It's been two and a half months since Erik killed Klaus Schmidt, and he still sleeps prepared to run at any moment.
He's trying to fall out of the habit, but it's hard to turn off something that's been ingrained in his mind, his very being, for seventeen years. He reminds himself nightly that he's done, that he's safe, that he's surrounded by people he can trust, that there's no one looking for him, but each night he still finds himself tucking a knife under his pillow and leaving his shoes next to the bed.
Schmidt is dead. His followers parted amicably after transporting everyone from the beach just as Erik released the bombs to blow it up. As a result, the US government thinks they're dead, so he doesn't even have to worry about the CIA. Even Emma Frost, who calmly told Erik and Charles that they wouldn't live through their next encounter with her, has been locked up since long before Cuba. For what feels like the first time in his life, there's no one after Erik Lehnsherr. He can sleep easy.
He's working on it.
It helps that he's busy. There are a million little things to do on the Xavier estate. The house has been empty for years, and even before Charles and Raven left for England, whole wings had been closed off. It was simply too big for two people. It's too big for the ten people currently inhabiting it, but with plans for more by the start of September, it's best to see to repairs while they have the time. Erik likes working with his hands, likes the distraction it provides. It allows him to focus on something with a quantifiable result, a pleasant change from the more subjective task of teaching the children. He can never tell if what he's saying gets through to them, if they're struggling because of their own shortcomings or his failings as a teacher, and Charles' empty reassurance that they're all trying to find their footing doesn't help matters much, true as it may be. Erik much prefers repairing loose floorboards and replacing rusted bathroom fixtures. The right and wrong in those processes are clear and easily defined.
Also, bathroom faucets don't talk back and criticize his methods.
He shouldn't blame the children. They've all been learning how to live together without the fate of the world at stake, which is more difficult than any of them imagined. It was easy to wave off the petty annoyances when they all assumed their cohabitation would be short-term, but settling into the reality of spending all day in the same (admittedly large) house is clearly beginning to grate.
The arrival of the three newest students has helped slightly, however. They're all younger than the first recruits, and they seem to have instilled a slight sense of responsibility in the older teens. They found Scott not long after Cuba, using a slightly modified and very narrowly scoped Cerebro interface that Hank had built. It went a long way to calming some of Alex's guilt and anxieties. Jean arrived just after Thanksgiving, a family argument awakening her abilities just enough for her to project an angry blast of emotion with enough power to register during a test of the Cerebro prototype. Ororo was a happy accident, discovered through a combination of the prototype Cerebro interface and Hank's oddly specific memory. Without the transmitter, Charles shouldn't have been able to reach all the way to Eygpt, but Hank had remembered most of a set of coordinates from the original Cerebro and with a location to focus on, Charles was able to extend his reach far enough to confirm Ororo's location. She was with them by Christmas and Erik privately feels that she turned what could have been a disastrously long holiday into a treat.
It's possible that Ororo Munroe has been Erik's undoing.
She's been the undoing of most of the school, if he's honest. Scott's arrival was a somewhat strained reunion. Jean is still uncertain of the other students, though she seems to trust Charles and, to a lesser degree, Erik. But Ororo? Ororo loves the academy and all its occupants and has since the moment she stepped foot inside.
It's for the best, really. Erik has seen what happens when she's unhappy, and until they help her learn to control her powers, it's best to keep her smiling. The hail storm at the hotel in Cairo is not something Erik will soon forget.
Young Ororo is the last recruit for at least the next few months. Erik insisted. Were it up to Charles, they'd spend all their time driving across the country and flying across the globe to rescue mutants in need, but someone needs to look at the situation practically. They're only just cobbling together a routine for the school and adding more students will make things more complicated. It took a great many chess games that ended in spirited debates, but Erik finally convinced Charles to run a test semester with their five older students and three younger, and then begin a more formal recruitment process.
Charles wasn't exactly happy, but he agreed anyway. It is a sentiment that colors most of their interactions since the day at the beach.
That day could have gone so many different ways--Erik still thinks about it, sometimes. He imagines a world in which he had let the rage consume him and he sent the missiles back at the boats that had fired them. He imagines a world where he was unable to stop Schmidt. He even, occasionally, dismissively, allows himself to imagine Charles' perfect world, a world where the missiles weren't turned on them in the first place, a world where they get fucking medals for killing Shaw and stopping nuclear war, a world where he and Charles--
Well. He thinks of that one only occasionally. Only very occasionally.
They've been inching along ever since, second guessing each other, their relationship strained in a way it hadn't been up until this point. They still talk and laugh and spend their evenings playing chess and developing the school, but there's something between them, and Erik has no illusions that it's anything other than the ghost of Klaus Schmidt or Sebastian Shaw or whatever his real name was. Charles came as close to begging as Erik had ever heard him, Charles had been right inside his head, open and pleading and Erik had killed the man anyway.
He was always going to kill Shaw. Nothing could have stopped it. But the guilt he feels would never have occurred to him if it wasn't for Charles.
(He feels guilty about many things, thanks to Charles, guilt and the sharp memory of pressing his lips against Charles', kissing him hard and messy just to get him to stop looking at him like that.)
"Erik!" Ororo shrieks, running up to him, a fist full of flowers he recognizes from the vase in the foyer. "Erik, I brought you a present!"
Erik is watching Sean and Angel train. They're grappling in mid-air, flying back and forth in the January chill to practice evasive maneuvers. It's not the safest place for a seven year old girl, but Erik knows firsthand she can take care of herself. Also, she's the first person he's met in a very long time that he has a hard time saying 'no' to.
"Aren't you supposed to be having a lesson with Charles?" Erik asks mildly, but when she climbs onto his lap, he doesn't have the heart to push her away.
"Hank finished a thing and the Professor had to go with Jean and Scott and he told me we'll finish later and to stay inside or to go with you and not to wander off," she says breathlessly.
Hank has been working on a modified visor for Scott, one that looks more like a regular pair of glasses than the one he's currently wearing. Erik can only imagine that's what he's finished. It's good news--Scott was irritable enough without everyone calling him Cyclops behind his back, and even Jean's affectionate suggestion that it become his code name couldn't entirely erase the scowl. Maybe he'll stop walking around with such a chip in his shoulder now, although he's still a Summers boy and they seem to be genetically afflicted with sour dispositions.
"Well, next time, remember your hat," Erik chides, taking off his own and pulling it down over her long, thick white hair. She smiles up at him beatifically and hands him the squished fistful of flowers, which he puts in the pocket of his jacket. "Now, stay close and quiet. I need to concentrate on Sean and Angel."
Ororo stills, quiet as a mouse, and watches the show with him, eyes wide. She's been entranced by the other students' powers of flight ever since she overheard Charles' supposition that she might one day be able to control the air around her well enough to fly as well.
They sit, Erik mentally taking notes about technique, until he glances at his watch and realizes it's nearly time for dinner. It's Raven's turn to cook, which means the meal will actually be edible, and Charles had promised a celebration once Scott's glasses were complete, which means there will probably be cake or ice cream. Erik should feel disgusted by how domestic this whole affair has made him, but without the heavy weight of vengeance dictating his every move, he finds himself taking the time to enjoy things like a well-cooked meal and something sweet at the end of the night.
"Dinner time," he tells Ororo, lifting her off of his lap and onto the steps. Standing up, he calls, "Sean! Angel! Hit the showers! And meet me in the study before dinner. You're making the same mistakes over and over again. You need to shape up before you find yourselves in a situation where your sloppiness gets you killed."
Sean, who hasn't quite figured out how to land gracefully, tumbles the last five feet to the ground and lands a tangled heap in the frozen grass. Angel lands gently on her own two feet and stalks away without speaking to any of them. It's been over two months, but she's still not entirely comfortable here. She only speaks to Charles and Raven, still angry at Alex for burning her wings and apparently above the immaturity of Sean and the younger children. Her relationship with Erik is much more volatile--while Charles welcomed her back to the mansion with open arms after Shaw was killed, Erik made sure they had a long, serious talk about what would happen should she betray Charles again. She hadn't appreciated it, and makes her disdain known at every opportunity.
It isn't ideal, life at the mansion. It isn't yet the perfect mutant utopia that Charles had envisioned; Erik doubts it ever will be. But there's a routine to it that's pleasant after spending so long mired in uncertainty and, he thinks as he holds Ororo's hand and leads her across the grounds, perhaps Charles was right. Perhaps having friends doesn't make him weak. Perhaps it's the opposite.
Dinner is a chaotic affair and he blames it on Charles entirely. He and Hank and the other young children are late to dinner and apparently he instructed Raven to start without them. The older children take this as free reign to be loud and disruptive as they eat, taking with their mouths full, kicking each other under the table, and arguing loudly about things that Erik tries, to no avail, to tune out.
He reaches his breaking point when Sean lets out a half-laugh half-scream that breaks all of their drinking glasses, dousing the table and some of their meals and laps in milk, water, soda, and an exquisite white wine that Erik may have been hoarding for the past two months.
"That's enough!" he snaps, standing up and drawing the attention of all four riotous teens, as well as Ororo. "You think you're old enough to go out and use your powers to track down people like Shaw? You're not even old enough to to be trusted alone at the dinner table. If you're so keen to use your powers and make a disruption, maybe we'll have another training session after we're done eating and after you're all done cleaning up this mess."
Silence reigns. Then Ororo tugs at his shirt.
"Erik?" she whispers.
"Yes, Schatz?" he says, still glaring at the older children, now cowed and refusing to meet his eyes.
"I can't reach the salt."
Erik reaches across the table and picks up the salt shaker--plastic, thankfully, and unaffected by Sean's wail--and hands it to her.
"Do you need any help?" he asks.
"No, I can do it myself," she says proudly, and goes back to her dinner, ignoring the stony glare he's directing at the teenagers and the shameful resentment rolling off of them in waves.
Charles sounds cheerful as he enters the dining room, a hand on Jean's shoulder, with Hank and Scott trailing behind them. Scott's new glasses look amazing--aside from the red tint to the lenses, they're barely distinguishable from regular glasses. He's slow to follow Charles, still looking around, clearly enamoured with his newly acquired peripheral vision.
"How's dinner so far?" Charles asks, taking the empty place on the other side of Ororo. "It looks excellent, Raven."
"There was a slight mishap with Sean," Erik says dryly, taking his seat again, satisfied that the teenagers are sufficiently chastised for their disruption. Not that Charles would allow much else in the way of yelling at the dinner table.
"I'll clean it up," Sean says quickly, getting to his feet.
"Get more glasses while you're at it," Erik snaps, and Charles gives him a look over Ororo's head. What? Erik thinks. He broke them. It's the least he can do.
Charles just shakes his head and gets back to his feet, probably to help fetch drinks.
"The sauvignon blanc!" he calls into the kitchen, and then smiles as the teens begin to use their napkins to clean up the mess. Lesson learned, then.
"Sometimes I think you're a bit hard on them, you know," Charles says. He's pouring them drinks as he says it, and his voice is colored by a sort of fond wistfulness, not disapproval, so Erik knows it's nothing more than a token protest.
"Someone has to be," Erik says. "It's all well and good, the way you support them and encourage them, but they need someone who's willing to call them on poor judgement and push them to work harder as well."
"I suppose you're right," Charles says. He sighs and hands Erik his drink, sitting on the other side of the chess board as he does so. It's Friday night, which means their after-dinner activities are of a more relaxing nature. Friday nights they put off lesson plans, training regimens, and structuring the school in order to play chess or, on one memorable occasion, go to the cinema. It's a gentle reminder that they don't have to spend so much time working, even though the break from their duties doesn't stop Erik from being ever vigilant.
"I had some minor success with getting Scott to focus his energy blasts today," Charles says, making the first move. "He's still hesitant. He's not used to being able to open his eyes, still, and I don't know that he'll ever think of his ability as anything other than a curse."
"For him, it might be true," Erik says. He counters Charles' move quickly, eager to move past the early stage of the game and to a point where he can flex his strategic planning muscles. "You know me, Charles--I'm quick to see the blessing in all our abilities, but he's lived his entire life alone and unable to open his eyes for fear of hurting those around him. He'll never be able to see without Hank's glasses or his visor."
"Maybe I should ask Hank or Raven to spend some time with him and talk to him about being different," Charles muses.
"It might be wise," Erik says. Charles frowns, studying the board for a moment, and Erik tries not to think about the way the firelight catches the streaks of red in his hair. Silver strands are starting to find their way in as well, and Erik smiles indulgently. Running a school for several unruly teens is proving more difficult than either of them imagined.
The topic switches to a general discussion of the day, Erik giving a vague synopsis of the literature syllabus he's created, one they'll go over in more detail tomorrow. It devolves into a debate about Thoreau, as if Charles has a leg to stand on, and before long it's almost like it used to be. They're laughing at each other and at themselves and Charles ducks his head and tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, and it's nearly Erik's undoing. The heady thrum of lust had been good in the weeks leading up to Cuba; it was one more thing that set his blood afire, kept his senses on edge. Now, though, knowing that any chance of having Charles was ruined by a murder he does not regret for a second....
It is difficult, living with him, sometimes. Erik is used to taking what he wants, and sometimes, when they're sitting like this, warm and flushed and laughing, he just wants to reach out and--
There's a knock on the door of the study.
Charles frowns for a moment and then, looking at Erik apologetically, calls out, "Come in, Jean."
Jean's eyes and cheeks are almost as red as her hair. She's wearing a long flannel nightgown and clutching a handful of tissues.
"I'm sorry, Professor," she says quietly, but Charles just gestures her forward.
"Don't be ridiculous, Jean," Charles says. "What's wrong, love?"
"I just...had a bad dream," Jean says. She's staring at the carpet and sniffling, even as she crosses the room to stand beside Charles' chair. "I miss my mom and dad."
"Of course you do," Charles says. He puts an arm around her shoulders and it's all the encouragement she needs to cling to his side. "But just think about how much fun you're having here. You're making new friends, aren't you? And learning all sorts of new things." He strokes her hair. "How about this? When Raven was your age and she would get upset, I would make her a hot chocolate. Does that sound good?"
Jean nods without saying anything, tangling her fingers in his cardigan.
"Excellent," Charles says. "Come with me to the kitchen, and while I'm making it, you can tell me your favorite things that happened this week."
"Okay," Jean says. She loosens her grip enough for Charles to get to his feet.
I'm sorry, my friend. Charles' voice echoes in Erik's mind. We'll continue later, or perhaps tomorrow afternoon?
I understand, Erik thinks back. See to the girl. I'll check on the others and see you tomorrow.
"Goodnight, Charles," he says out loud, and Charles waves and smiles as he herds Jean off towards the kitchen.
It's for the best, Erik thinks as he places their glasses on the sideboard and smothers the fire in the fireplace. Spending time with Charles when he's in this mood, when they're both warm and loose and happy, when he can't stop thinking about how red Charles' lips are, how blue his eyes are, how he manages to be so fucking smug and still so earnest, it can't lead to anything good.
He trusts Charles. He respects Charles. And, yes, he loves Charles. But in the aftermath of Shaw, he's resigned to doing it all on Charles' own terms and sometimes he just needs to stop and breathe and remember that being here, being the man that Charles thinks he can be, no longer being alone, is worth it.
Erik is not the same person he was two months ago, and sometimes that makes him uneasy. Two months ago he was constantly ready to drop everything and run if the situation required it. Two months ago, he had near complete tunnel vision. Two months ago, every spare thought that went through his head was of Schmidt, was of revenge.
But he got his revenge and life moved on. They returned to the mansion, and Erik found himself almost bullied into this domesticity.
"You can stay here until you decide what's next," Charles had told him. "But you're always welcome to make this your home. You know that, don't you?"
So he agreed to stay for a week and a week became two and then Charles was pointing out that it wasn't like he had any other plans so maybe Erik could just pick up groceries on Tuesdays? And help Charles formulate a teaching plan. And help with repairs and getting the children settled.
By three weeks, Erik knew he was staying, was surprised to realize that groceries and chats by the fire and teaching Sean to drive and showing Alex how to sew on buttons and making dinner once a week felt natural and normal, that, surrounded by others like him, Erik felt natural and normal. Not a weapon anymore, just a person. The morning he realized this, he came downstairs to find Charles already sitting at the table, reading the paper and smiling.
"We'll be needing to start them on proper schooling, you know," he said without looking up. "I know you enjoy literature. I was hoping you'd be their English teacher."
"English wasn't even my first language," Erik pointed out.
"All the more reason for them to be impressed by how well you know it, then," Charles had said.
And so Erik became a teacher.
Teaching is difficult for the same reason that training comes easily to him. Training is instinctual--he needs these children to harness their powers as a matter of survival, and Erik has always been superb at surviving. But teaching? His usual methods don't work. Charles assures him he'll be a wonderful teacher once he's had some practice, but Erik finds it hard to believe. He still accepts the challenge--he wants to do well. He wants to conquer this skill if only to prove that he can. So he muddles through, smacking the students in line with a sharp comment when they question his mistakes, if only to cover his own insecurity.
It's almost easier with the younger set--they're still at an age when they believe everything their teachers tell them. Jean is bright and has had more and better schooling than the other two and is always willing to help them along. Ororo is eager to learn and very quick for her age, and Scott, while quiet and moody still, seems to want to learn, and Erik can respect that. He purposely asks to instruct the older students first thing in the morning so he'll be able to quietly lick his wounds and settle his nerves while feeling more at ease with the youngsters.
Ororo had just learned to read before the death of her parents, but nearly a year without proper instruction and her skills had atrophied slightly. She was quick to pick them up again and is nearly where she should be for her age after only a few months, but there are days when it is still a struggle. Erik thinks that learning should be hard sometimes, as frustrating as it is to see the concepts floating just beyond his favorite pupil's grasp.
"I don't know that word," Ororo pouts.
"Sound it out, liebling," Erik says absently. He glances up at the clock, noting that class is almost over, and then looks over to make sure Jean and Scott are still working, as if Jean would allow their attention to wander during a lesson.
"Soooooommmm-eeeeee," Ororo says, frowning. "Soooooooooooooommmmmmm-eeeeeeeeeeee...."
Erik glances down at the book. It must be a bad day, because Erik knows this is a word that Ororo can tackle.
"Look at the word," he says, kneeling next to her. "Does it look like other words you know?"
"It's really long," Ororo says.
"Look closer." Erik points at the word over her shoulder. "What do you see?"
"I don't know," Ororo pouts. She crosses her arms and Erik squeezes her shoulders. He reaches down and puts his finger over the second part of the word.
"What word is that?" he asks.
"Some," Ororo says.
He moves his finger to cover 'some.' "And what word is that?"
It's a little embarrassing how endearing he finds that blinding grin.
"Very good job," he says. "Now read the whole sentence, please."
"You will see something new," she says slowly. "Two things. And I call them Thing One and Thing Two."
"Wonderful," he says. "Sometimes you can find small words hidden inside bigger words, so always take a moment to look for little words you know when you're sounding something out."
"Mr. Lehnsherr?" Jean asks hesitantly. Jean always strives to call them 'Professor Xavier' and 'Mr. Lehnsherr' during lessons, even if she has no problem calling them 'Charles' and 'Erik' at the dinner table.
"Yes, Jean?" he says, turning around, but he immediately understands her interruption. Hank and the other four teens are standing in the doorway to the room they're having their lesson in. They're watching Erik with mixed looks of wonder and incredulity.
"Um, s-sorry," Hank stutters. "I just need to use the projector for the math lesson today and since it's in here and the one in the math room is broken and I don't have time to fix it--but we can go find--"
"It's fine," Erik says brusquely. He gets to his feet. "We're done for the afternoon. Jean, Scott, please read to the end of chapter fifteen and have the revised outline for your papers ready tomorrow morning. Ororo, remember to study for your spelling test, and finish your book. Scott, I'll see you in the Danger Room in an hour."
Scott nods stiffly and gathers his things, clearly anxious to leave, even as Jean waits for Ororo to neatly pile her reading books and spelling notebook. Erik watches the three of them leave the room and raises his eyebrows as the older teens remain frozen in the doorway. It's Raven who enters first, tucking her dark red hair behind her ear and taking the seat closest to the rolling chalkboard. The others cautiously follow, Hank taking up the rear. He's gained a certain gruffness with his bright blue fur, but it's in addition to his insecurity instead of vanquishing it. Erik has a hard time believing he's a capable teacher, even if he's the closest thing to a math expert they have at the mansion.
Erik gathers his own notes and sweeps out of the classroom. He has an hour to prepare for his one-on-one training with Scott and he doesn't want to waste any of it by dwelling on the whispers that seem to follow him out of the room.
What was once a study became Charles' office not long after they returned from Cuba and the vision of a mutant school began to inch towards reality. The desk no longer faces the wall, but rather the door. There are comfortable chairs on the other side of it and a case of relevant texts on the wall next to it. Charles keeps encouraging Erik to claim a room as his own office, but Erik still hesitates. He doesn't know if it's because he's not used to living out of so many rooms or if it's because he's afraid to put down roots. He's not sure he wants to know. But, either way, it means their planning is done in Charles' office, though they usually sit side-by-side on the sofa as they work, neither fond of the implications of placing a desk between them.
"I have no idea what I'm doing," Erik says, frustrated. There are books piled around him, books he's read and enjoyed and now has to justify as essential texts. "I can't tell you why they should read these books, only that they should."
"You certainly can," Charles says. He's distracted, making hasty notes and corrections on some forms. "For example, if I were to say, 'I've never understood the necessity of including Moby Dick in the literary canon,' you would easily spend an hour telling me how utterly wrong I am." He scribbles one last note with a flourish and looks up, smiling. "You're passionate, Erik, incredibly so. That's the first step to teaching, you know. If you love something enough, it's not difficult to make others see the good in it."
Erik wonders, briefly, if that's why Charles keeps him around, if he hopes his own affection will rub off on the children. He dismisses it quickly. He gave up any rights to eliciting those emotions when he made Charles complicit in Shaw's murder.
"Well, they're not likely to listen to me at all anymore," he mutters. "The older children arrived a bit early for their lesson today and caught me tutoring Ororo. I doubt they'll take my instruction seriously after that."
"Why would you say that?" Charles asks. "That's your job, isn't it? To teach them? Surely seeing you teach other students mustn't be too jarring."
"I'm...different with the younger students," Erik says. He doesn't quite know how to explain it. "I teach them differently. They don't require quite as much steel. It's an entirely different approach, and now that the older children have seen that, I suppose I'm afraid they'll be immune to the severity I use in their lectures."
"The intimidation, you mean," Charles says with a half-smile. "I think it's the opposite, though." He places his hand on Erik's arm, just for a moment. "You don't need to intimidate them to teach them, Erik. There's no need for them to think you're so severe in order to get your point across. It just incites hard feelings. I think it's wonderful, helpful, even, for the older students to see you can be just as effective when you're gentle."
Erik rolls his eyes. "Yes, I'm sure they appreciate discovering weaknesses to exploit in order to undermine me in their own lessons."
"No, no, my friend," Charles says. "It's not a sign of weakness, not at all. It makes you human in their eyes."
"I am not human, however," Erik says. "So we're back to 'weakness,' it would seem."
"I apologize," Charles says. "It was a poor word choice. I mean to say, it makes you...they don't see you as so much of a villain, as such a--"
"Monster?" Erik asks, tone clipped and short. If Erik needed verification that Charles was not in his mind, the look of shock of Charles' face would have provided it.
"No," he says. "No, Erik, that's not what I was going to say."
"Why not?" Erik asks. "It's a legitimate concern, is it not? I murdered a man and paraded his body past a group of teenagers. I murdered a man and then told them it was the first step towards the future. I did it against your express orders, and now here I am, someone you used to call friend, shaping the future. Maybe this is the moment you've been waiting for to show them I'm fallible."
Erik doesn't know where the words come from. They're automatic, pouring out of his mouth, the word villain clanging around his mind sharp enough to make him wince. Charles' face is almost crumpled in on itself, and Erik hates that look, hates the disapproval and disappointment, but he also knows this is what's been building between them. This is what he's been waiting for since Shaw's death, this dismissal. This is what ruined any chance of--any chance of things he had hoped, for a few brief moments, would be waiting for him if they both survived Cuba. This is what's added this level of distance that didn't exist in their interactions prior to Shaw, prior to a murder, yes, but the murder of a man who murdered countless others, a man whom the world is much better off without.
