The missiles were a distraction. Shaw's too well trained to give him any more than that, though even if he hadn't had months, years maybe, of practice keeping telepaths out of his head, the pain of the coin passing through his head, through their heads, would have been enough to keep Charles from digging. It's hard enough just to hold on, to keep Shaw still. Every instinct in him tells him to let go, to run from the pain. He'd spent a good deal of his childhood learning to avoid pain but he wasn't one to back down, not when it really mattered. Not when letting go meant putting Erik in considerable danger, and he'd rather live through a thousand deaths than lose Erik.
There is no fear in Shaw as he passes, only smug satisfaction. He believes that his legacy will live on and that even if by some miracle they manage to stop the current threat, the danger won't stop there. Someone else will pick up his mission. He'd seen to that.
Charles steps from the plane. He needs to tell Erik, to warn Moira, before he forgets. He needs to tell them about the other danger while it's still fresh in his mind, before he can forget. He does forget. There are missiles pointed at them, and it seems counterproductive to worry them about a danger that isn't even real yet when death is staring down at them. Then Erik and Moira are fighting. He'd never been shot before. It hurts far worse than he'd imagined, though not nearly as agonizing as Shaw's death.
He wonders if he's going to die, here on the beach. Erik's arms are around him and it's fitting to die there. He's okay with dying in Erik's arms as long as it's never, ever the other way around.
But he doesn't die. Erik leaves him. He walks away, something Charles worries he'll never be able to do again, and he's taking Raven with him. The sight of their retreating backs is like a second gunshot, piercing him straight through the heart.
Everything's a blur after that. He's in shock, he thinks. His head goes light from blood loss and for a while he just floats. As he floats he can feel Raven and Erik getting farther and farther from him.
They put him in a hospital. He's not sure where. There're drugs, a thin line of fluids dripping steadily into his arm. They're supposed to dull the pain, to make him feel less than he already does but they make him feel more. He feels all of the people around him, coming and going. Living people. Dying people. He feels every one of their deaths as if it's his own, each passing only serving to remind him that Erik's gone.
Erik keeps the bullet. He doesn't mean to. He winces, sympathizing with Charles's screams as he pulls the bullet from his flesh. It levitates into his hand, his fingers curling around it as if its presence there in his hand meant it had never been in Charles's flesh. But it had and he blames himself and the infernal human in turns.
Afterwards, when they're far away, Raven at his side and her brother left bleeding on the beach, he reaches into his pocket to find the bullet still with him. They take refuge in a house in the Himalayas, Emma's talents more than adequate to get them in the door and convince the family that had been living there to take an extended trip elsewhere. They would move on in the morning, but for now the cold exterior of their temporary shelter suits him.
Fire glints off the metal as it floats before him. He makes it rotate, turning slowly in the air. The front is flattened from impact. There's still a good amount of Charles's blood on it, dried blood sticking to the metal. Charles was always like that, clinging to things best left along. Clinging to Erik.
The metal warps, twisting with his thoughts. It stretches, thinning out into a smooth line that folds back in on itself. The new shape is fitting. He stretches his hand out beneath it. The ring settles into his palm, metal warm from manipulation. Charles's blood is folded inside the metal and it seems almost like he can feel it, a gentle throbbing so much like Charles's pulse.
He should give the ring to Raven. Charles is her brother and he belonged to her long before he ever belonged to Erik. He should, but he doesn't. The ring fits perfectly on his right ring finger, the perfect mirror of a wedding band. They symbolism is not lost on him.
The ring garners several looks in the morning, before he tugs on his gloves. No one mentions it, though they do give him looks sometimes, when he gets anxious or excited and the ring shifts on his finger, coiling around his flesh like a snake devouring its own tail.
Late at night, when memories he'd prefer to forget assault him - memories of the beach, of Charles's screams, of holding the man in his arms while blood rushes out of him - he flings the ring away, losing it in the unfamiliar darkness of their latest hideaway. By morning it's always back on his hand. Some bonds are harder to break than most.
