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Any Measure of Peace

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I.

“Stop smiling like that,” Erik said gruffly, as he followed Charles out onto the tarmac where the newly repaired Blackbird was waiting. “You've been smug for days. It puts my teeth on edge.”

Charles made a vague, dismissive flutter of his fingers. “It's nice to feel validated.”

“At your age? A telepath should have grown used to feeling validated by now.” The meeting with the CIA had been tense but constructive, and cautious thanks had even been forwarded, if in an insultingly tentative manner, at the very end of it, as though the fat, uniformed humans that had peered superciliously down the length of the boardroom table at them had been the ones sweating and bleeding on a beach south of their borders, staring down two world powers with only a handful of children at their back. Erik would have sneered, if Charles' presence wasn't a constant murmuring, soothing, cajoling presence at the back of his mind.

Politics permeated every aspect of America's so-called democracy on every level of its inefficient bureaucracy, but Erik couldn't help but feel that it had been a sharp twist of chance that had shunted them away from another fate, on a Cuban beach, not even a week ago, watched by two fleets of warships from different nations.

Moira had somehow talked her superiors into taking credit for stopping a 'neo-Nazi' plot to sabotage 'peace' between America and Russia, Shaw's body was identified as Schmidt's with the aid of early, grainy photographs in the CIA's possession, and a cadre of Nazi gold was shortly after 'conveniently' found to seal the deal. Erik rather missed the gold, not so much for what it was worth, but for the reminder that it was, but he knew that that was now an older war, different, entombed for him now with Shaw's death.

And so Charles had, amazingly enough, despite his gentle, frustrating breed of stubbornness, gotten everything that he had wanted. “They said that the President wants to meet us next week.”

“I have good ears and a good memory.” Erik had personally thought that it was a trap, but Charles had projected a warm, sudden buzz of happiness towards him when the CIA director had reluctantly mentioned it, and he'd held his tongue then.

Charles sighed, but waited until they had embarked the Blackbird before turning around to look at him. “Good things can happen to us all, Erik. To you. There are happy endings.”

“Perish the thought,” Raven muttered, somewhere near the cockpit, but Charles ignored his foster sister, grasping Erik's roughened right hand firmly with his soft fingers, seemingly oblivious to Erik's flinch.

“We've done it, you and I, don't you see? We've been accepted, in the way that I knew that we would be.”

“For now.” Erik shook his head. “They're afraid of us, for now, because they don't understand us. They don't know what we can do. Once they find a way to stop us, that's when it'll all change. People fear and oppress the different. Just look at how those humans in power treat their own minority races.”

“Could we at least wait to get home first before arguing? Please?” Sean asked, a little plaintively, next to Raven, then he added, “What?” when Alex elbowed him in the ribs. “Mommy and Daddy are fighting. Not cool.” Raven rolled her eyes.

Charles lowered his voice, but the warm blanket of contentment had flared into the passionate intensity that Charles occasionally allowed the world to see, the rich welter of emotion that Erik didn't require telepathy to sense, that painted lustre onto brilliant blue eyes and a most becoming flush onto pale cheeks, that made his breath catch and his heart quicken.

“You're wrong,” Charles said firmly, and for a moment, Erik wished that he'd brought the helmet that Charles hated, it had to be obvious to Charles what the unlikely edge of steel in his voice was doing to Erik, surely. “People evolve. We have evolved for centuries. Society betters itself. All it needs is example. Proof that we aren't to be feared.”

In the camps, with Schmidt, Erik had learned that if he wanted something, it was best to let it go, or it would be taken from him, dangled before him, and eventually taken apart. After the camps, chasing his vengeance, Erik had learned that if he wanted something, it was better to set it aside, or it would distract him, turn his focus, create choices where there didn't have to be any, or worse of all, he'd end up corrupting it to his purpose. He had met good people before, in the course of his search, when he'd volunteered now and then at survivor's camps to glean information and gain connections, and he had usually avoided them, not wanting to affect them with the trouble that he usually brought in his wake.

Erik recognised that there were good people in the world. Unlike Charles, he also recognised that they tended to be fragile anomalies.

His silence had stretched longer than it should; Charles smiled tentatively at him, as though the young professor had won some sort of personal victory, and the fingers on his hand slipped up his arm, past the tattoo, to his elbow. You're not alone any more, Charles' voice murmured in his mind. And you won't lose this. I couldn't have done this without you, and I need you to help me make sure that this chance doesn't go to waste. You've had your vengeance. Now you're free to make far more of your life.

Erik shuddered, and brushed Charles' fingers off his arm, pointedly. Charles definitely had no idea what he was doing to him. It would have been easier to give in, to accept Charles' honeyed words and his ridiculously naïve view of the world and its favors, but nothing in Erik's life had ever been easy, and in this regard, it wasn't surprising to him that the only man who had shared his understanding of the future had been the one he had spent most of his adult life dreaming about murdering.

He couldn't face that smile, though, that puppyish expression of hopeful reconciliation. Eventually, you'll see that I am right, Erik thought, pushing past Charles to take his seat. And that you were wrong.

The declaration was, however, far more half-hearted than it should have been, and Charles was grinning as he strapped himself into the seat beside Erik, the engines of the Blackbird humming into their thrumming roar as Hank prepared the craft for take-off. But as at this point, I am right, and you are wrong, the telepath retorted, amusement and mischief dancing in his eyes, and Erik wanted, for a moment, nothing more than to reach forward and drag Charles down towards him, down to his level. Instead, he grit his teeth and clenched his hands, and looked out of the window at the neat row of toy soldiers in their suits, watching them from the tarmac, and as such, missed the sight of Charles' eyebrows arching, and the faint gleam of sudden speculation in his eyes.

II.

Charles' dogged persistence had been the bane of Erik's life ever since their unlikely acquaintance in a chilly, dark sea far from anything that he found familiar. Usually, however, Charles kept it at a tolerable level of enthusiastic messianic vision that Erik tended to treat alternatively with amusement and irritation. After the decidedly inadvisable foray to the CIA stronghold, however, Charles had somehow stumbled upon the perfect way to apply his persistence in a way that made Erik's current arguably comfortable life into a living hell.

It started with a concerted attack on his personal space. Erik had never been a very tactile person, even before the camps, and for some reason, Charles seemed to have taken their minor victory on the Cuban beach as an invitation to use every possible reason whatsoever to touch him, in light brushes, playful squeezes on his shoulders and arms, trailing fingers over the back of his palms. It was all the more maddening that he could never expect it; the touches seemed random, and didn't seem related to Charles' moods or conversational topics at all. Worse, he was beginning to grow used to the odd, casual intimacy, to enjoy it, and he had no way of broaching the topic to Charles that didn't seem brusque or outright rude.

By the end of the month, Erik was convinced that Charles was either extremely oblivious, or that Charles' naivete and his bright, boyish smiles were subtle disguises for the shameless minx that lay just a layer beneath the cultivated image of a sleekly dressed young Professor.

He wasn't entirely sure that it wasn't the latter.

“Check, and mate,” Charles said cheerfully, reaching over to flick his king on its side. “Erik, you're not on form today.”

Late spring was a most deplorable season, Erik decided, forcing his eyes to stay on the board, even though the game was over. Pleading discomfort from the heat, Charles' suit was nowhere in sight; instead, he wore a white shirt that he had unbuttoned nearly to his navel, the sleeves rolled in neat folds to his elbows. Given that he had seen Charles drenched to his skin, and dressed in ridiculously improper yellow skintight material, this normally wouldn't have fazed him, but Charles was drinking a glass of lemonade in a way that lemonade was never meant to be drunk, and coupled with the open shirt, it was distracting enough that Erik had made a series of increasingly amateur mistakes, allowing Charles to check him in record time.

“It's the heat,” Erik said, his tone rough as Charles settled back in his plush chair like an elegant cat and took another sip of his lemonade, like this: first he would run his pink tongue over the glass rim, take a long, leisurely sip, then flick that devious pink tongue over his lower lip, as though chasing a taste. Sometimes he would suck in a small cube of ice, with a soft mhn sound that seemed a touch too orgiastic for something as mundane as lemonade and Erik's sanity.

“-and install a few,” Charles was saying, in an apologetic tone, then he grinned boyishly when Erik blinked at him. “Were you listening to me?”

“I was,” Erik lied, “But I'm afraid that I'm somewhat more tired than I thought.” The Westchester mansion had a pool, and naturally all the students plus their young professor had thought that frolicking in the water all day would be a smashing idea, even if said pool was in clear view of Erik's window. Charles hadn't even been dressed for the pool; his students had simply dragged him in, tailored shirts, pants, shoes and all, laughing and splashing at each other, all of them far too young for the war that was creeping over the horizon.

Once he had lost his own innocence, he had disdained it, but now-

“Erik?” The back of Charles' hand was pressed against his neck, then his forehead, blessedly cool, wet from condensation. “Are you feeling quite all right?” Perhaps you should rest, my friend, Charles suggested, in his mind, worried-concerned-curious.

“I'm fine. I should get some rest,” Erik hastily rose from his chair. “So should you.” There were dark rings under Charles' eyes, ever since the beach, though it didn't seem to affect the professor's constantly upbeat personality.

“I'll be fine,” Charles' smile seemed to freeze for a moment, then he began to clear up the chess pieces.

“It was a difficult day for everyone,” Erik said cautiously.

“You've no idea,” Charles muttered, arranging the pieces neatly into their velvet box, slotting them into place one by one.

Certain aspects of that day were a minefield where Charles was involved, particularly where the helmet was involved; Charles had coaxed, cajoled, and finally argued with him over it, but in the end, it was only the brittle look of astonished betrayal on Charles' face that had persuaded him to take it off again. It's not that I want to read your mind, Charles had told him afterwards, tiredly, when they had forced Azazel to take them home before the mutant disappeared with Riptide, It's just that you're gone, when you put the helmet on. Like you've died. I can't bear that.

“I gave you the helmet.”

“I wasn't referring to the helmet.” There was something ugly in Charles' tone, almost like anger, that Erik had never heard before, and he was startled enough grip Charles' shoulder and turn the professor up to face him.

“Then? Schmidt is dead, Charles. He won't come back to torment us again.”

“I know. Shaw is dead,” Charles said grimly, his eyes narrowed, his mouth set in a thin line, “Did you think that he kept still for you out of fear? I was holding him still, Erik, God, I was in his mind. I felt him die. But,” Charles added, in a smaller voice, into the shocked silence, carefully squirming out from Erik's grip, “I have to admit, I had no real idea what to do with him at that point. We couldn't have knocked him unconscious, not with his ability, and we couldn't have gotten any sedatives to him in time before he went nuclear. So I can't condemn you for murder. Not after what he did to you. Not... when I was an accessory to it, at the least.”

“Why did you do it?” Erik demanded, wide-eyed, but he knew the answer, even before Charles murmured it into his mind. “You could have let him go.”

I couldn't let him kill you, my friend. I couldn't risk that. Charles tried a smile, unsuccessfully, then he twisted his fingers together and tried again, and it was too much; Erik wasn't sure what to say, what to do, other than retreat. He couldn't look at Charles when he closed the door behind him.

I'm sorry, he thought then, once he was alone in the corridor, straightening up and clenching his fists, then unclenching them, not even knowing if Charles was listening.

Once he had lost his own innocence, he had disdained it, but now- now it seemed that he could only destroy it.

III.

Charles was his usual, blithely enthusiastic self the next morning, apparently excited over some sort of locational pattern in the printouts from the new Cerebro; Hank and Charles had covered the carpeted floor and the dining table of the quixotically named French Lounge with reams of printouts, and were comparing them to a very large map of America that was festooned with pins of different colors, and neither of them looked up when Erik looked into the room.

He was about to slink past when Charles hailed him, with a quick gesture. “Come here, Erik, you'll need to see this,” he said, then added, “Well, don't just stand there,” when Erik hesitated.

