Peter sat on the low courtyard wall, Shatterstar beside him and Angel beyond. The wind blew, and feathers ruffled. A wing came up slightly, then settled back, draped down the side of the wall.
Shatterstar was frowning at his knees. “So . . . do you have brothers or sisters?”
He’d spent the last several days observing conversations, carefully staged just for his benefit. This was the first day he’d actually started trying them on his own, though. Peter was there for help.
“No, just me and my parents. And lots of help.”
“Yeah. Like, butlers and chauffeurs and maids and cooks.”
Shatterstar lifted his sword and dropped the tip into the dirt. He leaned toward Peter. “I don’t know what to say,” he whispered, as if Angel couldn’t hear him even though he was sitting right there.
“You could ask him what that was like,” Peter suggested.
“What what was like? I don’t know what any of those things are!”
“Then ask him that,” Peter whispered back.
Shatterstar straightened up. “What are butlers and shaffers and naids and tooks?”
Angel did a pretty good job of covering his laugh, Peter thought. “Well, a butler does things like answer the door and get mail and generally keep the place running. Pays bills, if you let them, and calls the plumber and stuff if you need that done. Makes sure someone goes grocery shopping. At least, that’s what our butler did. A chauffeur is someone who drove us around when we wanted to go places. A maid is someone who keeps the place clean, and a cook is someone who fixes your meals for you.”
“Did you have any family?” Angel asked.
Shatterstar hesitated. “Not . . . really. I am an alien.”
Peter looked at him. Saw that Angel was looking at him, too. “’Star,” Peter said, “you’re a mutant. Not an alien.”
“I am too an alien! It said so in that magazine that Scott found about me.”
“Okay, but that’s not real. They were just guessing. You’re not an alien. You’re a mutant.”
Shatterstar’s eyes narrowed. “You’re just guessing, too.”
Peter took a deep, calming breath. “Don’t go around telling people you’re an alien. There’s no such thing as aliens.”
“How do you know? Maybe someday big ugly aliens that look like--like scorpions with big heads will come down in one large brood and impregnate people--” Shatterstar stopped suddenly. “What?”
Peter looked up. Angel had a hand on Shatterstar’s lean shoulder. “It’s possible. But it hasn’t happened yet, so most people don’t think it’s real. Better just to tell them you’re a mutant, because, since aliens haven’t happened yet, it’s more likely you’re a mutant than an alien.”
Shatterstar thought about that. Then he relaxed and nodded. “Very well. But I still have no family.”
“That’s okay,” Angel said, settling back on his perch. “Scott doesn’t either.”
“He doesn’t?” Shatterstar asked, interest peaked. “What does he tell people, then?”
“That he’s an orphan.”
“Orphan.” Shatterstar thought about that. “Am I an orphan?”
Angel looked at Peter and shrugged. Peter thought of Shatterstar’s mother, selling her child to that creepy man. “Yes,” he said firmly.
“Orphan.” Shatterstar looked at Angel. “I am an orphan.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Angel said. “What happened to your parents?”
Shatterstar paused. He leaned toward Peter again. “I don’t know what happened to my parents. What should I say?”
“Say you don’t know,” Peter coached.
Shatterstar sat back up. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m sorry about that. Have you--”
“Hey, guys!” Kitty shouted from the doorway. “I think you need to come see this! Now!”
Shatterstar flipped himself backward and landed on his feet in the courtyard.
“I hate it when he does that,” Peter muttered, turning and jumping down. Angel landed next to him.
“I’m afraid he’s going to smash his head in.”
Shatterstar was already in the living room, staring avidly at the television. His face had gone very pale. Peter stepped inside, followed by Angel. They both stared.
“Isn’t that--” Angel started.
“Mojo,” Peter supplied. “And . . . Shatterstar.”
“I just want my son back,” the man on the television was saying, framed by a picture of Shatterstar. Laying on his stomach on what Peter recognized had probably been his cot, before someone had tampered with the photo. Reading a letter Peter guessed was probably fanmail. Looking young and harmless with long red hair all over and nothing of the warrior in him.
“Have you called the police?” the talk show host asked, utterly sincere.
“Of course. But he’s seventeen and they say to wait. They keep telling me that if he has been kidnapped, there will be a ransom note, and that at seventeen he’s old enough--” Mojo stopped, dabbed at his eyes. He was wearing an impeccable suit that managed to make him look heavy, but not the sweating, obese man Peter had seen.
“Do you know where he might be?”
Mojo nodded. “I think the X-Men took him.”
“Oh, shit,” Bobby said.
“My son is a mutant. Nothing flashy. He has two hearts, and a funny birthmark around his eye. The birthmark was why we kept him out of school. We didn’t want him to be teased. It was why I was able to adopt him. Now, I wish . . . I just don’t know. But I think the X-Men have him.”
The audience rumbled angrily.
The talk show host turned and looked directly into the camera. “They put one young boy in the hospital.”
“Hey!” Bobby yelped.
“Now they have another against his will. X-Men. Mutant saviors, or slavers?”
“Someone catch him!” Kitty yelped.
Peter looked around just in time to see Shatterstar stagger. Angel grabbed him, wings arched for balance.
“Easy, Red,” Angel grunted. He ducked, looping one of Shatterstar’s arms around his neck. Peter hurried to help, getting the teenager’s other arm. They carried him over to the couch.
