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Marching Home

Chapter Text

It was almost sickeningly domestic.

The kitchen was warm and bright, the intermingling scents of coffee and toast pushing away the cold fingers of November.

Winter was coming.

Charles was still getting dressed, Erik noted, but the rest were there, all sprawled in the fashion of rumpled adolescents around the round wooden table.

Raven stood in the corner, buttering toast, surprisingly neat in a navy blue dress, and it struck him that he had never seen Raven so-
well, womanly, he supposed, almost motherly, and for a moment he wondered if Charles saw her like this before realising that he couldn't.

That to Charles, Raven would forever be eight years hold, starving and lonely and in desperate need of protection.

His thoughts were interrupted by Sean.

“Raven,” he asked curiously, “What did Charles do in the war?”

Erik snorted.

Everyone turned to look at him.

“Oh, come on! How old do you think he is? He was a babe in arms during the-”

“-He's not that much younger than you, you know.”

Erik snorted again. Mein Gott, do I look that old to them?

The answer, he knew, was yes; that his life was writ large upon his body, tight and scarred by history long before its time.

“I know. I was -” Six eight eleven fourteen when do the Americans claim 'it' began again? “- Thirteen.”

Erik did not need to be an empath to feel the sickening wave of pity emanating from the children. And they were children, he reminded himself, all of them.

Raven broke the awkward silence. “Search and rescue.”

Erik felt his jaw drop. That didn't make any sense.

“Korea.”

Sean nodded. “I figured. Got a brother in 'Nam, Dad was in France.”

Hank looked up from his toast. “Are you going down to the memorial today?”

“Charles and I will, anyway. You coming?”

Sean, Hank, and Alex all nodded their assent.

“Get changed, then. We're leaving in half an hour, and he'll have your ass if you show up in pajamas.”
Raven looked over at Erik. “How about you?”

There were a thousand answers Erik could have given- would have given, were he a different sort of person.

That soldiers still made him twitch, that the Yanks had come, but came too fucking late, that the irony of there being statues and monuments to the American war dead that listed names, ranks, dates of birth, when in Europe entire families lay unmarked, their names unspoken, tasted bitter on his tongue; that he was not sure that someone of his heritage would even be welcome, a kraut or a Jew, neither fit for polite company; that people always forgot that the first nation the Nazis took over had been their own.

There was only one answer he could give, though, and so he nodded slowly.

Chapter Text

Raven knows that they were lucky.

Next to so many of their generation, the Xavier's list of those whom they must mourn is nothing.

Mrs Stirling, down the road, would accept the wreaths on behalf of the veterans association; she had lost her husband and all of her sons, first to the Germans, then the Japanese, and finally to the Russians. Only her daughter remained, a girl Raven had attended school with, and who had sworn up and down that she would never marry. There would be no auction day in her future. They had had enough martyrs to the cause.

James Howling had returned, technically, but had become a recluse, a shadow of the arrogant extrovert Raven remembered from childhood.

Compared to that, the Xaviers seem like cowards. Rich enough to buy their way off the draft, most of them, their losses were limited to Cain Marko and Charles Xavier; both of whom could have stayed home, stayed safe, stayed with Raven- but who had been foolish or stupid or arrogant enough to vollunteer, believing in their immortality with the boundless courage of youth.

Cain Marko was reported missing in action in Korea.

Charles Xavier had returned home, seemingly untouched save for a few puckered scars on his torso.

Raven had hardly recognised him when he had returned, his hair bristly, skin tanned, eyes dark. He had smiled, and hugged her, and told her how much she had been missed.

Raven would not have known anything was wrong were it not for the years she had spent bandaging his cuts, salving his burns, and icing his bruises. If she did not know that Charles Xavier did not believe that pain that happened to him mattered, but would lay down his life before he let someone he loved feel the same. How often, growing up, had he taken a beating for her transgressions? For Cain's?

(She had not realised he was doing it, at the time, not until he was in his teens and she still a girl, but old enough to know that the broken windowpane had most assuredly not been his fault, and when she asked him about it he had grown quiet and still and hugged her, his voice a rough whisper.
“I will always protect you.”)

That was when she started watching, began noting when he slept and how often, what corners of the house he would retreat to to bandage his own wounds, stitch his own cuts. It was always the library.

It was there she found him, aged 13, drunk on his mother's gin, his back a bloody pulp of whip lines.

It was there they made their plan to leave it all behind.