Grudgingly, Erik picked his way over the scrolls of paper, resisting the urge to pick them into some semblance of order. He felt tired, and defeated, and it seemed far too early in the morning to deal with Charles' inexorably cheerful metronome of a personality and Hank's scientific 'explanations', having spent the night staring up at the ceiling and thinking of as much of nothing as he could manage.

“Look at that,” Charles swept his hand out over the map. “Don't you see?”

Several pins of different colors were clustered together, and Erik pinched briefly at the bridge of his nose. Charles didn't deserve exasperation, not after what he had done. What he had given. “There are more mutants in the urban areas?”

“No, no,” Charles cried, as though Erik was being obtuse on purpose, making him clench his teeth, carefully, and Hank glanced between the both of them with his feral eyes and sighed.

“The mutations seem to be hereditary, but not necessarily so. And they're not limited to race. But they do seem to manifest only at puberty, judging from what the Professor has managed to glean from the thoughts of those he has reached.”

“Why is that surprising?” Erik asked, trying to be patient. “Certain 'human' mutations can be inherited.”

“It's very important,” Charles was scooping up printouts from the far side of the room, stacking them randomly on a chair. “Is the mutation that gives people the ability to... read minds, or twist metal inheritable? Can it appear in utterly, ah, non-powered families? And most of all, what in the world causes such a great variation in power types and ability scopes? Sometimes a shade of auburn hair is darker! But hair is still hair! Why are there two of me, but one of the rest of all of you? It's perfectly fascinating.”

Erik glanced over at Hank, who shrugged his now broad, furry blue shoulders, and went back to painstakingly writing notes on a large notepad. At least the mostly empty plates of sandwiches and crusted mugs of cocoa beside them meant that Raven had been and gone. “There aren't two of you.” Thank God for small mercies.

“Emma Frost,” Charles said, by way of explanation. “But she herself, fascinating. Two powers. The rest of us have one only. Even Angel, her wings and her, ah, projectile ability are linked. Miss Frost's diamond form and her telepathy are not. I called the CIA this morning,” he added, with a sigh, “But they wouldn't let me talk to her.”

“He called them at four in the morning,” Hank added helpfully.

“Well, they answered the telephone, didn't they?” Charles looked surprised that Hank had brought up that point. “I think that we should probably go and see her personally. They'll have to let us see her if we do.”

Erik arched an eyebrow at Hank behind Charles' back in a silent question: the request to come to the French Lounge was from Hank, delivered by a constantly yawning Sean, when Erik had been reading the morning paper in the library. Hank nodded, somehow managing to look resigned while wearing the features of a blue lion, and Erik nodded gravely. “Charles, a word with you?”

“Oh, of course,” Charles said, blinking, and Hank cleared his throat, picking up the used dishes.

“I'll get this to the kitchen,” Hank said, loping out of the room.

Erik counted briefly to ten, then he said, “We're not going to the CIA to speak with Miss Frost.”

“Why not?” Charles seemed genuinely puzzled. “We're also CIA now, aren't we?”

It was too early in the morning to deal with Charles' particular brand of logic, if ever. Erik took a deep breath, only for Charles to grip both of his arms, above the elbows, bright-eyed and earnest. “This is really important, Erik. If we can speak with Miss Frost, we might be able to learn why she has two abilities. Perhaps it's because both of her parents had abilities. Perhaps-”

“Perhaps she won't even talk to us,” Erik pointed out, trying his best not to stare at Charles' mouth. “Or she'll lie.”

“She talked to us the last time. Truthfully.” Charles looked a little uncertain, chewing briefly on his lower lip, and God, Erik couldn't think very rationally any longer, his breath turning shallower. “Though, not in the best of circumstances.”

He'd tell Charles to go back and rest. “I'll try talking to them.” God damn it. “But it's possible that she's already escaped,” he added, when Charles visibly brightened. “We let Azazel and Riptide go, remember?”

“I never thought of that.” Charles admitted, looking adorably abashed. “I guess I should use Cerebro and track either of them first first.”

“Good. Now could you let go of me, please?” Erik asked, managing somehow to keep his voice steady. The sleeves of his shirt seemed far too thin, Charles' hands were so warm.

Instead of letting go and making a bee-line for Cerebro, however, Charles merely grinned impishly at him, and Erik knew that look by now. It meant that something insane was going to happen. Possibly Erik himself. And he couldn't look away, couldn't breathe as Charles pressed – Gods – closer, until their bodies were flush together, thighs to chests, soft hands trailing up his arms to his shoulders and he was staring at Charles' mouth again, as it drew closer. Remembering the way that Charles hadn't been able to hold one of his smiles together, the night before. Taking in another, deep, shaky breath, Erik firmly pushed him away. No, Charles.

Why? Charles looked hurt, and Erik had to glance away, down at the huge map. You're broadcasting. But I don't need telepathy to know that you want this.

I shouldn't, Erik looked up sharply when Charles took a step closer. Stop.

“All right,” Charles said soothingly, raising his hands up in a gesture of surrender, then he added, in his honeyed voice, sensuous and low like a velvet touch in Erik's mind, I want this.

Erik shivered. “You shouldn't.”

Why? Charles asked again, more compellingly this time, and Erik hated the part of him that was wondering if Charles was being subtle about the use of his telepathy, and loathed the deeper, smaller part of him that wasn't sure why he was even wondering. If he couldn't trust Charles at all, then he had no one. Because we're both men?

Erik let out a harsh laugh. Hardly.

Questions of mere gender and race seemed trivial to Erik in the face of the existence of a totally new species of posthumans, and besides, he'd never had a particular preference either way, especially where it involved taking a step closer to what he wanted.

On a beach in Cuba, with Schmidt dead behind him, a group of leaderless, fully grown soldier-trained mutants watching him stare down the fleets of battleships before him, that deeper, smaller part of Erik had wanted to walk away, and never find out if he ever could or should have trusted Charles fully. To wear the helmet for the rest of his life, and never look over at his side again and wonder what was missing.

He couldn't tell Charles that. He was no longer capable of trusting anyone entirely, or trusting himself with anyone entirely. Charles wouldn't believe him, or worse – there was a small chance that Charles would, and then the strange creature of a friendship that had grown between them would twist and grow awry. He didn't want that, either.

“You don't have to panic,” Charles was grinning boyishly again, though his eyes remained concerned. But you can't run from me forever.

He couldn't stop himself from lashing out. Because eventually you'd just read my mind and find out?

Charles' eyes widened, even as Erik instantly regretted his words – but not, he knew, not entirely. I would never- “I would never do that,” he said sharply, mind and voice both, loud enough that Erik flinched. “Don't you trust me? No, you don't, do you?” Charles added, sadly, as he hesitated, “Not entirely.”

I want to, he replied, honestly, scowling at the map. But how can I? You obviously can read strong surface thoughts whether you want to or not. Even if you don't access memories, you can't stop reading everyone's minds.

Charles stared at him, unblinking, as though struck, the color leaching from his cheeks, just as Erik realized that he had done it yet again, touched the dark edges of his soul to a brighter, trusting one and cracked it along the edges. And yet – yet that small, deep part of him thought, we are right, and he had to know, and instead of apologizing, Erik kept silent. Eventually, Charles said, in a shaky voice, “I didn't know that you felt that way,” and added an ironic little bark of a laugh that raised the hair on the nape of Erik's neck. “I'm sorry. But I can't just,” Charles swivelled his right wrist, “Turn it off when I don't want it. I've tried to. Strong thoughts, they're like shouts. I can't un-hear them.”

“I'm not blaming you. Charles,” Erik added, with a note of warning, as Charles walked up to his side, anyway, and pressed a splayed palm over the hand that he had pressed over the map, fingers almost intertwined.

Shaw damaged you far more than you think, Charles said soberly, tentatively, and Erik set his teeth, hating yet wanting that soothing, forgiving presence. Do you, Charles grimaced at this, want the helmet back?

He did. “No,” Erik said out loud, pulling his hand away, or tried to; Charles was smiling again, his bright-eyed smile of confidence that had snared Erik back to his side when all his instincts had told him to leave, once, twice now, by the count of it, then he added, softer, “Charles,” when Charles curled a hand over his hip and slid it slowly to the small of his back, heart racing-

“That was sort of like watching a train wreck in motion, but with just half the audio,” Raven commented from the door, and Erik gratefully took the opportunity to step quickly out of Charles' reach. Beside Raven, Angel was smirking at them both. The wasp-winged mutant had settled tentatively into life at Westchester, and even if the issue of her burned wings – now healed – stayed a constant topic of animosity between herself and Alex, at least she didn't seem eager to follow Azazel and Riptide once Schmidt was dead.

“When I first saw them in that strip club, I thought, I knew it, they're totally,” Angel made a remarkably lewd gesture with her fingers that made Charles stare blankly and Raven snigger.

Erik cleared his throat quickly. “Is something the matter?”

“There's a military cat in the foyer,” Raven had picked up a tendency towards incomprehensible slang after prolonged exposure to the other students. “He's alone.”

IV.

The 'military cat' was, somewhat to Erik's surprise, an African-American, tall, broad-shouldered, and sporting an eyepatch over his left eye, his head shaved, visibly unarmed, decked out in a military dress uniform. A sergeant, Erik noted, from the man's shoulders. Unlike the other CIA and military men whom they'd met to date, this one stood at ease, meeting first his gaze, then Charles', cool, collected and unafraid.

“Professor Xavier, Mister Lehnsherr,” the sergeant shook hands like he was setting out to crush fingers, then he glanced at Charles. “How about you introduce me, Professor?”

Charles glanced over at Erik, then he pressed his fingers to his temple for a moment. “Sergeant Fury, United States Army, and... Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division?”

“That's a good trick,” Fury said, his eyes flicking up to the students gathering breathlessly on the stairs behind them. “Can we have a chat, without the kiddies?”

Raven let out a squawk of “What?” only for Charles to shush her quickly and usher Fury past them, up the stairs and towards Charles' study. Fury didn't comment when Erik followed them in and locked the door, instead slouching into Charles' chair at the table with a studied insouciance that seemed out of character with a mere army sergeant.

“As of today,” Fury told them, once the door was closed, “You and your school will be under my jurisdiction. CIA's washed their hands – and quite gladly so, I might add – despite Agent MacTaggert's strenuous protests.”

“The military,” Erik said flatly, folding his arms, and even as Charles hastily murmured, in his mind, Let me take care of this, he ignored it. “You're here for weapons?”

“The military is no stranger to... powered individuals, shall we say,” Fury's tone held a touch of elusive irony. “We have been using powered individuals since the last World War, to varying degrees of success.”

“Captain America,” Charles nodded, naming the eponymous hero of the second World War. “I always thought from the reports that he had to be, ah, powered.” Posthuman, Erik thought, but Charles ignored him.

“He was. But he was created. You and your kind pose a different question altogether, to the general public. Don't start with your sales run, Professor. My Division has long been aware of your kind. People born with powers. It was a rarity, at first, or so we thought. But it isn't any longer, is it?” Fury mimed putting a helmet on, and Charles stiffened, his eyes unfocusing for a moment, probably – hopefully – instructing Hank to hide all the printouts.

“This is a school, Sergeant,” Charles said firmly. “Not a weapons factory.”

“Funny thing, that,” Fury raised a finger, and drew a grainy photograph from under his jacket, tossing it on the desk. Visible against a Cuban beach, a submarine was rising out from the water, towards an angling Blackbird, in dark specks, probably taken with a camera on the deck of one of the American warships. “You see, where the United States is concerned, a soldier who can pull a submarine out of the water is an asset. A civilian who pulls submarines out of the sea, however, is a liability.”

Erik was dimly aware of Charles' hand, white-knuckled on his wrist, but he took a deep breath, and the loose metal objects in Charles' study dropped heavily back into place. Charles was already talking, low and urgent. “Sergeant, only six years ago, if you had taken a seat on a public bus, you'd have had to sit on the back of it. Racial segregation in schools still occurs, discrimination in employment, police brutality-”

Fury held up a hand, cutting Charles off. “Is there a point to this?”

