32: Much Abides
It seemed like half the staff of the White House was finding excuses to cross his path as the aide led him towards the Oval Office. Steve supposed he couldn't blame them for being curious. Three days ago he'd walked out of here, fired and apparently in disgrace. This morning, the Washington Post was claiming that he would be America's top cop again by the end of the week. CNN thought it would be sooner.
Whatever intimations the President's chief of staff had made over the phone, Steve wasn't going to make assumptions. He fully expected he would be offered his job back. He just wasn't sure yet how many strings would be attached.
When he was shown into the Oval Office, the only people waiting for him were the President and one silent Secret Service agent. As the door closed softly behind him, Steve paused to give his head a brief, quizzical shake. The scene before him was all but identical to the one three days ago.
"Sir," he said respectfully. "You wanted to see me?"
"Yes," was the almost absent-sounding reply as the President closed the file in front of him, handing it to the agent. "Thank you for coming. Take a seat, please."
Steve sat, noting that the President looked utterly exhausted. Hopefully he had gotten at least some sleep. It had been just over forty-eight hours since the Phoenix had broken atmosphere and the mutant race had come roaring back from the brink of extinction, and governments worldwide were moving already.
Most of the major Western nations had been warned ahead of time and were already offering support to their mutant citizens. The Phoenix might have pulled off its miracle with virtually no collateral damage (something that still amazed Steve whenever he stopped to think about it) but the situation it had left behind was a precarious one. According to Reed, the number of newly manifested mutants in their twenties — those who should have manifested since M-Day and hadn't — was unprecedented. There were far more early manifestations than there should have been, too, and the brain trust was still working on why.
Their best intel from Russia and China said that new mutants (at least those who hadn't been able to hide their powers) were being rounded up, supposedly to receive the same support and education they were being offered elsewhere. And if you believe that, I have some swamp land in Florida to sell you, Tony had snapped irritably as they'd pored over the reports. A year from now we're going to be looking at a whole weaponized generation. Other governments from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Africa hadn't bothered with the facade of good intentions.
"So," the President said almost wryly, giving him a long, measuring look. "I suppose I should ask you the obligatory question—that would be the same one from our last conversation, Steven. Do you know where the X-Men are?"
"No, sir. I don't," Steve said with perfect honesty. He had taken rather a lot of care to make sure that was the truth and until he had some assurances, it would stay that way. There had been elements in the government calling for direct action against the X-Men. He needed to know that those elements were firmly back on the leash. "I may be able to get a message to them, though. Did you have something you wanted them to know, sir?" he went on mildly, and didn't respond to the flash of frustration on the President's face. Steve wasn't entirely without sympathy, but nor was he inclined to make this entirely easy.
The President leaned forward, folding his hands together on the smooth wood of the desk. The frustration was gone as quickly as it had come, leaving behind only weariness and a hint of regret. "Yes," he said simply. "I want them to come back. I want them to know that we need them."
Steve met the other man's steady gaze, silent for a long moment as he mulled over what the President had said and what the seemingly innocent words might be hiding. "I'm presuming you don't mean as a scapegoat," he said finally, a little of his own exhaustion and anger creeping into his voice. He let it. The man probably needed to hear it.
The President smiled thinly, no amusement at all in the expression. "There's no appetite for that. Even among the crowd you're worried about. Everyone knows we're facing a crisis. I'm calling on all the experts I can find, but there's no substitute for the people who brought their race back from the edge of extinction. They are the voices their fellow mutants need to hear."
He was saying all the right things, at least. But I've misjudged politicians before. "I don't believe they were planning to stay hidden indefinitely," Steve said, one eyebrow going up at the way the President breathed deeply and relaxed back into his chair. "But it seemed like the safest call while the dust settled."
The safest, but hellaciously complicated, and Steve frowned as the worry that hadn't quite subsided nagged at him again. Some of the X-Men's wounded had been in critical condition, with no instantaneous healing forthcoming; Josh Foley had been a casualty midway through the battle when the Imperial Guard had hit the triage area. Strange had sworn to him that he and Frost had arranged for proper medical treatment before he'd teleported the X-Men out of Cooperstown, but it had galled Steve not to take them back to the infirmary at the mansion along with his own wounded.
"It probably was." The President grimaced, as if at a bad taste in his mouth. "A consensus has been reached that we need to work with the mutant leadership—mostly because I made it clear I was prepared to do it anyway. That's not to say I can vouch for what some of our… less scrupulous agencies might be prepared to try behind my back. That would be why I need someone else to come back, too." He gave Steve another one of those wry looks. "Don't make me beg, Steven."