Charles hates his wheelchair. It's too big and too hard and entirely impossible to maneuver in. It was also the best money could buy but that didn't seem to be enough. Corners were impossible. Stairs were the new bane of his existence. Something as simple as making a cup of tea was now as difficult as scaling the Himalayas. The mansion hadn't been designed for wheelchairs. It frustrated him that he couldn't do anything for himself, not until the carpenters finished bringing things down to his level.
He hated how fragile he felt. Somewhere between the beach and the hospital, he'd turned into Emma Frost, only instead of being made from diamonds, he was spun glass, capable of shattering in an instant. There were cracks in him, invisible cracks hiding just below the skin. It wouldn't take much to break him. He was close enough already and the children knew it. They tiptoed around him, always polite, always eager to help.
He needed to get out. He'd gone from being trapped at the hospital to being trapped at home and he couldn't take any more of it. The supermarket had seemed like a safe choice for a distraction. Hank was holed up in his laboratory drawing up designs for better wheelchairs, which left Alex and Sean to do the shopping. They kept conveniently forgetting to pick up the healthier foodstuffs that Charles sent them for, leaving the mansion woefully void of fruits and vegetables.
The supermarket was surprisingly busy for a Tuesday afternoon. Charles couldn't go five feet without someone bumping into his wheelchair or giving him a pitying look. More often than not, one came after the other, as was the case with the rotund woman who accidentally hip-checked the back of Charles's wheelchair, sending him rolling into Alex's legs before he could stop himself. He was still getting used to moving around in the chair and sudden stops were currently beyond him.
"Oh, dear. Sorry there, I didn't see you." Her big brown eyes grew even larger as she turned, found no one there, and looked down. Charles fought hard not to frown. Alex did it for him.
He regretted leaving the house at all. He knew now how Raven felt. People kept staring at him like he was a freak, but instead of fear they looked at him with sorrow and pity. He almost would have preferred the fear. His stomach turned every time he felt someone's eyes on him, thankfully without the accompanying thoughts most of the time. The ironic thing was that he really was a freak, just not for the reason they all saw. He wondered, if they knew, if that would change the way they looked at him.
The woman kept staring at him. He forced a smile. It came out poorly, as did all of his smiles of late. "It's alright."
Alex opened his mouth, likely to tell the woman exactly how not alright he found the situation. Please, Charles thought at him. A startled look crossed Alex's face, as it did every time Charles tapped into his mind unannounced. Alex closed his mouth and tightened his grip on the shopping cart.
The lady coughed, covering her mouth after the fact. There was a cold going around. The woman - Jezebel - couldn't remember who she'd caught it from. She tilted her head slightly at him. Charles could feel her curiosity. She'd had an uncle who'd been in a wheelchair, just before he died. Poor thing. "How'd it happen?" He read the question from her mind as she said it.
"Car accident," he lied. Guilt stabbed through his chest, disconnecting him from the woman's thoughts. His back ached above where he'd been shot, but the pain paled in comparison to the deep void of loss that threatened to swallow him every time he thought of the accident. He truly believed it was an accident, though he didn't know if that made the situation better or worse. He wondered if he'd feel better if he had someone to blame besides himself.
"Poor thing," she cooed at him. Alex's knuckles were white on the cart. Charles took that as a sign to leave.
"Excuse us." He mentally nudged Alex down the aisle. The lady took a step, as if to follow them. "There's a sale in aisle five," he told her.
Her eyes went blank as the suggestion hit her brain. "Oh, right. A sale." She turned away.
As they reached the end of the aisle, two more shoppers next to them started coughing. Charles mentally adjusted their shopping list. "Orange juice and vitamins."
The last thing he needed was anyone at the manor getting sick.