Erik does not, cannot regret it, and if Charles can't accept that, then it's Charles' problem.
"Erik," Charles says, almost desperate. "You must know that's not--"
Erik can't listen to him plead. He can barely hear it over the rushing in his ears.
"I think we're done for tonight, don't you?" he says with finality.
Charles doesn't say anything out loud or even in his mind, but he doesn't need to. His eyes are saying enough on their own.
"Good night," Erik says, and he leaves the room, breathless, shaking, and wondering what comes next.
Erik spends a long time forcing his mind to clear itself before he can sleep, and when sleep does come, it's fleeting. Sometimes he's in the camp and sometimes he's on the beach and sometimes he's strapped to a table and sometimes he's drowning off the coast of Florida. Each time he wakes, blinks himself back to reality, and then forces himself to try and reclaim slumber. It won't do to look exhausted at the breakfast table; he doesn't want Charles to think he's losing sleep over their argument. He's not. At all. It's entirely unrelated.
He's understandably cranky, then, when there's a frantic knocking on his door in the small hours of the morning. He stays in bed, hoping it will go away, but it's persistent, so he pulls himself from his sweaty, tangled sheets, and opens the door.
Jean stands on the other side, cheeks tear-stained, holding a stuffed bear she had insisted, while unpacking, was just, you know, a dumb toy.
"Jean?" he asks. It comes out more aggravated than he intends, but he's tired and he has no idea what she wants.
"I can't sleep," she sniffs. "It's too quiet. I miss my mom and dad. I had a bad dream."
Erik sighs and rubs his face. This is really more Charles' department.
"Why don't you go see if Charles will make you a hot chocolate?" he asks. He's surprised Charles isn't up already. The man seems oddly attuned to their more violent nightmares, a side effect of his abilities that Erik does not envy.
"I can't find Charles," Jean says. The tears in her eyes are welling up again, threatening to overflow, which means Erik will have to comfort her, somehow. "He's gone."
"It's a big house, sweetheart," Erik says with a sigh, resigning himself to playing hide-and-seek with two telepaths, at least one of which he doesn't relish seeing until he's a little more put together. "He's probably just in another wing."
"No!" Jean insists. Her lower lip is wobbling. "He's not here! I looked for him, I looked with my mind and he's not here any more!" She bursts into tears.
Erik is too distracted by the spectacular waterworks to parse what Jean has said. He kneels down, hugging her and awkwardly stroking her hair, and only then does he realize what she means.
"You mean you looked for Charles telepathically and you couldn't find him?" he asks Jean, pulling back slightly.
"Yes!" Jean nearly shouts. "That's what I said! He's gone! And it's scary here and I miss my room and I miss my friends and I miss my mom and dad!"
Erik can't help but feel a bit overwhelmed. Jean won't stop crying, which is a slightly pressing matter in and of itself, but she must be mistaken. Charles wouldn't leave the house without telling anyone. Of course, since Erik had stormed off long before their customary nightcap, it was entirely possible he had told someone, just...not Erik.
And, really, that might solve all of his problems.
"Come on, sweetheart," Erik says, lifting the sobbing girl up and heading down the hall to Raven's room. He pauses outside of Charles' room. The door is open just enough for Erik to see that the bed is undisturbed, and something about it unsettles him even more than Jean's inability to locate his friend.
Raven's not exactly pleased to see them when she pulls open the door to her bedroom.
"What the hell do you want?" she growls. Erik thrusts Jean at her.
"Make her a hot chocolate or something," he says, and he doesn't have to be a telepath to know that she's thinking some very unflattering thoughts about him. "And, while you're at it, did Charles tell you he was going out?"
At eleven, Jean is just a little too big for Raven to lift, so Erik places the girl on the ground and presses her towards Raven, who strokes her hair soothingly while glaring at Erik.
"What do you mean?" she asks Erik. "Charles didn't say--Jean, honey, it's okay. Just...stop crying, okay? You're okay--Charles isn't here?"
"Jean says she couldn't find him telepathically," Erik explains.
"Well, if he was going to tell someone he was going out, I'd assume it would be you," Raven says. She raises an eyebrow, as if daring him to comment. Raven's always been just a little too shrewd about his relationship with Charles. He doesn't like the way she looks at them, like she knows more than he does. He wonders, sometimes, how she and Charles can both have that expression, even though they're not genetically related.
"We had a disagreement earlier. I'm not Charles' favorite person at the moment," he says.
Raven snorts, but says, "He didn't say anything to me. I'd say ask around, but it's three o'clock in the fu--f--darn morning."
The time is moot, however, with a sobbing child, and Raven and Erik haven't bothered to keep down their voices, so Erik scarcely has time to reply before another door is creaking open.
"Is something wrong?" Hank asks, fumbling to put on his glasses.
"Have you seen Charles?" Erik asks.
"No, it's the middle of the night," Hank practically growls. "I haven't seen anyone. I didn't really want to see anyone until breakfast."
"He's not here," Erik says. Jean is still crying, but whatever Raven is saying to her is calming her down somewhat. She's not quite as loud, which means he can shift his focus to figuring out where the fuck Charles is at three o'clock in the morning.
"Did you look?" Hank asks.
"No," Erik says. "Jean says she couldn't find him telepathically."
"Jean's telepathy is very weak, you know," Hank says. "At the moment, anyway. Charles has all but shut it off entirely until he can train her. All that's left is a weak channel to...."
"To him," Erik says when Hank goes quiet and concerned. "I know."
"It's possible he's shielding himself from her," Hank suggests, but his tone of voice makes it clear he's as ready to believe that as Erik is.
"Maybe he had a hot date."
Erik hadn't even noticed Alex joining them in the hall.
"And decided to leave and stay out all night without telling anyone?" Raven says. "You've met my brother, right?"
Jean's tears are tapering off, leaving the hallway in near silence.
"We look for him," Erik says with finality. "If he's on the property, we'll find him."
Alex and Raven both groan.
"It's the middle of the night!" Alex protests.
"If we do this and we find him having a drink on the other side of the house, I'm going to kill you," Raven mutters.
"Put Jean to bed," Erik tells her. "Get Sean and Angel. If we find him passed out somewhere, you can all sleep in tomorrow."
"It's Saturday," Alex says. "We were going to sleep in anyway."
"Well, there you go," Erik says. "No reason not to be up now, then."
It takes fifteen minutes for the older teens to congregate and, when they do, Jean and Scott are with them.
"She wouldn't go back to sleep," Raven tells him. "She said she wanted to help and then Scott heard the commotion...I thought it would be best to just bring them before they woke up Ororo."
Erik rubs the bridge of his nose, but nods. He's found some flashlights in one of the closets, and he hands them out to each of the children.
"Raven, it's your house," he says. "What do we need to cover?"
Raven directs them all to various corners of the house and grounds, allowing Jean and Scott to stay together and check the rooms in the wing they actually use. Sean is sent outside to avoid the dust in the unused areas--the last time he sneezed, he broke three windows. The rest of them split the untouched halls of the rest of the Xavier mansion, and Erik tries to blame the fear creeping up his spine on the draping sheets and collected cobwebs.
He goes through his allotted rooms twice. There's no sign anyone has set foot in them in years.
He's the last to return to the library, where they agreed to meet, and the fruitless search has made the children much more concerned than they were when they were pulled from their beds.
"I still say he went out," Alex says, but he doesn't sound as sure of himself as he did in the upstairs hall.
"There aren't any cars missing from the garage," Raven says. "I checked. And it's not like there's anywhere to go within walking distance."
It's now nearly five AM. Erik doesn't think he could go back to sleep if he tried. His last conversation with Charles won't stop running through his mind. He had no reason to lash out. It's all so stupid in retrospect. He knows Charles doesn't think he's a monster--at least, he thinks he knows. And even if he does, maybe Erik is a monster. Maybe he deserves it. Why the fuck did he have to say all of those things? Why did he walk away from the argument?
"Get a few hours of sleep," Erik says, finally. "There's nothing we can do until morning. Who knows? Maybe Alex is right. Maybe he'll walk in the door in a few hours' time."
They all look to the door expectantly, but it remains closed and quiet.
Angel's the first to leave, but for all her bravado, she looks unsettled. Sean and Alex are next, and Hank follows soon after, herding Jean and Scott with him.
Erik is alone with Raven.
"You're crazy if you think I'm sleeping knowing that Charles is missing," Raven says, crossing her arms and dropping to the sofa. "And I know you're not either, so what are you planning?"
"I don't know," Erik admits.
He hates even saying the words. He spent the majority of his life meticulously carrying out a great many plans; he hunted down so many people for revenge that it began to feel like second nature. But it's over, now. He's gotten Shaw. He's stayed still for longer than he has since childhood and he's not sure how to start moving again.
He can't waste time despairing, though. This is Charles, and Charles is everything.
"Who knows where we are?" Erik asks Raven, even as he's cataloging the list in his mind.
"Um," Raven says. "We have a couple distant cousins. Matilda, who used to be the maid when we were kids, still lives nearby and Charles went to see her at Christmas. There's--well. I mean, Cain, but he wouldn't dare. And there's no way he could get Charles out of here without a ruckus."
"Cain?" Erik asks.
"It's not him," Raven says, clearly aware she hasn't actually answered the question. "He wouldn't even be able to get in the front door without someone hearing it."
Not for the first time, Erik wishes he had Charles' power. Not many things can put that haunted look on Raven's face, and Erik is incredibly curious, but it will have to wait. Because Raven has a point.
"He wouldn't leave with a stranger without alerting us," Erik says. "And I doubt someone could take him without him getting a message off first. But I bet if someone he trusted told them they needed him right away, he could be persuaded against leaving a note."
"Matilda is in her sixties," Raven says doubtfully. "And he'd think something was up if one of our cousins showed up in the middle of the night after basically shunning us after his mom's funeral."
Raven's right. There aren't many people Charles would trust enough to run away with so quickly, and those he would are all accounted for.
"I told him not to trust her," Erik growls, getting to his feet. "I told him humans couldn't be trusted to accept us. I told him to cut ties."
"What are you talking about?" Raven asks, following him out of the library and back up the stairs. "Erik, who--"
"Moira MacTaggert," he snaps. "The CIA has Charles."
"This is crazy, Erik!" Raven says as Erik throws on clothes. He doesn't have any clean trousers, but he'll settle for any trousers. Where the hell did he put the ones he was wearing that morning? "Moira's our friend! She wouldn't take Charles! She likes Charles!"
"She wasn't our friend, Raven, she was our keeper," Erik tells her, pulling a dark turtleneck over his head. "She works for the CIA. Even if she wanted to keep the secret, I'm sure they have ways of extracting it from her. She was a liability, but your idiot brother can't help but see the good in people." He spits it out with disdain. He hasn't felt a rage like this, a fear like this since that day on the beach in Cuba, and while the heat coursing through his veins is familiar, the situation is making his stomach turn. The government has Charles. The government has Charles and they're going to take him apart, they going to test him and experiment on him and hurt him, that stupid fucking--
"You're wrong," Raven says. "She did care. She stuck with us, even when everyone else turned on us, Moira--"
"Save it, Raven," Erik says. "She has him or she knows who does and I'm going to get him back."
He elbows past her, fully dressed, and she rushes to follow.
"Then take me with you, at least!" Raven pleads. "Erik, you have to. He's--it's Charles."
"No," Erik says. "I do this alone."
"He's my friend!" Raven insists. "He's my brother! You can't just--"
"I can," Erik says. "I will. I'm going to do this." And maybe Charles is rubbing off on him, because instead of leaving it at that or restraining her physically, he adds, "If something happens to me, I need to know there's someone here to watch the rest of the kids, to find another way to get Charles back. Can you do that, Raven?"
She's not happy, but she nods, crossing her arms.
"Good," he says. "Now. I know Charles. He must have her address somewhere."
"Middle drawer of his desk," Raven says. "That's where he keeps his address book, anyway."
"Thank you, Raven," Erik says, even though his feet want to be moving away, descending the stairs, getting away from New York and moving towards Virginia as fast as possible. "And, please, keep this quiet. When the rest of them wake up, just tell them I went out to look for Charles. Hopefully we'll be home before tomorrow. If you don't hear from me in two days...."
He doesn't know what instruction to give. They've only got each other, really, the ten of them against a world that would gladly exterminate them, given the chance.
"I'll be back before then," he finally says.
"You'd better be," Raven says. She tucks her hair behind her ear and shivers. "Be safe, Erik, please. And bring Charles home."
"I will," he promises.
He takes the stairs two at a time and doesn't look back.
The trip from Westchester to Virginia goes by in record time. It's easy to speed by patrolling police officers when you can stop their engine and scramble their radio without slowing down. He knows he should be more subtle, that he used to be brilliant at the slow, steady hunt, at meticulously making sure things are in place before attacking, but this is different. This isn't the slow burn of hunting down Shaw, this is saving Charles' life while he still can, this is preventing Charles from meeting the same end as his mother.
He wasn't strong enough back then. This time, no one is going to touch what's his.
He leaves the car--Charles' car--on the street around the corner from Moira's apartment. It's still early for a Saturday in this residential neighborhood, and Erik doesn't pass anyone as he stalks down the sidewalk. He still hasn't decided what he'll do once he finds Moira, if she's even in. If she has Charles, she's probably at the CIA building, but maybe something in her apartment will give her away, leave some clue as to how to find her, how to find Charles, how to end this once and for all.
The elevator creaks as it pulls him up to the third floor and he fists his hands when he realizes the doors and walls are bowing outward. When the doors open, it's to an empty hall and Erik just barely resists crushing each and every doorknob and light fixture as he walks by.
The locks on the door to Moira's apartment do not stop him. He slams the door open without touching it, the metal on the fixtures singing to him as he shoves them as far out of the way as they'll go.
He strides through the small apartment, noting nothing save for where he can feel there are weapons hidden. The bedroom is in the back, and when Erik slams that door open as well, he's face to face with a pistol.
As if that can stop him.
"Lehnsherr?" Moira gasps, even as Erik is ripping the weapon from her hands and flinging it uselessly behind him. "What the hell--"
She's dressed for bed; there's no metal on her person. That doesn't stop him from using the electrical cords from the lamps to pull her to the ground and secure her to the floor.
"Where is Charles?" Erik hisses.
Moira stares at him. She's obviously frightened, but she hides it well, much better than most humans.
"I should be asking you that!" she shouts. "You disappear? You wipe my memories? I thought we were on the same side!"
"Then maybe you should have thought twice before taking Charles!"
Erik can't kill her if there's a possibility she can lead him to Charles, but he wants to, oh, he wants to. He didn't care for her one way or the other when she was working with them, but knowing she's complicit in taking perhaps the one mutant in the world who would have gone willingly, knowing she's stolen Charles from them, it makes his hands shake with the need to wrap one of those wires around her throat.
"I didn't take Charles!" Moira says. "I don't know where he is! I haven't known since you wiped my memories! I can't even remember what happened in Cuba!"
Erik hesitates for just a moment, but it's enough. Before he has time to react, Moira kicks his feet out from under him. He falls to the ground and her bonds fall with him, leaving her enough time to grab a baseball bat from under her bed.
Wood, of course. Smart girl, is the last thing he thinks before she knocks him out.
When Erik comes to, he's in a tiny cramped room. His wrists and ankles are tied, and they're tied well. Moira is standing over him, holding the bat. She's put on regular clothes and is standing with her back to the wall, leaving only inches between her toes and Erik's outstretched legs.
They're in a closet. It's been emptied of clothes and hangers. She really is a smart girl. He can, of course, pull the nails from the walls, slam any of the myriad of metal objects through the door, but he pauses. Moira could have brought him to the CIA, could have killed him with that bat instead of knocking him out. She didn't.
He wants to believe she took Charles, if only because it's an easy solution, it's the solution that gets them all home in time for dinner, hardly worse for the wear. But the confusion on Moira's face was genuine, he could tell. Charles did wipe her memories. Even after all his points about her loyalty to them, he quietly took Erik's advice and erased her mind to preserve their anonymity.
Charles' faith in her leaves Erik resigned to hear her out.
"You're awake," she says. She's not smug or even nervous. She's simply stating a fact.
"I am," Erik says. The metal filaments in the sheet rock call out to him, but he doesn't move, save to turn his face towards hers.
"Whatever it is Charles did to my mind, I broke it," she tells him. "Just now, while you were unconscious. I remember. I can't say I'm thrilled, but I understand his intentions. I'm sure if the CIA had access to something that could wipe people's memories, we'd do it twenty times a day."
Erik says nothing.
"Why are you here, Erik? Where's Charles?" she asks.
"I'm here to find Charles," Erik says. "He went missing some time last night. I came here to find him."
"You think I took him." It's not a question.
"Yes." Erik does not break eye contact. He's not ashamed of his assumption.
"I didn't," she says needlessly. "I don't know where he is and I doubt the CIA has him. They're still reeling from Frost's escape and haven't figured out how best to--"
Erik sits up. "Emma Frost escaped the CIA?" he asks. Moira nods, adjusting her grasp on the baseball bat, but not putting it down.
"Yeah, months ago. The end of November. No one can figure out how she did it, and even if they did know where Charles was, even if they would kidnap him, they wouldn't do it until they figured out a way to hold him." She sounds bitter as she says it, and Erik remembers, perhaps for the first time since that day, that Moira was trapped on that beach with them as well.
Frost is a player that Erik hadn't factored into his theories about Charles' disappearance. The teleporter and Shaw's other underling had borne Erik, Charles, and the children no ill will in the aftermath of Shaw's death, disappearing together without a word after everyone had gotten to safety. Erik had assumed they were too directionless to seek them out, had assumed they had an unspoken understanding. But if Frost is out there, they have a leader again, someone with her share of reasons to hate Erik and Charles, and the game has changed.
"Frost has Charles," Erik says quickly, struggling against his bonds for the first time. "Frost has Charles and probably a teleporter--she could be anywhere, she could have him anywhere."
"Hey!" Moira says, waving the bat threateningly. "A minute ago you were positive the CIA had him."
"That was before I knew Frost was free," Erik says. If he didn't think that Moira would brain him with the bat before he could break through the closet door, he would already be summoning a knife to cut his bonds. "Let me out. This changes everything."
"You break into my apartment, destroy my belongings, and attack me and you expect me to just let you out?" Moira says.
Erik grows impatient.
"Moira, given half a chance, I can summon every wire, every support, every weapon in this building. I can crush you where you stand."
Moira holds her ground, still hefting the bat.
"Maybe," she says. "But maybe I can get you first."
"Moira," Erik says. He holds his chin up. He's not pleading, he's reasoning. "It's Charles. Charles is the lynchpin in this whole truce. If we lose Charles, we lose everything."
He can see Moira's resolve wavering. She has a soft spot for Charles and he can't blame her; they all have a soft spot for Charles. Charles, who is an insufferable, naive, sanctimonious ass, is also impossible not to like.
"If we do this," Moira says slowly, "We do this. You don't get to run off back to New York without me. Charles was my friend too, and I can help."
Erik glares at her, even as he's aware of time continuing to pass too quickly. Frost has had Charles for hours already. She could have done anything to him.
"Charles wants anonymity, Erik," Moira says. "It's why he wiped my memory. If you go running out into the world, blowing up everything in your wake, do you really think you'll have a school to come back to? Let me help. I have contacts. I have ways of finding things out. I know people." She sighs and lowers the bat. "It won't be the CIA, Erik. This is off the record. This is just me."
Erik likes to think there's always a choice, but he's also intelligent enough to understand that there's such a thing as a stupid choice. He could destroy the building. He could escape and go after Frost without Moira's help. But he's not alone anymore; he has people who depend on him, people who would be targeted and hurt in retaliation.
"Fine," he says. "Now untie me. We need to get back to New York as soon as possible."
There's an endless second when Erik fears Moira will change her mind, but she lets the bat clatter to the floor and then kneels down to untie his ankles.
"How do I know you won't double cross me?" Moira asks as she helps him to his feet to reach his wrists.
"You know the answer to your question, or else you wouldn't be untying me," Erik points out. "We'll just have to trust each other."
Moira rolls her eyes at that, clearly skeptical. At least they're on the same page, then.
They waste five precious minutes arguing over whose car to take. Moira thinks her government plates will deter police. Erik refuses to use a vehicle that can be tracked so easily. She finally gives in and follows him down to the street with an overnight bag, a cardboard box she keeps mum about, and two handguns, placing all of it in the back seat of the car, save for one of the guns holstered at her hip.
"I could still call in a few favors and get us a chopper," she says wistfully as Erik pulls away from the curb. Erik appreciates her need for haste--he yearns for it himself--but says nothing. If they're going to do this subtly, stealing helicopters from the government should not be their first act.
It's a five hour drive to Westchester, during which they barely speak to each other. They're not friends--there's no need for pleasantries. They make a brief stop in southern New Jersey, and while Moira pays for gas, Erik scrounges together enough change to place a call to the house.
It's Raven's voice, but she's shouting over a cacophony in the background. He can pick out two of the boys yelling, though it could be any of them. Someone's crying, either Ororo or Jean, and Erik rests his forehead against the phone booth in exasperation. They need to get Charles back. There's no way Erik can run this school on his own.
"Raven," he says.
"Erik! Thank god! Is Charles with you? Is he okay?" Raven asks in a rush. "Oh, please tell me he's okay."
Erik takes a deep breath.
"Raven, the CIA didn't have Charles," Erik says. "I'm with Moira. We're on our way back to the mansion."
"What?! What? Erik, what do you mean? Where's Charles?"
"I'll get you up to speed when we get back," Erik says. "We'll be there in about three hours."
"Erik--Erik, Ororo won't stop crying, it's like monsoon season outside, Alex and Scott got into a fight, then Alex and Angel got into a fight and--"
"Three hours, Raven," Erik says, and hangs up before she can protest further.
Moira's waiting for him at the car, leaning on the driver's side door.
"Did you tell her we still can't find her brother?" Moira asks.
"I'll tell her the details when we get to the school," Erik says. "It sounds like she's already got her hands full."
He looks at Moira expectantly, but she doesn't move.
"And now we should get going," he says.
"And I can't drive?" Moira asks.
"No," Erik says, and elbows her out of the way.
Another three hours until they can do anything. They've wasted enough time as it is.
They make it to the mansion in two and a half hours, though they almost skid off the road twice in the two mile stretch leading up to the house. Raven was right about Ororo's displeasure. The storm shakes the vehicle and the rain is coming sideways. When Erik finally parks, he and Moira have to run through the torrential downpour to the front steps and fight to pull the door open in the fierce winds.
Erik's spent the last two hours planning their next steps, but stopping the hurricane outside suddenly takes precedence. He follows the sound of the arguing and wailing until he finds the students gathered in the library. No one is physically assaulting anyone, a small miracle, but everyone's voices are raised, save for Jean, who has her hands over her ears.
"Quiet!" he shouts and it has the desired effect. Even Ororo hiccups and then launches herself from the couch towards Erik.
"Erik!" she says, throwing her arms around his legs. "You weren't here! And Charles isn't here and everyone is yelling and--and you weren't here!"
"I'm sorry," Erik says, stroking her hair, "but I'm here now, all right? And I'm okay and you're okay, so can you calm down?"
This is Charles' strength, usually, but he's had it used on him enough times that he's learning the basics.
"Take a deep breath, Ororo," he says, and as Ororo's sobs become sniffles, the winds and rains stop ravaging the house. "Good girl."
He turns his attention to the other children, frowning.
"Charles and I have been gone ten hours and this is what you turn into? Screaming, arguing, fighting amongst yourselves? Have you learned nothing in the past months? You're useless if you can't even work with each other!"
"We were--" Alex starts to say.
"I don't care," Erik snaps. "If you're not going to help, leave now. We have grown-up things to discuss."