After all his worrying, it seemed like there was no real decision to be made here after all. Someone needed to keep an eye on the 'less scrupulous', and since he didn't want to inflict the job on any of his friends, he'd take it himself rather than see it offered to someone whose priorities weren't in the right place.
Steve's lips twitched, almost involuntarily. "So what's the story for public consumption, sir?" he asked patiently.
"Because of your expertise in superhuman affairs and your leadership in repelling the Shi'ar invasion, we're in dire need of your services. The elements within the government who pushed for your resignation have seen the error of their ways." The President gave him a faint, weary smile. "Don't be surprised if you see a few of them making the round of the morning shows justifying themselves, but don't worry. They're playing to a particular audience."
"Of course they are." Steve leaned back in his own chair, taking a deep breath and trying to banish some of the tension he'd carried into this conversation. He'd make this work, he told himself firmly, and he'd start by using the leverage the position gave him for all that it was worth.
The Avengers and the X-Men would be able to face this new world much more effectively if they kept working together. If Cooperstown had taught them nothing else, it was that.
"On a personal level," the President said more quietly, "if you're passing along messages, I'd like you to express both my condolences and my thanks to the X-Men. It galls me that I've been able to do that for the Avengers and not for them. At some point I hope to be able to rectify that."
"I hope so too, sir," Steve said just as softly. "They paid an even higher price than we did."
The President nodded slowly, and they sat in a mutual, contemplative silence for a moment. "You know," the President finally said, his words slow and deliberate and his expression oddly distant, "I've reviewed all the satellite footage. Several times. And every time I see that video from the Anchorage news crew of the Phoenix coming through the clouds — which is still playing every five minutes on most of the television screens in this building, by the way — I just… stop and stare. It's like nothing I've ever seen."
"It was… incredible, up close," Steve said, his voice roughening with emotion he couldn't have defined if he'd tried. He thought it would be a long time before he found the right words. "I think the Phoenix might have been the most beautiful and terrible thing I'd ever seen." Given some of the things he'd seen, that was saying a lot.
"We live in an age of wonders." The President's smile was crooked, oddly halting. Not at all the practiced politician's smile Steve knew he was capable of mustering. As if it were the man's real smile, struggling to emerge after years of disuse. "Maybe I should use that in my next speech."
The beer in the fridge was some craft brew stout Logan had never heard of before, complete with fancy artwork on the label. Emma's idea of beer, he supposed. Trust the woman to make sure her safehouse fridges weren't stocked with anything pedestrian. Still, beer was beer and he was in dire need of one at the moment.
"Guess Hank wins the bet," he said, grabbing two and coming back over to sit at the kitchen table. Pointedly, he set the second bottle of beer down in front of Alex. "He said they'd be asking us to make an appearance before the end of the week.
"Only because they need us. Their interests are better served by making nice right now, that's all," Alex said, slouching wearily in his chair. He rubbed at his unshaven jaw, eyeing the beer for a dubious moment before he reached for the bottle.
Probably worried that it'd go straight to his head and he'd wind up snoring on the table, Logan reflected. "Might as well take advantage," he pointed out. "Make some progress while everyone's making nice."
"Still, we shouldn't forget that this is just a respite," Alex went on flatly, sipping mechanically at the beer. "The knife's going to come from somewhere. Got to keep our eyes open." At another time it might have sounded like exhausted paranoia. Right now, Logan only wished he could disagree.
"Business as usual," he offered instead, and Alex grunted in agreement. They drank in silence for a while, Logan watching Alex, Alex giving the opposite wall a textbook example of the thousand-yard stare. Eventually the sound of kids squabbling in the hall broke the quiet. Since they were his kids, Logan excused himself to go deal with it.
It took a while. Julian and Santo had both been on edge since the battle, and Logan wound up sending them out to get some fresh air and walk it off, "in opposite directions, you hear me?" he stressed, glaring hard at both of them. They went, but Julian shot a mutinous look back over his shoulder as he did. It promised more trouble ahead, clear as day.
He didn't have the energy to think about it right now. When he stepped back into the kitchen, he wasn't surprised to see Alex slumped even farther in his chair, snoring softly. The beer bottle was starting to slide from his grip, and Logan caught it before it could hit the floor. His lips twitched in a brief, weary smile as he saw how little of it was missing.
