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(The Answer Is) Blowin' In The Wind

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I think therefore I am.

A gasp.

That's the first thing that he becomes aware of: his breath, the heavy rise and fall of his lungs, the rush of air through his nostrils.

The rest of his awareness comes back in stages: the mattress against his back, the scratch of sheets against his skin. A cacophony of voices, pressing in from all direction. His fingers clench in the sheets of his bed (yes, he is in a bed, that is where he is). He struggles to remember-- who is he again-- chemo always leaves me drained and the broken leg needs to heal and a doctor has said that the surgery has a low risk of complications and I can't wait for this shift to be over patients are the worst. He feels as though he is drowning, struggling to reach the surface when--

Something snaps into place. The world goes quiet again. He's alone.

He opens his eyes. He's in a hospital bed. White walls. White sheets. White ceiling. He tries to collect the pieces of himself. His arms, his neck, his head, his legs-- no, he can't feel those.

A nurse walks by his bed and notices his eyes are open, stops in front of his bed to check up on him. "Oh, you're awake," she says. "How are you feeling?"

He chokes out a breath. "Tired," he says, his voice scratchy with disuse. "Confused. What happened?" His mind manages to piece together some sensations: a flash of red hair, the rush of wind on his face, a man (or was it two men? more?). Nothing that would explain how he ended up here right now.

She picks up his chart and looks it over. "You were found on the beach near the Maritime Museum. We didn't have any ID or next of kin contact information, and things have been kind of hectic lately."

"Oh," he says.

"How much do you remember?" she asks. She's looking at a box on her chart labeled 'memory loss', and she's thinking about how she watched an unfamiliar horror unfold on her television, clutching her children to her chest as she tried to process her shock.

"Too much," he says, "and not enough." It's a true enough statement. She doesn't check the box.

"Do you have family you'd like to call?" Her eyes are pitying, but she's trying to smile. "I'm also going to need a name. You can't be listed under John Doe forever."

He pauses for a moment, searching his mind for the answer to her question. "My name is Charles Xavier," he says eventually, and yes, that is his name, this is his body. He hasn't stolen either of those things from anyone else. "And I would like an opportunity to call my family, thank you."

---

For lack of anything better to do, powerless and frail as he is, Erik haunts Golden Gate Park, where he still can see the damage he wrought on the bridge itself, a reminder of what he used to be. He isn't there often enough to make friends with the local homeless, but he is there often enough to make friends with the local chess players.

Most of them assume he lost his family in the Mutant Incident, as they've been calling it.
They're a jovial bunch, casually excited about inviting a new face into their group. It's true enough that Erik doesn't bother to correct them.

One of the players, a physics grad student from Berkeley named Malik, has taken to Erik. Erik suspects that he knows Erik's identity. He talks about his own mutation with a pointed expression on his face, waiting for Erik's reaction. Malik's mutation is invisible, non-threatening. He has the ability to perceive ultraviolet and infrared radiation, beyond that of normal human sight. Erik pretends not to care about it when they play.

"Have you heard the news?" Malik asks. He opens up the game by moving his knight out first. The afternoon is mild and sunny. Pleasant. Erik squints underneath his cap.

"What news?" Erik asks.

Malik shrugs. "New government program from Homeland Security. Some kind of joint project with the DoD. A bunch of the Mutant Rights groups are up in arms over it, since it's supposed to target mutants."

Erik's hand freezes on the piece was about to pick up. It's so familiar. What was that English saying again? Like someone stepped on my grave. "Oh?" he asks, trying not to sound too interested.

"They're being stingy with the details, and there's all this language about how the goal is to root out the 'dangerous' mutants, but it's not difficult to see where this is headed." Malik fidgets with the edge of his jacket. He stares right at Erik's face, waiting for a reaction.

"I don't know why you're telling me this," Erik says. He advances one of his pawns.

Malik shrugs. He barely even looks at the board. His mind is elsewhere. "I just thought you might want to know, old man." He tries to smile, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes.

Erik takes a deep breath. He closes his eyes. A breeze picks up. He can feel the shapes of the brass pieces. If he reaches for his anger, it may be possible that he'll feel that familiar echo of his old power. Not enough to do much more than rattle the pieces where they stand. But a sign that he isn't as harmless and hopeless as he once was. A sign that he might be prepared for the coming storm.

He's not angry. He's merely unsurprised. Of course, the humans will play nice with the Xavier Institute, appoint Hank to a useless honorary position at the U.N., talk about putting this tragedy behind them, and then arm themselves for a war, prepare for an extermination. Erik expected nothing more and nothing less from them.