Shatterstar collapsed, then grabbed Peter’s shirt with one callused hand. “I don’t want to go back. I changed my mind. Please, I don’t--”
“It’s all right,” Peter said, prying the fingers loose but holding onto Shatterstar’s hand. “It’s all right. You don’t have to go back. I promise.”
Peter shook his head. “No.”
“You can stay here with us,” Angel said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Peter saw Kitty nod.
“Can’t get you,” Angel said.
Shatterstar watched him. His eyes flickered to Peter. “He got you.”
Peter didn’t cringe, but only by force of will. “And my friends got me back. Remember?” He smiled.
Shatterstar took a deep breath. Another. Color started to return to his face. “Yes. All right. It will be all right.”
Peter? Shatterstar? If you would come to my office, please?
Peter looked up at Shatterstar. Shatterstar pulled his creamsicle out of his mouth with a pop and looked back. Peter stood and headed for Xavier’s office. Shatterstar padded behind him quietly.
Peter? Is Shatterstar decent?
Peter glanced back. He’s wearing cut-offs. And a leather collar. He couldn’t be certain, but he thought he felt a mild sort of dread in Xavier’s touch.
“’Star,” Peter said, stopping just outside the office door, “let’s take this off, okay?”
“Why?” Shatterstar asked, licking his creamsicle.
Peter didn’t watch. He reached around, trying to unsnap the collar without yanking Shatterstar’s hair. “You just look a little more respectable without it.” He pulled it off, untangled his fingers from hair that seemed to cling, and eyed the teenager.
Still not really respectable. Cut-offs, that stupid nipple ring, freckles that had appeared sometime in the last few days. The bizarre star-mark, and his hair not even pulled back into the customary ponytail.
He licked the creamsicle again, watching Peter watch him.
Peter sighed. I’ve done my best.
The professor’s touch was wry. Thank you.
He opened the door and walked inside, Shatterstar following.
Two men in suits stood, one of them frowning and the other smiling.
Please keep Shatterstar calm. We are not letting him go, the professor thought.
Peter’s eyes jerked over to the professor, alarmed suddenly. He closed the door behind Shatterstar and leaned against it, even as Shatterstar took one look at the two men and started backing up. The smaller body ran right into his chest, then stopped and stayed there. Peter tried not to think too much about that, either.
Shatterstar licked his creamsicle again.
“You must be Shatterstar,” one of the suits said. “There’s been quite a fuss made over you the past few days.”
Shatterstar licked his creamsicle.
Peter cringed inwardly. This had to be about Mojo. Over the last several days, Mojo had appeared on television shows, the news, the radio, and even in newspapers and magazines. Wailing about his dearly loved and now lost son, about how he had been kidnapped and how Mojo just wanted to know he was safe. It was really a masterful usage of the media, Peter had to admit. They were even getting hate mail now, people demanding the return of poor Benjamin Russell.
“Shatterstar, won’t you sit down?” the professor said.
Shatterstar shook his head.
Peter put a hand on his shoulder, pressing slightly. “’Star. Sit down.”
Reluctantly, Shatterstar headed toward a chair and eased into it. He looked like he might jump up again at any moment. Peter stood above him, one hand on each of the boy’s shoulders.
Both suits sat down as well.
“Shatterstar, Mr. Jones’ lawyers have contacted us.”
“These are the school’s lawyers, Shatterstar,” the professor interjected.
“Who is Mr. Jones?” Shatterstar asked around his creamsicle.
“Mojo,” the professor answered.
One of the suits nodded. “Yes. Mr. Jones’s lawyers contacted us. As well, your mother’s newly appointed lawyer has contacted us. Both are insisting you be returned to Mr. Jones.”
Shatterstar twisted, writhing nearly out of Peter’s grasp and bolting.
Peter grabbed for a lock of hair as the body whipped past. Shatterstar must have felt it; he came to a halt at the end of the red tether. “You said I didn’t have to go back,” Shatterstar hissed, turning around, his silver eyes narrowed at Peter.
“You don’t,” Peter said quietly. “They didn’t say you were going back. They said Mojo wants you back. We already knew that.”
Shatterstar stared at him. Then, slowly, he crept back over and sat back down. Peter didn’t let go of his hair.
The suits sat back down as well, though Peter hadn’t noticed them standing. They looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Shatterstar,” the one apparently appointed to speak said, “Mr. Jones is making some claims that I think we can simply refute. For instance,” he consulted a pad of paper, “were you kidnapped by the X-Men?”
Shatterstar looked at Peter and mouthed, “What is kidnapped?”
“Kidnapped is when you are taken against your will,” Peter said in an undertone.
Shatterstar faced forward again, smirking. “No one could kidnap me. I would fight them.”
The suits stared. “That’s a no, then,” one finally said, writing. “Has Xavier held you here against your will?”
“Xavier could not hold me here against my will. I would--”
“That’s another no,” the suit muttered.
“Do you want to go back to Mojo?”
Peter saw Shatterstar’s hands twitch, like he was looking for his swords. “No,” he said after a moment. Then he focused very suddenly on his creamsicle, forgotten until that moment. He licked his hand, where it had dripped.
Peter looked away.
“All right. Mr. Jones and your birth mother are claiming that he adopted you legally. They’ve gotten paperwork we believe to be false, and testimony we believe to be false. Their case isn’t very strong, but the public is already with him. That’s more power than you might suspect.”
