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Alex isn't really surprised when Agent Lehnsherr finds him in the old squat. There's nothing left here, really, just a pin-neat bed with clean, worn linens, a couple of books lined up along the wall, a lamp, a chair and a table — evidence Scott had been here and tried to make a home here before he'd had to take off. Alex doesn't know what he was thinking, busting out of prison four weeks shy of liberty, but he's always known that not going after his little brother was never an option. They're alone, they've got nobody, but they've always been alone together.

He hears Lehnsherr before he actually sees him, just his voice calling out, "You armed?"

Alex snorts. "Have I ever needed to be?" he asks.

Lehnsherr peers out from around a corner, smiling a little. "No," he admits, and adds, "Although it'd be pretty pointless against me, anyway."

Alex glares. "Whatever, just — take me back or whatever," he says, and goes back to staring at his hands, the torn skin of his knuckles, and feels himself shaking. Scott's out there somewhere alone, and Alex might never see him again. He's been such a fucking terrible brother, Alex keeps thinking, something balling up in his throat. He's been such a fucking wreck that the only person he's ever needed to take care of he's let down and now he's who the hell knows where, and Scott is just a kid — just a stupid kid —

"You should have waited a month, Summers," Lehnsherr says from overhead, and his voice sounds almost soft. "They're going to throw the key away on you for this."

Alex figures that Lehnsherr probably punches old ladies for breakfast, but there are snatches sometimes, accidental revelations of a person underneath that is actually creepier to know than not; he knows Lehnsherr has come to each of his parol hearings, argued for good behavior. Alex heard Lehnsherr say, "He's a good kid who hasn't made the best of a bad situation," once.

Alex claws at his hair. "It's my brother — you don't just walk away from —" and cuts himself off.

Lehnsherr drops a hand to Alex's shoulder. "I know," he tells him, and clearing his throat, says into his walkie talkie, "I have him. He's unarmed and cooperating."

***

Hank visits him in jail, dressed up like every bad stereotype of a lawyer out of every bad episode of Night Court.

"Jesus Christ, what the fuck are you doing?" Alex asks, because Hank has that fresh-faced, sweet-mouthed look that would get him eaten alive in here, and he feels antsy just thinking about him walking into this shithole with those eyes and that earnestness and that pleather briefcase.

Frowning, Hank says, "You're an idiot. You should have just called me. I would have gone for him."

Alex glares at the table in the visitors room. "I didn't want to get you involved, you bozo."

"Oh look, this is me, not involved," Hank snaps, because even though he looks like the fold-out of every edition of Emotionally Fragile Twinks R Us, version bozo lab nerd, he's actually the meanest little fuck in the world. "Look, I have a plan to get you out of here."

Swallowing hard, Alex says, "I'm not breaking out of here again."

He'd cashed in all his chips for good behavior on that one. They have him in full ankle and wrist chains now, a reflector suit on so if he tries to sling a laser it'll just blow back at him and slice his spine in half. He's gone back into solitary, but he's glad for it, weirdly, because at least in solitary the inferno of frustration he feels isn't going to hurt anybody when it blows.

"No, but we can cut you a deal," Hank insists.

"I got nothing anybody wants," Alex says flatly.

"You've got information," Hank returns, and he glances at one trio of guards camped around them at a semi-respectful distance, shows them a folder, before he gets the nod and slides it over to Alex. "Do you — do you remember that crew you used to run with?"

Alex frowns, because it's not exactly like he ever worked with a gang. "Crew," he repeats.

"I mean, you pulled a couple of jobs with them, with — ?" Hank starts, and Alex snarls:

"Hank, shut the fuck up."

Hank does, but he just stares at Alex instead, his mouth an angry, folded-up thing and whispers, "Look, you didn't know then. This was before it got…intense, and horrible. You just thought he was robbing banks and offices."

The guards at the door don't really give a shit, and they're not charged with eavesdropping or spying — that's why the prison has CCTV, after all — but Alex can't help but slant a look at them, paranoid. "Fucking excuse me for not wanting to make my sentence three times longer than it already is, okay?" he hisses. "And like you said, it was ages ago, there's no reason to bring it up. It'll just make things worse."

"Alex," Hank snaps at him, as ferociously as you can snap at someone if you're talking in whispers. "The military's paid more and written off a lot more for less information than you have, all right?"

Alex leans back, breaking the bubble of space between them. "Hank, leave it. I swear to God."

"I'm not going to leave it if it helps get you out of jail," Hank returns, defiant.

Back then, it had been Alex's first venture outside of simple smash and grab. He hadn't even known how those guys had managed to find him — car thieves and petty criminals generally didn't fall on higher-up radars — but they had insisted it was wasteful for someone of Alex's talents to ignore them and repress them so fiercely. And the money had sounded good, the whole thing had been easy: create a distraction while the team did the intricate work, infiltrated banks and stole who the fuck knows what out of security boxes and office towers and fucking whatever. Set a fire or create a car accident or hell, even a bomb and people are trained for it — you blow through the first floor of the neighboring block and everybody, fucking everybody is going to come running.

Alex remembers hiding a good distance away, equal parts impressed and horrified with himself, watching an office block beginning to fall apart, and seeing the blue FBI jackets covering the scene and Agent Lehnsherr for the first time, and felt the curls of an evil smile nearby, proprietary. Alex doesn't actually mind that Agent Lehnsherr knows too fucking much about him, considering Alex knows too fucking much about Agent Lehnsherr.

And now Alex just stares at Hank and thinks that in another life, if Hank hadn't been kicked out of Harvard when he'd been 16 and Alex hadn't been picking pockets and then fallen victim to crying kids on park benches in fucking Central Park, they wouldn't know each other. Hank would be a doctor or a scientist and Alex could stop feeling bad about dragging Hank down, too.

"This is the FB fucking I, they're not going to cut me a break," Alex parries, because he can't think of any reason Lehnsherr would cut him any fucking break. He's too dangerous, and this is too terrible; if anything, it'll get time put on his sentence and he'll get shipped to one of those secret prisons that don't exist. It doesn't make any sense.

Hank raises both eyebrows. "We'll see about that."

***

Columbia Professor in Critical Condition Following Attack at Genetics Conference
BY JEFFERY ELKIN and COLEEN MARLEY, 7:18 P.M.

Columbia University Professor Charles Xavier is in critical condition following gunfire that broke out during his keynote at a genetics conference being held at the school.

The attack, which the NYPD has described as "obviously targeted," was carried out during Mr. Xavier's closing presentation at the Kaiser Permanente Pew Foundation Genetics and Mutation Symposium, also led to the deaths of Donald Lufkin and Troy Hernandez of Columbia's campus police and teaching assistant Maria Bellows. Two dozen others reported minor injuries and are being treated at Columbia University Medical Center.

Police have detained two persons of interest related to the team that orchestrated the attack, and they are being held for questioning; no arrests have been made, but the NYPD has asked for anyone who may have information on the attackers to come forward.

"This was not a random act," said Commissioner Gale Renwick earlier this evening. "Opponents of Dr. Xavier and his work generate hundreds of threats each year, and we are taking care to follow every possible lead. We have our best officers on this."

The FBI has also been invited to consult on the case, which was called an act of domestic terrorism by Carla Feist, White House press secretary, in the afternoon briefing. The university campus has closed since the shooting and students in residence are being kept in lockdown at their dormitories. School officials have asked that concerned families reach out to the school through a hotline.

The Xavier Conference, as it's known throughout the scientific community, has always been a magnet for controversy for its advocacy of mutant rights and its call to arms for equal rights and integration from both mutants and nonmutants alike.

Atomic Ark, a radical mutant separatist group, lists Xavier as No. 1 on a so-called "Hit List" prominently displayed on its website, although police say leaders of the organization have been questioned and there is no evidence of their involvement in the attack. Anti-mutant groups Human Race and Double Helix organize annual protests, some which have grown so intense they've nearly barred entrance for conference participants.

"We are horrified by the actions of Professor Xavier's attackers and categorically condemn this behavior," Human Race said in a statement shortly after the shooting. "A philosophical disagreement was never solved with something as base as violence."

Mr. Xavier, described as brilliant by colleagues at Oxford University before he moved to New York to begin teaching at Columbia in 1998, has been a touchstone among the mutant community ever since he came out as one himself in the 1990. Submitting himself for testing by a joint U.K.-U.S. intelligence survey, Xavier was discovered to be the most powerful telepath ever recorded, measuring nearly 10 on the Ox-Carlyle Psi scale; average telepaths range anywhere from 2 to 4, with anything 5 or above being considered extraordinary. There are only six known telepaths with scores above 5 on the OCP scale: four measure at 6, and one at 7. The sixth is Xavier.

The discovery led to doubt about Xavier's previous scientific work in genetics research, with some arguing the data and conclusions could never be considered valid considering a telepath as powerful as Mr. Xavier could easily sway any ethics panel. Mr. Xavier has publicly spoken out against these claims, calling them "total nonsense" and saying that to use his powers in such a way would be flagrant abuse — something against which he champions.

"Since Dr. Xavier first launched the symposium, it has always drawn threats and controversy from the public," said University Chancellor Nell Richardson in written comments distributed to the media before a press conference scheduled for this evening. "His passion and courage championing mutant human rights, from arguing for affirmative enrollment to speaking before senate and congressional panels for inclusion and openness has won admirers and enemies alike. We are devastated by this act of ignorant violence, and all of our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Xavier and his family for his speedy recovery."

***

Alex Summers' known associates list is about five people long, and all of those awful, terrible, incredibly embarrassing aliases dead-end in one Hank McCoy, 19, given to twitching, pleading eyes, and sitting in Erik's office looking pathetic and clutching a briefcase he'd clearly purchased at the K-Mart in Astor Place.

"Seriously?" Erik asks, standing in the doorway of his office, and turns over his shoulder. "Who the hell let this kid in here?"

Angel points at Armando who points at Sean who points at Raven, who shrugs, unabashed. Erik scowls.

"You can't fire us," Raven reminds him. "Charles would be so upset."

"Charles thinks I can do no wrong and would tearfully understand if I were forced to throw all of you out," Erik lies, and turns back to Hank, who is looking — if possible — even more scared and waifish, perched on the uncomfortable seats in front of Erik's desk. "All right, out with it, McCoy, what do you want?"

Hank sucks in a steadying breath here, obviously shooting for bravery. "I want to make a deal."

Erik settles into his desk chair and favors Hank with a flat, unimpressed stare.

"Help Alex get out of prison — "

"Not happening," Erik says.

" — And Alex will help you get Shaw," Hank finishes in a rush, hands fumbling with his briefcase, digging out papers he spills all over Erik's meticulously neat desk, jarring his WORLD'S MEANEST BOSS mug (from Raven) and the revoltingly twee silver frame photo of Charles, hair in wild disarray, in three-days-old clothes, balls deep in his dissertation and half-crazy, staring stunned at the camera.

Erik rights the picture reflexively, nudging it back into place, and as an afterthought he reaches out to touch the corner of it in automatic reassurance. In the back of his head he can feel Charles, beavering away at something hideously nerdy across the city, perfectly fine and completely distracted, not paying attention except where Charles is always paying attention — his unconscious telepathy strong enough even unfocused to blanket most of the state.

"Shaw," Erik says, voice very even.

"Sebastian Shaw," Hank clarifies, as if there could be another, and points at this paper and that document all over Erik's desk now. "Alex, when he was just starting out, for a while he worked with Shaw's team — " Hank's eyes go wide and he holds up a placating hand, preemptively scared and with good reason " — this is before Shaw did anything major, though! This was ages ago. When it was just bank robberies and breaking into offices."

The paperclips on Erik's desk start fisting into tiny knots. "And why did we never know about this before?"

"Well, by the time Alex got arrested, Shaw was already a mass murderer and it's not like he wanted to admit that once upon a time he worked with like, the most-wanted terrorist in the world," Hank babbles, dragging out photographs. "I swear Alex would never want to hurt anybody, he just didn't know back then — nobody did."

"Setting aside the fact that if all of this is true, general incompetence in law enforcement is much, much more disturbingly pervasive than I had even thought," Erik starts, and ignores Hank's perfectly adolescent eye-roll at that, "say I believe you — Alex worked with Shaw. So what?"

"So he has information," Hank says, overeager, cuffs dragging papers around. "Apparently Shaw liked to talk shit a lot, back then. He said all sorts of stuff."

"What sorts of stuff?" Erik asks, tense.

Hank shrugs. "Names. Personal details. Alex knows some of the people Shaw used to run with," he spouts off.

"How do I know this is legitimate?" Erik asks reasonably, before he can veer off into one of his fugue states, where he terrifies his agents and makes probies cry and gets reprimanded by his immediate managers for reckless disregard and commended by his manager's manager for bravery and has to go home and sleep in one of the 15 guest rooms because Charles is furious at him and projecting his misery like a fucking foghorn.

There's a telling moment of hesitation here, a beat where Hank's obviously deciding whether not to do whatever he's probably about to do. He's got tells: the way he dips his gaze somewhere away from Erik's face, tugging at the wrist of his left sleeve, the way he rubs his thumb along the sharp edge of a page — skin too thick with callouses to be be worried about a papercut.

"Back then," Hank starts, faltering, "Shaw wasn't so polished. He bragged a lot."

The balls of paperclip liquefy now, pooling with the heat in Erik's stomach in their ceramic dish. "Oh?"

"Alex said — well, you were at a scene once, and Shaw saw you there and bragged about it all day. He said he'd made your powers manifest," Hank finishes awkwardly. "That you'd be nobody without him."

Erik thinks that there's more to Hank McCoy than an obvious target for bullying after all.

"Well played," he says mildly, because it's been long enough that his immediate burst of fury at the memory of how Shaw had helped Erik manifest his powers has calcified in its intensity. Erik's unyielding on this point, but he's not reactive anymore, either. "Something not in any records, unknown to most, so verifying — and at once utterly useless in terms of current information on Shaw's whereabouts in order to maximize your leverage."

Hank doesn't look triumphant. He's too baby-faced and blue-eyed for that, but he does tip his glasses further up his nose with shaking fingers and say, "You get Alex out, we'll help you."

Aside from being the most dangerous man in the world, having tastes that lean toward the unforgivably flamboyant, hideous fucking sideburns, and having arranged for Charles to be assassinated, Erik can now add "spreading lies about me" to the list of reasons that he's going to murder Shaw with extreme prejudice. Erik had needed Shaw to know about his powers like he'd needed another hole in the head, but the difference between being able to win coin tosses every time and coax open every jar and ripping holes into the sides of buildings was apparently Sebastian Shaw threatening to shoot Erik's mother at the mutant integration center, just to see if he couldn't push Erik a little bit harder. Marvelous, Shaw had called Erik's skill back then, and Erik wishes he'd taken Shaw out like all of the light fixtures in the outside hallway — he'd been a minor, a few years in juvie and a purged record at 18 seemed like an easy trade off for preemptively erasing Sebastian Shaw from the face of the earth: started off as a specialist in mutant discovery and integration, turned mutant supremacist and mass murderer. Powers and magnitude of power unknown, highly dangerous, top of every domestic and international terrorist watch list.

"Let me make some calls," Erik says finally, thinking about Alex rotting in a cell and Charles gritting his teeth through PT three times a week to keep up the muscles in the legs he can't feel anymore. "I'll see what our options are."

And Hank just stares at him, grateful in a way that's embarrassing, and breathes, "Thank you."

"Christ," Erik says, and shouts out the door of his office, "Hey, Cassidy — get this kid out of the building!"

***

Scott Summers visits like clockwork every week on Thursday for the allotted one hour with Alex in supermax, chattering through the bullet and shatter-proof glass. Prison mail says that Scott also sends a weekly package. Nothing worth currency or effort in prison, just stuff he thinks is funny or that he thinks Alex would like: a couple of comic books, a car mag or two, weirdly, maps, with Post-It notes stuck all over them with defamatory asides about the various locations. All of this, and everything else in Alex's cell — stripped clean now, in punishment — is delivered to Erik that afternoon, and he sifts through all of the soundless footage of Alex and Scott's last visit looking for something that would have triggered this.

"Walk me through it," Erik says.

Angel leans back in her seat, suit jacket bunching up around her shoulders. He wishes she wouldn't wear it around the office — it must be nervewracking to think that if she ever needed to get away, she wouldn't be able to easily unfurl her wings, but she'd said something about wearing backless shirts at the work as unprofessional and then distracted him by asking when Erik was going to man up and make Charles an honest man.

"Alex and Scott Summers, orphaned when Alex was 18 and Scott was 10," Angel says, flipping through Alex's file. "Tried to make ends meet working a couple of different jobs for a while, but they didn't have much of a chance."

The mutant registry had passed in the 1970s, before even Charles was old enough or savvy enough of the world to protest against it, and although subsequent blessings and generations had seen fit to keep it more or less quiet save for medical reason and for law enforcement, people were still suspicious. Nobody pays much attention to laws saying you can't discriminate against hiring mutant humans, and Erik had no doubt Alex lost dozens of jobs before he'd said, "fuck it" and turned to something easier for him, harder to swallow, and far, far more dangerous.

"No, I'm sure they didn't," Erik murmurs.

In the monitor, Alex is laughing, eyes crinkled and young, and Scott is leaning forward, hands pressed against the glass, animated and happy. Nothing bad happened that day. Something bad must have happened after.

"Rap sheet starts when Alex was about 19, mostly petty stuff, theft, car theft," Angel says, distracted. "No drugs, good for him, and nothing violent — sometime after he turn 21 he falls off the police radar for a bit." She holds up another file — Scott's. "This is when Scott starts showing up in school records, but the reasons are redacted."

Probably him manifesting, Erik thinks, because puberty didn't suck hard enough on its own without the advent of your mutation, too, for a lot of kids these days. Erik had figured his out during nursery school, when he'd terrified all the nice German fraus by entertaining himself by deconstructing his crib and playpen for escape, his mother liked to remind him. Charles hadn't even known telepathy wasn't normal until he'd turned four and no other children at some society party his parents were holding were able to hear him when he'd reached out to them in his head.

"When was it for you?" Erik asks, non-sequitur, but Angel just looks thoughtful.

"I was lucky — 20? Something like that? Old enough to know what was happening," she answers, and turns back to the monitors. "Anyway, off the grid for about three years, and then he shows up again: same low-level stuff, et cetera et cetera, and then there comes the accidental car-jacking."

Erik sighs. "Dumbass," he mutters.

Of course Alex Summers would have the luck of trying to steal a car with someone still inside of it, pulled over onto a side street to catch a nap before he drove into oncoming traffic.

"They would have gone a lot easier on him if he hadn't panicked when that guy pulled out his taser," Angel says philosophically. "Although at least he only sliced the car in half, and not the owner."

"Did Scott ever come back?" Erik asks, still watching the monitor, for the way Alex stared after Scott as the guards hustled him away. "After this visit here?"

"Last one," Angel says, checking the record. "The guard on Alex's block said Alex went nuts afterward, spent all his free time trying to call his brother over and over again, and asked if they could send someone to check on the kid, that sort of thing."

Erik twirls the pen hovering over his palm, sending it spinning round and round in thought.

"So he wasn't expecting it, whatever kept Scott away," Erik mumbles. "Whoever is keeping Scott away."

Angel closes her files, stopping the video, now showing some other people now having an argument through the shatterproof glass. "So?" she asks. "He's a nonviolent offender — and he may have some real info on Shaw."

Armando chooses this moment to stick his head into the room. "Plus he only broke out for his little brother," he says, too casually, which means that Sean's perch near the glass doors, texting, was a lookout after all. Sometimes Erik hates his fucking team. "You can't really fault a man for caring about family."

Probably because she can't help herself, Raven yells through the glass of his office walls:

"Come on, do it, Boss — if you don't, Hank's just going to sit in your office and cry some more."

Glaring at Angel, Erik says, "You guys planned this, didn't you?"

"It wasn't a formal tactical discussion or anything," she admits, smiling and gathering up the papers. "But we figured if we couldn't prevail upon your good nature, we could always call Charles."

Erik points at the door. "Go away."

"Yes, Boss," Angel laughs. "Right away, Boss."

***

Ordinarily, the process of certifying a CI is arduous enough, with paperwork thick enough to murder entire Amazonian rainforests and vast troves of undiscovered species. When the CI in question is a mutant, multiply it by five. But Erik likes this done in orderly ways, "sorted," as Charles likes to say, and so he calls Charles's assistant at the university to say he'll be late home tonight, and powers through all of the forms in one five-hour sitting, swearing at himself for being a pushover every step of the way.

But Alex, for all that he's over 21, is just a dumb kid who ever had a chance, and he's lived his whole life probably scared out of his mind his powers would hurt somebody. If Erik's not going to look out for him, nobody is, and the thought of Alex rotting in supermax, wasting his whole life there because he'd loved his brother too much just to give up on him when he'd gone missing and there'd been no one to help isn't one he can swallow.

By the time he's done, the office is more or less deserted, just Raven still puttering around on a couple of old cold cases that have a Shaw connection and lying about it. Erik's tried to reason with her about it, but she doesn't have an outlet for her obsession the way Erik does, she just goes home and lies in her bed, unpeels herself from her preferred skin of blond hair and round cheeks and stare the ceiling with her cat-yellow eyes. She'd slept at the mansion for a solid two months during Charles's recovery, after he'd come home from the hospital and his seven separate surgeries, and fought with him for hours when all Charles wanted to do was fight with someone.

"Want to come over for late dinner?" Erik asks, because Charles would be glad to see her.

She shakes her head. "No, I just wanted to put together some stuff for Alex to look at, when he gets here."

"That confident the request will go through?" Erik asks, amused. Raven claims that she and Charles are completely different, that she finds his endless optimism annoying, that Charles's relentless determination to see the good in everybody is nauseating, but Erik thinks Raven likes to ignore the ways they've rubbed off one another.

Shrugging, she says, "Don't see why not. Shaw's bigger fish than Alex, and there's no other task force that would be capable of handling his powers."

"Raven, Alex isn't even capable of handling his powers," Erik says, and drops a brief hand to her shoulder good night as he heads for the elevator bank.

It's dark outside, the city throbbing with steamy summer heat, everything gleaming from a brief and violent rainshower they had in the afternoon, and now neon slick like a coat of sweat. He leaves his car in the garage and goes for the subway, taking the 6 up Lexington Avenue.

Erik would have loved the monstrosity of Xavier House as a kid. It's five stories; there's an art deco elevator. Most of the first floor is paved in actual fucking marble. That's aside from the glorious scrolling staircases, the masses of corridors and endless warrens of rooms inside of rooms and hidden passageways that Erik's pretty sure means that the Xaviers made their first fortunes bootlegging during Prohibition. Games of hide and seek at Xavier House would have been epic scale, and Erik sometimes tries to imagine Charles — always alone — trying to keep himself and his wandering and overly powerful mind entertained here with just nannies and maids and the butler to distract him before Raven had appeared in his life. Bored, a grown up Charles is terrifying and restless; bored, a tiny Charles just seems hypothetically sad.

And sadly bored is what Charles is when Erik finds him, languishing in the second floor study.

Erik pauses at the door. "Are you — ?"

"I'm trying to see if I can tell what they're thinking just by having a visual fix," Charles says, unmoving from his slouch in the chair, situated in front of the shitty Best Buy bargain bin TV that's balanced precariously on top of a heap of old term papers in one corner. "I think I might be able to."

Charles is watching re-runs of America's Next Top Model, so Erik thinks it's entirely fair to ask, "Even if you did lock in on their thoughts, how could you tell they were thoughts at all?"

Twisting around to grin at him, Charles says, "Cruel — potentially accurate, but cruel."

For reasons Erik prefers not to explore and that Charles knows but pretends not to, Erik isn't given to casual touches, but Charles always says hello not with skin but a sudden sensation of affection, like someone whispering: welcome back, welcome back, I've missed you, welcome back right into the cavities of his heart, bypassing all the unnecessary roadblocks in between.

"How was your day?" Charles asks, wheeling around to face him, and Erik takes the low seat by the window, lets his posture fray completely, melt into the chair. "What happened?" You look tired, gets the direct line.

Erik thinks about Alex's crushed expression, that defeated slump of his shoulders, his own, reflexive ache for the kid. "Alex Summers broke out of prison."

"Alex?" Charles asks, frowning. "He doesn't seem the type."

"He went after his brother," Erik says, because that explains everything, and Charles agrees, from the look on his face.

"Alex didn't find him," Charles says, matter-of-factly.

Erik reaches over and appropriates one of Charles's hands for his own, running his thumb over the lines of Charles's palm and wonders were Scott might be, hopes that he's well and that he's not frightened, but he knows that neither of these are likely. "No, he didn't."

"You think you're about to do something stupid," Charles says suddenly, curious. Erik frowns. "And before you accuse me of reading your mind, your apprehension is so intense it's fairly drowning me through the skin — no additional effort required on my part."

Sighing, Erik folds their palms together. Go on, he thinks. Read me. I'm too tired to talk.

Charles can steal into peoples's heads on cats feet, silent and undetected, or he blast in violently, overtaking. With Erik, Charles comes in politely, with the mental equivalent of a knock on the door before he peers inside, easy and familiar in this terrain, sorting fretfully through the ordinary frustrations of Erik's day — paperwork, Cassidy, the forever-long wait for the train in the morning — and rifling through the afternoon and evening, long into night. Erik always visualizes Charles shuffling through the papers on Erik's desk at work whenever Charles does this.

"Oh," Charles says, after a moment, eyes going from sleepy to wide and aware. "A CI? Really?"

Erik shrugs. "He may know something about Shaw," he says.

Charles arches an eyebrow. "Sure," he says, which sounds like, Of course he does, in Erik's head. "And I'm sure your fondness for him plays no part in this."

"You're the one that's spoiling my entire team," Erik accuses, because even if Charles wasn't the world's most powerful telepath, it would be pretty pointless to try lying to him about this.

Grinning, unrepentant, Charles says, "But they're so splendid, all of them."

"If only you'd been properly bullied during your childhood," Erik sighs, and gives Charles's hand a squeeze. "Is there anything to eat?"

"We can order a pizza," Charles decides, and nods toward the television. "They're showing a marathon of this tonight."

Fucked at the office, fucked at home, Erik thinks, resigned, watching Charles reach for his phone.

He ends up asleep on Charles's shoulder after two slices, listening to Tyra ranting about smizing in the background, and Charles has to shake him conscious before he drowsily staggers up the many, many steps in the house, hand steady as he floats Charles's chair up alongside him and toward the bedroom.

***

It's a confusing 72 hours.

Breaking out of prison had sucked out loud, in part because he actually did like the guards — they were nice guys, and hadn't deserved to get knocked out by concrete when Alex had blown up a wall — and in part because he'd known even as he'd been jacking someone's car in the lot, hearing all the alarms go haywire in the background, that he was going to get caught and then he'd be really fucked.

But Alex has done a lot dumber stuff for Scott before, and it wasn't like today was going to be any different, so then he'd hit the gas and figured he had like four hours before Agent Lehnsherr tracked him down again like a giant, magnetic bloodhound who kept calling him "kid." That guy was such a dick.

He hadn't really thought he'd find Scott, but he'd hoped, panic-hoped, and it was one thing to know in his head that when he got to the squat that Scott would probably be gone and another entirely to see it empty and stripped of most of Scott's stuff. Alex didn't have a phone number; they didn't have family other than each other, and if Scott had friends to run to, Alex didn't know who they fucking were, and the hole in his chest felt like it was bottomless whenever he thought about his baby brother alone out there.

And then, just a day after he'd been re-arrested, Hank had gotten in pretending to be his lawyer and floating some crazy-ass scheme, there was Agent Lehnsherr again, leaning against a barred window and looking at Alex with narrowed, thoughtful eyes.

Alex puts up with it for maybe two minutes before he bursts out with, "Dude, what?"

"What did Shaw want with you?" Lehnsherr asks, abrupt and to-the-point.

"Oh Jesus Christ," Alex mutters, scrubbing at his face, chains rattling. "Did Hank actually come at you with that shit?"

"He made an interesting proposition," Lehnsherr allows, and moves to sit opposite Alex at the table. "Well? What did Shaw want with you?"

Alex has a flash of fury at Hank, for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, for never getting out whenever Alex has tried to get him out. Hank's smart and clean-looking and he doesn't have that obvious look of criminal desperation on him, and if Hank wanted to, he could get a real job somewhere. Except Hank's pathetically loyal and keeps coming back for Alex, keeps reading every science and law book in the New York Public Library and not walking away.

"What does that guy ever want with anybody?" Alex bites out, because he might as well tell. He's here for the long haul. Maybe Lehnsherr can get him moved out of some of his more restrictive bindings; they're not going to move him into general population, anyway, but maybe he could stop wearing the fucking chains 24-7. "How the fuck would I know? He just had some blonde chick who said she saw something in me and asked if I'd work for him."

Lehnsherr raises an eyebrow. "What did you do for him?"

"Distract you guys," Alex retorts.

"For what? Robberies?" Lehnsherr asks, leaning forward.

Alex shrugs. "I guess. I mean, I thought they were," he says. "I never asked."

Okay, Alex decides his least favorite thing isn't the way Lehnsherr calls him "kid" after all, because the way he laughs, disbelieving, and then says, "Summers, you're a real piece of work, you know that?" is much, much more annoying. "Do you remember anything else? About the blond woman?"

"Hot," Alex says, knee-jerk. "Like, smoking, smoking FHM, Maxim hot."

"Name?" Lehnsherr prompts.

Alex frowns. "Emily? Emma? I think?"

Amused, Lensherr asks, "Bra size?"

"She was a 32D, easy," Alex reports, and it takes him half a beat before he turns completely red at the smirk on Lehnsherr's face. "I have eyes, asshole."

"More importantly," Lehnsherr asks, still smirking, "would you recognize her if you saw her again? I'm assuming you would definitely recognize her breasts."

Alex wishes his ankles weren't shackled together. Probably he'd get some sort of even worse punishment for kicking a federal agent in the shin, but it'd be worth it.

"Sure, yes," he snaps. "I'd recognize most of his crew." They'd thought of Alex as a stupid kid, too.

Lehnserr's amusement fades here, goes serious, and he makes a long, considering noise.

Glowering, Alex says, "Can I go back to my cell now? Isn't this shit considered cruel and unusual torture?"

Lehnsherr grins. "Oh, kid — get used to it."

"What?" Alex says, because that doesn't make sense, and it keeps on not making sense while Lehnsherr's letting himself out, and all through the night as Alex stares at the ceiling and walls in solitary, and for the next 24 hours or so, until there's a knock on the door of his cell and the prison warden's furious bitchface as he says:

"All right, Summers. I don't know how you did it, but your deal came through."

***

The next 72 hours don't look like they're going to be much better, Alex thinks glumly. Hank, in the same crummy suit with the same crummy briefcase, is waiting for him when he gets shuffled through release procedures, and looks like he's repressing all sorts of feelings extra hard. Next to him is Lehnsherr, looking impassive, and Alex would ask one of them, either of them, what the hell is going on, except there's this guy tying something to his ankle.

"The monitor will run 24 hours a day, and will have a geolocation on you to within 5 feet," the man is saying, sounding bored about everything. "It's a combined portable reflector pack and a tracker. You try anything stupid, your handler will flip it back on you. You try to run, it'll ping us when you hit your 2 mile radius."

Alex says, "Uh."

"Unless your handler calls it in," the guy clarifies. "If you guys are out of state or whatever, call it to central switchboard, and we'll just make sure he's tracking within reasonable distance — we clear?"

Alex stares for a while.

"Yes, that's clear," Hank jumps in, practically vibrating out of his skin he's so excited.

"Clear as day," Lehnsherr agrees, and glances at Alex. "Understood, kid?"

"First off, stop fucking calling me that, I'm 24," Alex barks. "And secondly, who is my handler?"

Because being sent to jail, breaking out of jail because his brother's gone missing, being re-sent to jail, having Hank McCoy as a best friend and the fucking FBI all over his dick isn't bad enough, this is when Alex learns that he's now Lehnsherr's pet mutant CI.

"Surprise," Lehnsherr says, dry as tinder. "I can tell you're thrilled."

"Hank's happy enough for both of us," Alex mutters, and Hank punches him in the arm for it, which hurts like a motherfucker, not that Alex is going to admit that. And because Alex, for better or worse, believes in the devil he knows, he asks, "How come you didn't consult me at all? What if I don't want to help you guys? What if I want to stay in prison?"

Lehnsherr looks unmoved, as usual. Asshole. "Then I guess you don't want my help finding your brother, either."

Alex grits his teeth, and he can feel Hank's hands on his shoulder, trying to hold him back. Scott's case isn't really a case, Alex knows. He's a street kid, and they've both busted out of mutant foster care — basically kiddie prison, anyway, so Alex should have seen this latest development in his life coming — so much the system would be happier to see them gone, Alex bets. But Scott's powers are even more fucked up than Alex's, and they'd barely had them under control when Alex had gone into real jail. Who knows where he is now, how they are now, if someone's trying to hurt him or use him.

Hank is whispering, "Alex, come on, just — "

"We can make this work for both of us, Summers," Lehnsherr interrupts, and Alex thinks that this is the first time he's really felt like the dumb kid Lehnsherr clearly thinks he is, in all the time they've known each other. "You just have to learn how to work for me."

"Alex, come on," Hank hisses. "This is the best way, okay?"

Hank's right, but that doesn't quiet the part of Alex that wants to yell that fucking feebs who wear collar shirts and ties and get to hide behind their badges don't know anything about his life. That maybe Lehnsherr is a mutant, but he's clearly got his shit under control, and fuck, the government loves him, puts him on TV all the time to talk about helping prevent terrorism and how his task force is "uniquely able" to handle mutant threats. He wants to yell that there's no fucking way Lehnsherr knows how useless and angry and scared Alex feels all the time — Lehnsherr probably doesn't have any family he gives a fuck about. Lehnsherr's probably never had a feeling.

But Alex has a brother, and if someone forced him to admit it, he has some feelings about that, and so he grits his teeth and says:

"Fine — fine, we'll do it your way."

***

Getting Alex to do something rational, taking the route of least resistance, is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences, so Hank feels pretty justified about being ebullient with triumph all the way during the long drive from the prison to 26 Federal Plaza.

Agent Lehnsherr's a weird mix of law-abiding and control-freak risk-taker as a driver, shredding across three lanes at one point and then scrupulously sticking to within 10 miles of the speed limit in his big black hulk of a government-issued SUV. Hank wonders if the guy is nuts, because he can't imagine anybody else taking Alex Summers — ex-supermax inmate and all-around terrifying-seeming mutant criminal — out of jail without so much as another agent for backup, but Lehnsherr seems pretty unconcerned.

Of course, if what Alex says about Lehnsherr's mutation is true, then he could throw both Hank and Alex into traffic and orchestrate a 40-car pile up on their faces if they so much as put a toe out of place, so maybe it's not weird at all.

"My team's arranged housing for you," Lehnsherr says, out of nowhere. "It's not much to look at, but it's on the same budget as the state was spending on you per month in jail, so try to keep an open mind."

Hank blurts out, "How much was that?" since Alex seems determined to ignore everything going on in the in favor of sulking in the backseat.

Lehnsherr grins, half-apologetic. "About $800 a month."

"In Manhattan?" Hank gasps.

"Like I said: not much to look at," Lehnsherr says, the car slowing to a crawl now, finally, down beyond the long avenues and into the warrens of tiny, interlocking, knotted streets of Chinatown, Canal stretching angular and crammed with thousands of people, English vanishing from the signs along the street.

Frowning, Hank asks, "Can he stay somewhere else?"

"Is it within his 2 mile radius?" Lehnsherr asks, looking amused.

Hank thinks about the warehouse in Brooklyn and tries to do the math in his head. "Maybe?"

"We'd also have to clear whoever he'd be staying with," Lehnsherr goes on, hanging a left, and Federal Plaza looms hideous and unyielding up ahead, sounding entirely too cheerful for someone giving this any genuine consideration. "Deep background check and all that."

Hank feels queasy at the thought, and he's trying to figure out how to backtrack on this when Alex — ever gentlemanly — elbows him viciously and mutters, "Forget it, Hank."

"Ah," Lehnsherr says, pulling up to a parking gate, "young love."

Bleak, Hank says, "Agent Lehnsherr," and Alex just rolls his eyes.

"Don't worry, I think it's cute," Erik assures him, eyes crinkling meanly in the rear-view mirror, which is sufficiently mortifying to make Hank subside into embarrassed silence until they're done parking and Agent Lehnsherr pulls open the door of the backseat and hustles them out into the underground lot like a particularly unfriendly camp counselor. That's pretty much par for the course the rest of the way up to the 23rd floor offices.

The elevator ride is endless, with Alex sulking in mute fury in the back corner and Agent Lehnsherr frowning at his BlackBerry, scrolling back and forth for something.

Hank knows that if there are good guys, then Agent Lehnsherr is as close to is as it's possible for them to find. Hank knows that Alex doesn't trust the feds, that his automatic reaction is to lie and cut and run, that distrust had been pounded into Alex, an indelible mark on top of bad circumstances. Alex hadn't had the parents to drive him to manifestation management classes or pay for nice ones, or even the luxury of being able to skip work to go to the (shitty) free ones offered by the government. Being in this building — being around people in general, much less Feds — makes Alex nervous, makes his skin crawl.

Hank's different. His parents had been nice, he'd had a pretty benign upbringing, and Harvard was really nice about letting a 13 year-old mutant take classes, there. They were less nice when they realized what he was doing in his off hours in the chemistry lab — desperately trying to find a way to pass, completely, as ordinary. It wasn't really anything they could keep quiet, and Hank will always remember the tired, heartbreaking look on Dr. Matchmark's face when she'd told him she had to report him, that he'd probably have to do some time, because if it was one thing nobody was lenient about, it was mutants playing with mutant DNA.

"I'm going to go into my office," she'd told him, looking hundreds of years older than she was. "I'm going to go into my office and pick up the phone and dial it. I'm going to call the mutant juvenile line specifically, so it'll probably take a while before I can find the number — am I being clear?"

