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Alex returns to his room to find the ashes strewn across the floor. "Jesus Christ," he mutters, and kicks the vase. There's no satisfying shatter against the wall, just a taunting back and forth roll. He kicks it again with a louder, "Jesus fucking Christ!"

The urn clangs against the wall, and Alex drops to his knees, raking a hand through his hair, breathing harder than he should be.

It's time to wrap this up. It's time to move on. Like Erik said: They're not here to mourn. They're here to fight. To survive.

Alex knows how to do that.

He sweeps up Darwin's ashes — has to coldly admit that it's probably just the building anyway — and dumps them into the urn. He carries it outside and dumps it all beneath a tree. A breeze catches the rest of the dust.

~*~

"Oh my god," Raven whispers, and covers her mouth with both hands, shaking her head. "Oh my god." Alex rolls his eyes, waiting for her to get to a point. "Darwin."

He freezes. "That's not—"

But she's bolting out of the chair before he can finish. He turns and watches her fling her arms around— God. It is. Darwin. He's—

Staring at Raven in confusion and drawing away. "How'd you … ?" His eyes gloss right over Alex.

Charles clears his throat. "It's extraordinary," he says to the room, and squeezes Darwin's shoulder. To him, he says, "We're quite happy to have you back, Darwin."

"Happy, Charles?" Raven laughs and then shakes her head and flings her arms around Darwin again. "We thought you— Shaw—" But she never finishes.

"Uh." Darwin's answering laugh sounds anything but thrilled. It's as awkward as the way his hands hover for a moment before settling on Raven's back. "Raven, right?"

Raven draws away, looks between Darwin, who's wearing an easygoing smile, and Charles, who briefly averts his eyes.

"It seems the … trauma of the experience has led to a mild form of amnesia," Charles explains.

"So," Sean says, drawing the o out for several seconds. "He doesn't remember us?"

Charles' gaze lands on Alex, and Alex narrows his eyes and stares Charles down until he looks at someone else. "I'm afraid not."

~*~

The introductions suck. It's an awkward merry go round of, "Hi, I'm … " like a group therapy session.

Except this round comes with everyone showing off their mutant abilities again — Raven first and then Sean and then Hank — and Darwin's got this expression on his face, this genuine shock and awe of I'm not alone.

And of course no one talks about Angel or Shaw or how Alex's energy was shoved down Darwin's throat until there was nothing left of him but dust.

"It's a delicate time for him," Charles said. "He'll have to come to the memories on his own."

Raven claps her hands together, drawing Alex's attention back to the room.

"Okay, Alex," she says, beaming the same bright smile she had when they'd first done this at the CIA facility. "Your turn."

Déjà vu, anyone? Alex wants to ask, all eyes on him again.

"Sure," he says. Let me blow Darwin up again. Maybe then he'll remember.

Darwin doesn't. But Alex doesn't show off either.

He stands outside, fists clenched at his sides, and glares at the wide open space in front of him.

"Alex?" Raven asks.

"Get back," he says, and then blows up the world.

~*~

"Control," Charles says, a reminder and a reprimand, and squeezes Alex's shoulder before sending him back into the mansion.

"All that power," Erik says as Alex is walking away.

There's more, he's sure, because there's always more, but Alex doesn't want to hear it. Control. Power. They're both wrong.

He was, too, though. Solitary could never contain — the trees burning, sliced in half and crippled, the grass scorched — this.

"Hey." Darwin. Of course.

Alex doesn't stop. He jogs up the stairs until Darwin's hand closes around his. "What?" he asks, flat.

"That was—" Darwin spreads his hand and laughs like he did when Alex took a pipe to his back.

Harder. Harder.

"Yeah." Alex sets a hand around the banister and clutches it like an anchor to the present. "I know."

"It was cool, man," Darwin says, and then touches him.

Alex stiffens beneath the warm slide of Darwin's hand over his. He can't help it, the same way he can't help but wonder how delicate they're all supposed to be. It's probably why it's not cool gets jammed in his throat, sticking long after he's tried to dislodge it with a hard swallow.

"So is there a pinball machine somewhere in this joint?"

Alex tries to laugh, but there's nothing but a whoosh of air as he shakes his head, getting his hand out from underneath Darwin's. "No. Just books and a maze of rooms."

"I saw a television," Darwin says, jabbing his thumb in the opposite direction that Alex wants to go.

"Yeah. There's a lot of that here." He doesn't know what the hell he just said but turns and heads upstairs to his room.

~*~

"You could make him remember," Alex says, and then shuts himself up by biting the inside of his cheek.

He's pissed that he even made the suggestion. He'd never want Charles in his head, but he knows that Charles has probably already been in it.