Shatterstar bit off the tip of his creamsicle. “Ah do’ wa’ a’ go’ ‘ack.”
The suits stared at him.
“He doesn’t want to go back,” Peter translated.
The suits nodded. “Don’t worry. You won’t.”
A week later, Peter was sorting the mail, throwing out letters addressed to ‘Benjamin Russell.’ People had bought into Mojo’s media frenzy. It was disturbing, how many letters they got, calling for them to send ‘that poor boy back to his father.’
He tossed another envelope into the trash and looked up, watching the suits from the week before leave the mansion, their faces drawn. He glanced out the door to see where Shatterstar was--playing water tag with Kitty, Bobby, Kurt and Angel--then headed toward the professor’s office. He knocked on the open door, then edged inside when the professor looked up.
“What’s wrong?” Peter asked.
The professor smiled slightly, linking his fingers and sitting back in his chair. “It seems Mojo has better false records than we expected. On top of that, he has the public’s approval. There’s strong pressure on the judge overseeing this case that Shatterstar be placed back with his ‘foster father.’”
Peter blanched. “You can’t really be thinking--”
“No. And, in fact, there’s quite a simple way around everything. Shatterstar is seventeen. His voice would be given more weight than anything else in a court, especially if he was to tell the judge about the arena.”
“So why don’t we do that?” Peter asked slowly. Outside, Angel swooped into view, holding Kurt by one leg while Kurt shot at someone Peter couldn’t see.
“I’ve been in Shatterstar’s mind,” the professor said. “He is terrified of Mojo. I doubt the young man will speak out against him.”
Shatterstar ran into view, soaking wet and--Peter cringed--wielding his swords. “Shatterstar is stronger than you think he is,” Peter said. “He will testify.”
Xavier’s fingers were steepled in front of his face. “I hope you’re right.”
Shatterstar agreed to testify. Rather calmly, really. Peter was surprised. The professor just shook his head and left.
Then the morning arrived.
Peter. Shatterstar needs some help.
It wasn’t as hateful a summons as it used to be. Peter dragged himself out of the shower, pulled on some clothes, then headed to Shatterstar’s room. He knocked once and entered. Then left again. “Shatterstar. Put on some underwear.” He waited a beat, then carefully opened the door, one eye closed as if that might help him.
Shatterstar was wearing underwear. His hair was down, wet, and he had a sword in each hand. “I cannot wear those clothes.”
Bozhe moi. “Why not?”
“I cannot move in those clothes. What if Mojo attacks?”
“Mojo’s in a wheelchair,” Peter pointed out.
“That is beside the point. Rita could be there.”
“Who--nevermind. No one is going to try and kidnap you.”
“They might.” He licked his lips, eyes darting from pants to shirt to jacket to shoes. All carefully chosen by the professor. “They might attack, and I would not be able to fight them off.”
“The police will fight them off for you,” Peter said.
“I cannot wear those clothes. What about my sweatpants? I could wear my sweatpants.”
“It’s important you look good for the judge,” Peter said. “Sweatpants don’t look good. Here--put the pants on, and we’ll see if you can fight.”
Peter picked the slacks up and shook them out. “Put your swords down.”
“Put your swords down.”
Slowly, Shatterstar did so.
“Put the pants on.”
Shatterstar hesitated. Then, breathing much too hard, he took the pants from Peter and put them on. Peter buttoned them, trying hard not to think about it. “Now,” he said, stepping back, “see if you can kick my hand.” He held his palm beside his head.
Shatterstar stepped back and kicked, leg arching over his body. It hit Peter’s palm with a snap.
“Again,” Peter said, and started moving.
They sparred, lightly, for several minutes before Peter tapped out. “All right? So you can fight with those pants on.”
“You can always tear them if you need to,” Peter pointed out.
Shatterstar bit his tongue. Then he nodded.
“Now, the shirt.”
“No. The shirt is definitely too tight.”
Peter sighed, but did it internally. “It’s not too tight. Trust me.”
They went through the whole process again. Then again, for the jacket.
The jacket did constrict enough that Peter couldn’t talk Shatterstar into just ripping it if he needed to.
“Then just wear the pants and the shirt,” Peter said finally. Dress pants. Dress shirt. He still looked respectable. Now he just looked like a teenager, too.
“Not the noose.”
“It’s a tie. And no, you don’t have to wear it.” Even he couldn’t think of a way to convince Shatterstar to wear something around his neck that anyone could grab and tighten.
“Not the shoes.”
“You have to wear shoes,” Peter said. He glanced at the clock. They were running out of time.
“The shoes make me trip.”
Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Shatterstar in anything more than flip flops, which got kicked off fairly quickly.
“Put them on, but no socks. That way, you can just get them off if you need to.”
Shatterstar hesitated. Then he slipped his feet into the dress shoes--the pants were long enough to cover the fact that he had no socks, thank goodness--and tried kicking them off. They did so easily. He nodded, once.
“All right. Now, the professor will--”
“You’re coming, right?”
Peter stopped. “Me?”
“You have to come. Where are my swords? You have to come. What if they try and drug me? The professor can’t pick me up, and he can’t be a shield, and what if--”
“All right, all right,” Peter said, trying to settle the rush of panicked words. “Just a minute.” Professor?
The answer was immediate. Yes, Colossus?
Shatterstar would like me to come.
If it will get him into the car, do it.
