xp_erverse: (Magneto how's he work?)
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A final confrontation, and great sacrifices must be made to bring back life from death.


They stood in front of a brownstone in Hell's Kitchen. It was cold out, and wet. Late winter, presumably. The trees that lined the sidewalk loomed over them, blocking out the light of the street lamps and casting them in almost pitch-black darkness. The only light shined through the window. The figure of a man passed every so often, pacing down his apartment as he waited for something.

Quentin smoothed his shirt and ran a hand through his hair. His heart beat audibly in his chest. "Tom," he rasped. He turned to the others. "How do I look? You're all about to watch me lose my virginity. It's a good show, you'll enjoy it."

Jean's jaw set. To actually see Quentin's memories as he experienced them, not just a story, was difficult. Add in a psychic parasite, set to destroy everything it touched, and it was pretty damn hard.

"Not particularly," she said.

"Punching Tom in the face? That I would enjoy." But it seemed witnessing these elements were necessary to figuring out where the other parts of Quentin were.

Unfortunately.

"So I'm guessing we go up."

Jim traded a sidelong glance with Emma. "If it's the last piece, then yes. It looks like we don't have a choice."

Quentin had already giddily climbed the front steps before the others finished talking. A second light appeared, this one from the phone Quentin now held in his hand. Several Grindr profile photos appeared and vanished in the air around them, like fireflies, until two settled on either side of the front door. To the left, clearly Quentin despite being cut off at the neck. To the right, another headless torso that was so perfectly built, it could have been carved by a master sculptor. Both images fizzled when the door opened, and the owner of the second image revealed himself. His smile disappeared just as quickly as the other images when he saw who was on the other side.

"Quentin, what are you doing here?" the man asked.

The telepath (though not yet a telepath in this memory, only a measly telekinetic) held up his phone to show Tom the screen. "Thought you invited me."

As Quentin remembered it, Tom ushered him inside to get him off the public street and they talked for nearly an hour about the dangers of cruising on hookup apps as a 17-year-old high school student, and what drove Quentin to do this. Tom was genuine, he cared, he listened to Quentin finally open up about his isolation, his loneliness, his complete lack of future goals or ambition. And then Tom conceded to his primal urges and gave Quentin everything he wanted, even if just for a little while.

Instead, here, Tom backhanded Quentin with such force that the reverberation stripped the trees of leaves. Quentin crumbled down the steps and nearly cracked open his head on the sidewalk. Tom's idealized Adonis good looks contorted and turned inside out. "Sad little boy," he rumbled, "All alone."

Jean tapped Tom on the shoulder...then she cold cocked him in the face with a well placed punch.

"Not anymore."

Despite the pain radiating through her hand, that made Jean feel really good.

She crouched down beside Quentin, offering him a hand up.

He dismissed her assistance and stood on his own. Tom had recovered from Jean's attack and lumbered forward to get at Quentin again. The lights in the brownstone winked out, and without any of the usual New York City light pollution, illumination came from the billion stars twinkling in the night sky. A shooting star passed overhead.

Tom grabbed Quentin by the neck with one hand and shoved away Jean with the other. "You think you're incapable of loving and being loved?" he challenged, spraying spit on Quentin's face that burned like acid, peeling away at Quentin's skin. "That would be a convenient excuse, wouldn't it? But it's just another lie you tell yourself. I did care for you. But you used me. You hate yourself for that, don't you? So you take it out on everyone else."

"Don't twist my words on me!" Quentin snarled. Pink energy coalesced in his hand into a dagger, and he jabbed it through Tom's gut all the way to the hilt. "I'm not a child. I am much greater than you can contain. I am . . ."

A sigh interrupted the rant. Behind the pair the end of a cigarette flicked to life.

"I'd call this enough, wouldn't you?" Jim said, taking a drag.

"Oh dear lord, yes," replied Emma, buffing her fingernails lightly against her jacket and inspecting them closely. "The scriptwriting is terribly tedious and as for the production values..." Her quick glance around at the rotting landscape was withering in its contempt. "Tacky," she concluded with a shudder.

