fahye: ([xm] so much that I am blind)
Fahye ([personal profile] fahye) wrote2012-07-31 12:13 pm
Entry tags:

[XMFC fic: prayers for the living]

Title: Prayers for the Living
Fandom: X-Men: First Class
Rating: PG-13
Word count: 29,634
Notes: Cowritten by [personal profile] fahye (Charles's POV) and [personal profile] littledust (Erik's POV). AU from midway through the film, looking at what might have happened if Azazel had (sensibly) teleported to Russia and Emma had (sensibly) gone recruiting baby mutants. In which Moira is badass, actions have consequences, and Charles and Erik manage to have some feelings when they're not racing around the country.

To forestall any questions about Mr Black: we had to give Oliver Platt's character an actual name so that we could stop calling him Oliver Platt, or, as IMDb would have it, 'Man In Black Suit'. We decided to err on the side of unsubtlety.

Endless gratitude to [livejournal.com profile] pocky_slash for her beta reading skills and enthusiasm.




prayers for the living


On the way to the airport, Moira briefs them on everything the CIA knows about Rodion Malinovsky: distinguished war veteran, current Minister of Defence, et cetera. Erik listens with one ear as he sends the coin flickering between his fingers, keeping himself focused. Shaw will be at this house, likely with his telepath. He sifts through strategies, but more as an exercise of mind than anything else. The terrain and Shaw's choice of protector will determine the most expedient course.

When Erik glances at Moira, noting the pause between her sentences, he sees her gaze focused on the coin and closes his fist around it. Underneath his fingers burn the words Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz.

The common good before self-interest? Charles's voice in his mind is far less disconcerting than it should be. During their road trip, Erik got used to Charles's mind brushing his, more intimate than fingers across skin. Certainly just as distracting.

That's one way of translating. Erik lifts his brows. I would appreciate your staying out of my mind without invitation.

Charles has the decency to flush at that, but his smile is a shade too charming to be genuine, white teeth in a red mouth. Erik tightens his fingers until the edge of the coin has left an impression in the palm of his hand. I would say I usually ask permission before reading someone who knows about my ability, but my sample size is hardly enough to make that sort of generalization. Charles's telepathic voice is tinged with wonder, humor, joy. Charles feels too many things at once. I shall try to make a habit of it, then.

It isn't much of a promise, but Erik suspects that it's all Charles will concede, and nods. It must be difficult to shut off such a power, difficult and unnatural. Charles has seen most of Erik's secrets anyway, though how many of them he understands remains to be seen.

He becomes aware of Moira again, her expression caught halfway between amusement and annoyance. "Why is there always a secret boys' club I'm not allowed to join?" she asks, wry. Charles gives her a sympathetic glance, which looks absurd on a man who wears so much tweed, and engages her in conversation about the weather until they reach the airplane.

Erik gets as much sleep on the plane as he can, surrounded as he is by men (and one woman, he amends) in suits. Charles, of course, is dead to the world: his head lolling on Erik's shoulder is actually what wakes Erik. Moira works on her book of crossword puzzles across the way and says nothing aside from asking about a five-letter word for friendship. "Amity," he replies.

They touch down at 0500 and make their way through airport security with minimal fuss. Charles looks harmless, bleary-eyed and clutching a styrofoam cup of tepid coffee, but Erik does not miss the moment his fingers brush his temple. A mere second is enough to render their group unnoticeable, Erik notes for future reference as they climb into the truck. When Erik pictures his revenge upon Shaw, he always stands alone, but there are times when the impression of outside assistance lingers in the corners of his mind, the ghost of an improbable future. Erik has had enough philosophical debates with Charles to know the unlikelihood of the scenario. He dismisses the possibility whenever it occurs to him, and never mind how many times it does.

"My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth," Charles mutters. Erik suppresses the urge to roll his eyes; sometimes Charles is so English it makes his teeth ache.

"Now is really not the time for Hamlet," Moira says from the front seat, amusement tinging her voice. "I hear he dies at the end." Erik chuckles at that, which incites stares from most of the agents sitting in the back.

You really are that intimidating, my friend.

Erik chooses to ignore that.

Hours pass in silence. Erik closes his eyes and the journey becomes an odd collision of the past few years and the past few weeks: he is in yet another country, a knife hurtling towards a target, and he is winding down yet another road, Charles Xavier at his side. The metal in the agents' guns rings cold over the rumble of the engine.

When they arrive at the unmapped checkpoint, Erik tenses in preparation, but then Charles's mind brushes against his, reassuring and unsettling at the same time. The doors open, Charles rises, and the Russian men stare at something that isn't there. Erik looks from Charles to the Russians to Charles again--Charles is here without being here, eyes focused on inner horizons. The doors shut again and Charles returns with a gasp, the color draining from his face. Erik claps him twice on the leg in congratulations, something akin to pride surging through him. He's wondered, not without justification, how Charles would handle a life-or-death situation when one of the deaths in question is his.

As if I could ever doubt my safety in your presence. The grin Charles flashes him is wan, but color is returning to his face. At Erik's glower, he adds, Oh, I've done it again, haven't I. Well, you were thinking about me.

The rest of the journey passes without incident. Upon arrival, the CIA team unloads rapidly enough even for Erik's exacting standards. Erik sweeps the perimeter of the building with his senses: automatic rifles and barbed wire fencing ring out, and then, softer, are the lighters and buttons and occasional hunting knife. Weapons abound.

Shaw is scheduled to arrive in roughly thirty minutes, so they spread out in formation. Moira places herself between Erik and Charles; whether by accident or design, Erik is unsure, but he respects her enough to attribute it to the latter. What does she think that they're going to do together? Or is it just a matter of simple (human) fear?

About a kilometre away is an unguarded blind spot--there is a window in the house that overlooks it, but Erik can sense no metal near it save for the wiring in the walls. He will enter from there, strangle the guards with the wire, disable the guns, pull open the gate... Erik reaches out with his power to give Charles's binoculars a nudge, on the off-chance Charles remains unaware of his thoughts.

I managed to keep out this time. Charles peers through his binoculars, considering. I notice that none of your brilliant plans includes an escape route. They always have before.

Erik shrugs off concern and reprimand alike--Charles is not as subtle as he thinks--and feels for the ticking of the nearest watch. Three minutes until arrival. The coin forms his focal point, hot inside his pocket despite the chill air. He can hear no approaching vehicle, which means that Shaw will be arriving with--

Some of the guards cry out in surprise when the teleporter appears in their midst, in a puff of smoke that vanishes as quickly as it forms, his hands spread wide to display his lack of weapons. It takes Malinovsky storming down the steps for the guards to lower their guns.

"Shaw isn't coming," Charles says, fingers pressed to his temple. "Malinovsky isn't very happy about the meeting--he's telling Azazel, that's the teleporter's name, to take his offer elsewhere. I'm trying to ascertain the exact nature of the offer, but Azazel, hang on, he's going to--"

Azazel seizes Malinovsky by the lapels of his uniform and they're both gone, only to reappear high in the air, hurtling down towards the stunned guards, and then they flicker back into being on the ground. The guards are running, shouting, safeties clicking off in the chaos. The firing will begin in moments.

Time to go, Erik thinks, and takes off running, ignoring Charles and Moira shouting his name.

The scenario he outlined for Charles unfolds with only slight variation: he wraps the guards in barbed wire, uses their own weapons to throw them to the side, and sprints into the open. The air is thick with confusion and someone has begun firing at last. Malinovsky and Azazel are still focused on one another: Malinovsky manages to draw his gun in midair, but Azazel sends it flying with a whip of his tail. Taking out a teleporter will require perfection on the first try, and Erik readies himself, stray bullets raining around him. There is a knife in his hand and he draws back to throw it, hoping that the pain will be enough of a distraction to keep Azazel grounded.

Wait. Erik stills when he feels Charles against his mind, fighting the surge of adrenaline telling him to act. It won't be enough to hold him. Cover me.

What? Charles--

Erik swears under his breath. Telepathy will not protect Charles from gunfire, but that's apparently up to him now. Fortunately, the guards left free are clustered around Azazel and Malinovsky, unable to fire for fear of hitting their leader.

It's as that thought crosses his mind that one points his gun at Erik, of course. Wonderful.

He hits the guard in the face with his own rifle and casts out for the familiar metals on Charles's person. He feels close, but he isn't there, and abruptly knowledge that isn't his own floods Erik's mind--have to get closer, can't waste their only opportunity, compelling everyone not to notice him, try not to kill anyone, thank you. With a sweep of his hand, Erik sends two guards nearing Charles flying with perhaps more force than necessary.

It's then that Azazel collapses to the ground, screaming as though he's being torn apart from the inside out.

Charles is visible now, fingers jammed against the side of his head, far too close to the few guards still standing. Erik sends them hurtling through the air as well, ignoring the beginnings of exhaustion tugging at him. He has another half hour of effort in him, and it looks as though it will not be necessary. Azazel goes horribly quiet, still prone, and Charles sways on his feet, paling. Erik catches him just as his knees give out.

"Sleep," Charles gasps, and Malinovsky falls as well.

"What did you do?" Erik asks, staring at the rise and fall of Azazel's chest. Charles wouldn't have been using his powers for torture, knowing his personal ethics, but telepathy must offer a number of unpleasant alternatives.

Charles closes his eyes, leaning against him as if for extra support. He looks ill. "I removed all of his memories concerning the use of his power. He won't be teleporting again." His words, pronounced with such flat finality, send a chill through Erik. Charles, for all his moral concerns, continually blurs the lines of reality--is a mutant without his powers still a mutant?

Charles staggers out from under Erik's arm, righting himself with difficulty. Erik uses a bit of wire to tie Azazel's limbs--no sense in leaving anything to chance, even if he can't disappear to another continent--and leaves him on the ground for the CIA to collect. One of Shaw's tools is permanently broken, and Erik smiles in grim satisfaction. As frightening as this side of Charles's power is, it's useful. Moreover, Charles is useful on the battlefield as well as off, a true partner in every situation. Nearly every situation, Erik corrects himself.

"Shaw's planning on inciting nuclear war," Charles says, as he and Erik make their slow way back to the CIA team. "He thinks that all the radiation will make mutants stronger while at the same time killing off the human race. I'm not sure whether there's any evidence to support this claim, but Azazel believes in it."

"People have followed others for less," Erik says, and Charles flinches.

By the time they make it up the hill, Charles is swaying once more. Erik fists a hand in Charles's jacket and hauls him towards the truck, answering Moira's questions in monosyllables. Moira looks furious and elated at once, and she won't stop lecturing them on international politics and personal responsibility.

"We did your job when you couldn't," Erik says at last. His ability to form sentences in English is starting to desert him, a sure sign of encroaching exhaustion. He exerted himself more today than he realized. Charles is all but asleep next to him, a bookend to both sides of their journey.

"No, my job is to serve and protect the United States." Moira's voice has gone cold; he hit a nerve. "That means covering for your screw-ups, because you two are all I've got."

"Well then." Charles's eyes are closed, but he manages a smile. "Aren't you a lucky lady?"

~

The sky outside the plane's window is featureless and bright, and not much better than closing his eyes; against these dull backdrops, Charles's mind eventually calls up those images stolen from Azazel's, images so vivid for hypotheticals that he suspects them of being placed there by Shaw's own telepath. Incentive. Maybe threat. A promise of war and scorched air and death on a scale that digs claws into Charles's chest, the whole world burning because a handful of mutated beings have decided that their own superiority grants them the right to discard or alter the lives of others. He feels sour with it, poisoned by the recognition of his own philosophies at the edge of the idea. Not like that, he tells himself. Power is responsibility, power is--

"Charles?"

Grateful, he blinks the rubble and the screams away and focuses on Moira's worried face. She's taking up the two seats opposite, her stockinged feet propped in a pile of cushions, leafing through a thick pile of reports. She's finding it difficult to concentrate on them, worrying instead about the missiles in Turkey and how lonely her mother sounds over the phone these days.

"Yes?"

"Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," he says, and looks over in response to a stir from Erik, who's been half-asleep in the chair next to his own for the past hour. Erik doesn't mumble and drag himself into wakefulness like most people; his eyes go from closed to sharp almost instantly, and his brain isn't far behind.

"How much longer?" he says.

Moira says, "Less than an hour now," and Charles feels the brush of Erik's little finger against his own hand, a signal; Erik isn't prone to accidental movement.

What is it?

You're fine?


Sharp, so sharp, those eyes, a muddier and deadlier blue than the canvas of sky through the window. Charles glances at Erik and the dryness of the question hooks the truth out of him.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about what we--what I did.

It was hardly a premeditated act, Charles.

Even so.
He looks away, at the toes of his shoes, at the way Moira twists a pen in her hand. Power means responsibility. Changing his life like that--it's not so very different to what Shaw is planning, when you think about it.

Don't be stupid.
Mental voices have an echo to them, a nimbus that holds the tint of emotion, and Erik's stings with something like concern. It was necessary. We needed that information, and putting him out of action will inconvenience Shaw.

Erik is watching the uneasy set of his mouth and the dart of his eyes. Erik is fiercely glad for the opportunity to strip Shaw of one of his tools; Erik was impressed by how fast Charles moved, how decisively he acted--

--and Charles jerks his awareness away, guilty. No. He said he wouldn't, so he won't. It took him weeks to train himself out of brushing his mind up against Raven's as a matter of habit, but he's older now, stronger. He can respect Erik's wishes.

Malinovsky is probably awake in his own bed by now; the CIA had no real justification for holding him, not when things with Russia are so tense. Charles wonders if Azazel's idea of a healthy threat got through to him, if the mayhem will have made him a pawn of Shaw's or just another human who hates mutants. Charles should have woken him up and looked. He would have, if he’d had more energy, more presence of mind. Raven is going to be furious with him when she hears about how he dashed into the middle of a gunfight, he thinks, and manages to smile.

The landing is a smooth one, and a soft morning wind glides around them as they exit the plane. A uniformed man is waiting for them, leaning against a car parked next to Charles's, and he straightens as they approach.

"Agent MacTaggert," he says, sweeping a look over Erik and Charles that implies he doesn't have time to work out how to address them. "Mr Black's been calling us for the last three hours. Something's happened at the base where the mutants were being held."

"Something?" Moira says sharply, but Erik steps forward and says, "Were?" in a tone that sends chills along Charles's arms.

"That's all I know," the man says, eyeing Erik. One hand creeps towards the most visible of his guns. "If you'll call him yourself…"

Moira nods and gets into the car. The conversation she has is short, and Charles can see her face becoming more and more agitated. She stares at the car phone for a few stricken seconds before hanging it up, and then looks at Charles through the windscreen, and Charles has to know.

"They've gone," he says. His own voice sounds too loud. "All of them, they've just disappeared."

"What?" Erik says.

Moira's thoughts are swimming with questions, anger, and a tentative pity that makes Charles want to bury his head in a pillow and shut everything out.

"Nobody remembers anything," he says. Moira hears him as she steps out of the car; she lifts her hand to her forehead, absent, and then drops it again.

"That's right," she says. "Black says that everyone at the facility woke up this morning still at their posts, with no memory of what had happened the previous night, and all the mutants were gone. No trace. I'm so sorry, Charles."

The facility is just out of Charles's range from where they are, but they could be anywhere now, Raven could be anywhere, and so he presses his fingers to his temple and scans frantically in a spiral pattern, sweeping outward, thin and frantic. But there's no trace of any familiar minds, not even Raven, Raven who he's been able to sense in any crowd since he was twelve, Raven who's never been lost to him--he clenches his teeth and pushes further, the physical world a dull grey blur now, if he can just see a little further--

"Charles," Erik is saying, one hand closed around Charles's shoulder. Charles opens his eyes. "We'll find them," Erik says, in that same ice-hard voice. "I promise you that."

Charles looks at him, leans into Erik's hand for the few moments it takes him to find his balance again, and is hugely, terribly grateful that Erik decided to stay.

Thank you, he says.

I believe you mentioned something about not being alone, Erik says, and his grasp on Charles's shoulder loosens.

"I'm going to need Cerebro," says Charles.

"I'll drive," says Moira.

Black's facility looks quiet and innocuous in the overcast light; there are no scorch marks, no broken glass, nothing that might indicate that someone had made his small team of mutants--and they are his, his and Erik's--angry enough to fight back. All of their belongings are still in their rooms, and there are half-empty glasses of milk on the table in the living area.

"It's like they just got up and went for a walk," Black says. His suit is crumpled, his eyes tense behind his glasses, and he keeps rubbing the back of his neck.

The pinball machine emits an electronic whoop, and Charles flinches. Erik makes a gesture like he's flicking water from his hand and there's a crunching sound from within the machine, then silence.

"I want to see all the men whose memories were wiped before you let them go home," Charles says. "Shaw's telepath might have missed something."

"We don't know it was Shaw." Erik looks fixedly at Black. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who'd like nothing more than a group of freaks to experiment on."

"Are you saying the government kidnapped your pals from--oh, that's right, a government facility?" Black glares back at him.

"Give me one good reason to trust any of you," Erik snaps. "Agent MacTaggert's the only one who's treated us as anything other than weapons or curiosities."

"Erik, that's enough." Charles puts a hand on his elbow. "He's telling the truth, he really doesn't remember anything. Who else could do that but another telepath?"