And so it was there Raven found him, ten years later, less than a week home from Korea, playing with a gun.


“Charles?” She had asked, voice deliberately neutral. “What are you doing?”

“Do you know what it sounds like when someone dies, Raven?”
She hadn't known how to answer that.

He hadn't seemed to expect one.

“It sounds like nothing. Emptiness. A vaccuum, where before there was- screaming, or praying, wedding vows, a child's face- the big things, the important parts of life- it's almost philosophical. The complete and utter distillation of a life down to one image. It's all around you, and it's deafening- worse than pain, worse than the hatred and ideology. And then it ends. It ends, and there's a void, and there's nothing left to fill it. No pain, no love. Just... dark. Pop. The end.”

“Charles,” she had said, edging towards him, wondering if she could get to the gun. “Is everything all right?”

“Hmm?” His eyes had been drowsy, unfocused. “Oh, my dear! I forgot you were there. Yes, of course, everything's fine. Why wouldn't it be?”

“No reason,” she had said, and thanked every god she did not believe in that Charles had been-- skittish-- about his telepathy since coming home.

They would leave, just as they had always done, leave this mansion with it's dark and it's dust and it's one hundred hungry ghosts.

It was Charles' descent down the stairs that startled her out of her reverie. His green uniform was neatly pressed, ribbons carefully positioned, buttons shined.

He was drunk. It seemed like he was always drunk, since he'd come home. He looked at Raven out of hazy, pained blue eyes.

“They called me the Shepherd, you know,” he slurred. “Best SR guy in the whole bloody batallion. I could hear them, you know, screaming, praying. Most of them believed that we'd find them, right until the end, or until the voices got too loud and- and I lost them. I didn't mean to lose them. Do-” he hiccupped “-Do you think they'll forgive me?”

Raven had no response.

“Well?” he smiled. His posture was straighter, the lines of his face sharper, his eyes deeper. “How do I look?”

Like a ghost, Raven didn't say.

“Dashing,” she said instead. “Very dashing.”

Chapter Text

Save Raven, Sean is the only one of them who didn't gasp.

Well, Hank gasped, and Alex choked. Erik- twitched.

Sean did not gasp, because he had been expecting it. He had not needed Raven's verbal confirmation to tell him the truth.

Because Sean is many things- silly, young, and inexperienced, but Sean is also tough. Moreover, he isn't stupid.

Sean Cassidy is far from stupid. He is the youngest of – 11 now, he supposes, a filthy Irish Catholic stereotype if there ever was one. 11 children living, one lost to Korea, another to polio, one lost in his own mind; all born to a once-beautiful washerwoman and a shadowy, aching emptiness that might have been a father buried beneath the fields of France.

He still remembers Frankie, barely. Moreover, he remembers the day when, eight years old and in a neatly pressed, if faded, shirt and tie, he had been removed from catechism class and taken to see the Mother Superior.

Frankie, 24, was dead in Korea.

He had not cried. He had not screamed. Even then, he was scared of his own voice.

Even then, he knew that men don't cry.

Instead, he ran.
He had run and run until he was out of the school, off of the grounds; ran until he was in the alley behind their house, dark and deserted at this time of day, and only then had he wept, sobbed for the loss of his brother, tall and strong, who had brought him candy every Friday when he got off shift at the factory, who was the only one among them who could make their mother laugh.

And years had passed, and Sean had grown like a bad weed, gangly, clownish and resilient, and he remembers hanging about some of his older sister's friends, the only ones who would still speak to her after she brought Arnold home and their mother nearly fainted in shock at the sight of a Negro courting her 19 year old daughter.

They had been older, bearded, dressed in turtlenecks and chinos; overly fond of using words he didn't quite understand.

It was from them that he learned about Asia, about the wars that still pointlessly raged on.

It was from them that he learned about politics, and Joe McCarthy, and music, and poetry; where he learned who the 'Reds' really were.

(Incidentally, it was also how he lost his virginity, in a fumbling, adolescent way, to a smooth haired radical named Amy. It was her that he followed to the commune, some deep-ingrained Catholic school instinct to marry the person you had sex with, not realising that she was Protestant, which would have been troubling enough, and didn't believe in marriage besides.)

After that, far away from the working class neighbourhood he grew up in, patriotic to the point of jingoism, his contact with the Far East had been limited to protests.

There was one boy- man, really- staying there who had served in Vietnam, but he didn't talk much.