“My point,” Charles said, with his endless patience, “Is that you come from an unfairly disadvantaged race, for no reason other than the color of your skin. As such-”

“As such I'm meant to feel some sort of solidarity?” Fury asked, dryly. “Get my superiors to agree to leave your school alone? Let people who can slice metal statues in half with no weapons, spit explosives, read minds, or turn giant satellite dishes from afar alone? Do you know what they'd say to me, Professor? Mister Lehnsherr over there can surmise.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Erik demanded tightly. “Join the military? I've been used by a military force before. It's not an experience that I would wish for any other.”

“You were used by a psychotic regime, Mister Lehnsherr,” Fury corrected, and looked back at Charles. “Since you're so interested in history, Professor, six years ago, do you remember what happened when Rosa Parks won her case?” Charles nodded, slowly, uncomfortably. “You think that people who'd throw bombs into churches and people's homes won't do the same or worse to you? And that's at people of a different race, Professor. The going concept over High Up is that the lot of you are of a different species. Yes, I'm telling all of you to sign up. For your own goddamned sakes.”

“What I want to make here,” Charles said carefully, quietly, “Is a school, where people born differently can learn to control their abilities. Through that, to mediate a peaceful co-existence between non-powered and powered individuals, an affirmation that we are all human. No child born with powers should grow up knowing that his or her only future lies in the army. No student here should be forced into any war.”

Charles' naivety was painful to listen to, Erik thought, but God, if he had not already loved Charles before that, he would have fallen in love with him now.

“You're already part of a war, Professor,” Fury got to his feet, “I'm just giving you a choice between a war you can choose and one that's likely to explode in your face when you least expect it. Here's my card, if you change your mind,” Fury flicked a white card onto the photograph. “Oh, and a word to the wise,” Fury added, before he reached for the door, “You might want to increase the rate of your recruitment. Strange as it may seem,” Fury smiled a shark-like smile, “I'm one of the nicer ones. I'm only looking for soldiers, Professor. There are some other divisions in the army who'd be looking to forge weapons.”

Fury opened the door, nodded at the students that scrambled quickly out of his way, and ambled down the corridor. At Raven's gesture, Hank nodded and padded after Fury, to make sure that he left, then she stumbled into the room and hugged her brother tightly, burying her face in his neck as he patted her shoulder and mumbled into her ear. Sean and Alex had cautiously edged into the study, with Alex picking up the photograph and examining it.

“You'd have to admit,” Alex told Sean, “This was kind of cool.”

Raven rolled her eyes, even as Angel shook her head slowly. Charles patted her shoulder again, this time awkwardly, and she pulled back. “What are we going to do now, Charles?”

“I don't know,” Charles sighed. “I guess it was too much to hope that they'd leave us alone. I'll have to think on it. He had no reason to lie to us, though, about the 'other divisions'. We'll have to increase our recruitment drives. Everyone will have to help out. And even if we can't convince new people to come to the school, at the least, we'll have to warn them.”

I was right after all, Erik wanted to say, but the look of determination on Charles' face suited him, somehow, even if Charles' dream was a doomed one. It assumed far too much of a human race that was all too eager to destroy even its own kind. “I'll set a roster. We'll have to work quickly.”

Charles shot him a grateful look, then faced their students, shoulders resolutely squared. “This doesn't change anything,” he declared, and Erik kept his own expression impassive as he picked up Fury's card, and turned it around. There was no logo, only the word 'Fury', and at the back, an area code and a phone number.

V.

Charles played their game of chess that night in total silence, his expression distant, until Erik reached over with a deep sigh and scooped up both their kings, setting the pieces down to the side of the board. Charles flinched, then he put on an apologetic smile, before resting his elbows on his knees and carding his fingers through his thick mop of dark hair. “Erik,” Charles said, without looking up from his shoes, “Do you think that Fury is right?”

“That his way is the best way? No,” Erik said carefully. Schmidt's way had been the best way, a recognition that there could be no reconciliation, an understanding both of human nature and human weakness. “But it is the easiest way.”

“To send my students to the army?” Charles said, a spark of anger in his tone, “To Vietnam, or whatever part of the world, with no choice but to kill people in order to justify their own existence?”

Erik's lips twisted briefly. “This country happens to have an exalted opinion of soldiering, Charles. Soldiers are granted a higher form of respect than other men and women. If you want to keep your dream of general acceptance, it is one way.”

“I can't believe that you think that.”

“You know which path I prefer, Charles,” Erik retorted, sinking in the chair and leaning his palms loosely on the arm rests. “And it's neither yours nor Fury's.”

“War isn't acceptable, Erik. Like it or not, we have to share this planet. All of us are people. Being born differently does not give us the right to start killing or oppressing everyone else born without powers! I thought you'd understand this, Erik,” Charles' hands curled briefly in his hair. “Your parents had no powers. You're a Holocaust survivor, a victim of intolerance. Surely you can't want to start applying it to others.”

“All I can see is that what happened to me, to my family, is happening all over again,” Erik snapped back, “Just that this time, I have far more than just a child's desperation at my fingertips. Watch what happens when Fury gets his hands on your list, if he hasn't already. It starts with registration. All of us will be given a number. And then-”

“It won't happen that way, it won't.” Charles interrupted, though he exhaled slowly, shakily. “There must be another way. One that doesn't involve conscription, or segregation, or outright war. There must be.”

“There are no other options,” Erik said, in as kindly a tone as he could, and managing only neutrality, as he rose from his chair and circled around the table, reaching out and awkwardly clasping Charles' shoulder on an impulse. “You've already tried your way, Charles. Perhaps-”

“I'm not finished,” Charles said, sounding determined again, though when he looked up, his eyes looked bruised, almost reddened. “Why do you remain? I won't blame you if you go,” he added, more softly. “I didn't read his mind, but it's evident that the division that Fury is part of is very interested in you. Shaw's dead, and you've also made it amply clear that you don't agree with what I'm doing.”

It was on hindsight unfortunate that Erik had not only not been expecting such a question, but had been touching Charles at that very moment; his very first thought – or rather, the storm of raw emotion that had risen within him instantly in response to Charles' query – had already betrayed his answer. Charles' eyes had grown very wide, and he stood up from his chair so quickly that he nearly stumbled over the board. Erik tried to retreat as he had before, sensing the fey streak that Charles' anger and despair had lent him tonight, but then he was being pinned against the door, and Charles had his hands over around the back of his head, pulling him down, the kiss all scraping teeth at first until Erik bent lower still, with a strangled moan, and gave Charles what he wanted.

Erik wasn't surprised to realize that Charles not only knew exactly what he was doing but had picked up technique along the way; evidently, not all of Charles' time in Oxford had been spent on academia. Distracted when Charles drew his tongue into his mouth and sucked on it greedily, Erik didn't notice fingers deftly unbuttoning his shirt until soft, sensitive hands were sliding up his back, tracing the ridges and dips of old scars with hungry curiosity. He growled, splaying his fingers around the pert curve of Charles' ass and dragging the young professor forward, swallowing the squeak and the breathy sigh that Charles made in another possessive kiss, thrusting his tongue again into Charles' mouth as he ground their hips together.

He wouldn't last like this, not after nights spent in the company of his hand, guilty at his own fantasies, days spent trying mostly unsuccessfully to evade Charles' determined attentions, and worse, Charles was projecting, warmth and lust and pleasure entwining so tightly in his mind that he couldn't quite tell where Charles' desires began and his ended, in a mad, intoxicating spiral of interlinked ecstasy, like he was falling, drowning-

Then Charles' head was snapping back, with a hoarse, stuttered moan, even as his hips cant forward and rode up Erik's thigh, hands scrabbling on his shoulders and finally twisting in Erik's collar; the resultant surge of ecstasy-want-yes in Erik's mind swept him over, made him sink his teeth in Charles' neck, just beneath the collar of his shirt, growling and dragging Charles up against him until they were both sliding down the door and slumped on the carpet, breathless and dazed.

Charles' breathing was the first to grow even, though the telepath didn't move, staying draped over Erik's lankier form, his cheek pressed over a shoulder, reaching down to twist their fingers together, slowly, almost shyly. Whatever happens, Charles murmured in his mind, I hope that you'll be there to face it with me.

Erik didn't trust himself to answer, closing his eyes instead and stroking his fingers up and through Charles' hair. He could give this much, for now.

VI.

“Mister Lehnsherr, what a surprise,” Fury said, slouched in the luridly red seat at the tiny table in the diner, wearing an expression that suggested strongly that this was anything but. Erik had drawn some sharp looks when he had walked into the diner, as the sole white-skinned man, making a bee-line to a table with an African-American, both of them dressed in black shirts and tailored pants.

“This isn't exactly private, Sergeant,” Erik said, uncomfortable with the stares as he sat down. A call to the number on the card using a public phone, when he'd left the mansion on a pretext of going recruiting alone, had connected to a clipped, female voice, which had then given him a location and a time. “Were you planning on wasting my time?”

The murmur of voices around him rose, edged in hostility, but Fury merely chuckled. “I thought perhaps that I should illustrate a point, Mister Lehnsherr. You see, most of these good folks think that you've come on in to a black diner and started mouthing off to a black army man. What they don't know is that we're friends, and you've just got a lot of personal problems, given that you went through the Holocaust when you were a kid.”

There was dead silence for a moment, then a large woman to his right, at the bar counter, got heavily off her stool, and to Erik's uncomfortable astonishment, walked over to shake him by the hand and apologize. It was the most awkward cup of coffee he had ever drunk, with Fury smirking all the way opposite him as total strangers put forward friendly how'd you'd do's and asked solicitously after his experiences, eyeing the tattoo on his arm reverently, like it was some sort of battle scar, and in the end, he was greatly relieved when Fury finally indicated that they should leave.

There was a car waiting for them outside, and Erik followed Fury into it with an angry exhalation. “And what did that prove to me, exactly?” he asked, as the car pulled away from the curb.

“People are sentimental,” Fury said, sounding self-satisfied. “It's all about telling a stronger story, if you will.”

“I'm not the one whom you need to convince,” Erik said irritably. “Charles is naïve.”

Fury smiled pityingly, as though Erik had missed the point altogether. “Let's talk business, then.”

“If I were to 'sign up',” Erik pronounced the phrase with every inch of the distaste that it warranted, “Would you leave Charles and his school alone?”

Fury stared at him for a moment, then he took a deep breath and, to Erik's irritation and surprise, began to chuckle.

“What,” Erik growled, the metal panels of the car shaking around them for a moment, “Is so amusing, sergeant?”

“That you're thinking along the same narrow lines that some of those fat cats Higher Up were going on,” Fury drawled. “Oh, don't get angry, Mister Lehnsherr, it's tedious. You are possibly one of the strongest powered people... or mutants, if you want to use the word that the Higher Ups are going for... that my division has on known record, that's not disputed. You'd be invaluable on the battlefield, overturning tanks and throwing missiles around, no doubt. But you are one man, sir, and what Xavier and his school represents to me is something else altogether.”

“And what is that?” Erik asked tightly.

“None of the students enrolled now are at your calibre, of course. But I prefer to look to the future,” Fury said, gesturing at the streets that sleeted past their windows. “Perhaps someday the Vietcong, or Russia, or some other country will start using their own trained mutants. But if they do, we'd already have our own, all properly trained, and in a best case scenario, already deployed. That's secondary, for now. I don't want kids in the army, Mister Lehnsherr, no matter what you think of me. And hell, I don't want to conscript anyone against their will. But the fact remains that we are at war, and have been at war for too damned long, and if your friend can find and train up people that can then serve their country-”

“Charles is a pacifist. Anyone trained in his school will be taught his ideals.”

“I saw papers and a television set in that big old house,” Fury countered. “Those kids will make their own decisions when they grow up.”

And if it seemed like they could only be free in the military... “So you're actually willing to leave Charles and the school alone?” Erik changed tack.

“Maybe I might even provide funding. All that old money can't last forever,” Fury smirked at Erik's growing scowl. “I'm trying to be nice. I don't want to force anyone to conscript – that's just a recipe for disaster with you 'powered' people. If the lot of you sign up, I want it to be because you've all chosen to do so.”