Erik says, "Thank you for telling me."

Malik nods, once, an acknowledgement. Erik wonders exactly what he sees when he looks at Erik, at this pale imitation of his former glory. Pity, probably.

They finish their game without discussing politics again.

---

"Professor," Ororo says. "Are you sure you wouldn't be happier if we spent more time in the hotel?"

She was the one who came out to San Francisco to retrieve him from the hospital. The other teachers had their hands full as it was, keeping up with the influx of new and returning students. As pleasant as an afternoon sleeping does sound, Charles has been cooped up for a week. He wants some fresh air, and he's always enjoyed San Francisco.

Besides, he wants to see-- he wants to see the aftermath of the battle that took place here. He wasn't alive when it happened, after all. How he ended up here is a question that would all like answered. There are times when Ororo watches him with a certain amount of hesitance and wary distrust. Her first words to him were, "Logan saw you die."

Charles doesn't have any explanations for her, any more than he has any explanations for himself. Still, he has been given a second chance, and he would like to make the most of it. In order to do that, he needs to confront the ghosts of his past. He needs to see what destruction Erik has wrought this time.

The motorized wheelchair that Charles is most comfortable with is still in Westchester, so he's using a temporary one now. He must rely on Ororo's help to go anywhere. "I've been resting in the hospital for weeks. The doctors gave me a clean bill of health. I think a bit of fresh air will do me good."

"If you say so," she says, still dubious, but trusting his judgment.

He doesn't know what he's done to deserve the people he has surrounded himself with, but he's thankful for it all the same.

They're in Presidio Park, on a hill that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. It's cluttered with tourists: families from the Midwest with their children, tour groups from China, even some locals who are out for a walk on a nice day. Charles doesn't need to be a telepath to sense the somber mood that hangs over them all as they look down at the wreckage below, even now, a month later. The destruction, even from this distance, is impressive. The break in the center of the bridge is still obvious. The remaining surface of bridge is still dotted with abandoned cars. Even further, in the other direction, the remnants of Alcatraz are visible. It's harder to see from here with the naked eye, but it's obvious that everything on the island had been flattened. The piece of the Golden Gate that Erik had torn off to make a makeshift bridge has not yet been removed.

Ororo had filled Charles in on the broad strokes of what had happened that day, and Charles was not prepared to dig into anything more specific. Just the overwhelming exhaustion and sadness Ororo feels when recalling the event is more than enough for Charles to know that he shouldn't pry.

The horror and the pain experienced here has left a psychic residue that's impossible to ignore, the strongest and most painful of which is Jean's, like a dark smudge on the otherwise pleasant and sunny day.

Charles forces himself to face it -- all of it -- refuses to let himself look away. This is where his good intentions have led him. Perhaps it isn't fair to take on all of the blame. He was but one piece in a much larger puzzle. If only-- if only--

San Francisco is a big city, filled with many minds, and Charles takes in as much of it as he can. It was considered something of a mutant haven for a while, a liberal coastal city that celebrated the strange and the unique. A thread of unease works their way through all of those consciousnesses-- there's been a new announcement from the administration, a new government project that will target mutants. So many thoughts, so many concerns. Charles's chest aches with all of them. Through it all, one mind in particular shines brighter than the rest.

"Erik," Charles says out loud, before he can stop himself.

Ororo turns to look at him, startled. Her surprise bleeds into the air around them. "Magneto's here?" she asks. Her eyes dart around, searching for Erik's face.

"Not here, exactly," Charles says with a shake of his head. It's faint, distant, but it's undeniably Erik. That's his banked rage, as he mulls over the new announcement. That's his playing style when his heart isn't in it, aggression as a substitute for strategy. That's the faintest glimmer of his power -- fainter than ever, but still present, still glowing. "But I believe it would be in our best interests to find him."

Ororo is not a fan of that idea. "You know what he did here," she hisses.

The exhaustion that Charles has been fighting all day begins to creep up on him again. Perhaps he should have stayed in the room and slept. It would have kept the difficulties of the world at bay for just a littler longer. "I do," Charles says. "I would also like to keep it from happening again."

A sharp nod from Ororo as she understands his meaning. "His powers are coming back. The Cure wasn't permanent."

"Yes," Charles says. He rubs at one temple.

Ororo takes a deep breath and then lets it out slowly, moving to stand behind Charles's wheelchair. "Lead the way," she says.

---

Erik doesn't notice them at first. He's more focused on his game. If he's not careful, his queen may end up in a trap. His focus goes out the window, however, when a familiar voice echoes through his head.