When Sean's mum had called with the news that his brother had joined up, her voice heavy with a weary sort of pride, he had merely nodded, his too-knowing eyes dark in a still round face.

 

It was that expression- the twin natures of incredible age and youth contantly warring in clear blue eyes- that he had recognised in Charles.
Like he said, he isn't stupid. There's not much that could put that look on a guy Charles' age except for all that.

 

All of which was a roundabout way of saying that, when they had all piled into the car, Hank and Alex having reluctantly pulled on rumpled, ill-fitting suits, Sean felt deeply uncomfortable.

Because Charles was ageing before his eyes on the drive downtown, and he did not want to think about this anymore.

Because Erik was alternating between glaring at Charles and frowning, his hands clenched tightly together, the pulse of his neck beating visibly against the collar of his turtleneck.

Because Raven looked sad, and wistful, and frightened.

Which is why, when they arrived at the memorial, and saw the protestors, he snapped.
Raven had raised an eyebrow at the sight. “Now, really,” She had murmured, sounding so like Charles that it was terrifying.

Charles had shook his head. “Raven,” he'd admonished. “That's Howie Westecott's sister.”

“Yeah, and what about him?”

Charles winced. “Ah- well. I gather he's enjoying a rather prolonged stay at a 'rest house' at the moment. She's understandably furious.”

“And the rest of them?”

Sean had been unable to contain myself. “They're right. It- what've been doin'. It's wrong. We should mind our own goddamned business.”

Charles glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “Are you going to join them, then, Mr. Cassidy?”

“I don't know. I-I should, y'know, go light a candle or something. For my brother.”

Charles nodded. “There's a church around the corner. Raven will show you.”
He stopped the car.

“Nobody minds if you do join them, Sean.”

You mean you don't, Sean thought. And you only don't cos you think I'm right.

The look Raven was giving him vehemently contradicted her brother's mild words.

“Nah,” he said nonchalantly. “I'll stay with you guys.”
Charles nodded. “Do as you please; but you'll have to excuse me, all of you. I rather think there's somewhere I need to be.”

The cool November sun cast shadows on his face, and he looked as though he had not slept in weeks.

He turned, and began walking away.

“Wait- Charles!” Sean cried anxiously.

He glanced over his shoulders. “Yes?”

“I- uh, I'm sorry.”

Charles shook his head, a brief smile curling at the corner of his mouth. “As am I, Mr. Cassidy. As am I."

Chapter Text

Fuck, this was weird.

It wasn't an ingratitude thing, a respect thing- Alex hadn't attended school much, after his parents died, but he wasn't a Martian- he knew that there were things that the ought to be grateful for, that he was grateful for- he wouldn't mind this stuff if he were by himself or with -notScottnotScottdon'tthinkabouthimSummers- but here and now, it was... strange.

Raven looked like she was chewing on cement, Sean was pissed- hell, even fucking Hank looked like he was thinking about someone.

Erik was white, and tight, and looked like one of those guys who weren't sure if they were fighting someone, but if they were then they'd damned well kill them.

If they were in the street, or prison, he'd eat glass before he went near that kind of guy.

Point is, everyone was feeling- something. And Alex wasn't, not really. His Dad had been too young for the Germans. Mr Blanding had, but- well, fuck, he wasn't someone Alex really wanted to think about, okay? He'd known people, of course he had- older brothers of friends, a couple of guys in prison- but he hadn't really known them.

It's hard to make friends when, every time you get upset, shit explodes.

Which sucks, and it sucks even more when you realize that, even amongst the freaks, you are a freak- because clearly, the rest of them had people they could think about.

And Alex- Alex didn't.

 

Erik had wandered off somewhere, face like a stone.

Sean muttered something about lighting a candle or some other Pope-y bullshit, and Raven said she'd go with him.

None of them looked back as they walked away.

“Guess it's just you and me, huh, Beast?”

Hank raised an eyebrow before turning and walking towards the crowds that were growing along the sides of the road.

Alex hurried to catch up.

Well, fuck.

Chapter Text

Hank's life was, he was beginning to see, kind of weird.

He was used to being a freak, was used to being a loner- in fact, he felt more at home in Westchester than he had in 15 years, since he was a kid who was a freak, sure, but who's momma loved him- a kid who didn't know that he looked like Magilla Gorilla.

That had all changed when school started, an institution he had both loved and loathed; he really had loved learning, loved the excitement and challenge and freshness of it all.