Alex glares at him defiantly, but he doesn't move. No one does. If Charles were here, he'd chastise Erik, tell him to be easier on the children, remind him that they're still young, still learning, still (mostly) innocent. Charles is missing, though, so they'll be doing this Erik's way.
"Fine," Erik says. "Emma Frost is no longer in the custody of the CIA. She escaped in November. She's taken Charles."
There are gasps and murmurings among the ranks.
"Where does she have him?" Raven asks. "How did she take him? How are we getting him back?"
"We don't know," Moira says before Erik can respond, and the children blink, as if noticing her for the first time. "We have some--"
"Thank you," Erik says crisply. "I think I'll handle briefing my students." Moira looks at him coolly, but says nothing further. "Moira is correct. We don't know the full extent of Frost's power or if she's picked up where Shaw left off and recruited his lackeys to assist her."
"Then how do we even know she's the one who took him?" Sean asks.
"Because people like Frost can't see things Charles' way," Erik says. "Frost doesn't want humans and mutants co-existing; she wants humans wiped off the face of the Earth. And, right now? With mutants still in hiding? Charles is the only thing standing in her way, and he's already angered her by stopping her once. She wants him out of the picture before he can do it again."
"How do you know that?" Scott asks. The children are all staring at him, save Raven and Angel, who can't meet his eyes.
"Because I understand where she's coming from," Erik says in a tone that allows for no further argument.
"Okay," Raven says, finally meeting his eyes again. "How do we find them?"
That's the part that will be a little more difficult. But he's in charge now and there are eight children looking to him for guidance. Two months ago, he would have said, I have no idea, but he's starting to understand the role Charles has taken on, the need to walk a line between fabrication and honesty in order to keep the others from falling into despair.
"I might be able to help there," Moira says, and though Erik wants to glare at her again for interrupting, he can't help but appreciate the assistance. "Officially, I've been taken off the mutant case. Unofficially, I spent a long time tracking Shaw and the Hellfire Club and I have a lot of contacts that are still willing to chat every so often. If Frost is using the contacts she made through Shaw, there's a possibility we can track her that way."
It's a fair point, and one that Erik hadn't thought of. "I might have some names to add to that list," he says. Not many--most people he spoke with during his search ended up dead. But there are at least three people in the world who are alive and owe him favors; it might be time to collect.
They all turn to look at Angel.
"I wasn't with him for a very long time, but I can probably give you a list of some of the places we went," she says. She holds her head high, defiantly challenging the rest to comment. "A lot of times, Azazel just poofed us to wherever we wanted to go, but I paid attention to some of the destinations."
"Thank you," Erik says, and she nods stiffly in response. It's a temporary truce, but if the information she has is good, maybe he'll consider extending it after Charles is home safe.
"Why don't we move this to one of the classrooms or the lab?" Hank suggests. "It will give us more room to spread out. We can break into teams, come up with lists, see if anyone else has any other ideas."
"Fine," Erik says. "We'll reconvene in the lab. Angel, if you'll ready your list. Moira, I'm assuming you'll be needing the box in the back of the car? I need to collect some things myself. Scott, Jean, Ororo--find something to amuse yourselves--"
"No!" Scott insists, jumping to his feet. "We want to help!"
"We can help find Charles," Jean agrees. "We're not babies."
"Is Charles coming home soon?" Ororo asks, arms still wrapped around Erik's legs, staring up at him.
Erik sighs and counts to ten, another one of Charles' asinine tricks.
"Charles will be home very soon," he assures Ororo. He refuses to lie to her, so it becomes an oath to himself as well. "We'll see how helpful you three can be," he adds, addressing the other two as well. "For now, help Alex make lunch and then bring it to the lab."
"Why do I--"
A single look quells Alex's protest.
"Now, please," he says, and everyone gets to their feet and begins to move.
"Ororo, you have to let me go," Erik says. He wants to be gentle with her, but his entire being is nearly vibrating with the need to sprint into action. His words come out more clipped than intended, but Ororo doesn't flinch.
"You said you and Charles wouldn't leave and you both left!" she exclaims. Erik rubs his face. He's exhausted, too exhausted to explain the reality of the situation to a child.
"Ororo," he says on a sigh. "I--sometimes Charles and I are going to have to go away. Just for a little while. It doesn't mean we're not--I'm going to bring Charles home, okay? Didn't I come home after I left this morning?"
"Well, I'm going to bring Charles home too. Soon. And I might have to leave again for a little while, but I'll come back. Okay?"
She nods again and slowly lets go of his leg.
"Good, now go find Jean and Scott and Alex and help with lunch," he says, relieved.
"Okay!" And she's off down the hallway, looking remarkably cheerful. Sometimes he envies her ability to bounce back so quickly.
Moira is standing by the door with her eyebrows raised.
"What?" he asks.
"Nothing," she says. "I'm just surprised. The last time I saw you, you had just pushed a kid off a satellite dish. Some time in the last few months you've started to actually care about people."
"I knew he wouldn't fall," Erik mutters. "And just because I don't spew compliments needlessly at every turn doesn't mean I don't care. I want all of them to succeed. The older ones need to be pushed. The younger ones just need a slightly different approach."
"Huh," Moira says. "I can almost see what Charles sees in you."
Before he can respond, she turns her back and walks away. He watches her for a moment, turning that comment over in his brain. Finally, he shakes his head clear and heads for his bedroom. He still has a briefcase filled with notes about Schmidt. Hopefully there will be something that will lead them to Charles.
Erik perhaps should have thought things through before sending the youngest pupils to make lunch. When he arrives at Hank's lab, there's a tray of peanut butter sandwiches waiting for them and little else. Angel is talking to Moira, who is unpacking the cardboard box she retrieved from the car. Hank is clearing table space and the others are helping as best they can, though it seems like more of a hindrance than anything else.
"No, no, Scott, leave that one for me--Sean! I'll get that one, too! Jean! Please don't touch that!"
Erik ignores them. Hank will keep them from touching anything too dangerous. Probably.
"What have we come up with?" Erik asks Moira and Angel, setting his briefcase down next to Moira's box.
"Not too much yet," Moira says. "We need to sort through this and make some phone calls." She glances at the chaos surrounding Hank and his other projects. "I'd prefer if the older students helped with that."
"Fine," Erik says. "You can have Raven and Alex, and Angel as well, as soon as she's done writing down every place Shaw took her and every person she came in contact with. Hank and Sean can help me. I'll...find something for the others to do that won't be too destructive."
"Can the little one read?" Moira asks.
"Not well, not yet," Erik says. "She's making remarkable strides for a child her age in her circumstances, but she's still only--" He stops when he sees Moira's skeptical expression, swallows back the pride in his student. "Not well enough to be of any help with this," he repeats, gesturing towards the stacks of papers in the box.
"I have a shoebox full of stake-out photos she can sort," Moira says. "We don't actually need them, but it will keep her busy. I can give the older two some transcripts and they can highlight names and places Shaw mentions."
"Thank you," Erik says. "I would send them away, but I'm afraid they'd try to help on their own, and I can't imagine what sort of trouble they'd cause doing it."
"Yeah," Moira says. "I know. I have a niece and nephew. I've seen it in action."
As the ruckus surrounding Hank and the others dies down, Erik clears his throat.
"Jean, Scott, Ororo," he says. "I don't believe you've been properly introduced. This is Charles' friend, Moira. The three of you are going to help her sort through some things that might help us find Charles. Alex, Raven--you talk to Moira as well. She'll need your help making some calls. Hank, find me a map of the world and some pins, then you and Sean join me."
The children nod and break into their groups. Erik half listens as Moira begins instructing the younger students on their task and sends them to the corner to work quietly, armed with some highlighters. Hank talks briefly to Sean, who disappears from the lab with a brief, worried look at Erik. Moira hands Alex and Raven each a thick manila folder and asks them to look through for any mentions of Frost as she gets her list of contacts together.
Erik spies a wheeled blackboard and pulls it over. The front side is covered in equations, but the back side is blank.
"Okay to use this?" he asks Hank as he approaches the table Moira and Erik have claimed.
"Sure," Hank says. "Just flip it."
Erik gestures for Moira to take the other side, loosening the screw, but she pauses at a diagram drawn near the top.
"Are you starting the Cerebro program again?" she asks. She runs her fingers over the familiar sphere.
"Yes, actually," Hank says. "We've put it on hold for the moment. We need to fine-tune some things. But I've been working on getting the actual interface up and running. It's how we found Jean and Scott and Ororo."
"And of course we can't use it to locate Charles because Charles is the one who can use it," Moira says with a sigh. "Where's a telepath when you need one?"
Erik is about to roll his eyes at her weak joke, when he catches a flash of Jean's hair as she gets up to help herself to another sandwich. Hank must follow his gaze, because he says, "No. No. Absolutely not. You can't, Erik."
"She is telepathic, Hank," Erik says.
"She's a child!" Hank insists. "And that aside, you know she doesn't have full faculty of her telepathy! There's a reason Charles cordoned off that part of her powers!"
"But she does have a connection to Charles," Erik says. "That's all she needs, isn't it?"
"It's an incredibly complex machine!" Hank sputters. "Charles was more than twice her age when he first used it and do you remember what happened the first time?"
"He pin-pointed half a dozen mutants," Erik says.
"And then passed out as soon as I turned the machine off!" Hank yells. He makes an imposing figure, now, with his fur and teeth and the way he can growl, but Erik doesn't flinch. "We're not strapping a child into a prototype machine that she doesn't even know how to use--that we don't even know how to use!"
Erik's going to shout right back, when suddenly Jean is there, looking up at Hank with those huge green eyes.
"No," she says, "I want to help. If I can help, I'll use Cerebro to find the Professor."
"She's willing to try it," Erik says, crossing his arms.
"Jean, it's not that--I know you want to help," Hank says, kneeling down to her level. "But you can't use Cerebro. It's not complete. And it could really hurt you. The Professor wouldn't want that." He gives Erik a significant look. "And neither would Erik. We can find Charles some other way."
"But--" Jean starts to say.
"If she thinks she can do it, it makes sense--"
Moira grabs his arm and yanks him back. Hard. His first instinct is to use his powers to drag her away, but, unbelievably, she's wearing no metal. Her gun and holster are gone and she has no jewelry, no zippers, not even a filling he can use to pull her back. She smirks at his confusion.
"I wanted to be prepared," she says quiet enough that the others can't hear. "But, Erik, that is a little girl. A little girl trusted into your care. You can't have her use a machine that might fry her brain when we don't even know if it will work. I know you want to find Charles. I know what he means to you. I understand, I do, but do you really think this is how he'd want to be found?"
Erik yanks his arm away, but doesn't meet her eyes. She's right and he knows it and he hates it. Charles would never condone it. Hell, Erik barely condoned Charles using the machine the first time. He doesn't know what he was thinking except he does, he does know, and that almost makes it worse. He shouldn't be putting Charles above the students. He shouldn't be putting Charles above everything else, and yet, that's what he's doing, what he's done.
"You're right," he says to Hank. "I'm sorry." Turning to Jean he says, "Hank's right, Jean. It's not safe. You'll get hurt and Charles wouldn't want that. We have lots of other ways of finding him."
They don't. They have nothing. They have lists of names and telephone numbers and places where Frost might have been with Shaw, but nothing on Frost in her own right.
"Go back to what you were doing," Erik tells Jean. "We'll call you when we need your help."
Jean is hesitant, but she returns to the corner where Ororo and Scott are warily watching the scene unfold. Everyone, Erik realizes, is staring at them. There's a part of him that would feel ashamed at the scene, if he wasn't so consumed by anger and desperation.
"You have your tasks! Get back to work!" he barks, and opens his briefcase to do so himself.
Erik makes three threatening phone calls in three different languages and spends at least an hour pouring over his notes, a pen spinning rapidly in the air over his head, the only outlet for his growing frustration. Moira sends Raven, Angel, and Alex running back and forth to use other telephones as she sits on the floor in a circle of grainy mimeographs and blurry photographs, putting together some sort of time line that Erik can't interpret. The room is tense and mostly quiet, save for Erik's low, menacing voice on the phone as the hours tick by and they're no closer to finding Charles.
The sun is setting when Erik hits his big break. He's on the phone with a woman talking in frustrated circles. Her Spanish is bad and his Portuguese is worse, but between the two of them, he's able to cobble together the fact that his contact has disappeared and his lingering debts were paid with a check from a gentleman named Harry Leland.
"Gracias," he says abruptly, hanging up before she can respond. He knows he's heard the name before and his fingers shift through his notes, just as Raven bursts into the room. She's been gone for longer than usual and the triumphant look on her face starts a thrum of hope in the back of Erik's mind that he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge.
"I've got a name!" she says, waving a piece of paper. "Milton Nix is dead, but his sister, Janine, also worked with Shaw and since he left Vegas last April, she's been working for his replacement."
"'Replacement?'" Moira asks, getting to her feet.
"Yeah, he took over the place the Hellfire Club used to be," Raven says. "His name is Harry Leland."
Erik stands as well.
"One of my contacts had his mess in Rio cleaned up by a man named Harry Leland," he says.
"Shaw made some comments about a Harry," Angel says. "He never said his last name, but just things like how everything went more smoothly without Harry. Stuff like that."
Moira is already bent over her box, paging through her files.
"Harry Leland," she murmurs. "Harry Leland."
Erik speeds up his own search, finally locating a page in one of his notebooks and tearing it out.
"Harry Leland did some business deals with Shaw in New York four years ago," Erik reads. "I went to New York to find him and got a different lead and headed off to Guadalajara before I could track him down."
"He was a corporate lawyer," Moira says, reading off of a file she's pulled out of the crate. "He spent some time at a social club with Shaw and his cronies right around the time you said. He relocated to Vegas two years ago. He was spotted around the Hellfire Club and with Shaw on and off, but we couldn't find any connections to the communist group we were investigating and we eventually dropped it."
She holds up a photo of a portly man in an expensive suit and Ororo says, "Oh! Oh!"
Ororo shuffles through the photos neatly piled around her and proudly holds up one of Leland with Frost on his arm.
It's all Erik needs to see.
He slams shut his briefcase and picks it up, heading for the door.
"Wait! Erik!" Moira says.
"Where are you going?" Raven asks.
"Las Vegas, obviously," Erik says without looking at her.
"You can’t just storm in there," Moira says and she grabs his arm, pulling him back with surprising strength. Still, he's much bigger than she is and it takes little effort to twist her grip around and shove her against the wall.
"That's twice today you've grabbed me," he says quietly, dangerously. "The first time was in defense of a child, so I'll allow it. This is your warning--do not touch me again."
"I'll touch you as much as I need to in order to get you to listen to reason," Moira says. Erik shouldn't be impressed by her candor, but he is. "This is foolish, Erik. You can't just storm in there. You need a plan. You need to sleep."
"I'll sleep when I find Charles," he says.
"You'll fall asleep halfway through your two day drive to Las Vegas, crash your car and die in a ditch," Moira says. "You were at my apartment at nine am. You told me you noticed Charles missing around three. Are you honestly going to tell me you've slept at all in the past two days?"
"I went to bed early and slept until Jean woke me at three," Erik says through gritted teeth. He wonders why he's even bothering appeasing her.
"Yeah, after a fight with Charles," Raven says. He spares her a glance. She's standing to his left, blocking the door, with her hands on her hips. "You can't tell me you didn't toss and turn all night, wondering if he was pissed at you."
When Erik looks back to Moira, she's giving him a calculating look that he's not sure he likes, like something is suddenly much clearer to her. Just for that, he continues to pin her against the wall.
"You spent seventeen years tracking Shaw," Moira says evenly. "You know how this works. You can't run in without being prepared. We need to take the night. Come up with a plan. Eat. Sleep. That way, we can be on our game when it counts."
Erik slowly releases Moira. She has a point. It's like he's forgotten everything he learned over those seventeen years, everything about the careful strategy of the hunt. It's his fucking attachment to Charles Xavier. No one should be allowed to get under his skin this completely.
"'We?'" he asks warily once he's stepped back from Moira.
"You promised," Moira reminds him. "We do this together. I'm the one who knows how to get into the Hellfire Club--I've been in there before. I'm the one with the contacts. Besides, with two of us, we can drive in shifts. We'll get there that much faster."
Erik looks around. The children are staring at him again. He can tell they're anxious, almost frightened. He's a terrible role model, and he needs to get Charles back, if only because he's likely to turn them all to a life of brutal violence otherwise.
"We eat. We sleep. We leave at five am," Erik says shortly. "Not a minute later, so be prepared."
"Fine," Moira says. "If you'll excuse me, I have to make some phone calls." She brushes herself off casually, as if he hadn't just slammed her into a wall, and starts to leave the lab with her head held high. She pauses, hand on the door, and adds of her shoulder, "There's a dress code for the club. If we're going to infiltrate it, we need to blend in. Bring a suit." And then she's gone.
The children are still staring at him.
"Sean! Angel!" he barks. "Your turn to make dinner. The rest of you--clean up."
"What are you going to do?" Raven asks, hands still on her hips.
"I have some preparations of my own to do," Erik says.
He elbows past her and doesn't look back.
While Erik acknowledges that, despite what they've seen, the children are still children, Charles is the one who enforces a routine that includes a reasonable bedtime. Erik can't be bothered with policing them so closely, but tonight he finds himself pacing Charles' office, waiting for the sound of the television turning off and a parade of footsteps towards the bedrooms.
It feels like a lifetime passes before the house settles into quiet, and even then, there's a soft sound in the hallway in counterpoint to his own pacing.
"What do you want, Raven?" he finally asks.
If Raven is embarrassed at being caught, it doesn't show on her face as she joins him in her brother's study. She's dressed in a nightgown and her terry cloth dressing gown, open at the waist as she worries the belt between her fingers. He's reminded of the night before the battle, when she offered herself to him in a childish attempt at getting even with Hank, with Charles. He shakes his head at the memory.
"I don't know," she says. "I just...I'm worried. What if this Leland guy doesn't have him? What if you can't find him? What if something happens to you too?"
This is the point, Erik knows, when Charles would be comforting the girl. He's seen them together too many times to count, at this point, seen the easily familiarity, the way that Charles doesn't hesitate to hug her or kiss her temple or stroke her hair while murmuring comforting words. What Raven needs right now, what she wants, is Charles to reassure her.
Erik doesn't know what he can give her. He's not very good at reassurance.
"I'll find him," Erik says. "If Leland doesn't know how to find him, I'll figure out who does. I won't come back without your brother, Raven."
"I know you won't," Raven says. "I know you--" She laughs, but it's a choked, sad kind of laugh. "I was so jealous. I'm sure you knew. The only reason Charles didn't was because Charles was always too stupid to see--anyway. I was so jealous of how much he loves you, at first, but...it's good. It's better this way. Because he's a better brother than anything else, really. And because I know you can do it. I know you can get him back. I don't think that I could."
Erik is at a loss. Denial rests on the tip of his tongue, but he doesn't have it in him to pretend right now, to act like he doesn't care for Charles. It doesn't seem fair to Charles, fair to Raven, or fair to himself.
"Raven," he says, carefully. "Charles and I...."
He trails off, helplessly. He doesn't want to lie, but he doesn't know how to explain their relationship, to tell her that he loves Charles, he does, in ways he didn't think he could love another person, but that Charles doesn't feel that way about him, not any more. He doesn't want to shatter her illusion, to make her think that he won't be doing everything he can to get her brother back.
Charles is so much better at this sort of thing.
Raven saves him from explaining himself by stepping forward and hugging him, wrapping him in a loose embrace and pressing her face to his shoulder. He pats her back, awkwardly, and waits for her to come to her senses and release him.
"Sorry," she says, but she doesn't look like she really means it. "Just be careful. None of us can do this without you, okay? I mean, can you imagine Hank and me trying to run the school?"
It's a terrible joke, but Erik forces a half smile and that seems to satisfy her.
"Check in along the way, let us know how you're doing, okay?" she says.
"I'll try," Erik says. For some reason, it's easier to lie about this.
"Good night, Erik," Raven says, and she leaves him alone with Charles' things to strategize and worry and pray.
Erik packs his things--a single, small duffel bag--and sets an alarm for three forty-five. He gets up soundlessly and dresses in the dark, before gathering his briefcase and his bag and sneaking down the stairs. He's learned, by now, which floor boards squeak and which stairs to avoid, and he makes it out of the house and to the garage while the children continue to sleep deeply.
He can't help but smile to himself as he creeps across the frozen lawn. For all her CIA training, apparently Moira MacTaggert isn't as sharp as she'd like him to think. He'll have an hour head start by five AM, and hopefully she'll decide not to bother giving chase, that it will be better for Erik to do this on his own.
"Nice to see you're as much of an early bird as I am."
Moira is leaning on the least flashy of the many Xavier automobiles, her jacket tightly belted at the waist and her belongings neatly piled next to the car. She's smiling smugly, and Erik hates her as much as he admires her.
"Wanted to make sure I wasn't late," she says dryly. "But if you're already here, I don't see why we can't leave now."
"Get in the car," Erik grumbles.
"Of course," Moira says. She holds out a thermos. "Coffee?"
Erik ignores her. He doesn't know that even he can manage to ignore her for the next forty hours, but he can certainly try.
The last time Erik was in a car for this long, he was with Charles. They were on their recruitment trip, driving from state to state, arguing companionably over philosophy and music and accommodations, rolling down the windows and basking in the freedom of the highway, the joy of knowing they weren't alone.
It was very different from his current trip.
Moira tries to initiate conversation for the first three hours of their drive, through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. She talks idly about how much the children have grown, vague stories about missions she's taken with the CIA, musings on the landscape. She peters off eventually, finally, and rests with her head against the window to watch the scenery go by.
Erik's good at keeping his mind clear, keeping his focus sharp. Or, at least, he used to be. Now he finds his brain sneaking back into the memories of that last trip, unbidden. He doesn't want to be thinking about Charles right now, not like this. He needs to focus on his goal, but instead he keeps remembering Charles getting carsick and the flat tire they got in Mississippi and the shitty motel where the lights flickered when you flushed the toilet.
It's a long, empty expanse of road in front of him, with nothing to distract him from his thoughts.
He grits his teeth and watches the miles go by on the odometer.
They're nearing the Pennsylvania/Ohio border when Moira drifts out of her daze and turns on the car stereo. She spins through news and static and settles on a station playing some obnoxious pop song that Erik recognizes from long evenings spent down the hall from two girls with access to a record player. He reaches out to turn the station and she smacks his hand away.
"You're driving, I pick the music," she says. "When we switch, you can pick the music."
Erik glares at her, but it's a fair enough deal. There is, after all, only another four or five hours left in his driving shift. He'll have a whole ten hours to assault her ears however he wants.
Tell him that you're never gonna leave him / Tell him that you're always gonna love him...
The radio sings, and Erik debates the wisdom of his choice.
"I would have thought you'd be above this," Erik says, curling his fingers more tightly around the wheel to keep from flicking off the radio.
Moira tucks her legs beneath her.
"How old do you think I am?" she asks. "Just because I work for the government doesn't mean I'm not allowed to have fun."
"Next you're going to tell me you love Elvis Presley," he mutters and she just grins at him.
"I saw Girls! Girls! Girls! twice last year," she says. "And I got to meet him through work. It was amazing."
Erik can't tell if she's being serious. He rolls his eyes anyway as she sings along with the women on the radio and presses his foot harder on the accelerator.
"Why would you meet Elvis Presley through the CIA?" Erik asks thirty miles later.
"That's classified," Moira says.
It's nearing three PM when they finally pull to a stop an hour or two outside of South Bend, Indiana. Erik fills the car with gas, sliding a few bills off of the pile pressed into his hands by Raven the night before ("If you need more, call me. I'll wire it to wherever you are.") to pay at the counter. Moira, meanwhile, heads into the sad-looking diner to get them a table. By the time he joins her, there are two cups of coffee sitting at the table and Moira is absently running her finger along the rim of one as she reads a book.
"I ordered a hamburger," she says without looking up. "The waitress says the special's good. She'll be back in a minute."
