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Education or Why Cerebro was Built by Hippies

Chapter Text

"Can you read?" Schmitt's head tipped to the side. Erik knew every detail, though he'd only know the man for five days.

"Of course," said Erik. Saying 'of course' instead of 'yes' was the boldest thing he'd said to Herr Schmitt. It was the boldest thing he'd said in weeks, actually.

"Of course," echoed Schmitt. He selected a book, opened it, and handed it to Erik.

Erik caught a glimpse of the cover. He knew twelve-year-olds weren't normally expected to read Faust. He had been a good student when he had attended school, but that was long ago. Then his parents had been forced to keep him home. They had tried to teach him themselves, though they hadn't been able to afford much of the way of books or supplies, thanks to the Reich's fines and restrictions on employing Jews. Then they were in the ghetto or fleeing and his parents still tried to teach him but it was hard to learn when he spent so much time hungry, when all of his energies were spent trying to keep himself and his family safe. In truth, Erik could read, but he could not read well.

"Read from the top of the page."

Erik rehearsed the first line in his mind, certain that pausing to sound out words would displease Herr Doktor. Then he spoke, "Mich plagen keine Skrupel noch Zweifel." No doubts plague me, nor scruples as well. It described Herr Doktorrather well, he thought.

"Continue."

He lingered over the second line, pronouncing each word in his head before he began to speak. "Fürchte mich weder vor Hölle noch Teufel," he said. I'm not afraid of hell or the devil. He stumbled over the word Teufel, not because it was a difficult word to read, but because of what it meant. He had neither believed in nor feared the devil before he had come to this place.

"You pause too much. It is a play. It is meant to be spoken."

"D...da...dafür ist mir auch alle Freud' entri...trissen," To offset that, all joy is rent from me. Without precious seconds to rehearse each line, he stumbled over each word he didn't automatically recognize. "Bilde mir nicht ein was re...rechts zu wissen," he concluded. I do not imagine I know aught that's right.

Schmitt held out his hand to take the book back. "What do you think it means, Erik?"

"It's..." he thought back to anything he had heard about the story previously. "It's about a man who makes a deal with-" he stumbled again on the word Teufel, "a deal with evil," he said instead.

"No," said Schmitt, "it is about a man who makes a deal with himself."

And with that, Erik was sent away, back to his strange cell. It was a pit, really. Not a basement, but a hole in the ground, lined with stones. It was just wide enough that he could lie flat, but he never did. It was cold, so he always curled up tightly, knees tucked to his chest, to conserve heat. This was his school. These were the things he learned. To lick the moisture from the rocks when he was thirsty, to trick his stomach into quieting itself, to step on rats before they bite him.

It would be wrong to say that Erik was grieving his mother's death. It would be wrong to say that he felt fear or misery. It would be wrong even to say that he felt hungry or weak. He felt none of these things. He felt nothing at all. He had no tears for his mother. He had no trembling, no ache. The world seemed to him a facsimile of itself and he was little more than a spectator behind his own eyes. It was not like a dream, because everything made a certain terrible sense. It was a play, like Faust, and Erik was one of the characters. The other characters, they were strange. Some were weak and some were strong, but none were real. The dead were masks, husks, costumes. The killers were sparring, were pantomime.

And as an empty boy, Erik could sleep. He lay on the stones and closed his eyes.

Then he heard men chanting in the distance, "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad." Hear, O Israel, the LORD is God, the LORD is one.

Erik sat up.

Everything was real.

Erik made a deal with himself.


Chapter Text

The residents of 1407 Graymalkin Lane were in some ways very separate from the world. Some had obvious physical mutations; they would be in danger if they ventured out. Some lacked confidence that they could immerse themselves in the outside world without damaging or destroying it. Some were attached to the others as their first family, their real family, or the only family they had left.

The world nonetheless found its way in. Sean's older brother was drafted to serve in Vietnam and sent him letters from boot camp that alternated between bravado and dread. Abby took to carrying around a copy of The Feminine Mystique. (Privately, Charles felt that Abby's credentials as a feminist were somewhat diminished by her constant, blushing attempts to flirt with Alex Summers, an acerebral hothead eight years her senior. Alex, for his part, had shown admirable restraint, at least after Erik spoke with him on the matter.) Hank avidly followed news of the civil rights movement and when he taught literature to Gregory and Isaac, he had them read passages from Thoreau's writings on civil disobedience.

Charles had ordered subscriptions to a dozen newspapers from around the country and eight more from around the world as well as almost thirty alternative and underground newsletters. He skimmed all of them every day, looking for any news about mutants, any opinion pieces or legislative proposals. Any remotely relevant articles were cut from the paper and sorted neatly into files. Everyone read them, or at least the headlines. The picture they portrayed was a muddled blend of skepticism which likened mutants to fairies, ghosts or yetis, reactionary fear mingled with threats of violence, and odd interpretations from spiritualists claiming so-called mutants were angels, devils, reincarnated gods, or merely normal humans who had ascended to a higher level of consciousness. As one mimeographed pamphlet proclaimed, "We all have a mutant inside of us, just waiting to be set free."


In the rehab unit, Charles had learned how to dress himself despite his nonfunctional legs and, as the occupational therapist had promised, he had become more efficient with time and practice. Everyone assumed that pants were the difficult part. No, there was a trick to pants. The difficulties for Charles were socks and shoes. It was a matter of Newton's laws. His ankles could generate no force of their own, so when a sock pushed against his foot, the foot simply moved backward. Not to mention the fact that it took one of his hands to hold his leg up, which left him trying to hold a sock open with just the other hand.

"Damnit!" Charles' foot slid off of the bed, still determinedly unclothed.

"Why don't you just wear sandals?" Erik sat on a sofa on the far wall, half-heartedly reading Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

"Because it's March."

"Why not loafers, at least? Then you wouldn't have to worry about tying them."

"Erik, you may be unaware of this, but I am a very vain man."

"I had no idea," Erik deadpanned. "I apparently failed to notice the ridiculous amount of attention you give your hair as well as the sheer number of things in this household that are monogrammed." He displayed the inside cover of the book which was stamped BXF.

"Hey, that's not even my monogram."

"Doesn't mono- mean one? So shouldn't a monogram just have one letter?"

"If I went around stamping everything with just an X, people wouldn't know whether things belonged to Xavier, or some illiterate, or perhaps they were simply pornographic. And then if they turned the things on their sides, it would be a lowercase t and that would confuse matters further and- Damnit!" His foot, now at least in a sock, slid back off the bed. The shoe followed and landed on the floor.

Erik waved his hand without looking up from his book and the shoe returned itself to the bed, tugged along by the metal tips on the laces.

"Thank you, Erik."

Erik made an indistinct noise that was probably meant to indicate 'you're welcome.'

After several minutes, Charles announced, "Success!" and turned his chair to the door.

"You know," said Erik, "it's nearly ten o'clock."

"You didn't have to wait. I've told you that time and again."

"I don't mind waiting. I'm just commenting. You want to do these things yourself because you prefer to be independent, but the only reason you can afford to start your day at ten o'clock is that you inherited vast sums of money, which doesn't strike me as terribly independent."

Charles was silent for a moment. "What is it you're suggesting?"

Erik shrugged. "I'm not suggesting anything. It was just a thought." He gestured to the book. "My mind's been wandering for the past hour because this book is simply awful. I can't concentrate on it at all. "

Charles held his hand out to take back the offending book. "So no Dickens. Try Twain instead."

"I liked Heart of Darkness."

"Of course you did."

"Do you have anything else by Conrad?"

"Give Twain a try."

"I'd also like to observe that you no longer make your bed."

"Fuck you," said Charles, the paragon of wit. They both laughed.


Charles had briefly attempted to ban the possession or use of psychoactive substances on the estate grounds in an attempt to make the manor more like a school. Alex had immediately pointed out that alcohol was a psychoactive substance and more than one mind immediately began to think quite loudly that Charles drank more than any of them. In practice, the rule as enforced was more accurately stated, "For god's sake, don't light that up where the kids can see you." This led Sean to inquire as to whether Petra counted as a kid (in which case they shouldn't let her see their drugs) or an adult (in which case they could conceivably share some with her). This question was never resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

There was also the issue of foul language, which all of the adults indulged in to varying degrees. Alex certainly swore most often, but even Hank could be heard to growl four-letter words one after another when he dripped solder on his fingers or his welding torch flared. (While Hank did swear, he wasn't very good at it. After hearing Hank shout, "Hell-ass-damn!" Alex offered to give him a few lessons in the art.) Lyle didn't necessarily use profane words more frequently than anyone else, but he seemed bound and determined that, should his life ever merit a biography, it be banned from every school library in existence. "Wooo-eee!" he would cry, "That lady's hot. I'd do her so fast, my short hairs would catch fire." The swearing policy was similar to the drug policy – not in front of the kids – but it was far less successfully enforced. Charles dreaded the day when they enrolled a young child who had not been raised by carnies.

Chapter Text

"Turn left onto 72nd," said Charles. "Then you just get onto 95 from there." He leaned back into the seat. "Did you enjoy it?"

"To my surprise," said Erik, "I did."

"Dvorak is one of my favorite composers and the New World Symphony is his finest work."

"Actually, I liked the short piece they played first better."

"Pictures at an Exhibition?"

"Yeah. Except for that trumpeter who wanted to play everything at maximum volume."

"He was annoying, wasn't he? I do appreciate your restraint in not destroying his instrument."

"How do you know I didn't?"

Charles smiled. "So I heard that you asked Sean to start calling you Magneto."

"I was getting sick of 'Mr. Lensherr'."

"Honestly, it's a little ridiculous, don't you think?"

"You're just jealous because I have the better name."

"It's not your name. Your name is Erik. Magneto is just a call sign, a code name. Doesn't it seem a little childish to you to call one another by these silly handles all the time?"

"I think it makes sense. We're not humans. We shouldn't use our human names. We're defined by what we can do; we should be named by what we can do."

"Charles is the name my parents gave me and I am perfectly happy with it."

"Charles is your human name. But you're not a human."

"Charles is what my very human parents called me. And Charles is what I call myself. Code names are fine, but they don't supplant the real name underneath." He leaned forward in the seat. "And your parents named you Erik."

"No, they didn't." A half-smile. "I'm surprised you didn't know that."

"I truly have made an effort to respect your mental privacy."

"No, I meant, it's not even a good forgery. Erik isn't even a German name."

Charles blinked twice. How had he managed to miss this seemingly straightforward fact?

"Erich is a German name, but it's spelled and pronounced differently."

"Why the K then?"

"Because the collaborator – Polish, I think – who wrote it into the record was obviously unfamiliar with German spelling."

"So your real name is Erich?" Charles struggled to pronounce the final consonant sound.

"No, my real name is Magneto," said Erik, before answering the question he knew Charles had meant to ask. "And when I was born, I was named Max."

Charles furrowed his brow. "I'm lost, my friend."

"When my family was forced to register, we registered under a false surname. I'm not sure where we got the papers from. My father thought it might buy us some measure of safety. It obviously didn't work."

"A false surname - Lensherr. Then where did Erik come from?"

"My uncle's name was Erich. He was beaten to death shortly before we were enrolled in the registry. I chose to take his name."

They sat in silence as the car rolled along slowly in the dense traffic.

"After-" Charles almost said, after the war, but stopped himself, knowing that his friend's trials lasted beyond V-E Day. "Afterward, why didn't you reclaim your birth name? Why continue to be called Lensherr?"

"Because there is no more Max Eisenhart. He died years ago."

"I'm sorry for that," said Charles. There was nothing else to say. Charles saw names very differently, as something very internal and central, whereas Erik obviously saw names as existing somehow between the person and the circumstance. If this gave his friend a way to mourn for the child he had been, then Charles had no difficulty in seeing its value.

There was more silence as the traffic crept along. Erik dug his finger into the knot around his neck and loosened his tie.

"You can still call me Erik."

"I appreciate that," said Charles. He felt conciliatory, for he had realized that this was a battle of wills, not of morals. "It might take some getting used to, but I could call you what you want to be called."

Erik shook his head. "No," he said, "Erik is fine." He paused. "I'm not sure I wanted to call you Professor X anyway."

There was silence again. It was comfortable.

"Doesn't... doesn't eisen mean 'steel'?" asked Charles. While Erik was fluent in English, he usually thought in his first language, so Charles had picked up a few words in German.

"Iron, actually."

"Your r-" Charles stopped himself from saying real, "Your birth surname translates as Heart of Iron? That's unbelievably apt."

Erik shook his head. "Hart doesn't mean 'heart'. It means 'hard'. So, Ironhard, Hard as Iron."

"It's still incredible." Charles paused. "Erik. Please do not take offense, but I have very strong feelings on this matter."

Erik's brow narrowed, wary.

"I just want to say that, if my name were Hard as Iron, I would never let anyone call me anything else. Ever. It wouldn't matter the situation. I wouldn't even let people use pronouns." Hearing Erik laugh, he continued. "I mean, think of the possibilities at bars." He put on a fake voice. "Hey, can I buy you a drink? My name is Ironhard, Charles Ironhard."

"Do you really think you'd get a lot of takers with that?"

"If someone propositioned me with that line, I would take him in a heartbeat."

"You're a very strange man, Charles. A very strange man."


Chapter Text

Charles rolled into the kitchen to see Petra sitting at the table, alternately eating and arranging dry Cheerios. "Good morning, Petra," he said.

"BITE ME SEAN!"

Charles smiled benignly and wiped partially-chewed cereal from his forehead. Then he muttered, "I have got to talk to Alex about that."


Though they were supposedly a school, they were not a terribly educated group. Of the seven adults, only three – Charles, Hank, and Sean – had even obtained high school diplomas. Petra had obviously never attended school at all. Alex had been arrested during his senior year, just after his eighteenth birthday, and had never bothered to finish his remaining classes. Lyle had dropped out of school at sixteen, when his powers had begun to manifest and he had chosen a life of solitude over the threats and stares of the townsfolk. Erik, of course, had never even entered high school, let alone completed it.

They had their talents, clearly, but there were gaps in their knowledge. This was most obvious with Erik, who had not only missed out on formal education, but a great many day-to-day experiences as well. The result was an awkward patchwork of familiarity and ignorance. Erik was fond of animal crackers, but suspicious of Oreos – he insisted on eating them whole, instead of opening them up and eating the crème separately as rationality would dictate. He had heard of quite a few movies, but he had hardly seen any. He knew exactly what Frisbees were, but had never seen a neon plastic water gun. He was excellent with arithmetic, but knew almost no algebra. And most recently, when Charles and Erik were viewing a new invention of Hank's (a device to create 3-dimensional printed circuits) and Hank explained the use of electricity to separate water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, Charles had felt a wave of confusion and surprise. Until that moment, Erik had apparently believed water to be an element.

Charles felt there should be some sort of formal curriculum for the children, but he had no idea where to begin. Hank took most of the responsibility for educating the twins and seemed to be incorporating a reasonable blend of topics. Charles wondered sometimes if he should be monitoring the situation more closely, but the children seemed happy and were certainly getting a better education than they had been receiving before. Abigail had simply enrolled in the local public high school. It wasn't that they couldn't teach high school level material, or even so much that they were unaccredited, but rather that Abby was at an age when same-sex peers were a must. The only other female at the estate was Petra, who was unlikely to provide Abby with the sort of girl talk she craved.

Charles had encouraged both Alex and Lyle to pursue equivalency diplomas. Though neither had been enthusiastic about the idea, he had ordered textbooks and made them available anyway. While the textbooks remained untouched, Charles was pleasantly surprised when Alex asked him if there were books about "people like Petra, how to teach them stuff." Charles knew better than to raise the issue of a high school diploma with Erik. Erik valued knowledge, but certainly would not value the credentialing of that knowledge, particularly if it involved being judged by humans under human standards. Charles was getting better at picking his battles.

There was a single educational requirement imposed on all of the manor's residents: a weekly seminar on genetics and evolution. They were all there because of mutation and they owed it to themselves, he felt, to understand what that meant. (The initial material was far too simple for Hank, of course, but he attended without complaint.) He had started with the most basic information: the difference between inherited and environmental traits, genes as the units of heredity, simple Mendelian inheritance based on dominant and recessive genes.

When he moved on to sources of novelty in the genome, everyone became more interested, especially when Charles pointed out that they might not be mutants at all.

"Wait a minute," said Sean, "neither of my parents have powers and I do, so it has to be a mutation, right?"

Charles shook his head. "I think that's probable, but it isn't the only possibility. Let's imagine there were no mutations in the past fifty years. Every gene you have would exist in someone else on the planet, but your combination of genes would exist only in you. You don't have to invent new musical notes to write a new song; a new combination of notes is sufficient. In other words, you might not be only person to have gene A or gene B or gene C, but you could be literally the only person on the planet to have A, B, and C. It is possible that merely having the right combination of common genes is enough to produce extraordinary abilities."

"Then how come all of Sean's brothers and sisters aren't mutants too?" Lyle returned to chewing on a pencil.

"Remember homozygous and heterozygous? If Sean's parents are both heterozygous for the genes in question, you only end up with special powers if the superpower allele is selected for each gene in both parents. It's like the odds of flipping a coin and getting heads six times in a row: rare, but not unheard-of. Still, incredible ability would be more common in the siblings and cousins of known mutants."

Sean said, "But you think that it's a mutation, right?"

"I do, for a number of epidemiological reasons which are frankly too complex to enumerate fully in this context." He paused, considered the best way to explain his line of reasoning. "Nuclear radiation is a teratogen, a mutation-causing agent. If indeed we are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of individuals with extraordinary abilities that coincides with the rise of the nuclear age, then that is evidence that nuclear radiation has played a role in creating us by causing an increase in mutations. I personally think it is no coincidence that my father was a nuclear physicist."

"But none of the rest of us have parents who were exposed to a lot of nuclear energy," said Hank.

"But there are other teratogens. And it may not take a lot of nuclear radiation, just the right dose to the right place at the right time. And then there are random copying errors, when parent cells simply make a mistake in replicating their genes."

"So if your parents got hit with radiation or something, your brothers and sisters would be more likely to be mutants, but not your cousins, right?" Everyone turned to look at Alex, surprised at the cogent question.

"You're absolutely correct, Mr. Summers, if the mutation was in the parent. But it could also have been in the grandparent or great-grandparent and remained dormant because it required some other gene or some environmental stimulus to manifest phenotypically, in which case cousins would have an increased probability as well." He paused momentarily, marveling at how new and unexplored this field of study was. "Regardless, I do believe we can be confident that full blood siblings are at an increased risk."


Knight to E-5. "Where on earth are we going to get the materials?"

Charles captured Erik's knight with his rook. "Scrap yards."

"You're too eager to take my knights from me." Erik captured Charles' rook with a pawn.

"The real question is what we're going to do with the raw materials. You can rework the metals, but I'm not sure how we're going to cast pieces of glass." Charles studied the board and stirred his drink with his fingertip. "I suppose we're going to have to make some sort of small foundry. Perhaps Mr. Summers can power it."

Erik looked to the library's doorway. "Speak of the devil," he said, "and he shall appear."

Alex looked at Charles. "I need to talk to you."

"By all means." Charles gestured to a well-appointed chair.

"I need to talk to you without him." Alex cast a suspicious glance at Erik.

Charles tilted his head to the side, appearing to consider the matter, but before he could arrive at a conclusion, Erik stood. "We'll finish our game later," he said.

As soon as Erik left the room, Alex took his vacated seat. Though his concern had seemed urgent just a moment prior, Alex now fiddled with the captured chess pieces. "Who's winning?" he asked.

"It can be very difficult to tell. I would say it's anyone's game at this point," said Charles. "May I ask why you insisted on speaking to me alone?"

"I don't like him and I don't trust him. I get that you guys are buddies, but that doesn't mean him and me have to be."

"I see."

There was silence for almost a minute, then Alex spoke. "I have a brother. His name is Scott. He lives in an orphanage in Nebraska. I haven't seen him in years, but I talk to him on the phone sometimes. The last few times I've called, though, they keep telling me he's not around. And, I mean, that's happened some times before, but not a whole bunch in a row like that. And then I was thinking about what you were saying about being a mutant and how it would be more common in your brothers, right?"

Charles nodded. "How old is he?"

"Um...about fourteen, I think."

"And has he ever mentioned anything about unusual abilities? Or anything about threats or danger?"

"No, nothing at all." Alex shrugged. "Look, man, I don't even like this kid. He's kind of a pussy. But, you know..."

"He's your blood and you care for him."

"Aw fuck man, don't go making this weird. I don't care for him. I just don't want him dead or anything."

"Of course."


Charles and Erik lay in bed. Though they had turned the lights off almost an hour ago, both were far from sleep. Erik still wore long sleeves to bed, though he had finally stopped wearing socks.

Everything was all out of order, Charles mused. There had first been a great deal of intimacy, in the non-physical sense, but no flirting. (Charles wasn't even sure how he would have gone about flirting with Erik had he wanted to. His usual standbys with women – poetry, flattery – seemed laughable.) Charles had been aware of his own attraction, but had held back because there was an important mission that required focus as well as because he had strongly suspected that any move on his part would cause Erik to become agitated – the situation was fragile enough already. From his mass-scan of Erik's mind while attempting to rescue him from drowning, Charles knew both that Erik thought of himself as asexual and that this simply wasn't true. Erik had sexual thoughts and feelings for men and it was sad, Charles felt, that he had never before acted on them. So after Shaw was dead and Charles was paralyzed and Raven was- So when Erik returned to Westchester so many weeks after their mission in Cuba, when they were drunk and stoned, Charles kissed Erik and went down on him. The next day, they returned to platonic friendship, Erik unwilling to admit that anything had happened.

Since Charles had moved back into the manor, they seemed to be starting from zero, but here again they were out of order. They had begun to share a bed, but they didn't touch, didn't kiss. Erik wouldn't even look him in the eye while in bed, though he would in other situations.

Then one day, with no apparent reason or warning, while they were sitting in the library, returning the chess pieces to their original places, Erik had announced, "I am going to kiss you," and had done exactly as he said. It had been a brief kiss, eyes and mouth closed, though since then Erik had begun to occasionally tolerate very small amounts of touching, especially if there was no talking, no acknowledgement of any kind.

Charles stretched his arm out across the bed, but Erik rolled onto his side, out of reach.

"So what did Alex want?" Erik asked.

"He's worried about his brother."

"I didn't know he had a brother."

"I didn't either." Charles withdrew his arm, brought it back to his own side.

"So what's the problem with his brother?"

"Maybe nothing. He's been having trouble getting in touch with him, so he's worried that his brother might be a mutant and therefore some unspecified evil may have befallen him."

"That's not much to go on."

"My thoughts exactly."

Erik rolled back across the bed to face Charles. "So when do we leave?"


Chapter Text

"We?" asked Charles, propping himself up on his elbows. "We are not going anywhere."

Erik sat upright. "Oh, because the kid doesn't trust me, you don't either?"

Charles laughed softly. "Hardly. You're going. I'm not." Charles couldn't see his friend's facial expression in the darkness, but he could guess what it looked like. "I've thought it over. We have no idea what the situation will be. You need to be able to move quickly and," he sighed, "moving quickly is not exactly my specialty these days."

"But-"

"Be realistic, Erik. I'm not even sure whether I could be accommodated on a regular airplane. I can't imagine many hotels have rooms with grab bars or low-frame beds or roll-in showers. And what if you get to this orphanage and it has stairs?"

"I could help you with all of those things. It's not impossible, it just hurts your pride."

"And makes us very conspicuous when we need to be subtle. And what if there's a fight? I can't even duck for cover properly. I'd be a liability."

"What if we need you there?"

"What if I'm needed here?" Charles tried to take a light tone. "Someone has to keep the kids from burning this place down."

"So what if there is a battle? You trust me not to kill anyone?" The tone was sarcastic, but the question was serious.

"I believe in you, Erik. Besides, I think it far more likely that you'll try to kill Alex."

"Try? I'm offended."

"My most sincere apologies."

Erik lay back on the bed, a bit closer to Charles, but still a good two feet away. He reached out in the dark and lightly touched the side of Charles' face, rather like a blind man getting to know a new companion. Charles knew better than to speak so he simply tried to relax and enjoy the contact as Erik's fingers brushed through his hair.

Erik withdrew his hand. "Charles," he asked, "do you believe this boy is actually in danger?"

"I think there are mundane possibilities that are considerably more likely. Maybe he ran away from the facility. Maybe he was busy each time Alex called by simple coincidence. Maybe he just doesn't want to talk to Alex." Charles' voice became fond. "The child is fourteen. Fourteen is a moody age." He paused, looking back at Erik across the bed, though in the dark he could only make out his friend's outline. "That being said, there is a reasonable chance that the boy is a mutant and in the current climate I don't think we can afford to overlook the possible disappearance of a mutant."

"Then I'll leave in the morning." Erik forced himself to yawn, trying to conjure sleepiness where none was before. He was always vigilant. His mind resisted any attempt to dial back. "Could you..." he asked.

"Of course," said Charles. He touched his hand to his temple. "Go to sleep."

Erik slept.


Erik glanced around the airport terminal, then opened a bottle and dabbed some of the liquid within on a handful of paper towels. Alex had strongly approved of setting out for Nebraska immediately, but he had disapproved of his traveling companion just as strongly. He was already wearing on Erik's nerves.

"What's that?" asked Alex. "What are you doing?"

"Something Hank whipped up. It's supposed to sharpen my senses." He withdrew the bottle as Alex reached for it. "Uh-huh," he wagged his finger, "not for you."

"Fuck you, man. If we're searching for stuff and that could help-"

Erik cut him off with a withering stare, but then appeared to consider his argument. "Have you had any alcohol in the past 12 hours? Any other drugs?"

Alex shook his head, reasonably solemn.

"All right then," he conceded, "but just a small amount." Erik handed over the wadded paper. "Hold it to your face and inhale. Just for a few seconds, though."

Alex breathed in deeply, for as long as he was able – more than a few seconds. Erik caught him as he collapsed to the ground, guiding his limp body into an uncomfortable airport chair. He paused to observe a moment of gratitude for the ridiculously outdated medicine cabinets that were scattered about the Xavier mansion, before returning the bottle of chloroform to his briefcase.


Alex regained a marginal sort of consciousness while they were still on the plane, enough to stagger through the Omaha airport following Erik's lead, but it wasn't until they had already obtained a rental car that he realized what had happened.

"You drugged me!"

"Actually, you drugged yourself."

"You lied! You said it was going to make my senses sharper."

"No, I said it was going to make my senses sharper. And it did. I assure you that I am much more alert than I would have been had I spent the last four hours dealing with you."

Alex crossed his arms and scowled.

"It's a two-and-a-half hour drive from the airport to Grand Island. Behave like a human being or I'll dose you again."

"Fuck you, fag."

Erik's teeth bared and his muscles tensed. For a brief moment, Alex was very aware that Erik was a murderer and that he could well be murdered, but then the moment passed and Erik contented himself with a snarl.

"We have a job to do here," said Erik. "We're going to do it."

"I will if you will."

"That's an idiotic threat. You're more invested in this than I am. He's your brother, not mine."

Alex had no response. He stared out the window, sullen.

"Now that we've sorted that out, you're going to tell me everything you know about your brother and about this place."

"His name is Scott. He's..." Alex's eyes rolled upward as he completed mental calculations, "nine years younger than me. He's got this real pansy-ass stutter."

"And?"

"And what? That's all I know about him. I talk to him, like, twice a year. Maybe three times."

"But you lived together at one point."

"Yeah, when he was a baby. I'm assuming he's a little different now."

"How old was he the last time you saw him?"

"Two or three."

"And that's when you were incarcerated?"

"Fuck, man! No! I was eleven, dumbass, I wasn't a criminal! I just got put in a foster home."

"And he stayed in the facility?"

"Right."

"It seems odd that they would find a home placement for an eleven-year-old but keep a two-year-old in an institution. Was there anything wrong with your brother?"

"No, man, he was normal. I mean, I think. They said it was something to do with their license or something, like how many kids they could have at what ages. I don't know. Kids got moved around all the time. You didn't argue."

"Tell me about the facility."

"It's called the Saint John Bosco Home for Wayward Boys. I mean, it was when I was there. They could have changed the name since then. It was run by these guys, priests I think." Alex shrugged. "I don't know much about it. I only lived there for a few months before I got moved out."

"Why were you there in the first place?"

"How's that relevant?"

Erik nodded. "Fair," he said. "Was the facility well-run? Do you remember anyone who seemed unusual or threatening?"

"Sure, lots of the kids there were there 'cause their parents couldn't handle them. Some of those kids were fucked up little bastards."

"I meant the staff."

"Oh...nah, not really. It wasn't a bad place. I mean, no one wanted to be there, but it's not like they beat us or starved us or anything. Most of the priests sang a lot. I remember that."

Erik raised one eyebrow.

"Don't ask me, man. I dunno why, but some of them were always fucking singing."

"This is relevant." Erik put the emphasis on is. "Are your parents living? Could he have gone looking for them or vice versa?"

"No."

"Any living relatives he might be out looking for?"

"Not that I know of. If we had relatives, I don't think we would have gone to the Bosco home and we ended up there pretty much right after our parents died."

Erik tightened his grip on the steering wheel, then gradually relaxed it. If Charles were here, he would have said something sympathetic with regard to the parents' deaths. His accent would make it sound very dignified and respectful. Erik couldn't think of anything to say. He settled for changing the topic. "Do you have a specific plan for what we're going to do when we get there?"

"Bust in and find him."

"Do you even know what he looks like?"

Alex looked embarrassed. "Not really, no."

"Well, then perhaps we should try a more subtle approach."


The ironically-named town of Grand Island was entirely landlocked, though it was near a system of rivers that branched and rejoined, creating a network of small islands. It was flat, cold, and bare. Side streets were lined with endless indistinguishable ranch houses and skeletal trees. Erik took stock of the storefronts as Alex offered uncertain directions to the Bosco Home for Wayward Boys.

It was different than Erik had expected. He had assumed something more institutional, more like a warehouse. Instead, what he saw looked more like a large house with two smaller houses attached, one on either side. As he parked the car, he asked, "Are you sure going right through the front door is the best idea?"

"People live here," said Alex. "It's not like we can wait for them to close up shop at five p.m."

"Your call."

They parked in the broad driveway, underneath an ice-coated basketball hoop, and walked slowly to the door, both men scanning their surroundings for any sign of something amiss. Erik noted that they had to ascend three steps to get to the front door; Charles had been right. As they entered, they saw a small boy, perhaps five years of age, scowling mightily as he sat on the steps.

"All right, Joey, that's ten minutes," a man's voice called. "You can go play now."

The boy clambered up the stairs using both hands and both feet.

"And who might you be?" said the man. He was dressed in plain black clothing with a cleric's collar as well as a nametag that identified him as Father Andrew.

Alex stuck out his hand and tilted his head, looking meek. "M'name is Alexander, Father. I lived here some time ago."

The man nodded encouragingly.

"Yeah, well. After I got out of here, I took to drinking and gambling a lot. Way too much. I know that was a bad idea, but well..." He trailed off, looking distant. "I'm on the right path now, though. I'm in Alcoholics Anonymous and this here's my sponsor, Erik." Erik nodded his head at the clergyman politely. "He and me was thinking it would help me be stronger, you know, if I understood where I come from, you know, the...uh...forces in my...um, development. I thought maybe I could come back here and..." He trailed off again, as though embarrassed.

Erik looked on, impressed. It was a strong performance: the pauses, the embarrassed looks, even the way Alex said the word 'development' like it was foreign, like he was quoting someone else's advice. Erik had initially found the plan dubious, but he had to admit, the priest looked convinced.

"I'm supposed to be your sponsor?" Erik looked skeptical. He had never heard of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Sure," said Alex, "it's a good excuse for you to be with me."

"I don't know anything about this organization."

"You don't have to be an expert. Just stand there and act all sponsorly."

"How do I do that?"

"I dunno. I think you're just supposed to be supportive."

Erik continued to look skeptical. A plan that required him to be supportive was not a good plan.

"Just...try not looking like you hate everything."

"I should smile?" Erik demonstrated.

"Ew, god no." Alex held his hands in front of his face as if to shield himself from the image. "That looks fucking creepy, man. Knock it off."

Erik thought back to Charles' favorite facial expression: warm, detached, with a hint of condescension and judgment. "How about this?"

"That'll do. Just don't talk much."

"Of course, of course," said the priest. "Let me get you some visitor tags."

"Aw, thanks." Alex flashed the priest a weak smile. "Hey, they didn't have these when I lived here."

"Um...yes, well..." Father Andrew shrugged helplessly.

Alex handed a visitor badge to Erik and then inspected his own. "I wonder when they started doing these," he said, voice betraying nothing but idle curiosity.

"I...um, well, couldn't tell you exactly."

As they walked down the hallway, leaving Father Andrew behind, Erik muttered, "That really was a masterful performance. You have a future in acting. Or adultery."


Chapter Text

Erik left for the airport very early in the morning, long before Charles woke up. Charles had initially thought he recalled Erik brushing a kiss goodbye against his forehead, but then realized that the Erik who kissed him had also bade him farewell in Latin. Not real then, just a dream. He went through his morning routine as quickly as he could, taking Erik's advice and opting for loafers – without Erik to retrieve fallen shoes, Charles could have spent all morning chasing after his Oxfords. He had goals for the day, most important among them, to catch up with Sean Cassidy. As of late, Sean had been spending much of his time training. In particular, Sean was with Erik almost any time that Charles wasn't, which by default meant that Charles and Sean almost never had the opportunity to interact one-on-one.

Several weeks prior, Charles had arranged for Lyle to begin teaching him how to fire a gun properly and he had another lesson scheduled for that morning. It was an opportunity to get to know Lyle, with whom he otherwise had nothing else in common. More importantly, it was a silent compromise with Erik. Long before their battle in Cuba, Charles had made his aversion to guns clear, but he had agreed to defend mutantkind with force if necessary, and in his current state, firearms were the only practical form of physical violence left to him. Besides, he told himself, he didn't have to shoot to kill. If he could save a life by shattering a kneecap, that would be a fair price, ethically speaking, wouldn't it?

When Hank had the twins read aloud from Gandhi, "I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent," Charles tried to focus on the differences between their situation and Gandhi's. The oppressed people of India were many, trying to awaken the conscience of a small number of British oppressors. In contrast, there were very few mutants versus the entire world. They could all be killed before a single conscience began to stir. Civil disobedience was a war of public opinion. The suffering innocents of India won sympathy. Would there ever be sympathy for an intellectually brilliant blue man-lion? Or for a man whose mutation gifted him with the ability to unilaterally deprive his fellow global citizens of their privacy and even their free will? Gandhi believed in relationships, in knowing people deeply and acting in harmony with them. How could there be human relationships if Charles brooked no dissent from his philosophy? How could there be harmony without compromise?

And then Charles would think, is this how a fool convinces himself of foolishness? Was this how he convinced himself to take the easy way out? And which way was the easy way again? At that point, he usually tried to stop thinking about the whole mess.

The first time Charles had fired a rifle under Lyle's tutelage, the recoil had caused his wheelchair to flip over backwards, sending him tumbling to land face down in the gravel driveway. At the time, he had felt indignant, enraged and humiliated. He was Charles fucking Xavier! He went up stairs two at a time! He could run a mile in a respectable six minutes! He could do four handsprings in a row before falling! Well, technically he hadn't done any handsprings at all since he was fifteen, but it had been theoretically possible, goddamnit. Alas though, there he was, falling over his own ass because the kinetic energy produced by a rifle blast exceeded the friction coefficient of the laughably weak brakes on his wheelchair. (It occurred to him that when he shot Erik, Erik must have stabilized his wheelchair. Erik must not have remembered to mention this fact. Erik really should have remembered to mention this fact.) He took some pride in his resolve, in the fact that he got right back up (so to speak) and spent the remainder of the lesson discussing the basics of aiming with Lyle before requesting that Hank devise a much stronger braking system.

And after a few days, he let himself laugh at the story right along with Lyle, because it really was funny. In a way, Charles rather appreciated Lyle's lack of social graces, just as he appreciated Erik's willingness to goad him when he was being pigheaded about his disability. Lyle and Erik stood in contrast to the other manor residents who were, in Charles' opinion, trying too hard to be sensitive to his feelings, like when Sean made sure that he only invited Alex to come running with him when they were out of Charles' earshot. As it happened, Sean's running was a secret pleasure for Charles. He would read Sean's mind as he sprinted around the grounds, feeling what it was like to live from one footfall to the next. He did this only rarely, only for running, and only to Sean, because he knew that if he had asked, Sean would have assented, though he never did ask.

A week after the disastrous first riflery lesson, Hank had attached the improved brakes – improved wheels as well, actually, because the standard wheels wouldn't hold up to increased braking force – and the problem hadn't since repeated itself. Hank had also offered up plans for using a system of hydraulic pistons to improve the brakes further. At that point, Charles had taken back his wheelchair before he ended up with rocket boosters.

Charles' morning lesson with Lyle was productive. Charles had a bad habit of anticipating recoil, preemptively angling the gun off to the right at the last moment. Lyle's advice, ill-mannered though it may have been, was helpful in correcting the problem. He was feeling satisfied and productive as he wheeled back indoors to hear Hank and Sean having another argument. Actually, it was the same argument they had run through at least a dozen times before.

Hank felt that President Kennedy wasn't doing nearly enough to support the Civil Rights movement.

Sean felt that President Kennedy was perfect and could do no wrong.

Hank felt that President Kennedy should withdraw American troops from Vietnam.

Sean felt that President Kennedy was perfect and could do no wrong.

Hank felt that President Kennedy's policies on Latin America were short-sighted and misguided.

Sean felt that President Kennedy was perfect and could do no wrong.

Charles wondered, privately, if perhaps Sean was over-identifying with Kennedy as a fellow Boston Irish Catholic, young and vigorous compared to his predecessor, Eisenhower. Charles himself admitted to finding Kennedy's speeches inspiring at times – the man was a skilled wordsmith – even while he found Kennedy's accent grating and follow-through lacking. Charles also wondered why Hank bothered to argue with Sean who, realistically speaking, rarely offered anything of substance. Oh, limited options. Right. He made a mental note to chat politics with Hank in the next few days.


Erik's most recent training goal for Sean had been development of the ability to take off from a standing position, or at least a run. Thus far, Sean had only been able to begin flying by falling from a height and catching the reflected sound waves before he hit the ground. Erik was pushing to see if Sean could launch himself up from the ground without relying on the initial speed he got from gravity. If Charles had been in charge of pursuing this goal, he would have invited Sean to take off from surfaces closer and closer to the ground until, gradually, he no longer relied on falling to initiate flight.