The rest of it, though- the taunting, the fights, being shoved down flights of stairs and into broom closets- well. He hadn't exactly been sad to leave it all behind to go to Harvard.

But this- the whole, 'sharing a mansion with an angry jock convict, a perpetually-surprised Irish Catholic who thought that the bongos were a perfectly acceptable instrument to play, a stunningly beautiful/painful/angry woman, an upper-crust genius who apparently was also a soldier and who, by the way, could make you walk around the rest of your life thinking you were a duck, and, the moderately psychopathic Nazi hunter with a tragic past.' thing.

Yeah, now that Hank thinks about it, that's definitely weird.

The parade is about to begin, Hank realises. Erik is nowhere to be found. Alex is chewing his lip thoughtfully, looking at the sun, the sky- anything except him.

It was juvenile, and sad, and Hank has never felt so old in his life- so old and yet so young.

He felt stupid for not realizing that Charles must have served. It didn't take a genius to work out that something had happened to him. For all that he and Erik called them 'kids', they were not that many years their senior, and yet they both treated them as though they were. Erik, he knew, really did see them as such. Hank wasn't an expert- it wasn't as though Erik, God forbid, had ever confided in them- but he had seen the tattoo when he drew blood from him, seen the way he had steadfastly avoided the lab (as had Charles, and there's a story there, he's sure, but it's not one that he will ever know.) and his drive, his singleminded pursuit of Shaw. Schmidt. Whatever his name actually is.

Put that together, and it's not hard to see why Erik see's them as children.

They could grow to eighty, fight and die and rise again, and they would still be naive innocents in his eyes.

Hank could- well, not know, never know, but he thought he could understand.

It bothered him that he had never paused to wonder why Charles did as well. Charles, who was even younger than Erik was. Charles, who for all his wealth and intelligence, was small, and kind, and seemingly soft. Charles, who would give them everything he owned if he thought it would make them happy, make them better.

Hank has always looked up at Charles- the man's research alone was enough to inspire hero-worship- but also for his gentility. He cared for them all, and it was enough to hurt, sometimes- because he knew (or thought he knew) that one day, they were going to fall, and Charles wouldn't know what to do.

That's false, apparently.

Hank was not ignorant of- well, of anything, really, but not of war either. His daddy had been a nuclear physicist, and, although he had never said anything, sometimes, when it was late and his daddy was drunk, Hank got the feeling that there was- more- to the story of what he had done during WWII. Things that he didn't talk about; things that involved Oppenheimer, and Japan, and flakes of ash that fell like snow.

His oldest sister had a friend- a lover, more likely- who had gotten The Letter. The one everyone feared and anticipated in equal measure.

Hank had only been a child, but he remembered well the devastation on his sister's face. He remembered her anxiously listening to the news, remembers hearing her cry sometimes at night through their shared bedroom wall.

It wasn't as bad as their parents war- this time, many had been lucky, many returned home in mostly one piece, cracks hidden beneath tans and blinding smiles. The losses, too, had been great, however; the medical care shoddy, the climate unforgiving.

Many had been lucky.

His sister's - friend? Boyfriend? More? His name had been James, Hank thought, or maybe Jim or Jerry- had not been one of them. They never did find his body, lost to the Pacific.

She had never married, in the end. She had become a school teacher, settled down, thrown herself into it with the relentless drive and attention she surely would have shown to a family.

(A part of Hank's brain, a treachorous part, was not satisfied by this. Because Janet was great, brilliant, smarter than him, probably- and she deserved more than a few dozen 12 year olds to corral through basic math. )

The parade was starting, now, Erik nowhere to be found- which was probably wise, considering, but a small, petty part of him was furious at that- and Sean and Raven were beside them, tense and unmoving.

Raven's eyes were dark as she faced the parade, lips stilled in a mirthless smile. Generations marched in front of them, faces forward, a few clearly mumbling prayers that were muffled the tuneful keen of the bagpipes.

Charles did not look at them as he passed by, head held high, lines of his body tighter and more precise than Hank had ever seen them.

There was no emotion on his face, or if there was it was indescribable, and Hank suddenly felt old and young at the same time.

If he felt old, Charles, who was cursed and blessed in the same breath with powers beyond their wildest dreams, must have felt ancient.

Chapter Text

Ares at last has quit the field
The bloodstains on the bushes yield
To seeping showers
And in their convalescent state
The fractured towns associate
With summer flowers.