“I have to get dressed. Will you--do something with your hair, and be downstairs in a few minutes?”
“All right.” Peter hurried to his bedroom, pulling on his own suit--a little snug, but he had generally worn it for drug-meetings, where showing off how big he was was a bonus--and running his fingers through his hair before he raced downstairs.
“--You may not take them--” he heard the professor saying, as irate as he’d ever sounded.
“I am not going to leave them!”
Peter walked into the hall, and saw Shatterstar clutching his swords.
“--you cannot walk into a court carrying swords, Shatterstar.”
“I can if I kill anyone who tries to stop me.”
Peter closed his eyes, and raced back upstairs. He didn’t bother knocking before he burst through Alison’s door. “Sorry,” he said, ignoring her yelp as she grabbed a blanket and pulled it up. “I need your guitar case.”
“What? What for?”
“’Star’s swords,” he muttered. A quick glance around the room revealed it leaning up in one corner.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Alison said, jumping out of bed in only her panties and a tank top.
Peter ignored her. He laid the case flat on the ground, yanked out the guitar, and closed it.
He remembered not to turn metal--it would rip his suit--just as her foot kicked him in the shin.
“Sorry,” he said, though he wasn’t, and stood. He grabbed a sheet off her bed as well, then went tearing down the stairs.
Shatterstar was standing in the living room now, perched on the back of the couch, screaming at the top of his lungs that he wouldn’t leave his swords.
“Here, here,” Peter said, laying the guitar case out and opening it. “We’ll put them in this. I’ll carry them.”
“No, I’ll carry them just like this,” Shatterstar shouted.
“Do you want to show Mojo that you think you are so weak he can take you back? Because that’s what he’ll think. And then he’ll most certainly try,” Peter said. He knew it was a low blow, but they needed to be moving.
Shatterstar glared at him. “He would not.”
“He would. He would think you are not a warrior.”
“Give me the swords, ‘Star. We’ll put them in here, and I’ll carry them for you.”
Slowly, Shatterstar got down off the couch. He handed the swords over.
Peter wrapped them in the sheet and put the whole bundle in the guitar case.
You can’t really think the police will let you in with that.
No. But I’ll figure something else out when we get there.
By the time they got there, he had to restrain Shatterstar.
“He’s going to try and just steal me--”
Peter grabbed Shatterstar’s hair and pulled him back into the seat of the limo, dodging flailing limbs and wrapping one arm firmly around the smaller chest. He could feel sweat making the other man damp.
“I will not let him steal you back,” Peter said quietly. “Neither the professor nor I would allow it.”
Shatterstar held onto his forearm, silver eyes watching the courthouse.
Can you keep him calm? Xavier asked grimly.
I don’t think we have much choice, Peter thought back. Unless you can--? He winced at the idea even as he thought it.
This is an emotional problem, not a thought problem. I’m afraid, short of re-wiring his entire thought process--
I’ll keep him calm.
“We’re going to go into that building,” Peter said softly, his Shatterstar-bundle shaking in his lap, “and we’re going to sit down. All the other people will be sitting down, too. Then you’re going to tell the judge your story, and everything will be fine.”
Shatterstar shook his head. “Sitting is dangerous.”
“Everyone will be sitting,” Peter repeated. “No one will have an advantage.”
The chauffeur came around to the side, helping Xavier into his wheelchair.
“We’re going to get out of the car now,” Peter said calmly. He kept a hand on Shatterstar’s shoulder as the young man slipped out, then followed with the guitar case in tow.
Peter hadn’t yet thought up an excuse for a guitar case. Then they were at the doors of the court, and he could feel Shatterstar pressing back against him.
“It’s all right,” Peter said again, squeezing his shoulder. “It’ll be just fine.” The double heartbeat hammered against his fingers. Little strands of red hair had slipped out from the ponytail, sticking to Shatterstar’s neck.
No one asked him about the guitar case.
Your doing? Peter thought.
There was a mental nod from Xavier.
Peter bullied Shatterstar into the room they were assigned. The judge was already there, at the head of a long table, looking through a file Peter assumed was about the nearly-panicking teenager.
She looked up at them assessingly. “Please, sit. Mr. Jones and his team aren’t here yet.”
What is Mojo’s real name? Peter thought.
Maurice Jones. Mojo.
Shatterstar, upon seeing an empty room, relaxed.
“And you must be Benjamin,” the woman said, glancing from the file back up.
“Who? Oh. Me. No. I’m Shatterstar. Or Gaveedra. No one has ever called me Benjamin.”
She looked faintly surprised. “Is that right? Well, what do you prefer to be called?”
He hesitated. “Shatterstar.”
She looked at the red-head intently. “Very well,” she said at last. “Shatterstar it is, then.” Her attention shifted back to the file.
“Sit,” Peter whispered. As if she’d heard him, the judge looked up. “Xavier, I recognize. But you are . . . ?”
“Peter,” Xavier said. “A friend of Shatterstar’s.”
Peter smiled charmingly. “Moral support.”
The judge almost smiled. She looked back down at the file. “I’m afraid we can’t do much until your legal counsel arrives. But--” she looked at Shatterstar again. “Young man, what would you rather do? Your mother is pushing to have you put back with the man she chose for you. Mr. Jones.”
Shatterstar staggered into his seat when Peter pushed. “I do not want to live with Mojo. I would rather stay with the professor.”
