Thermopylae - To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
The X-Men prepare for the morning, and Youra.
They can conquer who believe they can.
A rather dull, featureless room, furnished with obvious Government thrift: plain single bed in the corner, basic box-like wardrobe opposite in varnished chipboard. Table beneath the window, through which the lights of Washington DC are visible in the distance.
"Carlie! Finally got you, kiddo. Did you lose my number or something? Mom's been talking about sending Dad to check on you."
Madelyn is sitting at the table, the phone balanced with the ease of long practice in the crook of her shoulder. Spread out on the table is the utility belt Hank made for her, contents checked and re-checked, her Glock, and a box of ammunition. The gun's clip is in her hands, and she is loading it with crisp, efficient movements, even as she talks.
"Yeah, they're fine. So are Joe and Kate and the kids. I just couldn't get hold of you earlier, which is why I'm calling so late. You're never in, you social butterfly, you."
The clip loaded, she checks it one more time before laying it on the table and picking up the spare. She glances out the window briefly, a slightly wistful look crossing her face, before she returns her attention to her task.
"Sounds like you're having a great time - almost makes me which I was in college again. And ten years younger…" Her tone is relaxed, calm, cheery. "Me? I'm good. In DC right now. No, I haven't run away from the school, this is for work. No, not even to have a torrid affair with… Carlie! How many times do I have to tell you we're just friends? No, the lady doth not protest too much. It is possible for men and women to be friends without the romantic thing getting in the way." A snort of laughter, and she pauses in her task to switch sides with the phone. "No, there is no Harry to my Sally, thank you very much."
Madelyn sets down the full clip, reaches for the gun, checking the movement of the slide with practiced ease. There's a metallic click as it slots back into place.
"What noise? Oh, that - just some equipment I'm checking for this job I'm doing tomorrow." Satisfied the gun is in good working order, Madelyn slides the clip home, clicking on the safety. "Yeah, something big, but I can't really say. Working with some old colleagues." Code for 'FBI'. "Yes, kiddo, I'll be careful. Always, you know that."
The gun goes into the holster hanging off the chair, and she clips the restraining strap into place before lying it on the table.
"I'd better go, kiddo - us old fogies need our beauty sleep. Do me a favour and call home? Mom and Dad worry, you know that." Hands finally free, Madelyn reaches up and takes hold of the phone. "Love you too, hon. Take care." She pushes the 'end' button on the cell, setting it down on the table, fingers moving to the smooth leather of the gun holster, as if seeking reassurance. Her other hand reaches for the cross Kurt gave her, and she looks out at the window, lips moving in silent prayer.
The night stills as Wanda almost glides through the underbrush of the forest and she's careful not to startle any of the wildlife nearby. With nothing more than the clothes on her back, she is making her way away from the mansion. At least for a few hours.
Pausing at a clearing, she nods to herself. She sits down, crossing her legs as she begins to meditate.
And she prays to whichever God decides to listen to Wanda Maximoff this evening.
Arms wrapped around Miles, Alison peered over his head, watching the sunset. A riotous mass of colors warmed the sky, stretching out to infinity - no matter what she might ever do in terms of light shows, she would never hope to match this. The grandeur and beauty of it was breathtaking, every time she stopped to take a moment and just enjoy what was out there to see.
Miles, sitting down in the steps with her, peered up as well, leaning against Alison without a word. They'd done this a few times before, and he knew she would be leaving for a mission on the next day. Without a word, the little boy leaned against her, content to just be there. There were important things about to happen, he knew. Important things that needed doing - and if it affected him and his world in the process, he couldn't complain. His own life had changed because of this, after all. Not directly, perhaps, but it tied into how he had been offered this new life, he had no doubt.
"Mama?" The small voice broke the silence and Alison looked down, into eyes that showed worry and acceptance. And something else too, which never failed to make her wonder how she'd earned this and if she'd be worthy of it though all she did - trust, love and faith.
"Yes, baby?" The words were spoken softly, as though Alison were afraid to break the silence too much, as though the moment might slip away if every single instant weren't carefully lived to the utmost.
