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The Weight of Water

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The Weight of Water

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Part I - Two

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1

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Sister.

A sister.

He has a sister.

Charles has a sister.

Her name is Raven and she is blue and brilliant and just like him and her mind is like music and picture books and they have a plan.

All night they’ve been planning, playing with her ability to make Raven Xavier, Charles’s sister.

Because that’s what they are now, brother and sister. They’ve claimed each other with those words and they won’t be alone anymore, now.

Charles is aware, of course, even through his exhausted giddiness, that the words alone do not make it so. There is work to be done, especially for him. And they’ll need time to really become brother and sister, but those are details.

The overall plan is much simpler: Together.

Something stirs in the hall and Charles stretches enough to feel Cook’s mind. He winces. Already so late? Or early, in this case?

Raven is sitting next to him, playing with her new, blonde hair, chewing on something or other. Charles calls her name inside her head and loves her madly for the fact that she doesn’t jump. She just blinks big, blue eyes at him and they flicker gold, like a treasure at the bottom of the sea, gold hidden under blue. She’s not very good at keeping shapes up.

Cook is coming. We need to leave.

Her eyes grow wide, panic settles on her face, a steady of stream of They’ll hate me, send me away, hurt me, I’m a freak, not normal, they’ll be scared, they’ll hate me…

Stop, Charles tells her, sternly. The word reverberates in both their heads, testament to how tired he is. He usually spends most of his time trying to keep himself together, but he’s been stretching all over the place all night long. There are pieces of him scattered all over. With Raven, outside the door, keeping watch, with the maid who sometimes sleepwalks. He’s everywhere at once, a puzzle with the parts scattered all over. Confused. His headache is murdering him.

I need you to be quiet and hold my hand, alright?

She still reels, inside, but then she visibly steels herself, thinking that Charles is her brother now. Brothers protect their sisters. It still tastes of hesitation, that thought, but she wants to believe.

Brother and sister. They’ll fill up the spaces later, colour in the white between the contours of themselves and this new creature they gave birth to: us. Later .

For now, Charles needs to hide Raven from Cook’s perception long enough to get her to his room. There, they can sleep for a bit. Later, when his headache is better, he’ll start changing people’s minds about her.

Later.

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2

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The first person whose mind Charles changes is the maid that is sent up to check on him when he doesn’t show up for lunch or dinner. She walks in on Raven, bright and blue and both of them scream and Charles lunges across the room, throws himself between them and orders them, sharply, to shut up.

Then he shoves his way into Marietta’s head and makes her believe that Raven has always been there. Raven is Charles’s little sister. Raven is Sharon’s and Brian’s daughter. Raven is blonde and pretty and loves chocolate. Raven is nice. Raven likes to play with Charles.

Everything is alright.

She repeats everything he feeds her, word for word, her expression blank, her eyes glassy. Raven stares, scared. A bit of him, but mostly of the almost-discovery. There is terror living in her very bones and it will take a long, long time to bleed out.

Once Charles is done, he orders the girl to forget Raven is there, for now. She’ll report that he’s feeling under the weather and bring him a light dinner later.

She nods, walks out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind herself.

Charles collapses onto the floor, crying and retching.

Raven is there, on her knees at his side, holding him, asking him what she can do, how can she help, please? Her panic swirls through his head, making it hard to think and he keeps retching, keeps twitching with pain and he wants to roll up, wants to stuff his head in cotton and never feel again, it’s never hurt this much, he’s never pushed so hard, he had to go so deep, oh gods, it hurts. Raven panics, high and loud inside her head. She thinks she killed him.

But then, suddenly, she stills and he thinks she’ll run, thinks he’s probably hurting her, projecting his pain, but then she’s moving again, her hand on his shoulder, stroking softly. And her mind isn’t panic anymore, but smooth and blue, like she is.

She concentrates hard on that, blue and smooth and nothing else. He can feel her emotions and thoughts clamouring to get back in, but she pushes them aside. Blue and smooth and quiet, like the deepest sea.

Clever girl, she figured out that she’s making things worse, figured out that his gift is all out of control. Pieces of Charles all over the floor, shattered under the pressure of what he just did.

Blue and smooth.

Charles sinks into it, lets himself fall into her mind and eventually, falls asleep. He dreams of the ocean and hidden treasure revealed.

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3

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It takes him three weeks and almost constant migraines to make Raven his sister.

The pain gets a bit less every single time, but it’s still crippling, leaving him shaking and throwing up for hours. And always, every moment of it, Raven is by his side, holding onto him and making her mind into a perfect escape, empty and soothing.

She lets him in without reservation or hesitation, without fear of what he could do. The fact that he’s hurting himself to help her, to make her safe, means more to her than any declaration of love ever would have.

There is no more hesitation when she thinks of him as her brother because brothers protect their sisters and he does that. Even though it hurts him.

“Thank you,” she whispers the night after he gets done changing the last mind – Mother’s. Charles has stopped retching, is only shaking, wrapped in all the blankets Raven could find because, she insists, being warm is important when you’re sick. He keeps telling her that his body isn’t what’s sick, his mind is, but she worries and she wants to do something.

So he sweats silently with her skinny blue arms wrapped around his middle above the blankets.

He nods, attempts a smile. “Of course,” he agrees. “We’ll have to go through some of the old rooms tomorrow to find some dolls and other things to put in your room. A girl needs toys.”

And they can’t very well buy them because Raven should already have them. But Charles knows they’ll find enough to create the illusion that the room across the hall from his has been Raven’s for the past nine years. He just got done changing the world to make it fit her. They’ll manage one room. Clothes are not an issue, thank god, because Raven can create them like she creates skin and hair. As long as Charles is there to tell her what she should wear, she’s perfectly fine. They’ll get her some eventually, just so there’s laundry, but for now, they should be set. Everything is fine. As soon as the shakes are over, everything will be absolutely fine.

He changed the world. He changed the world.

Raven smiles brightly, her nose almost touching his. “I’m glad you’re better,” she tells him. “You don’t look so bad anymore. And now you won’t have to do it again, right?”

He nods, tries another smile and manages. He’s better. The exercise of the past few weeks has done fascinating things to his ability. It’s stronger than before, easier to control and, like Raven says, he gets less sick with every try. Also adding to his better than usual state is the fact that the last mind he changed was the easiest.

It should have been the hardest, making his own mother believe that she gave birth to another, second child, but it wasn’t. He copied her emotions for him – minus the repulsion and fear she tries so badly to hide – and connected them to false memories of a daughter with her blonde hair and her dead husband’s blue eyes.

There was no love he needed to manufacture, because she feels no love for her real child. No memories he needed to fake because she never spends time around Charles, so why would she spend time with Raven?

All he did was implant knowledge. You have a daughter named Raven, and she accepted it and moved on. There were no emotions involved, except a quiet little voice that whispered, at least she’s not as freakish as the boy.

Charles just changed his mother’s mind forever and it was easier to do than changing the cook’s or the butler’s because his mother has no love for her own flesh and blood. He always thought it was his freakishness that made her distance herself so, but it’s more than that, he realizes. Mother never wanted children, has no patience for them, no care for what happens to them. She knows Charles – and Raven – are taken care of. Beyond that, she is too involved with herself to care.

He is an object, a possession, like a coat or a dress that is pulled out of the closet for a special event, put back in the late evening, forgotten. He exists outside his mother’s narrow orbit, outside her gravity, far from her centre, cut loose from her at birth.

It hurts.

But he has Raven now, and she loves him because he protects her and is there for her and is not scared of her. And in turn she protects him, too, and doesn’t let his ability frighten her away.

Raven and Charles.

Charles and Raven.

That’s all that matters now.

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4

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“No, like this, see?” Raven asks, reaching behind her head to tug her hair from Charles’s grasp and take over the braid. “First this one, then this, then this. And again.”

Charles, who has been trying unsuccessfully to braid her long, blonde hair for almost twenty minutes, grunts in frustration. “You can just make it braid itself, Raven. Why do I have to learn?”

Her hands drop to her sides and her hair disappears, zipping back into her scalp, leaving her with a boy cut too short for any sort of braid and when she turns around, her face is solemn and her eyes moist.

Charles cringes and sweeps across the surface of her mind, trying to find out why she’s upset. He’s telling the truth. There is absolutely no need for him to be able to help her with her hair. Any hairstyle she wants she can just create with a bit of concentration.

But, oh. It’s not about the hair. The hair is an excuse only, a way to gain entrance to his room after dinner. She wanted… oh.

“Raven,” he says, sounding older than he is. He always does. He is older than his years, so much so. Knowing every secret will do that to you, he muses, smile crooked. “You do not need excuses to come to my room. Just bring yours toys and you can play here, or do your homework. I don’t mind having you around, you know that.”

She blushes dark purple, averting her gaze. “I’m sorry,” she mutters and then looks back up, fire in her eyes suddenly. “But you never tell me these things.” She sounds annoyed.

Charles thinks back over the past few months and finds, yes. She’s right. He hasn’t told her. “My apologies,” he offers. “I sometimes forget that not everyone can read minds. But I promise I don’t mind.”

She looks sceptical, Really?

When Raven wants to make sure he tells the truth, she always asks inside his mind. She says he can’t lie there. He can, but she doesn’t need to know that. It’s exciting, getting to speak to someone like this. Really.

Her smile is back and her mind turns to happy things, flowers and sunshine and chocolate, which Charles knows to mean that everything is fine. There is a learning curve with this thing – Charles and Raven – but they’re getting better at it.

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5

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Sometimes, when Raven is playing out in the grounds and finds something exciting while Charles is inside, reading, she’ll call for him in his mind. It feels like a tickle along his spine and when he lets her in, she’ll tell him what she wants him to do.

Take my hand she’ll say, or, Take my eyes. And then she’ll show him what she found, sharing her treasure with him without reservation.

He doesn’t know what the scales of a snake feel like until Raven gives him her fingers to learn.

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6

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“Can you pass me the butter?” Raven asks, munching on a bite of dry toast.

“Of course,” Charles says, hands it over.

“Are we going outside later?” She sounds hopeful.

“I have homework to do, and so do you, dear,” Charles reprimands, gently. Raven isn’t really good at keeping track of her school work. She’s never had to before.

“I did my maths last night. It’s stupid.”

“No, it’s not. It’s important.”

“You sound like an old fart.”

“And you sound like a child.”

She grins, points a finger at him. “I am a child!”

“That doesn’t mean you have to act like one all the time!”

“Does too!”

“Does not!”

“Does too!” Charles, who has never before had anyone to have silly fights with, actually enjoys this. So does Raven, her mind awash in mirth.

“Does not!”

“Children!” They both jump suddenly, at Cook’s sharp reprimand. She gives them stern looks from where she’s standing at the stove, making breakfast for Mother. “Speak out loud,” she orders.

She, as well as the butler, have been in this house for longer than Charles has been alive. They know about his ability, even if the rest of the staff doesn’t and refuses to learn. Sometimes Charles thinks he might be keeping them from learning, without meaning to, but he’s not sure. Still, the butler ignores what Charles can do, but Cook has never seemed fazed by it.

Until today. A slight dip into her mind reveals worry, a bit of fear and a lot of apprehension. Charles slips a bit deeper, finds the last few minutes in her mind.

She’s been watching him and Raven gesture and laugh and frown, but they haven’t said a single word, the whole time. Their conversation has been completely silent and they didn’t even notice.

“Oh,” Raven says across the table and Charles realizes she’s seen what he’s seen. He’s shown her, even as he dug through Cook’s mind, what he was finding. Even now, their minds are still tangled.

It’s almost like –

Charles rips himself away, pulling out of Raven’s mind hard enough to shove him backwards in the real world. He almost falls out of his chair, stumbles to his feet and, ignoring the worried calls of Raven and Cook, he runs.

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Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won
Sorrow, they put me on a pill
It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk

The National, Sorrow

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7

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Please, he thinks, please no, not Raven. Not her!

She’s banging against his door, calling for him to let him in, nudging him with her mind, but Charles can’t let her in. He can’t.

Not Raven!

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a

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Maggie is little Charles’s nanny from the moment he is born. Mrs. Xavier is too weak to take care of him after the birth and seems to develop no interest as her strength returns to her.

So it’s Maggie all the way. Maggie who bathes him and changes him and feeds him and sings him to sleep and holds him when he cries. Not that he does, sweet, silent, little boy.

She’s had half a dozen other children to take care of in her career, but never one so young, and never so completely. Sometimes it’s like no-one wants that boy at all. Mrs. Xavier has no interest and Mr. Xavier is always too busy. Cook is the most regular visitor in the nursery, after Maggie.

And then, when Charles is about four months old, things get strange. Maggie starts to feel a warmth, like feather down, whenever she is with the baby. Warmth and comfort and contentment. She attributes it to getting attached to the baby, at first, but it grows stronger and she notices, after a while, that it fades when Charles is hungry or tired or needs something else.

She knows what he needs, without checking, without thinking. He fusses his little fists at her and she knows he is hungry, even though she’s recently fed him. He fusses at her the exact same way and she knows he needs to be changed. She just knows.

And he has no expressions. He makes no sounds, pulls no faces, doesn’t scream. Utterly silent. And yet she finds herself in his nursery time and again in the middle of the night, swearing up and down he cried for her.

When he is eight months old she goes to visit her mother on her weekend off and feels cold and alone and desperate the whole time. The feeling fades as soon as she holds Charles in her arms again.

That’s when she really figures it out.

She doesn’t tell anyone, except Cook, because the older woman is a friend. That, and she has her own suspicions about the boy, even earlier than Maggie. She believes Maggie when she says, “I think he cries inside my head.”

It scares her for a while. It isn’t normal. But he is a baby, in the end, helpless and fragile and, she figures, everything he does is normal for a child his age, except for the way he does it. He doesn’t smile to show affection, he makes her feel warm. He doesn’t cry, he just nudges her mind, letting her know what he wants. He doesn’t scream, he just summons her to his bedside.

He is a boy. A tiny, silent, special, little boy.

It’s okay.

And with enough patience, with enough care, she teaches him to speak out loud, to behave normally. To hide, because she knows the world won’t accept him.

When he is four, he finally speaks normally most of the time and Maggie, who is tired of putting off her wedding to John again and again, decides that it is time for her to go.

Charles doesn’t need her anymore, and it’s not like she’ll leave forever. She’ll visit him, and after the honeymoon, she’ll make sure to show his new nanny everything she needs to know. She’ll make sure the other woman sees how special Charles is, and what he needs, how to help him, protect him.

Later.

For now, she’s newlywed and on her way to Florida for her honeymoon and John is beaming next to her in the car, so happy. Charles’s warmth is slowly fading as the miles stretch between them, but she’s happy and she knows he’ll be alright. Children his age forget quickly.

They’re just past Bethlehem when Charles’s warmth at the back of her mind is abruptly gone and a headache like an ice pick stabs through her skull.

It hurts, it hurts, oh god, she’s screaming, she can hear John screaming, he’s touching her, calling her name, but it hurts so much, she can’t see, everything is red, and it hurts so much, oh god, oh god, oh –

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8

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Charles won’t let Raven end like Ms. Maggie did. He won’t.

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9

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They need to talk.

Charles has been avoiding this conversation for weeks, ever since Cook and the kitchen and the breakfast where he slid so deeply into Raven’s mind that neither of them could tell inside from outside anymore. He has imagined a dozen versions and permutations with increasingly horrifying outcomes. There is one where Raven runs away again, one where she hates him, one where she stays but forbids him from ever entering her mind again. There is one where he slips up and she dies.

That one, he thinks, might be the worst.

He hopes she won’t run, hopes she’ll just tell him to stay away. He’ll hate it, every second of it, and it’ll hurt, but she’ll be alive. Safe.

But the idea of never being allowed into her mind again, of never being close to her again… Raven’s mind is so very special. She can’t hold her shapes very long, but they are an inherent part of her and reflected in her mindscape. Everything inside her head changes. A chair becomes a desk becomes a bottle of water becomes a bird and flies away and words become scribbles become worms become earth. Everything is constantly shifting, changing, moving. Evolving.

It should be nauseating, but to Charles it is nothing but wonder.

He’s missed that, those past few weeks, ever since the kitchen. With that thought, unbidden, a tendril of power escapes him, sneaks through long, empty hallways to find Raven playing alone in her room. It reaches her moments before Charles himself does, slips into her mind, clicks into place.

It’s been weeks since he felt her like this and the rapid brightloudsweetsoftlove-changechangechange of her mind feels a bit like coming home.

Joy floods him, followed closely by guilt and he jerks back, pulls into himself, removing all traces of himself from her mind. He has to. To keep her safe.

Raven, who felt him coiling in the back of her mind, snaps her head around to stare at the door before he ever opens it. Her expression, when he enters silently, is sullen and angry.

“Raven,” Charles says, “we need to talk.”

She lets go of her doll, drops it carelessly to the floor and lets her skin ripple. Emotion makes her lose control and she’s blue and angry before him. “Have you decided you’re talking to me again?”

Snooty, prideful, she already sounds like a true Xavier. Charles is both pleased and repulsed. Sweet Raven, so angry. It’s his own fault, though, and he knows it. He’s about to make it worse. When he tells her what he almost did to her…

He shuffles his feet around as he closes the door, tucks his hands into his pockets and studies the ground. “I’m sorry,” he tells her, his sister, his best friend, his confidante. He’s so terribly scared and he feels alone again, the way he did before that night when they met and had hot chocolate and talked until dawn. “I would like to explain myself, if you’ll let me.”

She glares for another moment but he can feel her softening. She sighs, finally, tucks a strand of bright red behind her ear and ripples back into her other skin, soft and pink, then back again to blue. So beautiful and far too forgiving. “Well,” she says, trying to sound sharp and not quite hitting the mark. “I’m waiting.”

Against his will, Charles chuckles.

He sits down on the plush carpet she uses to play on, folds his legs and puts his hands on his knees. Raven mirrors him, trying to keep the angry look on her face. But there is excitement leaking through already, and joy. She’s so happy he isn’t abandoning her that he feels like the world’s worst person.

But he has to protect her.

He takes a deep breath and starts, “You know that I’m a telepath.”

The look she gives him is more scathing than any girl her age should be capable of.

He bites his lip and then just forces it all out in a rush, because she has to know. She has to understand how dangerous he is. “I… I’ve found that… when I spend a lot of time inside someone’s head, and I mean a lot of time, I form a sort of link with them. It happened once when I was a baby, with my nanny. She left when I was four and I found out later that she died of an aneurism. I spent a lot of time in her mind and eventually, it was no effort at all anymore. It was like part of me was always with her. I could find her anywhere with only a thought, even when she was in town. And when I wanted to, I could influence her mind a bit. She always knew when I was hungry, or tired, or wanted something. She always knew where I was or what I needed. She married and left when I was four and…”

He clutches at his own hands, stares at them. He shouldn’t be here. Raven is too young, she cannot possibly… But she does. Because he’s been inside her head and he knows how she lived before she came here, how she hid and ran and hungered and she understands far too much. More than him, sheltered little boy. He’s lived a thousand years in others’ heads, but not a day out in the real world.

She crawls over to him and into his lap, pushing his arms apart and away, snuggling herself into the hollow created by his folded legs. She rests her head on his shoulder and pulls his hands into her lap and she smells of starch and something wild and utterly unknown. She smells… blue. Charles inhales deeply and fights the urge to slip into her mind, to borrow some of the warmth he knows he’d find there.

“I was too young to understand when it happened, but eventually, when I learned to access my own memories, I figured it out. I had a link with Ms. Maggie. My mind…moulded itself to hers. When she left… she went too far and the link broke and… she died. I killed her, Raven.”

She gasps, small and horrified, but there is no fear in her, only sorrow. She’s so very strong, so very brilliant. Charles goes on. “The reason I have been staying away from you is that I can feel myself forming a link, a bond, to you, like I did with her, and if I do, you’ll die.”

Something hot trails down his cheek and he realizes he’s crying. He feels so ashamed. He loves his gift, loves his abilities, but he hates them, too. It’s always so loud and he can’t ever be close to anyone, can’t ever love anyone because he’ll kill them when they leave and he’s only twelve. He’s too young, even if he feels a thousand years old.

He’s glad, so very glad, that Mother doesn’t care much for him because if she did, he would have killed her years ago when she went on one of her trips and he doesn’t want to… Charles wants to protect. To nurture and preserve and love and hold. He doesn’t want to be a killer but his power is so terrible, so strong and he can’t contain it, can’t hold it down, he’s only twelve, only twelve…He killed his nanny when he was only four and he didn’t even mean to. There was a piece of him inside of her and it killed her, poisoned her, like the mirror shards in the fairy tale she read him once.

“Only if I leave, right?”

Raven has her hands on his cheeks, holding his face, looking him straight in the eye. Her eyes are so beautiful, yellow and bright. He dips into her mind to understand the question he only half heard, finds, It will only kill me if I leave, right?

He nods.

“And you’ll be… you’ll be with me? Always?”

“Raven, you don’t understand! I’ll kill you! Ms. Maggie….”

Her expression falls, eyes going wide and scared again, the way they were in the kitchen, before she realized Charles would never hurt her. But he is. Hurting her. And he’s twelve and that’s too young, he knows that, but she’s even younger, nine looking seven, and he will hurt her. But then she says, “You’re going to leave me?” and he can’t move.

“No,” he says, too loud, in her head and out, making her wince, “No, Raven, you’re my sister now, I would never leave you. But you’re going to grow up and find someone and you’ll leave me. You cannot possibly want me inside your mind forever. You’d never be free of me. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t, because I’d kill you if you left.”

He sounds like an old man again, he knows. He always does, when he’s unsure. He borrows words and phrases from the minds of the people around him, from smart men, wise men, men who are respected and known and he tries to hide behind them. Tries to hide the fact that he’s only twelve and so scared. He thought he didn’t have to be anymore, now that there’s another one like him, but he was wrong. He has to be twice as scared now.

She presses herself against him, impossibly small but so heavy. She’s the weight of their futures, curling into his lap, shoving herself against his chest like she can crawl inside, if only she tries hard enough, blue like water, blue like the ocean, crashing down on him, pulling him into its depths like treasures lost.

“I’ll never leave you and you’ll never leave me. Brother and sister, you said, Charles, you said! We’re never going to be alone again. You promised me and I don’t want to be alone again, please, I don’t want to!”

“Raven, I can’t possibly…”

She shakes her head so hard that her hair hits him in the face, small stings. “You have to!” she yells, sounding choked. “You have to! And if I ever want to leave… you can change my mind. Like you did with Cook and your mother. If I ever want to leave, you can just change my mind and make it so I don’t want anymore and we’ll be together. We’ll be together, Charles, you have to!”

She doesn’t… she wants him to… how could he…?

Charles stops thinking. He shouldn’t, he knows. Someone has to be the adult here, to think logically of the consequences. But he’s only twelve and he’s scared. Scared and alone and too powerful. And Raven is alone, too, and different from anyone else. Before Charles, nobody ever loved her.

Before Raven, nobody ever loved Charles. He thought Ms. Maggie did, and she was certainly fond of him, but he wasn’t her child. He was the strange, sickly boy she was charged with. She left him. She didn’t love him.

Not like Raven does. Not like he loves her.

There’s only them, her and him, against the rest of the world. Together. He promised her that, in the kitchen. And she doesn’t hate him, doesn’t run away. She doesn’t lock him out, doesn’t doom him to watch from the outside for the rest of his life. She loves him. She lets him in. He’ll never change her mind because he won’t have to because it’s him and her, Charles and Raven now, and that will never change.

He wraps his arms around her, squeezes her too tightly, buries his face in her neck and lets his power seep through their skins, from his body into hers. He lays himself over her mind like a blanket, finds a spot that’s soft and dark and empty and curls up there, grows roots like a tree.

It takes no effort. His mind has been reaching out, trying to do this for weeks, knowing what he didn’t know yet. Charles and Raven. RavenandCharles. He lets it happen now, and Raven makes an awed little sound, like wonder, and smiles so widely he can feel it against the skin of his cheek, along with her tears and her snot and her warmth. She loves him.

The tree grows, its roots strong, its crown powerful and beautiful and there are blossoms, yellow like her eyes and sunshine and treasure and Charles slowly withdraws his conscious mind, leaving behind that tree and a part of himself within its bark.

A part of his soul.

“I’ll never leave you,” he says, and he knows that it is true because he can’t.

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b

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There is another world, one where he doesn’t find the right words. One where Raven is more scared of belonging to someone so utterly than of being alone. One where something is different.

In that world, Raven tells him no, tells him he has to stay out, and he spends the next twenty years hovering at the edge of her mind, like a dog scratching at the door, begging to be let in and he can feel the pull of her tide against his skin and soul and is never permitted to give in. She never allows him entrance and he can never hate her for it even though it’s killing him and then, on a beach in Cuba, she kneels over him and wishes, fiercely, that he would read her mind.

But he can’t. The doors have rusted shut, the locks have corroded into solid steel clumps and there is no getting through anymore.

He stays outside, forever lost, and she remains inside, free but alone. She leaves him there, taking with her the only other person Charles could have ever loved and their paths only ever cross again when there is fighting to be done.

They regret it, both, until their dying day, but it cannot be undone.

Sometimes children do stupid things.

Sometimes not doing them is even worse.

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10

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Raven has nightmares.

They sneak up within two or three hours of her falling asleep and they keep her under for the rest of the night unless she’s woken, tossing, turning, and calling out. Charles does that, the first dozen times. Sneaks into her room, into her bed, wakes her with hands on her face, with soft words.

And then, when she’s awake and pretending she’s not crying, he wraps himself around her, his friend, his little sister, his, and eventually falls back to sleep while she stays awake, curled into a ball, unable to let go of past horrors. Raven is in pieces, too.

But he has something better now, better than hands and words. Better than falling asleep curled around her when exhaustion wins over concern.

He has permission now. An invitation, good for one lifetime at least.

When her dreams, reddarkanger and grabbyhandsno, tickle the edge of his mind, he gets up, ambles out into the vast mansion. He passes a maid, out late. She was in the gardener’s room and forgot some duty or another, skittering now through the dark to hide her indiscretion, her failure. He flicks his hand at her in a wave as she passes him, wide-eyed, scared, and she forgets she ever saw him.

In the morning he’ll be a ghost in her memory, nothing more. These things come easier now. He crosses the hallway, finds himself in his sister’s room. He climbs into bed with her, under thick covers that bury her, make her look smaller than she is, her face dark against white bedding. He has impressed upon everyone in the mansion to never disturb Raven when she’s sleeping, but he fears for the day someone will push through the command and find her like this, bare and blue.

For now though, he is here. He will protect her.

He slides close, as close as he can and puts his fingers on her face, but not to wake. Two fingers against her temple, two against his own. He closes his eyes.

Raven, he calls, finds himself in a dark, dirty alleyway, cold and far from home. Something jars. Home? He has no home. He is alone. No. That is the dream speaking. That is Raven’s mind. Her memory. Oh, Raven.

Something moves in the dark. He spins to face it, finds a rat, as fat as Mother’s small dog, teeth gleaming, exaggerated by memory. He hopes. A grunt floats up from deeper within the alley and Charles follows it, still casting around for his sister.

He finds instead a man, dirty and disgusting, shoving himself roughly into a red-headed woman pressed back face first into the rough brick wall. She makes encouraging noises, loud and fake, and Charles looks away. He has seen this act before, of course, a hundred different times and ways, but he finds it wrong, degrading. Perhaps he is simply not yet old enough, but he cannot imagine himself ever becoming this man.

Raven, he calls again, over the noise the two adults make and this time, there is an aborted whimper in response.

He finds her kneeling behind an overflowing dumpster, impossibly small, younger than he’s ever known her, staring at the couple against the wall with wide, horrified eyed. She has her arms wrapped around herself, shivering, doesn’t dare move. They’ll discover her, hurt her, hit her. It’s happened before.

Oh, Raven.

Charles conjures a thick, long coat – this is a dream after all – and holds it out to her with a smile. She flinches away from him. Patience, he tells himself, keeps offering the garment. Eventually, the cold wins out and she reaches for it, wraps herself into it. There is a hood and she flips it up, hides herself before doing up the buttons.

Then she stills, raising her face to meet his gaze. Charles?, she asks, sounding unsure. Remembering. He nods, offers her a hand.

I’ve come for you, he says, I will always come for you.

She accepts his hand and he leads her out of the alleyway, past the couple and into the mild sunlight of an Indian summer filtering through the canopy of a tree with yellow blossoms. Here, he tells her, sitting down with his back against the trunk, patting a root beside him. She sits, leaning into him, relief pouring from her every pore. You’ll always be safe here. I swear.

She sighs, gratitude flowing from her like light, and he kisses the top of her head before closing his eyes and opening them again in the waking world. Raven settles without ever waking, her small features smoothing into contentment. Charles removes his hands from their faces and slings an arm around her waist, pulling her closer.

This time, they both sleep.

+

11

+

It starts to become hard to tell where their borders are, where one ends and the other begins. Oh, the heartland of them, the very core of who they are stays the same, but the fringes become tangled, like roots digging deep into foreign soil – and soul. An island, changing shape under the onslaught of the ocean, tides and waves and other.

It was hard before, when Raven craved chocolate and Charles picked up on it to the point of sneaking past Cook to steal some for them both just so he could have his peace. When he got annoyed with his teachers who didn’t challenge him enough and Raven ended up snapping at people, taking his mood out on them.

It happened sometimes. Not often, but enough for both of them to notice, even if no-one else did. Warning signs that Charles overlooked at the time.

But now it’s so much stronger. One day Raven is out in the garden, trying to get the cat she discovered at the back of the property to come play with her. It’s October and the weather is rotten and she gets cold and wet and leaves stick to her like orange badges, all over. She should be shivering and complaining loudly, but she isn’t.