It went without saying that Erik's training methods were rather different.

The first time Erik had helped Sean develop his abilities, he had forced Sean to face a simple decision: flight or death. Attempting to replicate his prior success, Erik had drawn a pair of daggers and charged screaming at Sean from across a field. Sean had indeed screamed and risen a few feet from the ground before summarily falling on his ass, but he had never since been able to replicate the feat, with or without threat of grievous bodily harm.

Today, since Erik was in Nebraska with Alex, Sean trained alone. Charles looked out across the field as Sean uselessly squawked, screamed, and sang at the ground while intermittently flapping his arms, but after an hour of wasted effort, Sean switched to shooting imaginary bad guys with an imaginary gun, mimicking every terrible John Wayne western he had ever seen. It would have been silly, immature, if not for the fact that Charles was learning to shoot and he could see good form in Sean's pantomimed gunplay. "What are you teaching him, Erik?" whispered Charles.


"What...are you doing?" Charles raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the field of cereal-filled Dixie cups arrayed across the kitchen table.

Sean looked up and smiled. "Hey Professor! I'm just sorting Froot Loops."

"I suppose I had already figured that part out. What I meant was, why are you doing that?"

"Hank swears that they all taste the same, it's just food coloring, but I'm sure that the different colors taste different." Sean handed Charles a handful of yellow cereal bits. "C'mon, those taste like lemon, right?"

Charles looked from the cereal rings, then back to Sean. "Perhaps I'll remain neutral in this particular conflict." He nonetheless munched appreciatively and noted that they did taste just a little bit like lemon. A very little bit.

"Your choice, man, but you've got the opportunity to get on the winning side right now." He handed over another Dixie cup. "I can't figure out what the red ones taste like, but it's definitely different from yellow."

Charles thought the red ones tasted a bit like lemon as well. He gazed at Sean, still intently sorting. "How is your training going?"

"Good. Yours?" Sean fiddled apart a yellow piece that had been stuck in an orange loop, destroying both in the process. He ate the remains.

It wasn't like Sean to be terse. "Slow but steady. What have you learned?"

"Some specific stuff, but it's mostly about, like, attitude and how you think about stuff. Magneto says if you plan and you keep your head and you really want it, you'll win most of the time."

"I see." Charles couldn't quite think of the words for the question he wanted to ask. He decided to triangulate it, approach from a different angle. "Have you ever thought about what you want to do in life?"

"You mean like a job?" Charles nodded. "I dunno. I used to think I wanted to own a music store or work in one at least. But now, I mean..."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," he shrugged, as if the conclusion were obvious, "none of us are gonna live like normal people, so I don't really think about stuff like that anymore. We're not like them."

"You don't look physically different. I see no reason you couldn't go apply for a job at a music store right now."

"You don't? 'Cause I do, and it has nothing to do with how I look. There are people trying to kill us. I mean, even if I could take a fake name and blend in and everything, the rest of you would still be in danger. I've got to protect you guys."

"Why do you have to protect us?"

"Because I can."


Chapter Text

The corridors at the Saint John Bosco Home for Wayward Boys were decorated with miscellaneous Catholic iconography. Erik recognized most of the symbols from his travels in France and Latin America. He and Alex passed into a small cafeteria being cleaned by another priest and four unenthusiastic-looking boys. True to Alex's report, the priest was singing. Two of the boys were half-heartedly singing along; the other two were silent.

And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on

And when from death I'm free, I'll sing and joyful be.

Alex shuddered. "Creepy, man."

Erik agreed with the sentiment, but felt glad he wasn't the one to say it. He spied a hole in the drywall, about ten centimeters in diameter, a bit above waist-high. This more than anything he had seen thus far convinced him that the Bosco Home was not a particularly awful place. People didn't punch holes in walls because they were truly suffering. People punched holes in walls because they were moody, oversensitive adolescents who wanted to prove to themselves and others that they were suffering.

They shuffled past, saying nothing and drawing no reaction. Apparently, the residents were used to strangers coming and going during the day.

Alex pointed to a doorknob. "Lock," he said quietly; whispers drew attention, quiet voices did not.

Erik concentrated, sensed the bolt with his mind. Indoor locks were easy, no tumblers to manage. The door swung open to reveal a small office.

"Good, it's where I thought it was," said Alex.

The north wall consisted entirely of shelves. The lower shelves were full of more thick binders bearing labels like Certification, Utilities, and Inoculations. The top four shelves were divided into foot-wide blocks, each labeled with a child's name and photograph. Each block had a black binder, several manila folders, and loose papers. There was no block for Scott Summers.

Alex stared at the wall, feeling his heart loud in his chest. He hadn't really believed it before, but something was definitely wrong here.

Erik was busying himself unworking the locks on the filing cabinets which lined the opposite wall. He pulled out a random file and flipped through it. Evan Lewiston, enrolled on April 5, 1951, transferred to the custody of his aunt on July 9, 1951. These were boys who were no longer residents, who had aged out or otherwise moved on. He skipped two cabinets down, looking for the S's. No Scott Summers. No Alex Summers either. Maybe because Alex had only lived there a few months? But no, Evan Lewiston had a nice fat file and he had only lived there from April until July. He looked back at Alex, who was still staring at the north wall. "We need to move on," said Erik.

"Right," Alex nodded, "yeah." He reached down at the lower shelves and grabbed a binder labeled Budget, Fall 1962 – Summer 1963. "Let's take this. Money doesn't lie."

"I'll think we'll look a bit conspicuous carrying it around," replied Erik, keeping his voice calm.

Alex grabbed the wire basket that was being used as an inbox. He emptied it out onto the desk, put the binder in it, and handed it to Erik. He opened the small side window. "Float it out the window. We'll pick it up from the outside when we're leaving."


They returned back by the same corridor and ascended the stairway to the second floor, where the children obviously lived. The walls were still decorated with religious devotionals, but they now alternated with sports pennants, unrecognizable crayon drawings, and posters of sports cars. They passed a room painted in pale green. Four teenagers were tossing a football back and forth, listening to a game on the radio. They were apparently all rooting for the same team because they cheered and booed in unison.

"Keep moving," hissed Alex. "We won't get anything out of them."

Erik followed. Alex seemed confident of the terrain.

They passed a room with yet another priest reviewing some sort of schoolwork with two preadolescents, before Alex turned and entered a bright blue room filled with low tables, art supplies, books, and jigsaw puzzles. There was only one boy inside, a thin redhead who couldn't have been more than seven years old. He was slowly turning all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle right-side-up.

Alex smiled brightly at the boy and sat down in one of the undersized chairs. "Hi," he said, "I'm Mr. Alex and this is Mr. Erik. We need your help. Can you help us?"

The boy nodded, untroubled.

"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"Yeah. A sister."

"Aw," said Alex, "I bet you miss her."

The boy nodded.

"I have a brother. His name is Scott. I wonder if you've ever met him."

The boy's eyes widened and he shook his head stiffly. Little children were terrible liars.

"I'm worried about my brother," said Alex. "He's very sick, did you know that? He has a really awful disease and he has to take medicine for it every day. If he doesn't get his medicine, oh it's just really bad, his fingers and toes will start falling off, then his ears and his nose and his tongue, and then he'll die. So I need to find my brother, because when he left, he didn't take his medicine with him. If I don't find him, he's going to die."

The child looked ready to wet himself. "I dunno, I'm not supposed-" he whispered.

Alex looked at the boy, as solemn as could be. "If you don't help me find my brother and he dies, he's gonna turn into a ghost and haunt you for the rest of your life. A ghost with no fingers and no toes and no ears and no nose and no tongue." Alex cast a meaningful glance at Erik, who took the hint and fixed the boy with the most terrifying, dead-eyed glare he could manage.

The boy began to sniffle. "I don't want Scott to die! But we're not supposed to talk about it." Tears were welling in his eyes.

The child was getting loud. Erik decided to steer the conversation to calmer territory, confident that the boy's fear of digitless ghosts would persist. "Would you like to see a magic trick? My friend Mr. Alex has some magic powers. He can lift this table right off the ground, without even touching it. Do you want to see that?"

The boy nodded. Alex made some elaborate gestures and voila, the table rose.

"Did Mr. Alex's brother have magic powers too?"

The boy shook his head. "He didn't move any tables."

"Did he ever do anything strange?"

"Sure. He t-t-talked like th-th-this." Alex scowled. He was allowed to make fun of his brother. That didn't mean idiot first graders were allowed to.

"I mean," said Erik, "did he ever do anything that might be a different kind of magic? It might not have looked like moving a table. It might be something else."

"I dunno. The older boys said he blowed up bleachers or something, so maybe that was magic. I dunno. I didn't see it. We're not supposed to talk about it."

Alex leaned in close to the boy. "Where is my brother?" he asked.

"I dunno." The child looked ready to cry in earnest. "He went in the white car. Make him not haunt me."

"Tell me about the car."

"There was this guy and he put Scott in the car. I saw him, he was wearing a blindfold."

"The guy, or Scott?"

"Scott. That's all I know about it."

"When did all of this happen?"

"I dunno."

"Was it after Christmas?" The boy nodded. "How about after Valentine's day?" He nodded again. "How about Mardi Gras?" He shook his head. "Okay," said Alex, "so sometime between Valentine's Day and two weeks ago. Fuck."

"You said a cuss word."

Erik grabbed a piece of paper and the sharpest colored pencil on the table. "Did you see the man? The man who took Scott?"

The boy nodded.

"Tell me everything you remember about his face."


They left the child with a promise to throw in a good word for him with the ghost community and fled the building, stopping only to retrieve the budget records which were hovering just outside the window. Erik steered the car into the parking lot of a run-down motel.

"Wait, why are we stopping!" Alex sounded panicked.

"Because there are no flights back to New York until morning."

"We have to go after them! This guy," he held up Erik's sketch, "this guy took my brother!"

"That man took your brother weeks ago. We have no idea where he went. We're not going to find him by charging off in a random direction."

"Fuck you, man! You don't know what they could be doing to him! We can't just wait around!"

Erik made what he felt was an extraordinary effort to speak in a comforting tone. "Alex. I appreciate the danger your brother faces. I have spent my life hunting people. I promise you that I will do everything in my power to bring him back. You need to understand that sometimes that means moving forward and sometimes that means going in another direction to find information, but we will find him."

"You don't know that. You can't know that." Alex was taking only short, shallow breaths.

"Trust me."

Alex growled, "Why should I trust you? You killed Raven." The words were in rhythm, not run together, but each word seemed to follow the previous one as if they were links in a chain. As soon as the words were out, Alex's eyes and mouth grew wide and round, shocked at his own boldness. No one talked about Raven, not in front of Erik or Charles at least, and when the younger students did talk about her amongst themselves, they still avoided saying her name. It was like a curse or a spell. And Alex had broken it.

"Everybody pretends it was Shaw," continued Alex, face hot and voice wild, "but when I ran in there, she was stabbed through the heart with a big piece of steel and that sounds a lot more like your MO. So if everybody wants to pretend everything is okay, fuck them and fuck you. I'm sure you got some fancy-ass excuse that you told to Charles so he could overlook the fact that you murdered his sister, but I don't fucking care. Blood matters. She was his sister. And you killed her."

"Yes, I did." Erik's face was blank and his voice was flat.

Alex couldn't find his anger. He had spat it at Erik just a moment ago, but now it was gone. Now he just felt low: sad for Raven and afraid for his brother. "Why'd you do it, man?" he asked. "She never did nothing to you, not to any of us."

Erik still showed no expression. He said, "Do you see what you're doing right now? You're controlling yourself to achieve a higher goal, not letting your emotions run the show. You hate me, but you know I can be useful, so you're not going to kill me and you're not going to run away. You've got your priorities straight." Erik took a long, slow, deep breath. "Raven's death was an accident," he said, "but it was a preventable one. She died because I didn't keep my priorities straight."


Chapter Text

"H-hello? Is anyb- Is anybody h-here?" The boy reaches up to his face, to the band of cloth wrapped tightly over his eyes.

"Don't touch it!" shouts a man.

Scott didn't know there was anyone else here. This is the first voice he has heard since he got here. "Okay," he says, "okay. Where are- where are w-w-we?"

No response.

"Who are you?"

No response.

"Can I g-g-get some wa- some some water, p-please?"

There is still no response, so Scott goes back to the one thing he knows will get a response. He lifts his right arm to touch the blindfold, but before his fingers can even brush the cloth, a large, calloused hand closes around his wrist and pulls him forward. His arm brushes between things that are cold and solid and smell like rust. Jail bars. The hand keeps pulling until he stumbles into the bars. Since he cannot see them coming, he doesn't use his free hand to absorb the shock. Another hand grabs his left wrist and joins it to his right. He can hear something tear and feels something sticky and tight binding his wrists together. They are stuck together on the other side of the bars, held away from his body. He sinks to the floor and sits cross-legged. It is cold and rough.

Still, no one is speaking.


"Stand up."

Erik stands.

"Lie down."

Erik lies face down in the snow.

"Stand up."

Erik stands.

"Lie down."

Erik lies face down in the snow.

"Stand up."

Erik stands.

"That's much better, Erik," says Schmitt. "You know I don't want you to be an automaton. You know I want you to think for yourself. We can disagree. But we must be civilized when we disagree. Can we agree to that, Erik?"

"Yes, Herr Schmitt." Erik's clothes are not thick and he has no coat. He slowly clenches and relaxes his muscles to suppress his urge to shiver.

"Breaking my machines is not civilized. A beast destroys, a man builds, a god creates."

Erik nods.

Schmitt stands close to him. Erik can feel his breath. "Which are you? Are you a beast, a man, or a god?"

Erik knows there is only one acceptable answer. "I am a god."

"That's right." Schmitt smiles, a hollow parody of warmth. "And I believe it is time for you to begin creating."


Scott's arms are beginning to hurt. There is no comfortable way to hold them. He tries to prop them on his knees, but the angle is wrong.

"I wo- I won't t-t-touch it. Can you unt-t-tie my hands p-ple-p-please?"

There is no response.


They are indoors. Erik knows he is not forgiven because he is still wearing his wet, cold clothes and the spot where Herr Schmitt has directed him to stand is far from the heater. He is not sure what punishment this is, but anything is better than going out into the camps – Schmitt always made sure that he had to walk past or toward or into horror. He sometimes feels that he has two pairs of eyes: his now eyes that see the present moment and his dead eyes that see the same things over and over, all the time, whether awake or asleep.

Herr Schmitt is sitting at his desk, writing something. Erik knows better than to interrupt. This is a lesson too, of a sort. He picks two numbers – 497 and 2359 – and he sets about multiplying them together. Each step is easy; the difficult part is holding each step in his mind while he performs the others. If he forgets a part of the product, he will have to begin again. He can't be distracted by things like cold or dread.

Herr Schmitt is still writing. All of the snow on Erik's clothes and hair has melted. His hair is stringy and sticks to his skin in cold, narrow triangles. His nose is running. He ignores it. He is a god and he thinks that destruction can be the province of a god. He is Shiva. He is Sekhmet. He is the Angel of Death. He is a flood and a pillar of flame.


"I'm sorry!" cries Scott. "It was an-an accid-d-dent! I didn't...I didn't...didn't m-mean to!" It really was an accident, he thinks. They can't put you in jail for an accident, can they? Don't you get a lawyer?


Erik concentrates his mind and his body on the iron poker which lies next to the fireplace. It is bigger than the things he usually moves, and farther as well. He is a god, so he can do this. If he can do this, he is a god. He feels the hot thing creep up his back and spread into his eyes and his arms. He breathes it and it warms his weak lungs. He is in this room and not outside in the camps because he is strong. He is in this room and not ruling the world because he is weak. He sees the room through his dead eyes.

The poker flies to his waiting hands. He leaps across the room and swings it at Schmitt's flank. He connects, but does no damage. For a moment there are two Schmitts, then four, then six, then four, then two, then there is just one and that is terrible enough.

"Excellent!" cries Schmitt.


Scott pulls his arms back through the bars of the cell until his bound wrists are touching the bar. He tries to twist so that he can get his teeth on the tape. He can feel a thin string hanging from it, so probably duct tape. Maybe if he shoves his right arm out through the bars and back in? He tries it and it hurts. It's bending his shoulder too far, but he can just nip at the tape with his front teeth. He gnaws at it as quickly as he can, spitting out the dirt and gravel that is stuck to any open bit of tape.

Suddenly there is a voice. Not shouting, just speaking. "Scott Summers, I presume." Is this irony? There are hands on his and he can hear the tape unsticking. "I don't think this is necessary. You won't touch your blindfold, will you?"

Scott shakes his head.


"I'm so proud of you, Erik," whispers Schmitt. "I'm going to give you a gift."

Schmitt hands him the paper he was writing on. It is a list of names, of SS men. Schmitt hands him the poker. "You can pick any one you like. They're just humans. They're not like us."

Erik scans the list. These are men he knows. These are his guards. These are men he hates. He cannot stop himself from looking up at Schmitt in surprise and confusion and gratitude and guilt.

Schmitt raises his brow sympathetically. "Try not to enjoy it too much. They can't help being cruel. It's their nature. They're just animals."

Erik points to the name Eckart Waechter, a spiteful, sadistic man, and Schmitt smiles. "You have good taste," he says, as if Erik has just selected a fine wine. He speaks into the phone. Moments later, Waechter enters the room.

Erik enjoys it very much.


Scott scrambles to the back wall, as far from the bars as possible.

"H-hello?" he calls to the man who freed his hands. "Is...is anybody th-th-there?"

There is no answer.


Chapter Text

Charles looked at the drawing. Where their witness had been unclear, Erik had lightly sketched several possibilities one right over the other, resulting in a sort of hazy composite sketch. The face looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it. Alex was pacing back and forth. Erik looked blank, unreadable. Charles heard a low growl and turned his head to see Hank staring down at the sketch, eyes narrowed.

"That's William Stryker!" said Hank. "That's the guy that took your brother?"

"Yeah, that's him. His name's Stryker?" Alex was speaking very quickly. He had the manner of a shaken soda can ready to burst.

Hank shook his head, but he said "Yes, he's, um, he's one of the military brass."

"Yes," said Charles, snapping his fingers. "I remember him now."

Hank shook his head again. "He's...um, well..." Although Hank was naturally shy, reticence looked unnatural on his new, powerful form.

"Tell me what you know about him, goddamnit." Alex looked as though he were about to grow claws himself.

"Alex, sit down." Erik pushed him down into a chair by the shoulder.

"I don't know his rank, but he's high up. He's...sometimes the military guys would go to the R&D sector where I worked with an idea for something they wanted built or they wanted to see if it was feasible. You know, like a radio-controlled low-earth-orbit camera or something. But Stryker, he had these ideas that were just...unconscionable. Like, could we develop a poison that he could put in a water supply so that everyone who drank the water would be permanently sterilized? Or, could we damage someone's brain so they would be completely unable to sleep?"

"Where is he normally stationed?" asked Erik, speaking before Alex could get a word in.

"Fort Benning," said Hank. "It's in Georgia, I've been there a couple of times to set up satellite relays."

"So that's where we go next." Alex's legs were bouncing, like he was trying to run in place while sitting down.

"But this guy's crazy, Hank said so," said Sean. "This can't be official military business, to go around kidnapping kids."

"I didn't say he was crazy," replied Hank. "I said he's evil. I think he's very much in control of his faculties."

Erik inhaled sharply. "I think going to the base is a logical next step. If Stryker isn't there, we might find clues to where he is." He pulled out his wallet and handed Sean several bills. "Alex, I want you and Sean to go to military surplus stores and buy several sets of fatigues. I want knives, too, if you can get them without being conspicuous. Hank, I want you to draw maps of everything you remember about the base. Where each building is, what's inside of it, anything you remember about the security systems. Understood?"

They nodded.

"Go," he said.

They went.


It was understandable, Charles thought, that they should look to Erik for leadership. It was a time of war (sort of). Whereas Charles was a scholar, Erik was a warrior (sort of). Nonetheless, he felt conflicted. On the one hand, he was proud of his friend, pleased to see Erik use his intensity to lead and join, but on the other hand, it was worrisome. Erik's brain was a sort of minefield. Certain things set him off and many of these things were strange and unpredictable even to Charles, who felt he knew Erik better than anyone else. There was no need for telepathy, or even interpersonal insight, however, to guess that Erik might be powerfully affected by the thought of a young mutant held captive and possibly mistreated. Erik as he was currently made a fine leader, but Erik when they got to the military base might not be.

Charles peered down into the open briefcase. "Erik," he asked, "why did you bring chloroform to Nebraska?"

Erik was looking at an atlas. "You're coming with us to Georgia," he said.

"That didn't at all answer my question."

"It wasn't meant to."

Charles opened his mouth as if to speak, then decided to let the matter go.

"I don't think we should fly. I'm the only one with fake identification documents and flying forces us to leave a paper trail."

"So you're going to drive to Georgia? How long will that take?"

"About eighteen hours. If we leave first thing in the morning, we'll be able to enter the base at night."

"I take it you have a plan?"

"Plan is a strong word." Erik smirked.

"How is Alex holding up?"

"Better than expected. He didn't start any fires."

"We set the bar rather low, don't we?" said Charles.

Erik gave a short laugh.

"How are you holding up?"

"Charles, we're not going to play this game right now." Erik turned back to look him in the eye. "I haven't forgotten our oath."

Charles nodded reluctantly. "So what's the plan?"

Erik closed the atlas. "Well, the specifics depend on Hank's maps, but generally, I think the idea is that Sean, Alex, and I will go onto the base. You're going to be a few miles away, shielding us from being noticed. Hank will stay with you in case you need defense."

"Who's going to stay here with the kids?"

Erik shrugged. This had not entered into his plan. "They're what, twelve? They'll be fine for a few days. And there's Lyle."

"They're eleven. Hank can stay here. I'm fairly proficient with a rifle now."

Erik tilted his head to the side. "As I understand it, Charles, you can sometimes hit a two-foot wide stationary target at thirty meters. That's not proficient." He paused. "If you want to leave Hank here, we could bring Petra."

"We're not bringing Petra."

"She wouldn't be in combat. Her field would slow any humans down, giving you time to do your thing." Erik tapped a finger to his temple to indicate telepathy.

"She can't understand what's at stake so she can't truly consent to participate."

"It's her war too, whether she knows it or not."

"It's exploitative. We're not bringing Petra." Charles sighed. "We'll bring Hank. Lyle can watch the twins." He looked at Erik. "Which is what you wanted in the first place. Because Hank has been on the base before."

"I assumed you could relay information back and forth between us and him."

"I can. In fact, it might be best if I relay amongst all of you. If you don't speak and you walk softly, I only have to block vision, not hearing."

"And it lets you keep a hold on my mind."

"Don't be paranoid, Erik, it doesn't suit you."

"Can you make Alex start not-speaking before the eighteen-hour car trip?"

"That's what the chloroform was for, wasn't it?" Erik's grin was an admission of guilt. "Please be kind to him, Erik. He may not look like it, but he's genuinely frightened."

"Believe me," said Erik. "I have been extraordinarily tolerant."


Charles and Erik lay in bed, Erik too excited to sleep, Charles too nervous.

"Is Sean really ready for this?"

Erik scoffed. "He's fine. He's hungry for it," he added, sounding almost fond.

Charles did not necessarily believe that enthusiasm for paramilitary operations was a trait to be celebrated, but he held his tongue. He was doing that an awful lot lately.

"Are you ready for this, Charles?"

"Hm?"

"We're not going to go in there and slaughter people, but we are going to defend ourselves. I need to know you're not going to interfere."

"You understand that, even if taking the boy was an officially sanctioned action, most of the men on that base don't even know about it."

"I'm fine with that. The plan is stealth. But I believe in backup plans."

"I'm not going to take over your mind, Erik. We agree on the goal. The priority is getting the boy back."

Erik said nothing.

"Erik, understand, I wish I believed in hell so I could be confident that Stryker would burn forever, but-"

"I'm not going to murder anyone." Erik interrupted, sounding annoyed. "I'll keep my word."

Charles reached across the bed and took Erik's hand, even though it tensed. This was not often permitted. "I know you are a man of honor." He traced small circles with his thumb. "You needn't worry, Erik. I'll keep my word as well."

Erik exhaled slowly and softly. He curled his fingers downward until they just made contact with the back of Charles' hand. Then he removed his hand and rolled onto his side, facing away. "Good night," he said.

"Good night," echoed Charles. "Go to sleep, Erik."

Erik slept.

Charles did not.


Chapter Text

Erik's talent for chess could be more generally understood as a talent for planning. He took count of their abilities, their resources, and their limitations. The biggest limitation in their plan was Charles, not because he was a weak link, but because Erik's plan called for him to use his powers over a larger group of people for a longer period of time than he had ever done before. Charles was confident, but Erik was pragmatic and he made adjustments so Charles could avoid using his powers any more than was necessary. Thus, everyone started the trip in plain clothes, not fatigues, so that Charles wouldn't have to adjust any memories if they were pulled over. They hung curtains up in the van so Charles wouldn't have to distract any passing cars from noticing Hank. And Erik ultimately opted against Charles linking everyone to everyone. It was too much work connecting too many minds. Charles would keep a link open to Erik's mind. They would relay messages back and forth if Sean, Alex, or Hank had something to add.

Strangely, for all of Erik's planning, he had apparently failed to fully consider the implications of an eighteen-hour car trip. He had plotted a route (as well as multiple back-up routes to be used as needed) and had figured out how much gas they would require, but certain practicalities had escaped his notice. Practicalities like the radio. Or the fact that the five men (or four men and one anthropomorphized lion, if one wished to be technical) were about to spend eighteen hours stuck in a thirty square foot box while they became increasingly nervous and excited about their mission.

"Oooh, Simon and Garfunkel," crowed Sean, "turn it up!"

"Driver controls the radio," answered Erik. "No argument." Erik was taking the first shift driving. By his plan, he, Alex, and Sean would switch out every three to four hours. This let everyone, with the exception of Charles, switch seats every few hours. This had been Charles' suggestion; he felt it would make everyone a little less intolerable to one another.

"Oooh, Simon and Garfunkel," mimicked Alex, "let's put that on and watch our balls shrivel up like raisins."

"You mean grapes," said Hank. "Once they're raisins, they've already shriveled."

Charles turned to look at Erik. "Tell me you brought the chloroform."


"So I've been thinking, we should really focus more on our calling cards," said Sean.

"I completely agree," said Hank. "Except, oh wait, this isn't 1820 and we're not debutantes."

"No, I mean we already have calling cards. Like, if the government goes someplace and they see a lot of shattered glass, that's me, and if a lot of stuff is burnt, that's Havok, and if all the metal stuff is twisted and pulled out of the walls and stuff, that's Magneto. That's our calling cards."

Hank raised his brow skeptically, still toying with Sean. "And you're suggesting we switch over to cardstock? Perhaps calligraphy?"

"No, I mean we should do a campaign of misinformation." Sean appeared completely undeterred by Hank's mocking. "It worked for the Soviet Union," he added.

"First of all," said Charles, "I'm fairly certain it doesn't work for the Soviet Union and second of all, why don't you just tell us your specific idea?"

"It's just, the government knows a lot about us. Or at least they think they do. So let's try to give them some false leads. Make them think we have different powers than we do, or that there are other mutants involved, or that it's not really powers, just high-tech weapons or something."

"That's...actually a good idea," said Hank.

"You don't have to sound so surprised," said Sean, but he was grinning.

"Did you have any specifics in mind?" asked Charles.

"Not really, except I was thinking that since I can only fly with the wings, why not let them think that it's the wings that let me fly, not my powers? Like I could wear a fake jetpack or something. But I don't think we can really do anything about that right now."

"No jetpacks, they're not actually feasible given physical laws as we know them," said Hank, "but the biggest display of power they saw was Erik raising the submarine. Maybe we could leave behind pieces of an electromagnet, hint that he just used technology to accomplish it."

"Umm, here's a question," said Alex, "do we have pieces of an electromagnet?"

"That's the beauty of it," said Sean, "it doesn't have to be real, because they'll think that we just have more advanced technology than they do."

Hank shifted his nose to the left, to the right, then back to center. "An electromagnet is actually very simple. At its heart, it's just a big coil of wire around a metal core. If we just left bits of wire lying around, it would be a good start."

"Ok, next gas station we stop at, I'll steal all of the flashlights."

"Or, Mr. Summers," intoned Charles, "you could purchase all of the flashlights."

Alex shrugged. "Whatever."

Sean got an excited look on his face and almost raised his hand as if he were a schoolchild. "Ooh, I got another one. We could pour gasoline everywhere. Then Alex looks like an arsonist, not a mutant."

"Can't I be both?" asked Alex. Everyone ignored him.

"What about the idea of simulating other powers?" asked Hank. "Could we make them think they're dealing with someone else? Or at least that they've got to prepare for all of these other mutants." He turned to Charles. "What are some of the other mutant powers out there?"

"Some would be very hard to simulate, like disrupting gravity. Others primarily affect appearance." Charles paused. "The reality is, we just don't know very much about it."

"Then they don't know much about it either," said Sean, "so let's just make shit up. We could draw a door on the wall like Wyle-E-Coyote and pretend that's how we got in. Or knock people out and color on their faces with permanent marker. Or leave behind a bucket of mice."

"What the fuck would the mice accomplish?" Alex was losing tolerance for this conversation.

"I dunno. Like what if that was your power, that you could just generate infinite mice? And you have to carry them in something, so why not a bucket?"

"I feel," said Charles, as tactfully as possible, "that we should focus on the first batch of ideas, for the present moment."


It was Alex's first shift driving. The noise of the road and the engine made it difficult for the passengers in the back seat to hear Charles and the driver unless they shouted.

"Alex," said Charles, "did you ever tell your brother you were incarcerated?"

"Why does that matter?"

"Well, we normally tease you about it. I would say that Mr. Cassidy makes a comment to that effect every other day. If you would prefer, we could certainly knock it off for a little while."

"Nah, he knew where I was calling from." Alex steered with his knees while he picked at something in his teeth. "He doesn't know why I was in jail, though." Alex sounded distant. "Didn't think it was the sort of thing you tell a little kid."

"Your secret's safe with me," said Charles solemnly. "And for Chrissakes, Alex, keep at least one hand on the wheel!"


Erik sat next to Sean in the far back seat. "I haven't heard you say your prayer all day."

"Yeah," said Sean, "I don't do that anymore."

"Why not?"

"It doesn't work."

"Good reason."


They stopped at a fast-food joint to pick up lunch. Erik had initially planned on walking in alone to get everyone's orders.

Alex had objected. "Me and Sean should come too. If it's just you, you're obviously getting food for everyone in the car and somebody might look to see who's out there. If it's the three of us, we're just three guys with big appetites."

Waiting in the van, Hank turned to Charles with a mostly-joking look. Mostly. "Welcome to the kids' table," he said.


"Don't worry, man," said Sean, "I'm sure your brother is gonna be okay."

"Fuck you, cocksucker!" yelled Alex. "You don't fucking know that! You're always bragging about your family with your mom and your dad and all your hundreds of brothers and sisters. Well, guess what? I've got one person. One. I've got one fucking brother and I'm gonna be really fucking pissed if he's dead!"

"I'm...I'm sorry, man. I..."

"Never mind, man. I didn't mean that."


"Does anyone want to hear a story?" asked Hank.

Charles responded, "Certainly," before anyone had a chance to demur.

"All right, it's called The Highwayman." Hank took a deep breath and began, "The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees / The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas," and he proceeded to recite the entire piece from memory.

"That was...actually kind of cool," said Alex.

"I enjoyed that, thank you," said Erik.

"What did I miss? What did I miss?" From the driver's seat, Sean could hear very little.


Erik held up a knife. It was iron the whole way through, hilt and blade, and very sharp on both the sides and the point. "Banshee," he said, "this weapon has never tasted blood." Erik lay his palm flat and levitated the knife across the small van. "So if you use it, make it count."


"Maybe we should have disguises," said Sean. "You know, as part of the campaign of misinformation."

"I think it's a bit late for that," said Hank. "Besides, isn't Charles just going to disguise you all as nothing?"

"Right, but what if we looked different underneath that? Just in case the illusion doesn't work." Sean turned. "No offense, Professor."

"None taken."

Hank scratched his head behind his ear. "Well, we don't have any makeup or supplies, so our options are limited."

"We could shave our heads," suggested Sean.

"No," said Erik flatly.

"It's not a bad idea," said Hank evenly. "People look very different without hair."

"No one is shaving heads," said Erik, in a voice that brooked no argument. There was a faint tremor building in his right arm.

"Not for this mission, Sean," said Charles, hoping to end the conversation before Erik got worked up, "but it was a good idea. Keep thinking."

This was the sort of thing Charles worried about. One could say, in retrospect, that it was obvious that Erik would be sensitive about the idea of having his head shaved. All of the prisoners in the camp did. It was dehumanizing, anonymizing, and it was a memory paired with many others. But the trick was, plenty of things didn't set Erik off. Erik had asked Charles once if he could borrow a shirt and he had grabbed the top one in the dresser drawer. The shirt he grabbed happened to be a black-and-white striped rugby shirt that very much resembled the clothing the Auschwitz prisoners were forced to wear. There had been no reaction whatsoever. As far as Charles could tell, Erik had been completely unaffected by the shirt, but the idea of shaving his head clearly bothered him.


"Once this is taken care of," said Erik, "our first priority should be reconstructing Cerebro and the Blackbird. Things like this are going to just keep coming up and we should be able to address them far more quickly."

"You'll hear no argument from me," said Charles. "The problem is labor. With our powers, we can manage certain aspects of the construction without heavy machinery, but there are many aspects that just require a lot of manpower. I can't keep an illusion over an entire construction crew for weeks or months on end."

"Hm," answered Erik. "What about day laborers?"

Charles said, "Well-"

Sean interrupted, "No, what about hippies?"

Everyone turned to look at him with stares that could generously be described as 'hesitant.'

"No seriously," he continued, "they like to move from place to place so nobody will see the whole plan of what they're building. Each one only does a small part. And they do a lot of hallucinogenic drugs, so if they catch a glimpse of something they shouldn't, they'll just think it's a trip. And, best of all, nobody listens to anything they say. It's perfect!"


Alex stared at the road ahead. "You know I don't even know what he looks like?"

"Scott?"

"Yeah." Alex began to stretch with both arms, then regrasped the wheel with a faux-guilty look. "Hey, how did your parents die?"

The question seemed like a non sequitur, but Charles could see the connection. Or at least he could see that there was a connection, and that was close enough. "My father died of radiation poisoning and my mother died of liver failure. I also had a step-father who died when a horse kicked him in the head."

"Whoa."

"Yeah, hell of a way to go, but the doctors said he died instantly, so I suppose there are worse ways to die."

"I'm pretty sure Scott doesn't remember our parents. He was only two when they died." Alex fiddled with the radio dial and finally settled on a blues station. "I've been a really shitty brother. Once I turned eighteen, if I had stayed out of jail, I could've adopted him. Instead I didn't even visit him and he was missing for weeks and I didn't even notice."

"I can tell that you genuinely care about him. You're just not sure where to go from there."

"I don't even like him. He's an asshole."

"He's fourteen. Everyone's an asshole at fourteen."


Chapter Text

"I don't sense Stryker at all."

"What about Scott?" asked Alex. "Is he there?"

"I can't tell. There are a lot of minds there and I don't know what I'm looking for." It would be easier if he knew more about the boy he was searching for, but there was no point in mentioning this and making Alex feel any guiltier than he already did. Charles turned around toward the back of the van. "Hank, if you'll hand me the maps, I can cross out buildings that you don't need to search."

"We're about twenty minutes out," said Erik. "You guys should change into fatigues."

Don't look, thought Erik teasingly.

On my honor, Charles thought back. Now it's a joke. Hilarious.

Charles resumed scanning the base. There was definitely no Stryker; that was a very rare mind. There were thousands of people on the base, though, many of them very young men. He could pick out a five-year-old from a crowd of adults, but the difference between fourteen and eighteen wasn't nearly as stark. Their thoughts were mostly mundane: What is this? Is this ham? I think it's supposed to be ham. / No mail again? Damnit. / God my shoulders hurt. Wish the sunburn would just peel already. A few thoughts were more distinctive – What do you mean you're pregnant? / Don't look. Well, don't let them catch you looking. No, don't look! / Please God, I want to go home. – but none seemed relevant.

Then, Sh-sh-shut the fuck up. Was that the boy? No, stutterers don't stutter in their thoughts, only when they speak. He focused on the mind. It was a guard, a soldier mocking the boy's speech impediment. Wet concrete, smells moldy. A voice, "Let- let me g-g-go! Please-s-s-s. You're, you're hurting m-m-me!" He made the soldier turn his head, not to the voice, but to his surroundings. The windows were high and light came into them at a steep angle. A basement, then. There were no placards, no nameplates. The light coming in from the window flickered. Charles studied the light carefully. This is what you're looking for, he thought to Erik, a light the flickers like this. It's outside the building where they're keeping the boy.


They moved in a triangle, Erik at the lead with Sean and Alex side-by-side behind him.

"Switch places with each other," said Erik.

"Why?"

"Because your energy blasts pull to the right and I'd rather not be in their path."

"Don't push me, man," said Alex, even as he obediently traded places with Sean.

"Anyone else think this is really weird?" asked Sean. Plenty of the soldiers were in their bunks for the night, but plenty weren't. The soldiers they passed looked through them as if they weren't there. As far as these soldiers were concerned, they left no footprints, made no sound. Sean ducked to the left as a man in camouflage pants and a tank top attempted to pass a clipboard directly through his torso. Charles had told them not to touch anyone; much harder to hide.


Charles had long since dropped his casual two-fingers-to-the temple gesture. He instead pressed all four fingers on each eyelid; his thumbs dug into his chin.

He whispered to himself, "Drop Walker, pick up Louis. Pick up Hannault. There's nothing there. Leftover leaves from the winter. Drop Hannault. That's the wind. Worry about your wife. She misses you. Pick up Marcus. Pick up Jack. Pick up Roper. Erik, please be careful. Marcus, you're tired, very tired, should turn in early."

Hank watched in silence, knew better than to interrupt. He was here purely as muscle. He knew his role.


Erik turned to the left.

Where are you going? The child is somewhere to the South,thought Charles.


According to Hank's map, there is an office building one hundred yards off. I want to know what Stryker is up to and where he is.


I can't keep the blocks up forever, Erik.

The building was mostly dark, but there were still lights on in some of the windows, people working late. Erik waved his hand over the front door lock and it yielded easily. Apparently the military brass relied too heavily on the security of the fort itself.

