The Best That You Can Hope For

BY : Karl55
Category: X-men Comics > General
Dragon prints: 964
Disclaimer: I do not own the X-Men, nor do I own the characters from it. I make no money from the writing of this story.


THE BEST YOU CAN HOPE FOR

 

Based on events in Astonishing X-Men # 44-47 & 59-61, X-treme X-Men # 1-13, Age of Apocalypse # 13 & 14, and X-Termination # 1+2


 

 

Part 1:  When to hold ‘em

 

“You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,

Know when to walk away, know when to run.

You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.

There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.”



From “The Gambler”
Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

 

 

 

 

Damnation!  This is the first time I’ve seen them put a kid into one of these capsules.  Have they sunk so low that they’ll even condemn children to this death?

 

I couldn’t see the loading platform from the way I was facing, but once they started to raise it up and maneuver it into position, it came into the edge of my field of view.  By twisting hard against my restraints, I was able to look over my shoulder and see what was going on.

 

The child was lying on his side, his back toward me, curled up into himself.  At first, I couldn’t even tell if it was a girl or a boy, but as the capsule comes closer, my heart sinks all the way down into my boots.  He has a tail.  A blue tail, with a devil’s tip.  I try to encourage myself by arguing that there could be other mutants out there with that sort of tail, but somehow I don’t believe it.

 

As time passes, the boy stirs, moaning as if he’s been hurt or maybe just terrified.  He pushes himself up on one elbow, looking around.

 

When those lambent yellow eyes turn in my direction, I’m sure.  This is another Kurt.

 

He has the same reaction most of us have had to finding ourselves in captivity:  he attempts to escape, obviously trying to teleport out of the capsule and failing, each time being forced to materialize at various locations against the cylinder wall with what has to be a painful collision, judging by his expression. I know there’s no use telling him to calm down, not until he’s convinced himself that he can’t get away. 

 

The bluish glow of his drained energy spirals around the room, right at the edge of visibility, but he doesn’t stop until he’s worn himself out and lies exhausted on the floor, gasping for breath. 

 

I smile.  He’s clearly a determined little bugger who doesn’t give up easily.  I like that in a kid.

 

But my smile fades abruptly in the harsh glare of reality.  I’m going to have to watch him die, just as I have so many of the other mutants, even a couple of Kurts.  But those two other Kurts weren’t children, and they were at the far end of the room, so I could barely see them, much less talk to them.  This one is going to be up close and personal. 

 

Sooner or later, I know the energy drain will get to me too, but my healing factor makes me harder to kill than the average mutant, so I figure it will take quite a while.  There have been times I wish that weren’t so.

 

I don’t even know how long I’ve been here, since time is pretty hard to judge when nothing changes but the mutants who die around me.  I know there can often be a lot of time slippage between universes also.  The Kurt I knew in my world was in his 50’s the last time I saw him.  How much will he be aging while I’m confined here?  How much has he aged already?  If I ever do get back, will he even be alive?  Is he already dead?

 

At least Hercules isn’t likely to grow old and die, since he’s a demi-god.  He’ll still be the same man that I remember – that is, if I ever meet up with him again.  But all the rest of my friends -- No, that way lies despair.  I won’t go there now.  I can’t afford to.

 

I grind my teeth in frustration over the fate of this poor young captive.  He won’t last long.  None of the other Kurts did. 

 

He’s exploring his prison now, walking around, rubbing his hands along the walls, looking through the tantalizingly transparent barrier at the rest of this huge room.  Now and again, he climbs effortlessly up one of the walls, then drops down to the floor with an agile flip.

 

Finally, he climbs the capsule on my side.  His eyes fix on mine, full of questions.

 

“Ready to listen now?” I ask.  Sounds carry well enough through the capsule surface, so it doesn’t take my sensitive hearing for others to communicate with those who are nearby.

 

He nods and says calmly, “Yes, sir.”

 

“What’s your name, son?”  As if I don’t know already.

 

“Kurt Waggoner.”

 

“Mine’s Howlett, James Howlett.  Former Governor General of the Dominion of Canada.”  The usual bit about being Governor General slips out before I can stop it.  I’ve got to get over introducing myself that way.  Too much chance that someone will ask why I don’t still hold that position, other than the obvious fact that I’m not in my world anymore.  I have no idea what people from all these other worlds think about loving another man, and I’m not sure I want to find out.

 

Kurt’s voice calls me back to our present reality.   “Can you tell me why we’re here and what’s going on, Governor Howlett?”

 

“I sure can, but it’s nothing good.  This world desperately needs power to keep it going, but the only way they’ve figured out how to do it is to use mutants as a power source, draining away energy from us anytime we use our abilities.”

 

“Is that why I can see blurry swirls of different colors all over the place?”

 

I nod.  He’s a quick study.  “Yep.”

 

He glances around the room, then concludes,  “Sooner or later, we’ll run out of energy, won’t we?”

 

Too quick for his own good, maybe.  “Yep.”

 

“Isn’t there some way to escape, Governor Howlett?”