Charles gives him a sidelong look. The subtle disapproval Alex sees there doesn't help the wreck that his thoughts keep heading toward.

"I could."

And it's out in the open. Simple, complicated — the possibility is right there.

Fuck you, Alex wants to say, but stares at the wall instead, wondering if Charles can hear the accusation echoing in his skull.

"But it would be better for Darwin if he remembered on his own. The experience was … ." Charles doesn't finish. Alex doesn't need him to.

"You plucked that out of his head?" he asks.

"I know," Charles says, kind and understanding, but Alex can't take it as anything but condescending when Charles sets a hand on his shoulder.

Alex shrugs it off and says, "You don't." He rolls his shoulders back and shakes out his hands. "Let's get this over with."

"Of course. Remember—"

"Control."

The word seems like a joke coming from Charles. He slips in and out of people's minds all the time, doesn't he? Alex stares at the mannequins on the other end of the bunker, and thinks, Yeah, he does, but. Charles doesn't kill them. His "groovy mutation" isn't capable of cutting someone in half or blowing them up. Alex and Erik — they're the only murderers in the house. Unlike Erik, Alex doesn't know how not to be ashamed of that, how not to hate what he's capable of.

When the door clicks shut, Alex tries to aim his power at the mannequin in the middle, per Charles' instructions. He feels the energy welling in his chest, burning up too hot and too fast and knows, even before the halos fly wild through the air, that he's lost control. Again.

The walls burn but hold.

Charles is ready with the fire extinguisher. When he's done, he has the same patient smile that he's been wearing since they started these training sessions. "We'll try again tomorrow."

~*~

"I was terrified," Sean says.

Darwin laughs and claps him on the shoulder in a show of solidarity. Like the rest of them, he's training, too.

"I think I almost crapped my pants when Erik pushed me. That guy—" He quirks a grin and shakes his head.

Everyone gets the joke, but the word game keeps it going, keeps it fun.

"Intense," Raven supplies.

"Focused," Darwin says.

"Crazy," Hank mutters, thinking no one can hear him with his face shoved in a book the way it is.

"Brilliant and dedicated," Charles says. They all turn, startled to see him leaning in the door, but he's wearing a smile. "Do I need to enforce a curfew?"

"Oh, Charles," Raven says, but her frown is ruined with a laugh.

Oh, Charles, Alex silently echoes and finds himself looking at the group. They all like him. Kind of hard not to when he found them, brought them together, gave them more than they could have hoped for.

Alex checks back into the conversation just as Charles straightens.

"Time for bed, everyone. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."

"Is Erik gonna throw me off another building?" Sean asks. It's good-natured, though, the hint of his smile softening the accusation.

"No. I think, perhaps, it's Darwin's turn to fly."

It's a joke — Alex knows it's a joke — but he can't stop his fists from clenching in his lap or keep his teeth from grinding together as he flicks a look Darwin's way. Darwin, like everyone else, is laughing.

"You think maybe I'll sprout wings?" Darwin asks, shoulders rolled back like he's ready.

Charles takes the question seriously, his eyes narrowing slightly like he's reaching into Darwin's head and rooting around for all his secrets.

"I don't know, Darwin. Your mutation is … spectacular and unpredictable."

"You were supposed to say groovy, Charles," Raven laughs, looping her arm through his and squeezing it. She flashes everyone a smile. "Good night, everybody."

"Night," they all say, the word stumbling along until Raven and Charles are gone.

Hank leaves next, carrying away a handful of books and his awkwardness, and then Sean stands, shaking his head and muttering something about curfew.

"Time for bed, kiddos," he says, his drawl thicker, clearly a poke at Charles even if he can't emulate Charles' crisp New England vowels.

"Night," Darwin says, and Alex expects him to follow after Sean.

He doesn't. Darwin stays on the couch, and now that he's the only one on it, he stretches his arms across the back of it and props his right ankle on his left knee. It still looks like an invitation.

"Come on, Alex. Give it to me."

Alex presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth and decides that he's going to have to be the one to go.

"Are you really going to go to bed?" Darwin asks. There's a teasing quirk to his grin that Alex wants to kiss away, but Charles pretty heavily implied that Darwin has to remember on his own. It's a process. One Alex is trying to wait for, even though he doesn't want to.

"Sure, why not. It's been a long day."

"How old are you?"

The question's weird, and not because Darwin should know the answer. Darwin never asked before, and Alex never answered.

"Twenty," he says. "About to be twenty-one soon."

Darwin's grin grows, easy and effortless, like everything can be solved with a smile and a good attitude. "Cool," he says. "We'll throw you a surprise birthday party."