The chess board was gathering dust. A half-finished game was laid out on the board, the pieces left undisturbed from the last time Charles and Erik had played. He stared down at the board. He could still remember what his next move would have been. It felt wrong to leave the game unfinished, but not as wrong as it would feel if he continued without his partner. He should put the pieces away. Maybe dust them off and start anew. Hank would be willing to play, though he lacked Erik's sharp eye and militaristic finesse.
He couldn't bring himself to disturb the board. Not yet. It was one of the few reminders of Erik he had left.
The song on the radio ended. An announcer came on, his voice carrying crisp and clear through the room. "A summer cold is sweeping the nation. Patients report unseasonal flu-like symptoms. The first sign is a mild but persistent cough, followed by dizziness and nausea. If you experience these symptoms..."
The radio was forgotten as Hank walked into the room. Some days Charles pitied the boy. He'd lost his sense of self, his sense of normalcy, but he was adapting. Better than Charles was adapting, arguably. Hank's new form was relatively similar to his previous, though larger and hairier. They'd lost a few vases and learned not to put glasses or anything breakable near the edges of tables but all in all he was getting used to the change. Charles still had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning without ending up on the floor.
"They did a sweep of the Hellfire Club." While they no longer had Agent MacTaggert as a liaison, they still had a few contacts in the bureau willing to share information. "The building had been emptied. There was some science equipment left behind but nothing harmful." Hank held out a manila folder. Charles wondered if his life from now on was going to consist of reading and writing reports. He could hardly go out into the field anymore. He hated being a liability. He wished Erik was here to take care of the things he could not. He hated the idea of sending the children out alone.
"Thank you." At least reading gave him something to do, some modicum of usefulness.
Hank turned to go and paused in the doorway. He glanced meaningfully at the chessboard. "We could play some time, if you'd like."
Panic ran through him, followed by familiar guilt. His stomach clenched at the thought of disturbing the chessboard. "Some other time, perhaps."
Hank couldn't hide his concern but he thankfully didn't voice it. He left with a nod and a lingering backward look.
Eventually Charles would have to move on, to put the past behind him. He wasn't ready to yet. Losing Erik had been harder than losing his legs. If he had to chose, if he could only keep one, he would have kept Erik.
The air felt wrong. The whole mansion vibrated with it, a subtle undercurrent of dissonance, like the calm before a storm. At first he'd thought it was his own mind generating the disturbance. The children were on edge, but that could have been caused by bleed-through, by Charles projecting his disease onto those around him.
He felt Erik and Raven's absence keenly. He kept turning, expecting to find one of them there. He caught himself far too often, about to share an insight with Erik or an amusing thought with Raven, but they were gone. The memory of their presence haunted the mansion. If they'd died he would have been convinced they'd left ghosts behind but they were still alive, out there somewhere. He liked to think he would know if anything ever happened to them, though that wasn't entirely a certainty. They simply weren't where he was so used to them being and his mind had yet to fully accept that fact.
It would have been easy to push at that dissonance, to bridge the gap between expectation and reality and to blur the two together. He could immerse himself in a false reality, one where Raven and Erik were still here. One where he could still walk. One where he wasn't trapped inside the mansion and limited by two wheels. But that would be too much like giving up and he couldn't do that to the children. He wouldn't let himself become more of a burden than he already was.
Then, one day, he remembered what he'd picked up in Shaw's mind that day on the beach. Shaw had had other plans beyond the missiles, plans that they had yet to uncover. He turned his attention to the manila folders that had been slowly accruing on his desk, ignored for the most part as he wallowed in the utter unfairness that was his new life. Maybe there was something in the files that would give him a clue to Shaw's plans.
The news had been blissfully silent, which meant that there was still time. There had been no large scale attacks, no news of bombs or violence, only some mild unease over the severity of the cold that was going around. The medical professionals seemed to have the disease well in hand. Likely the panic was nothing. In a few days the cold would blow over and things would go back to normal, or as normal as things were in a household of mutants.
"He's only nine. We won't be gone long."