 

“If you’ve got any ideas, let me know.  I’ve done a lot of thinking, but haven’t come up with anything that worked.  Each cylinder is set to drain energy from the specific powers of its prisoner, so the form of restraint also varies.  For instance, you’ve been left free, so yours is clearly impervious to your teleporting.” 

 

“It seemed to draw power from my teleporting, since I felt weaker after each time I tried it.”

 

“Most likely you’re right.  That‘s your main ability, so you lose the most energy when you do that.  If you remain in one place too long, I’ll bet you’ll get a shock or something, forcing you to move or teleport.”

 

He climbs up higher on the wall, with that same spider-like ability I’ve seen my Kurt use.  “I wonder if this generates energy also.”

 

Good question.  I strain my neck around further to see if I can tell, but he’s already figured it out.

 

“Yes, but not as much as teleporting did, judging by the faintness of the blue aura around my capsule.”  The glowing eyes fix on me.    “I can see a sort of yellowish swirl around yours.  It isn’t very bright though.  What do you do?”

 

“My output seems to be pretty low.  Must be just my healing factor working.”

 

“Oh, so that’s why you have all those knives stuck in your back.  They want to make sure we use our powers, even if we don’t want to.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“But why are your arms restrained?”

 

“My guess is that my adamantine claws could cut through the walls of my cylinder.  Sure, I can extend my claws through the restraints, but they would still be directed straight up in the air, well away from anything I might want to slice through.  I know.  I tried it a number of times before I realized it did nothing but increase my energy output.”

 

His eyes are very round.  “You have claws?”

 

I nod, somehow surprised that he doesn’t know that.  “There’s no one in your world like me?”

 

“None that I’ve met so far.  But then, I haven’t met a whole lot of people yet.”  His eyes narrow and his lips tighten into a thin line.  “Not that I’ll ever have a chance to meet anyone else from my world now.”

 

“What’s wrong, son?”

 

“Nothing.  I’m OK.”

 

But it’s very clear that he’s not.  I can see he’s trying to hide something.  Or maybe I’m only imagining it, since that’s how my Kurt would look if he were evading a question.  I have got to remember that this is not the Kurt I knew, despite the many similarities between them.

 

“You want to tell me about it?”

 

For a minute there, I think he’s going to confide in me, but then he shakes his head and changes the subject.  “Tell me about your claws.  You must be able to retract them, since they aren’t visible now.   What’s ada – adamanium?”

 

“Adamantine.  The metal of the Gods.  It slices through anything.”

 

“Wow!  I’d like to see that.  But not now.  Not if it only drains your energy more.”  For a moment, he studies my metal-encased forearms.  “Doesn’t it hurt to have to keep your hands up like that?  How do you sleep?  How do you – uh – go to the bathroom?”

 

“You’re a smart kid.  Take a guess.”

 

Before he replies, he takes another look around my capsule, clearly studying the situation.  “Yes, it hurts.  And you sleep hanging from your arms.  You piss in your pants.”

 

“Correct.  Every so often, they bring down the capsules and clean things up.  That’s when they give us water and some kind of concentrated nutrient bar.  If they didn’t, we’d die too soon for their liking.”

 

He must have been holding still for too long, since he leapt clear of the capsule wall as if he’d suddenly been zapped.  No sooner had he landed than he stiffened for a second, as if that slight activity hadn’t been enough to satisfy whatever decided when to shock him.

 

“Port a few times, boy!” I call out to him.  “Maybe that will stop it!”

 

He does, finally ending up on the floor, gasping for breath. 

 

My entire body is already aching from the strain of turning so far in his direction, but I give another hard wrench against my restraints, desperate to see if he’s all right.  I gain an inch or two, so I do it again.

 

“Kurt?”

 

He lifts his head, the expression on his face unreadable.  “We’re going to die here, aren’t we?”

 

Lying would do no good.  If I want him to trust me, I have to tell the truth.  “Very likely.”

 

“Maybe that would be OK, if it would save this world from destruction.  I can think of worse things to die for.”  The look on his face seems to say that not only can he think of worse things, he’s already seen them happen.  But the sentiment he had expressed sounded a lot like what my Kurt might have said in the same situation.  Me, I’m not quite that altruistic.

 

My heart hurts far more than my body ever could.  I want so much to save this kid from what will probably be his fate, but I know I’m helpless.  I want to give way to the anger that runs through me and just mindlessly scream curses and obscenities at the universe, but that wouldn’t be at all useful.

 

Desperately holding my temper in check, I speak calmly.  “If we had been given a choice, I might see it that way also.  But we weren’t asked if we’d make this sacrifice; we’re being forced to do it.  That’s not right, no matter how you slice it.”

 

He closes his eyes and shakes his head.  “I guess you’re right, Governor Howlett.  But right now, I really don’t care.”

 

I can’t let him just give up, but words wouldn’t be of much use now.  The kid was clearly exhausted, mentally and physically.

 

“You need to rest, Kurt.  Why don’t you lie down and try to sleep?  Save your strength.”

 

“Won’t I just be shocked awake, if I’m still?”

 

“No.  Somehow, they know when we’re asleep and they leave us alone.  Or at least, that what I’ve seen happening to other mutants who aren’t restrained the way I am.  Try it and see.”