"It's too late, anyway, I got what I need" Quentin said, though when he turned to face them, it was not Quentin's face anymore. It had elongated, with broad brow ridges and beady eyes. He opened his mouth full of wickedly sharp teeth and tore off Tom's head, swallowing it whole. The body collapsed in a heap. "Clever for you, though. I'll give you points for that."

Jim tapped ash from his cigarette with one hand as the other raised. "I may be slow on the uptake, but I know what it looks like when two mindscapes merge. Besides, Jean pointed out self-flagellation isn't really Quentin's style. So . . ."

Casually, almost gently, the counselor lay his hand against the wall.

Bodies erupted from the floor. The bullies from the classroom, the Mounties from the streets, the globules of psychic debris, even Tom Logan's beautiful, hateful corpse. Every single obstacle that had been overcome returned tenfold, revealed for what they really were:

Quentin Quire's psychic immune system.

With a vaguely theatrical gesture, Emma waved a hand, drawing a small crowd of fluttering bluebirds out of the sky, and they were the first to attack the Quentin-avatar, a suicidal squadron of cartoon animals, made menacing by their sheer number.

The little divebombers popped like bang snap novelties when they collided with the Quentin-monster. Brushing away the clouds of feathers with one hand, he flung out the other, his nails transforming into wicked, meter-long claws to rend Emma with. The line of brownstones fell backwards, like the unsecured backdrop of a community theater play. They were suddenly bathed in light that came from no obvious source. Still, a long crocodilian shadow hung behind the creature. It too reached out, and grabbed Haller's shadow by the neck.

Haller's shadow split into three: a tall, muscular male form to one side, a petite girl with spiked hair on the other. Each shadow moved with a vicious speed to grab an arm and tear it free. The creature jerked as its body mirrored its shade, momentarily splayed and exposed.

With the focused totality of her psychic power - oh, wait no, Emma shook her head - that was someone else. Nonetheless, she shaped the power she held into a knife, a narrow, cold diamond blade that she sent outwards with devastating speed into the soft throat exposed to her. Dark blood sprayed a wide arc across the landscape, which shook suddenly.

As Emma and Haller took on the Shadow King, Jean had stepped away from the melee. Even if she wanted to join in, she had another part to play. Her mind reached out, amidst the tangled mass that was Quentin and the Shadow King, searching for Quentin himself.

"Quentin, where are you?" she said. The world that had been constructed around them was what the Shadow King thought they would believe. She had to find what was really Quentin's.

The blood that pooled around the Shadow King's feet bubbled when Jean called to their host, like a simmering stew over a hot fire. Though it had a massive gash in its throat and it was covered in blood, the Shadow King laughed, and did not bother to fight against its restraints. Cracks ran down its skin, and layers of skin sloughed off. "We're right here," the parasite taunted. "We're one, he and I. Thanks to you."

Haller's alters had materialized to match their silhouettes at either side of the Shadow King's arms, which meant Cyndi's incredulous snort came from right at its elbow. "Holy shit, you're 'one'? Dude, I barely know the guy and I can't imagine how much alcohol it'd take before he'd even swipe right."

"The choice was made for him. It is fascinating, though, how easy it was to do it. So afraid that he would step over some arbitrary line, but it did not take much pressure. Always boasting about breaking the rules and rebelling, and the most he does is, what, illicit drug use? Taboo yet legal sexual relations? So much more potential, especially with his power. And your tricks? Please." The Shadow King opened its mouth wide and two clawed grey hands reached out, pulling Quentin's face apart and wriggling out of his body, revealing its true hulking, monstrous form, all darkness and jagged edges. Haller's alters just held Quentin's empty husk.

"This mind is mine." Thorned bramble burst forth from under their feet to entangle them and force them to submit to the Shadow King's will. "The only way I leave is if I choose to. You try and he dies."