Miles started to speak, a myriad things filling his mind at once. Wanting her to promise she'd come back, to tell him it would be all right, that she loved him and would always be there for him. Instead he settled on the only thing he could say. The only thing that was possible, despite everything else he actually wanted to say, to have.
"Mama and the others will bring them back? All the little kids?" He'd meant to frame it as a statement, but questions they were, and he simply leaned against her further, unsurprised when she hugged him tightly, head bowing down so she could press one cheek to his. He took a breath, wishing it hadn't hitched so the moment after. If she brought them back, it meant she would come back to him too, after all.
"We will, baby. We will." She shivered, throat tightening as she reflected over the other questions which had been only too clearly present in her son's eyes. Rocking him gently, she kissed his forehead.
Had it really been a week since he'd walked into the front hall and saw Jean standing there? Scott stared blankly at the computer screen in front of him, his fingers poised over the keys, frozen.
One week. And here he was about to lead twelve X-Men - and Cain! - into a mission alongside government troops and formerly brainwashed operatives of the organization they were attempting to cripple in one fell swoop.
One week and he felt as though he hadn't really stopped to breathe. Remembering Lorna's parting words in that last conversation, Scott winced, straightening in his chair. I’ll just be a good soldier and take your word that you can concentrate on the mission to the exclusion of everything else.
Doubt. He faced it head-on for the first time in days, staring it down. Could he? Was he? Or was this transference, a feeble attempt to focus on anything but how violently his life had been reoriented a week ago? He folded his hands together, resting his chin on them, his gaze still on the computer screen but distant now, staring right through it and the wall behind, into emptiness.
I'm tired of doubt. So very tired of it. It had wormed its way into every corner of his life, everything he said or did or felt. Somewhere he'd crossed the line, gone from due caution and diligence to doubt that was a hair's breadth away from crippling him.
And he was tired of it. This was no way to live. Scott took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then another.
Two years. One week. Tomorrow. Maybe it was a matter of choosing. Maybe that was all it really took, in the end. Making the choice. The past was the past, it couldn't be changed, but the future wasn't written in stone. One of those truisms he'd always known, but had never really believed. The past seemed so heavy, so oppressive. Like a mountain.
The past as a mountain. The future as a feather. The image lingered, and Scott shook his head slowly, something else coming back to mind, a quote from... Emerson? Maybe Emerson. What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
He wondered, briefly, what the precogs would think of that. Then, his hands started to move slowly over the keyboard, beginning the letter to Jean. If it took him all night, so be it.
"Yeah. Yeah," Nathan murmured into the phone. "I know... no, it's entirely too late to throw any of you in the plan. Sorry." He paused, listening, then snorted softly. "No, I didn't do that deliberately, Theo. And would you all stop talking at once? It's hard to tell who's saying what when you're on speaker phone like that."
He leaned back into the couch, listening. Wishing that he was there. That there'd been time for a visit, somehow, although he knew it had happened too fast. "The plan's solid," he said, firmly. He hadn't called to run through the fine details with them, whatever GW wanted. "And this is the best opportunity we're going to get. I can't imagine a better."
He'd just wanted to hear all their voices again. Before tomorrow.
Over in her cage, Bella cooed softly, and Nathan smiled, waggling his fingers at her. "No," he said again, to the question from David. "We've sorted things with both the government and MacInnis' people. Entirely a cooperative venture."
There were other things he needed to do tonight, he reflected, his eyes straying towards his computer. Arrangements to be made, just in case. Most of them were done, but a few last details needed looking after. A few last letters needed to be written.
"Yeah," he said more softly. "I'll be careful, I promise." He listened, then laughed aloud, surprising himself with the sound. "A party? Yeah, we could swing a party, in a week or two. Mick and Ani and Tim would probably like that."
The clock was still advancing onwards at a steady pace. Time flying by.
"I should go," he murmured, his voice soft, reluctant, yet warm with all the things that he couldn't quite bring himself to say, simply because they sounded too much like goodbye. "Talk to you guys in a day or two... no, Dom. No sudden vacations in the Greek Islands. Yes, seriously."
When you are free this evening, and finished with any schoolwork and other responsibilities you have, I would like to see you in the boathouse on a matter of some importance.