"Yes," Hank had whispered, and he'd run.

So Alex had the bad life, and made the best of it, and Hank had a good thing going and screwed it up, and the only person who'd been nice to him after he'd spent a month sleeping in parks and scared as hell and passing into and out of shelters and too scared to take a shower in case someone see his feet was Alex. Hank didn't care if Alex was mad at him for caring, Hank was always going to care. Even if Alex was a dick.

"Look," Agent Lehnsherr finally says, when the numbers on the elevator tick past 15, 16, "I know you're nervous, but this is really going to be a nothing day. We'll do a debriefing, my team will have you look at some photos, we'll do a couple of interviews — easy."

Then the elevator doors open into total chaos on the 23rd floor.

***

Charles had considered not telling Erik about the note on his office door, the shivery-cold impression of Sebastian Shaw left behind on a message taped to his name plate, but then he'd opened the letter — he can already hear Erik's explosive fury on that subject — and found the folded-up photograph and went ahead and canceled all of his classes for the day.

"I don't really see why I can't go now," Charles says reasonably. "I've brought you the note."

"You're kidding me, right?" Raven demands. "He was at your office."

"So were three pedophiles and a wheelchair fetishist, yesterday," Charles argues. He keeps up a low-level scan whenever he's at his desk because he promised Erik he would.

Raven stares at him. "Did any of those three pedophiles or that wheelchair fetishist shoot you five times?"

"No," Charles says shortly, and decides not to tell her that said wheelchair fetishist also has an extensive collection of possibly-fake-hope-it's-fake snuff films. The level of access Charles has always had to everybody's thoughts means that generally speaking it takes a lot to rile him, though his friends and family by no means have the same tolerance. "But I hardly see what my sitting in your office so everybody can trip over me is going to do."

Armando, who in Erik's absence gets to take over as World's Worst Boss, is yelling at everybody in the background, a phone clutched between his ear and his shoulder, waving a folder and directing human traffic left and right. Charles had barely passed Armando the note in question — which he'd opened carefully, using a handkerchief he kept in his jacket pocket — before phones had started ringing off the hook. Everybody is thinking extremely loudly, that this is the first indication of Shaw they've had in more than a year, that someone needs to set up protective detail for various and sundry former targets, that Columbia officials and campus security need to be alerted and read in on the situation, that Charles Xavier is a poor bastard, stuck in his chair, that oh shit, I hope he didn't hear that.

Raven, who can't hear any of it, just sticks the toe of her sensible heels through one of the spokes spokes of one Charles's wheelchair and glowers.

"You sitting here in the office so everybody can trip over you is going to keep you from getting killed, you moron," she tells him, fierce, and Charles can feel the worry radiating off of her in tsunami waves. They both know it's irrational, that to panic now is too late already, given that Shaw has apparently been strolling around Charles's office leaving him affectionate notes to say hello, don't worry, I still intend to make a martyr out of you.

Charles thinks that if Shaw was planning on killing him today, then he'd probably be dead already, but he's known Raven since he was 12 and she was 10 and he swears every time he makes her cry that he's never going to make her cry again.

He pastes a smile on his face. "Raven, I am sure there are no more capable hands than yours in case someone needs to be shot violently in the face."

She looks genuinely touched. "Shut up, Charles," she mumbles.

"Frankly, I'm more concerned about the boy in the photo," Charles returns, and they settle into an uncomfortable silence at the thought of him: blindfolded and obviously terrified, face wet with tears. There's no psychic impression on the photo — something snapped bloodlessly and without any interest, it's drenched in the same icy determination as the note Shaw had left on his door like an unwanted calling card. The child looks maybe 16, a little too thin, knobby-kneed, and he's curled into himself in the corner of a bland-colored room: not a single obvious detail in the photo other than a tremendous amount of fearfulness.

Raven puts her hands on his knees, and he can feel her proximity, but not her touch, not the weight of her hands or the warmth of them, and even though his injury is old, the tiny losses, the never-ending sense of absence, is eternally new.

"We'll find him," she reassures him. "We have our best people on it."

Charles nods. Angel is already in the field, he can feel the whispery, feathery sensation of her in the distance, through the glass and steel and successive layers of concrete, up past Jackie Robinson Park, ordering around forensics and caucusing with Homeland Security liaisons in the hallway outside of Charles's office. The psychic shielding around the division's offices is trembling with the volume and mass of everybody's thoughts, overfull, and Charles spreads his awareness out further, for some indication of Shaw.

Instead, he gets Erik: amused, light, BlackBerry outage, fucking RIM, fucking AT&T, has no clue what's going on, talking with two people Charles doesn't know. Wait, Charles thinks, frowning, yes I do. Or at least he knows one of them second-hand, the impression of a ghost in a photograph.

Either way.

When he opens his eyes again — he never means to let them drift closed when he does this, it must be reflexive — Raven is staring at him curiously.

"Did you find anything? Anyone?" she asks.

"Not Shaw," Charles says. "Either he's long gone, or heavily shielded."

Raven looks skeptical. "From you?"

"There are more things in heaven and Earth, Raven," Charles says, and folds his hands in his lap. "Either way, I suggest you brace for impact."

Tensing, Raven asks, "What? Impact?"

Charles tips his head toward the glass doors to the elevator bank, saying, "Erik," and all the color drains out of Raven's face as they hear the elevator bell indicator. "Boom."

***

As soon as the elevator doors open, three things happen in rapid succession:

(1) Erik's BlackBerry finally springs to life, showing 15 missed calls, 5 voice mails, 2 text messages, and an embarrassment of work e-mail, most of them with the subject line: SHAW or RE: RE: RE: SHAW, URGENT

(2) The elevator next to theirs pings open, and McTaggert, their CIA liaison pops out.

(3) Hank sucks in a teenaged-girl gasp for oxygen and asks, high-pitched in a hush, "Oh my God, is that Professor Charles Xavier?"

The only reason Erik doesn't overreact when he sees Charles, finally, a singular oasis of wary calm in the midst of utter bedlam, is because McTaggert interrupts him with an arched brow, saying, "Erik," and casting a curious look over Alex and Hank, huddled behind Erik and gawping at the office.

"Moira," Erik says through gritted teeth. "I assume that as per usual, your presence here indicates the shitshow has hit 11."

She smiles at him, nicer than he deserves for his tone. "Not yet. And if we play this right, maybe not at all — now, if you'll excuse me," she demurs, and calls out across the room, "Raven? We're ready for that read-in."

Across the room, Raven's familiar blond head pops up from where she's been camped out next to Charles, obviously babysitting.

"Right," Raven says, and gathering her papers, calls over to Erik: "You might want to have some words with brother dearest. Genius found the note, failed to call the police or us, and casual as you like drove himself down to the office."

"Carrytale," Charles hisses at her, and Erik doesn't even bother giving Raven an acknowledging nod before he turns his glare to Charles.

The very first thing Charles does when their eyes meet is to project the thoughts, I'm fine, no harm done, and Several of those missed calls of yours are from me.

That doesn't make the argument they're about to have any less imminent, though, so Erik snags Sean by the back of his suit jacket, ignoring his strangled gulp, and spins him around.

"Cassidy, this is Summers and McCoy," Erik says, pointing at Summers and McCoy and ignoring the way Raven is smirking at him as she and McTaggert brush past, heels tapping dully against the carpet, and each of the metal pins inside feels like a little stab in the back of Erik's eyeballs.

Sean waves, sounding vaguely choked. "Hey," he manages.

"Summers, McCoy, this is Agent Sean Cassidy," Erik clarifies. Hank waves back, but he's still staring over Erik's shoulder at Charles, gap-jawed. "Cassidy, I want you to sit on these guys until I'm done with Charles and resist — " Erik holds up an arresting hand at Sean's expression " — the urge to say the first thing that comes to your mind at that."

Throwing off a sloppy salute, Cassidy says, "Aye aye, sir," and wriggles out of Erik's grasp, slapping a hand on Hank's shoulder and wisely leaving Summers alone entirely, saying, "Hey guys, hey, welcome to hell."

"Seriously," Hank says as they're led off, "is that Charles Xavier?"

Erik's already walking off when he hears Sean say, "Oh, man, you have no idea, do you?"

Armando barely looks up from his computer or lean away from the phone when Erik walks past, just turning to glance at him long enough to say, "Sit-rep in 15 minutes in the main conference room, Angel's on site at Columbia working with Homeland Security and forensics, and before you yell at us, it was the Professor's idea to wait down in reception until Raven could go and get him."

Long-suffering, Charles asks, "Honestly, is no one on my side?"

"I'm giving him a raise," Erik says. "My office. Now."

Smiling sweetly, Charles says, "Really, I'd rather do this here."

Looking pained, Armando murmurs, "Please, don't," and Charles talks over him, saying, "Really, Erik, I can tell already that you're going to overreact — this isn't as big — "

The rest of the familiar litany gets lost when Erik's patience snaps entirely and he skids Charles's wheelchair down the long aisle and through the door of his office, ignoring the way he can feel everybody's eyes on him in favor of staring down Charles's murderous expression instead.

"Was that," Charles grinds out, once the door to Erik's office is shut, "necessary?"

"Why didn't you call the police immediately?" Erik snaps, instead of answering.

"Because I don't think you're fully cognizant of how humiliating it is when you do things like that," Charles goes on, pitch rising.

"Did you forget that you're his number one target?" Erik talks over him. He knows Charles hates it when he does that almost as much as he hates it any time Erik brings attention to the wheelchair, but everything in his head a rattling cacophony of terror and he's no good at hiding it around Charles. "Did that somehow slip your giant fucking mind?"

Funny enough, back when Charles had the option of walking away, he never would. He'd follow Erik room from room and through locked doors and into angry car rides, talking into Erik's head, never willing to let it go, also resulting in a couple of hilariously awkward moving violations for Erik. Charles is uniquely capable of knowing when people need space, he's just too much of an arrogant shit to give it to them. Now that leaving's a production — between the awkwardly placed chair that had been pushed aside where Erik had stormed in after Charles, the door that's going to prove an annoying angle for the chair, the people in the way between Erik's office and the elevators that Charles can't just weave between with furious speed anymore — walking away is the only thing Charles looks like he wants to do.

"Strangely," Charles says, his vowels absolutely flat and icy, knuckles white on the arms of the chair, "it has not slipped my mind."

Which is enough to deflate Erik's swelling fury all at once.

Fighting with Charles is second nature to Erik; being mad at him is far more foreign. Mostly when they argue it's over philosophical differences, or about whether or not Charles is violating Erik's right to not incriminate himself when he pokes around Erik's head and discovers he may or may not have passed on wearing kevlar on one more more occasion. Erik is used to being angry about Charles, being angry for Charles, but being angry at him is hard.

Charles is wrapped up inside layers and layers of privilege, oblivious to the uglier complications engendered in the lives of people who aren't backed by vulgar trust funds who live like kings off of the interest. He's always known exactly what everybody is thinking and what they want, if they want him, and when Erik had met Charles, years ago, fresh off the fucking boat from England and embarrassingly sweet, he'd never truly been hurt, either.

But Charles also knows every terrible thing, seen it, done it, lived through it, wanted it and hated it and been victimized by it, lived inside of it. Erik's confident of his own limits and limitations, but he never really knows Charles's — there's no way to tell because Charles is rarely changed by it, still the volubly witty and charmingly dry professor, eternally interested in everything and everybody — nothing a hopeless case. What the hell is Erik supposed to do with that, he wonders every fucking day.

He puts his hands on his face. "Why didn't you just call the cops, Charles?"

"There was no rush, he was gone, I could tell," Charles says, quiet now and tired-sounding. "And I just saved your team the trouble of driving me down here — they would have been forced to anyway."

"You can't know he was gone for sure," Erik protests, but it's hollow at the core and Charles knows that, too. "What was in the letter?"

Charles raises his eyebrows, face clearing. "I'd prefer not to say while I'm still nearby and easy for you to yell at, if it's all the same." Don't worry, I'll yell at you when I get home, anyway, Erik thinks, sullen, and Charles ignores it entirely to ask, "What do you think it means?"

"That Shaw's re-emerged?" Erik asks. "I don't know. Probably he's planning something."

"Or he's been planning something, and now he's about to act," Charles muses.

Resisting the urge to tug at his hair, Erik agrees, "Yes, or that."

Charles makes a humming noise, simultaneously meditative and dismissive.

"Who was with you? Coming up in the elevator?" he asks.

Erik looks out the glass walls of his office, down the open floor and the bustling desks, at where Sean is talking to Alex, who's ignoring him in favor of staring at his shoes, and Hank, who is ignoring him in favor of staring directly into Erik's office, gazing at Charles with something close to abject infatuation.

"That is Summers and his pre-pubescent 'lawyer,'" Erik mutters.

Charles turns to stare back at Hank, grinning crookedly and waving a little, at which Hank goes totally red and then completely white and then pasteboard green before managing a feeble wave back. "Alex is a mutant — Hank's one, too?"

Erik turns, eyes narrowed at Hank. "McCoy is a mutant?"

"I have got to stop accidentally outing people," Charles sighs to himself, and tipping his head to one side, he goes back to staring at Alex and Hank through the window, thoughtful. "Where will they go? Now that Alex is out?"

The other trouble with telepaths is that when Erik thinks, hah, he's going to hate this, and flashes to the image of the shitty by-the-week flop they'd lined up for Summers.

Charles's expression is obviously appalled. "Erik, no."

"I have to play by the rules," Erik protests. "Same money it takes to put him up in jail."

Raven comes up and knocks on the door, peering in and asking, "Are you guys done fighting? The meeting is starting next door."

"We're done fighting," Charles assures her, and looks around her, back to Alex and Hank — who is back to staring at him with the bleak sort of adolescent longing Charles is pretty used to by now from enduring long-term exposure to college students. "If you guys are going to the meeting, can I talk with Alex and Hank?"

Erik says, "No," the same time Raven says, "Why not?"

Charles is already beaming, waving at Hank and Alex some more and ignoring Erik's, "Charles, no, no," as he heads for the office door, saying, "Oh, come on, it's not like you're going to let me go home unsupervised, anyway, I may as well keep myself entertained while I wait," and makes a beeline for the kids.

***

Absolutely nothing about this fucking donkey show has indicated that this thing isn't bullshit yet, so Alex is fully prepared to scowl his way through whatever Lehnsherr has planned and to make himself as irritating as possible until someone finds his little brother. He doesn't particularly give two craps if they ever find Shaw, but sitting here while everybody is freaking the fuck out about the guy is starting to make him feel like he missed something giant in the transaction when he was running with Florick's crew. Alex had known better back then than to ask dumb questions when he was being hired to blow stuff up, but now he wishes he'd paid a little more attention at least — if for nothing else, as leverage.

Next to him, Hank starts making a choking noise, and digs his man-claws into Alex's forearm.

"Oh my God," Hank hisses. "Oh my God, Alex!"

Because that hurts like a motherfucker, Alex is mostly focused on digging Hank's fucking nails out of his flesh when he says, "Jesus God damn Christ, Hank, what the hell is wrong with you?"

"He's just a touch excited," someone says, and Alex jerks his head up in time to see some guy in a wheelchair smiling at them. He has brown hair and blue eyes and looks like every fucking first-year social worker Alex has ever had the misfortune of encountering. "And — oh, my goodness, Hank, I'm flattered, but that's hardly true."

Alex frowns, and next to him, Hank makes that wheezing noise again.

In one high-pitched exhalation, Hank squeaks, "Oh my God, you're reading my mind."

Smiling with only the barest touch of obviously fake apology, the guy says, "Well, yes, but you are thinking terribly, terribly loudly, Hank — I can stop, if you'd prefer?" Pausing, he glances at Alex, the grin on his face stretching into something more genuine. "Alex Summers, it's excellent to finally meet you, and what a marvelous mutation you have."

Alex yells, "What did you just say to me?" the same time Hank simpers, "No, no, it's just such an honor. You're amazing."

The man just laughs, saying, "My apologies, chaps, I should have introduced myself first — "

"I mean, obviously, we know who you are," Hank interrupts, blushing like some a teenaged girl.

What the fuck, Alex thinks, and snaps, "Uh, not obviously. I don't know who the fuck this guy is."

While Hank is looking like Alex just punched Mother Teresa in front of a school full of orphaned kittens, the man's smile goes crooked, and he says, "Charmingly said, Alex — I'm Charles Xavier, pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"Whatever," Alex snaps. "How do you know about my — my shit?"

Hank has transferred his clawing from Alex's arm to his own face by this point, so thank God for that.

"I'd say it's refreshing to meet someone without any preconceived notions of me, but that would be inaccurate," the man ripostes, still cheerful. "I'm a telepath — I know about everyone's 'shit,' as you say."

A hundred thousand things things blow through Alex's mind all at once, and every single one of them he'd rather saw off his arm with a rusty knife than admit to anybody, which leaves him feeling vaguely sick and hoping that Xavier didn't catch all of it — hell, any of it.

"So, what?" Alex asks, flustered. "Are you the FBI's pet psychic or something?"

"God, no, I'd be bored to tears," Xavier answers, easy. "No, I'm the object of the investigation today."

Alex must look skeptical, or maybe he's just thinking, fucking yeah right really loudly or something — this is the first time he's ever met a telepath and he already hates telepaths, great — because Xavier just tips his head back toward the huddle in the conference room, saying, "I brought them a note Shaw was kind enough to leave me today. It's caused a bit of excitement."

"God," Hank says, voice shaky. "I mean, are you okay?"

"It's very sweet of you to worry, Hank, but I'm fine," Xavier assures him, and while Hank is nurturing a starry-eyed expression like God just shot off in his face or something, Xavier directs his attention back to Alex. "Tell me, Alex, did anyone ever help you work on your powers? Teach you how to control them?"

Alex stares at him for a little while. "Dude, are you for fucking real?"

"Stop," Hank begs, actually putting his hands on Alex's face. "For the love of God, stop."

Ignoring both those things, Xavier says, "I think with time, patience, and effort, you could gain complete mastery over your mutation."

"I also hear there is no try, there is only do or do not," Alex retorts.

"I hate you," Hank tells him feelingly. "You're just — this is my hero, stop being a dick."

That tiny wrench in Alex's stomach definitely isn't guilt, but he says, "What? I don't even know who this guy is and he's reading my mind? Come on!" anyway, because Hank's expression of pained distress is so fucking annoying. It's always been like this, ever since Alex found him on that corner in Central Park like he was just dying to get raped under a bridge, and then when Hank wouldn't go away, just hung around quietly — like he was worried Alex was going to hit him — and fixed everything in that shitty little flop he and Scott were sharing at that point, rewiring stuff, magicking the plumbing, stealing them cable.

"You'll be pleased to know that I stopped," Xavier reports cheerfully, and like a switch has been flicked, he tilts his head two degrees to the left, and Alex has a clear and total understanding that he's been dismissed — just like that. Now, Xavier's turning that smile up to a billion watts, directed completely at Hank, who looks like he might just expire from an excess of awesome under its power. "So, Hank, where are you guys going to be staying?"

Every hair on Alex's body stands straight up at that tone. Xavier sounds totally fucking harmless and completely painfully sweet, which is exactly the sort of voice every single con man cultivates if he's at all good at what he does.

"Agent Lehnsherr says they have a place lined up for Alex," Hank admits, but he sounds skeeved out just saying it. It's probably a shithole overrun with rats, because that's just the sort of dick thing that dick Lehnsherr would do. He might be one of the less douchey Feds, but he's still a Fed.

Xavier smiles. It's a total snake-charmer smile. Alex looks over at the meeting room, where Lehnsherr's on his feet now pointing at something complicated-looking on a white board, totally unconcerned about the more or less deserted bullpen and Alex and Hank. What the fuck. Either Lehnsherr's so badass he's completely convinced Alex isn't going to try anything or he's secretly the worst FBI agent ever.

"I wasn't worried about Alex," Xavier says, giving Alex a brief, amused glance. "I'm sure Alex is more than capable of taking care of himself — I was more concerned about you."

Momentarily, Hank looks trapped. "I uh, I have a place. In Brooklyn."

"Brooklyn," Xavier says delicately, but he makes it sound like a cesspool. Which, since Hank's "place" is off of the Graham Avenue stop on the L, down past the fucking BQE and behind a Mexican butcher's, is frankly pretty accurate.

"It's fine," Hank rushes to assure Xavier. Yeah, okay, Alex thinks with painful resignation, Hank's about ready to throw up a gospel hand and pledge his life savings to the Church of Oh, Professor Xavier already. Typical. "Really, I mean, it has nice windows."

Xavier just shakes his head, reaching over to put a hand on — to put a hand on Hank's wrist. "Now, you're such a nice, young man," he says.

"Wait, what is happening," Alex asks, because holy shit.

Ignoring him, Xavier says, "And I have this gorgeous annex you can stay in, very inexpensive."

Hank looks like he's mentally already moved in and hung up all his ugly ass posters. Out loud, he says, "I couldn't possibly, Professor, that would be just — "

"Please," Xavier interrupts, "call me Charles."

Hank is probably going to look underaged until he has some underaged kids of his own, Alex is aware, and in the past this has been awesome for getting half-price movie tickets and old ladies to feel bad for them when they need stuff, but this entire situation has now taken a turn for the seriously God damn creepy. Because he is sort of Hank's friend, and Hank has always managed to get him HBO, Alex graciously slaps Xavier's creepy hands off of Hank's wrist, growling, "No thanks, asshole, he's not buying what you're selling."

Xavier just gives Hank a self-deprecating look. "Of course, I understand. A young man with vigor such as yourself would surely have better things to do than help an old fart like me with my research."

Hank makes that noise again, like a hamster being sucked in a pool drain, and before Alex knows what's happening, he's saying, "Yes. Yes, I would love to. That would be just. I've read all of your papers. Are you sure I can stay with you? I can commute. The L train usually runs okay," and Xavier's putting an affectionate hand on Hank's knee — seriously what the fuck — and saying stuff like, "Hank, I would worry myself sick if you stayed in that horrible place. And don't lie about it, I can read your mind you know. It's too brilliant a mind to waste! And we have your own fantastic mutations to investigate as well, have we not?"

"I am actually about to throw up in my own mouth," Alex tells them both.

Then Lehnsherr appears out of nowhere, popping up behind Xavier looking like someone shat in his coffee.

"Are you mouthing off, Summers?" he asks.

"Damn right I am," Alex reports.

Xavier just tips his head back, smiling in an entirely different way than he'd been smiling before. "We're just having a spirited discussion, Erik. These young people are wonderful."

Looking like maybe he'd discovered the shit in his coffee by chugging it, Lehnsherr says to Xavier, "You're not that much older than they are. Please stop thinking you are everybody's kindly grandfather," and turns back up to Hank, asking, "Is he harassing you?"

Mortified, Hank murmurs, "No, Professor Xavier is amazing."

"Jesus, now I'm going to throw up in my mouth," Lehnsherr sighs, genuinely revolted. "All right, Summers, I'm going to have Cassidy drive you to your place and get settled in. Hank need a ride?"

For all Hank's dumb about people and really stupid when it comes to Alex, he's too smart to ever let a Fed follow him home. Alex doesn't say anything, and Hank doesn't say anything, and eventually some smoking hot woman everybody's calling McTaggert says, "Erik, we've got NSA on the phone," and Lehnsherr disappears back into the conference room.

"Can I go home if I take an agent with me?" Xavier calls at Lehnsherr's back.

"Yeah, but only if you take an agent with you," Lehnsherr lobs back, looking over his shoulder to say, "Otherwise, you sit your ass here and wait for me, got it? No funny business, Charles."

"Me?" Xavier asks, all innocence. "Never."

Sean Cassidy, who'd already told Alex and Hank his entire life story, and then spent 15 minutes complaining about his lot in life as the designated indentured servant of the FBI's mutant task force, is easily collected from an enormous pile of photocopies he's tending by Xavier saying, "Sean? May we borrow you for a moment?" After some negotiations, Sean goes to get keys for a bureau car, and then they're all hanging around the elevator together, watching the numbers tick town, Hank and Xavier having some kind of incomprehensible conversation about alleles that makes Alex feel more and more like they should retract his GED just listening to it.

Once they're in the car, driving up the island, out of the gnarled mess of traffic below the grid, Xavier — who'd neatly got himself into the passenger's seat, and folded his wheelchair up to tuck away in the backseat with Hank's effusive help — says to Cassidy:

"Actually, if you don't mind, let's just drop off Alex first, Hank and I are both going back to the house."

Alex says, "What, seriously?"

Cassidy smirks. "Does Erik know about this?"

"Why does Erik need to know that I'm keeping a lovely young man in the annex?" Xavier asks. Next to Alex, Hank blushes a Baskin Robbins 41 flavors of fucking pink, and Alex is suddenly bombarded with horrible, graphic images of Hank and Xavier, making sweet morally wrong love over a thousand chemistry textbooks and wants to die, immediately.

"No way," Alex hisses at Hank. "You are not going over there."

"You said yourself the warehouse should be condemned," Hank argued.

"First off, the warehouse is condemned," Alex snaps. "But that doesn't mean you can just — sign yourself over to the nerd love of your life, okay? He's ancient! He's like 40!"

Hank clears his throat. "Don't worry, Professor, I'm definitely coming. I know the Library of Congress system. I could totally redo your library."

"That's spectacular, Hank," Xavier says. "Really, Alex. You don't need to be so concerned. Hank is clearly a very sweet young man, I'll be nothing but solicitous with him."

In the driver's seat, Cassidy looks like he's choking. Alex doesn't blame him.

"You know what, fuck this," Alex snarls. "Where Hank goes, I go."

There's always that moment where the enormity of what a giant dumbass Alex is sometimes becomes completely clear. It's that bit from boy scouts where he'd learned how to tie the knot that you can pull taut with a single tug, and Alex feels a little like he just stepped in it — big time — when Xavier grins at him in the rearview mirror, all teeth and Cheshire Cat satisfied blue eyes, and says:

"Oh, only because you insist, Alex."

"Uh," Alex says. "I do. Okay?"

Xavier's annex isn't filled with muscle mag pics of exploited 18-year-old boys or anything. Firstly, it is situated in the east wing of Xavier's giant house, which Alex has seen before in his years tooling around the Upper West Side, but he'd always just assumed it was a museum, or the headquarters for some sort of global supervillain syndicate. He feels too poor even to be in the zip code, and Xavier leads them through the entryway and a marble-paved foyer, into a dark-wood corridor and then into a goddamn elevator. Alex wants to believe Xavier had it installed because of the wheelchair, but he has a really shitty feeling that Xavier has just always had a fucking elevator in his house.

The annex itself was overflowing with books and oddly furnished: an old black-top lab table, bookshelves creaking with volumes caked over with dust, an double bed with a brass frame, a couple of battered sofas, a kitchen table with mismatching chairs. It looks like the extras, the leftover stuff, and Alex is still busy puzzling over a shelf full of police procedure books when he hears Xaiver saying, "I'll speak with the housekeeper, she'll bring up some fresh things for you boys — see you in the morning?"

Hank offers to sleep on one of the sofas, and then the floor, and then the rug, and then an armchair, at which point Alex just drags him down on the bed, and they lie there, arms pressed together, staring at the unfamiliar ceiling.

"I'm glad you came here," Hank whispers. Old habit, even though nobody's listening in on them now, and even if they didn't talk, Xavier was probably eavesdropping on them like a creepy pervert anyway.

"Like I was going to leave you alone with that guy," Alex mutters.

"Professor Xavier is the world's most prominent and widely respected mutant rights activist," Hank lectures him, sounding tired and dreamy already. "This is like if Nelson Mandela and Gandhi had a baby that could shoot lasers with his eyes and we were staying in his house, okay?"

And that, suddenly, is the funniest fucking thing Alex has ever heard, and he laughs and laughs, muffling himself in the pillows, until something hitches in his throat and all he can think is, Scott, Scott, so loud Xavier can hear it for sure, and Hank has to run a hand up and down Alex's back for hours until he shuffles off to sleep, miserable, wrung out.

***

Erik spent most of the rest of the night either going through tactical scenarios with various intelligence agencies, or reaching out across the black-blue stretches of New York, lit up, and asking, Are you okay? Is everything okay? at Charles until Charles finally got fed up and said back, If you don't leave me alone and save America from terrorists, I'm going to start watching a documentary about brain chemistry and broadcast it at you in high definition.

It must be pretty obvious when Charles shuts him down, because Raven alternately smirks at him and babies him with coffees, and Erik goes over and over the note until he's sick from reading it, and over and over the photograph until he's sick from looking at it, and calls it quits for the night.

Manhattan after 11 p.m. is still wide awake, but the streets he drives are a little emptier and less chaotic, and once he gets up the long avenues, things go liquid and charcoal gray and blue, orange from streetlights. He listens to the scanner as he goes — couple of stolen cars, a mugging, some money stolen out of a bodega — all in all its a quiet night. He parks and locks up and he's everything is quiet and dark and soft in the house, too, even his footsteps feel muted, and Charles is blanketing everything in the mansion with an earnest, familiar comfort, like the weight of his hand on the back of Erik's neck.

He checks the mail, trips over a stack of books one of Charles's TAs must have left in the study, sets the house alarm for the night, and peeks in Mrs. Hendry, who's also asleep, tucked away safely in her room and breathing deeply.

It's ten past midnight by the time he finally gets up the two flights of stairs and into the bedroom, stripping out of his slacks and shirt and the ugly, tired skin of being tense and terrified all day. In the bed, a familiar lump, Charles is sleeping on his side, huffing short, rabbit-breaths into the pillow because every night is another opportunity for him to smother himself to death by sleeping face down.

"Hi," Erik whispers, into Charles's shoulder when he slides under the covers, already warm from contact heat, and tugs Charles over, a languid spill of arms, his hair soft and messy in his face, cheeks pink. "Hey, come here."

Charles makes a murmuring noise, letting Erik rearrange him. Years ago, they used to sleep on opposite sides of the bed, since just because Erik was trained by the government to take a beating if he had to do it for national security didn't mean he wanted to take one every night when Charles biked the fucking Tour de France in his sleep. It seems like one of those cruel, strangely sweet trade-offs, after the shooting, that now Charles can press himself along Erik's chest, face in his shoulder, no worries, his legs dead weights in their bed.

"I felt you get home," Charles mumbles, still 90 percent asleep. "I'm glad you're home."

Erik just presses his face into Charles's hair, because Charles always forgets that between them, Erik's just another government hump, that Shaw probably doesn't remember little Erik Lehnsherr anymore than he remembers his dozens of other victims, a string of scared shitless kids and desperate parents who'd let him get away with literal torture for ages. It's Charles Xavier that should really be scared, his name's on everything, advocating integration and unity and understanding and the great beacon of hope for mutant and humankind to work together that Shaw would just love to see ripped to pieces.

"You really scared the shit out of me today," Erik mutters, into Charles's temple, because even though Charles can hear it — especially now, when they're sleepy and every wall is down, and Erik's thoughts are swimming rich with Charles's sleepy murmurs — he needs to say some things out loud.

Charles just sighs, presses a kiss wherever he can reach — Erik's chest, his collarbone, the joint where his arm meets his torso — and says, "I know. I'm sorry."

He doesn't say he won't do it again, which Erik has to at least respect for honesty.

"Go to sleep," Charles says instead, fingers knotting a fist into Erik's t-shirt. "I love you. Go to sleep."

"Okay," Erik agrees, and does.

He wakes up to the sound of rain slapping against the windows, the covers light on him where Charles has left already, and Erik stares at the ceiling for a few minutes, blinking awake, before he rolls out of bed and into the shower. There're wet towels all over the God damn bathroom, which means that Charles is probably already destroying the kitchen downstairs, and he reaches down through the walls and the pipes and gooses the boiler a little so that the water goes from steaming to nuclear.

Since Charles has pretty much been on the top of everybody's shit list since four days after he was born — probably already spouting obnoxious opinions — Erik had suffered the great misfortune of meeting the guy, literally, at the airport, as part of the protection detail the Feds had sicced on Charles when he'd come into town for a conference. Given the delicate state of mutant-human relations at that point, the U.S. government had wisely decided that to have the emerging luminary of the mutant equal rights movement harmed in any way during his first American lecture tour would be awkward. Using the same principals that have non-Asians asking Koreans about Chinese characters and people assuming all black women over 40 were sassy, Erik, because he was also a mutant, had been put on the case.

He'd been resentful for about five minutes, and mostly for show. Having spent the balance of his life post-Shaw consuming every piece of research he could find about mutation, he'd read Dr. C. F. Xavier's work before. It was painfully idealistic, and too certain of its correctness, but it had been remarkable to read in a time when almost all the rhetoric was about whether or not mutants were to be feared or contained, to see Xavier arguing that in a generation almost everybody would be mutated, integration already an afterthought as far as he was concerned. Anyway, the point is, all of that academic drivel had of course led to his obviously inaccurate assessment that Xavier had to be a doddering 90 year-old in tweed with a respirator in tow, because nobody under the age of almost-dead was that earnestly nerdy.

Except of course Charles had been younger than Erik and annoyingly adorable and, if possible, more enthusiastic back then, in navy and gray old man sweater vests with bangs that were forever in his blue eyes. As if that wasn't bad enough, after they were first introduced, Charles was constantly fucking smiling at him, touching Erik's wrist, leaning into his space. If nothing else, Erik had figured the world's most powerful telepath would be beyond blushing, but no, of course not, because why would anything that made Erik want to fuck this guy in the back of multiple government vehicles less actually happen?

So that had been an awkward as fuck and erect two weeks. He figured he was off the hook when Charles went back to England, except then the letters and e-mails had started, under the guise of, "By the way, my sister, Raven, has just entered Quantico herself." Erik had spent an entire four months masturbating sulkily over Charles's cunning turns of phrase and charmingly rambling penmanship, convinced Xavier had a sister like Jim Carnegie from three apartments down had had a fucking girlfriend in Canada until the latest recruits had been taken for a tour of the offices, at which point he'd been forced to admit he might be going nuts.

"I've heard lots about you, Agent Lehnsherr," Raven told him, impish and blonde and terribly pretty, and obviously just as spoilt as Charles was.

"Funny, I've heard nothing about you," Erik said.

"That's a lie," Raven chirped and, pressing a hand into the crook of his elbow, leaned in close to whisper, "You should just give in — Charles always gets what he wants."

Erik should have known back then Charles was always going to break his God damn heart.

It's still pouring when he gets out of the shower, the entire house feeling a little haunted and over-large, and he's in the process of scratching his balls and pouring himself some coffee — Charles, strangely, nowhere to be found in the kitchen — when Alex fucking Summers trudges in, yawning and scraping his nails over his belly, hair making a crazy bid for space, tufted on his head.

Fifteen seconds later, the entire contents of the knife drawer has Summers pinned to the wall by his boxers and his t-shirt, and the kid looks like he's about to shit himself when Hank McCoy wanders in and freezes by the cupboards, saying, "Oh, no."

"What the fuck," Erik asks reasonably.

Oh, did I forget to mention? Charles pipes up, unperturbed, echoing through Erik's head with casual amusement. I asked Alex and Hank to stay with us. They're in the annex. We weren't using it anyway.

Hank looks like he's reaching for one of the knives in the wall, which immediately relocates itself to pin McCoy to the same wall by the leg of his pajama pants and puts an end to that bullshit while Erik yells:

"Charles, get your ass down here. Now."

***

Charles makes Erik return the knives to the drawer, which he does with extreme reluctance and a great show of making them dance dangerously through the air, first. Alex, at least, has the good grace to look freaked out, Hank just keeps staring in between Charles and Erik looking betrayed. By what, Jesus Christ, Erik thinks, annoyed.

"Have they been here all night?" Erik asks.

"Ob — " Alex starts, and the knife drawer pops open again, all the sankostu blades hovering in the air, just waiting for an excuse. "Right, Jesus, I'm shutting up."

Charles sighs, long-suffering, and wheels over to collect all the knives out of the air and stick them back in the drawer, saying, "Yes, what about it?"

"You let them stay the night?" Erik feels like he's having a migraine, pain creeping up at his temples. He can feel Charles trying to pluck it away from him, which is sweet, normally, but Erik wants to feel pissed today, flicks Charles away, which of course explains Charles's tone when he says:

"I was hardly going to let Alex stay in that flea-infested brothel you'd lined up for him."

He says it like this is obvious and naturally he would bring home some pet mutant criminals so they can stare at Erik scratching his junk first thing in the morning, which is at once completely infuriating and triggers a sort of resignation Erik remembers from years of succumbing to Charles's bullshit.

"And there's no way Hank is going back to that festering pit he calls home," Charles went on, and turns to Hank, looking chiding as he says, "And don't give me that look, young man, you have an army of rats living in your walls."

Alex glares at Hank. "I fucking knew it."

"I was going to get a cat," Hank mutters.

"I think we're missing the salient point in that they can't stay here," Erik interrupts.

Whenever Charles decides something is a personal challenge, he doesn't clench his jaw or fist his hands or anything. He just raises his eyebrows, opens his mouth in a pink, wet challenge, and with the flattest, most obnoxiously posh English vowels he has says something that makes Erik what to rip all the copper wiring out of the house walls. Like:

"It's my home; I can have a guest."

"Well, Summers isn't a guest, he's a criminal, which means he's mine," Erik retorts. "He goes where I say."

Summers, because apparently he picks up social cues to back the fuck off as well as Hank does, pipes up to say, "I don't care where we stay, but I'm not leaving Hank alone with this guy," and glower at Charles.

Don't worry, Charles interjects here reassuringly. I may have convinced him I'm a sexual predator. Alex appears actually to have some commendable protective instincts.

I don't even want to know, Erik thinks back. Out loud, he says, "Look, I appreciate you're concerned, Charles, but not only is this none of your business, it's probably against some ethical code to have them here."