The judge nodded, then looked at Xavier consideringly for a moment. Peter sat slowly, one hand still on Shatterstar’s shoulder. “Professor Xavier,” she said, “I understand you’re a mutant as well?”
“Mojo has contended that you’ve altered his son’s thoughts. Forced him to think he’d rather stay with you.”
“He did not!” Shatterstar snapped. “I would have fought him!”
Peter tightened his grip on the teen’s shoulder.
“Shatterstar is . . . a bit excessive, perhaps, but also correct. I have not entered his mind without his permission at any time. I have most certainly not altered his thoughts in any way.”
Peter’s gaze slid around the room. He wondered, suddenly, why the professor didn’t bother to simply alter the judge’s thoughts.
Too many people know Mojo’s story, the professor’s voice murmured in his mind. I can’t alter everyone’s thoughts.
“Hmm,” the judge said, looking back over the files. “And yet there’s no real way to prove you haven’t been in his head, is there?”
Shatterstar twisted, frightened eyes looking at Peter. “I won’t go back with him. I won’t. “
Peter tightened his grip again. The boy was going to be bruised. “It’s all right. Stay calm.”
The judge was watching them.
She’s bought into Mojo’s hype, the professor thought.
Peter met her gaze levelly. “Shatterstar,” he said, still watching her, “why don’t you tell the judge why you don’t want to go back with Mojo?”
Shatterstar looked at her suspiciously.
The door opened, and eight lawyers--only two of them Xavier’s--two people and Mojo came in. One of them was Shatterstar’s mother.
“Yes, Shatterstar,” Mojo said, wheeling around to the other side of the table. “Please tell the judge what it was like, living with me.”
Peter felt Shatterstar go cold. He looked over, and saw the young man duck his head, eyes wide, breath coming short and fast. “I--I--”
The judge waited.
“You see?” Mojo said. “He’s under Xavier’s control. He can’t even speak!”
“That’s terror doing that,” the professor said sharply.
Peter felt Shatterstar struggle briefly, and tightened his hand on the boy’s shoulder. His fingers were big enough to wrap around Shatterstar’s entire muscle. He squeezed.
“I won’t go back,” Shatterstar said loudly.
“Why don’t you want to go back?” the judge asked.
Shatterstar licked his lips. He looked, panicked, at Mojo.
“It’s all right, son,” Mojo said. “Fight the block!”
“There is no block,” Xavier snapped. “This man tortured this boy. He’s terrified.”
Shatterstar squirmed and stood, knocking over his chair. “I have to use the restroom.”
“We’ll be right back,” Peter said, standing. He followed Shatterstar closely, afraid of losing him, and as soon as they were out of the room he grabbed the boy’s ponytail.
Shatterstar did, however, head straight to the bathroom. “You have my swords?” he asked.
“I have them.” Peter hadn’t let go of the case once.
“I want them.”
“You can’t take them into the room, ‘Star,” Peter said. The teenager shoved through the restroom door and whipped around, staring hard at Peter.
“Please. Just to see them.”
Peter hesitated. The restroom was empty. Finally, he nodded and knelt, setting the case on the floor and opening it.
Shatterstar crouched on the other side, hands brushing over the polished steel. He was shaking.
“Shatterstar, you have to tell the judge what happened,” Peter said.
“I can’t,” Shatterstar answered, his voice low and choked. “I can’t. Mojo would kill me if anyone knew.”
“We’ll keep you safe--”
“There is no ‘safe’ from him,” the boy hissed. “Mojo will find me. He will find me and he will--”
“Nothing,” Peter interrupted. “He can’t do anything because we won’t let him hurt you. He isn’t a god, Shatterstar. He’s just a man. A human man.”
Shatterstar was staring at him, silver eyes wide. “No. No, you don’t understand. If I tell anyone what happened, what he did, he’ll come after me. He’ll make people hate us, and he’ll come after everyone at the school. He--”
“Can’t do any of that. Shatterstar, we’ve fought Sentinels and Xavier’s son and--”
“And you don’t understand!” Shatterstar shouted. He stood, whipping away, a sword in one hand. “He is my god! Has been my god for seventeen years! He will know if I tell the judge, I don’t know how but he will--”
Peter stood as well. “It won’t matter. He’s human. “
Shatterstar wasn’t listening. “And he’ll use the people to attack us if he has to--”
“So tell everyone,” Peter nearly shouted.
Shatterstar stopped. Looked at him in horror. “I can’t do that. He’ll kill me.”
Peter took a deep breath. “He won’t kill you. And if you tell everyone, the whole world will protect you. He won’t be able to send anyone after you. If he tries, we’ll protect you. That’s what we do.”
Shatterstar was shaking his head, slowly. “They’ll want to kill me, too. I murdered people. Mojo told me what they do to murderers.”
Peter froze. Then he breathed. “You were a child. It was self-defense. They will understand that.”
Shatterstar turned away. His shirt was loose across his back, though Peter could see he was trembling. “Mojo isn’t a god,” Peter said softly. “He only has the power you give him.”
“I cannot tell her what happened,” Shatterstar said, looking back over his shoulder. He blinked rapidly. “I cannot tell anyone what happened. Mojo will kill me. He is a god, and maybe I should have stayed with him, and this is his revenge. Gods can be cruel. But I cannot go back, either. I’m sorry.”
