The envelope was thick, made of good quality paper. Inside there was a hand drawn picture of a white queen tipped over on to its side, the word truce and a time and a place. The place was in New York and it was easy enough to travel there. He didn't need to see the cheerful curves of Raven's handwriting to know who it was from.
"It's a trap," was Alex's succinct summation.
"Totally," Sean agreed.
"So when do we leave?" asked Hank.
"You think we should go?" Charles was surprised, because he could hear the doubts in Hank's voice.
"I know that you'll go whatever we say, and you might as well have someone with you. Don't look so hurt, remember Niagara."
"I made a mistake at Niagara. It won't happen again."
Despite the misgivings of everyone, including Charles himself, they set out for New York. Erik was exactly where he said he'd be, sitting on a park bench wearing a long grey brushed wool overcoat. While it was definitely an improvement over the red cape he'd taken to wearing, Charles couldn't help but feel that Erik had been reading too many spy novels.
Charles greeted Erik with "hello."
"I'm glad you came." Charles didn't respond. "We need your help."
Charles counted to ten. The last time Erik said that, there'd been three people needing medical treatment. He said, "Erik," and watched his friend's jaw clench. Charles knew he shouldn't have called him that but he wanted to show that they could both be deliberately provoking. He continued, "There's nothing you do that we are willing to help you with." There was more he could have said, that he and the others spent a good two thirds of their time stopping Erik from doing the things he did, and that, yes, thank you for asking, Alex's wounds were healing nicely.
"I think on this occasion, you might change your mind." Erik produced a folder from his light brown leather messenger bag, and opened it. It was a military dossier, containing the plans for a centre for a Special Forces unit whose mission would be to wipe out all dangerous mutants. Charles knew as well as Erik did that dangerous was likely to become a category that encompassed all mutants if they didn't put a stop to this.
"I assume I shouldn't ask."
"A fellow traveller came to me with the information."
"And you believe them?"
"Yes." That meant something. Erik's trust was not easily won.
It left Charles with no choice but to ask, "So, why do you need us?" Erik had more than enough weapons at his disposal, and they were far more ruthless.
"There was an accident and Ms. Frost was injured."
Charles found that slightly unbelievable. Emma was a telepath, and very difficult to attack, both because of that, and her diamond defended skin. With the exception of the kind of helmet that Erik wasn't wearing now, or another telepath, he knew of nothing that could stop Emma from defending herself. "How?"
"The law of unintended consequences. Riptide created a whirlwind to defend us, but a piece of debris came flying out of it. It hit her on the head and knocked her out cold. She is physically fine but she finds herself unable to use her telepathic powers. She assures me that it's only temporary, and that this has occurred before. Unfortunately, we don't have time to wait. The unit is about to be activated. I need a telepath."
"And what would you have me do?"
"Emma was going make them all have screaming nightmares every time they had a bad thought about mutants, but I sense you'd object. I need you to keep them at bay while we destroy their records."
"That's not going to stop them from doing it again."
"My contact is working on that." Erik took a deep breath. "I realise this isn't a permanent solution, but something has to be done. It won't be mutants like us that they attack first; it will be the weak and defenceless. That's always how it starts. We have to stop them." Charles was ready to agree when Erik added. "It's your data from Cerebro that they're using." Erik at least had the decency not to say 'I told you so' even if Charles didn't need his telepathy to know he was thinking it. "You'll help?"
"I will." He had to; this was another mistake he had to fix. "But not like that. We'll need a better plan."
"Yes. It would be better, I think, if you, and everyone else, of course, came back to the house." Erik looked as though he was about to disagree, because if there was one thing Erik didn't like to do, it was giving away home advantage. "I've spent the past few years adapting the house to my needs," it's the closest they ever come to mentioning the accident; "it will be easier."
"We have space. And Azazel can teleport her. I assume he's with her now." Erik looked at him, the long searching look of 'have you been reading my mind?' "I can see Angel and Riptide. I can't see Raven but that doesn't mean she's not here." Charles nodded his head at each in turn. "I can't see Azazel."
"You're right. For much the same reason as Hank is not here. These humans you so wish to defend, they'll never let Azazel or Hank, or Mystique, be. Do you really want to save them?"
"Yes." It was the one thing Charles had left to believe in.
"You're wrong." And of course, Erik disagreed with him utterly.
"Let's not argue about this. There are people who need saving."
"Agreed. I will see you in an hour."
Erik left, with Riptide, Angel and a particularly waif-like blond man who Charles now assumed was actually Raven, following him at a distance, clear enough that they were together if you knew, but probably far enough apart that they wouldn't be noticed by someone who wasn't looking for them.
Charles signalled for Alex to come over. "We have to get back to the house, quickly."
Once they were on their way, he brought everyone up to speed with what had gone on.
Alex spoke first. "I hate to be the one to bring this up, but should we really be inviting the enemy to our headquarters?"
From the driver's seat, Hank said, "One of the enemy grew up there, and they all already know where it is, we're not revealing any secret information." It drowned out Charles's less than hearty response of, 'they're not our enemy.'