Charles, sitting in his father’s study and trying to figure out a particularly complicated Latin text, gets sneezing fit after sneezing fit.

From that day on, they have serious problems keeping their urges and reactions apart. They constantly crave the same foods, want the same things, say the same things. When Raven should feel discomfort, Charles feels it instead, pulling everything bad into himself without noticing. Protecting his sister.

And when there is joy to be had, they share it until it multiplies a thousandfold, tingling like butterflies in their bellies.

Raven is still Raven, but she thinks or feels like Charles would and although she recognizes the foreign matter as such, most of the time, she can’t make it go away. And Charles is still Charles, but there are also parts of him that are Raven and he doesn’t think that words, in any language he has ever heard of, can describe what it means to be one and two at the same time. And the lines are still blurring, becoming murkier every day. Pieces of Charles, pieces of Raven, thrown on the floor, mixed up beyond any hope of setting them right again.

I love you, someone whispers as they part for the day’s lessons after breakfast and Charles makes it all the way to his classroom before he realizes he has no idea who said it.

+

12

+

Raven has no age and thus, no birthday. They agreed on an age for her when she came, decided to make her nine to Charles’s then-eleven, but since then he hasn’t thought about her age at all anymore. By the time Charles realizes that, she’s been with him for almost a year and he feels terribly guilty. She averts her eyes in shame and he pulls the emotion back in, makes a conscious effort not to taint her with it.

She beams, mood bouncing back abruptly now that his guilt isn’t smothering her anymore, and says, “What was the date when you found me?”

She always says that. When you found me. Like she didn’t break into the mansion and more or less dance around under his nose. Like he did anything other than hold out his hand, unafraid.

He’s her hero.

Silly Raven.

“Hey!” She kicks his ankle, glaring. “Don’t be mean!”

Apology.

Forgiveness.

“12 December,” he answers belatedly and she smiles. Her teeth are a bit too big for her mouth today and as soon as he thinks that, she makes them shrink, blushing.

“That’s my birthday,” she informs him, summarily. “I’ll be ten in December. And I want cake.”

She imagines sprinkles and icing and Charles licks his lips.

+

13

+

Charles steals the knowledge of how to make birthday cake with sprinkles and icing out of Cook’s head so they can have a midnight baking session together because that is what family does.

He plans to lick all the spoons and eat half the icing and possibly put egg in Raven’s hair because he’s never done that and neither has she and they should. He’s twelve and she’s still nine and they’re children, for all that everyone treats them like they were born the perfect Xavier scions.

They weren’t – literally, in Raven’s case – and they aren’t and Charles wants these things, the things he sometimes sees in other people’s heads. Real family. Real parents. He never tried when he was alone, because what point was there?

He could have made Mother bake him cakes, but he would have known it was all fake, all only because of his power. He never did.

But now there is Raven and with Raven, everything is better. She giggles softly by his side, trying to muffle the sound with her hands since they’re being sneaky and then kisses him on the cheek, thinking, You make everything better, too.

So they bake a cake at midnight, lick the spoons, eat the icing and throw flour at each other. And when the cake looks sort of crooked and perhaps a bit too greasy in the oven, that’s perfectly alright because there’s enough chocolate in there to make it taste absolutely delicious, Charles is sure.

They sit under the kitchen table with the dirty bowls, cleaning them with their fingers, and there are sugar crystals caught in Raven’s red hair, making her look like some kind of fairy.

She giggles again – hasn’t really stopped giggling since Charles woke her up hours after bedtime – and smacks his arm.

Then she asks, Who taught you to make a cake?

He blushes.

But you said stealing is wrong? she wonders, curious. A week after she came to the mansion, she stole a scarf from one of the maids and Charles made her give it back, told her stealing is wrong because it’s taking without permission.

It’s okay when you need what you’re stealing, he tells her now and then freezes, going wide-eyed.

So does Raven. These words, the exact same words, were the ones she used that first week, to justify her actions. It’s not wrong when you need it. Food, clothes, protection. Stealing those is okay. She told him but he said it’s still stealing and now he stole something from Cook because he needed it, but he had no permission to take it.

“I think,” he says, trying hard to speak out loud, “that your position on the subject has become mine.”

She grimaces, because Charles always uses big words when he’s nervous and she only understands him now because she can feel what he means. He doesn’t think stealing is bad anymore because she doesn’t. She changed his mind. Or rather: her mind changed his. This goes deeper than sneezing when the other is cold and craving the same food. Deeper than anything Charles expected and they didn’t even notice. He thought they would always notice.

“ I’m sorry,” she says. Out loud, too, because she feels like she just stole something from Charles, even if she didn’t. Maybe he won’t want to be in her head anymore now? Maybe he’ll cut their link and she’ll be alone again? Maybe he’ll be mad and send her away and never talk to her again and –

Raven. He hushes her, pulls her closer. Bowls clatter to the ground loudly and she doesn’t care, burrows in his side like she wants to crawl into his heart and stay there and she kind of does. It’s okay. I know that’s not my opinion but I told you, the bond can never be broken. So it sort of is my opinion now. Because it is yours. Just like you pay more attention to your studies now, I don’t think stealing is wrong anymore. Alright?

She nods into his neck and regulates her breathing carefully because she’s not crying. Really. Charles knows she is, though, because he feels her emotions like they’re his own, blends them together more and more easily now. Her panic was his and now, her relief is, too.

They stay like that until the alarm for the cake goes off and they have to scramble to keep the whole house from waking up.

+

14

+

Paradoxically, the knowledge that they’re both losing themselves in the bond calms Raven.

To her, Charles accepts things she knows he does not like in order to be with her. He compromises for her. It makes her believe that he really does have no intention of ever letting her go, more so even than the migraines he suffered for her did.

Charles, on the other hand, is beginning to understand just what a bond, a voluntary, complete bond, means.

They’re losing themselves in each other and a chief symptom of that is not caring because as they become more like each other, they accept all the stolen parts as their own and it’s hard to hate who and what you are at such a base level.

He starts a list, then, with things they know have changed. Not small, momentary bleed-throughs, but changes to the basis of who they are. The first item on the list is, Charles doesn’t think stealing is wrong anymore.

Followed by, Raven pays more attention to her studies and Raven doesn’t like pears now.

Steadily, the list grows.

Raven relaxes with each item. Charles fights hard and manages to keep the emotion separate. He learns to block the part that is blue and soft in his mind, learns to make himself be one again.

Raven cries when he tells her she has to learn, too. She cries and screams, “You don’t want me anymore!”

Still so insecure.

“I do,” he fights back, trying to stay calm, but her lack of faith hurts. Doesn’t she know yet that he needs her as much as she needs him?

They are both so insecure.

“But what if one of us has an accident and gets hurt? If we’re both crippled by the pain we can’t get help.”

She shudders, bites her lip, wipes her nose on her forearm crudely. Her chin quivers and Charles tenses, waiting for another fit.

“Okay,” she says. “I’ll learn.”

She does. Unhappily, slowly and with increasing frustration, but she does. Charles pretends he’s glad when, after a fight, she tries to slam the door between their minds and actually succeeds.

+

15

+

Mother brings home Kurt and Cain the first time for Christmas dinner. Charles picked his mother’s lover out of her mind a long time ago, of course, and so he and Raven both know about the man.

They’ve seen him, through her eyes, and they dislike what they see. Kurt is a tall, square man, with dark hair and a cold sharpness to his features.

Charles calls him brutish and Raven whispers dangerous through their minds. Cain is a smaller, more vicious looking version of his father. His mind churns black and red, shadow and vicious rage and helplessness. Charles takes one quick look and turns green, flees into the safety of Raven’s mind and tries not to let what he saw bleed through. She squeezes his hand under the table and sends him all her love and confusion.

“Children,” Mother says, either not seeing, or ignoring the looks on their faces, “this is my friend Mr. Marko. You may call him Kurt. And this is his son, Cain.”

She smiles and lays an air kiss on each of their cheeks. She smells like vodka and Raven cringes, not for herself, but for Charles, who is ashamed and disappointed and angry, too.

Angry because she’s been sleeping with Kurt for over a year and she’s only telling them now. At least she remembered them this year. Last year, she only showed up for Christmas dinner after one of the maids woke her from alcohol induced slumber.

Charles works through his emotions faster than Raven, stands, offers the men his hand, thinking nice and normal and don’t make waves, please, dear. “How very nice to meet you. We’ve heard so much about you, already, haven’t we, Raven?”

He looks at her and she thinks, for the first time, that there is something dangerous about Charles.

She nods as she tucks the thought away in a private corner of her mind, puts on her best smile and says her hellos. “How long have you known Mother?” she asks, sweet and guileless.

Perhaps she, too, can be dangerous. Cain tries to squeeze her hand hard enough to make her cry out, but she just matches his grip until Charles nudges her. Careful, he cautions, no waves.

His mother thinks, as loud as speech, Don’t let them embarrass me with their freakishness tonight, dear god.

Raven feels a surge of anger so primal it makes her teeth ache and it’s only Charles, ruthlessly clamping down on her emotions, that stops her from flashing bright blue right there, ruining everything. Sharon doesn’t even know what they can do, doesn’t know about Raven, doesn’t know what Charles is capable off. All she knows is that he speaks inside people’s heads and that he and Raven are strange and silent when together. Weird. Abnormal. Freakish. Charles bites the inside of his cheek and the sharp sting shakes her out of her anger.

Then Charles lets go of Kurt’s hand, Raven of Cain’s, and Mother says, “We’re getting married in the spring, isn’t it wonderful?”

Kurt smiles, wraps his arm around her waist, pulls her into his side too eagerly. She almost stumbles. Charles looks into his mind, finds greed and dollar signs, finds triumph and annoyance at the two brats. Finds a bottomless potential for hate and rage and fists aimed at Cain, who screams and takes them and never fights back.

He takes a step backwards, almost falls. Raven has to grab his arm to keep him standing and Cain laughs, high pitched and dirty. He wants to pull her hair, wants to hit the weakling like Father hits him and Charles grinds his teeth, fights not to lash out and show them. Stupid humans, always hurting them!

Stop. Not his thought. Raven’s thought. Cain’s malevolence bleeding through into both of them. He needs to be calm, needs to keep himself together. Needs to sort out the pieces of people, put away the sharp ones. They can’t pick a fight with Kurt and Cain. They won’t win. They won’t ever win.

They’ll hurt us, Raven snaps, with certainty born of experience.

Charles shakes his head. We can’t condemn them for something they might never do.

But he knows, in his heart of hearts and with Raven’s gut-instinct, that things will get worse from now on.

+

16

+

The two Marko men move in in March and Kurt and Mother get married in April, in the apple orchard, which is already in full bloom. Charles, who has seen his parents’ wedding pictures, might never forgive her for marrying this man in the same place she married Brian Xavier in.

Raven is there, holding his hand the whole way. Sharon wanted to make her a flower girl but clever, clever Raven accidentally tore her dress at the last moment. She got stuffed into a nice skirt and blouse and shunted off to the far end of the first row of chairs with Charles, who has been grinding his teeth and biting his tongue for days.

He tries not to, tries to be happy that his mother has found someone again after his father’s death, but it’s hard when he hears everything Kurt thinks and plans.

He hates Charles and Raven, barely tolerates Mother and really only wants the Xavier name and money. Charles can’t allow that, but there’s nothing he can do to stop it, either. Short of making everyone in a twenty mile radius forget that Sharon Xavier and Kurt Marko know each other, he can do absolutely nothing. He considered it and although he could probably do it, it would never really work. If he missed only one person, things could go horribly, horribly wrong..

This is going to end badly, he thinks, resigned.

If only you’d let me…

Do what, Raven? We’re children. There’s nothing we can do.

You could.

He shakes his head, catches his mother’s sharp, reprimanding gaze. Don’t screw this up for me, she thinks, volatile, angry and already tipsy. He wonders sometimes, if she thinks these things at him intentionally. She knows that he can read her mind, but she denies it so strongly he’s not sure, sometimes, that she is really aware that he can hear every disappointed, bitter thought sent his way.

It’s paradox, in a way. How can someone who cares so little be, at the same time, so angry with him?

Or I could accidentally turn everyone in this orchard into a blubbering, drooling mess. It’s too risky.

So we do nothing?

We do nothing, Charles confirms, feeling Raven squeeze his hand tighter, hug him mentally.

I love you, she thinks, but it comes across as I love you, I care for you, I am with you, I have faith in you, we’ll be fine, we’ll be safe, I’ll protect you, you’ll protect me, us against the world.

Charles returns the sentiment. His sounds like I hope it never comes to that.

Cain, standing near the altar as his father’s Best Man, is watching them with beady, cold eyes. He thinks that Charles is a weakling and Raven a nasty bitch, thinks he’ll put them in their places if they cause trouble, thinks they look freakish, all pale and skinny and small. Charles doesn’t look like a real boy at all, but like one of the ones who always hide in libraries with books because they don’t have friends. Like the ones Father says are a waste of air.

Cain thinks that Charles and Raven will not pose any problem at all and that he’s going to make Father move the freak out of his room, which has the best view, apart from the master bedroom. He can move in with the bitch, since he seems to love her so much.

Raven’s anger couples with Charles’s and Aunt Colleen, seated next to Raven, cries out quietly and clutches her forehead in pain.

+

17

+

Cain really does ask for the room that has been Charles’s his whole life and Kurt is inclined to give it to him until Charles changes his mind. He makes him put Cain in the room farthest away from Raven’s and Charles’s, while still in the same part of the house.

Raven doesn’t understand and Charles refuses to show her, telling her instead in words what he sees in vivid colours every night: Kurt bent over Cain, spitting obscenities in his face. Kurt smelling of alcohol with fists like steel. Kurt telling Cain that he’s a weakling, a faggot, a no good waste of space if he can’t even fight back. Kurt locking Cain in his room for being useless. Kurt telling Cain he should have died with his mother.

Charles tells her, says, “I have to protect him if I can, Raven. I can’t leave him alone where Kurt will have access to him at all times.”

If Cain is close, Kurt will have to be more careful. There will be less bruises for Cain.

“Cain’s just as bad,” she says, loudly. He keeps pulling her hair every chance he gets, almost hard enough to make her lose control of her shift.

“Cain is a victim,” Charles tells her, trying to sound surer than he feels.

Cain cornered him the day after the wedding, snarled, “You’re a freak.”

You’re a worthless freak, Cain.

“You’re pathetic.” Utterly useless, Cain.

“ And your bitch is, too.” Just like your mother, Cain.

“If you try to fuck with me, I’ll make you regret it.” You better behave, Cain.

“Are we clear?” Do you need a reminder, Cain?

Fury and fear are a potent mixture and Charles was dizzy, just from Cain’s looming presence. He wiped his new step-brother’s mind and ran.

“Cain is a victim,” he repeats, trying to convince himself as much as Raven. Doubt bounces around her mind, hard and stubborn, rock shards in the grass of her mindscape. Charles doesn’t touch them, unwilling to rob her of her caution.

They drop the subject.

+

18

+

“Boy,” Kurt says, sharply. It’s almost midnight and Charles is on a mission for Raven, sneaking her sweets because she just had another nightmare. They aren’t as frequent as they were, or nearly as bad, but they still come.

Food is her new therapy.

Charles stops dead in the hallway, scanning Kurt’s mind, finding nothing good there. He calculates his chances of getting away, comes up only with the question of where to run to. There is Raven to think of, too. He walls her off, turns to face his stepfather with two slices of strawberry cake on a plate and two forks in hand.

“Good evening,” he says, politely, blandly. The way he talks to people who think mean things about him but smile in his face anyway. The way he’s talked to most people all his life.

“Where’re you going with that?” Kurt points at the plate, not really caring. He just needs a reason. He’s radiating frustration so strong, Charles doesn’t need his gift to know it. Mother is being difficult, refusing to sign over the assets as quickly as Kurt wanted her to. Charles has to bite down a smirk. Most of the ‘assets’ Kurt wants are in Charles’s name and unreachable until he comes of age. Mother cannot sign those over.

“My sister had a nightmare,” he answers, still polite.

“You shouldn’t baby her. She’s too spoilt by far.” Since Kurt has spent less than an hour in Raven’s presence so far, outside dinners, where no-one actually speaks, he really isn’t in a position to know that.

Charles argues anyway, because he’s precocious and too arrogant. “She deserves it,” he says.

Kurt’s left eye twitches and his hand rises. Charles sees the backhanded slap coming in the man’s mind, blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “You don’t want to hit me.”

He shoves power into the words, more than he probably should. Kurt’s hand hovers in the air, then drops. His face goes blank, his rage, teeming a second ago, disappears like a shadow when you flick the light switch.

“Yes,” he agrees, spins on his heel, walks away.

Charles exhales, very slowly. In his hand, the plate shakes hard enough to make the strawberries fall off the cake. He stands stock still, waits until Kurt is far, far away, and then runs all the way back to Raven’s room.

The next morning one of the maids sits sobbing in the kitchen, a steak pressed to her cheek, her thoughts a jumbled mess of fear and anger and helplessness. I didn’t… she thinks, nothing wrong. Just out late, doing my job. He came. So angry. Why was he so angry, thought he’d kill me, monster, god, I can’t stay, what if he…

Charles flinches and loses his breakfast in the rose garden.

+

19

+

Sometimes, when Kurt comes in the night, his steps stop at Cain’s door.

Sometimes, Charles can distract Kurt, can put an idea in his mind, a nudge toward an important phone call, the desire to be with his wife, an interesting program on television.

Sometimes, Charles makes Kurt forget what he wanted, makes him walk straight past Cain’s door and toward the kitchen for nothing but a midnight snack. But when he does that, Kurt’s anger does not simply dissipate, but grows and twists deeper, darker. The next time he comes will be worse.

Charles doesn’t try to take Kurt’s anger away. Not after the first time. Not after he beat a helpless woman in Charles’s place, because Charles can make the anger go away, but he can’t make it dissipate. The pressure builds until it makes its own valve.

Sometimes, Kurt walks past Cain’s door on his own volition, stops in front of Charles’s. Charles, who thinks of Raven, thinks of Cain, thinks of Linda, the maid, thinks of anger that roots, deep and dark, in senseless hate, lets him in. It takes a lot of concentration, but Charles manages to keep the noises from Raven, even while he keeps some hold on Kurt. He gets slapped around a bit, Kurt yells a lot. Bruises heal. He gets away cheaper than Cain and Raven is never touched.

Sometimes, when Charles is tired and still bruised and angry, when he’s had to evade Cain all day and hide Raven in the kitchen, Charles does nothing at all when Kurt’s footsteps stop further down the hall and Cain starts quietly crying.

Those nights are the worst.

+

20

+

I know what you do, Charles, Raven whispers one night, as Kurt’s footsteps fade down the hall. They’re lying in separate beds and still as close as their own skin.

Charles pretends ignorance and Raven says, When you lock me out. I know what you do. I know what Kurt does. You could stop him.

I can’t, he tells her, has told her a dozen times. His power isn’t enough to make Kurt go away. He can’t erase emotion, unlike memory. Emotion bleeds through and becomes so, so much worse because it’s far more basic than thought, more rooted in darkness. The only option to permanently get rid of the man is one Charles won’t even consider.

He’s hurting you, damn it!

An impression of a fist coming for his ribs, overlaid with the image of a booted foot heading for the same spot on a bigger torso. Him, Cain. He gets a fist where Cain get a boot. He can’t stop Kurt, but he can reign him in. Make him burn out quicker.

Raven flinches from the images and burns with hatred, sharp and dangerous.

If nothing else, Charles tells her, wryly, I get great training out of it.

“Idiot,” she suddenly snaps in the backlit rectangle of his doorway, slipping into the room and into his bed. Her feet are cold and her expression is dark, stormy.

She wraps her arm around his chest gingerly, settles herself into his side. He tries not to wince and she pretends not to notice. “Don’t hide it from me anymore,” she orders, quietly. “If you won’t fight, then at least don’t hide anymore. I keep thinking he’s killed you.”

Charles hugs her back, closes his eyes. Down the hall, Cain dreams of quiet footfalls coming closer.

+

21

+

The summer Charles turns sixteen, they finally have an escape. He gets his learner’s permit, a few lessons from the butler and then fudges the rest, packs Raven into his father’s old convertible and off they go, wherever they want, free from everything.

If there is trouble, Raven either shifts into an approximation of Kurt or Charles makes the nice officers see what they need to see. He’s gotten a lot better at that, over the years, even if he prefers not to think over what made him so proficient at illusions.

His best – first – illusion is still that of an empty room. You see nothing, your hear nothing, you smell nothing, no-one is here, go away.

Nevermind that now. Him and Raven and the open road.

They drive into the city, wander around Manhattan all day. Raven tries on dresses in all colours of the rainbow and then disappears into public restrooms and dark alleys, shifts, comes back out dressed in the latest fashions and Charles, who should be disapproving, can’t help but smile when she acts like someone twice her age, snooty and pretending to be nouveau riche. She links her arm with Charles’s drags him through the city like they’re on a mission and he stumbles alongside her, laughing all the while.

They play a game where Raven reads people’s body language, guesses at where they’re going, how old they are, how they feel. Charles sneaks into their heads and checks her answers and sometimes, he tweaks, just a bit. He makes a solemn man a bit happier, makes a sullen teenager compliment a sad girl on a street corner. He puts a happy thought in someone’s mind, an idea, a suggestion.

He never pushes far enough to make it a command, but the delicateness of the whole thing is fascinating and trying.

Raven points at random people, says, “Make him laugh.” Or, “Make that one spin in a circle.”

Usually, Charles glares at her because, really, too obvious, and also, these people have free will. Sometimes he does it anyway, drunk on her happiness, on their new freedom, on being young and alive and strong.

They stay out late and leave early, a picnic basket filled to bursting in the backseat, because Cook is a brilliant woman. They barely see Kurt and Cain at all and their mother is usually asleep when they’re at the mansion.

After a few weeks, when Raven tires of fashion and Charles has been to all the museums and galleries she can stomach, they start experimenting instead. They drive for a while until they find a little town Raven likes and then explore for an hour or so before she’ll find herself a nice little café or diner and settle down with a book, or her scrapbook, which is rapidly filling since Charles bought her a camera just for their trips.

Once Charles is sure she’s taken care of, something largely aided by her ability to make herself look older than her thirteen years, he leaves. He gets in the car, picks a direction and drives in a straight line.

+

c

+

“Cook?” Master Charles asks, hanging in the doorway, looking like he did when he was six and dropped his mother’s favourite vase.

He was so scared of being in trouble that he forgot all his words and spoke inside people’s minds for the rest of the day. Two of the maids quit the next day and Cook and James, the butler, gathered the rest of the staff and let them know, in no uncertain terms, that young Master Charles was to be treated like a normal child and he’d never hurt anyone at all, so they better keep their mouths shut.

Cook sighs. For all that those were hard days, none of them knowing what to do with the boy, his mother utterly useless, his father newly dead, they were easier times. Nowadays, nothing’s simple anymore, what with the new Master.

“What can I do for you?” she asks, politely, smiling at him, waving him into the kitchen. She expects little Miss Raven right behind him, where she usually is, but he’s alone.

Grown-up talk, then. Sixteen-year-old, sweet-as-pie boys should not need to have grown-up talks. “Do you remember Ms. Maggie?” he asks without preamble and she bites back another sigh.

Maggie. Poor, little Maggie.

“Sure do, sir.”

“Where did she die?”

Now that’s a question Cook isn’t expecting. Anything about little Maggie, who was a good soul for Master Charles and cared for him as his mother should have, but not that. She was so young, too.

“On the road, Master Charles. On her way to her honeymoon. Haven’t you been told?”

As if he actually needs to be told. A smile quirks his lips and she gives him a stern look because her thoughts are her own, thank you kindly. His smile grows wider, before slipping into a solemn expression. “I have. I need to know where on the road, exactly it happened. How far from here?”

Cook feels her eyebrows rise, feels her thoughts tumble in confusion because why’d it matter where? Why’d it matter how far away from here? It was an aneurism, blood in the brain that just happened, so sudden, why, how could that…? No. Impossible. Maggie made it all the way to Pennsylvania, right past Bethlehem, he couldn’t have… he was a baby still…

“Thank you, Cook,” Master Charles says, his smile sad and crooked. “Thank you.”

I’m sorry he adds and then tells her, Forget this conversation, please. You’d only worry yourself for no reason.

Cook nods and closes her eyes. When she opens them, she wonders what she’s doing sitting down when there’s dinner to be made.

+

22

+

Charles drives in a straight line, further each time they try this.

Ms. Maggie died when he was a toddler, almost a hundred miles away from him.

Charles is sixteen now, Raven is fully aware of the bond and they can both shut the doors on it.

Fifty miles is a vague first try and does no harm.

A hundred makes Charles hold his breath, but Raven has faith in him and keeps complaining about the smelly waitress at the back of his mind.

A hundred and fifty miles still causes no change.

Neither does two hundred, or two hundred and fifty.

They can’t test any farther because even speeding and using his powers, he’d have to leave Raven alone for the night in a strange town and that’s not happening, or worse, at home, and that’s not happening either.

But they know that they can stretch, can put space between them, states, if necessary. They are not chained together. Not physically at least.

When Charles turns the car around at two hundred and fifty, eyes bleary and still hours of driving ahead of him, Raven starts making up annoying little ditties in his head just to keep him occupied and awake.

He might love her for that, if she could carry a tune at all.

Mentally, they’ll never be apart. It’s embarrassing, how much that still reassures him at the age of sixteen. He blames it on Raven, who is only thirteen and shoves her emotions at him all the time, even when she doesn’t mean to.

You’re the telepath, she bites. And then, Watch the road, Charles. If you crash, I’m stuck in this place. The cook is giving me funny looks.

Charles snorts. And drives.

+

23

+

“What are you doing?” Raven asks as she comes slipping into his room late at night, finding him brooding over notes and maps. She sneaks the answer from his mind before she’s finished asking the question and her mindscape turns stormy.

“Why is this so important to you?” she asks, sounding tense.

Charles sighs, shoves away from the desk. He’s been trying to figure out a way for them to test their range further. But short of chartering a plane and someone to fly it, he can’t think of anything that would allow them to cross great distances and still be reunited by night.

He’s not sure if it’s the bond or just him, but the thought of Raven sleeping where he can’t reach her, can’t protect her, stings him like ants, prickly and hot under his skin. Kurt and Cain, yes, he realizes he’s traumatized, has read enough psychology books to know he’s exhibiting textbook signs. He tries not to be that, be the… the victim, but the fact stands. He won’t leave Raven defenceless and alone. Ever.

He drops his pen and turns to face her only to get a lapful of gangly blue-skinned girl. Puberty has hit Raven with a vengeance recently, despite her strange body chemistry, and she keeps growing at all ends. Longer limbs, broader hips and Charles still feels uncomfortable when he thinks of the day he had to take her shopping for bras.

Not because he had no idea what he was doing, no. He’s a telepath. He knows as much about women’s underwear as any woman. Not even because Raven is his sister, because that, too, is something he is far too used to. It was Raven playing vixen, thirteen and thinking she’s a temptress, modelling with far too much sass in her gaze and sway in her hips.

She’s been doing that lately, too aggressive, too in-his-face about these things. Like she wants him to notice. Every time he does, she clams up. He has no idea what it’s about and he can’t dig around her head without her knowing. So he doesn’t and wonders.

Raven slings one arm around his neck like she did when she was half her current size, rests her head on his shoulder and repeats her question mentally, with a nudge of impatience to hurry him along.

“I want to know the limits of our connection. I want to know how far apart we can be. It’s important.” He sends curiosity with his words, the desire for knowledge, the urge to know how far they can strain, the caution he feels.

She sighs, sounding too old and a bit forced. “Sometimes,” she tells him, intentionally lightly, “I still think you want to get rid of me.”

“Raven,” he calls, too loud, shocked that she would even think-

She pushes away from him so they’re looking each other straight in the face. “Charles,” she snaps, “I know. But you’re always looking for a way out. I just…”

And there she is, the little girl he hid under the kitchen table with, licking spoons and baking funny looking cakes. He wants to tuck her back into his shoulder, to reassure her, to calm her, to tell her he still loves her, still wants her, just needs to know what they are capable off.

Wants to. But before he can, her face scrunches in concentration and he catches her intention a split second before she goes through with it and then –

She’s kissing him.

Raven is kissing him.

His thirteen-year-old sister is kissing him.

It’s wet and sloppy and panicky and desperate and so full of emotion that he knows he could crush her with a single word, a single thought. He slams the bond shut, closes his mouth tightly and shoves her away by the shoulders.

“Raven,” he demands, and his voice sounds mostly steady and his only panic is his own because this is what’s been going on. This is what was up with her all summer, the coy games, the short skirts, the strange looks she gave him, the thoughts she kept to herself, even through the bond. This is it.

The urge to shove into her mind and wipe the entire incident from her memory is overwhelming. The tears pooling in her bright golden eyes only make it stronger.

“What are you doing?” he finally finishes, still holding her by the shoulders, a safe arm’s length away.

“I love you,” she tells him, the same words she’s said a thousand times before, but the meaning so very different. “And I know you love me, too.”

“Raven,” he tries again, “you’re my sister.”

She jerks herself away from his hands, jumps to her feet. “Not really!”

“As far as the world is concerned-“

“Fuck the world,” she snarls, so angry. She blinks away tears and he tries to feel her, tries to understand what made her do this, made her kiss him, but he runs into a wall. She’s locked him out, too.

“You’re also thirteen. Raven, we can’t do this!”

She stomps her foot, hands on her hips and screams in his face, “Of course we can! There’s only you and me, Charles! Only you and me! You belong to me!”

Charles is flying blind, without her thoughts to read, without her emotions to feel. He could push, but he doesn’t dare. “Please,” he says, “Raven, we can’t do this.”