Peter closed his eyes, hurting, wondering how to make the boy understand--when he looked up, it was to see a sword coming at his head.
He woke to a summons. Peter. Wake. Up.
Pain, in his temple. That really tender spot where the skull went in just a little. He pushed himself up--he was lying on a bathroom floor, over a guitar case, and someone was shouting to someone else.
Shatterstar. The name was famil--oh. Everything came flooding back. Hit me and--I don’t know. He’s gone?
Apparently. I’m searching for him now.
Peter brushed hands away and stood, wobbling on his own feet and bracing himself on a stall door. “I’m fine,” he said, then again, louder, and realized he was speaking in Russian. He repeated the words in English, and the people--two men and a woman--backed away.
“Are you sure? You’re bleeding.”
Peter looked in the mirror above the sinks. Sure enough, his temple was already swollen and beginning to bruise, a small cut where the knob of the hilt had likely struck him. “I’m fine,” he said again.
“You could be concussed--”
“You should really wait for the doctor--”
He didn’t have time for this. He pushed by the people, into the hall and looking either way. How long has it been?
You left for the bathroom about ten minutes ago.
Can you find Shatterstar?
There was a moment of silence. It’s going to take me a moment. There are a lot of minds to sort through, and without cerebro . . .
Peter closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths. If he was a panicked teenager who was terrified of the man in the courthouse, where would he go?
Peter headed for the front doors, in easy view. He stopped by a policeman standing just inside. “Did a young man come through here? Very long, red hair?”
“Yeah. Went that way.” He pointed out the door and down the street.
“Thank you,” Peter said, already shoving outside. He ran down the street, toward downtown.
How fast could Shatterstar move? A frightened teenager, extremely fit, with a motive to get away. Extremely fit. Extremely fast. Ten minutes. For Shatterstar, it was a big head start.
Peter ran faster, looking down every road he passed, looking for a flash of red hair or steel. Lord, he hoped ‘Star didn’t use those swords.
Peter, he’s headed downtown. Still on the main street.
Peter stopped pausing at alleys and ran. The streets got more and more crowded. He ducked between people, pushing through the crowds as buildings rose taller around him.
Ten minutes. How far ahead is he?
. . . He’s got a long head start.
Peter cursed. He headed toward the street, looking both ways. There--he turned steel and stopped the motorcycle threading through traffic. The man on it yelped as Peter pulled him off.
“Sorry,” Peter said, getting on and checking the controls. He knew, in theory, how to drive one. “I’ll bring it back.” Then he turned it around and started going.
It took him a few minutes to figure things out. Then the engine roared and he raced through traffic, eeling through spaces that shouldn’t have been big enough for him.
If you can get him back here, the judge will see him alone.
Peter wasn’t sure he’d be able to get Shatterstar back, but he’d try.
The television studio.
What? Peter asked dubiously.
The television studio. He’s standing outside it.
Peter gunned the engine as he turned flesh, driving on the shoulder and zipping off again when a vehicle was in the way.
The studio loomed ahead, taller than the other buildings around. Peter parked the motorcycle and shoved through, ignoring shouts and curses.
He could see him. Shatterstar was standing outside the building, a sword in each hand, the tips braced on the concrete. People were giving him a wide berth. He was staring at the glass doors, his knuckles white, licking his lips. His shirt was untucked, half unbuttoned, his feet bare. Long red hair writhed behind him.
The boy jumped and looked around.
“What are you doing?”
His face was white. Almost gray around the jaw. “You were right. I can free myself,” he said.
Peter reached out slowly and put a hand on the man’s shoulder, afraid he might bolt. “We can go back. The judge said she would listen to you alone. Mojo doesn’t have to be there.”
“No.” Shatterstar backed away a step and looked at the building. “He’ll just send other people after me. After the school. Do you know what he’s been telling people now? That the Spineless One Xavier has brainwashed me. They’ll come after Xavier and the X-Men and me and they won’t--I can’t--”
“It’s all right,” Peter said softly. Someone bumped him from behind, and he ignored it. “We can--”
“What they do to murderers must be better than living with Mojo again. He may be my god, but I can’t go back with him.”
Peter looked at the building, too, then back at Shatterstar. “You’re not a murderer, Shatterstar.”
“Maybe they’ll believe that. If I spin it.” There was a strange gleam in Shatterstar’s eyes when he looked back at Peter. “Mojo taught me that. He taught me how to be wanted. How to be desired, so I would get higher ratings. If they like me, if I spin it--” Then his face turned white again. “Mojo will kill me.”
“And you can’t go in there with your swords,” Peter said.
A tremble raced through the wiry body before him, and was gone. Silently, jaw set, Shatterstar spun the swords once and handed them over, hilt-first. “I will be free of my god,” he said softly, and walked into the studio.
Peter just stood there, dumbly for a moment. Then he followed.
“You can’t come in here with those--” the receptionist said.
Peter turned steel. “It’s an emergency,” he growled, hoping his bit of fame might help him.
It did. She paled, and looked around as though she might see Magneto. Peter cringed internally, but didn’t disabuse her of the notion. “A young man with red hair--where’d he go?” Peter asked.
“Elevator. I couldn’t stop him. He asked if they were filming anything and I told him fifth floor but--hey! You can’t go up there!”