“But you're not going to leave anyone much choice.” Erik deduced.

“Smart man. Now take your friend the Professor, for example. Like I said, you'd be good for a battlefield, any battlefield. But we're more or less fighting a costly guerilla war on the guerillas' home ground, never any good intel about what they're going to do next, and in that sort of situation... you'd be good, no doubt about that. But in your friend the Professor, with that helmet of his, I see a way to end the war.”

“You weren't looking to have this talk with me,” Erik realized, revelation bitter and ashen, “You want Charles.”

“A telepath,” Fury corrected, “And Cerebro. We don't need your machine, I know a specialist who should be able to come up with something similar after a consultation or two.”

“Your CIA has a telepath,” Erik said, even as he knew where this was going; Fury had to know about Emma Frost, which meant only one or two outcomes. “Or did they misplace her?”

“Quite thoroughly,” Fury conceded, with a smirk. “So you'll find her for me. Or perhaps your Professor will read your mind sometime and come up with something else. I can't imagine that one giving up even a supposed enemy to save himself some convenience.”

Fury was uncomfortably perceptive. “He won't fight your wars for you,” Erik declared, uncertainly. Charles was against killing, in principle, but if he were to be caught between his principles and the lives of those he loved – better men had chosen the latter. And if Charles chose the army, Erik knew that Erik himself – and many of the students – would choose with him. “And you can stop here.”

Fury inclined his head, almost mockingly, and the car came to a neat stop against the curb at the start of a row of tidy brick townhouses. “There you go, Mister Lehnsherr. Nice suburb. Who is it this time, some kid who can turn his fingers into paper? A human torch, maybe?”

“Fuck you, sergeant,” Erik said coldly, and let himself out of the car. In actual fact, he wasn't entirely sure where he was, but he wasn't about to bring Fury's attention anywhere near the child.

“You did the right thing in Cuba, Mister Lehnsherr,” Fury called from the car, his narrowed eyes merciless. “And hell's the pity that you did, for all those bright-eyed kids in that school.”

“What do you mean?” Erik grit out warily, trying not to be baited.

“The world might have been an easier place for your friend and those kids if you'd gone rogue, Mister Lehnsherr,” Fury drawled. “You were tempted, weren't you? Should've taken all the bad eggs, gone south, dressed up in something dramatic and called yourself, hell, Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or whatever has a nice ring to it. Then Xavier and his school of mutant kids would have had a bogeyman to fight. People with bogeymen to fight are heroes. Wouldn't need the army then, would they?” The sergeant reached forward, as Erik stood, frozen and blinking, saluting him with a faint trace of a ironic smirk. “Be good. And if you do find Miss Frost, give me a ring.”

VII.

The recruitment attempt was a tentative failure – the little thirteen-year-old girl had an invisible mutation, a harmless one at that, or so it seemed; she could get the tips of her fingers to light up in different colors in the dark. Her parents were frightened and fiercely possessive, and in the end, Erik had given them a terse warning before leaving.

He returned to the mansion to find the driveway in a state of chaos. There seemed to be at least three sets of weeping families and their children, with Charles alternating between fumbling attempts at comfort and a childlike excitement of his own at the mutant abilities on display: a child not more than twelve was standing, looking faintly embarrassed, beside what looked like a smoking, rapidly cooling blackened puddle of magma. Awkwardly patting a matronly woman clutching a skinny boy, a disguised Raven rolled her eyes at him behind the woman's back and jerked her chin at the door with a frantic gesture.

Frowning at her, Erik edged carefully around the crowd and into the mansion, where the sound of someone swearing loudly only grew in volume when he closed in on the French Lounge; Alex and Angel stood, watching, at the doorway to the Lounge, with identical expressions of rapt amazement. Within it was a somewhat familiar-looking mutant, broad-shouldered and short, dressed in discolored flannel, faded jeans and a ten-gallon hat, a duffel bag at his feet, last seen drinking whisky with the grim determination of the dying in a bar at a forgettable corner of Connecticut.

“... you didn't fuckin' tell me that this was a fuckin' daycare,” the mutant was snarling into the receiver of the phone that he held in a death grip in one thick-fingered hand. “So help me God, Fury... yeah? Oh, is that right, bub? I got trouble on my back like you won't believe and you want me to shack out in a kiddie school... well fuck you too, you manipulative streak of piss!”

Erik raised his eyebrows at Alex and Angel, the former mouthing 'wow' and shaking his head, and the latter ignoring him outright.

“...you've got ten seconds to convince me not to go back to Canada, bub. Yeah? Fuck that, I never did... Look... Will you just... Goddamn it, Fury, if you think I'm scared... you can take your fuckin' principles and shove them so far up your... That's right. Yeah?” The mutant listened for a long, blessedly peaceful moment, then he exhaled angrily. “Fine. But this is the last damned thing you'd get, understand? You're gonna help me disappear. Good. You'd better.” The man slammed the phone down, then rounded on them, glancing over at Erik. “Someone else who's above the legal age for drinkin'. Fuckin' finally.”

“Erik Lehnsherr,” Erik introduced himself, out of the lack of anything else that was remotely appropriate to say.

“We've met,” the mutant sniffed at the air. “Shitty bar. Connecticut. You and that other one, the one that smells like starch and ink. Name's Logan, by the way,” Logan added, as an afterthought, scratching thick fingers up under his hat.

“You're a friend of Fury's?”

Logan made as if to spit on the ground, then stopped himself grudgingly when Erik glowered at him, sneering instead. “Depends on how you see it. I don't trust him, but he keeps his promises,” he allowed, after a pause. “You're the Professor?”

Alex and Angel snickered instantly, but Erik ignored them. “You've met the professor, in that Connecticut bar. You probably also passed him coming down the driveway.”

Him?” Logan said, in a sort of irritated disdain, “He don't look older than these kids, bub... You ain't joking? Fuck, what sort of joint is this anyway? I swear, the next I meet Fury, I'm going to cut his belly up and feed him his own-”

“Quite,” Erik interrupted, even as 'these kids' leaned in a little, clearly spellbound at the mayhem that Logan was about to describe so viscerally. “I can't imagine what the sergeant was thinking.”

“He said someone here needed help with finding special people,” Logan shrugged, rolling his thickset shoulders. A cool, calculating look indicated that Logan knew exactly who he had been sent here to help locate, and Erik supposed that he wasn't surprised. Fury seemed like exactly the sort of person who would send insurance, and he hadn't left Erik much choice during their last meeting, as much as he resented it. Still, decades spent hunting Shaw had made Erik learn the value of patience. Perhaps some day he would have the opportunity to pay back the sergeant in full.

Erik glanced at Angel and Alex. “Perhaps the both of you should kindly assist the Professor outside?” He inserted just enough quiet menace in his tone that Alex straightened up and nodded, and he closed the door sharply as the kids scooted away back towards the driveway. “Fury works quickly. Did he give you a description?”

“Yeah. A couple of killers and a 'reader. Some broad. Got a sniff of the room that she was locked in.” Logan said, disinterested. “Dead or alive for the first two, mostly alive for the 'reader.”

“I have a helmet that guards against telepaths,” Erik said, thinking this over, “But only one.” Emma Frost hadn't shown herself capable of mind control – or perhaps she hadn't yet shown her hand. Still-

Logan grunted. “Don't need it. I'm immune.”

“Why's that?” Erik asked, intrigued despite himself.

“I heal fast. Somehow, that gets in the way. The whitecoats couldn't come up with anything better to explain it.” Logan's description was vague and brusque, and the mutant was clearly impatient. “We're gonna go now, or what? You don't want me to be here. I got trouble at my back that'd won't look twice at stompin' down on a few brats for the sheer hell of it.”

“I don't have a location yet.” He'd have to talk Charles into finding Emma, somehow, without alerting the suspicions of either of the telepaths. “But I will have one soon. What's chasing you, Logan?”

Logan's lips curled briefly, showing his white teeth. “Can't tell you much for your own sake. But since you know Fury... there's a black ops team for 'posthumans', and sometimes the recruitment process ain't that gentle. I doubt they'd look too kindly on quitters, neither. And I don't know how they missed this place of yours, Lehnsherr. But you've got fuck all for security and probably nothin' but Fury's good graces keeping you afloat. Better learn fast.”

“The professor must not learn what you're really here for, not from you,” Erik lowered his voice, even as Logan's words disconcerted him. They had been lax, and the sprawling grounds of the mansion was a nightmare to police at best. “He doesn't approve.”

“I figured,” Logan nodded slowly. “Tell him Fury put me here on babysittin' duty. It's close enough. Gonna be a bitch to keep it from him, though. You ain't immune to his trick.”

“I'll come up with something.” The biggest problem would be taking back the helmet without Charles noticing and connecting the dots with his brilliant mind. It was very unlikely that Charles would understand Erik's motives; he would try to interfere, or worse. If Charles outright asked, or begged Erik not to go ahead... Erik's resolve would be sorely tested.

Logan stared at him thoughtfully. “When I was in that black ops outfit, the rest of them had to learn how to keep silent around 'readers. You think of a cube, a reflective one, and then you think of your thoughts, all wrapped inside it, you keep 'em small and quiet, and you keep the cube thick. Don't ask for specifics, bub,” Logan added curtly, as Erik opened his mouth to ask a question, curious, “I didn't have to do that sort of trainin'.”

“Does it work?”

“Seems like it helps. Never did see it in a combat situation, obviously. Usually I get the 'readers first.” Logan cocked his head, as though listening to something, then he jerked his chin at the door. “Your kiddie friends are comin',” he added, just as Erik was about to demand to know exactly what the 'black ops' team that Logan had been in usually did.

Sure enough, Erik could hear footsteps approaching the door, even as Logan dug around thoughtfully in his pockets and came up with a chewed, cheap-looking cigar and a lighter, and as such, Erik was coughing and waving discreetly at the smoke when Charles opened the door. Whatever the hell it was that Logan was smoking, it was foul.

To Charles' credit, he didn't even flinch at the sight. “I'm sorry that I didn't have the time to greet you earlier,” Charles was saying brightly, extending a hand. “Unfortunately, the other families wanted to extend their farewells, then I had to get the children settled.”

“Everyone finished whimperin' yet?” Logan shook Charles' hand roughly, then he secreted the lighter back into his pockets, exhaling a thick cloud of acrid smoke.

Charles blinked, as though trying to parse Logan's sarcasm, and Erik stepped in quickly. “This is Logan. Logan, Professor Charles Xavier. You've met Alex and Angel. This is Raven, and Hank. Sean's getting the new children used to their new rooms.”

“Huh.” Logan stared openly at Raven's blonde disguise, looking her appreciatively up and down. “Bit young, still. Pity.”

Raven rolled her eyes, flickering instantly into a perfect copy of Marilyn Monroe, voluptuous curves barely caught by a tight white glove of a dress, and Charles reddened quickly, with a horrified yelp of “Raven!” 'Marilyn' stuck her tongue out at her foster brother, cheekily, blowing a mocking kiss, then she flickered into her favorite blonde form, then back into her original skin.

Logan smirked, amused, and mockingly thumbed his hat, apparently not the least bit startled by the mottled blue skin, gesturing at Raven with the cigar that he held in his thick fingers. “I've seen tricks the world over, girl. Yours has to be one of the best.”

“Flatterer,” Raven said, trying but failing to look gratified, even as Hank growled, a rumbling, feral sound. Alarmed, Charles looked quickly at Hank, narrowing his eyes, likely talking quickly to the partly-feral scientist in the privacy of their minds, but whatever Charles was saying, it wasn't working. Hank continued to glare at Logan, clawed fingers clenching.

“Aww. Sounds like kitty wants a spot of milk,” Logan bared his teeth, unfazed. “C'mere, kitty kitty.”

“Logan,” Erik warned, even as Charles tried to move into Hank's way, but the blue-furred mutant shoved past him and pounced, with a liquid snarl, despite shouts from Charles and the other students for him to stop.