She looks destroyed, utterly destroyed and he doesn’t understand. How did she go from being his happy little sister to this angry, sexual creature? She can’t actually be in love with him, can she? Or maybe… he should have given her more chances to be around other people. She’s only had him and the staff, really, and that can’t have been good. This is his fault. This is all his fault: he should have taken better care of her, should have remembered that she’d need other children around. Of course he’s never had that, but he could always reach out for other people’s minds, if not their physical presence and oh, this is all his fault.

“Raven, please,” he says again, softer, gentler. He reaches for her, wants to hug her, but she jerks back viciously enough to almost stumble.

“Don’t touch me,” she screams. “I’m not your damn pet, Charles!”

“Of course not, what are you – “

“Stay there, Raven. Don’t speak to strangers, Raven. Be nice, Raven. Don’t shift, Raven. Be a good girl, Raven. I’m not your pet, you asshole!”

He opens his mouth to tell her no, of course not, God, how could she even think that, when she spins on her heel and runs out of the room. Charles is left with silence, inside and out, utterly dumbstruck by what just happened.

+

We need you. That is what love is, we think. Needing. Taking.
Catherynne Valente, Palimpsest

+

24

+

“Raven,” he whispers, past midnight, standing in her doorway. She’s curled into a tight ball under the sheets and he can feel her pain even without trying, even without the bond, which is still nothing but a blank concrete wall.

He hesitates in the doorway, wonders if he should stay or go. He wants to slip into bed with her, the way he has a million times, wants to tell her everything will be alright. But Raven kissed him and she’s in love with him and nothing is alright.

Charles needs clues, needs to know how to deal with this, but there is no-one to ask and his best friend is his little sister is the core of the problem is a concrete wall in his mind.

Normal human interaction eludes him.

But this is Raven, so he shuts the door quietly, walks over to her and lies next to her. On top of the covers. Some things can’t be undone, he guesses, and feels himself ache for it.

“Will you please talk to me?” he asks in a whisper, thinking briefly that they haven’t talked this much out loud in the past week taken together.

A tuft of red hair shakes vaguely and she refuses to look at him. Humiliation pours from her with her pain and anger shifts underneath, like a shark in water. Dangerous. Vicious. He only feels pity and tries to swallow it whole because he knows she will hate it.

“You’re right,” he tells the lump of blankets. “There is only you and me. But you are thirteen years old, Raven, and even if you are not my biological sister, you are my responsibility. We cannot be what you want us to be.”

He waits for a reaction, but none comes. Raven stays still and silent, a miserable rock. Charles strokes the part of her hair he can reach, then rolls of the bed. “I do belong to you,” is the last thing he has to give her.

Then he leaves.

The next morning Raven acts like nothing ever happened, bouncy and happy and eager to explore the world with him in the convertible that has long since become theirs.

But the door between their minds remains locked and the concrete wall remains tall and all Charles gets are flashes of emotion and the occasional surface thought.

When he breaks around lunch and asks, “Will you let me in?” her answer is a simple and final, “No.”

+

d

+

Sister.

A sister.

He has a sister.

Charles has a sister.

He’s had a sister for five years.

But what does sister mean?

Sister means always there, means warm feeling at the back of your head, means nightmares and midnight snacks and a tree with yellow-golden blossoms that never bloom. Sister means voice in your head, means love in your heart, means everything, everywhere, always, means belonging.

Sister means other half, means part of your soul, means where your mind is when it’s not with you.

Stop.

Redefine.

Sister means widening hips and aggressive stares, sister means bras and cramps and kisses. Sister means anger and helpless infatuation, still means belonging.

Sister means silence.

Sister means looking at familiar blue form and familiar golden eyes and seeing the wrong things.

Sister should mean blood, but it doesn’t.

Instead it means friend, daughter, companion, heart, hope, anchor, love, hold-on and never-let-go.

Sister means Raven and Raven means everything.

+

25

+

In spring, Charles finds himself a girlfriend. She’s blonde and bright-eyed and laughs at his jokes and wants three children and a rich man. She thinks Charles is adorable if a bit scatter-brained, thinks he’ll make a good husband with some training, thinks he’s handsome enough but so strange, at times.

Charles makes out with her in the backseat of the convertible, kisses her mouth and her neck and her shoulders, touches her and makes her whimper and moan until she says stop. Then he withdraws his hands and drives her home and returns to the mansion.

In the garage Raven is waiting for him, hip cocked, eyes filled with tears again and she slaps him hard enough to turn his head.

Then she spins on her heel and stalks away, head held high, shoulders straight to keep in the sobs. He watches her go, mesmerized by her hips, which sway with every step and her hair falling around her neck.

He shouldn’t. He can’t. He doesn’t even know if this is real or a bleed-through from her, if he really feels this or if she somehow put the idea in his head. But he can’t help himself.

He looks. Since that night, that kiss that should never have happened, he sees.

You belong to me, Raven said and it was the truth because he is everything she needs him to be, everything she wants him to be. He stole chocolate for her when she was ten and he’d steal the world for her if she asked because it’s her who’s asking.

He belongs to her like she belongs to him and he can’t untangle them, can’t figure out where one begins and the other ends, which love is right and which is wrong. Clarity washed away like footprints on the beach.

Raven blocks the bond off as tightly as she can, but she can never undo it. It’s still there.

Sometimes children do stupid things.

+

26

+

Then Mother dies and everything falls apart.

She is found, dead and still in her bed, empty bottle of whiskey next to her and no-one is surprised. Raven doesn’t pretend to grieve, has never actually known the woman at all and Charles simply spends a day staring at his bedroom wall, trying to figure out what that means.

He is utterly unsurprised to find himself worrying about Kurt and Cain and the mansion, about arrangements and inheritances. Mother is dead is a single thought at the beginning of his planning and worrying. A starting point. He never returns to it.

I will miss my Mother, he tries inside his head. Raven, who has been quietly loitering, waiting for him to break, looks at him, catching an echo of his words.

“How can I miss someone I never knew?” he asks her and she simply shrugs, mute and sullen, as so often these days.

Sharon Marko is buried unmourned in the Xavier family plot, on a bright spring day that seems to never end. Across the grave, Kurt stands and calculates, seizes up lawyers and glares at Charles when no-one is watching.

Charles, holding Raven’s hand, forces himself into her mind long enough to whisper, Do not let yourself be caught alone by either of them.

She squeezes back. Cain, standing next to his father, stares at their joined hands with a deranged intensity.

+

27

+

“Boy,” Kurt calls and Charles knows he’s the one the man is talking to only because the tone is slightly different than when Cain is being addressed.

“Kurt,” Charles answers, calmly. He already knows why Kurt is here, knows what the papers in his hand are.

“I want you to sign these papers,” he says, holding them out like an offering, like he’s doing Charles a favour. If he signs these papers, everything he’ll own when he comes of age will automatically transfer to Kurt Marko. Charles will, in essence, be penniless, his father’s family mansion and wealth lost to this greedy, ugly man.

Charles considers it. For a brief moment, he considers simply signing the papers. He’s fifteen months away from coming of age. Fifteen months during which Kurt is his guardian. Fifteen months during which he can’t fight back. Fifteen months without whatever restraining influence his mother’s presence might have had on the man.

If he signs the papers, Kurt will have no reason to hound him anymore. He has enough in his private accounts to get him and Raven out of here in a year. They could start anew, without the burden of the Xavier name, without the old house with too many ghosts. Without Kurt Marko hanging over them like a threat.

It would make life so much easier.

But Charles won’t sign the papers, out of spite, if nothing else.

“No,” he says, as calmly as he possibly can.

It’s a declaration of war and they both know it. Kurt studies him intensely for a moment, then nods. Game on.

Charles walks away with his hands in his pockets because doesn’t want to give Kurt the satisfaction of seeing them shake.

+

e

+

Raven doesn’t tell Charles about Cain.

Not only because she’s old enough to deal with him herself, but also because she knows Charles would find a way to draw Cain’s attention away from her like he draws Kurt’s and what Kurt does to him is bad enough.

Charles is… Charles is the best thing that ever happened to Raven, hands down. When she made the day he found her her new birthday, it wasn’t just sentimental. It was the truth. But for all that he is her savoir, for all that she owes him everything, Charles is sometimes frighteningly helpless.

He has the power to do anything. He could easily control Kurt, could make the man walk into oncoming traffic, could make him forget everything he learned after the age of three. He could simply make Kurt afraid to be in the same room as him.

But he doesn’t.

It doesn’t even occur to him.

He uses his power to protect Raven, to protect Cain, even though he doesn’t deserve it. She doesn’t care that Cain is a victim, too. He’s long since crossed all the lines. Charles’s safety is the last thing on Charles’s mind and even when it does, finally, occur to him, he only uses his power to make the beatings lighter, not to make them stop.

In short, he’s a self-sacrificing, helpless, obnoxious, stupid, heroic asshole and Raven hates him for making her worry.

But Cain. Charles doesn’t read her mind, hasn’t since she locked him out that night. He doesn’t know about the interest Cain has taken in her new curves, about the ambushes late at night. From this, she can protect him.

It’s her turn, she thinks, as she faces her stepbrother across ten feet of empty, forgotten hallway. She should have known better than to take this shortcut to the kitchen, really. Too late now. She shores up her walls, makes sure Charles won’t know, and then says, as sassily as she can manage, “Get out of my way, Cain.”

Cain smiles a grin full of crooked teeth, his fingers twitching at his sides. “Make me,” he teases. Then, with a dangerous glint in his eyes he rushes a few steps forward, grabs for Raven’s breasts. She ducks and kicks out, getting him in the shin. He lists to the left and she spins to the right, attempting to get past him. If she can make it to the hidden passage at the end of the corridor, she’s home free.

But at the last second, only two steps too soon, a hand clamps over her forearm like a vice and for a split second, her shape wavers in her mind, blonde hair and pink skin almost falling away. She makes a fist with her free hand, hammers it into Cain’s wrist. He howls but doesn’t let go, wrenching her arm until she feels like it’s going to fall off.

“Hold still, bitch!” he snarls, in her space, suddenly, closer than he’s ever managed to get before. He crowds her into the wall and when she hits it, when she feels solid wood behind her back, no escape route left, her breath catches and her eyes flicker.

She can actually feel them change colour, flashing their natural gold. Cain’s eyes widen and his grip slackens for just a second. It’s all she needs.

She brings her knee up with all the strength she can muster, nails him in the nuts and then shoves as he doubles over.

She runs like the hounds of hell are after her, heart rattling in her ribcage like it’s about to explode. Panic wells in her mind because she slipped and Cain got too close, he almost had her and she slipped, she slipped, she slipped, oh God. Her hand slams down on the hidden doorknob and she wrenches the door open, tumbling into the dark passageway.

In the dark, Raven slides down the wall, clutching at her chest. The shape she’s wearing wants to dissolve, her concentration is shot, but she can’t, she absolutely mustn’t, not now. She just slipped and if Cain ever sees her in her blue form…

Oh god, she thinks, oh god. And then: Charles can never know.

Never.

+

28

+

Charles doesn’t flinch when Cain enters the kitchen, but it’s a close thing. He’s felt the other boy coming, of course, the confused tangle of ragefearhatredpleasedontnonono that makes up his mind. It’s recognizable anywhere, splintered and hurt, half victim, half aggressor. Charles rarely hates Kurt as much as in the moments when Cain catches him unawares and he slips into his dark red mind. Cain is all pieces, sharp and jagged and bloody around the edges.

So he knows Cain is coming. But less than thirty minutes ago Kurt paid him a visit in the library and all Charles really wants to do if be left alone to sit here, steak pressed to the left side of his face, and suffer in peace.

Cain smirks at Charles as he putters around the kitchen, fixing himself a snack in a way that is too familiar, too propriety, and grates on Charles’s last nerve. He grinds his teeth and sends Cain a burst of fear before he can think better of it. Cain twitches and the butter knife in his hand slips, neatly tearing through a block of cheese.

Charles smiles and he doesn’t need Cain’s eyes to see it’s not a kind expression. The bigger boy finishes his sandwich calmly, leaves the dirty dishes where they stand, drops his plate carelessly on the table across from Charles. He sits down, takes a bite of his snack and says, maliciously, “You know, brother, you could just give Father what he wants.”

Raising an eyebrow, Charles says nothing. His face throbs. It’s true, Kurt has been more vicious than usual in his attentions ever since Charles silently declared war on him. Not that he’s been doing much fighting. Mostly he just takes whatever Kurt dishes out and distracts the man when it gets dangerous.

Ten months left to freedom. Then he can kick the Markos off his father’s land and make them forget the address of this house for good.

“The way you do?” Charles inquires politely, watching the other stuff his face. Cain’s answering snarl is half whimper, broken boy and angry bully fighting for dominance. Charles closes his eyes because looking at the mental struggle hurts, worse than his shiner does. It’s nauseating, watching the personalities shift under Cain’s skin, so much violence and hate, offset by feelings of worthlessness that are almost overwhelming in their intensity.

“Careful,” Cain finally rumbles, reminding Charles, unwittingly, how much bigger he is. In his mind, Raven’s face flashes, filled with fear, eyes wide. Charles gasps and Cain smirks, even if he has no idea what’s scaring Charles.

He finishes his sandwich, licks his fingers and stands, walking toward the door, plate in hand. At the last moment he turns and throws the plate directly at Charles’s head. Charles has to fling himself off his chair to avoid being hit and for a very long minute, he just lies spread out on the kitchen floor, steak on his face, trying not to cry.

Ten months.

It feels like ten years.

+

29

+

He applies to universities and colleges based on the sole criterion of how far are they from New York State and thinks of freedom, him and Raven in a nice little apartment, free of all ghosts and monsters, free of everything.

A place where she can be blue, as she wants to be so badly, and he can be himself without being afraid all the time.

His dreams, he thinks idly, have become rather small.

Charles. Raven. Safety.

So very small.

+

30

+

Charles! Charles! Charles!!!!

Charles is – was – asleep when Raven’s panic floods him like a dam breaking. He’s running before he knows where he’s going, blindly following the beacon in his mind that never, ever goes away. He’s running full tilt, cutting corners, skidding on the old wooden floorboards, all to the staccato rhythm of Raven screaming help, help, help in his head.

What’s wrong? he sends, directly into her brain, receives a jumble of images in return that almost brings him to his knees.

Fear Cain Kurt hands tight control fear fear fear pain hurt bruises run get away run please no saw he saw Cain saw in the dark no air too tight please don’t fight fight fight oh God please hands control control blue blue blue

With his legs threatening to give out, he slams up every wall he has, pushes Raven’s panic aside. This is why they needed to learn how to shut each other out, this, exactly this.

He skids into the front parlour on socked feet, shoulder hitting the wall, finds the most terrifying thing he’s seen in his life.

Cain has his hands clenched around Raven’s neck, is pressing her into a wall brutally, holding her there and she’s blue, she’s blue, not choking-blue, but in her natural form.

She’s lost her shape, is exposed, naked and blue, to Cain and Kurt. Kurt, who is standing a few feet away, a cloud of disgust and hate and triumph swirling around him, thick enough to choke on.

Charles doesn’t think, simply sinks into the man’s mind, finds more than he wants to see, finds Cain eagerly telling what he’s seen, the bitch’s eyes turned yellow, I swear to god, she’s some kind of freak, sees Kurt’s mounting frustration with Charles, sees the man put the two together, overcoming every compulsion Charles has ever planted in his mind about leaving Raven alone.

They hunted through the entire house for Raven, found her here, curled up and reading, feeling safe. She didn’t hear them and her panic and fear still batter at Charles like a blizzard.

Charles, she’s still calling in her head, I’m sorry, help me, please, please, Charles, Charles.

All the gates are open, her mind in his like she’s never been gone, like she hasn’t made him spend the last two years in silence. They crash together like two oceans meeting, flooding each other, drowning each other and, somehow, Charles takes control of the whole mess with an effort bordering on superhuman, takes his mind and hers both and makes them act.

Shift! he yells at her, feels her squirming, she can’t, can’t concentrate, fear, she’s so afraid, she can’t breathe, Cain… images rattle through her mind, one after the other, a dozen instances where Cain found her in dark corners, tried to hurt her, molest her. She always got away, knowing one day her luck would run out and why didn’t she tell him? Why didn’t she…

To protect you, she thinks, involuntarily, a wave of lovecareprotect rushing from her. Charles reels.

Then Kurt says something, sharp and nasty, an ultimatum of some sort. Sign or Cain will…

He doesn’t wait for the rest of it. Raven can’t shift but Charles is Raven and Raven is Charles and he’s been in her mind for so long, knows the changing of shapes as much as he knows the steadiness of things and he simply does it for her. Raven changes into a burly, three-hundred-pound man, shoves Cain off her and sends him staggering into an end table, where he flails and tries to balance himself.

He crashes into Charles instead, whose focus cracks under the physical jolt of impact. Cain recovers faster, grabs Charles by his arms, hauls him to his feet. Raven’s panic is back, rattling the cage again and Charles finds her on the floor, shape lost again, tiny and naked and fifteen, she’s only fifteen. Kurt is sitting on top of her, his hands holding her down, his legs locking hers in place, her face pressed into the carpet so hard she can barely breathe.

“One wrong move,” he snarls at Charles, “And your pet freak is dead.”

Charles doesn’t hesitate. Kurt has Raven and that is not allowed. He slips into the man’s mind, wraps himself around his every thought, his every impulse, around his spine and his muscles. Get up, he orders and Kurt gets up.

Step away from her, he commands and Kurt steps away.

Raven’s fear cuts off like a light with the switch flicked. She just pushes it away and then she’s up on her feet again, shifting as she runs, tackling Cain away from Charles with the full weight of the biggest shape she can manage. She nails Cain into the wall with beefy hands and Charles is free to move but doesn’t.

Hold him, he tells her and feels her agreement like it’s his own. They operate as one now.

Her sinks deeper into Kurt, dives into his deepest, darkest corners, finds the very essence of his stepfather and knows that Kurt will never stop. He’ll never stop hunting Raven and Charles now that he knows and he will never stop hating, even if Charles takes the memories of the Xaviers away.

Kurt Marko is like a cancer on the face of the earth, pain and hate and agony spreading, unstoppable. Charles can’t let this man loose on the world.

So, with the memory of Kurt sitting on a defenceless Raven, of Cain squeezing the life out of her on his father’s command, Charles thinks, This must end.

And it does.

Charles is a god and for a moment, just one moment, he stops fighting, stops holding back. His fury is a terrible, cold thing to behold.

Kurt’s body drops, lifeless and heavy, the light in his eyes fading. He feels no pain and he will never again cause it, simply because Charles wills it so.

He turns to Cain, still pinned to the wall by the giant man that is Raven. He doesn’t kill Cain, but he can’t let him remember this. He can’t let him go. Cain is his father’s son, the monster to Kurt’s Frankenstein.

There’s a victim in him, a broken boy, and an aggressor, as vicious as his father with bigger fists and more hatred. Charles takes him away, takes away the monster, just wipes it clean. Half of Cain’s mind gone in less than a second.

The boy, sobbing and scared, drops to the floor as Raven lets him go, a blubbering, incoherent mess. He’ll never be sane again. But he’ll live.

Charles reaches out, grasps the staff’s mind, one by one, erases their memories of the screams, leaving only the knowledge of what kind of man Kurt was. Then he sends the butler to report Kurt’s sudden death, pulls Cook in to have her take charge of Cain, who had a nervous breakdown when he found his father’s corpse. He pushes into Raven’s mind enough to plant the suggestion that she return to her normal shape.

Then he lets go of godhood and collapses onto the nearest sofa, not exhausted, but hyped up on all that power. So much power, so easy, easier every time.

I just murdered a man, he thinks, feeling hysterical laughter bubbling up. There’s a gap where guilt should be. It’ll come, he suspects, but not yet. Not for a long time.

Raven is there suddenly, in his mind and his lap, warm and alive and in her blonde shape again. You saved our lives she corrects him, gently.

I saved yours, he thinks, You saved mine.

He understands now, saw it in her mind, in Cain’s. It took less than a second to understand that while he’s been protecting her, she’s been doing the very same thing for him, all this time.

Then there are sirens in the distance and too many questions and Charles answers them all, lies perfectly and wipes away any doubts he finds. By nightfall, Kurt’s death has been ruled as natural causes, Cain has been brought to a hospital to be sedated and Charles has managed to convince everyone that it would be best to leave him and Raven as they are. He’ll be eighteen in less than half a year, after all. They’ll be fine.

As soon as the door closes behind the last official, he drops onto his bed, feeling like someone lobotomized him, like everything he is escaped through that hole. His mind is spread over miles and miles, farther than it’s ever been and he can’t seem to rein it in.

+

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

Sylvia Plath, Mad Girl’s Love Song

+

31

+

I just murdered a man, he thinks, his mind stuck on repeat, somewhere in the middle of all that noise.

You saved our lives, Raven sends back, for the millionth time, still there, still patient. So much stronger than he ever gave her credit for.

He feels like he should apologize for that.

She smiles at him, impossibly bright. He feels it, can’t see it from where he’s staring at the ceiling. But it feels like sunshine on his skin after so long without. Thank you, she thinks and then she’s there, in his field of vision.

She sits on his stomach, her face hovering over his, her hands on either side of his head. She’s dark blue against a dark brown ceiling, nothing but teeth and eyes and she bends down without hesitation and kisses him.

It’s hot and sharp and new and it has the edge of desperation, the taste of we’re alive and Raven and Charles, CharlesandRaven, of freefreefree and thankyouyousavedmeIloveyou.

Charles should push her away.

But he’s been watching her hips every time she walked away from him, has counted her smiles and missed her warmth against his side. She’s not thirteen anymore and she’s not his sister.

She’s Raven and Raven is everything and he just killed a man and drove another insane and he did it for her. For himself and her and them and now there really is no-one else in the world. Because she dropped the wall and the gates came down, the dam broke and he doesn’t think it'll ever go up again, doesn’t think he can ever disentangle them. Not after today. Not ever again. She loves him, and he loves her and it’s like egg and chicken, no beginning, no end, no source. Raven and Charles and Charles and Raven.

He can’t tell what’s him and what’s her. He doesn’t think he wants to anymore. It’s been so terribly silent.

Yes, Raven whispers through his mind, settling her weight against him, on top of him. Holding him down, making him solid.

Today he saved her life and she saved his and they are equals. The boy who can invade anyone, the girl who can be anyone and there’s no-one else anymore. They’ll never be free of each other. They’ll never be separate and they’ll never be just one.

They’ll never be alone and that’s either the most brilliant or the most stupid thing they’ve done in their life.

You and me, he tells her and she laughs, inside and out, her mouth twisting against his. Raven is everything.

You and me, she answers. Charles is everything, too.

They belong to each other and there’s really no point in fighting it anymore.

+

+

+

Part II - Three

+

1

+

“Charles,” Raven calls, as impatient at the age of twenty-two as she was at twelve. “They’ll leave without us.”

Charles, who is fighting with his suitcase, snorts. “The cab will hardly leave without us, dear.”

“No,” she shoots back gamely, “But the train will. I want to see Vienna!”

With the suitcase finally shut, Charles makes his way into the main part of the apartment, where Raven is waiting impatiently by the door, tapping her foot. Her luggage is already downstairs in the waiting taxi. “And see Vienna you will. Calm down,” he asks, rubbing a hand absently over his forehead.

Today is the first day of the holidays and the end-of-semester parties in the city all around them have left their mark on him. Drunk and happy people are always harder to keep out and their sheer masses can be overwhelming. Raven’s expression softens a bit, even though he spent most of the night hiding away in her mind, leaving his own to be flooded, so to speak. She brushes his hair out of his face and smiles at him, gently, warmly. The suggestion of painkillers in my purse reaches him and he shakes his head.

He’ll be fine. He’ll catch up on his sleep on the train and everything will be alright by the time they reach Austria. She leans in, kisses him quickly and sweetly. One for the road.

Because outside their apartment, they are siblings. Easier, in this day and age, than being what they are.

Charles lets his love flow and closes the door behind them.

+

a

+

It’s hard to tell, these days, where ideas come from. Sometimes one of them will brood over something and the other will suddenly blurt out the solution to the problem, or they’ll come up with an idea simultaneously.

Lines blur, borders have long since been erased. It’s been five years since Charles killed a man and Raven kissed him and he couldn’t tell if it was right or wrong.

Inland, deep, deep within themselves they are their own persons. But their beaches are shifted and changed, their sands forever swept away. They are like two oceans, flooding each other.

So it’s hard to tell who has the idea. They are walking down a busy street in Oxford, stumbling across a homeless boy. Charles gives him what loose change he has and Raven watches and almost bursts with compassion and pity and anger.

We can’t save them all, Charles tells her and she looks away, remembering when she herself was a child like that, alone, unloved and on top of it, a freak.

He’d kisses her temple, holds her close, steers her away from the boy. What if there are others like me? she asks. Can we save them?

Charles might not think the world a bad place, based on his own experiences. The only evil he’s ever experienced came in the form of Kurt and Cain Marko, who hated everyone equally. But Charles is also always Raven and in her mind he finds not one cruelty but dozens, hundreds.

It wasn’t just one person that hurt Raven for being different, it was all of them, and he’s lived those long, cold years of fear and panic and hunger as surely as he’s lived his own lonely childhood, pre-Raven.

He understands that the world at large is no place for people like them. Mutants. They can’t save every homeless child. But maybe they can save those that are like them, hated on top of being forgotten. Outcasts among outcasts.

That is the conception of the idea.

They start travelling, first around Oxford, then farther and farther out, seeing the world, searching for others of their kind. They find dishearteningly few, but that doesn’t mean they give up.

+

2

+

Vienna in summer is hot and beautiful and heavy with history. Charles loves the streets and old buildings. Raven loves the shopping. They spend their days sightseeing, climbing the Stephansdom and visiting Schönbrunn. Every night, before they go out for dinner, Charles will sit on Raven’s bed, covered in shopping bags and utterly unused, and cast his mind into the bustle of the city.

Mutants, he has learned, feel different in his mind’s eye. Louder, brighter. Normal humans have a fog around them, something lifeless and dull. But others like them shine like the sun.

Sometimes, in other cities, on other trips, he finds someone. A woman in Berlin who can light herself up like a torch. A man in Paris that can make himself invisible. Another man who understands horses. But these people are all adults and their powers do not interfere with their lives. They spoke to Charles and Raven, awed by her, scared of him, and then sent them on their way.

They found a little girl last year, who can change her size, bigger, or smaller. She was only seven and her parents were scared, but not of her. Charles slipped into their minds, planted a compulsion to protect their daughter at all costs, to love her and keep her safe. He left his address for them and they departed.

So it goes. They find mutants, sometimes, but so few, so many less than they thought they would, and those mutants rarely, if ever, need them.

There are so few, so many less than Charles expected there to be. Perhaps he and Raven, two mutants in one place, really are the exception. Maybe they are an anomaly, maybe others live in peace, hidden and safe. Maybe his power and Raven’s are the extent of evolutionary freakishness. Freaks among freaks.

That doesn’t stop him from searching, doesn’t stop Raven from wanting to protect others from her fate. If they ever find a mutant in need, they will do whatever they can to help. That is a silently accepted fact.

Anything? she asks, slipping on a new dress as she fumbles with her earrings, ready for a night on the town.

Charles nods and lets her feel a weakened version of what he’s doing, feels her watch through his eyes. Nothing. The world is grey, dull. There isn’t a single mutant in Vienna.

+

3

+

He repeats the process, every night without fail.

On the twelfth night, he finally finds someone.

+

b

+

Vienna in the summer is a fantastic place for anyone wanting to disappear in the crowds.

For the ones chasing them, it’s a nightmare.

Erik has been hunting this particular Nazi Arschloch for over three months without success. Not Schmidt, never Schmidt. The man is a ghost and with every step Erik makes towards him, he’s flung back three on the next turn.

Some days, he thinks he’ll never find his creator, the monster that made him a monster.

He enters the city in the late afternoon, walking streets that are vaguely familiar from a dozen previous visits. The buildings still radiate summer heat and the people look happy and sunburned. Erik has no patience for them, pushing his way through the throngs of people on their way to dinner.

Meister is at least a day ahead of him, probably more, and the knowledge that the trail is most likely cold makes him even more irritable. The man is like a weasel and every time Erik gets close, he twists and wriggles in another direction, escaping again. Far too attached to his worthless life.

While he walks, Erik is going through his options. He knows a few people here, a few informants that might have seen Meister, if he can pay them to remember. He has already been to Meister’s hotel room and found nothing interesting. It wasn’t abandoned in a hurry. The man is still sure of his head start, which means Erik won’t catch him here. Missed again.

He clenches his fists, tries to plan out his next step and realizes his options are exhausted. He’s back to zero, not knowing which way Meister went or what he’s going to do next. He bumps into someone, gets jostled and snarls, frustrated beyond belief.

Behind him, a woman laughs loudly. Erik spins on his heel, the sound too loud, too sudden for his shot nerves. Instead of a gun aimed at his head like he half expects, he finds a blonde girl in an evening gown, laughing loudly at a man in a suit. They look like they’re on their way to the opera, but the man’s tie is askew and her wrap trails behind her like a ribbon, careless.

They seem to be looking for something or someone, slipping through the crowd like excited children, moving across the Platz Erik is skirting. He is mesmerized by them, by their easy happiness, the absolute joy radiating from them. He can’t remember ever having been like this, even when his family was still alive. Even before the KZ and Herr Doktor, he was never that carefree.

The man looks up suddenly, straight at Erik, his blue eyes strangely intent. The girl stops mid-sentence, follows the man’s gaze with eerie accuracy without ever looking at him. The three of them stare at each other and Erik is about to turn tail and flee when the man cocks his head and says, without moving his lips, Erik. I am so very pleased to meet you.