"Lightweight," he muttered fondly and left him to sleep, grabbing his own beer before he went.
The safehouse was a big one, meant to keep upward of forty people fed and housed if you really packed them in. Five of the bedrooms were fully equipped medical suites, and they were all in use. The critically injured had been treated at a private hospital in Mexico, but as soon as it was safe to move them they'd been teleported back here. The hospital hadn't been defensible, and like hell were they risking losing anyone else to opportunistic bigots. This was their version of circling the wagons, Logan supposed.
In the last of those five rooms, he found Emma right where she'd been earlier: sitting beside the bed and holding one of Scott's hands in both of hers as if she wasn't planning on letting go anytime soon.
"Frost," Logan greeted her briefly, then turned his attention to Scott. "Your brother decided to take a nap in the kitchen. Guess Lorna doesn't have to follow through with drugging his coffee."
"Good," was the weak reply, the whisper hitching in mid-sentence. "He… looked like h-hell earlier."
"That makes two of you," Logan said, grimacing as he mulled over Scott's scent. "Infection?" he asked Emma bluntly. There was something off, something new since last night, and Scott looked pale and drawn in a way that wasn't at all good. Even the chirp of the monitors sounded unhappy.
"Kavita has him on enough antibiotics to choke a horse," she murmured. Her eyes were locked on Scott. "I'll be down in a little while, Logan."
Logan nodded, but didn't leave. Instead he came in, pulling up a chair beside hers and sitting down. "You know," he said after a moment (and a long swig of beer), "I'm still sorely tempted to kick your ass, Summers. If you didn't look so damned pitiful I'd go ahead and do it anyway."
Emma's head whipped towards him, blue eyes blazing almost murderously in her pale face. The hair on the back of Logan's neck prickled and he braced himself, but the telepathic blast he was expecting never came. Emma's eyes narrowed and she deliberately turned her attention back to Scott.
Logan took it as understanding—and encouragement. "Just because the battle's over doesn't mean you get to check out and leave us to do all the work," he went on, meeting Scott's eyes levelly. "You're not goddamned Moses, so don't play the martyr." That earned him a grimace, but he didn't let it stop him. "I mean, flatlining on the operating table? Little over the top, no?"
"If… you make me laugh, I will blast you. In the head." But the ghost of a smile that accompanied the words crumpled into something much more pained and Scott looked away, his breathing laboured and the muscles in his jaw clenching as he stared up at the ceiling.
Logan smelled tears from the woman sitting beside him, and very carefully did not look in that direction. "You need to start thinking about what happens next," he said to Scott. "We all have to figure out where we go from here. I suppose I've got a school to rebuild."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew there was no 'suppose' about it. That was his answer—the school. He might be a sorry excuse for a role model at the best of times, but the school was where he needed to be, the only place he wanted to be anymore.
The idea of sitting around a table with what was left of the X-Men was too much to bear. Somehow he knew he would only ever be able to see the empty chairs.
"That's… good. We need schools," Scott was saying faintly. "Nathan… said that too. Back on Utopia. That there'd be a time when we needed… lots of schools." He swallowed visibly, and there were tears leaking around the edges of his glasses. "We need… we need Charles so much right n-now, and I killed him—"
Emma leaned closer to the bed, raising a hand to stroke Scott's hair. "This is ours to do," she murmured, her voice soft and clear despite the tears that slid down her pale cheeks. "Ours. We won't forget them, any of them, but we have to move forward. We have to go on living. For them."
"I guess… first thing I need to do is g-get out of this bed, then." Scott sucked in a sharp breath, a noise escaping him that was caught halfway between a laugh and a grunt of pain as his hand tightened on Emma's. His scent flared, hot and acrid with pain, and Logan tried not to wince. "Maybe… not just yet."
"Should probably wait until none of your insides are threatening to fall out when you move," Logan commented, raising an eyebrow as Scott looked at him. "Tends to be messy," he went on evenly. "Wouldn't go well with the decor downstairs."
"Drink your damned… beer, Logan," Scott shot back weakly. "Stop trying to be f-funny. Listening to you… more painful than the stab wound."
"Should I leave the two of you alone?" Emma asked crossly, wiping at her eyes with her free hand. "I get the sense you've missed whispering sweet insults into each other's ears."