Alex shakes his head and looks at the floor, but that doesn't stop him from following the pattern of the carpet to Darwin's feet. "I don't like surprises."

"What about when I came back?"

Alex looks up, but his throat seals tight against an answer.

~*~

Alex is in the kitchen, slapping together a PB & J because there's nothing else to eat. There's a vague idea that someone should go grocery shopping, but Charles' estate is so big, everyone's pretty sure they're going to get lost just trying to find a way out.

He takes a bite, but the swallow is hard when he turns and sees Darwin strolling in.

"Hey," Darwin says. "You're up early."

Then he's swiping away the smear of jam at the corner of Alex's mouth and licking it into his own, cheeks hollowing out as he sucks on the tip of his thumb. Fuck, Alex thinks.

"So." Darwin grins. "Are you waiting for an invitation? 'Cause this is it."

The only answer Alex has to that is fuck it, and he surges forward, squeezing his free hand around the back of Darwin's neck. Darwin plays at resistance, but Alex pulls harder, silencing the soft huff of Darwin's chuckle with a kiss and chasing after the sweet taste of the jam on Darwin's tongue.

"I don't believe that can be considered breakfast." They break apart — Alex wide-eyed, probably looking stupid holding onto a sandwich, and Darwin, grinning and leaning against the counter, answering Erik with a shrug. "Or at least not one sufficient enough to sustain you through training."

Alex wants to glare, but there's a mix of embarrassment and fear until he sees that Erik, impervious to everything, looks bored and not horrified.

"We're going to round it out with some fruit," Darwin says, and plucks an orange out of the bowl on the counter, tossing it up and catching it in the opposite hand.

Erik simply nods and strolls to the fridge. It gives Alex enough time to stuff half his sandwich in his mouth and split.

~*~

Darwin kissed him, and Alex wants more of it.

He's not expecting to walk outside and see Erik, hand outstretched, hurling several knives (not from the kitchen, too sharp, too sleek, too fucking real) at Darwin's face and chest.

All Darwin had tried to do that night was protect them. Alex can still see him telling Shaw that he adapts, giving Alex his cue, and then grabbing Angel. Darwin hadn't adapted, though. He'd shuddered, and his armored plating had flaked off like ash—

"Alex!" Erik's voice is as sharp as the dig of his fingers around the back of Alex's neck. Alex breathes, inhales a nose full of dirt, and chokes.

Erik doesn't let go 'til he croaks, "I'm good. I'm cool. Fuck, let me up."

Erik lets him go but not up, and it's good enough. Alex just wants the dirt out of his mouth and lungs but can't seem to get the flecks out of his throat. He coughs so much that his stomach clenches and he vomits his pathetic breakfast. A hand presses warm against his back, and thinking it's Erik, he flinches. It's Darwin, though, eyebrows furrowed as he rubs Alex's back.

It's stupid.

But Alex stays on his knees and spits out the rest of the grimey, cakey (and now acidic) taste of the dirt in his mouth. He uses the back of his hand to swipe away the rest and glares in Erik's direction. Erik stares back — hard, resolved — and Alex is the one to look away first.

"Sorry," he mumbles.

"As am I."

Alex still can't tell if Erik is practicing his sarcasm or if the reply is some clever twist meant to chastise Alex for ever thinking he could take on Erik Lehnsherr. Scary is always his word for the guy.

"You okay?" Darwin asks, punctuating it with a squeeze of Alex's shoulder. It's just Darwin being Darwin, as much a part of him as deflecting knives with his face and surviving death.

Those last two words don't make sense in Alex's head, so he shakes it and says, "Yeah."

Darwin pats Alex's shoulder. "Can we come back to this?"

To what, Alex almost asks, but realizes Darwin's talking to Erik, not him.

"You have an hour," Erik says.

Alex sort of wants to glare again, but Erik's got a look that's harder than anything Alex has seen in prison, so he stares at the ground instead, startled when Darwin hefts him to his feet.

~*~

Alex has bruises on his neck and decides that he really needs to get his shit together. He pokes at the ring on the left side of his throat. It's an imprint of Erik's thumb, and it hurts but not as bad as a broken neck would. Alex thinks he should've been more genuine with his sorry.

Darwin bats his hand down and takes a wet cloth to Alex's neck, but Alex snatches the thing away to wipe at his mouth. He twists the cold water faucet and spits into the sink, but it's not enough to get the gritty, wormy taste out of his mouth. He cups his palm and feeds himself small sips of water that he can swish around, spit, and then repeat until his mouth feels decent again.

"Better?" Darwin asks, and Alex looks up, staring at him through the mirror above the sink.

"Getting there."

"So what were you thinking, charging at Erik like that?"

Alex ducks his head for another swish and spit. "I wasn't."