"What are we doing?" hissed Alex. "Charles said to look for a building with a broken light outside of it."

Erik ignored him.

"Why don't I go find my brother while you do your little crazy bullshit?"

Sean shook his head. "We can't split up. There would be too many minds for the Professor to block."

Erik crept down the hallway and they followed him. Sean kept his hand on the hilt of his knife. A man in a suit walked past, oblivious to them. They turned a corner and Erik stopped at a heavy steel door. The nameplate on the wall read Gen. Stryker.

Don't rip the door out, Erik. I can't cover for that.thought Charles.

Erik manipulated the lock and he thought he was successful, but the door refused to open.

"It's a voice reader," said Alex pointing to a small white box next to the door frame. "I mean, that's what it is in spy movies."

"Voice, eh?" Erik stepped back. "Your show, Banshee."

Sean did not look confident, but he gamely stepped forward and leaned toward the small device. He let out a whistle which sounded like several whistles at once. The box began to emit smoke and sparks but the door opened.

Erik smirked and shrugged. "Close enough."

The office was spartan and utilitarian, but it was hardly bare. Most surfaces were covered with stacks of files and papers, rolled up maps, and partially-redacted documents.

"How are we ever going to find what we need in here?" asked Sean.

Erik was already pawing through desk drawers. "Are you going to gawk or are you going to help?"

"This is ridiculous, man," said Alex. "We're wasting time here." He turned to the door.

"I can get out of here without Charles' help. Can you rescue your brother without Charles?" Seeing that Alex was about to argue that maybe he could do it, Erik added, "It only takes one bullet to bring you down."

Alex growled, but he knew he was defeated.

"Now help search," said Erik.

As they rummaged through the stacks of papers, Erik was occasionally interrupted by Charles pushing him to move on. We can come back for this. Please, Erik, people keep walking past outside and I have to block their minds. I can't distract so many people for much longer.

Finally, Sean emerged from a stack holding a yellow mailing envelope. "The pages in here say Jason Stryker, but the military guy is William Stryker, right?"

Yes, that's his son, thought Charles. That might be useful. Please, Erik, take it and go. Please.

Erik breathed deeply and noticed quite suddenly that his right arm was trembling. How long had it been doing that? He hadn't hunted in months. It was like a drug: the smallest taste drew him back in. He nodded more to himself than anyone else. "Take that. Let's head south."


Charles' breathing was shallow. His muscles ached. He felt has though he had run miles and miles. The occasional tingling sensation he felt in his right thigh had multiplied; it was electric and distracting. He was beginning to drop minds by accident, which meant he then had to control the mind before it did anything, then he had to alter the memory, all of which was far more work than simply maintaining an illusion. He was vaguely aware that Hank had placed an opened can of cola and a turkey sandwich in front of him, but hunger and thirst seemed impossible, seemed like sensations that belonged to bodies, whereas he was just a mind. A very tired mind.

"Pick up Travers. McMillan, that's too far, can't go there. Drop Travers. No, wait, fuck, pick up Travers. You're tired, you need sleep, didn't see that. You really smoke too much grass. You're trippin'. Where's McMillan? Good, you're hungry. Pick up Aston. Pick up Jacob. Missed Kevin. Go to sleep." He is vaguely aware that Kevin is going to be punished for sleeping when he was supposed to be on patrol, but he's too tired to care.

Hank stood like a sentinel. He wished he could make out the status of the operation from Charles' mumblings, but he only heard an endless stream of names and commands.


They crept past a row of identical buildings, watching the lampposts carefully.

"There," said Alex, pointing. "That one just flickered."

Erik thought about the angle of the light in the image Charles had shared with him. It would have to be the nearer building then, not the one across the footpath. They ran to the door, past a soldier who briefly looked up in recognition before collapsing to the ground, asleep. The shuffled quietly the rest of the way – Charles could keep people from waking up, but not if he was tired enough that their illusion was crumbling.

The lock was more complicated than the one on the office building and after a few seconds of metal manipulation, Erik simply popped the entire locking mechanism out of the door. The sleeping soldier on the ground kept him mindful of the time pressure. Had they wasted too much time searching Stryker's office?

As Erik pried the door open, he saw four soldiers frozen in place; apparently this was easier than holding them under illusion, or maybe easier than modifying their memories to erase something they heard before Charles could put the illusion in place. They ran past the soldiers, looking for a stairwell. The building wasn't large. They just had to get down to the basement, search the basement, find the kid, and get out. They still had time for that.

They clipped down the stairs to find another pair of frozen soldiers. The basement was not as well-kept as the rest of the building. The ceiling, walls, and floor were all concrete and moisture from spring run-off dripped down the walls. Erik spied broken syringes on the floor. Strength, whispered Charles, You're the strongest man I know. Serenity is your strength right now. There was nothing to indicate what might be found down the right or left corridors, but the building seemed to be arranged in a square. Erik picked left and took off down the hall.

There were jail cells lining the walls. One cell held a soldier with a black eye who reeked of booze. Empty, empty, empty, then a cell with a child curled up in the farthest back corner. There were more syringes littered on the ground. Erik made himself ignore them. A frozen soldier stood just outside the cell, gun aimed and ready.

While Erik manipulated the lock, Alex reached through the bars. "Scott?" he cried, abandoning any pretense of machismo or indifference. "Scott, is that you? It's me, it's Alex!"

The boy rose slowly. In the dim lighting, they could see that he was thin, though not emaciated. He was small for his age; he obviously hadn't hit his growth spurt yet. As he walked slowly forward, he seemed to be leaning on the wall for support, but once he limped into the faint light from the streetlight outside, it became obvious he was using the wall for guidance. A thick black blindfold was wrapped tightly around his face. He wore a dingy undershirt and khaki pants. The right leg of the pants was torn off between the knee and the thigh; the left was intact. His feet were bare.

Alex wrinkled his nose at his brother. "God, you reek."

"Alex! Quit being such-" Sean smacked Alex on the arm, but then he smelled it, too. It wasn't body odor. It wasn't bad breath or feces or urine or vomit. It smelled powerfully like rotting food.

The lock opened and Erik stepped into the cell. He saw the child in front of him, but only distantly, as if he were a character in a story book. The boy would move faster if he could see. Erik reached for the blindfold.

"NO!" screamed Scott, scrambling backward. "Don't touch it! Please, don't touch it!"

In the panic of the moment, Alex alone noticed that Scott had spoken without stuttering.


You have to hurry, Erik. I can't-

"We have to move," said Erik. He looked down at the boy. He wouldn't be able to move at any speed while he was blind. "I'm going to carry you. We're taking you away from this place." He put his arm behind Scott's knees and lifted him. Alex walked beside him as they stepped out of the cell and started down the hall; Sean followed behind.


"Freeze. Pick up. Hold. Freeze." Charles seemed to be gasping for breath in between each word. "And you, and you. Freeze. Wait, where did-"


They all heard the click as the now-unfrozen soldier behind them readied his gun.

Sean whirled around, full of instinct and determination. In one motion, he drew his dagger and sliced deep against the man's throat.


"Oh Sean," said Charles, but he knew he had no time to consider what had just happened. He had to keep track of all the other frozen soldiers.


Sean never knew there was this much blood in a person's body. It sprayed on all of them, but Sean, being closest, got the most. It was on his face, it was in his hair, it was soaking into his clothes.

"Wh-what was that?" Scott reached to wipe the droplets from his neck.

"It was nothing," said Erik. "We have to leave now."

They fled in silence, dodging between living statues until they could creep into the shadows. They only had to walk two miles from the base to the van, but it seemed much farther.


It was a testament to Hank's strength of character, his ability to focus on what mattered, that he didn't ask about the blood, or the delay, or Scott Summers' appearance. He simply held out his arms to take the child from Erik, who climbed into the driver's seat. Hank sniffed the air, then sniffed the boy's face. "His wound is infected."

"I don't think we can take him to a hospital," said Alex. "There would be a lot of questions. And he won't let anyone touch the blindfold."

"The wound needs to be cleaned, preferably in the next twelve hours, but at a minimum we should start him on broad-spectrum antibiotics. We should be able to find what we need if we break into a regular pharmacy." Hank focused on the needs of the situation. Theft was acceptable to prevent serious illness or death.

"Get in the van," said Erik. "We can look for a pharmacy, but not until we're at least a hundred kilometers away from this place." He turned to look at Charles who was slumped over in the passenger's seat.

Hank helped Scott into the van's middle seat before climbing into the back next to Sean. Alex sat next to his brother and as the van began to roll toward the road, Scott burst into a dozen questions at once.

"Where am- and wh-who is the? And-d-d..." He gulped air. "F-f-furry? And I...it-it was an acci-accident."

Alex put his arm around his brother and drew him close. "Just relax for now. I'm here. You're gonna be okay."

They found a pharmacy and took their entire supply of chloramphenicol, leaving behind two hundred dollars cash and an apologetic note.

They found a motel and Erik rented three rooms.


"I...I knew, I knew you'd come," said Scott. "I knew you'd c-come for me."

Sure, thought Alex. I barely even noticed you were missing. I almost decided not to say anything to Charles. You sure put your faith in the right person. "Knock that off. Quit talking like a little kid. You're fourteen. Act like it."

"I'm...I'm...th-thirteen."

"Goddamnit. I thought your birthday was in January."

"Oct-t-tober."

"Fuck it. Just shut up and go to sleep."


There was a step from the parking lot to the walkway which ran along the row of doors, and another step from the walkway into the room. Charles could be woken, Erik had determined, but he remained drowsy and fell right back asleep. Erik decided not to bother with the wheelchair. He carried his friend into the shabby room and lay him on the bed. After a beat, he removed Charles' shoes, too.

Once he turned off the lights and locked the door, Erik stripped off his shirt. He realized that whenever he wasn't carrying someone, his arm was trembling. There hadn't been any king-sized beds available; he had been forced to settle for a queen. Though there was still plenty of room, he couldn't bring himself to climb onto the bed. It seemed very wrong. The floor was closer, but it was carpet. He curled up on the tiles in the bathroom. That was better.


Hank stirred around 2 a.m. Drowsy, he thought of getting a drink of water, but no, he could hear the shower going. Maybe later, he thought, and he rolled over, trying to find a comfortable position on the bed. He was nearly asleep before it occurred to him that no one should be in the shower. He looked at the bed across from his own. It was empty, covers still arrayed neatly.

Hank padded softly across the room to knock on the bathroom door. "Sean?"

No answer.

"Sean? You there?"

Hank thought he could hear someone singing Simon and Garfunkel very softly under the roar of the shower, but maybe he was imagining it.

"Sean, just say something to let me know you're alive in there."

The singing paused. "I just want to be alone for a while." The singing resumed.

Hank went back to bed.

Sean stared at the water as it ran down the drain. He knew it had been hours since any actual blood had washed down the drain, but the water still looked pink to him.

It was compromise, not perfection.


Chapter Text

Erik awoke on the bathroom floor before dawn, less than two hours after he had finally fallen asleep. It occurred to him that he had become overly reliant on Charles' presence and mind tricks to sleep; he felt irritated with himself for becoming dependent on someone else for something so basic. He put on his shirt and shoes and walked out to the van to get Charles' wheelchair, knowing that Charles hated to be separated from it. He said he felt trapped without it, knowing that he couldn't move away. Erik had pointed out that a single stair or narrow doorway could have the exact same effect, but Charles had simply shrugged and reiterated his view, so Erik indulged his friend's neurosis.

He returned to the room to find Charles awkwardly pulling himself up to a sitting position using the bed's creaky headboard.

"Go back to sleep," said Erik. "You don't have to get up for a few hours."

"Is everyone safe?" asked Charles. He still sounded slightly out of breath.

"Yes. Sean and Hank are in the next room and Alex and Scott are in the room just past that."

Charles held out his hand. "Stay here," he said. "I can't feel you when you're too far away."

Erik sighed, but obediently sunk down to the floor beside the bed. He really didn't have anything else he needed to do at this hour.

"You don't have to sit on the floor, you know."

"I...I don't..." Erik could think of no words to explain why the bed seemed wrong because he did not himself know the reason. Nor could he explain why he wanted very much to return to the bathroom's tiled floor.

As if answering his thought (and perhaps he was), Charles repeated, "Stay here," and more ambiguously, "Stay now." His eyelids dangled low on his eyes. Although the color had returned to his face, his clothes were still soaked through with sweat, as were the bed sheets

Erik awoke again with the sunrise, his back stiff from leaning against the bedframe. He looked up at Charles who was sitting up in bed, fully awake.

"Good morning." Charles offered a half-smile.

"How are you feeling?"

"Much better. And how are you?"

"Uncomfortable."

"My apologies. I was too exhausted to think of a better solution."

"Solution to what?"

"Erik, you were sleeping on the bathroom floor."

Erik shrugged and shook his head. "Yeah, I don't know why I did that. Just tired, I suppose."

"I suspect you were a little unclear on when and where you were." Charles glanced at the clock. "What time do you want to be on the road?"

"Seven. Seven-thirty at the latest. We still won't get back to Westchester before midnight."

"What kind of condition is the boy in?"

"He's got some puncture wounds on his arms and leg. The leg punctures were made with a large-bore needle. Some bruising on the arms and legs, light though. He's wearing a blindfold and it smells like rotting meat. Hank thought there was a wound under there that's infected, but the kid wouldn't let us remove the blindfold to take a look. Hank said he would be all right until morning if we got him some antibiotics, so add another felony to your checklist, but now we really do need to clean out the injury site."

"Was he able to tell you anything about what happened?"

"Between the stutter and being scared shitless, I decided we wouldn't get much out of him until morning. Hand-holding is your job anyway."

"I don't recall agreeing to that division of labor."

"Sure, I get things off of high shelves, you patiently interview and unmask frightened children."

"I seem to recall that you conducted the most recent frightened-child interview."

"It doesn't count if I'm the one to frighten the child."

Charles leaned forward to peer through the open bathroom door. It was tiny; there was no way he would be able to use his wheelchair. (How had Erik slept in there?) It was humiliating, needing to be carried, but he had made some peace with the situation – it was a small sacrifice if it meant they could carry out an important mission like this. Charles dug through his satchel and withdrew his catheter kit.

"I take it you want the bathroom first," said Erik.

"Well, I'm going to put this rubber tube up somebody's dick. I suppose we could flip a coin."

"You win."


Scott was still dressed just as he had been the night before. He was sitting on the bed nearest the door, tapping his fingers against his leg. Alex, in contrast, had stripped down to his boxers and was glaring from the far bed in protest at being woken up.

"Good morning, Scott," said Charles.

Scott looked toward Charles' voice, then turned back toward Alex looking for an explanation, or at least confirmation that this new voice was from a known person.

"If you hear a faggoty accent, that's Charles. You didn't meet him last night because he was passed out." Alex rolled over in a last-ditch effort to go back to sleep. "He passes out a lot, but he's usually drunk first."

"Alex, it is 6:30 in the morning and already you're not helping," hissed Charles, making a mental note to cause Alex suffering in the near future. He turned his attention back to Scott. "Erik Lensherr is here as well. You met him last night."

Scott nodded. "H-hi."

"I would like to answer some of your questions, but first we need to deal with your blindfold," said Charles. He could smell the rotting odor Erik had described.

Scott's arms immediately wrapped around his head. "Y-you...you...you c-can't t-t-t-touch it. Please."

Charles raised his hands, surrender-style, though he realized that they boy couldn't see his gestures. "I'm not going to. Not without your permission. All I want right now is for you to tell me why it is so important that no one touch it."

"It...k-k-keeps...it keeps mmm...my eyes sh-shut."

"That makes sense. What happens if you open your eyes?"

Scott shook his head. He turned his head to the side as if looking at Alex, then turned back toward Charles and Erik. "Are...are you g-guys gonna take me back home?"

"You mean the boys' home in Nebraska?"

"Uh-huh."

"I don't think that would be a good idea," said Charles.

"The bastards sold you out, man," added Alex. Having resigned himself to wakefulness, he was now seated cross-legged on his bed with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

"D-don't sw-swear."

"Now you see why I don't like him?" Alex shrugged helplessly.

"Your brother lives with myself and Erik at a house in New York along with a half-dozen others. We want you to come live there. Everyone living there is like you."

"They all...they all k-killed people?" whispered Scott.

"Ah." Charles furrowed his brow. The pieces were falling together. "Is that what happens when you open your eyes?"

Scott nodded. With his eyes and brow covered, it was very difficult to read his facial expressions. "When I look at people, they...they d-die. There were, there were these k-kids pickin' on m-mmme. And I got this awful h-headache, but st-strange because it felt like something moving, like ants in my-my head. And then I...I looked at one, looked at one of them and he smashed into the wall and he died. And I looked, I looked at the other one and he got k-kind of d-dr-dragged on the ground. You could see, could s-see his b-brain. Everybody was screaming, so I t-t-t-turned around and that's when the bleachers, the b-bleachers collapsed."

Charles was silent for nearly a minute as he considered how to respond. He looked across the room at Alex, whose gaze was fixed on the floor. "Scott," said Charles "have you ever heard the term mens rea?"

"No."

"It's a legal term. It refers to the intent to commit a crime. In the U.S. legal system, to be found guilty of a crime, they have to prove both that you committed the act and that you intended to commit the act. You didn't know that your eyes would have that effect, so you couldn't have intended it."

"Is that h-how it happened for, for everybody at your house?"

"Well," said Charles, in a measured voice, "what everyone at our home has in common is that we are all mutants. We all have extraordinary abilities." He paused. "Some of the people who live there have taken a life, some haven't, but it's not any sort of prison. People are free to come and go as they please."

"Oh."

"Scott, can you feel your eyelids, feel those muscles?"

"Yeah."

"Could you keep your eyes shut for a few minutes without the blindfold?"

"Wh-what if I s-sn-s-sneeze or someth-thing?"

"None of us will sit in front of you, so if you do open your eyes, no one will be hurt."

"There's always some-someone in front, if you...if you go f-far enough."

"What if you look straight up?"

"That...that could work."

"Okay. Just lay down flat on the bed with your head hanging off the end. It looks like it's really stuck on there, so we're going to soften it up with water before taking it off."

As Charles tried to loosen the dried serum and pus, he tried to chat amiably with the boy. "So Scott, what do you like to do for fun?"

"Read."

"What's your favorite book?"

"P-p-puppet M-mmm-mmmaa," he paused and seemed to gasp for breath without any air going in or out. "Masters."

"Easy for you to say," quipped Charles. He was rewarded with a thin smile. "That's Heinlein, isn't it?"

"Yeah. D-don't know how it ends."

Of course. Maybe books were not a good topic of conversation.

"So," said Erik, "you want to hear some embarrassing stories about your brother?"

"Hey!" yelped Alex in protest. Charles mouthed payback's a bitch. Perhaps out of a sense of fairness, but more likely because he was too sleepy to put up much of a fight, Alex resigned himself to glowering at Erik.

"Apparently," continued Erik, "Alex thought this one police officer was a prostitute."

Scott laughed, but Charles could see his cheeks growing red. No need to scandalize the boy. "All right, I think this is ready to come off," he said. "Normally, it would sting a bit, like ripping off a Band-Aid, but as it happens, my extraordinary ability is telepathy. I can read minds and I can speak to them. With your permission, I can block any pain signals from your face to your brain. Is that all right with you?"

Scott was still for a moment, apparently considering the offer. He nodded.

"Well, let's give this a try, then. Alex, could you please bring us all of the towels and washcloths?" Charles held out his hand and said, "Erik?" He was handed a thin-bladed knife, which he used to cut through the hopelessly matted knot at the back of the boy's head. He began to peel back the cloth from the left side first, where it was looser. There was a thick layer of crusted serum, dried blood, and pus lining the ocular orbit, with streaks of green and black. This would probably need to be re-drained by someone who knew what they were doing, he thought. The odor was much stronger now that the injury site was uncovered. Using one wet washcloth after another, he removed the as much as he could, but there remained thick scabbing over the eyelid which he didn't want to disrupt. He was no doctor; he didn't want to accidentally make things worse. The scab looked strange, as if abnormally thick eyelashes had formed scaffolding. He pulled the blindfold further to expose the right eye. This time there was no sign of infection and the blindfold took much of the detritus with it. The right eyelid was clearly visible underneath.

Charles' mouth fell open in a silent gasp. He was briefly grateful that Scott could not see his reaction, but then Erik growled audibly and Alex said, "Oh fuck, man, what did they do to you?"

"I-I d-...I don'...wh-what is it?"

"It appears," said Charles as calmly as he was able, "that your captors sewed your eyes shut."

Scott's brow furrowed. "Oh," he said, with no particular feeling.

"We're going to fix this, but we're going to leave it for someone who knows what they're doing. I'm not a physician."

Scott nodded.

"Now," said Charles as he cut a long, thin strip from a bath towel. "Keeping the injury site covered is a good idea, so why don't you put this on and we'll meet you outside in about twenty minutes."


"Calm yourself, Erik."

"I'm calm."

"No, you're not."

"I am going to kiss you."

Where the hell did that come from? thought Charles.

Erik threaded his fingers through Charles' hair then gripped tightly and pulled Charles' head upward. Erik leaned forward, eyes shut, and kissed Charles greedily, his tongue pushing and reaching. It was not a comfortable kiss, nor was it pleasant, romantic, or kind, nor even awkward.

Erik released Charles, stood, and opened his eyes. "I'm going to go start the van," he said. There was no particular emotion in his face or his voice.


The drive back to New York was much quieter than the drive down to Georgia. The passengers mostly stared out the window or slept. At one point, Sean tried to light up, but Scott began to sniff the air around him and said in a shocked and scandalized voice, "Is...is th-that a m-m-m-m-marijuana cigarette?"

Alex shook his head with a mix of disgust and exasperation. He pointed to his brother and said by way of explanation, "He's what you would get if Porky Pig fucked a boy scout."

"Don't be such an ass, Alex," said Sean. "I'll put it out, Scott."


Eventually Alex took a turn driving.

"You could be a little nicer," said Charles.

"He's my brother, not a three-legged kitten."

"You don't have to act like a completely different person, but it seems that now would be a good time to tone down the obnoxious side of your personality and instead you seem to be turning it up."

Alex made a skeptical, non-committal noise. After fifty miles of silence, he said, "You think I should tell him about why I was in jail?"

"I don't know."

"I thought you knew this stuff."

"You know what I know, which is that he feels quite badly about what happened." Charles sighed. "I suppose you might want to think about how you would have felt if someone had told you that." He paused, then added, "Whether you tell him how your powers manifested or not, I do think that it might be good for him to hear that they seemed uncontrollable at first, but you've since learned to harness them."

"Yeah, glad I wasn't stuck being blind until I got it worked out."

"I have a suggestion for you, if you do decide to tell him. I think that when you look back on what happened, you think of it as a series of tough-guy stories, like those were fights that you won. I strongly suspect you felt differently at the time. You might want to think about which perspective would be more helpful for your brother to hear."


It did not escape Erik or Charles' notice that Sean barely spoke during the long trip home.

"You should probably talk to him," said Erik.

"No."

"Hm?"

"No. Clean up your own messes."

"It was a clean kill. That man would have killed one of us if Sean hadn't taken him down."

"And that never would have been necessary if you had stuck with the plan."


The next morning, Erik found Sean slouching and sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unused room. "You're not like me," said Erik.

"Oh, um, hey," Sean straightened quickly, looking like a schoolboy who just got caught sleeping in class. "Training isn't until eleven, right?"

Erik nodded slowly. He leaned on the door frame. "Sean, I was thirteen years old the first time I intentionally killed someone. Do you think it ate me up? Do you think I cried myself to sleep? Do you think I spent hours upon hours crushed under the weight of it?" Erik shook his head. "No. I laughed. I felt great. I wanted to keep his teeth for trophies."

Sean gulped.

"We're very different, you and I," said Erik as he turned to leave. "Take comfort in that fact."

"Wait," said Sean. "Why did you kill that guy, the first guy you killed on purpose?"

"Because I hated him. And because I could."

Sean nodded slowly. "I'll see you at eleven."


"Are you happy now?" Erik raised an eyebrow.

"I think you sold yourself short, morally speaking," answered Charles. "There was an element of self-defense when you killed that man."

"I knew he would be replaced with another, just as bad."

"Then why did you kill him?"

"Because I hated him. And because I could."


Chapter Text

When the group had returned to the mansion the prior night, only Lyle had been awake to greet them. His face and neck had been awash with hundreds of fly wings, all beating frantically in different directions, but he had nonetheless offered them reheated pizza and remarked on how similar the Summers brothers looked. Less helpfully, he had shouted, "Sweet holy mother of fuck!" when they had removed the towel from Scott's eyes to replace it with sterile gauze. Charles had noticed a shy smile from Scott when Alex snapped back, "What are you talking about? You look like fresh roadkill!"

As everyone had staggered off to bed, Charles provided Scott with a mental map of the mansion. It wasn't enough to let him navigate with confidence, but it was a start. Then the boy had asked about the rules of the house, so Charles made up a few on the spot ("Don't touch anything in Hank's lab without permission," "Try not to startle anyone," and "Make your bed every morning.") in the hopes that a little structure would be reassuring. By the time Alex led his brother upstairs and Charles wheeled himself to his room, Charles had completely lost track of Erik. He scanned the area while he unworked his shoes. Ah. Erik was on the grounds. Well, that probably wasn't a good thing, but it could wait until morning.

Before he fell asleep, Charles had thought to himself, "I'm going to see if I can do something about that stutter." Then he heard the echo, the little voice chuckle, This sounds like one of those plans of yours that ends very badly.


Erik had returned to the mansion by the morning and Charles could feel that his mind was not calm, but his face was and his voice was. They discussed the evidence, the plan, with cool logic.

"We do have to address the sutures soon," said Charles. "I've been reading the minds of opthamologists on the matter, but since none of them have ever seen a case like that, I essentially have to guess based on their previous experience. I think the main concern is that the stitches could be irritating the eye and damaging it."

Erik nodded. "How long have they been in?"

"Scott thinks he was taken on February 20th and was given some kind of general anesthetic, but he doesn't know how long he was out for. The assumption is that they did it as soon as they got him."

"What else was he able to tell you?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. They weren't going out of their way to share information with him and he was blindfolded the whole time. He confirmed what we suspected, that were definitely syringes used, but he doesn't even know if they were injecting a drug or removing a tissue sample. He described some other procedures, what sounds like an electrocardiograph, electroencephalograph, and lumbar puncture." Charles rested his chin on his hand. "Those are normal medical tests you would give to someone who was ill in order to diagnose them. It doesn't make sense."

"Maybe he's trying to replicate the blasts, create a weapon that does the same thing."

"They're powerful, yes, but based on Scott's description, not necessarily any more powerful than, say, a bazooka or an Uzi. The military already has plenty of weapons that can cause destruction on that scale, so..."

Erik nodded and completed Charles' thought, "So, a new weapon might be a small advantage, but probably not worth the risk."

"Exactly."

Erik opened his briefcase and pulled out the envelope they had retrieved from Stryker's office. He could almost hear Charles saying, 'Well, let's see if this was worth it.' He pulled out the stack of papers, divided it in two, and held one half up in each hand. "Left or right?"

"Left," said Charles, taking a cluster that started with a series of triplicate forms.

They each read intently, not speaking. Charles took notes on a yellow legal pad, but he wrote very little. After some time, they traded halves. Erik asked Charles his opinion, grasping at straws, hoping that Charles had seen something he hadn't..

"It's medical records Erik, for a perfectly healthy nine-year-old boy."

"What about the...ah..." Erik thumbed through a series of laboratory mimeographs, "vitamin D levels? It says slightly low."

"That just means he doesn't play outside much."

"Why give all of these tests to a perfectly healthy kid?"

Charles shrugged. "Maybe his father is a bit over-protective. Maybe he was exposed to a serious disease and they wanted to ensure that he didn't contract it. Maybe he's just not living up to expectations and they're searching for a medical reason why."

"These are the same tests he gave Scott."

"Hmm," said Charles. "That is curious."

"How did you know Jason was his son?"

"When I met him at the CIA headquarters, I was trying to convince him that telepathy was real and I briefly scanned his mind for something to shock him with. I grabbed the first emotionally salient stimulus I could find, which was his son's name."

"And that's all you know about the son?"

"I know that the father feels quite ambivalent about the boy, fearful, protective, disgusted, worried, etcetera, etcetera. And for some reason, I know that Jason Stryker likes grape popsicles, but I doubt that's relevant."

"Why be fearful of a nine-year-old?"

"I found those feelings somehow in relation to the boy. It doesn't necessarily mean he fears his son. Maybe he fears that his son will be injured or killed, maybe he fears that his son won't be happy or successful, or maybe he's having an affair and the boy saw and he fears his son will reveal his secret. It could be anything."

"There was a psychiatric exam in there. Why would they take a normal child to a psychiatrist?"

"The psych exam found nothing wrong."

"Nothing at all. The boy was perfectly normal in every way on every test the psychologist gave. Doesn't that seem odd?"

"No, that seems normal. Erik, I'm sorry but this information simply isn't useful. It doesn't mean we're going to give up on Stryker."

"But now we have no idea what he's doing or why."


Scott could hear the pop-hiss of a can being opened. "Tha-that's beer."

"No, it's unicorn piss." Alex sat on the curb outside of the convenience store.

"You c-can't op-pen that here. There's g-gotta be an open c-c-c-container ordinance."

"See, this is why no one likes you."

Scott said nothing, just idly tapped his fingers against his leg.

"Okay, see when somebody messes with you, you don't just sit there all quiet-like, you mess with them right back."

"I'd...I'd rather n-not."

"It's not optional. It's part of being a guy. Now give it a try."

"Um...you're ugly."

Alex smacked himself in the forehead. "You don't even know what I look like, dipshit."

"Yes, I do."

"No, you don't. Quit lying."

"I d-do, though. I got your p-p-picture." Scott furrowed his brow. "Well, well not anymore, I-I guess."

"Where'd you get my picture?"

"Father J-James gave it to me. From your f-file."

And you probably saved that stupid picture like it was goddamn gold. Fuck you, kid. Alex crushed his beer can and tossed it in the grass. "Whatever. Get in the car."


Three nights had passed and Erik still had not returned to Charles' bed. Erik spoke to him in casual greeting, or when there was a practical matter to discuss. It was clear he wasn't sleeping. His face looked increasingly drawn. His reactions were slowed.

Erik met daily with Hank to begin construction of the Blackbird II. His job was to shape the body out of a single, flawless piece of steel; Hank was convinced this would pay dividends in aerodynamics and structural integrity. The work was slow and exhausting, because Hank's demands were exact and Erik found himself distracted by footsteps and breezes.

Four nights had passed and Erik still had not returned to Charles' bed. Erik found himself wondering about the tensile strength of human skin and how much metal he would have to embed in his body to be able to fly without external support.

Five nights had passed and Erik still had not returned to Charles' bed. Awake was not quite awake and he took a blow from Sean while they were sparring that he normally would have dodged with ease.

Six nights had passed and Erik still had not returned to Charles' bed. Erik sketched the face of every soldier he recalled from the basement prison at Fort Benning.

Seven nights had passed and Erik still had not returned to Charles' bed. Charles broke before Erik did because Charles would always break before Erik did. Charles wheeled himself into the library where Erik was playing himself in chess, badly.

"I don't know why you're doing this, Erik. What is it you want?"

Erik said the only thing that made sense to him. "I want to set the world on fire," he said with the sincerity and confidence of a man who does not quite know what he himself means.

"Sentiments like that," said Charles. "This is why people are afraid of you."

"The humans should be afraid of me. This William Stryker?" He said the name as if it were a revolting species of worm. "He should be afraid of me."

"I'm not just talking about humans. You realize that only..." Charles shifted his gaze back and forth as he tabulated, "two of the mutants living here do not fear you."

Erik's gaze narrowed. It wasn't so much the case that he thought this was untrue as it was that he had never considered it. Yes, he had threatened Alex from time to time, because "tough guy" was Alex's native language and sometimes the only way to fully convince him that a demand was serious, but he had never threatened any of the others. Two, he thought. "You and Sean, then?"

Charles gave a slight, sad laugh and shook his head. "Two strikes," he said.

"Since when do you use baseball slang?"

Charles shrugged.

"Petra."

"That one's correct. You've never offended her personally and I don't think she perceives enough of the world beyond her immediate environment for anything else to matter."

"Lyle?"

"You're grasping at straws. Why does this matter to you?"

Erik was silent for a moment. Then he said, softly, "You're afraid of me?"

Charles spoke slowly, taking the question very seriously. "Yes, Erik, I am."

"I wouldn't hurt you." A quiet blend of conviction and desperation.

"I believe that you...truly believe that." Charles looked over at his friend, trying to decipher the expression on Erik's face. Erik's brow was knitted tightly and his mouth hung slightly open, eyes gazing intensely at an empty spot a few inches from his face. "And I believe there exists a part of you for whom that is true, but you're a man in pieces, Erik and some of those pieces are very determined, very ruthless, very...uncontrolled."

"I wouldn't hurt you," he repeated.

"Erik," said Charles quietly, sadly, "what do you call grabbing me by my hair and shoving your tongue down my throat? What do you call disappearing for weeks and weeks when I most needed a friend?" He sighed softly, then began to speak in a steady, distant rhythm. "What do you call...I know that Raven's death was an accident. In my mind I know that, but in my heart...I just try not to think about it because whenever I think about it, I-" He pressed his thumb and forefinger against his closed eyelids. "Erik, there is something in you, something dark. It was an accident, yes, but if she, or if I, had come between you and Shaw..." He paused, took a slow, silent breath. "The outcome would have been the same, and it wouldn't have been an accident. That's the truth, is it not?"

Erik was silent for many moments before he said, "Yes, that's true."

"And it kills me, it kills me that I brought her into this, that I helped to create that risk, not by agreeing to murder Shaw, but by agreeing to make it slow, to make him suffer. If it had been quick, she never would have...Erik, I hear her talking to me. Every day I hear her and I almost, almost believe it's real, so I just can't think about her, hear about her, talk about her because when I do, her voice gets a little louder."

"I never meant to hurt her, Charles. I never meant to hurt you." Erik's eyes were red, though no tears fell.

"I know, my friend. I know."

Erik cupped his hands as if holding something precious. "This is all I know, all I've ever known. This is all that I am."

Charles took the other man's hands in his own. "No, Erik, it's not."


They lay in bed, not touching, but only a few inches apart.

"Who was the second person?"

"Scott."

Erik grinned and rolled onto his side to face Charles. "No, who was it?"

"Scott Summers, on my honor." Charles put his hand over his heart, as if making a pledge. "He has – quite rightly – learned to take the things his brother says with a grain of salt. So while Alex has warned him quite extensively about you, Scott thinks it's all hyperbole."

"That's...that's...amusing, actually." Erik lightly runs his fingers over Charles' chest, barely making contact.

"I quite agree."

Erik lay his head on Charles' chest. "It's nice," he said, "to hear your heart beat."

After many comfortable moments, Charles spoke. "I would like to share a memory with you. My happiest. In return for the very bright memory you shared with me."

Erik drew his head back and nodded.

Charles touched his fingers to his temple.

A young man, or perhaps an older teen, walks down the lane dragging a wheeled footlocker behind him. He holds the footlocker handle in his right hand; with his left, he carries a small suitcase. A few steps behind him is a young teen, or perhaps an older child, who is using both hands to drag a similar footlocker with considerably more difficulty.

"Just a little further," Charles says. "It's on this block."

Most of the building numbers are shadowed because it is late at night, but enough edifices are clearly labeled that Charles can find his way by counting. He drags his trunk up the steps and digs in his pocket for the key. "This is it," he says, breathless with effort and excitement.

Raven is several yards behind, struggling with her trunk, somewhat less enthused than her brother, but the lock clicks and she leaves her trunk on the sidewalk to run inside. Charles smiles indulgently and retrieves it as she calls, "I get the big bedroom!"

"Like hell you do!" he shouts back.

As Charles is dragging their things through the entranceway, Raven emerges from the back rooms. "I thought you said there was going to be beds already."

"There's not?"

Raven shakes her head.

"Well," he says, as he digs through his trunk, draws out a sweatshirt, and balls it up for a pillow, "I suppose we'll just have to rough it for the night."

As Raven puts on her pajamas, Charles removes his most prized possession from his trunk: his very own record player. Objectively speaking, not the best use of packing space, but it is his trunk and his apartment, damnit. He puts on a record and bows gallantly to Raven, extending his hand in invitation. "May I have this dance, milady?"

She takes his hand as Tom Lehrer begins to describe his love of poisoning pigeons. The song is a waltz and it is just as clear that Charles knows how to waltz as it is that Raven does not, so the dance quickly becomes silly and disorganized. It is clear that they both know the song well, because by the end, they are alternating lines with faux-dramatic gesture and flair.

"My pulse keeps a-quickinin' with each drop of strychnine,"

"We feed to a pigeon!"

"It just takes a smidgeon!"

They sing together for the last line, "To poison a pigeon in the park!"

They are exhausted and they are silly and they collapse on the bare floor, ready to sleep with crumpled clothes for pillows and blankets. Charles sniffles.

"All right, all right," says Raven, "you can have the big bedroom."

"Damn straight," said Charles, but a quaver is still evident in his voice.

"What are you so upset about?"

"I'm not," he says. "I'm happy, I'm just...so happy."

"And you show that by crying? God, you are such a girl," she teases, but she flashes him a smile. "What are you so happy about?"

"We're home," said Charles. "We're finally home." He again offered his hand to Raven. She took it, and they slept hand in hand on the floor of the British flat.

Charles' fingers dropped from his face and he looked deeply at Erik.

"I miss her, too," said Erik.

"We're home," said Charles, and they slept, hand in hand.


Chapter Text

It occurred to Charles that Scott Summers was probably rather bored. The boy had said that his hobby was reading and of course that was no longer an option. He really couldn't play cards or board games, nor could he contribute to the construction of the new Blackbird and Cerebro models. He couldn't even do much in the way of schoolwork because all of the academic materials they had available presumed sight. This last stumbling block was likely particularly frustrating for Scott – when his rescuers had informed him of the date, his response had been a despairing, "I've m-m-m-m-missed so m-m-much school!"

Nonetheless, Scott was finding ways to fill his time. He liked to listen to the radio and the television. He would go out to the edge of the grounds and jog back and forth with one arm trailing against the fence. He chatted with the other residents; he particularly liked to listen to Hank talk about his experiments, though Hank was often too busy, due to his new role as construction foreman. His most common activity, however, could be described in one of two ways. The first way took note of the fact that Scott, despite his visual impairment, had the ability to walk around very quietly, whether this was simply his natural state, a skill he picked up at the boys' home, or the result of residual anxiety from his time in captivity. When Scott entered a room, the first descriptor would say he was slow to announce his presence, perhaps because his stutter made speech wearisome, or perhaps because he was an awkward youth who didn't know what to say, or perhaps because he still felt uneasy around his new housemates. The second way of describing Scott's activity was far more direct: he liked to sneak around and eavesdrop.