Hello, Erik.

Erik's head snaps up. He nearly spills all of the brass chess pieces onto the ground, the small bit of his regained power escaping from his control, but he manages to rein it in. The worst he does is knock his king over. The irony is not lost on him.

Malik raises his eyebrow at Erik. His painfully young face conveys confusion and skepticism. But Erik doesn't have time to explain. His eyes dart around the area, looking for the source of that mental voice.

Charles was just out of sight when he sent the message, the dramatic bastard, but now he appears from around a curve in the path, pushed along in his wheelchair by Storm. The last time Erik saw Charles, he was being dissolved into dust. Here he is now, alive and well, looking only the slightest bit worse for wear. His shoulders slump. There are new lines on his face. His eyes are clear and intent. He watches Erik with that same expression he always wears -- as if Erik is an experiment to be measured and studied.

"You--" Erik chokes out. At first he considers the idea that Charles faked the whole thing, but Charles, for all his faults, isn't prone to elaborate deceptions.

"Yes," Charles says. "It is me."

Malik jumps to his feet. "Professor Xavier!" he says, excitement clear in his voice. "But I'd heard you'd--" He shakes his head. "There were obituaries everywhere."

"I would like to say that rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated, but that's not quite accurate," Charles says. He has that smile on his face that Erik is all too familiar with, fond and indulgent and more than a little condescending. "If it's at all possible, I would like to speak to Erik alone."

"Uh, yeah. Sure!" Malik says. "But if you have a chance afterwards, I would love to talk to you about one of your papers."

"Of course," Charles says.

Storm frowns, though, clearly unhappy at the idea that Charles should be left to Erik's tender mercies. What she thinks Erik is capable with his pathetic remnants of his power is unclear. Charles gives her a look, and perhaps they're speaking mind-to-mind or perhaps they simply know each other that well, but she clears out as well, glaring at Erik as she leaves.

"So you've gotten me alone, Charles. I'm powerless before you. Perhaps you've come to finish off what little remains of me?" Erik curls his lips into a smile, the kind that Mystique always said made him look cruel.

"You know me better than that," Charles says, and his eyes are so pitying.

"Do I?" Erik asks.

Charles frowns. It's a hollow victory, but Erik doesn't have many victories these days. "Erik..."

"Why are you really here?"

Charles lets out a heavy sigh. 'I'm here to extend you an invitation. You could come back with us to New York."

There it is again, Charles's pity. Erik has no patience for it, never has. "And do what? Be your mewling lapdog? 'Look at how Charles Xavier has tamed the once-great-Magneto! And he's so polite, too.'"

Charles doesn't react. He's patient. So very patient. Erik would say it's the decades wrangling difficult children, but Charles has always been patient with Erik. It's almost insulting. Charles says, "It would be nice to have you at the school again. And it's a place where you can relearn how to use your powers."

Erik smiles. "I see you're still poking around where you don't belong," he says, tapping two fingers against his temple. "Death hasn't changed you one bit."

"And you're still trying to goad me into a fight, so it seems as though we're at the same impasse as always," Charles says.

Erik studies Charles's face. He's lost weight since the last time Erik saw him. His cheekbones are more prominent. But he's still alive. Erik hadn't let himself feel the weight of that loss until just now. The thought that Charles had simply-- that he was gone from this world, never to return. Erik hadn't let himself contemplate it for long. Now he doesn't have to contemplate it at all. "All right," Erik says. "There isn't anything for me here, besides."

Charles's shoulders relax, almost imperceptibly, but Erik is used to reading his reactions. "Thank you," Charles says. The faintest of smiles appears on his face.

---

Charles tries not to keep too close an eye on Erik once they return to Westchester. He knows how much Erik hates being coddled and yet, Charles feels responsible for ensuring that Erik is adjusting to being at the school again, relearning how to use his powers as they become stronger -- and they are getting stronger each day, no doubt about it -- not spreading any sort of seditious philosophy amongst Charles's students.

Of course, Charles has plenty of other concerns that take up his time. Coming back from the dead generates quite a bit of paperwork. He has plenty of classes to teach, especially in Jean and Scott's absence. There are requests from news organizations for his opinions on the future of how governments should deal with mutantkind. Parents demand to speak to him regarding the safety of their children in the midst of an anti-mutant upswell. The SPLC has tracked a sharp increase in anti-mutant hate crimes.

Underneath it all is the slowly creeping dread as more information about the Sentinel program starts to leak in dribs and drabs. All they know is that it's responsible for subduing mutants deemed to be dangerous. Charles's sources within the US government -- the former benefits of having money and an important name -- refuse to take his calls.