He turns off the water and wipes his mouth with the hand towel.

"Guess not," Darwin says.

Then he's there, in Alex's face when Alex turns, and Alex is bent over the sink at an awkward angle, the lip of it digging into the base of his spine.

"The two of us." Darwin searches Alex's face, but Alex doesn't know what the hell he's looking for. He plants a hand against Darwin's chest, but either Darwin's activated his powers or Alex is at a bad angle, because he doesn't budge. "Did we … ?"

Alex narrows his eyes. "Did we what?"

"You and me," Darwin says.

Alex wants to pinch the bridge of his nose, get the pressure off of his back, but he closes his eyes and takes a breath. Charles doesn't know. Not really. "We had a thing."

"Like a … ?" Darwin motions a hand in the air, like he's pulling the answers on a string.

If Darwin wants to know so badly, Alex doesn't see why he can't share. So he says, "Like my mouth around your cock kind of thing," and can't take it back. Only Charles can do that, and Alex guesses this might be a dare on his end.

Darwin looks at Alex and laughs, full belly, head tipped back, and gives Alex enough room to straighten.

"Okay," Darwin says, and has a gleam in his eyes as he curls a hand around Alex's hips. "How about tonight? My room."

Alex's mind goes blank, wiped clean of all static, noise and sense. "Yeah," he says. "Okay," and nods.

~*~

The rest of the day is a tease. Darwin's close but out of reach, and once the low-level ache in Alex's gut fades into the steady rhythm of his pulse, he wonders what's going to happen when he goes to Darwin's room later tonight.

Darwin's easy, "Hey," is predictable when he opens the door. So's the way he motions Alex inside and points to the bed. "So tell me … ."

That's what catches Alex off guard. Each question Darwin asks as he approaches the bed is like static in Alex's head. Darwin wants to know what he's missing, and Alex doesn't know if telling him would breach Charles' rules.

"We, uh." The sound drags out as Alex fumbles for the next word. "We didn't know each other long," seems the safest route, and Alex stares down at his lap, trying to recall specifics. Between Erik and Charles finding each of them and then the CIA housing them until Shaw showed up and slaughtered everyone, there's not much to tell. The story that is, the one that led to Darwin's amnesia, is one Alex isn't even sure he's allowed to tell. So Angel, Shaw, the bodies, Darwin's death — all of it falls into the gaps of Alex's struggle for each word. He shrugs and finally ends with, "I kicked your ass at pinball."

Darwin laughs, stretched on the bed in such a comfortable sprawl that he doesn't seem to realize that Alex hasn't told him everything. "No way."

"Ask Sean."

Darwin shakes his head. "Nah. It just means we have to have a rematch."

Alex nods but doesn't have anything else to say, his mouth dry and his throat tight with the rest of the story. The silence that follows is awkward. Alex doesn't know if Darwin wants to keep talking, keeping prodding at the holes in his memory, or if they're going to do anything but sit here and talk about pinball, which seems like a stupid life lesson about wins and losses. Alex has got too many of the latter to want to tally up the score.

So when Darwin moves, he has all of Alex's attention. He draws Alex further in with a, "So," that hangs in the air as he sits up. "You and me." Alex nods. "We made a deep connection, huh?"

Alex drops his eyes to Darwin's hand as it slides over his. "Something like that."

"Then maybe"—Darwin leans closer, the bed dipping from the added weight as he edges in on Alex's space—"I'll remember a little something."

When they kiss, Alex hopes to god that Darwin doesn't remember shit. It's a desperate thought followed immediately by guilt. Of course he wants Darwin to remember. He just doesn't want Darwin to remember (Shaw used me to kill you.) while they're screwing around like this — Darwin's tongue in his mouth and his hands riding up Darwin's shirt.

There's no sign that Darwin remembers anything, though. Darwin touches him like it's their first time, fooling around in the dark after lights out. Darwin's hands move firm up Alex's sides, but each caress and squeeze is an exploration, a test of how Alex will react.

You should know, Alex can't help but think, and he goes for Darwin's spots, first Darwin's nipples, a sharp tug and twist through his shirt, and then the hollow at Darwin's collarbone, the scrape of Alex's teeth over it drawing out another shiver and gasp.

"Damn," Darwin says with a breathless laugh, "you do know me." Then he shoves at Alex's shoulder, toppling him onto the bed.

The grind of Darwin's dick against his is too much and everything Alex wants right now, because on the edge of Of course I know you, dude is you're alive, a disbelieving echo that bounces in Alex's head as he tugs off Darwin's shirt.