"Good question," says Erik, but he exhales a deep breath and doesn't say anything more.

"The men," Charles says, "please."

Black glances at Moira. "There's over thirty of them."

Charles smiles; it's that or scream. It doesn't feel even remotely right on his face. "Then I'd best get started right away, hadn't I?"

None of the facility guards look happy about the prospect of Charles leafing through their minds, but Moira does a good line in patriotic intimidation. She talks loudly at them about national security and doing their bit to help locate the Agency's assets, and Charles thanks them for their time.

"I'm sure it must be terrible, having that gap in your memory," he says. "I want to see if I can help."

He doesn't. Deep down he doesn't care, and it scares him; he could rip their minds to shreds if he thought it would bring his sister back, and he shouldn't feel that way at all.

It's the same thing, over and over: normal routine up to around nine o'clock at night, and then nothing until waking up on the floor. A vacuum, not even the scraps of dreaming or short moments of half-awareness that punctuate a normal night's sleep. Reading their bookending memories shows Charles a lot of things that he'd rather not have seen, casual conversations and gut opinions that are poisonous in their prejudice. He has to fight not to drive his fist into the faces of the two men who taunted the kids through the window like they were nothing; like they were zoo animals.

"Thank you," he says, and despite his best efforts it sounds cold. "That's all."

The same thing twenty-four times, and then he finds it. It's barely there at all, just a brief flash lingering in the subconscious mind of one of the men posted near the main entrance of the facility, something he saw reflected in glass before he fell asleep. A woman made of diamond who refracted the moonlight, and two men, one of whom--Charles can't see it clearly, but the shape of his head is wrong, and it looks almost metallic. Charles digs his fingers so hard into his temple it hurts, and rakes the scrap of memory back and forth, over and over, dragging all the clues he can from it.

"Thank you," he says when he's done, just as he has with the others, and Moira lets the man out of the room. She turns around and raises her eyebrows at Charles.

"You spent a long time on that one. Did you get something useful?"

"Not really useful, I'm afraid. Though it's definitely Shaw--that fellow saw the telepath, the one I saw in your memory of the Hellfire club, the one who blocked me on the boat."

Charles takes the few remaining men more slowly, hoping for another glimpse, but it seems as though they were lucky to get even that. Finally he waves the last one away and sits for a moment to gather his strength. He's not putting a proper search off any longer.

"Done?" Erik enters with his fingers hooked through three mugs of what smells like very mediocre coffee. Charles hasn't had a thing to eat or drink since the beginning of the plane ride back, though, so he takes it gratefully and downs almost a third of it before drawing breath.

"Cerebro," he says. "Now."

"Do you even know how to set it up?" Moira says. "I don't know if Hank's ever written a manual, and Black says he won't let anyone else touch it."

"I'm a smart boy." That smile again, the one that feels more like a grimace. He decides not to touch Moira's mind and find out if it looks like one as well. "I'll figure it out."

"That could be dangerous," Erik says.

"I don't care," Charles says.

"Charles--"

"Erik."

Erik stops and looks at him, merciless and assessing. Charles looks back. Erik Lehnsherr is probably the strongest person he's ever met, and the only person in the world whose respect he's ever cared so much about winning. Even so. This will not be a point for debate.

"You promised," Charles says, merciless in his turn.

Erik's mouth thins, but then turns upwards, just enough. "Lab rats again, then."

Charles drains the rest of his coffee. It tastes even worse than it smells, but he already feels more awake. "Precisely."

~

The world seems even more of an impossibly large place than it did a few hours ago. Erik and Charles are in Cerebro, Charles muttering to himself as he examines various switches and levers, Erik answering the occasional question about what wire connects to which part. It is the only contribution Erik feels capable of making. The tight line of Charles's shoulders is a needle under his skin, a sharp counterpoint to the all-encompassing need for vengeance. Once again, Shaw has taken something precious from him. The experiments will be perpetuated anew, this time on mutants he helped gather--

"Erik." Charles's voice is pained. "Erik, stop."

So Erik considers what they will do as Charles recreates Cerebro from a handful of thoughts he read from Hank. Finding people who don't wish to be found is Erik’s area of expertise.

Erik turns to Moira, who is watching Charles with worry and far too much pity, and says, "I'll be back in a few hours. Don't let him use the machine unsupervised." Don't let him use it until I return, he wants to say, but time is too dear for that, and Moira is perceptive enough to hear the insult underneath: Erik does not trust any human to keep Charles safe. Perhaps she hears it anyway, for her only response is a curt nod.

"As soon as Cerebro is up and running, I'm going to find them, with or without you," Charles snaps.

Erik gives up all pretense of cooperation and makes a gesture. The metal inside the machine shrieks. "Get it up and running, then wait for me."

There are two spots of color on Charles's cheeks in an otherwise white face. His hands knot into fists. For a moment, Charles looks as though he's going to hit him.

For a moment, Erik considers letting him.

Charles turns to the main console once again, jaw clenched. "Don't be long."

No one stops Erik when he commandeers a car, slipping off into the night. His destination is a few hours from the base, but he pushes the car faster, urgency lending him strength. The journey passes in a brutal blur of determination, swift as the past decade and a half of his life.

The car screeches to a halt outside a peeling sign that reads THE NINTH WONDER in spangled cursive, with promises of spectacle and danger underneath. Whether the show itself can deliver remains to be seen, but Erik's contact is capable of all that and more.

He gets past the few circus performers awake at this hour without alerting them to his presence, but somehow he isn't surprised when the door of a trailer slides open before he can knock. This woman enjoys cultivating an air of omniscience, not without justification.

"Erik, I'd say it's lovely to see you again, but--" Irene motions towards her blindfold. "Well, you know the rest."

"Destiny," he says, greeting her by her stage name. He has little patience for jokes and pleasantries under the best circumstances. He's had the questionable pleasure of meeting Irene Adler, self-described circus freak with a thousand and one connections to the underground, only once before. Her information about the Swiss bank did prove useful enough to bring him back now.

"Come in." The trailer is as cluttered as he remembers, overflowing with so much pseudo-mystical bric-a-brac that Erik has to clear a space to sit down. Irene lights the sole candle on the table and sits across from him, hands folded, settling into a practiced air of mystery. "I assume you've come for another favour--are you sure you can afford to owe me two?"

"I'll take my chances," Erik replies, which makes her laugh. "I'm looking for the same man. He's taken some people and I need to know where he's put them." As if Raven or Alex or any of the rest were simply items to be recovered.

Irene toys with the deck of tarot cards on the table, but she isn't theatrical enough to start turning the cards over during this visit. "Fortunately for you, I'm led to believe that he has one safe house in America besides than the Hellfire Club. These people were taken in this country, yes?" At Erik's nod, she continues, "The safe house is somewhere in one of the Virginias. It's an abandoned farmhouse, nothing but fields and woods for miles in all directions."

"Your last address was much more specific." Erik's voice is cold.

She smirks at him and draws a card, flipping it over to display the two of cups. So it is to be theatrics again, then. Erik struggles to control his temper. "Last time I also promised that you would meet a handsome stranger. How is he, by the way?"

Erik begins some sort of irritated remark, carefully not thinking of Charles, when several things fall into place at once, like many small magnets drawn to one polarized surface. Irene Adler styles herself as the woman with eyes in a thousand places, but no one has ever met an agent of hers. She trades in favours and always has what you're looking for, provided you pay the price. "You're a mutant," Erik says, and feels like a fool for not seeing it before.

"Guilty as charged." Irene's expression is positively feline in its smugness. "I foretell the future, Erik Lehnsherr. I know what the next moment, the next year, the next century holds. I see everything and nothing all at once." The smirk vanishes, replaced by a stare Erik can feel even through her blindfold, palpable as an icy wind. "You have no reason to doubt me now. I've told you all that you need to know, nothing more. Leave this place."

Erik rises to depart. Irene's hand shoots out and he just stops himself from breaking her wrist. Her fingers close around the edge of his sleeve. "Rescue her," she commands, voice echoing despite their surroundings.

"I will," Erik promises automatically, then draws back from her grip, unsettled.

He is well into the return leg of the journey when her phrase all that you need to know sinks in, and he curses and pounds the steering wheel with his fist, taking little comfort in the horn blast that splits the night.

When he returns, the sun has just risen, bloodred and looming. Erik walks through the door to Cerebro and finds the same angry redness in Charles's eyes, bloodshot but still an impossible blue. The information Erik brings is apology enough, and Charles lowers the helmet onto his head without further comment, gripping the railing hard enough to turn his knuckles white. Erik rights the inner workings of the machine and brings it to life, thankful for the lack of white lab coats and humans in the room.

He hates the way Charles looks under Cerebro's flashing fluorescence, bleached by light. Erik watches Charles stare off into distant horizons and wills one of them to be a farmhouse in Virginia, for the map of the world to narrow to one specific point. When Charles pulls off the helmet not fifteen minutes later, panting for breath as though he's run around the grounds twice, Erik does not ask, but Charles tells him regardless.

"I can't find them." Charles scrubs a hand across his face and over the top of his head, pushing his hair into even worse disarray. "I can't even focus enough to narrow it down to where they might be. All the while time is running out, and I'm so perfectly useless to them."

Offering comfort is not one of Erik's many and rather specific areas of expertise, but for the first time in his life, he wishes it were. Charles's head is bowed. It looks wrong on a man so arrogant. "Will a game of chess calm your mind?" Erik offers, not knowing what else to do. Erik has always found chess relaxing, a game with stakes no higher than what he makes them.

"There isn't really time, but I suspect it will," Charles says, pinching the bridge of his nose. Erik takes his answer as a yes and clears off one of Hank's many tables, selecting a metal one so he can make a chessboard pattern appear with a wave of his hand. Creating the chess pieces takes little more effort. Charles gives a slight smile at that. When they were traveling the country together, it always made him absurdly happy to see Erik use his powers for something other than function.

The game isn't their finest, given their states of mind. Charles is reckless in a way Erik hasn't seen since he plunged into the water after a drowning man, and Erik has little appetite for victory, moving his pieces almost at random. This strategy actually proves useful against a telepath--Charles claims he never cheats at chess, but Erik's winning streaks never last more than three games--and Erik declares check for a second time as Moira enters the room.

"Charles, did you--no, of course you didn't." Moira looks as haggard as they do, her suit wrinkled and her hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. "You're no better, Erik. We'll never find them if you don't sleep, and for God's sake, go get some breakfast. I can't play mother hen and keep the CIA off your backs at the same time."

Erik has done far worse things to his body in the name of pursuit, but it occurs to him that Charles is not used to the same. Moira nods in satisfaction as Erik stands, motioning to Charles. He follows Charles to the mess hall, just close enough that he could steer Charles by the elbow if he wished, and they eat a tasteless meal before Erik follows Charles to his room.

"Your concern is--odd," Charles says, leaning against the door frame. He looks exhausted.

"I was going for reassuring."

The laugh that follows his statement is more like a wince. Charles backs into his room, his gaze holding Erik's until the backs of his knees touch the bed. Charles says, as if from a far greater distance than the scant meters between them, "Thank you." Then, with a glimpse of his old self: "It would have been more reassuring if I had won the chess game."

"There's only so much I'm willing to sacrifice," Erik says with a brief smile. "I'll wake you in three hours."

The next few days are exactly the same, as if they are living the same terrible day over and over again. Charles hooks himself up to Cerebro and searches until he can no longer stand. He sips the coffee and water Moira brings him without seeming to notice which is which. He crosses whole regions off a map, pressing his pen so deeply into the page that Erik can sense the metal point digging into the table. Erik is trapped in the machine, unwilling to leave Charles to the tender mercies of the CIA. He makes small objects orbit one central location, whirling around faster and faster until Charles is ready to retire at last.

"He can't go on like this," Moira says, soft, pressing a cup of coffee into Erik's hand. They bring each other no news: she does not ask how the search goes, and he does not ask what the CIA thinks of the situation.

So Erik takes Charles outside and asks him to shoot him.

To his surprise, Charles accepts the gun with no more than a token protest, finger curling around the trigger. Despite the time of year, heat shimmers off the pavement in the nearby parking lot, and the sky is a deep, searing blue. Erik grins as Charles raises the gun--it's exhilarating, feeling the gun in Charles's hands and the individual bullets inside, each a lead-and-copper promise.

Then Charles sighs and lowers the gun. "No. I can't shoot my friend on top of everything else."

"Come on, you know I can deflect it," Erik replies, wrapping his hands around Charles's to bring the gun back to his forehead. He's actually never had to deflect a bullet at such close range, but it's well within the parameters of his abilities.

"If you know you can deflect it, then what's the point?" Moments pass before Charles pulls his arm away, and he attempts to tuck the gun away in such clumsy fashion that Erik takes it from him with a brush of power and a twitch of his fingers. Charles stares at him, fascinated. "You couldn't lift the submarine back in Miami, but I think you could, with proper training."

"I train all the time."

"Yes, but--when's the last time you pushed yourself just to see what you could do? For the process of discovery, rather than the end result?"

A raised eyebrow is Erik's only outward display of emotion, but he is pleased to hear Charles speaking like an earnest young scholar again. Charles is normally full of questions, most of them useless or hypothetical, but full nonetheless. Now one question has consumed him, as one does Erik, though the questions are not the same. "What would you have me do?"

Charles surveys the surrounding area, hands thrust in his pockets. "Turn that satellite dish over there to face us," Charles says.

Erik stares at the satellite off in the distance--far, far off in the distance--and then back at Charles. He can only sense the barest whisper of all that metal. You're joking, he almost says, but his mind races ahead of his mouth, envisioning the possibilities. That's the danger of acquaintance with Charles Xavier: becoming so enamored of possibility that reality shifts out of focus. Erik raises his hands, fingers spread wide, and reaches--

--only to lower them once more, gasping.

"I can't," he says, shaking his head. "I need the situation, the anger."

When Erik lifts his head, Charles is looking at him, looking through him as though Erik is a window to another world. "You know, I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity," Charles says. Then, with a bitter smile, "Not that I've known much of serenity for the past few days."

"I'm certain you know more of it than me."

"Yes, well." Charles lifts his hand in the direction of his temple and wiggles his fingers. "Would you mind if I...?"

The fact that he asks is what makes Erik nod even as he braces himself for whatever Charles is about to do. Charles presses his fingers against his head and here it is again: the same shocking intimacy of their first meeting, an overwhelming sense of presence and a series of fleeting impressions--the taste of Scotch, fingers on keys, the hot and endless blue of a summer sky. Erik has never been able to ascertain whether Charles feels so comfortable in every person's head, if his power really is as insidious as its nature would imply, or if this familiarity is another component of their singular relationship.

There is a brief, bright flare of satisfaction, and then they are lost to memory.

His mother's voice is the color of flame, warm and low as she recites blessings that are yet familiar for all the years between past and present. So much has been stolen, but this belongs to them, this moment, these centuries of tradition. His child self speaks alongside her, words that reverberate in the dark of the basement: "Blessed art thou, the Lord our God, King of the Universe..."

Erik blinks and the world is once more a morning in early fall. His face is wet, but he feels curiously at peace, as though he has at last remembered his own name. "What did you just do to me?" he asks.

Charles's thumb flicks across his cheek. "I accessed the brightest corner of your memory system. It was a very beautiful memory, Erik, thank you." His voice is rough, laced with more emotions Erik can name.

"I didn't know I still had that," Erik says, still stunned.

"There is so much more to you than you know, not just pain and anger. There's good, too; I felt it." Charles shakes his head a little as he speaks, so achingly sincere that Erik wants to reach out and wake him from his illusions. Charles has a unique gift for basing hypotheses on the parts of the world that he wishes to see and then dismissing refutations as base cynicism. Erik can feel the old arguments on his tongue, but he turns to face the satellite dish instead, that strange peace still burning in his chest.

This time, the metal is a soundless song in his mind and under his fingertips. Erik flexes his hand, more coaxing than commanding, the satellite dish a distant but certain shape, another extension of his wrist. It moves, and Erik bursts into sandpaper laughter, a smile slashing across his face. Charles is clapping him on the shoulder, and then they're laughing together, giddy with success.

When Erik stops laughing, however, Charles is still doubled over, arms wrapped around himself, gasping for air as though he cannot quite remember how to breathe. "Charles," Erik says, hesitant, and then, "Charles," when the sick, hysterical sound does not stop. Erik has been waiting for the inevitable breakdown, has been dreading handling the situation, but instinct becomes action before he has time to think. Erik takes Charles's face between his hands and pulls him upright, leaning forward until their foreheads touch, trying to transmit something of what Charles has given him, a way to measure joy on the same scale as grief, a tenuous balance between extremes.

"Charles," Erik says again, and holds fast.

Charles closes his eyes and the ragged edges of his breathing smooth out. They do not move for several moments, a single point of serenity in space. At last, Charles leans back, a slow smile on his face that does not hide the sadness or the exhaustion, but tempers it. "Thank you for proving my point," Charles murmurs.

Erik lets his hands fall in concession.

~

"That's the craziest thing I've heard," Director McCone says, and holds up a hand to forestall Moira's indignation,"since you were babbling down the phone at me about Colonel Hendry being in two places at once, and look how that one turned out. I'm not calling Xavier a liar, MacTaggert. I just said it sounds crazy. Is this man Shaw right? Will a nuclear war have that effect on y-- on mutants? Make them stronger?"