Erik nods, somehow sure that Moira can see it despite the fact that her attention is directed elsewhere. As casually as he can, he leans to the side to catch a glimpse of the title of her book.
"Moby Dick," she says without looking up.
It's a well-worn copy. It looks to be in the same condition as the tattered paperback Erik had carried across half of Europe and over two other continents.
"Shouldn't you be planning our route into the Hellfire Club?" Erik asks.
"Who says I'm not?" Moira asks. "I can do two things at once. I don't really have to concentrate on the words that much, I've read the book so many times." She glances up, daring him to comment, but he refuses to give her the satisfaction.
"What'll you have, honey?"
The waitress is in her fifties and smiling, simultaneously bemused and maternal. Erik feels like she stepped out of a film or novel, every bit the matronly waitress cliche.
"The special sounds good," he says, glancing sideways at Moira, who has returned to her book. He doesn't even know what the special is.
"Good choice," she says. "It'll be right up. Your burger too, sweetie."
"Thank you," Erik says, but she's already headed back to the kitchen. Erik sighs and picks up his coffee.
He and Moira don't speak again until they're headed back to the car.
"My turn," Moira says, snatching the keys out of his hand (out of the air a few millimeters above his hand--it's a small comfort, his power) and sliding into the driver's side.
He responds by climbing in the other door and changing the radio station before resting his head against the window and fruitlessly trying to sleep.
It's hard to rest when his mind is churning with fears and doubts and anger and frustration. He blames himself, of course, for the whole affair. It is his fault, at least partly. If he hadn't lashed out at Charles, if he hadn't abandoned him to his own devices so early in the evening, they would have been together. They would have been playing chess or making supply lists or sharing a drink in Charles' office, and Erik could have fought back. The two of them together could have taken down Frost easily--they had before. Even if she had her teleporter with her, even if she had managed to snatch Charles in an instant (and he never would have allowed it, never), Erik would have known. He wasted precious hours being angry, then searching the grounds, then hunting down Moira and blaming the CIA. They lost a day to Erik's incompetence, and he promised himself he wouldn't allow anyone to be hurt by his shortcomings ever again.
Despite the tumultuous swirl of his thoughts, however, sometime after their last pit stop, exhaustion succeeds in winding around him and pulling him down. He awakes to a sharp poke on his shoulder and transitions from unconscious to alert fast enough that Moira smacks her head on the rear view mirror in shock.
"Jesus!" she says. "Not a heavy sleeper, I take it?"
"Where are we?" Erik asks.
"We just passed Omaha," Moira says.
"Is it time to switch?" he asks.
"It's time to sleep," she says. "It's almost one in the morning."
"The whole point of taking you along was so we wouldn't have to stop and sleep," Erik tells her. He glances out the windshield for the first time and sees the sign for a motel, the neon light washing out Moira's face.
"Yeah, well, you spent the last ten hours brooding, not sleeping, and I don't trust you to not accidentally get us killed between here and Colorado, so we're bedding down," Moira says. "Get up."
She leaves the car, keys curled in her hand. It would be easy to pull them out and take off into the night. If he put his mind to it, he thinks he could start the car without the keys. But he doesn't know how long he could keep the vehicle going like that in his current state, and as much as he hates to admit it, Moira's help would be...beneficial in Las Vegas. He could waste just as many hours looking for the Hellfire Club as Moira proposes he should waste sleeping.
Also, it wouldn't do to charge in as scattered as he currently feels.
He leaves the car and doesn't acknowledge her victory, merely collects his bag and briefcase, makes sure the doors are locked, and follows her towards the motel office. A tired man sits behind the desk. He reeks of alcohol and eyes them speculatively when they come in. Erik supposes they're rather well dressed for the type of clientele he's used to; he and Charles received many similar glances on their own trip across the country.
"Two rooms," Erik says.
"One room," Moira corrects. "Two beds."
Erik glares at her, but he's coming to understand she's either immune to his ill will or doesn't care.
"I'm not going to let you sneak out while I'm sleeping and go the rest of the way yourself," Moira says.
Erik doesn't deny that the thought had crossed his mind. But, while a part of him wanted two rooms on the off chance he changes his mind and decides to leave, the majority of it automatically assumed they would room separately out of propriety. He and Charles had shared all of their rooms while out recruiting, but that was different. He and Charles were both men and while he had his share of improper thoughts about Charles, there were...well. Social rules about this sort of thing.
The man at the desk slides a key towards them and Moira takes it with a warm smile, leaving Erik to follow after her, a position he's beginning to resent.
"There are two beds, Erik," Moira says, as if reading his thoughts. "I trust you not to take advantage of me and I promise I have no interest in taking advantage of you."
She stops outside of room seven and unlocks it. Inside is a fairly standard second-rate motel room. Moira throws her bags on the bed closest to the door and takes off her jacket.
"We leave at dawn," Erik says. He pulls the door shut behind him and slides all the locks into place with a wave of his hand.
"Sounds fine," Moira says. She rustles through her bag and pulls out a bundle of fabric and a toothbrush. "Can I have the bathroom first?" He nods his assent and she disappears into it, pulling the door shut behind her. Erik takes a moment to further taking in his surroundings, to iron out the tangled thoughts in his mind. By this time tomorrow, they'll hopefully be in Las Vegas, that much closer to finding Frost and getting Charles back. He's confident in this. He has to be. He has spent too many years hunting down other people for all of his skills to be washed away by six months of staying still.
Moira emerges in a pair of pink floral pajamas. There's lace at the collar and sleeves. Erik can't help it--he raises a skeptical eyebrow and has to try very hard to hold back a smirk.
"Oh, shut up," she says, blushing as bright as her sleepwear. "They were a gift and it's cold."
"Of course," Erik says.
"Go to sleep," Moira grumbles.
It's good to see her ruffled, but not in the way he thought it would be. He doesn't examine that too closely.
He rummages through his own duffel bag for something appropriate to sleep in--he hadn't been expecting to share a room--and when he straightens up, Moira is looking at him.
"Erik," she says, and then trails off. He can tell she wants to say something; her face is serious and earnest, but strangely unreadable.
"Yes?" he finally asks.
She shakes her head. "Nothing," she says on a sigh. "Sleep well."
"You too," he says.
When he leaves the bathroom five minutes later, the lights are off and Moira is, as far as he can tell, asleep.
Everything's blue and warm and sharp, so different from the frozen farmland he went to sleep in, and Erik knows this is a dream. He's in the sub, again, his own face reflected a thousand times in the mirrors surrounding him, Shaw hanging over him, frozen in place by Charles.
He looks. He stares at the man who made him into this...this thing he's become.
You're not a thing, Erik. Don't listen to him, you're not a thing, I promise. Charles' voice is echoing in his mind. It's soothing, almost, even as he brings the coin out of his pocket, lifts it into the air.
No. No, no, no, Erik, don't do this, you can be the better man, you don't have to give into his hatred, you don't have to do this, Erik, please, Erik...
For a moment, he considers picking up Shaw's helmet to block out Charles' pleas, but a perverse part of him wants to hear. A perverse part of him knows he's doing something wrong, knows he is a weapon, and wants verification.
Charles can stop him at any time, but despite the begging, the frustration, the pain that echoes through Erik's head, he doesn't.
The scenery around him warps in the heat, in the sun, in the sand and then Erik is bringing Shaw out of the sub, parading him onto the beach, levitating down to the sand after him. He understands his powers now, can feel them rushing around him the way he never has before. It's addictive.
Erik, Erik, Erik, Charles is thinking. He's not even saying it, not even forming whole thoughts. It's just Erik's name and wave after wave of grief and regret. Not grief for Shaw or regret for what Erik has done, but grief and regret for what Erik thinks he's become. Grief and regret that Erik thinks he's nothing better than Shaw when really he's so, so much more, and the images keep pouring out, hemorrhaging out as if Charles can't help but bleed them all over the beach, images of Erik as Charles sees him. Funny and smart and powerful and kind and fair and it's a portrait no one else has ever painted before, but there's Charles Xavier, cheeks red and freckled in the sun, eyes so blue they take Erik's breath away, unable to form words or even thoughts beyond Erik's name.
Erik feels something inside himself crumple.
"I had to do it!" he shouts. "I had to do it!"
Charles doesn't deny it, but he doesn't stop the litany of half-formed cries of pain and anguish that he's projecting at Erik, either.
He wants to explain, but he can't explain. There's nothing to explain. He's done what needs to be done, accomplished what he's spent the last seventeen years planning. The coin that has been weighing down his pocket for years has been returned to its rightful owner. He doesn't feel ashamed.
But he still wants to explain to Charles and a part of him hates Charles for that.
His attention is turned by something tugging at his awareness, by a pull in the feeling of control over all the metal surrounding him. It only takes him a moment, with his vengeance heightened senses, to realize what's happening.
The ships on the water, the ships they just saved, are turning their weapons to the beach.
"This is the world you want to save?" Erik shouts, because he still hates Charles just as much as he hates himself for putting that look on Charles' face. "A world that wants to obliterate us for saving their lives?"
It's the first part of their argument spoken out loud. The children are still looking on in fascinated horror. Shaw's followers have stopped their assault, impotent without their leader. Charles looks confused, but only for a moment. He touches his temple and the constant rush of emotion that has been bombarding Erik since he pulled the coin out of his pocket quiets to a dull roar. He knows Charles sees what's happening, even before Charles turns to him, looking desperate and lost.
"Erik," he says out loud, finally. "This is the wrong way to end this day! Shaw may have deserved what you've done, but these other men, they haven't wronged you. Not yet. They haven't wronged any of us! They're--" He stops, frustrated by the limits of spoke language, maybe, because fear, hope, pain, regret, regret, regretregretregret are bombarding him. This is what Shaw wanted, Charles pleads silently. He wanted to turn you into a weapon. You're not a weapon, Erik, you're a person. And to hell with anyone who ever tries to tell you otherwise!
It would be so easy to blow their weapons up from where he stands. Just a flick of the wrist and all the humans on all those ships would be obliterated. But Charles is correct. That's what Shaw wanted. Is that the legacy Erik wants to continue? Is Shaw the figure he wants to rally behind?
The missiles move into place and he can tell Charles feels it too, knows Charles can tell what's about to happen.
The missiles burst forth. Someone gasps. It might be Raven.
He can be the man Shaw sees or he can be the man Charles sees. Which is he? Which can he be? Which does he want to be?
He freezes the missiles in mid-air and looks to Charles. Everything in him sings to turn them back on the ships, but Charles, Charles--
Erik wakes up with the smell of saltwater still in his nose, sweat still clinging to his brow. Moira is already awake, watching him. The harsh neon light is filtering in through the blinds and she looks almost like a ghost.
"What time is it?" Erik asks when he finds his voice.
"Just past five," Moira says. Erik pushes himself up, leaning his back against the headboard. They should get up and pack and leave, but he needs a moment to center himself and catch his breath.
"Erik," she says, and it's in the same tone of voice she used last night. "I understand what you're going through. I know it might not seem like it, but--"
"We should get going," Erik says. He still sounds tired and hoarse, but he can't deal with sympathy and exhaustion and the adrenaline still running through his veins.
"You're right," Moira says. "Do you want the first shower?"
What Erik wants is some silence to collect himself, so he shakes his head and watches Moira collect her bag and retreat to the bathroom once again.
He could leave--could take the keys and his bags and drive on alone, abandon Moira in this motel and finish this trip by himself.
He doesn't. When Moira returns, wet hair pulled back in a ponytail, Erik is sitting on the edge of his bed and his heart is beating regularly again.
The same man is sitting at the desk when they check out fifteen minutes later. He grins lewdly at them, but both Erik and Moira easily ignore him. The sky is still dark, the pre-dawn light only just starting to tint the black clouds grey. They cross the street silently to the diner on the other side of the road. There's a lone car parked outside of it, clearly belonging to the two teenagers sharing a table in the back and laughing uproariously. Moira and Erik sit at the counter and order coffee and toast and eggs, which they eat quickly enough to be on the road by five-thirty.
"I just mean, I know what it feels like to be in love," Moira says quietly as Erik pushes the car to go faster down the empty highway and away from the oncoming sunrise.
Erik pretends she hasn't spoken and pushes the accelerator even closer to the floor.
Nebraska, like Iowa and Ohio before it, is long and flat and endlessly empty. Erik goes into something of a trance while driving through it, falling into the rhythm of the car, lulled into complacency by the lines on the road rushing by. Moira continues to read from her worn copy of Moby Dick and Erik has to stop himself from asking her what part she's reached. Charles isn't a fan of Melville and calls Moby Dick "excessive." They've had more than one spirited argument over it, and while debate is entertaining, sometimes he just wants to share share his thoughts in a way that doesn't require him to be on guard.
Moira's not his friend, though. She's a means to an end and he keeps his mouth closed.
They stop for gas a few hours into the morning, the sun creeping over the horizon behind them.
"Could you handle this?" Moira asks. "I need to make a phone call."
"Of course," Erik says. He'd been paying for the gas anyway, using the funds Raven had given him before he left. Thinking of Raven makes him remember his promise to check in, but he dismisses the thought just as quickly. There's nothing to report, after all, and he'd like to keep the trail leading back to Westchester to a minimum.
The gas station attendant is half asleep at the counter inside, and he accepts Erik's money without bothering to check if it's the correct amount. Erik raises an eyebrow but says nothing, leaving the building and crossing the loose gravel to the car. He passes the phone booth on the way. Moira is still furtively conversing with someone and he finds himself slowing to eavesdrop.
"Has he been with a tall, blonde woman, mid-twenties?" Moira says. "Because I want to know, Stan. Or a short man, mid-twenties, brown hair, young face?" She sighs. "Stan, I can make life very hard for you....because he's important, that's why! Important to the people who are looking for him. Important in ways that you can't even--that's where you're wrong, Stan. I'm a free agent now. I don't have to worry about getting my hands dirty, and I'm prepared to get them very dirty if you don't--no, but I doubt your wife will appreciate the pictures of you and the busty redhead you spent time with on your last trip to--Thank you, Stan....no, this isn't a quid pro quo. This is a 'you give me what I want and I don't destroy you.'"
Moira turns, then, too quickly for Erik to look like he's doing anything else but listening in. She holds his gaze as she says, "That's what I wanted to hear. I'll call you when we get to Vegas."
She hangs up without saying goodbye, still looking steadily at Erik.
He had known, intellectually, that Moira wanted to help. In his mind, she was a caricature of a do-gooder, someone on their side because of her moral compass. But, no, she was making threats, blackmailing some poor bastard, not to keep him in line, but to help Charles. For the greater good, she might argue, but chiefly to help a friend. She was being selfish and, strangely, it makes Erik respect her a bit more.
It's possible there is more to her than he thought.
"Are we ready to go?" Moira asks.
"Yes," Erik says. "Let's."
They return to the car, and as Erik turns the key he says, "How far have you gotten in the book?"
Moira smiles at him, tentative but warm, and picks the novel up again.
"There's nothing on the radio," Moira says. "I'm assuming you know the story?" Erik snorts and nods. "Then I'll read for a little while."
Erik pulls onto the road as Moira clears her throat and begins, "But sometimes, especially upon the Line in the Pacific, this plan will not answer at all; because such incalculable hosts of sharks gather round the moored carcase, that were he left so for six hours, say, on a stretch, little more than the skeleton would be visible by morning...."
"That's what it is, isn't it?" Moira says. "You can't know everything. Not everything about whales, not everything about--anything. Ishmael tries dozens of different ways to encompass all that the whale is, all that it means, but he can't. No one discipline can pin it down, no one person can pin it down."
They're nearing Colorado and Erik has to begrudgingly admit that the time goes by much faster when he and Moira are speaking to each other. She read out loud for a few hours, which was soothing in its own way--it reminded him of his childhood, brought warm memories to the surface for the first time in too long. But a comment Erik couldn't hold in about Ahab spiraled into a spirited discussion of the text and he's surprised to see that they're now nearly halfway through this leg of the trip.
Anything to get them to Las Vegas, to Charles faster, he supposes. Not that he's not enjoying himself much more than he thought he would.
"Exactly," he says to Moira. "Because man is fallible and not omnipotent. You can't know what's coming. There's no such thing as destiny, not really, and anyone who claims they see the signs and portents of what's to come is only projecting their own needs onto what's in front of them. We can't rely on fate. Our paths are of our own making."
It's refreshing, talking about literature like this. Books were easy to come by in his travels, a cheap and portable form of entertainment to distract himself enough to prevent his rage from overtaking him. Books reminded him of his mother, and thus kept him focused on his goal, when when taking the necessary time to lie low and assess his resources, adjust his recourse. His mother read to him as a child, and when books were lost to them, she made up stories instead, stealing characters and situations from the novels she'd read him in the quiet evenings of his youth. He nearly forgot, in those horrid years that stole his innocence, the joy that could be found in other people's stories. Then came Moby-Dick, a worn paperback left in a hotel room he was confined to for three days while avoiding a mark. It was a gargantuan endeavor for a young man still learning to read English, but one he stuck with anyhow, puzzling through his first read and gaining something with each subsequent effort. It's soothing, putting together words into stories, a distraction that keeps his mind sharp. It's invaluable.
But he'd never had anyone to share his passion with. Seventeen years on his own and it only just occurred to him that there were others in the world who appreciated literature the way he did.
"Okay, I completely understand, now," Moira says. She's grinning full on, the tentative smile she shared with the dawn long ago exchanged for one of whole-hearted enthusiasm. "You as a teacher, I mean. Charles I can see--Charles was born to wear tweed and lecture about things that catch his fancy, but you--well. I get it now."
"What do you mean?" Erik asks. His first instinct is to be defensive and he's not sure he does a proper job of clamping it down, as Moira's smile gets softer.
"You like books," she explains. "But you...you get books. That they're more than just stories, that they're a different way of looking at real life. You get the meaning behind the words and why they matter. And you clearly love talking about them. It all makes sense--I bet you're great with the kids."
Erik looks away, strangely guilty. He's really not--it's so easy with the younger children, they're so willing, but he wonders every day if his words mean anything to the teenagers.
"I don't know that the students would agree with you," he says. He aims for dry and superior, but either his tone falters or Moira sees through it. She shakes her head.
"It's still early days," she tells him. "Don't talk to them like they're stupid, even if you think they are. Talk to them like this. Talk about why you love the books and then ask them questions and I bet you anything they'll get it. They're still young. They need you to show them how the words can mean all the things they mean. They'll get it."
Erik feels...oddly touched. He's not quite sure if he wants to thank her or brush her off. He's still getting used to this, to people having faith in him, and up to this point it's only been Charles, anyway.
He settles for saying, "Charles says the same thing."
Moira smiles slyly. "Charles is a smart guy, Erik. You should listen to him."
Erik doesn't know how to respond to that either, so he just shakes his head and launches into his feelings on Ishmael as a narrator, eyes focused on the road as he tries to untangle his constantly changing feelings on Moira MacTaggert and her irritating humanity.
They're well into the mountains as the sun begins to set and it takes a detour off the highway in order to find a place to eat. The roads are more treacherous, frozen over in places and poorly marked in others. Erik's hands are tight on the steering wheel, even as he finally pulls into a parking space outside the diner. He's both glad that he no longer has to navigate the twisting mountain roads and wary of trusting his safety to someone else.
He cracks his knuckles and shakes his hands to relieve the tension. Moira wraps a scarf more tightly around her neck and leans into the backseat.
"I'll meet you inside," she says. "I need to grab a few things first."
Erik nods and leaves her to her rummaging. He wouldn't say he trusts her--not yet--but he's rather sure he can rely on her now, at the very least.
He rolls his shoulders and stretches as he walks carefully up the icy concrete stairs. The inside of the diner is warm and lively--there's a family in the first booth, complete with wailing infant. Three men sit at the counter drinking coffee and arguing jovially over something. A couple in their twenties take up another booth, and two old men sit at tables at either end of the window in front. Erik scans the room for the seating option furthest from the other patrons and settles on the very last booth in the back by the restrooms. He's already seated by the time Moira enters the diner, three thick folders under her arm.
"If we drive straight through," she says, "we should hit Vegas first thing in the morning." She slides into the booth, placing the folders between them. "One of my contacts says he's seen Leland around the Atomic, which the Hellfire Club was operating out of. I know you don't want to hear this, but it will probably be best to wait until at least afternoon, if not the evening. No one I've talked to has seen Frost or Charles with Leland, but if Frost is a telepath, that doesn't really mean much."
Moira is interrupted by the arrival of the waitress, a young girl chewing gum and scratching her head with the eraser of her pencil.
"Hi, folks," she says. "What can I--"
"Two coffees and two specials," Moira says without looking up. If the waitress is offended, it doesn't show. She disappears from the table again, and Moira flips open the top folder. It's a stack of surveillance photos, the ones Ororo had sorted.
"I've looked through all of these and Leland's never at the club before three," she says. "He has a day job of some kind--a lawyer. He's usually in by seven. We don't want to go in too early--if he figures out he's been infiltrated, he could run, and if he actually has Charles or knows where he is--"
"We'll miss our chance," Erik admits. He doesn't like the idea of wasting more time, but he understands the need for patience.
"So, I've lost my man on the inside, but I think we can count on his sister," Moira continues. "If she can get us in, hopefully Leland will be too busy at the club to notice us snooping around the back rooms. If Charles isn't there, maybe we can at least find some contact information for Frost."
"And if we can't find that, we find Leland and force him to help," Erik adds and Moira nods.
"We'll get to Vegas at dawn, get a room at the hotel across from the club," she says. "We can stake him out that way and have an eye on the building, see if Frost is still in charge of running the party. We can sleep in shifts during the morning."
"You've thought this through," he says. It's not exactly a compliment, but she smiles anyway.
"I have," she says. "I thought you'd be a little harder sell on the waiting until evening aspect of the plan, so I made sure I had some sound reasoning." She pats the other two, unopened folders.
"Good work." Erik allows the compliment this time.
"Thank you," Moira says. "Believe it or not, you have to have a certain amount of skill to be trained as a CIA agent, especially if you're a woman."
He's been curious about that, but too preoccupied to ask. He doesn't imagine there are very many female CIA agents. He could tell, from the few meetings he attended when they were working from the CIA, that her superiors were frequently dismissive and condescending. There is probably a story to her career, to her position as a valued, if underestimated, field agent.
He resolves to ask, after they find Charles. Just to quell his own curiosity. Not out of any actual affection for Moira.
For the moment, he merely nods in recognition of her point and leans back in the booth, eager to be finished with dinner so they can finish this leg of their journey and hopefully bring Charles back home.
Erik doesn't read during their last hours in the car. He doesn't put the radio on, either. He's too tense, and he senses a similar tension in Moira, though it would be easy to attribute her white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel to the icy roads. Her eyes are tightly focused on the road in front of them and he can almost hear her mentally reviewing her plan. Erik focuses his energy on bending and reshaping the butter knife he stole from the last diner, making it sharp, making it dull, twisting it into a spiral, a square, a star, a snowflake.
He doesn't need to go go over the plan. He knows what he's going to do.
The road has mostly leveled back into deserts when Moira finally speaks.
"You know," she says, "This is only our first lead. It's possible Charles won't be there."
It's not the first time she's mentioned it, every time as cautious as the time before, as if she's afraid of what his reaction will be if he enters the club and does not find Charles waiting for them. He's not surprised--he knows he's a force to be reckoned with. It's not boasting; there's a trail of dead bodies in his wake, and he's not above leaving more behind if it means getting Charles back.
But he didn't survive this long by running haphazardly into situations that could be useful. If Charles isn't there, he'll get what he needs to get from Leland in order to take the next step. And then, yes, if there's any indication that he's involved in Charles' abduction, Erik will probably kill him.
"I know that," he says. "I have been doing this for more than half my life, you know."
"I know," Moira says. "But I know that sometimes feelings can complicate situations like this and--"
Erik clenches his teeth.
"I don't know why you feel to continually make the assumption that there was anything aside from friendship between myself and Charles," he says. It's not a lie, not that he would have a problem lying to Moira in the first place.
Moira rolls her eyes.