Alex sits up and snags Darwin's nipple between his teeth, a soft catch and a quick release so he can circle it with his tongue, tease it into a hard peak that makes Darwin rock his hips. Darwin reacts in all the ways Alex expects him to, but then Darwin touches him, goes for everything that's obvious, and Alex mentally trips over why aren't you and a half-formed just.

He rolls, putting Darwin on his back, and Darwin — the one thing that'll probably always hold true of him — laughs. Alex smothers it in a kiss as he fumbles with Darwin's belt buckle and then the button and zipper on his pants. Darwin rakes his fingers through Alex's hair and tugs when he reaches the base of Alex's skull.

Alex's immediate reaction is a moaned, "Yeah. More of that."

The next pull is too hard, and Alex hisses in a breath, knuckles scraping Darwin's zipper when he moves into it to ease the sting.

"Too hard," Darwin says for him, and then he's sitting up and scraping his teeth along the line of Alex's jaw. It might be an apology or a test. Either way, Alex doesn't care, because the gentle tug-pause-pull of Darwin's fingers in his hair clears his head of everything but Darwin and his own dick.

The press of Darwin's palm against his cock shocks a moan out of Alex, and he blinks at the rough sound of it, staring at the ceiling as he pushes into the curl of Darwin's fingers.

"Yeah," Darwin says, and then his mouth is on Alex's again and Alex is falling backwards.

He grabs onto Darwin's shoulders and goes with it, arching into the light squeeze of Darwin's hand on him.

"Come on, come on," he mumbles, shoving Darwin's pants and underwear down until he can feel the hard, hot curve of Darwin's cock through his shirt. "I want to—"

He leaves it unsaid and rolls, putting Darwin on his back again.

"Okay, man, cool. I can dig this," Darwin says, and shimmies, helping Alex get his pants off. One leg gets hooked on Darwin's foot, but he grabs Alex, pulling him back up. "Don't worry about it. C'mere."

Alex shakes his head, throwing off Darwin's hand so he can shuck off his shirt.

"Nice," Darwin says, the exact same way he'd said it the first time, with an appreciative sweep down Alex's chest.

Alex licks his lips and has to close his eyes for a second to undo another mental tripwire. It's simple, he tells himself. Darwin's alive, and Alex is going to blow him.

Darwin grabbing a fistful of the sheets, the full-body tremor that runs through him — that's the last Alex sees before he shuts his eyes, trusts only what he can feel, and licks the head of Darwin's cock. The rest he takes slowly, using his fist to make up for the difference, his mouth already stretched too wide, jaw aching as he sucks and bobs — fast, fast, and then slow, in beat with Darwin's soft, encouraging, "Yeah, yeah, uhn."

It's Darwin. That's the reality that beats in Alex's head the loudest. Darwin who grips his shoulder, who rolls his hips when the quiver of his thighs become too much, who throws a leg over Alex's shoulder when he's getting closer. He still warns Alex with a half-formed, "Al—" And the rest still stutters into a long broken moan as the warm, thick spurt of his come floods Alex's mouth.

Alex opens his eyes and watches Darwin collapse onto the bed, arms and legs splayed wide, his chest rising and falling with each heavy breath he takes. What Alex has missed, though, is the wide curve of Darwin's smile when he cracks his eyes open, reaches out, and snags Alex, pulling him up and on top of him.

"Your turn," Darwin says, and rubs Alex's dick through his jeans as he takes a kiss, teasing apart Alex's lips until he's giving up the taste of Darwin, still heavy in his throat.

It's Darwin, but it's not when Darwin gets Alex on his back and takes Alex into his mouth. Alex has to guide him — softer, harder, faster, yeah, yeah, like that. The tight, wet heat of Darwin's mouth on his dick still feels great, though, still pulls Alex along until he doesn't have a choice and has to let go. He throws an arm over his eyes and feels like he's choking when he comes, the power thrumming beneath the surface of his skin so strong that he thinks he sees the blast, an explosion of red behind his eyelids.

There's nothing, though. Just the ring in Alex's ear, the pressure easing until he's loose-limbed and sleepy.

"I like this thing we've got," Darwin murmurs in his ear, and settles an arm across Alex's waist.

Alex opens his eyes and stares down at it before looking at Darwin. What they've got is new, foreign, familiar, and all Alex has is an absent, "Yeah," to give.

~*~

When Alex sees Charles, he's sure that every stray thought he has is open to the guy. He doesn't know why he thinks he's being preemptive when he blurts, "I didn't tell him anything."

It sounds as dumb out loud as it did in his head.

The space between Charles' eyebrows furrows together, and he pats Alex's shoulder. "Of course not." Then he turns and extends a hand toward Hank. "We have something for you … ."