Everyone looks at Charles with varying mixtures of expectancy and suspicion. Everyone except Moira, who is doing a good job for a non-telepath of conveying just how much she disapproves of his current sleeping patterns, and how annoyed she will be if his fatigue leads him to embarrass her in front of her boss.

"I don't know," he admits, which stings. "The problem with predictions is that mutation is a random event; the diversity of skills we've seen so far is proof of that. But I hardly think it matters, do you? Even if he is wrong, it just means that Shaw is bringing about his own destruction as well as that of millions of unmutated human beings."

Silence. Agent Stryker shifts in his seat and rubs at his forehead, looking about as tired as Charles feels.

"The problem is," the Director says finally, "there's only so much we can do if Russia continues to escalate things. It those missiles are placed in Cuba, the President won't give a damn what we tell him you saw in someone's head."

"Malinovsky does have that kind of influence," adds Black. "If this threat of Shaw's took effect…"

Another silence, and Charles wishes that he could rub his temples without drawing attention to his ability. All he wants is to nudge away the tension that's pooling across his forehead. He's sent his mind out over the whole country and half the bloody ocean and nothing, not the smallest trace of a familiar mind. It has to be that telepath, blocking him out like she did on the boat, only with far more subtlety this time; he hasn't even felt that sickly glass edge of evasion, the refraction of his mind's vision. It has to be her, because the alternative is that Raven and Alex and Darwin and Hank and Angel and Sean are dead.

"In the meantime," he says briskly, "I assume the CIA intends to give us whatever resources we require to recover our lost people. One of whom, as I'm sure I don't need to remind you, is an Agency employee."

"Of course," says Black, but he doesn't sound too certain.

"You're quite right, Agent Stryker," Charles says, staring the man in the eye and watching him jump. He wants to knock this particular stray thought on the head before it can go anywhere. "I don't speak like an American. And I must say, I don't have any particular patriotism when it comes to this country. What I do have is a vested interest in preventing a nuclear war."

Moira ducks her head next to him; she's probably smiling, but he doesn't take his eyes or his focus off Stryker to check.

Charles goes on, "By taking our recruits, Shaw is trying to build an army; make it us against you. Mutants against humans. Unless you trust us, he's won."

He could do it for them, of course; it'd be easy enough to put the right ideas into their minds. But he couldn't live with it. He has to show Erik that this kind of alliance can be fairly won.

"There's also the matter of that other man," Stryker says. "Lehnsherr."

"What about him?" Charles says. He hears the harsh note in his voice but it's too late to quash it, and on reflex he sends his mind out to touch fleetingly against Erik’s presence -- still safely in the grounds of the facility, having refused to spend the morning rubbing shoulders with suits, as he put it. The distance between them is a constant unpleasantness like a stone in Charles’s shoe; he can’t stop reliving the way he felt when they returned from Russia to find the place empty, and though he knows Erik can take care of himself, the fear is still there.

Stryker frowns. "Bit of a loose cannon, by all accounts. Didn't your report on the Russian incident say something about him charging ahead without orders, MacTaggert?"

Moira shoots a warning glance at Charles. "That's true," she says. "But it was a good strategy. It gave us the element of surprise, which we desperately needed against the teleporter."

"We've unearthed some other information," Stryker says. "About his… previous activities."

"Killing Nazis?" Charles says. "Yes. How dreadful."

Agent Stryker and Director McCone both remember the war more vividly than they'd like to, and Charles watches those memories stir in response to his words, knocking some shame to the surface.

Stryker coughs. "I didn't mean to imply--never mind."

Charles looks down at his fingers and twiddles them, just a bit. "There's also the not insignificant point that I saw Erik turn a satellite dish ninety degrees on its axis, the other day, without breaking a sweat." Bending the truth there, but it hardly matters. He looks up and fixes the Director with his most concerned smile. "Are you quite sure this is a man you can afford to antagonise?"

"Don't play games with me, Xavier, I haven't the patience for it," McCone says. "Your point is taken, however. And we'll help you get your people back."

What he's thinking is that Charles Xavier is certainly not a man to antagonise either. Which is just fine with Charles.

The drive back to Black’s facility is a quiet one; Moira claims the front seat and engages Black in soft conversation, and Charles sinks down in his own seat and stares out of the window without seeing much of what’s passing. He lays one fingertip on the strip of metal that runs across the leather on the inside of the car door and taps, gently, thinking. Erik’s power is phenomenal, and now that he is learning to channel it without the need for an emotional context, he’s a weapon that Shaw would be stupid not to try and take for his own use. And Charles will not lose him, not now, not when they are standing on the cusp of everything that they could be.

He lifts his hand from the metal and touches his own cheek, remembering. He’s never done that before, used his own power to help someone else into theirs, and he didn’t enjoy the search for that memory of Erik’s. The brightest corner, he said, and it was, and it was beautiful, but it takes an intensely dark surrounding shadow to make anyone’s brightness appear in such stark relief. Most people’s minds are daylight, with the occasional joyous zenith, and everyone has a few midnight memories hidden away. But Erik is--Erik is galaxies seen from a field on a pristine night, with no man-made lights to cloud the view. Erik is ink-black and pained, with pinpricks of hope and laughter that are so tiny, but stand out with such terrible clarity against the rest of his life.

That man let Charles into his head, and shared Charles’s delight, and his grief as well. Charles knows his own mind would be the most everyday kind of daylight, if he could hold a mirror up to his own power; he’s only just now learning how to suffer loss, and Erik doesn’t think less of him for it; that was what Charles saw, when Erik’s forehead touched his and he couldn’t help but inhale Erik’s thoughts along with his warmth.

And it was--distracting, having Erik that close, his hands steadying and gentle on Charles's face. A moment of unexpected, pleasant contact in the midst of the stress. Charles has been attracted to men before, and sometimes seen enough reciprocal attraction in their minds to know that they would be willing, but it's never seemed worth the extra bother when there are just as many girls around; girls with whom he can express his interest in public, without having to worry about society and its disapproval. Easier to note these attractions but never act on them. Simpler.

There isn't much that's simple about him and Erik.

"Xavier."

"Mm."

"Xavier," Black repeats, not unkindly. "Would you rather stay in the car?"

Charles blinks and realises they’ve stopped. "Ah. I’m sorry."

"I can fetch you a pillow," Black goes on, now grinning outright, and Charles manages a laugh as he hauls himself out of the car.

"I’m obliged for the offer, but I’m going to use Cerebro for a while, I think."

If he's honest, he's not expecting anything. But the feel of the metal on his head and the hot, thrumming clench of power are welcome, now; familiar and consuming, leaving no place for guilt. As long as he's trying. As long as he keeps trying.

It's Raven he looks for, as usual, the one whose mind he knows as well as the texture of his bedroom rug against the soles of his feet, or the taste of lemon curd spread on crusty bread. If he can find any of them, it'll be--

And there it is, the briefest whisper, so distant and so vague that he tells himself he's wished too hard and conjured up a mental mirage. He scans back in the same direction, unaware of his body now, unaware of anything but the blur of humanity spread out beneath his mind's reach and so alien, so not what he's looking for.

Raven, he says, throwing everything he has behind the word.

The whisper of recognition flares just enough, and he has it.

Charles? He can barely keep hold of her mind, he can barely hear her, but there she is. Charles! How did you--are you alright?

Am
I alright? Raven, where are you? Are the others there?

I can't tell you, I'm sorry. I don't remember how we got here--she took that one away.
Her voice is brighter for a moment, more like herself, touched with anger. Charles, I fucking hate this, I hate being stuck here like some kind of damsel in distress, I hate what she's doing.

With difficulty Charles swallows down the urge currently searing through him, which is to tell her that he's going to destroy whatever put that slick sour fear into his sister's thoughts. She's blocking me, I know.

No. No, Charles, it's not just that, it's worse, she's managed--


Like a thread snipped in the centre, the connection is gone. The abruptness of it knocks Charles back into himself, standing with his hands clenched so hard around the metal railing that there's barely any colour in his fingers. His eyes sting and blur with the light, and there's a new tightness in his neck that promises an uncomfortable night, and--and Erik is lifting the headset off him.

"How long have you been in here?" Charles demands.

Erik ignores him. "What happened? Did you see something?"

"Raven." Charles grins, so sudden that it hurts, and takes impulsive hold of Erik's arm. "I talked to her. She's alive." Any more than that he can't say, much as he wants to proclaim her unbroken and unhurt and no more than removed from him in space. The remnants of a strange helplessness are draped around Charles's nerves. He's never felt powerless before these past few days, and it's made him feel cool and sharply brittle, unsuited for real contact with anyone but Erik. Erik, who is used to handling things with edges. Erik's arm is warm and the tesselated shapes that comprise the structure's dome dance out at Charles's eyes, one by one; he is exhausted and jubilant and begrudges the icy kernel of warning that refuses to budge from where it's lodged in his heart. Not too much hope, it says; not yet.

He sleeps well that night, despite half an afternoon's worth of searching--all that he manages before returning with a mug of tea to find the door leading up into Cerebro welded implausibly shut at every edge--yielding no further results. He eats, and Erik beats him at chess, and Charles feels his lids drooping on the image of Erik idly shaping and reshaping the black side's knights until they are miniature models of men on horseback, holding tiny swords aloft.

"Go to bed, Charles," Erik says, and one of his knights gallops across the board and onto the back of Charles's hand, where it freezes into the same heroic pose.

Charles sets the knight on top of the pile of books next to his bed, and is asleep almost as soon as he closes his eyes.

In the kitchenette next morning is a cup of coffee, lukewarm, and a note propped against it that reads: TWO HOURS CHARLES THEN I CLOSE IT AGAIN. Charles smiles and casts his mind out: Erik's on his morning jog near the border of the research base's grounds. The door to the Cerebro installation is once again in existence, and Charles sets his empty cup down next to a notepad that Hank left on the control panel. It's a new day and his sister is alive, and if she can break out of the telepath's shielding once then she can do it again.

Time is difficult to gauge when his mind is moving at the accelerated speeds that Cerebro allows; by his watch he's been at it forty minutes when the noise begins, but it feels like longer. It's nothing he's not used to: voices raised, a roar of machinery that could be no more than a truck driving close by, so he simply stretches the aches from his feet and concentrates once more, with the result that his consciousness is halfway across the state when the floor begins to shake.

Later he'll wonder exactly how things might have gone if the headset had fallen off before the machinery exploded.

From somewhere in Virginia he races back to a body that's unsteady, a wind that's whipping at his clothes, the rattle of metal everywhere overlaid on the glow of minds. He's almost there, almost fully within himself, when there's a sound like the screech of blunt knives.

A sudden red light fills his mind, and then pain, and then a plunging dark.

~

When Erik completes his run, the base has come to life. Agents of the CIA are early risers, and clusters of suit-clad men walk past him to the mess, careful not to look in his direction. They are afraid that otherness is catching; he knows the look. Erik puts on his blandest expression, the one he saves for crowds he has no business being in, and walks on, driven by the prospect of a shower.

No matter how many hotels he's stayed in, the luxury of clean, running water is always a revelation. Erik does not allow himself to linger, as a brief brush of his senses confirms that Charles has already ensconced himself within Cerebro, but neither does he rush. Just below his skin thrums the urge to run farther, faster. The path to Shaw is an invisible line running from this point to the destination, pulling him ever onward. Erik turns off the water without touching the knobs and begins toweling himself dry. It galls him that Charles is more likely to find their missing mutants with Cerebro, despite the other telepath blocking him. Erik would prefer he and Charles strike out alone, canvassing the admittedly large state of Virginia until they locate their fellows. Let the men work their machines without the mutants.

Erik is going to kill Shaw. There is no doubt about that. Of late, however, Erik has had moments of wondering what he will do afterwards. These moments usually occur over chess games with Charles, when Erik is studying the board and wondering just how many games they will play over the course of their association. Charles calls him "friend," but friendship is a strange term for whatever exists between them. Erik's limited vision of a future does not include involvement with any government, but Charles is there at the forefront, with his theories and philosophical pretensions and knowing smile, and the mutants they've gathered are there as well, out of focus yet definite presences in the background.

Erik has just finished dressing when the explosions begin.

Swearing, Erik flings open his door and begins the process of making his way outside the building, throwing aside panicked agents when they impede his progress. Charles's last scan must have tipped off Shaw's henchmen. They have come to collect the rest of the mutants, including the weapon that Shaw forged. Erik is running toward the flashes of light and whirling dust when the shriek of metal grates across his senses.

They're attacking Cerebro.

Time contracts to the space between heartbeats, between running footsteps. He is a projectile, giving no more thought to the swath of destruction he leaves in his wake than a bullet. There is a vague shape in the distance, partially screened by the dust. It takes one gesture to gather the metal debris flying in the sudden windstorm, one more gesture to slam it around the target. The roar of wind dies down to a breeze, and he runs past the bloodied figure trapped between stray chunks of Cerebro without bothering to assure himself of the kill. He runs.

Red light rips past him, ricocheting off Cerebro's battered exterior. An entire portion of the machine sags to the ground in a tangle of wires. He knows this power, something in his brain putting forth the name Alex Summers, but he sweeps his arm behind him and the zippers on his opponent's clothing are magnetized, sending him careening into the twisted remains of Cerebro with a thud. There's a cut on his hand from a piece of shrapnel. He ignores the twinge and tears open the door.

Enough of the lights are flickering that the telepath (Emma Frost says that same part of his mind) seems to give off sparks. She's shifted to diamond form, and her eyes are two chips of ice. Next to her is Raven, a false smile on her false face, and beside her on the ground is the still form of Charles.

"I wouldn't, sugar," Frost says, and a hundred memories unspool in Erik's mind, brushed with rime. She shakes her head and her hair chimes. "You've got it just as bad as your friend. Pity. I guess we'll do this the hard way." She raises a hand but then frowns, her gaze shifting to Raven, who is prodding Charles with her toe. The ice inside Erik's mind groans under the strain, and it's all the opportunity he requires.

Erik curls his fingers and a panel near Frost tears free. She bats it aside, but she is unprepared for the wires snaking around her body, squeezing until Erik is not certain whether the cracking he hears is her hold over his mind or the breaking of her bones. It turns out to be the dissolution of her diamond form. Erik closes his hand.

Then Raven shifts into her natural form, almost too fast to follow, and slams a fist into his jaw. He tastes blood on his tongue and catches her arm before she can finish drawing it back, twisting hard enough to bruise. In the distance, he feels the magnetization around Alex wear off. It's too much effort to hold all of them at once.

"Raven." Charles has raised himself halfway to a sitting position, fingers clenched around what remains of the console. He's bleeding from a shallow gash on his head; when he raises his hand to his temple, his fingertips leave streaks. "What are you--" Raven moves as if to strike at Charles, but freezes in place instead, muscles locked. "Where are you?" Charles asks, his voice breaking.

She had a little change of heart, Frost murmurs inside their minds, smug despite the wires holding her in place. Or should I say change of mind?

Charles's eyes go just as cold as Frost's, and as their gazes lock, soundless humming fills the room. Erik's ears ring from the proximity to the telepathic combat. Raven, the subject of the battle, claps her hands over her ears and sinks to her knees. Erik forces himself to look to the side, gritting his teeth against the headache that shoots through the base of his skull.

The glowing circle at the door is his only warning. Erik dives across the floor, rolling up into a crouch as he lifts pieces of flooring to shield himself and Charles from Alex's blasts. Lightbulbs burst overhead, sending down showers of sparks. Charles is shouting for Raven, but Erik can feel the vibrations from three sets of feet sprinting across the metal floor and out of the machine, steps receding with their hopes.

See you around, boys, is Frost's last jibe.

"Christ." Charles wipes away a thin trickle of blood from one nostril, creating a clean spot on an otherwise dirty face. "She's brainwashed them, Erik, she's gone ahead and changed everything they are so that she can burn down the world."

Rage suffuses Erik, more primal than his normal cold burn. The remains of Cerebro begin to shake as if in a low-level earthquake. Charles swears again, mutters, "Sorry about that," and Erik is no longer raw with fury and terror. He has, however, added Frost's name to his list of people who deserve to die.

"Frost might have left behind one of her compatriots," Erik says, striding over to Charles. Ignoring his protests, Erik tilts Charles's head to the side, examining his head wound. It will likely require a few stitches, but the need for medical attention is not immediate. "Will you be able to read his mind if he's still alive?"

Charles's face is grim. "Take me to him."

The destruction is even more impressive outside Cerebro. Bits of shrapnel are embedded in the lawn, larger pieces of machinery strewn about as if from the hand of an angry god. There are a handful of fallen agents and the smell of seared flesh lingers about their forms. Charles goes ashen underneath all the grime, but he marches on, keeping pace with Erik. Erik reaches out with his power, looking for the mutant he buried under metal, and tries to hold the image of a menorah in his mind for some small sense of peace.

The man Erik extracts from the metal is battered and unconscious but still alive. By this point, the suits have noticed them. Erik raises his arm, prepared to send them away by force rather than attempt diplomacy, but Charles touches his temple and they drift away in confused disinterest. "Moira's on her way," Charles says, sinking down next to Shaw's mutant, who lies prone before them. He places his other hand on the man's forehead and closes his eyes. Erik stands guard, as he should have done every time Charles used Cerebro, leaving himself defenseless. Stupid, letting himself become comfortable in a government nest.