Hank taps into his contacts in the Cabinet, but most of them don't know much or are unwilling to risk their security clearances to leak anything to him. The exercise is not entirely without merit, because he does come away with a bit of useful intelligence: the Sentinel program was originally conceived in the 70's, but the capture of one mutant with unique powers has triggered a breakthrough. No word on which mutant or what powers they have. It's concerning, to say the least. The term 'capture' does not imply that this mutant's assistance is voluntary. What could the government possibly need from them that would change the shape of the program?

On the subject of Charles's resurrection, they also have no satisfying information. Hank has floated the theory that in the moment of her death, Jean had decided to remake Charles once again, just like she unmade him in the first place. But the question of why only Charles, why not Scott as well, why not any of the others who died in the face of the Phoenix during those days, remains unanswered.

One evening, Erik shows up at Charles's door with a chess set and a mind full of unspecified rage. Charles would be worried if it wasn't so familiar. Every visit to Erik's prison had been like that. A chess game. Veiled conversation. Choking, overwhelming fury.

"You've been ignoring me," Erik says. It's not quite a true statement, but Charles can see why Erik would believe it.

"And you do so hate to be ignored," Charles replies.

Erik snorts. "I hate being at your mercy, Charles. That's hardly the same thing."

Charles bites back a comment about how that wasn't always true. No need to dredge up the past here. "You're not a prisoner here. Feel free to leave whenever you wish."

"That isn't why I came here tonight," Erik says. Some of the anger has bled off into a weary sort of resignation. Once, Charles might have delighted in Erik conceding some ground, but now it just serves as a reminder of just how old they've become.

"Right, of course not," Charles says. He tries on a smile. If it's a little thin, a little hesitant, Erik doesn't seem to notice. "A game, then? Like old times?"

Erik says, "If you can be bothered to spare the time for me." He doesn't quite sneer the words, but it's a close thing.

Charles sighs. "I wouldn't have offered if I had no intention of following through," he says. "I hoped you knew me well enough to know that." He backs his chair up, allowing Erik into his room.

There's already a chess board set up in Charles's room, so Erik has only brought the pieces. He waves one hand, and they float through the air, arranging themselves into neat rows. This set is made out of brass. Charles recognizes them from their meeting in San Francisco.

"Your control has improved quite a bit since the last time I talked to you," Charles says.

Erik frowns. "The finer control is coming back to me sooner than the strength is."

"You will get it all back," Charles promises. He places a hand on Erik's arm, as close as he dares. It feels foolish to treat Erik like any one of his students, as if simple physical and emotional comfort will bridge the gaps between them. But what else can Charles do? It's not as if Erik will accept anything else.

Erik remains as skeptical as ever, unwilling to let himself hope for the best, but the frown on his face straightens into a flat line, and his attention turns back towards the game in front of him.

It isn't a victory, but Charles is willing to take it all the same.

----

Charles's mansion carries with it a complicated tangle of memories. In many ways, it's the closest thing to a home Erik has ever had. It was the place where he and Charles first built the idea of a future together. It's the place where he is trying to discover whether or not he has a future from now.

Erik's place in the household is ambiguous at best. Many of the youngest students treat him like another teacher, another authority figure from whom they can extract permission and approval. The older children ignore Erik, content to get wrapped up in their own troubles. The adults are more wary. Storm chooses to treat Erik with a suffocating amount of attention, refusing to allow him to even speak to a student without her hovering over his shoulder. Wolverine glares at Erik every time he enters a room and keeps silent otherwise. Beast, who out of all them save Charles has known Erik the longest, treats Erik like a distasteful family member, polite but with an icy undertone.

And then, of course, there's Charles. Charles who comforts the crying children and teaches them about biology and holds hushed meetings with the adults. Charles who invites Erik into his rooms for games of chess. Who talks to Erik like Erik is still in a plastic prison, at Charles's every beck and call. Perhaps Erik is, and he's just refusing to admit it to himself. It wouldn't be the first time.

Tonight, Charles is distracted. He's playing more sloppily than usual. His eyes are fixed on a point over Erik's head.

Erik captures one of his bishops and says, "Your mind is somewhere else tonight."

Charles looks up from where he was resting his chin on his hand, eyes not on the chessboard at all. "Oh, I suppose you're right," Charles says. He smiles that smile he uses when he's trying to smooth over social niceties between humans. Erik has always hated that smile.

"Care to share with the rest of the class?" Erik asks.