The arrival was awkward, everyone standing around waiting for a fight to start; it was only Emma nearly collapsing that broke the tension.
"For goodness sake, Erik, has she even seen a doctor?"
"Yes. You remember the medical student with the protective barrier."
"Yes." Cecilia Reyes. She'd said "thanks, but no thanks" to the offer of a place at Xavier's school; she preferred to finish her medical studies.
"We call on her help occasionally."
"Also, *she* is capable of answering for herself." Emma somehow managed to sound arch, even as she recovered from her faint.
"My apologies, Ms. Frost. Would you feel more comfortable your own room?"
"Hank, would you be so kind?"
By the time Emma was settled, it was already late.
"I think we will all feel better, and certainly train better, after a good night's sleep."
Mystique, Angel, Riptide and Azazel looked at Erik, who nodded. Hank took over the organisation of where to put people.
As Charles moved towards his room, Erik leaned down and whispered in his ear, "so I take it you still haven't come up with a plan."
"Good night, Erik."
Charles had come up with a plan in the night. He'd never slept well, not even as a child, and his student habits hadn't helped to settle his mind into anything close to a reasonable sleeping pattern. Then there were the nights when his back ached, and it was easier to admit defeat and stay awake rather than lying there, awkwardly turning for the entire night. The night before had been one of those nights, but at least he'd got some work done.
"Good morning," said Charles. "I hope you all slept well, because today will be a long and difficult day." Erik stood by him. They'd discussed this, and Erik had no problems, or at least said he had no problems, with Charles taking the lead on this one. "As you all know, our objective is to raid a military installation, which will undoubtedly be heavily guarded. The mission will succeed, or fail, depending on your ability to work as a team. Therefore, today will be a team-building day. Hank has your instruction sheets." Hank started handing them out. "Training will begin in fifteen minutes, downstairs."
They'd adapted the bunker for this, with a reinforced viewing panel so the events inside could be watched from the outside. It was a great learning tool. Charles could sit outside the shelter and conjure up enemies for them all to fight, enemies that they would have to team up to defeat.
It was Erik who left the chamber first, running up the steps two at a time to offer suggestions to Charles about how the simulation could be improved, and complaining that it wasn't pushing them hard enough. Charles said he'd try to make it better, and with that Erik raced back to rejoin the fray.
The process repeated several times, in fact, the whole exercise went on longer than Charles had intended because he wanted to get one run just right, so that Erik would be satisfied.
When they finally finished, Charles had a splitting headache, so he left the others to their own chosen training. He trusted that Hank, Erik and Raven would keep them working on their tasks.
He was reading after dinner and turned round when he heard the door open. It was Raven.
"Thanks, for my room, I mean. You didn't have to keep it the way it was." It had been so nice to come home, with all her old books, and the silly little knickknacks she never would admit to missing. "But I'm grateful."
"You're welcome, ... If you really prefer Mystique, that's what I'll call you."
"I do." Raven was a name given to her; Mystique was the name she had chosen.
"You're welcome, Mystique." Mystique noticed that Charles was halfway through the nervous habit he had, where, well, before, his hands would go over his back pockets. Instead, now they ran along the arms of his chair. Mystique wondered how much else she'd missed. Of course, Charles had missed parts of her life, but he could just read her mind to find that out, not that he would, probably. He never had before. But either way she'd have to spend time slowly pulling the information from him.
"So, how are you?"
There'd been a few near misses; Alex almost sliced Riptide in two, which was quickly followed by Azazel nearly stabbing Alex. Sean had broken it up. He seemed to have settled into the role of mediator. He was the only person who everyone was willing to speak to. Well, maybe him and Hank, but Hank was almost constantly busy, so the job had fallen to Sean.
It wasn't the only thing that marked Sean out to Erik. There was also the way he dressed. Azazel, Riptide and Emma still dressed as smartly as they had under Shaw. Angel's outfits managed to combine practicality with a certain style. He and Mystique tended to very basic but neat. Charles and Hank looked like escapees from the nearest university and Alex looked like he was two steps away from the armed forces. Sean meanwhile had grown out his hair, wore trousers that seemed to have eaten his feet and somehow his shirt managed to clash with itself.
Sean had retreated to the grounds behind the mansion, in a break between hand to hand combat training and flying. They'd spent a lot of the morning trying to come up with a way of carrying Hank. Neither Sean nor Angel were strong enough to lift him up, not from a standing start. The main plan was that Azazel would teleport him in case of an urgent retreat, but they wanted a backup in case anything went wrong. They officially said 'in case Azazel and Hank got separated,' but that was because Azazel had got offended when Sean had said 'if Azazel got injured' because Azazel prided himself on his ability to avoid everything. Sean could tell that Alex was about to shout something like 'avoid this then' and do something they'd all regret, so Sean had headed that off.
It had been hard work. Sean felt he'd definitely earned this beer. Sean knew what Alex's problem was, and could understand it, but it wasn't helping anyone.
And he'd come outside hoping for some relaxation, or at least to be away from people. Mr. Lensherr must have followed him outside. He also looked like he wanted to talk. "Mr. Lensherr."
"Call me Magneto."