 

“All right, sir.  I am pretty exhausted.  Maybe I’ll be able to think more clearly if I rest for a while.”

 

He curls up against the near side of his cylinder, his back to me.  It takes time, but he finally relaxes into a fitful sleep.

 

The blue aura surrounding his cage is almost invisible now.  He looks so small and fragile, compared to the rest of us.  Now and then, the tip of his tail twitches slightly.

 

For a long moment, my thoughts go back to my own Kurt, lying naked in our bed, curled up in much the same position.  Back then, we weren’t much older than this Kurt probably is now, and he was my first lover.  I remember how I would slip into our bed, carefully moving over behind him, fitting myself around the curve of his back and draping an arm over his hips.  We’d lie there like that for a short while, until he roused and turned to me. 

 

The feeling of holding him like that haunts me now, as I watch the boy sleep.  That velvet fur, soft against my lips as I nuzzle the back of his neck.  The hardness of his well-honed body beneath that soft surface.  The faint twitch of his tail stretched out between us.  The smoldering fire of those golden-yellow eyes, as he turns to embrace me.  Gods, if I could only feel that ecstasy once again!

 

Of course, that was quite a few years ago, but even after we broke up, we remained friends.  Last time I saw him, he was a professor of Linguistics at his college, not to mention the author of a number of controversial books on the subject.  Professor Kurt Wegener, the well-known scholar and intellectual.  It’s a good thing no one ever found out about that adolescent relationship we had.  Sure, we were old enough to be legal, since the age of consent on my world is 15, but such a thing would have gotten us thrown out of college, at the very least.  We’d have been lucky to have escaped a jail sentence, in those days.

 

 

I tear my gaze away from the boy, thankful that he’s asleep and cannot see the shameful bulge my straining cock makes in my trousers as a result of my musings over my Kurt.  This Kurt is still young.  He probably wouldn’t understand about such things between men.  Or maybe he’s old enough to understand all too well.  That could be even worse, depending on what he may have been taught about men like Hercules and me.  I don’t think I could stand to see the contempt in his eyes, if his world condemned us also.

 

Ah well, that subject is not likely to come up, considering where we are and what’s going to happen to both of us sooner or later.

 

I take my own advice and try to sleep, but my dreams are full of soft fur and glowing eyes, all mixed up with the feel of Hercules’ cock inside me, pushing me over the edge of desire.

 

When I wake up, I know there will be more in my pants to be cleaned up than there usually is.  At least the boy won’t know about that.  I hope.

 

 

 

“Governor Howlett, was there a Spiderman in your world?”

 

At the sound of his voice, I twist around so that I can see him. 

 

“Yeah.  Never met him myself.  Not sure if he was a mutant or something else.”

 

“I want to be like him when I grow up.”

 

“You do, huh?  Think you can learn to spin webs?”

 

He looks at me with the same slightly indignant expression that I know so well.  “Don’t be silly.  Of course I can’t.  But I can be a hero like he is.”

 

“That’s a laudable ambition, boy.  But it’s not all that easy to be a hero, you know.”

 

He thinks about that.  Then he asks the question I had hoped he would never ask.

 

“Governor Howlett, was there one of me in your world also?”

 

“You don’t have to call me Governor, Kurt.  I’m not that anymore.”

 

He nods, but still stares at me expectantly, the same question clearly in his mind.  I guess I owe him an answer.  “Yep, but he’s a lot older than you are.”

 

“Are you two friends?”

 

“Yes, indeed.  We’ve known each other for a long time.”

 

“Hey, that’s way cool!  That means we’ve sort of been friends before, doesn’t it?”

 

“Uh – yeah, I guess it does, in a way.”

 

Leave it to him to think of it like that.

 

 

Life, if you can call this life, went on, with Kurt appearing more and more frazzled and worn out as time went by.  At this rate, he won’t last long at all.  And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.

 

He had been listlessly climbing the walls when he suddenly jerked alert, staring around as if he heard something but couldn’t tell where it came from.

 

“What is it, boy?” I ask, suddenly worried.

 

“I hear words in my head, like a woman’s voice talking to me.  But there’s no one here.”

 

“Telepathy?”

 

“Is that possible?”

 

“Some mutants can do it.”

 

I look around, then back over each shoulder.  The only female I can see is an attractive young woman in a cylinder a ways beyond Kurt’s.  Her arms and legs are both in restraints similar to mine, but probably lighter, and she has some sort of semi-transparent hood covering her head.  Could be a telepathic damper.  She’s looking intently at us through a bright purplish fog of energy swirling around her.

 

I jerk my chin in her direction, then tell Kurt, “Wave at her, and concentrate on that voice you hear.”

 

He does as I ask, then smiles and gives me a thumbs-up sign.

 

“She wants to talk to us both, but can’t get through to you.”

 

“The adamantine in my skull prevents telepathic contact.  Can she tell what I’m saying from what you can hear of my voice?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Good.  Then you can be our interpreter, so to speak.  In a pinch, I could probably make out her actual voice, if she spoke loudly enough, but you couldn’t.”

 

He looks puzzled and so does she.  “My hearing is way above average,” I explain to them both.

 

Kurt nods his understanding.  “Her name is Emmeline Summers-Frost.  I just introduced us.”