+

4

+

Raven stops moving as soon as Charles finds that bright spot on his mental map, that sliver of morebrighterpower. Metal, he finds, reading snatches of the mutant’s mind. He’s male and he moves metal, somehow, manipulates it, changes it. His mind is a warped, dark mirror, all the softness of him eaten by hate and rage, pain and loss.

Images of fences and blood and skeletal bodies dance across Charles’s mind, enough for him to know where the man comes from, what he survived. Europe is still riddled by the war and Charles has seen too many horrors in the minds of casual passersby.

He finds a voice, orders, sharp and German, move that, change this, finds fear and terror and so, so much pain. Finds a mother lost and a father disappeared, finds darkness and shadows and shiny, terrible instruments.

He’s in so much pain, he thinks and Raven is there, pressing his face into her chest, holding him together as he threatens to come apart with someone else’s memories.

She shines light in his mind, thinks, I might have been like that, thinks, You saved me, and waits until Charles can breathe again.

He clutches her hands in his as he focuses, looks through the mutant’s – Erik's – eyes, tracks him through the eyes of a hundred humans passing him on the street. He turns a man’s head, finds a sign and bolts to his feet, Raven in tow, whatever plans they had for dinner and a concert entirely forgotten.

They run like children, looking for a sharp face and dark hair, for pale blue eyes and tense, broad shoulders. Charles is euphoric at his find, Raven is giddy at meeting another of their kind and their emotions bleed into each other, feed into each other until they’re tumbling like eager puppies, too loud, too bright.

Charles can’t wait to meet Erik.

And then he finds him, in the middle of a throng of people, staring at them and oh, yes, they are making quite the spectacle of themselves, aren’t they, running and laughing and looking around like lunatics. Charles can’t find it in him to mind and neither can Raven, catching sight of the man through Charles’s eyes, following his line of sight.

Erik, Charles thinks, the soundtrack of Raven’s laughter ringing in his ears and carrying with his words, I am so very pleased to meet you.

+

5

+

Erik feels like shock and awe and greed, surprisingly, and not an ounce of fear. He stares at Charles and Raven like they are the sun after an age of darkness and it’s enough to make Charles squirm, that and the thoughts racing through the man’s mind.

Others like me, in my head, thought I was the only one, there are others, I’m not alone, I’m not alone.

Not alone, becomes the rallying cry and echo in the man’s head, louder and louder until Charles actually cringes away from it, even though he never wants to. One hand rises to his temple, digging into soft skin and Raven washes over him, worry and confusion. He lets her hear, just for a moment and she looks between them, him and Erik and then takes charge.

She slips around Charles, shoves through the throngs of pedestrians until she reaches Erik and, with a smile, holds out her hand for him to take. He hesitates, looking at her, looking at Charles, and Charles jogs toward them, trying to keep an absolutely idiotic grin under control and failing.

Erik raises his hand, takes Raven’s and makes a face halfway between a laugh and a curse.

“I’m Raven,” Charles hears her say, only half across the din and perfectly clear in his head. “And the voice you just heard was my darling brother.”

Charles reaches them then and wraps an arm around Raven’s shoulder in lieu of throwing himself at Erik. “Charles Xavier,” he greets.

He’s never been this excited about meeting one of their kind before and he knows Raven can feel it, but he can’t help himself. Not only is Erik roughly their age, but Charles has been in his head, has seen and oh, his power. In all their travels, Charles has never before found one that can match him in sheer power, than can match Raven in… immersion, for lack of a better word. Raven doesn’t just shift, she is the shift. Her body, her mind, her behaviours, her mannerisms. Everything about her is interchangeable, malleable, just like everything about Erik is metal. Steel trap mind and memories as grey as cold iron, vibrations and sensations, the tinny echoes of metal all over him.

Charles is transfixed. “Let’s find a quiet place to talk,” he suggests and then adds, unable to help himself, “Mutant to mutant.”

Mutant. Erik mouths the word like it’s a prayer and hesitates only a second before nodding. Raven never lets go of his hand.

+


6

+

They find a Kaffeehaus, out of the way and off the beaten path and tumble into a corner booth together. Charles hides them as soon as the waitress has brought their orders and then they sit, silently staring at each other.

Erik looks at them like they’re deity, like they’re monsters from under his bed, like they’re all his dreams come true. He looks like he’ll never blink again or stop looking and Charles eventually can’t contain himself anymore. He smoothes himself along Erik’s edges, makes him calmer and says, “I’m a telepath. Raven here is a shapeshifter.”

Raven, always eager to show off, ripples to blue, to Charles, to Erik, to the waitress and then back to blue.

Erik’s eyes are wide as he looks around, frantically. “Are you mad?!” he hisses, fear and anger and adrenaline surging through him.

Charles presses harder on the edges. “Relax,” he says. “Anyone looking at us will only see three young students having a conversation about Schopenhauer. They cannot see what we really do, or hear what we say.”

Awe spreads through Erik like light across water as he looks around for anyone staring at them, for anyone screaming about the monsters in the corner. No-one moves. You’re doing this, he thinks and Charles doesn’t think he means to send the thought so clearly, but he does.

Yes. It doesn’t even take very much concentration.

Not after more than a decade of covering Raven’s slip-ups. “Hey!” she complains, punching him in the arm and turning back to blonde and peach-skin. And then, “Show-off.”

He tugs on one of her curls, smiling. “As if you weren’t.”

She shrugs and leans into him while they wait for Erik to assimilate the new information, to come to terms with this new reality – one where he’s not alone.

Eventually, his thoughts calm, a metal storm contained in a metal box. Charles is impressed and Erik relaxes into his seat, sips his black coffee and asks, studiously careless, “Schopenhauer? Really?”

Charles shrugs. “I am not actually projecting a conversation, just the basic information. Their minds fill in the gaps according to their ideas of what Schopenhauer is. And really, anyone eavesdropping on a private conversation deserves nothing less than Schopenhauer.”

Charles dislikes the miser. Erik laughs. “Very well,” he chuckles, putting down his cup. “What do you want from me?”

+

7

+

They want nothing from him, they explain, nothing but his company and maybe, if he trusts them enough, his story. They tell him what they do, how they have been scouring Europe in search of other mutants and found few, so very few.

Erik’s jaw clenches tightly and memories of gas chambers and ash rain flash before his eyes. In the aftermath of Adolf Hitler, this continent will never be the same. A people dead. Another people – one he never even knew about – scattered to the winds, few and far in-between. Lonely. As lonely as he is – was.

Charles is not deterred by their failures, by Erik’s visions of horror, of what might have happened to others, if they ever existed. He refuses to believe that this is all there is of mutantkind. There have to be more, so many more. He shares that thought, that hope, and finds it reflected back twice. Once from Raven, eager and determined as she’s always been, to make others’ lives better than her own childhood was and from Erik, tentative and fragile, and nothing more than kindred.

Alike.

There are others like us and we will find them.

They pay for their coffee and set out to find a restaurant for dinner. Charles orders red wine and they drink one bottle for dinner and then buy another ‘for the road’. Erik protests Charles paying but Raven waves him off, telling him that her dear brother is filthy rich and condescending enough to not even consider anyone wanting to pay their own way.

She laughs as she says it but Charles pouts at her because he knows that she’s serious. Knows also that she’s right. Erik, as tipsy as they are at that point, lets her reasoning stand and follows them to their hotel suit, where Raven hastily clears off the second bed and they sprawl like exhausted children across all available furniture and get roaring drunk.

They play games, Raven shifting into comical versions of just about anyone, Charles guessing numbers and dirty jokes, picking things out of their minds. He makes a point, even drunk, to pick only happy things from Erik’s memories, flowers and family dinners and random things. Yesterday, Erik passed a woman in a red dress on the street and the colour caught his attention.

Charles pulls the dress and the woman from Erik, shoves her at Raven, who changes into her and poses for them.

And then Erik reciprocates by sneaking the change out of their pockets and making it dance along the edge of an end table, making it orbit around Raven’s head like she’s the sun. She’s certainly grinning brightly enough, pawing at the shiniest pieces whenever they come floating past her face.

They’re showing off horribly, trying to impress each other but also, Charles knows, just letting it out. The chance to use their abilities openly, without fear, is intoxicating.

The alcohol helps, too.

Erik isn’t quite as drunk as he pretends to be, of course, and not nearly as careless as he seems, keeping an eye on all exits and keeping his weapons close, but Charles lets him. Trust, he realized through years and years spent with Raven, is not as instantaneous for other people as it is for him.

Normal people, people who do not read minds, need to learn trust. They can’t steal it, like Charles does.

Erik will come around. He will learn to trust that no-one can sneak up on Charles, that few people can overpower Raven.

And that is what Erik is worried about. Not Charles and Raven hurting him, but Charles and Raven getting hurt through him. He imagines them caught in the crossfire of himself and the men he hunts, the shadowy monsters of his youth, imagines their free laughter wiped out, their sparkling eyes dull.

He is scared for them, not of them.

Charles shares that sentiment, that trust, with Raven, who smiles sleepily into his shoulder and mumbles, “Welcome home,” in Erik’s direction, unaware of the brief stiffening of his shoulders before he makes himself relax.

He quirks an eyebrow at Charles while Raven snuffles and burrows into his side, shifting so her head is in his lap. She falls asleep like that, Charles’s hand tangled in red hair.

She means it, my friend, Charles tells the other man, and then he, too, closes his eyes and falls asleep.

Trusting Erik not to hurt them. Trusting Erik to still be there in the morning.

+

8

+

“Oh, please, please, please, please, please, take us sightseeing. Charles’s German is horrible,” Raven demands, bouncing on her toes in front of Erik, who is glaring balefully at her, wondering why she is not dying from hangover.

Right. Charles steps forward, pressing two fingers to his new friend’s temple before the man can protest and taking away the headache. Erik relaxes immediately and then sighs in relief when he realizes that yes, the hangover is really gone.

Raven grins and bounces some more. “See? This is why I keep him around. Please?”

Erik sighs again, torn this time, and Charles can see his thoughts cavorting through his mind, pulling on opposite directions. The Mission is on one side, killing Nazis, finding Schmitt, avenging Mama. On the other side is this new, this glorious thing embodied by Raven and Charles. Kindred. Not alone. Family. Mutants.

Erik wants to stay with them, but the memory of his mother falling with a bullet in her skull, falling with a bullet in her skull, falling with a bullet in her skull, won’t let him go. Charles closes his eyes.

I’m sorry, he offers, but I overheard.

Erik tenses initially but Charles can see it’s only reflex. He’s utterly unafraid of what Charles can do, the way Raven was before… before.

I still don’t fear you, she ghosts through his mind. I love you.

You watched me kill, he wants to say, but he knows her like he knows his own limbs and he knows she feels no pity for Kurt or Cain. Not on a conscious level. He buries that thought, out of her reach behind walls. It’s only a small doubt and he knows better than to let it grow. Raven loves him and he loves her.

He turns his attention back to Erik. Would your mother want you to isolate yourself, now that you’ve found a place to belong?

A yearning that almost shreds Charles’s heart floods Erik. A place to belong, freely offered. Erik marvels at how quickly everything falls into place and he mistrusts it, the product of his experiences.

Mutant, Charles whispers. Same. Reason enough.

“Alright,” Erik tells Raven, who squeals and throws herself at him. “Alright. But only for a few days.”

She nods into his shoulder, hugging him tightly in excitement. Once Erik has figured out where to put his hands, he does a halfway decent, if awkward, job of hugging back.

+

9

+

It takes them three days to establish a pattern, no more. Raven and Charles are woken early in the morning by Erik sneaking out of the room. Charles usually takes a moment to cure any hangover Erik might have and then they go back to sleep while Erik haunts Vienna for clues and information on the man he’s hunting. He goes to his own hotel, showers, changes and picks up breakfast.

It’s a peace offering to Charles and Raven, who pretend not to know what Erik does when he’s not with them. To be fair, Raven only suspects. Charles never outright tells her that Erik is calling in favours and waiting for the tiniest hint of movement from his prey. That to him, this time spent with the Xaviers is only a holding pattern.

After breakfast, they set out to discover the city, each as clueless as the other, but with Erik playing guide anyway, because his German actually is German, unlike Charles’s. Or so Raven claims.

They play tourists, then return to the hotel to change and give Charles a chance to scan the city. He finds neither mutants nor a trace of the man Erik wants, though he never even says out loud that he’s looking for him.

They go for dinner and then some entertainment and then they return, once more, to the hotel room and get drunk and play games and show each other tricks and enjoy the company. They fall asleep in tangles or on their own, spread across two beds and the sofa and wake in the morning to repeat the entire process.

Charles can’t remember ever having been happier.

+

10

+

It’s not that Raven isn’t – wasn’t – enough for Charles. It’s that Raven is Charles’s arms and Erik is fast becoming his legs and he knows Raven feels the same.

They look at each other, on the fourth night, across two glasses of wine and a half-eaten dinner and they understand, without reading minds, that they both want.

+

11

+

Charles has no idea where he gets it from, but one day Erik turns up with a rented car and they drive out into the Waldviertel, drive until there’s nothing but nature and sky. The trees, endless and dark and old, remind Charles and Raven of home, but there is an indefinable taste of history in the air that nothing on the American continent has, not even nature. Age, yes, but not thousands of years of living history that have soaked into the world like blood.

It’s strange.

They have a picnic that they share with a battalion of ants and then Raven finds a little brook and shifts into her natural form in order to splash the men without getting her own clothes wet.

She calls Uncle when Erik wraps her in a piece of wire he always carries on his person and dunks her repeatedly, which is quite a feat in the shallow little stream. Charles stands safely out of reach and laughs until he thinks he’s going to choke.

Later, when Raven is properly dressed again and Erik has mostly dried, they lie on the too small blanket, Erik and Charles side by side, Raven mostly on Charles’s chest, and stare at the sky as the stars come out, one by one.

The siblings both hum with happiness and beside them, Erik oscillates between anger and contentment and Charles doesn’t need to be a telepath to know the man is happy and angry with himself for being happy.

He reaches out with the hand that’s not curled around Raven’s hip and gently touches two fingers to Erik’s bare forearm. Take joy where you can find it, my friend, and hoard it for cold winters. Perhaps it will keep you warm.

He tries not to sound wistful but is sure he fails. Nevermind. The surge of Erik’s constant inner war recedes. Raven, who isn’t listening to their exchange, says, “Look at that. There’s so many stars! We never see this many, even in Westchester.”

She doesn’t say home, never says home and Charles notices, every single time. Home is with you, she thinks his way, absently, and automatic reassurance.

Charles squeezes her a bit tighter. “Thank you.”

Erik frowns at them, aware that he’s missed part of the exchange, but uncaring. “I used to watch the stars with my father,” he confesses, like it’s a dirty secret, hesitantly, quietly.

“Did he teach you what they’re called?” Raven wants to know, raising her head enough to look at him.

He shakes his head. “He didn’t know their names. We made them up.”

A memory of lying in a drab, tiny courtyard and pointing at the stars flashes through his mind, followed by another, the same man pulled away by soldiers, reaching out for his son and wife, screaming. Then silence. That’s Erik’s last memory of his father.

Raven wants to ask what those names were, but she holds back, feeling what Charles feels, a sadness like a bottomless hole coming from Erik, and the desperate rage that holds it all together.

“How about,” Charles offers, “I tell you what their official names are.”

He says ‘official’ and not ‘real’ and he thinks that Erik notices because he hesitates for a moment, trapped between then and now, but nods.

Eventually, they all fall asleep.

+

So forgive me
For I am born to be
What I must be

Tom McRae, Boy With the Bubblegun

+

c

+

Erik never tells, but when he leaves in the mornings, he never intends to come back. Charles and Raven are too soft, too naïve, too simple. Too young, too brilliant, too beautiful for him to hold onto.

He’ll hurt them. He’ll want to hurt them, eventually, for all that they take for granted. But they are… they’re like him. And Charles, for all his pretentious arrogance, knows. He knows everything Erik is, he said so himself, and he’s not running.

That sort of acceptance is a heady thing for a man who grew up a Jew in the Drittes Reich, who has spent his adult life being afraid of himself, of the monster that lives in his chest.

And Raven is… for all that her colour is dark blue, Raven is sunlight. She’s warm, happy, accepting, easy-going. She laughs so much and she makes Erik laugh, too.

They’re beautiful, both of them, and Erik has no idea what to do with that because around him, everything beautiful must break.

That might change, one day, perhaps, if Schmidt is dead and Erik, against all odds, survives. Maybe then, in this far-off, utopian future, Erik could meet the Xavier siblings on equal footing, could touch their beauty and not ruin it utterly.

But not now, not here, not in this magical summer or any others. And he can hardly expect them to wait when he doesn’t even expect to survive his hunt.

So he sets out into early morning Vienna, digs up contacts, calls in every favour he is owed to get back on Meister’s trail. The man is a rat, but even rats don’t just fall off the face of the earth. Eventually, someone will catch sight of him and then Erik will get back to his job. He’ll hunt him down, steal everything the man knows from him, and use that information to hunt the next Nazi and the next and the next, until, one day, he finds someone who knows where Schmidt is. Until then he’ll leave blood and death in his wake, another reason to leave this city fast.

But his contacts are silent, leaving him stranded. He has nothing to do. And then he returns to his hotel room, with its bed, not slept in, with the suitcase, half empty because his things keep accumulating in the Xaviers’ suite. With its dinky mirror, that shows a man who looks better than he has in years, no dark shadows under his eyes, no jaw that aches from clenching it so hard.

They’re doing something to him, Raven and Charles. Changing him. Filling up all the cracks and spaces.

He hates them for it.

He loves them for it.

The monster in his chest roars and he stomps it down, climbs into the shower with images in his mind of their sleepy expressions, their soft, pliant bodies wrapped around each other.

They’re siblings, they’re his friends, as alien as that word is to him. He should be mortified at taking his perversions out on them, even if only in his head, in the privacy of his own shower, but he can’t help himself. Erik is a vicious, a brutal person, and he wants as desperately and wildly as he does everything else.

Every morning, he steps out of the shower ashamed and glowing and gets dressed with the intention of leaving the city immediately.

Every morning, he finds his feet carrying him back to them, breakfast in hand as a silent apology for crimes they do not know he commits. Certainly not even Charles knows the things he imagines, because if he did, he would not let Erik anywhere near his sister or himself.

So Charles doesn’t know and Erik plans to run but never does, hating and loving these stolen days in equal measure.

+

d

+

And then the call comes, Meister seen in Graz, headed for Poland, then Russia.

Erik feels the thrill of the hunt surge through him, followed immediately by a crippling regret that’s entirely new.

+

12

+

“I have to go.”

Raven looks like someone killed a kitten in front of her and Charles feels like it, which is just as bad. Still he smiles and Raven says, bravely, bravely, “We know.”

There is a moment of distortion in Erik’s mind. He struggles, sometimes, with the dissonance of them. Charles wears the expression, Raven says the words and they mess up their pronouns something fierce when they get tired or tipsy. He doesn’t know it only happens around him, that he’s the only one around whom they’ve ever let their guard down enough to get confused.

Since they were children anyway.

Erik gets to see them with the bond as open as the highway, broad and fast and real.

Then he reels in his confusion and smiles at them, crookedly, amused at his own confusion. He doesn’t fully understand their bond, knows only that there is something between them, but he doesn’t mind it. He finds it…, the word he uses is bezaubernd. Charles is afraid of looking it up.

“You will come visit us in Oxford, though,” he says and he tries to make it sound like a fact.

Erik’s raised eyebrow tells him his ploy doesn’t quite work. “I don’t know,” he confesses, then amends to, “I will try.”

Lie, lie, lie, his mind says. The opposite is true. He’ll try to stay away, but he knows he’ll come anyway. It seems they are all each other’s flame.

They shake hands, awkwardly, and Raven hugs Erik, clutches at him like she means to hold on for good. No hotel room door falling shut, Charles muses morosely, has ever sounded so final.

+

13

+

Raven comes slinking out of the bathroom like the temptress she spent the past week pretending she’s not. She’s naked and blue and there are droplets of water still caught in her scales and Charles feels himself go hot at the sight of her.

She comes to a halt between his legs at the end of the bed – his, technically, theirs, now that they’re alone again. She smiles and it’s bright against her dark skin.

“Did you miss me?” she asks and he nods because she already knows the answer.

They didn’t tell Erik the truth about them. Everything else, yes, but not that. Charles thinks he might be jealous of this – them. Raven is his. He kept her and he shaped her and he killed for her and she did the same for him, to him. They are one in ways no outsider can understand. Not even Erik.

He feels regret, sweet and soft, at that thought.

Raven dips a toe into his thought process, cocks her head to one side, golden eyes too sharp. “Do you miss him?” she amends.

He doesn’t answer. A moment later her skin ripples, turns soft and pink. Her hair shortens, turns darker, her curves melt into hard planes. Erik stands before Charles, perfectly replicated on the outside, with Raven’s familiar mind inside, the perfect, soft-hot center to the hard shell.

Charles swallows and Raven says, coyly, with Erik’s voice, “I can be him.”

He slips into her mind, her brain, her perception, finds the visual part of her brain, tweaks, pulls, twists. Overlays the sight of him with her memories of Erik. Turns himself into Erik, as certainly as she has.

“I can be him,” he echoes.

They both hold onto the illusion for a moment, then drop it. They won’t violate Erik this way. Even though they want to and oh, they want to. Charles tries to trace the desire for the other mutant back to its root, tries to untangle it, Raven, Charles, Raven, Charles.

Fails.

Perhaps they both feel it. It’s hard to tell these days, who wants what. Since the night Kurt died, there are so few boundaries. No secrets, no regrets, no reservations. Charles thinks that, given enough time, they might lose themselves utterly.

The thought should be terrifying, but from the inside it looks so very appealing.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” Raven says, looking around the room with a moue of distaste. Erik is tainting every surface. “Somewhere just the two of us.”

Without the ghost.

Charles wraps and arm around her waist and pulls her closer, presses his nose into the soft skin at her navel. Raven giggles at the sensation and he stands to kiss her properly. Asks, Do you still want to see Salzburg?

Please, she confirms, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, threading fingers through his hair. Her nails rake along his scalp and he shudders and presses her closer to his chest.

She makes a noise, deep and bothered and wraps her legs around his waist, sending them both tumbling back into the bedding. They used to have an amazing Christmas market.

It’s not Christmas.

Details, she laughs and pulls her hands free to go for his belt.

I’ll make you Christmas in August, if you want me to, he promises.

Make me come in August, she demands instead. He gasps, scandalized at her crudity and then goes non-verbal as his clothes start hitting the floor, which suits them both just fine.

Erik is, at least for the moment, utterly forgotten.

+

14

+

They never make it to Salzburg, but they take a few days’ detour to Barcelona, where they have tea with a delightful woman they met on one of their first trips. Her mutation is perfectly harmless and delightful. She calls herself a beast speaker and has a long, involved conversation with one of her nine cats while Charles and Raven watch.

As amazing as that it, Charles feels a bit disappointed after having witnessed in Erik’s mind the sheer power, the sheer capacity of his gift. Raven’s ability is to change every single molecule of her body, which is mind shattering, yes, but in twenty-five years Charles has never met another like himself, a mutant with enough destructive potential in him to shake the world off its foundations.

Compared to Erik, Maria’s gift seems trivial. Charles tries not to let it show on his face.

After Spain they travel the length of France on their way back to Oxford. Raven loves the countryside and they cover more ground like this. Charles touches ten-thousand minds every night, searching. Close to Lyon, Charles finds a brain like no other, terrified and filled with horror and pain and different, different, mustn’t let it show, father will be so angry, freak, freak, monster.

It’s so sudden that he reels back from it, falls and almost bashes his head open on the nightstand.

They throw on clothes on their way to the door, break every traffic law there is and still barely manage to make out a dark spot in the night, falling, falling, falling from a bridge into the water underneath. Raven screams, a hand pressed to her mouth to keep it in, and Charles almost drives them off the road as the girl’s death hits him, pulls him under.

She was sixteen and her name was Amelia and she could make herself transparent, like a ghost. Her parents thought she was a thing of the underworld, a hellish creature come to haunt them. Her father beat her, her mother feared her and tonight she felt something rising in the back of her mind, something great and dark and she feared that the evil in her was finally winning and she ran for the bridge, ran and jumped and drowned so senselessly and alone and it was Charles she felt, it was his presence, his mind, that tipped the scales, that made her more afraid, more disgusted with herself than she’d ever been before and she jumped, jumped, jumped and they saw her fall and –

Charles,” Raven yells, inside and out, slapping at his face. He rips himself away from Amelia’s dying terror and finds her face, blue and tear-streaked and afraid, above his.

Her hands frame his face as she says, hoarsely, “You were gone. She pulled you in and I could hear you but I couldn’t touch you and you were gone.”

He apologizes, wordlessly, because his tongue feels like lead and tastes like dirty river water. It was my fault, he thinks.

She shakes her head, bites her lip, pulls herself together harshly. No. No, it wasn’t. She was already on the edge, already scared. No-one else has ever been able to feel you without practice. You couldn’t have known. It’s not your fault.

Her conviction is like steel and it sweeps away his doubt. They have lost the ability for polar opposites some years ago. Charles nods. His face is wet, tears, not water.

Raven’s is, too.

Death is so sudden. It happened so quickly.

Amelia’s spark, the last bit of her, disappears into the darkness, already some miles downstream. The river is deep and brutal and she was so fast. A few more minutes…

He would have liked to introduce Amelia to Maria, he thinks. To show the girl that mutations are not evil, that they can be sweet and harmless and useful. That she was not a freak. Too late.

Life ends so fast. Amelia is gone, a shadow washed away in the dark. Charles can breathe again but finds that he doesn’t want to. He kisses Raven in the dark of the car because it’s better than thinking and tasting death on his tongue.

+

15

+

They sleep curled around each other that night, like children they still are, somehow, somewhere deep down.

Raven dreams of memories, of lonely, dark alleys and a man with a broken bottle in his hand, lunging for her. Charles doesn’t dream at all, forces his mind into a blank blackness that feels like unconsciousness rather than sleep.

“We need a better way to find them,” he declares at breakfast the next morning, quiet, subdued. There is no mention of Amelia in the local newspaper. Not yet. He wonders if they’ve found the body yet and carefully keeps the thought to himself.

Raven, her eyes puffy and swollen, nods mutely. Inside her, determination burns, bright and hot and dangerous, even though he doesn’t understand that yet.

+

- I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters in the sky
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.

Anne Sexton, The Truth the Dead Know

+

16

+

Once a week, Charles allows himself to stretch his mind to its breaking point, looking for one mind, only one.

He always finds Erik, somewhere on this world, even though he is out of easy range more often than not and always moving.

Once, in October, Erik is in Switzerland, tracing his people’s money back to the man who took it. Hundreds of miles from Oxford, he’s still closer than he’s been since the summer.

We could use your help, my friend, Charles thinks, late that night, a bit drunk and a bit maudlin. Raven is asleep beside him. They spent all evening brainstorming on more effective methods of finding mutants and came up empty-handed. There is so much to do.

There is no answer from Erik, although Charles isn’t sure if that is because of the distance or because the man is ignoring him.

+

17

+

They wait.

+

18

+

Erik comes in December, wet with melting snow, a sheepish expression on his face and anger churning in his gut for this, his weakness. He’s never before come back for anything or anyone, Charles learns.

And yet here he is, back for Raven, back for Charles, back for the cocoon they wove around each other during that one, summer-bright week in Vienna.

Erik missed them as much as they missed him and Charles pulls him inside almost roughly, slams the door and doesn’t have to call for Raven, who is already barrelling toward the man, slamming into him with the force of a fright train. She hugs him until he wheezes and then helps him take off his coat, drags him through the flat, shows him around, babbling at ten-thousand miles an hour.

Charles stops her eventually because Erik looks adorably dazed by her relentless onslaught. His anger at himself is completely forgotten in the face of Raven’s enthusiasm. It’s amusing, to see the effect she has on people from the outside, for once. Usually Charles is at the receiving end of it.

They have dinner and curl up in the living room afterwards, talking, talking, talking, over wine and scones. About Erik’s travels, about Charles’s studies, about Raven’s shenanigans. They don’t mention a dead man named Meister, or a dead girl named Amelia.

Not tonight. Tonight is for happiness and reunion.

It’s long past midnight when they finally start yawning and nodding off. Charles is already dreading the next day in class when Erik starts taking off his shoes and getting comfortable on the sofa.

“Just take Raven’s bed,” he says before he can help himself.

Erik looks at him, surprised, confused and a bit annoyed. Ah, he thinks Charles is being rude, offering up the lady’s bed without her permission. Charles cringes a bit. How to explain…

But Raven looks at him and he looks back at her and a million things pass in less than a second. It’s our secret, we never tell, but he came back, he came for us, he’s one of us, we trust him, he’s here, he’s home, let him in.

Yes.

“It’s fine, my friend. Raven hardly ever sleeps in her room anyway.”

“Where does she sleep?”

Raven shrugs and points at Charles, “With him. The second bedroom is just cover.”

“Cover for what?” Erik blurts, a sure sign that he’s exhausted. He’d have made the connection by now if he were fully awake. They wait, quietly, for him to catch on.

When he does after a long minute of silence, he looks between them, confused again, but not disgusted. Quite the contrary, the images in his mind are – Charles pulls away, blushing a bit, breaking eye-contact just as Erik reprimands himself sharply. They are siblings!

Actually, Charles broadcasts, we are not. I made people believe that growing up, but we are not related by blood.

It’s Erik’s turn to blush at being caught but, paradoxically, he relaxes. He raises a hand to run through his hair, then waves it between them. “So you are?”

“Yes,” Raven announces, brightly grinning again. “You can take my bed.”

Erik does, too tired to protest, overloaded with information.