Logan was – Logan was laughing, the cigar back in his mouth as he stepped aside, dodging Hank's lunge, even as a chair clattered down onto its side as the big blue mutant skidded against it. The next warning died on Erik's lips as Hank, maddened, whirled and tried to grab Logan by the throat; Logan had circled around, like a cage fighter, and had rammed one big fist into Hank's stomach. When Hank stumbled, with a shocked sound, Logan kicked out his knees with ruthless, deliberate precision, causing Hank to land in a painful sprawl on the ground. Grinning viciously, Logan cracked his knuckles, taking a step forward.

Charles looked comically surprised, fingers pressed to his temple, as his telepathy failed on Logan, even as Erik gestured, using the metal buckle of Logan's belt and what was probably dog tags under his shirt to toss him aside, up against the fireplace, where he curled the metal of the grating over Logan's left wrist and arm, holding him down. Snarling, Logan fought, jerking at the restraints, his eyes murderous, then the furious gleam in them abruptly died as he swallowed a harsh breath, and snorted. “You can let go now, Lehnsherr. I don't feel like skinning kittums any longer.”

Erik looked dubiously over at Charles, kneeling by Hank's side and checking his pulse, the other students clustered around him; Alex looked angry, jaw clenched, but the others, even Raven, merely looked uncertain, even a little afraid... and God, they had good reason. Erik had grown up in a war, had learned the violence in his soul within the worst of it all, but there was something primal in Logan's ferocity, a killing drive. If Erik hadn't thrown Logan off Hank, he couldn't be sure that Logan wouldn't have proceeded to beat Hank into a bloody smear over the plush carpet.

Coupled with this sudden revelation on the man that Fury had sent into their midst was an equal and grim understanding of his deadline. Whatever it was that had Logan on the run, desperate enough to turn to Fury for help, no questions asked about the favors required, was something that Erik would have to keep away from Charles and his students.

Carefully, Erik unwound the metal, and Logan rolled to his feet, walking over to his duffel bag and slinging it over his shoulder, smirking as the closest student – Angel- almost scrambled over herself to get out of his way. “That was bracin'.”

Charles had directed the students to help a dizzy-looking Hank out of the room to the infirmary, and once everyone was gone, he sighed. “Fury said that you were a friend of his, Logan. You've clearly been combat trained, at the least. Hank might look imposing, but he's young.”

“Lesson one, Book of Logan. If someone jumps at me,” Logan rolled his shoulders into an easy shrugs, “I wipe the floor with them. Bad nerves,” he said, with one of his bared-teeth grins. “Don't wet yourself, Professor, if it's gonna be too much trouble,” Logan drawled this last word, “I can leave. And if it's anythin' to you, Fury didn't tell me that this was a kiddie playpen when I agreed to come.”

“There's a place for you here, for any mutant,” Charles said earnestly, so blindly trusting, as always. “I'm afraid that none of the students know anything about hand to hand combat. You could-”

“You know how some people have a middle ground between play fightin' and murder?” Logan asked, rhetorically. “I don't. Pretty bad idea, Prof.”

“Fury's concerned about the security of the mansion,” Erik interjected. “Logan's a... consultant.”

“Ain't been called that before,” Logan said, though he seemed amused as he chewed on his abused cigar. “Might put it on my card. Now which room's spare?”

“Anything along the East Wing is still unoccupied.” Erik said. For now, it was probably best that Logan didn't stay too close to the others – and Logan seemed to guess as much, nodding curtly and ambling out of the room in a loping stride. Once Logan was ascending the wide stairs, whistling something toneless to himself, Charles exhaled, rubbing his hands over his face.

“I couldn't get through to him. Couldn't even see his thoughts. It's like trying to watch a movie in triple time. All images.”

“He has a healing ability, apparently.” Erik recalled. “Seems that it makes him immune to telepathy.”

Charles actually perked up briefly at this thought. “Constant cellular reconstruction? That's fascinating, of course it'd apply to his brain, but perhaps it alters the synapse structures all the time! I wonder if he'd let me-”

“I very much doubt it,” Erik cut in. Logan didn't look like the sort that would treat being experimented on kindly, however harmlessly.

Charles deflated again. “I suppose so.”

“Long day?” Erik asked solicitously, even as he bent down to right the chair that Hank's lunge had overturned.

“God, yes.” I wish that you were here to suffer through it with me, Charles added, his mental touch trying for humor but managing only a warm affection that settled in an uncomfortable weight at the back of Erik's mind, unsettled still from Fury's 'little chat'. “How was yours?”

“A waste of time.” Erik admitted, running his hand over the drinks cabinet in the corner of the French Lounge and unlocking it with a thought, then drawing out the carafe of brandy and two glasses. “I couldn't justify taking her from her parents. All she could do was light up the tips of her fingers.”

“There shouldn't be any 'justification',” Charles had crumpled into the chair that Erik had righted, rubbing at his temples as if to stave off a headache. “They shouldn't have to leave their families, in a perfect world. It was awful. I felt like a kidnapper. At one point Amara's – that's the girl who can create magma – her parents threatened to call the police and report me as a fraud.”

“Certainly I'll have looked like a kidnapper, if I had been there,” Erik said dryly, with a brief glance down at his black turtleneck and pants as he passed Charles a glass of brandy, and the young Professor chuckled, accepting the glass gratefully.

Charles drank, and seemed to relax further, turning boneless, pressing the glass against one baby-smooth cheek. “You were gone for only two days and the whole place wigs out. Don't go away any more, please.”

Charles' tone was playful, but it had enough of a thread of plaintiveness in it that Erik was grateful that he had thought to stay against the drinks cabinet, taking a fortifying draught of brandy. Carefully, he thought of a reflective cube, and put himself within, small and quiet, and Charles frowned at him abruptly.

“Erik? You're growing distant, what's wrong? What are you doing?”

So it worked. Erik's satisfaction was tempered by the anxious expression on Charles' face, even as the treacherous little voice within him murmured that Charles' instant reaction meant, obviously, that Charles was always keeping an eye on him, that telepaths couldn't be trusted with unfettered minds. “Logan taught me something that he learned from his time in a black ops unit. I felt that it would make things more comfortable for you, if you didn't have to listen to leaking thoughts all the time.”

“Oh no, I find it comforting. Sometimes,” Charles amended absently, then he smiled winningly, “I mean, I've always felt comfortable around you, not that I want to eavesdrop, but you're so intense all the time, it's refreshing, and...” that never sounds good when I say it out loud, Charles added, self-deprecatingly, and Erik had to pour himself more brandy to keep from walking forward and ravishing that lush mouth, from kissing Charles until the furrows on his brow from what had evidently been a very trying day smoothed away-

“I'm going to have some rest,” Erik decided, and Charles instantly looked disappointed.

“You mean, right now? But it's almost dinner, and I haven't seen you for two days, I thought perhaps that we could talk.” Charles was licking a slow, teasing slick up over the rim of the brandy glass, and Erik was uncomfortably aware both of the sudden interest of his own body and of the fact that if he were to stay, he wasn't about to do very much talking at all.

Charles was definitely a shameless minx.

“About what?” Erik asked, deliberately brusque, and had to stifle a pulse of guilt when Charles sighed, downcast like a kicked puppy, though he forged on.

“That other night, before you went recruiting...”

Didn't happen, Erik wanted to say, but at Charles' hopeful look, he muttered, “Later,” instead, and held on to his mental image of the reflective cube. Small thoughts. Quiet thoughts. Still, Charles' damnably warm smile followed him out of the Lounge, like a subtle form of accusation.

He had already gone too far with Charles; Erik knew that he would have to be more careful from now onwards.

VIII.

Other than that first disastrous encounter with the students, Logan stayed out of everyone's way, eating his meals at odd hours and spending most of the rest of his time either prowling around the emptier wings of the old mansion or over its sprawling grounds, like a semi-feral animal. Like any well-bred puppy, Charles made concerted overtures of friendship that were curtly rebuffed or outright ignored, and Logan seemed at best dismissive, at worst amused by the students' growing, collective dislike.

Erik viewed the slowly deteriorating situation with the distant air of a spectator, alone in the knowledge that Logan's stay would be temporary. He was carefully cultivating his friendship with Hank, wary of his new instincts – Erik kept his movements around Hank slow, comfortable and unhurried, agreed as intelligently as he could with everything that Hank said, and most importantly, kept an eye on the Cerebro printouts that Hank was collating laboriously.

If Hank was suspicious about Erik's sudden interest in his project, he didn't show it. Charles had his hands full with the newcomers, and with Alex's increasingly destructive attempts to learn precision; Raven and Angel tended to go on girl's trips into town when they weren't training, and Sean with his easy nature seemed to have been roped into becoming a full time babysitter. As such, Hank was more or less left to himself of late, and Erik didn't need telepathy to know that the scientist was a little lonely.

The moment he had been waiting for came when in an increasingly rare moment of free time, Charles decided to see how far in one direction he could push his amplified abilities, and Hank had suggested south of the border as a 'baby step'. Charles had been sitting bolt upright in the cushioned chair, fingers curled tightly on the armrests, lips moving silently, then Hank stilled, as though listening to a set of silent instructions, reaching out to circle a set of coordinates on the printouts in red pen ink, and then began to work on bringing the machine back down to dormancy.

“There,” Charles said, once he'd pulled the helmet off. “I saw it. Touched his mind.” Charles rubbed at his eyes for a moment, as though collecting his thoughts, then he elaborated, with a brilliant, triumphant smile, “Azazel. They're in Mexico. All of them.”

“Did Frost sense you?” Erik asked immediately, then added, more carefully, “She could have struck back at you.”

“I don't know. I doubt it. I've been growing better. Subtler.” Charles grinned at him warmly, clearly appreciative of the apparent concern. “Besides, she doesn't have the range to reach me from there.”

“What did you see in his mind? Are they planning revenge?” Deceit was coming easily to him again, with Logan's reflective box strategy, now that he didn't have to keep second-guessing the extent of Charles' ability.

Charles shook his head. “Mundane things. Supplies and security. They're in hiding.” He sighed. “If only they understood.”

Azazel, Riptide and Frost understood humans far better than Charles, Erik felt, but he kept the observation small. Quiet. Charles was already discussing some other set of coordinates on the printouts with Hank, something about Nevada, and Erik let their chatter wash over him, assuming an expression of mild boredom as he sifted through locational notes instead, allocating them to the older students in a chart. It was mind-numbing work, but it kept him occupied long after Charles had hurriedly left the room to check on the children and stop their latest destructive game of tag in the garden.

Patiently, Erik waited until nightfall, past their usual chess game, and then headed back down to the French Lounge instead of returning to his rooms.

Fury picked up on his second attempt, and sounded abrasive, as though he had been in the middle of something, thick static occasionally crackling over the line. “Fury. What?”

“Frost is in Mexico,” Erik said, without preamble, and rattled off memorized coordinates.

“Huh.” Fury didn't sound entirely surprised, and just as Erik was about to demand, irritably, whether the sergeant had known that all along, he added, “Are you ready to go?”

“Any time.” Erik had come up with a few plans over the afternoon for stealing and substituting the helmet, though he hadn't finished thinking over the rest of the details. Once he left Charles' range on his way to Mexico, he knew that Charles was just as likely to connect all the dots anyway.

“Head east.” Fury described a curt route over the roads, then he added, “You'll come to a building called ProTech. Just head right in and go to the top floor. Your ride should be on the roof by the time you get there.”

“One last thing,” Erik added quickly. “Something's after Logan. I want some insurance that the mansion will be looked after while I'm not here.”

“What do you think I've been doing all this time?” Fury asked, sounding irritable.

“And then,” Erik continued grimly, deciding that if anything, he could probably trust Logan's instincts, “I want to know exactly what Logan was part of, before he was sent here.”

“That's classified information, Mister Lehnsherr.” Fury, however, seemed amused. “You get Frost, and I'll think on it.”

Erik scowled. “That's not good enough.”

“It's all that you're getting. Fury out.”

