw the weakness of his position as Magneto grinned with gleeful malice. The statues rose from their positions and began drifting John’s way. An iron bear, an archer in adamantium, shining abstracts of sharpened steel, breaking ranks and accelerating as they approached.

John ducked as the bear flew at him. Flames were no defense against these bludgeons, so he filled the air with a cascade of fireballs to distract Magneto as be began to dive and tumble his way towards the dais. The floor began to buck and sway, pieces lifting in waves. John fell to his hands and knees, fighting to keep control of his flames. A bust of Napoleon in polished steel collided painfully with his side and he fell again. But he would not stop. Audacity and speed were his only plausible weapons. It also helped to totally forget that he was fighting one of the most powerful mutants on the planet.

If he hadn’t been fully focusing, he would have missed the moment. But he had trained in the Danger Room and here with Mystique, so he knew to seize the opportunity. The statues swirled faster and faster as the sections of floor began to fly in earnest. He spun unexpectedly to the side and realized that, with all the fire and metal in the air, Magneto didn’t know where he was. Two sections of floor were spinning towards each other over his head. He pushed off the head of the metal archer and scrambled up one of the sections, leaping from it to another that was poised right over the throne. Magneto had unwittingly built him the perfect blind.

All the flames in the room leaped back to him and he rose up, engulfed in swirling red orange, fierce horns of fire rising from his head. He was the angel of death, ready to deal the final blow. Magneto looked up in just in time, an expression of awe and… delight? in his eyes. Three of the swords flanking the throne shot towards John and in a second, they had wrapped themselves around him, pinning his arms to his side, binding his legs. A fourth sword wavered in front of his face and John screamed in frustration, defiance, inarticulate passion. He pulled the flames into himself and their heat was a hard, sobering drug.

John looked around the room. The Brotherhood members were standing, amazed, staring from him to Magneto and back. They were impressed. Then John saw Mystique charging towards him, screaming, fists raised.

“Mystique!” Magneto barked. “To my side.” She came to an abrupt halt and, barely containing herself, complied. Magneto smiled at him, as if the attack had been his idea all along. “Well, well, Pyro. You certainly have the fire in your belly, don’t you? Here’s something I think you might enjoy.”

Firmly bound by the iron restraints, Pyro was lifted off the ground and turned like a chicken on a spit to face a large viewing screen on the wall. The screen turned on to a news broadcast and he watched in shock as Taylor Kincaid and a lawyer shouting “no comment” fought their way through a phalanx of reporters outside a government building, disappearing inside, ignoring the questions that flew by him.

“Did you know that John Allerdyce was a mutant?” “How long were you lovers? Did you talk about your work with him?” “How much did Congressman Kemper know of your relationship?”

It sounded ridiculous to hear his name on the news. For a minute he wondered if someone was playing a trick. And then a picture of him. He recognized it from his school bus pass when he was 15. His hair was long, his face thin and soft. Just a boy. Where did they get it? From his mom? What could she be thinking about his sudden celebrity? Then blurry cell phone footage from three days earlier of him in the ER, surrounded by his flames. Older, harder. A man.

“John Allerdyce’s name literally hit the news last year when a poem attributed to the runaway (who also calls himself by the mutant name ‘Pyro’) appeared on the news scroller in New York’s Times Square. This takeover of the news scroller was surmised by authorities to be a mutant attack. Investigators also place a young mutant of Allerdyce’s description at the scene of a large house fire in Brooklyn last year. His connection, if any, to existing terrorist organizations is unknown. There is also no word as to how he became connected with Taylor Kincaid, who has been consulting for Congressman Kemper on mutant issues.”

It was all too much to take in. For a moment, he forgot where he was, hanging like a drying cod above Magneto’s throne. His name was on the news: a poet, a mutant, a kickass terrorist! More footage of Taylor trying to get inside the building. John knew the man was finished. His career, his marriage — all had come undone because of him. John marveled at his own power. Poor Taylor looked beaten, weary, older than his years. For a moment, John’s heart ached, but then he took hold of his emotions. Pity had no place here. The lie of Taylor’s love was an insult. John wanted nothing more to do with murdering hypocrites like Kincaid and his smiling army of suits. He had made something happen, something right.

Magneto called up cheerfully to him. “Not a bad result in the end. We have our information, and you’ve tarred their sordid little government with scandal.” John was lowered again to the ground as Magneto turned to Mystique. “And I hate to disagree with you, my dear, but he is indeed a fighter. True, he lacks your finesse, but he more than makes up for it with passion!” John shot Mystique a smug smirk. She clenched her jaw and her stare promised revenge.

Magneto turned serious. “Are you ready to dedicate yourself, body and soul to our cause, Pyro?” The spears that bound him suddenly released, straightened themselves, and flew back to their positions by the throne.

John shook his limbs loose. He felt powerful, ready to burn down the world. “They want to round us up, imprison us, kill us. I won’t let that happen as long as there is fire left in my veins. I want to be your warrior, Magneto.” Sure, the words were cheesy, but they also felt true. Besides, Magneto loved the romance of his own cause. Sometimes a little cheese was just what you needed.

“And what about your mentor, Charles Xavier?” Magneto asked. “What about all his students? Are you not loyal to them?”

“Xavier is weak and arrogant. He’d sell us out for the thinnest promise of peace from the biggest hypocrite in the world. I’m done with him. With all of them.”

Magneto smiled again and John felt like he did on his best nights on the street: desired, indestructible. “Then you shall be my warrior, young Pyro,” said Magneto. And to everyone in the room he proclaimed, “Pyro shall be my warrior!”

The Brotherhood cheered on cue.

Chapter 34

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