The next morning, at breakfast, he looks at them intently. Raven is sitting on Charles’s lap and munching on his toast, a favourite pastime of hers. Charles is suffering her patiently while cradling his morning tea, free arm wrapped around her waist. No more reason to hide now, although, he suspects, they haven’t been very covert around Erik anyway. The man just put it down as them being very affectionate siblings.

“This is a secret, isn’t it?” he asks, inhaling his coffee and looking nonchalant.

“Yes,” Raven says, cheeks puffed out with food.

Charles elaborates, “It’s easier for us to live together as siblings than as an unmarried couple and back in America, everyone believes us to be siblings thanks to some… tinkering I did as a boy.”

Erik feels awe at that. At being let in. At being trusted. It leaves him speechless. Raven doesn’t notice, busy with her food, but Charles does. He smiles, a bit crookedly, and thinks that things will be good now.

+

19

+

“How long are you planning to stay?” Charles asks as he comes home from campus and finds Erik tentatively unpacking his few belongings into the closet space Raven allotted him in what is nominally her room before she flounced off to this week’s job.

Erik doesn’t startle at Charles’s entrance – he’s not that relaxed – but he allows his discomfort to show on his face. There’s the anger again, at wanting to be here instead of anywhere else, and the frustration with not being able to make himself leave.

He makes a few false starts in his head and eventually settles on, “There is nothing I have to… work on, at the moment.”

Charles gifts him with the brightest smile he has and hesitates only momentarily before offering, “We are aware of… what you do, Erik. There is no need for euphemisms, although I ask that you keep the… details from Raven.”

Raven can protect herself, he knows that, is painfully aware of that after years of being her partner instead of her big brother, but there are things he can spare her. The images he finds in Erik’s mind, blood and death and hate, are among those things.

Erik’s eyebrows rise at the phrasing, or maybe because Charles’s request should go without saying. But he accepts the words and repays them with truth. “My last trail,” – the man named Meister that they do not talk about – “was a dead end. Until I receive some new information, I can –“

Stay. Be here. Be with you. So many ways to finish that sentence. Charles smiles again, but it’s dimmer than before. “And then you will run off at the drop of a hat to… extract your vengeance?”

Erik tenses, steel infusing his spine, coiling again, ready to spring. He would hate the comparison, but he reminds Charles of the injured cat Raven dragged home when she was twelve. Defiant to the last, lost and given over to instincts, too hurt to understand kindness. “That is what I do, Charles,” Erik hisses.

It’s all I am.

Monster, echoes in his head and Charles frowns, fighting the urge to take a step closer, to touch. Erik would not allow it. Not yet, not yet. The cat healed and Charles is determined that Erik will, too.

“It amazes me,” he says, as gently as he can without sounding patronizing. “how you can be here, among people who love you, and still believe a monster to be all that you are. There is so much more to you, Erik.”

He flees, then, unwilling to bear witness to the storm he just kicked off in his friend’s mind. Miles away Raven feels his agitation, asks, What have you done now?

He shows her. The only answer he gets is a soft sigh, followed by a whispered, kind, Oh, boys.

+

20

+

Erik sits, chin in hand, forehead wrinkled in thought. Finally, he shakes his head and opens his mouth to speak just as Raven passes him by, glasses in hand. She passes a tumbler of scotch to him and he accepts it with a smile of gratitude, rests it on his thigh as he tracks her movement. She rounds the table, passes a second glass to Charles and then sinks down on the floor cross legged with her own wine, looking at Erik expectantly.

“I can’t think of anything better than what you are already doing,” he finally says with a shrug, taking a sip.

Charles sighs explosively, but not like he’s surprised. Raven stretches out one leg to poke him in the shin with her toes and sends him sunlight, to brighten him up. He quirks a grin at her and runs a hand through his hair.

“A pity,” he tells Erik. “I had hoped you would be able to offer a new idea.”

Erik apologizes and they all know he means it, too. They’ve been brainstorming for more effective ways to find mutants, but so far have found nothing. Charles’s powers are the best way they have, but he’s already working at the limit of his telepathy. If focused on a single mind, he can span the globe, but sifting through thousands and thousands of minds limits his range severely. If he reaches too far, he loses his grip on himself, on his body. He gets lost in the ocean of minds around him.

He hoped that Erik might have an alternative, foolishly, perhaps. After all, the man didn’t even know others of their kind existed until half a year ago.

Raven, usually the more down to earth of the two of them, nudges Charles again. “Hey,” she says, soothingly, “we’ll just step up the pace like we planned and do our best. That’s gotta be enough.”

A flash of a shapeless body falling in the dark of night, a splash of water, disappointment that’s almost perfectly hidden. Charles smiles at her in thanks for the effort and raises his glass in a toast. “To our best,” he offers.

The others echo him. It’s got to be enough.

+

21

+

“Did you mean it?”

Charles looks up from his books, frowns. Erik is hanging in the doorway, half in, half out, looking terribly frustrated before the conversation has even begun. He takes a step forward and then visibly forces himself in Charles’s study, shutting the door behind him.

Raven is in the shower, mentally complaining about shampoo catching on her scales, and Charles pulls her awareness to him, into his mind, behind his eyes. For Erik to behave this way… better to have Raven here.

“Did I mean what, my friend?” he asks, carefully closing his book, giving the other man his full attention.

Erik opens his mouth, shuts it, then growls at himself and raises one hand to his temple, tapping it with one finger. An invitation if Charles has ever seen one.

Inside, he finds himself and Erik in Erik’s room, a conversation, snippets, among people who love you. The scene ends abruptly and Charles pulls back.

“Did you mean it?” Erik repeats, his voice sharp.

“Did I mean it when I said we loved you?”

Grinding his teeth, the other man nods.

Charles smiles at him. “I would not lie to you about things like that, Erik. Of course I mean it. So does Raven.”

“How?” Erik demands simply. His mind and mood provide the rest, incredulous, disbelieving, awed. How can you love me? You don’t know me, I’m a monster, we’ve only just met. I’m a monster. Monster. Monster.

Charles smiles kindly to hide his sadness and Raven gives up on the shampoo, simply gets out of the shower and grabs a towel, intent on getting to them physically. Don’t screw this up, Charles, she commands, sharply.

“You forget, my dear friend, that I see all of you when I look at you. And through me, so does Raven.”

Erik looks like someone has slapped him. Or hit, maybe. With a hammer.

“We see all of you and there is nothing there that would make us turn away from you.”

Quietly, Raven sends her approval. Then she comes physically bursting through the door in a dressing gown, dripping water everywhere and adds a succinct, “Idiot.”

She’s on Erik before he can move, hugging him like she used to hug Charles, so long ago, when he didn’t understand contact, didn’t know that it was okay to just touch people sometimes, to borrow their warmth. He wonders if he ever looked the way Erik does now, lost and uncomfortable and ridiculously grateful.

You did, she tells him fondly before letting go of Erik as suddenly as she grabbed him. “I’m dripping all over the floors,” she calls as she sprints back to the bathroom, leaving Erik completely blindsided and the tension in the room in pieces.

Charles laughs and then offers his condolences. “I’m afraid you’re stuck with us.”

Erik finally gets himself under control and sits, leaning back carefully. “I think,” he muses, “that you two are mad and I don’t understand you at all.” And then, after a slight pause, “But thank you.”

Charles laughs again and reopens his book. After a moment, Erik stands to peruse the shelves and a few minutes later Raven joins them, dried and dressed, a magazine under her arm.

+

e

+

Raven isn’t much of a housewife. Erik has discovered that early. Both her and Charles are comfortable with a level of clutter in their flat that drives him to distraction. He keeps trying to pick up a bit but then stops himself because it’s not his flat and he has no rights.

Even if it feels like it. Even if he’s been here for over a month now. He has his feelers out, his ear to the ground, his contacts running themselves ragged, but there is no news. He is stuck here. Free to be here. One of those.

He’s been here long enough to notice the patterns the Xavier siblings – not siblings, bei Gott, not siblings – have. Raven is no housewife, but she does do things like vacuum and dust, mostly because Charles is scatterbrained enough to not think of these things at all. She does it once a week, usually on Thursdays when Charles is out the whole day at classes. She skips around the place in her natural form, dancing to the radio as she works.

It breaks something in his chest to see her mindlessly cleaning, happy, content, innocent in ways he’s never even imagined he’d get to touch.

And therein lies the problem. He doesn’t get to touch. He is an intruder, a tolerated guest, the monster under the bed. Pining after Raven and Charles separately when he still thought of them as siblings was bad enough. But there was a line he knew he would never cross. They were siblings, in his mind, and he would never, could never, tear them apart. Could never sleep with one and leave the other in the cold, could never have both.

And then they dropped the bomb. Not siblings. They’ve been together, intimate, since they were teenagers. Old lovers. Comfortable lovers.

And they show him like it’s nothing, let him see them kiss and cuddle and look at each other fondly. It’s torture, knowing what they do in their bedroom when he lies in his bed, staring at the ceiling, wanting.

He thinks of them, sometimes, and he thinks Charles must have caught him at it by now, waits for the inevitable disgust, the anger, the rude goodbye. It never comes.

And now, here, Raven, happy, open, smiling at him like she smiles at Charles and Erik is unravelling on the living room sofa, mad with desire for her, for Charles, for both of them, what they have, what they are, what the promise him without even knowing.

“Okay,” Raven suddenly snaps and Erik jumps out of his skin, just about. “This is ridiculous.” She dumps the stack of newspapers she has gathered on the table and stops in front of him. “I can see you pining,” she informs him and he freezes.

Here it comes.

“It’s getting annoying.”

“Raven, I’m so sorry, I won’t-“

She cuts him off with a sharp gesture and a headshake. Her golden eyes burn and she’s beautiful and Erik looks away. “I’ve been patient,” she says, softer, almost gently. “I’ve been waiting for you to make a move for… ages. Hell, Charles has caught on by now. But you’re not going to do anything and Charles isn’t either, because you’re boys, and you’re stupid, so I’m taking over.”

She stops, takes a deep breath, and Erik thinks he should be saying something, should be doing something, but he’s frozen, staring at her like an idiot. She can’t possibly be saying what she’s saying. That’s not…

“Charles has told you, I have told you. We love you. You live with us, for Christ’s sake. And we can hear you, you know? At night, when we’re in our bed and you’re in the spare room and, God, Charles is a telepath. We know, Erik. You should have caught on to that by now. We know, and no-one’s kicking you out and we love you and it’s not normal but I’m blue and Charles reads minds and you bend metal and would you just kiss me already, you idiot!!!”

She stops again. He still stares. He’s hearing what she’s saying, but he’s still waiting for the punch line, for the part that will take all this away again because hope… hope does not spring eternally. Hope withers and it dies and men like him don’t get beautiful things.

Raven rolls her eyes, bends down and grabs his collar. Then she kisses him. Her lips are warm and soft and she tastes… somehow he expected for the blueness of her skin to have a taste, but he didn’t expect this. Raven, the functional part of his brain decides, tastes like the sky.

Finally, he raises a hand to tangle in her redred hair and she makes a pleased sound and somehow, almost, Erik believes this is real. She twists, plants her feet on either side of his thighs on the sofa and sits smack on his lap like she’s done with Charles a time or two, when they were drunk and within the safety of the flat.

Exactly like she’s done with Charles.

Erik wraps and arm around her waist, pulls her closer and wants to die. More importantly, wants to live.

The front door slams. Charles shouts a greeting, then enters the room and freezes. Erik freezes. Raven grunts in frustration as he pulls away from her. She goes to work on his neck instead of his lips and Erik stares at Charles, expects the rage and hate and disgust that didn’t come with Raven.

Charles drops his briefcase.

Says, “You started without me? Raven?”

She raises one hand from Erik’s shoulder, waves it aimlessly at Charles. “You took too long,” she mutters into Erik’s neck.

Charles sighs and smiles, patiently suffering her special brand of wickedness. Then he licks his lips and looks at them, Erik and Raven, with something like fire in his eyes. Fire and heat and want.

“If… if we are actually going to attempt this… us,” Charles suggests, “we should probably move to the bedroom.”

Something in Erik uncoils.

+

22

+

A mutant with the ability to manipulate time, Charles thinks, one Sunday morning, as he lies in bed with Raven’s hair tickling his nose and sunbeams dancing over the sheets.

A mutant who can slow down time when things are beautiful and speed it up through the bad times. The opposite, really, of right now. It’s been three months since Raven turned cleaning day into a sex marathon that should have made God strike all three of them down.

But Charles has never believed in God and he knows first-hand that the values society is so proud of can be terribly wrong. He loves who he loves, man, woman, one, two. To him, it doesn’t matter. To the people who matter, it doesn’t matter.

Erik and Raven and Charles, ErikRavenCharles, in a cocoon far from the world. Three months. They have passed far too quickly and now Erik is returning from the bakery with a cloud of emotion above his head and a small scrap of paper burning a hole into his pocket.

A name and an address. He already has them memorized. He has a bag of Cornish pasties in one hand, meant as a surprise for his lovers. It’ll be an apology now.

You’ll come back, won’t you? Charles asks and hates that he sounds so insecure. He has no problem with being apart from Raven, but Raven is never actually gone. If - when - Erik goes, he’ll be really gone.

Erik starts so badly he almost falls down the stairs. You’d let me?

We knew who and what you are when we invited you into our lives, Erik. So yes, we’ll let you back in. As long as you promise to return.

Easier said than done, Erik thinks, quietly, not for Charles. He seems determined to die on his hunt for the man who hurt him so – Schmidt. Charles has stolen his face from Erik’s sleeping mind months ago, intent on knowing it, on finding it for his friend.

Erik reaches the door of the flat, lets himself in with a flick of his wrist. Charles shakes Raven awake, kisses her gently and then steers her into the kitchen. This, he decides, wearily and full of warm regret, is a conversation best held with all of them awake and well fed.

+

23

+

The first time, Erik is gone until spring scatters its blossoms all over Oxford. The second time, it’s only three weeks and he comes home angry and bitter.

After that, his absences vary between the two extremes, three weeks, three months. By the three month mark it’s like something invisible drags him back to England. He accuses Charles of meddling with his head, but Charles only cocks his head to one side, offers, We call that love, my friend.

Erik sulks for five whole days after that and leaves again in the early dawn, disappearing for a month.

But he comes back.

He always comes back, back to the flat that’s become his, too, back to the bed where he has his own space, closest to the door, beside Raven, on the opposite end of Charles. He starts leaving things in the flat, unseasonal clothes at first, then a few books, some of the knick-knacks Raven gifts him with simply because she finds them charming or funny or beautiful.

A year after Raven sat on him and declared him theirs, he realizes with a start that he has never possessed so many material things in his life. He has stuff. More importantly, and frighteningly, he has a place to put said stuff. He wants to work himself into a fit about it, about being so careless, becoming predictable, settling down before his work is done – not that there’ll be an after, a voice in his head that’s not Charles whispers.

But then the man himself is there, draping an arm around Erik’s waist, coaxing him down for a kiss, slow and hot and tasting of too sweet tea.

Love, he remembers Charles’s word for it. Love.

He hates it but he has no idea how to escape it.

+


f

+

It’s Charles’s birthday when Erik finally dares bring it up. They spend the evening at the pub and Charles has been steadily drinking since dinner while Raven has been abstaining in order to take more embarrassing pictures.

But when Erik decides it’s time to move the party to behind closed doors, the girl sways just as much as Charles does, her legs all over the place, like they have quit, like they are refusing to do her bidding ever again. She almost drops the camera on the way home and only Erik’s quick reflexes save it.

“You’re drunk,” he observes, eyebrows drawn low.

She nods too hard, loses her balance and tumbles into Charles, who only manages to change their trajectory so they bang into a wall instead of falling on their arses. Helplessly, they start giggling.

“It’s the bond,” they finally offer, once they can breathe through their mirth. “It makes it hard to keep things apart.” They say it in perfect chorus, their voices one. They even slur the same sounds and take one long break in the middle, identical thoughtful expressions on their faces. If Erik didn’t know what they are, what Charles is, he would be scared right now.

As it is, he merely concludes that this is not a conversation to have in the open street. He takes them home, helps them strip, puts a water glass on each nightstand. It feels... terrible and nauseating, to do something so simple for another human being. Raven drops off immediately but Charles is still fighting with the buttons of his shirt, glaring at them intently. Erik bats his hands away, takes over the task until Charles’s hands land on his, heavy and hot, stilling them.

“I live inside her head,” he slurs, staring at Erik with eyes that have to be a mutation because they cannot possibly be that blue. “I put a part of myself into her head when we were children and it was terribly stupid, but she doesn’t mind.” He frowns. “She should,” he concludes and pulls Erik closer still. “I wish I could leave a part of myself with you, too.”

Then he yawns, lets go of Erik and curls into Raven, content and drunk and asleep within moments. Erik, wide-eyed, doesn’t sleep all night, turning the words over and over in his head.

In the morning Charles comes stumbling into the kitchen with damp hair, takes a single look at Erik – inside Erik – and flees. Raven follows almost an hour later, making a beeline for the coffee. She leans against the counter, inhaling the steam from her cup, eyes closed until Erik demands, “Tell me about your bond.”

She looks up, not startled, exactly, and her eyes go distant and glazed. He’s learned, long ago, that that means she’s talking to Charles. More than that, apparently. If Charles is in her head, if he’s always there, is she talking with him or the part of herself that’s Charles?

Erik knows far too little about telepathy to understand any of this. All he knows is that Charles wants to invade his mind permanently and while part of him rejoices, the rest recoils violently.

Finally Raven comes back, her expression one of dismay. “Oh, Lord,” she says, “Charles is a chatty drunk.”

Then she turns on her heel, marches out into the living room. “Coming?” she asks over her shoulder, and if she doesn’t sound eager, she at least doesn’t sound like she’s going to run away.

+

24

+

Raven has been dreading this conversation for a while. She is actually surprised it took Erik this long to bring it up. God knows, Charles and she haven’t been subtle around him. And she knows that Charles has been feeling the pull for a while.

He wants to bond Erik like he bonded her, so long ago. To fuse them together forever, for life and death and what may come after. He’s stronger now, so much, and better and more in control. He’s been holding himself in check, hiding inside of her when the impulse grew too strong for him to bear alone.

But now it’s out in the open, all there, in bright daylight. RavenandCharles, CharlesandRaven and the chains that bind them.

She knows what they did was stupid. She knows it was dangerous. She knows. Now. Back then she was alone and young and scared, so scared that Charles would tire of her, would leave her like everyone else. His description of the bond had sounded so amazing.

You’ll never leave me.

They got lucky, in some ways. They can be apart. Charles’s telepathy is unbelievably powerful. If things had turned out differently, they might be stuck within a few miles, or even just yards of each other. Bound physically as well as mentally.

In other ways, there is no luck. Raven has no idea where she begins, where Charles ends. She kissed him, that very first time, because she loved and loves him. He sent her away, disgusted, conflicted, angry.

She kissed him again and he let her, welcomed her, loved her back, the way she always dreamed. Sometimes, in her darker nights, Raven wonders if the love Charles feels for her is his own, or hers, bleeding through, reflecting back.

Does Charles love her because he wants to, or because she loves him?

There are other things, smaller changes they both observe and let go because with their individuality they lost the ability to refuse each other. At her very core, Raven is sure, she is still herself. She can think on her own, feel, move. Decide.

But the things that are quiet, the things below the surface, the ones that happen without her notice, they move independently from her. Anger. She had it once and it kept her warm through the cold nights. It’s gone, only an echo now, only a determination to make this world better. She is aware of the loss but doesn’t mourn it. Charles’s idealism, his quiet strength, seem so much more sensible.

So Raven is Raven and Charles is Charles but they are also each other and the sum of everything they never would have been alone.

How to put that into words? She tries to explain to Erik, to tell him, together, friendship, love, family, belonging, chains that bind and chains that connect. A prison that is also love and love that is a prison.

She tells him about being young and stupid and broken and about life with a voice in your head that’s real, that loves you. She doesn’t mention her doubts, because she keeps them in a chest in the darkest parts of her mind.

Charles will never know that what he feels might not be real. She is sure that, somewhere in his minds, there are other such chests. They have both taken things from the other.

They live with it.

Consequences.

Erik listens, his expression caught between awe and horror. She shrugs and puts her cup down at the end. “That’s what he meant,” she concludes. “When Charles, presumably other telepaths, too, has an emotional connection to someone, he feels the need to... connect to them, permanently.

“When we bonded, it helped him focus, gave him strength. It makes him better. And it makes him feel safer, knowing he can protect me, find me.” She smiles and it might look deranged, but she can’t care. “I’m Charles, in a way, and he is me.”

Once, Charles used her body to shift and fight off the Markos. He reached into her and used her power and it felt like she was doing it herself. Because she was. That’s important.

For all the foolish things they did as children, she thinks not doing this would have been worse.

“I couldn’t live like this,” Erik confesses, holding himself stiffly.

Raven is disappointed. She thought he, of all people, would understand. He’s been so very alone, too. But his desire for control is too strong, she guesses.

She shakes her head, manages a tamer smile. “Don’t worry. Charles won’t ever do anything you don’t want him to.”

He waves her comment away, like it doesn’t matter, or like he doesn’t believe her. She’s tempted to pull up Charles’s power, to look into his head, but she won’t. She sees enough through Charles’s eyes to know she never wants his power for herself.

He sees too much of everyone.

“How can you stand it?” he demands.

She shrugs. “I don’t remember life before Charles very well,” she says, voice light. “But I remember that it was cold, and dark. And it hurt.”

And now it doesn’t anymore.

They were young and stupid. But Raven would never take it back. Erik stares at her for a long time, then shakes his head, like he’s dislodging cobwebs, and stands. He leaves the flat without a word, going out to think. To run, perhaps.

If Charles were bonded to Erik, they could find him again if he really does run. But he’s not. Raven kind of thinks that’s the point. Bravely, she bites her lip and doesn’t cry.

In her head, Charles apologizes for the hundredth time. He’s so sorry he let that slip. So sorry. She wipes her eyes and says, No. He had to know. He’ll be back.

And underneath that, the constant thrumming of the bond that says, I love you, I’ll never leave you, you and me, together, one, family, safe, I’ll never leave, I’ll never leave.

The reassurance matches her heartbeat and she falls asleep on the sofa long before either of her boys comes back to her.

+

25

+

Erik does come back, but he does it with the tense shoulders and set jaw of a hunted man. He comes back and he kisses Raven and he kisses Charles and he goes to bed with them but he doesn’t sleep because he’s...

He doesn’t know what he is but Charles can read it in him like a blind man reads Braille, all feeling, all touch. Erik craves intimacy and reliability and a guarantee for trust and at the same time he fears those things, fears being bogged down by two civilians, fears the chains that come with the promise.

He’s right to.

He’s stupid. Because he thinks that Raven and Charles are weak, that they’ll give up on him, that they’ll let him go. Oh, Charles won’t force Erik. He never could, never would. His powers are almost limitless and there are only two things keeping him human: his rules and Raven.

If he gives up even one he’ll be a one-legged giant. He’ll fall and crash to the earth and shatter all beneath his shadow.

There is a vast difference between what Erik knows and what he believes. Namely, he knows too much and believes too little. He still thinks he’s in this alone, still thinks his lovers need protection, from him, themselves, others.

They haven’t told him yet, the story of Kurt and Cain, of what Charles is capable of, of how far Raven will go for those that belong to her.

He doesn’t know.

He tells them he loves them for the first time a week after the conversation about bonds and then leaves in the dead of night. It’s the absence of him that wakes them and there’s a note rustling on the empty pillow.

Erik’s gone hunting again. He promises to come back but they know he’s lying.

Alright then. Alright.

+

26

+

He gets a month, they decide. A month to sulk and be angry and bitter and afraid. One month.

Then they’re going to hunt him down and drag him home and beat at his skull until they break it, so they can finally get through to him. They will. Watch them. Erik spent the last Christmas with them, his eyes permanently glazed over in disbelief and private joy, and they will make sure he’s here for the next to.

Xaviers, he should know by now, are incredibly selfish creatures.

So they let him be for one month. Four weeks. Thirty one days. Charles withdraws from his mind completely, keeps to himself and Raven. He pulls up even the small tendrils of awareness he left with Erik in order to be able to find the man, to check that he’s alright.

Even those go. Erik doesn’t want Charles in his head so Charles won’t be there. They can make this work. Will make this work. Charles is so much older now, twenty-six instead of eleven and he can control it. He hides in Raven’s mind a lot, watches the endless shifting of her thoughts, the drifting half-shapes she takes and discards.

She never tells him to get out and they wait. One month. Four weeks. Thirty-one days.

At the end of that very last day they sit on the sofa together, hands clasped tightly, and Charles closes his mind, gathers Raven into his embrace and flings them both into the world, searching, ErikErikErik.

What he finds makes the blood freeze in both their veins.

+

27

+

It’s Cain in a dark corridor, it’s Kurt’s fist buried in Charles’s stomach, it’s a girl called Amelia falling, falling, falling, it’s the gates of Auschwitz shutting with a roll of thunder that sounds like murder, it’s blood and it’s pain and it’s hate and it burns, it burns so badly.

It’s Erik tied to a chair made of wood, his nose broken, his mouth filled with blood, his ribs aching like they’re all shattered, all ground to dust, his insides churning, his legs and arms numb, his eyes swollen shut, his tongue heavy and his head foggy, drugs and pain, torture, and in his mind, two thoughts floating, abstract and getting lost in the dark.

Didn’t get Schmidt after all and I hope they won’t think I ran.

Even though he did but he didn’t mean to, he promised and he was going to try, he couldn’t be chained down but now he is and he wishes, fiercely, that Charles were the one holding the leash because he’s in pain, so much pain, and he’s going to die, he knows that he’s going to die here, at the hands of some fucking Nazi Schwein, who didn’t have to courage to face him head-on, who tricked him and trapped him and crippled him with the same drugs they used in Auschwitz, the ones Herr Doktor used to apply so carefully and he’s sorry, so sorry, he’s forgotten how Raven tastes, can’t remember the shade of Charles’s eyes, only that they were too bright, and he’s going to die.

It’s almost a relief and –

It takes both of them and all their strength to wrench away from Erik’s drug-bright ramblings and pain, from the yawning emptiness in his mind. Caught. Tortured. Charles sprints for the bathroom as soon as he can feel his legs again and Raven follows him and they die a bit, on the cold tiles, crying and gagging and whimpering, because they didn’t just see, they felt and this has been going on so long, if only Charles had tried earlier, he was trying to give Erik what he wanted, but gods....

“We need to find him.”

“Yes.”

They clasp hands and it doesn’t matter who started the movement, they both finish it, curl into each other, skin to skin, mind to mind, and reach out again, for the blackredpain that has become Erik.

Where, they ask his hindbrain, his long-term memory, the shadows of himself hiding between drug-shards.

Poland, he answers.

Poland, they echo and promise, curtly, soon.

Then they wipe away their tears and stand and move.

+

28

+

Plane, train, car, they use whatever is fastest, whatever they can access right now, armed with little more than their powers to grease the wheels. Raven becomes important people where she can, Charles fibs them through everything else and they move with a manic intent, closer, closer, closer to Erik.

Not close enough. Not fast enough.

It seems to take an age to reach Poland and then, just behind the border, Charles makes a noise like a wounded animal and it’s a good thing that Raven is behind the wheel, because he curls into himself, clutching his head, muttering denial in every language he knows.

Erik is dying.

Erik is slipping away and they’re still too far out, too long.

Erik is dying, slipping, sliding into darkness and Raven says, sharp and angry, Do it.

Charles shakes his head. He wants-

Fuck what he wants! Dead doesn’t want anything. Do it!!

Children do stupid things.

Adults should be smarter than that and sometimes they are, but desperation makes people reckless.

Charles does. He ghosts into Erik’s mind, familiar and forbidden, fills all the cracks and all the corners and plants a tree there, like he has once before, a tree in a green field, with yellow blossoms that never bloom and never die.

Erik’s tree is rougher, scragglier, but just as beautiful, standing over a landscape of grey ashes and tentative, new grass. The fruit it bears is an electric shade of blue not seen in nature, shaped like nothing the world has seen. Its roots are deep and true and they sink into Erik, seal and anchor them together, the three of them, RavenCharles, CharlesErik and through that, ErikRaven, forever.

Charles wraps himself around Erik, drags him away from oblivion and plants a new command, an absolute imperative. Do not die.

Erik obeys and when they reach him three hours later, he’s still holding on, still fighting. With the exception of Erik and the ringleader, every single man in the old bunker dies before Charles and Raven set foot into it.

Charles has a headache afterwards but ignores it to rip everything the ringleader knows from his mind. Everything. They used to call it ‘changing someone’s mind’, that thing he does, when he pulls people apart and puts them back together. Such a harmless name for such a vicious thing. He doesn’t bother with putting this man back together. He leaves him blank as a newborn and feels no regret. Raven, in a bout of brutality even Charles didn’t think her capable off, breaks the man’s neck with as much care as she would give something on the bottom of her shoe.

Later, they will shake and shiver and dry-heave over this. There are fourteen men dead and one still dying in this building.

Later.

+

29

+

Erik wakes to warm sunlight and dull pain. It throbs through his body, centred on his chest and throbs in time to his heartbeat.

He’s alive then.

Alive and in a hospital. Surprising. He takes stock of his limbs, his injuries, feels pain, hurt, bandages, swelling, morphine, guilt, relief, sorrow, joy, happiness, relief, relief, guilt, anger.

Only the relief and anger are his. The other emotions are... strange. Distant. Like light at the end of a tunnel, some closer, some farther. He touches at the guilt, is rewarded with a flash of blue and the feeling of roots in dry soil. Farther out, joy glitters, golden light on blue water.

Charles. Raven.

He can feel them, Charles closer, Raven like an echo behind him. He can feel them. Why can he feel them?