She really wasn’t terribly bright, Peter thought, pushing into the stairwell and starting up. There was only one elevator, and Shatterstar was in it. But if he hurried--
The fifth floor door was locked. Cursing, Peter went down a floor and tried. Open. He burst through, then smashed his fist into the elevator panel. Too hard. He was steel. Steel. Cursing himself now, he went back into the stairwell and back up to the fifth floor. He’d already damaged one thing . . .
Peter broke through the lock and shoved, glaring around the hall. A man pushing a cart loaded with sound equipment stared at him. “Teenager. Red hair,” Peter barked.
The man pointed at a door.
Peter raced through.
He stared. He was standing under a set of small bleachers, surrounding a little stage with chairs. The three ‘guests’ present--all women--were sitting far back in their seats. The host was standing with Shatterstar in front of them, a microphone in his face.
“Wouldn’t you like to go back to your father?” the host asked.
Even from this distance, Peter saw Shatterstar swallow. “No. Mojo--the man everyone considers my father--locked me in a cell. He taught me to fight, and to survive I had to fight every night. Fight until one or both of us--the combatants--were unconscious. Or dead.”
There was a collective gasp from the audience.
Professor? See if you can find a television. Turn it onto channel 5. This has to be enough for the judge.
He felt a mental nod, and nothing else.
Peter could see Shatterstar shaking. His ponytail had fallen at some point, and sagged at the back of his neck. His untucked shirt was big and loose, and made him look small. Young. It was perfect for gaining sympathy, Peter thought.
One of the cameramen pulled back, nearly running into Peter. Getting a long shot. Taking in the now-dirty hem of Shatterstar’s slacks and his bare feet.
“He said he homeschooled you--” the host was saying.
“No,” Shatterstar said. “I mean, yes. Sort of. There were six of us. He chained us in a room, fed us three times a day. For eight hours, until I was thirteen years old, we trained to fight. If we did something wrong, our bones were broken or we were beaten. That was our schooling.” Shatterstar looked down for a moment, then back up. “I do not want to go back to Mojo. I do not want to watch my friends get killed. I do not want to fight them for his amusement. I want to live with the X-Men. They--” he stopped, smiling suddenly. “They gave me ice cream. I have a friend who helps me learn things and we don’t fight. His name is Peter, and another friend named Angel is helping me to learn to have conversations, and another friend wrote me a letter when I was sad. Look--” he twisted suddenly, pulling a folded envelope out of a back pocket. Carefully, he smoothed out the wrinkles and handed it to the host.
“Dear Shatterstar,” she read, then stopped. “They call you Shatterstar?”
“It is the only thing anyone has ever called me,” Shatterstar said quietly.
The woman looked at him for a moment, then back down at the note. “Dear Shatterstar, I think you are… reeley cool.” The audience chuckled. “And I like your enormous sords. Even tho somtimes you shriek at things and reeley scare me. And I like you’re hair, even tho you obsess over it. You are the coolest gladiator ever. You have neat broad-swords. So you don’t have to leeve.” The host looked up. “Sounds like a good friend.”
Shatterstar nodded silently, taking his note back and folding it carefully. “Mojo has a . . . the professor called it a ‘casino.’ It is where people go to see the other gladiators. To bet on who will win and who will be beaten. I don’t want to go back. But I think, since I have told everyone this now,” he gestured at the cameras, “I think Mojo will find me. I think he will try to kill me.”
There was silence in the room. Silent enough that, far below, Peter heard a scream.
Shatterstar heard it too. His head whipped up. He looked at the woman. “They are here. Please--tell people for me. I do not want to live with Mojo. I do not want to hurt or be hurt anymore.” Shatterstar looked up, at Peter. “He’s coming.”
Peter shook his head and stepped forward, full steel, turning the swords and handing them to Shatterstar hilt-first. “We won’t let him take you back, ‘Star. Not if you don’t want to go.”
Shatterstar’s jaw tightened, his body settling into readiness as his hands slipped into the grips on the swords. “Tell them--” he said to the woman.
“Son, I think you already have.”
The door crashed open, off its hinges.
“Shatty. That wasn’t good,” a woman said, standing in the shadows.
“Rita,” Shatterstar hissed. His whipped his swords around, once. “I will not return to Mojoworld.”
“You don’t have much choice, kid. Daddy’s pretty pissed.” Then she moved, too much movement, Peter thought, and suddenly, in a flash of bright light, she was there.
Shatterstar roared and jumped. “I will die free!” he said, blades whistling. People were screaming and running now, even the host backing away as far as she could get.
Peter grabbed Shatterstar before he could connect with the woman, twisted, and punched through the back wall. “Hold on,” he said, and jumped out into the air.
Five stories up. Five. Four. Three. He prayed Shatterstar could heal this, held the body, and smashed feet-first into the pavement. In his arms, he felt bones snap throughout Shatterstar’s frame. The boy screamed.
Cradling his head, Peter ran. Professor!
I know. The others are on their way.
A flash of light, bubbles of it, and the woman was there again. “You creep!” she shouted, a sword in every hand. Every hand. Six hands. Peter turned his back, shielding the broken body he held while blows rained down on his back as she twisted, trying to find a weak spot.
“Back!” Peter roared, kicking out at her. He couldn’t fight, though. He couldn’t fight, not and hold Shatterstar safe, and the boy was so broken--
She landed a blow, slicing open the skin on Shatterstar’s shoulder. Peter clamped a hand over that bit of flesh, trying to shift, to protect--
But she was all over. Dancing and flashing and where were the others?