Erik swore quietly as the line went dead, hanging up the receiver, thinking for a moment, then he sighed and closed his eyes, feeling out every piece of metal in the mansion until he found a familiar set of dog tags, and tugged gently. The helmet he could sense, in a heavy, solid presence in Charles' room, but he ignored it for now, waiting in the Lounge until Logan padded up into it, already packed, chewing on an unlit cigar.

“Got marchin' orders?” he asked.

“Mexico. And a flight out.”

“Finally.” Logan muttered. “Few more days in this place and my teeth would'a started rottin'.”

“There's a slight problem.”

“The helmet?” Logan looked unimpressed. “Right. I'll go up to the Prof's room, knock him out, take the helmet. You pretend to chase me and get it back or whatever. Good story, very heroic. Problem solved.”

Erik glared at him, even as an unexpected, ugly knot of protective temper curling within him made him flush angrily and clench his fists. “Knock him out?”

Logan rolled his eyes. “I'll be gentle, no broken teeth or visible bruises. Happy?”

“No.” It was, Erik had to objectively admit, a somewhat brutal if elegantly simple solution, but it involved hurting Charles, and- “Definitely not.”

“Well, think of something fast,” Logan observed, with a curl to his lip, “Prof's coming down the stairs.”

Erik managed a sharp, “What?” before Charles had stepped into the doorway, the helmet under his arm, and the gleam of silver and burnished steel in the dim glow of the lights overhead was, for a moment, like every hue of treachery.

“I didn't read your mind,” Charles said quietly, before Erik could say a word, “But you haven't been as subtle as you think.”

Logan snorted, glancing between them both and sniffing at the air. “You two lovebirds have it out. I'll wait in the driveway.”

Charles didn't even look at Logan as he brushed past, already fumbling for his lighter. “I wish that you would trust me,” he said wistfully, and Erik dug his nails into his palms, taking in a slow breath. “I wish that I knew what it would take.”

“As long as you can read my mind, I can't trust you,” Erik said flatly. Sometimes one had to be cruel to be kind. Even if Erik's own experience with real kindness in most of his adult life had come late, after he'd nearly killed himself trying to drag a submarine towards him underwater. “I'm sorry,” he added, more slowly, as Charles' expression seemed to crumple.

“Then you can have this back.” Charles tossed the helmet at him, his jaw set, and Erik stopped it in the air between them, felt the weight and the density of it, the strangeness of the tempered alloy that lined it, and as Erik stared, still trying to sort through Charles' logic, through the insistent noise at the back of his mind that preached suspicion, Charles rubbed his fingers through his thick hair and turned to go.

“You're not-” Erik began, before he could stop himself.

“Going to ask to come with you? No. You won't let me, would you? And I can't stop you... I mean, I can, but I won't. Nor are you going to listen to reason, anyway. I don't need to read your mind to know that you won't be changing it,” Charles said heavily. “Vengeance is never a solution, Erik. Why can't you understand that?”

Small thoughts. Quiet thoughts. Erik folded the sudden, thick relief that he felt deep within himself. Charles didn't understand, after all, that what Erik was about to do was worse still than simple concepts of revenge, that he was about to give up one of their own kind to something he had always loathed and hated in order to buy them all a little breathing space. To buy Charles a better fate. “Vengeance is all that I've known for most of my life.”

“I wish that... stay safe,” Charles said, biting briefly down on his lower lip, uncertain. “Please.”

“I will.” Erik brought the helmet to himself, and fit it over his head as Charles watched him, his mouth drawn in a faint line of unhappiness.

“I've never,” Charles said then, each word slow and strained, “Ever regretted being born with my ability. Not until now.”

A better man would have reassured Charles that his telepathy was magnificent, that he should never doubt this, but Erik had no doubts about the state of his soul, and he kept his silence, forcing himself to stay still and unmoved even when Charles sighed, walking up to lean against him, clutching briefly at his arms as he rubbed his cheek against Erik's shoulder, breathing slowly, in and out for a long moment, before pushing himself away.

IX.

Frost and the others were waiting for them in a small ghost town, all half-crumbled white-box houses and a broken fountain at the center of the dusty road, its ruined rim dotted with old candle stubs. Riptide watched them approach from from the safety of the second floor of an old pub, part of its roof already caved in and grown thickly over with desert grass, and Azazel was predictably, nowhere to be seen, though Logan sniffed at the air and flexed his fingers.

Emma was lounging against one of the posts at the verandah, blonde hair impeccably coiffed, clad in her white, inappropriately close-fitting clothes, and she smiled like a cat, enigmatic and mirthless. “Erik Lehnsherr. You've changed friends.”

Logan growled softly, crouching, but Erik raised a hand quickly, hoping that the half-feral mutant would wait. He did, if with a quick scowl. “You knew that we were coming?”

“I'm not as good as Xavier,” Frost purred, with a tilt of her lovely head westwards, “But we chose this location for a reason. It's far from civilization, and planes landing about here are so very obvious. You've sided with the Weapon X program? I'm thoroughly disappointed. And surprised.”

“Weapon X?” Erik repeated, puzzled, even as Logan snarled beside him and spat on the ground.

“Hn.” Frost arched both her eyebrows, looking instead to Logan. “You left? How?”

“Walked away in 'Nam,” Logan confirmed, frowning at her. “Nobody had the balls to stop me. How did you know about Weapon X? It's meant to be black ops. Don't anyone fuckin' understand the concept?”

“Shaw knew.” Frost's posture seemed to relax a fraction. “In the United States army there exists two warring organisations with regards to 'paranormal' people. Nick Fury's SHIELD, and William Stryker's Weapon X. In a way, Stryker's is somewhat more... honest.”

Logan sneered. “You could call it that.”

“He doesn't pretend to try and see us as humans,” Frost shot back.

“Fury makes soldiers, Stryker makes weapons?” Erik glanced at Logan – the edge of bitter revulsion in his tone had been rift-deep, and the half-feral mutant didn't seem like the sort who would be inclined to lie. Had he been here by himself, he wouldn't have trusted Frost's words as anything more than lies born of desperation, but Logan's disgust had been genuine, and it had made Erik curious.

“SHIELD is more than a mutant weaponisation factory; it had objectives that not even Shaw could discern,” Frost allowed. “Fury makes set pieces. Stryker makes weapons. Logan here would know, wouldn't he? Stryker takes mutants with weaponisable abilities, from all over the world, to the Weapon X labs, to 'improve' them until they can be used in Vietnam, or the Gulf, or wherever the government needs them. Shaw didn't have the abilities or the real interest required to stop either. I think that you do, Herr Lehnsherr.”

“I ain't in that outfit any more,” Logan said flatly, and when Erik stared accusingly at him, he bared his teeth. “The last place we went, in 'Nam, Stryker was looking for something. A village had it, some sort of ball of meteor metal, they were worshippin' it, all civilians, women and kids. He ordered them killed when they wouldn't give it up. Last straw for me.”

Frost smiled her catlike smile. “You walked away, or you stopped it?”

Logan eyed her coolly, his wild eyes hard, challenging. “I know my limits. Couldn't have taken the whole team on by myself.”

“Your team took mutant children?” Erik demanded, still turning Frost's damning words over in his mind. “At Stryker's orders? And turned them into weapons?” Like Schmidt, he thought, a cold thread of steely fury tangling through memories of straps and operating tables, of jaw clamps, fear and agony.

“Look, bub.” Logan said quietly. “First it seemed like an outfit like no other. One where we... where I didn't have to be careful. We did combat missions. I found out about the rest of what Weapon X was only near the end. Don't care if you believe me,” he added, straightening up, his big hands curled tight, “But I never did go huntin' any kids. My team, all of us, we'd signed up square. Got fuckin' paid and all.”

“If you're not with Weapon X, then I know why you're here, Herr Lehnsherr.” Frost inclined her head. “Fury's been looking to get his hands on a telepath for a while. Are you so sure that you should have left home?”

Erik ignored her. Even if Fury did, despite everything, come for Charles anyway, Erik was fairly sure that Charles and his students could hold off a squad of humans, and the old manor was solidly built, with a warren of escape routes. The problem was to find a way to broker some sort of understanding with the powers that were, at least until Charles came over to his way of thinking, or until they had gathered enough of their own kind to be feared rather than merely tolerated. And in the Weapon X facility, there was ammunition enough to perhaps obtain both of his objectives. Surely not even Charles could ignore outright evidence of human cruelty on mutant children, and what it meant for them all.

“Perhaps there's a better way. If we destroy the Weapon X labs, free all of it's 'test subjects' and get Stryker, then we will have removed Fury's rival. If it isn't enough for him, at the very least, we'll have given him reason to think again about coming up against me. You can either help me with this, and I'll let you go afterwards, or I can turn you in to Fury now and do it myself.”

Frost watched him, carefully expressionless. “I'll help you.”

“Points for enthusiasm.” Logan bared his teeth. “Might want to watch your back, Lehnsherr.”

“That's enough, the both of you,” Erik said curtly. “Azazel can take us there. We'll shut the place down, get the others out, then he can take us all back to the mansion.”

“Shaw's one great mistake was creating you, Herr Lehnsherr. He should have feared only the fearless.” Frost inclined her head, as though with respect, though her eyes remained as cold as her namesake.

“Logan?” Erik asked.

Logan shook his head. “I ain't going up against Weapon X. Got my reasons. I'll find my way from here.”

“Afraid?” Frost purred.

“Fuck you,” Logan retorted flatly. “Since you know so much about me, woman, maybe you'll like to guess.”

“A brother,” Frost told Erik, a little reluctantly, when Logan took a menacing step forward. “He has a brother in the Weapon X team. One of Stryker's soldiers.”

“I won't fight Victor. You want to go up against Weapon X, fine. The shit they did in the labs, it should be stopped. But I won't fight my brother.” Logan stretched out a hand. “Good huntin', Lehnsherr. You ain't a bad sort.”

“Good luck,” Erik replied, shaking his hand. “Though if you could do one favor for me? Since we'll effectively be removing one of your biggest problems?”

“What?” Logan asked, suspicious.

“I'm concerned about repercussions. If you won't help us against Weapon X, at least help me watch over the mansion until I return.”

“Babysit?” Logan sneered. “Fine. Want me to tuck them all in, as well?”

“Hopefully, that won't be necessary,” Erik said dryly, with a nod at Frost. She concentrated, with a little frown, and Azazel appeared in a puff of red smoke beside her. “The mansion first. Then the Weapon X facility.”

X.

Logan stiffened, sniffing, when they reappeared on the mansion grounds, within sight of the driveway. “Wait. Something ain't right.”

“What?” Erik said sharply, glancing up at the darkened Westchester mansion – it looked exactly like how he'd left it, but Logan was growling, shifting from foot to foot, his hands curling, then he was striding towards the driveway, growling deep in his throat.

A sleek young man was sprawled on the stair, flipping a throwing knife with fluid dexterity between one gloved hand and the next, dressed in a red, sleeveless vest and loose pants that seemed army-issue, tucked into combat boots, guns holstered at his hips and katanas at his back. “Hey you,” he called cheerfully, making the knife disappear in a sudden twist of his wrist, when Logan approached, rolling to his feet and darting out of the way when he snarled and lunged. “Whoah! Is that any way at all to greet an old friend?”

“What the fuck are you doin' here, Wilson?” To Erik's astonishment, Logan had flexed his hands, and bone claws about nearly the length of his thick forearms had slid out, formidable natural weapons, curved and ridged and vicious. From the way Wilson's grin merely widened, Erik guessed that whoever the newcomer was, he'd known of the full extent of Logan's mutation.

“I'm on lookout. Which shows you how much your brother loves me, putting the most squishy, non-teleporting, non-self-healing non-mutant on lookout duty,” Wilson hopped constantly on his feet, as though in a surfeit of energy.

The world seemed to crystallize and slow. Logan's brother. Which meant-

“Victor is here?” Logan demanded.

“We've all been here about oh... one hour or so, give or take,” Wilson said brightly, “Playing hide and seek all over this probably heritage building. There's a telepath, he's hidden himself and all of the kids. He's really good... hey!”