"Would you mind blaming yourself a bit more quietly?" Charles snaps. "Since I doubt you'll listen to reason."

"Did you get anything from him?"

Charles starts to shake his head, eyes still closed and his eyebrows drawn together in a tense frown, but then his eyes snap open. "This one's been brainwashed as well. He must be an early victim. The job is much less accomplished than the one done on Raven and Alex, but it's still like glass, frosted rather than clear--hang on." Charles closes his eyes once more and then Erik's ears are ringing from psychic feedback for the second time that day.

"Charles!" Moira calls. Erik blinks to clear the spots from his vision and focuses on Moira kneeling next to Charles to prop him upright. He looks only marginally more conscious than the mutant stretched out on the ground. She's giving the gash on his head the same once-over, fingers tangled in his hair.

"He's fine," Erik says, terse.

"He doesn't look fine." Moira glares up at him. Her gaze flicks down to the cut on Erik's hand, which has reopened. "Neither of you look fine, but I'm thankful you're still alive. I assume Charles was trying to gather intelligence?"

"Charles has succeeded," Charles says, extracting himself from Moira's grip with a wince. "I wish I'd been able to study what she did to this man's mind, but breaking her hold struck me as more useful." He takes Erik's proffered hand and stands. Frowning, he runs his thumb over Erik's hand and adds, "Erik, you're bleeding."

His hand feels hot in Charles's. "I do from time to time," Erik replies. "So do you, I've noticed. We'll question him after someone's sewn your head shut."

Moira's gaze travels back and forth between the two of them, and her lips curve upward in what might have been a smile under better circumstances. "Don't forget your hand," she says, and then stands as well, motioning some of her fellow agents over to carry their capture.

Erik shrugs. "I prefer to do my own stitching."

"Of course you do." Moira shakes her head, then faces the agents that have gathered around them, issuing orders in a sharp, clear voice. She beckons to someone with medical training, implacable in the face of some of the disbelieving glances thrown her way. Erik's respect for Moira MacTaggert has always been grudging, for she is only human, but he is glad for the opportunity to let someone else tie up the loose ends, someone who makes knots that will not unravel.

He accompanies Charles to the makeshift hospital the CIA has set up in an auxiliary building. The sole doctor on staff is not wearing a white coat, but he knows how to wield a scalpel. Erik insists on being present as the doctor cleans Charles's wound and then sews it shut, looming over the process and trying not to think of the doctors in Auschwitz. The drone of helicopters splits the air. More agents coming, more weapons, as though enough firepower will erase the mistakes of the past.

After, Erik washes and bandages his own hand, steeling himself against the encroaching exhaustion. Charles manages to find a shower in the building and emerges looking haggard but presentable. Together, they walk to the room holding the man who used to belong to Emma Frost.

"The doctor says he won't be up for another few hours," is how Moira greets them.

"I'll take care of it," Charles says, and reaches for his temple.

The man on the cot jerks awake and his hands fly to his throat. The cries he makes sound more animal than human, and a few of the agents turn away, wincing. Moira covers her mouth with one hand but otherwise makes no move. Charles frowns and the noises cease.

"She took away his ability to speak. It was a mistake, but one not worth correcting." Charles's voice is quiet, but it's a quiet that Erik associates with an easy kill, a hushed midnight. "What's your name?"

"Janos Quested," the man croaks with a wan smile. "Pardon my appearance."

There are a hundred questions Erik could ask, but if Charles can hold back, so can he. He will not deny Quested a few minutes to revel in his newfound voice and freedom, a feeling Erik cannot define with words in any language but comprehends nonetheless. Rather than play the part the CIA expects of him, Erik answers Quested's smile with a small one of his own and says, "I am Erik Lehnsherr."

After a few moments' pause, Moira steps forward, palm extended. She and Quested shake hands as she introduces herself. The set of Quested's shoulders relaxes, the last semblance of tension drained from the room. Charles says nothing, presumably having introduced himself when he touched Quested's mind, but he's staring at Erik with an intensity he normally reserves for chessboards or scientific experiments. Erik returns his gaze, keeping his face impassive, and Charles gives a slight shake of his head.

Thank you for not pushing him, Charles says, mental voice tinged with affection.

Erik watches Quested drink the glass of water one of the agents poured him. When he finishes, Moira murmurs questions to him, starting with the easiest where Erik and Charles would have begun with the hardest. The location of Shaw's hidden Virginia base will come, as will the secrets of Emma Frost. There is, perhaps, room to breathe.

You remind me of what they cannot take, Erik thinks at last. Charles makes no response in any type of speech, but he rests his hand on Erik's shoulder. There is the sensation of warmth again, of slow, spreading heat. Together, they wait.

~

The amount that Janos talks makes Charles's throat ache in sympathy. The man's voice sounds like a record overplayed to the point of disaster for the first day, while his vocal cords reaccustom themselves to the action of speech, but it doesn't slow him down. Watching him talk at Erik, or in the vicinity of Erik, is like watching friendly waves break relentlessly against a stubborn headland. If asked to bet money, Charles would guess that Erik is constructing uneasy hypotheticals around the prospect of what might had happened if Frost had gotten her mental claws into him just as thoroughly. It is just a guess, and one that Charles would like to confirm, but he doesn't. He promised.

The problem, though, is that the promise is only part of it. What Charles is ignoring to the best of his ability is how even stirring his power gently and sending it in someone else's direction is enough to for his chest to go tight, for something to catch at the back of his mouth, and for his hands to spasm and clench, seeking the support of a metal rail. They didn't manage to kill him when they blew up Cerebro, but they knocked something loose. It's not disabling and thankfully it's already diminishing, but Charles is shaken by the fact that his abilities can go from being as simple as breathing to requiring real effort, like a once-loved dish that now sets your stomach churning as the result of a single episode of food poisoning in the past.

For now it means that the automaticity is gone; he has to stop and think before he reads anyone, and Erik is firmly off the list.

An unimpressed-looking guard walks in with a steaming mug, and Moira catches his eye and points at Janos.

"Here," she says.

As Janos smiles at Moira and takes a careful sip from the mug, Charles moves closer to Erik and leans in to speak to him; soft, but aloud. "There but for the grace of God," he says, acting on nothing more than his best guess. "Breathe, Erik. And please, try to look a little more welcoming. He's a friend."

"He's the enemy of my enemy," Erik says. "You bestow that word too easily, Charles."

"I'm running out of friends." Charles rubs a hand across his eyes momentarily to banish the image of Raven trying to hurt him, Raven looking at him as though he was a perfect stranger. "I'll take them where I find them."

"Something wrong?" says Moira, raising a would-you-care-to-share-with-the-whole-class? eyebrow at them.

"Anything else?" Charles asks Janos. "Anything at all that could be useful."

"Not that I can think of," Janos admits. "I could go over the external details of the house again but really, as I told you, Shaw's too careful and Emma's too smart to stay there if they knew it'd been compromised, so--"

"They might not know," Charles says. "They left you for dead."

A hardness claims Janos's lips, at odds with the animation that has been filling his face.

"Where else would they go?" Erik asks.

Janos shrugs. "I don't think they have another place set up. There was some talk of the submarine, but it's too small for the number of people they have right now."

"So they could still be there," Charles says.

"If they are," Janos says, the hardness not quite gone, "then it's probably a trap. Sebastian wants you, Lehnsherr, and Emma knows what will make you jump. They know you'll try to get those kids back, and they won't hesitate to use them as ammunition and shields both. You've already seen that." He looks at Charles. "And brainwashing you would be more trouble than it'd be worth to add another telepath to their arsenal."

"I'm quite clear as to where I fit in," Charles says, trying to smile. "Dead."

"That's enough," Moira says.

"Is it time for lunch?" Janos enquires. All the brightness comes back into his eyes as he transfers his attention to Moira. "I'm sure someone mentioned meatloaf."

"Be warned, it's probably dreadful." Moira smiles. "Shall we?" She darts an enquiring glance at Charles as they leave, but he shakes his head; he hasn’t much of an appetite. He leans back in his chair and eases out an ache in his lower back and thinks about dying, now, too young and frustrated with potential.

"You're quiet," Erik says, and taps one finger against his own forehead.

There's no point in whining; Charles is fairly sure he'll be back to normal soon, and he'd be worrying Erik over nothing. Or at least, he thinks he would. He was woozy when they sewed up the cut on his head, but he remembers Erik standing to one side with a focused frown on his face, and--they're learning the good and the bad, and they mean something to one another, that's all.

"I'm just a bit tired," he says.

Black looks around the door. "Visitor for you two."

"Visitor?" Charles looks at Erik, who gives a shake of his head. "We're not expecting anyone."

"Oh, I know," Black says, and disappears with a snort of laughter. Before Charles can steel himself to lift the visitor's identity from his receding mind, another man takes his place in the doorway, a man around Erik's height with unfortunate reddish hair and an annoyed expression. He's clutching a folder, and a piece of paper slips out of it and onto the floor as he stands there, glaring at them.

"Can we help you?" Erik says, switching on his own glare, which is more impressive.

"I should hope so," the man says, "after all the trouble I've been informed that you've caused me."

Charles stands hurriedly and goes over to retrieve the fallen paper. As he straightens he offers the man his other hand to shake. "Charles Xavier."

"George Frommer." Their visitor's glare falters in the face of Charles's most harmless smile, which Charles was rather counting on.

"Pleased to meet you, George. Have a seat."

George does so. Erik lays his forearms on the table in a gesture that could be mistaken for open and welcoming if it weren't, well, Erik; George sets his folder down between Erik and himself in a manner that suggests he wishes it were larger and more shielding.

"I'm the supervising engineer at the dish installation a few miles down the road. It's government-run, like this place. And classified," George adds. "Like this place, I assume."

"Yes?" Charles prompts, when George pauses.

"Three days ago, we experienced an unprecedented malfunction.”

George pulls two photographs out of his folder and turns them so that they can see. They're both taken from the same vantage point on the ground, looking up into the towering complexity of a satellite dish. The only difference between them is the direction in which the dish is facing.

The silence is one that reminds Charles of being nineteen and hungover, and waking up to a room scattered with intriguing clues as to what might have happened during the previous night. He fights the incredulous smile and manages to keep it off his face. The man seems owed an explanation, though Charles isn't sure how much of one they'll be able to provide; or how much they should.

"Did Mr Black tell you exactly what sort of facility this is?" he asks.

"People with special powers? Something along those lines? And when I called everyone working in the area to find out if they'd had any similar malfunctions, Black told me that he might have a suspicion as to who was at fault."

George looks right at Erik; Charles is curious enough as to why that he pushes down the nausea and discovers that George simply thinks Erik has the face of a man who would enjoy ruining someone else's day.

"Yes?" Erik says, a lot less politely than Charles.

"And what do you have to say for yourself?" George demands. "Don't you realise that people could have been severely hurt? Did you even think before you decided to disrupt a delicate piece of taxpayer-funded machinery with your--your magic tricks?"

"I have abilities that you can't even imagine," Erik says flatly. "And look: fear and anger. I told you, Charles, it's all we can expect."

The accusation doesn't seem to faze George in the slightest. "I don't care if you used circus elephants and strong rope! The point is that we lost nearly a day's worth of work time putting the damn thing back in position, and it's still going to need tens of thousands of dollars worth of repairs."

Charles doesn't know he's going to laugh until it's halfway out of his mouth. He claps a hand over it as fast as possible, but that just makes things worse.

George frowns. "What on earth...?"

"Sorry," Charles gasps, "I'm really--terribly sorry--" but all he can think of is the sheer, complete absurdity of trying to reconcile this man's very justifiable indignation with the bloody miracle that was Erik wrestling with his own rage, letting Charles gaze into the universe of his fear, and finally grasping enough serenity to move mountains. Or a government satellite dish.

Erik looks at him as though he's turned the colour of Raven. Charles lifts one hand in poor imitation of Erik's own focusing gesture, and then flaps the same hand helplessly in George's direction, and then has to sit down and put his head almost between his knees because he's starting to see white spots. He feels drunk. He honestly cannot stop laughing.

He's quite prepared to be the sole hysteric in the room--he just needs a moment, a few deep breaths--but there's a guttural sound from beside him that mellows into the bright, surprised laughter of Erik Lehnsherr, and Charles has to lift his head to look, and something painful and wonderful inside him twists upon itself and forms a new shape. Erik laughs like nothing in the world has ever been this funny, grinning with all of his might, his eyes crinkled into slits and his whole upper body shaking with it.

"You're both mad," George says, when Charles has managed to calm himself down to a state of air-gulping and the occasional wheezy giggle. "And I will expect full compensation."

"Certainly," Charles says. Moira and Black will sort it out, he's sure.

George snatches up his folder again and leaves, still radiating affront.

"Oh, God." Charles drops his head into his hands again. He feels drained and unstable now that the worst is over, but part of him is still bubbling with absurdity.

Erik gives one more quiet jolt of laughter and claps him on the shoulder. "You need to get some rest. Go and lie down, read a book. Take the afternoon. I'll see you at dinner."

"We should talk--"

"We will." Erik stands. "Later."

Charles manages an hour or so of fitful napping before he gives up and follows Erik's advice regarding the book. Moira has a taste for the classics, and she's lent him Great Expectations; he gets through a few pages, trying to focus on the words, and the next thing he knows he's blinking awake four hours later. The artificial light in his room is making glaring reflections against the dusk-darkened window.

Evenings usually find them in the living area, which still holds too much furniture and a now-useless pinball machine and a reminder of what's been stolen from them. But the sofas are comfortable, and it's one of the largest and most home-like spaces in a facility full of small efficient rooms; and with a wave of his hand Erik can lock the doors and release the curtains from their wires, granting them effective privacy.

Plus, there's a bar.

"So," Erik says. "Probably a trap."

Charles takes his time with their drinks, quelling the usual stab of annoyance at the screw-top bottle from which he pours the whiskey. He likes and has always liked the weight of crystal in his hand, the gentle clink of it against the rim of a glass, the slippery sound and sharp smell of spirits, the amber gleam. Part of him, awakened by glimpses of Erik's past, wants to be ashamed of the ease with which he enjoys luxury. Erik wears expensive clothes and drinks expensive wines but there's nothing thoughtless about it, nothing instilled; there's defiance, and disguise, and the creation of roles that blur at the edges with the person he does not quite know himself to be.

"Probably a trap," he echoes, handing Erik one of the glasses. Erik smiles as he drinks, not pulling his gaze from Charles's. Charles smiles too, laughs even, with a rueful tilt of his head. "Well, now that we've voiced the obvious…"

"If there's even the slightest chance that --"

Charles leaves a pause after Erik cuts himself off that's long enough to be, perhaps, a little cruel. "Shaw," he says.

"And Raven," Erik says, "and the others," and he's still looking Charles right in the eye.

Charles takes a first sip of his own drink and shivers with it. "I never thought of myself as the kind of person who'd run into a trap. There's not a single rational thing about it."

"But you'd do anything."

There's a note in Erik's voice that makes Charles look away, down at the chessboard, newly created from the scrap metal that used to be Cerebro. The pieces are more detailed than in the previous set.

"When the people we love are taken from us," Erik goes on, "the appropriate response does not have to be the rational one."

"I believe it's your turn to take white," Charles says. It's cowardly of him not to hold up his end of this exchange, but he desperately wants Erik to keep talking, to deepen this sense of kinship and justify what Charles is feeling. Don't give up on me, he pleads, but not aloud; not even with his mind.

A white bishop's pawn moves two spaces forward on stiff, tiny legs.

"I would have done anything," Erik says, "to save my mother."

Which Charles knew, of course he knew, but for Erik to sit on the other side of a chessboard--where Charles is held by a promise to keep his mind to himself--and say it aloud…that's something else.

Charles moves one of his motionless knights and inhales, fills himself with a breath of whatever courage he can muster. "I'm sorry, Erik, so sorry. That you couldn't."

"If I'd--"

Charles gives a sharp shake of his head. "No."

"Charles," Erik says, accusing.

"Grant me the ability to know what you're thinking without having to cheat, my friend. From time to time."

A smile twitches on Erik's lips. "Very well."

"Showoff," says Charles, as one of Erik's knights leaps gracelessly over the row of pawns and wobbles into a new position. "And you're right. Trap or no trap, I have to try. If we leave it too long the chance will be gone."

"We're more alike than you'd like to believe, Professor Xavier," Erik says.

"Nonsense," says Charles. "You're just a terrible influence." He taps a finger against one of his pawns and raises his eyebrows.

Erik smiles and makes a small gesture. The pawn lifts his shield, raises his sword in readiness, and steps forward.

~

The planning and chess games continue over the next day and a half. There are other people around, too many other people, but Erik is reminded of their mutant recruitment trip. He and Charles strategise, argue, drink, and play chess, sometimes all at once. Shaw still occupies most of Erik's waking thoughts, but Charles dominates the rest. It's as though the axes of Erik's world have shifted enough to tug him just to the side of his previous course, toward a destination that will take him by his first goal but then beyond to some distant horizon.

"Would you care to share your thoughts, Erik?" Moira asks with the faintest trace of sarcasm. Erik ignores her in favor of poring over the blueprints and maps for what feels like the fiftieth time, but an image leaps to his mind unbidden: Moira, lips thinned against the dismissive words of her colleagues. None of whom, he notes, have been interested in these proceedings.