Once, when Charles was playing chess with Erik in the library, he had looked up to see Scott standing in the doorway. While Charles found himself quickly running through the list of topics he and Erik had discussed and wondering how long the boy had been standing there, Erik had been infuriated, almost offended it had seemed, that someone had successfully sneaked up on him. Suffice it to say that Scott was no longer on the vanishingly short list of people who were unafraid of Erik Lensherr.


Another attempt at conversation between Alex and Scott had gone up in flames. It ended with Alex shouting, "You're fucking useless!" before jogging off quickly enough that Scott couldn't tell where he went.

"You know," said Charles, "your brother really does care about you. He was frantic when you were missing."

Scott finished chewing his current M&M. He nodded, then popped a new one into his mouth.

"I suspect he likes you much more than he lets on."

"Nah, I know he doesn't like me. It's okay. I don't like him either."

Charles was surprised by this response. "You don't like him?"

"Nope. All he ever wants to talk about is beating people up or some lady he-" Scott made air quotes with his fingers "-got with." He shrugged. "I don't think that's respectful of women's virtue."

Well, aren't you a little stick in the mud, thought Charles. "So you don't like him and he doesn't like you. Does that bother you?"

"Nope. You don't have to like your brother, you just have to love him."

"And what does that distinction mean to you?"

Scott thought for a moment, then spoke. "Well, if you like someone, you want to be their friend. If you love somebody, you get all your friends to drive with you halfway across the country to sneak onto an army base."

Though he suspected that Scott felt more strongly about the matter than he was letting on, Charles smiled. "You're a wise young man, Scott." Wise, though a bit smug.


Hank was watching public access TV with Gregory and Isaac while they ate lunch. A man in a seersucker suit was reading from the Reverend Dr. King's newly-penned Letters from a Birmingham Jail.

Alex grabbed a sandwich and lay back across the couch. "Isn't there anything better on?" He looked down at the kids. "Why are you guys always watching this stuff?"

Isaac looked at him disdainfully. "Hmm...'cause we're Black?" he said, in a voice that made clear he was leaving off the word dumbass.

"You're not Black, you're trees!"

"Are so," said Gregory. "Our parents were Negro, so that makes us Negro."

"Yeah, but you're...you're not..."

Gregory and Isaac simultaneously folded their arms.

Alex sighed. At least it was a good sandwich.


"Tomorrow's Friday," said Erik, "we should go out."

"You have something particular in mind?"

"No, check the paper."

"There's a Rogers and Hammerstein."

"I'm not quite that queer, Charles."

Charles smiled. Erik had never used the word 'queer' to describe himself before. "Symphony it is, then."


Hank had a talent for uncomfortable truths. Charles and Erik had shown him the medical records taken from William Stryker's office, in hopes that he might see something they hadn't, something that would give them a clue to Stryker's motives.

"Have you considered," asked Hank, "that this was essentially self-defense?"

Erik must have looked threatening, because Hank took a step backward, but he continued nonetheless. "Look at from the perspective of the community. Here's this kid who is uncontrollably destructive. What was the final count?"

"Seven deceased, one comatose and not expected to wake up," said Charles solemnly.

"They don't kill him; they imprison him. Yes, they sewed his eyes shut, but they did it under general anesthesia. It wasn't obviously designed to be torture. They had to put some kind of safeguard in place to ensure that he didn't kill them all. Even if they could be sure the boy was committed to keeping his eyes shut, he would have slipped up eventually, and the consequences would have been severe. There's no evidence he was mistreated. He was jailed, yes, but not beaten or starved."

"You think their actions were justified?" argued Erik, trying his best to tamp down whatever in his tone people found so frightening.

"I thought the question at hand was why they did what they did, not whether it was morally defensible."

"And you think that they were simply trying to prevent another accident without killing the boy?" asked Charles, voice more neutral than Erik's, but nonetheless skeptical.

"It's one theory," said Hank, "one that fits the available data. Currently, I don't think there's enough evidence to rule it in or out, but it should certainly be considered." Hank paused. "There are also pragmatic ramifications."

"Such as?"

"You want to remove the sutures, right? He can't volitionally keep his eyes closed indefinitely."

Charles said, "We have to remove them soon, or the skin will regrow around them. We're going to teach him to control the blasts, either directly, or augmented with technology, like Alex."

"And how are you going to keep his eyes shut between the time when you remove the stitches and the time when he gets his powers under control? Is he going to live in the fallout shelter?"

"What are you suggesting, Beast?" Erik's voice was still hostile.

"At this point, I don't have a viable solution, but that doesn't make the problem any less valid."


The construction of the Blackbird II was proceeding apace. When Hank had claimed that he built the original Blackbird, most people assumed that he meant he had designed it, and perhaps supervised its construction. In reality, he had soldered every wire, welded every joist. The result was a machine he knew intimately, a machine in which he had every confidence. Unfortunately, the process had also taken over three years.

They needed the new plane much faster than that. At first, Erik hadn't seemed up to the task of fabricating the body – his initial efforts were slow and frankly imprecise – but after a few days of floundering, he had suddenly returned to his efforts alert and animated. Some people had their suspicions as to why Erik's moods changed so quickly, but it was not in Hank's nature to dig too deeply into such matters. Work was getting done, and it was getting done well. That was what mattered.

Hank employed the others, Charles and Scott excepted, in grunt work, screwing in prefabricated dials and soldering wires he had already arranged. Gregory and Isaac were his best workers. They had basic skills with tools, they were naturally conscientious, and they didn't have anything else to do. (Well, Hank thought guiltily, they had schoolwork, but they were learning a lot about science!) Sean was always busy training, Alex had no experience with hand tools, and Lyle always forgot to check his work. Abigail possessed an unfortunate confluence of all three faults. Even so, the project was of limited scope. They would manage.

The new Cerebro would be another story. Hank timed how long it took each of his workers to place and tighten a bolt, averaged those times, then multiplied by the number of bolts the structure called for. Again, only Erik's powers could be helpful. Erik could theoretically install a bolt using his abilities, but he could only concentrate on one at a time. He would be no faster than a manual worker, and would wear himself out much faster. The construction timeline really was much too slow. And he was only estimating the time required to construct the outer shell, not the inner workings... Maybe it was time to give hippies a try.


"What are you doing?" shouted Alex.

Scott quickly raised his hands in the air like a surrendering criminal. "S-s-s-sorry!"

"I didn't say stop; I was just surprised," said Alex. "I didn't know you could play the piano."

"S-somebody had to acc-company the choir. And I c-can't exactly s-s-sing."

"Yeah, but how can you play without looking at the keys?"

"You're n-n-n-never supposed to look at the keys. It's b-bad f-f-form." Scott huffed in a proper sort of way.

"So the priests taught you to play all the church music?"

"Father James taught m-m-me at first, then I s-star-started lessons with Mrs. McAuliffe." He touched his finger to his chin in a thoughtful sort of way. "I hope s-somebody told her that I won't make m-my lessons."

Alex sat down on the edge of the piano bench. "Play something." Scott hesitated. "C'mon, I want to hear you play."

Scott ran his fingers slowly over the keys, apparently trying to find his place, then began to play a slow series of minor chords.

"You only know church music?"

"I know some-some other st-stuff." Scott switched to a Bach minuet.

"Yeah, that sucks, too. Got anything else?"

"How ab-bout this?" Scott started to play a Motown tune that sounded familiar to Alex, though he couldn't quite recall the words. "It's the Temptations. I p-p-picked it up from the radio."

"That'd be really cool if I were forty and had a uterus." Alex drummed his fingers on the piano. "You know anything else from the radio?"

"Oh, you'll l-like this one," said Scott, as he positioned his hands on the piano. "It's really im...im...immature."

Alex slapped his brother on the back and said, "Hey, did you just make fun of me? Good job!" while Scott began playing Great Balls of Fire.

Alex got the joke and started laughing. "That's awesome!"

Sean stuck his head in the door. "Who's playing the piano?"

"Hey Sean," cried Alex. "Check it out! My brother's good for something!"


Charles and Erik lay in bed, close but not touching, each man flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

"I've been thinking," said Charles, "about what Hank said today."

"You agree with his theory?"

"No, but only because Stryker himself took the boy. If they were merely looking to contain him, I don't think they would have risked a high-ranking officer; they would have sent in rank-and-file infantry."

"Makes sense."

"But that's not what I was thinking about. I was thinking about, who should communities call when something like this happens? When a mutant's powers manifest and they're destructive or out of control. It's probably happened before and it will certainly happen again. I think they should really call us, shouldn't they?"

"That would mean every town in the country would have to know who we are and how to reach us. Very dangerous." Erik stretched out the last word as if enjoying its taste.

"I agree, that doesn't seem like a particularly good idea, though perhaps we could have some kind of middleman..."

Erik exhaled slowly. "I think the better strategy is to finish construction of Cerebro and find the mutants directly, bypass the humans completely."

"By and large I think that makes sense, though I don't think it helps our cause if we're regularly breaking new mutants out of jail cells."

"Humans have no right to judge us. You don't fault a lion for hunting."

There were so many ways to argue back at that. Charles could have said, "You don't fault prey for defending itself," or he could have pointed out that a newly manifested mutant was not necessarily a hunting lion, but often a frightened and confused child, or he could have argued that whether humans had the right to judge them was immaterial because as a point of fact, humans did judge them. But it was late and Charles was weary, so he simply whispered, "Erik..."

Erik sighed, and voiced a sentiment as close to a concession as he had ever given. "Let us hope that once we finish the new Cerebro, you will be able to detect such mutants before their abilities manifest, before anyone dies."


While Charles no longer rolled around in his sleep, as rolling over was now quite complicated, he still occasionally could be heard to talk while he slept. On this night, Charles awoke when one of his dreams blended with one of Erik's. He was a boy with his mouth sewn shut, forced to watch his mother murdered over and over again, though his mother seemed unconcerned with both her own fate and that of her son.

Bleary-eyed and still shaken from the strange image, he took a chance and rolled over to press his back against Erik's chest. Charles was frustrated, certainly, with the glacial pace of their relationship. It reminded him of being fourteen. Of course, he thought, they moved slowly so that Erik was not reminded of being fourteen.

It was warm, lying so close to Erik. It was comfortable. Raven said, "Well, I'm glad one of us is happy."

"Don't be sarcastic, dear. It doesn't become you," said one of the others. Charles couldn't tell which one.

His father's voice: "Be careful. Not every risk is worth taking."

Erik made a sound like the first half of a sneeze and dropped his arm over Charles' chest, pulling him close. It really was very comfortable.


Chapter Text

When Charles awoke the next morning, he was briefly surprised to feel a warm human body pressed up against his back, a muscled arm draped over him. His first thought was that there was a bit too much body heat and they were both a little sweaty. His next thought was how terribly agreeable it was to be held by Erik, but this thought was immediately followed by the remembrance that he had rolled up against Erik when his friend had been asleep, the awareness that this moment was stolen, or at least borrowed without permission. He wondered if he could extricate himself without waking Erik. He also wondered if he could lie like this a few moments longer before worrying about consequences and ramifications. After all, Erik had put his arm around him, right? That action wasn't just a half-aware reflex, right?

As Charles yawned and tried to make out the clock without turning his head, Erik angled his weight backward, freeing his right arm to pass under Charles' neck and curl back over the smaller man's body. Well, this is a pickle, thought Charles. Now there was no way he was going to slink back to his side of the bed without Erik noticing. Also, his arm was falling asleep. This posture was comfortable, emotionally speaking, but physically it left something to be desired.

Charles could hear the sharp intake of breath that always accompanied Erik's awakening; he didn't seem to go through a period of drowsiness between sleep and waking the way that normal people did. Charles wasn't sure exactly what reaction from Erik he had been worried about, but it never came to pass.

"Good morning," was all Erik said before repositioning himself to lie flat, left arm still curved lightly around Charles. Charles rolled slowly from his left side to his right, so that he was facing toward Erik, or toward Erik's sternum at any rate. This was all very strange and foreign. Charles had cuddled with people in bed before of course, though until now he had always been the larger partner, but this sort of contact with Erik felt very strange, very unlikely, even more so than sex. Sex at least was about satisfying a hunger or a desire that one could imagine giving into thoughtlessly, but this was simply pleasant, a low-level contentment that acted in obvious counterpoint to the addicting high of orgasm. It was a content feeling, Charles decided, and he could not imagine Erik feeling contented or even wanting to feel that way.

Erik's fingertips brushed very lightly over Charles' chest to land into the space between his navel and the waistband of his boxer shorts. "Do you feel this?" he asked.

"Yes."

He pressed lightly against Charles' stomach so that his fingers could just slide under the waistband. "And this?"

"Yes." Erik was unreadable as always. Nothing in his posture or his voice indicated whether he was conducting a purely informational investigation as a neurologist had done to Charles so many months ago, or was touching and asking because he wanted to feel and wanted to know.

Erik's fingers slid lower.

"That's the line. Right where you are now. It's a curved line, goes up over my hips." Charles traced with his finger. He knew the boundary by heart.

Erik touched the side of Charles' thigh, below the line he had traced. "Is it strange? You can see that I'm touching you, but you can't feel it?"

"It was strange at first. I think the strangest thing it not knowing where my legs are. You don't even think about that as information that you have, but someone could cross my feet and I would never know unless I happened to look down."

"If I broke your leg, you wouldn't know."

Erik had been direct with Charles regarding the day-to-day practicalities of his disability, but they had never discussed the paralysis itself before. Charles hoped that future conversations would not include such unsettling statements. "I have difficulty imagining how you would break my leg without my noticing, but yes, if you managed to distract me while it was occurring, I wouldn't know it had happened."

Erik was running his fingers back and forth across the boundary line. It occurred to Charles that Erik might see a great many upsides in skin that felt nothing.

"If I were to touch you," the tightness and off rhythms in Erik's voice made clear what part of Charles he was considering touching. "If I were to touch you, you wouldn't be able to feel it?" He sounded disappointed.

Charles slowly took in a breath and held it. He had expected that his disability might limit his ability to satisfy women, but he had assumed, for no clear reason, that male partners would be untroubled. "Not...not immediately, no."

"There's a delay?"

"No, it's..." Charles paused. He had thought about how to describe this to someone, had even practiced it aloud when he was alone, but it was very different to say it to another person, especially one he very much did want to have sex with. "Sometimes I can't get hard, or can't stay hard, but sometimes I can and I can have an orgasm, sort of. It's different. Much less intense. Like a three instead of a ten. But it's still a pleasant feeling, I still enjoy it." Charles could feel his face growing hot. He was frank about everything, sex included, as a matter of course. Embarrassment wasn't normally part of his emotional repertoire. He heard himself blurting out the last sentence in his prepared remarks in a self-conscious effort to ensure that he didn't have to explain these things again. "But when I orgasm," he said, "I don't come."

Erik's fingers stopped their circling. "Those are synonyms," he said, clearly confused.

"What I mean is, nothing comes out."

Erik raised his eyebrows and craned his head backward. "That's..."

"Profoundly unsettling?" Charles gave a slight laugh. The red was receding from his cheeks. He was back to familiar ground. "I completely agree; it quite disturbed me the first few times. Has its advantages, though. I can assure you that a great many socks have been spared a terrible fate."

Erik chuckled and his fingers resumed their roaming. His usual defensiveness regarding homosexual contact seemed to have been replaced with a nervousness, a hesitance, driven by the recent realization that he frightened Charles. His fingers approached the line then drew back. "I don't want to..." He sighed. "I would think that if I enjoy this and you don't, then I'm using you. I don't want to use you. I don't want to hurt you."

"I don't want to give the impression that I am content with the loss of sexual function, but it's certainly not the only way I can enjoy myself. For example, right now, I am taking a great deal of satisfaction in the fact that you have become quite erect just by touching me."

Charles could feel Erik's muscles tense, and he could see Erik's member shrinking back down to its flaccid size. "Sometimes, I want to hurt you," said Erik.

"I know. I've seen it in your dreams."

"Does that make you afraid of me?"

"No," said Charles flatly. "We are all wretches in our thoughts. It's what we do that matters."

Erik closed his eyes, pulled Charles closer and kissed him. He kept his mouth closed until he felt Charles' tongue playing against his lips, then he could feel their tongues pushing back and forth. The pushing didn't have to be about strength. They weren't wrestlers. No one's lips would be pinned. Erik could feel himself growing hard again. This was supposed to feel good. He wanted to want this.

Erik broke off. "Thank you for a lovely morning, Charles." He kissed him chastely on the forehead and stood to leave. "I'll see you this evening. For the symphony."

Charles smiled weakly. "I look forward to it."


Chapter Text

Charles eyed the kitchen table warily. "Hank, is this toast for breakfast or for science?"

"Breakfast. You want some?"

"Thank you."

"I'm not sure what science toast would look like."

"I'm not sure either, but I felt that caution was warranted, given what happened with Lyle and the plasma specimens."

"Yeah," said Hank, "I think we might want to consider investing in a freezer for the lab."

"Not a bad idea." Charles tore his toast in half diagonally. "Where are the twins?"

"Practicing spelling with Scott."

"Good idea."

"I can't just keep them working on construction all the time. It's not fair to neglect their schooling."

"I trust your judgment, Hank."

"I've done the math. We are definitely going to need to bring in day laborers for Cerebro. Otherwise, we can expect a completion date approximately 32 months from now."

"How long until the Blackbird is operational?"

"Another week, maybe a week and a half. It depends on the mental resilience of my workforce."

Charles raised an eyebrow.

"The twins have started saying they're exhausted every morning, even though they get plenty of sleep. Alex is distracted with the apparently demanding task of mistreating a thirteen-year-old. Erik is extremely productive about 70% of the time but otherwise basically useless. Lyle is fine if he's not hungover. Sean was pretty steady until yesterday when he got word that his brother was being deployed."

"Wait, I didn't know that about Sean's brother."

"Well, Sean isn't exactly verbose these days. What I can't understand is how he can keep blindly supporting the Kennedy administration, given the circumstances." Hank shook his head, acknowledging the futility of reasoning with Sean about politics.

"What about Abigail?"

"I'd rather stop including her, honestly. She doesn't get much work done and she clearly doesn't want to be around us." Something in Hank's tone made clear that us referred to appearance-affected mutants.

"Perhaps I should speak with her?"

"If you want. She's not offensive, she's just...awkward." Hank gave a nervous laugh.

"What's so funny?"

"It's just, it sort of reminds me of the Kennedy types, the rich White liberals. They aren't racists, no, heaven forbid! But they don't know any Blacks, not unless they're low-level service employees. So they would never say anything offensive, they would just be awkward." He sighed. "I almost prefer the Bible-thumping conservatives. At least they own up to it."

Charles realized he had never taken the time to get to know Hank beyond his scientific talent. "You're very passionate about civil rights," he observed.

Hank nodded emphatically. "I've always felt this way. Even before...you know..." He gestured to his face. "I always wanted to join in the protests, but I never did because I thought I would lose my job." He sounded disappointed in himself. "The CIA is a very conservative place, but it was really no excuse. There were people out there risking a lot more than that."

"How did you become interested in this?"

Hank looked exasperated. "How does anyone not? I mean, you're from Britain, that's different, but how do people justify living contentedly in a country that has a hereditary underclass and not care? It's not like segregation is a secret."

"Britain has its underclass, too. Perhaps not genetic, but certainly familial."

"I wanted to go down South this summer with snick."

"I'm not familiar with that organization."

"S-N-C-C. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It's pronounced snick. I suppose I'm not a student anymore, but I've been a member since I was fourteen."

"And what would you do in the South?"

"The main plan is that a White person and a Black person pair up and go into a segregated business. The idea is that business owner can't throw the Black person out without having to be aggressive with the White person too, which he won't want to do, so he feels uncomfortable. You wake up his conscience."

"Wake up the conscience. I like that." Charles made a mental note that Hank would be a very good person to discuss moral dilemmas with.

"I genuinely considered going, but I believe that my presence there would detract from their efforts."

Charles couldn't think of anything to say. Hank was right. Nonviolent resistance was a war of public opinion and the public wasn't likely to pay much attention to race relations while a being as remarkable as Hank walked in their midst.

Hank looked meaningfully at the clock, then stood. "Nice talking with you," he said as he stalked back to the basement.


"Charles!"whined Raven.

Charles continued carefully recording utility bills in his ledger.

"Charles!"

He very mindfully, very intentionally, ignored the girl's voice.

"Quit ignoring me!"

He twisted back and hissed, "I am not ignoring you because you're not real!"

Now she sounded sad. "Nobody likes to be told they're not real."

His mother's voice: "But it's true, isn't it? None of this is real. It's like the song says, life is but a dream."

Charles shut his eyes, breathed deeply, and spoke aloud. "These are my thoughts. This is my imagination. Just because they are loud doesn't mean they are real."

"Of course not," said Kurt, laughing wildly.

Charles sighed and poured himself more brandy. Where was the electric bill for February?


The car idled at the intersection as they waited for the light to change.

"I know I took an oath," said Erik, "but would you mind terribly if I hunted down and murdered this Phillip Glass fellow?"

"Not in the slightest," replied Charles, laughing. "I think we must put down this experimental music movement immediately. It cannot be allowed to gather momentum."

"It wasn't even music with a few errors in it. It was just errors!"

"The second movement sounded like a nauseous cat giving birth to despair."

"I strongly suspect this was some kind of sick test to see how much the audience would tolerate."

"I think the purpose was..." Charles trailed off. "Nope. I don't understand it either."


"This is where the on-ramp is supposed to be." Charles sounded personally offended.

"Well, it's clearly closed."

"All right, turn left up here. We'll find another interchange."

"Do you know your way around the city?"

"Know is a strong word."


Thoroughly lost in New York City, Charles and Erik discovered a new and exciting hobby: causing minor inconvenience to low-level criminals.

Idling in a parking lot while Charles unfolded a map, Erik spun around when he heard the sound of breaking glass. A youth in brown corduroys and an oversized sweatshirt was carefully reaching around the broken glass that had formed the drivers' side window of a vacant car. Feeling both cheerful and impulsive, Erik caused the car door to fly open with unexpected force, knocking the thief on his ass. The kid looked around frantically, apparently more concerned with ensuring that no one saw him fall than with ensuring that no one saw him steal. As the young man got to his feet, Erik pulled the door forward, smacking him in the back. Now the thief backed away from the car, looking at it from different angles as if this would force it to comply with the standards of normal car behavior. Erik made all four doors open and rattle menacingly. The kid ran for it.

"That was brilliant," said Charles.

They next found a young teen with a can of spray paint. Charles brought his fingers to his head and the youth suddenly found his arm acting against his will, emblazoning the overpass with an oversized peace sign.

"Did you really have to make the kid sign his name?" asked Erik.

"Just his first name. There are plenty of people named Luke. Besides, it could have been worse."

"How?"

"I could have made him sign your name."

A junkie attempting to shoot up found that the hollow needle point became solid and blunt every time it approached his vein. The man became so agitated after his third failed attempt that Charles took pity on him and put him to sleep.

"That might have been a bit mean," Charles mused.

They passed an inebriated man who was taking too many liberties with his clearly uninterested date. As Charles touched his temple once more, the man's eyes grew wide and he took a respectful step back from the relieved-looking woman.

"What did you make him see?"

"Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower."


"It just occurred to me," said Charles, "that now would be a splendid time to implement Sean's idea."

"Which one?" Erik's tone was understandably cautious.

"The campaign of misinformation. We keep doing what we're doing, but spread false information about the nature of our powers."

"How would they know it was us?"

"I think once rumors start to fly about the Jew / cripple crime-fighting duo, the government will be able to narrow it down."

Erik smirked. At least he got top billing.


"Now see," said Erik, pointing to a clutch of youths who were clearly engaged in some sort of illicit enterprise, "that really is a shame."

"Truly unfortunate," echoed Charles. "And in a public park, as well! Keeping others from enjoying the – ahem – scenery."

"Exactly. I am outraged," said Erik, in a bland monotone.

"Well, I suppose we'll have to go over there and politely discuss the matter with them."

As Erik and Charles approached the whispering cluster, the bruisers slowly turned to look at them. "Why are you in our park?" asked Erik in a loud, commanding voice. "Get out of our park."

The youths were staring and whispering, but they weren't staring at Erik or even at Charles. They were staring at Erik's right forearm, which appeared to have been replaced with an irregular mess of metal and wires.

"HEY!" Charles could be very loud when he wanted to. "I thought my friend was quite clear. Leave. This. Park." He paused, the hissed in a strident whisper, "NOW."

One teen with long, greasy hair drew a knife. "The fuck is th-"

Erik jerked his right arm back and the sound of pistol cocking echoed through the park. He pointed his arm at the youth. His arm twitched. The boy immediately collapsed to the ground.

"What the fu-" Sleep.

"Get outta here!" Sleep.

The sleep cannon seemed to have unlimited ammunition and Erik appeared to have perfect aim. Soon all of the bruisers were all curled peacefully on the soggy ground.

Erik was cackling mightily. "Maybe we should leave a calling card."

"Make an X out of something."

"Why assume we're going with your initials?"

"Because if we went with yours, we'd have to come back and change it every few years."

As they finally found their way back to I-95, one man or the other would laugh slightly, which would be echoed and magnified by the other, and back and forth until they could hardly breathe. It was a wonderful feeling. Like being drunk, Charles thought, except that being drunk felt good because it pulled you out of the world, whereas this felt good because it threw you into the world. And even better, Erik was having fun. Actual fun. This was friendship.


It was almost 2am by the time they returned to the manor and as they approached the door, Charles stopped, suddenly alert.

"Something is...off. It's like a mind, but... Someone in the kitchen."

Erik opened the door cautiously and they made their way across the main hall.

"CHARLIE-BOY!"

Erik looked over at the source of the voice to see the largest man – or close approximation thereof – he had ever seen. The man looked to weigh 400 pounds, most of it muscle. He had very little neck and a shock of orange hair. His face was unusual, though not in any drastic way. His eyes were set close together and seemed compressed from the sides. There was too much space between his nose and his upper lip, which was much thinner than the lower one. The groove which normally ran between the nose and lips was missing entirely. His ears were too low. He was holding an empty beer can in his left hand and a full one in his right.

"Nice wheels!" The man took a sip of his beer.

"What are you doing here, Cain?"

So this is your step-brother, thought Erik.

"How long you been a gimp? Did I do that?" He managed to sound genuinely curious with the second question.

"You need to leave," said Charles. "Right now."

"You can't boss me around! It's my house too."

Should I remove him? thought Erik.


Not yet

.

"No, it's not. I bought out your share over ten years ago. Is that why you're here? You want your money? It's sitting untouched in an account with your name on it. You just need the account number."

"I don't want your fucking money."

"Well, see technically, it's not my money. It's yours. I understand that the concept of personal property is very confusing for you, but-"

Cain took a step forward and formed a fist, crushing the empty beer can in his hand. "Yeah, you're callin' me stupid. I get it. Real fucking hilarious."

For a brief moment, for the first and only time since he had been paralyzed, Charles felt acutely aware that he was quite vulnerable physically. He remembered feeling rather humiliated when they were young; he was the only boy he knew to get beaten up by a younger brother. Now their age difference was meaningless, but Cain still towered over him. "Okay, this is getting ridiculous. Tell me why you're here, or you will be made to leave."

"Well, I don't see how that's gonna happen, but whatever." Cain snorted. "I want your help."

"You have a hell of a way of showing it."


Now, can I-


Oh god, is it tempting.

"Oh, I'm sorry. You want hugs and kisses? And we can make tea and chit-chat about our long and happy life together?"

Charles, look – the lilacs are blooming.

Not now, mother, he muttered under his breath.

Erik was looking back and forth from Cain to Charles, clearly of the opinion that his preferred problem-solving method was more applicable than Charles'.

"Cain, it is late and you are trespassing." Charles sounded exhausted. "What is it that you want?" he asked through gritted teeth.

Cain sat back on the steps. "Who's this guy?" He tipped his head at Erik.

"Uh-huh." Charles shook his head. "Tell me what you want."


Why are you tolerating this?


He wouldn't ask me for help unless it was important. And I'll be damned if I lose a good-brother contest to Alex-fucking-Summers.

Nice to know your motives are pure. Erik smirked, but remained still.

"All right," said Cain, "so I always knew you were a freak. But now they got a word for it. 'Mutant', right? Always messin' with people's heads like everybody's just your toys." He changed topic suddenly. "So I've been in Asia. Cambodia and Vietnam, mostly. I'm a merc."

"Oh, wonderful. You've managed to turn your love of hitting people into a career."

"Ha-ha," replied Cain. "Anyways, I ran with this group. The Red Hand. We took a lot of, uh, your kind. Mutants, I mean, not cripples."

"Naturally."

"And the other thing you gotta love about Southeast Asia is the whores!" Cain seemed incapable to sticking with one topic all the way through to completion. "Well, I guess you ain't gettin' any of that no more, but I love it. Cheap, too."

The logistics are staggering, thought Erik, along with a crude mental image of the enormous Cain and a petit Asian woman.

Nice to know your thoughts are pure, thought Charles.

Cain reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet, and from the wallet he drew a small, yellowed photograph. "This is Ngo Thi Lam. She was all three."

"All three what?"

"A mutant, a mercenary, and a whore. But not in that order. I met her 'cause she was a hooker. A really good one, so I talked her into bein' a merc with me."

Charles indicated the picture incredulously. "She's your girlfriend?"

"Nah, she's more like...a hooker I don't have to pay for."

Charles dropped his head into his hands. "Oh god, you're disgusting."

"Yeah, I know, I'm not some fancy-ass genius saint like you. Least I still got balls that work."

Charles wasn't entirely sure how to being explaining to his step-brother the many things that were wrong with that statement. He settled for a vague nod of acknowledgement.

"She's amazing," said Cain, with an expression that could either be admiration or nausea. "She can break the ground up into pieces and she can do this thing with her tongue..." He flashed his eyebrows. "But they took her. And I can't find her. And I know you've got your freak powers and you've got to help me get her back."

"Cain," said Charles, with a hint of genuine compassion, "I am truly sorry for your friend's fate, but when you join a political conflict for money, you have to expect that the other side is going to be angry."

"She wasn't taken by VCs, Charlie. She was taken by GIs. I told you, Red Hand takes a lot of freaks. We had a reputation. GIs came huntin' for us, took her right out of our camp."

"Are you absolutely sure they were American military?"

"There ain't exactly a ton of White people floatin' around over there. And I know all the other mercs."

This could be more activity by Stryker. thought Erik.

"So," said Cain, "you gonna help me find her?" He looked almost desperate. "You're better than me at this kind of thing."

Charles ran his fingers through his hair.

Charles, look , said his mother's voice, the lilacs are blooming.

"I don't work alone," said Charles, "and I am not the boss of these people. I have to talk with them and we'll come to a consensus. Leave now, and don't come back until 6pm tomorrow. If you come back earlier, the answer is no. I'm not working with you if you can't be relied upon for something that simple. Come back at 6pm and I'll tell you what we've decided."

Cain picked up the picture and returned it to his wallet. He leaned in close to Charles and whispered, "You owe me," before walking out, his crumpled beer cans littering the floor.

Charles looked back at Erik. "I- I..."

"You didn't tell me," said Erik, "that your step-brother is a mutant."

"He's not," said Charles, with genuine puzzlement, "except in the mundane sense of chromosomally damaged."

Erik pointed to the ceiling. "Petra's room is right there. If he's not a mutant, why wasn't he affected?"


Chapter Text

And now, a moment of Sean:

There's this huge maple tree over by the creek. When we were first here, like before we went down to Cuba, I put a little tree house in it. And by "tree house," I mean a 2-by-4 held on with a belt and some shoe laces. I don't actually remember doing it, but according to Hank, I just kept saying that I had to spend more time at the tops of trees so I could understand giraffes better. Like I said, I don't remember doing that.

So a couple days ago I got a letter from my brother Tom and I took it up into the tree to read. I'm not a really private guy, to be honest, but I feel the need to keep my family stuff separate from my...well, whatever you call this. Maybe I think it will keep them safe from that freaky army guy who kidnapped Alex's brother. Maybe I think it will keep them safe from us. Who knows? So anyway, I'm reading this letter from Tom and it says he's about to be deployed and he's ready for it and basic was getting old and he's gonna gun down some VCs. And I'm thinking, you're not ready for it, you idiot! You think you are, but you're not. You think it's like wrestling with some punk after school, but it's totally different. I feel guilty, actually. They shouldn't send guys like him when there are guys like me around. I know it doesn't actually work that way, but it just seems wrong to take some nice kid and throw him into a war. Send me instead. I want to fight.


Erik entered Charles' room carrying a full bottle of liquor and a pair of empty glasses.

"Ah," said Charles with a grateful smile, "how did you know?"

"I've met you."


In the month after they had first met, Charles had, in a fit of pique, accused Erik of having all the emotional comprehension of a comatose cabbage. Erik disagreed. He understood his emotions very well, he just didn't bother with all of the ridiculous excesses and complexities that seemed to be the mainstay of typical minds. Erik preferred to keep matters simple. He considered emotions to be guides for behavior and in any given situation, there really were very few behaviors among which one could choose. Thus, he only had and only needed three emotions.

The first had no good name in English. It was what Erik felt when something was not the way it should be and he was going to set it right. Charles had called it anger or rage, but that was incomplete. It was the emotion he felt when taking revenge, yes, but it was the emotion he felt while shaping the new Blackbird. Perhaps the closest translation was driven, but as a word, that seemed entirely inappropriate, as it implied that Erik was somehow a passenger. He called it fix, though he was unsatisfied with that word as well. It was close enough.

The second emotion was what Erik felt when something was not the way it should be, but he could not, at present, set it right. It drove him to flee, hide, ignore, distract. Charles would call it fear, but Erik felt it was more properly understood to be horror, as it seemed useless to fear things that could not cause harm, but one could still be horrified. None of that mattered, though, because the emotion came with a name. He had always called it nein.

The final emotion showed up only when things were the way they should be. It directed Erik to remain, continue, repeat. It first gained a name almost a year ago, when he returned to the CIA base at Charles' urging: stay. Stay made him want to keep doing pointless things, actions that accomplished no goal and avoided no danger. Stay was what Erik felt while eating popcorn; Erik loved popcorn and he ate it not for nutrition (that would have been the work of fix), but simply because it was something he enjoyed.

Erik was perfectly satisfied with this system. He knew what he felt, and for each feeling there was a corresponding action. It was more difficult, yes, when he felt more than one thing at once. When he had faced Shaw, for example, there was fix and there was nein and things had gone very poorly. Sometimes he could manage. Training Sean was mostly fix, but perhaps a bit of stay as well. That was no problem. On the other hand, if he thought about sex with Charles (and this was a thought he had been having with great frequency as of late), it was very much nein and very much stay. He felt this did not bode well.

Nonetheless, Erik generally felt his system was quite adequate. However, in the past half-hour, Charles had washed a dose of muscle relaxants down with almost two-thirds of a bottle of bourbon and whatever emotion he was expressing sure as hell wasn't on Erik's list.

"We're supposed to be a school," said Charles, "not a private army. And I hate my step-brother. I mean I really hate him. Did I mention that? I think I mentioned that."

Was drunk an emotion? Did that count?

"We're supposed to be a school," he repeated. "I don't think anybody's learning anything." Charles looked at Erik, clearly expecting a response.

Erik felt that productive conversation was essentially impossible at this point, so he shrugged blandly rather than reply.

"They're tired, Erik. You're tired. I'm tired. Well, actually, I think I'm drunk, but that's not relevant. Is this what we're going to do, just run from one fire to another?"

"We wouldn't be the first people in history to live that way," answered Erik, after a moment's consideration. "Some people are stronger than you think."

"I fucked up, everything...I-" said Charles. It was at this point that Erik suspected that it didn't matter what he said. "I thought I was... and now they won't stop laughing. They're always laughing." He looked at Erik with a pleading sort of face. "Why are they always laughing?"

"Because you're ridiculous."

"Oh, right, yes." Charles nodded, apparently satisfied with that response. "Of course."

"Perhaps you should go to sleep."

"Do you know why he hates me? Because his father liked me better." Charles took another swig of bourbon, then whispered, "I'm so sorry." His eyes were wide and his brow was drawn. "I'm so very sorry."

Erik was vaguely aware that normal people would be comforting in this situation. That was not on his list of emotions. He held his hand out for the bourbon and Charles passed it to him absently. There. Fix was satisfied. Charles wouldn't die of alcohol poisoning. (Actually, Erik did consider it moderately likely that Charles would die of alcohol poisoning eventually, but he wouldn't do so now, which was the point.) Erik was now out of ideas. There was no point in discussing what they were going to do because it was already a foregone conclusion. He supported searching for the woman because she was a fellow mutant and it might lead them to Stryker. Charles would eventually sober up and support searching for the woman because he could never say no to anyone in need, least of all his estranged step-brother's prostitute companion.

"Are you going to sleep?" asked Charles. He still looked guilty.

"Eventually. I still have a lot of energy. Apparently confusing petty criminals is a bit of a rush."

"Oh." Charles nodded slowly. He rolled his eyes twice in a full circle, then squeezed his eyelids tightly shut. "He said I owe him."

Erik had meant to ask about that. Unsettled debts, especially among family, could cause problems, problems that could jeopardize their mission. He remained silent. Either Charles would continue his drunken ramblings on the subject, or Erik would ask him when he was sober.

Charles opened his eyes and looked around as if startled. He fixed his gaze on Erik. "I lied," he said. "I'm not sorry. I mean I am, but not about that. I should be, but I'm not."

Erik looked at the bottle of bourbon and wondered if this would make more sense if he were drunk as well.

"Erik," Charles whispered, "I fear we're doing a terrible thing to these kids. We have to be careful. Sean's going to turn into..." The 'you' was unstated.

"Go to sleep," said Erik. This time Charles obediently lay down. Erik waited until he could hear the even, slow breaths that indicated Charles was asleep before he nodded slowly and whispered very quietly, "I fear it too."


Chapter Text

When Charles awoke the next morning, he had an awful headache and he groaned as he propped himself up on his elbows.

Erik was showered and dressed, sitting on a chair across the room, eating a pastry while he read the newspaper. He nodded at Charles in greeting before summarily casting the curtains open.

Flinching at the glare, Charles whined, "You're mean when I'm hungover."