Alex doesn't get the chance to ask, When do you think he's going to remember?, because Hank's suit is stupid and useless. It doesn't give Alex any sort of control. Instead of a few rings of destructive force, his power is focused into a single line that he can't even remain steady for, because the kickback feels like somebody barreling into him.

"Cool threads," Darwin says, leaning casually in the door. He peers into the bunker, glancing at the other end of it, where Alex has yet to manage to hit the mannequin in the middle.

"It's supposed to—" But Alex shakes his head and starts tugging on the side zipper, because the stupid thing isn't giving Alex the control that he needs. "Never mind."

Darwin stops him with a hand over his and asks, "Hank built that?"

Then he touches it, tracing the rings of the stupid thing while Alex manages a rough, "Yeah." He glares at the burning mannequins on the other end. "It doesn't work."

"So you're relying on this"—Darwin taps the bulls-eye center with his knuckle—"to control your ability?"

"Yeah. I don't have anything else."

"You have you."

Alex bats away Darwin's hand and jerks down the zipper. "You wouldn't understand," he says, heading to the door.

I'm the reason you can't remember anything clangs as loudly in his head as the door closing behind him.

~*~

"I'm going to lay it out straight for you." Alex bolts up and stares at Darwin, who's leaning against the door as casually as he was in the bunker. "You don't need the suit."

Alex's mood dive bombs and spreads thick and sour in his gut. "Yes, I do," he says, jaw clenched, memories spinning in his head like a Rolodex. "Bad things—"

"Happen all the time." Darwin pushes away from the door and takes a step into the room. "Not every bad thing in the world is your fault, Alex."

"Damn it," Alex mutters, slapping the bed post as he stands. "You—" But he stops and shakes his head, taking a deep breath. "You don't get it, okay? It's—" A lot of things all at once, bubbling over in Alex's head, but he ends with, "Not that easy."

"Hey." Darwin's hand closes around Alex's arm and then slides down to his hand, closing around his fingers. "That's why we're here, right?"

What else can Alex say to that but, "Yeah. Guess so."

~*~

He's going to kill Charles. Or Hank. Or both of them. All Alex is sure of is that someone's going to die. Charles looks at him, though, like he's got faith in Alex's ability, faith in the stupid suit that Hank built. Charles believes Alex can do this, but Alex wants to tell him, Remember everything you pulled out of my head when we met? Remember, Darwin?

There's no answer, of course.

He clenches and unclenches his hands and pulls in another breath. He breathes out and lets go.

The beam hits the center mannequin. It hits, and all that's left in him is a laugh — shock, happiness, disbelief, gratitude.

Charles smiles. "I knew you could do it, Alex."

It's the suit, Alex wants to say, but whatever. For the first time in his life, he has control over his mutation.

~*~

"That is so rad," Sean laughs. He spots Alex and flags him down. "You've gotta see this. Cover your ears, though."

And once again, Alex is walking into a scene he's not braced for. Sean screams, his mutant ability amplifying it into a weapon that hurtles straight toward Darwin on the other end.

Darwin doesn't even rock backward.

"Nothing!" he shouts, arms spread as wide as his smile. "No effect!"

"Excellent." Alex whips around and sees Erik step forward and Charles behind him. "Your turn, Alex."

"My what?" Alex asks, looking at everyone.

"I'm not sure," Charles intervenes, but then stops. He and Erik stare at each other, caught up in some weird silent, telepathic communication. It's happening a lot more lately and doesn't make Alex feel any less awkward. Then Charles nods. "All right." He motions at Alex. "We're testing Darwin's mutation. If you would, please."

All Alex hears is white noise. He tries to speak, but his throat is sealed tight, because they know what happens. They know, and there's no way he's doing this. He finally manages a harsh, "No," and punctuates it with a sharp shake of his head.

"Darwin survived Shaw," Erik says, and the reasonable tenor of his voice makes Alex ball his hands into fists.

"It was never your power that hurt Darwin, Alex," Charles continues, his tone gentler. "It was the energy that Shaw took from you, and"—Charles gestures to Darwin—"Darwin did survive it. He'll survive this encounter, too."

Alex bats away Charles' hand before he can touch him. "Then we don't have anything to prove," he says, and walks away. He knows from experience that sometimes, it's the only option he has.

~*~

Alex opens the door, and Darwin shoves him through it.

"You know what?" He steps forward, getting in Alex's face and jabbing a finger into his chest. "It's not all about you, Alex. You. Can't. Hurt. Me. I don't know what else I have to do to prove that."

Alex leans into the dig of Darwin's finger, ready to shout back, but then he deflates. He twists around and rakes his fingers through his hair, knowing he's being a stupid jerk, but— "What about your memory?" He stares at the wall instead of asking Darwin the question directly.