"It's unlikely that our companions are being kept in the barn here," Erik says, tapping a map. "The farmhouse is the obvious candidate." Which is where Frost and Shaw will be, he does not need to add. Moira and Charles lean forward to follow, Charles shooting her an apologetic smile when their shoulders brush. "The area is forested, but the trees taper off at least two kilometres before the house on all sides. Anyone inside will have a clear view."

"My range is about that," Charles says, answering Erik's question before he can ask it, one of his tendencies that is either irritating or useful depending on the situation. "However, I'm afraid I won't be much good if we lack the element of surprise."

"They'll be expecting us no matter what." Moira leans back, folding her arms as she scans the main map anew. "We should come at an unusual time. Showing up in broad daylight will at least be something of a shock." She shakes her head. "Even with all the intel from Janos, and mind you there are pieces he can't remember, I doubt we'll have more than a few minutes."

It is Erik's turn to give her a smile, this one without mirth, honed by years of hunting. "I suggest we run."

The rest of the meeting concerns working out the logistics of their admittedly foolhardy plan. Erik finds himself wishing Quested were in good enough condition to accompany them to battle, despite his dislike for working with others. As the plan stands, Erik will fight the external battle as Charles fights the internal. Charles will not hear of the possibility of Erik using lethal force against their brainwashed comrades, will not plan for every possibility. Moira looks at Erik over the table and nods at him once. On paper, Moira's only role involves driving them in and then awaiting their signal to drive them out.

When they climb into the truck the next morning, Erik can feel the guns concealed underneath the seats. He cannot unclench his jaw until the remains of the base are out of sight; then the calm of battle preparation steals over him, a fine mesh of chainmail drawn over his thoughts. Charles appears to be dozing, crammed in between Erik and Moira in the front seat because he refused to sit in the back with the medical equipment and the weapons he must suspect are there.

"He can sleep anywhere, can't he," Moira says, lightly and without enough inflection to turn her statement into a question.

"Mm," Erik replies. There are syringes loaded in some of the guns, but not all. Moira carries one of each. It would be easy to kill her if he and Charles survive this battle, easy to slip away from the CIA and forge their own place in the world, one untainted by humans. This human, though: despite the easiness of her words, her hands are clamped around the steering wheel, knuckles white. She is afraid. She is afraid, and yet she was their first and only volunteer for this rescue mission.

"You know, I think this is the first time I've driven for work and haven't had to hear any cracks about women and cars." Moira's gaze is trained on the road, but her hands have loosened, one of her index fingers tapping along to the quiet hum of the radio. "It sounds strange to say, given the circumstances, but I enjoy working with you and Charles. You have nothing to fear from me as far as prejudice goes." Then she does look at him, as clear-eyed as Charles when he speaks of peace between mutants and humans, the other side of the coin.

Erik focuses on the sun, a distant blister in the sky, and thinks of Shaw.

Charles wakes long before they jolt up the last winding dirt road, but he keeps his eyes closed, searching for Frost. Erik watches him and takes in the dark bruises under his eyes, the pallor of his skin. He remembers the day with the satellite dish in one swift rush, reaching out to give comfort, to touch--

"Stop here," Charles says. As Moira brakes, Charles adds, "Erik, if you could concentrate on something metal, please. I'm afraid concealing you will be easier if you forget yourself."

"Are you sure that's--" Moira starts to say, but Charles holds up a hand.

The last portion of time before confrontation either runs fast or slow, in Erik's experience. The former is at work here: the drive, which seemed interminable, has faded into immediacy, the feel of lead and copper in his pocket. He and Charles are on the move through the scruffy woods surrounding the farm, twigs snapping under their feet. Stealth in the physical world means nothing with a telepath at one's side, and the only metal for a kilometre around belongs to them.

They run.

His legs have just begun to burn with the sensation of muscles well-stretched when they clear the last of the woods, the sun glaring down on their exposed forms. The coin, the coin is in his pocket. They slice through the humid air as waves of heat rise from the moist earth. The abandoned farmhouse molders against the horizon, and five figures emerge from its side.

"Now, Erik," Charles says, as one of the distant figures takes to the air.

Erik stretches out his hands as they continue running. The telltale red light gathers on Alex's chest, and just before he can fire on them, Erik rips the porch nails from their moorings, throwing Alex flat on his back. A portion of the upper story bursts into flames. Before Erik can immobilise the others, Hank and Darwin are sprinting to meet them halfway, Hank's teeth bared in a snarl.

Erik jerks Hank to the side with his zipper, barely evading the fist directed at his face. Hank outranks him in sheer strength, forcing Erik to rely on reflexes and metal manipulation alone, and Hank's knee driving into his side is a painful reminder that Hank has the greater agility as well. Erik twists as Hank seizes him by the shoulders and manages to catch a glimpse of Charles staring down Darwin, teeth gritted.

There! The cry bursts in his mind, complete with the sensation of a key twisting in a lock. Darwin stumbles, shaking his head.

Hank's hands go still and Erik pulls himself from his grasp. The rest will be more difficult, Charles says, as if from far away. Darwin's mutation had already eroded Frost's brainwashing. Cover your ears, by the way.

Erik drops, hands slamming over his ears, just in time to avoid one of Sean's sonic screams. Enough of the farmhouse is now on fire that finding Sean in the haze of smoke is difficult. "Over there!" Darwin shouts, pointing; he's evidently recovered enough to join their ranks. With a sweep of his hand, Erik hurls Sean to the ground by the metal eyehooks in his shoes. Metal. They're wearing too much metal. Erik scans the premises, searching for the trap.

There's a figure receding in the smoke and a snatch of whistled French melody. Erik's blood turns to mercury; he wills it to slide through his veins.

"Cover Charles," he says to Darwin, and sets off at a run.

Erik, no! rings in his mind, but then another plasma blast pierces the air. The battle behind him fades to a distant crackle of static electricity, softer than the percussive beat of his feet against the earth.

Shaw's helmet catches the light as he steps into a clearing. Erik's senses jangle a warning: behind the image of clear skies and a field is a structure held together with nails, and inside that is the outline of a helicopter. And then, impossibly, he starts to forget even as he senses the metal anew. It's a gong being struck inside his head over and over again. Erik clenches his teeth and falls to his knees, feeling for the helmet.

It's in Shaw's hands, now, and Erik flinches from the feeling of metal against them. "Erik, Erik, what am I going to do with you?" Shaw asks, and Erik translates fear to anger as he does English to German. He can't yet touch the helicopter, but the nails in the barn--it must be the barn--begin to slide loose.

"It's a pity you won't join us. As I told Emma, we don't harm our own kind." Shaw smiles. "We improve it."

The nails rip free of their moorings and now Erik can see the collapsing barn. He uses the nails to hurl the debris at Shaw, who slides on the helmet once more, still smiling. The air shivers around him and he stands untouched in a ring of destruction. Shaw flicks his fingers in Erik's direction and Erik is flat on his back, the air rushing out of his lungs, left staring up at the perfect blue sky as the helicopter roars to life.

"You should consider my offer!" Shaw shouts.

Gasping, Erik rolls over and forces himself to his feet. His vision is doubled, but he's certain that it's Raven, blue-skinned and red-haired, who pulls Shaw into the helicopter. Frost sits in the pilot seat, diamond bright. Erik raises his hand and yanks, falling to his knees with the effort. The helicopter whines, brought to a standstill, but it's all he can do to retain his hold.

The time for consideration is over, says Frost, threat clear, and here is another explanation: the others were just cannon fodder all along. He is their only goal.

Right on the money, sugar. Hold still. This is going to hurt.

For a moment, his vision quadruples, and he clings to the helicopter as the only stable point in the universe, a blur of fear/hate/loyalty, the anchor around his neck. There is something inside his head, colder and sharper than the knife strapped to his ankle. There is something inside his head and it rakes its claws to rewire the world and--

Erik! Erik, Darwin's down, I can't hold them all--ERIK!

The wave of emotion is not his own, but it washes his mind clean. Slowly, painfully, Erik stands once more. Shaw is inside the helicopter. He can't reach the helmet from here, not with the concussion he must have, but he could crush the helicopter, could rip off the rotors and send it plummeting to the ground. The man deserves to suffer for his crimes, but Erik could do this thing. He could do this, and kill Charles's sister with the others.

He lets go, and this time, the only voice in his head is his own.

Fighting down the nausea, Erik turns back and runs. Charles is standing in the middle of the dirt path, fingers in familiar position against his temple. Darwin is slumped on the ground with no visible wounds. Scant metres away, Alex is unconscious, and Hank and Sean stand frozen in place.

I can't reach Angel. Charles sounds exhausted. Raven is with them, isn't she?

Erik closes his eyes in wordless affirmation, then reaches out. Over the ringing in his ears, there is the faintest thrum of wings. He nods to Charles, and then Hank and Sean begin to thrash, held in place by the metal in their clothes rather than telepathy. Charles closes his eyes and Angel alights on the ground, rage twisting her features.

"Go to sleep," Charles says, voice hoarse. Then: Moira, we're ready.

Catching Charles as he falls is becoming something of a routine procedure. This time, however, Charles hisses in pain when Erik touches his side. "Had a bit of a narrow miss with Alex," he admits. "Wait, what are you doing?"

"Making sure you'll live to see tomorrow," Erik says, and tugs off what remains of Charles's jacket and shirt. The cut on his side is a vicious slash of red with singed edges, but at least it's shallow. By the time Moira peels up the dirt driveway, Erik has fashioned a bandage for him, ignoring his protests.

"We've got everyone except Raven," Charles says in response to Moira's questioning look. "We'll have to keep them all sedated until I have the chance to undo Frost's handiwork."

Moira removes the tranquilizer gun from its holster and takes aim. Erik looks off into the distance, but he can still feel the needles hurtle through the air and plunge into unsuspecting flesh. Twice now he's failed to kill Shaw. Twice now he's failed the memory of his mother, his father, his people.

You've never failed me.

Erik looks down at Charles. The double vision is fading. I let Raven go.

My friend, you did what you could.

Moira walks up to them, Sean draped over her shoulders. "Charles, I know you're pretty out of commission, but Erik, I'd appreciate a little help."

"He's got a concussion," Charles says, but Erik lifts his free hand and the rest of the mutants drift over to the back of the truck. "Useful," he mutters, eyes unfocused.

Moira rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. "Get him in the truck before he faints. We're in for a hell of a long drive."

"I'm not going to faint," Charles protests, but lets Erik help him up into the cab just the same. Erik follows. They take the same positions: Moira on the driver's side, Erik on the passenger's, and Charles crammed in between.

Every rattle of wheels over unpaved road sends a jolt of pain through Erik's head. He closes his eyes but wills himself to stay awake, using his power to smooth their ride. It could be worse: he could be strapped to a cot like the others. Driving across state lines with five unconscious teenagers, a telepath, and an agent of the United States government is not the oddest task Erik has ever undertaken, but it's definitely in the top three. Erik hisses in pain when the truck hits a particularly deep pothole.

"Sorry, I can only do so much until we're in civilization," Moira says.

There is a sensation like a cool hand on his forehead and the pain is gone. When I'm this tired and this close to you, I can't help but feel your headache, Charles says. I didn't think you'd mind.

Thank you. Speaking of closeness, Erik feels the shiver as it runs through Charles. He has no idea how anyone could be cold in this muggy summer heat, especially someone accustomed to colder climes.

One of us is wearing a shirt, Charles points out.

Erik reaches under the seat and throws the blanket there over Charles. One of us has a delicate constitution, and it isn't me. That earns him a chuckle, and then Charles leans against him with the obvious intent of using his shoulder for a pillow. Erik turns his head and watches the blurred green scenery go by.

He wakes later with a snap. The sun is lowering in the sky and at some point the blanket shifted to cover both of them. Erik suspects Moira, who looks over and, before he can ask, says, "One hour to go."

By this point, Erik's arm has gone numb. He gives a slow, deliberate roll of his shoulder and succeeds in freeing his arm: now Charles's face is buried against his neck, and Erik's hand is brushing Charles's opposite hip. It's not an unpleasant sensation. He flexes his fingers and they tingle with the rush of returning blood. Charles is a warm weight against him, a magnetic field great enough to point the needle of his inner compass to North Salem rather than to wherever Shaw is. He should be disturbed. He's not.

Strangely, it's this thought that lulls him to sleep once more.

~

"Well," Erik says. Charles has a feeling he's about to add something else, some well-intentioned dry joke about money, and Charles isn't in the mood. There's a clenched fist within his ribcage, a gentle burn around his eyes, and he keeps imagining that if he turns his head just a little to the side he'll catch a glimpse of blonde curls and smell the citrus blossom shampoo that Raven's used for years. He never thought he'd be coming back to this house without her.

So before Erik can say anything more, Charles digs the keys from his pocket and steps forward to open the front doors.

"Charles," Moira says, soft, when the four of them are inside. Janos has already broken ahead, exploring, and Charles doesn't have to look back to know that Erik is lingering in the doorway. He searches Moira's face for anything that he could snap at, but all she's doing is smiling. "This was a good idea," she says.

Honestly, Charles would have moved them into a log cabin if it was the only option available other than Black's base, with its harsh walls and its scared, sneering guards and the scorched reminder that is the wreck of Cerebro.

"Don't be an idiot, Xavier," said McCone, who was there when Charles and Erik stopped briefly at the base to ask Black--who'd been decent to them, all told--if he wanted a free holiday in Westchester, all expenses paid, luxury bedrooms, spacious grounds.

Charles looked at him. "And how many men did you volunteer to help us recover our people, Director?"

"Oh no," McCone said, raising his hands. "Don't start. I said we'd assist, I didn't say suicide missions--"

"And yet," Erik said, flinty, "here we are, still alive."

Black coughed. "Much as I appreciate the offer, boys, I won't take you up on it just yet."

Erik gave one of his not-at-all-nice smiles. "Well, Charles, I'd say we're just about done playing house with the CIA, wouldn't you?"

"Gentlemen," Charles said. "It's been a pleasure."

And now here they are, all of them, in the house where he and Raven grew up: him and Erik and Moira and Janos, and five young mutants whose minds have been twisted into new patterns. Charles touches on them one by one, reinforcing the command to sleep. Despite the sedative he doesn't know if they'd stay that way if he took the time to sleep himself, and he'd rather not risk it. As long as Emma Frost's influence remains, they're dangerous.

"Where do you want them, sir?" Erik asks. It's not the worst working-class London accent Charles has ever heard, but it's bad enough to startle a smile onto his face.

"There are more than enough bedrooms on the third floor. We'll find them a bed each and get started."

"Do you need our help?" Janos asks. "If not, there's a lot to be unpacked."

"Erik and I can manage, thank you. We might--Erik?--leave Darwin down here with you, Moira, so if he wakes while I'm sorting the others out, at least there'll be a friendly face nearby."

Erik nods and the metal cot carrying Darwin floats over to rest by the wall. The others rise in ragged unison and start to drift up the stairs.

Charles decides to go in order of potential danger; if he's concentrating all his mental power on breaking Frost's hold, the sedative and some improvised metal loops courtesy of Erik will be all that are keeping the brainwashed kids restrained. Hank has the largest body mass and the most strength, so they start with him.

"How long is it likely to take?" Erik takes a seat at this room's desk.

"In all honesty, I have no idea." Charles settles himself at the head of the bed, nudging a pillow aside. He rests his fingers on Hank's forehead. The boy's glasses are missing, he realises; hopefully there'll be a spare pair in amongst the many boxes of research equipment he insisted they transport to the house from Hank's lab workspace at Black's facility. "I freed Darwin in less than a minute, but his mutation helped a lot. And Janos was a rough job. I expect Frost will have improved her skills since then."

He closes his eyes and begins. The closest metaphor he can find for it is cleaning grey dust from a surface that's a very, very slightly darker shade of grey, a surface that will bend and warp if one presses too hard with one's cloth. Another way to imagine it is as the unpicking of many tiny knots. But neither is correct, really. What Emma Frost has done is something that Charles himself tries to steer clear of: the deliberate and forceful manipulation of someone's fundamental beliefs. There in Hank's mind is the opinion that mutants are superior, mutants have the right to act as they please, to use their powers to advance themselves no matter what it takes, and anyone who stands against this right is the enemy.

The world will burn; Emma has twisted it as knot after knot. Our power will increase.

Charles clears away the hatred with all the precision at his command. The problem, though, is knowing where to stop. When he first met Hank and gleaned the knowledge of his mutation from his mind, it wasn't a clean, pure fact; very few facts are. It was coloured by Hank's awkwardness, his self-hatred, his fear, his deeply buried anger. Charles, newly stung by how easily a telepath can trample on the boundaries of the individual mind, will not sponge away these opinions even if they lie dangerously close to Emma Frost's imposed ideologies. He tries to remember the shape of Hank McCoy as he is, was, should be, and his dusting job aims to restore that shape.

He comes back to himself with a gasp, letting his fingers fall away.

"Done?" Erik says. He's changed position in the chair. Charles has no idea how much time has passed.

"I hope so," Charles says, just as Hank opens his eyes.

Charles was worried that he might panic--Hank's strong enough that he could do a lot of accidental damage--but Hank takes a few breaths, eyes skipping around the room, silently bringing himself up to speed.