Emma's psychic avatar gave a shuddering ripple as the brambles tried to crush her, turned to water and mist. The entangling vines passed through her form, collapsing under their own weight as they found no resistance. "I once financed a Z-grade movie for the tax loss," she remarked acidly, as her avatar solidified again. "And the dialogue in that was still better than yours."


A vine snaked across Jim's throat in an echo of the near-fatal garroting in the Medlab - but this time Cyndi's fire came through to peel the tendril to ash. Before more could take its place Jack stepped in to shield the other two, his face dark with anger.

"You talk a lot about choice for someone so committed to denying it to others. Like you can build a self around what you take from others." When Jim spoke the words came from three mouths. He slashed carelessly at another bramble that tried to crawl across his midsection, and the orange of Cyndi's flames turned into the watery silver of his telepathy. The two alters began to fade, drawn back into their host as he consolidated his power. "This mind is yours? You're just a worm claiming to be a tree because it found its way into an apple."

While Jim spoke a fourth form had appeared behind the Shadow King. Barely more than a child, Davey bore little resemblance to his source: his round face and fuller frame was a gaunt and awkward child's idea of normal. He wasn't watching the Shadow King. Instead he was looking at the crimson splash that Emma's attack had left across the earth.

Wordlessly, Haller's most deeply buried alter turned his eyes back up to Jean.

Ignoring the melee for the moment, Jean met the boy's gaze. She gave him a faint smile, then immediately crouched down, plunging her hand into the depths of the pool of blood.

She pulled up a hand that tightly grasped hers. The body that followed was drenched in blood and would have been unrecognizable save for the pink undercut that was miraculously clean. Once on solid land, Quentin fell to his hands and knees, coughing, the convulsions racking his body.

The Shadow King, suddenly twenty-feet tall, roared and reached for Quentin with one titanic hand. A pink shield blazed into being between them, and the Shadow King recoiled, howling. "You! How dare . . ."

Jean rose to her feet, clenching her fists. Her eyes caught fire, sending her hair bursting into flames along with them. Her clothing shifted into armor, and she cocked her head to the side with a wide smile.

"Surprise, asshole."

"Yes," whispered Emma. "Surprise." The vast howl of pain that had been trapped inside her since Adrienne's accident found sudden form. Between her hands, a thin line formed. A garrotte, thin as a wire, lined bright with diamonds, all of her sorrow and anger and seething hatred at the universe's cold games were poured into it. And as the Shadow King's huge form stared at Jean's fiery form, Emma cast the garrotte upwards, so fast the Shadow King barely had time to notice it before it settled around his throat and snapped tight. In that instant, Emma's form expanded until she stood as tall as the Shadow King's avatar, her hands dragging the diamond-edged wire loop tight around his throat. So focused on the new blazing threat of Jean, the Shadow King did not recognize Emma until she already had it in her clutches. It raised its hands to free itself from her trap, but she held it too tightly, her rage too immense and focused for even an entity of all mankind's vilest thoughts to escape.

The real Quentin stayed on his hands and knees. He had given all he had to ward off the invader, but the invader stole it all from him. The only reason he had form now was because of Jean and who knew if that would last.

A hand touched Quentin's shoulder and cool wash of power swept over him. Gore streamed from Quentin's body as the residue of the Shadow King was sliced away to congeal around him in ugly black clumps. The leaden stickiness left some of his limbs, and some of the fog cleared from his mind. The hand on his shoulder squeezed.

"Welcome back," said Jim.

"Remind me never to drop acid, 'cuz this is the worst trip," Quentin groaned. "No offense, but Jean's the only one here I'd actually want to fantasize about." He stood shakily, but accepted Haller's hand to steady himself. "I tried my best to stop him. It. Whatever. Threw every powerful memory I had to overpower it but." He shrugged. "This fucker doesn't get me at all. Thinks just because I'm pissed off that all I want is to kill everything. Hasn't this guy ever heard of hyperbole?"

"It's better at exploiting what we fear we are. When you see people as a succession of cheap suits, true understanding isn't necessary." Jim gave Quentin a lopsided smile. "Don't beat yourself up. Even a full-on occult ritual wasn't enough to wipe it out. But it's been shoring itself up with what it took from you. We can't leave it like this."