The cemetery was harshly beautiful in the bright morning light. Here and there, women and children gathered at plain white gravestones, the identical standard issue stones reminding you that they were merely placeholders for a body lost to Europe or Asia or Africa.

Charles almost laughed at himself. Could he be any more ridiculous? Standing at a gravestone murmuring Auden- Christ, it was the stuff of one of the mawkish soap operas Raven liked so much.

But- he hadn't believed in God in a long time, not since he was a child, not since he had learned to hate and love from the forces of a power beyond his ken.

And- he couldn't remember all of their names. He had tried, for a while, kept a list, but even he has a limit for the extent of the masochism he is willing to indulge in.

He had kept a list, in his head and on paper, but as it grew longer, older, and he more detached, he scrapped it. There were enough ghosts following him; he had no need for intentional invocation.

And so, even if he could remember the prayers of his childhood, even if he knew the names and locations of the gravestones, even if he could do penance for his many sins- it would be meaningless.

Auden, then, seemed the best choice, and the lines seemed to fit the beautiful autumn day. His advice to a new generation of veterans and academics had... struck a chord with Charles when he read them for the second time, more than half a decade after they had been written, and newly relevant to a new group of students.

Charles tried his best to keep his telepathy tamped down on such occasions, or when in large crowds.

He knew Raven thought he was crazy, that for a while she had feared he would take his own life. She was never as subtle as she thought she was.

He wasn't.

But he could be. So easily. The thousands of voices shouting at him, mourning and loving and screaming, the sadness of the older men, those his father's age and older, when they looked at the people they saw as children, those for whom they had fought, hoping against hope that they would never have to, and saw their own bruised reflections staring back at them- that alone was enough to drive him mad.

He was a 21 year old boy, freshly back from Vietnam, still not used to the sharp November air.

He was a 45 year old nurse, who's calm competence had saved lives but who could only see those whom she had let slip away.

He was a 36 year old man, one of the youngest of the old-timers, who even still saw those who fought after him as youth, innocence brutally snatched away.

He was a mother, a wife, a son, a daughter- dozens and dozens, similar fears and regrets repeated ad infinitum He'sdifferentnow whathappenedoverthere? Iwantmybrotherback Howcanhedothistous?
The truth of it is, they were all children afraid of the night, all broken in their different ways; Charles just did a better job of hiding it than most, having the cursebenefit of a bitingly accurate self-perception.

Ares had not, after all, quit the field; only got better at hiding herself.

War meant something different to this generation.

The age difference itself was not so great, but it was enough- enough that they did not remember bombs, rations, and the guiltanticipationanxiety that struck so many at the sight of a newspaper, both anxious to know and not; to hear the tales of their boys but also to forget the casualty lists.

The limps and dark eyes of the old men who had fought the war to end all wars, only to have their sacrifices proved moot.

To these kids however, it was different. They had been born, but they did not remember, not really.

They remembered Korea only vaguely, remembered the draft, remembered their fathers and brothers and cousins anxiously anticipating the letter.

To them, war was strange, exotic somehow, something to be protested against- a history steeped in Communism and nationalism and ideology, not pain or an existential threat.

He did not blame them for that.

He wished that he could see it that way, sometimes.

He felt Erik before he saw him. Of course he did.

His mind was sharp and smooth, jagged edges that had been pressed and heated and burned so many times that they had melted and hardened into something strong, and strange, and vaguely alien. Charles could live a thousand years, and he was sure that he would never forget the feel of Erik's mind.

He did not turn to look at him. There had been a time when he would not have tolerated an approach from behind, but time's bitter winds and whiskey and sheer force of will had helped smooth away the roughest corners of his mind, slowing the heightened responses that he understood- he had a degree in psychology, for Christ's sake- but that he didn't have to like.

“Charles.”

Erik was frustrated, and confused, and angry- his default response to that which he did not understand and which therefore frightens him, a response which, while perhaps not excusable, was easily explained.

He did not look up, preferring to trace the cold slab with tentative fingers, half hoping and half afraid that, with the right contact, the stone would reveal all that he had lost to the oppressive climate of a forgotten war.

“Erik.”

Erik is at his side, now, bending to try an look him in the eye. “Why did- how could you- why didn't you tell me?”

He feels foolish, Charles realizes, foolish and confused, because he had spent so longassuming. When he said that Charles was soft, naïve, that he knew nothing of the world, he had not done so out of malice.