"Honestly, Erik, do you think I'd come this far for you and Charles if I was going to lock you up for it? Don't you think, in heading the CIA's mutant division, I've seen odder things? There's no need to pretend."
"I'm not pretending," Erik says, squeezing his hands into fists and flattening the butter knife. "Do you really think I would care what you think about any relations I may or may not have with anyone? Do you really think you could arrest me, even if you wanted to?"
Moira rolls her eyes and opens her mouth to say something else, but when she turns to look at him, the words seem to die on her tongue.
"Oh god," she says, eyes widening. "You're serious."
Erik concentrates on forming the flat blob of metal back into a knife.
"I told you," he mutters and, of all things, he starts to feel himself flush under her scrutiny.
"Jesus, and I thought I had problems with balancing my work and my personal life," she says. She shakes her head and looks back at the road. "I can't believe you two. All that wasted time."
"It's none of your business," he says brusquely. "I already told you, we don't have that kind of relationship."
"You're in love with each other but 'don't have that kind of relationship,'" she says. "What a waste."
"Charles doesn't--" And that's his first mistake, because Moira's eyes narrow. Or perhaps bringing Moira along at all was his first mistake, because she shouldn't be involved in this at all and his trivial feelings have nothing to do with the importance of bringing Charles home. Yes, he's had his share of personal vendettas in the past, but this goes beyond that. He understands that Charles is vitally important to the continued search for mutants, that Charles is shaping the minds and abilities of eight young people anxiously waiting for him in New York. Erik hardly factors into this, except as a means of returning Charles to where he belongs.
"You should tell him, Erik," Moira says. Impudent. He can't believe he was actually beginning to suspect he might enjoy her company only a few hours ago. "Believe me, as cliche as it sounds, we only have so much time on this planet. You shouldn't squander it. I know from experience."
He should shut this conversation down immediately. He should be raging at her audacity. He should be glaring at her, at the very least, but instead he finds himself saying, "I made my intentions to Charles clear. He obviously has no desire to act on them." Anymore, he doesn't say. Because he remembers that night, remembers every detail of it, and Charles was hardly a passive participant. But that was before Erik made Charles watch him kill a man. That was before Cuba. And, frankly, Erik isn't surprised things have changed. He doesn't deserve any better.
"You are both--I don't understand how two people who are so smart--" Moira makes a choked, frustrated noise, and turns her attention back to the road. Conversation over, apparently. Thankfully.
Erik sighs, quietly, and glances at the odometer. They can't get to Las Vegas soon enough.
It's still dark as the first signs of the lights of Vegas appear on the horizon. They burn brighter than the stars, slowly expanding as the car glides down the highway until they're nearly on top of them and the stars are all but entirely blotted out. It's late--early, at this point, nearly dawn--but they're still flashing across the dark sky and there are still people stumbling out of casinos and hotels, laughing and smiling.
Erik keeps his eyes peeled for any sign of Frost, the teleporter, or their other companion. He looks for Charles, of course, both with his eyes and his mind, reaching out for any sign of the other man, any flicker of recognition as Moira navigates through the streets towards the casino they're looking for. It's strange, almost, to be among this many people. Erik's world has narrowed to himself and Moira since they left the mansion and the half-dozen people at the last diner they visited had been the biggest crowd he'd seen since. It's loud, suddenly, and bright and busy and his brain is still adjusting as Moira pulls up in front of a flashy hotel with a blinking neon sign. A valet meets them with a smile that must be more tired than it looks.
"We'll get a room and rest up for tonight," Moira reminds him, as if he's going to break away and run across the street the second she kills the engine.
"Yes, I know," he mutters, tired of being treated like a disobedient child.
She opens the door and smiles easily for the valet, handing him the keys and then moving to collect her belongings from the back. Erik moves more slowly, eyes examining the buildings, crowds, and people and--yes, stopping for a long time on the entrance to The Atomic.
"Erik, honey," Moira says in a sugar-sweet voice with an edge, her accent twisting into something unfamiliar, "let's get going. It's been a long drive."
Erik blinks and raises a skeptical eyebrow which she ignores, shoving his duffel bag and his briefcase into his arms.
"'Honey?'" he says quietly as they walk into the lobby of the hotel.
"These places talk," she says just as quietly. "If we look like a couple of government agents, half the town will know by morning. I was assigned to Vegas for almost a month and I spent a lot of time sitting in a car less than a block away. The more innocuous we look, the better."
Erik rolls his eyes, but allows her to take his arm as they approach the front counter, a far cry from the shabby check-in desk at the last motel they stayed at.
"Hello!" Moira says brightly. The slight lilt to her words finally clicks in his head and he realizes she's taken on an accent right out of the American South. "We were hoping we could get a room for a few nights."
It's far past check-in time, but the man at the desk doesn't bat an eye. He supposes things run a little differently in a city that's more vibrant when the sun goes down.
"Sure thing," the clerk says. "If I could get your name and an ID?"
"Mary and Eric McDonald," Moira says, and she pulls out her wallet. She actually has a Georgia driver's license for Mary McDonald, which she slides across the counter. A CIA perk, Erik imagines.
Moira chats amicably with the clerk as he assigns them a room, her accent as smooth as the persona of a harried housewife. It's not that Erik's impressed with her skills, it's just that he's...surprised.
Yes, that's what it is.
He remains quiet, with a smile on his face that probably seems inane, until the clerk gives them two keys and enthusiastically tells them to enjoy their stay. Moira snatches them up and grabs Erik's arm again, pulling him towards the elevators.
"Mary McDonald?" Erik asks her.
"From Atlanta, Georgia," Moira responds in her fake accent. "I teach sixth grade geography and we've got two beautiful children staying with their grandparents while we take this little trip."
Erik shakes his head as they get into the elevator.
"Hey, it worked," she says in her regular voice. "The wide-eyed Southern girl act got us a room facing the strip, so we can keep our eye on the Atomic until tonight."
"I'll take first shift," Erik says. He doesn't plan on sleeping at all, but he also plans on pouncing on Leland the second he sees him. Best to let Moira get some rest before that if she thinks she needs it.
"Fine by me," Moira says. "Driving through the mountains on a sheet of ice is exhausting. But if you run out before waking me up, I will make you pay, Lehnsherr."
"Fair enough," Erik says.
The elevator lurches to a stop and the two of them drag their bags out and head towards room 727. It's nicer than any of the places he stayed with Charles on their recruitment trip and much nicer than the pit they stayed in last night. Moira drops her bag and kicks off her shoes as soon as the door is closed.
"You can keep the light on if you want," she says. "It won't matter to me."
"I'll turn it off," Erik says. "It will draw less attention."
"The book is in my purse if you get bored," Moira says. She flops onto the bed closest to the door and closes her eyes. "Wake me in a few hours, I'll take over the watch."
She's already rolled onto her side when Erik glances at her. He wouldn't be surprised if she was already asleep. He understands, in her line of work, the need to drop off quickly whenever you can. He honed the same talent during his years chasing Shaw across the globe.
Erik switches off the lights and settles into the chair near the window, opening the blinds enough to have a clear view of the street below and the front of the Atomic. He knows Moira has binoculars in her bag and he tests himself, reaching out for the shape and weight of them before pulling them to him with his power.
He stares out into the bright lights and waits for dawn.
Moira sleeps until nearly eight in the morning, and in that time, Erik doesn't move from his seat. There's no sign of Leland, Frost, or Charles on the street below, but he refuses to let himself feel discouraged. As Moira said, the best time to find Leland is that evening. If Frost is associating with him, if Charles is with her, that's their best chance for finding any of them. They have time.
Still. The waiting. He used to be better at this.
"I guess there's no chance of getting you to get some rest?" Moira asks. Erik doesn't even bother to respond. Moira sighs. "Will you at least go get us some food, then? My watch. Maybe you could take a shower? I hate to break it to you, but you've probably smelled better."
"I'd prefer not to leave the room," Erik says, eyes still on the street.
"Then order off room service and leave the door to the bathroom open. I promise I won't peek. You'll be no help to Charles if you're half crazy from sitting still, staring at the street for fifteen hours straight."
"I've waited for longer," Erik says, and it's true, but that was mostly because he didn't have anyone to share the burden with. He doesn't quite trust Moira, still, but if the door to the bathroom is open, he can at least keep an ear on what's happening in the room. He's not above running out onto the street in a dressing gown, so he gets to his feet and hands Moira the binoculars. "If anything--"
"--happens alert you immediately," Moira says, waving him away. "Call room service and order me eggs. I don't even care what kind. And toast. And coffee. A lot of coffee."
Erik would mutter something uncomplimentary, normally, but Moira is keenly focused on the club across the street, which is what he wanted, isn't it? So he pulls out the room service menu and puts in an order before hitting the shower.
After that, the day passes at a monumentally slow pace. They take turns staring out the window and reading aloud from Moby-Dick. Erik is badgered into a few hours of slumber, even, as they wait in anticipation of their plans for the evening. As the sun moves across the sky and begins to set, Erik can feel the adrenaline building up in his veins. He brings the butter knife out again, twisting it absently with one hand as he paces. As much as he is glad to be rid of the coin and all it represents, he hadn't realized how much he relied on it for distraction until it was gone. The knife is the latest object to take its place, providing Erik something to do with his hands to keep from clenching his fists or worse.
The clock flips over to 4PM and Moira hands him the binoculars.
"I'm going to call our contact," she says as he takes the seat by the window. "Her shift starts at six, and hopefully she'll be able to get us in the back of the club."
"Excellent," Erik says. He stares at the street, which is steadily seeing more traffic and pedestrians. He still sweeps every face for Leland, Frost, Charles, as he listens to Moira dial. And wait. And wait. And wait.
He hears the click of the receiver and the pull of the rotary again, followed by the same silence. He gets a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Moira," he says. There's an edge to his voice.
"There's no answer," she says. "She might be...she might be out. I'll wait and try again in a few minutes." He can tell without looking that she's wary of his development.
"Maybe it's time to start thinking of a back-up plan," he says through his teeth.
"I'm not stupid, Erik," she says. "I have two. But...this is the easiest way. And you might not like the others very much."
He doesn't ask her to elaborate. He's not sure he wants to know until he has to.
Three and a half hours later, he has to.
At seven twenty-seven, he spots Leland on the street. He gets out of an expensive car with a woman who's not Frost. No one else follows them. After a brief word to the valet, he disappears into the club.
"Moira!" he says. "Leland's here. He just went into the club!" He jumps up, rummaging through his duffel bag and pulling out a knife to strap to his hip. Useful weapons, knives. Easier to carry than guns and just as deadly in the hands of someone who can wield them at high velocity with a flick of his wrist. Moira is leaning over the phone again, dialling as quickly as she's able. Another long, anxious minute of silence, and she slams the receiver down.
"Shit," she murmurs.
Erik's already shrugging on his jacket.
"Now would be a good time for your back-up plan," he says.
Moira frowns and then stands up.
"Okay, but you might not like it," she says. Erik waits for her explanation, but instead of speaking, Moira pulls her shirt over her head.
Erik turns around so quickly he nearly gets whiplash.
"What are you doing?" he asks, raising his hand to block his peripheral vision. He is absolutely not blushing, except that, well, it's possible that he is. He can feel his ears heating up.
"My back-up plan," she says. "I told you that you might not like it." He hears a zipper and a noise that is definitely another item of clothing falling to the floor. Troublingly, there's nothing that sounds like clothing going on. "This is how I got in last time. I pretended I was a stripper."
Erik still has his back to her. He has a feeling she's not going to put anything else on.
"Well, that gets you in, but what about--"
"You're my 'date,'" Moira says. He can hear her smirk. "If we can distract the guard for long enough to get inside, no one will give us a second look, and we can use the hidden entrance to the back part of the club."
"Distract?" Erik says, eyes glued to the ugly painting on the wall next to the closet.
"If I'm all over you, they probably won't ask too many questions," Moira says. "Did you remember your suit?"
"Yes," Erik says.
"Are you planning on getting into it any time soon?" she asks.
Erik feels ridiculous as he turns around, his ears still burning. Erik's been to strip clubs, seen girls in less than Moira's wearing, fucked women, even. It should be nothing new, but at the same time, it's Moira, who is something of a colleague and...well, it just doesn't feel quite proper.
Moira obviously planned for this eventuality. She's wearing matching underwear that's lacy and not unattractive. She's also got her hands on her hips and her eyebrows raised.
"Really?" she says.
"I'm not entirely comfortable with this," Erik says. He crosses his arms and tries not to look at her breasts.
"Do you want to get into the Hellfire Club or not?" she asks.
"Let me get changed," he grumbles, and retrieves his suit, slipping into the bathroom to change and splash some water on his face. It's a mission, he reminds himself once he's alone. It's vital to finding Charles. He's spent plenty of time around scantily-clad women. This is no different.
It's hard to get his brain to accept that. Those women had all been a means to an end--information, sexual release, leads in his hunt. This is Moira who's...a person. That he knows. Almost, maybe, potentially an ally.
"Pull it together," he mutters to himself, and straps the knife back to his hip before returning to the room where Moira is waiting for him. She has a jacket on, not the peacoat she's been wearing but a provocative black coat that barely reaches halfway down her thighs. She's going to freeze, he thinks absently, but then, the girls on the street are barely wearing anything more and they should only be outside for a matter of minutes. It's warmer, too, than it was in New York, or even Colorado. She'll be fine.
Still he says, "Is that all you're wearing?"
She rolls her eyes. "We're wasting time, Erik."
And that's all she needs to say, really. He slips a hotel key into his pocket (as if he needs a key to get back into the room) and holds the door open for her. Time to focus. Leland is within reach, and that's all that matters at the moment.
Erik spends the entire walk across the street preparing himself to play his role, but the only warning he gets is a hissed, "Follow my lead!" before Moira slips an arm under his jacket and presses herself up against him, giggling and nearly tripping over his longer legs as they cross to the Atomic.
"All we need to do is get past the man at the front of the room," she whispers into his ear, giggling loudly all the while. "The valet won't look twice, but there's a bouncer in front of the lounge."
"Leave it to me," Erik says, smiling easily and pressing his face into her hair.
The valet, as Moira predicted, ignores them as they saunter past, Moira's hand dipping into Erik's back pocket. There's one man guarding a curtained room and they pause at the corner of the hall, peeking down it. There's a metal stanchion with a velvet rope off to the side, and it's easy enough for Erik to topple it and roll it down the hall. The guard watches it go and curses under his breath. He starts to follow it, but looks their direction first. They barely duck around the corner in time, but he seems satisfied that no one's coming. They hear his footsteps following the stanchion and Moira grabs his arm, hurrying him towards the curtain.
"Nice work," she says, and then plasters a sultry smile back on her face as they slip into the back room.
The club is loud and filled with men in fine suits and women in considerably less than that. The music is loud enough that Erik feels it in his bones as Moira once again winds her body around his, giggling and leading him down the stairs. Quite a few men give her speculative looks, but Erik puts a possessive hand at the small of her back and trusts her to lead them to where they're going.
Moira's arms loop around his neck and Erik slides his hands lower until they're resting just below her hips on the strip of lace at the top of her underwear. She tips her head forward, her smile promising, and Erik, perhaps, hadn't realized what a good agent she is until she pulls him slowly back into a private booth and lifts a hand to pull the curtain shut behind them.
The moment it slips into place, it's like someone flips a switch. She lets go of him and turns back into Agent MacTaggert, sliding into the booth and looking at the table with tactical eyes.
"Sit down," she says. "And nice job in there."
"I'm not unfamiliar with the art of subterfuge," Erik says.
"Yeah, well, forgive me if I thought you might panic after the way you looked at me in the hotel room," Moira says.
Erik sits, lips pressed into a firm line.
"If we press and turn the bell, this booth will flip around into the back office of the club," Moira says. "Hopefully, Leland will be in the lounge with his lady friend. We'll go through the files, see if we can find anything on Frost and if we can't, then we'll confront Leland. Let's not go in trying to bring the place down around us, okay? Your abilities are our last resort. I'd like to avoid another Russia."
"Fine," Erik mutters.
"If Charles is actually here, which I think is unlikely at this point, all bets are off, of course," she says.
"Of course," Erik says mockingly. Moira glares at him.
"Are you ready?" she asks. He slides closer to her on the bench and puts an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close until their foreheads touch.
"Best to take him by surprise if he is in the office," he murmurs and Moira tilts her head fractionally in a nod. She breathes in and then presses the bell down and twists it and, with a jerk, they're moving. Erik is tense, calling to all the metal within reach, ready to launch it if they're confronted with Leland, but Moira breathes out against his shoulder and pushes herself away.
The room they've turned into is a wood paneled study that almost looks like it belongs in Charles' estate. Bookshelves line the walls and there's a large desk and filing cabinets, as well as double doors cracked open just enough to hear laughter in the other room.
Moira holds a finger to her lips, as if he needs to be told to be quiet.
They move to the desk. Moira goes through the papers on top of it and Erik kneels in front of the locked drawers, waving a hand to unlock them all at once. The top drawer contains a lacy garter, a deck of cards, and a corkscrew. He pushes it shut and moves to the second, pulling out stacks of paper and skimming each quickly for any mention of Frost. He has to remind himself that Shaw is dead and there's no reason to hone in on his name, which appears frequently. Frost's is mostly absent, however, until he gets to a folder of what looks like minutes from some sort of meeting. Except--
"Can you read shorthand?" he asks Moira. He speaks five languages, and the notes are in shorthand. Of course.
"Yeah," Moira says. He hands her the folder and she sits at the desk, looking over the papers. "They're minutes for a meeting of the Hellfire Club. Shaw, Frost, Leland, and a few more seem to form some sort of inner circle. Titans of industry all." She bites her lips and continues and Erik's about to return to the drawer when the laughter from the other room gets louder. And closer.
He freezes. So does Moira.
"Shit," she whispers. "Um--hide!"
She reaches down as she says it, shoving him under the desk. She gets to her feet just as the door swings open and Leland walks in holding a decanter, his bow tie loose around his neck and his cheeks flushed. Erik inches further under the desk.
"Mr. Leland!" Moira says in the vapid, light voice she had used in the club. "The boys up front said you might be lonely." She's pouting a little, lower lip thrust out in a way that Erik can't deny is attractive. Leland looks pleased and Erik lets out a silent sigh of relief.
Then Leland's eyes flick to the desk. With the open drawers. And the files strewn across the top.
His eyes narrow at Moira.
"Now what is a girl as pretty as you doing looking through my private files?" he sneers, and Moira tenses, ready to fight but--
Erik's not entirely sure what happens. Moira hits the floor, hard, but Leland's done nothing more than wave his hand. He's a mutant, that much is obvious, but Erik's not sure what his power is, how he should counter it.
Moira struggles to get up, but whatever Leland does knocks her back down again. Her head bounces off the floor with a crack, but her eyes only flutter momentarily.
"That's not a rhetorical question, sweetheart," Leland says. "Who sent you?"
"Erik, I'd say this is a last resort situation!" she shouts, which distracts Leland enough for her to roll away as Erik rips a sconce off the wall and sends it hurtling towards Leland.
The sconce hits the ground loud enough to clang, even though the carpet, and Erik's only halfway out from under the desk when it comes down on his legs with a force that shouldn't be possible. Erik groans, the wood crushing his legs until Moira throws herself at Leland. He has a significant amount of weight on her, but she distracts him enough for Erik to pulls his legs out and stumble to his feet. He sends a lamp towards Leland as he throws Moira off, then reaches for anything that will respond to him, sending a rain of objects at Leland as the lamp hits the ground hard enough to dent it. Moira is thrown against the wall by Leland, hitting her head again, but she manages to roll out of the way as Leland uses one hand to bring down the bookcase above her and the other to crush many of the items Erik sent his way against the floor.
"Did you know Leland was a mutant?" Moira shouts as they meet in the middle of the room, diving behind a sofa as Erik sends another wave of nails and pens and wires towards Leland, who brings the couch down in front of them, crushing it into the ground.
"Yes!" Erik snaps sarcastically. "I just thought it best not to share the information with you!"
"I'd like it for one of you to answer my question," Leland continued. The ceiling above them slams down and Erik pulls Moira out of the way at the last moment. "Why are you here?"
There's a safe in the wall. Erik can feel it.
"Go to the left," he whispers in Moira's ear and then shoves her that way. Leland angles his body towards her and she hits the carpet, just as Erik uses a lamp in that corner to distract him further. With his other hand, he wrenches the safe from the wall.
Leland doesn't see it coming. It hits the back of his head, hard, and he collapses in a heap.
Moira and Erik stand frozen, breathing hard, for a long moment. When it's clear Leland is down for the count, they look at each other.
"Good work," Moira says.
"Thank you," Erik says. "Are you okay?" He points to his own head while he says it and Moira nods, but it makes her wince.
"I'm fine," she assures him. Her eyes are a bit glassy. "It's probably just a concussion. I've had worse."
"Just a concussion," he says skeptically, but he trusts she knows her own limits.
"I'll go back to the files," Moira says, breathlessly, gesturing towards the papers strewn around the remains of the desk. "I'm assuming you can bind him?"
Erik looks at Leland critically. He can't be sure, but if he binds Leland's hands and arms to his person, they might have a chance of getting some information out of him without the unfortunately side effect of whatever it was his powers are. Mass increase, maybe? It would explain the crushed bookshelves and sofa and Moira's collapse.
"Yes," Erik says. He's rather sure he didn't hit Leland hard enough to kill him, but it's possible he'll be unconscious for a bit. "When he wakes up, we'll interrogate him."
"That's what I was thinking," Moira says. "Until then, I'll see what I can find."
"I'll get to work," Erik says, and begins feeling out the metal in the room, figuring how best to deconstruct it without bringing the room down on top of them.
Erik ties up the girl in the other room easily enough and drags Leland in as well. It's not difficult to float him along, despite his girth, once Erik molds the safe he used to knock him out into solid metal bands he fits around Leland's arms, hands, and legs. Moira collects the papers from the desk and joins them in the other room, sitting on one of the couches and rubbing at her temples as she reads. Definitely a concussion, but she seems to be focused enough that Erik isn't concerned.
"So, it looks like the Inner Circle consists of the leaders of the Hellfire Club," she says, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. "Shaw was the leader, and Leland seems to be taking over in his stead. It's typical stuff--they're all influential and they were siphoning off resources wherever and however they could to aid the organization. Their goal was 'a new world order,' one led by Shaw."
"Which we foiled in Cuba," Erik says.
"I think," Moira says. "I assume, then, that they're all mutants, though now that Shaw's gone, they seem more concerned with power and wealth and politics than world domination. Frost's name comes up a few times--it seems she's from old money--but there's nothing particularly helpful."
Erik nods. He'd expected as much.
"But, knowing that Frost is from old money, that's something we can use, maybe," she says. "If Leland is unhelpful."
As if on cue, Leland groans. His eyelids flutter.
"Wake up, Leland," Erik says, turning his attention to the prone figure.
Leland groans again. Erik kicks him in the stomach.
"Open. Your. Eyes."
Leland looks up at them, then, glaring muzzily.
"We don't care about the Hellfire Club or your petty crimes," Erik says. "We're here to find Emma Frost."
"Emma hasn't been here in months," Leland spits out, and Erik smiles at him. He's been told it's a very disconcerting sort of smile.
"You know where to find her," he says. He waves a hand and the metal bands around Leland tighten. Leland groans again. "I suggest you tell us what you know before I squeeze your organs out through your mouth."
He tightens the metal incrementally. A vein pops out of Leland's forehead and he howls.
"You're going to kill me!" he shouts.
"Yes, he is," Moira says.
"I told you, she hasn't been here in weeks!" Leland insists. He's getting very red and gasping for breath. "But...but...her father...Frost International! There's an office in Los Angeles!"
Erik tightens the metal further, because he can.
"Please!" Leland gasps. "Please! That's--all I know. She...she disappeared with Shaw! That's all I--"
Leland passes out again.
Erik sighs and releases the metal enough for Leland to breathe but doesn't dissolve the bonds entirely. Payback for the way Leland nearly severed his spiral cord.