Cain N. Marko
Cain sat back and looked at the email on the screen that he'd sent to Miles earlier. He hoped the kid would get the idea that this was a grown-up talk, and that he planned to treat him like one. Tomorrow wasn't going to be easy for him, and for the first time, the little guy wouldn't have Cain's shoulder to lean on. Therefore, some things were going to need explaining.
He tapped the manila envelope on the counter, awaiting Miles' arrival and listening to the clicking of the contents inside. Maybe by speaking things aloud to the boy, Cain thought, he could begin to understand them himself.
A knock on the door was followed by the traditional opening of without waiting for the call to enter, Miles knowing he was always welcome within the boathouse. The knock was more of a tribute to the tone of the email he'd been sent, and the somber expression on the little boy's face made it clear that he was already aware of what was going in, at the very least. Once he'd stepped into the kitchen he started to tell Cain that he'd been watching the sun set with Alison, and then stopped - they would have been visible from the boathouse, now that he thought of it. So instead he simply trotted over to a chair and sat down, his expression remaining serious.
Cain remained silent for a moment, tapping the envelope against the counter before placing it on the table between them. "I got grown-up stuff to talk to you about, Miles, so I'm not going to treat you like a little kid here," he said. "You know your mama and Haroun and Mr. Nathan are going off tomorrow to do something really important. And I'm going with them, to keep them safe, but also because it's something really important that needs to be done. I know you worry about your mama when she goes off like this, so I'm going to make you a deal. I know how important she is to you, so you've got my word that I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure she comes home to you. In return," he added, "I need you to do something important for me."
Miles had already known Cain was leaving - and Nathan, and Haroun as well. Alison had explained all of that to him, before they'd gone outside to watch the sunset. And the knowledge that Cain was going to be there had both been part of the things that made him want to cry, yet had been oddly reassuring as well. There were so many people to worry about, so much importance on what was going to happen, that Miles could only try to not add to everything that was already weighing down those who were leaving. "Miles knew Cain would do that." Just like he knew Alison and the others would try to do the same for him. Worry glinted and his eyes flickered down to Cain's chest briefly, and then to the envelope. "What does Cain want Miles to do?"
Cain slid the envelope across the table. "This is the key to my safe deposit box at the bank. In there, I keep some things that are important to me. My deed to the house, for one. Some papers and things that belonged to my family. Some medals I got in the war - pretty much everything I got to come back for. I want you to take this and hold it for me until I get back. Anyone else I'd trust with it, well, they're coming along with me." Which wasn't entirely true, Cain knew, but Miles needed this as much as he did, this reassurance that everything was going to work out all right. "And there's my will in there - what I want done if anything happens to me. But nothing's going to, you know. I can't get hurt, that's why I'm going to help."
There was something in what Cain had said which caught Miles attention instantly, but he bit back the comment for now, waiting until the right time, and instead nodded, hands closing on the envelope and drawing it closer to the edge, where he left it for now. And then he frowned, and looked at Cain again. "But Cain was hurt before Christmas. Miles remembers."
Sighing, Cain nodded. "That was an accident, but it can't happen again." He cocked his head at Miles. "You've never really seen, have you?" He reached over onto the counter, picking up a knife that he'd been using to slice vegetables earlier, and an apple. With swift strokes, he quartered the apple and set it out on the table, displaying the knife. "Sharp, right?"
With a swift swing, Cain brought the knife down point-first on the back of his left hand. As Miles winced, Cain simply held the blade up, demonstrating how the metal had bent and crumpled against his invulnerable skin. "I can't be hurt, Miles. That's why I'm going. If the bad people try and hurt me, they won't be trying to hurt your mama. That way, she can do her job and come home safe, all right?"
"Okay." Staring at the crumpled knife, Miles took one short breath, then another, before tugging the envelope close to his body and then hopping off the chair, scrambling around the table to stand next to Cain. For all that this was an adult talk, Miles was still a little boy and he knew things would not be that simple, no matter how much he wished they would be.
Cain placed a hand on Miles' shoulder, turning the boy to look into his eyes. "I want you to understand," he said quietly, "I know this is a lot of responsibility for you. But I wouldn't ask you to do it if I didn't think you were the right young man for the job. And when we all come home, you'll know that there's a lot less bad people around who are going to hurt kids like you."