 

“Ask her if she knows a Scott Summers.”

 

“He is – no, he was – her husband.  He’s dead,” Kurt says slowly.  “He – died here, a couple of weeks ago.”

 

“Was he the one with the bright red energy field?”

 

“She says yes.”

 

“Shit!”  I could recall that happening.  One of the most powerful mutants I had seen since I was captured.  He went out in a regular blaze of glory.  I’m just as glad she can’t read my memory of that.  I’m sure her own memories are every bit as gruesome.

 

“Mr. Howlett?”

 

“Yeah, I’m OK.  Go ahead.”

 

“She wants to stay in contact with us, but it’s draining her to have to concentrate so hard.  There aren’t many other mutants still alive, as far as she can tell.  She’ll check in with us now and then and see how we’re doing.”

 

“Emmeline, we’re glad to hear from you.  Hang in there, darlin’.  OK?”

 

I see her nod her shrouded head. 

 

It isn’t long after that when the mutant in a capsule a little way above ours dies horribly.  I had no idea who or what he was, but he gave off a greenish sort of energy.  He had been fairly quiet and withdrawn previously, but he just seemed to snap all of a sudden, throwing himself wildly around inside his cylinder, screaming what I assumed to be curses, kicking and hitting the walls. 

 

Judging by the exceptional brightness of the purple haze surrounding her, Emmeline is trying to contact him and calm him down, but she doesn’t seem to be having much success at it.

 

After what seemed like several hours, the man starts shrieking in pain, howling like a wild thing being tortured.  I’ve seen that happen several times before, when a mutant has been driven beyond reason and tries to resist the energy drain, so I know how it will end.  The harder he resists, the higher they turn up the power that steals his energy, in order to get the most they can out of him before he dies.

 

Kurt is at the highest end of his capsule, watching the writhing man above him.

 

“Look away!” I call to him.  “You don’t need to see this.”

 

“No,” he says firmly, his back still to me.

 

“You can’t help him by watching.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Please, Kurt!  Get down from there and come over by me.”

 

“I’m not a coward, Mr. Howlett,” he says scornfully over his shoulder.  “You don’t need to protect me.”

 

What could I say?  Even a brave man can be driven to despair, and I didn’t want that to happen to this boy that I had come to care about.  Once you give up, what little chance you might have of surviving is lost.  Or at least that’s been my experience.  But would I really be doing this Kurt a favor if I encouraged him to hope, when I fully expect both of us to die here?

 

Defeated, I begin to turn away, in order to take the strain off of my arms and twisted torso for a while.  I’ve seen enough deaths in my life.  I don’t need to watch yet another.

 

But first, I tell Kurt, “See if you can get Emmeline’s attention.  Tell her she can’t help him and she should get out of his mind, or she may be dragged down also.”

 

 

 

At long last, the man’s cries die away into silence.  I strain to catch a glimpse of him lying on the floor of his capsule, still and unmoving.  For him, it was over.

 

For Kurt, it isn’t.  He slides down the wall of his cylinder, head bowed, tail drooping in discouragement.  Sinking to the floor, he crosses his arms on his knees and buries his head in his folded arms, his back to me.

 

“Kurt?”

 

“Leave me alone.  Please.”

 

“All right.  When you need to talk, I’m here.”  I give a short laugh, hoping to distract him from his thoughts, even if only for a second.  “After all, where else could I be?”

 

He ignores my feeble attempt at humor.  I turn away, sagging limply against my restraints in bitter frustration.

 

 

It’s not until much later that I hear his voice again.

 

“Mr. Howlett?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“How do we know if something’s hopeless?”

 

“Good question.”  Once again, I twist around in order to look directly at him.  His tail trails behind him on the floor and his eyes are a rather dull yellow.  Not good.  What can I say that he might be willing to hear? 

 

“Do they play poker in your world?”

 

“Um – yes.” 

 

He’s clearly puzzled by my non sequitur.  Good.

 

“You know how the game works?”

 

“Sure.  I used to play it on my computer when I was a little kid.”

 

“On my world, there’s a song that’s very popular.  It’s called ‘The Gambler’.  I’m not much of a singer, but I’ll give you a rough rendition of the chorus: 

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,

Know when to fold ‘em,

Know when to walk away

Know when to run. 

You never count your money

While you’re sittin’ at the table,

There’ll be time enough for countin’

When the dealin’s done.”

 

He thought about that for a minute, absently porting around the capsule as he does so, in order not to be shocked because of his long bout of inaction.

 

“I heard something like that once.  It was a very old folk song, like from the days when people played with actual cards, right?”

 

“I guess you could say that.  On my world, we still play with cards.”



“Wow!  Really?”

 

I can’t help but smile.  “Really.”

 

“It always made me wonder how you were supposed to ‘know when to fold ‘em’.  I assume it means to lay down your hand and quit, but how do you know when to do it or when to – uh – keep on holding them?”