"I checked, it's not, although obviously as their landlord I will have to be certified," Charles says, steely, although more of his personality is leaking into his tone, so it's possible he's already decided he's winning. Worse, when Charles says, "I checked," what he probably means is, "While you were asleep last night I rifled through your head to see if I could get away with it, and somewhere hidden in the darkest recesses of your unspoken fears, it turns out I can."

Erik narrows his eyes. "How is this not against any ethical code? I'm his handler," he says, and regrets it as soon as it's out of his mouth, because he doesn't need telepathy to know what Charles's response is going to be, and it's fucking terrible.

"Well, it's not like we're married," Charles returns, icy. "I can keep whoever I want."

Erik points at him. "That. That right there is the reason Summers thinks you're a dirty old man."

"Oh, God," Summers interrupts here, sounding sick and staring at Erik. "You two — you live together?"

Usefully, that derails the entire argument in progress when Charles, Hank, and Erik are all forced to stare at Summers. It's always humbling to realize that you've cashed in a lot of political capital at work on a kid who's apparently a giant idiot, Erik reflects morosely. If this bullshit doesn't catch a terrorist, he's going to be furious.

"How did you survive in prison?" Hank asks Summers.

"He was in solitary," Erik mutters. "And no, Summers, I just break into Charles's house and steal breakfast every morning in my underwear."

"God," Summers says, covering his face, "this is worse than when I walked in on my parents fucking."

And then there's that click of heels again, neat, on the floor, and Raven saying, "You have my sympathies, Summers. I lived with them for a while and almost got diabetes in the process."

Now it's Charles's turn to cover his face. "Yes, thank you for that, Raven."

"Does she live here, too?" Summers demands, glaring at Erik as Raven makes her away across the kitchen, helping herself to coffee and a kiss on the cheek from Charles, who closes her hand with his — easy and affectionate. It helps Erik not to think about why she'd lived with them off and on for almost a year, trading off looking after Charles with Erik and maintaining a relentlessly upbeat tenor no matter how hard Charles fought her or threatened to get the locks changed.

"She's my sister," Charles explains, and grins up at her, pressing the back of her hand to his temple affectionately before turning back to Summers and McCoy. "You two should get used to having her around."

"No, they shouldn't, because they're not staying," Erik insists.

Ignoring him entirely, Charles tells Raven, "They're going to be living in the annex."

"I'm not getting in the middle of this. You're my brother, he's my boss, this can only end in fucking awkward holidays," she tells him wisely, extracting herself and turning to Erik. "Actually, I'm here about work."

Frowning, Erik asks, "Yeah?"

"We got a hit on the photo," Raven says, going to her handbag and pulling out a sheaf of papers, a color photocopy of the picture Shaw had left stapled to the first page. "Sort of, anyway. It's a missing person's report — about four years out of date, but the description more or less matches if you account for age."

Erik takes the pages, and he's flipping through the notes — boy, 12, 4'6", brown hair, visual problems, multiple entries into the foster system — when he hears a strangled noise from Hank.

"I — Agent Lehnsherr, can we see the photo? More closely?" Hank asks, voice wobbly.

Next to him on the kitchen bench, Alex Summers is wide-eyed and frozen, all the color drained out of his face, every muscle in his body tensed to snap. Raven glances over at Erik, who shrugs and glances over at Charles, who ignores it when Erik passes Hank the photograph, watching Alex's eyes dart over to the papers now in Hank's shaking hands.

"Oh, Alex, I'm so sorry," Charles murmurs, before anybody else says anything, and Hank follows up with:

"That's — this is Scott. This is Alex's brother."

***

The stated goal of the FBI's Mutant Specialist Task Force is to leverage specialized knowledge and skills to best address victims of crimes involving mutation as well as help victimized mutants. In reality, it breaks down to four distinct tiers:

(1) The ones where Raven likes to tell people they're the FBI's version of the Butterball Turkey Helpline, which is uncomfortably true on some days, when local PDs and offices of the bureau call to ask questions about best practices and how to keep some poor kid from hurting himself long enough so mutant medical specialists can get in and help.

(2) The ones where the victim is a mutant, and it creates unique challenges, like the one girl who had reacted to a mugging in an alley the way some deep ocean fish do, and filled the entire fucking space with noxious slime to protect herself, and trapping the mugger like a giant cockroach. Otherwise known as Cassidy's first case, it's still on the Top 10 WTF Moments board in the office and began their unit's long and fruitful relationship with the NYU chemistry department.

(3) The ones where the perpetrator is a mutant, and it creates unique fucking challenges to their apprehension. Alex Summers had been one of these, and local law enforcement had been happy as a pig in mud to walk away from it when the FBI had stepped in, because dick measuring and jurisdiction is one thing, dick measuring and jurisdiction when your assailant can blow shit up like an evil Care Bear is another entirely. Sometimes the mutations are more clever and funny than bad, although people are using them for bad things — like walking through walls and bank vaults — and sometimes, like cases with telepaths, they're truly terrible. If Armando never has to register another person into a psychiatric facility on the dim hope that they can be unscrambled by professionals again, it'll still be too soon.

And then there're the ones about Shaw.

"The only part of this that isn't terrible is that this isn't a 4 a.m. call," Angel tells the oily surface of her coffee. It's one of those blue cups with the Greek key around the rim, which means she's snatched it from the shitty cart in front of the building, meaning she's already eaten three bear claws and an everything bagel — it's not even 8 a.m.

Armando frowns at her. "Are you drinking cart coffee? Did you eat cart food?"

Her jacket's off, which means he can see it when one of her razor-sharp wings flicks threateningly. "So what if I did?"

"So you're like a gremlin," Armando retorts. "You go fucking nuts if we feed you that that many preservatives before noon."

"You don't know shit, Darwin," she retorts, but she narrows her eyes in a way that reminds Armando she can spit molten death at him with stunning accuracy.

"Hey guys, saw the boss's car headed for the lot when I was coming in," Cassidy says, suddenly appearing at Armando's shoulder as silently as a ginger cat. He looks like was dragged backward through a hedge after running through a wind tunnel, which doesn't merit as much comment as it would on Raven or Erik since Cassidy likes fulfilling all possible probie agent stereotypes and looking like a hot mess almost 100 percent of the time. "So I'm thinking ETA 5 minutes."

Erik bangs into the office. "Give me a fucking update here," he snarls.

"Or maybe he is right behind me," Cassidy revises.

"Scott Hathaway, aka, Scott Summers, before he was adopted and then ran away again like a champion," Angel says, holding Scott's file over her shoulder so that Erik can snatch it out of her hand as he stalks up the aisle toward his office. "Summers was too old for adoption by the time he got into the system, but Scott was cute and after a few bumps and a couple of runaway attempts early in the system, stuff seemed to be working out."

Erik glares up from the folder. "What happened?"

"My guess?" Armando cuts in, taking the coffee away from Angel. "Probably his powers started manifesting, adoptive parents freaked, he ran back to his brother."

Angel stole the coffee back, glowering. "Speaking of which, where's Summers?"

"With Raven, back at Scott's last known residence," Erik says. "Forensics is sending us their report but I wanted him to take another look — see if there was anything we might have missed or he didn't notice last time."

"How's he taking it?" Cassidy asks, headed for the fax machine, whirring to life on key. Armando knows Erik's mutation doesn't extend his power to the whole of a machine that has metal parts, but sometimes, it feels like it does.

Erik rolls his eyes. "His little brother's been kidnapped by an internationally wanted mutant criminal for unknown reasons. I'm sure he's doing fantastic."

"I'd give you shit about having no soul but I know that deep down inside, you're upset about this, too," Angel allows kindly, and finishing the rest of her coffee in one chug, adds, "Okay, I'm going to distribute a nationwide BOLO."

"Make that an AMBER alert, he's still a minor," Erik cuts in. "Cassidy, I want you down with our forensics guys identifying the materials in that letter and picture. Make them nervous, impress upon them my wrath. They've had this for like 30 hours now."

"Got it," Cassidy says, and is out the door in a carroty-orange blur.

Erik turns to Armando. "Raven's going to be back with Summers in less than an hour."

Armando nods. He takes off his suit jacket, rolls up his sleeves. "I'll get the room ready."

***

Erik, before he was Erik, was just Lehnsherr, and when Armando joined his team three years ago, just after the task force was commissioned by the assistant director of the FBI, he'd had been about 86 kinds of crazy. For almost a year, Armando had thought the guy was one of those serial killers who worked among the cops to soak up the glory. He also thought that maybe Lehnsherr didn't have access to a washing machine, or really enjoyed slumming it at the Y. He'd looked perpetually nuts, spending two or three days in the same shirts and jackets with a fistful of ties in one of his desk drawers.

Raven had transferred abruptly onto the team, two months after Armando had, and after one too many 2 a.m. nights, when Angel made one too many defamatory comments about Lehnsherr, Raven had shoved her up against a wall and snarled:

"Shut your fucking mouth. You don't know shit."

But she hadn't said anything else, and the mystery of how Raven, whom Lehnsherr objectively treated worse than almost everybody else on his team, defended his fucked up attitude so fiercely stayed a mystery for another eight months.

And then they'd caught a kidnapping involving a mutant child. The kid, just a toddler, was sending such ferociously loud psychic distress signals that telepaths across the eastern seaboard were helping track her by the intensity of their migraines, and Lehnsherr and the missing persons liaisons were similarly in a wrecked state, panicking that her abductor would realize what was happening and kill her without even waiting for the ransom demand to come through. On the 14th hour of their vigil in the parents' mansion, while Lehnsherr had been taking a leak, his phone had started going off.

Raven, fearless, had taken one look at the screen of the phone and answered it, "Hey, is everything okay?" There'd been mumbling over the line, and Raven had gone wide-eyed, moving from surprise to worry to anger so quickly Armando had read it across her face like a newsreel whipping too fast over a projector.

"You're kidding me," she'd said flatly to the phone and through the speaker, Armando had heard a tinny voice saying, "No. I'm at the door. Please let me in," just before the doorbell to the residence had gone off.

That's how he'd met Charles Xavier for the first time, looking like eight miles of bad road, and so fucking bad at using a wheelchair it had been painful not helping the guy.

"Erik is going to rip your face off," Raven had told him, while Angel and Armando had still be staring, mute with shock, hanging back.

The last time any of them had seen Xavier it was in photos a half-dozen regional dailies had declined to publish, but that the Post had done gleefully, the New York Times had done online, and that circulated everywhere anyway. In the images, Xavier was down in a hail of bullets on a stage at Columbia, bleeding through his white shirt on a gurney, dragged down the corridors toward an ambulance, his face slack and pale and almost dead.

The AFP photos had been the most immediate, Frank Pietro on freelance near the base of Xavier's podium, the first shot a picture of the professor from below, haloed in the fierce glow of the stage lights, young and vital and smiling. Then a series of rapid shutter-snaps like the world's most terrible flipbook: the blank shock on Xavier's face, then his body crumpling, headed down, a half-dozen of him hitting the ground, blood soaking through his shirt already from three distinct bullet wounds. Doctors would eventually find five — two in the back as he'd gone down, one low along the spine, the near-killing blow. The AP photographer had a shot of a blonde woman trying to dive for the stage, behind held back by people in the crowd, and it took Armando almost a year of working with Raven every day before he had recognized the line of her back, the particular brass-blonde of her hair, from the photo. Getty has a shot of Xavier's fingers, bloody red and lax, peering out from the side of the podium, open against the cheap laminate from where he'd fallen.

Armando's read the file enough times to know that by the time Xavier had been loaded up by medical personnel, he'd already been in asystole, and that it took more than 10 minutes for someone to interrupt the upper-level mutant task force creation meeting Erik had been stuck in in D.C. to tell them about the attack.

There'd been almost 100 photographers and reporters at the event, and it had showed in their stand-ups in front of the university, their clothes torn up and blood-spattered, and how their hands had shook on the microphones. The coverage had been unrelenting.

"I'd welcome it at this point," Xavier had muttered, months later and in the doorway, still. "Poor Amelia has been sobbing in my head for 16 hours."

When Lehnsherr had come back from the toilet there'd been a brief, quietly hissing standoff, and then Raven had intervened to put a hand on Lehnsherr's arm and Xavier's shoulder, and the professor had cleared his throat to say, "I need permission from her parents to access her mind. If I can give you a description of what she's seeing, will that help?"

"If we didn't live two blocks down the street from here, I would be so much more angry with you right now," Lehnsherr had told him, but apparently that was the extent of it, and Xavier had smiled at him, wan, and gone in to talk to the parents.

Amelia was three, which Charles later told Armando meant that she had fully developed cognition but very little frame of reference for it. She could recognize people and sounds and smells, but retaining or differentiating the importance of any of those things was an entirely separate affair. Even if she could see letters on a sign perfectly, she couldn't read them on her own. It wouldn't just be a matter of skimming the surface of her thoughts; he'd have to take over. While he recognized that stealing into anyone's mind on the level he was discussing with her parents was an invasion beyond consideration for almost any other situation — for Amelia, it might be their best hope.

So he'd done it, Raven on her knees next to his chair, gripping his hand, and Lehnsherr perched across the room next to a bank of telephones and a phalanx of curious-looking agents, Amelia's parents sobbing into their fists, watching him with wet-eyed intensity.

"They're in a Chuck E Cheese across the highway from a truckstop," Charles says, after a long minute or two of tense silence. "I can't see the sign very well, but I think it's off I-40, near the Virginia border. And…I think you guys have about half an hour to get there. The pizza just arrived."

Later, after the Feds had dispatched local agents and local agents called local law enforcement and a swarm of people had descended on the strip mall off I-40, across the street from a truckstop near the Virginia border, when Amelia's captor and her had been on their last slice of pizza, Lehnsherr had said, "Right — guys, I'm going home," and taken Xavier with him.

"So, Xavier," Armando had asked.

"Is my brother," Raven had filled in, smilingly tightly.

Armando had raised an eyebrow. "And Lehnsherr?"

"Was stalked lovingly into submission by my brother," Raven had answered, and yawning, checked her watch. "Split you the paperwork?"

"Yeah, sure, okay," Armando had said, and they'd split up the paperwork. Halfway through the mega mountain of it, Angel had showed up, looking guilty and upset, and she'd nudged Raven on the shoulder, and Raven had nudged her back in the hip, and they'd looked at one another in the way women do sometimes.

"Don't be a moron," Raven had said, and pulled Angel down to an empty chair by her desk in the bullpen, handing over a stack of forms. "Just fill this shit out."

"Just because I feel bad that you're related to our boss doesn't mean your roots are showing any less," Angel had informed her, and Armando had been fully braced for some sort of nuclear meltdown, but Raven had just laughed and Angel had just laughed and Armando had wished longingly that he was gay and he didn't have to figure out women if he ever wanted to have a family.

***

The room is a 15x15 lead-lined chamber, adamantium woven throughout, with a solid shell of adamantium in between the three-deep concrete blocks that make up the walls. There're electromagnets imbedded in the four corners, the center of the ceiling and the middle of the floor. The glass is triple-layer bullet and shatter proof. They've detonated C4 in the room and released colored gases; nothing's knocked it open or leaked out yet. They've had half a dozen FBI telepaths try it, and even with their best efforts — they range from 3 to 6 on the OCP scale — only the faintest traces of thoughts or sensations pass through. Charles, very diplomatically, said it was quite damping. The furniture is made of shatterproof, non-reactive original-formula pyrex: the preferred mix of meth dealers and the FBI alike.

"It's the closest thing we have to a foolproof mutant containment chamber," Erik tells Alex, when Raven settles him onto the chair, squeezing him on the shoulder before she darts out of the room.

Alex stares through the table, at his hands folded together underneath, metal rings on both wrists and ankles. He looks around the room, at Erik standing in a corner, and his eyes are bleary and red.

"So, what? This is to keep me from hurting anybody if I freak the fuck out?" he asks.

"Actually, a lot of times, it's a comfort to know that you can't hurt anyone if you freak the fuck out," Erik says, easy, and pushes away from the wall.

He can feel it come away with him, just a bit — a flex in the metal reaching out to follow the line of his back — and has to settle it away before he walks any closer to Alex. Charles thinks Erik's mutation is marvelous, and Erik agrees it is is a source of endless delight, the infinite possibility engendered in the manipulation of metal, but it's also been a source of terror over the years: when he's been angry, when he'd been frightened, in absentminded moments where he realizes the street lights and newspaper stands are leaning in toward him, or stretching out into absurdist shapes. When he sits inside cathedral confessionals and listens to the church plate rattle, but safe at least inside the stone walls and surrounded by mostly-wooden pews, forty minutes away from Charles's hospital because he was so fucked up he couldn't trust himself around all of the metal keeping Charles alive.

Alex grits his teeth so hard Erik can feel it in the kid's cheap fillings. "I'm not worried about hurting people — "

"Bullshit," Erik returns, perfectly flat. "Twenty."

Alex stares. "What?"

"That's how many freight rail cars I derailed on my way from D.C. to New York after Charles got shot," Erik says.

He always thinks it's going to be easier or that he'll be more numb to this and he's always wrong. He doesn't remember anything that happened after Deputy Director Skinner's assistant had burst into the meeting, but he remembers feeling all of it, rattling the table to pieces, all their guns to bits, the way he'd had to wait — going crazy — for almost two hours until he was calm enough to get onto a plane safely. He'd taken out the trains, anyway, driving from the airport to the hospital, white-knuckled on the wheel, and he'd heard them derail and had to stop the car, drag them back safe on the tracks, heart shredding in his chest, before he'd gotten back inside his mostly-plastic Toyota and driven like his ass was on fire, hoping no one had been hurt.

(That's a lie. Erik hadn't given a fuck then. He could have taken down skyscrapers, ripped the infrastructure out of highrise apartments.)

"Jesus Christ," Alex says.

The "feel free to fucking lose it" is implied, Erik thinks. Alex can't hurt him here; Erik has control of the metal bands on Alex's hands and legs, nobody's going to get caught in the crossfire. For probably one of the only times in his life, Alex can be as upset as he wants to be.

"Do you understand?" Erik asks.

Alex scrapes his hands through his hair, scrubbing at his face, rubbing at his head, hunched over the table looking younger than his years.

"Yeah," Alex croaks, his voice a desert at high noon — parched. "Yeah, I get it."

"Okay," Erik says after a beat, because the reason he keeps Charles around it to be emotionally intuitive and know the right things to say, and the reasons Charles keeps Erik around are baffling to the extreme. "Tell me about Shaw."

***

(An except from "(R)evolutionary Violence: Sebastian Shaw and the Radical Mutant Uprising," first published in Foreign Policy, March 2009.)

Policy experts and conspiracy theorists have rival theories as to whether or not the assassination attempt on Xavier — as it stood — was ultimately a success or failure to Shaw and his faction. The prevailing theory on Shaw is that his acts of terrorism are classically terrorist: designed to incite discord and fearfulness. In this case, not between Sunni and Shite or to dismantle the encroaching immorality of the west, but to agitate the uncertain peace humans and mutants have negotiated in the past three decades. The ideal conclusion to Shaw's work would be a human-mutant war, say some high-level sources.

"The assumption being that mutants would win," says one military official, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to media — or indeed anyone — about the international effort to apprehend Shaw. "It's not necessarily a bad assumption to make — all we have are guns, who the fuck knows what's in their arsenal."

Before Shaw was ever a household name for a series of bombings that ranged from mutant integration centers to the D.C. Metro's Tenleytown Red Line, he worked for the government's Mutant Integration Bureau. MIB — which the government will humorlessly assure you has nothing to do with aliens, Will Smith, or Tommy Lee Jones, with the annoyed frustration of people who have answered the same question many times before — was launched in the 1970s, shortly after the Stockton-Geary mutant registry bill was passed by a hair in the mostly Democrat House and a landslide in the primarily Republican Senate. Shaw graduated with good, but undistinguished grades from the University of Michigan, took the usual period to graduate medical school from University of Wisconsin, Madison before working two years in an Oklahoma hospital and segueing into the government sector.

Shaw became one of hundreds of physicians trained to work with recently emergent mutants. His job, like his colleagues, was to identify, document and monitor. Eventually, MIB doctors began changing their job descriptions independent of government intervention, applying the same needs-must standards favored by emergency room nurses and warzone doctors alike.

Identifying, documenting and monitoring fell very short of the needs of the burgeoning and increasing mutant population, mostly terrified adolescents and young adults, and they began creating ad hoc manuals on how to help mutants manage their powers as well. What began as notebooks turned into typeset volumes that spanned five books and was ever-expanding. Dr. Derrick Matherly, who left private practice to work for the government in 1978, became the official keeper of the The Book, as MIB doctors called it, and from his tiny two-room office in Eugene, Ore., he fielded sometimes hundreds of calls a day from inquiring doctors in between seeing to mutants of his own.

"We really came into the job and left with completely different understandings of need," Matherly, who turned 90 earlier this year and celebrated at a party that was, frankly, lousy with mutants, including three grandchildren and a son-in-law. "I think we were all — understandably — frightened and somewhat hostile, initially. But that's a hard mindset to maintain when everybody shuffling through your door is a pimple-faced kid who just wants you to help him figure out how not to hurt anybody — or a little girl who can make flowers grow on command. Then all you want to do is help that boy live a normal life, or send that girl down the street to your wife so she can finally do something about your garden. It was easy, on the front lines, to formulate a completely different point of view on metahumans."

(Matherly, who is a self-admitted "old cuss," still uses the term "metahumans," which fell out of favor in the mid-90s for the more genetically accurate "mutant." When asked if he believes there are political considerations in the semantics, he tells me to go get him a lemonade and stop bothering him.)

By the 1980s, with the advent of computers in MIB offices, the mission had more or less officially changed and the books — once hoarded and traded like comics or science fiction zines — were digitized and printed, with an overseeing editorial panel attended by luminaries from the Center of Disease Control, the National Institute for Health, and representatives from the top 30 medical research institutes in the country. The sentimental tide, at least at ground level, was changing rapidly, and mutant segregation — which had been discussed with seriousness horrifying to consider with the benefit of hindsight and working historical knowledge — went from a subject of genuine possibility to something endorsed by crackpots and bigots. It was the 1980s. There were better, more interesting things to consider: stagflation, oil prices and the poignant, preemptive rebuke on separation that was the downfall of the Berlin wall.

In the context of this, Shaw's actions during the 1970s and 1980s is all the more awful.

Shaw, by this point, was heading up a medium-sized MIB office in Detroit. Considered benign by colleagues, competent by managers, and forgettable by almost everybody else in the community, the extent of his crimes during his formative years is gruesome. Mutants that were gerrymandered into Shaw's harmless-looking beige offices during his active years would meet, behind closed doors, a massively charismatic sociopath.

Records show that more than 60 percent of Shaw's patients were under the age of majority during the period he worked at the Detroit-Metro MIB clinic, which goes a long way toward explaining how the experiments he conducted remained unknown until his 2005 attack on the mutant registration administrative headquarters. Because of the young age of most of Shaw's victims, there is little information on the bulk of his actions, and indeed investigators privately believe they've only ever identified a fraction of the mutants who were abused.

Shaw had been an unremarkable generalist in school turned obsessive mutant researcher after he was inducted among the ranks of MIB doctors. The patients who have come forward have born literal scars from Shaw's attempts to speed full manifestation of their mutations. A typical visit began with an intake and several benign follow-ups. The shift from harmless doctor to mad scientist happened when Shaw would invite a mutant into a quiet chamber, made with specialized materials financial records show he commissioned with his own money at some considerable expense. In the wild west days, when acceptance of the mutant community in government was more wink-wink-nod-nod and under the table than anything, victims strapped to tables and tortured with electroshock, mutants nearly drowned to test the extent of their abilities, burned or cut or beaten to experiment on healing abilities, were silenced easily by the fear of something worse than even Shaw. Suspicious parents transferred their children away, but as far as most investigators can tell, a majority of the victims held their tongues.

"Shaw had this one-way mirror installed in the waiting room," says Ron Harper, a former NSA agent who helped the CIA compile the first definitive psychological profile on Shaw a year after the man had gone to ground. "He'd sit the kids in his office — which was through this triple-layer concrete wall with insulation to kill any sound, by the way — and he'd tell them if they said anything to anyone, he'd kill their parents. And then they'd have to go into mutant foster care. I don't know what mutant foster care is like now, but back then it was basically juvie for kids who hadn't ever done anything wrong."

By the late 1980s, Shaw had made a sea change, a philosophical shift. Individual discoveries weren't enough. Mutants had capitulated where they should have risen above humans, who were inferior evolutionary ancestors at that point. He left his job with the MIB — still well-regarded — and moved to Seattle, to San Francisco, briefly to Prague and then Germany, before heading for Oxford.

"He was recruiting," Harper says. "We know that now."

There are no reliable sources for how large Shaw's inner circle is, but one notable failed recruit is Charles Xavier.

In 1994, Xavier was just 19, freshly minted a Doctor of Science and also a Master of Arts. His splashy, upsetting entry into Oxford five years earlier was a painful combination of his dazzling academic history, his family's old — "One could almost say medieval," says one source — money and his revelation, shortly after matriculating, he was a telepath. If everyone around him became nervous and Xavier suffered a sudden want for friends, then Xavier didn't notice, say sources who attended Oxford alongside him. When he submitted himself for testing at 17 and became the world's most powerful known telepath, it didn't improve matters, but the prevailing opinion at Oxford was that while all of this was highly irregular, annoyingly gauche and deeply discomfiting, the prospect of the world's most powerful telepath being at Cambridge instead was far more irregular, annoyingly gauche and deeply discomfiting.

So Xavier stayed and flourished, churning out papers about Utopian possibilities, and how a sympathetic race could buck the eons of genetic tradition and embrace integration with dignity and empathy. He also wrote unreadable tomes about pioneering genetic research that are unsurprisingly less widely read and commented upon.

Shaw arrived in Oxford via train the night before Xavier's 20th birthday, which he'd already begun celebrating at a local pub with his sister, and multiple reports indicate the two spoke later that evening in the same bar. The interview was short, lasting no more than five minutes, before Xavier apparently excused himself and his sister, and made himself scarce. Local police and Scotland Yard records indicate Xavier attempted to contact law enforcement in the days following the meeting. Esther Hackett, a spokeswoman for the FBI, says the bureau doesn't release information about informants, and Tom Jackson for the CIA says the agency doesn't comment on open cases.

"Sebastian Shaw is a deeply misguided soul with a capacity for shocking cruelty," Xavier told the New York Times, in an interview three days before he was shot five times on a stage at Columbia University. "His vision of the future is apocalyptic, and anybody who finds themselves even the slightest bit seduced by his message should remember that — there is a reason humans are anthropologically disposed toward group work, we function best in cooperation. Shaw would function best incarcerated."

***

Their summary knowledge of Shaw's known associates has tripled by the time Alex finally asks for water, three hours after the beginning of Erik's interview. There're three burn marks on the floor and a few of the tiles in the room are bent out of shape, but it's less damage than Erik was braced for, and when he says, "That's fine, Alex, that's enough, let's start with this," he means it.

Alex just keeps staring through the table, staring at his hands. "Do you think Scott's okay?"

Scott doesn't look okay in the photo, now blown up and attached to a wall in the bullpen, marked up by Angel and Raven looking for clues in the background. In the photo, Scott looks scared and too skinny, and when Erik had looked closer, beyond the tear-wet cheeks and Scott's ugly, blindfolded expression, he saw a scrape on the chin, the telltale purpling of a bruise on his cheek, the beginnings of a red abrasion on Scott's wrists, just visible over one narrow, denim-covered hip.

But that's just the physical evidence.

It's been as many as eight and at least six days since Scott came into Shaw's possession, and Erik knows it will do Alex no good at all to know that's sufficient time for Shaw to have visited an endless number of horrors upon Scott.

Shaw's third session with Erik, he'd walked out with a searing burn from a hot kettle; he still has the scar: a pale brown mark on the inside of his thigh that he'd hidden when it was a fiercely painful wound, and dressed it awkwardly with stolen gauze from the gym teacher's office and Ace bandages he'd bought at the local pharmacy and Neosporin. The fourth session, Erik had lay on an examination table and let Shaw scrape a scalpel too close to his spine, a long, precise cut that had scarred from Shaw's neat stitches, after, when the man had been effusive with discovery once Erik had ripped the knife out of his hands and sent it flying toward the wall, imbedded into the cheap plaster over the concrete. Erik never left the two dozen visits he'd endured with Shaw without some sort of injury: a cut, a hidden bruise, something patched underneath his clothes, and his mother assumed his sudden horror of nudity and bathroom disclosure meant he was entering puberty, which had invited the unintended but equally traumatic business of Erik's father giving him an unending and excruciating talk cloaked heavily in metaphor about girls. Extra meaningless, ultimately, since Erik had been forced to find out about boys on his own anyway. That's all just in the flesh though. Erik likes his body, all the things it does for him, the strength in his arms and legs that lets him run and fight and carry Charles, sometimes, when he will allow himself to be helped. The part that lingers on in shattering dreams that come, still, is the memory of his mother — her pale face and her nervous expression — in the waiting room of that fucking office, the way Shaw's voice had stroked over him like fingers of broken glass.

"You know, Erik, you have quite one of the most interesting mutations I've ever seen, so it's good you're cooperating with me," Shaw had said to him. That time, he'd been seeing if Erik could stop the advent of a hammer before it broke his toe. Erik had managed — on the third time. "It would be such a terrible shame if I had to report her to the government for something. Maybe she has a mutation, too — of course she must. She's your mother after all. There're dozens like me, Erik, who would love to experiment with her skills, get to know her better."

Here, now, states away from Shaw's old office and a more than a dozen years since the frigid memory of that day, Erik tells Alex, "I don't know if Scott's okay," and, "But I know we're doing everything we can to find him," because it's true and he's a shitty liar and it's better than, with someone like Shaw, Scott would be better off dead.

"It's my fault," Alex says. "If I hadn't gotten mixed up with that guy, he wouldn't even know about Scott."

The "probably, yeah," is on the tip of Erik's tongue, but even if it's true it's a meaningless truth. What does it matter how this happened? It's happened, and preoccupation with the etymology of the disaster isn't going to solve it any faster or at all.

But he doesn't know how to say that to Alex, either, and they're cultivating a miserable silence when the door opens and Raven peeks in, saying, "Erik — we need you out here."

Erik nods at her before turning back to Alex. "I'm going to leave you in here, okay?"

"I could help," Alex says, but his heart's not in it. He doesn't move.

"You already have," Erik tells him, honest. "If you want to get out, or you feel ready to get out, just press the call button, all right? I'll have Cassidy nearby in case you need anybody."

Alex doesn't say anything for a long time, and Erik's about to ask if he understands when he says, finally, "What do I do? If Scott's — what do I do?"

Erik just squeezes him on the shoulder, because there's nothing to say to that. He can't offer Alex any reassurances or make any promises, and he might be nearing twice Alex's ages but Erik hasn't found any better ways to cope with the fallout of the worst-case scenario, either.

It took three years for him to stop lying awake at night reworking the series of events that led up to the shooting at Columbia, staring at the ceiling and compiling vastly intricate reimaginings of how the three days before he'd headed to D.C. on the Acela might have gone differently. And he'd wake up in the morning after 20 minutes of sleep to see Charles looking sad and thin and still fucking paralyzed, voice hoarse from Erik's dreamlessness, asking, "Do you feel better? After you've done that?" and all Erik could ever say was, "No. I don't." It's not zen bullshit, like he'd thought for forever, to move on, to get on with it, to work around it; it's the only thing you can do. There are no options. Otherwise you live at the foot of a mountain of your own making, you've surrendered everything to your own regret, and Erik can't do that — not twice in one lifetime.

"Call if you need us, all right?" Erik says again, and goes, out the door, past Cassidy leaning against a wall, and dives into the barely restrained chaos of the bullpen.

Raven had been given the unsavory task of contacting their NSA and Homeland Security liaisons with the new information from Alex, and the 23rd floor offices are filled to capacity now with people in off-the-rack suits and green expressions on their faces. The situation room is overflowing, and Erik barely manages to catch Angel's eyes through the crowd, and gets waved into conference one, where all of the walls have already been sacrificed to evidence and it's nominally quieter, the round table staffed with McTaggert and Armando, heads bent together over sheaf after sheaf of papers. There are pictures of the two known associates they've managed to identify based on Alex's information so far: Emma Frost ("Let's not lie, boss, you wouldn't remember shit about her other than how hot she was, either," Sean had said) and Janos Quested (on Interpol's wanted list for a decade, now, for unspecified acts of terrorism). Armando's written up in white board marker next to EMMA FROST, TELEPATH OCP UNKNOWN and JANOS QUESTED, CONTROLS WIND, AZAZEL? DESCRIBED AS "COMIC BOOK DEVIL." NOT SURE WHAT TO DO WITH THAT. ALSO HE TELEPORTS, APPARENTLY. JESUS FUCKING CHRIST.

"Tell me what's happening, and please don't tell me I have to go tell Summers his kid brother is dead," Erik says, shutting the glass door when Angel scoots in after him.

McTaggert is the first one to answer. "Shaw's probably keeping Scott alive, we think."

"What leads us to think this?" Erik asks, striding over to an empty seat and slumping into it. From somewhere across the city, Charles is asking, polite and unobtrusive, if Alex is all right? and Erik doesn't bother to form an answer with words, just sighs into his exhaustion.

Raven passes over a file, which Erik pointedly doesn't read.

Rolling her eyes, she says, "Because from what we can piece together from Scott's school records and files with New York child services, his mutation was a dangerously destructive one. He had to be kept in an integration center for over a week right after first emergence until he learned to contain it better, and even after that the fire department got called to his adoptive parents' house twice in two months."

"So it runs in the family," Erik says, and says to Charles, Alex will keep. Are you leading Hank on? "What exactly…?"

"He shoots lasers out of his eyes," Armando says.

McTaggert, not looking up from her files, murmurs, "So if Shaw is keeping to his boringly awful MO, then Scott's life isn't in immediate danger — " her phone starts ringing, and she reaches for her pocket " — as long as he cooperates — hello?"

"He'll cooperate," Armando says, to nobody and everybody. "He's a kid, he'll be scared. He'll be smart and play along."

"He's related to Summers," Erik points out, unconvinced.

"I had Sean look into what the timing might mean," Angel reports, arms crossed over her chest. She does it to keep herself from biting her nails, but it's always a bad sign. "Shaw's been quiet for so long it's kind of difficult to figure out the particulars, but there're a couple of major potential targets — the Clinton Global Initiative's 2011 challenge involves mutation."

Erik opens his mouth.

"They've already been put on alert," Angel steamrolls onward. "There's also a fairly controversial bill floating around D.C. about mutant incarceration, but it's still in subcommittees and it seems like a long shot. Either way, the Secret Service has been alerted, too, and obviously, we know already." She shrugs. "Then there's usual: mutant registration administration headquarters, the Metahuman Institute in Chicago."

"Charles," Raven says pointedly.

In the background, McTaggert is starting to stare at Erik, frowning, cell phone still pressed to her face like its magnetized. McTaggert staring at Erik has always been bad fucking news: terrorist attack, sympathy, affection, considering how to off Erik so she can comfort Charles with her body, etcetera etcetera.

I don't know why letting Hank know I find him to be a startlingly interesting young man would be leading him on at all, it is only the truth, Charles chooses to answer, at that exact moment, and Erik has a momentary blank-out, trying to reconcile his two conversations, before he says:

"McTaggert, what?"

"Shut up, they're deciding," she tells him, like that makes sense, and Erik and the rest of his team share a "fucking CIA" look in the silence that follows, McTaggert still frowning at Erik, still. "Okay," she says into her phone. "I have clearance up to — ? Okay. Got it."

"Fuck, I knew this was CIA shit," Raven mutters.

McTaggert hangs up her phone. "We're fairly certain we know Shaw's most-likely target."

Angel raises an eyebrow. "Are we allowed to know?"

"Frankly," McTaggert says, her frown deepening at Erik, "I'm surprised Lehnsherr doesn't already know."

"I knew this was about Charles," Raven says, quietly tense, and Erik feels every metal object in the room vibrating in synchrony like a tuning fork — waiting.

McTaggert actually smiles. "Yes, but not as much as you would think," she admits, and tips her head to one side. "Charles really never mentioned anything about Cerebro?"

From inside his head, Erik hears, In my defense, I was told if I said anything it was treason.

Fuck treason, I'm never leaving you alone with McTaggert again, Erik retorts and asks, even though he doesn't want to know at all, "All right — what the fuck is Cerebro?"

***

Cerebro is fascinating.

Professor Xavier — who had gone distinctly distracted while he'd been discussing the best foundation books for a solid background in genetics — had said that since he assumed he was released from his vow of secrecy regarding the project, he saw no reason not to share it with Hank.

Telepathic amplification is hardly new, and on small scale it's been experimented with by law enforcement telepath squads, for apprehension and discovery, but the civil rights implications of its use were always too murky and most efforts that Hank knows of were abandoned in infancy. It's hard to balance the potential benefits of apprehending a suspect with the possibility of accidental self-incrimination — if you have a constitutional right against it, where exactly does information gathered by the police force by someone who can read your mind without your consent fall along the axis of confession? Moreover, most telepaths are low-level, requiring skin-contact or proximity — average maximum distance is several hundred yards — to get a reliable reading, and amplification technology has only ever managed to extend that several hundred yards to a few dozen miles.

Of course, that was average telepaths and average technology. Cerebro is the CIA and Charles Xavier.

"Aren't you worried?" Hank asks, staring at the blueprints, spread out across the lush carpet on the floor of Professor Xavier's library. "I mean, if this thing can do what they say it can do — weren't you worried what the government is going to do with it?"

The professor looks thoughtful for a beat. "Yes and no," he says. "Yes, I'm concerned that they've taken the initiative to create a mutant identification system. At the same time, there must only be a handful of telepaths in the world strong enough for it to be useful — as I'm the only one known to them, I was less concerned about its misuse."

Was being the active verb, Hank thinks.

"At least if I was helping them, I had some say in what they did at all," the professor concludes.