The memory comes unbidden and fractured, seen through three sets of eyes. One, pain, haze, hate, torture, fade to grey, dying, blackness. Two, cold anger, focused rage, in and out of minds like a hot blade, mission, straight path, no detours, no time. Bodies fall soundlessly and he’s slipping away. Denial. No. Stay. Do not die. Three. Panic, love, sorrow, anger. Bright hot and burning, the feeling of bone cracking under soft hands, ending a life, touch skin, warm and slick with blood, please live, please live, please live.

They found him in Poland, in a bunker buried in snow and they killed every living soul in there to get to him. They took him to the nearest hospital, sat at his bedside, lied to everyone to make him safe.

He shouldn’t know those things but he does and he realizes, trough the clearing haze of injury, why that is. Because they know. More precisely, because Charles knows.

And Charles is – tree, roots, blue, grass, roots so deep – leaning in the doorway, looking even smaller than usual, Raven curled into his side. Both have dark rings under their eyes and look like they haven’t slept in a year.

We could not let you die, Charles says, but he doesn’t meet Erik’s gaze.

Cold, anger, betrayal. Erik curls them around him like warm clothes, layers himself in them. Charles straightens, nods. “Your injuries, while extensive, are not life threatening. That was dehydration and a massive concussion. You are scheduled to be released later today. We’ve arranged for transport back to Oxford. We can talk when we get there. Raven,” his voice breaks here and Erik pretends not to notice. “Raven will teach you how to block the bond.”

He walks away like a beaten dog. Erik sees the slump of his shoulders but doesn’t soften. They enslaved him. After he told them, clearly, that he’d rather die.

“You don’t understand,” Raven says, but the fury in his gaze stops her from finishing the sentence. It’s just as well.

+

And, honey, I was never gonna change.
And, honey, you are never gonna change.
But you love, don’t you love it that way?
Laura Marling, Old Stone

+

30

+

It takes them four slow, painful days to get back to Oxford. Charles slinks around like a beaten dog the whole time and Raven flinches far too much. Erik clenches his jaw, grinds his teeth, keeps it all in. He hasn’t said a word since Raven’s crash course in mental blocking and he wrenches away from them both whenever they touch him more than absolutely necessary to keep him up and walking.

But then the door behind the flat – not home – slams shut and Raven says, hesitantly, “Maybe you should sit down. You look-“

And the dam bursts.

“Don’t tell me what to do!” he bellows, flinging his arms wide.

Raven flinches away and Charles moves, faster than Erik thought he was capable of, slipping between them, arms raised. “She wasn’t ordering you, my friend. She was just – “

“Halt’s Maul, Herrgott! You broke into my mind! You bent me to your will! Don’t fucking tell me what to do, Charles!”

And finally, finally, Charles yells back, loses that damnable look, that benevolent spark in his eyes. “You were dying,” he barks.

Erik bares his teeth at him. “I was doing what was necessary!”

“They were killing you!”

“That’s a risk I was willing to take! You had no right to interfere!!”

Charles slumps suddenly, his anger gone and something like an idea rises at the back of Erik’s mind. That uncharacteristic anger, Charles’s anger, that wasn’t his at all. It’s Erik’s, bleeding through. It’s frightening.

More frightening is the way Charles switches it off, just like that, his eyes glowing far too brightly. “We could not let you die,” he says, solemn and quiet.

“You should have,” Erik shoots back because he’d rather be dead than chained, than someone’s dog again and he’ll hurt them and they’ll hurt him and he cannot belong to anyone.

He cannot.

He has a mission. Mama, Schmidt, he has to...

“You must do what you must, old friend, we know that. We always have. But don’t you see,” Charles asks, spreading his arms, including Raven in the gesture, “that we must do what we must do, too?”

What would that be?

Raven fills the gap. “We protect the ones we love.”

“You do what you have to,” Charles repeats. “So do we. Please, Erik, you’re not alone anymore. You’ll never be alone again. Let us help. Let us in. Please.”

Erik tries to keep his face cold, tries to not falter. Tries. But there is warm love, apology, fear, pleading, regret, guilt, friendship, in his chest, in his head. They’re not his own but they feel like it.

“Can the bond be broken?” he asks, pushing all emotion aside to be rational, to be the pragmatic the Doktor made him into.

Charles shakes his head.

“You’re lying.”

Charles laughs, half choked. “Yes, it can be broken. Probably. It would definitely kill you and most likely me and Raven, too. We didn’t do this lightly, Erik, you have to believe that. You would have died and that was simply unacceptable. This was the very last option, I swear.”

Erik waves the endless apologies off. “No use crying over spilled milk,” he announces.

The damage is done.

Charles nods and walks away, into the bedroom, shoulders slumped. He shuts the door behind him gently. Erik watches him go.

“I made Charles promise once that he would make me forget if I ever tried to leave him. That he wouldn’t let me go.”

Erik looks at her, steadily. Why would anyone make the executive decision to have their own free will taken away? Why would anyone agree to belong to someone else? He didn’t understand when Raven told him, doesn’t understand now.

She shrugs, takes a step closer, stops. Takes a step back and looks like a lost child. “I think I made him love me.”

Erik has no idea what to make of that, what it even means. What is she talking about?

Raven smiles, sad and bright. “We don’t belong to him, Erik. He belongs to us.” She hesitates then adds, “Like you said, there’s no use crying over spilled milk. But you’ve been alone for a very long time and now, you won’t ever be alone again. We’re here. We’re with you. And none of us can ever run away. Isn’t that worth it? Certainty? A home?”

“I can’t stop hunting Schmidt.”

“What makes you think you have to? Erik, we’re a team. You, me, Charles. We’ll find him together.” She stands on tip-toes in front of him, pecks him on the cheek. “Come to bed when you’re done,” she tells him and follows Charles into the bedroom.

Erik spends the night on the soda, stiff and in pain, staring at the dark ceiling. In the morning, tired, deflated, he limps into the bedroom and slips into his place behind Raven, slings his arm over her waist.

Nothing’s resolved, nothing’s been fixed. But the damage is done. He falls asleep with something like relief unfurling in his chest.

+

31

+

Two weeks later, Erik gets a clean bill of health and he kisses Raven, picks her up, spins her around while Charles watches.

He’s forgiving them, even as a part of him claims that there is nothing to forgive. Never alone again sounds far too good to the little boy in him. It helps, Charles thinks, that there is no choice in the matter.

Erik has never been one to rail against the unchangeable. He adapts. He survives.

They celebrate, carefully and without alcohol, for once, because fully recovered or not, Erik is still shaky.

The next morning Raven and Charles wake alone. Erik is gone.

He leaves no note behind this time, because he doesn’t have to.

“He’ll be back, right?” Raven asks, sleepy and worried.

“He has to,” Charles agrees and gets up to make them breakfast.

+

+

+

Part III - One

+

a

+

Moira is equal parts fascinated and confused by the Xavier siblings, Charles in particular. When she saw those monsters – mutants – in Vegas, she thought they’d all be like this. Monsters. Criminals. The stuff of nightmares.

But then she found Charles and he’s the exact opposite. He’s gentle and soft spoken and yes, his ability is a lot more passive than those she witnessed before, but still. He is kind to his sister, even though she’s perfectly normal. Moira doesn’t think the men and woman she saw in Vegas would be kind to any human. They looked at the Colonel with such distaste, such arrogance.

But Charles is different. Maybe it’s his ability. Charles is a telepath. He can read surface thoughts and sometimes speak in other people’s heads and it’s amazing, but it’s also not ever useful. Not for combat at least.

So his ability doesn’t scare her, even though she knows he can probably hear what she’s thinking about him when she’s around him. But that’s alright. She gets the feeling he won’t abuse that.

That’s what fascinates her, a man who happens to be a mutant, who is kinder than any other person she has ever met and can read her mind.

The part that confuses her in his sister. Raven Xavier is as beautiful as her brother and there is something sharp about her that Moira recognizes. Only Moira turns that sharpness into professionalism and Raven turns it into snootiness. Oh, she’s nice enough, but sometimes she looks at Moira like she wants to eat her.

More than once, the CIA agent has found herself wondering if Raven might not have some latent ability after all. She’s so strange. And the way she and Charles are with each other...

Take now. They’re standing at the railing of the ship, arms linked, staring at the harbour of Miami as it grows bigger in the distance. They stand closely, talk in whispers, their noses in each other’s hair as they speak. And the way Raven smoothes a hand down Charles’s chest when he says something that makes her laugh. Moira is both a woman and a CIA agent. That means she has two of the best weapons in the world at her disposal: woman’s intuition and ruthless training. She knows how to spot discrepancies and they way these two behave is one.

Apart from that, Moira has three older brothers herself and she’s never touched any of them the way Raven keeps touching Charles. They don’t behave like siblings. And if that is a lie, well, Moira has to wonder if anything else they’ve told her is one, too. She doesn’t really know anything about them, does she? And there is still the issue of how they got onboard the ship. They are civilians. They shouldn’t be here. And yet they are. She doesn’t know what to make of it.

Twenty feet away, Charles disentangles his arm from Raven’s hair and scratches at his temple, frowning.

Moira smiles at Raven and Charles as she makes her way over to them. She’s glad she convinced them to come along on this mission to try and help with any mutants they might encounter. She gets smiles in return as she leans on the railing next to Charles, looking out at the dark sea and Miami skyline.

“You look wistful, my dear,” Charles says. “Is there anything wrong?”

She smiles, shakes her head. Then she waves one hand at the siblings anyway. “It’s just... I haven’t seen my brothers in a long time. I was always so busy with work, you know? And now, seeing you two... I guess I just miss them.”

“You’re close to them?”

She smiles, remembering growing up. “Yeah.”

Charles smiles softly, pats her arm through her thick coat. “Maybe you should take some time off when this is over. Visit.”

Moira nods, smiles brightly in response to Charles’s kindness and then blushes a bit. She’s behaving like a silly school girl. Oh god. “If you’ll excuse me,” she breathes, too quickly, “I’ll just go check that everything’s going to plan.”

She pushes away from the railing under the siblings’ goodbyes and walks away. At the back of her mind something shifts and for a moment she’s overcome by a wave of regret that, strangely, reminds her of Charles’s blue eyes.

She blushes, resists the urge to look back over her shoulder. She really is a silly school girl. How embarrassing.

+

1

+

“That was what, the fifth time?”

Charles shakes his head, laughs quietly. “Sharp as a tack, that one. If she weren’t working for the CIA, I’d be impressed with her. She’s quite groovy.”

Raven rolls her eyes; she hates that word. She says it makes him sound absolutely ridiculous. But since she accuses him of being exactly that all the time, it doesn’t really make much of a difference. With a fond look, Charles turns back to the ocean, casting the net wider to try and find Erik.

The man has taken what Raven has taught him about blocking and elevated it to new heights. If he doesn’t want Charles to get in his mind, he shuts down like a steel trap. He leaves the telepath with a safety line most of the time, enough to get a sense of direction and well-being, sometimes even mood. But when things get dangerous on his end, he shuts down completely. He says it’s necessary, that he can’t get distracted by Charles poking his head in, but all Charles is left with at those times is the vaguest sense of not dead.

It hurts him, physically. Those days when Erik just disappears he hides in Raven’s mind for hours, like the scared, lonely boy he once was. They are both part of Charles but more so, he is part of them. He has literally left part of himself with them, for safekeeping. He understands, he and Raven both do, that they’ve had the better part of two decades to grow into what they are. Erik grew alone and now, suddenly, he has to bend and twist to make room for them. It can’t be easy.

But if Raven is Charles’s arms then Erik is his legs and when the other man cuts himself out, Charles is left crippled, half a human. Half a person.

Raven and Erik keep having screaming matches about it. Erik keeps apologizing and then keeps doing it anyway. Charles thinks it’s revenge. The petty part of Erik, telling him, this would never have happened if you hadn’t chained me.

Charles can’t change the past, for all his powers. He can only try to make the present better, to ensure they have a future. So whenever Erik apologizes with his gaze elsewhere, Charles just sighs and kisses him, distracts all three of them and lets it be.

Patience, he tells himself. One day, Schmidt will be dead. And on that day, Erik will come home and he will stay.

Thanks to the things Charles has found in Moira’s mind, that day might come sooner than he’d hoped.

“Is he out there?” Raven asks, leaning into him, mentally, physically.

Charles reaches and finds a dull throb, alive, alive, alive, close, close.

He doesn’t need to answer verbally for Raven to know. He told Erik as soon as they got the intel on Schmidt’s presence in Miami. Shaw. That’s what he calls himself now. Shaw.

Absently, Charles wonders which name is real. What the monster’s real name is. Wonders if saying it thrice will make the man appear, conjure him like magic. But Charles is what people think magic is like and he knows himself. No magic will make Schmidt appear. If anything could call the man, Erik’s screaming nightmares would have done so, decades ago, or two years ago, when they multiplied by three.

Nevermind.

They’re heading for the monster now, for his yacht anchored in the harbour of Miami. This could all be over tomorrow. He hopes Erik has made it, hopes the man is here. Hopes there will be no more need for conjuration come morning, no more material for nightmares. Erik should, at the very least, bear witness to this. Closure. He was the one hurt, but they all need it, all three of them. Closure from the horrors that have haunted Erik all his life.

He’ll be here, Raven murmurs, as the lights of the city grow ever brighter. He wouldn’t miss this. And afterwards...

She trails off. Charles smiles into her tangled, fake hair. He’s not the only one dreaming. Erik, Raven, and Charles. Together. In peace.

It’s a good dream.

+

A lot of hope in a one man tent
There's no room for innocence
Take me home before the storm
Velvet moths will keep us warm

Fever Ray, Keep the Streets Empty for Me

+

2

+

Charles is clutching at the railing like a man tossed into a storm, gritting his teeth, entirely unresponsive to Moira screaming orders next to him. In front of him, spanning the ocean between him and the other ship, a solid wall of diamond blocks him more effectively than anything else ever has.

He feels blind and deaf and dying in the face of the crippling effect the diamond has on him. There was a flash, a woman, two men, and then blue eyes and the sensation of cold, like snow packed into the back of his jacket. Ice. Diamonds.

He’s panting as he batters the wall, time and again. It cracks, it rocks, but it doesn’t break.

Confusion, panic, whatwhathwhat? comes from Raven and he pulls her in – second nature – and shows her. For a moment they both stare at the wall, amazed and helpless. The mere idea that there is someone out there who can resist Charles, who can match him, is amazing. And shocking.

That woman, blue eyes and ice, is a telepath. She’s like him. How can he have missed her all these years? How can it be that their paths have never crossed?

Focus! Raven demands, reaching for his hand, inside and out. Her presence pushes against the wall and Charles grins, sharp and wide. It’s Erik’s smile, a hunter’s grimace. He reaches out and pulls Raven into himself, himself into Raven, grabs for the tattered edges Erik has left him with, wraps it all around himself, like a shroud, like armour. He weighs himself down, anchors his mind to them, to blue and rage, teeth and love and rare Sunday mornings under sheets. Chains that bind, tighter than any metal in the world ever could. He ties himself as tightly to reality as he can manage and then he launches himself at the emptiness between minds and straight at the wall of diamonds.

He shapes himself into bombs, into mortar shells, into nothing but willpower, farther out than he’s ever been.

The wall shudders, cracks web the surface. He pushes further. Behind him, between universes, a raven caws.

Before the assault, the wall gives way suddenly, falling to its component parts, ash and dirt. Charles stumbles into the other telepath’s mind with enough force to physically throw her backwards. He hears her scream but pays no attention. She’s with Shaw – with Schmidt, with the man that broke Erik into so many pieces. She’ll either forgive him or hate him. He cannot change that and he cannot be gentle.

The part of him that is Erik knows no mercy and he may not have been there, but he felt each cut of the scalpel as it split Erik to the bone. He pulls from her mind anything and everything he can grasp. She tries to hide behind her fragmented shields, pulling up diamond again and again. He shoves through or works around, sometimes just turns in another direction. There is little time and much to see and nothing anchoring him to reality but the thinnest of chains, forged from two abstract concepts called Raven and Erik.

Then, suddenly, impossibly brightly, something explodes at the periphery of his vision, like a supernova at the horizon.

Erik. Erik.

The images from the other telepath’s mind are just starting to make some kind of sense, but Charles doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t linger. There is a bird, Raven’s namesake, and it guides him, back and down and towards and they fly faster than thought, slamming back into their bodies.

They are both panting, both exhausted and grinning because what they just did was amazing and dangerous and so much more than they could have done apart. Charles resists the urge to kiss her, barely, by throwing his arms around her, hugging her close.

Moira thinks he’s scared, the soldiers who see think him a weakling. Civilian. Out there, in the city, thousands more minds press against his. He’s open as a newborn, spread wide. He doesn’t care.

Erik.

He finds the man, down below, in the water. Erik’s concentration is shot, anger, rage, pain, hate, determination and fear, good god, Erik is afraid, so very afraid. It takes a split second, less than a thought, to know why. Schmidt. Erik saw him, fought him. The man’s face brought back a childhood full of horrors.

No. The telepath did that. She pulled it all up. She hurt Erik.

Nevermind now. Charles will deal with her later. Raven pipes up, tells him, I want to. Perhaps. Why is Erik in the water? He feels along his lover’s power, finds a submarine, metal tethering Erik, pulling him to his death in the deep.

No. Unacceptable.

Let go, Charles calls, receives only refusal in return, only not yet, so close, so close.

Charles could make Erik let go. Charles could break through every single one of Erik’s walls, if he wanted to. If he needed to. He might need to. Erik is drowning. Erik would never forgive him. So he leaves it to Raven to yell that there’s someone in the water, turns, runs. He strips off as much of his clothing as he can without losing speed and launches off the ship into the freezing water.

It feels like dying the second he touches the freezing water. Behind him, Raven bellows for him, Are you insane!?!

Yes. He finds Erik by his mind alone, latches onto him and begs, shamelessly. Let go, let go, please let go, my friend, Erik, please, you have to let go or you will drown.

Erik holds on with the determination of an orphan, of a soldier, of the monster he thinks he is. Charles pleads with his own face, with Raven’s face in Erik’s mind.

You’ll be fine. A distracted thought. The mission comes first, they’ll be safe. They’ll have each other.

If you die down here, I will too. The psychic shock will likely kill Raven.

An exaggeration perhaps, but Erik tenses, listens. He places no value on his own life, but he’d never risk them. Please, my friend, Charles tries again, packs the words with all the emotion, all the imagery and memory and dreams he can muster. This is what we have, what you would throw away, what we would lose, what we could have, this is what we feel for you. Let go.

Erik’s hands unclench. They lose speed. Broken, he thinks, I almost had him.

Charles wraps his arms tighter around him, starts pulling them both upwards. He is cheating, taking over Erik’s mind enough to make his body help them along. You will get your chance again. We will find him. But he’s not worth your life.

Erik wants to protest, but Charles doesn’t let him.

+

3

+

They leave Moira confused and worried, not quite understanding how the unknown man in the water became an old friend of the Xaviers’, if it’s true or a lie, how he got down there, if he’s a mutant, what his part in all this is.

Charles bothers only to smooth the edges of her worry away, too exhausted for anything else. His body is shaking vehemently, protesting his treatment of it and his head feels like a cracked egg. He pulls the scattered scraps of his mind together, fixes them as well as he can, but both bonds remain wide open, bleeding thoughts and emotions that further tire him.

Raven, who saw what he did in the telepath’s mind, who felt the strain it took to break through to the woman, is sympathetic. Erik keeps grinding his teeth and looking away. But he, too, makes no move to wall off the bond.

Charles would call it progress, but he’d probably get punched in the face for it.

“Okay,” Raven announces, taking charge. “Clothes. Blankets. Lecture for both of you, goddamn idiots. What were you thinking?!”

She doesn’t actually expect an answer, knowing full well what they were thinking. Instead she just steers them both to the stairs and then along a narrow corridor to the small cabin she and Charles were given. “Strip,” she snaps, as soon as the door closes behind her.

Charles wastes half a thought on shielding them and then almost falls over. Erik catches him, shoves his shoulder between Charles and his descent. Raven steadies them both and then helps with zippers and buttons because their hands shake too much. Charles lets her, knows that she’s anxious to do something. Erik tries to protest, but stands no chance at getting the neoprene suit off himself.

Fifteen minutes later they are both dressed in dry clothes, swaddled in blankets and shivering significantly less. Raven has barred the door and wedged herself between them for heat. She keeps running her fingers through Erik’s hair, again and again, calming them both. Charles smiles weakly and takes the image to shore up his battered shields. He rebuilds them around the bonds, leaving them wide open. He can’t stand to close them down. Not tonight.

“Sentimental fool,” Erik admonishes.

Charles glares. “We almost lost you,” he snaps, sharper than intended. He expects Erik to fight back, to snarl at him they way he always does, but all he gets is a tired look.

Charles reaches around Raven, finds the other man’s hand and holds on.

“I was scared,” Raven whispers into someone’s shoulder. She’s speaking for all of them.

“We’ve found him now,” Charles says, trying to sound positive. He only feels dread. “We’ll finish this.”

Erik rouses, wants to protest. They glare him into submission.

We do what we must.

It’s become rallying cry. Erik must kill Schmidt and they must protect what they love. Consequently, they will help him kill Schmidt. It’s simple logic. After over two years with the bond, Erik is slowly grasping that. His head, at least, believes.

Most of the time.

“Yes,” he confirms, sharp, sibilant sounds. “Now, what the fuck are you two doing with the CIA?!”

+

b

+

The story of how Raven and Charles end up working with the CIA goes something like this:

There is a thesis and it gets finished and there is a party and Erik is not there. He promised to be, but he’s not. Raven is cheerful enough to make up for Erik’s absence but Charles keeps checking the door, waiting, waiting.

He knows Erik isn’t coming, can vaguely feel him hundreds of miles away. So far. There was a flash of warmth earlier, something like pride. Erik’s congratulations. He hasn’t forgotten, but he’s not here either. Charles weighs these two facts against each other, comes up with something indefinably bittersweet.

Then the door opens and a woman enters, brunette, smartly dressed. She looks around searchingly, something like fear flickering across the surface of her mind. He finds his own name flung back at him from her and then she meets his gaze.

She asks about mutants.

She asks if they could exist.

In her mind, he finds a man like the devil, finds wind, finds a woman that turns to diamond. – A telepath, he learns later, in Miami, as he batters himself bloody against her shields.

And the one face he’s been looking for for four years: Klaus Schmidt. Herr Doktor. Sebastian Shaw.

He reaches out for Raven, gives her everything he finds in the CIA agent’s mind, receives the echo of everything he himself is thinking.

The next day they meet Special Agent Moira MacTaggert in a nicer venue than a campus bar. An hour later, they are on their way to Langley.

Twenty-four hours after that, Charles reveals himself as a telepath while, at the same time, freezing Raven in her chair so she won’t pull any risky stunts. Perhaps it’s Raven’s childhood, perhaps it’s Erik’s cynicism, his experiences, his hunt for the scum of the earth. Perhaps it’s an accumulation of the foreign emotions and stances that bleed through into his subconscious mind from two different sources. He’s careful. So much more careful than he’d be on his own.

They’re here for Schmidt, for the end of Erik’s war. Nothing more. Charles doesn’t believe in fairy tales anymore. A woman named Maggie died on the way to her honeymoon. Edie Lensherr was shot as if she didn’t matter because her son is a miracle. Erik was tortured beyond human measure or understanding. Raven remembers a dozen nightmarish scenes in alleys and dark cellars, where humans found her and feared her.

Charles knows better than to trust these people completely.

He doesn’t let Raven show herself. He gives the CIA only the barest of hints about his own powers. Surface thoughts, he tells them, sometimes he can think at people. Isn’t it neat, if a bit useless?

He tells them just enough to ensure they’ll include him in what’s going on. And then he tricks them into taking him and Raven along on the ship to find Sebastian Shaw.

+

4

+

“Stupid,” Erik hisses, but there is pride and gratitude and a fierce, fiery joy surging through the bonds, in one, out the other. Charles has no trees planted in his mind, but he is the trees and through them Erik and Raven are connected, roots interweaving underground.

“It worked,” Raven points out, messing around with their pile of blankets.

“We’re closer than ever before,” Charles agrees, stressing the we just the tiniest bit.

Erik looks ready to argue the point all through the night, despite his painfully obvious exhaustion. Raven has enough, though, finally gets her hands under the blankets and grabs a hold of his neck, pulling him down and kissing him, lips and tongue and teeth and passion.

Charles smiles at the picture they make and moulds himself to Raven’s back, buries one hand in Erik’s hair, strokes around Raven’s waist to her chest with the other. The blankets fall away as Erik raises one hand, flicks two fingers at the flimsy look on the door to make sure it’s locked. Charles checks the illusion he threw over the room, finds it perfectly serviceable and relaxes further.

Raven turns blue, scales rippling under his hand, turns to lay her head on his shoulder and demand, “Kiss.”

She even, very helpfully, pulls Erik closer for him to reach. A reunion as it should be. Kisses and hands and sweat and complicated three-person sex on a tiny bunk bed on a government ship.

Not half drowning desperation and hypothermia to boot.

For tonight, the CIA can wait.

+

5

+

The twenty-four hours they spend in the CIA compound after the Miami fiasco are possibly the longest they have ever lived through. No, that’s a lie. The most tedious, though.

Erik starts pacing the moment they cross the threshold, like a caged tiger, a crippled predator. He stalks the length of the walls like they are bars, snarls like something hungry. Meetings and tours are held, all boring, all meant to distract them while the agents that saw what Erik did in the water try to explain, to find out what and who he is. Stalling. Distraction. Evasion. Tedious.

On top of that, Moira gets suspicious of them every couple of hours and Charles is getting tired of changing her mind all the time. He’s tempted to put fear into her, just to make her stay away. He won’t, of course he won’t, no matter how much Erik cheers him on, but the temptation is there.

His morals, he is afraid, aren’t quite what they used to be. His lovers are corrosive, Erik more so than Raven.

You like us that way, Erik thinks with a smirk.

Charles inclines his head in silent agreement. He does, however, wonder what the three of them would be without the others.

Redundant musings, of course. Whatever they might have been separately has long since been wiped out and erased by what they are together. Charles will never know who he might have been, had he grown up as himself, instead of RavenandCharles. The connections are too far entrenched in his very being for him to ever disentangle them.

Raven twitches, like something moving in the corner of his eye, even though she’s behind him. Awareness. She caught the tail end of his thought process and feels guilt and love and something like a question. It’s her old dilemma again, the one where she fears she made Charles love her.

Perhaps she did.

His change of heart certainly came as a surprise to him, but what’s done is done. He loves her now, truly, absolutely, and he knows that she loves him. Unlike Erik, Charles can accept beauty when it’s handed to him on a silver platter.

“Stop brooding,” Erik suddenly commands, giving them both looks. Charles shrugs, Raven mutters something under her breath. Rude. She shoots him a grin. “Charles?”

Charles shrugs again, casts his mind into the compound, searching for active minds. “Finally,” he sighs. “Down to the night staff.”

Erik grins in something like anticipation, “Then let’s get to it.”

Raven stands, shifts into a perfect replica of Moira, then into Striker, then into the Director, one, two, three, as easily as breathing. She ripples blue in-between, barely noticeable, nothing but a hint of scales. Beauty in motion.

She grins, settles back into Moira’s skin and gives a jaunty wave. “Wish me luck,” she chirps as she stalks out of the room, miming the other woman’s walk perfectly.

Charles settles himself more comfortably in his chair and closes his eyes. He has been holding their guards still and unaware for some hours, standing by the door like blank slates of people. In their minds, a perfectly manufactured movie of reality plays, boring them to tears. Easy. But this will take some more delicate tinkering. Many of the minds he needs to reach have already gone home for the evening. It’s easier like this, though. He doesn’t have to account for the immediate confusion. By tomorrow, the agents will have all shaken off their slight headache and won’t talk about it.

Easy. So very easy.

Has it always been like this? Erik asks from where he’s erasing their presence from the room. He’ll deal with the surveillance on them as they leave.

No,, Charles whispers, then corrects, Not on this scale.

He’s reaching for dozens of minds, some as far as fifty miles away, and it’s no more trouble than picking up pebbles that lie at his feet. There is something in the bonds, something in the feedback loop between them, or perhaps simply in the number three. Something that boosts his powers, that makes wiping minds as easy as squashing ants.

It’s like the feeling of flinging himself at the diamond wall, freefall at a thousand miles per hour, farther than he’d ever dared go before.

It scares Charles.

It exhilarates him.

Raven is almost at the office containing the entire research the CIA has on Sebastian Shaw when Charles touches a mind he hasn’t paid any attention to before. It’s deep below their feet, in the basement. He assumed the man to be a file clerk or something similar before.

Now that he digs deeper. Stop he shoots at his companions.

They both freeze, Raven in the process of picking a door lock.

What? Where? Danger? Accident? Run? Fight? Help?

He cuts into their enquiries with the images of his discovery, his own surprise. What it boils down to, in actual language, in actual words, is this: There is a mutant in this facility, and he has invented a way to find others of their kind, something they have tried and failed to do for years. Brilliant. Utterly brilliant.

Raven gently extracts her lock picks from the lock and straightens, shifting into the more unassuming shape of a janitor. Erik takes his hand away from Charles’s face to run it through his own hair in frustration.

I guess that means we’re staying?

Charles pats his arm. Only until we can convince the young man to come with us and bring his machine.

+

6

+

Hank McCoy is, in one word, magnificent.

His genius is not his mutation but it should be counted as one, for the sheer magnitude of his intellect. Within moments of meeting the young man, Charles is a tiny bit in love with him, much to Erik’s annoyance and Raven’s amusement.

Cerebral she laughs in their heads. She doesn’t mean it as a compliment.