After a week back in New York, the consensus was that someone needed to step in. Grieving was one thing, but what Nathan was doing was more like flirting with catatonia. They'd all agreed that if they left him to come out of it on his own time it might never happen, Summers stubbornness being what it was.
It would have been best coming from Scott, Dani knew, but he still wasn't up to doing much more than walking across the room, let alone tackling the immovable wall of grief that was his son. Emma had intended to try, but Hank had needed her in Washington today (something having to do with a Senate subcommittee) so Dani had offered to take a kick at the can.
She'd be joining them in Washington tomorrow — Emma had made her an offer Dani still couldn't quite believe had come from the White Queen's mouth — but she owed Hope too much to leave without at least trying to help her father. As she climbed the steps to the upper level of Emma's penthouse, which had been serving as an unofficial home base for the X-Men while they were in the city, Dani opened her mind wide.
Scott was tucked away in the master bedroom, sleeping soundly. He still felt ashy-grey and exhausted, worn to a shadow—resting, though, which was what mattered. He was finally over the infection, if not before he'd scared the crap out of them by landing back in the ICU. Dani decided that she would go in and sit with him for a while once she was done with Nathan. Just to make sure he was properly on the mend and not simply putting on a good show of it.
There was a tray of food, pointedly untouched, sitting on a little antique table just outside Nathan's door. Dani regarded it for a moment, her eyes narrowing. According to Emma, he'd been making a habit of that. Picking up the tray, she balanced it on one arm to leave a hand free for a perfunctory knock on the door before she opened it and walked in.
"Not eating isn't solving anything, you know," she said and set the tray on the dresser.
Nathan was slumped in a chair by the window, doing his best to ignore her existence. He looked like he should still be in bed—felt like it, too. It wasn't just depression and grief darkening the gold of his presence to a wan amber, but physical pain as well.
Not really a surprise, Dani thought, folding her arms across her chest as she studied him. He'd been beaten to hell and still looked it, even a week later. His arm was in a cast and immobilized in one of those slings you only wore if you'd wrecked your shoulder too, and Dani had broken enough ribs in her life to recognize the shallow, careful way he was breathing. The concussion he'd suffered hadn't been too bad, Hank had said, but it probably wasn't helping with the depression.
"I know pain meds don't help with the appetite," Dani went on when he said nothing. She sat down on the edge of the neatly made bed to keep watching him. Funny that he'd opened the curtains instead of brooding in the dark. The bright sunlight from the window was unforgiving; the dark circles beneath his eyes looked like bruises and she could see every line of pain etched into his face. "I mean, presuming you're taking them."
Nothing. He stared out at New York as if she wasn't even there, and Dani scowled. Touching his mind with her powers was like touching an open wound, and the longer she was this close to him, the more she understood why Emma and Betsy had been so worried.
"You were there with Hope at the end," she said finally. "You helped her… pull herself together." Might as well aim right at the target; he knew why she was here. Dani shook her head slightly, her eyes never leaving his face. "So that makes… what, twice you saved the world that day?" she asked, remembering the angry red of the Phoenix's light as the dome of fire exploded.
"She was at peace," Nathan said, his voice rusty. He shifted awkwardly in his chair, wincing in pain. "At the end. She knew there was no coming back, but she didn't let that stop her." His good hand shook as he raised it to rub at his eyes. "My daughter to the last. Poor Hope. I suppose all those years with no one but me for a role model made it inevitable."
Tears abruptly welled up in Dani's eyes, tears anger as much as sorrow. It was so damned unfair, all of this. But she blinked the tears back doggedly, knowing that now wasn't the time to give in to her own emotions. All she could do for the girl who'd given her back her life was to try and help the people she'd left behind.
And of course Nathan wasn't going to make it easy on either of them. Dani was glad to see it. Meant that there was still some life left in him.
"I'm going to punch you if you don't stop that," she said bluntly. Nathan actually twitched, his shadowed presence flickering with some brighter emotion for a moment. Frustration. She could taste it, like bitter lemon, and her eyes narrowed. "Want me to go away?" she asked sharply. "Too bad. That might have worked on Scott. Easy for you of all people to hit him in the guilt. Frost would probably have laughed in your face and needled you until she got an honest reaction. I don't feel like playing that game."
"What do you want, Dani?" He met her gaze squarely, as if he'd accepted the necessity of engaging with her and just wanted to get it over with. "What do you need from me? Tell me, really. Because I don't think this world has asked enough of me. I'm sure I've still got something left to give."