Hank nods, distracted, going back to the plans. "So they think this is what Shaw wants?"

"It might be," Professor Xavier answers, careful picking his words the way Hank's parents had been careful picking their words about how he should always wear shoes, an entire lifetime ago. "If he has a powerful telepath working with him, it could be useful to him."

Hank frowns. "For what? Finding mutants? Building an army?"

"Perhaps, but I doubt most mutants would join up with Shaw," the professor says.

"And there is the registry, already," Hank remembers. "So — why Cerebro?"

Professor Xavier has a look on his face Hank recognizes from a lifetime of people older than him knowing an uncomfortable answer and wanting to change the subject as quickly as possible, and he thinks about pushing, about asking, but he's too shy to ultimately and probably, the professor can hear all of this right now, so this situation is weird as hell anyway, and Hank goes back to staring at the blueprints.

The engineering on the machine is a mess, Hank thinks, disapproving. It's a tangle of ad hoc fixes, no elegant solution, the obvious product of warring developers and weak management, and he's mentally sketching in a series of corrections when Professor Xavier passes him a red Sharpie.

"Go ahead," the professor says, smiling fondly.

Hank sometimes marvels at his body's ability to keep going when all of the blood it needs to live has gone straight to his face to make him look as pathetic and embarrassing as possible. He manages to mumble, "Thanks," and takes the pen, because if Professor Charles Xavier gives you a pen, you take it, and he puts his head down and starts drawing in a few alternate power grid structures.

Alex doesn't like anybody or anything and his major emotional attachment is to being annoyed with everything, so Hank hasn't bothered to try and explain what it means that he's sitting in this room with Professor Xavier, that he gets to talk to the guy or how it feels to have the professor listening to him, asking questions, handing him Sharpies and telling him, "go ahead."

Hank's mutation had been evident at birth, no way to hide it, and so it's not really that weird that he became best friends with books instead of running around through the sprinklers like all the neighborhood kids. His mom said if he kept his shoes on, she didn't see why he couldn't make some friends; Hank knew even at four you can't keep your shoes on forever and sat in his room with two pairs of socks on during sweltering summer days and read books instead.

He read Professor Xavier's books instead. And when he'd exhausted the two the professor had written, he'd looked up the professor's articles. And when he'd burned through all of those — driving the local librarians crazy requesting newspapers from England and Australia and translations of Japanese editorials — then he tried to read all the professor's medical research. Those afternoons, after school and sitting on his bed with a photocopied paper out of the Journal of Medical Genetics in one hand and a dictionary balanced in his lap, Hank felt a little closer to normal. Like maybe in the world Professor Xavier wrote about where people have an MC1R mutation instead of red hair, Hank having thumbs on his feet was pretty much ordinary, too.

Growing up, some of the kids in his integration center had awesome mutations: there were twin telepath girls, a boy who could fly, one who could do something complicated and sort of inexplicable with the molecular structure of water — which basically meant he could walk across swimming pools like a tiny, redheaded Jesus. Hank's mutation is pointless and ugly and inconvenient. He's never walked barefoot on a beach and skipped every pool party and even at home, he never walked around barefoot, and most of his life he's been scared about the possibility of it getting more extreme. Some mutations do, amplifying with puberty. More than 40 percent of mutants report that there's a second kick of development at some point in their lives, and Hank has nightmares about what his will be if he has one. He worries he'll turn into a monster. He worries he won't be able to blend in at all. He worries that this half-life he's carved out will fall apart completely. He thinks about where he'll hide if that happens, if Alex will still talk to him, if Scott will be scared of him, if he'll have to live in a sewer.

"You can always stay with me, Hank," the professor interrupts here, gently. "The annex is your home for however long you want it."

Hank starts, and stares up at him.

The professor smiles. "I'd hate to be deprived of such a bright young mind just after I've finally discovered him, and it would be difficult to visit you in a sewer," he goes on, still soft, and nods down at the wheelchair. "They're not exactly built to be accessible, you know."

The inside of Hank's mouth is arid and his throat hurts when he asks, "What if I turn into a monster?"

"I don't even know what a monster is," Professor Xavier says, raising his eyebrows. "You'll just be Hank, whatever you look like, however you change."

Hank feels a spike of fury at that, helpless anger. "That's easy for you to say — your mutation is — "

Hidden? the professor asks, cutting him off mid-sentence. I could pass as normal?

"If you wanted," Hank insists, because if he could hide his mutation from everybody and live like an ordinary person, he would. He would never think about mutation again. He be an electrical engineer and go to the beach everyday and walk around his house barefoot all the time and never feel like a freak again.

"You can't ignore who you are, Hank," Professor Xavier intervenes again. "No more than I could ever pass as normal."

"But you look normal," Hank protests.

"And I've been answering half your questions without your asking them out loud," the professor rejoins. "Strangely, people find that off-putting."

"You could…stop reading people's minds?" Hank suggests, feeling like a jerk all of a sudden.

The professor doesn't look mad or offended, though, he only looks mildly amused like he always does, shuffling some papers in his lap. "Yes," he says, "that is an option, isn't it?"

Hank swallows hard. "But not really?" he ventures.

"No more than amputating your second set of thumbs would be," the professor says, neat and not-unkindly, but Hank can't shake it, the knee-jerk hiss of imagined pain, the sustained ache, the way his balance would be off, how he'd look normal, but he'd look at the scars, too, for the rest of his life.

"Oh," Hank says, faint, because what else is there to say to that?

Professor Xavier just smiles at him, serene and a touch sad, and leans forward to look at the blueprints, marked up now with red lines all over. He asks, "Now — what's this you're proposing for the machine?"

***

Charles's relationship with national security agencies is diplomatic if cold. Homeland Security thinks his out-front campaigning for mutant rights only riles public resentment and incites chaos. The NSA has been resentful for years that Charles sent every agent dispatched to persuade him into engaging in espionage back to the office with low-level nausea that taunts them for weeks. The CIA is particularly troubling because it's a combination of math nerds with guns and Moira McTaggert, who is startlingly smart, oblivious to otherness, intimidatingly beautiful, and has an unfortunate crush on Erik that Charles would dearly — if not for his own set of ethics — like to grind out of her memory.

More annoyingly, the CIA had begun work on the MDS049 project in the early 1960s, cobbling it out of Cold War technology and building on it in successive iterations with the help of in-house telepaths. The MDS049 system was only ever barely functional, haunted by power allotment problems, a tendency to short out at the third transformer, and forever plagued by a lack of telepaths powerful enough to either engage with the machines or powerful enough to handle the raw data feedback that successful link-up generated.

By 1999, the project was a footnote, an afterthought, but one that had lingered with Agent Declan Platt, who'd showed up at the house in Manhattan three days after Charles had moved in, boxes stacked sky high, and asked if Charles wouldn't like to be part of a project that had been trying to be groundbreaking since the sixties.

The first three times Charles had encountered the machine — which everybody at the facility had nicknamed Cerebro and finally explained the extremely suspicious satellites that marred the view from the mansion in Westchester — he'd gotten nothing, then a nosebleed, and finally a migraine so intense he'd blacked out. When he'd come to, it was to Moira McTaggert driving him back home, the sky already going soft black overhead by the time they'd reached his street and seen Erik, furious and stood-up, standing at the doorstep to Xavier House as it was beginning to rain.

"Oh, God," Charles had said, and promptly fell out of the back of Moira's car trying to apologize and preemptively grovel for a second chance — which would have worked better if he hadn't been having residual black spots and nausea, managed to trip on the curb, and add a scrape on his chin to his black eye from when he'd (apparently) wiped out at the facility.

The time Charles had woken up after that one, he'd been relocated to the living room couch and he was surrounded by the steady sense of Erik's deep reluctance to develop feelings for him. It had been discouraging but understandable, given that Charles was sort of covered in vomit, an hour late for the date he'd spent a year wearing Erik down to agree to, and had fallen out of a woman's car looking like he'd lost three rounds straight in a boxing ring.

"I truly have a very noble and impressive reason for missing our date," Charles remembers saying, looking up at Erik's too-tight expression and Moira's worried face, "but mostly I hope that you won't be so mad at me you won't give me another chance because I've been practicing with Raven and I can talk about normal things not including genetics and I was planning on being incredibly charming and sexually permissive."

Erik had looked at Moira. "Is he trying to tell us something?"

"I think it's Spanish," Moira had guessed.

"I'm going to die alone," Charles had told them both, and passed out.

It took him another three months to convince Erik to go out with him again, and another six months after that for Cerebro to do anything but function seemingly by accident and at random intervals, but at least there were no further splitting headaches or incidents involving vomiting. And in the occasional functional snatches, now and then, Charles had felt the borders of his mind extend outward to the watery edges of Maine and forests of Pennsylvania until he'd felt like he'd swallowed the Earth and everybody inside on it — suddenly overfull with everything everyone was thinking and feeling, seeing and hearing all at once.

Now, across town, Charles can feel Erik and Raven's nervous worry, that underlying fearfulness that's always lived just beneath the surface, ever since he swam back into consciousness after the shooting. He's been tempted, more than once, to mute it, to simply slice it away, peel it back from their minds, but he promised Raven he wouldn't read hers and Charles loves Erik's too well to alter it in any way.

Most telepaths are limited to thoughts, some pull in sensation. Others still — the more powerful ones — have both, and the ability to apply some measure of control to their subjects as well. Charles has never understood the demarcations of telepathy: he's always been able to know what people are thinking, how they are thinking it, and where, what they feel, what they see, the taste of wine on their tongue, the ever-expanding history of their lives — all in a casual glance. With effort, he can know everything, anyone in complete. Charles reads people like a particularly winding map, unfolded on the hood of a sun-hot car, fingers tracking across the highways and rivers, knowing all the while he could so easily rearrange the cartography, the landscape and sky and water. It's why he's so cautious, always, navigating an invisible minefield, over-careful not to push too hard, pull too much, not to tap someone's thinking one way or the next, to tick it three degrees toward his end goals. He'd done it as a child for years before he'd realized, before he'd felt the cognitive dissonance of someone doing what he wanted versus what they would, and he'd retreated back into the safe prison of his own head, terrified at what he could do.

And now, Charles thinks ruefully, I am terrified at what I may have already done.

"Come along, Hank," Charles tells him, wheeling around the boy on the floor on the study and toward the door, motioning for the papers. "Bring those — you'll need them."

Hank scrambles for the blueprints, the red marker. "What? Where are we going?"

"To the front door," Charles says. He can feel an SUV drawing up toward the house, Moira at the wheel and Erik furious in the passenger seat, Raven in the back. Alex is still back at the FBI headquarters, in the safe room, and Charles can hardly imagine that exposing poor Alex to additional stress while his brother is missing would be helpful, so perhaps it's for the best. Although. "Our ride is almost here."

"Ri — are we going to Cerebro?" Hank asks, going immediately from nerves to rapture, and Charles reflects that Hank's lucky to have met Alex when he did. Boys who are rapturous about overfunded government science projects rarely do well in Central Park after dark.

"That would be my guess," Charles answers, and heads for the front door, which opens just as he reaches it to a well-loved if glowering face. "Ah, Erik. We're ready."

"You let them give you migraines for months," Erik retorts.

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Charles says, "Hank, please go ahead and get in the car," which Hank does, edging around Erik in the doorway and breaking into a run as soon as there's no chance of contact.

"I gave myself migraines for years expanding my skills," Charles points out. His telepathy hasn't come cheaply; he's pushed since he was a boy, has grown used to a constant ache in the base of his neck, at the root of his brain, in his right temple.

"You let them experiment on you," Erik growls.

"I helped them experiment, period," Charles replies, even, because right now Erik is projecting his childhood panic so loudly he adds, it's not the same as that, Erik, I wasn't a boy, and no one was forcing me, no one can ever force me to do anything.

They hurt you, Erik tells him, in a blurry hush of regret, anger in the last syllable, and Charles doesn't know how to make this better for him. Knowing exactly what everyone is thinking is surprisingly useless when it comes to resolving interpersonal disputes.

I'm sorry you found out this way, Charles says finally, for lack of anything better, and because he's an optimist to the last, adds, But at least you know now why I was late for our first date — and why I fell over the sidewalk and threw up on myself.

"Yes," Erik says out loud, but his mouth is twitching, "because reminding me of that utter debacle will do a great deal to endear me toward you right now, obviously."

Charles snatches Erik's hand, lacing their fingers together. "Is it working?" he asks, feeling puckish.

"No," Erik lies, and tugs at Charles, their palms warm together, the beginnings of forgiveness in the interstitials. "Let go of me and get in the car."

Charles does, at which point he gets to make a series of very similar apologies to Raven, who at least is more intrigued by the potential mystery of it than being angry with Charles for a project he became involved in more than a decade ago.

"So the question remains, why would Shaw want Cerebro?" Raven asks, breaking the awkward silence that's been cultivating in the car, interrupted only by Hank's occasional, frantic bursts of scribbling, paper rattling in the furthest back seat.

I love you, you're a wonderful sister, Charles lets her known sincerely.

Shut up, you're still in big trouble, mister, Raven retorts. "I mean, if you want to know who the mutants are, or to recruit them, wouldn't it be easier to try and access the registry than to find a barely-known CIA project?"

"And one that requires a specialist to operate at that," Erik rejoins.

"Alex says that Emma Frost is a telepath," Moira reminds him, and Erik catches Charles's eyes in the rear view mirror to say:

"Lots of people are telepaths. The type of telepath it takes to operate that machine is another entirely."

Raven clears her throat before they can get into it again, probably because she has said before that watching Erik and Charles fight is more traumatic than watching their mother be married to Kurt Marko. "So what else, beyond finding mutants? What can Cerebro do?"

Charles frowns. "To date, we've only ever used it for identification," he admits. "Problematically, it's difficult to tell whether it's user error or design flaw when our findings don't match up with government data on the mutant population in any given place."

"What about projection instead of receiving?" Hank pipes up, and everybody in the car except for Moira turns around to stare at him all at once. He's goes totally white and says, "Uh."

"Projection," Erik murmurs.

"Oh, that would be…" Raven says, trailing off.

Charles thinks of all the things a telepath in Shaw's orbit could project, what feelings and thoughts an amplifier as powerful as Cerebro could push outward into the world. Or a step beyond, and even more frightening, if it wasn't just a suggestion but a directive, the mental draft, people falling into line out of their own control. Shaw has always wanted an excuse for war — Cerebro could give him soldiers.

"That would be disastrous," Charles says grimly, for all of them. "That would be a catastrophe."

***

The CIA radio telescope antenna array juts out of the side of a valley in Westchester, New York with a half-dozen monstrous-sized dishes perched peering up at the sky at various angles. There're a half-dozen shacks scattered around their bases and only one ugly concrete bunker hulked near a barbed-wire fence that runs the perimeter, signs marked MILITARY TRAINING EXERCISE AREA in fast-fading red letters.

Erik glances over at McTaggert. "Really?"

"I didn't design the compound, Erik," she says, a smile tugging at her mouth. Behind her, their escort is flashing a series of increasingly arcane credentials at the door to an unsmiling man fairly dripping with automatic weapons. "Take it up with the decorator."

"For what it's worth," comes Charles's voice, suddenly. "It used to just say, GET OUT."

Erik, because it's going to be another solid two hours before he stops being furious about this, decides to be his most petty and direct his comments to McCoy, who looks pale and awkward and on the verge of jizzing his pants, staring at the swoops of satellite curves in the near distance.

"Remind me why you're here again?"

Flinching, Hank says, "Um. The professor said — "

"Hank had some fascinating design ideas for the machine," Charles explains, turning to McTaggert and smiling wryly. "I thought it might be prudent to have him take a look at Cerebro."

McTaggert, to her credit and despite her obvious crush, doesn't capitulate even under Charles's bluest of sincere blue eyes. "You thought — Charles, he's like 15."

"I'm 19," McCoy clarifies.

Feeling a lunatic tug of empathy, Erik claps him on the shoulder. "That doesn't make it better, McCoy."

"See?" Charles says. "He's 19, and terribly clever. Besides he had some fantastically smart ideas about how to solve some of Cerebro's power flux issues that I'm sure Dr. Lang would be thrilled to hear."

Lang, when everybody is cleared to enter the facility and they are introduced, is too young to be balding as severely as he is, and underneath a coffee and mustard-stained lab coat he's wearing a tie covered in tiny Daleks about which Charles unironically compliments him until the man flushes bright pink with startled pleasure. Charles has a continuous, unrelenting charm offensive that he cranks onto high whenever he's feeling someone who's supposed to be besotted with him is angry with him instead — he's a slut for new experiences and a fucking vampire for affection.

"Professor, it's always a pleasure to see you," Lang says, finally, collecting himself while McTaggert flashes Erik a long-suffering look. He's seriously tempted to hold out a fist of solidarity to her. "And of course, if you believe Mr. McCoy has ideas that would improve the project, then by all means I would love to see them — "

McCoy, in a stunning display of how emotionally 15 he still is, squeaks.

" — but I'm sorry to say that the azimuth bearing on the Cerebro dish needs replacing and as you know that's a multi-day process that — "

Charles murmurs, Will I be being terribly presumptuous if I…? still looking for all intents and purposes as if he's listening to Lang's overly detailed explanation in the background. Erik knows that face. That's the same face Charles has on every time Erik tries to teach him non-profane Yiddish or argue for the virtues of vacationing in the great outdoors, to which Charles has always claimed to be allergic: it's thoughtful and understanding and 100 percent disengaged. There are no circumstances under which Charles will be able to reproduce a single scrap of what Lang's telling him so earnestly now.

When are you not terribly presumptuous, I wonder, Erik retorts, but he doesn't mean it cruelly. Charles has never been able to disguise this part of himself, and moreover has never thought it was anything to disguise, which Erik finds in turn wonderful and unbearable. Like most of Charles's worst flaws, they are evident, completely open, and not a source of worry to Charles, who thinks his worst flaw is his tendency to develop tunnel vision when faced with an interesting project.

But would you be able to? Charles asks, curious now, a bright spark in Erik's mind. It's 230 tons, you know.

"Never know unless I try," Erik says, knowing that his smile is showing all his teeth.

"It's indecent, the way you like a challenge," Charles says, rudely cutting into Lang's ongoing chatter, and in the abrupt silence that follows, McTaggert recovers first to say:

"I wouldn't worry about being insulted by it — they do this all the time."

Charles gives her a dirty look. "Dr. Lang, as to your azimuth bearing issue, may I offer a potential solution?"

The azimuth bearing has an inner and outer ring, with rollers and spacers that fit between about eight long, two inches thick. None of that really matters except to say that a broken azimuth bearing renders the dish inoperable, and requires about 15 people and a week to fix — or, alternately, one mutant capable of manipulating magnetic fields and 15 open-minded scientists who are having their panic held at bay by Charles, who is far more goal-oriented than he's ever been ethical about his telepathy.

Erik almost drops the satellite dish twice, lifting it away from the base with great, metallic protests of steel scraping steel, the Earth pushing back, fighting him, gravity trying to drag 230 tons back into the ground. But the hardest part, like the hardest part of moving a car or crumpling the infrastructure of a train or the first time he'd lifted up Charles's wheelchair — the first time he'd seen Charles look wondering, happy, since the shooting — is grabbing hold of the right magnetic fields in play. Afterward, sustaining the control is easy, which Charles knows, and is why he smilingly accuses Erik of almost dropping the satellite dish the second time just to torture the scientists.

As well as to see how terrifyingly controlled you have them, Erik retorts cheeky. Given that none of them lunged at the thing in a suicide run, I'd say you have their balls in your fist.

Given your jealous tendencies, they really would be making a suicide run if I had their balls in my fist, Charles tells him primly, but doesn't deny it.

Erik has seen Charles use his mutation in casual, flagrantly unethical ways for as long as he's known Charles, and in the beginning it had been infuriating, disquieting, and he'd wanted as little to do with Charles Xavier as possible. Erik had suffered at the hands of someone who had control over him before, and he'd never intended to associate with anyone who had power — real power — over him again.

Somewhere in the middle, the tenor of discussion had changed. If you think it's wrong for people with mutations to be segregated, to endure additional scrutiny, to have their powers curtailed, how is it that you hold me to a different standard? Charles had said. If all of your mutations, and what they can do, are part of you, and not a part you should be ashamed of, then why are telepaths different? Charles had asked, so reasonable it had made Erik's teeth hurt.

Charles has spent most of their acquaintance accusing Erik of seeing only black and white, that there is the right and wrong thing to do, leaving little room for compromise. Erik thinks that in most things, there is an obvious right and wrong choice — for Charles's mutation, there's no such thing.

To have such astonishing telepathic ability that you could control someone and never let them know it, to be able to tip everyone in a room's sentiments toward your own, to be able to freeze people still at great distances, take over their consciousness and use their bodies is terrible. It's power no one should have, and to allow a person with this ability to roam free is dangerous, it's bad, the stakes are too high and the temptation for misuse extreme. But Erik can too-clearly imagine a world without Charles in it, and he hates it, and anyway, Charles was born with it, just as he was born with brown hair and a vexingly red mouth and smiling blue eyes, annoying curiosity and a relentlessly good nature. It's a part of him, and Erik struggles with this, the demarcations of good and bad, when he uses his powers carelessly to move electrical equipment or stir his coffee and thinks, oh.

"Erik," Charles says, this time out loud, and Erik blinks, everything pulling into hyperclarity for a beat before he realizes that the satellite dish is hovering dangerously close to the rafters of the aircraft hanger.

Erik grins at the scientists, each pale-faced. "Sorry," he says, and settles it into the metal support structure with a whisper of sound.

"Next time, Erik, a little less showing off, please," Charles says, wry. "Their collective psychic distress was giving me a headache."

Lang, clearly made of sterner stuff than his colleagues — who are all in various states of heart failure, it looks like — just claps his hands together, apple-cheeked and obviously delighted as he says, "Fantastic! Really fantastic stuff, Agent Lehnsherr!" and starts hustling gap-jawed engineers.

All the metal in the room has aligned itself to the magnetic pole of Erik by the time they're done. The wrenches and stray nuts and bolts tilting and sliding until they're in longitudinal lines arcing outward from wherever he walks — shifting and shifting endlessly — and so it's easy, two hours later, when everything is in such perfect resonance with him already, to tilt his chin and lift Charles up to Cerebro and to follow on the stairs when Charles arches one brow and asks, "Erik, if you wouldn't mind."

"So aside from giving you migraines and making you behave in undignified ways, what are you intending on doing with this monstrous creation today?" Erik asks, curling his hands into fists in his pockets, watching Hank and Dr. Lang confer in the background, closing up the metal plate hiding the tangled guts of the beast.

"Well, I'm thinking that today, I may use it to try and locate our poor indisposed friend, Scott Summers," Charles tells him, locking the wheels of his chair.

"As Scott will probably be with Shaw," Erik says, continuing the thought.

"Exactly," Charles replies, cheerful, and calls over his shoulder, "Hank? Dr. Lang? Any luck amplifying the power?"

Erik tenses. "Amplifying?"

"Yep," Hank says, voice flowing up over a number of worrying clatters and bangs. "We're closing it up now."

"Amplifying?" Erik asks again.

Charles smiles at him, pulling some sort of helmet on. "Don't worry, Erik, the chances I'll be electrocuted are extremely slim."

***

Alex has lost track of how long he's been lying on the floor of this stupid room, and how many times he's counted all the ceiling tiles, and how many awful fucking scenarios have run through his head involving Sebastian Shaw and Scott.

It's like that awful day, exactly seven after their parents had died, when all the numbness had snapped out of him all at once and it had felt like being plunged into ice water: shaking and staring at the ceiling of their family house wondering what the fuck he's going to to, overwhelmed to paralysis. Alex had been thinking about dicking around for a year or two after having barely scraped out of high school. He had about $300 in his checking account, linked to his parents, a Visa that fed off of their line of credit, a driver's license, a 2004 Toyota Corolla and fuck-all idea of what to do with himself and his little brother.

So he'd tried, he'd tried so fucking hard. He'd taken three different jobs, the opening shift at a Starbucks, the mid-afternoon to dinner run at the Hardees across the street from there, and the shitty closing hours at the Whole Foods in the same strip mall, soullessly stuffing organic purple kale into reusable hemp bags. He'd visited Scott every single time he could in the group house they'd stuffed him into, promising that he was going to get custody, that he was working on it, and he spent any other free time begging their social worker — some butterface redhead named Susan who obviously came from old money and was working off her white girl guilt in the system, and oh, how it showed — to just give him Scott, to take him out of the group home. Scott was skinny and shy and quiet and there were a half-dozen assholes in that group home who liked to dunk his shoes in toilet water or shove him into walls, and every time Alex visited Scott managed bravery for about an hour before he started begging to go home with his brother. It hurt. It hurt worse than anything Alex had ever thought hurt before, and it ached in an unrelenting crush on his chest every time he got kicked out for the day and had to leave Scott behind. Alex didn't understand how Susan didn't understand that Scott wouldn't have cared about living off of leftover pastry from Starbucks and stolen burgers from Hardees and only seeing his brother an hour a day in a roach-infested studio because at least they would be together. Because Alex hadn't been that great an older brother but he was Scott's family, he loved the kid, he would salt and burn the Earth for the kid.

"I know you're trying, Alex," Susan had said to him, turning down his third appeal, "but the thing is, you're just a kid yourself. And you're working really hard now, I know, but it's only going to get harder from here, for you and Scott. We're just trying to find the safest, most stable place for him to be."

"Fuck you, lady," Alex had told her, gotten hellishly drunk and sat in the bathtub in the apartment they wouldn't let Scott live in with him and cried until dawn.

Then having legitimate jobs seemed kind of pointless, and he'd done other shit instead — nothing really bad, just the occasional stereo in the occasional poorly secured parking garage. If you parked your Bentley in the cheapest lot available, you were basically asking for it as far as Alex was concerned. And who cared, anyway? He'd spent a lot of time being pissed, this generally resulted in shit getting blown up. His parents used to give him crap about blasting stuff in the woods behind their house, but then they'd fucked off and died in a God damn plane crash and Scott was stuck in the foster system and Alex was too much of a useless waste to save him so whatever.

Maybe that would have been it, maybe he would have just kept visiting Scott in foster care and after those foster parents liked Scott so much they adopted him and changed his last name to fucking Fairchild.. And all of that would have been okay, sort of, except the ink on the legal documents had barely been dried when Scott had turned 13 and that entire thing about you being more genetically similar to your siblings than your parents had kicked in with vengeance.

Scott had run away twice before he managed to make it stick, and by then it was too late, the foster family had figured out that Scott wasn't just burning stuff because they weren't loving him enough, but by opening his eyes — because he was a freak, just like Alex.

"I can't go back there," Scott had begged. "They're going to send me back. They're going to send me to mutant foster care and I can't go back there. I can't, Alex, don't make me, please."

Alex had thought, Jesus fucking Christ and thanks a fucking lot, Mom, Dad, and dragged his brother in for a hug, holding his hand over Scott's shut-tight eyes, over his cheeks, slicked with tears, and said, "Hey, chill out, kiddo. You're not going anywhere, okay? You and me, we're going to stick together from now on out."

After that, they'd had no choice but to run, and when Shaw had found him and known things and said, "How about you run with my crowd for a while?" Alex thought of the new sneakers Scott needed, that they were running out of milk and toilet paper and said, "Yeah, sure, why not."

And now all he can think is of Scott, who's all but self-imposed blind now, whose mutation goes off the rails when he panics, alone and shit-scared and fucked over all over again all because of —

"Hey," Raven says, suddenly in the room and suddenly standing directly overhead, her face dark in the shadows of her hair.

"Did you find him?" Alex asks, because of course they haven't.

Raven squats down to put a hand on Alex's shoulder, like she's not afraid of him, like he couldn't blow her up if he slipped up just the littlest bit.

"Yeah, Alex," she says, but she looks so sad and solemn that he doesn't jump up, just stays on the floor so that the fear doesn't kick his knees out from underneath him. He's too scared to ask, so he's glad when she smiles at him, tight, and murmurs, "He's fine — but we need to talk."

He ends up in the backseat of the SUV, stuck in between Angel and Armando with Raven unhurriedly, casually breaking a new and different traffic law in a new and different way every two seconds.

The third time they skate across three lanes, the atonal shrieks of terrified drivers they've barely missed accompanying the move, Alex braces his foot against the back of the console and yelps, "Jesus fucking Christ! Who taught you how to drive?"

"Charles," Angel, Armando, and Raven say together.

"Did Charles teach Lehnsherr how to drive, too?" Alex mutters, mostly to himself, and covering his eyes as they veer past a silvery purple Ford Windstar. They're momentarily close enough that he can see the fascinated horror in the eyes of the three kids in the backseat, plastered up against the fingerprinted glass.

From the front seat, Raven says, "Charles and Erik are both great drivers."

"So it's like one of those evil feedback loops, basically," Angel clarifies.

The car swoops across another two lanes, heading toward the offramp at warp speed, and then Alex is too busy bracing himself against the centripetal force of the turn onto the local road to ask where the hell they're going until they're already there — a stark military compound in the shadows of massive satellite dishes, that CIA woman waiting for them at the gates.

"Armando," she says, and nods at Angel, too, and Raven.

"Is Charles okay?" Raven asks, locking the car doors and flashing her badge at some rapidly approaching dudes with a fuckton each of guns strapped around them. "When I left, he was still — "

"Erik has managed to convince him to get out of Cerebro," the CIA woman says, too diplomatic, which probably means that Lehnsherr probably broke whatever the hell Cerebro was into itty bitty pieces with his mutation while Xavier stared at him with bleak, pitiful blue eyes. "And — " the woman, McTaggert?, says this looking directly at Alex " — he wanted me to go ahead and tell you that your brother isn't hurt."

It's like all the muscles and bones in his body go on strike at once, and he's leaning heavily against Armando before he knows it, feeling his heart palpitate in his chest. It takes about ten seconds for him to push away, to get some distance, but when he does it he gives Armando an apologetic smile, because Munoz seems like good people — Alex just doesn't really trust himself right now.

"Good," he manages. "That's good. Do they know where he is?"

McTaggert's face grows sober. "That's where it gets more..."

"Unprecedented," is what Xavier says, after they've been forced through like six hours of security clearance, during which Alex becomes pretty well sexually acquainted with the guy who does his unnecessarily thorough body search. It's a sign of how sleep-deprived and crazy he is that he thinks, How much do you want to bet nobody tried that shit on Xavier, before he'd followed Moira up a creaking metal platform, flanked by Angel and Armando — both hesitating — to find Xavier, flat out, lying on someone's suit jacket, head in Lehnsherr's lap. Hank's sitting on the ground next to them, his face the color of Elmer's glue.

"Oh, come the fuck on, Charles," Raven says, long-suffering but not particularly alarmed.

Hank is saying, "I'm so sorry, professor — "

"Can I kill him?" Lehnsherr is asking Xavier, half-joking. Probably, and Alex hears himself say, "Hank, get over here," without any input from his higher brain functions. What the fuck.

"Alex would be terribly upset if you did," Xavier says.

" — I had no idea," Hank finishes in a babble, and Xavier, from where he's prone on the ground, pats Hank on the knee — ugh — and says:

"It's quite all right, Hank, really," before turning to Alex and waving. "Alex! Did Moira — "

"Thanks," Alex interrupts, because he knows that Xavier is a creeper and a fucking weirdo and has jacked up designs on Hank's nubile genius, but he's grateful that the guy is on his side, that he is telling Alex the most salient point while everybody else keeps talking about catching terrorist ringleaders — as if Alex cares about that shit at all. He just wants his brother back. "Did you see where he is?"

The "so I can blast out of here and get him" part is unspoken, but he must be projecting that so hard that Hank hears it, because that asshole just narrows his eyes and gets up, lickety-split, darting over like he could stop Alex from doing something stupid. Alex is champion at doing stupid stuff, and it doesn't matter how much Hank stares at him, pleading, or if he lets himself bump shoulders with the guy, reassuring. What's gotta be done has got to be done.

"That was what is so unprecedented!" Xavier says, propping himself up on his elbows successfully for about 20 seconds before Lehnsherr drags him back prone again, holding Charles flat by his shoulders and scowling down at him in a way that would probably be scarier if Charles wasn't looking back up at him like he was the basking in the sun or some equally gross comparison.

"Charles," Lehnsherr warns.

Raven stomps over, too, and nudges her brother with one foot. "What did he do to himself?"

"It's irrelevant," Charles insists, and before anybody else can disagree, goes on to say, "What I was saying is that while I failed to ascertain Scott's exact location, I have much more information on Shaw's associates — specifically Ms. Frost."

Lehnsherr, because he's not-so-secretly a troll, reflexively turns to smirk at Alex, who can't help but think, BOOBS really loudly, which would be bad enough even if it didn't prompt Xavier to give him a quelling look, although he doesn't comment on it, thank fuck, before he goes on to add:

"She's not just a telepath, Alex, she's a terribly powerful one."

Raven is getting down on her knees now, leaning over her brother to brush his bangs out of his face, inspect his eyes with distracted ease, and Alex wonders if they're like how he and Scott were like. He's never been scared of Scott, of what Scott could do, but he's worried a lot, and he's kept a hand over Scott's eyes to reassure him when Scott had been scared he'd look by accident and blow something up — and the memory makes him sick. He wants Scott here and safe so badly it feels like a still-tearing gash in his chest, down the line of his sternum.

"Terribly powerful, more powerful than you?" Lehnsherr asks, helping Raven slap Xavier's protesting hands away when she starts to take his pulse.

"You two are absolutely maddening," Xaiver accuses, but submits when they both glare at him at the same time. He settles for clearing his throat to say, "I hate to speculate, but she is quite powerful."

Lehnsherr looks up to catch the CIA woman's eye. "That means 'no,' by the way."

"I've been sufficiently briefed on Charles-to-English, thanks," the woman retorts, disinterested, and says to Xavier, "What else?"

"She's not merely a telepath, either," Xavier says. "I had let myself in a few moments before she'd realized the intrusion and thoroughly kicked me out."

Hank, next to Alex, leans in to say, "And that was when the Professor yelled and Agent Lehnsherr ripped the helmet mechanism off of the machine."

Alex looks beyond the scene on the platform, at a huddle of forgotten scientists cooing over the giant fucker of a machine in the background. As Hank has reported, there is some sort of metal colander hat with a medusa knot of wires spilling out of it abandoned on the ground.

"Which Erik can repair in very short order," Xavier insists. "Ms. Frost was fascinating. She seems to have a secondary mutation that turns her…well, I suppose the best word is crystalline and would it be a terrible imposition if you and Raven find some way to return me to to an upright position? My dignity is feeling extremely bruised."

Lehnsherr, as charming as ever, mutters, "Fuck your dignity," but he calls the wheelchair over, floating it soundlessly over the platform, and with practiced cooperation with Raven they help Xavier into the chair, their hands easy and reflexive. Alex guesses they've done this a lot before, that this is one of those shitty things you get used to the way you get used to a lot of things. "Is that okay?" Raven asks, and Xavier says, "Yes, it's fine," like it's something he never wants to talk about, and nobody says "thank you" or "you're welcome" — the whole thing smoothed away like a wrinkled bedsheet. It makes Alex hate Lehnsherr maybe 2 percent less than before.

The CIA woman, who seems to be ignoring almost anything that isn't mission critical going on around her, asks:

"So what does that mean for us? Did you manage to get any insight into Shaw's plans?"

"A little," Xavier murmurs. "Enough to worry me."

'Enough to worry me' from Charles-to-English turns out to mean that Sebastian Shaw wants himself a mutant army. But the thing is most people aren't angry enough or hurt enough or batshit enough to want that. They have families and mortgages and some bullshit paperwork deadline at work, a vacation scheduled next week. It's easiest to hate in broad strokes; it's when you get to individuals it's almost impossible. So the plan involves aggressive recruitment, possibly with the help of Cerebro.

"He's aware that any war between mutants and humans would be disastrous," Xavier says, grim. "But Shaw seems to fancy himself a builder, and he's looking forward to the challenge."

Lehnsherr looks heartsick, absolutely fucked up, like he's just aged ten years in an instant, and Alex thinks it must be fucking awful if he lets Xavier take his hand like that, lace their fingers together in public.

"Why would he want Scott?" Hank asks, gray-faced. "He's just a kid."

Xavier answers Hank's question by looking at Alex, solemn. "He was impressed by your mutation, and — "

It's weird to watch Lehnsherr and Xavier having a conversation in a crowded room in absolute silence. Xavier slants his eyes over, and Lehnsherr doesn't turn to meet his gaze, just tips his chin down, and then they both sit there like they're murmuring at each other through a closed door while everybody feels awkward as fuck. At least that's what Alex has gotten out of the experience so far, except when he looks around to find someone else feeling weirded out the only person who meets his gaze is Hank, who's biting his lip so hard he's bleeding, looking strung-out and tiny in a shirt that's way too big on him: a kid playing mad scientist.

Alex can have his own wordless conversation, too, because he hears Hank's I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, what can I do, what can I do? loud and clear.

" — and he thinks Scott's good leverage, anyway," Lehnsherr finishes for Xavier, choosing his words carefully and turning back to Alex. "He thinks if he has Scott, you'll go fight for him."

He would. Alex would do it in a heartbeat. He's going to go right now, except that Hank's nearness has turned into Hank's fist in Alex's shirt, gripping him close, crazy-eyed and whispering in a hush, "Alex, no. You wouldn't."

"He would," Lehnsherr cuts in, mild and unworried, and Alex wonders what he's missing here. "I would."

"You would not," Xavier and Raven contradict, simultaneous.

"To borrow a phrase from you, Charles, it's irrelevant now," Lehnsherr points out, changing the subject.

Xavier is too busy giving Lehnsherr a dirty look to say much, but Raven says, "It wouldn't mean anything, Alex. Even if we let you go, what makes you think he'd actually let Scott free? You'd die for sure, when this all goes down."