"I want myself back." When Quentin freed his hand from Haller's, he saw he held a brick. He understood before he asked for an explanation. Channeling his inner Marsha P. Johnson, he hurled the brick at the Shadow King, shattering its chest like the windshield of a police cruiser. Streams of color poured out, and Quentin held out his hands to catch it all and drank it in like a parched desert survivor finally finding a wellspring of clean, cool water.

As Quentin set to reclaiming what was his, Jean approached the garrotted Shadow King. A sense of calmness seemed to surround her. But the rumble of thunder in the distance meant it was anything but.

"Emma, step back," she said. Her hair was still on fire, plunging the area in orange and red and gold.

Then, like striking a match, the fire flared up, igniting her eyes as lashed out with tendrils of flames that seemed to wrap around the Shadow King. For a split second, they looked like talons.

"You hurt the people I care about. You made me hurt them. You made them kill. You made them die," she said. Her eyes seemed to have something behind them, a wildness, a blinding fury, distant, disconnected.

The Shadow King roared and the psiscape trembled. Even entrapped and enervated, the beast refused to yield. "You will follow, meat," it threatened, although the impact was blunted by its current situation. Thorned vines grew from the ground, but they were incinerated by Jean's fiery aura before they could ensnare her.

As they held him, she yanked him to his knees...what knees he had. She stared him down, snatching at his jaw. The moment her skin touched his it began to burn.

"You'll wish you could die. But you won't. You'll live with it. Forever," she said as something slipped into her fingers. A needle. As she held it up, a glowing thread threaded the end.

Reaching down, she began to sew his mouth shut, ignoring the muffled, otherworldly shrieking.

"All those evil words. Never again."

Jean stood up, slowly walking backward. The tendrils lingered, and a heavy, tiredness crossed her eyes as the fire flickered out. She walked back over to Quentin, then glanced back to Haller and Emma, looking somewhat disoriented before looking away.

"He's all yours."

Emma's eyes were full of sorrow as she looked at the Shadow King. "It doesn't work that way," she said softly. "To bind him. Hatred, revenge, they're all part of him. They become him, in the end. But," she smiled suddenly and it was a terrible smile, " they can be terribly distracting." Emma leaned down to the Shadow King and her hand plunged into his stomach, rummaged there, came out with a black, tarry mess. Critically she examined it, shaped it with her powers until it took the form of a large, black bird. Reaching forward, she took a hint of Jean's fiery thread and joined it with the black bird, which animated suddenly.

"What you did to them," Emma said matter-of-factly, nodding her head towards Jean and Quentin, holding up the black bird. "It'll come back to you every day and try and get back inside you. It won't succeed but it'll try very hard for quite some time. Beak and claw. It'll aim for the soft parts. That should keep you from brooding. Except maybe about how long till its next visit after it gives up and flies away."

With a casual flick of her wrist, Emma sent the black bird into the sky, a hint of fire trailing behind it, a thread binding it to its home. Closing her eyes for a second, Emma washed everything of the Shadow King out of her mind. "And to keep you here," she murmured, and between her hands a shining diamond chain began to grow.

In her mind's eye, Emma saw Christian, that summer before he died. He played the piano and she sat next to him and they laughed at her failing attempts to replicate his skill. Studying together, bouncing brilliance off each other. The sheer delight in his eyes when the present she had bought him for Christmas was exactly what he'd wanted but never asked for.

Not all her memories of Christian, but those that were the most shining diamonds she gave up, making link upon link of chain. Chains made of a psychic matter that the Shadow King had no power to break.

Jim poured liquid power around Emma's bonds like concrete around rebar, aching as he did. Pain was the Shadow King's element, its weapon -- it couldn't bind the Shadow King any more than water could bind a fish. It had to be something more, something beyond the Shadow King's capacity to comprehend or replicate. And so Jim went back to one of the few moments in his life where he'd felt, even if just for an instant, that all was right with the world. Once again he was back with Betsy in Genosha, finding her free and whole and herself once more. Once again he felt the warmth of his lips on hers, the weight of her body in his arms, and between them the three words they'd spent half a decade too afraid to say: I love you.