"Call me Sean." That got him one of Mr. Lensherr's death's head smiles.
Another man would have beaten round the bush, asked how Sean was, made small talk and then, only then, would he have brought up exactly why he'd followed Sean out here. Instead, Mr. Lensherr got to his reason straight away. "Do you ever wonder about choices?"
"Whether I made the right one, you mean?" Mr. Lensherr nodded, and Sean said, "Maybe." Sean saw him starting to nod, as though he was about to start making comments about how mutants had to stand up for themselves, and that it was them or normal humans. How wrong could he be? "But not the choice you're thinking about. Sometimes I wonder if I should have said no to you and Professor Xavier." Mr. Lensherr seemed to want more of an explanation. "I don't want to hurt people, and doing what we do, it keeps happening. I won't hurt people."
"Even if they're trying to hurt us?"
"Even then. That's a choice too; you used to believe in those." Sean knew he was pushing it. And he knew he shouldn't, because he was reasonably sure that this counted as trying to hurt someone, and he was trying hard not to do that in any way. He knew he ought to try to make up for it. "You gave me flight, because you were right, I wouldn't have jumped. And I don't think anyone else would have pushed me. I owe you so much for that. You can't imagine how great it feels to fly."
"Why are you telling me?"
"Because it's a memory I don't want either of us to spoil by anything we say here."
"Even if you're wrong?"
"Especially then." Sean knew he wasn't wrong. His mother and father, now he might not have got on with them, but they were still his Ma and Da, and they were normal humans, not mutants. That was all that Mr. Lensherr seemed to care about, and that was the only reason Mr. Lensherr needed to hate them, even if they'd never done him any wrong. That couldn't be right.
They sat there, on the grass behind the house, for what seemed like ages. Neither of them moved to go. He knew Mr. Lensherr wanted him to, proving that his argument was deficient by forcing Sean from the field of battle, or something like that, but Sean liked it here and wasn't going to give it up for any reason. Sean had no idea how to convince Mr. Lensherr that he meant him no harm. He was looking at the sky, the cool of the beer making its way through him, when he got an idea. He jumped up and raced to the fridge and back.
"It's not a great beer, but it's better than nothing." Sean handed it over; he hoped that Mr. Lensherr would understand, just because Sean didn't agree with that he said, it didn't mean Sean bore him any malice.
They spent the rest of the break sitting there, not talking because anything would probably have resulted in an argument, and Sean thought that Mr. Lensherr did understand what he meant by his gesture.
Charles made a point of visiting Emma at least once a day. It wasn't that she wasn't capable of moving about her room, or even that she didn't sometimes find the energy to make it downstairs for food, but he'd been the person confined to their sickbed. Despite their best intentions, he knew that people became very good at not visiting you, or talking past you when they did come. Given that he'd inherited the family money, he was amazed by the number of relatives who didn't visit him when his mother died. He didn't mind them not being there - he was quite pleased in fact - but it was interesting none the less.
Chess wasn't Emma's game, instead the stock market was her sport of choice. It wasn't something Charles knew about, so it was interesting to hear her views on the matter.
"You don't have to come, you know. I despise charity."
"Nonsense, I'm getting a lot out of this. I hope it means I'll never have to pay my financial adviser again. Or, more realistically, that I'll be able to keep a better eye on him."
She knew he was lying but let it be. It wasn't pity that drove him, more fellow-feeling; for all that Emma said she'd get her telepathy back.
Charles went to the study once he'd left Emma. Erik had set up the chess board, and was making the first move. Charles played black's move as though it had been put there for him. Erik looked up, but he didn't complain.
"How are things?" asked Charles. "I think you're in a better position to see how preparations are going."
"Worse than either of us could possibly have imagined. We've all been fighting each other, I don't know how you could have expected everyone to suddenly not only get on, but be able to work together. It's impossible. Mystique and Hank have nearly destroyed the training room twice already. Alex is refusing to speak to Angel, or me, or Emma, Azazel, Riptide or Mystique - and I think the fault lies with him. We're all perfectly happy to set aside old grudges and talk." Erik had apparently taken up sarcasm as a full time occupation.
"I noticed. You tried to recruit Sean, despite giving me your word you wouldn't."
"Reading my mind, Charles." There were razorblades in Erik's voice.
"Sean told you, then." He hadn't asked the boy not to, but he had hoped ...
"You might wish to consider the ability of voices to carry through open windows." Erik made a despairing sound that might have been a laugh. "You said you wouldn't."
"I said I wouldn't if you didn't."
"I haven't been."
"Haven't you? 'You're always welcome here', 'don't worry about it, we can replace it', your entire house is an advertisement."
"No, it isn't."
"Spoken like someone who's never had to worry about if there's going to be a next meal. What you have here, Charles, is incredible, in terms of a stable base of operations."
"I do meant it, Erik, you are all always welcome."
"If I give up my beliefs and all that I've worked for. No thank you, Charles."
"The offer is always open."
"And the price will always be too high."
They carried on playing chess, three games, two draws and a win for Charles.
"I'll have to go tomorrow," said Erik.
"Where?" Charles knew Erik would be back; they had a raid to carry out.