Charles had a bad feeling. He'd had a bad feeling all week but he'd known what he was going to say minutes after Alex had picked up the phone, as his confusion had shifted to concern bordering on real fear. His parents had taken ill and his younger brother had phoned Alex instead of the authorities. Charles couldn't stand in the way of family.
"Go," he said, hating the word even as it left his mouth. "Be safe. Call if anything comes up."
Then they were gone, flying away in the freshly repaired Blackbird. He was tempted to ride along in one of their heads but he didn't want them to think he didn't trust them. They were just going to check on Alex's family, not fight other mutants. They'd be okay without him.
He was just finishing a cup of tea when a knock on the side door startled him. He brushed his mind over the guest, checking for hostile intent. It was the woman from the grocery store, Jezebel. Fear filled her mind, to the near exclusion of all else. Her fear was tinged with panic and desperation.
He opened the door.
"Oh, good, you're home." She bustled past him, carrying a large cloth-wrapped bundle. "I tried the front door but there was no answer. I saw your car. How on earth do you still drive? I suppose your brother does that for you. That nice young man from the-"
"Ma'am?" He cut her off. "Is there some way I can help you?"
Her eyes flitted everywhere across the kitchen, everywhere but at him. "Oh, yes. They told me you were a doctor." She laid the cloth bundle out across the table. Part of the sheet fell loose. A hand came with it, dangling limply over the side of the table. "You need to help him. You need to help my son."
Charles swallowed bile and tried very hard to keep the horror off of his face. "Not that kind of doctor. You need to take him to a hospital."
"I did!" She whirled on him, staring at him like her son's condition was somehow his fault. "They wouldn't take him. They're all full. No one would take him."
It seems he'd vastly underestimated the extent of the illness. There was no sign of life coming from the boy. He'd died, possibly hours ago or maybe mere minutes. He'd been dead when she brought him in. He licked his lips as he tried to think of the best way to break it to her. His gaze turned to the boy as his hand spasmed. She must have bumped the table.
"Ma'am, your son's dead. There's nothing I can do for him."
The hand twitched again.
"You're lying! He's not dead."
Charles's mouth fell open as the body on the table sat up. The sheet fell away to reveal a young boy, around fifteen if Charles wagered a guess, with tousled black hair and deathly pale skin. His eyes were unfocused as his head turned to stare over his mother's shoulder at Charles. There was no mind left in the boy. Nothing. He was moving, seemingly conscious of his surroundings but there was nothing there. It was as if he was still dead.
The woman kept screaming, even as Charles slowly backed away. His chair bumped into the stove, rattling the pans left on the stovetop. The noise startled the woman into silence. It also drew the attention of her son. The boy launched forward with a snarl, latching on to the woman's neck and biting down. She screamed, Charles following suit and her pain and fear and panic overwhelmed him. Blood splurted from her neck, spraying the walls and floor with red.
Charles grabbed a pan off the stove and wheeled himself behind the long island counter. Her screams cut off as he made it to the other side. He chanced a peek around the corner of the island. She was laid out across the table, blood pooling on the wood, her son hunched over her. Was this a new mutation, one that had made the child go feral and feign death? He was about the age where mutations not evident at birth started to manifest.
"Son." Charles's voice wavered. He clutched the frying pan in his hand and wished it was a gun. The boy's head swiveled in his direction. "I'm not going to hurt you. No one needs to get hurt."
The child launched himself off the table with a feral shriek. Charles screamed and wheeled himself back behind the aisle. He smacked into the cabinets and it took him far too long to turn the corner. He reacted on instinct as the child's head appeared around the corner.
The frying pan made a dull thwack as it connected with the top of the boy's head, hard enough to knock anyone out. Charles was a little worried that he'd crushed the boy's skull but he wheeled himself backwards, wanting to put as much distance as possible between himself and the boy's body. The boy groaned low and guttural. He lifted his head slowly, moving with the same grace as a drunkard as he picked himself up off the floor.