"One of Jean's former contacts had some news for us. We've just discovered that Mystique is the mutant being held by the DoD for their Sentinel project," Charles says. He tells this to Erik in an offhanded manner, like he's discussing what's being served for dinner tonight.

Erik's blood runs cold. He stands up, clears the chess board with a wave of his hand. The brass pieces clatter onto the wooden floor. "And we're just sitting here?" he demands. "What good is it for you to have your little X-Men here if you won't use them?"

Charles just looks at Erik with a placid expression. "Sit down," he says. His voice is smooth and unruffled.

Erik glares at him. "No," he sneers. "This is the way it always plays out between us, Charles. You're content to sit in this little fortress of yours while I have to go out and do the difficult work."

"I'm sure you think that, Erik," Charles says, mildly.

Erik has spent most of his life resentful and angry of Charles Xavier. His wealth, his power, his insistence on trusting in the kindness of others. Erik has spent the other parts of his life, well, fucking him. Part of the resentment has always been how easy it has been to love Charles, to desire him, to be seduced by Charles's wide smiles and sunny optimism and unthinking careless arrogance. "I know that, Charles," Erik says. He starts to head to the doorway. He needs to start making plans. Could he contact the Brotherhood? Pyro is headstrong and foolish. It would be difficult to control him with Erik's weakened powers, but he could be rallied to the cause.

"If you don't sit down," Charles says, "I am sure we would end up duplicating work, seeing as I've already asked Kitty to hack into Trask Industries' transportation logs to see if we can discover at which facility Mystique is being held."

Erik pauses, considering Charles's words.

"They're the subcontractor responsible for the Sentinel program," Charles continues. "I thought it might be wise to know which facility to target before we leave." The dry sarcasm in his voice is impossible to miss. His eyes are as clear as ice. Erik wonders what he sees. But like always, Charles keeps his own council.

Erik turns back, sits down in the chair opposite Charles again with as much dignity as he can muster. "Perhaps I was a bit hasty in pre-judging you," Eriks says.

"I am not your enemy here," Charles says, raising his eyebrows.

Erik does have to begrudgingly concede his point.

---

Charles glances around the room, watching each of the other other occupants in turn and tries not to rub at his temples. Of course tensions are running high right now. Of course Charles is forced to deal with those tensions on several different levels.

"If we go in that way, we could run into guards coming in the opposite direction," Ororo points out. There is a map being displayed onto the table in the center of the room, courtesy of Kitty's hacking skills.

Logan shakes his head. "We're going to be running into guards no matter which way we go."

Bobby chooses that moment to chime in. "It would still be nice to reduce casualties."

Kitty points to a new part of the map. "Judging from some of the other data I was able to dig up, it seems like our best bet would be to come in through this entrance right around five pm right after most of the office workers are leaving and as the shift change is happening."

"But what about--" Bobby asks.

The room dissolves into crosstalk.

Charles is about to cut in when Erik does it for him. "You're all thinking about this like humans," he says, the disdain clear and ringing in his voice.

"You got something to add, bub?" Logan snarls.

"The guards aren't a problem if you allow Charles to take care of them. We don't need to worry about the walls if Ms. Pryde here is willing to transport a few of us with her," Erik points out. He looks as cooly imposing as ever, commanding the X-Men as if he never left. Charles wonders at times if his memories of Erik have warped with the passage of time, if he looms larger in Charles's mind because that's how Charles chooses to remember him. All too frequently, Charles is reminded that Erik has always been this forceful, this angry, this proud.

"I think it would be better if we managed to move as a group," Ororo adds, mildly. She is the one that Charles has appointed to be the leader in Scott's... absence. Sometimes Logan and Erik have trouble recognizing that.

"And I am not exactly the most mobile of combatants," Charles adds. He smiles and get a few polite titters. It's enough to defuse some of the tension.

"I am just pointing out that we must take advantage of our individual skills," Erik says. "We cannot afford to give up the element of surprise. The humans know what other humans are capable of. They won't know what we can do."

"He's right," Kitty says. "I think if I come in this way--" She points at a thick wall on the blueprint. "--I can disable some more security over here before letting the rest of you in."

Logan nods once. Ororo relaxes, her shoulders releasing all the tension she was holding there. Erik even smiles. A thin, cold smile to be sure, but a real smile all the same. Charles can hear the satisfaction that colors his thoughts.

"All right," Charles says. "It sounds like we have the start a plan."