"To meet my contact. They've been keeping an eye on the situation, and I need to know if there have been any major changes. You could come along."
"Are you sure? Wouldn't it scare them? People don't like changes."
"Oh I don't think they'll mind." Charles quite deliberately did not chase the thoughts that Erik left dangling, probably on purpose. If Erik wanted him to be shocked by whatever it was, Charles was willing to go along with it. Whatever it was couldn't be that bad, because Erik wanted this mission to succeed, and he needed Charles for that. At the same time it would probably make Charles very uncomfortable because Erik thought he should have joined the Brotherhood. Being made to feel awkward was a small price to pay to remove the threat this Special Forces unit posed to mutants.
Charles knew going along to the meeting was the right thing when everyone objected. Hank and Sean were worried about his safety, Riptide, Azazel and Angel about operational security. He chose to believe that Mystique worried about his safety, but she did mostly join in with their complaints about mission security. Emma didn't say anything, she just smirked. Charles wondered what she knew that he didn't.
In many ways, the argument was easier than getting into the bar, because bars didn't think about wheelchairs, and he's reasonably sure that it is Erik's powers of magnetism that actually lifts him over the lip of the doorway.
Erik was being disturbingly nice, which Charles knew did not bode well for what was going to happen next, because, while Erik had never been cruel as such, the things that made him happy tended not to make other people happy.
He was thinking about that, and not paying attention. That was why he didn't notice.
He was choosing to ignore that his hair is falling out, he'd blame the stress if it weren't for the photos he's seen of his father, and Erik was becoming more like a dagger every day, but the past five years had made Moira even more beautiful.
They saw each other and their shouts of 'Erik' and 'Lensherr' overlaid.
"Let's sit down, shall we." Charles managed to squeeze himself into the space in the corner of the bar that Moira had chosen to sit in.
"What do you think you're doing?" Moira was incensed.
"Why, Agent MacTaggart, I would have thought you'd want to know that I managed to find a competent replacement for Emma."
"That's not the point and you know it."
An awful lot of things fall into place. Why Erik trusted his source and how he got a source in the first place, for instance.
"I'll leave you to get reacquainted." Erik walked over to the bar to order some drinks.
"There have been times when I wanted to kill you. I'm stuck doing nothing but typing, thanks to you."
"I'm sorry." Charles really was, for all the good that it did.
"You could have asked, you know. I would have said yes."
"You wouldn't have known if you had."
"Yes, I would. Every time you look at me, you look guilty. You never even asked."
"Don't bother apologising. It's not something you can fix. Can we just not talk about it?"
"As you wish. Why Erik, though? He's spent years trying to kill you."
"Because this is more important than that. Did he show you the files? It's just wrong." And that was why Erik had brought him. Because Erik didn't like Moira, but Charles believed that Erik at least respected her, and he wanted to show Charles that he wasn't being paranoid, and that the government were out to kill all mutants. Even Charles's "pet" human agreed with him. When Erik pointed that out, Charles would say that Moira was evidence that it wasn't all of humanity - not that mutants weren't part of humanity, but Erik did like to argue that they weren't - that were anti-mutant. Moira was putting her career, and - depending how the government were feeling about treason that particular week, possibly her life - on the line for them, for people who so far had spent most of their time abusing her, a charge that Charles himself was in no way innocent of. The gap between Charles and Eriks views wasnt broad, but it was very deep.
"How did you find him?" Charles nodded in the direction of Erik, who was coming back with the drinks, two beers and what smelled like bourbon.
"The badge isn't just decoration. The file landed on my desk and I knew I had to do something, and I couldn't remember how to find you, so I went for the next best option. Erik's an easy person to find if you know how."
"She found me in a bar not too different from this, masquerading as a mutant who needed our help. I would have killed her except she had such useful information." At least in this ever changing world, some things didn't change.
"How is Emma?"
"Getting better." Or maybe things did change; when did Moira and Ms. Frost start being on first name terms?
"So what's the plan?" Charles had to ask. Erik's contact being Moira had changed how he saw the mission.
Erik answered. "It's the same plan as before, just different people."
"I've typed up the files, ready to go." Moira pointed to her bag. "We're still hitting them on Sunday?"
"Yes," replied Erik. Moira picked up her car keys and made to leave. Erik got up too.
They left their drinks, unfinished except for Moira's bourbon. She slammed her empty glass down as she said, "You lead, I'll follow."
"What?" Charles was confused.
Erik answered once they were in the car. "I've not changed the plan at all; this is exactly what we discussed. If we don't want the government to repeat this, or at least not in the next few years, we need to pretend that this mission is successful. For this, we need files written in the government style, which come courtesy of Agent MacTaggart. We also need them filed properly at the base, because there's nothing the deadly apparatus of government likes more than filing. Therefore, Moira needs to come with us."
"But she's ..."
That's not what Charles meant and Erik knew it, and yes, he had agreed to the plan when he thought that their mysterious contact was a fellow mutant, and yes, Moira could look after herself, but still. "I don't like the idea of Moira risking so much for us."
"It's her choice, and to quote one of your students, we used to believe in those."