 

“A combination of things, some of which you wouldn’t find in your computer version.  One would be experience at playing the game, of course.  The other would be gauging other people’s actions and responses, and that’s a far more difficult skill.  Not everyone can learn to do it, but a successful gambler has to have that ability.  Then there’s something else to consider: how much risk are you willing and able to take in a given game, for a given hand?   That’s a very subjective thing.  How much does it mean to you, and how much will you risk to get it?  Will you hold on when the going gets tough?  Or will you fold up your cards and walk away?”

 

“I – I think I understand what you’re saying, sir.”  He glances uncomfortably around his capsule before going on.  “I don’t think we’ve got a lot of choice in this particular game.”

 

“There’s always a choice.  Hold on or give up.”

 

He looks down at his tail, where the end curls in a tight curve next to his left foot.  Watching that mutant die must have really gotten to him.  “I – I’m not sure it’s worth it, Mr. Howlett.  It would be easier to just give up and do what they want us to, until we’re drained of energy and dead.  At least it might not hurt as much.”

 

His words cut me to the heart.  Once upon a time, my Kurt had felt that way about our relationship, ready to walk away so that it wouldn’t blight both of our future lives.  And I let him go.

 

Considering what happened when they found out about me and Hercules, Kurt was probably right.  But still -- I’ll be damned if I’ll let this one go without a struggle!

 

“Look here, boy, you mustn’t do this.  As long as we’re alive we still have a chance.”

 

He shakes his head.  “What if we can’t win?”

 

“Then we go down fighting, if we have to.  But not one moment before.”  I give him time to digest this.  “But as long as you’re alive, you never know what could happen.  I’ve seen some things I’d have thought impossible, and they’ve happened.”  Yeah, like falling in love with a demi-god, for instance.  “But only if you give them a chance.  So we have to hope for the best and be ready to take advantage of any opportunity we may get, right?”

 

He doesn’t say anything.

 

“Look, I’m not going to tell you the time won’t come when we have to give up.  Sometimes you really do have to fold ‘em.  But we’re not at that point yet.  Maybe there are a few aces still out there that we haven’t seen yet.  You’re still in pretty good condition.  So am I and so is Emmeline.  Give our captors your energy, but only as little as necessary.  Figure out exactly how little you can give them before they shock you.  Hang in there!”

 

As is often the case, the more I try to encourage him, the more hopeful I start to feel myself.

 

He gives a deep sigh.  “What for?  Why not just get it over with quickly?”

 

Hellfire and damnation!  I’m still not getting through to him. 

 

Okay, let’s try another approach.  “I’m not going to lie to you.  There’s a very good chance we’ll both die here and we’ve got to face that squarely.  But listen now: you told me you wanted to be a hero like Spiderman, didn’t you?”

 

“Yeah.”  He glances up at me out of the corner of those burning eyes.  “So?”

 

“So if Spiderman were here with us, he wouldn’t just give up, would he?”

 

Kurt frowns.  “I-- I guess not.”

 

“Didn’t I warn you that it would be hard to be a hero?  Things won’t always go your way.  Sometimes it may seem hopeless.  Sometimes the good guys don’t win.  But you can’t give up.  You have to keep on fighting, even if you die trying.”  I pause for effect, then hit him with what I hope will be the most persuasive argument I’ve got.  “The way Spiderman would.”

 

I can see him straighten his slumped shoulders and take a deep breath. 

 

Time to challenge him.  “So, Mr. Waggoner, can you do it, or not?”

 

He lifts his chin when I give him a man’s title.  His lips clench and his eyes take on an almost iridescent glow, as he tells me firmly,  “I can do it, sir.  I will do it.”

 

In that moment, I realize that I would fight to the death to protect this young version of Kurt, if only it were possible for me to do so.

 

But have I done the right thing by encouraging him?  Or am I just setting him up for disappointment and despair?  Is it just that I don’t want to admit he’s doomed?  No.  I can accept that, if I absolutely have to, just as I’ve borne many other things in my lifetime.

 

At the very least, maybe I can teach him how to die with courage in his heart.  That may not be much, but it’s something.  Isn’t it?

 

“Uh—Mr Howlett?”

 

“What is it, son?”

 

“Emmeline says thank you.  She wasn’t doing so well herself, but she feels better now.”

 

So she heard all that too, huh?  I look over at the glowing purple swirls just now beginning to fade around her, and say, “My pleasure, ma’am.”

 

She inclines her head toward me in a brief nod.  Instinctively, I reach to tip my hat to the lady, but, of course, that’s not possible, so I give her a brief nod instead, even though I’m not sure if she can see through that hood that covers her face or not.

 

 

Only a few hours later, I hear the boy exclaim loudly behind me, “Whoa!”

 

“What do you see, boy?”

 

“Looks like they found another Cyclops,” he replies, as an incredible blast of ruby red energy explodes around the room.

 

 

 

Part 2:    What to throw away

 

 

"Now ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'

Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

'Cause ev'ry hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,

And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep."

 

From "The Gambler" Lyrics (c) EMI Music Publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

 

 

 

And so it was that this new Scott Summers freed us from our captivity and started this world, and us, on a new journey with three words:  "Find another way."

 

We've been to four worlds since then and we've done just that.  And in all those worlds, I've watched over Kurt as if he were my own son. 