"Then what the fuck am I supposed to do?" Alex shouts, because what the fuck is he supposed to do? That's his brother. That's his dumb kid brother who cried the first time he watched Beauty and the Beast and has an unnatural relationship with his Legos and who's already lost his parents, who's already had to take sink baths in public toilets and live in shitty mutant foster care and been turned out by adoptive parents because of something he didn't have any control of. And Alex hasn't been able to protect him from any of that, so what the fuck is he suppose to do now? Why did they even tell him that shit if they didn't want him to go? What did they think he would do? There's no right thing here — there's nothing he can — and Alex can feel it welling up behind his eyes, red and furious and 200 degrees Celcius, making all his skin hot with panicked fury, and if they don't say something soon he's going to blast through this entire facility.

"You fight, but not with him," Xavier cuts in, hard, all the soft, professorial edges gone. "You fight against him. It's the only way you'll have Scott back on your own terms."

Alex can either talk, or he can keep himself from blowing up the entire facility. He can still feel Hank near enough to burn though, so he just shouts inside his own head, tamping down on the blast that's boiling up in his throat, because what the fuck does Xavier know? What the hell could Lehnsherr ever know about this? Xavier lives in a God damn New York mansion with an elevator, and Lehnsherr's never been anybody's bitch. It's so easy to tell people to do the right thing when it's easy for you, when you're not the one with skin in the game, when you're not the person who's going to have to live with yourself if everything goes wrong, and —

Alex, Xavier's voice cuts in, crystal clear and loud and entirely inside Alex's head, I understand you're frightened and worried right now — but even if you don't believe that I have made any difficult decisions in regards to Shaw, believe this: no one can know your hatred of Shaw so well as Erik.

"Oh, God," Hank says, sounding four rooms away. "He looks like he's losing it."

"What happens when Alex loses it?" Raven asks, alarmed.

Lehnsherr says, "Something explodes," and adds, "Charles, could you…?"

I'm very sorry about this, Xavier says, suddenly changed, back to tweed and guilelessness now. We'll talk about this when you wake up. But briefly. You clearly need training.

Alex only has enough time to ask, "What the fuck are you — ?" before he's out, knees giving out, the room gone dark around him.

***

The part that Charles and Erik don't tell Alex is this:

Shaw knew Charles would come looking, that Cerebro would be involved. He knows mutants are outnumbered, and that while he'll recruit, and abuse Emma Frosts's telepathy to do it — there are already a small handful of the unwillingly converted in his tow, and Charles feels sick thinking about it — he knows that the easiest way to incite war is to let the humans start it, to let it brew like poison in groundwater. Shaw is nothing if not patient, and his theories of engagement are coy. He has a plan to gain access to Cerebro and the means to do it; it's a matter of time before he chooses his sacrificial mutants, those who are going to go berserker for the greater cause. It's a shame about little Scott Summers, too, but he's too useful a foot soldier in this — both for his marvelously dangerous powers and for his brother's, too, Shaw had conveyed via Emma. It will be an ugly but necessary war, and if Charles dies, it will be a tragedy, but also a window for minor revolution, and one day, even Charles may come to appreciate this.

The part that Charles doesn't tell Erik is this:

If it is another mutant who kills Charles, someone unstable and obviously dangerous already, then it will be the only story anybody reads above the fold of every major newspaper in the world for weeks. The blue laws on mutants will become black ones, and that bill stalled in committee is going to be fast-tracked. And as the pressure grows and persecution worsens, it'll be easier and easier for his cause to take hold. The nonmutants will write their own doom with their inevitable backlash. The best part, of course, Shaw had noted, is that of course you will arrogantly keep this element of your discovery to yourself, thinking you can avert catastrophe. That the people around you are as good as you, and knowing that if you were to tell your precious Erik, it would all come apart: Alex would go straight back to jail, you'd be kept far away from this case, and then how would you rubberneck and busybody?

Charles has stringent rules for himself. No one else could ever set them for him. He knows that Erik and Raven think he's cheerfully amoral with his telepathy, using it to get out of parking tickets and eavesdrop, collect all the most ravishing gossip from his graduate students — but all of that is nothing on the grand scale of transgressions.

If he could, Charles would let his voice wither. It's so much easier to talk to someone else directly, and much clearer, with less margin for misunderstanding. He hates voicemail most of all, it being fourteen degrees removed from meaningful communication. If Charles could, he would simply sway everybody to his side, easy as pie, a simple tick and it's done. If Charles could have, he would have made Erik love him from the first, to the last, and unwavering, without any of the conflict and the doubt that roils them still, to scrape away the bittersweet ache of devotion until nothing lies between them but the drowsy perfection of Sunday morning love, tangled together in a bed they've made together. It would be so easy — no one would ever know, and everyone would be happier.

And he could, but he doesn't, and he won't even though it feels like ignoring the obvious solution. Like watching someone foolishly miss the easiest answer, to putter around in the half-dark knocking into furniture and overturning glasses when the light switch is just there on the wall. Charles will always handicap himself because he may be a mutant, but he is human, first, and he can't bear it, to engage in philosophical arguments about the reality of a thing. Is it real if he's placed it there? If he's the one that made it real? Would someone have truly changed their mind about mutant acceptance? Would Erik genuinely love him? Would it even matter if they felt they had, if Erik thinks he does?

But in ways Charles can't precisely articulate, it would. The only reprieve would be forgetting, and Charles's mutation is useless on himself.

So he can only do the ordinary things, the everyday human things when it comes to influencing detractors, when it comes to convincing Erik of the right and just things to do, when it comes to appeasing Raven's upset and worry.

Raven helps Hank get Alex squared away, dragging his dead weight somewhere he won't be in the way and cuffing him to a railing for extra good measure while Armando interviews Dr. Lang and Angel is taking a bird's eye view of the compound, looking for obvious security weaknesses, her jacket left behind.

"Is there anything you're not telling me?" Erik asks, low and just for Charles's ears. They keep so many secrets between them it's second nature. Just because it's national security doesn't mean it's the FBI or CIA's to know.

Charles thinks, thankfully, lying is a perfectly normal human thing to do, and says, "Nothing important."

Erik just watches him calmly. "Are you sure about that?"

"I'm sure that you knowing the rest will only upset you," Charles replies delicately. "And I'm sure that it won't assist in your search for Shaw at all, either."

"I don't like it when you lie to me," Erik growls, and Charles is painfully honest when he says:

"I don't like it when I lie to you, either."

They do two more sessions with Cerebro, with Erik scowling the entire time after Charles and Dr. Lang berate him into reconnecting the helmet mechanism, but Emma Frost has taken to being less accommodating, and Charles has never been able to track Shaw for some reason. It's not the blur that comes with a low level telepath's shielding, or even the solid brick of someone higher up the OCP scale — it's just sheer absence. Charles has spent hours in Cerebro searching but never found a trace of Shaw, and the blanks in between active minds are too frequent and vast to use the process of elimination in unfamiliar places, not like the house or the office or the 23rd floor where Charles knows the shapes and sizes of blank spaces, the afterimages of people walking around, distracted and harried and happy and sad, leaving trails.

Every time Charles zeroes in on Scott, there's a quicksilver flicker of amusement and very good, Mr. Xavier before he's jolted out, rudely shown the door with a knife-edged hand, and before he can even regroup, Scott's presence and Emma's sheer crystalline defenses are vanishing again, jolted away, leaving no trace, and Charles has to start all over — until it's dizzying, until he's dizzy, and Erik says:

"That's it — McCoy, off."

This time, there's no protesting it, and Charles concedes Erik's concern may not be baseless. His arms feel weak, his head feels heavy on his neck, and there's a quietly threatening throb of pain down his shoulder blades, stretching like the scrape of a knife down the line of Charles's spine. Although Charles hasn't been properly afraid of knives in years, now, he thinks with hazy amusement — Erik's fault, the unspoken promises of him laced in so much of Charles's recklessness.

It takes Angel, Armando, and Raven to get Alex into the car, still cloaked in artificial sleep, and Hank hovers the entire time, staring at him worriedly in the backseat while everybody else breaks off to head home or the office, Erik issuing last orders before their caravan of black SUVs heads for the highways. In the back, as dusk takes the city, Hank — ever so quietly — shifts Alex so his head is pillowed in Hank's lap, stroking the hair out of his face with clumsy-soft fingers, and under the surface of Hank's immediate concern and the chasm of his own self-loathing and fearfulness is something so sweetly aching it makes Charles feel 17 again, when that guilelessly end-of-the-world kind of love had been within his capacity.

Charles thinks it's just lucky that Raven had elected to head straight home; he would never be so crass as to make fun of Hank and Erik prefers to pretend he doesn't recognize human feelings, but Hank never would have survived the teasing if Charles's sister had been here.

"Why did you make us bring him?" Erik asks, after Hank has gone from fretful to sleepy to unconscious, his hand soft over Alex's eyes, slanting orange light skating through the interior of the car as they whizz through the Holland Tunnel. "All it did was upset him."

"It also proved Alex has far more control already than he thinks," Charles returns, murmuring. He's always been a student of teach by doing, although usually the process isn't quite so traumatic to his students. "He's scared of his own mutation."

Charles can feel the metal in the car shift into Erik's resonance as he clutches at the steering wheel. It's a moment of strangeness Charles hadn't been able to identify the first time he'd gotten into a car with Erik, under the blazing winter white sun of New York City, when Erik was still Agent Lehnsherr and a fantastic mystery.

"He should be scared, he has a dangerous mutation," Erik argues.

"Only if it's out of control," Charles contradicts. "It's no more dangerous than yours."

Erik frowns, and around them, outside the car, it feels like the Holland Tunnel is lengthening and lengthening, extending forever, so there's a strange hum to play background to their words. "My mutation — "

"Is enough to bring down skyscrapers," Charles finishes gently. "To rip airplanes out of the sky and send the Rose Planetarium rolling down the street."

Grinning, unrepentant, Erik retorts, "Actually, I was going to say that my mutation is nothing compared to yours."

Charles has a dozen responses to that, but he's used them all already, more than once, for the dozens of iterations of this discussion — in shades of philosophical, curious, frightened, furious, and aroused — that they've had over the years. Erik isn't concerned or making a point, he's just saying it because it's true.

Hank, probably as a benefit of his mutation, turns out to be surprisingly strong, and carries Alex off to the annex without any assistance and just an incongruously shy, "Thank you, Professor Xavier, Agent Lehnsherr," that Erik thankfully doesn't ruin by saying anything purposefully vulgar about how Alex is slung over Hank's shoulder.

"We'll talk more in the morning," Charles promises Hank. "I have a plan. Alex and Scott will be fine."

"Good," Hank stammers, going red all the way down his neck, vanishing into the collar of his shirt. "Good night."

At which point Erik snatches up Charles by the wheelchair, and sends him halfway up the stairs toward their bedroom, calling over his shoulder, "Good night, Hank," and saying, "Charles, bed."

In another life, nights like these, Erik would be resentful and tied up too tight, all of his stress and anxiety and barely-banked revenge fantasies toward Shaw lashed together like a wall between them. Charles remembers how easy it was to scale it, to bring it down by sliding up close, drawing near, pressing a kiss to the knob of Erik's spine or throwing a leg over Erik's hips and laying worshipful kisses on his face, open-mouthed ones down the line of his chest.

It's always with the sharp ache of loss that Charles thinks breathlessly tumbling into bed, how lucky and stupid and spoiled he'd been, to be able to push Erik down among sheets of or into backseats of cars, alleyways behind restaurants, along soft grass in Central Park, barefoot in the shade. Of all the things Charles hates about the wheelchair, of all the host of indignities and embarrassments Shaw's volley of bullets had visited on him, this is what he misses the most, the thing that makes him the most angry: losing the fizzy, effortless sweetness of love — the uncomplicated simplicity of saying I'm sorry or I love you or Be okay, please be okay and I would do anything for you with his skin and his hands and the way they cleaved themselves together.

He'll never surprise Erik with a mid-afternoon fuck again, slicked up like a five-diamond pro, furtive and hot and dangerous somewhere unwise. There won't ever be lazy handjobs in a shared morning shower again, and Charles is never going to be able to drop to his knees in the foyer of the house, slam Erik against the front door and suck him off, proud and joyful and abjectly hungry after a shitty chicken dinner on the FBI tab, Erik gleaming with his commendations.

It had been crushing, to wake up in the hospital for the fourteenth time and listen to the machine beeps and to realize he'd never known anything difficult before, to suddenly plunge headlong into the awkward negotiations that would dictate the rest of his life. The doctors hadn't known the true extent of the damage, although there was general agreement that Charles would be paralyzed with minimal to vanishing chances of any recovery of movement for his legs. He'd still been in the liminal stages of spinal shock, and the landscape of his paralysis was changing daily. Some days he'd believed he could move his toes so much he imagined he could feel it, that his telepathy engendered a secondary mutation for spontaneous healing. But most days, he'd laid in bed and shut himself in his own head because his choices of general oppressive pity, Raven's debilitating grief, Erik's frenetic guilt, or the nurses' bloodlessly efficient caring were all equally unwelcome. Everybody was annoyingly helpful: they wanted to help him learn how to build up upper body strength; they wanted to teach him how to use a wheelchair; they wanted to help him cope with his grief; they wanted to show him how to use a toilet again.

Charles had wanted to wipe the memory of himself and Erik, trapped in a blandly comfortable hospital counseling room, stuck with a handful of generic pamphlets about sexual intimacy and relationships after traumatic injury, to erase the way Erik had spent the entire time casting Charles side-eyed glances, the air around his body buzzing with something that bridged the gap between revulsion and hurt.

And that was all still in the hospital, before he'd been released on his own recognizance and the promise of three times a week physical therapy and Erik's constant watchfulness, to go back to his house and — do what? What the hell was there left to do? The elevator his grandmother had installed in Xavier House was a gorgeous example of art deco ornamentation, but had been nonfunctional since Charles was six and Charles's father had been in a tinkering phase. The wooden floors had indeterminate elevation and there was a gorgeous mosaic that would have to ripped up for something more even, and Raven and Erik threw themselves into the house like renovation would keep them from the reality of their situation. Charles watched them argue with contractors and each other and waited, lying awake at night listening to Erik typing or shuffling through files on the other side of their endlessly huge bed.

Erik is stubborn like a blood stain, has his claws and teeth dug in for the duration, and before the shooting the depth of Erik's loyalty, once won, had been like absinthe: maddeningly good. After, it had felt like an anchor around Charles's neck. Erik would never leave, no one halfway decent would, but definitely not Erik, and by the time Charles swam out of his immediate self-pity long enough to shift into grim practicalities, Erik had moved himself into Xavier House: clothes and shoes and work files and books drifting from Erik's sunny one bedroom in Astoria to mingle with Charles's clothes and shoes and work files and books. Who knew that after a year of unsubtle hints it would only take violent injury and paralysis to win additional commitment? Sometimes Charles had wondered if everybody in the Lehnsherr family had a constitutional attraction to doubling down when something was hopeless or if it was a trait unique to Erik.

Raven, when he'd told her about it, had yelled at Charles that he was the world's dumbest psychic.

"Are you seriously serious?" she'd demanded. "This is Erik. He loves you. He's not going to break up with you because you — " and she'd stumbled on the words, her heart going cold in her chest " — because of this! Erik is better than that, remember how you insisted?"

"Of course not going to break up with me," Charles had agreed, resigned. That was part of the problem, really. "That's why I'm going to have to do it for him, the minute he's ready."

"I can't talk to you about this," Raven had said, and stormed off, which was fine, because Charles had had physical therapy scheduled in 15 minutes.

Raven hadn't, and doesn't, and probably won't ever understand exactly the way Charles feels about Erik. Raven's a romantic but a pragmatic one, and Charles can't explain how it had felt to land at JFK and step out to see Erik for the first time, the closed-down, forbidding face and hemmed-in scowl that had translated itself into a rush of pure happiness in Charles's chest, heart rattling with sudden greedy recognition. He's a reasonably intelligent man and his academic work had intersected a great deal with biology, so he knows theories about love as a chemical signal in the brain, triggered by pheromones, and research on the human anthropological drive to form packs.

There's nothing in all of the science and wonders that Charles has known that has ever come close to explaining how he feels about Erik: like he's turning eternally toward the sun. Erik is mean to strangers and bad-tempered and genuinely hates cats, but he is kind in every way that actually matters and long-suffering about Charles and loves to the ends of the Earth.

Charles knows he is selfish, that he'd keep Erik forever if he could, but it would be wrong and unfair. Erik hadn't even wanted to live with Charles before the shooting — it would be ludicrous to think he wanted to stay out of anything other than the tattered guilt of remaindered love, the slow-building resentment of devotion, after the shooting, to be stuck with someone who can't keep up with him and won't ever walk and hasn't had a fucking erection in six months, who'll never be able to have a normal sex life again.

So the minute he'd felt Erik thinking, this is too fucking hard, just a stray and deeply hidden misery, he'd thought, okay, now, and thought Erik would be grateful to be off the hook, finally, to never have to drag Charles out of a bathtub or call ahead everywhere to ask about accessibility again.

The fight lasted four days.

"Stop thinking about it," Erik says, and Charles blinks to find it's been years, years since that night he'd started yelling and hadn't stopped for days, the present pulling back into keen focus: their house, the evening, Erik trying to unbutton the cuffs of his shirt in the shadows of their bedroom.

Charles makes a tsking noise and Erik surrenders his wrists automatically, letting Charles fret with the cufflinks as he murmurs, "I normally don't."

"So what prompted that terrible stroll down memory lane?" Erik asks, reasonable, and starts on the buttons of his shirt, watching Charles with oh-so-familiar and curious blue eyes.

Charles grins, ragged. "Mostly, I was thinking how once upon a time, if you were in this mood, I'd just fuck it out of you."

The laugh that startles out of Erik is wonderful, harsh and impolite and just for Charles, and Erik reaches over to press his thumb to the corner of Charles's mouth, considering, as he says, "You still could."

"Not quite the same," Charles demurs, because as forthright and brutally honest as his injury has forced him to become, sex is still an awkward subject in purely clinical terms. Nothing sucks the heat out of a moment like having to stop and figure out if his body would actually like to join in the festivities initiated by his brain. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't; Charles had always thought sex could be funny on top of being fun, but he had never really anticipated being over thirty and snapping a cock ring into Erik's eye by accident.

Erik laughs again and replaces his thumb with his mouth, cupping Charles's face between his hands, and Charles laughs into the kiss, too, because how is he so lucky? How is he so lucky after all that after everything, it could be easy again — easy in a different way — and that Erik can keep smiling into his mouth and tipping Charles into their bed, to lace their fingers together and still want him?

"Didn't I say to stop thinking?" Erik asks, warm in Charles's ear. "I thought I was getting lucky here."

Charles huffs laughing, trying to mask the giggle trying to make its way up his throat, and says, "I never, Mr. Lehnsherr — who told you I was that kind of boy?"

"The entire student population of Oxford University, you slut," Erik says fondly, and before Charles can argue that he can hardly be held accountable for being sex positive on a college campus, Erik is kissing him silent, sliding a hand down Charles's shirt to hook into the waistline of his trousers, nails scratching underneath, exploring, and Charles reaches for Erik, too, for zippers and buttons and searching for skin.

Charles whispers, "I suppose it wouldn't do to have you feeling left out," and by now they know this dance, how to make this work perfectly like the inner cogs of a clock fitting together.

Charles has always loved Erik's hands, their capability and warmth, and he loves the way the gun callouses catch on his skin as Erik strokes him roughly, thumb catching just under the head as Erik murmurs, "But that was then, wasn't it? I'm the only one who can have you now," and bites at Charles's mouth, possessing.

Behavior like that obviously needs to be rewarded, and Charles curls a fist around Erik, sighs into his mouth, and loops his other arm over Erik's shoulders, dragging him down until Erik is a breathless weight against Charles, pinning him to the bed.

"I only want you," Charles gasps, grinding them together as much as he can with them curled toward one another on their sides, the light of the digital clock and the street lamps the only illumination in the room. "I've only ever wanted you."

"Such a fucking liar," Erik accuses, but he's still laughing, voice shaking. He wraps his hands around both of them, jerks them off together so roughly it almost hurts, but that intensity — where it balances on that knife edge between sharp and too-sensitive pain and lavish pleasure — sparks behind Charles's eyes, going off like fireworks along his brain where it's hooked into Erik's building orgasm, too, tangling together.

And Charles says, "But I want it to be true," because he means it, he wishes sometimes that he could dissolve himself into Erik and live there forever. He feels overcome, rapturous, all the Harlequin bingo words strung up like carnival lights inside his head, and Charles gasps it all into Erik's mouth, the heady rush of gratitude and affection and how it hurts like a constantly deepening wound to love someone the way he loves Erik: with pathetic desperation, without regard for dignity, needful and begging.

"God," Erik swears, and it sounds like it's getting scraped out of him, ripped out of the marrow, "I fucking love you," and that's it, that's all Charles needed. He makes a sobbing noise as Erik jerks it out of him, chanting, "Yeah, yeah — just like that, let me see it, Charles, let me have it, open up, just like that," and when Charles comes, it feels like it blazes out of him, Erik's hands and his mouth and the weight of his body keeping him grounded, keeping him from flying away completely.

***

When Raven gets to the house in the morning, there's a familiar, distinct, and terrible awkwardness in the air, thrumming between Hank and Alex, who are situated at far opposite ends of the massive kitchen counter in the massive kitchen. Previously, Raven hadn't ever seen them more than an arm's length apart unless there was incarceration involved, which of course means she smirks, helps herself to a cup of coffee, and asks:

"So let me guess — nobody's ever taught you guys how to shield before."

Hank drops his face into his hands. "No," he mumbles into his palms. He's so red Raven bets you could see his face from space.

"There were…dreams," Alex says, awkwardly, hands clutched around a mug.

Raven stirs in some creamer and two packets of Splenda, which Charles keeps in the house exclusively for her use. "Trust me," she assures them. "You're just lucky you didn't have to survive his adolescence in this house. Both his telepathy and his horndog tendencies were peaking simultaneously — we had to have a lot of fucking awkward discussions about what exactly counted as incest."

"Thank you for that, Raven," Charles says, zipping into the room on silent wheels, looking flushed and only a little irate, which means Erik was kind enough to preemptively fuck the bitchiness out of him last night.

Alex, who Raven has always suspected of being made of stronger stuff, recovers admirably from being orgied-by-proxy by Charles and Erik enough to say, "Hey! You knocked me out yesterday!" pointing an accusing finger at Charles.

Charles arches a brow. "You were going to burn down a government facility."

"You invited me there specifically to piss me off, didn't you?" Alex asks, voice tight.

"Well, yes," Charles admits. "But it was more to see how finely tuned your existing control is and less to be a bastard."

Alex's expression when he turns an appealing stare at Raven makes it pretty clear he doesn't see the difference there. Most of the time, neither does Raven, except for in cases of emotionally unstable cons with massively destructive mutations.

"He's trying to teach you a life lesson," Raven explains. "It all feels shitty and invasive and sort of wrong now, but if you just let him have his way with you, eventually you get used to it."

At this point, she gets clipped by a stack of magazines that must have come overnight in the mail, and Raven's still squawking, "Fucking — God damn it!" and trying to claw her mussed blonde curls out of her face when it's Erik's turn this time to say, "Thank you for that, Raven," followed by wet noises and palpable disgust from Alex, which makes Raven momentarily glad she can't see her brother sucking face with her boss at the moment. She's endured them as a couple for so long already, this newest scar would be lost in the ocean of others.

"You may look now, Raven," Charles says at long last, sounding huskier than before.

Raven does, but at Alex instead, who looks haunted. "Prison's looking better and better in comparison, huh?"

Hank goes momentarily distressed, and Raven feels a beat of apology for that before Erik interrupts to ask, "Raven, do you have anything for us from yesterday or are you here specifically for the free show?"

"Your show is gross and terrible and has been stuck on reruns for at least three years," Raven quips in response, and reaches into her Mary Poppins bag, returning with a stack of files an inch deep, sliding them across the counter and into Erik's waiting hands.

Xavier House has always felt too big. Even with Hank shyly reading the paper, eating toast, and with Alex scowling darkly enough to fill up an entire room. Even with Erik creating OCD-neat piles of documentation across the tiled breakfast counter in his shirtsleeves, cuffs unbuttoned, and Charles making himself tea, it's only barely beginning to scrape away at the space. It's a leftover cobweb from childhood, their youth and adolescence spent trying to carve smaller spaces out of the enormous ones they'd been dumped into. Charles's parents weren't neglectful, exactly, so much as forgetful, distracted.

Charles has always known too much about everybody to ever be angry with anyone, and even when Raven had gotten angry, Charles had only ever gone quiet, gone apologetic. The breadth of what Charles knows is a blessing and a curse, and Raven thinks that if loneliness wrote across her skin, then she hates to think what it's like when Charles is afraid, when it's too quiet in the house.

"You guys should have some kids," she says, extemporaneous, because it's both true and past time. "You prime child-bearing years are going to hit the twilight stages in the next half-decade or so."

"Ignoring the complete insanity of your statement, thank you for reminding me I need to make a phone call," Charles says to her primly, and heads off for the old fashioned wall phone, its long and curly cord a source of endless delight for her brother, and for no particular good reason.

When she turns back to the criminals at breakfast, they look plainly speculative. Erik, fine piece of goal-oriented German engineering that he is, appears to have completely ignored the detour and has his Crime Solving Frown on, the piles growing more and more complex, some shunted off to the side as they lose their immediate utility.

"If it was a secondary mutation, I'm pretty sure we would have known about it by now," Raven assures them. Alex looks slightly mollified, and Hank looks sort of disappointed, which explains why her brother's so head over heels for Hank, Raven guesses.

She'd pulled his file, too: kid genius, early screw-up, runaway from parents who had missed him, but who'd pretty effectively moved on. Hank's got two younger siblings he probably doesn't know about, and Raven figures if she tells him and makes him cry at breakfast, reflector or no, Alex Summers is going to set her on fire. Mutant files are, as a whole, getting slowly less and less sad, but it's a glacial pace — Raven knows she's lucky, that not everybody found Charles as a best friend and brother. It's selfish but she's glad. Learning to share him with Erik had been horrible enough, and she'd already been an adult by then.

"What, so we're absolutely sure the professor's not going get knocked up," Alex retorts, snotty.

"I mean, trust me, he and Erik have been trying," Raven tells him seriously.

"…Gross," Hank says delicately.

In the background, Charles is saying, "Good morning, Edie," and "I know, overslept — it's all been very exciting recently. I've met two brilliant young mutants in Erik's charge," because of course that is how he would describe a kid that they handwaved out of supermax in sympathy and his sketchy best friend, who has a semi-shady history of helping people set up meth labs for money. It's not like Raven doesn't understand; McCoy clearly doesn't have it in him to trick for a living.

"This is bad," Erik says suddenly, grim. "It means — "

"They probably already have enough to have some sort of Cerebro prototype, yes," Raven says, turning her attention back to Erik, who's face has gone stoney.

Yesterday hadn't all been dramatics and feelings. While Charles had been playing with Cerebro and scaring the shit of Erik and fucking with Alex to see if he could be trained, Raven and Armando and Angel and Sean had background research going, returns coming in slowly at a snail's pace. Alex had talked about a couple of blow-shit-up and grabs he'd done with Shaw in the early days, and the crime profile, once fed into a computer, had spit out a couple of hundred similar cases. The winnowing had taken days, Sean complaining bitterly the entire time and humming at just the right pitch to give everybody in the office a headache until they'd all capitulated and joined in to help. They'd turned up two dozen cases, ultimately, seemingly random until you traced all the locations all the way back, scoured the contemporary building manifests. There were office parks and universities and coffee shops and banks, and all of it seemed like dry runs for terrorism until she'd started going through witness and office listings: names of people involved in the Cerebro projects, independent contractors. Little pieces here and there, a slow and painstaking accumulation of the building blocks of the machine that had begun with Alex's help and continued after his incarceration. Even Tenleytown station explosion on the D.C. red line — Dr. Mark Asheburg, head electrical engineer on the project, had been authorized that night to take home a thin file on circuitry patterns. Asheburg and the briefcase were presumably killed in the subway fire, and among more than 100 fatalities, nobody had ever considered that to be suspect.

Now Raven thinks everything's suspect.

"I called and screamed at everybody but nobody could give me a compelling reason for why no one drew the proper connections between the break ins," she goes on, low and tense, feeling Hank and Alex's eyes on her skin, anxious and curious. "And to be fair, these were scattered years apart, not necessarily at military installations or government targets, and, well." She shrugs. "I guess this gives us a bit of an idea how high Frost should rate on the OCP scale."

Erik says, "Let's hope it's lower than Charles."

"Everybody is lower than Charles," Raven replies, distracted.

"We need to — " Erik starts.

"Everybody is meeting at the office in two hours," Raven interrupts.

Erik asks, "And — ?"

"We're making progress on the metal interference front," she tells him, because there are only a handle of smelters with the technical ability to make psi-dampening metals, and even fewer with the level of skill to make anything capable of shutting out Charles. "Our contacts in Russia are making progress, too. We should have some possibilities for you, or at least original end-delivery locations by tonight."

Erik stares at her for a beat, and there's an uncomfortable knowing in his look.

Erik lives in painful proximity to Charles, the ugly aftermath of the shooting. He's given Charles baths and wiped his ass — literally — and they've had fucking terrible conversations about whether or not to hire a pro to intervene in their sex lives in this early days, when they (and the doctors) hadn't been sure about what would or wouldn't work again. They've had every possible conversation about Erik's guilt and grief and fury and helplessness because there's nowhere to hide from it, they breathe the same air and share the same psychic space. And as miserable and exposed and relentlessly exhausting as that is, Raven wonders if it isn't preferable to what she as — has enough room to run.

Raven knows that Erik thinks she and Charles were spoiled. They were, by one another, by money, by things that money could buy, and if you erase the ugly beginnings of her life, and the ugly moral vacuum that brought her into the Xavier family, then ages ten and up were fucking charmed. They were stolen champagne giggle years, of Charles's awkward dance lessons and changing skins to fake out their nannies. They were soggy hot secrets during the depths of summer on Cape Cod and summers in Paris and Prague and waiting impatiently for Charles to finish up at the library. It was always knowing —the way you can only know if you are very fortunate — that there is injustice in the world but that it can be righted, and that you are the person who can help.

None of her FBI training — and it had to be the FBI, because rumor had it the NSA was too interested in recruiting mutants, that the CIA was still fucking experimenting on them, and the FBI had a long history of affirmative mutant hires — had prepared her for that day at Columbia. It was Charles's closing keynote, and beautifully written for maximum effect. Raven had gone through and dutifully redlined anything boring, since reporters would be there that day. Charles had been wearing a white shirt and slate-colored slacks, the suit jacket abandoned somewhere, and Raven had been idling on the left side of the stage, watching Charles in the spotlight with long-suffering affection when the first shot had gone through the air like a snap and the world had fractured in two.

She'd thought he was dying, under her hands, when she'd pressed her palms down onto his gut and screamed for someone else to do the same with the bullet wound on his thigh. All she'd been able to think was that it would nick an artery, that he would bleed out in her hands, blue eyes wide open with absolute dead psychic air between them for the first time ever: no fondness, no irritation, like a room with all the oxygen sucked out. And Raven had cried and cried and kneeled in an ever-widening pool of Charles's blood that day until the paramedics had ripped him away from her and she'd looked down and realized everything below the chest on her was dark red, blood smeared and beginning to dry brown up her shaking arms.

Even though she'd stayed with Charles after the hospital, long enough to know he'd probably be okay, she'd also run as far and fast as she fucking could — to the relative safety of her own apartment, to the uncomplicated arms of being embarrassingly drunk, to the office, where she could pour it all out in the work. It was easier to look for clues, to try and find revenge, than it was to sit with Erik in tense and miserable silence while the physical therapist tortured her brother for an hour three times a week. This is what she does instead. This is what she's best at, and one day when they catch Shaw and he burns for all the people he's killed and Raven's ruined dress and Charles and Erik then all there's going to be is an awkward guilt, the lingering bruise of cowardice.

And of everybody in the world, Raven thinks Erik probably understands it best. That does her fuck all good, since of everybody in the world, Erik will absolve her the least.

"What now?" Erik asks, finally, after an eternity of shared silence.

Raven swallows hard. "Breakfast?" she asks.

"Phone," Charles corrects, and says into the receiver, "He's right here, Edie — ignore him if he's being a bear. He hasn't had any coffee yet."

Raven watches the ritual handing off of the Sunday morning phone call, Erik making a pained I send my mother a daily e-mail to prove I am alive why must I call her as well? expression and Charles's reproachful Edie Lehnsherr is a lovely woman and she worries about you constantly, the least you can do is talk to her for ten minutes after I have already updated her on all the inane sundries you find so terrible to discuss look. Then there's an exchange of coffee and Erik perches on a counter, rearranging fridge magnets and saying, "Mmhmm," into the phone occasionally, while Charles eats three pieces of toast with butter, and today, in an interesting twist, does the crossword (badly) with Alex's help, since Hank has already made short, brutal work of the sudoku.

Hank's voice, when it comes, is a surprise. "Do you think we'll catch Shaw?"

Raven looks at Alex, who is arguing with Charles about how exactly to spell 'milquetoast,' and thinks about Scott and Alex and how she can't bear to watch anybody else's brother hurt. "We have to," she says.

***

Angel lives in that nexus of streets between Hell's Kitchen and Times Square, beyond the end of the pedestrian district and past the two blocks of shady buildings that cling stubbornly to their 1980s New York character in the face of aggressive homosexual gentrification. It takes 45 minutes to get anywhere in New York that involves taking the subway, but it feels like the time between getting the call from Armando and the time she crosses the threshold of the 23rd floor of Federal Plaza compresses to nearly nothing. It's Sunday in a government building and everything feels ghostly, too quiet and calm for the worry that's churning under her skin, too big — and growing logarithmically — for it to be contained.

Angel had lied, before, when she'd said she'd been lucky to manifest late. Sean's been breaking glass since he was an infant and Darwin had realized he was special when a neighborhood car had plowed into him and he'd only curled up in metal plates like an armadillo. She'd been totally normal until she was 20, doing three work-study jobs, when the itch between her shoulder blades had gotten too annoying to ignore. Angel remembers that it hurt — that it had made her scream — when her wings had finally torn themselves free from her skin, and how her manager at the library had panicked, calling an ambulance and rolling her onto her stomach as blood had poured down her back, skin split.

Most mutants manifest when they're young enough for their worldview to be shaped around it. Angel hadn't even owned any backless shirts until she was 22 and finally sick of feeling ever-trapped beneath three layers of cloth. She's always envied Charles's effortless acceptance of his telepathy, Erik's casual magnetism, how nonchalant Armando is about his indestructibility; they grew up knowing themselves. Angel suffered a seismic shift too late, and she remembers being pissed for years, feeling wronged, because why her? Why would it be her and not someone else? Why wouldn't it have manifested young so that her back wouldn't have scarred so badly? Why can't she get over the looks she gets now: speculative and curious, leering sometimes, always touched with something that might be fear. Why this? What had she ever done to deserve this? She'd been normal and now she was a fucking freak.

"You're overthinking it, you know," her counselor at the university had said. "No one thinks you're a freak."

"Then why was I sent straight to school-mandated counseling?" she'd shot back.

Jack, who'd had an MA in social work and specialized in putting 19 year-olds on antidepressants, had just raised an eyebrow at her and leaned back in his seat.

"Because a lot of people who manifest, or whose mutations change later in post-adolescence, become extreme versions. Because a lot of them have trouble surviving in normal society and need help to adjust, or need social services to help care for them," he'd said to her, flatly unimpressed. "You on the other hand are here because for the first time in your life, people are staring at you not because you're a beautiful girl, but because you're different."

Angel had gaped at him.

"Now, when you're ready to get over yourself," Jack had gone on, grinning crookedly now, "we can discuss how to use your mutation in a positive way, in a safe way. How to integrate it into your life. Six year-olds subject to much more intense peer pressure than you can do it, I'm sure you can manage. But until then — " he shrugged " — I'm pretty sure you can do your self-pity somewhere it doesn't eat office hours meant for serving more-needy students."

And then he'd kicked her out of the counseling office.

She'd never gone back, even after the fury had crystallized into shame, but it had changed her, left an indelible mark, something restlessly wanting under the skin.

When the elevator dumps her off, liaisons from every corner of Homeland Security are cluttering up the 23rd floor-turned-wasteland of government intelligence workers: borrowed analysts and number crunchers and a literal phalanx of math nerds with guns from the NSA marching through the offices into disused conference rooms and setting up camp. It's all spider legs of the central hub where Erik's taking all the data in his office — Alex slouched in a chair in the corner — and marrying it with his encyclopedic knowledge to generate a data point.

Sean's got a phone clutched between his shoulder and his ear, a giant box of documents spilling out over his desk, and when she catches his eyes, he mouths, ASK RAVEN and points, down the length of the bullpen to the far corner, where Raven's just coming around the corner, looking harried, wearing an NYU t-shirt and dark-colored jeans.

"Where do you guys need me?" Angel calls out, shedding her handbag and jacket and feeling the icy fingers of the HVAC system across her shoulders, the gossamer and reflexive fluttering of her dragonfly wings, unsettled in the valley of her back.

Raven waves her over, saying, "In with Armando, we're trying to cross-reference all the potentially Shaw-related attacks with what Cerebro documentation he could have acquired."

"Oh, Jesus Christ," Angel says reflexively.

Making a sympathetic face, Raven says, "I know."

But there's a reason Armando is Erik's second in command. There's that running joke that when (not if) Erik goes completely berserk, Armando's adaptive mutation is the only one that'll let him survive the fallout, and he'll have to carry on the legacy of the mutant task force in their collective absence. More importantly, Angel would bet money that Armando has a secondary mutation that lets him take any insurmountable goal and break it down to all its tiny, component parts, which today are manifesting in document boxes arranged in chronological order around the meeting room.