It was a disjointed and disaffected group that returned to the mansion, which fit in with the prevailing mood there. Whatever it was, it was building like a thunderstorm in summer.
Charles was in no mood to deal with them all, particularly not once Moira had seen Hank and gotten very confused, and then explained why she was confused. Hanks mind was bellowing with rage, even as he spoke to Moira and explained what had happened to him. Charles took the cowards way out and told them all he was going to sleep. He took some sleeping pills to make sure that happened. He'd wake up tired tomorrow, but it meant he wouldn't hear them all tonight, their feelings echoing around the house. Maybe he did still hear them, his dreams when he took the pills were all over the place, but at least he wouldn't hear the details, the caustic drip, drip, drip of anger from at least half of them.
They all trained as normal the next day, although Hank was being frigidly polite, as though he was determined to see this through and then he'd give someone, and Charles had a horrible feeling that someone was him, a piece of his mind.
Charles was right. Hank cornered him in the library when they broke for the evening meal.
"What do you think you were doing? All of that talk about only using our powers for good, and you do that. To Moira!"
"It was a mistake. But it was the only solution I could think of at the time."
Eric came through the door, shutting it quietly. He moved to stand between Charles and Hank.
"It kept you safe. Be glad he did it."
Hank turned, and all but growled at Erik. "This is not your argument, Lensherr. Stay out of it."
"No." Erik said. Hank swiped at him, and missed him by the merest millimetre. Charles knew Hank too well to think it wasn't deliberate. If Hank wanted to hurt Erik, there was nothing, short of invading his mind, that either he or Erik could have done to stop him. Hank left the room, slamming the door behind him.
When they'd finished their day's training, cut short because tomorrow was the day they were going to hit the centre, Charles had told them all to get a good night's sleep. He didn't expect that anyone listened, no one had last time. Not that he could take anyone to task over it; it wasn't as though he and Erik got anything that resembled a full night's sleep.
Angel went downstairs to the kitchen. She hoped Xavier had cookies. He used to, back when they were in the CIA centre. It was the stupidest thing, they were both way too old for them, but there was something nice about it. They'd sit there and talk over cookies. Nothing heavy, not the fate of the world, only chitter chatter about the radio shows. She still missed the girls at the club, but he was trying to make up for it. She knew that, and he knew that she knew. But he tried.
Xavier was a nice enough guy, even if he was wrong, so very wrong about the consequences of people finding out that mutants existed. She'd spent the first part of her life being a second class citizen in her own country; she wasn't going to spend the rest of it that way, not when she could do something about it. That was the glory of these powers, it gave her a weapon. It meant that she could do something about it. How wonderful was that?
Nothing in her life had ever been simple, and this cookie raid definitely wasn't. Alex was in the kitchen. If he hadn't started speaking, it would have been fine. Hell, she probably could have ignored that, she'd ignored worse from customers. It was probably nerves that did it, or Alex's tone.
"I don't get how you even dare to show your face here, never mind sneaking down and eating the Professor's food. Erik and Raven, fine. They're wrong, and we're going to stop them, but they've earned the right to be left alone here. And Frost, Azazel and Riptide, they're murderous fucks but we knew that. They worked for Shaw. It's a given. And if we didn't need them, I would have taken them all out by now. But you, you were one of us." It mattered to Alex. Angel had joined Shaw, even after he'd killed Darwin. At least Lensherr had killed Shaw before he went away.
"Spare me. The only us I'm part of is mutant-kind."
"Tell that to Darwin."
That was a low blow. "It's not my fault that Darwin listened to you and that you got him killed. Fine, you feel guilty, go beat yourself up and leave me out of it. If you and Xavier want to play nice with the humans, and turn your backs on your own kind, so be it. Not my problem. But there's a word for people who try to attack other people when there's a ceasefire. And even with that advantage, you're a coward who got someone else killed."
"When we're done with this, you'd better watch your back."
"I know it's the only way you'd ever take anyone out."
"Whore." Now they were back to insults that hadn't hurt for years, she hadn't even got her wings yet the last time that upset her.
"Traitor." She snatched the jar of cookies. "And before you carry on yelling, you ought to consider, there's only one of us speaking the truth in this conversation, and it ain't you, sweetheart." She still left the kitchen with the jar, because she really didn't feel like spending the night arguing.
Why did he have to mention Darwin? It wasn't that she tried to forget that it ever happened, but what was she supposed to have done about it? Turning round to Shaw and saying, 'whoops, changed my mind,' was not going to have gone over well. And it wasn't like Alex would have listened to reason either. She'd not joined Shaw because she liked the man, but at least his ideas hadn't amounted to 'if we play nice, we can hope they'll play nice', 'cause that had worked so well throughout history.
And she didn't get why Alex thought he was the only one who was sad that Darwin had died, they all did. But no, Alex was the only one who mattered, at least according to him.
Angel had been worried, after the mess on the beach. Not about Lensherr, who'd taken over as leader, because he thought that they were right. They were going to stop the humans wiping out mutantkind because they had already started trying, and when she talked to him about having joined Shaw, he said that her only mistake had been joining the right side at the wrong time, and, as far as he was concerned, she had nothing to apologise for. No, it was Mystique's reaction Angel worried about, because Raven had been Darwin's friend. They all had been, he was a cool guy.