“Shatterstar is ours! He was born for the Ring, and he’ll die in it!” she shouted.
“Not now!” Peter snarled. “Now he’s an X-Man, and we keep our own!” But her swords were back, and he couldn’t cover all of Shatterstar, and she was a teleporter, much too fast to outrun, and, bozhe moi, but he wasn’t going to be able to keep the boy safe.
Shatterstar groaned and shifted, bones grinding against Peter’s chest, a constant humming whimper coming from the broken body, and a bloody hand worked its way free and dropped onto Peter’s shoulder. Peter felt--hot.
It burned. He shouted, feeling the tingling spread, followed by heat.
“Gotcha!” the woman said, and brought a sword down on his shoulder, nearly hacking into Shatterstar’s hand--
The heat was gone, just like that, sliding like light up her sword and into her hand and--
She screamed as the hilt exploded. Kept screaming, while Peter felt Shatterstar twitch and smelled burning flesh. There was light, and the woman was gone, but the stench was still there.
“Not gonna go back,” Shatterstar said weakly.
Peter stared at him. His skin was red and blistered, his fingers already oozing. “No,” Peter said softly. “You’re not going to go back.”
Shatterstar lifted his goggles and peered at the television, then shrugged and went back to his ice cream.
Peter winced just looking at him. Most of the burns had healed, but him skin was still red and angry. And peeling. Peter shuddered and looked back at the news.
Which was playing a part of Shatterstar’s speech, cut from the talk show. The cameraman had also managed to get the fight, even Peter taking ‘Star and leaping out the hole in the wall. Peter was only glad there hadn’t been anyone below. He cringed again when the camera showed him running off with an obviously broken body. Then cringed again when Shatterstar used Peter’s metal form to channel energy into the metal of Rita’s blade, and from there to her arm. The blast that had so badly burned the mutant who caused it.
“That was a pretty effective way to convince the judge not to send you back to Mojoworld,” Kitty said, her eyebrows high.
“And now the rest of the world doesn’t like Mojo, either,” Shatterstar said, folding bare legs. He was back in his underwear and T-shirt. Peter had asked Shatterstar to wear pants, only to have Shatterstar point out that if Angel didn’t have to wear a shirt, he shouldn’t have to wear pants.
Peter didn’t have the energy to argue with that logic.
“And since you pretty effectively exposed Mojoworld,” Scott said with a grin, “the government’s started a task force just to make sure it’s really down. And stays down. I don’t think we’ll be having any problems with Mojo any time soon.”
“That doesn’t make you happy?” Kitty nearly squeaked.
Shatterstar shrugged again. “I am wondering what happened to the ice cream with the little marshmallows in it.”
“Kurt ate the last of the rocky road,” Bobby said. He leaned over the couch, hair dangling. “I can’t believe that woman read my letter out loud!”
Shatterstar shrugged again and stood, heading out of the room.
Peter tried not to notice that he was wearing a belt, but no pants.
“Is he okay?” Angel asked softly. “I mean, if I had just escaped from my direst fate, I think I’d be a bit happier.”
Peter stood. “I’ll go check on him. He’s probably fine.” He headed out, listening as Bobby and Kitty started to bicker again.
“Shatterstar?” he called softly, walking into the kitchen.
Shatterstar was sitting on the center island, poking at his ice cream.
“’Star? Are you all right?”
Shatterstar looked up, then back down again. He shrugged. “I feel . . . strange. And I do not know what to do about it.”
Peter leaned against the sink across from the boy. “Describe it to me.”
Shatterstar stabbed his ice cream with his fork. “Mojo will come back.”
Peter nodded slowly. He opened the drawer and pulled out a spoon, offering it.
Shatterstar glared at it. “That is an inferior eating device. You cannot stab people with it.”
Peter shrugged and put it back. “What do you think will happen when Mojo comes back?”
“I don’t know.” He looked up from under red eyelashes. “What will happen?”
Peter shifted, leaning beside Shatterstar. “We’ll fight him off.”
“What if he captures me when you’re not around?”
“We’ll find you. Just like the others found me, when Mojo kidnapped me.”
Shatterstar licked his fork. “Are you sure?”
“’Star.” Peter waited until the young man looked at him. “You’ve already won your freedom. You did something that you were very scared of, but were brave enough to do anyway. And now, he’s not your god anymore.”
It tugged a reluctant grin from Shatterstar. “No,” he said softly. “He’s not my god. I rebelled, didn’t I?”
Peter nodded, smiling.
“I think the thing I feel is . . . the absence of fear. And goodness. I mean--not the absence of goodness.”
“Peace?” Peter suggested.
Shattestar thought about that for a long moment. “Peace. I don’t know that word. Doesn’t it mean . . . the absence of war?”
“Yes. It can also mean the absence of anxiety and fear within yourself.”
“Peace,” Shatterstar said slowly. He smiled and licked his fork. “Yes. I feel peace.” Silver eyes slanted toward Peter, pinning him. “Thank you.”
Peter didn’t know what to say to that. Shatterstar didn’t seem to need a response, though, so he remained quiet.
The teenager ate another bite of ice cream. “I like all of you. But . . . I was wondering . . .” he said slowly.
“Yes?” Peter prompted.
Shatterstar looked at him, solemnly confused. “How does a stork carry a baby to the right house? Do they ever get mixed up?”
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