"I'm back! And I've brought you an angel!" Raven chirrups, going down to her knees on the nebulous purple carpet and reaching for 1997-1998.

Armando flashes her a tight smile, hovering over 1999-2000. "Perfect timing." He waves at 2003-2004. "If you don't mind."

"So how's this working?" Angel asks, going to sit with her boxes and uncovering them, setting the lids aside. She wonders for a minute who has 2005-2006, but the obvious answer is just in the next room, isn't it, because there's no way Erik's letting the box with the six-inch file on Shaw's attempt on Charles's life out of his sight.

"Slowly," Armando tells her, grimly amused. "Painfully."

The speakerphone on the conference table makes a hissing noise. "Everybody in place?" Erik asks, his voice raspy from the next room over, audio quality bad over the government phone lines. "Sound off."

"We're here, Agent Lehnsherr," says Dr. Lang from the Cerebro facility, there via speakerphone on a secured line, with an obvious army of people on his end, too. Angel can just imagine it: every scientist and MP on deck, knee-deep in decades-old boxes of personnel files and patchwork records of who signed out what during when. Between Lang and the ocean of files mushrooming throughout the bullpen, Angel can feel them all choking on dead rainforest.

"Us, too," comes McTaggert's voice, though she's nowhere to be seen, and Angel has to assume she's gone to ground with the CIA somewhere inaccessible and mysterious.

Armando says, "Me, Angel, and Raven are, too."

"Me four," Sean tells them all. "Also, I'm patching NYPD and DC Metro police onto the line — guys, you there?"

There's a crackle of feedback, and then, "Hi, yes, Agent Cassidy, NYPD major cases reporting for duty," and "All here and accounted for, Lehnsherr."

"All right," Erik says, sounding tired already. "I'm starting chronologically in 1990 — Lang, McTaggert, everybody listening in on this line, if the location, any of the names, sounds like it might be relevant, interrupt. Any questions?"

"Yeah," Alex says. "Do I need to be here."

"Shut up, Summers," Erik tells him. "All right — March 1990, Topeka."

It's not as slow going as it could be. Everybody is as brutally efficient as possible, and with DC and NYPD police databases and contacts hemming them in and spreading them out, it's easier to winnow things out an double-check sometimes poorly documented files. It still takes ages until they have their first viable possibility: a car-jacking on the California/Nevada border on February 3, 1992 that only made it into their database at all because there'd been a brief scuffle by sheriffs and highway patrol in both states over jurisdiction. The victim is Josh Hartford, who'd had a fight with is father and taken the car out to drive until he could shake it out of his bones and been found shot once in the head the next morning.

"His mother, Dr. Kozlowski," Lang says, awkward with misery, "she quit shortly after her son was killed."

"What would she have had?" Erik asks, bloodless. "In terms of Cerebro design or access?"

There's frantic shuffling, muffled yelling over the line from Lang's team, and it's a half-beat before the rough sound of cardboard cuts across the shared call and a new voice says, "Agent Lehnsher, we had to get the DOJ to intervene in this one, to get the contents of the car back while the investigation was ongoing: it was circuit layouts."

"NSA," Erik says over the line. "Did you guys get that?"

"Yep," says yet another voice. "Loud and clear."

Lang bursts out, "Josh was only 17. We all went to his funeral. Did Shaw really — ?"

"Dr. Lang," Erik says, a rebuke, if a gentle one.

There's a long and awkward silence before Lang croaks, "If — If Shaw has that electrical configuration, it's going to pose some obvious risks to whoever he has using the machine."

"Good," the voice from the NSA says, and prompts, "Agent Lehnsherr — the next incident?"

After 1992, things get busier: one or two incidents a season, and in 1994, there's the obvious strangeness of unearthing the FBI and CIA files about Charles's first attempts to contact the government regarding Shaw, carefully noted but then lost somewhere until Erik had probably run 18 miles, punched a dozen carjackers in the face, dismantled a bomb, and showed up at work at 3 a.m. to unearth them from the paperwork elephants' graveyard of archives.

"What'd Charles say?" Armando asks.

"That Shaw was a dangerous psychopath with a bent toward mutant supremacy and unclear plans underway to incite mass violence," Erik answers wryly, voice hoarse now from 1993. "There's also a charming footnote from the agent who took the report in the file in call caps saying: XAVIER IS CLEARLY CRAZY AS A FOX."

Raven laughs, sparkling and a bit nuts like all the Xaviers. "To be fair, that's not entirely inaccurate."

"No, it's not," Erik agrees, but too fond sounding for a conference call, which apparently the NSA agrees with because someone clears their throat in irritation and says, "Folks, let's carry on."

They do. They carry on through 1995 and 1997, and blaze through the narrow files of 1998, which Angel remembers primarily for being 22 and spending a lot of time at the gym with her mutant integration representative bashing into walls and giving herself minor concussions learning how to fly. In short: awesome. In 1999, matches between incidents and Cerebro scientists and documents increase, and the bones of the machine start coming together and Lang begins sounding increasingly hoarse and furious.

In 2001, there's a burglary of 561 Epperly Drive: TV stolen, a few thousand in jewelry and silver, disquiet and discomfort, metallurgical schematics for best amplification of psi ability — with asides by Dr. C. F. Xavier including snotty comments about padding on the helmet. In 2002, there's an office fire, faulty wiring in an off-site document storage facility, the lowest bidders for government contract work, that had contained initial design schematics for the satellite hook-up.

Most of 2003 and 2004 pass quietly. Charles wasn't available for much work — travel promoting his second book, setting up his conference at Columbia, probably engaging in increasingly depraved sex acts with Erik, etc. etc. — and Cerebro development lapsed mostly into improvements of existing systems. There ae two small break-ins, dismissed as the work of teenaged vandals, and a couple of fraternity hazing rituals that got students at Colgate a stern talking to, and an increased rotation of MPs at the Cerebro site itself — Erik manages to keep quiet, but his expression is darkly telling at this revelation — and then the calendar months roll into 2005.

In 2005 Angel had been working with the FBI's domestic terrorism task force in Chicago, and she still remembers the first time she ever saw Erik Lehnsherr, lounging with oozing Continental charm in her assistant director's office: impeccable single-breasted suit and hand-made shoes. He'd had that razor-sharp look of someone who'd fuck like a machine and maintain such emotional distance it'd drive an entire girls' dormitory to floods of hysterical emotion, and when she'd shaken his hand and smiled, she'd showed all of her teeth. He'd returned the courtesy when he'd grinned back.

"A mutant task force," she'd repeated, uncertain. "I'm not sure that I see the specific need for it."

"You don't think we're best qualified to handle crimes associated with our own kind?" Agent Lehnsherr — he'd only been Agent Lehnsherr, back then — had asked, noncommittal and detached.

Angel had turned those words over and over in her head then, she remembers. Our kind, us versus them, a subtly radical idea in a world that'd met mutants with state-imposed integration and had moved with a liberal heart tug of Professor Xavier's toward affirmative acceptance. Purposeful differentiation had seemed like such a strange thing compared to the way she'd been telling herself since 20 that she wasn't a freak, that she was the same, mostly, as everyone else. It had seemed like such an integral part of not feeling sorry for herself, for not feeling ostracized.

"Our kind?" she'd asked him, and his shark smile had gotten wider, a bit more dangerous.

"Jesus, Lehnsherr, must you?" her boss had groaned. "Salvatore — do you want to join this sociopath's task force or not?"

"Could be interesting," Lehnsherr had promised, still looking like the prelude to an open wound: fascinatingly dangerous. "We'll move you to New York for it."

And Angel had said, "I like New York," only to land there four months later to find Lehnsherr an entirely changed man.

Between Erik's June visit and Angel's October start-date on the task force Charles had closed up his symposium in September. Angel knows now that by Christmas, Charles had already died three times on an operating table, had two surgeries — he'd have five more in the next two years — and that Erik had been sleeping three hours a night when Raven or his mother could tag him out at the hospital. All of Lehnsherr's sleek lines and certainty, his clinical detachment and calculated cool, seemed crudely stripped down, and she'd spent her first months working for him thinking, 'Oh God, what have I done?'

"It was a blockbuster year for Shaw," McTaggert says on the conference call, either oblivious to the suffocating tension on the line or inured to it already. CIA liaison to the FBI's mutant task force isn't exactly a job for the faint of heart. "Kicks the year off with the Tenleytown bombing — "

The DC Metro's red line: 208 injured and 105 dead, including 15 firemen and officers, a half-dozen congressional assistants, a supreme court clerk, four Senate interns and a CIA research scientist carrying a suitcase of tech specs for the Cerebro machine.

" — wraps it up by shooting the leader of the mutant acceptance movement," McTaggert finishes, sounding annoyed by the entire thing. "What did he get out of that?"

Raven hits the mute button on the conference room phone. "I swear to God that woman doesn't fear death."

"Would you fear death if you were Moira McTaggert?" Armando asks.

"I would fear Erik Lehnsherr if not death," Angel mutters.

Over the conference line, Erik says, "The BAU in Quantico says it was an opening salvo in his psychological war. Everything up to that point had been goal-oriented, for a specific structural purpose — there was no reason he needed to attack Xavier then or there other than to make a point and draw some attention, drum up some public fear. Classic terrorism."

"I bet he'd be furious to be considered boring," Cassidy laughs, sounding a little nuts, which is par for the course when you've been at work for seven hours already on a Sunday. They'd ordered pizza in the middle and had a couple of 15 minute bathroom breaks, all of which Erik had stoically ignored with poorly hidden disappointment, like he's personally offended all of their bladders don't understand the gravity of the situation.

"Maybe his heart'll explode," Erik says, blank, and clears his throat. "Moving on — 2006?"

It's past midnight by the time they break, and that's leaving the NSA guys and Erik and McTaggert on the line with Lang, trying to put together a schematic of what Shaw may already have. The materials needed for the machine aren't cheap, and even when they are, they aren't common. The places some of these metals will have been ordered from, some of these tools, will have receipts and records, will have kept mailing addresses. The Cerebro machine in Lang's thrall has just under 2,700 individual parts. Somewhere in the 2,560 pieces they can reasonably assume Shaw has gathered, he'll have made a mistake, he'll have fucked up, he'll have left a mark — something his telepath missed or a fire didn't eat, that didn't get shredded or tossed, and Angel sits on the train, half-crazy from exhaustion, and thinks that they'll find it, whatever it is.

***

The weird thing about living in a house with a couple again is how Alex still automatically stops to eavesdrop in doorways the way he did as a little kid, listening to his mom and dad whisper or murmur or argue late at night, early in the morning. It's always in the kitchen, the clinking of plates and glasses and mugs, the sound of forks on ceramic layered over the sound of his mother's grumbling, his father's baritone laugh. It had been familiar and unremarkable, like the stairs in his childhood home — $79K still left on the mortgage, no way he could cover the payments, foreclosed to the bank two months after the funeral that had eaten most of his mother's shitty life insurance policy — like the rub of affectionate irritation he felt at the way Scott trailed after him all the time, fucking everywhere.

It's all little things that are gone now, wiped out, and Alex doesn't know how after everything, all of it, he can still stand in the hallway of Xavier's giant God damn mansion and feel like he's about to shake apart into paralyzing sadness just overhearing this: Xavier's voice, warm and indistinct, and Lehnsherr's irritated rejoinder, the cheerful bubbling of the coffee maker, the television on morning news somewhere in there, too. All of it's so fucking normal and ordinary and exactly like when he was 18, the last morning before he'd driven his folks to the airport to for the first trip they'd taken alone since having Scott — the last time he ever saw them.

"Summers," Lehnsherr says suddenly, head stuck out into the hall.

Jerking back, Alex gasps, "What."

And for just a split second, the shortest split second fucking ever, Lehnsherr maybe looks sad for him.

"Stop having feelings in the hall, it's making Charles broody," he says, and vanishes back into the kitchen, calling out, "Also, Charles says you should make some omelets."

Which is how Alex ends up beating like 48 eggs, because he likes a six-egg omelet, Lehnsherr apparently agrees, and Hank is essentially a bottomless abyss you can keep filling up with food endlessly like a human Mary Poppins bag in reverse. Lehnsherr does some fancy show-off business with all the knives he'd stuck Alex to the wall with and chops up mushrooms and ham and green peppers and Charles tears up three knuckles using a grater and bleeds all over the cheddar.

Hank staggers downstairs around this time to apply emergency first aid, get quizzed about the latest developments in gene sequencing, and to eat all of his omelet and half of Alex's, too.

Alex is hungry. He really is. He's fucking starving. But there's a strange tension in the room, something heavy and hanging over breakfast, and he doesn't really cotton onto whatever's not like the others until he realizes it's half past eight on a Monday and Lehnsherr is in his pajamas in the kitchen eating his third piece of toast and reading Businessweek at the counter instead of making someone cry at work.

"Something's about to happen, isn't it?" Alex asks.

Lehnsherr looks like he's about to lie about it before he stops to reconsider, to glance sideways at Charles, who nods obligingly and clears his throat. "Hank, if you'll join me in the library?"

It's a pussy move, but part of Alex kind of wants Hank to stay, to point out that Hank would be dead or a hooker or a dead hooker by now if it wasn't for the kindness of Alex's heart, but he's also aware that compared with the epic, probably sexual, temptation of Dr. Charles F. Xavier's library Alex's wellbeing is fucked. Being alone in a kitchen with Lehnsherr should be really different from being alone with the guy in interrogation, but it isn't. Alex isn't surprised. It's like Lehnsherr walks around with his own ad hoc sense of menace, endlessly adaptable to any situation.

"If you're going to off me in the kitchen, I'm pretty sure Charles is going to tell on you for it," Alex tries.

"No, he wouldn't," Lehnsherr says, immediate and absolutely confident.

Alex gapes. "What, seriously?"

"Seriously," Lehnsherr answers, breezy. "And I'm not going to kill you. I wanted to update you about the case."

Alex stares for a while, eyes hurting, face feeling hot, but he swallows and he whispers, "Okay," because he hasn't asked, not since he went to the Cerebro facility. If he doesn't think about it, he can almost muddle through the day, and he can focus on not losing it, keeping his mutation tightly tamped down, but he can already feel his control beginning to fray, just the stress of it loosening the knots.

"We had a few extremely significant breakthroughs yesterday," Lehnsherr starts. "Much of it can be attributed to the information you gave us, so thank you for that."

"Okay," Alex says again. He feels dumb and 18, too young for this, like he's sitting in the principal's office waiting for the guidance counselor and knowing that the world is about to end.

"We were able to determine how much of the Cerebro machine Shaw's probably been able to reproduce, which is important because if he's doing it, he's going to be reaching out to specialist producers — for the metal, for some of the equipment, it's not going to be cheap and it'll certainly be memorable," Lehnsherr goes on.

"What about Emma? Frost?" Alex asks. He only worked with Shaw a few times, but he'd seen her in action, the way she'd smile and people would start doing stupid shit — not stupid shit like teenagers would for the pretty girl in the class, either. They'd unlock doors, swear they didn't see anybody, set fires, help them escape, forget everything.

"Sure, and that's a complication," Lehnsherr allows, leaning back in his chair. "We know where to look now and we will, and they will have fucked up, Summers. There's going to be something — nobody's that good."

Alex clears his throat to find that it hurts already, a tense ache. "What about Scott?"

"We have no reason to believe that Scott's life is in danger," Lehnsherr promises. "Nothing of what we found yesterday leads us to change our opinion on that — for now, your brother should be all right." A pause. "Plus, he's your kid brother, so I'm sure he's being a painfully annoying little shit and is taking care of himself."

Weirdly, that actually does make Alex feel better.

"Do you have any questions?" Lehnsherr asks.

Is Scott really going to be okay? Alex wants to ask. What if this doesn't work? What if Emma Frost really is that good? Alex bets that if Charles Xavier is, she could be, too. Where will he go, after all of this? What's he going to do if Scott dies? How do you catch someone this dangerous? There're too many powerful people around him. Look at Charles. He's the most powerful telepath in the world and he can't fucking walk anymore because of Shaw — how the fuck is Scott supposed to compare with that? How is anybody? Is it going to be okay? Is any of this going to be okay?

Alex shakes his head. "No. No questions."

"Good," Lehnsherr says, and turns back to his magazine. "Now — go away."

Hank is waiting for him in the hall, sitting on the ground with his knobby knees pulled up to his narrow chest, and he glances up when Alex steps out of the doorway. "Hey."

It takes three tries for Alex to clear his throat enough to say, "I thought you were going to the library."

Hank gets up, and he does a thing halfway up to his feet that's probably a shrug. "Are you okay?"

"I'm always okay," Alex lies, reflexive. "What about you, bozo?"

"Worried about you," Hank sighs.

Hank's such a soft fucking touch. It's lucky, in a sick way, that all of this got them wrapped up with Xavier. Charles may have some latent pervert tendencies but all in all he's an okay guy and seriously ninja at crossword puzzles. After all of this, no matter how it goes down, and when Alex goes back in, he's glad that Hank will still be here, at least, where he and Xavier can exist happily nerdily ever after or whatever.

"Seriously, chill out," he says. "I'm fine. Lehnsherr just wanted to update me on the case."

"Yeah, but Charles wants to force you to train," Hank contradicts, and Alex feels Lehnsherr clapping him on the arm and muttering, "Hiten zol men zich far di freind, nit far di feint," before he's jogging up the stairs, calling out through the hall, "I'm telling Mrs. Hendry it's all your fault if this destroys the house, Charles."

From down the hall, unseen, Charles yells back, "Very funny, Erik," and adds after a beat, "Alex, if you could come down to the basement, please."

"What do you mean, 'train'?" Alex hisses.

"He says it's mostly harmless," Hank says with the blind faith of the converted.

The cellar door turns out to be an elevator down into some sort of criminal mastermind sublevel, and after he shoves Alex into it, Hank just presses a button and stays in the hallway.

"Wait, what the hell, you're not coming with me?" Alex demands, holding the elevator open.

"Mostly harmless," Hank argues. "And just because the Professor thinks it's safe doesn't mean I do."

Alex glares. "Oh, that's fucking comforting," he snarls, letting the doors start to slide shut. "I should have left you for the trolls and child molesters in the park."

"I'm sure it'll be okay, or something," Hank says, hollering through the elevator. "Don't kill the professor!"

Alex mutters, "Come on, yeah right," because come on, this is Charles. They're probably going to do a deep breathing exercise and cry about their feelings.

When the elevator doors open, Charles is carrying a mannequin head and a fire extinguisher.

"Excellent," the professor cheers. "How is your aim, do you think, Alex?"

Alex's aim is shitty, it turns out, unfortunately for the derelict bowling alley in the basement. Because of course Xavier House has a derelict bowling alley in the basement.

The mannequin — the rest is extra creepy for being naked and aggressively headless, because it's still sitting in Charles's lap, and also, who put the fucking X across its tits? — ends up incredibly on fire twice, and Charles loses part of the left sleeve of his ugly cardigan. There's also some sort of antique chair stuffed with horsehair ("Ah, well, I always did hate Louis XIV," Charles says philosophically, while brutally covering it in fire suppressing foam) that dies for the cause, and all the while Charles is taking extensive notes in a Moleskin using an astronaut pen and looking contemplative.

"You know, Alex, if we could find a method by which to concentrate the — well, for lack of a better word — lasers you shoot, I truly believe your mutation could be harnessed extremely effectively," Charles says, pouring a bucket of water over Alex's head. His skin's smoking and crackling with it, and he feels fucking fantastic down to the toes, overclocked and 300 percent awake.

Blubbering through the water, Alex asks, "For what?"

"Well, I don't know," Charles admits, and Alex can hear the wheels of the chair swishing through standing water as Charles goes back toward the laundry room sink for more water. Mrs. Hendry's going to have them murdered. "But you could have a fine career in demolition. Or! You could cut people out of vehicles when they're trapped!"

"Or I could cut through bank vaults," Alex suggests, mostly so he can look at Charles's bleakly disappointed face.

He'd feel shitty about it but Charles can also read under the tracing-paper layers of Alex's thoughts straight into the smirk in his head so whatever. He's started to think that maybe Charles treats other peoples' thoughts like most people treat other peoples' clothes: you can see them, you're fully aware of them, and sometimes how strange or slutty or terrible they are, but that doesn't mean you really care what they're wearing.

"Alexander Benjamin Summers, you will not," Charles lectures, huffy. "I have all sorts of dreams about your bright future, young man."

Alex drags his t-shirt back over his head, and through the heather gray cloth, worn soft, he says, "That's almost as creepy as that mannequin head."

"Oh," Charles says, dismissive, "the mannequin is Erik's."

Alex figures that everybody is ganging up on him, keeping him from thinking about Scott too much, because Charles lets him up from the basement just in time for Hank to step in and steer Alex off to some terrifying pile of metal and wires, spouting off equally terrifying words about "concentration" and "deflection" and "won't be worse than like, a second degree burn, if that." A lot of it's clearly been flagrantly stolen either from the Cerebro installation or from Erik's garage, so Alex decides to be touched by Hank's criminal enterprise instead of calling him out on being obvious, and lets himself to be tortured by everybody's good intentions.

It feels weirdly like the calm before the storm, little bullshit interior moments — lunch and helping Hank weed the bookshelves of the annex — before something big is about to drop on them. And as guilty and helpless as it feels to wait for news, for something to change, to hope without doing anything, to be sick over Scott, it feels worse to know something will happen, that something will change, and that it will have a sickening finality, one way or the other.

So he's not ready for it and about as ready as he's ever going to be when the intercom in the annex crackles to life and Lehnsherr's voice barks out, "Summers — get down here."

***

A lot of people have sad cop-origin stories: family history of alcoholism and police work or somebody close to them got hurt and they went in for justice of one flavor or another.

Darwin — Sean's been trying to make Darwin happen for ages, but if Armando doesn't cooperate, it's going to be a long, uphill-ass climb — is a second-generation cop, his dad's a captain in one of the localish New York precincts. Angel got into it because during her senior year of college, some campus shrink of hers had been murdered in a carjacking. Raven likes to tell everybody that if Charles is the philosopher king in that family, then someone's got to be down on the battlefield.

Nobody's willing to ask how Lehnsherr got into law enforcement. Correction, probably Raven and Charles know how Lehnsherr got into law enforcement, and maybe if someone else got up the nuts to ask, Lehnsherr might even tell them. In conclusion, no one knows how Lehnsherr got into law enforcement because it's not worth it and Sean likes his balls where they are.

Sean got into it to fund his music career.

"How does that even fucking make sense?" Angel snaps at him.

They're in the back of an FBI charter that Lehnsherr had arranged to be "borrowed" from the BAU through some combination of sex magic and blackmail, probably, with a healthy side of death threats. The seats are butter-soft leather and big enough to stretch out to sleep on, but there are like a thousand perfectly finished sudokus in here, so that even if Sean could be seduced away by the profilers by better transport he'd be seriously allergic to the nerd.

Lehnsherr had put them all on 48-hour stand-down, with the understanding that something was probably going to break within the next 72, and they should be ready to haul ass when it came. It took the NSA-CIA joint task force exactly 56 hours to come up with something, and Sean had gotten the call in the middle of a blues bar near Union Square that they were wheels up for Detroit in four hours.

"Did you eat cart food for breakfast again?" Arman—Darwin asks her.

She jerks kevlar over her head, scowling at him. "What the fuck does that have to do with anything?"

"Because you get super mean when you have that much sodium in the morning," Sean whines, and fumbles with the catches on his own bulletproof vest.

At the front of the plane, clutching a satellite phone, still, Lehnsherr mutters, "We want her mean for this. Eat some more hot dogs," before he says, "Yes, I'm still here," and follows it up with, "No, asshole, we're not sure he's there, we just decided that we'd take some math and mobilize all local units and fly out a government task force for shits and giggles."

Sean turns back to Armando and Angel. "I can really tell what Charles sees in him."

Raven comes out of the bathroom in the back of the jet, and Sean does a double-take, like always, to see her blue. She almost never walks around in her own skin, even though she and Lehnsherr have an unending, couple-y argument about it that they pick up and drop off at irregular intervals over how she still walks around rocking blonde bombshell most days, but then Erik can eat it because he looks like a norm and Raven looks like a statue in lapis lazuli.

"You clash with your FBI jacket, dude," Angel marvels, and Raven narrows her eyes.

"You seriously need to stop eating cart food in the morning, it makes you a monster," she retorts.

The debrief on the way to the helipad had been mercifully brief and to the point. Their exhaustive paperwork, the 16-hour conference call from hell, the inroads Sean and Raven had laid down earlier with manufacturers of psi-blocking metals had finally come through. Fourteen hours after Lehnsherr had put his team on stand-down, the NSA had passed off their modeling to the CIA, which had presumably bullied and terrorized local police and local FBI task forces and probably abused a half-dozen super fucking illegal phone, internet, telepath-tap networks to triangulate a location.

At the front of the plane, Lehnsherr is rubbing the bridge of his nose now, saying, "Their telepath is going to know we're — well how good is the psi shielding on your vehicles? Because a 3/4 OCP is going to be fucking useless except for dampening the collateral noise, let's not even talk about a telepath with a three-quarters finished Cerebro amplifier." A pause. "Oh, I'm guessing that we're calling that a 5/6 based off of the lowest government bid process." Longer pause. "Yes, it is my job to be an asshole on purpose."

"We should have brought Charles," Raven sighs. "One time he hid an entire sorority from campus police."

Darwin winces, like he already regrets it as he asks, "Should I ask why he was with an entire sorority and why they needed hiding from campus police?"

"Raven," Lehnsherr says, warning, just as Raven's about to open her mouth.

"Probably because they were praying to Jesus and thinking about their studies so hard it was disturbing the nearby orphanage, where Charles was reading the kids fairytales and saving himself for marriage," Raven says, revising rapidly.

Sean's always thought that there was something deeply fucked up about Raven and Charles's relationship, and every new thing they say about one another or that Erik says about Charles or Raven just reinforces that belief. Sean has six brothers and sisters because his parents are a disgusting Irish stereotype and only Catholic when their grandparents are watching, they want to justify failing at birth control, or torture Sean about his life choices. As far as he's concerned all of them are sexless creatures forever stuck in pre-adolescence. He doesn't want to know shit about their personal lives or favorite sexual positions or college drug habits or hopes and dreams, all of which are things that Raven and Charles apparently know about each other. And — even more creepily — Erik apparently knows that Raven and Charles knows about each other. Sean feels sorry as hell for whichever man Raven eventually decides to keep because he's in for a world of humiliating Christmas dinner revelations.

"That's right, and that's what he'll be doing tonight, too, and not in the nexus of danger," Lehnsherr replies, easy.

"He's going to be resentful and bored," Raven warns. "Or worse, maybe he'll sneak out to Cerebro."

Angel laughs. "Hah. 'Maybe.'"

Lehnsherr puts a hand over the receiver on the phone. "Can we let me cultivate my comforting delusions, here?"

Sean's mutation has always been pretty low-key and relatively harmless unless he wants it to be harmful, and his parents swear that in between all his siblings' screaming they could barely hear the supersonic shit he was belting out. If anything, his blessing as a mutant was never to feel all that different, so he never really thought about it a lot until he got to NYU and made time in between poorly received gigs to go to a few lectures on campus, and then some stuff happened, and the FBI had sounded like a pretty good idea at the end of the day. What the hell else was he supposed to do with a masters in musical history? The first time he'd ever thought that his mutation could be useful for anything, really, was when he'd run into Armando in Kansas City for a field-office case and he'd talked Sean into echolocating some crazy Deliverance bullshit in the forest in the dark. It had taken six hours, his voice had been shot at the end of it, and he and Darwin had both been covered with some deeply upsetting shit, but they'd caught the bad guys and staggered out of the forest laughing and the local LEOs had bought them a round after work.

Anyway, it'd gotten him a transfer to New York and some fucking hilarious team dinners at Xavier House that would have made the whole business worth it even without the added benefit of helping people like himself — or protecting people from others like them.

"All right, listen up," Lehnsherr says, ending his call, which Sean bets whoever Lehnsherr was calling is intensely grateful for. "Quick rundown."

"Oh, God," Angel mutters under her breath, but straps the last pieces of her kevlar tight, FBI huge across her chest.

"CIA and NSA have reason to believe that Shaw and a small group loyal to him — roughly ten to 15 mutants — are hiding out in the United Artists theater in downtown Detroit," Lehnsherr tells them. "These are extremely dangerous individuals, and, just to exhaustively remind you again of their powers: Frost, telepathy on an unknown scale — "

"But intense enough to kick Charles out of her head, at least when he wasn't expecting it," Raven cuts in, solemn. Everybody knows what that means.

" — Yes, followed by Janos Quested, aka, Hurricane, aka Stormchaser, aka Riptide," Lehnsherr goes on. "There's also Azazel Last Name Unknown, who you will recognize by his being bright red, teleporting next to you, and stabbing you through the stomach with his apparently razor-sharp tail. That's the short list, there are apparently other die-hards."

Sean raises his hand even though he knows he's going to get shit for it, and automatically Angel says, "Are you joking with me?" but he ignores it to ask, "What about Shaw? Did we get any more information on his mutation?"

"Sadly, nothing conclusive," Lehnsherr admits. "Something to do with energy, possibly amplification. We've been warned to use extreme caution when approaching or applying force. Charles's case notes and subsequent interviews indicate he guesses that Shaw's powers have something to do with absorbing energy, whatever the fuck that means. Keep in mind Xavier met Shaw for roughly 5 minutes when he was 20 with about eight gallons of lager in him. But I'm guessing it's dangerous.

"Furthermore, let's not ignore the fact that there are definitely civilians involved in this situation," Erik adds. "We have one known kidnapping victim, Scott Summers, who we believe to be with Shaw and Shaw's crew in their current location."

And hadn't that been a fucking awkward prison transport, Alex Summers spitting mad, absolutely mind-blowingly furious as they'd hauled him back into supermax as the FBI task force headed off to find his brother, and Charles looking on grimly as they dragged him off, holding Hank back on the doorstep. Sean doesn't know how that decision got made — it wasn't in any preliminary planning Lehnsherr had shared with the team, there shouldn't have been any harm in Alex waiting at Federal Plaza or even in the holding room — but Sean knows better than to question decisions that Charles whispers into Lehnsherr's ear by now.

"Where there is one, there are probably more," Lehnsherr says. "So be careful when you go in. Our job will be to neutralize Shaw's core group, joint task-force backup will be working with LEOs to lock down the rest of the building. Be alert. Do not translate being careful into being timid. If you can go aerial — " he looks at Sean and Angel " — go aerial, exploit your advantages. This is not the time to pull your punches; these are not your ordinary mutant criminals. They are not scared. They're not confused. This is not a mistake because they had too many feelings at senior prom. These are internationally wanted terrorists, and they're holding a 16-year-old kid hostage. Are we clear?"

They murmur assent together.

"Good," Lehnsherr says, and Sean can hear his ears beginning to pop, the pressure of descent. Fitting. "Armando, when we get down there, you and Raven are on point for securing Summers. Angel, you and Sean are with me. Are we clear?"

"Crystal," Angel says, and does something painfully sexy and dangerous looking with a gun. Rawr.

"Got it," Sean agrees.

"And just to reiterate, in case you guys are still feeling more excited than tense," Lehnsherr reminds them, but he looks tense enough for everybody and everybody's mom so Sean thinks this is serious overkill, "as per NSA, CIA, fuck me whoever's calculations, Shaw likely has about a three-quarters functional copy of a circa 1990s Cerebro in there. While it lacks the modern comforts of the one we have in legal possession, that doesn't mean it can't be dangerous. I am aware the psi-shielding helmets look stupid — I do not care. Put them on. Keep them on. Am I being clear?"

Sean puts his pshat on. The less-than-entirely affectionate name is probably half the reason everybody fucking hates them. That and they kill your peripheral vision, amplify the sounds of everything within an inch of your face, and the fact that if you know Professor Charles Xavier, he will smile tolerantly at you as you wear one and say things like, "Oh, you sound much less obvious now," like the undermining fucker he is.

Over the intercom, the pilot says, "All right guys, landing in five minutes, buckle up."

And Lehnsherr spares them all a last, lingering look.

"Look — even though Charles would still think I can do no wrong and tearfully understand if I came back with fewer of you, do not put me in that fucking situation, all right?" he barks, voice tight.

Raven throws a pshat at him. "Shut up and sit down with your feelings, Lehnsherr," she yells, and thankfully, he does.

They land rough, they ride rough, and when they meet up with the tactical team situated around the dilapidated shell of the United Artists Theater off of Bagley Street, Sean can barely hear orders over the rattling in his chest, the raspy, scared noise of his breathing inside the pshat. It's unseasonably fucking hot and he's expiring inside his jacket, his kevlar, weighed down with a gun and a backup, and every instinct in his body is saying, what the fuck are you doing? get the hell out of here! Angel's already up and out of their elevation, wings peeling away from her back and floating fretfully back and forth as SWAT tells Erik they'd never had the element of surprise, and that four mutants had already attacked — fire, ice, a weaker telepath (nothing that the pshat didn't block, thankfully), and something involving slime.

"I think we sped up their timeline," the SWAT leader says. "It's all been pretty chaotic. Snipers got nullifiers into the ones who've popped up in windows, but without clear profiles on metabolism, we don't know how long they'll stay down."

"It also looks like a much smaller group than we'd feared," Lehnsherr mumbles, partially to himself.

SWAT guy grins. "That's a good thing, Lehnsherr, stop looking so disappointed."

That gets everybody a classic, terrifying, adrenaline-rushing Erik Lehnsherr (TM) shark smile. "No, never."

But Sean believes, however stupidly and when he isn't dissecting it too much, that he has a responsibility to do good, to help people with his powers, and he blames listening to one of Professor Xavier's lectures in college for that. He'll never forget, either, hanging out with a student pass at that symposium, months later, and watching history fracture into Before and After with capital letters, and when Lehnsherr hisses, "People, move in," Sean does without hesitation.

***

The United Artists Theater has been suffering a slow death for as long as Erik can remember.

The year he was born, it stopped showing movies with any regularity, and he remembers his mother and father sighing about it over breakfast, giggling disgustingly about holding hands in the dark in a way he wouldn't get until he was in his 30s. He'd grown up in the suburbs, in one of those awkward interstitial places just far enough from a plush suburban MIB center that his mother had chauffeured him into the city once a month for years, past the 18 stories of the building, to sit in the lobby of Shaw's torture chamber. With the collapse of the auto industry and the desertion of downtown, all the old Gilded Age mansions satellite to the city going dilapidated as everyone has moved away, there's been a lot of talk about how it's a tragedy that the building is falling apart, how it's a gorgeous example of renaissance revival, how it should be saved from the ravages of everything changing.

Erik wouldn't mind seeing the building razed to the ground.

He was the only kid ever to be happy his dad lost an engineering job at GM; thrilled their whole family had to be uprooted to Seattle when he was 16, where he'd watched Lake Washington a lot and let the memory of Shaw shiver out of him over endless cool summers and teenaged fumbles.

Older, scared of different things, he doesn't understand his younger self: why he would keep it secret, why he hadn't told his parents, why he hadn't exercised reasonable skepticism toward Shaw's threats — why he hadn't rescued himself. Why he'd turned into one of those voiceless victims that gets quoted in reading material from Quantico and Department of Justice reports. Erik at 40 has overwritten Erik at 14. He'll never be able to answer his own questions with any real satisfaction.

Charles says that the layers of peoples' memories are like tissue pages bound together, that sometimes the fibers melt one into the other until they're inextricable. Erik finds that a bullshit and patronizing metaphor, but Charles usually says these things in their bed when it's raining outside, the earth blurry blues and greens, and with Charles murmuring secrets against Erik's temple, he believes it all, has zero capacity for doubt. If not mastered, then Erik at least often feels humiliatingly docile in Charles's thrall, when Charles is running his fingers through Erik's hair and leaning over him, the line of Charles's back a lovely arch, still, to press reverent kisses against Erik's throat, his cheeks, over his eyes and brow — as if Charles is the one who is lucky.

"Strike team one, go," comes a staticky voice in his ear.

"Team, bring up the rear," Erik says, and he catches nods out of his periphery, the elevation strangeness of Angel hovering two inches off the ground — moving fretfully left and right — and he barks out, "Go, go, go!"

These things are always a shitshow. No matter how practiced and professional and how well-armed, these never go well.

The UAT lobby is a literally disintegrating around them, the scrollwork decoration falling apart, crumbled like ground zero in a post-apocalyptic hellhole, debris and dust and garbage covering the floor, everything wasting away. It's a rumble, too messy to call it a brawl, even, and mostly Erik sees a pastiche of scared faces under the viewfinder of his neutralizer gun and flashes: Sean going up 20 feet in a shocking vertical lift that blows out all the remaining windows in the fucking lobby; Darwin kneeling on some kid's spine, slapping a boomerang collar on him from behind, tightening neutralizer cuffs on him; the crack-pop-pop-pop of gunfire, unsexy and surprisingly muted in the cavernous space; his own voice shouting, "Report in! All strike members report in!"

This is the best chance they've had at Shaw in years, and the DOJ has responded accordingly. The building is crawling with feds and the lobby level is an easy mess. Every mutant in the first line is a class two or lower. His team sound off, one after another, and Erik's heart rate drops from overwhelmingly loud to a baseline hammer as they get the nod to go deeper and a "God speed, Lehnsherr," into his earbud.

The elevators have probably been out since the '80s, and when they get to the stairs — Armando on point, Sean bringing up the rear, Erik flanking left and directing the three strike teams they have creeping up behind — there's no one there, an eerie silence blanketing the opera house underneath an ominous hum.

"What does that sound like to you, Munoz?" Erik asks.

"Fucking annoying," Armando huffs, the same time Raven says, "Electricity — that sounds like a power line hum."

"Ten points to Slytherin," Erik mutters. "We're getting close. Are you guys ready?"

"Girl, I was born ready," Angel says.