---

They move through the Trask Industries facility like ghosts, silent and undetected. Locks and security systems and cameras are no match for Erik's powers. Charles remains in the jet for the time being -- safe -- which puts him out of range to control any of the guards. The walls of the facility have been laced with the same metal that Erik used to make his helmet. Charles is only available to them via radio.

There aren't many guards at first. Shadowcat's entrance brings them into an area that is mostly laboratories, filled with technical equipment. Motors and alloyed plating and experimental weaponry. Every second or third one seems to be outfitted to be medical in nature, all pristine and sterile stainless steel. Plenty of security cameras. Plenty of locked doors. Not many people at all.

As they get further in, the numbers of guards increases, and the compound begins to resemble something closer to a prison. The hallways are lined with empty cells, as sterile and as clean as the medical labs, but Erik sees them, sees them and knows. Why take Mystique? Why use her for their machines? For her ability, of course. She's a shapeshifter. Whatever they are creating here will have that as well.

The next guards they run into get stabbed with their own knives. Storm shoots Erik a dark, annoyed look, but Wolverine smirks, pleased.

Shadowcat looks down at the tablet in front of her. "She should be just around the corner."

They find Mystique's cell easily enough. Erik rips the metal door off its hinges. His power still isn't what it used to be, but even this much is sweet, singing through his veins.

She's curled up on a cot, gloriously blue again, wearing a loose gown that does nothing to hide how much weight she's lost. She startles awake at the commotion. Her golden eyes flick to Storm, to Iceman, to Kitty, before they settle on Erik.

"You--" she snarls.

"We're going to get you out of here," Storm says.

Mystique still eyes Erik with anger and distrust. She doesn't move from her place on the bed.

"Yeah, and we gotta get out of here fast," Wolverine says, "so we better get a move-on."

Mystique does stand up then. She gives Wolverine a short, clipped nod. "Let's go," she says. She refuses to meet Erik's gaze.

Erik knows he isn't owed anything. He's fought for every scrap of anything -- affection and victory and power -- he's ever had. Mystique's regard is the same. She'll forgive him or she won't. He'll earn it either way.

"Professor," Iceman says over the comms. "We've found her."

Erik doesn't overhear the other side of the conversation. He didn't get outfitted with a radio in the scramble before the mission, and he didn't ask for one. It didn't seem like there was much of a point. And he wore a helmet for years, just to keep Charles's voice out of his head. This is a one-off mission. He's not even wearing a uniform. His Magneto outfit was abandoned months ago, and he hardly wanted to wear one of the black leather monstrosities.

"We're on our way," Bobby finishes.

The hallway, which was silent and dark when they entered Mystique's cell, is now filled with flashing lights. An alarm must have been triggered. Logan growls in annoyance. Perhaps Charles's little X-Men will balk at the idea that they can no longer sneak about, but Erik relishes the possibility of a fight. How many other mutants had these monsters captured and experimented on before settling on Mystique? Erik will make them pay for every one.

The first guards who arrive to block their exit are fully human, though they are also heavily armed, dressed in all black. Iceman freezes the guns in their hands. Mystique, despite her weakness and mistreatment, breaks several arms. Storm generates enough wind to blow two guards into a wall hard enough knock them unconscious. Wolverine runs a few of through with his claws. Erik, well, Erik gets great delight out of causing some of the guns to jam and backfire in their hands. He smiles all the way through it. This might be the first real smile he's worn on his face for months.

As they get closer to the exist, the number of guards drops off. Erik isn't sure if they have exhausted the current supply or if they have decided to cut their losses and let them leave. As they get closer to the large open garage that they entered through, Erik does hear one of the guards shout, "We gotta clear out! They're sending in--" before Mystique snaps his neck.

As if on cue, a loud grinding noise emanates from deep inside the facility, the opposite direction from where they just came from. If Erik can recall the blueprints correctly, they're coming from the fabrication wing. The remaining guards run away, leaving the X-Men and Erik, standing in their cavernous loading dock.

The sound of footsteps approaches. Heavy footfalls. Not human. Erik can detect traces of metal.

"Come on!" Storm shouts. They run towards the one remaining heavy dock door left. Erik reaches out with his power, trying to lift it. It raises a few inches, but he's pushed himself to the limits of his current ability. The door slips from his grasp, slamming shut once again. Shadowcat grabs Iceman and Mystique, dragging the two of them through with her. The footsteps get louder and closer. They'll need a distraction.

Erik says, "Go! I can handle this. Tell Charles not to wait." He turns to face the incoming threat.

A machine -- a humanoid robot -- appears at the far end of the loading dock. The surface of its false skin shines a sickly purple in the dim light. It's an ugly sort of abomination; Erik can sense all sort of organic components to go along with the mechanical ones.