They hadn't talked about it; they'd both been wary of the whole topic. Eventually, it all spilled out, one night in Willamette. There'd been alcohol involved, and the terror that always followed a mission that went wrong, and they were both sloppy drunks. "If I'd known Lensherr had been planning this, I wouldn't have left."
"Yeah, the thing that made up my mind was the way the guards at the CIA were looking at us. Like we were worse than dog shit. It made me mad. I never would have gone with him if I'd known he'd do that to Darwin."
"You don't need to explain yourself to me. There's nothing you could have done. It's not like you're a mind-reader." Of course, they both found that ridiculously funny, she'd blame the booze, and does. But it was some kind of life when there were people you know who you wouldn't have been able to say that about.
Angel had never been to the house before, she'd guessed Xavier came from money, but she hadn't expected it to be so much. It was weird being here, given how often they'd fought against Xavier's men. But for pillows this comfortable, she could cope. She did wonder how Mystique was dealing with it, what was a little weird for her must have been much worse for Mystique, who'd grown up here by all accounts.
Mystique had followed Hank down to the bunker. He was busy eviscerating one of the training dummies.
"Leave me alone, Lensherr."
"It's not him, it's me."
"Leave me alone, Raven."
"Why? It might mean you finally actually fight me. You've spent the week tearing up this place, pretending that you're trying to hit me. I know the difference."
"If we fight, I will hurt you." Hank never wanted that.
"I'm willing to risk it. I'll fight better tomorrow if I get to spar tonight."
Hank didn't give her chance to think, he just went straight for her throat. He fell deliberately short, while still moving at full speed, but she was far out of the way by the time he reached where her neck had been. She looked at him, glint in her eyes; she knew that he'd pulled the punch. So she kicked him, hard. He got angry, the kind of angry he tried to avoid being, and went at her.
Mystique knew she should be scared, and she could feel the adrenaline coursing through her, but there wasn't fear, not like there had been when Shaw raided them. She remembered that feeling, how horrible it had been, but it almost felt as though it had happened to a different person. Because now she had the skills to deal with most things that happened and she'd learned how to think round a problem while it was happening. Hank, for instance, was stronger than her, and bigger than her. He still needed to breathe, so her thoughts were to cut off his air supply and quickly.
They fought, both of them changing tactics to suit the situation, and it was almost brutal. They were both not quite going at full tilt, awareness of tomorrow playing on their minds, but still, they were exhausted when they finally stopped. They were collapsed in as heap. Mystique looked up at the walls. They'd left cuts and gorges in the concrete again. She didn't worry about it, Charles wouldn't mind. There was no major structural damage to either themselves or the bunker.
She gave him a hand up.
"I don't know about you, Mystique, but I could do with a snack." Hank seemed to be in a better mood, at least.
She followed him. It was like following Charles when they were children, sneaking round so that his mother, or Charles now, wouldn't wake. Hank's stash was red wine and twinkies, and she couldn't help but smile. "The food of the gods, my dear, the food of the gods."
She continued to follow him, until he jumped up and hung off the roof, where it overhung on the east end of the building. He gave her a hand and all but threw her up onto the roof. She landed with ease and was amazed to see what was basically an open air room on the roof. Hank swung himself up.
"This is nice."
"Thank you. I like it up here; it gives me somewhere to think. That, and living in the same house as Alex is ... I think we could be the only people left on the planet, and I would still get sick of the sight of him." Hank set out the plates and glasses. "I think it's being stuck here most of the time."
"You don't go out much?"
"There's a limit to what a trenchcoat and a fedora can hide. I keep up with science well enough but I get stir-crazy sometimes."
She knew this wasn't the time for a discussion of mutant visibility. Mostly because she knew he'd point out that in New York, she hadn't been herself.
So they talked about other things instead. It was like the old days, back in the CIA, when they'd spent nights and nights talking. As the night got later, the conversation dwindled back to more serious topics.
"I think about it often now, who we are and how we got here, and how we're the only people who could be us." After living with Charles, she was used to parsing half-a-bottle-drunk philosophy. "I find myself in the unique position of being the only person here who has made themselves." She didn't think that was true, but the way that Hank was pinching at his skin, she knew he meant the experiment. "One day, I'll fix myself too."
He turned, slightly, so he was fully facing her. "The thing I notice most is how people see my disposition. If you asked Sean or Alex they'd tell you I was moody. If you asked the people I did my degree with, they'd tell you I was shy and restrained. I don't believe my personality has changed; the only thing that's changed is that people think I can do something to them when I get angry now. It's all very well to say 'ignore the grad student grumbling in the corner, grumbling is what they do.' People find it harder to ignore you when you've got fur and claws."
She knew she was being used as a sounding board; it was another thing she was used to after having to hold Charles's hand during the writing process. At least Hank seemed to be coming to a point, not just dithering while deciding whether or not page sixty-three needed to be thrown out and burnt.