 

Of course, I've also tried very hard to be inconspicuous about it.  He needs to gain confidence in himself, and he can't do it if he thinks I'm protecting him all the time.

 

Like the Kurt in my world, he uses his brain to accomplish things rather than just his mutant gifts.  For a kid, he's been pulling his weight, especially when it comes to computers, and his teleporting has sure come in handy at times.

 

One of those worlds was particularly important to me, because I met another version of Hercules there, which awakened the hope that I might run across my Hercules in some other world.  Oh sure, I know the odds of that happening are astronomically against such a thing.   Nevertheless, I can't help but think of that each time we move on.  Would it, could it, happen here?

 

The next place we landed was rather like my own world in many ways, and I met a very young version of myself, which was strange, to say the least.

 

When I got young Jamie to promise not to kill anyone until he was at least eighteen, I made sure Kurt heard me say that also.  It warmed my heart to see Jamie safe with his parents again.  But maybe I shouldn't have laid it on so thick about his parents, since Kurt seeing them all so happy together probably led to what happened next.  I could see the wistful look on Kurt's face as he watched the other boy, just before we headed for our next destination.

 

That next world turned out to be his own, and it damn near destroyed him.

 

At first, I thought he could handle what happened, even after he found out his parents had not just been killed but vivisected.  Back on our ship, when he went off by himself to brood, I told Allison to leave him alone and he'd come to us when he was ready.  I couldn't have been more wrong if I had tried.  Maybe I simply didn't want to believe how much he could hate.

 

When he found out he hadn't really killed an entire city of sentient robots, the devastation on his face nearly broke my heart.  It wasn't only sorrow.  It was more as if his soul had just crumbled to ashes inside him, when he realized what he had done and knew he had failed.  He had been outwitted by that double-damned robot into being as hateful as she was, and it was all for nothing.

 

Yet despite his suffering, he responded to her final jest, although it clearly broke his heart to do so.

 

Only then did I realize that this was no longer the same boy I had met in the cylinders.

 

And this time, I will not let him walk away.

 

Instead, I pull him into my arms and turn my back on Allison and Sage, his face against my chest so that he can cry as much as he needs to without being seen.

 

"Hush, boy.  Hush," I tell him.  "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right."

 

"N-n-noooooo," he insists through his sobs. 

 

I know he’s right.  But he's so young, so innocent, and so hurt and vulnerable.  With all my heart, I want to hug him against me, pet that soft fur, smooth that disheveled hair, then keep him forever safe in my arms.

 

Instead, I take hold of his shoulders and push him far enough away so that he can look up into my face.

 

 "No," he still insists firmly, tears running from his glowing eyes.   "It isn't."

 

"We need to talk, Kurt."

 

He shakes his head stubbornly, but lets me lead him away from the two women at the control panel and back into the furthest corner of the room, where we can have a little more privacy.

 

"Yes, we do.  Or are you going to let that damned robot win?"

 

That catches his attention.

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"I mean she did all that just to take revenge on you for what other humans did to her and her people.  You heard her say she wants you to be miserable for the rest of your life, didn't you?"

 

He nods.

 

"Well, are you going to let her destroy you, or are you going to fight back?"

 

"There's nothing I can do to get back at her, Mr. Howlett.  She won."

 

"Not if you don't let her."  I let that sink in for a minute.  I can see the interest I've kindled in his glowing eyes.  "Now tell me why it's not all right."

 

"I can't." 

 

He tries to turn away, but I won't let him, keeping hold of his shoulders and forcing him to face me.  "Yes, you can.  Because I already know.  But you have to say it for yourself."

 

"No."

 

"Yes."

 

"I -- knew better.  Before you and Dazzler rescued me, there were two robots outside my cage, talking to each other.  One said humans are monsters that murder and enslave everything in their path.  But the other said that described their own species pretty well also, that they've become what they overthrew and will have to pay for it."

 

"Uhm -- humm.  True enough, as far as it goes."

 

"The robots had every reason to hate us and slaughter us, but some of them felt otherwise.  Lots of them may not even have existed when the revolt happened."

 

"So?" I prompt.

 

"So in my world's past, some awful things have been done.  We studied it in school.  Everyone thought we’d gotten past it, that we knew better now.  But it wasn't that way, don't you see?  We still used those robots as our slaves, even though they had thoughts and feelings, the same as us.  Nothing’s changed.  We did the same thing as before, only this time it was robots, not live people.”

 

"That's right.  Go on."

 

“So maybe in the past, some of my family were responsible for this stuff, but how is that my fault?  I wasn’t even alive back then!  After what the robots did to us, it was pretty easy to look down on them and see them all as guilty.  How could they have done such a thing to my parents?  I hate them!  I hate all of them!”

 

“It wasn’t all of them who had done that though, was it?

 

“No.  And that’s why it isn’t all right.  I should have realized that.”

 

"Yep.  But that's not what’s really bothering you, is it?"

 

He shakes his head, then casts his eyes down to the floor.  When he speaks, his words come out in a tortured whisper.

 

"I enjoyed it!!  When I pushed that button, I hated the robots so much that I wanted them to pay for what they had done.  I wanted them all dead, and the more they suffered, the better.”

 

"But you didn't kill anyone, not really," I tell him.