"As soon as we're done catching terrorists, you're fired," Erik informs her, and nods back to the teams pulling up the rear, motioning left and right, and indicating one group should follow Raven, luminous in the hazy light of forgotten chandeliers. "Center team, Xavier and Munoz are going for a kidnapping victim, you're back-up, clear?"

They're at the foot of a nexus of stairs, the scarlet movie-theater carpet long since worn down to threads, shadows creeping up around them, and Erik can hear his own breathing — loud, too loud — in the psi helmet, the white noise of other teams working their way through the building, surrounding it, the numbers stacking up: a dozen apprehended, six dead, two agents injured, none seriously. It smells musty and like the slight deep-forest tang of mold, the inky taste in the back of his nose of something where it doesn't belong, and for a minute Erik watches the dust of desertion float in the weak light, falling down onto them in faded yellow shafts from overhead, from the central theater, and he has a moment of frozen indecision.

In 1985, South Africa ended the ban on interracial marriage, Route 66 was officially decommissioned, the NES was first released, and Erik Lehnsherr met Sebastian Shaw for the first time. He'd been 14 and irritated by the entire exercise; his parents had waited until the last possible minute to register him with the Mutant Integration Bureau, and he still had a whole adolescence of monthly follow-ups to look forward to — hours wasted with morons just coming into their powers. Erik had been making paperclip skyscrapers and acting as a pimply teenaged jack for the family car for as long as he could remember. He'd argued with his mom about having to learn poetry in school all the way from their house in Livonia into the city — "Your father and I used to go on dates at that theater, you know," she'd say, and Erik would gag elaborately as they passed the UAT — and everything had been so fucking boring and unremarkable about that first visit.

It's the thing he's learned the most in his life, that's echoed with him since the fourteenth visit, the fifteenth, the twentieth: that fear and pain can come out of nowhere, without a warning. The only way out has always only ever been through.

He shudders out a breath. He wishes he wasn't wearing this fucking hat, that he could hear Charles, safe and curled dangerously in the base of his brain. He wishes none of this were needed.

He hears Raven asks, "Erik?"

It's 2011: Obama is president, Charles is in a wheelchair, Shaw is just up those stairs, and Erik's not 14 anymore.

"Let's move," he says.

***

Except for a half-dozen disinterested MPs, the Cerebro facility is more or less deserted. Dr. Lang and his staff are all on temporary leave until the government decides what to do with the project — can something Shaw's developing in parallel be continued in good conscience? Or must it necessarily be in order to stay ahead of him? — and the facility is ghostly with silence, the lingering emotional fingerprints of distress remaindered from the conference call Erik had mumbled to Charles about for ages, half-crazy with exhaustion, days ago.

He's not supposed to be here. Erik had forbidden it and Dr. Lang had forbidden it and someone from the office of the joint chiefs had conferenced him in with the ad hoc head of Homeland Security to remind him that he's on lockdown in Xavier House until the Shaw fiasco is dealt with. To be fair Charles had been very polite to all of them, if supremely disinterested in their warnings.

"You're going to go anyway, aren't you?" Moira had called to say, just as Charles had locked a violently protesting Hank into the backseat of the SUV and was wheeling himself out to the driver's side. "I hear road noise. You're getting into your car right now, aren't you?"

"Moira, I'd really prefer not to have to use one of my vulgar little tricks on you," Charles had demurred.

She'd yelled back, "Meaning they don't work as well over the fucking phone, Charles! This is dangerous!"

"Storming a building filled with mutant terrorists is dangerous. I am merely going to go sit in a giant metal colander, my love," he'd explained to her, feigned going into a tunnel, and hung up, throwing the phone into the backseat and telling Hank to pull the battery out of the back.

The flight to Detroit via government charter couldn't have taken much more than two hours, and Erik and Raven and the rest of the FBI team were en route about three by the time the SUV had pulled up with a shriek of burning rubber in front of the Cerebro facility, Hank white-faced and looking abused in the backseat. The empty spaces Charles usually populates with stolen-away pieces of Erik — the low-grade headache he's been hiding, his ever-present eye for detail, the hot burst of possession Charles hoards most jealously of all — remain upsettingly angry. The government-issue psi-shielding helmets are fairly useless against a telepath of Charles's caliber, but it's an extra layer of dampening to go with a great lake and most of the wide length of the state of New York, and Erik, when Charles overhears him, is just a morse code series of flashes — more distressing in snatches than not to hear him at all.

Charles hadn't been in the mood to bother with pleasantries, and so he and Hank had sailed into the facilities completely unnoticed, everybody's awareness carelessly overwritten with the crudest of measures. Charles usually employs a scalpel where today he used a club, but he doesn't have time to be delicate and he has larger concerns.

"You're freaking out," Hank tells him, chasing Charles up metal ramps, thundering after him toward Cerebro. "I can tell you're freaking out because you usually at least pretend to respect everybody's free will and privacy."

Charles engages the machine, hands stroking across the interfaces for all the levers and buttons. The beauty of a project in this level of beta testing is that all the protections are physical and all too easy to circumvent — there's no a single password or fingerprint verification or retina scan. It's plug and play.

"The thing that non-telepaths will never truly understand when a telepath says he or she doesn't care about free will or privacy, Hank," Charles tells him, distracted, "is that our not caring is the best guarantee we will never toy with either."

Hank's mental, Wait, what do you mean? is so loud Charles doesn't have the patience to wait for it to be verbalized. He says, What that means is just because a powerful telepath could tell you what to do and know what you think, hardly means they care to, Hank — now please make yourself useful and amplify this to maximum power. I already know you were holding back last time and we can't have cowards at this sortie today.

They'd only been halfway to the facility when Charles had felt it — like an asteroid hitting the ocean, a mass so large he'd felt the psychic fabric stretch under the weight of it and everything draw inward like objects into a gravity well. All the usual cacophony of thousands and sensations, the billions of endlessly streaming perceptions were being dimmed by something that tasted like the perfect clear stretch of a B-flat on a first clarinet, flawless, and Charles was enormously grateful he and Hank had been stopped a red light because if he'd had his hand on the accelerator they would have ended up in a ditch at the percussive force of it.

Government telepaths brought on for extremely redacted contract work pertaining to Cerebro have reported the effect before: the tooth-rattling sensation of a two-second earthquake in those first seconds Charles and the machine are coming online before he folds himself back inside the roller coaster cart, when it feels like plunging without end. But that was the early days, Charles remembers, those first heart-stopping times in the machine, when it'd felt like the world's most expensive and regretful party drug, and he presses a palm to the side of the helmet and murmurs:

"Oh — she's never used it before."

Hank looks up from the Cerebro processor. "Who?"

"Our lovely Miss Frost," Charles says, only partly to himself now. "I felt her, when she got online. Hooked in, as it were."

Frowning, Hank does something extremely violent with a fistful of important-looking wires. He's truly a marvelous boy; Charles is absolutely going to have to pull some strings and get him into a proper academic program. He's being wasted now.

"You felt her? When? How?" Hank demands.

"On our way here," Charles answers, vague, and glances over his shoulder. "How broad can you make this thing's reach?"

Hank pouts his way into a frown. "It's — the power grid will give you near-global access, but it's too dangerous."

Charles maneuvers himself under the helmet. He can hear it again, that discordant tone in the middle of everything else, but the notes are fraying now, coming apart. He wonders if it's starting to hurt yet, if it's hit that exquisite migraine-black-out nausea-inducing pain, or if it's still just crawling up the bones of her ribs, that supernatural chill in the base of her neck that's fanning outward in an uncomfortable feeling that'll resolve itself into agony later. He hopes — viciously — she's suffering.

"Make it as dangerous as possible," he tells Hank, and pulls on the helmet.

***

The first thing Erik sees inside the theater is Shaw, serene, in a white suit and a fucking hideous metal helmet. Same effusively ugly sideburns, same shit-eating smile. Only now he's standing in front of a metal box, bolted crudely to the wall, looking extremely pleased with himself.

Armando hisses, "Shit," loud in Erik's ear, but then he calls something else and everybody fans out, moving to circle Shaw two agents deep, until he's covered from three directions and Angel on the y axis, hovering above him, hands steady on her gun.

"Shaw," Erik says, front and center, feeling rooted to the earth. All the metal in the theater is groaning under the strain of its own weight: the crumbling Spanish Gothic carving, the metal bolts and braces for the remaining seats, or the pieces left behind, the metal struts holding up the ceiling — all of it hums in tune with Erik, poised.

"Little Erik Lehnsherr," Shaw coos. "Can I tell you? When Emma told me you were coming personally, I was touched."

Erik grits his teeth, hears a piece of debris fly loose. "Stand down, Shaw. Turn yourself in. The building is surrounded."

"My God, why would I do that?" Shaw asks. "Honestly, Erik. You think you'd be more grateful. I made you the man you are today."

"I have it on good authority I have genetics to thank for that," Erik retorts, and ignoring Raven's hissing, "What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?" in his ear, he takes a step closer — and another, shoes echoing in the space of the high ceiling, the acoustics still clinging to a dying space — leading with his gun. "What's your plan, Shaw? Where's your militant army?"

"Christ," Armando says into the comms, and then adds, "Raven, get moving — we have to try and find Scott," and Erik hears motion behind him, the lingering presence of Raven over his shoulder.

Shaw looks supremely unconcerned: by Erik, by Raven and Armando and SWAT. He shrugs. "Not everyone has my clarity of vision, Erik, it's going to take a little hardball to get everyone on my side," Shaw admits, sounding resigned and a touch affectionate. "And speaking of genetics, how is Charles? It's a shame I haven't been able to follow up on my little note for him." He smiles. "Yet."

Another step, a bit closer. "Oh, you know Charles: surrounding himself with terrifically dangerous mutants who are infatuated with him, as per usual," Erik says. "Where's Scott Summers, Shaw?"

"Out, running an errand for me," Shaw replies easily. "Tell me, Erik: how did you find me? I've been so careful, and poor Emma has been working herself into a state."

Erik can feel his finger tugging on the trigger. He wouldn't feel a shred of guilt. He could open fire here, gun down Shaw in apparent cold blood He'd asked Charles once what he'd do if Erik was arrested for shooting Shaw in the street, unprompted, and Charles had said killing Shaw wouldn't bring Erik peace — but he'd also whispered, secret, that it would be easy to vanish, after.

"You left a paper trail," Erik forces himself to say, instead of shooting Shaw in the face.

"And here I thought I was being terribly careful," Shaw says, meditative.

Erik takes another step forward. He could make a kill shot from further than this, but now he's in certain range. Chest or leg (just a little careful aim and he could get the femoral artery; Shaw would bleed out before medical attention could be called, a legitimate accidental death during apprehension) or shoulder, a shot to the core. Erik could shoot him between the eyes now, and he feels a zing up his spine at the thought of it and wonders if this is how Shaw had felt in the back of the auditorium at Charles's closing remarks, if the gun had felt so good and decisive in his hands, too.

The humming in the background gets louder and there's the hollow sound of metal warping, like kicking the side of a file cabinet. Erik doesn't dare to look away from Shaw to see what the fuck is causing it, but he knows enough about Shaw to have a good idea.

"Should I ask who's in the box?" Erik says.

Shaw glances over his shoulder, and Erik is tempted, so tempted, just to pull the trigger and end it.

"Emma and I had a disagreement," Shaw prevaricates. "You're a manager, I'm sure you know what it's like?"

There's another violent noise from inside the box, and the crackle in Erik's ear warns, "Lehnsherr — be on alert. DTE Energy is telling us the building is killing the power grid. They're getting reports of rolling brownouts throughout the city with faster and faster frequency. If you're going to make a move, do it now."

"Got it," Erik says in a hush. "Sean — Angel, please cuff him. Shaw, it's in your best interest to cooperate."

For a split second after Sean and Angel make their way over to Shaw, mincing, Erik actually thinks Shaw might go quietly, that this might be clean and quick like a hot knife — but then Shaw smiles, snaps his fingers, and a tornado explodes indoors.

It's as loud as all the Discovery Channel specials say: a freight train trapped indoors. Erik drops low, instinctive, throwing an arm up over his face, and he's fucking glad for it when there's the sharp, quicksilver burn of glass scraping over skin, the hot bubble of blood seeping out. The windows go first, the metal and wood frames warping in the sonic boom of a sudden movement of air, raining shards everywhere, and in his ear Erik just hears total chaos: Raven and Armando and Sean and Angel's voices layered over one another, over the churning of the wind.

The seats were all ripped out of the theater years ago, but pieces remain: wooden struts and leftover plaster, torn-down panels, metal pieces too heavy to move that get caught up in the funnel cloud that wobbles in a supernatural column in the inside of the theater, gray and furious. Erik deflects the metal out the burst-open windows, shouting, "Teams outside, watch out, incoming debris!"

"It's good to see you, Erik, it really is," Shaw calls over the noise. "But I'm far, far too busy right now to be arrested — and after I'm through today I have the idea your team will be far, far too busy to arrest me."

Erik grunts, "Sean, Angel, can you two do something about this fucking tornado?"

"Shoot him," Angel snarls through the radio comms. "Just, please, shoot him in the fucking face."

It probably hurts, it probably really fucking hurts, when Erik pushes his way up again, grinds the heel of his hand into the broken confetti of glass and dust on the ground, crunching beneath his shoe, and blood makes the base of his gun slippery when he levels it at Shaw, but he can't feel any of it as he's pulling the trigger: one, two, three shots.

***

The first shock of diving into Cerebro with Emma already swimming thick like the lacquer-syrup sweet of perfume is momentarily like drowning, the sudden wrench of momentary asphyxiation until Charles can snatch a breath of air, something in between the cut crystal and and Shalimar waves and the Givenchy and rock beach sky — Emma turned inside out, blown wide-open.

It's strange. It's new. It's nothing Charles has ever known before and for a split-second or several eternities, he doesn't do anything at all, just lets the totality of her soak into him, rain into cracking desert: the memories she's filed neatly away — a completely different system than Charles's, perhaps far more efficient, and worthy of study — the people she's read, separated, the narrow archive-corridors of memory. The boundaries of her perception feel a bit claustrophobic to Charles, even stretched out this way, prone across the space between them, blanketing the earth so that over the sound of everybody in between them, every head and heart and every warm set of hands there's the hum of Emma and the bittersweet wonder of her, the distant thunderstorm flashes of pain, tied annoyingly to her body, but getting louder by the second.

You are simply marvelous, Miss Frost, Charles tells her, because it's true, it's the truest thing he's ever said.

There's a rattle, a ripple. That's you, then, Xavier? Emma asks, and it's telling that she lashes out for a beat here, the sudden edge of a blade against Charles's sternum, and he grits his teeth through the shock of pain and holds on, tightens around the thread of her until she stops fighting him. Let me go.

What's happening in Detroit? Charles parries.

Let me go! she tries again, and this time her kick is more vicious, enough to knock the breath out of him, but he holds on, white-knuckled to the arms of his chair and digs in his claws and starts tearing away at her, ripping down her defenses, unraveling everything in sight until her alarm escalates into a banshee scream between them.

She's in a dark place, metal for walls, and outside Charles can hear the sounds of a storm, the strange echo-chamber effect of Armando and Angel and Erik — recognizable-but-foreign — through their psi shielding and the abrupt and artificial nothingness of someone who must be Shaw. He can smell dust in the air and sweat and the sour, stomach-turning stench of vomit, the copper tang of blood in the back of the throat. He wonders if it's Emma's or his, or if he's so deep and they're so tied up right now that it doesn't matter.

Where is Scott Summers? Charles asks now. What is Shaw planning?

And Emma doesn't give it up, not willingly, but there's the sudden flicker of something, an imperfection in the wallpaper of the room they're locked in, and Charles dives for it before she can cover it up, nails scraping at the edges, tearing it down.

***

Erik knows the intimate lives of bullets, sails with them along straight and fast-deteriorating trajectories, the elegant declination of them, the hot flush and the instant cauterization as they punch through bone and tissue. He's always been one of the best shots in the bureau and he's fired his gun exactly five times in the line of duty, painfully aware of every single bullet, every shell casing, the GSR, the flare of heat in the barrel of his gun.

He tracks the three shots, time stretching out overlong, and he waits for it, that kick, that full-body shiver that comes with a hit, and —

The bullets just stop, frozen, all their momentum siphoned away, dissolved away into something else. Erik doesn't know where it goes, just feels the metal freeze and drop, harmless, and roll across the floor of the theater.

"Oh, did I not mention?" Shaw says, a lilt in his voice. "We're brothers, you and I."

"Fuck," Erik says, and fires again, again, and just like the before the shots go out like candles. "You control metal?"

Shaw grins: perfect white teeth and a terra cotta face, sand-colored hair in his eyes, and Erik can still remember with a shock of regret being 14 and thinking he was handsome, just for a flash, in his frameless glasses and cobalt blue tie, saying, "Hello, Erik, it's so good to meet you." Now, he says, "Not exactly," and flicks his wrist.

At first Erik doesn't know what the hell that means, but then he's flying backward, tumbling head over knees and slamming painfully back into the splintered wood of something the tornado had stripped apart into pieces. But it's not the gash deep on his hip that knocks the breath out of him so much as the triple-hit of burning-hot impact he can feel on his chest, whip-quick, and he can feel the lingering tang of the bullets in it, digging bruises into the flesh, breaking the skin, so he can feel the kevlar strain and blood seep lazily under his shirt.

"My mutation was always hard to explain," Shaw sighs, put-upon, voice hovering over where Erik's bewildered and down on one knee, struggling up. "Not quite so elegant as yours, Erik, or as dangerous as Emma and Charles — but it's useful."

It's always been one of the biggest open questions about Shaw, whether or not he was a mutant himself. In early days it wasn't certain whether he was even a mutant supremacist, since his targets seemed so counterintuitive. Why attack integration bureaus? Why attack administration headquarters? It wasn't until the hit on Charles, until research into his past ramped up, that people had started to come forward with gruesome details of his experiments. Even then it wasn't a certainty: human or mutant? The crazy was implied either way. Charles thought Shaw was a mutant, but he could never pinpoint what his power was.

"So, what," Erik coughs, "you're rubber? Everything's glue?"

That gets Erik another kick of force in the chest, and he's definitely got some broken ribs now, skidding backward in the shattered pieces of the theater. He can barely hear Angel and Armando and Raven and Sean in the background, and it's only right at that second Erik realizes he's in the eye of a tornado — held still, the wall of wind and debris too thick to see through, and he and Shaw in the middle of the column, roof beams flying apart overhead.

"I guess you could say I absorb force," Shaw tells Erik meditatively, and now it's his turn, walking closer, closing the distance between them. "So you can put away your gun, Erik. It won't work on me."

Erik drops the gun, but mostly because he's pretty sure the first hit dislocated his shoulder, and not because Shaw tells him, and he stares up at Shaw's face, at the fucking tornado engulfing them, and he thinks, Oh, you better be there,, and rips the stupid psi helmet off his head.

***

It's with satisfying violence that Charles tears through Emma's head. All of her plans and her thoughts lay together like kimono layers, and he can feel himself ripping them up, searching through them, looking for anything, something: a flicker of Erik, a sight of Detroit. All he gets is the dizzying, butterfly-black presence of pain barely banked, and drives into an image of Scott, white-faced and wet-cheeked, bruised, Azazel's claws at his throat and his eyes tightly-shut.

Scott's jumping, flashing, from one place to another, and Charles is getting second-hand dizziness as Emma gets nauseated as Azazel ports from one government installation to another along the East Coast, working his way around. Before he can even ask, Emma is telling him, Azazel can only port somewhere he's seen, or if he knows where is — we always knew it would be a game of narrowing down where your stupid ass was hiding.

"And what is he going to do with Scott when he gets here?" Charles asks, surprised it's come out of his mouth. The lines are all blurred out, because he hears Emma's voice this time, hoarse — from screaming? — as if she's whispering secrets to him along a telephone string:

"I was supposed to encourage Scott to blow you up — he and his brother have very similar skills, you know."

Charles thinks, I see. How gauche, and then the foundations of Emma's defenses against Cerebro, against its iron spike into the base of her neck start to crumble in earnest, the lightning flashes of pain, razor quick on a nerve, start streaking through her words. They melt, slick like a mudslide, jumble, and Charles is swept off of a perch on top of a rolling hill down the grass, skidding down into the valley and the Polaroid-resolution images of a half-dozen other mutants, waiting, held still across the country — at the Lincoln Memorial, in the international departures terminal at LAX, by the teacup ride at Disneyworld, sitting on the curb behind Bloomingdales, next to the burrito truck, smoking frantically — tied up too tight with Emma holding shaking-shakey-shivering marionette strings. They're all waiting to explode, just on the edge of immolation, all of their mutations violently dangerous — each of them earmarked in one government file or another, "beyond integration," surely — and they're all desperately willing away the crowds, trying everything, anything, to fight Emma off and save everyone.

A chain reaction on that level would be an uproar: hundreds, probably thousands dead, a clearly organized group of mutants at the heart of the attack. With registration having been in place for four decades, now, it would be so easy to start screening a little more carefully, to prosecute with a little more harshness. With Erik on the front lines, the government's so-presumed tame mutant, they'd probably ask him to lead the round-up. It would be disaster. It would be the first shot in a war.

Impressive, Charles tells her, because it is, and Emma laughs at that, a champagne pink thing, actually pleased to be so praised, before it curdles into something sour-sick, and he wonders how long Shaw has had her trapped in the metal jaws of Cerebro. How did it happen to come to —

"I got cocky," Emma admits, wry and rueful. "It happens to us all."

Charles grins back.

"And it should be said that although Shaw and I share a common faith — "

One that is wrong, Charles interrupts.

— the execution has left something to be desired, Emma finishes, in a rapid-fire rush, like she's trying to get the words out before the pain takes away her ability to talk in anything but sensations. Charles sees engine lights flashing, hears the noise of a carburetor protesting, and he thinks about the WD40 smell of Emma's father's hands and her unremarkable childhood in Kansas before she hit 12 and she'd started hearing voices, everybody's voices. Until she'd turned 14 and she'd screamed, loud and long and in pain, when her mother had burned her hand on the stove, the heat searing through Emma, too.

A deal, Charles feels, like someone has written the words into his palm with a fingertip. I want a fucking deal. I'm dying in this box, Emma scribbles, finger shaking now, pressing down into Charles's forearm, along the delicate blue veins beneath the skin. Get me out of here.

Charles starts to say, "What will you give me?" but the words are torn away from him, ripped apart by the sound of a tornado pulling apart a building and Erik in the heart of it — he's bleeding, his arm hurts, he's having trouble catching his breath, Shaw is a fucking mutant, too, he can't live, if he lives he'll go after Charles, he'll hurt Edie, he'll hurt everyone — his voice loud like a shout inside a canyon, calling for Charles.

***

AP-IL-BREAKING-TERRORIST-ATTACK-DETROIT-UAT-1ST-LD-WRITETHRU

Associated Press
Associated Press Writer
September 15, 2011

DETROIT, Mich. — At least four federal law enforcement officials have been injured in a terrorist attack at the abandoned United Artists Theater in downtown Detroit, people familiar with the situation say.

More than 100 officers wearing identification and jackets ranging from Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, and local police have blocked off traffic and roads surrounding the 18-story building on Bagley Street, and Detroit PD are in the process of evacuating people within a three-mile radius of the building, according to police sources. At least four major pieces of the building have come loose and crashed down, destroying an FBI van and damaging several local police vehicles.

According to local eyewitnesses, law enforcement stormed the building shortly after noon and took approximately a dozen people into police custody before the building began sustaining structural damage.

"It sounded like a sonic boom," said Pawel Skolimowski, 35, who works at nearby Great Lakes Hotel Supply and followed the noise to the scene. "And then the building began shaking. There's been debris coming off of it for almost an hour now."

Sources within the Homeland Security department say that the theater is the hideout of a most-wanted terrorist. They refused to give further details.

***

Emma, listen to me, Charles tells her. You are going to hand over control of the mutants you are holding captive. And then you are going to wait until the second you can do it, and seize Shaw.

"He's wearing that fucking helmet," Emma grits out, clawing at the cage now.

"Erik will take care of it — and you will take care of Erik," Charles instructs. "Am I clear?"

She goes crystalline. It's gorgeous, deadly, and it Charles momentarily loses his connection with her, all the sharp-edges of their earlier interactions clear suddenly, before she flickers back into flesh and skin and Galliano. "What if slip?" she asks. "What if your precious Erik's just a little bit of collateral damage."

Charles smiles at her, serene. I will liquify you inside your own skull, he promises her. I'll trap you in your own head. I'll turn you off. I'll turn you up. "I will turn you inside out."

Jesus fucking Christ, Emma gasps, she gasps, into the space between them. Fine. Fucking do it.

***

AP-IL-BREAKING-SHAW-TERRORIST-ATTACK-1ST-LD

DETROIT, Mich. — Federal agents have cornered FBI most-wanted terrorist Sebastian Shaw inside the United Artists Theater in downtown Detroit. One agent has died and six are severely injured, according to people familiar with the situation.

***

Charles says, Erik, listen to me: you need to get Shaw's helmet off.

Charles says, Raven is about to shoot Janos in the head, so there will be a mountain of debris headed for you in about 45 seconds.

Charles says, Once Shaw's helmet is off, I need you to shoot him — immediately. Pick up your gun.

Erik picks up his gun. He says, All right, because he's trusted Charles with his mother and his heart and to love him even when he's half-comatose with illness and watching Man vs. Wild marathons on the Discovery Channel.

Good, Charles says.

***

Erik's more determined than he's smart, and Charles has always known that, known it even as he scrapes control of Millie and Derrick and Mario and Yi Ling and Hannah away from Emma, sends them to sleep — one by one — slumping over where they stand among tourists and travelers and ordinary people who will hopefully never know how close it came. He watches, divorced from himself, dissolved into Cerebro, as Erik pushes himself up, rips the helmet off of Shaw's head with a tip of his chin.

There's only a split second of Shaw's confusion before he feels Emma, clawing her way into him, anchoring him down by the flesh, and Charles says, Erik, now, please.

***

And it's at the moment, at the exact moment the bullet leaves the chamber, burning toward Shaw, that the tornado cuts out, abrupt like a plug being pulled. In the sudden absence of noise Erik can hear Emma screaming, her voice hollow in the box, he can hear the building creaking, collapsing, he can hear Armando and Angel now, Raven shouting, "He's down! He's down! Evacuate this fucking building!"

Erik knows he should be running. He can hear Charles telling him to take Emma's metal trap and get the fuck out of there, and he uproots it, melts away the soldering carelessly even as he stands frozen in the spot, following the bullet as it blows through the skin and bone and gray matter of Shaw and waits to feel something — anything — to feel better.

There's nothing.

And then suddenly there's Raven, dust-streaked, a cut across her blue cheek, barreling toward him swearing like an Amazon and seizing him by — Jesus fucking Christ! — his dislocated arm, dragging him out of the lobby. Armando and Sean follow close behind, Angel overhead, incinerating what debris she can as it tumbles down toward them, Emma's metal prison huge and rattling and dragging behind like a train.

They burst out into the afternoon chill, the sudden blinding sunlight, and as 40,000 different people drag him away from the building — falling apart in earnest now — Erik calls out:

It's done. It's over.

***

Cerebro gives up the ghost in a shower of sparks, Charles pulling himself away from the machine like it's burning him — it probably is — slumping against a railing and gasping, pale and shivering, his collar wet through with sweat.

Hank cuts all the power, all possible power, every single circuit, and Charles must have, too, because he can hear noise of the facility waking up again, the sudden presence of MP's boots circling closer to the Cerebro room where they'd been suspiciously distant all morning.

"Oh my God, oh my God," Hank moans, hands shaking almost as badly as Charles, slumping down as his knees give out, scared to touch. He'd gotten a pamphlet about empaths before, about how skin contact was extremely invasive without express permission — do telepaths work the same way? Does Charles work the same way as anybody else at all in the world? "Are you okay? You're not okay. What can I do?"

Charles laughs, and it's hoarse but thoroughly happy. He reaches down, clasping Hank on the shoulder.

"Nothing — I'm fine — I'm — "

Hank freezes.

It's a sulfur smell, afterburn, and he's never known it before but it makes his skin crawl, makes every muscle in his body tense. He can feel his toes curling, his feet tensing in his sneakers, and it's instinct that has him whirling around.

Scott had been in between runaway attempts when Alex had found Hank, and that first night he spent in Alex's shitty week-to-week motel room slash apartment had been a study in awkwardness. (In retrospect, Hank's glad that he's never been full of himself enough to think that Alex had brought him home to fuck him, which would have elevated the discomfort to new, yet unexplored levels of terribleness long before Hank's hormones had kicked into indiscriminate overdrive and started reminding Hank at inappropriate intervals that Alex was, technically, attractive.) The first two weeks it had mostly been Alex leaving mid-afternoon and slinking back as the night tipped into morning, and Hank sitting quietly in corners and cleaning obsessively with paper towels and lukewarm water, afraid to go anywhere, to do anything. If he left, would Alex let him back into the room? What would he do? He was clearly crap at pickpocketing — if the clumsiness didn't get him, then the guilt definitely kneecapped him — and Alex had explicitly recommended against attempted prostitution.

So he'd just been sitting around when there'd been a knock at the door, a shaky, "Alex?" and another knock. "Alex, it's Scott, can I come in?"

Scott's painfully earnest and a little clingy with everybody he meets, but given his and Alex's history Hank doesn't really blame him. He'd been surprised and a whole lot shy, but by the time they'd made their mutual mutant confessions he and Hank had been cross-legged on the bed, Scott absolutely taking Hank to the cleaners in a no-holds-barred game of M&M Texas Hold 'Em.

Scott tears up when he laughs too hard, goes bright red all down his face and his neck, the only brown-haired kid in the world who burns like an Irish redhead. He's pretty good at all of his classes and nice to almost everybody. He's Alex's favorite person in the world, and right now, he has a tail wrapped around his neck.

Crying has never been a good look on Scott, and it sucks now, his eyes screwed furiously shut and tears leaking out from underneath, taking terrified little rabbit breaths and holding unnaturally still.

And there's — Hank doesn't even know where to start — there's a tail tight against his neck, a sharp sting at the end, razor sharp against Scott's white throat, already cutting a shaving-blade line into the skin there. It's like something out of a comic book, a death metal CD cover about the devil, and it's attached to a man with red skin and gray eyes, greasy black hair slicked back, and a long scar over his left eye, bisecting the lid and halfway down his cheek, twitching from a sideways sneer. Part of his face is hidden beneath the metal wings of a psi nulling helmet, the metal dull and old, nothing like the mass-produced dampeners Hank's seen in police stations and in the federal building.

It's Russian, Cold War era, Charles thinks immediately. I can hear him, but only very faintly.

Hank thinks, all at once, Oh my God, Scott, and That's Azazel, Jesus Christ, that's Azazel, and He doesn't know yet — he can't possibly know yet that —

"Professor Xavier," the red man says, amused and half-respectful. "It's nice to meet you in person."

Charles pushes back off the railing, searching for dignity, and Hank hears the wheels on his chair press against the brakes, against the corrugated metal. "Likewise — may I be so rude as to inquire about your name?" Charles asks, hoarse if painfully polite, his voice breaking on the second syllables.

The man's teeth, set against his crimson cheeks, are stunningly white, Hank thinks.

"You can call me Azazel," he says, shrugs, and the motion draws a shivery whimper from Scott as the sharp blade of the tail scrapes against his collarbone, makes another shallow cut. "I'm sorry it's ending this way — but I have to say that this is an honor. I've read all your work."

"Let him go."

It takes half a beat for Hank to realize he's said it, and said it out loud. Maybe just to check, Hank says again, louder this time, "Let him go — let Scott go."

Azazel looks apologetic, briefly, but then broadly disinterested. "Unfortunately, I can't." He grins, and this time his teeth look sharper, meaner, and Scott starts crying in earnest, ugly tears trailing down his face. "But don't worry, all of this will be over sooner rather than later."

I can't hold him, Charles interjects suddenly, sounding shaky, frayed, worn out; when Agent Lehnsherr gets back from Detroit, he's probably going to kill Hank to death. There's no telling what the long-term effects of overclocking Cerebro and then letting Charles interface with it for such an extended amount of time, to such an unwise degree, will be. Even now, in Hank's head, Charles sounds faint, like one of the FBI telepaths where Charles had always felt like an intimate chuckle in Hank's ear: close, and perfectly clear. Not with the helmet on.

Alex is always giving Hank shit about how he lives in his head, not in the world. Hank's a geek, a nerd, a complete bozo. Hank should pay more attention. Hank should stop worrying about the annoying details.

But Hank's always liked the annoying details. He likes living in his head — it's limitless — and he's never been embarrassed about being the smartest person in the room. And now he's thinking furiously, churning through possibilities and discarding them like playing cards. He thinks about working off of the naked wires (too dangerous, he could electrocute himself in the process), of throwing something (but Azazel's tail is so terrifyingly close to Scott's jugular), of causing a distraction (or maybe Azazel will just teleport over and stab Hank in the face, stab Charles through the chest, so that's a big fucking no, oh God oh God Scott, Scott), of making a commotion and for one of the MPs to come in with their nullifier guns —

I don't need long, Hank thinks to Charles. I just need a minute, maybe two.

Hank's not that brave. He doesn't care what Charles thinks, or about his brilliant potential. He's that kid who made a stupid mistake at 16 and ran away from home because it was easier than dealing with the fallout. He's the one who covers their tracks, who keeps exit plan after contingency. He's always looking over his shoulder, second guessing everybody, going over everyone's notes, rifling through every emergency pack and government-issued first aid kit. Hank's not brave, but apparently he's dumb, the same kind of dumb as Alex. Maybe it's catching.

He moves before he can overthink it, gripping onto that boost of speed he knows he's always had, slapping his hand into the first aid kit he'd dragged out from the cupboards while Charles was being a heroic asshat, Cerebro smoking malevolently behind him, eyes shut and electricity arcing all over the place.

The thing about reflexive responses is that they're not rational: you run, you duck, you attack, you fight. It's burned into the marrow until someone bothers to train it out of you, and Hank knows — oh God I hope — that if he goes straight for Azazel, Azazel's first reaction won't be to threaten Scott, or even to move out of the way, it'll be to try and stab Hank through the face with his tail.

Azazel misses Hank's face, but gets him in the torso, that tail as sharp as a scalpel and doing more harm ripping back out than tearing in, and Hank barely has a millisecond of crippling pain before the shock kicks in, but that's all the time he needed to stab the nullifier shot into Azazel's neck.

Then Charles is shouting, for help, for people to come, quickly, and Scott is screaming, shoving away as Azazel's tail vanishes, falling to his knees and feeling across the floor of the lab — until his clammy hands find Hank's face, and he's gasping, "Hank? Hank?" when the MPs pour into the room, and the last thing Hank sees is Scott's face overhead, and he says, "Man, your brother is going to be so glad to see you," just before he passes out.

***

EPILOGUE:

The first 12 hours are mostly taken up with thinking he's still going to die, then thinking Hank's going to die, and then a whole lot of horrible, embarrassing behavior when he hears Alex yelling, "Scott," at the hospital, like it's being ripped out of his throat. Scott's too old to be crying like a girl into his older brother's shoulder, but since Alex is leaking, too, he figures their shame is mutual and it'll just be one of those shitty dumb things that the Summers family does together: like fail at barbecues and instinctively know how to pick locks.

The next 48 hours after that aren't much better. It's like a terrible fairground ride of mutant child protective services and FBI and CIA and NSA, plus Alex and occasionally some doctors taking turns yelling at one another while Scott follows their voices back and forth, his neck starting to hurt. In general, the gist seems to be that mutant child protective services wants to take Scott back into custody, which Alex seems to be approaching with a general air of "hells fucking no," but his point is sort of hurt by the fact that the FBI guys had been forced to cuff him to a hospital radiator since he was technically still in federal custody. Then the CIA got involved and said snotty shit about how underwhelming mutant child protective services was in general, considering Scott had (a) run away from them a lot and (b) been technically in their — ineffective — care when the world's most-wanted terrorist had snatched him. The NSA doesn't seem to care either way as long as they can drill Scott for as many details as he can remember.

That's all before some guy with a hoarse voice and a British accent shows up and shuts the whole business down by saying, clipped and absolutely in no mood for any shenanigans:

"Scott Summers will be staying with me. Alex, you may stay. Everyone else, leave."

In no universe had Scott thought they actually would, but there's a surprising amount of shuffling and people saying, "Sorry, Professor," and very little actual rebuttal before the hospital hallway — for the first time since Scott sat down there, knees shaking — fell quiet.

Alex whistles. "I can't believe they actually left."

"It's federal agencies who are scared of me and Columbia hospitals, Alex," the voice explains briskly. "Homeland Security would guard the doors while I engaged in sexual intercourse with cadavers in the morgue here so long as I promise not to mind-control the Joint Chiefs and keep endowing the children's wing."

"And that," Alex tells Hank, about two days after that, retelling this story and several others from his time with Professor Xavier, "is why I swear to God there is something wrong with that guy — I don't care how much you like him."

Scott can hear bedsheets rustling before Hank croaks, "Scott, please. Just — just kill him."

Xavier must pour just billions into the hospital, because ever since Scott was freed from the clutches of probably well-meaning government agencies, he and Alex have just been hanging out in Hank's private room, taking turns sleeping on a super uncomfortable armchair or a less uncomfortable cot. Hank's had two surgeries and none of the doctors seem that worried when they give updates about his health, but then none of the doctors had been there with Azazel's blade tail pressed against their throat and none of them had heard the noise Hank had made when he'd been stabbed, or felt how sickeningly hot-slick all the blood on the floor had been, in the moments Scott had groped across it to reach Hank and try to put pressure on a wound he didn't dare open his eyes to see.

"I like Professor Xavier," Scott says, because he does.

"You guys are fucking killing me," Alex swears. "Next you're going to say you like Lehnsherr."

Hank makes a honking noise, and then starts chanting, "Ow, ow, ow, oh God that knocked something loose," which sends Alex off looking for one of the nurses who's stupidly weak to Alex's stupid face, and keeps Scott from having to own up to the fact that, actually, he does like Agent Lehnsherr.