A small, but still firm nod answered that. "Miles understands. Miles will be careful and make sure to keep Cain's things safe." Cain had always been there before when Alison and any of the others left. But he wouldn't be this time and it wasn't going to be easy. "Mama asked Jamie to keep an eye on Miles, while everyone was away."
"It's only going to be a day, maybe a little longer," Cain answered. "Anything happens while we're gone, you've got to hold the fort down. But I know you can do it. You're Miles Blaire, heroic slayer of demons," he grinned, remembering Miles' trouncing of the miniature imp during Illyana's soiree with Limbo's finest.
Hugging the envelope close, Miles managed a smile. "It was a small demon," he answered, knowing defending the mansion wasn't about the heroic and daring adventures he and Artie played. "Miles will hold down the fort." He nodded firmly, even though his throat was tight and he just wanted someone to hold him the entire day while they all waited for the return of those who had left. "Miles would like to say something." Now was as good a time as ever, and then he'd ask for a hug before going back to the mansion to be tucked into bed.
Cain nodded. "I'm all ears, little guy."
Taking a deep breath, Miles shook his head just a bit, after hefting the envelope up to draw attention to it, before letting it fall against his chest again. "Miles just wanted to say that Cain has a lot more to come back for than what is in the envelope." And if his voice wobbled over the last few words, Miles was sure it would be all right. As was the sniffle that followed.
Without any hesitation, Cain reached out and hugged the boy to his chest. "You're damn right I do," he whispered softly.
Lorna doesn’t know what to say and thinks that she may have wasted 2000 words not saying anything at all. For four pages she’s tried to explain the past two years and for four pages has managed little else but a clumsy history report. With a sigh, she closes the window and tells the computer not to save it. It would be impossible to really explain what she was anyway.
She gets up and paces, at a loss. She wishes she hadn’t already done her equipment check and revised her lesson plans. She goes to the kitchen but it is already clean. The laundry hamper is empty. She’s run out of distractions and can’t avoid thoughts of tomorrow.
She is sitting on the couch when Alex comes in, her head in her hands. He sits next to her, wanting to know what’s wrong. She doesn’t answer, turning to him and kissing him instead, using him as the final distraction. He is surprised by her actions but doesn’t resist when she pulls him off the couch and guides him to the bedroom. He’ll ask again later about what is upsetting her and she will tell him. They won’t speak again and when he wakes she’ll be gone.
Haroun knelt on his prayer rug, opening his mind and heart towards God as he mouthed the prayers he knew so well. He was full of the possibilities for tomorrow - and the risks as well. At times like this - with something major coming up the next day, with the very real possibility of someone coming home in a body bag, he found himself oddly restless, possessed by an energy that refused to dissipate.
Finishing his benediction to Allah, he stood up easily, artificial muscles barely even getting warmed up. Avoiding Alison's curious looks and come-hither gestures, he sat down at his desk and pulled out a very well-written sheet of paper.
Disdaining the cheap pens that infested his desk, he pulled out a good quill pen and inkpot, and a small bowl of sand to dry the ink with. Pausing to think for a moment, he dipped the quill in the inkpot and began to write.
The words were in Arabic, the script flowing from right-to-left with barely a pause to sprinkle sand over the ink to dry it. His list of belongings was slight, and while he had many things he wanted to say, most of the people he wanted to say them to were long dead, and he'd likely see them again in Paradise.
Just them, a questioning presence brushed against his thoughts. Haroun nodded as the voice asked a question, and then smiled.
"No, it's all right, Professor. The people who really need to know - they do. Even if they don't realize it." he said aloud in Arabic, vocalizing his thoughts. "I'll see them again soon. One way or another."
"One way or another." he repeated in English, finishing up his document with a signature of his full name. There. That should cover things nicely.
Looking at Alison, he slowly walked over to the bed and got in. "If anything should happen tomorrow..." he said, and then shook his head. "Sheet of paper on my desk will explain everything." He kissed her tenderly and then promptly dropped off to sleep.