Furious, Erik had picked Wilson up by the buckles on his belts and his scabbards, hoisting him up in the air as the mercenary squirmed ineffectively, then he drew one of the guns from the holsters, the safety clicking off as it balanced beside the mercenary's head.

Insanely, Wilson was still grinning, fearless. “Shoot me and it'll be a big warning to everyone inside. Like 'Hello! The cavalry’s arrived!'”

“I might not care at this point,” Erik said flatly, carefully trying to control his temper.

“You had a lot of chances to start shoutin', but you haven't,” Logan told Wilson warily, lowering his clawed hands, feral eyes narrowed. “What's your game, Wilson?”

“I've been at gigs on and off since I could aim and shoot a gun, Jimmy,” Wilson drawled. “I know how to get out when the wind's changing. Once you left, I knew it was time to start packing things in. Stryker's gone balls up, your brother's worse, hell, even Fred's developing problems. I'm going to get out before Wraith decides to go all vegan or something.”

“There are... four minds,” Frost said, frowning at the mansion. “Four that I can feel.”

“Whole team's here.” Wilson confirmed cheerfully, spreading his arms wide. “How about a group hug? We can start first, you and me.”

“Drop him,” Frost told Erik, already striding up towards the open door to the mansion foyer. “He'll stay out of it. He was just waiting to see what sort of firepower Logan had brought with him before deciding whether or not to defect. There's no need to kill him, it's what he wants. He has a terminal form of cancer.”

“Man,” Wilson said, shaking his head, though his eyes were hard and dark, “Pretty lady, that's not polite. You have no idea what sort of junk I keep in my head.”

Erik nodded grimly, twisting the guns into spheres and sinking the katanas and all of Wilson's remarkable array of hidden daggers into them, rendering them useless, then dropping Wilson roughly on the gravel. “Get out of my sight.”

Wilson was already dusting himself off, seemingly unconcerned. “The SHIELD operatives assigned to the mansion perimeter were disposed of earlier by Zero and myself. Judging from the radio chatter, Fury might be coming in personally soon. So if it's all the same to you, I'm going to wait out here for a bit.” At Logan's frown, Wilson grinned. “New employer?”

“We're wasting time,” Erik growled, following Frost into the mansion, and after a moment, Logan caught up, in his silent, loping stride.

“I'll find Victor and draw him out. You can get rid of the others.” Logan muttered. “Short run down: you're facing a teleporter, a marksman, a man with indestructable skin, a...” he paused, as, descending down the wide foyer stairway towards them was a broad-shouldered man, with familiar, feral eyes and an uncontrollable wreath of facial hair, his gaze fixed on Logan, swaggering as though walking upright was merely an afterthought, hands and sleeves bright with crimson to the elbows. “Victor.”

“Hello, Jimmy.” Victor bared his teeth. “Did you like my present? I left Wilson outside for you to kill. You never liked that mouthy little bastard.”

“Takes you an hour to find a few kids?” Logan sneered, even as Victor padded off the stairway, and the brothers began to circle each other, warily.

“Oh, I know where they are,” Victor grinned, a little of madness in his eyes, “I can smell them. But why spoil the surprise for everyone? You would have come back here sooner or later. Besides, it's funnier this way. Smelling all that fear. All that blood.”

“This is mine,” Logan said, without looking back, as Erik growled and clenched his hands, a white hot fury pulsing in his mind. “Go look for your friends.”

He knew that he didn't have to look, if... Erik risked a glance at Frost's back, as she ascended the stairway behind Riptide, and grit his teeth, pulling off his helmet. He'd have to risk treachery from Frost. Charles?

There was a brief, horrific moment of silence, where Erik thought for an awful, sickening lurch that he was too late after all, then a wave of relief swept over him, palpable in the back of his mind. Erik, Charles called, joyfully, then projected an image of the professor's own bedroom, at the balcony. Thank God. Hurry. Alex's been clawed up, Hank's trying his best but we don't have any equipment, Sean's unconscious, everyone else is fine. There was a tension to Charles' tone, high and tight like Erik had never heard before, and he picked up his step.

A tall man in an army jacket and vests, muscles running slowly towards fat, barrelled out of the rooms before them, bellowing and charging, bowling a surprised-looking Riptide off his feet before Azazel stepped forward, placing a hand on the man's right shoulder, and they disappeared in a puff of smoke. Instantly, Frost turned into her diamond form, and just in time – an African-American man dressed in a smart hat, shirt and waistcoat appeared abruptly behind her, a dagger flashing in his hand, only for it to skid off her back. Frost whirled, only for the man to disappear, and this time Erik closed his eyes, concentrating on the metal signatures around him.

Daggers, two buckles, three teeth filings, five coins abruptly burst into existence behind him, and it was too easy to take control of the dagger that flashed towards him, and jerk it sharply backwards and upwards. The teleporter collapsed, choking and gurgling around the blade in his throat, even as Frost hauled Riptide to his feet.

“Sweep the rooms,” Erik told them, thinking, distantly four minds, not including Victor, less Wilson (?), less teleporter, less berserker even as he headed towards Charles' bedroom, the helmet under his arm, the plushly carpeted corridor seemingly endless. Seared debris, shattered furniture and even, at one point, a melted hole in the ground, the edges still flickering embers, told a short, sharp tale of violence, and Erik flinched as abruptly, on the carpet beneath him, there was a trail of blood in drips and smears, leaning onward around the corner. Charles must have been hiding Alex's trail.

Then he was rounding the corner, cataloguing familiar paintings, the dusty light fixtures from above, the half-open oak door, the white-jacketed man crouched beyond it, with pistols in his hand and a sniper rifle across his back. The man looked up sharply at a sudden, muffled crash from the ground floor, probably from the brawling feral mutants, and raised his guns, only for Erik to jerk them out of his hands with a gesture and turn them around, emptying all of the bullets in the pistols into the man's torso.

For a moment, his eyes kept sliding away from the empty balcony, then Charles dropped the illusion completely, and Erik inhaled sharply, color draining from his cheeks, the faint bursts of sound from the ground floor, the startled babble from the children as the metal fixtures in the room began to rattle and shake, and the distant roar of oncoming helicopters becoming a background, static buzz.

The blood was from Charles.

Alex was leaning heavily against the railing, his torso bandaged with bits of bedsheets and a shirt, and Sean was stretched out beside him, a bruise slowly flowering over his jaw. Raven and Angel had been blocking the way to the balcony, crouched, Raven with what Erik recognised as his own gun in her hands, Angel with her hands clenched tight in her skirts, the lower set of her insectile wings ripped and dripping ichor, the children peering around her, frightened. Hank was measuring something into a syringe, his shirt and fur mauled and matted with dried blood. And Charles lay on the stone, makeshift compresses and bandages swathing his legs, his waist, and he was smiling, strained, fever-bright. You came back.

Of course I did, Erik replied angrily, stumbling forward, so far beyond fury into the deadly state of calm beyond. “Charles, who shot you? Which one?”

“We're safe now, then?” Charles frowned briefly, his eyes unfocused, then nodded to himself as though listening to another voice, Frost's, perhaps, and murmured, “Good, good,” before promptly passing out.

Charles!

XI.

Erik looked sharply up from the papers when he felt a faint touch on his mind, and Charles was smiling at him, lopsided, blinking slowly, high on painkillers, and he felt Charles laughing before his lips parted. Charles' control on his ability seemed to be slipping under the influence of morphine; he sat, waiting, enduring the gentle presence in his mind, all uninvited, but making no move to reach for the helmet under his chair, out of Charles' sight. Charles deserved this much.

Hello, Erik, Charles murmured, warmly, then added, I've been out for three days? then, more quietly, in a smaller voice, Oh.

We've tried everything, the surgeon had said wearily, then added, I'm sorry. He will never walk again.

Erik said nothing, waiting, the strange metal of the helmet under his chair a palpable presence. Three days had already exhausted him of the white-hot edge of his anger.

Children, Charles' mental whisper was growing drowsy and slurred as he browsed, Weapon X? Logan and Victor gone together. Alkali Lake, yesterday, so many. Yesterday, Erik had taken Frost, Riptide and Azazel to the Weapon X facility. With many of the weaponised mutants off-base or already neutralized, with Azazel's ability effectively negating the need to wade through external security, it had turned into a fairly simple extraction. As was overloading all of the generators on site to critical point. Stryker?

“Missing.” That had been the most galling of all. Stryker, apparently, was away in Washington DC.

The students are well, Charles read, and his smile lingered on even as the telepath dropped back into a drugged sleep. Erik took a deep breath, turning back to the paper, and the helmet made a tinkling sound as it landed back on the ground. He hadn't even realized that he'd tried to move it.

When Charles woke again, his face was pinched with pain – the morphine had to be wearing off, and he was apologizing. “I'm so sorry that I did that just now, Erik. I didn't mean to read you like that.”

“You weren't in control of your faculties.”

“I've never tried recreational drugs before. Or any sort of sedative,” Charles grimaced, “I should have thought of that.”

Images of Charles attempting to 'train' while voluntarily blissed out under the influence of illicit substances crept unbidden across his mind and forced his mouth into a faint upward twist. “The man I shot in the doorway to your room was the one who did that to you. Hank told me.” Charles grimaced, closing his eyes briefly, and temper that Erik had thought exhausted rose to a simmer. “He said that when the mansion was attacked, you were on the foyer stairs. He shot you in the back, then in your legs, before Sean got a line of sight to blast him back and get you to safety. They were here for you, but they didn't need you in one piece. If I hadn't come back when I did-”

“But you did,” Charles murmured.

Erik held his gaze, evenly. “If I had known what he had done before I had killed him, I would have done it far more slowly.”

“Erik,” Charles said, as though Erik's words had pained him, We should not kill.

“You've seen the Weapon X facility in my memories, those machines, the tools, the 'modification rooms',” Erik growled, The war has begun already, Charles. Long before we even met. How much more must we all lose before you realize that I am right? How many more children must be damaged? You yourself... you've already lost your legs!

“Any measure of peace,” Charles said slowly, opening his brilliant, beautiful blue eyes to watch him soberly, “Can only be bought with an equal measure of sacrifice. Tolerance. Forgiveness, mutual acceptance. We must share this world with everyone else within it, Erik, not condemn a world's worth of people for the actions of a few.” He glanced up, briefly, around the room, as if oblivious to Erik's visible frustration at his stubbornness. Charles was paralysed, and he had not even learned. “Where are we?”

The room had to look odd to Charles, with its whitewashed walls and its opulent Persian carpets, the richly carved furniture in sandalwood and rose, the thickly patterned drapes in concentric patterns, the narrow, arched windows that looked out over a city far east from any Western power, shouts, greetings, conversations from shopkeepers and merchants and passers-by in no language that Charles was likely to ever have heard.

“One of the late Doktor's favorite places.” Erik said gruffly, well aware of the irony of it all. “We're in Istanbul. Azazel found a good surgeon and his team. Frost wiped their memories, afterwards. It's the only place that Schmidt had that was large enough to house all the students and the newcomers. Your mansion's being watched, and I can't trust Fury.” Not with Charles so gravely injured, not with the shell-shocked and frightened students.

“He wanted a telepath.” Charles had read that far, then. “You would have given Miss Frost to him.” Erik braced himself, but Charles merely sighed, as though he was disappointed, so damned paternal - he didn't need Charles' approval. Not when he had no better choice. “There are always choices,” Charles said softly, reaching out for him, and all unthinking, Erik slotted his larger, rougher palm under Charles' palm, allowed Charles to trace asymmetrical circles on his skin with the cool tips of his fingers.

“Let us do this my way,” Erik said, urgently, watching Charles' elegant fingers, forcing down the impulse to think of a cube, forcing the helmet at his feet back onto the tiles. “Before we both regret it.” The beginning of the end always started with tolerance. With concessions.