"You're always hungover."

"You're always mean."


At the top of the stairs stood a young Cain, perhaps eight years of age. The boy was freckled and round-faced. On another child, these features might have been endearing, but on Cain they were simply incongruous. Both of his arms were wrapped gingerly around his stomach. His right hand stuck out, open palmed, from the left side of his body, as if he were trying to keep it from touching anything else. He glared at Charles, shaking his head. He was breathing heavily as if he were trying not to cry. "I," another breath, "hate," another breath, "you."

Charles closed his eyes and counted slowly to ten. When he opened his eyes, the boy was gone. What was this? He never saw them. Heard them, yes, but never saw them. Excessive alcohol use could cause hallucinations – maybe he should cut back? Charles continued to stare at the landing where Cain had stood. There was no one there. There really was no one there.


Charles sat alone in the parlor, listening to Scott practicing the piano in the room next door. The boy's technique was very good. Each note was held exactly as long as the score dictated and not a moment longer. Even without seeing Scott play, Charles could imagine the boy's fingers hanging down above the keys, running and turning, always the right finger on the right note, posture straight and flawless. There was no real artistry, though. He never held a note just a little overlong to emphasize its importance. He never added his own flourishes or played the same song over in a different style. When Scott made an error, he paused and replayed the section over and over again until he had reproduced it perfectly three times in a row. His musical ability was not the work of any genetic mutation, Charles mused, just a talent borne of unceasing time and effort.

Charles heard the radio buzz on, then, after a minute or two, buzz off again. Although Scott had claimed to be indifferent to his brother's affection, not to care whether Alex liked him or not, Charles could hear Scott slowly plinking out the melody to the Rolling Stones' Ruby Tuesday.


"Good morning, Hank."

"Good morning, Charles."

"How are the twins?"

"Still tired. They didn't even come down for breakfast...I had to drag them out of bed."

"Maybe they're just developing a phase-delayed sleep schedule. Common in adolescents."

"Could be..." Hank pulled out a large piece of tagboard and began drawing a diagram on it with several different colored markers.

Charles watched in silence for a moment. It really could be a privilege to watch Hank's mind at work. And he was delaying the question he had meant to ask. "I was puzzling over a hypothesis about perceptual enhancement in mutants and I hit a bit of a sticking point. Would you mind if I picked your brain for a moment?"

"Not at all." Hank looked up with a congenial nod, though he continued marking up the tagboard.

"Tell me what you know about the differences between visual and auditory perceptual aberrations, in typical humans."

"It depends on what you mean by 'abberations'. Mild visual and hearing deficits are common. Both are subject to top-down processing effects, um..."

"Specifically, transient hallucinatory phenomena."

"In which case, they're surprisingly different. Auditory hallucinations are more common in mental illness. Visual hallucinations are more commonly related to drug use. Although both symptoms can certainly occur in both conditions. Schizophrenics can have visual hallucinations and psychoactive substances can cause auditory hallucinations." Hank smirked. "Remember at Christmas how Sean was running around yelling that he could hear Santa Claus?"

Charles offered a slight laugh. "Indeed."

"Visual hallucinations are more likely than auditory to be due to some organic phenomenon. They occur in Parkinsonian and Lewy-body dementias. Auditory hallucinations are more common with temporal lobe epilepsy, although hallucinations in any modality can serve as an epileptic aura. Command hallucinations are almost always perceived via the auditory modality, although I've often wondered if that was just a matter of practicality. And...hm, that may be all I know on the matter. I'm afraid psychophysics was never really my key area of study."

"Not at all, Hank, that was very helpful. Thank you."


Charles was seated by the parlor window overlooking Raven's grave, fingers tented just below his nose. Petra sat on the floor across the room, alternately sniffing the newspaper and waving her hands about in a strange, arrhythmic dance.

"Are you sober enough for reasoned discussion?" asked Erik, leaning slightly on the doorframe.

"I received a phone call from Mary Ann Travers."

"The reptile lady?"

"Yes." Charles glanced over at Petra, who continued to show no awareness of anyone in the room. "Her eldest son is dead. He shot himself when he began to grow scales. According to his note, he thought it was the devil's work."

Erik gave a disapproving grunt.

"I imagine that is not what you're here to discuss, but I thought you should know." Charles shook his head quickly as if to free his gaze. He wheeled around to face Erik. "On to business?"

Erik nodded and pulled up a chair. "My first concern is the possibility that this is a ruse."

"It's not."

"What makes you so certain?"

"Cain is malicious, petty, and resentful, but lying is not his style. Frankly, he lacks the intelligence and self-control to plan and execute any sort of subterfuge."

"So your belief is based on inference, not on telepathy?"

"His mind is...difficult to read. It's abnormal. Rather like Petra's." Charles gestured to the room's third occupant who was now busily folding advertisements into perfect squares. "And he's always been rather resistant to my telepathy. Doesn't respond to commands, for example."

"Interesting. But you're confident he's telling the truth?"

"Erik, we're talking about someone who continued believe that factories were the source of clouds well into his teens. He's a scoundrel of the highest degree, but I can't imagine him having the forethought to find an actual Vietnamese name before speaking with us." Charles gave a slight, sad laugh. "No, it's definitely true."

Erik nodded and glanced surreptitiously at his watch. He wondered how long it would take Charles to reach the inevitable conclusion that they must aid his admittedly malformed step-brother.

"But he's asking me for help, which means he has absolutely no leads."

"So where do you think we should start?"

"I don't think we should. Or rather, I don't think I should. If you choose to, I understand."

Well, this was unexpected. "Explain."

"I can only do so many things at once. We can only do so many things at once. My priority needs to be making this place a school, a haven. I can't neglect that. From a practical standpoint, the stitches need to come out of Scott's eyes and I can't imagine how that would be accomplished without my powers, and once the stitches are out – Hank is right – we're going to have a real challenge on our hands: teaching Scott to control his powers before he levels half the state. So, I'll help my brother as I can, when I can, but I can't simply go tilting at windmills."

"And the fact that you hate this man has nothing to do with your sudden desire to be responsible?"

"I'm not going to pretend to be the only man in history who's decisions are unaffected by his emotions, but I can tell you that if I feel anything when I look at Cain, it's guilt. So if I were merely doing what I felt, I would drop everything and help him."

"Why guilt? Why did he say you owe him?"

"I caused the death of his father," whispered Charles. Erik knew a little of Charles' step-father, and from what he knew, it seemed like no big loss. Charles continued on in a normal voice. "Because I was careless. Because I treated my powers like a plaything. What a difference it would have made if someone had come along when I was thirteen and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and told me that this was not a game, that I was simply too powerful to be impulsive or experimental! And that's something we can do here. There will be others like me."

So now they were here to keep young mutants in line? That was not what Erik had agreed to.

"And others like her," Charles pointed to Petra. "Like her and Hank, and Gregory, and Isaac, and Lyle, and the Travers boy. Ones who don't have a place in regular society. This can be their place, yes, but we must also be working to make a place for them in the world. And we can't do that by conducting covert paramilitary operations."

"No, we do it by conducting overt paramilitary operations."

Charles continued on as if Erik hadn't spoken. "And then there are the ones like you, like Scott, who are being mistreated. I watched from your eyes when you picked him up and all I could think was what a difference it would have made in your life if someone had rescued you, had saved you from even a small fraction of the pain and misery. We need this school to be a place for people like you as well."

"That would seem to be an argument in favor of rescuing this woman."

"Which is why I fully understand if you wish to follow my brother into the jungle. And it's why I would go running after her myself – figuratively speaking – if I thought we had a clear starting point. But I think that we do the greatest good for the greatest number by finishing the Blackbird and reconstructing Cerebro." Charles paused and rubbed his temples. "And by making sure they have a place to go, a real...home, when they get out of hell."

Erik ran his fingers over his chin as if stroking an imaginary beard. This was unexpected and irritating. "What is your brother going to say?"

"Knowing him?" asked Charles, before producing what sounded like a polite imitation of a grizzly bear caught in a trash compactor. "Something like that."

"I think you're making the wrong choice here."

"I know. But understand that it is a choice – a choice between building what's good and tearing down what's evil. Both need to be done. I don't think we would much enjoy ruling over a pile of rubble."


Chapter Text

And now, at no one's request, a moment of Abigail:

I sort of hate this place. I know I shouldn't say that, because it's not like I have anywhere better to go. I could go home, I guess. It's not like my aunt and uncle kicked me out, but being there isn't any better than being here. There, they stare at me like I'm a freak. Here, I'm surrounded by freaks.

Yeah, and I'm aware that makes me sound like a big-time hypocrite, but put yourself in my shoes. My shadow starts wandering off on its own and my aunt and uncle start acting all nervous and standoffish around me. (That's bad!) But because of my shadow, these two guys – one of them was really hot! – show up at my house looking for me. (That's good!) And they want me to come live in a giant mansion with this millionaire guy. (That's good!) So I move up to New York with them. The red-haired guy turns out to be some kind of martial arts death master who runs around with a knife in his mouth. Ever heard of, "Don't run with scissors," genius? The blond guy won't talk to me. And who else is left? Some weird guy in a wheelchair who's got to be almost as old as my uncle, the soul-shakingly terrifying German guy who follows him around, a muppet, two trees, and a retarded lady. So if I was hoping to meet some people like me up here, I'm pretty much short on luck. (That's bad!) Oh, and then it turns out that being part of this weird little clan is a good way to get kidnapped. (That's bad!) And it's also apparently a good reason to dress up like a soldier and go running off to attack some army base or something . (That's bad!)

And now we're supposed to be spending all our time working on the muppet's mad scientist invention that is probably going to turn out to be a doomsday device. I keep waiting for somebody to jump out at me with grey robes and yell, "SURPRISE! You're in a cult!"


There was no way, thought Charles, to fight a war on two fronts without dividing one's army. He idly wished the moment of division had not come so soon, but there was no good reason to delay. Erik had spent much of the night finishing the Blackbird's fuselage. "I'll sleep on the plane," he had said. So now Charles watched him pack and made predictably canny remarks.

Two changes of clothes. Soap. A dizzying array of blades, many of which were stored in hidden compartments or other unexpected places.

"Do you really need a knife hidden with your shaving things? You already have the razor."

"Never know when you're going to need two."

"Try not to enjoy it too much," said Shaw.

Toothbrush, toothpaste. A Vietnamese phrasebook, stolen from the Columbia University library. Charles made a mental note to make an anonymous donation. Maps. No compass; Erik insisted he didn't need one. Paper, pens, pencils. Twine.

"Are you taking up macramé?"

"No, cat's cradle." Erik pantomimed the motions with the slightest of grins.

"Oh good, you and Cain can blend right in at an eight-year-old girl's birthday party."

A lighter and two books of matches – it was amazing how Erik could pack so light and still build redundancy into the system. Chloroform.

"Please don't kill my brother."

"This is so I don't kill your brother."

"You should probably take a full bottle."

Four passports, each under a different name. A very small amount of currency.

"That's all you're taking?"

"This isn't one of those absurdly religious countries that bans gambling, is it?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Then that's all I'm taking."

Binoculars. A small mirror for shaving and for signaling.

"Are you sure you don't want Sean to go with you?"

"I don't see how you can recruit without him."

"What about one of the others? Alex is good in a fight. Or Lyle, if he wears loose clothing he could probably pass long enough to get through an airport."

"You need all the hands you can get here, working on Cerebro. And besides, you said your brother's ready for a fight."

"No, I said my brother will likely try to kill you when you inevitably do something he doesn't like."

"All the more reason not to bring the kids along. Thirty minutes alone with Alex and I want to kill him."

A trio of small electronic devices, invented by Hank. One was a powerful flashlight. One was a portable heat source. The last detected slight ground vibrations. There were no batteries of any kind. All three were powered by tiny steel dynamos that Erik could turn almost effortlessly.

"I don't wanna be an angel." A child's voice, but whose?

"Erik?"

"Yes?"

"Please be careful," said Charles solemnly.


They met Cain at the front entranceway. Charles had subtly encouraged the manor's other residents to be elsewhere.

After marginally polite greetings, Charles' fingers found their way to his temple and his voice echoed in Cain's head.


I protect my friends. This man is my friend. If you betray him, do not doubt that I will kill you.

Cain only grunted and cracked his knuckles.

Parting was another social ritual that Erik had little opportunity to master, so when Charles offered his hand and whispered, "I trust you. Be well," Erik knew that he was supposed to say something, but he didn't know what. He settled on, "Don't die."

"You're a goddamn poet," answered Charles.

"Alles ist gut." A woman's voice that only Charles can here cries that all is well.


"Mr. Cassidy, good morning. I have a new job for you."


Tomorrow they're gonna open up Scott's eyes. That was the plan, anyway, but Scott's chickened out all of a sudden. He said what if he killed the doctor by accident. Actually, he said what if he accidentally "k-k-k-killed the d-d-d-doctor," but I was cleaning it up a bit. First I tried telling him to shut up and quit being such a little bitch about everything, but that didn't work. Then I tried telling him that we would make sure to find a doctor who was a real asshole, so if he killed the guy, nobody would care. That didn't make him any feel better either.

That was when Charles did that thing where he glares at you, but he glares with his thoughts inside your head instead of just with his eyes. Then he told me it was time I started to really think about what kind of brother I wanted to be, before he went and talked to Scott about how he was gonna use his powers to keep Scott's eyes shut. Which is all well and good and all, but I think Charles is one to talk. He never told us he had a brother, let alone a brother who was some kind of mutant mercenary soldier, which would seem to be pretty relevant to our whole military/kidnapping situation.

But whatever. I've got other stuff to worry about. Sean took off on his stupid-ass moped today to go looking for hippies to help build the new Cerebro and apparently, me and Sean are supposed to be the ones that tell them what to do, since Hank would kinda freak them out. But that means that we have to meet with Hank a lot to make sure we know what needs to be done. We don't need to know how it words, just what it's supposed to look like. And Charles said I also have to talk with Sean about how to talk to hippies because apparently if they ask why they gotta do something a certain way, you can't just say, "Because I said so, cocksucker!" No, you have to say that it's because that's the way the earth is calling you or some bullshit like that.

That was something me and Erik had in common: we both hate hippies. It would have been nice to have a little backup on that point, but evidently Erik's off trying to find Charles' brother's girlfriend. Or hooker. No one was exactly clear on that point. I personally don't mind Erik being gone – him and me were never exactly best buddies – but I'm gonna point out that Erik doesn't exactly have a great track record with Charles' siblings.

Here's the thing. There are people like Sean and Hank who think I hate Scott because he's annoying – and don't get me wrong, he's irritating as fuck – but that's not really it. I mean, little brothers are supposed to be annoying. At least, they always are on TV. I think we're sort of built differently, where he likes to follow the rules and I like to break them, so I don't think we ever would have been best friends even if we'd grown up together in a normal house and everything. Charles thinks that I hate Scott because I feel guilty about not being a better brother, and I guess that's kind of true. I mean, while it's not like I abandoned him to the orphanage in Oliver Twist or anything (I had to read it for school), I did feel like a real asshat when I had to admit that I didn't know what he looked like.

A couple of days ago, Scott asked me what Mom and Dad were like and then it sort of hit me (by which I mean I sort of hit him...): forget being a better brother, I feel bad about not being a better son. I mean, I really got to grow up with my parents. Scott doesn't remember them at all, and I think they never really got to know him because how much personality can you have when you're two years old? And that really sucks because he's the kind of kid that parents would be proud of. He got good grades, not scary nerd straight-As or anything, but B's in most of his classes. He makes his bed (right now, he does a really shitty job, but he's blind so cut him some slack) and rinses his plate and probably spends his Saturdays helping little old ladies cross the street. And he plays the fucking piano. Me? I'm a high school dropout who's done time.

I can't blame it on my powers, not totally. What happened to Scott when his powers appeared was a real honest-to-goodness accident, but I was in trouble long before my mutant side showed up. I mean, nothing really evil or anything. I didn't torture cats. Just shoplifting, breaking windows, that sort of thing. Also setting fires. (Incidentally, I've always liked fire, so man, when my mutant power came out and I found out I was the goddamn king of lighting shit on fire, I was on top of the fucking world!) I didn't set fire to important stuff, just leaves and trash cans and that kind of thing. Probably the worst thing I did was set a liquor store on fire, but that's not nearly as bad as it sounds because: One – there was nobody in the store at the time, two – the store owner completely deserved it, and three – nobody ever pinned that one on me.

But when I did get caught for stuff, the cops would drag me home and my foster parents would look all disappointed at me. I don't really know where I thought that was all heading, but I kept thinking it would somehow work itself out. Then there was this stupid school dance that I wasn't even going to; I was hanging around outside throwing rocks at stuff. But Emily – that was my foster sister – came out of the dance and she was all upset and she asked me to walk her home. So I'm walking her home and her boyfriend drives up beside us and starts telling her why she should get in the car with him and I'm getting a pretty good idea about why Emily left the dance early, so when he grabs her arm and tries to pull her into the car, I started getting really pissed off. Then everything was red and the car was ashes and the guy was ashes and Emily's screaming. And when the cops showed up, she didn't even tell them what her boyfriend was up to, just that I exploded his car for no good reason. (Emily was kind of a bitch, when you got right down to it.) But when they actually put handcuffs on me and locked me in a cell, I just couldn't stop thinking that I was real glad my mom and dad weren't alive to see me like this.

Which I guess means that now I guess I gotta be a different sort of son, right? So I go find Scott which is easy to do because he's practicing the piano. Sounds like church music. I almost want to say to him, "You were asking about Mom and Dad? Well, they'd be real proud of you," but I just can't say something like that. Instead I tell him that Xavier's the best at this sort of thing and he's not going to let anybody get hurt. And that tomorrow when they open up his eyes, I'll be there with him.


Chapter Text

If Erik was their general in war, Charles was their general in peace. He approached the task with vigor, creating list after list of things to be done. The first order of business, of course, was Scott's eyes.

They had created a passable sterile space in the fallout shelter. Alex and Sean had driven to the Salem Center hospital and picked up a mute, glassy-eyed man standing on the curb with a traditional doctor bag in his left hand and a grocery bag full of pill bottles in the right. (No time like the present to start stocking their infirmary!) Charles had released the man's mind, calmed him, informed him of the situation, and calmed him again.

The doctor now knelt over Scott with tweezers in one hand and a hooked blade in the other. Charles' fingers were pressed to his temple; he was telepathically sedating Scott while simultaneously directing the facial muscles controlling the eyelids. The stitches were coming out cleanly, though there was some bleeding where the skin had grown around the thread. Alex sat on the floor beside his brother, saying nothing.

"I need to irrigate each eye," said the doctor. He had been warned not to open his patient's eyes, but he wasn't going to neglect basic procedure.

Charles thought for a moment, trying to ignore the background laughter. "Is there any reason the water needs to be squirted above the eye instead of from the side?"

"Saline, not water." The man's eyes darted back and forth as he pictured the procedure. "Eyes are round," he said, "so if the eye was irrigated just from the side, the far side of each eye wouldn't be treated."

There was almost a minute of silence before Alex said, "Get both eyes from both sides," in a tone that implied this solution was obvious. "So when you come from the right, you get the right side of both eyes and when you come from the left, you get the left side of both eyes."

After coaching the doctor to stay well clear of Scott's gaze, Charles allowed the boy's eyes to open. A dark red beam shot forth and smashed into the fallout shelter ceiling with an unceremonious thud.

"HOLY SHIT!" yelled Alex.

The doctor looked as though he quite agreed before a telepathic nudge from Charles prompted him to return to the task at hand. "It's done," he said. Charles shut Scott's eyes and the thudding stopped. "I have no idea if there's any damage. I couldn't see anything in there."

Alex thought the doctor was being remarkably calm for someone who had just been kidnapped and operated on a kid with magical death ray eyes, but he suspected that Charles might have something to do with that. The doctor remained calm while Sean drove him back to the hospital and Charles replaced his memory of basement surgery with the memory of a slow, but delicious turkey lunch at a local diner.


Now came the drawn-out and difficult part.

Charles brought Scott out of sedation and gradually relinquished control of his facial muscles. The boy sat cross-legged on the ground, eyes clenched shut until Hank finished setting up a new instrument or making adjustments to an old one, then he opened his eyes, destroyed something expensive, and shut them again.

During a particularly long delay, Alex pulled a paperback from his pocket. "Scott, you remember where you were in The Puppet Masters?" he asked. "That's the book, isn't it? The one you were reading?"

Now the delays were more tolerable, as Alex read aloud while Hank tinkered endlessly with increasingly battered machinery. Scott still looked quite serious, fully focused on his eyes, even as he listened to the ending of the book he started months ago.

Finally, they had enough data to hypothesize about effective barriers, barriers that would have to be tested one at a time. Glass shattered. Lead collapsed. White tin looked promising, but extended testing revealed that it was gradually warping. Obsidian and asbestos simply flew through the air. Plastics were worthless. Quartz held out the longest before shredding itself spectacularly. "Needs a stabilizing agent..." muttered Hank, before running up the stairs to retrieve a box full of rock samples, all variants of quartz. Amethyst, prasiolite, agate, onyx, tiger's eye, chalcedony, and rose quartz all ended up smashed or embedded in the stone walls, before ruby quartz was tried. It floated in the path of Scott's beam, held aloft by an extremely powerful jet of air, completely unmoved by the powerful blast, absorbing it entirely.

"Now would also be an appropriate time to say 'holy shit,' Alex," said Hank with an air of pleased self-satisfaction.


Charles knew that preparing the manor for more students and for a broader purpose meant imposing some degree of order. Chaos was manageable when there were so few of them – or maybe it wasn't. Sean had a self-imposed training schedule that bordered on unreasonable. Alex and Lyle came and went at all hours, often sleeping until the afternoon. A schedule with clear expectations would help in this regard. Charles had ignored Abigail and the twins, allowing Abby to grow sullen and the twins to grow mysteriously exhausted. No one wanted to cook, so the task often fell to Abby; foisting food preparation on the only capable female in the house seemed uncomfortably sexist. (And when Abigail didn't cook, their dinners were markedly half-assed: take out, breakfast cereal, and – once, when Lyle was "cooking" – frozen waffles and a multivitamin.) The more students there were, the harder it would be for Charles to keep track of each one's well-being via casual contact. And there were more than a few behaviors that simply had to be restricted. Thank god Gregory and Isaac were raised by carnies; he knew most 11-year-olds wouldn't be familiar with the sort of language they heard around here. They needed to set a precedent now that disputes among residents would be resolved peaceably. He already had students whose powers rendered them capable of maiming or killing one another; he was sure to have more.

So he sat in his study with his lists, writing and thinking.

"I don't wanna be an angel." The child's voice was more distinctively Southern.

Charles looked behind him, in the direction of the voice, because the part of his mind that knew it wasn't real was slower than the part which instinctively turned toward sounds. There was a boy in his study, a scaly, hairless boy with a forked tongue darting out from his mouth.

"I don't wanna be an angel," he repeated, "but I don't wanna be no devil neither." The boy raised the pistol to his mouth.

"No! Don't!" cried Charles, but the boy couldn't hear him. The gunshot was terribly loud and there were bits of bone and there was blood and there was brain and there was-

There was no gunshot. There was no boy. The sound Charles thought was a gunshot was a knock on the mostly-closed door before Sean entered with a plate of pasta and a guilty look.

"I brought you some dinner," he said. "Are you okay, man?"

"Oh yes," Charles smiled warmly. "I'm fine, thank you. And thank you for the dinner."

"Who...were you talking to?" asked Sean cautiously, not quite convinced.

"No one. I was just..." First rule of lying, thought Charles, admit to a lesser crime and they'll quit because they found something. "Well, if you must know, I was imagining I was giving a speech to some of our less progressive congressional representatives. I suppose I must have gotten a bit animated." He couldn't force himself to blush, but he could smile shyly, which had a similar effect.

"Oh, right. Yeah, I do that too. I mean, not congress, but practice what I want to say. Everybody does that; don't worry about it, man." He nodded amiably. He seemed convinced.


There were new rules, ones that were actually enforced. There was an actual bedtime for the kids. Illegal substances were banned from the common areas. All psychoactive substances, legal and illegal, were banned before 7pm. (While Alex and Lyle occasionally had a beer in the afternoon, Charles was aware that this rule affected him more than anyone else. He had hoped the threat of hypocrisy would give him a little motivation to skip the shot of gin which acted as his customary hangover cure.) Hard hallucinogens – acid and the like – were banned entirely due to the destructive potential of seriously disoriented mutants. No quoting Lenny Bruce until the kids went to bed. Anyone going off-grounds had to leave a note. Nothing was to be drummed against anything else after 10pm for chrissakes, Alex. Breakfast and lunch were catch-as-catch-can, but dinner was at 6:30. A schedule was established for cooking along with a vague outline of what cooking dinner actually entailed. For example, more than one ingredient was necessary and heat should typically be applied. Other chores were scheduled and assigned. Everyone complained – though Scott and Abigail secretly felt relieved – but day-to-day life was running far more smoothly.

Dinner gave them all a chance to interact without specific purpose. It was during dinner that they found out that Sean had, in the course of his hippy-recruitment efforts, developed a crush on a woman named Betty who was apparently the hippy equivalent of a lounge singer.

"Oh man," said Sean, "she's got the most beautiful voice and her ass!" He made a thank-heaven gesture.

"Well if she's that pretty," said Alex, "what's she doin' with a guy like you?"

It was at this point that Sean admitted he had never actually spoken to Betsy. Then everyone, even Abigail, was teasing him and laughing and Raven was flinging peas at the boys which was funny even though at ten years old she should really know better than to play with her food and-

Wait. Raven wasn't ten.

Wait. Raven wasn't alive.

Well, fuck.


They were all required to train, two hours per day for the adults, one hour per day for the kids. Charles left the definition of "training" purposely broad. It encompassed general development of strength, speed, endurance, agility, as well as gaining control over one's powers, practicing offensive tactics, camouflage, or anything else that might come in handy. Charles finally admitted to himself that he had learned riflery mostly to impress Erik and so instead focused purely on the development of his telepathic abilities. With the students' permission, he would practice precisely controlling their muscles, turning Scott into a gymnast or making Lyle deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy. He played with sensory illusions, letting them see the world upside down or causing them to taste an imaginary grilled-cheese sandwich.

The tasks he really needed to practice, however, required unwilling subjects; tasks like freezing large numbers of people against their will, altering their memories so they wouldn't notice any logical inconsistencies, finding information that didn't want to be found, finding information quickly without his presence being noticed. And so, reluctantly, he began to spend a portion of each day scanning the minds of the Salem Center townsfolk. He searched for secret information: he found out who was having affairs, who was selling amphetamines, who was skimming money. He caused a gym class to believe they had played a close game of basketball when in fact they had stood stock-still for forty minutes. He caused hundreds of people to wake up at exactly 4:32am and to fall back asleep one minute later. Morally, he was very uncomfortable with these activities, though he knew Erik would heartily approve. His only justification was that he couldn't get stronger without practicing and if he just got strong enough, maybe no one would die on their next mission.

Lyle had been singularly unsuccessful in his attempts to suppress his wings' emergence, though he was gaining some capacity to force them to appear on command. He still couldn't control the type of wings, nor where on his body they appeared, so this was not a particularly useful skill. He practiced his sharpshooting. He practiced his lying, too, in case he was every caught in public with his wings, though Charles greatly doubted that Lyle would be able to talk his way out of the situation if, as had occurred only days ago, a four-foot hawk wing sprouted from his ankle.

The twins practiced stealth. Charles was frankly uncomfortable with teaching such young children to fight (why did twelve seem so much younger than thirteen?), and their mutation clearly lent itself to discretion. So every day, Gregory and Isaac would race out to the trees which lined the grounds and camouflage themselves as perfectly as possible. Hank would try to find them, first with his eyes and ears only; then, if that failed, with his nose as well.

Alex still worked on controlling his powers, with and without Hank's invention. With the apparatus, could he generate a very small blast? How about a very short one? How long could he sustain it? Without the apparatus, could he aim? Could he back down without firing, once he had charged up?

Erik and Charles quite agreed that one could not be said to have mastered a skill if one could not perform it successfully under distracting or stressful conditions. Erik had used cold, sleep deprivation, and pain to this effect while training Sean. Though Charles remained willfully ignorant of most of the details, he was vaguely aware that Erik and Sean would sometimes complete training exercises with rocks in their shoes. Charles chose a different approach.

"Excellent, Sean! Now, I want you to do it again, but this time I want you to do it while counting backwards from four hundred by thirteens."

"All right, Hank. This time, I want to see how well you can dodge while reciting all the bones in the human body in reverse alphabetical order." (Keeping Hank's mind busy took a fair amount of effort.)

"Alex, we're going to repeat the sequence, but this time I want you to tell me every song Keith Moon has ever recorded, in chronological order." A pause. "And once more," smirked Charles, "but now tell me every song Keith Moon ever wrote. Oh, that's right, there aren't any, because he's a goddamn drummer!"

Scott had excellent aim from the start because all he had to do was look at his target, but he insisted on practicing for hours on end. He also tagged along with the older boys for strength and endurance training, though, having not hit his growth spurt yet, he consistently lagged behind.

Abby avoided training whenever she could. She had too much homework, she had to stay after school, but when cornered, she would slouch across from Charles and practice making shadow puppets without moving her fingers. He tried to push her – Could she move the shapes from one pool of light to another? Could her shadow sneak off to a different room? – but with little success. He insisted that if she wouldn't train, she wouldn't do anything else during training time either. So she sat next to him while he directed the boys in agility exercises after dinner. He tried to make pleasant conversation, though she was sullen and difficult to talk to.

One evening, while the boys were running suicide sprints across the lawn, Charles glanced at Abby with a conspiratorial flicker. "I appear to have developed a new power," he said.

"That can happen?" Abigail sounded disturbed, probably worried that one day she would wake up more mutant than she already was.

"Not a new mutant power, just a regular one."

"Oh." Bored rather than relieved. "What is it?"

"Apparently," said Charles with a flourish, "this wheelchair renders those boys completely incapable of complaining that I'm making them run too much. It's like magic."

Abby smiled weakly.

Charles, conversely, cackled madly for several seconds. "I'm drunk with power!"

Abby raised her eyebrows. "The bottle says vodka."

"I'm drunk with vodka!"

She rolled her eyes.

"All right, that's it," said Charles. "I've tried being hands-off. I've tried being paternal. I've tried being friendly. I'm out of ideas. Time to move on to the world's most ancient motivator: money." He reached into his wallet and pulled out a crisp 100$ bill. From the satchel that hung from the back of his wheelchair, he withdrew a small wooden box with a key stuck in the keyhole. He put the money in the box and the key in his pocket before handing the box to Abigail. "The money is yours if you can get it out. And don't break the box. I like that box."

She turned the box over in her hands, looking incredulous and disdainful.

As an afterthought, Charles mentioned, "You know what can get through very small cracks? Shadows," before shouting to Alex to put down the rock he was prying loose.


Charles missed the intensity and easy camaraderie he shared with Erik, but he also noticed that he actually seemed to function a bit better with Erik gone. He was more focused. He was more productive. He was more effective. He was even having moderate success in his attempts to cut back on his drinking. His hallucinations continued to become gradually more severe, but of course that was a trend that began long before Erik left.

Was it simply that he was sleeping better? When he shared a bed with Erik, he helped to shoulder the burden on his friend's dreams. But no, by this point, Charles had seen so much of Erik's mind that his dreams hadn't changed much with Erik's departure. He still dreamt the endless repetitive moment between eins, zwei, drei, and the gunshot. His dreams still blended Erik's memories with his own. Last night he had seen dead-eyed men in striped clothing, marked only with a number and a colored triangle, lining the familiar Oxford alleyways. So, no. His sleep was the same.

Was it that he had less to worry about, with Erik gone? No, he had plenty to worry about. Cain could kill Erik. Erik could kill Cain. Either one of them could conceivably raze a Cambodian hamlet under the right circumstances. They could both be killed by military forces on either side. They could die of some nasty tropical infection; Charles recalled seeing pictures of elephantiasis patients in an undergraduate textbook and shuddered.

So what did it mean if he functioned better without Erik? (Charles could almost hear Erik deriding his insistence on finding meaning.) His mother had once said to him that true love is when you both make each other better people. Then again, thought Charles, she married Kurt Marko and drank herself to death, so perhaps she was not the best source of advice on the topic.

"Oh I don't know," said Charles' mother, "does wisdom depend on the source?"


Chapter Text

"As scientific research goes," said Charles, "this is perfectly reasonable from an ethical standpoint. It's just a fingerstick blood sample...it's less than Hank asked of you."

"I'm not saying it's a bad thing to do," said Raven, settling onto the davenport in the study. "Honestly, I wasn't even paying attention when you told me what you were planning to do." She flashed him a grin. "I'm just saying it's no coincidence that you waited until Erik was gone to start."

"I didn't wait until he was gone. I just hadn't found the time until now."

"Uh-huh, sure." Raven rolled her eyes.

"And even if I did, that doesn't mean the research is morally wrong. Maybe I just didn't want to aggravate him unnecessarily."

"Of course. It's always a good idea to avoid pissing off the guy who's batshit insane."

Charles sighed. "Be nice," he scolded.

"Hey, speaking of insane..." She raised her eyebrows meaningfully.

"Ra-ven," Charles whined, "I'm anxious enough as it is. You don't need to make it worse."

She mussed his hair affectionately. "I just worry about you."

"You don't need to worry. I'll take care of it."

Raven put her hands on her hips. "You always say that and it's never true."

"Well, it sounds much more pleasant than, 'I'm not sure what to do, but it makes me feel better to think that I can protect you from at least some of the fears and worries in this life.'"

She smiled and sighed. "You're so stupid sometimes," she said as she hugged him. She kissed his forehead, then went back to being dead.


Traveling with Cain was very different from traveling with Charles. Instead of a scrupulously scheduled itinerary of hotels and rental cars, they spent days in train cars and below deck on smuggling ships with an endless medley of society's criminal underclass. Cain took a pragmatic attitude toward food as well, so they ate from dented, unlabeled cans and half-finished pizza boxes. (Charles had always been a snob about such things: "I'm not eating garbage, Erik!") Cain was not an ideological ascetic; he was simply a man who considered his needs met if he had a full belly and adequate access to shots from the nearest VD clinic. Erik had known many people like this – thugs with no ambition – though this conclusion was difficult to reconcile with Cain's refusal of his inheritance money.

Cain occasionally, tediously, attempted to talk to him. "So, what are ya' doin' with Charlie?"

"At the moment? I'm not killing his brother."

"What?" Cain mistook repeating himself for clarifying his question. "I mean, what are you doin' with Charlie?" He really was mentally subnormal.

"At the moment? I'm very much regretting not killing his brother."

Of the human miscellany that shared their various transports, most were strangers who kept to themselves, but a fair number seemed to know Cain from a past deal or job. While no one recognized him with warmth or enthusiasm, neither did anyone greet him with a broken bottle and shouts of, "You sold me out!" Erik decided there were three possible explanations for this phenomenon: One, Cain had shrewdly arranged for them to avoid any possible encounters with colleagues he had once betrayed. This seemed unlikely; Cain didn't seem mentally capable of planning with that level of detail. Two, Cain had silenced all of his critics, either via murder or fear. This was certainly possible, though Erik had thus far seen no evidence that Cain was invulnerable to conventional bullets; he was not invincible in combat. The third possibility was that Cain was a reliable crook, the kind with that strange sort of morality that let him take pride in consistently following through on his threats of extortion.

Erik also felt that Cain should bathe more frequently.


There was one last step to making this place run properly. Charles called Sean, Alex, and Lyle together to explain the final addition to their daily schedules: They were to spend two hours each day either preparing or teaching a subject. "This is a school," he said, "and you all have something to offer. If you don't know anything well enough to teach it yet, you're going to put time in each day to study."

"I'm not a teacher," said Alex flatly.

"Not yet. First you have to pick a subject."

"What if I don't pick anything?" Alex had never been a fan of school.

"I'll let you think it over. Twenty-four hours should be sufficient. If you haven't chosen a subject by then, I'm picking for you," he paused, "and I don't think you would much like becoming our ballet instructor."

Lyle helpfully began to whistle Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies.


From Charles' stories, Erik had figured out that Cain was a 'ladder' sort of person, the kind of guy who absolutely had to sort the world into people who were above him and people who were below him. Ladder people were like dogs or chickens. Every interaction was about knowing who to dominate and who to submit to. It explained why Cain and Charles could never get along. Charles would never submit, too much pride, but he wouldn't use his intellect or his mutation to beat Cain into submission either. Charles would have tried diplomacy, equality, cooperation, which simply weren't conceivable options as far as Cain was concerned.

Erik didn't plan on repeating Charles' mistake.

The first time Erik was alone with Cain for any length of time happened when he was in the bottommost deck of a cargo ship traveling from Hawaii to the Philippines. Cain had settled himself on a reasonably comfortable stack of Styrofoam crates.

"Move it," said Erik. "I want to sit there."

"Piss off," said Cain, busy untying his boots.

"I said move." Erik didn't yell. Erik never yelled. Erik made whispering frightening.

"And I said piss off."

Erik stepped forward and shoved Cain, but the larger man was completely unaffected. Erik was not preternaturally strong, but he was a fairly tall man and he was in very good shape; he was unused to losing fist fights. He had only a fraction of a second to spend on surprise before Cain's fist connected with his jaw and damn he was strong, there was probably a hairline fracture and he could taste a lot of blood and-

No time to think about that. This plan only worked if he beat Cain thoroughly. It couldn't be a close call. He spread his fingers and a thick steel chain wrapped around Cain's neck, lifting him a few feet off of the deck. He deliberately left just enough slack that Cain could tug helplessly with a few beefy fingers; it made people think they could affect their fate, which made his eventual victory more complete. He watched, impassive, as the man gasped and sputtered, struggling with increasing desperation.

"If I let you down, are you going to behave?" Erik idly spun balanced the tip of a dagger on his index finger. The more all of this looked effortless, the more impressive it seemed.

Cain nodded frantically. His lips and fingernails were turning a classic cyanotic blue.

"I want to hear you say it."

Cain struggled to lift his enormous body weight with the pair of fingers he had managed to slip under the chain, to take in sufficient air to rasp out a response. He finally gasped a nearly inaudible "yes," eyes bugging wide with panic.

"Yes sir," demanded Erik.

Cain strained wildly and finally creaked out a desperate sound that bore a passing resemblance to "yes sir." The chain laxed and Cain fell to the steel deck, hands wrapped around his reddened neck, breathing as quickly and as deeply as he could.