"Frost International in Los Angeles," he says, turning to Moira, who's still pale and a little uncertain on her feet. "Easy enough to find, I would assume?"
"Yeah," Moira says. "I know of it and I can make some phone calls. They have a contract with the DoD. They make a lot of the tech we use."
"Interesting," Erik says. "Maybe Shaw kept Frost around for more than her looks and powers."
"Or maybe Frost kept company with Shaw to further her father's industry," Moira suggests.
"Either way," Erik says, "we have a new destination. Frost won't be there--it's too obvious. But if the Frost family is as wealthy as you say...."
"We might be able to find some other properties where she might be hiding," Moira agrees. "It's the best lead we've got."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Erik asks. He gestures for Moira to lead the way, leaving Leland and his date alone in the back room.
They return to their hotel room and gather their things quickly. Moira doesn't bother stopping at the desk to reclaim her fake ID or pay for their room, and it's not long before they're leaving the lights of Las Vegas behind them, Erik speeding down the freeway as Moira shifts her aching muscles in the passenger seat, struggling to stay awake.
Moira makes a valiant effort to keep her eyes open, but they're barely forty-five minutes outside of Las Vegas and already she's drooping. He can't entirely blame her--they've really not had a proper night's sleep since this started and the adrenaline from the fight mixed with the concussion probably aren't helping matters.
"Open your eyes," Erik says sharply, and Moira sits upright, eyes wide.
"I'm awake," she says, blinking.
"You need to stay awake," Erik tells her.
"This isn't my first concussion, Lehnsherr. I wasn't just filing at the CIA, you know."
"I know," Erik says. He's known many women who could more than hold their own in combat. His distrust for Moira is based on her government allegiance and her genetic make up. "But I know it's difficult to stay awake in a car for hours."
"Yeah," Moira says. Her head is tipping towards the side again.
"Tell me--talk," Erik says. He doesn't think she can focus on the book right now and he doesn't trust her to drive, so his options are limited.
"Talk about what?" Moira asks.
"Talk about...you," he says lamely. "Your--life." Erik honestly doesn't much care about her life. He tries to think, though, of what Charles might come up with if he was with them. "Your--dreams." He says it derisively, but it's definitely a Charles idea.
"You don't care about my dreams," she says, tilting her head to look at him.
"No," he admits, "but I'll listen if it will keep you talking."
"Fair enough," Moira says, and she laughs a little.
Erik waits expectantly.
"Well?" he finally says, sparing a glance to make sure she's not dropping off again.
"I don't know," she says. "I...my dreams weren't--I don't know what my dreams are. Not anymore."
That's extraordinarily unhelpful. He wasn't asking to incite a philosophical discussion about her dead end life, he just wants a means to keep her from slipping into a coma.
"What made you want to join a covert government agency?" he asks. He's curious about it anyway, and he's getting frustrated. Maybe stumbling over the words in the book will be enough mental stimulation to keep her awake, even if it does drive him crazy.
"It wasn't my intention, really," Moira tells him. She shifts, leaning her shoulder against the door and turning slightly so she can look at him. "I wasn't--I didn't set out to--when I was growing up--"
She frowns and Erik wonders if she's not worse off than he assumed, if maybe she was hit harder than he saw.
"Are you sure--"
She waves him away.
"No, no, it's just...complicated to explain," she says. "It's a fairly long story that I'm sure you don't care to hear."
"Who cares if I want to hear it?" Erik says. "Long is good. Talk us all the way to Los Angeles."
Moira sighs. It's a long, mournful sound.
"It's not a happy story," she says. Erik shrugs. He's heard very few happy stories in his life. "Okay. Um. When I was in high school, I had my whole life planned out. I was going to marry my boyfriend and we were going to have a family and I was going to raise our kids while he worked--the American dream, right? It didn't matter that I wasn't sure that's what I wanted--I knew it was what I was supposed to want and I loved Joe. I figured, eventually, if I felt like I needed more, I could always go to college."
The 'American Dream.' Erik doesn't stop himself from rolling his eyes. Like someone with Moira's brains and obvious talent for subterfuge would be better off in a kitchen somewhere. Ludicrous.
Still, he gestures for her to continue.
"Well," she says. "I graduated high school. And I married Joe. And six months later, I was a widow."
Erik opens his mouth to say something--he doesn't know what--and then wisely closes it until he's more sure of his words. Of all the things Moira could have said, that is, perhaps, the least expected. He knows he should say he's sorry, but he avoid apologizing unless he means it and it's not as if he knew Moira's husband or even really knows Moira.
He settles for, "I didn't know." Innocuous enough.
"I didn't say," she says. She shrugs. "I...try not to say. People look at me differently once they know. And I loved Joe and I miss him every day, but I'm not some delicate, fragile thing. It was years ago. I've moved on."
Erik nods. "And you joined the CIA to...avenge him?"
Moira outright laughs. "No," she says. "He died in a car accident. Black ice. Not everyone lives their life for revenge, Erik."
"It was a plausible enough assumption," Erik insists. "You just told me you married right out of school and planned nothing else for your life and now you're a CIA agent. It's a bit of a lifestyle change."
"It is," she admits. "No, I decided to go to college. Study English, maybe. Become a teacher. But I couldn't afford it, even with Joe's death benefits, so I looked for a job to save up. I was hired by the CIA for filing and typing."
"Typing?" Erik asks, eying her critically. "Really?"
"Hand to god," Moira says, raising her right hand for emphasis. "I lived in McLean so I only applied because the commute would be easy. They hired me and I mostly kept my mouth shut and did my work until I started finding some weird inconsistencies in some reports I was filing. I didn't want to seem like some hysterical woman, though, so I started hunting through the files. I wanted to make sure I wasn't just jumping to conclusions to make the world more interesting. I realized the inconsistencies all led back to one agent, but they were spread across different departments. There was no way they would have been caught, except I just happened to file most of them. I brought my findings to the highest ranking official I could get a meeting with." She smiles wickedly. "I brought a spy down with my filing skills."
Erik is maybe a little impressed.
"And they hired you as an agent?" he asks.
"It took a lot of convincing and even more training," she says. "I think they were hoping to scare me off with all the classes and physical challenges, but it just furthered my conviction that this was what I was meant to do. That I enjoyed it and I was good at it and it was...an outlet, I guess, for all the grief I was still carrying around without even realizing it. I'd worked so hard to not mention Joe, to not act bereaved so they would take me seriously, that beating the crap out of people, pouring all my energy into something was a relief. I could just harness that energy and get it all out, finally."
With all the energy Erik spent trying to convince Charles that he was doing the right thing, that his way was a better way, it never occurred to him that maybe there were others who understood. He assumed that the reason that Moira never questioned his methods was because she was using him as a means to an end, as a weapon to use against Shaw in order to complete her mission. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe she understood more than he gave her credit for.
"You proved them wrong," Erik says. "You showed them you were up to the challenge, that your grief could be used for something worthwhile."
"I did," Moira agrees. "I think Joe would have been proud. But it's been years, now, and...well, I can't exorcise the worst of it. Because the worst of it is thinking every day that we should have had more time, that we wasted the time we did have."
Moira's earlier words come back to him, her insistence that he and Charles are fools. She was projecting her own issues onto their situation, obviously. Nothing to do with them. Really.
He tells himself that several times as he drives just a little bit faster.
"There's no use wasting energy on something you can't change," Erik says to her, eyes on the road.
"I know that, logically," she says. "That doesn't stop me from feeling it." She shrugs. She looks more alert, now, if slightly subdued, and Erik feels comfortable letting the conversation die.
Except, then Moira says, "Can I ask you a question?" and Erik has a feeling it's not dead just yet.
"You already have," Erik says.
Moira glares at him.
"Go on, then," Erik says. "I can hardly stop you."
"On the beach that day," she says, and Erik's shoulders tense. "You could have destroyed those ships. You were going to, and I was ready to shoot you to stop it, even thought I knew it probably wouldn't have worked. I thought Charles made you stop, but I asked him, afterward, and he said he didn't."
"None of that is a question." Erik's voice is tight.
"Why didn't you destroy them?" Moira asks.
Erik owes her nothing. He knows that. He can and should ignore her question and keep driving and she won't ask again. Yes, she's shared more about herself than he would have thought, but it was her choice, simply the means to keep her awake as they drove.
He owes her nothing, but he finds himself wavering anyway.
"I had two choices," he says. "I could have been the weapon that Shaw made me into or the man that Charles seemed to see within me. I didn't know what to do. I asked Charles and he--" He breathes out harshly, through his teeth. "Charles wouldn't tell me. And that's the difference between Shaw and Charles. Charles would have let me make the choice myself, even if I did not make the one he thought best."
"You made the choice Charles wanted you to anyway," Moira says.
"I'm not the man Charles thinks I am," Erik tells her. "I'm not the machine Shaw created, either."
"Isn't that true of all of us?" Moira asks. "We're never what anyone else sees. We make our own destinies."
"Perhaps," Erik says.
The odometer continues to turn and silence reigns in the car.
Moira's eyes are alert and focused as they wind through the dark streets of Los Angeles, four hours later. The home base of Frost International is hard to miss--the building is topped with a stylized 'F' and through the dark windows of the front office, they can see sleek white sofas and furnishings.
"Are you sure you're up for this?" Erik asks. Another Charles question. He's spending entirely too much time with that man. If Moira wasn't up for it, she wouldn't offer. He knows that much. Still, the question comes out, unbidden, as if Charles is still lurking in his mind.
"I'm fine," Moira says, and he believes her this time. There's certainty in the set of her jaw and a calculating look in her eyes as she looks at the building. She raises a pair of binoculars to her eyes."We'll go in through the roof. Fewer cameras to disable. Frost Senior's office looks like it's probably on the opposite side of the building from the roof access, but it should be easy enough to infiltrate. In and out should be about thirty minutes."
"How do you propose we get to the roof?" he asks, leaning over her shoulder.
"The building next door has an external fire escape," she says, gesturing. "There's about an eight foot gap and a two foot drop between the buildings. It should be easy enough to cross to the Frost building with the rope I've got in the back. Getting back will be a little more difficult, but you look like a man who appreciates the occasional physical undertaking."
Erik nods but puts his hands out, feeling out the magnetic fields around him. It was easy enough to do this next to the metal submarine, but he hasn't been as successful in the vast natural lawns of Charles' estate. Between two skyscrapers, however....
"I might have a better idea," he murmurs.
For a woman who had no compunction climbing all over him in her underwear, Moira is oddly hesitant at being carried to the top of the building.
"And you're sure this is safe?"
She's asked at least five times already. He stopped counting a few minutes ago.
"Positive," he lies. "I've done it before." Granted, at the time, circumstances were different, but she doesn't need to know that.
"And just to be clear, the 'before' when you did this was more than just floating Shaw's dead body ten feet to the ground outside a submarine?" she says.
"We'll be fine," Erik assures her.
"That's not what I asked," she says. He should have known she'd be too shrewd to accept that as an answer. "This is significantly higher than ten feet," she reminds him. "Also, I'm alive, so if you drop me--"
"I won't drop you," Erik says. "Besides, if I do, I can always lead you to the ground by your belt and gun."
"Unless you can't hold yourself up, either, and you plummet to your death before you can stop me," Moira says.
"That's incredibly unlikely to happen," Erik lies again. "We'll go slowly. If I feel like I'm starting to slip, we'll return, but I can do this." He's relatively sure, anyway.
Moira stares at him for a moment and then relents, shoulder slumping.
"The second you feel yourself slipping," she starts to say, but he waves the concern away.
"Yes, yes," he says. "Hold on to me. I'll need both hands to keep us steady."
Moira frowns for a moment and then loops the rope she insisted on bringing ("Just in case!") around her chest and awkwardly puts her arms around his neck. When Erik's sure her grip is tight, he closes his eyes and concentrates, feeling for thrum of the buildings' metal, digging his fingers into the magnetic fields twisting around them, and slowly using them to push himself up.
He goes slowly, keeping his eyes closed and concentrating on the feel of the metal and the pressure he's exerting on it. Moira is blessedly silent and Erik loses track of time as they inch their way upwards, guided by the struts and bolts of the building, the edges of the windows, the steel beams supporting the structure.
As soon as this ordeal is over, Erik needs to try this again somewhere he can keep his eyes open, because the rustle of air going past his face is mesmerizing and he's always wondered what it was like to fly.
"Erik--Erik! Too far!"
Erik's eyes snap open and he sees they're hovering a good ten feet above the roof. He drops them, but he's a bit too hasty and they plummet those ten feet in a second, still hovering hundreds of feet above the alley. Moira lets out a panicked noise, a choked scream, as Erik rights them and guides them over to the roof. They hit the surface a little harder than he would have liked, but they both stay on their feet. Moira releases a long sigh of relief and she's shaking when she lets go of his neck.
"That was amazing," she says, "in a completely horrifying way." Her voice isn't steady and she shakes out her limbs, shivering once and rolling her shoulders.
"I told you I could do it," Erik says. He takes a deep breath and then lets it out slowly. "Easy."
"Give me a minute to catch my breath and we'll get moving," Moira says, tipping her head back and breathing slowly. Erik nods his assent. Honestly, he needs a moment to get over the mix of elation and nerves as well.
They come back to themselves and silently approach the roof entrance.
"You can get the locks without breaking them, right?" Moira asks. "If not, I can pick them."
"No need," Erik says. "The cameras, however. I can short them out. I don't know that I can do it invisibly."
"I can handle that," Moira says. She pulls a black box with a flashing red light out of her pocket. "I may have neglected to return this to CIA headquarters after an assignment."
"What does it do?" Erik asks, taking it from her hand and turning it over. There are several buttons on the side.
"It will give us five seconds of static interference on the cameras," she says. "It's quick, but as long as we plan our steps and move quickly, we should be able to make it across the building and into Frost's office before security suspects anything. We just have to hope there's no camera in the office. If there is, we might have to resort to your methods."
"Very nice," Erik says, handing it back to her. "I've never seen anything quite like that."
"You wouldn't have," Moira says. "This is state of the art. I'm hoping that it's new enough that Frost hasn't heard of it, or at least won't suspect it."
"Let's hope you're right," Erik says. "Are you ready?"
Moira nods. "Open it just enough to see if the first camera is close. This thing only has a radius of about ten feet."
Erik does as she says. It's a more delicate process, opening a lock properly as opposed to disabling it enough to pull a door open, but he relishes the work, simple and precise and one of the first skills he honed. When the tumblers fall into place, he nudges the door open just slightly, just enough to spy the flashing red light of the security camera on the first landing.
"There are twelve steps," he says. "The camera is on the landing."
"Ready to move?" Moira asks and Erik nods once. She holds up the black box. "One, two, three."
The red light on the camera blinks out and Erik flings the door open. Moira shuts it behind her, leaving them in darkness, and Erik pauses on the landing long enough to spot the next camera on the next landing. He nods to Moira, who hits the button again and by the time the first camera comes back on, they've already disabled the third.
They work well together, silently, darting down the stairs and then across the office until they're standing in front of the large, frosted glass door of the office that takes up the entire end of the floor. Erik concentrates on opening the lock and takes a moment to quickly glance to the corners.
"No cameras," he says, and that's all Moira needs to shove Erik inside and close the door behind them.
By Erik's count, the last camera is back online and they're safely enclosed in Winston Frost's office. Well. That's phase one of this plan.
"Is there a safe in here?" Moira asks, already moving to Frost's desk.
Erik closes his eyes.
"Yes," he says. He points at the wall and opens his eyes again, moving to lift the Frost family portrait from the wall. The safe underneath will be easy enough to crack. Behind him, he hears Moira going through papers and drawers. "Let me know if you need me to pick any more locks," he says, and lays his fingers on the front of the safe. Everything in him wants to pull it from the wall the way he did in the Hellfire Club, but he keeps himself in check, very delicately moving the tumblers until he hears the "pop" of the bolts retracting.
Inside the safe is a very expensive watch, several classified government files, and a ledger that, at a guess, Erik would say contains evidence of illegal dealings. Still, he goes through the files and the ledger for any mention of Emma Frost and contemplates pocketing the watch. Charles would probably lecture if he ever found out, and though Erik almost keeps it out of spite, he puts it back and resecures the safe.
"I might have something," Moira says from the desk. Erik glances at her over his shoulder and quickly replaces the portrait before joining her. She's bent over correspondence on official looking letterhead for the Frost Massachusetts Academy.
"Dear Board Members," Moira reads. "As you know, we here at the--"
"Yes, yes," Erik says. "Get to the point."
Moira glares at him. "It is my privilege," she says, pointedly, "to announce my own daughter, Emma Frost, as the newest Headmistress at the Massachusetts Academy, starting with spring term. I hope you'll give her--"
Erik rips the paper out of Moira's hand. There is an address on top.
"We just drove the length of this stupid country for nothing," Erik says.
"That's not true," Moira says. "We followed a trail. Otherwise we'd still be in New York with no idea how to find Charles. Now we're in California and we know exactly where he is. Hopefully."
Erik folds the memo carefully and puts it into his pocket, even though he's already memorized the address.
"We can't drive all the way back," he says. "It's already been three days. If we waste another three days driving back--"
"We can fly, as long as you don't mind popping back up on the radar," Moira says. "If we leave the car in the airport garage, Charles can always come back for it."
"Or ignore it entirely and buy a new one," Erik mutters, but there's no bite to it. He's too focused. "We fly to Massachusetts--"
"We fly to New York," Moira corrects. "We can't just go running into a school, Erik. There might be children there! We can't risk hurting civilians, nor should we risk exposing ourselves to a bunch of prep school brats who, no doubt, have parents of influence."
"So we go in quietly," Erik says. "I don't understand why we need to waste our time in New York."
"We're going to a school," Moira reminds him. "If the two of us just show up like this, it will be conspicuous. If the two of us show up with a child we're interested in enrolling...."
It's not a bad plan.
"Well," he says. "Jean did say she wanted to help."
"Would you relax?" Moira hisses once the plane has leveled out. "You're scaring the stewardesses."
"It's not in my nature," Erik tells her, flexing and unflexing his fists.
"Then order a drink or something," she says. "I thought we were trying to be inconspicuous here. It's really hard when you look like you're ready to stab everyone in the throat."
"I'm a nervous flier," Erik says. It's not entirely a lie. Erik's not fond of air travel. He tolerates it, as it's the fastest way to get from one place to another (the fastest available, he thinks, remembering Shaw's teleporter), but he finds the whole process irritating. He prefers to be in control when he's traveling, or at least in the hands of someone he respects, if not trusts.
They don't have a choice this time, however, so Erik finds himself sitting next to Moira as the six am flight from Los Angeles to LaGuardia taxis down the runway. They have the vaguest outline of a plan, cobbled together on the drive to the airport and during the hours spent pacing the terminal, waiting for their flight. The plan hinges on their ability to pretend they like each other long enough to case the Frost Massachusetts Academy, but Erik assumes that if he could pretend to be sexually interested in Moira long enough to cross a crowded nightclub, he can pretend to be married to her for the length of an evening.
Timing is important. Their flight is due to arrive at 2:02 pm local time. It will take a little over an hour to make the drive back to the estate, leaving them just enough time to update the others, collect Jean, and drive up to the academy in time for Mary and Eric McDonald's 6:30 appointment with Assistant Headmaster Timothy Garfield. "Headmistress Frost is, unfortunately, away from the premises at this time," he had told them. "Could you reschedule for tomorrow?" Moira had, in a rather posh accent, informed him that if they liked what they saw, they would be more than happy to return and speak with Headmistress Frost on Thursday.
They're close to getting Charles back. He can feel it. They don't have any room to make mistakes.
"We've almost got this," Moira says, patting his hand awkwardly where it's fisted on the armrest. "We'll take a look around the school. If we have Jean, she can tell us if Charles is there, right?"
"Theoretically," Erik says. "Jean's--" He doesn't quite know how to explain the manifestation of Jean's powers and Charles' alterations to Moira, doesn't even entirely understand them himself. "Jean knows how to find Charles' mind," he finally says.
"Good," Moira says. "If he's there, we find him and nab him. If he's not, we'll have some time to look around and get as much information as we can. If nothing else, we know Frost will be there tomorrow morning. I'm not crazy about engaging inside a school, but if we surprise her--"
"It's difficult to surprise a telepath," Erik reminds her quietly.
"But not impossible," Moira says. "We've done it before. For better or worse, this is all over in the next twenty-four hours."
Erik doesn't want to think about "for worse."
"And you'll get to return to your life," Erik says. He wonders if Charles will wipe her memory again. He'll probably make another case for how she can be trusted, use this entire trip as evidence that there's no need to cut her off again.
"Well," Moira says, and she won't look at him. Erik feels something inside of him clench in fury. He knows that look. She's keeping something from him. She's probably been lying to him the entire time, she's probably--
"Jesus, Lehnsherr, calm down!" she whispers, and Erik realizes the other passengers are tugging ineffectually at their suddenly too-tight seatbelts.
"You're lying to me," Erik says. "You're hiding something. What are you keeping from me?"
"Nothing!" Moira insists. Erik's let go of the other seatbelts, but hers is still tightening. "Except--when I said I was off the mutant case? It might have been more accurate to say I was off all cases."
It takes Erik a moment to parse her words. He lets go of her seat belt.
"They've fired you," he says bluntly.
"Not exactly," she says, rubbing her waist. She still won't look at him. "I'm still an active-duty agent on paper, but these days they're more likely to tell me to pull some files than go out in the field. I...I think I might just disappear."
She looks surprised, as if she wasn't expecting to say that.
"It would be easy," she continues, slowly. "You trashed my apartment. And I left my fake ID in Vegas, but I haven't used my real name since I left Virginia. We've been keeping off the grid for four days now. When we're done with this I could easily just...walk away. Start a new life somewhere. Become a teacher or a secretary or something."
"You couldn't," Erik says. And at first he means because they obviously can't let her just walk away knowing as much as she does, but there's a second meaning behind it too. Because he understands her. They're alike in this way--he can't give up and settle down and take on a normal job any more than she can. In that respect, Charles is possibly the best thing that could have happened to him. Charles has given him a higher purpose, has given him an outlet for his powers and a new calling to replace the revenge that used to energize him. He still doesn't understand Charles' ideals or ideologies, but he agrees that the mutants of the world need training, grooming, and acceptance. He agrees that no one else should have to feel as alone as he did for all of those years. Without this motivation, he'd be as listless as he imagines Moira will feel without the CIA.
Moira shrugs, looking out the window. "I can try," she says. "Because, honestly? The work I'm doing for the CIA right now really isn't any better."
The stewardess appears at Erik's elbow, offering them coffee and breakfast and by the time she's moved on to the next row, Moira's leaning back and closing her eyes.
"You should get some sleep," she says. "It's going to be a while before you get another chance."
Erik closes his eyes and tries to imagine the life he'd be leading without Charles and his school and his dreams. When sleep does take him, it's restless and dark and reaffirms his conviction that he needs to get Charles back as soon as possible.
Their first stop on the ground is the bank of payphones a stone's throw from their gate. Moira has enough change in her pockets for Erik to place a call to the mansion, which is riotous when Angel picks up the phone.
"I need to speak to Raven," Erik says, though he feels he should be shouting over whatever ruckus is going on in the background.
Angel shouts for Raven loud enough for Erik to pull the phone away from his ear, and eventually Raven comes on the line, practically shouting herself.
"Erik!" she says. "Erik! Do you have Charles?"
"Almost," Erik says. "We're back in New York. We know where Frost is, but we have precious little time to reach her. We'll be at the mansion in about an hour."
"What do you need?" Raven asks.
"We need Jean's help," Erik says. "Frost is at a school. We're going to attempt to infiltrate it, but we need a child. Put her in her nicest dress. Make her look like she could fit in with the crowds you and Charles used to belong to in your childhood. And have her ready by the time we get there. We'd like to stop to eat, but if traffic's bad, we'll need to leave immediately."
"Okay," Raven says. "I can do that."
"Are you sure?" Erik asks. The noise in the background hasn't receded. "It sounds as if you may have your hands full."
"It's fine," Raven snaps. "I have it under control. Jean will be ready when you get here. We all will be."