 

"That's not the point!  Don't you understand?!  Whether I succeeded or not makes no real difference.  I'm still guilty, either way."

 

"That's right.  You're still guilty.  But are you glad now that none of the robots were truly destroyed?"

 

His brow furrows, making his golden eyes squint.  "I - I don't know.  I should be, but I don't feel it.  I guess I am, in a way.  Or at least I will be, someday.  I know it was wrong.  Nothing I did could bring back my parents.   I knew that.  But --"

 

"But you did it anyway."

 

He leans forward and rests his forehead against my chest.  I can feel him nod as he says wretchedly,  “When I thought I was killing them, it felt – good.  I -- liked it.” 

 

"Did you like it in another way also?" I ask, speaking softly into his ear, so that the others couldn't possibly hear us.

 

Another nod.  He knows what I'm talking about.

 

"And you think that makes it even more shameful."

 

"I must be some kind of pervert," comes the muffled response.

 

"No more than any other man who goes into battle and finds his cock hard as a result.  It's the dirty secret that soldiers seldom tell, but it's real and it happens sometimes.  Happens to me all the time, in especially bloody fights.  The feel of my blades skewering an enemy - well, I'll leave that to you to imagine."

 

He pulls back and looks up at me.  "Really?"

 

"Yes, really.  I can't speak for women, but it's been my experience that intense emotions like love, hatred, or violence are very often deeply entwined with sex in a man's brain.  For better or for worse, that's how it is."

 

"No! I don't want to believe that."

 

"I'm sorry, son, but ignoring the truth doesn't make it go away.  Only if you look at it directly will you be able to even try to control it.  You were lucky this time:  you're not in fact a mass murderer.  But you could have been.  We all have that inside us, but that's not the only thing we have.  You've shown me you know that, because already you've looked beyond what you did and realized it was wrong.  That's more than many others will ever learn in a lifetime."

 

"But I shouldn't have -"

 

"No, you shouldn't have.  And if this is the only time in your life that you'll have to say that, you'll be the luckiest man alive."

 

"You're not just telling me this to make me feel better?"

 

"Hell, no!  I'm telling you because you need to know.  Now listen.  Every man makes mistakes.  I've done things that would make your tail curl."

 

"How do you know my tail curls if I hear something horrible?"

 

"I knew a Kurt in my world, remember?  That's what his did."

 

A hint of a smile flickers over his face, and then dissolves.   "But I'll always remember what I did -- I can't make it go away."

 

"No, you can't.  What's done is done, and it can't be undone, just as the excruciating deaths of your parents can't be undone."

 

" I couldn't save my parents.  I should have --"

 

"Tell me, what did your parents want for you?  To die with them?"

 

"No.  They -- they wanted me to live."

 

"Then you did what they wanted you to do:  you lived.  This time around, you tried your best to save them, even at the risk of your own life.  There are some battles you can't win because they are already lost.  You have nothing to be ashamed of in that regard."

 

"But I failed again." 

 

"No, you didn't.  They were already dead.  What more could you have done except tried?"

 

"But they were vivi --"

 

I interrupt him before he can even say the word.  "Yes, I know.  But that was all over several years ago.  You've mourned for them already.  Let them go -- and become what they wanted you to be, what they hoped you'd be."

 

He shakes his head in negation.

 

"Your parents wanted you to survive, and just look at what you're doing now:  not only have you survived, but you're an X-Man, whatever that is, fighting evil and impending disaster.  If you had died, you couldn't have done all this.  Your parents would be proud."

 

"How do you know?"

 

"Damnit, Kurt!  I'm proud of you, and I'm not even your father.  How could they not be proud of such a son, if they knew?"

 

"No.  I'm a monster, a mass murderer."

 

"Listen to me now!  You're neither of those things.  You're not the only person who's ever been driven to hatred and revenge -- and you sure as blazes won't be the last.  But if you want to overcome it, you can't dwell on it.  You've got to throw it away."

 

"I'll never be able to forget what I did."

 

"I'm not telling you to forget it.  Only telling you that you can't let your past rule your future.  But the hatred and thirst for revenge -- that's not worth anything.  You know that song we talked about once before?"

 

"The one about the gambler?"

 

"Yeah.  Remember the part about the secret of surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Well, you did the best you could do with the hand that you were dealt.  Now it's time to leave those cards on the table and walk away.  Trust me, they aren't worth keeping."

 

He shakes his head hopelessly, his expression clearly showing the conflict inside him.  He’s too young to have to face this kind of thing and it breaks my heart to see the misery in those golden eyes.

 

"I'm not saying it's easy, because it's not.  I wish I could take my own advice.  There are things I should have thrown away a long, long time ago.  And a lot of other things I should have kept but didn't.  You lost that hand, yes.  But there will be others.  Next time, do it right."

 

"What if I don't?  What if I just screw it all up again?"

 

"You won’t.  You can do this.  I know you can."

 

"How do you know that?"

 

What can I say?  Because I know what you are in my world?  That doesn't even make sense.  "Because you've already shown me that you're brave and smart.  And you've got a conscience."

 

He shakes his head.