"Professor Xavier," he says finally. His voice wavers. "I'm so sorry. It wasn't--"

"It wasn't you, Hank," Charles says at once. "I know."

Hank moves to sit up, and the metal loops slip away to form part of the cot once more. He rubs at his eyes.

"Maybe you should get some more sleep,"

"I don't want to sleep," Hank says. "I want to--I want to work, I need to do something with my mind. My hands. Please."

Charles nods and finds Moira. How's the unpacking going? Are the things from Hank's lab in a state to be set up?

Oh! Charles. Yes, we put all the boxes in something like a giant laundry room
. He can sense her rueful amusement at the size of the house. If he's happy to set it all up himself...

Thank you.
He flicks his attention back. "Hank, if you head downstairs, Moira's got all your equipment."

When Hank's gone, with a final nod and hesitant smile in their direction, Erik looks at Charles closely. To Charles's relief all he says is, "Sean next?"

Sean, then Alex, then Angel. It's easier every time to find the knots, but harder and harder to smooth them out. Charles has a headache like a firework above one eye when he looks up from Alex's bedside to see Darwin hovering in the doorway, anxiously bouncing a pin against his palm, which has turned slate-like and grey. By the time he's finished with Angel, whose long-held and well-justified resentments are even trickier to separate from the added ones than Hank's, the firework has dissipated into a widespread, fizzing exhaustion.

"Are we done?" says Moira, who sent Janos out for groceries in the meantime and is now perched on a plush armchair eating dry cereal out of the box with her manicured fingernails.

"Hey," Angel says, sitting up. "You got us all out, huh?"

"Not quite," says Charles.

"Not Raven," says Erik.

Angel's face falls. "What happened?"

The exhaustion says, through Charles's numb lips: "Erik wasn't fast enough."

"What?" says Erik.

"Fine," Charles says, turning to face him. The words feel like marbles in his mouth, tumbling out glassy and fast. "That wasn't fair. But not all of the memories I have of this place are particularly good ones, all right, and all of the good ones have my sister in them, and right now it feels like I've lost everything. I would have thought you of all people would understand that."

Erik's face falls into a hard expression as he glances around the room. He lays one hand on the back of the nearest chair and rubs his thumb over the wood.

"You're right, Charles. Your life is clearly difficult beyond imagining. I don't know how you survived, living in such hardship."

A small part of Charles is pulling back on the reins, pointing out Moira's frantically shaking head, but when he glides his mind over Erik's--don't! that small part shouts--all he can find is hurt and anger, and Charles is so bloody tired from fighting false hatred that he feels like drifting mist; he can't keep himself separate. When he pulls his mind back the anger comes with him like wet paint on curious hands.

"Don't start," he says. "If this is about money--"

"Charles," Moira snaps.

Erik's face hardens even further. "Go to hell," he says, and shoves his shoulder against Charles's as he pushes past to the door.

"Wow," says Angel, from a corner of the ceiling. She's hugging herself with her arms and her wings are flickering in a nervous, hovering hum.

"Oh, Christ." Charles buries his head in his hands. "I have to apologise, I have to go after him--"

"Charles," Moira says. "I'm beginning to feel like a broken record, but--you should go to your own room, and sleep. Clear your head."

She's right. Charles can't remember the last time he had normal sleeping patterns, and there's a fair chance that if he goes after Erik now he'll just make things worse. He throws himself on top of his childhood bed without bothering to peel back the dusty blue eiderdown. The bed feels small, even though he can still stretch out on it without his feet coming anywhere near the end.

How could he have been so unforgivably thoughtless? To blame Erik, who came to his aid even when it meant letting Shaw escape, and to compare--

Charles thumps his head back against the smooth lump of the pillow and reaches out automatically, searching for Erik's familiar mental signature. More than anything he wants to know what Erik thinks of him, if he's ruined this friendship irrevocably, but he doesn't look. This, if nothing else, he can hold to.

I'm so very, very sorry, he says into Erik's mind, then pulls his exhausted consciousness back to itself and sinks into sleep.

He wakes to the sound of laughter and the distant clash of dishes, and follows the noise to the large, formal dining room that his family never used. The air tingles with smells of hot food and there are plates and glasses spinning out from the cabinet to rest in front of the young people seated at the table.

But there's no metal on them, Charles thinks, before realising that Erik is nowhere to be seen.

"Xavier!" Janos lifts a hand to wave, and every piece of floating crockery gives a little hiccup in the air.

"Is that the best china?" Charles says. "Oh--no, please, it's fine. I'm glad it's seeing some use for once." He smiles around the table and takes a seat. "Evening, everyone."

Angel is meticulously sorting her salad into its component vegetables, Hank has a glass of water poised in one hand and is scribbling on a sheet of paper with the other, Sean is serving himself the largest bowl of pasta Charles has ever seen, and Janos has moved on to making the salt and pepper shakers twirl around each other in a miniature hurricane in front of Moira's smiling face. It's strange, this bubble of energy existing in Charles's childhood space, and despite Erik's absence he feels a surge of happiness that he can provide this for them. A safe roof, and the company of people who understand difference.

After dinner he picks through the small collection left in the house's cellars and knocks on Erik's door with an opened bottle of good burgundy and two glasses.

"May I come in?"

The door handle turns, though Erik isn't standing on the other side but sitting, relaxed, in one of the room's chairs. The Cerebro chessboard set up on the table in front of him sets a flicker of hope alight in Charles's chest. He doesn't know what to do with his free hand, he doesn't know where to start; he's never been comfortable with apologies. If Raven were here she'd tell him it's because he hasn't had nearly enough practice with them.

"I'm sorry. I am. I--I didn't think, I wasn't in much state to think at all, not that it's--well, it's an excuse, but it's not enough of one. You must think me the most wretched kind of selfish, snobbish--"

"Charles," Erik says. "Sit down."

Charles does. He even, at a quick tilt of the head from Erik, pulls the cork from the bottle and pours them both a drink. When he sneaks a glance away from the glistening fall of wine, Erik looks merely thoughtful, and even gives a small smile when Charles hands him a glass. Charles is so caught up in the confusion of thwarted guilt that it takes him a few seconds to smile tentatively back.

"You didn't come to dinner, I thought--"

"I was very angry," Erik allows. "But you forget that I know you, Charles. I know what sort of man you are, and I know by now what you look like when you are close to collapse." He raises his eyebrows. "If you hadn't apologised, I might have judged you differently. But you did."

"My friend," Charles says, and can't think where to go from there.

"As you said a few days ago, we are not so rich in friends that we can afford to lose the ones we have," Erik says. "You say you are sorry. I believe you. That's enough."

"I shouldn't have implied that the extent of our losses are the same."

"No." There's a bittersweet amusement in the corner of Erik's mouth, drowned in an instant by a sip of wine. "You shouldn't have."

"Tell me what she was like," Charles says.

Erik stills, and even though Charles has enough control by now to keep his thoughts to himself, he thinks that if he were to look into Erik's mind now he would see that wide, cautious, deep-space inkiness, all the galaxies shining somewhere hidden from view.

"I can't remember as much as I want," Erik says finally. His speech is rougher somehow, more accented. "I remember things she said, things she wore. But when I try to imagine her as a whole person, there is always something missing."

He looks at Charles over the rim of his glass, composed but--oh, Charles can't tell which emotions are there, he's never had to be any sort of expert at body language. Charles is heady with gratitude and there's red wine on his tongue and all he can think of, when Erik's eyes catch the light, is stardust.

"It is my greatest fear," Erik says. "That what I still have of her will crumble away before I can avenge her death."

"Then I'm glad I could help you remember." Charles thinks of the heavy, almost desperate glow of affection that had coloured Erik's brightest memory. What a strange and wonderful thing, to love your parents that much and know yourself equally loved in return. What a bond to be shattered in a child.

"And you?" Erik says, putting his glass neatly down next to the chessboard. "What do you fear, Charles Xavier?"

The truth brims in Charles's mouth like water, but he turns his head to gaze at one of the lamps, and considers lying.

"Charles," Erik says. "Do you think I will laugh at you?"

"I certainly wouldn't put it past you," Charles says, but that’s not it at all. For a very brief moment the darkness outside could be the darkness of the sea, and his stomach spills panic out into his bloodstream.

Erik rests his fingertips against his lips and raises his eyebrows, inquiring, patient.

Charles swallows the rest of his wine in a single gulp. "Drowning."

"Drowning," Erik echoes, as though he doesn't believe it.

"Yes, fear death by water, as Eliot would have it. I'm sure it's quite common."

Erik looks at him, just looks. It's that hooking expression that makes Charles feel flayed open and unsteady, but right now it's softened in a new way. Beneath his shirt collar heat spreads across his neck, and he tells himself it's the alcohol.

"You were scared," Erik says; Charles doesn't pretend not to know what he means, not when it's the reason he was so unwilling to admit to this in the first place.

"I was terrified."

"You didn't sound terrified," Erik says, and Charles is about to shrug it off by saying that he had other things on his mind, at the time, when Erik frowns and leans forward, intent. "Show me."

He's so surprised he laughs. "What?"

Erik grabs hold of his hand and Charles inhales hard, can't help it, at the way his own fingers are all but swallowed up in the awkward bend of Erik's; at the way it feels to have someone do that as though it's perfectly within their rights. Before he can let the breath out again Erik lifts their hands so that Charles's fingers are pressed against Erik's temple.

"Show me," Erik says. "You've been in my memories. I want this one of yours."

He has to admit that it's a fair request. He's halfway to reliving the memory already, so it takes very little effort to close his eyes and reach out, looping Erik's mind in. The physical contact does help. Are you sure?

Absolutely
, Erik says, and Charles plunges them into the scraps of what he remembers from a night when he leapt fully-clothed off the side of a boat and into water that he couldn't even see. He didn't think about it, to begin with; he didn't entertain the possibility of being scared until the water slapped his face and filled his nostrils, his mouth. Even then the fear wasn't important in the face of Erik's immediacy, the shock of what he'd seen in Erik's mind almost as consuming as the water closing over his head.

You can't. You'll drown.

Despite his startlement, Erik didn't fight him, and that helped. Charles didn't know what to do, he just held on, tried to haul a body much stronger than his own towards a surface that seemed forever away. Air was leaving his mouth in helpless waves, mocking him with the brush of bubbles against his face, and he held each careful word like a sword inside his mind.

Calm your mind--

--and every cell in his body seized up with numbing terror, with wondering what he would do if Erik didn't listen, if Erik kept hold of the submarine, and every second was too long and he couldn't see anything even when his eyes were open and stinging with salt and beneath them the ocean just went on and on into the cold, endless deep.

"Enough," Erik says aloud, and breaks the contact. He keeps hold of Charles's hand, though, with a grip that's painful. "That's enough."

Charles is breathing too fast. He puts his free hand over his eyes and forces his lungs to slow down; he's in air, he's on land, he's safe.

A different kind of man might apologise, perhaps. Erik does not. Erik waits for Charles to meet his eyes again and then he says, "Incredible."

What Charles wants to do right now--what he would do, if he were at all the kind of person to act without caution when there is so much at stake--is to lift Erik's hand to his own mouth and bite, very gently. He's burning with alcohol and his own too-fast blood and the warm, rough skin against his palm, the memory of deep water and the weight of danger on the horizon; he wants this, he wants Erik, he feels hollowed out and heady with how much he wants.

He pulls his hand away from Erik's and manages a weak smile. "Considering the number of times you've saved my life by now, I don't think you can really put too much weight on it."

"I--"

Erik is interrupted by a scream from elsewhere in the house: sharp, female, and cut off abruptly. Both of them are out of their chairs at once, Charles sweeping his mind out to find first Moira--just as alarmed, and not the source of the scream--and then Angel. The image of what made her cry out is blazing upmost in her mind.

"Dear God," Charles says, and dashes out of the room, Erik close behind.

~

It turns out that Hank has transformed himself into something large and blue and furred, an enhancement of his current mutation. Erik grins at the sight, hardly hearing Hank stumbling through an apology to Angel for frightening her, and an explanation of a serum and the need for total control of body as well as mind. He turns to Charles and says something approving. Then Hank wraps his fingers around his throat and Erik is forced to remember that not every mutation is a welcome one.

The bruises from Hank's reaction to Erik's ill-timed congratulations on his new appearance have just begun to fade when the broadcast comes. Sean and Alex call them all into the living room, and they all cluster in front of the television as the President of the United States announces that the threat of nuclear war is about to become a reality.

"Shaw," Erik says, at the same time Charles says, "Frost."

"Both of them," Moira says, expression wary. "I'm assuming we'll be involved in this."

"We can hardly sit by in good conscience while Shaw provokes nuclear war," Charles says, voice tight. "They've still got Raven. They want a fight, and we can certainly give it to them."

"Hell yes we can," Alex says, then rolls his eyes as all the adults turn to look at him. "You can't make us stay back! Frost broke into our heads, not yours."

"They've hurt us all," Angel says, raising her chin. "It's about time we hurt them back. It's only fair, since Frost taught us to use our powers for violence."

There is a moment where Moira looks about to protest--Erik can see the argument forming on her lips about children and crusades--but then her mouth firms, and she nods. "I'm going to make a few calls, and then we need to come up with a plan," she says, rising from the sofa. Quested follows.

"All of you heard the lady," Charles says as the click of her heels grows fainter. "Hank, will you be--"

"I'll be fine flying the Blackbird," Hank all but snarls. "I designed it."

It turns out Hank has designed a great deal more. Erik has a general distaste for uniforms, but when they don the ridiculous jumpsuits the next morning, the symbolic effect is unmistakable. Their odd little assortment of mutants looks like a unit, joined by one purpose. Most of the people Sebastian Shaw has tormented are dead, but here are eight come to swing the sword. Nine, Erik amends when Moira raises her hand for their attention.

"If the Russians cross into American waters, we'll have a full-scale nuclear war on our hands," Moira says over the roar of the plane. "I'd like to remind you all that I'm here to protect the interests of the state. Containing the threat is our top priority." It's a bold speech to make to their company, though she seems to have Sean cowed and Darwin nodding. Angel and Alex frown at the latter.

"No sense in getting your head back just to blow your brains out," Darwin says, fixing them both with a level stare. After a beat, Angel gives him a half-smile and Alex looks away with a shrug.

Erik stays silent as they draw ever closer to Cuba. He can feel Charles's gaze upon him at times and fights the urge to return it, to give any indication that he is receptive to telepathic conversation. The tension shows in his fingers, which leave faint impressions in the metal of his armrests. He is going to Cuba to kill a murderer.

"There they are!" Hank calls from the cockpit, and gunfire sounds in Erik's mind.

Charles raises his hand to his temple. "Frost has the crew of one of the Russian ships under her sway. Hang on a moment." A moment passes as promised, in which a missile blasts far too close to the plane and destroys the offending ship. "Sorry about that, everyone."

"A little warning next time!" Hank says.

Charles's apologetic grin vanishes as his face screws up in pain. "She's going for the rest of the ships! I--good lord, her reach is wide, I--"

I can't hold all of them, Charles continues in Erik's mind, and several shades of thought bleed through: needing to protect the children from a sense of vulnerability; sharp fear at the diamond-hard patterns laid across Raven's mind; duller fear that one of them could die today, that nations could die today; and the kernel of a plan forming, one that Charles trusts beyond measure that Erik can carry out.

"Take us down closer to the water and open the hatch," Erik says to Hank, because Charles's idea is simple enough to translate into an actual plan. This is right, Charles coming to him for a situation that requires brute force rather than finesse. Regret flickers, briefly, that this is so, but Erik buries it under the weight of his concentration, on the outline of a submarine lurking beneath the sea.

There, he thinks, at the same time Charles says, "That's low enough, thank you. Everyone, remain seated."

"Where else are we gonna go?" Sean mutters.

"I heard that," Charles says, rising to his feet. He braces himself against the wall, turning to Erik. "Are you ready for this?"

"Let's find out," Erik says, as the doors open, revealing the rush of water underneath. Erik climbs down one of the landing gears, bracing himself atop the wheel as he stretches out a hand, searching the sea. He remembers the Miami waters as warm as blood, the submarine retreating like mercury slipping through his fingers, the helpless fury. There is only the latter as he closes his eyes, unable to sense anything beyond the sleek metal of the Blackbird, the enemy forever just beyond his reach. He tries to think of candles, of satellites, but his mind is the flash of a knife, the glint of a gun.

Remember: the point between rage and serenity.

The words themselves are the place that Erik needs to go, like a train pulling at last into its final station. Charles, the man who fears drowning, has plunged into the depths yet again for Erik's sake. He can sense him braced against the wall, feel from the stretch of numerous zippers that Charles has his fingers to his head, following Erik into that crushing dark. Images flash by, the doing of Erik's mind rather than Charles's power, but the images are all of Charles: smiling in delight at the sight of a new mutation, wearing grief and fear like an ill-fitting suit, infuriating and brilliant and beloved.

Love is the great paradox, the storm at the eye of the storm.

Erik, Charles says, and Erik can feel his wonder as the outline of the submarine sends a jagged note through his mind. He flexes his fingers as if to close them, then thinks better of it, thinks like a mutant; he spreads his fingers wide and calls to the metal in soundless song.

It heeds.