Erik settled himself down on the Styrofoam crates. Damn, these were more comfortable than the plywood. And now he had the opportunity to take stock of his jaw, which was aching mightily. A tooth was knocked loose, but it was a false one. He could ignore that.


Charles had three reasons for his new educational regime. The first was pragmatic. Certainly Hank could teach every subject through the high school level, but Hank was a scientist first and foremost, with interests and ambitions of his own. It wouldn't be fair to force Hank to take all the teaching responsibilities when the others were perfectly capable of contributing.

Sean was the first to choose. "I want to teach history. Nobody else has called that yet, right?"

"Not at all, Mr. Cassidy. History it is." He smiled warmly. "Any particular reason?"

Sean shrugged. "I always got grades in history in school. And I kind of had this idea..."

"Go on."

"Well, in school, we read about these witch hunts and they said it was because of mushrooms or something."

"Ergotism is caused by a mold, technically, but continue."

"Yeah, that's the thing. And they said that it made people go crazy and think they saw people do witchcraft, but what if there was really...I mean, not witchcraft, but what if they were mutants? And they really could do impossible things?"

"That...that is an interesting hypothesis, Mr. Cassidy. And an excellent topic of study."

The second reason was interpersonal. If the students were going to work together in combat or in life, they were going to have to hold each other in some esteem. They all liked each other reasonably well, but there was a significant difference between liking someone and having appropriate admiration for his competence. It was difficult to trust someone with your life when you secretly thought of him as a burnout criminal, a dumb hick, or a mindless druggie. (Although in Sean's case, he had begun to acquire an equally unhelpful reputation for being unstable and dangerous, like Erik.) If each one gained a level of expertise and the others had to learn from him, it would engender a level of respect.

Charles was forced to admit his own prejudices as he waited for Lyle's response. The plan would backfire severely if one of them turned out to have no skills worth teaching.

Lyle announced his plan over dinner. "I want to do what they called in my school 'Practical Arts'. You know, like woodworking and knitting and stuff?"

"You knit?" asked Alex, saying the latter word as though it were profanity.

"Sure do," said Lyle. "Real useful. I do that crotch thing, too." He mimed a hooking motion with his hand.

"I believe it's more commonly pronounced cro-shay, Mr. Saunders," said Charles, choking back laughter.

"Yeah, that's the one. Makes good hats!"

The third reason was internal. Charles wanted each of the students to think of himself as a competent man, someone who could be successful in the regular world if he chose, someone who had talents beyond their strange little world. Which was why he was dearly hoping his plans for Alex would work.

"Twenty-four hours are up, Mr. Summers. Have you come to a decision?"

"I don't know, man! This isn't my kind of thing." Alex found himself irresistibly recalling the melody to Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies. He shook his head. "Knock that off!"

Charles smirked. "Am I correct in concluding that you have not settled on a subject?"

"If this is leading to ballet, I will set every tree in a hundred mile radius on fire."

"Relax, no ballet. It was an idle threat."

"Good."

"You're going to study finance."

"What?" Alex didn't look any more comfortable with this idea than he did with leotards.

"It's a practical skill for day-to-day life, it can be an effective way to track down miscellaneous bad guys, and I need to know that someone here is capable of managing the accounts should I be incapacitated."

Alex still looked unnerved. Charles waited. He was offering Alex a chance to be respectable. To be relied upon for something other than destruction. "You did an excellent job when I was in the hospital," he added.

"You know we spent most of that money on drugs and stuff to annoy Hank."

"But you budgeted carefully for your psychotropics. I saw your notes."

Alex cracked a grin. This was going to work. Success.


Upon arriving in Vietnam, Cain stated that he had to convert his money to the local currency, which was apparently a euphemism for purchasing half a kilo of heroin. ("Makes the best bribes!") Since doing that, he had propositioned three passing women and punched an ox. ("It was lookin' at me funny!")

Erik was feeling something strange. It was as if he were pissed off that Cain didn't know how to have a proper conversation, pissed off that Cain's brand of trouble was puerile rather than amusing, pissed off that Cain insisted on talking like an ill-bred hick when he had grown up with the same advantages Charles had. Oh, that was it. He missed Charles. So this was what it felt like to miss someone he might conceivably see again.

Soon after leaving the manor, Erik had noticed that his pack was slightly heavier than it should have been. He had opened the side pocket to find a pair of gifts from Charles: a paperback copy of Les Misérables and a plastic baggie helpfully labeled "Popcorn and Sedatives" in Charles' spindly script. His sleep had indeed deteriorated now that he was no longer sharing a bed with Charles, but he had only resorted once to the sedatives. As for the popcorn, he had been making and enjoying a few kernels per day.

He forced himself to focus; he had a job to do. Grabbing Cain by the ear (this was when establishing himself as the alpha wolf in Cain's pathetic little pack came in handy), he strode purposefully into the jungle.


Life at the mansion was running smoothly. The Blackbird was finished and ready for her first test flight. Cerebro's outer frame was progressing even more quickly than planned, thanks to Sean's success at recruiting and retaining hippie labor. Alex had apparently told their workforce that they were building a temple to help everyone in the area focus their "soul energy," which led to the hippies leaving driftwood sculptures, irregular rocks, and dried flowers around the construction site in the apparent belief that souls thrived on natural debris. (Alex's enthusiasm for working with hippies had increased exponentially once he discovered the concept of "free love.") Hank's architectural design was clever in accommodating Charles' disability. The top of the sphere was at ground level. A long, gently sloping ramp would curl around the top half of the dome leading to the control station in the middle.

Charles rarely observed the construction himself. It was becoming too suspicious, the way he would suddenly grimace or laugh or hiss "Shut up!" at an unseen speaker. They were following him everywhere now, talking to him, talking to each other, or just laughing. He knew he didn't have schizophrenia – it was a complex syndrome of deterioration of thought and behavior of which hallucinations were only a small part – but he had begun to plot ways he could get his hands on haloperidol, an antipsychotic medication. Or rather, ways he could obtain it without the students noticing. Haloperidol would reduce activity in the dopamine system and thereby reduce the excess perceptual information that was flooding his system. Unless this had nothing to do with dopamine. No one knew how telepathy was manifest in the brain. Maybe these weren't hallucinations. Maybe they were some kind of telepathic echo. Maybe he was actually speaking with the dead. Maybe he was experiencing alcohol withdraw and having DTs, though delirium tremens was usually accompanied by a tremor, was it not?

What if he was delusional? He was assuring himself that he did not have schizophrenia on the basis that his thinking was still rational. Part of the reason schizophrenics believed in their hallucinations was an inability to use rational thought to determine whether the things they perceived were possible or not. And he recognized when he was hallucinating, right? Of course, how would he know if he hallucinated a stimulus and thought it was real? And if he had delusions, they would seem perfectly rational to him. That was the whole point of a delusion – it didn't fit with reality, but the believer was sure it did. Maybe he was a schizophrenic. He was young enough to fall within the normal age of onset.

But no, he knew it wasn't real. These people were dead. Dead means the absence of brain activity, means the end of conscious existence. They had no thoughts, so they had nothing to say. All of these ideas, the plain ones and the annoying ones and the hateful ones and the terrifying ones, all of these ideas were coming from his own mind, which made them hallucinations, yes, but he would be damned if he was going to start believing in them.


Erik was starting to feel quite at home. This was a lawless warzone. According to Cain, the locals didn't think of them as superhuman, but rather as people who were bonded with some kind of supernatural force. Or possibly incredibly powerful technology. Or something else. Cain admitted that he hadn't really been paying attention.

Erik had wrapped thick iron bands around his ankles and shoulders, not enough to fly long distances, but enough that he could perform some unlikely acrobatic feats. He didn't want a reputation, exactly – that might tip off his quarry – but there was no harm in earning the unbridled fear of the townsfolk. There was nothing like a little stunning impossibility to loosen lips and make interrogations proceed more smoothly.


Charles sat in the library, looking out over Raven's grave, drinking afternoon tea.

"Uh, Professor?"

Charles turned around to see Sean standing in the doorway, all the weight on his left foot. He was wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt, with the hood pulled tight around his face. "Good evening, Sean."

"I...um, I wanted to...uh, go to Boston this weekend. To visit my family. I'll be back on Sunday night."

"Of course. Any reason in particular?"

Sean tipped his head so he could see Raven's grave through the window. "Uh...no, no reason."

Charles furrowed his brow. "You're lying to me, Sean."

Sean's face immediately took on a fierce quality. It must be just under the surface, Charles thought. "I thought you weren't supposed to read our minds, man." His voice was hot and angry.

"I didn't read your mind. I took a guess, which you confirmed."

Sean said nothing, just wedged his upper teeth behind his lower teeth, as if he were holding back fangs.

"You don't have to say if you don't want to," said Charles.

"Good. Can I go?"

Charles paused. This wasn't like Sean at all. "If you go," he said carefully, "is anyone going to get hurt?"

"Sure. Somebody's always getting hurt somewhere," said Sean, his voice low and flat. While we do nothing, he thought, too loudly to be ignored.

Charles shut his eyes. He wasn't used to this sort of nihilism from any of the students, let alone Sean. "I chose my words poorly. If you go, are you going to harm anyone or cause harm to come to anyone?"

"No! I'm not some kind of monster!"

"No, of course you're-" but Sean was already gone. What the hell just happened? What on earth was going on? It wasn't like Sean to be so angry and aggressive. Charles rested his head in his hands. He needed a drink – no, no alcohol. Alcohol enhanced dopamine activity. That would only make things worse.

Are you going to cry about it? taunted Kurt.

Charles' head hurt terribly and he needed to do something to calm his nerves. It disturbed him somewhat that he had no ideas other than liquor. Well, there was chess with Erik. That was pleasant. But Erik wasn't here. What would Erik say if he were here, thought Charles, while reminding himself that this wasn't insanity, just imagination.

"Erik," he said aloud, after mentally checking to ensure none of the students were nearby, "I just had the most unbelievable conversation with Sean. I don't know what's wrong. I'm very worried."

He imagined Erik's blasé shrug. "Kid's higher than a weather balloon on ketamine. What did you expect?"

"He's normally uses drugs, but he's not normally like this."

"Hey, last week I caught him snorting paint. Snorting paint! He's not even doing drugs correctly!"

Charles laughed at his own little joke imagined in Erik's voice. He felt a little better at least.

Abby knocked on the study door, flipping through the day's post. "Um, you have a telegram," she said incredulously.

"Oh, good," replied Charles, showing no sign of his earlier distress. "I was hoping the 1930s would answer my missive."

"It's from someone named Max." She held it out to him. "Who's Max?"


Chapter Text

Below is the full text of the telegram from "Max." I'm very bad at guessing how difficult things will be to figure out, so I have no idea how difficult this one will be. The solution is in the next chapter. Have fun!

Hint: Some people have figured out that the text below takes the form of a particular game (sort of). This is true, but they're not playing the game. There is no back-and-forth. It is one letter, from Max to Charles.


NB8TOQD1TAKEQD1TOQD8STOP

NG1TOG7STOP

NG7TOF7STOP

NF7TOE7STOP

RH1TOE6STOP

KE8TOQD8STOP

RE6TOD7C7B7A7STOP

NB8TORA7BUTNE7TONB8STOP

KE8TO9101112STOP

NANDRTOBF1STOP

KHASOWNBSTOP


Chapter Text

"It's from someone named Max." Abby held the telegram out to him. "Who's Max?"

First Sean, now this. The day was growing more absurd by the minute. "A dear friend of mine," said Charles. If he were not still feeling profoundly unsettled by his argument with Sean, he might have elaborated further. As it was, he couldn't help breathing a sigh of relief when Abby skulked off to be irritable elsewhere. He guiltily made a mental promise that once they got the new Cerebro up and running, he would make a point of recruiting another girl. One who could talk.

"Max," he sighed as he turned the telegram over in his hands. Erik's paranoia was not precisely unjustified, but Charles doubted that the any governmental agency was really monitoring all communications by people named Erik. And what was this nonsense on the inside? More of Erik's cloak-and-dagger games? Oh, a code, of course.

Well, it wouldn't be a simple substitution cipher. Those were so easily cracked there was little point in encoding the message in the first place. It couldn't be a really complicated encryption method either, the sort real spies and governments used, because he would never be able to crack that, and Erik wouldn't send him a message he couldn't read. They didn't work out any sort of mutual system beforehand, so it had to be based on some sort of shared body of knowledge, which narrowed down the possibilities considerably.

NB8TOQD1TAKEQD1TOQD8STOP

It almost looked like chess notation, but the moves weren't legal. It started with the black pieces, for one. On the first line, the knight moved from the eighth row to the first to capture the queen; knights could never move more than two rows from where they started. But it says the black knight takes the white queen back to the black queen's spot.

Charles smiled. "Always clever, Erik." It was a story. The white queen must be Ngo Thi Lam, Cain's companion, and the black knight must represent Stryker's people who abducted her.

NG1TOG7STOP

NG7TOF7STOP

NF7TOE7STOP

RH1TOE6STOP

The next few lines showed a white knight capturing a series of black pawns, trailed by a white rook. Erik probably picked the knight to represent himself, just based on his love of knights in chess. (Charles wondered if Erik was familiar with the English idiom 'white knight' and if so, what that implied about Erik's self-concept.) And that would make Cain the castle. That fit reasonably well. So Erik went about dealing with low-level soldiers or peasants or somesuch trying to track down the woman. Charles wasn't entirely certain what capturing a piece represented. He hoped it didn't mean that Erik had killed the unfortunate residents of squares G7, F7, and E7.

KE8TOQD8STOP

Charles moved on to the next line. The black king – was that Stryker? – captures the white queen. Since Ngo Thi Lam was already being held captive in the literal sense, it was very likely that line indicated that Stryker killed the woman. Perhaps not – he wasn't fluent in chess – but he was hard pressed to think of another explanation.

RE6TOD7C7B7A7STOP

Then the white rook goes cutting through black pawns. Cain's fury over her death.

NB8TORA7BUTNE7TONB8STOP

The black knight, the same one who abducted the woman in the first place, moves toward Cain, but the white knight captures the black knight. Erik took out whomever was threatening Cain.

KE8TO9101112STOP

The black king moves to...what was all that? Chessboards only had eight rows. Oh, Stryker fled. Off the map.

NANDRTOBF1STOP

The knight and the rook – Erik and Cain – move back to the white bishop. Charles frowned. "I am not a man of the cloth, Erik," he murmured in mock irritation. Chessmen were a limited medium; he would forgive Erik for representing him as a bishop. So they were coming home. Made sense. The woman is dead and Stryker left the area. They were coming home. Relief.

KHASOWNBSTOP

King has own bishop. Did that mean...Stryker had a telepath? Did he retrieve Emma Frost from CIA custody? Was there another telepath out there? Either way, it was worrisome. Charles could essentially overpower any given individual with his telepathy, unless his opponent was a telepath too. So if Stryker had a telepath, Charles lost his trump card. It occurred to Charles that Erik might have constructed and sent the entire message, just so Charles could make sense of the encoded warning at the end.



Sunday afternoon

Charles picked up the phone.

"Hey Professor," said the low voice on the other end. There was a lot of noise in the background.

"Sean?"

"Yeah, look, I'm not going to be back for a few more days."

"What's going on? Is everything all right?"

click


It was June. It was June and it was hot and everybody was irritable, not just the absent Sean. An amateur photographer had caught a distant and out-of-focus image of Hank, which had been subsequently been printed in a small-time tabloid with captions about yetis and ape-men. As a result, Charles had been forced to keep Hank and the twins indoors until he could find a way to secure the grounds. Hank had taken the yeti comparisons personally and become self-conscious about his appearance for the first time in months.

With Sean out-of-town, Alex had been forced to take over full responsibility for supervising their hippie labor force, which meant he was spending all his self-control on hour after hour of convincing marginally competent stoners to stay on track with Hank's plans, which meant he had no self-control left over for the rest of his interactions and was being particularly nasty. The timing was particularly poor, because Scott had recently developed acne and a creaking voice to complement his stutter. These were hopefully harbingers of a long-awaited growth spurt, but at present they just made Scott an even easier target than usual.

Simply demanding that Alex behave like a decent human being had been singularly unsuccessful. It was Thursday and Alex had been screaming at Scott yet again. Charles hadn't heard the entirety of the tirade, but he caught the gist as a red-faced Scott shuffled past him to lick his wounds in private. Telling Alex to stop hadn't worked, thought Charles, so take a new approach. He grabbed a pair of beers from the fridge and rolled up next to Alex.

"Here." Charles held out one bottle, before opening his own – hey, he had decided to cut back on drinking, not to stop entirely.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, be nice to the brat."

"Oh please," said Charles, "you're not even insulting him correctly anymore. He's not a brat. He's a snot, or a kiss-ass, or – dare I say – a pizza face."

Alex chuckled.

"I appreciate all of the time you have been putting in down here. It's really coming along."

"See that panel?" Alex pointed. "It's upside down. Tomorrow we're going to have to take it out and put it back in correctly."

Charles squinted. "I must say, they all look the same to me."

"Yeah, well, it's something to do with wires and magnetic fields and chemoreceptors and, I dunno, probably some phasers or tricorders or something like that."

"Hank does love his Star Trek."

"Yeah." Alex took a long swig of his beer. "So what's the deal with your brother?"

So we're going to approach this obliquely. That's fine. "A question worthy of a four-credit elective course all on its own," he said with a sad smile. "Cain is my step-brother. He is an angry young man with a very bad temper. He could be cruel at times." Charles took a small sip of his drink. "He was dealt a pretty rotten hand in life." A pause. "And he hated me. Still does, as far as I know." Charles ran his fingers through his hair. "I do wish things had been different between us."

"Yeah," said Alex miserably.

Oops. Charles hadn't meant the metaphor to go that way. Alex wasn't like Cain. Yes, there were certain parallels, but he couldn't imagine Alex walking up behind Scott and smacking him in the head with an oar for no particular reason, couldn't imagine Alex torturing animals, couldn't imagine Alex holding his brother back from crawling out of a fire. Nor could he imagine Cain deliberately getting himself confined to solitary so he wouldn't accidentally kill anyone with his powers.

Let's take this a different direction, then, thought Charles. "He's very loyal to these people he worked with, though. Would go to any lengths for them. I know, because the last thing he would ever want to do in this life is ask me for help. But he did. There's a certain strength to that."

Alex nodded slowly. His lips were pursed and his eyes were red. "I didn't mean what I said. I didn't mean it. Our parents wouldn't have...they wouldn't have been...they'd be so proud of him."


Charles sensed their minds at the gate. Erik and Cain and...someone new? Did he misinterpret the code? Did they actually succeed in rescuing Ngo Thi Lam? (A momentary worry in the back of his mind: perhaps there never a code at all and Charles had that most canonical of schizophrenic symptoms: seeing personal meaning in the meaningless?)

He shooed the kids off the first floor and tried to ignore the whispered conversations that seemed to emanate from a spot just behind his head.


"Charles," said Erik, "meet Pavel," he pointed to the third traveler, who was presently demonstrating her Elvis impression to a chaise lounge.

"Welcome," said Charles with a confused smile. 'Pavel' was, by all appearances, a swarthy teenage girl, whereas the name 'Pavel' was, to the best of his knowledge, generally given to Russian boys. She wore blue jeans with the lower half of each leg torn off to reveal unshaven legs and a menagerie of bug bites along with a very oversized men's polo shirt. Her mousy hair was quite short for a girl, though it would have been long for a boy.

Pavel, for her part, completely ignored Charles, and instead looked up at Cain, excitedly waving as though she had just found him in a crowd.

"She ain't the only one left," said Cain, "but she's the only one who's a mutant who wanted to come back with us. Magneto's rules." Cain had bite marks on his face. Too small and narrow for a human bite.

"I'm very sorry about your...friend," said Charles with as much sincerity as he could muster.

"Shut up," Cain growled.

Pavel wandered back to the group. "If at first you don't succeed," she said in an authoritative voice, "hunt down the ones who stopped you and then piss on their graves. Also, I think it would be really swell if frogs had ears. Big, floppy ones, like on border collies. Because then, when the frogs would jump, the ears would flap."

Charles' first absurd thought was that Abigail would finally have another verbal female resident. His second was that he suddenly felt quite sane by comparison.

"Pavel, you shut up too," rumbled Cain.

"Yes sir!" she cried with a salute, then immediately sat cross-legged on the floor.


Erik, some exposition really would be helpful at this moment.

"We found Stryker's camp. We found the woman's body. They had been drilling into her brain. Pavel was a mutant in the Red Hand who was captured as well, several months ago, but she escaped before they killed her," but obviously not before they damaged her brain, he added to Charles in his thoughts. "We found her and brought her with us when we returned."

Cain leaned down and pulled Pavel's hair up. "See?" he said, as he pointed to small, circular scars on her forehead and at the base of her skull. Pavel seemed completely unfazed by the treatment.

"Pavel," Charles spoke directly to her, "we all here have extraordinary abilities, mutant powers. What is yours?"

She giggled pleasantly. "You know your Tchaikovsky?"

"The composer?" asked Charles, wondering if he had made a mistake in deciding to communicate directly with the girl.

"Yessss," she drew out the 's'. "The 1812 Overture, right? It goes dun-nuh-nuh-nuh-dun-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh, bah-hish!" On the last note, when a cannon would normally fire in a traditional orchestral performance, everything went white. Everything, not just vision, but hearing, and proprioreception, and smell, and even Charles' telepathy. They were all completely blank. The effect lasted only seconds.

"Incredible, isn't it?" said Erik, beaming. "When she does it, I can't sense metal. Does it affect your telepathy as well? I've been dying to find out."

Charles nodded.

"Maybe metal might mean more if it's missing now and then," said Pavel.

"Marvelous," replied Charles.

Pavel grinned. She got the joke.

Charles saw his mother sit down on the sofa, her fingers wrapping around the gin and tonic he had fixed himself only a few minutes before Erik had returned. Charles, look – the lilacs are blooming.

Charles ignored the distraction. "She was a mercenary?" he asked. "How old is she?"

"She says sixteen," said Erik, "but then again she says her name is Pavel."

"And how long was she with this Red Hand organization?"

Cain looked at Pavel and shouted what was apparently a question in rapid-fire Vietnamese. Pavel gave what was, by appearances, a coherent Vietnamese response, because Cain looked back at Charles and said, "Five years, she thinks. Longer'n me."

Charles, look, said his mother, running her fingers along the glass, the lilacs are blooming.

Charles' nose wrinkled in disgust. "This mercenary group was taking in eleven-year-old children?"

"Heh," said Cain, unconcerned, "least I wasn't fuckin' her."

"I would think," said Charles, enraged, "that even you would set the bar a bit higher than 'not raping children'!"

Cain leaned forward, veins bulging. "That's where yer gonna stake your moral-fucking-high ground? You're one to talk! How old was that little girl you kept in your bed?"

Charles couldn't remember the last time he had wanted to hurt someone quite so badly. Even if Cain was somehow immune to his telepathic attacks, Charles could conceivably take over Erik's mind and just crush Cain physically. The voices were very loud, all whispering to each other words that he could not quite make out. His mother's eyes were very wide and her skin was very pale and the glass shattered.

The glass shattered. No one was touching the glass, but it shattered.

Charles wanted very much for Cain to leave and if was honest with himself, he wanted very much for Cain to suffer. He wanted these things to a degree that left little room for high-minded ideals like being the better man. He could hear Erik telling Cain to never speak so disrespectfully to Charles again and Cain was saying yes boss and Erik was telling Cain to get out and Charles suddenly realized that he had painted himself into a corner. Not in the present conversation, but in his earlier talk with Alex. He had carelessly let Alex draw parallels between the two pairs of brothers and gamely convinced him that there was good and redemption in the brother playing Cain's role, Alex's role. And Alex needed to believe that he could one day have a solid relationship with his brother, be worthy of a relationship with his brother. And maybe the noble things Charles had told Alex about Cain were true. Sort of true, at least. God damnit.

"Wait," said Charles, through gritted teeth. "You're wrong. You won't believe me when I say that, but I'm saying it anyway." He glanced at the slowly spreading patching of gin on the table before looking back at Cain. "Please," he said, "stay. Your room is just as you left it."


They are alone in Charles' room. Erik leans forward, braces one hand on Charles' wheelchair and the other behind Charles' head, and kisses him deeply. It seems like forever before he breaks off and smirks. "I've missed you," he says.

And they are on the bed and taking off each other's shirts and touching and it's good.

But Charles can still hear his mother talking about her fucking lilacs. And while Charles knows that when it comes to people for him to date, there is no part of uneducated Jewish man that would meet with her approval, he can get past that. What he can't do is have sex while she's in the room, even if she's not real.

So even though the touching is nice and being touched is nice and seeing Erik do something just for the pleasure of it is nice, Charles knows it can't go any further, so he lets himself say what he has been wanting to say ever since Cain went off to find Pavel a room. "I never touched her, Erik. I would never have-"

"I know."

"He wasn't the only one who thought...who wondered why I spent so much time with Raven. All they saw was a teenage boy who spent all his time with a young girl. It was one of the first thoughts I learned to block out. But I never...I never..."

"Charles, I believe you. Read my mind if you like."

Charles does and it's true, Erik believes him. And then Charles starts to talk and he can't seem to stop. He tells Erik about the voices and the visions, how they've gotten louder and more real, how he's had long conversations with his dead sister, how it was a hallucination of his mother that broke that glass tonight. He tells Erik about Sean's strange outburst, about Alex and Scott and why he couldn't send Cain away, even about his reluctant decision to cut back on his drinking.

Erik just smiles, perhaps glad that for once Charles is the one with the nightmare and Erik is the one who can only offer his presence and his hands and his heartbeat.


"Ugh, Erik, what is that on your leg?"

"It turns out I'm not immune to spider bites."

"Did you think you were?"

"A man can hope."


"I hope Cain wasn't too annoying."

"He really didn't bother me much at all. I've never had a henchman before," mused Erik. "I found it rather suits me."

"Henchman?"

"You're just jealous because I made friends with your brother."

"You didn't make friends with him. You beat him into submission."

"I didn't beat him into submission; I strangled him into submission."

"I really think you're still a little unclear on the whole concept of 'making friends'."


"I missed you."

"I missed you, too."


Chapter Text

Here are all the people in my family: There's my mom and my dad. There's my younger brother Caleb who just turned sixteen. There's my three younger sisters, Claire, Whitney, and the youngest is Anna Marie, but we always call her Chickie instead because when she was a baby my dad used to call her his little chickadee and I guess it kind of stuck. And then there's me, and then there's my older brother Tom, but not anymore, because Tom is dead.

That makes me the oldest, now.

And since I'm the oldest, it's my responsibility to take care of things around here. My mom is holding up okay. I mean, she's feeling terrible, what do you expect, her son just died, but she could still talk to people when we had the wake. My dad said he just couldn't face everybody so he spent the whole time up in what used to be me and Tom and Caleb's room, but now it's just Caleb's. He was just looking at Tom's old stuff and crying his eyes out. So I stood there with my mom at the wake, wearing my dad's suit because I didn't bring one myself, saying, "Thank you," in my most solemn voice as one person after another came up to tell us they were sorry for our loss.

I know there are different kinds of "I'm sorry," and that when you say sorry at a funeral, it's not really the same as apologizing, but I still wanted to scream at them because what exactly are they sorry for? Right? It's not like they're the ones who killed him. The army didn't even tell us really how he died. It's a closed casket because he has this really awful chemical burn all over his face and chest and I really hope that happened after he was dead. I insisted on seeing the body. For some reason, Chickie wanted to see it too, but Mom and Dad wouldn't let her, so I'm the only one who looked at him.

It's okay to cry at funerals, no matter who you are. My mom's brother Marty died a few years ago when an aneurism burst in his brain and everybody at the funeral – men, women, kids – cried like babies. It didn't matter how big or tough you were. That's really what you're supposed to do.

I didn't cry at Tom's funeral.

I had to stay here a little longer than I planned just to help out with things. Somebody's got to run to the store, and clean up after dinner (ladies from the church are cooking dinner for my mom, which is nice), and help my parents fill out all the forms to get Tom's death benefits from the army.

I was running to the store to pick up cereal and milk and also paper towels because we were all out and Chickie wanted to come with me. So I picked her up for a piggyback ride and we were leaving the corner store and this guy taps my shoulder and I spin around and I've got my knife out because I always have it with me, all the time. The guy backs up with his hands in the air and he's saying he doesn't want any trouble and I can tell, he's just some bum who was gonna ask me for a dollar. So I put the knife away and the guy leaves, but now Chickie doesn't want a piggyback ride anymore so we have to walk home at her pace which is really slow. I tell her that the milk is going to get warm and I reach to pick her up and she looks like she's gonna pee herself.

She's scared of me. Chickie's scared of me.

Realistically, I don't have to stay here and take care of all of this. Caleb could pick up a lot more slack than he has so far. So could Claire. Caleb is perfectly capable of doing a lot of this stuff, but he's the kind of guy who doesn't do much unless you make it clear that he's expected to accomplish something. Claire thinks she's a writer so she's been writing crappy poetry non-stop. Between the two of them, they really could handle things, but I just don't feel like going back to New York. Whenever I think about it, I just feel so angry. I have to bite my lips together all the time or something's going to break. I know that doesn't sound like it makes a lot of sense, but hear me out.

Okay, when I was a little kid, maybe eight or nine, I told my mom that I was worried that maybe God was getting really worn out dealing with all these prayers all the time, so I had decided that I was just praying to saints because I figured they could decide whether a prayer was worth bothering God with. My mom thought that this was really cute and she told all her friends about it and that maybe I was going to be a priest when I grew up. She really missed the point though, because the reason I was worried about God being worn out was that I was really starting to wonder why God doesn't answer prayers. Or at least, why he does such a crappy job of it. 'Cause my mom would always say stuff about "small miracles," which is like when some family's house burns down and they thought everybody was dead, but it turned out someone survived, which is great and all, but I think the family would have preferred it if no one died and also their house didn't burn down.

And that all might seem like it's just thinking for the sake of thinking, and I guess for me for most of my life it kind of was. I mean, before I met Magneto and the Professor, the worst thing that happened to me was that I was really close to my grandfather and he died. I prayed that he wouldn't die, but he was really old and really sick so I always finished my prayers with "thy will be done," because I knew that maybe it was better for him to die. I guess I wasn't really sure what I wanted. But what about if a person really knows exactly what they want and it's definitely a good thing? I really don't know too much about what happened to Magneto when the Nazis took over, but I've sometimes wondered if he prayed for God to save him. I don't know if he did or not, but there were a lot of people there who must have prayed for God to save them, and as far as I know, God didn't do much.

I think people who worry about whether or not there's a God are asking themselves the wrong question. I think the better question is what kind of gods are we dealing with here?

Magneto sometimes says we're like gods.

If we are, we're so far the kind of gods who don't answer prayers. And that's what's got me really angry. Why should somebody like Tom get stuck in Vietnam fighting some stupid war when the Professor could have just gone in and made everybody sign a truce? Or when mutants like me and Magneto and Alex could just fight the war a thousand times better than a regular soldier? The Professor says he wants us mutants to integrate into society, but it looks a lot more like hiding to me. We have all this power, but instead of using it to answer a prayer or two, we just hang around and try not to let anybody see us. Look, everybody thinks that just because I'm a stoner, I must love the Beatles. Well, I don't. I mean, some of their songs are catchy, but they've got this stupid naïve idealism that makes me want to scream, just like the Professor makes me want to scream. All you need is love? Hah. That and a draft card will get you burned to death by a friendly-fire napalm attack.

My mom used to ask me and my brothers what kind of men we wanted to be. Well, that's not how it goes anymore. Not really. Because now I've got to start thinking about what kind of god I want to be and I know for damn sure that I don't want to be the kind of god that sits back and does nothing.

For a while, I thought that Magneto had the right idea, that we should just forget about humans and mutants should just stick together, defend each other. Magneto wants mutants to take over and he seems to think that's going to make everything better, but I want to scream at him that mutants aren't any better than humans. Wasn't that guy who they killed in the submarine, Shaw, wasn't he a mutant? And it's not like the rest of us are saints either. Lyle hasn't treated Gregory and Isaac the same since he found out they're Black. He's not mean to them or anything, but he definitely isn't as friendly. Tree bark? No problem, but a little extra melanin you can't even see? That's apparently where Lyle Saunders draws the line. Alex admitted to me once that he was real jealous I had so many brothers and sisters, but then he finally gets a brother and treats him like shit. I want to scream at him that there's more to having a brother than just having your own personal verbal punching bag. And then there's Scott himself. I admire at least that when he thinks something is the right thing to do, he sticks it out, but I've had enough conversations with him to know that if he ever found out that the Professor and Magneto were boyfriends, it would be a really bad scene.

(And yeah, I know about the Professor and Magneto. It's supposed to be a secret, I think, and I'm pretty sure none of the others have figured it out, but I notice stuff – I'm pretty sure I mentioned that before. Like you know when you're handing someone something, your hands touch for a second? Well, when they do that, they kind of freeze or the Professor looks away or something. Also, realistically speaking, how much chess can two people actually play?)

I know I keep saying that I want to scream at people. It's like I just want to scream at everyone all the time. And hey, it just so happens that I've got a real talent for screaming. But you know what's weird? I just keep my mouth shut. I don't say a word.


Chapter Text

Erik had apparently put his shirt back on while Charles was sleeping. Last night was a one-time offer, it seemed, and Charles had missed it. Fuck.

On the plus side, the hallucinations were considerably quieter. Charles didn't see anyone who wasn't real, and he heard only indistinct laughter, so soft that he couldn't identify the voice. He propped himself up on his elbows and squinted at the clock. 7:12. He could feel all of the minds in the mansion. Most were sleeping, but Hank was calibrating a centrifuge and Scott was continuing in his efforts to alphabetize the library. Cain was still sleeping, but the girl, Pavel, seemed dreamy, half-awake. Charles didn't have enough of a baseline on her to know for certain how to interpret this – perhaps she was always this way?

Charles wanted to stay in bed longer. He also wanted to minimize the students' unsupervised exposure to Cain. He checked Cain's mind again. Stage IV sleep. It would be at least ninety minutes before he awoke. Charles lay back down.


As Erik awoke, he rolled onto his side and traced the contour of Charles' ear with a single finger.

"If I had known," said Charles, "that traveling would leave you with such...enthusiasm, I would send you on a lot more away missions."

"I'm not enthusiastic," murmured Erik sleepily. "Maybe I just wanted to see you naked."

"You've seen me naked." Charles was far less bashful about changing clothes than Erik was.

"But not recently." Erik's voice was warm and thick.

"You missed me." Teasing. Self-satisfied.

"Yes, without you for conversation, I was forced to write random moral platitudes on strips of paper and pull them out of a hat one at a time."

"I feel your pain, my friend. Without your demeanor cast over the house, I had to hire three disgruntled beat cops to drop by and glare at things in shifts."


"How exactly did Cain end up with bite marks on his face?"

"Oh, that. He was taunting a monkey. I let nature take its course."


"I'm glad for the girl, if for no other reason than I'm no longer the craziest person here."

Erik shook his head. "I don't think she's as crazy as she acts."

"You think it's a ruse?"

"I think there's something wrong with her brain, sure. Those holes are real. But she's much more with it than she likes to seem."

Charles raised an eyebrow. He had seen no evidence of this. On the other hand, Erik wasn't exactly one to err on the side of optimism.

"When she talks to Cain in Vietnamese, her sentences are about the right length. She's not just babbling. It sounds like a normal back-and-forth. Sometimes she says things that are a bit too observant, too insightful. She warned us of a plainclothes border guard by talking about invisible uniforms. After she did that, I quoted Hamlet to her. You know, 'Though this be madness, yet there be method in it,'. She quoted Hamlet right back to me, called me a fishmonger."

"I'm not sure that's outside the realm of insanity, Erik."

"Juggernaut agrees. Says she's always acted crazy even before Stryker's people drilled holes in her head."

"Wait – Juggernaut? You gave him one of those ridiculous names, too?"

"He was intrigued by the notion of a post-human identity."

"I'm pretty sure he was intrigued by the notion of sounding like a new line of army tanks. I also sincerely doubt he can either spell or define the word Juggernaut."

"I asked him what he was and he said unstoppable. I suggested the name based on that."

"Unstoppable has always been his favorite word, ever since he graduated from shrieking 'you can't make me' – a transition which didn't occur until the tenth grade, mind you."

Erik chuckled.

"Returning to the original issue at hand," said Charles, reminding himself that he had agreed to remain neutral on issues of nomenclature, "why would Pavel fake insanity, even partially?"

"I think it's most likely she feigns madness for the same reason she assumed a male identity."

Charles furrowed his brow. "Why is that?"

"You're unconscionably naïve," said Erik, rolling his eyes. "It buys her a measure of safety. Cain told me that when she first went missing, the Red Hand went looking for her in all the nearby brothels. They probably get a good price for white girls."

Charles knew that such things happened, at least on an intellectual level, but he nonetheless felt shocked and disgusted.

Erik shrugged. "There's less of a market for boys, and even less of a market for the mad. Amongst other things, it's taken as a sign of syphilis."

"It's not a terribly effective ruse. Anyone can see she's female."

"It's not effective now, but it might have been effective a year ago. Also, when she found us, she was wearing oversized fatigues and I wasn't able to immediately guess her sex. It wasn't until we were returning, that Juggernaut thought the fatigues might attract attention, so we got her some normal clothes." He shrugged again as if to dismiss the pseudo-magnanimous gesture. "We had to trade off the last of the heroin anyway."

"Erik, I believe I have mentioned more than once that some of your stories would do well to conclude one sentence earlier."


"If I correctly interpreted your code, you believe that Stryker has a telepath." Charles paused. "Either that, or ties to the Catholic magisterium."

"Telepath," replied Erik absently. He was clipping his toenails without touching the clippers. This required some degree of concentration.

"By the way," said Charles, "I do not enjoy being represented by a bishop. I'm as areligious as you are."

Erik raised his right eyebrow. "I was out of options. If someone invents a new version of chess with a 'nosy cripple' piece, I'll update my code."

Charles pulled himself across the bed to smack Erik in the arm. "You're an asshole. And if we're being specific, I don't think there were any Jewish knights."

A laugh. "You were asking about the telepath?"

"Is it Emma Frost?"

"No clue. Juggernaut and I both saw...things that were clearly illusions. Someone must have been interfering with our minds, but we never saw who was doing it. There was nothing to point to Frost specifically."

"May I...see what happened?"

Erik nodded; he had expected this. He tried to relax as Charles' fingers went to his temple.