 

“Once you give up on yourself, you’ve given up everything, son.  This game is over and, yes, you lost.  But there will be another game coming up soon.  We have a chance to save entire worlds, and you need to be at your best if you're going to be of any use to the team.”

 

“Even if I screwed up so badly last time?”

 

"You're far from being the first person to discover the cruelty you're capable of doing when you're pushed to your limits.  And you sure as hell won't be the last.  Humans, mutants, gods, or sentient robots, we're all capable of hideous cruelty.  But we're all capable of a lot more than that also.  Courage.  Love.  Duty.  Loyalty.  Sacrifice.  Honor.  Joy beyond all belief.  And yes, regret and sorrow."

 

"Mr. Howlett, how do I live with myself after what I tried to do to those robots?"

 

By now I have run out of metaphors from the song.  All I have left to give him is the only answer I have ever found for living with myself. 

 

"The only way a man can.  By resolving to learn from those mistakes, rather than repeating them."

 

"What they did to my parents --" A shudder runs through his slender body  "-- and all those others.  Don't those robots deserve to be brought to justice?"

 

"What do you think?"

 

He looks down at the floor.  I let him think it over until he's ready to speak, hoping and praying he can find an answer somewhere inside himself, since the answers you can find there are the only ones that will be truly convincing.

 

Taking a deep breath, he finally raises his head, squares his shoulders and meets my eyes directly.  "If you seek justice for wrongdoing, take it out on the wrongdoer alone, not others who may be innocent."

 

"Spoken like a hero, son -- and a man."

 

I put an arm around his shoulders and draw him to my side.  His head is no longer drooping and he stands up straight and tall alongside me.  "Now, are we ready to go on to our next mission?"

 

"Yes, sir.  We are.  I'll do better next time," he says grimly, "or die trying."

 

“That’s the spirit!  C’mon, let’s go see what Sage and Allison are up to.  Maybe we can even rustle up some food, huh?”

 

He nods.

 

I do my best to hide the tears in my eyes as we rejoin the ladies, but they’re tears of joy and pride, not sorrow.  Come what may, my boy is a boy no longer.

 

 

 

 

 


Part 3:  Epilogue

 

I thought I was beyond feeling any more pain after I saw Hercules’ body, but the boy’s death cut away another piece of my heart.  There was some hope that I could rescue Hercules from Hades, but I doubted I would find Kurt Waggoner there.

 

When Allison handed young Kurt’s body to me, I knew there wasn’t time to mourn for him.  If anything went wrong after this, he would be just one more death at the end of the entire universe.  But I couldn’t help it.  Unaccustomed tears leaked from my eyes as I held the boy in my arms for the last time.  Words just came to my lips and I said them out loud:

 

“You were the best, kid . . . You were a hero. More of a hero than any of us . . .  Us old people, we forget . . .  Takes someone like him to remind us of what we lost.”

 

I was peripherally aware of Darkholme coming up behind me as I spoke.  Even though he looked so very much like the Kurt in my world, I barely knew the man.   But still I could tell that my words had touched something deep inside him.  There was a familiar fierceness in his voice as he said, “I don’t vant to forget again.  I von’t.  I can’t.”

 

Two fingers and a thumb touched my shoulder gently. “You cared very much for him, didn’t you?”

 

I could only nod.

 

“Let me take him.  I can port him avay to a better resting place. You’re needed here.” 

 

He was right.  I let him take young Kurt from me.  As he turned away, my acute hearing was the only thing that allowed me to hear what he whispered to the dead boy just before they disappeared into a puff of blue smoke.

 

“I vill not let you down, child.  I promise you, your death vill not be for nothing.”

 

Then, from out of nowhere, I heard a soft voice in my mind.

 

“Mr. Howlett, if I’m a hero, it’s because you helped make me one.  Don’t worry about me. Just go out there and save the universe.”

 

And that’s just what we did.  But there were many losses along the way.

 

 And that song about the gambler that I used to inspire the boy?  When I think of all those who died, there’s one line that just doesn’t ring true anymore.

 

The best you can hope for isn’t to die in your sleep.  The best you can hope for is to die a hero, the way they did.

 

 MY OTHER X-MEN STORIES

Comicverse – Single stories

 

Hope

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090809

 

REVENGE!

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090949

 

The Monster

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090893

 

 

 

 

 

Story Arc based on Uncanny X-Force

 

Der Doppelgänger

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090999

 

 

Of Angry Elves and Mouthy Mercenaries

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600091017

 

 

Hinter Meine Masken (Behind My Masks)

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600091081

 

 

Vengeance Is Mine

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600091156

 

 

Say Very Softly

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600091183

 

 

 

 

 

 

STORY ARC -- Movieverse

 

Morning Devotions

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090821

 

Something a Little Different

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090822

 

As the Twig is Bent

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090851

 

Pray for Us Sinners

 http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090852

 

With Nothing on My Tongue

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090873

 

You Win, Elf

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090894

 

Hell Hath No Fury

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090950

 

 

These last ones are not really part of the story arc, but could be either comic or Movieverse.

 

Let's Pretend

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600090964

 

Happy Birthday, Elf

http://xmen.adult-fanfiction.org/story.php?no=600091000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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