His bitterness all but scalded her. Dani tilted her head, regarding him through narrowed eyes as she tried to sort out the tangled mess of desires her powers sensed in him. In the end, she could only follow her instincts. "What," she said, quietly but forcefully, "did Hope want that makes you so angry?"
Nathan actually rocked backwards in his chair, as if she'd hit him. The grey gaze that had been flatly defiant a moment ago wavered and fell, but breaking eye contact didn't hide anything. Dani could feel the desolation sweep over him like a black riptide, trying to pull him under.
She was out of her chair like a shot, moving towards him without making the conscious decision to do so; it was that or let that tidal wave of loss drown her, too. Careful of his injuries, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him as tightly as she dared. He didn't pull away, but she could feel him resisting the comfort she was trying to offer. Too damned strong for his own good, even now.
"She gave me back all those years when she healed me," Nathan said, his voice low and raw. "So that I could see her grow. Fall in love. Have a life. Instead I get to live them without her. Have to live them without her, because that was what she wanted." He gave a short, despairing laugh. "I know she saved us, Dani, and I'm so proud of her. So proud. But all I wanted, all I ever really wanted, was to save her."
Fresh air and paperwork. Not quite the cure for what ailed him, but it would do for now. Scott smiled faintly as he called up another file on the tablet Emma had given him before she'd steered him out to the balcony to sit in the afternoon sun for a while. Her orders had been explicit: he was to sit precisely where she'd put him, sort through these applications, and nothing else.
The mother hen act wasn't like her at all. But he'd frightened her badly, Scott knew, and she didn't like having to be away from him as much as she had been this last week or so.
She and Hank had hit the ground running, coping deftly with the public and political fallout of Cooperstown. When she hadn't been charming or intimidating reporters and politicians, she had been recruiting donors. Even Emma's own considerable resources, freed from the need to fund Utopia, weren't enough to launch the sort of outreach programs they were going to badly need in the months and years ahead. Reed, Stark, T'Challa—all of them had offered help without needing to be asked, but even that wasn't enough.
They had the privilege of planning for the long term again. It was a very foreign feeling. Right now, in the shape he was still in, there wasn't much he could to help but the paperwork, so Scott had resolved to do it as cheerfully as he could.
Besides, it wasn't so bad. Reading all these earnest emails from people who wanted to work for the revived X-Corporation was a surprisingly effective distraction from his own thoughts. The diversity among the applicants was interesting. Many were experienced NGO workers, but others were kids fresh out of college. Quite a few were repowered mutants, but there were more baseline humans interested in the job than he would have imagined.
Many seemed to have had some sort of… spiritual experience when the Phoenix-wave had swept the globe. There was a palpable awe between the lines of those letters, plus a weirdly giddy desire to get out there and do what was necessary to help the mutant race get back on its feet. Scott frowned at the latest example of the latter, not sure why it made him so uneasy. Except maybe that with their luck, whatever it was would wear off suddenly a few months down the line.
Engrossed as he was, he didn't miss the sound of the door behind him opening. He glanced back over his shoulder, expecting it to be Emma coming out to join him. It wasn't, and he mustered up a faint smile for Steve as the other man stepped out onto the balcony.
"Afternoon," Steve said with a quick smile of his own. "You definitely look better than you did the last time I saw you." He settled into one of the empty chairs, his eyes narrowing as he studied Scott more carefully. "Much better," he confirmed, sounding satisfied.
"I should hope so. When was that?" Scott paused, frowning slightly. "Cooperstown?" he asked slowly, wishing that he remembered. Losing whole days bothered him, especially at a time like this.
"No, the hospital here. I'm not surprised you don't remember. You were more or less delirious at the time." Steve relaxed into the deep cushions of the chair with a barely suppressed sigh, and Scott couldn't help but notice how tired he looked. "What a week. I think this is the first time I've sat down since yesterday."
It had been all over the news for the last week that Commander Rogers was back on the job. Most of the reports had come with a strong undertone of thank you God, we're saved—never leave us again, Cap! Scott still wasn't sure whether to offer his congratulations or his condolences.
So he did neither. "Question?" he ventured after a moment. Steve nodded. "What happened to Bishop?" He'd asked once, days ago when he'd still been feverish, and Emma had told him to stop worrying. He ought to have followed up on the matter before now.
"He's alive," Steve said promptly, although he was watching Scott carefully, as if assessing his reaction. "In a cell in one of SHIELD's more secure facilities. I need to ask Emma for some help with interrogation when she can free up some time. He's the only intel source on the Raptors we've got left."