Quite, Charles agrees and goes back to discussing genetics with Hank. Moira and the agents making up their escort for today stand by, utterly lost. Partly that is Charles’s fault, for nudging them to show them the secret laboratory below the facility that they weren’t shown before. Partly it is simply the fact that the conversation Charles and Hank are having is probably beyond that of most humans’ understanding.

Erik only manages to keep up because he filters their statements through Charles’s mind. Raven doesn’t bother, inspecting various experiments instead.

“You should come have dinner with us in town,” Charles finally invites, his smile too bright. Hank tries to refuse, but Charles cajoles and Raven flirts and eventually, blushing beet-red, he gives in. Erik is smirking in the far corner, mostly at the CIA people, who still stand around, watching stupidly. None of them are really sure what’s going on, or why these people are even still here. Charles doesn’t much like having to keep them all docile and confused, but it’s better than letting them gather their wits and having someone figure out that there are two known mutants on the loose and someone should be doing something.

Because then they’d probably try to use violence and Erik and Raven would retaliate and there would be blood. Charles is pretty rubbish at fighting, but that’s alright because this is what he does. He prevents.

He even gets a dinner recommendation out of Moira before letting her go for the day. He smiles at her and together with Raven, starts towing Hank toward the car pool.

+

7

+

“So, Hank,” Erik finally asks, smiling like a shark, well-fed and happy, after dinner. “Have you ever met others of your kind before?”

Hank blinks behind horn-rimmed glasses. Raven wants to pet him and feed him. “My kind?”

“Mutants,” Erik explains, voice dead. And then, before the poor boy can shake apart from sudden panic, he makes a gesture with two fingers, raising the small candle holder at the centre of the table with nothing but his mind. Hank freezes, vague reports of the Miami fiasco flicking through his mind.

“You’re... you’re like me?”

Charles smiles, impossibly bright. He doesn’t know it, but his eyes glow in the semi-dark of the restaurant. They have been doing that for a while. “We all are. And we need your help. In return, perhaps we can help you, my friend.”

“I... you.... How?”

Well, I, for one, am a telepath, much stronger than the CIA is aware of. Erik, as you might have learned already, moves magnetic fields. Raven is a shapeshifter.

Obligingly, she flickers blue just long enough to notice. Hank barely reacts, going into something like shock as he stares at Charles’s unmoving mouth with the expression of a trapped rabbit.

We know that you built a machine to find mutants. We want you to help us use that machine so we can find others and make sure our race is... safe.

“Safe?” Hank whispers, dubiously. At the back of his magnificent mind, hope and wonder and fear and confusion swirl, rising, rising, rising. He has so many questions, so many memories of a sad childhood, a life much like Charles’s was, before Raven. Lonely, lonely boy. He’s so ashamed of his gift.

Raven lived on the streets for a time. Erik was...

“ A lab-rat,” he provides, sardonic expression on his face.

A lab-rat, yes. We want to make a better future for our kind.

They agree on that, if not the methods they want to employ to achieve their dreams. The overall idea is the same, must be, for they are the same, but the details vary. Erik wants an eye for an eye, Charles wants no-one to lose any eyes at all and Raven is somewhere between them, a moderating influence on them both: Fight when necessary, talk when possible.

They have spent many an evening arguing ideology and never reached much in the way of common ground. But they agree that they will do anything in their power to protect mutantkind. What started out as a hobby for the Xaviers, a game for their long, boring summers, has long since taken on a life of its own and it’s a fierce thing, that new life, that mission. Find. Protect. Somehow, somewhere along the road, Erik got sucked under, got included in that plan, nurture instead of destruction. He is still not quite sure how, but he is smart enough to recognize when he is tangled beyond hope of getting free.

Anything for each other, everything for mutants, Erik repeats the slogan that Raven threw into the room last year, drunk and happy and tired of fighting. It’s become their motto, even if only Charles ever manages to say it without sarcasm.

Anything for each other, everything for mutants.

+

c

+

“Gott, how drunk are you?” Erik asks after she makes her announcement, pulling Raven’s glass from her hand before she breaks it. She grins at him, white on blue.

“Very, mein Schatz,” she agrees.

He flinches. “Your pronunciation is horrible. Please stop.”

She frowns, leans against an amused Charles, commands, “No, listen. The three of us, we have to, we need to stick together. Because you ‘n Erik, you’re the most powerful mutants, ever, but you’re both idiots. ‘N I’m the smart one ‘n together, we can actually, you know, make it better. We can make it better. Together. Because I can’t do it on my own because I’m not super stron’, except I am, but not like that, ‘n Charles can’t do it alone because he’d be all... love ‘n drugs ‘n huggin’ everyone ‘n talkin and that’s totally un-groovy. And you,” she points and glares, “you’d just kill everyone and end up alone and bitter and that’d be baaaad.

“But together, Raven’n’Charles’n’Erik, we can do it, okay? We can,” she flings her arms wide, almost hits Charles in the face and scowls at Erik, who’s staring back at her blankly. “We c’n save the world.”

“I think,” Charles says after a minute of silence, “maybe we should get you to bed.”

She slaps at his chest, misses, tries again. “Idiot. I’m too drunk to have sex.”

“I meant to sleep, love. Just sleep.”

Erik doesn’t give her time to consider the suggestion, just sweeps her up into his arms and starts for the bedroom. Charles trails behind them and she waves at him cheerily, presses a kiss to Erik’s jaw and says, “You have to promise me. My boys. Promise me we’ll do it together. We’ll kill Schmidt ‘n then save the world. The three of us. Won’t work otherwise. C’n’t do it alone.”

She’s asleep by the time Erik puts her down on the bed. They promise anyway.

+

8

+

Cerebro is possibly the most magnificent machine Charles has ever seen. It amplifies brain waves to the point where Charles is pretty sure he can reach halfway around the globe without strain. Like picking up pebbles.

He has no idea why humans would build such a machine, seeing as how they could never use it, but there it is, absolutely groovy and made for him. He can feel it, like a siren’s call, beckoning him closer. It’s as hungry for his mind as he is for it.

Erik is apprehensive, of course, but Charles brushes his concerns aside, lets Hank strap him into the machine.

And then he soars.

He’s touched a thousand minds before, tens of thousands in big cities like London and Vienna. Now, there is no counting them. Minds flash before his eyes, one and a million, all of them as bright and colourful as reality, and the mutants among them even louder, even brighter. Charles lives, for just a second, the lives of every human being on the North American continent and it hurts, of course it hurts, but this... this is absolute, it’s beauty and it’s wonder and horror and despair.

It’s like Miami, cutting all the strings, all the chains, leaving only the two that matter, the two that will guide him home. He feels his body become nothing, become less important than dust as he lets himself be nothing but mind, energy soaring. This, this is what being a telepath is supposed to be like, life without shell, psyche without physicality. Freedom. He can be anyone, can be anywhere in the blink of an eye, know anything with nothing more than a thought. This is power absolute, every mind he touches so tiny, so fragile compared to the might of him, the giant shadow. He’s a god again, the way he hasn’t been since he was seventeen and murdered a man with a thought.

He thinks, just for a split second, the tiniest moment in time, of squashing them all. One thought, amplified by metal and wires, could end every life he’s touching, like snuffing out a candle. There, then gone. Half the planet dead in the blink of an eye. On a whim.

He never would.

He holds out a hand in offering – even though he has no hands anymore, is free of such burdens and boundaries – one each to Raven and Erik and after a moment’s hesitation, they both accept. He pulls them in, slows down to let them see. Their brains aren’t wired like his. To him, the pace is agonizingly slow now, but he can feel the emotional upheaval in both of them as he shows them mutants, so many.

So many more than they found over the course of almost a decade in Europe. He’ll wonder about that later, if it’s the war that chased so many mutants to the new world, or if there is something about this country, this continent, that makes it easier for them to be born. Unimportant right now, if fascinating.

There are so, so many, and their minds... there is a girl that manipulates the weather, a boy that shoots lasers from his eyes, a girl that steals energy through touch, a man that can’t die. A rainbow full of powers, of abilities and ages and skill levels.

So many.

This is what we fight for, Erik thinks and Charles corrects him, gently, This is what we protect.

No more Eriks, no more Ravens. No more Amelias.

As soon as Schmidt is dealt with, we will visit them all, Charles promises and feels Raven’s joy.

Yes, please.

This was her dream, originally, he thinks. Probably. It’s theirs now, but it was hers first. To protect others from suffering her own childhood. Of the three of them, she’s the least selfish.

More? Charles offers, laughing.

There is more?

My friend, he teases, this is but a fraction.

He takes a deep breath, gets ready to plunge again and suddenly – nothing. It feels like he’s being lobotomized, like his arms and legs are being sawed off. Crippled, bled out, cut in half. He falls and this time, not upwards but down and there is ground there, solid, physical ground and it shatters him. He lets go of Erik and Raven as quickly as he can, falls to his knees screaming.

He hears, out loud, echoed inside, “What the hell happened? What did you do?”

Hank stutters, flooded with fear, panic, apprehension. Charles barely resists the overwhelming urge to shove into him and make him quiet. “I just... you were crying. All three of you. I thought it was hurting you. I just switched it off!”

Ah, Charles thinks, somehow, through the blinding migraine he’s suffering. So this is what it feels like to fall from godhood. He blinks against spots of colour and finally just decides to keep his eyes closed. Petulantly, he shoves his lovers’ protective rage away from him.

Calm, please, he begs of them. Calm. I’m simply suffering from overload, followed by sensory deprivation. He laughs, regrets it, whispers. I feel like Hank didn’t pull the plug, but my brain. Calm your minds. Please.

And then he closes his eyes and lets the pain carry him away and dreams of a million mutants’ lives and of finally being free.

+

9

+

“What are these?” Erik asks, as Charles slaps a stack of printed coordinates on the table, followed by a yellow sheet with scribbled notes on it.

He points first at the stack, then at the loose sheet. “That are all the coordinates for the mutants I found. And those are the ones that cannot wait for us to finish our mission first. They need help now.”

Erik’s face betrays nothing at the mention of ‘our mission’, but his mind twitches, refusal, acceptance, pleasure, apprehension. Raven takes a look at the paper, dismisses it in favour of putting her hands on either side of Charles’s face and staring him dead in the eyes. “How is your head?”

He waves her off. “Absolutely fine again. I slept it off. Our exit was too sudden, I simply didn’t expect it. But I really am alright, dear. It’s all groovy.”

He’s lying, of course. He feels like Lucifer must have, when his wings burned and he plummeted. He soared and then he fell, achieved all he could be and then had it taken away. There is a void inside of him, like a black hole, yawning, empty. He wants to fill it. He won’t.

Raven sighs, rolls her eyes, but sits back, believing him. He’s always been better at hiding things than she. He turns to Erik, to ask the man if he wants to fret, too, but he’s staring fixedly at the notes. “How many,” he wants to know, sounding tense.

His gut is a churning mess of contradictory emotions. He wants to get up and run, to find Schmidt and finally end him, but he also wants Raven and Charles at his side when he does. He wants them safe, too, though, and he wants to help them find these mutants. He wants to protect their race. He wants too much, too fiercely. It makes Charles’s head spin again, so he reaches out, smoothes Erik’s anxiety just a bit and says, “Not too many. Only a few that are an absolute immediate concern. The others can wait a few weeks until we have dealt with Schmidt.”

It’s amazing, the casual arrogance that goes into Charles’s utter belief that whatever these mutants are suffering, they can fix it. Erik never quite knows whether to applaud Charles when he gets like this, or punch him in the face.

“But Erik,” Charles goes on, oblivious for once, “we have no plan of action anyway. We need to wait for his next move.”

Erik grits his teeth. He’s been waiting for twenty years and he’s never been this close. If he has to, he will rip the world apart to get at Schmidt. This time, he’ll have him.

Raven slaps Charles’s thigh. “The other telepath. You pulled something out of her mind, but I couldn’t see it. Isn’t that useful?”

Charles cringes. He’s honestly forgotten about what he stole during his encounter with the diamond telepath. There wasn’t time then, to truly learn all he took, so he shoved it aside, in some box at the far end of his strictly organized mind, hidden behind the thrill and sheer pleasure of how he acquired the information in the first place.

He touches it now, gently, and feels months of accumulated knowledge unfold. Quickly, he rears back. “It is,” he allowed. “probably. I can’t look now because I don’t know what I’ll find or how long it will take me to sort through the memories. I’ve never done this before. The most knowledge I’ve ever stolen was a recipe. Assimilating that took but a moment.”

Raven giggles, shoves the memory of chocolate cake at midnight at Erik, who unwraps it like a present and chuckles, bemusement and envy warring in him. It’s a good memory for cold nights.

“So first, we need to get out of here?”

Charles nods. “We get out of here, taking Hank and all the coordinates with us. I find out what the telepath knew. We make our plans from there. Erik?”

A shrug. “We need to destroy Cerebro before we go. If there’s another telepath...”

Yes. Quite right. “Tonight then,” Charles summarizes, “we go back to our original plan, only we steal their resident genius, too.”

+

10

+

Hank is, unfortunately, not quite on board with being stolen. He puts up some fuss, until they promise him leeway to study mutation as he pleases. Erik isn’t impressed with the boy. Promises of freedom to be himself, of a chance to live without hiding didn’t sway him, but a chance to study his own kind like animals in a zoo does.

Nevermind. They won’t leave him here, no matter how spineless.

Erik packs the boy and his research while Raven steals the files on Schmidt and Charles wipes minds. He does it with even less strain than the first time, reaching out, changing and shifting memory like building blocks. His power has become frightening as of late.

It thrills Erik in ways he doesn’t quite care to analyze.

Is it the idea of what I could do to you? Charles asks, in a rare moment of dirty-mindedness, just as Erik and Hank jog up the stairs to the ground floor. Erik feels Charles’s mind wrap around him like a blanket, tightening just the slightest bit. Threat. Promise. He shudders. Or it is the idea of what I could do to others?

The images Erik conjures are his own: Mindless guards, held under Charles’s sway like dogs, the telepath on Schmidt’s yacht, jerking on the floor, helpless and then Raven, naked and sprawled, debauched and aroused and held down.

He shakes them all away, sends Charles an image of himself, spread out much like Raven, naked and flushed.

Both his lovers laugh.

They meet at the front gate after Erik has destroyed all surveillance of them, even the backups he found with Charles’s help. Charles shields them all and they walk out of the CIA’s most secure facility like they’re out for an evening stroll. If the humans could remember this tomorrow, they would be terrified.

+

11

+

In Westchester, Charles wastes no time. He finds his childhood bedroom, dust-free and smelling of clean linen, thanks to an aging Cook’s efforts, and lies down, closing his eyes.

One deep breath and then he plunges into the memories of the other telepath, one Emma Frost, who seems equally as much a victim as Erik, but perhaps more of a monster than he will ever be, despite his convictions.

All the things Charles could do but never would, Emma has no qualms about. Charles wonders, even as the memories close above his head like water, if, in some parallel world, he is what Emma Frost is here: the telepath without rules.

Then he slips entirely into the skin of the Emma of his stolen memories and leaves reality behind.

+

12

+

While Charles lives memories not his own, Erik wanders the sprawling mansion. So many corridors, so many doors, all leading to loveless, abandoned rooms. No pictures on the walls, only opulence to the point of obscenity.

The place makes him uncomfortable, too grand, too confusing, and it makes him angry, too, knowing that while his mother scrounged and begged for food to put in his belly, there are people in the world who live in such decadence. No wonder Charles throws money about like it means nothing. To him, it doesn’t.

So Erik shuts out the gold and mirrors, focusing instead on strategy and safety, looking, with one eye, for traces of his lovers.

There is a strange assortment of pretty rocks and funny shaped sticks, all lined up neatly on a window sill in the mudroom behind the kitchen. A child’s collection of treasure. He wonders who it belongs to. Raven, probably. In the library, there is a corner of tattered children’s books. A colourful quilt is folded on a sagging sofa, obviously well loved and too small for an adult to sleep on.

In a study, Erik finds a desk with pictures on it. A wan, blonde woman, a cruel looking man and a boy that has to be his son, both dwarfing a young Charles and Raven. He has never been told about the man and boy, but he knows their names anyway. Kurt and Cain Marko.

Sometimes, Charles dreams of murdering Kurt Marko and Erik is never sure if it’s memory or wish. The Xaviers never speak about their step family.

He finds crayon nubs in another study, a child’s drawing in the kitchen, plates with animals painted on them, as if for children. He can’t imagine Charles eating from those plates. He finds Cook, too, a gentle but stern, old woman who wields a wooden spoon like a weapon and looks at him with knowing eyes. She reminds Erik of his mother in ways he doesn’t want to remember. He leaves the kitchen quickly and finds his way to the parlour where he left Raven trying to make Hank reach new records of blushing.

“Find anything interesting?” she asks as he helps himself to a glass of her wine and sits down next to her.

Only ghosts, he thinks, only ghosts.

Without Charles there to translate, she can’t hear him. He smiles at her.

+

d

+

Fire. Bombs. War. Russia versus America in a new world war, one last crisis.

A world in ruins, an army of red and black and hate. Supremacy.

Children of the Atom.

A new world order.

Insanity.

Utter insanity.

So what do we do?

We wait. When the human governments make their move, Schmidt will be there.

To witness his success.

Yes.

We will be there.


Yes.

+

And Homer? Homer should be ripped
from all the lists, like Archilochus, whipped.
For he was wrong in saying, Would
that war might disappear from gods and men!

He did not see that he was praying
for the universe’s end.
For if his prayer were heard,
all things would cease to be;
war is the father and the king of all,
making the gods, the men, the slaves, the free.

Hal Duncan, From the Fragments of Heraklitos

+

14

+

“I hate this,” Erik yells, flinging his arms wide. All around them, metal is vibrating and rattling, creating a cacophony of noise and frustration, at the center of which Erik stands, jaw clenched too tight. “I can’t just sit around and wait, Charles!”

Charles, the only one willing to weather this storm, is leaning casually against the wall, waiting out his friend’s temper. “We’re not just waiting, Erik. We’re preparing. We’re training. And we’re using the time we have to help others. We will find Schmidt. I know we will. You just have to be a bit patient.”

I’ve been patient for twenty years!

“Then a few more months won’t make a difference,” Charles answers, too flippantly. He doesn’t mean it that way, but Erik’s frustration is his and they’ve been rubbing each other raw for days. Raven is the smart one among them. She walled herself off and went to annoy Hank in his lab as soon as she gauged their moods this morning.

For a moment, Erik’s expression goes frighteningly blank. The next second, Charles is ducking two silver figurines as they come hurtling toward him with the speed of bullets. He falls, rolls and reaches out, his eyes flashing the brightest blue Erik has ever seen. The figurines – swans, and ugly as all get out – fall to the thick carpet almost soundlessly.

Charles releases his hold on Erik’s power, slumps with his back against the wall, panting, wide-eyed. Erik stands in the middle of the room, just as shocked as Charles is. He didn’t mean to. His confusion, his surprise, are loud and clear in his expression, in his mind. He just got so angry. So angry. He lashed out like a child, uncontrolled and dangerous. At Charles.

Shame floods him and he looks away from the other man, still panting on the floor, his eyes too blue.

Charles knows he’s sorry just as he knows Erik won’t say the words. No, what he says is, “Distract me.”

Don’t let me hurt you again.

You didn’t the first time, Charles sends back, aware that Erik didn’t mean to broadcast that thought.

Erik steps closer, reaches out a hand to pull Charles to his feet. His pupils are dilated and this time not in shock, when he says, “You stopped me so easily.”

“Reflex,” Charles assures him as he gets pulled to his feet and stumbles into a broad chest. “I would never...”

Erik wraps his arms around his waist, pulls him closer. Whispers, “But you could.”

Charles leans back minutely, trying to gauge Erik’s expression and finding it blank. He looks inside instead and finds a tumble of aggression, fear and arousal. When he was a boy, Charles was a god, just briefly, tasting the heady rush of power, of control, as he snuffed out a life. He tries not to be that person, but the way Erik looks at him... “Yes,” he simply answers, letting himself be crowded back into the wall by the taller man. His back hits the wood panelling just as he bumps something with his right food. One of the swans.

They would have broken bone, had he not – but he did. He always will. Taking control of Erik truly was reflex. Instinct. That frightens him on some level. Erik doesn’t seem to mind at all as he lowers his head, kisses Charles just a little too wildly, his hands working through Charles’s layers at his hips, pushing until they find skin.

He’s moving his hips, searching for friction, raising one hand to bury it in Charles’s hair, pulling him closer, holding him immobile. Kissing him until they are both out of breath and he still doesn’t stop.

You could stop me, Erik thinks, desperate bordering on hysterical. Laughing inside his head. He sounds brittle.

Charles wants to reassure him, but he doesn’t dare bring up Schmidt again. Instead he promises – threatens – solemnly, I never would.

Liar, Erik thinks, bites at his lower lip too hard, making him hiss and grind against him.

Don’t make me one, Charles begs. He doesn’t let Erik hear.

+

e

+

“Fuck off,” Logan says, not turning around, not bothering to look at their faces. He can smell the suits on them, their smooth leather shoes and aftershave. He doesn’t have to look to know they’re just two more G-men wanting to put a gun in his hand and point him at their problems.

Fuck them.

“I’m afraid we can’t do that, Mr. Logan,” the one on his right says. Trying to impress him by knowing his name. Adorable. Logan growls, bites his cigar almost to the point of breaking it beyond hope. If they’re not gone if five seconds, he’s gonna –

Now, there’s no need to be so aggressive, the guy says. No. Not says. The sound isn’t coming from one direction but everywhere. It’s almost like – That was fast. Most people take longer to understand they have a telepath in their minds.

Get the fuck out, he snarls, slamming his glass down, turning to glare at the guy. He’s short, baby-blues, pretty lips. Adorable. The other looks like he could take some damage. Ask him if he gives a fuck. He’s done fighting. Whatever they offer him, it won’t be enough to move him off this barstool.

“Are you sure?” telepath boy asks and Logan growls in warning.

He gets a pretty smile in return. “Apologies. I have to actively work on keeping out of other people’s thoughts. And you think very loudly.”

The other guy snorts. “You always say that,” he comments, drolly. Logan grunts, fights the urge to roll his eyes.

“The fuck d’you want?”

The telepath talks again. Obviously, he’s the people person of the two. Makes Logan want to keep a better eye on the other one. “It’s come to our attention that you are hiding from certain... individuals.”

Damn nice way to describe what’s left of Weapon X after Logan bailed. Damn nice.

“As it happens, I am very good at hiding things.”

Tempting offer. A telepath could probably make the bloodhounds look the other way at least long enough for Logan to blow out of wherever. “Whaddya want in return?”

Kid spreads his hands, fingers wide, palms up. “Nothing,” he says and when he tastes Logan’s palpable disbelief on the air, he opens himself up, lets Logan see.

Scalpels, dark alleys, a man with a raised fist, a girl jumping off a bridge, shaking metal, pain, darkness. Light.

Great. He snorts. “Fucking idealist.”

It’s beautiful, actually, the man’s dream, his hope for their kind – mutantkind. It’s so much better than the muck Logan spent the past hundred years crawling through for whatever army paid the best. It’s better than Victor’s idea of brotherhood any day. It’s... tempting. But he’s never going to admit that.

Damn telepath knows anyway. He quirks a grin, tips an imaginary hat, says, “My name’s Charles Xavier. My companion is Erik Lensherr. We’ll wait outside while you settle your tab, Mr. Logan.”

And then he turns and saunters out of the bar, relaxed and arrogant as you damn well please. Logan and the silent guy – Lensherr – both watch him go. Once the door falls closed behind him, Logan turns to Lensherr, one eyebrow raised. There’s a reason he remained behind.

“We aren’t all,” he says, voice low, leaning into Logan. They aren’t all idealists. Good to know, Logan thinks, smirking.

“Then why d’you run with the pretty boy?”

Lensherr smiles like he wants to eat Logan. Then something twitches against his chest and slowly, ever so slowly, his dogtags rise beneath his shirt and cinch themselves tight around his throat. Not tight enough to hurt. Just... a hint. His belt tightens, too. The change in his pockets starts digging into his thighs and his boots squeeze his feet hard enough to cut off circulation. Lensherr’s smile never falters.

“Your little telepathic friend ain’t gonna like you going off your leash,” Logan teases, pretending there’s nothing cutting off his air supply.

“Who says I’m off my leash?” Lensherr counters. He sounds impossibly smug about it. Then, abruptly, all the metal falls back into its usual, inanimate state. Logan cracks his neck once, twice, inclines his head the smallest bit. Message received. He slaps a twenty on the bar top and walks out, shoulder to shoulder with the metal bender.

Who knows? This might actually turn out to be fun.

+

15

+

Charles gives Logan his childhood bedroom. Raven puts Hank into hers. It seems strange to Erik at first, until they curl together in the master bedroom for the first time, far away from prying eyes and ears. Charles smiles wickedly as he throws up his hand in a grand gesture. Projecting an empty room, he says. His favourite trick. Their secrets are safe.

Yet he is exhausted from spending the day experimenting with Hank and falls asleep first. Raven follows, leaving Erik alone on the edge between sleeping and waking.

He closes his eyes and runs down a dark hallway. Someone is panting hard behind him and he looks around, finds the red face of the boy from the picture he found. Cain. Long, blonde hair flies around his face as he takes a sharp turn and picks up speed. He blinks and is in a darkened room. A man stands over him, fist raised, screaming in rage, spittle flying. A punch falls, lands, hurts. Pain radiates from his ribs. He blinks again and finds himself back in the bedroom, staring at the ceiling.

He rolls onto his side, runs a hand through Raven’s short red hair, reaches across her to lay a hand on Charles’s chest. Smoothing away ghosts.

I’ll protect you, he whispers, promising. The words come easy when there’s no-one awake to hear them, he thinks. But when he closes his eyes again, there are no nightmares but his own inside his head.

+

16

+

Logan, Hank and Raven together are hilarious. Charles finds them highly amusing. Hank will say something to Raven, stammer, blush, fall silent. Raven will be kind to him, build up his ego, flirt a bit. Never enough to be taken seriously. She wouldn’t do that.

They still haven’t told anyone about... what they are. Charles doesn’t introduce Raven as his sister anymore, but the last name is still the same and most people assume. There is also Cook to consider. Logan probably knows, what with that nose of his, but he just smirks and keeps his knowledge to himself.

And Hank keeps blushing.

Then Logan cuts in, says something outrageous to Raven, who banters right back. It’s flirting on a level that turns Hank’s ears red as tomatoes, usually shortly followed by the rest of him. It scares him into incoherence until Logan says something below the belt. Then it turns into indignant anger on Raven’s behalf and he blusters and Logan pokes at him some more and someone explodes.

Raven, at this point, has usually joined Charles and Erik on the sidelines while Hank and Logan spit at each other, the latter humouring the former.

Charles would put a stop to it, but there is always a glint of amusement in Logan’s eyes when he baits the younger man, and Hank’s spine straightens noticeably every time Logan lets him get in the last word. It’s good for Hank, who is far too afraid of himself.

And it’s entertaining for the rest of them while they have nothing better to do. Logan is safe within the radius of Charles’s range, Schmidt is still nothing more than a ghost and the CIA has no recollection of ever having met any of them.

They’re all bored and crawling out of their skin. A little entertainment does them good, Charles thinks, leaning back as Hank lays into Logan, who calmly keeps chewing a cigar, occasionally scratching at his chest with the bone blades protruding from his knuckles. An artless threat, perhaps, but the way Hank swallows every time the claws are brought to his attention is too funny.

“You are a bad man,” Raven whispers as she settles against his side. Erik, standing behind them, growls and pushes off the wall.

“Childish,” he snaps, stalking out of the room, his frustration almost overwhelming Charles.

Hank eeps and flees from the room. Logan withdraws his claws, drawls, “That boy’s about to lose it, Chuck.”

Still watching the doorway Erik disappeared through, Charles nods. Raven answers for them. “I know.”

“Word of advice,” Logan continues, “find somethin’ for the man to smash an’ do it fast.”

Charles turns to study the older man, finds only relaxed lines under all the leather and denim. Logan likes it here at the manor, likes three meals a day and not having to watch his own back. He does so anyway, but he’s relaxing a bit more every day. He’s like Erik in many ways, except one: where Erik still burns hot, Logan has long since let go of his anger. He’s found the serenity to counterpoint his rage.

“Would you?” Charles asks, hesitantly. He promised not to demand anything from Logan in return for his protection and he meant it. But Charles has never spoken the language of violence that might as well be Erik’s mother tongue. Neither has Raven.

Logan grunts, scowls and then stands. “The hell,” he mutters around his cigar. “Haven’t gotten a good spar in a while.”

He leaves the room almost soundlessly and Raven snuggles into Charles’s side, says, “Something’s got to give.”

+

17

+

Something’s got to give. Yes. But Schmidt is hidden again, behind his telepath, halfway across the globe, out of even Charles’s reach. All Charles can do is plan another outing, try to occupy Erik with something other than the wait that’s been leaving him depressed and angry in turns.

This trip takes them further than finding Logan has and Charles intentionally lengthens it by renting them a car and making them take their time. Raven has stayed home again. Charles could have used her to mediate between the two of them, but she declined the invitation. She’d just take the second-hand anger and run with it, she claimed, exacerbating the whole situation.

So there’s only the two of them in the car, driving across the country toward a prison that holds a boy that’s too scared of himself to be around other people. Logan’s demons are on the outside. Alex Summers’s are inside his head.

Charles tricks their way to Alex’s solitary confinement cell and stands in the doorway, looking down at the blond, barely an adult, already so worn down, by the world and his own power.

“I’ve got an offer for you, Mr. Summers,” he says, carefully smiling.

The boy shakes his head. “You don’t wanna be making me any offers, man,” he explains, trying to casually slump on his bunk and failing. He’s tense all over. Scared.