They are walking through the jungle. Juggernaut has taken point. He is wearing fitted metal armor; Erik must have made it for him. Clearly the weight is not slowing him down. Behind Cain is a human named Lygnos who is carrying at least a dozen guns and grenades and behind Lygnos is Erik. There are three metal discs, each an inch thick and the size of a dinner plate, hovering through the humid air, one in front of each man.

There are also enormous bugs. This may have been Charles' observation, not Erik's.

Erik mentally inventories Lygnos' weaponry. Lygnos is from Red Hand and Juggernaut trusts him. Erik has told Lygnos that in return for his assistance, they will help him get to Jakarta, Indonesia, but no farther. Erik's not bothering with bringing a human back to the States.

The directions are all wrong. It looks like they're going straight, but they're not. Erik can feel it.

"Juggernaut, check your compass."

"Ain't you got dead reckoning?"

Cain hovers a few inches above the ground and Erik says, "Don't argue with me. Check your compass."

"Compass says straight north, boss, just like you said to do." Cain returns to the ground with a thump.

Erik is about to say that something is not right here when a bullet appears from nowhere. He reacts and it clinks off of Lygnos' shield. "Light it up!" yells Erik, and Lygnos throws two concussive grenades in opposite directions. They can see now that they are in front of a thin, concrete building, surrounded by tents and barbed wire fences and armed men. The men open fire and the metal discs are whirling about the three intruders. Lygnos is hit. The guns are gradually falling to pieces via whatever concentration Erik can spare. The wire rips around the soldiers, pulling them back. They're injured, but alive. 'You're welcome, Charles,' thinks Erik.

And there he is, there's Stryker, holding a small child in his arms. The boy – was it a boy? – the boy's head hangs limp. Stryker slaps the child across the face and they both disappear.

Erik secures the soldiers and tells them they will not be killed if they do not interfere. He follows Juggernaut into the wan concrete building. It is a laboratory and Erik can feel his heart beating faster, his pupils dilate, his stomach turn. And there is the woman. She is small, lying on a grimy cot. She may have been fierce at one time, but now there is drool running down her face and she whimpers, moans in pain. There is no recognition in her eyes. It is her head that is most awful. The skin is red and puffy, her hair has been shaved off. There are broad lacerations and pinpoint holes. She rolls her eyes into her head and coughs and gasps. Erik remembers Charles explaining to him how the brain controls heartbeat and respiration and he realizes that this woman's muscles do not know anymore how to breathe.

Cain is holding her hand and he looks back at Erik in confusion and pain. Charles has not seen such an expression on his brother's face since he was a very young boy. Cain whispers to the woman in Vietnamese even though it is clear she has no recognition of the words or the voice.

Erik remembers John Steinbeck. A man's got to shoot his own dog, he thinks. Erik nods and Cain breaks her neck.

And Juggernaut is punching his way through the soldiers and Erik realizes that Cain must have held back when he punching him in the face on the ship all those weeks ago, because now, in his rage, Juggernaut's blows are knocking jaws off of faces, heads off of necks.

And then behind them is a man, a soldier, and he stamps his foot and the earth is riven in two, the split ending just before the ground where Juggernaut stands. Erik knocks the man into the air, but another crevasse opens, this time just to the left of Cain and Erik comes to the absurd conclusion that perhaps this soldier cannot aim very well. The breaks in the ground are deep. Erik's disc stretches into a javelin and impales the man. As Erik lowers him to the earth, he can see holes drilled around his head as well.


"Um...h-hey, Abi-abigail. I was, I was w-wondering if you'd like to, um, j-j-join me for a p-p-picnic by the creek to-today?"

"Not in a million years, loser."


"Sean," said Charles cautiously, "I'm glad to see you back."

Sean was carrying a cardboard box perhaps twice the size of a shoebox. "Hey," he muttered indistinctly.

"What's in there?" asked Erik.

"It's mine," said Sean. "I bought it with my own money." And he shuffled off up the stairs.


Pavel was staring at Hank, who was trying his hardest to take her inspection with good humor.

"It's a mutation," he said finally, "just a change in my DNA."

Her eyes went wide. "Your DNA changes? Mine doesn't. I keep it in a bird."

"No, it- wait, what?"

"You're not a bird, are you?"

"No, I'm a person, just like you."

"But you made a bird. I was watching to see if you were a bird sometimes."

"You're talking about the Blackbird? That's a jet plane, not an actual bird."

"Are you sure? There seems to be a lot of debate over what is and is not a bird."

"That's about evolution and reptiles, not mechanical objects."

"The plain brain is a plane."

"Um, yes?"


"It's your brain," said Erik, "so it's your choice. I'll get you the medicine if you want, but I really think we should handle this differently."

"I'm open to suggestions as long as they can be implemented relatively quickly. As you can see, we've got a lot of other...concerns that need to be dealt with above and beyond whatever Stryker is up to."

"Why not just read Sean's mind?"

"I can't just drop ethical commitments when they're no longer convenient."

"I can tell you that whatever was in the box was mostly metal."

"Well, that narrows it down. Maybe he's decided to take up the theremin."

Erik returned to the topic of hallucinations. "Do you see or hear anyone right now?"

"Just laughter. Indistinct."

"Can you make them appear?"

"I don't know. I spend all my time trying to make them disappear." Charles suddenly felt exposed and embarrassed. He was used to being physically weak, yes, but mental weakness was uncharted terrain.

"I can't really say what you should do. But I know that if it were me, I would try to break another glass."


"Hey," yelled Alex.

The piano stopped playing.

"Don't take it hard, kid. Abby's just being a bitch-snake because the new crazy chick is hotter than she is."

"D-d-don't s-"

"Yeah, yeah, I know, don't swear. Let's just say she's a witch and you're better off without her."


"Cain, Erik told me what was done to your friend," said Charles softly, solemnly. "I wanted to say first that I will do everything in my power to find the men responsible and bring them to justice. And also to say that I am truly, very sorry for your loss. There's someone I was very close to buried on the grounds. I know you couldn't bring the body, but perhaps some kind of memorial marker...a tree..."

"She hated trees. Fuckin' plants. She liked rocks." Cain growled without much force. "Maybe a gravestone," he said, "with her name on it, written the right way."

Charles nodded.

"Magneto said you got yer uh..." Cain gestured at the wheelchair, "when a submarine exploded. That's um...you know, it sounded kinda kickass."

"I suppose I never thought about it that way."

"I'm glad it was the sub that gimped you up," said Cain, "you know, that I didn't do it." Then he walked off before Charles could respond.


Chapter Text

Alex stirred gradually around 3am, with a headache and a full bladder, to see a shape huddled on the far side of the room, next to the door, arms hugging legs, knees against forehead. "What the fuck are you doing in here?" he rumbled.

Scott scrambled to his feet and began backing towards Alex's bedroom door. "S-s-sorry. S-s-s-s-"

"Wait...fuck, wait. It was a question. I didn't say 'leave,' just why are you here?"

Scott's palms were pressed backward, his whole body straight and flat as if he were trying to merge with the wall. He looked away. "I just...I j-just..." He moved his mouth as if gasping for breath, but no air came in or out.

Alex sighed. "Look, I'm not pissed off or anything. I was just surprised."

"S-sometimes I d-d-dream, I dream about b-being there. Being b-blind and alone and n-no one will tell me what's g-g-going on and if I k-killed those p-people and where am I and-" He paused, out of breath. "And when I dream about, about it, I d-don't want t-t-to b-b-be..." He pressed himself against the wall and looked down, for he was ashamed. "I d-didn't want to b-be alone."

"Wait, you've done this before?"

"I n-n-nev, n-n-never touched any of your stuff, I p-p-promise. I'm s-sorry, I won't...It won't happen ag-g-"

Alex sighed again. "Shut up and get in the bed."

Scott was frozen in place.

"Look, you're acting like a scared, stupid kid. Which is fine, because you are a kid. You think I never climbed into Mom and Dad's bed after I watched a monster movie?"

Scott took a cautious step forward.

"Move it, dumbass. I want to get back to sleep."

Scott shuffled a bit faster and crept under the covers.

"If you're all worked up and you want to sleep in here, I don't care, that's fine. Unless I got a tie on the door. That means I've got a lady friend."

"You m-mean your left hand."

In the dark, Alex smiled.


Charles awoke to feel Erik's face on his neck. "What are you doing?" he murmured sleepily.

"I like the way you smell."

Charles smiled. "What's gotten into you?" His voice was still soft and blurry. "Before you left, you wouldn't even look at me in bed. Not that I mind this...development."

Erik sat up. "When I was in Asia, I was very aware that I was there and you were here. Separate places. I thought when I got back, we would both be here. But the feeling hasn't quite gone away. I'm here," he said, "and you're there." He pointed to their respective positions.

Charles reached over to run his fingers along Erik's legs, caressing the outside, the top, running his fingers slowly up the inside of Erik's thighs, watching Erik's gradually stiffening member twitch against his shorts.

An image. Sudden, very powerful, very loud, Charles can't help but read it. Charles is on his hands and knees and Erik is riding him. Charles is bloody and Charles is in pain and Erik's fingers are digging into his back and Charles tries to crawl forward but Erik grabs him and-

Erik stood. "I should get an early start today. Hank is supposed to show me something with Cerebro, something he needs my help with."

"Of course," Charles nodded, "of course."


"Hello, Sean. What is that you're working on?"

Sean put down the soldering iron. "It's um... It's supposed to..." He shrugged. "I don't have a clue. Ask Hank."

"Indeed," said Charles. "Did you...how was your visit home?"

"It was fine." Sean returned to soldering.

"How are you holding up?"

"I'm fine."

"I don't believe you."

"Okay, I'm not fine. I just don't want to talk to you about it."

"Well, thank you for your honesty." Said with no sarcasm. Charles paused. "I want to see you be well. If I can help, I would like to do so."

"Yeah, man, it's all good."


Charles and Erik reviewed the events at Stryker's temporary camp over and over again, trying to piece together details, find patterns.

A knock at the library door.

"Scott," said Charles, secretly glad for the interruption. They were making no progress.

"I was...I was th-thinking that, that maybe I c-could help with, um...with...figuring it out. Because m-maybe I could recognize s-somebody's voice or something."

"An excellent idea." Erik, would you mind if I allowed him to view your memory? It would involve linking your minds, but in a very limited way.

No, let's get it over with.

Scott stared as the memory played out in his mind. "I don't...n-not any v-voices, but there's s-something..." He looked at Charles. "C-could you put it in my head s-so I could...could just hear it, not s-see?"

"I believe so."

Scott shut his eyes and listened to the memory. "Th-there. That's it. There's a s-sound, right b-before you go, right before you g-go inside. Sounds like, like when there's a t-tornado and all the plants g-go flat. D-didn't sound like wind. Just like when, like when the wind c-crushes the wheat."

Erik raised an eyebrow. "You think Riptide was there?"

"Why would Riptide work for Stryker?" asked Charles, rhetorically.

"What else makes a tornado in the jungle?" replied Erik.

"What- what ab-bout a helicopter?"

"Of course," grinned Charles. "You're two for two, Scott."

"So Stryker was still there," Erik seethed, "with his own pet telepath. Emma Frost?"

"Why would Emma Frost work for Stryker?" Charles could be repetitive at times.

"Because she's a wh-" Erik looked from side to side, as if suddenly aware that Scott was still present. "Because she's a woman of loose morals who will ally herself with whoever and whatever will advance her cause."

Thank you, Erik. "Yes, but she's not incompetent. I could imagine that she would fail to account for your direction sense – not many people know about that – but she knows perfectly well what she has to cover up to block perceptions of a helicopter."

"So there's another telepath in the game." Don't worry, Charles, thought Erik, you're still the craziest one.

And I still have the best hair, thought Charles, before responding, "I think it's the child. The more I think about it, it's got to be. You can see Stryker, and the child is unconscious. Stryker wakes the child, and the illusion resumes, if only partially."

So Stryker has a pet mutant. A child. Erik growled softly. It rankled him that Stryker had been so close and still got away. "How close is Cerebro to completion?"

You ungrateful whelp! Kurt Marko was picking up a baseball bat.

Erik, I can see them again.

Erik turned to Scott. "Thank you for your help. Now please leave."

Erik!

I said please.


"Did you get the medicine?" asked Charles.

"Yes. Are you sure you want it?" Erik shook the tiny bottle of pills.

What are you doing, sneaking around here? Huh? Charles couldn't see his stepfather, but he sounded as though he were quite nearby.

"You think I should try breaking more glasses. I have no idea how I broke the first one."

"You got angry."

"No, she got angry. I didn't break the glass, she did."

"I thought we agreed that she's just an extension of your mind."

"You really think that rage is the solution here?" Charles raised an eyebrow as he let his query sink in.

"I think," said Erik, "that you're a coward, hiding a fear of conflict behind a mask of barely-coherent ideology."

"That's a bit harsh, wouldn't you agree?"

"A bit harsh?" Erik snorted derisively. "Ever proper. As if propriety had anything to do with principle. As if manners were a substitute for morality."

"Erik, what are you so upset about?"

"I'm not upset. That's just your ridiculous insistence that everyone else is a victim, everyone else is needy. The unimaginable arrogance of thinking that others need you, that they specifically require your aid. I'm not upset, you are. But you can't imagine that, so you force your weak little world onto me."

"Please, Erik! I don't know wh-" The baseball bat struck Charles hard across the shins.

Immediately, Erik reached out and grabbed it before it could do any further damage. "I'm sorry, Charles; I didn't expect that." Erik looked a little upset, a little guilty, but he was laughing. And then Charles was laughing because it was absurd. "Shall I get you some ice, my friend?"


Charles put down his fork. "In other news, the addition of our new residents reminded me that we have fallen behind in our apparent quest to assign everyone outlandish nicknames."

"Can I change mine?" asked Alex.

Several voices replied, "No," in unison.

"Does it have to have anything to do with my powers?" asked Lyle.

"It has to be appropriate for all ages," said Charles, "if that's what you're asking."

"Dang. Really cuts down on my options."

"I would think," said Hank, "that 'Wings' would be the obvious choice."

"See, that just makes me think of hot wings," said Lyle, "and I don't want people thinking that they should be eating me. Unless...hey, can I make my codename 'Popsicle'?"

Erik ignored Lyle and turned to the twins. "Have you thought about what to choose for your mutant names?"

Gregory put down his fork. "We want our names to be badass."

Isaac finished the thought. "And trees aren't badass."

"You could be 2-by-4 and the Dowel Rod," smirked Alex.

"Can I be the Dowel Rod?" asked Lyle.

This may be the single worst idea you have ever had, thought Charles to Erik. Post-human identity, my ass.

"Ignore them," said Erik to the twins. "Forget what your mutation is. What does it do?"

"We're good at hiding," said Isaac.

"Build on that," answered Erik and they began to whisper quickly back and forth.

Charles forged bravely forward. "And how about you, Abigail? Any thoughts on a codename for yourself?"

"I think this is juvenile and pointless," she said.

"How about making her codename Bitch?"

"Alex, for the love of god, could you rein it in for a few minutes?" Charles sighed. "Abigail, you don't have to have a codename if you don't want to."

"We want to be Camo-" said Gregory.

"and -Flage," finished Isaac.

"Excellent," said Erik.

"What about Petra?" asked Alex. "She should get a codename too."

"I appreciate your desire to include her," said Charles, "but I think that she would be confused at having two names." The reality was that the woman barely responded to her birth name. "Besides, Petra is from the Greek for rock, and she's quite solid and reliable, is she not?" He smiled. "And what about you, Scott?"

"I g-guess something with...with p-powerful eyes. Like, like a m-m-m-medusa, but those are g-girls."

"A cyclops is an eye monster, right?" asked Lyle, brandishing an incomplete knowledge of Greek mythology.

"I l-like that."

Charles decided that literary accuracy could take a back seat to team camaraderie.

"Pavel, would you like to choose a code name?"

"Yes," she said, in a terribly serious voice. "Yes, but not now." Then, for no reason that Charles could comprehend, she winked at him.


Charles rolled into the drawing room, flanked by Erik. "Good evening, Pavel."

"AHH!" Pavel yelped and jumped behind Cain as she pointed an accusing finger at Charles. "Brain sucker!"

"Dear lord, Cain. What have you been telling her?"

"That you ain't so perfect."

Pavel was shifting her weight rapidly from on foot to the other. "Keep the brains in lunch box with cilantro and cookies and pigeons and ice and ice cream and-"

"Well, if we want to find Stryker," continued Charles, "we need to know what he's up to, and I believe your friend has a unique perspective on the matter."

Pavel put her hands on her hips and began chanting, "Cain, Cain, go away, come again another day."

I spent two weeks in a shipping container with her, noted Erik. Two. Whole. Weeks.

"Pavel," Charles addressed the girl directly, "I would like to talk to you for a few minutes. I promise I will not read your mind. Is that acceptable?"

Pavel looked to Cain, then back to Charles. "My mind is mined," she said.

Cain grumbled at her in Vietnamese before hulking down the hall.

Charles sighed. "Let's start with a simple question. How many legs does a dog have?"

Pavel shrugged. "Depends on the dog. Might keep extras. In a lunchbox. With a brain."

I'm sorry, Erik. That's not the answer fakers usually give.

I have to imagine that's not the answer anyone usually gives.

"Where do you find a dog with no legs?" asked Pavel. "Right where you left it," she answered.

"Pavel, do you remember being captured?"

Pavel was loudly humming the theme to Bonanza.

"Pavel," Charles prompted.

The humming continued.

"Pavel, would you listen please!"

She echoed his words back in a sing-song tone. "Pavel, would you listen please, doo-dah, doo-dah."

Two weeks in a shipping container, repeated Erik.

This was chaos, Charles thought. Pavel was doing and saying whatever came to mind, Erik was speaking in his head, and his shins were bruising up where Kurt Marko had whacked him. Charles ran his fingers through his hair and breathed deeply. Pavel couldn't help it. Erik was a friend. Kurt wasn't real. This wasn't an unmanageable situation. Try again.

"Pavel," said Charles, "I need for you to listen to me carefully. Can you do that?"

"Yes, sir! O Cap'n, my Cap'n!" She saluted and stared at him wide-eyed.

"There were some men in the military. They took you away. Do you remember that?"

"Yes!" She sounded cheerful, as if glad she had gotten a question right.

"Did they lock you up?"

She nodded again. These questions were easy.

"What happened next?"

The cheer dripped from her face. She looked puzzled and sad. "Make 'em sick?" It was a guess, no more.

"Make who sick?"

"Make the guys sick, make it stick, real thick."

"What kind of sick?"

"Sick like," suddenly her voice changed, became steady and confident, dropped an octave in pitch, "this is about more than just a cure, this is about taking what's ours." Her voice returned to normal. "What sours would be a nice candy if they made them chewy."

"Pavel," Erik broke in, "you said a cure. A cure for what?"

"Meanwhile, back at the ranch," said Pavel, with equal intensity.

"A cure for what?" repeated Erik, impatient.

"Me."

"For you," said Erik, skeptical.

Pavel nodded.

"Are you still sick?"

She nodded again. "They couldn't get it out of me. They tried to go looking, looking like hide-and-seek, a scavenger hunt of my brain and my thoughts and my me. They tried to go looking so they could take my sick but I hid it real good." She smiled and shrugged. "Also, I bit a guy's ear off." She leaned toward Charles conspiratorially and stage whispered, "I was gonna give it to Cain as a present for his birthday! But I lost it."

"Well," Charles tried to smile in response. "it's the thought that counts." He paused. "Pavel," he asked, "did they talk about anyone else who's sick?"

"Nope, nobody. Just Jason."

Chapter Text

Charles slides out of his pants and tosses them in the hamper.  As expected, his shins were turning brilliant shades of purple and yellow.  On the plus side, the voices are silent.  He doesn’t even hear their laughter.  And it isn’t as though he can actually feel his legs hurting.

“You didn’t tell me he was holding a bat,” says Erik.  He had expected for another glass to break, at worst for a lamp to tip over, not for a baseball bat to fly across the room and smack Charles across the legs.

“You didn’t tell me you were going to bait me like that.”

“If I had told you, it wouldn’t have worked.”

“Just because anger works doesn’t mean that other emotions couldn’t work just as well.”

“Why is your chess set in here?”

“I put your metal one in the library and brought this one up here,” said Charles, as he begins transferring into the bed.

“As you would say, Charles, that does not actually answer my question.”

Charles smiles.  “It’s not my chess set, technically.  It belonged to my step-father.  I’m simply trying not to antagonize Cain.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it.  I think he’s going to hate you either way.”

“Back to wearing socks to bed?” asks Charles.

“Mm.”  Erik shrugs.

“I’ve seen it before, you know – that image in your mind.  I’ve absorbed it from your dreams many times.  Clearly, it hasn’t frightened me away.”

“That speaks little of your self-respect, Charles.”

“Only if I believed your violent little daydream had a chance of becoming reality.”  Charles furrows his brow.  “I could give you any number of psychological explanations that what you’re envisioning represents complex fears regarding the interplay between violence and intimacy and sexuality, perhaps some underlying resentment toward me for rerouting your life, a need to intermix dominance with images of nakedness and vulnerability, an attempt to recontextualize your past sexual experiences by casting yourself as the aggressor, et cetera, et cetera.”  Charles smiles, warm and indulgent.  “But you wouldn’t believe any of that nonsense, would you?”

Erik says nothing.

“You fear your own strength, your own power,” says Charles, “and in some situations, that may be a good thing, but it’s simply unnecessary when it comes to me.  Let’s think this through.”  Charles’ gaze is piercing.  “If you were to do to me what you visualized in that scene, I would not be in pain as you imagined; I simply wouldn’t feel it.  More importantly, if you tried to take from me without permission, I would freeze you, put you in telepathic stasis until the situation was under control.  And even more important than that, I truly believe that you are...concerned for my well-being and ultimately would never harm me for your own selfish pleasure.”

Erik says nothing, but he removes his socks.  He pours himself a glass of brandy and debates whether it is worth going to the kitchen for ice.  He looks at Charles and then back at his drink.  After many moments, he says, “You’re not hallucinating now, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

Erik makes a small gesture with his right hand.  The lights go out.  He reaches out with his left hand and runs his fingers across the side of Charles’ face.  This is very stay and very nein.  His left arm is reaching and his right arm is trembling.

And just as before they are removing each others' shirts and they are kissing and it is very pleasant and Charles cautiously puts his hand on the waistband of Erik’s sweatpants, knowing how private Erik is about his body.  But it’s more than privacy.  Erik changes clothes in the dark when he can.  When he showers, Erik waits for the room to fill with steam before he disrobes.  Charles suspects that, all else being equal, Erik is not terribly fond of having a body.

But Erik wants this, he wants to try it, he wants to feel it, he wants to be in the same place, the exact same place as Charles, so he slides off his pants and his underwear in one motion and runs his hands down Charles’ back to remove his boxers – Charles never felt the need to wear anything else to bed.

And they’re naked and they’re in the same bed and the lights are off and their hands are shaping each other’s thighs.  “This all seems very complicated,” says Erik, looking at their tangle of legs and hands under the covers.

“Not that complicated,” says Charles, planting a row of kisses along Erik’s collarbone.  “Only one of us is circumcised.”

“Shut up.”  Erik covers Charles’ mouth with his own to reinforce the message.

In stories and stag films, sex is carefully planned and choreographed, creating the illusion of natural perfection the first time and every time.  In reality, sex is a skill, developed with practice.  And just as practicing the violin does not guarantee proficiency with the cello, learning to have satisfying sex with one person does not guarantee that one will know how to have sex with another, especially if the new partner is a different gender than one’s previous consorts.  The addition of paraplegia complicates matters further. 

The reality is that sex is silly, is awkward, is a challenge, even if it is worth the effort.  It’s also easier with the lights on.

“Is that your leg?”

“How the bloody hell should I know?”

Maybe the slowness is a good thing.  While they’re still finding and following one another’s bodies, Erik’s trembling abates as does Charles’ performance anxiety – he hasn’t had sex with a partner since his injury.

When Charles begins to run his fingers along Erik’s cock, Erik says, “You could feel what I feel, couldn’t you?  Sense through my skin?”

“Yes, I’ve never tried it, but I believe so.”

“Try it,” says Erik, in his quietest voice.

Charles pauses, concentrates.  Then as he licks the underside of Erik’s cock, Charles lets out a little squeal.  It’s a ridiculous noise and Erik laughs, but Charles hasn’t felt anything like that in months.

They try with Charles on his back, arms hooked around his legs, but his feet fall inward awkwardly and he keeps tipping to one side or the other.  Then they try with Erik holding up Charles’ legs, but when the angle is high enough, Erik can’t get any purchase.  Charles thinks it might work if he lies face down, propped up by pillows, but he would rather avoid positions reminiscent of the image that so preoccupied Erik.  Finally, Erik summons a few wire coat hangers from across the room, melds them together, blends and smoothes the metal into a pair of solid bands, and then wraps one around each of Charles’ ankles.

“How’s that?” 

“I feel like a marionette.”

Erik rubs up against Charles experimentally.

“But ohh,” Charles moans, “that feels good.”

Erik has no idea how to prepare someone, so Charles talks him through it, refusing to be embarrassed by the tube of lubricating oil in his nightstand drawer.  It’s a little bit easier for Erik to have Charles take the lead, especially because Charles seems so physically helpless, hanging from those little metal cuffs.  Charles is quite hard and Erik takes a moment to stroke him, because he wants to, because he likes to touch him, even if he knows Charles won’t feel it.

When he finally enters Charles, Erik’s eyes are closed and he gasps softly.  Charles is uncharacteristically quiet, almost overwhelmed by the sensations and perspectives.  As Erik moves in and out, Charles ghosts his hands over Erik’s back, giving the rough patches, the scars, no more and no less attention than the rest. 

Erik is still quite inexperienced; it doesn’t take him long to come.  When he does, he surprises both himself and Charles by being loud – a mixture of a moan and a shudder as his body shakes.  Charles shares in the orgasm with a string of quiet gasps as his legs drop to the bed and Erik collapses on top of him.

“Thank you for that,” murmurs Charles, warm and dreamy.

Erik just laughs. 

They sleep well.

Chapter Text


Charles stirred a little after 3am to find that although Erik had put back on his sweatpants and t-shirt, he was sleeping soundly. Charles took the opportunity to scan through the mansion for any minds that may have overheard their earlier amorous activities. It would be easy enough to remove such a brief memory, and would allow him to duck just one problem for the time being.

Let's see, there was Isaac, who heard a few noises, though he didn't know what to make of them. Then there was Hank, who heard the same noises and knew what they signified, but incorrectly guessed the participants – he assumed that Alex or Lyle had succeeded in hooking up with a hippie woman. (Charles felt momentarily self-conscious as he realized that Hank must have interpreted his vocalizations to be womanly squeals.) And then there was Scott, who had heard them, had understood what the noises meant and, with auditory perception honed by months of de facto blindness, had correctly identified the participants. He also apparently had strong feelings on the matter. Oh dear. Well, none of that mattered at the moment, because no one would remember hearing anything.

Knowing the biochemical pathways associated with sexual release, their evolutionary origins and their influence on pair-bonding behavior, did not prevent said biochemical pathways from being perfectly effective. Charles still felt sentimental and open, full of affection, more than willing to see the world through fuck-colored glasses.

He knew quite well that having sex with Erik once did not guarantee having sex with Erik a second or third time. He knew that having sex with Erik did not make Erik his boyfriend. He knew that having sex with Erik did not mean that Erik was completely free of his hesitation and ambivalence regarding bodies and intimacy and homosexuality.

He knew all of those things, but at the moment, he still felt warm and pleasant and dreamy, perfectly willing to enjoy the night for what it was. Charles looked down at Erik, who would at that moment objectively be described as disheveled and sweaty, and thought he was beautiful.


As the sun rose, Erik woke before Charles. His head felt strange, fuzzy, almost hungover, and his mind was buzzing with a hundred thoughts, first among them a desperate desire for a shower. He looked over at Charles, feeling slightly envious. Erik had literally never been in this situation before, waking up beside someone he had fucked the night before, and he had no idea of the protocol. Were they supposed to share breakfast? Were they supposed to talk or cuddle or could he just send some sort of greeting card? Were they dating now? And did that make Erik queer?

Stupid question, thought Erik, interrupting his own train of thought. Straight men, he said to himself, do not do what he did last night. They certainly didn't enjoy it as much as he did.

Erik looked down at Charles, who was sprawled across well over half the bed with no pillows under his head and two under his chest. What did it mean that the first word that came to mind was devour? And why the hell was he thinking about what things meant? He really needed a shower.

Erik really had promised Hank that he would work on Cerebro early in the morning, before the hippies got there. And he really did need a shower.


When Charles came to the kitchen for breakfast, Pavel jumped up and shrieked "Brain sucker!" just as she had before.

"I apologize for startling you, my dear."

"My deer, my venison, my chuck roast," answered Pavel, before tiptoeing into the den to watch television.

"You can quit treatin' her like she's made of glass," said Cain, gnawing on what looked like beef jerky.

"You'll forgive me if I don't take seriously the advice of a man who sees no ethical problem with the use of child soldiers."

"See, that's what I'm talkin' about. Like she's a weak little victim or somethin'. She ain't. In fact, if you told me that Red Hand was gonna break up and just one of us was gonna survive, I'd've bet on her."

Charles looked profoundly doubtful.

"She's a kinda legend in the Hand, Charlie-boy. You wanna know how she joined? It was before my time, but there was this guy, Joey somebody, he was Red Hand and he musta got himself mixed up with her, because she walks right into the Hand building and drops his balls on the table – his fuckin' balls! – and says, 'I'd like to return these for store credit'. Just like that!" Cain laughed riotously.

"The fact you find that story funny rather than disturbing is a perfect illustration of why I don't think I'll be taking too seriously your advice."

Cain's fist dropped to the table with a thud. "Now you listen to me, Charlie-boy," he rumbled. "I don't got any problem with beatin' on gimps and I don't like your goddamn holier-than-thou attitude you got on every damn minute of every damn day. And you can be damn sure that if Mr. Magneto didn't tell me otherwise, I would punch your smug little head clear off of yer neck."


Erik took a drink from the gallon water jug before passing it to Sean. "You were practicing shooting with Lyle this morning," he said.

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"'S good to have lots of skills."

"Seems to me like you would do better to focus on your mutation. No one wanted to hear Picasso play the clarinet."

"Did I slack off in training today? Did I make less progress than expected? Was I not working hard enough?"

"No, but I-"

Sean did something he had never done before. He interrupted Erik. "Then I'd say how I spent my morning is my business."


Education was fast becoming Charles' favorite time of day. As one amongst many reasons, Alex was making enormous strides; once Charles had introduced the idea of blending real and false bookkeeping, Alex had taken eagerly to the world of finance. He had help Charles develop a clever system of false expenditures that would hide how much they were spending on secret projects like the Blackbird and Cerebro. Charles had already begun to draw up papers designating Alex the executor of his estate should Charles be dead or incapacitated. Best of all, Alex was taking pride in his newfound ability to discuss currency markets and commodities speculation.

"It's summer," said Abigail. "Why do we have school in the summer?"

"Not school," said Charles as he continued to copy notes from a textbook. "Education."

"Looks like school to me." Abigail surveyed the room. "Looks like school for freaks."

None of the other students responded. They'd heard it from her too many times to really be much bothered.

"Detention, Ms. Whitman. Stick around after Education is over. For now, please return to the chemistry readings provided to us by Mr. McCoy."


"Seriously? Detention? This is so stupid."

"I completely agree," said Charles, handing her a blank piece of notebook paper. "Put your name at the top of the page."

Pouting, Abigail complied.

"Now, write 'I am a freak'."

"What? You can't make me write that!"

"That complaint is more false with me than with any other human being on this planet. I can make you write it, because that is the gift of my particular brand of freakishness. As it happens, I will not force your hand with my mind because I know that you will eventually comply regardless."

Abigail wrote, "I am a freak," in small neat script.

"Write it again."

"How many times?"

"Five hundred. It's a short sentence." He paused. "Or you can write me a one hundred word essay defending the thesis that you yourself are a freak." Charles rolled back behind his desk.


This was not good. Alex and Lyle were staring open-mouthed at Pavel who was spouting a string of marginally comprehensible thoughts. Judging by the empty boxes surrounding them, Alex and Lyle had eaten at least a dozen packs of Lemonheads and Alexander the Grape, something they only did while high. Charles addressed the boys. "What did I tell you about lighting up in the common areas?"

"We weren't smoking down here, man," said Alex. "We were smoking in Lyle's room and then we came down here for a snack and ended up talking to Pavel."

"Listening to Pavel," corrected Lyle.

"Yeah," said Alex, "when you're high, it's like everything she says is brilliant."

"Yeah," Pavel nodded enthusiastically. She twisted so that she was facing the same direction Alex and Lyle were before resting her chin on her fist with an enthralled expression. "What's she gonna say next?"

Charles dropped his head to his hands. "This is problematic on so many levels."

"Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!" Pavel waved to Alex. "Hi, Havok!" She turned to Lyle. "We should get a dog."


The passageway door creaked open and Erik walked in, eyes determinedly cast to the side. Charles was lying on the bed, reading, relaxed. He tipped his head downward so he could peer at Erik over his reading glasses.

"You're thinking this is one of those alien situations, aren't you? When everyone else knows what to do and you feel like you're from another planet?"

Erik said nothing.

"It just so happens that no one ever knows what to do at this point. It's not just you."

"Are you reading my mind?"

"No, just your body language."

"Hm," said Erik vaguely. He had come to Charles' room by habit. He hadn't really thought about what would happen when he arrived.

"Chess?"

"Certainly."

"You go first," said Charles.

"You were right," said Erik, "I do think there's a problem with Sean." Erik brought his knight into play.

Charles listened while Erik described his morning. "Of all the things about him lately, that's the most normal behavior. Adolescents have to tear down their idols to make room for themselves. It's part of developing an independent identity."

"I wish he'd hurry up and tear down Kennedy. I am so fucking sick of hearing about the great and glorious JFK."

"Hear, hear." Charles raised an imaginary glass, while capturing a pawn. "Of course, that's part of adolescence too, building up idols, role models."

"So it's normal to build them up and it's normal to tear them down? I'm beginning to think this psychology thing is all bullshit."

"Liar." Charles castled. "You're not beginning to think that, not by any stretch of the imagination."

Erik laughed and moved a pawn. "Oh, and it's a police scanner."

"What?"

"Sean's new toy that he had in that box. Don't look at me like that, Charles, it was sitting right on his desk in his room. I didn't go rifling through his belongings."

"What the hell is he doing with a police scanner?" Charles moved a bishop to threaten.

"Again, a question you could answer for yourself if you just choose to do so."

"Are you sure it wasn't some sort of elaborate bong?"

Erik smirked. "Yes, I'm sure." He captured Charles' bishop with a knight.

"I've been pondering what Pavel told us about Stryker's operation." Charles moved a pawn to threaten Erik's knight. "I feel like all the pieces are there. I just can't quite see how they fit together."

Erik captured Charles' pawn with a rook.

Charles moved his queen to the left. "When we got back from Georgia and read through all the papers from Stryker's office, papers about his son, you asked why someone would put a perfectly healthy child through a complete physical and psychological assessment."

Erik slid a bishop back.

"I think we have our answer now, at least if I have correctly understood Pavel's ramblings. She said someone named Jason was sick like her, the boy you saw in the jungle was the right age." Charles captured the bishop with a pawn.

"You're saying that Jason Stryker is a mutant. A telepath." Erik captured the pawn.

"And his father's trying to cure him."

Erik absently fidgeted with one of his captured pieces. "That doesn't make sense."

"I don't mean 'cure', it's not a disease, I'm just saying that from the father's perspective-"

"No, it still doesn't make sense. It might have based on what they did to Scott, but it can't be a coincidence that we faced a soldier who had the exact same powers as Cain's girlfriend." Erik moved a pawn forward. "Check."

"All the pieces are there and I just can't put them together." Charles blocked with his queen.

Erik's knight captured Charles' queen. "Check."

Charles rubbed his eyes. Where did that damn knight come from? He could see the endgame now, five moves away and Erik would win. "You and your goddamn knights," he muttered as he slid his king diagonally backwards, out of check.

"You really want to draw this out, Charles?" Erik nudged a bishop forward. "Check."

"Not particularly." Charles sacrificed a pawn to block the bishop.

"You said this was your step-father's set? He taught you chess?" Bishop takes pawn. "Check."

"No, he never played as far as I knew. Chess club at school." Rook takes bishop.

"Are you hallucinating right now?" Queen takes rook. "Check."

"No." Charles moved his king in the only possible direction, into a corner.

"Is that disappointment I hear?"

"Why would I be disappointed?"

"You're a sentimental fellow. Perhaps you want to hear their voices again." Erik captured a pawn with his queen. "Check."

Charles captured the queen with his remaining bishop. "Not like this."

Erik's knight captured Charles' bishop. "Checkmate."

So the game was over. They both kept their gazes downward. Why was this so damn complicated? Charles almost wished he was hallucinating so their course of action would be dictated. "Good game," said softly.

Erik shifted so his legs hung off the bed and he was facing away from Charles. "Have you ever done that before?"

"Done what?"

"What we did last night."

Always vague. Erik certainly knew that Charles had been sexually active, so he couldn't mean sex in general, could he? Anal sex specifically? Sex with a man? Pushing Erik to be clearer was never a smart move, so Charles merely said, "It's different every time, really."

Erik said nothing.

"Erik, please, relax. There's no hurry, there's no pressure. Everyone is awkward at this point and the human race has continued to propagate."

"I really don't think we're contributing to the continuation of the human race."

"There are two ways to take that statement."

"They're both true." Erik smirked.


6am. Knocking. Very loud. "Professor! Charles!"

"Wha-?" Charles began pulling himself to a sitting position.

The door opened. "Professor," said Hank. He looked at Erik, blinked twice, then looked back to Charles. "Professor, it's the twins. They're...I can't wake them!"


Chapter Text

It didn't take telepathy for Charles to see that Hank was surprised by his sleeping arrangements, so thank god that Hank was the sort of person who could focus on what was important, what was relevant.

Charles could hear his mother chuckling dreamily over a quip in a magazine.

He pressed his fingers to his temple, felt the vein there throbbing thick and steady. "Their minds are...outside, still on the grounds. They're alive, they're...confused, frightened, excite-"

A loud, strange sound from rain-soaked ground outside, squeaking and creaking and rumbling. (It would later be described by Lyle as comparable to "God Almighty breaking wind.")

Erik leapt from the bed pulled back the blinds, Hank right behind him as they stepped out onto the balcony. Charles half-watched through Erik's eyes as he went about transferring into his chair.