Darwin grabs Alex's hand and makes him turn around, makes Alex look him dead in the eyes. "What did I lose?" Damn it, Alex thinks. Everything. But Darwin barrels forward. "I know who I am. I know what I can do. I remember my birthday, my name, where I'm from, my family." He squeezes Alex's hand, holding it so tight that Alex feels like his bones are going to creak. "So I lost a few months."

"You lost—" But Alex shakes his head, the hoarse sound of his voice too weird like the us that sticks to his tongue. All of this is as alien as the way Alex's heart jumps, thrumming too fast in his chest when Darwin's grip loosens. "Okay," he says, because it's the only right answer. "You're right. I'll chill out."

Darwin nods, hand sliding higher to squeeze Alex's forearm. "We have to be cool about this. There are bigger things happening here, man. Way bigger than my memory, you dig?"

"Yeah," he says. "Like Shaw."

There's not even a flicker of recognition in Darwin's eyes, no hatred or fear of what's about to happen or could happen. There's just the same firm resolve he had when he said, "Stay here my ass," and led everyone out of the room to tell the CIA suits, "We can help."

They're going to face Shaw tomorrow, and Alex holds onto what Erik said weeks ago: "Darwin survived. You should respect his resilience."

~*~

This is it. We're going to die.

Alex's hatred of planes isn't helped by the jet spinning wildly out of control. The dizzying, rip-roar sensation goes to his head, he thinks, because the next thought he has is, Everyone but Darwin, and if his jaw wasn't clenched so tight, he thinks he would laugh.

They don't die.

For the second time in Alex's life, he manages to miraculously survive a plane crash.

"Is everyone all right?" Charles asks. "Alex?"

It's only when Alex opens his eyes that he realizes Charles isn't talking at all. He's in their heads, and Alex has never been more grateful for that calm, steady presence before, because he can't talk. Not when his heart is in his throat and the fear has his muscles locked down so tight that he doesn't think he can get himself unstrapped and upright.

I— But his own thoughts stumble on the word, looping it over and over again until he sucks in a breath, the quick inhale chafing as it burns down his throat and into his lungs. I need a little help here, he thinks, and hopes that Charles will pick up on that thought instead of the whirlwind that Alex's head feels like it.

After Charles gets Raven and Moira unbuckled, he comes over and helps Alex get down. Not steady on his feet yet, he jumps when Darwin claps him on the shoulder. Darwin squeezes and stops Alex from pitching forward while he takes another deep breath. Then they follow Erik and Hank to the windows while Charles lays out the plan.

Alex wanted an eternity on the ground, but barring that, at least a solid five minutes to recuperate.

It's not the fear that chokes him, though, when he blinks and finds himself a hundred feet in the air, staring at one of the battleships. The red guy's tail is wrapped around his throat, gravity the pull, and Alex is too busy stupidly trying to get loose. He knows he's panicking, but he can't stop clawing, desperate for air more than he's afraid of heights.

Then he's in free fall, and he knows: I'm not gonna make it this time. It's weird, somewhere in the back of his head that's okay with all of this, that he shouts Darwin's name, reaching out in a last-ditch prayer, a fight for survival. The sudden jerk of Darwin grabbing his wrist makes his stomach flop. He's two seconds from blowing chunks, so he can't understand why Darwin is laughing.

"Alex," he says, looping an arm around Alex's waist. "Alex, open your eyes. You've gotta see this, man."

Watching the ship hurtling toward them before they die is a bad idea. It doesn't occur to Alex for several seconds that it should have happened a long time ago or that he's burying his face in Darwin's chest to keep from seeing it.

The ringing in Alex's ears continues to grow, because he's still bracing for the impact. That doesn't happen.

When he finally risks a peek, opening one eye, all he sees is the obnoxious yellow of Darwin's suit.

"Don't worry," Darwin says, both arms tightening around Alex. "I've got you."

It takes Alex a while to swallow down the lump in his throat and steel himself to not just open both eyes but lift his head. He can't believe what he's seeing.

"You've got wings," he says stupidly.

Darwin laughs, the rumble of it vibrating from his chest. "They sprouted when we were fall—" Darwin dips, too sudden and too fast, and Alex goes right back to fuck, we're going to die. "Sorry. Hold on."

A fireball zips dangerously close, but it's a big clue for Alex. He grips Darwin's shoulder and hefts himself for a glance. Yeah, it's Angel, who's spitting another fireball in their direction. Not again, Alex thinks, but there's nothing he can do when the world plummets from the steep dive that Darwin takes.

If his mouth wasn't glued shut against a hoarse scream, Alex would ask for a little warning.