Scott nodded slowly. The Imperium itself was in chaos, with rival claimants duking it out over the throne. From Earth's point of view, that was ideal; enmeshed in their own problems, the Shi'ar were unlikely to turn their attention back to the Sol system anytime soon. But the Raptors, if any of them were left… they were another matter entirely. They had to figure out a way to see them coming, Scott thought bleakly. To make sure they didn't burrow into the minds of any more friends and allies and turn them into monsters…
"Scott." Steve's voice was quiet, but firm enough to jar him out of the grim reverie. The look in his eyes had changed, become more kind than measuring. "How are you doing, really?"
Scott was silent for a moment. "Better than I should be," he said just as quietly, a faint flicker of a smile tugging at his lips. "I did sort of expect Bishop to kill me. If we're being honest."
Seeing Bishop that close to Hope, he'd known the man must have had Raptor help to get that far. Closing with him had been a thoroughly stupid thing to do — hand-to-hand, Bishop had always had the edge, and his mutation might as well have been designed to make Scott's useless in a fight — but Scott had been sure he could at least buy Hope the chance to get away. Part of him had been… relieved, really, that it had come down to that sort of choice. That he was finally the one being called on to pay the price.
"He came close," Steve pointed out, and Scott frowned at the mix of anger and guilt underlying the words. Surely Steve didn't blame himself for any of what had happened on that street. Because I sure as hell would be dead if he hadn't gotten there when he did.
Whatever it was, Steve shook it off almost immediately, his shoulders squaring as he gave Scott a long look with more than a hint of challenge to it. "Are you unhappy that he didn't finish the job?"
It was a fair question. Emma had asked him the same thing a few days ago, and he took a careful deep breath and gave Steve the same answer he'd given her. "There's a part of me that wonders why I'm here and so many of my friends aren't. Not quite the same thing."
"No," Steve agreed. "Just survivor's guilt." He let his breath out on a sigh, shaking his head. "I know a little something about that."
"I imagine you do. But I'll be all right. Have to be, really. There's too much to do." He was just having a hell of a time mustering up the energy to be enthusiastic about any of it.
Scott grimaced down at the tablet in his lap, wishing… hell, he wasn't even sure what. That he could walk across a room without feeling like his gut was on fire. That Ororo was here to talk to. That Nathan would talk to anyone.
"Since you brought it up, this isn't entirely a social visit," Steve said after a moment. When Scott looked back at him, he was smiling a little—encouragingly, Scott thought, and wondered if he looked like he needed it that badly. "I was hoping to find out what your plans were."
Scott frowned. "Haven't you been talking to Emma and Hank?" he asked, surprised. "I thought they were keeping you updated on what they were doing."
"On their plans, yes. I'm asking about yours." Steve inclined his head at the tablet, donning an almost deadpan expression. "I somehow doubt that 'executive assistant to Ms. Frost' is a permanent career choice."
Scott nearly choked on a laugh that turned into a wince as he pressed one hand to his bandages. "Ow—God, no. My masculinity is challenged enough by being a kept man," he said, and was oddly tickled to see Steve grin back at him. There hadn't been much to laugh at lately.
"Well, I've got a solution to that, if you want. Come work for me." Scott's eyebrows jerked upwards in surprise, and Steve let out a snort of laughter of his own. "You know, you're not really as hard to read as I used to think you were. Did you honestly not think this was coming?"
"I—" Scott told himself not to finish that sentence and closed his mouth. At the back of his mind, he thought he heard Emma laughing softly. "Working for who, exactly?" he finally asked, his lips twitching helplessly in an answering smile. "You do wear a couple of hats. I'm not sure how comfortable I would be working for the American government."
"I know," Steve said more seriously. "I'm not asking this as Commander Rogers. This is an invitation to join the Avengers—to you, and whatever X-Men want to come with you." He leaned forward in his chair, his eyes locked on Scott's and a surprising amount of passion in his voice as he went on. "The government ties aren't as tight as you think. The key is to make them work to your advantage, and I see lots of advantages here for your team. It's not easy to bring about real change from the outside, Scott. Having one foot inside the system means you can fight the battles that need fighting there, too."
Scott opened his mouth, but closed it before the instinctive protest could find its way out. "Emma and Hank are doing that," he said instead, and knew it for a weak counterargument. "The political end of things."