“Regret is not a word that is part of your vocabulary, my friend,” Charles said, lightly, reaching up to press fingers gently, tenderly, over his jaw, tracing up to his cheek, and Erik curled his own fingers around Charles' wrist and heaved a harsh bark of sound that should have been laughter.

XII.

Charles insisted on being helped into a wheelchair once he was weaned off the morphine, and Azazel had 'acquired' one from the nearest hospital, albeit with some snide commentary partially in Russian about playing fetch because he was furry. Hank, apparently, was already beginning work on a prototype chair of his own design, possibly one that could defy gravity, teleport or something equally inexplicable, but for now, Erik tried to ignore the brief twist that rode across Charles' face as he had to be lifted into the appropriated wheelchair. Charles was also a proud man.

Watching Charles run his soft palms over the wheels, then over the arm rests, Erik asked, a little awkwardly, “Do you want anything?”

Charles somehow managed a smile, that was brittle at first, then mischievous, as the silence stretched. “Water,” he said, even as his mind whispered, A kiss, as Erik reached for the carafe beside the bed, then he visibly brightened when Erik hesitated only for a moment before turning back to him, leaning down to slant their lips together; Erik was exhausted, Charles was exasperating, they were alive, Charles was beautiful, and this was the last time that Erik would ever let the world hurt him.

Charles' hands stayed on his shoulders even as Erik pulled back for a breath, and he was chuckling, humor in his eyes and on his lips. “If I had known what it would really take for you to want this-”

“Don't,” Erik said harshly, stroking a hand down Charles' back, skirting the wound, skating his fingers over the boundary where Charles could no longer feel anything. “How can you joke about this?”

“Would you rather that I burst into tears?” Charles asked archly, his blue eyes wide and dark, reaching for Erik's shoulders and tugging until Erik knelt down beside the wheelchair, allowing soft fingers to card through his hair. “Look at you,” he said, achingly gentle, in wonder, in joy, “All that bitter resentment, all that distrust, it's gone.”

And this, Erik realized, even as he folded his palm over the hand tracing a cheekbone, was now true. He could trust Charles, because Charles now needed him. Reflexively, he tried to sort out his subconscious logic – Charles was hardly harmless, even as he was now, essentially, nothing had changed that would refute his original reservations, that had grown and then festered slowly from Charles first, effortless act of reaching into his mind and finding that elusive point between the sullen vastness of his anger and what little his life had to offer him of tranquillity. Erik hated vulnerability, hated weakness, and he hated how easily Charles had found his, hated how easily Charles had come up with a solution.

But Charles needed him, not because of his physical disability, but because it was now clear to Erik that Charles' ridiculous ideals would continue to consume him, inch by inch, because the world was hungry that way, because humanity was ruthless like any animal caught in a corner. Because it was now evident that Charles didn't understand the world that he lived in, even after it had done him violence. And until Charles finally understood, he would need Erik, and if Charles needed him, Charles could be trusted.

“I'll give you the tour,” Erik said, even as he knew that Charles might not need it.

“I'll like that,” Charles nodded, though he didn't let go, tugging Erik closer instead until he had fit their bodies together, the chair pressed back against the bed, kissing until their lips bruised and their breaths turned shallow, Charles' hands twisted in his hair; the world outside would have damned them both for just this kiss alone, and Charles would never understand why he could expect little more.

Please, Charles' voice was an urgent whisper at the back of his mind, and Erik, slowly, grudgingly at first, gave his assent, holding down his instinctive panic at the warm blanket that stretched over his mind, linking them in a feedback of cross-vision and looped pleasure; he could see-hear his stuttered groan as Charles fumbled his belt open and unbuttoned his pants, and Charles was sharing the sharp pulse of want, of desire that he felt when Charles' warm, soft hand slid into his pants and grasped him, dry at first and gritty until he smeared fluid from the leaking tip over his palm and drew his hand down again with exquisite deliberation.

Charles was cycling through his fantasies, in a strange sort of avid curiosity that bordered on the clinically perverse, making the occasional comment in his so-very-pristine professorial tone: I'm not sure that's possible, my friend, and far too much flexibility required, and Good gracious, in the kitchen? Olive oil? then a gleefully laughing, lustful, oh, Erik at a particularly lurid possibility involving a creative use of a shower that had none of the seething resignation that Erik would have felt in Charles' place, paralysed forever in a forced state of celibacy.

“Hardly celibacy,” Charles was still laughing, giving him a meaningful squeeze that had him grunt and cant his hips urgently forward, then, Pleasure is a sensation created and amplified in our minds, then he gasped, “Oh, oh,” filthy and perfect, as Erik growled and leaned down to sink his teeth into Charles' neck, marking him, felt him flinch and take the Lord's name in vain in a loop of pleasure-want-yes-this that had him moaning Charles' name against his skin, cushioned in guttural gasps of scattered German and lust, spending himself over soft fingers with a jerk and a shudder.

Heart hammering, sprawled over Charles' slighter frame and a wheelchair that was beginning to creak alarmingly under their combined weight, Erik watched, wide-eyed and dazed, as Charles – damned minx – grinning at him still, cheeks becomingly flushed, brought his soiled hands to his mouth and began to suck his fingers clean, fuck. Above them, the light bulbs in the domed lamp exploded in tinkling bursts, and Erik buried his face in Charles' shoulder with a groan as the telepath began to chuckle.

“When can we do that again?” Charles asked, then added, about that tour, then, Oh! I've never been to Istanbul before, how exciting, as he craned his head around the wheelchair, peering at the window, as though he hadn't spent the last week on painkillers, as though the legs that Erik was lying on were still working, then Charles was looking back down at him, stroking his clean hand over the back of his head, his expression going sober. Erik, I'm fine.

“Are you?” Erik asked, searchingly.

Why wouldn't I be? Charles asked, leaning forward to press his lips between Erik's eyes. Yes, I've lost my legs. I wish I could walk, I wish I could feel my toes, I wish for many things but the thing I wished for most is mine. “A true beginning,” Charles elaborated, rubbing his thumb and fingers down until he had them lightly pressed against the back of Erik's neck, and had Charles been anyone else, had this been a week ago, Erik would have jerked away and clenched his hands and thought of surgical tables and metal braces. Instead, he waited as Charles felt for the pulse at his throat. “Together.”

Together, Erik echoed, allowing Charles to pull them close and press his forehead against his, skin to skin and more in one shared breath, then one more, as Erik leaned forward, an inch more, the world around them for now forgotten.

epilogue.

Fury was already waiting for them in the sidewalk café in Ortaköy, three cups of coffee surrounding a plate of piping hot kumpir already in residence on the slanting table, dressed like a sportsman on holiday, in a sleek-cut jacket and a black cotton shirt. He watched, expressionless, as Erik pushed the wheelchair up to the table, before seating himself and reaching for a cup of coffee.

“Sergeant Fury,” Charles said warmly, as though they were all friends, rather than people seated at opposite ends of a chess board. “How has life been keeping you.”

“Life has been a fucking mess,” Fury grinned, sharp and mirthless. “The way I like it. We got Stryker a couple of months back, by the way. Court-martialed him and locked him up.”

“It's relatively old news to come all the way here to talk to us about,” Charles said wryly, watching Erik with undisguised affection as he picked up one of the foil-wrapped potatoes and peeled it without touching it. With Charles turning the eyes of those around them away, Erik had nothing to worry about, and Fury didn't even seem bothered.

“It was context,” Fury shrugged. “Tomorrow, the President will be signing in a Civil Rights Act. I thought maybe that all of you would want to come home.”

The foil unwrapping froze for a moment before continuing, and Erik floated a knife over to cut himself a chunk, slicked with unsalted butter and drenched in kaşar cheese. “That just means that people will be shot tomorrow. Possibly even your President.”

“Erik,” Charles said gently, before glancing back to Fury. “I very much doubt that this Civil Rights Act will mention mutants specifically.”

“No, it won't. Which may be a good thing,” Fury added, sipping his coffee. “I don't think you're looking to spend as much blood as the civil rights movement has. And Mister Lehnsherr is right. It won't solve everything overnight. Maybe not for decades. I doubt we'll see, say, a black man in the Oval Office any time soon.”

“You're not doing a good job of selling your case,” Erik observed.

“You lot can't stay here forever,” Fury pointed out dryly, “The money will run out, or the local populace will get wind of it, and what will happen then? Stryker's gone, and so's Weapon X, good riddance to them both. Westchester's been fixed up, SHIELD funding has been signed off. You can come back.”

Erik could feel Charles' longing – he had missed his mansion, missed home, a concept that was still foreign to Erik himself, and Fury was dangling a very juicy lure. “So there's just you left then?”

“There's just me,” Fury agreed, with his ironic smirk.

“And you suddenly no longer need a telepath,” Erik said idly, even as he sliced the kumpir into precise segments.

Fury shrugged. “The war's growing unpopular. It'll end, sooner or later. I wouldn't mind if it was sped along, but I'm not in the business of kidnapping and coercion.”

“Then what are you in the business of, Fury?” Charles asked, frowning. “You're Army, but not truly so, are you?”

“Take a look,” Fury tapped at his head. “Quick look, mind you.”

Charles pressed his fingers to his temple, for a moment, then he stared at Fury, puzzled. “'This is not how the world ends'?”

“Not Stryker's way. Not yours, either,” Fury nodded at Erik. “This is how I see the future coming, Professor. Your mutations are not recessive, nor are they hereditary, nor are they confined to any race or gender. In the future, slowly, surely, you'll all reach a considerable population. Maybe even become a majority, farther down the line. You can try and integrate early and negotiate, or you can start with segregation – which, I might add, is never a good start. At one point, something will happen, a spark, and then the world will swing in either of a handful of directions. I intend to ensure that 'hell in a handbasket' isn't one of them.”

“No one will conscript,” Erik growled.

“Not from your ranks, I'm aware of that,” Fury drew a set of manila folders out from a briefcase at his feet, passing them to Charles. “These are some incidents. A freak storm in Johannesburg. A burned out village in Bulgaria. Others. Matters that Stryker's teams used to be called in to investigate. I'll leave them to your discretion.”

“You've used us to get rid of Stryker,” Charles said wryly, flipping through a folder, then passing it to Erik. There was a photograph of a very young girl within it, her skin the color of coffee, white haired, white-eyed, looking backwards over her shoulder, and a sheaf of reports. “Now you'll use us to do his work.” At Fury's smirk, Charles added, “Sending Logan to Erik was a good touch. Erik would never have believed Frost about the Weapon X program without his correlation, and Stryker would have followed Logan's trail to the mansion, and struck at us once Erik was gone. You wanted Frost, Riptide and Azazel under our wing, and you also wanted to us to destroy the Weapon X program. All without showing your hand to your superiors.”

“Charles could have been killed,” Erik said quietly, dangerously. “Or any of the students.”

“Don't be dramatic, Stryker wanted them alive, no one would have died,” Fury said dismissively. “I didn't, however, realize that the SHIELD team that I assigned to watch the place would be taken out so quickly; they were meant to intervene and prevent things from going out of hand. That's been rectified. We've absorbed some of Stryker's pet squads, and besides, Logan's stopped playing tango with his brother over the Rockies, he should be on his way back to New York. Still,” Fury drawled, “All's well that ends well?”

Erik, Charles cut through the blaze of anger that pulsed through Erik's mind, the people at the other tables shouting and starting from their chairs as their cutlery rattled and jumped, and he took a deep breath, settling himself, even as the humans stared around themselves, then froze, with blank expressions, before returning to their conversation and their food as though nothing had happened.

“Thank you for this, sergeant,” Charles said politely, raising the folders. “We'll take care of it.”

“There'll be more coming your way if you keep explosions and property damage to a minimum. I look forward to working with you both,” Fury said dryly, extending a hand over the table. Charles shook it, and then, grudgingly, Erik did, as well. “You're a good man, Professor. You should hang on to that. The rest of this from now on, it won't be easy.”

“It won't be easy,” Charles agreed, contemplatively, as he selected another folder and glanced over at Erik, the promise of all futures in his smile, “But nothing worthwhile ever is.”