Perhaps, he had even done so out of affection.

Erik had spent so much of his life fighting to survive, breaking an reforming and breaking again until he thought he was indestructible, mechanized steel, capable only of destruction. Charles unnerved him.

“You didn't ask.” Not about that, or about dozens of other things- the scars on his torso and his scalp, their hundred half-shared nightmares, the way that neither of them could stand to be pinned down- these were things they did not talk about.

They had been -sleeping together?- for weeks, now, and they still knew so little of each other, mingled courtesy and fear sealing their lips as effectively as any gag.

Charles wasn't sure what the correct word was for what they had, but he nevertheless wondered how it was that no one else suspected.
Because they don't want to, a treacherous voice in the back of his had supplies, and because you wouldn't let them.

“You know everything about me,” Erik pointed out harshly, “Everything. And yet you- do you think me a fool, Charles?”

“Of course not.”

“So how, then, do you justify that?”

Charles sighed. “You seem very comfortable thinking of me as a child, my friend. I would not wish to disturb that. Besides, it's not a terribly pleasant.”

Erik raised a cynical eyebrow. “Somehow, I think I can handle it.”

“I do not doubt it. Where are the children, by the way?”
“At the mansion. I sent them home.”

“And they went? Even Raven?” Sweet, dear Raven, who seemed to forget that is was his responsibility to protect her, and not the other way round. Who worried for and loved and love and loathed him in equal measure.

“I can be very persuasive.”

“Of course. How silly of me.”

The banter is easy, light- so much easier than the conversation that Charles can see no ethical means of escape from.
Because Erik is arrogant in his own way, and feels he has a right to Charles' tiny tragedies. It's a novel experience, being on the other side of the coin, and not one he particularly likes.

“Charles.” There is a dark note of warning

“It's rather dull, really.”

“I could make you tell me.”

“Yes, I suppose you think you could, don't you.”

His voice echoed inside Erik's head.

Remember this, Erik. I will never again shoot a man point blank, but death is a kindness compared to what I could do to you. I could lock you in a prison of your own making, your worst memories constantly replaying themselves. The body can become conditioned to physical pain, but that is not how the mind works, my dear friend.

Erik drew a deep breath. “Please, Charles. I think I am owed an explanation.”

Charles sighed, and looked up at the sky, lacing his fingers together.

“This is my brother's gravestone,” he said finally. “Well, stepbrother, really, I suppose.” He turned finally, met Erik's eyes for the first time that day. “The thing about being a telepath, Erik, is that, while others may struggle with expression of their gifts, one's real problem is always suppression. Unless one constantly thinks about it, and tamps it down, you cannot help but hear other people's surface thoughts. Ignoring them is like you pretending that colour yellow does not exist- it's still there, of course, and you can still `see it, but you can choose to acknowledge it as you please. My shields are unusually good- I have been building them since the age of seven- but even they require effort to maintain.”

Erik nodded, unsure where this was going. “Okay.” I don't understand.

I know.

Erik, you and I... you call yourself a monster. You're not, but that's irrelevant. You are not a monster. I am not a monster. We can never be monsters- but we might be gods, and that's something far more terrifying to contemplate.

Spare me the philosophy, Charles.

You said you wished to understand. I am trying to explain.

 

“My father died when I was very small. In truth, at the time I was relieved- he was a scientist, you see, and he and his colleagues would- well, it is no matter. I missed him, of course, but-” he broke off, his smile like broken glass.

“My mother deserved more, she did. She was- exquisite, really, and smart- she could have been so much more than she was. I disappointed her. My father disappointed her. She had had dreams, and then, suddenly, she was nothing but a rich young widow with a child, a child for whom she had no idea how to care for. It- she married again, and drank heavily, and- I know now that in many ways, that was a kindness.

“Her new husband had a son, Cain, and- you must understand, I was so damnably lonely- I wanted nothing more than for him to like me. But he was- damaged, his father was a cruel man, and I'm afraid all my efforts at fixing his mind left him rather worse off.

“It doesn't matter. What matters for us, for now, is that I left home very young. Raven and I both. I graduated from Harvard at 16, and by the time I was 18 had completed by first D. Phil. And then- well, I was at rather a loose end. And it was silly, but Cain called, and told me he was joining up, and there was a girl who I was keen to impress- and it just sort of happened. The silliest reason in the world for going to war, but there it is.