"The last time we were here, I said something to you that was unforgivably rude. More than that, it was wrong of me to say it. I don't ask for your forgiveness, because I don't deserve it, but I'd like to apologise, nonetheless. Mystique, I was wrong, I'm sorry."
"I know you were wrong. But I forgive you anyway." It might have come out a more harshly than intended, but Hank would understand. Or maybe he wouldn't; he was still trying to make himself look human. At least now, he was sticking to only doing that to himself.
It was also a very revealing thing to say, far too close to 'I'd rather not die with this on my conscience' for her liking. Hank was worried about something, even more than he had been last time, and everyone had been worried sick then.
"What's bugging you?"
"The usual things. I know I should be used to this by now, the threat to life and limb, but I'm not. Possibly this is a good thing, it makes me cautious. Other than that, I'm used to fighting with the Professor, Sean and Alex. I know what they will do. There are six unknown, or shall we be generous and call them less-known factors, on our side now. I've fought against you and the others often enough that I know you'll fight well and stick to the plan but ... it can't have escaped your notice that Alex has even more pent-up anger than usual."
It hadn't, and Hank was right, Alex had spent the week flying off the handle every time anyone so much as spoke to him. The problem was that while Alex's powers grew stronger when he got angry, he had less control over them, and that meant people in the next county over could be in danger, never mind his team-mates.
Alex's powers were lethal, unlike those of almost everyone else. They could all be made deadly, but his were the only ones where the effort had to go to making them not kill people. And when Alex was in a temper, he was less likely to make that attempt. She wasn't going to tell Hank, in case he used it next time they were fighting against each other, but there was a reason they tried to put Azazel near Alex if it looked like there was going to be one-on-one fighting. He stood the best chance of avoiding Alex's blasts. It was harder to avoid things when they came from your own side. Hank was likely to have gone through the same thought process, or at least reached the same end point, himself. "We can't keep an eye on Alex and our opponents at the same time."
"Any ideas?" Mystique didnt have any, not off the top of her head, but if Hank had been thinking about this for a while, he must have some suggestions.
"Maybe. But I'll need your support."
They were having one final briefing before they went. They all felt they could storm the facility in their sleep now but it never hurt to go over the plans again.
Then Charles moved on to his final point. He planned to keep Moira out of harms way. "And now, I need a volunteer to stay behind with Emma, I wouldn't want her to be left alone. Just in case anything happens. Moira, you're a cool head in an emergency."
Before Moira could object, Hank answered, "Alex is probably the best choice."
Mystique agreed slightly too quickly for this not to be co-ordinated. Charles looked at Erik who looked straight back at him. No, this was all Hank and Mystique's doing.
Slowly enough for them to be unprompted answers, Angel and Riptide agreed. Alex hadn't had time to voice his opinion when Emma answered for him. "I don't need a nursemaid, Xavier. I am perfectly well." The open cracks along her crystalline form spoke against her, but she'd said her piece. She'd let no-one be left behind for her.
The mission was go. It was get in, stop the Special Forces unit from causing any damage and get out.
The entry into the compound was easy. In fact, had the twelfth man in the Special Forces unit not had a painful breakup with his girlfriend on the Friday, it would have been that rarest of things, a mission that went exactly to plan. Unfortunately, she'd found the lipstick on his collar, and he was on base.
He noticed that one of his colleagues didn't reappear as he made his way around the perimeter of the base.
He raised the alarm, although it was only heard on the base, Hank had already cut communication with the outside world. The siren was enough to have rest of the soldiers up and awake. Mystique morphed into one of the soldiers and took another out, but one of them must have seen Hank, because they started shooting.
So it was time for plan B. They retreated behind the main wall.
"Who on Earth uses plastic bullets?" shouted Erik.
"Anyone who faces you and learns from their mistakes." The only reason Charles and the others didnt use plastic bullets was because none of them used guns.
Moira was crouched behind the same wall. "Don't look at me; I couldnt have known. Requisitions don't come through my office."
"Right. Azazel, take Moira and Banshee to the offices. Banshee, knock out anyone you find there. Everyone else, distract them while I get to work."
Of course the downside was that if the distraction tactics didn't work, he'd be right in the line of fire.
Charles concentrated on feelings of comfort and peacefulness, and directed them as best he could towards the oncoming soldiers. That was the difficult part, focussing on several individuals, and avoiding the incoming thoughts he could hear. Angel's feeling of relief as Alex took out the guard that was about to shoot her, one guard's confusion at the sight of Raven, and Erik's utter confidence in Charles's ability to pull this off, although he might hold on to that one for as long as he can.
You are feeling very relaxed, and you mean us no harm.
They tied the soldiers up, and changed the records. Moira had already removed the copies held in Washington and had replaced them with the doctored versions.
Only Eric remained, the others were busy repairing any damage and picking up the plastic rounds.
"You have to do it, Charles. It's the only way. Take comfort that it's far better than what Emma and I would have done to them."
It wasn't any consolation. What he was about to do was wrong. He'd do it anyway, because it was going to prevent a greater wrong, but nothing was going to make him feel any better about it.