"Which is right and necessary, but not what I'm talking about. Imagine being able to go after a Sentinel factory with minimal blowback. Operating as part of the Avengers could give you that, and more."
Scott raised an eyebrow. "And what if it's an American Sentinel factory?" he asked dryly. "How does that change the equation?"
Steve didn't bat an eye. "Then the Avengers who happen to be mutants are joined by the ones who aren't, and we smash the place flat together." Scott couldn't manage to keep the surprised skepticism off his face, but Steve shook his head and continued in that same uncompromising tone. "Scott, yesterday I held a signed executive order saying that the American government will not engage in the production of anti-mutant weaponry and will not fund any research program meant to weaponize mutants. Which means that if I find any Sentinels on American soil, they go up in smoke. Literally."
"That's all well and good," Scott said, not sure whether to frown or smile. He sort of felt like doing both. "But they're going to do this work regardless. You know that. Whether it's sanctioned or not, it's 'when', not 'if'." The sun would rise in the east tomorrow, and by the end of the month, half the governments in the world would be back to making mutants' lives miserable.
"I wasn't born yesterday." Steve smiled wryly. "You're preaching to the choir. I expect to have to stomp on all kinds of rogue programs, and I said as much to the President. If it's any consolation, he looked a little pained."
Scott stared at him for a long moment. "Just how much crap can you get away with by waving your shield around? I've always wondered…"
Steve laughed, a gleam of real humour in his eyes. "There are limits. But it's easier than it used to be. Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks."
Scott shook his head, looking skyward for a moment as if he'd find the right words there. "I'm honoured by the invitation," he said finally. "I really am. Don't doubt that for a moment. I just don't know how I feel about… hiding behind the Avengers name." He glanced back at Steve quizzically. "Do mutants somehow become socially acceptable when you slap the right letter on our uniforms?"
"I'm not naive, Scott. I don't want you to be tokens and this isn't lip service. All I want to give the best person for the job the sort of support structure to do the work that needs doing." Steve gazed steadily at him. "One foot inside the system. Conditions to be amended whenever that turns out to be more of a burden than a blessing."
"Hypothetically speaking… what sort of command structure did you have in mind?" Scott asked reluctantly. Apparently he was entertaining this. He could already hear the howls from some of his more militant teammates.
"A significant degree of autonomy," Steve said promptly. "This wouldn't work without it. I hate to sound cynical, but the optics wouldn't be good." The smile that accompanied the words was more than a little sardonic, but it was gone again as quickly as it had come and Steve went on almost conversationally. "Practically speaking, I'd need regular consultation. Details on anything you plan to blow up before the actual explosions take place. I'd want us to be on the same page when it comes to broader strategy."
"You'd call us in for global-level threats, I'm assuming?" Steve nodded, and Scott forced himself to relax against the cushions. To think, instead of just react. There were very few people in this world he'd willingly take orders from, and Steve was definitely on that very short list. Still, this would be a very big change.
"Where's the benefit in this for the Avengers?" he asked, oddly frustrated at the calm way Steve was regarding him. "There is no way this doesn't blow back on you in all kinds of awkward ways. You'd probably be hurting your own team's public image—"
"The good opinion of those who would think less of us for fighting alongside your people means absolutely nothing to me, Scott." Steve's gaze locked on his, nothing but absolute certainty there. "This is past due," he went on more quietly. "If we can fight beside each other when the fate of the world is at stake, we can do it every other day of the year, too."
"Change doesn't come easy," Scott muttered, not looking away. "But it has to come, doesn't it?" Somewhere, the Phoenix was smiling. I learned that lesson, Jean. Believe me.
"Governments are there to serve their people, Scott. All their people. You've seen them fail at that, time and time again. But right now, our government is promising to do better," Steve said. "Don't you owe it to yourself to be one of the people holding them to that promise?"
It wouldn't be easy. Sellouts, tokens, dupes—Scott could hear the accusations already. But there was potential, too. If they could make it work, silence the naysayers, they could do good things. Important things.
Yes, there would be compromises, but that had been inevitable. They weren't driven by the simple need to survive anymore. Now they had to make a place for themselves in the new world they'd helped create, and that was going to take creativity. Creativity and the courage to do something entirely new if the situation called for it.
It all came down to trust. Did he trust the man sitting across from him? After the events of the last several weeks, after the faith Steve had put in Hope and in the X-Men, Scott knew there wasn't any answer to that question that didn't start and end with yes.