Alison leaned on her side and watched him sleep, one hand reaching out to touch his cheek lightly when she was sure it would not wake him up. She knew who he had been talking to earlier, knew what he had been writing. She'd done the former herself earlier, a quiet moment, wreathed in unspoken words and a feeling of unending calm and serenity. Leaning down a bit, she pressed her lips to Haroun's lightly, before settling down - body against his, head resting upon his chest.
Listening to the music of his heartbeat as it slowly lulled her to sleep.
"Of all earthly music that which reaches farthest into heaven is the beating of a truly loving heart."
~ Henry Ward Beecher
Sleep hadn't been much of an option, and at a loss for anything else to do, Sam had been wandering the mansion. He knew that getting rested was important, to be alert and ready for the mission, but he was just too restless to sleep at the moment. After some time, he wound up walking into the attic garden, hoping that the smell of the flowers would help to calm him enough to sleep. Entering the attic, he paused at the door for a moment when he spotted Kurt already in the garden. Not wanting to interrupt, he stood quietly in the doorway.
It took a moment for Kurt, deep in concentration where he knelt, eyes closed and hands folded, to realize someone was there. It wasn't until he finished his prayer and looked up that he saw Sam there, in fact, and shot him a smile of greeting. "Sam. Hello."
Sam nodded in reply, strangely reticent. It was as though words were unnecessary in the quiet of the attic. Realizing what Kurt had been in the middle of, Sam discovered a sudden hungriness inside himself for the reassurance of faith. Faith that the mission tomorrow would go well. Faith that things would work out somehow. Faith that God was in control of everything. Walking into the room, Sam inquired with a gesture of his hand and a raised eyebrow if he could join Kurt in prayer. It had been too long since Sam had seriously prayed.
Kurt simply nodded in response, moving aside a little to make space beside him, making it clear that Sam was more than welcome.
Sam nodded gratefully, almost overwhelmed by the sense that this was the place he needed to be at that exact moment. He was humbled by the powerful message, as though he could feel God answering all his doubts and fears. Clasping his hands reverently, he raised his eyes toward the skylight, somehow knowing that he would be able to sleep after this.
Kurt closed his eyes again and began another prayer, aloud but softly, in German.
Hank hums softly, incongruous snatches of show-tunes... West Side Story, tonight, one he's always liked. He is in the Blackbird, checking the emergency supplies crammed into every spare inch of space. Bandages and splints, of course, and sterile pads to put under them. Painkillers, many varieties for different metaboli. Surgical equipment... he's had to operate in the Blackbird, in flight, before, and prays he won't have to this time.
Other necessities, too, have been remembered... Blankets, rolled so tight and so dense that light could almost bend around them. A few changes of sweats, in assorted sizes, which are bound to be needed. A bag of candy... For those children - and adults - who are conscious and terrified, a lump of pure sugar is still one of the best fast treatments for shock, especially when you have to administer a lot of them in a hurry.
Then there are the more esoteric supplies. Feather glue and tiny pins for same. Sulphur. The miniaturized welding torch. And more, including a small supply of ordinary salt. He's learned over time the uses each can have, and is prepared. He's likely to be the single most experienced doctor on hand, when it comes to treating unusual mutations and their injuries, and isn't willing to rely on the other groups to have the less common but necessary supplies to handle them.
Examining his utility belt, heavy with the tools of his particular trade, he wishes he'd had time to finish work on that tazer he promised Madelyn. She'll probably need it, but there's no time now. Next time, he tells himself, grimly amused. Final strike at Mistra this might be, but there's always a next time for them. Always.
A thin wisp of incense smoke drifted upward, past the swords on their stand, past the wall-hanging of the Circle, its clean lines, as always, encompassing all that was. Kylun knelt, and let the scent carry him back to another day, another night-before. Fathomless eyes looked back at him, seven thousand years carried behind a kindly old face framed by wisps of white hair. He could almost hear the reedy, beloved voice in his ear, as he had that night.
"You do not sleep, Kylun?"
"No, Rinpoche. I face our enemies tomorrow. I cannot." His own voice, younger, far too eager.