He grips one of its long spindly arms and tugs, attempting to rip it off. Wolverine's claws tear through the metal of the door.

The machine rights itself. Erik reaches out again, trying for a leg this time, but he can't-- his power can't take hold. The composition of its body has changed, shifting from metallic to some sort of plastic. Mystique's power at work. Its head turns once again towards Erik, eyes open and empty and intent.

Erik takes one step back, and for the first time in a long time, he feels afraid.

---

Charles does his best not to fret. He has become used to this part of things, where he sends his students into danger and waits. It hasn't gotten any easier.

His awareness of Kitty filters in first. She bursts into Charles's range all at once as she clears the protective shielding of the building. She's running. Her mind is clouded with panic and desperation. Next Bobby and Raven appear. Charles can feel their relief, along with their overwhelming exhaustion and terror. In their minds, Charles manages to piece together a glimpse of what happened. An incoming threat, heard but unseen. They'll have to wait for the others to reappear to know more.

Charles brings the jet out of standby, firing up the engines and lowering the back ramp. They will need to be ready to take off at any moment.

His students stumble onto the jet, every bit of what they're feeling written all over their faces.

"Professor--" Kitty starts. Her voice breaks there, out of breath from the running she's been doing.

"You don't have to tell me," Charles says. He taps his temple.

That gets a weak smile from Kitty, and her mind calms somewhat. Charles feels such affection for all of them, how brave and how foolish all of them are.

Logan and Ororo come into range next. As the older X-Men, they are handling the situation with significantly less panic. Their memories are much clearer than the jumble that Kitty and Bobby have. And Raven-- for all that Charles has broken the trust of many people, both intentionally and unintentionally, he will still keep his promise not to read her mind.

Ororo, thankfully, does not have any such compunctions about Charles's powers. She sends across her memories of the event. The giant purple machine, stumbling at first, but then recovering from Erik's attack. The way Erik stayed behind to recover their retreat.

Logan is the first to make his way on board, glowering and angry as always. "I guess we know what they were working on."

Ororo is just a few steps behind him. "I, for one, am not encouraged by what we have learned tonight."

Charles closes his eyes, reaches out with his awareness as far as he can, looking for-- Erik--

Erik bursts into Charles's awareness all at once. The usual icy sheen of his thoughts has been replaced by something uncertain, something fearful.

And yet, underneath it all, also something triumphant. The full extent of Erik's power is singing through him once again. Erik is so very alive like this, more alive than he has been since Charles first found him in San Francisco.

Ororo has settled into the pilot's seat. She's starting the launch sequence.

"Wait," Charles calls out.

She pauses, turning towards him.

"Erik. He's coming."

Charles doesn't have to see her grimace to know she isn't happy with the idea. She says, "We don't have much time."

"He's close," Charles promises. The bright light that is Erik's presence is getting brighter every moment.

Ororo still isn't pleased, but she still waits. After a second that is both too short and too long, Erik soars into the jet. With his full strength returned, he is flying once again. There's both a sweetness and bitterness to the awareness that Erik won't need Charles any longer.

But that is one of Charles's selfish concerns. He has far too many others at the present moment.

Ororo doesn't waste another moment. The jet takes off. The rear door closes while they're in flight.

Erik lands in front of Charles's chair. He remains standing for a moment before collapsing. His exhaustion is so loud and so clear that Charles is sure everyone can read it. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots Raven. She's staring at Erik, and her golden eyes give away nothing.

"We're safe," Charles says.

"For now, anyway," Logan says.

Erik asks, "It isn't following us, then?" He doesn't need to specify what he's referring to. They all know. The fear chokes the room.

"Nothing appears on the radar," Ororo says.

"It changed-- when I grabbed hold of it with my power. It changed, and I couldn't hold it any longer," Erik says. The fear spikes at that. Charles can feel the beginning of a headache coming on.

"So it's adaptive. They must have based that part of it on Mystique," Kitty says, frowning. "I could do a deep dive into their files, see what I can find." Her mind is already racing ahead, ignoring the signals of her body.

"No," Charles says, because that is his role here: protect the others as much as possible, even (or perhaps especially) from themselves. "Get some rest. The files will still be there tomorrow. We've done good work today. Take a moment to appreciate it."

Most of the others nod at that, relieved. They clear out of the cockpit, searching for places to recover. Raven gives Charles a look that he can't decipher. Erik stays behind. Ororo remains focused on the instruments in front of her.