"You don't have to answer me right now," Steve murmured, although there was a knowing gleam in his eyes. "Talk to Emma. Talk to your team. We have time."
Scott nodded, managing a slightly awkward smile, and the conversation shifted to other things for a few minutes—small talk, or as close to it as the two of them could manage. Eventually Steve excused himself, saying he had to get back to Avengers Tower. Scott promised to get back to him soon, thanking him again for the offer.
It really was one hell of an offer. Scott stared blankly into empty air, mulling it all over. Whatever he decided, he told himself, he owed Steve a separate thank-you for making him think about the future. His future, not just the future of mutantkind. He hadn't been doing that, and it probably wasn't healthy.
It wasn't long before the door behind him was opening again. This time it was Emma, a wine glass in one hand and an odd little smile playing on her lips. She settled in the chair Steve had vacated, her knowing gaze locked on him as she took a sip of her wine.
Scott shook his head at her, his lips twitching in a helpless smile. "Do you want to be an Avenger?"
"Hardly, darling. In fact, I think it's best if I stay out of the field entirely at this point. I have far too much to do." Emma set the glass carefully on the table beside her, giving him that keen, too-bright smile she always got when he was being particularly slow about something. "Besides, the question at hand is whether you want to be an Avenger."
"Not particularly. But I'm thinking it might be useful if I were." Scott set the tablet aside, out of the way. "You know, I was half-afraid when he started talking that what he had in mind was some sort of… PR thing. The Avengers Unity Squad," he said more dryly. "I would have expected something like that six months ago."
"Now, I think he's doing his absolute best to see things through our eyes. Doing a pretty decent job of it, too." Scott sighed and shifted awkwardly in his chair, one hand going back to his bandages. "He's such a ridiculously good man, you know. Giving us a license to operate with minimal oversight would be like painting a target on his back. They'd tear him to shreds for it."
"Maybe he's willing to risk it. Or maybe," Emma mused, "he trusts you to watch his back." Scott raised an eyebrow and she folded her arms across her chest, regarding him with a sort of amused tolerance. "You think he's a good man. He thinks the same of you. Oh, he also thinks you could be dangerously unpredictable if you put your mind to it," she added with a sly little smile, "but that's not a bad thing. It will keep him on his toes if you decide to take him up on his offer."
The sudden rush of warmth he felt had nothing to do with the sunlight. Scott ignored the brief stab of pain in his gut and reached out for Emma's hand.
She reached back, and although the little smile was still playing on her lips, her eyes were far softer. "You do need to find something to do, darling."
"Getting tired of me sitting around the house?"
"You'll be climbing the walls as soon as you're physically capable of doing so. Best to have a plan that involves something you feel is worth doing." There was a flicker of profound sadness in her mental touch. "We've lost so many, Scott. There's no rebuilding the X-Men as they were."
They would only break their hearts trying. She was right and he knew it. Pretending those empty places at the table weren't there would only make them more obvious, more painful. The only logical course of action was to build something new.
"We need some revolutionary thinking," he admitted with a pained smile.
They'd lost so much. So many people who should be here and weren't. There'd been moments since Cooperstown that he hadn't known how they would go on, hadn't seen a way forward. How could they possibly rebuild their lives when so many of those who'd made those lives worth living were gone?
But there was so much left to live for, Scott told himself fiercely. The chance to see his people rise again. The hope of someday seeing his son smile again. And the woman sitting across from him.
They were alive. Everything else was negotiable.
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.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'Ulysses'
Thank you so much to those of you who've kept reading along with this fic (which took far longer than I ever anticipated to finish)—your comments have kept me plugging away through writer's block and sundry other distractions. I hope the ending was worth the wait.
Special thanks to my betas: Domenika, who's been there since the beginning and who has made the story infinitely better with her feedback, and Technosagery, who's provided an invaluable second perspective and constantly helpful comments for the last eighty thousand words or so. Not everyone is blessed with betas who can see both the forest and the trees (and tell you what needs chopping down or replanting), but I certainly have been.
I started writing Firebirds out of a deep dissatisfaction with Avengers versus X-Men. Since then, we Marvel readers have been introduced to an Uncanny Avengers team that's all kinds of problematic, and a mutant revolution that seems to be going nowhere fast. I could resist the urge to tackle those too, I suppose…
But I'm not going to. The sequel will pick up six months after the battle of Cooperstown. Expect to see it soon.