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The Fortress

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Azazel takes them to an island in an ocean. Raven forgets to ask which one. Shaw meant to use the island as a bunker after the bombs went off.

It's a weird place. Raven walks through most of it that afternoon, because she can't relax or even sit down. It's like somebody took a Hollywood mansion and stuck it in a cave. There are silk sheets in the bedrooms and the pantry's full of caviar and champagne, but it's gloomy no matter how many lights are on. It's cold, too, or at least Raven keeps shivering.

Eventually, after hiking up loop after loop of sloping corridors, she finds a long steel ladder with a big open porthole at the top. She climbs out, and in a flat stone square surrounded by rocks that look natural but are pretty well placed for protection, she finds Erik for the first time since they got here. He's looking out at the water, leaning into a small gap that's probably meant for a machine gun.

"Hey," she says. He makes an acknowledging noise but doesn't turn around. Raven can't see his face, just his hair whipping around in the wind. It's even colder out here, and she's glad she put some clothes on. "Have you seen this place yet? There's a private movie theater. And a shooting range. And Geiger counters built into all the walls."

Another noncommittal noise.

"Shaw must have been building for years." She comes up beside him, so she can at least talk to his ear and the point of his jaw. "Planning the end of the world. What an asshole."

There's no response at all this time. She might as well not be here. It was like that on the beach, too. Erik made a speech at them, and she knows he meant every word, but there was only one person listening who mattered. She says, "You took the helmet off."

Erik answers this time, sounding, in some way she can't explain, like he's talking over a long-distance connection. "It's safe enough, here. Charles can't . . . " Something goes through him. A shiver, or tightening his whole body trying not to. His skin against his black turtleneck is whitish-gray, like the clouds.

It was an accident, Raven wants to say. But what would that even mean? Hank turning blue was an accident, but it happened because he tried to make a cure for being himself. Charles . . . that happened because Erik was angry and deflected the bullets instead of stopping them, and because Moira was angry and shot at Erik, and because the Americans and Russians were afraid and bombed the beach, and because Shaw wanted to rule the world and because years ago he hurt a little boy. Because of the number tattooed on Erik's arm. Because of Hitler. Charles got shot by history. Erik's never said anything about his past to her, but Charles told her a little. It all leads here. Raven wonders if there's such a thing as an accident, or if there are just unintended consequences.

When the wind hits the rocks just right, it howls. Erik came up here, Raven thinks, for the howling.

"I want to find out how Charles is doing," she says. "But the one thing this hunk of rock doesn't have is a working phone."

Erik shrugs. "Have Azazel take you to a pay telephone. Not near here. And don't stay on the line too long. The CIA may be monitoring calls to the hospital."

He's used to thinking about that kind of thing. She'll get used to it too, unless the world changes a whole lot faster than she's got any reason to believe it will. This is going to last for years. She knew that before, but now she knows it like the rock that's her new home and the brother she might never see again.

This is all normal for Erik, being careful, lying low. It's the last few months that weren't normal. When he stepped inside the house that he couldn't stop teasing Charles about, did he feel small and out of place like she does now?

"Do you want me to say anything? I mean, leave him a message?" Charles is probably still in surgery. If he's even alive. Raven wipes away a couple of tears before they can fall. She's been a little girl for too long, and it's time to grow up.


"Are you - "

"We've got nothing to say to each other anymore." A muscle trembles in Erik's jaw. It's amazing he can talk, he's holding himself so rigid.

"I could give him your love." As soon as she says it she feels shaky and has to cross her arms over her chest.

He turns at last and looks at her. "Don't be ridiculous," he says, but his eyes are like dead things. He looks away and won't meet her gaze again.

Maybe, Raven thinks for a second, he and Charles would have been better off if they'd never met. If Charles had said no to Moira they'd still be in their little house in Oxford, with Charles finding students to tutor and Raven working three nights a week at Chez Michel. They'd be safe and more or less happy, and Charles wouldn't be in the hospital, and Hank would still look mostly normal, and Darwin would be alive. But Alex would be in prison, and Erik probably would've drowned, and of course the whole world might have been turned into a heap of radioactive dust this morning.

Being happy is a pretty useless measurement of anything.

It's still nice, though.

Erik's holding one clenched fist to his chest, and he hasn't moved that arm the whole time they've been talking. "Did you get hurt?" she asks. He looks confused by the question. "Erik, your hand."

Erik uncurls his fingers and shows her the bullet on his palm.

"Is that - Jesus, Erik, there's blood on it!" You're not the only one who loves him, Raven thinks, suddenly furious. You've known him for a few months, but I . . . She snatches the bullet out of his hand and throws it towards the water. "That's sick!"

With a twist of Erik's fingers, the bullet flies back and drops into his hand. "Don't ever do that again." His arm folds to his chest, cradling the thing. He doesn't seem to notice.

Raven's anger sputters out, drenched in sadness. She's crying, but there's so much sea spray on her face that Erik probably can't tell. The one thought she can manage isn't a grown-up one at all. It's the same thought she's had since she was six years old and understood that no one else in the world was blue: It's not fair. None of this is fair.

She doesn't say that to Erik, because Erik's known it as long as she has. That's why she's here with him and not with Charles. Charles never did stop believing in fairness.

Well. He probably has now.

Raven wipes her face uselessly on her leather sleeve. "I'm gonna go make that call." Before she leaves, she hugs Erik. He needs it, whether he wants it or not. They've got to take care of each other, now that they don't have Charles. "It shouldn't take long. I'll let you know how he is."

"Yes," Erik says, and then he turns away.

Drop the bullet in the ocean, Erik. But she knows he won't. And even if he did, it wouldn't change a thing.