Firstly, he likes Agent Lehnsherr because according to the news, he killed Sebastian Shaw. Secondly, Scott likes him because the first time Agent Lehnsherr had staggered into Hank's hospital room, he'd been tripping balls on painkillers, and their conversation had basically been Erik sounding serious and dire and asking Scott the same two questions over and over again and then asking if Scott had any gum. After 15 minutes of this, Scott had finally located the nurse's call button by touch and then he'd met Armando, who'd introduced himself as Erik's second-in-charge and who'd had the kind of easygoing voice that made Scott instantly wish he would ever be that cool, and Raven, who was Professor Xavier's sister, and who was apparently blue.

"Wow," Scott had told her. "What kind of blue?"

"You could open your eyes, see for yourself," Raven had suggested.

But Scott had only picked at the handkerchief Professor Xavier had helped him tie over his eyes and been quiet, because how did you explain that you've been afraid to look for years? That it had gone from when he was scared or too excited or distracted to almost always? To something uncontrollable? He's what anti-mutant leagues call "beyond integration." Scott's too dangerous, to himself and mostly others, and if he wasn't, then Shaw wouldn't have wanted him at all, wouldn't have spent all that time in between running tests on him lecturing him about how wonderful and destructive and —

"All right," the professor had interrupted there, gentle. "Enough of that. First Erik on percocet and now you're medicating with guilt — Hank is the only person in this hospital not trying to give me a migraine."

And on the tip of Scott's tongue are questions, a dozen requests, and Professor Xavier must hear all of it the second that it crosses his mind. Was Shaw right? Are we better? Are we worse? Do you believe anybody is beyond integration? What will happen to me? What about Alex? Please don't send me back into foster care. Can you fix me? You know everyone. Can someone fix my eyes? If I take enough nullifier, will it go away forever? I would be okay if it goes away forever. I almost don't care about the side effects.

"Scott," Professor Xavier had asked, "do you want to hurt people?"

"Oh, God, no," Scott had babbled, feeling queasy, remembering the icy-cold burn of Emma in his head, the indescribably strange sensation of her reaching into his mind and moving his arms and legs, forcing his eyes open, and the way he'd been locked in himself as Shaw had instructed her to burn abandoned cars, a ramshackle house, a field, for practice.

"Then you're not beyond integration," Charles had promised.

And then Erik had said, "Charles, do you have any gum?"

"How on Earth did they put you on medication this strong for some broken ribs, is what I want to know," Charles had burst out. "It's hardly as if I am going to give them a gold star for rendering you verbally incontinent."

"I would also like some Doritos," Erik had informed Charles solemnly, at which point Armando had said he wasn't comfortable watching his boss be this human, and Raven said, "Don't worry, Scott. Once Hank wakes up, we'll have him make you a doohickey and I'll flash you some blue," and an entire caravan of outsized personalities left the room, Charles's voice getting softer and softer down the hall, saying, "Raven, that was a completely inappropriate thing to say to an underaged boy…"

Scott doesn't know what the hell a doohickey is, but apparently Hank does, because like 14 seconds after he's able to stay awake for longer than 2 minutes at a go — mumbling incoherently the entire time — at a go, he's succumbed to abject and whiny boredom. Somewhere between the last time Scott had seen Hank and now, Hank's become the type of person who apparently views major abdominal injuries that were nearly fatal as "annoying" versus "shit-yourself-terrifying," and he starts cobbling something weird together out of random shit he and Alex and steal from around the hospital.

Scott stays up a lot, late at night, listening to Alex and Hank breathing. It's better than the dreams he's having.

After a while the days start blending together. It's in the middle of an episode of Two and a Half Men — because apparently there's a boredom threshold that will lobotomize you and put you in a situation where you are in a hospital surgical recovery unit trying to learn how to knit by touch from one of the night nurses with your brother and his vagrant best friend while watching reruns of Charlie Sheen — that the slight hum of Professor Xavier's motorized wheelchair announces him and he says:

"Right, well, I've finally had all the legal nonsense sorted out and the home health care workers engaged — shall we decamp for Westchester?"

"Dude," Alex says intelligently, "what?"

The Westchester house is big, rich under his fingertips and massive. Scott spends an hour padding around the house while the home nurses and Alex and Charles and Erik get Hank settled into room, and Scott never manages to double over a hallway. That's just the inside. Charles says not to explore the grounds until he's a bit less distracted and can warm Scott if he's wandering too close to a lake.

Raven had started him at the carved-wood front doors — a double set covered in deep relief, so heavy he'd had to lean all of his weight on it to even move it — and said, "Go on, go wherever you like," and Scott had touched his left hand to the wall and gone.

It's endless, cavernous, the walls changing from silk-corded paper to satin fibers, and he runs afoul of a half-dozen wardrobes, velvet-upholstered chairs occupying corners of corridors so wide the full stretch of his arms isn't even a quarter of the way across. He's careful, especially because no one else in the house is, of the ceramic figures, the vases with their scalloped edges, the tiny oceans of dried oil paints, sealed over in rock hard ridges over board and canvas, trapped inside elaborate frames.

Everything in the house smells old, a bit lonely. But that's already beginning to fade: covered over by the smell of Raven's shampoo and Hank's nurses and Alex after training (sweat and a bit like ozone and ashes, that sizzle after a fire has gone out into coals). There are the paper smells of Charles's books, moving in a caravan from room to room and out of their cozy homes in the library and the occasional, fleeting smell of Erik's gun: metal and something like old French perfume, which makes a lot more sense when Charles explains his mother used to keep love letters in the safe Erik's appropriated to store his piece. There's Mrs. Hendry's cooking, wonderful steam filling the hallways around the kitchen and drawing everyone in.

Alex goes bananas on Charles's record collection, and then the hallways are filled up with music, too, spilling out into every room as a bass note to conversations that drift in and out. Charles and Alex and Hank set up shop in a room off of one of the garages — one of the garages — and Hank takes his half-pilfered project from the hospital and keeps plucking at it. Hank's happy, and Alex is obviously happy. Professor Xavier is always only ever smiles in his voice, overflowing with apparently bottomless good will about everything, in such a ebullient mood sometimes it even spills over onto Erik and sometimes nudges him into laughing, which both Alex and Hank swear is like unicorn fucking a rainbow level of rarity.

Everything's so great and so easy and so perfect that Scott thinks he's going to go batshit.

Sometime during the second week that Charles removes them from Manhattan into the ramshackle wilds of Westchester, they have Mrs. Hendrey's ratatouille for dinner, and afterward, everybody hangs around in the den, and Scott listens to Charles and Hank kill the shit out of each other on Goldeneye 007 — for two nerds those guys swear a lot — and then Alex laughs and that's it. That is absolutely it.

He runs into a lot of stuff in the process and stubs his toe pretty bad, but three wrong turns and an angry kick later, he's outside, feeling the cold air seep into his lungs and all the panic boiling under his skin so furiously he doesn't even feel cold.

Scott's doing it wrong. He's losing his mind. He's freaking out. It's been almost a month since Hank got him away from Azazel and Erik shot Sebastian Shaw through the forehead and he's not going back to mutant foster care, ever, Charles promised and everybody he cares about and wants to be okay is here — in this stupid giant mansion and everything is great and why is he still so God damn scared?

There are probably hundreds of bedrooms in a house this size but Scott's still sharing a room with Alex on the first floor, catching three or four hours of sleep a night and then waking up from blurry nightmares and panicking until he remembers where he is again. He still follows Hank around the house during the day like he's leashed to the guy, and every time Scott washes his hands he convinced there's still blood crusted up underneath his fingernails. He wants his mom and his dad and for Alex never to have gone to prison and for Hank not to have been stabbed and Scott wants never to have been kidnapped, to never know what it's like to have someone controlling him from the inside out and to know that the government cut a deal with Emma Frost and she's out there somewhere — not even in jail.

Scott's just being crazy, he knows, and he keeps stalking forward, in a straight line and away from the faint sounds of the road, toward the soft lapping of water, hands out to keep from walking into any trees. He's being ungrateful. He's going to jinx it. He's got something good here, and all he can do is keep freaking out over stuff in the past. He's 16 years old. He should be able to handle this, and if he couldn't, then he should have tried harder to get away from Shaw, or he shouldn't have been an idiot to begin with skipped the entire ordeal of being kidnapped at all, and —

"You have exactly 10 more steps before you end up in some marshes," Erik says.

Freezing, Scott jerks his foot back so hard he loses his balance the other way, and it takes a bit of flailing before he gets it together enough to turn toward where Agent Lehnsherr's voice had come from and squeak, "Um."

There're a handful of footsteps and then the sound of something heavy in the grass before Erik says, "Take three steps forward, five to your left, and then sit down."

Scott's already four steps into the directions before he realizes his body's moved on apparent orders, and by the time he gets down on the cold grass, he feels dumb and embarrassed for having burst out of the house, for needing someone to come after him and coddle him like a little kid like this.

"All right, here is how it's going to work. I am going to talk, you are going to listen, and within 15 minutes — because I was instructed to follow you out here without grabbing a coat or a scarf or anything — we will return back to the house where it's warm, and Hank's sitting on your brother to keep him from either chasing you out here or expiring from formless guilt," Erik tells him. "Is that clear?"

Scott says, "Yes, sir," because. There's not really a lot else you can say to that.

"Shaw experimented on me starting when I was fourteen, until my family moved away from Detroit when I was 16. I never told anybody, and it bothers me to this day, but Charles likes to tell me it wasn't my fault, and frankly, I'm afraid he'll start some sort of campaign to love me whole if I don't genuinely believe him," Erik says. "You're a kid, even though you don't feel like one, and some unspeakably terrible shit that shouldn't have happened to you, ever, has already happened to you a lot. You are not crazy for feeling like you're going out of your head, and you're not ungrateful. You're 16. You're supposed to act like a lunatic — you technically have the brain of a sociopath right now."

Scott claws at the grass under his hands, grabs fistfuls of it and grits his teeth.

"You don't have to get over this," Erik goes on. "Definitely not today, probably not ever. Being fucked up about having been kidnapped and having a telepath controlling you isn't a one-time thing like chicken pox, you can have a recurring attack of realizing how horrible it is. You can be happy for a little while and then you can be angry again. This isn't like your foster homes — nobody's going to kick you out if you don't grin through your straight As and peas."

There's a fumbling noise: skin on cloth.

"And finally, there's this," Erik says, and Scott feels something cool and plastic on his face, something heavy on the bridge of his nose, close against his temples, like sunglasses but bigger, heavier. "Hank's spent most of the past week making these, and your brother spent a couple of hours trying to fry them earlier today, so I would say they're safe."

The glasses are cold under his fingers: rough in some parts and glossy over his eye line — thick.

"I — what are these?" Scott asks.

"Glasses, apparently, to manage your little laser problem," Erik tells him, flippant. "Are you going to open your eyes or what, Summers?"

I want to, Scott thinks. There's so much I've missed already.

Out loud, he asks, "Are you sure? What if they don't work?"

Somehow, he can tell that Erik shrugs. "If they don't work, aim left. I hate that gazebo."

"It's not funny," Scott bites out, feeling his face get hot with worry, hands shaking. "It's dangerous — I'm dangerous, and — "

"And you always will be unless you learn to control it," Erik cuts in, neat and devastating, absolutely reasoned.

It's dumb the sort of reflexive responses you can't shake. Scott still stares in the direction of Erik's voice, even though he can't see anything, and he keeps opening and closing his mouth, trying to come up with a retort, but the shitty part is that he knows Erik is right, and that there's no two ways around this.

He sucks in a breath and lets it out slowly. "Left, you said?" Scott asks.

"Christ alive, Summers," Erik laughs, "just open your eyes, kid."

Scott does.

It's blue — hugely blue. It's night so the sky is that inky blue of wedding invitation calligraphy and dotted through with stars like persistent pieces of glitter, left over on his clothes after elementary school birthday parties. And the gazebo Erik had told him to burn down is gilded from the moon overhead, hanging fat and bruised with craters, and the lake waves have silver fingernail slivers at the tips, licking up along the soaked-through sand beach, up against the reeds Scott had almost walked into. He stares at the forest in the distance, the neat English garden, the wild rosemary bushes he's investigated until his hands had smelled as sweet, the way the grass is patterned with orange lights, slanting across from the massive facade of the mansion behind him.

Scott looks and looks and sees Erik grinning at him with a hundred million razor-sharp looking teeth.

"Hi," Scott breathes.

"Took you long enough," Erik says, and he pushes himself up to his feet. "Come on — there're some people who want to see you."

Scott skids, three times, on the wet grass as he's getting up, but his smile is cracking his face wide open, because there are some people he wants to see, too.

Chapter Text

Charles likes everybody, but it's the way that dogs and babies like things — comprehensively and without any real seriousness — so when she meets him at the Gilt Bar to find him flushed like a schoolgirl with a crush, it's deeply fucking creepy.

"What is this?" Raven asks, suspicious. "Did — did someone just suck you off in the bathroom?"

"Raven, don't be vulgar," Charles sighs, but he's still smiling like a lunatic. "Erik's not that type of gentleman."

"Oh my God, where the hell did you meet a gentleman?" Raven demands.

Charles just keeps smiling, sipping dreamily at his mai tai. "At the airport."

Raven's known Charles for most of her life, so unfortunately she's endured his occasional intersections with having real boy feelings, but by the third day of his U.S. lecture tour, she's ready to wring his neck, and he's not even in New York anymore.

An unfortunate side effect of Charles liking everybody is that everybody generally likes Charles. More to the point, and to her general horror, people like Charles in their beds; he's visually pleasing or whatever so it's not like there're a lot of hold-outs when he's clearly easy like Sunday morning and happy to buy you drinks. This Erik guy has got to either be so straight he could be used as a spirit level or saving himself for marriage.

"He's amazing," Charles tells her, rapturous over the phone. "Raven, you would adore his mutation. It's brilliant."

She wishes her mutation involved regeneration so she could stab herself in the face. "You already said."

"He can manipulate magnetic fields, it's truly something, Raven, even though I know you're thinking about how you'd rather knife yourself in the eye," Charles continues brightly. In the background, Raven can hear the milling and busy noises she'll always associate with a university quad, with Charles raving into a telephone. "Just think of the potential implications! With sufficient training, who knows! Perhaps his mastery over magnetic fields would be enough to contain a cold fission reaction."

Raven presses her forehead against her desk. "Yes, I'm sure it's what Erik's always dreamed of: a career as a giant container."

There's a short, offended pause. "It would mean energy independence and clean fuel," Charles retorts.

"Sexy, Charles, so sexy," Raven shoots back.

"Who are you talking to?" someone in Charles's background asks. "Did this person get vetted?"

Like someone has just given him fourteen DNA sequencers, Charles cries, "Erik! It's my sister — would you like to say hello? She's dying to speak with you."

"No I'm not!" Raven yells down the line. "Just fuck him already! Please, for the love of Christ!"

Erik either doesn't hear it, or is too polite to say anything, another indication he's probably not right for Charles. Instead he just clears his throat, muffled, in the near background, and says, "I'd rather you let us escort you back to your hotel and get you set up for the night."

"Of course," Charles agrees glibly, delighted. "Join me for dinner?"

"Not appropriate," Erik disagrees.

Raven starts thumping her head against the desk. "Hang up, Charles, hang up the phone."

"Someone could easily make an attempt on my life over an entree," Charles says saucily, instead of hanging up, because Charles Xavier is a life ruiner. "It would be remiss of you to fall down on your duty in a way that would leave me both indisposed and you suffering low blood sugar."

There's a long, terrible pause, and Raven feels an intense burn of sympathy for Erik.

"Fine," Erik mutters. "Just — wait, is your sister still on the line?"

Charles says, "Oh, bugger," and then blessedly, finally, there's a beep and the connection goes dead.

Raven sleeps badly and spends the rest of the night trying not to imagine her brother surreptitiously reading Erik's mind, trying to figure out if he wants Charles to pretend to be a virgin or a slut or some porn star combination of both. In the morning, he's sent her an email:

To: Raven
From: Charles
Subject: [none]

He didn't even stay for actual dessert.

"What's so great about him, anyway?" Raven asks later, because Charles is a little loopy from traveling and she doesn't really have a question about her homework. They were nontraditional siblings, they'd chosen each other, and even though she's used to being apart from him, she doesn't like it. Charles on his own is a strangely lonely creature, for all the company he could have, and sometimes she just calls him and sits with him on the phone, feeling her ear get hot from the handset while she listens to him grade papers or clean his apartment, while she reads for homework or buys groceries.

"I thought if I talked any more about how wonderful Erik was, you were going to kill me," Charles answers, dry and dreamy. She bets he's fully dressed, lying in bed in an ocean of papers. When Charles doesn't have anyone else there to fill up the other side of the mattress, he always cuddles up with his work.

Raven smirks. "I don't mean his marvelous mutation or his cunning abilities as a linguist or how ferociously sexy his gun handling skills are, Charles — I mean why this little crush of yours has escalated to stalking."

"I don't know," Charles tells her honestly after a beat, like he's been wondering about this, too. "He just…makes me happy, I suppose. Something about him. The first time I read him, it felt like falling into a quarry."

"Drowning," Raven replies. "This is what does it for you?"

"If that was drowning, then I would have been happy to die," Charles answers her, neat and surprisingly priggish, and clears his throat. "Now, what's this about maths homework you're struggling with?"

"Fuck math," Raven decides, and wriggles around until she's on her stomach, looking out the window of her apartment at the sparkling carpet of New York City at night. "So? What's your plan of action? Clearly your typical manwhore behavior isn't convincing him, neither is your charming professor act."

Charles sighs at her. "Really, Raven, I hardly think this is an appropriate — "

"Maybe you should stop hitting on him and just get to know him," Raven suggests.

"I already know him," Charles says irritably.

"Yes, but in a terribly creepy way that most people who aren't telepaths will never truly appreciate until they get to know you," Raven tells him patiently. "Instead of strip-mining his brain for information, why don't you just coerce him verbally into telling it to you?"

On the other end of the line, Charles declares, "I have to go. Erik says if I waste any more time or brain cells talking to the psychopath on the other end here, he'll never speak to me again and will end our friendship."

"If you're really there, Erik," Raven shouts, "seriously, just fuck him! Please! Do it for me!" before the phone clicks.

After that, there's only three more days on the lecture tour before Charles is safely back in England, where everybody in Oxford is more than happy to give him a ride, so Raven figures that probably the crush on Erik was just that, a terrible crush, and mostly forgets about it. Until.

To: Raven
From: Charles
Subject: FBI tour

Erik will be at the offices you're touring tomorrow! Be certain to say hello. I've told him that you're part of the new recruits that are joining, but I don't think he quite believes me. (I can't be sure, of course; the Atlantic is quite a bit bigger than I'm used to scanning, even with my new practice regimen. Separately: you were correct, that vicar who let us hide in the church when our Golf broke down was attempting to take it out of me in sexual trade. Poor man. To think I gave him a tenner instead.)

Because she can't resist, Raven writes back:

To: Charles
From: Raven
Subject: Re: FBI tour

Two things:

1. Has Erik put out for you yet? Because if not, this is shit sad.
2. Let's be real: a tenner is all you're worth.

Charles, in an obvious pout, doesn't write back to her for days, which is fine because Raven has far more intriguing things on her mind — like finally putting a face to the name that tortured her for so long.

Erik Lehnsherr is handsome like a shark, with thousands of teeth and a sculptural face, interesting and architectural, attractive like he belongs on the cover of an Ayn Rand novel. His sleeves are rolled up, his tie is a bit loose, and overall he's terribly distracting, all the female recruits around her brightening in his orbit. She feels sorry for them if Charles ever sees this; he grew up in a mansion the size of a small county — sharing isn't his forte.

"I've heard lots about you, Agent Lehnsherr," Raven tells him, giddy at the way Erik goes a bit surprised and off-center at that, the touch of color in his cheeks.

It takes him a beat, but he says, "Funny, I've heard nothing about you."

"That's a lie," Raven chirps, and presses a hand into the crook of his elbow, leaning in close to whisper, "You should just give in — Charles always gets what he wants."

When she pulls away again, Erik is giving her a thoughtful look.

"You think?" he asks, like he's seriously asking.

Raven tilts her head. "Well, I like him," she says, answering the question Erik's not asking.

"You have to like him," Erik argues. "And I get the impression he's used to everybody liking him."

"Firstly, Charles and I a very atypical siblings," Raven says without further explanation. "And as for your second point — you're very different to him."

Erik raises an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Yes, and now, I have to go and learn about the FBI filing system," Raven tells him cheerfully, and toddles off.

It still takes another year for them to get their shit together effectively, but by that point she's had so many terrible, terrible conversations with Charles while Erik is still in bed with him that she doesn't really feel any sympathy that Erik doesn't want to move in and get married and make babies yet.

"Not everybody is so easy with certainty, Charles," Raven tells him, sitting gingerly on one of the kitchen stools in the Xavier House kitchen. There are two reasons: (1) Charles is a slut and probably tricked Erik into having sex on one of them, and (2) because hand-to-hand training actually hurt like a motherfucker, and if she betrayed too much pain, Charles would get that look on his face which was the reason they'd had a three-legged puppy and a few cross-eyed cats growing up.

"But this isn't an issue of him not wanting it," Charles argues, like this is a math problem with an obvious solution nobody wants to accept. "I know he does — it's just he won't."

Raven eats her bacon, which is burnt, because Charles is an earnest if sort of awful cook. "Baffling, ain't it, the human heart?"

Charles sighs. "Let's not talk about this anymore, I'm boring myself," he mumbles, and perking, he says, "Oh, did I tell you? I've spoken with the administration at Columbia — they say they will be willing to host a mutation symposium!"

"Now you're boring me," Raven accuses, but without any heat, and lets her brother babble about it until Erik staggers down the stairs, looking rode hard and put away wet and late for work. He manages to inhale a piece of toast, chug a mug of boiling-hot coffee, give Charles a hotly efficient kiss, and Raven a squeeze on the shoulder all in under a minute before he's out the door.

"It's like magic," Raven marvels.

Chapter Text

As far as Jean is concerned, the fact that she manages to run away at all is just another indication that absolutely nobody in the house loves her anymore.

She'd borrowed Alex's Swiss Army Knife (for fighting zombie hobos), taken Hank's digital GPS/compass (for navigating the sewers where she's going to go live and sulk), left a mess in the kitchen when she'd made herself three tuna fish sandwiches (it's like Mrs. Hendry doesn't even care), and then stalked out of the house in her gray-and-green galoshes, all the way down the forever-long driveway and to the main road.

There's a taxi waiting for her a few yards away, and she runs after it, waving her hands in the air as it slows down, and Jean clambers into the backseat to see Mr. Maxwell from in town smiling at her in the rear view mirror, nodding at her and saying, "Miss Grey."

"The Metro North station, please," she says to him seriously. "I'm running away from home."

Mr. Maxwell raises his eyebrows. "Really? But it's such a nice home."

Jean looks back at the house, because it is, and she'd been forced to leave a lot of half-read books and her bunny, but she couldn't really provide for Seaman Wolverine, and anyway she'd promised him she'd be back for him once she had a steady job and could afford to keep him in all the napa lettuce and wood shavings he could want.

"They're all too busy with Charles's fancy new school," Jean informs Mr. Maxwell. "They probably won't even notice I'm gone until I'm like 21."

"Well, if you're sure," Mr. Maxwell says to her, grinning, and hits the gas.

Jean only has a $50 bill — Hank should really keep smaller bills in his wallet — and Mr. Maxwell can only give her change in $10s, so he decides to make up the difference by walking her into the station and sitting with her on the platform until the train rolls in. They make sure it's headed for Grand Central Station-42nd Street together, and then he waves at her as it steams away from Westchester forever.

The ride is so depressing, the sky outside gray and terrible and on the verge of a rainstorm, and Jean eats two of her three sandwiches in the first 10 minutes. Worse, the car is horribly quiet. At her ex-home, there's always someone talking or yelling or something breaking. And even when there isn't, Jean can always listen in on whatever Charles is doing: thinking blurry thoughts to himself, reading scientific journals, talking to Erik, and it always makes her think about her first months with Erik and Charles, when she used to fall asleep leaning against Erik's chest, listening to his heartbeat and Charles humming her lullabies, off-key and straight into her head.

She tears into her last sandwich for strength because all of that's over now. That was the good old days, before everything changed. Before The School.

Now Hank never has time to do experiments with her, or to play tag. All Hank ever wants to do now is work on plans for science classes and hiring a nurse for the school and trying to mutant-proof the house, which Alex says is "futile beyond belief." Not that Alex is any better. Instead of taking her to town for tea breaks or driving her to the Montessori in the mornings or picking her up, all he does is freak out over the dorms they're building in the big, empty field in between the house and the forest. Or he's staring at Hank with a weird look on his face, like he keeps figuring out something new and confusing all over again every time he looks at Hank. It's gotten bad enough that even Hank says stuff like, "What the hell is wrong with you? Did you hit your head on something?" when Alex does it.

At first, at least Scott had been on her side, but now every time he answers her emails, he's always telling her to be patient, because Charles is doing something important, and if Hank can take some time out of med school to help him and Alex can take time off from the fire department to help, she can, too.

"You know," Scott said to her last time on the phone. "By being understanding."

"College has changed you," she'd accused. "I don't even know who you are anymore."

So there's only Jean now. Jean against the world, and she has to pinch herself — hard — through the leg of her jeans to keep herself from being a sissy and crying at that. She'd been alone before Mrs. Demming at MCPS had brought her to Charles and Erik, and she'd only been three, back then. Obviously Jean can do it again.

It starts raining and all the trees blur outside the scratched up glass where Jean's pressing her face, looking outside.

Jean thinks about running away to her birth parents, but even though they're nice and always ask how she's doing and if she's happy, what she wants for Christmas, remind her they'll see her on Easter and New Year's, they also always seem a little bit afraid of her. She's been lectured about open adoptions and how Charles and Erik (but really only Charles, because Erik doesn't even try to pretend to mean it) want her to know that her birth parents are wonderful people, but Jean's mutation is so special they'd needed to back-up team to help them make sure Jean was happy.

When she'd been tested at three, she'd scored nearly a 10 on the OCP scale, and had a positive indicator for telekinesis, too, and Mrs. Demming says that when Jean's parents had asked for help, the only person she'd even considered calling was Charles.

She's eight. She's not an idiot. She knows what that really means, and why her birth mom and dad are always thinking about nothing so hard she can actually feel it, even through the blocks Charles put up for her. Erik had told her, the third night of Hanukkah the first year she'd lived with them, that of all the people in all the world, she's the only little girl made just for Charles, and Charles is the only father made just for her.

"No one else will ever understand you exactly the way Charles does," Erik had told her, "but I promise I will try very hard."

Actually, Jean thinks glumly, she wishes she'd remembered to get Charles to open her telepathy completely before she'd run away. She knows that they have it under lock and key to protect her, but Erik also has a lot of lectures and charts and feelings about how she should tase first and ask questions later when it comes to potential kidnappers. She only has two extra sets of batteries, just in case she has to tase a lot first and ask questions a lot later, but it would be easier to figure out which people were creeps in New York City if she could just read their minds to see if they were going to steal her and sell her for parts or to the circus.

She manages to sleep a little — and ends up dreaming about being chased around by stacks of paper marked CURRICULUM, and they all yell at her, "CHARLES LOVES US MORE THAN YOU NOW!" — before they're underground and pulling up in Grand Central Station, everybody gathering up briefcases and backpacks and hopping off the train.

The station is horrible and smells like feet, and none of the signs make any sense. Jean keeps following them or looking for a convenient opening into a sewer, and instead she keeps walking past something called Eata Pita — she hates puns — and she wishes she hadn't eaten all that tuna so fast.

Jean's settled in, sitting down next to a big grate and wondering if (a) she can find some way to move it, and (b) if there are Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles down there, when someone says:

"Now there's my little hasi."

When she looks up, it's to see Erik. His hair is wet and his dark wool coat is frosted with water and he's smiling down at her, and all of a sudden this whole day and running away is exhausting, and she says, "Nobody at home even cared that I left," because it's true. They didn't. If they don't want her, nobody will. Jean doesn't even really want to live in the sewer, even if there are teenaged mutant ninja turtles down there.

Erik's smile just gets wider — and Jean wonders why Alex and Hank thinks it's scary; she and Charles agree: Erik has the most wonderful smile in the world — and he squats down, the long tails of his dark coat sweeping the ground, and he says to her, "Now, if no one at home loved you, then how come Charles called to tell me that if I didn't pick you up from the station, he was going to leave me for Tony Stark?"

Jean gasps.

"Exactly," Erik says, and he sounds serious but his eyes are shining, and when he opens his arms, she scrambles into them, feeling her heart go as fast as Seaman Wolverine's at home when Erik picks her up, safe and sound. "Jesus, you're getting heavy — I'm not going to be able to carry you around like this much longer."

Normally, Jean would be snotty and tell Erik that saying stuff like that will only give her self-image issues in five years, but right now, she just tightens her arms around his neck. She knows she's too old to be carried around, but that doesn't stop her from putting her face in Erik's neck. He smells like office printer paper and a little bit like the soap in her parents' bathroom, that she sees when she sits on the counter and stares as Erik shaves in the morning — no hands, because he's a showoff, Charles always says.

She can feel them moving through the crowd, and Jean mumbles into Erik's collar, "So Charles was worried?"

"Well," Erik says, and Jean can feel the rumble of his voice against her, "he knows you're very capable, but he was worried you would have to tase a lot of people and that your arm might get tired."

Jean nods. "Or what if I ran out of batteries!"

"Another major point of concern," Erik agrees with her, and flags down a cab.

She spends the rest of the morning on the floor of Erik's office at the FBI building, drawing or reading Farmer Boy, and at lunch, Angel and Armando and Sean take her out for Chinese. Raven takes her shopping for the rest of the afternoon, and they go up to Union Square, where it doesn't matter that it's still raining outside as long as they're inside The Strand.

"But I don't like the color yellow or wallpaper," Jean tells Raven, who keeps giving her secondhand books with boring covers.

Her aunt looks at her sternly, which is especially stern when it's so blue. "Just humor me," she says.

"Fine, but I'm only taking this one because it's about dollhouses," Jean grumps.

They're back at the federal building just after six, and Erik lets her pick the radio station as they drive back to the Westchester house, the city going orange and neon around them outside the windows, and it's after they go through the last toll — the Jonas Brothers are singing about walking on broken glass — that she gets up the courage to ask:

"Does Charles have to open the school?"

Erik glances at her, keeping his eyes mostly on the road. "Jean," he says.

She kicks at the dashboard. "Ugh, I know," she says, because she does.

Jean has lived with the threat of Charles's school for as long as she'd lived with Charles and Erik. Charles talks about it like it's Christmas and Purim rolled into a mountain of summer reading homework: something wonderful and awful all at once. He talks about how he never wants another mutant child to grow up feeling alone, and wouldn't Jean hate that, too? If she ever met another little girl or little boy with marvelous powers who thought there was something wrong with them, who didn't have someone to teach them and help them, to show them new friends? And Jean agrees, because despite what Scott says, she's only 80 percent a brat, but does that little girl or boy have to take up all of Charles's time? Couldn't someone else open the school? And couldn't Charles be happy being as busy as he already is? With his TAs and his classes at Columbia and lecturing far away from home all the time and traveling all over on super secret government missions?

"He means well," Erik tells her gently, and less gently, adds, "And it's about time you learn to share."

Jean scowls. "Alex says sharing is for suckers."

"Alex is a felon," Erik retorts. "Alex is the worst babysitter of all time."

Which is nuts, because Alex is the best. When Jean had had chicken pox, and Charles had been banished to the house in Manhattan because he's never had it before, and Erik said that he was going to kill himself with actual fire if she and Charles didn't stop taking turns crying miserably about it, Alex had been the only interesting or funny person in the whole world. He'd read her awesome books by some guy named Raymond Chandler and fed her Kraft mac and cheese, and when she couldn't sleep, he'd sworn her to silence and let her stay up and watch Jaws, which had been great except for the nightmares.

"Ex-felon! And whatever," Jean says. "Like it matters. Now Alex is busy with The School, too."

"God, don't remind me," Erik mutters, merging the car into the exit lane, and Jean knows all the landmarks from here: all the streets and signs and dark trees that lead into the heart of Sleepy Hollow and through it, onto the fringes and toward the house. "It hurts me to admit this, Jean, but sharing can lead to wonderful things."

She crosses her arms over her chest and glares out past the car's headlights. "Oh, yeah? What? Mono?"

"Yes, mono," Erik agrees dryly. "And you. Once upon a time, I had Charles all to myself, too."

Jean keeps glaring out, but it's not the same now. She feels deflated like a balloon, and up ahead the house comes into view: all the windows bright orange with light, about a half-dozen cars parked all over the place in the driveway, which is Jean's favorite, favorite thing in the world because that means everyone's at the house and also means that Erik is going to say something fantastic, like:

"Oh — God damn it."

She jumps out of the car, skidding across the gravel and darting up into the house. Jean can hear voices in the kitchen, but before she ever gets there, she asks, Hello? and hears Charles say, In the library, my love, and scampers off, hearing Erik stomp in after her yelling, "Seriously, who the hell invited you guys?"

When Jean finds him, Charles is sitting near the fire, Seaman Wolverine shivering in his lap as Charles murmurs at the rabbit, and he looks up and smiles at Jean and she feels awful all of a sudden: selfish and dumb and weepy.

"Hi," she says, shy. Charles waves her over, and when Jean is close enough, he transfers the bunny into her arms, which she decides to take as an invitation to crawl into his lap, Seaman Wolverine and all.

"How was your adventure?" Charles asks, curling an arm around her.

Jean presses her face into his shoulder. "I like home better," she mutters, and maybe Erik is right, and one day (too soon) she will have to learn to share, but until then, Charles murmurs, Oh, Jean. I plan to love every child at the school once it's opened, but you must know that you're my best girl.

I better be, she says back, and squeezes both Charles and Seaman Wolverine until they both start complaining.

That night for dinner Sean and Raven and Angel and Armando are all there, and Scott is home from UPenn for the weekend, which means Mrs. Hendry goes into something Erik calls a "fugue state" and pretty much the entire table is covered in food. Weirdly, neither Alex or Hank seem to be that hungry, extra strange since Jean saw them staggering out of Hank's lab earlier looking like they'd both just lost a wrestling match, and Charles had said, "Oh, for God's sake," and locked up Jean's telepathy even more tightly than usual.

But not before Jean overhears Angel, and asks the table at large, "What's a shit show?"

Charles glares at everyone, and Erik says to her, "This, Jean. This is a shit show."

"This is not," Charles protests. "This was all very pleasant before hormones and profanity got involved!"

Hank mumbles, "Oh, God," over Erik's, "Tonight was supposed to be you, me, and Jean alone in the house: instead I've got Scott dropping in with laundry unannounced — "

Scott doesn't even bother to look guilty in between stuffing his face.

" — Summers finally growing a pair and making a move — "

Now it's Alex's turn to say, "Oh, God."

" — your sister watching me like a hawk — "

Raven's eyes go into yellow slits.

" — and you've invited the entire office over, which is clearly the universe taking a pound of dignity from me for some heretofore unknown karmic debt," Erik finishes, and slaps a little Tiffany blue box on the table. "So here. Take it."

Raven yells, "Seriously? Not even on one knee? Just — 'here, take it'?" which overlaps Armando saying, "Dude, that's fucking weak, Lehnsherr," and Angel giving Sean $50, and Hank looking into his wallet and saying, "Hey — who took my money?" which is Jean's cue to look extra innocent. But then Alex says, "It's fine, I got it," and stuffs a bunch of cash into Sean's hand, which makes Sean say, "Oh, shit, apparently this is serious now, if you're paying his bets."

"Right," Charles interrupts here, and snaps, "everybody — out!"

Once the dining room doors are shut with a click, leaving everybody trying to hear through a four-inch wood slab, and only Sean having any luck.

"Blah blah blah gross," Sean reports. "Blah blah blah unrepeatably sappy. Blah blah blah yay, Jean won't be a bastard anymore…"

"Yay!" Jean says.

"Something something long overdue…oh! Charles just said yes!" Sean says, and Raven grumbles, "As if there was ever any doubt," but she's sniffing pretty hard. "Annnnd now I'm going to stop listening because it's descended into kissing noises."

Eventually, everybody makes Jean knock on the door to let them back in, because all the food is on the other side, and Jean's the only person who Erik can't fire or make sleep in their car that night.

Dinner goes on forever, past 9 p.m. and then 10 p.m., everybody staying at the table for seconds and picking at thirds and drinking cups and cups of coffee and Riesling while Jean sits in a chair very close to Erik and leans sleepily into his side. It's almost midnight by the time the guests leave, by the time Hank and Alex vanish up to the third story and Scott makes a beeline for the second floor. Jean knows if she stays very still and breathes evenly, Charles will say, "Oh, Erik, let her sleep," and get Erik to carry her to bed.

They're on the second floor landing, Charles hovering in his wheelchair next to them, when Erik hefts her in his arms and puts a hand on her back, smoothing down her spine as he sighs, "So fucking spoiled."

Charles wraps a hand around her ankle, rubbing a thumb over the bone. He's always done that, for as long as Jean can remember. "It's not so bad," Charles murmurs, soft. "How long will she let us, anyway?"

"If she's anything like you, forever," Erik tells him, and Jean almost giggles, almost gives herself away.

Erik helps Jean change into her soft green pajamas and Charles pours her a glass of water, and by the time they stuff her underneath her half-dozen blankets Jean's actually tired, everything swimming foggy in front of her. As she's falling asleep, she asks, "Can I be a flower girl?" as Erik strokes her bangs from her forehead, restful.

"You can fight Scott for it," Charles tells her solemnly, and Erik laughs and says, "Good God, go to sleep," and Jean does.