Sound, smell, touch -- one by one the sensations drained away. There was a last whisper of emotion, like lingering fingertips before a final release, and it was gone.

Yet even as he surrendered the memory he imagined he could hear Betsy's voice -- a voice the Shadow King had thrown in his face just the other day -- respond with bleak satisfaction. Got you, you bugger.

Emma nodded approvingly at the bright diamond chains between her hands. Moving quickly, she wrapped them around the Shadow King, then with a tug, pulled him backwards. He went down like a felled tree, landing on the back of his shoulders.

Emma tugged the ends of the chains high above his head. With a quick and ragged breath, she remembered again. Too soon, too much, but she did it anyway: Emma and Adrienne, on the couch, white-blonde and dark hair intermingled, cognac glasses discarded by their feet, laughing at some silly joke Adrienne had made. With a sigh, Emma pulled the memory out of her head, made it into a shining staple that she drove into the ground, holding the chains taut above the Shadow King's head. Another memory (seeing her sister again after so long in hiding, a reunion shot through with joy), another staple, and the chains drew his feet down to their full stretch.


Their memories manifested as manacles, binding the enervated Shadow King to this spot in the astral plane. Silenced, powerless, immobile, now no more than psychic decor. As long as these chains held, the Shadow King would pose no danger to anyone.

Quentin watched the creature struggle for a moment before turning his back on it. "I guess this is where I say thanks for the exorcism. So, you know, thanks. Next stop: Gay Hell."

Jean reached out to gently grab Quentin's arm.

"Did you think we came here just to say goodbye?" Well, she dragged Haller and Emma with her. They mostly came to keep her from doing something stupid. Jean eyed the shackled Shadow King with a slight flicker of satisfaction before looking back to Quentin.

She let out a breath. "I'm probably going to regret this but...You can stay. With me. In my mind. I can host you, until we figure something out."

A large question mark appeared briefly above Quentin's head. "That might qualify as the most insane thing I've heard today. Why would you do that?"

"We just took a horrible mystery tour through Shadow King's perception of your memories and what I'M saying is insane?" Jean said. She shook her head.

"You deserve to live, and we have some remarkable people who might be able to make the impossible, possible. Why wouldn't I?"

"It's dangerous." Jim's voice was low and matter-of-fact, and for an instant his avatar seemed to flicker. There was the impression of mismatched features, patchwork skin, before the it smoothed back to normal.

"The mind isn't meant to sustain two fully functioning psyches," he continued. "Even ours. Eventually one degrades, is absorbed, or else it takes the other with it."

"Then that just means we have more incentive to find an answer quickly," Jean said firmly. Her eyes met Jim's.

~I'm not losing him again after all of this.~ She looked away.

~I can't take it.~

For an instant he looked as if he might argue with her, but the words never came. Nothing had been able to change his mind. What could he possibly say to change hers?

"It's up to you," he said at last. He added, just for her, ~Just know that when the time comes, there's going to be a choice to make.~

Quentin glanced between the two of them, then to Emma, then the Shadow King, then Emma, then the Shadow King, then Emma one more time, and then back to Haller and Jean again. "Oh, why the fuck not," he said, shrugging and ceding the argument. The sweet sweet promise of eternal oblivion would have to wait until he managed to off himself some other way. Maybe we would OD after all, as he always suspected he might. "We're both going to regret this. One of us is gonna wish you'd just left me here."

Jean smiled. "Don't be a dick," she said, then reached out her hand for him to take.

She knew it was a short term solution, but she was taking it one step at a time. She knew they would figure something out. They had to.

But when all was said and done, the Shadow King was defeated. It was a bittersweet victory, but the day was still won and Quentin was free.

Now, it was time to pick up the pieces.
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