Instead, he shuts his eyes, because he doesn't want to see the ground coming toward them. The fall — even though it's nothing but hot sand beneath him — knocks the breath out of him, and then he's rolling, no way to stop himself, even though he knows this is his chance. He's got to get up and fight back, because Angel might really try to kill them.

Alex hasn't even caught his breath before he has to roll again, twisting out of the way only to get hit by the second fire-spitball thing, because Angel doesn't seem to have any limits on it. Alex hisses in a breath, frantically beating at his chest to stop the burn, but he doesn't have a choice. The ring that Hank built has to come off, and with it— Alex shoves down that thought and chucks the thing to the side just in time to see the tornado guy spinning two cyclones in his palms.

It's maybe a blink between the sight and Alex eating a mouthful of sand when something heavy and hard lands on top of him. He hears the wind just before it rushes over him. It's tugging so hard on his hair that he feels like he's gonna lose it, but the weight on top of him — which has to be Darwin — doesn't move, keeping him grounded and safe. Darwin's mutation, Alex finally has to admit, is rad enough to handle a lot.

That's not going to stop Angel or tornado guy, though.

"Let me up," Alex grunts.

"It's—"

"Don't have a choice."

Alex hears Darwin suck in a breath, but it's weird not to feel the push of Darwin's chest against his back, only the rough, bumpy protrusion of whatever he's mutated into.

"Okay, on three."

Alex nods and listens to the count, the anticipation buzzing in his ears. Darwin rolls off of him, and Alex scrambles up to his feet. No time to think. He has to do it.

Fists and jaw clenched, Alex contorts as his power builds, the deep ache spreading through his chest and stomach until the rings begin to form. He fights the hot well of it and tries to focus them, give them direction, provide the control that Charles and Erik have tried to hammer into him for months now. The release makes Alex gasp, and then his stomach sinks as he watches the halos spin wild through the air. Then that sense of almost is swallowed by a triumphant yes when Angel's wing disintegrates and tornado guy is thrown off his feet to avoid the blast.

Darwin rushes the guy before he can get back on his feet, and one punch to the jaw with a rock-hard fist knocks him out.

Alex falls to his knees, wiping the sand off his lips with the back of his hand, turning when he hears Hank and Sean whoop in victory. They share a high five, the red guy on the ground between them.

Alex's adrenaline high begins to fade. Until Erik.

He stares with sick horror as Erik floats out of the submarine with Shaw's dead body.

"Brothers," he says, but nothing after that makes any sense.

~*~

Darwin's head is bent low, hands clasped in front of him. Seated the way he is, he looks like he's praying. They're all waiting for the doctor to tell them what's going to happen to Charles.

Alex isn't expecting good news.

Sean slaps the wall with his palm, and Moira narrows her eyes at him. "Sean," she says. It's enough to get his ass back in the chair.

In a weird way, it's comforting, but Alex can't help but sweep another look around the room. They have to leave Beast at the mansion, but Raven and Erik— They left. It's the annoying buzz in the room that Alex can't let go of.

When the doctor appears, he looks at Sean, Alex, and Moira, but Moira's the one who steps forward for the talk. She looks tired when she turns around, but then she catches Alex watching and straightens, each step toward them an even, steady stride.

"Charles is all right," she says, "but he's going to need our help."

~*~

Charles tries a smile, but it's tight. He works too hard for it as he tells them, "I'll be fine. Thank you. All of you."

The house was too big and quiet before the beach. Before Raven and Erik walked away. Now that they're not in it, the size and silence only seem to grow.

Walking down the empty halls, Alex is pretty sure this is going to be a house full of ghosts, and unlike Darwin, not all of them are going to miraculously come back.

That's what triggers Alex's memory.

He's been avoiding thinking about the beach scene — the missiles flying toward them after they saved everyone, Erik effortlessly holding them at bay, Charles and him fighting. But in the tangle of the images and Alex's mixed feelings about the whole thing, he remembers looking between Darwin's face and Shaw's suspended body, blood trickling down his forehead.

Alex doesn't ask, though, until he reaches his room. He stretches out next to Darwin on the bed, staring at the same expanse of ceiling.

"You don't remember Shaw, do you?" he asks.

Darwin shakes his head.

"Did Charles … ?" Alex turns on his side to get a look at Darwin's face but doesn't finish.

"He never told me anything," Darwin says. "But I didn't really ask. Didn't seem important."

Alex rolls onto his back again and finds Darwin's hand, slipping his fingers between Darwin's and holding on tight. Maybe the amnesia— But Alex drops the thought, drops the entire thread of that story. He knows how to pick up again and lifts Darwin's hand, brushing a kiss over the grooves of Darwin's knuckles.

It was time to start over.