Panic gripped him. He was alone in the house. There was no one to call for help. He needed to get to a phone, to call the authorities. The best he could hope for was locking himself in a room and waiting until the police arrived but the only rooms with locks were a good distance down the hall.
The boy launched himself across the tile again. Charles screamed and flailed wildly with the frying pan. The boy jumped at him. Charles landed a solid hit to the boy's face, knocking the boy off course, though the boy's fingers still grasped at his clothing, thankfully not finding purchase. Momentum tipped Charles's chair over. He somehow managed to keep hold of the frying pan as his head hit the floor.
Charles recovered first. He twisted his shoulders and used the chair as leverage to push away from the boy. The tile was slick with blood, which made it both easier and harder to slide away from the boy. He grabbed onto the leg of the table, very purposely not looking at the chubby legs that dangled over the side.
The boy snarled and climbed over Charles's wheelchair. Charles was waiting and smacked the boy as hard as he could in the face. He heard bones crunch. The boy toppled to the side but kept twitching. Charles slid as best he could under the table. The boy started to rise again.
He was going to die. The boy was going to do to him what he did to his mother and then the children were going to come back and find him, and then have to deal with the feral child assuming he was still here. They could handle the child but Charles was useless without a mind to work with. He was going to die. He couldn't run. There was nowhere to hide and his only regret was that he wouldn't get to say goodbye to Erik and Raven before he died.
The boy grabbed on to Charles's ankle and started to pull. He was stronger than he looked. Charles grabbed for any leverage he could find. His fingers curled around the edge of the table but it was slick with blood. His hand started to slip.
A strong grip caught his wrist and for a brief, joyous moment he thought he was saved. His arm was lifted, pulling him closer to the edge of the table. The boy fought the pull. Charles was caught in the middle. It hurt, but not nearly as much as the teeth that closed over his forearm. He screamed, horror returning fresh and new as he looked up into the face of the boy's mother, her mouth red with his blood and eyes just as vacant.
He had a brief moment of lucidity, long enough to realize that it wasn't a mutation at all, it was an infection. Then her mouth closed over his arm again and he screamed in pain. In his panic, his mind reached out for help. Reaching. Calling.
He didn't want to die. Not like this.
His wheelchair rose up and knocked the woman through the window. Charles fell to the floor, his head hitting the tile for a second time. He turned his head to the side to stare at his arm. He felt detached, like his mind had been jarred loose when he hit the floor. There were little white bits visible through the red parts in his arm. Bone, he realized.
He slid down, towards the opposite end of the table. The boy shrieked at him, trying to pull him closer, but then the wheelchair was back, crushing the boy into the tile. He'd have to get a new one. If he lived. That didn't seem very likely at this point. There was a lot of blood on the floor. He wasn't sure how much of it was his.
The table was flung aside. There was a blue blur and then Raven was at his side. Raven, in her natural form. He'd never told her how beautiful she looked this way. There were a lot of things he never told her.
She was saying something. His name. There were other people there but he couldn't move his head to look. He couldn't move. He twitched his uninjured hand towards her. She wrapped her hand around his. Tears fell on his face, tears that weren't his.
Their minds connected like two pieces of a puzzle. In the space of a moment, he told her everything he never had - how pretty she was, how much he needed her, how much he missed her. He showed her where to find his will, the one that left her everything. He showed her where the children had gone and asked for Erik to look after him.
Another presence settled at his side, one he couldn't read.
Through her, he told Erik he loved him and then the world went black.
The ring had burned. Erik remembered the feeling clearly, though the metal had long since cooled. With the burning had come a sense of danger, a sense of need. He'd burst into the common room the same time as Raven and they'd demanded in unison to be taken to Charles.
Erik had never seen so much blood in one place before. Not since the camp, and certainly not so much of Charles's. It was worse than the beach. He knew the minute he saw Charles, lying on the floor, deathly pale with blood pooled all around him, that there would be no walking away this time. So he stayed. They did the best they could to bandage his arm, to stop the bleeding until Hank got back. They stayed at his side, Raven on one side and Erik on the other. Neither left for long.