She hangs up without saying goodbye.
"Well," Erik says to Moira. "Either Jean will be ready to go when we arrive or the entire mansion will be in shambles."
"Great," Moira says. "Nice to know that even after saving the world from nuclear war, they're still a typical bunch of teenagers."
"'Nice' is not the word I'd use," Erik mutters, leading the way away from the phones and into the heart of the airport.
Crowds continue to be a revelation every time Erik steps into one. He much prefers the silence of traveling by car, the illusion of the mostly-empty mansion in the middle of nowhere surrounded by massive gardens and grounds. Walking through the airport is trying, to say the least, and he can't help but feel himself cringing inwards at the noise and commotion.
"We're almost there," Moira says soothingly. Erik doesn't want her pity, but he knows he's more angry with himself for showing this sudden weakness so obviously than he is at her for commenting on it. That doesn't stop his glare, though. It seems to spur her into picking up the pace. They're nearly jogging across the airport now, though it's so packed with rushing travellers than they hardly seem out of place. They decided earlier that renting a car will take too long and lead to too many questions they're simply too impatient to answer. Erik was surprised when Moira agreed to his plan of simply "borrowing" a car from the rental agency. Maybe he shouldn't have been. He was quickly learning that Moira had fewer--or, at least different--scruples than he'd originally assumed. Fewer than Charles, at any rate. He'd suggested this course of action to Charles more than once on their cross-country journey, only to be met with exasperated dismissal every time.
Erik's become rather adept at molding plain metal into keyholes, and even if he wasn't, he's sure he could start a car without a key if he thought hard enough about it. It's easy, then, for them to stroll casually out to the edge of the parking lot and slide into a car Erik unlocks with a wave of his hand. He pulls the butter knife from Colorado out of his pocket and holds it to the ignition, closing his eyes and feeling the shape of the components, shaping the metal to fit and then sliding it in effortlessly. He turns the handle of the knife and the car starts smoothly and and instantly.
He opens his eyes. Moira is smiling, impressed.
"Good work," she says. "Let's get driving."
Traffic is stop and go out of the city, but once they hit Westchester, Erik guns the engine and adds a little extra push from his powers. The potential of finding Charles in the next twelve to twenty-four hours is weighing down on him, propelling him forward. He wants this to be over with. Even if he doesn't find Charles, even if he does and it's too late and Charles is--well.
Whatever the outcome, he just wants to know. He wants it to be over.
The journey seems endless, the road seems infinite, and then, suddenly, they're driving through the town, passing familiar landmarks, following the road out the other side and past other massive estates until the gates of the Xavier mansion are within sight.
It's been a long time since Erik understood the meaning of the word "home," but he imagines the feeling in his chest that blossoms when he sees those gates is a better definition than he could ever find in a dictionary.
He doesn't linger on the feeling long--there's a crucial part of "home" that's still missing, after all, and he'll have plenty of time to marvel at it once Charles is safe again. Moira gets out to punch the security code into the front gate and she's barely back in the car before Erik's speeding up the front drive towards the house. He can tell from a distance that the children are already gathered outside.
Strangely, the children are silent when Moira and Erik get out of the car. Jean has followed their instruction and is wearing her nicest dress with her hair pulled back into neat pigtails. The others look like they are barely holding back a barrage of questions, quelled into silence by the sharp looks that Raven is shooting them.
"Well?" Raven finally asks.
"We know where Frost is," Erik says. "She's the headmistress of a school in Massachusetts about two hours from here. We're taking Jean to infiltrate and if he's not there when we tour the facility tonight, we've got an appointment with Frost tomorrow morning."
"We'll have Charles back by this time tomorrow," Moira tells them. Her words are firm and sure and he watches as all of the children relax, as if they actually believe it will be that easy. Erik almost can't blame them. Moira's confidence seems unshakable.
"I miss Charles," Ororo says quietly.
"We all do, honey," Raven says, laying a hand on the top of her head.
"He'll be home tomorrow, mein Schatz," Erik says with conviction, and Ororo runs at him. He kneels down just fast enough to catch her as she throws open her arms.
"Promise?" she asks.
"I promise," Erik says.
"And he'll stay? And you'll stay? And you won't go away like Mommy and Daddy did?"
Erik swallows. If Charles is dead, he will kill Frost himself, as painfully as possible, if only for making him break his word to Ororo. "No," he says. "We'll come home to you, liebling."
"Good," she says into his shoulder, her arms wrapped around his neck. Erik strokes her hair and glances at the others. Raven is staring at him, obviously keeping him to his word. The others can't quite manage to look at him.
"Now," he says, perhaps a little gruffly, lowering Ororo to the ground, "What did I say about coming outside without your hat?"
"Sorry!" Ororo says. She's obviously taken him at his word, all smiles again, confident in his ability to bring Charles home to her.
"Remember it next time," he tells her. To the rest of the children he says, "Let's return indoors? Moira and I need to shower and change before we can leave."
Oddly docile, the children file inside without another word, Ororo leading the way with a shout of, "I get to help make dinner tonight!" as she skips inside.
"You're good with her," Moira remarks, her bag slung casually over her shoulder. He shrugs and turns back to the car, removing his briefcase and duffel bag.
"She's an easy child to like," he says, and gestures for Moira to lead the way into the house.
"And the rest of them seem...calmer than I remember," she says. "Calmer than you implied they were after your phone call earlier."
"They do..." he agrees. He can't help but be suspicious, but the house is still standing and they seem uninjured, so there's time to investigate their quiet acquiescence later. He puts it out of his mind and follows Moira into the house, heading straight for the bathroom down the hall from his room.
"Fifteen minutes," she tells him. "Then we'll eat something and get moving."
"Fine," he says. More than enough time to shower and change into his other suit. He leans over the railing and shouts downstairs, "Dinner in fifteen minutes!" There's a brief commotion and then the sound of a dozen feet rushing towards the kitchen. That should be plenty of warning.
The shower is almost luxurious after the number of days he's gone without, even if it's short. He's doing his best to key himself up, to focus his mind on the task to come, to banish the anxiety lingering in his mind. He needs to summon the certainty he possessed when stalking Shaw. He's going to find Charles. Everything will work out. There's no possibility for failure.
He thinks it over and over again as the hot water beats against his shoulders. If he says it enough, he's sure to believe it.
Moira's already downstairs when he arrives in the dining room they frequent. She's wearing a very conservative dress with a cardigan and a string of pearls. She's clearly packed for every eventuality. Ororo is sitting next to her, talking animatedly about the last book Erik assigned her, and Jean is on the other side, interjecting lots of excited comments about her own reading. It's the most Jean has engaged anyone, outside of Charles and perhaps Scott, since she arrived.
It seems Moira already has admirers at the mansion.
"You can't blame them," Raven says, coming up behind him. He doesn't flinch, but it's a near thing. "I mean, you and Charles are aren't bad as far as parent-figures go, but I'm sure it's nice for them to talk to a woman for a change."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Erik mutters.
"Of course you don't," Raven says. She rolls her eyes. Erik thinks he liked it better when she was a little afraid of him. "Ororo and Sean made enough pasta to feed a small army. Sit down and eat before you go."
"Since when are you the house mother?" Erik asks, raising a critical eyebrow.
"Someone needs to step into Charles' shoes, and I've been around him long enough to pick up a thing or two," Raven says.
Erik supposes that's true, and moves to take a seat on the other side of Ororo, who immediately says, "Erik, Erik, Erik, I made dinner with Sean!"
Erik tries not to be too smug at how quickly he's reclaimed her attention. "I'm sure it will be wonderful, mein Schatz," he says. Moira shoots him a knowing look over Ororo's head and goes back to her dinner, not even trying to hide her smile. "What?" he says to her.
"Nothing," she says. "Absolutely nothing. We should hurry up and eat."
"And then we'll go save Charles?" Jean asks, all bright eyes and excited smile.
Erik repeats his mantra to himself. He's going to find Charles. Everything will work out. There's no possibility for failure.
"Yes," he says to Jean. "And then we'll go and save Charles."
There's surprisingly little fanfare or commotion when Moira, Jean, and Erik get into yet another of the Xavier automobiles (a sleeker, more expensive model than their stolen airport sedan, something more befitting a rich couple seeking admission to an exclusive boarding school). He had expected the older children to protest their exclusion from the plan, but a sharp look from Raven seems to quell their mutinous looks. Apparently she has been studying Charles' methods.
"Now, Jean," Moira says as Erik leaves the twisting driveway of the estate and pulls onto the road, "remember our plan."
"I have to pretend you're my mom and dad," Jean says. "And that I want to go to Miss Frost's school."
"Yes," Erik says. "But allow us to do most of the talking and do your best to see if Charles is in the school."
"With my mind, right?" Jean says.
"Yes, with your mind. If you feel Charles in the school, tell us immediately," he says.
"I will," Jean says.
"And if we need to go after Charles?" Moira prompts.
"I'll go outside and wait in the car until you say it's safe," Jean says.
"Good girl," Moira says. "I think we're about as ready as we can be."
They're about to take on a powerful telepath with an unknown number of associates in unfamiliar territory. Erik sincerely hopes that "as ready as they can be" is good enough.
They're an hour outside of Frost's school when they pull over to stop for gas and assess their resources one last time. Erik fills the car with gas while Moira ducks inside to pay, Jean following along behind her, eager to play her role as the dutiful daughter. A moment or two later, Jean reappears without Moira.
"Erik, may I have an ice cream?" she asks. "Moira says I have to ask you."
Erik is momentarily thrown by the question. He blinks at her for a moment, parsing her request. Jean is a relatively tidy girl; he trusts her not to get ice cream all over herself and the car. They left before the other children had their dessert, so it seems fair enough to allow it.
Oh god. He really is becoming domesticated. He blames Charles entirely.
There will be enough time to contemplate that later, however. For the moment, it seems easiest to allow Jean's request. He automatically reaches for his back pocket before remembering his wallet is in his jacket pocket, folded neatly on the front seat.
"My wallet is in the car," he tells her. "Give me a moment to finish with the gas."
"I have my own money," Jean says, pulling a neatly folded five dollar bill out of one of the pockets in her jacket. Erik frowns. Charles must be giving the children an allowance of some sort. It's so very like him.
"Fine," he says. "Be neat with it."
"I will!" she assures him, and rushes back into the gas station, pigtails bobbing behind her. She passes Moira, who holds the door open for her with a fond look and then joins Erik at the car.
"I'm wearing a gun," she says with no preamble. "I have another in my purse. Would you like it?"
"I have a knife," Erik assures her. "I have no need for a gun."
"If things go bad in there, as much as I hate to say it, I'm going to leave things to you until I can get Jean to safety. I hope it won't come to that, what with it being a school, but keeping her out of harm's way should be our priority and you're a bigger asset in a fight." Erik can tell how much it hurts her pride to admit that. How unfortunate it must be to be the only human surrounded by mutants.
"Fine," he says. "I'm sure I can hold them off until you've stashed the girl."
"And try to remember it's a school," she says. "There might be innocent children--"
"I know," Erik says. "I'm not as careless as you seem to think."
"I don't think you're careless," Moira says. "I think you're determined and I think it gives you tunnel vision."
"A tight focus is crucial in situations like this," Erik says.
"I know," Moira says. "I'm just saying...make sure it's not too tight."
Further conversation is curtailed by the return of Jean, holding a popsicle despite the chill in the air.
"Are we ready to go get Charles now?" she asks.
Moira looks at Erik levelly.
"Yes," he says crisply. "Let's go."
If possible, the Massachusetts Academy is even more impressive than the Xavier estate. Erik attributes that to both the fact that the Xavier mansion hadn't been touched in years before their arrival and to the fact that the Frost school is actually functional. As they creep down the drive, Erik sees a gaggle of teenagers in parkas and ice skates by a frozen lake and lights on in most of the rooms in the three buildings within his sight. There are well-trampled paths in the snow and several cars parked in the lot at the end of the long drive.
They're twenty minutes early for their appointment. Erik takes several deep breaths to settle his nerves and combat the rush of adrenaline.
"Compared to everything else we've done this week, this should be simple," he says aloud. He's not sure if he's trying to reassure Moira and Jean or himself.
"We'll have Charles home in time for breakfast," Moira agrees. They share a long look. It's sobering, how much their relationship has changed in the past four days, odd to think that, a week ago, Moira was in Virginia and sure that Erik and the others had died on the beach.
He shakes his head clear.
"Jean," he says, turning to peer into the backseat. "Are you--"
"Charles!" Jean shouts, before he can finish. "Charles! Charles is--" She snaps her mouth closed and frowns. "No! No, where did he--Charles was here, Erik! He was here! I felt him! But now he's gone, but he was here, I swear it, he was right in my mind just like he is when we work at the mansion, he was right there and now he's gone again but he was there!" She points out of the car, towards a small building tucked far back behind the main school. "Erik, he was there, he was there, I promise I'm not playing games, Erik--"
"I believe you!" Erik says, attempting to stop her rambling. He's thinking of the sub, of the strange mirrored room that kept Charles out of Erik's fight with Shaw until he managed to shatter the walls. "I believe you, Jean, but are you absolutely positive it was Charles and he was back there?"
"Yes!" Jean insists. "Yes, yes, it was him! I know it was him, Erik! I know it!"
"Okay," Moira says, taking a deep breath. "Change in plan, then."
"There was a room on Shaw's sub," Erik says.
"That Charles couldn't penetrate. Yes, I remember, I was there," Moira reminds him. "Jean, honey, stay in the car. Erik and I are going to go get Charles."
Erik takes inventory of his weapons, feeling out the knife strapped to his hip, the lump of metal that was once a butter knife that's sitting in his pants pocket, the handful of ball bearings he has in his jacket, even Moira's gun. They're as prepared as they can be.
"We'll take it at a run?" he says. "If Frost is on the premises, she'll know we're coming."
"Sounds like a plan," Moira says. "The building doesn't seem that large. A guest house, more than anything."
"I'll concentrate on any combatants. You find Charles," Erik says.
Moira nods and they open their doors in unison. Moira unholsters her weapon and, on her nod, they sprint down the snowy path towards the low building down at the tree line. Erik ignores the bite of the wind and the cold sneaking in through his shoes as he runs through the snow. He's tense, ready for the teleporter to appear at any moment, ready for someone to come rushing out of the building towards them, ready for an attack from the trees, but it never comes. It almost makes him more nervous, the lack of resistance, but he uses the nerves to propel him the last ten yards until he and Moira are standing on either side of the door. She was right about it being a guest house, he thinks, or maybe servants' quarters. The shades are drawn and the door is locked, though that's no obstacle for him. He glances at Moira, who nods at the door knob and raises her gun, pointing it at the door. Erik waves his hand, not bothering to be delicate, shoving the door open once the pieces of the lock are melted out of the way.
Moira enters the building, gun first, but the front room is empty. Not just of combatants--the room is bare of furniture. There are bare spots on the rug where it's clear a table and sofa used to be, but everything's been removed. There's a stairwell on the far right and a door directly in front of them, next to the open entrance to the kitchen. He supposes it leads to some sort of cellar. He looks between the door and the stairwell, but Moira makes the choice for him, crossing to the door and pointing her gun at it again. Erik follows and, with no finesse whatsoever, rips the lock out of the door and pulls it open. There's a stairwell leading down, and at the foot of it is a heavy steel door that's no match for his powers. He takes it at a run, leaving Moira to follow behind him, and is crushing the door inward before he even hits the landing. He pulls his knife into his hand and leaps over the crushed door and--
"Erik!" Charles says cheerfully, and before Erik can do more than gape at the sight of Charles, alive, whole, and handcuffed to a table set for tea across from Emma Frost, Moira slams into his back.
"Charles?" she says, already pointing her gun around Erik's side.
"Moira!" Charles greets. "Oh, my, you're back with us as well! Wonderful."
The room is mirrored with the same substance that had lined the walls of Shaw's sub, but aside from that it's almost homey. There's the tea table, but also a sofa and a coffee table, clearly moved from upstairs. Charles looks content enough and unharmed, but it doesn't stop Erik from keeping his arm extended, knife pointed at where Frost, neatly dressed and bemused, is sitting across from Charles.
"I haven't hurt him," Frost says blandly.
"You took him," Erik says through gritted teeth. His hands are shaking, maybe with adrenaline, maybe with relief. "You just...held him here for five days. For fun? To torture us?"
"Well," Emma says, "the first two he was mostly unconscious. I couldn't be here to watch him and I didn't want him to get the jump on either of my companions. The last three have been a little more stimulating." She raises her eyebrows and smirks at Erik. He wants to smash her face into a wall. "I've learned a few mental tricks since I last saw you boys. I was hoping to get a few minutes alone inside dear Charles' mind, but it's been more difficult than I suspected."
"Don't sell yourself short," Charles says, absently rubbing his forehead. "You're very powerful in your own right, Miss Frost."
"Charles, are you okay?" Moira asks.
"I'm fine," Charles assures her. "Really, Erik, please put down the knife. Miss Frost hasn't hurt me and she won't hurt you, I assure you."
Erik doesn't move.
"She took you," he says. "She's had you all this time." He doesn't move his gaze from Frost, but he can see Charles out of the corner of his eye. Aside from a wrist that's chafed under the edge of the metal cuff, he seems fine.
"Her methods were unconventional, I admit, but she had no plans to physically harm me and we were just negotiating the terms of my release," Charles says evenly. "Erik, my friend. Please."
There's a tremor in Erik's hand and damn Charles to fucking hell for putting it there. He lowers his arm slowly, his hands shaking as he puts the knife back in the sheath at his hip. Moira has already reholstered her gun and is cautiously approaching the table.
"What the hell is going on?" she asks. "We've been all over the country trying to find you, Charles!"
"I know," Charles says. "I apologize." And of course Charles would apologize for being held against his will. Erik hasn't been this angry since he killed Shaw. He's nearly vibrating with it and there's no outlet. He's angry at Frost for taking Charles, at himself for taking so long to find him, at Charles for being so fucking calm about the whole thing--
"Erik!" Charles says, and Erik doesn't care that furniture is shaking and the door is crumbling into a ball because he's spent five days tied in knots and telling his secrets to some human woman all because he thought Charles was in danger and here he is, taking tea with his captor and Erik, Erik--
"Erik!" Moira snaps and elbows him hard enough to jolt his concentration. Erik glares at her, but the break is enough to ball up those feelings and place them aside, momentarily, at least.
"Erik, I'm so sorry," Charles says. He moves to touch Erik, but he's still cuffed to the table. Erik jerks his hand angrily and the chain of the handcuffs snaps. Charles glances down at it and then steps forward, both hands hovering anxiously in the air as if he's not sure whether he can touch Erik without consequence. "Unfortunately, fending off Miss Frost took all my attention and strength the few times the door was open long enough to send out a projection or signal. While she always planned on returning me if she couldn't sway me to her side, she felt contact with any of you would perhaps spawn a rescue mission before she retrieved the information she was looking for."
"I should have known it would have happened anyway," Frost mutters with an expressive sigh.
"It's just as well," Charles says to her. He's smiling, but it's the smug, superior smile that makes Erik want to hit him. It's nice to see it directed at someone else. "You never would have found the information you wanted, no matter how long you looked." Frost narrows her eyes, but Charles ignores her, focusing once again on Erik. "I swear, I would have contacted you if I was able, my friend. I would never wish to cause you this level of distress."
"This is all well and good," Moira says, the deep furrow in her brow broadcasting her displeasure, "but can someone please explain what the hell's going on here?"
"Miss Frost has decided to create her own school for mutants," Charles begins. "A subsidiary of the Massachusetts Academy. She wanted...some advice on recruitment."
"I want to know how you were finding mutants," Frost says, getting to her feet and crossing her arms. "Your school isn't my concern right now. I'm not going to hurt you unless you give me reason. But I had to know, and this seemed like the most...expedient way of finding out. I was planning on trading Xavier for the plans for whatever machine you're using if I couldn't get the information out of him. but he claims the machine no longer exists. As of this evening, we've reached something of an impasse."
Charles is a clever bastard, Erik will give him that much, though he stops his line of thought there. No need to give the game away, let Frost know the interface is working fine, even if the transmitter isn't complete. Instead, he nods slowly, just as angry as he is relieved.
"But, since the two of you are here and we were in the midst of coming to an agreement, I imagine she'll call this whole silly thing off," Charles says. He looks at Frost imploringly, but she just rolls her eyes.
"You're useless to me," she says and waves him towards Erik and Moira. "And, really, Lehnsherr, you had to destroy the door? You couldn't merely open it?"
"You're lucky I didn't use it to crush you flat," Erik says sharply, fisting his hand and using his power to lift the crushed remains of the metal door off of the floor.
"Erik," Charles says warningly. He places his hand on Erik's arm and Erik lets the door fall with a crash. Beside him, Moira sighs and shakes her head.
"Well, I'm glad you're all right," Moira says, and Charles turns his attention to her, beaming.
"I'm so glad to see you back with us," he says, touching her forearm, smiling like she's shown up unexpectedly for tea and not like he wiped her memory two and a half months ago.
"It's a long story," Moira says. She starts to move forward and then hesitates, so it's Charles who makes the first move, pulling her into a quick embrace. "You might want to work on your memory blanking skills, though," she adds. "It didn't take me long to break through once Erik showed up in my apartment."
Charles releases Moira, but holds her at arm's length, grinning. There's a slightly manic edge to the smile. Erik finds it a little disconcerting. "Ah," Charles says. "That was by design. I didn't wipe your memories, I simply blocked them. While I didn't want your superiors at the CIA to glean any information on our whereabouts, there was always the chance we should need you again some day. It was easy enough to provide your brain with specific triggers."
Moira looks torn between shock, awe, and disgust. Erik doesn't blame her. For all that Charles goes on about doing the right thing, his morals are decidedly grey when he deems it necessary.
"You did all that to my mind?" Moira asks. "I don't know if I should be horrified that it's possible or gratified that you didn't just erase several weeks of my life completely."
"I'm dreadfully sorry about the whole thing," Charles says. "I hope you can forgive me, Moira. But, I must say, I'm pleased to see you and Erik working so closely together. I know you weren't particularly friendly when you were last with us."
Charles lets go of Moira and turns all that good-natured enthusiasm on Erik and he...can't. He can't handle it. Not after the past few days.
He holds up a hand, and Charles stops where he is.
"You're okay," Erik says bluntly.
"Of course," Charles says. "Miss Frost could have gone about it with a little more decorum, but she had no intention of harming me. She merely wanted information. I'm sure she would have released me once we came to an agreement."
Erik covers his eyes with his hand. "You've been okay this whole time," he says.
"Well, yes. I admit, her methods were questionable and I did fear what would happen when you all awoke and I was--"
"Stop talking," Erik says, squeezing his eyes shut, even underneath his palm. His head aches. His heart aches. But Charles acquiesces. Erik takes a few long breaths and then lowers his hand. Charles finally takes that step forward and slowly, broadcasting his intention, touches Erik's wrist.
"I'm fine," he assures Erik. "Really." He takes his hand back and hesitates a moment, but takes two steps forward and tentatively puts his arms around Erik. Erik feels his heart squeeze, but he's too exhausted to pretend he doesn't want the contact and hugs Charles back without hesitation. The rage slowly starts to drain out of him and for a moment, Charles' embrace is all that's keeping him from crumbling to the floor. He takes a breath to fortify himself and pulls back, holding Charles at arms' length and looking at him critically. He looks tired, but clean and well-fed and uninjured and he supposes that's better than he expected.
"I hate to impose," Charles says sheepishly, "but...." He holds up his wrist, which is still enclosed in one end of the handcuffs that had been used to secure him to the table. Erik sighs and gestures at them, snapping the cuff apart easily. Both ends fall to the floor and Charles massages the rough red marks around his wrist. Erik swallows back the urge to take that wrist in his hand and kiss along the raw marks the cuff left behind.
Across the room, Frost snorts.
"Get out of my head, Frost," he mutters darkly. He looks up at her, frowning. "And what happened to destroying the human race in a nuclear winter? It seems to me that going from queen of the world to headmistress of a boarding school is a step downward. Not to mention your threat to murder us on sight."