An enormous maple and a scrub pine were uprooting themselves from the ground. Though it had no face, the scrub pine managed to look disappointed at its station in life, whereas the maple was striding forth on dozens of confident roots.

Ahh! I've got birds! They're itchy!

No fair! How come I'm the small one?

The scrub pine suddenly collapsed; in the same moment, an aspen shuddered to life.

That's better! Now I'm the biggest!

Erik was beaming. "Marvelous."



The following scenes occur over a period of several weeks. Think 'montage'.


"Hank," said Charles, "about this morning."

"Oh, oh that." Although there was no visible change in Hank's appearance, he was clearly blushing. He shook his head, collecting his thoughts. "You don't need to alter my memories. I assume you've kept this private because you want it to be private."

"I appreciate your discretion."

"But for the record, Charles, I'm happy for both of you."


Pavel had obviously done some baking. That was the only possible explanation, though it clearly did not explain very much. There were two plates, each piled high with cookies. The one on the right was labeled "Snickerdoodles." The one on the left was labeled "POISON."

Charles looked at the plate full of snickerdoodles, then at the plate of poison, then back to the snickerdoodles, then back to the poison. This process was repeated several times before Charles eventually, cautiously, reached a hand toward the snickerdoodle plate.

Behind him, a stopwatch clicked. "47.6 seconds," said Hank. "Write that down."

Charles looked over his shoulder to see Pavel hunched over a clipboard.

"You are the fourth person to come in here and spend greater than 30 seconds puzzling over his options." Hank grinned. "It doesn't seem like a terribly difficult decision."

"Are the poison cookies actually poisoned?"

"I haven't a clue; Pavel made them. I could not, however, pass up the opportunity for such a fascinating experiment in situational psychology."


Erik entered the kitchen to see two plates of cookies.

Erik turned around and left the kitchen.


Charles was convinced that, had his brain been able to flourish, Erik would have been some sort of mathematical genius. Even with the years of malnutrition and missed schooling, his capacity for mental arithmetic was astounding. It wasn't just a simple matter of being a human calculator, though. He saw patterns in numbers, that's how he did computations. He saw the patterns in numbers as easily as most people saw patterns in wallpaper. Erik had told Charles once, in an uncommonly sentimental moment, how as a child he had drawn up a field of numbers in his mind – it was Pascal's triangle, Charles realized – and looked for patterns in it until he was calm enough to sleep.

Charles had hoped that Erik would consent to teach maths – the biggest hole in their curriculum. Hank would teach all of the sciences. Sean was managing with history. Charles himself chose to teach the humanities – English primarily, but philosophy and fine arts as well. When Charles suggested it, Erik was doubtful.

"I teach combat skills."

"Yes, but you have other talents to share. Another option would be teaching foreign languages."

"I don't know...normal math."

"I wasn't aware you had to teach normal math."

Erik attended Education sometimes, sat in the corner and observed, said nothing. When they were discussing Huckleberry Finn – Charles selected the book because it possessed relevant Civil Rights themes and because its vocabulary level was low enough that no one would be embarrassed – Erik opened his mouth as if about to speak, but he still held his tongue.


"Now read it aloud."

"Why do I have to?"

"I'm sorry; perhaps I gave you the impression that this was optional?"

Abigail frowned and looked down at her paper. "I don't want to."

"I am, of course, already aware of that. Now read it aloud."

Abby pressed her lips together tightly. She could already feel her cheeks beginning to burn. "Freak means not normal." Now her mouth was all dry. "Normal means how the majority of people are. Most people have shadows that stay with them and just move the way that they do. My shadow doesn't do that, so I'm not normal, so I'm a freak."

"That's most certainly less than 100 words. Read it again."

Abby gulped. "Freak means not normal. Normal means how the majority of people are." She really wished Professor Xavier would stop staring straight at her. "Most people have shadows that, you know, stay with them and just move the way that," she sighed, "the way that they do. My shadow doesn't do that, so I'm not normal, so I'm a...freak." Her voice caught on the word freak.

"Read it again."

Scowling, Abby read it again, blinking back tears. This was wrong! This was humiliating!

"Read it again."

"Read it again."

"Read it again."

Abby was crying in whole now, the sort of crying that involves big gasps for air and pathetic mewling noises. "My shadow doesn't do that, so I'm not...I'm not normal, so...so I'm a...I'm a freak!"

Charles patted the seat beside him. "Sit down, child. Things get better from here."


Charles took some delight in reminding Erik that he was really just a man underneath all the power and determination.

Erik was squared off against Alex in another pointless argument about something inconsequential.

Erik, thought Charles, give it up now, and I'll "forget" to take my muscle relaxants tonight.

Why would you-? Erik's thoughts turned a corner. Oh. Ohhhh.

"Do what you want, Alex," said Erik. "I don't care anymore."


"Scott's not stuttering so much," said Raven. "You wouldn't happen to know how that happened, would you?" She raised an eyebrow.

Charles smiled, turned his head to the side. "I didn't fix the stutter exactly. I just made it possible for him to fix it."

"That sounds suspiciously like fixing it."

"Did you know he spends an hour every morning – and since this is Scott, it's exactly an hour – practicing saying words without stuttering? It wasn't terribly effective. I simply altered his oral-motor programmatic learning circuits to be more receptive to his efforts."

"And he didn't even try to kill you?" purred Raven sarcastically. "Well, it was clearly worth it, then."


"Professor," said Hank, "I need to run some calibrations on Cerebro. Are you free this evening? It shouldn't take long."

"You know, I don't think that this is a good night for it, Hank. I'm sorry. I just have a lot of paperwork to take care of."


Sean was spending every moment of the day training, almost entirely apart from the others. More often than not, he slept on the grounds or stayed out all night.

"Where's Sean?" asked Erik.

"In my day, we respected our elders!" hissed Pavel, standing tall and jabbing an indignant finger at Erik's chest.

"I wasn't even talking to you, Pavel." Erik turned to look at the others. "Where's Sean?"

"In the city," said Alex, "probably ogling that lounge singer of his."


"What's this?" Erik picked up the stack of papers off if Charles' desk. He read the title page aloud. "Broad Typicality at the Karyotype Level of Somatic Cells in a Population of Humans with Extraordinary de Novo Mutations. Respectfully submitted by Charles F. Xavier, PhD."

"It's my first post-doctoral research paper. I still need to retype the references."

Erik sank into the desk chair to start reading. "It says here you worked from nine samples."

"Myself, Sean, Hank, Alex, Scott, Lyle, the twins, and Abigail. All anonymized, of course." Charles counted on his fingers.

"No Petra?"

"True consent to participate involves understanding the procedures and risks. She can't. And I collected and analyzed the samples before Cain and Pavel joined us." He paused. "You were away at the time."

"Ah."

"A war on two fronts, remember? When people confront a new phenomenon, they want to hear from experts. I am doing everything in my power to ensure that they see me as one of those experts."


Abigail paused on her way out of the study and pawed through her purse. "Here's your stupid box back. I got the money out."


Erik and Charles, lying on the bed.

Charles shook his hair out of his eyes. "I really do need a haircut."

"I think you'd look better with short hair."

"How short are we talking?"

"A buzz cut. Maybe a flat top."

"You're joking."

"Not at all. I would find it very attractive."

"Well...I..." Charles' eyes darted from one side to the other. "I'm not sure that..."

A smile and a laugh erupted out on Erik's face. "I really had you going for a minute there!" He mimicked Charles' accent: "Don't make me choooooose!"


A pattern had emerged. It would begin with indistinct auditory hallucinations, laughter, then Charles would know exactly who was laughing. Then he would begin to hear words and sentences, then he would finally begin to see and hear them, until at long last they would act on the world, spending all of whatever energy they were made of on a marginally predictable physical act, after which they would be thankfully silent again.

Erik had encouraged Charles to experiment, to see if he could control what they would do, to find out if he could make their actions stronger by allowing the hallucinations to build up over a longer period of time, but Charles had no stomach for it. Now that there was a way to keep them from getting too intense for too long, they had never bothered with the pills. With Erik to verify that Charles' thinking was sound, schizophrenia could be ruled out as a cause of the hallucinations; with the physical-world safety valve, Charles felt he was reasonably safe from madness as a result of them.

"You're creating them," said Erik. "That's my hypothesis."

"You think it's an organic problem, like a tumor? That doesn't fit with their ability to affect the physical world."

"They're not real, Charles." Pawn to d5.

"Of course they're not." Rook to b4.

"Then why do you talk to them?" Knight takes pawn.

A bit frustrated: "I don't know, Erik." Bishop to e2.

Erik moved a knight to c4.

Charles looked at him. "And I suppose you think you know?"

Erik sipped his drink, waiting for Charles to move.

"I don't want to talk with them, if that's what you're thinking." Pawn takes pawn. "I don't."

Erik held his hand out, palm forward, all five fingers spread.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Erik tucked in his thumb.

"Erik, what are you playing at?"

Erik held down his pinkie.

Charles furrowed his brow. It was Erik's turn to move.

Erik brought down his ring finger.

Was this Erik's new arguing technique? Making hand gestures until Charles gave up?

Erik brought down his middle finger.

Charles just stared.

Erik folded his index finger into his fist.

Charles just stared, and his jaw dropped down, because five seconds was enough to make him realize what he had known all along: "I want them to be real."

Erik leaned back in his chair, satisfied. "I suspected as much."

"I don't think they really are," said Charles, "I just...well, what if they are real? I could never forgive myself if I let that chance pass by."

"You have no comfort level with death. You have a preternaturally good imagination. Put the two together..." Erik extended his hand to the obvious conclusion.

"It's not death in its entirety; I just want to talk to Raven once more, tell her I'm sorry for-"

Erik interrupted. "I was listening today when Hank was teaching about experimentation and testable hypotheses. I knew you wouldn't give up your glimmer of hope without a fight."

"How could you possibly test this?"

"You don't know what the Travers boy looks like."

"Yes, I do. He's about 5'3", blue-green skin, no hair, scaly..."

"No, that's what you saw. But you've never actually seen the child, nor have you been within 250 miles of anyone who has, courtesy of his mother's regressive insularity."

"So if he actually looked like what I saw..."

"Then, yes, you're actually seeing the dead. But if he doesn't, then this is just a manifestation of your telepathy. An experiment to test the hypothesis."

Charles looked down, exhaling slowly. Then, with the slightest of smiles. "You're thinking we should take a jaunt down to Texas?"

"Have to test out the new Blackbird sometime."


The Blackbird circled over Texas.

"I'm sorry, Charles."

Charles sighed softly and whispered, "I'm sorry, Raven. I suppose it had to end sometime."


"You're blue!" Pavel clapped her hands.

"I am aware of this fact."

"And furry!"

"Amazement! Astonishment! Flabbergastery!" Hank scratched his chin. "Although I may have made that last one up."

"If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended."

"A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare."

"I'll have none of your saber-rattling, Mr. Ambassador."

"Indeed." Hank smiles.


Sometimes, when they have sex, it's gentle. They are face to face, though the lights are still off. Fingertips get comfortable, skin relaxes. Charles goes down on Erik, licking and sucking and wrapping his tongue. Erik goes down on Charles for a moment here and there; no one's getting much out of it, physically speaking, but Charles says he likes the visual. They try different positions. Charles talks too much. It's a game and they're winning.

Sometimes, when they fuck, it's violent. Erik makes no provisions for comfort and plunges into Charles with little preparation. Charles is face down against the mattress, sweating more than he has any right to, given that Erik is doing all the work. Charles is not surprised when dried blood comes off in the shower the next day. They agree on rules, yes, about what they can do, but not about what they can say. Erik pulls Charles' head back by his hair and whispers to him with each thrust. He calls him vermin, he calls him swine. He calls him freak, he calls him faggot. And once, only once, he calls him Jew.

Erik sleeps in his own bed for a few nights after that.

But he returns, stoic and silent, because there's a difference between violent sex with a willing partner and violence, and because damnable Charles always understands. Erik pads into the room, sock-footed, in the middle of the night, feeling miserable and exhausted. Charles stirs and smiles softly. "Ah yes, of course," he says as he touches his temple, "go to sleep, Erik."

Chapter Text


"Well, look at that," said Erik, pointing out across the grounds. Hank was sitting cross-legged on the grass and a small human form was leaning against him, occasionally sitting up straight to clap or gasp. Listening closely, Erik could just barely hear Hank speaking – 'Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee / and she's gone to Caterhaugh as fast as go can she'. Another one of Hank's epic poems, he supposed. "You think we should be worried?"

"Hank and Pavel?" Charles narrowed his eyes. "It's...interesting."

"It's not so bad. Hank's...how old?"

"He just turned 20."

"And Pavel's sixteen. I'm pretty sure it's even legal."

"I'm pretty sure that if those two are picked up by the police, statutory rape charges will be the least of their concerns." Charles sighed. "Nonetheless, I'm confident Hank's intentions are...chivalrous."

"Wait, what?" Erik turned back from the window. "Oh," he said as realization struck. "You were worried about Pavel." He shook his head. "I was worried about Hank. Have you warned him about the whole testicles / store credit thing?"


"Take a seat, Mr. Cassidy." Charles was sitting at his desk. Erik was standing in shadow a few feet back and to the left.

Sean looked sullen, defiant, and angry – his standard, as of late.

Charles picked up a newspaper article and handed it to Sean. "Read this please."

"Malfunctioning Alarm Deafens Area Businessman," said Sean, tossing the article back onto the desk. "Doesn't really sound like news."

"It's an extremely unusual event. The very definition of news."

"I'm assuming that you're going somewhere with all of this."

"This businessman owns the hippie club you used to frequent on your recruiting drives."

"Stop playing around. You've already read my mind, right?"

"I have not. But I have read the minds of the medical personnel charged with this man's care and they don't believe he will ever regain his hearing. I would like to know, Sean, why you did this to him."

"He doesn't deserve to hear her sing."

Charles raised an eyebrow. "Her. Betty? The singer you like?"

"He fired her, with all the marches and stuff, he thought having a Negro singer would stir up trouble. Then he thought he would hire her back, just like that, as if it was no big deal. So the way I see it, he doesn't deserve to hear her sing."

"And what did Betty think of this...gesture?"

Sean's answer came in a thought, too loud to ignore. A young woman, mouth and eyes round, hand over her mouth in shock and horror. Sean's kept his gaze to the determinedly to the side.

"We're trying to help you, Sean. You're hurting and-"

"No. You want to make me feel better without actually making things better. There's problems and somebody's got to fix them. I don't want to feel right when the world is wrong."

It was almost impossible not to read Sean's mind. Or at least that was what Charles told himself. "Your brother died. Sean, I'm so sorry."

Sean stood. "I don't want to hear that you're fucking sorry!"

In half a breath, Erik was behind Sean, pinning both arms. "That's enough. I know you've been out at night playing vigilante. You think you want this life. You do not." Erik relaxed his grip.

Sean gripped his hair with both hands and made a sound halfway between a sigh and a growl. "It's not about what I want." He very slowly closed his eyes and opened them again. "It's about the kind of god I want to be."


"He's so full of anger," said Charles, after Sean had left the room. He looked at Erik as if trying to find the least accusatory way to say, 'he's turning into you.'

"It doesn't work," said Erik. "Not the way he's trying to do it. You said there was more to me than pain and anger. There wasn't, not while I was hunting. You can be a hunter or you can be a..." He gestured at Charles, "a person with others, a person in community. You can't do both. You can't be an open-hearted idealist and see people as prey."


Apropos of nothing, Pavel put down her fork and rose to her feet. "My codename shall be Short Circuit, but you can call me Short for short."

Alex coughed. "Turns out that Short Circuit itself is short for, 'Short Circuit is out of her fucking mind'."


"Hank says Cerebro will be ready for a trial run in a day or two." Charles sipped his brandy. "Then we can find Stryker and the boy and end this mess."

"And what are we going to do with them?"

"What are you asking me, Erik?"

"I think you know what I'm asking."

"Shall we shoot him in front of his son, then? Make the boy watch?"

"There is a difference between being manipulative and being right, Charles."

"We're not going to execute him."

"Shall we turn him over to the authorities? They'd give him a medal."

"We had a deal, Erik. I don't care if we lock him in the bloody basement, we're not going to kill him."

"Lock him in the basement?"

"I have complete and utter confidence that you could construct a secure cell out of scrap metal in under thirty minutes."

"And what are we going to do with the son?"

"What do you mean, 'what are we going to do with the son'?"

"He's working for Stryker."

"Working for-" Charles sighed. "He's nine!"

"Old enough to know the difference between right and wrong."

"Young enough that his father is always right. They can't tell the difference at that age." Charles picked up a rook from the library chess set. "You're an observant man. I'm sure you noticed that the fingers on Cain's left hand don't extend all the way."

Erik nodded.

"When Cain was five or six, he threw a piece from his father's marble chess set into the fire – some sort of tantrum. His father waited, waited for the stone to heat, then made Cain reach into the fire and pull the piece back out. Never healed quite right. Now I can assure you that nearly any child of nine could hear that story and tell you that what the father did was wrong, but I can also assure you that there was one child – Cain himself – who seemed quite backward regarding the morality of the situation." Charles set the rook down.

"Humans," said Erik, with a look of disgust.

Of course, thought Charles, it's a human problem. Mutants are far more civilized. Shaw never would have done such a thing. But Charles was in the middle of a very different argument, so he held his tongue.

"Forget the issue of moral culpability for the moment," said Erik. "If the child truly has allegiance to his father, what are we going to do with the boy? His mindbending might not be up to your standards, but it's certainly enough to be a problem."

"Perhaps I can...alter, temporarily of course, some of his motivations until the situation is under control. Or one of us can don Shaw's helmet and manage the boy until the worst of his emotion subsides."

"And meanwhile, we're going to keep Stryker locked up in the fucking basement."

"Shaw was your kill, your choice. Stryker should belong to Scott, and Scott has made clear that he doesn't want to kill anyone else."

"Again, you confuse rhetoric with rightness."

"Look at what Sean is turning into. Do you want that life for him?"

Erik said nothing.

"You swore an oath, Erik." Raven died because of that damn oath, thought Charles.

"I really hate you sometimes."

"I know, my friend. I know."


"Welcome the new Cerebro," purred Hank, proudly spreading his arms.

Charles oohed and ahhed attentively while Hank babbled on about the technological and mutant differences between the current and previous models.

"A moment, please," said Erik.

"Of course." Hank bowed gallantly before brachiating across the sphere to double-check components.

"Charles, are you hallucinating right now?"

"No."

"Not at all? No laughter?"

"No, nothing since..."

"Are you ready for this?"

Charles smiled. "Let's find out."


Chapter Text


"The greatest threat is that the illusionist will throw us off track. My primary job will be to protect your minds from the child's influence, but there's no way of guaranteeing my efforts will be perfectly effective." Charles turned his gaze from across the room. "Illusions become more difficult to maintain when more sensory spheres need to be filled. Thus, you are each being issued military grade disgusting candy. When you taste it, you're going to wonder why you are subjecting yourself to such horror and that is going to remind you that anything you see may in fact be illusory. Now, does anyone here, for any god-forsaken reason, actually like Bit-O-Honey?"


Erik gestured to the blueprints he had sketched. "So at the same time we're cutting the power, we need someone to go ahead and take down as many guards as possible without setting off an alarm. Cyclops, that's going to be you."

Scott looked at Alex, then back to Erik.

"Why can't I do it?" asked Alex.

"Too much of a risk that you'll set the place on fire with the boy still inside."

"But once I hit one of them, won't the others s-sound the alarm?"

"You've gotten very fast, just take out as many as you can. I'll be protecting you from bullets. You don't need to worry about being shot."

"What about a, um, a photograph?" Scott rubbed his forehead. "I mean, that's the only reason I can think of to make them all stand close together, if I was taking their picture, like for a school n-newspaper or s-something."

Erik thought for a moment, tried to see if there was a way the attempt could weaken their position. "All right, change of plans then. Havok, you've got eighteen hours to teach your brother how to lie."


"Banshee," said Erik, "you're going to stay back and guard the Professor."

"I want to be in the assault team."

"We need someone on defense at the Blackbird who can fight both in melee and at range."

"So you stay back and I'll take point."

"This isn't negotiable. You're guarding Charles or you're not coming at all."


"We have a number of goals, some more important, some less," said Charles. "It's vital that we all act in concert. Our low-level goal is to secure or destroy as much as Stryker's mutant experimentation technology as possible. Retrieve it if you can, otherwise, smash it to bits. Alex, when all is said and done, I'm going to ask you to melt the rubble. I don't want anyone recovering that information. Our primary goals are to capture Stryker and his son. The boy is to be treated as a refugee if at all possible, but if he resists, take him prisoner. With regard to-"

"Hey!" yelled Cain from the far end of the table. "Thought you were supposed to be the smart one. You really thought I would go for this 'capture' plan?"

Erik fixed him with a stare. "I think you'll go for it, because it's the only option on the table, end of discussion. You'll be wearing steel armor for the assault and if I think for a moment that you are going to defy orders, I won't hesitate to maim you."

Cain let out a growl loud enough to rattle the walls, but he kept his fists to himself.

"Why aren't we going to kill him?" asked Sean.

Charles and Erik exchanged glances.

I know, thought Erik, we have present a united front on this. Especially for Sean's sake.

"Some of us," began Charles, "are more comfortable with death than others. It is right to be uncomfortable with death, because death is the only act that can never be fixed, never be undone. Some of us have done awful things, but I believe the world is a better place for each of our being in it. And those of us who have taken a life know that it is no simple matter for the killer either." Charles had a way of looking at each face in a room without ever making any individual feel singled out. "Erik and I have discussed this extensively and we have come to an agreement. We swore an oath. If we need to use lethal force to defend ourselves or our fellow mutants, then we do so. But we will not execute anyone...else, ever again."

"We've prepared a prison for Stryker," said Erik. "He will suffer more in life than he ever would have in death."

"You guys took an oath?" asked Alex. When Charles and Erik nodded in synchrony, he continued, "Then, I think we should all swear, too."

Lyle nodded, "Yeah, like swear on the Bible or something."

Charles was trying to think of a subtle way of pointing out that religious iconography was more likely to be fractious than uniting when Pavel spoke up and remarked, "The word testify actually has its roots in the ancient practice of men swearing their honor upon their genitalia – their testicles."

All background murmuring stopped and everyone tried very hard not to make eye contact with one another until finally Hank spoke. "May I suggest we swear on Darwin's Origin of Species? Both as a paean to the biological force which created us and as a tribute to the first mutant casualty of this war."

"That's very fitting, I think we can all agree," said Charles, as eager as everyone else in the room to move past the whole 'testify' business. "There is a first edition in the library, in the glass case."


"Why the hell is Stryker holed up in Montana?"

"Idaho seemed too urban?"


As the Blackbird lands, Charles absently rubs his ears, trying to make them pop. He can see Scott clutching a camera as Alex gave him last-minute pointers. He can see Lyle carefully loading one gun after another. He can see Erik testing the integrity of his steel shields.

Charles looks to his left at Gregory and Isaac. "I believe you gentlemen get to go first. Fare thee well, Camoflage." he said.


Step one is to cut the power.

Easy for Erik to do it, but they know that if they're surprising, if they play against type, it will delay Jason Stryker's entry into the game. And besides, when you have the right tool for the job...

Charles watches as the twins went under simultaneously, bodies slumping in their harnesses. They jump to nearby trees first, wiggling a branch or two so each knows where the other is. Their consciousnesses migrate from one tree to the next, always north by northeast, always toward the major power lines that service the base. They are nervous. They are excited.

Before landing, they had flown over the power conduit, made a low pass so the boys could get a clear idea of what their job would be. Camo transfers his mind into an enormous oak and begins uprooting himself as slowly, as carefully, as quietly as he can, while Flage transfers his mind into a neighboring maple and wraps his broad branches around his brother. As Camo pulls his consciousness back from the oak, into an irrelevant birch tree, the oak begins to fall – it was uprooted, after all – but before it can crash to the ground, it is lifted by Flage-as-maple and tossed effortlessly forward.

Nothing like trees for knocking down power lines.


Step two is to take out the front guards.

Havok pulls Cyclops aside to whisper something to him. Scott nods. He's dressed in street clothes over his flight suit. It's uncomfortable, but they want to hold off on using Charles' powers as long as possible to avoid attracting Jason's attention. As for the red glasses, well, with a bad haircut, they're hoping he can pass for a John Lennon-wannabe.

He walks up, shouting how he can't believe he finally gets to take a tour of this place and he is so excited and he got the address from his friend Bobby, whose dad is in the marines and he got it from this one guy who- And he stops short, raises his eyebrows and gets twitchy and nervous just like he practiced. He's gonna do this. He's not afraid of William Stryker. He's gonna stop the bad guys and save the day.

He drops the camera and lifts his glasses.

He ignores the gunshots. Magneto said to ignore the gunshots and if he looked, he would see flattened bullets dropping to the ground, but he doesn't look. Instead, he sweeps his eyes along the line, even and steady. Not a twitch, not a blink.

They all go down. It's just like Alex said – Mom and Dad would be proud of him.


Step three is to go striding in there like a holy motherfucking force of nature. Stealth if they can, yeah, but they're wearing navy and yellow flight suits; the yellow material is an impact-resistant polymer, so requests to upgrade to slightly less attention-grabbing apparel have been denied. Pavel has, however, used magic marker to draw cubes, smiley faces, and mushroom clouds all over hers.

Magneto takes point, flanked by the two most durable: Juggernaut and Beast. Behind them are Havok, Short Circuit, Cyclops, and the reluctantly-christened Wings. Far behind them, still in the Blackbird, are Banshee, the now-exhausted twins, and Professor X, who is systematically scanning all of their minds to prevent and detect outside influence, though he admits he doesn't know exactly what it will look like or how to stop it; his opportunities to interact with other telepaths have been extraordinarily limited.

Erik unlocks the doors, flings back the gates with a wave of his hand, and they're inside the building. It's dark inside, thanks to the twins' intervention, and the floors smell like disinfectant. It's warm though, and inviting, with a dozen comfortable chairs surrounded by rows upon rows of low shelves piled high with toys and puzzles, board games and candy, alcohol and cigars. Alex grabs a can of beer and tosses one to Lyle. Pavel is having some kind of staring contest with a Slinky. Erik selects a cigar. Hank settles into a chair to relax.

Cain wants a beer, too. But he's still...pissed off about something. Why would he be pissed off about something? And more to the point, why does his mouth taste like goat piss? Something's stuck in there, trying to rip his teeth out with pure, foul tasting hatred. It's a...it's a...why the fuck is he eating a motherfucking Bit-O-Honey? "Somethin' ain't right!" roars Cain. "Hit it, Short!"

And Short Circuit throws her hands out wide and everything is blank. No input of any kind, real or otherwise.


Ah. That's it. Now that Charles knows what he's looking for, he can block it, hold it at bay. He can look for the child's mind, buried under all of the illusions.


Here is the scene in the compound when everyone's senses return:

Short Circuit is standing over a brace of hogtied soldiers, holding their guns. The remaining mutants are standing in the middle of a large, bare hangar, surrounded by soldiers whose guns are cocked and ready. Lyle has been shot in the leg. Just outside the ring of common soldiers stand two more uniformed men, neither of whom is holding any apparent weapon.

Senses return and there is chaos.

Magneto is using all of his concentration to stop every bullet, excluding those streaming from Lyle's guns. Beast and Juggernaut are punching everything in sight while the Summers brothers are firing off blasts as quickly as they can without hitting their own kind.

Then there is a tornado and the ground splits beneath them.


There's a buzzing sound, growing louder and Banshee can see a man, a soldier with bug wings flying toward them. The man's mouth opens awkwardly as if he's gagging; Banshee has seen that look on someone's face before. With a scream, Banshee launches into the air, knife in hand.

The wings are gone. The soldier is unconscious and bleeding badly.


A whirlwind throws Beast against the wall, stunning him.

A soldier charges to take the advantage, but Lyle smacks him in the face with a rifle while Havok fires a blast at the man creating the twisters.

Cain sneers at the earth split before him, then charges at the soldier who stole Ngo Thi Lam's powers and her life.

They have trained together. They are ready for this. Realizing their guns are useless, the soldiers charge with equally irrelevant knives, but are pushed back by their dog tags and boot shanks.


Charles reaches the child's mind. It lacks Emma Frost's elaborate defenses. He sees the boy, doused in thoughts and feelings that aren't his, reflexively sending them screaming back out every which way. He sees the boy's mother swallowing a fistful of pills to escape the unrelenting agony that their kittycorner neighbor has felt ever since the old man fell asleep at the wheel and killed his kids. He tries to calm him, offer him peace, but there are no shortcuts here.

Jason Stryker looks up at his father and says, "Tell your men to stand down. They will not be harmed. Neither you nor your son will not be harmed."

William Stryker is an animate blend of horror and fury. "No son of mine will be one of you," he says as he draws his piece and shoots the boy in the head.

Banshee whirls around as Charles howls in pain.


Chapter Text


The rest was easy, wasn't it?

Erik pinned Cain to the ceiling so he wouldn't act rashly. Stryker was bound, knocked unconscious. Page after page of data was stuffed into boxes. Machines were photographed, then dismantled, then smashed, then burned.

Thanks to Hank's flight suits, the bullet only grazed Lyle. Hank stabilized him and helped him back to the plane.

It was Alex who found Angel's body. "You stupid bitch," he said sadly. "You should have stuck with us." They buried her, and Riptide, and the boy.

Scott found himself standing next to Pavel, both staring at their captor. "He looks...smaller than he sounds," said Scott.


"You've seen more death than... I can't imagine." Charles rolled his head from one side to the other. He always tried to avoid comparing their experiences. "You've never died. I've died. The first time was when my mother was dying. I wanted to know what it would be like for her, so I read this man who was dying of the same thing. It didn't hurt much, it just...regret, I think. I don't..."

Erik didn't really want to ask. It just wasn't relevant to any of the decisions they had to make now, but Charles was relevant, and Charles wasn't going to be of any use until he was able to vomit up his feelings, either figuratively through pointlessly sentimental discussion or literally, by drinking a near-lethal dose of alcohol.

So Erik asked, "What was it like for the boy?"

"He knew it was coming. It hurt less than he thought it would. I just...we should have... If we had approached it differently, maybe he wouldn't have... I don't know what we could have..."

"Was that bottle full when you started?"

"Oh, this?" Charles held up a half-empty bottle of brandy. "Yeah, but the first one wasn't, so it's not..."


Stryker was not going to escape. Charles had guaranteed that with a series of psychic suggestions, forcing Stryker to, amongst other things, forget that the outside world existed, that doors could be opened, and that stairs could be climbed. Stryker was not going to escape, but they took shifts watching him anyway.

Scott took a lot of them. So did Alex.


"I'm sending Cain away." Erik opened with his knight.

"What? Why?" Bishop's pawn one space forward.

"You're the one who says he doesn't have much self-control, Charles. It's too much to have Stryker right there and tell him that he can't kill the guy." Erik brought his other knight into play.

"Where are you sending him?" Charles moved out another pawn.

"Remember that North Korean mutant? The one you found on the original Cerebro? I'll have him try to retrieve her. Ought to take him a while. Might accomplish something." Erik moved a pawn.

"I guess we can't win them all." Bishop takes knight.

"Was the data we got from the facility worth anything? Was Hank able to piece much together?" Pawn threatens bishop.

"Apparently initially Stryker only wanted 'cure' his son. Wanted to gather information and test procedures on other mutants first, let someone else be the guinea pig." Charles brought his own knight into play. "It turns out the 'military industrial complex' – as our hippie friends would say – is actually quite happy with mutant powers; they just don't want them in the hands of random citizens."

"Thus the experiments with transferring powers." Erik captured a pawn.

"It was authorized," said Charles softly. "By the highest authorities in the government. The documentation is quite clear."

"I hope you're not surprised by this, Charles."

"Disappointed, perhaps." Charles looked at the board. "I'm not sure I really feel like playing."


Pavel stood at the top of the stairs. She never went into the basement anymore. She stared down into the dimness, then looked back at Hank, at the boxes of papers spread out across two tables. She shut the basement door.

"Does it say?" she asked.

"Say what?"

"Say where he put my brain."

"Ah," said Hank. "No, no it does not."


Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle

In September, some guys set a bomb off at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama and four little Black girls died. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Kennedy pleading with him to use his executive power to enforce desegregation orders and protect Black Americans, but of course that didn't happen.

Protect us against the wickedness and snares of the devil

I took the plane to get to Texas in time. I'm climbing up the stairs. I have to get to the right place in time. The world is shit and nobody else seems to care. I can't just ignore these things. I have to try to make things right.

May God rebuke him, we humbly pray.

The government thought that Stryker had the right idea. The government, all the way up to the presidency, has been backing him up, ordering him forward. They have all this power, and for what? For kidnapping little kids? For bombing beaches? Turns out they don't mind a little freak power here and there as long as they can control who has it, make sure it's their people, not anybody else.

And do thou O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God.

I'm at the top. I don't really feel scared. In fact, I feel okay for the first time in months. I've prepared for this. I'm finally doing it. I'm making the world better.

Cast into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits –

I cross myself.

That prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.

I leap from the window and draw my gun.


"The president has been shot. I repeat, the president has been shot."

Chapter Text


It kept playing over and over on the television. First he was happy and he was waving and then he...wasn't. Then they would cut away to images of citizens mourning, setting up makeshift memorials. The major news networks quoted Mrs. Kennedy's shocked words, "They killed my husband." Out of propriety, they left out the second half of the quote that would appear in tabloids and tell-alls: "They killed my husband, I have his brains in my hand."

The assassin could be seen in the video. He was blurry, with a scream that shook the cameras, and he fell through the air in a not-quite-natural way. His face would have been visible, but the picture was too distorted for features to be identified.

They all knew exactly who the shooter was.

They were crowded around the TV. Gregory was trying unsuccessfully to hide the fact that he was crying. Isaac and Abby didn't even try to hide their tears. Scott gaped openly, jaw hanging down. Alex just listened, head turned to the side. Pavel was pressed back against Hank, as if trying to get as far from the television as possible, yet at the same time, she wouldn't look away. Hank's eyes were narrowed and his face cast down. Charles and Erik sat side-by-side on the sofa; pretense abandoned, Charles had pressed his taut left hand into Erik's trembling right. Even Petra seemed to understand that the situation was very bad; she was making her squares very quickly and muttering "Shut up Sean," over and over again.

Lyle said aloud what they were all thinking, "If they didn't hate us before, they're sure gonna hate us now."


They could hear the plane landing. Charles put all of them to sleep, all except Erik. And then he waited for the landing sequence and the footsteps and there was Sean, pale and drawn and drenched with sweat. He kept his head angled to the ground, but he jerked his eyes up for the briefest of moments before shutting them again.

"I made," he whispered, "a terrible mistake."

His whole body seemed small and young, standing in the cavernous entrance hall. He looked lost.

Charles dropped his head to his hands. Erik said nothing.

"I made a mistake," repeated Sean, "and now I don't know how to fix it."

"Fix it!" cried Charles. "How do you not understand that death is permanent? That what you did cannot be undone?"

Sean nodded, then it seemed as though he couldn't stop nodding, head tipping over and over up and down. He was shaking all over and his breathing was fast.

Erik spoke, softly and severely. "Come into the library."


"Why did you do this?"

"I just...I just..." Where were the words? It had all made so much sense before. Now everything he said sounded awful, pointless, unworthy.

"They're crying out for your blood," said Erik.

Sean nodded again.

"Do you want to die?" Erik asked, voice carefully neutral.

"I...maybe, I don't know...I just want to fix this." Sean rolled his head from sternum to shoulder. "If I turn myself in, they...they won't be as mad, right? They won't be as mad at mutants?"

"We can't know for sure," said Charles. "This is going to color public perception for a very long time no matter how it ends."

"I..." Sean was breathing heavily, as if he were exhausted. "I forgot...I didn't forget, I just didn't think about it...I forgot he has kids." The shaking started again.

"Oh Sean," said Charles, his voice thick with pity and despair. "Go to sleep."


"How can he sleep?" asked Erik.

"He's basically unconscious. I'm holding him in both mental and physical stasis to give the shock time to stabilize."

Erik stared at the fire. "Did we do this?"

Charles closed his eyes. "Sean is his own person. But he does not exist in a vacuum."

"I taught him to fight." Then, softer. "I told him that we were gods."

"And I chose to respect his privacy, and in doing so let him sink deeper and deeper instead of forcing him to accept guidance."

"Are you seriously considering letting him turn himself in?" When Charles didn't answer, Erik continued. "I'm sorry this man is dead – yes, Charles, I really am, from a practical standpoint at least. I'm sorry this man is dead, but that's no reason for one of our number to be executed."

"But what message does that send? That their lives are worth less than ours?"

Erik chose not to debate the point and he chose not to quote on one Charles' eye-for-an-eye-makes-the-whole-world-blind platitudes. Instead, he placed his hand on Charles shoulder. "You fear death because it's final, irreversible. Sean's not dead, which means this," Erik gestured to the unconscious boy, "doesn't have to be the end."


"I don't think it's possible," whispered Charles, "even with Cerebro."

"I can amplify it," said Erik. "I'm familiar with the construction, the wiring. It's all electromagnetics, after all."

"They'll never believe it without...there has to be..."

"We need a warm body."

"Yes."


Charles and Erik were lying in bed. Sean was in the boathouse, hidden from view and telepathically hidden from anyone's curiosity.

"It's wrong," said Charles. "It's...we're using someone who's killed before. I don't want to make a killer out of someone else."

Erik pulled him closer.

"It's wrong," said Charles, "it's wrong."

Erik said nothing, just breathed into the darkness.


It was a terrible sort of compromise.

Two days after the assassination, William Stryker antagonized a Texas nightclub owner by the name of Jack Ruby and was fatally shot. With the help of Cerebro amplified by Erik, Charles maintained control over Stryker through his death, and modified the perceptions of all those involved so that whenever they looked at Stryker, they only ever saw a pale, red-haired boy. Charles erased the manor residents' memories of Stryker's captivity, made them believe that the man had died in their raid; there was no need for them to know that Erik and Charles had taken a life to save Sean's.

Erik seemed unaffected.

Sean was sad and quiet. He no longer carried his knife.

Charles' brief flirtation with sobriety was undermined by his guilt.

Erik seemed unaffected, but he spent long hours sitting in silence with Sean and he spent long hours listening to Charles ramble and he drew a small sketch of Kennedy that he kept with his things.

And yet, the school stayed open and enrolled more and more students, not just because they could be found with Cerebro, but because the world outside was growing more and more hostile. They stuck together. They got stronger.

It was compromise. It sure as hell wasn't perfection.