The children were understandably concerned to see them on their return but they'd been less than eager to fight, likely due to the pale look on Alex's face and the small boy that clutched at Alex's side. Two more walking corpses made it onto the grounds before Erik pulled himself away from Erik's side long enough to make a wall around the mansion, high enough to keep any and all intruders out.
For three days, Charles didn't wake up. It gave Erik time to think. He thought about what Charles had meant to him, still meant to him. He thought about why he'd left. He thought about what Charles had lost because of him and what Charles could have lost without Erik there to protect him. He thought about Raven, who missed her brother even though she never mentioned it and regretted leaving him though she never said so.
He could put aside their differences, long enough to figure out why the world was falling apart around them and how to keep Charles safe.
On the fourth day, Charles woke up, though he was groggy from painkillers and not entirely lucid. He smiled at seeing Erik there, and again when he saw Raven. His fingers curled around Erik's.
"Promise me," he rasped.
Erik wasn't wearing his helmet but there was no touch against his mind, nothing telling him what Charles wanted him to promise. He squeezed Charles's hand and leaned in. "Promise what?"
Charles's eyes attempted to fix on him and missed, settling for a point near his shoulder. "Promise me you'll look after the children." He coughed and waved away Raven's attempt to give him water. "Promise me that when I die, you won't let me hurt them."
Erik frowned. What did he mean when he died? Charles wasn't allowed to die. Erik wouldn't allow it. "You won't-"
He glanced over at Raven but she had her head down, pressed into her palms. She was crying. His frown deepened. He wanted to argue but he could see Charles's gaze wavering. His eyelids fluttered drowsily.
Charles closed his eyes and slipped back into unconscious. Erik stared at the monitors, comforted by the continual beep beep of Charles's heart rate.
Charles woke to pain. His entire body ached, or at least the parts of it that had feeling did. His head hurt the worst. There were voices around him. So many voices, most of them unfamiliar, all but one of them in his head.
"Good morning, professor."
Something blue moved at the corner of his vision and he had a brief moment of hope that it was Raven at his side. Hank stepped into view. Charles wasn't able to keep the disappointment off his face. It was hard to control anything, let alone his expression, given the amount of pain he was in. What little control he had he turned to shutting out the voices. It helped dim the ache in his head a little.
"I dreamed Erik was here." He wasn't sure why he said that. It just slipped out.
Hank looked at him and then turned back to the paper in his hands. "He is. He was, until a few minutes ago, but they needed more rooms in the south tower so he..." Hank's voice trailed off, likely in response to the confusion on Charles's face. He shifted, setting the papers aside and settling into one of the chairs already positioned close at his bedside. "You've been out of it for a while, professor."
"I'm dying." It wasn't a question. He'd seen what the infection could do. He understood now why there had been a lab at the Hellfire Club. This was Shaw's last plan, a virus poised to wipe them all out.
"No, thankfully." Charles stared. Hank's expression wavered, the smile that fought to appear on his face weighed down by something, something Hank wasn't telling him. "We're immune."
Charles ignored the pain as he reached out and connected with Hank's mind. He was right about the virus but it wasn't meant to wipe them all out. Just the humans. The humans were all dead or dying but the mutants were immune. Not immune to the injuries and it would be a while before his arm healed, though Hank had a few things he wanted to try thanks to a new mutant on the compound and.... Surprise made Charles lose the connections.
"Ah, yes." Hank stood, a smile finally appearing on his face. "About that." He pulled aside the curtain. Sunlight streamed in, momentarily blinding Charles. After a few seconds he was able to make out tall structures, glittering in the sunlight, rising up around the mansion. "Erik's made a few modifications. They've been gathering all the mutants they can and bringing them here so they can be safe."
There was a city rising up around his mansion. A city of mutants.
It seems Erik had finally gotten his wish.