Erik is a complicated chart of pity and disgust behind Charles, out in the hallway, tense and ready for a fight. He doesn’t want to set foot in the cell, afraid the door will slam behind them and never open again.

“We can help you control your power,” Charles simply says, cutting through the pleasantries for Erik’s sake. “We can help you get your life back.”

He says life and what flashes to the forefront of Alex’s mind is plane crash, fear, panic, little brother, baby Scotty, foster homes, so angry, why don’t they see, where’s his little brother, he needs Scotty, he gets so angry, it’s hot in here, no, please don’t, go away and then fire.

“And we can probably find your little brother,” Charles adds.

Playing dirty, Erik thinks.

He’s been trying to find a way to kill himself, Charles reprimands, sharply. Giving him hope is hardly cheating.

Sullenly, Erik falls silent.

+

18

+

Back in Westchester, Logan is cursing about the mansion, about the boredom, about there being nothing to do and the goddamn, idealistic children surrounding him.

“Then why the hell are you here?” Raven snaps after forty-five minutes of ignoring the tirade.

Logan’s claws snap out of his hands almost too fast to see. Raven doesn’t flinch, not even when he holds them up, fists balled. He grins at her and says, perfectly calm, “Been usin’ these for humans for a long time.”

He doesn’t say that he’s tired of being an attack dog, that he’s running from men who want to lock him up and throw away the key, that he believes that Charles will actually change something, even though he keeps mocking him, keeps calling them all a bunch of blind, idealist idiots. He doesn’t say. Raven knows anyway.

She reaches out, runs one blue finger down one of his bleach-yellow bone claws, says, “Teach me how to fight.”

Logan grunts, lowers his arms, unballs his fists. The claws disappear with a snick. “Your boyos gonna like that?”

She shrugs. “My boyos,” she mimics, “will rip the world apart.” And they will. Erik can spin the world off its axis, and Charles can make humanity believe that’s how it should be. “Someone’s got to keep them safe while they do it.”

“That gonna be you?” Provoking her now, for nothing but the hell of it.

She smiles, bright teeth on dark skin. Logan finds it unsettling, Charles told her. “You can help,” she throws out, flippant, teasing. She’s dead serious and Logan knows it.

He stands, waves a hand toward the door. “Get a move on, then.”

+

f

+

Alex can’t figure them out. Charles and Erik and Raven and Logan and Hank. They’re powerful, sure. They got him out of prison. But when he looks at them... they’re hippies, okay?

Charles is all about helping him and saving people and peace and unity and kittens. About hope. And suddenly Alex is living in this massive mansion with a bunch of other people and no-one expects anything from him and he doesn’t have to repay anything because they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts and the world doesn’t work like that, okay? It doesn’t.

“You misunderstand,” Erik says one day, sitting down next to him in the bunker, after another moderately successful experiment that killed half a dozen more mannequins. Alex doesn’t even want to know where they keep coming from.

“Don’t understand what?” Alex asks, wiping sweat from his face. It’s hot in here. Fire-hot.

“There is a price for this, for being here.”

“Yeah?” Alex asks, half afraid and half relieved, because he knows this, he knows bartering and he knows down and dirty deals. He has no idea how to deal with genuinely good people.

“One day,” Erik tells him, staring at the melting, burning remains of a mannequin, “One day soon, this world will know that we exist. And they will hunt us. They will hunt us and kill us and use us. And when that day comes, you will survive.

Alex blurts, “What?” And then, “That’s it?”

“Charles believes there might be some sort of peace. He believes the humans might learn. They won’t. The world will have a new holocaust. Do not let them win.

It’s an order, sharp and edged, like a knife. Do not let them win. Alex slams his palm into the ground snaps, “Easy for you to say. Your power doesn’t accidentally kill people! I can’t even use it-“

“My mother,” Erik cuts in, calm and deadly, “died because of my power. When Charles slipped up as a child, people died, too. No-one said it would be easy.”

He stands abruptly, wiping soot off his pants with a solemn expression and turning to leave Alex to his bonfires and thoughts. He’s almost out the door when he stops, adds, “And if you ever think of killing yourself again like you did in that prison, I will pull the trigger on you myself.”

He slams the door shut with a deafening thud of metal on metal. Alex should be trembling in terror, should be angry that Charles dug into his deepest, darkest... He isn’t. He doesn’t feel violated. Doesn’t feel afraid. He feels safe.

+

19

+

She’s a tiny thing, Charles thinks, delicate in ways Raven never was. Broken, too. She hides behind a curtain of dark hair – Amelia had dark hair – and keeps her hands tucked away under her arms, afraid. She’s even more scared than Alex, has been on her own, running, for too long and in her head Charles sees the reel of what happens, what always happens.

She runs and she hides and someone finds her. Sometimes they want to hurt her and they die screaming under her skin. Sometimes they want to help her and they touch her on accident and they die screaming under her skin. Sometimes she manages to pull away in time. Those times are the worst, because they look at her with fear and disgust in their eyes and she has to run again and it all starts over.

Charles closes his eyes, inhales, exhales. Raven brushes past him, her hand along his side in reassurance, kneels in front of the girl. “It’s alright,” she says. “We know what you are. What you can do. We’re like you.”

She looks up, wide-eyed, surprised. “Y’all c’n do...”


Raven almost flinches at having to take away the quickly blooming hope. She shakes her head. “We all have different abilities. Me, I shape shift.” And just like that she melts back into blue and then into Charles and then into her blonde guise again. She changes her skirt just to make a point and adds, using Charles’s read on the girl, “And that’s Charles over there. He used to hurt people, too. But he learned how to control it.”

The girl shakes her head, hair flying, tries to scuttle away from Raven. “No. Nononono. Can’t control it, I’ve tried, I only hurt people. I can’t ever...”

She’s biting back tears, skin hungry and so alone, so lost. Charles wants to wipe her mind clean, wants to wall up her power and recreate her, new and unbroken.

All he does is touch upon her fear, gently taking some of it away. Not enough, not nearly enough.

“Marie,” he starts, making her flinch at the name she never gave them. Her eyes dart around, looking for exits, but Logan is blocking the door, probably not even intentionally. When her gaze lands on him for the tenth time in as many seconds he sighs, grumbles under his breath and marches forward.

Marie wedges herself as far in the corner as she can, away, away, away. Every line of her body screams it. Logan pays no heed to the warning, dives in, puts a rough, callused hand to her cheek, the only bare skin he can reach.

Marie screams in panic, scrambles at his sleeve, trying to get him off, when the ripples start, like something moving under his skin, stretching for the point of contact. Logan holds out for an endless five seconds, then pulls away from the hysterical, sobbing girl. He takes a step back, cracks his neck, and sticks his cigar back into his mouth where it belongs, none the worse for the wear.

“That tickled,” he drawls, all soft vowels and Marie stops screaming, stops crying, shocked out of it by two words. She stares at him, hands limp at her side. Her mind is white-blank with shock.

“See?” Logan asks, “Ain’t gonna hurt me, girl. Now getcha ass movin’. You’re comin’ with us. Ain’t no world for a girl like you, all alone.”

She keeps her small, gloved hand circled around his wrist all the way back to New York, like a safety line, a life line. Logan doesn’t try to make her let go even once.

+

20

+

Raven shows Erik what Logan taught her because Charles already knows and she wants to prove to him that she can look after herself.

Silly girl thinks he doubts that.

She’s always been stronger and faster than a normal human and smarter, too. They spar in the garden until they’re both dripping with sweat and bruised and bleeding in places and when Raven collapses onto the grass with a grunt, limbs spread wide, Erik declares, “You are perfect.”

She grins up at him, eyes closed in utter exhaustion. “I didn’t beat you.”

“Not yet,” he corrects, sitting next to her, using the bottom of his shirt to wipe sweat from his face and dab at his split lip. Charles is going to be furious with the state of them later. “Why is this so important to you?”

He can guess, of course, but he wants to hear it from her lips. Some things need to be said out loud, especially between the two of them. With Charles, their centre piece, missing, they need to make things real. “Charles takes care of the people,” she explains, face to the darkening sky. “You take care of the weapons. I take care of you.”

He can see it, see what she describes. Him and Charles fighting the long distance battles, with Raven orbiting them, keeping them physically safe. Between Charles and himself, nothing will sneak up on them. And Raven will let nothing through. The three of them work, together, as a machine. Erik has already seen, in their memories, the frightening efficiency of CharlesandRaven when they came for him in Poland. Now, three instead of two... They could terrify the world.

Let’s hope there will be no need for that, Charles throws in, distractedly, from where he’s helping Marie concentrate on her power.

Erik lets his scepticism speak for itself before pushing it aside and rolling on top of Raven, pinning her hands by her head. “Are you up for another round?” he asks, and from the way he bites along her bare collarbone, he’s not talking about fighting.

+

21

+

They’re sitting down for dinner at the old, scarred kitchen table, older than anyone in the room. Cook has long since retired for the night. She does less than she once has, but that’s okay. There are people in the mansion now, there is life. They pick up after themselves and Marie and Raven have fun cooking dinner some days.

Tonight it’s pasta and they gather around that old table and pass around the bowls and Hank and Alex snipe at each other like prickly twelve-year-old girls. Logan and Marie both eat with one hand because Marie has latched onto one of his wrists again, fingers circling his forearm at the narrowest point, holding on. She’s wearing gloves, could touch all of them, theoretically.

But Logan is the only one she ever gets close to voluntarily. Logan never seems to mind and Charles has made the others let her be. Healing takes strange paths. Erik, Raven and Charles are having their own conversation, wordlessly, while playing footsie under the table like children.

Occasionally, Erik will tell the boys to be quiet, or Logan will grunt something about Raven’s training. Alex finally mastered the new focus Hank built him today. Even Erik takes part in the general din, unable to pull up his impatient anger tonight. It’s easy, sitting here, eating, with other people, other mutants. Friends. Brothers, sisters, lovers.

Is it all you hoped it would be? Raven asks, almost without mockery in her voice.

Charles meets her gaze across the table, surprised and says, There are no ghosts anymore. Then, Yes.

Erik rolls his eyes at their pseudo-nostalgia but doesn’t say anything, except to ask for more salad.

+

22

+

“Do you still regret it?” Raven asks, hours later, in the dark of their bedroom where they lie, naked, sweaty and sated for the moment.

Erik raises his head slightly to look down at her around Charles’s arm across his chest. He doesn’t ask what she means. He doesn’t have to. He knows it as surely as he knows his own name because her question is Charles’s and they are both his.

It seemed so complicated once, so painful and co-dependent. So vulnerable and weak. He thinks.

“I don’t remember what it was like to be me,” he tells her and that is all the truth he has to offer. How can you regret something when you can’t remember there was ever anything else? Any resistance he might put up is purely reflex at this point.

Charles turns his head, digs his chin into Erik’s shoulder to look at him. “You know we don’t mean to...”


“I know,” Erik interrupts him, tracing long fingers over the raw, red welt of a bite on Charles’s neck, “that you would not have let me do that a few years ago.”

Charles blushes but does not look away. He thinks he gets that trait from Raven.

The next day Erik sneaks into Charles’s old room and opens a hidden drawer in the old bureau in the corner that no-one ever told him was there. He knows anyway, just as he knows there is a list inside that starts with Charles doesn’t think that stealing is wrong anymore.

He takes it to the parlour and burns it.

+

23

+

The day Erik turns the satellite dish like it’s no bigger than one of the silver platters in the dining room, the ones he makes spin round and round, is also the day the President gives his speech.

It’s the day Erik says, “He’ll be there,” and Charles says, “How do we get there, too?”

+

24

+

Getting Hank’s Blackbird away from the CIA takes a bit more trickery than they expected, but once they have it, everything seems easy. The three of them gear up in the suits Hank designed for them. Charles finds them a bit ridiculous, but they serve their purpose.

They dress and kiss each other, three kisses, one, two, three. There is no need for goodbye because they’re not parting and there is no need for speeches because everything is said and no-one is dying today. Not even Erik. Especially not Erik. Then they walk out toward the plane, finding the others already there, dressed in suits that are just as blue and yellow as their own. They stop and stare and Hank shrugs, says, “You need me to fly the plane.”

Alex hooks his thumbs into his belt, drawls, “I figure I owe you one, for getting me outta jail.” He looks at Erik, who smiles thinly and nods.

Logan just takes a deep drag off his ever-present cigar and rumbles, “Was startin’ to get bored anyway. Ain’t made for sittin’ round on my pretty ass.”

Marie, standing at his side, doesn’t look at anyone but she’s not wearing her gloves.

“Are you sure?” Charles asks. “We promised we wouldn’t ask anything of you.”

Brushing her hair aside, Marie smiles the brightest smile Charles has seen on her yet. “Didn’t have to, did’ja?”

+

25

+

When Erik thinks, I don’t know if I can do this, Raven unstraps herself and joins them at the rear end of the plane.

Charles lies flat on his belly and presses one ungloved hand to Erik’s bare neck. Raven strips off her own gloves, takes Charles’s free hand in hers. Power, familiarity, trust, love, anger, hunger, all the things that make up the complicated mess that is them, surges through them like electricity.

Erik raises one hand, feels for the submarine that almost killed him once before. He finds it, locks onto it, and with Raven and Charles flowing through his veins like they have always been there, he pulls.

Two threads, dark blue and bright blue, entwine and wrap around his raised arm, pulling.

Slowly, the submarine slows down and then, like Leviathan rising, reverses and comes to the surface.

+

26

+

“Raven,” Charles pants, holding cracked ribs, “go with Erik. Boys, Schmidt has friends with him. The red one is a teleporter; and try to stay away from the telepath. Go. Marie, I need you with me, here, alright?”


She nods, looks at Logan briefly, and smiles. Then the others take off, splitting into groups. The boys line up on the sandy beach while Erik and Raven slip into the cracked ship, searching for Schmidt.

Marie stares at her hands for a long moment, at the danger that lies under the skin, and then resolutely angles herself so she’s between Charles and the opening. Guarding him. He sends her a burst of pride before turning inwards and then out, latching onto every single one of his friends’ minds, connecting them.

He starts directing Erik and Raven toward the blind spot in the middle of the broken submarine, warns Logan of the teleporter trying to sneak up on him and then reaches out briefly to touch the two navies beyond the coast.

Then, and only then, does he stretch himself to find the other telepath.

Miss Frost, he greets as soon as he finds her.

She laughs in his mind, rippling diamond only briefly before asking, Did you receive my present then?

Charles echoes her laugh. He’d wondered at the information he pulled from her. It was too neat, too ordered. But if she meant for him to have it... I take it you do not agree with your employer’s goals?

Instead of answering, she says, You broke through my shields. Nothing has ever managed that before. I was impressed.

So you decided to throw in with the winning side?

She sends him the impression of a dismissive hand wave. You have not won yet. Sebastian has a few more surprises, of that I am sure.

You’ll excuse me then, Charles thinks, in lieu of a goodbye and pulls out, dropping a quick word to the others about leaving Miss Frost alone. Then he focuses back on Erik and Raven, standing in a seemingly abandoned lounge, looking around, Erik’s rage and impatience crawling under both their skins. Careful, Charles warns, as he directs Raven to turn down the submarine’s power and a hidden door opens.

Erik steps inside, says something sharp and ugly to Schmidt, waiting in his oyster. The door slides shut again and Erik is gone. Not just cut off, not just shut down, but gone. It’s like he’s dead, like his mind is erased and Charles feels bile rise in his throat, feels himself sway dizzily. He barely feels Marie’s arms around him, steadying him without touching skin.

Raven stumbles, yells Erik’s name with the urgency of two people.

There is no answer.

Raven, get inside that room, Charles demands, sharply enough for her body to respond to the command before her mind does. She starts hammering against the door while Charles batters at whatever psychic shielding is keeping him away from Erik, going ErikErikErikErik.

Until something hard and angry calls to him and Logan yells, “Damn it, Chuck, tone it the fuck down!”

Somewhere to the left of all the mess of fighting and frantic searching and ErikErikErikRaven, Emma Frost laughs like a cold, cold hyena. Charles has no patience for her, smacks at her with an imaginary hand, flings her away from him.

Silence.

Then, light.

A crack, a tiny fissure in the shield and Eric is back, tinny and distant but there. In sync, Raven and Charles exhale and Erik catches on and starts smashing, smashing, smashing, like a hurricane in a bottle.

Schmidt is shielded, a helmet, made of metal and oh, didn’t he think of that when he put that on, didn’t he remember two soldiers dying in his office as their helmets crushed their skulls into their brains? Erik laughs and spits blood as he rips the helmet off the man who made him, as he flings it away, crumpled like an empty can, useless.

Schmidt’s mind tastes like oil and ashes and acrid fire-stench and it repulses Charles on a level he never wants to understand. But at the surface of his mind, bright and loud, are amusement, pride and genuine joy. He sees Erik, sees the weapon he created and he is proud.

Charles rips the pride from him, rips it out of him like he wants to rip out his heart, just a bit, because this man does not deserve to feel proud of Erik. Erik built himself from ashes, made himself a man when he could have been a monster. Only Erik gets to be proud of Erik. Never this man, never this monster.

I wouldn’t be who I am without you two, Erik thinks, but it’s a stray thought, one he pays no attention to. Like it’s understood.

Raven smiles softly into the bond as she finally pries the door open and, weaving through metal and wire, slips to stand by Erik’s side. Schmidt tilts his head to one side, asks, “And who would you be, dove?”

Raven flashes teeth and says, over the sound of Erik snarling, “I am the one who gets to watch you die.”

And then Charles takes over, freezing the monster where he stands, holding him. Erik calls up the coin that has been starring in his dreams for twenty years, floats it around his rising hands, shows it to Schmidt, who feels, for the first time, fear.

Charles lets it go, lets it seep through. Lets Erik know.

Erik smiles and the coin shoots forward in something like absolution.

+

27

+

Charles returns from darkness to a hoarse litany of, I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it would -

Please, he manages, through the blinding migraine that’s making it hard to think. It feels like his brain is the one that just got scrambled by a Reichsmark.

Immediately, Raven clamps a hand on Erik’s arm, shutting him up. Charles feels her grip like it’s his arm, feels his fingers wrapping around tense muscles, feels Erik grind his teeth and Raven bite her lip, winces, tries to open his eyes. But Raven is there, doing what she used to do when they were children. She wraps her arms around him and drowns herself and him in blue and quiet and calm. Erik stands at the shore of her ocean, patient, apologetic and lighter than he’s ever been, while, at the same time, not changed at all. He’s been free for a long time. This, Schmidt’s death, was just a formality, really.

When Charles can blink again without feeling like there’s a lightning storm happening behind his eyes, Erik breathes, He’s gone.

Charles straightens in Raven’s embrace, finds the others watching from a few feet away, Schmidt’s men included. He looks at Erik, asks, How does it feel?

Erik chuckles and it sounds like it might turn into full-blown laughter. He opens his mouth to answer when, suddenly, he jerks to the right, staring at something no-one else can see.

Charles reaches out and Raven says, “They’re turning their guns on us.”

+

28

+

They walk in a line, Charles in the middle, Raven to his left, Erik on his other side, toward the water, toward the fleets beyond.

Erik is talking, telling the others to stop fighting, to unite. Miss Frost is watching, standing next to Schmidt’s corpse on the sand. He looks smaller in death than he did in Erik’s memories of him.

“Go ahead, Charles,” Erik commands. “Tell us what they’re doing.”


Charles raises his hand to his temple in an old, obsolete gesture, reaches out and feels himself stretch and splinter. Schmidt’s death has unravelled his mind to a degree where he’s afraid he’ll fall apart if he moves too fast.

Raven’s hand finds his and her calm floods him as she makes herself empty for him. Miss Frost murmurs in something like interest.

“They are scared,” Charles reports after a moment. “They cannot understand what they just saw, what we did. Their orders are to destroy a potential threat.”

“A potential threat,” Erik echoes, arms spread wide, looking at the teleporter, the wind maker, at Miss Frost. “That is what they see in us. And scared? I’ve seen what the human race does to the things it’s scared of. No more, my fellow mutants. No more.”

On the water, the heavy grinding of machinery stops and the ships fire. Charles watches, detached, dizzy, sickened, as the missiles come flying toward them like falling stars. He can feel Raven’s fear and her anger, bright and pure and righteous and he can feel Erik, who isn’t feeling anything at all except a grim determination and the knowledge that he was right all along.

He raises his arm. “No more,” he repeats and a hundred missiles stop dead in mid-air. Then, slowly, they start turning.

“Erik,” Charles says.

Raven clutches his hand tightly enough to leave fingerprints on his skin and Erik turns to look at them both. “You promised you never would.”

Charles shakes his head, wraps an arm around Raven, half to keep himself standing, half to have her close. “I’m not stopping you,” he corrects as the missiles stop turning, every single one of them aimed at its point of origin. “But look around you, Erik. If you do this, they will know we exist. And they will hunt us. Right now, we would lose. Give us time. To gather other mutants. To teach them. To grow stronger.”

“How?” Erik asks out loud, his hand unwavering in the air, his will stronger than the metal pressing toward them. They have already seen too much.

“I can fix that.” But you need to let me in.

For the longest, longest moment, the two men stare at each other. Raven stays beside Charles, not because she’s on his side but because there are no sides. They all know what will happen. They all feel it. Charles could stop Erik. Erik knows he never would. Suddenly, Erik’s outstretched hand clenches into a fist. The missiles explode harmlessly in the air, a firestorm above the sea. Debris scatters into the waves.

Behind them, Logan whistles lowly in appreciation of the show. Charles pays him no heed, shaking off Raven to sit down on the sand. He’d rather be sitting down for this, really.

What are you doing, Xavier? Miss Frost asks. He bats her away like a fly and closes his eyes.

His shields are battered, his mind still in disarray, still echoing with the memory-feel of Schmidt dying. Psychic shock. Nevermind that. He reaches out, slowly, carefully. First the mutants on the beach, easy, familiar. Then the men on the ships, encased in metal, which is familiar, too, because Erik knows it. Further out, toward Cuba and its people, further still into America.

He pushes, out and out and out, farther than he’s ever gone before without the artificial help of Cerebro. Control, for the others, means harnessing their gift. Using it. For Charles, control is the ability to not use it. He doesn’t struggle to control, he struggles to contain.

Because he doesn’t know what will happen if he lets go.

Because he knows that he might never find his body again, the weak, small form of flesh and bone that anchors him but never contains him.

But. Raven. Erik. He spills over into them, has been spilling into them for years, anchoring himself in minds that have never left their bodies, in bodies that are far more solid than his. There is room in them, for him. And chains to hold him there.

He tugs on those chains, wraps them around his wrists and ankles, pulls them tight. The dark, yawning hole that has been gaping in his chest since Cerebro is filling, filling, filling.

What are you doing? Erik thinks, while Raven dissolves into worrypanicfearanticipationmemory. Like in Miami? she wants to know, her voice blending with Erik’s, with Charles’s own. Lines are smudged, walls crumble. Charles pulls them tighter than they’ve ever been and, at the same time, pushes himself farther.

After the United States he covers North America, feels for every mind, every living thing, human and mutant. South America and more still.

Impossible, Emma breathes, her voice one of a million, a billion, one of a planet full of voices, only louder than the others by virtue of vicinity.

Once, when he was seventeen, Charles touched godhood for less than a minute. Now he grasps it with both hands and rips it out of the sky, pulls it down and into himself and becomes.

He stretches himself across the globe, grasps the hands his lovers offer him – real or imagined, he can’t tell the difference anymore – grasps them and squeezes as tightly as he can.

Hold on, he begs and lets go.

+

The wind blows and it makes
a noise. Pain makes a noise. We bang
on the pipes and it makes a noise. Was there
no-one else? His hands keep turning into
birds, and his hands keep flying away
from him.
Eventually the birds must land.
Richard Siken, Unfinished Duet

+

29

+

Darkness fades into colour gradually, slowly, and then into light. Sunlight, filtering through a window. Warmth. A hand touches his and he feels Raven’s smile without seeing it.

You’re awake, she says and he can’t tell if she uses her mouth. Everything is too loud. Sorry, comes a whispered apology. Then, We’ve been so worried.

How long has he been gone?

Two weeks, almost. For a while there, we thought you weren’t going to find your way back to us.

He squeezes her hand in his, weak as a newborn. They held on. You held on. Thank you for holding on. He found his way back because he let go, but they didn’t.

What happened?

What... I was about to ask you that. Charles, what did you do? She knows, half-understanding already, but she can’t believe.

He’s tired. So tired. And his head... he’s not used to having a head anymore, he thinks, wryly. He was nothing but thought in the darkness. Now there’s light and he’s solid again, three again. He runs his hand through Charles’s hair softly, brushing it aside.

No, wait. That’s Raven. He shakes his head, rubs his forehead and glares at Hank until he shuts up. No. Not right either. Erik. The boundaries are all wrong, the walls obliterated. It will take a while to become himself again, he thinks and blinks and sees himself in bed, wan and pale and his eyes still glow, even through closed lids. They have been like this ever since the beach, like they’re burning from the inside out.

They glow blue, not like Raven’s skin but like the ocean in sunlight, like lightning. Raven strokes a finger along his brow. You’ll never pass for human again.

He waits for sorrow, but none comes. Instead the question again. From Erik this time, who is hurrying up the stairs, having finally gotten rid of Hank. What did you do?

The question hums with pride and awe and a small, tiny increment of fear. A thrill. Power. Charles has so much power and Erik is half in love with the feel of it.

What did he do?

The first trick he learned. The first illusion, the one that has always come easiest because it is most familiar.

An empty room. You made Kurt think the room was empty so he wouldn’t find us.

Yes.

An empty room. Nothing here to see.

Impossible, Emma thinks, again, from somewhere at the outskirts of the property. Charles prods and knows what Erik knows: she stayed with them because she is desperate to learn what he did, to do what he can do. She never will. She would float away because she has no anchors and nothing to bind her to this world.

He could have been like her, he thinks, detached from the world, in it, not a part of it, his body nothing but a receptacle. But he needs his body because his lovers need it. Because they hold on to it and make it – him – real. He pushes her out again, a whispered command to go diamond. She blocks herself off huffily.

An empty room.

“Charles, I don’t understand,” Erik breathes from the doorway.

Charles shows them.

An empty room. A world full of mutants, feared, reviled, hunted. An empty room. An illusion. All he did was reach out, farther than ever before. He stopped holding himself in and let go and his first illusion was an empty room to hide behind.

“You turned the whole world into an empty room,” Raven breathes, her hands finally stilling in his hair.

Yes.

The teleporter – Azazel – he could walk down a crowded street now and no-one would scream, or even notice. Charles has turned the world blind. Humans see only empty rooms now, where there should be mutants.

It won’t last forever, but it gives them time. It gives them the opportunity to collect their kind, to gather them and prepare them.

Time to make this world into a world where he can wear his new lightning-eyes without having to hide them. A world where Raven can be blue forever and everywhere.

Schmidt is gone and the humans have forgotten and they have time.

+

30

+

Schmidt’s former henchmen stay at the mansion. Azazel proves invaluable when it comes to retrieving mutants and Riptide is another person Marie takes a shine to, much to Logan’s grumbling annoyance. Emma takes the quickly growing number of younger mutants – students – under her wing and teaches them things Charles tries not to know.

More mutants arrive every day, looking for help, for refuge. The world is blind to them now, truly blind. They can’t rely on anyone but each other now. Surprisingly, they have yet to run into a single mutant who minds. Most of them are simply relieved to not be alone. After all these years, their dream of a united mutantkind is finally taking shape. Raven can’t quite stop smiling.

Charles heals, insofar as he relearns how to use his body, how to remain within it. He still slips away often, but there are always two bright stars in the darkness to pull him home, like gravity.

Mutants are forming communities, not just in Westchester, but all over the place. Yet, somehow, all these communities look to them for guidance, for advice. They laugh about it, the three of them, in the privacy of their rooms because they have no idea what they are doing, have always made it up as they go along and hoped for the best. Yet they fall into new roles. Raven organizes, Charles talks, Erik teaches those who can how to fight.

Triad, Charles hears them called in the minds of their new family. Emma laughs at him all the time.

Triad. Perhaps.

Somehow, through it all, the world keeps turning and it is Erik, surprisingly, who puts it into words best.

“You may have made the world an empty room, old friend,” he says one evening, “but under the illusion, that room is fuller than it’s ever been.”

He’s right.

+

31

+

It’s late Sunday evening and Charles, Erik and Raven are enjoying a rare moment of quiet in the library, curled up with books, playing chess, having a quiet drink. Enjoying each other’s company.

Raven giggles at something she is reading and Charles ghosts through her mind to filter out the joke, laughs with her, lets Erik share in the simple pleasure. Neither of them flinches, or even moves.

“Do you wonder, sometimes, what we would be like if we weren’t... like this?” he asks. Erik looks up from the chess board and Charles sees himself through his friend’s mind, sees his unnaturally blue eyes.

“I’d probably still like pears,” Raven shrugs, offhandedly, not really caring.

“I wouldn’t think stealing is alright,” Charles returns, another item from a list that no longer exists or holds any meaning. I would have stopped you on that beach, he thinks and Erik cocks his head like he knew that already.

“It doesn’t matter,” he observes, putting Charles’s king into checkmate, toppling the white figurine over. “We can never leave each other,” he says and he does it without Raven’s desperate childhood hope, without Charles’s silent, overwhelming want, without his own angry-hot resentment that still burned only a few short months ago.

They can never leave each other.

The statement has lost whatever emotion it might once have provoked. It’s a simple statement of fact now, as true as the world they live in.

They can never leave each other.

Charles closes his eyes, Raven puts aside her book and Erik looks at them both and sees only blue, water and sky, and a new world in-between.

+


Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

Richard Siken, Scheherazade

+

The End

+