It's then that Charles allows himself to feel the full of his relief. "You've recovered your powers," Charles murmurs. He doesn't touch Erik, far too aware of the boundaries between them.

"And not a moment too soon," Erik replies. He's the one who reaches out, the one who cups Charles's face with one tired, weathered hand. "That thing. We know they will make more of it." He's thinking of the way he couldn't hold onto it, the way it is completely outside his power. In his desperation, he ripped the metal door open, the full strength of his powers surging back to him all at once. That's how he escaped. "It will hunt us down, Charles. For all your pretending otherwise, we won't considered the 'good' mutants."

Charles is all too aware of the lines he has crossed, the rules he has bent and broken. "No, we won't," he agrees. The words are painful in his mouth.

"The war is on our doorstep," Erik says.

Charles bristles at the smug undertone lingering in Erik's mind. "No thanks to your actions. This is a reaction to the destruction of more than a few San Francisco landmarks."

Erik smiles, thin and cold, and Charles can hear how clearly he would do it all over again. "What's done is done. We cannot change it now."

Charles sighs. "No, I suppose not."

"Your money and your power will only protect you for so long," Erik says. "Those things will kill you as easily as it will kill any of us. It doesn't have a mind you can control."

The force of Erik's convictions has always been the most intoxicating drug Charles has ever experienced. He meets Erik's steady, unwavering gaze with his own. "We have to think of the children as well."

"Yes," Erik agrees. "No time to waste on petty games. Are you willing to fight this war with me or not?"

Charles takes a deep breath. He holds out his hands, face up. Erik looks down at them. A moment of hesitation. Erik’s mind is briefly clouded with doubt.

It passes. He grabs Charles's hands. The world is changing, and they must change with it. They may be old men. They may have seen too much. But this has been demanded of them, and they must rise to the occasion. Charles presses kisses to the back of each of Erik's hands. He feels the strength still contained there, hidden under the ravages of time. Yes, Charles thinks, projecting into Erik's mind. Yes, we will fight together.

"Good," Erik says, and Charles could almost drown in the dense intensity of his emotions. "Good."

---

They have been running for months.

Erik has never been one to feel overly claustrophobic, but the jet doesn't feel as though it's large enough to fit all of them. There are five of them regularly -- Storm, Wolverine, Beast, Charles, and Erik -- plus any other stray mutants they pick up in their latest port, looking for safety. There are fewer of those than Erik would like.

When he feels too many others crowding into his space, he will sit down on a nearby seat, close his eyes and lose himself in the feel of the metal walls all around him, a comfort he had missed in the months without his powers -- the years in a plastic cage.

For a while, they attempted to fortify Charles's school. Raised the defences. Rallied the children. But after the first disastrous Sentinel attack, it was decided that they would have more success separately, spreading the Sentinels thinner. Shadowcat and Iceman went to look for other potential safe havens. Mystique went her own separate way, disappearing into the night without a word to anyone. The school was evacuated. Erik didn't need telepathy to see the how the loss of it devastated Charles, as soft-hearted as ever. His life's work left little more than a shell of itself, the way Erik always knew it would be.

There had been an offer in the chaos of those first few weeks -- an opportunity for Erik to leave, to rejoin what was left of the Brotherhood. A Sentinel attack on their own hiding place had decimated their ranks. Pyro was one of the first to fall. It had been tempting.

But he is loathe to give up Charles's resources. For all his weakness, Charles has spent decades preparing for the worst possible outcomes. He has contacts around the world. He has stashes of cash and resources in every major city. He knows what to say to every one of the mutants they find: the lost, the scared, the angry. He is still as soft and as tender as ever, but now, more than ever, Erik wants to protect that. He once thought that he wanted Charles to be like him, willing to tear the world down around them. But now the thought of a Charles like that leaves Erik feeling empty. He refuses to let this world take away Charles's wooly-headed idealism.

In the pre-dawn blue-gray of morning, watching as the sun peeks golden over the edge of the world from the cockpit, Erik says, "Perhaps-- perhaps, it was always meant to end like this, the two of us together for the end of the world." He spares a thought for Malik, who had already left the Bay Area when they stopped by. He was always a canny one. Erik firmly believes that he will land on his feet.

"Perhaps," Charles says. The faintest of smiles appears on his face. He draws Erik in closer. He presses his lips against Erik's. There is something that is old-new about them like this. An echo of their younger selves and yet something entirely different from that. They have been so many things to one another already. What is one more in the face of all of that? Charles continues, "I prefer to think of it as a new beginning."

Erik snorts. "You would," he says, but he does not pull away.

 

FIN.