"Aah." A quiet sigh. "Remember, Kylun, that though the cult may bring pain and death, once they too were innocent children, and if we must release them from this life it is only in the hope that, when they regain their innocence in the next life, they will not cast it away so thoughtlessly. Come: I will show you the face of our true enemy."
He had trembled. "Necrom?" But the old man only laughed.
"Even Necrom has not always been, needs not always be as he now is. Come, come!" Zz'ria chivvied the young Kylun out onto the balcony with his stick. The sky was clear, a rare event, and Zz'ria gestured upward. "Tell me what you see. What does the sky look like, to you?"
The boy looked upward, puzzled. "It's dark, Rinpoche. It's night-time."
"Yes," Zz'ria replied, the weight of years in his voice. "It is dark. Dark and cold and empty, and very large. The dark whispers: you are small, a mote of dust on another mote of dust. It says: nothing you do is of any consequence. From nothing you came, and to nothing you will return, and there is no meaning to the flicker in between, so brief is it. Look well at the dark, Kylun. That is our enemy."
The boy Kylun looked up again, into the immensity of the night, and something must have shown on his face, because the old man laughed. "It is not so bad as all that, child." At Kylun's look, Zz'ria smiled enigmatically, and pointed up again. "Look again. The stars are shining."
The voices drifted away again, into the past, and Kylun smiled, snuffing the incense as he stood. He looked out the window, into the brilliant sky.
"The stars still shine, Rinpoche. And my enemy has not changed."
The night before, and Kurt had known exactly how he would spend it. First, time in each of his favourite haunts: climbing trees, as long as the light allowed it, to begin with. Then, when it grew too dark, he had adjourned to the attic greenhouse, to sit and think in silence about how best to do what came next - and to pray, for the success of the following day's mission and the safety of his teammates.
That done, inasmuch as it could ever be done enough, he returned to his room. Time was growing short, and he had one more task to complete. Sitting at his desk, he began the business of writing letters, to be delivered in the event of... all not going well. One to his family in Germany, with his farewells and apologies. One to the Professor, expressing his thanks. One to Madelyn. One to Clarice. And one to Amanda. This last took the longest, being as it was a written collection of all he could remember from before Amanda had been taken.
Finally, the work complete, he laid down his pen and prepared to sleep. An early start awaited him, after all, and he would need to be rested.
but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. 1
Cain read the last lines of the book and set it down on the dock beside him. A single lantern cast a halo of light around him, and he peered out beyond it into the starlit sky. As far as he could see, from the far edge of the lake to the mansion behind him, this was all he had in the world to care about. If this could be everything, then he would be content. The life of a hermit would not be so bad.
But the world wasn't going to be like that, and there was always more outside the boundaries of this place that would keep coming in. And that would not do, he decided. This was his Walden, his Jerusalem, his Camelot, to defend and cherish until his last breath.
And that meant going back into the outside world to do so. Because he knew that he had Home to come back to.
There was still more day to dawn.
1 closing lines to Henry David Thoreau's Walden.
Moira was curled up against him, breathing softly in the darkness, and Nathan tugged the blanket up over her. He was wide awake and knew he shouldn't be. Not at this time of night, when he had to be in the hangar in a couple of hours, rested and fresh and ready to go.
He suspected he'd gone beyond sleep tonight, though. Beyond sleep, but not into insomnia, not quite. The restlessness wasn't there. Maybe in a while it would be, but right now he felt oddly calm. Hollowed out in some indefinable way, like an empty vessel waiting to be filled. With hope, with doubt... he wasn't sure which. He suspected he wouldn't know until the morning.
Nathan sighed softly and studied Moira, imprinting the moment on his memory. Her, peacefully asleep, achingly beautiful in the moonlight coming from the window. Touchstone moments, like he'd told Amanda in New Mexico.
But he didn't really need it, he told himself. She would be with him, no matter how far he went, no matter how tightly he shielded the link. Because she was a part of him in a way that transcended that connection, and always would be.
She had saved his life. She had saved his soul, saved everything human left in him when he'd been ready to throw it all away.
He had to do this. And he had to come back to her. To both of them.
It was that simple.
"Please," he whispered into the dark, very softly. Not knowing who he was talking to. "Help me make it home."
Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.