Extraordinary, Charles says, the echo of his telepathy hushed with awe, warm with pride. Then, drier: Though you do have terrible timing, my friend.

Erik hardly has time to send the impression of a grin Charles's way before a glittering figure emerges from the submarine's hatch. He's right, sugar. This world is going to burn. What will your humans do when they learn of our existence? How long until the first culling? She's rifling through his mind, pulling up the stench of the camp, the fall of ash from the sky. The sound of a single gunshot, and his mother falls, the submarine drops, the plane shudders--

--and his mind stills, the unbroken surface of a pond.

I can't touch you in diamond form, Miss Frost, Charles says, polite even to mental ears, but Erik can feel his anger. I can shut you out, however, and I guarantee that it will be painful. Then, quieter, he adds, Erik, you will likely lose control of your powers for a few moments. Throw the submarine towards that beach at my signal. Three--two--one!

Erik swings his hand back, attempting momentum, and then pushes out as far as he can. The small diamond figure staggers back, clinging to the side of the submarine as it slams into the beach, the metal shrieking. Or perhaps the sound is in his own mind, the shredding shriek of a foreign presence torn out of his mind. The Blackbird shudders once more and Erik can hear Hank shouting, though the words are lost to the wind.

Gripping Charles's hand, Erik uses his powers to haul himself back inside the plane just as it spins out of control. Erik throws himself over Charles, improvising a seatbelt. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Quested raising a hand, and though their landing is jarring, he can feel that the plane is still intact.

"I'm going after Shaw," he says, as soon as he ascertains that Charles is all right.

He can feel the heat of the sand even through his boots. A single pinprick of ice touches his mind and then vanishes, replaced by Charles's steady warmth. I've told the others that they are to attack Frost's diamond form while I combat her telepathy. She's got Raven buried so deeply in her own mind that I need all the distraction I can get, particularly when I pause to assist you with Shaw. I assume that suits you.

He's always been mine to kill, Erik replies, just as Raven emerges from the submarine. He grits his teeth against the flood of Charles's emotions. It only takes a few gestures to direct bands of metal to bind her arms and legs to her sides. She shrieks in anger, but her mutant abilities aren't enough to bend titanium, and judging by Charles's silence, Frost has problems of her own to occupy her.

All yours, Erik thinks, and steps inside the submarine. Everything inside is oddly slanted from the crash, dark save for where sunlight streams through the holes in the walls.

I can't sense him. Charles's voice is strained, more distant than before, but still present. There's a dead part of the sub further back. You'll have to disable the nuclear reactor first, of course.

Fortunately, the controls for the nuclear reactor are marked in three different languages. Erik hesitates for a moment, feeling his way through the tangle of metal and wires, then pulls the largest lever down. The machine hums as it powers down, the dials spinning back to zero.

A door hisses open.

"Hello, Erik."

Charles is shouting something in the back of his mind, but Erik walks forward into the past, where metal glints cold from the walls and the doors are made of wood and a doctor bares his teeth. Shaw is wearing the helmet. "Tell me you've come to join me," he says, still the picture of geniality, spreading his hands wide in a gesture of welcome. He's speaking English, but the words reach Erik's ears in German, striking against mind and closed doors alike.

The door. He needs to open the door.

Erik flexes his fingers upwards, pulling at the metal surrounding him, raising his hands as if to launch the titanium beams at Shaw. Shaw flicks the center of his chest, the gesture light but the impact enough to launch him backwards. Smashing into the wall is a distant pain compared to the exultant brush of Charles's mind across his: You're back! I don't know what you're doing, but keep it up! It's the slightest touch of warmth to the ice running through his veins, the cold reality of Sebastian Shaw standing before him tempered by the memory of blue eyes and warm hands.

"Erik," Shaw says, and all is bright lights and blades once more. "I made you the weapon that you are today. It was always our destiny to overthrow the humans, to destroy their corruption. You've witnessed the filth of this world. You know that the exterminators will come again, the cleansings, the camps. You have read your friend's research, have you not? We are the next stage of evolution. The Neanderthal is cowering behind his guns. Our very existence is a call to arms. This is a revolution in the name of tomorrow, Erik."

From the mouths of monsters fall stray traces of truth, veins of ore through mere rock. Erik shakes his head to dislodge the echoes. He can feel Charles holding back, waiting. "Humans rounded my family and my people up like cattle," Erik begins softly, and Shaw stretches his lips into a skull's grin. "But you, a mutant, were the one who murdered my mother. You, a mutant, tortured me in the name of progress. Whatever future I have, it does not lie with you. Now, Charles!"

Erik tears himself free from the remains of the submarine, stretching one thick cable out to snatch the helmet from Shaw's head. Shaw freezes in place, hand outstretched, as though the turning of time itself has stilled. Such is the power of Charles Xavier. Erik catches the helmet in both hands, feels the buzz of strange alloys under his fingers. Considers.

I can't hold him for long; he's too powerful. The others need me to combat Frost as well. Please, Erik, don't lose yourself to this man. Do what you must, but Erik--I need you to come back to me.

The helmet crumples between Erik's hands like so much paper, and he tosses it aside. The coin slips from his pocket to hover above his palm in a magician's trick. "I'm going to count to three and I'm going to move the coin," Erik intones, memory speaking through him, a terrible howl for blood to answer blood. "One." His father. "Two." His mother. "Three."

And the coin floats through the air held by a boy of fourteen, silent save for the shriek of metal in his heart.

Erik feels the metal pierce Shaw's skin, thin skin parting like the skin of a fruit. Boring through bone is too distinct a sensation for comparison: the coin drills through to the brain matter underneath. Over the rush of blood to his ears, he can hear someone screaming in terrible pain, an echo from twenty years ago.

Except it's not him. It's not him. "Charles," he gasps aloud, but the movement of the coin is as inexorable as a meteor strike, the devastation uncontrollable upon impact. The coin emerges from the other side of Shaw's head and drops to the ground, bearing the blood of a killer. The screaming goes silent.

"Charles?" Erik asks, but there is only the coin, the corpse, and the void to hear him.

~

The first time Charles read about the principles of genetic mutation he felt a prickle of fear at the unpredictability, the potential for sheer newness, in a system based on random chance. All these miniscule changes that frequently mean nothing, but occasionally mean--Raven standing in his kitchen, shrinking down from the poised height of his mother to her small, nervous, deep blue self. The impossible day in his own childhood when he realised that most people could only hear the kind of speech that matched a person's mouth movements, and had no idea that the other kind existed at all; that he wasn't just an over-imaginative or over-perceptive boy, depending on which parent you asked, but something unique. Something new.

His first reaction to Hank's accidental transformation in the mansion, once they'd all calmed down and Hank had wrapped himself clumsily in a moth-holed dressing-gown of Charles's stepfather's, had been one of overwhelming inquiry as to the kind of mutation that would manifest in this hybrid combination of old and new evolutionary traits. Fur, for Christ's sake, and the kind of physical power that would face down an army, and it had sprung up in the genetic code of a quiet, clever, incredible boy, who'd spent so long trying to hide the truth of himself that he'd gambled, and lost--or won, Erik would say--on a chance to shed his differences for good.

When it came to his mutation and its gifts, Charles discovered the scientific method more or less out of necessity, and he imagines that every young mutant did the same, scared and alone, fearful and feared. There were no maps. No examples. No teachers. Charles will change this, if it takes the rest of his life and all of his energy, fortune, and willpower.

The point is that there are no precedents, and so no expectations. Nobody ever taught Charles how to hold people immobile, how intimate is the kind of mental grip on another consciousness that will keep a person from moving even in the face of a primitive and consuming instinct to flee from a small, tarnished, inexorable death.

Nobody ever taught him that, when the physical material that produces that consciousness is being ripped slowly apart, it might hurt.

"One," Erik says, and a memory that isn't his own bursts like a bubble on the surface of Charles's concentration. He saw this, the murder of Edie Lehnsherr, on the night he first plunged heedlessly into Erik's mind.

"Two," and now a second perspective floods him from beneath, Shaw's memory of the same event, coloured by an ugly and frantic mixture of emotions. Shaw knows what is about to happen. Charles knows what is about to happen; Charles could let him go as easily as dropping a stone, and not be implicit in the slow death of a human being, but it's not like he didn't know what kind of ending Erik had in mind here.

Do what you must, he'd said. He won't retreat from that. And Erik will come back to him.

When the coin passes through bone the pain is just a concept, something that exists in exquisite, all-encompassing prominence in Shaw's mind, but is harmless to Charles himself. When it starts to move through the frontal cortex--that's when Charles opens his mouth and screams.

The horrible unexpectedness of it is what makes it so dreadful, the inability to compare it to anything; it's almost like the brief, searing pain of Cerebro's destruction, except there's no darkness waiting to accept his surrender into unconsciousness. It's almost like the heat of Alex's energy across his skin. But really it's like neither of those, like nothing he has ever imagined, and there aren't even any damn nerve endings in the brain so this can't be a bleedthrough of Shaw's pain into his, it's just the raw disintegration of brain matter in which parts of Charles have been invisibly tangled, a redness, a whiteness, a slippery acid suffocation, metal through the brainstem, lights flashing and going out in sparks and he can't do anything but scream and wait and burn and survive.

By the time the coin is through the other side of the skull, there's nothing for Charles to hold on to any more. Shaw's death snips the thread. Charles feels stickily cobwebbed with the remnants of what just happened, but the pain is gone instantly, and then there's someone grabbing at his arm.

"Charles, you scared me half to death." It's Moira, gun in one hand, her face taut with stress. "What happened?"

"I'm fine," he says. He takes the last step out of the plane and heads across the sand. Sunlight off Raven's red hair shows that she's still pulling against the bands of metal holding her to the side of the submarine. Emma Frost is keeping her back to the sub as well, and it's hard to make out her facial expressions through the dizzying, glittering diamond of her body, but as he draws nearer the strain of what she's doing becomes apparent. Five mutants focusing all their power on her and she's still standing; as Charles watches, Alex readies a burst of energy to fire in her direction, but it flies just above her head. Hank makes a grab for her but she glides, stone and slick, out of his grasp. Her hold on Raven's mind is still so strong that Charles would need hours in a quiet room to undo it at this moment, and yet she's nudging the others one by one, just enough to keep herself safe; the precision and energy that must require is staggering.

There's a series of clicks from beside him as Moira checks and reloads her gun.

"What do you need?" she says.

"We need to damage her diamond form," says Charles. "It might force her to change back. Then we'd have a better chance of capturing her."

"Got it." She dashes forward and grabs Darwin's arm. They have a hurried exchange that Charles can't hear.

"Riptide, man," Darwin calls beneath the fading sound of one of Sean's yells, waving Janos over. Moira turns to look at Charles again, tapping one finger against her forehead.

What's the plan? he asks. Never mind, I've got it. It's rough, a bare outline, but it's a good idea for something invented on no notice.

Can you shield me and Darwin? says Moira.

Yes. Go.

Darwin's already off, marching straight for Frost, not even flinching as a wild strand of Angel's acid comes sizzling into the ground next to his foot. Moira takes a different path, sensibly weaving around behind Hank. Charles casts around with his mind and finds Erik, still slumped against a wall inside the sub, the exhausting turmoil of triumph and fear and vengeance still saturating his mind.

Erik. Are you alright?

Am I--? Charles, why didn't you
warn me, I could have--

I'm fine. Erik, believe me. Care to lend a hand?

Whatever you need.

Stay where you are, and when I tell you, let Raven go.


Darwin takes a while to get a grip on Frost, blocking her blows with arms that turn steely and strong, just as Charles is blocking her subtler attempts to take hold of Darwin's mind and dissuade him from the attack. Then she trips, and falls halfway down; Darwin shifts to a featureless grey and shoves until she's sprawled out on her back beneath him, held in place by sheer weight, one of her hands pinned above her head and the other trapped behind her own back.

Frost keeps struggling for a moment, then drops her head back into the sand and laughs. "Lead might be heavier than diamond, sugar, but it's still softer. You can't shatter me like this."

"No?" says Moira. "How about like this?" And she kneels down, presses the barrel of her gun into the palm of Frost's outstretched diamond hand, and pulls the trigger.

A ripple of shock passes across Frost's face and then down, encompassing her whole body, the crisp translucent form changing rapidly back to pale skin and white fabric.

"Now," Moira says. Darwin too melts out of his leaden form and back to flesh. He pulls away from Frost, who hauls herself unsteadily to her feet--and then rises off her feet entirely, caught up in a narrow hurricane that whips up eddies of sand.

Janos Quested is standing with his hair blowing around his face, one hand raised, and hatred in his eyes. "Good to see you again, Emma," he says. "Let's see how you like your brains being rattled around."

Frost spins twice more, then flies straight backwards and hits the metal side of the submarine with a sound that makes Charles wince involuntarily. He might only have a small window, though, and this is it, while Frost is--he checks--not unconscious, but dazed by the impact. He takes a few quick steps to stand in front of his sister, and makes himself meet her eyes. There's no frank enmity there, but no affection either; she looks almost as stunned as Frost. Charles breathes past the pain in his chest and puts one hand to the side of Raven's face, one to his own temple.

I need you to come back to me too, he says, and pours all of himself into finding the beloved shape of her mind beneath the distorting weight of Frost's influence. It's easier than it was with any of the others, because he knows her so well, but he's also working faster and through more resistance.

All at once there's a change, a give, and then it's like running downhill, Raven's mind helping, as actively as Darwin's did, to kick off its shackles. Charles has to make himself relax his fingers where they're pressing into the rough blue line of her jaw, frantic with hope.

Raven exhales as though she's been underwater a long, long time. She looks right at Charles and lifts her eyebrows.

"Took you long enough," she says.

Charles laughs like a child, almost gurgling, flooded with relief. Erik?

The metal bands slip away carefully, letting Raven find her balance, and she swings her arms loose with an incredulous smile.

"Raven, listen, it's important that we--"

Raven isn't looking at him. Raven steps over to where Emma Frost is leaning against the sub, only just gathering her breath from where it was knocked out of her.

"Hey," Raven says, bright, and as soon as Frost glances up, she hits her across the face. It's no dainty slap. Frost has rage in her eyes and blood on her lip when she recovers.

For all the grubby, mean pleasure that this gives Charles, and as much as he cherishes the expression on Raven's face--it's her, it's all her--this can't degenerate into any more personal scuffles or vendettas. Frost is too smart and too strong to keep her powers to herself for much longer, and awareness of the arsenal out at sea is already crystallising in her mind; a decisive blow needs to be struck, and Charles knows what it should be, and that it has to happen before she thinks to look for it.

He pulls Raven to the side and replaces her, standing in front of Frost, taking up her attention.

"Well?" Frost says, with the barest hint of her impeccable drawl.

"This," says Charles, taking one of Frost's hands gently in his own, "will probably hurt."

It isn't like it was in Russia. He was flying blind, then, working on instinct roughened by his own disgust at what was necessary. The teleporter screamed, he remembers that; he's woken up nauseated with that scream scraping against his ears. Frost doesn't scream. Her lips go blue and thin as Charles takes hold of her telepathy and burns it away. He can't remove the mutation that gives her the ability, but he can sever her control over it, leaving it dormant, recessive and silent. It's impossible to do it without catching glimpses of the person that is Emma Frost, and how her past and her power shaped her into this shimmering, hateful, ruthless being. The only other telepath in the world, for all Charles knows--what a godawful waste.

It's this or it's the war, he tells himself, and Frost drags her hand away.

"Done," he says. Raven slips her hand into his and he bumps her shoulder, thankful.

It takes Frost longer to recover from this than from Janos's hurricane. She's breathing slowly, in rasps, and her eyes skim from side to side as though she can pinpoint the fleeting remnants of what Charles has taken. And then, visibly, she takes forceful hold of her dignity. She directs a gaze at Charles that's almost calm.

"Your friend killed Sebastian," she says. "Why didn't you do the same to me?"

"I didn't think anyone else should die today," says Charles. "Not if it could be avoided."

"What a nice sentiment." She gives a short laugh, uglier than anything else that's emerged from her mouth. "It would have been kinder to kill me, Charles Xavier. Don't pretend you don't know that."

Charles stares her down, this woman who shares his powers; someone he could have learned from, if things had been different, and learned with. This woman who almost started a war that would have devastated the world, and tried to take from him both of the people that he cares about. There's the rational response and then there's this, his sister standing strong by his side, and the way it felt to see himself illuminated by Erik's astounding love.

"I'm not pretending anything," he says.

~

The man calling himself Sebastian Shaw is dead. The burden Erik carries is no less, but he can feel the change, the difference between the weight of a death versus the weight of a terrible purpose. He carries it out of the submarine, bares it beneath the searing Cuban sun. He left the coin with the body and his fingers twitch at his side, idle. He laughs once, the bark of a madman, and then goes to find Charles.

Frost is climbing painfully to her feet and he almost breaks out into a run before he sees Raven standing at Charles's side, their arms around each other's waist. Erik picks up the pace nevertheless, mind churning save for the still point at the center, the knowledge that he is returning to Charles Xavier. Home, some instinct names the emotion, home.

"Frost is contained," Charles says, turning toward him before Erik announces himself.

"Thanks to me and Moira," Raven says, smile bright against the blue of her face. Now that she's no longer trying to kill anyone, Erik can appreciate the full glory of her mutation. "I guess Charles did some stuff too."