“Cain- In Korea, there was a cave in- I heard him, in my mind, shouting for me- but there were so many people, and they were always shouting, screaming, and I couldn't shut them out- they deserved someone to listen to them as- there were so many pointless deaths, I felt- well, someone needed to bear witness. I suppose I should be grateful that it was me- not many others would have been able to handle it.”

Erik had let him finish his monologue uninterrupted, but now he seemed to run out of air, and deflated slightly.

Erik allowed him a moment of silence before he spoke.

“You felt them die.”

It's not a question. Charles nods anyways.

“And you have killed.” This said slowly, slightly uncertain, as though Erik was still having a hard time with this bit of information.

Another nod, slightly jerkier this time.

“Then how- Gott in himmel, Charles, how can you be so incredibly- how is it that you believe in them? They- all they do is kill; destroy that which is different, burn everything they touch- you must have seen that.”

“In a fashion, yes, I suppose I did.”

“Then how are you so- sure?”

“I'm not. But... I spend so much time in other people's heads, Erik, that it's a miracle that I can ever remember who I am myself. I- I don't just see thoughts, I feel experiences, feel them as though they happened to me- and the pain and the hate and the cruelty- they are in everyone. Moral absolutes- hate- it is a luxury, a learned luxury, and it's one of the few I could never afford. There isn't a single mind I've touched that wasn't damaged in some way, a single mind that wasn't capable of great atrocities, of murder- but there is also no mind incapable of altruism. I have to remember that, I have to believe that, or I'd go mad. And you may call that naiveté, my friend, but I call that self-preservation.

"I went mad after Korea, Erik- Raven practically had to drag me out of the country. I can see everything. I know my faults. I can recall, in perfect detail, every single goddamned one of my mistakes and the people who are dead because of them. I used to remember their names, but I had to forget them, had to fill my brain with liquor and science, because I could not save them, and if I didn't want to tend up among their numbers, I had to forget. And that may make me cold, or selfish, or weak, but it bloody well does not make me an innocent. Not when I can still remember their thoughts.”

He paused and caught his breath, tiptoeing on the line between rage and hysteria. He had not cried in years. It was a childish habit, like believing the world to be fundamentally just, and he had given it up before the age of eight.

“And Christ, Erik, it's nothing- nothing compared to so much that has happened to so many. I am so goddamned lucky- it's silly for me to even speak of grief. But, the thing is, Erik, is that that's what matters. Because it's not always grand tragedy. Generally speaking, the little ones are enough.”

Erik did not say anything.

It was late afternoon, now, and the sun was setting, bringing with it the chill of winter.

They sat in silence for an hour or more, before Erik reached over and briefly touched his hand, in a way that would have looked accidental to any observer but which Charles knew to be intentional.

“You look good in that uniform,” he said, finally.

Charles cracked a smile. “You hate soldiers.”

“You're not a soldier.” At Charles' glare, he hurried on, “No, what I mean is- not what I would consider to be one- not like the ones I have met. Trust me, it's a compliment.”

Charles nodded slowly.
“I know it is, my dear friend. I know.”

Erik raised an eyebrow and got to his feet, limbs creaking with fatigue. “You okay to walk back?”

He rolled his eyes. “I've walked farther and under worse conditions than this, Erik. Yes, I suspect I shall be fine.”

That wasn't the end, of course. There were still days to come, weeks, where philosophy and anger and sheer bloody-mindedness would drive them to each others throats and then apart; drive Erik to the open road, limbs burning with energy, and Charles to the library and the liquor cabinet.
They were neither of them perfect. They were neither of them the better man. They were both of them broken, burned in dark, secret parts of the mind where all monotonous stains of tragedy live.

In the end, it will come down to a beach. It will come down to a beach, and a man, and the smell of gunpowder and rocket fuel.

And Charles will look at Erik, and tense and burning with the pressure of a thousand minds echoing in his head, and he will say something rather unforgivably stupid, something he will always regret, something for which he will apologize for until the end of his days. And Erik will look into his eyes, betrayal burning, and he will be wearing that goddamned helmet, and Charles will know that this moment will change everything.

He will search frantically for the correct thing to say, until, against all odds, he finds it.

“Erik, please. I can hear them. They're children, Erik- some of them are only eighteen. Please. Don't do this.”

And Erik will waver, before remembering that he had been 14, gottverdamt, and Charles will speak again.

“Erik, please. They're scared. Their minds are screaming. That could be us.”

This will not be enough.

“Erik, they could be me."