He pushed and poked, carefully, trying to tease the information out, change it carefully, not the psychic brick to the head that he used to use. Nothing had happened during the night. The weather was rainy. They'd all gone to sleep early and read books. The corporal had finally had a chance to look at this month's Playboy with the nurse pin-up.
Stryker had chosen the Colonel leading this mission because they'd served together in Korea. It couldn't have been more perfect if they'd tried. If this man came back saying that all the places Charles had found had turned out to be duds, Stryker would believe him.
And then to leave, exit their minds carefully, leave no trace, not even such a small one that only another telepath would notice.
Once he was finished, they packed up and left, like ghosts.
There was an odd mood in the mansion when they got back. They were happy, it was job done, with zero casualties. That was a win, no matter how you looked at it.
But it also meant the mission was completed, and it would go back to how things had been. The next time they saw each other, they would be on opposite sides of the fight again. They'd all say it didn't have to be that way, that either they should all be on the same side, mutants sticking together against humans or that there wasn't a need for acts of violence against normal humans. But those arguments had raged before; it was unlikely that anyone would suddenly see the light.
Moira was the first to leave, she had to go back to work, and be there in time for her alibi to stick. Even if Stryker et al. smelled a rat, they probably weren't going to suspect a lowly agent secretary, but it never hurt to be careful.
Erik actually left Charles's side for the goodbye, Charles wondered if he even noticed he'd been hovering.
Moira was steeling herself. But then, she didn't expect to remember any of this either. "So, this is goodbye. Again."
Moira touched him on the shoulder. "Charles, I want you to know that you have my permission to wipe my memory this time. Don't feel guilty about it. It's what I would have done in your shoes."
This was going to be the difficult part. "Is it alright if I don't, this time?"
"I. Charles." Moira could have screamed, she was so angry. Charles had ruined her life, without her permission, and now, when she could see that wiping her memory was necessary, he wasn't willing to do it.
"I'd rather you come to me with these matters than to Erik."
"You don't trust him?"
"Something like that." Or nothing like that, really. Charles had to hope Erik wasn't listening in. Charles trusted Erik with his life, more than that, he trusted him with his sister, but Moira wasn't a mutant. It shouldn't have mattered, but he knew it did to Erik. "I mean it. If you ever need us, you know where we are."
"One day, I'd like to be able to come and visit you without secrecy."
"Maybe, one day. Sooner or later." He was blithering now.
"While we're talking pipe dreams, I want a pony. Or at least a research institute of my own. I want to do all the research Peter planned to do, without worrying the government is going to twist it."
"I only want world peace. Or a full head of hair." Even being able to get the school properly functioning would be good. Their efforts keep being impeded by the time they have to spend stopping Erik and the others.
"I know which is more likely." Moira smiled.
"We dream impossible dreams, it makes life worthwhile."
The others left later. Everyone was saying their goodbyes, and Charles found he had to actively shut everyone out. It had been years since he last had to do that but theyd become so loud in their confusion.
He found Erik on the balcony. Underneath, Sean finished setting up Charles's mother's gramophone and he and Angel were playing records, while everyone else finished their drinks. Emma somehow found champagne. Charles could have sworn there was none in the house.
"I still don't call that music."
"Compared to some of the things he listens to, it's practically melodic." Erik laughed.
Charles had missed that so much, missed all of them, Raven, Moira and Erik, and the way they talked.
They stayed like that for a while: Erik looking at the radio dish, and Charles looking at Erik. There's silence between them, and that was probably for the best. The mood of the whole evening was bittersweet because they knew that the next time they saw each other was going to be on opposite sides of a fight. He wondered sometimes if there was any chance of peace between mutants and other humans when there wasn't even peace within themselves.
The sun set and the last of the red light was fading on the horizon before they said anything more than small talk, mostly about chess. Charles couldn't quite feel his lips, and he was aware that meant he should have stopped drinking at least two drinks ago. He thought he should be old enough by now to know not to have serious conversations when he was drunk.
And yet ... he knew this may be the only chance he had.
"I mean it when I say you could all stay. I wouldn't ask you to change your mind about anything, just don't actively set out to hurt people while you're here." It was probably a betrayal of some of his ideals, but circumstances sometimes mean there is a need for flexibility.
"Charles, you forget I know you as well as you know me. This has never been a matter of opinion for either of us. It's a matter of faith. You believe you are right, I believe I am right, and we both think the other person is misguided." Erik's shoulders were slumped, and he suddenly looked so very weary. Charles wanted to go over and console him, but he knew that wasn't what Erik wanted, because he confused concern for pity, and hated being pitied. Charles understood that feeling a lot better now.
"I'll make you a deal, Charles, if you ever start a real school here - don't you dare call showing mutants how to pretend to be humans teaching - I will come back and I will teach foreign languages, or metalwork, or whatever you need that I can do." Charles could hear that Erik was smiling, but he thought that they were probably both glad they couldn't see each other's faces. He didn't want to cry, not now; he already knew he would when they others did leave because it shouldn't have to be like this. He hoped that all of it, all the fighting and the tears, the stupid risks they run, would be worth it. In his darker moments, he had his doubts, but he had to believe it would be.