"Nuclear war was Shaw's dream, sugar, not mine," Frost says, inspecting her manicure. "I'm just as happy to keep the humans around, as long as they don't get in my way. Once we rise to power, they'll understand we're the dominant species and treat us accordingly. No need to destroy the world in order to do it. There's a lot about this world I like, after all." She glances up from her nails to turn a critical gaze on Erik and Charles. "And as for the two of you, I was hoping Shaw would have dealt with you, but as he couldn't even handle that simple task, I can't be bothered as long as you stay out of my way."
"Still," Charles says, turning to Frost. "Our ideologies aren't that different. You really should consider joining us. Surely, one united front for finding and educating mutants would be better than two? I'm sure we can find common ground."
"No thanks, honey," Frost says. "But once you come to your senses and drop this silly 'tolerance' daydream, feel free to give me a call." She looks at Erik. "Same goes for you, you know."
Before Erik can tell her where to shove her offer, Charles turns back to him, all wide, intense blue eyes, and says, "You should consider it, Erik."
Erik is speechless. He opens his mouth and then snaps it closed. "What the hell do you mean?" he finally says.
"Just that...I know you disagree with my ideals," Charles says. "This is, perhaps, a better option for you."
Erik's mouth goes dry. "If you want me to leave," he says lowly, "just say the word, Charles. No need to tart it up."
"Of course I don't want you to leave," Charles says. He holds up his hands, placatingly. "I would never--but I don't want you to stay because you think you have to. I don't want you to feel...indebted. I don't want you to stay out of some sort of misplaced guilt."
Erik rubs at his face with his hand. "That's not why I'm here, Charles. I didn't drive all the way across the country out of misplaced guilt. You must know--you're a mind reader, for god's sake!"
"I told you I wouldn't read your mind without permission!" Charles says, putting his hands on his hips. "And I--after Cuba--"
"I gave you--I let you--I left it in your hands!" Erik says. He runs both hands through his hair in frustration. "And you obviously--"
"Would the two of you like to be alone to have this out?" Frost interrupts. "As I'm sure you know, running a school is busy work and I don't have time to stick around listening to a lovers' spat. If you'd kindly work out your issues elsewhere? Perhaps back at your own school? In a bedroom?"
"Seriously," Moira says, eyebrows raised. Erik glares at both of them. He glances at Charles and is glad to see he's not the only one flushing.
"We...." Charles starts weakly, but trails off.
"Right," Frost says. "If you're not going to help, please vacate the property. I have things to do, you know. If you don't leave now, I'll have to send for Azazel to help you along, and he really doesn't appreciate playing taxi."
"Fine," Erik mutters.
"Just as well," Moira says. "Jean will be getting nervous, alone in the car like that."
"Oh!" Charles says, delighted. "I thought I felt Jean for a moment before! It's good to know my skills haven't atrophied completely in this room. I assumed the cabin fever was starting to get to me. It will be good to see the children again. I imagine they were a bit disconcerted by my disappearance."
"A bit," Moira says. "They'll be relieved to see you. But we should be going."
"Yes, yes, of course," Charles says. "Miss Frost, though the circumstances left much to be desired, it was lovely to chat. I would love to do it again, perhaps when neither of us is being held against our will?"
"We shall see," Frost says with a bemused grin.
"Let's go home, shall we?" Charles says, looking up at Erik with a crooked, almost shy smile.
"Let's," Erik says.
Erik needs to have a conversation with Charles. He knows it. They should have had it right in that mirrored room, despite the audience, but he's determined not to let it slip away like it did when they returned from Cuba. The car isn't the place for it, however, not with Charles ensconced in the backseat, Jean curled against him. He lets Moira drive, though, so he can watch Charles in the rear view mirror, reminding himself again and again that they have Charles back and he's fine and, while it's frustrating knowing he just lost five days of his life to a pointless journey, there are worse outcomes than five days of wasted time.
Moira catches his eyes in the mirror and shares a sardonic smile. He's not the only one who lost five days, he supposes, not the only one frustrated that this whole escapade was for nothing.
"I think he owes us both a bottle of wine after that," she mutters to him while Charles listens raptly to Jean's update on life at the mansion.
"At the very least," Erik agrees and he can't help smiling back at her.
The trip back to the mansion is uneventful and calm, in stark contrast to the last week of Erik's life. He finds himself listlessly watching the scenery go by Moira drives through the darkened back roads. Jean has finally drifted off, exhausted from the excitement of the day, on Charles' lap. Neither Charles nor Moira jump in with a conversation, though Erik is sure Charles is probably curious about their cross-country manhunt, and Erik is content to let silence reign, especially since he knows they'll be arriving home to an uproar from the children.
They're nearly there when Erik feels the tentative nudge at his mind for the first time since Charles was taken. He steels himself--he wants to have this conversation out loud, perhaps when he's not exhausted, and preferably when he doesn't have an audience.
Still, he thinks, Yes, Charles?
I'm--I'm very sorry you went to all this trouble, my friend, Charles thinks. If there was a way to contact you, I would have. I never meant to worry you.
Erik closes his eyes. I know, he thinks. It's okay, Charles. It wasn't your fault.
I do appreciate the effort, Charles thinks.
You're worth it, Erik responds, too tired to hide the complicated affection tangled up in the words.
Charles doesn't reply, but when Erik glances in the mirror, he's smiling.
As Erik predicted, their homecoming is noisy and chaotic. He's not sure how Raven knows they're coming--perhaps she was watching at the window and saw the headlights, or maybe Charles reached out to her--but the children are waiting outside, again, on their arrival. They're not standing calmly this time, but rather pacing and jumping and talking amongst themselves. When Charles steps out of the car, they all start talking at once. Ororo launches herself at Charles without a second thought and Raven is anxiously on her heels.
"I knew you'd come home!" Ororo says. "Erik promised and it's not nice to break promises."
"You're right, my darling," Charles says, kissing the top of her head. "Erik is especially good at keeping his promises." He places her back on the ground and is almost immediately bowled over by Raven, who grabs him and hugs him tightly.
"You're so stupid," she says, and Charles merely laughs, burying his face in her hair.
"I'm so, so sorry for worrying you, love," he says.
"Yeah, well, I knew Erik would find you or possibly destroy the world trying," Raven replies, but her voice is slick with tears. "Just...don't disappear again, okay?"
"I will try my very best," Charles assures her. When they part, Raven clears her throat and wipes at her eyes.
"Anyway," she says, "you owe me twenty-five dollars."
Charles laughs, incredulous. "Excuse me?" he says. "For what, exactly?"
Raven glances at Erik, guilty, and then says, "I may have paid the kids to be good while Erik was gone."
"You bribed them?" Erik says. He's...either exasperated or impressed. It's hard for him to tell. The calm upon their return from LA suddenly makes sense, as does Jean's ice cream money.
"You try taking charge in this house and tell me how it goes, okay?" Raven says. Erik opens his mouth to tell her he does on a daily basis, without resorting to bribery, but she holds up her hand. "Whatever. At first it was just Sean and then Alex wanted in and then the little kids heard and it was easier than--"
"Rules?" Charles suggests dryly. "Decorum?"
"Oh, shut up," Raven says. "And to think I missed you."
Charles laughs again and shakes his head, leaning over to kiss her cheek. "I missed you too, Raven."
Charles is swept into a mob of the other children at that point, Scott and Sean and Alex crowding around him and Angel and Hank hovering just to the side. Ororo and Jean rush over as well and it's a miracle the whole mob fits through the door and into the mansion.
Erik leans against the car, watching the spectacle and trying to ignore the warmth spreading from his heart down to his fingers and toes.
"Well," Moira says, "we did it."
"We did," Erik agrees.
"Was working with me as excruciating as you had imagined?" She grins at him and he turns again, staring up at the house, but not hiding his own smile.
"Even worse," he assures her.
"Yeah," she laughs. "For me too."
They share one last half smile and then follow the noise and laughter back into the house.
Charles forgoes the usual bedtime rules, but the excitement takes its toll and Raven and Hank, the last stragglers, wander off to bed not long after eleven. Charles suggests that he, Moira, and Erik move their discussion to the library, but Moira begs off.
"I haven't really slept in about five days," she tells him. "Plus, I'm sure the two of you need to catch up." She gives Erik a sharp look that says things like, work/life balance and we only have so much time with our loved ones and remember what I said in the car, you asshole clearly enough that he's pretty sure Charles understands, even without using his telepathy.
"Good night, then," Charles says. "We'll see you at breakfast."
"Good night, Charles. Erik," she says, and gives Erik one last look before heading upstairs.
Erik watches her go, and not just to avoid looking at Charles. Really.
"So," Charles says. "Shall we?"
Erik nods and tries to swallow despite his suddenly dry throat, following Charles from the den to library. The chessboard is out, a game from the week before half finished, but Charles passes right by it and sits at the end of the sofa instead.
"Would you like a drink?" he asks, moving to get back to his feet, but Erik shakes his head. They'd already had a glass of wine each while sitting with the children If they're going to do this tonight, he'd rather do it clear headed.
"No," he manages to say. "Best not to have any excuses in the morning, don't you think?"
"What would we possibly need excuses for?" Charles asks and Erik sighs.
"Charles, I'm too tired to play this game," he says.
"If you're too tired--"
"No," he cuts in. "No. This is a conversation long overdue, I feel."
"So it is," Charles agrees.
They sit in silence. Erik closes his eyes.
"I won't apologize," Erik finally says. He opens his eyes. Charles' gaze is intense and he almost regrets it. "You knew I was going to kill Shaw. It was always my intention, Charles. He killed my mother and countless other people, and I refuse to apologize for revenge that was mine to take. I told you the day that we met that Shaw's death was my goal and if you thought otherwise, you were kidding yourself. I'm the same man I was the night before Cuba, and if what happened then is stopping you from--if it's stopping you, then you were blind to who I was the whole time. I'm not the man you think I am. I'm not a good person. And I am sorry that I made you a part of it, but if this was the outcome, maybe it would have been better for both of us if you stayed away."
Charles stares at him for a moment, frowning, and then the corner of his mouth lifts just slightly. There's a questioning nudge at his mind, and Erik sighs and lays himself open. There's nothing left to hide anymore. There hasn't been for a long time.
The corner of Charles' mouth lifts higher and suddenly he's smiling full on. Suddenly actually laughing. Which is...not the result Erik was expecting.
"I'm glad you find the situation so hilarious," he says, and tries not to sound as bitter as the rejection makes him feel.
"Oh, no, no, no!" Charles says, reaching out and grabbing Erik's hand. "Oh, no, my friend...I think the two of us have been very confused for some time now."
"What on earth--" Erik starts to say, but the words die on his lips because then Charles is leaning forward and kissing him.
He knows he should be questioning it, asking for an explanation, but if this is all he's going to get, he's going to hold onto it with both hands for as long as he can. He slides his fingers into Charles' hair and holds him still, even as Charles' hands slide down his sides to press at the small of his back. It feels amazing. His heart is in his throat and there's a warm, affectionate arousal pooling in his stomach and any moment now Charles is going to stop and probably say something ridiculous because this is obviously a goodbye kiss and--
"Shut up," Charles murmurs, lifting his mouth away a fraction of an inch. "Please. I'm not going anywhere, Erik." And then he crawls across the remaining few inches and straddles Erik's waist. Erik has no idea what's happening and no longer cares. He doesn't have quite enough scruples to say no to this. He digs under Charles' cardigan to find the edge of his shirt and yanks it out from his trousers, then slides his hand up Charles' spine. His skin is as warm and soft as Erik remembers and it just makes his kisses greedier. He presses his other hand to the base of Charles' skull, fingers tangling in his soft hair as he opens his mouth and licks away the last traces of the wine they'd shared in den. Charles pulls at Erik's tie, somehow managing to get it undone in the minimal space left between their chests. He starts on the buttons, and Erik would like to help, but that would mean taking his hands off Charles and he'd like to avoid doing that ever again if he can manage.
Please, yes. Charles sounds wrecked, even in his mind, somehow hazy and breathless despite the telepathy. I thought--I thought you didn't want this.
It's maybe the stupidest thing Erik's ever heard, and to prove it, he flips Charles over onto his back, climbing on top of him just in time to swallow his gasp of surprise in another kiss while his fingers get to work on the really ridiculous number of buttons on Charles' shirt and cardigan.
"Of course I want this," he says, breathless, as his lips glide over Charles' jaw and down the gorgeous line of his throat. "What in the world would make you think I--"
His question is lost in the sound of the door swinging open. Raven appears in the doorway, dressed for bed, before either of them can entirely register what's happening.
She blinks at them, stunned. Erik can't blame her. He's feeling rather stunned himself.
"Raven," Charles says, which is maybe a mistake because his voice oozes sex and he definitely sounds like he's just had someone else's tongue down his throat, "I can explain."
"Oh my god, seriously?" she finally says. It's a little fascinating, the way her skin turns purple when she blushes. "Really, guys? You have bedrooms down the hall! You can't even lock the door?"
"Uh," Charles says.
"Raven," Erik starts to say, but she just points at him sharply.
"No," she says. "This is payback for the three times you walked in on me trying to kiss Hank. And also way more traumatizing because that's my brother you're on top of."
"Raven," Charles says a little desperately. "What do you want?"
"It's not important," she says, much more composed than she had been when she opened the door. She waves a hand at them dismissively. "It will keep til morning. Go have 'thank god you rescued me' sex or whatever, but maybe remember there are a bunch of kids in this house who don't always think to knock, okay?"
She's back out in the hallway, pulling the door shut before either Erik or Charles can comment further.
They stare at the closed door for a moment.
"Well," Charles says, "that was mortifying. And certainly not the manner in which I wanted to explain this to Raven."
"Raven thinks we've been fucking for months," Erik says, shaking his head and redirecting his gaze to Charles. "I didn't have the heart to correct her assumption."
Charles laughs. "Well, perhaps it's better than you didn't. Otherwise, she'd be rather bent out of shape, now, thinking you'd lied to her."
"Mm, perhaps," Erik says. He's transfixed by the bruise already forming on Charles' collarbone, left behind by his mouth just minutes before. He brushes his lips over it again and Charles shudders beneath him.
"Erik," he says, panting. "Maybe we should finish our conversation."
"I'm listening," Erik says, while nuzzling Charles' shoulder and leaving behind a trail of open mouthed kisses.
"I...don't think that's entirely true," Charles gasps. His hands, clumsy with lust, eventually slide into Erik's hair and pull him up enough to make eye contact. Charles' eyes are glassy, but determined as well. "I think it's...I think it's important that you know that I'm not--the reason I didn't--after the beach I thought you...resented me, I suppose. For making you stop the missiles like that."
Erik frowns. "You didn't make me. You could have," he says, intentionally parroting back the words that Charles spoke the night after they first met, "but you didn't."
"I know," Charles says, "but you wanted to destroy those ships and I...got in your way."
"No," Erik says. "No, you didn't--you gave me a choice, Charles."
"Well, there was always a choice," Charles says, confused, "but then I asked you--"
"Exactly," Erik says. "You asked me. You didn't tell me. You didn't even try to pressure me. You gave me the choice." He says it very slowly, but Charles still doesn't seem to get it. Erik is going to die of sexual frustration, at this point, but he pushes himself up off of Charles and wills some of the blood to return from his cock to his brain. "Shaw didn't give people choices. He didn't give me a choice. Not really. 'Move the coin or I'll shoot your mother' isn't really a choice. 'Bend the fork or I'll put this hot poker on the sole of your foot' isn't a choice. You made it clear what path you wanted me to take but then you allowed me to make my own decision. That's...that's important, Charles."
"You made the decision I wanted you to make," Charles says.
"Yes," Erik says. "But not because you wanted me to make it. Don't you see?"
Charles shakes his head. Erik sighs. If he doesn't bed Charles tonight, he won't even have Raven to blame, dammit.
"Of course you don't see," he mutters. "You've never had a choice taken away from you in your life, have you? It's--it's about agency, it's--oh, fuck, can we talk about it in the morning? Please? I don't resent you. And I would very much like to finish what we started the night before Cuba."
Charles' eyes flutter shut. He has ridiculously long eyelashes for a man.
"Yes," he says. "Let's--upstairs. Bed. Door."
Erik would very much like to finish things right here and now, but he understands the wisdom in things like locked doors and furniture wider than his shoulders and long enough that his feet don't hang off the end.
"Upstairs," Erik agrees, and gets to his feet, offering a hand to Charles. He takes it and, once he's standing, he doesn't let go.
"Erik," he says. "I can't tell you how--I'm very glad to be here with you." He tangles their fingers together and leans up, pressing a chaste kiss to Erik's mouth. Somehow, that gentle press of lips ties Erik's stomach in more knots than necking on the couch.
"Me too," Erik says, and lets Charles gently lead him upstairs by their clasped hands.
Despite Erik's five days running on little-to-no sleep and, frankly, exhausting nocturnal activities, he's up with the sun, feeling more rested than he has in a long time. He knows he should get up and get ready for the day. It's a Thursday, after all. Theoretically, the children have lessons, even though he's fairly positive Charles will end up giving them the day off.
It's hard to tear himself from bed, though, when Charles is sprawled out next to him, rumpled and drooling and somehow still gorgeous. He sits back against the headboard and smiles fondly. He must be far gone if tangled hair and pillow creases are doing it for him now.
"I can hear you," Charles mumbles, face still pressed into his pillow.
"I wasn't saying anything," Erik says.
"You're thinking very loudly, but they're nice things, so feel free to continue."
Erik snorts and runs his hand gently from Charles' nape to the spot where the line of his spine disappears under the duvet. Charles hums appreciatively and then rolls onto his back, blinking up at Erik sleepily.
"That's lovely, my dear, but I'm afraid I'll need some tea if you're to continue to manhandle me," he says with an impish grin.
"If I remember correctly, I wasn't the only one doing the manhandling," Erik says, leaning over to kiss Charles' shoulder. "I should have known you'd be bossy in bed. You're bossy everywhere else."
"I just have very good ideas and I like to see them implemented," Charles says, and Erik can't really argue with that.
"Breakfast," he says, resisting the very strong temptation to crawl on top of Charles and demonstrate some good ideas of his own. "The children will be up soon and snooping about."
Charles pulls the blankets over his head and groans.
"Please don't remind me. I think I can live without a repeat of last night."
Erik lets his silence speak for itself. It takes Charles' sleepy brain a moment to catch up with the conversation, at which point he pulls the covers down and stares up at Erik sheepishly.
"Not that part, thank you very much," he says quickly. "That part I would like to repeat frequently. I was referring to the bit where my sister walked in while you had your hand down my trousers."
"I hadn't gotten quite that far yet," Erik says.
"You know what I mean," Charles says, and Erik just smirks. "Oh--forget it. I need tea if I'm going to put up with this much teasing."
Erik obligingly gets off of the bed and hunts around for suitable clothing. He usually likes to start the morning with a run, but he thinks he'll allow himself to slack off, just this once. Breakfast and then a shower--and maybe he can convince Charles to join him--and then he'll see what the rest of the day holds. He feels rather like he can take on anything--teaching, training, lifting another submarine, even flying. It's a soppy thought, embarrassing, almost, but no one will know if he indulges himself, except maybe Charles, and Erik finds he doesn't mind Charles knowing. Not at all.
They manage to dress with startling speed, considering how long it took them to get out of their clothes last night, distracted as they were by mouths and skin, kissing and touching. They pause just once on their way downstairs, and it's not even for a kiss. Charles simply stops walking and grasps Erik's elbow to stop him as well. He looks at Charles expectantly, but Charles just smiles at him for an endless moment before gesturing for him to continue towards the kitchen.
I just...needed a moment, Charles thinks in response to Erik's confusion. This is all very fast.
No, Erik replies, thinking of how long it's been since the first time Charles' arms wrapped around him in the depths of the warm salt water off the coast of Miami. Not really.
I suppose you're right, Charles concedes, and takes Erik's hand in his own as they enter the kitchen.
Charles starts the tea and Erik starts the coffee and they're squabbling good-naturedly over eggs versus pancakes when there's a loud yawn and the sound of muffled footsteps in the hall outside. Moments later, Moira appears, hair mussed, pink flannel pajamas wrinkled, and more out of sorts than Erik has ever seen her, including the few hours she was concussed.
He raises his eyebrows as she slumps over to the coffee pot and attempts to glare it into submission.
"Did we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, Agent MacTaggert?" he asks.
She turns her glare on him. "Not Agent MacTaggert today," she says. "Charles is back. I'm officially off-duty. My brain is offline. No--" she wiggles her fingers. "Spy stuff."
Erik's eyebrows stay in the vicinity of his hairline.
"Have you always been this smug, or is it the sex?" she asks. Charles chokes somewhere behind Erik and Moira manages to roll her eyes despite her obvious exhaustion. "You have a hickey you might want to cover up before the kids wake up, Charles," she explains. To Erik, she continues, "I'm a little shocked you actually took my advice, to be honest."
"It wasn't your advice," Erik insists. "It was...the natural course of things."
"Uh-huh," Moira says. The percolator chooses that moment to quiet down, and Moira manages to grab it before Erik gets the chance, pouring herself a large mug of coffee before shoving the pot at him. She quickly dumps some sugar in and then takes a seat at the table, all but curling up around the mug and inhaling the scent as she waits for it to cool.
"Advice?" Charles asks, tentatively sitting across from Moira, brow furrowed.
"We had a lot of time to talk while driving from here to Los Angeles," Moira says. She cracks one eye open as Erik takes the seat next to Charles, his own coffee in hand. "But don't worry, your secrets will be safe once you block my memory again." She's suddenly more alert than she seemed five minutes ago. Erik shifts in his seat. "That is what you're planning on doing, isn't it?"
Erik looks at Charles, whose eyes are solemn and determined. "I'm so sorry, my dear," he says. "But our continued anonymity is key. The CIA must continue to think we perished on the beach, and if they were to link you back to us again...." He shrugs, and Moira gives him a hard look, but nods in response.
"I figured as much," she says.
Charles and Moira both turn to look at Erik. It takes him a moment to realize it's because he was the one who just objected.
"What?" Charles says.
"What?" Moira says.
"Uh," Erik says. He blinks. As much as he hates to admit it, it does make sense, keeping Moira around. "She could be...useful," he says, tugging absently on his ear. "We know she's loyal. And if you're unhappy with the direction your work with the CIA is taking, you might as well stay here. That way we can keep an eye on you and you can use your talents for a higher purpose."
Moira and Charles are still staring at him. It's hard to tell which one of them looks more surprised.
"It's better than wasting your potential as a school teacher in middle America," he mutters. "Plus, it will be good to have someone else around who appreciates literature." The silence continues. "And...the girls seem to like her."
Charles is the first to crack a smile. In fact, he's beaming, like Erik just passed some sort of test. It's a smile that makes Erik almost embarrassingly happy. It takes longer for Moira to move, and when she does, she still looks incredulous.
"That's a wonderful idea, Erik," Charles says, laying his hand over Erik's. "We do need more teachers, and Moira's CIA training may come in handy one day, as loathe as I am to admit it. We'd be more than happy to have you, Moira, truly."
Moira still looks stunned.
"I...feel like I should say I need to think about it, but the truth is, I'd love to stay," she admits. She's blushing.
"That's fantastic news," Charles says. He squeezes Erik's hand and then reaches across the table to pat Moira's arm as well. "If we had to go through that troublesome ordeal this week, I'm so glad that something good could come out of it. It's lovely to see you put aside your differences and become friends."
"'Friends' might be pushing it," Moira says, composing herself enough to frown and side-eye Erik.
"We tolerate each other," Erik agrees.
"Barely," Moira adds.
But it doesn't diminish Charles' smile. He gets to his feet, still grinning.
"This calls for a celebration," he says. "What would we like for our celebratory breakfast? Eggs or pancakes?"
"Eggs," Erik says at the same moment that Moira says, "Pancakes."
Their eyes meet in a glare and Erik wonders if it's too late to rescind his offer.