"You've castrated me," Frost says, the briefest break in her voice. "You ripped out my being. What will they think of you now--"

"Go to sleep," Charles says, and Frost collapses on the sand. Everything she says is true, you know, but I can't bring myself to feel remorse. Is that strange, Erik? All I am, all I feel, is glad that you and Raven have come back to me.

"Charles," Erik says, and that's when he feels metal stirring on the ships out at sea, their weapons turning in the water. "They're coming for us."

"Who?" Sean asks, but Moira, Hank, Darwin, and Alex are already peering at the ocean, squinting against the glare of sun on water. Now that Erik is searching with conscious intent, he can feel the nuclear warheads shifting into position. Frost and Shaw might get their war after all.

"Everybody onto the Blackbird!" Moira shouts. "I'm going to radio my boss, but just--just in case."

"Contact him to find out what's going on," Charles says, then looks at Erik. "I don't think that the ships will be a problem."

"Never again," Erik says, and reaches out once more.

It would be so easy to destroy these ships. That part of his power is unlocked forever now: he has slain a giant by striking him between the eyes. Though Erik stopped believing in God years ago, he cannot forget the rest of the story. He can sense Charles's weariness without telepathy, and he can guess what sensing a thousand more deaths today will do to him, to them both. They have done enough today. They will not save themselves with sword and spear.

Erik rips every missile from its moorings and hurls them into the sky, where they explode overhead in a harmless yet unmistakable display of power. He stumbles back, teeth rattling in his skull from the impression of so much shrapnel plummeting from the air. Charles is there to catch him, to keep him on his feet as they face a suddenly weaponless armada. Thank you, Charles says. I suppose this means that you'll stay.

Charles's whole heart is in his question, so Erik unlocks the last door and answers, I want you by my side.

All of them trudge back to the Blackbird to join Moira. Charles is still helping Erik walk. Raven clings to Charles's other hand and Erik finds he doesn't mind. Darwin picks up the still unconscious Frost and carries her over, Alex not far behind. Sean and Hank trail after, distracted by the sudden activity on the ship decks. They must be on their way.

When they finally get inside the Blackbird, they find Moira engaged in a heated debate over the radio. "Moira," Charles says, cutting her off. "Tell your superiors that we won't be fighting any more of their wars."

Moira's eyebrows arch and she says, "We've got Frost in custody. She won't be hurting anyone anymore. By the way, my telepath friend, the one who just averted nuclear war, says that his group is done fighting your battles. After we drop off Frost, I think they would like to be left alone to rest. Also, I'm taking a two-week vacation, starting today."

The radio is dead silent, then finally crackles to life. "Take it," Black says. "You've earned it. Stop grousing, she has. Okay, someone with higher authority is demanding a say."

"Take your vacation," McCone says. "You did a damn good job containing several threats to our national security. I assume your vacation will take you by way of New York?"

Moira's gaze flickers to Charles, who nods. "That's a safe assumption to make," she says.

"Then we'll save other matters until then. If Frost has been neutralised, just turn her over to the nearest United States law enforcement."

"Roger that."

Erik takes this as his cue to slump into his seat, so tired he has to fasten his seatbelt with his hands. There are a hundred thoughts buzzing through his mind, but none of them settle long enough to form a coherent image. Shaw is dead. Frost is as good as dead. They've rescued every mutant under their sway, including Quested, and they've just defied two world powers with the help of a human. Charles is here. All of these isolated facts add up to something.

Despite Charles's gentle admonition to sleep, Erik forces himself to stay awake for the entire plane ride. They drop off Frost in Florida, much to the confusion of half a dozen police officers, and then continue on to Westchester after Hank explains that they won't need to stop for any fuel. Charles gives him the occasional look of concern, but most of his attention is on Raven, who cannot quite conceal her trembling, despite the brave front she's putting up. She has a death grip on Charles's hand as she congratulates Hank on his new blue state and then falls into the familiar pattern of teasing Alex.

"I will have Hank turn this plane around," Darwin says at last. Raven laughs and Charles relaxes a little into his seat.

The plane ride takes several hours, and then sorting things out takes a few more. There are rooms to assign, wounds to tend, showers to take. Somehow a plate of sandwiches makes its way into Erik's vicinity and he wolfs down three, surprised that his body could be so hungry when his mind is too tired to register anything other than mild relief that he's managed to clean off all of the sand. It's around midnight by the time he thinks of going to bed.

Erik doesn't mean to go to Charles's bedroom. He's only thinking of a place to rest, to recover from the day's events. He pushes the door open and there is Charles, half-dressed for bed in striped pajama trousers. His pajama shirt hangs open and unbuttoned as his hands fall to his sides.

"Oh," Charles says, and his eyes are very blue.

Erik crosses the room in about three strides, using the metal in the door to slam it shut and then lock it. He takes Charles's face between his hands and kisses him roughly, backing him up until they both tumble onto the bed, where Erik kisses his mouth, his neck, his bared collarbone. Charles's skin is warm and he smells like soap. Charles is murmuring nonsense words into his hair, his contentment humming through Erik to form another layer of warmth. Erik closes his eyes and sinks into it.

Charles's voice is blurred with exhaustion. "I meant it when I said you have terrible timing, my friend."

"Mm?" He's going to open his eyes any moment now, no matter how comfortable a pillow Charles makes.

"I think we're both really too tired to act on any suppressed passions," Charles sighs, then reddens as he hears his own words. "You're three-quarters asleep and I'm not much better. You're welcome to stay. I don't think I can move."

"Mm," Erik agrees, and lifts his head to kiss Charles again. Tomorrow.

As he slips into sleep, it hits him. Tomorrow. There will be a tomorrow, and another one after that, followed by hundreds more. He's made this future, made his future, with Charles. Erik tries to hold onto the realization, to stay awake long enough to do more than cradle it to his heart, but the rhythm of Charles's breathing lulls him back to sleep.

~

"Hold it steady," Janos says. "You can do it, just a little--oh, dear."

A sullen crack of thunder heralds a burst of rain, confined to this corner of the grounds. Charles is wet within seconds. The fine afternoon sky is blocked out, in their vicinity, by a mass of dark grey clouds, and a disorganised wind grabs at their clothes.

The cause of this local weather disruption is a seven-year-old girl wearing a pale blue dress that's rapidly turning navy-dark as it soaks through.

"I'm sorry," she says, wincing. It's not just the wince of apology; even though her eyes are blanked out as white as her hair, Charles can sense a real fear. She came to the freshly-christened Academy a week ago, and it's taken them this long to convince her that she can demonstrate any of her powers at all without immediate punishment.

Charles swipes his damp hair out of his eyes and kneels down in front of her. "It's all right, Storm," he says as gently as he can. "You're doing very well."

"The air's all messy." She frowns, lower lip tremulous.

"Remember what we were saying about colours and ribbons," Janos says. It doesn't make any sense to Charles, but he's still getting his head around these sorts of external, environmental powers, and Ororo has been following Janos around like an adoring duckling since day one, when he called her Stormling and the name stuck.

She frowns more deeply and lifts both of her hands higher above her head, fingers moving carefully as though feeling her way through something. The wind dies down and then, in fits and starts, the rain eases off. By the time Storm's eyes have cleared to their usual deep brown, there's enough sunlight pushing through the clouds to illuminate the expression of relief that they convey.

"Okay?" she asks, still wary.

"Definitely okay." Charles smiles and touches her nose, eliciting a smile in return.

"Professor?"

"Hank." Charles stands, realising as he does so that he's still very wet. "Are we running into problems with the class schedule again?"

"No--well, yes," Hank says wryly. He's brushing water from the fur on his arms, so he clearly caught some of Storm's rain during his approach. "But we can talk about that later. There's someone here who wants to see you."

"A mutant?"

Hank shrugs. "She didn't say. She asked for you by name, though."

"I hope she won't mind if I take the time to put on some dry clothes," Charles says.

Janos holds out his hand to Storm. "Come on, mamita, we'll have another try at the clouds and then we'll get dinner started."

Charles takes a back entrance and a longer route to his room, avoiding most of the downstairs areas, and changes his clothes for a fresh set. His hair is still damp when Hank takes him to see their visitor, despite a quick rub with a towel, but he looks presentable enough for the principal and official face of the Academy.

"Charles Xavier." The woman smiling in his direction is tall, and striking in a way that has a lot to do with her bearing and the knowingness that lurks around her mouth. She's wearing the dark glasses of the blind and a dress that even Charles can tell is a good half-century out of date.

"That's me," he says. "What can I do for you, miss--?"

"Irene Adler." She extends a hand, a gesture that fits so well with her old-fashioned clothes that Charles finds himself taking it and bowing slightly instead of shaking. He feels silly. Then he wonders if she can even tell what he's doing.

"A pleasure," he says.

"It most certainly is." Irene Adler takes back her hand and waves theatrically about the room. "This school is a great endeavour. You will accomplish things here that you can barely imagine."

Charles smiles. "I do hope so."

"Hope is one thing," says Irene. "I've seen it for myself."

Hank, hovering politely behind Charles's shoulder, works it out first. "Is that your mutation?" he asks, sounding excited. "The ability to see the future?"

At the corners of Irene's mouth the knowingness increases fivefold. "It's not the most glamorous of words, is it? Mutation. I wouldn't be able to sell that to the public. My circus name is Destiny."

That explains the dress, Charles supposes. Foresight, what a gift to have, though he's not stupid enough to assume that it comes without its own troubles. He keeps his mind to himself, despite the burn of curiosity and the questions, dwelling in the deepest part of himself, that he wants to ask her. Were they right to gamble on peace? Can mutants and humans forge a shared future?

Is this happiness of his too much, too sublime, to truly last?

Enough, Charles tells himself. He gestures to the two scuffed leather suitcases leaning against the nearest table leg.

"Have you come to stay? You're welcome, of course, all mutants are, but this is a school now."

"Erik owes me a couple of favours," says Irene. "I thought I'd cash one in and come for a visit."

"You're a friend of Erik's?" He can't hide his surprise.

"Friend?" She smiles. "Perhaps not. Acquaintance. As I said, he owes me. And speaking of…" She tilts her head and lifts one finger.

"Hello?" It's Moira's voice, ringing dull from the direction of the front door.

"Where's our welcoming party?" calls another voice. Raven.

"I thought they weren't due back until tomorrow," Hank says.

"They're not." Charles can feel the grin breaking out on his face. He casts out just enough of his mind to do a headcount: Raven, Moira, Sean, and yes, Erik.

How was the meeting?

Dull
, Erik says. I signed up for a life of clandestine missions. Nobody mentioned the paperwork and the meetings.

You should consider settling down, young man
, says Charles. We haven't had a dull day here yet. Let me tell you about the changes in our local weather patterns--

That's about as far as Charles gets before Erik enters the room itself, drops his bag on the floor, and ignores everyone else in favour of staring straight at Charles, eyes and mental presence both sharp with intent. Under his gaze Charles feels tensed up and relaxed both at once, a tingling happiness leaking through the gaps between.

"Uh, I'll, right," says Hank, a blur of discomfort in Charles's peripheral vision. "Right," he says again, and ducks out of the door. He's followed, after a moment of interested pause, by Irene.

Weather patterns. Erik moves forward and kisses salt onto his mouth, his mind humming with need. Fascinating.

This is still new enough that it feels new, feels like a surprise every time. They haven't developed any patterns yet. Charles is used to setting rhythms and sticking to them, but Erik has infinite speeds and right now he's picked one of the higher ones, zero to zoom like the Blackbird taking flight.

God. Charles tilts his head in response to the tug of Erik's fingers in his hair and opens his mouth, hungry, swimming in and out of his own mental images.

The meeting wasn't dull, Erik says. Someone asked for a demonstration and Sean something something the jugs of water blah blah and Charles is listening, really, but it would take even more superhuman powers of concentration than he already possesses to take in every single word while being kissed like this. Having Erik's hand in the small of his back, and Erik's body pressed flush against his, isn't helping matters.

Charles frees his hands with reluctance and reestablishes some distance; a small part of his mind is trying to remind him that he has a visitor, even if she's not in the room, and on no page of his inner Gracious Host manual does it mention anything about the etiquette surrounding extended sessions of filthy kisses. He gropes for the thread of conversation instead.

Then why did you say it was?

A grin, sly and cool in a way that makes Charles's chest seize with snarling desire, appears on Erik's face. To see if you were cheating.

Charles slaps him half-heartedly on the arm and grins back. I'm insulted.

"Hello, Erik," says Irene from the doorway.

She looks nothing but bemused when they turn in her direction, and walks unconcernedly back into the room to take a seat. Charles has no idea how long she's been standing there. He feels Erik tense briefly, then relax.

"Destiny."

"I told you," she says. She tilts her chin in Charles's direction, but she's still looking at Erik.

"And aren't you smug," Erik says. "What are you doing here?"

Irene tuts her tongue and clasps her hands on one knee. "Your handsome stranger has much better manners than you do, Lehnsherr. I've come for a visit."

"Now who will the circus use to swindle the public out of their wages?"

"It's not swindling if I'm telling them the truth," she points out.

"Are you done?" Raven sticks her head into the room, then her whole body. She's wearing a crisp white shirt that makes her look even bluer than usual. "Is all the kissing out of the way? Not that I object, but I have a limit for time spent watching my dear older brother be ravished by handsome Germans, and we've already passed it this month."

Charles can feel a rare blush beginning along his jawline. "Done," he says.

"No promises," says Erik at the same moment. Charles reaches out to hit him again, but Raven's interest has shifted to Irene.

"Hi! You're a new face."

Irene stands, walks over in a swish of skirt and kisses both of Raven's cheeks, beaming. "It's wonderful to meet you at last, Mystique."

Raven looks startled, but doesn't step back. "Sure, you too."

"Our wedding will be so beautiful," Irene says dreamily.

"Uh-huh," says Raven.

"Hello, all." Now it's Janos in the doorway, his eyes flicking from face to face, obviously searching. "Is--"

"Moira's gone to wash off the dust," Raven says. "She'll come down for dinner."

"Speaking of which," Janos says. "We're almost done in the kitchen. Give us the ten-minute call, Professor?"

Charles nods. "Certainly." Ten minutes until dinner, everyone.

Raven blinks. "When did you become an announcement service?"

"It's not much harder than directing speech at one person, and it does save time."

"You're such a dork." Raven comes and slips her arm through his. "Walk me to dinner."

Charles lets her tug him out of the room, glad for the contact. After weeks of fearing her hurt, dead, or separated from him forever--and weeks more of waking up in a cold sweat, convinced she's gone again--he'll take any excuse to have his sister close by and tangible.

They're still not nearly a large enough crowd to fill the biggest dining hall, but the clump of children at one end of the table makes more than enough noise.

"Where's Darwin? And Havok?" Raven asks.

"They went to get Alex's brother."

"Oh, good." She does a little hop and squeezes his arm. "He was talking about that before we left."

Charles moves them sideways as Storm, self-important and beaming in an apron that's far too big for her, dashes past clutching the salad tongs.

"No running in the dining room," Charles calls.

"Sorry, Professor!" She skids to a halt next to Janos and climbs onto a chair so she can help him put the finishing touches to the table settings.

"What's this?" Moira appears at Charles's elbow, smelling like fresh soap and wet ponytail. "I leave the man alone for a single week and he adopts a child."

"Disgraceful," Charles agrees. Moira rolls her eyes at him and goes to hug Janos, whose face lights up like a beacon when he sees her.

"You're hardly one to talk, Professor," says Raven.

"Why don’t you go and sit next to our guest?" Charles suggests.

Raven levels her most unimpressed look in his direction. "You're a terrible matchmaker, you know."

"Go on."

Raven gives a mock-curtsey, dodges a cutlery-bearing child-- "No running!" she admonishes--and takes a seat next to Irene.

"I don't think Destiny needs the help," says Erik.

Charles turns, smiles and goes to lean against the wall with him. Erik is watching the cheerful chaos of the dinner preparations with an expression that Charles can't quite read, but it clears into transparent welcome as he takes Charles's hand easily in his. Charles had thought Erik might be reserved in this, as in so many aspects of his life, but he's learning that it's not about that. The reserve is the barrier, and once you've ducked beneath it, all things are open to you. Charles can feel his own muscles loosening, somewhere in the grey area between soothed and tired, as though the simple pressure of Erik's thumb against his has found the tensions in him and worked them free.

Now what are you thinking?

I could show you
, Charles says, heady and sure. If you want.

The sharpness, the hook, passes across Erik's face. In its wake is left a soft almost-smile that Charles has only seen a handful of times. Charles leans up and kisses that smile into place; stay, stay.

Thank you, Charles, Erik says finally. But no. Tell me, instead.

Erik's neck is warm beneath his hand and his lips are dry, perfect, the shape of his mind so close and familiar that Charles could tangle their edges. He wants to say something real, but what? What can he possibly say?

When you look at me like that I wonder if you could be a mirage. When you touch me I feel the iron in my blood sing out. I've just met a fortune-teller whose mind I can't bear to read because whatever we're going to become, we should discover it together, one day at a time. I fear death by water and I would hold you wide-eyed under the waves. I want to build a house for my happiness, this house, and never let it go.

It throbs through him, hotter than he can bear, and then subsides.

I'm glad you're home, he says.

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